“Kuryakin?” Mr. Waverly said, when he heard Napoleon’s choice for his new partner. “Good choice. But there is something you should know before making a final decision.”
“I’m already aware he’s Russian, sir,” Napoleon said. A number of the other American agents took issue with Illya’s nationality, suggesting that, at best, he could only be trusted as long as UNCLE’s interests weren’t in open conflict with the Soviets’. Napoleon sometimes wondered why they assumed that, if the Cold War heated up, UNCLE would automatically side with the US. It was an international organization, after all. Any of them could face divided loyalties. “And he’s still on good terms with them, so he must at least technically be a Communist.”
Waverly brushed that aside. “All of the Russian agents are. Kuryakin, however, is also an admitted homosexual.”
For a moment, Napoleon thought he must be hearing wrong. Illya, a queer? Sure, he didn’t like pushy women, but…. He shook his head. If Waverly said it, it must be true—he wasn’t given to practical jokes of any kind, and he certainly wouldn’t start with one as potentially damaging as that. And he’d said “admitted” homosexual, not “suspected homosexual” or even “known homosexual.” “Admitted” meant that Illya had, well, admitted it. God only knew why. “Isn’t that a security risk?” he asked instead.
“Not at all,” Waverly answered. “A secret homosexual would be a security risk, certainly, but Mr. Kuryakin can hardly be blackmailed with something we already know.”
“I suppose not, sir,” Napoleon admitted. He hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made a certain amount of sense.
“It goes without saying that this information is confidential,” Waverly added.
“Of course.” If Illya had trouble fitting in now, it would be a hundred times worse if something like that got out. To say nothing of the impact on UNCLE’s reputation…and his own, if he was tainted by association.
“Beyond the obvious reasons, it may someday be useful to present the appearance that Mr. Kuryakin has been compromised.”
Napoleon had been too shocked by the disclosure to think of that angle, but it, too, made sense. A compromising secret that wasn’t a secret at all could pave the way for any number of counter-espionage scenarios. Illya could easily pretend to have been successfully blackmailed, since a THRUSH agent—or any other enemy—would never suspect that UNCLE could already know.
For an elite organization like UNCLE to hire a known homosexual was unthinkable. Napoleon couldn’t imagine why they had. He started to ask just that. “But why--” He stopped short as he realized that to ask the question would imply both that his boss had made a bad personnel decision, and that Illya was unqualified to be an agent. The former was clearly a bad idea; the latter….
As shocking as the news was, before hearing about his…proclivities…Napoleon had considered Illya among the most capable agents UNCLE had. Nothing about his skills had changed. Illya may have been a homosexual, but he wasn’t a pansy. There wasn’t even a trace of limpness about his wrists.
Waverly answered anyway, and seemed not to take offense. “Once I realized it need not be a security risk, I realized Mr. Kuryakin’s….” He paused to search for a polite word, just as Napoleon had in his thoughts, and settled on, “…preferences could even be an asset. You know how useful seduction techniques can be. Against a homosexual target, a genuine homosexual is more effective than a man playing a role. They can usually tell.”
Napoleon fought against a sense of instinctive distaste at the idea of his friend being asked to seduce another man in the line of duty. If Illya really was…that way….then it was no different from any of the dozens of times he’d seduced a female to gain access or information.
“And that’s in addition to his more conventional qualifications,” Waverly said, with a note of finality in his voice. “If you’d rather not have him as your partner, a falling-out can be arranged, but you will be expected to continue working with him as a fellow Agent, and—as I stated earlier—to keep this information to yourself.”
Waverly’s words—“a falling out”—reminded him of something Illya had said as they prepped for the first case they worked together. As they left some place or another—the briefing room, maybe, or the lab where they’d picked up some new equipment—they had nearly bumped into Illya’s usual partner, Agent Darbonne. Darbonne and Illya had looked at each other for a moment, and Darbonne had given Illya a cold, Gallic nod. Illya had responded with a cold, Slavic one of his own, and had walked away quickly enough that Napoleon had a hard time keeping up, even with his longer stride. He’d asked what happened, and Illya had said, “We had a falling-out,” in a tone that forestalled any follow-up questions.
Napoleon hadn’t thought much of it—at the time he’d been working one-off assignments with a lot of different agents, and there hadn’t been time to get to know any of them particularly well. By the time the duty roster and mission requirements had brought him and Illya back together again—this time for a few missions in a row, enough for him to realize they made a good team—he had forgotten all about it. Forgotten all about Darbonne, too. He hadn’t been around lately—some sort of long-term mission in the Yukon, Napoleon thought, or maybe the Sahara.
Now, though, it was fairly obvious what had happened. Waverly had told Darbonne the same thing he had just told Napoleon—and Darbonne had taken it badly. Maybe he’d even argued to Waverly that Illya ought to be fired. And Waverly had just told him, Napoleon, all the reasons that Illya would be staying. “I understand, sir.”
Still, it had to have been a nasty shock for Darbonne. Napoleon hadn’t known either man well at the time, but he had a vague recollection that he and Illya had been thick as thieves for a few weeks there. Not just going on missions together, but having lunch together, visiting each other’s offices, even leaving work together, bound for a restaurant or club.
It must have been an uncomfortable feeling for Darbonne, realizing that he’d been spending all that time with a pervert. At the time, a lot of people had been keeping a pretty close eye on Illya, both because he was new, and because he was Russian—and, for the office girls, because of what Napoleon had heard described as his “dreamy blue eyes.” The friendship had been noticed—hell, Napoleon had noticed it, even though he hadn’t been paying attention—and if it had come out that Illya was queer, Darbonne would have been suspect, too.
“Will you be changing your decision?” Waverly asked.
Napoleon almost said yes. But Waverly was backing Illya in pretty strong terms; saying no, never mind, he didn’t want to work with him after all would be an admission of…what? An admission that he didn’t like homosexuals? Who did? Still, it seemed somehow weak and womanish to kick up a fuss when Waverly was being so matter-of-fact.
“I stand by what I said before,” Waverly added. “He’s a fine choice, if you think you can still manage working closely with him.”
“Let me think about it, sir.” Maybe he ought to sleep on it. Except that before coming to this meeting with Waverly, he’d told Illya to go ahead and move his stuff into their office. He was probably unpacking right now. What was he supposed to do, go back and pretend nothing was wrong, when he knew he might kick Illya out tomorrow? Illya would know exactly why he’d changed his mind, and that seemed like a rotten thing to do to a friend.
Was Illya his friend? Napoleon had thought so—Illya was pretty reserved, but they’d started spending a lot of time together. They usually had lunch together, and even without officially moving in, Illya seemed to be in Napoleon’s office more often than he was in his own. One evening last week they’d gone to a supper club, met a few girls—
It was no surprise he could imagine how Darbonne had felt; Napoleon was in pretty much the same position. Somehow, the realization made Napoleon consider that Illya had been rejected and ostracized not just by his partner, but by his friend. Probably the first friend he’d managed to make, in a new country where many people mistrusted him because of his nationality. If he’d been the gregarious type, Napoleon was sure that their coworkers would have gotten past his nationality easily enough, once they got to know him. Or if he’d been the same taciturn man he was, but from anywhere other than the Soviet Union, his American colleagues—the majority at the New York headquarters—would have made an effort to draw him out when he first arrived. But as it was, Napoleon wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Illya have so much as a friendly conversation with anyone since Darbonne.
If Darbonne had been there in Waverly’s office, Napoleon would have punched him right in his stupid mouth.
He wouldn’t have felt that rush of fierce protectiveness for anyone who wasn’t a friend. And he’d already established that Illya was just as qualified an agent as he had been before Napoleon knew about his…thing. “I’ve reconsidered, sir,” he announced. “I’d be glad to have Illya as my partner.”
“Good.” Waverly looked at him for a long moment, while Napoleon wondered what he else he was going to say. But when he did speak, it was to say, “Is there anything else?”
He turned back to his switchboard in obvious dismissal.
Napoleon had to admit, he’d been expecting a little more of a reaction to his noble gesture.
Illya sat on the edge of the empty desk in Napoleon’s office, next to the box full of his things from his old office. Packing the box in the first place, but leaving it packed here, seemed the perfect balance between cynicism and hope.
Either that, or he wanted to be ready to make a speedy getaway once Napoleon finished his meeting with Mr. Waverly. Illya wasn’t sure.
He knew exactly what Waverly would be telling his erstwhile partner, but he couldn’t realistically imagine how Napoleon might react. Foolishly, the last time this had happened—when Edouard Darbonne suggested they regularize their partnership—Illya had had no serious worries. Despite thinking of himself as a hardened cynic, particularly where Party propaganda was concerned, he had believed that here, in the spiritual center of the degenerate West, his nature would not be an insurmountable obstacle to partnership. To friendship. The Americans, it was said, were too debauched to blink at any imaginable perversion. And, for their part, the Americans claimed to champion individual choice and freedom. One or the other, he’d imagined, had to be true, and either way, it should be all right.
Stupid of him, really. Naïve, at best. He had been very new to America then, and the ready availability of homosexual pornography had perhaps given an impression of greater tolerance than really existed.
No, he wouldn’t stoop to making excuses for himself. It had been pure stupidity, a choice to be blind to what he did not want to see. The shock and hurt of Darbonne’s reaction had been the price of his stupidity.
This time, he would not be surprised. Napoleon might come in and say, “Sorry, Kuryakin, I’ve changed my mind.” Or “I hope you didn’t think we were dating, you filthy pervert,” or possibly even, if he was lucky, “We are still going to work together, but I don’t have to like you.” But Illya would not be hurt.
Perhaps he could affect to be just a little bit surprised at Napoleon’s lack of sophistication. “I had no idea,” he could say, cool and amused, “that you were so parochial.” Or perhaps make some reference to a blushing virgin, implying that Napoleon feared for his virtue in the company of such a one as Illya.
Napoleon would be stung by such a suggestion, perhaps even enough to forget that his reaction was normal, and that Illya was the peculiar one. Yes, that was what he would do. Satisfied, he crossed his legs knee-over-knee and folded his hands around his top knee, a posture that was casual and just a hair too effeminate for him to usually indulge in.
He stayed sitting like that for a few seconds after Napoleon came into the room, then stood, turning to face Napoleon. Napoleon was studying him, as if trying to identify clues that he had missed. He said nothing, and Illya was not inclined to be the first to speak, but eventually raised his eyebrows in a wordless question when it became evident that Napoleon was not going to speak.
“Waverly told me about….” Napoleon swallowed hard and trailed off.
“Yes,” Illya said. “There is the possibility of a compromising situation, if you did not know.”
“Yes,” Napoleon echoed. “I understand that.” But he kept looking at Illya.
Finally, Illya decided he had to move the scene along, before he lost his resolve. “Is there a problem? You are staring.”
Napoleon looked away. “Sorry. I just—you don’t look like a….”
He wasn’t following the script, but Illya managed to improvise. “A sissy?” he said, scathingly. “I am not one.”
“No, you aren’t. But you are…?”
“A homosexual. Yes.” He folded his arms across his chest and raised his chin slightly. Which retort had he chosen, “parochial” or “blushing virgin”? He couldn’t remember. Perhaps the choice would depend on exactly what Napoleon said.
“I was surprised, that’s all,” Napoleon said, with a slight smile.
“Haven’t you ever met one before?” Illya asked defiantly.
“Not that I know of. But who knows? I’d never have guessed about you.”
“I try to be discreet.”
“Yes, that’s…Waverly said.” Napoleon turned and went briskly to his desk. “Do you have the results from that chemical analysis yet?”
That was definitely not his line, and it took Illya a moment to orient himself to the change of subject. “The technician might be done setting up by now,” he said. “I will go and see.”
“Good,” Napoleon said. “You can finish unpacking when you get back.”
So he was not dismissed as Napoleon’s partner. Not yet, anyway. With a nod, Illya left the room to go to the lab.
After that one conversation, when Napoleon had the distinct impression that Illya had been throwing a challenge at his feet, Illya made no further mention of his tendencies, but Napoleon could sense that he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He never initiated conversation on any non-work-related subject—not that he had been particularly chatty before—and when they were alone and not driven by the urgent demands of a case, he kept a wary eye on Napoleon, as though he might explode at any moment. And there was always a brief, but noticeable, flicker of surprise in his expression when Napoleon suggested they have lunch together, or otherwise spent time with him that he didn’t have to.
But Napoleon kept at it, determined not to be as lousy a friend as Darbonne had been. One evening after working late, they went to a Chinese restaurant for a late supper. Illya was characteristically quiet as they got started on the wine while waiting for their meals, listening to some of Napoleon’s better stories, smiling politely when he recognized a part that was supposed to be funny.
After hearing about a fiery redhead Napoleon had met during a recent case, Illya said dryly, “I am in awe of your prowess with the fairer sex.”
What was that supposed to mean? At first, Napoleon had considered avoiding the subject of women when talking with Illya, but since they were one of his top subjects of conversation, he’d decided that talking about them would be less awkward than not doing so.
Before he could answer, a dark-haired beauty a few tables over craned her neck to look at them, then smiled widely and approached. “Illya Nickovetch, as I live and breathe!”
Illya looked up, and an expression of pleased surprise crossed over his face, though it was quickly replaced by his usual grave expression. “Polya!” He stood and put his hands on her shoulders, briskly kissing her first on one cheek, then the other. Stepping back, he kept his hands on her shoulders.
“What an astonishing coincidence,” she said.
“Yes.” Illya tore his eyes away from her and turned to half-face their table, keeping one hand on her shoulder. “Polina, this is my partner, Napoleon Solo. Napoleon, Polina Federova. We were at Cambridge together, but it has been years since we’ve seen one another. And even longer since we have spoken.”
Napoleon knew that the enigmatic Illya was unlikely to elaborate on that cryptic remark, but his countrywoman was not so reserved. She explained to Napoleon, “I defected in the middle of our course of studies. It would have been politically awkward for the other students from Soviet Union to continue associating with me, after.” she explained. “I understood completely, of course. But Illya, you should have looked me up when you left.”
Now Illya took his hand off the woman’s shoulder and stuffed both hands in his pockets, looking down at the floor. “I never left.”
Polina, Polya, whatever her name was, looked theatrically at their surroundings.
“Yes, yes, I live here now. Representing Soviet Union in an organization called U.N.C.L.E.”
“Oh,” the woman said softly. Now she made a less obtrusive scan of the room, looking worried. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t--”
Illya shook his head. “I am not being watched.”
Polina relaxed. “Good. I wish—well, if I had run into you sooner….” She trailed off uncertainly. “But I’m catching a flight back to England first thing in the morning, I’m afraid.”
So they couldn’t get together later, Napoleon supposed she meant. “Join us,” he suggested. She had been sitting alone before; as they were seated, he had noticed the tragedy of such a beautiful woman dining unaccompanied. The woman looked hesitant. “If you like,” he added, realizing he might have sounded too pushy.
But it turned out that wasn’t her concern. “Illya? Would that be all right?”
Illya regarded the toes of his shoes glumly for a moment. “Yes,” he agreed, raising a finger in admonishment. “But only so that I may be appalled by how you have been corrupted by Western decadence.”
Before Napoleon could form an apology for his friend’s rudeness, Polina laughed. “I’ve missed you, Illyushenka.”
Illya scowled. “Illyusha, please, if you must.” To Napoleon, he added, “Illyushenka is nickname for little boy.”
Polina laughed again, and patted his head. Illya fended her off, smiling. Once his habitual deadpan expression was back in place, he gestured to the seat he’d recently vacated. “Sit. I will ask the waiter for another chair.”
The woman sat. As Illya marched off in search of the waiter, he offered, “I could ask for another table, if the two of you would rather catch up on your own.” He didn’t really want to—as both a beautiful woman and an old friend of his partner’s, Polina was someone he wanted to get to know better—but he knew it would be rude to intrude on their reunion when they had so little time.
He was glad when she shook her head. “No, I am interested to meet new friend of Illyusha’s,” she said frankly. “A very rare species, at least in the old times. But perhaps he has changed?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Napoleon admitted. “He keeps himself to himself, our mutual friend.”
Illya returned, trailed by one waiter carrying a chair, and another with a new place setting. Napoleon and Polina fell silent as the waiters arranged these to their satisfaction. “Your meals will be soon, gentlemen and lady,” one of the waiters said, bowing.
“Thank you,” Napoleon and Polina said at the same time. Illya just nodded.
Once the waiters had gone, Illya said, “You are still living in England?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’m on faculty of one of the smaller universities. I was visiting the States to do some archival research.”
“What about you?” she prompted.
“Have you been in the States long?”
“Only a little over a year.”
“Not long enough to be corrupted by Western decadence, then?” she teased.
“Little bit,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. “I have purchased high-fidelity record player.” They were speaking English, but the presence of his countrywoman seemed to have thickened Illya’s accent.
Polina laughed. “Now it’s all revealed! If I ever see Pyotr Petrovich again, I will tell him of your shame.”
“Is there a story there?” Napoleon asked, feeling left out.
“No,” said Illya.
But he didn’t protest when Polina answered. “When we first arrived at Cambridge, Pyotr shocked poor Illya by announcing his intention to buy a secondhand record player. As I recall, he had to mollify this insufferable prig--” she poked Illya’s shoulder “--by agreeing that it would be owned collectively by the four or five boys living in the residence. He pretended to be motivated by pure Socialist morals, but now we know he simply wanted to be part-owner of record player.”
“Not at all,” Illya said. “If he had bought it on his own, all term he would not have been able to afford his own food and liquor. By combining our resources, we were able to have food, and liquor, and record player. It is little Socialist parable,” he concluded loftily.
Illya’s tone gave no hint as to whether he intended to be funny or not, but when Polina laughed, he ducked his head and grinned.
Over the course of the meal, the pair of them talked mostly about old times and old friends, with Polina providing enough explanations to keep Napoleon included in the conversation. Illya talked more than Napoleon had ever seen him do, even in formal briefings. Nearly everything he said sounded either insulting or arrogant, but Polina always laughed it off, often responding in kind. There was very little in his manner to suggest that he was joking, but Polina’s reactions convinced Napoleon that he must be.
She certainly seemed to be enjoying, and not merely tolerating, his company. When the waiter collected their empty plates and asked if there would be anything else, Polina smiled impishly at Illya and said, “There are three of us.”
“Your flight?” Illya said uncertainly.
“I’ll sleep on the airplane.”
Illya looked up at the waiter. “Vodka, please. Leave the bottle. We may be some time.”
To Napoleon, Polina explained, “Three is the perfect number to share a bottle of vodka. Four, and you may not become drunk enough, only two and you may become too drunk.”
With the arrival of the vodka, the pair turned to politics, with Illya defending socialism, and Polina Western capitalism, both in very heated terms. It was only when they suddenly, without warning, switched sides that Napoleon realized the argument was not in dead earnest.
The mood changed when, after Illya quoted Adam Smith on the invisible hand of the market, Polina shook her head gravely and said, “If they could hear you back in Moscow, Illyushenka. Straight to the gulag.”
It seemed much milder than the outrageous insults they had been tossing back and forth before, but Illya suddenly became very interested in the label on the vodka bottle.
“Why do you stay?” she asked, her voice low and gentle.
Illya just shook his head. “I haven’t been home in years, Polya. It is very easy to be Communist when one does not have to live under state Socialism.” He poured himself another glass of vodka and slammed it down in one gulp. “‘The workers control the means of production.’ ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ All countries tell such lovely stories about themselves, of course—‘all men are created equal’ springs to mind,” he added, with a look over at Napoleon. “But I have a certain sentimental attachment to ours. And since none of them are true, what difference does it make?”
Polina squeezed his free hand, then pried the vodka bottle out of the other. “Only you could prove yourself a romantic and a cynic in the same breath, Illyushenka. And only after you’ve had more than your share of a bottle of vodka.” She tipped the bottle first over Napoleon’s glass and then her own, saying, “We had better finish this; he’s had enough.”
“Ha,” Illya said, regaining control of the bottle and emptying it into his own glass.
The next morning, Illya was…slightly indisposed. He had not been drinking with one of his countrymen for some time—and Polya had made a point, back in the old days, of holding her liquor just as well as any man. In the UNCLE commissary, he looked at the breakfast offerings with distaste, and chose only a cup of black coffee.
He looked around blearily for an empty table, but instead found Napoleon, who was sitting with a gaggle of switchboard girls, but waved him over anyway. Illya would have preferred to sit alone, but he didn’t see an empty place, and he had waited too long to pretend he hadn’t seen Napoleon, so he went.
As he was sitting down, one of the girls giggled shrilly at something Napoleon said. Illya winced involuntarily. Napoleon took in the wince and Illya’s lack of breakfast, and drew the obvious conclusion. “A little under the weather from last night?”
“Mm,” Illya said.
“We ran into an old friend of his,” Napoleon explained to the girls. “I’ve never seen a pretty girl drink vodka like that. It was all we could do to keep up.”
That wasn’t exactly how Illya remembered it, but he decided not to argue.
“An old girlfriend?” the giggler asked.
“You could say that,” Illya answered. They had said so, at Cambridge, and had even experimented once or twice, Polya claiming that she wanted to be certain she was lesbianka. “But we are all older and wiser now. Except Napoleon. He is no wiser.” Illya realized his mistake as soon as he said it. It was Polya’s influence, and the aftereffects of vodka. If Polya were here, he would have said, “Except for Polya. She is no wiser,” and she would have replied to the effect that he seemed to be no older, either, still looking like he was about twelve, and it would have been very funny. But Napoleon would only be insulted.
All of the girls looked at him as if he had just drowned a sack of puppies, but Napoleon just said, “You didn’t know me then. Believe me, this is an improvement.”
“What was she like?” Janie asked, as she opened a file drawer in search of the documents Napoleon had requested. “Illya’s old friend?”
More direct than some, she was the fifth or sixth girl to try to pump Napoleon for details about Illya’s supposed old flame. Napoleon was pleased, though not surprised, to see that his plan was working. There was a fair bit of speculation about why Illya never dated, and treated flirtatious overtures as an annoyance, when he acknowledged them at all. One of the more popular theories—particularly among the Dreamy Blue Eyes Brigade, as he privately thought of Illya’s fan club—was a tragic love affair that had left him wary of risking his heart again. At breakfast, he had realized that injecting a version of last night’s events into the gossip mill would encourage that interpretation.
“Brunette,” he answered. “Very beautiful.” He was careful to reveal little, both out of respect for his partner’s privacy, and because the truth—that Illya and Polina had spent most of their reunion bickering like brother and sister—would not have helped matters.
Janie, who was blonde and a paid-up member of the Brigade, pouted at that.
After a few days of receiving such unsatisfactory answers from him, another of the Brigade girls dared to go straight to the horse’s mouth. Lacey, a brunette from the typing pool, came by their office on the pretext of asking Napoleon to clarify an illegible word in a report he had recently written up.
“‘Pursuit,’” Napoleon said. It was a pretty flimsy excuse; the ‘u’ and the ‘i’ were, admittedly, not very distinct, but in context, what else could it have been?
“Oh, of course, I see it now.” With that disposed of, Lacey strolled over to Illya’s desk. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Illya.”
“Thank you,” Illya said, without looking up from the photographs he was examining.
Lacey perched one shapely hip on the edge of his desk. “It must have been nice, seeing your old friend.”
Illya reached for the drawer that was blocked by Lacey’s thigh. “Pardon me.”
She shifted out of the way by sliding further onto the desk and swinging her legs to the side. Illya opened the drawer and took out a magnifying glass.
“Were you very close?”
“You and Pauline.”
“Polina,” he corrected, peering at the photograph through the glass. “There was talk of marriage,” he said distantly, still examining the photo. “If you will excuse me, I’m very busy.”
Recognizing, if not defeat, at least a temporary setback, Lacey hopped off the desk—taking the opportunity to brush against Illya’s shoulder as she did so—and left the office.
After she had gone, Napoleon said, “Talk of marriage? Really?”
“I didn’t say we were the ones talking about it.” Illya’s tone was forbidding, but Napoleon thought he saw the traces of a smile.
He had figured out what was happening, and was playing along, Napoleon realized. Illya’s next remark confirmed it.
“As disinformation campaigns go, I have seen better.”
“You’re welcome,” Napoleon said, and was rewarded with another smile. Yes, he was learning to speak Illya.
Closing the door behind himself, Illya leaned against it, his hand on the knob, listening for signs of pursuit from the other side. He held his breath and went still, like a small prey animal trying to make itself invisible to predators.
But he was not successful. He cringed as the door was assaulted from the other side.
Well, if evasion hadn’t worked, there was nothing to do but face the enemy like a man. Releasing the doorknob for a moment, he straightened his cuffs, then opened the door.
“There you are!” said Dotty, from the translation department. “Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“I had something on my mind. I don’t believe I’ve sent any documents to be translated recently,” he added, glancing over at Napoleon. “Have you?”
Napoleon shook his head, looking entirely too amused. Illya glared at him for a second. Either Napoleon had miscalculated, or Illya had misunderstood the nature of his plan. Perhaps he suffered under the misapprehension that Illya needed only to meet the right girl.
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that,” Dotty said. “You see, I was going to go to the symphony with my grandmother on Friday, but she had to leave town unexpectedly, so she suggested I give her ticket to a friend. It’s Shostakovich,” she added, stumbling over the name.
“Shostakovich,” Illya said. “On Friday.”
“Yes.” Dotty nodded eagerly.
“In that case, you should ask Lydia in Accounts. Only a few hours ago she informed me that she wished to attend that very performance, believe it or not.” Illya certainly didn’t. Believe it, that is.
“Oh,” said Dotty. “I suppose that might be nice.”
Illya nodded. “Is that all?”
“Um. Yes. Thank you. I’ll ask Lydia if she wants the ticket.” She ran off, heels clattering against the tile of the hallway floor.
Closing the door again, Illya turned to face Napoleon. “I am astonished,” he said, “by the number of girls who have, through no fault of their own, obtained pairs of tickets to musical and theatrical performances this week, as well as by the number who have suddenly developed a keen interest in Russian culture.”
Napoleon winced. “I should have thought of that,” he admitted. “I overlooked it, because I never use the old ‘mend my broken heart’ gambit myself. It tends to create unrealistic expectations.”
A miscalculation, then. Illya was relieved—Napoleon attempting to change his nature was not the worst reaction he could imagine, but it would be an annoyance. “I’m starting to run out of excuses. Perhaps you can help.” Since it was entirely his fault that Illya was in this situation.
Napoleon shook his head. “I don’t usually wait for the girls to chase me, and if they do, I generally let myself be caught.”
“Ah, but you pursue enough of them that, even accounting for an above-average success rate, you must have heard every excuse in the book. There must be some that I can adapt.”
“Hm.” Napoleon leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “You probably want to stay away from ‘I’m not that kind of girl.’ Might hit a little too close to the mark.”
It surprised Illya to hear Napoleon referring so casually, if obliquely, to the nature of the difficulty. “Yes.”
“And washing your hair might be a little transparent. Do you have a blind grandmother to read to, or a dog you need to get home to walk?”
“Maybe you should get one.”
“This might sting a little,” Louise said as she started dabbing antiseptic onto Napoleon’s arm.
“I can handle it,” he said with his best smile. He had been trying to get the beautiful redheaded nurse to give him the time of day for weeks. He considered it a good sign that she had opted to tend to his wounds, leaving Illya to the brunette Maggie. They were both a little worse for wear, but fortunately not seriously injured, after diving headfirst through a plate-glass window.
“That’s nice,” Louise said, and resumed trying to convince Maggie to visit Louise’s new astrologer as she briskly moved from one wound to another.
“I didn’t realize you were interested in the mysteries of the stars,” Napoleon said. “So am I.”
“Is that so?” she asked, sounding unconvinced.
“I think that one is clean now,” Illya said sharply. Napoleon glanced over to see Maggie moving on from a wound on his chest to one on his shoulder.
Recapturing his train of thought, Napoleon continued. “Yes. Just had my chart done, as a matter of fact. It showed me, you, champagne, a rotating dance floor….”
“That’s not how astrology works,” Louise said.
“It isn’t? Maybe I need the name of your astrologer—it sounds like mine has been cheating me all this time.”
Maggie and Louise exchanged significant looks across their two patients. Maggie leaned forward, raising her eyebrows with a determined expression.
Louise sighed. “If that’s your way of inviting me to the Rainbow Room for an evening of dinner and dancing, I accept.”
“Really?” Napoleon said before he thought about it. At this point, he hadn’t figure he had much of a chance with Louise. “I mean, excellent.”
“On one condition,” Louise continued.
Illya winced. Maybe the wound Maggie was cleaning now was a particularly deep one.
“Anything you like,” Napoleon said gallantly.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll make it a double date with Maggie and Illya.”
How had he not seen that one coming? Illya apparently had, and he was a homosexual. “Ah, that sounds lovely,” he said, trying to think of a way to talk Illya into agreeing. “Doesn’t it, Illya?”
“I expect I’ll be busy.”
“You fellas can choose the night,” Maggie said.
“I am very busy man,” Illya said.
“All finished,” Louise told Napoleon. He started to put his shirt back on. Illya reached for his own, too.
“I’m not finished,” Maggie protested.
“I can reach the rest myself. We have to go report to Mr. Waverly.”
He was off the examining table and heading for the door, leaving Napoleon with little choice but to follow him. “We’ll get back to you, about a night for the Rainbow Room,” he said to the girls, on his way out.
It was late evening, and the hallways were quiet. Once they were far enough away that the girls couldn’t possibly overhear, Illya said, “I’m not interested in going on a double date with Maggie and—whatever her name is.” There was a little bit of a growl in his voice. “I thought you understood that.”
“I do,” Napoleon said, making his own check for eavesdroppers. “But this is the best chance I’ve had with Louise. Can’t you--” He gestured impatiently. “Suffer through it?”
“Lie back and think of UNCLE?” Illya asked dryly. “I’m sure I would survive, but it would only encourage the others.”
He had a point. With a flash of inspiration, Napoleon said, “Not if you make sure she has a terrible time. Just make sure you’re the most boring date ever. I’ll coach you.”
“You’re sure this is not another miscalculation?”
What? Oh, like his tragic romantic past. “No. But you can’t be all brooding and enigmatic like you usually are—that’s what they like about you. We’ll have to come up with something else….”
“Illya, are you all right? Illya!”
Groggily, Illya tried to raise his hand to his aching head, only to be stopped short by ropes securing his wrists to the arms of the chair he was sitting in. Looking down, he saw more ropes encircling his chest, and an experimental flexing of his legs proved that his ankles were bound as well. There was a warm, solid weight against his back, and that was where Napoleon’s voice was coming from. So. They were bound back-to-back in—he took in his surroundings with a quick glance—a storeroom. There was no one in the half of the room he could see, and Napoleon could presumably see the other half, so they were alone. With that quick assessment of their circumstances completed, he answered, “Yes, just a headache. You?”
“Do you have any idea how long we were out?” Illya’s memory started getting hazy shortly after their arrival outside the suspected THRUSH safe house, so they had probably been captured and given matching blows to the head as soon as they gained entry, or even a little before.
“I can see part of my watch—it looks like it’s almost seven.”
Nearly two hours, then.
“We’re supposed to be picking up Louise and Maggie right about now,” Napoleon added.
“How lucky for us,” Illya said. For him, at least; he supposed Napoleon was genuinely disappointed. For himself, Illya had hoped something might come up to interfere with their double-date—for more than one reason. He was not certain that he would be able to convincingly carry out Napoleon’s plan, or that it would work as expected even if he did. While he told himself that he had agreed as a kindness to Napoleon—throwing himself on an unexploded brunette to save his friend, so to speak—he suspected that he was lying to himself. If he allowed himself to fantasize about what it might be like to be the object of Napoleon’s romantic attentions, the experience would provide rich source material.
And having that material at hand—so to speak—would make it harder to resist that dangerous temptation. But he had to resist it, because desiring his partner was simply not acceptable. That was the most vicious of the accusations Darbonne had flung at him in the course of the real falling-out that preceded their orchestrated one: that Illya’s hesitantly-tendered overtures of friendship had actually been attempts at seduction. It had been completely untrue, in that case—he was sure that his feelings for Darbonne had been those of ordinary friendship.
“One advantage of dating UNCLE girls,” Napoleon said, breaking into his thoughts. “When we don’t show up, they’ll assume we got—heh—tied up, and notify HQ.”
“True,” Illya said. So there was an advantage to Maggie’s infatuation, after all. “All the same, I’d rather not wait. Any ideas, my friend?” And yes, that was what Napoleon was. His friend. Nothing more, and nothing less. More than he had a right to expect, in fact.
“Not at the moment. I managed to get a little slack in the ropes by tightening the knots, but not enough to get my hands free.”
“Ah,” Illya said, trying the same thing. The knots were a little looser than they could be…of course, pulling them tighter, while it did give them a little slack, also meant that any plan that involved untying them later would be a non-starter. “Fortunately, I have a razor blade concealed in my belt buckle.” He grunted with the effort as he pulled steadily at the ropes binding his right arm. “In case I had to defend my virtue from Maggie’s roving hands,” he added. He didn’t find the constant pursuit of amorous females as amusing as Napoleon seemed to, but Napoleon seemed genuinely sympathetic, despite seeing the humor in the situation, so he tried to return the favor.
Napoleon laughed, as Illya had hoped he would. “I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you if you can’t reach it,” he pointed out.
“That is the crux of the problem,” Illya agreed. There, the ropes were as loose as they were going to get. He tried to pull his hand through, just on the off chance that it might work.
He’d evidently used up his quota of luck for the evening. Time for the next step in the plan. He clenched his teeth, but couldn’t quite manage to hold in a yelp and a couple of swear words.
“Illya? What happened?”
The warm concern in his voice was a welcome distraction from the pain. “Dislocated my thumb,” he answered, breathing heavily. Now he could just manage to pull his right hand free of the ropes.
“That’s not the bad part,” Illya said, using his first two fingers to pry open the hidden compartment in his belt buckle. The opposable thumb was an advantage not fully appreciated until it was gone.
“What is the bad part?”
“I have no way to put it back in until I get my other hand free.”
Thanks to Illya’s belt buckle, they managed to get out of the THRUSH safe house without incident, as long as one didn’t count running into their own rescue team on the way out as an “incident.” They were able to meet Louise and Maggie not much later than their 8 o’clock reservation time. Both girls were in Medical when they got there, wearing lab coats over their cocktail dresses—Louise’s dress was a rather severe black, and Maggie’s an eye-catching electric blue number.
Napoleon was cleared through medical very quickly, with just a quick check for signs of concussion, but the night-duty doctor hesitated over Illya. “I’d like to get an x-ray of your right hand. It looks a little swollen; there may be a fracture.”
“No fracture,” Illya said, moving to slide off the table. “My thumb was dislocated. It’s fine now.”
“Anyway,” Napoleon added, “we’re in a hurry. We can’t leave these two ladies all dressed up with no place to go, can we?” He wasn’t sure that Louise would give him another chance if he botched this one.
“Our reservation was fifteen minutes ago,” Illya objected. “We’ve missed it.”
“We could go somewhere else,” Maggie suggested. “That is, if you’re sure your hand’s all right, Illya. A bistro or something—I don’t care where we go.”
“Nonsense,” Napoleon said. “I’ll call the restaurant and have a word with the headwaiter; I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
“I’m sure I have no business dining and dancing.” Illya looked to the doctor for support. “My thumb was just dislocated.”
“You said it was fine,” the doctor pointed out. “But I can take an x-ray, if you want to be sure.”
“Well, Illya?” Napoleon asked pointedly. “Would you rather have an x-ray, or dinner with a pretty girl?”
Illya shot him a murderous glare before saying, “Of course, what was I thinking?”
Louise added dryly, “I’m sure Maggie would be happy to cut your meat for you, if you have any trouble.”
Maggie nodded brightly.
“Just give us a few minutes to freshen up,” Napoleon said, steering Illya out of medical. “We’ll meet you in Reception.”
Once in their office, Napoleon took out the packed suitcase he kept ready for emergency missions and opened it. What he had on looked perfectly adequate to Illya—he wasn’t the one who had nicked himself with the razor blade and bled all over his shirt.
“I’m not ready for this,” Illya complained, picking up his own duffle bag.
“You don’t need a dinner jacket, just a tie,” Napoleon said. “And it doesn’t matter what you wear, since you don’t want to impress her, remember?”
“It’s not that.” It was a good thing he didn’t want to impress anyone, since the shirt in his duffle was badly wrinkled. “I haven’t finished memorizing the Encyclopedia of Newts.” Napoleon had convinced him that he couldn’t put Louise off by acting as he usually did, since, he claimed, the source of Illya’s allure for the fairer sex was his air of mystery. We have to convince her that she’s seeing the real you, Napoleon had explained. And that he’s a complete drip.
One distinguishing characteristic of the complete drip, Napoleon assured him, was that he talked endlessly about boring subjects, oblivious to his date’s disinterest. After giving the matter some thought, Illya had decided to become obsessed with newts. “If I know everything about newts up to the letter R, and nothing after, it’s bound to look suspicious,” he explained, setting aside his bloodstained shirt.
“Can’t you spend two hours talking about one of the things you already know everything about?” Napoleon asked, selecting a pair of non-exploding cufflinks. “You talked to that guy in the record store for about six hours. Use that,” he suggested, taking off his shirt.
Illya, seeing no reason to torture himself, faced the other direction. “Jazz isn’t boring.”
He didn’t have to look at Napoleon to know he was making a face. “Right, what was I thinking? How about explosives?”
“They’re not boring, either.”
“They are to girls.”
Illya couldn’t quite imagine how that was possible. “I once heard two of the girls in Files having an hour-long conversation about handbags. How can explosives possibly be less interesting than handbags?”
“The female sex is a mystery to all of us,” Napoleon answered, knotting his tie.
Hastily tying his own, Illya presented himself for Napoleon’s inspection. “Well?”
“You look just barely respectable enough to get in the front door,” Napoleon said, reaching out to straighten Illya’s tie, which was askew.
“I did that on purpose,” he said, dodging.
“Don’t, unless you want her to fix it for you.”
“I bow to your superior expertise,” Illya said, and let Napoleon fix his tie, telling himself that if Napoleon’s fingers brushed his chest while he did so, it was doubtless entirely accidental.
“So, ah, how are you finding New York?” Napoleon asked.
“About the same as it’s been since I was born,” Louise answered.
Napoleon winced inwardly. He had thought that Louise moved to the City recently. He probably had her mixed up with another girl. And—even though he was careful not to say so in his apology—he had a feeling Louise knew it.
The trouble was, Napoleon had spent so much time coaching Illya on how to bore Maggie that he hadn’t had a chance to work out how to make a good impression on Louise. When the girl was less susceptible than average to his charms, a little groundwork could make all the difference. A few casual conversations with her particular friends on the staff, maybe a quick perusal of the personnel file, a recon of other UNCLE men she’d dated, and he’d be able to prepare a few conversational openers that were sure to be a hit.
Instead of doing that, however, he’d been busy making sure that Maggie didn’t care about newts, and working out which of Illya’s many shabby and ill-fitting outfits would show him to his worst advantage. And all that was wasted effort anyway, since they’d had to change the plan to explosives and the spare shirt Illya kept in the office.
At least it wasn’t the blue one that brought out his eyes; that would have been a disaster. And Maggie’s eyes had glazed before Illya had scratched the surface of the topic of detonators, so that part of the plan was going all right.
Dragging his attention back to the matter at hand, Napoleon asked Louise if she had any pets.
“No,” she said. “Our building doesn’t allow them.”
Maggie seized the opportunity to talk about something that didn’t go bang. “It’s a shame, because I’d love to have a dog,” she said. “But I suppose, with the hours we work, it wouldn’t be fair to a dog anyway.”
“I suppose not,” Napoleon agreed. “Even if you don’t have to fly off to all the corners of the Earth at a moment’s notice like we do, UNCLE must keep you fairly busy.”
Louise started to reply, but subsided when Maggie said, “Speaking of flying off, weren’t you fellows in China recently? That must have been interesting.”
“Yes, very,” Illya said. “Incidentally, it was the Chinese who first developed gunpowder, in the 9th century AD. It is popularly believed in the West that they used it only for fireworks and not for offensive weapons, but this is untrue….”
Napoleon hid a smile behind his wine glass.
“Gosh, Illya, that’s so interesting. I had no idea there were so many ways of blowing things up.” Maggie leaned in closer to him, putting her hand on his arm. “But let’s talk about something else for a while.”
Illya attempted to look slightly confused about the existence any subjects of conversation other than explosives. “Of course. What do you suggest?” He glanced over at Napoleon. Oddly, his conversation with Louise seemed to be limping along just as badly as Illya’s with Maggie—and Napoleon, presumably, was making an effort.
“Why don’t you tell me something about you?” The toe of Maggie’s dancing shoe brushed against his calf as she rearranged her legs under the table.
Illya would really rather not, but he supposed that if he refused, it would enhance the damnable “air of mystery” that Napoleon assured him was like catnip to the female sex. “Very well.” He tried to think of something innocuous enough to describe, and drew a blank.
“What do you like to do for fun?” Magggie asked.
Answering Blow things up might be taking the role a little far, Illya decided. “Go on missions. Work in the lab.”
“What about, um, outside of work?”
He couldn’t say anything about going to jazz clubs; Maggie might try to work her way around to an invitation. And if word got out, the office girls might start trying to ply him with tickets to performances he actually wanted to attend.
“Illya spends most of his time working,” Napoleon chimed in. “It’s all I can do to drag him out of HQ once in a while.”
He nodded gratefully, and added, “Sometimes I read,” which was true enough.
“Oh? Have you read anything interesting lately?”
Mentioning the novel that currently occupied his bedside table might be a mistake—it was on the Times bestseller list, which suggested a statistical likelihood that any given person, such as Maggie, might have also read it, and the last thing he wanted to imply was a common interest of any kind. He mentioned a scientific journal instead.
“What’s that about?”
“Oh.” He could tell from Maggie’s expression that she had no idea what that was, and he could also see her deciding not to ask, in case the answer had anything to do with explosions. “What did you do before joining UNCLE?”
“Studied quantum mechanics.” Deciding that Maggie deserved at least one break, he added, “Before that, I was in the Navy.” That information was in his personnel file, anyway.
“The Navy?” Maggie sounded surprised. “But how could you be, if you aren’t even an American?”
“The Red Navy, you dope,” Louise said. “Not ours.”
Maggie showed no particular rancor at being called a dope. “Of course, how silly of me. What made you decide to do that?”
“I didn’t. My country has compulsory military service for all able-bodied men.”
“Oh. Did you like it?”
“Not particularly.” Maggie appeared to be waiting for him to elaborate. Not to do so would probably come across as mysterious. “I patrolled the Baltic Sea in a submarine. It was very dull. The vessel did have some interesting experimental armaments, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you about them—as far as I know, they’re still classified. And we never got to use them, anyway.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m sorry about that!” Maggie said.
Since if they had used them, it probably would have been against the US, Illya could see her point. World War Three would have been a steep price to pay for livening up Lieutenant Kuryakin’s existence. “I suppose not.” The polite thing to do, he knew, would be to ask Maggie what she had done before joining UNCLE. But while he genuinely would have preferred hearing the answer to answering more questions himself, or to finding another of the less interesting aspects of the topic of explosives to drone on about, to ask would not be the behavior of a complete drip. Instead, he applied himself to finishing his dinner. Squab, very tasty. He could have eaten another one.
“Well, shall we take a spin on the dance floor before considering dessert?” Napoleon suggested. He and Louise had both finished their dinners, and there was no point lingering over conversation—on that score, Illya’s date seemed to be, somehow, going better than his. Maggie was at least pretending to be interested in Illya’s monologue.
“Why not,” Louise agreed.
To his surprise, she turned out to be a fairly good dancer, light in his arms and with a good sense of timing.
As the next song started, he saw Maggie dragging Illya onto the dance floor. Napoleon noted with approval that he held her right hand in an awkward, crushing grip—the compromise they’d reached over Illya’s unwillingness to tread on her feet. Apparently, while he had no objection to being dull, he drew the line at clumsy.
Just as well, Napoleon supposed. It wouldn’t have been a believable performance to anyone who had seen him fight.
Despite the cheap suit and the wrinkled shirt, Illya looked nice on a dance floor—so sleek and graceful. Maybe enough that Maggie would consider it worth suffering through his conversation.
“Why don’t you try dancing with Napoleon, Maggie?” Louise suggested as they met near the middle of the dance floor. “I’m sure he can help you improve your fox-trot.”
After three and a half syrupy numbers, Illya was almost ready to kiss Louise for the suggestion. “Yes, why don’t you?” he said. “Napoleon is a much better dancer than I am.”
“I couldn’t possibly desert Illya,” Maggie protested.
“Nonsense,” Louise said. “I’ll dance with him. May I cut in, sir?” she added to him, with a curtsey.
Damn. The kiss was definitely rescinded. Were both of them interested in him?
Napoleon frowned a little, but accepted the switch, so Illya supposed he didn’t have a lot of choice.
Louise was at least a better dancer than Maggie. And there was something about the brisk, no-nonsense way she corrected his deliberately bad grip, without even apologizing for it, that reminded him a bit of Polina.
She was also very good at leading while dancing backwards. Within a dozen bars of the music, they were on the opposite side of the dance floor from Napoleon and Maggie. “I think we may have a mutual friend,” she said, her tone soft and confidential, but not particularly flirtatious.
“I doubt it. Unless you mean Napoleon.”
“Mm.” She shook her head fractionally. “Dorothy?”
Oh. Oh. Well, that explained her invulnerability to Napoleon’s charms. If she meant what he thought she did. “You don’t mean Dottie in Translation, do you?” he asked, just to make sure.
“Perhaps we do, then.” He wondered why she was telling him. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “Gay radar, I guess. Don’t worry; your secret’s safe with me.”
That much was already implied by the mention of a mutual friend, he thought. “And yours with me.”
She shrugged. “It’s not a terribly big deal to me, though I suppose Maggie would rather not have it spread around that she shares an apartment with the office lesbian. But I’ve heard that sort of thing is a lot more dangerous where you come from.”
“Yes.” The KGB, in fact, already knew, and had given him to UNCLE for that very reason. They needed to send a loyal Communist who possessed sufficient technical skills not to embarrass the Soviet Union before the other member countries, but who was both expendable and controllable. UNCLE agents could not be recalled or dismissed by their home countries, only by UNCLE itself, and they could only be tried in an international court—it was part of the charter, to ensure that the organization was truly independent—so the usual methods of controlling Soviet citizens living abroad were unavailable. An individual with a highly illegal secret, one that would be considered compromising in any UNCLE member nation, must have seemed the perfect solution.
Their mistake, Illya always thought, had been sending an explosives expert. He knew how to defuse anything. They hadn’t forbidden him to tell UNCLE his secret, likely for the simple reason that it never occurred to them that he might.
True, it had been a gamble—if UNCLE had found him unacceptable, he’d have been sent back to the USSR more expendable than ever. But he’d waited to make that gamble until he’d established his usefulness to UNCLE, and gotten a fair idea of Mr. Waverly’s character. The risk of ending up in a gulag or a psychiatric hospital was minimal.
“I’m sorry,” Louise said. “I’ve upset you; I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“No, it’s all right.” It was, really. If he had to be under someone’s thumb—and he did; everyone did—UNCLE’s was better than the KGB’s. “I’d offer to help get Napoleon off your trail, but I’m not sure how. Assuming you’d rather I didn’t tell him.”
“You assume right. It’s okay—I don’t think he’s had a particularly good time tonight. Any more than Maggie has,” she added with a knowing smile. She hesitated. “Does Napoleon know about you, then?”
“I wondered why he wasn’t trying to stop you from boring Maggie to tears.” She glanced over at Napoleon, assessingly. “I have to say, he wouldn’t have been my first guess, to be so accepting. Skirt-chasers like that usually aren’t.”
Illya lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug; he’d been surprised, too. “It does leave more girls for him.”
“Well, that was a bust,” Napoleon grumbled as they returned to the car after seeing the girls to their apartment-house door. The double-date had ended with patent insincerity on all sides, the girls saying that they’d had a lovely time, Napoleon and Illya that they ought to do it again sometime.
“Maybe for you,” Illya said.
Napoleon nodded. “I don’t think Maggie will be bothering you anymore.”
“No. And the squab was good, and the chocolate mousse, excellent.”
He had to smile at that. Trust Illya to find the bright spot in any situation—provided food was involved. “I don’t think Louise was ever really interested,” he noted, starting up the car.
“No,” Illya agreed. “I believe she agreed to the evening to give Maggie her chance.”
“Much as you did,” Napoleon said, with a quick, assessing glance at Illya.
Illya returned a suspicious glance of his own. “Surely you aren’t so arrogant that you think any woman who isn’t interested in you must be Sapphically inclined.”
“No, of course not.”
The next few weeks took them out of New York for a series of back-to-back missions, but the next time Illya was in HQ long enough to catch his breath, Louise bumped into him in the records room, a little too casually to really be casual, and asked if he had any plans for the evening.
“I expect I’ll read,” he said. “About explosives.”
“Well, if you get tired of that, I usually meet up with friends at the Green Owl. You could join us, if you want. It’s a mixed crowd—lots of people who know Dorothy.”
“Tempting,” Illya said. “But no. Thank you.”
But the next week, she asked him again, saying, “It’s not a meat market, if that’s what you’re worried about. More of a neighborhood place, real friendly.”
“I have all the friends I need.”
That wasn’t true, really. Illya had never made much of an effort to make friends in any of the previous places he’d lived, but being a Soviet ex-pat usually carried a built-in social life. Even in his other UNCLE postings, there were usually one or two other Russians, which meant being dragged into the occasional vodka troika whether he liked it or not, as well as having some sort of party or get-together to show his face at for all the major holidays. (He still didn’t know how he’d lost his shoes during the International Women’s Day pub crawl in Dublin; no one else present was sober enough to remember, either.) But as the only Russian agent in the New York HQ, there was no one to force him to socialize against his will. Not even Napoleon—he was becoming quite a good friend, but he had plenty of other commitments on his social calendar.
Louise seemed to take that refusal as final, though, and there were no more invitations. A couple of weeks later, Illya read in the paper that the place had been raided—fortunately, Louise’s name was not listed among the arrestees—and was glad he hadn’t given in to temptation.
“Yes, I admit, the night-life is a bit sedate, compared to New York,” Napoleon said, looking around the small, sparsely-occupied supper club as he steered her around the dance floor. Estelle, a girl journalist who had assisted them with their most recent affair, had said it was the hottest spot in Twin Falls, Idaho. She had seemed more disappointed than anything else, when they learned that—despite some poorly-worded promotional materials—the local doomsday cult had no intentions of bringing about the end of the world that they were so eagerly looking forward to.
“If I could just get one big story,” she said, “that got picked up by the national wires, I could get a job at a big-city paper. Maybe not New York right away, but Boise, or Omaha, or Topeka, and then New York.”
“Well, we all must face these little disappointments.” As their circuit of the dance floor took them past the bar, Napoleon caught sight of Illya sitting there, his head resting heavily on one hand. He’d been at a table with the rest of their party—Estelle’s friends from the newspaper—when Napoleon and Estelle took to the dance floor, but he must have moved.
The song ended, and Napoleon steered Estelle back to the table. “If you’ll excuse me, I should check on my friend—he’s looking more than usually morose.”
When Napoleon seated himself on the barstool next to him, Illya glanced over, slightly, and said, “Do you know, these people cannot even be bothered to turn any of their potatoes into decent vodka?”
“Tragic,” Napoleon said. The bartender came over, and Napoleon ordered a bourbon, to forestall Illya from taking his complaints directly to the source. “What’s eating you? I know you didn’t get to blow anything up today, but the world’s not ending, so it’s not so bad.”
Illya shrugged. “Mal du pays, I suppose.” He sipped from the glass of clear liquid that apparently was not decent vodka, and grimaced. “It’s Revolution Day.”
“Oh.” Napoleon probably should have known that—he’d spent enough Thanksgivings and Independence Days abroad to know how depressing it was to have a holiday go unremarked. “Happy Revolution Day,” he said, raising the glass of bourbon that the bartender delivered just in time.
Illya winced, clicked his glass against Napoleon’s, and knocked back the rest of his drink in one gulp. Right, Napoleon had forgotten that it was Russian custom to drink toasts in one go.
“What would you, uh, normally do on Revolution Day?” he asked.
“Try to be on an assignment that precludes attending any of the parades or speeches,” Illya answered.
“Ah.” So it wasn’t so much a matter of missing something he really wanted to do, but of not even having the option.
“Also, there is usually a great deal of drinking, under the pretext of toasting the heroes of the Revolution.”
Napoleon glanced over at Estelle. She seemed to be having a nice enough time without him, and she wasn’t that interesting, anyway. “That, we could probably manage,” he offered.
Illya looked skeptical. “First, we would need to locate some vodka. And perhaps somewhere less public,” he added, with a theatrical look around.
He had a point—“Revolution Day” could mean anything, but toasting Marx and Lenin might be a bit conspicuous, in Idaho. “We can take a bottle back to the motel,” Napoleon said. “There must be a liquor store in this town, if we can find it before they roll the sidewalks up. C’mon.”
After a brief detour to make his excuses to Estelle, they headed out. Twin Falls had several liquor stores, and they had to visit three of them in order to obtain a bottle of vodka that Illya pronounced acceptable. “See if you can find a deli, or something,” Illya said as they got back into the car.
“Didn’t you eat at the club? I’m not sure there’s going to be anything open.”
“I did, but snacks are a requirement for serious drinking. If there’s nothing else, we’ll have to get peanuts or potato chips from a gas station.”
On balance, Napoleon thought that was probably wise. “We’re, ah, one person short, aren’t we?” he asked, remembering what Polina had said at the Chinese restaurant.
“Yes—but as it’s an emergency, we’ll just have to pick up the slack ourselves.”
Napoleon managed to find a place that was a sort of cross between a gas station and a small grocery store, and they got some cheese, cold cuts, and crackers. Back at the motel, Illya spread everything out on the table, plunking the vodka into a bucket of ice and unwrapping the two glasses from the bathroom.
“How do we start?” Napoleon asked, surveying the table. “I mean, is there any particular ritual, or…?”
“One is expected drink for each toast,” Illya said, “unless you wish to express disagreement with the sentiment expressed. Which, in Soviet Union, is usually unwise—except on those occasions when it is very wise indeed. Serious toasts are usually made at the beginning, before one is too impaired to accurately judge the ideological niceties. In present company, I think we’ll avoid toasting our mutual commitment to building Communism.”
“Thank you,” Napoleon said, sincerely. He was honestly committed to helping Illya celebrate his holiday, but he didn’t want to be un-American about it.
“Let me think.” Illya sat up straight and assumed a serious demeanor. “Though our countries may differ in many of their ideals, and these differences may at times seem to divide us—” Illya paused to uncap the vodka bottle and pour, “—neither THRUSH domination nor global thermonuclear war is in the best interest of either, so as long as that remains the case, we will always be on the same side, united against the forces that would seek to subjugate and threaten the peace and happiness of workers everywhere. So--to always being on the same side.” He clinked his glass against Napoleon’s and slugged back the vodka, slamming the glass hard against the table when he finished.
That was a little heavier than Napoleon had been expecting, but he copied Illya in knocking back the drink in one gulp.
The next part of the procedure, apparently, was to have a little snack, and then it was Napoleon’s turn to propose a toast. Unable to think of anything better, he fell back on one that was recommended by UNCLE’s etiquette experts as appropriate for most situations: “To friendship between nations.”
With commendable delicacy, Illya proposed the next toast to, “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and George Washington, heroes of two great revolutions.”
Then Napoleon had to think of some other Russian revolutionary to name alongside Thomas Jefferson. That seemed to satisfy Illya’s commitment to form, and they went on to toast the UNCLE charter, Mr. Waverly, and absent friends, among other things. The toasts got sillier as they went along, and Illya was definitely a bit drunk when he proposed they drink to “The peasants of Idaho, and the Ukraine, and all of the United States and Socialist Republics, and their commitment to the growth and improvement of the noble potato.”
By that point, Illya’s vowels had taken on a decidedly Russian sound, and a few drinks later, articles had largely disappeared from his vocabulary. Napoleon, for his part, was hard-put to keep thinking up toasts, even in his native language. “Right, right, I have one. Here’s to the girls who will—and here’s to the girls who won’t. But not to the girls who say they will, but then decide they won’t.”
He only realized his mistake when Illya blinked owlishly and said, “Well, I suppose, if you insist.”
“Or, ah, boys, I suppose. Whatever it takes.” That, Illya drank to, and Napoleon went on, “Sorry—about that. An’ you were so careful about the communist stuff.”
“Don’ worry ‘bout it.” Illya struggled to sit up straight. “For oversexed American capitalist pig, you aren’t so bad.”
“Right back atcha,” Napoleon said, forming his finger and thumb into the shape of a gun, and pretending to shoot him with it. “I mean, for a, a, godless commie heathen thingy.” Suddenly worried that Illya would take that the wrong way, he tried to pull himself together. “I mean it. You’re a great guy. Best partner ever.”
“You as well,” Illya said, very formal except for the slurring of his speech. “You know—you know what we should do?”
“Stand up,” Illya said, doing so.
Napoleon got to his—rather wobbly—feet. When Illya approached him, Napoleon wondered if he was going to try to kiss him—and a small part of his mind that had remained sober registered that the prospect was not as alarming as it probably should have been.
But Illya said, “This is, is Russian custom. You put arm up like this.” He demonstrated, holding the arm with his glass up, bent at a right angle. Napoleon copied him, and Illya looped his arm through Napoleon’s, bringing his own glass into the vicinity of Napoleon’s mouth. “Now we say--” He started to recite something in Russian, in which the only word Napoleon could pick out was brother. Then he stopped himself and said, “This is toast for becoming--” He said another Russian word Napoleon didn’t know. “That is, bottle-mates. Co-drinkers.”
He sounded like he was groping for a translation, and Napoleon suggested, “Vodka brothers,” thinking about boys pressing pinpricked fingers together to become blood-brothers.
“Yes! You understand.” He started the toast again, which was long and complicated—or, at least seemed so to Napoleon, when Illya paused for him to repeat the words after him. “Now, each one drinks from glass of the other,” he explained. In such an advanced state of inebriation, that was more easily said than done, but if some of the vodka ended up down their respective shirt-fronts, at least it wouldn’t stain.
After that, he did kiss Napoleon—once, briskly, on each cheek, the way he had Polina in the restaurant. “And now you must call me Illyusha. And you are—” he seemed to think about it for a moment. “Heh. Polya.”
“Illyusha,” Napoleon said obediently. “Isn’t Polya a girl’s name?”
“No, no, it’s like girl called Stevie or Bobbi.”
“Georgie,” Napoleon offered. “Or Jo.”
“Yes, yes.” Illya held up one finger. “You could be Pasha.”
“That sounds kinda girly too.”
“Is man’s name in Russian. “ Illya wobbled his way back to his seat and poured another drink. “I think you should be Polya. I like you nearly as much as other Polya.” He sat up straight. “That is secret. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” Napoleon promised, feeling warm in his belly from the sentiment. “That’s quite a compliment. She’s a, a fine woman.”
Illya leaned across the table and said, confidentially, “You know, I almost married her.”
“But you’re—” Napoleon made a vague hand gesture.
“Yes, I know.” Illya made a sound that Napoleon would have described as a giggle, if anyone else had done it. “But—” He imitated the hand gesture, “—is decadent Western perversion. As Party members, we have duty. To make little Communists. Yes?”
“So we think, we are best friends, maybe that will be enough. So we tried.”
“You mean you tried…making little Communists?”
“Well, we used condom,” Illya said frankly. “But yes. We tried that.”
Against his will, Napoleon found himself imagining it—a younger Illya and a younger Polina, intertwined on a narrow college-dorm-room bed. “Didn’t work, huh?” he asked, dry-mouthed.
“Oh, it worked,” Illya said, with lewd significance. “But we did not enjoy it. And we agreed, duty can only go so far.” He sighed heavily. “But it would have been nice. If it had worked. To have home, and make a life with dear friend.”
Napoleon imagined that, too—Illya in Russia with a gaggle of adorable blond children. Or would he have defected, along with Polina? In any case, they would never have met—UNCLE only took single men as field agents. The notion came with a deep pang of loss.
“It helped, in a way,” Illya went on. “I knew I had given it my best try; if I could not be a husband to Polina, who I liked very much, I could not be to anyone. And, fortunately, living in decadent West taught me that I could love my country without agreeing with everything our leaders say. I decided, I could be homosexual and good Communist as well.” He said something in Russian; it had the sound of a quote or proverb. “For Polina, I think it cemented her decision in the other direction. It wasn’t much long after that she decided to defect. But lesbianism is legal in the United Kingdom.”
Napoleon almost dropped his glass. “She’s—a beautiful woman like that?”
“Yes—apparently she fancies other beautiful women like that.”
Now Napoleon was thinking about that. “Uh, I suppose I can’t argue, since I share the same predilection.” Knowing Illya had taught him that not all homosexuals were limp-wristed sissies; he supposed it made sense that not all lesbians were ugly man-haters.
“Yes—you and Polya have a great deal in common, Polya.” He smiled faintly. “I’m very lucky, to have you both.” He picked up the vodka bottle and divided the last of it between their glasses. “To my two Polyas.”
“And our Illyusha,” Napoleon agreed, and drank.
The next morning would have made an ideal time for a THRUSH attack, Illya reflected, as they breakfasted on dry toast and gingerly made their way to the airport for the flight back to New York. Napoleon was reduced to communicating solely in grunts, and even submitted to the indignity of wearing a particularly hideous pair of sunglasses that were only ones available at the drugstore near the motel. Illya was in slightly better shape physically—owing to the superior hardiness of the Russian constitution, particularly where alcohol was involved—but only slightly, and his misery was compounded by a generous dash of embarrassment.
It could have been worse—to the best of Illya’s recollection, there had at least been no poetry—but he distinctly remembered inducing Napoleon to drink to Brotherhood with him—a gesture he normally avoided as mawkishly sentimental—and telling Napoleon that he liked him “nearly as much as Polya.” It was probably true, but what was the point in saying so? And it may even have come across as a backhanded compliment indeed, given that he and Polina had gone without speaking for over a decade.
Still, he appreciated Napoleon’s willingness to join him in celebrating a holiday that the American likely found ideologically repugnant, and it was with that in mind that, as the plane took off, he said, “You should sleep—I’ll take first watch.”
“You sure?” Napoleon asked. Illya suspected his eyes were already closed behind the sunglasses.
“You’re a pal,” he said, awkwardly patting Illya on the leg, and fell asleep.
The flight passed without incident, fortunately. Mr. Waverly was characteristically observant when they reported in, saying, “You two gentlemen seem unusually indisposed for the conclusion of such an uneventful mission.”
“Oh, well, about that,” Napoleon said.
“Yes?” Mr. Waverly regarded him impassively.
“Apparently it was Revolution Day in the Soviet Union. And as representatives of an international organization dedicated to world peace, we couldn’t let such an important occasion go un-celebrated.”
“I see,” said Mr. Waverly, perhaps not as disapprovingly as he might have. “See that your merrymaking does not interfere with your duties.”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused, and were dismissed.
Despite a hangover the size of the Soviet Union, and Mr. Waverly‘s rebuke, which was so mild it practically counted as approval, Napoleon had few regrets about Revolution Day. It seemed to have brought him and Illya closer together—though a brief experiment proved that the invitation to call him “Illyusha” did not apply under conditions of sobriety. Illya seemed more willing to accept Napoleon’s invitations to share a drink or a meal after work or a case, and once, on a mission to Chicago, tentatively suggested that there was a jazz club he wanted to visit, and Napoleon could go along with him if he didn’t have anything better to do. Napoleon had to cancel a tentative dinner engagement with the hotel desk clerk to do so, but didn’t regret it.
He did, however, find his mind returning, at the most inopportune times, to what Illya had said about he and Polina being…intimate. Had they gone at it grim-faced and determined to do their duty to Party and country? Or had they laughed and teased each other, as they had at the restaurant? Napoleon hoped, for Illya’s sake, that it had been the latter, but more importantly, it was none of his business whatsoever.
But he thought of it, when Illya solemnly responded to the increasingly obvious flirtations of Angie from Wardrobe by saying, “You seem like a girl who is serious about her future, Angie. I regret to say it, but, I don’t think I could have anything real with a girl who isn’t a Communist.”
“Oh,” Angie said, wide-eyed. “I’m a Presbyterian.”
“Well, there you have it,” Illya said, and re-directed her attention to the fit of his burnoose.
Surely duty alone wouldn’t have driven a homosexual and a lesbian into each other’s arms. Best friends, Illya had called them, maybe that would be enough. Napoleon was familiar enough with the idea of men seeking pleasure in each other when there were no women around; he’d never been driven to those lengths himself, in his Army days, but he’d known others who had, and hadn’t judged them for it. But now, he thought, maybe it hadn’t just been desperation. Living in each other’s pockets, going under fire together, you came to love your teammates—like brothers, usually, but maybe in other ways, too.
What was it like, to care so much for someone that it didn’t matter what their body looked like? Napoleon didn’t know—and maybe Illya didn’t, either; he and Polina hadn’t married, after all. But the thought gnawed at him, all the more so because it wasn’t something he could ask about. He almost did, once, when a photograph came for Illya in the mail, postmarked England and showing him and Polina, arms around each other’s shoulders. She was laughing at something just outside the frame, and even Illya was smiling slightly, his head ducked as if to hide it.
“What?” Illya asked, when Napoleon had been looking at the photograph for a bit too long.
“Nothing. Just—” What was it, that you felt for each other? And why can’t I stop thinking about it? “Your hair,” he said, tearing his eyes off the photograph and going back to his own desk. It was cropped short, making Illya look even younger than he really had been.
“Yes, I’d just gotten out of the Navy. They don’t particularly approve of long hair on men.”
“I wouldn’t have thought your next employer would, either.”
“They didn’t, but I told them I needed it long for undercover operations. Style kids, you know. I was ready to infiltrate them at a moment’s notice.”
Now that sounded like Illya.
Illya wished Napoleon were here. Doubtless, if Napoleon were interrupted in the middle of a…might as well call it a date…by gun wielding thugs, he would have little trouble convincing the lady in question to go along with his escape plan. It had happened often enough, after all.
One would think that a man, even a homosexual, would be more likely to be game. Perhaps it was Illya’s powers of persuasion that were at fault.
“They aren’t real police officers,” he repeated, in a whisper. “That’s why I asked to look at his badge a second time—it’s a fake. They’re just trying to shake us down.”
“I don’t care,” Illya’s companion—he’d introduced himself as Dan—said, wringing his hands. “You heard what he said, as soon as the banks open, I can pay them what they want, and they’ll let us go.”
Illya thought that was probably true. All signs pointed to the two phony cops as being garden-variety thugs, not THRUSH or anything more sinister. “Dan” was clearly their main target; it was his room in one of New York’s finest hotels where the interrupted assignation had taken place, and his clothes and suitcases marked him as a man of some means. They’d relieved Illya of the cash he’d been carrying, as a matter of course, but it was Dan they intended to march to the bank and force to withdraw some considerable sum.
Really, Illya supposed, if Dan preferred to pay them off, that was his business. But it was downright embarrassing to have been caught by these petty amateurs. They hadn’t even taken the elementary precaution of handcuffing their two prisoners; they apparently thought standing near the door trying to look menacing was good enough. Besides, if he remained meekly in captivity until the banks opened, he’d be late for work.
“They could keep coming back for more money,” Illya pointed out. “They’ll know your bank, and where you live. There won’t be any way you can stop them, unless you want to go to the real police and make a report.”
Dan shuddered at that. “No.”
“Right. Then this is the best chance we’re going to get. The odds are good—if the hotel security man comes back, we’ll be outnumbered.” The hotel security man, Illya was fairly sure, was the genuine article. He likely used his job at the hotel to identify blackmail victims, then called in his two accomplices in fancy dress to make it look good.
“They’re armed,” Dan said, twisting his fingers some more.
“The one with the moustache, his gun’s a toy. You take him. I’ll handle the other one.”
“Take him? And do what with him?”
Illya sighed in exasperation. “Pull his hair? Kick him in the balls? It doesn’t really matter. Anything; just keep him busy while I get the other one’s gun.”
“I don’t like guns,” Dan said irrelevantly.
“Fortunately, I do.” Raising his voice, Illya called, “Mr. Detective?”
“Whaddyou want?” the mustached fake detective asked, taking a few steps closer to them.
“We’ve both missed our dinners. Could we have the kitchen send up some sandwiches or something?” Illya batted his eyelashes.
Moustache half-turned to give his partner a disgusted look, and Illya shoved Dan at him, hissing, “Go.” At the same time, he rushed the other one.
The usual judo chop to the neck proved as effective as always, and the larger phony policeman fell unconscious. Plucking the gun out of his hand, Illya turned to check on Dan.
Dan was holding a fistful of Moustache’s hair and aiming ineffectual kicks in the general direction of his knees, while Moustache waved the toy gun around and yelled.
“Stop that,” Illya said, poking the real gun at the back of Moustache’s head. “You can let go of him now,” he added to Dan.
“What the hell?” Moustache looked around wildly, the change in circumstances gradually dawning on him as he saw his downed partner. He made a grab for Illya’s gun.
Illya danced back out of his reach. “Ah-ah. That’s not very nice.”
“Put that down before you get hurt,” Moustache said, aiming his gun at Illya.
“I don’t think so. You can keep yours if you like; I know it’s not real.”
“Neither is that one,” Moustache bluffed.
“Really,” Illya said, cocking it. “I guess you won’t mind if I shoot you with it, then.”
“Don’t,” Dan cried. “Someone will hear!”
“Hm, yes, and they might call the police,” Illya said. “I wonder which they’ll be more concerned about, impersonating a police officer, or the private activities of two consenting adults behind closed doors?”
Moustache gulped. “Look, now, there’s no reason to get excited….”
“Oh, I’m not excited,” Illya answered. “Give me our wallets. And yours, while you’re at it.”
Moustache did so.
Illya tossed Dan his wallet, and pocketed the two others. “And his.” He indicated the unconscious thug.
Obediently, Moustache crouched beside his partner to dig out his wallet. Illya took the opportunity to cosh him over the head, then relieved both unconscious men of their false police badges. As an afterthought, he added the toy gun to his stash.
“What are you going to do with all that?” Dan asked nervously.
“Package it up and send it to the real police,” Illya answered. “Anonymously, of course,” he added, at Dan’s look of alarm. He scanned the room, eyes falling on the window. “I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not run into that security guard on my way out. I’ll be taking the fire escape.”
“Don’t leave without me!” Dan went for his suitcase and started packing.
“All right, but hurry. They won’t stay unconscious forever.”
Dan hurriedly crammed his things into the suitcase. Illya decided to use the delay to remove both men’s trousers, and secure them in a mildly compromising position with their own belts.
As Napoleon raised his hand to knock, the door to Illya’s apartment opened, and a man came out. Napoleon stepped back quickly, both in surprise and to avoid being bowled over.
The man was pudgy, a little older than Napoleon, with a receding hairline, and carrying a suitcase. “Oh,” he said, raising a hand to his chest as if clutching an invisible necklace.
Illya loomed behind him. For a little guy, he was good at looming. Suitcase man looked over his shoulder at him. “Oh, dear, I hope I haven’t—”
“Just go,” Illya said.
The man squeaked and rabbited off. Napoleon spared him a glance as he retreated. He often picked up Illya on his way to work, but this was the first time there had been any sign that Illya had been…entertaining company. The thought gave him a strange, twisting feeling in his chest. Or stomach. Somewhere in there. Get a hold of yourself, Napoleon told himself. You didn’t really think he lives like a monk.
“I’m not quite ready,” Illya said, drawing Napoleon’s attention back to him. He was, indeed, not quite ready—he had his pants on, fortunately, but no shirt, shoes, or shoulder holster. “There is coffee,” he added, stepping back from the door in implicit invitation.
Illya disappeared into his bedroom while Napoleon went into the tiny kitchen and poured himself a cup. Illya returned a few moments later, still buckling on his shoulder holster. “So,” Napoleon said awkwardly.
“So,” Illya said, giving him a challenging look, as though daring Napoleon to comment on the situation in any way.
Or perhaps daring him not to. “Is that, ah,” Napoleon tipped his head in the direction of the door. “Someone serious?”
“Hardly,” Illya scoffed.
Napoleon told himself that that certainly wasn’t relief he was feeling—it was nothing to him if his partner had a steady…fella, or not. “He wasn’t what I would have guessed was your type,” Napoleon said.
“I don’t usually bring them here,” Illya said, “but we encountered difficulties, and he was…frightened, I suppose, and I wasn’t able to get rid of him.”
“Difficulties?” Napoleon asked. He’d heard about youths coming here, to the Village, to beat up queers. Illya, of course, would be able to hold his own in such a situation, but if outnumbered….
“Just a bit of attempted blackmail.”
Napoleon was instantly alert. “THRUSH?”
“No, just garden variety. If it had been anything professional, I’d have called it in. They target homosexual tourists and business travelers. An inside man at the hotel identifies the mark, and some of his friends burst into the room at a critical moment, dressed up as policemen, and demand a bribe.”
He sounded very matter-of-fact about it. “What did you do?”
“Knocked them out, tied them up, and left down the fire escape,” Illya answered. Turning to the counter, he unwrapped a parcel that was lying there. “Perhaps you can advise me—I’m not sure what to do with these.”
The parcel contained two wallets, a pair of blatantly false police badges, and a cheap handgun. Napoleon was relieved to see the badges; he had wondered for a second or two if it was possible that Illya had assaulted genuine policemen.
“My original plan was to wrap it up and send it anonymously to the police,” Illya explained, “but on reflection, I’m not sure how they would react to receiving such a package. Would they try to trace its origins, do you think?”
“Possibly,” Napoleon said. Anonymous parcels containing unregistered, and probably stolen, handguns would raise a few eyebrows at a police station. “Were you planning to enclose a note of explanation?”
“I hadn’t decided. Where I come from, impersonating an official is serious crime, but then, so is the other thing.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Napoleon decided. “I’ll send it in, under my own name, and say the package and the story came to me secondhand, friend of a friend type of thing, who heard I was something to do with law enforcement and figured I’d know what to do.” If the package came with a plausible provenance, any investigation would center on the blackmailers, not the origins of the package itself.
“Are you sure?” Illya asked. “What if they decide to question you?”
Napoleon nodded. “I can’t imagine they’ll check up on my story in any detail, but if they ask, I’ll say I got the package from a girl at a party—I only knew her first name, and she never mentioned the name of the man she got it from.”
“And if they ask where this party took place?”
“I know some artistic types; I can give them a name and address if they want one.” There was a party he’d gone to a few days ago that would work.
“And they go to this address and….?”
“And they ask for the surname and address of the blonde called Susan I was talking to,” Napoleon said, “and she says sorry, she has no idea, there were lots of people there she doesn’t really know. Which will be completely true.”
“And they will simply let it go?”
“They won’t even take it that far,” Napoleon said.
“KGB would. Location and even partial guest list of party attended by homosexual intelligentsia would be very useful information.”
“The NYPD is not the KGB,” Napoleon pointed out.
“When it comes to this issue? There is not as much difference as you might think.”
Napoleon wasn’t sure about that—but he supposed Illya would know better than he did. “I’ll have to think about it more,” he decided. He wrapped the parcel back up and stuffed it in his briefcase. “We might as well take these things into work with us. Better than having them here.”
“Or perhaps just drop it in the East River,” Illya said. He shrugged on his jacket, and they headed out. “I should not have even taken those things to begin with. I think I may have been showing off,” he admitted.
Illya had thought, at first, that Napoleon had taken the evidence of his evening’s…activities with commendable sang froid. Not to mention the complication of the package, which Illya now regretted having burdened himself with.
But Illya was forced to revise his opinion when, over lunch, Napoleon brought up the subject again—and not to suggest a solution to the problem, but rather to pry for prurient details. “That man from this morning,” he said, clearly uncomfortable.
“Yes?” Illya asked.
“What’s he like? I mean—I know you said it wasn’t serious. Will you see him again?”
“No. He’s leaving today. Back to Iowa, or wherever it is.”
“You don’t remember?”
Illya shrugged. “He said Iowa. But I told him I was called ‘Steve.’ Who knows?”
“You don’t look much like a Steve,” Napoleon observed.
“If anyone asks, I Anglicized it from Stepan. Or maybe Stanislav.” Early on, he’d developed a moderately detailed cover persona, complete with profession and reason for coming to the United States, for such purposes, but he’d learned that it was largely unnecessary.
“Did he ask? The one from this morning?”
“No,” Illya said. “No one ever asks.”
“Hm,” Napoleon said. “What about…is that all you do? Go to hotel bars and pick up businessmen from out of town?”
“Yes,” Illya said tersely. “It saves…complications.” Napoleon certainly avoided complications in his own private affairs. Not precisely the same complications, but the concept should be familiar to him, at least in outline.
“I suppose it does. But it seems….”
He trailed off, and Illya wondered how he planned to complete that thought. Sordid perhaps? Or depraved? “Seems what?” he asked accusingly.
“Dangerous, I suppose.”
“Less dangerous than your habit of seducing THRUSH vixens,” Illya pointed out.
Napoleon shrugged, as if to concede the point, but protested, “I don’t do that all the time.”
“Well, I can’t exactly go fishing in the typing pool, either.”
“I guess not,” Napoleon admitted. “But—I don’t like it.”
So that was it—Napoleon had been willing enough to accept that he was the way he was, until he actually had to think about it. “You don’t have to like it,” he pointed out coolly.
Napoleon rubbed at his forehead. “I don’t mean…they don’t even know your name. You can’t tell me that’s right.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.” Illya shook his head. He should have—he didn’t know. Kicked “Dan” out onto the street, no matter how much he dithered and wrung his hands about it. Or told Napoleon he’d been there selling encyclopedias. Something. “None of this is news to you. Or did you think I was some sort of eunuch?”
“Of course not. But I thought…I don’t know what I thought.”
Suddenly, Illya was done. Napoleon was the last person who ought to be lecturing anyone about sexual morality, the way he carried on. Shoving his chair back, he said, “I am not having this conversation. With you, of all people.” He stalked off.
Napoleon knew Illya was upset—he’d left half his lunch behind, and for him, that was a drastic step indeed. He wasn’t sure how the conversation had gone south on him so quickly, though. When had he said, or implied, that he thought Illya was a eunuch? And what was that about him, of all people?
Granted, Napoleon had his share of one-night stands. But that was…well, they always knew his name, for Pete’s sake. Or at least his undercover alias. Besides, Napoleon was good at connecting with people. Girls, especially. His encounters were often brief, but they weren’t meaningless. But Illya was different. He took a long time to warm up to people. And you practically had to have a secret decoder ring to figure out when he had. What’s-his-name from Iowa, or wherever it was, couldn’t begin to know Illya, or understand him, in the time they’d had. Illya ought to have…something different. Something better.
Napoleon hadn’t finished his lunch, either, but he wasn’t very hungry anymore. He returned his and Illya’s trays to the counter, where one of the lunch ladies said, “He’s not sick, is he? Mr. Kuryakin?”
“No, I think he just…had some work to do,” Napoleon lied, and departed swiftly.
He thought he’d made a clean getaway, but he only made it a few steps out of the cafeteria when Darbonne, of all people, fell into step beside him. “Mr. Solo,” he said politely.
“Monsieur Darbonne,” Napoleon answered. “You’re back from…where was it?”
“Greenland,” Darbonne said. “I take it you’ve heard.”
“That you’re back from Greenland?”
“About Kuryakin. I’d watch out, if I were you. He’s a vindictive little cat, and he has Waverly’s ear…or some part of his anatomy, anyway. As you say, I only just got back from Greenland.”
“I don’t think I know what you’re implying.”
Something in Napoleon’s tone must have made Darbonne realize that his assumptions were faulty. He paused in his stride, looked Napoleon up and down. “Ah. I was under the impression that you and Mademoiselle Kuryakin had just had a ‘falling-out.’” His expression turned salacious. “Was it a lovers’ tiff, instead?”
Napoleon was so thrown off-balance by the accusation that he didn’t quite know what to say. Part of him wondered if it really had read that way, if Darbonne suspected….suspected what? He and Illya were just good friends; there was nothing to suspect.
Another part of him wanted to punch Darbonne right in his smirking face. A third wanted to deliver some devastating riposte that would put Darbonne firmly in his place, and that seemed the best option, but Napoleon didn’t have one to hand. He settled on saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. As far as I know, Illya doesn’t have a sister.”
He walked off quickly, but Darbonne’s knowing laugh made him feel like he was fleeing, all the way to his office.
Illya wasn’t there. Napoleon paced for a moment, wondering what to do. He wasn’t sure whether to be glad he’d had the self-control not to punch Darbonne, or to wish he had.
Gradually, it dawned on Napoleon that he’d just gotten an illustration of why Illya had reacted as he had. It hadn’t been what he was trying to say, but in phrases like, You can’t tell me that’s right, Illya must have heard…well, something like what Darbonne had just said. He’d talked, quite casually, about the need to be on the alert for blackmailers and undercover policemen as he conducted his private affairs. Surely this kind of sneering innuendo was another familiar danger.
Well, Napoleon would make things right. But the first thing, he decided, was reporting Darbonne to Mr. Waverly seemed like an option—Illya’s secret was classified, and Darbonne had been talking about it right there in the corridor, where anyone could hear. He went to Waverly’s office, and was quickly admitted, but before he could get started, an agent on a mission in Thailand called in, reporting that his partner had been captured. He soon became absorbed in helping Waverly and Agent Suleiman plan the rescue operation, and thoughts of Illya temporarily left his mind. Even during the tense three-quarters of an hour or so as Suleiman went to put their plan into action, leaving Napoleon and Waverly with nothing to do but wait for him to report back in, it didn’t seem the time.
Finally, Suleiman reported back in, and after saying that he and his partner were both clear, added, “Can you thank Mr. Solo for me, sir? His plan worked perfectly.”
Mr. Waverly gestured to the microphone, and Napoleon leaned in to it. “I’m still here, Agent Suleiman. No thanks needed.” In fact, it wasn’t really his plan—he’d based it off what Illya had done to rescue him on a recent mission that had gone slightly wrong. Now that he thought of Illya again, he was struck by the contrast between what Darbonne had said and the reality of his efficient, beautifully deadly partner.
After giving the other agents a few more instructions, Mr. Waverly shut off the communicator. “Always nice to see a situation like that end happily,” he noted. “Ah, but you must have come to visit me for a reason, Mr. Solo?”
Napoleon opened his mouth to explain, then closed it again. What was he thinking? Focusing on something else for a while had cooled his knee-jerk anger, and he now realized that reporting Darbonne’s words to their boss was the last thing his deeply reserved partner would want. It was as much as saying Illya couldn’t handle himself. “Ah,” he said. “I was going to ask your advice on something, but the solution just came to me,” he temporized. “I’ll get out of your hair.”
Leaving Waverly’s office, he went looking for Illya. He wasn’t in their office, nor back in the commissary, but Napoleon found him in the third place he tried, the small lab where Illya had a workspace. He was alone there, fortunately, and looked up from his microscope when Napoleon entered. “What do you want?”
A little taken aback by Illya’s icy tone, Napoleon stammered, “Ah, I just wanted to…talk, about…earlier.”
“There is nothing to talk about,” Illya said, looking pointedly back into his microscope.
“Yes, there is.” Napoleon sought for the best place to start. “After you…left, I ran into Darbonne. Did you know he was back? He, ah, he said some things.”
“He says many things.”
“Yes, he does,” Napoleon said ruefully. “One of them was to accuse us of—” he gave self-deprecating chuckle, “—having a ‘lovers’ tiff.’”
It was, apparently, exactly the wrong thing to say. The temperature dropped another ten or fifteen degrees as Illya said, “How distressing for you. If it bothers you that much, I suggest you see Mr. Waverly about getting a different partner.” Before Napoleon could react to that awful suggestion, Illya went on, flat and dismissive, “If that is all, I’m very busy.”
It sounded like the way Illya responded to the Dreamy Blue Eyes Brigade. Or Darbonne. “Damn it, Illya, I’m trying to apologize!”
Finally, Illya looked up from his microscope, with a trace of something resembling a facial expression. “Really.”
“Yes.” Napoleon nodded earnestly.
“You are terrible at it,” Illya observed. “I am astonished that you have ever been on a second date. Even I know that women frequently require apologies.”
Fortunately, Napoleon knew that Illya only bothered with insulting people he liked. God help him if Illya had said, You are very kind. “What I was trying to say, was that what Darbonne said made me realize how it must have sounded. When I said what I said.”
“For both of our sakes, I will pretend that that made sense.”
“What I mean is, I suppose it sounded like I was expressing disapproval of your, ah, your personal life.”
“You were,” Illya pointed out, turning back to the microscope. “I understand that such things are repugnant to you. If you do wish to continue working together, I suggest that you avoid thinking about it. I will take greater care that such matters do not come to your attention again.”
Napoleon shook his head. Was he doing that poor a job of explaining himself, or was Illya deliberately misunderstanding him? “That’s not what I mean. I mean, yes, there was some…disapproval. But it’s of the situation, not you. It just seems…lonely, is what I was trying to say. Not the sort of thing I’d have thought you’d find satisfying.”
Now Illya turned fully away from the microscope, to look directly at him. He watched Napoleon for a long moment, his expression more than usually inscrutable. Finally he said, “I see.” Briskly, he turned back to the lab bench. “And?”
“And…I’m sorry I upset you.”
“Very well,” Illya said. “And I suppose I’m sorry I…overreacted.”
Inwardly, Napoleon sighed with relief. Contrary to what Illya had said, he’d apologized successfully to any number of women, but none of them had made him work as hard for it as Illya had. Or perhaps if they had, Napoleon simply hadn’t bothered. But it wasn’t exactly news to him that Illya meant more to Napoleon than at least 90% of the girls he went out with. Inspired by the comparison, he went on to say, “And I’m sorry you didn’t get to finish your lunch. Let me make that up to you, too—dinner, tonight?” He named a restaurant that was outside the thrifty Russian’s usual price range and added, “My treat.” It would be expensive, particularly considering Illya’s not-exactly-birdlike appetite, but it was the place he chose when he had something to apologize for—usually the offense involved standing a woman up for work-related reasons, but it ought to work for this, too.
Illya considered for a moment, then inclined his head graciously. “If you insist.”
As soon as Napoleon had left, Illya pushed the microscope aside and thumped his forehead against the cool marble of the lab bench. What had he been thinking?
It hadn’t taken him too long, after storming off from the commissary, to realize that it was a mistake. Men like him were known for being emotional, given to hysterics—womanish. His legendary reserve was partly his own nature, partly the learned habit of hiding what he felt, and partly a defense against just that accusation. If he had realized Darbonne was there….God, it probably had looked like a lovers’ tiff.
It was very kind of Napoleon to take responsibility for the incident. Illya was not entirely sure that he wanted Napoleon’s pity, any more than he wanted his disapproval, but once Napoleon had indicated that he had come to offer an apology, he ought to have accepted it and brought the issue to a close. Somehow. Instead he had…well, he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d been doing. But, given that he’d alluded to terminating their partnership twice in as many minutes—the second time after Napoleon had made clear that he had not been considering such a move—Illya had a sneaking suspicion that he’d been playing hard to get.
He thumped his head against the table again. The hell of it was, it had apparently worked. He had recognized the name of the restaurant Napoleon had invited him to—it was one where he took his women. Doubtless very nice. Romantic, even.
But Napoleon wasn’t thinking of it that way. Probably, the food was good—it would almost have to be, given the prices. And Napoleon knew that Illya appreciated a good meal. That was all. And perhaps Napoleon felt some generous, if condescending, impulse to show his unfortunately afflicted friend a nice time.
But not a date. “I should have told him I had to wash my blind grandmother’s dog,” Illya told the microscope.
The work day over, Napoleon was in the locker room by the gymnasium, freshening up his shave. A fellow Agent, Mr. Kramer, seeing what he was doing, asked knowingly, “Who’s the lucky gal?”
“No one,” he answered. “Just getting dinner with Illya.” Granted, he didn’t usually shave before doing that. But they were going to a nicer restaurant than usual. That was all. “It’s not a date.”
Kramer gave him a strange look. “I got that from ‘with Illya.’ Celebrating something?”
“Not really.” Was Kramer insinuating something? He couldn’t tell. Maybe that was why Illya was so terse with people he didn’t know, if any innocent remark could be an accusation. “Just felt like going someplace nice.” He named the restaurant. “They have a dress code.”
“I didn’t think his type went to places like that,” Kramer said.
“What type?” Napoleon asked.
It must have come out more harshly than he intended, because Kramer held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Communists?”
Oh. Right, Illya was one of those, too.
“I’ve got nothing against them,” Kramer went on, “as long as they mind their own business. I just didn’t think they went in for the high life.”
“He enjoys being—” What had he said to Polina? “Appalled by Western decadence.”
“Hm.” Kramer shrugged. “Takes all kinds, I guess. See you.”
He sloped off, and Napoleon finished his preparations—aftershave, clean shirt, fresh tie, tie-tack. He was putting as much attention into his appearance as he did for a big date. But why not? This was important. Illya was important.
Packing up his things, he made his way back to the office. Illya was there, sitting at his desk and reading a file, but he closed it and looked up when Napoleon entered. He had changed his clothes, too, Napoleon noted—maybe there in the office, since he didn’t have to shave twice a day to look presentable. He was wearing the blue shirt, the one that brought out his eyes.
For just a second, Napoleon experienced a strange sort of double vision. If this was a date, it would look just like this. Illya would look just like this. Napoleon imagined him standing up, smiling one of those rare, genuine smiles of his, and slipping his arm into Napoleon’s. Perhaps turning his face up for a kiss.
He snapped back to reality when Illya stood up, looking at him with a slight frown. “Has something come up?”
“Huh?” Napoleon said, intelligently. What a strange thing to have cross his mind. He hoped Illya hadn’t somehow figured out what he was thinking; that seemed like a good way to lose a few teeth.
“Perhaps you’ve decided to take one of the girls from the typing pool to dinner instead?” Illya asked, acidly.
“No,” Napoleon said quickly. That was even worse than if Illya had guessed what he was thinking. “No, of course not. Just, ah, thinking about something else for a moment there.” And now he couldn’t quite seem to stop thinking about it. “Ready?”
“Yes,” Illya said. Napoleon had come into their shared office looking more than usually dashing, and was now looking at Illya was the strangest expression on his face. Illya was suddenly acutely aware that the shirt he’d put on was one that Napoleon had specifically told him not to wear for their farcical double-date. Did Napoleon suspect that Illya had, well, dressed up for him?
Illya hadn’t consciously intended to. But now he began to doubt his own motives.
He locked the file he’d been reading in a drawer and put on a sportscoat to cover his shoulder holster. And his blue shirt.
They made it out of the building without incident, but when they reached Napoleon’s car, he opened the passenger-side door for Illya, and closed it behind him. Illya glanced down to make sure he didn’t have a broken arm or two that he’d forgotten about.
Napoleon’s strange behavior continued at the restaurant. As the maître d’ led them to their table, Napoleon’s hand hovered in the vicinity of the small of Illya’s back, as though he might manage to lose his way without such expert guidance. And when they reached the table, there was a moment where Illya thought he was in very real danger of having his chair pulled out for him, a fate he only forestalled by elbowing Napoleon out of the way.
Once the maître d’ had finished the business with the menus and specials, and left, Illya leaned across the table and demanded, “Have you completely lost your mind?”
Napoleon affected an innocent expression. “I beg your pardon?”
“You are treating me like one of your—women.” Illya changed his word choice from floozies at the last moment.
Napoleon held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m just being…polite.”
“You are being chivalrous,” he accused. “I know you are joking,” because of course he was, what else could it be? “But the rest of these people will not. Show some sense.”
“Sorry,” Napoleon said. “From here on out, I’ll strive to be as boorish as possible.”
Not even dignifying that with a reply, Illya snapped his menu open. He was relieved to see a list of shockingly high prices next to each item; if it had been the ladies’ menu, he’d have kicked Napoleon in the shin.
They managed to get through the process of ordering without any further outbursts from Illya. Apparently, offering suggestions in response to Illya’s question about what was good here was not “chivalrous,” nor was suggesting that they share an appetizer. What had he been talking about? Granted, there was a brief moment where, acting purely on muscle memory, Napoleon had almost helped him into his chair, but he’d caught himself in time.
Once their drinks had been brought, Napoleon cast about for a topic of conversation. Since they’d fought over Illya’s…proclivities, he thought he might work the subject around to that, to show he was comfortable with it, but it was hard to find an opening that couldn’t be misinterpreted as some kind of insult. Finally, he thought of the parcel—that was a fairly neutral way of bringing the matter up, wasn’t it? “I’m afraid I haven’t thought of any new ideas, for how to handle that package,” he said.
Illya gave him a sharp look. “What—oh, that. I suppose your original idea might be…not so bad. If there is some chance that the police might take some interest in the perpetrators of such crimes.”
“That kind of thing is…routine?” Napoleon asked. “The blackmail, I mean?”
Illya nodded. “You must understand, many of these men, they will lose their jobs, if anyone were to find out. Be ostracized by their families. Some are married. It makes them…easy targets.”
“But not all,” Napoleon managed to barely hesitate over the word, “homosexuals are so secretive about it. Living in the Village, you must have seen…there are clubs they go to.”
“I’m aware,” Illya said tersely.
“I suppose I wondered why you don’t, ah, get to know people who won’t be leaving town in the morning. I know, I’m in no position to judge,” he added hastily. “I just wouldn’t have guessed that casual flings were your cup of tea.”
Illya seemed to deflate for a second, then stiffened his spine. “Perhaps they are not. But, when one is thirsty in the desert, any cup of tea is better than none.”
“But you’re, ah, living in the middle of the oasis, aren’t you?”
“It isn’t quite that simple. For one thing, one of the complications of my life is occasional KGB surveillance. I don’t wish to draw their attention to such establishments, if they don’t already know of them. And if I were to be…involved, with anyone, he would doubtless come under surveillance as well. Disclosing such a likelihood at the beginning of a relationship is apt to have a chilling effect.”
Napoleon nodded. “And, of course, you’d have to disclose it.” Illya had disclosed that likelihood to him, at the onset of their partnership, and advised him that the best course of action was to spot such surveillance and then do precisely nothing about it. But a civilian wouldn’t take that news with as much aplomb as Napoleon had.
“Yes.” It was hard to tell, but Napoleon thought Illya was pleased, that Napoleon realized he would feel it necessary to conduct his affairs honorably. “Then there is the matter of the local police,” he added. “They regularly conduct raids on such…gathering places.”
“But if you’re not doing anything illegal….”
“The first thing they do is demand that the patrons present identification.”
“And, in my case….” Illya took out his wallet and wordlessly handed Napoleon an identification card. Not his UNCLE ID; it was something issued by the United States’ immigration service, and plainly stated that Illya was a Soviet national, residing and working in the United States under the sponsorship of the KGB. Napoleon handed it back, and as Illya tucked his wallet away, he said, “I’m not entirely certain how the average New York City flatfoot would respond to realizing that his run-of-the-mill vice raid had turned up a genuine Commie spy, but I prefer not to find out.”
“Understood,” Napoleon said, dry mouthed. If they did what they ought to do, and contacted the CIA, matters would be straightened out eventually. But with tempers running high, as they would be during a raid…well, it would take very little for the situation to spill over into violence.
“Of course, if I were actually here to spy on the United States, I would have been issued a much less suspicious set of documents—I was given this highly incriminating object for the sole purpose of reassuring your government that I had nothing to hide—but I doubt I would be given a chance to explain.”
“Probably not.” Napoleon took a hearty sip of his wine, trying to chase away the images of Illya, broken and bleeding under policemen’s batons. Or shot, if he tried to defend himself. Illya could take anyone in a fair fight, but under those conditions….
“So, on balance, it is much safer to risk the phony policemen of the Upper West Side, than the genuine ones of Greenwich Village.”
Apparently, Illya had his choice of those two hazards, if he wanted…companionship. Napoleon felt a bit ill.
His partner did not appear to be similarly affected by the subject of conversation, Napoleon was relieved to see—their appetizer arrived, and Illya attacked it with his usual gusto. Only when the clams casino were demolished did Illya come up for air.
“Well,” he said, a bit gruffly. “If you’re satisfied, now, that I’m conducting my affairs in the only way I can, shall we talk about something else? Explosives, perhaps?”
Determined as he was not to let himself mistake this for something it was not, as his tongue was loosened by food and wine, Illya found himself making what he recognized—from observation if not experience—as something like first date conversation. Napoleon told several stories about his boyhood—Illya had heard some of them before, directed into the ears of one young lady or another, but even though he knew Napoleon shared such things easily, he felt drawn to respond in kind.
Not to do so might be, he suspected, the behavior of a complete drip. If he had any sense, he would play that role even more assiduously than he had for Maggie…but Illya was forced to admit that he had little sense, where Napoleon was concerned.
Napoleon’s offerings had been light, amusing things. Illya’s own store of such tales was limited, but one of Napoleon’s, about a near-mishap with Independence Day fireworks, called one to mind. “That’s nothing,” he said. “When I was about ten, I got to ride in a tank in the parade for Revolution Day.”
Napoleon was suitably impressed. “Really? Why?”
“Well, there happened to be a tank detachment based nearby to where I grew up. They and my school had a…I’m not sure what you call it in English. We would write them letters when they were out on maneuvers, and they would come visit our school, their officers’ wives would arrange treats for us, that sort of thing.”
“I know what you mean,” Napoleon said.
“They often came to the school on holidays. I expect the older ones had children of their own that they missed, at such times. That year they brought one of their tanks with them—I think it must have been on its way to being decommissioned, and already had the armaments removed, because they let us play in it. All of the boys were taken for rides, and those of the girls who wanted to. It had been planned that we would march with them in the parade, which we were all quite excited about.”
“I can see how that would be thrilling, for small boys.”
“Anyway, they decided that a few of us could ride in the tank, for the parade, and I was one of the ones they chose. I don’t know why—perhaps just because I was small. The other two, Yuri and Oksana, were bigger kids, the leaders of our Pioneer detachment.”
“Pioneer detachment?” Napoleon asked.
“Like Boy Scouts. Only with a bit more emphasis on political education, alongside the camping and handicrafts.”
“I was never a Scout,” Napoleon said.
“Pioneers may have suited you better—it’s coeducational. But everyone’s a Pioneer,” Illya added. “Unless you’re a counter-revolutionary, or so badly behaved they kick you out.”
“Which I take it you weren’t.”
“No. I was a model Pioneer.”
“Did you make—I guess they wouldn’t call it Eagle Scout. The highest rank in the Boy Scouts,” Napoleon added, in response to Illya’s puzzled look. “For the boys who stick with it after they’re teenagers.”
“Ah. No, we didn’t have that. When you’re too old for Pioneers, if you’ve taken it seriously, there’s Komsomol—the youth branch of the Party.”
“Were you in that?”
“Yes,” Illya said. “I became, as they say here, a card-carrying Communist, at age fifteen. I still have the card, somewhere.”
“I’m not sure they say it here,” Napoleon said, with a theatrical look at their surroundings. “I was a Young Republican, in high school,” he offered. “I wonder if that’s similar.”
“It seems unlikely.” Illya wondered who would be more offended at the comparison, a Komsomolet or a Young Republican. “What do they do, your Young Republicans?”
“Talk about politics. Canvass for candidates, hold rallies. Debate the Young Democrats. But mostly they had meetings. It was a club, you know, after school.”
“I suppose we did similar sorts of things,” Illya admitted. “We didn’t debate the Young Capitalists, of course. But there were a great many meetings. And public service projects—cleaning up parks and painting the school building.”
Napoleon nodded. “We did some of that. Well. I mostly joined because of a girl.”
“I’m shocked,” Illya said dryly.
“Blanche Henderson,” Napoleon added. “She was the secretary. She was this…untouchable blonde. It was the only way to get close to her. I used to sit next to her while she took the minutes, and sharpen her pencils.”
“You would not have been allowed in Komsomol, with such impure motives,” Illya said. “Nor should you admit such things to a KGB spy. Now we know, what we must do to recruit you.” He instantly regretted the joke—what if Napoleon thought it wasn’t a joke? But now that he’d said it, the best thing was to carry on to the point that it would be obvious. “Blonde, you say? I must write this down. Have you any other specifications, for your honey trap?”
Fortunately, Napoleon played along, offering Illya a pen from his coat pocket. “She had, let’s see, blue eyes.”
“About, oh, five-seven, I suppose.”
“Tall,” Illya noted, pretending to write. “For a girl.” Height was also not precisely the measurement he’d expected, but no mind.
Napoleon made a small, noncommittal sound. “Untouchable, make sure you get that. That’s the important part. Untouchable.”
Illya glanced up sharply. Napoleon’s voice had been light at first, carrying on the joke, but on the repetition, his tone seemed laden with meaning. Illya pretended to read his list out loud. “Blonde, blue eyes, five foot seven, untouchable.” Did Napoleon realize what it sounded like he was saying? “Be careful, they might send me out, in drag, to seduce you.” That joke was even riskier than the other. But he had to know.
“I think I might be able to see through that deception,” Napoleon said. “You have a few….attributes, that Miss Henderson didn’t.”
It was odd for him to phrase it that way—almost as if it was Miss Henderson who was deficient in the attributes needed to attract Napoleon’s interest. Wasn’t it odd? Illya thought it was odd.
“Do you ever do that?” Napoleon asked.
“Dress up like a woman.”
“No!” He certainly hadn’t meant to make Napoleon think that. Though perhaps it was better, that his inquiries had gone in a direction that Illya could sincerely deny. “No, I don’t enjoy that. And fortunately, it has never come up in the line of duty.” And it had better not, in the near future, or he was going to be very suspicious.
Napoleon wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed by Illya’s vehement answer. His joking suggestion had presented an array of possibilities to Napoleon’s mind. If Illya was dressed like that—for a mission, maybe—Napoleon might be obliged to, say, hold him in his arms. Maybe even kiss him. The idea seemed subtly wrong, but it wasn’t as though he’d ever have that opportunity any other way.
Even though it was, apparently, an opportunity that any Tom, Dick, or Harry from Iowa could have for the asking.
“Hm,” Napoleon said, resting his chin on his hand. “But would you? In the line of duty?”
“Would you?” Illya demanded.
His mind abruptly reversed the fantasy he’d been spinning, dressing Illya in his familiar dark suit—well, perhaps a slightly better cut one than he normally wore—paired with…Napoleon, hirsute and humiliated in an evening gown. Ugh. “Well, ah, I…if, for some reason, the fate of innocent lives were at stake, and there was no other way. In that case, I suppose I’d have to.”
“I feel the same way.”
The two mental pictures merged—fortunately, in the more pleasant of the two possible ways. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself, dressed as he always was, with Illya in his arms, slim and elegant and masculine. Yes, that was—
A completely and horrifyingly inappropriate thing to be thinking about his partner. When had he begun thinking of kissing Illya as an opportunity to be sought?
Fortunately, Illya didn’t seem to have noticed; he had picked up the wine bottle. “This is almost finished,” he said, gesturing with the neck of the bottle towards Napoleon’s glass. “Only one glass left. Do you want to split it?”
“Ah, no,” Napoleon said. “You go ahead.” Had they polished off the whole bottle already? That explained why he was thinking such strange things. “In fact, I think I’d better order some coffee. I guess you want dessert?” He signaled the waiter.
Illya did, indeed, want dessert, and engaged the waiter in a discussion of which offerings came to the table on fire. Once he’d made his selection—and Napoleon managed to squeeze his coffee order in edgewise—Illya picked up the conversation where they had left off. Or, where Illya thought they had left off. “I don’t really understand why a—lover of men—would want to appear as a woman. I know some do, but—” He shrugged.
“Takes all kinds, I suppose,” Napoleon said, thinking of that conversation with Kramer in the locker room. Which had taken place long before Napoleon had taken a drop of wine.
“Yes,” Illya said. “Of course, I don’t think they ought to be beaten, or arrested, or—subjected to punitive psychiatry, for doing such things. I just don’t see why they want to.” Sipping his wine, Illya added, “Now, I have also heard of men who do such things, because they love women, so much so that the things that pertain to women excite them. That makes sense to me, in a way.”
Was Illya asking if he…. “I’ve never felt that impulse.”
“I gather it’s uncommon. But there seems to be a sort of logic to it. I mean, I like—” Illya stopped himself abruptly, giving the wine glass in his hand a suspicious look. “Never mind.”
“You like what? You can tell me.” Suddenly, he really wanted to know.
With a look of determination, Illya slugged down the rest of the wine. Lowering the glass, he said, “Masculine men. That’s what I like.” His voice had gone slightly husky, and his pupils were dilated.
“That’s, a, uh, good kind to like,” Napoleon stammered out, not really sure what he was saying.
“I think so,” Illya said. “You, on the other hand, like women. With their hair, and the curves, and their sweet smells. And…whatever else it is they have.”
“Uh-huh.” He did like those things. But maybe they weren’t all he liked. Maybe he liked—
But that thought was interrupted, before it could come to its dangerous conclusion, by the arrival of the waiter. “Here you are, sir,” the waiter said, setting a plate crowned in blue flames in front of Illya. “Cherries Suzette Crepes Jubilee. The chef is anxious to know what you think of it; he might add it to the regular menu.”
“I’m sure it’s delightful,” Illya said, in the same tone he used when a THRUSH agent described the torture he was planning to inflict on them. “And my friend’s coffee?”
“Oh dear. I forgot.”
“Make it strong, please.”
Napoleon watched the light from the flames play across Illya’s face, as Illya waited for his dessert to burn out. Napoleon had seen him backlit by an explosion, or his features thrown into sharp relief by muzzle flash, but this gentle, playful version of Illya’s favorite element suited him much better. Unfortunately, the return of the waiter made him miss the moment when the flames flickered out. He looked away, just for a moment, to accept his coffee, and by the time he turned back, Illya had picked up his fork and was eating.
“Do you want some of this?” Illya asked, nudging the plate fractionally in his direction.
“Um…all right.” It was unusual—not unprecedented, but unusual—for Illya to offer to share his food. But this, sharing a dessert with one plate and two forks…it was something Napoleon had only ever done on a date. With a woman. Did Illya know that? Did he know what Napoleon was thinking?
Did Napoleon want him to?
His fingers fumbled as he picked up his fork. The dessert was…tasty, he supposed. It was quite like Illya to talk the restaurant into giving him two flaming desserts in one, and the combination of cherries and oranges was surprisingly pleasant.
The tip of Illya’s tongue flicked out to capture a drop of the sauce, and Napoleon thought, Right now, I’m tasting what his mouth would taste like. If I—
He put the fork down, and chased away the taste of cherries and oranges with a swig of coffee.
When they left the restaurant, Illya grabbed the keys from the parking attendant, before Napoleon could reach for them. “I’ll drive,” he said. “You’ve had a bit too much to drink.”
“You, ah, you had more than I did,” Napoleon pointed out.
“I’m Russian,” Illya said. It seemed a safer response than pointing out the facts that made it plain that Illya was not as affected as Napoleon was. Illya had said and done one or two indiscreet things. Such as admitting his preferences—masculine men. That’s what I like. A phrase that described his partner.
Napoleon, on the other hand, was acting contrary to his basic nature. A confirmed and enthusiastic heterosexual, he was flirting with a man. Illya wasn’t sure if Napoleon realized he was doing so or not, but he’d had sufficient opportunity of observing Napoleon’s flirting to know what it looked like.
Illya took a few breaths of the fresh, cold air before getting into the driver’s seat. He’d hoped—well, not really hoped, but thought it would be better if--the same fresh air had brought Napoleon back to his senses, but clearly it had not. As Illya started the car, he was acutely aware that Napoleon was watching him with the same feverish intensity that he’d been doing in the restaurant.
“I don’t let just anyone drive my car, you know,” Napoleon pointed out.
“But you, ah, you aren’t just anyone.”
“No. I am your partner.”
“Yes,” Napoleon said. “That you are. You are that.”
Illya might not have sufficient strength of will to ignore Napoleon’s flirtations completely, but he had enough self-control to avoid responding in such a way that it would be impossible for Napoleon to tell himself, tomorrow morning, that Illya had not noticed. He drove—very carefully—to Napoleon’s building, then shut off the car and tossed the keys to Napoleon.
He caught them expertly, proving to Illya that he wasn’t quite as drunk as he was telling himself he was. “You want to come up? For a nightcap?”
Napoleon frowned. “We came in my car,” he pointed out. “You don’t have a ride home.”
“I’ll take a taxi.”
“Are you sure? Because I was thinking—”
“No,” Illya said. “You aren’t. Thinking. Go home. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” He got out of the car and went across the street, but lingered there, not really hidden, until he saw Napoleon make it safely into the building.
In his apartment, alone, Napoleon prowled restlessly, his thoughts a confused jumble. One moment, he would wonder what might have happened, if Illya had come up. If he’d done something, tried something. Would Napoleon have…gone along with it?
Would he, perhaps, have been the one to try something?
Next, he might reexamine what he had said, how Illya had reacted, seeking reassurance that Illya hadn’t noticed anything that made this night different from other times they’d shared a meal. That there hadn’t been anything to notice.
Occasionally, he’d be tormented by the certainty that Illya had noticed, but hadn’t come up because—because what? He was disgusted by Napoleon making a drunken ass of himself? Napoleon wasn’t his type, after all?
Frequently, he thought in images, not words. Sensual images. Images of Illya’s lips parted for a kiss. Illya sprawled on the rug before the fireplace, his strong, compact body bathed in golden light. Illya stepping out of the bathroom, a towel slung around his hips. Illya, Illya, Illya.
Then he’d realize what he was thinking, and try to convince himself that he was disgusted by those images, that he had no idea where they came from and that he wished they would stop.
Briefly, he even experimented with an angry suspicion that Illya must have done something, used some sort of trickery or wiles, to make Napoleon’s thoughts turn in such an unnatural direction. But that thought, he genuinely recoiled from. No, Illya had been a perfect gentleman. If he had noticed anything, he’d overlooked it, much the way Napoleon would deliberately fail to notice if a date who had announced the intention of saving herself for marriage began to wobble in her resolve after a few drinks. Whatever this was, whatever was happening to him, it wasn’t Illya’s doing.
The morning after the restless night brought clarity in two forms. First, he had only the barest traces of a hangover. Surprising, given how drunk he’d felt last night…yet also unsurprising, given that a bottle of wine split between two men, over the course of a meal, was really not an extravagant amount. He hadn’t really been all that drunk; he’d just wanted to be, to have that cushion between himself and responsibility for his actions.
Thoughts, really. There hadn’t been any actions.
Secondly, in the shower, when he took himself in hand, first thing in the morning and stone-cold sober, he thought of Illya.
Once again, Napoleon arrived at Illya’s apartment before he was dressed for work. This time, though, a quick glance at his clock proved that he wasn’t running late. Instead, Napoleon was early, by almost twenty minutes. Illya greeted him the same way he had yesterday—had it only been yesterday? Yes. “I’m not quite ready. There’s coffee.”
When Illya reemerged from his bedroom, fully dressed, Napoleon was leaning against the kitchen counter, sipping coffee. That was all right.
What he said next wasn’t. “About last night--”
“What about it?” After asking, Illya was certain he didn’t want to hear the answer—whether Napoleon wanted to continue his strange behavior from the night before, or engage in fierce denial that anything had occurred—which, in fact, it hadn’t. Before Napoleon could reply, he went on, “I forgot to say, thank you for dinner. It was very nice.”
“It was,” Napoleon said. “We should do it again sometime.”
What did he mean by that? Illya nodded, and tried to frame a way of saying yes, they should, as friends, of course, friendly colleagues, without sounding horribly awkward. Such a sentiment being impossible to express without awkwardness, in any language that Illya spoke, he failed, and Napoleon’s remark was left lying there on the mat between them for what seemed like a very long time.
Finally, after knocking back half a cup of coffee in a single, throat-burning gulp, Illya managed to say, “I suppose it’s my treat next time. There’s a hot-dog cart I think you’ll like.” Napoleon’s answering laugh was insincere, but it kept him busy while Illya poured the rest of his coffee down the sink. “I’m ready to go. Are you ready?”
Drawing upon reserves he didn’t know he had, Illya managed to keep up a stream of inane chatter throughout the drive to the East Forties. He allowed Napoleon to interject an occasional remark, but whenever Illya sensed him gathering himself to say something portentous, Illya came up with something completely inconsequential to say. By the end of the trip, he was reduced to telling KGB jokes—most of them, he’d learned from an old woman who lived in his Moscow apartment building; he’d never been entirely sure whether she realized he was KGB or not. He told Napoleon that, too.
“—one to write the report, one to read it, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals,” Illya finished, as they nodded to Del Floria and passed through the dressing room into UNCLE reception.
The receptionist handed over their badges, saying, “Mr. Waverly wants to see you two right away.”
Thank God. Illya was running out of jokes. Once Mr. Waverly began briefing them on THRUSH’s latest attempt to take over the world, Napoleon was all business, and he remained so for the duration of the mission—at least, with the exception of the time he spent flirting with the air hostesses on the way to Vienna, and with the lovely daughter of the owners of the pension where they stayed. But that was typical for Napoleon, and a relief for Illya. His partner’s pursuit of the women may have been just a touch more determined than usual, as though he felt a need to prove something to himself, but there was nothing so far from average as to be alarming. And the two of them had worked together as well as ever, without any signs of hesitancy or distance. Clearly, all Napoleon needed was a reminder of what he really liked, and now that their dinner engagement had receded into the past, everything that had not-happened could be safely forgotten.
At least, Illya thought so until they wrapped up the mission and boarded the flight home. Or, to be more precise, until they reached cruising altitude and were offered their choice of drinks by an air host.
Like many in his profession, he was quite clearly as bent as a corkscrew—if his wrists had been any limper, he wouldn’t have been able to hold a coffee pot. Illya, with long practice, refrained from giving off any subtle answer to the blatant signals “Denny” was sending out. Napoleon on the other hand….
Well, Illya wasn’t sure what he thought he was doing. He was all flirtatious smiles and knowing looks, hands “accidentally” brushing as drinks were handed over, cheerful questions about Denny’s background and work schedule. These were familiar elements of Napoleon’s usual strategy for forming a brief but intense attachment with air hostesses. However, with each piece of information gained, he attempted to draw Illya into the conversation, making extremely thin, or at times entirely fabricated, connections between Denny’s life experiences and Illya’s. These maneuvers, too, were familiar from various UNCLE girls’ attempts to encourage him to take an interest in their friends. What end Napoleon had in mind was a complete mystery.
Denny was clearly increasingly baffled by it all, as well, and began avoiding them, despite Napoleon’s frequent employment of the “call” button. When finally Napoleon’s latest summons was answered by the air hostess who was assigned to the other end of the plane, and she made several unsubtle remarks about how much all the girls on the plane loved Denny, and how unhappy they’d be if anyone gave him a hard time, Illya realized he had to do something.
Under cover of a trip to the lavatory, Illya made a detour into the plane’s galley, where Denny jumped like a startled rabbit at the sight of him. Illya allowed his control over his own reactions to slip, just a little, giving Denny a look that was knowing rather than overtly sexual, and said, “My friend is not actually an undercover policeman. Nor is he planning to hand you your teeth once we get off this plane. He was merely dropped on his head as a child.”
“Oh,” said Denny. Then he gave Illya an appraising look. “In that case…I have an overnight stopover in New York, and I don’t really know anyone in the city—”
“No,” Illya said. “Thank you.”
Napoleon watched Illya come back to their seats, steadying himself on a seat back as the plane wobbled slightly in the air. Did he look pleased with himself? It was extremely hard to tell. As Illya was buckling himself back in, Napoleon said, “Fixing up a date?”
“No,” Illya said. Definitely not pleased.
“Sorry to hear that,” Napoleon said, trying not to show the surge of relief that he felt. He’d decided that Illya’s strange behavior before they’d left on their mission must have been the result of worry that something had changed between them. Fixing him up with the steward seemed the perfect way to show that there were no hard feelings. And maybe also to prevent him from seeking company in his usual way—purely because of the danger, of course.
Only when it had looked like his plan was about to bear fruit, he felt a surge of…well, the same thing he’d felt when he saw the businessman coming out of Illya’s apartment a few mornings ago. And he was beginning to suspect that the unfamiliar emotion was jealousy. It had been a long time since he’d felt the need to for exclusivity with a woman—he enjoyed their company, certain ones more than others, but they were free agents, and so was he; that was how he liked it.
But this new…his mind shied away from the word attraction—awareness of Illya was different. It also hadn’t gone away. Napoleon had been able to put it aside and focus on the mission, and his dalliances with Marlene and Heidi had been as enjoyable as they always were, but now that those distractions were out of play, his awareness of Illya once again surged to the forefront.
So now he was relieved that Illya wasn’t going out with the steward, but also…concerned about what else he might be planning to do. “In that case,” Napoleon suggested, “we could go for drinks after we report in.”
Illya gave him a sidelong glance. “I think I’ll just go home.”
Oh. “Suit yourself,” Napoleon said.
After they made their reports, Napoleon went home. He could have fixed up a date—by the end of the flight, the stewardesses had warmed up to him considerably—but he didn’t. He didn’t think about why not.
The next morning, after checking in with Illya on the matter, he packed up the parcel containing the blackmailers’ gun and identification, and arranged to have it couriered over to police headquarters. The covering letter, he agonized over. When he’d been talking to Illya about it, just a few mornings ago, it had all seemed quite straightforward—he would explain, and they would suspect him of nothing but civic-mindedness, given that there was nothing to suspect.
Now, though, he wondered if they would find the story of having gotten the items from a girl who was friends with the fairy in question to be pathetically transparent. He still didn’t think they’d manage to trace anything back to Illya—how would they?—but they could suspect him.
But, he reminded himself, so what if they did? He wasn’t a homosexual; if he’d ever been in that hotel, it had been in the company of a lady. It wasn’t as though they could tell by looking at him that he’d been having…thoughts.
Thoughts that he was going to have to do a better job of keeping to himself, Napoleon told himself, as he finished the letter and sent the package off. And he managed to do just that, at least until their next mission….
When the door creaked open behind him, it was all Illya could do not to whimper. He’d been in this dank basement, hanging by his wrists, for at least a day, well beyond the point where the occasional diversion of a beating could really distract him from the burning pain in his arms and shoulders. He kept his head down and his breathing shallow—no telling what might happen if his captors thought him unconscious, or even dead. It was one stratagem he hadn’t tried yet.
His head jerked up at the familiar voice, and he tried to turn enough to see over his shoulder. Was Napoleon captured too? He couldn’t see. “Polya?”
“It’s just me,” he said, coming around where Illya could see him. Good. Unless this was the part where he started to hallucinate—Illya hated that part.
Napoleon pulled over a chair for Illya to stand on—taking his weight off his abused arms at last—and another so that he could go to work on the manacles, giving a quick situation report as he did so. “I’ve neutralized the guards here in the house,” Napoleon said, “and locked all the technicians in their labs or quarters. I figure we can count on at least ten minutes, before the gatehouse guards realize there’s something wrong.”
“Good,” Illya managed to say. He wasn’t exactly in fighting trim at the moment.
“Did you manage to find anything out?”
“Yes,” Illya said, but it turned into something like a yelp as his left hand was freed and he was able to lower his arm. Pain was an unfortunate side effect of the restoration of blood flow—and it did prove pretty convincingly that Napoleon was not a hallucination. Napoleon quickly got his other hand loose, and helped him sit down in the chair. Illya sat there and panted, shivering in the damp chill. Ten minutes. He was going to need every one of them, he feared.
“You don’t look so good,” Napoleon observed.
“I don’t feel so good, either.” It was a good thing Napoleon had come; he’d been out of ideas for how to escape. “Took you long enough to get here.”
“I was held up in Customs, if you can believe it.” Napoleon left his side for a moment, and returned carrying a familiar lump of fabric—Illya’s shirt and jacket.
He held the bundle out in Illya’s direction, but Illya shook his head. “My hands are not working.”
“The Customs guy pretended not to recognize my UNCLE passport. After six hours and about ten international phone calls, trying to convince him I didn’t get it out of a Crackerjack box, I found out THRUSH is in bed with the local government,” Napoleon went on, easing Illya’s shirt over his aching shoulders. Illya was glad he hadn’t chosen to wear a pullover today—he wouldn’t have been able to raise his arms enough to put it on, even if he’d had a gun to his head.
Unusual, in Europe—but here in the Balkans, some of the smaller countries would try almost anything to avoid becoming the next Soviet Socialist Republic. “Are we going to be able to get out?” he asked, as Napoleon did up his shirt buttons.
“There’s a safe house just across the border,” Napoleon said, which was not exactly an answer to the question. “Are you going to be able to walk?” he asked, unfastening all the buckles on Illya’s shoulder holster.”
Illya nodded. “I won’t be able to shoot, or climb, for a while yet. But I can walk.” He managed not to cry out as Napoleon fitted the shoulder holster around him.
“Good; I wasn’t looking forward to carrying you.” He draped Illya’s coat around his shoulders. “One way out, no shooting, no climbing. Coming right up.”
Napoleon’s way out began with a tunnel. It was low and narrow enough that they had to scramble along crouched over, in single file, and the footing was uneven. He had thought to bring flashlights, but Illya could no more hold one of those than he could his gun.
It was night time, so when they did emerge from the tunnel, the only improvement was that he could at least stand upright. In compensation for that, the complication of tree roots was added. There was no conversation; it was all Illya could do to keep moving. After the tenth, or perhaps hundredth, time that Illya stumbled, he was not able to regain his feet as quickly as he would have liked, and after a moment Napoleon dropped into a crouch next to him. “It should be safe enough to rest for a little while,” he said dubiously.
“Just give me a minute,” Illya said. “How far?”
“Another hour, if we can keep up the pace.” Napoleon sketched out a map in the dirt; it was crude, but sufficient to remind Illya of the much better one he’d seen in the mission briefing, and to allow him to understand where they were.
“Da.” He held out his hand and tried to make a fist. The slight twitch of movement reassured him that he probably hadn’t permanently lost the use of his hands—though such things did happen.
“How long did they have you?”
“How long has it been since my last check-in?”
“Ah…” Napoleon looked at his watch. “About forty-six hours.”
“About forty-five hours.” It had seemed longer.
“Were you strung up like that the whole time?”
“Yes. You don’t have any water, do you?”
It turned out that Napoleon did have a canteen with him, and a D-ration bar as well. Illya made a valiant effort at holding the canteen himself, but quickly realized that excessive stubbornness would only result in spilling the only water they had, and suffered Napoleon to hold it to his mouth for him to drink.
After pouring water down Illya’s chin once, and then knocking the canteen painfully against Illya’s teeth, Napoleon brought his other hand up to the back of Illya’s head to hold him still. The gesture was very like how one might steady a lover’s head for a kiss—or something even more intimate—and Illya found himself enjoying it in a way that was entirely inappropriate to the situation. He was too exhausted and in too much pain for actual arousal, but he knew somehow that when he thought of this later—and he would, think of it—he would be aroused.
Perhaps he should have pulled away, or said something, but he was too tired to think of what he could say, and Napoleon kept on holding him, in that way, while Illya finished the water and addressed the ration bar. It was even less appetizing than its Soviet counterpart, and Illya had gone without food too long to feel hungry anymore, but he knew he needed the calories, and managed to gnaw off a few bites.
Shaking his head to Napoleon’s offer of more food—and, incidentally, dislodging Napoleon’s hand, he said, “I’m ready. Let’s go.” Ready was a substantial overstatement, but if he stayed still for long, his muscles would stiffen up, and then he’d be done for. Better to keep going until they reached safety.
The next leg of their journey seemed to take much more than an hour. Napoleon’s reference to a border had left Illya expecting a village, perhaps a guard post of some sort, but there was nothing of the kind; when Napoleon said “Almost there,” there was nothing to distinguish this stretch of scrub forest from where they had been all night.
But Napoleon shone his flashlight ahead, and Illya caught a glimpse of some sort of structure; he barely listened as Napoleon explained that it was a park rangers’ cabin, and the park rangers had authorized its use as a staging-point for the rescue mission. It was empty of people, but well-stocked otherwise; Illya slumped into a wooden chair and watched as Napoleon lit a lantern and kindled a fire in the wood-burning stove. Looking incongruously modern on the rough wooden table was a communicator set, the bulky sort UNCLE used for overseas calls when there wasn’t an electrical grid to tap into.
Illya propped his forearms up on the table and rubbed his hands against each other; the fire in them had finally started to subside, leaving something like normal sensation in its wake, though his fingers still felt thick and clumsy. Napoleon set about activating the communicator set, and soon Mr. Waverly’s voice filled the small room.
Rousing himself out of his stupor, Illya made a brief report of what he’d managed to learn before his capture. “That should be very useful,” Mr. Waverly said when he’d finished. “But do try not to get yourself captured next time.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Illya said, his head already beginning to slump towards the table.
Mr. Waverly started talking about their travel arrangements—something about the park rangers coming to pick them up tomorrow. “Sir,” Napoleon interrupted. “Illya’s injured.”
That made him pick his head up. “No, I’m not. I’m all right, Polya.”
“Does he sound all right?” Napoleon asked the communicator.
“It isn’t a health spa, where I’ve been these two days. Once I’ve rested, I’ll be fine.”
Napoleon argued with Mr. Waverly for a few minutes, suggesting that he ought to send a helicopter—of all things—to pick them up. Illya paid little attention, knowing there was little danger of Mr. Waverly incurring such an expense when neither of them was actually bleeding to death.
He let himself drift, as Napoleon switched off the communicator and began rummaging around in a shelf of canned goods near the stove. “What do you want to eat? Looks like we’ve got soup…beans…soup….”
“Anything,” Illya answered. He wanted sleep, more than anything else, but he knew he’d feel worse in the morning if he didn’t manage to stay awake long enough to eat. “Do you see anything like an aspirin, over there?”
“I have one of those morphine pens,” Napoleon offered.
“No.” If Napoleon said they were safe here, they were safe, but he still didn’t want to be completely insensible on a mission.
“Hang on, this might be a first-aid kit.” Napoleon brushed a thick layer of dust off of a metal box. He found a tin of aspirin inside and dropped two tablets into Illya’s outstretched palm. Illya managed to convey them to his mouth without dropping them, which seemed quite an achievement under the circumstances, and swallowed them dry. “Should put some of this on your wrists, too,” Napoleon added, fishing out a half-empty tube of antiseptic ointment.
The rope burns weren’t that bad, but Illya decided that to submit to the treatment would take less effort than convincing Napoleon that it was unnecessary. “While the soup’s heating up,” he agreed.
He fell into a stupor again as Napoleon located a saucepan and decanted some soup into it. He barely twitched when Napoleon drew up another chair in front of him and began rolling back Illya’s sleeve to apply the thick, greasy ointment. It stung, going on, but between the throbbing in his shoulders and the burn of returning circulation in his hands, he hardly noticed.
He lifted his head. “What?”
“I said, do you want these wrapped?”
He looked down at his wrists. “Okay. If there’s gauze.”
Apparently there was; Napoleon used about a mile and a half on each wrist. When the soup was hot, Illya managed to wedge a spoon between two of his numb fingers, so he was able to escape the indignity of having Napoleon feed him.
When he’d first gone into that basement room, Napoleon had thought Illya was dead, he had been so still. He’s gone, Napoleon had thought. And I never got to—
Before he could finish the thought—before he could admit to himself what he’d never gotten to do—Illya had stirred. Though obviously exhausted and in pain, he’d kept to his feet throughout the torturous nocturnal scramble through the Alpine foothills, allowing himself to stop only now that they were safe.
It was that, Illya’s innate toughness, that made Napoleon…well, that made something clench in his chest, when he looked at his partner. A lump in his chest that he could hardly breathe around.
Now, Illya drooped, pushing the half-empty soup bowl out of the way to rest his head on his folded arms—the spoon still awkwardly clutched in one hand.
“You ought to be in Medical,” Napoleon said. Illya had been beaten badly, and his hands still weren’t back to normal.
Illya turned his head to one side, so he could see Napoleon out of one eye. “There isn’t much else they’d be doing. I’m just tired. And sore.”
He ought to be in bed. Maybe he was too tired to walk there—even though it was only a few feet. Napoleon could carry him, if he thought Illya would stand for it. But sore…that he could do something with. “Tell me if this helps,” he said, going around behind Illya and resting his hands on his shoulders.
Illya didn’t respond in words, but his stiff muscles started to loosen, as Napoleon rubbed his shoulders.
Untouchable, Napoleon had called him—well, he’d been talking about Blanche Henderson, but he’d been thinking about Illya. But he let Napoleon touch him. A rare privilege.
“Good?” he asked, as Illya groaned and stretched his arms out across the table.
“Yes. Can you--” He gestured vaguely at his shoulder holster.
Napoleon had to undo most of the buckles again, and Illya had to sit up for him to get the harness off, but he made no objection to Napoleon resuming the shoulder-rub. Encouraged, Napoleon let his hands slip over Illya’s shoulders and brush his chest, just a little. Illya made no objection, and in fact made a somewhat encouraging noise. He did, after a few moments of that, lean forward onto the table again.
The encouraging noises continued, intermittently, and Illya grew steadily more relaxed and pliant under his touch. Illya bent his head to the table, exposing the pale nape of his neck. Napoleon dared to stroke it with his thumb, eliciting the most encouraging noise of all.
That, naturally, was when Napoleon had to push Solo’s Luck a little bit too far.
Illya knew he ought to stop Napoleon—a bit of massage on a sore muscle was not too out of the ordinary, between partners, but they had left that behind some time ago. Only it felt good, and he was so tired, and it was brutally unfair of anyone to expect him to be the guardian of Napoleon’s virtue when he’d just spent 45 hours hanging from the ceiling in a basement.
And it felt good. Had he mentioned that it felt good? It did. Napoleon’s hands were warm and strong, and he had quite a bit of practice at touching people so that it would feel good. After a spell of THRUSH captivity, the last thing he usually wanted was to have strangers touching him—and since only strangers did touch him, that meant having no one touch him at all. But this was Napoleon, so it was all right. Tomorrow, he could pretend that he’d fallen asleep or something, and didn’t remember this happening.
Napoleon stroked the nape of his neck, something Illya secretly loved but hadn’t let anyone do for years. He made a sound—something between a whimper and a groan—which Napoleon apparently took as encouragement to keep doing it. Illya knew he ought to stop him, but didn’t. Not until he felt Napoleon’s lips on the back of his neck.
He sat up so quickly that the back of his head knocked against Napoleon’s face. The abrupt motion sent his shoulders into spasms, undoing all the good of the massage. “Really, Napoleon?” he demanded. “You think this is a good time for your…nonsense?”
Napoleon, once Illya had gotten to his feet and could see him, was looking…lost. Not rueful, the way he did when a girl he’d thought was a sure thing slapped him in the face.
“I’m going to bed,” Illya said, which is what he should have said to begin with. He managed to stop himself from adding alone. There was still a shred of plausible deniability left in this situation.
“I didn’t mean—” Napoleon said, and floundered. “I mean, obviously, it’s not a good time, when you’re hurt.”
Fine, if he was determined to burn through that shred of plausibly deniability, Illya was through trying to protect him. “A good time for what, Napoleon?”
“Ah,” Napoleon said. “Look, you’re right, you need your rest.”
“That’s what I thought.” If he wasn’t prepared to talk about it, he certainly wasn’t prepared to do anything about it, either.
The next morning, Illya remained stiff and distant as they ate breakfast and gathered their few belongings to depart. He even managed to get his jacket and shoulder holster back on by himself, though Napoleon could see that cost him dearly in pain to do so. He didn’t bring up what had happened last night, and Napoleon didn’t, either.
On the way out, Illya made conversation with the park rangers, as if to underscore that it was Napoleon he was shutting out, not the world in general.
Mr. Waverly had agreed to a stopover in Paris, where Illya could be checked out by Medical before the transatlantic flight. When it came time to buy the train tickets, Napoleon learned that this was news to Illya, and unwelcome news at that. Protesting that he was fine, and accusing Napoleon of coddling him, made up most of his conversation on the way to Paris; the remainder consisted of a request that Napoleon stop talking.
The medical checkup, at least, was reassuring. Illya unbent enough not to argue when Napoleon indicated his intention to remain with Illya during it, as was their custom when one of them was hurt but not the other, and the doctor pronounced Illya in no worse shape than could be expected. He assured them that the remaining stiffness and tingling in Illya’s hands would go away when the swelling in his shoulders and wrists went down, urged him to avoid straining the injured joints any further, and sent them away with a small assortment of pain relievers and anti-inflammatories.
A brief stop at the travel desk produced two tickets on tomorrow morning’s flight back to New York, along with accommodations for the night. The girl at the desk asked after their plans for the evening, offering to show them some of her favorite nightspots, but Napoleon answered, “Maybe another time. Illya needs his rest.”
“You should go,” Illya told him.
“No, I’ll stay in and look after you.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said to Napoleon, and to the girl, “He’ll be delighted to spend the evening with you.”
“No, really,” Napoleon said. “I feel like a quiet evening in. Thank you just the same, Monique.” He bustled Illya out the door, and, as they boarded a taxi to their hotel, asked, “What was that about?”
“Not here,” Illya said. And that was all he said until they were in their room and Illya had swept it for bugs. Once that chore was finished, he sat on one of the beds, sighing heavily as he did so. “Napoleon.”
“That’s me,” Napoleon agreed.
“I was hoping you would get over this on your own. Talking about it will only make things awkward for us.”
“Get over what?”
Illya stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “You kissed me,” he said accusingly.
“It wasn’t much of a kiss,” Napoleon pointed out. “Definitely not my best work. And I know the timing was bad. I just—I thought I’d lost you, for a minute there, and I didn’t want to waste any more time.”
“It’s difficult to believe that I need to remind you of this, Napoleon, but you are heterosexual. Enthusiastically so. You do not want to kiss me at any time.”
Now it was Napoleon’s turn to shake his head. “I do. I did.” Was that what Illya’s problem was? He thought Napoleon didn’t want this? “I know you were pretty out of it, but nobody had a gun to my head.”
“No,” Illya said, his tone more agreeable. “But, as you said, you thought you’d lost me. Your emotions were running high.”
“I wanted to before then. Since—since that night at the restaurant.” At least since then. “I was just—I don’t know. Scared, or something.”
Illya rubbed at his temples. “Tell me—have you ever been attracted to a man before?”
“No,” Napoleon said. Just Illya. “Just you.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that I’m so thoroughly irresistible as to overcome decades of, I emphasize again, enthusiastic heterosexuality?”
“Yes.” He could Illya doubt that? Napoleon sat down on the other bed, which was so close their knees were brushing, and took Illya’s hand in his. “You’re smart…funny…gorgeous…and you’re the most important person in my life—my partner.”
“All the more reason not to risk it for an ill-advised whim,” Illya said, but he didn’t pull his hand away.
“It isn’t a whim. Look, if you don’t find me attractive--”
“It isn’t that,” Illya said, and looked as if he hadn’t meant to.
“Well, if you didn’t, that would be one thing. But if you think I’m not attracted to you—that isn’t your call to make.” He looked down at their joined hands. “I think we could be good together. I mean, we already are good together. But we could also be good together as….” He trailed off, unsure of the correct word.
“Lovers?” Illya raised a supercilious eyebrow. “If you can’t say it, you can’t seriously expect me to believe that you want it.”
“Lovers, then,” Napoleon said.
Illya looked at him for a moment, then untangled his hand from Napoleon’s. “I’ll think about it.”
After months of not allowing himself to think of Napoleon in that way at all, now thinking about it was nearly all Illya could do. He thought he managed to behave normally for the rest of the evening and then for the flight home, but THRUSH could likely have staged a musical revue in the airport without his noticing.
He thought about Napoleon’s hands, his voice, his mouth. He remembered the delicious feeling of those hands on his shoulders the night before—and, during a particularly long shower, imagined how they might feel in more interesting places. He thought about how it would be, to have sex with someone he knew and liked and trusted. That would be nice, he thought. There were a number of things he’d like to try, that he didn’t feel comfortable doing with strangers.
And it needn’t be just sex, either. They could do other things, like they did now, and have sex after. Or before. He wasn’t fussy. He indulged in a brief fantasy of curling up on Napoleon’s decadent sofa, with his head in Napoleon’s lap, reading. Perhaps it would be raining outside, and there could be a fire in the fireplace. They would talk about getting dressed and going out, but somehow, never quite get around to it.
Of course, Napoleon did like going out, so they would have to do that sometimes. He thought about the sorts of places Napoleon took his women—supper clubs, shows. He was dragged along to such places on missions, often enough, and he supposed it would be quite bearable, if only Napoleon wasn’t flirting with everything in a skirt.
Except—that thought brought him crashing back to earth. Napoleon would flirt with everything in a skirt. That was simply his nature. Illya didn’t particularly enjoy it now, when he had no right whatsoever to object; how much worse would it be after they had been together?
More than that, he realized, once his daydreams had left behind the blatantly erotic, he had been envisioning something of an ongoing liaison. Was that even what Napoleon was suggesting? There was no reason whatsoever to suppose that it was—Napoleon had shown no inclination toward long-term relationships before, any more than he had shown any more inclination toward men. How could Illya hope to keep his interest for long?
In a best-case scenario, they might have a brief dalliance and then return to how things were between them now—with the difference that Illya would now know what he was missing. In a worst-case scenario, Napoleon would be revolted by the experiment and despise him.
How could such a risk be worth taking? Several times, Illya was on the point of telling Napoleon just that, but whenever he looked at him, the whole train of thought started over again, the erotic images at the beginning growing more and more detailed.
Napoleon was solicitous throughout the day, helping Illya with his bag and making sure he was as comfortable as he could be on the plane. When they arrived in New York, he even volunteered to write up the preliminary report, since Illya was not quite up to typing it as he usually did. He refrained from bringing up the subject of their attraction, though, until they had finished up at HQ and were getting in his car to go home. “Still thinking about it?” he asked as they pulled out of the parking garage.
“I’ve thought of little else,” Illya admitted, perhaps unwisely, as Napoleon took it for encouragement.
“My place?” he asked, hesitating as they neared the place where he would need to change lanes for Illya’s apartment. “I think I have a bottle of wine on hand, and we can order something to eat.”
It was tempting. “No. Mine, I think. We should talk.”
“Ah,” Napoleon said, but changed lanes without complaint.
Illya’s small apartment in a brick walkup was a far cry from Napoleon’s luxurious penthouse, and as unlikely a site for seduction as he could imagine—though if anyone could manage it, it was probably Napoleon. Illya put coffee on, and got out bread, cheese, and pickles—fortunately also not a particularly seductive meal, but also nearly the only food he happened to have in the apartment. Napoleon accepted coffee, and toyed with a slice of bread, but the refreshments did not serve to distract him for long. “So,” he said, sipping at the coffee and regarding Illya steadily.
“So,” Illya agreed. “I’m very flattered, of course, by your interest.”
“But,” Napoleon said.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be as difficult as he had feared. “But I think it’s best if we put this behind us and continue on as we have been. As you said, our partnership is very important—to me, as well, and of course to UNCLE, and there is the matter of the implications for world peace. We shouldn’t jeopardize that for some sort of—fling.” There. That was both concise and unequivocal.
Napoleon set down his coffee cup and shook his head, in the manner of a dog that has just gotten wetter than it preferred to be. “Did you say ‘implications for world peace’?”
“You don’t think our partnership has implications for world peace? You do realize that UNCLE is nearly the only sphere in which the USA and the USSR cooperate.”
“I hadn’t really thought of it that way,” Napoleon admitted.
How very American of him. “We are the only American and Soviet who work together as regular partners—the American in Moscow HQ works with an agent from the African section. Whether you like it or not, our being able to trust each other has significance beyond whatever personal feelings we may have. That affair in Berlin, for instance.” That had been their second mission together, before they had partnered up permanently. It needed one agent from each side of the Iron Curtain; anything else, one of the two governments would have interpreted as an attempted power-grab by the other. That the two agents like each other may not have been a strict requirement, but it had certainly made things easier.
“No, I don’t dispute that,” Napoleon said. “But I’m confused about why you think taking our friendship to another level would jeopardize our partnership. Not to mention world peace.”
“Because I don’t think I could return to the way things are, after…that. I’d get too attached.”
“Getting attached is kind of the point. You said you didn’t want to jeopardize our partnership for a fling. I agree—but what if it wasn’t a fling?”
“How could it be anything else?”
Napoleon said, “Very easily,” but Illya kept talking over him.
“Neither of us is much of one for long-term commitments—in my case, that’s largely a matter of circumstance; if I could—but I can’t. You, if you wished to settle down, would have by now. Instead, you flit, from one woman to another. Maybe, if this goes well, you will flit to the occasional man, perhaps even flit back to me from time to time, but--” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t like it.”
Napoleon opened his mouth, closed it again, raised his eyebrows, and pursed his lips, before finally saying, “I was married.”
“When I was with the CIA. Her name was Joanna; we had a little house in the suburbs outside DC, we were talking about children. She was killed by a car bomb that was meant for me.” He attempted something that was probably supposed to be a smile, but looked more like a grimace of pain.
Illya blinked, and probably went through a similar series of facial expressions to the one Napoleon had just displayed. “You never mentioned….”
“I don’t like to talk about it. It was….” He shook his head.
Illya nodded. There were things he didn’t like to talk about, too.
“Anyway,” Napoleon said, trying to steer the conversation back on track. He hadn’t brought up Joanna because he wanted Illya to pity him. “It isn’t that I’m not the settling down type. Circumstance, like you said. At first, I didn’t even want to think about anything serious…later, I realized that spending much time with the same woman was as good as painting a target on her back.”
“Unless you give up the job,” Illya pointed out.
“Can’t do that.” He shouldn’t have to explain that to Illya.
“Of course not.” Illya fidgeted with his coffee cup. “You do realize that what you’re proposing is not exactly a way out of that particular problem. I already have a target painted on my back. Several, in fact.”
“Yes, but you know it’s there.” That, of course, that was the reason Illya’s strength and toughness left him so overwhelmed with love that he could hardly breathe. “And—I won’t have been the one that put it there.”
“So you’re saying that you’re attracted to me because when I am inevitably killed, it won’t be your fault?” Napoleon was about to protest that he hadn’t quite meant that, either, but Illya went on, fondly, “I’ll make a Russian of you yet.”
And with that—possibly the least promising seduction line in all Napoleon’s vast experience—everything changed. Before that, Illya’s posture had been as closed-off as if he were resisting an interrogation; miles away across the scratched Formica tabletop. Now, he seemed close enough to touch—and, just possibly, willing to be. “Oh, is that what you’re trying to do?” Napoleon asked, lightly.
“Of course. Blond, blue eyes, five-foot seven, untouchable. Those were the specifications. Of course, now that I’ve let you touch me, perhaps I’ve ruined everything.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. The thing about untouchable is how special it is to be the one who gets to touch.”
“Oh, is that the thing,” Illya said, with that small, secret smile of his.
It sounded like an invitation, but Napoleon hesitated. If he read Illya wrong, at this critical juncture—well, as Illya had pointed out, world peace was at stake.
Illya rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Well? Do you want to kiss me or don’t you?”
Being kissed by Napoleon was…well, it gave Illya a new appreciation for why so many people seemed to find this activity so compelling. His lips were warm and soft, and not disgustingly wet, and the hand that came up behind Illya’s head to steady him was broad and sure, enough so that Illya didn’t even mind that his back was to the door.
Napoleon pulled away after a few minutes, letting his hand fall to Illya’s shoulder. Illya let him, wondering, was that going to be it? The utter failure of the experiment with Polina had been evident at the kissing stage, though they had persevered. “Well?” he asked Napoleon.
“So far, so good,” Napoleon answered. “Full steam ahead?”
“If you like.”
Some time later, Napoleon woke from a doze, sprawled on his back on Illya’s narrow bed. He had it all to himself, but he didn’t have to look far to find his missing partner—Illya was standing by the window, dressed in a bathrobe and looking out over the city streets.
Wrapping the bedsheet around himself like a toga, Napoleon got up and went up to him from behind. “Hi there.”
Illya met his eyes in the reflection on the windowpane. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Let me guess,” Napoleon said. “You’re thinking about all the ways this might go horribly wrong.”
“Am I that transparent?”
“Maybe I just know you that well.” Illya’s ability to always anticipate the worst had served them well in the field many times, but, in Napoleon’s opinion, the skill did not transfer well to the romantic arena.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Illya said, pushing off the windowframe and going to sit on the bed. “The last time I tried something like this, my friend left the country and we didn’t speak for ten years.”
“I thought he went back to Iowa,” Napoleon said, playing dumb.
“You know what I mean. The last time I tried this with someone who mattered.”
“Well, I’m glad to know I matter.” Napoleon flicked his hand toward the bed, the gesture encompassing the various activities that had taken place on it recently. “What did you think?”
“Well, naturally, I liked it,” Illya said, in a tone of what Napoleon sincerely hoped was mock irritation.
“Naturally,” Napoleon purred.
“The more important question is what you thought of it,” Illya answered, dead serious.
Not mock irritation, then. “I liked it too. So, you see, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Illya sighed, the way he did when Napoleon was being too American for him to endure in silence.
“I’ll just have to convince you it’s true,” Napoleon said, and joined Illya on the bed.
He spent the next few days of post-mission leave attempting to do just that. It turned out that there were quite a few things two men could do in bed together, beyond the obvious, and while it was a change for Napoleon to be the one being shown new things, rather than doing the showing, it wasn’t an unwelcome one. And the techniques involved were mostly reasonable variations on things he had done before.
They couldn’t spend the entire time in bed, of course. For one thing, they had to venture out for food. Napoleon accompanied Illya to the grocery store, and, when he saw Illya frowning over the selection of onions, was seized by a desire to kiss the frown away. He very nearly did so, before realizing that, with this particular amour, public displays of affection would not garner the amused tolerance of onlookers.
But he made up for that lack when they had returned to the apartment, frequently distracting Illya with kisses as he attempted to turn the onions—and several other ingredients—into a French-inspired stew.
A few times, he thought of suggesting that they transfer their base of operations to Napoleon’s place—which, unlike Illya’s apartment, boasted such amenities as a bed large enough for two grown men and a reliable supply of hot water. But those deficiencies didn’t seem to matter very much, and, between one thing and another, Napoleon never got around to it.
But on the last day of their leave, toward evening, Illya propped himself up on his elbow—giving Napoleon a few more inches of elbow room on his monastically tiny bed—and observed, “We have work tomorrow.”
“We do,” Napoleon said.
Illya continued, “You’ll probably want to sleep at home. For one thing, you don’t have a change of clothes here.”
“You have a point,” Napoleon agreed, reaching up to kiss him. “Might make a nice change.”
Abruptly, Illya rolled over and got to his feet. “Right, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Napoleon blinked. “I was…kind of thinking you might come with me.” He slid over into the space Illya had just vacated, and sat up. “I mean, unless you’re tired of my face already.”
“Who could be tired of such a face?” Illya turned to reach for some clothes—but not ones that even he could be thinking of wearing to work.
One thing Napoleon had learned over the past few days was that when Illya went to the trouble of putting on clothes, he was planning to continue wearing them for some time, so he sighed and reached for his own pants. Putting them on gave him some time to think about his next move, at least. “Well, I won’t twist your arm,” he said, “but I’d like it if you came with me.”
Illya did not immediately refuse, so Napoleon figured he was willing to be talked into it.
“I’ve got some nice Scotch,” Napoleon went on, “and a couple of steaks in the freezer.”
Illya, now buttoning up a shirt, looked slightly interested.
“And you know I’ve got that big bathtub.” Illya had used it once, when he had an injury that needed soaking, and Napoleon had detected a definite gleam of materialistic envy in his eye at the sight of it. “And I happen to know it fits two people pretty well.”
“I thought you weren’t going to twist my arm,” Illya complained. “All right, if you’re sure you want me to.”
“I’m sure,” Napoleon said.
The last few days had been…pleasant, Illya had to admit. Every bit as pleasant as he’d imagined. But it also didn’t seem quite real. It was as though he and Napoleon had spent the last few days in a bubble, and he—irrationally, perhaps—feared that contact with the real world would burst it.
Or perhaps not so irrationally, he thought, as the elevator of Napoleon’s building paused halfway between the parking garage and the penthouse, to admit a dark-haired girl. The appreciative look Napoleon gave her was probably a spinal reflex—but the world outside of Illya’s apartment was full of attractive girls; how long would it take for Napoleon to remember what he really liked?
“Oh, horsepucky,” the girl said as the elevator began to rise. “It’s going up?”
“I’m afraid so,” Napoleon answered. “You’ll have to take the scenic route.”
“Those silly buttons; I always push the wrong one.”
“They can be tricky,” Napoleon murmured sympathetically. “Be seeing you,” he added, as the doors opened on the penthouse floor.
For a moment, it looked like the girl was considering getting out with them, but Illya managed to locate the button which closed the doors, and she vanished from sight. “What an intelligent young lady.”
“She lives with a terrifying aunt or grandmother or something,” Napoleon explained as he unlocked the door. “I think riding the elevator with strange men is the most fun she has. Here we are.”
They went in. Illya had never admitted it, but Napoleon’s impossibly decadent apartment actually reminded him a bit of home. Furnished mostly in antiques that had belonged to the aunt that Napoleon inherited it from, it looked like Illya imagined his first apartment in Moscow probably had, before the Revolution. This much space for one person was practically a crime—and that piano in the corner, when Napoleon didn’t even play; surely there was a school or community center that could use it—but he couldn’t deny that it was restful to the eye.
Napoleon took Illya’s bag to the bedroom—his bedroom—and, when he returned, stopped by the sideboard to pour them each a drink. “Feeling up for some Western decadence? I could light a fire.”
“I’ll do it,” Illya said. Watching Napoleon try to light a wood fire was an exercise in frustration; he always used at least six matches. “If you get the steaks out.”
“Fair enough,” Napoleon agreed.
The firewood was stacked in a metal basket by the fireplace. Illya wondered where it came from—did the building supply it? Or did each tenant have his own wood pile stacked somewhere out of sight? Whatever the arrangements, having a wood fire in the city was ludicrously impractical, particularly when you had perfectly good central heating.
He had the fire lit—with only one match, thank you very much—and was stretched out on the hearthrug when Napoleon came back. He sat down behind Illya, pulling him close to his chest, and reported, “Steaks are thawing, and I put some potatoes in the oven. Give it about half an hour before I put the steaks on.” He nuzzled Illya’s cheek. “What are you thinking about?”
“Conspicuous consumption,” Illya answered. “You know, I lived in an apartment like this in Moscow.”
“Did you?” Napoleon sounded like he was waiting for the punch line.
Illya supplied it. “With four families and three other single people—it was a communal apartment.”
“The communal apartments were hugely unpopular—they’re supposed to be phasing them out, now—but I didn’t mind it that much. Of course, everyone knew I was KGB, so that helped. Anyone else, they’d have been trying to drive me out so they could move into my living space—I had my own room; the other single man in the place had to sleep in the hall—but for me it was ‘Could you possibly help us finish this spare cake, Comrade Kuryakin?’”
“I can see how that would be an attraction.”
“Of course, they were all constantly informing on each other to me, so that was irritating. Petty stuff, you know—Fyodor Petrovich stole the light bulb out of the lavatory, Maria Ivanova took sugar from someone else’s dish.”
“What did you do?”
“I suggested we start buying household staples like sugar and light bulbs communally. They all decided to pretend I was joking.”
Napoleon laughed, warmly. “Probably for the best. Imagine the things they would have complained about then.” He hesitated. “You know—this is an awfully big place for one person.”
“Are you thinking of moving?” Illya rather hoped not—the place suited Napoleon, and even if he did move out, it wouldn’t actually help anyone who was poorly housed. Some other rich person would just move in.
“No, actually, I was thinking maybe you could move in.”
Illya froze in Napoleon’s arms. “People would talk.”
“We could tell them you missed your communal apartment, and you’re trying to reform my decadent capitalistic ways.”
They certainly could say that, and Illya could make it plausible. But that wasn’t his real objection, and he suspected Napoleon knew it.
“Look, Illya.” Napoleon shifted his position so that they were, in fact, looking at each other. “I know you don’t trust that this is real, what we have between us.”
Illya didn’t deny it.
“And I don’t blame you. I know what my reputation’s like. But it is real—you’ll see.”
It wasn’t Napoleon’s reputation, exactly. If Napoleon had announced that he’d fallen in love with one of his women and was settling down, Illya would have believed it. It was just that it was—well, him.
Thinking it through like that made him realize that perhaps he wasn’t giving his friend enough credit. “It may take some time.”
“That’s okay,” Napoleon said. “We have the rest of our lives.”
The next morning, they went in to work as if nothing had changed. Napoleon had decided not to press Illya further on the issue of moving in—it was early days, after all.
But there was one thing that couldn’t wait. As their morning briefing with Mr. Waverly wrapped up, he said, “Sir, there is something I need to report.”
Illya started frantically kicking him in the shin. Napoleon ignored him. “Mr. Kuryakin and I have formed a…personal relationship.”
Mr. Waverly puffed at his pipe. Illya stopped kicking him.
Napoleon went on, “And of course there’s the possibility of a compromising situation, if you didn’t know. So…now you know.”
It seemed like a very long time before Mr. Waverly said, “I see. Is that all, Mr. Solo?”
“Very well, then.” He turned back to his switchboard, dismissing them. But before they left, he added, “Congratulations, I suppose. Or best wishes, whichever it is.”
“There you are!” Polina said, pushing aside a large potted plant and perching on the arm of the chair Illya was sitting in. He and Napoleon had found themselves in England after a mission, with time on their hands, and Polina had invited them up to her house in Leeds. The only difficulty was that she was having a party—at least, Illya thought it was a difficulty. Napoleon seemed to be having a nice time. Illya had had a hard time keeping track of either him or Polina in the crowd, and had retreated behind the plant for a little peace and quiet.
“Here I am,” he agreed.
“So—you and Napoleon?” she asked meaningfully.
“Yes, me and Napoleon.” Illya had tipped his hand about the new relationship when they arrived at the house, but they hadn’t had time to talk; Polina had been busy welcoming the other guests.
“How long has that been going on?”
“A few months.”
“Is it serious?”
Illya shrugged and sipped at his drink. “Maybe. He says so.” He glanced up at her. “He was straight, before this, you know.”
“Not everyone understands themselves as early as we did,” she pointed out. “Cecily dated men for years.” She indicated her girlfriend, who was dancing with Napoleon.
“That doesn’t bother you?” he asked. “He’s been flirting with her all night.”
“He only started after he knew she was taken,” Polina said, unruffled. “And she most definitely is, taken. He’s just playing. I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
“He looks at a lot of things.”
“Not the way he looks at you.” She prodded him in the shoulder, making his drink slosh in the glass. “You worry too much.”
“It’s very easy for things to go wrong.” She had to know that as well as he did; she’d been in Leningrad, of all places, during the war, as a girl.
“Exactly,” she answered. “Right now, you have a man who loves you. You should enjoy that. Tomorrow you could both be hit by a bus, and won’t you feel stupid then, having wasted all your happiness now?”
She had a point—though a THRUSH bullet was much more likely than a bus. They had the rest of their lives, Napoleon had said. And maybe they did, or maybe the rest of their lives wouldn’t be very long. But they did have right now. “All right, then,” Illya said, knocking back the rest of his drink. “Let’s go cut in.”
Arm-in-arm, they did.