‘Now, then, with a bit of luck – ’
The Thrush man twiddled at the buttons on his crazy machine, and Illya looked at Napoleon with eyebrows arched. The villain of the piece looked like a caricature himself, with bushy eyebrows and wild hair and a beard so tangled it hid half his face. The supposed time machine looked like a schoolboy’s experiment, wires tangled everywhere, Van der Graaf generators sending up eerie arcs of electricity, strange jars of coloured liquids taking current. The most likely result one would expect to get from it would be a nasty electric shock, and since both Napoleon and Illya were standing with their hands cuffed to the machine and electrodes taped to their temples, the most likely victim would be themselves.
‘Napoleon, it’s complete idiocy,’ Illya said witheringly, not bothering to keep his voice low. ‘I tell you – I studied quantum mechanics for almost seven years. In fact, there was a chap in Christ’s who used to dabble in this kind of thing, and I swear he was completely insane. Genius, but insane. We just don’t have the technology or the understanding to – ’
But he had piqued the Thrush scientist’s interest with his words. The man was staring at him, and now he came over to Illya and poked a bony finger at his chest.
‘You say you studied quantum mechanics, huh? Chap in Christ’s, huh? Where’d you study, boy? Go on, you don’t look old enough to have graduated high school.’
Napoleon gave the man an arch look. He didn’t often make anything of how over-educated Illya was, but there were times and places. ‘Dr Kuryakin,’ he said pointedly, ‘got his doctorate in quantum mechanics from Trinity College, Cambridge.’
‘Dr Kury-’ The man stared at Illya a little closer. ‘Dr Kuryakin?’ His mouth gaped. ‘Old Inky Kuryakin, the KGB mole?’
At Napoleon’s astonished look Illya said dismissively, ‘I was never KGB, Napoleon, but that didn’t stop some nasty rumours.’ But then he turned back to the Thrush man, peering at what face he could see through the beard as he fiddled with the dials and input pads on his machine. ‘Brandt,’ he said, his eyes widening. ‘Borscht Brandt! Oh, I didn’t nickname him,’ he tossed his head at Napoleon’s look. ‘You think I’d call him that? He was German, not Russian, but Kraut didn’t alliterate. Napoleon, this is the chap I just mentioned. Crazy old Ernst Brandt.’
‘Crazy, huh? You call me crazy, will you, you jumped up, supercilious, snotty little Slav? You know where the word slave comes from, don’t you, huh? Well!’
And Brandt plunged the handle on his machine.
‘You had to call him crazy...’ Napoleon groaned.
‘You had to – ’ But apparently Illya couldn’t think of anything Napoleon had actually done wrong, because he subsided into silence.
It took a while for Napoleon to orient himself, because he was sprawled face down on the ground, his nose pressed into what felt like gravel, and his head felt as if it were splitting apart. He could smell – huh – He thought he could smell river water. There was warmth pooled across his back as if he were lying in sunshine. He experimented with blinking, and his eyes were assailed with the greenish light of sun filtered through leaves.
‘Illya!’ he said, jerking to his knees. He was kneeling by the side of a slow-moving river, on a gravel path. There were trees on either side of the water. Birds sang, and he could hear people talking some way off.
Illya followed him, swaying, rubbing a hand over a nasty burn on his temple. Napoleon raised a hand to his own head to feel a stinging that must be from the same cause.
‘Oh, brother, I think the mad old man was right,’ Illya groaned.
Napoleon just stared at him.
‘Napoleon, we are in Cambridge,’ Illya explained. ‘I know this place – intimately. And – ’ He glanced at a group of teddy boys who were idly throwing stones into the water twenty yards away along the river they had apparently landed next to. ‘And this looks awfully like the late fifties to me.’
Napoleon met Illya’s shocked blue gaze with one of his own. He felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. To find themselves in Cambridge was one thing. It would be easy enough to hop on the train to London, get to U.N.C.L.E. HQ, and organise a flight home. But to find themselves in the Cambridge of the fifties – they might as well be on another planet.
‘Illya, you told me it was impossible,’ he said.
Illya spread his arms wide. ‘I told you we didn’t have the technology or understanding. But crazy old Borscht Brandt – well – I suppose somehow he wasn’t so crazy after all.’
Napoleon tried his communicator, but there was no response, and Illya reminded him rather peevishly that as the pen-style communicators were no more than two years old and the entire communications system had been overhauled when they came into use, any response would be a miracle.
‘And what would we say anyway, Napoleon? Hello, Mr Waverly. You don’t know us yet, but in a little under ten years we’ll be your top enforcement agents, and we’ve been sent back in time. He’d think we were mad. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if Waverly’s the boss back in – whatever year this is.’
There wasn’t much Napoleon could say to that.
They walked along the river for some time. Illya was insistent that he knew the place like the back of his hand, and Napoleon trusted him. In fact, it was rather adorable to watch Illya as he grinned with glee at various sights, smelt the river-damp air, and turned his face to the early summer sun.
‘Oh, look, Napoleon!’ he said in a low but excited voice as a competitional rowing boat slid into view. ‘That’s Percy Harington. The cox, I mean. Small man, big voice. Oh, and Derek Lloyd on third oar. Humanities, but a nice fellow. They wanted me to be a cox, you know, but I wanted to have time to keep up my gymnastics, and I’d just started playing cricket, and – well, I was never that good on water,’ he said with a rueful grin.
Napoleon chortled. ‘Illya Nikolayevich Kuryakin. The only man in the Russian navy to suffer from seasickness.’
Illya gave him a look. ‘Hardly the only man, Napoleon.’
‘Come to think of it, when did you even have time for the Russian navy, between university and post-grad and your doctorate?’ Napoleon asked, regarding him critically. One day he would have to take a proper look at Illya’s file. ‘You don’t have a curiously ageing portrait hidden in your attic? Or a time machine?’
Illya shrugged that off. ‘I don’t even have an attic. Oh, listen! Did we ever really like that music?’
Napoleon listened. ‘ You may have, but I didn’t,’ he said rather superciliously.
The teddy boys on the opposite bank had a portable radio, and they had just turned it on. Rock and roll music blared out, prompting yells of disdain from the rowers, who were coming back the other way. The teddy boys threw rocks and a variety of insults that made Napoleon’s ears redden, and the rowers picked up their pace.
‘Ah, so that’s how they hope to beat Oxford at the boat race,’ he grinned.
‘No, they just have superior talent,’ Illya said smugly.
Napoleon stopped walking and rested his hands on his hips. The day was hotting up, the sun almost at its zenith. He felt as if they’d been on the move for hours, although it couldn’t have been nearly that long.
‘I didn’t know it ever got this hot in rainy England,’ he complained.
Illya laughed. ‘Hot enough, sometimes. Look!’ he said, snatching a discarded newspaper up off a bench and showing Napoleon the date. ‘There, I remember this being a particularly hot May. Once I fell asleep in the Quad, studying. I was only wearing shorts, and when I woke up I couldn’t move, I was so badly sunburnt. I had to ask – ’
He broke off suddenly.
‘You had to ask?’ Napoleon prompted him. He was taken with the idea of this youthful Illya lying on the grass in Cambridge under the sun, wearing no more than shorts – white, he was sure – and perhaps his reading glasses to give him that scholarly look that Napoleon loved so much. He wondered if Illya’s feet had been bare. He loved Illya’s feet. He loved the fact that Illya took so many opportunities to kick off his shoes and his perpetually holey socks and show his feet to the world.
Oh god, there were too many imagined images of this era to entice him. The idea of Illya wearing tight gym clothes, powdering his hands and flying on the bars or hauling himself up on the rings and holding himself with absolute poise. He still had a gymnast’s upper body strength. Then there was the idea of Illya in cricket whites and pads, swinging a bat with the faint scent of linseed oil still in the wood, hitting a blood red ball towards the boundary with a crack, and then pelting along the crease. Illya sunbathing almost nude, falling asleep with a journal in his hand, his lips parted and his hot breath coming soft and slow...
He came out of his own reverie to look at Illya, realising that the Russian still hadn’t answered. Illya’s ears had gone a delightful shade of beetroot, and his cheeks were following suite.
‘Uh – you had to ask?’ he repeated to cover his own distraction.
‘Nothing,’ Illya said quickly. Then he faltered quickly, ‘I – had to ask the chemist for special lotion. I have – very fair skin.’
‘Ahh,’ Napoleon nodded, but he had the feeling that Illya wasn’t telling the whole truth.
The Russian flung the newspaper back onto the bench and walked on, his stride rather more lengthened than before.
‘Hey, what’s the hurry?’ Napoleon asked, jogging to catch up.
‘I just want to find old Borscht,’ Illya said distractedly. ‘I enjoyed my time at Cambridge very much, but I don’t want to live it all again.’
‘You think he’ll be able to help us?’ Napoleon wondered.
‘Well, I remember seeing his lab one time and the contents bore a startling resemblance to what he has in 1965. I think if I can remember exactly what I saw in the present – the future? – Oh, in 1965, I mean – I might be able to replicate it.’
‘And send us back?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya nodded. ‘I hope so. I really hope so. Otherwise we might have to resort to something that would result in a paradox...’
‘Which would be?’ Napoleon asked rather impatiently now.
Illya mused for a moment, and the sunlight through the trees dappled his face and hair. The sunlight reflecting from the water moved languidly over his rather dusty grey suit and the white of his shirt. The image was magic, and Napoleon realised he was becoming distracted again. What the hell was wrong with him? Was this what time travel did to the brain? He had been thinking with his penis almost since the moment they got here.
‘We could send ourselves a letter not to be opened until just before that date, warning us of what will happen in Brandt’s lab. I could tell myself to blow it up before stepping foot in the place. And then we wouldn’t have been sent back...’
‘But then we wouldn’t have sent the letter,’ Napoleon pointed out. ‘In fact, we never did receive a letter, so we – Ah. A paradox.’
‘A paradox,’ Illya nodded. ‘Really, I don’t know the rules governing time travel, Napoleon. I’ve never done it before.’
‘You haven’t, huh?’ Napoleon asked with a grin. ‘Well, you astonish me, you wily Russian. I thought you’d done everything.’
‘Hmm,’ Illya grunted.
‘Illya, do you still practice at the gym?’ Napoleon asked curiously.
Illya stared at him. ‘Napoleon, you know when we’re not on a mission? You know every Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning when you’re in the office and I’m not?’
‘Uh-huh?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya shook his head and gave him a withering look. ‘Napoleon, while you’re eating pastries and drinking coffee and flirting with the secretaries, I am downstairs in the gym. How do you think I get myself out of it all those times when Thrush see fit to string me up upside down? Do you think I just miraculously keep in shape? Do you think a man can fold himself upwards purely using his abdominal muscles without practice?’
‘Oh, well, I – I thought they just did it enough to keep you in shape,’ Napoleon faltered. Every Tuesday and Friday, huh? He’d have to make a point of coming down to the gym at those times… ‘I didn’t know you were so dedicated.’
Illya grinned. ‘When I was at university in the Ukraine I tried out for the Olympic team, Napoleon. I didn’t make it to the Olympics – I was studying for my exams and just didn’t have the dedication – but the team did.’
There were times when Napoleon felt like a hopeless underachiever. He recalled his philosophy degree, and Illya’s dismissive tone when he had used the word humanities in reference to the rower in that boat. He straightened his tie and smoothed his hair down, and carried on walking.
Back in the city, the streets were crowded with a mixture of tourists, residents, students, and masters. Napoleon found the place awe inspiring with its mixture of ancient and old and then merely Victorian architecture, its stone-flagged pavements, and its venerable colleges and churches dominating everything.
‘Must be Saturday,’ Illya murmured, looking around at the busy throngs. ‘That paper was a day old. This place always was beastly on weekends in the summer.’
Napoleon looked longingly at a public house as they walked past it. There were groups of students at the tables outside, drinking tall, cool glasses of beer.
‘What I’d give for one of those,’ he sighed.
‘We don’t have any money,’ Illya reminded him. ‘At least, not money we can use.’
‘Oh – well – ’ Napoleon grinned and drew out a battered leather wallet that was definitely not his. ‘Sorry, I should have told you.’
Illya grabbed the wallet, looking shocked. He drew out a small red booklet – a driving licence, Napoleon realised – and flicked it open to read the name inside.
‘Napoleon, you picked – ’ He spluttered. ‘That is Canon Simpson’s wallet! You picked the pocket of the canon of my college! Christ… Snipper Simpson...’
‘Snipper – ’ Napoleon was gaping, wondering if every single person in this godforsaken city had a bizarre nickname.
Illya snorted suddenly. ‘You know, he wrote a biography of Napoleon the Third. Well, he started, anyway… Then he got distracted by horticulture, and – ’ He shrugged expansively, and Napoleon wondered if he would ever understand this place. ‘God, Napoleon, the man’ll go spare if he finds his wallet gone. He keeps tabs on that thing like his first-born child. He’ll be through everyone’s rooms and he’ll haul up some poor undergrad who hadn’t got a thing to do with it...’
‘Well, how was I to know – ’ Napoleon began to protest.
‘Listen, take this,’ Illya said, shrugging off his jacket and surreptitiously divesting himself of his empty shoulder holster at the same time, which was no mean feat considering the fastidious extra strap he had that went around his waist under his shirt. Napoleon loved that holster, especially the strap that hugged tight around Illya’s abdomen. Now he folded it carefully under the jacket, and watched bemused as Illya relieved the wallet of most of its money, shoved that into Napoleon’s hands too, then loosened his tie, rolled up his cuffs, and strolled over to the nearest table of drinking students.
Illya ran a hand through his hair, messing it up, and looked instantly younger. He grabbed a free chair, turned it around, and straddled it, leaning his arms on the back.
‘I say, Jock, old fellow,’ he said in a voice that was suddenly extremely English. ‘I need something of a favour, old thing...’
The student he had accosted looked at him with raised eyebrows. He was obviously a little worse for drink, but not so drunk as to be of no use.
‘Do I know you, old chap?’
‘Never mind that,’ Illya said quickly. ‘Look, bit of a lark, you know. Something that went too far – but, look, my old friend Bunting over there – ’ And he nodded vaguely in Napoleon’s direction, but not completely at him. ‘Well, he got a trifle sloshed last night, you know. Friday night and all that, and he thought it would be a lark to try out his pickpocket skills. Only – ’ He lowered his voice conspiratorially. ‘Well, he tried it on the wrong chap, don’t you know? Only lifted old Snipper Simpson’s wallet.’
The man at the table wheezed. ‘ Snipper Simpson! ’
‘Well, yes, dash it, he had no idea,’ Illya murmured. Napoleon was fighting now not to collapse into hysteria at Illya’s perfect impersonation of an upper-crust student with a cut-glass accent. His ribs ached from holding in laughter. ‘But look, old chap, if he sees either one of us near his things we’ll be sent down for good. Too long to explain, but – well, a few indiscretions around Christmas, you know… Gosh, that was a night...’ And Illya seemed to drift into reminiscence for a moment before coming back to himself. ‘Well, old thing, look, here’s the wallet,’ he said, stuffing it into the man’s hands. ‘There’s a good man. I know you can slip it back to him. Best of.’
And he clapped Jock on the back, turned the chair back to the table, and walked briskly away, grabbing Napoleon and tugging him into the river of moving pedestrians before the man at the table could react.
Napoleon was wheezing.
‘He’s not the brightest button in the box, but he’s the most light-fingered man I ever had the pleasure to know,’ Illya muttered, his Russian accent firmly back in place. ‘He’ll get it back to Snipper Simpson and the canon’ll never be the wiser.’
‘But – the money,’ Napoleon spluttered, holding out the sheaf of notes.
Illya shook his head. ‘Oh, he’ll have no idea. He’ll just think he spent it. He keeps hold of his wallet pretty tightly, but not the money inside it.’
‘Snipper Simpson,’ Napoleon murmured, pressing a hand against his aching ribs. ‘Oh, here,’ he remembered suddenly, handing Illya back his jacket and holster. They ducked into a shaded alley and he took great pleasure in helping Illya to do up the stomach strap under his shirt. Illya’s skin was hot and slightly moist from the summer warmth, and he jerked as Napoleon’s hands slipped against him as if he were being tickled.
‘Do you mind?’ Illya hissed, taking over the buckling of the strap himself, and shrugging his jacket back over the top.
‘You know, you are a pearl of great price, Illya,’ Napoleon told him sincerely. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to tell you from the next upper-crust Cambridge fop. But tell me – why is he called Snipper Simpson?’
‘Oh, he’s a strange old fellow,’ Illya grinned. ‘He’s still alive now, as far as I’m aware. Apparently he showed great promise in his youth. He wrote two entire volumes of his biography of Louis Napoleon – and then he just – stopped. Picked up his shears, and started obsessing over the shrubberies. I think the old trout’s completely mad, to be honest.’
Napoleon reached up to tighten Illya’s tie, which he had forgotten to do, and he was overcome with the hot urge to kiss the Russian in this cool and shaded alleyway. He stood frozen, his hands on the thick knot of the tie, knowing that if he moved on his urge Illya would probably knock him into next week. Illya barely showed any interest in the women in his life, let alone men.
‘Anyway, Napoleon, it’s no good,’ Illya was saying, apparently having not noticed Napoleon’s moment of weakness. ‘I remember this weekend. Old Borscht didn’t finish his machine until Monday. I know, because he was so excited about it that he invited us all round – all the people working vaguely in his field, I mean – to show it off. And – well, we laughed at him,’ he said rather shamefacedly. ‘We thought he was nuts.’
‘Monday?’ Napoleon asked. He pulled out the sheaf of notes he had taken from Snipper Simpson, and scrolled through them disconsolately. ‘You know, we might have enough here for a couple of meals, but not enough to find somewhere to stay.’
‘We couldn’t anyway – or we shouldn’t,’ Illya told him. ‘We need to keep our impact as low as possible. A meal’s one thing. We can buy some food somewhere. But we can’t take a room. That might displace someone else, and that might change another thing, a bigger thing, and – ’
‘The Butterfly Effect,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘I get it. So where can we go? Can we sleep out somewhere? A park?’
‘Well...’ Illya mused. ‘It’s colder than you’d expect at night, and we don’t want to get picked up for vagrancy… I do have one idea, but we’ll have to be discreet. Look, let’s get our hands on some food, first. I’m starving.’
‘You would be,’ Napoleon said affectionately.
They spent some of their money on a loaf of bread and a couple of pies from a butcher’s that Illya insisted made the best pork pies in the country, Melton Mowbray not withstanding. Napoleon had never eaten a pork pie before, but he had to agree with Illya. They were delicious. They also got a couple of bottles of ginger beer, not wanting to risk anything actually alcoholic, and they ate by the river. When they had finished, Illya tossed his brown bottle into the water in a perfect arc, and watched it sink.
‘I used to get my money back on them,’ he commented, ‘but there’s not much point. We won’t be here that long – I hope. Now, come on,’ he said. It was getting late, and the air was starting to chill. ‘Let’s go and find that place to sleep.’
‘Where are we going?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya grinned. ‘My old digs.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Illya assured him. ‘There were four of us staying there and I remember distinctly that this year Edwin Lawrence was away for all of May. His mother was sick, I think. Actually – yes...’ His face sobered. ‘Yes, she was sick. She died around the start of June, I remember. Poor old thing. He was shattered by it. But,’ he added in a lighter tone, ‘that means that his room was empty.’
‘So – we’re going to stay in the room of a man who’s at the bedside of his dying mother,’ Napoleon asked dubiously.
‘He wouldn’t mind,’ Illya promised. ‘In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d insist. He was a generous soul.’
They walked out into the leafy suburbs, and Napoleon wondered if the Illya of this era had a bicycle to help him with the distances. He let his mind linger on the thought of Illya wearing bicycle clips, pedalling blithely through these quiet streets, just working up enough of a sweat to make him glow. Then Illya opened the rusty gate of a rather overgrown garden, took him up the path to a front door that needed painting, and he let them in with a Yale key that he took from under a convenient plant pot and put back underneath again afterwards.
‘Secure,’ Napoleon murmured, and Illya smiled.
‘Useful,’ he amended, ‘at least today. Anyway, who’s going to rob student digs? We didn’t have anything.’ They walked into a hall that smelt of mothballs and cabbage. On the left a row of men’s coats hung on hooks on the wall, with stairs rising up just beyond. At the end of the hall a grandfather clock was solemnly ticking, and a spotted mirror hung on the wall. Illya raised his voice and called out brightly, ‘It’s only me, Mrs M.,’ as they walked past a door slightly cracked open.
‘Oh, I thought you were in already, dear,’ an answering voice replied.
‘She’s a dear old thing,’ Illya said fondly under his breath to Napoleon as they reached the stairs. ‘Used to give us bacon every Sunday, no extra charge. Now – shush.’
That seemed a trifle unfair to Napoleon, as Illya was the one speaking. But he followed him upstairs, echoing his tread, since Illya seemed to be taking extra care to avoid squeaky boards. They emerged onto a landing carpeted with something that had apparently once had the pattern of roses, but was now so threadbare it was just a mass of brown and pink and grey.
‘That one’s mine,’ Illya murmured, jerking his thumb towards a firmly closed, brown-panelled door. There was nothing on it, no sign of personality, and Napoleon found himself faintly disappointed. He didn’t know what he had expected, but he would have liked a glimpse of the Illya of 1957. ‘I might be in there,’ Illya added, noticing Napoleon’s slightly wistful look.
‘Uh, yeah, I guess you might be,’ Napoleon murmured, trying not to dwell on how strange that was.
Illya opened the next door down, and slipped inside. He checked the curtains were fully drawn before turning on the light.
‘It’s all right – Lawrence got hold of some old blackout material left over from the war,’ Illya whispered at Napoleon’s anxious look. ‘He used to sleep until noon and his window faces east. Now. Just try to keep your clumsy feet quiet,’ he said, then continued over Napoleon’s open-mouthed look of protest, ‘The bathroom’s just down the hall, but better not use it if we can help it.’
It looked like Lawrence was some kind of art history student, by the books that littered his room. They were mostly on Pointillism and Impressionism, with a whole shelf on Georges Seurat. Illya seemed to have little respect for the books, which were everywhere. There was even a shelf along the side of the narrow single bed, almost touching the mattress. Napoleon plucked a book up from the top of a pile on the bedside table, and leafed through.
‘Hmm, they lose something in black and white,’ he murmured.
‘Oh, Edwin was wild for Seurat,’ Illya smiled affectionately, picking up a book briefly, then setting it down again. ‘He went on to become a world expert. I think he works at Christie’s now. He was a funny bloke...’
He sighed, then looked around the room. There was a sagging old armchair in one corner, and he plumped himself down in it.
‘You take the bed, Napoleon,’ he said. ‘You know I can sleep anywhere.’
‘Yeah, you’re like a damn cat,’ Napoleon grumbled affectionately. He sat down on the bed, catching in his breath as the springs squealed.
‘Just try to be quiet,’ Illya said. ‘The walls are paper thin.’
‘So, what now?’ Napoleon whispered.
Illya shrugged. ‘I was going to go to sleep,’ he said.
‘It’s barely nine p.m.,’ Napoleon protested.
‘Well, time travel is tiring,’ Illya excused himself.
He turned on a small lamp and turned off the main light, then stripped down to his underwear. Then he grabbed one of the blankets off the bed and settled himself down into the chair. Pulling a tissue out of his pocket, he ripped it into two and stuffed it deep into his ears, then rested his head against the wing of the chair. Napoleon smiled at that. Illya had obviously lost very few memories of the trials of living in student digs. A few moments later his body was utterly relaxed, his head crooked sideways. Napoleon watched him fondly. Illya really was a cat. One day he would have to put a cardboard box in the office and see if he went to sleep in that.
Napoleon stripped as Illya had, reclined on the bed, and picked up a book from the nightstand. Another book on pointillism, Albert Dubois-Pillet this time, but this one was completely in French. Napoleon’s French was good, but he really didn’t feel like the effort, so he set it down again. He rested his head back on the pillow and tried to get comfortable, but there was a large dictionary of art terms poking out of the shelf that had been fixed along the side of the bed, and it was jabbing him in the shoulder. Irritated, he jerked it from its place, and put it on the bedside table on top of Pillet.
Turning back to the shelf, he noticed the hole.
It had been inexpertly made, that much was certain. The edges were rough and the wallpaper torn around it. There was a little plaster dust on the shelf, as if the hole were relatively new, or at least as if Lawrence had never bothered to wipe up the dust. The hole was plugged with a wad of paper.
Napoleon grinned. Well. This was interesting…
The hole must go straight through into Illya’s room. Illya was just a PhD student, not an agent, and he wouldn’t have any reason to check the walls for holes. This really was fascinating…
He so wanted to see Illya as he was in this era. It wasn’t as if Illya’s apartment was full of photos of himself, and he didn’t talk a lot about his past. And he could hear noises in the room next door. Illya had been right about the thinness of the walls…
He glanced at the Illya of 1965, slumped in sleep in the chair. Illya was an incredible sleeper. He woke to the right stimulus – anything suggestive of Thrush action, for a start – but through everything else he slept the sleep of the dead. Napoleon cleared a couple more books from the shelf, just enough so he could get his eye close to the hole. Then he turned off the bedside light, fumbled for the hole in the darkness, and pulled out the wad of paper.
Warm yellow light spilled through. Napoleon caught his breath, but that wink of light wasn’t enough to disturb his Illya. And there would be no light going back through to alert that other Illya.
He pressed his eye to the hole, getting his bearings. He saw a room perhaps a little larger than this one, and just as much a library as Lawrence’s, or more so. There were shelves everywhere, on all the walls. The hole, Napoleon thought, was probably underneath a shelf on Illya’s side of the wall, low enough so that he would only notice it if he crouched down and really looked. But it afforded a wonderful view. He could see everything; the bed on the other side of the room with its brown blanket and white sheets. The bedside table crowded with books, and a green ceramic mug, a little alarm clock, and a medicinal looking tin. The blue oval rug on the floor. The little maroon record player, closed up and pushed against the wall right now, with a stack of records next to it, all 33s in paper covers by the looks of it, and perhaps some 78s too.
And – Illya’s feet. Because of the angle of his gaze he saw Illya’s feet first, moving into view, bare and deliciously bony. He could see the edge of brown trouser cuffs swinging against naked ankles. He moved his head, following those loose slacks upwards until he saw where they were cinched in around a very slim waist with a dark belt and a bright buckle. And tucked into the slacks was a – Illya was wearing a plaid shirt! He had never imagined Illya in such a thing. It was a plaid shirt in shades of blue and brown, unbuttoned at the collar. He changed his angle a little again and saw the adam’s apple in a creamy throat, and then the edge of a jaw that was sharp with youth. Illya’s cheekbones were high and sharp, his cheeks a little hollow, his jaw more square than it looked now. Illya wasn’t fat now. He had never been fat. But this Illya was like a puppy in his final growth spurt, all gangling despite his small stature. His lips looked fuller and redder because of the sharpness of his features. His hair was tousled and ever so blond on top, a little darker underneath. Dear god…
Napoleon didn’t know what to do with himself. He was glued to the peephole. He didn’t know what Illya would do if he were discovered – what either Illya would do. But his Illya was fast asleep, and this other Illya – no, he must know that Lawrence’s room was empty and he must have no suspicion of the hole, because otherwise it wouldn’t still be there. The Illya that Napoleon knew would have acted swiftly and decisively in the face of such a thing.
He actually felt sorry for Lawrence. Considering the sight that Napoleon could see, he could hardly blame Lawrence for the addiction which must have prompted him to make this hole.
But – oh god. Illya wasn’t alone! Someone else moved across the room, a little taller than Illya but just as young, a man with light brown hair flopping across his head, and light grey eyes, and his shirt unbuttoned to his waist. He wasn’t as good looking as Illya, but there was something about him. He looked intelligent and he looked nice. Nice was an awful word, but Napoleon couldn’t think of another. This man looked soft and pleasant, and he was regarding Illya with a look in his eyes that was utterly unmistakable. He was in love.
Poor guy, Napoleon thought.
But – but Illya turned to the man with such a familiar smile that it made Napoleon’s heart lurch. That was the smile that Illya used to greet him . And Illya reached out to the man and slipped his hand under the shirt, onto the naked skin of the side of his waist. He curled him nearer, and said in an accent thicker than the present-day Illya’s, ‘Philip, lyubimy... ’
And then Philip bent his head a little, Illya lifted his, and Illya’s rich lips touched Philip’s less generous ones, and they kissed.
Napoleon almost bit his tongue. He couldn’t draw away from the hole. He knew he should, he knew he had to. But he didn’t. He felt frozen. He watched as the men’s lips moved hungrily, knowing that Illya’s tongue was inside Philip’s mouth now, that Philip was tasting Illya’s sweet juices. Illya’s hands were both inside Philip’s shirt and slipping it off, and moving over the man’s thin torso as if it were made of velvet, as if he loved that frankly average and everyday physique. Illya’s fingers were so sweet and considerate in their caresses that they brought a lump to Napoleon’s throat.
Philip nudged Illya away a little and their lips almost parted, reached for each other, kissed again, and then came apart. The connection still between them was undeniable. Their eyes never left one another’s. Napoleon wasn’t just watching lust. He was watching love.
Philip started to unbutton Illya’s shirt and Illya’s hands were at his own waist, unbuckling that heavy metal buckle and dropping the brown slacks on the floor. His underpants were white and form fitting, and Napoleon caught in his breath. He could see the shape of Illya’s cock, hardening, a little dark through the thin fabric. Illya’s rangy hands and wrists moved, slipping down the underpants. His feet lifted to let them slip off his ankles. Napoleon almost hissed at the sight of Illya’s hipbones, his flat, muscled, gymnast’s abdomen and pubis, and the gold-brown tangle of hair with the blood-thickened cock starting to stand proud from its nest. His balls were tight to his body, dusky pink, and when Philip groaned at the sight Napoleon almost groaned too.
Illya turned to the bookcases on the opposite wall, leaning over the bed, resting his arms on the dark spines of physics tomes. He lean t forward so that his pale legs stood splayed and his buttocks were presented as two mounds under the tail of the shirt. He rested his cheek against his folded arms, his head turned sideways, eyes closed, lashes lying dark against his skin, and he looked sublime .
Napoleon reached a hand under the sheet, touched himself. He was completely hard. Dear god…
Philip came to stand behind Illya. Not straight behind him, please not straight behind him, Napoleon implored silently, and there must have been angels listening, because Philip stood a little to one side, lifted the tails of Illya’s shirt to reveal the peach-cream of his muscular behind and the dark swinging sac just visible in the fork of his legs. Napoleon clenched his hand around himself and suppressed a groan.
Philip was shirtless but still wearing his trousers, and Napoleon wasn’t sure how he was managing it, because if it had been him he would have burst through the zip by now. The man crouched, split Illya’s buttocks with gentle hands, and then flicked his tongue into the space between.
Illya moaned, long and low, deep in his throat. He bent a little more, parting his cheeks a little further, and as Philip’s tongue pushed deep into the orifice between his legs he moaned again, whimpered, then shoved his fist in his mouth. Napoleon found himself doing the same, one hand on his cock, rubbing pre-cum across the tip, and the other pushed so hard against his teeth he could taste blood. When Illya moaned again, Napoleon couldn’t stop himself moaning too.
Abruptly, Illya turned round, and Napoleon froze. But the Russian hadn’t heard him. He grabbed Philip, pushed his fingers into his hair, kissed him hard and needfully against the mouth that had just been between Illya’s legs. Then Illya sat on the bed, letting his knees drop wide apart. His cock reared up from his groin, taut and hungry and dark with blood, and Philip knelt as if in worship and sank his head down over its length.
Illya’s fingers tangled in his hair again, massaging his scalp, murmuring endearments in Russian and apparently working so hard to keep himself from forcing the Englishman’s head further down that his knuckles were white. Illya tossed his own head back. The colour was high up in his cheeks, two pink lines, and his eyes looked fevered. His breath was coming raggedly, his hands were fighting, fighting still. And then he lost the battle, pushed Philip’s head down, pulled it up again, his hips jerking as he plunged himself into the man’s mouth. A strangled cry forced itself from his lips, his eyes glazed, and then he slumped back, gasping, as Philip dropped his head against Illya’s thigh, swallowing, and the softening cock slipped from between his lips.
A string of Russian words were whispered into the air, and Napoleon came in his underpants.
But it wasn’t over. Philip was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and then he stripped off Illya’s open shirt and shrugged off the rest of his own clothes. His own cock was still hard, his eyes bright with need. He put a hand on the back of Illya’s neck, and as if well practised in what Philip wanted Illya slipped to the floor to crouch on his hands and knees on the blue oval rug. Philip split Illya’s buttocks again, almost savagely, and plunged his flickering tongue in again until Illya whimpered and pleaded, thrusting himself back against the too-short organ. And then Philip picked up the flat tin from the bedside table and prised the lid off and tossed it aside. Illya waited, cheeks spread, skin glistening with Philip’s saliva. Napoleon longed to lave his tongue down that wide, flat perinaeum and touch the slack velvet sac that hung down between Illya’s legs.
But Philip had his sights on another goal. He coated his hard cock with the clear, greasy substance from the tin, then dipped his fingers into it again. He gently, ever so gently, kissed the dusky pucker between Illya’s buttocks, before slipping one long finger in through the tight muscle. Illya whimpered at the entry, pressing back, and Philip smiled and introduced another finger . He scissored inside Illya’s body , and Illya groaned. He slipped in another finger, murmuring Illya’s name, and Illya cried out in Russian again, before slipping into English and crying, ‘Please, Philip, lyubimy , please...’
Philip pressed his cock home until his hips were hard against Illya’s behind. Illya dropped his forehead to the rug and seemed to weep as Philip’s hand tucked under him to fondle at his cock and balls. Napoleon stared at the place where Philip’s thick cock had driven in, at Illya’s paper thin skin stretched impossibly tight around it, and wondered at how he could find that so impossibly erotic. He could smell his own come rising from the heat of his groin. What would it feel like to have that tightness stretched around him? How good would it feel to have Illya’s muscular body cramped around him? He was starting to get hard again, and he watched transfixed as Philip thrust against Illya’s body and Illya’s face moved against the blue rug, his fingers tangled hard in its thick pile, pushing himself back against Philip as if he wanted to fuse their bodies into one.
Philip came silently and triumphantly, his face tilted to heaven, and Illya grunted out his own completion against his fist. There were tears on his face. And then there came the lightest knock on the door and an old woman’s voice called out, ‘If you two don’t come down for your dinner soon I shall feed it to the foxes. God knows if they don’t need it.’
Illya’s face broke into a grin. Philip was still inside him, panting. Illya called out in an astonishingly normal voice, ‘We will be down in five minutes, Mrs M.’
The footsteps stumped away down the stairs, and Illya collapsed onto the rug, laughing and panting, splayed and naked on the floor, his body flushed with delight. Philip came over him and bent to kiss him again, his long fringe flopping over his face even as he brushed Illya’s fringe back with one hand.
‘I have never known a man like you, Eel,’ he said.
Napoleon could hardly read the expression in Illya’s blue eyes, but he said, ‘I love you, Philip.’
He couldn’t take it any more. He pushed the bung back in the hole and replaced the books. When he heard the pair leave the room five minutes later he crept down the hallway to the bathroom, where he did his best to wash out his underpants, wring them out as dry as possible, with the help of an ancient mangle that stood by the bath, and put them back on, damp and uncomfortable. Well, that was his punishment, he supposed, for spying.
He wasn’t sure how he slept a wink, but he must have done, because he woke to a hand lightly shaking his shoulder and opened his eyes to Illya’s face looking down at him, a finger held against those ripe lips. Napoleon couldn’t help it. He felt his entire face go crimson. But this was Illya of 1965, and he had no idea, no idea at all, that Napoleon had been witness to that intensely erotic scene of last night. Hell, by the looks of things, by their wordless ease with one another, that kind of scene had gone on every night. Napoleon’s feelings towards Philip were quite uncharitable this morning.
‘Is it morning?’ he asked, puzzled. It was still dark in the room and only the bedside light was on.
Illya nodded. ‘About six,’ he whispered. ‘Remember the black out curtains?’
‘Oh. Er – yeah,’ Napoleon nodded.
Illya frowned at him. ‘Are you all right, Napoleon?’
‘Er – weird dreams,’ Napoleon excused himself. Now, that wouldn’t be a surprise, considering. He kept seeing Illya sitting on his bed with his cock deep in another man’s mouth, Illya splayed with another man tonguing him, Illya impaled on another man’s cock.
‘Listen, I’m going to risk the bathroom,’ Illya whispered, and Napoleon took the chance of glancing down. Illya was kneeling quite awkwardly and seemed to be trying to hide his groin.
‘Morning glory, huh?’
‘Don’t worry, tovarisch, it happens to us all,’ Napoleon grinned.
The instant Illya was through the door he couldn’t stop himself. He pulled the books from the bookshelf and put his eye to the hole. There was morning light filtering through Illya’s thin curtains, and Illya was fast asleep, the blankets pushed down below his hips. He was stark naked, and he was draped in the narrow bed across the similarly naked body of Philip, whose head was nestled against Illya’s neck.
Napoleon replaced the bung and put the books back with a deep feeling of guilt. The pair were in love. Any fool could see that. What had happened? This was little under ten years from their present. What had happened so that Illya had never spoken of Philip, had never even mentioned his name?
When Illya came back in, Napoleon could hardly speak to him.
‘So, what are we going to do?’ Illya asked finally, after apparently waiting a while for Napoleon to say something.
‘I – er – ’ Napoleon cleared his throat. ‘I thought we – um – I thought I should take your lead. It’s your home territory, after all.’
‘Ah,’ Illya said. ‘Well...’
‘We can’t stay here all day,’ Napoleon continued.
‘Well, old Lawrence won’t be back for weeks, and Fatty’s an undergrad so he’s not here either, so it’s only me and Philip...’
Napoleon watched Illya intently as he said that name. He asked very casually, ‘Who’s Philip?’
Was that a hint of colour in Illya’s cheeks? There was definitely a pause before he said, ‘Oh the fourth lodger. Applied maths. But he’s a problem, because he used to spend a lot of time in his room studying, and like I said, the walls are paper thin – ’
As if on cue there was a snort and a grumble from the next room. Illya jerked as if he had been shot.
‘We should get out of here,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to risk sleeping here again tonight, but we should stay out all day.’
Napoleon was only too happy to agree. He didn’t know if he could stand staying in this room knowing what was likely to be going on at any given moment just a few feet away through the walls. He pushed back the blankets and got up, then took great care at putting the bed back just as it had been when they arrived. To his relief, his underpants seemed to have dried this morning.
He looked at the door, but Illya was at the window.
‘Too risky – Mrs M. gets up very early,’ the Russian said, shaking his head. ‘But look, there’s a drainpipe just outside the window and if we leave the catch just so we’ll be able to get in again tonight.’
Napoleon took the drainpipe first, letting Illya close the window to his liking behind them. They escaped the garden over the low brick wall rather than touching the squeaky gate, and soon they were strolling through the suburbs again, which were almost dead at this time of the morning.
‘So,’ Napoleon said with careful casualness. ‘Edwin Lawrence, um – Fatty, you, and – Peter, did you say his name was?’
‘Philip,’ Illya corrected automatically. His eyes were fixed straight ahead. ‘Yes, just the four of us that year. Mrs M. had a few more rooms, but she didn’t get them furnished until later. Her husband had died a few years before, you know. She missed him terribly. If you got caught with her in her parlour she’d talk to you for hours about him. He was a war hero.’ Illya shrugged expansively.
‘Anyway, she furnished the other rooms as she got the money, but she hadn’t been at it long then. Edwin was studying the Pointillists. Fatty – god, what was his name? I think he was Ambrose Bunting. Yes, I think that’s why I called you Bunting yesterday. It was the first name that came to mind. He was in his third year. He was doing organic chemistry, I think. He was about as thin as a rake. Used to eat rice pudding and semolina as if they were going out of fashion. Mrs M. would give him extra portions, with jam. He might even had had some kind of medical problem. I don’t know what happened to him. I didn’t know him that well, really.’
‘Well, it’s funny how life is,’ Napoleon remarked casually, stepping aside as a milkman jumped down from his float, touching his cap and then grabbing clinking bottles of gold and silver top from the back. ‘You meet people, you get to know them. You might even fall in love. And then some of them drift away. So,’ he continued, plucking a twig from an overhanging tree and idly stripping the leaves from it. It was rather charming how many trees there were in English suburbs. ‘What about Philip? You haven’t said much about him.’
There was that flush high on Illya’s cheeks again.
‘Oh, I thought I said. He was studying applied mathematics. He started with a masters and then he moved on into a PhD. He’d been there about two years by the time I arrived.’
‘And?’ Napoleon prompted.
Illya stared at him, his expression unreadable. ‘And nothing, Napoleon. What more do you want to know? It was ten years ago. It’s just like you said. You meet people, and they drift away.’
Illya could have no idea that Napoleon knew what he knew, but the fact he was touchy as hell about it proved to Napoleon that something had happened. Of course, this wasn’t your average affair. This was the kind of an affair that could get a man imprisoned. So perhaps that was it. Perhaps that was why Illya wouldn’t even talk to his best friend about it. Napoleon thought he was Illya’s best friend. He hoped he was. But obviously some things were outside even those boundaries.
It wasn’t ten years ago, though. He dwelt on that fact, doing some quick math in his head. Illya would have been twenty in 1953. So he probably would have finished his undergraduate degree in 54, and his master’s in 55 or perhaps 56. Illya would have been very new to his doctorate now, in 57. He would have had a good five or more years left to study, and Philip would have had a few years left too. Illya might not have parted from him more than a few years ago, in their time. And he had never once mentioned the name to Napoleon.
Some of the more unpleasant words of the time passed through Napoleon’s mind. Fag. Pansy. Shirt lifter. Hadn’t he watched Philip lifting up Illya’s shirt last night? Hadn’t he found it one of the most erotic sights of his life? But no wonder Illya was sensitive about it.
‘Illya – ’ he began.
‘You know, there’s a café on Conway Road that opens early and serves great breakfasts,’ Illya cut across him. ‘We should have enough money. I couldn’t eat there often because I was poor. I’d like to go back.’
Napoleon looked at him, and smiled. He did look hungry, and perhaps with a good meal in him he would relax a little. No doubt in a few hours this time’s Illya and Philip would be sitting beside each other at Mrs M.’s table tucking in to free bacon. Napoleon had no doubt that this time’s Illya would be very relaxed indeed this morning.
The liberal application of a large oval plate of sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, fried bread, and black pudding did a lot for Illya’s mood. He forked another mouthful of egg into his mouth then pulled the jam from Napoleon’s order of toast across the table and spooned a generous amount into the teapot. Napoleon gave him a disgusted look. He had already let the tea stew for almost fifteen minutes, and now once the jam had dissolved he poured his cup half full, added hot water from the hot water pot, and stirred the liquid together. Napoleon was glad he’d ordered coffee for himself, even if the coffee was like dishwater.
‘Now, don’t you find the strawberries clog up the spout?’ Napoleon asked with a grin. ‘Don’t you?’
‘Don’t they just?’ muttered the owner of the establishment, wandering over. She was a large lady with an apron tied around her waist and curlers still in her hair. ‘You know, there’s only bin one other geezer done that with ’is tea since I bin ’ere. You ain’t Russian, love?’
Illya looked up briefly and grinned. ‘I am,’ he admitted.
The woman put her hands on her hips and looked at him critically. ‘You look an awful lot like ’im, too. Dead ringer, if you weren’t so much older. You ain’t related to Mr Curry-akin?’
Napoleon glanced at Illya. This was getting a bit too close to home.
‘Brother,’ Illya muttered, shoving another forkful of food into his mouth.
‘Yeah, and you eat like ’im too,’ the woman smiled.
Illya looked up then. ‘Don’t tell him, if you see him,’ he said quickly. ‘It’s a surprise.’
She tapped a finger to the side of her nose. ‘Gotcha. I’ll keep mum, love. Won’t it be nice for ’im? ’E only ever comes in with that lanky lad, Mr Manley. Don’t think ’e’s got many friends.’
Illya suddenly became very interested in pouring milk into his tea and stirring it to the perfect consistency, and the woman lost interest and moved away.
‘You know, Napoleon, I’ve been thinking,’ Illya said as soon as they were alone. ‘Maybe we should try getting into Borscht’s lab today. He must be nearly done with whatever he’s doing. Maybe I can fix it up – ’
‘Won’t he be working on it, if he’s this close?’ Napoleon asked pointedly.
Illya’s forehead crinkled. ‘I suppose he will. Yes, you’re right. We should wait until tomorrow. I’m sure we can get in during or after the party, and then I’ll do what I can with the machine. And if that works – ’
‘And if it doesn’t?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya looked at him rather desperately. ‘I don’t know. You’re American, I’m Russian, we’re in Britain. We’re somewhat adrift, aren’t we? But maybe we can contact U.N.C.L.E. and convince them of what’s happened. I mean, we know certain things about the organisation that – ’
Napoleon held up his hand. ‘Illya, you’re the first Russian working for U.N.C.L.E.. There were no Russians in the ranks in this era. What will they make of you coming and telling them you know the deepest secrets of the organisation?’
Illya groaned. ‘I’ll be slung in their deepest, darkest cell before you can say knife . Napoleon, what are we going to do ?’
Napoleon shook his head. ‘Let’s not count our chickens before they’re hatched. We’ve still got that letter idea, haven’t we? Let’s wait until tomorrow evening, and if that avenue fails – well, we’ve got all the time in the world, n’est-ce pas?’
Illya shook his head. He sliced off a sliver of fried bread, pushed it around in his egg yolk, and ate it disconsolately. ‘I don’t want to be trapped eight years into my past,’ he muttered.
Napoleon leant back, regarding him. ‘Wasn’t it a happy time, Illya? You seemed so pleased to see everything yesterday.’
‘Yes, it was,’ Illya said, then insisted rather more firmly, ‘It was. But – who wants to live their life twice over? I’m happy with what I have now. I don’t need to do it all again.’
They spent much of that day just wandering around the streets of Cambridge, trying to be outside observers and not interacting too much. Illya kept edging towards Trinity and then edging away again, and Napoleon could understand his dilemma. He wanted to see the place, but he didn’t want to bump into anyone who knew him too well. The lady in the café had proved that he wasn’t unrecognisable, and if too many people started asking him if he were related to the Illya of this time it might get back to him. Illya had told Napoleon that he was quite suspicious in those days, and they really didn’t want any kind of confrontation.
Illya took Napoleon down to Brandt’s lab, which was in a rather modern building outside of the historical area of the city. They scouted out the entrances and windows, just in case they would need to break in, and even saw Brandt going into the building with a leather bag which seemed very heavy.
‘Well, that’s positive,’ Napoleon commented. ‘It shows he’s working on it.’
‘Yes, it does,’ Illya murmured from their position in the shrubbery, just out of sight. ‘I just hope he has the right stuff in there for me to be able to make the improvements.’
‘There are other labs in there, right?’ Napoleon asked, and Illya nodded.
‘Oh, yes, quite a few. And I suppose I have an advantage on myself of this time. I have my doctorate under my belt and a lot of experience in the U.N.C.L.E. labs, too. My university work was essentially theoretical. And I got a very good look at Brandt’s device in the future – I mean, our present. I was trying to get it down in memory so I could replicate the plans.’
‘Well, would it help to do that now?’ Napoleon asked. ‘I mean, before you see the thing tomorrow. It might throw you out if it’s similar but not the same.’
‘You’ve got a point,’ Illya nodded. ‘How much money do we have left?’
Napoleon dug in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. ‘Not a heck of a lot after that breakfast. We’ll have to get some more or eat sparingly for dinner.’
‘Hmm,’ Illya muttered, looking rather dismayed at that idea. ‘Well, if you can lift some more, that would be good. I don’t like working on an empty stomach.’
‘How anyone’s stomach can be called empty after that breakfast,’ Napoleon began, but Illya glared at him. ‘All right, come on,’ he sighed. He grabbed Illya’s elbow and pulled him in through the door of a church. Bells were pealing out for Sunday all over the city, and this church was full of people.
‘Napoleon, you can’t steal from churchgoers!’ Illya hissed into his ear, as Napoleon found his way into a pew.
‘Watch me,’ Napoleon murmured.
In the end he didn’t steal any wallets, but he did manage to palm a couple of ten shilling notes from the communion plate as it was passed around. Illya was aghast, but Napoleon muttered to him, ‘After all, I don’t think Jesus would mind. He was all in favour of charity, and feeding you is my favourite charity.’
At that, Illya looked a little mollified.
‘I’ll send them a donation when we get back,’ Napoleon promised. ‘In the name of St Elijah.’
‘If you can say Elijah correctly I don’t know why you still can’t say Illya as it should be pronounced,’ Illya complained.
Napoleon smiled at him fondly. ‘Because I love you just the way you are,’ he said. Illya frowned at that, but he didn’t pursue the subject.
Napoleon watched him as they walked back towards his digs. Now he knew what he did about Illya, he had been wondering all day if he could act on his own feelings. He had always thought that Illya was so poorly sexed as to be almost asexual, but what he had seen through the hole in the wall blew that theory out of the water. Illya had been in love, and he had been on fire with desire. There was nothing at all frigid about him, as the rumours in the halls of U.N.C.L.E. would have it. So had Illya been pining all this time for his lost love? Did he just need the right person to unlock his feelings again?
They were going back to Illya’s digs in the hope that he would find the paper and drawing materials he needed in Edwin Lawrence’s room, so they could sit there quietly and Illya could replicate his memory of Brandt’s machine. It was something of a risk sneaking back in broad daylight, but Illya thought they could manage it. It wasn’t as if they didn’t sneak for a living.
Napoleon walked along thinking about Illya’s name. Philip had managed it. Ee-liya. Ee-liya. He ran through it over and over in his mind. Why did he always say Ill when he knew it was pronounced closer to Eel ?
‘I think the coast’s clear,’ Illya murmured as they walked cautiously up to the building. ‘We can get over the wall here where the trees hang down, and cross to the drainpipe through the shrubs. It’ll be fine. The garden’s not overlooked because of all the trees.’
‘All right, Eel,’ Napoleon said.
He could have kicked himself. He had been repeating the pronunciation in his head, thinking about how Philip had called him that so affectionately, but not meaning to say the word aloud. The look Illya gave him was a mixture of horror and fury, but it was quickly masked over with an utter blankness that was ten times worse. The Russian turned away from Napoleon and disappeared through the bushes so silently it was as if a ghost were moving there, then he saw Illya’s suited form shinny up the drainpipe, fiddle for a moment with Lawrence’s window, and then disappear inside.
Napoleon stood stock still in the shelter of the juniper bushes, trying to work out what to do. He was afraid that if he entered that small room and spent hours there with Illya, Illya might kill him. But then, really, what cause would Illya have? Illya couldn’t possibly know that Napoleon had heard Philip call him that. He couldn’t. He couldn’t know about the hole in the wall. At least, Illya of this time couldn’t know...
A chill ran through him. What if Illya had found it at a later date? What if he did know, if the Illya of 1965 knew? But how could Napoleon possibly broach that subject without letting Illya know that he’d found the hole, that he’d watched… Oh god…
Illya’s face appeared at the window, pale and ghostly behind the glass. Then he cracked it open and hissed, ‘Come on , Napoleon!’
When Napoleon finally heaved himself up through the window Illya was already seated at Edwin Lawrence’s desk, a sheet of paper spread out on the clean surface, and a number of pencils and rulers next to it. He had already made a start on the design. Napoleon seated himself silently in the sagging armchair. Illya ignored him.
He wondered sometimes if Illya had relatives from Siberia, because he didn’t know how else a man could radiate such a chill. He wouldn’t have been surprised if he had looked outside and seen snow falling.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon tried softly after a long time of silence.
‘I’m concentrating,’ Illya murmured.
Napoleon got up out of the chair and stepped softly over to where the Russian was hunched over the desk. ‘I know,’ he said just as quietly, crouching down beside him to cast his eye over the plans. They looked incredible. ‘You know, that’s pretty good,’ he said.
‘I am concentrating, Napoleon,’ Illya repeated.
‘I know,’ Napoleon said again. Then, ‘Illya...’
Illya sighed and laid down his pencil. ‘ What , Napoleon?’ he asked, fixing Napoleon with eyes that reminded him of the dark blue ice at the heart of a glacier.
‘I’m sorry if I – offended you – or something,’ Napoleon said.
Illya’s eyebrows arched. He was still radiating ice. ‘How could you possibly have offended me?’
‘I don’t know,’ Napoleon said. He was just going to have to bluff his way through. He could never admit to finding the spy hole. ‘I used the word ‘eel,’ and you just – I don’t know. You froze me out.’
Illya held his gaze then for a long time. He seemed to be reading books in Napoleon’s eyes, digesting what he saw, trying to interpret it. And then he said, ‘I’m sorry, Napoleon. It was – a jolt from the past. There are a lot of them right now.’
Napoleon smiled. His relief was boundless. ‘Well, I guess there are,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry this is hard for you, Illya.’
He pronounced it just as he always did, but deliberately that way this time, and Illya smiled.
‘Now, I really am trying to concentrate,’ he said, nodding towards the paper. ‘I need to focus to get this down on paper.’
Napoleon patted him on the shoulder. ‘All right, Illya,’ he said.
He went back to the chair in the corner and picked up a book. But for a while he just sat there with the book in his hands, looking at Illya. Illya’s head was bowed, his blond fringe flopping forward, his hand moving a pencil intricately and diligently across the surface of the paper. Occasionally he stopped to erase something and draw it again, but not often. Illya’s ability to remember things visually always stunned Napoleon, and it was beautiful to watch him at the art of recall.
He watched the back of his neck, the shorter hairs low on his scalp leading down to the soft skin. The vertebrae were not so obvious as they had been in his younger self. His Illya was stronger. His neck was a little thicker. He watched Illya’s hands move, watched the arch of his fingers and the bones of his wrists, and wondered if the Illya in the next room had calluses on his fingers from playing guitar. He hadn’t seen a guitar anywhere in the other room. Maybe he didn’t have one, or maybe it had been against the spy hole wall, and so invisible to Napoleon. Maybe he had an English horn in there, in a small black case. He wondered what the other residents would think of that. Would they baulk at him practising like Illya’s present day neighbours sometimes did? Perhaps he played it for Philip.
He noticed Illya was squinting a little at the paper.
‘Maybe you should go next door and see if you’ve got any reading glasses,’ Napoleon suggested quietly.
Illya snorted. ‘I do have reading glasses. One pair. If they are in my room I will be with them, and if I am not in my room they will be in my pocket.’
‘Oh,’ Napoleon said. He hoped to god Illya wasn’t in, because he didn’t know what either of them would do if he started having sex with Philip next door. They had been pretty quiet last night, but not silent. Then he asked curiously, ‘The glasses. Are they tinted?’
Illya smiled without looking up from the paper. ‘I didn’t know the tint helped until later. The letters always used to jog around on the page and one day when I was reading in the light from a stained glass window I found the tint made them stay still.’ He looked briefly across at Napoleon, blinking as his eyes made the transition from close work to distance. ‘In case you are filing these things away in your mind, they are wire-framed, the cheapest one could purchase. I didn’t have rich relatives funding my education.’
Napoleon smiled. ‘I wish I could see,’ he said.
‘I may have them somewhere,’ Illya shrugged. ‘I will look them out when we get home.’
At that, Napoleon brightened, and not just at the prospect of seeing Illya in his clear-glass, wire-rimmed spectacles. ‘You think we will get home?’
‘If you let me finish drawing out these plans. I am starting to understand the mechanism.’
‘Oh, that’s good,’ Napoleon said. He lifted the book again and let Illya get on with it, but he didn’t try to pretend to himself that he wasn’t watching his partner the whole time.
Napoleon held himself quiet for hours while Illya continued to draw out his plans. Then they sneaked out down the drainpipe again and walked into Cambridge to find somewhere to have dinner. Napoleon lifted a little more money from a well-to-do looking young student who had had too much to drink, and they used to eat in a dark corner of a pub Illya recommended as having decent food, trying to stay well out of the main thoroughfare in case anyone that Illya knew came in. At one point Illya froze and then turned his chair as much to the wall as he could, murmuring to Napoleon, ‘That’s my supervisor over there. And that young woman he’s with isn’t his wife.’
Napoleon lifted his glass of red wine and took a sip, watching the pair with none of Illya’s caution, since there was no way that he would be recognised.
‘Well, Cambridge is a hotbed of intrigue, isn’t it?’ he commented. ‘But don’t worry. I don’t think she likes the look of the place. They’re leaving.’
Illya sighed in relief and reapplied himself to his steak and ale pie.
‘We should have got something to eat in the room,’ he muttered.
‘All the shops are closed, remember? Sunday trading laws.’
‘Well, I for one am glad of this,’ Napoleon said, gesturing at his plate. ‘In fact,’ he said, feeling a little expansive, perhaps because of the wine, ‘I am glad of this whole thing, Illya. I’m glad of getting to spend this time with you, of being able to come somewhere so special to you, in a way that should never be possible. You could take me to Cambridge any time, sure, but you couldn’t take me to here and now. And I’m glad I’m sharing it with you.’
‘You shouldn’t drink any more of that,’ Illya commented, nodding at the wine. But then he smiled. ‘I’m glad too, Napoleon. Cambridge was beginning to feel like so long ago, even if it wasn’t really. It was a different world, a whole different – ’
He broke off, his eyes casting downwards. Then he looked up again and his gaze was bright with something Napoleon couldn’t quite define. It was almost as if there were tears in his eyes. Illya reached his hand across the table and Napoleon took hold of it, squeezing the hand that he wanted to caress ever so softly, to press to his mouth and kiss. He felt rather ridiculous, practically shaking Illya’s hand over the table as if they had just sealed a business deal, but it was all that he could do in this here and now, before strangers’ eyes.
Napoleon finished his steak in a hurry, and Illya swallowed the last of his pie. When they stepped out of the pub the sky was rich with twilight and the streetlamps were coming on. They walked out towards the river by some kind of silent mutual agreement. Cool rose from the water as the last of the day’s heat evaporated from the gravel of the path. Couples were walking that way too, and Napoleon yearned to be able to look at Illya in that way and have him return the sentiment. Again he was jealous of Philip, this man he hadn’t even known existed until yesterday. How could Philip have Illya, have all of Illya’s fire and intensity, when he, Napoleon, was only allowed platonic friendship? What did that cerebral upstart have that Napoleon didn’t?
They stopped at the waterside and watched the light rippling on the surface. In the growing darkness Napoleon heard a fish splash. A woman laughed, and a man echoed her laughter, deeper and warm. How he wanted to put his arm around Illya and walk with him like that, holding him, feeling the warmth of him protected in his embrace.
He realised that Illya was watching something. There was another couple on the other side of the river, standing just in the shadow of the trees. A man with his head tilted a little downwards, and – another man, head tilted up, and under the protection of the darkness, they were kissing. With a jolt in both his heart and his loins Napoleon realised that Illya was watching himself, himself and Philip. Philip’s hand was low on Illya’s behind. Illya’s arms were around his neck. They were so in love…
‘Hey, is that a badger over there?’ Napoleon asked inanely in too loud a voice, pointing at the bushes up ahead.
Please god don’t let Illya realise I’ve seen them too…
Illya jerked his head abruptly from the sight on the other bank, and followed Napoleon’s finger. Of course there was nothing there, but he said, ‘Perhaps it was a fox.’
Napoleon detected just the slightest tremble in his voice. Illya turned abruptly, saying, ‘We’d better get back before it gets too dark. The path can be slippery, and it’s not always safe at night.’
We’d better get back before they get back , Napoleon thought.
When they got back to where there were lights, he thought he saw the suggestion of a glimmer on Illya’s face, as if his cheeks were wet. Damn it all to hell, he thought, and he took the risk of laying his arm across Illya’s shoulders. Illya didn’t shrug him off.
When they got back to Mrs M.’s the light was still off in Illya’s room, and they slipped up into Lawrence’s completely unnoticed.
‘I’ll take the bed tonight,’ Illya said, and Napoleon was actually glad to be spared the temptation of waiting until Illya was asleep and then watching through that hole, because he didn’t think he would be able to stop himself. He took off trousers, jacket, and shirt, and wrapped himself up in the blanket on the chair. He watched Illya stripping to his underwear and settling himself in to the bed. They had followed this routine so often on so many missions that it was almost like living together. After a moment Illya asked, ‘Light off?’ and Napoleon nodded. He would have happily just sat and watched Illya sleep, but perhaps it was best to be spared that too.
After ten minutes of sitting in the darkness he knew that Illya hadn’t fallen asleep easily as he had last night. He could still hear his breathing, wakeful breathing. It was as if he were waiting for something. It was hard to bear the thought of Illya being so lonely, especially in the knowledge of what this era’s Illya had possessed. The darkness made Napoleon courageous, and he asked softly, ‘Illya?’
‘Mmm,’ Illya responded. His voice was sleepy, but Napoleon was sure it was a front.
‘Room for a little ’un?’ he asked.
‘Huh?’ Illya’s voice was still sleepy, but puzzled. Napoleon realised that Illya had probably put tissue in his ears again.
Napoleon got up from the chair and walked carefully across the room in the dark, bringing the blanket with him.
‘It’s colder tonight,’ he whispered, laying a hand on Illya’s shoulder. ‘Come on, bunk up.’
It wasn’t colder, but Illya carefully shifted across the treacherous mattress and lifted the covers. Napoleon spooned in behind him and pulled the extra blanket over the top. There was nowhere for his left arm, so he let it drape across Illya’s side and down onto his belly. Illya shuffled a little, and sighed, and Napoleon felt immensely, beautifully content. He was surrounded by Illya’s scent. Illya’s hair tickled his nose a little. His belly pressed against the curve of Illya’s back, his hips against his buttocks, his thighs against Illya’s thighs. And this was perfect. Philip must have been the happiest man in the world to sleep tangled with Illya like that every night. But what was best was that Illya actually seemed pleased at the contact. He had got into that bed looking lonely and small, and now he was nuzzling back against Napoleon as if all he wanted was touch.
Napoleon very gently kissed the back of Illya’s head. He didn’t think his partner was really awake, but Illya murmured a little and snuggled back more firmly against him. Napoleon tightened his arm over Illya’s side, and as he started to hear the muted and careful sounds of lovemaking from next door, he forced himself to fall asleep.
Napoleon woke with his head pressed against Illya, the skin of his cheek adhered to Illya’s skin by sweat. His arm was still laid loosely over Illya’s flank, but the Russian had turned to face him in the night, so it was his chest that Napoleon’s cheek was against, and his hand was draped over Illya’s lower back, almost over his buttocks. Illya’s top arm was over Napoleon too, and was hugging him tightly. His mouth seemed to be against the top of Napoleon’s head, and his legs were tangled with Napoleon’s, the blankets hanging off them both onto the floor.
‘Oh,’ Illya said quietly, and Napoleon smiled against him.
‘Oh,’ he echoed. ‘Good morning, tovarisch.’
They were both burdened with morning erections, and they were pressed against each other. Napoleon heard Illya’s breath hitch.
‘It happens to us all,’ Napoleon said for the second time in as many days. Although his face was pressed very close against Illya’s chest he could see the flush suffusing his skin, but neither of them moved.
Illya exhaled, and the out-breath seemed very long and strangely sad. He wished he could get Illya back to the present now, right away. This place wasn’t any good for him.
‘I thought you seemed a little lonely last night,’ he said softly.
There was a hesitation, but then Illya said, ‘I was...’ He was silent, then after a long moment he said, ‘Napoleon?’
He waited for Illya to continue, but he just lay against his partner, breathing slowly, his mouth still against the top of Napoleon’s head.
‘Illya?’ he prompted him after a while.
‘I was lonely,’ Illya said after another long gap. ‘Thank you for – making me less so.’
Napoleon smiled. ‘Any time, IK. Any time at all.’
The silence stretched again. Then Illya asked, ‘You really mean that, don’t you?’
It was Napoleon’s turn to be quiet. Then he said, ‘Yes, Illya, I really mean that. Any time, any way, any how.’
Illya’s hand moved. It moved very slowly downwards to where his cock lay hard under his underwear, hard along the length of Napoleon’s, separated from each other by two thin layers of cotton jersey fabric. The brush of Illya’s hand against him was so enticing that he bit his tongue.
‘Napoleon, do you mean that too?’ Illya asked, and he sounded as if he were asking a question of the Sphinx and waiting to be killed and eaten.
Napoleon swallowed. This was it. But how easy it was when it came down to it.
‘Yes, Illya,’ he said. ‘I mean that too.’
He shifted his hips a little, and Illya gasped as the hardness of his cock moved against Napoleon’s, and then Napoleon tilted his head up so that it came level with Illya’s, so that he could feel the warmth of Illya’s morning breath against his face, so that their lips were a scant centimetre apart. And then an irresistible magnetism seemed to draw them together, and Napoleon was feeling the richness of Illya’s lips on his and tasting the inside of his mouth, and he could have wept, it was so perfect.
Brandt’s laboratory was crowded with the strangest of people; or at least Napoleon thought they were the strangest of people. Perhaps Illya was used to the types. In fact, since he knew half of them, he obviously was used to th at type. But there hadn’t been people like that on Napoleon’s philosophy degree; of that he was sure. He didn’t know if it were because they were scientists or because they were Cambridge types, or both.
They didn’t dare go inside, because for a start the younger Illya was in there, and so was Philip, standing at his side, arm around him in a platonic way that did little to hide the love in his eyes, laughing at something he had said. And there were at least a dozen other people that Illya had said would recognise him straight out, even with the age difference. He couldn’t pretend to be his own brother, not with young Illya in the room, because Illya had no brother, and it was inconceivable that he wouldn’t recognise himself.
‘I wonder what they’d say if they knew it actually worked,’ Illya whispered.
‘They wouldn’t believe it,’ Napoleon replied. ‘They just wouldn’t believe it. I barely believe it, and look where we are!’
They were hiding in the shrubbery outside the wide windows that looked in on Brandt’s lab. Napoleon reflected rather ruefully that he had spent a lot of his time in Cambridge hiding in shrubberies, and for none of the reasons he would usually judge to be good ones. Illya had his carefully drawn plans rolled up and tucked under one arm, and they had made sure they had brought everything with them, what little they had brought to this time. With luck they wouldn’t have to go back and use Lawrence’s room again tonight. Even if they didn’t get home Illya didn’t think it was a good idea to keep going back there. It would be pushing their luck. If they didn’t get home tonight they would have to rethink their strategy entirely. Maybe Napoleon would be able to convince the chaps at U.N.C.L.E. London that he and Illya were a pair of time travellers, and maybe they would be able to use U.N.C.L.E. resources to build their own machine. But then, as Illya pointed out, if it were as easy as all that, surely U.N.C.L.E. would already have a time machine?
‘I wish we had a time machine now. How soon before they all go home?’ Napoleon asked rather plaintively.
Illya looked at his watch. ‘At least another hour,’ he said dourly. He glanced up at the sky, where clouds were gathering. ‘At least it doesn’t rain. I don’t remember it raining, anyway.’
Napoleon chuckled quietly. ‘Do you remember two odd types in rather dirty suits breaking into the lab later that night?’ he asked.
Illya grinned and shook his head. ‘I don’t remember that, either.’
‘Well, that’s one thing. Do you remember any newspaper reports of break-ins? Brandt complaining about someone sabotaging his work?’
Illya stiffened at that. ‘Now you mention it… You know, he was always complaining about that kind of thing, and no one ever took any notice. But I do remember the night after that party. He stormed into one of the study rooms at Trinity and started bawling about a terrible mess someone had made. We – I – just assumed it was damage left over from the party. There was a lot of alcohol, you know. And then he tried to demonstrate how the thing worked with a pair of lab rats, and – well – ’ He looked at Napoleon and shook his head. ‘No, I don’t think you want to know.’
‘What, Illya?’ Napoleon asked very seriously.
Illya sighed, then said, ‘Well, they – they might have exploded. Just a little.’
‘How,’ Napoleon asked icily, ‘does a rat explode a little?’
Illya shrugged. ‘Rats are not big creatures, Napoleon.’
Napoleon crouched down and leant his back against the wall, dropping his face into his hands. ‘Oh god,’ he murmured with real fear in his heart. ‘I’m going to be blown up like a rat. This is how the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with an exploding rat...’
There was a hand on his shoulder. He dropped his hands and looked up. Illya was crouching down in front of him and smiling. ‘I will not blow you up,’ he said softly. He leant forward and touched his lips against Napoleon’s. ‘I enjoyed that this morning,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to blow you up when we’ve just discovered this.’
Napoleon’s heart lurched. He felt so ridiculously happy. He was so glad that it had happened like this, with no explosion over what Napoleon had seen in the next room, no angst-filled revelations about Philip, no angry words or upset. Just the soft coming together in the same bed, arms holding each other in the night, lips pressed together in the morning. They hadn’t even discussed this. It had just happened, and it seemed so right.
They sat side by side on the damp earth for what felt like a long time, listening to the noises from inside. At one point a small bang made the wall shudder behind them, and Napoleon almost jumped up, but Illya put a hand on his arm and said with a small, rather twisted smile, ‘The rats, remember.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Napoleon murmured. ‘The rats...’
He felt for the rats. He really did. Being afraid one was going to share something’s fate did a good deal for one’s empathy.
‘I think things are starting to break up now,’ Illya said. ‘As far as I remember, the rats were something of a dampener.’
Napoleon rolled his eyes. ‘You don’t say? Well, I guess tiny morsels of rat spread over the guests does put a downer on things.’
Illya smiled. ‘The girls didn’t like it.’
Napoleon perked up a little. ‘There were girls? I didn’t see any!’
‘Well, a few. Not exactly your New York society types, Napoleon,’ Illya said in a tone of weariness. ‘They were science students like the rest of us.’
‘Oh,’ Napoleon said glumly. ‘Blue stockings and tweed skirts, I suppose...’
‘I remember Sophie Baxter wearing a very tight sweater,’ Illya commented, but he grabbed Napoleon’s arm as he started to rise. ‘Napoleon,’ he growled. ‘Do you even remember kissing me just now?’
Napoleon felt his cheeks redden. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured. ‘I guess old habits die hard.’
He leant against the wall again and waited. They had something of a view of the front path up to the lab, and watched people leaving in dribs and drabs. A girl came out in a sweater that looked as if it were painted on, and Illya nodded and murmured, ‘Sophie Baxter.’
Gradually the numbers exiting the lab tailed off, and then about ten minutes later a rather portly, short man exited wearing a singed lab coat. He looked quite disconsolate, and was shaking his head.
‘Borscht Brandt,’ Illya said, and Napoleon nodded.
‘Yeah, I recognise him. So, coast’s clear? I haven’t seen you come out yet.’
And there was that flush again, delicate and high up on Illya’s cheeks, quite irresistible to Napoleon’s eyes. He deliberately didn’t look into the lab, and he supposed Illya didn’t need to look since, after all, he had been there first time round. But he tortured himself with imagining. Illya and Philip must still be in the lab, or perhaps in one of the corridors beyond. The building would be empty now. And Napoleon imagined Illya pushed against the wall, Philip’s fingers in his hair, their lips pressed together and hands roaming. Or perhaps it was the other way round. Perhaps it was Illya, a little unsteady with drink, who had captured Philip and was launching himself at the Englishman. Perhaps they had found an empty lab. Perhaps Illya was sweeping a bench clear and Philip fumbling free of his clothes and Illya was –
He pressed his head hard against the pebbledash of the wall and let the pain of all those little bits of gravel drill into his scalp.
‘How – er – how long do you think you’ll be?’ he asked Illya, keeping his voice remarkably steady.
‘Not long,’ Illya said. ‘Oh, look, there I am.’
Napoleon looked. Illya was walking down the front path with Philip, and although his hair was mussed his clothes were all intact.
‘Did I really ever look like that?’ Illya sighed, and Napoleon couldn’t tell if his tone were one of regret or censure.
‘You must have done, because there you are,’ he smiled, just as the pair began to move out of sight.
‘Come on,’ Illya hissed, grabbing at his arm. As his past self disappeared into the dark of the street he and Napoleon were creeping to the door of the building. Illya crouched and slipped something out of the heel of his shoe, then blew the lock. They slipped inside, and Illya guided Napoleon unerringly to the lab. Napoleon dropped the blinds and Illya turned the lights on.
‘Sure no one will see?’ he asked nervously.
‘I need the light,’ Illya muttered, ‘and it’s not unusual for people to work late here. We’re lucky it’s a quiet night.’
‘Quiet...’ Napoleon echoed, looked around at the detritus of the lab. Glasses and scientific beakers were everywhere, having been used indiscriminately for alcohol. The bin was full of discarded bottles. Paper was scattered on the floor and surfaces, along with little red and pink bits that Napoleon was terrible afraid were shredded rat. Illya picked up a tail from a Van der Graaf generator and tossed it aside with a rueful look. The machine itself looked in a terrible state.
‘Do you think you’ll be able to fix it?’ Napoleon asked anxiously.
Illya was unrolling the careful diagrams he had drawn and weighting the corners so they wouldn’t roll up again.
‘I can’t say,’ he muttered. ‘Let me have a look at it...’
Napoleon pulled up a lab stool and settled in for a long night.
Dawn was approaching, and Napoleon was growing terrified that some over-zealous student would come back to the labs at any time. He had sat there all night watching Illya tinkering, sometimes helping but more often just sinking into exhausted boredom. Once he had fallen asleep and toppled right off the lab stool and onto the floor, leading Illya to chide him for making so much noise.
‘Illya, are you almost done?’ he asked sleepily. He hadn’t seen the Russian stop working at any point during the night, and he must have been ten times more tired than Napoleon, but his hands were still steady and there was still a light almost akin to fanaticism in his eyes. He was crouching at the bottom of the machine tinkering with something.
‘Almost,’ Illya muttered around the end of a screwdriver that was shoved between his teeth.
Napoleon sat bolt upright at that, suddenly more awake.
‘You think it’ll work?’
‘If Brandt’s future machine worked...’
‘And it did,’ Napoleon replied, ‘unless this is some kind of concussion-induced shared dream.’
Illya pushed himself to his feet gracefully and came across the room to pinch Napoleon hard.
‘Ow!’ Napoleon protested.
Illya grinned at him. ‘You’re not dreaming,’ he said.
‘Well, if you dreamed you pinched me and I dreamed I received the pinch,’ Napoleon began rather confusedly.
Illya stared at him. ‘Napoleon, we’re not dreaming. Now, come here. I think I’ve done it. All I need to do is fix this...’ And he turned some dials.
‘What’s that?’ Napoleon asked. ‘Are you setting it to August 15th, 1965?’
Illya snorted. ‘Time, Napoleon, has no idea of the petty restrictions we put upon it. This machine wouldn’t know what August 15 th , 1965 was if it came up and slapped it in the face.’
‘Then how do you get the thing to take us back to where it sent us from?’ Napoleon asked rather hysterically.
Illya turned from the machine again and folded his arms over his chest. ‘Napoleon, there are certain constants in nature, and certain variables. If the earth were knocked out of orbit the concept of a year would become meaningless. The day gains about one and a half milliseconds every hundred years because the rotation is being slowed by tidal forces. On the other hand, the half-life of certain elements is an absolute constant, and – ’
At Napoleon’s expression, he broke off.
‘Oh, never mind, Napoleon,’ he said rather grumpily. ‘Suffice to say, I can tell it how far forward to send us in a way that it understands.’
Napoleon could forgive him his grumpiness. He’d been up all night working very hard, and they were apparently so, so close.
‘Is it done?’ he asked.
Illya grinned, that flashing, light-up-the-room grin that went with really good explosions and Napoleon’s best jokes and escaping certain death.
‘It’s done,’ he said. ‘If you’ll just come over here – ’
And he gestured towards the same part of the machine that he and Napoleon had been cuffed to in their present.
‘Now,’ he murmured, wiping a little gel onto Napoleon’s temples with great care.
Napoleon baulked a little at the electrodes.
‘I know,’ Illya said, ‘but it’s necessary. I mean, I don’t know if it’s necessary that it’s on the head here, but your body needs to be in contact in some way, and I don’t see the point of deviating from Brandt’s routine, since it worked.’
He carelessly rubbed gel onto his own temples, and attached his own electrodes.
‘Can you still reach the lever?’ Napoleon asked anxiously.
Illya grinned. ‘Easily,’ he said, reaching out to demonstrate. ‘Now, are you ready?’
‘As I’ll ever be,’ Napoleon murmured, looking around at the lab and wishing a silent and hopeful goodbye to 1957.
‘All right,’ Illya said. His eyes lingered on the lab door for a moment and Napoleon thought he saw just the smallest hint of regret in his blue eyes. Then he pulled the handle downwards on the machine, and everything exploded in blue light.
They were lying in a tangle on the floor. The air smelt of burned circuits and chemicals and dust. Lab smells. Napoleon blinked his eyes open, and groaned.
‘Illya, it didn’t – ’ he began.
There was blazing triumph in Illya’s voice. ‘It did !’
Napoleon jerked to a sitting position, staring around. This wasn’t the Cambridge lab. This was mad old Borscht Brandt’s lab, and mad old Borscht Brandt was still there, standing on the other side of the room, staring at them.
‘Oh, it didn’t work, it didn’t work,’ the man keened, and Illya took advantage of that moment of distraction to jump him and twist his arm viciously behind his back. Napoleon yanked some stray wire from a bench and used it to truss the man up, then pulled out his communicator pen and snapped, ‘Open Channel D.’
To his immense relief, a smooth voice of one of U.N.C.L.E.’s communications women answered, and he requested immediate transport for their prisoner and an engineering crew to come and pack up the machine. Brandt was taken from the lab with no clue that his machine had ever worked.
‘Oh god, Illya, the plans you drew!’ Napoleon suddenly recalled as they stood in the empty lab staring at the machine. ‘What if you leaving them behind was how he managed to get this thing working in the end?’
Illya grinned and patted his jacket. ‘I didn’t leave them behind, Napoleon,’ he said, drawing the folded plans out from between his jacket and his shirt.
‘Huh,’ Napoleon said, rubbing his nose. ‘Now, if you had, would that mean that it would actually have been you who invented that thing in its working form?’
Illya frowned. ‘I don’t think so, because I only copied what I saw here in the present, and Brandt had been working on it years...’
‘But if he’d been working from your plans?’
Illya shook his head tiredly. ‘I don’t know, Napoleon. We were speaking of paradoxes, weren’t we?’
Napoleon laughed and slung his arm around Illya’s shoulders. ‘Well, the only paradox I want to solve now involves a very quick debriefing, a good breakfast, and a soft bed. What do you say to that, IK?’
Illya regarded him boldly. ‘Your place or mine?’
Illya plumped for his place, and Napoleon was happy to oblige, even if the bed was smaller and the kitchen less well appointed and the refrigerator considerably more empty. They solved the problem of the refrigerator on the way home, and he thought they could probably tackle the other problems in time. But for now he could recognise and understand Illya’s need to reconnect with his present life. Napoleon recognised a lot of the books lining the walls as the same ones that he had seen through the spy hole in Cambridge. Illya even still had the blue oval rug in his bedroom, which Napoleon had just assumed had belonged to the landlady.
They had eaten well and slept for a while, and were lounging on the low sofa listening to Illya’s choice of jazz on his record player before Napoleon gained the courage to speak. Illya was soft and relaxed against his outstretched arm, and he felt secure enough in Illya’s contentment to broach the subject. So he took a mouthful of his drink and cleared his throat, and said softly, ‘Illya, tell me about Philip.’
Illya immediately stiffened, and Napoleon was suddenly afraid he’d made a terrible mistake. But then he felt the Russian deliberately pushing the tension out of his muscles, and he said, ‘What is there to tell? We were housemates, that’s all.’
‘Housemates who kiss in the dark on the bank of the river?’ Napoleon asked softly. Illya stiffened again. ‘I saw them, Illya,’ he continued. ‘I saw you. You and him. And I saw your face when we walked away.’
He would never tell all that he saw. That had been a sliver of Illya so intimate he wasn’t even sure if Illya himself had been able to see it.
Illya swallowed. Napoleon could hear the hardness in his throat. Then he shrugged and said, ‘ You meet people, and then some of them drift away. Isn’t that what you said? It’s like the river. Someone passes you in a boat, you make eye contact, you might even speak – and then the current takes them, and you never see them again.’
‘You’ve never seen Philip again?’ Napoleon risked asking.
Illya shook his head. ‘No. Not after – No.’
And Napoleon could get no more from him. Illya turned against him and pressed his face against Napoleon’s chest, against the cotton of his shirt, breathing very softly and slowly. Napoleon gently stroked his golden hair and kissed the top of his head. He didn’t know if Illya were crying, and he wouldn’t ask. He just sat and stroked Illya’s hair, and then the soft back of his neck, and then the wide expanse of his back through his own thin shirt, until Illya fell asleep against him. Napoleon sat like that until he started to go numb, and beyond, thinking of how precious a burden that was against his chest. He had met Illya perhaps not long after Illya had lost Philip, and it had taken far too long to get to this stage. He would never let him drift away.