The Mirror, Mirror Affair

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: I have many thanks to tender with this one. First of all, to Nicole D'Annais, who sat with me through literally every hour that I spent writing this. That's a whole lot of hours. To my beta, who pointed out two huge errors (one structural, one emotional)--I sure hope I have fixed them sufficiently. To Sithdragn and Nicole (again) for answering bizarre and obscure MfU questions, since at the time I started this I had not seen a single episode. And to my parents, strangely enough, because they (a) answered weird questions about the 1960's nearly every day I worked on the story, and (b) didn't get pissed off at me when I woke them up in the middle of the night to ask how much a really expensive tuxedo would cost in 1967. I swear, I didn't realize what time it was.


Mirror, mirror on the wall / Who's the fairest of them all?

The first thing to slide into Napoleon's awareness was the smell, the harsh scent of antiseptic that marked hospitals everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere, which meant he was in a city large enough to have a modern hospital. Either that or UNCLE medical, which he felt was more likely.

He found himself automatically listening for the heart monitor, but the steady bleep was missing. I know I'm not dead, Napoleon thought wryly, so where is it? It didn't seem likely that medical would run out of them, not unless things had gone very badly indeed on their last affair. So if he wasn't injured badly enough to need a heart monitor, then why was he in medical at all?

For that matter, what were his injuries?

Napoleon, concentrated, eyes still closed, trying to orient himself before he admitted consciousness. He and Illya had been trying to take down a THRUSH scientific installation. They'd gotten inside without much trouble, had actually surprised the scientist in her lab. She'd had a little more common sense than the usual THRUSH--she'd tossed the beaker she'd been holding and bolted for the back door.

Tossed the beaker...

Illya had stepped away from him, trying to flank the woman, and she'd flung out her hand. Napoleon had flinched away, hands coming up instinctively to protect his eyes. What the hell was in that beaker? he wondered. It had felt wet for an instant before the pain started... The only thing Napoleon remembered between that moment and now was a momentary coldness.

He turned his attention from the past to his current situation. There were dressings on his chest and right arm. My hand? He almost panicked for a moment, but a slight twitch told him that his fingers weren't dressed, though they did hurt a little.

"Napoleon?"

Illya. Napoleon slowly blinked his eyes open and found his partner leaning over from a chair next to his bed. It was UNCLE medical, not a hospital. He tried to speak, but his mouth was startlingly dry. Illya glanced aside and reached out. A moment later his hand came into view holding a cup with a short straw sticking out of it. Napoleon sipped gratefully.

"Illya," he managed, "what happened?"

"What do you remember?"

"We surprised a woman in the THRUSH lab," Napoleon said. "She threw something at me. After that...not much."

Illya just nodded. "The chemical in the beaker was very much like an acid. Something THRUSH had been working on, we think." He hesitated. "You should know, as these things go, it was not a particularly...corrosive compound and I got you into the emergency shower as quickly as possible. You will recover full use of your hand and arm and there was no lung damage at all, which is remarkable--"

"Illya," Napoleon interrupted. "You're practically babbling." Which, they both knew, was very much unlike him. A knot began to grow in Napoleon's gut. Where was the doctor? Usually they appeared to harass him almost immediately after he woke. Illya hadn't even called for one.

"I just want you to know," his partner was saying, "that you'll be out of here soon. It'll be two weeks, perhaps less, before Waverly will put you back on active status."

Napoleon was listening with half an ear. Still no doctor. Normally he'd be happy enough not to be poked and prodded, but a departure from routine in UNCLE's medical section was worrisome. Normally the staff hardly let Section Two agents out of their sight, as if afraid they'd sneak off at the first opportunity.

Why would they leave him alone with his partner for this long? And why was Illya blathering on like this? Well, there was one way to find out...

"Illya," Napoleon said firmly, "you're avoiding something. That's not like you."

Illya's mouth snapped shut and he glared at his partner for a moment. But only for a moment. "You--" he cut himself off. "There will be some scarring."

Napoleon was surprised. That was all? "Illya, we both have more than our fair share of scars."

But his partner was shaking his head. "Not like this. They will be very obvious."

"Ah...where?" Napoleon asked.

Illya demonstrated on his own body. "Your chest," he said, passing his spread fingers over the right side of his chest and up to the shoulder. "Your arm," he wrapped his hand around his upper bicep, then passed it over the back of his forearm. "A little bit," he touched the back of his right hand, "of your hand, but not enough to affect your grip." Illya trailed off, but Napoleon could tell that he wasn't quite finished.

"And?" he prompted.

Slowly, Illya lifted his hand and raked it across his forehead and back into the hair. "Here."

He traced out an irregular patch starting at the corner of his eye, ending at his chin, and covering most of his cheek. "Here. And...small splashes here," Illya touched the side of his nose, "here," his cheekbone, "here," his cheek, "and here," his jaw line. He let his hands fall to his lap. "That is everything."

Napoleon automatically lifted his left hand--his good hand--to find the damage on his own face, but Illya caught his wrist before he could touch. "Napoleon, no," he said urgently. "There are no dressings there, and a burn is an open wound. You will only make it worse."

Napoleon took a shaky breath. "It doesn't hurt."

"The doctors applied a local anesthetic," Illya explained, still holding Napoleon's hand.

"But my hand hurts," Napoleon said, trying to think of the puzzle and of the facts.

"With this kind of burn there is not much pain, but they didn't want you to know about...about the rest until someone could tell you."

Napoleon tried for a smile but the movement sent a lance of pain through his jaw. "So, did you draw the short straw, then?" he said lightly.

Illya shook his head no. "I volunteered. The others...I don't think they understood why--" He broke the sentence off there, but Napoleon could think of half a dozen equally accurate ways to end it. Why I had to tell you. Why it would be better for you to hear it from me. Why you should be upset despite knowing that it could have been so much worse, it could have been the end, he could have been dead, but he wasn't, not dead, just dis--

He cut the thought off there, before he could finish it. Instead, Napoleon curled his fingers around the hand that held his and squeezed once. "Thank you." Illya smiled slightly, just a brief flicker, before pulling away. "So," Napoleon said briskly, trying for normalcy, "when do I get out of here?"

Illya tilted his head back and raised his voice. "That is your cue." A doctor promptly appeared in the doorway, chart in hand. Napoleon glanced as his partner, who just shrugged.

"Mr. Solo," the doctor said with false brightness, "chafing at the bit already, are we?" His gaze flickered to Napoleon's face, then down to the chart, then back again. He met the agent's eyes evenly this time.

He could have just been checking the chart, you know, Napoleon told himself firmly. "You know Section Two," he said easily. "Always impatient to be back in the thick of things."

"Well, it won't be too long this time. We'll keep you here for three or four days just to make sure infection doesn't set in. That's the real killer with burns, not the trauma. After that you can go home, although," he glanced down at the chart again, "we'll have some pretty detailed care instructions for you."

The doctor flipped through several more pages on the chart. Medical history, Napoleon presumed. There was a lot of it. "I see here you've never been burned this extensively before. You'll have to be scrupulously careful about--" he cut himself off and looked up at Napoleon again. "Well, we'll go over that in detail when you're released. In the meantime, don't touch either the dressed or undressed injuries, even if it itches. If you're in pain, call one of the nurses and have them apply the anesthetic for you. Clear?"

"Perfectly," Napoleon said. "Thank you, doctor."

***

It was a conspiracy, Napoleon decided. It had to be. Why else would there be a mirror missing from the washroom? He could understand why one would be left out of the utilitarian bedroom. And it was entirely plausible that the nurses could have forgotten to bring him a mirror when he asked. Twice. But there should have been a mirror in the bathroom, tiny as it was.

Okay, maybe they wanted to give me a chance to adapt, he thought, frustrated, but they're releasing me soon. I need some idea of what it...I...look like.

He'd watched as they changed the dressings on his chest and arm. Most of the area was still healing, but there were spots that were a smooth, shiny white. The rest, the doctor had told him, would probably end up shades of white and gray. Napoleon had tried to picture it, tried to convince himself it wouldn't be so bad, but he knew the color, the texture, would only be a part of it. Already he could feel the growing scar tissue tugging at the corner of his eye, his lips, the lobe of his ear. The only question was, how far askew would everything settle?

Napoleon reached up, but managed to catch himself before he actually touched. The tug of the IV in his hand helped. He'd be grateful to get the damn thing out, even if it was useful reminder.

As if summoned by his thoughts, a nurse appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Solo," she greeted him cheerfully. "I've come to free you from the bonds of medical equipment and release you into the wide world."

Napoleon smiled, ignoring the twinge of pain. "A veritable angel of mercy," he said, perching on the bed and holding out his hand to have the IV removed.

She set down a stack of clothing beside him. "Oh, I don't know that I qualify as an angel," she said, glancing at him. Her eyes quickly slid away to focus on the IV.

Napoleon concentrated on radiating warmth. "Well, angels are supposed to minister to those in pain," he said philosophically, "and you've done that. They say they're merciful and," he lowered his voice just a little, "your visits have been a mercy." There was a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth now. "So you've been an angel for me, Christie."

Christie's smile bloomed at that. She looked at him as she coiled up the IV. "You wouldn't think that if I'd had to do more than change your dressings and your IV," she argued lightly.

"I'm quite certain," Napoleon said, risking a half smile, "that you have a light touch regardless."

"You are a flatterer, Mr. Solo," Christie said, shaking her finger at him. "Be careful or we might not let you go."

Napoleon pressed a hand over his heart--conveniently on the uninjured side of his chest. "Sadly, I have an appointment I can't miss."

"Oh?"

He nodded to the doorway just as Illya appeared in it. "My ride home."

"I'll be going then," Christie said, nodding politely to Illya. She turned back to Napoleon. "Be careful when you're getting dressed. Don't button the top two buttons on the shirt and don't do up the cuffs. You don't want to chafe the burns. The doctor will be in with instructions once you're dressed."

"Thank you, Christie," Napoleon called as she left.

Illya glanced down the hall at the departing nurse and turned back to Napoleon with raised eyebrows. "Another conquest?"

Napoleon scooped up his clothing and retreated to the bathroom to change. "Regretfully, no," he called out in answer. "Just doing my best to put her at ease."

"As you were leaving?"

"Practice never hurts, my friend." Gingerly, Napoleon eased his right arm into the sleeve of the dress shirt, but there wasn't really any pain. The dressings, themselves loose, prevented the material from catching on tender flesh.

"Since when do you need to practice?" Illya asked from the other room.

Napoleon paused, his fingers on the last button. Since there was a reason no one will bring me a mirror, he thought briefly. He said nothing aloud, though, just pulled on pants and socks and shoes. When he returned to the other room the doctor had arrived. Napoleon sat impatiently through his instructions and, when handed a sheet of paper reiterating them, folded it and stuck it into his pocket for later. The came the words he was waiting for.

"So, Mr. Solo, do you have any questions?"

"Not a question," Napoleon said firmly. "A request. Before I go out there," he pointed at the door, "I want a mirror."

Behind the doctor's shoulder Illya tilted his head, gave Napoleon a long, searching look, and vanished out the door. The doctor himself was frowning. "Mr. Solo, your appearance now won't necessarily reflect your appearance six months, even one month from now. The flesh is still red, almost raw. That will change as you heal more completely. Parts of the scars will fade almost back to normal skin tone and texture."

"I'm aware of all that," Napoleon interrupted. "I am also aware that when I walk out of medical and through headquarters and into the garage and through traffic and into my apartment building that I am going to be dealing with people who are seeing me now. I would prefer to be prepared to deal with their reactions." Still the doctor hesitated. "Let me point out two things that may have escaped your attention," Napoleon said impatiently. "One, dithering like this is only convincing me that things are even worse than I first imagined. And two, there are three perfectly good mirrors on my car."

The doctor sighed. "All right, Mr. Solo. I'll go and get you a mirror."

"That won't be necessary," Illya said from the doorway. He held up a hand mirror in explanation. The doctor frowned but made no further protest as Illya crossed the room to hand the mirror to his partner. Napoleon smiled his thanks but held the mirror in his lap, suddenly reluctant to look into it, now that he could. Slowly he looked down into the silvered surface even as part of his attention registered Illya ushering the doctor from the room.

Napoleon studied his image for a long time. He gripped the frame with both hands to remind himself not to reach up to touch the tender new skin. It should hurt more than it does, he thought, staring at the damage. But then, burns did tend to damage the nerves. The doctor had warned him he might have some loss of sensation.

The shifting of the bed told Napoleon that Illya had sat down next to him. "Somehow," he said, amazed at how normal he sounded, "I'd forgotten the splash had taken some hair off."

"It will grow back," Illya answered. "But...it will probably grow back white."

Napoleon tried a smile and couldn't help but flinch at the reflection. He looked up at Illya instead. "They say a touch of gray lends an air of distinction."

"I didn't think you could get much more distinct."

The words fell unintentionally heavy between them. Napoleon glanced down at the mirror. "I'm not going to be much good for undercover work, am I?"

"I hate to break it to you, Napoleon," Illya said dryly, "but you never were much good at undercover work."

Napoleon laughed and set the mirror aside. "That's what my partner is for. Come on, let's get out of here."

The corridors of medical were unusually quiet. Napoleon sincerely hoped it was because he was their only guest at the moment. The only other possibility that came to mind was embarrassingly self-pitying. Napoleon kept it to himself. The admitting nurse looked up as they approached and smiled at Illya. She glanced at Napoleon, her gaze sliding away to fix on a point somewhere over his shoulder. "It's good to see you up and around, Mr. Solo," she said.

"It's good to be up and around," he said. Illya had slowed, but Napoleon glanced at him and shook his head slightly. He had no intention of stopping to chat. Not today.

The entire trip through headquarters went more or less like that. Everyone looked at him automatically and everyone's eyes slid away almost immediately. Every now and then someone would jerk their eyes back, as if they realized what they'd done. Napoleon resisted the urge to duck his head. They were going to have to get used to it. He was going to have to get used to it.

***

Napoleon was staring into the fire he'd lit in the fireplace and listening to music when the knock on the door came. It was Illya's knock. Napoleon levered himself off the couch and went to disarm the security system.

"Checking up on me?" he asked as he let Illya into the room.

"Of course," Illya said with a sidelong glance. Napoleon stared at him, startled, and realized suddenly that Illya was going to check the contents of the garbage can under the sink.

"Hey!" he exclaimed, lunging for the kitchen, but it was too late.

Illya scowled at clutter of delivery containers and replaced the lid with rather more force than was necessary. He looked up and pinned Napoleon with a hard look. "Have you even left the building in the last three days?" he asked bluntly.

"Just following the doctor's orders," Napoleon shrugged. "Taking it easy."

"Now I know something's wrong," Illya said. "You never follow doctors' orders."

"And you're the model of obedience."

Illya lips curved just a little. "Perhaps not. I am, after all, here giving you a hard time."

Napoleon had to laugh at that. "While you're in there," he said, nodding at the kitchen area, "you might as well get the drinks."

"We could go out for drinks," Illya suggested evenly.

Unconsciously, Napoleon lifted a hand, his fingers skimming over the surface of his cheek, not quite touching down. Past his hairline his fingers brushed the stubble of returning hair. The sensation suddenly reminding him of what he was doing, Napoleon lowered his hand sheepishly. "I'd rather stay in."

"It's not like you to be so...anti-social," Illya said. Napoleon watched him retrieve two bottles--brandy and vodka--from their customary places. The glass clinked as he poured. Less than half a glass each, Napoleon noted, and he put the bottles away. There'd be no getting drunk tonight.

"I'm not much like myself at all," he said at length.

Illya handed him the brandy and watched as he sipped it. "Is that," he indicated Napoleon's face with a gesture, "so important to you that you can't function without it?"

Napoleon winced and took a long slug of the brandy. Long enough to almost finish it. Illya simply waited, and eventually he had to look up from the glass. "It's not that I can't. It's that I don't know how to."

Illya snorted at that. "You know people, Napoleon. You are very good at predicting what they're thinking and how they will react. The fact that one of the variables in the equation has changed doesn't mean you've lost that skill."

"One the variables..." Napoleon shook his head and turned away from Illya, back to the fire. "I'm not used to people flinching when they look at me."

"You can't hide in here forever."

Napoleon winced but couldn't argue the point. He was hiding. Theoretically he could live on delivery food indefinitely, but in eleven days he'd be back on active status. Which meant he'd have to go to headquarters, and from there to wherever their mission took them. If he wanted to be in half-decent shape when he did get back into the field, he'd have to venture out of his apartment even sooner. Muscles lost their conditioning remarkably fast when they weren't being used every day.

"Well," he said, finishing the brandy and setting it back on the kitchen counter, "I can at least give myself time to get used to it."

"You can't get used to anything by yourself," Illya argued. "You haven't changed. Just how people react to you." Napoleon cast an incredulous look over his shoulder, but Illya was completely serious. "Come out for dinner with me, Napoleon."

"I don't think--"

Illya raised an eyebrow. "I'll buy."

Napoleon chuckled. "Pulling out the big guns, are you?"

"Whatever gets the job done."

Napoleon sighed internally. He truly didn't want to go out, but he hated to turn Illya down when he was trying so hard. Whatever the reason. "All right," he conceded. "Let me change and turn the music off."

They ended up at an Italian restaurant. As they spoke to the host and found their seats Napoleon caught himself ducking his head. Don't hunch over, he reminded himself sharply. It doesn't help and you know it. He lifted his chin and forced himself to smile--just a little--at the waitress when she came around with their water. After a quick glance, she kept her eyes on the glasses.

"I'm not so sure this is a good idea," Napoleon muttered, scanning the menu but not really seeing it.

"Don't you trust me?" Illya asked lightly.

Napoleon looked up at him, detecting an undercurrent of...something in his tone. "Always. But--"

"Would you rather being doing this at headquarters?"

It was obvious to Napoleon that Illya didn't mean eating. He meant the hunching over, the moments of discomfort, the distraction. I'd rather not be doing this at all, he couldn't help thinking, but bit down before voicing the thought. "I suppose not," he said instead.

"Relax," Illya commanded. "You're so tense it's unnatural."

Napoleon treated Illya to a glare, but put a little thought into untwisting his shoulders regardless. When their waitress came back Illya ordered briskly and handed over his menu. He met Napoleon's gaze with a challenging look.

Turning to present the waitress with more open body language, Napoleon turned on the charm full throttle. "You'll have to excuse my friend," he said smoothly. "His grasp of the social graces is sadly lacking in some areas." Napoleon ignored the snort from the other side of the table. "It's unfortunate. The pleasantries do tend to make even the little things more...pleasant."

Almost involuntarily, the waitress looked directly at Napoleon for the first time. "The little things?" she asked.

Napoleon carefully measured out a smile. "Such as ordering dinner."

A smile tugged at her lips. "Speaking of which?" she held up her notepad.

"Of course," Napoleon turned back to the menu and picked out his selection. "I'd like the manicotti with the diavolo sauce, please."

"Certainly," she made a note. "Wine?"

Napoleon turned his menu to the wine list but didn't take his eyes off their server. "Do you have a recommendation?"

"Oh," she glanced down at her notepad. "I'm not a connoisseur..."

"But surely a woman such as yourself picks up a few things after working here for awhile," Napoleon said, turning the wine list toward her.

"Well," she looked over the list and pointed after a moment, "this one is very popular alongside the tomato based sauces."

"Then that's what we'll have," Napoleon said, handing over the menu.

She smiled at him. "I'll be back with your orders."

Napoleon turned to site more squarely in his seat and found Illya smirking at him. Responding with a dirty look of his own, he had to restrain the urge to throw a breadstick at him.

After that dinner went surprisingly well. Napoleon kept his attention on their waitress, when she was there, and on Illya when she wasn't. For over an hour he almost managed to forget why Illya had had to drag him out of his apartment for the evening.

Funny, Napoleon mused, watching Illya. I don't think I've ever paid him quite this much attention before. He tended to reserve his concentrated interest for beautiful women, members of THRUSH, and Mr. Waverly. As Illya leaned forward, a piece of pasta forgotten on the end of his fork as he spoke, it suddenly didn't seem right that he'd left his partner off that list.

Perhaps it was because Illya was his partner. Napoleon never had to concentrate on connecting with him; the connection was there regardless of his attention, or lack of it. Sipping at his wine, smiling, Napoleon was silently grateful for that.

***

Napoleon stood in his bathroom naked to the waist and stared hard at his reflection. He'd been cleared for a return to active duty as of this morning. Two weeks off duty, plus four days in UNCLE medical. Eighteen days total. Long enough for the scars to finish forming. Those on his chest and arm were smooth and shiny in shades of white and gray. Spots were still tender, but careful exploration had revealed no loss of sensation.

The patch on his cheek was a different matter. Parts of it were wrinkled, almost corrugated. Those parts were numb. The tightness of the tissue pulled his eyebrow, eyelid, earlobe, and lower lip slightly askew. It could have been worse. He didn't have any trouble seeing or sealing his lips.

His hair was coming in nicely. It always had grown fast. That didn't seem to have changed, though it was coming in mostly white where he had lost it.

Napoleon pulled on his dress shirt and buttoned it up briskly. He finished dressing quickly, glancing at the mirror only to straighten his tie. He had the elevator to himself this morning, a small blessing. The compartment quickly became claustrophobic when he had to share it with someone who was trying simultaneously not to look and not to stare.

For all the people whose eyes slid away, there were an equal number who seemed fixated. Not that he hadn't gotten long looks before...well, before. But he'd known why they were looking then. Not that he didn't know now--

Shaking his head sharply, Napoleon stepped off the elevator and turned his thoughts to driving. The trip to headquarters seemed shorter than usual. He found a parking spot less than a block away--luck was still in his favor, apparently. He pulled neatly into the spot, turned off the ignition, and rested his hands on the steering wheel for a moment.

The next step is to actually get out of the car, Napoleon reminded himself ruefully. Still, he hesitated with his hand on the door handle. If you don't get out of the car now, you'll be late. If you're late, Illya will come to get you. And then you'll really feel like an idiot. He could just imagine the look on Illya's face when he found Napoleon still sitting there.

He got out of the car.

Napoleon's feet dragged and the pedestrians on the busy street jostled him impatiently. Soon Del Floria's storefront was staring him down. Forcing himself to step lively, Napoleon pulled the door open and stepped inside. Del Floria himself nodded genially and moved to the steam press, though Napoleon was hardly halfway across the store. With a brief last glance, Napoleon stepped into the change room and pushed the hidden door open.

"Good morning, Wanda," he greeted to the receptionist, lifting his chin as he leaned over for his badge.

"Good morning, Mr. Solo," she said, biting her lip as she pinned on the badge. "Ow!" She stuck her finger in her mouth and shot him a sheepish glance. "Sorry, sir. That's the fourth time today."

"It's quite all right," Napoleon smiled a little, lifting one hand. He caught himself just in time, patting the top of her desk instead. "We all have our off days."

By the time he got to the elevator the tendons in the back of his neck felt like they'd been transmuted into iron bars. At this moment a sniper could take a bead on his head and he'd never notice. The little hairs on the back of his neck were already standing on end. At last the elevator doors opened. Napoleon stepped inside automatically, registering the presence of two others in the car only after the doors had closed.

A man and a woman. From research if he wasn't mistaken. Names. Napoleon wracked his brain, but none came to mind. A second glance brought a small smile to his lips. It didn't matter. They were rather absorbed in each other. Napoleon suspected, as he arrived at his own destination, that they'd missed theirs more than once.

Walking ahead of him, nose buried in a file, was his partner. Napoleon's smile stretched a little. "Illya," he called out, quickening his step.

Illya looked up, closing the file. "There you are," he said mildly.

Napoleon resisted the urge to check the time. "Where else would I be?"

"Any number of places," Illya murmured. Napoleon opened his mouth to respond, but Illya interrupted, nodding in the direction of Waverly's office. "He wants to see you."

"Right." Napoleon tapped the file his partner held. "Anything I should know about?"

Illya tilted his head. "Possibly. It's the final analysis of the chemical from our last affair."

Napoleon's stomach twisted, but he just raised a surprised eyebrow. "It took this long? The boys in the labs are slipping."

"They couldn't get an uncontaminated sample."

"Ah." Napoleon lifted his chin and half shrugged. "I'd better see Waverly. I'll be back."

"Of course." Illya lifted the file in momentary farewell.

Napoleon was still smiling as he approached Mr. Waverly's secretary. "He's expecting you," she said with a quick nod.

"My thanks." Napoleon tipped an imaginary hat to her and opened the office door in one smooth movement.

"Ah, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, looking up. "Please, have a seat." Napoleon sat down, folding his hands over one knee. Waverly tapped one of the reports occupying his desk. "Medical tells me you should be back in top shape. Do you have anything to add to that?"

"No, sir," Napoleon said, bowing his head for a brief moment. "Everything seems to be working properly."

"Good, good. When you're done here you'll have to go down to the firing range and requalify, of course."

"Sir?" Napoleon asked, taken aback.

Waverly gestured. "Standard procedure when there's an injury to the hand, Mr. Solo. You know that."

Napoleon glanced down involuntarily at the streaks of scar tissue on the back of his right hand. "Of course. My apologies, sir. I didn't think it was serious enough to qualify."

"Not to worry. Now, while you were out..."

Napoleon concentrated his attention on the briefing, but there really wasn't that much to absorb. A few courier runs, but nothing vital. Research had apparently been a flurry of activity for a few days after finding a loose thread in the financial records they'd long suspected of being a THRUSH cover. Unraveling it was apparently the most exciting event in research in years, but the actual shut down had gone off without a hitch. They'd lost an agent in Los Angeles, but not in the line of duty and not under suspicious circumstances.

As he headed for his and Illya's office, Napoleon rubbed his fingers absently over the back of his right hand. The new texture still wasn't quite familiar. He tried to recall the last time he'd had to requalify and couldn't. Napoleon frowned. Surely I've injured this hand before. I don't exactly take particular care with it.

He stuck his head into the office and found Illya diligently doing paperwork. "I'm going to be a little longer than I thought," Napoleon said, a little less apologetically than he'd intended. Shouldn't there have been less paperwork after a quiet week? Illya leaned back in his chair and shot him an inquiring look. Napoleon displayed the back of his hand and waggled his fingers a bit. "I have to requalify."

Illya snorted. "More red tape," he said, giving the stack of paperwork a dark look. "You," he pinned Napoleon with his gaze, "will be helping me with this."

Napoleon leaned against the doorframe and slipped his hands into his pockets. "Did I say I wouldn't?"

"No. But I notice that you are neither sitting down nor hurrying off to finish on the firing range."

Napoleon raised his hands and turned out of the office, smiling.

Ben Rogers, the agent in charge of the firing range, gave Napoleon a cursory glance when he stepped inside and turned back to the rifle he was rebuilding. "Practice?"

Napoleon shook his head, despite the fact that the man wasn't looking at him. "Actually, I have to requalify."

That earned him a longer, harder look. "Eye?" Ben asked after awhile.

Napoleon tilted his head, jaw tightening. "Hand, actually." He held it up to clarify. "There wasn't any real damage to the eye."

"That was lucky," Ben said, coming out from behind his counter to escort Napoleon to a cubicle. Requalifying agents were required to be supervised. Even the CEA.

"Relatively speaking," Napoleon allowed.

"Relatively, hell." Ben took two pairs of ear guards off a hook at the end of the cubicle but held onto them. "You should have lost that eye, from what I heard. Came close to losing both of 'em. A Section Two agent is more than just a pretty face. A blind Section Two agent isn't." Something in Napoleon's expression prompted him to clarify. "Isn't Section Two, I mean. Not anymore. Here," Ben held out one set of ear guards.

Napoleon just barely managed not to snatch them out of his hands. Instead he plucked them out of Ben's grip almost politely and settled them over his ears carefully. With the background noise comfortably muffled, he drew his UNCLE special and carefully checked the clip and chamber. He'd cleaned it last night, expecting to be coming in to practice today.

The familiar movements settled his nerves. By the time he lifted the weapon into the firing position his focus had narrowed down to the texture of the grip in his palm and the paper target at the end of the firing range. Extraneous thoughts and feelings faded with practiced swiftness. You couldn't afford to be distracted in the field.

The gun jerked in his grip like a live thing, but Napoleon recovered and corrected automatically, his eyes never leaving his target. He emptied the clip, ejected it, and exchanged it for a full one. When that, too, had been emptied into the target Ben flicked a switch and they waited while the target fluttered along the track towards them.

Two clusters of holes had been punched out of the paper. One dead center of the head target, one center mass of the chest target. Both clusters could be completely covered by the splayed fingers of Ben's hand. Napoleon removed the ear guards and checked his special once more before holstering it.

"You didn't have to show off," Ben muttered, tearing the target out of the clip that held it.

"I wasn't," Napoleon said mildly.

"Yeah, yeah. Well, you may be number one, Section Two upstairs, but down here you'll have to settle for second place."

Napoleon restrained a grin. "Mind if I ask who gets the number one spot?"

Ben glared at him. "Don't play innocent with me. You know very well that Kuryakin comes down here and embarrasses the rest of us on a regular basis."

Yes, Napoleon thought, but it is nice to hear it now and again. "So, is that it?" he asked aloud.

"Yeah," Ben confirmed, taking the target with him back to the counter. Regular practice targets were destroyed, but an official requalifying target had to be stored for records.

Napoleon ran into Brian Donnelly, a relatively new Section Two agent, at the elevator. New to New York, anyway. If he recalled correctly, Donnelly had four years of experience under his belt, but had transferred in from Tokyo barely a week before Napoleon had been injured. "Agent Donnelly," Napoleon nodded a greeting. "How are you liking UNCLE New York?"

The elevator arrived and Donnelly paused to let Napoleon board first before answering. "I'm not quite sure, sir," he said. "Things have been a little unsettled. I'm told the atmosphere is different when you're handling things."

"Oh?" Napoleon inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"I didn't mean...ah," Donnelly looked away, flustered. Napoleon realized after a moment that he'd automatically lifted the right brow. How on Earth does that look? he wondered, feeling rather unsettled himself. "I just meant," Donnelly managed finally, "that the CEA tends to set the tone for their Section. You've been on leave, so I haven't had a chance to see what that's like, sir."

"Well, I haven't had any complaints recently," Napoleon said. Blessedly, the doors opened at that moment and Donnelly escaped to his own destination. Napoleon rode up one more floor and walked briskly to his office, despite the paperwork awaiting him.

Illya was, predictably, still buried. He looked up as Napoleon came in. "How did it go?"

"Routine." Napoleon slid into the chair behind his desk and found a stack of paper occupying the center of the desk.

Illya pointed at it with his pen. "That is yours." His own stack was considerably smaller, Napoleon noted. On the other hand, he'd been doing it for two weeks--Napoleon had just gotten here. Still...

"A present? Illya, you shouldn't have."

His partner sighed. "If it was a present, you could send it back."

Napoleon uncapped a pen with a little dramatic flair--wasted on Illya, who only gave him a look--and leaned over to examine the first sheet. "Sometimes," he said shrewdly, "you can send them back anyway." After a moment he frowned. "But, alas, not this one," and set to with the pen.

***

A bullet whizzed past Napoleon's ear and buried itself in the concrete in front of him in a shower of razor sharp chips. His eyes shut instinctively, but he kept running. Risking a glance a step later, Napoleon focused on the cluster of crates he'd been aiming for and all but dove behind them. Splintering wood told him that these particular THRUSHes had significantly better aim than the usual lot. At least the contents of the crates were stopping the bullets.

Panting a little, Napoleon pondered drawing his own weapon to return fire. Once again he discarded the idea. It would be easier--and safer--to run with it holstered. If he could make it one set of crates closer to the wide rolling doors of the warehouse, he'd have help anyway.

Crouching, readying his muscles for another breath-stopping sprint, Napoleon found himself grinning. The crack of gunfire resounded from the direction of the warehouse entrance. Just three single shots, as opposed to the hail of bullets coming from the direction Napoleon was fleeing. Conservative and effective, he thought. If he could have grinned harder, he would have.

Instead he made use of the next surge of adrenaline and launched himself out of his temporary hiding place. There was an instant of silence before the hail of bullets resumed. Napoleon zigzagged as best he could without losing speed.

As he drew even with the last set of crates a hand shot out and grabbed him by the arm. Napoleon crashed to the ground, but the action did effectively stop him from overshooting the narrow slice of cover. Illya used the same grip that had brought him down to help him into a crouch.

"Fancy meeting you here," Napoleon quipped, drawing his gun and glancing around their cover.

"You are enjoying this entirely too much," Illya said, squeezing off a few more shots. An abortive cry and the thud of a body hitting concrete were his reward.

"What's not to enjoy?" Napoleon laid down a little fire of his own, not really aiming, more forcing the THRUSH agents to keep their distance. "We got the ambassador and his family out safely, we blew up at least part of this installation, and we took out about a dozen generic THRUSH on the way."

"The escape could use a little work," Illya critiqued, reloading his gun. "Running unprotected through the middle of a crossfire was not one of your better plans."

"Well, that wasn't originally in the plan," Napoleon allowed. "I was improvising."

"Are you done improvising? I'd like to go now."

"By all means."

Illya pulled the pin on the grenade he'd been saving and waited for a brief count before lobbing it well over the crates and towards the enemy's cover. In the instant of silence after it clattered to the ground Illya caught Napoleon's gaze. This time they grinned together.

The explosion was gratifyingly large, though not large enough to reach their location. Illya had a good arm. Napoleon cautiously leaned around his side of the cluster of crates and examined the opposite end of the warehouse. It was entirely caved in, not a hint of motion anywhere. He glanced back at Illya, just turning from his own check. Illya nodded.

Napoleon stood up and casually holstered his special. Illya followed suit and, with a last glance at the wreckage, they turned to saunter out of the warehouse.

The car they'd rented for this affair was parked just outside, miraculously untouched despite the fact that they'd put it through its paces more than once. Napoleon slid in behind the wheel, but as he moved to turn the key in the ignition, Illya leaned over from the passenger seat. "Napoleon. You're bleeding."

Napoleon glanced back at him, surprised. "Really? From where?" he glanced down at himself automatically, but while his suit was smudged with dust and a little grease he couldn't see any blood.

Illya reached out and stroked one finger across his cheek. Napoleon blinked at the warm touch and shifted his eyes to Illya's finger only after his partner nodded towards it. There was blood on the tip. Peering into the rearview mirror, he spotted a shallow cut on his right cheekbone. The smear of blood was startlingly red against the white scars. "Odd. I didn't even notice." Napoleon reached up and poked the cut. "Still can't feel it."

"Just because you can't feel it doesn't mean you're not doing damage," Illya said, batting Napoleon's hand away when he would have prodded the spot again. "Leave it."

Napoleon shot him a wry glance but reached for the ignition instead.

***

Napoleon spread a dizzying array of forms across his desk. They covered the entire surface. Two layers deep. He picked up one titled "P1AZ4 (Property Damage - Public)." After a bit of rifling he found its companion, form "P1BZ4 (Property Damage - Private)." I wonder which category THRUSH falls under, he thought, bemused.

"Illya," Napoleon said as his partner walked into their office, "how is it that none of these forms are familiar?"

"Probably because you've never seen any of them before," Illya said dryly. "Normally you're off on a date immediately after our missions."

Napoleon set down the property damage forms and picked up "C1AX9 (Casualties - Suspected THRUSH)." Briefly he wondered how many varieties of casualty forms there were. He could think of five off the top of his head. "Do you fill all of these out after every mission?" Napoleon asked, a little dismayed.

Illya leaned over Napoleon's desk and briskly shuffled the forms into a single pile. "Yes. Well, except for this one," he plucked a single sheet of paper of the top of the pile and handed it to his partner. "That one we only have to fill out for the first mission after one of us has been injured."

It was the only familiar page in the lot. "H1AO1 (Health - Return to Field Duty)." Napoleon frowned. "I thought we did this one every time."

"We do tend to get injured on a regular basis," Illya shrugged.

"So what you're telling me," Napoleon said, coming around to lean against his desk as Illya went and sat at his, "is that I've been dumping all this paperwork on you every time I go on date after an affair."

Illya looked up, startled. "It's not a problem, Napoleon. I have a system."

"A system?"

"Yes." Illya plucked three sheets from the stack he'd made, apparently at random, and laid them out side by side on his desk. Then he uncapped a pen and leaned over them, jumping from form to form apparently at random. At one point Illya opened his desk drawer and pulled out a red pen. He made some obscure notation in the margins of each of the forms.

When he was done with those three--or so Napoleon assumed--he turned them face down and placed two in one stack and the other by itself. Two more forms came out of the original pile and the procedure repeated, only this time with a much longer margin note. One each went into the two "finished" piles.

Reaching for another set of forms, Illya looked up at Napoleon as if surprised to still see him there. "You don't need to hang around, Napoleon," he said. "I've got everything taken care of, as long as you write up the summary for Mr. Waverly like you usually do."

"I think I'm mesmerized," Napoleon declared, followed the motions of Illya's hand. He still couldn't decipher any order.

"Napoleon. Go on your date."

"I think I'm more amused right now than I would be on a date," Napoleon said, shifting his weight a little. "Besides, I don't have one."

Illya stopped writing and raised his eyebrows. "You don't have a date?"

"No, Illya. I have no date," Napoleon said patiently. He hadn't had a date, actually, in several weeks.

Illya frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"Because I don't have a date?"

"It's one of the constants of the universe," Illya said dryly. "You always have a date after a mission. If not with someone new, then with someone from headquarters. I think I would be less concerned if there was a change in the speed of light."

To be honest, Napoleon told himself, I could stand to burn off a little energy. But he didn't make a move toward the door. Illya went back to the paperwork. He was already halfway through. "When you're done there," Napoleon said after a quiet moment, "let's go to dinner. My treat."

"If you're trying to appease the sudden dawning of years of accumulated guilt over abandoning me to the paperwork," Illya began, "I'd rather have a new record."

Napoleon smiled. "Not guilt. Just a desire for a little company."

Illya finished the set of forms currently in front of him and leaned back in his chair. He gave Napoleon a long, considering look. For a moment Napoleon wondered if he'd made a mistake. After all, they both knew very well that Illya wasn't his usual brand of "company." If Illya called him on it Napoleon wasn't quite sure what he'd say. Aside from that he abruptly really wanted to have dinner with his partner.

"All right," Illya agreed at last. "But sit down. You're hovering."

Napoleon sat. After a moment he realized that the "H1AO1 (Health - Return to Field Duty)" form was still on his desk. Shrugging, he lifted his own pen. This one he knew how to do.

Halfway down the page he hit an unexpected snag. Standard procedure was to itemize the prior injuries, noting any resulting changes in fitness or efficiency. Napoleon had done it dozens of times for broken bones. Typically there was some residual weakness, easily corrected through a little extra weight training. Once he'd had the unpleasant experience of discovering that a broken arm broke much more easily the second time around.

He stared down at the page for a long time before carefully inscribing "Chemical burn--chest--right side. None." And below that, "Chemical burn--right bicep. None." Below that, "Chemical burn--right forearm. None." And again, "Chemical burn--right hand--back. None."

Despite the way the words glared up at him from the page, there was no question about any of that. The doctors had been entirely correct. The residual tenderness had faded. Any potential tightening of the tissue had been held off by diligent physical therapy.

Napoleon stalled again on the last line. Eventually he formed the letters with exquisite care. "Chemical burn--face--right side." The splash marks on the left, he reasoned, were too small to really count.

The question now is, he thought, did it have an effect on my fitness or efficiency? He hesitated for a long time, pen hovering over the page. Napoleon went over the mission once more in his mind and slowly realized that he hadn't thought of the damage even once during the course of it. From the moment he and Illya stepped out of headquarters on business it was as if a switch had been flipped in his mind. It had only come back to him at the end, seeing the blood Illya held out and realizing he still couldn't feel the tiny cut.

So he wrote "None" on that line, too.

Napoleon scrawled his signature across the bottom of the form and looked up to find Illya standing over him. Surprised, he glanced over to his partner's desk and discovered that the varied paperwork had been consolidated back into a single stack. "Ready to go?" Napoleon asked, setting his pen aside.

"Obviously." Illya was looking down at the form he'd just finished.

Napoleon stood and came around his desk. "Let's go, then."

He drove them to a small restaurant, more of a cafe, really. They seated themselves and accepted menus from a passing waitress. She returned a moment later with water but didn't linger at the table. Napoleon let her go, turning his attention on his partner instead. "You know," he said, "I did used to do my own paperwork. I should have recognized something."

"Are you still on about that?" Illya asked, picking up his water. Napoleon just shrugged. "They've reorganized the filing system since we were partnered."

"They have?"

There was a smile flitting around the edges of Illya's lips. "Twice."

"Well. I am capable of doing it," Napoleon insisted.

"Napoleon," Illya said, "the Records personnel tell stories about the forms you used to turn in. Epic stories."

"Such as?" Napoleon prompted, hoping to tempt the smile Illya was flirting with out into the open.

"It's not like I have them memorized. But my favorite..." he paused and the smile slowly came into full bloom "...involves a coffee stain, a jar of peanut butter, three Records personnel who actually had to go into the field for three hours, and sixteen pages of amendments to a three page report."

"You must be joking," Napoleon said, grinning. His partner grinned back, setting off a little cascade of warmth in Napoleon's chest.

Illya shook his head. "I swear, it's the truth. It has to be--the first time I turned in a report for one of our missions they bought me chocolates."

Napoleon broke down laughing. Predictably, their waitress showed up at that moment. Illya ordered for both of them, though Napoleon did manage to reduce himself to the occasional chuckle. "I'm surprised no one ever said anything to me," he commented when she'd gone.

Illya shrugged. "Waverly knows that paperwork is the smallest part of what makes a good field agent."

Napoleon leaned back in his seat, the last of his laughter dying out. "He's a good man to work for."

"So he is," Illya agreed. "He knows when to trust his people. I could not say as much for any of my prior superior officers."

"Not even UNCLE London?"

"Not even them," Illya confirmed. "To give credit where it is due, they assigned me there because I had done my education in Britain. The hope was that I would settle in more quickly. But the London CEA didn't want me and he most certainly didn't trust me."

"Which why you requested the transfer," Napoleon deduced. Illya cast him a surprised look. "What?" Napoleon raised an eyebrow. "You think I wouldn't have pulled my new partner's file? I wanted to know how deep I was getting in."

Illya flashed him a grin. "Over your head, I suspect."

Napoleon saluted his partner with his water glass. "Hopelessly."

"Well, it's only fair," Illya said casually. Too casually. "After all, I pulled your file."

Napoleon stared for a moment. "You wouldn't have been authorized for my file."

Illya blinked innocently. "Oh really?"

Napoleon laughed and shook his finger at his partner. "That could have got you in serious trouble."

"It was worth the risk," Illya shrugged. "You have a very colorful reputation. I needed to know how much of it was deserved, and which parts. At that point I was prepared to return to the Soviet Union if I didn't like what I found."

Napoleon felt a sudden chill at the thought of how close he must have come to never even meeting the man who now sat across from him. His closest friend. His partner. "It's fortunate, then, that we liked what we saw," he murmured.

Across the table, Illya smiled a small smile.

The waitress returned with their orders a moment later, disrupting the tenor of the conversation. Napoleon waited a few minutes, letting both of them settle the initial hunger pangs. Illya ate with a concentration that bordered on distraction. Idly, Napoleon wondered if THRUSH had ever considered trying to divert him with a particularly well presented meal. He grinned around his fork at the thought.

"So," Illya said eventually, "who won the pool this time?"

Napoleon swallowed. "Annie Hawkins."

"From Communications?"

Napoleon shook his head. "From Records."

"I thought Records personnel were barred," Illya said, frowning.

"Only if they're actually assigned to the case," Napoleon corrected. "We had George this time."

"How did she do, then?"

"She cleaned up," Napoleon said. "Apparently the odds were on you this time."

"They always are," Illya sighed. "If I didn't know better I'd find it insulting. We're the only partners in the office who have a pool going on who will be captured on the next mission."

"Oh, there's a pool for everyone," Napoleon assured him seriously. "It's just the topic that changes."

"Jenkins and Howard?" Illya named two near-rookie partners skeptically.

"Who'll get shot first," Napoleon filled in promptly. "And a secondary pool on how."

"A secondary pool?" Illya's eyebrows shot up. "Do we have a secondary pool?"

"There's too much money in our primary pool to support a secondary one," Napoleon said dryly. "Annie won nearly a hundred dollars for betting we'd both come through without being held."

Illya narrowed his eyes. "You were held."

Napoleon shook his head. "Not according to the pool referee. I was alone in enemy territory for several hours. It doesn't count as capture unless we're actually tied up or locked away somewhere we don't want to be."

"Technicalities."

"For which we have reason to be grateful," Napoleon reminded him. "If not for this particular technicality, you'd have had to come in after me."

"Granted," Illya conceded. "A hundred dollars... Tell me again why we can't get in on this pool?"

"They'd feel odd about running it if they knew we knew." Napoleon shrugged. "It doesn't do any harm and it does let the support staff feel involved. A little good will always comes in handy."

"Do you think Mr. Waverly knows about it?"

"Sometimes I think Mr. Waverly knows everything," Napoleon said with a quiet chuckle. "It makes me wonder if I'll be the same way when I'm number one, Section One."

"Assuming you do succeed Waverly."

Napoleon paused, fork hovering in the air. "Why wouldn't I?"

Illya shrugged. "Everyone assumes you will, but I've never heard you say that you wanted to."

"I can't be a field agent forever," Napoleon said reasonably, "and I can't imagine what it would be like to not work for UNCLE. Though..." he allowed himself a speculative moment, "...private life does have its attractions."

"Like not getting shot at," Illya suggested dryly.

Napoleon smiled. "Among other things. What about you? What will you do when you're not in Enforcement anymore?"

"Research, probably. My doctorate is hopelessly out of date, but I think I'd do well on the practical side of things."

Napoleon pictured Illya at fifty--a little heavier, a little grayer, wearing his glasses full time, bent over a lab bench--and caught himself smiling. "You would."

They lapsed into companionable silence for awhile, each clearing their plate and allowing it to be taken away. Napoleon glanced at Illya when he was offered coffee and, at his partner's nod, accepted. Illya substituted tea.

"Did you hear about Daniel Cade?" Napoleon asked as he stirred cream into his coffee.

"No. Did something happen?" Illya poked at his teabag with his fork.

"He got engaged. Popped the question yesterday, apparently." Napoleon sipped the coffee slowly. It was good. Better than what they had at work.

"Napoleon," Illya said slowly, "are you sure there isn't anything wrong?"

Napoleon tried to keep his gaze on his drink, but that tone out of Illya demanded that he look up. He didn't even bother trying to lie. "Why do you ask?"

"You have been very introspective lately. And we have been out on at least half a dozen occasions when you'd normally have spent the night with a woman."

"Am I cramping your style?" Napoleon teased gently, despite an underlying disappointment.

Illya raised an eyebrow. "You've told me before that I have none," he said. "But I suspect I may be cramping yours."

Napoleon quickly shook his head. "If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't be. I'm just...working some things out."

"If you--" Illya stopped, frowning, and started the sentence again. "You know that I am here. If you should need me. For anything." He shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably but held Napoleon's gaze with his own.

"I know. I've already taken advantage," Napoleon said simply.

Illya relaxed and went back to his tea. Napoleon went back to his coffee. It was better than he'd thought. Sweeter. He smiled.

***

Cosmetics.

Incredibly, the thought first occurred to Napoleon during a mission. Well, strictly speaking, it occurred to him immediately after the affair. He’d watched Illya smear the black paint over his cheekbones with no more thought than that it would break up the telltale oval of his face. But later, back in their hotel, Illya had gone to the bathroom to remove the make up and Napoleon caught himself thinking that the right combination of paint and powder could cover up all sorts of things.

He’d dismissed the idea with a silent snort at the time, but the more he tried not to think about it the more it cropped up. He’d even caught himself covertly studying the make up of the women at headquarters.

In the end Napoleon had waited for one of his infrequent days off and driven three hours out of his way to find a department store he never expected to go back to. The girl at the cosmetics counter had been too gentle. Napoleon would have rather had someone with a brisk, impersonal touch. Regardless, he sat quietly while she carefully matched skin tone. If he was going to do this, he was at least going to do it properly.

Most of the day had gone by the time he got back to his apartment, supplies in hand. He nodded politely at all the right people and reminded himself silently that no one could see through the bag he held in one hand. You’re being foolish, Napoleon told himself as he shut his apartment door behind him. If you use it, it’s going to be rather obvious that you bought it.

He hung his coat up and carried the bag of make up into his bathroom. Napoleon lined the jars and compacts up on the counter and studied them for a moment. The lines of them were unmistakably feminine. This sort of thing was almost entirely marketed to women, after all.

Napoleon removed his suit jacket and tie and glanced around the bathroom. Finding nowhere to drape them, he went into his bedroom and hung both up in the closet. He went back to the bathroom and, after a moment of thought, unbuttoned the top button on his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. He removed his watch and set it on the counter.

The face of the watch read 5:48. Pursing his lips, Napoleon glanced back at the row of cosmetics. Then he went and made dinner.

It was seven-thirty by the time he returned to the bathroom. Taking a deep breath, Napoleon started by washing and drying his face thoroughly. Remembering the explanatory patter of the cosmetics clerk as she’d handed him each item, he started with the foundation.

Blending the skin tone was harder than he’d thought it would be. It took three attempts before he was satisfied with the shadows he’d created. Napoleon hesitated a long time over the rouge, the final touch. It seemed...silly. A critical look in the mirror assured him that the clerk had been right to include it. There was a flush of life in unadorned skin that was missing from the made up side.

When he’d finished Napoleon pushed the array of cosmetics to one side and leaned against the counter. He looked at himself in the mirror and realized he should have bought hair dye. The thatch of white was startling against the background of dark hair and slightly tanned skin. Aside from that, he had to concede that he’d done a good job. The skin tone was spot on. The shadows looked natural, at least in this light. He’d blended the edges so well that it was difficult to see where the scar tissue left off and healthy skin began. The only flaws were the patches of corrugated skin and the slight distortion of ear, lip, and eye. It was much less obvious.

Napoleon stared at himself and felt a momentary surge of disgust. “Look at you,” he told his reflection, fingers tightening on the edge of the counter. “Now you’re not only damaged, you’re demonstrably self-conscious about it.”

Snatching up the jar of cold cream, Napoleon removed the make up with broad, impatient strokes. When he was done he washed his face again and swept the whole array of paint and powder into the garbage can. He looked down at the discarded make up for a moment before pulling the liner out of the can, tying it off and carrying the whole mess to the garbage disposal.

Napoleon went to bed before ten that night and lay staring up at the ceiling. There, in the dark, he raised his left hand and carefully explored the expanse of the scars with sensitive fingertips.

***

The next morning, Napoleon found a smudge of foundation on the counter next to the sink. He wiped it away quickly and stared at the spot for a moment. Shaking his head, he returned to shaving. I need to go on a date, he thought, rinsing the razor. I don’t think I’ve gone nearly three months without a date since I was in high school.

With that thought in mind, Napoleon went to his closet and picked out his clothes with care. Dressed, he went to his mirror and studied himself carefully. He had to resist the urge to run his hand over the white patch of hair. It was still a little shorter than the rest. He'd considered cutting the rest of his hair down so that it would at least match, but he wore it short enough regularly that any further trim would probably reduce it to a buzz cut.

Well, it couldn't be helped. It's not like it was the most obvious detail. Still, he frowned at the mirror before turning away.

By the time he crossed the threshold of Del Floria's Napoleon had injected a lively note into his step and a little warmth into his eyes. He got a smile from the receptionist--a good sign--but dismissed her as a potential date. He didn't expect to get down to reception again today.

At ten o'clock he had the girl picked out. He'd spoken to her once or twice over the course of the morning, just enough to ascertain that she was currently single. Of course, he hadn't got anything else done all day. Staring unseeing down at a junior agent's report--he wasn't quite sure whose it was--Napoleon mentally went over his approach.

Maureen was a technician in the lab. She wasn't the most beautiful woman at headquarters, but she definitely prompted an admiring look or two from most of the men. Napoleon included. He'd been out with her once before, if he recalled correctly. The evening had been low key. Once he'd gotten the conversation rolling properly she'd proved to be one of his more interesting dates. He hadn't taken her to bed and had still felt the evening a success.

She'd also been just a little shy, which called for a more subtle strategy. Women who responded to his more outrageous lines tended to like to deliver a few outrageous lines of their own. Napoleon felt someone who responded to subtlety would be more appropriate this time. He wasn't certain he could carry off the more overt possible overtures.

On the other hand, there was something to be said for the direct approach. Conservative, but direct. Napoleon didn’t want her to miss the point, after all. He could just ask her to have dinner with him. Sometimes that was the best thing to do with the shy type. Half the time you could surprise them into saying yes just by asking. Of course, he was unlikely to surprise Maureen, since they’d been out before.

How had he asked the first time? Napoleon tried to remember, frowning when he realized he couldn’t remember. He recalled the date itself perfectly, thank God. Forgetting that would be tantamount to admitting he couldn’t keep his women straight. But despite the clarity of the evening itself in his memory, Napoleon had no recollection of how he’d actually set the date. It had just seemed to follow naturally from the rest of the day.

Just ask, Napoleon told himself firmly. The direct approach was a much safer bet than trotting out some line that he might have used before.

Now, where to go and when? Friday would probably be best. Napoleon could just take her straight from work. Except she might want to change. Very few women wanted to go on a date in the same clothes as they went to work in. Maybe Saturday would be better. He’d be working, but she wouldn’t be. He could come by her apartment after.

As for the place, Napoleon thought he might let her choose again. Repetitive, yes, but at least then he’d know they were going somewhere she’d enjoy. Was that putting too much pressure on her? She might--

“Napoleon.”

Napoleon's head snapped up so fast his neck actually hurt for a moment. Illya was watching him curiously. I'm guessing that's not the first time he called my name, Napoleon thought sheepishly. "Sorry," he said aloud. "I'm a little preoccupied today."

"If you'd just go ahead and do whatever it is you're agonizing over," Illya said reasonably, "you could relax."

Napoleon leaned back in his seat. "I'm not agonizing. Just...making sure all the angles are covered." Illya tilted his head and cast Napoleon a speculative look, but let the explanation stand. After all, the plan was Napoleon's particular area of expertise. He breathed a silent sigh of relief.

His partner did have a point, though. Napoleon looked down at the stack of Section Two agent reports with real attention for the first time all morning. There had to be one in there somewhere that would give him an excuse to head down to the labs.

Napoleon read quickly, trying not to skim the reports despite an almost overwhelming need to get this done. He found his excuse in the third report down in the pile. "I'm going to run downstairs for a few minutes," Napoleon told Illya, standing. Illya waved one hand absently, absorbed in his own report.

Arriving at the labs, Napoleon found the door he wanted standing open. He stepped into the frame and leaned to the side a little, letting his right shoulder take his weight. A quiet rap of his knuckles against the open door drew the attention of Robert Daniels, the chemist hard at work within.

"Napoleon," Daniels acknowledged. Further down the lab bench Maureen was monitoring an experiment. At Daniels' greeting she actually took a moment to look up and smile. Something unwound inside Napoleon. "I thought you'd be dropping by after I got a good look at that truth serum," Daniels went on.

"Do you have a summary ready?" Napoleon asked. He stepped into the lab and leaned against a clear counter instead, half an eye still on Maureen.

"I do." Napoleon dragged the whole of his attention to Daniels. He would need to know this, sooner or later. Daniels took up a perch on a stool and launched into his report. It was as clear and precise as Napoleon has expected, and wound down after just a couple of minutes. He thanked the chemist and hesitated, experiencing the sudden, desperate wish that Daniels would remember some errand that would take him out of the lab, or that he'd need to use the washroom, or that he'd come to a stopping point in his experiment and decide to go to lunch. But the man simply turned back to the lab bench and turned on a Bunsen burner. Napoleon almost asked for a moment alone, but caught himself when he realized how out of character it would seem.

Instead he sauntered further into the lab, hands in his pockets. He came to rest beside Maureen, back to the bench she was working on, left side toward her. "And how is the lovely Maureen?" he asked, injecting a definite note of interest into his tone.

"Not feeling so lovely at the moment," she sighed, sitting back from the bench. "I think I've run this experiment six times, with six different results."

There's your moment, Napoleon told himself. Go for it. "It sounds to me like you could use a break from the routine," he said casually. Come on, get it out there... "Have dinner with me Saturday."

Maureen looked up, eyes wide with startlement. He'd surprised her after all. "I can't," she blurted, and looked away. Napoleon held his friendly, interested expression only with an effort of will. Inside he'd gone so cold his bones ached. He barely heard Maureen's excuse. "I... My brother is coming up from Pennsylvania."

"Of course," he said easily, feeling as if his voice had been cut free of his body. "Family must come first. Perhaps another time?"

"Perhaps," she smiled weakly and quickly went back to her work.

Napoleon left the lab as casually as he had entered it. He even nodded at Daniels on his way out. By the time he got off the elevator on the third floor he was running on autopilot. It was an odd feeling. Normally Napoleon only got that disconnected feeling when he was dosed with some THRUSH drug, or suffering from a concussion.

Under those circumstances, he was usually too busy trying to hold his thoughts together to notice much of anything else. Walking down the hall, Napoleon watched himself nod politely and making charming comments and wondered that no one noticed how hollow it all was. When he got to his office Illya was gone. Napoleon closed the door behind himself and sank down into his desk chair.

It was the reports on his desk that shook him out of the daze. I really shouldn't have skimmed those, he thought, looking at the three he'd set aside. He picked them up and placed them back on the top of the stack. Napoleon straightened the edges of the paper carefully before lifting the first and starting to read.

He worked through lunch, not even leaving his office to bring something back from the commissary. Then he worked through dinner, and still managed to keep going until nine. When he finally left the only person he had to nod at was the receptionist.

Back in his apartment Napoleon automatically went to the kitchen. He opened the fridge but there wasn't much in it. He picked up the phone, then put it down again. In the end the only thing he got out of the cupboards was a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Sitting on the couch, he put the glass on his coffee table, and carefully poured a shot into it.

He was not going to be sipping tonight.

The alcohol hit hard and fast. It occurred to him as he poured yet another shot--he'd pretty much lost count--that his empty stomach probably had something to do with that. Napoleon gave a mental shrug and lifted the glass, but the doorbell rang before he could take the shot. He looked from the glass to the door with deliberation and drank the whiskey.

The doorbell rang again and Napoleon ignored it again in favor of inspecting the bottle. There was no one out there that he wanted to see. The bottle, on the other hand, was cooperating nicely, though it was a little less than half empty. Not good enough.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, there was someone out there that knew how to get in anyway. The security system chirped off willingly and a key turned in the lock. Napoleon didn't look up from pouring. There was only one other person who had both code and key.

Half-expecting to be interrupted, he quickly knocked back the shot before looking up. To his surprise, he found Illya coming back from his kitchen with a bottle of vodka and a glass of his own. He sat down next to Napoleon and silently poured himself a double, which he downed with impressive speed. Napoleon nodded to himself and waited before pouring himself another drink. After all, Illya had some catching up to do.

Why is Illya drinking? Napoleon wondered belatedly. He knew why he was drinking. Which obviously meant he hadn't had enough yet. The neck of the bottle clattered against the rim of the glass as he attempted to pour out the next shot. The trembling was apparently contagious, because it migrated from the bottle through the glass and into his other hand. Some of the whiskey slopped onto the polished surface of the coffee table.

Napoleon quickly set down both bottle and glass, but his hands kept shaking. He pressed them hard into the tabletop. The tremors stopped on the surface, but he could feel them under the skin, migrating up his arms and through his shoulders and down into his chest and gut where they felt like they were shaking him apart.

Reaching up to rub at sore eyes, Napoleon's fingers touched down on taut scar tissue. He jerked his hand back as if burned and sent it towards the whiskey instead, but his body wasn't working quite the way he was used to. His knuckles struck the bottle. It started to tip over. Napoleon watched, knowing he couldn't catch it before it spilled, maybe smashed.

But other fingers darted out and caught the neck of the bottle before it could fall. Napoleon looked up at Illya as he set the whiskey securely back on its base. To his horror, he felt his eyes start to burn.

Quickly he looked down and tried to take a breath, but the tremors in his chest escaped and his breath stuttered. As Napoleon fought his way through another breath a warm hand came to rest between his shoulders. Bringing his own hands up, Napoleon pressed the heels against his temples and let his wrists shield his eyes as the tears spilled over.

For a moment he thought that might be it, but apparently he hadn't finished trembling. His breath was coming out in long hitching gasps now, not sobbing, but certainly not normal. The warmth of Illya's hand seemed to be sinking down through his skin, fracturing the hard knot in his chest.

Go away, Napoleon thought desperately at his partner, unable to speak it, hoping for a moment of telepathy. Go away, get out of here. But when Illya's arm slid further around him he leaned into it even though he wouldn't, couldn't look up.

He cried until the trembling stopped. Or maybe he cried out the trembling. He wasn't sure, and it didn't seem to matter. When he was done, Napoleon blotted his eyes on his sleeve and stood up. He went to his linen closet and got out spare sheets and made up the couch, even though Illya had only drunk the one double.

Illya just stood and watched him. The sheets tucked in and folded back, a pillow resting against the couch arm, Napoleon looked up at Illya to say...something. But the moment their eyes met he knew there was nothing to say, so he turned and went to his bedroom instead. Illya followed and leaned in the doorway, arms crossed, and watched Napoleon get undressed and slide into bed. He was still there when Napoleon gave in to exhaustion and slept.

***

Napoleon woke to the harsh buzzing of his alarm clock. He forced himself to wait a moment before turning it off, letting the grating sound rouse him thoroughly. His muscles were still heavy with sleep, his neck and shoulders sore. Napoleon rubbed the grit out of his eyes and reached over to shut off the alarm.

Eventually he managed to swing his legs out of bed and stand up. God, how long has it been since I slept like that? he wondered. It felt more like he'd woken from dead than rolled out of bed. Pulling on the pajama pants he hadn't bothered with the night before, Napoleon wandered out into the living room.

The bottles had been returned to their cupboards, the whiskey spill wiped up, and a quick glance found the glasses standing in the sink. Illya was stretched out on the couch, one arm hanging off the side, one curled across his belly. He'd discarded jacket, dress shirt and shoes, but his gun lay on the coffee table, ready to hand.

Napoleon left him to sleep and went to confront his reflection.

The man that stared back at him from the mirror was disheveled from sleep and a little puffy around the eyes from drinking. Not my best morning, Napoleon thought wryly. Surprisingly, the hangover wasn't too bad. Still, he found a pair of aspirin and swallowed them dry.

Catching a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, Napoleon to glanced towards the door. Illya was a little wrinkled but otherwise looking far more together than his partner. He nodded towards the mirror. "Is it familiar yet?"

Napoleon could think of a dozen ways to answer that, but all he said was, "Not quite." Pulling out a drawer, he found a spare toothbrush, still plastic wrapped, and handed it to Illya. His own he plucked from the holder and adorned with toothpaste.

Illya moved up beside him, unwrapping the toothbrush as he went. Napoleon handed over the toothpaste absently and ran his own brush under the tap briefly. Looking up as he stuck the brush in his mouth, he caught sight of Illya's face next to his in the mirror. His eyes were a little bloodshot, too. Napoleon smiled suddenly and set to brushing briskly.

He watched the two of them brush and rinse and spit and shave and comb their hair, despite having done it all a hundred times before. When they'd finished he hesitated to turn away. Slowly, Napoleon raised his right hand and ran his fingertips over his cheek. Meeting Illya's eyes in the mirror he smiled sheepishly and let his hand drop.

"Come on," Illya said, turning to leave the bathroom. "You're already making me late."

Napoleon had to fight the urge to reach out and touch Illya, just to hold him there for a moment, just to feel his partner under his hand. Instead Napoleon followed him back into the living room, saying, "I'm sure your superior won't mind."

Illya snorted as he shrugged into his dress shirt. "You may technically be my boss," he challenged, "but there is serious question as to whether you are my superior."

Napoleon laughed and went to dress. "Now where's your respect for your CEA?" he called from in front of his wardrobe.

"Waiting," Illya called back impatiently. "With the rest of me."

It was only upon actually reaching their office that Napoleon realized he'd done all his paperwork the day before. Twice. He sank into his chair and regarded the pristine desktop with dismay. "Is it wrong of me," he asked aloud, "to wish for just a small emergency?"

"If it was only a small emergency, we still wouldn't be handling it," Illya countered.

"You're only tempting me into wishing for a major emergency."

"What gets you out of the office gets me out of the office."

Napoleon smiled and drummed his fingers on the empty desk. Thanks to whatever errand had taken Illya out of the office yesterday, he still had paperwork to do. THRUSH has discovered a more certain killer than bullets, he thought. Boredom.

Still, there were a few things that needed doing. All of them required the involvement of people not in this office. Napoleon sighed and forced himself to get moving.

Among the joys and pleasures of being CEA was the job of resolving complaints made by Section Two against personnel in other sections. One such complaint had come across Napoleon's desk the day before. He'd read it over twice and was forced to admit he was going to have to talk to all parties involved before he made any decisions.

'All parties involved' were Michael Burnet, Section Two, and Angela Anders, Section Three. In this case, it probably also meant Sam Donaldson, the head of Section Three. For all their importance in the field, Section Three could occasionally get touchy about how they measured up to Section Two.

Sighing, Napoleon went after Michael first. He found the agent at his desk, filling in paperwork. It seemed everyone was getting caught up. Anders had helped Burnt out on a case with a little bit of misdirection. He'd been appropriately grateful and she, apparently, had taken that as license to lord it over him. More than a little, given that she'd been at it for two solid weeks.

Brunet had finally had enough, and now it was Napoleon's job to convince her to give it a rest...without alienating all of Section Three. Fortunately, Angela Anders had a penchent for gossip, and that gave him an in.

"It's only gotten around Section Three," she protested.

"And Section Two," Napoleon pointed out.

"But it's still within UNCLE HQ," she argued.

Napoleon sighed internally. "And our people would never spread talk about an active affair," he agreed. "But once everything is over and done with...well, we all know the best stories have a habit of slipping through."

"I don't want to get chained to my desk," Angela pouted. "I'm needed out there."

"Well," Napoleon struggled for a casual tone, "you could do a little damage control. That would certainly help."

"Damage control?" she looked confused for a moment. Napoleon waited for the idea to dawn. "Oh! I could play things down a little," she suggested. "Move the grapevine along, so to speak."

"That would be perfect," Napoleon said, letting a little relief leak through. "You've taken a weight off my mind."

"My pleasure, sir." Angela waved cheerily as he wove his way through the desks and out of Section Three territory.

One down, Napoleon thought. How many to go? He shook his head at himself and made for Records. There had been a familiar name in yesterday's stack of reports, but he couldn't for the life of him remember where he knew it from.

Looking around Records, he spotted his quarry at a filing cabinet. "Sarah," he said coaxingly. "Why don't you come and help me navigate the depths of our filing system."

She turned to face him, a file in her hands, and raised an eyebrow. "You're more than capable of navigating the filing system yourself, Napoleon Solo."

"I wouldn't venture into the Amazon without an expert guide, and I won't risk our reservoirs of paper without you by my side," he said earnestly. Sarah relented. "Now, here's what I'm looking for..."

Napoleon escaped to his office two hours later and leaned back against the door, sighing. Agent Howard had not been happy about being asked to requalify on his gym requirements. Napoleon could sympathize with him--the man was only two months out of Survival School--but he could have been a little more graceful about it.

"Illya," Napoleon said, "let's go for lunch."

"I should..." Illya began, but broke off when he looked up at his partner. "Lunch. The commissary?"

Napoleon shook his head. "Somewhere I don't have to talk to anyone."

Illya raised his eyebrows but set his pen down and shrugged into his jacket.

They walked to a small deli not too far from HQ. Illya ordered for both of them and they ate the sandwiches as they walked, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. "When I said I didn't want to talk to anyone," Napoleon said as he wadded up the wrapping paper, "I wasn't including you."

"You never do," Illya said with a small smile.

Napoleon knew he was teasing, but couldn't help frowning anyway. "I take you too much for granted, my friend."

Illya shrugged and pocketed his own wrapper in the absence of a nearby bin. "I don't mind being taken for granted. It means you trust me enough not to question that I will be there."

"Put that way," Napoleon said, smiling, "I wonder why people always assume it's such a bad thing."

Illya shot him a sly glance. "Terrible, gnawing insecurity. They assume that if they are not told they're needed, then they aren't. I, of course, have no such weakness."

"Illya," Napoleon said solemnly, "you are an absolute paragon. I salute you."

"Someone must set an example for you Americans," Illya sniffed, eyes twinkling.

"Alas, I seem to be beyond help," Napoleon said mock-mournfully.

"No one is beyond help," Illya responded steadfastly. "I have made you my personal project."

"Careful," Napoleon warned, feeling unaccountably pleased, "with all that personal contact I might start rubbing off on you."

"Impossible," Illya scoffed.

"Oh?" Napoleon arched an eyebrow. "I seem to remember someone of my acquaintance all but drooling over his last Christmas present."

"There is nothing wrong with enjoying a little music," Illya defended.

"Rare, hard to find, jazz..." Napoleon shook his head. "See how far gone you are already? Next thing you know it'll be bubble bath and silk sheets."

"Both of which you have," Illya said pointedly.

"And where did you spend last night, hmmm?" Napoleon grinned.

"On the couch," Illya shot back.

"One small step, my friend."

Illya snorted. "Napoleon, you are the only person I know who considers their couch a pit stop on the way to the bedroom."

At that, Napoleon sighed. "Lately," he admitted, "it's been considerably less than that."

"Sometimes a couch is just a couch."

"And sometimes it's a symptom of a larger problem," Napoleon said, rubbing a hand over the right side of his face.

Illya watched him for a moment before speaking. "People are getting used to the change much more quickly than you seem to think."

"Then why do so many of them have a hard time looking me in the eye?" Napoleon asked.

"If they are uncomfortable," Illya said, "that is their problem, not yours."

Napoleon sighed. "I like it when people are comfortable with me, Illya. I'm not used to having to work so hard to make that happen."

"I'm not sure you should get used to it," Illya muttered.

"Believe me, I wish I didn't have to," Napoleon said. "We're getting a little far from headquarters. We'd better turn back."

Illya frowned but made no argument as they reversed their stroll.

***

Rachel Thompson was exactly the sort of innocent Napoleon liked to work with on an affair. Smart, pretty, and entirely willing, once he'd explained what the stakes were in the game they were playing. She wasn't a screamer, either, which was a particular bonus considering the pit full of spiders she'd ended up fishing him and Illya out of.

"Mr. Solo," she'd said briskly, brushing a stray arachnid off his sleeve, "how is it that it's the poor, helpless innocent who has to help the professionals out of this scrape?"

"Luck," he'd responded, smiling. "That, and I have doubts about how poor and helpless you are, Miss Thompson."

"No doubts about my innocence?"

Napoleon had put a hand on the small of her back to hurry her out of the vicinity of the spider pit as Illya moved off down the hall. "How could I impugn the innocence of a woman clothed in a little more than a nightgown?"

Rachel had smiled suddenly. "Take me dancing," she challenged, "and I'll show you."

Illya had cast an exasperated look over his shoulder and it had been so much like old times that the words had slipped out without hesitation.

"It's a date."

Which was what put Napoleon here, in front of his closet, contemplating his wardrobe. Usually confronted with too much choice, he now found himself wondering if he had too little. He didn't often go dancing--why bother wearing yourself out at the beginning of the evening? But they were going for a light dinner and dancing, and he had to be dressed appropriately.

Eventually he settled on a navy blue pinstriped suit, white dress shirt, and tie. If necessary, he could leave the jacket on his chair and roll up his sleeves. The cut of the pants worked well without the jacket. Napoleon examined his shoes with as much care but more expertise and selected a pair with the soles about half worn away.

He went to give himself a last check in the mirror and found himself frowning. The suit had the unfortunate effect of creating faint blue shadows in the contours of the scars. Napoleon spared a momentary thought for the cosmetics he'd pitched more than a week before, but dismissed it just as quickly.

Rachel hadn't paid much attention to them before, he told himself firmly. She wasn't going to back out because of a change in clothes.

Napoleon picked her up at her apartment at seven o'clock precisely. Rachel answered the door immediately and gestured for him to step inside for a moment. "Just let me get my purse and jacket," she said, turning towards the couch where they lay draped.

"Don't hurry for the coat on my account," Napoleon remarked, running an admiring eye over his date. She was dressed in a bright, emerald green dress that ended mid-thigh with a little ripple of the hem. The neckline was a modest vee and the back consisted of criss-crossing, snug, green straps. With her dark hair done up in a long braid and gold hoops in her ears, Rachel looked very good.

She smiled at him over her shoulder as she slipped into a long beige raincoat. "You can look all you want when we get there," she said, picking up a purse that might more appropriately have been called a bag. It didn't seem to fit the rest of her outfit. Rachel must have caught his glance, because she opened it to reveal a pair of black heels. "My dancing shoes," she explained, stepped into a pair of battered flats at the door. "They've got special soles; I can't wear them just walking down the street."

Napoleon was impressed. Good dance shoes were an investment usually reserved for professionals and would-be professionals. Rachel was neither, that he knew of. "Have you thought of dancing professionally?" he asked as they left her apartment.

Rachel just laughed. "You haven't even seen me yet," she said. "I might be terrible."

"My dear," Napoleon put a hand on the small of her back guided her around to his left side, "I doubt very much that you are terrible at anything."

"Oh, sure I am," she said lightly. "I'm a terrible cook. And I tried to learn to type and never managed. I just can't coordinate these," she waggled her fingers, "properly."

Napoleon captured the fingers of her right hand and brushed his lips over them. Rachel smiled but drew her fingers firmly out of his grasp. Napoleon let them go and glanced away, resisting the urge to brush his own fingers over the twist at the corner of his mouth. Surely it wasn't that noticeable.

The restaurant Rachel directed him to was designed to center around the dancing. The tables were small, since no one would be sitting at them very much, and the dance floor claimed more than half the space. But it was a restaurant and not a club--there was a full menu and a small group of tables roped off for the non-dancers.

The music confirmed Napoleon's guess as to the type of dancing. Ballroom. The dancing shoes had hinted in that direction and he was pleased to see the suspicion borne out. Ballroom dancing he could do. Given her enthusiasm, Rachel could probably dance rings around him, but he thought they'd at least enjoy themselves.

Napoleon and Rachel were led to a table just off the dance floor and left with menus and glasses of water. Rachel automatically requested a second water for both of them. "You'll need it," she told Napoleon. "Particularly if you don't go dancing that often."

"Is my inexperience obvious?" Napoleon asked, half an eye on the other diners. The pinstriped suit wasn't too out of place, he noted. There were a few men dressed more casually, but they quickly proved to also be among the most skilled dancers. Apparently skill earned you a break from the dress code.

"Oh, not at all," Rachel assured him. "You move like a dancer," she said. "It's the first thing I noticed about you."

"It's the martial arts," Napoleon replied automatically, covering his surprise. How long had it been since someone noticed how he moved first? Since about twenty, he thought wryly. He'd come to expect a certain kind of look in people's eyes when they looked at him, and it had always been there. At least until recently.

"Napoleon?" Rachel prompted. He blinked and refocused on her. "I lost you for a minute there..." she trailed off inquiringly.

"Sorry, my dear," Napoleon smiled. "I was lost in thought for a moment. What did you say?"

"Just that I suppose that dancing and the martial arts require the same sort of body control," she said. "Have you studied a great deal?"

"Of body control?" Napoleon asked with a little smile.

Rachel reached over and thumped him lightly on the arm. "Of martial arts," she scolded, smiling back.

"More than most agents, I suppose," he answered. "Both Illya and I have. It has a tendency to come in handy."

"I can see that," Rachel said, brow wrinkling as she thought back on the mission they'd just completed.

"So tell me," Napoleon said, endeavoring to bring her mind back to more pleasant matters, "what would you recommend? You are a regular here and I'm just a visitor."

She smiled, opened her menu and, glancing down, began a running commentary on the options. At a table next to theirs a couple returned, flushed and a little breathless, from the dance floor. The man glanced over idly. His gaze touched briefly on Napoleon, eyes widening visibly before flicking to Rachel and back to Napoleon.

Napoleon's jaw tightened uncomfortably. He dropped his eyes to his menu, pretending to follow along with whatever Rachel was saying.

"...don't stare," the woman hissed to her companion.

The menu might as well have been in Greek for all that Napoleon absorbed of it. Illya's words--If they are uncomfortable, that is their problem, not yours--drifted through his mind but did nothing to ease the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Napoleon glanced up to see if Rachel had heard just in time to catch her finishing up her evaluation of the menu.

"...and the salmon isn't bad, either."

"I'll have that, I believe," he said smoothly. "I don't want to weigh myself down with something too heavy."

"My thoughts exactly," Rachel said comfortably. She must not have heard.

To Napoleon's relief, their waiter came around to the left side of their table. They both ordered the salmon but passed on the recommended accompanying wine. "I don't drink," Rachel confided. "But I assumed you would."

Why? Napoleon wondered. "Normally I would have a glass or two," he said easily, "but not when I'm planning on navigating a crowded dance floor."

Rachel glanced over at the floor. "It's not so bad tonight," she assured him. "That's why I suggested we go out Sunday."

Napoleon allowed a small smile to curve his lips. "You have this down to a science."

She laughed. "Maybe so. I just like to dance."

Napoleon caught himself keeping half an ear on the surrounding conversations as they waited for their dinner to arrive. Fortunately, Rachel didn't seem to notice, because he couldn't seem to stop. The chitchat rolled off his lips automatically, but when their meals arrived, interrupting the flow of conversation, he couldn't recall where he'd left off.

You've been off your game too long, he scolded himself as they dug into dinner. You have a date with a beautiful woman and a guaranteed chance to hold her close for a couple of hours. So why can't you concentrate?

"Napoleon," Rachel said tentatively. She paused and tapped her fork on her plate nervously. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"

"Please," he said, setting aside his fork in favor of the water glass.

Rachel caught his eye, so he paused before sipping. "How did this," she touched her own cheek, "happen?"

Napoleon set the glass back down. At neighboring tables two conversations trailed off. It couldn't possibly have been as quiet as it seemed, with the music playing, but Napoleon swore he could hear echoes of the word.

"I'm sorry," Rachel glanced down at her plate. "I shouldn't have--"

"No, no," Napoleon assured her. He picked up his water, then set it down again without sipping. "I was...splashed with a beaker full of an experimental chemical. Illya got me into the emergency shower almost immediately, of course, but the damage had been done." He paused and picked up the water again, actually sipping it this time. "Fortunately," he swallowed, "the damage was entirely...superficial."

"Thank you," Rachel said softly.

Napoleon picked up his fork and concentrated on eating, unable to look up for the moment. Clinking sounds from across the table told him that Rachel had followed suit.

By the time he'd cleared most of his plate, eating so intently he couldn't help but think of Illya, Napoleon felt ready to look up again. Rachel was sitting back in her chair, sipping at her water. "Your partner is a big part of your life, isn't he?" she asked after a moment.

"Yes," he said, a little surprised, "but...what prompted that?"

Rachel smiled. "Up until our mandatory first date awkward moment, his name featured in every third sentence. It wasn't a hard conclusion to draw."

Napoleon opened his mouth to tell her that that wasn't usually the case, but stopped himself just in time. He couldn't very well admit he'd been making small talk without really thinking about it. You were supposed to pay attention to your date. "We work together," he said, shrugging, "and we work a lot."

"We haven't been talking about work," Rachel pointed out.

"Well," Napoleon smiled, "we also eat together, and vacation together, and...I suppose he's been my mainstay the last three months."

"Three months?"

"Since, ah..." Napoleon flicked his fingers towards the scarred side of his face.

"Oh," Rachel said, visibly chagrined. "I didn't realize it was so recent."

Napoleon forced a casual shrug. "You can't tell, now that the, ah, hair has grown back in." They lapsed into a moment of silence. "Come on," he said briskly, standing up. "We came to dance. Let's get out there."

Rachel smiled broadly and accepted the hand he offered to her. "Let's."

Once they got out on the dance floor, the evening sped by. Napoleon focused on Rachel, everyone around them focused on dancing, and thinking too much was suddenly no longer a problem. But it wasn't the kind of evening that stretched late into the night. Rachel wore him out before ten o'clock.

"I'm not used to being the one to call an end to the date," Napoleon said as they retrieved their coats at the door. "You ran circles around me."

Rachel laughed. "I've been doing this at least once a week for ten years," she confessed, leaning down to switch shoes. "I have a friend I go with when I can't talk a date into it."

"Well, I hope I measured up well enough," Napoleon said.

"You did just fine," she assured him. "Call me any time you want to be run off your feet," she said with a grin.

Napoleon took her home and walked her up to her apartment, but restrained himself to a kiss on her hand to close the evening. She smiled with no apparent regret and closed the door as he turned to go.

***

Napoleon leaned back in his desk chair and contemplated the two tickets that lay on his desktop. The date printed on them was for the next day. He'd been counting down to that date for six months. Now it was right on his doorstep and he found himself confronted with a dilemma. Napoleon heaved a sigh.

Across from him Illya tossed down his pen and sat up in his desk. "That is the fourth ostentatious sigh this morning," he accused. "So all right. What is it?"

Napoleon blinked at him innocently. "I wasn't hinting at anything." Illya narrowed his eyes and made an impatient 'come along' gesture. "It's just that I bought these tickets six months ago," Napoleon conceded.

"What, has the show been cancelled?"

"No," Napoleon said. "It's just...it's looking like I'm going to have to go alone." He picked up the tickets and tapped them on his desktop, frowning.

"Napoleon, you never have to go out alone."

Napoleon shook his head. "For once," he argued, "I bought these tickets because I wanted to go, instead of to tempt someone I had my eye on. Six months ago I didn't think I'd have a problem finding a date, but now..." He pressed his lips together and stared at the tickets. "I don't want to spend the night making sure she has fun. I just want to watch the show."

"You misunderstand me," Illya said quietly. Napoleon looked up and raised an eyebrow. "I meant that you never have to go alone. If company is all you want, I'll go with you."

"Illya..." Napoleon hesitated to discourage his friend, but felt compelled to full disclosure. "It's 'Man of La Mancha.' Broadway. Black tie. Not exactly your preferred fare."

Illya shrugged. "The company will be good."

Slowly, Napoleon felt a smile bloom. "It's tomorrow night. Is that okay?"

"I'll have to check my busy social calendar," Illya said dryly. "Tomorrow night is fine, Napoleon. I will meet you at your apartment at...?"

"Seven," Napoleon filled in. "But you'll be going four floors in the wrong direction. I could come by your place."

A tiny smile curved Illya's lips. "If I come by your place, I will actually be there at seven. The four floors won't kill me."

Napoleon pressed a hand to heart. "Illya, you wound me. Aren't I punctual?"

"Only when it counts," Illya said, picking up his pen and going back to work.

Napoleon frowned. "Was that a compliment or an insult?"

Illya smirked.

***

With Illya's comments in mind, Napoleon started dressing nearly half an hour before he'd originally intended to and was actually ready to go when his doorbell rang at seven o'clock. He pulled it open, smugly poised to point out his own readiness, and froze.

Beautiful.

It was the first thought to break through. Napoleon couldn't help himself. He ran his eyes over Illya from head to toes and back again. He's beautiful.

The tuxedo was obviously custom cut to Illya's slender frame. It emphasized the breadth of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist. The crisp lines of the pants drew the eye down the length of his leg and broke perfectly just above polished black dress shoes. Gold cufflinks, Illya's only accessory, accented the soft shine of his hair in the ordinary hall light. The stark black of the tux made him look paler than usual.

Napoleon drank him in and felt a stirring of heat in his blood.

Eventually he became aware that Illya was waiting for him to say or do something. He managed to scoop his coat off the hook next to the door and step over the threshold, but when he opened his mouth to say 'Hi' or 'Good evening,' what came out was:

"You look beautiful."

Illya glanced down at himself skeptically. "You don't have to flatter me, Napoleon. I'm not your date."

Starting to feel a little more in control of himself, Napoleon slid into his jacket as he walked. "I'm not, and you are."

Illya cast him an amused look. "Since when am I your date?"

"Since you agreed to come with me tonight," Napoleon said, smiling.

"I agreed to nothing. It was my idea, if you recall."

Napoleon broke into a broad grin and cast a sidelong glance at his partner. "I guess that makes me your date."

"I didn't bring you any flowers," Illya said, starting to smile back.

"You never do," Napoleon sighed, "but I've learned to live with the neglect." As they stepped onto the elevator Illya shrugged into his coat, which had been draped over one arm until that moment. Napoleon watched, a little regretfully. Well, he'd be taking it off again.

At the show, of course.

They took a cab instead of driving to avoid the inevitable hours-long search for parking. At the theatre Napoleon climbed out of the cab and automatically turned to offer a hand to Illya. To his belated surprise, Illya actually accepted, though he cast his partner a deeply amused glance. "Are you going to throw your jacket over puddles for me, too?" he asked as he shut the cab's door and waved it off.

Napoleon flushed a little. "Are you kidding? This is a two hundred dollar tux."

Illya was still smiling. "Now that I know my precise monetary value in your eyes..."

"Well, it all depends on how you look at it," Napoleon said, walking side by side with Illya into the theatre. "After all, I did wear the two hundred dollar tux."

"You would have more than one," Illya said, shaking his head.

"What? The other one is for missions. HQ even paid for it."

"HQ pays for an astonishing amount of your wardrobe," Illya said dryly.

"It's only fair," Napoleon argued. "I destroy an astonishing amount of it on the job, after all." They paused to exchange their coats for check tags.

"I think it would be interesting to find out how much more expensive your taste has grown since you got access to an expense account," Illya mused as they stepped away from the counter. "Perhaps I shall have to have a word with the Records personnel."

"Now, let's not be hasty," Napoleon said, still smiling.

"Your fate hinges on a single question," Illya went on, then paused dramatically. Napoleon leaned forward intently. "Did you spring for box seats?"

Napoleon laughed and took Illya's arm to point him towards the stairs. "I did," he confirmed. At the base of the staircase Napoleon paused to buy a program.

"Only one?" Illya asked.

"You don't mind sharing, do you?" Napoleon asked, then grinned. "They're ridiculously expensive."

Illya laughed a little and shook his head. "That depends entirely on what I'm sharing. The program, I believe I can handle."

They reached the top of the long staircase and glanced at the ticket stubs to find the appropriate box. There were four seats, but none were occupied, so they claimed the front two. Napoleon sank into his seat and glanced to his right. Finding Illya standing at the rail, looking down at the slowly filling seats below, he felt a sudden surge of contentment.

Watching Illya, Napoleon let his smile soften. His partner looked even better leaning against the burnished rail, illuminated by the house lights, than he had in the hall of their apartment building. He was suddenly grateful for everything that had led him to this particular moment in time.

Illya glanced over his shoulder and caught Napoleon's gaze. He turned and leaned back against the rail. "You're grinning like an idiot," he pointed out. "Should I worry?"

Napoleon shook his head but couldn't stop smiling. "Just glad to be here."

Illya shook his head and held out his hand for the program. Napoleon turned it over and watched as Illya, apparently deprived of his reading glasses, proceeded to squint down at the text intently. "This doesn't look too bad," he admitted after a moment. "But if I get show tunes stuck in my head I will be forced to kill you."

"Mr. Waverly would be a little upset with you."

Illya took his seat and handed the program back. "Mr. Waverly would understand the extenuating circumstances."

"Well," Napoleon murmured, "if you can't stop thinking about the lyrics I will try to turn your thoughts to other things."

"You will have to try very hard," Illya said seriously. "Show tunes are insidious things."

"If necessary," Napoleon responded, equally serious, "I will consider it my new purpose in life."

Illya smiled a little and leaned back in his seat. "That would be acceptable."

The house lights went down a few minutes later and the stage lights slowly came up. Napoleon turned his attention to the performance and gave himself over wholly into the fantasy.

The intermission seemed to rush up on him. When the house lights came up Napoleon actually blinked in surprise before sitting back, realizing then that he'd been all but leaning on the railing. Leaning back with a satisfied sigh, Napoleon glanced over at Illya and found himself being watched with amused eyes.

"What do you think?" Napoleon asked, tilting his head towards the stage.

"I think it suits you," Illya said after a moment. "And I think I have never seen you so enthralled."

"Does that mean you're enjoying yourself?"

Illya said nothing as he rose from his seat, but his eyes were pleased. "Come, Napoleon. Let's stretch our legs and go for a drink."

Napoleon rose agreeably and followed Illya down to the bar where dozens of other theatergoers were milling. He glued himself to Illya's side and they managed to reach the bar together, though everyone else seemed to be calling to companions over the heads of strangers. They collected their drinks and wove their way back to the relative safety of the stairs.

Illya cast an eye back at the churning crowd, then down at their still-pristine tuxedos. He looked up at Napoleon and quirked an eyebrow. "An unexpected benefit of UNCLE training."

Napoleon almost snorted his drink and raised an admonishing finger. "Warn me before you do that!"

Illya shot him an innocent look. "What would be the point, then?"

Shaking his head, Napoleon half turned and tilted his head towards the head of the stairs. "Come on. I want to get settled before the lights go down again."

Illya gestured for him to go ahead and followed close behind.

Napoleon finished his drink just as the lights dimmed. Carefully, he set it aside before turning his mind back to the story. It drew him back in immediately despite the intermission, always the acid test of a show, in Napoleon's estimation.

Near the finale, at the end of the already poignant 'The Impossible Dream,' an unremembered lyric actually sent an ache of empathy through Napoleon.

That one man, scorned and covered with scars, Still strove, with his last ounce of courage, To reach...the unreachable star...

Actually breathless, Napoleon had to blink back the prick of tears. When the house lights came up for the last time he found himself on his feet without really thinking about it, applauding with the rest of the audience until his hands hurt. At length the applause died away and the audience started moving towards the exits.

Napoleon turned to Illya and found his partner watching him with warm eyes. "You're glowing," Illya observed. "If I didn't know better, I'd ask you if you'd had a...good night."

"But I have had," Napoleon said, letting the innuendo go for the moment. "The best night."

They headed down to reclaim their coats. Napoleon realized as he was fishing his claim ticket out of his pocket that he was babbling, but Illya didn't seem to mind, so he kept going. Illya let him ramble on all the way through the trip back to their building and up the elevator.

Napoleon got off the elevator at Illya's floor automatically, still talking. Outside his partner's door he managed to still the commentary for a moment. "You want to come up for a drink?"

Illya tilted his head and cast him a speculative gaze. "Didn't we decide that you were my date?"

"We did," Napoleon conceded.

"So...do you want to come in for a drink?"

Napoleon grinned. "Yes. Absolutely."

Illya let him into the apartment, discarding his jacket just inside the door. Napoleon followed suit and perched on the edge of Illya's couch as he watched his partner head for the drinks. Illya had undone his tie and the first two buttons of his shirt before he even reached the appropriate cabinet.

Watching, Napoleon felt his pulse rate pick up a little, a suggestion of excitement that was quickly growing familiar. Illya poured their drinks and paused to remove his tuxedo jacket before bringing them over.

Illya half out of his tux, Napoleon decided, looked even better than Illya perfectly turned out in it.

Reaching out to take the drink he was offered, Napoleon let his fingers brush over his partner's as he curled them around the cool glass. Illya captured his gaze and held on a bare moment too long before releasing the glass into Napoleon's grip.

Eyes never parting, they lifted their glasses and drank a silent toast.

The silence didn't last, of course, but as Napoleon waxed eloquent about the show he couldn't take his eyes off his partner. Illya was relaxed in a way Napoleon rarely saw. Mostly, he suspected, that was because Illya rarely relaxed like this at all. He felt a flash of pride that he'd managed it, mind already spinning with ways to recreate the feat in the future.

He'd have to weasel Illya out of jacket and shoulder holster, of course. Even Napoleon could relax properly with a reminder as heavy as his special under his arm. Then put a drink in his hand. Not to get drunk--Illya could hold his liquor better than that--but just to set the mood. Casual. Maybe Napoleon could convince him to to accept a shoulder rub. Women always seemed to love massages. He'd lost count of the times that a touch meant to ease sore muscles turned sensual, and God knew Illya had more than his fair share of strained muscles...

Stop! Napoleon thought suddenly. His hand actually lurched, as if he'd physically pulled up short. A little of his drink slopped over the edge of the glass. Napoleon raised his fingers to his lips without thinking, then froze in the act of licking the liquor away, suddenly aware of how the gesture must look. Quickly, he fought down and blush and retreated to Illya's kitchen for a damp cloth, instead.

What the hell are you thinking? he asked himself, scrubbing at his fingers with the cloth rather more enthusiastically than the small spill warranted. Illya would deck you just for thinking about it. God only knows what he'd do if you actually tried it.

After a moment, Illya followed him into the kitchen, still chatting companionably, blissfully unaware of the direction of Napoleon's thoughts. And Napoleon couldn't seem to change the tenor of his musings. Not with his partner standing there, smiling and talking and looking so unconsciously gorgeous. I should leave, Napoleon thought, feeling dangerously helpless. If I can't control myself, I should just go.

But he didn't. He didn't leave until nearly two am, and when he crawled between his sheets with a pleased sigh, he couldn't bring himself to care that he was going to have to wake up in hardly more than four hours. The night had been worth considerably more than a little lost sleep.

***

Napoleon woke at the first bleat of his alarm clock and knew immediately that he had no right to be this thoroughly awake. He was stepping into the shower before he actually remembered why. Smiling, he turned on the water absently and caught a face full of freezing spray. Sputtering, Napoleon lunged for the taps and managed to moderate the temperature. He leaned against the tiled wall for a moment and shook his head at himself. If he hadn't been awake before, he certainly was now.

The rest of his morning routine went smoothly, though making breakfast suddenly and inexplicably struck Napoleon as incredibly domestic. He must have made breakfast for himself and a companion, whether a woman or his partner, a hundred times. He'd never put much thought into those moment before the day got going. But this morning, wrapped in a robe, a glass of orange juice in one hand, sitting down across from an empty chair, a brief thought flickered through Napoleon's mind. This is your life.

He arrived at UNCLE headquarters with a smile and a friendly word for the receptionist. He'd half hoped to run into Illya on the way so that he could thank him for the company the night before, but had no luck in that department. Well, it hardly mattered. He was often ahead of Napoleon in the mornings.

Breezing into their shared office with a cheerful 'hello,' Napoleon glanced at his partner and made it to his own desk largely due to momentum. Illya wasn't wearing anything special. They were just at work, after all. An off the rack suit and tie would do. In some cases they were preferable--at least according to the accounting department.

But somewhere in the utter ordinariness of the moment, Illya was still beautiful. Napoleon tore his eyes away quickly, seated himself, and found his gaze inexorably returning to his partner. As Illya bent his head to read the file spread out on his desk his hair fell in his eyes a little and he distractedly pushed it back. Futilely, as it turned out. Illya's hair wasn't quite long enough to tuck behind his ears.

A small smile tugged at Napoleon's lips. Illya looked up just then and scowled a little. "You're cheerful this morning," he observed.

Napoleon shrugged. "I slept well." Illya raised an eyebrow. "I didn't say that I slept a lot," Napoleon backpedaled a little. "Just that I slept well."

Illya snorted and went back to reading. Napoleon went back to watching his partner. Illya had strong hands, he noticed. More so than his own, though Napoleon took better care of his. Napoleon took better care of himself in general. Which, he reflected as he studied his partner, is probably why most people judged me the more attractive of the two of us. There certainly hadn't been any basis for that opinion when you stripped the two of them down to the basics.

Lately, opinion had swung decidedly in Illya's favor.

Napoleon abruptly straightened up and turned his attention to the copy of the report waiting on his own desk. When his communicator beeped for attention a few minutes later he had to restrain himself from snatching for it.

"Mr. Solo," Waverly's voice came over the tiny speaker. "Would you and Mr. Kuryakin meet me in the conference room."

"Of course, sir," Napoleon said and closed the channel. He and Illya rose together and filed out of their office, down the hall and into the conference room. Two files waited on their side of the round table. Napoleon scooped one of them up and automatically began to scan the contents.

"Benjamin Johnstone," Waverly said briskly, "is a millionaire with a penchant for 'causes.' Save the whales, preserve the rainforest, legalize the so-called recreational drugs--"

"And a host of others," Napoleon observed, eyes still on the file. "He's not too particular, is he?"

"No," Waverly confirmed, frowning. "What a man does with his money is his own business, but Mr. Johnstone has been throwing his money around a little too freely lately. Considerable amounts of it have filtered into THRUSH coffers."

"Through convincing fronts, no doubt," Illya said, flipping ahead in the file.

"Indeed. Convincing enough that we believe Mr. Johnstone remains unaware of the ultimate use his money is being put to. You two will travel to San Francisco and attempt to persuade our wayward millionaire to be a little more discriminating in his investments."

"That might be a little more difficult than usual," Napoleon said, looking up from the file. "No family, few apparent friends, and no business built of blood, sweat, and tears. All that money is inherited. Benjamin Johnstone doesn't seem to have invested himself in anything."

"I am sure," Waverly said mildly, "that you will rise to the challenge. Your flight leaves at noon. Please see Lisa for the details of the arrangements."

The two agents excused themselves and stopped by Lisa's desk for the necessary information. "Is it just me," Napoleon asked as he glanced over the plane ticket, "or do our flight arrangements always leave us just barely enough time to get organized and to the airport?"

Illya shot him a look. "You'd prefer to have a day or so to mull it over?"

"No," Napoleon said, stopping in their office to retrieve a briefcase. Some things, including mission files and various gadgets, were best kept closer to hand than the overhead compartment. "But I can't shake the feeling we're being rushed out the door."

"When has anyone ever rushed you out?" Illya asked dryly.

"Illya! I had no idea you had such confidence in my charms," Napoleon said with exaggerated pleasure. Though, it was less exaggerated than it should have been. How can everything seem so normal? he wondered. Something had changed the night before, hadn't it?

The elevator arrived and they stepped onto it together. "I would have confidence in anyone who practices as frequently as you do," Illya replied. Despite the even cast of his features, there was a mischievous light in those blue eyes. Napoleon felt a surge of appreciation for the sharp line of cheekbone and jaw, the fair hair, the pale, unmarked skin. He always had liked blondes best.

Illya is not some anonymous "blond," he chided himself. He's your partner. But somehow that only made the silent contemplation sweeter. Yes, something had changed. But not for Illya; only for him.

What did you expect? Napoleon asked himself even as he responded to Illya's quip with one of his own. You've been partners for years. If there were going to be any grand realizations, they would have happened by now.

Except he hadn't had his own realization--not particularly grand, but surprising nonetheless--until the previous night. Everything had changed for him in the last few months. Everything but Illya. And that tells me something, doesn't it? Whether or not I'm attractive now doesn't matter to him because it never mattered to him.

There would be no sudden realizations on Illya's part. Not now. Napoleon felt a momentary swell of melancholy for a possibility lost before it ever became real.

"Napoleon?"

Napoleon blinked and realized with some embarrassment that he was sitting behind the wheel of his car. Illya was in the passenger seat, looking faintly curious. Napoleon didn't even have his keys in his hand. How long had he been sitting there? "Sorry," he said, lifting up a little to fish his keys out of his pocket. "I got lost for a moment there." Don't ask me what I'm thinking about, he pleaded silently.

"Try not to get us lost on your way to the building," Illya said dryly. "We do have a plane to catch."

Great, Napoleon thought as he turned the key. Five hours on a plane with nothing to do but read and think. That's just what I need right now.

***

Napoleon opened the mission file across his knees, balancing the pages carefully lest they be lost beneath the close-packed seat of the plane. He made an honest attempt to lose himself in the details of Benjamin Johnstone's affairs; unfortunately, the paper trail that prompted this trip was less than absorbing. Nor was there much in the file besides the paper trail. As far as UNCLE could tell, the man hadn't even had a lover in nearly six years.

Not that that was all that unusual, Napoleon told himself. Most people didn't lay claim to the kind of social life that Napoleon had once sported. Considering his months long dry spell--a few dates but no overnight companions--he was probably going to have to get used to being one of 'most people' himself. So the man hadn't had a lover in a few years. That didn't mean there was anything wrong with him.

Napoleon got to the end of the page and flipped it over before realizing he hadn't absorbed the bottom half at all. Rolling his eyes at himself, he flipped the page back and scanned down for the last familiar line.

"Are you going to read every page twice?" Illya asked, sounding amused.

Napoleon shot him a wounded look. "Aren't I allowed to be thorough?"

"Not that thorough. Not with other people's income tax returns," Illya said. "It's unnatural."

"I thought we Americans were supposed to be obsessed with money?"

"Everyone has their limits," Illya conceded. "And I know yours. I was there when you had to do last year's return."

Napoleon frowned. "I got through last year's return just fine," he insisted.

"Napoleon, you burned three of the workbooks. Even the one you eventually turned in was a little singed."

"I needed kindling for the fire," Napoleon said, wide-eyed.

"In April?" Illya asked, arching an eyebrow. "I had less trouble with mine and I'm not even an American citizen."

"We've already established that you're the paperwork wizard of the two of us," Napoleon said. "You don't have to rub it in."

A small smile curved the corner of Illya's mouth. "Well, you'll have an opportunity to play your own strengths on this one," he tapped the file that lay, closed, across his own lap. "Mr. Johnstone is going to require a lot of convincing."

Napoleon frowned down at the file. "I just wish there was a little more to hook him with. I can't appeal to his concern for his loved ones because he hasn't got any. I can't warn him against losing his wealth because the interest adds up faster than he can throw it away. Not to mention that he doesn't seem to care where it goes. If the moral route doesn't work, we're sunk."

"You think it won't?" Illya asked. "With all these charities he's supporting?"

Napoleon pursed his lips and closed the file. "I don't think he's being so generous out of any sense of sympathy with the causes he's benefiting. If he was, there would be some sense of consistency, some pattern of particularly large donations. As it is, he doesn't seem particularly committed to any of them." Napoleon shook his head. "I can't get a sense of this guy, Illya. He doesn't have any emotional hooks."

"There are those," Illya said, uncharacteristically hesitant, "who would say the same of you."

Napoleon blinked. "Me?" God, if only that were true. He'd been running herd on his wayward thoughts all day.

Illya shrugged. "Outside of UNCLE, your affairs have always been markedly casual. You have dates but not lovers. You have hobbies that you enjoy but no apparent passions. You have many acquaintances but few friends. You don't hoard your money, but you are not in debt--to any banks, that is." Illya shot him a look. "Surely you can see the similarity?"

"Superficially," Napoleon said briskly. He leaned forward and retrieved his briefcase from under the seat in front of him and stowed the file with sharp motions.

A light touch on his arm drew Napoleon's attention as he straightened up. Illya was frowning. "That wasn't meant as a criticism, Napoleon. I only wanted to give you a way to get inside Johnstone's head."

Napoleon sighed and shot his partner a sheepish look. "I know. After all, if anyone knows better than that, it's you."

Illya snorted as he removed his hand. "I would prefer if a few more people would overlook me as a potential 'emotional hook.'"

"So would I," Napoleon murmured. "At least there doesn't seem much chance of that happening this time."

"If I were superstitious," Illya said, "I'd tell you that you just jinxed this mission completely."

"How are the odds in the pool running?"

"Apparently we used up all our good 'karma' on the last couple of missions. The pool is betting we'll both end up in chains this time."

Napoleon's brow wrinkled. "Chains specifically?"

"Well, no," Illya conceded. "Just captive."

"Whew. For a second there I thought they'd reached a new level of insanity," Napoleon said. "Think of the complications if they had to take into account the chances of chains versus ropes, drugs, confinement in a cell, unconsciousness, being stranded on an island or other remote location..."

Illya frowned instead of laughing. "We do seem to have encountered quite a variety of methods of...restraint."

Napoleon shrugged. "Part of the job."

"Not for everyone," Illya argued. "Did you know that most of the betting pool thinks we do it on purpose?"

"What, do they think we enjoy it?" Napoleon asked, incredulous.

"It's a more exciting hobby than settling down with a good book," Illya said fatalistically.

"Not that you've had much of a chance to do that lately, either," Napoleon commented. "I've been dragging you out of isolation on a regular basis, haven't I?"

Illya closed his eyes and leaned back against the headrest. "I am convenient for the moment. Soon you will get back to normal and I will be left with my books again."

"Sounds like you're looking forward to it," Napoleon said casually, swallowing a sudden surge of uneasiness. Nothing has changed, he reminded himself, the thought a comfort now. Still, the idea of letting Illya go back to the realtively quiet life Napoleon had dragged him out of ate away at his calm. He didn't want to let Illya go.

Who says you have to? Napoleon thought suddenly. "Surely you're not going to leave me all by my lonesome?" he said, the words springing to his lips before he could stop them, teasing and almost imperceptibly plaintive. Anyone other than Illya wouldn't have heard that note at all.

One of Illya's eyes eased open and regarded him with amusement before closing again. "Relax," he said, "I'm not going to give you an excuse to complain about being abandoned."

That wasn't fair, Napoleon reprimanded himself sharply. He hasn't spoken a word of complaint for four months. He's entitled to take some of his time back. Napoleon glanced over at his partner. Illya couldn't possibly need to sleep. It was the middle of the afternoon Eastern Time and even earlier than that in San Francisco.

Maybe he just didn't want to talk anymore.

***

Arriving in their hotel room, Napoleon considered taking the time to shower and change. A quick glance at his watch killed that idea. It was nearly six o'clock in the evening, San Francisco time. Mr. Johnstone wouldn't appreciate them barging in on his evening plans. Changing would serve no purpose but to wrinkle another suit. Instead Napoleon stretched out on the bed nearest the window and folded his hands behind his head.

"No shower?" Illya commented in the midst of the security check.

"I decided to hold off until after dinner."

Illya paused to cast a skeptical glance over his partner. "Surely you're not going out like that."

"There is such a thing as room service," Napoleon said dryly.

"And the accompanying, very limited, menu." Illya vanished into the bathroom to finish. A few minutes later there was the sound of running water. He emerged looking a little more comfortable and stowed the security kit.

"You don't have to have room service just because I am," Napoleon pointed out, studying the ceiling. "After spending seven hours cooped up with me, I wouldn't blame you for escaping." He glanced over at Illya just in time to catch a very odd look.

But all he said was, "I don't mind staying in."

Dinner was quiet, all topics of conversation having been exhausted on the long trip from New York. For once the extended silence didn't bother Napoleon. They sat on the edge of the beds and ate off the service cart instead of moving the dishes to the tiny table. He glanced across the makeshift table and caught Illya with a fork in one hand and a French fry in the other.

Napoleon grinned and turned his attention back to his own meal, but his eyes kept creeping up to fix on his partner. Illya was oblivious, eating with intent concentration. You'd think he hadn't had a meal in days, Napoleon thought, amused. Although, he supposed the quick bite they'd grabbed between planes didn't really count as eating.

There was an odd sense of deja vu to the moment. How many plane rides had they shared over the years? Napoleon had lost count a long time ago. How many meals had been just like this one? And how many more would there be?

Unconsciously, Napoleon frowned. How many more would there be... I've only got a couple more years in the field left, he realized. Somehow he'd never stopped to think about the dozen little ways life would change when he moved to Section One. There would be far fewer long trips and shared meals...if there were any at all. After all, what was there to hold Illya to him once their partnership was dissolved? Friendship, Napoleon told himself firmly. But how long would that last when they weren't seeing each other every day?

Illya's words rang in his mind. You have many acquaintances, but few friends. When they'd gone their separate ways, one to Section One and one to Section Eight, would Illya become just another acquaintance? Or even before then. Illya would have years remaining in the field after Napoleon had been forced out. He'd probably even have a new partner.

Napoleon stood abruptly. "I think I'm going to go out after all," he said, all but scrambling around the service cart.

Illya looked surprised. "Aren't you tired?"

Yes, Napoleon thought. It was nearly 11:00pm Eastern Time and he'd been up since 6:30am after barely four hours of sleep. But he ignored the exhaustion that licked at the edges of his mind and pulled on fresh clothes anyway. "The night is still young," he said, forcing a smile. "In this time zone, anyway. I might as well start adjusting now."

Illya was still frowning at him as he closed the room's door, but Napoleon wasn't about to back out now that he had gone to the trouble of changing. He didn't have to go far, though. The hotel lounge would do for a drink. Or a coffee, Napoleon admitted silently. He wasn't at his sharpest at the moment.

The lounge was quiet, but Napoleon was betting that business would pick up as the after dinner crowd filtered in. He ordered an Americano--small but strong--and casually looked over the sprinkling of guests. There was the usual spread of businessmen and vacationers. No one particularly interesting. Unless I count myself, Napoleon amended as yet another person cast a surreptitious glance in his direction. He ignored the attention, focusing instead on his coffee.

Despite sipping conservatively, Napoleon was just about finished when she walked into the lounge. His first impression was tall, slender, and predatory. She was either coming from a fancy dinner or looking for company, because she was dressed to kill. Her dress was red with black accents, her shoes strappy and high-heeled, and her dark hair cascaded down her back in perfect ringlets.

Every man in the lounge took one look at her and started to drool--almost literally. Several cast eager looks her way. Napoleon snorted quietly and leaned back against the couch. Just because a woman was looking for company didn't mean she'd walk off with the first man she spotted.

She stopped just inside the doorway, posed with on hand on her hip, and swept her gaze over those gathered in the lounge. One by one she dismissed her prospects. When her gaze eventually lit on Napoleon he returned it measure for measure and deliberately arched the eyebrow on the scarred side of his face.

Her gaze went minutely curious, then slid more into speculative. Napoleon let a small smile curve his lips as she turned definitively in his direction. By the time she stood before him the rest of the lounge had turned back to their drinks.

"Mind if I sit?" she asked, nodding to the empty spot on the couch beside him.

Napoleon gestured, "Please, feel free."

She sank gracefully into the offered place and crossed her legs at the knee, one foot brushing by Napoleon's calf. "Miranda Simon."

"Napoleon Solo."

Miranda raised a perfectly drawn eyebrow. "That's an unusual name."

"It's useful," Napoleon commented, letting his smile deepen. "People rarely forget it."

"I doubt you're in any danger of being forgotten, Mr. Solo."

"Napoleon, please," he insisted.

"Napoleon..." she rolled the name over her lips. "Thank you."

"It's my pleasure, Miranda." He gestured at his empty cup, "Can I buy you a drink?"

"Coffee?" she asked, overlooking his question. "Most people come to the lounge to drink something harder."

Napoleon raised one shoulder in a shrug. "I had a long day, but I wasn't ready to finish it just yet."

"You've finished your drink," Miranda observed. She lowered her lashes, sliding him an inviting look. "Does that mean you'll be heading to bed shortly?"

"That depends," Napoleon said, leaning toward her slightly.

"On?"

Napoleon lifted his chin a little. "On whether or not I'll be heading there alone." Miranda stood and looked back at him over one shoulder. Napoleon rose to join her, one hand coming to rest at the small of her back. "I'm sharing my room," he said as they reached the stairs.

"I'm not," Miranda replied. Something in her tone told Napoleon that she was pleased to be leading him to her territory, so to speak. That suited him just fine, but he kept quiet, allowing her the satisfaction.

Except for the single queen bed, Miranda's room was identical to his and Illya's in every respect. Napoleon firmly pushed that train of thought aside as the door clicked shut behind him. He put his arms around Miranda's waist and drew her in for a long, slow kiss. Her lipstick was slick under his mouth and tasted faintly of peaches.

Or maybe she'd had peaches after dinner. Napoleon didn't care. He let his hands run up and down the smooth skin of her back and enjoyed the press of her body against his. When her hands came up to push at his suit jacket he shrugged it off and reached up to slide the straps of Miranda's dress down off her shoulders.

They left a trail of clothing from the door to the bed. Before he quite realized how far they'd gotten Miranda was peeling off his undershirt. Napoleon buried a twist of unease as the scars spread across his chest and arm were exposed to strange eyes for the first time.

Whatever Miranda thought, she didn't say anything. They bumped up against the bed and tumbled down onto it together. Napoleon pulled them up so that their feet weren't hanging over the end and leaned down to kiss her again. The skin of her belly was soft against his. The heat of her was terribly tempting, but Napoleon concentrated on teasing her to readiness instead.

Skills unused for four months came rushing back as though they'd never been set aside. He searched out her hot spots and licked and stroked them until Miranda was panting and squirming beneath the weight of his body. Her hands fluttered over his skin but found few of his own sensitive places. As tightly wound as he was, given his recent celibacy, Napoleon hardly noticed the lack.

At last, one hand fisted in the length of her black hair, Napoleon shifted a little and allowed himself to slide into her. Miranda made a little choked sound of pleasure and lifted her hips to meet him. Burying his face in the curve of her neck, Napoleon breathed in the scent of perfume and sweat as he set a deep, fast pace.

Napoleon hung onto his control by a thread. He panted for breath and braced against the bed as they moved strongly together. Miranda got quieter as she got closer, her lips moving in pleas that were choked off in her throat. Napoleon watched her face, waiting for the moment when she squeezed her eyes shut and her body clenched around him.

It came suddenly. Napoleon didn't even have to let go--his orgasm was wrung from him like water from a towel, twisting him up inside suddenly and leaving him feeling weak and rumpled.

He waited a moment, catching his breath, but an impatient movement from Miranda prompted him to roll over to lie beside her. They lay quiet for a moment, letting their heart rates come down. "That," Miranda said eventually, her voice a little thick, "was very good."

"I try," Napoleon said lightly. His body suddenly felt about three times its ordinary weight. Never mind the post-coital languor--a seventeen-hour day and a short night had just caught up with him.

"I have a feeling," Miranda murmured, "that if you stay much longer, you're going to fall asleep."

"I did say it had been a long day," he reminded her, blinking away the temptation of unconsciousness.

"Then you'd better go to bed."

Her meaning was clear: not here. Napoleon rolled himself out of her bed and pulled on his clothes, tucking all the edges in more or less neatly. He'd just be taking them off again in about five minutes, after all.

Miranda was already disappearing into the bathroom as he reached the door. Shaking his head, Napoleon stepped into the hall and closed the door firmly behind himself. He descended one floor quickly and found his own room, identifying himself with a quick knock before using his key to let himself inside.

The knock was unnecessary. Illya appeared to be asleep. Napoleon suppressed a sigh of relief. He'd certainly returned to a shared hotel after a tryst before, but he'd never been quite so...obvious about it. Quietly, he retrieved his pajamas before locking himself into the bathroom and turning on the light.

The residue of sex had now been added to the still-clinging memory of hours in an airplane. Napoleon frowned at himself in the mirror, feeling grubby. Miranda had been distinctly expedient, for all her appreciation of his technique. Your judgement is off, Napoleon scolded his reflection. What were you thinking, getting distracted like that after an affair has already officially begun?

Flirting was one thing. Taking an unknown woman to bed in an unsecured hotel room after a long and exhausting day was something else altogether.

Napoleon reached into the shower and turned on the water, setting it deliberately a little hot. He climbed in when the steam started to rise, hissing a little at the sting of heat. Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on your priorities--the water pressure was quite low. Hot drips were better than hot needles.

Soaping up a washcloth, Napoleon started at his feet and worked his way up his body, scrubbing every inch. He finished up with a little squirt of shampoo and a thorough rinse, but still didn't feel quite clean. Frowning, Napoleon lathered up the washcloth and started over. He was standing in the spray of hot water and contemplating a third pass when Illya's voice reached him through the door.

"Napoleon?"

"Yes?" he answered, pondering the washcloth.

"Is everything okay?"

Napoleon lifted both eyebrows in surprise. "Fine. Why?"

"You've been in there for an hour, and I can feel the hot air from here."

"Oh," Napoleon said soft, probably too softly to be heard through the door. Suddenly feeling sheepish, he set the washcloth aside and turned the heat down to cool off his skin before he stepped out of the shower entirely. "It's okay. I just...did something stupid and wanted to wash it away."

"How stupid?" Illya sounded wary now. Napoleon didn't blame him.

"Only middling stupid," he reassured his friend, pulling a towel off the rack to rub himself dry. He winced a little; his skin was sensitive.

"Are you going to come to bed now?"

Napoleon was suddenly certain that Illya had been waiting up for him, however convincingly asleep he had been. Pleasure and guilt fought for dominance. Pleasure won. "Yes, Illya," he called back. "I'll be out in a moment."

There was no response, but Napoleon got the feeling his partner had moved away from the bathroom door. Sure enough, when he opened it he could see the lump Illya made under the covers of his bed. Reaching back, Napoleon flicked the light off. He tossed his dirty clothes down next to his luggage and crawled between the sheets with a surge of relief. Sleep claimed him the moment his head hit the pillow.

***

Benjamin Johnstone kept an office in San Francisco's business district. For what reason, Napoleon wasn't sure, unless it was to keep track of all his charitable donations and sponsorships. He certainly had no business of his own to occupy his time.

Whatever it's purpose, he hadn't skimped on the office. There was a waiting area out front, complete with secretary. She showed them politely into an expensively decorated office and left immediately. Johnstone rose and came out from behind his desk to shake their hands. "Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin, please, have a seat." He gestured to two chairs on the visitors' side of the desk.

Napoleon took a moment to study their target as he sat. Johnstone was 46, according to his file. He looked a little younger, but not by much. His hair was a medium brown, nondescript despite being perfectly styled. His eyes were also brown, his skin darkly tanned. Despite its location on the coast of California, San Francisco was not the sunniest of cities. Fog too frequently rolled in off the bay. Napoleon wondered if Johnstone patronized a tanning salon.

His build was broad from head to toe. Broad face, broad shoulders, broad belly, all clothed in a suit worth at least twice as much as Napoleon's. Benjamin Johnstone didn't seem the type to restrain himself from many indulgences. Not that that is particularly surprising, Napoleon mused.

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" Johnstone asked, leaning back against his desk. His smile was unabashedly patronizing.

They'd decided on the direct approach, so Napoleon came straight to the point. "Mr. Kuryakin and I are with an organization known as the U.N.C.L.E.," he paused to retrieve his ID and hand it over for Johnstone's inspection. "We've recently become concerned about the disposition of some of your donations."

Johnstone examined the yellow ID card with curiosity and handed it back. "What does UNCLE stand for?"

"United Network Command for Law and Enforcement," Illya chimed in.

Johnstone cast him a quick, dismissive glance. "I haven't done anything illegal," he said mildly.

Napoleon reined in a spurt of anger at the man's casual dismissal of Illya. "We're aware of that, Mr. Johnstone. Allow me to explain. Although the U.N.C.L.E. handles a variety of enforcement issues on a global scale, there is one organization which we come up against on a very regular basis. THRUSH."

"Does that stand for something, too?" Johnston asked, patently amused.

"Most believe it stands for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity," Napoleon said, squelching his irritation. Johnstone's amusement was not boding well for this argument. "But there is some argument as to the accuracy of that information."

"Doesn't a name like that have a negative impact on their recruitment?" Johnstone asked, smiling openly now.

"Apparently not," Napoleon said, pushing on smoothly, "because they receive a good deal of support."

"Where are you going with this, Mr. Solo?"

Napoleon almost stood up to put his eyes on a level with Johnstone's, but decided at the last moment that such a move would probably only communicate defensiveness. Instead he leaned back in his chair and composed his features into as solemn a look as he could manage. It wasn't particularly difficult. "Our research has shown us that a considerable amount of the money you have been donating to supposedly charitable or non-profit organizations has actually been finding its way into THRUSH coffers."

Johnstone frowned and straightened up. He went to a side table and took a moment to pour himself a drink. "I find that hard to believe," he said, turning back to the agents without offering them anything. "My people are most careful to keep my accounts in good order. A man in my position is always suspected by someone."

In your position? Napoleon wondered. Johnstone had no particular society connections. It could only be a euphemism for 'stinking rich.' "Suspected, or targeted," Napoleon said aloud. "Your established generosity must have made an irresistible target for THRUSH. All they had to do was establish a convincing cause and parade it by you a few times."

Johnstone expression darkened. "Are you implying that I'm easily deceived?"

"No sir," Napoleon said firmly. "I'm saying that you have a strong philanthropic spirit. Perhaps too strong. THRUSH is using the money you have contributed to their faked causes to work against the principles you have given so much to support."

"I'm finding this hard to believe," Johnstone set down his glass and went to sit behind his desk. "It does all sound rather fantastic, you realize."

"I'm aware of that," Napoleon said. He glanced at Illya, who opened up a briefcase and removed a sheaf of papers. Napoleon took it from him and laid it on Johnstone's desk, pushing it across slowly. "This is a copy of the research that convinced UNCLE that your money was being funneled away by THRUSH, along with a very brief summary of past THRUSH actions. Please, take a day or two to review this information and then meet with us again. It would be worth a considerable amount to UNCLE to shut down this particular pipeline of support, unwitting as it may be."

"Worth?" Johnstone raised an eyebrow. "Surely you don't think I'm interested in your money, Mr. Solo."

Napoleon shook his head. "Of course not. I'm not speaking of money. But cooperation could entitle you to future...consideration from our organization."

Johnstone touched the file briefly, then leaned back in his chair without opening it. "I suppose it can't hurt to consider the possibility."

"And it could hurt many people a great deal if you don't," Napoleon affirmed. He stood, sensing the end of the meeting. Illya followed suit silently. "I hope we will be in touch, Mr. Johnston."

"See my secretary on the way out," Johnstone said after a moment. "She'll find a time for you to return in a few days."

***

Napoleon opened the door to their hotel room with a physical rush of relief. "San Francisco," he said, going to retrieve the security kit, "is not a city made for walking around in."

Illya closed the door behind himself and stretched out on his bed. "I didn't realize you were so out of shape," he teased, despite his demonstrative tiredness. "Perhaps you need to requalify on your fitness tests."

Casting a sour glance at his relaxing partner, Napoleon started at the door and determinedly worked his way around the room. Everything came up clean, thank God. Stowing the security kit, he stretched out on his own bed with a sigh.

"It was your idea to go sight-seeing," Illya pointed out.

"Did I say anything?"

Illya snorted. "You didn't have to."

Napoleon smiled briefly. "Well, I don't regret the suggestion," he maintained. "I've never really had a chance to get a feel for San Francisco before. It's a very different city than New York."

"Every city is unique, Napoleon."

"I know that." Napoleon turned his head to look over at his partner. "It's the travelling that makes them blur together a little. But that's not what I meant." He paused, searching for the right words. "New York can feel very fast-paced, very business-like. Particularly since HQ is there. Everyone seems very buttoned into their lives. There's something about San Francisco that's remarkably...unrestrained."

"Perhaps too unrestrained," Illya mused. "Johnstone's support of the 'legalize drugs' campaign hardly seems necessary."

"That particular lack of restraint isn't unique to San Francisco," Napoleon commented.

"No," Illya agreed, "but it is more pronounced here. A visitor such as ourselves could walk all over New York and never know which closed doors concealed which experiments. But here...you can smell it in the air and see it in people's eyes. Even overhear it in casual conversation."

"I don't think New York is quite that buttoned down," Napoleon said skeptically. "Just imagine Central Park on a weekend."

"Nevertheless."

Napoleon let silence be his concession. After a moment, though, curiosity reared its head. "Have you ever...experimented?" he asked tentatively.

Illya turned his head and met Napoleon's gaze. "With drugs? No. When would I have had the opportunity?"

Napoleon shrugged. "Any time in the last few years."

Illya shook his head. "I had too many commitments to permit myself such...distractions." Napoleon waited, certain Illya's own curiosity would be piqued. After a moment, he was proved right. "Have you?"

"No," Napoleon answered. "I've been drugged so many times since joining UNCLE that I can't imagine putting myself in that state intentionally."

"You should know that different drugs have entirely different effects," Illya said, a hint of the scientist leaking into his voice. "The experiences would hardly be comparable."

"It's the distortion of perception that bothers me," Napoleon said softly. "How could anyone enjoy not being able to trust what your own sense are telling you?"

"I suppose," Illya said contemplatively, "it depends on whether or not you like what your senses were telling you in the first place."

"Escapism like that is just cowardice," Napoleon murmured to himself, mind flashing on a bathroom full of cosmetics. He rolled onto his side, facing Illya, and found his partner watching him closely. Shifting onto his own side, Illya propped his head with one hand and met Napoleon's gaze.

Napoleon held Illya's eyes with his own for a long time, saying nothing and feeling like Illya was listening anyway. There was no hesitation in Illya's stare. No heat, either. What did you expect? Napoleon asked himself. Desire? Now? He's your partner, your friend. Don't be greedy...unless you want to lose what you've got.

Abruptly he rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. "We should get some sleep. We'll need to be sharp for Mr. Johnstone tomorrow."

"Of course." Illya's own fatigue showed in his voice. "Do you mind if I take the bathroom first?"

"Go ahead." Napoleon didn't look away from the ceiling until he heard the bathroom door click shut. Then he sat up and stared at it for a long time.

***

Napoleon came awake slowly, fighting the pounding of his head the whole way. What did I drink last night? he wondered. But only for a moment. Memory returned all too quickly: their second meeting with Johnstone. He'd had a brandy. Illya had been handed his own THRUSH file. They'd both been drugged.

Napoleon held still for several minutes, but as far as he could tell he was alone. Cracking his eyelids, he blinked involuntarily at the bright overhead light. Slowly, Napoleon pushed himself up into a sitting position and took stock of his surroundings. A cell, of course, but not the dank dungeon kind of cell. Three of the walls and the floor were of pristine white tile. There was a drain in the center of the floor, but even if there'd been a way to pry the grate up, it was barely wider around than Napoleon's wrist. The ceiling was featureless except for the light, which was set flush with the concrete.

The fourth wall of the cell consisted of a grid of horizontal and vertical bars. They were also white, but obviously painted. Well, Napoleon thought, it just wouldn't do to have the bars clashing with the tile, now would it?

He was alone in the cell. After taking a moment to evaluate his steadiness, Napoleon climbed to his feet and went to the grid of bars to look for Illya.

Unfortunately, he didn't have to look far. Illya stood across a broad hallway, behind a set of identical bars. "Napoleon," he said with audible relief. "Must you always sleep in?"

Napoleon managed a half smile. "You have to learn to enjoy the quiet moments, my friend. How long was I out?"

"I'm not certain. Our host failed to leave me my watch," Illya scowled. "Or my cufflinks, or my tie tack, or my tie for that matter, or my belt, or my shoes..."

"I get the idea," Napoleon grimaced. A quick pat check revealed that he had been similarly stripped of all their useful gadgets. Not to mention a few ordinary but apparently suspicious objects. "Has Johnstone been back since you woke up?"

"Once, to see if you'd come around yet. He was quite annoyed to make his entrance to half an audience."

Napoleon grinned. "Maybe I should take a nap."

Illya snorted. "You just want me to do all the work," he accused.

Any reply Napoleon might have made was cut off by the sound of a door opening somewhere beyond his field of vision. Instead of craning his neck for a glimpse, Napoleon took a couple steps back from the bars and casually slipped his hands into his pockets.

Johnstone stepped into view a moment later, actually rubbing his hands together in glee. "Mr. Solo," he said, "I'm so glad that you could join us."

"I aim to please," Napoleon replied amiably.

"And I am pleased. Very pleased." Johnstone all but bounced in his excitement. "Oh, I was terribly irritated with you when you first walked into my office. You aren't the first people to have questioned my investments, you know. It was getting very annoying and very predictable. But not so predictable that I wouldn't check with THRUSH central...just in case."

Internally, Napoleon cursed. Johnstone went on eagerly. "Imagine my surprise to discover that the two terribly sincere, completely clueless agents who'd come to see me were supposedly UNCLE's best." Johnstone actually started laughing. Across the hall, Illya was scowling so deeply that Napoleon was tempted to warn him that his face would stick that way. He reined in the impulse. Best to let Johnstone babble.

And babble he did. "I had an appointment for you to return and I had this facility," he spread his hands, "literally beneath my feet. How could I resist? A little sedative in the right places and my place in the future of THRUSH is secure."

"What exactly," Napoleon said conversationally, "is this 'facility?'"

"That's right," Johnstone snickered. "You didn't even know we were here, did you? This, my dear UNCLE agents, is THRUSH's oldest, largest chemical development center."

"Chemical weapons?" Napoleon asked sharply.

Johnstone scoffed. "Nothing so crude. We develop new truth drugs, new sedatives, new hallucinogens--anything that might be useful to THRUSH."

"Hallucinogens?" Illya broke in. His eyebrows drew down. "Are you responsible for their proliferation in this city?"

"If you mean, did we develop the popular brands, sadly, no." Johnstone sighed. "Someone else got there first. But it has proved to be quite the cash cow for this installation. It's been a good year for me." Napoleon felt vaguely nauseous as he listened to Johnstone expound. Did THRUSH recruit people like this, or did association with THRUSH corrupt them? "Not to mention," Johnstone went on, "the excellent cover for our own operation. Even UNCLE never suspected we were here."

"I don't see what use a chemical facility has for cells like these," Napoleon comments, working to keep his voice even. "Or are you just particularly far-sighted?"

Johnstone smiled broadly. "I'd like to claim such foresight, Mr. Solo, but I can't. No, these rooms are normally occupied by test subjects. You never really know what a drug is going to do to the user until someone tries it out."

Napoleon surveyed the tiles with a new horror, carefully concealed. Any number of things would rinse cleanly from these carefully prepared cubicles. He repressed a shudder, vibrantly aware that Johnstone was watching him closely.

"And we," Illya said, "are we to be test subjects for your chemicals?"

Johnstone turned to Illya, patently surprised. "Of course not. I wouldn't want to waste you that way. No, I'm just holding you here until representatives from THRUSH central arrive. You two are apparently quite the prize. I can't say I understand why everyone is so excited--I'm not particularly impressed, myself--but I'm not going to argue with the prestige this is bringing down on me." He looked from Illya to Napoleon with immense satisfaction and slipped his hands into his pockets. "Well, good evening gentlemen. I'll see you in a few days."

With that Johnstone turned and sauntered out the way he had come. This time Napoleon did press up against the bars in an attempt to see where he was going. He caught a glimpse of what seemed to be elevator doors opening, but that was all.

Turning back to Illya, Napoleon jerked his head upwards. "Have you spotted any cameras?"

"Not from here," Illya replied.

"Nor from here." Napoleon frowned. A lack of cameras was both good and bad. On the up side, if they found a way to escape, no one would know. On the down side, if there wasn't a way to escape on their own, there also wasn't a way to summon guards down to be convinced to open the cells.

Knowing that it was most likely futile--Illya obviously hadn't found anything in his own cell--Napoleon turned to examine the walls, floor, and ceiling more closely. Given the many, many seams between the carefully laid tiles, it was a time consuming task. Ultimately wasted time, for he found nothing.

Sighing, Napoleon turned back to his partner and found Illya watching him. He shook his head. "Johnstone could just forget about us until his guests get there."

"I believe that is unlikely," Illya said. "He mentioned that it would be a few days before we were collected by THRUSH central. They will have to bring us water, at the bare minimum, if we are to be alive at that point."

Considering Johnstone's blatant excitement at having captured them, another idea began to dawn on Napoleon. "If I'm reading things correctly, we may have something else going for us," he said. Illya raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Johnstone has been running this place without interference for years, right?" Illya nodded sourly. "So," Napoleon went on, "after years of pretty much routine business--as routine as THRUSH can get anyway--he gets his hands on two UNCLE agents. Suddenly THRUSH central is coming to pay him a visit. How likely do you think it is he'll keep that triumph to himself?"

Understanding flooded Illya's expression. "Someone is bound to get curious," he extended Napoleon's line of reasoning. "Which means they will come to have a look at the prisoners."

"Which gives us a way out of here," Napoleon finished triumphantly.

"It hasn't happened yet," Illya pointed out dryly.

Napoleon grinned. "It's only a matter of time."

"Your confidence is inspiring."

"That's kind of the point of confidence," Napoleon said, a little smugly.

Illya looked skeptical. "I hadn't realized there was a point to confidence."

"There's a point to everything."

"Now you're getting philosophical," Illya groused. Napoleon just shrugged and folded himself into a sitting position. "You've got something better to do?"

As predicted, they received a steady trickle of visitors. Everyone from the janitorial staff to the lab techs wandered down to see them, one by one. Judging by their meals, at least a day passed, but though the two agents tried everything from charm to bribes to outright threats, no one would even come within arm's reach.

"Dammit!" Napoleon shouted in the wake of the last failed attempt. He paced to the back of his cell and slapped the wall hard enough to make his palm sting. "Dammit. I should be able to do this."

"It is not entirely up to you," Illya snapped.

"I would have been able to do it...before," Napoleon bit off the words.

Illya snorted. "No matter what you seem to have convinced yourself of," he said, "you were not universally irresistible. Nor were you infallible." Napoleon shot him a glare, but Illya just glared back. "Obviously, we are going to have to try something new."

"We've tried everything."

"Everything except ignoring them."

Napoleon stared incredulously. "That's your plan? Ignore them?"

"If you were thinking clearly," Illya ground out, "you would understand."

"I'm not thinking clearly?"

Illya crossed his arms. "Of course you aren't! You have slept since we woke up here. You assumed you could talk your way out of here, and it isn't working. You're frustrated."

Napoleon shoved his hands into his pockets and jerked his chin up. "Explain it to me, then." He had to restrain a wince as he heard his own words--they were very nearly sulky.

"They are like children, Napoleon. Poking at a dog to see it snarl. We need to make them poke harder. That is all."

Napoleon blew out a harsh breath. Then he forced himself to take several slow, calm breaths. "Right. Ignore them," he acquiesced.

Ignore them they did. One of their plain, unchanging meals came and went, as did three more visitors. Each was more audibly disappointed than the last.

When the four pair of gawkers arrived, Napoleon actually had his back to the bars. He was, in fact, counting tiles. Again. "Greg," a feminine voice pouted. "They aren't doing anything at all. I don't see why you were so excited." Napoleon forced himself not to turn around.

"But Sherry," a man protested, "these are UNCLE agents!"

"Well, if they are, they're boring UNCLE agents. I don't know why you dragged me down here." There was the sound of a pair of high heels clicking away, alone. Come on, Napoleon urged the hapless Greg. Do something...

"Wait, Sherry!" A few quick, pursuing footsteps. "I can make them less boring."

"How?" Sherry sounded willing to be convinced.

Greg lowered his voice suggestively. "The same way you make anything less boring."

"Oooh," Sherry giggled. "Do you have some here?"

"Sherry, we make it here. C'mon. We'll need Mark and Todd for this."

Two sets of footsteps hurried away. Cautiously, Napoleon looked over his shoulder and found Illya looking back. "Showtime."

The two of them settled with their backs against one of the cell walls and their shoulders pressed into the grid of bars and composed their features into masks of supreme disinterest. They couldn't give the game away now. It was too close.

When the footsteps returned there were considerably more of them. Napoleon buried his impatience and hooded his eyes lest his interest show. It seemed an eternity before Greg, Sherry, and--he presumed--Mark and Todd came into view. To his surprise, Mark and Todd were not particularly large THRUSH thugs. In fact, they didn't seem to be thugs at all. More like burlier-than-average lab techs.

Of course, Napoleon realized after a moment. Greg works in the lab. How would he know any of the enforcers? These are just his buddies. Things were definitely looking up.

The four gawkers came to rest midway between Napoleon's cell and Illya's. They looked uncertainly from one side of the hall to the other. "Well?" Mark--or Todd, Napoleon had no idea which was which--demanded. "Which one first?"

Greg took another look at the two of them. Finally, perhaps goaded by his supreme indifference, Greg pointed at Illya. "Him."

"Right." One of the other men started towards Illya's cell.

"Mark," Greg called, holding out a set of keys. "You'll need these."

"Oh," Mark said sheepishly. He accepted the keys and looked at his friend, Todd. "Come on, then."

Todd grinned, apparently looking forward to the festivities. "You," he pointed at Illya, "move to the back of the cell." Illya ignored him. "I said move!" Todd blustered. Not a muscle twitched. Todd glanced over his shoulder and back at Illya, face darkening with anger. "You're going to regret that," he threatened. Illya didn't even look up, though Napoleon could see his muscles tightening, preparing to pounce.

Todd gestured briskly for Mark to open the cell door. Watching out of the corner of his eye, Napoleon ruthlessly quashed the need to stare. Any reaction out of him and they might decide not to open up his own cell. They might still need that chance.

The cell door swung open smoothly and Todd stepped inside.

Illya launched himself straight from a sitting position into a tackle. He caught Todd around the waist and threw him against the wall. There was a meaty thud as Todd struck the tiles, but no crack of skull against wall. Napoleon cursed silently, knowing that Todd wasn't out of the game yet.

"Hey!" Mark shouted as Illya stepped towards the open cell door. He threw an inexpert punch and failed connect, though Illya did have to step back to dodge it. Smoothly, Illya ducked the next wild strike and hooked a hand around Mark's calf. Pulling hard, Illya yanked Mark's feet out from under him. The tech went down with a wild cry, arms flailing.

Illya darted towards freedom, but Todd surged up from the floor and seized the back of his collar. One hard jerk pulled Illya off his feet and half strangled him in the same motion. Twisting the makeshift garrote even tighter, Todd flipped Illya onto his belly and put a knee firmly between his shoulderblades.

Illya! Napoleon cried silently, seeing his partner's face flush as he gasped and wheezed for air. Illya's gaze pinned Napoleon in place, reminding him that even if all he wanted to do was throw himself against the bars he had to hold still. They had to open the second cell. They had to.

Trembling in place, limbs aching with the rush of adrenaline, Napoleon watched Mark scramble into the cell and grip one of Illya's arms. Greg approached, eyes wide with fear, but he had Sherry on one arm and Napoleon knew he wouldn't back down now. He stepped into the cell with Todd and Mark and carefully with drew a syringe from the pocket of his lab coat.

"Hurry up, would you?" Todd said through gritted teeth. "Unless you want him unconscious."

Spurred on, Greg checked the clear liquid filling the syringe and knelt down. Mark rucked Illya's sleeve up to the elbow and leaned down, hard, to hold his forearm still. Biting his lip, Greg found a vein and slipped the needle in. The only sounds were the harsh, limited pants of Illya's breath.

Napoleon fought the urge to close his eyes. They don't want to kill him, he reminded himself desperately. They wouldn't risk killing him. You just have to get him out of here and he'll be fine.

"Okay," Greg said, backing hastily out of Illya's cell. "I'm done."

Mark glanced at Todd. "On three?" Todd nodded. "Okay. One...two...three!" In unison two of them released Illya and threw themselves out of the cell. The gridded gate clanged shut after them.

Illya lay still except for the rise and fall of his chest. Napoleon forced himself to avert his eyes, clinging to his control with every ounce of strength he had. Please don't let them think that's enough, he prayed silently. Please.

"Jesus, Greg," Todd said, rubbing his shoulder where it had impacted with the wall. "Are you sure we need to do them both? This is more trouble than it's worth."

Napoleon watched Greg from under lowered eyelids. Despite his relatively small part in the proceedings, he was pale and somewhat shaken. For a moment Napoleon was sure that he was going to listen to the voice of reason. Instead Greg glanced at Sherry and found her watching him with shining, excited eyes. The tech visibly gathered himself together. "Yes," he said firmly.

Todd glanced doubtfully at his friend, but ultimately just held out his hand for the keys. Apparently he'd decided that opening the door was the less risky part of the procedure. Mark handed them over reluctantly and threw Greg an impatient glance. "Well get it ready," he said. "We don't want to have to hold this guy that long."

"Right," Greg retrieved a small bottle from his pocket and carefully refilled the syringe. "Okay, I'm ready."

Letting out a slow breath, Todd looked straight at Napoleon. "Now, you move to the back of the cell or you'll get it worse than your friend did."

Napoleon rose to his feet smoothly and compliantly raised his hands. Todd let out a breath, apparently not noticing that Napoleon had not only taken barely two steps backward, he'd also lined himself up with the cell door.

Todd looked down to fit the key into the lock. Napoleon seized the moment. Darting forward, he slipped his hands through the spaces in the grid of bars and clamped them around Todd's wrist. With a twist and a sharp jerk, the bones beneath Napoleon's hand cracked. Todd screamed and dropped the keys. Napoleon let go of his wrist and he crumpled to the floor, sobbing over the break.

Crouching, Napoleon scooped up the keys. Almost as a second thought he reached through the bars again and carefully knocked Todd's head against the steel grid. The lab tech moaned and surrendered to unconsciousness.

With matching shrieks Sherry and Mark went running for the elevator. Shaking his head in disbelief, Greg stumbled backwards. Right into the bars of Illya's cell. Napoleon grinned as his partner slipped an arm through the bars and clamped it firmly across Greg's throat.

It took one or two tries, but Napoleon got his cell unlocked. He pushed Todd out of the way and opened the door, stepping through at an almost leisurely pace. "Napoleon," Illya said sharply, "we should get me out of here. That drug will be kicking in soon." Under his hands Greg blanched. Illya tilted his head. "I'd hate to think what it might do to my judgement," he added darkly, squeezing just a little harder.

Napoleon quickly unlocked Illya's cell, but for the moment his partner didn't move. Instead, Illya gave Greg a little shake. "What did you give me?" he asked quietly.

"Acid," Greg stuttered.

Napoleon turned a glare on the tech. "Excuse me?" he demanded.

"LSD!" Greg clarified, voice rising into a squeak. "Just LSD! I've taken it myself, I swear, he'll, you'll, he'll be fine, just give it a couple of hours, I swear!"

"Right." Napoleon briskly knocked Greg out and frisked him, coming up with a thin wallet. He threw a brief glance at the elevator, but there was nothing to do about Sherry and Mark now. Hopefully they'd be too afraid of what would happen to them for letting the prisoners escape to tell anyone what was going on downstairs.

Turning his attention back to his partner, Napoleon found Illya standing somewhat unsteadily in the open door of the cell. A few steps took him to his partner's side, where he reined in the impulse to slip an arm around his waist. Instead, Napoleon curled his fingers firmly about Illya's upper arm. "Are you all right?" he asked, voice low and intent.

"If he gave me what he said he did," Illya replied, "I will be fine in about eight hours. But...Napoleon, I don't want to be here when the hallucinations start."

Getting out of the building was a serious anti climax. Johnstone improvised well, but he just didn't have any experienced muscle. One quick dash through the lobby and an impressively fast cab ride later, Napoleon had them ensconced at a suitably anonymous hotel. He'd have been more comfortable taking Illya to a hospital, but THRUSH would have eyes there.

It took most of the cash in Greg's wallet to pay for the cab and a room. Napoleon couldn't bring himself to care about their depleted resources. As long as Illya was safe it didn't matter. They'd take care of everything else in the morning.

Well, almost everything, Napoleon thought, glancing at the phone in their hotel room. Reporting to Waverly didn't take long, but the moment the handset clicked into the cradle Illya shot Napoleon a sidelong glance. "Napoleon," he said, articulating each syllable with care, "the walls are...look like they're...breathing."

Napoleon glanced around the room, but whatever Illya saw, he was alone with it. "Do you want to sit down?" Napoleon asked helplessly.

Illya glanced at the bed, the only available place to sit in this tiny room, and shook his head violently. "It's...reaching out..." Abruptly he shuddered and backed up several steps, one hand reaching for his gun in a long familiar but temporarily futile gesture. Napoleon was suddenly, vibrantly glad that they'd been divested of all even remotely destructive equipment. What would Illya do with a weapon in this state? Would he even recognize his partner?

Napoleon reached out, then let his hand drop uncertainly. "Illya," he said, "please...there has to be something I can do. Anything."

"I can't close my eyes," Illya murmured unevenly, not seeming to hear. "There are lights behind my eyelids."

"Is it okay if I touch you?" Napoleon asked, taking a slow step forward.

For an instant Illya looked up and met his gaze directly. "Yes. Touch is...real."

Napoleon stepped forward and tentatively curled his hands around Illya's arms. His partner wasn't looking at him, but then, Illya was trying very hard not to look at anything. Hell with it, Napoleon thought after a moment. He slid his arms all the way around Illya and pulled him close. If the embrace was unwelcome Illya wouldn't be shy about pulling away.

Illya pressed his hands against Napoleon's chest but didn't pull away. Instead he rested his forehead on Napoleon's shoulder and started taking steady, controlled breaths. "We'll get through this," Napoleon murmured. "Just hang in there." Illya nodded against his shoulder but said nothing.

Hours more of this. Napoleon's arms tightened around his partner for a moment. There had to be some way to make it easier, calmer. Illya's words popped into his head: I can't close my eyes. "Illya," he asked quietly, "would it help if it was darker?"

There was a quiet moment as Illya considered. "It would have to be very dark," he said after a moment, stumbling over the words just a little. Napoleon rubbed his hands up and down Illya's back a little. "I don't think...shadows...would be a good thing at the moment. Also, sedatives would help, B vitamins if we have them..."

They didn't. "I'm going to have to let go for a minute," Napoleon warned. He received another muffled nod in response.

Napoleon reluctantly released his partner and went to the windows. He closed the drapes firmly and turned off the lights, but it was a bright day outside. The room was dim, but not really dark. There was too much light coming in around the edges of the windows. A quick glance around the room revealed no obvious solution. He could try and hang blankets over the window, but there was only the curtain rod to hang them on. That would be no better than the drapes.

"Napoleon..."

He turned sharply to find that Illya had wrapped his arms tightly around his own chest. His eyes were wide and almost panicked. Napoleon hurried across the room and wrapped Illya in his arms, feeling the trembling only after Illya had settled against him.

Glancing around the room once more, Napoleon's eye lit upon the open bathroom door. Of course! Relief surged so powerfully he had to choke down sudden laughter. "Illya," Napoleon said, stroking the man in his arms soothingly, "I've got an idea, but I need you to close your eyes and walk backwards with me."

"Okay," Illya whispered

Napoleon's heart clenched in his chest, but he just took a slow step forward, forcing Illya to move backwards. They edged into the tiny bathroom and Napoleon reached behind himself with one arm to close the door, not letting go of Illya with the other.

With the door closed and the lights off, the room was almost pitch black. Snatching a towel off the meager rack, Napoleon shoved it up against the base of the door to block out the last of the light. "Okay," he said at last, "you can open your eyes now."

In the dark, there was no way to tell if Illya had done so, but a moment later some of the tension did drain out of his body. "Better," he murmured.

Napoleon swallowed, suddenly nervous. "If you turn around," he suggested, "we can both sit down."

Illya turned, still within the circle of his arms, until they stood back to front. Napoleon slowly sank down, drawing Illya with him until he sat between Napoleon's knees and leaned back against his chest. In turn, Napoleon leaned back against the bathroom door.

The rush of water through the plumbing of the washroom seemed loud in the darkness. Napoleon leaned his head back against the door and listened to the rhythm of it. Illya had gone quiet in his arms. All his trembling had stilled; there was only the occasional flinch now. The heat of him sank into Napoleon's body, warming him to the bones.

Everything's going to be fine, he realized. Together they would ride out the drug coursing through Illya's system, the way they'd come through everything else that had been thrown at them. Napoleon smiled to himself and gave Illya a little pat.

"Napoleon?"

"Yes?" Napoleon answered, glancing down automatically, though he could see nothing in the pitch blackness.

"You got very quiet..."

Napoleon shrugged, certain Illya would feel the movement. "There didn't seem to be anything to say."

"You're not the silent type, Napoleon," Illya said, a welcome teasing edge in his voice. "It's unnerving."

"I'm supposed to leave that to you, am I?" Napoleon responded. "Well, then. What shall I talk about?"

Napoleon could feel the hesitation in Illya's body as much as he could hear it. "Remind me of who I am?" Illya asked softly.

"Remind you?" Napoleon asked, his voice tight with disbelief. "Illya, you know yourself better than I ever will."

"Do I?" Illya's hand came up to close over Napoleon's wrist where it crossed his chest. For a moment Napoleon was sure his partner would untangle himself and move away from the embrace. It was a struggle not to tighten his grip, lest Illya feel trapped. But no escape was forthcoming. Instead Illya's fingers found his pulse point and rested there. "I'm not so sure," he went on. "I feel like I might float free of myself at any moment."

At that Napoleon did tighten his arms, though only for a moment. "Not yet, you don't. I'm not done with you yet."

"So tell me."

So tell him, Napoleon snorted to himself. Easier said than done. Who is Illya Kuryakin? Well, that was a place to start... "You're Illya Kuryakin. The Soviet contribution to UNCLE and the best agent of us all, second in line for Mr. Waverly's spot--"

Illya was shaking his head. "No, no. Who I am, not what I am."

Napoleon ground to a halt and thought for a long, long moment. "You're my partner," he said at last, so softly he wasn't even sure if Illya could hear him. "And my closest friend. You're the man I trust at my back. You're everything I need just when I need it..." he trailed off, then forced a laugh. "And there is proof positive of my arrogance, if you ever need it. I can only define you in terms of myself." Napoleon lapsed into silence, inviting Illya to needle him for what he'd said, inviting him to lighten the moment.

But no sharp rejoinder was tendered. Illya simply waited for him to go on. Napoleon stared into the dark as he spoke. "You always come when I call for you, even when there's no reason you should. Why do you keep coming? I've been so self absorbed..."

"You needed me," Illya said simply.

Napoleon rolled that over in his mind for a long time. "Still," he said eventually, "you must be royally sick of me by now."

"Does anyone ever get sick of you?"

"THRUSH, maybe," Napoleon smiled. Illya was quiet, waiting. Napoleon sighed. "I never really gave anyone the chance before," he said at last.

"We've been partners for four years," Illya replied, "and I haven't given up on you yet."

"Partners aren't allowed to give up on you."

Illya snorted. "Tell that to the three I had before you."

They weren't your partners, Napoleon thought. Just placeholders. "So did they give up on you, or did you give up on them?" he said aloud.

"A bit of both, I suppose," Illya responded quietly.

"If you put up with me for a little longer, we'll get through this," Napoleon said, meaning more than the next few hours.

"You attribute too much altruism to me," Illya muttered. "I like who we are when we're together."

Napoleon's breath caught in his throat. He resisted the urge to clear it. "Does that mean you don't like who I am when we're not?" he managed, lightly.

"Do I need to? Everyone else does."

To hell with everyone else. "Do I detect a note of jealousy?" Napoleon asked aloud, teasing.

"I have no reason to be jealous of you, Napoleon," Illya responded.

That wasn't what I meant, and you know it, Napoleon thought. But he let it go. They sat in the dark for awhile, listening to the drips and creaks of the hotel. At length the sound of someone settling into the next room drifted through the thin walls. Which made Napoleon wonder... "Do you think you'll be able to sleep?"

Illya sounded skeptical. "It's the middle of the day."

"How can you tell?" There was no way to track time in the dark bathroom. Napoleon wasn't entirely sure how much time had passed, and he hadn't been drugged.

"I can't," Illya admitted grudgingly. "But I don't think I can sleep, either."

"Try," Napoleon suggested. "Exhaustion can't possibly be a good thing right now."

Illya shifted in his arms, but instead of getting up his head came back to rest on Napoleon's shoulder as though it were a pillow. "Aren't you uncomfortable?"

"Not so much," Napoleon denied.

"Ahh, I forget," Illya said. "You're used to sleeping with companions."

Napoleon winced. Well, you earned that, he told himself firmly. "You might want to give it a chance," Napoleon suggested. "You might like it."

Illya scoffed at that. "You and I rarely have the same tastes," he argued.

"Only in the important things," Napoleon agreed readily.

"Define important."

"Are you in any state to argue semantics?"

"Take advantage," Illya invited. "You might actually win."

Napoleon laughed despite the vivid images conjured up by the idea of 'taking advantage' of Illya. On the bathroom floor, in the dark. Hell, in the light. "I think you'd be better off trying to sleep," he said firmly. "By the time you wake up the drug could be worn off entirely."

"And what will you do while I'm sleeping?"

Holding you, while I can. "Watching your back," Napoleon answered. He could, after all, do both at once.

***

By the time Napoleon woke the next morning Illya was back in his right mind and the San Francisco office had taken care of Johnstone. As a result, their return to New York was somehow relaxed, as if they were returning from a vacation instead of an affair. Although, given the way their vacations tended to turn out, there really wasn't that much difference. But it was just as well, Napoleon reflected. He doubted Waverly would be granting them the usual post-mission "weekend" to recharge.

The plane landed in New York just after 8:00pm that night. Napoleon, still deprived of his communicator, used a payphone at the airport to report their arrival. Payphones, he discovered, required an exceptionally long string of numbers to get through to HQ. Duty done and bound by word of honor to report in bright and early the next morning, he and Illya caught a cab for the last leg of their trip home.

As they stepped into their building's lobby, Napoleon realized that despite a solid week in his constant company, he wasn't ready to leave Illya alone. So, when they stepped into the elevator, he punched the button for his own floor and hesitated over that of Illya's. "Interested in dinner?" Napoleon asked, knowing the answer. After a flight like that one, of course Illya was interested in dinner. The real question was, was he interested in sharing dinner? "I'll even cook."

"All right," Illya said easily. "But I should drop off my luggage first." Napoleon nodded and keyed that button as well.

Napoleon held the elevator while Illya shoved his bag into his apartment, doubtlessly irritating half a dozen other residents of the building. He didn't care; there was no way he was climbing four flights of stairs after enduring more than eight hours of travel.

Inside his own apartment he discarded luggage, suit jacket, and tie, uncharacteristically leaving the latter two draped over the back of the couch. All his clothing needed to be pressed, anyway. On his way into the kitchen area Napoleon undid the top button of his dress shirt and rolled his sleeves up to his elbows.

Not that he was planning to do anything particularly involved for dinner. He never left anything that might spoil in his fridge before an affair. Hence cooking tonight involved boiling spaghetti and melting the red block in his freezer back into actual sauce. Still, with Illya leaning against the counter there was something satisfying about poking the frozen lozenge of sauce with a wooden spoon as it returned to it's original form.

"Does this count as cooking?" Illya asked idly.

"The stove and at least one utensil," Napoleon held up the spoon, "are in use. Therefore, it is cooking."

Illya smiled a little and something unwound in Napoleon. He smiled back and stirred the sauce contentedly.

***

The first thing Napoleon thought, as his cuffed hands were stretched uncomfortably high over his head, was that whoever had bet the long odds in the pool this time was about to make a killing. Metaphorically. Well, possibly not metaphorically, but he liked to think that in the event of their actual death the money would go to something a little more thoughtful.

Not that we're going to die, Napoleon told himself firmly. Even in their current, somewhat untenable, position strung up like a couple of sides of beef, there was hope. Their newest captor's goons had, in their search, missed not just his lock pick, but also one exploding button. The fact that Napoleon's hands were bound completely out of reach of either gadget was a minor detail.

So it wasn't entirely unusual for him to be considering some secretary's good fortune in betting that, despite having both been captured by Benjamin Johnstone just two weeks before, they'd both be captured again this time out. Anyone who takes risks like that should be rewarded, Napoleon thought wistfully. Hopefully the rewards for him and Illya would be forthcoming.

The last generic thug exited the room, leaving the partners alone to await his master. "So," Illya commented, "here we are again."

Napoleon grinned and twisted his head past his upraised arms so that he could look at his partner. "At least they're not THRUSH this time," he said. "That really would be getting repetitive."

"You're tempting fate when you say things like that, Napoleon," Illya grumbled. "Just watch. The next person through that door will be wearing a lab coat with the THRUSH insignia on it."

"Really, Illya, aren't Russians supposed to be pragmatic and logical?" Napoleon asked philosophically. "Superstition like that should be beyond you."

Illya snorted. "Anyone who works with you for longer than a day can't help but believe in luck. Yours is unnatural."

"I'm going to take that as a compliment, you know."

"Being unnatural?" Illya shot back innocently.

Napoleon rolled his eyes. "Being lucky."

"If it gets us out of here," Illya said, craning his neck to look up at his bonds, "you can consider yourself complimented."

Napoleon rose up on his toes a little in an attempted to ease the strain on his shoulders. "What, don't you want to, ah, hang around for the obligatory villain gloating?"

"Are we following a script, Napoleon?"

He considered for a moment. No, this time they weren't, actually. "No."

Illya hauled himself up by his arms until his eyes were level with the handcuffs. "And do we need to listen to the so-called gloating for the purposes of information gathering?"

Napoleon considered that, too, but this had been a fairly simple search-and-destroy affair. The searching had gone quite well. The destroying...not so much. Yet. Which left him with the answer, "No, we don't."

"So tell me, why," Illya asked, lowering himself back to the ground, "do we need to wait for the gloating?"

Napoleon threw his partner a look of deep offense. "Illya! It's polite." Illya just raised his eyebrows. "And," Napoleon went on, "considering that thug number one just went to get his boss, we wouldn't want to tip our hand just as said boss was walking into the room, now would we?"

At that moment, as smoothly as if it had been rehearsed, said boss opened the door and strode into the room. "Luck," Illya muttered, shaking his head.

Even if Napoleon had been inclined to bicker with his partner in front of the current villain of the piece, he was rather too distracted at the moment. There had been no picture of Liza Murphy in their briefing. Apparently she was very camera shy. At the time Napoleon had wondered if she had any reason beyond her criminal activities for that reticence.

He saw now that she didn't. Liza Murphy was beautiful. Blonde hair was piled up on her head, not a strand out of place. Her face was fine-featured, her complexion was perfect, and her lips were full and relaxed. That ease should have given Napoleon pause, considering his own circumstances, but he found himself too caught up in aesthetic appreciation to worry.

Nor were Liza's virtues limited to her face. She had what could only be described as an hourglass figure, evident despite the severe lines of her white blouse and calf-length blue skirt. The short stretch of calf Napoleon could make out between the hem of her skirt and her high heels was shapely enough to give him ideas about the rest of her legs.

Napoleon's reaction to an attractive woman was automatic. He straightened up--not that he could stand much straighter, given his restraints--tilted his head a little to the right and smiled.

Liza Murphy sauntered right up to him and dropped her eyes to rake him over in detail from the toes up. By the time her gaze approached his shoulders Napoleon was beginning to feel a little twitchy. He restrained himself from jerking his chin up, meeting her eyes instead.

At least, he tried to meet her eyes. Liza's gaze hit his chin and drifted immediately to his right. She studied the scarring as if committing every wrinkle to memory. Napoleon felt his stomach turn over. He clenched his teeth together, then consciously relaxed his jaw.

"Well," Liza said at length, pursing her lips in visible disappointment. She dragged her eyes over to meet Napoleon's. "So this is the great Napoleon Solo." She lifted one perfectly manicured hand and gave his scarred cheek a delicate little pat. "And I'd heard such impressive things about you."

Napoleon jerked his head away from her touch. "Sorry to disappoint," he said coolly. "I hope the rest of your intelligence is equally as...accurate."

"My information is quite accurate enough," Liza hooked a finger beneath his collar and tugged it away from his throat, peering at the skin beneath. "It got you here," she gestured up at the chains, "didn't it?"

With a look of almost absent curiosity, she stepped closer and lifted her hands to loosen Napoleon's tie. As she shifted her weight one of her knees bent, brushing a perfectly shaped knee past his thigh. Napoleon ruthlessly controlled the urge to retreat. There was, after all, only a step or so of slack in the chains.

He also choked down the need to swallow, vibrantly aware that Liza Murphy's eyes hovered exactly at throat level. The convulsion would be unmistakable. Instead he fixed his eyes on the wall past her shoulder and let her pull down the tie and undo the top three buttons of his dress shirt. "I think," he said, impressed at the dryness of his own tone, "you're confusing good intelligence with good security."

Off to the left chains rattled a little. Napoleon, unable to turn his head, closed his eyes briefly. Illya. The roiling of his stomach calmed a little, taking with it the desperate need to swallow. He opened his eyes again as Liza pulled his shirt open. For a moment he thought he was actually feeling the touch of her eyes on his skin. A moment later it registered that she was stroking the scarring she'd exposed, examining it with her fingertips.

"Now, now, Mr. Solo. Don't you think it's beneath you to argue semantics?" Liza lifted her gaze from his exposed chest and met his eyes. A tiny crease appeared between her eyebrows.

Napoleon let a tiny, hard smile curl his lips. "I argue semantics on a regular basis, Miss Murphy. I place a great deal of value on correctly understanding my colleagues."

"You're implying that I don't," Liza said, amused. She lifted her hand out of his shirt and trailed it up his arm a little. "I assure you, I communicate quite well with my associates. Even my THRUSH associates, and they're usually very difficult about working with independents. I've even had a word or two with Gabrielle."

Napoleon arched an eyebrow. In the wake of her touch his skin goosepimpled, but the crisp fabric of his shirt hid the reaction.

"Don't you remember Gaby?" Liza asked. Her fingers reached his wrist and lingered there for a moment. As she pulled away she rubbed the tips together a little. "That's her handiwork you're sporting," Liza nodded toward his cheek. "I'll have to tell her that her work didn't go entirely to waste. She was very upset."

"We all endure the ups and downs in this business, Miss Murphy," Napoleon commented calmly. The nausea he'd swallowed was beginning to feel more like heartburn. Gabrielle. Gaby. They hadn't known her name, only that THRUSH had welcomed her back into the fold despite their interference in her project. "Though some of us do enjoy more ups than others."

Liza glanced up the length of his body to the restraints binding his wrists. "And which is this? You appear thoroughly strung up to me. On the other hand, your future prospects are rather low." She pressed her index finger into the hollow of his throat and dragged it down to catch on his belt. "Or maybe you've another 'down' in mind." She tilted and smiled slyly. "As in, how far down does the scarring go, Mr. Solo? Dare I hope you're missing something...vital?"

"Vital?" Napoleon queried smoothly and smiled sardonically. "Just what are you planning, to be worrying about my vitality?"

Liza laughed. "I'm not interested in bedding you. I don't imagine many people are, these days."

Napoleon dredged a smug look up out of the emotion he'd swallowed. "Ahh, there you go again with inaccurate information. Whatever is the criminal network coming to?" It didn't matter that there had been only the one encounter. There could have been more, if he'd worked at it...

"Hmmm. I don't think so," Liza stepped closer and curled a hand around his hip. Her fingernails dug into the skin sharply. "I think by now you must be rather frustrated. You were quite the ladies man, weren't you, Mr. Solo?" She brushed lightly against him. "I wonder...how desperate are you?"

Another, firmer touch followed, but Liza Murphy completely failed to elicit the reaction she sought. Napoleon had never been so far from aroused in his life. Summoning the most patronizing expression in his repertoire, Napoleon looked her right in the eye and smiled. "Sorry," he drawled, "but you're just not my type."

Liza sniffed, put her nose in the air and took several steps back from him. "I think it's more likely you're not capable," she returned.

"I see you've been reduced to guessing games," Napoleon observed. "Most unprofessional, Miss Murphy."

"Well, what can you expect?" Illya broke in. Liza actually started minutely, Napoleon noted with satisfaction. "She is a freelancer, without even the dubious standards of THRUSH to hold to."

Liza turned a little and pinned Illya with an offended glare. "I'm quite professional enough," she said acidly. "And your opinion is about to mean very little." She reached behind herself and fumbled at the small of her back for a moment before successfully brandishing a gun in Illya's direction. Napoleon tilted his head for a better look at the weapon. He noted with some disappointment that, despite her awkward grip, she'd remembered to disengage the safety.

Illya appeared supremely unaffected by the threat. "The way you are handling that," he sighed, "does nothing to convince me you are a professional."

Almost involuntarily, Liza glanced down at her grip. Illya put the moment of inattention to good use. His first kick took her hard in the wrist and sent the gun skidding across the room. She'd hardly cried out before he lashed out again, planting one heel solidly in the gut. Gasping, Liza stumbled backwards, out of Illya's range...and into his partner's.

Using the chains for leverage, Napoleon struck twice, behind each of her knees. He felt the shock of impact through his ankle and into his calf. Liza shouted as she fell forward, barely catching herself on her hands. It hardly mattered that she had; she'd fallen close enough to Illya that he simply stepped up onto her back to hold her down.

Shifting a little to keep his balance despite Liza's squirming, Illya shot Napoleon a glance. "I hope you have some means of escape in mind," he said calmly. "I seem to have my...hands full."

Napoleon passed up the obvious joke for a sharp nod. He hauled himself into an unsteady chin up on the chains. It only took a moment to located and unwind the lock pick from its hiding place close against his scalp. Napoleon lowered himself back to the floor and craned his neck to look up at the cuffs while he worked the lock pick.

The cuffs soon fell away. Stripping off his already-loose tie, Napoleon knelt down next to Liza Murphy and roughly hauled her arms into the small of her back, where he used the tie to bind them securely. Wouldn't want her to grab at an ankle. Still, he left Illya standing on her back while he used the pick on his partner's restraints.

Illya lowered his arms gratefully and nodded down at their former captor. "What do we with her?" Napoleon cast a speculative glance at the chains, but Illya frowned. "We got free of those far too easily," he pointed out.

"Something tells me Miss Murphy doesn't have a lock pick handy," Napoleon reasoned, palming his own to re-conceal once they were out of her sight. "And she's shorter than either of us--she'll just barely be able to get her toes on the ground."

Illya took a critical look at the height of the chains and grudgingly conceded the point. They strung her up, glaring and haughty even in defeat. Napoleon gave her a long, hard look while Illya retrieved and checked the gun Liza had used to threaten him. "Well, Miss Murphy," he said at last, "it turns out this is yet another one of my 'ups.' Are you feeling frustrated yet?"

Liza maintained an austere, if futile, silence. Napoleon gave her a little wave and followed his partner back into the hallway.

Illya shot three men on their way through the hallways of the installation. Each of them looked almost comically surprised, as if it had never crossed their minds that captured agents were capable of escape. Napoleon crept along behind, stepping over the bodies when necessary, doing his best to watch Illya's back. He felt nearly naked, despite having buttoned up his shirt and retied his tie.

I need a gun, Napoleon thought, casting an eye down the hallway as Illya pushed open a door, looking for the right lab. How am I supposed to cover his back without a gun?

Napoleon's thighs ached as if he'd run a marathon, though they'd only covered a few hundred meters. He resisted the urge to stretch the muscles, wary of leaving himself off balance. As if you're not already off balance, he snorted quietly to himself. Rolling his shoulders to relieve a little of the tension there, he followed Illya to the next door.

Paydirt. Napoleon stepped into the lab after Illya and shut the door behind them. Illya scouted the various counters and drawers, making sure that all the records were there in addition to the large, ugly gun that sat proudly atop one of the counters.

While Illya searched Napoleon tore the exploding button free of his shirt and turned it over in his fingers. Over and over and over. The lab was meticulously neat. Various parts all neatly lined up, safety glasses secure on their hooks, shells--they couldn't really be called bullets--for the weapon carefully stacked.

He could tear it all apart. They were going to destroy it anyway. Napoleon narrowed his eyes at the experimental gun and imagined dashing it against the concrete floor, shattering it into a thousand pieces, shattering it like Liza Murphy wouldn't under his heels. He was trembling, fingers clenched around the explosive, heart pounding at the thought of breaking something, anything of hers...

"Napoleon. The explosive."

Napoleon snapped out of the fantasy to find Illya watching him calmly, hand outstretched, palm up.

Holding onto the button, Napoleon glanced over the lab benches and found a bottle of something sufficiently flammable. He spread the fluid over the files Illya had uncovered, vigorously shaking the flask, though pouring it would have been marginally faster. When he was done, he clenched his fingers around the empty bottle and resisted the urge to pitch it at the far wall. Instead he carefully set it down on the counter next to the weapon.

Illya opened the door to the lab and moved into the hallway. Moving with short, staccato steps, Napoleon joined him and turned at the door to hurl the tiny explosive back the way he had come. It struck the lab bench next to the gun they'd come to destroy and went off with a boom that rattled the open door.

Moments later a wash of heat struck Napoleon. Shading his eyes, he glanced into lab and smiled at the flames surging across the doused files. "Come on," he said, turning to Illya. "Let's get out of here."

Illya said nothing, merely turned away and started jogging down the hall. But as Napoleon pulled parallel with him, Illya reached out with his free hand and touched his partner's elbow for a moment. Napoleon let out a shaky breath and pulled away, though he threw his friend an apologetic glance.

The inevitable alarms went off barely ten long strides away from the cheerfully burning lab. The downside was that the personnel who started appearing in the hall were now armed. The good news was that Illya's quick reactions provided Napoleon with a weapon. He settled his hand around the unfamiliar gun, fingers tightening convulsively for a moment before easing off to a more controlled grip.

The next guard to approach fell to Napoleon's bullet.

The ranks of Liza Murphy's henchmen thinned as they approached the exit, though whether they were prioritizing the fire or were simply mostly dead, Napoleon wasn't sure. He wasn't sure he cared, either. Dangerous, a tiny voice, far in the back of his mind, warned him.

Together he and Illya burst out of the warehouse that had concealed this particular lab. It was night. If it the moon had risen, it had already set again. Napoleon ran all but blind into the dark night, waiting for his eyes to adjust as they put distance between themselves and their enemy's stronghold. Not that it's all that strong anymore, he thought, and grinned just a little.

Miraculously, their car was just where they had left it, four blocks away, tucked into an alley. Illya slid into the driver's seat without even glancing at his partner. Napoleon climbed into the passenger seat without argument and pulled the door shut firmly. Turning his appropriated gun to point at the door, he fumbled for the safety, hands trembling so badly it took him three tries to actually engage it.

"Napoleon..." Illya began as they pulled away from the warehouse district.

Napoleon cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand. "Not now," he said shortly. "Just...not now." Illya fell silent, but continued to glance over at his partner repeatedly. Napoleon stared out the window of the car.

I'm not interested in bedding you...

Why should that matter? Napoleon asked himself, eyes falling closed. As beautiful as Liza Murphy had been, as much as he'd--briefly--appreciated the view, he'd entertained no fantasy of taking her to bed. It's not like it's the first time a woman has turned you down, he though, shifting a little in his seat.

It was the first time anyone had raked their eyes over him and thrown their distaste in his face.

Napoleon turned away from the window and threw himself back in the seat, stared up at the roof. Did you expect tact? Did you think no one would ever wrinkle their nose and turn away and not care what you thought?

But...for nearly five months no one had. Everyone from the receptionists at HQ to the Section Two agents to the THRUSH they ran into on a regular basis had never said a word. The UNCLE personnel were walking on eggshells, Napoleon knew. But THRUSH? Apparently, Napoleon snorted to himself, even they have some twisted sense of propriety.

Propriety. What a fine thread to hang from. Napoleon remembered his playful protest: Illya! It's polite.

Screw polite, he thought viciously. Liza Murphy certainly had. She'd wielded her words like weapons and for once Napoleon had felt out gunned. With her hands on his skin, he'd understood for the first time why some people protected their personal space so neurotically. He flinched now, remembering, as he hadn't then.

Illya pulled into a motel parking lot and turned the car off. Napoleon levered himself out of his seat and went to retrieve his suitcase from the back seat. Briskly, he stuffed the gun into an outside pocket and zipped it.

They'd checked out of their original hotel that morning, the switch intended as an additional measure to prevent reprisals, but now Napoleon jittered impatiently as Illya checked them in. The moment a room key crossed the desk he snatched it up and stalked back outside, up the stairs, down the walkway to their room.

Despite his pace, Illya arrived close enough behind him to catch the door that he flung open before it could crash into the wall. Napoleon tramped to the far side of the room, reached the window, spun and paced back again. Turning again at the door, he paused and pulled his communicator out of his pocket. Nostrils flaring, he stared at it for a moment, then lifted his eyes to Illya and tilted his head.

Illya withdrew his own communicator and proceeded to make their final report while Napoleon paced, uncaring of the residents of the room below. He came to an abrupt halt the moment Illya closed the connection. "Napoleon..." Illya began, but trailed off.

Napoleon clenched his hands into fists, stretched his fingers out, and made fists again. "I don't...I shouldn't be this--"

"Hurt?" Illya suggested quietly.

Napoleon's head snapped up. "Angry," he bit off the word and turned back to his pacing. I think by now you must be rather frustrated, she'd said. Frustrated. Angry. Because it was true? But it's not true, Napoleon told himself, lacing his hands together. He squeezed until his knuckles hurt. It's not true. If I had wanted, I could have found someone to take to bed.

But he hadn't wanted. Hadn't wanted to put that much work into a quick tumble between the sheets and embarrassed glances the next morning. Hadn't wanted to have to persuade someone into sleeping with him. So there had been only the once...

The memory did little to calm the sick feeling in Napoleon's gut. He unwound his hands and glanced up to find Illya watching, brow wrinkled with concern. "I'm sorry," Napoleon said.

"For what?" Illya asked, eyebrow shooting up. Helplessly, Napoleon lifted his hands. Illya took a step towards him, one hand outstretched.

Napoleon found himself backing up, retreating into the bathroom, and closing the door between them before Illya could touch him. He leaned his head against the wood, listening to Illya on the other side, trying to convince him to open the door. Open the door, he told himself, but his hands didn't move. Illya's on the other side of that door.

Instead he turned to the sink and splayed his hands on the faux-marble countertop. Here you are, some small part of his mind commented, in the bathroom again. Napoleon choked down a laugh. Wasn't the bathroom supposed to be the most dangerous room in the house? Aside from the kitchen. This is a motel, it doesn't have a kitchen, he thought inanely.

Napoleon stared down at his hands for a long time. They had matched once. He'd been complimented on his hands more than once. He'd taken care of them. The left was the same as ever, if a little less professionally groomed. The right was streaked and dotted with dull gray scar tissue.

He curled the hand into a fist, watching the play of skin over muscles and tendons. It moved as smoothly as ever, as if nothing had changed. The only difference was cosmetic. Napoleon looked up into the mirror and saw the lines of distress carved into his features. How desperate are you?

For a moment he could see the cosmetics strewn across the counter...and his own face, nearly as it had been before, and himself, wishing for hair dye.

Napoleon lashed out, hardly aware of the cry that rose from his throat. The heel of his hand crashed into the expanse of mirror. It fractured with a loud crack, a spiderweb of breaks originating under Napoleon's palm. He stared a moment at the broken mirror, hardly aware of the frantic scrabbling the bathroom door, too fixated to really register Illya's panicked voice.

When he lifted his hand away from the mirror, shards of the glass clung to his palm. The edges of them tugged at the flesh in which they were embedded. Gravity threatened to pull them free, so Napoleon curled his hand around the sharp-edged fragments. He stared, mesmerized, at his closed hand.

Inside, the bits of mirror sliced deeper. Pain sang along his nerves, a counterpoint to soft, warm trickle of blood. Outside...nothing.

Napoleon squeezed harder, felt the pain spike. It washed through him like a wave, carrying with it the haze of anger and hurt, the memories and words that had haunted him. His hand throbbed, hot with pain, but his mind was startlingly clear. For a moment Napoleon reveled in the freedom of not thinking at all.

Thought returned with an internal cry: What the hell are you doing?

Before Napoleon could open his hand, the door flew open and Illya burst into the room. He took in the tableau in one sweeping glance. Napoleon could only imagine how it must look. He opened his mouth to explain, but no words emerged.

Nor, it seemed, were any needed. Illya was at his side almost immediately. He took Napoleon's wrist firmly in his hands and tugged, forcing the injured hand under the tap. Napoleon gasped as cold water poured down over his clenched fist. Illya uncurled each finger with a gentle, uncompromising touch, exposing the damage within.

Napoleon winced to see the lacerations that crisscrossed his palm. Beside him, Illya's lips compressed to a thin line. His touch was infinitely light, plucking loose shards of mirror with an experienced touch. They'd patched each other up a hundred times. But it was never like this, Napoleon thought, watching his partner. The wound had never been self-inflicted before.

Illya's gaze was hard and intent as he worked. The line of his jaw was tight with tension. I'm sorry, Napoleon told him silently. But he said nothing. His partner was at his side, warms hands were curled around his. He let his gaze trail over Illya's features.

The flow of water stopped, pain flaring up again in the absence of the numbing cold. Napoleon hissed a little and looked back at the damaged hand. I'm going to have to requalify again, he thought ruefully. A quick glance at Illya, who was rolling up a face cloth, convinced him to keep the thought to himself.

Pressing the cloth into his hand, Illya ordered, "Grip that." Napoleon closed his fingers automatically and bit back a cry of pain. "We need to get you to the hospital for stitches."

Napoleon looked up, a protest on his lips. He swallowed it. "Right. Call me a cab?" he tried a smile. "I seem to be one hand short."

The darkening of Illya's eyes told him the joke was not appreciated. Napoleon grimaced as his partner turned and stalked out of the bathroom to call a cab company. I have a feeling I'm going to be getting a piece of his mind when we get back.

They made the ride to the hospital in silence. Expecting an interminable wait in the ER, Napoleon was startled when Illya flashed his UNCLE ID and had them shown into an examining room after mere minutes. "Not exactly standard procedure," he murmured when the nurse had left in pursuit of a doctor.

"You're an agent for UNCLE, and you're hurt," Illya responded tightly.

"Technically, the affair is over," Napoleon said quietly. "And this," he lifted his hand, "is hardly life threatening."

Illya shot him a glare. "We are here. You are going to have that taken care of."

Napoleon subsided.

The doctor swept into the room with a friendly smile. It dimmed as his gaze passed over Illya, but did not disappear entirely. Napoleon was impressed. "So," the doctor said, taking a seat on a stool, "I'll need to see that."

Under Illya's hawk-like gaze the cuts covering Napoleon's hand were cleaned, stitched, and properly bound. "The good news," the doctor said as he cleaned up, "is that there's no tendon damage. That means that you should lose any mobility in the hand."

"Ah," Napoleon was momentarily at a loss for words. "I...hadn't considered that."

"And what is the bad news?" Illya asked coolly.

The doctor glanced up at the blond and quickly back to Napoleon. "It's not such bad news, really. Just that you're going to need to exercise and moisturize that hand daily once the new tissue starts to form. You don't want the skin tightening too much."

"Thank you, doctor," Napoleon said. "You do good work."

"If we are done here, we should go." Illya threw the doctor an inquiring glance. Receiving a wave of permission in response, he turned his gaze on his partner.

Napoleon stood, nodded politely at the doctor, and preceded his partner through the emergency room and out to find another cab. Napoleon slid into the back seat and scooted over to allow Illya to follow. Illya pulled the car door shut after himself and sat looking straight ahead. Napoleon sighed and gave the cabby the name of the motel.

"It's really not that serious," Napoleon said after awhile. Illya shot him an indecipherable look but said nothing. With a mental shrug, Napoleon leaned back into his seat. Illya would enlighten him when they got back to the motel, no doubt.

When they arrived Illya left the cab to his partner and headed straight for their room. Grimacing, Napoleon paid the fare and followed more slowly. In their room he found Illya standing in the bathroom doorway, looking through at the mess that remained there. Traces of blood beaded the fractured mirror. Next to the sink stood a small pile of fragments.

"Are you going to explain this?" Illya asked quietly, nodding at the mirror.

"Do I have a choice?" Napoleon asked lightly. Illya's lack of response was pointed. Napoleon swallowed a sigh. He lifted his uninjured hand and hesitantly rested it on Illya's shoulder. "I'm not sure I can explain. I was...upset. Not thinking clearly."

"Are you thinking clearly now?"

Napoleon looked down at his hand where it lay on his partner's shoulder. Where they touched it seemed warmer. Shared body heat, I suppose, Napoleon thought, and smiled to himself. He gave a little squeeze. "Perfectly."

"Good." Illya turned around and caught Napoleon's gaze. "Because I want you to remember this." He reached down and unerringly found Napoleon's wrist, though he never shifted his gaze. Lifting the bandaged hand, Illya gave it a little shake. "She is not worth this. No one is worth this."

"I--" Napoleon began, but Illya cut him off.

"Don't we get hurt enough?" he demanded, fierce gaze burning into Napoleon. "Haven't you had enough pain? Do you need to hurt yourself now?"

"I'm sorry," Napoleon said softly. He couldn't look away from Illya. They stood close together, only Illya's grip on his wrist separating them. Close enough to kiss if Napoleon just leaned forward a little, tilted his head a little...but Illya's eyes were bright with anger, not desire.

"Sorry isn't good enough, Napoleon," Illya ground out. His fingers tightened on his partner's wrist. "Sorry doesn't mean you won't do this again."

"I--" Napoleon stopped and swallowed heavily. "So what will be good enough?"

Some of the hardness left Illya's gaze. His grip on Napoleon's wrist eased a little. "Promise me," he said. "Promise me you'll never hurt yourself again."

Looking into brilliant blue eyes, Napoleon knew he'd have promised a great deal more than that, if Illya had asked. He had to force himself not to let the vow slip out too quickly, lest Illya doubt his sincerity. Instead Napoleon took a moment to turn his hand in his partner's grip and wrap his own fingers around Illya's wrist in turn. "I promise," he said at last, voice steady and firm and certain.

Illya searched his eyes for a long moment before pulling back, apparently satisfied. "Good." He released his grip on Napoleon's wrist and took a step backward, further into the bathroom. "Then I will clean this up," he began. For a moment Napoleon was certain that Illya was being overprotective, keeping him away from the sharp glass. "And you will explain the broken mirror to the manager."

Napoleon suppressed a wince. Not overprotective. Definitely not overprotective. he thought. If they'd still officially been on an affair it would have been easy. Just a quick flash of his ID and the standard 'I'm sorry, but such-and-such was broken in the course of an investigation vital to the preservation of your safety and the safety of thousands of others. You will, of course, be reimbursed in full.'

But they weren't on an affair. Technically, it had ended roughly two hours before, when Illya made their final report. Napoleon considered tweaking the timeframe a little...and quickly discarded the possibility. If he did that he'd have to report the damage and explain it to Waverly, which would be infinitely worse.

So he just shot his partner a glare as he headed for the door. "You know, there are some benefits to being in my good graces."

"There are?" Illya called from the bathroom, his voice heavy with exaggerated surprise.

Napoleon laughed a little and shut the door behind himself.

***

Their plane landed in New York in the early afternoon. Napoleon stuffed the magazine he'd been reading back into the seat pocket in front of him, concealing a wince as his actions tugged on the stitches in his palm. It was remarkably hard to remember not to use his hand too much. Even the burns hadn't limited him like this.

Of course, Napoleon thought, flexing his fingers ruefully, the burns were on the back of the hand.

He looked up to find Illya watching him with a sharp eye. "I'm fine," Napoleon assured him. "I just keep forgetting I'm not supposed to use this hand."

Illya looked skeptical, but around them the other passengers were beginning to stand and mill about. He let it go, instead motioning for Napoleon to move into the aisle so that they could retrieve their own luggage. Napoleon complied, remembering just in time to pull his suitcase down from the overhead compartment with his left hand, using the right only for balance.

They hauled their luggage out to the curb and managed to snag a cab just ahead of a gaggle of tourists. Napoleon gave the cabby the address of their building and took a moment to look out the rear window at the cluster of excited visitors. Their enthusiasm didn't seem at all dampened by having missed the cab.

"Did you ever do that?" Napoleon asked, settling back into his seat and chucking a thumb of his shoulder.

Illya shook his head. "Not like that, I didn't," he said. "I studied the city before my transfer--"

"--and doubtless scouted it like enemy territory upon arrival," Napoleon said dryly. Illya shrugged one shoulder, conceding the point. "I did. Do the tourist thing, I mean. The first time I visited New York I was hardly more than a kid. I was a city kid but this," Napoleon waved out the window and smiled, remembering, "this was 'city' on a whole different scale."

Illya gave him a long look and pursed his lips. "I'm having a hard time picturing you gawking like a tourist."

"You've seen me out of my element before."

"Out of your element, yes," Illya allowed, "but not...awed."

Napoleon opened his mouth to argue, then slowly shut it. "It's been a very long time since I've encountered something worthy of awe," he admitted after a while. "That, and I'm considerably more jaded than I was at eighteen."

"You sound like you regret that."

Napoleon turned away from the window and towards his partner. "Shouldn't I? Don't you think the innocents out there are happier? They get to just relax and enjoy life."

"Ignorance is bliss?" Illya arched an eyebrow. "If you really believe that, why are you in the game at all?"

"Well, there are compensations," Napoleon said, smiling.

Illya snorted. "Ah yes. Your bevy of beauties."

"Among other things," Napoleon commented, letting his eyes linger on his partner when Illya directed his attention out his own window. Surely he's noticed how the so-called 'bevy' has thinned in the last few months, Napoleon thought, suppressing a frown. Especially given how much of his time I've been monopolizing.

And he really had been monopolizing Illya's time. How many times had they been out during that two-week break between missions? Napoleon could think of half a dozen occasions off the top of his head, and that wasn't even counting lunches. He has to be sick of me by now. Illya was naturally solitary, but he'd let his gregarious partner drag him out over and over again.

Of course he has, Napoleon told himself, remembering Illya's frantic entrance into the bathroom the night before, the determination with which he'd extracted Napoleon's promise. He's been worried about me. Hell, he's practically been babysitting me.

A stab of guilt shot through Napoleon at that. Illya had been looking after him long enough. What had he said weeks ago? Soon you will get back to normal and I will be left with my books again. Maybe it was time to let Illya get back to his own life. Napoleon had been all but clinging to him, manipulating him when it seemed things might start to go back to...normal.

As he watched his partner, Napoleon's heart clenched in his chest. He's not going to abandon you, he told himself. Hasn't he proved that enough? You can let go. Just a little

The streetlights they passed as they drove cast flickering shadows over Illya's face. The shading of the light suggested emotion where there was none. Illya controlled his expression better than that, but for a moment Napoleon could have sworn he saw a shade of melancholy there.

Projecting, he told himself, looking away.

The cab slowed to a stop. Napoleon slid out and automatically reached for his wallet to pay the driver. His right hand, swathed in gauze, protested fiercely. Before he could reach across with his left hand, Illya waved him towards the trunk, his own wallet already in hand. Napoleon retrieved their bags one at a time and handed Illya his as the cab pulled away.

They crossed the lobby and stepped into the elevator. Napoleon turned and lifted his hand and froze for a moment. If you invited him up, he said to himself, he'd say yes. Of course he'd say yes. He always says yes. But you already decided not to do this.

Napoleon pressed both buttons, his floor and Illya's, and said nothing.

When the elevator car stopped for the first time at Illya's floor he stepped into the hall and hesitated, looking back. "Napoleon?"

Napoleon forced a tired smile onto his lips. "Good night, Illya."

Illya's eyebrows drew down into a scowl, but the elevator doors slid closed between them before he could say anything. Napoleon let out a shaky breath and rode up the last four floors to his own apartment.

Inside, he took his suitcase straight to the bedroom and started unpacking, muffling curses as he overextended his injured hand every now and then. Almost everything went into a pile to go to the dry cleaners, but a few things he returned to their appropriate drawers. When he was done, Napoleon tucked the suitcase away in his closet and looked around the room. There. Everything in its place.

Sighing, he reached up to run his fingers through his hair and winced at the sudden sharp pain in his palm. Napoleon turned his hand over and discovered that the gauze was spotted with blood. "Damn," he muttered. "Apparently I really do need a keeper."

His eyes went to the phone involuntarily, but he forced his feet in the direction of the bathroom instead. There was a first aid kit there that he could use to replace the bandage. Napoleon only hoped that none of the stitches had torn. Illya would kill him if he managed to aggravate the wound this soon.

Fortunately, all the sutures were in place. Napoleon awkwardly cleaned and rebandaged the hand, trying not to think of how much easier it would have been if Illya were here to do this. It was nothing unusual--they'd patched each other up a hundred times before. Illya's touch was always strong and warm, too experienced but thankfully gentle for that experience.

Napoleon let his eyes fall closed, remembering a hundred such touches. In his memories the pain of whatever injury he'd sustained at the time always faded into insignificance. It was the patching up he remembered. He never used to mind the scars that were left behind...

Opening his eyes, Napoleon found his reflection in the mirror. I got you into the emergency shower as quickly as possible, Illya had said. But Napoleon didn't remember.

He left the bathroom and put on music in the living room. If it had been anywhere near evening he probably would have gone to bed and let himself sleep off this last mission in an environment that was, more or less, safe. But it wasn't evening. It wasn't even dark outside. So he just took off his tie, hung it up on his tie rack, unbuttoned his collar and settled down on the couch to listen to the record he'd put on.

***

Napoleon forced himself not to hurry his steps as he navigated the halls of UNCLE headquarters. Absently, he traded smiles and greetings with the personnel he passed in the corridors. Arriving at his office at last, Napoleon stepped inside briskly.

Illya was already there at his desk, blond head bent over a short stack of paperwork. A thread of tension in Napoleon's shoulders eased. "Good morning," he said cheerfully, sliding into the chair behind his desk. Illya just grunted. Napoleon refused to be put off. "How was your weekend?"

At that, Illya looked up. "It was not the weekend," he pointed out.

"It was two days off after several days of work," Napoleon reasoned. "What else is a weekend?"

"Saturday and Sunday," Illya replied sardonically.

Napoleon shook his head, "No imagination," he mock-scolded, smiling.

"You're cheerful," Illya said, turning his attention back to his paperwork. "Who was she?"

"She?"

Illya shot his partner an impatient look. "The young lady who put you into such an expansive mood," he clarified.

Napoleon frowned. "There was no young lady."

"Oh?" Illya arched an eyebrow and turned back to his work without further comment.

This wasn't how Napoleon had wanted this morning to go. "Illya," he said impatiently, "you of all people have noticed that my social calendar isn't as full as it used to be. If I say there was no young lady, there wasn't."

Illya looked up again. "I didn't mean to imply that you were lying," he said after a moment. "But if you weren't entertaining, what were you doing?"

Napoleon shrugged and pulled a report out of his in box. "Relaxing."

"Alone?"

"Is that so unusual?" Napoleon asked, looking at the report he held but not seeing. He was beginning to wish he had lied.

"In my experience," Illya was saying, "when you are alone you become restless. Not relaxed."

"After that last mission, maybe I needed a little time to myself."

Napoleon knew the moment the words left his lips that it was the wrong thing to say. Concealing a wince, he glanced quickly at Illya. His expression was, as always, controlled, but Napoleon could see the concern in those blue eyes. That'll teach me to speak without thinking, he sighed to himself. "I'm fine," he answered the unspoken question.

"Napoleon..."

"Illya," Napoleon caught his friend's eye. "A couple of days by myself doesn't mean I'm going into fits of depression. I'm fine, really." He reached out and picked up the report again, forgetting for a moment to favor his right hand. Grimacing at the stab of pain, he sighed. "At least, I will be when this is healed."

Illya was out from behind his desk and next to Napoleon's chair before Napoleon even registered that he'd moved. "Let me look at that," he said, holding out one hand imperiously.

"It's fine," Napoleon protested.

"It's fine," Illya grumbled, taking Napoleon's hand in his and unwrapping the bandage expertly. "It's fine, you're fine. Everything's fine, I'm sure." Exposing the collection of gashes, he scowled. "These stitches are strained."

"I told you before, it's hard to remember not to use that hand. It's automatic. I reach for things without thinking," Napoleon explained. Illya's thumbs were stroking gently over the abused skin of his palm, too lightly to hurt. Napoleon shifted in his seat.

After a moment, Illya retrieved the bandage and carefully rewound it. "You need to take better care of yourself, Napoleon," he said when he was done.

"I think this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black," Napoleon responded, smiling. "You've had more than your fair share of injuries, my friend."

It's not the same thing, Illya's look told him, but he let it go. "So what have our colleagues been up to in our absence?" he asked instead.

"I don't know," Napoleon said. He lifted the report--with his left hand--and waggled it. "I haven't had a chance to read this yet."

"I'm disappointed, Napoleon," Illya replied dryly, returning to his own desk. "Have you lost the ability to magically catch up on all the gossip between reception and this office?"

"I haven't," Napoleon said smoothly. "But I didn't think you were asking about Gloria's new cat, or the fact that Wanda had a less than satisfactory date Saturday night."

Illya just snorted and returned to his report. Smiling, Napoleon followed suit.

***

Napoleon drummed his fingers on his desk and looked across the empty office at Illya's seat. Illya had been down in the lab since early that morning. Since a quarter after eight, actually. Three and a half hours now.

It made sense. Napoleon was restricted to desk duty until he'd requalified again. Waverly would send him out, injured hand or no, if he was needed. But he wasn't needed, and there were projects in the lab that would benefit from Illya's particular talents. Which left Napoleon at his desk. Alone.

You ought to invite him out for dinner, Napoleon told himself, turning a pen over in his left hand. It's been what, six days since that last affair? That's not too often. Actually, that's less often than you saw him before. Napoleon sighed, put the pen down, and rubbed his face, instead. The ridges of the scar tissue were rough under his palm. He grimaced, wishing he could look across his desk and catch Illya smirking, or rolling his eyes, or asking after a late night with mock-innocence.

Napoleon flexed his right hand a little. The healing gashes protested a little, but not nearly so sharply as they had a few days ago. It would be four more days before the stitches could come out. Four more days until he would be put officially back on field duty--after he'd requalified on the firing range, of course. It might still be a couple of days after that before he and Illya were actually dispatched on a mission.

Picking up the pen with his left hand, Napoleon looked back down at the application he'd been reviewing. Angela Anders wanted to transfer. Most Section Three agents applied for transfer to Section Two at least once in their career, but this was getting a little ridiculous. This was her fourth attempt in the two months since he'd had a word with her.

Fortunately, Napoleon suspected he wouldn't have to dig very deep to find a reason to refuse the request. He flipped quickly to the third page of the application and snorted to himself. Ms. Anders' scores on the firing range were still abysmal. He'd have to ask Ben to keep an eye out for her down there; if she really was trying, it wouldn't do to shut her down too harshly. Despite the...flaw in her attitude, she was a good agent. Napoleon resigned himself to reviewing the application thoroughly.

It took exactly 18 minutes. He knew, because he'd checked the clock at least a dozen times in between beginning and finishing. Turning over the last page of the application, Napoleon glanced at the clock again--12:03--and set about writing a response. Writing with his left hand was difficult and the lines tended to slant across the page, but it was legible enough to be retyped properly by one of the secretaries.

Stretching his left hand, Napoleon grimaced. I need to practice my ambidexterity more often, he acknowledged silently. When one wasn't naturally ambidextrous it was an easy skill to allow to lapse.

However, for the moment, it was lunchtime. With a little luck, Illya would have become too engrossed in whatever he was working to have gone for lunch quite yet. Napoleon pushed himself to his feet and turned towards the door. It slid open before him, startling a young lady on the other side.

"Oh! Mr. Solo," she blushed. "I was just coming to see you. Do you...have a moment?"

"Of course," Napoleon smiled and stepped back into his office, holding out his arm to indicate she should enter. He arranged himself so that he was leaning against his desk casually. The pause while he settled himself gave him a chance to search his memory for her name. Something with an M. Maureen? No. Mandy...Mary...Marianne! That was it. "What can I do for you, Marianne?"

She flushed a little. "Mr. Solo...I wasn't even sure you knew who I was."

Napoleon gentled his smile a little. "I assure you," he said, "I remember all the attractive young women I meet." It was a line, and an obvious one, but Marianne didn't seem to mind. She just ducked her gaze a little before peering up at him through her eyelashes.

"Do think I'm attractive?" she asked softly.

Napoleon felt a thread of wariness take root. "I've already said I do," he answered, his tone carefully friendly, casual. "But we've gotten off the subject. You said you were coming to see me." He paused.

"Yes," Marianne said definitively. A silent moment passed; she'd apparently reached the limit of her certainty. Napoleon waited patiently. "I thought," she began, haltingly. "That is, I wanted to ask-- I wondered-- Um. Oh, drat!" Marianne bit her lip, features twisted with frustration. "I'm not doing this very well," she said at last, miserably.

"I'm going to take a guess at what you're trying to say," Napoleon said gently. "You let me know if I'm close."

"Okay," she sighed.

"You were thinking we could go out. Maybe to dinner."

Marianne's face lit up with a shy smile. "That was exactly what I was thinking," she admitted. "Are...are you interested?"

"Marianne," Napoleon said, and shifted his weight in an attempt to find a more comfortable way to lean. The edge of this desk was sharp. "I always got the impression you were looking for something," he paused, "long term."

"I am," she confirmed.

"Which is why I'm a little confused," Napoleon went on carefully. "I don't have much of a reputation for that."

Marianne clasped her hands in front of her and immediately started twisting them together nervously. "I know. But after," she gestured briefly at her own face, "I thought...you must have done a lot of thinking. I know you stopped dating for awhile...and you never got back up to speed." She blushed. "So to speak."

Gently, now, Napoleon thought. "Actually," he said, "I haven't been dating anyone from head quarters."

Her face fell. "Oh. Is that for...professional reasons?"

Napoleon couldn't help a smile. "Not at all. It's just easier with people who didn't know me before I was hurt."

Marianne's mouth rounded into a silent 'o'. Suddenly uncomfortable, Napoleon straightened up and took a half step towards the door. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Marianne," he said sincerely.

"Oh, that's all right," she said, waving one hand and smoothing her skirt with the other. "I should have known better."

"I'm not sure how I should take that," Napoleon teased, following her to the doorway.

"I didn't mean--" Marianne caught sight of his grin and cut herself off, putting her hands on her hips. "Now, that wasn't very nice, Mr. Solo."

"I know," Napoleon said easily, "but I just couldn't resist." He quirked an eyebrow. "I have no self-control at all."

Marianne laughed as she moved into the hallway. Napoleon followed, allowing the door to slide shut behind him. It was, after all, time for lunch. "Well, I'll see you the next time you're down in Communications," she said, and gave a little wave before strolling off.

Napoleon watched her go for a moment before sliding his hands into his pockets and heading for the stairs. If Illya was heading up from the labs for lunch he'd use the stairs, and Napoleon didn't want to miss him. But he didn't run into his partner. I hope I haven't missed him, he thought, arriving at the labs.

Since Illya was primarily an Enforcement agent, he didn't get his own lab. However, there was a lab reserved for visiting scientists. It was a convenient way to keep the occasional guest--most of whom lent their aid for a week at most--away from the more sensitive UNCLE projects. Illya had taken over a corner of this space for himself. He periodically had to move his notes into a more secure location, but the arrangement seemed to work well enough.

Napoleon poked his head into the room and spotted his partner hunched over a beaker, a pipette in one hand, carefully allowing individual droplets to join the solution below. Napoleon relaxed a little and waited for Illya to sit back from his work before speaking. "Illya. Have you been for lunch yet?"

"You have excellent timing, Napoleon," Illya said, rolling shoulders. "I have exactly fifty-five minutes," he checked his watch to mark the time, "before I must move on to the next stage."

"Ah." Napoleon paused and watched as Illya exchanged his lab coat for his suit jacket. "I suppose it's the commissary, then."

Illya looked up and tugged the jacket straight. "If you don't want to eat here, you can go out," he offered, and shot a sardonic look at the experiment in progress. "I'm the one chained to the lab bench."

"No, no, it's okay," Napoleon said, stepping out of the doorway to let Illya into the hallway.

Illya shot him an odd look. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked after a moment.

"Fine," Napoleon said automatically. "Why?"

Illya shrugged. "You seem unusually...subdued lately."

"Not you too," Napoleon sighed, injecting a rueful note into his voice. "Marianne--from Communications--commented on the decline in my social life just a few minutes ago." Illya raised an inquiring eyebrow. Napoleon lifted his bandaged hand and waggled it a little. "It's hard to be seductive and suave when you're knocking things over left, right, center."

"Hmmm," Illya's eyes twinkled with amusement. "And here I thought you were the one man whose evenings wouldn't be impacted by the loss of your right hand," he said dryly.

Napoleon all but choked on his laughter. "Now, now, Illya," he shook a finger at his partner. "Not in headquarters. What would people think if they heard you?"

"Since my sense of humor is little more than a myth," Illya began solemnly, "they would undoubtedly wonder why you put up with me."

Napoleon let himself drift a little closer to his friend, bumping their shoulders together. "You're worth putting up with," he confided.

Illya looked over at him. Their gazes connected for an instant. "Am I?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Looking away quickly, Napoleon found that they'd arrived at the commissary. He stepped inside, letting the noise of the lunch rush carry away the thread of tension that had sprung up between them. Beside him Illya sighed but acquired a tray for himself, a tacit surrender.

The food in UNCLE's cafeteria was less than inspiring. Napoleon ended up with a plastic wrapped sandwich, a small bowl of soup and a glass of water. Illya followed his example, though he doubled everything.

As they moved into the seating area several other agents waved invitations to join them, but Napoleon declined with a tap to his watch face and a slight shrug. Instead he and Illya settled at an otherwise empty table and set about unwrapping their sandwiches.

"I swear," Napoleon said, peering at the tuna salad smeared between the slices of bread in his sandwich, "these things get dryer every day."

"I suspect they do not actually replace them," Illya expertly pinched his own sandwich to prevent the escape of its contents. "They just leave them there until someone actually dares to pick one up."

Napoleon snorted slightly, contemplating his own meal. "And you still eat them?"

Illya swallowed and shrugged. "Someone must."

"The things we do to maintain balance in the world," Napoleon chuckled, and gamely bit into his own lunch.

The meal passed far too quickly for Napoleon's taste, despite the poor quality of the food. By the time Illya had made it halfway through his good he'd started checking his watch regularly. He's got an experiment running, he reminded himself. Still, Napoleon couldn't help the sting of disappointment he felt when Illya checked his watch one last time and stood.

"I have to go," Illya said briskly. "That formula is not stable."

"Of course," Napoleon summoned a smile and waved him away casually. "I'll see you later." Tomorrow, he sighed to himself.

Illya paused, giving his partner a long look, but hurried away without saying anything.

Napoleon pushed his tray away from himself and stared at it for a moment. He could, he supposed, join one of the groups that had invited him earlier, but what was the point? He'd finished eating. If he hung around any longer he'd do nothing more productive than gossip.

Best to retreat to his office and finish out the day there.

***

Napoleon knew even as he took a seat in one of UNCLE medical's exam rooms that Illya was going to be angry when he found out that Napoleon had had the stitches out without him. It didn't matter that they'd never felt compelled to keep each other company on such check ups before. This injury was different, more personal.

But despite that knowledge, despite the fact that Illya was one communicator call and just a few rooms away, Napoleon had made the appointment quietly and come down by himself. Illya could yell at him tomorrow, when he saw that the bandage had been discarded. Napoleon smiled at the thought and then had to snort at himself.

The doctor entered the exam room a moment later and took a seat on a stool in front of Napoleon, who sat perched on the edge of the bed. "Let's take a look at that, shall we?" he said, holding out his hand.

Napoleon surrendered his bandaged hand to the doctor's brisk touch and watched idly as it was unwrapped. "Hmmm," the doctor examined the stitches closely. "These have been strained."

"I know," Napoleon admitted. "It's hard not to use my right hand."

The doctor tilted his head. "I thought all agents got ambidexterity training."

"They do. But that doesn't mean one had isn't still naturally more dominant than the other." Napoleon waited a moment, but the doctor made no move towards the tweezers and scissors that waited at his elbow. "The stitches do come out today, don't they?" he prompted.

"Hmmm? Oh, yes, of course." The doctor picked up tweezers and scissors and pulled the little rolling stand over so that Napoleon could rest his hand there. "Sorry. I got a little distracted there. Whoever put your stitches in was very good. Professional interest, you know. I don't think there'll even be a scar."

Napoleon snorted, amused. "You'll excuse me if I don't find that as important as I used to," he said dryly.

The doctor looked up from his work and blinked, as if taking in the scarring for the first time. "Oh. I suppose not." He suddenly leaned closer, peering at the scarring around Napoleon's eye. The agent flinched but didn't jerk his head back. "You must have incredibly fast reflexes," the doctor commented after a moment.

Napoleon blinked. "How can you tell?" he asked, watching as the man went back to carefully snipping and tugging at the stitches.

"You got your hand up in time to save your eye," the doctor said absently. "With an injury like that, I would have expected you to lose your vision."

Napoleon considered that for a long time. "Just lucky, I guess," he murmured eventually.

"What?" the doctor looked up.

"Never mind," Napoleon chuckled, shaking his head.

He had purposefully scheduled the appointment with the doctor for 4:45pm so that he would be able to go straight home from medical. Work that day might have gone more smoothly with the stitches out, but Napoleon had carefully weighed that ease against the prospect of having Illya scowl at him all day. He'd decided he could handle a couple more hours of left-handedness.

However, it was a decided relief to be able to curl his hands around the steering wheel normally. A few blocks from his building, Napoleon considered the merits of stopping to get dinner on the way home. After due consideration of the intricacies of finding a parking spot, picking up the food, attempting to weasel his way back into the flow of traffic, only to drive four blocks to his building, he discarded the idea. Better to order in.

On the other hand, Napoleon considered as he pulled into his parking spot in the building's basement, maybe I ought to go out. He'd been spending entirely too much time cooped up in his apartment lately.

And yet...the idea of ensconcing himself into a dimly lit restaurant with a candle on the table and polite waiters and no company didn't particularly appeal. A compromise, he decided, stepping out of the car. Walk to the deli on the corner and bring food back with me.

The night was crisp and clear, perfect for a walk. Napoleon walked slowly, enjoying the evening and the fresh air. Though his life revolved around UNCLE headquarters, the steel gray halls and constant hum of technology definitely wore on the nerves after days of constant exposure. Napoleon wondered how the regular personnel handled it. Or maybe you're just overly sensitive lately, he thought ruefully.

Back at his apartment building, he stepped into the elevator and considered the buttons for a moment. Illya's floor seemed to beckon. But...he'd only bought enough dinner for himself. Napoleon thumbed the button for his own floor and leaned against the side of the elevator as it made it's way up, stopping once to pick up another passenger. Napoleon smiled and nodded and stepped out on his own floor.

Inside his apartment Napoleon took off his jacket and shoulder holster. He set his gun on the kitchen counter, within easy reach, and proceeded to empty the deli containers onto a plate. At first he'd eaten straight out of the containers, but the more he ate at home the more Napoleon missed the little touches of civilization that a restaurant provided with ease. So he took the time to arrange the food on his plate and find cutlery and pour himself a single glass of wine.

The doorbell rang just as he was savoring the last swallow of the wine. Napoleon set the glass down and went to answer the door. It occurred to him only after he wrapped his hand around the knob who it had to be on the other side. He allowed himself a wince before composing his face into a pleasant look and opened the door.

Illya was standing on the threshold, already scowling. "You had the stitches out," he accused.

"Good evening to you, too," Napoleon said mildly. "Care to come in?"

"Yes." Illya strode into the apartment, brushing past Napoleon as he stepped through the door.

"I'd offer dinner, but I'm afraid I've already eaten."

Illya pinned his partner with a look. "I'm not interested in dinner."

"That's a first," Napoleon murmured, shutting the door.

Tilting his head, Illya's eyes narrowed. "I should have been with you when you got those stitches out," he said, voice scrupulously even.

"It was a very simple procedure," Napoleon responded easily. "You didn't need to be there."

"It was not a question of what either of us needed, Napoleon," Illya shot back. "It was a matter of a promise."

Napoleon raised an eyebrow. "Sealed in blood?" he asked lightly.

Illya's nostrils actually flared as he sucked in a long breath. "I knew you were vain," he said, voice hard, "but I never knew you were a coward."

Napoleon actually rocked back on his heels. He had to steady himself with a hand on the door behind him. "What did you say?" he choked out.

"I said," Illya's tone got even colder, "I knew you were vain, but I never knew you were a coward."

"Where the hell did that come from?" Napoleon demanded, staring. Illya had crossed his arms over his chest and raised his chin a little in challenge.

"You have spent the last ten days in here," Illya said, "hiding. From everyone, including me. It defeats me how a man can run grinning through a hail of bullets and yet be reduced to shuddering insecurity by the words of a single woman."

"Liza Murphy," he ground out, "did not reduce me to shuddering insecurity. I can't believe that of all people, you're the one spouting this bullshit at me."

"Who better? Apparently I'm the only one not blinded by your smiles and your charm and your 'I'm fine, I'm just not dating anyone at HQ.'"

Napoleon's eyes narrowed. "Did you go and grill Marianne?"

"I didn't need to," Illya sniffed. "The office grapevine is a gold mine of gossip on the state of your love life. You didn't mention that when she commented on your lack of dates, she followed up by asking you out."

"What, I'm supposed to keep you informed on my love life now? You're my partner, not my keeper, Illya." Napoleon said incredulously.

"It wouldn't take much effort to keep track of," Illya commented glibly. "Don't tell me you've discovered the benefits of abstinence at this late date."

"Hardly," Napoleon snapped. "But if anyone were going to lecture me on it, it would have to be you, wouldn't it!"

Illya snorted. "How would you know? You haven't even been able to work up the nerve to come down four flights of stairs and see for yourself."

"Nerve has nothing to do with it!" Napoleon all but shouted. "I was trying to give you a break, for God's sake!"

"Break from what?" Illya challenged.

"From me!" Napoleon paced past Illya and into the center of the room. He curled his fingers over the back of the couch, going white-knuckled with the strength of the grip as he leaned. "From me. From me taking up all your time and being constantly underfoot and getting in the way of...of your whole life."

"If this is all for my sake," Illya began, skeptically, "then why aren't you seeing anyone else either?"

"Because I don't want to see anyone else," Napoleon bit out. Oh, God... he dropped his head, eyes fixed on the back of the couch. Oh, God, I just said that...

A warm hand curled over Napoleon's shoulder. He looked up, startled, and found Illya at his side. "I like you being constantly underfoot," Illya said quietly, all traces of anger and contempt banished from his expression. "And you're not getting in the way of anything."

"Illya..." Napoleon released his grip on the back of the couch and straightened up, turning a little to face his partner. "I'm afraid of asking too much," he murmured.

The corner of Illya's mouth tilted upwards. "You haven't asked for anything yet," he pointed out, amusement coloring his voice.

I'm about to, Napoleon thought, his eyes tracing the curve of Illya's lips. He lifted a hand threaded his fingers into the golden hair at the back of his partner's neck. Taking a quick, nervous breath, Napoleon brought his lips to meet Illya's.

The kiss began soft and all but dry, their lips clinging together for a moment. Illya's mouth was motionless beneath his. Feeling a trembling creep into his touch, Napoleon drew Illya's bottom lip between his own, determined to get some small taste of this man.

Then Illya was moving, parting his lips. A soft puff of breath was shared between them before Napoleon felt the slick tease of Illya's tongue sliding into his mouth. Napoleon caught his breath as the kiss deepened and that which had been soft and dry became tender and wet. His arm went around Illya's waist and pulled him closer.

Warmth sank into Napoleon's skin as the kiss went on, hungry and slow and so beautifully new. When at last they pulled apart Illya placed another soft, quick kiss at the corner of his mouth, tongue flickering out to taste the skin there.

Napoleon pulled back a little, just enough to open his eyes and get a good look at his partner. Who was smiling, and smiling rather smugly, at that. Napoleon chuckled ruefully. "Did you have to pick a fight?"

"You were taking too long," Illya complained. He reached up and placed one hand against Napoleon's scarred cheek, holding him still for a second kiss. It was just as sweet, but lighter, more lingering than the first. When it drifted to an end the wash of Illya's breath against his lips was so like the kiss itself that Napoleon almost felt as if hadn't ended at all.

He opened his eyes again as Illya stroked his thumb across his cheekbone. Tilting his head, Napoleon pressed a little more firmly into the caress. "You don't mind?" he asked softly, unable to quite meet Illya's eyes.

"Napoleon," Illya said, distinctly amused, "when I have problem with you, there will be no wondering about it."

Napoleon quirked an eyebrow, thinking of the accusations Illya had made minutes before. Illya just gave him and look and pulled him into another kiss. Losing himself in the taste of his partner, Napoleon let his hands slide from Illya's waist to cup the points of his hips. He drew them closer together, reveling in the press of bodies that were strong and whole.

What would it be like to strip away clothes that were not damp with fevered sweat, or water, or blood? To press hands against flesh without listening for the quiet hiss of pain? To look just for the sake of looking? Napoleon drew in a soft breath at the thought and slid his hands up Illya's sides, under the jacket.

His hand came up against the firm, smooth leather of a shoulder holster. Napoleon pulled back a little and caught Illya's eye. "I want to undress you," he said fervently.

Illya's eyes darkened with anticipation. He slid his hands down his partner's arms, took one hand in his own, and proceeded to lead Napoleon into his own bedroom. They came to a stop at the end of the bed, Napoleon standing behind his partner. Slipping his hand out of Illya's, Napoleon hooked his fingers under the lapels of Illya's suit jacket and drew it slowly down his back and off.

For a moment he stood holding the jacket and looking at the sharp contrast between the black leather of the holster against the crisp white of Illya's dress shirt. Glancing down at the jacket in his hands, Napoleon tossed it aside. Illya turned his head to look over his shoulder at the sound.

Catching his eye, Napoleon smiled and shrugged. He paused, giving Illya moment to remove the holster and set it carefully on the beside table, before stepping closer and sliding his arms around his partner. He took a deep breath and half closed his eyes, enthralled by the scent of him. Leaning his head back, Illya curled his hands around Napoleon's wrists; not guiding, just stroking softly.

"I thought you wanted to undress me," Illya murmured, and turned just enough to catch Napoleon's lips with his own.

Napoleon gave Illya's lips a last nibble. "I do." His hands went to the buttons of Illya's shirt. "And I am." He let out a muted sound of frustration as questing fingers found a cotton undershirt instead of skin.

"This would go," Illya caught his breath as Napoleon pulled the tails of his shirt out of his pants, "considerably faster if you'd let me turn around."

"You mean you can't unbutton and unbuckle behind your back?" Napoleon grinned and sucked lightly on Illya's earlobe. "What kind of spy are you?"

Illya reached around and pulled Napoleon abruptly, roughly closer. "I didn't say I couldn't," he said silkily, rubbing up against his partner, "I said it would be faster."

Napoleon made a choked, inarticulate sound and dropped his head to rest on Illya's shoulder. Splaying his hands on Illya's belly, he ground the ridge of his arousal against his partner's ass. Under his mouth the dress shirt grew damp as Napoleon bit Illya's shoulder lightly.

"Napoleon," Illya prompted breathlessly.

With effort, Napoleon managed to still his movement and lift his head. "Right," he muttered, and turned Illya by the shoulders until they were facing each other. Napoleon pushed at the shirt and watched in satisfaction as it fluttered to the floor, hardly noticing the hands at his own buttons. Illya was forced to pause in his efforts to undress Napoleon so that his undershirt could be stripped off, but he went back to the task single-mindedly.

The skin under Napoleon's hands was smooth and warm and a little flushed. He watched himself touch Illya, mesmerized by the small movements of muscles under his fingertips. Eventually he let his hands drift back to Illya's waist and unbuckled the belt there. He'd just finished with the button and had the zipper in his hands, the back of his fingers pressing so-lightly against Illya's cock, when Illya pushed his shirt off his shoulders.

Napoleon froze. The undershirt he wore was a tank top. The dress shirt slipped down his arms and hung from his wrists, where the cuffs were still buttoned. He glanced aside, seeing in his mind's eye the grayish spill of scarring over his shoulder and down the arm. It was, he knew, almost streaky; forever preserving the path of the chemical as it ran over his skin.

The warm, damp touch of lips to his shoulder startled Napoleon out of his thoughts. Illya lifted his mouth from the damaged flesh slowly. He ran his hand lightly up and down Napoleon's arm. "Is it wrong of me to love this, too?" he asked quietly, seriously.

Napoleon swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. He worked the shirt off his wrists and lifted Illya's eyes to his own with a finger under his chin. "Not wrong," he said roughly. "Unexpected, but not wrong." He leaned in and placed tender kiss on Illya's lips.

Together, their hands fumbled sight unseen for zippers and all the other impediments to the shedding of dress pants. Thanks to his head start, Napoleon finished first. After a final push he watched his partner's pants and underwear slither down to pool around his ankles. Belatedly, Napoleon realized the shoes had to go, too. Illya solved that problem neatly by toeing off his loafers and stepping out of shoes and pants together. "Clever," Napoleon teased him.

Illya just snorted. "You are behind," he pointed out. Napoleon still wore undershirt and pants.

"Hmmm. I think I'm doing pretty well," he countered, running eyes and hands over Illya's bare body.

Impatiently, Illya hooked his hands under Napoleon's undershirt and began tugging it upward. Napoleon hesitated for a moment, then raised his arms and let his partner strip off the garment and toss it aside. Illya splayed his hand over his chest, thumb stroking over the ruined nipple. Napoleon suppressed a flinch, but Illya caught it anyway. "We've already done this," he reminded.

Napoleon smiled sheepishly. "I know." Illya moved to draw down the zipper on his pants, but Napoleon stopped him. "Wait," he put a hand on Illya's shoulder for balance and reached down to pull off shoes and socks.

"While you're down there..." Illya said, a hint of a chuckle in his voice. He lifted one foot after the other and let Napoleon peel off his socks.

Napoleon straightened up and slipped his arms around Illya's waist, pulling them together again. "Now that you've got me waiting on you hand and foot," he teased, and took Illya's lips in a slow, deep kiss, sweeping his tongue into Illya's mouth and drinking in the taste and the heat. Reluctantly, he drew back. "I think I deserve some compensation."

"You're overdressed for compensation," Illya muttered, pulling at his zipper.

"You have a one track mind!" Napoleon laughed. Still, he hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his shorts and trousers both and shed them quickly. "Better?"

Illya stepped closer and pressed one warm, solid thigh between Napoleon's. "You tell me," he murmured, stroking his hands over Napoleon's back and down to brush barely past his waist, a tease of a more intimate caress.

Napoleon gasped and rocked forward against Illya. His hands came up to hang onto Illya's shoulders, a much-needed anchor against the pleasure rolling through him. Running his tongue over his lips, Napoleon tried to summon the concentration to speak. "I think..." he caught his breath on a moan as Illya thrust against him, his cock nestled in the hollow of Napoleon's hip. "I think we'd better lie down."

Illya didn't seem to hear. Instead of moving, he turned his and began to lick and nibble the line of his partner's jaw. Sighing softly, Napoleon let go of Illya's shoulders. He took a moment to stroke the smooth skin of his back, rubbing his fingers over the point of his shoulderblades, but at length he abandoned that smooth, tempting expanse. Reaching behind himself, Napoleon took Illya's hands in his and stepped backwards out of the embrace.

Illya scowled at him, but the expression quickly cleared as Napoleon climbed backwards onto the bed. With a tug of their joined hands and a smile, Napoleon invited Illya to join him. "Look at you," Illya murmured, crawling onto the bed after his partner. He caught Napoleon's eye and smirked suddenly. "Completely shameless."

Laughing, Napoleon lifted his arms over his head and stretched deliberately. It was a practiced move, one that showed off abs and pecs. "No shame at all," he said quietly, catching Illya's eye where he knelt astride his thighs.

Illya smiled and ran his fingertips lightly over the tops of Napoleon's thighs. Napoleon caught his breath as the near-insubstantial touch dipped into the crease between thigh and belly, then rose to stir the dusting of hair so near his groin. His skin tingled. Distantly, he realized Illya had asked a question. He licked his lips. "What was that?"

"I asked," Illya said, fingers drifting up towards Napoleon's ribs. "If you always laughed this much in bed."

"I..." Napoleon trailed off into a moan as the touch grew firmed for an instant, sending a shock of pleasure through him. "I...not usually, no," he managed. "Do you mind?"

"No." Somewhere in the back of Napoleon's brain a part of him picked up on an odd edge in Illya's voice. "In fact," Illya went on, "I think you could laugh a little...more."

Napoleon had only an instant to register Illya's hands on his ribs before he went into gasping, ticklish convulsions. He writhed helplessly for a moment before scraping together enough coordination to wrap his arms around Illya and flip them over, pinning his partner with the length of his body.

Together they froze for a moment, eyes going half-lidded for a moment as they absorbed the exquisite press of their naked bodies. They fit almost perfectly. Napoleon shifted a little and brought his cock, hot and heavy with need, to press against Illya's. There. He sighed with satisfaction.

"Napoleon..." Illya murmured. He pressed his head back into the bed, exposing the arch of his throat.

Napoleon bent his head and pressed his lips to the pulse point. Illya's lifeblood throbbed there, so close. Breathing deeply, Napoleon took a moment to drink in the scent of his partner before moving down Illya's body, taking lingering, tasting kisses as he went.

The tight bud of one nipple beckoned irresistibly. Napoleon flicked his tongue out for a quick, testing lick. Illya gasped and twitched beneath him. Grinning to himself, Napoleon closed his lips over the nub and sucked. Illya's cry, Napoleon thought, was gratifyingly loud. He took a moment to lift his head. "You like that," he said, hearing the smugness of his own voice.

With a soft growl, Illya's hands came up to hold Napoleon's head, but instead of pressing him back down he moved him firmly to the other nipple. Gamely, Napoleon set to teasing that one as thoroughly as the other.

Napoleon lifted his lips from his task to find his partner watching him intently. Illya was flushed and a little wild about the eyes. The ache of need that shot through Napoleon was sudden and quite irresistible. He eased up Illya's body and brought their mouths together again. Illya cupped his face in his hands and swept his tongue into Napoleon's mouth, sucking desperately on his lower lip. Napoleon surfaced from the kiss feeling breathless and urgent.

Before he could do anything about it, Illya slid his fingers into Napoleon's hair and ruffled it quite thoroughly. Napoleon blinked, a little bewildered. "What was that for?" he asked.

There was a light in Illya's eyes. "I have seen you roll out of bed with a woman without a hair out of place," he answered firmly.

Napoleon grinned and leaned down until his lips brushed Illya's ear. "Mark me some more," he invited huskily.

Illya growled and flipped them over again. Holding Napoleon's gaze, he slowly lowered his lips to press against his partner's sternum. There he proceeded to suck and bite at the skin until a dark passion mark bloomed.

Napoleon watched, wide-eyed and so aroused he thought he would burst. Illya regarded the mark for a moment, satisfaction evident in his eyes and the curl of his lips.

Napoleon wasn't satisfied. In fact, Napoleon was feeling distinctly unsatisfied. "Illya," he said hoarsely. He heard the plea in his voice and couldn't bring himself to care. "Illya..."

Illya answered by taking Napoleon's lips in a hard, hungry kiss. Napoleon whimpered in the back of his throat and filled his hands with the cheeks of Illya's ass. He pulled their hips together roughly. A delicious thrill of heat shot through his body. It was followed by an ache of need sharp enough to make Napoleon gasp against Illya's lips.

Experimentally, Napoleon gave Illya's ass a little squeeze. Illya tore his lips from Napoleon and threw his head back, panting, as he drove his groin harder against his partner's. "Napoleon," Illya said breathlessly. He was still moving, rubbing their bodies together with eager little thrusts. "I want inside you."

Napoleon blinked and did a little mental reorganization. He met Illya's gaze and read desire and, deeper, uncertainty in those blue eyes. "Check the bedside table. I think I have something there."

Illya took a moment to press a sweet kiss to his lips before leaning over and reaching for the indicated drawer. Despite his stretching, he slid almost entirely off Napoleon in the process, muttering darkly as he rooted around in the drawer. Napoleon propped himself up on one elbow and watched his lover, smiling.

At last Illya emerged triumphant. He sat up, blond hair disheveled, body flushed, lips puffy from kissing, and held up the partially squeezed tube like a prize. Napoleon felt the love well up within him like water from a spring. It was inevitable that it should spill over. "I love you."

Illya smiled brilliantly and pushed Napoleon back down on his back. "Tell me again," he murmured, "when you're not quite so desperate."

"Who said I was--ah!" Napoleon cried out and thrust hard into the hand that had wrapped around him. "How--" he gasped and fisted his hands in the bed sheets. "How do you want..." Napoleon trailed off into a moan. A moment later Illya let go of his cock and moved to stroke the insides of Napoleon's thighs.

He parted them mindlessly and was rewarded with the warmth of Illya's body settling against him once again. "Like this," Illya answered the barely articulated question. "I want to see you. I want you to see me."

"I see you," Napoleon gasped, shivering with anticipation. He bent one leg and pressed his foot against the bed. "Please..."

Illya fumbled for a moment and then there were slick fingers pressing between the cheeks of Napoleon's ass. He moaned softly and concentrated on relaxing despite the tight coil of hunger in his belly and the ache of need in his groin. Illya pushed one finger smoothly into his body. Napoleon pressed his head back in the bed and reached down to grip his partner's shoulder, as if for balance.

Napoleon lay panting and staring at the ceiling, but all his attention was turned inward. He could feel Illya stroking him from the inside, his fingers warm and slick with the lubricant. Every touch sent liquid heat sliding through him. "God," Napoleon moaned, "you feel good."

Intent on his task, Illya simply pressed a soft kiss to the inside of Napoleon's knee. When he withdrew Napoleon couldn't help the soft sound of protest that escaped his lips, though he knew that touch would soon be back. Two fingers stretched him almost to the point of discomfort, but Napoleon just squirmed and pressed into the touch as much as he could.

"Relax," Illya ordered softly, stroking deeper.

"I am relaxed," Napoleon protested. He could feel Illya's fingers curl inside of him, and then there were starbursts behind his eyes. His mouth rounded in an 'oh' of ecstasy, body frozen as he rode out the surge of sensation. "Oh," he gasped at last. "Do that again."

"Pushy," Illya chuckled, but his next touch set Napoleon shuddering.

Eventually Napoleon scraped together enough control to curl one hand around Illya's bicep. "Illya," he murmured. "Come up here."

"Napoleon..." Illya thrust his fingers deeper into his partner's body, turning them slowly, as if stirring the depths. Napoleon caught his lip between his teeth and sucked in breath through his nose.

He gave Illya's arm a little tug. "I'm ready. Now come up here."

Napoleon's breath hitched as Illya's fingers slipped free, but he made no protest. It would be even better soon. Instead he pulled him into a hungry kiss, as if days, not minutes, has passed since the last. They parted reluctantly, lips clinging together for a moment. "I told you," Napoleon breathed, "I'm ready. I want you." He bent his other knee and held Illya's hips between them.

"Right," Illya muttered. He took a moment to steady himself before pushing forward, gentle but inexorable.

Napoleon felt as though he were being spread open. He panted harshly, his entire body singing with the unyielding heat that filled him. The slight, stinging pain of being stretched so completely only sweetened the experience. It was a quiet reminder of life, of reality, of Illya cradled between his thighs.

Illya caught one of Napoleon's hands in his and held it tightly as he sank in that last little bit. Trembling, his skin slick with sweat, he laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder, his breathing fast and shallow. Turning his head, Napoleon pressed a kiss to his cheek. "You feel so good inside me," he said roughly. "Do you feel me, all around you?" he wrapped his legs around Illya's waist.

"Yes," Illya hissed, rolling his hips just a little.

"Yes," Napoleon echoed. "Yes...move. Just like that. Oh..."

Soft, repeated moans escaped Napoleon with every movement Illya made. Tiny, shallow thrusts stoked his hunger until those moans became more pleas than expressions of pleasure. "Illya," he said, lifting one hand to cup his lover's cheek. "Please. I need more."

Illya paused. He lifted himself up a little and looked down into Napoleon's eyes. Napoleon brushed his fingers through the golden hair that fell over Illya's forehead and licked his lips as he met that gaze. Illya's eyes shone brilliantly. "More?" he asked thickly. "You mean more like...this?" He pulled back slowly, hesitated, and drove back into Napoleon's body powerfully.

Napoleon cried out, his body arching toward the pressure of Illya inside him. He pried open eyes he hadn't realized he'd closed and discovered he'd fisted his hand in Illya's hair. Apologetically he untangled his fingers, taking a few strands with him, and wrapped his hand around Illya's shoulder instead. "Please?"

Illya grinned and obliged him with another deep, full thrust. Napoleon couldn't help but strain towards that surging pleasure with every muscle in his body. Involuntarily, he tightened around Illya with every withdrawal, until they became almost as much a stroke of pleasure as was the return.

Illya set a fast pace. His skin shone with sweat. Napoleon rose to the challenge, meeting every stroke with the lift of his hips and the grip of his thighs. But still it wasn't quite enough. Napoleon worked a hand between their bodies and wrapped it around his straining cock.

Catching a whimper in his throat, Napoleon grasped himself firmly and began working the shaft. Relentlessly he drove himself toward his peak. He blinked, trying to clear vision hazed with ecstasy, and found Illya watching him, rapt.

"Look at you," Illya rasped. "So beautiful."

Napoleon could feel his eyes filling with tears. Rather than let them spill over, he pulled Illya down into a passionate kiss. Wrapping his arms around his lover, Napoleon crushed them together, squeezing Illya tighter with every part of him. With their mouths joined so deeply Napoleon felt more than heard his cry of completion.

Hot seed spilled inside him as Illya's body shook with the strength of his orgasm. Napoleon held him close, savoring every tremor, every soft sound of delight. Eventually Illya lay still, his belly rubbing gently against Napoleon's needy cock with every breath he took. Napoleon waited, not quite patiently.

Illya's cocked slipped out of him, prompting a helpless little moan. Napoleon rubbed a little harder against his lover. Illya propped himself up on one elbow and stroked Napoleon's chest with one hand. "I want to see you touch yourself," he said. "Like before."

So beautiful.

Napoleon wasted no time in complying with the request. His eyes he kept fixed on Illya, but his hand went to his cock. He stroked fast and hard. There was no patience in him for teasing either of them, not this time. Napoleon drove himself to the edge with every trick of the fingers he knew. His eyes took in every tiny change in Illya's expression. The widening eyes, the rising flush, the flick of his tongue over his lips, were all a greater inspiration than any fantasy had been.

Climax came suddenly, almost startling him. Napoleon's eyes slid closed as last, his body tightening in the grip of orgasm. His come spilled wetly over his hand and onto his belly. Slowly he released himself and lay a moment, catching his breath.

The weight of a gaze on him finally prompted Napoleon to languidly pry his own eyes open. The look on Illya's face was more than worth the effort it took. Napoleon let a smile curve his lips. "Struck speechless, hmmm?"

"By you?" Illya murmured. "Always."

Napoleon caught his breath. "Well," he said roughly, "that explains why you're always so quiet." Illya thumped him on the chest and rolled out of bed. "Hey!" Napoleon propped himself up. "Where are you going?"

"Bathroom," Illya called, already halfway there.

Napoleon sat there, trying very hard not to pout, and was rewarded when Illya returned, washcloth in hand. Tenderly, he cleaned them both up. Napoleon let him, feeling too relaxed to move. When he was done Illya tossed the cloth into the laundry and stood by the bed, looking down at his partner with tangible amusement.

"What?" Napoleon asked, giving into the urge to stretch.

"If you want to get into the bed," Illya said patiently, "you're going to have to get off the bedspread."

This time Napoleon did pout, but he climbed off the bed and let Illya pull back the covers so that they could clamber back in together. They settled with Napoleon on his back and Illya curled over his side, his head on Napoleon's shoulder.

Napoleon stroked his slowly over Illya's hip. "I love you," he said softly.

"Mmm. And I you," Illya murmured in reply. "But what prompted that?"

"You said to tell you again when I wasn't quite so desperate."

Illya chuckled. "Will you always do what I tell you in bed?"

Napoleon smiled to himself. "Stick around and find out."

"I plan to," Illya replied sleepily. "But just now I want to sleep."

"Go ahead," Napoleon said.

He was already looking forward to waking up with Illya.

--End--