The Only On the Holidays Affair
by
Rosemary

Year One

Napoleon Solo heard the trio before he saw them. As he rounded the corner outside U.N.C.L.E.'s labs, he nearly collided with the group.

"Deck the halls with...umph...Solo! Sorry, old man." Bill Roberts, a rotund, graying researcher, smiled at the trim field agent.

"Bill, Jim, Kristie..." Napoleon acknowledged his grinning coworkers, his gaze warming as it settled on the shapely brunette between the two male scientists.

"We were just headed for the Christmas party," Kristie smiled, the open invitation in her warm hazel eyes raising Napoleon's temperature. "You are coming, aren't you, Napoleon?"

"Not at this moment, but I will eventually. Never fear." Napoleon was pleased to see the rush of color that filled the chemist's cheeks at his double entendre. He and Kristie had been dancing around the issue for weeks. Her heated gaze told Napoleon that it wouldn't be long before the game advanced to the next delightful level.

"I hope you're not looking to get anything analyzed." Roberts frowned. "I'm afraid the lab's just about shut down. Everyone's gone..."

"Except for Kuryakin, of course," Jim Willis, an athletic blond who looked like he'd be better suited to active field work than the lab's tame regiment, commented. His tone made it plain what he thought about Illya's dedication to duty on this festive occasion.

In the year that Napoleon had been partnered with Illya, he'd gotten used to that reaction. Sometimes, even he still found Illya aloof and prickly. Most of the staff didn't even know Illya was around most of the time, but those that did, usually didn't like the newcomer. Napoleon's new partner didn't exactly work at making friends. In fact, he had rarely met anyone who could alienate people as quickly as Illya Kuryakin could. Nevertheless, Napoleon was growing tired of responses like Willis'. They were supposed to be a team here.

Still, as long as nothing was said directly to him, while the opinions were communicated by tone and implication, Napoleon couldn't address the situation head on.

"Yes, well, I've come to fetch him." Napoleon forced a smile. "All work and no play makes Illya a very dull boy. We can't have that, can we?"

"Play? Illya Kuryakin?" Willis snorted.

"I've worked with that man for more than a year in the lab on and off and he's never so much as smiled at me," Kristie reported, sounding like her pride had been injured.

Napoleon, who'd noticed his partner's reticence around lovely women, brightened his own smile. "Yes, well, Illya's a little shy. Give him time, he'll come around. Only, don't give him too much of your time. At least, not until you've given me a chance first."

"Napoleon, you're really something else." Willis shook his head, taking a proprietary hold on Kristie's elbow. "Kristie, we're getting you out of here before you fall thrall to his spell. It's his aftershave, you see. It was invented by a THRUSH secret lab. Makes perfectly sane women act like schoolgirls around him."

"And if only you could borrow it. Hey, Jim?" Roberts laughed, pushing both his companions along. "Good luck with Kuryakin, Napoleon. He's dug in deeper than my bunions. We'll see you later."

"Don't be too long, Napoleon," Kristie chided as her blond escort all but hauled her down the hall.

The silence after the laughing group left seemed especially loud. Shaking his head, Napoleon pushed open the lab doors and entered.

As Roberts had claimed, the lab was all but deserted. The long rows of work benches, test tubes and mysterious electrical apparatus were dormant for once. The overhead fluorescent lights glared down upon the vacant work areas, somehow making the room seem even more empty and lonely than had it been cloaked in shadows.

At first Napoleon thought that the chemists had been wrong, that everyone was gone, including his partner, but then he caught sight of the familiar figure bent over a microscope in the back. Wearing a baggy white lab coat over his suit, Illya was hard at work, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was the only one left in the cavernous room.

"Ho, ho, ho," Napoleon announced his presence when his approach went unnoticed. "What are you still doing here, Illya?"

"Hello, Napoleon," the younger man greeted with a genuine smile. Climbing down from the high seat of his lab stool, Illya removed his heavy, dark- rimmed glasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose where they'd rested. "What are you doing here?"

"I just asked you that," Napoleon reminded his partner.

"So you did." Those clear blue eyes scanned the room in something like surprise. "They're all gone, then?"

"It's Christmas Eve, Illya. The party started over an hour ago. Aren't you coming?"

His question appeared to startle Illya. "Is that why you're here to invite me?"

Not knowing why that should be such a shock to his friend, Napoleon answered, "Well, I know how you lose track of time when you become involved with something. And you don't need an invitation. It's an office party, Illya. Come on, get out of that smock and grab your jacket. We'll..."

"Thank you for thinking of me, Napoleon, but I believe I will remain here," Illya gently refused. "I have work..."

"What work?" Napoleon questioned. "Waverly gave us both the rest of the week off. In fact, everyone but the skeleton staff's getting a break this year. Come on, it's time you had some fun, my scientific young friend. For God's sake, it's Christmas. Even Waverly's taking time off."

"You know that I am not a religious man, Napoleon," Illya softly denied.

"So what? Half the staff isn't. It's a party, Illya. Not a religious service."

"Thank you, but..."

"But what?" Napoleon demanded, losing patience with his obdurate friend.

Illya's eyes strayed away from him, the slender Russian abruptly appearing highly self-conscious, something Napoleon could never remember seeing in his ruthlessly efficient partner.

"You are very kind, but...my presence isn't really desired there, Napoleon."

"What do you mean, your `presence isn't desired'?" Napoleon questioned, anger rising inside him on his partner's behalf.

Cold War America wasn't an easy place for a Russian, any Russian, to make a life for himself. Illya's lack of social graces made it harder for his solitary friend than most.

"I make others...uncomfortable," Illya awkwardly explained.

"That's ridiculous," Napoleon stammered.

"Really, Napoleon. I may be younger than you, but I am not a child. I am aware of the effect I have on others. Will you deny that you haven't felt it yourself? Are perhaps experiencing it even now?"

"All I'm experiencing now is irritation," Napoleon shot back, unwilling to give the other man the satisfaction of being right.

"Then you are a rare exception," Illya said softly. Breaking his gaze, he withdrew a handkerchief from his smock's pocket, bending his head to clean the lenses of his glasses, and quite incidentally, to hide the vulnerable expression that flashed across his features.

But not before Napoleon had caught it.

Normally, Napoleon was able to forget the ten-year difference in their ages. Illya's amazing competence and emotional control often made him seem the wiser, if not the elder, of their team. Yet, at the moment, he was very aware that standing before him was a young man not quite into his twenty-fifth winter, a young man whose genius-level intelligence and frightening independence had been setting him apart from his peers probably from the time Illya had taken his first steps.

Napoleon could see how very painful their present discussion was to his partner. He was rather surprised that Illya would speak to him at all like this. It just wasn't the self-contained Russian's style...

Or so Napoleon had always believed.

For the first time he began to wonder if maybe what he'd always perceived as style and personal preference might, after all, be nothing more than an inability to openly communicate on an emotional level.

Not that he was Mr. Sensitivity himself; Napoleon wryly acknowledged his own shortcomings in that area. Despite an innate empathy towards others and a considerable quotient of charm, he was usually more than content to avoid deep, emotional scenes, especially with other men.

However, this was Illya, his partner. As easy as Illya would make it for him to back off and pretend they'd never had this particular discussion, Napoleon found that he couldn't ignore the pain this sense of alienation was causing his proud friend.

"I won't pretend that I don't know what you're talking about," Napoleon said after a moment's consideration. His comment snapped the averted gaze up to his face. Illya was listening to him again. "You, ah...have a very formidable reserve. I think that your...dignity and...formality make it hard for people to feel close to you..." He stumbled, not quite knowing where this was leading.

"So my first two partners complained. Walking computer was, I believe, their kindest description," Illya startled him by admitting. "Is this your way of saying that you'd like a new pairing? I realize that this past year hasn't been easy on you."

Shocked by how thoroughly he'd been misunderstood, Napoleon shook his head. "No, I don't want a new partner. And this past year has been fine. You haven't heard me complain, have you?"

"No..." Illya hesitantly answered.

"And you won't. You're the finest partner I've ever had, Illya. This past year has shown me that no matter what goes down, you'll be there to back me up. In my own clumsy way, that's what I'm attempting to do for you right now." Napoleon flashed a nervous smile.

"What?"

"What I'm trying to say is that I don't think that anyone in this section actively dislikes you. It's just that your reserve makes it hard for anyone to get close to you. We're all afraid of offending you by being too personal," Napoleon carefully explained, thinking it best if he left out how many of their coworkers viewed Illya's reserve as haughty superiority. Instinct told him that would only alienate his friend.

"`We're'? Does that include you?" Illya questioned, sounding perhaps a little lost, a little hurt, despite the fact that his features were perfectly composed.

"Sometimes," Napoleon honestly replied. "On the job, you're everything and more that a guy could ask for in a partner. But sometimes it seems that our relationship ends the minute we're back in the office."

"That was never my intent..." Illya began, appearing at a loss to explain.

Napoleon gave his companion's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "I realize that." When those crystalline eyes rose to check the veracity of his claim, he shrugged and amended, "Now."

"It would please you if I attended this party?" Illya uncertainly questioned.

"I'd enjoy it more if my partner was there," Napoleon admitted, wondering just how much he was really asking of his shy friend.

"All right. I'll come," Illya agreed without rancor, slipping out of his lab coat.

"Great!" Napoleon grinned, amazed at how delighted he was by Illya's decision.

To his astonishment, Illya stuck out the event as long as he did. Napoleon had half-expected his partner to duck out at the first opportunity, but Illya remained at his side for all the time they were mingling, a silent golden shadow for the most part until the conversation offered an opening for that razor-sharp wit, then Illya's comments were as devastating as his marksmanship. Napoleon was stunned by how many times Illya managed to convulse the group with laughter as they slowly worked their way through the crowd.

At first Illya's verbal gambits were tentatively offered, mostly light jokes at Napoleon's expense. The careful manner in which Illya made them gave Napoleon the impression that his partner was testing the limits of how much he would allow. Ego being the one thing Napoleon had always had in abundant supply, he just grinned and laughed along with the best of them.

"So what happened to the music?" Dick Carson from Internal Security called out an hour into the festivities.

"Yeah, where's the music?" a slightly worse-for-drink Roberts seconded. "Where's Johnny Thompson?"

"Sorry, folks," Thompson's partner, an enforcer named Constantine Marsukas, replied. "Johnny was going to play for us all tonight, but he busted his hand in a scuffle with our THRUSH friends. His guitar's here, but he's not. He said if anyone could play, they're welcome to use it. Sorry, guys."

"So, how 'bout it, people?" the chemist Roberts asked. "Anyone here know how to play?"

Disappointment crept over the group as field agent hopefully looked to lab technician, lab tech to secretary, and secretary to armory agent.

In the expectant silence that followed, Illya cleared his throat. "I can play the guitar."

"You can?" Napoleon gasped.

"Yes, I can," Illya affirmed. "I am not familiar with many of your seasonal carols, but if someone will hum or sing part of them to me, I should be able to accompany you...if you wish..." Illya finished, staring uncertainly about the shocked group.

"Of course, we wish." Napoleon slapped his partner on the back, breaking the shocked silence. As someone went to fetch the guitar case from the corner where Thompson had left it, the crowd erupted with applause.

Napoleon's blushing partner accepted the huge black case. Withdrawing a dreadnought acoustic guitar from within, Illya sat down on a folding chair to test the instrument's tuning. The oversized six string seemed to dwarf his partner at first glance, but within seconds it became obvious that Illya was more than up to the task.

Once he had the strings tuned to his satisfaction, Illya's fingers flew proficiently over them, picking out a bluesy melody and segueing from there into a complex classical piece. His intense expression seemed to indicate that he was working to familiarize himself with the instrument.

In his dark turtleneck sweater, with his cap of shining, over-long blond hair, Illya looked like any of the counterculture musicians that could be found in the West Village coffee houses. A bona fide beatnik, Napoleon thought with an inexplicable surge of pride.

For the next couple of hours the quiet Russian regaled the more-than slightly-inebriated group with his unexpected talents.

Spellbound, Napoleon stood with the rest of his coworkers and stared in awe as his normally-introverted partner brought down the house with his expertise.

"I guess he's not such a dead fish, after all," a much-the-worse-for-drink Willis commented later as he joined Kristie and Napoleon.

Irritated, Illya's partner opened his mouth to take issue with the lab tech's comment, but before he could get a word out the shapely brunette at his side sighed, "I think he's just heavenly. Just listen to him play! Who would have thought that Illya Kuryakin could have such a sensitive spirit?"

"Anyone who took the time to get to know him, that's who," Napoleon replied. "You know, most of us really haven't given Illya a fair chance."

To Napoleon's distress, it was his lovely female companion who protested his statement. "Really, Napoleon. He may play like an angel, but Illya Kuryakin is the rudest man I've ever met. There are times I think he could freeze mercury with one of those icy glares of his."

"Yeah, he really is a cold one," Willis agreed.

"Did any of you ever stop to consider what it's like for Illya here?" Napoleon demanded of the two, barely keeping a rein on his temper.

"What do you mean, Napoleon?" Kristie asked, her incredible hazel eyes widening in surprise at his harsh tone.

"Illya is barely three years older than you. He's living here thousands of miles from his homeland, among a people hostile to his nationality. If he is somewhat...restrained, perhaps we've given him cause to be."

"I'm sorry, Napoleon. I didn't mean..." the girl stammered.

"No, of course you didn't." Napoleon eased up, realizing that it wasn't completely fair of him to take out his anger over this very common attitude on this one person. However, strangely enough, he no longer had the slightest desire to pursue the game he'd been playing with Kristie all these weeks. "Now, if you'll excuse me..."

"Napoleon..." Her plaintive protest was lost in the sounds of the noisy crowd.

Someone pressed another champagne glass into his hand as he moved through the laughing assembly.

Illya appeared to be winding down his concert on the other side of the room.

On his way to his partner, Napoleon was deluged with surprised and pleased comments on the change in Illya. Though all displayed similar sentiments to Kristie and Willis, none were indiscreet enough to show anything but delight at Illya's stepping in to salvage the Christmas party.

"Well, you were quite a hit," Napoleon declared once he'd forced a path through the throng of people who'd congregated around Illya.

"Thank you." Illya seemed more than a bit overwhelmed by the compliments, obviously self-conscious of the attention.

"Here, have something to drink." Napoleon offered his latest champagne glass.

Without asking its contents, Illya gulped it down with another grateful murmur.

"I think it's time we made our exit," Napoleon suggested as another inebriated choir began to form beside the cafeteria's brightly-flashing Christmas tree.

Trailing his gaze, his tired partner agreed, "Yes, I believe you're right."

"Come on, I'll drop you off." Grabbing their coats from the nearby folding chair upon which Napoleon had deposited them earlier, he ushered his partner from the room.

Once they were settled in his chilly car, waiting for the engine and interior to heat up, Napoleon commented, "You know, you really were fantastic tonight, Illya."

Illya shook his head in gentle denial. "No, I am afraid that I am terribly out of practice. My fingers are killing me."

"Huh?"

By way of explanation, Illya held out his left hand.

Even in the shadowed car interior, Napoleon could see that the tips of each finger was blood red.

"The strings?" Napoleon guessed.

"The demands of our job don't always permit sufficient practice time. The calluses peel off very quickly if you don't keep up with practice."

"Well, no one would know it to hear you play tonight. You were great."

"Thank you." Illya gave a small smile, the streetlight filtering through the window casting a nimbus, silver glow over his hair. With his milky flesh and pale blondness, he looked almost like a snow sculpture against the dark leather seat upholstery.

The drive back to Illya's flat was accomplished in a comfortable silence. As they pulled to a stop before the vine-covered, West Village apartment building, Napoleon was suddenly aware of the empty night stretching before him.

Normally, Napoleon was not given to sentimentality. But there was just something about spending Christmas Eve alone that he simply couldn't face. Perhaps it was because it was the one time of the year when he was unable to shake the memory of his many losses. The bitterest one, that which he never allowed himself to dwell upon, had a way of hitting him hardest this time of year.

"Thank you, Napoleon," Illya said as he prepared to exit the car. "I trust that you will enjoy your holiday." His partner's habitual formality was belied by the genuine warmth which softened his features.

"Yes, you too. Merry Christmas, Illya," Napoleon automatically replied.

"Merry Christmas, Napoleon." The benediction seemed to flow strangely from Illya's tongue, as if he'd rarely said the words before.

"Illya..." Napoleon called out urgently as his partner made to leave.

"Yes?" Illya asked with a puzzled frown, sitting back in his seat, as if in no rush to meet the icy night.

His nerve suddenly deserting him, Napoleon stared at his companion.

Illya Kuryakin was probably the most self-sufficient man Napoleon had ever encountered. Something inside him balked at the idea of appearing anything less than perfect before this sometimes intimidating individual. Only...Illya was his partner.

"Did you want to say something, Napoleon?" Illya asked, sounding only lightly puzzled by the delay, not annoyed as anyone else would be at being held back from the seasonal festivities. Of course, Illya had already admitted that he didn't partake in any holiday activities, so it wasn't like he was keeping him from anything more important than a night's sleep.

Thinking that this was probably a bad idea, Napoleon forced himself to speak. "If you don't have any plans tonight, would you care to..."

"Plans? Napoleon, it's after..." Illya's words cut off so abruptly that one would almost think a THRUSH hand had gagged him.

Napoleon steeled himself as those clear blue eyes settled upon him, dreading to stand naked and vulnerable before U.N.C.L.E.'s resident Ice Man.

However, both Illya's features and voice were atypically gentle as he replied, "No, Napoleon. I don't have any plans. Would you care to get something to eat?"

His throat inexplicably tight with emotion, it was a moment before Napoleon could reply, "Yes. That sounds like a great idea."

He'd expected a thousand questions or Illya's normal, polite refusal to meet his inquiry about his partner's plans. Illya's ready suggestion that they dine out left him almost giddy with relief.

It was only as he pulled back out into the empty street that Napoleon realized what had motivated his companion's unusual concession.

Illya must have realized that it was Christmas Eve and that if his partner were asking him to do something, this obviously meant that Napoleon had no one else to be with. Part of Napoleon cringed at being so pathetically transparent, and yet...uncomfortable as he was, he was grateful for his partner's unexpected tact. He was ashamed to admit that as recently as a few months ago, he would have considered such astute emotional perception beyond the reserved Russian.

Fifteen minutes later, Napoleon vented a disgusted sigh. They'd cruised up and down deserted streets from Bleeker straight up to Union Square without any success. Everything was closed, of course; it was Christmas Eve. he berated himself for the oversight.

"I'm sorry, Illya. This appears to be a wild goose chase. I'll drop you off..."

"I know a place that will be open," Illya quickly offered. "Turn right on Broadway and drive straight down."

"All right, but I don't think we're going to find anything..." Napoleon broke off, his glum expression turning to a delighted grin as he realized their destination. "Of course, why didn't I think of that?"

As they left Greenwich Village behind, the ornamental green and red Christmas street decorations gave way to a few blocks of gloomy factories and warehouses and then...China Town.

Always alive and bright, tonight Canal Street shone like a glittering jewel. The shops were all still open, their wares spilling over three quarters of the pavement. The narrow streets were congested with traffic, the sidewalks teeming with people, despite the holiday and late hour.

Alive with movement and excitement, a touch of the exotic, one glance at the busy thoroughfare was enough to tell Napoleon that this was exactly what his heavy spirit needed.

After spending ten minutes navigating a single block, they ditched the car in a spot that opened up right before them, a veritable miracle in this congested part of town.

Setting out on foot, the U.N.C.L.E. agents wove their way through the crowds, their Occidental looks and clothes standing out among the Eastern community.

"This place is excellent," Illya said in a white puff of breath, stopping before a two-story brick building with a garish red and white facade.

With a gamin grin, Napoleon gestured his friend inside.

If possible, the building's insides were even more spectacular, with rich red Oriental carpets and man-sized dragon sculptures artistically scattered throughout the restaurant.

The maitre'd, a well-padded man with heavy glasses, a round face, and winning smile, greeted Napoleon's partner by name in what the bemused Napoleon took to be Chinese. Illya responded in kind, while Napoleon did his best not to appear too impressed.

They ended up ensconced in an intimate table for two hidden between a tremendous palm tree and a grinning porcelain dragon that was the size of a small tiger. It was choice seating in an establishment where most of the tables were pushed right up against each other. The place was perfect for a romantic tete-a-tete, Napoleon thought, re-evaluating his young friend.

"Still waters do run deep," Napoleon commented once the waiter had brought their teapot and dry noodle dish.

"What?" Illya questioned, glancing up from his perusal of the menu.

"Here I thought I had you figured out, and you go and throw me all these curves today." Napoleon smiled.

"Figured out?" Illya inquired with a sardonic arch of his brow, appearing amused.

"Let's just say that, although you're the most reliable and competent operative it's been my good fortune to be paired with, you are the least predictable," Napoleon replied.

"Thank you, I think." Illya gave him one of his rare smiles before returning his attention to the menu. "What would you care for?"

As the pair of cosmopolitan diners tried to outdo each other with their exotic choices, the conversation flowed freely between them.

Napoleon was somewhat astounded by what good company his reserved partner actually was when they were alone. This wasn't the first time they'd gone out like this, but in the past, those rare social contacts had always taken place during missions, usually when they were stranded in a foreign city or town where neither man knew a soul. It felt good to simply relax in Illya's undemanding company here in Manhattan.

The dishes had been cleared away. They sat sipping the last of the too many cups of sake, the remains of the traditional orange slices which ended each meal, fortune cookies, and cooling finger cloths littering the table between them when the bill arrived.

"What's wrong?" Illya asked, observing this partner's reaction.

Napoleon passed the bill over. "I'm not sure if it's our bill or the Chinese calendar year," he drily observed.

Illya glanced from the bill to his face; then, to Napoleon's utter delight and amazement, his habitually somber partner broke into open laughter, which he couldn't help but join in.

No doubt it was the deceptively-potent sake that was responsible for their merriment, but it felt too good to stop.

"Napoleon," Illya sighed when they eventually calmed, "I am very glad we did this tonight."

"Not as glad as I am," Napoleon admitted.

"You did seem unusually...subdued earlier," Illya acknowledged, the words a tentative opening. Illya's expression seemed to tell Napoleon that it was all right if he chose to ignore the unvoiced offer to talk.

"Yes, well..." Napoleon's gaze dropped to the tiny white sake cup he held cradled between his palms. He'd been hoping for months now that they'd be able to become closer friends off duty, but somehow he'd always imagined that it would be the self-contained younger man who would open up to him first.

Giving a mental shrug, Napoleon once again met the patient blue yes. "This time of the year...it's such a family-oriented holiday. I don't mean to sound maudlin, but...it's the one time that my past gets the better of me." To circumvent the inevitable, grueling explanations, Napoleon briefly touched upon the subject he'd spent the last fifteen years running from. "Till death do us part came far sooner than I ever dreamed possible."

"Your wife," Illya softly supplied.

As was the habit with any new pairings, they'd each read each other's personnel file. Illya was the only man Napoleon had been partnered with who hadn't questioned him about his young wife's tragic death.

Napoleon nodded. Then, because Illya hadn't asked for further details, he hoarsely continued, "Katie was an extraordinary woman...or girl, really. She was barely twenty when she died."

"You were little older yourself. That loss must have been most...difficult for you."

To his utter astonishment, Napoleon found that it wasn't at all hard to talk to his partner about the pain he'd run from his entire adult life. Illya's calm, his quiet reserve seemed to invite confidences. So, he found himself admitting a truth he tried to hide even from himself in day-to-day life. "I was...utterly devastated. You see, we'd grown up together. From the time I reached adolescence to the day she died when I was twenty-one, I don't think I even looked at another woman. Katie was everything, Illya. Smart, loving, tender, funny, passionate..."

"Beautiful," Illya completed, voicing what was usually the first quality Napoleon sought in a woman these days.

"She was to me, but...I believe most would find her an acquired taste. Oh, don't get me wrong, she was pretty enough in her own way, but...Katie wasn't put together like most of the women I date. She was hopelessly naive when it came to fashion and cosmetics, but wise in everything else. Does it shock you to learn that I wasn't always so superficial?" Napoleon smiled.

"I never said..."

Napoleon broke into the protest, "But you've thought it, every time I almost get whiplash when a pretty girl passes by. And rightly so. I know what I am, partner. Serious nearly destroyed me. After Katie's death, superficial was all I could handle."

His confession seemed to hang in the air for a very long time before Illya quietly said, "Forgive me, Napoleon. I have misjudged you."

"I think we've both been a little guilty of that," Napoleon dismissed. "I never thought I'd be able to talk to you like this. Or that you'd care to listen."

"I realize that I am not the easiest person to talk to..." the younger man awkwardly admitted.

"Nonsense. You're the first partner with whom I've ever been able to really discuss Katie," Napoleon countered, wanting to remove the uncertainty from Illya's attitude when they were alone. "You may never win any congeniality awards, Illya," he confessed, "but you've got an instinctive...discretion that's very comforting. The first question out of your mouth after reading my file wasn't `How did she die?'" Knowing that his companion had to be equally as curious as all Napoleon's previous, less tactful partners, he roughly informed, "She and our infant daughter were killed in a hit-and-run accident."

"Oh, Napoleon..." The gruff whisper and unconscious, empathic wince the normally remote Russian gave touched him deeply. Napoleon could see how intensely his own pain had affected his friend in those crystal clear eyes. It was equally apparent that Illya had no idea what to say to offer comfort.

But somehow Illya's desire to comfort was enough. A sad smile touched Napoleon's face. His heart was still heavy with that old wound that never seemed to heal and yet...his present company roused a warmth in him that somehow made it possible to distance himself ever so slightly from the ache.

"It's okay, Illya. That's all ancient history now. Except for this one night a year when Christmas Past is a little too present." Brightening his outlook, Napoleon forced a smile. "However, I must confess that this evening has been a very pleasant distraction, for which I thank you, my friend."

"Thanks are not necessary, Napoleon," Illya denied, his inflection and demeanor subtly altered, gentler somehow; although he still seemed outwardly as unaffected as ever. "Although," the cerulean eyes glanced at his wristwatch, "one could hardly call it evening at this hour."

"Yes, it's been a long day." Napoleon sighed, putting down his empty sake cup. "Come, let's settle this national debt of a bill and I'll drop you off."

"There are some after-hour clubs I am familiar with," Illya offered. "A jazz club not far from my apartment will still be open. Even tonight."

There was a clumsiness about the younger man's invitation that was highly endearing. "That's not necessary, Illya. I realize it's late. You don't have to..."

"Napoleon, I would be grateful for the company," Illya assured with apparent sincerity.

"But it's late," Napoleon felt compelled to deny. As much as he appreciated his partner's willingness to help him through this personally trying period, he was loathe to further impose upon his tired friend. "Surely, you weren't planning on..."

"This place does not become busy until this time of night. I know that jazz is not your particular favorite; however, you might find it an interesting experience."

Touched by the unexpected thoughtfulness, Napoleon nodded. "I'm sure I will."

At a time of night on this holiday when Napoleon was usually alone in his own bed or trying to bury the past in the flesh of some accommodating young lady, he found himself beginning a night's adventure with his enigmatic partner.

Because of Illya's habitual formality and single-minded absorption while on a mission, Napoleon had always assumed his partner to be of the early-to-bed, early-to-rise school of philosophy. Tonight was to show him that, as with nearly all of his assumptions concerning Illya, he was dead wrong.

The Lost Note was a small hole-in-the-wall on West Third Street, just off Sixth Avenue.

Staring at the unprepossessing edifice, Napoleon knew a moment's hesitation. He'd been in more cities than most tourist books covered. He didn't have to patronize a dive to recognize one.

"Ah, Illya..."

"Courage," Illya drily commented as they paused outside the low-rent establishment.

"It gets better inside?" Napoleon guessed.

Illya's smile wasn't very encouraging. "Warmer."

"Oh, well, at least it won't be dull."

The club's interior turned out to be no better than its outside had led him to expect. Darker than a THRUSH prison cell, it was a few moments before Napoleon could make out the murky interior. The place was almost claustrophobically small and thick with smoke, not all of it tobacco.

A bar ran down the right wall. The string of flashing Christmas lights framing the mirror behind it seemed to be the brightest source of illumination in the club. There was a small stage set up in the back, upon which a three-piece band that consisted of a guitar, bass, and saxophone were attempting to locate that lost note for which the club had been named. In Napoleon's admittedly unschooled opinion, it didn't sound to him as if the floaty, meandering composition was going to find that missing note to resolve the piece any time soon.

The remainder of the Lost Note's limited space was crowded with tiny tables and customers.

Illya was correct. Even on Christmas Eve, the place was packed to capacity.

"This way. We'll find a table," Illya whispered, giving a soft touch to his partner's arm.

Despite the number of people crammed into the small bar, the place was amazingly quiet for a night spot. Unlike the glittering uptown clubs Napoleon frequented, the Lost Note's patrons were here for one thing and one thing alone – the music.

"You've got to be joking," Napoleon whispered back. "The place is packed. We'll never find seats."

"We'll find a table," his compact partner assured, leading him up front.

To Napoleon's astonishment, Illya led them almost to the stage itself.

A table for four stood unoccupied just below the performance platform. Only as they drew closer did Napoleon see several coats piled on one of the chairs.

"It's occupied," Napoleon said, pausing.

"Their owners won't mind," Illya assured, placing his own coat atop the pile and pulling out the nearest chair.

Shrugging, Napoleon followed suit and dropped his own overcoat. "If you'd be so kind."

As they settled into the perhaps unoccupied chairs, one of the performers on stage, a stocky black man in a grey turtleneck and dark trousers that reminded Napoleon of his partner's favored dress style, grinned down at them. "Hey, Illya, welcome, man! We weren't expecting you tonight."

"Hello, Al," Illya answered with a smile. "This is my friend, Napoleon."

His bearded face all smiles as his head bobbed in beat with the uninterrupted flow of music from his bass, the musician's dark gaze turned Napoleon's way. "Welcome, cat. Those are cool duds you've got there, man."

As ever when confronted with this picturesque patois that passed for English among today's young people, Napoleon gave a bemused smile and pretended to understand. "Thanks, I think...cat."

"Groovy." The ebony gaze turned to Illya again. "You playin' tonight, Illya?"

No, we're here to enjoy the sound," Illya denied.

"Cool." With a wink and a nod, the bass player turned his full attention back to his music.

"Play?" Napoleon inquired, pulling his chair close enough to be heard over the nearby speakers, so close that Illya's soft golden hair tickled his nose when he leaned in close to speak and the spicy sweet herbal scent of his partner's faded aftershave played along his senses the way a woman's expensive perfume would.

He wasn't expecting the sudden heat that flushed through his insides, the pleasant tingling that was horribly out of place with his present company.

Confused by his body's reaction, Napoleon pulled back and took a deep breath.

Slowly, his reeling senses cleared. To his intense relief, when Illya leaned in to reply, there was no instant replay.

"The demands of our job do not permit me to commit to a band as a steady member. Al and his friends are kind enough to allow me to sit in when our U.N.C.L.E. has no need of us," Illya explained.

Napoleon knew of his partner's passion for this complex music. He had fully expected Illya to sit back and lose himself in the flow of sound as he had done in the past few times they'd encountered a musician who met his exacting tastes. However, tonight Illya kept up a steady flow of whispered conversation, the topics of which ranged from the history of the songs the band played to their latest case, to the effects of a rumored THRUSH nerve gas. The number of topics they discussed in that strangely intimate fashion of having to whisper their comments directly into the other's ear was rather surprising. Only in retrospect did Napoleon realize that the only two subjects they never even brushed over were the current holiday and their own pasts.

Jazz had never been something Napoleon even lightly enjoyed. In his opinion, if you couldn't hum it or sing it, it didn't qualify as music.

Tonight was no different. Although he never did `hook into the music' or whatever incomprehensible, meaningless, but deep-sounding idiom was au currant for liking the band, Napoleon did have an amazingly good time.

When the two exhausted enforcers finally left the Lost Note, it was well into Christmas morning.

Perhaps it was the martinis or maybe he was simply too tired to be depressed, but Napoleon was surprised to discover that he really did feel better for the night spent in his partner's undemanding company. It was such a change to be with someone with whom he was truly known, whom he didn't have to put up a false front for or keep entertained.

"I...ahhh...don't believe that either of us is in any shape to drive, Napoleon," Illya commented as they stepped out into a totally silent street. The night was still a bitter, bone-chilling cold.

The stars twinkled out of a velvet black sky above, visible despite the city lights. The air was unbelievably cold and clean and, after the smoky heat of the club, incredibly invigorating.

"I believe you're right," Napoleon agreed and laughed because he felt like it. He wasn't drunk yet, just happy.

"What are you laughing about?" Vodka had thickened Illya's accent. His speech was careful and slow, as if he were going to great pains to translate his thoughts into English.

"I'm laughing because I'm freezing and it's Christmas and for the first time in fifteen years I don't have to pretend I'm happy."

"But you are laughing," Illya observed, his brow furrowing in puzzlement.

Thinking that Illya looked very cute that way, Napoleon agreed, "Yes, I am, aren't I?" Napoleon grinned, throwing a friendly arm over his companion's broad shoulders. "Come on."

They ambled off in an amiable daze. Neither of them was totally sloshed. Waverly would never suffer an agent who would be so sloppy in public. They were both still the correct side of the legal limit, but just barely.

"Ah, where are we going, Illya?" Napoleon questioned after a few yards.

"My place. It is...just a few blocks away. I think you should spend the night there."

"We already spent the night. It's been officially morning for over three hours," Napoleon helpfully pointed out.

"Ah, yes, of course. Morning. Do you mind?" Illya questioned, seeming suddenly serious again.

Realizing that he was a lot drunker than he'd originally thought, Napoleon brilliantly inquired, "Mind what, that it's morning?"

"Spending Christmas morning with me," Illya asked, as if it were a grave test of endurance.

Smiling down at the anxious countenance, Napoleon shook his head. "To be perfectly honest, Illya, there's no place I'd rather be right now than in the present company."

Napoleon wasn't sure if the color that stained those pale cheeks was an effect of the cold, his words, or too much vodka. Either way, the blush pleased him.

"Good." Illya gave him a smile, not the usual shy flash of humor, but a genuine, blindingly sweet show of affection. "Very good."

And so it came to pass that Napoleon spent that Christmas laughing in his partner's company, rather than grieving in his own or some stranger's bed.

It was such a change that when he woke up the next morning on a lumpy couch in Illya's unfamiliar living room, he didn't even mind very much that it was Christmas.

 

Year Two

The following year, Napoleon wasn't even aware that it was Christmas when the day rolled around. He had, of course, known that his present case started four days before the holiday, but once he fell into THRUSH's less-than-loving hands, he considered himself fortunate to recall so much as his own name.

At the present moment, he wasn't even too sure of that.

His surroundings were less than inspirational. If the freezing, dank cell were intended to refresh his drug-fuzzed senses, it was failing miserably. All it brought to mind was a clouded parade of similar detention areas.

Although, in all honesty, this particular prison was by far the worst. Maybe because it was one of the oldest. The Gothic fortress the latest THRUSH leader had holed up in was proving as impenetrable in the twentieth century as it no doubt had in the Dark Ages.

A heavy, rounded iron door barred the single entrance. The walls were a stained, grey granite that was almost black. In the summer those walls would probably prove slimy, but at this time of the year they were laced with a thin coat of ice.

A single stone pallet passed for furniture. The stinking, rotting straw on it, possibly older than the prisoner himself, did nothing to cushion the captive from the freezing rock's hardness. And the single torn blanket was next to useless against the bone-freezing cold.

The cell's one barred window, which was also the room's single source of light, was a good ten feet overhead. Even if it were accessible, it was too narrow to accommodate even a child's escape.

Napoleon had never believed that he'd long for some of his former prisons, but by comparison this ancient dump made even Partridge's medieval torture chamber beneath his gazebo seem regal.

This one didn't even have a toilet. An open grate in the floor, malodorous even in this frozen season, passed for plumbing.

Add to all the other attractions the fact that his captors had deprived Napoleon of his clothing before administering their experimental truth serum, and Napoleon was well and truly miserable.

Well, he had one consolation. That new truth serum was a total washout. No sooner had they injected their miracle drug into his arm than Napoleon had vomited up what seemed like a month's worth of meals. He'd been so busy puking up his guts that he hadn't been able to answer a single one of THRUSH's questions.

Even now the cramps were still gripping his insides; although, currently, he was convulsed with diarrhea as well as his original complaint.

No, this serum was a definite no go.

Squatting ignominiously over the foul grate to relieve himself, Napoleon was a slave to nature's imperious, agonizing call. He was sore as hell from the prolonged bout. Each convulsive spasm burned him like liquid fire as his body struggled to expel that THRUSH drug.

At least there wasn't any blood. He didn't think they'd actually poisoned him; though it felt as if they'd come seriously close to doing so.

Napoleon kept telling himself that he'd feel better as soon as the damn drug worked its way through him. But such assurances were getting harder and harder to cling to. He was in a bad way and he knew it. They'd given him that damn injection yesterday and his insides were still being ripped apart by it.

The only bright point was that his cough had let up. He was no longer bringing up that ugly green phlegm that had plagued him the past three days. His chest still hurt...in fact, the pain was worse now than when he had been coughing, each breath felt like a knife sliding through his tight lungs. But that was no doubt muscle strain from the dry heaves that had gripped him until this morning.

Napoleon thought that he must be getting better. The cell seemed warmer now, maybe even hot...which didn't make a hell of a lot of sense, since he could still see the ice glazing the opposite wall. Obviously, the temperature hadn't gone up much. Nevertheless, it was good not to feel the cold any more.

Four days ago, Napoleon had started counting the minutes until Illya would break in and free him. Only slowly throughout this, his fourth day, had it occurred to Napoleon that that miracle rescue wasn't going to materialize. There was only one thing he could imagine which would delay Illya this long and it was a permanent condition.

Napoleon tried not to dwell on that depressingly real possibility. The thought of his young partner being dead hurt more than he could bear at this moment.

However, his present pain made such self-discipline impossible. If the fire in his intestines and lungs ever let up long enough for him to regain his feet, Napoleon was determined to kill every one of the THRUSH in this bitter keep, by hand if necessary, to avenge his partner.

But such revenge was a long way off.

Napoleon was still trying to ride out the latest diarrhea cramps when his stomach once again decided to try and expel its own lining. This time when the retching started, the room began to swirl around him. He took a deep breath to try and steady the prison carousel twirling madly around him when the floor leapt up at him and knocked him in the head.

Napoleon almost welcomed the ensuing blackness. Illya was in that darkness somewhere, waiting only for Napoleon to come and join him...

"Napoleon!"

The belovedly familiar, Russian-accented voice seemed to come from another dimension, faint and ephemeral as a will-of-the-wisp. Napoleon tried to call out, to tell his young friend that he was coming, that he was just lost in darkness and didn't know where he was supposed to be going...

"Napoleon, please, you must wake up. Now!"

It was the tone that caught Napoleon's attention. Terror was not something he equated with his contained partner. Illya must be in desperate need of his help to be sounding so emotional...

"Napoleon...thank goodness..." Illya sighed as Napoleon's eyelids parted.

It sounded like something his maiden Aunt Amy would say, Napoleon distractedly thought, not at all Illya's typical cool style. "I-I-Illya?" The hoarse croak was hardly recognizable to his own ears.

Apparently, it wasn't very reassuring to Illya either, for none of the worry left his strained features.

Totally disoriented, Napoleon stared up at his friend, who was hunching down in front of him. Something was wrong with the picture Illya presented.

It took Napoleon a moment to realize that Illya was completely bare on top, his expanse of baby-smooth chest and shoulders prickled with goose flesh. All his partner appeared to be wearing were a pair of dark trousers.

More sluggishly, Napoleon took stock of his own state.

For some reason, his partner had taken all of the straw from the pallet and dumped it over Napoleon's legs. He was now propped in a sitting position on the floor with his back to the coffin-sized granite slab. Why he wasn't freezing became readily apparent. The torn blanket was propping him off the icy stone. Also, he was wearing a dark wool turtleneck and a tight black, insulated ski jacket that could only belong to his partner. His legs were buried beneath the straw for added warmth, no doubt.

Looking down at himself, Napoleon slowly registered the pair of white cotton briefs he was wearing. With a shock, he realized that they, too, must belong to Illya, as doubtlessly did the tight socks he was wearing.

There weren't many men who'd give you the briefs off their butt...Napoleon thought, not quite strong enough to loose the hysterical giggle bouncing around inside him. Then again, there weren't many men he'd want to accept such an intimate gift from...

"Napoleon!"

With difficulty, he focused on the worried Russian. "Yes...I'm here..."

"Good." An icicle-cold palm covered Napoleon's forehead.

"What's...wrong with me?" Napoleon struggled for the clarity that was beyond his beleaguered senses. Even that small expenditure of energy left him feeling drained to the point of collapse. The agonizing tightness in his chest hadn't let up any either. If anything, it hurt more now. "Illya?"

"I can't be certain, but...I believe you have pneumonia. We have to get you out of here."

"I'd like that," Napoleon agreed, his voice thick with congestion.

"There's only one impediment," Illya glumly reported.

Not quite up to their normal, snappy repartee, Napoleon just looked at his friend.

"That iron door has proven a most efficient barrier to escape. I'm afraid our THRUSH friends relieved me of all my explosive money clips and incendiary handkerchiefs," Illya explained, an uncharacteristic anxiety hanging over him.

Napoleon watched as Illya moved to worry the impenetrable door hinges, persistent as a terrier.

"I thought...you were dead," Napoleon said into the quiet.

"What?" Illya looked back over his shoulder from where he knelt beside the ancient door.

"When you didn't come..." Realizing how weak he sounded, Napoleon snapped his mouth shut.

"I am sorry for the delay, Napoleon." Illya seemed truly haunted. "They dynamited the bridge."

The fortress was situated on a near-inaccessible peak in the Italian Alps. Without the rickety wooden bridge which Napoleon had crossed four – five? – days ago, the keep would be unreachable. "Then how did you...?"

"I'm afraid I had to come in the back way, over the mountains. It took three and a half days."

"A-alone?" Napoleon shuddered, unsure if it were caused by the cold, his fever or the idea of his intrepid partner braving peaks that would give Spiderman pause.

"Unfortunately. Mr. Waverly assured me that backup was on the way. However, I'm afraid I was too pressed for time to await their arrival. The snows were coming and..."

"Snows..." Beginning to understand what had kept his partner, Napoleon could only gape at the man before him.

"Yes. If it weren't for the snow, I might have had you out of here by now. I tried to scale the outer wall, slipped on an ice patch and landed right on top of a security patrol."

"Clumsy..." Napoleon's attempt at humor was interrupted by a convulsive coughing fit that left him choking for air.

When his thick, congested lungs finally dragged in a small hit of oxygen, he found Illya clutching his shoulders, urging, "That's it. Breathe. You're going to be fine. Relax. Breathe..."

"I'm okay," Napoleon stammered, almost frightened by the worry in that normally imperturbable face.

"Ssssh...of course you are," Illya agreed in a tone that told Napoleon he was anything but okay.

Illya's icy hand stroked the filthy hair back from Napoleon's brow, seeming unfazed by its lank stickiness.

Abruptly remembering how he'd passed out by the latrine grate before, Napoleon realized that Illya had done a lot more for him than push back some dirty hair.

His cheeks burned with shame when Napoleon considered the state he must have been in when Illya found him. After being sick for days, his stomach and intestines in constant revolt, he knew he couldn't have smelled much better than the open cesspool across the cell. Yet, without the benefit of running water, Illya had somehow managed to clean him up, had dressed him in his own clothes...

"You...you must be freezing..." Napoleon said once his shallow breathing returned to what passed for normal now. "You should take back your coat." His thick voice sounded like a stranger's to even his own ears.

"I'm fine," Illya denied, not letting up on the strangely soothing stroking of Napoleon's hair. His clear blue eyes were filled with more naked fear than he'd ever thought his partner capable of experiencing.

"I can see your..." a short pause to consciously breathe, "goose pimples."

"I was a child of Illya Front, Napoleon. I have a very hardy constitution," Illya dismissed.

"The Front..." Napoleon managed, leaping at anything that would distract him from his intense physical discomfort.

Illya so rarely spoke of his past that Napoleon could be lying three days dead in his grave and still spark up enough curiosity to question his secretive friend.

"You read my file," Illya said softly.

"It merely...said...where...you...were...raised. No de-details."

Napoleon fully expected to be told to mind his own business. Although he'd never before attempted to question Illya about his past, his partner's reserve seemed to predict a very emphatic denial.

"The details are...what might be expected of anyone raised in an active war zone," Illya hedged.

"You...never...speak...at all...of those...days," Napoleon commented, almost getting the hang of the shallow breathing necessary to allow speech without being gripped by coughing fits.

"You truly wish to hear of these things?" Illya seemed startled.

"Yes."

Illya played almost absently with the oily lock of Napoleon's hair that he still held between his fingers, his shadowed blue eyes watching the motion without seeming to see it. "There was great hardship," Illya said at last. "Much privation...another death almost every day...and always, there was the hunger. So much hunger, Napoleon. I think it was the first thing I ever truly knew. That and the cold."

The darkened, troubled gaze made Napoleon regret his idle curiosity. Still, presented with this rare opportunity, he couldn't resist asking, "Your family?"

The `NONE' beside the next-of-kin question on Illya's file had always bothered Napoleon.

"I never knew my parents. My father was a lieutenant in Illya infantry. He never returned from battle. My mother...she died bearing me. Her sister raised me to the age of five. She was a good woman, but another mouth to feed, even one so small as mine, was a tremendous burden. When our town was shelled and we had to flee, I became separated from my aunt's family. Even then I understood why they didn't search very hard to find me."

Napoleon didn't know if it were the pneumonia or his emotions that tried to choke him after the quiet recital. Illya spoke as if that hideous abandonment were completely pardonable. What must it have been like for a five-year-old child, alone on the Front, with no one to cling to or look out for him? Abruptly understanding where Illya had developed his lethal independence, Napoleon murmured, "For-forgive me. I...should...never...have asked..."

"It was a long time ago, Napoleon. Almost another life." The smile Illya forced was weak, but his gaze was warm as he gave Napoleon's hair one final pat and said, "You should conserve your strength. Try to rest. I will work on the door."

Knowing better than to point out how useless either effort would be, Napoleon closed his eyes.

An indeterminate time later, his partner was shaking him awake again. "Napoleon!"

"Wha???" he croaked.

"You mustn't lie flat like that. Your lungs will fill with fluid."

"Huh? Oh...must've...slipped over. The door?"

A negative shake of his head, then Illya helped Napoleon back up to a sitting position.

"You...look...frozen. We'll...both...have...pneumonia...if you're... not care-ful. Here..."

"If you even attempt to remove that jacket, I will tie you down," Illya promised in a tone with which Napoleon wouldn't even lightly tangle.

"No sense...both of...us...going. I'm...fin-ished."

"Don't say it." Illya's fingers were like talons as they dug through Napoleon's borrowed layers of clothing, his eyes a frightening, incandescent blue. "Don't even think it. We are going to get out of here. Both of us."

"Illya..." Napoleon stared at the stubborn man before him.

God knew what kind of risks Illya had braved crossing those snow-covered mountains alone to save him. Now, there was every chance Illya would die of exposure, to save a man already three-quarters dead.

"Do you trust me, Napoleon?" Illya abruptly demanded.

Transfixed by the power of eyes the exact shade of a perfect star sapphire, Napoleon nodded. "Absolutely."

"Then I want you to listen to what I am about to tell you, listen and believe in it. Can you do that, do you think?"

Napoleon gave another nod that rocked his pounding skull.

"I give you my solemn word that I will get us both out of here alive. In exchange, I ask only one thing of you, that you keep breathing. Have we a bargain?"

"I just...don't want...you sacri-fic-ing your..."

"Have we a bargain?" Illya interrupted almost angrily.

"Yes," Napoleon agreed, then added, "But...you're not...going...to be...able...to help... ei-ther...of us...if-if...you...freeze...to...death. You must...be...cold...an'...ex-haust-ed..."

"I've got to think of some way out of here," Illya whispered. "I've checked the door, the hinges, the wall, the window..." Napoleon decided that he must have slept through the last. "They are all impenetrable."

"Re-lax...for...'while...may-be...the ans-wer will...come...to...you..." The effort catapulted Napoleon into another prolonged coughing bout. Through eyes teary from the choking, he fretted, "I'm...'fraid...I won't...be...much...help...to you."

"As long as you keep your part of the bargain, I will handle the rest."

"I'm...still...breath-ing." Napoleon forced a smile. His partner's tense, bloodless features told him how much Illya needed it right now.

"And I'm still thinking."

"Think...down...here," Napoleon ordered in a voice weak as death. "'Least...we...can... share...the...blank-et."

With a reluctant nod, Illya settled down on the filthy straw beside him; although his partner steadfastly refused to touch the blanket that was propping Napoleon up.

Realizing that it was going to take a subtler strategy to get Illya to accede to common sense and warm himself up, Napoleon attempted some open manipulation.

The next time Illya reminded, "You should be resting," Napoleon replied with a properly plaintive, "Can't. I...keep...falling...over. May...maybe...do you...think...you...could...sit... be-hind me...and...hold...me...up?" he tentatively suggested, needing no subterfuge to sound pathetic.

"Sit behind you?" Illya uncertainly repeated.

"Yes. If you...sit...where...I...am...I...could...lean...back...'gainst...your...chest. That...way...you'd...be...warm...'n' I'd...be...stab-le."

It was the inevitable, unplanned coughing fit which followed that appeared to remove all hesitation from his modest friend. "All right."

After some painfully awkward readjusting, Napoleon ended up sitting between Illya's upraised knees, his back resting against Illya's surprisingly broad, bare chest.

"How's that?" Napoleon asked, trying to relax in the strangely intimate embrace. Illya's arms were folded across his torso, holding him close as a lover. He could feel each of his partner's exhalations shivering down his neck. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, after all.

"Are you comfortable?" Illya inquired, as if that were the only thing that mattered to him.

Realizing how difficult this must be for his touch-shy partner, Napoleon nodded. "It's... strange...but...yes. You?"

"I am warmer," Illya informed.

Well, at least that much had been accomplished, Napoleon distractedly thought. "Good. Illya?"

"Yes?"

"I-I'm...sorry...to...be such...a...bur-den...to...you." Perforce of circumstance, the sentiment was delivered by now familiar broken sentences, Napoleon's lungs requiring a pause for a fast, shallow breath after every word or two.

Illya's arms seemed to tighten around him for a minute. "You are not a burden, Napoleon. And even if that were the case, which it is not, any burden is preferable to the alternative."

"What alt-ern-a-tive?"

"When our THRUSH friends threw me in here and I saw you lying over there...I thought you were dead."

Napoleon didn't know what to say to that.

They grew quiet for a time.

When his struggles for air became too grating on his nerves, Napoleon gasped, "Illya?"

"You must try to rest, Napoleon," Illya gently admonished; his cradling embrace seemed to be trying to absorb Napoleon's discomfort as Illya blanketed him with unspoken, empathic support.

"My...chest...hurts...too...much. Need...some-thing...to...dis-tract...me, so's...I can... sleep..." Napoleon fretfully muttered, twisting to escape the chilly palm that settled upon his forehead. Illya's flesh felt cold as ice against him.

"Your fever's up again. Not that it ever went down."

"Illya..." He didn't even know what he was pleading for. Everything hurt so much. All Napoleon knew was that he wanted his partner to make it better, the way a sick child would turn to its mother for comfort.

"This cell...it makes me feel like Edmond Dantes." Illya self-consciously began to speak.

"Who...?" The name was familiar, but Napoleon couldn't place it in his current fevered state. A Dante had written The Divine Comedy, but his first name hadn't been Edmond. At least, Napoleon didn't think it had.

"You remember, Napoleon. Alexandre Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dantes was imprisoned in a cell very much like this one on the Isle de If."

"How'd he...es-cape? Tun-nel?"

"No, he…" Illya's body started.

"Illya? You...o-kay?"

"Yes, merely an idea."

"Ah..." He was too uncomfortable to even follow through that premise. "Is...it...Christ-mas...yet? Or...did...I...sleep...through...it?" Napoleon inquired after a while. The sound of his labored breathing was frightening him so much that he'd rather talk, even though it only increased his distress.

"No, you didn't sleep through it. Today is Christmas," Illya softly confirmed. "Though this is hardly a choice locale for any type of holiday celebration."

"'Mem-ber...last...year? You...played...guitar...for us...saved...the...whole...part-y..."

Those arms closed around him like a vise when he erupted into a choking fit of coughing.

When the spasm subsided, Illya chastened, "Napoleon, you must be quiet and rest now."

"I...hate...the...sound...of...my... breath-ing. Gets...so...loud...in...the...qui-et..." It was the fever making him so whiny. Napoleon hated himself for how weak he must sound, but he'd never felt this bad before. No matter how bad the physical tortures and druggings had been in the past, they hadn't been nearly as frightening as this disease filling his lungs, making every single breath a tortuous ordeal.

"Shhh. I will make the noise, then. Close your eyes. Relax. That's it..." Illya soothingly encouraged.

"Wish...you...had...your...guit-ar...now. Was...so...pret-ty...that...night..." Napoleon babbled, nearly delirious.

Illya gave him a brief squeeze. "We will just have to make do with what we have. Rest now. Please, Napoleon..."

Then the man that most of Section Two swore had ice water in his veins began to hum deep in his throat, a sad, plaintive air that could only be Russian in origin.

"Sounds...good..." Napoleon mumbled. "Know...any...Christ-mas...car-ols?"

"Just one I learned while in Paris. It's called the Coventry Carol." His deep voice strangely sweet, Illya proceeded to sing Napoleon the haunting melody.

In his present state, translating the French lyrics was beyond Napoleon, but the sound of his partner's voice washed over him, drowning out even his wretched breathing.

They must have presented quite a picture, lying there tangled together like lovers in the gloomy, medieval cell, with Illya singing him to sleep as if he were a child. Napoleon found the strong, clear voice oddly reassuring, lulling him like a mother's lullaby.

Almost of their own will, Napoleon's heavy eyelids finally sank shut. More secure in that powerful embrace than he could ever recall feeling as an adult, he gave himself over to the sleep his body so desperately needed.

Part of him knew that there was a very good chance that he might never wake up again, but he felt so safe at that moment that he didn't really care.

Sometime later, Napoleon felt Illya slip out from beneath him. The loss of that supporting warmth shivered through him. Inexplicably bereft, he wanted to call out a protest, but was too deep in Morpheus' arms to give more than a faint moan, which was probably lost in his tortured breathing.

"Guard, guard!" Illya's cry was loud and panicked. A pounding against the iron door that followed was loud enough to raise the dead, but not quite enough to rouse Napoleon.

From a distance, Napoleon heard an angry THRUSH voice demand, "What?"

"He's dead!" Illya sounded truly terrified, like some superstitious Balkan peasant locked up with a corpse bearing suspicious bite marks on its throat. "You've got to remove the body! He's dead!"

That was funny, Napoleon thought fuzzily. He didn't feel dead, but Illya would know better than he. Maybe this was what being dead felt like.

"Calm down. We'll contact..." Like most grunt workers, the guard wasn't overly bright.

"No! You've got to remove it now! Or get me out of here! You can't leave me alone with a corpse!" the near-hysterical Illya insisted.

"Okay, calm down, fellow," the guard counseled. "Christ, I thought you were supposed to be some kind of super-spy! We'll move the body to the cell across the hall until the boss tells us what to do with it."

And it was there that the THRUSH men made their fatal error.

Napoleon heard the rattle and the eerie, prolonged screech of the door swinging open, the shuffle of several men entering the cell, and then, the unmistakable sounds of an intense physical altercation.

"Napoleon!?" A breathless-sounding Illya called from a million miles away once the fight died down.

"Mmmmm?" He tried to open his eyes and concentrate, but the effort was beyond him.

"I am going to leave you alone here for a short time while I dispense with the lab. The snow seems to have stopped. We should be able to arrange transport. While I am gone, I will be depending on you to keep your part of the bargain. Are you listening to me, Napoleon?" Although the earlier hysteria Napoleon had heard in his partner's voice had been feigned for THRUSH's behalf, Illya's present fear sounded quite genuine.

"Mmmmm..." Napoleon still couldn't force his eyes apart, but he could feel his friend's gaze boring right into him. Illya's hand stroked through his hair again.

The gentle gesture focused Napoleon's feverish attention as mere words never could.

When Illya next spoke, his tone was gruff, somewhat tremulous. "Keep breathing, Napoleon. Please...keep your promise..."

A cool palm touched Napoleon's left cheek, soft fingertips stroking his stubbled skin and the mole there. Reluctantly, the hand left him.

The absolute quiet that followed told him Illya was gone. That quiet seemed to permeate him, flowing through him until Napoleon felt gone himself, floating away on a sea of darkness, the air he was squeezing through his agonizingly congested lungs no longer enough to tie him to this earth.

Sorry, Illya...so sorry... Napoleon thought, regretful that the first promise Illya asked of him would be the first broken.

"Napoleon?"

An eternity later, the insistent Russian voice called Napoleon back from that comfortable void.

Napoleon opened his eyes. After the gloom of that prison cell, the brightness of the hospital room was nearly blinding.

With difficulty, he focused on the gold-limned figure bending over him, distinguishing his partner's weary features from the burning whiteness after a few confusing seconds.

"I take it I'm not dead, then." The very fact that he could get a full sentence out with a single inhalation told Napoleon he was a lot better than 'not dead.' There still seemed to be a lot of lingering congestion in his lungs, but no stabbing pain to speak of.

"Napoleon." The contented sigh revealed the relief Illya's impassive features failed to register.

"Where?"

"U.N.C.L.E.'s Med Section just outside of Rome," Illya answered.

His mind fully there for what seemed the first time since his capture, Napoleon stared up at his partner, belatedly comprehending how much his friend had done for him. At the onset of a lethal winter storm, Illya had crossed mountains on foot, braving frostbite, falls, and all manner of danger to reach him. Once there, Illya had been presented with a partner that was about as much help to him as a 180-pound watermelon. Despite this impediment, Illya had still managed to free them.

Napoleon hazily recalled that final whisper. Illya had said he was leaving him to dispense with the THRUSH lab, the way another man might have said he'd pick up a quart of milk on the way home from work. Even more amazingly, Illya had succeeded. One solitary man against a fully-equipped THRUSH installation, consisting of over fifty men. Napoleon didn't know another agent who could have pulled it off without equipment or backup.

But the toll it had taken on his quiet partner was visible in Illya's pale, pinched features.

"How are you feeling?" Illya questioned after a long silence, seeming to remind himself that this was a question that should be asked at a sickbed.

"Much better. But I wouldn't be if it weren't for you. Thank you, my friend, for everything."

"You needn't thank me. You've done the same for me in the past," Illya denied, appearing extremely uncomfortable at the open show of gratitude.

Once, Napoleon might have bought the unemotional front. But not today, not with the memory of how tenderly this man had held him and seen to his needs when he'd been so desperately ill.

Had anyone else witnessed his shameful weakness, Napoleon would have been worried about the talk that would be circulating in the Section Two rumor mill after the incident. Yet, even if Illya weren't as antisocial as he was, he knew he'd have nothing to fear on that end. He knew that Illya would take his secrets to his grave with him.

"Not like that, I haven't," Napoleon denied. "What you did for me, that was above and beyond the call of duty."

"But not beyond the bounds of friendship," Illya replied with endearing shyness.

To Napoleon's recollection, this was the first time his partner had made so open a statement about the status of their relationship. Napoleon had often referred to the reserved Russian as his friend during the two years they'd worked together, but Illya rarely did so, and, then, never privately. Generally, whenever Illya called him `friend,' there was a third party involved and Illya's voice always held a sardonic edge to it, as though the possibility of their entertaining such a relationship outside the realm of U.N.C.L.E. was improbable at best.

But now, when they were alone together and the word came up, Illya sounded hesitant, as if he still expected rejection, even after all this time.

"No, not beyond friendship," Napoleon agreed, an inexplicable tightness gripping his throat.

Napoleon found himself caught by the complex web of emotion behind those normally glacial blue eyes. The reassuring smile he offered only seemed to deepen Illya's plight.

Trying to figure out what was going on, Napoleon felt as if he were drowning in the incredible crystal gaze.

His fall was interrupted by a familiar adversary as he was gripped with another coughing fit.

Illya reached out automatically to grip Napoleon's shoulder, calmly passing him a tissue to collect the greenish-yellow phlegm he coughed up.

"I thought I was all over that," Napoleon sighed once his lungs decided to stay in his chest.

"The doctor said it was to be expected over the next few days as your lungs clear."

"Oh." Napoleon leaned wearily back against the pillows which were propping him up in a near-sitting position.

"Don't worry, Napoleon. You will be your energetic self again soon..." Illya broke off as a white-capped nurse entered the hospital room.

Napoleon glanced her way, his eyes returning of their own accord for a more thorough survey of her voluptuous, dark Italian features. The girl was definitely of the Gina Lollobrigida mold. Her generous swells and curves were all in exactly the right places.

"I would hazard to say that you will be yourself again very soon, indeed," Illya commented, his voice strangely cold and tight. If Napoleon didn't know better, he'd almost say angry.

But what was there to be angry about?

All the closeness evaporating between them faster than canteen water spilt in the Sahara, Napoleon looked back at his partner in confusion. Illya looked...almost hurt, and was trying to hide it. But Napoleon had no idea what could have caused the reaction.

Maybe his friend was just overtired, Napoleon thought. God knew, with the ordeal they'd just been through, Illya had every right to be.

"I'm afraid that you will have to leave now, sir," the nurse gently informed Illya.

"Yes, of course. I will see you later, Napoleon," Illya said with his characteristic reserve fully back in place.

"Illya?" Napoleon called, not understanding what had destroyed the warmth between them.

"Yes?" Illya sounded almost afraid to turn around and face him.

"Thanks again," Napoleon stammered, unsure precisely what he wanted to say to this enigmatic young man, even if he could say it in front of a stranger without embarrassing Illya. "For everything."

Illya glanced back over his shoulder, the distance fading from his eyes. "You are very welcome, Napoleon. Thank you for keeping your part of the bargain."

Another brief smile, then Illya was gone from the room.

Puzzled by the strange undertones of the exchange, Napoleon relaxed against his pillow once more, content to allow his lovely nurse to fuss over him.

 

Year Three

Anything that can go wrong, will. Normally, Napoleon Solo didn't hold with such fatalistic nonsense, but this case had certainly more than reinforced that old adage. First, circumstances had forced him to go this mission alone, since the THRUSH leaders they were after were familiar with his partner from the time Illya had briefly been stationed in the London office. Then, the courier who was supposed to deliver a list of the THRUSH leaders to him went and dropped the damn material in the middle of an Iowa farm during a chase, forcing Napoleon to coordinate an inch-by-inch search of two miles of snow- covered cornfields. The endless search had delayed his return by four days, putting him back in New York on Christmas Eve...three hours late, of course.

After wading through a veritable obstacle course of holiday travelers and their even more obstructive luggage, Napoleon finally achieved open air to spend the next forty minutes shivering in line for a taxi.

Napoleon arrived at U.N.C.L.E.'s Del Floria's entrance an hour and a half later, extremely grumpy and out of sorts.

"Merry Christmas, Napoleon!" the receptionist greeted him as he stepped through the security entrance.

The sprig of holly in her sandy brown hair and the jolly white Santa head pin with its light-up nose next to the security badge on her deliciously tight yellow sweater brought the first genuine smile of the day to Napoleon's face. "And to you, Trish. Are you on duty all night?"

"No, just another hour, then I'll drop in on the Christmas party for a while." She smiled as she reached over to pin Napoleon's ID on the lapel of his navy blue wool suit. "And then it's home, sweet home for the holidays."

While the lovely brunette was leaning towards him, Napoleon did a little of his own reaching as well.

"Napol...!" Trish's angry protest turned into an enchanting giggle when Napoleon pulled the dangling silver bell on her Santa pin to light up its nose. Her peaches-and-cream cheeks turned a charming pink at the proximity of Napoleon's hand to what they both knew he truly wanted to touch.

"You shouldn't dangle temptation before us weak-willed mortals if you don't want us to bite, Trish," he admonished in a silky purr.

A steel-hard grip pinned his wrist.

"Move another inch and I'll have your fingers for earrings," she purred right back at him, twisting his wrist just the tiniest bit to accentuate her point.

He jerked his hand back from the supple breast beneath his wrist. "Touché, my dear. Is Mr. Waverly in?"

"He isn't expected back from Canada until tonight," Trish answered.

"Oh, then I take it Illya isn't providing the entertainment for the Christmas party. Where is he, in Waverly's office?" Napoleon guessed.

"No, Mark Slate is there right now."

Slate was next in line in seniority after Napoleon and Illya. Whenever Napoleon was unavailable for joint assignments with Illya, Waverly usually assigned Mark to partner Illya, as the two worked remarkably well together. Slate was a competent man, but not quite ready to be manning Section Two in Waverly's absence. Of course, business was slow around the holidays, but even so...

"Is Illya on assignment?" Napoleon asked, that the only reason he could think as to why his partner wasn't running things.

"I think you'd better speak to Mark, Napoleon," Trish gently advised.

The way her compassionate brown eyes shied almost guiltily away from him and her troubled expression raised the hairs on the back of Napoleon's neck.

"Yes, of course," Napoleon said, his charm turning off as abruptly as if a circuit breaker had been thrown. "If you'll excuse me."

Moving fast, he made his way towards Waverly's office.

As he quickly circumnavigated the halls, Napoleon was oblivious to all passersby. Worst case scenarios filling his worried mind, he tried to recall the last time he'd spoken directly to his partner. He'd spent six days in L.A. closing down that THRUSH installation, then ten in Iowa getting that blasted list. He'd last spoken to Illya eight, no, nine days ago, he finally decided.

After that, Waverly had told him that Illya was on assignment and unreachable. Hardly uncommon, if it were true. Napoleon had never thought to question their boss.

Only now did he recall the number of occasions that circumstances had forced him to give some poor guy the same line when the agent's partner was killed on another assignment and Waverly didn't want the survivor distracted.

Distracted, Christ. Almost shaking, he rushed into their boss's lair.

"Napoleon," Mark Slate greeted as Napoleon stormed into Waverly's office.

"Is he dead?" Napoleon demanded without preamble. "Is Illya dead?" His muscles turned to lead in solid dread of what the answer must surely be.

"No, he's not dead," Slate instantly assured, his pale eyes softening. "Calm down, Napoleon. Illya is alive."

"Then what the devil's going on?" Napoleon allowed himself to start breathing again. "Where is he?"

"Home as of 0900. Med Center released him at..."

"Med Center? What happened?" Napoleon interrupted.

"Illya was on assignment. THRUSH had set a series of incendiary devices at a diplomatic function in the Plaza Hotel. Illya found and defused five of the six, but the last hadn't been properly primed. When he..."

"A bomb..." Napoleon murmured, numbly sinking into one of the chairs at Waverly's circular briefing table. His mind couldn't help but run through all the maimings he'd witnessed as a result of explosive devices...and Illya had been right on top of one when it went off...

"The detonator was inaccurate. The device went off when Illya entered the room..." Mark continued in a strained tone.

"How bad?" Napoleon wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he had to ask.

"He was unbelievably lucky...for a man who walked into an explosion. The blast appears to have thrown him clear. He suffered some bruising and lacerations from shrapnel and a concussion, but no broken bones or amputated..."

"What aren't you telling me, Mark?" Napoleon demanded, having given enough snow jobs to recognize one when he heard it.

"The light from the blast caused some damage to Illya's eyesight. The doctors assure us that it's only temporary, but for the last week he's been blind."

"Blind." Napoleon shuddered at the thought of those incredible blue eyes being deprived of sight.

"The doctors are certain that it's temporary. There's no retinal damage, he just has to have his eyes bandaged for a little while to give his eyes a chance to heal. He should be seeing fine in a couple of weeks. Sooner, maybe..." Slate assured.

Napoleon nodded, barely hearing the reassuring babble. His mind had stopped on the word "blind" and could proceed no further. Illya...

"You said he's at home?" Napoleon questioned at last. "Who's with him?" At the other man's guilty start, he demanded, "Surely, you didn't leave him alone? Illya's got no family to look after him."

"Napoleon, everyone from Mandy Stevenson in Translation to myself offered to stay with him. Mandy and Lisa even borrowed Waverly's passkey to stock the apartment with groceries and get it ready for his homecoming, but...Illya refused all help, in no uncertain terms. He made it quite plain that we were unwelcome there and that he could take care of himself. We didn't want to leave him alone, Napoleon, but..."

Napoleon sighed, slowly releasing his fury as he realized that none of this was Slate's fault. Things were different now than they'd been when Illya first transferred to Section Two. Illya had made many friends here. Still, Napoleon knew few men with the courage to force their companionship upon the reserved Russian once Illya made it obvious that he wished to be left alone. And Illya would be at his most difficult at a time like this, when his independence was threatened by physical injuries.

"Yes, I can very well imagine how plain Illya made himself." Tiredly rubbing his hand over his face, Napoleon tried to collect his scattered thoughts. Illya was blind... "Well," he startled himself as well as his companion when he broke the silence, "will you be able to handle things here until Mr. Waverly gets back?"

"Yes, of course," Slate assured.

"Good. I have some time coming to me. I'm going to take it now. If you or Mr. Waverly have need of me, I'll be at Illya's."

"Yes, of course," Mark agreed, appearing relieved. "And Napoleon, tell Illya that we all hope he'll be feeling better soon."

"I will." With that, Napoleon took leave of headquarters.

The last minute Christmas shoppers had the city traffic snarled to the point where it took the impatient Napoleon another forty-five minutes to make the twenty-minute trip from Del Floria's tailor shop to Illya's West Village flat. His worry increasing with every passing second, he pulled into the first available parking spot and took the stairs to Illya's fourth floor walkup two at a time.

Somewhat breathless, he pounded on the apartment door. "Illya, it's me, Napoleon. I'm letting myself in."

He'd never had cause in the past to use the shiny key on his key ring. To his relief, the untried key worked. Locking the door behind him, Napoleon crossed the darkened hallway to the security alarms, punching in Illya's code and then resetting the box. Once he'd ensured that U.N.C.L.E. wouldn't be crashing in to save his partner from attack, he turned to the living room.

The sun had set some time during the interval Napoleon had spent at headquarters. Hence, Illya's place was cloaked in darkness.

Naturally enough in view of his partner's affliction, the lights in the living room were out. The only illumination came from whatever light was filtering in from the alleyway outside, which wasn't much at all.

But Illya's blond hair had a way of picking up any available light and somehow amplifying it to make it brighter. It was no different tonight. With no trouble at all, Napoleon discerned the silvery nimbus of his friend's hair.

Illya sat in an armchair in the far end of the room, his face turned towards the door. Even in the dimness, Napoleon could see the thick bandages covering Illya's eyes and upper face. His partner was dressed in a pair of pale blue pajamas with the heavy red terry cloth robe Napoleon had given him for his last birthday closed tightly on top.

The only sound in the gloomy room was that of the party going on next door. The laughter and cheerful music seemed very loud and out of place.

Looking at his motionless friend, Napoleon had the feeling that his partner had been sitting there like that for hours.

"Illya?" he questioned softly, switching on the overhead light. He had absolutely no notion as to how Illya would respond to his intrusion here. His privacy-loving partner rarely even invited him up for a drink.

"Hello, Napoleon." Though outwardly calm, Napoleon thought he detected a tremulous quality to the greeting.

Well, at least he hadn't been ordered out for trespassing.

"Hi, yourself." Napoleon tried for normality as his roving gaze took in the state of the usually organized room. A pile of books lay scattered near the coffee table. The reading lamp which had once sat on the couch end table nearest the kitchen was now a shattered mess of glass on the green rug. One of the dining room chairs had been overturned and still lay on its side near the kitchen door, very close to the remains of a teapot and mug. "I would ask how you're doing, but..."

"My demolished living room has already told you how my day has gone," Illya finished with his typical sardonic flair.

"Yes, I suppose it has." Navigating around the various messes, Napoleon closed the distance between them. Perching on the end of the wooden coffee table nearest his partner's seat, he reached out to touch Illya's arm, the stark white bandaging covering his friend's eyes sending a chill through him. "Are you in much pain?"

Illya's slender body jerked at the unexpected contact, but to Napoleon's surprise, he didn't attempt to pull away. "None to speak of."

"What are you doing just sitting here? I thought you'd be in bed resting," Napoleon blithered, for want of anything useful to say. He couldn't seem to force his gaze from that cold strip of gauze hiding his partner's eyes from him.

"After my last disaster with the lamp, I thought it best to wait here for your arrival," Illya explained, trying to make light of the situation with an unaffected tone.

Nevertheless, Napoleon could read the very real panic lurking beneath that quiet declaration of need. His heart lodging in his throat, it took him a moment to reply. "Wise idea. What do you say to my cleaning up this mess and getting us both something to eat?"

"Yes, please. I am rather hungry."

Reassured by that one familiar constant, Napoleon relaxed infinitesimally. Giving Illya's arm a pat, he set about picking up the books and other scattered debris.

"Where do you keep your vacuum?" Napoleon asked once he'd dealt with the larger casualties.

"In the hall closet."

In no time at all, Napoleon had the place back to its normal order. "Well, that does it."

"Thank you," Illya said. "I must warn you, the kitchen is probably in a much worse state."

One glance at the room in question's darkened interior revealed several suspicious lumps on the floor. "Don't worry. I'll work around it and clean up the mess after we eat."

As Mark had said earlier, the thoughtful ladies at U.N.C.L.E. had stocked Illya's larder before taking him home this morning, so there was fresh food aplenty. Fifteen minutes later, Napoleon emerged from the kitchen with a tray of melted cheese sandwiches and two mugs of tea.

As soon as he'd placed the tray in front of Illya, he realized the extent of the problem they were facing as Illya's hand swung blindly back and forth in an attempt to locate the food, narrowly missing overturning a tea mug.

"Hold on a second," Napoleon advised, placing one of the gooey sandwiches in his partner's hand.

"Thank you." The tight tone told him how difficult Illya was finding this.

"You're most welcome." Just to be on the safe side, Napoleon took a second to guide the sandwich to his friend's mouth.

Illya devoured the oozing meal in less than a minute.

Having expected as much, Napoleon replaced it with another.

"These are very good. I didn't know you could cook," Illya commented between gulps.

"Hidden talent," Napoleon replied, eating his own meal at a more civilized pace, his gaze digging at that bandage masking Illya's handsome features.

When the second helping disappeared only slightly slower than the first, Illya hesitantly began, "Ah, Napoleon, is there by any chance another..."

"Of course, there is." Napoleon placed his own second sandwich in his friend's hand, watching with amused affection as that, too, was instantly devoured. Illya's appetite was a constant source of amazement to him. That such a compact man could put away such an incredible amount of food was a marvel to Napoleon...until he recalled what Illya had told him about his childhood last year, how hunger was the first thing he'd known. Maybe Illya was still making up for those early years of privation.

"Tea?" Napoleon asked when the last greasy crust had disappeared from hispartner's hand.

"Yes, please."

Again, Napoleon placed the object in hand and guided it to those pouty pink lips.

Strange, Napoleon thought. Were this anyone else, he would have felt extremely awkward, but with Illya, such acts came very naturally.

"What happened to your hand?" Napoleon questioned as he glimpsed an angry red spot on his partner's right knuckle.

"Which one?" Illya gave a mirthless smile. "The left was cut in the explosion."

"And the other?"

"A casualty of the tea this afternoon." Illya sighed. "It is...disheartening to discover that one is not as independent as one would like to believe. I told Mark that I would be fine on my own. In fact, I was quite rude in getting that point across. I thought I knew this apartment so well, well enough to walk around blindfolded, but the moment he left me here alone...It has been a most trying day, Napoleon."

"You have a flair for understatement, my friend," Napoleon acknowledged. "I can imagine how...frustrating it must have been alone here. I, ah...took some time off, so you needn't worry about..."

"Napoleon, you don't have to nursemaid me..." Illya heatedly protested, looking ready for battle.

"This is not up for debate. Slate should never have left you here alone. Security alarms only go so far. If you were attacked while..." he carefully avoided using the word blind, "...while you have those bandages on, you'd be a sitting duck. You can't protect yourself like this. I'm not leaving here until you can." The stubborn mouth parted to object. Napoleon continued, "No arguments, no protests. Like it or not, I'm here for the duration."

The full lips snapped shut, Illya's body going still as stone.

Illya Kuryakin was not a man to be dictated to or ordered about, even by a close friend. Napoleon could already foresee how horrible Illya could make this experience for them should he set his mind to being difficult and, considering the circumstances, Napoleon couldn't really blame his friend if he took that course.

Watching his partner, Napoleon found it maddening to be unable to see Illya's eyes; they were always the passport to Illya's true feelings.

Trying to judge his partner's moods and thoughts by a flash of a partial expression or through body language was hard going at best. Illya was a master at disguising his emotions. Without the eyes, it was impossible to read him.

Everything Napoleon knew about his fiercely independent friend was telling him that Illya had to be enraged by this imposition, yet he couldn't pick the anger up on what little he could see of the handsome face.

"I...know this is terribly difficult for you," Napoleon offered. "Neither of us is very good at... needing another's help. I'll try not to be too intrusive..."

"Napoleon," Illya interrupted, his tone surprisingly mild.

"Yes?"

"Thank you. I may not show it very well, but...I am glad you're here."

"You are?" Napoleon blinked in surprise.

The fair head nodded. "I believe in time that I will learn to – how do you say? – work around this, but for now, it is good to have someone here to prevent me from walking into breakables."

Although the words were offered in the light banter usual to their exchanges, Napoleon sensed the genuine emotion behind them. "With any luck, you'll be better before you have the chance to develop much talent at Blind Man's Bluff. But for now...it's late. You should probably be resting."

"I am somewhat weary," Illya softly admitted, rising from his armchair.

Illya's expression didn't change at all, but Napoleon could almost feel the other man steeling his nerves to run the obstacle course to his bedroom.

What must it be like for him, Napoleon wondered. Any man would balk at the helpless state blindness left him in. But for this fanatically self-sufficient loner, it must be so much worse. Like himself, Illya was a hunter. Napoleon's bout with pneumonia last year had shown him how humbling...and downright terrifying, it was, to abruptly find oneself thrust into the role of helpless prey.

"Careful there," he warned as Illya took his first uncertain step.

The protective feelings that surged through him were ridiculously incongruous in light of their present recipient. Illya was more than capable of handling opponents twice their size. And, yet, the sight of this fiercely independent man afraid to take too quick a step forward pricked Napoleon's heart like a thorn.

Napoleon stepped up to his friend to gently take his arm, narrowly preventing Illya from barking his shin on the low coffee table. "I think we'd better move this coffee table against the wall for awhile," he suggested, his voice unaccountably husky.

Illya silently nodded, his body strangely tense as he simply stood there, no doubt attempting to orient himself.

"Are you all right?" Napoleon asked when his partner showed no indication of moving.

"I...hate this, Napoleon," Illya whispered at last, the ragged words seeming forced out of him.

Illya looked so lost and lonely standing there, his beautiful eyes buried beneath the layers of gauze, his normal grace and poise victim to his current handicap, afraid to move because his own living room had suddenly transformed into a gauntlet of unseen dangers.

His heart permanently lodged in his throat, Napoleon gave the plush red terry cloth covering the nearby back a reassuring pat, letting his arm slide across to drape the sturdy shoulders. "I know that it's difficult now, but in no time at all, you'll be just fine again."

"Yes...no time at all," Illya repeated, as if trying to reassure himself.

Napoleon debated whether he should step away now and lead his partner to his room by the arm or hand. But since Illya didn't seem particularly disturbed by the increased, somewhat personal contact, Napoleon gave a mental shrug and left his arm where it was, steering Illya towards the bedroom the way they were. It felt slightly clumsy at first, but then Illya's right arm hesitantly settled around his waist to steady himself and they were moving smoothly.

"Ahh...Napoleon?" Illya paused as Napoleon made to turn them into the bedroom.

"Yes?" With interest, he watched the pale cheeks below the gauze fill with color.

"Bathroom."

"Oh, yes, of course." Napoleon reversed direction and led them to the tiny room across the hall.

Another few awkward moments, and he left Illya sitting on the commode. Sensing that Illya would prefer privacy here, he advised, "Call when you're ready. I'll be outside."

A few minutes later, the toilet flushed. A rush of water followed from the sink just inside the door, and the unmistakable sound of teeth being brushed.

Napoleon had just lulled himself into thinking that maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed when a nerve-rending crash of shattering glass just about made him jump out of his skin.

"Illya?" He restrained himself from bursting in, figuring that a broken glass was hardly worth denting his partner's already-battered pride.

"I am...unharmed," came the reassuringly prompt reply. A second later, the door swung open. "However, perhaps it would be best if I were confined to a rubber room for the duration."

Hearing the frustration behind the acerbic comment, Napoleon gave a sympathetic chuckle and once again laid his arm across the broad shoulders. "Don't be so hard on yourself. It's only your first day home."

"Yes, doubtless tomorrow I will graduate to demolishing fine crystal and delicate electric equipment." Illya grimaced.

"Well, every man should have something to look forward to." Napoleon smiled, giving Illya's shoulders an affectionate squeeze. "Come on, let's get you settled for the night."

"You were serious before about staying?" Illya asked as they entered the room.

After snapping on the overhead light, Napoleon re-familiarized himself with the bedroom with a single glance. The neatly-made double bed, book-piled night table, single dresser...the stark utilitarianism was so like Illya.

"I thought we settled that." Napoleon sighed.

"You settled that," Illya reminded. "But that was not my point. The couch is at least six inches too short for you."

"Then I'll bunk in here with you...or on the floor, if you prefer."

"No, here is fine, but...the sheets need changing," Illya worried.

"Illya, we spent last Christmas as guests of our THRUSH friends. I don't expect your humble accommodations to match their luxury, but I'm certain we can make do." Pleased, Napoleon saw a smile touch those tight-held lips.

Pausing them beside the bed, Napoleon bent to peel back the covers. "In you go."

"Will you tuck me in like a child?" Illya questioned with a hint of his normal temper.

"Humor me, okay?"

After a moment's silent struggle, during which Napoleon could almost see the internal battle his independent partner was raging, Illya gave a tight nod and shouldered his way out of his red robe. His knee moving out to determine how far away the bed was, Illya accurately dropped the robe onto the bottom of the bed, then allowed Napoleon to guide him down.

"Did you bring your overnight bag with you?" Illya inquired as Napoleon busied himself with the unfamiliar task of straightening out the bedclothes and tucking the other man in.

"It's down in the car; although it won't do me much good. After two weeks on the road, I'm afraid that the contents are more than a little ripe."

"You will find pajamas in the middle drawer. Undergarments in the upper right," Illya readily offered.

Recalling how last year Illya had clothed him in the briefs still warm off Illya's own body, Napoleon leaned over and gave a soft touch to his companion's cheek, causing Illya to jump slightly. "Thank you."

"You are most welcome."

The warm feeling which spread through Napoleon's insides at the whispery tone was disturbing in intensity. "I'll change and be right back."

"Napoleon?"

"Yes?" He paused, unable to interpret the expression touching his partner's mouth.

"Don't I get a bedtime story? If you're going to do this, you should do it correctly," Illya commented in that droll tone that always cracked Napoleon up.

Chuckling, intensely relieved at how well Illya was coping with this forced necessity, Napoleon promised, "When I get back. And if you're a very good boy, I'll even let you have your milk and cookies."

Borrowing a pair of pajamas from the bureau, Napoleon left the room.

After dealing with the shattered glass in the bathroom, Napoleon took a quick shower, dried off, used Illya's toothbrush, and then slipped into the heavy brown-and-white flannel pajamas he'd borrowed. The pants were a little short and snug, the jacket too tight to button, but they'd do.

"Want anything else?" Napoleon asked from the doorway on his return.

"Other than my sight back?" Illya quipped, an irritable edge to his voice. After a quiet moment when Napoleon made no response, Illya softly apologized, "I'm sorry, you don't deserve my sarcasm."

"Forget it. It's been a long day." Snapping off the overhead light, he crossed the darkened room to the bed.

They'd been working together so long that sharing such close quarters was second nature to them now. It didn't feel at all strange to Napoleon as he lay down shoulder to shoulder with his injured partner. In fact, it felt rather cozy. The apartment was just cool enough to make him appreciate the warm body beside him.

"What is it?" Illya questioned when Napoleon snorted in the dark as the muffled strains of Bing Crosby's Christmas in Kilarney filtered through the wall from the party next door. Thankfully, the laughter and talking were less noticeable in here.

"With one thing and another, I totally managed to forget what day it is," Napoleon admitted, settling down in sheets that smelled ever so faintly of his partner.

"Ah."

"You gave me some scare today, you know," Napoleon confessed, turning on his side to face his friend. "When I got back to headquarters and everyone kept going silent when your name was mentioned..."

"Mr. Waverly and I thought it best if you were not...distracted from the job or burdened with worry."

"Distracted from the job?" Napoleon repeated, irritated by Illya's priorities, even though he understood that the silence had been for his own protection. "Illya, I was searching a cornfield full of snow for the past week. It was hardly a high-priority assignment. Any field agent could have overseen the drudge work."

"There was little you could have done for me while I was in hospital, Napoleon," Illya gently pointed out. "And now, when I...have the most need of you...you are here."

Napoleon remembered Illya sitting so alone in his debris-strewn living room when he'd walked in tonight, calmly stating that he'd decided to wait where he was until Napoleon's arrival, as though prearrangements had been made for him to stop by. That this reserved and fiercely independent man could have such implicit faith in him was strangely touching.

"It's an honor, my friend," Napoleon gruffly acknowledged.

"Napoleon?"

Hearing the uncertainty that sounded almost like fear in the subdued voice, he reached out to lay his hand on the blue flannel covering Illya's shoulder. "Yes?"

"What the doctors said about my...condition being only temporary, that was true, wasn't it?"

The tenuous tone totally choked Napoleon up. It completely belied Illya's protest that there was nothing he could have done for him while he was in the hospital. Had he been here here, there was no way on God's earth his partner would have been lying there alone in the darkness for over a week, afraid that everyone was lying to him about his condition.

His hand squeezed the tight, muscular biceps below where his palm rested. When he could trust his voice, Napoleon hoarsely assured, "I didn't have the opportunity to speak to your physicians personally, but Mark assured me that the blindness was only temporary. I don't believe he was lying to me."

The relieved breath Illya released seemed to shake his entire frame. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," Napoleon dismissed, something in him aching to stroke Illya hair back from what little bit of forehead that could be seen above the bandages.

But...such touches weren't a part of their relationship. It might be a new era of permissiveness, with all manner of cultural revolutions freeing people from the inhibitions of social convention, but Napoleon was not a man of these times. His personality had been shaped during a far more rigid period. And, even if it hadn't, even if Napoleon were able to step beyond the conditioning of a lifetime, this was his reserved Russian partner. Illya didn't invite touch at the best of times. In a situation like this, where such liberties would be coming at him from out of the dark, it was totally inappropriate, Napoleon reluctantly conceded.

By way of compromise, he left his hand resting on Illya's upper arm, since that allowable contact didn't appear to be upsetting his friend.

"Good night, Napoleon," Illya breathed, his cloak of tension seeming to have been lifted by Napoleon's reassurance. Doubtless Waverly, Mark, and all Illya's doctors had told him the same thing about how temporary his condition was, but his partner was obviously the only one whom the naturally suspicious Russian believed would not lie to him for his own good.

"Sweet dreams," Napoleon replied.

Unable to sleep right away, he watched his partner's bandage-covered face until slumber eventually claimed him.

Some time later, Napoleon was awakened by a low moaning and his bedmate's tossing and thrashing about. Accustomed to awakening in many a strange bed, it took his disoriented, sleep-fogged mind a few moments to recognize the darkened bedroom as his partner's. Once he achieved that cognition, the rest of the circumstances snapped immediately into focus.

"Illya, wake up. It's just a dream," he soothed, reaching out for his tossing friend.

At his touch, Illya shot up into a sitting position, his body going still as stone, his head turning back and forth...trying to see his surroundings, Napoleon realized.

"It's all right, Illya," Napoleon gently assured. Sitting up himself, he carefully laid his hand on the nearest arm. "You're safe. It's just a dream."

"N-Napoleon?" Illya turned towards him, blindly reaching.

"Right here." He didn't think, simply acted, gathering the younger man tight to his chest.

His instincts proved correct. The hug seemed to be precisely what Illya needed. His partner clung to him almost desperately.

Breathing in the familiar Illya-scent, Napoleon rubbed the strong back, murmuring soft reassurances. Of its own accord, his right hand reached up to straighten the mussed blond hair, relishing the rabbit-soft strands as he patted the locks back in place, amazed that such a simple act would bring him pleasure.

"Forgive me, Napoleon," Illya shakily whispered a few moments later, his body stiffening as if he'd just realized to whom he was clinging so tightly.

Napoleon tightened his grip as the other man made to withdraw, sensing that Illya was pulling back merely for his benefit. "Relax a minute," he urged, not ready himself to let go yet.

"This is...too much of an imposition..." Illya muttered. His body was trying to squiggle away, but it seemed at war with the hands that still clung so urgently to Napoleon's back.

"Ssssh," Napoleon commanded, ready to let go if his partner were truly uncomfortable. But when Illya subsided almost meekly back against him, he knew that his first guess had been correct. Illya was just withdrawing for propriety's sake.

"It...it is always worst in the morning," Illya whispered. "When I open my eyes...and there is no light..."

Napoleon's arms tightened around his friend. "It's not morning yet. In fact, I don't think we've been asleep for more than a couple of hours."

The dismal "oh" was hardly encouraging. "I'm sorry," Illya apologized.

"Don't be. This is what I'm here for."

"You must...think me terribly weak. Afraid of the dark like some sniveling child," Illya remarked. The movement of Illya's jaw against his chest as he spoke was slightly ticklish.

"Never that, Illya. Anyone would be thrown by something like this. You're...quite possibly the bravest man I've ever met."

"I am currently clinging to you like a frightened toddler," Illya commented with such clinical detachment that Napoleon had to smile.

"And who was it who didn't want to let go?" Napoleon countered, allowing his hand to stroke down what little of the silky blond hair that wasn't tied down by that damn bandage.

"You didn't?" Illya questioned, sounding surprised.

"No. Everyone needs someone to hold onto occasionally. That doesn't make us weak, only human."

"Even you?"

Unable to understand his partner's incredulity, Napoleon assured, "Especially me. Why does that surprise you so?"

"I have never seen you...afraid of anything. Your...confidence never falters. Nor have I seen you require this type of...aid."

Napoleon looked down at the man in his arms, seeing only the sheen of pale hair at the top of Illya's head. The light filtering through the bedroom window had cast it a silver, eldritch color that seemed to glow of its own right.

Napoleon shook his head in affectionate exasperation at his friend's appraisal of his fearlessness. Illya, of all men, should know better than that. But, although Illya was wise beyond his years in so many ways, he could be as innocent as a babe when it came to such simple, emotional facts of life.

"That's not entirely true, Illya. Last year in that THRUSH cell you provided this kind of...aid to me yourself," Napoleon gently reminded.

"That was different. The cell was freezing and you were burning up with fever. Your life was at stake..."

"Illya, you rocked me in your arms and sang me to sleep. That had nothing to do with my illness and everything to do with my emotional need. We are both only human, for all our pretenses of invincibility. You've suffered a great trauma this past week. I know you, my friend. You've played this entire scene as cool as a cucumber, I'll bet, denying how frightening this experience has been in front of everyone from the hospital staff to Mark this morning, while inside, it's been tearing you apart," Napoleon guessed.

"As ever, your appraisal of the situation is faultless," Illya stated, trying to cover his vulnerability with sarcasm.

Despite the scathing tone, the fact that his partner hadn't withdrawn from his arms yet told its own story.

Napoleon rubbed at his partner's tense back, urging the hard muscles to relax.

"Oh, Napoleon..." Illya gave a jittery, shuddering exhalation as his resistance broke, his fingers twisting in the open pajama jacket which had been too tight for Napoleon to close.

Sensing that he was helping, Napoleon kept up the gentle rubbing. "Let's get comfortable, shall we?" he suggested sometime later, guiding his companion back down against the pillows.

"Napoleon, you don't have to..." Illya protested as Napoleon made to gather his partner back into his arms.

"I know that I don't have to. Humor me, okay?"

With remarkably little awkwardness, Illya settled his cheek against Napoleon's bare chest.

To his surprise, it was Napoleon himself who experienced the uneasiness. The warmth of hair, press of beard-stubbled chin on his bare skin, the weight of the leg thrown across his own and the arm that settled around his waist...the sensations played through his jaded system with all the subtlety of a lover's embrace.

Taking a deep breath, he shook off the strangeness and recommenced the back rub, allowing himself to drift off towards sleep as his exhausted body relaxed again.

Accustomed to operating of its own accord, Napoleon's hand carried on, roving lower, as was his usual custom, leaving the safe areas of solid muscle to skim the lower back, then dipping farther down to brush over his partner's flannel-covered butt. Napoleon wasn't thinking about his actions, just sleepily petting as was his habit when drifting off.

Illya gave a sibilant hiss on Napoleon's second such foray down his gently-rounded backside.

"Napoleon!" Illya gasped almost frantically.

"What?" He partially surfaced from that comfortable daze blanketing him.

"Please...I am...sensitive there," Illya stammered by way of explanation.

"Ticklish?" Napoleon questioned, sleepily amused by the concept of his super-cool partner having such a wonderfully normal weakness.

"No, sensitive." The correction ended in what sounded like a desperate whimper.

Abruptly awake again, Napoleon became simultaneously aware of two things: (1) that his hand was now resting almost possessively on Illya butt and (2) that his very male partner had gone rock hard, the unmistakable evidence of Illya's arousal now pressed demandingly against Napoleon's thigh.

Napoleon froze in belated, horrified recognition of what he'd done. He was accustomed to falling asleep with a sated woman drowsing in his arms. Over the years his body had learned to deliver these caressing, intimate massages and touches on auto-pilot. When he'd drifted off with Illya so warm and comfortable in his embrace, those same automatic impulses had kicked into play...his instincts blissfully oblivious to how inappropriate such actions were with his present company. It was no kind of an excuse, of course, but...

But why had Illya allowed it to go this far? Any other man would have shaken Napoleon awake the instant this had progressed beyond a comforting back rub. Or knocked Napoleon's teeth down his throat. Even completely blind, Illya was capable of doing some major damage to him. But Illya hadn't. Why?

It didn't take Napoleon long to figure out that his partner hadn't put a stop to it earlier because Illya probably hadn't recognized what was happening until far too late. Most men were accustomed to love play, knew their own erogenous zones as well as their lover's. But Illya...in the three years Napoleon had known him, he couldn't swear for certain that Illya had taken so much as a single woman to his bed. His partner's inexperience in these things was blatantly revealed by his current, unprecedented horror.

All these rationalizations were well and good, but Napoleon irritably cut off his ruminations, realizing that all his thinking wasn't doing a damn thing to extricate them from this embarrassing situation. His palm was still lying flat against Illya's ass, as if the territory belonged to him, and that steel-hard organ was still nudging his right thigh.

"For-forgive me, Napoleon..." Illya hoarsely pleaded, his raw terror obvious despite the bandages hiding half his face. "I...I..."

"It's my fault, Illya," Napoleon quickly assured, stunned. He'd never seen this man openly afraid of anything, least of all himself. "I started to drift off and...I guess I forgot whom I was with." He tried to restore some sense of calm to the tense situation.

But it was as if Napoleon hadn't spoken. The unabated dismay in that normally unperturbed tone cut right through him.

"I don't know why...what...Please, forgive this unpardonable..."

Well, Napoleon dismally acknowledged, he'd finally accomplished the impossible and cracked through his normally unflappable partner's cool, at a time when Illya was blind and utterly vulnerable to all attack. Great going, Napoleon, he thought, disgusted with himself.

"Illya!" Napoleon pulled back from the tempting warmth of that too-touchable backside, cupping his partner's face between his hands. "It's all right, Illya."

Concerned, Napoleon noticed his friend's erratic breathing. Unfortunately, it wasn't caused by arousal at this point. Illya's mortification at what he no doubt considered his body's unseemly response to Napoleon's touch bordered on unreasoning panic, or as close to it as the unemotional Russian could ever get.

Napoleon could almost see his partner cringing in expectation of his inevitable, violent reaction to this. Illya looked as if he were waiting for a blow.

All because a single touch went a bit too far.

Abruptly, Napoleon recognized that this explosive situation had the potential to destroy their partnership as no previous threat. If he handled this wrong, if he failed to defuse this scene, he could destroy their partnership forever. And possibly Illya as well. So much of his friend's self-image was drawn from that unshakable cool that Illya might never be able to live this down.

"Please, Napoleon, forgive..." the normally-articulate man practically stammered for what seemed the thousandth time, propping himself up on one elbow to put some space between them, his anxious, blindfolded face staring down to where he knew Napoleon to be.

Napoleon's rational mind able to offer no solutions, He gave up thinking and decided to trust his instincts. The first order of priorities was restoring the other man's calm.

Realizing that drastic situation called for drastic solutions, Napoleon purposefully reached out to brush his fingers over Illya's cheek in an unabashedly sensual stroke. He wasn't sure exactly what he was doing, but he knew that Illya would handle anger a lot better than his present mortification. "There's nothing to forgive," he whispered.

"N-Napoleon?"

Napoleon let his thumb glide over the tensed mouth. He'd expected a furious right cross. He watched in fascination as Illya's full lips parted in a soundless gasp. Their lower bodies were still pressed together, for all his partner's hasty withdrawal. The cock prodding Napoleon's side jerked in response.

That helpless reaction changed everything as Napoleon read the message his partner's body was sending him, finally realizing that Illya wasn't horrified and wanting out. To the contrary, Illya seemed terrified that Napoleon was going to discover just how much his aroused partner's body wanted to continue.

Illya's response made this a whole new ball game...a whole new ball game, indeed, the stunned Napoleon conceded.

But what to do about it, he wondered.

Basically, there were only two options, each entailing its own special set of consequences. Either they would follow through or not.

The latter choice was the saner, Napoleon knew. A speedy withdrawal, and they could both pretend this had never happened, try to carry on as normal. Only...he knew his Illya. The memory of this scene would eat away at his partner like slow-burning acid, eroding Illya's self-image until the day arrived when even the Ice King couldn't deny the shameful memories, and then Illya would be forced to leave or terminate their partnership.

The alternative was risky at best.

To make love to another man, even his partner...the very concept went against everything Napoleon had been taught. But he was nothing if not a sexual adventurer. His curiosity and libido had brought him into the most exotic women's beds with barely a breath of hesitation or second thought. Yet, they were always women. Every single one of them.

Napoleon had had opportunities to bed other men in his life, but always in the past, he'd turned away from that ultimate unknown. Even his courage had its limits.

However, this was Illya, more known and dearer to his heart than any woman he could recall sleeping with for a very long time. So, where Napoleon would have balked from such an encounter with a stranger, he hesitated to turn so quickly away from his partner. Such abrupt rejections cut deep and were hard to forget, and...he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to run from this encounter.

Illya Kuryakin was probably the only man on earth whom he'd trust enough to even consider sharing this with. And Napoleon would try almost anything to keep their partnership from falling apart, which would surely happen if he pulled back now.

The increase in his pulse and respiration seemed to promise that this could be so much more than a desperate ploy to save what they had. He was finding it increasingly difficult to draw breath. And the excited tingle running through his nerves was making it impossible to think clearly.

Napoleon felt his own penis harden, his body translating his nervous excitement into instant, painful arousal.

His erection settling the entire matter as far as Napoleon was concerned, he ran his thumb over those strangely sensuous lips once again to ensure that he had his partner's full attention before reiterating, "This is my fault, Illya."

"You...are not angry with me?" Illya asked between deep breaths, apparently doing his best to ignore Napoleon's fingertips as his partner continued to sensually outline the facial features below that masking bandage.

Napoleon shrugged, allowing a silky, playful tone to enter his voice. "Only at myself. Even half asleep I ought to have remembered where I was. I'm sorry. Only..."

"Only?" The question was followed by a distinct sigh as Napoleon's roving fingertips trailed over the sharp, blond bristles stubbling that stubborn jaw.

A deep breath and Napoleon took the plunge, risking everything in one reckless instant of total honesty. "Only it feels surprisingly good, doesn't it? Certainly no cause for remorse..."

He could almost feel Illya changing mental gears at that. Up to now his partner had been panicked and confused, his blindness leaving Illya unable to read Napoleon's intent. Napoleon's words had left no doubt as to his intentions.

Illya's pale hands, replete with their collection of varied cuts, bruises and burns, came up. After some blind groping, Illya caught hold of Napoleon's wrists and led his hands back from his bandaged face. Then Illya sat up.

Napoleon expected to be pushed roughly away, but his friend simply sat there, gripping his captured wrists tight as manacles.

"I am...at a marked disadvantage here, Napoleon. I cannot see your face."

"And I can't read your eyes," Napoleon reminded, noting with relief his partner's restored cool.

"What are you suggesting?" Illya demanded in his normal cold tone, only the strained edge to his voice indicating how much nervousness he was still suppressing.

Napoleon gulped, his mouth running dry as he looked up at that white masked face. If he answered this one question wrong, they were lost.

"That nothing has occurred for either of us to be...upset over. We can let what happened go, if you like. Chalk it up to an accident. I was careless and did something I wouldn't have done if fully awake. And, blind as you are at the moment, you're over-sensitive to touch of any kind. We can dismiss this as an accident and forget it ever happened or..." His rushed, anxious words were quelled under the unreadable hardness of that chiseled mouth and jaw.

"Or?"

Napoleon forced himself to follow through. "Or you can lie down here again and we'll find out just how good it can feel."

The silence which followed was absolute in both intensity and effect. It played along Napoleon's finely-stretched nerves like an electric current, building up static charge until he felt he'd explode from the tension of waiting.

"You are...quite a brilliant tactician," Illya remarked at last.

"What?" Napoleon started, this not at all what he expected. He'd been braced for his quiet partner to burst into a whirlwind of fury.

"To prevent me from, how do you say it, dying of embarrassment, you make this outré suggestion, which you know I must refuse. This places responsibility for this...uncomfortable situation fully upon your shoulders, allowing me to reject your bizarre offer and retain my dignity intact. It is a very noble gesture, Napoleon." A small, strangely sad smile quirked the corners of those full lips upwards for a moment.

Staring at that oddly vulnerable mouth, Napoleon couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to kiss the hardness from those sensually full pads. "Noble? Illya, don't be ridiculous. Do you really believe that I'd...offer my body to spare your feelings?"

"But isn't that precisely what you are doing now?" Illya snapped.

"No, of course not."

"Napoleon, your sexual appetites are renowned, but, surely, you cannot expect me to believe that even a man of...such prodigious needs as yourself would settle on me as...an any-port-in-the-storm option?"

"Is that what you think?" Napoleon whispered, unable to keep the hurt out of his voice.

"What else am I to believe, that you...want me? The very notion is absurd." Despite the icy tone of dismissal, Illya was still griping Napoleon's wrists like a lifeline.

Napoleon tried to concentrate on that one fact and ignore the cold front Illya was projecting. "Fifteen minutes ago, I probably would have agreed with you myself. The entire idea is ludicrous, sheer madness." His watchful, dark gaze caught how his partner bit his lower lip at this apparent confirmation of Illya's doubts. "Only...it doesn't feel ridiculous, Illya. It feels...strangely exciting, like something for which I've waited a very long time."

Illya started at that. "Have you...? Waited, I mean."

Napoleon gave a bemused shake of his head. Realizing that his companion couldn't see it, he answered, "No. The thought never even occurred to me until I awoke a few minutes ago and realized what I'd done to you. Holding you in my arms like that...it made me want things that I'd normally never even consider. You're my partner. I wouldn't lie to you about something this important just to save you embarrassment and...I'd never use you as any kind of substitute. Even were I so inclined, I would never do so while you were...disadvantaged this way."

He honestly didn't expect his words to have too much of an effect. Napoleon knew this man, knew his partner's stubborn determination. That iron will was what had made Waverly cast aside U.N.C.L.E.'s normally stringent height and weight requirements to take on this undersized whirlwind of results. Illya could freeze out an emotional confrontation so fast that the poor soul trying to deal with him would never even know how s/he came to be left behind in the glacier's wake.

So, Napoleon was stunned when he saw that tense jaw relax somewhat. "Napoleon...?"

Experienced enough to know when to press an advantage, he quietly beseeched, "Please, trust me just a little. If you don't like it, we can stop..."

"You truly desire...?" Illya doubtfully questioned, his tone betraying his incredulity.

Napoleon's reply was nonverbal and all the more effective for it. Without breaking the hold Illya had on his wrists, he moved them forward until his hands rested on the bony ribs on either side of his friend's chest. Illya ate like a horse, but you could still feel and even count by sight every one of Illya's ribs when he was shirtless.

Napoleon didn't waste any time counting now. Exerting the minimal amount of pressure, he began to draw his partner down on top of him.

"Napoleon, I can't see, can't judge..." his proud partner almost pleaded, seeming trapped between common sense and desire.

"Ssssh. Just trust your heart, my friend," Napoleon counseled, his heart pounding like a racehorse heading for the home stretch.

"The heart is so easily misled," Illya sadly protested, his entire body quaking as his hip settled back against Napoleon. "I don't know what this is...why you should want..."

Napoleon didn't have to work to free his hands from Illya's binding hold. As soon as he moved, they were immediately released. He raised them to frame his partner's face. Cupping either cheek, he gently drew Illya down into a kiss, showing his companion precisely what this was.

The act should have been awkward and clumsy in the extreme. Illya was blind and not his usual, graceful self. Whereas, Napoleon was never so aware of a companion in his life.

Illya was so male, so incontestably the same sex as Napoleon himself that he could barely draw breath for the strangeness of it all. Everything about the lithe, muscular body he guided down on top of himself betokened power and strength, equal to, or surpassing, his own. From the rough-bristled jaw to the hardness between Illya's legs, there wasn't an inch of his partner that would allow him to forget that this was another man he was embracing. And yet...

Somehow, it still felt good. More than good. It felt wonderful.

Illya's lips were hard and unyielding at first, the slender form tight with tension. But Napoleon kept right on kissing, working to woo a response that he knew might never come. He kept the pressure light and tender, careful not to force the issue.

And, slowly, amazingly, Napoleon felt the other man relax against him, the resistance melting away like April snows.

The guarded tension left the lips Napoleon was nuzzling, the sensuous pads becoming pliant, then responsive by turns. It was like watching a flower open up, he thought, encouraging the tentative response with nonverbal persuasion. He put his whole heart into that kiss, all the confused tenderness this self-reliant man aroused in him.

Napoleon was aware that he was a good kisser. Through the years, he'd perfected it to an art form, experience having taught him that once a woman allowed him to kiss her, there was rarely anything she would deny him thereafter.

But this was different tonight. It wasn't any show of technique motivated by the desire to manipulate his way into some unwilling female's bed. The awareness of just whom this was that he was seducing fizzled through Napoleon's blood like bubbles in fine champagne. This was Illya Kuryakin he held in his arms, the coldest, deadliest agent he'd ever encountered and...his truest friend. So much was at stake here, so very much that it almost terrified him to think of what this might cost him when the passion burned itself out.

Although, from the way he was feeling right now, Napoleon didn't think that they were in danger of burning this fire out any time soon. Every second seemed to increase his excitement, rather than sate it. His heart was racing, his pulse drumming in his ears as it normally would when approaching orgasm, and all this from a single kiss!

Napoleon was overwhelmed by his sense of his friend, how perfect Illya's weight felt snuggled up to him, the delightful texture of that silken hair as his fingers explored what they could reach around the bandage encircling Illya's head.

And, most of all, there was the scent of him, that fresh, clean, subtly musky-sweaty aroma that was special to Illya alone. Normally, Napoleon only experienced it in small doses when the action forced them close together. Now, it seemed to surround him, permeating his pores, leaving his senses reeling like some exotic aphrodisiac.

They carried on simply nuzzling at each other's lightly closed mouths until Napoleon's curiosity got the better of him and he poked his tongue out to see what would happen. He couldn't even believe that Illya had permitted him to go this far. As he recklessly probed between the sensuous lips, he fully expected his partner to pull back or come to his senses and sock him one.

Utterly thunderstruck, Napoleon felt those lips readily part. Then, he was sucked into the sweet, juicy depths of his partner's mouth.

Illya's tongue met his almost hesitantly, as if he were experiencing this for the very first time.

A slick caress, some tender dueling, and Napoleon felt as if he were drowning in that luscious mouth. Illya was so sweet, so giving...

He drank eagerly at that willing font, exploring every slick tooth and hidden recess before he pulled back at last.

"Oh, Napoleon..." Illya sighed as they parted. "So good..." His friend sounded stunned and more than a little breathless.

"You're...truly amazing," Napoleon throatily whispered, enchanted by the blush that stole through the pale cheeks.

"The...feeling is mutual," Illya admitted. His right hand reached out to tentatively explore each of Napoleon's facial features. As Illya's other hand stroked longingly through his short brown hair, Napoleon was reminded of another time, another place.

"Do you know what I remember most about last Christmas?" Napoleon smiled, giving the roving fingers a playful nip as they outlined his lips.

"No, what?" Illya sounded almost himself again, absorbed as he was with tactilely determining the particulars of the mole on Napoleon's left cheek. Although it wasn't quite a scientific investigation, the results were obviously equally satisfying to his curious partner.

"I remember the way you kept running your fingers through my filthy hair that night. Even half out of my head with fever, I could still recall how good it felt...feels..."

"You remember that?" Illya asked, seeming almost embarrassed.

Napoleon shrugged. "You so rarely touch me..."

"It's...not my way," Illya self-consciously explained.

"I know." He stroked the pale cheek beneath the fringe of bandage. "That's what made it so special. Like this is special now. Illya, can I...would you lie back and let me...?"

"Let you what?" Illya asked without a trace of nervousness, seeming merely curious.

"Will you allow me to touch you for real?"

By way of response, Illya rolled off him and lay back on his own side of the bed, his hand reaching blindly up to where he knew Napoleon to be.

Napoleon grasped the searching hand, pressing a near-reverent kiss onto the knuckle beside an angry-looking burn.

Unable to resist, he leaned in for another kiss, drinking deep of that scrumptious mouth. He dallied, sucking the full lower lip, moving down to give that strong jaw the same attention. He followed the line of bone up to the ear. Sticking out as it was from beneath that swath of bandage, the ear looked strangely exposed and vulnerable.

Illya gasped in a breath as Napoleon nuzzled the sensitive area behind his earlobe, moaning out loud as his tongue explored the tiny, bitter-flavored passage.

While his mouth kept busy at that silken neck, Napoleon's hands slipped over to deftly undo his partner's pajama jacket. Illya was smooth and sleek as snow there, virtually hairless. There were some fading, discolored bruises and a few nasty-looking scabs, no doubt souvenirs of his partner's recent brush with death, but otherwise Illya was faultless. His nipples lay adrift in that sea of whiteness like tiny pink rowboats.

If his life had depended upon it, Napoleon couldn't have resisted stroking that inviting expanse of chest.

It was so strange not to feel the fleshy softness of a woman's breast there, but running his palm over the flat, muscular surface, Napoleon decided there was quite a bit to be said about the appeal of this touchable warmth. Intrigued, he let his index finger explore the nub of nipple, grinning as it poked up almost instantly erect and hard as a pebble.

Illya's helpless gasp at that moment assured him that his friend was at least as sensitive here as any woman. In fact, now that Napoleon thought about it, his partner seemed delightfully responsive all over, not at all the icy, repressed block of stone Illya would have the world believe him to be.

His own breathing increasing at an alarming rate, Napoleon trailed hungry kisses down the long neck, over the muscular sternum to that tempting pink nub beneath his finger.

Illya cried out aloud as Napoleon's tongue tip made that first, tentative contact, his hips jerking upwards in helpless response. "Napoleon!"

Smiling as he worked, Napoleon flicked his tongue tip quickly back and forth around the bud of burgeoning pink flesh, sucking the nipple completely into his mouth as a series of delightful shudders convulsed his partner.

If asked beforehand, Napoleon would never have believed what an incredible turn- on doing this for his partner could be. Seeing this reserved man jerk, shudder, and moan at his slightest touch was a heady pleasure, like nothing his jaded mind could recall.

He didn't need to be told what a rare gift this was. Illya's every gasp and groan, the near-incredulous wonder with which he responded to each of Napoleon's caresses told him how long it had been since his solitary friend had trusted someone enough to allow this type of closeness.

Reluctantly, he released the tasty bud of flesh to give its twin equal attention. He took his time, sucking and licking the second nipple while his fingers glided down the concave stomach.

When he was done at the chest, Napoleon allowed his nuzzling mouth to follow his trailblazing fingers downwards. The dark navel proved too tempting to resist.

Illya appeared especially sensitive to oral stimulation. When Napoleon's tongue tip dared the shallow depression, Illya emitted these tiny, beseeching sounds of sheer animal pleasure that he would never have credited to his reserved, scientific partner. Those yearning sounds pierced Napoleon to the core, moving him in ways he would never have dreamed possible.

In fact, this entire encounter was affecting Napoleon quite strangely. He was taking an unusual degree of pleasure in this extended foreplay. Rather than seeing this as the usual means to an end, because, for the first time, he had no idea exactly where any of this was leading, Napoleon was enjoying each separate act for its own sake. On an instinctive level he sensed how starved for touch his partner was. It was no great hardship for him to indulge that need. In fact, giving Illya this joy was one of the greatest pleasures he'd experienced.

"You're delightful all over," Napoleon, always verbal during sex, declared, lifting his mouth from the saliva-slick belly button.

"Ahh...Napoleon...it feels wonderful," Illya sighed, his groping hands locating Napoleon's face, hungrily rubbing over his features.

His heated brown gaze questioningly sought out his partner's.

"What?" Illya worried, his sensitive fingers picking out Napoleon's resulting grimace.

"I keep forgetting those damn bandages," Napoleon groaned.

"They will be gone soon," Illya assured, his fingers gently soothing the frown from Napoleon's features.

"I just miss seeing your eyes. I hate having to voice everything..." Napoleon tried to stay irritated, but Illya's incredible fingers made the effort hopeless.

"Like what?"

"Huh?" Napoleon asked, totally distracted by the caressing hands.

"What do you hate to voice?"

"I was wondering if we could get rid of these?" Napoleon gave the elastic band of Illya's pajamas a tug.

"Mmmm...that would be a...logical progression." The smile Illya gave him was blindingly sweet, bright enough to burn away any of Napoleon's lingering hesitation.

Not needing an official invitation, Napoleon tugged his companion's flannel pants down, trying to curb his own urgency lest he frighten his blind partner with his ardor.

Napoleon found that he needn't have worried so. Illya's rosy shaft bobbed hungrily up at him once it was freed, confirming their mutual need.

The sight of that blood-rich flesh gave Napoleon pause, hammering home the uniqueness of this encounter, as well as the utter masculinity of his partner. Kissing and stroking, even sucking those flat nipples, the familiarity of the actions had made it possible for Napoleon to overlook the differences in his partner's body from those he was accustomed to caressing, but this...

Napoleon had never had an erection aimed at him before. It took some getting used to.

From an aesthetic point of view, Illya was damned pleasing. Well-endowed for a man of his slight stature, Illya's penis was a succulent, cherry red, the heavy balls below a bud pink, almost the same color as his nipples. The thick thatch of curls at the base of the organ was nearly a platinum blond. The snow-white skin of Illya's pale thighs and belly were a stark contrast to the detailed genitals.

"Napoleon? Is everything...all right?"

Hearing the uncertainty in that hesitant whisper, he was reminded once again that his partner couldn't see him, didn't know what was going on. Napoleon reached out with his left hand to give Illya's cheek a reassuring stroke.

"Sorry. You surprised me; that's all," he murmured.

"Surprised?" Now Illya sounded downright nervous.

"I...didn't expect you to be so beautiful...maybe I just didn't expect to think of you that way."

"Ah." Illya relaxed before asking almost coyly, "You think me beautiful?"

"I think you're exquisite," Napoleon corrected, loving the delighted laugh that earned him.

Gathering his courage, Napoleon took the final step and reached out to touch his partner's organ.

The feel of that moist, hard flesh was reassuringly similar to his own. He gathered his prize into his palm, relishing the steel-hard feel of him. Illya was ready, so excited...all from his own actions, Napoleon proudly realized.

As Napoleon tightened his grip, the shaft jerked in reaction, growing even larger.

"Ah, Napoleon." Illya sighed in open delight.

And all he'd done was touch him, Napoleon marveled.

Encouraged, Napoleon carefully explored the pulsing tower of need, very aware of his own organ rising to a similar state. His free hand slipped lower, charting the pliant, bouncy balls. Those were softer than living velvet beneath his wondering fingertips.

"Ah, Napoleon...yess...pleaaasssse..."

Hearing the raw need in that husky voice, Napoleon pumped the cock he held, knowing what his partner needed, working the balls below with the skill of long practice, on himself.

A sheen of sweat broke out on his panting partner's skin, Illya's vocalizations becoming less coherent, more frantic.

Seeing two beads of shiny preseminal fluid seep out of the uncircumcised cockhead, Napoleon used his thumb to carefully push back the foreskin. Being circumcised himself, it was a very odd experience. Drawn like a bee to honey, Napoleon's head lowered.

Curious and ridiculously nervous, his tongue peeked out to sample the shining drops of Illya's essence.

The salty flavor sizzled through him. Between the taste and musky scent he was lost, any inhibitions he might have entertained over this unusual act burned away in a burst of sheer, animal lust.

"Napoleon, n-nooo..." Illya cried out, sounding tortured as he roughly pushed Napoleon's head away from his groin.

"W-what? I couldn't have hurt you..." Napoleon protested, knowing how careful he'd been handling his partner. Illya's body had told him that there hadn't been any pain when he'd pushed back the foreskin, the only action he thought might have discomforted enough to cause this response.

"No, you didn't..." Illya panted, his open flannel pajama top clinging to his perspiration-soaked skin like a second epidermis.

"Then why..."

"You...don't have to...do that," Illya breathlessly explained. "I know you must find it...offensive..."

Napoleon bent forward to give Illya's open mouth a kiss, lingering until it had taken both their breaths away, his hands working Illya's shaft all the while.

"There's nothing about you that I find the least bit offensive," Napoleon declared when he withdrew several eternities later. "Your scent, your taste...the strangeness of feeling you harden in my hand...all these things excite me. Feel for yourself, if you've any doubts," Napoleon invited, taking Illya's right hand and guiding it to the erection poking through Napoleon's borrowed pajama bottoms.

Napoleon wasn't exactly sure what his friend's reaction to that forward move would be. A hasty withdrawal or timid exploration similar to his own recent discoveries topped the list of probabilities. Never did Napoleon anticipate the assurance with which Illya's burned hand unsnapped the fastenings and slipped between the folds of brown and white flannel to draw his aroused organ forth.

Napoleon gasped at the sensations that jolted through him at that touch, so sure and knowing. The pressure was perfect, not too much, but just enough of a squeeze to bring him to full and instant hardness. Try as he would, Napoleon couldn't detect even a shadow of uncertainty in his partner's approach. Completely blind, Illya was handling him as if it were something he did every day. The peculiar angle necessary to stroke another man's cock correctly didn't even seem unfamiliar to his friend.

"You are...most impressive, Napoleon," Illya murmured as he explored Napoleon's length, his other hand slipping below to expertly manipulate Napoleon's pink testicles.

Illya's throaty praise and the sheer, uncontestable skill of the hands pleasuring him brought Napoleon's heart to a thudding halt as he came to the shocking realization that this was not the first time his partner had handled another man this way.

"This isn't the first time you've done this, Illya; is it?" Napoleon carefully asked once his heart started pounding again, his entire universe turning askew at this startling discovery.

There was a lengthy pause before the fair, bandaged head shook a negative response. Illya's luscious, full mouth tensed as he whispered, "No, it's not." Then, after a silent pause when both agents froze in response, Illya quietly asked, "Do you wish to stop?" Illya sounded as if he expected complete and immediate withdrawal.

Napoleon stared at the enigmatic young man he was holding so intimately, aware that he'd never really known Illya at all, despite all their closeness. He was surprised by how much it hurt to think that his partner had never trusted him enough to confide in him about his sexuality. It suddenly seemed to Napoleon as if Illya had always worn a mask around him.

And right now, Illya was wearing a physical mask as well, one which prevented Napoleon from reading the true reason for that reticence.

When he could trust his voice, Napoleon asked in the most neutral tone he could manage, "Why didn't you ever...?"

"Tell you?" Illya finished with a bitter laugh, his hands releasing Napoleon's genitals as he pulled away from Napoleon's flesh as if burnt. "Really, Napoleon. Do you think this is something you'd ever want to hear?"

Not liking either the sarcastic tone or the pain he sensed hiding behind it, Napoleon tried to move past his own hurt feelings and shock. "You could've..."

"What?" Illya averted his face, as if all that gauze weren't enough of a shield to hide behind. "Told you that your partner's a walking security risk? Ended my career on the spot?"

"Is that what you think of me?" Napoleon asked, his tone deadly and subdued. When he received no immediate response, his anger grew hotter. "Is it?"

It was only as he felt the penis in his hand deflate that Napoleon realized he was even still holding his friend so intimately. He belatedly released the other man, noticing as he did how Illya's body had tensed as if in anticipation of a physical assault.

That being the last thing on his mind, Napoleon took a deep breath and forced his own muscles to release his anger. Now wasn't the time for recriminations. Illya was still in the dark, still vulnerable to all attack.

Napoleon was aware of his own control, his perfect diction. Illya probably couldn't tell from his tone how he truly felt about any of this. His partner had been accepting so much on trust that this was probably just too much for his reclusive friend to handle while blind.

"Illya..." Napoleon murmured, allowing the affection and exasperation he felt to filter through his voice as he used his free hand to stroke his partner's shrinking cock as if it were a small, frightened animal he held cradled in his palm and not a part of the deadliest man he'd ever encountered. "I guess I can figure out why you never got around to telling me, but...I'm here now, making love to you of my own free will. Surely, that has to count for something?"

In the heavy silence which followed, Napoleon could almost feel the nervous tension and anxious thoughts coursing through his partner.

At last Illya's body convulsed in a shudder and he gave a deep sigh. "Oh, Napoleon, if only you knew..."

"Knew what?" he encouraged, patting the shaft before transferring his hand upwards to cup Illya's right cheek.

"How often I've...longed to tell you. At first, I hesitated out of fear of losing my place in U.N.C.L.E., but then..."

"But then?" Napoleon prodded, rubbing his thumb over that tight mouth till the tension eased, communicating his need to understand the only way he knew how.

"But then the idea of losing your respect eclipsed even my desire to retain my position. At any rate, until tonight, it was not a relevant issue," Illya woodenly stated.

"How's that?"

"I have not...allowed myself such indulgences since I was assigned to Section Two," Illya said.

"Are you saying that you haven't...slept with anyone in over three years?" Napoleon inquired, appalled by the notion, understanding why his partner had gone off like a rocket when he'd touched him before.

"Do not sound so astonished, Napoleon. It was no great sacrifice," Illya confessed, his lower body moving restlessly out of Napoleon's grasp.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Napoleon admitted, resting his hand on Illya's pale hip lest Illya forget the intimacies of moments ago. "How could you not miss sex? You may fool the rest of the world, but I know that you're no iceberg."

"You must understand...what I left behind was not the type of encounter to which you are accustomed. Because of the nature of my...desires, there can be no public dining, no dancing, none of the romantic foreplay at which you excel. The world does not smile on such...liaisons. Not even in Paris, where I was first stationed."

"Illya, I've been to Paris. There are many establishments that cater to men...who prefer other men," Napoleon protested. "As there are here in New York."

"And a dozen different organizations surveillancing each of these places. How long do you think anyone in our business would last once they were observed frequenting such a place?"

"U.N.C.L.E. doesn't care who you sleep with. Hell, I've slept with THRUSH agents like Angelique and her ilk more times than..."

"Four times," Illya supplied.

"What?" Napoleon started.

"You have...spent the night with Angelique twice and two other THRUSH agents on separate occasions. U.N.C.L.E. may not care with whom we spend our nights, Napoleon, but they know."

Stunned, Napoleon didn't know what to say. He knew that U.N.C.L.E. was always aware of where its operatives were. Such surveillance was for the agent's protection as much as the agency's. Napoleon couldn't even count the number of times that security had intervened in planned abductions or arranged hasty rescues. Normally, he didn't resent their presence. However, it was unnerving to know just how well security was informed about his sex life.

"I suppose that you're going to tell me that they know how many times I did it each night and in what position," Napoleon testily snapped.

Illya gave a mirthless smile. "I try not to concern myself with such details, but it would not surprise me."

Napoleon digested that in silence. After a while, he gave up worrying about the issue. He'd known when he'd signed on with U.N.C.L.E. what the job entailed. "So, to get back to our original topic, you're saying that you couldn't afford to be seen in public...dating another man. What did you do? How did you manage? You're not about to tell me that you haven't had sex since you joined U.N.C.L.E. six years ago?"

"No, I am not that...strong. In Paris, there were men. They were always like myself, people who could not afford public exposure," Illya admitted.

"But don't you miss it?" Napoleon questioned, intrigued. A man turning his back on sex was as bizarre to his way of thinking as one who turned his back on breathing.

"There was little to miss, Napoleon. Furtive encounters in the dark with men too terrified to even entrust me with their first names."

"It sounds...terribly lonely, my friend," Napoleon gently commented, saddened by the grim picture Illya had painted of his past. He remembered how young the brilliant Russian had been when they were first partnered. Illya had been barely twenty-five years of age, but looked much younger. To think that his partner had been so disillusioned about one of the most vital of human requirements at that tender age was nothing short of heartbreaking. Napoleon simply could not imagine doing the job they did without sex to relieve the tension afterwards. Not for the first time, he wondered how his self- contained friend wound down after a hair-raising mission.

Illya shrugged at his comment about loneliness. "In time, I came to realize that such encounters were not what I wanted out of life."

"What do you want?" Napoleon asked, sensing that he was at long last beginning to understand what made his partner tick.

"I want...something with someone who will...cherish me in the dark, even if he cannot stand beside me in the light of day," Illya admitted in a wistful, subdued tone, sounding as if he believed his wish impossible. "In all those years, Napoleon, there was never even a shadow of the...tenderness you lavished upon me such a short time ago."

Tenderness? Napoleon guiltily thought.

Illya sounded as if Napoleon had given him the world before, when all he'd done was familiarize himself with his partner's body. If he were gentle in his explorations, it was only accidentally so. After a lifetime of loving women, he simply didn't know any other way to be with a sexual partner. He was highly aware of the fact that he hadn't brought his friend to orgasm, that his current verbal probing had, in fact, killed the other man's erection. Yet, Illya spoke as if that aborted encounter were the best to date.

If that were true...what must it have been like for him?

Napoleon's gaze unconsciously softened as it settled upon his young friend. Illya was so blindingly handsome, even with those damn bandages masking half his face. His partner was so bright, so earnest and honorable...He deserved the best of everything in life. Illya was made for sunlight and laughter, not for skulking in shadows and settling for sordid one night stands with strangers who cared nothing about him.

When he could trust his voice not to betray the tumultuous, protective emotions raging through him, Napoleon gruffly declared, "We're not finished yet. We've barely just begun."

"You...wish to continue?" Illya started.

"Don't sound so stunned," Napoleon said. "I told you how much I'm enjoying this."

"But I thought..."

"What?" he encouraged, stroking down Illya's cheek while his other hand reacquainted itself with more private areas.

"Nothing," Illya dismissed, his tone betraying his uncertainty as his tense body refused to respond to Napoleon's playful squeeze.

Guessing what was troubling his companion, Napoleon gently explained, "Illya, I asked those questions to better understand. For the first time since we met, I feel as though I'm finally meeting the real you."

"You are not...put off by what I've told you?" Illya whispered, the hushed question rife with incredulity.

"I've had my share of strangers in the dark, my friend," Napoleon confessed. "I'm in no position to throw stones."

"Napoleon..." Illya gasped as the shaft Napoleon held in his hand came to life.

"Yes?" Napoleon sighed in relief. For a few moments there, he'd thought he'd blown everything.

"Don't...be too good to me."

Totally mystified by the pleading request, the normally articulate Napoleon asked, "Huh?"

Illya's fingertips blindly roved Napoleon's face, each exploratory strum shivering along his nerves in excited bursts of pleasure.

"Make it easy for me to walk away from this in the morning," Illya quietly asked. "Please, for both our sakes."

How many times had he heard or given similar cautions himself, Napoleon wondered, though his own non-involvement requests had never been phrased quite so bluntly. It was normal procedure in all of his relationships to make it plain up front that he wasn't looking for commitment; that way, no one got hurt, including himself. No strings, no attachments...nothing but the pleasure of the moment.

But Illya was asking him to go even one step further than that, to shortchange him even on the pleasure.

It was a bizarre request, but Napoleon could guess why Illya made it. Once you'd given up on an impossible dream, there was nothing more bitter than a taste of what might have been.

If this were anyone else but his partner, Napoleon would have acquiesced to the request and kept things as simple as possible. But the idea of holding out on Illya, of denying his friend the sensual treats which he lavished upon even the most inconsequential of one night stands was unthinkable. Being this close to Illya, touching and holding him, stirred feelings inside him that Napoleon had never suspected he could feel. Those unusual emotions made him long to blanket his lonely friend with caring attention, to shower his partner with all the affection Illya deserved.

What was it Illya had said before, Napoleon wondered, trying to remember that heartbreaking line about what his solitary friend longed for in life.

Recalling the exact wording, Napoleon leaned in and stole a kiss from Illya, noting how his partner's trembling lips clung to his own, the way Illya's blindly-seeking hands pulled him closer and held him there.

"I'm sorry, Illya. I can't do that," Napoleon murmured as they parted.

"Do what?" Illya gasped as Napoleon's mouth left a trail of hungry, sucking kisses down the pale throat and chest.

"Make it easy to walk away. I don't want you walking away from me at all."

"Napoleon, what are you saying?"

Touched by the shaken whisper, Napoleon ran his tongue down that velvet-smooth chest and belly, kissing the soft, tender flesh beneath the navel as he explained, "That I intend to show you how...important you are to me."

Illya moaned deep in his throat, arching his hips up at Napoleon.

When Napoleon lightly stroked his fingertips over those athletic inner thighs, Illya gave an actual whimper, his legs parting wide as he thrust up at his him.

"I may not be the answer to anyone's dreams," Napoleon continued, sensing how his blindfolded friend was hanging on his every word, "but I can damn well cherish you in the dark. And you can bet your last ruble that I'll be right there beside you come the morning light." With that Napoleon sucked the other man's pulsing cock into his mouth.

Illya's cry of shocked, helpless delight hit Napoleon almost as hard as Illya's salty flavor. Adjusting fast to the unusual act, he ran his tongue over the sensitive crown, tickling and then pushing back the sexy foreskin while his partner's fingers raked and clawed the bedclothes under the delicious assault.

Knowing how to add to the pleasure, Napoleon gathered the tender sac below into his hand, loving their precious weight as he kneaded them with growing expertise.

A novice he might be, but obviously what Napoleon was doing was shatteringly effective. Illya's soft cries were back again, interrupted by harsh, panting breaths.

Gaining courage and a certain amount of confidence, Napoleon drew more of his partner's impressive length into his mouth and began sucking in earnest.

Illya's first thrust almost choked him, feeling like a fist trying to ram its way down his esophagus. Pulling back in instinctive reaction, Napoleon narrowly avoided scraping his teeth along the sensitive flesh.

"Easy there," Napoleon advised, steeling his jaw and nerves for another try.

"Napooooleooon...pleassse...ahh...yessss..." Illya hissed as Napoleon sucked him back in.

Feeling as if he were learning the basics all over again, Napoleon stumbled into a rhythm of sucking that seemed to satisfy his friend. His aching jaw felt like it had been jacked up and braced permanently open. Resisting the impulse to gag on that thrusting flesh took all his conscious effort.

It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination, but, in spite of the discomfort, Napoleon found the action oddly arousing. Illya's taste, his helpless cries of pleasure, his reserved partner's complete and utter abandonment was more than Napoleon could have dreamed possible.

Napoleon slipped his hands beneath the incredible, baby-soft butt to guide the increasingly wild thrusts as Illya's hands tangled painfully in his hair.

Unable to resist, Napoleon squeezed the mounds together, knowing as he did that he wanted this silken pleasure for his own for a long time to come. He wanted the right to touch, caress, suck and drive his reserved partner crazy with pleasure. Stunned, he realized that he very much wanted to make Illya his own.

"Ah...Napoleon, yesss...pleasse..."

It didn't last long after that.

Napoleon could almost feel the energy gathering in his partner's body, building towards explosion level.

"Napoleon, be careful. I'm..."

Napoleon felt the sacs pull up tight against Illya's body. With a final, deep thrust that he swore plunged his partner's shaft halfway to his stomach, Illya froze, suspended at that peak of experience.

Immediately thereafter, Napoleon felt the hot, pulsing streams of semen bathe the back of his throat. Illya's coming was like nothing he'd experienced. The fluid flooded his throat, seeping back up, bitter and salty as a mouthful of sea water, but thicker, far thicker than any sea Napoleon had swum, thicker and far more addictive.

Instinct made him want to spit that briny, bitter gift back out, but something stronger and less tangible made Napoleon swallow it down...not exactly an easy task with Illya still lodged in his mouth. But he managed it, somehow.

Overwhelmed by the realization of what he'd just done, unable to credit how much the entire experience had excited him, Napoleon continued to suck on his partner until Illya was empty, his partner's shaft soft and shrunken in his mouth. Only then did he release his prize.

He gave the deflated flesh a final, soft kiss, delighting in the tremor that ran the length of Illya's lithe body in response. The contented sigh Illya heaved at that point sounded as though it were torn from his very soul. "Oh, Napoleon..."

Wondering how this, his first and less-than-graceful try at fellatio had rated, Napoleon looked up at his companion's face.

Only to find that damnable mask of white gauze keeping him from Illya's eyes. He'd never dreamed he could miss anything as much as he did those crystal- clear pools of blue.

"What is it, Napoleon?" Illya breathlessly inquired, sounding troubled. The fingertips stroking almost reverently over his features were more adept at reading his emotions than Napoleon could conceive after only a few hours of practice. Did Illya really know him that well, that he could interpret expression with so little practice? Or did Illya feel his emotions through his fingertips, the way Napoleon had thought he could sense Illya's before?

Thinking that he saw something like nervousness playing over what he could see of the handsome Slavic face, Napoleon tried to swallow the sour aftertaste of his friend's coming and explained, "I hate those bandages, not being able to see your eyes."

Illya pensively fingered the mole on Napoleon's left cheek, his face still flushed in afterglow for all his current seriousness. "I, too, resent their presence. Accepting your participation in this entirely on faith is...most difficult for me, Napoleon. I don't even know if you...was it...very horrible for you?"

The genuine concern jolted Napoleon out of his childishness. "That isn't an adjective I would use to describe anything about you, except perhaps your icy temper," he purred, leaning in to kiss that troubled, pouty mouth, his highly aroused body kicking into overdrive.

Pleased, he felt his partner's tongue slip between his lips, Illya's absurdly slight form shuddering as they exchanged saliva.

"I can taste myself," Illya marveled. "The...flavor does not...repel you?"

Almost trembling with need, Napoleon searched for a diplomatic response that would not be an outright lie. "No doubt it's...an acquired taste," he distractedly admitted. "One I'd be most eager to pursue."

"Mmmmm..." Illya kissed him again, his skilled hand moving purposefully between them to explore the open front of Napoleon's pajama bottoms. "And what of you, my friend? What would you find pleasing?"

Napoleon gasped at the feel of that sweat-damp, hot palm surrounding him. Illya's voice was so openly affectionate, so...tender, his touch so perfect.

What wouldn't he find pleasing with this man, Napoleon absently wondered, literally dazzled by his partner's hidden sensuality. "I...don't know..."

Desperate, Napoleon rolled back on top of Illya, pushing his throbbing groin against his partner's soft genitals. Everything about Illya felt so wonderful.

Belatedly, Napoleon thought that his response might have been too aggressive, might overwhelm his blind companion.

Wanting to apologize, Napoleon lifted his face from where he'd buried it against Illya's snowy throat, the words stopped dead in his throat by the gentle smile curving those kiss-reddened lips upwards. He'd never seen quite that expression on his dour partner before. Although he could see the lower part of Illya's face, Napoleon would almost swear that Illya's features were glowing.

For all that Napoleon could tell, Illya might well be radiating light. God knew, the body beneath him felt hot as molten gold, and just as precious.

"Well," Illya commented a little breathlessly once he seemed to grow accustomed to Napoleon's weight, "what do you normally do at this point, Napoleon?"

Was Illya serious? It didn't take a genius to figure out what a man wanted at this point in the proceedings. Were this any woman, Napoleon would know what his next move should be, a very thorough possession of his companion.

But this was Illya, his very male, very blind partner. None of the old rules applied here.

Seeming to read the hunger in his silence, a tentative quality entered Illya's attitude. "Would you...care to come inside me?" Those strong thighs parted, allowing Napoleon's throbbing cock to fall between the parted legs as if to further illustrate Illya's offer.

Napoleon gasped at the feel of the hard-muscled thighs gripping either side of his hips, relishing the soft brush of golden hair that downed the legs' inner softness. Illya's flaccid organ nestled tight against Napoleon's lower belly, its curve just nudging the base of his own desperate cock, which was crushed between them.

The sensations alone were enough to send Napoleon over the edge. The idea of what his partner was offering him was almost too much to consider.

The thought of entering that pale flesh, of making this reserved man totally his own was all-consuming. Hot steamy images of the two of them tangled in that forbidden embrace flashed through Napoleon's mind, images of Illya on his knees with him pounding into him from behind or Illya flat on his back with his legs dangling over his shoulders as he thrust into that gripping tightness again and again and again...

"Ahh, Illya...Ahhhhh...!" Napoleon cried out as his body supernovaed, thrusting deep into the space between Illya's clamping thighs, Illya's strong hands gripping his butt, guiding his every move.

"That's the way. That's it, Napoleon. So good...so good..." Illya encouraged.

His climax seemed to go on forever, thundering through every inch of his nervous system like a battalion of charging cavalry. Napoleon was gripped in the ecstasy, trembling under its driving force as he shot stream after hot stream of ejaculate between his partner's legs.

Stunned by the intensity of the sensations swirling through him, Napoleon clung to his partner, struggling to recall a time when he'd felt this much, felt this tingling sense of aliveness. Lost in the feeling, he gasped in shallow hits of cool oxygen and clung to the slight form beneath him for dear life and sanity.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, Napoleon thought foggily. It wasn't supposed to feel this good. There hadn't even been any penetration. For that matter, nothing but Illya's hands had even touched his cock...yet, Napoleon felt more undulating against this self-contained, implacable man than he had while deep inside the most breathtakingly beautiful model.

With a final, ripping convulsion, his orgasm ended.

His senses adrift, Napoleon suddenly felt very naked and vulnerable, disassociated from all he'd known or believed about himself, terrified by the unfamiliar longings stirring within. It almost felt like something had broken inside him, something he desperately needed to protect him from the outside world.

Then Illya's hand was stroking down the sweat-soaked back of his pajama top, that sweet mouth blindly seeking out his own, reminding Napoleon that when his own strength wasn't sufficient, there was another who was always close by to catch him when he fell, to carry him through when he couldn't make it on his own.

Lost inside, Napoleon gave himself fully over to the sharing, taking what he needed from the other man's offered strength.

Illya held nothing back, allowing Napoleon to savagely claim his mouth, permitting the crushing embrace.

By slow, patient degrees, Illya gradually altered the tone of the kiss. Instead of challenging Napoleon's ruthless desperation head on, Illya seemed to take that desperate need into himself, gentling his urgency with his own non-judgmental acceptance. Illya's lips and hands calmed his frazzled nerves, transmitting an assurance that words could never convey in their clumsiness.

When Napoleon had initiated this near-angry kiss, it was almost as if he'd been trying to prove something to himself, or perhaps refute it. Slowly, Illya's tenderness tempered his desperation, showing him that he didn't have to deny what he was feeling, that he could find something lasting here in these sheltering arms, if only he had the courage to accept it.

Finally, their mouths parted.

Drained both physically and emotionally, Napoleon sank his head against the sensuous smoothness of his partner's chest, ridiculously grateful for the strong arms that snuggled him close. Not knowing what to say, he just lay there, waiting.

"I...fear that you were too good to me," Illya said at last, sounding almost afraid.

"This...may not be the wisest thing we've ever done," Napoleon concurred in a careful tone, understanding his companion's concern.

Everything was different now. Napoleon knew that he would never look at his partner again without remembering what had passed between them this night.

But that was not necessarily a bad thing.

Napoleon felt the emphatic wince Illya gave at his response. The arms cuddling him so close loosened, permitting him the option of sitting up or pulling back without having to break free of the embrace.

Here it was, the moment of decision. Napoleon knew that whatever he did now would set the stage for all of their future interaction.

The unconscious dread tightening his partner's body told him how Illya expected this scene to go.

For a second or two, a silent battle raged within Napoleon as he considered the consequences of the two paths open before him. Nestled safe in these loving arms, it was impossible to think clearly, to disassociate himself from the passion and figure out what would be best for them.

Needing to know how Illya felt about this, he pulled back far enough to see his partner's face.

The expression of loss which swept across Illya's lower features was quickly masked, his partner's mouth and jaw hardened in steely resolve.

Napoleon was bewildered by the reaction until he realized that Illya was bracing himself for a major rejection.

His insides twisting in guilt, Napoleon remembered that Illya couldn't see him, could judge only by words and touch. His pulling back like that must have been viewed as a withdrawal. After all, that would have been the sensible response to the dangerous emotions they were playing with here.

"You are right, of course," Illya covered, his voice almost, but not quite, controlled. "This was..."

"Incredible," Napoleon finished for him, bending down to plant a tender kiss on Illya's faintly quivering lips. "Something very special."

"But not wise to repeat," Illya replied, the faintest hint of a question in his statement.

Illya had gotten control of himself. Napoleon couldn't tell by his inflection where his partner really wanted to go with this. He knew what they both wanted in their hearts, but he was equally aware that that easily influenced, sentimental organ was not what ruled his partner's life. Illya's intellect would forever reign, and if his friend's mind had decided against this course, the cause was hopeless.

Damning Illya's impenetrable veneer, Napoleon teetered on the verge of sanity, of taking the easy path out and denying the significance of what had just passed between them.

Only, in the back of his mind, he could still hear that lost, lonely voice talking about wanting to be cherished. More than anything, Napoleon wanted to fill that need.

"Perhaps it is something we should...reserve for special occasions," Napoleon ventured, watching those masked features like a hawk for the slightest indication of Illya's true emotions. "For holidays and the like."

"Yes, for the holidays," Illya repeated in a dull, uninflected tone...the very emptiness of which revealed his desires to Napoleon's watchful gaze.

Suppressing the urge to crow in relief, Napoleon smiled and casually commented, "Illya, did I ever mention the fact that my family was Roman Catholic?"

Illya's carefully-set features creased with puzzlement. "No, you didn't, but what possible significance...?"

"My grandmother once told me that every day of the year was a holiday on their church calendar," Napoleon hesitantly offered, still not completely sure that he'd correctly interpreted his friend's true wishes.

The sunshine in the smile that spilled across Illya's face removed any lingering doubts.

"Napoleon?" Illya trembled, visibly on the brink of belief.

Gathering his companion into his arms, Napoleon convinced his doubtful partner with a kiss. "I'll be beside you in the daylight, Illya. Count on it."

"It...it won't be easy," Illya warned, his hands instinctively embracing Napoleon despite his caution. "Internal Security, THRUSH..."

"I'll throw them a smoke screen the likes of which they've never seen, my friend," Napoleon promised. "We'll make it work. Together." Napoleon could read the same uncertainties he'd experienced crossing those handsome features. "Say you want to try, Illya. Please?"

"You truly...desire this?" Illya questioned, his fingers roving Napoleon's face in incredulous wonder, as if trying to see with his fingertips the truth his bandages hid from him.

"I want you. And...I like us this way," Napoleon specified. "I don't know exactly the kind of man you've dreamed about these past few years," he said, hoping his lack of experience in these matters wouldn't be a deterrent, "but I'll do my best to..."

Feather-light fingers stilled his words. "Napoleon, you are the only man I've dreamed about...for a very long time."

Knowing the truth when he heard it, for all that he'd never suspected his partner felt this way, he felt humbled. His eyes squeezed shut as he hugged his friend closer, reeling under the emotions this unassuming man inspired within him. "We can make it work, Illya. I know we can."

Napoleon shivered as those sensual lips pressed a kiss against his bare sternum.

After a few minutes, Illya whispered, almost as if afraid of voicing his words too loud lest Fate overhear him and take issue with his declaration: "I am not a man of great faith, Napoleon, but...when you hold me like this...I can almost believe."

Napoleon could feel how much even that hesitant admission had cost his cautious partner. Illya's muscles had turned to steel, his embrace becoming nearly painfully tight, no doubt fearing that his honesty would cost him this intimacy.

"No more strangers in the night, my friend. From now on, it's you and I, daylight and laughter..."

"What of your ladies, Napoleon? How long before you grow...restless and move on?" Illya questioned, obviously trying to remind himself of all the reasons why this was not a wise idea. "Such...habits are not easily given up. For the sake of our working relationship, I can't afford to number among your romantic casualties."

The words hurt, even though Napoleon could understand the concern that motivated them. "Illya...this isn't like that," he stumbled at last, not sure he could explain precisely what this was.

"No?" Illya pulled back, almost as if to stare into his face, as if he'd forgotten the presence of his bandages.

Hearing the hope buried beneath the challenge, Napoleon struggled to explain. "Do you remember that first Christmas we spent together, when I told you why I...date so many different women?"

Some of the skepticism and hardness left Illya's guarded face at that. Blind, he reached out to stroke Napoleon's left cheek, the caress almost conciliatory. "I have not forgotten. You said that superficial was all you could handle."

Napoleon nodded, then took a chance on hearing some honesty he might not be able to accept. "Have I ever behaved as though I considered our partnership a superficial attachment?"

"Never," Illya replied without pause.

"You're already a permanent part of my life, Illya. For that reason, if nothing else, anything that passes between us is...serious. What we did here tonight...it felt different from anything I've known since...since Katie died," he admitted with difficulty. "I know my track record makes that somewhat hard to believe, but...you scare me as much as I do you."

"Scare you?" Illya repeated bemusedly, his feather-light touch on Napoleon's ear sending a series of helpless shivers through him.

"You're very good at freezing people out of your life, my friend. You always distance yourself from unwanted emotional encumbrances. You could cut me out, like a weed..." Even before this man, who knew his strengths and weaknesses better than Illya did his own, it was difficult for Napoleon to admit such fear.

Illya gulped loudly, his hands groping to frame Napoleon's face. "I could never cut you out. It would be easier to amputate my own heart."

Napoleon couldn't ever recall hearing such an open avowal of need from his reticent partner. Sentimentality of almost any kind was practically anathema to Illya.

Touched by the effort Illya was making to reassure him, Napoleon gently asked, "Can't you believe it's the same for me?"

The silence seemed to last an eternity.

Finally, Illya gave a faint, negative shake of his head, blinding Napoleon with the shimmer of silver streetlight reflected through its eldritch strands. "No, not yet, Napoleon. I am...not made that way. But I want to believe; truly, I do. It just takes..."

"Time," Napoleon completed, understanding better than he thought he would. Illya distrusted nothing so much as his own emotions. That his partner could even confess to wanting him at all was nothing short of a miracle. "Promise you'll give us that time, Illya, that you'll allow me to prove to you that it can work?"

"That much I can give you," Illya whispered, his very tone telling Napoleon that he wished he could offer more.

"That's more than enough, my friend, more than enough," Napoleon assured, gentling his visibly-nervous partner and guiding the anxious man into his arms for further convincing.

Feeling ridiculously optimistic about their chances for success, Napoleon kissed those sweet lips and settled them down for a long winter's sleep.

In his heart, he was certain that Illya's belief would strengthen as soon as those damned bandages were off and he could see for himself how serious Napoleon was about this commitment.

Until then, Napoleon knew he was just going to have to be patient. He knew his friend well enough to expect that tomorrow morning wouldn't be easy. The intensity of the emotions that had passed between them, the promises and declarations they'd both made...come morning his blinded partner would be skittish as a spooked stag. Napoleon himself wasn't certain how they'd work what they'd discovered in this bed into their daily lives come the light of day, but Napoleon was determined to die trying to make a place for it.

Something told him that as skeptical as Illya was about their chances for success, he still longed for this as much as he did. Maybe even more so.

As Alexander Waverly had learned years ago, Illya's steely resolve when coupled with Napoleon's innate resourcefulness and stubborn determination made an unbeatable team. Somehow, they'd find a way to make this work.

His arms heavy with his lover's drowsing weight, Napoleon followed his partner down into slumber, truly happy on Christmas Eve for the first time in eighteen years.

The End

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