How to Handle a Russian Tiger
I blinked calmly when Illya looked up from the mound of paperwork in which he was engrossed. He bristled, eyes turning glacial as our gazes met. It was my own fault, really. I was staring, unable to contain the smirk I'd worn since I'd made the discovery.
"What do you want?" he spat.
Ah, my angry Russian tiger. So sleek and powerful...and dangerous. If I didn't get rid of the smile soon I'd probably lose a few teeth. "Nothing," I answered, turning back to my own reports. But I couldn't quite force my lips to cooperate, so set were they on savoring this rare advantage.
The heat of Illya's gaze bored into the side of my face long after I'd focused my attention elsewhere. I ignored him as best I could, though knowing that he knew that I knew only seemed to feed my mirth. Yes, if I managed to come out of this one unscathed it would be a miracle.
Finally, he asked, "You find this very amusing, don't you?"
"I'm sorry?" I feigned ignorance, instantly regretting my decision as Illya shot out from behind his desk and stalked towards me, his chair skittering backward with a loud screech. My smirk wisely chose that moment to disappear, real fear knotting mischievous muscles.
Large hands which I'd seen kill without hesitation on numerous occasions slammed down heavily on my desk. My partner loomed over me, leaning down until we were almost nose to nose. "If you tell anyone, so help me, Napoleon, I will hurt you. Badly," he vowed, his voice as cold as I'd ever heard it. No idle threat, this; he meant business.
Imagine my surprise when my lips resumed their disobedience, curling upward until I could see molten lava churning in my partner's eyes. "It's really nothing to be embarrassed about, Illya," I said in my most placating tone. I meant it too, though that seemed to make little difference.
His jaw clenched, his whole body bracing for what surely would have been a devastating right hook if my phone hadn't started ringing just then. I flinched at the sound; he didn't. Typical.
"Solo here," I answered quickly. Illya continued to invade my personal space. I had to stretch the phone cord to its limits in order to hear, since every time I shifted, Illya shifted right along with me. "Ah, very good. I'll pick the file up a bit later. Yes, thank you, Grace."
I breathed in relief as Illya finally ended his intimidating stand. He headed back to his desk as I hung up, still glaring at me over his shoulder. Prudence is definitely a quality best exercised where Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin is concerned. If you're smart, that is. Which, of course, I'm not--not always, anyway. If I was, I would have let this whole thing go. But the danger of playing with something forbidden is sometimes just too appealing.
At least I had the presence of mind to avert my eyes when the smile crept back onto my face. I focused absently on the various papers cluttering my desk while I considered this morning's incident further. In hindsight, I don't believe it had been Illya's squirming that had distracted me while we'd been trying to extricate ourselves from the Thrush warehouse. I still could have gotten the knots untied; we'd been bound together, back to back, so no matter which way he'd shifted, my hands had had no choice but to follow. No, it had definitely been the sound he'd made, a choked cry caught somewhere between surprise and delight, which had sizzled along my nerve endings and brought my fingers to a momentary standstill. The contact had been incidental, of course, but curiosity had compelled me to experiment further until there'd been absolutely no question left in my mind.
Illya was ticklish.
And here Thrush had been beating him needlessly all these years. They had no idea the most effective torture didn't involve pain at all.
We'd managed to escape before any of the Thrush goons had returned, but for me, it had been a matter of trading one kind of danger for another the minute we'd cleared the back alley. Thank God my senses had already been on full alert or I'd never have seen the punch coming in time to dodge it. Apparently certain prickly Russians don't like to be tickled, especially while tied up.
Illya. Tied up...
I groaned--aloud, unfortunately--as a vivid image accompanied that thought, interrupting my recollection of the events. I risked taking a peek across the room; either Illya was ignoring me or he hadn't heard. He appeared to be hard at work, cross-checking the various departmental reports we'd been burdened with this month. I really should have been working too, but the urge to tease him further was almost irresistible.
"You don't like to be tickled, do you?" I asked, suddenly feeling bold. My desk was closer to the door; I could easily outrun him if I had to.
Illya looked up at me through those thick-rimmed reading glasses of his and scowled. "No, I do not," he insisted coolly. "It makes me vulnerable; such a loss of control is not pleasant."
"But the sensations are, aren't they?"
When the furious blush began to spread across Illya's face, I assumed my seductive purr had had the desired effect. I was wrong. He tore off his glasses and tossed them aside, quickly gathering a stack of reports together. "That is completely beside the point," he admonished. "I cannot believe we are even having this conversation!"
The genuine anger in his tone disarmed me instantly. I stared at him, shocked, as he stormed over to the file cabinets and yanked open one of the drawers.
"It is bad enough that you did not stop your tactile assault when I asked you to," he continued his tirade, "but now you insist on prolonging my humiliation."
The look he shot me was deadly. "What if Thrush had had remote cameras trained on us? You made me look weak during a mission, Napoleon. Worse yet, you made me feel weak."
I swallowed hard. I'd so completely misread my partner's response to the situation that I wasn't sure where to begin running damage control. Trying to repair a professional working relationship was one thing; trying to repair a professional working relationship that had a very new, very fragile personal relationship wrapped around it was an entirely different ball game. Bracing myself for another round of verbal artillery, I decided to try patching our foundation with the most reliable of all materials: honesty.
"I really didn't realize I'd made you so uncomfortable, moy droog," I said, approaching with caution. If he threw another punch though, I had no intention of ducking. I deserved it. "I'm not ticklish myself, and the few I've given such attentions to never reacted negatively. So, when you seemed to be enjoying yourself—" I trailed off, pausing. "Your words never fully registered, Illya. I'm so sorry."
His posture relaxed almost immediately, though that by no means indicated any forgiveness on his part. He broke eye contact when I finally joined him in front of the cabinets, staring instead at the pile of papers in his hands. We may have been standing side by side, but the large chasm between us was palpable.
I opened the file drawer adjacent to his and gestured tentatively toward the reports, knowing full well that he was tracking every move I made even if he wasn't looking directly at me. It was a small olive branch, but we had to start somewhere. Without a word, he handed me half of his stack, and together we commenced the tedious job of filing in uneasy silence.
We passed reports back and forth as needed for proper alphabetical placement, our familiarity making the interaction appear harmonious despite the tension. After many long minutes, I finally spoke. "Would you like to have dinner tonight?" It had been weeks since I'd even had to ask that question, but I wasn't about to presume anything where my lover was concerned. At least I hoped he was still my lover.
He answered without hesitation. "Where?"
"I have all the fixings for fettuccini Alfredo." Too presumptuous? It was his favorite.
"Mamma Leone's," he countered.
Neutral territory, then. The fact that he'd even agreed to go made me giddy with relief. "My treat."
Anyone else probably wouldn't have detected the hint of amusement that colored his response, but I did. That's when I knew everything was going to be just fine. While my partner could be irritable and contemptuous at times, he was not unreasonable.
I slid my side of the cabinet closed when the last N-Z report had been filed, and leaned against the cool metal, waiting patiently until Illya had finished as well. Those brilliant blue eyes finally focused on me; there was no warmth there, but neither was there any remaining glimmer of anger. I pursed my lips--a nervous habit of mine--before repeating my earlier apology. "I really am sorry."
His expression softened. "I know."
"Will you keep your fingers where they belong?" he asked, pushing his own drawer closed.
A small smile tugged at the corner of my mouth. "I, ah, may need a refresher on which areas are allowed, and which are off limits."
"I'll let you borrow the manual."
Perhaps manuals weren't such a bad idea. If everyone came with one, all the information needed to nurture a successful relationship would be up front from the beginning. No missteps or embarrassing questions; no making an ass out of one's self or accidentally hurting the one you love. But that would be all too easy. No, it was those awkward, uncomfortable moments, braved together, which truly allowed two people to forge a deeper bond.
Such an opportunity hummed between us now, charging the air with all kinds of glorious possibilities. "Save me some reading," I said, reaching out to him. My fingertips hovered just above his cheek, waiting. An almost imperceptible nod gave me the permission I needed.
His skin was as soft as fine silk, and I lingered, tracing cheekbone to chin, relearning each contour with shameless enthusiasm. Blue eyes gradually warmed as he watched me, offering silent encouragement. When my thumb finally nudged his lower lip, I leaned closer, whispering, "I'm sorry," once more. His lips parted, as if to speak, but when no sound emerged, I slid my thumb slowly back and forth across their soft fullness, teasing. "I'm sorry," I whispered again, this time in Italian, following it with another ardent apology in French. I whispered a litany of repentance in as many different languages as I knew, punctuating each phrase with a gentle, unhurried brush of my lips against his, until his breathing grew uneven and, in a sudden burst of energy, he finally fisted my suit coat and pulled me into a long, passionate kiss.
We were both trembling by the time we parted, and while I desperately wished for more private surroundings, I suspected it might be a little too soon for any further intimacy. Patience, I reminded myself; we had plenty of time.
Illya pulled my head down slightly so that he could rest his forehead against mine. "You are forgiven, Pasha," he said. His hand felt warm and comforting against the back of my neck.
"Are you sure?" I prodded, shifting a little so I could focus my gaze on his lips once more.
"Well, if you wish to continue apologizing, I will not stop you."
I moved to kiss him again, but stopped at the last second, pulling back. "Perhaps you won't, but someone else might. It isn't locked," I explained, tilting my head toward the door. We were, after all, still at headquarters.
"You're right, of course," Illya agreed. He took a step back and straightened my suit coat and tie as best he could. I tried to reciprocate, but he evaded my touch smoothly, playfully almost. "Do you have any dessert?"
The question caught me off-guard. "Dessert?"
"At your place," Illya clarified, making a show out of adjusting his own clothing.
I grinned. "I might."
"Then perhaps we could go there after dinner."
"If you'd like," I offered, deliberately leaving the choice up to him. I myself wanted nothing more than to skip dinner, haul my lover home, and ravish him until he forgot how to speak English, but for now I would follow his lead.
His expression changed then, turning decidedly mischievous. He was definitely up to something. "Illya," I said, my eyes narrowing.
He cocked his head, eyebrows arching in feigned innocence.
"I'm not ticklish," I reminded him, ignoring the strange mixture of sweet anticipation and dread which began to churn in the pit of my stomach. My Russian tiger was back in all his beautiful glory, effectively stalking me without ever making a move. And as I stood there watching, the most amazing thing happened, an event so rare that it inspired within me a sense of awe even as I considered just how sharp my lover's claws might actually be.
Slowly, and with just the right amount of predatory triumph, Illya smiled.