The Book-Scholar Affair
The Man from UNCLE and its characters are owned by someone else, we don't know exactly who, but no one is making any money off this story.
Note: The author of this story does have an email address listed at the archive, however he has extremely limited internet access so is unable to answer comments left. That doesn't mean he doesn't want to see them. :-)
Napoleon hardly ever saw the inside of Illya's apartment. Although curt and cool, his partner's impeccable good manners meant that the offer was sometimes made, but Illya changed residence more often than Napoleon took him up on it. And only when his curiosity overcome a more courteous reaction to an offer he knew was only rote politeness.
The interiors were always—utilitarian. Certainly the Russian indulged himself in the odd luxury, but his living quarters were stark. Nothing that looked particularly personal: no trophies or trinkets. No obvious stamp of a personality. Not even any favoured colour schemes.
"I will not be long. Help yourself to whatever," his partner said, as he vanished into the next room.
Illya had needed a change of clothes to replace the black rags of tee-shirt and jeans, which no longer served their purpose very well unless that purpose was to provide provocative glimpses of the toned musculature beneath. But—with the mission over—Illya could not pretend urgency enough to leave Napoleon out in the cold, and it was too cold for Napoleon to pretend he'd rather wait outside.
The refrigerator yielded a beer. He popped the cap, and drank from the bottle. It would be too great an intrusion to open either of the chilled bottles of vodka for a single shot.
He would have, once.
He would have last year, maybe even last month, but just as he had needed a better excuse not to come up to the apartment, he would not have felt at all comfortable presuming a right to his partner's vodka.
That discomfort would destroy their partnership.
Last month they had been closer than brothers. Unquestioning trust and self-confident banter a hallmark of their relationship. Now Napoleon self-censored every smart-alec remark, and analyzed the few words Illya still said—looking for clues to his mood, his feelings, to the change in him.
Beer in hand, Napoleon strolled across to the bookshelves. Illya's library. A strange mix of titles and languages that did betray some portion of his partner's inner life. Russian literature, textbooks, biography. He ran his hand along the volumes and paused, pulling out a half-kid bound French poetry collection.
He put down the beer and cracked the book. It fell open easily at the photograph of a young man. A familiar face. Napoleon stared, and then turned the page. Another familiar young man. And another. The pages were not printed—a bound blank journal with a fake cover—but Illya's neat hand was as legible as any typeface.
'Matthew Jackson. Brown hair. Brown eyes.' Each photograph was followed by lengthy notes on the individual. And notes about Napoleon.
"I'd rather you didn't read that." His partner's voice was colder than the December night. Napoleon wondered how he could have forgotten that Illya was unlikely to be more than minutes—he had been on borrowed time from the start.
"I'm sure you would. What am I reading?" He knew, at least in part. "Or maybe I should be asking—why am I reading this? Why did you—"
He glanced down at the pages he was turning: a picture of himself. He turned another page, and another, and there were notes, and pictures, and the few lines which caught his eye both chilled and thrilled.
"You are a master of deception, no one would believe the truth about you, even if I presented that book as evidence." The words were angry and yet meant to be comforting. Napoleon tore his eyes from the book and looked at his partner.
"Napoleon, that is a partial catalogue of your lovers. I concentrated on the males, because that is where the answer to my problem would lie." Illya turned away, moved to the kitchenette, cracked open one of the bottles of vodka and poured it into two glasses.
"You're..." he stopped himself from a real betrayal, giving voice to a mocking denial that was strangely automatic for words he'd never needed to say before.
"Infatuated." Illya brought him three fingers of vodka. Took the book from his hands and replaced it with the glass. "This," he waved the book, "was a foolish thing to do, but I did it anyway."
"I don't... infatuated?" Napoleon was not used to speechlessness. "The book."
Illya turned away, sat down on the couch and—uncharacteristically—put both feet up on the coffee table.
"A science project—what does Napoleon like that Illya hasn't got?" He flicked through the pages, a parade of photographs. "And it seems the answer is that Napoleon Solo doesn't like blond hair and blue eyes."
The shock was wearing off, Napoleon realized. He followed Illya to the couch. Ignored the 'don't touch' signals and sat beside him. "You've been so—glacial—lately, that when I saw those pictures, realized you knew. I thought maybe that was why, that you were disgusted."
Napoleon put his glass on the table, took Illya's from his hand.
"I am not your type." The Russian tried for a casual shrug, and was almost convincing. But then he was always the better actor, Napoleon conceded.
"There is only one blue-eyed blond I want, and any other would be a temptation to fantasy. Which would be—tacky."
"And Napoleon Solo is never tacky," Illya allowed, and for a moment there was the mocking sideways glance of old. "You have an impressive image to maintain."
"It's an effort, but noblesse oblige." Napoleon considered setting a hand on Illya's shoulder, but reconsidered and set it firmly on his thigh instead.
"I do not need comforting, or a consolation prize," Illya growled, but he would take them, Napoleon saw. He would take them and then their partnership would be over. There was far too much pride at work in the brain behind those sharp blue eyes for Illya to live well with accepting pity.
Napoleon took the book and set it by the glasses, subduing the twitch of lips which would have been a smile. Such an effort, Illya studying him, looking for an opening. Then he pictured his partner making those neat notes, deciding that he was inadequate, accepting defeat without a word. "I made my own study, Illya," he confessed. "Oddly enough it took very little in the way of payment to find out the real reason for your being sent to us and forgotten. Many of your compatriots are far less loyal to the motherland."
"And this is relevant how?" Defensive, and annoyed again. Napoleon did smile, and moved his hand a little higher.
"A superior officer made a pass at you, and you hospitalized him. They sent you abroad to a job where you could be useful but not reveal that particular secret to anyone who mattered."
"History—" Another shrug and then a long pause.
"I was hardly going to make a pass at you and risk my good looks." Napoleon filled that space, and closed the one between them.
"One can dislike being pawed by a man who bathes twice a year and not be... I am—discriminating."
Napoleon touched fingers to Illya's face, turned it, sent his hand on through short blond hair as he pressed a kiss against lips still slightly parted in wonder. A hand pushed against his chest, pushed him back, and for a moment Napoleon thought he would be rejected.
"And while I have been wondering why you did not want me..." There was a twist of wry humour that Napoleon revelled in. It had been too long, and he had missed that teasing tone so much.
"I've been avoiding the possibility of whispering your name into someone else's ear."
A rare smile, and then those lips pressed against his, demanding. A strong whipcord body turning his back against the couch, unhesitating hands ridding him of tie, and shirt and – Napoleon cursed his partner's love of turtlenecks. Unfastened button and zipper and faltered. Illya's busy hands stilled, he broke the kiss and waited.
"I—" Napoleon had put his life in those busy hands, and now he hoped that Illya would understand without words, the way words were seldom necessary between them.
"I will be gentle with you," Illya said, half a joke half deadly intent. Then he sobered. "I did say I studied what you like."
Napoleon smiled, grateful that there was no need to explain, no misunderstanding that could end in dissatisfaction. "Then what are we waiting for?" he challenged.
"Nothing." Illya took the moment to tug his sweater over his head and throw it aside. "But one day, my dear Napoleon, you will show me what it is you enjoy so much from what only a man can give you."