When Souls Collide
This is a fantasy about two people destined to meet and their first, pre-UNCLE encounter with each other as young men. Liberties have been taken regarding the time-line and both of the characters' histories. Recognised cannon has been completely disregarded and this story is, therefore, probably unsuitable for purists!
Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin!
Now, there was a name I hadn't heard in a long time. In fact, it was a time before I even knew UNCLE existed, a time before I had to worry about paying taxes, a time when danger was something that only happened to the hero on the silver screen.
And seven years later, here was I, Napoleon Solo, Section Two Chief in the aforementioned organisation. Taxes duly paid; danger a way of life.
When Mr. Waverley had first mentioned his name earlier this morning, I'd almost choked on my coffee: Illya Kuryakin. It was hardly a name to forget. But then, I thought, perhaps Illya Kuryakin was as common a name in the Soviet Union as John Smith was in the western world. My finely honed instincts, however, told me otherwise, leaving me with an odd mixture of anticipation and dread.
It was an eternity since I'd last seen him. Or at least it felt that way. Now, here he was standing before me in Waverley's office, no longer the youth I remembered but a grown man, and that seven year gap suddenly felt like a lifetime.
On being introduced, we reached across the small space separating us, shaking hands like total strangers. I remembered those hands intimately and avoided glancing down to see those delicate but strong fingers. Instead, I searched his gaze, looking for the warmth and fire I remembered from our encounter all that time ago, disappointed to be met with nothing but a cold frost.
We both turned and sat as our superior, Alexander Waverley, continued to brief us. I sneaked a glance at Illya's reflection in the glass panel fronting the computer on the wall opposite. His face still had that appearance of pubescent innocence that I knew to be a sham and, though his features remained youthful and unlined, his eyes, once mirthful and mischievous, now looked haunted and mistrustful.
What could have happened to him since then? The file I'd been given in preparation for this meeting had told me little, except that he had been back in the USSR for the past six years. As Waverley droned on about the need for back up on assignments and how Illya would be partnered to me for a trial period of six months, another part of my mind flew back to the more halcyon days of my youth, and my first, brief encounter with a boy who was forever to change my view on life.....
Spring semester had finished only three days earlier and already I was bored.
I'd driven Melanie home, glancing at my watch and wondering if I had enough time to drop by and see Steve before I went home. My best friend always demanded a progress report on my latest conquests. You know the sort of stuff; did she, didn't she, how far would she go and did she have an equally willing sister?
I'd pulled up outside her door and leaned over to give her a goodnight kiss. As keen as she had been in the first five minutes of our date, her tongue forced its way into my mouth and I obligingly sucked it in. I could still taste myself in her saliva. Then, at the tender age of twenty two - well almost twenty two - it hadn't been the first or best blow job I'd ever had, but it was certainly the most enthusiastic. And though I'm loath to brag, I'd been fortunate enough to be the willing recipient of several such encounters since I lost my virginity at the tender age of fifteen (to the Widow Brannigan, though that's another story).
Melanie and I smooched for another five or ten minutes as I sneaked the occasional glance at my watch behind her back. I'd decided to call it a night; it was getting late. Steve would have to wait until tomorrow for that report.
Consequently, it was almost midnight when I arrived home. Dad's bedroom light was on and I could here him moving around, so I tapped lightly on the door.
"Come in, son," he called. I pushed the door open and entered. His suitcase was open on the bed and half full with clothing - another work related outing!
Dad had sort of semi-retired from his law firm the previous year, leaving it in the capable hands of my elder brother, Nathaniel. Instead, he'd turned his attentions and his free time to giving legal advice to the underprivileged at the local Community Drop-In Centre. He still kept in touch, though, with some of his old clients, who adamantly refused to deal with anyone else.
I sat on the edge of the bed watching him pack. "Going somewhere nice?"
He pulled a few shirts from the wardrobe and carefully placed them in the suitcase, as fastidious with his clothes as mom had been. "I'm visiting an old client," he explained. "He's interested in some property in Acapulco and wants my advice. I'll only be gone a few days."
"Acapulco? Sound's like my kind of place," I said approvingly and with more than a subtle hint of interest.
Dad smiled, a rare occurrence these days since mom died a couple of years ago. "Actually, he lives on a privately owned island off the Keys."
I was only momentarily disappointed. Acapulco would have been nice. The Florida Keys was a pretty good runner up. "Want some company?" Dad always wanted company. I didn't really need to ask. However, I was surprised by his response.
"Why don't you stay home this time, son? I don't think there'll be much for you to do or see there. I've asked Maddie to call in and make you some dinner."
"I could catch some rays," I suggested. "I promise to stay out of your way. I won't be any trouble, honest." I could see him wavering. I resorted to child-like begging. "Please!"
A resigned sigh and a brief nod was his way of informing me I'd won. I jumped up, gave him a quick conciliatory hug and left to pack.
Impressive! Not just the fact that dad's client, Michael Bradley Elliott III, had provided transport in his own private helicopter, but the island itself. From the air, the first thing you noticed was the colour, provided in the form of shrubs and trees dotted about the island. Bright red hibiscus and glorious yellow rhododendrons had obviously taken quite a foothold on the hills leading up to a most impressive and stylish, architect designed house of considerable proportions.
We came down in a wide, lazy circle, passing over a fenced tennis court as we approached, to land on a large lawned area. Before we set down, I turned to my dad and asked, "Pop, do you think you could call me Leon while we're here? Napoleon's a bit of a mouthful." Years of teasing at school had made me uncomfortable with the full use of my rather unusual name. At college, most of my pals knew me only as Leon. For an old guy, Dad was pretty understanding. He smiled graciously and nodded.
On landing, we were greeted by a middle aged, English gentleman introducing himself as Gregory, Mr. Elliott's secretary, who led us up the winding pathway to the front door, where our host, dressed casually in light pants and open necked shirt, met us in person.
Michael Bradley Elliott III was a handsome, middle aged man, with a healthy looking complexion and just a hint of grey marring a full head of rich brown hair. He smiled broadly, showing a row of perfect white teeth as he enthusiastically shook hands with my father before turning his attention to me.
"And who's this, Anthony?" our host asked my father as he smiled in my direction.
"This is my son, Michael. You remember... Leon, though I think he was just in eighth grade the last time you met."
"Good Lord." He took my hand in a firm, two-handed grip, clasping rather than shaking. "My, my, how you've grown." He released my hand, waving us both through the door as he said. "He's a fine looking boy, Anthony. You should be proud."
As Gregory relieved us of our luggage, Michael and my father continued to talk, swapping a brief history of their lives since the last time they had seen each other. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to look around.
The large hall way was light and echoing, due mainly to the ornately tiled floor and expanse of space. Above us, a large glass and iron dome dominated the whole ceiling, allowing the brilliant sun to cascade in and light up the entire area.
As I turned about, taking in our surroundings, I could hear someone playing the piano in the background. I knew the music wasn't coming from a record player or a radio because it stopped suddenly, and I could hear the player repeating a particularly difficult piece two or three times until satisfied with its accuracy.
Michael and my father were moving away to a room on the left, and I hurried to catch up.
This room was as light as the entranceway, lit by floor to ceiling windows and filled with bright flowers and large, leafy plants. A plump, middle-aged woman busied about, laying out cups and saucers on an onyx-topped coffee table set between two matching sofas facing each other.
In the background, the piano player suddenly slipped from Debussy into a jazzy blues number I didn't recognise. At the change of musical pace, Michael rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. Turning towards the housekeeper, he said, "Greta, would you ask Nicholas to stop that infernal racket and join us for tea?"
"Yes, Mr Elliott." I saw her smile of amusement as she turned to walk away. Michael continued, explaining with an apologetic smile, "Nicholas is my ward. I insist he practice regularly, but he gets a little bored with the classics after a while. I must say, I find the current trend in popular music grinds a little on my nerves." The piano music stopped abruptly and after a few moments a slim, young blond male appeared in the doorway.
"Anthony, Leon, this is my ward, Nicholas," he said, introducing us to him. My eyes glanced over the petite frame; a bit on the short side and much too thin, with large, blue puppy-dog eyes that peered through a shaggy thatch of bright blond hair. I wondered if Michael gave him the same unwanted parental advice on haircuts as my father did. If so, it apparently went unheeded.
Attire-wise, he was more suitably dressed for the beach, wearing baggy shorts and a loose, white tee shirt. His bare feet slapped along the parquet flooring as he crossed over to us, formally shaking hands, first with my father, then with me.
Our host invited us to sit down, and his ward took the large chair by the fire, pulling up his legs and crossing them like a seasoned yogi. Michael walked over to the sofa, lightly batting him on the head with the papers in his hand as he past. "Nicholas, sit properly. We have company." The legs unfolded and the teenager's face turned towards me looking for support. I offered him a look of sympathy.
"Sorry, Anthony," Michael said. "He's been here for six months and I haven't quite managed to house-train him yet."
My father smiled knowingly. "Leon will be twenty two next week. He still hasn't managed to locate the laundry basket. Leaves all his clothes on the bedroom floor." It's an aggravating fact that adults, comfortably smug in their maturity, will talk over our heads as if we weren't there. I glanced towards Michael's ward. Nicholas was obviously disinterested in the conversation denigrating today's youth. He'd picked up a piece of paper from the top of the side table next to the chair and was busily folding it, first into squares and then into a more intricate shape. I watched, fascinated.
Michael and my father continued, talking about business as they exchanged folders of paper. "This is the surveyors report and a list of necessary repairs. Also, a list of house contents, local amenities, etc. The asking price seems a little excessive to me and they have...." I tuned Michael out, instead watching Nicholas' slim fingers fiddle with the paper. It was taking shape; a bird of some kind. He looked up at me, holding the paper bird aloft for me to see. He tugged a fold and the wings moved up and down. I grinned. "That's a fine looking duck," I teased.
"It's supposed to be a crane," he replied with a faint smile as he flicked the origami bird in my direction.
Michael stopped, distracted by his ward's fluttering hands. "I can see this business talk is riveting for you boys," he said with a smile. "Nicholas, why don't you show Leon around the place. Then perhaps we can get some peace."
Happily, the blond stood and swept his arm in the direction of the French doors, indicating that I should precede him. I inclined my head in acknowledgement and walked towards the terrace beyond.
As we passed through the doorway, Michael called, "Be back at six for dinner. Don't let me have to send Gregory to look for you again, Nicholas."
Nicholas rolled his eyes and waved a hand in acknowledgement without looking back. He tugged at my arm as he passed and pulled me along the path to the right.
With an air of boredom, he showed me around the tennis court and the swimming pool and the beautiful rose garden, completely unaffected by the opulence of the place. It was only as we passed beyond the carefully cultivated gardens and into the lightly wooded areas surrounding the property that he became more animated. I realised the decadence and splendour of Michael's home held no interest for him, in fact, seemed to make him uncomfortable. He was a nature boy, at home with the wilderness. With more enthusiasm, he walked me around the unattended areas of the island, showing me a jay's nest and its tiny, fluffy occupants; a strange rock formation, one large stone balanced precariously on top of another; a deep, cavernous hole that echoed when he shouted into it.
He was a strange one, this youth, but I took to him immediately. There was an instant connection between us, as though he'd been an old friend I just hadn't seen for a while. We chatted amiably, talking mostly about the island and myself, though he managed to give away no intimate details of his own. His accent was intriguing me, but each time I tried to find out more about his background, he somehow managed to steer the conversation in another direction.
We continued our walk, eventually exiting the wood. I could here the crashing waves of the sea and knew we were nearing the shoreline. "Nicholas, should we go so far? It's nearly 5.30 and Michael said we should be back for six."
"Oh, he always adds an hour on," he said with a careless shrug of bony shoulders. "He thinks it will make me more prompt." We walked down a narrow track winding between thick shrubs of gorse. As the slope got steeper, Nicholas moved faster, drawn, I suspect, by the smell of the ocean.
"Nicholas, wait!" I called, as the gap between us widened. He stopped, turning to wait. As I neared him, he folded his arms across his chest, studying the ground at his feet. As I approached, he looked up shyly and said, "Actually, Leon, my name isn't Nicholas. When we are alone, I would prefer it if you called me by my real name."
"Illya. Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin."
How very Russian. Of course, it also explained the accent, which I had been too polite to ask him about outright.
Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin. I repeated the name over in my mind as I smiled at his revelation. "Actually, my name isn't really Leon, it's... Napoleon." He smiled in amusement. "I got sick of the jokes...!" I said, pointedly. His smile disappeared. I shrugged, knowing it didn't need further explanation. I wondered why the hell was I telling him this anyway? As some kind of trade in confidence? Still, while my chosen nickname was a shortened version of my full name, his obviously was not. "Why does Michael call you Nicholas?" I asked, as we continued down the path towards the sea.
"If you noticed, he introduced me only as Nicholas, a derivation of my patronymic. He never mentions my real name. Michael hates people to know he harbours a Russian in his home." He flashed a quick smile in my direction. "Being a confirmed capitalist, it embarrasses him to explain why he keeps a communist as a pet."
"A pet?" I asked with amusement. But he didn't respond to my query, choosing, once again to redirect the conversation. "Anyway, what's wrong with Napoleon? I think it has a very noble ring to it. I shall call you Napoleon, if you don't mind."
I shrugged. "If you insist." That was fine with me. The epithet sounded different the way he pronounced it. His rich accent had an exotic feel to it, vibrating the vowels in my name with a strange sensuality. It was odd to suddenly realise I actually got pleasure from listening to him speak.
Eventually the brush ended and we walked out onto a rocky shore.
"This is my favourite place," he told me, breathing in the ozone deeply. "I love the sea. Once, I even thought about joining the navy." He turned about, scanning the horizon. "I come here a lot, for a bit of privacy."
The stones on the shore were large and mostly set close together. My companion hopped from rock to rock as surefooted as a mountain goat. I followed gingerly behind, until he stopped at the edge of a circle of larger stones that created a sort of lagoon within. The water inside the corral of rocks bobbed with the current, and I could see hundreds of tiny, silver fish darting about the sandy floor.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flurry of movement. My new friend was quickly stripping off his clothes, oblivious to my look of astonishment, as he gazed at the clear water with eager anticipation. "Coming for a swim?" he asked. I declined. I'd never had a fondness for being in water and my swimming skills were limited. He shoved his small pile of clothing into my arms. "Hold these for me, will you?" he asked without waiting for a reply. Completely naked, he dove in, sleek and uninhibited, staying beneath the waves to swim along the bottom and scattering the shoal of tiny fish in all directions. I sat down near the edge of the rock to watch him.
His lung capacity was incredible. Just as I was beginning to worry that he would run out of breath, he pushed up from the seabed and breached the surface like a wild dolphin. Wild, completely wild. This was a feral creature, domesticated only in the home - but out here, amongst the elements, his true nature took over. The pleasure he got from this freedom was almost palpable. It was there on his face, a broad grin of pleasure and eyes that sparked with delight.
I sat there on that rock, watching with rapt fascination. He took a lungful of air and dove down again, twisting and turning and swimming with as much ease and grace as the tiny silver fish that shared this domain. I saw him searching amongst the rocks, pulling something from the crevices and as he rose to the surface, I could see he had something in his hand. "What have you got there?" I called.
He tossed something blue and leggy in my lap and I pulled back, caught off guard. A small crayfish wriggled about, waving its long feelers at me in consternation.
"Something for your supper," he called, laughing at the look of disgust on my face.
"Thanks," I replied, picking it up by its tail and tossing it back to its natural elements, "but I think I'll stick to the tinned tuna."
He laughed at me again, but I didn't mind. His joy was infectious. I grinned helplessly as the little sprite splashed and turned about, performing a sort of water ballet for my benefit.
After a while, he reluctantly hauled himself out of the water, turning to sit on the rock in front of me. His legs still dangled in the sea as though he were unwilling to completely relinquish contact with it. I hadn't noticed before - but sitting so close with his back to me, it was difficult not to - several lines of scarring, quite old judging by the stretched skin, which ran along the top of his back. I scooted a little closer, reaching out to run a finger along one of the lines. "How did you get these?" I asked curiously.
He seemed unconcerned by my rude poking of his skin, dropping his head back to bask in the warm rays of the late afternoon sun. The soft wisp of his damp hair was incredibly silky as it brushed against my fingers. I pulled my hand away, oddly disconcerted.
"My father beat me with a horse whip when I was a child," he said, as casually as if he were discussing the weather.
"That's terrible," I said, aghast.
He shook his head. "I deserved it. I was a difficult, unruly boy." He turned to flash a quick grin in my direction. "Still am." Of that I had no doubt.
As usual, he said no more, unwilling to talk about himself, so I prompted him. "Tell me what happened."
He remained silent for a few more moments, perhaps deciding if he should give anything away. With a sigh, he spoke. "My family had a farm. One day, without permission, I took the plough horse out for a ride, galloped her through the countryside and brought her back lame. My father had to slaughter her. He was understandably angry. He took down the horse whip and thrashed me." He glanced over his shoulder at me. "We had a very difficult winter, that year. Very little food. And it was all my fault."
I couldn't imagine what that must have felt like for a child, the pain his young body must have endured. "That must have really hurt," I said lamely.
He shrugged. "It did, but it taught me a very valuable lesson."
"What? Never turn your back on someone with a big stick?"
He laughed at my attempt at humour. "No. If you do something wrong, don't get caught."
It was almost seven when we returned back to the house, entering through the rear into the kitchen. Greta was there, ruler of this domain, fussing over her stove with its bubbling pots and pans. Illya reached over to dip a finger into the sauce and Greta slapped his probing fingers away. "Here," she said, with mock severity as she pushed a boiled potato into his mouth. "Now get out of my kitchen. Dinner's almost ready." We walked out of the door and straight into Michael.
"Ah boys, there you are. I asked you to be back for six, Nicholas," Michael said, a little disgruntled.
"Have we missed dinner?" Illya asked rudely, knowing full well that we hadn't.
"No, it will be ready in ten minutes." Illya gave me a told-you-so look behind Michael's back and flinched slightly as Michael turned to reach out and finger his damp, blond hair. He tutted at his ward. "You've been swimming in the sea again," he said, with a hint of admonishment. "Go and take a shower, wash out the salt."
"Yes, master," I heard the young Russian mutter as he walked away.
Dinner was an entertaining affair. The cuisine was excellent and, had I been in a restaurant, I would have sent my compliments to the chef. Discourse at the table was fluid and relaxed. Illya appeared to know something about every topic that came up. Michael asked what I was studying at University and I told him my chosen subject was Philosophy. Illya promptly amazed me further by showing an extensive knowledge of philosophers and their works.
Originally, I had guessed him to be around seventeen or eighteen, but once engaged in serious discussion, he seemed to age ten years. It was hard to reconcile the child-like exuberance I witnessed earlier with this erudite being sitting across from me. His opinions on any topic raised were mature and sound. I could see my father was impressed with the youth, and Michael positively beamed with pride.
"Where did you two get to earlier?" Michael asked during a lull in conversation.
"I gave Napoleon the guided tour, like you asked," Illya replied.
"Napoleon?" Michael repeated, with a querying raise of an eyebrow.
"Ah, yes," I said, jumping in. "That's my full name."
"Oh." He glanced briefly in his ward's direction but the Russian's attention was on his plate. "Nicholas took you down to the sea," Michael stated. I nodded, though it didn't require an answer. "He's very fond of the water. Do you like the ocean, um, Napoleon?"
"I like it, but I don't like to be in it. I prefer to be on the deck of a boat. I love sailing. I'm on the college yachting team."
"Really? I have a boat, sometimes we go sailing. You must get Nicholas to show you our humble craft.
"Humble?" the blond snorted. He grinned at his benefactor. "Michael, that's like calling the Queen Mary a barge."
Our host laughed. "Well, it's not up to the Queen Mary's standards, but she is a very respectable vessel."
Conversation continued on a lighter note as I watched Illya, sitting across from me, shovelling food into his mouth in-between the gaps in talking. As he scooped the last of the duck onto his fork, Greta came over and refilled his plate without being asked. He smiled a quick thank-you in her direction and I saw her look of matronly pride at his obvious appreciation of her culinary skills.
It was almost fascinating to watch him eat. His hand to mouth co-ordination was faultless, rarely glancing at the plate but nevertheless hitting the food spot on with his fork each time. And the amount he consumed was astonishing. Curiosity got the better of me and I blurted out, "How do eat so much and stay so thin?"
My father shot me a look that said I was being rude. "I'm sorry," I said, apologetically.
Michael just laughed. "When I found him, Nicholas was homeless, living on the streets in Paris, half starved and, if possible, thinner than he is now. Personally, I believe he eats so much in an effort to catch up on the years of deprivation." He smiled paternally at his ward, affectionately ruffling the blond hair. "No matter what we feed him, he doesn't gain an ounce." He patted his own belly. "No justice in the world, eh, Anthony?"
After dinner, Michael and my father retired to the study to continue discussing business and Illya took me into the music room. A large Steinway took up one corner near the window and my companion promptly pulled out the stool and started to play.
"No jazz?" I asked, as he gently picked out the notes to Claire de Lune.
His eyebrow rose in mock horror. "And listen to a lecture from Michael about the need for peace while he's working? No thanks."
"Where did you learn to play?" I asked curiously. Somehow, it didn't seem practical to have kept a piano on a farm.
"My mother, she played. The old upright was the only luxury she had in a hard existence. She used to play late at night, after we'd all gone to bed. I'd fall asleep listening to her. I was a very imaginative child and in my mind her music would transport me to another world. It made me realise that there was more to life than planting beets. I wanted to travel, see the world." He stopped suddenly, as if realising he'd given too much of himself away. "What about you?"
"Didn't you have any childhood aspirations? You know, to be an astronaut, drive a train, save the world?"
I leant against the piano while I considered his question. "I wanted to be a doctor."
"Sure. I didn't quite aspire to saving the whole world but I did want to help people."
"So why didn't you? Study medicine, I mean."
"Didn't get the grades. Besides, mom died and it felt like the end of the world to me. I realised that even doctors couldn't save everyone." The memory of her death was still painful for me and melancholia was taking hold, so I changed the subject. "What about you? You obviously got your wish to travel."
He nodded. "I ran away from the farm when I was twelve. By fair means or foul - mostly foul - I made my way to Kiev and was picked up by the authorities."
"So, how did you end up in Paris?"
"Michael said he found you in Paris."
He nodded slightly and I glimpsed a flash of pain in his features as he recalled a memory. But the moment was so brief, and so quickly covered by a smile, that I thought, for a moment, perhaps I had imagined it.
"Like Michael said, I was homeless, living on the streets."
"But how did you come to be there? You're Russian. I thought it was difficult for your people leave the country?"
"There are ways." Another ill-defined answer. I had begun to learn that to get a response, I needed to be persistent. "What ways?"
He stopped playing, leaning forward to rest his arms along the top of the highly polished piano while he cast an appraising eye over me. Apparently deciding he could trust me, he said, "I worked for the government."
I regarded him sceptically. "Doing what?"
"Spying." Seeing my look of disbelief he, surprisingly, continued. "I would accompany a government official, posing as his son, visiting factories in various countries. I look a couple of years younger than I am, you see, and while people kept an eye on him, I was free from suspicion and able to wander." He continued to play, switching to Chopin.
Spying? I couldn't tell if he was teasing me, so I played along. "Didn't they ever catch you?"
"Once or twice. But that's why I was chosen for such work, my look of youthful innocence. People saw only what I wanted them to see, a pathetic, lost child." The music stopped so he could play out the scene for me, widening his eyes to make them bigger and more doleful. His face crumpled with a look of sincere remorse and his accent thickened considerably as he said in a pitiful voice, "I so sorry. I lost. I look for... mm... for wash room."
The credible scenario made me laugh. Yes, I could see that little-boy-lost act working quite effectively. "That's very convincing. Incidentally, just how old are you?" I asked, genuinely interested.
"Twenty. But then, during my more productive years, I was sixteen, seventeen."
"You know, you're right. You don't look your age."
"It has been a very useful tool in the past." He started playing again, fingers dancing idly over the ivories.
"So, now you've lost your wanderlust and settled down here," I said.
His playing slowed momentarily as his head shook. "Not settled. This is just temporary. I must leave soon. Perhaps I'll go to England," he said wistfully.
"Leave? How could you leave a place like this? This is paradise. Your own beautiful island. Swimming pool, tennis courts, servants to wait hand and foot on you and a wealthy benefactor who gives you anything you want. And it's not costing you a thing."
He stopped, turning to study my face, as if to measure my reaction. He appeared puzzled by my lack of understanding. Shaking his head, he asked, "Not costing me? Are you really as naive as you sound? You seemed a little more... worldly than that?"
"I don't understand."
He snorted in exaggerated amusement. "Why do you suppose a single, middle aged man would take a young man like myself into his home? To play happy families?"
My mind whizzed through the limited possibilities and came to one solitary, sordid conclusion. Stunned, I stammered out, "Y..you don't mean...? You and he...?" His impatient nod confirmed my assumption before I could finish. "But you're just a kid...."
"I'm twenty," he reminded me, defensively.
"Okay, your twenty! But he must be in his forties!" I said with disgust. "How could you?"
He shushed me as my outraged voice rose in pitch. Shrugging carelessly, he said, "A person has to live. I came to realise that in Paris."
"There have to be better ways of making a living other than...." I paused, almost saying the word `whoring'. Somehow, I didn't think he'd appreciate the adjective.
He eyed me pointedly, and a quick hand gesture indicated his fine surrounding. "Other than this?" he said, finishing my sentence for me.
Inexplicably, I still felt angry with him. "You're wasting your life. I entered University at twenty. You could do the same, I've seen your books, I've talked to you, you're smart."
"I am also penniless and Russian. I do not have a wealthy father to look out for me, I have no means of support."
"You could get a job..."
"Doing what? Washing dishes in a truck-stop steak house? I have no qualifications, no experience, only in this!"
Only in this? As a rent-boy, a rich man's catamite? He made it sound like a career. Perhaps, for him, it was. But he was too clever to waste his life this way. Suddenly my anger was aimed at Michael. "He makes me sick, it's disgusting! He's using you!"
"He feeds and clothes me, pays for my education. Anything I ask for, he provides. Who is using who?"
He was angered at my suggestion. "I only meant...."
"I know what you meant! Despite what you think, Michael is a kind man. He would never hurt me," he snapped.
I'd obviously hit a nerve. He abruptly stood, stalking over to the French windows and flinging them open, he walked outside onto the lawn and headed for the large ornate pond. I thumped my forehead with the heel of my hand. Idiot! I moved fast to catch up to him, anxious to make amends before this split between us got too wide. "Illya, wait a minute," I demanded, catching hold of his wrist and pulling him to a halt. He tried to pull away but I was having none of it. I hung on. "Damn it, hold still! Talk to me!"
When he turned towards me, his face was filled with anguish. "Do you think this was how I planned my life to be? To end up selling myself to pay for board and lodgings?" His eyes glittered with unshed tears and, embarrassed, he spun to leave. But he was still anchored by my grip.
"Let me go!" he demanded. I released his arm, forgetting I still held onto it.
He angrily stalked a few more steps, then slowed, as though he had run out of steam. I approached him cautiously, while he stood with his back to me, waiting until I caught up. Silently, we strolled together, side by side, beneath the enormous weeping willow, towards the pond. I patiently waited for him to speak, watching as he tossed assorted pebbles into the water. After a few moments, he seemed calmer, walking away to the shelter of the willow. Like a faithful puppy, I followed behind.
He stood by the tree, picking the flaking bits of bark off the trunk. "I'm sorry," he murmured.
"No, I'm sorry," I replied. "I was being insensitive. I have a bad habit of putting my mouth in motion before I put my brain in gear." I stepped closer, gently resting a hand on his shoulder. I felt him shiver and rubbed at the muscle, hoping to relax him. Settled, he turned, looking sheepishly down at the grass. "I don't know why I told you. I'm not usually so... trusting."
That small confession made my heart swell with pride. "Thanks, I'm honoured. Look, I know we hardly know each but I already regard you as a friend."
He looked up, startled. "Thank you. I've never had a real friend before." He looked thoughtful a moment. "Except, perhaps, Louise in Paris."
He nodded. "She was a waitress in a cafe and used to save me left-overs." His smile returned momentarily. "She always said I was too skinny and needed fattening up."
"Louise," I repeated. "Were you and she....?"
He looked puzzled for a moment at my suggestion, then laughed, heartily. It made me feel good, hearing that sound again. "No, no. Louise was seventy two. Her son owned the cafe, she helped out there at the weekend. She was quite a character." He started laughing again and I joined in, with the mental image of a wrinkly old lady and this smooth skinned youth together, in my head.
When we stopped, I asked curiously, "You didn't tell me how you ended up in Paris?"
"I was there on business," he said. Resigned to telling the tale, he continued. "One day, shortly after arriving in Paris with my superior, I slipped the leash and ran away. Unfortunately, I hadn't given much consideration as to how I was going to live. So, I resorted to begging and stealing." He leaned back against the tree trunk, his expression, once more, serious and reflective. "One day, I was caught by the owner of a shop taking a loaf of bread. After giving me a beating, he gave me a choice; he could call the police or I could pay for the loaf. I pointed out that if I had money, I would not be stealing his precious bread. He pointed out that there were other means by which I could pay." He turned his face away and I could almost feel the heat from the shame he felt. I stepped closer, an overwhelming desire to put my arms around his shoulders and comfort him, as inappropriate as it may seem. But I held back, knowing the contact would be unwanted.
With a deep, shuddering breath, he seemed to pull the tenuous parts of himself together. "And so you see, I began my illustrious career as a whore. It's so easy after the first few times. And I found I was rather good at it.
"Then one day, Michael walked up to me, ostensibly to ask for directions but I knew what he really wanted. He was a little shy, so I suggested that if he bought me a coffee I would take him wherever he wanted to go. He took me to his hotel room." He smiled at a private memory. "Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the most exclusive hotel in Paris. Anyway, he fed me and asked me to stay the night. I ended up staying for several. When he eventually left Paris, I left with him." His gaze returned to the ground. "He's been very kind to me."
"But if things are so good here, why are you thinking of leaving?"
"Because I must." He paused again, putting his thoughts in some sort of order. "In my country, you are taught to serve the state. You have no individuality, no freedom or freewill. Your future is decided for you by government bureaucrats." He ran slender fingers through his unkempt hair. "Things here are becoming awkward. Michael has become dependent, possessive. He hires tutors for me, buys my clothes, decides how I will spend my time." He sighed. "He has already mapped out my future; university, a tour of Europe, then a position in one of his companies." He pushed away from the support of the tree. "So you see, I have swapped one stifling institution for another."
"But you have to admit, not many institutions have their own swimming pool and tennis court?"
He turned reproachful eyes in my direction. "A cage is a cage, no matter that it is gilded." Then he walked away, and this time I let him, leaving me with my own confused thoughts.
That evening, after a late supper, I went to my room and sat outside on the balcony, determined to catch up on my private journal. Naturally, my notations were dominated by the Russian I'd met, wanting to record every detail and every nuance about the fascinating youth. I hesitated about writing the more personal details of our earlier conversation; they were firmly imprinted on my mind and didn't need putting down on paper for posterity. But it was difficult to find the words to describe his personality adequately, fluctuating as it did between fire and ice; one minute cool and aloof, the next minute warm and cordial. Like a chameleon, he changed the colour of his character depending on the company: with Michael, he was mature and serious; with Greta, he acted like a mischievous school boy; with Gregory, he was polite and considerate; and with me... well, what I saw was an odd blend of small boy and grown man. I wished I could look inside his mind and see the real Illya Kuryakin and not the false image he presented to the outside world.
I read over the paragraph I'd written and somehow it seemed trite, inadequate. I tore it from the journal and balled it up, leaving it on the tabletop with the intention of destroying it later. I started again, trying to pick out the hidden facets of the blond enigma as best I could.
A sudden gust of wind caught the balled up paper and rolled it off the table before I could stop it. It's progress along the building-wide balcony was halted at the end by a large laurel bush set in an equally large, ornate pot.
I put down my pen and chased after it. It had come to rest outside my new friend's bedroom. I stooped to pick up the lost page, glancing into his room as I did so. The bedside light was on and so was the light in the en-suite bathroom.
I started to shove the recalcitrant paper into my pocket and stopped, trapped in the shadows by the laurel, as the young berobed Russian padded from the bathroom back into the bedroom. I glanced at the distance to my own room and decided I wouldn't make it without him seeing me. So I watched, waiting for my opportunity to return back to my room.
He stood a moment, slipping the bathrobe from his shoulders and idly studying his nakedness in a full-length mirror. I imagined sadness in the pale face as the long, slender fingers of one hand reached up to stroke along his chest and down the flat plane of his stomach and on to his groin. Suddenly, his hand withdrew and he tossed the robe angrily across the top of the mirror, blotting out his reflection. I wondered, what did he see in himself to make him react that way? For, despite what he'd said earlier, there was a look of self-loathing in his eyes.
Still naked, he stretched out on the bed, staring up at the ceiling for a few minutes. I silently prayed he would turn away from the window so I could sneak back over to my side of the balcony before being discovered. Instead, he turned over, facing the window. His hand slid beneath the mattress and withdrew a magazine.
I was easily close enough to see the title of the publication and smiled in approval. Playboy. May issue, if I wasn't mistaken (no, my eyesight wasn't that good, I just recognised the cover).
After flicking through a few pages, he obviously found what he was looking for as, to my horror, his free hand moved down to caress himself, gently stroking a sizeable erection.
I turned and looked away. Voyeurism was one thing, but watching another male pleasure himself with such abandon was a different matter entirely. It made me uncomfortable.
I tightly closed my eyes but somehow the image seemed imprinted on my eyelids. I could still see those long slender fingers playing along the length of his shaft as delicately and efficiently as they played the piano. I kept my eyes closed for what seemed like an eternity. When I opened them, he was laid back against the pillows, sweat dampened and obviously satiated.
At last, he turned on his side, away from the window. Somehow, though, I still couldn't move. I was transfixed by the outline of his form, a series of sensual curves and dips, and the catlike stretch that he suddenly made, was oddly erotic. I felt an alarming stirring between my legs and groaned with embarrassment. Shaking some sense into my head, I quietly stole away, back to my room.
I was restless that night. The events and revelations of the day replayed constantly in my mind, regardless of my intention to ignore them.
I know Illya thought his argument sound, but how could he let himself be used this way? He was clever, articulate and, I suppose, handsome in a pretty sort of way. And also heterosexual, otherwise why would he have had the girlie magazines? Perhaps all the things he'd told me had been lies, to discredit Michael, for some reason. His fantastical stories earlier about spying for the government had seemed designed to shock me, one way or another. Perhaps, he was trying to goad a reaction from me. Yes, that was it, I decided. It simply wasn't true. Tomorrow, I would make him confess that it had all been a sick joke on his part, and I was a victim of his cruel games.
I decided to take a leak before making a concerted effort to sleep. I crept down the hallway to the bathroom and had just reached it, when the door to Michael's bedroom quietly opened. Illya's pale figure, dressed only in his robe - it was plain to see he wore no pyjamas beneath- slipped quietly into the hallway. I stood frozen in place with my hand on the bathroom door. He started a little when he turned and saw me, then carried on to his own room without glancing my way once, as though I were a figment of his imagination.
I continued into the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the bath for support. For some reason, my heart was thumping madly in my chest. Despite his prior admission, despite his explanation, I still found the evidence a shock to my system. At two in the morning, it was obvious why he had been in Michael's bedroom but it still stabbed at my heart like a stiletto blade.
After a few moments, I roused myself as my bladder reminded me of my reasons for being there. I used the toilet and returned to my room, my mind in turmoil. Sleep didn't come easy that night, I couldn't switch off my busy mind. I was confused as to why I should react this way. Part of me said it was none of my business and yet another part of me was jealous, angry.
How could this happen in so short a time? Already, I felt oddly protective of him, wanted to shield him from harm, though I knew he was in no danger. Michael obviously cared for him very much, I think, even loved him in his own slanted way.
Loved him. How? I found myself wondering over the mechanics of sex between two males. How did they pleasure each other?
I turned it over in my mind, keeping myself awake half way through the night and distracted through most of breakfast the next morning. I noticed Illya's appetite had waned this morning, too. So did Michael. He brought his hand up to the high forehead. "Nicholas, are you coming down with something? I've never known you to turn down Greta's pancakes."
"I'm fine," Illya said pulling away from Michael's touch. "I think it was something I ate last night," he said with a wickedness that made Michael look uncomfortable. He glanced at my father and myself. I pretended not to notice. My father didn't need to pretend; his attention was firmly on the stack on his plate.
"Nicholas," Michael said, suddenly feeling the need to change the topic of conversation, "why don't you show Napoleon the Persephone, this morning?"
Persephone? I mouthed in Illya's direction. Boat, he mouthed back in reply. "I'd like that," I said to Michael. He smiled, pleased, I think, that Illya had someone to distract him.
We both left our breakfasts half eaten and headed out towards the small inlet where the boathouse was located. He was strangely silent as we walked, and so I spoke first.
"I'm sorry if I embarrassed you last night." He glanced my way and I saw a light flush in his cheeks. "Wrong place at the wrong time."
"Is there ever a right time and a right place?" he asked.
"Depends who you're with and where you are," I said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood. It didn't seem to work. I slowed the pace, though the white clapboard boathouse was within sight. I lightly touched his arm to get his attention. "Illya? Hey, it's okay. I'm not judging you, it's really none of my business. It doesn't bother me, honest."
"Well, it bothers me," he replied, somewhat sulkily.
"Why?" I asked, genuinely wanting to know.
"Because." He paused, taking a steadying breath. "For some reason, it matters to me what you think."
I stopped, pulling him to a halt also. Our eyes locked, and I held his gaze, willing him to believe me. "What I think is that you're smart, and that you'll do what's right for you. I might not agree with your choice of...career," I said, pleased when he smiled. "But I'd defend to the death your right to choose it," I told him, paraphrasing Voltaire. His smile turned into a laugh.
"My chosen career," he repeated with a sad shake of his head. "You know the first time someone called me a whore, he ended up on his back. And not for the obvious reasons."
"Hope you broke his nose," I said, grinning.
"I knocked two teeth out." His good humour faded a little. "That was the first time I realised what I had truly become. Up to that point, I'd justified it as a necessity."
We reached the boathouse and entered the gloomy interior. The beautiful lines of the boat had suddenly become uninteresting to me. I was curious about Illya's life, and while he was feeling verbose, pressed for more information. "Your... clients, were they always men?"
He walked along the length of the boat, towards the shadows at the back of the boathouse, stretching out his arm to run a finger along the rail. "No. There were several middle-aged women, women passed the bloom of youth, women who liked a young man for company. It seems to bring out their mothering instincts, even during sex." He walked on to the bow of the boat and I trailed behind. "Men are different. The majority want to control, to dominate. Occasionally, they were violent, but on the whole, it wasn't too bad."
Homosexuality was a subject studiously avoided in conversation by my circle of friends, and it was odd that I should feel so comfortable discussing this with Illya. He had that effect on me, putting me at my ease. "I have to admit, I don't know how you could do it. You know, with another man."
I leaned back against a workbench as he regarded me curiously for a moment, his head tilted to one side. "Surely, only another male would know how best to please." He leaned a little nearer and his voice softened, almost to a whisper. "Just where to touch, how lightly or how hard to hold, how fast or how slow to stroke. When best to use the hand or the mouth. Just where to lick or what to suck. Whether to be on top or to be on the bottom."
How embarrassing. I could feel a tingling in my groin and realised his sensual rhetoric was having an effect I'd only experienced before with a willing woman. I crossed my legs, with difficulty, and hoped he wouldn't notice. I suspect he did, he smiled gently and stepped back, giving me breathing space.
"Michael," he continued, "is easy to please. In bed he does not participate, I do all the work. He keeps his eyes closed and pretends...." He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Perhaps, that he is with someone else. Perhaps he even imagines he's with a woman."
"Then why doesn't he have a woman?"
"Because he wants me. It is an emotional dichotomy for him. He wishes to be normal, but his nature demands otherwise. So he compromises. I give him what he needs while he pretends he is something else. All the while, he keeps his eyes closed, you see. There is little difference between a man and a woman if you close your eyes."
I smiled. "I'm pretty sure I could tell." I realised, as the last word left my mouth, it sounded like a challenge. I back-peddled hastily. "I mean, I just happen to like women."
"Do you like the women or the sex?"
"One's part of the other, surely?"
"Not necessarily. You'd be surprised how many heterosexual men are willing to overlook gender in favour of that briefest of pleasures, the orgasm."
"But a woman feels different," I argued. "She's soft and smooth, she smells sweet. And she doesn't need to shave," I added, trying to make light of it.
His head cocked to one side as he studied me with a curious look. He seemed to come to a decision, as he said, "Close your eyes."
"I will show you. You want to know, don't you?" I could see the dare in his expression and, boldly, I picked up the gauntlet. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, licking my lips nervously. For some reason, my mouth was suddenly parched and I found myself worrying about what I had eaten for lunch; chicken in a heavy garlic sauce. I forced myself still as I felt a whisper of breath against my chin. My hands began to shake - in anticipation or dread, I wasn't sure, but he must have noticed, because he stepped back and away from me.
"Why are you afraid of me?"
I must admit to feeling oddly disappointed at his withdrawal. I kept my eyes closed, hoping to draw him back, as I answered, "This is like standing on the edge of a cliff. I feel like you're asking me to jump and I don't know what will happen if I do."
I heard him laugh softly and I felt him come near again. "You'll either fall or fly. But you won't find out till you take that step." His breath was on my face again, his smooth cheek rubbing against mine. Vaguely, part of my mind wondered how he managed to get such a close shave.
I held still as his cheek slowly turned and I felt moist lips graze over the corner of my mouth to rest lightly on my lips. It was all I could do not to press forward. Lightly, his moist tongue slid sensually along my lower lip and my mouth parted, willing to take it in, but he pulled away a little. I could feel his smile as he leaned back in, kissing me in a series of short, light nips, sucking gently on my lower lip before covering my mouth entirely with his own in a deep, passionate kiss that made my heart beat at a worrying pace.
He was right. With your eyes closed, there was no difference. I could easily imagine this was a woman doing this to me. But it wasn't. It was another male; young, pretty and very self-assured. Of its own volition, my body pressed forward, seeking contact with his. What was it he'd said? Fall or Fly? It was a confusing mixture of both. I felt I was plummeting down, spiralling out of control into an unknown void. Yet, another part of me soared, relishing the freedom, the rush of air beneath outstretched arms.
My God, this was heaven. Just a kiss but unbelievably arousing, a heady combination of the exotic and erotic. I suddenly thought about the sermon Father Maguire had given me about sex, entitled: Forbidden fruits! I mentally flinched at the thought of the second word. It made me realise what was going on here. I had never, ever, considered doing this with someone of my own sex before. I had only ever been attracted to women. Therefore, I couldn't be homosexually inclined - could I? The tightness in my pants was apparently evidence to the contrary. But he was so different from any of my male friends. And when I was being honest with myself, I had to admit to being attracted to him. He was beautiful without being feminine, graceful but not unmasculine. Perhaps it was this strange dichotomy that attracted me to him. Slowly, he pulled away from the kiss and I opened my eyes, drawing in a shaky breath.
"There," he murmured, his eyes glittering in the gloom. "How was that?"
"Hot," I replied, leaving him to decide on my meaning. My temperature had risen considerably in the last few moments. I dragged a hand across my damp forehead and transferred the sweat to the seat of my pants. "It's getting warm in here," I informed him inanely.
"Mmm," he purred. "It could get even warmer, if you would like?" he offered as his gaze dropped to the rather obvious bulge in my pants. His fingers stroked along the waistband before coming to rest on the fastening. "Would you like me to take care of this for you?" he asked politely.
How could I refuse? I was still too young, too eager to explore all the facets of my sexuality. Since my very first experience with the widow Brannigan, sex had been like a narcotic to me. An ironic comparison, for while most of my friends in college experimented with the current vogue of recreational drugs, I found my highs elsewhere; in the beds of sophomores, with the greengrocer's wife, girls I met while cruising the mall. Hell, until she died of heart failure a couple of years previous, I'd still pay the occasional visit to the widow.
I glanced up at him, and unable to answer - my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth - I simply nodded my consent.
Without taking his eyes from mine, he deftly popped the button open and slid down the zip. It was hypnotic, his gaze. Those incredible eyes transfixed mine, as his hand slid down to release my to, to solid flesh. Gasping at the touch, I was reminded of his dexterity at the dining table - his faultless hand to mouth co-ordination. It was as though he knew the territory so well - and, if he was as experienced as he claimed, I suppose he did. I blanked that thought out, I didn't want to think about him doing this to someone else. I wanted it to be special. I wanted him to be like a virgin bride - chaste, pure, untouched by human hand. I knew that to be fantasy, of course, but at this moment in time I so wanted him to be just mine.
As he slid to his knees before me, my heart rate gathered speed at a worrying rate. As the soft warmth of his mouth enveloped me, I whined incoherently, barely able to gasp out the first syllable of his name. My eyes squeezed closed with the painful pleasure of it, but I forced them open, needing to watch, needing to know this was real. With my eyes closed, it could have been a woman, but I didn't want that fantasy. I wanted him.
How strange. This all felt so natural, as if discovering that this was the real me and everything else had merely been a rehearsal for this one encounter. Reverently, I rested my hands on his head, just as Father Maguire had done in church last month during the blessings. What would he say if he could see me now? Another sinner destined to burn in hell. And burn I did. Every nerve in my body was seared, every atom consumed until I was reduced to ashes, to be blown away by the soft, sweet breath of Illya's mouth.
Then I came, and the speed and intensity of it was so overwhelming, I didn't have time to warn him. Still, he didn't object, taking all that spilt from me and swallowing it down without a second's hesitation. I flinched as he cleaned up the overly sensitive head, like a cat cleaning her kittens. Then he slowly stood, and I all but collapsed against him. It took forever to come down from the high I'd reached. When I did, I realised I was gripping desperately onto him, my face buried into his neck. I loosened my grip, slipping my hands under his tee-shirt in a desperate need to have contact with his skin. "That was... incredible. Let me," I begged, trying to capture his mouth.
He avoided my lips, smiling at my neophytic eagerness. "You have never done this to another man before."
"No," I admitted. "But how hard could it be, if you'll pardon the pun?"
"Then, perhaps now is not the time," he said, kissing me quickly on the end of my nose before gently pushing me away from him.
"Why?" I asked, pulling him back, eager to kiss that tantalising white neck.
"Because your father and Michael are coming this way."
That calmly stated reply took all of a half second to sink in. In the heat of passion, I'd forgotten where we were. I glanced towards the open door and saw, to my horror, he was telling the truth. The two were heading this way, deep in conversation as they walked along the path. "Oh, God!" I tried hurriedly to pull up my zipper and tangled it in the cloth of my shorts. "Dammit!" Panicked, I wrestled with it till it came free and yanked the zipper home. Meanwhile, Illya leaned casually back against the workbench, his arms folded over his chest, a smile of amusement on his lips. He looked cool and calm, whereas I felt as though the word `Guilty!' was emblazoned across my forehead in flashing, neon lights.
It seemed wise to put a bit of distance between us. I quickly jumped aboard the boat, feigning interest in the steering wheel. I heard Illya laughing at my clumsy attempt at innocence and found myself joining in. He was right; it was an insanely ridiculous situation.
"Well, you both seem to be enjoying yourselves," my father stated ironically, as they walked through the door moments later. We must have sounded like two giggling school girls.
"Napoleon's been telling me about his camping adventures in Yellowstone." He lied so smoothly, even I believed it. "I was telling Nicholas about the trouble we had pitching the tent," I added. Funny how easily deceit came to me, too, but it was far more preferable than the truth.
"Oh, yes," my father replied with a smile. "I still say there was a page missing from that manual."
"I thought we might take the old girl out later," Michael said, patting the hull of the boat with a sailor's fondness. "What do you boys say? I'll ask Greta to pack some lunch, we can have a picnic out on the ocean wave."
"That would be nice," I told him.
And it was. I entered in to the spirit of things, throwing myself into the chores and tasks required for sailing. I felt invigorated, full of energy that badly needed burning off, and by the middle of the afternoon, reluctantly stopped for lunch. Greta did us proud, filling a picnic basket with an assortment of meats and salad, an excellent bottle of wine and fresh melon for afters. The afternoon passed quickly and we returned to the island just as the sun began to set.
After we moored, Illya struggled to pull the picnic basket down from the deck. I reached over to help, curling my hand over his to take the handle, but he seemed reluctant to release his hold. "Your hand's cold," I told him softly. He looked up at me, a slight flush to his cheeks. I leaned over and whispered, "I'll warm them up for you, later."
As I stood and turned, I noticed Michael watching us as he half listened to my father's unbroken rhetoric on the perils of insufficient accident insurance. He smiled uncertainly before turning his attention back to dad.
I had hoped to spend a bit of `quality' time with Illya that evening, but Michael insisted that we sit through some home movies he'd taken in the Seychelles last year. It was frustrating, being so close to Illya and yet not being able to touch. The evening was interminable, Michael's running dialogue just back ground noise as my thoughts were obsessively fixed on the body sitting just three feet from me. I'd never been so frustrated since the evening I spent wooing Jenny Bannister out of her bra, just to be foiled by the untimely arrival home of her parents.
In the flickering light cast by the movie projector, I risked a look at him, entranced by his profile: that aristocratic, straight nose, those incredibly long lashes and that pouty, rose hued mouth. Something stirred in me as I remembered my lips on that forbidden territory. Illya must have felt my gaze, for he turned and smiled shyly at me.
I suddenly realised Michael's dialogue had faltered and we both returned our attention to him. He was watching us, pausing to take a sip of brandy from his glass before continuing his verbal voyage.
Michael kept us up till midnight, regaling us with tales of his travels and exploits, and only stopped when my incessant yawning kept breaking into his stories.
So, we finally retired to bed. I consoled myself with the thought that we wouldn't be leaving till noon and had another half day on this island together.
I rose early the next day, keen and eager to be up and about. I had to see him again before we left. We only had a few more hours before we had to go so, after breakfast, I tore a page out of my journal and slipped a note under his bedroom door, asking him to meet me at the boathouse. Almost two hours went by and there was no sign of him. Impatiently, I sought him out, checking through the house first.
When I popped my head into the study, Michael was standing at the window, looking pensively over the gardens. "Hi, I was looking for Nicholas. Have you seen him?"
I saw his shoulders tense as I spoke. He turned towards me, a serious expression on his face. "I asked him to help Gregory clear some things out of the attic. Come in, Napoleon. Please close the door," Michael said, in that tone of voice my father sometimes used when I was in trouble.
I did as he requested. As I turned back towards him, I realised that I was indeed in trouble. I saw a slip of paper in Michael's hand, the ragged edge told me it was the page I had torn out of my journal.
He took a step towards me, holding it aloft. "What's the meaning of this note?" he demanded in a deceptively mild voice.
"Where did you get it?" I retorted.
"I went into Nicholas' room to retrieve a book. I found this on the floor." He took another step closer, reading from the page as he did. `"Illya," he quoted, stretching out the first syllable with obvious distaste, glancing up at me as he said it, "I must see you before I go. Can we meet somewhere private, in the boathouse at nine.'" He looked up at me. "Illya! Must see you? " The incriminating letter crumpled in his grip. This time he let his anger show. "I ask you again, what is the meaning of this letter?"
I shrugged, trying to act as though it was inconsequential, but I could feel an incriminating flush rise to my cheeks. "I just thought it would be nice to see him before I left."
"I wanted to talk to him. We've become good friends."
"How good?" he snapped. I didn't like the insinuation in his question, even if his assumption was correct. I shrugged, trying to act casual, trying to think of a reply that would satisfy. "Look, I don't see what the problem is. I just wanted to say goodbye." My answer was lame and the damage was done, I could tell by the hurt in his eyes, could see his mind sifting through the evidence. We'd spent most of the last couple of days without a chaperone and in each other's company. Apparently, confidences had been exchanged, but what else? My little note did have a tone of desperation, of need, to it.
I tried to look away from his searching gaze but it was as though he could read my mind. I heard him whisper forlornly, "Oh, God." I couldn't keep the shame from my face. I ducked my head, studying the floor, trying to avoid his stare.
If anyone ever had bad timing, it was Illya at that point, as he walked through the door. Immediately sensing something was wrong, he raised a querying eyebrow in my direction.
I felt I should explain. "Michael found a note I left you. I thought, maybe, you and I could...."
"I'm afraid Nicholas has some work to do," Michael interrupted. "He promised to translate some documents for me."
Illya frowned and started to object. "I can start that tomorrow. Napoleon leaves in a few hours...."
"I really think you should concentrate on your work. You can see him off when it's time for him to leave. Please go to your room!"
Illya's eyes narrowed angrily on Michael, and for the second time in as many days, I caught a glimpse of that semi-wild creature, straining against the leash of captivity. He didn't move a muscle, except for the fingertips rubbing against the thumb of each hand.
I tried to diffuse the tension. "Illya, it doesn't matter..."
"Stay out of this! This is none of your business," he snapped in my direction. He was right. I held my tongue.
Michael sensed impending trouble and in a softly pleading voice, asked, "Please, Nicholas. We'll talk about this later."
"No, we'll talk about it now. This charade has gone too far, Michael. You are neither my keeper nor my guardian."
That statement angered Michael. "No," he retorted, moving to within a couple of feet of the young Russian. "But you are a guest here. And while you are under my roof and I pay your bills, I expect a little obedience from you," he said tightly.
"You may expect obedience from a pet dog or a servant. I am neither," Illya hissed.
Michael bristled. I stepped back, out of the line of sight, as the pair squared off to each other. I was forgotten as tempers suddenly ignited and flared, hot and volatile. I turned my back, feeling like a voyeur. With the two of them between me and the door, I felt trapped. Instead I gazed out of the window, attempting to make myself invisible.
"I'd like to know what's been going on between the two of you."
"Would you, Michael? I think it's none of your damned business."
"Then you don't deny that something has occurred!"
"I deny nothing!"
Michael's voice rose in pitch. "You are no longer on the streets of Paris, Nicholas! I won't tolerate you behaving like a slut in my house!"
"You seem perfectly happy for me to behave that way in your bed!"
Slap! I spun around at the sound of flesh connecting hard with flesh, in time to see Illya rubbing at the side of his face. Michael looked horrified by his actions. "Oh God, Nicholas, I'm so sorry." He reached out, attempting to offer comfort but his hand was slapped away.
"Don't touch me!"
"Don't call me that! My name is Illya!" He turned and all but ran out of the door.
I wanted to move after him but felt trapped where I was. I started to edge towards the door and Michael's head snapped in my direction, freezing me to the spot. But his gaze was no longer accusatory. It was defeated, the look a man gets when he realises he's come to the end of his options. Wearily, he sank down into the study chair.
"This wasn't totally unexpected, you know," he muttered sadly, his forehead resting in his hands. "He's been restless for weeks." He appeared to be talking to himself. I stayed where I was, feeling sympathy and a little guilt. After all, I was the catalyst for this confrontation and I knew, with certainty, that this was the beginning of the end for them both. And Michael did, too.
"I was happy when your father asked if he could bring you along." Heartsick, he looked up at me. "I thought it would please him, you see, to be with someone his own age." He gave a small laugh, thick with irony. "How right I was." I shifted from foot to foot as he regarded me with sad eyes, his shoulders slumped with defeat. "I'm not blaming you, not really. I'm sorry you got dragged into this, truly I am."
Wrong time, wrong place, I thought, echoing an earlier sentiment. But it wasn't wrong. I'm glad I was here, now. If not, perhaps we would never have met.
"You shouldn't blame him, either. He's just a boy," I pointed out. It must have hit a tender spot. Michael's face looked pained.
"I know." He gave me a wan smile. "When we met, he looked so thin, so pitiful. My heart went out to him. I wanted to take care of him. Give him what he needs."
"What he needs is to be amongst people, not stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere." I don't know what had made me so verbose. Illya wasn't here and I felt I should act in his defence. "Look, Michael, I know he's fond of you, but you're not doing him any favours keeping him here. He's too bright, too vibrant. He needs intellectual stimulation. This whole situation, this scenario... it's your fantasy, your make-believe world. He participates because he thinks it's what you want. And that's what he's really here for, isn't it? To please you?"
"No!" he denied. "You don't understand. I love him."
"If you loved him, you'd let him go, not keep him caged up here. He'll stagnate. He needs to be free."
I waited for him to speak, watching him mentally process the things I'd said. Finally, he stood, smoothing his hair into place and straightening his jumper with a tug at the hem. "You're right, of course." He looked at me. "Perhaps you should go and talk to him," he suggested. "Tell him how sorry I am." His voice tapered off to a whisper, hoarse with emotion. Unable to speak further, I simply nodded and left.
I went upstairs and tapped on Illya's bedroom door but got no reply. Uninvited, I slowly pushed the door open, finding him sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to me. I walked into the room and rounded the bed to face him.
"Hi," I said lamely.
"You shouldn't be in here," he told me, without looking up.
"Michael asked me to come, he wanted to me to tell you how sorry he was."
He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "I know. I know he is." He looked at me as I sat beside him on the bed. "He's never hit me before. I must have made him very angry."
I sat down beside him. "He's just scared, because he knows he's losing you." I reached out my hand, resting it on top of his.
"I didn't intend things to go this far, to stay this long. It was only meant to be a stopgap. Now I have to leave. The sooner the better, don't you think?"
I nodded in agreement. "Where will you go?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. Some place big. A large metropolis, where one can disappear...."
Disappear? I wondered from whom. "Well, the world's your oyster. I just wish...." What did I wish? What was I going to say? I wanted him to leave this place but I didn't want him to disappear out of my life for ever. Not when I'd just found him. "I wish we'd met somewhere else, under other circumstances."
He looked up at me and smiled. "Me too." Then he stood and moved over to the window and staring out into the bright day. "Michael's down there, sitting by the pond. I'll go and talk to him." As he turned and stopped before me, I leaned forward and kissed him. It was a chaste kiss, the sort exchanged between friends. He carressed my face and smiled before walking out of the door. I walked over to the window, compelled to watch. Michael was sitting, shoulders hunched, on the bench overlooking the pond. I felt sorry for him, knowing what was to come.
I stayed there as Illya's figure came into view. When Michael saw the blond approach, he stood, a deep breath shuddered through him, like a man awaiting execution. They stood for a few minutes as Illya talked. I knew when the fatal blow had been delivered. Michael's face filled with despair and his legs gave way, dropping him unceremoniously back down onto the bench. Illya glanced about, as if unsure what to do, then in an act of compassion, reached out, pulling Michael to him. The older man's arms circled the slim waist, clinging on desperately, resting his face against the youth's stomach.
So intent on the scene being playing out in the garden, I hadn't heard my father walk up behind me. I jumped when his arm moved about my shoulder, giving me a gentle squeeze.
"Napoleon? What's going on?" he asked, looking out at the scene below.
"He's just told Michael about his decision to leave."
"Ah," my father said, as if that explained the whole meaning of life. "Time for your friend to move on." My friend. That was a comforting phrase. I wondered if dad suspected anything.
"He shouldn't be here, dad, stuck on an island with a man twice his age."
"Napoleon, I know it's a bitter pill to swallow but this is life. He's chosen his path. It may not be the one we would have, Lord knows he hasn't had the same chances in life, but he seems a bright, independent boy. He'll make his own decisions. I have the feeling your friend will do what he feels is right for him. We shouldn't interfere."
"Couldn't we take him back with us?" I asked hopefully.
Dad laughed. "He's not a stray puppy, son. He's a man, more than capable of looking after himself. Besides, I don't think he'd appreciate us interfering." I suspect he was right. Illya had a strong, independent streak that had manifested itself in the occasional bouts of rebellion that I'd witnessed.
"Michael will miss him," I murmured, still a little ashamed at my part in his downfall.
"Michael will be fine. He'll find himself another young man to devote his time and... attention to."
Something in his voice told me dad wasn't talking about an act of charity. I turned to face him. "Did you know?" I asked, aghast.
"About Michael's... proclivities? Yes, I knew Michael had a fondness for young men, but I didn't know about Nicholas."
"His name's Illya," I said distractedly, as I turned to look back out of the window.
My father gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Time to pack, Napoleon. We have to leave soon." I nodded and turned away from the scene on the lawn.
We stood a short distance away from the helicopter, its engines warming up as it prepared for flight. Our bags had been loaded and my father was saying his farewells to Michael while Illya walked across to talk to me.
"Is everything okay?" I asked, sensing the tension between them had dissipated.
"Everything is settled," he replied, noncommittally.
"I'm glad." Though I wasn't. This place wasn't right for him. Like he said, it was a gilded cage and I knew how much he yearned to be free. "Can I write to you?"
His head shook. "I probably won't be here. I don't where I'll be."
Somehow that didn't surprise me but not knowing where he'd be left me with a feeling of emptiness. We hadn't had time to talk, to discuss our feelings. There'd been no closure. "Have you decided where you'll go?"
"London, perhaps." He smiled. "The world's my oyster, remember." I remembered. I also recalled what he'd said about moving around. A large metropolis, where one can disappear.... I sincerely hoped he wouldn't disappear for good.
I wanted one last touch but, conscious of the fact that eyes were watching us both, I settled for a lingering squeeze to his shoulder, my last physical contact with him. "Take good care of yourself, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin. I really hope we'll meet again, one day."
"You know, I believe that we might. There is unfinished business between us, and fate has a habit of tying up loose ends. Until we meet again, tovarichsh, do svedanya." Then he stepped away, giving me a quick, covert wink before turning his back and walking up the path towards the house. Michael gave a final friendly wave before following in his wake. We boarded the helicopter and, as it rose into the sky, I watched him walk away, his blond hair glowing like a beacon in the sun.
He didn't turn.
On returning home, I reverted to type. My skirt chasing became almost a full time occupation and though my inclinations and attentions readily reverted back to the opposite sex, I found my taste in women had changed. I now found myself strongly attracted to blonds. I never sought out other men, because I never found anyone who attracted me in the same way. And after a fashion, I'd decided that the incident was an anomaly, a combination of the magical island and the equally bewitching Russian boy.
For a long time, I missed him. It was as though I had a piece of me missing, an empty space that needed to be filled and, over the years, I tried hard to fill it. I continued to pursue women, hoping to find the perfect replacement, the perfect mate.
Now, here he was, standing in the room before my desk, awaiting my command. My command! And what a temptation . . . .
Mr Waverley had accompanied us to our workstations, introducing Illya to the secretaries and anyone else we came across along the way.
At last Waverley declared, "Well, I'll leave you two gentlemen to get to know each other better." And with that, he left.
The room was eerily quiet, once our superior had left. Illya seemed to relax instantly, taking the chair across from me and leaning back with his arms folded across his chest. "So, tovarichsh," I said, trying to affect the same air of casualness, "we meet again."
"So it would seem," he replied, his tone light, his head tilted to one side. "I did warn you we might."
"Yes, you did." I couldn't keep the smile off my face and hoped he didn't notice the lascivious look I gave him.
Apparently he did. That mischievous imp I remembered from all that time ago, suddenly resurfaced. He leaned forward, resting his arms across the top of my desk as he held my gaze. "You look hungry, Napoleon. Perhaps, you'd like to go somewhere for something to eat. Mr Waverley did say we should get to know each other. Better." he added, with a suggestive half smile.
"So he did, so he did," I murmured, trying to sound calm. "And orders are orders. What did you have in mind?"
"Something sweet. I've always been fond of dessert."
"Oh, I think I can offer you something for a sweet tooth. In fact, I think I have just the thing to tickle your taste buds, back at my apartment."
"Really? Sounds interesting. I can't wait to get my tongue around it. Shall we go?"
I looked at him and sighed happily. For the time being, the serious, dour faced agent had been switched off and stored safely away, and the fun loving youth I fell hopelessly in love with was allowed out to play. I smiled, genuinely contented for the first time in years. I felt I now had everything in life that I needed; a rewarding job, good friends, a bright future - and Illya.