Body Touches Body
The two men were pressed closely together in the small space between the rocky ledge and the roof of the cave, cold stone walls crowding them on three sides. It was dark, the pitch darkness of underground where there was no light for the eye to adjust to. After many hours here, Napoleon still couldn't see his partner's face, even though it was only inches from his own. He could feel Illya's breath on his neck, its slow regularity indicating that Illya was asleep. Good. It was well past time.
Napoleon had taken the second watch because he could turn sleep on and off at will. Illya, whose emotional state had a stronger influence on his physiology, had watched first so he could sleep when more tired. They had decided this without words, Napoleon settling himself as comfortably as possible after it had become apparent that they would be here for some time.
When he awoke they had sat quietly. It seemed it should feel odd, being so close, but it didn't. It was the most natural thing in the world. Napoleon had thought about that, then he had tucked Illya's head onto his own shoulder, silently ordering him to rest. It had taken a while, but finally Illya had turned a little more into Napoleon's arms and his breathing had leveled out. Napoleon sat, ears alert to the smallest sound, stroking Illya's hair. The ponytail that hung down to the middle of his back was tangled and, for want of anything else to do, Napoleon was smoothing it. His other arm was wrapped protectively around Illya's slim waist. He was furious, deep inside, that they were in this predicament at all. It was ridiculous, after everything the two of them had been through together, that this mission had gone so badly wrong. He had thought their adventures in the field well behind them. It had been years since he had operated outside the secured environment of UNCLE headquarters, or since Illya had had to leave his laboratory research to risk life and limb.
They had been sent to this Balkan country to deliver a promise of support that could not be sent any other way than by word of mouth. Illya's language abilities had mandated his presence, and when asked who he would prefer to work with, he had looked across the table at Napoleon with a mischievous smile.
"Yes," he had answered and it had been settled, just like that. They had slipped across the border, met with the resistance leaders in their cavern headquarters and delivered their message. There had been counter offers, arguments and negotiations in a polyglot of tongues that had left Napoleon in the dark, but Illya had patiently explained, explained again and finally cut the limited deal he had been authorized to arrange. It was while they were celebrating with a homemade brew that tasted like fire and went down like silk that the local warlord had taken Napoleon outside.
"Are the Americans mad, to send him?" he had asked roughly, to Napoleon's surprise.
"He's the best we have—and he speaks all the local dialects What—"
"Yes, yes." The swarthy bearded man waved that away impatiently. "But this is a bad business, as dangerous and treacherous as the country itself." He waved an arm and Napoleon nodded. They were in rugged terrain, mountainous and rocky, riddled with caves, both natural and man- made. Every group was at the throat of every other and only their common hatred of the current government united them. But it was a fragile alliance and could come apart at any time, leaving UNCLE's representatives on their own with every hand against them.
"I assure you that Agent Kuryakin is fully capable of coping with danger and treachery. Neither are new to either one of us."
"Yes yes, we have heard all about your famous team." He spat. "But has no one considered that my men and the armies surrounding us have been in these hills for years? Years—with no outlet for their manhood? And you send in this juicy tidbit of a boy to whet their appetites?"
"Illya is hardly a boy." Napoleon didn't know what to make of the rest of the description so he ignored it. "He's nearly thirty..."
"I am not speaking of his years! I speak of his size, and his skin like cream, and hair like the sun."
He smacked his lips and Napoleon ground his teeth. "See here—"
"No, you see! If you are taken, you will be killed—slowly or swiftly depending on the time available. If he is taken, every savage bandit who calls himself a soldier will have his fun with him—until he dies of it! How long will that be, do you think? He is young and healthy—it could take days or even weeks. And he would no doubt wish many times over that he had been killed with you. Has no one considered this?"
"No. It was decided not to send a woman—"
The man snorted. "It is all the same after years in these caves. And one such as that..." He smacked his lips again. "It would be better than a woman. Even unwilling." He laughed. "Especially unwilling. I who speak to you would eat him alive if I did not need your weapons you have promised. So I am warning you, because I do not wish anything to break our arrangements. Get him out of here. And if he is truly your friend..."
He stopped and Napoleon said quietly, "he is."
"Then if it appears you are about to be captured, kill him yourself. You understand?"
"In fact—they are drinking a great deal too much in there." He gestured towards the cave where the sounds of revelry were growing in volume. "You should get him away before they forget we need your weapons." He grinned, and a dark fire blazed up in his eyes. "Before I forget." A sudden uproar came from within the cave and Napoleon and his companion whirled around. Napoleon reached the entrance in three strides, the other man right behind him.
A man lay writhing on the ground, his arm at an unnatural angle. Illya was standing by the fire, looking unruffled. But his eyes were snapping and there was a dangerous silence around him. "You break my first lieutenant's arm?" the warlord said to Illya reproachfully, and Illya shrugged. He looked relaxed, but Napoleon could tell he was poised for combat.
"You touch me and see what happens to yours," he returned and there was another silence, even more ominous than the first. The leader leaned in closer and the fire was back in his face.
"We have many arms among us," he said softly. "And you have only two."
"Four," Napoleon said, and no silence could have been as deadly as his voice. Illya raised an eyebrow, knowing that to show fear now would bring them down upon him like the pack of starving wolves they strongly resembled.
"And yours would be empty, however numerous, without the weapons we have contracted for," he observed. There was another long pause, then the leader threw his head back and laughed.
"So we will drink to our contract! Be still, Jorge—we will send for the medic. Drink up!" In the ensuing roar of approval he moved back beside Napoleon. "He has courage, your friend, and good sense too. But all his courage and sense will not help him once the liquor has further heated our blood. It would be better if you left now."
Napoleon nodded. He brought Illya to his side with a look, and they faded out of the cave into the open air when the attention of the men turned to the fresh round of drinks
They went without talking, concentrating on putting as much distance between them and the caves them as possible. After several minutes of fast walking, Napoleon allowed himself to relax a little. Mission accomplished, deal negotiated, and no harm done after all. "Illya..."
"Don't say it. What was he talking to you about out there?"
"A warning against what almost happened. Apparently there was a gap in our cultural briefing."
"Not in mine."
"You... you expected this?"
"It occurred to me."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"When? At the staff meeting back at UNCLE? Please don't send me there because I'm afraid they'll rape me?" He made a disgusted sound. "Hardly."
"You could have taken someone aside. You could have taken me aside."
"No. If I let that stop me I'd..." He stopped. "Never mind."
"Then... this has arisen before?"
"Yes, of course. What do you think?"
"I don't know. When? Not when we worked together."
Illya smiled at him suddenly. "And your sweet obliviousness always charmed me, Napoleon. It's so American. In other parts of the world the fine line of gender preference is not so clearly drawn."
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"And shatter your illusions?"
"I didn't think I still had any illusions."
"It was something you didn't want to see—and I can take care of myself."
A shattering roar shook the ground around them, throwing them down. A hail of rocks and foliage fell on them and Napoleon grabbed Illya, trying to shield him with his own body. Another roar came from behind them, and another. Their eyes met. Both recognized the sound of tanks lobbing shells—the unit they had been with had been discovered and wiped out.
As soon as the ground steadied, they leapt to their feet and ran, leaving the system of caverns behind and crossing over into the adjacent hills. After a fairly short time, it became clear that the army behind them was in full advance, that they had halted only briefly and were coming on, making a general sweep of the area. The two agents couldn't hope to outrun them. So when Illya spotted a narrow cave entrance, shielded by brush, they dodged inside, having to go single file and sideways through the crevice. It opened out into a large cavern and they kept going until one of the passageways they tried narrowed down again. They forced their way through, then the sound of shouting outside the entrance reached their ears. There was nowhere to go but forward, and when the passage made a sharp turn and dead- ended, they stopped. Napoleon groped about, grabbed Illya's arm. He gave Illya a boost to the ledge he had found, then Illya gave him a hand up and they crawled back into the hidden niche, huddled together in the narrow space. Napoleon reached inside his shirt and activated the distress signal on his communicator. Eventually he slept, because who knew when he would have the chance again, and now he watched while Illya slept.
He hoped his communicator still worked, that it hadn't been damaged in the rain of debris following the explosions. He hoped the army would move on in the morning. He hoped they wouldn't search this cave too thoroughly He hoped... He tried again to see Illya, so close to him, but couldn't.
To be killed—swiftly or otherwise—it was an occupational hazard and one that, although he had thought it left well behind him, he was prepared to face. But if what the resistance leader had said was true, Illya's fate would be far worse. Illya, so proud, and so fastidious. Illya, who never let anyone get physically close to him besides Napoleon himself. For Illya to be dragged from this cave, spread out on the rough ground and.... No. The leader was right. Better for Illya to die at his hands, but how? Both were unarmed—that had been one of the conditions of the meeting. He could use his bare hands, but that was a chancy business at best. He groped around them. Littering the area were rock fragments—some small, mere slivers of stone, but some larger. Then he felt it.
Behind Illya was a broken off stalactite, thick and solid at the base, tapering to a needle sharp point. Napoleon picked it up, set it within easy reach. Illya stirred against him and Napoleon's arms tightened. Under that reassuring grip, Illya quieted again and Napoleon went back to stroking his hair. All they could do now was wait.
Voices—too close and coming closer. Illya lifted his head and both listened intently. Shouts echoed back and forth as the cave was explored, then another shout as someone found the narrow passageway leading to their hiding place. It was upon them, then. Napoleon gripped the stalactite and with his free hand felt for Illya. His hand passed over his partner's face, down to his throat and he touched the place under Illya's ear where his pulse beat strongest. Still holding Illya's head he lifted the stalactite, pressed the sharp tip against that vulnerable spot. He felt Illya stiffen. Then, in a gesture of absolute trust he let his head drop back onto Napoleon's shoulder, throat exposed, waiting in the dark for the quick pain and then oblivion. They stayed like that, frozen in place.
Illya closed his eyes. He knew exactly what Napoleon planned, and why, and the only part that frightened him was leaving Napoleon alone to face their enemies. He could feel Napoleon's heart pounding against his side, and his own, beating under Napoleon's fingers. Under the point of Napoleon's improvised dagger. And then, incredibly, the voices faded. A strong smell rose to their nostrils, the smell of urine, and Illya almost laughed despite their position. The army had found this crevice a handy latrine, that was all. And that was a good thing because he himself needed to go urgently and surely Napoleon did too, but both were too well trained to leave such an odorous and unmistakable clue to their whereabouts. Now it wouldn't matter, and Illya was going to wait until they were gone and then get down himself and... a sharp metallic click reached their ears.
Both stiffened again and Napoleon pressed the point harder against Illya's throat. A warm trickle of blood ran down his neck but he didn't flinch. To die at Napoleon's hands was infinitely preferable to being assaulted by who knew how many... a babble of voices arose, but farther away and Illya, listening intently, understood that the sound they had heard had been a grenade, tossed into the cave to eliminate it as a possible hiding place. He turned his head carefully and put his mouth to Napoleon's ear. If they were about to die in a shattering blast Napoleon deserved to know.
"Grenade," he breathed and knew from the convulsive tightening of Napoleon's arms that he understood. The point left his throat and Napoleon drew him closer, holding Illya hard against him. Illya slid his arms around Napoleon's waist and held on in his turn. Together, then. Together, they waited for death.
And waited. And waited some more. After a few minutes when nothing had happened, the voices returned, calling back and forth, urging one another to go into the cave and check on the grenade. There was rough laughter as they each chafed the other for want of courage and then the voices faded once more. No one, apparently, was interested in finding out what had happened to the explosive.
Without hesitation Illya swung his legs over the side and slid down, feeling Napoleon grab at him, catch him by the ponytail. Pain shot through his scalp before Napoleon released him. On noiseless feet Illya made his way back through the tunnel, dropping to his knees where he judged the sound to have come from, feeling about with careful hands. There! He slid his fingers along the cold sides of the grenade and found the reason for its failure—the firing pin had not been fully pulled out. Someone had been afraid, or merely unaccustomed to the weapon. Illya replaced it then made his way back, stopping first to relieve his aching bladder near where the smell was strongest. When he returned he held up his arms and Napoleon pulled him back up, both careful of the hand holding the small metal canister. Napoleon climbed down in his turn and went along the passage, presumably to relieve himself as well. When they were together again, Illya guided his hand to the grenade's pin and felt him nod in understanding. After a long silence he felt Napoleon's head come to rest on his shoulder. He rubbed his cheek against Napoleon's hair, then settled in to guard his slumber.
Illya squeezed Napoleon's arm and he sat up, instantly awake. Voices again. Purposeful voices this time, clearly exploring the cave in earnest. Napoleon reached over, found Illya's hand already clasped on the grenade. He closed his own over it and they sat, holding their death in their hands.
When the voices approached their little passageway, Illya pressed closer and Napoleon draped his free arm over Illya's shoulder. Regret stabbed him, fierce and hot—regret for all the years they had been together without ever speaking their feelings each for the other, feelings Napoleon knew were deeper and more meaningful than anything else in his—in their lives. Why? Why should that have been so? Illya was closer to him than his own soul—and that Illya felt the same, Napoleon also knew. Other cultures weren't so particular as to the fine line of gender, Illya had said, with that wry smile that Napoleon—that Napoleon loved. Was that line all that had kept them apart? How foolish, if so. If only he had even once opened his heart. How different their lives might have been. Instead of a succession of empty affairs, instead of isolation, they might have been together. And now it was too late. He couldn't speak his love now—any fading hope of not being discovered depended on silence. He bent his head, meaning to kiss Illya's cheek, to try to convey how he felt, and instead his mouth found Illya's own mouth as Illya turned to him, too, in these final moments of life.
At the touch of Napoleon's mouth, Illya wasn't even surprised, so inevitable it seemed that they would eventually come to this. Sorrow pierced him, that it had come so late, but he was glad, too, fiercely glad, that they had found one another at last. His lips parted, yielding to Napoleon's insistent tongue as he had yielded to Napoleon throughout their lives, as he would yield everything if there were only the time. They kissed, there in the darkness, bodies pressed together, hands clasped over the grenade. They kissed as if they had all the time in the world and who knew, Napoleon thought, intoxicated by the sweet honey of Illya's mouth, perhaps they did because whatever lay ahead of them, whatever waited after the fiery explosion that would take their lives, they were going into it together and that was as it should be.
A tingle at his chest made him start. What? He drew back and felt Illya's surprised disappointment as if it were his own. He grabbed Illya's free hand and pulled it over, placed it against the communicator which was vibrating, signaling that the receptor was close—very close. In the tunnel below them, in fact. He pressed the button that would indicate they had been found, and heard the voices beneath them break out in a tumult of incomprehensible dialect although Illya no doubt understood it and, in fact, Illya leaned over and called out in the same language. Flashlight beams probed their hidden shelter and, at sight of him and Illya clutching one another and the grenade, there was restrained jubilation. They were helped down, both squinting and blinded by the meager light; jokes were made about the grenade, which Napoleon held. They were hardly out of danger yet, they still had a long way to travel to the border and his new awareness of Illya's vulnerability heightened his natural caution.
But nothing intervened. In fact the rest was somewhat anticlimactic—the rough jeep ride along ruined roads, the wait at the bomb-pitted airfield, the heart-stopping bumpy plane trip with the wind whistling through cracks in the fuselage—all passed without incident.
He kept stealing looks at Illya, whose face was dirty, whose hair was snarled and escaping from its ponytail, whose clothes were torn and filthy. Sometimes, when he did, Illya was looking at him, too, and Napoleon supposed he himself looked no better, but Illya was beautiful to him in his disarray and Illya's eyes said the same.
Back in New York they made their reports. The mission was of course a fiasco since the resistance unit they had made contact with at such risk had been blown to bits by the army's tanks and guns, but they had survived and the unit was no great loss. Such was the official verdict and when they finally met up in the cafeteria, where Napoleon had waited for Illya's much longer debriefing to be over, both were exhausted. Napoleon rose and smiled at Illya, still bedraggled and white with fatigue. They hadn't had a chance to say one word in privacy to each other and now that they were alone in the deserted cafeteria at four in the morning Napoleon wasted no time. "I love you," he said, as he'd wished he could say in the cave, as he should have said years ago.
"And I love you, Napoleon." Illya looked up at his partner and his face was luminous with happiness. "I've always loved you."
"Let's go home, Illya."
"Home," Illya repeated. "Yes. Let's go home." They smiled into one another's eyes, and when they were home, when the door to Napoleon's apartment was closed and locked behind them, they went into each other's arms, and then into Napoleon's bed. This kiss wasn't an ending, Napoleon thought as they each pulled off the remnants of the other's clothing, as their naked bodies came together, as Illya's lips parted once more, as Illya's thighs opened for him. This kiss was the beginning, and what had started in darkness was carried through in the blazing light of a new day.