A/N: Hello. It's me. I have three out of four chapters done, and a pretty decent outline of the fourth, so posting weekly should allow enough time for me to wrap it up.
This chapter is kinda mushy and rambling, but that's apparently what I do sometimes. Enjoy? :)
Act I: Zero percent of chinchillas
Sixteen years ago
'To move is to stir, and to be valiant is to stand. Therefore, if though art moved, thou runn'st away.'
"What are you reading, Nappy?"
Napoleon didn't need to look up to know this was Aunt Amy. He really couldn't afford to, anyway, since he needed all the seconds he could scrounge together to decipher what it was that he was reading.
"Ah," Aunt Amy said as he held up the thing so she could read the title. "That's one of Lota's, isn't it?"
"Was," he corrected, a bit more sharply than he'd intended. After all, Aunt Amy was one of his favorite relatives and she was here to help, providing emotional support to his parents and helping take care of him.
Napoleon didn't need to look up to hear Aunt Amy sitting down cross-legged on the front porch, a bit off to his side and back, not too close in consideration of his unfriendly demeanor.
"How do you like it so far?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I'll decide if I like it when I understand it."
She chuckled. "Yes, Shakespeare can be tough going. Let me know if you want any helpful hints."
"No," he said, this time exactly as sharply as he'd intended. Lota was supposed to do that. Lota was supposed to read with him. Lota was supposed to be here.
Some T.H.R.U.S.H. lair
"I told you."
Victor Marton chuckled at Dr. Egret's smirked comment. She had indeed told him, and also made the bet with him, and he had lost, and Marton prided himself on his good sportsmanship so he opened the top drawer of his desk and produced the prize he had decided on.
Dr. Egret accepted the set of keys handed to her and asked the appropriate question: "What are they to?"
"A Manhattan apartment formerly belonging to Ms. Ravel. As our wager was regarding her success on her first project as an agent of T.H.R.U.S.H.—and as she failed—it seemed appropriate that I might appropriate something of hers to provide you your reward."
Egret jangled the keys, eyed them approvingly, and pocketed them. "What next?"
Next wager. Marton stroked his chin. "I think it should be something more challenging, don't you?"
"Sure." She'd just gotten a potentially multi-million-dollar hunk of real estate for saying, I bet you Ravel will screw it up. She could afford to put some effort in this time.
"Do you know that idiot Zark?"
Egret hummed and echoed, "Zark?" Zark? That lunatic who fancied himself a latter-day Count Dracula and had probably been driven mad by zoonotic illness contracted from those bats among which he spent roughly ninety-eight percent of his waking hours? "I haven't thought of him in ages, but yes."
"He's still set on using bats to interfere with air traffic control, you know."
"Yes, that sounds like Zark." Zark. That ninny from Cleveland, Ohio, who put on a pathetic Eastern European accent and expected people to believe it, and called himself a count and expected people to believe it, and was quite proud of his Harvard education and was somehow insulted when people didn't believe the phony count with a phony accent had earned a genuine Harvard diploma.
"I bet that I can beat him to that, before you beat him to it."
"I accept. What counts as 'interference'?"
"At least three flights ending up somewhere they are not supposed to, with demonstrable evidence that I—or, I suppose, you—caused the error."
"By any means?"
Marton chuckled. "Would it be any fun any other way, my dear?"
Egret smirked. "Good. In that case, I already have my plan. Start thinking of what you're going to give me, dear."
Sometimes Illya wondered why he bothered with therapy—other than the fact that it had been mandated as a condition of his joining the U.N.C.L.E. Aside from that unfortunate detail, Friday's forty-five consecutive minutes of talking seemed an awful lot of work for very little result.
Hm. Perhaps that wasn't entirely fair. There had been more than "little" in the way of results.
He'd accepted that his parents' deaths were not his fault. (For a strong three out of every four days or so, but a seventy-five percent success rate seemed tolerable.)
He'd almost decided that he had some redeemable qualities as a human being. (Qualities besides being an above-average repository of information and calculational power, since that could just as easily be a positive feature attributed to a computer rather than a person.)
He'd told Napoleon that he loved him. (Okay, so "told" was a strong word, but Napoleon had been able to fill in the blanks of his stumbling admission, so it counted. For a strong three out of four days, at any rate.)
But all that progress seemed to have stopped occurring about three weeks ago, and that meant that he'd wasted one hundred and thirty-five minutes of his life.
Well. A hundred and forty minutes, accounting for time spent travelling between his U.N.C.L.E. office and Boateng's office, plus that two minutes or so he'd had to wait when he'd arrived early for his appointment last week. Really, he had to regain a grip on his time management skills before he ended up being three or four or—he shuddered to think of it—five minutes off the mark.
And there was the time currently ticking away, but the session wasn't over yet so Illya hadn't officially categorized today's forty-five minutes as being worthy of the toilet. Yet.
"And why is it that you are worried about Napoleon?"
Illya blinked at Dr. Boateng's shoes. More specifically, he blinked at Dr. Boateng's left shoe. The deep-green synthetic-material toe of Dr. Boateng's left sneaker. It was slightly darker than its right-foot-covering companion if memory served, and a quick glance to the toe of the psychiatrist's right sneaker proved that memory did indeed serve. Probably a quick damp-paper-towel cleaning job, if the muddied paper crumpled atop the things in the waste bin was any indication—oh.
He was getting distracted again. That seemed to be happening a lot lately. Maybe that was why his appointments had been subject to such a horrid decline in success of late, and maybe that meant he should try to focus more.
What was the question? Napoleon. Something about Napoleon.
Illya had walked into the office, Boateng had asked if he had anything he wanted to discuss today, Illya had given his now-customary shrug of indifference in response, Boateng had eventually commented that Illya looked worried, and Illya had muttered something along the lines of: "With Napoleon, how can I not?"
So that explained that. That is, it explained Boateng's question. It didn't really explain his own grumbled complaint. Was it a complaint? What had he meant by it? He hadn't thought before speaking, and that was something else that seemed to be happening a lot lately, and that lack of thought meant that he was now confronted with the tedium of deciphering his own blurted comment.
Considering that he'd been informed in no uncertain terms for the past decade or so of his life that professional assistance was required in untangling the workings of his brain, that seemed like it would be a pain. Then again, he tended not to be overly bothered by pain, regardless of whether he was on the giving or receiving end, so—there he went getting sidetracked for the umpteenth time. That wasn't a great thing for a student, as that was making studying a bit harder, but not much since he was a quick learner, so—
"Would you prefer to discuss something else?" Boateng asked, and Illya realized that this question had probably been sparked by his not having answered the man's previous question for the past three minutes or so.
Okay. Quick learner and a quick thinker too, so he mentally flipped through a few plausible justifications for his being worried about or around or regarding or in the vicinity of Napoleon. The most likely subconscious rationale that he arrived at was: "I am not good for him."
Illya raised an eyebrow. That was the most obvious possible statement he could have made, even if he had been forced to scrabble for it as an explanation. "It is as if you have not been privilege to my deepest issues for the past few months, Doctor."
"I see. So, in your opinion, the things we discuss make you not good for Napoleon. Do you think Napoleon is good for you?"
As "good" was such a subjective statement, Illya found the question bordering on inane, but that wouldn't be a nice thing to blurt out and he'd been the first one to use the adjective anyway and he was trying to focus on the conversation now, and staying focused would mean he wouldn't run his mouth off. Probably. Well, he did tend to say things that weren't considered strictly polite from time to—
Was Napoleon good for him? "Being with him takes away from time I could spend working."
"Yes," Boateng agreed, with a nod that added, So what?
"Attempting to be considerate of him can be stressful."
"Yes." So what?
Illya folded his arms and slouched down in his chair. Mature? No. The best he could come up with at the moment? Yes.
"You seem to be looking for reasons not to like him. Can you think of any reason you do like him?"
"Far too many." He crossed one knee over the other and glared at the toe of his own shoe, saw a scuff on it that he hadn't noticed before, and glared a little harder since Napoleon would probably notice it sometime and come up with some miraculous way of restoring the thing to its former unscuffed glory. "Yes, he is good for me." That kind, patient, handsome, wonderful son of a bitch. Damn him.
"And that is your judgement to make." Boateng smiled. "You know what I am implying."
"That it is his judgement whether I am good for him."
"That is right."
"But people can be wrong." Before the psychiatrist could speak again, he added, "And that would be Napoleon's mistake to make. Yes, I know. But if I do care for him, should I not want to… look after his interests?" Oh. That—did he just ask something purposeful? He supposed that was what he was supposed to do on the proverbial psychiatrist's couch (armchair, non-proverbially), but now he was going to have to actually talk. Damn himself.
"And what would that entail?"
"Terminating the relationship."
"And who would that benefit?"
"You think he would be happy?"
Illya thought a moment. "Not at first but, after an initial period of unhappiness, I imagine he would be relieved."
"Relieved to lose someone he cares for deeply?"
Illya cocked his head and frowned at his kneecap. "You are… mixing the connotations."
"What do you mean?"
"Relief is good. Losing is not. You are emphasizing the less relevant issue."
"Sometimes good things come with difficulties. Reward comes from challenge. But if the good thing is something or someone you care about, it can be worth it."
Illya glanced to his watch and barely managed not to crack a smile at this sudden, fleeting bit of good luck. "It seems to be time up."
The Ghanaian looked at the time on his computer screen. "So it is." He smiled. "I'm proud of you, Illya."
"What a relief to know I regularly spend time with a man of such low standards." After a second of consideration, Illya tacked on a dutiful but not entirely heartfelt apology.
"You raised a concern of yours. You brought up Napoleon. Both of those are things you find hard to introduce as topics of discussion. I do not think that reflects a low standard."
"And that is your judgement to make." He stood. "Good day, Doctor."
Napoleon looked up as a folder was abruptly slapped shut, raising his brows as April tucked the paperwork under her arm and Mark started for the door.
"And where are you two off to all of a sudden?" Solo wondered.
Mark stopped just in front of the door, which slid open and (with some impatience, Napoleon imagined) remained open as Slate stood there solemnly and Dancer intoned, "A blond ice-storm is forecasted to arrive within the next three minutes."
"That was one time," Napoleon retorted.
"Two," Mark corrected.
"And they were both not fun."
Napoleon pursed his lips.
"Don't look at us in that tone. You know we like the little shit and want to be supportive, but being psychically impaled by an icy glare two weeks in a row sort of gave us the notion he'd prefer if we supported him in absentia."
"It'll be less crushingly awkward if we just leave for a little while instead of definitively not looking at him while he definitively doesn't look at us," April put in.
Napoleon sighed. They weren't wrong. But that didn't mean he had to let them off easy, so he adopted a wounded expression and huffed, "Fine then. Abandon me to the blizzard."
They promptly departed and Solo chuckled. It seemed his puppy-dog eyes had gotten a little rusty. Or perhaps they simply paled in comparison to Illya's puppy-dog eyes. The Russian didn't even seem to realize the effect they had, which probably made them all the more effective.
Before Napoleon had a chance to decide whether to be offended over having been usurped in the puppy-dog-eye department, the office door slid open again and he was confronted not with puppy-dog eyes but with the piercing blue Mark and April had just fled. Not with the not-infrequently-used look that said I prefer things to be done my way as opposed to your way, but with a somewhat-less-frequently-used look that clearly warned against anyone saying a single goddamn word if they knew what was good for them and the currently-internal location of their internal organs.
Napoleon smiled a closed-mouth smile to avoid giving any impression whatsoever that he had any intention of saying a single goddamn word, and the younger man's severe look unexpectedly wavered at the American's sympathetic expression. It was almost enough to encourage the brunet to venture forth with a greeting, but even Solo's optimism had its bounds and he determined that it would be safer to let Kuryakin utter the first syllables, even though those would probably take a while to emerge…
"Why are you nice?"
…or about twenty milliseconds. Napoleon almost laughed at the unexpectedness of the speech (both at the mere act of verbalization and the words themselves), but stopped himself since Illya's most incongruous utterances were oftentimes his most revealing. A brief reflection was enough to suggest to him that the unspoken addendum was: to someone like me who doesn't deserve that niceness.
As soon as Illya had stepped far enough into the room that the door slid shut, Napoleon stated, "Because you're my beautiful darling and I love you."
A bit of pink rose high on the blonde's cheeks.
"But I know we're supposed to be professional at the office, so we can discuss the matter further at home, m'kay?"
Illya nodded curtly and briskly took his position behind his desk, diving so quickly into the work to be done there that the interruption to meet with Dr. Boateng seemed never to have cut in at all.
After a few moments, Napoleon resumed his own work and, when he glanced up again a bit later, smiled as he met blue eyes. He suppressed a laugh as the pink returned and Illya almost stabbed himself in those blue eyes in his haste to put his glasses back on. He didn't quite manage to contain a chuckle when Kuryakin perceived his mirth and muttered a preemptive, "Shut up," before going back to business.
The next morning
Napoleon jerked a bit at a popping sound, reaching between the headboard and the mattress for his handgun on the floor. Before his fingertips brushed the metal, his eyes fell on Illya, standing at the foot of the bed with the remnants of a party cracker in either hand.
Illya glanced at the paperboard and foil in his grasp. "I shall inform Mark that this constituted the last time I shall ever take his advice."
Solo glanced down to the tray settled on the bottom of the mattress before Kuryakin. It looked suspiciously like he was about to be served breakfast in bed, so Napoleon withdrew his hand from its gun-grabbing position, lay back down, and grinned, "Is this for my birthday?"
"It is not because I like you." Illya tossed the party cracker remnants into the waste bin by Napoleon's home desk, picked up the tray, and moved up the bedside, nudging at the older man's shoulder with the edge of the tray. "Sit up properly. You cannot eat like this."
Napoleon chuckled and sat up, smiling wider when Illya deposited the tray as soon as he'd created enough of a lap upon which it could be deposited. "Now all I need is my favorite way to start the morning."
Illya frowned down at the tray. "The coffee is there."
"I meant a kiss."
A mild glare. "In that case, why do you insist on spending unnecessary amounts of money on your second-favorite way to start the morning?"
Napoleon laughed, grabbed some material at the collar of Illya's pajama shirt, and pulled him in. "Because I get the first one for free."
Illya obligingly leaned down with the tug but, as Napoleon moved in closer, tilted his chin away. "Why should I kiss you when you call me cheap?"
"I called you priceless, not cheap. And you should kiss me because it's my birthday."
"Then I should only kiss you on your birthd-umf!"
After a few moments, Napoleon eased the pressure on Illya's lips and loosed his grip on his shirt, smiling at the Russian as he pulled himself upright again. "Have you eaten yet?" The pleasantly flushed blonde shook his head, so the brunet glanced to the tray of food, noted it was a definitively non-gluten-free selection that had likely been delivered from a café down the street, and said, "Then go get yourself something and bring it in here so we can eat together."
Illya frowned. "But your birthday is not an occasion that earns me the right to this luxury."
"True, but it's my birthday so you should make me happy by joining me in bed." As Illya continued to look doubtful, Napoleon said, "How about some oatmeal? Half a cup of oats, about twice as much water, and microwave for a couple minutes. Cinnamon and loads of raisins." He lightly swatted at Illya's stomach. "We still have to fatten you up."
Illya not-so-lightly swatted at Napoleon's stomach in return. "Do not do that again or this will be your penultimate birthday."
"Only the penultimate?"
"Vengeance cannot be rushed, Napoleon. It must be adequately contemplated to be worth its execution."
"Could you look a little less sincere when you say that?"
"Of course I could. But that would be less entertaining."
"Less terrifying," Napoleon corrected.
"For you." The Russian finally cracked a smile almost matching the American's in its brightness, but it quickly dropped into an expression of consternation. "It—it is… nice. This, I mean." At Solo's questioning head-tilt, he went on. "This… that you—you understand my sense of humor. It's… nice."
Napoleon beamed, tamped down the urge to say how sweet Illya was because Illya would probably rescind the year-long reprieve on vengeance if he didn't tamp it down, and settled for saying, "Kiss me, then get your breakfast and join me in bed."
Illya sniffed. "You are—" He paused as if to consider the most appropriate word and soon settled on: "—bossy."
"It's my birthday."
"Happy Birthday. You are bossy." His eyes widened as Napoleon again grasped some fabric at the front of his shirt and pulled him in for his demanded kiss. Once released again, Illya griped, "You will rip the material if you carry on doing that."
"Mm, that sounds fun."
Illya amended his earlier assessment: "Bossy and violent."
"But you love me anyway." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Kinky." When Illya blinked uncomprehendingly, he leaned up to peck him on the nose. "God, I love you but sometimes you make me feel like a dirty old man."
"You are. You've not yet showered."
"That's the dirty. But old?"
"Yes, chronological conventions are rather strange. You are officially a year older today than you were yesterday." Illya smirked. "Twenty-six… years… old."
Napoleon donned a wounded expression. "Just wait until you hit the big two-six."
"Then you will have hit the big three—oh."
"Three-three," Solo corrected. "I would think a chap with a degree in mathematics could add seven and twenty-six."
"Arithmetic is not the same as mathematics." Kuryakin shook his head rapidly to refocus his conversational priority. "No, I… you… speak as if we—you will still… know me when I am twenty-six."
The blonde's implication clicked and Napoleon flicked him on the forehead. "My coffee's gonna get cold. Go get your breakfast, chou."
Blue eyes blinked a few times, then Illya nodded slowly and headed off. Once he had left the room, Napoleon let out a breath and slumped back against the headboard.
He expected Illya to be with him seven years from now.
The only people he'd known for that long were relatives, and the only ones of those he maintained steady contact with were his parents and his aunt.
He was attracted to the Russian instantly. Wanted him within minutes. Fell in love with him within weeks. What kind of a lovesick puddle of mush would he be in seven fricking years?
Or was Illya's hesitation an implication that Kuryakin didn't want to be stuck with that kind of a lovesick puddle of mush in seven fricking years?
Napoleon wiped a hand down his face. "My god, I'm a sap," he muttered, then chuckled at himself since he'd always been sort of a sap, in that he acted the part of a romantic. Still, that had always been part of the game. A means to an end. This, on the other hand… this, that he had with Illya, he didn't want to end, because it wasn't a game.
It wasn't the same game, at any rate. Illya didn't follow the same rules as Napoleon's one-night stands.
He seemed neither impressed nor convinced by most of Napoleon's flattery, although the fact that he occasionally flushed or touched his hand to whatever feature had been complimented was enough to convince Napoleon that the Russian wasn't nearly as unaffected as he let on.
The way Illya looked at him made him feel as if he were the most important person in the world but, when it came to verbalizing anything even vaguely complimentary, that expression immediately morphed into something pained and the words were stilted and forced.
For all his aloofness when it came to most situations with most people, he increasingly let his guard down around Napoleon, allowing the American to see his sensitive side—and, more recently, softly rebuffing Napoleon's more sexual advances rather than responding with a sharp threat of dismemberment.
He was attractive and knew people thought so, yet didn't seem to understand why.
He was blunt and often said hurtful things, yet didn't seem to say them maliciously.
Napoleon turned his head as Illya stepped through the doorway. A blond eyebrow arched and Illya briefly lifted a steaming bowl of oatmeal cradled in a potholder: Are you happy now that I've done what you wanted?
Napoleon flipped down the blanket at his side and cheerily patted the mattress.
Illya rolled his eyes and climbed in, and Napoleon flipped the blanket back up over Illya's lap before he set down his bowl. The other blond eyebrow arched: So NOW are you happy, now that I've done BOTH of the things you wanted?
Napoleon brushed some of the hair away from the pale forehead and kissed the cleared patch of skin. He cupped Illya's cheek and rubbed the cheekbone gently with his thumb. "Ya tebe lyublyu." I love you.
At the whispered words, Illya frowned, swallowed hard, and furrowed his brow. He replied tartly, "Your pronunciation has improved, at least."
"Thank you." He kissed the other cheek.
"I did not say it was good. Merely improved."
"That's good." A kiss to the chin.
"Y-your coffee will get cold."
Napoleon smiled at the stutter. "That's okay. I like you warm, too."
The previously-faded flush returned and his pupils dilated noticeably as Napoleon leaned in closer. "But… I paid for you to have a hot coffee."
"And I shall cherish that thought, horobchyk, as we…." Napoleon let the sentiment drift away as he closed the rest of the distance for a gentle kiss on the soft lips. "I consider it a privilege that you let me do this," the brunet murmured before briefly connecting their mouths again to illustrate the "this" to which he was referring.
"As well you should," Illya agreed quietly. At Napoleon's chuckle, he rejoined matter-of-factly, "It is not as if I let anybody else kiss me."
"That's good—" Napoleon slid a bit closer, slipping his hand from Illya's cheek to encircle his waist. "—because you're mine, and it would make me very sad if you let some other schmuck kiss you."
"I am only 'yours' because I allow it," Illya reminded him, "but yes, you are the only schmuck permitted this honor."
"Walked right into that one, didn't I?"
"Yes and, to your detriment, I have learnt what fun it is to say 'schmuck'." Illya nodded solemnly. "You are my one and only schmuck."
"Hey, it's still this schmuck's birthday. Be nice."
"I am being nice. You shall be fully aware of it when I stop being nice." He picked up the coffee cup from Napoleon's tray. "Perhaps my pouring your second-favorite way to start the day over your head might be a hint."
The American laughed. "Yes, it might, mightn't it?" He took the cup from Illya's grasp and took a long sip. "Perfect," he declared.
"It is lukewarm now," Illya countered, "and it is your own fault." He dug into his oatmeal and, around a mouthful of the cereal, grumbled, "Next year I shall transport your birthday coffee in a thermos."
Napoleon took another sip. "And the year after that?" Solo thought he did a fair job of disguising his nerves under a smooth tone as he prompted, "Or don't you expect me to know you that long?"
"I did not expect you to know me this long," Illya shrugged, and Solo thought Kuryakin did a lousy job of disguising his nerves with a bland delivery.
"Neither did I, but here we are."
"With such predictive incompetence, clearly we are meant for each other."
"I think you're right."
"I was being sarcastic."
Illya cast his eyes downward as Napoleon lightly stroked his fingers along his waist. He could feel the soft brown gaze on him even without glancing over to confirm it.
"Talk to me." After a few moments of no response, he prompted, "Well?"
Illya blinked at his lap rapidly. "Sorry?"
"Talk to me."
"Anything. Everything. Nothing."
Illya snorted. "I will not whisper sweet nothings in your ear, Napoleon—birthday or no."
"Then anything or everything."
"Everything is a lot of pressure."
Illya managed briefly to meet the darker eyes before looking down again. "It is your birthday. You pick the topic."
"Okay. Can I whisper sweet nothings in your ear, then?"
"I thought I was supposed to be talking."
"That's what I asked you to do, but you don't seem like you want to talk."
"You won't look at me."
Illya glanced up again. Briefly, again. "There."
"Are you angry because I was assuming that I'll know you for a long time?"
"No. I am confused because you assume you will know me for a long time, which seems to imply that you want to know me for a long time."
"I do. I want to know you for as long as you'll let me know you."
"What if that is a very long time?"
"What if I say tomorrow that I no longer… like you?"
Napoleon's hand drifted up from his waist, tracing along his spine and neck and jaw until a couple of fingers urged Illya's chin up, so he would face his partner. "What if you say it…" the American asked slowly, "…or what if you mean it?"
Illya's breath caught in his throat as their eyes met. He couldn't have felt sicker to his stomach if he'd been belted in the gut by a sledgehammer. The thought of either eventuality wasn't a good one, although he imagined the latter was essentially impossible and the former would likely be a lie meant to drive them apart. And if the lie succeeded—
Oh, he didn't like that.
He didn't like that thought at all.
He couldn't let it happen, and he was fairly certain Napoleon wouldn't believe him if he said one day—out of the blue—that he no longer cared for him…
Fairly certain wasn't good enough. He needed more than fair.
Illya moved his mouth wordlessly for several moments before managing a snappish: "Napoleon."
"I luh—I-I… I can't say it when you look at me!"
Napoleon's eyes crinkled at the corners—that probably meant he was smiling, but somehow Illya couldn't withdraw his gaze to check the status of his mouth—and the brunet's eyelids descended in a silent invitation to say whatever-it-was that couldn't be said under watch.
Then again, Illya wasn't entirely confident that he could say it even without Napoleon looking at him, but there were really only two options for this:
One, say it with Napoleon looking at him.
Two, say it without Napoleon looking at him.
The second option seemed slightly less mortifying, so he shut his own eyes, took a shaky breath, realized that the words didn't seem forthcoming in English, and resorted to a very quiet: "Ya tebe lyublyu."
The silence following that declaration dragged on until Illya was about to open his eyes and see why the earth hadn't shattered and fallen away from the shock of his admission. Before he could do so, he was suddenly pressed back against the headboard, lips firmly upon his own, and he vaguely registered the bowl in his lap being removed and placed with a slight rattle on a bedside table.
"You said it."
Illya's eyelids fluttered open dazedly as the words were breathed almost into his mouth.
"Did you mean it? Do you mean you're… in love?"
He nodded—just the smallest of motions since Napoleon's head was very close to his own and it seemed that anything more enthusiastic might ruin the moment by cracking their skulls together—then gasped as Napoleon proceeded to ruin the moment by audibly cracking Illya's skull against the headboard in his enthusiasm to resume their lip-lock.
"Christ, I'm sorry!" Napoleon withdrew his face and cradled the back of the blond head in both hands. "Are you okay?"
Illya reached up to feel for the bump that was unlikely to have formed yet, encountered Napoleon's knuckles instead, and let his own hand fall forward to rest on the other man's forearm. "It is a saying, yes?"
Illya almost laughed, since Napoleon looked for all the world as if he thought the Russian had suffered a concussion and was talking nonsense. "'Love hurts'," he clarified.
"Oh." Napoleon did laugh. "Oh, Illya. My beautiful, beautiful Illya…." He trailed off as he moved in for a series of kisses, making sure this time to move very deliberately. Slowly. Gently, with one hand at the nape of Illya's neck and the other at his cheek. "Ya tebe lyublyu, horobchyk."
Illya tried to speak a few times but Napoleon's lips kept interfering with the process, so he eventually grabbed Napoleon's shoulders with both hands and firmly pushed him away. "Breakfast."
Napoleon grinned. "How's that?"
"Breakfast. In bed. Which I so thoughtfully planned for your birthday."
"Thoughtfully planned, indeed, but your kisses are so much tastier." He pressed back on Illya's hands to steal another kiss. "And it's my birthday." Another kiss. "So can I get to choose what I want for breakfast?"
Illya glanced at Napoleon's breakfast tray, set on the other bedside table, before pointing out, "Breakfast entails consumption. You cannot consume a kiss."
"But I'm not hungry for breakfast." Kiss. "Ya tebe lyublyu." Kiss. "I love you." Kiss. "I want you."
"You want me… to do what?"
Napoleon halted the barrage of kisses and exhaled a chuckle. He rested his forehead against Illya's. "Ah, my innocent horobchyk."
"What? What do you want me to do? As you said, it is your birthday. I will do what you want, if it is within reason." Napoleon just sighed and laughed lightly again, so Illya said, "What—oh. Does… it have something to do with sssintimate relations?"
"Oh." Illya swallowed hard. "Oh. I." He dropped his gaze. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Illya shrugged and didn't reply, so Napoleon filled the silence by quietly explaining, "In this context, 'I want you' means that I want to make love to you."
"Oh. Is that another name for one of the things you told me about when we had our The Talk?"
"'Make love' is a euphemism for having sex, so yes."
Napoleon frowned as Illya lowered his chin. "I didn't mean that we had to do anything now. I—you know that I've wanted you for a while. You also know that I'd never push you into anything you aren't comfortable with."
"Yes. I know."
"Then why—" Napoleon arched his brows as Illya shoved him just hard enough to clear a path for himself to get out of bed. "Illya—"
"I say that I love you, and you say you want me."
"And 'make love' is a euphemism for s-s—chert, I cannot even say the word anymore!" Illya growled softly, then took a deep breath and continued in a low voice, "I say 'love', and one of your first responses is that you… want me."
Napoleon shifted closer to the edge of the bed and extended his hand. Once Illya took it, albeit with some hesitation, the American spoke in a measured tone. "Before I said that, though, I said that I love you. Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Clearly the two are so closely entangled that—one must affect the other. One could improve the other." He finished with a barely audible: "One could damage the other."
Napoleon kissed the hand he was holding. "They can be related, yes, but you can have love without sex, and sex without love. Yes, I want us to have both, but love is the priority. You are my priority. You are your personality, your mind—and yes, you come in a pretty package, but that's not the most important part." He took the other hand and kissed it, too. "Let's not talk about it anymore for now, hm? You need your lukewarm oatmeal and I need my lukewarm coffee."
"Yes. I… it was inconsiderate of me to throw a tantrum on your birthday."
Napoleon grinned and pulled lightly until Illya moved to get back into bed. "Chou, if that was a tantrum, I can live with that."
"You already live with that—with me."
"Well, Happy Birthday to me."
"Indeed. You'll be old before your time."
"I thought you said I was already old."
"I did, but I did not want to rub it in, in case your memory was failing and you had forgotten."
"Drink your damn coffee before I pour it in your lap."
"I thought you said you'd pour it over my head."
"I am leaving my options open."
Napoleon took a sip of his drink to open the alternative option of Illya not pouring anything anywhere, then commented, "Saying you're beautiful isn't an insult."
"I don't mean it to be. Why do you think it is?"
Illya slowly ate a mouthful of oatmeal before responding. "I am not a girl."
Illya shot him a dark look. "You cannot flatter me the same way you did the girls you… dated."
"You never called them beautiful?"
Napoleon thought for a moment. "Actually, no." At the skeptical expression this earned him, Solo went on: "Not often, at any rate. Somehow I've always thought other words seemed less multidimensional than 'beautiful', and I didn't want to lead anybody on."
"But you want to… 'lead me on'?" Illya frowned and pondered this over another bite. "Define, please."
"If you're leading someone on, that means you're making them think that you want more of a relationship with them than you actually do want. I want a serious relationship with you, so I'm not leading you on."
"I love you."
"Yes. I—I might not be able to say… that very often."
Napoleon pecked him on the cheek. "As long as you meant it the first time, that can tide me over until the next."
Illya mumbled something back.
"All I caught was 'prynts charivnyy'."
Illya quirked a brow. "Congratulations."
"That means I'd like to know what the rest means. Hint, hint."
"I will tell you on your next birthday."
"I'll hold you to that."
Illya grunted and returned through a mouthful of oatmeal, "Surely I can come up with something adequately insulting by then."
"Until then, I'll just glory in the knowledge that you consider me your Prince Charming."
A snort. "Enjoy that. Prynts ehomans'kyy."
The accompanying smirk was enough to tell Napoleon that he wouldn't be finding out what this meant until his next birthday, either.
With Victor Marton
"Tellurium with quartz."
"Tellurium with thallium-arsenic-selenium crystals."
"And the quartz."
"Q-quartz is easier on the b-b-budget."
"That's assuming Mr. Marton is paying for it."
"Quartz is better."
"That's assuming Mr. Marton is an idiot."
"Y-you're the i-i-idiot."
"And you're the pigheaded, pigeon-toed, dog-faced saphead."
"Now, now, now, gentlemen," Marton finally interjected, not quite up to being witness to the pathetic sight of two arthritic, myopic, septuagenarian chemists poking each other's eyes out with their canes. Besides being pathetic, he needed both of them and all eight of their eyes, even if they probably had cataracts in at least four of them. "No need to get nasty."
Dr. Periwinkle (the idiot) and Dr. Meriwether (the pigheaded, etc., saphead) glared at each other through their bespectacled, be-cataract'd eyes a moment longer before looking to Marton.
"Before you delved into your invigorating tellurium-based debate, I had been trying to draw your collective attention to this memorandum I have from a friend of mine." Marton held up the aforementioned memo and placed it on the table before the chemists, atop the journal articles and printouts the men had been arguing over. "She'd been going to join us but has some business elsewhere, so I had her write up what she told me so you could advise me on it."
Meri and Peri both reached for the memo to have a read, glared at each other again, and ended up each holding one side of the paper up. Realizing they couldn't read at that distance. Finally managing to work together as they simultaneously drew the paper closer and ended up with the sides of their heads pressed together to get a better view of the document.
"Aztenite," Periwinkle mumbled.
"Didn't think there were any useful-sized samples," Meriwether grumbled.
"Does have everything that would work best," Peri muttered.
"Ye-es, b-but how could we get enough?" Meri stuttered.
Marton smiled, leaning back in his chair. So Dr. Egret hadn't been lying about her offer to give him a free tip on their new bet: aztenite would do the trick. He cleared his throat until the chemists looked up so he could ask them, "Would three grams suffice?"
"Absolutely," Meriwether nodded as Periwinkle shrugged, "Indubitably."
"Then you shall have them and you can create your—my—laser."
"But how?" Periwinkle wondered, and Meriwether asked, "Where would you find so much? The only extracted samples are measured in the milligrams, and the remaining source was long ago buried in the complete cave-in of the only mine known to produce it."
"I had my secretary do a bit of research once my friend told me about this mineral, aztenite. As it turns out, it's can be an attractive thing once it's all polished up, and a Mexican clockmaker based not far from that mine procured a few samples as ornaments for some of his pieces, before your aforementioned cave-in." Marton produced a few photos from his suit jacket pocket. "Based on the size of the samples, I imagine there should be more than enough for you to work with, is there not?"
Rather than put the scientists through another battle to hold the sheets, Marton kindly held up the photos close to their faces so they could examine the bits of mineral adorning the intricate silver clocks.
"Yes, that should do. Plenty to work with if something goes wrong the first time around," Meriwether said as Periwinkle nodded, or perhaps it was the other way around, as they did look rather similar and Marton hadn't gotten around to slapping labels on the pair. Now that they seemed ready to get to work, however, he at least had the excuse of needing them to have IDs at the ready before they were allowed into the lab he'd set up.
With the non-evil people
Sometimes Illya wondered why he bothered with humans—other than the fact that he had little choice in the matter short of fleeing to an uninhabited region, but that would likely entail giving up Napoleon and peer-reviewed journals and other materialistic things that he had to admit he enjoyed having access to.
Still, if he was feeling whimsical, he'd imagine what it would be like to have a day without people aside from himself: not seeing a soul, saying a word, pretending it didn't bother him when someone stared at him or stood within three feet of him or—worse still—smiled or attempted to strike up an unnecessary conversation. Or even a necessary conversation.
And really, how was he supposed to react when a perfect stranger smiled at him? They couldn't possibly be making a tacit demand for a returning smile, so why were they smiling at him?
Were they holding back a laugh?
Intending to speak to him?
Could they tell he was a foreigner?
Took medication and saw a psychiatrist?
Was gay and lived with his boyfriend?
Wasn't quite right, quite normal, quite all there?
"Where are you, Illya?"
In Dr. Boateng's office, Illya realized. Drifting off in his mind again, he realized. He looked to the man patiently watching him and slightly belatedly replied, "In a reasonably comfortable armchair. There is a small lump at the right rear, however, so you might consider turning over the cushion."
"Mentally, you were not here." Illya tried not to be insulted that his suggestion had been ignored. "Would you mind telling me where in your mind you went?"
And that question reminded Illya that neither Boateng nor any of those perfect strangers could read his entire life history based simply on looking at—smiling at—briefly talking to—him. Unless, of course, the man had asked to throw Illya off the trail, but that would be irrational conspiracy-theory level thinking, and Illya wasn't quite that far gone.
Today he felt a little weird, but that would pass soon enough… unless this was the one time it wouldn't pass.
"Are you certain that you're still in the armchair?"
Illya blinked himself back into focus. "Yes, I… apologize."
The psychiatrist took his notebook from his desk and flipped over to a specific page as he asked, "Have you been having difficulty concentrating outside of our sessions, Illya?" At the Russian's shrug and noncommittal mutter, Boateng pressed, "For how long?"
Illya sighed mentally before admitting, "Perhaps a month."
"You have been at the lowest dose I'd prescribe on your medication since January. It is not very common to build up a tolerance, but it does happen. And I do think you could have better mood benefits from increasing your dose. Would you be open to trying that?"
Illya crossed his legs at the ankle and looked at his toes. "Can we not do talk therapy for that?"
"Of course: that is what we've been doing. But it may help if you can concentrate while we're talking."
"Touché." He re-crossed his ankles so the opposite foot was on top. "May I take a week to consider it?"
"Of course. If you could decide a couple of weeks before you leave for the training session, though, I would appreciate being able to make sure you don't have a bad reaction."
Illya nodded, glanced at his watch, noted there were still fifteen minutes left for this session, and resorted to asking, "May we wrap up early? I don't know that I'll be sufficiently present to be of use to myself, and I have final exams to review for."
"Okay. I will see you next week, then. And let me know what you decide about changing your prescription."
Napoleon and Illya's apartment
"It is eleven at night."
"I am capable of telling time, thank you."
Illya frowned and blinked a few times at the side of Napoleon's head, still bent over his laptop and, seconds ago, the source of an uncharacteristically terse response. "I mention it because this is when you… close up the shop for the day," the Russian clarified.
"True, chou, but this paper doesn't give a damn about healthy work-sleep schedules."
"I am aware of that," Illya returned with a glance to the page of citations being edited on Napoleon's screen. "A healthy work-sleep schedule would be helpful to your paper, however."
"It's due on Monday."
"Then you have all day tomorrow."
"And that would be plenty of time if I hadn't realized five minutes ago that I used the wrong citation style for a hundred sources. I'll do this tonight, then tomorrow I'll do the conclusion and final proofread and print it, like I'd planned."
"I can proofread if you like."
"Thanks, but no."
"I can do the citation correction."
"No." Napoleon grunted a curse and stabbed the Backspace key with a finger. "Thanks."
"Still, I am sure you can do all you need tomorrow, and likely much more efficiently and accurately once you have had some sleep."
"That all sounds very reasonable, Illya, but—"
"It is what you would tell me."
"Yes, and I'm very wise that way, but this is my capstone paper for the Geography end of my studies and I would rather not have it riddled with stupid mistakes. I know it's not very impressive to you, Mr. Four Degrees with a Fifth in Progress, but graduating from college is kind of a big deal to yours truly."
"You committed to something that you no doubt found challenging at times," Illya said slowly, "and for that I am… proud of you."
Napoleon's eyebrows darted up. "You—what?"
After briefly considering a refusal to repeat himself, Illya decided instead to seize this opportunity to draw Napoleon from his stress-grouching. "I… am proud of you."
A small nod. "If I may ask, are you graduating with honors?"
"Yes, sir," Solo grinned. "As long as I don't completely bomb my finals, it'll be magna cum laude."
"Ah. Well, nobody is perfect." He felt his eyes go wide in dismay over having so quickly ruined his effort to make the American less cranky. "I mean—"
"I know what you mean," Napoleon interjected with a chuckle and a passing stroke of the blond hair. "You can go on to bed. I'll stay in here for a while so my screen doesn't keep you up."
Illya crossed his arms. "Define 'a while'."
"An indeterminate amount of time." Napoleon returned to his Works Cited list. "Go to bed, chou."
Illya nodded even though the brown eyes were no longer directed at him. He only had one previous experience of Solo's Exam Week habits, so perhaps that more laid-back attitude had been an outlier, and all his previous semesters had been a flurry of activity and anxiety like this current one. And if he was graduating magna cum laude, that strategy must have worked. To some degree.
"Very well." Illya shut the textbook he'd been flicking through. "Good night."
"Hey," Napoleon said as Illya rose from the couch. At the arched brow this garnered, he prompted, "Goodnight kiss. In case you're asleep before I get there."
Illya leaned down to allow the kiss, then repeated, "Good night," and went to get ready for bed. And when he got into bed, it was alone. And when he groggily awoke for about five minutes at three in the morning, he was still alone. And when he got up at a more reasonable time in the morning to get ready for his run with Mark, he was still alone and, upon going into the living room, found Napoleon right where he'd left him.
"Did you get any sleep at all?" Illya wondered as he brought an orange, a plate, and his sneakers over, shoving his feet into the shoes before sitting on an arm of the couch.
"Sometime between four and five."
He tied one shoe. "Do you mean one hour or less, or between four and five hours?"
"Hour or less."
The other shoe. "You could not have spent all this time revising your citations list."
"No. I took a break from that and figured I'd study for another final while I was up anyway."
He peeled the orange, setting the rind on the plate. "Sounds like a productive night."
"Yeah—could you not do that here? You're squirting orange juice in my face."
Illya shrugged and retreated to the kitchen. Napoleon hadn't looked at him once this morning—hadn't said the good morning he usually did regardless of however Illya greeted him—hadn't moved in for a kiss to start the day—so perhaps it would be for the best to remove himself entirely until the brunet was back to himself.
The orange was finished just as the doorbell sounded off, so Illya hurried to the door before it could be rung again. He checked through the peephole before opening the door with, "Good morning, Mark. Let us go."
"Slow down, Sparky," Slate laughed. "Where's the fire?" He called past Kuryakin, "Howdy, Polo!" No reply came immediately, so he added, "I said 'hi', chum!"
"Mm-yeah, hi, Mark."
Mark looked to Illya, who supplied, "He slept not very much last night and is concerned about schoolwork. Let us go."
"You, er, don't wanna hang 'round for moral support?"
Illya frowned. "I do not believe Napoleon's morals are currently at risk. Let us go."
"To keep his spirits up, I mean."
He frowned harder. "I fail to see how the presence of me, the yin to Napoleon's yang, would be helpful in that regard. I believe he has a grasp on the situation. Let us go."
"Right, then. Has Polo ever commented on how you say 'sitchy-ation'? 'Cause it's the best fuckin' thing ever." Before Illya could outwardly react to this remark, but after he'd inwardly made a note to correct his pronunciation, Mark called, "Catch you later, Polo!"
"I thought we agreed I was doing the cooking."
"You fell asleep at noon."
Napoleon pressed his lips together. "Yes. Yes, I did. That would explain your making yourself lunch. What's with this dinner-making business?"
Illya sighed at the clipped tone. "I thought I was being nice. If I'd known you would react this way, I'd not have gone to the trouble."
"I'm sorry." He pecked the Russian on the cheek as a further token of contrition. "What are you making, chou?"
"I thought you'd astutely deduced that I was making dinner."
Napoleon frowned. "Soaps?"
"So-pes. It is a Spanish word, presumably with a meaning of some sort. The most descriptive definition would likely be 'small, fat tortillas with assorted things piled thereupon'."
"It is not."
"Where'd you learn how to make it?"
"Dr. Jimenez gave me the recipe." He nodded at a sheet of paper covered with the surprisingly neat handwriting of one of U.N.C.L.E.-New York's medical staff. "It remains to be seen whether I am, in fact, making 'it' as opposed to an abominable approximation thereof."
Napoleon grunted and noted the bag of corn flour, sitting by the paper and presumably the source of the thin layer of off-white powder sprinkled across the sheet. "I don't remember us having that."
Illya looked up from the ball of corn-based dough he was flattening, just long enough to follow Napoleon's gaze. "We did not, so I bought it while you napped." He held up the squooshed former sphere in his palm and tried to assess if it seemed the correct thickness. Perhaps he should bring in a ruler.
"Go on," Napoleon urged.
"Go on what?" Maybe a little flatter. He pressed on the dough, then sighed quietly as it started breaking up. Too dry.
As Illya remoistened his hands and started returning the dough to its spherical shape, Napoleon said, "You implied that you may have potentially left the building while I was down for the count. Which you are not necessarily supposed to do alone until April, Mark, and I are all college-graduated."
Illya took a second to absorb the new colloquialism for "sleeping", then nodded. "I did." A little more water and the dough felt better as he started compressing it again.
"I did not go alone. April happened to come by to return the DVD she had borrowed and, while she was here, I coerced her into escorting me to the nearest establishment selling Hispanic food items."
Napoleon grinned. "Coerced her, huh?"
"She had been going to meet a friend. I compelled her to not do so." It had been quite easy, actually: he'd only had to say please. Five times. And whatever expression he was making had apparently counted as something called "puppy-dog eyes" and been the clincher, so he'd have to keep that in mind for future reference.
He placed the reasonably successful sope-esque thing on the plate he'd set aside for this purpose, then looked to Napoleon again. "That was not very considerate of me, was it?"
"Not especially, but it's her job to keep tabs on you and I'm sure she understands that you'd've gone on your own if you could." Napoleon watched as the Russian pulled off another hunk of dough from the source hunk he'd made. "That looks fun. Can I help?"
Illya frowned. The idea had been for him to do something nice for his worn-out boyfriend to let him relax, but it seemed mean to deny the man something that he thought would be fun, so: "If you like."
Napoleon flashed a grin, and Illya answered with a small smile before adding tentatively, "Have you finished being… distressed?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I've done as much as is humanly possible so I'm just gonna try to chill out for the rest of the day. I'm, uh, sorry for being…"
"A cranky-pants?" Illya suggested and, at Napoleon's laugh, addended, "Mark suggested that was an appropriate descriptor."
"Well, he's not wrong. Yes, I apologize for being a cranky-pants."
"Given that my state of being is generally that of a cranky-pants, it seems only fair that you take your turn on occasion."
"You're not generally a cranky-pants."
"Then what am I generally?"
Napoleon flattened his first ball of dough and placed it on the plate, taking another hunk of dough to shape before replying. "You're serious. Introspective. Maybe a little broody." He nudged Illya's elbow with his own and grinned again. "You're the yin to my yang."
A blond eyebrow arched. Had Napoleon actually heard him when he'd been talking with Mark earlier?
"The peanut butter to my jelly."
"The smetana to my borscht."
"Is there some deeper implication to the comparisons you are suggesting, which I am not realizing?"
"No. I just thought I'd go the humorous route instead of getting sappy. The beans smell good."
"April made them," and Illya admitted to himself that that was probably the only reason they smelled good rather than toxic.
"Yes. It seems she does not trust me with hot oil," and that probably had something to do with that small grease fire he'd inadvertently set while Napoleon was in Brazil this past winter, but he and Dancer had managed to get it under control before any significant damage resulted, so he saw no reason to trouble Solo with the incident.
"Boy, I must've been out cold, not to have noticed any of your comings and goings and all the assorted kitchen activities."
"April is a spy and I have some aspiration toward the same. 'Quiet' is an advantageous quality to possess. She did stay significantly longer than she had intended, however." He thought a moment. "I will devise some means of compensating for that."
"Good idea. So did you accept my apology or am I on the proverbial couch?"
Illya's brow furrowed. "I am not familiar with couch-centered proverbs."
"I mean, did you accept my apology or have you not yet forgiven me for being a cranky-pants?"
"I thought I had implied that I had no reason to be… offended."
"Yes, you implied that specific thing. Au contraire, you did not state explicitly that you were, in fact, not offended or upset." Napoleon nudged the Russian's elbow again and winked. "I know how you operate, pal."
Illya finished shaping the piece of dough and started on another one before answering slowly. "I was… unsettled. But I understand and, yes, I forgive you."
"Unsettled?" Napoleon pressed.
"You normally do not… behave irritably toward me even if I give you reason to. It—I. Found it… concerning."
"Okay. Okay, I would get being upset or offended, but why unsettled and concerned? That sounds more like I—" The American took a moment to hope his impression was off. "—scared you."
"Perhaps for a moment. As a rule, my thoughts tend toward the catastrophic. I… feared—fear—your supply of patience may not be so large as I had fancied. And I fear I may be incapable of… not trying that patience, and so you might not be willing to… put up with me much longer."
"Do I try your patience?"
Illya shrugged quickly and started flattening the dough in his hands. "That is irrelevant."
Napoleon lightly grasped one of the Russian's wrists to arrest his movement. "Do I?" he pressed.
Illya stared at the hand grabbing him. "On occasion."
"Should I be afraid that you won't be willing to put up with me much longer?"
His gaze shot up from their hands. "No. What?" A rapid shake of the head. "No!"
"Ditto for me. Trust me, chou, I'm as startled as you are by my capacity for patience. Growing up, I'm sure a day didn't go by when one or both of my parents didn't tell me to be patient." He grinned. "I sure showed them, didn't I?"
Illya frowned slightly, opened his mouth, realized he didn't have anything satisfactorily snide queued up, and shut his mouth. He frowned to himself as he wondered why his instinctive reaction to anything Solo said was to reply with something sarcastic. Napoleon rarely, if ever, said anything that Illya thought reasonably deserved such a reaction, so how much of a jerk did that make him for responding as he did? How much of an ingrate—horrid creature—selfish buffoon—was he that he automatically lashed out with some nasty remark?
Then again, he wasn't ungrateful, even if he couldn't remember the last time he'd said "thank you" and not been at least partially insincere about it.
He wasn't even selfish, to be fair to himself: he was constantly trying to figure out ways to express his feelings toward his boyfriend, even if those ways generally ended up being nonverbal, nonphysical… but hopefully not unnoticed.
So maybe "horrid" wasn't quite the adjective.
Cowardly, he thought, absently tapping at the aspirational sopes that they'd shaped and deciding that eight was probably more than enough for the two of them.
Cowardly, echoed again, this time unbidden. Yes, he'd established that he was a coward, so now he could return his concentration to the matter of cooking the dough, he decided as he put the flat-griddle-thing-whatever-it-was-called over the burners and clicked on the electric burner.
Cowardly. Yes, thank you. Turn on the other burner under the griddle.
"That might be too much."
Illya blinked at the griddle thing—cowardcowardcoward—registered that it was Napoleon rather than the inanimate object that had spoken to him—cowardcowardcoward—and turned his face to blink half-comprehendingly at the American.
"The heat setting," Napoleon clarified. "It's probably too high."
Coward. "If it is higher—" coward "—it will cook faster." Coward.
"Burn faster." As Illya huffed out a sigh but obligingly lowered the heat, Napoleon shook his head. "Cooking is basically chemistry. It's amazing that you can have both a degree in chemistry and such a questionable grasp on concepts of temperature control."
"I'm glad you decided to take that as a compliment."
"It was not?"
"You're cute when you play dumb."
Illya looked up from his deep contemplation of the stovetop burners and the heating properties thereof. "For the sake of your dinner's edibility, I will take that as a compliment as well."
Napoleon grinned. "I trust you to not spit in my food."
"You think me so crude?" Illya dropped one of the sopes onto the griddle. "There are far more interesting ways of compromising the integrity of your comestibles."
The Russian responded with one of his rare, all-out grins.
"Well, that's concerning."
The next day
With Dr. Egret
The wonders of modern technology. Andrew Park and his hideout may have gone up spectacularly in flames, but his records were even more spectacularly up, in the Cloud. Quite frankly, Egret preferred it that way: having Park's work without the man himself contaminating it with that revolting essence that more charitable people might have been inclined to call his personality.
She gave her chief scientist (who very considerately kept her own essence tamed to Egret's tastes) a few more minutes to review Park's lab notes before asking, "And you're sure this is what I want?"
"Yes, Dr. E, based on Park's notes, I'm sure that this is what you want, and reasonably sure that it will work as intended."
"How sure is reasonable?"
Dr. Rochelle Maxwell—just Rochelle, in this context, since Egret was the only doctor allowed around here—huffed out a breath. She did it quietly, though, lest it be taken as a personal affront. "He didn't exactly adhere to ethical research standards and get all FDA-approved, and the only test subjects he could get with his reputation were pet-shop rodents, and he says here—" She poked a pinky at her tablet, displaying Andrew Park's lab notes. "—that it, quote-unquote, either works really well or kills the little buggers."
"It either instills an overwhelming desire to please the controlling party, or it gives the subject a massive stroke. Or a heart attack. Or both."
"I don't want the bugger—I mean, rodent—I mean, dear boy to have a stroke!"
"I'm sorry, Dr. E, but it's either potency or promises."
"Hm." Egret stroked her chin for a moment. "How about percentages?"
Rochelle swiped up and down a bit with her stylus. "Success rate in hamsters is sixty percent. Seventy-five for rats. Seventy-two for mice. Zero for chinchillas."
"I—chinchillas? What did that louse do to his chinchillas?"
"Sample size of one." Rochelle glanced back at the tablet before informing the boss gravely, "Sir Fluffshigoon didn't make it."
"Sir wha—never mind. What's your judgement on this, Rochelle?"
"Start him at a half-dose."
"Will that be enough to work?"
"How fast does it start working, again?"
"Thirty minutes for initial reaction. Forty to sixty for full effect. In small rodents."
"What if we gave him half, waited an hour, made sure he didn't die, and then gave him the other half? If he's not dead, I mean."
Rochelle shrugged. "Should be alright. Just keep talking to him the whole time, to make sure your voice imprints properly."
Egret nodded. "Get things going in the lab." Hopefully, the survival rate of Russians would surpass that of chinchillas.
The next week
Sometimes Illya wondered what was wrong with him.
Well… not wrong, according to Dr. Boateng. Different. Because wrong had a tendency to carry with it some unspoken assignment of blame or badness, and for some reason Boateng had resolved that, in his professional opinion, Kuryakin was not a bad person.
Even though his parents had died horribly, and it had to do with Illya's actions.
Even though he was gay—although, to be fair, he wasn't even particularly good at it if you measured it by numbers of relationships, or intimate encounters, or propensity for rainbow-colored garments—and yes, he knew logically that there wasn't anything wrong with liking men or disliking rainbows, but somehow some of the more unpleasant cultural mores had managed to seep into his brain and obnoxiously refused to vacate the premises.
Even though he found it trying to deal with perfectly nice people like Gerry the secretary, or Mandy the translator in Pyatigorsk, or Mark's family, or Napoleon's family, or that professor who kept organizing get-togethers for the Computer Science department and still hadn't gotten the hint that Illya responded to get-togethers much the same as he did to dental work:
This, right now, wasn't much better than the much-dreaded CS department meet-ups: a graduation party for Napoleon, April, and Mark. The good thing was that most of the attendees were either preoccupied with their respective graduate or had gotten some inkling by now that Illya wasn't a big talker: only Mark's uncle, April's parents, and Napoleon's parents and Aunt Amy were here in the apartment.
Ashley Slate had seemed satisfied with Hello and no lingering signs of resentment over their initial meeting in England.
April's parents had tried to engage him in conversation when April had been hanging out with him for a while, but April had mercifully wandered away after a short while and her family accordingly followed after.
Aunt Amy was helping Napoleon put dinner together, which took care of her for the time being, but that still left him with Solo's mother and father.
Mr. Solo generally made an attempt to talk with him but, as soon as he realized Illya was making only the bare minimum in terms of response, tended to quickly wind down the conversation. And that was what had happened today.
Mrs. Solo generally made an attempt to talk with him and, as soon as she realized Illya was making only the bare minimum in terms of response, redoubled her efforts to draw him out of his shell. She'd clearly noticed that Illya would do more than the bare minimum when Napoleon was close by, and it seemed she thought she could coax him into doing so even when his boyfriend wasn't in the immediate vicinity.
He'd wish her luck, but that would run counter to his own interest.
"So how do you feel about Napoleon starting his job?" Mrs. Solo asked. Napoleon had finally gotten around to disclosing to his parents his career with U.N.C.L.E., afterward reporting to Illya that, as was often the case in telling them things, they had taken it better than he'd expected.
"It does not matter how I feel about it," Illya returned. "He will do what must be done regardless of my emotional status."
"I didn't ask whether you have any say in it, Illya. I asked how you feel about it."
Illya furrowed his brow, counting the white dots on Mrs. Solo's navy flats as he tried to determine what answer would lead to the quickest resolution of this conversation. "I feel fine," he decided, and her sympathetic smile told him that that had been the wrong answer. She had probably taken the noncommittal response as a means of covering up some other emotion. He slated this conversational failure for future correction.
"It can be hard, just being at home, wondering if he's okay, but Napoleon's smart. Lucky. He knows how to take care of himself, both for himself and for his family." She squeezed his arm briefly enough that he managed not to flinch. "That includes you."
Illya blinked and returned hesitantly, "Family?"
Mrs. Solo nodded brightly. "Maybe not officially—legally—but… has Napoleon talked to you about marriage yet?"
Illya blinked harder to restrain his eyes from popping too far out of his skull. "Yet? You expect… but—but I am Russian," he finished lamely, not entirely sure why that was what popped out of his mouth, but it had been the first semi-reason he could offer for why he shouldn't—couldn't—wouldn't be getting married. And that, he supposed, was a bit odd, but he didn't have time to contemplate the workings of his subconscious since Mrs. Solo was already countering his feeble rationale.
"You can get married here even if it's not legal to do it in Russia."
"But…." He jumped at the hand suddenly on his shoulder.
"Soup's on, folks," Napoleon said from behind him. He frowned at the wide-eyed expression that met his greeting. "You alright, chou?"
"I… yes, fine." His eyes flicked over to Mrs. Solo. "Yes… fine. I—I think I will lie down for a moment. Yes. I will eat later." He shrugged out from Napoleon's grasp and hurried to his room: technically still his room and the primary repository of his belongings, although he didn't sleep there anymore.
As the bedroom door shut, Napoleon raised his eyebrows at his mother.
She smiled sheepishly. "I take it you two haven't discussed getting married yet."
"Mom, I told you not to—Jesus, Mom!"
"Well, you love him and he loves you and it's kind of a normal thing for people who love each other to do…"
"Illya isn't normal people, Mom! He's… yes, we're serious about each other and I want—I'm gonna see if he'll talk to me." He offered a grin and gestured to the dining area. "Go ahead and dig in."
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Solo offered. "I didn't mean—"
"It's fine. And if he's not, he will be." He gave her a quick one-armed hug on his way past. "I'll join you ASAP," he promised as he went to Illya's bedroom door. He rapped at the wooden barrier a couple of times. "Hey, Illya?" No reply, and Napoleon hoped his boyfriend hadn't locked himself in for the rest of the evening. "Illya?"
"Yes," returned through the door.
"Can I come in?"
Suppressing a sigh of relief, Napoleon let himself in and shut the door again before looking to Illya: shoes off, cross-legged on the bed, head bowed as he traced the lines of stiches on the bedding with a few fingers.
"I understand you had an interesting conversation with my mom."
A shrug, and he switched to playing with the hem of his left pant leg.
"It's, uh, that upsetting to you?"
Silence, and Napoleon took the interval to come over and sit on the edge of the bed—not touching, but within arm's reach. He waited quietly until Illya finally spoke up, flatly: "Your mother thinks you want to marry me. Is she wrong?"
Solo hesitated before hedging, "I want to be with you."
"That does not answer the question."
"I don't want to answer the wrong way."
"Then answer honestly."
"Honestly, I don't know. I mean, I do know but I don't—I mean, because—well… you know?"
Illya scoffed quietly.
"Let me try that again."
"At last, some entertainment this evening."
Napoleon took a breath. "I want to—damn, I actually want to say this but now isn't… damn."
Illya lifted his chin enough to peer over at the American. "Napoleon Solo at a loss for words? Truly this is the world turned on its head."
"I have words. I just don't know if they're the right ones." He offered a hand and Illya took it. "We'll be apart for at least a month, starting pretty soon. Could you… would you mind if we held off on this tête-à-tête until after that?"
Napoleon lifted their joined hands and kissed his knuckles. "Please?"
"I… Napoleon, I don't understand. I cannot even say how I—I cannot even say the kind things you say to me. I do not understand why… this—would be something you might be contemplating." He looked down again, using his free hand to fiddle with the hem of his pant leg. "I know it is only a legal contract, but marriage seems to be something taken as a rather serious—condition by many societies. If it is something you are considering… I feel rather stupid."
"You are, hands down, the least stupid person I know—" Illya's brow furrowed and his jaw clenched. "—but why do you feel stupid?"
"Perhaps not stupid… yes, stupid. An agonizing lack of perception can contribute to one's designation as 'stupid', can it not?"
"Hypothetically speaking, yes, but I'm still not calling you stupid because you're not."
"I did not realize you were in—in… chert, it left again." Illya sighed, repeated, "I did not realize you were in…" and briefly waved his free hand in small circles before returning it to its task of fabric-fiddling.
"Love," Napoleon supplied.
"…until you explicitly informed me of the same. I did not realize you were contemplating m-marriage until a few minutes ago. And I still do not understand why either of those things should be the case." He pulled his hand free of Napoleon's. "Perhaps I have some mechanistic variety of intelligence, Napoleon, but as a human… truly I am stupid."
Napoleon shook his head as Illya's dropped until his hair blocked his profile from view. He put a hand on the nearer cross-legged knee. "No, Illya—"
Illya jerked his knee away and abruptly turned, drawing his thighs to his chest and directing his back to the American. "You. Are not. Listening."
At the ground-out words, Napoleon objected slowly, "I am listening. It just happens that I disagree with you." He reached out to touch the Russian again, but changed his mind and withdrew his hand. "Just because you don't pick up on emotional matters as quickly as you think you should… that doesn't mean you're stupid."
"What does it mean, then?"
"The way you were raised—the way your brain works—intellectual things come first. Intellectual things come easily. You've had to work harder to learn emotions."
"And I have failed."
"You are still learning," Napoleon corrected. "You think I know what the hell I'm doing, relationship-wise?"
"I have thus far deferred to your expertise."
"That doesn't answer the question."
"It implies the answer." When Napoleon paused long enough to make clear he expected a straightforward answer, Illya said, "Yes, I think you know what you're doing."
"And again I fail at perception."
"Illya, don't do this to yourself. To me."
"Do what? No… now is not the time. We have guests. Convey my apologies, but I've an intestinal upset and will not be rejoining the festivities."
"Now has to be the time. I'm being briefed for an assignment tomorrow and I don't know when I'll be sent off somewhere." Napoleon let out a breath. "Does your stomach actually hurt?"
Illya visibly tensed. "You call me a liar and expect us to talk? Return to our guests."
"I can match you blow for blow on stubbornness, pal. You don't have to go back out there, but I'm not going right now either. I know you, Illya. If you're being this transparent about it, that means it's been bothering you for a good long time… so it's about time we address it."
Illya's shoulders raised.
"Can we do that?"
"I do not want to."
"For the love of—oh! Oh…"
Illya's shoulders drooped.
Napoleon chuckled dryly and got to his feet. "So you know that I know, huh? I told you, Illya. I know you."
"Know what?" Illya returned in such a dull tone that Napoleon immediately killed his grin even though the younger man wasn't looking at him.
"You're intentionally antagonizing me."
"Why should I do such a thing?"
"That part, I don't know," Solo admitted. "And that's what we're going to talk about once I've gone ahead and made sure everyone's started eating. Okay?"
A small sigh and a smaller nod.
"Okay. I'll be right back."
As soon as Napoleon left the room, Illya groaned and punched himself in the knee, then grunted and rubbed his knee vigorously since his knee had not particularly appreciated that meeting. He almost whacked himself in the head after that, but then determined that his brain outranked his knee and ought therefore to be excused from corporal punishment.
Worse and worse. But that was presumably to be expected when people spent so much time with each other: they got to know each other. And so Napoleon had gotten to know him. Not to read his mind, of course, but picking up on things faster, faster, faster than he used to while Illya… well, he hadn't had to exaggerate that part: he truly was a failure at reading people.
And he was getting worse and worse.
At hiding his emotions. Containing them. Controlling them…
…no. No, that wasn't strictly true. It was only around Napoleon that it was getting worse.
Or better. Was it good that Napoleon was getting so good at reading him? Bad? Bad, good, worse, better… in any case, things were changing. They were getting better or worse, and that was good or bad, and now all he had to do was figure out what was and wasn't and why and how and—
—and his vision went blurry from the mental dizziness of all the what's and who's and why's, so he shook his head to physically knock out the confusing jumble and decided to approximate the square roots of three-digit prime numbers until Napoleon returned, as that seemed less of a headache.
"I just thought since you love each other and you have a dangerous job, you might want him to have that security."
"Mom, this isn't the nineteenth century. Illya isn't a housewife with limited opportunities for economic self-sufficiency. And now isn't the time to talk about this. Illya isn't feeling well so I'm going to sit with him for a little bit. I'll make sure to pop back out later."
Napoleon stopped his turning away when his mother abruptly cut herself off, and she took his arm to move him a bit further from the dining table before quietly resuming her aborted speech. "What did you mean that Illya 'isn't normal people'? You didn't just mean that he's different because you love him, I think."
He put a hand over hers. "I have to check up on him," he insisted softly.
"Is he—well, if he's been having trouble because of his parents' passing—"
"Not now, Mom. Please?"
By the time Napoleon reentered the bedroom, Illya had moved to sit in the armchair between the bookcase and the window. Still cross-legged, head dropped.
"Alright." Napoleon plopped himself down on the bed, adopting a less slouched-over version of Kuryakin's posture. "Let's talk. You, uh… would you like to start us off?"
Illya shook his head. "Why can you not let it be?"
"You know why."
"I know why. I do not understand why. And that is why this will not work, Napoleon."
"What won't work?"
"Do you mean that you don't understand love generally, or why we love each other particularly?"
"Both but—no, you—" Illya punched the arm of the chair before resuming his fiddling with his pant leg. "You are making me talk about it and I do not want to talk about it!"
"No, we—it is for the best that we do not part on amicable terms."
"No, if I tell you, that will make it better and… you will be understanding and I will feel—feel—and you—ah, chert…." Blond hairs flew as Illya abruptly looked up in response to Napoleon's loud gasp and the thump of Solo's hand flying to his chest in a gesture of shock. "What? What is it?"
"It… only means 'damn'."
Illya attempted a sigh but it ended up sounding more like a breathy laugh.
"Can we please talk now?"
"You should specialize in interrogation. Yes, we can talk." He leaned back in the armchair and asked casually, "What would you like to talk about?"
"Fine. I believe it would be in our collective best interest to not part on good terms when you go on assignment and I go for the training session. We ought either to terminate the relationship entirely or part on bad terms." He briefly swept a hand toward Solo. "Now you talk."
"Okay. I disagree with your assertions and would like you to further explain. Your turn."
"If we part on bad terms, we—we will not… miss each other."
"AHA!" Napoleon clapped a hand over his mouth before chuckling and unhanding himself. "Sorry. My volume was directly proportional to my shock and dawning comprehension."
Illya smiled weakly.
"God, Illya, why can't you—" Solo cut himself off. Frustrating as Kuryakin's roundabout ways of expressing feelings could be, Illya was sensitive enough about his difficulties without having anyone else pile on. "I sort of get it now—both the 'what' and the 'why'—but I still disagree."
Illya frowned. "Elucidate, please."
"Why I disagree? Okay. First of all, do you want to break up?"
"Yes—no—I should but I do not."
"Why should you 'should' want to?"
Illya shook his head and clenched his teeth.
"Okay, we can discuss that later. The important part is that you don't want to even if you think you should." Napoleon nodded firmly. "You don't want to. I don't want to. Ergo we are not breaking up. Fair?"
Illya's jaw pulsed as he clenched his teeth again, but he eventually murmured, "Yes. Fair."
"Can we cover the part about thinking we should part on bad terms now?"
A short nod.
"Okay, then this is why I disagree with your opinion on that: if we part on bad terms, I'll worry about it. Maybe it will distract me from the assignment. Maybe something would unnecessarily go wrong. Then you'd worry that the bad thing had happened because you distracted me, so you'd feel bad for having deliberately put some distance between us."
"I'd worry that the bad thing had happened because I distracted you, and I'd pity you your lack of focus," Illya corrected coldly, and narrowed his eyes when Napoleon smiled in a way that suggested he didn't believe that for a second.
"And in addition to your pitying me," Napoleon smirked, "if we part on bad terms, you'll worry that you pushed too hard and did irreparable damage to our relationship." He got up and moved to sit on the arm of Illya's chair. "Tell me I'm wrong."
He dropped an arm across Kuryakin's shoulders, kissed the top of his head, and amended, "Tell me I'm wrong, and mean it."
"You… are infuriating."
"And you… have a lot to learn."
Illya frowned harder at that non-sequitur.
"About anti-interrogation techniques," Napoleon clarified. "A good-looking fella makes you laugh once, and you surrender the info?" He tutted.
"Have I ever mentioned that you are an insufferable egomaniac?"
"Have I ever mentioned how gorgeous your eyes are?"
"Have I ever mentioned that it hurts my brain when you respond to my insults with flattery?"
"Have I ever mentioned how precious you are to me?"
Illya folded his arms and slouched down, but the American hand on his shoulder followed. "I do not understand why you are kind even when I am unkind."
"I know it is because of your feelings toward me, but I do not understand why you do feel that way."
"I know it is because 'I am me', but I do not understand how that is at all…." Kuryakin shook his head. "I know, Napoleon. I know, but I do not understand."
"You don't have to understand everything."
"It is what I fancied I was good at." A dry smile. "This is, I imagine, how you would feel if you discovered that most people found you singularly unattractive."
"Ouch. Much as I'd like to pretend I don't know what you're talking about… yeah, I think I sort of get it." He pressed his hand to one side of Illya's head and a kiss to the other. "But I think this is a case where you might not have to understand everything. As long as you understand enough, the rest—well, the rest you can just accept."
"I will… try." Illya took the hand still playing with the hair over one ear. "My stomach is not so upset now." He got to his feet. "Let us return to the festivity."
Napoleon grinned. "So did you mean literally that your stomach was upset, or were you using that as code for your mind being upset?"
"Both. There is the expression, yes?"
"The way to a man's mind is through his stomach."
"Heart, not mind."
"Yes. The way to a man's heartburn is through his stomach."
"Can't argue with that."
A/N: Thanks for reading, :D