"Hm?" He turned the page and gave the newspaper a sharp shake to make it settle into the proper folds, adroitly keeping it out of the breakfast dishes with the ease of long practice.
"Yes?" he said without looking up from the paper. How did the author of this article expect to persuade anyone when he hadn't mastered the rudiments of the English language?
"Illya..." Napoleon slid into Illya's lap.
"I can't see the paper."
"Yes, I know." Napoleon carded his fingers through the hair at the nape of Illya's neck.
Too stubborn to give up on finishing the article so easily, Illya tried to ignore the fact that his partner was completely nude. And straddling his lap. And nibbling on his ear. "Napoleon, I can't see through you."
"No?" Napoleon's chuckle ghosted against the tender skin under Illya's ear. Suddenly, Illya could see the paper quite well -- Napoleon vanished all at once, like an extinguished candle. Illya squeezed his eyes shut while Napoleon licked a path down his throat.
"Stop that," Illya gritted through his teeth.
"Stop what?" His mouth left Illya's throat. Illya cracked an eye open, but he could still see the paper. He honestly didn't care to read any more of it.
"Come back, Napoleon." It unnerved him to be able to feel his lover without being able to see him. In fact, it made his stomach roil in queasy warning.
"Your wish is my command." And he was back, every glorious inch of him.
"If only that were true," Illya murmured into the warm curve where Napoleon's neck met his shoulder. He didn't hesitate to use his teeth on the tender flesh, and Napoleon squirmed delightfully in his lap. "Didn't you get enough this morning? Right around--" He hissed through his teeth and, encouraged, Napoleon bit his collarbone again. "--dawn."
"But Illya..." Napoleon pulled back to grin unrepentantly at him. "It's our day off."
"My day off."
"Your day off," he amended willingly. "Are you going to waste the entire day reading?"
"Napoleon, it's only nine o'clock." But his heart wasn't really in it. Not with a warm armful of squirming Napoleon wrecking havoc on his composure.
There was a time Illya had considered himself much more... restrained. Undersexed, Napoleon would have said. It was just possible he'd have had a point. Hell, a dead Napoleon was more highly sexed than a living Illya. Or rather, more highly sexed than Illya had been, before Napoleon had found, with unerring accuracy, each and every touch guaranteed to drive Illya mad. Being dead didn't slow Napoleon down one bit.
It was remarkably useful, having Napoleon naked. Illya was able to concentrate on the lovely expanse of smooth skin, instead of struggling with clothing that had an unnerving tendency to slip ghostly through his fingers as soon as it left Napoleon's body. He didn't much care that Napoleon had the same problem with his clothing; it was much too much fun to stroke his hands down the length of Napoleon's back and across his powerful thighs. Beautiful. Illya toyed briefly with asking Napoleon to stay naked all the time -- no one else could see him after all (almost no one) -- and then thought better of it. One occasionally had to keep one's mind on the task at hand.
Illya stood abruptly. Napoleon managed to land, with preternatural agility, on his feet and go back to his explorations without missing a beat. His arms slid through the gaping front of Illya's robe and wrapped snugly around Illya's waist. Illya let Napoleon control their kiss for a time, until the fire in his body had built to a fine, pounding ache in his groin. He pulled away and tugged clumsily at the zipper of his unbuttoned trousers.
"Table," he said shortly, not entirely sure in what language. Something Napoleon understood apparently. His color high, Napoleon turned easily away at Illya's light touch, and let himself be guided to the table's edge. "Down."
"Illya." Not protesting, merely reminding.
Illya grabbed the edge of the table, and Napoleon pressed his palms flat against the surface which was, until Illya touched it, as entirely incorporeal to Napoleon as his ghostly body was to all the rest of humanity. How wonderful that he was solid for Illya, and vice versa. With one hand, Illya fumbled for the butterdish and slicked himself up.
Napoleon groaned loudly, reaching with both hands for the edges of the table, his whole body seeming to flex and shiver with pleasure. Illya caught his lower lip in a hard bite to keep in his own noises. Napoleon was hot and tight and more than willing. Illya immediately set up a hard thrusting, and before long had forgotten his intent to keep quiet.
"God! Good, so good. Napoleon..."
Napoleon laughed softly in between moans. Illya pried his eyes open and froze. He could feel Napoleon all around him, and it was something like heaven. But the hell of it was, he could see only the table, the paper spread out, slightly crumpled, one corner wicking up grease from his breakfast dishes. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought the sudden vertigo, swearing at Napoleon through his clenched teeth. Without thinking, he released one hand from the table, balled it into a fist, and thumped Napoleon between his invisible shoulder blades. Not hard enough, apparently -- Napoleon only laughed, and flexed around Illya's buried cock.
Illya saw an explosion of stars. He grabbed blindly for his previous grip on the table. Illya thrust hard, at an angle that made Napoleon shout, then again, and again, until Napoleon was groaning long and low, babbling pleading and praise and encouragement. When he dared open his eyes again, Napoleon was visible, writhing and moaning on the tabletop. He wanted to grab his lover's bucking hips, but didn't dare move his hands from their white-knuckled grip on the edge of the table. Having Napoleon fall through the table would put a premature end to their activities.
"Ah... ah... Illya. God, Illya--" Napoleon shivered, his body spasming around Illya's thrusting cock. The end, it appeared, had arrived with its usual lack of warning.
Illya took great pleasure in watching Napoleon writhe on his cock, trapped in the grip of his pleasure. Pleasure Illya had made. And then it was Illya's turn, in a whirlwind of brilliant white explosions, to gasp out his pleasure, and his lover's name.
He collapsed, panting, on Napoleon's back, still with his hands clenched on the edge of the table. Napoleon's back was hot and slick with sweat. He rubbed his cheek between Napoleon's shoulderblades, no longer as discomfited as he'd once been by the lack of movement. No heartbeat, no breathing. Napoleon only panted and shook with reaction now out of, Illya suspected, habit. It was a habit he approved of.
Illya pushed himself upright with a groan and withdrew, dragging a corresponding groan from Napoleon. "Bed," Illya said. He waited until Napoleon had staggered to his feet before releasing the table. His hands were red from the furious pressure.
He tumbled into the bed and felt Napoleon land beside him. That oversight was quickly remedied, as Napoleon wound himself around Illya in a lover's knot of sated abandon.
"You hit me," Napoleon said in aggrieved tones, once he was settled to his liking.
"You disappeared," Illya mumbled against Napoleon's bare shoulder.
"Something wrong with invisibility?"
Illya kept his eyes closed and pretended to sleep.
"Where have you been?"
Napoleon shrugged without taking his hands from his pockets. "Around."
He sauntered up to Illya's car. Six months of practice had made them experts at this. As Illya opened the door, Napoleon slipped around him and nipped into the car. Illya climbed in a moment later. Even the most astute observer would have noticed only the briefest of hesitations, and thought little of it. It was vital that this should be so, as they frequently found themselves, as now, undertaking the procedure in front of headquarters.
Napoleon looked out the passenger window and hummed tunelessly as they pulled away from the curb. After a minute, he deigned to give a real response to Illya's question. "I went to that church -- you know, the one with the two-story stained glass window. The archangel Gabriel. At least, that's what the plaque under the window said. I wonder who decided what Gabriel looks like," he said inconsequentially.
Illya made a noise to indicate he was listening. He didn't bother to signal before swinging smoothly around a corner.
"It's a beautiful church, Illya. You'd like it. Except, of course--" He laughed. "--it's Roman Catholic. I wandered around for a while, then stopped in and listened to mass. And spent a few minutes talking to the priest."
Illya canted a look at him.
Napoleon laughed again. "I said I talked to him. Not that he could hear me."
Illya grunted, turning his full attention back to driving.
It was the same every day, or nearly so. Napoleon went off on his own -- to churches, synagogues, mediums, spiritualists, and paranormal investigators. The one place he wouldn't visit was headquarters. Not any longer.
This wasn't the first time he'd been to that particular church. For that matter, this wasn't the first time Illya had heard about Gabriel. Though last time, he'd been in a foul mood when he met Illya in front of Del Floria's. As far as Illya could tell, Napoleon's mood had no connection to his success, or lack of it, during the day. In fact, as far as Illya knew, Napoleon never had any success. He'd never come to Illya talking of someone who'd seen or heard him. So far, that was the only comfort Illya took from this search of Napoleon's: that it was unsuccessful.
Illya ran a light red. He forced himself to relax his jaw. It sat very ill, wishing failure on Napoleon. Very ill, indeed.
He missed Napoleon during the day, and he didn't care how many close calls they'd had before Napoleon stopped coming in. Illya already had a reputation for acting a little odd; he hardly cared if it was embellished that much more. Napoleon did. At least, that was the excuse. Illya suspected Napoleon had not stopped coming to headquarters for fear of the sort of slip-up which was inevitable the longer they went on, but because he simply couldn't bear it anymore. Illya didn't blame him, though he wanted to.
"Something up?" Napoleon asked, knowing Illya's mood had nothing to do with work, but willing to let him get away with it.
Illya looked at him while waiting for the light to change. The hint of a smile graced the curve of Napoleon's mouth, and he continued to hum quietly. No, now was not the time to have this conversation. He took the opening Napoleon offered. "Got a new mission."
"He's sending me to Colorado with Mark and April."
"Oh." The humming had stopped. "Plane?"
"Tomorrow morning. They'll meet us at Idlewild."
It was a good thing that Illya had never had a reputation for sartorial elegance. The sleeve of his coat was hopelessly wrinkled -- and likely to remain so as long as Napoleon insisted on maintaining his grip.
"You are not," Illya whispered, after looking around to make sure no one was paying him any mind, "going to fall out of the airplane." Not as long as Illya was in it with him -- and if Illya should somehow vacate the airplane in midflight, Napoleon's fear of vanishing through the floor would be the least of their worries.
"Sure," Napoleon said through his teeth. "I know that." His fingers didn't loosen their grip on Illya's arm by one iota. It was no more than Illya had expected -- Napoleon wasn't likely to get over his postmortem fear of flying quite yet, if ever. Oh well, at least it was his left arm -- he didn't need that to eat.
Illya read as he mopped up the last of the airline food right-handed. It gave him an excuse for not using his left hand, and Napoleon something to occupy his mind. Practice kept the book tilted to the proper angle so Napoleon could see as well, and the pages turned at a rate which accommodated them both.
Sometimes, Illya wondered how Napoleon could stand it. He knew he couldn't have. Illya thought of all the things he wouldn't be able to do: page through the latest scientific journal, test out a theory in the lab, eat. It almost didn't bear thinking on. And yet, for Napoleon, who loved people -- a more social man didn't exist -- wasn't it worse? No conversation, no touching, no contact with anyone except Illya. He was utterly reliant on Illya for all the things that made his existence worthwhile.
And Illya, to his shame, liked it that way.
"Are you planning on turning the page?"
"Hm?" Illya blinked at Napoleon. Quickly, he flipped to the next page, though he hadn't read a word of the one they were on.
"April!" He closed the book with a snap and dropped it on the window seat next to him -- the one Napoleon invisibly occupied -- and tried not to look flustered. As a spy, he had a lot of practice hiding his emotions, but April was damnably good at ferreting them out.
April removed the lunch tray from the seat on his other side, handed it to the passing stewardess, and settled in next to him. Luckily the flight was only half-full, or she'd no doubt have moved his book instead, and sat on Napoleon. She propped her elbow on the shared armrest, her chin in her hand, and gazed at him.
"Is there something, April?" he asked, wishing he hadn't dropped the book. It had served its purpose, but now he had no easy retreat from her.
She gazed at him for a long moment without responding. "You've been avoiding us," she said finally, her words singularly devoid of any trace of accusation, "Mark and me."
"Now, April, I--"
"We understand." She laid her hand on his forearm. Illya closed his eyes briefly, feeling as if he were strapped to the chair: April holding his right arm down, Napoleon his left. "But Illya," she continued with a gentle squeeze, "it's been six months. You have to let us in sometime."
"Do I?" Illya heard Napoleon's indrawn breath and realized how harsh that sounded. But April only patted his arm. She turned to face front, sliding her hand down to slip her fingers into his hand. He faced forward too, looking at her sidelong, seeing also Mark, in his seat across the aisle. He was pretending to read, but Illya could see him watching out of the corner of his eye.
"It's hard, I know," April said to the seat in front of her in the quiet modulated voice they all used on the job to avoid being overheard. Low tones didn't carry nearly as far as a whisper. "Napoleon was..." she shook her head. "There really isn't a word, is there? I loved him too, you know."
He turned to look directly at her while Napoleon's grip tightened on his arm.
She cast a sidelong look at him from under her lashes and smiled tremulously. "I suppose we were all a little in love with him -- the younger agents, I mean. But I was luckier than most -- I had the chance to work with him. To get to know him personally."
"Illya, I never--"
Illya met Napoleon's concerned gaze and smiled briefly. He let his left hand slide over the armrest and stretched out his fingers until they brushed Napoleon's leg. He pushed the back of his hand against Napoleon's thigh, and his partner fell silent under the steady, reassuring pressure.
"Oh," April said in a small voice. Her fingers gripped his tighter. "I'm sorry, Illya -- I didn't mean that he... that we..." She abandoned the words, flustered.
Illya turned back to her. He must have looked... emotional, turning so suddenly away. To hide his face, perhaps. He smiled, but she was staring with intense concentration at the seat in front of her. "It's okay, April. I know." He sighed, looking for a way out. "It just... it takes time." Time to learn how not to give the game away with his best friends, aside from Napoleon.
She nodded, and he could see the gleam of tears on her lashes. He would have liked to hand her his handkerchief, but her fingers were still entwined with his. And Napoleon wouldn't be releasing his other arm until they landed. He made a mental note not to roll up his sleeves when Mark and April were around; the bruises Napoleon was leaving would be difficult to explain.
April sniffed daintily and dabbed at her eyes with her free hand. "Well, I'll just... I'll just leave you to your reading." She released his hand finally, to indicate his book. Following her gesture, he smiled ruefully. He could see the edge of the book under Napoleon's thigh. Illya lifted his eyes, scanning up his partner's body to meet warm brown eyes -- it would be interesting to retrieve.
"Thanks, April." He caught her hand as she stood up. "For everything."
She nodded and went back to her seat next to Mark. Illya watched surreptitiously as she leaned her head against Mark's shoulder. He wrapped an arm around her and tilted his head against her crown of soft hair.
Napoleon shifted his thigh to press more firmly against
Illya's fingers. Turning, Illya smiled, and spent the rest of the
flight -- as far as anyone could tell -- staring pensively out the
Illya stood with his hand on the open rear door of the car -- incidentally giving Napoleon plenty of time to climb in -- and shaded his eyes to look at Mark. Denver in January was pretty much what he'd expected. Only a thin crust of snow littered the ground, but a chill bite to the air proclaimed more on its way. The city rose between Stapleton Airport and the mountains, buildings thrusting toward the sky in a vain attempt to rival the mountain peaks to the west. All else was flat, undifferentiated plains, rolling from the mountains east to Kansas and beyond.
"You aren't going to drive?"
"You have the maps," Illya pointed out. He climbed into the back seat of the four-door sedan provided by the local office. "Why don't you take the first shift?"
Mark opened the driver's door and stuck his head in. He frowned at Illya. "Are you... is everything okay, Illya?"
Illya bit back a sharp retort, and reminded himself that he'd always insisted on driving when he and Napoleon were partnered. "I'm just tired, Mark. It was a long flight."
Not that long, and Mark continued to stare at him, his brow crinkled with worry, until April complained from the front passenger seat about the chill he was letting into the car. Shrugging with a sharp jerk of his head, Mark climbed in and hauled the door shut. He tossed the maps to April and started up the car.
Illya leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. His right hand lay loosely on the seat. Illya's lips twitched when Napoleon wove their fingers together. Napoleon's reputation as a lady's man had never done his romantic soul proper justice. Napoleon was the sort of man who'd walk down the street hand in hand with his love. Being dead didn't change that, except in that invisibility gave him the chance to do so with impunity.
Illya's skin prickled with awareness. He knew Mark shot him concerned looks in the rearview mirror. April even turned about in her seat to watch him for a time. He kept his eyes closed, feigning sleep, Napoleon's hand warm in his.
Eventually, the pretense became a reality.
She slept each night in a different room.
Bobby didn't buy the old hotel with the idea of actually running it. As far as she could tell, that was a good thing. She couldn't imagine why anyone would bother to come all the way out here for a vacation. There was nothing to do, nothing to see. The property had come cheap.
He bought it for the solitude and the space. The room to play with his experiments unobserved, uninterrupted. And then ruined the whole thing by dragging her up there with him. She supposed he could hardly leave her behind, under the circumstances.
She kept to herself and tried to stay out of his way. He didn't care what she did, as long as she didn't disturb him when he was working. He'd always been like that, but ever since... well, he'd gotten more obsessed just when she needed him most. At first, he joined her in the evenings, to eat and laugh and sometimes love. But he'd slowly had less and less time for her. Lately, he seemed not to see her at all.
She entertained herself with cards and books and took a turn around the hallways once a day for the exercise. But only at the brightest time of the day. The hotel was creepy at any hour, but as night came on, she wanted nothing better than to close herself in. He'd tried to tell her it was just like any old empty house, but it wasn't. A hotel should be full of people, a constant hum of movement -- an empty hotel was unnatural.
She tried to ignore the empty silence of the place. As if merely to prove that she could, she slept in a different room every night. It amused her to try out all the beds. Every one of the hundred rooms was made up ready to serve, though the sheets tended toward mustiness and the corners to cobwebs. It lent an air of adventure to each night's repose.
And it would make it harder, she hoped, for someone to find her.
...should be right about here...
...damn, look at that...
Illya roused himself from drifting slumber. "Ask me what?"
"You're awake," April said, an unmistakable note of relief in her voice.
"Manifestly." Illya sat up, pulling his hand from Napoleon's. His hand was warm and sweaty from Napoleon's grip. He rubbed at his eyes, then scrubbed his palms down his pants. His neck was stiff. He rolled his head around to loosen it up, stopping when he caught sight of the terrain outside. "Where are we?"
"Two hours north and one west," Mark said, hunched over the wheel, peering through the half-fogged windows.
"And in grave danger of losing the road," April added. "You have more experience driving in these conditions. Perhaps you should..."
"If Mark doesn't mind."
"Mark would be bloody happy to hand over the wheel." Mark drew the car to a gentle stop. It was utterly white outside, snow dancing in slow swirls in the beam of the headlights. The side windows weren't fogged, Illya discovered when he swiped his fingers down one, but crazed with a thin layer of frost. The heat pumping out of the vents just barely kept the windshield clear, and had little left for heating the rear of the car. Illya was glad he'd brought a heavy coat. Too bad it was in the trunk.
"Let's do this all at once," he suggested as he reached for the door handle. "Still going to ride shotgun, April?"
She glanced at Mark, then back at Illya. "I think I'd better."
"I hate to say it," Mark admitted, "but she's right. I'm about worn out, trying to see through this."
"All right, then. Ready on three."
Their doors opened unwillingly against the wind. Illya ducked in close around his door, not taking his right hand off it until he had his left on the driver door. Mark raced around to dive, shivering, into the back seat. His usual corduroy pants and mock turtleneck were no match for the weather. The doors banged shut again with a final swirl of snow. Illya chanced a look into the backseat to make sure that Napoleon was still there, and got a nod and a wink for his efforts.
"You okay, Mark?"
"I'd be better if I hadn't left me jacket in the bloody boot."
"Cheer up, love," April urged, seeming more confident now that Illya was prepared to drive, though he doubted she trusted him any more than Mark, despite his years driving Russia's frozen roads. Still, it was clear that Slate had reached the end of his tether. "We can't be more than an hour from the hotel."
"That one hour could take hours in this." Mark wrapped his arms around himself and shivered.
"What are you doing?" April asked as Illya turned off the headlights.
"It's still light out," he said, putting the car into gear. "The headlights only shine off the snow and make it harder to see."
"Will you look at that?" April murmured. "And Mark was driving through a starfield."
"What if someone comes up behind us?" Mark asked from the back.
"I've left the parking lights on, just in case. But I doubt there's anyone else out in this." He drove cautiously through the falling snow. Even with the headlights off, the swirling flakes seemed to dance in front of the car, looking very much like the field of stars April had compared them too. Illya kept a constant speed, not going faster when the road briefly cleared, nor slowing when the visibility closed in again. April helped him spot the snow poles alongside the winding mountain road, and use them for navigation.
"What was that about ghosts?" Illya asked after a time.
Napoleon hissed. "Illya..."
"Ghosts?" April cocked her head. She glanced briefly in the back, startling Illya until he realized she was just checking on Mark. "Sound asleep," she murmured, satisfaction coloring her voice. She returned her attention to Illya and the road. "Oh, right, ghosts... I thought you were asleep."
"I was." He essayed a smile before leaning forward to scrub at the windshield with his forearm, smearing ineffectually at the fogged glass.
"I was only pointing it out to Mark."
The swirl of snow and fog outside the car choose that moment to lift slightly. "There, see?" She pointed. "Ghost trees."
"Aspen," Illya said. He did have to concede that the fan of bare white branches looked ghostly against the dark outline of the evergreens.
Napoleon's soft chuckle was warm in Illya's ears.
"There," Mark said, reaching over Illya's shoulder to point.
"I see it," Illya allowed.
"But where's the turnoff?"
It had, as anticipated, taken several hours to traverse the remaining distance to the hotel. Mark had woken in plenty of time to point out the light glowing feebly off to their right. Though it had finally stopped snowing, the wind lifted loose snow from the ground into seething waves that swirled across the slate-gray pavement and frequently engulfed the car in billows of white. It would have been quite pretty, if they weren't trying to find their way through it without ending up in a ditch. Or off the side of the mountain.
Illya slowed to a crawl.
At first, they'd thought the light some trick of the weather. But it continued to shine steadily into the falling dusk, its light undiminished, to all appearances unmoved. It seemed certain the light shone from the windows of the hotel.
"Slow down," April said suddenly.
"I slow any further and we'll be stopped," Illya grumbled as he cautiously applied the brakes. The car slipped skittishly sideways, then straightened out again. Illya's knuckles were almost as white as the snow building on the periphery of the windshield.
"There it is," she exclaimed.
"I see it too." Mark hand came down on Illya's shoulder, his fingers tightening in relief. "A sign and a road to the right. See it?"
Illya responded by slowing still further, preparing to make the turn. The sign was half covered with snow, but the word "Inn" near the bottom was clear enough. He turned slowly onto a road entirely white with snow, leaving behind the moderately clear pavement of the main road. The tires hesitated in the snowpack, but Illya kept up a steady pressure on the gas pedal and they moved sluggishly ahead.
Illya navigated carefully between the trees, hoping the slight depression in the snow in which they drove was really a road. He turned the headlights back on, setting their white cocoon brilliantly alight. Blinking against the glare, he steered around the sharp shadows of trees, branches scraping like skeletal fingers against the car.
"U.N.C.L.E. Denver's not going to be happy about their paint job."
Illya said something rude and April's giggle merged with Napoleon's murmured reproof. When they fell silent, the whole world followed suit: the tires traveled through unplumbed depths of quiet, and even the engine noise seemed muffled. In the deepest silence, a deer bounded across the road.
Instinctively, Illya turned the wheel to avoid the dark shape of the animal. Another shadow leaped across the hood and vanished. April grabbed the dashboard, Mark the back of the seat. The car slid sideways, piling up snow before it. Illya turned into the skid and felt the wheel spin uselessly in his hands, the tires floating over the snow. Uncontrolled, they drifted in silent and easy motion for an eternity before coming to a halt with a startling crunch.
Illya peeled his fingers from the steering wheel. "Okay?" he asked. He wanted to rest his head against the wheel and just sit there a moment, but that wouldn't do.
"Yeah," April said, sounding as breathless as Illya. "Mark?"
"Fine." He pulled shaking fingers through his hair. "Fine. I guess we walk."
"Guess so." Illya took a deep breath and let it out soundlessly. He levered open his door, shoving hard to force it back against the tree branches, and climbed out. He sank up to his knees in loose snow. Loafers were perhaps not the wisest choice of footwear, in retrospect. Illya heaved the door to, for once not stopping to see where Napoleon was before he let go.
Napoleon gave him a look before stepping daintily out of the ghostly shadow of the car. It said something about Illya's perception, perhaps, that Napoleon seemed to him the solid one. Illya shivered and wrapped his suit jacket tighter around himself with both arms. He waded through the snow to the rear of the car and opened the trunk.
By the time the others joined him, Illya was bundled up in his heavy coat and trying to see their path through the snow. Trying not to really notice Napoleon, standing there in his dark suit with his hands in his pockets, knee-deep in snow and looking as warm and unruffled as if he were standing in their living room. The wind gathered a stinging cloud of snow and hurled it at them -- the frozen crystals passed through Napoleon and lit on Illya's face like a hoard of biting insects.
"Suppose we ought to bring our suitcases?"
"I don't think we'll want to come back for them, love." Mark slapped his hands against his sides to warm them.
April blew on her fingers before grabbing her bag out of the trunk. "Illya?"
He shook snow out of his hair and went to collect his case. As
he passed April, Illya stretched his cold lips in a smile. "Just like
home," he said.
"Anyone home? Hello?"
Mark shut the door on the cold and snow and stamped his feet heartily. The shell of snow on his legs cracked and flaked off in large chunks. "I don't think anyone's about, April."
"Then who left the light on?" She started to shrug off her jacket, then thought better of it. "Brrr, cold." Zipping the coat back up to her neck, she then wrapped her arms around herself for warmth.
"All the more reason to think no one is here. Besides, no lights on now."
Though the sun had set while they were still on the road, the snow gathered and reflected all the ambient light, turning the night into a pale ghostly dusk. It hadn't been hard to find the hotel in that, though as they approached they saw every window was dark.
Now, in the spectral light that leaked through the windows, they could make out a narrow, tiled lobby, with an ancient desk at the far end. There was no sound but their own.
Mark tried to knock off more snow, but stopped quickly, his stamping seeming as loud as a gunshot. He blew furtively on his fingers.
"April's right," Illya said, inching open a door to their right. He slipped his arm through and felt for the switch. A second later, the room -- a small lounge -- was bathed in light. Illya peeped through the door, gun first. Finding no one, he straightened, reholstered his gun and strode inside, Mark and April on his heels. "Close the door."
They left their boots just inside the door, walking soundlessly across the thick carpet in stocking feet. With quick efficiency, Illya built a fire in the hearth and lit it with Mark's lighter. The flames licked tentatively at the logs at first, then settled in with confidence. Mark and April knelt with Illya before the fire and held out their hands to the warmth. "Someone must have turned the light off when it served its purpose," Illya continued, shivering as the heat began to drive out the chill.
"You don't make a chap feel safe, guv."
Illya shrugged again. "I suggest we stay here until morning, rather than wandering around the hotel in the dark."
"You've got my vote," Mark said, inching closer to the flames. April hauled him back.
"You'll burn yourself," she scolded, then ruined the effect by scooting closer herself.
"Illya." Napoleon stood just inside the door. Still grinning at the antics of the younger agents, Illya withdrew and moved to the other side of the room. He was glad of an excuse for the smile that hid his relief at seeing Napoleon there. Illya had hardly felt sanguine when Napoleon went ahead. The deep snow no impediment to a ghost, Napoleon had been able to reach the hotel far in advance of his companions. Though Illya knew -- or thought he knew -- that nothing could harm Napoleon, he'd been oddly shaken by the lack of any evidence of Napoleon's passage -- not a footprint in the snow showed he'd been there. "I've been looking around."
"See anyone?" Illya murmured, almost soundlessly.
Illya nodded, as if to himself, and removed his jacket. There was a coat rack in the corner, which he made use of. It was several degrees colder near the door, and Illya shivered slightly. Napoleon's arms reached around from behind, his hands rubbed briskly up and down Illya's arms, warming him.
"You'd better get back to the fire," Napoleon murmured in his ear. "I'll keep watch."
Illya trapped Napoleon's hands under his. "Stay."
"Illya?" April beckoned him. "Come back where it's warm." She'd shed her jacket, and so had Mark. He was sitting with his back to the fire, his arms lashed around his knees, eyes half-lidded with feline pleasure.
Illya kept his arms crossed, his hands gripping Napoleon's, as he returned to the hearth. Napoleon had no choice but to follow along, managing with quick grace not to trip Illya up. His laugh fanned across Illya's ear.
"So," April said brightly as Illya lowered himself into a
chair near the fireplace, releasing one of Napoleon's hands to do so.
Napoleon perched on the arm of the chair, leaning against him. "Why
exactly are we here?"
"You lot got briefed while I was getting the all-clear from Medical." As she spoke, April rubbed absently at her left shoulder, where a Thrush bullet had put her out of commission for the last several months. "But I'm still in the dark."
"Everything okay, luv?"
April shot Mark a look. "Would I be here if it wasn't?"
Mark smiled in contrition and took over rubbing her shoulders. April snuggled back against him with an appreciative sound. "Well?"
"The usual mad scientist," Mark said airily. Illya cocked an eyebrow at him and he flushed unaccountably. "I... ah..."
"Stop flustering the boy."
"Dr. Robert November," Illya said without looking at Napoleon. "Nobel Prize winner for Medicine and Physiology. His work on the immune system and advances in organ transplantation are, I understand, far ahead of our time."
April shivered. "Imagine having someone else's organs in your body."
Illya frowned. "It's not a new idea, April."
"Still gives me the willies." She turned her head on Mark's shoulder to look at him sidelong. "Doesn't it you?"
He shrugged. "Not really. Besides, just imagine the reverse."
"Your organs in someone else's body?" She grimaced.
"Something like immortality, don't you think? You're not dying, just-- ow! April!"
Illya barely noticed the byplay, distracted by the effort of keeping his expression unchanging as Napoleon slid slowly down from the arm of the chair into his lap. He draped his legs over the arm, his arm around Illya's shoulders, and snuggled in, rumpling Illya's suit in a way that the other agents thankfully failed to notice. April was scolding Mark in a heated undertone.
They turned guiltily when Illya cleared his throat, and regarded him with a degree of solicitude he found decidedly unnerving, not knowing its source. "At any rate, November is the reason we're here." Wonderful, how very... redundant. The others effected not to notice.
"Wouldn't think transplant research would be all that interesting to U.N.C.L.E."
"There's an unpleasant thought," Mark said, shivering himself this time, though clearly not with cold. Proximity to the fire was giving his face a ruddy glow.
"No, it's something else he's been working on." Illya wished he could do something with his hands. Sitting there with Napoleon on his lap and being unable to do something as simple as lift his arms around his lover, or lay his right hand on Napoleon's legs, was exquisite torture. But there was no natural-looking movement he could make to relieve the desire. Napoleon, the smug bastard, bent his head and nibbled on Illya's ear. "Cryobiology." Illya rubbed his ear against his shoulder.
"Freezing things and thawing them out again to see if they're still alive," Mark put in.
April was silent for a long minute while the fire crackled. "Okay, now I've definitely got the willies."
"We intercepted a Thrush report which suggested some uses they have in mind for the technology, should Mr. November achieve the desired results."
"Which are?" April asked, without clarifying whether she meant Thrush's uses or November's results.
"Something defrosted and alive," Illya said bluntly, opting to answer the latter question, rather than give them all the "willies," as April persisted in calling it. "So far, they don't seem to think he's succeeded, and it doesn't look like they're planning on interrupting him."
"So we're going to."
"That's the general idea."
"And he's here."
Mark made a face. "So we've been told."
"So where is he?"
"Good question, luv."
"And where's whoever he brought with him? Surely he wouldn't have come out here all on his own."
"That remains to be seen." Illya shifted minutely in the chair. Napoleon's weight, spread as it was between the chair arms and his lap, wasn't the problem. The rather sensitive portion of his anatomy which particularly liked the weight was. "Why don't you sleep now? I'll keep watch."
Illya dredged up a smile. "I slept in the car, remember?"
Ten minutes later, Mark lay sprawled across the rug in front of the fire, his head pillowed on his folded jacket, snoring softly. April lay with her head pillowed on Mark's outflung arm.
Illya grabbed Napoleon with both hands and hauled him into a kiss from which they didn't emerge for several long, satisfying minutes. Panting, Illya nipped the point of Napoleon's chin. "Did anyone ever tell you that you're a tease?" he whispered.
"A tease doesn't make good on his promises."
"A tease," Illya reaffirmed. "We can't very well do anything here." But his hands slid of their own accord over and about Napoleon's back, slipping around his chest to rest over the place his heart did not beat.
Napoleon bent to kiss him again. "Tomorrow night," he promised against Illya's lips, "when we have a room of our own."
"I'm supposed to be keeping watch." Illya licked Napoleon's cheek, feeling the faintest burn of incipient stubble. Napoleon never got any closer to needing a shave. It was one of Illya's disappointments, never to rub against a rough cheek.
"We'll both watch."
She didn't dare sleep.
Changing rooms didn't work anymore.
She wandered at night, now. In daylight, she could rest, briefly, on a bed, or a couch in one of the common rooms. But only briefly. When she slept, it became night again, and she couldn't stay. She had to keep moving to keep from being found. If she could only move fast enough, perhaps it wouldn't catch up. Only she knew that sooner or later, it would.
It was cold. She rubbed her arms to keep warm as she walked. Her clothing was too thin for the weather, but she didn't have anything else. It got colder as she went down, so she rarely strayed from the top floors. If only she could find the way into the attic; perhaps she'd finally be warm there.
Someone had come. Someone was there, and she didn't know anymore whether to run to them, crying for help, or hide in the deepest dark. But she was afraid of the dark places.
She walked to stay awake. She walked to stay warm.
Softness touched his lips, invaded his mouth. Illya stirred, sucking sleepily on the warm, supple tongue. Napoleon chuckled against his mouth and withdrew his tongue so he could talk.
"Wake up, sleepy," he said as Illya made a noise of protest at the loss.
"Mark and April?" Illya murmured, even before his eyes were open.
"Still asleep." Napoleon kissed his cheek. "Wouldn't do to let them wake up and find you sleeping rather than watching."
Illya opened his eyes so he could glare at his partner. "You weren't supposed to let me sleep."
"Why not?" Napoleon straightened up and slid his hands into his pockets. "Don't you trust me to watch your back?"
"Of course I do!" It was an effort to keep his voice down. He didn't entirely succeed, and saw Mark stir out of the corner of his eye. Prevented from saying anything further, Illya settled for glaring at his partner. Napoleon only shrugged, without removing his hands from his pockets, and wandered away. It was precisely that which Illya had wanted to stay awake to prevent. Napoleon showed a marked tendency to wander off here. It made Illya nervous.
"Hmmm. What time is it?" April yawned against Mark's arm.
Illya consulted his watch. "Nine." He stood, stretched, and went to the window. Drawing back the curtains allowed a pale white light entrance. It wasn't much brighter than when they arrived last night. The iron gray sky promised more snow, a promise that had already been delivered on while they slept -- the tracks they'd left last night had been filled in. The snow lay all around in a deep blanket, utterly undisturbed by bird, animal or man. He pulled out his communicator.
"When did it get so cold?" Mark flapped his arms against himself.
"When the fire went out, silly." April favored her partner with a fond smile. "You look like a giant bird."
"And a very good morning to you, too." Mark pulled on his jacket and zipped it up to the neck. He turned to Illya. "I vote we find the furnace and get some heat in here."
Frowning, Illya returned the silver pen to his pocket. No reponse, not even static. "Hm, yes. And get some breakfast as well."
"That's my Illya," Napoleon said from where he leaned against the door, "always thinking with your stomach." He grinned at the look Illya shot him and pushed off from the door. "The kitchen is through the door behind the registration desk, and the furnace should be somewhere in the basement. I'd be happy to help you look for it." His eyes promised a warmth that had little to do with modern heating technology.
Illya took a short breath. "Shall we?" Napoleon got out of his way as he reached for the door handle. Illya was aware of April zipping up her jacket, Mark hovering nearby, as he made sure the coast was clear before opening the door all the way. The lobby was as empty now as it'd been last night. Nonetheless, Illya had his gun in hand as he stepped from the room. "Mark, why don't you and April find the kitchen while I see what I can do about the furnace?" He gestured at the door behind the desk with his U.N.C.L.E. Special. "May I suggest you try through there?"
"Would you rather I cooked?" Illya asked April.
Mark grabbed her hand and headed for the suggested door.
Illya distinctly heard Mark hiss, "Haven't you heard about the souffle?" as he pulled April through the door. It closed gently behind them.
Napoleon wrapped his arms around Illya and bit down gently on his neck. "I think I saw some stairs. Shall we go see if they lead down?"
"Sometimes I think you're half vampire."
"How'd you get those marks on your neck?" Mark asked Illya as he shrugged off his jacket in the warmth of the kitchen. Between the newly lit furnace and the proximity of the stove over which April was frying eggs, it was quite toasty.
"Hmm?" Illya's hand went to the side of his neck, his eyes to Napoleon, who smirked unashamedly. "Oh, um... something in the basement..." Napoleon's grin widened. Illya straightened his collar to cover the marks. "What's for breakfast?"
"Not bangers and mash," April said tartly. "Which is all Mark can cook."
There was a small table in the large kitchen. Mark had already set it with milk and juice and butter from the enormous refrigerator, and made two large stacks of toast that threatened to topple over any moment. "Sit," she ordered as she brought eggs and bacon to the table. They obeyed with the alacrity of children, and dug in heartily. April watched for a minute, an oddly maternal expression on her face.
"Excellent, April," Illya said as he mopped up his plate with the last of the toast. "Thank you."
Much to her own surprise, not to mention theirs, April blushed. "It's not hard," she said to cover it, "with the right equipment."
"All in working order, too," Mark said thoughtfully. "Water, electricity, gas..."
"But not the furnace."
"Perhaps the pilot light went out," April suggested.
Illya shook his head. "No, the gas was off." He sat back and lifted his coffee cup, inhaling the aroma appreciatively. It was a good thing someone had found a coffee pot. Illya drank, and frowned, but not at the coffee. "Our reports indicated Dr. November was here."
"Or Thrush thought he was."
Illya waved that away.
"Perhaps he left again," April suggested. "Left for the winter before he could become snowed in here?"
Mark mimicked Illya's posture, and his frown. "Now, if you were to go away for the winter, wouldn't you turn everything off?"
"I'd certainly turn off the water if I'd turned off the furnace," said Illya, with more than enough experience of burst pipes over the years.
"Perhaps he didn't go away. Or didn't go away voluntarily. We haven't exactly searched the place yet," April pointed out.
"That should certainly be our first step today. I'd like," Illya added softly, "to get another look at that basement."
"Stop complaining, you stubborn Russian," Napoleon said, coming to lean his hip against the table, "you enjoyed yourself as much as I did."
Yes, Illya thought, but I still want another look at that basement. Too small by half for the size of the hotel.
"Well, then," Mark said, swallowing the last mouthful of coffee as he stood up. "Shall we get going?"
"Not so fast." April picked up her cup and settled back comfortably in her chair, giving every sign of being rooted there. "Someone will have to do the dishes."
Illya and Mark exchanged a glance, then set dutifully about clearing the table.
"I think," April said as they emerged from the door behind the front desk, "that we ought to get our suitcases out of the lounge and freshen up. No one will mind if we help ourselves to a room, will they?" She stood with her hands on her hips and regarded the block of old-fashioned cubbyholes behind the desk, each with a key hanging in front of it. "Lots of room at the inn. Howabout number Three?" She lifted the key from its hook. "I've always been partial to the number three."
"Ground floor, near the front, sounds good to me."
Illya glanced at April and Mark from the door of the lounge. "Good idea, April, but grab number Five as well."
"Five?" Mark followed Illya into the lounge. "Why Five?"
"Because Four would be across the hall." Illya picked up his and April's suitcases and went back into the lobby, Mark following.
"Illya." April was leaning against the front desk, her arms crossed in front of her, the key for number Three dangling from her hand. "I'm a big girl. Mark and I share hotel rooms all the time."
"It's... ah... not for you, April," Illya said, wondering where Napoleon had got off to while he was getting himself into hot water.
"No." He started down the hall with the suitcases. "It's for me."
Napoleon was standing outside the door to number Three. "It's clear, if you don't count a family of spiders living in the couch."
"Thanks," Illya told him softly, but not, apparently, softly enough.
"'It's for me, thanks'?"
She shook off Mark's hand. "What are you thinking, Illya? If I didn't know better, I'd take you for a rookie, fresh out of Survival School. How can you suggest--"
"April. Just open the door."
She did it, but her look promised him that she wasn't done. Illya pushed open the door and put her suitcase on the couch. It was a nice room, if in need of a little housekeeping. The dust was useful, however -- clearly the only recent visitors to the room had been a rodent or two. Napoleon, of course, had left no tracks. Even now, he leaned against the low bureau and, though Illya couldn't see the furniture through his partner, he knew the immaculate backside wasn't smudging the dust.
"It's not open for discussion, April," he said, trying to pull the rank on her that had never mattered before. He just wanted a room to himself. Himself and Napoleon. Not, as Napoleon's smirk suggested, to arrange a more comfortable place for the activities which had proven so awkward in the basement. Just... to be able to talk with Napoleon, to touch him. To not have to remember every second of the day that he wasn't to turn to him, to reach out to him.
"That's what you think," Mark murmured as he brushed past to put his suitcase next to April's. "Might as well give up," he said, for both of them to hear this time, "April's probably even more stubborn than you, Illya."
"There are two beds," she said. "You and Mark take one; I'll take the other. I'm not letting you take another room," she overrode his objection. "It's not safe. You're staying with us." A softness entered her eyes and her voice. "Napoleon would want you to."
"She's right," Napoleon said, almost too softly to be heard. "They can protect you. I can't." His eyes suspiciously bright, he wouldn't look at Illya. No point in arguing with him when he got like that, even if Illya could do so without worrying Mark and April.
With a sigh, Illya swung his suitcase onto the bed nearest the door. "I hope you don't snore, Mark."
All smiles, April cheerfully said: "Like a foghorn."
Nestled in the small copse of trees, the hotel missed the worst of the wind. It was audible still, even in the lower levels, moaning and skirling through the bare treetops. Snow collected slowly on the western side of the building, almost reaching the eaves on the northeast face, where the wind pushed and piled it, and the sun almost never came.
Two wings of rooms led off from the central lobby area, making two sides of a triangle, of which the courtyard was the third. In the large sheltered court, a fountain gleamed brightly in the fitful sun, its waters frozen in endless cascade.
One hundred rooms. Three floors. They started at the top.
"Did you see her?"
"Yes," hissed Illya. Gun drawn, he followed Napoleon down the hall. It seemed a shadow flitted around the corner into the other wing. Illya didn't call for Mark or April -- his shout would only alert his quarry, and Napoleon was backup enough for him, no matter what he said.
Around the corner, the hall stretched away with doors on either side. Napoleon came out of the nearest, appearing through the solid wood with a shake of his head.
"Where? She could have gone into any of the rooms." A bang and a thump sounded from behind them. "The master key April is using isn't necessarily the only one."
"Well, you have another master key right here," Napoleon said, thumping himself on the chest. He started for the next door. "We'll see what we shall see."
Illya walked slowly down the hallway, waiting for Napoleon to come out. There was no sound but the steadily retreating noise of Mark and April checking out every room in the other wing. The only staircase was at the center, where the wings met. There was no way out for his quarry; she must be hiding in one of these rooms. But every doorknob was filmed with dust, and when Napoleon emerged from the last room at the end of the hall, he was shaking his head again.
"Nothing on this side." He crossed the hall and walked through the door to the first room. Anticipating the result, Illya went back down the hall, and met Napoleon when he came out across from where they started.
They looked at each other.
"I didn't imagine her, did I?"
"Brunette, soft green dress."
Illya nodded. He swore softly. "How did we lose her? She wasn't in one of the bathrooms, was she?"
"I walked through from room to bathroom to room. No one. Just dust."
The noises from the other wing picked up a certain urgency, and there was a shout from Mark which sounded suspiciously like "Tally Ho!" Illya and Napoleon exchanged a quick glance, then ran to join the younger agents. They almost crashed into each other at the head of the stairs. In fact, April ran clear through Napoleon.
"Where'd she go?" Mark demanded.
April shivered and rubbed her arms. "Damn, did the furnace go out again?"
Illya ignored her. "What did she look like?"
"Brown hair, green frock. She didn't go down the stairs?"
"Well, she didn't come back my way."
Illya shrugged at April's question. "She gave u-- me the slip just before she ran into you."
"That's funny. I could have sworn she was headed away from us when we caught sight of her."
"She must have gone down -- she didn't pass by me."
"Pardon me, guv." Mark had his hand on the door to the stairwell. "But shouldn't we be looking, 'stead of talking? She's getting away."
"In this snow?" Illya shook his head. "She can't leave the building without us knowing." He led the way down to the second floor. "April, keep an eye on the stairwell doors. Mark, you take the north wing; I'll take the south."
April handed off the master key to Mark. "Illya?"
"Hm?" He turned back.
"How are you going to check the rooms without a key?"
Illya glanced at Napoleon, who only shrugged. "I... guess I'll be going with Mark," he said finally, and went to join the other agent, already four doors down the hall. "Just open them, Mark," he called, "I'll check and relock."
"Right you are, guv."
"Waste of time," Napoleon said as Illya entered the fifteenth room.
"I know that, and you know that, but they don't know that." Illya flipped the lock and pulled the door closed behind him. He moved on to the next one.
"There's no one to find."
Illya didn't bother to respond. He caught April looking at him when he came out of the room and was careful to take longer in the next room. Napoleon had taken a stroll through the whole of the wing before Mark even got done unlocking all the doors. There was nothing to look for, because there was no one there.
"Do you think we'll find her on the ground floor?"
"I don't think we're going to find her at all." Napoleon leaned on the doorjamb with his hands in his pockets and watched Illya.
Illya stopped in the middle of the musty room and turned to Napoleon. "What do you mean by that?"
Napoleon shrugged without taking his hands from his pockets. "Exactly what I said."
"You're not suggesting we're all having hallucinations."
"Nope." He let Illya shove him out into the hall and followed him into the next room.
Illya was silent through that one and the next. He could hear Mark banging his way through the rooms opposite. April called suggestions to her partner from the door of the stairwell, which they'd almost regained.
"Every hotel we're sent to is not going to be haunted," Illya said finally.
"No?" Napoleon grinned. "Seems to me that everywhere I am is, by definition, haunted."
Illya couldn't restrain a smile. "Perhaps so." He stepped up to Napoleon and kissed him quickly. Then again, more thoroughly. Napoleon touched his cheek lightly as he withdrew.
"Illya? Something wrong?"
"Nothing, April," he called back. "Nest of mice under the bed," he improvised, as if that would explain his delay. "Should have got a separate room," he murmured against Napoleon's lips.
Napoleon only shrugged.
Illya pulled back to glare into his partner's eyes. "You're all the protection I need."
"Then we're both going to be ghosts soon." Napoleon kissed him
quickly, as if in antidote to the sting of his words, and left the room
before he could find a response.
"Well, the ground floor is clear." April put her hands on her hips and surveyed the lobby.
"No tracks in the snow out front," Mark said, shivering as he shook the snow off his trousers. "Cept mine."
"None out back," Illya added as he came through from the kitchen.
"So she didn't leave the hotel."
"In that flimsy frock?" Mark said. "She'd be frozen stiff inside of ten minutes."
"The furnace was off, Mark." April cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. "Seems to me, she must have something warmer stashed around here someplace, or she'd already be frozen stiff."
"That leaves the basement." Illya strode down the hall to the door and threw it open.
Both Mark and April fell silent. They moved to meet Illya and all three of them stared at the dark opening. Illya felt inside the stairwell for the switch he'd found earlier and turned on the lights. The increased illumination didn't make the stairwell look any more inviting. Even Illya, who'd been down there before, and had some pleasant memories, not to mention a few sweet aches, to show for it, found himself loathe to take that first step down into the depths.
Napoleon passed through Mark and April, making them shiver, and around Illya, who swayed slightly as his partner brushed past, and started down the stairs. "Come on, Illya," he said softly. "Let's see what's down here."
With an effort of will, Illya kept his response behind his teeth and followed Napoleon down. He found and flipped the switch at the foot of the stairs, and dim lights flicked on across the dingy room. Napoleon was leaning against the wall between the water pump and the furnace -- the only cleared wall in the room, and thus the one figuring into those pleasant memories of Illya's -- with his ankles crossed and his hands in his pockets. His color high, Illya affected not to see the smudged wall behind his partner. He brushed at the shoulders of his jacket, as if there might still be dust clinging to it.
"Not very big, is it?" Mark prowled around, peering behind the furnace, a generator, and the extensive electrical box, as if he expected to see something other than a wall there.
"For the size of the hotel, no." Illya gave Napoleon a speaking look. With a smirk, the ghost stepped away from the wall and then deliberately through it, vanishing behind streaked concrete.
"Very suspicious," April agreed. She tucked her hands into her coat pockets with an easy casualness, somewhat belied by the fact that Illya knew her gun was in her right pocket. "Why didn't we check it out first?"
Illya's smile was not entirely pleasant. "When I'm preparing to step into the lion's den, I like to make sure all the lions are accounted for."
"Well, the only ones accounted for are the three of us."
"Then I suppose they're all in the den."
"What a pleasant thought."
Mark returned from his prowl and wrapped his arms around her. "Cheer up, love. There doesn't seem to be a door to the den anyway."
Just then, Napoleon stepped back through the wall. "This way." Illya did not find the look in his eyes reassuring.
There seemed no way to present this information to the other agents that wasn't going to raise questions, so Illya didn't bother to try. He left them where they stood and strolled easily over to the tiny square of cement beside the backup generator where Napoleon stood.
"How?" he asked soundlessly.
"Here, and here." Napoleon shrugged at Illya's questioning look. "I followed the trip bar back."
Sure enough, when Illya pushed and pulled as indicated, a section of wall slid open, taking part of the floor and the backup generator with it. Mark's exclamation sounded loud in the silence after the rumbling halted.
"How did you--"
Illya ignored the question. His gun drawn, he stepped into the opening.
"You won't need it," Napoleon said as he led the way, but Illya kept his Special out just the same, and knew that there were two more of them at his back. Despite his vow to Napoleon earlier, it was reassuring to know they were there. "Light switch to the right."
Illya flicked it on and blinked in the flood of light. The room was fitted out like a scientist's dream: a ceiling filled with banks of light, which reflected off rows of gleaming machines and surgically clean lab tables. It was also utterly empty.
"Where's our girl in green?" Mark asked in the eerie silence.
Illya tucked his gun back in the holster. Napoleon stood before a machine at the end of the room. He went to join him. Together, they looked into the glass window cut into the top of the machine. Frost rimed the inside.
A man looked out.
"Dr. November, I presume. How singularly appropriate."
April whacked Mark in the midriff with the back of her hand. Ignoring his pained "oof," she asked, "Is he dead?"
"Of course he's dead," Mark opinioned, "he's all frozen like."
"That remains to be seen." Illya pulled a chair around and sat down in front of the control panel to the left of the machine to study the gauges.
"What I want to know," Mark told April, sotto voce, "is where that pretty little girl in green went."
April raised an eyebrow. "Pretty?"
"No more than you, love." He grinned, and playfully kissed her cheek. "Still," he said, plunging his hands in his pockets and swinging his upper body around to view first one end of the room, then the other, "I should like to know where she got to."
"So would I," April admitted. She turned her gaze back to the man behind the glass and a great shudder overcame her. "Geez, it's like a B horror movie: mad scientist tries out invention on himself."
"Still, a nice change from Thrush's scientists trying their evil little gadgets out on everyone else. At least he only froze himself."
Napoleon walked through the case, and the man, and came over to lean over the control panel Illya was puzzling out. "He's still alive," he said.
"How do you know?" Illya asked without looking up. Having tuned out Mark and April's conversation, he'd forgotten that they were there. He swung around, startled, when Mark sputtered loudly.
"You think he tried it out on someone else first? Who?"
April spared Illya from answering; a lucky thing, as he had no idea what conversation he was suddenly part of. "The green girl, maybe." She shrugged. "Anyone, Mark; nothing says he has to keep his failed experiments around."
Napoleon boosted himself onto the edge of the control panel. "Don't take your hand off the machine, thank you. And," he added, "I don't know how I know he's alive, but he is."
"April, Mark, perhaps you could look around for Dr. November's records? I think I know how this machine works -- or at least how to defrost the good doctor -- but I'd like to make certain."
"What makes you think he kept records?" But Mark was already poking around under lab tables and behind machinery.
"He's a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Of course he kept records." Illya turned back and made a good show of studying the controls. "And thank you for getting me into that," he muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Napoleon shrugged merrily. "Not my fault you weren't paying attention." He began to swing his legs. "You believe me about the girl now?"
"I'll take it under advisement," Illya growled.
"If she isn't a ghost, then why couldn't we find her?" Napoleon's tone was eminently reasonable.
"Secret passages," Illya hissed.
"I don't know why you're so difficult about this." Napoleon hopped to his feet and brushed down his trousers. "Anyone would think you'd never seen a ghost before." He clapped Illya none-too-gently on the shoulder. "I'll go looking for your secret passages, shall I? And if I find a ghost while I'm at it, I'll ask her name."
"It's cold down here, had you noticed?" Napoleon flickered out of sight suddenly, leaving Illya staring at the place he'd been. Cold? Napoleon?
Illya squeezed his eyes shut a moment, then put on a neutral
expression as he turned to face April. One look at her face put paid to
the idea that perhaps she hadn't heard him saying Napoleon's name in
tones not suited to safe reminiscence. Illya met her concern with a
blank expression and she handed over the thick sheaf of papers she'd
found without a word. But he knew that wasn't going to be the end of
"Find anything?" Mark asked with a mouth full of corned beef.
Illya flipped over a page of notes and took a bite of his roast beef sandwich, chewing thoroughly and swallowing before replying. "Not sure. Some places here, I think he was writing in code."
"Strange duck." Mark relished another bite. "At least he had the sense to keep the larder stocked."
"With a freezer that big," Illya said, nodding toward the walk-in, "how could you run out? There must be enough for a year."
"You two!" April shook her head. "I don't know which of you is more of a bottomless pit." She'd already finished what had turned out to be a very late lunch and was sitting back with a cup of coffee cradled between her hands. "Illya...?"
"Hmm?" He took a very large bit of his sandwich, on the off-chance it would be necessary to stave off a difficult question. However, she'd apparently decided to let his slip in the lab go. For now.
"We're going to try to defrost Dr. November, aren't we?"
He swallowed hastily. "If I can get his notes figured out, yes." He got the words out around the bread that caught in his throat, but a few hearty swallows of coffee were necessary to prevent a coughing fit afterwards. She nodded, but something in her face made him ask, "What is it?"
April cocked her head to one side. "Oh, just a thought."
"C'mon, love, share it." The last of his lunch finished, Mark leaned back and indulgently patted his full stomach.
"Well..." she put her coffee down and drew aimless designs on the table with a finger. "If Dr. November was alive when he went into the machine--" she cocked an eyebrow at Illya.
"Hold it, guv, how can you be so sure?"
"Two reasons." Illya ticked them off on his fingers. "One: he preset the machine and walked into it under his own power. No signs of forced entry, and I don't think someone else could have easily figured out the controls. Not without the doctor's notes, which you found."
"In the underdrawer of a lab table, all nice and neat," April supplied. "What's your second reason?"
"Frost," Illya said. He snapped up the last bite of his sandwich and washed it down with the dregs of his coffee. April and Mark shared a look.
"Da, frost. Frost on the inside of the glass." He waited a moment, but neither of them looked edified. "From the moisture in his last breath. He was breathing when he went into the machine." There, that was it for the logical reasons. The ones not involving ghosts. He certainly wasn't going to share Napoleon's pronouncement about the doctor's physical condition.
April shivered again. "This thing just keeps giving me the willies," she complained under her breath.
"Da?" Illya said, without turning his gaze from the door. Where was Napoleon? Surely he should have returned by now.
"Yes, what?" Illya just barely kept the annoyance out of his voice. Mark didn't deserve it.
"You said he preset the machine?"
He nodded. "Naturally. Freezing is only half the process, after all. What scientist would not follow the experiment all the way through?"
"He set it to defrost him afterwards," April murmured.
Illya shrugged off unease. "For some reason, the machine did not begin the warming process."
"You think you can make it start?"
"Once I've had a chance to read all of his notes," he nodded meaningfully at the stack of papers, as yet only partially gone through, "yes. I think I'll have it figured out by dinner. We should be able to start defrosting him tomorrow."
"Why the delay?"
"Best to keep an eye on him, I think. And I for one would like to sleep tonight." He flashed Mark a quick smile. "Another day will hardly make a difference, da?"
"What--" April broke off to clear her throat. "What if it doesn't work?"
"You mean what if we can't defrost him?"
"I mean, what if he dies?" She turned her coffee cup around on the table, making patterns with the brown rings. "If he was alive when he went in, and he comes out dead, wouldn't we be murderers?"
"No," Illya said, with more assurance than he felt. "If he is
dead, then the process of freezing killed him, not of being thawed
out." However, if Napoleon was right that the man was alive now... Struck suddenly by April's "willies," Illya decided not to dwell on it.
He tossed the file on the couch beside him and shoved to his feet.
"Illya?" April. And Mark, looking the same solicitous question at him from where he lay belly-down on the bed, reading a magazine.
"Going to take a shower," he said without turning from his beeline to the bathroom door. He was vaguely aware of the silence behind him, knew it signified more than April's embarrassment. As if he could embarrass her; she'd been taking lessons from Napoleon before he died.
Illya closed the bathroom door behind him with a gentle, but decided, thump and turned the lock. He paced up the narrow room to the tub and back, and up again. Goddamn, where was Napoleon? Gone for hours, for three times through November's damned notes. Gone to find the green girl, was that it?
He tried not to remember that Napoleon could touch other ghosts. The ones at the Gray Fox Inn six months ago had been solid, as far as he was concerned. Solid enough to shoot him. The girl in green had been pretty, in a vague timid kind of way. Illya growled. No, Napoleon had certainly had his chance at the Gray Fox, and he'd opted to come home with Illya. But, something nasty in his mind pointed out, those ghosts had all been men. Men from a century ago, with different ideas of morality. The girl would be far more tempting. And maybe Napoleon's relationship with Illya didn't mean he liked men, maybe it just meant he was desperate. Maybe a woman, a woman like Napoleon...
Illya tore off the tie he couldn't remember having put on that morning during April's campaign to "freshen up," and had fought with all afternoon, and threw it at the mirror. It caught on one corner of cracked wood and hung there with limp disapproval.
Goddamn it all to hell. He couldn't even go looking for Napoleon. Mark and April wouldn't let him out of their sight. And even if they would... how could you find someone who could make himself invisible if he didn't want to be found? Illya braced his hands on the sink and leaned with locked elbows over the stained porcelain, glaring at himself in the mirror, breathing hard.
If he didn't want to be found.
Illya's irritation crumbled. Shoulders slumped, he shrugged away from the sink and dispiritedly dragged off his clothes. If they didn't hear the water go on, April and Mark would wonder what he was up to. And if he didn't answer a knock on the door, they'd break it down. And Illya rather wanted privacy just then.
Once the water was on, and the bathroom steaming up nicely, it seemed foolish to waste it. He climbed in and mechanically picked up a hard lump of something that purported to be soap, his mind a carefully preserved blank.
"You're supposed to use that, not stare at it."
"Napoleon!" Illya winced at the echo of his voice on plain white tile. "Where have you been?" he hissed.
"Here and there."
Illya shoved back the shower curtain, flinging a spray of water across the bathroom. He scanned the room twice, though it was too small to need to be scanned even once, and frowned. "Where are you?"
"Here." A hand touched his bare forearm, the fingers tracing a shivery path to his elbow.
Illya grabbed, closing on empty air, the touch withdrawn. "Damn it, Napoleon..."
"Hush." Two hands on his shoulders now, shoving him back under the hot caress of the water. "Do you want Mark and April in here? Now?" Napoleon was bare all down the length of Illya's body, his skin dry at first, then slicking with the water that ran off Illya. With the barest presence of mind, Illya reached out to snag the shower curtain and jerk it closed again.
"Napoleon," he murmured against the warm curve of a shoulder. "Napoleon..."
And then his mouth was taken in a dizzying kiss, and he stopped trying to talk. Pliable with relief and desire, he took caresses and returned them in equal measure, letting Napoleon overwhelm him with pleasure. He closed his eyes, so as not to see what he couldn't see, and managed for a time to forget everything.
"Open your eyes," Napoleon hissed against his cheek, nipping sharply when Illya shook his head.
Without warning, Illya found himself spun about and pushed up against the superficially warmed tiles. The underlying cold of the porcelain provoked a curse and an attempt to push away. But Napoleon had him by the nape of the neck, and leaned his ghostly weight against Illya to quell the bid for escape.
A sharp nip to the shoulder presaged Napoleon's next words. "Now, can you see me?"
"Napoleon," Illya growled in warning.
Napoleon was unmoved. "Can you see me?"
"No," he grunted.
Napoleon's body nuzzled against Illya's. The hard length of his cock slid between Illya's thighs, just inches away from where Illya wanted him, even when he didn't want him.
"Can you feel me?" He thrust, stroking across Illya's balls.
"Bozhe moi, yes." An involuntary groan.
"So what's the difference?" He didn't give Illya time to respond. Squeezing his hand between Illya and the wall, Napoleon took Illya's aching cock in an uncompromising grip and worked it expertly in time with his thrusts. The feeling of Napoleon's thick cock moving between his thighs in so expert a mimicry of how he had so often moved in Illya's body was almost more arousing than his hand on Illya's cock. Illya caught his lower lip in a hard bite to hold in his cry as he climaxed. Ruled by no such need, Napoleon growled out his pleasure loudly and crudely.
He slumped against Illya's back for a few minutes, his warm seed oozing slowly down Illya's thighs. The tile grew slowly cold again.
Illya reluctantly shook Napoleon off and gave himself a turn under the lukewarm water. When he let himself face where he knew Napoleon stood, he found the man visible again. He was grinning, a smile wholly sexual, wholly satisfied.
"What was that about?"
The grin widened. "Her name is Lila."
Illya blinked. "Bastard," he spat. He shoved Napoleon hard. There was no loud thump against wet tile as Napoleon stumbled back; he simply vanished through the wall.
Illya stood looking at where Napoleon had disappeared. Feeling suddenly drained, he slowly turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. He was wiping himself desultorily with a towel when Napoleon reappeared. Naked, Napoleon crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at his partner. No slouch at glowering himself, Illya scowled back.
"What was that for?"
Illya dropped the towel and picked up his pants. "Lila," he said poisonously.
Napoleon had the gall to roll his eyes. "I did say I was going to find out her name."
"Congratulations." Illya hauled his turtleneck over his head and heard a seam pop.
"I came as soon as I could get away."
"I'm sure you did." Illya stuffed his socks in the pocket of his jacket and stalked to the door, only to run into a wall of warm, naked skin. Dry, of course, for the water hadn't a hold on him once he was no longer touching Illya. There was no room to go around him, and no possibility of going through. Through.
At the thought, a cold shiver passed through Illya, and all the fight drained out of him. He needed to touch; he would always need to be able to touch his partner. He closed his eyes and let his forehead rest on Napoleon's bare shoulder. After a minute, one broad hand stroked down his back, and with it returning warmth.
"I don't like it when you vanish," Illya said finally, hating himself for his weakness.
Napoleon patted his back softly. He made a sound like a laugh, deep in his throat. "I don't like being apart from you."
Illya stopped. He waited. After a minute, Napoleon's chest heaved under him.
"It's lonely," he said, "without anyone to talk to."
"You have me," Illya said stubbornly.
It was Napoleon's turn to be silent.
Illya grew cold. "And Lila," he forced out finally.
Napoleon snorted, stirring Illya's hair. "I think she's... stuck." His fingers began combing through Illya's wet hair. "If you let it dry like this, you'll look like you stuck your finger in an electrical socket."
"My fingers don't fit in electrical sockets," Illya said absently. "Stuck?" He couldn't understand Napoleon's tone of voice when he said that: regret, and pity, and... fear? Illya forced a question past the obstruction in his throat. "Like you're... stuck?"
"No." He could feel Napoleon's smile. Gentle fingers carded his hair back at the sides, then smoothed down his bangs. "There. No, not like me. She... well, she wasn't much of a conversationalist, I can tell you that." Napoleon didn't loosen his grip on Illya; he held him in a comfortable embrace and swayed gently from side to side as he talked. "She was on the third floor, where we found her before. I followed her down the same hall we chased her, then back to where Mark and April saw her. Then she vanished in the stairwell."
"The same as this morning," Illya said into Napoleon's collarbone.
Napoleon nodded against Illya's hair. "Stuck." His naked body was warm and comfortable, and had Illya wishing he hadn't been in such a rush to dress. "We did manage to talk, after I got in her way a couple of times. But not much -- she's not very clear. One thing, though..." His cheek pressed against Illya's. "She's terrified of something in the hotel."
Illya's head came up at the hard edge in Napoleon's voice. "Always the knight in shining armor," he murmured. Napoleon only smiled at him, the curve of his mouth quirked with self-conscious humor. "Afraid of something... Robert November?"
"I don't know; I couldn't get much out of her, except she was cold and couldn't get into the attic."
"The attic? Napoleon, we didn't check the--"
"Illya?" April's knock shook the thin bathroom door and made both Illya and Napoleon jump.
"Just a minute, April." He reluctantly disentangled himself.
"Illya... I don't..." he swallowed. "I don't think she knows she's dead."
"Oh." He couldn't think of any appropriate response. For that matter, he wasn't sure if the regret in Napoleon's voice evoked a matching pity, or jealousy.
"Coming." Illya cast a quick glance around the bathroom to make sure there wasn't anything... difficult to explain. With a soft curse, he picked up his underwear and looked around guiltily, then shoved them in his pocket. Napoleon laughed. He stopped when Illya reached for the door.
He grinned at Napoleon. "She can't see you," he whispered. "Besides," he added, giving Napoleon's naked physique a thoroughly admiring look, "I rather like you like this."
He pulled open the door before Napoleon could respond.
"Sorry," April said, her cheeks coloring. "But it's rather urgent..."
Illya relinquished the bathroom with a flourish which made her look at him strangely. Then she darted inside and the door swung shut. The bedroom was empty -- Mark must have snuck out for a late snack. It took Illya a moment to realize that Napoleon was apparently on the other side of the door... or invisible again.
"Napoleon?" he whispered hoarsely. "Napoleon!"
"Shhh." Napoleon came through the bathroom door with an armful of ghostly clothing. He dropped it at his feet and quirked an eyebrow at Illya. "What? I'm no voyeur."
"Get dressed before Mark comes back." Illya shot a glance at the room door. Who knew when Mark had left, or how long they had before he got back.
"Why?" Napoleon put his hands on his hips and cocked his head, visibly relishing the chance to get back at Illya for opening the door to April.
Mark chose that moment to return from his kitchen raid.
"He can't see me," Napoleon said, at the same moment Mark said, "This place must be haunted."
Illya glared at Napoleon before turning to Mark, trying to hide how difficult it was to draw his gaze away from his naked lover. Napoleon's soft snigger suggested he hadn't succeeded. "Why do you say that?" he asked, as casually as he could with thoughts of Lila in his mind, not to mention Napoleon standing right there in all his glory.
Mark put the sandwich he'd just taken a bite out of down on the high-piled plate he held and, after a short pause to finish masticating, said, "There's a wet spot on the floor in the hallway, but it can't be a leak in the roof -- that's two stories above us."
"A wet spot? Where?"
"Just down the hall a step," Mark said, with a toss of his head in the general direction. "Must be right outside--"
"--the bathroom," Napoleon finished with him.
Illya thought about pushing a very wet Napoleon Solo through the wall where, once not touching Illya, the water would fall right through him, and tried hard not to laugh. He very nearly succeeded.
"It was just a thought," Mark muttered, barely audible over Illya's laughter, and took another bite of his sandwich.
They started the process of defrosting Dr. November after breakfast.
Then, at Illya's suggestion, they tried to find the door into the attic, and at Mark's insistence, the girl in green. Around eleven, they reconvened in the dayroom behind the lobby, dusty, tired, and wholly without success.
"And I haven't seen a single phone," April added to the general frustration.
"Not surprising up here." Illya wandered to the window and looked out on the courtyard.
"Had you noticed our communicators aren't working?"
"Yes," he said. Illya put a hand against the cold glass. The frozen fountain glittered sharply, though the sunlight was weak at best. There was endless fascination in the swirls of water trapped by winter, their eternal chaotic ebb and flow locked into a single immutable form. Illya tried to follow a single ribbon of ice from the top of the arc down and got lost partway. It wasn't wholly clear, he noticed; there was a dark area in the middle, but he couldn't quite make out the shape.
"Well, I don't know about you," Mark said cheerfully, "but I'm worried."
"Can we get the car out, do you think?" April kept the same false unconcern in her voice as Mark. "When the snow passes?"
"Going to need some repair work," Mark said doubtfully.
"No need." Illya tore himself away from the window. "November must have driven up here. His car is probably in the garage." He noted their blank looks with a minute shake of the head -- too much looking inside the building, not enough attention to the outside. "To the east of the hotel. I'll go out to see if there's an operational vehicle."
"I'll go with you."
Illya shook his head. "No, Mark. Someone has to keep an eye on the good doctor." And the machine. It worried him that it hadn't activated on its own. He could see nothing wrong with it, and yet...
"Why me?" Mark shivered. "Can't someone else watch the Nobel Prizesicle?"
"Is something wrong?"
"That room gives me the willies."
They seemed to be spreading. Illya refrained from comment.
"What about me?" From her expression, April wasn't any happier about the idea of sitting in the basement with what might, when all was said and done, turn out to be a defrosting corpse, but she wasn't about to shirk her duties, or be left out.
Illya gave her his most serious look. "You can make lunch."
"Here now! That hardly seems fair. Why do I get stuck with the cooking?"
"Bangers and mash." Mark gave her a great smacking kiss on the cheek and headed for the basement.
"SoufflŽ." Illya kissed the other cheek, though with less exuberance, and went to the parlor off the lobby to reclaim his coat. He found boots and other cold-weather gear in a closet and set about suiting up.
"Can I come?" Napoleon asked as Illya stamped into the boots.
"I was hoping you would," Illya said under his breath. The last thing he needed was for April to catch him talking to himself again. She had the unnerving habit of popping up at just the wrong moment. He pulled on a warm fur-lined hat, and the flaps flopped down over his ears. "What are you looking at?" he demanded, pugnacious with self-consciousness.
"The man I love."
Thrown completely off, Illya stomped to the door and flung it open. A wave of snow crashed upon the tiled entry before Illya was able to get the door pulled closed behind him. He looked around him and thought seriously of going back inside. Windmilling his arms, he half-walked, half-swam through the waist-high snow. Thankfully, once he moved a bit away from the building, the depth of snow lessened and the wind died down. Napoleon was waiting patiently for him when he escaped the high drift.
The garage was some distance from the building, out of sight of all but the upper rooms on the east end. Snow laced the trees, making a screen of white and brown and pine green. It was hardly surprising that neither Mark nor April had noticed the small building. Illya himself wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't starting wondering where November's car was.
The air was very cold, with a fresh bite that nipped at the nose and caught, not unpleasantly, in the lungs. In places, the snow was up to Illya's thighs. He breasted it with relish, the simple physical activity of walking made complicated, no need for thought, or thought to spare for unnecessary complications. Except the fact that Napoleon walked beside him with easy graceful strides unencumbered by snow, displacing not a single unique crystal, leaving no sign of his passage.
Illya was white to the waist by the time he reached the squat ugly outbuilding which was the only candidate for a garage, and beginning to wonder why he'd bothered with the boots. Certainly, his feet were still more or less warm and more or less dry, but with the rest of him coated with a powder of white, it hardly seemed worth the effort. The door rolled open to the side; at least it did after Illya slammed it sideways several times until he displaced enough snow out of the track to compel movement.
In the dim light from the snow-encrusted windows, Illya could see two cars parked side by side in the tiny space. Clearly the hotel wasn't designed for operation in the winter. For the summer, a garage would be unnecessary -- there was most likely a parking lot under all that snow in front of the building. Equally clearly, there was a different code of honor up here. Two sets of car keys hung from a hook just inside the door of the garage, with no apparent thought to the possible theft of either keys or vehicles.
Illya tried them both. One car -- the white sporty coupe in the left slot -- turned over unwillingly once, then gave up with a whine. There was a thin layer of dust over the steering wheel and seat that smudged and turned muddy when it came into contact with Illya's coat of snow. He had better luck with the second car -- the dark sedan turned over after a brief hesitation and roared reassuringly to life. Napoleon flashed a smile and a thumbs-up sign.
Illya checked the fuel gauge and nodded with satisfaction. He turned off the machine, and sat for a moment behind the wheel as it ticked loudly to itself in the quiet of the small garage. He climbed out and pocketed the keys.
Napoleon helped him push the garage door shut again, and walked back toward the hotel arm in arm with him. It was more difficult going. The path Illya had clove through the snow on his way out wasn't exactly wide enough for two. As they walked, Napoleon seemed to drag on Illya, his footsteps slowing as they approached the stand of trees that screened them from the hotel. Illya turned to him and was surprised by the darkness in Napoleon's eyes.
Napoleon shook his head. "Nothing."
Illya regarded him a moment. "Lila." He even managed to say it without gritting his teeth.
Napoleon shoulders rose and fell. "There's something... not right here."
Illya refrained from saying anything about knights errant. "I know," he said.
"November's notes, his machine..." He shook his head. "I don't see how so brilliant a man could have made such an obvious mistake."
"To test his machine on himself?"
"To preset his... awakening incorrectly."
Napoleon was silent. He stared through the screen of needled branches. Illya turned to follow his gaze. The blank windows of the hotel looked out like so many eyes, all dark... watching, waiting. In a moment, though, Napoleon noticed Illya looking at him, and grinned broadly. He bent suddenly, tucked his shoulder into Illya's midriff and tossed him into a snowbank. Illya grabbed as he fell, taking Napoleon with him, laughing.
There was snow sneaking into Illya's collar, and sticking to his hair, but he didn't care. He wrapped his arms tightly around Napoleon and held on when the other man would have risen. Napoleon collapsed back against him and burrowed his face into the collar of Illya's jacket, letting in more snow.
"Like that, is it?" Illya grabbed two handfuls of snow and dumped them on Napoleon. He closed his fist around a third and very deliberately deposited it down Napoleon's suit collar. A muffled roar greeted the gift, and Napoleon rolled against him, rocking them both back and forth in the snow. Illya went with it, rolling them completely over. He propped himself on his elbows and grinned down at Napoleon. Flushed, his partner grinned back.
"They'll come looking," Napoleon said after a minute.
Illya let himself down onto Napoleon and kissed his chin.
"We ought to get back."
Illya grabbed Napoleon's hands and pinned them over his head. Then he let his lips traverse the beloved face and took an earlobe between his teeth.
"It is cold."
"You're cold?" Illya stuck his tongue in Napoleon's ear, and Napoleon quivered under him, but not with cold.
"You will be." Napoleon heaved Illya to his knees.
"Very well." Illya stood and held out a hand to Napoleon. Ignoring it, Napoleon climbed agilely to his feet. Illya watched as he rose from the snow, bearing not a crystal with him, and brushed himself off, though there was nothing to dislodge. He felt a tightness come into his throat, as he often did when confronted with the evidence of Napoleon's spiritual nature, and looked away.
Then Illya smiled. In the snow at their feet lay the imprints of two bodies which had rolled and played and embraced there.
There was a banging coming through the open door to the kitchen when Illya returned. He shed jacket and boots silently in the lobby and crept on stocking feet down the hall to the room. After changing out of his frozen clothes, Illya headed for the door to the basement, once more bypassing the kitchen. The carrying sound of cursing suggested there were safer places to be right now.
A sudden shiver overtook Illya as he crossed the basement. "Napoleon?" he murmured, turning to look for the man who'd made rude and suggestive remarks while he was changing, and paced him down the hall and down the stairs. He wasn't in evidence now. Illya shook his head and stepped through the door into the hidden lab.
He was sitting at one of the lab tables, chin propped on his hand, chewing meditatively on a knuckle. Mark's head came up at Illya's voice, and his dark expression took Illya back a step. The sudden fury with which Mark leapt to his feet and swung at Illya took him more than aback, it took him down.
Illya lay on the cold stone floor and gingerly worked his jaw. He didn't bother getting up. Mark seethed over him, fists clenched, and Illya knew he'd only get knocked down again. Unless he was prepared to knock Mark down, and he'd rather like to know why first.
"Any particular reason you did that?" Illya asked steadily. He wiped blood from his lip.
"You bloody bastard! As if you need to ask. Get up," Mark grated, all traces of his usually cheerful demeanor gone.
"No, thank you." Illya propped himself on his elbow and studied the other agent. "What is it that I've done?"
"How should I bloody know?!" Mark paced away from Illya and back again, his jaw working. "Can't leave the sodding ice cube, can I? I don't know what you said to her after I left, but..." and here he seemed to deflate a little. He sagged back against the lab table. "...by God, Illya, I could hear her sobbing all the way down here."
"Hear who sobbing?" April stopped short when she saw Illya on the floor. "Anyone want to tell me what's going on?"
"April?" Mark went to her and wrapped his arms around her. Her arms came around him automatically, but her face, over his shoulder, was clouded with confusion. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Mark." She patted his back helplessly, and looked at Illya. He shrugged from his position on the floor. April set Mark away from her and, her hands on his shoulders, looked him square in the eye. "What's going on?"
"I..." He looked at her, apparently struck by her firm, no-nonsense expression... her unbroken composure. "I heard you crying, April," he said, his voice veined with uncertainty. "What'd he say to you?" His fingers stroked tentatively down her cheek. His voice softened. "You can tell me -- your old buddy, Mark?"
She didn't frown, but her brows drew down. She looked from Mark to Illya and back. "Mark," she said slowly, "you're a love, but I think you've finally cracked."
"I wasn't crying. Haven't been. Won't be, unless you two insist on trying to kill each other." The joke fell a little flat, but she wasn't really paying attention. April placed a fond hand on his cheek. "I appreciate the gesture -- though I'm sure Illya doesn't -- but I can fight my own battles, Mark. You know that."
"Sure I do, love," he said, too quickly. "But I was sure--"
"If you don't mind," Illya said, "it's getting rather cold down here. Would it be all right if I get up now?"
"Oh, uh..." Mark stepped over quickly, and halted just as suddenly. Then stuck out his hand, his expression suggesting he expected the consequences to the limb to be fully as extreme as if he'd stuck it in a tank of piranhas. Illya merely took Mark's hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. "I... uh... Illya, I'm..."
"Never mind, Mark. It's okay." He brushed himself off. "Not that I don't appreciate the rescue, April, but what are you doing down here?"
She drew herself up and put on a face reminiscent of a very proper English butler. "Lunch is served. If," she added, instantly dropping the act, "you boys are done playing?"
"I don't understand," Mark said as she took his arm and walked him to the door, "I know what I heard. If it wasn't you, then who was crying?"
"The whole world," said Dr. Robert November. As they spun to
face him, he stepped from his machine, faltered, and collapsed like a
After the initial shock had worn off, they got November up and carried him up the stairs. He came to halfway down the hall and insisted on walking the rest of the way, though he was shaking so violently that he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. April was all for bundling him up in bed with all the blankets they could find, but none of them had counted on the doctor's stubbornness. A hot shower, he insisted, was all that was needed, and he didn't need any help either.
"Then I guess I'll just have to bring lunch in here." April marched to the door of their room and turned back to add, "I didn't go to all that trouble, just to have it get cold."
Mark shot Illya a shamefaced look, then quickly moved to join her. "I'll come help."
The door closed quietly, leaving Illya alone in the room, the sound of the shower the only noise.
"How's he doing?" Napoleon asked as he walked through the wall.
Illya jumped in spite of himself. "Don't do that!"
"Sorry." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked forward and back on his feet.
"Where have you been?"
Napoleon whistled silently through his teeth and looked away.
Illya forced back jealous words. "I don't suppose you heard anyone crying?"
That got his attention. "Crying? No, should I have?"
"Hell if I know." Illya rubbed his jaw. Mark had a hard right cross. A loud thump drew him to the bathroom door, where he paused. "Could you...?"
"He can't see you. Damn stubborn, mule-headed..."
"Now Illya, go easy on yourself." Napoleon grinned, and Illya wondered what had put him in so chipper a mood, even as he mimed taking a swing at his partner.
Napoleon poked his head through the bathroom door, and emerged after a moment to declare that November was fine. "More than fine, actually."
Illya glared at him. Before he could respond to the tease -- it was a tease, surely -- a cloud of steam heralded November's reappearance.
He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and another around his shoulders, and he still looked haggard and unaccountably cold, despite the rosy flush of his skin and the steam lifting gently from his body. Clinging damply to his neck, his dirty-wheat colored hair needed cutting, lank strands falling over his face. His eyes were a clouded gray, and his face handsome, despite a ragged shadow of stubble. His bare chest showed a broad physique not common in the sort of man who worked every day in a lab, and his legs were strong and well-formed.
"Stop ogling the man and get him to bed."
Illya shot a startled look at Napoleon, who, scowling, stuck his tongue out and deliberately bit it. With a soundless snort, which luckily November failed to notice, Illya wordlessly guided the doctor to the nearest bed. November meekly followed Illya's lead and suffered himself to be helped under the covers in utter silence. Not a word was uttered in the husky voice which had stubbornly dictated their steps since the doctor awoke. The shower had taken up what little strength he had. Drops of water from his hair left dark spots on the pillow. He let his head down gratefully and instantly closed his eyes. By the time Mark and April returned with the food, their charge was well and truly asleep.
They ate sandwiches and soup from trays, sitting on the other bed and speculating quietly about a man returned from the dead.
Illya sat on the couch in the darkened bedroom. The drapes were open, and cold reflective light filled the room with the essence of snow. He yawned without opening his mouth and leaned more heavily against Napoleon. He shouldn't be tired. They'd not kept watch the night before, but with Dr. November living proof of the efficacy of his machine, suddenly the possibility of a Thrush incursion felt imminent, despite the silence and the snow. And the small fact that Thrush could by no means yet know of it.
"You could sleep," Napoleon said, his voice loud in the stillness.
Illya didn't bother to respond. Not only was it unnecessary, but even the lowest whisper would no doubt wake Mark. Though he lay snoring on the near bed, he'd shown an uncharacteristic propensity for waking at the slightest movement of his partner. April lay next to him and, though there were two good pillows for the taking, her head rested on Mark's arm. Far from being inconvenienced, Mark seemed reassured -- he'd fidgeted all over the bed until April shifted over to pin him down with this fraction of her weight.
Dr. November slept in the other bed with the still silence of the dead.
"I can keep watch," Napoleon added.
Illya rolled his eyes. So much for the silent dead. He turned his head and kissed the edge of Napoleon's jaw. He rose and paced quietly across the room, touching the doorhandle in passing, and checked on the doctor for the sixth time during his watch. The man lay flung on his back, breathing slowly, his outstretched left hand tightly fisted. For the sixth time, Illya's fingers hovered over that clenched hand.
"I'd certainly tell you if he stopped breathing," Napoleon said from just behind. Illya withdrew his hand. Napoleon wrapped his arms around Illya's chest and nuzzled his neck.
"Napoleon..." Illya warned, almost soundlessly.
April. Illya shrugged off Napoleon's arms and went to the other bed, where April was sitting up, blinking sleepily. She yawned.
"I think it's my turn," she said quietly. "You should have woken me."
"You need the sleep. So does Mark."
"Mark can sleep just fine," Mark muttered, without opening his eyes.
"Then do it," April whispered. The pat she gave him was one part solicitude, two parts punishment.
Mark growled. He rolled over, turning his back to them. The movement seemed contrary to his behavior, both awake and asleep, that night -- which was focused on April to the exclusion of all else -- until Illya realized that Mark could keep an eye on November that way.
Illya toed off his shoes and stretched out on the free side of the bed. He lay looking up at the ceiling, catching the faint shadow of April's movement flickering over the white expanse. The soft whisper of her movement shifted to the other side of the room. After a moment, she spoke softly.
"You can't sleep with your eyes open, Mark."
Illya smiled and rolled onto his side. If Mark got any more protective, April was going to land him in the hospital. She wasn't one to lightly accept the setting aside of her training or her status as U.N.C.L.E.'s first female agent. Not for the sake of her partner's uncertainties. She didn't know yet that Mark was in love with her. Perhaps even Mark didn't know it. Though if he was any more obviously jealous about the handsome doctor, it would soon become an open secret.
Illya let his hand dangle over the side of the bed. After a minute, as he'd hoped, it was taken in a warm clasp and brought to rest on his partner's solid chest. He ought to feel guilty -- the floor was hardly comfortable -- but he couldn't find it in him to feel anything but relieved.
Tonight, at least, Napoleon wouldn't be going wandering.
Illya smiled to himself again. He wondered if Napoleon was acting under the same motivation as Mark.
Mark volunteered April to get breakfast coffee and "something" as soon as Dr. November first stirred. Then volunteered himself to go along and help, though Illya wasn't sure if it was to stay close to April or to stay on her good side.
Either way, he was alone in the room when November opened gray-green eyes. He did not, otherwise, move a muscle, and it took Illya several minutes to realize that the man was awake. The unadorned ceiling might have held all the secrets of the universe for his unwavering gaze.
"Dr. November?" Illya touched a shoulder through the blankets. "Doctor?"
He moved, finally, turning only his head, and frowned at Illya.
"Who are you?"
November sat up, the covers falling from his bare chest. He tugged his fingers roughly through his hair, shoving it back from his face. "The Russians have their own cryo research team," he said dismissively.
Napoleon's warm breath fanned the back of Illya's neck. "True," Illya said. He stepped back, and trod deliberately and quite heavily on Napoleon's foot. "I'm not here on behalf of the Soviet Union," Illya continued as Napoleon retreated with ill grace. "I'm here on behalf of U.N.C.L.E. You've heard of it?"
November swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat there a moment, head hanging, both hands braced on the mattress. "I've heard of it," he said. He stood. "My clothes?"
"In there." Illya waved him to the bathroom. They'd hung November's suit over the tub, though there was little moisture in the clothes. Only that which had been in his breath, frozen in the cryochamber.
As Dr. November made his unselfconscious way to the bathroom, Illya found his view obstructed by his partner. He scowled at the look Napoleon was giving him. He wasn't really interested in the doctor, though he had to admit that the man was handsome. But Napoleon's behavior made Illya inclined to display more interest than he felt, just to pay back some of the jealousy he'd felt over the years, before and after Napoleon's death.
"Where are my keys?" November said without preamble when he returned. Half the buttons on his shirt were still undone, and he fastened them while waiting, none too patiently, for his answer.
"I have them," Illya said. He'd taken the keys from the doctor's pocket and locked the lab last night -- and had a damned difficult time figuring out which key went to the secret door and where the keyhole was, too. November was lucky he hadn't locked himself in; even with Napoleon's help, they'd never have gotten him out of there. Illya knew what the next question would be, and was thankful to be spared evading it when April and Mark returned with breakfast.
November declined the food, but drank three cups of coffee by the time Illya had mopped up the last fragments of his fourth muffin. He was a quiet sort of man, apparently, and seemed more focused on his coffee than his companions. From the set of his lip, Illya thought, he was disposed toward a self-directed sort of sarcasm, yet there was a bitterness about him which didn't sit with the ease of long residence. His eyes flicked from Mark to April to Illya as they conversed softly while eating, more gray than green, confusion and suspicion entwined in the depths.
"Your wake-up call didn't work, mate," Mark said to him as he handed over the fourth cup of coffee. There'd been no spoken question, but perhaps they were all starting to feel November's silent regard. It was strange that he'd said nothing of his machine yet.
November shrugged with a tiny movement of his head. "A minor miscalculation."
"Minor? If there were someone else here to assist, perhaps, but as it is..." Illya frowned at the man. Impressed as he was by the man's accomplishment, he wasn't enamored of his lab technique. "You came very close to going the way of the woolly mammoth." November seemed less than concerned by the closeness of his call and totally incurious as to how it had happened.
"Surely," April said, smiling to take the sting from the interrogation, "you couldn't have come here alone. You must have brought someone to help--"
"I work alone." He turned away dismissively. They exchanged looks, and April a small shrug. November turned his gaze to Illya. "The keys to my lab," he said.
"Are perfectly safe. For now."
"I should like to have them," he said with rote civility.
"I'm afraid we can't allow that."
"You can't--" The cup in November's hands rattled in its saucer and he set it hastily on the nearest flat surface. His hands went behind his back as he squared off against Illya; even through the material of his suit, the bunching of the muscles in his shoulders was visible. "By what right," he asked, his voice as cold as ice and as brittle, "do you dare interfere with my work?"
"There are things you do not know," Illya began.
April interrupted. "The dangers--" She laid a hand on November's arm.
"Dangers?" He looked down at her, and away. "What possible dangers? You can see how well it works; it worked on me."
"It is not the danger of failure that we're worried about," Illya told him, while Mark glowered, "but the danger of success."
Dr. November stared at him, eyes narrowed. He shook his head once, to the side and back. "The danger of success?" Though his voice started so low as to be a sibilant hiss, it rose rapidly. "What possible danger could lie here? There is only good in this -- the prolonging of life, meting out a few extra weeks or... or days until hope might be found. This is no danger. This is... It's..."
"Frightening, in the wrong hands." Mark's hand crept into the crook of April's elbow and drew her from November's side. "Haven't you ever heard of Thrush, mate?"
November brushed it aside with a brusque gesture. "How-- How dare
you come into my... my lab and presume to... to..." Words deserted him,
and he finished in an inarticulate growl. He stormed out of the room,
the door banging sharply behind him.
It was Napoleon who found him in the dayroom and led Illya there. November stood facing the window which looked out onto the courtyard, but his head was turned to the side, avoiding a direct view of the frozen fountain. His hands were locked behind his back, his knuckles an unhealthy shade of white.
Illya stopped the others just outside the door and silently nodded them away. Some things, only another scientist would understand. November had reason to dislike Illya for taking his keys, but perhaps he could still talk to him. Mark went willingly, his fingers entwined with April's, who went less willingly.
Napoleon went first, circling around November, a bit like a shark circles his prey. Illya frowned at him, wishing he could tell his partner to knock it off. He stopped just inside the door, and waited for November to acknowledge him. He must know he wasn't alone -- the door made a distinct click when Illya closed it, despite his care. Several minutes passed with no movement on either side. Finally, Illya broke the stalemate.
"Thrush is," Illya searched for suitable words, "a thoroughly unpleasant organization devoted to the subjugation of the world." No response from November. Illya took a careful step into the room. "Even the most benign of technological advances might be perverted to their uses, and some technologies are simply too powerful to risk." November did not show by so much as the twitch of a muscle that he heard, yet Illya was certain he did. He went on to illustrate his point with the Thrush plans they'd intercepted, the ones which had brought them here. The ones he'd been unwilling to share with Mark and April. When he was done, they stood in silence. November still faced the window and looked without looking.
"What is it you see out there?" Napoleon whispered, his head bent close to the doctor's. He didn't wait for the answer that wouldn't come. "What are you look for; what are you afraid of finding?"
Illya stepped forward, but he couldn't do anything that wouldn't convince November he was a complete loon. Since when did Napoleon try to interrogate people who couldn't hear him? His behavior was almost... personal.
"Why face the window if you're not willing to look out?" Napoleon leaned in even closer and thrust his ghostly hands at November's chest, as if to grab and shake him. They passed through the man without resistance, and Napoleon almost stumbled into him.
The doctor backed off with a shudder and, as if his shiver was the catalyst, began to speak. "Being frozen is... it's like sleeping for a hundred years. No pain or... grief; nothing to touch you. It's... peaceful."
"For some maybe," Napoleon said. Illya had finally gotten around close enough to put a surreptitious hand on Napoleon's arm. The chorded muscles tensed still further under his hand, and he turned his head to follow Napoleon's gaze. Outside the window, looking like spring striding through drifting snow, the girl in green walked to them. A whirling wall of snow gathered at her back, the wind whipping up into a gale storm that followed at her heels. She slipped into the room and continued on her straight course, her eyes fixed ahead like the carved masthead on the prow of a ship. The fine brown hair draggling over her shoulders and the dress clinging to her overly thin body were both sodden. Iron to lode stone, she moved between Illya and Napoleon, casting a fearsome chill, and walked unerringly through November, her head disappearing into his chest just under his chin.
He gave a great shudder and fell to his knees, wrapping his arms around himself. "Lila," a moan between blue lips. She vanished a few steps beyond.
"Dr. November?" Illya knelt next to the man who rocked himself on his knees. He put a hand on the man's shoulder and found himself captured in a formidably tight grip.
"My keys," November said against Illya's neck, burrowing his cold face against Illya's warm skin as if there was no chance he'd be shoved away. His arms were as strong as a bear's around Illya's ribcage and cold as the deepest recesses of space.
"Illya!" Napoleon's hands were as warm as November's were cold, but they couldn't tug him out of the desperate clinch. "Don't let him--"
"My keys," November breathed, and it seemed even his breath was cold, "please... my keys..."
"I'm sorry, I can't..."
November pulled free, sitting back on his heels, and Illya found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun. After the initial shock, it really wasn't any different from any of the other times he'd ended up at the mercy of his own weapon. Illya sat back, mirroring the other man's posture, but with his hands loose at his sides. Napoleon crouched close at his back, his ghostly body bringing back the warmth November had stolen.
"Easy," Napoleon cautioned, "I don't think he's quite sane."
"They never are," Illya murmured.
November's brows drew together, but he didn't question the odd statement. "You'll remain there while I stand." He waited until Illya nodded, then rose gracefully to his feet. His aim wavered not one iota. Then he gestured Illya to rise.
Illya stood slowly, not taking his eyes off November's, seeming to ignore the gun. He knew, nonetheless, the moment the safety was flicked off. November's eyes flinched at the slight noise.
"I do know how to use one of these," he said.
"I'm sure you do." He didn't point out that knowing how to use a gun and actually being able to shoot another human being were two very different things. Though unsure of what he was doing, November was horribly determined. The gray-green eyes held a fervent, almost frantic, light. "Can we talk about this?"
"The time for talking is past." He gestured with his free hand towards the door. The hand shook visibly, though his gun hand was steady.
"There's nothing you could threaten me with which will get you those keys. They're in a safe place, and out of my reach in any case," Illya lied.
"No matter." His voice was almost as cold as the storm which dashed itself vainly against the windows.
Illya frowned. Why the sudden switch? "What is it you want?"
"What I wanted," November said, following Illya at a safe distance, "was to be left alone."
He refused to say anything else, merely dogged Illya's steps to the kitchen, from which Mark and April's voices could be heard. Napoleon went ahead, his face a mask of worry -- an untried and desperate man was more dangerous than the deadliest professional. When Illya stepped through the door to the kitchen, he found Mark and April cozied up at the table, their heads bent together. He almost smiled, despite the seriousness of the situation. They jumped up, words of explanation on their lips which died when November and the gun came into view.
"I'm very sorry," November said, and surprisingly enough, he sounded sincere. "But be assured that I will fire if I have to."
"We understand," April said, her voice soft and reassuring. "What do you want us to do?" Mark moved up protectively behind her.
"Over there." He sent the three of them over to the walk-in freezer and apologetically requested that April open the door. She shivered in the rush of moist cold air. "Inside."
"How did Lila die, Robert?" Illya asked without moving. For a moment, he thought he'd miscalculated and killed one of them. November's grip on the gun tightened until his knuckles showed white.
"Lila?" April's voice was soft with confusion.
November's gaze turned very far away. The gun never wavered. "She..." he paused to clear his throat, and Illya wasn't sure if he was speaking to them, or himself, "she had... cancer. The doctor gave her three months."
"That's why you started working on the cryogenic machine."
"Yes." The word emerged as a sibilant rush of sound, part sigh, part hiss. "Four months ago."
Napoleon shook his head. "Something isn't right. Ask how she died, Illya."
"She didn't die of cancer, did she?" Illya guessed.
Robert November's face went white. "How...?" He swallowed hard, and gritted his teeth to keep back something -- words, perhaps, for he'd nothing in his stomach but the coffee he'd swallowed earlier. He gestured sharply with the gun. "Inside," he ordered in a voice like ground glass.
"Okay, okay... We're going," April told him, her voice soft and even. Always humor a madman. Especially a madman with a cocked gun at close range. Better to go along than find your insides spattered over the wall.
They moved unwillingly into the freezer, and away from the door as he directed. As the door swung shut on them, it seemed Illya heard November say, "I am very sorry about this..."
Then the door closed on a note of finality and they were left in the icy dark.
"Where is it?"
"Here, I found it." There was a click, and the single bare bulb in the ceiling came on, illuminating the shelves of frozen meats and vegetables and breads and even ice cream which plastered the walls of their small cell. Mark released the pull string and rubbed his arms. "Just my luck," he said. "All that snow out there to freeze to death in, and I'm going to do it inside."
"Does it matter?" Illya felt around the door, trying to squeeze his fingers between the door and the frame. The seal was tight.
"Sure it matters!" Mark wrapped his arms around April. "Dying of exposure outside is... understandable, at least. Freezing to death in a... a freezer is just..."
"Embarrassing," April said.
Mark tucked her under his chin. Illya turned away; watching them comfort and warm each other wasn't going to do anything but make him wish for Napoleon. Who had stayed on the other side of the door. If Illya knew his partner -- and by this time, he'd certainly better -- Napoleon was following the doctor. November was the wild card here. There was plenty of time to rescue them from the freezer later, if they didn't manage to get out on their own.
Illya wasn't particularly worried about freezing to death. Napoleon would be back in plenty of time. Still, if he died there, he wondered whether he'd go through the afterlife frozen. A ghost-sicle. Probably not. Napoleon didn't look like he'd died in a car accident. Illya had insisted on seeing his body before he'd believed his partner was dead. He swallowed, and deliberately put those images from his mind. No, Napoleon didn't look anything like-- he didn't look dead. So why was Lila dripping wet?
She was also stuck in a recurring pattern, which Napoleon definitely was not. Perhaps it had something to do with not believing she was dead. Perhaps it was that knowledge which haunted her, and what she feared in the hotel was the truth which stalked her. After her performance in the day room, the question of who stalked whom took on a difference hue. Illya shivered.
"What's he going to do?" April asked softly, her face buried in Mark's shirt collar.
"Look for his bloody keys, no doubt."
"And what if he finds them?"
"He won't," Illya said. He dipped his hand into his pants pocket and brought out a set of keys. They dangled innocuously from his fingers.
"Then he'll be back when he can't find them." Mark's eyes gleamed. "We'll have a chance to--"
"I don't think he'll come back for them."
April cocked her head. "Why not, Illya?"
He tried the door again. "He seemed to be changing gears when he brought me in here." Was it his imagination, or was there a crack of light at about knee level? "I think he just wants us out of the way." He knelt and pried at the molding
"While he does what, exactly?"
Illya shrugged without turning. He was able to get the tips of two fingers into the split; he tried wiggling them. "Maybe Napoleon can tell us when he gets back."
The absolute silence behind Illya brought his mind back to the present, and precisely what he'd just said. Slowly, he bent his forehead against the door, and resisted the impulse to thump it sharply off the shiny metal.
"Illya..." The same soft, even tone she'd used on November.
"Don't worry about it, April," he said, turning to smile up at her. "Just a slip of the tongue."
She came to crouch next to him. "It didn't sound like it." Her hand rested warm on his arm. "I've been worried about--"
"I know." If he were Napoleon, he'd have patted her cheek. Although, if he were Napoleon, his hand would have gone right through her. "There's nothing to worry about."
Napoleon walked through the freezer door at that moment. "You'd better hurry, Illya. November's-- Something up?"
Illya ignored him. It was all he could do. He put his hand over April's. "Really -- there's nothing to worry about."
Napoleon dropped to his heels next to Illya. "Uh-oh, doesn't sound good." He rested a hand on Illya's shoulder. "Anything I can--"
"Okay," April said over Napoleon, "we'll worry about getting out of here first, and then, Illya, we need to t--" Her hand, reaching for Illya's shoulder, brushed Napoleon's.
They both jumped.
Illya didn't. He was far too startled to react at first, and then the wheels started turning. Why the hell hadn't they thought of that before? If Napoleon could touch any object Illya touched, then why not a person?
"Illya..." April said slowly. She cautiously reached for his shoulder, her fingers trembling slightly. But Napoleon's jump had shifted his hand, and she touched only Illya's jacket. She let her breath out in slow relief.
Illya took her wrist in his hand, gentling his grip when she winced. He leaned close, his voice low. "I'm not crazy."
"Oh, Illya, of course n--"
And Illya brought her hand to Napoleon's. Once again, she touched flesh where she could see only fabric. She gave a little gasp, and curled her fingers in. Then just as quickly stretched them out again. "What..."
He laughed softly. "Do you believe in ghosts?" He looked over her shoulder at Mark, who stood in the middle of the room, watching. His expression was hard to read, but jealousy played as large a part as worry.
She yiped when Napoleon turned his hand over and grasped her fingers.
"No, Mark, it's okay." She closed her fingers around Napoleon's. "He took my hand."
April wasn't listening. Her eyes glittered. "Oh, Illya, is it really...?"
He smiled. "It's really."
"Napoleon, Mark. It's Napoleon. He's... he's..." A tear broke loose and slipped down her cheek.
"Here now!" Mark stormed over and hauled April to her feet. "That's about enough."
"I think now would be a good time to get out of here," Illya murmured to Napoleon. If he was going to have to defend himself from a jealous U.N.C.L.E. agent, he wanted more room to do it in. Besides, he was freezing.
"Right." Napoleon watched Mark warily as he stood and moved to the door. Illya waited until Napoleon vanished through the freezer door, then went to put his hands on it. The click came immediately, and the door began to swing open.
"How did you--"
"Neat trick," April said over Mark. She pulled free of him and stepped out of the freezer. They stood shivering in the kitchen, feeling almost colder as the heat of the room hit them than they had inside the freezer. Illya's Special was on the table. He picked it up, relieved to have it back, and that they didn't have to worry about November ambushing them from the stairwell.
"Quickly, Illya." Napoleon headed for the door. "November was battering down the door to his lab when I left him."
That sounded relatively harmless. "Why the rush?"
Napoleon looked at him. "If he keeps at it like that, he's going to hurt himself."
He spared April a glance as he headed out the door after Napoleon. Her smile wobbled in a face full of questions. And there wasn't time for a single one of them. "November," he said.
She nodded resolutely, squared her chin, and moved to join him.
"Bloody hell," Mark muttered as he followed April after Illya out of the kitchen. "Has everyone gone balmy?"
There were bloody handprints on the remains of the lab door. Inside, the machine which had frozen Dr. Robert November and brought him back to life was a twisted smoking ruin illuminated by a fountain of sparks. His lab notes, which Illya had left on one of the tables, smoldered fitfully in a wastebasket. The basement lab was colder than the freezer had been.
"I guess he took your words to heart, Illya," Napoleon said quietly.
The doctor was nowhere in sight.
The wind moaned around the hotel as they searched, repeating their previous pattern, from top to bottom. April and Mark took the master key and searched one wing, while Napoleon and Illya took the other. Mark went off with April, trailing confusion and complaint. Illya was just as happy to go the other way. In the top floors, the wind sounded like all the damned in hell, and the building creaked its old bones and moaned back. Every window was whited out with blowing snow. But the blizzard seemed greatest outside the windows to the courtyard.
They came back together again in the lobby, and Illya knew on seeing the others' faces that they'd found nothing. He risked pushing open the front door, but the howling wind drove stinging snow in his face. It was impossible to tell that there had ever been any footprints leading away from the building, let alone any new ones. Mark helped him push the door shut, unaware of Napoleon lending a hand against the fearsome wind.
"Then where is he?"
"Not inside," Mark decreed. "I'd wager my last shilling on that."
"Lila is missing too," Napoleon added.
Silently, Illya walked from the lobby to the dayroom. He went up to the windows that should have looked on the courtyard. All he could see was white.
"If he's not inside," Illya said softly, more to himself than the others, "then he must be outside."
Mark swore viciously. Illya caught his arm before he could try the door into the courtyard. He gripped the chorded muscles tightly and shook his head.
"Leave it, Mark. Until the storm dies down, it would be suicide to go out there."
"Dammit, Illya! Don't you see that's just what it is?"
"Yes," he said simply.
"Then we've got to stop him--"
Illya reeled Mark back again. "We already did once."
April gave a soft gasp. "The cryochamber."
"He never intended it to revive him." The windowpane was impossibly cold under his hand.
"But... but, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist... why?"
"Lila," April said softly. "Who was she, and how did you find out about her?"
A smile quirked his lips as he looked at Napoleon. "The hotel appears to be haunted."
"Mark..." She laid her hand on his arm, and he quieted, albeit unwillingly.
"She was..." Illya looked to Napoleon, who shrugged.
"Someone he loved very much," April suggested.
Illya gave half a nod.
"You hit a nerve when you said she didn't die of cancer. What made you guess that?"
Illya thought of a cold too deep even for ghosts, of a woman saturated with water, of being stuck. He didn't need to glance at Napoleon to find his answers. But one look at Mark's face put paid to the idea of mentioning any of it. April might be disposed to believe in spirits for the moment, but not Mark. "I think she committed suicide," was all he said.
"You think he drove her to--"
"No, Mark." April snugged herself under his arm, which closed
automatically about her. "I think she couldn't wait any longer for him.
She didn't have faith."
With many a mutter, and more than a few dark glances at Illya, Mark stalked off to retrieve jackets from the lobby. April couldn't quite manage to meet Illya's eyes. Feeling the sting of censure, he shrugged off Napoleon's hand. He was used to enjoying Mark's good opinion.
Mark came back with all three jackets. And a coil of rope.
Without a word, he knotted one end around his waist, and the other around the leg of a hefty sofa. He shrugged into his jacket in a couple of angry jerks and forced the door against the wind. Opening outward, it took all of their weight to shift, Illya and April lending a silent hand.
Wind howled, frigid, into the room, bearing snow like tiny bullets.
His head down, Mark stumped out, leaning into a solid wall of wind-driven snow. In an instant, he faded into white. Napoleon walked out after him, untouched by wind or snow, and vanished quite as effectively as ever he'd managed on his own. April's knuckles paled, her grip on his rope trembling with indecision.
They gave him only as long as it took to count to two hundred, then began to pull him back. He came slowly, then fast, popping out of the storm like a cork out of a bottle. All over white, he shuddered tremendously, and made no complaint when Illya and April hauled the door shut.
Illya let April guide her partner over to the couch farthest from the door. He stood looking into the white maw of the storm until it finally disgorged Napoleon. He came to Illya, fully as cold as Mark, though without the snow, and gathered him close without a word.
Illya didn't ask what he'd seen.
Mark looked at his watch again. "How long are we going to--"
"Until the storm dies down." Illya nodded toward the window, still painted white from outside, now with a rime of frost on the inner surface, without otherwise moving. He sat slumped in a chair that would have been comfortable under other circumstances, Napoleon at his feet. Napoleon leaned heavily against Illya's leg, his arm twined around Illya's calf acting as an anchor. The urge to fidget grew stronger by the minute, not helped by Mark's pacing.
"Please, Mark, you're making me dizzy." April held out a hand to him. She sat in the armchair kitty-corner to Illya's own and added to his general feeling of unease by watching him with a calculating expression gathering about her candid eyes.
Everyone had finally warmed up after Mark's expedition, and the toll of doing nothing was beginning to show. It had taken the application of blankets and warm cocoa to quell Mark's shaking. Napoleon hadn't let Illya out of his arms for more minutes than Illya was willing to count. For all that time, Mark had been too occupied with freezing, and April with his shivering, to notice. For that, Illya was rather pathetically grateful.
Mark perched unwillingly on the arm of her chair. "All right then," he said after a moment, his voice tight with resolution, "let's talk about something else. Like what was going on in that bloody freezer."
Napoleon's arm tightened around Illya's leg. He'd been unnaturally silent while they waited. Illya wasn't sure whether to attribute it to the general unease, or the earlier shock of unexpected contact. He wasn't sure how he felt himself.
"What?" he asked, trying to look as ingenuous as possible. He wasn't ready to talk about the freezer. Not until he knew whether he was happy for Napoleon, or relieved that his ghostly partner couldn't touch anyone without his assistance. And if the latter, how guilty he ought to feel about how he felt about it.
"No, Illya," April said slowly, "I think perhaps we really ought to..."
"Illya," Napoleon said hoarsely. Though April continued, Illya didn't hear her. Napoleon's grip continued to tighten, and he finally realized it wasn't because of anything Mark had said.
He turned to Napoleon, and saw the dark head turned to the window. The storm of white had subsided. Though it snowed still, there were glimpses of the fountain, something dark at its core, and something darker still at its base. Illya rose slowly to his feet. He was vaguely aware of April's voice trailing off.
It took the strength of three agents and one ghost to force the door. It opened with a crack like a rifle shot. All three of them went for their guns. All four, if you counted Napoleon, though he didn't have a gun. They smiled sheepishly at each other when they realized it was only the ice in the hinges.
Snow floated lazily down as they walked to the fountain. It was bitterly cold, even through the thickness of a jacket. Yet there seemed, for the moment, no rush. Except for the soft drift of snow, it was preternaturally still.
He sat with his back to the building. Only his head was visible above the stone bench he leaned against. His face was turned to the fountain, and snow feathered his hair and spanned his shoulders with epaulettes. Nowhere near enough snow, given the storm which had raged out here until a few minutes previous. Illya walked around in front of him and sat on the edge of the frozen fountain. Napoleon moved in silently at his side.
Robert November's eyes were open. A white fringe adorned his eyelashes. He was smiling faintly.
Illya shook his head gently. "Even I am not so cruel as that, Mark." He shrugged in response to the look Mark shot him, and patted the smooth ice behind him. "They're together now."
April gave a soft gasp. She moved to rest her fingers against a ribbon of ice. "Lila?"
Illya nodded. Her green dress rippled like spring in the grip of the ice. At the center of the fountain, she sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, her open eyes seemingly focused on the place where November sat.
"Fitting," April said, almost soundlessly.
He should have been appalled, or at least offended by the senselessness of it. But with Napoleon's hand warm on his shoulder, he couldn't find it in him to judge. Flakes of snow drifted against his cheeks like tiny caresses, and instantly melted, leaving them wet. "At least until spring. We could give them that much, don't you think? Mark?"
But he was staring fixedly at a point over Illya's right shoulder.
His mouth opened, but the only thing that emerged was an odd choked sound. April gave him a look of utter perplexity, then turned to follow his gaze, and went a little open-mouthed herself. Illya looked up and found only what he expected: Napoleon, as always. He smiled. With a fine dusting of snow delineating his head, shoulders, arms, lapels...
"So, Mark," Illya said, "do you believe in ghosts?"
They let Illya have room number Five. When they finally let him leave at all. Even Napoleon had grown weary of the new wonder of contact. He seemed... drained.
Napoleon made an exceedingly rude noise and flopped on the bed next to Illya. "Did you lock the door?"
"Didn't you see me do it?"
"Wasn't paying attention." Napoleon rolled over and buried his face in the crook of Illya's shoulder. His nose felt cold against Illya's neck.
Illya pushed and rolled and managed to tuck himself into the curve of Napoleon's body. "What were you paying attention to, then?"
In answer, Napoleon's hand slipped down his back and comfortably palmed the curve of his buttock. Illya sniggered against Napoleon's neck.
Silence again. Finally, Illya breathed out softly. "Do you think they're together?"
"I hope so." Napoleon rolled to his back and dragged Illya atop him. His hands stroked slow heat into Illya's back. Illya wondered if he was thinking of the sad-eyed, green-garbed girl. The thought didn't bring jealousy. He lay quietly on Napoleon's unmoving chest and even drowsed a bit. "Why does my being invisible bother you?"
Illya stirred. "It doesn't."
"It's the idea of your vanishing permanently that bothers me."
"I'll never leave you."
"You may not have a choice." Anxiety crashed through his veins, and he twitched, but Napoleon's arms closed tightly about him, preventing him from moving away. He pushed his face hard against Napoleon. Napoleon's collarbone squashed his nose. "You're always talking to priests and exorcists and mediums..."
Napoleon shrugged awkwardly against the mattress. "I'm curious. None of them can hear me anyway."
"One day," Illya said.
"One day what?" When he didn't go on.
"One day, you're going to find someone who can answer all your questions." He propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at Napoleon's face, their legs entwined, Napoleon's arms an iron band around his waist. "And then..."
"Don't count an equine's teeth."
Napoleon's brows drew together. After a moment, he roared, his laughter shaking Illya. "That's 'never look a gift horse in the mouth,' you silly Russian." He dragged Illya back down against him and rocked him in an encompassing embrace. His cheek against Illya's hair, he said, "I won't ever leave you." His jaw moved against Illya's scalp. It tickled. Illya burrowed his nose into the ghostly collar until his lips dipped into the hollow of Napoleon's throat.
"How can you know?" Illya murmured against the salt-sweetness of skin.
"I know. I can't say how, Illyusha, but I know. I know it... in my bones."
"You don't have any bones."
"Yes, I do." He could hear the smile. "They're--"
Illya pushed up on one elbow and put the other hand over Napoleon's mouth. Napoleon kissed his palm, his eyes twinkling above Illya's hand. "You're impossible," Illya said. He moved his hand.
Napoleon's eyes caught with dark fire. "Yes." He accepted Illya's kiss, but broke it off far too soon. "You sure you don't like it when I'm invisible?" Illya caught the devilish gleam in Napoleon's eye too late to stop himself being rolled over and pinned. Napoleon placed a line of neat kisses under the edge of Illya's jaw. Illya closed his eyes and purred. "Think of it: you, on your back, your legs spread." His words fanned hotly over Illya's ear as his palms stroked down to Illya's knees, then up his inner thighs. Illya parted his legs automatically, and Napoleon fit himself between them with a shared groan. "Hard. Dripping." He undulated his hips against Illya's. Panting, Illya tangled his hands in Napoleon's hair and tried to bring him up for a kiss. Napoleon let himself be led, but held off from letting their lips touch. "Feeling me, here, between your legs. Hard. Hot. Thrusting." He suited action to words, and Illya snarled at the impediment of their clothes. "Moving inside your warm... hot... tight body. And you open your eyes..." His breath gusted over Illya's lips. "...and see nothing."
Illya pried open his eyes.
Napoleon ground his groin against Illya's, setting hardness against hardness through the infuriating muffle of cloth. His body was hot, weight pushing Illya's into the mattress, the feel of his slim hips between Illya's thighs making him spread his legs wider. Illya felt every inch of his lover, down to the moist touch of lips at the base of his throat, then just under his ear.
"Seeing nothing," Napoleon whispered against Illya's ear, his breath hot, "feeling everything."
"Napoleon," Illya growled.
"Get your damned clothes off."
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