|Napoleon Solo thrust cautiously, every sense alert to each
nuance of his partner's response. When the expected reaction came, he
rode a wave of exhilaration, making his thrusts more determinedly, with
a touch of the flare for which he was so well known. His partner
followed his movements eagerly in a dance centuries old. Each contact
tingled along Napoleon's nerves and he wished they might dance so
forever, but he knew he'd soon have to bring it to a close. Sweat stung
his eyes, and prickled on his sides and back, his breath coming short
now. The muscles in his thighs quivered as he gathered himself for the
culmination. The end came suddenly and without warning: his eyes
exploding with crimson light, ears buzzing.
"Damn it, Illya!" Napoleon pushed back his helmet and turned to woefully regard the red light blinking on top of the score box. "How did you feint your way out of that one?"
Illya executed a fancy salute with his sword and removed his helmet. "Five points, Napoleon. I win this bout." He walked over to reset the box, turning off both the light and the buzzer, and spent a moment tinkering with the wiring. Napoleon didn't bother to watch -- the box hadn't been resetting itself properly since they started practicing; it was unlikely Illya could get it to work properly at this late date.
"Only by one hit." Napoleon strode over to the bench to drink from a bottle of water. "Care to try again?"
"With only one more bout left to win the match? Certainly."
"You're assuming you'll win the next one too."
"I might have something to say about that."
"You can try." Illya flipped the box back on and thumbed the spring-mounted button on the end of his foil to test the equipment. His white light accompanied the buzzer, indicating an off-target hit. Both light and buzzer shut off after about two seconds.
"Oh good, you got it working again." Napoleon pulled his helmet back down and returned to the strip. He carefully rested the tip of his foil on the electronic mat under his feet and pushed down until the flexible weapon bowed out into a semicircle, then lifted the sword again to judge the slight curve that remained. The box remained silent during the procedure, as it should.
"If you're done fooling around?" Illya took his place behind the line drawn on the strip and flicked his foil at Napoleon in salute before tugging on his mask.
"En guarde," Napoleon returned the salute and dropped into position, Illya mirroring his stance from a few feet away.
Napoleon advanced slowly, watching as Illya held his ground until his opponent came within striking distance. He extended his arm, presenting his blade, and Illya immediately parried, metal ringing on metal. Simple thrust and counter-thrust, advance, retreat, parry, riposte. They were well matched, and bouts could run long without a score as they worked their way slowly back and forth down the narrow strip, each looking for an opening.
Illya advanced with a lunge, forcing Napoleon to hastily retreat as he parried the blow. He shifted forward again instantly with his riposte and was surprised to catch Illya lightly on the right shoulder. The box's buzz was accompanied by a green light this time.
"Touche." Illya acknowledged. He recovered himself and returned to his starting position.
"Lose your balance?"
"Perhaps I overextended a little. En guarde," he called as soon as Napoleon was back behind his line.
This time, Napoleon held his ground and let Illya come to him. He shifted slowly back and forth on his feet to prevent himself being caught flat-footed and immobile. Illya was damn good at waiting him out until he either took the offensive and rushed into some devious trap, or could be caught unprepared. It was, he supposed, part of the Russian's charm.
Napoleon watched how Illya responded to each move, cataloging his reaction to various attacks, looking for the one that fell a little short. Thinking he saw his opening, he led his partner through a series of quickly paced moves before trying a simple beat attack: slapping Illya's blade aside with his own, then thrusting straight at the unprotected chest. It was too simple a gambit to work ninety percent of the time, and his gamble didn't pay off on this occasion. His blade was shunted aside with a muted clang, and a hard thump against his breastbone heralded the hit even before the red light went off to confirm it. His own foil struck simultaneously, green joining the red on the box.
"Damn," Napoleon hissed under his breath. He raised his free hand to acknowledge the hit and retreated back to his starting position.
Unlike fencing with an ŽpŽe, in which any hit on any part of the body at any time after the start of action counted, fencing with a foil was more delicate. Only hits on the vest covering the torso of each fencer counted, and only if the fencer had the right of way -- the primacy of attack. Illya had parried the attack, therefore his hit counted; Napoleon's was incidental.
The rules made foil fencing very much unlike real life, where every hit counted. However, it did emphasize strategy over brute force, which appealed to both agents. ƒpŽe fencing tended to be a matter of speed and force; foil fencing was more like a chess game. If you didn't think three moves ahead, you were probably dead. It was harder to fence foil competitively without a director to call the action and award the points, but both men were good enough to be aware of who had the right of way when a hit was made, and honest enough to call the shots properly. At least, Napoleon knew Illya wouldn't cheat if he thought he'd get caught.
"One; one." Illya bounced on his toes. "Ready?"
"Begin," Napoleon agreed. He advanced quickly this time, beating Illya back toward the end of the strip. A flurry of blows kept Illya retreating with each parry. It was dangerous to push the Russian too far, however. His rear foot on the end of the strip, Illya stopped finally, one step away from losing another point. Experienced fencers didn't retreat all the way off the strip unless they'd lost their bearings; it was a beginner's mistake.
"You're pushing it," Illya pointed out calmly, parrying another flickering attack.
"So push back." Napoleon parried the riposte and circled his blade under Illya's to attack in an oblique angle. His foil was carried around in a quick bind which resulted in the light tap of the tip against his side and another red light.
"Thanks for the advice." Illya slapped Napoleon on the shoulder as they returned to the center of the strip. It was hard to see his face through the wire mesh of the mask, but Napoleon was in no doubt that his partner was smirking.
"Smart ass." Napoleon transferred his weapon to his left hand and flexed his stiff fingers, then settled them comfortably around the hilt again.
"Two; one." Definitely a grin.
"En guarde." Napoleon dropped into his stance and just stood there, waiting. That was the real fun of fencing with Illya -- sticking to the same tactics all the time was the road to certain defeat against such an experienced opponent; it required flexibility and imagination to defeat him -- the challenge was exhilarating.
Illya rocked back and forth on his feet a few times, keeping a wary eye on his opponent. Suddenly, he jumped forward and lunged, a lightning fast attack called a balestra. Startled despite himself, Napoleon leapt back, barely parrying the blade before it struck his chest, and flicked a riposte at Illya's shoulder. He was moving in the wrong direction, however, and when the buzzer sounded, there were two lights on the box: green and white.
"What'd I hit?"
"Arm first," Illya tapped his biceps, then touched his breast, "then here."
Napoleon nodded. No points there. He snorted indignantly; not that he should get any for being caught so off-balance.
They returned to the center and started again.
They'd been fencing together for five years; ever since being partnered. With that much practice observing each other's technique, not to mention the growing understanding of each other's character garnered in the field, it was hard for either to catch the other off-guard. Fencing bouts were almost more a matter of chance than skill with opponents so well matched.
Still, one could occasionally surprise even a skilled opponent.
Napoleon took the next point by the simple expedient of rushing Illya the moment they began: a fleche or running attack. His foil flicked stingingly against his partner's shoulderblade as he passed him on the strip.
"Two; two," Illya conceded, with a defiant air, as if to say it definitely wouldn't be happening again.
But he lost the next point as well, when his attack fell just slightly short. Napoleon had learned that little trick from watching April and Mark practicing one day -- he sucked in his breath and rounded his back, pulling his body a few centimeters farther away from Illya's attack at the same time as he countered without parrying. It was dangerous -- if Illya's foil hit home, the point would be his -- but in this instance it worked. Probably the only time it ever would.
This time it was Illya who tried the fleche. Napoleon parried wildly and riposted at an angle, striking back just before Illya passed him. A second later, another step, and Illya would have been past him, and the point invalid. As it was, Illya stalked back to his position in high dudgeon.
"Four; two," Napoleon said cheerfully, "one more point will do it."
"Only if it's yours."
It was, but only by the barest fluke. Napoleon distinctly felt the tap of Illya's foil against his chest and knew, even though his blade also struck home, that the point was Illya's. However, when they turned to look at the box, only the green light was lit.
Napoleon pulled off his helmet and shook his head at the machine. "Here," he caught the end of Illya's foil in his free hand and pushed the button on the tip. The white light went off. So far, so good. He pulled it forward to press the tip against his vest and got a red light for his efforts. Napoleon shrugged. "It seems to be working."
"Now," Illya supplied sourly.
"You want to take it over?"
"No." Illya pulled off his helmet and dropped it on the strip. He walked over to pick up a bottle of water and screwed off the cap. "The bout is yours." He drank thirstily.
"Now Illya, if you think you lost unfairly..."
"No," Illya wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "The equipment isn't perfect, but it is fair. It's just as likely to fail to my benefit as yours."
Napoleon took the water from Illya and drank. His mother would have been appalled: sharing saliva and germs and such. Then again, it was a good thing his mother never saw the way they lived out of each other's pockets in the field. Illya merely took the water back from him without a word and drained the bottle.
"You want to continue?" Napoleon wiped sweat off his forehead with his sleeve.
"Two to two, Napoleon -- whoever wins the next bout wins the match -- what do you think?"
"I think it's late," Napoleon mentioned with a nod toward the clock. They always practiced during the late shift. It was the only way to use the facilities without drawing a crowd, which tended to prove rather embarrassing.
Illya glanced at it and shrugged. "So it's after nine; you tired already?"
Napoleon smiled. "Nope. Just thought you might be missing your bed. A good communist after all: early to bed and early to rise and all that."
"Just because I'm not out all night seducing the entire female population of New York..." Illya put on his mask, but didn't pull it down over his face, leaving it balanced on top of his blond head like a bizarre hat.
"Tsk tsk," Napoleon sighted down his foil, then took it between both hands and carefully bowed it, putting calculated pressure along the blade to bend it to the right curve. "Anyone would think you were jealous, little comrade." He eyed the blade again critically, only partially satisfied. If the blade was too straight, it would break when it hit home, rather than bending harmlessly.
Illya snorted. "Jealous? Napoleon, I'd sooner be jealous of a rutting bull." A quick jerk of his head brought the mask down over his face, and he took up his stance. "Can we get started?"
"Certainly, tovarisch." Napoleon pulled on his mask to cover his grin and took his place. "Shall we?"
Illya seemed to come out of the gate at a dead gallop, if that wasn't mixing sports too much. The box was buzzing, the light glowing red, and Napoleon was nursing a bruised shoulder from an exceptionally solid hit, before he could even blink.
"Have I insulted you?" Napoleon asked in aggrieved tones. "Recently, I mean?"
"What?" Illya seemed suddenly interested in fixing the curve of his own foil, no doubt bent out of shape by attempting to drill a hole through his partner.
"If you could refrain from trying to puncture me...?" Napoleon shook his arm out a bit, then took up his stance again.
"One; zero. En guarde." This time, Illya held his position, waiting for Napoleon to come to him.
After a minute or so of rocking back and forth on his feet, watching his partner warily for any signs of that lightning attack, Napoleon got bored waiting and took the offensive. A series of simple parries and ripostes followed, with Illya retreating more than he advanced, until Napoleon had pushed him all the way down the strip again. Suddenly, Illya counterattacked with a flurry of blows, driving Napoleon inexorably back, until he took that one misstep that left him open.
Napoleon returned to his starting mark to the red light of the box and scowled at his grinning partner.
"Two; zero. Ready?"
Whether he was or not, Illya was on him in a moment, and Napoleon was hard-pressed to defend himself. The exchange of blows ended with a couple of loud thwacks and the sound of the buzzer. They groaned when they glanced at the box, however, because all four lights were on this time: two white and two colored.
Napoleon nodded agreement. He wasn't entirely sure, to tell the truth, who would have had the point anyway, but since both of them had managed off-target hits slightly before hitting on-target it was a moot point anyway. No points either way.
The next time, Illya started bouncing like a rubber ball the minute Napoleon said en guarde. He wasn't going anywhere; just displaying a dizzying explosion of kinetic energy. It was one tactic for preventing yourself from getting caught flat-footed, but too taxing for Napoleon's taste. He watched for a moment, grimacing at the energetic outlay, which was oddly irritating to watch, then attacked. Unfortunately, Illya wasn't nearly as distracted by his hyperactive behavior as Napoleon was, and it only took a few exchanged blows before one of his counterattacks punched straight through Napoleon's parry to land.
"Are you sure you're not the one who needs to get home to bed?" Illya asked cheerfully as they returned to the starting marks.
"Only if there's something soft and welcoming in it. En guarde." Napoleon was ready for anything this time. Perhaps that's why he was startled when Illya abruptly returned to a more restrained style of fencing.
"A teddy bear, perhaps." Illya tried a straight attack, withdrawing immediately with a quick counterparry when Napoleon riposted.
"I was thinking more along the lines of female companionship." Napoleon advanced twice without doing anything but keeping his foil ready and his guard up.
"Lavinia," Illya suggested sweetly, batting almost playfully at Napoleon's blade -- not a prelude to attack, just the beating of metal against metal.
"Ernestine." This time the beat led to an attack, which Napoleon parried easily. His counterattack was just as easily parried and they disengaged to start again.
"Angelique," Napoleon said, purely to twit Illya.
"I fail to understand what you see in her," Illya grumbled sourly.
"She's beautiful," Napoleon suggested, trying a low-lying attack, retreating a bit when Illya parried. The frenetic pace of the first part of the bout had settled into a careful, cautious exchange of blows, infinitely more sedate.
"And deadly. What is it about black widows?" He attacked, parried the counter attack, and retreated again, staying just out of reach. For all the sleepy pace of the match, Napoleon was slowly backing Illya into a corner.
"If I just wanted to sleep with someone dangerous, Illya, I'd bed you." The green light stopped the action. "You need to do something about keeping your guard up, tovarisch."
Illya stalked silently back to the center of the strip.
"One; three. Illya?" Napoleon was beginning to wonder if he should have kept his mouth shut. It was only a joke. And an attempt to surprise Illya into making a mistake, which he had. Napoleon smiled -- so that's it: the little bastard was sulking over losing the point.
"En guarde." Hardly had the words left his mouth than Illya beat hard against Napoleon's blade, his foil springing up to deliver a stinging blow to the top of Napoleon's shoulder.
Illya took a step back to return to his previous position and smiled. "Four; one."
"Not very nice," Napoleon decreed.
"Neither is teasing me. En guarde." His foil beat against Napoleon's again, but this time he was ready, blocking the second blow and counterattacking. Illya parried, but only barely kept the foil from his vest.
"Illya, Illya, Illya... trying the same thing twice in a row? Not very imaginative." Napoleon parried the next attack with a bind, carrying Illya's blade around in a quick circular motion as he pressed forward. Illya disengaged and parried quickly, his counterattack making Napoleon retreat.
"Oh, and that little trick of yours was imaginative?" Illya gave the word a subtly vicious twist.
"All's fair, you know..." He feinted at a low-lying attack, evaded the parry and switched lines to attack around Illya's guard, but his partner masterfully parried the sneaky gambit.
"Ah... love and war, is it? And which is this?" Illya advanced, and Napoleon let him, retreating reflexively without losing a lot of ground.
"Which is what?" Napoleon asked to buy himself a little time. It had suddenly occurred to him that the verbal fencing might possibly turn out to be more important than the physical match he was currently losing. And by a larger margin than he'd ever lost to Illya before. But then, he'd never seen Illya so determined to win. His little comment seemed to have brought out something unexpected in the Russian. And for once, Napoleon wasn't even certain of his own motives. It had been just a joke, right?
Illya sighed. His foil slid along Napoleon's in a hissing glissade, the point almost grazing Napoleon's chest as he twisted to avoid it, the fencing move imbued with a sudden sensuality.
"Love or war, Napoleon?"
Illya lunged, bring his foil up from under Napoleon's guard to hit with a light deft touch on Napoleon's chest. The red light proclaimed the end of the bout.
Napoleon pushed back his helmet and watched while Illya removed his, holding it in his right hand with the foil while he wiped his face with his left sleeve. The blond hair was plastered against his skull with sweat, his pale complexion flushed rosy with exertion. Much, Napoleon thought suddenly, as he'd look in the aftermath of strenuous lovemaking. He blinked.
"I'll give you a hint," Illya said softly as he stepped closer, the furnace of his body heat impressing itself on Napoleon's overheated senses. He took Napoleon's left hand in his own. It was traditional to shake hands after a match -- the only place in Western society that one shook left hands, the right one being otherwise occupied -- but never with such a tender grip. "The correct answer is love," he murmured.
Stunned, Napoleon watched silently as Illya grabbed his gym towel and strode off to the showers. After a moment, he began to smile. He was whistling when he gathered up his kit and headed after Illya.
The body in his bed that night might not be soft, perhaps, but certainly welcoming. And welcome. Most welcome.
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