|The heavy glass statue crashed through the window with such
force that it continued outward several feet before plummeting to the
pavement two stories below. The sound and fury with which it shattered
would be, Illya thought, wholly unsatisfying.
No. Illya sighed. Throwing things was hardly a solution. Not only would paying for the damages upset Waverly, but if someone happened to be passing on the sidewalk at the time...
He returned the statue carefully to its perch on the bedside table, his fingers lingering to stroke the graceful curves as his eyes wandered to the window. Though spring ought, by now, to have slipped stealthily in, winter clung with leaden tenacity to the city. The sky was a blank almost-gray which so closely mirrored the way Illya felt that he was forced to look away.
"Illya?" April hesitated in the doorway, her smile unconvinced. Illya drew his hand back from the statue and clasped it with the other in his lap. "We're ready."
He nodded. Stood. After a minute, he turned back and carefully picked up the statue. He ignored April's concerned expression, and the hand she stretched out to take the statue from him. As he walked to the door, he tried not to see the utter barrenness of the apartment, stripped of every personal touch.
April and Mark each carried a box to add to those already in the car. Illya had only the glass nymph nestled in the cradle of his arm as they descended to the street.
The trip across town was made in silence. Illya was not
unaware of the frequency with which Mark checked on him in the rearview
mirror. But he wasn't ready to notice or be noticed, wasn't prepared to
deal with anyone's emotions. Especially his own. He merely sat quietly
in the back seat, his fingers stroking unconsciously over the smooth
cold curves of the nude.
The statue looked out of place on his bedside table, sharing space with the books in Russian and English that sprouted tiny slips of paper where items of interest and disagreement were marked, the pieces of the communicator which had been ruined two missions ago, the spare spare clip for his Special, and the ridiculously prosaic alarm clock.
It looked out of place, but he left it there.
"Illya?" Mark called from the other room. "We're leaving now. If you need anything..."
Illya couldn't bring himself to break the silence. He heard footsteps in the hall, the sound oddly muted, it seemed. They stopped before reaching the door to the bedroom, and there was a faintly heard conference of low voices. After a long moment, the footsteps retreated and the apartment door closed with infuriating care.
Illya let out a breath. Alone, thank god. For a moment, the
stiff, tense lines of his body relaxed. He reached out to run a finger
down the nude's clear, shiny flank. Alone. Slowly, Illya felt himself
become as cold and hard as the glass statue.
He sat at the table in the cramped kitchen and cleaned his gun. Midnight was not, he felt, an odd time to be doing the task. A nearly full bottle of vodka sat next to a nearly empty glass, moisture beading on the sides of both. A pitiful state of affairs for a Russian. He couldn't even bring himself to get properly drunk. Not even in the secure confines of his apartment, where there was no need of someone to watch his back.
His hands performed their task automatically, leaving his mind blissfully blank. These habits were old, ingrained for years before he joined U.N.C.L.E. They were without memory, without association. They just were. Each step executed precisely, no fumbling, no consideration required, just the intimate familiarity of the gun in his hands.
Midway through, the feeling of being watched trickled through the safe abstraction. Illya kept his eyes resolutely on the gun. He was alone in his apartment. He had been alone, every time this feeling had overtaken him in the weeks since-- It was nothing. He wouldn't be taunted by this feeling, wouldn't give in to the nerves. They were a weakness he would not allow himself.
The clatter of metal on the table was loud in the silence. His lips compressed into a tight line, Illya snatched up the dropped clip and shoved it into the gun with a satisfying click.
Out of habit, he chambered a round. He propped his elbow on the table and raised the muzzle, savoring the weight of the gun in his hand. This, at least, he could rely on.
"I've always thought that was a singularly stupid way of dealing with problems."
The muzzle of Illya's gun swung down in an instant from the ceiling to the speaker. Then, as Illya got a good look at the man, his previously rock-steady aim wavered.
Napoleon -- or his image -- blinked. For a moment his face was completely blank. "You heard me." He smiled radiantly. "You can see me."
The air in the room was too thin; Illya felt giddy. Drunk. He eyed the nearly full bottle. On one glass of vodka? He closed his eyes, shook his head sharply, and cautiously opened them again. "Yes. Unfortunately."
Napoleon's image frowned. "What kind of greeting is that?"
Illya wanted to close his eyes again, but he didn't dare. Frightened that Napoleon would vanish if he did; frightened that he wouldn't. This is what happens, his mind twittered uselessly, sounding remarkably like a cross between his father's busybody mother and every shrink he'd ever had the misfortune of being sent to, this is what happens when you refuse to deal with... things. One minute you're cleaning your gun, and the next you're seeing--
"You're dead." Flat, thick; the words came unwillingly.
Napoleon pursed his lips. Nodded. Shrugged. "Ah... maybe my paperwork got lost someplace."
The air tasted thick. Illya careful slid out of his chair. Belatedly remembering the gun in his hand, he thought briefly about putting it down, then decided it would be best to point it at the hallucination. In case it wasn't.
"Do you really want to shoot your refrigerator?"
The... image tilted his head toward the white icebox behind him. "Your refrigerator, Illya -- it won't work any better with bullet holes in it."
Illya's gaze shifted fractionally to the icebox, then back. His brain and chest felt tight, fear and anger and pain roiling around inside him, a tiny bubble of joy attempted to escape the morass, not quite succeeding. Why were they talking about the refrigerator? Why would Napoleon care if Illya put a couple of holes in the damned thing? Unless... Illya thought of Thrush and plastic surgery, and hardened his eyes and voice. "Neither will you, and you're in front of it."
"I'm dead, remember?"
Napoleon's doppelganger blinked. "Ah... I think I ought to know whether I'm dead or not. So should you."
"I know it. I went to your funeral."
He looked away. Nodded. "Then...?" he said after a moment.
"Napoleon is dead. You are standing here in front of me."
"Therefore I must not be Napoleon, right?"
"That would seem the most logical inference to draw," Illya said evenly. He glanced briefly at his gun hand and was surprised to see that his fingers weren't shaking.
The imposter's shoulders lifted and settled eloquently, far too casually. "How can I convince you?"
"I don't see how you could."
"There must be a way."
"A way to convince me that you're not a Thrush imposter, you're just a... a what?"
The imposter's lips twisted. "Ghost?" he suggested, as if the word had razor edges.
"A ghost." Illya transferred the gun to his left hand without shifting the aim one iota and picked up the partial glass of vodka. "I'm sure Thrush spent an inordinate amount of time and money on you: changing your appearance, teaching you Napoleon's mannerisms." He emptied the glass in one swallow and scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. "His death must have been quite a blow to your plans," he ground out. "But don't you think this is carrying thrift a bit too far?"
"It does sound crazy, doesn't it?"
"Just how gullible does Thrush think I am?"
"Oh, you're a model of scientific detachment." He shook his head. "Two weeks," he said inconsequentially. "If I'd known you'd be able to hear me, I'd have thought of a way to make you listen."
Two weeks. Illya ruthlessly crushed a rising knot of grief and anger. Two weeks ago Napoleon had died. And now this man... He forced that back as well. Forced forward the habits of a good agent, the things that kept you alive, like it or not. The glass hit the table with a dull thud. Returning the gun to his right hand and keeping it trained on the imposter, Illya stepped back against the wall. He kept one eye on his uninvited guest as he twisted to look into the living room.
"There's no one here but the two of us."
"You'll excuse me if I don't take your word for it."
The imposter shrugged. "Suit yourself." Obvious disappointment at the failure of his ruse dragged at his shoulders. His expression was an odd mixture of despair and resignation that sat poorly on Napoleon's face. Illya didn't for a minute believe it.
"Open your jacket."
He rolled his eyes. Moving slowly and deliberately, he unfastened his suit coat and pulled it open. He wasn't wearing a shoulder harness.
"The back," Illya ordered.
The man turned and twitched his coat up to show that he didn't have a holster at the small of his back either. And the suit was, just like any of Napoleon's suits, well-tailored -- a gun anywhere else would be obvious.
"Fine," Illya said. "You first." He gestured with the gun.
"You wouldn't shoot me."
The double grinned, some of his false Solo cockiness returning. "The safety's on."
Without a word, Illya thumbed the safety off. The man's grin vanished.
Silently, the imposter preceded Illya into the living room. He stood obediently in the center of the room while Illya checked the alarm.
Illya frowned. The sophisticated alarm system showed the last time it had been overridden -- when Illya himself had done so that morning on returning from a quick trip to the market. No one had come through the apartment door since, and Illya had an agent's habit of checking every room before feeling at ease. There had been no one in the apartment then, he'd swear to it.
"Down the hall," he told the imposter. The man shrugged and preceded Illya on a quick tour of the apartment: spare room, bathroom, and bedroom. The living room and kitchen were already accounted for. Aside from the boxes Mark and April had left in the spare room several days ago -- which he hadn't had the heart to open -- there was nothing out of place, except the imposter himself.
The man frowned at the glass statue on Illya's bedside table. "Hey, isn't that--"
"Back to the living room." Hard as the ice Illya armored himself with. Napoleon would have been able to see just how frantically Illya was shoring up the walls. But this wasn't Napoleon.
"Convinced now?" the double asked as they returned to the small living room.
"Convinced that Thrush has figured out how to override the alarm system, yes." Illya ignored the man's sigh. "I've changed the code, by the way -- you'll find it a lot harder to get out than you did to get in." He flipped the safety back on -- U.N.C.L.E. frowned on filling unnecessary bullet holes. The unarmed man didn't pose much of a threat and anyway, Illya would welcome the chance to bloody his carefully-crafted nose for him. Anything to lessen his resemblance to Napoleon. "So," he asked, "care to tell me how you did get in?"
"I don't know," the imposter said with some asperity, "I was just here. I've been just here."
"U.N.C.L.E. truth serum is better than Thrush's, as you know perfectly well. If you don't answer my questions here, I'll simply take you to headquarters and you can answer them there."
The man grinned faintly. "I'd like to see you try."
"Your facade is slipping," Illya noted.
"Napoleon never made threats from a position of weakness."
He raised an eyebrow, then shook his head wearily. "Illya, I'd be overjoyed if you could manage it, but I very much doubt the technicians in Interrogation could even see me, let alone inject me with anything."
"Gavno! " Illya stepped forward involuntarily, his free hand knotting into a fist. The knuckles of the hand that held the gun were white -- he knew the other man could see it, yet there was no fear. Not on his face. And the flicker lurking in his eyes seemed oddly out of step with the situation. "Enough! This isn't just insulting, it's in extremely poor taste. Answer the question and remember that I have the gun."
"And if I don't? What? You'll shoot me?" He smiled with half his mouth, arrogant and disdainful. "Your television wouldn't stand up to that any better than your refrigerator, tovarishch."
Illya's eyes flicked briefly to the tv against the wall behind the imposter. "I'm not your comrade."
"Of course not. Why make anything easy? Goddamn stupid, stubborn Russian, as superstitious as the day is long. But not when it would help. Always gotta drive, gotta sit on the right side of the plane," he stalked toward Illya, ignoring the gun, "gotta check the locks twice before you sit down, touch your gun for luck before starting a mission, but god forbid that you should believe in ghosts and be there for your partner when he needs you."
Illya hit him.
For a moment, everything froze. Even the ticking of the clock seemed to have stopped. Illya shook his aching hand. Napoleon lay where he'd fallen.
Napoleon propped himself on one elbow and gingerly touched his chin with two fingers. Then he began to laugh.
"You touched me." He fell back, his laughter high with relief, bordering on the hysterical. "You can touch me."
Illya dropped the gun. Napoleon either didn't notice or didn't care that he was lying in the coffee table. Not on, not under, but in. It stuck up out of his apparently solid chest as if either he or it wasn't really there.
Illya said the first thing that came to mind. "Why didn't you go through the floor to the apartment below?"
"For god's sake, Illya, don't ask questions like that!" Napoleon hauled himself to his feet. "I don't know why, and I don't care, so long as it doesn't happen." He walked right up to Illya and put his hands on him, grinning like a loon as he patted him gently all over. "I can touch you," he repeated.
Illya blinked several times rapidly -- there must have been something in his eye, something which burned hotly and ached somewhere deep. He lifted a hand to Napoleon's shoulder. "You're real."
"As real as I can be."
"What... how is this... how did you..."
"I don't know." He ruffled Illya's hair as he spoke. "I just... appeared. Here in your apartment."
"And you didn't think to let me know?" Illya shoved Napoleon, not gently. "You bastard, it's been two weeks!"
"I didn't-- Illya, I tried. God, how I tried." He didn't seem able to take his hands off Illya. Illya didn't mind. He was giddy, something just barely short of ecstatic snarling with something as close to terror as he could ever remember feeling. Perhaps he was drunk. Perhaps it was an hallucination, and in a minute, or an hour, or a second, Napoleon would vanish into a dream. Napoleon's biceps were solid in his grasp, his hands strong on Illya's arms.
"Sit, we need to sit. Talk."
Illya steered them to the couch and flopped down, taking Napoleon with him even as he protested: "I can't-- Well, whaddaya know about that?" Napoleon released Illya with one hand and patted the nubby surface of the old couch. "I can touch this too."
"You couldn't before?"
"Illya, you're the first thing I've been able to touch since-- I fell through the coffee table, remember?"
"I could hardly forget."
"Well, it's disconcerting for me too." He ran his hand along the back of the couch again, and bounced experimentally on the cushions. His other hand remained tightly wound around Illya's arm. "I wonder what's changed?"
"Tell me from the beginning. Maybe we can do some tests, figure it out."
"A very scientific approach to a decided unscientific situation," Napoleon said glibly. He was trying too hard, Illya thought, not minding one bit.
He shrugged. "Whatever works."
"Okay, I'm game." He looked down, as if searching for the words, this man who was never at a loss for them. "I was on my way back after dropping Rebecca at home. And I should have taken you up on your offer of a movie, by the way -- the party was distinctly lacking. No less so than Rebecca's company." He leaned back against the couch, his eyes coming to Illya's face. "It was dark... raining... I saw the other car too late..."
"I know," Illya said hastily. "I know what happened."
"Well," Napoleon said with unconvincing cheer, "that's more than I can say. All I remember... afterwards... is a whole lot of nothing."
"You blacked out? You were unconscious?"
Napoleon shook his head. He had both hands back on Illya now, one holding his arm tightly enough almost to hurt, the other stroking his shoulder. "No. I was... aware. But all there was was a lot of nothing."
"I see," Illya said, though he didn't see at all. "And then?"
"Then I found myself here. You weren't. Here, that is. I... explored. Waited. Tried to sit down and remember how I got here." He smiled weakly. "I about panicked when I fell through your couch. Then you came back... and you couldn't see me."
"God, Illya, I've been trying for weeks! I've cajoled, whispered, ranted, raved... I've called you rotten things in every language I know and a few I don't. I ran out of things to say days ago. I'm so sick of my own voice I'd take a vow of silence if I could find a monk who could see me." The joke fell flat before he even finished it, sabotaged by the anguish coloring his voice. "And you walked through me three times this morning," he finished with weak affront.
"It must have been frightening," Illya said, wincing at his own inanity. No words, he knew, could even come close. There were none for Napoleon's fear, and none for Illya's grief. He laid his palm flat on Napoleon's chest and tried to pretend there was nothing disconcerting about the warm solid surface lying completely still -- no lift of respiration, no pulse of heartbeat.
Napoleon's laugh was knife-edged. "I was beginning to think the nuns at St. Agnes were right, and I'd been shuffled off to the nether regions for my sins." He cocked his head, a slow faint smile gracing his lips. "Then you started to get jumpy -- acting like you do when you know you're being watched -- and I began to have hope. And now you can hear me, and see me, and I can even touch things. Who knows," he said with a short laugh, "maybe everything will work out okay after all."
"Work out okay?! Napoleon, you're dead!"
"Yes, I know."
"And you didn't," Illya continued over Napoleon's entirely too quiet interjection, "even have the courtesy to die on a mission or something. No, you had to go and get killed in a traffic accident."
"What the hell difference does that make?"
"At least on a mission I'm there to watch your back, you stupid American." He brushed Napoleon's hands off him. "On a mission we know the dangers, and we're prepared--" A swarm of wasps buzzing under his skin, Illya shoved himself off the couch and stalked away. A thump and a startled exclamation swung him back around.
"Hell," Napoleon muttered, foundering in the unexpected insubstantiality of the couch. His head and limbs were visible outside the furniture, but everything else had disappeared when he dropped through to the floor.
Startled out of his anger, Illya blinked a few times before grabbing a protruding hand to haul Napoleon to his feet.
"How did you manage that?" He put his hand on the arm of the couch to steady himself.
"I'm not-- Illya, whatever you're doing, stop it. I'm stuck!"
"Stuck?" And sure enough, Napoleon's leg, disappearing from the thigh down into the couch, seemed as immovably fixed as the Rock of Gibraltar. "But I'm not doing anything, Napoleon." He kept one hand under Napoleon's elbow to aid his balance and dragged at the stuck limb with the other.
And they both tumbled over when Napoleon's leg came free without any resistance at all.
"I think," Illya said a moment later, "I know what's going on." He shoved Napoleon off him and sat up, rubbing a bruised elbow.
"Well, I'm glad one of us does."
"Here." Illya scrambled to his feet. "Stand up." Grumbling, Napoleon complied. "Hand me that book from the coffee table, will you?"
Napoleon automatically turned to oblige. He turned back, scowling. "Very funny."
"Try anyway. Please."
Napoleon looked at him a moment. "The things I do for you." He took a steadying breath, and Illya suddenly wished he hadn't asked. Napoleon's fingers swiped without resistance through the book and the coffee table. "Satisfied?" he asked, as if his hand wasn't shaking.
"I'm not done yet." Stuck, now, with the experiment, Illya picked up the book himself and turned to Napoleon, praying it would work. "Here." He waggled the book in front of his partner. "Take it."
The resigned expression on Napoleon's face transmuted to surprise when the book smacked solidly into his palm. "Well I'll be--"
Illya released the book. Instantly, it fell through Napoleon's fingers and crashed to the floor.
"How about that." Napoleon crouched and put his hand through the book on the floor. His fingers scraped the carpet. He looked up at Illya, his eyes lingering a moment on Illya's feet before lifting to his face. "Now we know why I didn't fall into the downstairs apartment," he said with a smile.
Illya dropped to his haunches beside Napoleon and picked up the book, turning it to read the spine. "And why," he asked, his eyes on the book, "didn't you fall through the floor when I wasn't in the apartment?"
Napoleon's smile faded. "Damned if I know." He shrugged. "Habit?"
The trill of Illya's communicator interrupted their experimentation. Even Illya's scientific curiosity had flagged hours ago, but he couldn't bear to stop. Stop talking, stop touching, stop making Napoleon's eyes light up with triumph each time his fingers made contact. He almost felt he could see Napoleon becoming somehow more solid, more there, with every touch. And he didn't try to pretend that was anything less than a necessary miracle.
When the familiar whistle began, Illya's fingers left the table to slap instinctively at his chest. Napoleon's hands dropped two inches into the tabletop before he caught himself. Illya shrugged an apology and went in search of his suitcoat and communicator.
"Open Channel D, Kuryakin here."
"Good morning, Mr. Kuryakin," a pleasant female voice said with what, only a few hours ago, he would have deemed unfeeling cheer. "Sorry to disturb you so early."
Illya raised an eyebrow and glanced at his watch. Ten after six. They'd been up all night. Funny, he didn't feel tired. "I wasn't asleep."
She paused at his dismissive tone. "I'm sorry, sir," she said after a moment, the cheerfulness exchanged for... compassion.
Illya scowled at his communicator. A soft snort caused him to redirect the scowl. Napoleon merely cocked his head to one side and grinned at Illya.
"Ah... Mr. Waverly would like to see you in his office this morning," the girl from Communications said hesitantly into the silence from Illya's side. "If that would be convenient. Sir."
Illya rather doubted that Waverly had left the appointment up to his convenience. "What time?"
"Oh, um... nine," she said, totally flustered now.
"Thank you. Close Channel D."
"You're an evil man, Kuryakin." Napoleon was still grinning at him. His mood, like Illya's, had been bordering on manic all night.
"What?" Illya recapped his communicator.
"Was it absolutely necessary to fluster her so completely?"
"I didn't do anything."
"Yes, I know." He shook his head affectionately, grinning as he stepped closer. "You'd better shower and shave. Mr. Waverly wants us to look respectable, not..." he brushed a finger over Illya's golden stubble, "...desperate."
Illya shoved Napoleon's hand away and stalked off to the bathroom.
They walked to headquarters. It wasn't that far and... well, neither of them were ready to experiment with taxis or subways yet. The sidewalk, thankfully, could be expected to remain solid beneath Napoleon's feet.
He turned. Napoleon had stopped several paces back. Illya's heart seemed to miss a beat. "Aren't you coming in?" The smile Napoleon turned on him said just how poor a job he'd done of concealing his concern.
"Of course." Now it was Napoleon who failed, his bluff assurance incompletely covering his trepidation. Illya cocked an eyebrow at him and Napoleon let the smile fade. "I wonder if the cameras can see me," he murmured.
"It doesn't matter, Polya." Illya stepped to his side and put a hand on his arm. "I can."
Napoleon sniffed and looked away. His usual insouciant mask was in place when he met Illya's eyes again, and a smile of genuine amusement quirked his lips. "People are going to look at you funny if you keep holding onto nothing."
Illya hastily dropped his hand, not unaware of at least three sets of curious eyes watching surreptitiously from across the street. Thank god none of them were U.N.C.L.E. spotters. He forced himself to shake off the embarrassment. Hell, this was New York -- people saw weirder things every day.
"If you're quite done making me look silly?"
"Oh quite." Napoleon's quick smile was replaced with a serious look. "But Illya... you're going to have to tone it down a little."
"I am not!"
Napoleon cocked an eyebrow at him.
"So are you."
"Somehow, I'm not surprised."
They shared a look which was deeper than any smile. Illya's chest felt tight again. No situation, no matter how bizarre, could be totally hopeless as long as they were together. He didn't care how or why it was possible. He didn't even want to know. There was a conviction, unspoken, practically unthought, that asking too many questions might result in the revocation of this miracle. For once in his life, Illya was happy to leave well enough alone -- no fulfilling of scientific curiosity, no insight into the great mystery that was death, could possibly be more satisfying than simply having Napoleon at his side.
Napoleon cleared his throat. "At any rate... while I'm not arrogant enough to expect you to still be in deep mourning for me, I'd appreciate it if you didn't saunter into headquarters a mere two weeks after my death with your face wreathed in smiles."
"Bastard," Illya said without heat. He banished the smile with some effort. "Satisfied?"
"Not in the least, moi droog. I much prefer your smiles."
Illya opened his mouth before realizing he didn't have a retort handy. Napoleon smirked as Illya closed his mouth with a snap, turned, and marched into Del Floria's.
His thundering mood carried him past Del Floria's fatherly nod, the receptionist's sympathetic smile, and the concerned glances of several agents in the corridor. He finally slowed, realizing that he now looked, perhaps, a bit too much like an agent coping none too well with the death of his partner. He turned to say as much to Napoleon, and found himself alone.
"Napoleon?" The corridor was deserted, but he kept his voice low just in case. No point in getting hauled off to speak with an U.N.C.L.E. shrink. "Napoleon." Exasperation made his voice sharp. Exasperation and fear, as it slowly occurred to him that he didn't have any way of finding Napoleon if he vanished again. He could have. He could be, even now, standing beside Illya, trying desperately to be heard, be seen. "Napoleon!"
Illya started back down the corridor, closing his teeth on the shout that clawed at his throat. He tried to shake the image of an invisible Napoleon keeping pace with him, shouting, gesturing, placing his incorporeal body in Illya's path, growing ever more desperate. He wouldn't even allow the articulation of an idea even more disturbing -- that he'd imagined it all from the start. Hoping he wouldn't run into anyone, Illya hurried back down the corridor.
And ran into someone.
"Don't ever do that again!"
"Quiet," Napoleon ordered, his voice hushed, as if someone might hear him. "You want to end up talking to the shrink?"
"Not particularly." Illya turned and started walking, casting surreptitious glances at his partner, the band which had been tightening around his chest slowly releasing his heart. "What did I do?" he murmured.
"The door at reception closed before I got through it, and the sensor can't 'see' me any better than anyone else."
"So what was the problem? You could walk right through it."
"Which is what I did. Eventually. I bounced off the first time."
"How did you...?"
Napoleon shrugged. "I don't know, I just... concentrated, I guess. And then I was able to step through the door. It's not an experience I particularly want to repeat." He made a face. "It's... disturbing."
Illya smiled slightly, and quickly quelled it. "Okay," he said quietly, "I'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"Good. Now hurry up -- you're going to be late for your meeting with Mr. Waverly."
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, it's good to have you back."
Illya hesitated a moment in the doorway to let Napoleon get past him. He slid into a chair and tried not to stare at Napoleon moving around to his usual seat at the circular table. He barely restrained a wince when Napoleon's hand passed through the back of his chair. Napoleon smiled weakly and tucked his hands in his pockets.
"Ah... it's good to be back, sir," Illya said hastily.
"Good. Good." Waverly drew on the stem of his pipe. He looked older, his familiar mannerisms tired and slow. Napoleon's death had laid a wider swath of destruction than Illya had realized. He tended to forget that Napoleon was Waverly's protŽgŽ, painstakingly groomed to take his place and allow him, at whatever point he deemed appropriate, to take his retirement. Illya opened his mouth, turning slightly to glance at Napoleon, and closed it again. Napoleon stared at Waverly hungrily, a yearning sorrow darkening his eyes. Illya sat back quietly, thankful that Waverly only then raised his eyes from the file in front of him. "I trust you're ready to return to the field?"
"You do have more time coming to you, if you choose to take it."
"I think the work would be good for me, sir."
"Good." He gestured at the file in front of him with his pipe. "I think we have just the thing for you." Waverly gave the table a push and Illya guided it the rest of the way around until he could reach the file. "Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, do you believe in ghosts?"
Napoleon made a choking sound. Illya cleared his throat.
"Ghosts, sir?" he managed, with only a hint of a squeak.
"Ghosts, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Well, sir... I suppose I... reserve judgment. There is no scientific proof of the existence of ghosts. But on the other hand, no proof that they don't exist either."
"Well done," Napoleon said. Illya kept his eyes on Waverly. He'd instinctively avoided looking at Napoleon while he spoke, though whether for fear of his partner vanishing at an ill-chosen word, or of Waverly making something of such an unguarded glance, he couldn't say. He wasn't going to be tricked into doing so now.
"Precisely the response I expected from you, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly nodded to himself, satisfied as always to have his expectations borne out. "And that makes you precisely the right person to send on this mission."
"The Gray Fox Inn," Illya read from his folder. "In... Georgia, sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin. We received a communication from one of our spotters in Marietta. Of late, John Ashenden has been taking an interest in the Gray Fox Inn. As of yet, we have not been able to discover why. Our plants inside Thrush are in the dark as well -- apparently, even Thrush is unaware of his location and intentions."
"Ashenden." Illya looked at Napoleon, who made a face.
"Mr. Solo, I believe, would have had good reason to remember the gentleman in question," Mr. Waverly commented, having obviously caught Illya's glance.
"I certainly have," Napoleon said.
Illya dragged his eyes away before Mr. Waverly could make anything of his staring at Napoleon's usual chair. "The assignment is to discover what he's doing, then?"
"Yes. Ashenden is too clever to ignore. We need to know what he's up to."
"And what does this have to do with ghosts?"
"Well..." Mr. Waverly dragged on his pipe, frowned, removed it
from his mouth and gazed suspiciously into the bowl. "It seems that the
Gray Fox Inn is haunted."
"You're talking to yourself, Illya."
"I'm talking to you," Illya said without slowing his pace or removing his nose from the file Waverly had given him.
"And anyone overhearing you will think you're talking to yourself."
Illya stopped and turned to face his partner squarely. "Napoleon, have you ever known me to care what other people think?"
Napoleon grinned at him. "Nicely done. But that would have had more punch if you hadn't glanced around first to make sure we were alone."
"You weren't supposed to see that." Illya started down the corridor again.
The elevator, when it arrived, was occupied. Illya nodded a greeting to Boone and Dobbs as he stepped into the elevator, moving just a little slowly to make sure Napoleon entered the car before the doors closed.
"Where to?" Dobbs asked, his hand poised over the buttons.
As the elevator started down, the agents stood silently, each with his back to a wall. Enforcement agents always stood with their backs to the walls. Napoleon had once told Illya that the head of the secretarial pool never allowed the new girls to get on the elevator alone. Said it had something to do with elevator etiquette, and agents frightening the girls with their unwavering stare. As Illya glanced up at the slow count of floors, he caught Boone's surreptitious surveillance, and the look he shared with his partner. He realized with some amusement that he'd automatically left enough room for Napoleon to stand against the wall next to him. Which -- unseen by the others -- was precisely what he was doing.
"You back on the active list?" Boone's tone was elaborately casual.
Illya merely looked at him. Mr. Waverly frowned on the discussing of assignments. The elevator stopped at the second floor. A particularly curvaceous member of the secretarial pool got on. To Illya's amusement, every man in the car except himself immediately stood a little straighter. Even Napoleon.
"Sharon, wait!" Mandy squeezed through the doors in the last possible second, and stumbled breathlessly into the car. "Thanks. Oh, the lobby please, thank you. You don't mind if I join you, do you, Sharon? It's just I have these errands-- Illya!" She slipped behind Sharon in the increasingly crowded space and stepped up to him in her usual direct manner, putting a hand on his arm. "How are you?"
"Fine, Mandy." He felt guilty in the face of her simple straightforward concern, especially with Napoleon right there. In fact, Napoleon had to step aside rather quickly to avoid her when Mandy twisted to plop back against the wall next to Illya. With an impish grin at Illya, Napoleon wound his way around in front of Sharon. Illya found the unconcealed appreciation with which Napoleon admired her figure shocking.
"I'm sorry, Mandy, what were you saying?" But he was only half paying attention. It was disturbing somehow. Napoleon had an expression he'd never seen before. He'd thought he knew them all.
"It doesn't matter." Her eyes were suspiciously bright, and she patted his arm gently. "I understand."
"No, I--" But the elevator dinged softly and opened on the lobby level. Sharon stepped out with alacrity, walking right through Napoleon. He stumbled backwards out of the elevator with a surprised exclamation. Illya jumped forward to stop the door before it could slide shut. Napoleon quickly stepped back inside and, as the moment of panic faded, Illya realized how odd his grab for the door looked. He turned, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Mandy? Isn't this your floor?"
"Oh! Yes. Yes, of course." She gathered herself, and joined the impatiently-waiting Sharon, patting Illya's arm again on the way out. He made an effort not to look at Napoleon as he stepped back against the wall and the elevator door closed once again.
"Look, Kuryakin," Dobbs said after a moment, "it's not my place to say, but maybe you shouldn't go on assignment just yet."
"Could get someone killed," Boone added. There was just the slightest trace of... satisfaction in his voice.
"You little bastard," Napoleon said conversationally. He pushed himself off the wall and stalked toward Boone.
He almost said it. Almost said Napoleon's name to call him off. But they'd make the wrong thing of it, and come out with the upper hand in this if he did. Illya forced himself to ignore his partner invisibly menacing Dobbs and Boone. He drew an icy cloak across his voice and said merely, "You're right. It's not your place to say."
The elevator stopped with a muted ding and the doors slid open.
"Our floor," Dobbs said quickly. He put a hand to Boone's back as he followed him out, hurrying him along. Illya wasn't sorry to see the door close behind them.
"Why do you let them talk to you like that?"
Illya frowned at his partner. "That wasn't any help."
"Dobbs and Boone are insects; it isn't worth the effort it would take to squash them." He crossed his arms over his chest. "What exactly did you think you were doing?"
"You almost had to find your own way down to Garage Three after Sharon walked through you. What were you doing?"
Napoleon shrugged eloquently. "Looking."
"You're lucky she couldn't see the expression on your face."
"If she could see me, I wouldn't have had that expression on my face." Napoleon shrugged again and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
The elevator opened on Garage Level Three.
Lisa Rogers had been her usual ruthlessly efficient self. A blue Pontiac Bonneville was ready and waiting -- gas in the tank, maps in the glove compartment, Illya's kit in the trunk. He didn't even have to check to make sure everything was there and, for once, he didn't. He did have to sigh -- quietly, of course, and entirely to himself. Why couldn't the U.N.C.L.E. motor pool sign out the occasional Camaro or Mustang to him? It wasn't like he crashed all the cars he drove.
"Illya," Napoleon said before he could put the key in the ignition. He was leaning in the lowered passenger window, crossed arms resting on the door. His casual smile was somewhat less than convincing. "Going to take me with you?"
"Of--" Illya broke off at Napoleon's wince. Softly, "Of course."
"You're touching the car, so I can open the door, but I think it might give poor Joe a heart attack to see it open by itself. And," he added before Illya could make the first suggestion that came to mind, "I'm not going to climb through the window so don't even say it."
Illya sighed, concealing his disappointment. That would have been something to see. He climbed out of the car, leaving the door ajar.
"Something wrong, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Not at all, Joe." Illya cast about for an excuse good enough to keep him out of the car until Napoleon got around and in. He walked back and opened the trunk. "Just wanted to make sure everything's here."
"Oh, sure it is, Mr. Kuryakin. I made sure myself."
Illya nodded. His kit was in the back, as expected -- the familiar black suitcase he kept at headquarters for trips such as this. Waverly expected his agents to be ready and able to leave at a moment's notice. There was nothing quite so urgent about this particular mission, only Illya's disinclination to return to his apartment -- the site of far too much grief these last two weeks. "Of course," Illya said. "Of course."
He swung the trunk lid vigorously closed. Napoleon peered back at him from the passenger seat, and something about his expression gave Illya pause. A speaking expression if ever there was one. Illya glanced down at his hands on the trunk lid and realized suddenly what Napoleon's expression meant. If he lifted his hands off the car, it would suddenly become insubstantial to Napoleon (or Napoleon to it), and the dapper U.N.C.L.E. agent would end up sitting on his elegant backside on the oily concrete floor. He could, of course, easily extricate himself by standing up and walking out of the car in proper ghostly fashion, but it would put them right back where they started.
Illya nodded to Joe and walked back to the driver's door, brushing his fingers along the car as he went. He slid gracefully into the car and pulled the door shut with a satisfying bang.
Napoleon breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank god!"
Illya turned the key in the ignition. "The first chance I get," he said as the convertible roared to life, "I'm going to put the top down. You may draw the line at squeezing through the window, but you can damn well climb over the door from now on." Because I'll be damned if I'll go through this kind of uncertainty every time we get in the car.
For a moment, Napoleon looked as if he might argue. Illya shot him a fierce look, and Napoleon settled back and accepted the dictum with good grace. Illya would have felt more pleasure in the minor victory if he hadn't been certain Napoleon could see right through the fierce display to the relief underneath. Illya put the car in gear and they swung smoothly up out of the garage and onto the crowded streets of New York.
"Here." Illya rummaged in the glove compartment at a stop light. He pulled out a handful of maps and dropped them on the seat between them. "You navigate."
The light changed and Illya turned his eyes to the road. He heard Napoleon's hand slap the seat and winced. He'd forgotten again. They both had. Traffic was, as usual, a menace, and Illya couldn't spare a glance at Napoleon for several minutes. At the next red light, he turned to see Napoleon staring out the window, his hands clasped viciously in his lap. Illya looked forward again. The light turned green.
"I can get us out of New York," Illya said after a minute, "but after that I'm lost."
"Then I guess you'll have to look at a map," Napoleon said, his voice expressionless.
"It would be easier if you--"
"No it would not!"
Illya clenched his teeth involuntarily at the whip crack of Napoleon's voice. He breathed in through his nose, reminded himself that they were not yet on a mission and that tone of voice did not -- in this instance -- indicate mortal danger, and breathed out slowly through his mouth. Then he cast about for the proper thing to say.
Napoleon sighed. "Look, this isn't going to work. Just pull over and let me out."
"Just pull over. I'm no good to you." He turned his head to look out the side window, but his murmur was still audible. "I'm no good to anyone."
Illya's hands tightened on the wheel. He slowly edged his way out of traffic and swung into a spot which opened up, semi-miraculously, at the curb. In an instant, he had a fistful of Napoleon's coat, his partner's shoulder pinned to the seat.
"I've heard a lot of things from you over the years, Napoleon, but never self-pity." He gave the handful of coat, and Napoleon, a good shake. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let you start now."
"Oh, you don't think I've got a good reason to feel sorry for myself?" Napoleon snarled. "I'm dead, damn it! You only get one chance in this life and I blew mine. Not for my world, or my country, or my partner; I blew it for a date with a woman who was nice enough, but sure as hell not worth dying for. I threw it all away, and now look at me."
"Yes, now look at you." Illya shoved Napoleon's shoulder hard against the seat to punctuate his words. "What do you call this? Why the hell are you here if you don't get a second chance?"
"For Christ's sake, Illya, what good am I? I can't even watch your back." He laughed bitterly. "Sorry, yes I can. I can watch all I like."
"No!" He turned agonized eyes on Illya. "If I hang around, all I'm going to end up doing is watching you die. One of these days, when I'm the only one there, and I can't do a damn thing to protect you." His fingers brushed Illya's cheek. "Just... watch."
Illya grabbed Napoleon's hand in his and held it fiercely. "You're my partner, you stubborn bastard," he hissed. "You've heard the joke at headquarters, haven't you? How Waverly partners his agents up like he's making marriages?"
Napoleon smiled crookedly. "Til death do us--"
"Well, it didn't. And it isn't going to." Illya willed Napoleon to meet his eyes, and when he did, kept them by sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. "I've spent the last two weeks, Napoleon, coming to terms with the fact that I would... could never get used to life without you. By some miracle, I got you back, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you go again."
It was relief this time, though Napoleon's laugh was no less painful. "Hold on tight, then, partner, cause I sure as hell don't want to go."
Illya looked away finally. Sniffed. "Good." He realized he was still holding Napoleon with both hands, and reluctantly released him.
"You wrinkled my coat," Napoleon said after a minute.
"I'm sure no one will notice." Realizing suddenly what he'd said, Illya shot Napoleon a worried glance, only to find him smiling.
"I'm sure you're right." He looked down at the maps scattered
across the seat and squared his shoulders. "Now, about these maps..."
"Damn, where's the turn-off?"
"I thought you knew your way out of New York."
"We're out of New York, Napoleon, as you've apparently failed to notice. I'm sorry that my familiarity with the roads doesn't extend to this..." he made a face, "wilderness."
"New Jersey is hardly a wilderness."
"So where the hell's the turn-off?"
"I think it's another two miles."
"Well how the devil can I tell? I can't see the map over there. You'll have to hold it closer."
"I'm trying, Napoleon. I do have to drive as well, you know." Just then, the right front tire hit a pothole, and Illya needed both hands on the wheel. He righted the erratic motion of the car, and looked over to see the map drift slowly down through Napoleon's incorporeal body to the seat beneath him. "Sorry."
Illya automatically reached for the disappearing map. His fingers scraped cloth, and the disturbingly warm solidity of Napoleon underneath, and Illya snatched his hand back.
"Sorry," he said again. "I... um, you look less... more... ghostly. When something falls through... and, uh..."
"Yes?" he said, thankful to have his stuttering interrupted.
"Just get the map."
"But you're... you're sitting on it. Sort of."
Napoleon shook his head. He grabbed the dash board and lifted
up. Illya quickly retrieved the map. Not quite quickly enough.
Napoleon's thigh brushed his knuckles as he settled back into the seat.
Illya felt the warmth in his face and damned it even more when
Napoleon's sly grin told him his partner was playing with him. And
enjoying it far too much.
"I wonder if I can drive?" Napoleon mused as Illya stepped out of the filling station restroom.
"Not a chance," Illya murmured. He gave the stooped old man who'd pumped the gas a five and climbed into the convertible. Napoleon also climbed in, only more literally and with a long-suffering groan.
"If you're in the car," he persisted once they were on the road again, "then I'll be able to touch the steering wheel."
"Yes, but you won't be any more visible than you are now. At best we'll get pulled over, at worst cause accidents."
"What accidents? There's not a soul on the road to see us."
"Come on, Illya, where's your sense of adventure?"
"I am not going to ride in a car being driven by a ghost, and that's final."
Napoleon scowled. He was enjoying himself too thoroughly to put much effort into it, however. When Illya smiled at him, he grinned back, entirely unrepentant. Illya shook his head.
"Why are we driving anyway? I didn't even think to ask Mr. Waverly why he didn't just book me an airline ticket."
"We should just be glad he didn't." Napoleon shuddered. "That could have been a disaster."
"How? It would be quicker, we wouldn't get lost, and you wouldn't have to climb over the door all the time."
Napoleon shook his head. "I don't know. I just have this feeling I wouldn't get along well with a plane in my current... condition."
Illya shot him a look, but didn't comment on the irrationality of it.
Napoleon fidgeted. "Maybe Waverly's reason for sending us... you by car is in the mission file. You haven't read it all the way through yet, have you?"
"If you prop it on your leg, maybe I can read while you drive."
"You wouldn't be able to turn the pages."
"Who says? If you're touching the folder, maybe I could."
"If they consider it all one thing, I could."
"They?" Confused, Illya frowned.
Napoleon shrugged awkwardly. "Someone has to make the rules."
Somehow, that idea was distinctly disquieting. Napoleon's ensuing silence suggested that he also found it less than reassuring. Without taking his eyes from the road, Illya reached over and patted Napoleon's thigh. A warm hand immediately took his own and laced their fingers firmly together.
"You can read the file when we stop for the night," Illya suggested after a time.
It was finally spring, the day was warm and sunny, the road clear, the top down, and Napoleon was in the seat next to him. Quite frankly, Illya was enjoying himself too much to care what had motivated Waverly to check him out a car and send him on a roadtrip south.
Any trip with Napoleon was a pleasure.
"Turn the page, will you?"
"Napoleon!" The soap squirted out of Illya's hand, bounced off the wall and splashed into the water swirling around his feet. "I'm taking a shower!"
"But I've read all the pages you laid out."
Illya sighed audibly and bent to fish around for the soap. "You're just going to have to wait until I'm done, Napoleon." No response. "Napoleon?" The shower curtain was clear (and whose bright idea was that?), but he couldn't see Napoleon in the bathroom. He shrugged and set about working up a brisk lather.
Illya emerged from the bathroom a bare five minutes later, wearing his pajama bottoms and still toweling his hair. Napoleon may have left him alone in the bathroom, but he hadn't left him in peace. Illya hadn't been able to shake the feeling that he wasn't alone, despite all evidence to the contrary. It had severely curtailed his desire to linger.
"Now, what was so urgent it couldn't have waited?"
Napoleon didn't turn from his position at the window. "I'm sorry, Illya. I got carried away."
His back was to Illya, hands clasped behind him. And somehow, Napoleon's back was more expressive than most people's faces. The fingers of his right hand curled and flexed uneasily in the clasp of the left. Off-balance. Embarrassed. Illya took pity on him.
He snorted. "Bored, more like." He draped the towel around his neck and moved to the papers spread out on the bed. Illya gathered them up and sifted them back into the file folder, then shoved the pillows against the head of the bed and made himself comfortable. "Well, get over here."
"Hm?" Napoleon cocked his head at Illya, who restrained -- for the hundredth time -- the impulse to tell Napoleon just how much he looked like the RCA Victor dog when he did that.
He patted the bed next to him. "Get over here. What page were you on?"
Napoleon told him, without yet approaching the bed. Illya rolled his eyes, pulled out the appropriate page and laid it with a flourish on the comforter next to him. "It may not be the most comfortable position for reading, but it's the best you're going to get," he told him, before starting the file from page one.
He didn't look up, but he might have smiled slightly when the mattress dipped to announce Napoleon's weight. And he didn't allow his scientific bent to distract him into puzzling out how Napoleon could be at once both incorporeal and, in relation to Illya and anything he was touching, substantial. Not for long, anyway.
Illya read slightly faster than Napoleon. And he'd had a chance to skim most of the first few pages while still in headquarters. In no time at all, he'd caught up, and was placing each page he read on the mattress for Napoleon's perusal. It wasn't too difficult to restrain a laugh at the sight of Napoleon lying belly-down on the bed, his chin propped on his hands as he read, like an adolescent boy with a comic book. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd ever expected to see Napoleon doing. But then, for the last two weeks, he hadn't expected to ever see Napoleon doing anything again. It was still, at odd moments, hard to get used to. But oddly easy to believe.
They'd read through most of the file before the words started to swim before Illya's eyes. The room was not brightly lit, and he'd forgotten to put on his glasses. It hardly seemed worth it to get them just to finish off the last five pages or so. Illya squinted at the small type, blurring it further. He sighed, set the folder aside and shoved himself off the bed.
The surprised whoosh and muted thud behind him stopped him in his tracks. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, then slowly turned around. One bed, one file folder, some scattered papers. No Napoleon. Illya put a hand on the bed to steady himself as he knelt. Another muffled thud sounded from under the bed and the mattress shook. Illya winced again. He bent to peer under the bed.
He was lying on the floor with his face buried in the crook of his right arm, his left hand pressed tightly to the back of his head.
"If you're going to persist in dropping me through the furniture," Napoleon said into his arm, "could you at least stop making it solid again afterwards?"
"I didn't think about it." He was thinking about it now. Thinking, also, of how horrible it would be if he managed, even for a moment, to trap Napoleon inside something. Not his leg or arm, but his whole body. He didn't think Napoleon needed oxygen, but it wasn't the sort of thing one wanted to take chances with. "Would you like a hand?"
"I'd like you to take your damned hand off the bed, so I can get up."
"Okay." Well, it followed. If Napoleon wouldn't climb through the car window, he wasn't likely to feel like squirming out from under a bed either. Illya stood and stepped back. After a moment, Napoleon's head rose through the mattress, the rest of him following hard after. He waded out of the bed, and sighed in audible relief.
"I'm never sure," Napoleon said conversationally, "that all of me that went into something solid is actually going to come back out of something solid."
"I can see how that would be a concern." Illya turned to pick up the glasses he'd set out to retrieve in the first place. "I'm sorry, Napoleon. I'm not... used to this yet."
Napoleon clapped him on the shoulder, startling him. He could move exceptionally quietly now. A spook in more than name. "Neither am I, Illya. Neither am I." His hand felt warm on Illya's bare shoulder. Weren't ghosts supposed to be cold? He banished the disquieting thought instantly.
Illya pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm... tired, Napoleon. We can finish reading the file in the morning. Okay?" He went to draw the curtains at the single window.
"Um... why don't you spread the remaining pages on the table? That way one of us will have read it. I can tell you about it tomorrow."
"Aren't you tired?" But he grabbed the folder and started laying out the pages.
"I, ah, don't think so."
"You don't think so."
Napoleon laughed softly. Once. "No gravity, no wind resistance, I'm the next best thing to perpetual motion, hadn't you guessed?"
"Just go to sleep like a good little spy." Napoleon patted Illya's cheek gently, turned him by the shoulders, and swatted him on the fanny.
Illya scowled over his shoulder, but Napoleon was already bent over the pages. He climbed semi-obediently into the bed, closing his eyes against the light. A good thing he could sleep with the lights on, or they'd have to find out how well ghosts could see in the dark.
Except he couldn't. Sleep. He should have been able to, after forty-eight hours awake, not to mention the mostly wakeful nights of the last two weeks. And he was tired. Exhausted. But.
But he hadn't slept since Napoleon reappeared.
It was a struggle just to keep his eyes closed. Illya lay on the bed with his eyes squeezed shut and worried about what he'd see when he opened them again. What if Napoleon vanished while he slept? What if he just wasn't there anymore? What if he'd never been there?
He opened his eyes.
Napoleon was sitting on the floor about three feet from the bed, his back to the wall, hands clasped around his legs. The tiny swatch of window showing through the curtains above his head was black with night.
"Didn't know you could touch walls," Illya mumbled, the relief making him giddy.
Napoleon somehow managed to shrug without otherwise changing position. "They're attached to the floor."
"I'm not touching the floor."
"Don't tell them that."
Illya closed his eyes rather than respond to the obvious inanity. Or point out that Napoleon had walked through a door at headquarters. Though, come to think of it, Napoleon had said he'd had to concentrate to do it. Perhaps, he thought groggily, rules were simply made to be broken.
"Napoleon?" he said after a moment.
"Stop staring at me."
When Napoleon didn't reply, Illya pried his eyes open again. His partner was not within his field of vision. He should have felt satisfied. Napoleon had obviously moved. Silently. Utterly silently. Illya felt his heart rate increase. He rolled over and scanned the room for Napoleon. And came up blank. He sat up sharply.
"Napoleon?" He looked again. Not that it was necessary -- the room was on the decidedly small side. No Napoleon, unless he was in the bathroom. And a ghost had no business in a bathroom. At least Illya didn't think he did. "Napoleon?" He threw back the covers.
If Illya had blinked, he would have missed it. Or maybe he did blink, and missed something else. Napoleon had appeared all of an instant, square in the center of the room. Illya stared.
"How did you...?"
"I was practicing," Napoleon said. "Did you know I can make myself invisible?"
"I do now." Illya shook his head sharply, and scrubbed his hands over his face. "But you're already invisible to everyone but me."
"And me. I can see myself. Unless, of course," he added, "I make myself invisible."
"What possible purpose could this serve?" Illya asked bluntly. The idea that Napoleon could vanish voluntarily was somehow no less disquieting than the possibility of his vanishing involuntarily. "You don't want me to be able to see you?"
"No!" Napoleon said, a little too quickly. "I mean yes." He scowled. "Of course I want you to be able to see me. But what if you're not the only one who can see me?"
"Such as the people at the Gray Fox Inn."
"Why should they be different?" Illya asked. He propped a pillow behind him and tucked the blankets back around himself. And watched Napoleon pace at the foot of the bed.
"The Gray Fox has the reputation of being haunted."
"Yes," Illya interrupted, "I know."
"So that means someone there might be able to see me. One of the staff--"
"Or one of the so-called 'ghost hunters' who haunt the place."
Napoleon frowned at him. "Very funny." He sighed. "I have no particular desire to be 'hunted.'"
Illya smiled at him. "Don't worry. I'll protect you."
Napoleon scowled. "You've been wanting to use that line on me for years."
"And I finally got my chance." He punched the pillow into submission and flopped back down on it. "If you're quite finished, I'd like to get some sleep tonight." As if it was Napoleon who kept him from it.
No response. Illya kept his eyes closed by force, overly aware of the light behind his lids. And the sensation of being watched. He counted slowly to three hundred without the feeling changing in the slightest. Illya sat up again.
"What?" said a section of air which looked like all the other empty spaces in the room.
"Don't you sleep?"
"I don't think so. Besides, the floor isn't very comfortable."
"Then get in the bed, for Christ's sake." He switched off the bedside lamp, and snuggled down into the covers in the darkened room. After a very long moment, he felt the blankets twitch and the mattress dip slightly. He burrowed a hand through the covers to touch his partner. "Why are you wearing your clothes to bed?"
"I don't know if I can take them off."
"You haven't tried?" Illya asked quietly. Conversations in the dark somehow lent themselves to lowered voices.
"What if I can't? What," he continued before Illya could think of a response, "if I can, and do, and can't find them again in the morning?"
Illya didn't know, so he didn't answer. What he did say, after a minute, was, "I'm glad you're here, Napoleon."
A warm hand found Illya's in the dark. He tangled his fingers with Napoleon's and his grip was just as tight as Napoleon's.
He was halfway asleep when a disturbing thought occurred to him. "You'd better not be invisible in the morning."
He wasn't. But he was asleep.
Illya brushed the back of his hand down Napoleon's smooth cheek. He was warm and solid, and definitely not breathing. Why, Illya wondered, when so many other things carried on out of habit, did this not? It was deeply disquieting.
He patted Napoleon sharply on the cheek. Napoleon woke with a start. "What?"
"I thought you didn't sleep."
Napoleon blinked slowly up at Illya. "I..." he cleared his throat, "I didn't think I did. This is the first time I've slept since I died." He sat up and rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "You know," he said conversationally, "that's the first time I've said that without feeling like an extra from 'The Twilight Zone.'"
Illya nodded mutely. The sound of that word, spoken so casually by his partner, had given him an unpleasant jolt. He threw back the covers and shot Napoleon a look. His partner got the message, and quickly climbed out of bed. It must have been, Illya thought, the first time Napoleon Solo had ever gotten out of a bed fully dressed. He frowned.
"It's a damn good thing you don't kick."
Napoleon looked down at his shoes, then back up at Illya. He made a rueful face and shrugged.
Illya shook his head. He scrambled out of bed himself, now that it was safe to do so, and burrowed in his bag for his razor and a change of clothes before retreating into the bathroom.
"At least you don't have to shave anymore," he called over the water running in the sink. He set about efficiently scraping the lather off his face.
"A good thing too," Napoleon said.
Illya dropped the razor. He turned to see Napoleon standing directly behind him. Then back to the mirror, which held only Illya's image. "You startled me."
"Why do you think I waited until you were done shaving? I'm not fond of the sight of your blood."
"Are you sure about that?" Illya fished the dripping razor out of the sink and used it to gesture at the mirror. "Maybe you're not a ghost at all. Maybe you're a vampire."
"Maybe we should make sure," Napoleon murmured. His lips just barely touched Illya's ear as he spoke. Illya's eyes squeezed shut involuntarily as he felt Napoleon's hair brush his cheek. Napoleon made a soft noise, inhaled audibly. Illya could have sworn he felt Napoleon's lips touch the curve of his neck. Then Napoleon's cheek pressed firmly to his own, heat through the cool lather he'd not yet wiped away. "Hmm, no, I guess I'm not a vampire. No urge to bite."
Napoleon stepped back, dripping lather onto Illya's chest as he shifted away. Illya snatched up the towel and wiped off the splatter. He turned and leaned against the cool edge of the sink.
"I thought I closed the door."
They both looked at the door which was, indeed, closed. Napoleon shrugged, his expression an odd cross between conciliatory and militant. He didn't offer any excuse. Or any explanation for doing something he'd previously described as disturbing. After a minute, Illya shook his head and turned back to the sink. He wiped the rest of the lather from his face and dried his razor. Aware at every instant of Napoleon behind him, the warmth of the man seeping, even at a foot removed, through the thin material of his pajama pants.
Napoleon's hand closed on his wrist before he could pick up his toothbrush.
"An experiment," Napoleon said as his body pressed against Illya's back, warmth bleeding through Napoleon's suit, rough against Illya's bare skin. "You're the scientist, you should like that."
He guided Illya's hand to the mirror and pressed his fingers against the cold glass. Slowly, a ghostly shape swam into view. Napoleon's image became gradually more distinct, his face and shoulders visible behind Illya. They held the position for more than a minute, but the image retained a certain ghostly and insubstantial appearance.
Then, with a wicked grin, Napoleon slowly faded away. His reflection evaporated like fog from the mirror, his hand becoming slowly transparent on Illya's arm. But Illya could still feel him -- the firm clasp of his hand, the strong arm which stretched along his own, the solid chest fronting Illya's back. He closed his eyes with a feeling almost of vertigo.
"Cute," Illya said, and cleared his throat. "Next you're going to read up on the Cheshire cat, and leave only your smile behind."
"Who knows," Napoleon whispered, his lips brushing Illya's ear again. There was even, for a moment, the faintest hint of breath to stir Illya's hair.
Then he released Illya, and a moment later was gone. Illya didn't know how he knew, but the feeling of presence was absent, and he was alone in the bathroom again.
He picked up the toothbrush, put it down again, sat on the closed stool and buried his face in his hands.
After a quick breakfast, wolfed down under Napoleon's amused gaze -- which was so familiar as to be eminently reassuring -- Illya fished out the right maps for the area, put them on the seat between them, and they were on their way.
"You didn't ask if I wanted anything to eat," Napoleon said after a bit. The glance he shot Illya was teasing.
"I'd prefer not to think about the mess that would create," he said gravely.
"Is there something wrong with hand-feeding me?" The touch of insulted pride in his voice was, mostly, feigned.
"It's not the feeding part I have a problem with. It's what happens to the food once I let go of it."
Napoleon was silent for a moment. "Ick."
"Then I guess it's a good thing I'm not hungry." But he was quiet for a long time after that.
At first, Illya wondered what he was thinking, and considered teasing him about "sulking." Then he considered an existence without vodka, without caviar and steak and moo goo gui pan and chocolate pudding and turkey sandwiches and bacon and eggs, and even good old fashioned American apple pie. And wondered if Napoleon was regretting his ghostly return. And if, once he no longer wanted to be with Illya anymore, he'd simply vanish. Back to where he should have gone in the first place when... when he had the accident.
When he died, Illya told himself sternly. I'm an
U.N.C.L.E. agent, Death is a daily part of my life. I've personally
sent 118 men, more or less, to meet him, and come close to shaking his
hand a few times myself. Just because it's happened to Napoleon doesn't
mean I should turn into some sort of maiden aunt who can't even say the
"It's unfair," Illya muttered as he lugged his bag up the steps to the veranda under the cool regard of the moon, "that being dead should excuse you from carrying luggage."
"First," Napoleon ticked off on his fingers, "I don't have any luggage. Second, I never carried my own when I did."
"I wouldn't brag about that, if I were you."
"That's what bellhops are for, my dear innocent communist."
"I don't see any around, do you?" He pushed open the door, not taking the time to stop and admire the elaborate inset of stained glass.
"No, but the innkeeper's dozing behind his desk, so you'd better stop talking to yourself." Napoleon stood in the middle of the room with his fists on his hips. "My god, will you look at this place? It's straight out of Gone With the Wind."
Illya hauled his bag straight to the desk, looking neither left nor right. A large man with enormous sideburns connected by a bushy brown mustache sat behind the heavy oak desk. His chair was tipped back on two legs, his arms crossed over his chest, and the light from the lamp on the desk polished the balding pate which pushed through his remaining hair like the peak of a mountain through the clouds. There was no bell.
"Pardon me." Illya rapped briskly on the top of the desk. The man's chair landed ungently on all four legs. He blinked owlishly at Illya. "Excuse me, I have a reservation..."
"Sorry," the man said, his accent rich enough to serve with coffee, "'fraid we're all booked up. Only guest not arrived is a foreign gentleman."
"That would be me," Illya said with a tired smile. He'd driven 600 miles since breakfast without much in the way of breaks, despite Napoleon's repeated urgings, and all he wanted was to find his room and a bed.
The innkeeper stood and paged leisurely through his reservation book. His finger ran over the writing as he said, "Mr. Koori--"
"Kuryakin, yes, that's me."
"Ah, well... Reckon it must be, seeing as you know how to pronounce it and all." He set about the usual business with signing-in books and payments. "Supper's come and gone. Some time ago. Don't keep a restaurant, you know -- guests miss a meal, they gotta eat somewhere else."
"I've eaten already." Illya scanned the register quickly as he slowly signed his name. With varying degrees of legibility, Iverson, Readmann, Kealey, Erickson, and Argenbright had signed the ledger before him. No Ashenden. But then, he hadn't expected it to be quite as simple as that. "You've got a full house, from the looks of things," he said as he pushed the book back to the hotelier, "Mister...?"
"Taliaferro, Mr. Kuryakin." He managed to mangle it only slightly. "The Gray Fox Inn belongs to me," he said with rough pride. "Been in the family three generations." He scribbled out a receipt and handed it to Illya along with a key.
"From the looks of things, business is brisk enough to keep the house for another three."
"Ah, now that's on account of the ghosts," Taliaferro said with a knowing wink.
"Ghosts?" Illya glanced around as if he expected to see one. Napoleon, of course, was nowhere in sight.
"Course. The Gray Fox is haunted. You knew, a'course," he smiled. "Why else you come down here?"
"Why indeed?" Illya murmured under his breath. "Thank you, Mr.
Taliaferro." He turned to shake hands with the man, who knew a
dismissal when he heard it. He gave Illya directions to his room and
wished him a pleasant night.
"Here," Napoleon said from directly in front of him. Illya jumped in spite of himself.
"Damn it, Napoleon!" He closed and locked the door. "Show yourself."
Napoleon appeared from the center outwards, like concentric waves in a pond. In a moment, he was perfectly solid -- in appearance at least -- with only a slight final ripple. He looked down at his hands a moment, then brushed invisible dust off his suit and straightened his lapels.
Illya watched the show with mild amusement tinged with annoyance. "You're getting better at that."
"Thank you." He prowled around the small room, taking in, as Illya had done, the slightly shabby elegance. Heavy mahogany furniture, brocaded cloth wallcovering, an old darroguetype picture or two to complete the antebellum atmosphere. The only wrong note was struck by the thick wall to wall carpet.
"Taliaferro's business hasn't always been as brisk as it is now," Illya noted. "This place has seen better times."
"What do you make of his snoring behind the desk?"
So Napoleon had been there. Illya ignored that for the moment. "I think he was waiting for someone."
He thought about that. "No, I don't think he's the type to keep the doors open for a late guest." He frowned at Napoleon. "Any particular reason you decided to pull a disappearing act?"
Napoleon shrugged. "I thought it might be better if no one knew I was here." He paced to the window and looked out.
"As I'm the only one who can see you," Illya heaved his bag onto a handy chair with a grunt, "I don't think that's a particularly large concern."
"They're here to hunt ghosts," Napoleon reminded him. "That must mean they can see them, right?"
"Not necessarily. Besides," he smiled wolfishly at Napoleon, "what makes you think the other guests are ghost hunters?"
"The innkeeper's patter, for one." He abandoned the window and returned to Illya. "Any line on Ashenden?"
Illya shook his head. "But there is an Erickson in the register. And an Iverson."
"The significance escapes me."
Illya fished his bag of toiletries and the second dark bag of U.N.C.L.E. toys out of his luggage and set them on the bedside table. Then he hauled out an armful of clothes and dumped them in the top drawer of the massive antique dresser. "People making up names for hotel registers tend to use first name last names."
"Say that again, in English."
Illya gave him a look. "Names like Edwards, Adamson, Williamson, Johns--"
"I get the idea. So you think Erickson could be Ashenden."
"Or Iverson. But I've never heard of someone named Iver before. So Erickson is more likely."
Napoleon looked at him quizzically.
Illya shrugged. "It's at least possible. Though he could just as easily be one of the others."
"Or none of them at all."
"That also is possible." Illya upended his bag over the second drawer of the dresser and shook it a couple of times. He put the empty bag into the third drawer and nudged it shut with his hip. Then, his unpacking finished, he flopped down on the bed. "What?"
Napoleon blinked. "Nothing." Pause. "You do realize your suit is in there."
"Under your shoes."
Another pause. Illya tucked his hands under his head and smiled to himself. "Okay," Napoleon said, in a very particular tone of voice. Very particular and very familiar. It ought to have been, after more than four years of sharing hotel rooms.
Illya closed his eyes, and thought blissfully of nodding off right there, sleeping in his clothes and all. Something, however, prevented him from simply dropping off. He frowned, trying to work it out without having to move. Giving up, Illya opened his eyes and found Napoleon pacing from the window to the door to the bedside and back again. His ghostly steps made no sound at all.
"Do the security check," he said, the moment his eyes fell on Illya's.
"Just do it, Illya."
For a moment, the impulse to tell Napoleon that he was no longer the CEA nearly overmastered Illya's sense. With an effort, he reminded himself that he was tired and held his tongue. He also hauled himself off the bed, picked up the black bag, and produced the equipment necessary. The security sweep seemed to take a great deal longer than usual, with Napoleon dogging his heels, peering over his shoulder, and generally acting like a hen with her last chick. Or an agent with a burr up his ass.
"Satisfied?" Illya asked as he put the equipment away and buried the bag of equipment in the second drawer. "There are no listening devices -- a good thing, since they wouldn't pick up your voice and I'd sound damn silly talking to myself. The window is secured -- and painted shut, I might add -- the door is locked and secured with an additional U.N.C.L.E. lock. And there's no bathroom to sweep."
"It's down the hall. Take your gun when you go." Napoleon went back to the window.
Illya toed off his shoes and flopped back down on the bed. The ceiling was an indiscriminate shade of antique white, with a curiously-shaped stain in the far left corner. He closed his eyes.
"Wish I hadn't died on my way home from a date."
Illya opened his eyes again. He propped himself up on his elbow. "What?"
Napoleon looked momentarily nonplused. He cleared his throat and said, a bit louder. "At least then I'd have a gun."
"I've got my clothes, don't I?"
"And a good thing, too," Illya said softly, more to eradicate the mental image of being haunted by a naked Napoleon than to tease his partner.
"Shoes, belt, hell, I've even got pocket change." He thrust his hands into his trouser pockets and set up a rather startling jingle. "Why not a gun?"
"A ghost gun?"
"Which shoots ghost bullets."
Napoleon started to nod, stopped, shook his head, and growled at Illya. Who blinked in surprise. It was certainly a new noise from his partner. Illya sat up, automatically touching his holstered gun.
"What's bothering you?"
The window was surprisingly attractive to Napoleon, given that it offered a view only of the moonless night. But he didn't stay there long, pacing over to the door and back silently. Napoleon Solo was coolest in the face of the most impossible missions -- the worse things got, the cooler he got. So Illya wasn't too worried. But he could feel Napoleon's nervousness invading his blood. Everything about him said danger. Said wait and watch and never, ever let your guard down.
Napoleon shook his head. "Don't know. A feeling. This place..." he cast about the room as if he'd find the words there, "there's something... it's like an electrical charge, running through me."
"Come here." Illya held out his hand, was surprised first by Napoleon's hesitation, then by the strength of his grip. He didn't say that Napoleon was imagining things, or try to explain away what he felt. An agent's instincts were not to be justified or questioned. He just guided his partner to sit on the bed, and held his hand hard until Napoleon's grip loosened somewhat.
With a last squeeze, Illya released Napoleon's hand. He peeled off his suit coat and slipped out of the shoulder holster, placing the gun within easy reach on the bedside table. Without rising from the bed, Illya stripped down to his boxers, tossing each item of clothing to the floor as he removed it. Finally, he turned to meet Napoleon's bemused stare.
"Take off your shoes." Illya manufactured a smile. "I won't have you kicking me in the night."
"What if I can't?"
"Won't know until you try." The ring of nonchalant certainty in Illya's voice was entirely feigned, and difficult to maintain. His sigh of relief when, after a tense moment, Napoleon sat beside him with his shoes in his hands was nearly audible.
"Now put them on the floor and come to bed."
"And if they disappear when I stop touching them? I have no desire to go through the rest of eternity barefoot."
The word seemed to surprise them both. Eternity.
Illya's left hand curled involuntarily into a fist that he hid in the blankets. For a moment, they simply looked at each other. Napoleon was the first to break the gaze. He glanced down at his shoes, then slowly leaned over the side of the bed to put them on the plush carpet. Illya couldn't see the floor from his position, but Napoleon straightened up after a minute and his expression wasn't that of a man whose shoes had vanished before his eyes.
Illya swallowed his relief. He crawled under the covers and patted the bed gently. "Now come to bed."
Napoleon clambered silently under the blankets. The sheets were cool against Illya's bare skin, and he thought again of the supposed coldness of ghosts. Napoleon's embrace was sudden and warm and desperate. Illya wrapped his partner in his arms and ran his palm slowly up and down the rough fabric of his coat.
The shoe experiment had better work out well. Next time, Illya thought, he'd get Napoleon out of his suit coat as well.
By the time the light knock penetrated Illya's sleep-fogged mind, he was sitting bolt upright in bed, pointing his gun at the door.
"Breakfast in fifteen minutes, sir." The voice was light, female, and gone in an instant.
Illya put the gun back on the bedside table and rubbed sleepily at his eyes. The mattress shifted slightly. Illya couldn't hear Napoleon pad across the floor, but when he opened his eyes again, he instinctively looked at precisely the spot where his partner was standing. With his head poking out through the door.
Illya looked at his partner's solid shoulders half-sunk in the equally solid door. He closed his eyes and rubbed them hard with his fists. How long had Napoleon hesitated, he wondered, working up the nerve to stick his head through the door. Or had he just done it without thinking about it?
"Coast is clear," Napoleon said and, presuming it was safe, Illya opened his eyes. He raised an eyebrow at his partner and got a half-smile in return. "The bathroom is unoccupied."
Illya nodded and threw off the covers. His clothes were scattered all over the floor, and Napoleon's expression said not only 'you did that yourself,' but 'I can't pick them up anyway.' With a sigh, Illya set about gathering things up. Coat, sock, shirt, sock, trousers, belt, shoes-- His hand made contact with the black leather and kept right on going.
"Uh..." Illya said intelligently. He tried again, his fingers passing through the shoes and scraping against the carpet.
Napoleon crouched next to him. "Those are my shoes, you know," he said quietly. They both looked at the ghostly shoes for a moment. Napoleon slowly reached out to touch them. Then pick them up. Though he didn't breathe, yet he did sigh gustily. "Thank god."
And he sat on the bed to pull them on.
Illya blinked. He grabbed a flailing hand and hauled Napoleon out of the bed. Got in return a look which kept him from saying anything whatsoever as Napoleon sat on the floor to slip on his shoes.
Illya muttered something indistinct about being back in a moment and grabbed his pile of clothes. He fumbled with the U.N.C.L.E. lock, and then the door lock, and retreated quickly to the bathroom. Especially quickly once he realized he was in a public corridor in his underwear.
With the bathroom door locked securely behind him, Illya ran cold water into the sink and plunged his head into it. The ancient plumbing groaned like something alive. Illya restrained the impulse to groan along with it.
He dragged his clothes hastily on, very definitely not thinking about Napoleon's shoes. About his hand going right through the shoes. About how that couldn't possibly be stranger than seeing Napoleon fall through the bed. And yet it was. Because Illya's hand had gone through them.
And that made it all real.
"Are you okay?" Napoleon asked the minute he stepped out of the bathroom. "You forgot to take your gun with you."
Illya traversed the long hallway with Napoleon at his heels. He entered the room and shut the door.
"I'm fine. I'm surprised you didn't come into the bathroom to see for yourself," he added, remembering the previous morning.
Napoleon cocked his head at Illya, a smile lurking around his mouth. He was in an excellent mood. "You're going to miss breakfast if you don't get your shoes on and get downstairs."
Illya slipped on his shoulder holster and seated the gun firmly in place after checking the clip. He sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for his shoes. And if he hesitated briefly before his fingers touched the smooth leather, well, at least Napoleon didn't notice. A minute later, he was shrugging into his coat as he walked out the door. Napoleon followed, smiling. Illya thought he could feel Napoleon's smile widen as he quickly brushed his fingers through his damp hair to tame it.
Somewhere partway down the stairs, Napoleon disappeared.
The long trestle table in the dining room was occupied when Illya found the correct room. The sun poured through the French doors which opened onto the veranda, filling the room with warm buttery light. The chandelier, far from resenting the usurpation of its place, glittered charmingly. It would be a vastly different room in the evening, Illya thought, when the dark woods and sumptuous velvet drapes deadened and deepened the light. There was a door opposite the one he'd come in, and a pass-through with wooden shutters closed over it, both of which, from the sound -- not to mention smell -- of it, led to the kitchen. The sideboard and trestle table were both heavy oak with simple, if massive, lines. Eight chairs sat around the table, three on each side and one at either end. Five were occupied.
"Ah," said the broad man at the head of the table, "our newest resident has found his way to the table. I told you a rescue mission wouldn't be necessary, Kevin." He somehow managed to elbow the man sitting around the corner to his right.
"Push off, Reg," Kevin said through a mournful mustache, "you're an oaf."
Far from taking offense, Reg found this wonderfully amusing. "Serve yourself from the sideboard," he told Illya. "Our host operates on the principle of eat now or go hungry, so you'd best get it before it's gone."
"Thank you, Mr...?"
"Argenbright," the third man said as he returned to the table from the sideboard, his plate modestly tenanted. "The fellow to his right is Kevin Kealey, and I'm Joseph Erickson." He sat opposite Kealey and began pushing the food around his plate with his fork.
"Pleased to meet you," Illya said politely, covering his disappointment. He'd met Ashenden before, though only briefly. None of the three fit the bill, and the two women sitting opposite each other at the far end of the table certainly didn't qualify. "Ladies," he acknowledged as he moved around to the sideboard.
"At least someone around here is a gentleman." She was a striking, somewhat overblown, beauty, with piercing eyes and a determined set to her mouth. Precisely the sort of woman who enchanted Napoleon and scared Illya half to death. "Since none of these oafs" -- Kealey's mustache twitched -- "have seen fit to introduce us, I suppose I'll have to. Madame Ellen Readmann." She held out a hand. Illya hastily set his empty plate on the sideboard and took it, fighting the urge to bend and kiss her fingers. It wouldn't have been out of place with her manner. "And this is Ida Iverson."
"Idelle," the other woman corrected quietly. She flashed a smile at Illya, and kept her hands in her lap. People who kept their hands out of sight generally set off Illya's alarms. Miss Iverson only seemed hopelessly out of her depth.
"A pleasure," Illya said, accompanying the words with a nod which was just short of a bow. Laying it on, as Napoleon would say, rather thick.
He picked up his plate again. The sumptuous odors coming from the sideboard tugged a demand from his stomach. Equally demanding, however, were the instincts against turning his back on a room full of strangers. He hesitated for only the briefest moment before distinctly feeling Napoleon's invisible fingers tap the back of his hand. With a small smile, Illya turned to the sideboard, secure in the knowledge that his partner was watching his back.
Inroads had already been made on the food, but the choice was still plentiful. Illya forked five pancakes and six sausages onto his plate, doused the lot with syrup, poured himself a cup of coffee from the silver urn at the end of the sideboard, and somehow managed to get to the table without spilling anything. He sat down between Kealey and Iverson, where he could keep an eye on both doors, and plunged his fork into the golden cakes.
"You seem," he said when the continuing silence seemed to demand speech, "to be very familiar with the Gray Fox Inn. Do you stay here often?"
No one else responded to the amused snort which followed. Illya was apparently the only one who heard it. He wished he knew where Napoleon was standing, so he could glare at him.
Reg, who seemed to be the voice of the group, or at least the male contingent thereof, laughed heartily. "No, we've only been here a few days. This is hardly the sort of place I'd choose to vacation."
"Then you're here on business?" Illya speared a piece of sausage and mopped it around in the syrup before popping it in his mouth.
"Aren't we all?" Reg leaned forward. "Ghosts, you know." Then ruined the solemn display by leaning back with another booming laugh. "We are, all of us, in the ghost business."
"That man could easily get on my nerves," Napoleon commented from somewhere by the door, even as Madame Readmann narrowed her eyes at her breakfast companion and said: "I'm no longer surprised that you haven't seen any of the spiritual residents, Argenbright. I wonder that they let you in the door at all."
"Are ghosts so finicky, Miss Readmann?" Erickson asked, his tone remarkably lacking in condensation. He sounded genuinely curious.
"Most of the ones I've spoken with are." She sipped daintily at her coffee, pointedly ignoring Argenbright's amused countenance. "Manners are very important to ghosts, especially the ones who've been around for a long time. You have to ask them in politely, not chase them around with a lot of beeping gizmos and gadgets."
"Now really, Miss Readmann," Argenbright said in an entirely too reasonable tone of voice, "you can hardly expect us to believe that our equipment is annoying the ghosts."
"Why not? It's annoying me."
"I notice," he said silkily, "that you don't give us chapter and verse of the ghosts in this house. Is it possible that even the much vaunted Madame Readmann hasn't had a visitation on the premises?"
"That," she said, "is a matter between me and them."
"Meaning you haven't."
"Oh, and you have?"
"No. But I don't expect to. Erickson here's fascinated with the idea of the afterlife, and Kealey's only interested in his machines--" Both men looked uneasy at the notice. "--but I'm in it to prove once and for all that there is no such thing. And all you mediums and spiritualists are either scam artists or lonely neurotic females with nothing better to do than commune with the so-called spirits."
Idelle Iverson rose with the jerky abruptness of a broken spring. "Excuse me," she murmured.
Illya thought he saw a flicker near the door as the young woman rushed past. He could just imagine Napoleon watching her retreat, the chivalric bent to his character chafing at his inability to actually do anything. It wouldn't be long, he suspected, before the quiet Miss Iverson had at least one ghostly visitation.
"A little harsh, don't you think?" Kealey murmured through his mustache to Argenbright, who at least had the good grace to look abashed.
"And you," Erickson said brightly to Illya, "what kind of paranormal investigator are you?" His pale eyes blinked desperately.
"No? Why are you here then?"
Illya turned his gaze from Erickson to Argenbright. "A friend recommended the Gray Fox Inn. I've never been to Kennesaw Mountain before." He shrugged.
"Not a very good friend, I think, to suggest you come here."
"Oh, I don't know," Illya said. "The food, at least, is as good as Ashenden said it was."
Something in the kitchen made a dreadful crash.
"Damn it, Rowan, watch what you're doing!"
The door to the kitchen slammed open, and a young girl flew
through the dining room with Taliaferro's roar winging hard after her.
"I didn't drop the dishes," she said when Illya came across her later.
He'd gone out after that tense breakfast to explore the area, Napoleon appearing at his side once they got out of sight of the house.
Kennesaw Mountain lay to the west, Marietta to the east. Illya turned to the west. The Gray Fox Inn stood too far out of town for Illya to assume Ashenden had any business with Marietta. Though he hadn't yet seen the man, he still had to assume from Mr. Waverly's information that the Gray Fox figured into Ashenden's plans. It seemed to have nothing to recommend itself but its location. Illya turned west, into the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
The file assembled by the U.N.C.L.E. research department had already provided him with maps and a tour guide of the park. Established in 1899, with improvements made in the thirties, the park was eight miles long by about a mile wide, the site of an 1864 battle resulting in approximately 4000 casualties. No tourist brochure, however, could tell Illya why he was there.
He walked along several miles of trails, though his shoes were not particularly suited for the terrain. Napoleon was, for the most part, silent at his side. Illya found himself turning often to verify his partner's position. No cracking twigs, no shuffled whisper of leaves, no soft puff of breath announced Napoleon's presence. The taciturn Russian was almost brought to the low of starting a conversation merely to hear his partner's voice.
"An interesting crew," Napoleon said into the silence.
"Yes," Illya said, covering his relief.
"They don't seem to like each other much; even the ones who're colleagues."
As they walked, Illya removed his jacket and carried it slung over one arm. The sun dappled the ground through the trees, warming an already fine spring day. They came out on a rise and looked down into the valley. Somewhere down there was the Gray Fox Inn. Somewhere down there was a Thrush agent intent on some unknown errand. Whatever it was, it was hardly likely to prove benign. Someone at the Gray Fox had to know something. Taliaferro, most likely. Illya hoped the bait he had cast during breakfast would be taken, and began considering the best way of following up on the lure.
"Damn stupid way of going about things."
"What?" asked Illya, affronted, before remembering that despite his new talents, Napoleon still couldn't read minds.
Napoleon's gesture took in the valley. "To attack uphill over this line. No wonder they called this 'The Dead Angle.'"
Illya frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Sherman's attack." He cocked his head at Illya. "You didn't read the rest of the file. Don't worry, old son," he clapped Illya on the shoulder, "I can fill you in."
Torn between amusement and annoyance, Illya shook his head. He deserved it, he supposed, for all those times he'd lectured Napoleon on some subject he knew more about than his partner. He turned to gaze out over the lush green valley as Napoleon spoke.
"Sherman's Atlanta Campaign. His army chased Johnston's forces from Chattanooga to Atlanta in a slow series of flanking maneuvers. Until they got here, and Johnston stood and fought." His arm swept out across the valley again. "The Union forces attacked up this line, and lost three men to every Confederate killed."
"A Confederate victory."
"The ground wasn't held. Five days later, Johnston withdrew to a position in defense of Atlanta. Which was taken the following month."
"How," Illya asked, "did your country ever manage to survive? Less than a century after winning your independence from England, you get into a war with yourselves."
Napoleon shrugged. "How did Russia survive Red October?"
"It didn't," Illya said sourly. He shook his head, repeated Napoleon's assessment. "A stupid way of going about things." He looked out over the valley. "But brave."
"Yes." Courage was something they understood.
He stopped for lunch on the way back, and ignored Napoleon's look when he ordered fried country ham and grits with red-eye gravy. Afterwards, just for the hell of it, and to see Napoleon grimace, he stopped at a roadside stand and bought boiled peanuts.
The Gray Fox Inn benefited by the mellow midday sun. She looked her age, but gracefully so, with the air of a long campaigner who wore her scars with pride. Illya turned from the front walk and made his way around the side of the house, walking through a riot of color -- multicolored azaleas, dogwoods, and other flowers he couldn't identify. Napoleon kept pace with him, as unwilling, it seemed, as he was himself to return to the confines of the house. Illya failed to mention to Napoleon that he was still visible.
"I didn't drop the dishes."
Illya's right hand was already dropping away from his holster as he turned. He didn't require Napoleon's warning hand on his arm to know that there was no threat.
"Of course you didn't."
She was tall for her age, which he guessed at thirteen or fourteen. Napoleon was the expert on the female form, but he thought that she would be beautiful when she'd grown into herself. She cocked her head to one side.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
He smiled. "Illya Kuryakin, at your service. And you are?"
She put her hand in his with a muffled giggle. "Rowan."
"There, now we're not strangers." Illya could feel Napoleon's amused gaze on him, making him wonder briefly where he'd learned to play this game. From Napoleon, no doubt.
She giggled again, and resumed her makeshift seat on the low wall around the garden, patting the warm stone next to her in invitation. Illya sat, leaving about two feet between them. She scooted closer.
"I wonder..." he said after a moment, during which she kicked her heels against the wall and hummed tunelessly, "if you didn't make that horrible clatter in the kitchen this morning, who did?"
"My uncle." Her lips twisted and she stuffed a curl of hair in her mouth and chewed on the end. He gently tugged the russet lock free and tucked it behind her ear.
"Taliaferro is your uncle?"
She nodded. "Uncle Charles."
"So Uncle Charles dropped the plates." He exchanged a glance with Napoleon, who no longer looked quite so amused.
"Dishes," she corrected. "The big porcelain serving dishes that--"
"Yes?" he prompted, though he could care less about the dishes. She was looking over his shoulder, and so was Napoleon.
Outside the wall, a man in faded overalls pushed a wheelbarrow around the side of the garden. His hair was iron gray, lifted in little wisps by a breeze Illya could barely feel. In the wheelbarrow reposed a shovel, and a lot of rust, and nothing else.
"Uncle Robert," she said softly as she watched him wheel away around the back of the house, a line of uncertainty rucking up the smooth skin between her eyebrows. "Good old Bobby Lee." She smiled quickly at Illya. "But don't you go lettin' Uncle Charles hear you call him that."
"I won't," Illya promised. "Where is he going with that shovel and wheelbarrow?"
She studied him seriously. "Can you keep a secret?"
Illya felt the weight of his gun against his ribs; he looked at Napoleon's beloved face; and he smiled. "I think so."
Rowan's eyes searched his for another moment before she nodded. "He's looking for the gold," she whispered.
She nodded vigorously. "The Confederate gold. Don't you know?" When he shook his head, her eyes glowed with excitement. "In the last days of the war," she said in hushed tones, and it was clear that to her there was only the one war, "with the Yankees comin' down on Richmond, Jeff Davis sent the Confederate treasury away down south for safety. They say there was at least $300,000 in gold, and no more'n half of it ever found."
"And your uncle thinks it's somewhere around here?"
"Most of it that was captured by the Yankees was in Washington."
"D.C.?" he said, startled.
"Nah." She laughed. "Georgia -- about a hundred miles from here. But there's some'at say what was never found is here. And that's why the ghosts stay, to protect what's theirs."
"Have you ever seen a ghost?"
She gave him a secretive little smile. "Haven't you?"
It took an effort not to look at Napoleon. Oddly unprepared to lie to the girl with the clear gray eyes, Illya changed the subject. "The missing gold was worth $150,000 a century ago, then. Let's see... today, that gold would be worth--"
"Nothing," said Taliaferro, startling Illya. Napoleon's hand went for a non-existent gun, and it was only sheer force of will which prevented Illya from whipping out his Special.
The innkeeper hauled his niece up by her collar and shook her. "How many times I gotta tell you, girl, stop spreading that story around. Last thing we need is a bunch of Yankees pokin' around and diggin' up the garden looking for gold that ain't there. Now git!" He gave her a swat on the behind which staggered her a few paces. She recovered her balance and raced off.
"Bastard!" Napoleon made a grab for Taliaferro's arm, which failed, of course, to connect.
"That was hardly necessary, sir." Illya stood with his hands at his sides, but his fingers twitched with the desire to belt the man.
"You just let me handle my family my own way, and don't go stirrin' up any stories about gold."
Illya would have pushed the matter, despite all his training, if it weren't for the fact that he caught sight of Rowan just then, peering around the corner of the house.
She winked at him and vanished as effectively as Napoleon.
"You do realize you're visible, at least to me."
Napoleon shrugged. "The girl didn't see me. Maybe it's time to find out who can."
Illya mounted the steps to the veranda. The day was getting quite warm, and the azaleas had lost their charm. He followed the veranda around the side of the house to an open door, and found himself in the empty kitchen. The broken crockery had already been cleaned up. He pushed through the door into the dining room. On the sideboard sat a pitcher of lemonade with water dewing on the sides. Illya poured himself a glass and drank gratefully.
"What did you think of her?" Illya asked softly.
"Rowan? A precocious child." He smiled. "She was quite taken with you."
"But I think she was lying."
"About the gold." Illya had gotten the same impression. "The story's true, or at least she believes it is, but she didn't really believe that was the reason her uncle went past with the wheelbarrow."
"Agreed. Also, Taliaferro's annoyance with her 'storytelling' was out of proportion to the offense. He certainly didn't want her telling you about it." He paused. "I don't think he likes you."
"I can't say I'm particularly fond of him either. I think he was waiting up for Ashenden last night."
Illya poured another glass of lemonade and took it with him. The house was still and quiet. He found Ellen Readmann and Idelle Iverson in the morning room, though not together. Iverson was sitting in a bow window reading. She didn't look up when he entered, but Readmann did. She smiled and gestured him over.
"Lovely day," she said as he settled into a baroque armchair with red velvet cushions. Napoleon perched on the arm.
"It is indeed, Miss Readmann."
"Madame Readmann," she corrected, smiling. "I'm afraid I must insist. It goes, you see, with the job." She made an ornate gesture which hinted at the mystical.
"The job of... speaking to ghosts? A medium?"
"That is my profession. By which I mean it is my calling. One can't simply decide to take up the job if one doesn't have the talent, after all."
"No courses in seances at the junior college?"
Illya hid his smile at Napoleon's comment. Madame Readmann continued as if she hadn't heard.
"You are familiar with my calling, I take it?"
"I have a... passing acquaintance. Enough," he added, "to know how wrong Mr. Argenbright is in his estimation. Of mediums and... others."
"Argenbright." She pursed her lips at the sour taste of the name, her expression, like her gestures, touched with an air of theatricality. "The man is a fool."
"Because he doesn't believe?"
"There are many who don't believe. And why should they," she asked with an artless shrug, "if they've never seen? But to come to such a... charged place, intending to prove something with his devices. No, this is the height of folly."
"It's not particularly good scientific procedure either," Illya remarked.
"Hmm... knows the results he intends to get before he goes in," Napoleon mused. "We really must visit him next. I'd take great pleasure in messing up his readings."
Illya leaned confidingly toward Readmann. "Have you seen ghosts, then?"
"Often." She waved her hand dismissively, a woman who had, indeed, seen it all.
Napoleon stood up and waved his hand before her face. Illya cleared his throat, hoping his expression hadn't wavered and that Napoleon would get his (nicely rounded) rear end out of Illya's face before it did. Thankfully, Napoleon stepped aside with a muted snarl of annoyance when Readmann failed to respond to his presence.
The medium cocked her head, her shrewd eyes assessing Illya carefully. After a minute, she also leaned forward and laid a hand on his arm. "Not here," she said softly, the mask dropping to reveal a jaded weariness. "Not for a long time. Once... I thought I had something special. Now..." She shrugged, leaned back into her chair. "What can you do?"
Illya contrived to look disappointed. "There are no ghosts here?"
"Not that I've seen. Truth to tell, I think Taliaferro's been talking up the 'haunted' angle to drum up business."
"So it's all a lie."
Now her disillusioned mask slipped slightly as well. "All? No, I don't think so. There's still... something about this house. Something uneasy. But not something that moves furniture of its own accord, or goes banging around the house at night -- I know the tricks, Mr. Kuryakin, performed most of them myself at one point or another." She nodded sagely. "I'm surprised the ghosts didn't get the blame for this morning's accident at breakfast, instead of the girl."
Idelle Iverson glanced up sharply at nothing in particular before going back to her book. The motion drew Illya's eyes to her, and his attention was noted by other sharp eyes.
"And her?" he asked Madame Readmann.
"Miss Iverson?" She looked as well, her expression an odd mating of envy and disdain. "She believes. Maybe she can even still see." Illya watched Napoleon move over to the woman in the window seat. "Why don't you ask her?"
Madame Readmann gave Illya one last pat on the arm as she rose. He watched her cool and dignified retreat for a moment, before turning his gaze back to the two figures gilded by the melting afternoon sun.
"Am I intruding?" he asked as he approached. Napoleon leaned over her, but she seemed no more aware of his presence than Madame Readmann had been.
Miss Iverson put a finger in her book to hold her place as she looked up.
There was no place, except beside her, to sit. Illya shoved his hands in his pockets and crossed his left foot over his right, keeping his balance with ease. Napoleon grimaced -- he always did when Illya stood like that.
The young lady hadn't yet spoken.
"I'm sorry," Illya said after a moment, "I am intruding."
"No." She blinked slowly. "I was just," she said with a genuinely artless smile, "trying to think why you'd want to talk to me."
"Why not?" His own smile had been known to draw out the hopelessly shy, at least as well as Napoleon's, and he didn't hesitate to use it now.
"Well..." Miss Iverson waved her hand vaguely at where Madame Readmann had been sitting. "You've already spoken with her."
Not as artless as he'd supposed, nor as innocent. The tension on her face and in her voice when she referred to the medium was telling, even to one as generally mediocre at reading people as Illya. It certainly wasn't friendship which bound them together at the breakfast table. A common enemy, perhaps.
"She said that Mr. Argenbright is a fool."
Her pale eyes clouded over. "Perhaps. Perhaps," she said with a gulped breath, "he's right."
"There are no ghosts? You didn't look like you believed that this morning."
She turned her head away from him, though he didn't think she saw the window or anything outside it. "That was before... I've always been... sensitive, Mr.-- I'm sorry, I don't remember your name."
"Illya will do."
She nodded without looking at him. "Since I was a child, I felt things that no one else did. I thought, when I heard about the Gray Fox, I thought maybe I'd see something, really see something, here. I had a break from school, and a little money to pay for the trip, and..."
Her porcelain skin colored a touching rose. "And nothing else to do."
Illya nodded to himself. He shied a glance at Napoleon, who was watching the girl with an odd expression, and crossed his right foot over the left. Napoleon didn't notice. Trying to decipher that expression, Illya came up only with hunger, and not the sort he usually associated with his partner.
"And what's happened since this morning?"
"What?" Her eyes flicked briefly to his.
"To make Argenbright right. Perhaps."
She leaned her head sideways against the glass. "I saw him -- the man with the amazing mustache who runs this place."
"In the parlor. Shoving the knick-knacks around, pulling books half out of the shelves, taking the lantern -- the one with the pretty red glass -- off the hook on the wall." Miss Iverson laughed softly to herself, a laugh with little amusement. "I'm sure we'll hear at dinner tonight how the ghosts have been playing with things. It's what he said the first night."
"Never mind," she said. She dashed her fingers over her cheeks. "You don't even care about ghosts. You just came because of your friend, Ash-somebody or other."
"Ashenden." He glanced at Napoleon, who still wasn't looking at him, and took advantage of the opening. "I gather he comes here often. Hasn't one of the others mentioned him?"
"Illya," Napoleon warned softly.
"Who, your friend? No." She fidgeted with the edges of her book.
"I'm sorry. I've kept you from your reading long enough."
She nodded silently and opened the book in her lap. As Illya stepped back, Napoleon stepped closer. He put his hand on her shoulder. Tried to. His fingers slipped through dress and shoulder and all, and he pulled sharply back. She shivered and rubbed absently at her shoulder with her free hand.
Illya grabbed Napoleon by the arm and pulled him away, thankful that Miss Iverson's eyes were resolutely glued to her book.
"Did you see that?"
Napoleon stopped at the foot of the stairs and pivoted on his heel to look back at the morning room. "She felt me."
"She felt cold." Illya grabbed Napoleon's hand and started up the stairs, not caring how he'd look if someone saw him.
Illya said nothing. He squeezed Napoleon's hand and felt, after a moment, the fingers interlace with his. Warm fingers.
"Let's see what our scientific trio have to say." Napoleon released his hand as they came to an open door.
Illya knocked on the door at he stopped in the doorway, then curled his cooling hand into his pocket. "Mind if I take a look?"
"Come in," Erickson said expansively. He rolled to his feet, leaving an explosion of papers scattered across the narrow bed. Kealey looked up from behind a metal box about two feet square which sat on a rolling tv cart. It ate tremendously into the limited space left by the two single beds and large armoire. Every available surface was festooned with paper or cluttered with various scientific instruments, flashlights, thermometers and compasses. Argenbright was, Illya was glad to see, nowhere around. "I wasn't aware you were interested in our project."
"The ability to detect and track ghosts?" Illya shifted his shoulders. "Sounds fascinating. Are you telling me it really works?"
"It works," Kealey said, laying a proprietary hand on the machine, not noticing Napoleon prowling and peering around it.
"It works," he insisted to Erickson. "It would. If there were anything here to detect."
"Maybe," Erickson suggested with rote conviction, "there are ghosts here to detect. What then?"
"Show me a ghost and I'll detect it." The exchange had the stale feeling of an old argument. Illya wondered aloud how long they'd been at the Gray Fox.
"Two weeks," Erickson told him wearily.
"All three of you in this room?"
"Of course not. Argenbright is across the hall. I mean, his room is across the hall. God only knows where Argenbright himself has got to."
"He's discourage with the project?" Illya suggested.
"He was never encouraged about the project," Erickson said sourly. "After the first two days, he stopped even coming by. We've hauled this machine all over the property, checking the readings, while Argenbright--"
Erickson glared at Kealey. He closed his eyes. "While Argenbright went out looking for ghosts or signs of ghosts." He opened his eyes, glared at Kealey again, and added, "Or making time with that bitch Readmann."
Napoleon laughed. His hand passed through the machine without making a blip in its steady drone. Kealey stepped out from behind the machine, walked through Napoleon without blinking, and advanced glowering on Erickson.
"How does it work?" Illya asked quickly.
"How does the machine work?"
Kealey smiled slightly, the movement of his lips barely visible under his mustache, and turned back to the metal box. "It's very simple." Erickson rolled his eyes and flopped back on the bed. Having gotten Kealey started, Illya had to listen to him for a good twenty minutes, during which phrases like 'magnetic flow' and 'conservation of energy' were tossed about, before he was able to ask for a demonstration. He wouldn't have bothered, despite his usual scientific curiosity, if it weren't for Napoleon's quiet request, and his air of even quieter desperation.
Kealey flipped a switch, and the box beeped once. He adjusted a few dials with fingertip precision. "There. Now, if there were any ghosts around, they would register on the meter."
"Theoretically," Erickson said without lifting his head off the bed.
"They would theoretically register on the meter."
Kealey used a dingy handkerchief to polish the glass, under which the
needle maintained a perfectly even baseline reading. Even when
Napoleon, after waving his arms over it a few times, stepped directly
into the machine.
"Tomorrow night I'm going to eat out." Illya yanked off his tie and threw it at the open second drawer of the bureau. "Their bickering is enough to put anyone off." He'd only been able to manage two servings of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and country gravy, and he expected Napoleon to say something rude about his appetite. When he didn't, Illya turned to see what was wrong.
He turned a full three-sixty without seeing his partner. "Napoleon? Napoleon, I'm warning you, if you're cheshiring again you're going to wake up under the bed in the morning."
No response. If the threat of being dropped through the bed while he slept didn't bring Napoleon out, then it was reasonable to assume he wasn't in. Besides, Illya had a feeling he wasn't there. Nothing he could have explained, anymore than he could have explained it while his partner was alive. Quite simply, he generally knew when Napoleon was around.
Illya opened the door and poked his head out into the hall. No Napoleon. Just Madame Readmann's back retreating down the stairs. Illya closed the door and sat on the bed.
This damned assignment was starting to get to him. A house purportedly full of ghosts, certainly full of ghost hunters, and the only ghost was Napoleon, and the only person who could see him was Illya. And, if Napoleon's behavior was anything to go by, that wasn't enough.
He hadn't said more than a dozen words since they arrived at the house, unless they were said in private. And, while Illya appreciated not having to carry on three-sided conversations in which one of the participants was visible only to him, it was vaguely unnerving to have his personable partner hovering silently without even attempting to join in. He'd never have thought he could be lonely with Napoleon always at his side.
Illya kicked off his shoes and lay back on the bed. The assignment itself was a bust so far as well. No sign whatsoever of Ashenden. The ghost hunters were surely as fraudulent as the Gray Fox ghosts themselves, but they didn't carry the subtle waft of Thrush scheming. Taliaferro was the best lead; him or Uncle Bobby Lee, though the latter seemed unlikely. What the devil could Ashenden be doing that needed a shovel? And yet, Taliaferro seemed worried that Illya would take it into his head to start digging around the grounds. Yes, the innkeeper bore watching.
"You don't suppose," Illya said aloud, "that this assignment is as much a myth as that Confederate gold, do you?" Could Waverly have been worried enough about him to give him a bogus assignment as cover for a forced vacation? Perhaps it was all fake: no ghosts, no gold, no Ashenden.
Illya's fingers drummed silently on the bedspread. He pushed himself off the bed and rummaged in the bureau drawers. When he emerged from the room a couple of minutes later, he had his bathrobe on, a towel around his neck, and a small bag of toiletries in his hand.
Luckily, the bathroom was available.
Coaxing a shower out of the ancient plumbing was challenging enough to take his mind off things. And its tendency to spurt the occasional gout of cold water kept him on his toes. The the semicircle of shower curtain around the large claw-footed tub swayed gently in the dancing air currents, making the rings jingle.
Illya didn't know what made him reach for his gun. It was nothing he heard; there was nothing to hear. He barely had the gun in his hand when he was struck by the fully-clothed body of a man.
The shower curtain didn't even ripple. Napoleon's hand crushed Illya's fingers against the cool grips of the gun, aiming it with shaking strength at the door, invisible on the other side of the curtain. A faint noise, the rattle of the handle audible over the shower. Napoleon's forefinger slipped inside the trigger guard atop Illya's.
"Just a minute," Illya managed to call through a rusty throat.
"Sorry old chap." Argenbright's footsteps receded down the hall.
Illya let out a breath. Napoleon was a dead-- a heavy weight against his side, his face pressed into the crook of Illya's neck. Illya carefully disengaged his hand and laid the gun back in the wire basket thoughtfully provided for toiletries. He braced a hand against the cool wall for a moment before twisting the taps off. Thank god he'd already rinsed off.
Napoleon's unnecessary breath ghosted over Illya's bare skin. He didn't raise his head. To Illya's shock, he realized Napoleon was shaking.
He pushed the shower curtain aside and prepared to shift them both out of the tub. When he wrapped an arm tightly around Napoleon's waist, a cooling stream of water sponged out and ran down his side. Illya grimaced.
"Let me go a minute, Napoleon." He really didn't want to be mopping water off the bathroom floor. Illya disengaged himself from Napoleon's embrace, letting one hand continue to cut off the circulation to his left forearm, and stepped gingerly out of the tub, finding the thick bathmat with his toes. He grabbed a towel one-handed and scrubbed briskly at himself, ignoring his nakedness, which couldn't be helped until he got his other hand back. "Napoleon."
He was looking at Illya, which was good. Illya raised his left arm. Napoleon's eyes flicked down and widened when he saw the bloodless skin around his hand. His fingers sprang free, leaving behind their livid outline. At the same instant, several liters of water splashed through his ghostly form to the tub below.
"Now you can get out of the tub." Illya quickly pulled on his bathrobe. He swiped ineffectually at the water dripping from his hair before draping the towel around his neck. Toiletries back in the bag, gun in the pocket of his bathrobe, and Napoleon touching once again. A hand on his shoulder, Napoleon's body close up against his back. Illya thought about asking what the matter was, but Napoleon had never had trouble articulating concrete threats in the past. And the bathroom echoed slightly. It could wait until they made it back to the bedroom.
The trip was accomplished with relative ease. The hall was empty when Illya cautiously cracked the door, and remained so the entire time. Which was probably a good thing, as Napoleon's determination to remain close interfered somewhat with Illya's customary grace.
"Care to let me in on it?" Illya asked as he affixed the U.N.C.L.E. lock to the door under the ancient hasp. Napoleon paced, touching Illya every time he came near enough to do so, which was often. Illya dropped his toiletries and his gun on the bedside table and crossed his arms over his chest. "I was unaware that Argenbright's needing to take a piss was innately threatening."
He was extremely unprepared when Napoleon kissed him.
He'd seen Napoleon take a kiss with accomplished flair. He'd seen him brush a kiss so light the lips it was bestowed upon could scarcely have felt it. He'd seen seducing kisses and laughing kisses and consolation kisses.
This wasn't one of those.
The hallmark of Napoleon's kisses was finesse, not emotion. Not hunger which walked so close to desperation it could be nothing else.
"You can touch me," Napoleon rasped against Illya's neck. His arms imprisoned Illya tighter. Something wet scalded Illya's cheek, and he wondered if ghosts could cry. He awkwardly bent his trapped arms to embrace his partner. "Touch me." Imperative.
Suddenly released, Illya staggered. Napoleon's hands were on him, shoving the robe from his shoulders, stroking roughly over bare skin. Knowing him. His mouth followed his hands, sucking, biting. Perfecting him.
"Napoleon..." Stop. This isn't the way I wanted... "Napoleon!" His fingers knotted in Napoleon's fine hair, pulling the dark head closer when he meant to push it away. His mouth was hot and wet and perfect, and Illya fought not to thrust. His breath sobbed in his ears. He pushed Napoleon away.
Dragged him to his feet, and ripped at his clothing. Ghostly shoes kicked off, Napoleon's hands fumbling with the belt. Jacket and shirt fluttering to the floor, undershirt hauled over Napoleon's head and tossed aside. Out of the corner of his eye, Illya saw it float gently down through the bed. He shook the sight off and focused on devouring Napoleon's mouth.
"Touch you," he growled as he broke the kiss. He pushed Napoleon toward the bed, hands on him, Napoleon's startled grip on his shoulders as they fell onto the mattress. "Waited years to touch you."
"Illya." No more words. The words were stopped by Illya's tongue, eaten off Napoleon's lips, chased down and annihilated in the depths of his mouth.
Illya ground himself against Napoleon's hip. Napoleon's hands were all over him, molding him close, pressing hard, as if he could simply drag Illya inside. And oh god but that was a thought. Illya wanted to be inside all right, but not like that.
He shoved and Napoleon rolled easily to his belly, spread himself for Illya. With a groan, Illya bent over the man. Scraped his teeth lightly down the smooth curve of Napoleon's spine. Gave in to the need to mark one perfect buttock. Then swiped his tongue across the red impression of his teeth. Napoleon sobbed.
Illya remembered just in time. He pressed one hand to Napoleon's back as he stretched to reach his bag. Found something that would do. Then he was back, groaning as he rubbed himself over Napoleon's body. Shoving slick fingers inside as his cock thrust with a mind of its own against a strong thigh. Napoleon whimpering, moaning something he couldn't make out and didn't have the patience to.
He dragged Napoleon to hands and knees. Stopped, shaking, bent to press his forehead to the small of Napoleon's back. Panting, sobbing.
"Illya..." Hoarse voice breaking into a shriek as Illya reared up and plunged into him. His hands on Napoleon's hips, holding him down as Illya took him as best he knew how. Hard and deep, and he was touching him, oh god was he touching him.
Napoleon's broken groans were loud, but Illya didn't worry about it. No one could hear him. Just Illya, listening to pure unadulterated pleasure as it poured from Napoleon's mouth and through Illya's veins and his cock and back into Napoleon. Through the crimson haze, he was glad he didn't have to put his hand over Napoleon's mouth, muffle his cries. The sounds he made were as sweet and perfect as the feel of him, hot and soft and tight around Illya.
When Napoleon's shaking limbs collapsed, Illya followed him down, driving into him at the pace of his own heartbeat, pounding for the both of them. He braced himself on the mattress and spread his knees to find purchase, opening Napoleon even wider to him. Napoleon whimpered. He convulsed, writhing as Illya grabbed his hips again, pinned him down to impale him over, and over.
Illya's name spilled from Napoleon's lips in between groans. From Illya, only one guttural word as he stiffened, lightning shooting down his spine. The same word repeated again and again.
"'The grave's a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.'"
"Andrew Marvell," Illya said. He hid his smile against Napoleon's shoulder, remembering thinking of Napoleon when he read 'To His Coy Mistress.'
"Shows what he knows," Napoleon murmured.
"What happened?" Illya finally stirred himself to ask.
"I think I've just been insulted." If his grin got any broader he could indeed try out for the Cheshire cat.
"Before," Illya clarified. "You were terrified." As hard as it was to apply that word to his partner.
Napoleon didn't respond for the longest time. His hands played up and down Illya's back, stroking him into a somnolent state from which he was startled when Napoleon finally answered.
"They couldn't see me. Couldn't hear or touch or sense me in any way. Not even the machine."
"They don't know how to look."
"Really? And you do?"
"Manifestly," Illya said, and was surprised at the arrogant pride which colored his voice.
"Why just you? And what if... what if you stop?" he asked in a rush. "What would have happened if you'd never started?"
"I did, and I'm not going to stop." Illya snaked his arms around Napoleon's waist and rolled decisively on top of him. "But you are. Going to stop. Worrying." With kisses interspersed.
Napoleon smiled. The cant of his brow, however, gave the lie to his easy acquiescence. Illya kissed him again and sighed against his lips.
"What is it?"
Illya squirmed down to lay his head on Napoleon's chest. "You were terrified," he repeated. Blindly, he laid his fingers on Napoleon's lips to still their movement. "And if it were the inability of the so-called ghost hunters to see you which was bothering you, you'd have jumped me before dinner."
Napoleon's lips pursed against Illya's fingers. His tongue flickered over the sensitive pads before Illya retrieved his hand. Now it was Napoleon's turn to sigh, the rise of his chest before doing so only serving to drive home the fact that it wasn't moving before. Or after.
"I think... I saw... You're going to laugh at me."
"No I won't."
"I saw a ghost."
Napoleon dumped him onto the bed and loomed over him, pinning his wrists to the mattress. His eyes were dark, intense. Serious.
Illya stopped laughing.
Napoleon rolled to his back next to Illya and they lay side by side looking up at the waterstained ceiling. "I thought I'd take a look in the others' rooms on my own. Thought I might see something they'd hidden from you. So while they were all having it out in the dining room -- and I hope they didn't do too much damage to your appetite -- I came back up here and started looking around."
"Did you find anything?"
"Nothing that helps." He turned his head to meet Illya's gaze and smiled fleetingly. "Getting in was easy, of course -- just walk through the wall. But anything not left out in plain view..." he trailed off with a shrug which shook the bed.
"Where did you see the... ghost?"
"The bedroom at the top of the stairs on the right. I didn't realize until I was inside that it's not occupied. Except," he added with a weak laugh, "by the ghost."
Illya laced his fingers through Napoleon's.
"He was between me and the door when I turned to leave."
"How did you know he was a ghost?" Illya asked, when Napoleon struggled to continue. He propped himself on his elbow without unclasping their hands and laid the other palm flat on Napoleon's chest. "What did he look like?"
"An inch or two shorter than me," Napoleon said, bringing his training to bear with obvious relief. "Brown hair and eyes, a full beard and mustache. He was wearing..." he hesitated, and Illya could almost see him choosing and discarding words. "His clothes were a dirty gray color, brownish maybe, worn and patched. They had a... a military cast to them."
Illya spread his fingers and rubbed reassuringly at Napoleon's flat stomach. "Was he armed?"
"A pair of ivory-handled .45's. And a... a rifle, I think. Or... or a musket." He turned from his contempletion of the ceiling. "Hell, Illya, why bother? He was a Confederate soldier."
"Are you sure it wasn't some trick of Taliaferro's? Produce a 'ghost' to convince people the inn's haunted?"
"He could see me, Illya."
"So can I."
"Yeah, well, you're the only one. Except him. And I think... I think he must have come through the door, just like me."
"It was locked?" Illya asked, knowing the answer.
Napoleon nodded. "He looked me up and down, and said--"
Napoleon gave him a look. "Said... something about the long roll or falling into line or... hell, Illya, I don't know. I was so... I might have made sense of it if he hadn't touched me."
"He touched you?" Illya's hand pressed harder on Napoleon's chest. Hard enough that, if Napoleon had needed to breathe, he'd have had trouble doing it. He realized immediately what he was doing and let up, startled by the rush of... possessiveness?
"Touched my shoulder." Napoleon's smile was strained. "I didn't even have to think about it to go through that door. And I didn't stop until I got to you."
Illya laid his head on Napoleon's chest. Napoleon's hand wiggled free from Illya's and moved to the nape of his neck.
"The mediums and the scientists can't see you," Illya said after a while. "That only means they're not on the right... wavelength."
"The ghost could."
"So can I," Illya said again.
"I just wanted to be real," Napoleon whispered. "When you touch me, you make me real."
"Then I won't ever stop," Illya murmured against his skin. Napoleon's embrace tightened to just this side of painful, but Illya only held him tighter.
He did have to move his head before he could fall asleep. From
Napoleon's chest to his shoulder, where he was less disturbed by not
hearing the rhythmic thud of a heartbeat.
It rained during the night.
After a blissfully quiet breakfast, Illya wandered into the front parlor. The one in which Miss Iverson had seen Taliaferro setting the ghostly scene. The drapes were drawn, throwing the room into dim relief without adequately concealing the threadbare look of the rug. The period furniture was grouped around an enormous hearth, and every table and flat surface was crowded with bric-a-brac in the Victorian style. Even the bookcase was packed not only with books but figurines and small arcane devices. It was probably the only room in the house which had floated untouched down through the years. Illya picked a book off the shelf and flipped absently through it without seeing the words.
It was, at best, ironic. Taliaferro runs a con to draw adventurers and ghost hunters and believers in the paranormal. He sets his scene and tells tales and whatever else he has to do to preserve the illusion that his house is haunted. And they come, and see nothing, and leave still believing, or not, as their personalities warrant. And all the time, unbeknownst to them with all their talents and devices, and even to Taliaferro, the place really is haunted after all.
At least, according to Napoleon.
Napoleon. Illya had been forced to make a concerted effort at breakfast not to look at his partner. It didn't sit well with his self-image to be seen grinning foolishly at nothing. And yet, that was his overriding inclination. That, and getting Napoleon back to the room and locking them both in for an indeterminate period.
Illya sighed. Mission first.
Napoleon's head emerged unexpectedly from the wall which backed up to the dining room. "He's on the move." The rest of him slid through the wall and he fell in with Illya on the way to the door. "Left the girl to wash up and headed out the back door."
"I just hope we can catch him," Illya murmured.
Napoleon grinned, his mood as ebullient as Illya's, and less restrained. He touched Illya often, shoulder, hand, cheek, small of the back. Occasionally in less innocent ways. "We'll catch him."
As, indeed, they did. Taliaferro went out, along the garden in the back and struck out generally west. Illya followed at a distance, relying on Napoleon to keep him on track. He wondered if Napoleon was aware that, when he went forward to pinpoint Taliaferro's position, he moved far faster than a man could run. Almost faster than Illya's eyes could comfortably track.
"Damn!" Illya wiped a drop of water off his neck. The night's rain still clung to the leaves, except the drops which had decided to commit suicide by falling on him. He shifted position under the tree and waited impatiently for Napoleon to return. Taliaferro was somewhere ahead. Surely he didn't mean to walk all the way to Kennesaw Mountain.
"Up past the lightning-blasted tree and to the right."
"Chyort! " Illya put his gun back in the holster. "Don't do that!"
"Sorry." But Napoleon's eyes danced and Illya found he couldn't stay mad even with reason. He pulled Napoleon down to snatch a quick kiss, then started after Taliaferro again.
The cave came as something of a surprise. Illya hadn't even known there were any in the area. But the dark opening through which he'd just glimpsed Taliaferro's back retreating was doing a good impression of a hole in the ground.
"Maybe you should let me go first." Napoleon's hand was warm on Illya's shoulder.
"Maybe what, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Cursing himself for his distraction, Illya turned to face John Ashenden. He didn't bother trying to draw his gun. Ashenden no doubt would, and in fact did, already have a gun on him.
"Maybe our information was right after all."
"You doubted my presence?" Ashenden asked roundly. He gestured with the gun, and Illya obligingly raised his arms and was relieved of his Special. When Ashenden stepped back, Illya returned his arms to his sides.
"I was beginning to," Illya admitted.
Ashenden smiled, charmingly. It was, perhaps, his greatest asset: a charm almost as universal as Napoleon's. His gray-streaked blond hair, the color of old gold, soft green eyes, and smoothly chiseled features didn't hurt any.
"You should know better by now, Mr. Kuryakin. Though I'm bound to say," he added scrupulously, "that I'm more familiar with Mr. Solo than yourself." His eyes turned mournful. "A great loss, Mr. Kuryakin. To all of us. Please accept my most heartfelt condolences."
"Touch him," Napoleon urged. "Touch him so I can hit him."
Illya forced back a smile. "I'm sure he'd miss you too."
"I'm sure." How Ashenden could make insincerity sound so perfectly like its opposite, Illya would never know.
"I don't suppose," Illya said, forcing an ease into his voice that he never felt when bandying words with an enemy, "you're going to tell me what you're doing here?"
"I should have thought that was obvious by now." Ashenden retreated slowly back to an old split-rail fence that zigzagged through the woods. He whipped out a handkerchief and spread it on the wet wood and seated himself, all without removing his eyes or the gun from Illya. Once he was seated, he gestured urbanely for Illya to sit as well.
"I guess I'm a bit slow." Illya didn't bother with the handkerchief business. The wood was rough and slick under his palms, the faint chill of it soaking through his trousers. Napoleon perched next to him, the warmth of his body likewise soaking through Illya's clothes.
"On the contrary. According to your good host, you wormed it out of that girl of his the second day. Do you accomplish all your assignments with such ease?"
Illya frowned. "The Confederate gold?"
He laughed. "Surely you're not telling me you believe that myth."
Ashenden shrugged eloquently. "I'm not getting any younger, Mr. Kuryakin. And there comes a time when a man wants something for himself. A nest egg, so to speak. Something untouched by the... vicissitudes of his job or his employers. Something for a comfortable old age."
"Not interested in buying into Thrush's retirement plan, is that it?"
Ashenden gave him the proud encouraging smile reserved for a most promising pupil. "I can see you understand."
"You know, of course, that U.N.C.L.E. would be happy to make sure your retirement doesn't terminate with a loud bang."
"In exchange, naturally, for certain information about Thrush which I, through long years of service, am party to." Ashenden gently shook his head. "No, Mr. Kuryakin, I'm afraid I haven't any interest in changing sides. Just providing for my future."
"And you think this myth of the Confederate gold will pan out?"
"I'm sure of it." His perfectly manicured hand rose to briefly tame the dance of his hair in the gentle breeze. "As I'm not here as a representative of Thrush, but only as a private citizen, I trust you won't interfere with my plans?"
Napoleon made a low growling noise in his throat. Illya ignored him with an effort.
"I find it hard to believe your plans are completely innocent."
"As a new-born babe's," Ashenden assured him. He smiled and spread his hands, though the one with the gun in it didn't waver far from Illya. "I'm not even breaking any laws. This land belongs to Taliaferro."
"Speaking of my host..."
"He doesn't even know Thrush exists. Or U.N.C.L.E. He just wants the gold. Surely you can promise me that--"
A twig snapped nearby with a retort as loud as gunfire. Startled, Ashenden turned. For a moment, his attention and his gun were aimed elsewhere. Illya rolled off the fence and squirmed into the undergrowth, moving as fast and low as a fox. There was no sound of pursuit.
Illya didn't stop until he was some distance away. Panting, he dropped to the ground on his belly and breathed in the rich loamy smell of damp earth. He rolled after a minute and lay looking up through the canopy of leaves, letting the trees drop rain on him indiscriminately. He'd fully recovered his breath by the time Napoleon appeared.
"You look awful," Napoleon decreed. He stood over Illya and ran his eyes from head to foot, his lips pursing in only half-feigned distaste. Illya raised his head to look down at himself and groaned. There went another suit. Mud smears and thorn snags and -- he investigated something sticky on his left cuff -- sap. "You have leaves in your hair," Napoleon added to the silent catalog.
"Is he following?"
"No." Napoleon plopped down next to him, unconcerned about the state of his own clothes as he'd never have been in life. The dirt wasn't likely to stick, after all. "He didn't even try."
Illya ignored the possibility that he may have ruined his suit for nothing in favor of more important considerations. "Who made that noise?"
"Uncle Bobby Lee and his wheelbarrow."
"Empty, of course."
"No." Napoleon frowned. "No, this time the wheelbarrow had something in it. A bush." He shrugged slightly at Illya's look. "A rosebush, I think."
"A bush." Illya sat up and started picking leaves out of his hair. "And Ashenden?"
"Laughed. And went into the cave."
Illya rubbed his hands over his face. Then looked at the smears of mud on his palms. With a curse, he pulled out his handkerchief and tried to tidy himself up. He ignored the whisper-soft seduction of Napoleon's hands brushing twigs from his hair and as much dirt off his clothes as was possible.
"I think it's time I talked to Mr. Waverly."
"Gold, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"No, that's definitely not what Ashenden's there for." There was a long pause. Illya and Napoleon looked at each other over the communicator. Illya could imagine Waverly puffing meditatively on his pipe. "Have you heard of 'ryannin white?'"
Illya looked at Napoleon. "A drug, isn't it sir? I thought Thrush had abandoned the project."
"They did. It was intended to be a new veridical, but the effects were not all they desired. Ryannin white has extremely strong narcotic and psychedelic properties, but ultimately fails as a truth serum. Thrush abandoned the drug in the testing phase."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't see how this relates to--"
"I was coming to that, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Sorry, sir." Illya itched to wipe the smirk from Napoleon's face. Or kiss it off.
"We have reason to believe that the leading chemist on the project took his work... home with him, shall we say? Without, might I add, Thrush's permission."
Illya nodded. "And 'home' is--"
"Right about in your general vicinity. Yes."
"Sir, do we know where the drug is now?"
"I'm afraid not. The chemist died soon after reaching your area. Under... mysterious circumstances. We believe that Thrush knows nothing about where he might have hidden his formula. According to our plants in Thrush, they gave up looking some time ago."
"Sir, if you knew that Ashenden was here looking for the ryannin white, why didn't you say so when you gave me the assignment?"
"Hm... well..." There was a faint banging noise. Illya shook his head, well able to picture Waverly knocking out his pipe. "I can't say I knew why he was there. It was merely a possibility. A possibility, I might add, which has become a certainty, now that you've verified his presence and his activities."
"Digging for gold?" Napoleon asked.
"The Confederate gold is a cover, then, sir?" Illya stuck his tongue out at Napoleon and had cause to regret it when the soft brown eyes turned dark with desire. His breath coming a bit shorter, Illya forced himself to look away.
"For Ashenden's search. Yes." Waverly cleared his throat. "I very much doubt he is acting with Thrush's knowledge or approval. I had you drive out there to avoid tipping our hand to Thrush, if at all possible."
"A nest egg for his old age," Illya said to himself, then over the communicator: "He means to manufacture the drug and sell it on the streets."
"That is my fear. We know relatively little about the drug, Mr. Kuryakin, but enough to know it could easily be deadly if used as a... recreational drug. We must keep ryannin white off the streets."
"You didn't mention the ghost," Napoleon said after Illya had signed off and pocketed his communicator. Illya gave him a look. He stood and brushed himself off as well as he was able. It only took a moment for Illya to orient himself and start back for the Gray Fox.
He was hoping to make it up to his room without being seen in his mud-streaked clothes. Napoleon could have helped with that by taking point as they approached the house, but he seemed oblivious. In fact, he hadn't said a word on the way back. Illya wondered if he was sulking about not having his sighting passed on to their supervisor. But really, what was Illya supposed to do? Tell Mr. Waverly that his partner, who was a ghost thank you very much, had seen a ghost? Illya snorted.
"Mimi, our pig, used to make noises like that."
Illya closed his eyes briefly before turning to find Rowan sitting on the rock wall around the garden, her bare legs dangling in the sun. She giggled.
"She was about as dirty as you, too. What have you been doing, Mr. Kuryakin?" she asked in the tones of a much older girl.
"Looking for rabbit holes."
"Like Alice." She grinned. "Maybe you should clean up before someone sees you."
"That," he said with a wave toward the house, "is precisely my intention."
"Oh no. You'd never make it to your room without being seen. Come with me." She hopped off the wall and led him to an old handpump at the back of the garden, almost hidden by a riot of roses. She worked the pump until cold clear water poured out. "Go on, wash yourself up."
Illya did as he was bid. He looked up, his hair dripping, eyes squinched up against the cold, to find Napoleon watching him with amusement. The affection in Napoleon's eyes warmed him clear through, and he smiled at him without thinking. Napoleon came toward him.
"There," said Rowan as she skipped off the low wooden step. Smiling ruefully, Napoleon stepped back. Rowan snatched a lurking leaf out of Illya's hair and straightened his collar. "You'll do, I suppose. At least long enough to get to your room. Did you have any lunch in the rabbit hole?"
Illya looked mournful. "None at all."
"I can sneak you something from the kitchen before you go up." She winked conspiratorially.
"Illya." Napoleon stood several paces away, looking down at something. Illya went without a word to investigate, Rowan close on his heels.
"A hole in the ground?" Illya asked. Looking at the two foot square hole, long bare fingers of roots scrabbling at the dirt in its depths, he was too startled to remember the girl would overhear.
"Oh dear," she said.
"Uncle Bobby Lee." As if that explained everything.
Napoleon began to laugh. "A rosebush in his wheelbarrow," he said, when he could, after Illya glared at him.
"Rowan," Illya said carefully, "is it... does your uncle steal rosebushes?"
She nodded dolefully, not quite managing to hide the spark of laughter in her eyes. "Any kind of bush, really. But rosebushes especially." She dug her bare toes into the dirt around the hole. "Uncle Charles is going to be furious."
Illya laughed. "Thank you, Rowan," he said, and it was heartfelt. And, much to his own surprise, not to mention hers, he bent to kiss her on the cheek.
"I think she's got a crush on you," Napoleon said as they mounted the stairs.
"Shut up," Illya said through his teeth. Madame Readmann, just then descending the stairs, looked at him oddly. He smiled as charmingly as he was able and hurried past her.
"Of course, who could blame her," Napoleon added pleasantly, "after you kissed her."
"It was an impulse," Illya murmured.
"She fed me." He detoured past his room to grab his robe and toiletries before closing himself up in the bathroom to wash the mud off.
"She's actually quite lovely," said Napoleon from the other side of the shower curtain. "She'll make a beautiful woman. In a few years." Illya growled and ignored him.
"Shame on you," Napoleon said as he dogged Illya's footsteps from bathroom to bedroom, "falling for a slip of a girl like that. And when you've got me to warm your bed already."
"Napoleon." Illya threw open the door to their room and shoved his partner inside. "Stop complaining and start warming, already." He heard the snort of laughter behind him, but was somehow unprepared, on turning from securing the door with the U.N.C.L.E. lock, to find Napoleon waiting for him, completely naked.
It was the work of a moment to drop the robe and pull his unresisting partner down with him onto the bed.
"It is somewhat past dinnertime," Napoleon murmured in his ear.
Illya made a soft sound of disappointment. Even his growling stomach couldn't really mar his contentment. Napoleon was actually a fairly large man. At least, he seemed so with his whole length sprawled atop Illya. His chest was quite warm against Illya's back and, in this position, the fact that his heart wasn't beating wasn't quite so obvious.
"You made me miss dinner," Illya said drowsily.
"I didn't hear you complaining."
Illya sighed. He shimmied experimentally.
"I need to get up."
Napoleon rolled off Illya. Then, with a sigh, off the bed and to his feet. "It's uncivilized to expect a man to get up after such an earth-shattering climax."
Illya kissed him to shut him up and ended up lost in the warm slick depths. "Ah..." he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "It would be far ruder to drop you through the bed without warning."
"True. Where are you going?"
Illya tied his robe. "The bathroom," he said in tones to make Napoleon aware just how silly the question was.
"Don't be long."
His glare certainly should have told Napoleon what he thought of that, but Napoleon only laughed.
When Illya returned a few minutes later, he fastened the U.N.C.L.E. lock with fingers that shook slightly. He rested his head against the cool varnished wood of the door and struggled to get ahold of himself before Napoleon noticed.
It wasn't anything. Just a glimpse of blue-clad back disappearing into a nearby room. A blue knee-length overcoat, belted around the waist of a man taller than any of the current houseguests. With, maybe, shoulder-boards and brass buttons. And he'd disappeared into the room without benefit of the doorway.
"Ashenden took my gun," he said, apropos of nothing. "Waverly's not going to be happy."
He turned and summoned up a smile. "Napoleon."
In a moment, he was enfolded in Napoleon's strong arms. The robe dropped away, seemingly of its own accord, and they were flesh to reassuring flesh. "Saw a ghost, did you?"
Illya drew back to meet Napoleon's eyes. Concern and amusement and maybe, just maybe, a touch of vindication. He didn't answer except to kiss him.
Maybe, if he could just get Napoleon to keep on kissing him, he wouldn't have to think about it. Wouldn't have to admit that there were ghosts here, and Napoleon had seen one. And it had touched him. And if he could touch other ghosts, he wouldn't need Illya any more. And if he didn't think about it, then he wouldn't have to feel guilty and selfish, because he wanted Napoleon to need him. To have only him.
Napoleon guided them back to the bed, where they sprawled on the tumbled sheets and revisited the activities of the afternoon. Long slow kisses and sweet lingering touches. Illya hummed against Napoleon's lips.
"Again?" he asked, though he was about tapped out. But if Napoleon...
Napoleon lifted one shoulder in a rueful half-shrug. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh--" He stopped short, cocked his head to one side and smiled faintly. "Actually, the flesh is--"
"Don't." Illya turned his back to Napoleon.
"What? Too morbid?" Napoleon's arms came around him and drew him back against a solid chest. "I can't help it if I'm dead, Illyusha."
"You say that the same way you'd say you can't help it if you're brown haired, or right-handed, or arrogant to a fault. As if there isn't any difference." Illya shivered, thinking of a blue-clad back disappearing through the wall.
"I'm beginning to think there's not." Napoleon drew him closer. "You seem," he said, and the breath he didn't have stirred Illya's hair, "to have trouble believing in the Gray Fox's ghosts."
"Perhaps." The problem was, he believed in them all too easily.
"But not me."
"No. You're different." Illya rolled and pressed his palm to Napoleon's eternally clean-shaven cheek. "You're you."
Napoleon smiled. "And they're them. And we're us."
Illya smiled involuntarily. "You're impossible."
"Apparently not entirely."
"And thank god for that."
Napoleon bent his head and closed his lips over Illya's,
taking the breath Illya breathed into him and returning it, untainted,
untouched, and yet inexplicably and wholly altered.
Illya roused to the knocking sluggishly, fumbling for his spare gun.
"Come on," Napoleon hissed, dragging Illya out of the bed and over to the door. It was hardly surprising he hadn't woken immediately -- while carried out at an urgent tempo, the knocking was quietly furtive.
"Who is it?"
"Me, Mr. Kuryakin," she whispered, "Rowan. Please let me in."
"Just a minute." He put the gun on the bed and grabbed shirt and pants, pulling them on with alacrity. He didn't bother buttoning his shirt before grabbing up the gun again.
"What?" he answered in the same stage whisper.
"I'm not dressed yet." Napoleon rose from the middle of the bed with his elusive pants in hand.
"So? She can't see you." As Illya moved back to the door, he heard Napoleon curse behind him. Concealing his smile, Illya unlocked the door and peered cautiously out.
Dressed in a plain cotton nightgown, Rowan shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. She glanced quickly over her shoulder. Illya followed suit, but the hallway was empty. He pulled her inside and shut the door. He turned from refastening the locks and grinned at Napoleon, who was just fastening his pants, getting a glare in return.
"What's the matter, Rowan? You should be in bed at this time of night."
"I'm sorry to rouse you, Mr. Kuryakin." Her hands were clasped so tightly before her that her knuckles showed as white as her gown. "I didn't know who else I could go to, and you've always been so nice, and..."
"For heaven's sake," Napoleon said, "put your arms around her. The poor girl's scared to death." He pulled on his shirt with a jerk.
Illya glared at him. Hastily, he tucked the gun into the back of his trousers. He gingerly wrapped an arm around Rowan's thin shoulders, drawing her instinctively closer when he felt her shaking. "Come, sit down." He took a step in the direction of the bed before discretion, or embarrassment, put in an appearance. Smoothly, he turned her toward the chair next to the bureau and helped her sit. She clutched him tightly, her hands shaking visibly. "You must be cold." He wormed free, grabbed the comforter from the foot of the bed, and wrapped it snugly about her. "Now." He knelt before her. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"My uncle. Uncle Charles." Rowan closed her eyes tightly. She gave a single violent shudder and was still. Illya turned his eyes helplessly to Napoleon, who shrugged. "I'm sorry," Rowan said, her eyes still closed. "I'm not usually such a goose." She opened her eyes and fixed Illya in their steady gaze. "My Uncle Charles has disappeared."
"You're sure?" Illya asked.
She nodded. "I've looked everywhere. Except his room. That's locked. But he didn't answer my knock. And he didn't go out; all the doors are locked on the inside."
Illya and Napoleon shared a look. "All right." Illya nodded sharply. "I want you to stay here, Rowan. We'll-- I'll go look for him." He quickly buttoned his shirt and sat on the bed to pull on his shoes, making an effort to ignore Napoleon doing the same on the floor. "Where's your uncle's room?"
"The back hallway to the left of the stairs. Mr. Kuryakin--"
"Illya." He shrugged on his suit jacket.
"Illya. I think I should--"
Illya put a finger lightly to her lips. "You stay here where you'll be safe. Lock the door behind me, all right?"
She nodded obediently, and trailed after him to the door. "Thank you," she whispered as she closed the door behind him.
"Ashenden?" Napoleon asked quietly.
Illya shrugged. "Let's see if Taliaferro's in his room first."
It was easy enough to enter the locked room. Easier than if Illya had remembered to grab his lockpicks. After Napoleon slipped inside, Illya put one hand on the doorknob and the other on the door. In a moment, the lock snicked open from the inside and the door swung inward.
"Empty," Napoleon said, stepping back to let Illya glance around. The room was dark and none too clean, but it was clear that the occupant was no longer there, and had not been removed by force. "So, is he just off looking for that gold, or has Ashenden decided that the limit of Taliaferro's usefulness has been reached?"
"And either way, how did he get out of the inn?"
"Doors locked on the inside... You trust her to know what she's talking about?"
There didn't seem to be anything to learn from Taliaferro's room. Illya stepped back into the hall, pulling the door closed behind him. He barely heard the click of the lock and was startled by a knock on the door. Belatedly removing his hand from the smooth wood, Illya watched as Napoleon appeared through the door. He wasn't positive he liked how familiar this was becoming.
"The parlor." Illya started down the hall.
"The oldest part of the house." Napoleon said as he fell into step.
Illya nodded. "There's Idelle Iverson's story of seeing him in there rearranging the knick-knacks," he added.
"A secret passage perhaps?"
It didn't take long to find. Not with Napoleon trolling through the walls for one which led somewhere unexpected. The problem was figuring out how to open the door. And calming Napoleon's annoyance at being able to see the device which opened the door from the blind side, but unable to actually trigger the mechanism. Still, knowing where the door was at least narrowed down the possibilities. A frustrating twenty minutes of trial and error finally produced results. The section of wall to the left of the bookcase swung silently open.
Illya made his way cautiously down the dark passage, his right hand clutched in the waistband of Napoleon's pants, the left brushing the rough wall. He wished he'd remembered to bring a flashlight with him. It was a good thing ghosts apparently could see in the dark, though it did make one wonder about the preponderance of things that go bump in the night. Why all the bashing around if they could see where they were going?
Illya took a deep breath. He wasn't given to claustrophobia, but this narrow winding tunnel made him nervous. They'd long since passed below and beyond the Gray Fox Inn. But the mere darkness and depth shouldn't have bothered Illya, wouldn't have, usually. The minute they stepped into the passage and dragged the door shut behind them, his skin had started crawling. And now, he seemed to catch glimpses of movement just at the edge of his peripheral vision. Figures. Men, possibly. They undulated through the rock walls, showing a bit of themselves here and there, but never very much. And when he turned to look straight on, all he could see was the wall.
"I see them." His hushed voice dropped into a dead silence where Illya's echoed off the walls. "There's light ahead."
Illya could see it too, though he'd initially put it down to his imagination. A faint glow that strengthened as they approached.
"Stay here," Napoleon whispered. "I'm going to take a look."
"Napoleon." He grabbed Napoleon's arm, kissed his lips. "Be careful."
Counting slowly through the seconds, Illya shifted silently. He drew his gun from the waistband of his pants and thumbed off the safety. When he reached five hundred, he began to creep slowly forward, setting each foot carefully, silently, in the dusty passage. The light grew.
"Mr. Kuryakin, how nice of you to stop in for a visit. Especially after your... precipitous exit on the occasion of our last meeting."
Illya cursed softly under his breath. He turned to find Ashenden behind him, a gun and a flashlight in his hands.
"Just lay the gun gently on the ground, why don't you?" He smiled as Illya slowly complied. "Thank you. Now why don't you stop lurking and come see my operation?"
"How did you know I was here?" Illya asked as Ashenden marched him into a large cavern.
"I set a silent alarm on the door from the parlor, as I'm sure you've guessed -- couldn't afford to have Taliaferro walk in unannounced, you know. There are several passages down here which I've had ample time to become familiar with. It was quite simple to get around behind you. Do sit down, Mr. Kuryakin. Hands on your head."
Illya sat in the dirt and clasped his hands on the top of his head. Lit by a couple of klieg lights, the cavern was about twenty yards in diameter and the height of a two story building. Nature had provided a flat open area where Illya sat, and shelved the rock up to a plateau at the far end. A dozen men scurried around an excavation in the right hand wall at the bottom of the incline.
"A Thrush operation after all."
"By no means, Mr. Kuryakin." Ashenden smiled. "Do you see any uniforms, any little birdies plastered all over?" He moved around behind Illya and pressed the gun to his head as he slipped a loop of rope around his right wrist. The cold muzzle of the gun shifted and Ashenden trussed Illya's hands together behind him with swift competence before Illya could struggle. The ease with which this was accomplished was decidedly depressing. "No, they're merely hired help."
"And when they find ryannin white instead of the Confederate gold they expect to find?" Illya asked as his ankles were roped together.
Ashenden's smile twisted slightly before recovering its usual charm. "You have been busy, Mr. Kuryakin. They'll be disappointed, of course, to find only some incomprehensible notes. But," he shrugged, "treasure seekers often do not find what they're after. An unfortunate fact of life."
"And you'll express your deep disappointment, take the notes as a souvenir, and go quietly on your way, is that it?"
"That's about it. Or it would have been, if you hadn't taken your job quite so seriously. Now the scenario will play itself out as you suggest. With one exception."
"My death." Illya wondered if he, too, could arrange to come back as a ghost. Eternity with Napoleon didn't sound so bad.
"There are so many unmarked graves around here," Ashenden said, his eyes on the middle distance. When Illya shifted, the sharp green eyes flicked to him. "Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers, buried where they fell. What's one more dead idealist? You'll fit in beautifully." A shout came from the excavation. In the muddle of people, Illya thought he could make out Taliaferro's gleaming dome. "You'll excuse me, I'm sure. It looks like they've found something."
He sauntered off. Illya watched the bastard go for a moment, then began struggling with the ropes. It was insulting to be tied up so easily. There was a time when Illya would have spun on him even without knowing exactly where the gun was. He might have been killed, but he'd have tried it. Now... Illya sighed. He was getting soft, obviously -- he'd considered it for an instant at best, before deciding that it was a foolish chance to take if Napoleon could get him out of this. Spending eternity with Napoleon sounded appealing, but Illya would prefer to spend at least some of it alive.
Warm fingers brushed Illya's wrists and he jumped. "It's about time, Napoleon."
"Stay still. He makes hard knots."
"How did you get here? I thought I told you to stay in the room."
"I thought maybe I could help. And I was right," she said as the ropes began to loosen.
It was just about then that Napoleon finally reappeared. He cocked his head at Illya, who raised his shoulders in an abbreviated shrug. The ropes came free, and Rowan's small hands rubbed out the sting, her body hidden behind Illya's.
"How many entrances are there to this cavern?" he asked without turning.
"Three. One in the parlor, one in the pantry, and one in the cave about two miles west of the inn. My uncle doesn't know about the one in the pantry." And he could hear the smile in her voice. "But you found the cave, I think, when you were looking for rabbit holes."
"You're very smart."
"I pay attention."
"Not always. I told you to stay safe in the room."
Her arms crept around him from behind. "I thought you might need help."
"If you knew where your uncle was all along, why did you come to me?"
He felt her smile against the back of his neck, and the shiver she fought with a deepening of her warm accent. "Every southern belle needs a cavalier, Illya. You're my white knight."
"Funny," Illya said with a straight face. "You're not the first to call me that." Napoleon smiled at him.
"I was afraid of the yellow-haired man," she whispered against his skin.
"As well you should be. Can you get back out without being seen?"
"I don't think--"
"Illya!" Napoleon's urgency drew Illya to his feet. With Rowan clinging to him, he stepped to his partner's side and looked with stumbling comprehension on a fantastic scene. He was tempted to close his eyes, shake off the impossible vision, and yet couldn't imagine cutting off the sight.
An army ranged itself along the upper plateau of the cavern. Clothed in gray and butternut brown, ragged and rough, they stood and crouched and knelt at the top of the incline. Guns gleamed in every hand, some busily rammed charges home in their muskets while others lay on their bellies to aim. A flag waved over all, torn and patched and proud, starred blue crossed over crimson red.
On the flat before them a second army drew itself into line of battle. The blue-clad host bristled with rifles, hummed with eagerness. The men knelt, praying, rose shouting, crouched in readiness. Their flag, the stars and stripes, advanced.
Between them, a handful of men shrank back into the hole they'd made, their eyes popping with terror.
In the closeness of the cave, Illya felt he could reach out and touch either side, could see each sweaty face, could make out the insignia on each collar or shoulderboard. The tension was palpable, an electric charge which barely allowed him room to breathe. He wanted to say that this was impossible, wanted to shout that he didn't believe in ghosts. He glanced sideways at Napoleon and kept his peace.
"I don't think it would be hard to leave now," Rowan said calmly, slipping her hand into Illya's. "Not for us, anyway."
With a rumbling roar, the Union company charged. The Confederates responded with a fierce ringing yell. Smoke rose as volley after volley was fired, filling the cavern with the taint of gunpowder. Illya blinked back the acrid tears and had a moment's thankfulness that neither side had cannon. The noise alone would have been deafening. Over the hail of gunfire and the battlecries of both sides, the thin frantic screaming of Ashenden's men could faintly be heard.
"Rowan," Illya said without taking his eyes off the ghostly battle, "I think you'd better take that passage back to the pantry now."
"They can't hurt--"
"Rowan, please." He didn't know about ghost bullets, but Ashenden and who knew how many of his men were armed.
She sighed. "Very well. Here, you might need this." Rowan handed Illya his gun. "I found it in the other passage."
Illya checked the magazine and chambered a round. "Thanks, Rowan." He smiled and patted her cheek. "Now--"
"I know, go on and be careful." She grinned impishly at him and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek before running off.
"You're lucky she returned it," Napoleon teased over the growing roar of battle. "Just think what Waverly would say if you put in for two new guns."
"And where were you when Ashenden was getting the drop on me? Both times, I might add." Illya regretted it immediately when he saw Napoleon's eyes.
However, Napoleon merely pulled himself together and pasted an innocent expression on his face. "Why Illya, I was unaware that you needed help on such a simple assignment."
Illya looked at the battle between the Confederate and Union forces. "Simple?"
"Well..." Napoleon grinned. "Makes me feel like less of an anomaly, at least."
The battle was spreading. Illya wasn't sure if there were more ghostly men pouring into the fight or if the combatants were merely straggling out. Having failed to take the high ground, the Union forces pulled back slightly. As they regrouped, Illya thought he could make out men in modern dress scuttling indecisively on the far side of the soldiers like ants cut off from their hill.
"Napoleon--" He grasped Napoleon's shoulder hard as they watched Ashenden's hirelings make a run for it.
At precisely that moment, the Confederate forces staged their counterattack. An eerie high-pitched yell preceded and accompanied their charge. Downhill they raced, passing in and through the escaping men. Illya wasn't sure if he could really distinguish the sound of pistol fire amidst the popping of musketry, or if he was merely imagining it. Several of Ashenden's hirelings had guns in their hands, that at least was certain, and they fired point blank into the soldiers. Their horrified reactions, more than anything Illya could see from his position, telegraphed the complete uselessness of shooting at ghosts. They broke and ran.
The Confederate colonel, his brown hair and beard seeming to bristle with electricity, leapt down the incline after his men. The brace of pistols in his hands coughed ghostly fire into Ashenden's men as they clawed and scrambled their way up the hill, engendering no effect but their terror. Some of the graybacks turned from their opponents in blue and chased after the fleeing hirelings. Illya thought he could make out Taliaferro in the rout which passed the colonel and disappeared up into the dark. A bone-rattling rumble and explosive puff of dirt punctuated their escape.
Ashenden alone remained, crouched against the wall. Illya thought he could see the man's lips curl in a defiant snarl, even from this distance.
The rebel charge continued with unabated fury, met with equal ferocity. Towering a full head above his men, the Union major brandished his saber, exhorting them with fiery words. Some fixed bayonets while others rammed new charges into their smoking guns. In the swirl of smoke and men, Illya lost track of Ashenden. After a good dozen minutes, a knot of bluebellies resolved itself out of the smoke, the circle of soldiers swaying this way and that.
A moment later, a man broke free of the circle. He ran, stumbling and clawing at the ground with his hands, half-crouched like an animal. Ashenden scrambled toward Illya, blindly at first, then with the heat of blood in his eyes. Reflex alone brought the Special up, Illya's hand sure and steady as he took aim at the charging madman and fired.
Ashenden pitched onto his face.
A shout from the pursuing soldiers; a gun fired in the moment before Ashenden fell. Napoleon's hands taloned painfully into Illya's shoulders, pulling him behind him. Illya grabbed blindly at his partner, trying to drag him out of the way as well. And failed. Saw, as if in slow motion, the puff of blood burst in a cloud from Napoleon's shoulder. Felt, an instant after, something slice through his chest, as swift and cold as death.
Then they were both sitting in the dirt, Napoleon pawing frantically at Illya's chest as Illya tried to staunch the flow of blood from Napoleon's shoulder. It was enough, Illya thought, to make one believe in a capricious god. If it hadn't been a ghost bullet, it wouldn't have even touched Napoleon. If it hadn't been a ghost bullet, Illya would be dead.
"Illya! That bullet--"
"Went right through me," Illya said. Which really didn't sound all that reassuring, come to think of it. "I'm fine, Polya."
"Hold still," Illya growled through clenched teeth. He hauled a crumpled handkerchief out of his pocket. "You're bleeding."
"I'm bleeding?" Napoleon looked stupidly at Illya's hands, covered with blood, and the pristine handkerchief which stubbornly refused to soak up or slow the bleeding. "I can bleed?"
"Of course you can." The Union major crouched next to them. He produced a crisp square of linen from his breast. "Here, that won't do any good."
Illya let himself and his useless handkerchief be waved away. He watched, intellect and senses both numbed, as the ghost skillfully bound up Napoleon's wound with his own handkerchief. He realized suddenly that the cavern had fallen silent. Soldiers, blue and gray, stood and watched. Some were bleeding, some should have been dead if they weren't already, and after a moment, a general movement to see to the wounded began. Intermixed, they tended each other, the silence broken by genial chatter.
"There." The major stood back, and Illya immediately moved to support Napoleon against his chest. The man smiled at them, his gray eyes dancing. "Be good as new in a day or so."
"Thank you," Napoleon said, sounding as dazed as Illya felt.
"A pleasure." He nodded once and stepped away.
Turning, the major looked up at the plateau. The Confederate colonel, his pistols holstered, looked down at him. The moment held, silent once more, each man standing straight and true. The Union major brought his sword up and executed a crisp salute which was returned by the colonel.
And in an instant the cavern was empty. The harsh klieg lights shone down on bare dirt floors, without a trace of a scuff or a spot of blood. Except Ashenden's, which soaked out into the dust in a dark stain from his motionless body. Illya was sure Taliaferro and the others had escaped through the cave. He somehow doubted they'd be back, even if the tunnel entrance hadn't caved in after them.
"Illya," Napoleon said softly.
"Hm?" Illya tightened his grip on his partner.
"I don't believe in ghosts."
"Neither do I," said Illya with a smile.
"Find any ghosts?" Kealey asked over breakfast.
Illya blinked before realizing the question was directed at Argenbright.
"That's an interesting way to say good morning," Madame Readmann said as she entered the dining room. "How very curious."
"I concur, madam," Argenbright said, perhaps not realizing that he didn't have the necessary drawl to sound anything but pompous.
"Well," Kealey said, pausing to lift a piece of sausage to his mouth, "I assume all the nocturnal wandering has to pan out sooner or later." He closed his teeth on the sausage with a snap.
"What nocturnal wandering?" Argenbright frowned over his coffee. "You must have been dreaming, Kevin."
"No, I heard it too," Erickson put in softly. "A lot of coming and going last night."
Illya kept his head down and concentrated on cleaning his plate, letting the argument rage over him. Everyone had heard something, though none would admit to having left their rooms. Erickson and Kealey were obviously prepared to pin it on Argenbright and possibly Readmann. Argenbright's bluster didn't cover the fact that he'd almost certain slept through whatever everyone else heard, and Readmann seemed to find the whole thing amusing.
"Perhaps," said Idelle finally, "it was the ghosts."
The room was silent for perhaps thirty seconds. Glancing up, Illya could see Argenbright's lips twitching, and a faintly derisive smile on Kealey's face. He took the bull by the horns and led it away from Idelle Iverson.
"I'll certainly miss this," he said with no discernible trace of irony.
"Oh, are you leaving us?" Erickson asked quickly. Illya wondered briefly if he was interested in the young woman, or simply uncomfortable.
"I'm afraid so."
The door to the kitchen swung silently open as Taliaferro, looking somewhat strained, emerged with a platter of scrambled eggs for the sideboard.
"That's unfortunate," Madame Readmann said. Her eyes twinkled. "I do hope the ghosts haven't frightened you off."
Taliaferro turned fish-belly white and dropped the platter with a crash.
It was difficult not to help Napoleon.
Illya carried his bag out to the car, fighting with every step not to offer his partner his free arm. Not that Napoleon looked like he needed help. Aside from a tear in his shirt, and the handkerchief he was using as a makeshift sling, he looked fine. But Illya wanted to wrap an arm around him, to feel his partner's warm body pressed close to his side. To reassure himself, he thought with no little amusement, that Napoleon was alive. Or safe, anyway.
To reassure himself, also, that Napoleon was there. By his side. He wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, drive away from this place where the ghosts were real, and could touch, even bring down a cave ceiling. Where, more importantly, they could touch Napoleon. And be touched. He wanted to leave before Napoleon thought of those dozens, maybe hundreds of men, of a community of others just like him, and a life which wasn't limited to one single man.
He almost sat on the note, would have if Napoleon hadn't pointed it out to him.
"What does it say?" Napoleon asked as he climbed agilely into his seat.
Illya slid his finger into the folds of paper and pried it carefully open. Who used sealing wax anymore? He smiled. Her handwriting was good for a thirteen year old.
"We have an assignation, Polya." He smoothed the note out and laid it on the seat between them, so Napoleon could read it. The car started with a smooth purr. The Gray Fox Inn looked a little bare, a little down at the heels, in the stark morning sunlight, but he knew it would don the afternoon's mantle of old world elegance in a few hours. And nothing, now, would ever make him see the place as simply an old house again.
She was waiting for them. She rose from the low split rail fence and hugged Illya unselfconsciously. He returned the embrace awkwardly and stepped away as soon as she released him, feeling Napoleon's amused warmth at his back. In deference to Napoleon's injury -- not that he seemed to need the consideration -- Illya had parked in the lot at the end of Cheatham Hill Drive, and saved them both the walk.
The low fence Rowan had been sitting on surrounded a rock-covered grave with a simple granite marker. The tomb, according to the gravestone, of an unknown soldier. Buried, as so many of them were, during or after the battle, without marker or name, and uncovered in recent years. Now the grave, and the man buried in it, stood for all those unnamed idealists Ashenden had almost sent Illya to join.
Rowan fished in her voluminous pocket and produced a rock, which she added with silent simplicity to the stones covering the grave.
"I picked it up in the cavern," she said.
"Do you think he was one of them?" he asked, inclining his head toward the nameless gravestone.
"Does it matter if he wasn't?" She smiled, and perched on the fence around the grave. Illya joined her there, though his knees felt uncomfortably near his chin.
"Did I thank you for your help?"
"Very prettily, I thought." She was flirting with him. Trying out the feminine wiles she'd soon share with all womankind. Her smile faded quickly, however. She looked down at her hands. "What's going to happen to my uncle?"
"Taliaferro?" He shared a look with Napoleon. "Nothing. As long as he doesn't go digging in his basement for gold anymore."
Rowan's grin was blinding. "Oh, I don't think he's likely to do that again."
"What was the yellow-haired man--"
"--Ashenden after? Not gold."
"No, not gold."
Her bright gray eyes assessed him for a moment before she shrewdly decided she'd get no more satisfaction for her curiosity. He thought, not for the first time, that she was woefully mature for her years. Then she scuffed her heels in the dust and looked up at him out of the corner of her eye.
"You didn't believe the Gray Fox Inn was haunted, did you?" she said with childish relish.
"No, I didn't." He smiled quizzically. "Now why didn't you say 'you didn't believe in ghosts'? That would have been the more natural question."
"Because, I already know you believe in ghosts." And she winked at Napoleon.
Napoleon looked startled for a bare second and vanished abruptly.
Illya, just as startled, couldn't help laughing.
"Come now," she drawled around her giggles, "it won't do no good to disappear now."
Napoleon reappeared slowly from his feet up, but his face was still red when he'd solidified. Remembering his lover's state of undress last night, and a few other things, Illya felt himself flush as well.
"You can see me," Napoleon said. She nodded. "I thought only Illya could..." He stepped closer and held out his hand. "Can you touch me?"
She reached out, but her expression was sad. Her hand passed through his. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
He smiled crookedly. "That's okay." Napoleon shot a wicked glance at Illya. "I can touch what matters."
A coughing fit, not entirely faked, overcame Illya. Relief and embarrassment vied in him at Napoleon's covert reassurance. He was oddly glad for the mortifying innuendo -- the heat in his face kept back the heat behind his eyes. Rowan patted him solicitously on the back.
"I take it you can't touch the ghosts at the Gray Fox either?" Napoleon asked while Illya was still whooping.
"No. Tried once or twice early on. But they look so sad when I can't, that I just gave it up."
"They can make contact with things around, and under, the house, though, can't they?"
She nodded. "It's their haunt," she said simply.
"Who were they?" Illya asked, trying not to grin from ear to ear at the realization that he was Napoleon's haunt.
"Soldiers," she said with a solemn smile. "Just soldiers." Her smile brightened. "You haven't heard the story." She wriggled a little on the rough wooden railing. "During the battle, the woods north of here caught fire. The wounded Yankee soldiers who lay there were trapped. Helpless to escape. It looked sure they'd burn to death. Then a colonel, from Arkansas it was, jumps up on the fortifications, in the middle of a hail of bullets, mind, waving his handkerchief. And he calls to the Yankees to come save their men. The shooting stopped on the instant. And together, the blue soldiers and gray soldiers rescued the wounded men from the fire. Afterwards, the Yankee major gave his own guns to the Arkansas colonel." She grinned. "Isn't that something?"
Napoleon smiled and agreed that it was.
"Why," Illya said after a moment, "do you suppose they marched against Ashenden?"
"They were protecting their gold," she said simply.
"The Confederate gold?"
"The country's been unified for a hundred years," Napoleon said, "must the dead still be at odds?"
"Oh piffle! They were protecting the gold. Sure nuff couldn't let Ashenden have it!"
Illya looked at Rowan, and smiled. "They were protecting something all right." Napoleon's eyes followed his, and his smile was as fond as Illya's own.
"I do believe you're right."
"Now you're sure," Illya said as he held the car door for Napoleon, "that your uncle won't try digging in the basement again."
She giggled. "He looked kinda gray when we sat down for breakfast this morning. And the first thing he says is how he's thinking it'd be a good thing to seal up that secret door in the front parlor. For safety, of course."
"Of course." He was in the car with the key in the ignition when it occurred to him. "Rowan."
"What about the entrance from the pantry?"
She cocked her head to one side. "I won't tell."
"I won't." She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his
cheek. "You have your ghost," she whispered in his ear, "let me have
Illya ran a finger lightly over the curves of the glass statue on his bedside table. It really did look out of place there, amidst the mundane detrius. Its voluptuous and fragile beauty didn't fit in well with the trappings of Illya Kuryakin's life. He'd only taken it from Napoleon's apartment from a gnawing need to have something of the man near him. Something more, and more purely personal, than the boxes of belongings April and Mark had helped him move.
And now that he had Napoleon himself...
Illya picked up the statue and carried it, cradled in the crook of his arm, to the other room. It looked just as out of place on the narrow mantel over the hearth, but he could imagine the rosy reflected glow a fire would give the chrystal nymph and it seemed only fair to allow her, too, some faint semblance of life.
He wandered into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of vodka. The bottle never had made it back into the freezer after Napoleon appeared, and Illya made a face at the warm vodka as he drank it. He sat down with a long-suffering sigh and picked up his pen to finish the report.
Napoleon, of course, had made himself scarce. Illya told himself he was glad that his partner was rediscovering some of his independence. Nice as it was to have Napoleon with him all the time, it was hardly a natural part of their relationship, even now that their relationship was closer than ever. And there wasn't anything to worry about -- Napoleon would always come back. Still, it would have been nice to have his help in concocting this farrago of lies for Mr. Waverly.
Illya topped off his glass of vodka and read over what he'd written so far. Confederate gold as a cover, check. Taliaferro's unknowing role in the search for the ryannin white, check. Ashenden's death at Illya's hands, check. And thank god it had been at his hands, so he could be completely truthful about one thing at least. Ghosts? Illya smiled to himself. No sign of any ghosts, not that Waverly would for a moment have expected there to have been. Also no sign of the ryannin white -- obviously Ashenden had been mistaken about its location.
He sat back in his chair and swallowed a mouthful of vodka as he considered the report. Had he left any holes in the story? Satisfied, he put the glass down with a thump and signed his name quickly to the bottom of the last page. It would do.
Illya put the bottle of vodka in the freezer where it belonged and carried his glass with him into the other room. Here, he thought, as he flopped down on the couch (without, mind you, spilling a drop of vodka), was where it all began. More so than in the kitchen. Here, he'd known Napoleon was real and solid, and felt him again for the first time.
He thought of Rowan, with her houseful of ghosts she couldn't touch, and felt sad. And proud. They were somehow made for each other, this little slip of a southern girl and her companies of faithful soldiers. As much as he and Napoleon were undoubtedly made for each other. Illya didn't regret lying in his report. Perhaps the ryannin white was there, and perhaps it wasn't. It hardly mattered, for he could be certain that, if it was somewhere under the Gray Fox Inn, it would never be found. The protection it enjoyed was as secure as any of U.N.C.L.E.'s vaults, and ensured for all time.
And besides, he wouldn't be responsible for bringing an U.N.C.L.E. retrieval team into the house, and into contact with the ghosts. It wouldn't be good for either party.
Illya smiled to himself. Who knew, maybe the ryannin white was tucked up alongside that long-lost Confederate gold.
He saluted the long dead, the recent dead, and one sweet girl, with his glass and drank.
"Communing with the spirits?"
A warmth blooming inside him which had nothing to do with alcohol, Illya raised the glass and regarded Napoleon through the dregs of the vodka. "You didn't have to figure out what to tell Mr. Waverly in the report."
"Perk of my condition," Napoleon said with a smirk.
Illya growled. He turned himself sideways on the couch and stretched his legs out, tilting his head back over the arm. It was good to be home.
"So, what now?" Napoleon cocked his head to one side and smiled at Illya. "Wanna play Superghost?"
The glass Illya threw passed through Napoleon and shattered against the wall behind him.
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