It was late in the evening when Napoleon and Illya returned to New York.
They had spent the past eight days racing back and forth across Canada, tracking a stolen racehorse named “Honeycomb Overseer” with microfilm implanted under the skin of its thigh. Illya had finally reached his breaking point in the middle of trying to coax the horse, who was highly neurotic, weighed half a ton, and was having an unusually confusing and stressful week, into a hot-wired moving van in the back alleys of Winnipeg.
“You owe me, Solo,” he had said, dodging the horse’s agitated and sweat-soaked tail. “I mean it. This is making me seriously reconsider our friendship.”
Napoleon, who had won the coin toss and taken the more intimidating but less disgusting place in front of the horse, waved the carrot in his hand in what he hoped was a debonair manner but was probably just ridiculous. “Would it help if I took you out to dinner?”
There was a long pause. Illya leaned, panting in surrender, against the moving van. He seemed to be trying to glare the horse into the truck. “I need to stop letting you bribe me with food.”
Napoleon had planned to take Illya somewhere nice, at least (Illya deserved that much after Honeycomb Overseer had assuaged its anxiety about riding in the van by using his shoulder as a chew-toy), but by the time they had returned the microfilm to UNCLE Quebec and taken the first flight they could get to JFK, Illya had been past the “complaining” point of hunger and headed for the “yelling at birds” point, so they unanimously decided that simple would be best.
Illya had, using what he called “the sublime magnetism between Jews and sliced luncheon meats,” located a tiny diner tucked away like a tidepool down an alleyway. It was a lovely spring evening, and not too far, so they walked. Their hands might have brushed, but when Napoleon combed over the memory later, he couldn’t pick out when. Illya softened, bit by bit, to the rhythm of their footsteps and the promise of fullness, until they reached the scuffed orange door beyond which lay the excellent brisket that he and Illya (mostly Illya) ended up demolishing.
The evening continued to be lovely, and Napoleon needed to walk off some of the brisket, so they squeezed themselves back through the scuffed orange door and kept walking. Illya had that well-fed look that only those who know what it’s like to be hungry can express, glowing and secure even with horse hair all over his pants and horse toothmarks in his jacket. They walked aimlessly, in the way that nobody over the age of twenty-one does in New York, letting the breeze take them as it skirted the subway updrafts, bending their heads close together to hear each other over the traffic, of which there was relatively little.
They had reached Illya’s apartment door when Napoleon cut Illya off in the middle of spiritedly defending Count Basie’s honor by leaning down and kissing him. This was a surprise to Napoleon, but apparently not to Illya, who kissed him back neither coyly nor fiercely, but steadily, like the sun over winter snow. When Napoleon pulled back with a jerk, Illya just smiled.
Illya’s authentic, full-bore smile could melt the polar ice caps.
As Napoleon stood, confused and dazzled in the radiance, Illya unlocked his apartment door and walked a full pace over the threshold. He turned to face Napoleon, still smiling, but otherwise made no gesture. Illya had made his choice; perhaps he had made it long ago. Napoleon hadn’t known even five minutes ago that there was a choice to be made. Illya had outpaced him once again, and he was waiting on the other side of the rope line, with a patience he rarely possessed in the field.
Napoleon took a deep breath and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
Afterwards, Illya kissed him softly on the forehead, smiled a rumpled and glowing version of that dynamite smile, and snagged one of the many, many books piled on his battered nightstand. The Aeneid, it looked like, and as Illya opened it on the slip of graph paper that served as a bookmark Napoleon realized it was in Latin.
He suddenly needed a cigarette very much.
“I’m, ah.” Napoleon gestured awkwardly to his jacket. “Cigarette.”
Illya glanced up from his book. “Oh, are you?”
Napoleon laughed, startled. His world had just turned completely upside down, and Illya was sitting there making terrible jokes as if they were back at UNCLE HQ, chatting over case files and old coffee.
Illya didn’t mind people smoking around him but hated to get the smell in his apartment, so Napoleon picked his way around a stack of physics journals to the bedroom window. The evening was night now, and the windows of every apartment building were blazing in gold to replace the stars.
Napoleon leaned on the windowsill, blowing smoke outward and upward to cling to the rough brick walls. With every breath in he was filled more and more with the soft inevitability of what he and Illya had just done. The brisket, Count Basie, the racehorse, the stars, the slow grinding of continents as they birthed mountain ranges and the wind and rain washing those mountains away had all collapsed in on this moment, this act, Napoleon standing like a man who had come through an avalanche unharmed, smoking a completely inadequate cigarette like it was any other night in the history of the world.
When the world goes to the trouble of singing in concert, you should probably assume you’re in love.
That was somehow not nearly as shocking as making love, at least when it came to Illya.
Napoleon dealt with this complete reversal of his perceptions by stubbing the cigarette out on the windowsill and turning back towards the bed. Illya was still immersed in his book. A frown had appeared between his eyebrows and Napoleon had the first of what he realized would be a lifetime of urges to kiss it away.
So he got back into bed. Illya didn’t look up, but his body curved towards Napoleon’s like a raindrop tracing the flaws in a window.
“How’s your book?” he asked.
Illya turned a page as though it had offended him. “I hadn’t remembered how blatantly this borrows from Homer.”
“You know,” said Napoleon, lying on his side and adamantly not thinking about what Illya’s landlady might do if she knew Napoleon had been snuffing cigarettes on her windowsills, “I never actually read The Aeneid.”
“I’ll read it to you, then.” Illya flipped back to the start of the book. “It’s absolutely arrogant thievery. I’m honestly impressed.”
“Latin’s not one of my many talents.”
Illya rolled his eyes with deep affection. “I’ll translate, blockhead.”
Lying naked with a small grumpy man to listen to him read poetry and make biting comments about the artistic integrity of dead people sounded like the sort of thing that Napoleon would never have considered to be a good time five years ago, but Napoleon’s taste had changed in many ways over the years.