Mark Slate heaved a sigh of relief and gave the cabby his new address. He'd almost forgotten what it was but April had reminded him right before she flitted off with Angela Heinz from Communications for a girl's night out. Finally, he could relax and think with longing of his bed. He was too tired to eat or even have the taxi stop so he could pick up some take-out.
After the mission from Hell, all he wanted was peace and quiet. Maybe some jazz on the stereo and the longest hot shower in recorded American history. He chuckled quietly and closed his eyes against the bright red light of sunset. The cab jerked to a stop and his eyes flew open to see the stoop of his new home.
Paying off the cab driver, he picked up his suitcase and juggled his keys until he found the right one. Unlocking the heavy oak door, he set his suitcase at the top of the stairs to the basement, hung up his coat and crossed the hall to get some juice from the kitchen. The heavy carpet in the hall deadened his footsteps and the soft glow of a lamp slowed his pace unconsciously.
In the living room, Napoleon, dressed casually in a russet sweater and jeans was seated on the sofa, his feet up on the coffee table in front of him. But it was the reclining body of his partner that caught Mark's attention. The twin glows of lamp and fire had turned Illya's hair to molten gold where it lay in Napoleon's lap. The royal blue jogging suit he was wearing looked soft and comfortable. His eyes were closed and Napoleon's right hand rested on his chest. In his other hand, he held an old book and Mark could hear his voice rise and fall quietly.
"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Happily I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings." ***
The rich voice slowed and caressed the last two lines while Mark wondered if he could tiptoe back out of the doorway before they noticed him. But a pair of bright blue eyes had opened and a delighted smile lit up Illya's face.
"Mark, you're home. Come in and sit. We didn't expect you until later."
"Yes, please come in and relax. Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes." Napoleon's smile was welcoming and Mark hesitantly came on into the room to sit in the overstuffed chair across from them.
"I think I may be too tired to eat." He said wearily, a little envious of their relaxed state and if he'd just admit it to himself, their tenderness towards each other.
"It's a nourishing stew that won't tax your chewing abilities but will give you the energy to take a shower and go to bed." Napoleon set the book down and cradled Illya's head. "I'm going to get up so brace yourself."
The look of concentration on the blond agent's face puzzled Mark. He gripped the seat cushion on either side of his body, grimacing at Napoleon's slide out from under him and sighing when he put a pillow beneath his head to replace his lap, Mark looked a question at the older agent.
Napoleon's gaze was grim. "The day you left, Illya had a relapse and the blood work finally showed up the nasty little virus that was attacking certain areas of his brain. His balance is affected so between the fever that comes and goes and the dizziness that tilts him whenever he moves too suddenly, he hasn't been out of the house all week."
"It's been a little disorienting." Illya said with his well-known understatement. "But Napoleon has taken good care of me and Dr. Keyes says that another week or so of the antibiotic should see the worst effects go away."
"Talk to him, Mark, while I go see if dinner is ready." Napoleon tilted his head towards the prone blond and grimaced at Mark in a not too subtle attempt at telling him something.
Mark decided that after a week of being shut up in the house, Illya was probably a little stir crazy. "Well, I bet you caught up on your reading. You always seem to have more than one book going at any one moment."
"Unfortunately, my eyes were affected. The blurring vision made me sick to my stomach so reading was out. American television during the day truly is a 'wasteland' so my options were limited." Illya sighed then brightened. "But Napoleon went to the library and brought home all kinds of books on tape that I was able to put into the cassette player and listen to. It was almost as good as reading it for myself."
"That's terrible, Illya. The blurred vision will go away though, right?" Mark couldn't imagine not being able to use his eyes.
"I have my fingers crossed as you Americans say." Illya's accent always seemed more prominent when he was using an English idiom. "I must admit I miss my books. But Napoleon reads aloud to me each night and I find our discussions of the poetry or fiction stimulating."
Mark had a sudden image of Napoleon reading poetry with one hand while stimulating Illya's cock with the other. To his surprise, he found the image tender rather than off-putting. Maybe he really could 'live and let live'. He closed his eyes wearily, especially if they fed him when he was too tired to move. It had been a mistake to sit in the comfortable chair because now he didn't know if he could get out again.
"The mission did not go as planned." Illya's voice was gentle and not quite a question.
"It was a cock-up from the word go." Mark found himself reciting every mistake made on both sides in a droning voice that seemed divorced from him. He felt so detached that he could even talk about the Greek tour guide who'd gotten in the way of one of THRUSH's bullets. He'd had no chance to mourn Melena's death and he wondered if he would ever be able to unfreeze those emotions.
Warm hands on his brought his eyes open to find Illya kneeling at his feet. "Don't keep them inside, Mark. Don't do what I did. Let yourself thaw out now. Tell me what you felt when you first met her."
"Melena. She had the darkest hair I've ever seen like a black cloud of ebony but when she smiled ... she radiated sunshine. Her laugh was infectious and her English sometimes went all fractured. But she never minded being corrected. She was an innocent and thought that helping out her brother, Nikos, would be fun." Mark gripped Illya's hands while he forced himself to remember the last horrible picture.
"She jumped up from her seat to go to the ladies room and took the bullet right in her back." His voice became a whisper. "It was meant for me, you see. So her death was my fault. She fell onto the table, taking all the dishes with her. I tried to hold her out of the line of fire. I called her name ... but she was already dead. My hands were covered in blood and I had to leave her there. I ... had ... to ... leave ... her ... there."
Each word was punctuated with a clenched fist against his leg. Illya's hands held him like an anchor while his emotions surged back and forth. "She was wearing this white dress that fit her like a glove and she was proud of the rose I'd gotten her. She was so still there on the floor with our plates and food scattered around her. All that life and laughter stilled forever."
"It was not your fault, Mark."
"It was! I should have insisted that we use a professional go-between. I should have never taken her to dinner." He was shaking now. "I should have been between her and the shooter."
"Did you take the outside seat so you were between her and the street?"
That odd question got his attention. "Of course."
"Then how is it your fault that the shooter chose to use the kitchen entrance to make his shot instead of a rooftop where there would have been nothing between him and you?" Illya's logic tore away the remaining restraints and Mark found his eyes wet.
"That's it, Mark. Grieve for Melena now. Remember her laughing up into your eyes. Remember her accent and the funny things she said. Remember her joy in living. Let that be your last memory of her."
Mark found himself cradled in strong arms, his head on a solid shoulder and a hand rubbing the back of his neck while he was rocked gently. He realized that the more he cried, the lighter he felt. Something in Russian was being crooned in his ear and he mentally translated it into the soothing 'there, there, let it go' of his childhood.
He was settled back against the chair and a Kleenex was wiped over his cheeks before being handed to him so he could blow his nose. Sad blue eyes met his in complete understanding. "In time it won't feel so bad. I know that's a cliché but it's still true. It wasn't your fault and you dealt with the situation the best way you knew how. Give it time and don't lock your emotions inside. That's what I did and it hurts much worse when you finally thaw out. Napoleon and I are both here should you ever need us."
"Thanks." Mark tried for a smile. "I think I needed that."
"You also need to eat something." Napoleon's voice came from over Mark's shoulder. "Once you get some of my stew inside of you, you'll feel strong enough to tame lions."
He chuckled as he was supposed to and watched the older man set a tray on the coffee table. The dark haired agent sent him a quick look that assessed him with lightning speed then nodded as if what he saw was what he expected. Smiling, he nodded his approval then went back into the kitchen. Illya sat back on his heels and swayed a moment.
"Here, hold onto me until the dizziness goes away." Mark sat forward and tentatively held Illya's shoulders.
"Thank you. It comes and goes but tends to be worse in the evening when my temperature goes up." Illya sank on down onto the floor by the table, crossing his legs in an almost yoga posture. "I will be very glad when it goes away. It is most disconcerting."
"Time will take care of that. Time and rest, Illya." Napoleon returned with another tray of something steamy. The three white pottery bowls of thick rich stew probably smelled delicious but Mark's nose was so stopped up after his cry that he couldn't smell a thing.
"There's crackers to go with it. Simple but nourishing." The senior agent said quietly, setting the tray on Mark's lap before picking up two of the bowls and placing them on the table.
He settled on the floor across from Illya and they divided up the crackers before handing the rest over to Mark's tray. The next few minutes were spent spooning up the savory soup and enjoying the taste. Illya smiled at his partner. "You are a very good cook, Napoleon. I'm glad we decided that we'd take turns cooking."
"Thank you, Illya. I'm looking forward to that new recipe for pancakes that I read you last night."
"You read recipes?" Mark looked up in amazement.
Napoleon looked affronted. "I'll have you know that not just anyone can read a recipe and give it the proper dramatic pauses. Here's one that I always liked." He dropped his voice to a husky murmur. "Take one and ¼ cups sifted flour, add one tablespoon baking powder, one tablespoon sugar and just ½ teaspoon salt. Sift them together in a large bowl." His voice raised while he placed his hand over his heart. "Then, take one egg, beaten to a froth, one cup milk and two tablespoons melted shortening. Combine them and add to the dry ingredients, stirring just," he dropped his voice again to a whisper. "Just until moistened. It should be," he hissed, "lumpy."
By now, Mark was chuckling so hard he had to clutch the tray to keep it from overbalancing. Illya was also laughing at his partner's affronted look.
"Add ½ cup drained, crushed pineapple to batter. Bake on an ungreased griddle. Will make six to eight cakes." He finished dramatically with a flourishing hand gesture.
"Oh, Pasha, you just get better and better at that." Illya said affectionately and Mark saw Napoleon's triumphant twinkle at making his partner laugh.
For the first time since he'd held Melena's body in his arms, he felt sorrow but no longer any guilt. He could grieve for the loss of her innocence but also realize that the world goes on and he would go on with it. He had good friends and a job that he mostly liked. One day, he'd be ready to hang up his spy hat and go on to something else but for now, he'd finish his soup, talk with his friends, take a hot shower and go to bed.
Tomorrow was a new day and maybe, Illya would make those pancakes for them.
End of Moving In Affair
The next sequel is Life's a Picnic Affair