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The Blue Room

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"And you may go in every room of the house and see everything that is there,
but into the Blue Room you must not go."  
"The Story of Blue Beard"

She sat waiting in his office, straight-backed, her hands clenched together over her close-pressed knees, outfitted in a flouncy skirt matching the softly contoured jacket, a frilly blouse with eyelet embroidery, and a ridiculous pillbox hat, all of it impeccably tailored to her size, none of it suited to herShe looked like somebody's ward being sent away to boarding school.

She was one of the saddest sights Napoleon had seen.

"Mara," he said to draw her attention, but gently. It wasn't her name anymore. He didn't know the new one Section Six had given her along with the clothes. He doubted he'd ever try to find out.

She gave a start and then a shy smile.

The smile almost did it. He had been wondering, since she had announced her decision to leave, when his heart would start breaking. The smile almost did it.

Not enough to ask her to stay. Even if he couldn't manage whole-hearted endorsement -- how could he endorse it when he'd learned you couldn't right a wrong with another wrong -- he at least owed acquiescence to her decision. Heaven knew it was the first and only independent one she had made since that day at the ruins of the bar in the middle of Nowhere. When Waverly had offered a choice that was no choice at all.

Damn Waverly, anyway.

And damn him, for going along with it.

Damn Illya, too. Damn him twice over, for Illya had obviously known from the beginning it wouldn't work, yet he'd sat on his dissent, hoarding it until too late.

***

After the old prospector had been sent on his way a richer man, the two agents had had to return to the THRUSH base with the local UNCLE reinforcements arriving for the mop-up operation. It had taken a lot of gentle persuasion to convince Mara she could surely survive the brief separation, that Solo would be returning to her as soon as humanly possible. Finally, she had consented to leaving with the limo in Waverly's company. Illya and Napoleon had taken the jeep, leading the rest of the UNCLE convoy to the underground base.

"Imagine the courage it took to swallow those pills," Napoleon said. Unsettled by Mara's insistent clinging, he needed to remind himself why she had changed. "Knowing you're about to erase your own life from your own mind -- forever." He shivered in the desert heart, remembering how he had felt under the temporary influence of Capsule B, being a nonentity to himself. "I couldn't have done it. Whatever the reason. It's too much like dying."

Illya kept his eyes on what passed for a road. "Yet that's exactly what you're ready for every day, doing your job."

"Are you saying you can do it, erase your memory and no compunctions, just like that?"

"I'm saying your analogy is inaccurate. Dying is easy."

"Speak for yourself"

"It's final. You don't have to live with it."

"Hmm. Yes, I see what you mean." Napoleon glanced back to make sure they hadn't mislaid any part of the convoy. Illya was driving as if he had scant patience. "So you couldn't have done it either."

"If you must insist on jumping to conclusions, at least try not to jump to the superficial ones. It shows a lamentable lack of wit."

Napoleon had been suspecting it all along, now he was sure; Illya was pissed off. Exactly at what, he wasn't certain. He didn't say anything; Illya would need no prompting to expound on Napoleon's witlessness.

"Point one: not could I do it, but would I? Answering the latter settles the former, whereas the opposite isn't necessarily true. Point two: having accepted the premise of the-good-of-the-many along with my job, depending on what hangs in the balance on the other side of the equation, yes, I would. And so would you."

Illya's blue glare froze the air between them for an instant before returning to the road. "Point three: if the equation consisted of all my knowledge and experience on one side and the pleasure of your company on the other, the terms that spring to mind are, don't hold your breath, when hell freezes over, no way Jose, it's a mug's game, not even in your...."

"All right, all right. I got the point. I wouldn't be worth the sacrifice -- at least not your exalted knowledge and experience. Why should Mara's priorities be yours, though? Your equation is non-applicable, therefore meaningless, null and void." And the term that springs to mind is: put that in your pipe, smartass.

"will decide the elements of my own equations and their validity, if you don't mind."

"Isn't that the point I just made?"

The cold glare found Napoleon again, fairly shouted imbecile, but the Russian, jaw clamped, stayed silent.

I was wrong, Napoleon thought, he's royally pissed off. If pushed, Illya would freeze him out or go into his imitation of a disgruntled hedgehog shooting off vicious spines. His poor partner would have to live with his bad mood for however long Illya deemed it just. Napoleon pushed, "Well, Mara found the cause sufficient, obviously." He saw no reason to keep the smug satisfaction out of his voice.

"Oh, most obviously." Illya sounded distant. "I believe it goes, 'Many and many a year ago, in a Kingdom by the Sea,'" with one hand he brushed desert sand off his cords. "Well, can't have everything, can we? Anyway, if you'll pardon the loose quoting, 'There lived a maiden, and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.'" He swung the jeep sideways to circle the mound hiding the THRUSH base. "Personally, I'd find that stultifying, but to each his own."

He stopped the jeep in front of the rubble-strewn entrance and repeated the wish he had offered Mara alongside a helpful tumbler of water for the pills, "Happy days, Napoleon. I wish you joy of them."

"Wait a minute," Napoleon said quickly as lllya jumped out. The trucks were pulling up, soon they'd have a crowd. "If you thought this was a mistake, why didn't you try to stop it in time?"

Illya stared at him for a long minute. "Angels envied Annabel Lee, Napoleon. As we all well know, I'm nobody's angel."

Huh?

But the crowd was already there, the job waited to be done, and anyway, the next hours told Napoleon that Illya had decided on civil disinterest as his chosen flavor of the day….week… month?

***

Month, he now knew, plus some odd days.

Damn Illya.

On second thought, though, it was a case of the leopard and his spots. If people insisted on hanging themselves, Illya firmly believed in handing them the requisite rope. Useless to damn the nature of the beast.

One more homage left to be paid to the mistake, at least on his part. He went to Mara to gather her into his arms and say an appropriate goodbye, until a Section Six agent showed up to carry her out of his life for good. Or ill.

Hours after she was gone, he found the lacy gloves she had forgotten under a file on his desk and picked them up, thinking she wouldn't miss them. Section Six obviously had no more notion of her tastes than he had had when he had first taken charge of her. In the absence of any firm opinions on her part, even including what she normally liked to eat or wear, he had set about dressing her. Only later had he realized she was different than most women he knew and couldn't have cared less about the complimentary factors of her clothing. She preferred the casual and the utilitarian, as uncomfortable about emphasized femininity in clothes as Illya would be if someone had tried turning him into a fashion plate. But she had let Napoleon's taste dictate hers without the first complaint. If anyone were foolish enough to try to impose anything on Illya, on the other hand, he'd soon realize the little Russian was about as compliant as a runaway nuclear reaction.

Which, after all, Napoleon thought, is the vital difference.

Huh?

Before he could follow up on it, lllya scattered his thoughts by unceremoniously entering Solo's office. "You're back!" Napoleon exclaimed, surprised. He had known the Angola Affair was wrapped up, of course, but not that Illya was back from it and, judging by the white coat, the glasses perched on the sharp nose presently buried in printouts, for long enough to have dived into something at the research labs.

Without raising his head from the papers, lllya threw him a glance from over dark-rimmed glasses. "How nice to know our CEA is right on top of things."

"The station chief said you were yet to pick up your plane tickets from the office."

"I didn't bother. You try boarding a plane in a capital city about to be the site of a bloody revolution."

"So how did you get back?"

"Hitchhiked." Deadpan.

Fine, if that's the way Illya wanted it. It would show up on his expense chit soon enough, Illya not being in the least inclined to demur when claiming his expenses. "You want me for something?" Napoleon asked.

Illya put down the printouts, patted the pockets of the lab coat with one hand and rounded the desk to take one of Napoleon's wrists with the other. As he did so, he noticed the gloves Solo had been absentmindedly playing with. "It's up to your own fashion sense, of course, but I really don't think they go with the tie."

Napoleon used his other hand to pluck away the gloves and drop them back on the desk. "Mara forgot them." He watched, frowning slightly, as Illya removed first one of his cufflinks and then the other. "She's gone."

"Yes, I heard, into the care of Section Six." A pause, then quietly, as if Illya was reluctant to ask, "Whose decision was it?"

"Hers."

"Really?" Illya carefully placed the cufflinks he had removed on one corner of Napoleon's desk. "How gratifying to know that whatever else it strips away, Capsule B leaves the intelligence quotient intact."

"Thank you very much," Napoleon couldn't help growling.

"You're very welcome." lllya, naturally, said right back. "If you can look past your bruised ego for a moment, you'll find it gratifying too. If she's to have a life, she'll need that intelligence to be re-educated, re-retrained. She was a scientist, you know."

"Section Six will make her one again. They'll mold her until she fits another peg hole -- this time, UNCLE's. She was a four-year-old orphan when THRUSH got its claws into her. While she's older in years now, basically the situation is much the same. She's out of one prison into another."

"Whereas your bars were infinitely preferable, of course. She would have let you package and put the Solo seal on her. You'd have liked that?"

"No, dammit, I wouldn't have. I didn't, as a matter of fact."

He well remembered the moment he had realized she wasn't letting him guide her into finding her own preferences, choices, but meekly accepting the imposition of his will on her. He had found himself suddenly swamped by the same vicious anger he'd felt when he had gone within the same minute from thinking he couldn't bear not seeing her again into realizing she was a THRUSH agent and he had been tricked. He had quickly doused the anger, knowing it to be totally unfair this time, but also wondering if the affection he had for her was forever fated to be given to something fraudulent. He had known the real Mara so briefly, during the moment when she had disarmed him and then had been unable to pull the trigger, and the few frenetic hours between taking her from that lethal vault and Waverly's arrival with the cursed pills.

And it had gotten more and more uncomfortable. By degrees, he had started losing the enjoyment of being a lover to her, and a father he certainly wasn't ready or equipped to be to anyone. It had taken her days to realize it and another week to decide to move out of his apartment into the accommodations at headquarters.

"I wanted her to have her own life," he told Illya, belligerently.

"Do you think outside of UNCLE's protection THRUSH would let her have it? They don't deal kindly with traitors."

"I know that! But some of us have enough human frailties to dare wish in the face of reality."

Illya looked at him for a minute as if he were a mildly intriguing specimen in a test tube, then walked around the desk until it was between them. "I see you're determined to hold a post mortem. Unless you can tell me some part of you isn't relieved she's gone -- and I know you too well to believe you aren't -- I'm afraid I can't be a sympathetic ear. I think it's best if I relieved you of my presence for the moment."

"No," Napoleon found himself saying as Illya reached the door.

Illya turned. "No?"

Seeing Mara leave through that door had been enough for one day. For some strange reason, he knew he couldn't bear watching Illya do it right then. "No. Just don't say 'I told you so."

"I'll strive mightily not to."

"And may I have the punchline, please?" Napoleon lifted both arms with their shirt cuffs hanging loose. "The suspense is killing me."

"Oh. Nothing dramatic, I fear." Illya patted his pockets again, found what he was looking for in one and came around the desk. "The micro-circuitry lab came up with a new and improved version of the cufflinks. We all get a set." He studied the links closely until he saw the one design difference between them that all sets had but Napoleon never could manage to find -- thus the need for Illya to act the valet initially -- and started putting them on.

Napoleon looked at the blond head bent over his wrist and realized for the first time that Mara had the same fine, bright hair, just a little more honey colored while Illya's was pure pale-gold.

lllya glanced up at him from under his bangs. "Tracer on the right, explosive on the left, as usual."

And almost the same color eyes. "What's the gee-whiz improvement?"

"Now they're corrosive-proof as well as waterproof. However," he got done with a pat on Napoleon's arm, "as they don't confer the same invulnerability to human flesh, I suggest you still don't submerge your arms in acid."

Napoleon studied his new cufflinks and tugged the sleeves of his jacket over them. "Not much of an improvement in that case."

"You know scientists. Field conditions matter to them only peripherally when they're in the throes of something new and different."

"Yes. I do know scientists." Napoleon looked pointedly at Illya's white-coated form.

"And aren't you lucky to have one who is also a field agent?"

Give or take a prickly nature and a sharp tongue, yes, Napoleon silently agreed, suddenly identifying as guilt the feeling he'd had since Illya had gone off to Angola alone. "It was Waverly's decision, you know. I didn't request it."

Illya had no trouble understanding him. "I know. It doesn't matter. We don't always work together."

"We don't only when it's a milk run or one of us is needed elsewhere." Neither had been the case for Angola.

Illya shrugged dismissively. "Waverly obviously decided you were needed here."

"Yes. Waverly does seem to decide too many things lately that I can't fathom the reasons for."

"I see." Illya pulled up a chair across from Napoleon and settled into it. "All right, if you want to talk about it that badly, go ahead. I may not be able to sympathize, but I'll try to cooperate."

"Why did Waverly do it?" Napoleon asked the question that had been bothering him for over a month. "I don't mean the assignment. I mean...."

"I know what you mean -- the overdose of Capsule B." Illya shrugged again. "Personally, I thought it fairly simple. If your highest ranking, most valuable agent is hell bent on getting starry-eyed over a woman, you certainly don't want her to be an agent of the opposition. A mindless doll is much safer. And with any luck, considering she was once a capable scientist, in time you can turn her into one of your own assets. It was the most logical move and Capsule B gave him the means to make it."

"What do you mean 'starry-eyed' -- and all Waverly knew was the report I gave him on the communicator. I don't remember bringing him up to date over my feelings, for all that's holy, whatever they happened to be at the time."

"And you never once gave any thought to the fact that he talked to Professor Tertunian before he came to meet us?"

"Oh." Tertunian hadn't been a willing THRUSH ally; he'd been more than happy to cooperate with his liberators from UNCLE. "All right, so he knew THRUSH had thrown me a bait, so what? Not the first time they've done it...."

"And certainly not the first time you took it," Illya interjected smoothly.

"Yes, well, beside the point." Napoleon quickly dismissed what wouldn't bear close scrutiny, then thought better of it. "No, actually the point. He's always known about, say, Angelique – "

"And Serena, and Karla, and --" He gave a wicked smile in answer to Napoleon's glare. "But who's counting?"

"He never tried taking drastic measures before," Napoleon finished.

"You lust after…say, Angelique," Illya said in an imitation of him. "I think even Waverly can appreciate the difference between lust and love. While the former in one of your agents can be an inconvenience, the latter is downright hazardous."

"Love?" Napoleon exclaimed. "I knew her two days, for crying out loud! How in hell did Waverly jump to that conclusion, let alone Tertunian?"

Illya went still and silent.

"Illya?"

"You don't know, do you? Nobody told you and you never tried to find out."

"Find out what?" He had a sinking feeling he was not going to like the answer.

"Why Mara?"

"What do you mean 'why Mara'? Because she was there, I guess."

"Right."

"Illya," Solo said warningly.

"No, Napoleon," he rose, "that's one answer you're going to have to get elsewhere."

Napoleon rose also, leaning across his desk. "Why can't you tell me?"

Illya smiled, one of the mocking half-smiles that drove Napoleon up the wall for he never knew which of them Illya was mocking. "If I said my masochism only goes so far it wouldn't mean anything to you, so I'll just return to the lab."

Napoleon fought the urge to drag him bodily back and sit on him until he got his answers, and let Illya go. What would be the point? Illya could keep his mouth closed until doomsday and only open it to ask when some sustenance might be forthcoming.

He couldn't talk to Waverly, not while he felt hostile toward the old man. Besides, Waverly was military-rigid about observing the conventions of superior versus subordinate. He barely tolerated his agents' being made of flesh and blood; if they were ill-advised enough to have feelings as well, he preferred they weren't brought to his attention.

Tertunian, on the other hand, was on hand. Upon clearing away the rubble and re-entering the THRUSH base, UNCLE agents had found some of the professor's equipment and files salvageable. Tertunian had cheerfully offered to turn his talents to UNCLE's benefit. After all, his collection of data covered both THRUSH and UNCLE, his computerized psychoanalysis systems could work equally well for either side. He didn't really care who paid to keep him happily in computer hardware and software, but did have a preference for UNCLE over THRUSH on general principles.

And -- Napoleon checked his watch -- right now he could be found taking advantage of the excellent luncheon the Mask Club offered.

Tertunian greeted him expansively, inviting him to lunch and sounding generous about it as if he'd be paying for it instead of UNCLE.

"Just coffee," Napoleon told the waiter, "black."

"Oh dear, I hope that's not an indication of your mood." Tertunian gestured widely with the two-prong fork and sent it stabbing back into the shrimp cocktail.

"I'd like some answers, and then we'll decide on my mood," Napoleon told him.

"I thought you had all the answers you needed during those tedious interrogations."

"UNCLE needed."

"Ah. This is about Mara then. All right, ask away."

Did everybody know more about this, whatever it was, than he did? Napoleon leaned his elbows on the table. "THRUSH has been known to throw women into my way with regularity."

"You have only yourself to blame for that, dear boy."

He continued as if uninterrupted. "It's been brought to my attention that in this case I should ask why. Precisely, why Mara?"

"Because she was what she was."

"And what was she . . . then?" Napoleon asked, genuinely interested. Tertunian had known the woman Solo had only briefly glimpsed.

"Hmm, let's see... she was serious, dependable, articulate but not chatty, a brilliant scientist and a good agent, sure of herself in her profession but somewhat timid -- no, tentative, otherwise. It wasn't so much she didn't know what to make of the rest of life; she simply didn't have much of a one, didn't seem to need it. Or rather, admit to needing it. Socially, a bit of a misfit, something of a hermit. Emotionally, reserved. Sexually, repressed and perhaps inexperienced -- but you'd know more about that than I would. Personally, I always thought the arctic exterior hid many a passion." Tertunian regarded his cocktail dish woefully, in which only lettuce remained, then brightening, he exchanged it for the plate of stuffed mushrooms. "Anyway, we did a comparative analysis of you and the whole female contingent of THRUSH. The computer assessed her your best match."

Napoleon considered, frowning at the notion. "Match? If you thought what you've just described is a match of mine, the data THRUSH has on me must be way off base. That's nice to know."

Tertunian shook his head indulgently. "I wouldn't get complacent, THRUSH is dogged and thorough. And a match can be identical or opposite but complementary. You ought to know -- give or take the gender factor, of course. Take my word for it, Mara was your intellectual, emotional and physical match when we gave her to you."

"The purpose of which was?"

"Why, so you'd fall in love with her, of course."

Napoleon held onto his tempter that wanted to flare. He had never liked the feeling of being manipulated. "What, as if it were pre-ordained?"

"Exactly."

"That's nonsense."

"Surely not. The most immutable thing about a human being is his basic emotions. With enough data, and the right computer program to correlate it, you can accurately predict and channel them. Longolius wanted something to break through the amnesia you'd inflicted on yourself. Any psychologist can tell you, an emotional jolt is the fastest way. We could've used fear, I suppose, if only you weren't well-trained to control it. So we gave you someone to love instead."

"And thought I'd take one look and fall?"

"Like Pavlov's dogs, dear boy."

Napoleon leaned closer, deceptively mild. "You, Professor, are either a fraud, or deluded. Love at first sight? It didn't work, whatever your computers assessed."

Tertunian didn't look the least bit discomforted. "Well, of course it didn't. Longolius was a fool and like a fool, he interfered." He put the quickly emptied appetizer plate away and pulled the salad bowl closer, not at all put off his stride. "He expected the computer to come up with a sophisticated socialite or a tempestuous temptress -- blinded by your track record, you see. Try explaining to the dunce that what a man plays with is a far cry from what he takes seriously." Tertunian contemplated the far distance, then announced, "Yes, I was definitely wasted on THRUSH. Worst collection of single track minds you're likely to find. No feel for nuances, no discernment, let alone fine discernment...."

"Professor," Napoleon said warningly.

Tertunian came back to the subject and his salad. "So he couldn't believe our unglamorous, almost asexual Mara could possibly be it. He forgot the computer chose her precisely because of what she was, not what she could be turned into. He tried turning her into what he thought you'd find irresistible. Changed her hair, put her into those flimsy things and high heels that were supposed to be sexy -- why, the poor woman almost forgot how to move. So there went the first, immediate impression." He paused to consider a cherry tomato then plopped it whole into his mouth, and continued around it, "If he had just let her walk in, with the looks nature gave her, in her sensible clothes, white-lab coat and heavy glasses...." He trailed off as the waiter brought Napoleon's coffee and his own entree.

"I hate to break this to you," Napoleon said after the waiter had left, "but I do not have a fetish for white coats and glasses."

"Don't be as dense as Longolius. They weren't supposed to appeal to your gonads. What was essential, you see, was trust at first sight, to lead into love in short order."

Maybe he should stop taking this personally and be entertained by its amusement value. "Professor, you'd fare better if you took this act on the road. I know there's one born every minute, but this time you've got the wrong customer."

"Oh dear, I do so hate to belabor the obvious." He eyed his veal cutlet critically, seemed to find it satisfactory and returned his attention to the agent. "But all right, let's try a little word association."

"Let's not." UNCLE required him to go through psychoanalysis annually and in the aftermath of the more harrowing missions. He barely tolerated it those times. No way would he humor this tin-plated Freudian disciple. He set his jaw stubbornly and leaned back to cross his arms.

"No need to get defensive," Tertunian good-naturedly chided. "Don't respond if you don't want to." He gave his attention to cutting his meat in neat, precise squares. "Lab coat."

Scientist, Napoleon's mind promptly said to itself

"Glasses."

Eyes..

"Black rimmed glasses."

Blue eyes.

"Trust."

Partner.

"Blond."

Illya -

Oh.

"Now wait a minute," Napoleon started to object.

"But you had forgotten all about him, you're about to say." Tertunian abandoned his preoccupation with the food and suddenly the fatuous bonhomie of the man also vanished. "Yes, I do know the course of your thoughts. It's what I do, and very well I might add. I won't lecture you on the differences between the conscious and the subconscious and the neurological coding patterns of responses engendered by each. Frankly, it'll go over your head. I'll illustrate instead. If you were fast asleep and I woke you by shaking you...."

"I wouldn't advise it," Napoleon snapped. It was something he always had to warn his bed partners about. Then he remembered Illya had awakened him unceremoniously on many an occasion without activating his defensive reflexes.

"You see, the subconscious knows and it doesn't forget," Tertunian summed it up, infuriatingly confident in tracking down Solo's thoughts.

Napoleon decided it was about time to bring the man down a few well-deserved notches. "Impressive," he pronounced, "as far as it goes. The fact is, whatever pre-conditioned responses you thought you were hooking into to get me to trust, in the final analysis," he smiled, all teeth, "it was a wasted effort. I didn't fall in love with Mara."Felt a compulsion to love her, he had to admit to himself, but in the end, no, he hadn't gone that extra step into actual love.

"Of course not. That would've been predicable too, but I didn't know anything about you at the time. All the data I had to go by had been compiled by THRUSH. Now I realize that while it wasn't inaccurate or incomplete, it lacked...insight. At the time, I didn't know we were being redundant."

Huh? "I beg your pardon?"

Tertunian looked at him long and hard as if trying to decide something. He seemed to decide to go back to his earlier attitude. He picked up his fork and regarded his plate of food like a long neglected pleasure that couldn't be put off another instant. He speared a chunk of meat and spoke to it. "No sense offering a tempting morsel to a man who's already got his own feast laid out in front of him."

Expertly led down the path of correlations, Napoleon's mind made one more connection -- and stared at it, dumbfounded. Ridiculous, absurd, rubbish, stuff and nonsense -- and there.

Tertunian gestured dismissively with the loaded fork. "And the Mask Club certainly lays out a great feast," he said conversationally. "I'd like to go back to my repast. So relax, Mr. Solo, whatever manipulations were practiced on you, you were stronger than them. You have your status quo back, after all. Always a comforting and reassuring state. Why don't you go indulge in it and let me peacefully indulge my gluttony."

Go, a well-honed instinct also commanded. Always careful to heed it, Solo did exactly that, without any further ado. Escapes came naturally to him.

Ridiculous, ludicrous, preposterous -- and still there.

Some escapes were simpler than others.

***

He went to his office and found Illya there. "What do you want?" he also found himself harshly demanding.

Illya lifted an eyebrow as well as a dossier. "I brought the report on Angola. Do I assume this is a bad time?"

"No, no," Napoleon hurried to cover up, unable to decide what unsettled him more, his partner's presence at the moment, or his own unexpectedly hostile reaction to it. "You surprised me, that's all. I know how hard it is to pry you loose from the labs."

Illya grimaced. "To tell the truth, I was evicted. I think I took apart one gadget too many," he confessed woefully.

Peripherally, Napoleon knew he wasn't behaving normally. He should've been amused, thinking of Illya's propensity for becoming high-falutingly scientific over complicated theories, but turning into a nosy little boy with mechanical objects. Amusement wasn't within his grasp at the moment, though. What was wrong with him? That particular innuendo had been around a long time without bothering him in the slightest.

But not like this, he thought. Not with this implication. Prurient speculations on what he chose to do with his body mattered to him not at all. His emotions were a different -- sacrosanct! -- matter.

'Like Pavlov's dogs,' Tertunian had said. Leashed and trained. Habituated and unaware of it?

Like hell!

Illya tilted his head warily at Solo's silence. "I think I'd best leave it at one eviction per day." He headed for the door.

"lllya," Napoleon stopped him. "Just a minute." He didn't want to know, no way did he want to know, but just as imperatively, he didn't want to go on wondering, speculating in a vacuum. "What did Tertunian tell you?"

The Russian turned slowly. "Everything Tertunian told me, you were there to hear."

"I don't mean during the interrogations. About Mara?"

"I didn't talk to him about Mara."

"Then how did you know about his machinations?"

Illya came back to the desk, opened the drawer Napoleon swept files into when too many of them piled on the top, and pulled one out after a quick search. "From the report he submitted to Waverly."

Oh, God. Napoleon snatched away the dossier and paged through it carefully. It was just a dry recounting of facts, that was all, no gratuitous psychoanalysis, no innuendoes to strike a chord even in somebody recently sensitized to them, let alone for the oblivious. Like Waverly. Or, thank heaven and all its saints, Illya. He sank into his chair with relief. "This was here all the time?"

"The incident was part of an Enforcement mission. Where else did you expect it to be?"

A small inner voice asked if the tree had not fallen in the forest because nobody had heard it fall, but he was too busy feeling reprieved to pay it any attention. He only wished he had gotten his own answers from the report as well. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, trying not to sound plaintive. "I could've just read this instead of wasting my time with that pompous voyeur." He tossed the file back into the drawer. "Oh, well, c'est la vie."

"Non, mon homme," Illya's whisper was unexpectedly in his ear, a soft confidant, first making him shiver then flush. "C'est la guerre." As suddenly as he had closed in, Illya distanced himself "Guerre a outrance."

For what seemed like an eternity, he could only stare at his partner, feeling like the ground had been yanked out from under him. Then he found himself asking, without any conscious volition, "It must be a battle?"

"Naturally -- 'natura non facit saltum."

"You know damned well I don't speak Latin."

"Sorry. 'Nature makes no leap."

He felt like a third party, eavesdropping on a conversation he couldn't comprehend, but someone kept speaking out of his mouth. "Nature?"

"In this case, yours. It has to run its course. You're a fighter, Napoleon. You'll fight it."

"Guerre a outrance'? To the uttermost?"

A shrug. "It isn't in you to concede." lllya picked up a pencil from the desk, turned it in his hand. "The wiser move would've been to stay silent and not give you an adversary. Giving the fighter a contender assures the fight. But I have never knowingly deceived you." He smiled softly into the mid-distance. "Neither, I admit, is it in me to make it easier on you."

"And your nature?"

Illya carefully, as if it -- or he -- were fragile, replaced the pencil. "Maybe it finally got tired of being an afterthought to yours." He approached the door, but turned before leaving. For just that instant, he looked unbearably sad. "Or maybe it got desperate enough to heed the poet -- 'Can tyrants but by tyrants conquered be?'"

With that, he was gone.

Oh, hell....

And Napoleon was reminded of another poet's words. 'Iron tears down Pluto's cheek/Made Hell grant what love did seek.'

Damn.