Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise is mine. Of course.
Illya and I had only been back from Paris for a week. He was still a little irritable with me for having betrayed him to Mr Waverly, and left him alone with the predatory Madame Grushenka, although, to be honest, I think he had reveled in the chance to speak a little in his mother tongue and enjoy the company of someone who shared vaguely the same cultural upbringing. It is possible that actually, it was more my teasing him, calling him pussycat, showing him up, that had annoyed him, but honestly, he was so deliciously sparkling in Paris, so brilliant, so helpful, that I couldn't help pulling him up on his omission—it's my job, after all. Wouldn't want him to know how much I really appreciated what he had done.
I went into work on the Thursday, looking forward, if that's the term, to a day of dull paperwork, with my partner popping in and out to moan; so frankly it was a relief when I was sent by the excessively pretty new girl at the front desk, straight to Mr Waverly.
By the time he had finished telling me what was going on, my head was spinning with the possibilities. He jabbed the air with his pen, pointing his words to me.
'This is no joke, Mr Solo. The stability of the entire world is at stake. Every organization fighting for peace or against it has been threatened.'
'So, let me get this straight, sir, this complex, which we thought was just a regional headquarters for the training of THRUSH agents...'
'Turns out not even to belong to THRUSH. They're as worried as we are, from the information we've received. Well, tonight, the whole thing is being blown apart. We've co-operated so far with a number of other organizations, among them, MI5 and the CIA, but it is clear that nobody can be trusted in this matter. You must understand that when you go in. There is a mole, or moles within UNCLE, who have been supplying the information these people have collected on us. They may well be in there, trying to throw you off the scent, or dispose of you. There are files in that building of a sensitive nature—everything we have worked for in the last twelve months, and likewise for all these other agencies, both good and bad.'
'They have data on everyone stored in there. Wowee.' I couldn't help showing my shock as I considered the implications. 'So, whoever gets in there first has full pickings on everybody else?'
Mr Waverly gave me the gimlet eye—the one that makes you sit up and pay attention. I didn't need it. This was too big to take lightly. He nodded gravely at me.
'Precisely. You will go in alone and unidentified—no card, no communicator. You will be disguised as heavily as it is within our power to do. Your own mother mustn't recognize you. There may, or may not be other UNCLE agents in there with you, you will not know. Even I do not know what action is being taken by the other Section One chiefs, we thought it better to keep all information strictly need-to-know. What I can guarantee is that you will run up against members of other agencies who will want your share of the information, or want you dead. You must make every effort not only to collect or destroy the files, but also to question anybody you meet and try to ascertain who sent them and what they have acquired. It's the only way we can discover who has garnered what information.'
'When I went in the last time, sir, it was huge, I, ah, don't see how I can apprehend-'
'Well, you'll have to work quickly. Oh, and do make an effort to get rid of that little verbal tic of yours. It's far too telling.'
'Ah, verbal tic, sir?'
'Exactly. That one.' I accepted his point and the file he span round to me on the table. 'Overall, it will have to be a heavy disguise, Mr Solo. These people know you.'
'In which case, I'm happy to do this, sir, but surely somebody else...?' I know my limitations, I wouldn't be much of an agent if I didn't, and...well, when your serious, po-faced partner has been known to laugh out loud at your attempts at disguise, it tends to suggest it's a weak spot.
'I'm afraid not, Mr Solo, it must be someone with a good knowledge of the interior of that complex. Only you and Mr Kuryakin have that first-hand knowledge.'
'Uh, sir, you know I can do characters well enough, but for actual disguise, Illya's much more-'
'Mr Kuryakin is already on assignment.'
That surprised me: as his partner, if not as CEA, I usually know when he's landed an assignment without me, even if I'm not privy to what it is. 'Really? I didn't hear-'
'No, he was only assigned this morning. The assignment was given on the basis of who was available. Mr Kuryakin was already in the laboratories.'
'He would be,' I muttered under my breath; trust him to be working down in those stuffy, windowless rooms when there's no real call for it. 'Is he still in the labs?' I asked aloud.
'Good heavens, no! He's in orientation now, where you should be. Report to room eighteen. I want you out of the building by four o'clock.'
I wondered whether to ask where Illya had been sent, but I saw Waverly's raised eyebrow, and I decided it would be more prudent not to. Checking up on other agents' assignments isn't encouraged in UNCLE, it only leads to classified information leaking out and even more gossip than we're already handling. I got up and did my best to act casual, when really I wanted to pin the Old Man down and force him to tell me where Illya was. It's not that I want to keep tabs on him or anything like that, it's just that I feel better if I can visualize his situation a little, I suppose it's a substitute for actually watching his physical back. 'I'll, ah, be getting along then. Room eighteen?'
Mr Waverly grunted me out and I walked along the corridor wishing I'd had the nerve to ask him. Still, I consoled myself with the fact that if Illya was doing his orientation, I'd probably bump into him at some point before I left.
I felt much better when I entered room eighteen and saw Mandy waiting for me. I'd taken her out for dinner only a couple of weeks before and she was still dining out on it with the rest of the girls in her department. I gave her my best smile, I needed a pleasant orientation, given its complexity.
'Mandy, my dear, I hope you're ready for me.' She smiled back and started to loosen my tie, lingering her fingers for a moment on the skin of my neck. 'I ought to warn you, I haven't had a chance to read my character yet. This was rather a quick one.'
She took my tie away and helped me off with my jacket. 'Never mind, Napoleon, you can read it while I set up for you.'
I sat on the couch and opened the file while she bustled about, turning dials and adjusting antennae.
'You, ah, haven't had Illya through here, have you?' I asked casually.
'No.' She placed the headphones over my ears, holding them away while she spoke. 'I think he was under Sandy.'
'Really?' I was disappointed—she wouldn't know anything about his affair in that case. But under Sandy? The obvious double entendre was laughable when applied to Illya. I mean, I have seen him being vaguely flirtatious with one or two women, but he tends to run scared if it gets serious, and as for actually getting to the point of being under one of them... I can't imagine it. Can't imagine him in bed with anyone, when I think about it, which, please understand, I don't do, as a rule. I raised the obligatory eyebrow and started to read, while she continued to fuss around me pleasantly.
Six hours later, after some intensive reading and having been mauled about by the ladies and gentlemen of the experimental putty department, I was not only fully versed in my character, but had acquired new teeth, hair, facial features and mannerisms, and had spent an hour being drilled in new speech patterns by a dragon of a coach who didn't seem to understand that false teeth don't make manipulating one's own mouth any easier. I trudged back to my office, trying out my new gait, and wishing, as always, that the traditional night-raid black clothes fitted me as well as my usual outfits.
I stopped in at the locker rooms on the way out, primarily to stow my own clothes and effects, but also to take a look in the mirror. I was now sandy-haired and slightly buck-toothed. In actual fact, the effect wasn't too bad. I've certainly looked worse in the name of espionage, but I wouldn't have said I came anywhere near the Napoleon Solo scratch line.
'Well, Mr Anton Milne, you'd better be as effective as you're supposed to be.' I pulled the dark cap over my fair hair and winked at myself. It didn't improve matters, so I turned my back on the image and strode out of Del Floria's six minutes later, fully in character and utterly unconcerned about the appearance I gave to the world.
I entered the building on the ground floor, through an open window at the back. Somebody had been in this way before me, there were muddy footprints on the bench under the window. Careless of them.
I was feeling off kilter. I had no idea who would be in the building. It could be an enemy, or a usually trusted friendly agent opposite me, and there would be no way of knowing which it was, so unless I set about incapacitating every person I met without actually killing them, I was going to leave some of the bad guys to get away with the papers, just so the good guys could walk free. I didn't much like it. Much better, in a way, to give up as lost all the information I could potentially pick up regarding our adversaries, and just blow up the lot and get out. I smirked to myself: that's Illya's usual answer to everything—explosive-happy. I wondered vaguely whether Illya would be involved with this. Mr Waverly had indicated that anyone could be sent, but we wouldn't know who the others were; something about maintaining almost perfect secrecy and not allowing for any inadvertent disclosures if any of them were captured. I frowned as I crept down the silent corridors. Didn't look like there was anyone left in here anyway—not of the usual staff. Plenty of outsiders like me maybe, but the plans were, of necessity, too widely known amongst the varied ranks of those involved in this little party. The inmates had cleared out, though it seemed they had not had the chance to take much with them. I saw movement at the end of the corridor and hurried through the shadows to investigate. Passing the open door of an office, my eye was caught by the top folder on a pile on the desk. The UNCLE logo poked out from under a corner. I grabbed the folder and the two under it and stashed it in my backpack, quickly scanning the desk for anything else of use, before slipping back out in pursuit of whoever was sharing the darkness with me.
Well, the enemy as it had been when I was here last were not about to recognise me. I hoped I would meet at least one member of the other agencies wandering round the building—preferably one I knew—so that this ludicrous disguise would not be completely wasted. I turned my mind back to my previous visit, recalled the layout of the building, the likely usage of the rooms; and headed down, to the basements.
I could feel the telltale shiver of being followed playing on the back of my neck. I started to move more quickly, trying to shake him, but he was tenacious. The basement rooms had been cleared of their most apparent contents, though I had no doubt I'd find something if I had the time to go through everything. However, with my pursuer closing on me, and the bundle of UNCLE files I had already purloined from the reception office, I was feeling less and less inclined to look for more.
I slipped into a room in the middle of the run of the corridor. I had to work fast—I didn't want to get trapped in there and have to fight my way out. Somehow, for this, where we were all potentially allies, I didn't want to be in the position of having to kill someone unfortunate enough to corner me.
I tore at my belt pack, yanking out the explosives, packing them around the filing cabinets, ripping the fuse wire from the edge of the belt, pushing it into place and running it back just far enough to give me a decent start. It would be hit or miss for whoever was trailing me, but that was fate, not me. I lit the fuse and belted down the corridor, charging up the metal staircase at the end, slamming into the door, which opened, letting me fall through onto the walkway on the other side. I scrambled to my feet, heard the man's footsteps behind me, hitting the stairs at a run. No doubt, he realised that my running from that room was a clue to what I had just done. I sprinted for the next staircase, my heart thumping against my ribcage. As I reached the base of the stairs, the building rocked, throwing me to the floor. I heard the yell of the agent following me he hadn't quite made it through the door, and must have felt far more of the blast. I waited for a moment to see whether the roof would fall on me, then got up and pulled myself up the stairs.
I climbed to the third level, cursing the people who had decided on a building with so many floors. There was nothing on these upper levels but conference rooms, rest rooms and empty storage, I had ascertained this much earlier; but the front of the building was crawling with the support teams of the various agencies trying to shut their own stable doors after their horses had been stolen, and I wasn't convinced that all of them would play fair. Below me, the building had stopped shaking from my explosives, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction. Well, I may not have found much to take away with me, but at least no-one else would get their hands on it, and if I was captured, they would not find me carrying anything enlightening. Perhaps if I could make the roof, there would be some sort of escape ladder I could descend more inconspicuously.
There were other agents moving around, I could hear them, their feet tapping softly on the metal. I wished I knew just who was in here. THRUSH would have its representatives, and no doubt any number of other sinister organisations currently in this building would be glad to get their hands on the UNCLE files, or even me. For once, I found myself ridiculously glad that I was well disguised—far too many of our enemies have good reason to remember my face, and most of them bear grudges with professional tenacity.
A shot rang out somewhere among the maze of gantries and ladders, and I threw myself to the ground, pressing my face to the freezing metal, gun already in my hand. It seemed that it had not been directed at me—the sounds came from one level down. I got gingerly to my feet, thinking that keeping moving might keep me alive long enough to get out, and ran silently up the next staircase.
I heard footsteps from a side gantry, coming rapidly towards me, though I noted a slight hesitancy in every other step, a limp or a wound maybe. I squatted down, but there was no escape: to either side of me, the corridor stretched, unturning. I unholstered my gun, levelling it at the approaching knees. The figure raised its hands and stopped ten yards away.
'You're not planning on using that on me?' the man asked, a thick Spanish accent making the words indistinct and hesitant.
'I don't know. It depends what you plan on doing.'
'I plan on getting out. I have just saw the files go up in flames. There is nothing to make me to stay.'
I lowered my gun, though I kept it ready in my hand. I got to my feet, keeping my eyes on the man's hands. 'Who are you working for?' He looked uncomfortable and shuffled his feet, scraping them back and forth on the floor. He flicked dark hair out of his eyes with a nervous shake of his head before he answered.
'I can't tell you. You understand, sure?'
'Of course. Then we're even. I can't possibly tell you either, so... Do you feel inclined to trust me?'
'Perhaps, depend what you want.'
'Uh huh. Only I don't really have time to keep my eyes on the opposition, whoever it is, find a way out, and fight you at the same time.' I flicked my eyes away from him briefly, scanning back and forth along the corridor, but keeping my gun ready.
'Okay,' the man replied, his accent turning it into a two-and-a-half syllable word, where the 'y' was a major player, 'You want I turn my back, keep my hands in the air and walk away slow?'
I shook my head. 'What's the point? Presuming you're here for the same reason I am, that's all over for both of us. I just want to get out of here in one piece, and having an extra pair of eyes that I can keep my eye on might be a good plan.'
The man nodded. 'You don' care who I am? I could be your sworn enemy.'
I nodded, acceding the point. 'Well, I'll admit to being intrigued. What country do you work for?'
'I told you, I can't say.'
I shrugged. 'Hmm. It was worth a try. Name?'
'Juan,' he said, pulling himself up to his full height and staring me straight in the eye.
'That your real name?
'As real as you're going to get.' He smiled rather sweetly at me, then tilted his head to the side, frowning slightly. 'You?'
'Your real name?'
'As far as you're concerned, yes.' I grinned back. 'Come on then. I have a burning desire to get out of here and find a hot shower, a change of clothes and a bed, with or without company.'
'Really?' Juan raised an eyebrow. 'I wan' food. Raiding gives me hunger.'
'You should meet a friend of mine, you'd get along famously,' I said, thinking of Illya and his insatiable appetite. I gestured with my empty hand for Juan to go ahead of me, then had a thought. 'Are you armed?'
'Of course. Is in my holster. Do not make me give it up. Is too dangerous. I do up my jacket, is out of reach?'
I nodded, he had a point. 'Go on then.'
He pulled his jacket tightly about him and did it up to the neck, preventing himself from being able to access his weapon. He shrugged, 'Okay?'
'Okay. Go on.'
For a long time we passed only plain walls as we walked. Then Juan stopped, leaning into a niche containing some piece of equipment.
'What is that in there?' I asked, not really expecting an answer.
'Computer terminal. Is systems for the whole building I think. Probably had access, via a password, to the main computer banks, before they were...disassembled.'
'Well, you never know what information might have become inadvertently stored on there. I think I'll take it with me, just to be on the safe side.' I reached past Juan into the cubby hole, pulling at the computer, yanking it from its mounting, ripping the wires out of the wall. In an instant, a siren wailed and heavy steel shutters slammed down about ten yards from us in each direction, sealing us into a smooth stretch of corridor, featureless, except for the ruined computer access point. I felt foolish, should have guessed there would be some sort of protection on it. I sighed, running a hand through my hair, then looked at Juan, who was looking quite exasperated.
'You didn' disable the lock-down system before you did that, no?' he asked. Ah, a man with a talent for pointing up the damned obvious. 'Total automatic shutdown. Congratulations.'
'Oh, good. Nice of you to mention it before I did that.' I was peeved and didn't mind showing it. 'Any way out?'
'No. Not from here.' He leapt at me suddenly, trying to wrestle the terminal away from me. I threw it behind me to leave myself free to grab him.
'So, you were after this.' I slammed him against the wall. 'I knew there was something odd about you.' I wrestled him to the ground, pinning his arms above his head. The man writhed like a demon. 'Who are you?' I asked, screwing up his collar in my fist and avoiding the buffetting of his flailing legs, resting my full weight on him as one lashing foot narrowly missed my groin. 'Uh-uh, no you don't...' I tried to pin him more securely, but lost my grip—this man was good. I found myself rolled to the side, flat on my back with a strong forearm across my throat. I paused, took my time to gauge his balance, and threw him, tipping him back, wrapping my legs around his. We ended up locked in stalemate, on our sides. He laughed, gave me a sheepish sort of look and spoke, inches from my face.
'Sorry, is my duty to try, yes? Anyway, I can' go anywhere, can I? Not while we trapped here.'
I let go of him slowly. It was true. We could have that fight when the doors released. 'How long?' I asked.
'Does it matter? I completed my assignment. You still have loose ends?'
'No. I just have better things to do than sit here for eight hours. Hell it's cold—why did it have to be an unheated zone?' I could already feel the heat acquired during my flight from the basements starting to leave me as we sat down on the metal floor.
He looked at him through appraising eyes. 'I trusted you. You trust me? Come share some body heat. I don' wan' to freeze to death.'
He had a point. I scooted over and wedged myself up against Juan's flank. That dark little man gave off heat like a stoked boiler and I shuffled closer, half wishing it was Illya. Not that I want to snuggle up to my partner, particularly, but it puts the mind more at rest snuggling up to your partner, rather than an unknown quantity.
'Little furnace, aren't you?' I tried by way of chit-chat. He watched me through hooded eyes and shrugged, digging his muscular shoulder more closely into mine.
I considered what I should really do. By the book, I should not trust the man, but I felt comfortable with him, and I'll play gut instinct above the regulations any day. I took a deep breath. 'Okay, keep me warm and I'll give you a hand to get out of here later. Do you have anyone waiting for you out there?'
'Huh?' He seemed momentarily puzzled by the question. I clarified,
'Oh.' He seemed relieved. 'I don' know. Unless... my masters are sometimes...oh, what is that word? Oh, well, they like to check I'm safe. Ow!' He pulled his arm out from in between us and started to rub the cramp out of it. I watched him, feeling more and more fond of this little Hispanic man. There was something ferocious, yet still something comfortably reassuring about him. I felt the stirring of an old lust fire up in my groin and cursed myself for it. I never gave in to that urge anymore. Too dangerous. I hadn't even acknowledged the possibility that it was still a part of me for years. Had managed not even to look at another man that way—not when most of the men I know are colleagues—and if you start letting yourself think like that, you're on the slippery slope to rejection and the old heave-ho.
Juan, on the other hand—he was no colleague. In all probability, we'd never see each other again. If I were to let it slip that I was interested... Something about the way Juan was sitting, the way he was talking, his whole manner, pushed all the right, subtle, buttons. Discreet, yes, but possibly interested. The way his eyes fixed on mine from time to time, then slid sensuously down my body...
I coughed and crossed my lower legs.
Besides, it never ceases to amaze me just how much information you can get out of an under-trained person when their mind is addled by sex, and I needed to find out just who Juan was working for. I steeled myself and spoke in the most casual voice I could muster with that godawful phoney accent and the false teeth cluttering up my mouth.
'Looks like we're here for the night, huh? Look,' I fought back a reflexive ''ah'' and went on, 'I might be reading this wrong, but do you want to...make better use of our time?'
'Eight hours?' Juan said, apparently ignoring me. I backpedalled enough to think. I could do this. I knew that. I've had enough practice at various times. Men, women, it's all the same; slightly different buttons to push, but if you know what you're doing, you can slip into it easily enough, after all, I know what I like when I'm being seduced. Why should it be different for any other man?
'Eight hours,' he repeated thoughtfully. 'What did you have in mind? he asked, a hint of seductiveness creeping into his voice. He snuggled into my side, resting a hand on my front. I glanced down at the hand, and a smile jumped to my lips—that made things a helluva lot easier. No misunderstandings here. I turned my head to look at Juan and was arrested by the sharp look, cunning and knowing, but strangely comforting. Big, rich brown eyes sucked me in and I leaned forward, smiling, and wishing I could get rid of the false teeth that suddenly felt so big and ungainly in my mouth. I ran a hand lightly through his soft, dark hair and held it there, hoping that cultural differences had not made me misread an invitation.
Clearly, I had not been mistaken. Juan took hold of my finger, lingering at his temple, and sucked its filthy tip into his mouth: cordite, plastic explosives and metal and grease. He licked his lips, 'You set the explosives in the basement?'
'Uh huh,' I replied.
'You nearly killed me!' he scolded, but he was grinning. I grinned back. Whoever this man was, he played the game much the same way we did—respect the danger, but laugh at it when it's passed, and ignore the fact that Death is always riding shotgun in your car or the other guy's.
'You owe me an apology. You spoke of a way to pass the time? You wan' explain more?' he asked, narrowing his eyes at me and running a stiff finger raggedly down my chest.
I looked down at the finger. 'Nope. Can you think of a better way to pass the time?' I asked. Juan flicked his eyes open and grinned,
'Good way to keep warm, too.' He got to his knees, swinging one across my legs, straddling me. He leant forwards, slipping a hand down to undo the button at my waist. I stopped him. I know my standards aren't that high when it comes to casual flings, but I like a bit of softer foreplay before I head inside people's underwear. I grabbed his wrist.
'Hey! We've got eight hours to fill here. I don't know about you, but I like to be formally introduced before I start this sort of thing, and I wouldn't mind pretending this is more than a fumble in a corridor, hmm? I should point out, I don't do this with anyone I'm not allowed to kiss.' Never understood the people who say kissing has no place in one-night stands and such like. If I'm going to get intimate with anyone, I'm damned well going to enjoy it, and I enjoy kissing. Otherwise they've got blow-up dolls you can get to do much the same job, and that's not something I've ever been into.
Juan sat back, perching on my thighs. 'If you like. My name is Juan Bici, of very secret origins.' He grinned.
I smiled back. 'Uh huh. I'm Anton Milne, likewise. Now about the other thing...'
Juan slipped a hand round the back of my head, and pulled me in, pressing his lips to mine and letting his eyes slide closed.
Trusting... the thought wandered through my mind. I usually keep my eyes open unless I'm pretty sure about my personal safety. On the other hand, the kiss was good, exciting even. I allowed myself to sink into it and let my hands roam over his shoulders, sliding around his neck and smoothing the fine hair at the base of his skull. I felt his breathing quicken and his hand brush across the front of my pants: and impatient.
Juan's lips were hungry and pliant. I was surprised by the bolt of desire that shot through me as he shifted in my lap and ran a hand through my hair. I sent up a silent thank-you to the technicians in Disguise who had decided that dying my hair and leaving it without my usual neat Brylcreem would be more effective than a wig. Juan's tongue flicked across my teeth, tangling with my tongue.
The walls and floor were ice-cold metal, freezing wherever I touched them, so I pushed away from the wall, slipping my arms up under Juan's black jacket and turtleneck, pushing against the restraining bands of his shoulder-holster as I went. I ran my hands up and down his back, enjoying the feel of firm muscle, until I slipped them down to his side and he winced, a gasped intake of breath confirming what my fingers were telling me.
I pulled away, lifted his shirt to take a look. A sickle-shaped crescent wound carved a flap of flesh out of his side; must have stung like hell.
'That ought to have stitches,' I said, 'How did you get it?'
He shrugged. 'Caught the edge of the explosion. Was too slow to get away.' His hands were already on the move again, scratching trails up and down my back, then sliding down under my waistband, seeking in vain to get further than my seated posture allowed. Clearly, he thought it was not worth worrying about.
We spent a while fighting for supremacy, fighting for the lead in our uncertainty over our status with regard to each other. There's another reason to prefer playing with people whose relationship to you in the grand scheme of things is clear: at least you know your rights in bed, even if you don't get them. Juan gasped as I managed to get a hand into the front of his underpants, cupping him and squeezing firmly. The look on his face sent a charge through me, making my erection strain and throb. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to regain control. No-one had done this to me for so long. I date a lot of women, take far more than I really should to bed, and I perform just fine, but it's rare that one of them can get under my skin like that. Between Juan's roving hands, his distinctive, arousing kissing, and his charming, disarming expression, I was already rocketing towards the verge of climax, and he had barely touched any really noteworthy portion of my anatomy.
I opened my eyes, having pulled myself back a little. I had thought before that he looked quite small, but it was an illusion, the crouching gait he had adopted in his approach, the cut of his clothes and the dark corridor had concealed the bulk of his muscular shoulders and stomach. He pressed himself up against me, fitting himself comfortably against my own torso.
'I thought you wanted go slow?'
'I did, but I'm...' I'm sure my flushed face and rapid breathing gave away the problem more clearly than I had intended. I swallowed and shrugged. I had not expected to react this strongly. So shoot me. It was a long time since I had had a man, and only twice that I'd done it for work. Men are generally less useful in that way, largely because they tend not to want to talk afterwards as much as women, and they are more likely to acknowledge that they are being used. Juan, presumably, knew he was (in theory, at least,) being used, but somehow it didn't matter. He was hard, as hard as me—I could feel his erection through the fabric at his groin. The last time I had done this for work, it had been hard work; no pun whatsoever. I had felt nothing for the man, it had been all I could do to absent myself enough to work up a strong enough fantasy to maintain my erection long enough to fool him. I'd settled for giving a perfunctory blow job and being taken with some enthusiasm, but little expertise. It hadn't gotten me anywhere, I had leaned nothing, and I'd left feeling miserable and faintly sore.
This time was different, though. There was something about Juan that just hit the spot. Something about that mouth, which could change from a frown to an infectious smile in a moment. And he was compact and wiry and his hands looked strong and potentially skillful. Not cuddly exactly, but huggable, and I like huggable. I ruffled his hair again, I was beginning to find the softness of it addictive, the texture sent blood coursing down to my groin, making me lightheaded. I wondered vaguely what made this dark little man so instantly attractive, but dismissed it as not worth worrying about. At least this time it would be easy to perform, a pleasure in fact.
'Do this often?' he asked, moving down to suck at my neck, biting gently. I let him, though something rational at the back of my head wanted to scream ''Danger!'' I was past caring. After all, he couldn't go anywhere any more than I could, and if he'd wanted to kill me, there were quicker, easier ways than biting my head off.
I increased my pressure on the erection swelling in his pants and replied, 'When it's to my advantage, but, uh, rarely so pleasurably.'
He grinned and nipped at my nose. 'Stand up!' he said suddenly, shuffling back and struggling to stand, pulling me up with him—he was incredibly strong and I staggered back as I got to my feet. Juan was after me in seconds, pressing me back hard against the wall and deftly opening my fly, sliding his fingers inside to pull my erection out of its painful confinement.
I tried to push him away far enough to get a grip on him, but he waggled a finger at me. 'Keep still!' Instead, he sank to his knees, licking a single stroke around my balls. Desire flashed through me as he took me into his mouth, working his tongue expertly against my uncomfortably engorged penis. I'm ashamed to say I groaned and staggered back against the freezing wall, additionally stunned by the fact that he managed to stay with me, not even nicking me with his teeth, and also by the fact that even the shock of cold metal, though I registered it vaguely in the back of my mind, couldn't distract me. Juan's hands were at my waist, pushing up under my shirt again to flick up and down my ribs, making me catch my breath as they caught on each bone and muscle. I looked down at the crown of chestnut hair bobbing rhythmically back and forth and felt my orgasm building way too quickly, my legs were already fading out of importance, sensation and hunger were focusing inside me, three or four inches from Juan's nose. I coughed, tried to warn him, but I didn't have the words left and I came in his mouth, one palm flattened down against the wall, the other twisted in his hair, making him wince and shake his head to release it as I started to come back down.
I took a moment to regain my equilibrium, before pulling Juan to his feet, dragging him in for a kiss, already fumbling at his crotch again, trying to get at the firm evidence of his arousal, which showed blatantly in his glazed eyes and slack bottom lip.
He spoke through the edges of the kiss, his words indistinct. 'You always kiss like this when is just work?'
'Almost like this,' I breathed, kicking myself inside for being so obvious. 'I like kissing.'
'Is clear.' Then he shut up and let me continue doing what I flatter myself I do best. I released his straining erection and worked it, gently at first, rubbing my rough thumb-tip over the head, making him tip his head down, away from the kiss to catch his breath, biting at my shoulder as I gave his balls a not-so-playful swipe, and swept him away with a sudden increase in the tempo of my fist around him, pulling him along to a grunting, clinging climax, before tucking him away before the cold made itself felt too keenly. We sank to the floor, leaning on each others' shoulders.
He laughed, 'This is better than hanging around pointing our guns at each other, yes?'
I nodded, letting him see the smile on my face that I should have kept hidden, because it was too genuine. I tipped my head back against the wall to enjoy the lassitude creeping over me. I yawned and realised that I ought to ask some of the questions that had been the so-say primary reason for doing this. I was no longer all that interested, but Juan would have to go in my report, and there is something about submitting a report to Waverly that reads: ''Met possible enemy agent inside building. Had sex as per section eight-three-four. No useful information requested.'' that makes my skin crawl. I turned my head to look at my drowsy-looking companion.
'Do they treat you well? Your organisation?' I asked, holding on tightly to him to keep warm, feeling his chest rise and fall against mine.
'Mm?' Juan's feathery hair was mussed across his forehead and he gazed up through it at me. 'Yes, very good. So, as far as they can.'
'Where are you based?'
'Na. No deal.' he grinned and prodded me in the ribs. I shrugged and returned to staring at the ceiling, trying to think of a new approach.
'Tell me about yourself. Okay, scratch the details, give me the vague stuff.'
'Na. Am too tired, give too much away when I can't think good.'
I gave up. Well. I'd tried, and I could say as much in my report: ''Enemy agent uncooperative. Questioning under section eight-three-four failed.'' Mr Waverly would understand, though I'd have to endure the raised eyebrow and the implied suggestion that if Napoleon Solo was really trying, we could be signing peace treaties with every unfriendly nation on Earth by now. Oh well, my reputation can well withstand one or two failures in that department, especially when the opposition is the wrong shape, as it were. Wish it had been the wrong shape.
The automatic shut-down finally timed out and the metal doors whooshed up, leaving the exits clear. We staggered to our feet, with me holding the computer terminal under my arm, and I instantly regretted just how long I'd dozed in Juan's arms on that cold floor. I was stiff all over, and not like that. I could barely move, but then, neither could he, and we kind of supported each other all the way out, up the stairs to the roof and down the fire escapes on the back of the building, where only a couple of easily evaded stragglers were lurking. It was interesting, staggering along on ice-cold legs with my arm around his shoulders, and his around mine, how easily we fit each other. If I hadn't had Illya waiting for me back at Headquarters; if I hadn't already had the best partner anyone could wish for, I would have been seriously considering finding a way to get this guy, whoever he was, to think about joining UNCLE, and grabbing him as my partner. Unethical and ill-advised as that would be. I had a thought—would you want to be partnered with someone you'd had sex with? I shrugged the query out of my mind. It was academic anyway. This guy was great, but he'd have to put in a thousand hours' work to get to anything approaching parity with Illya. Still, might be worth trying to get a tail on him, we could use someone like him... and I wouldn't mind seeing him around HQ from time to time...
I got back to Headquarters feeling wrung-out and irritable. I had lost Juan somewhere on the way out of the grounds. I was still limping across the field to the fence, waiting to regain full use of my lower limbs, and he had given my shoulders a squeeze, ducked out from under my arm and hared off across the field before I could even think about pinning a tail on him. He slipped into the hedge near the road, and that was the last I saw of him.
I had thought about heading straight home, but I knew the report would weigh heavy on me and I'd be lucky to get any sleep, and I had to hand in the computer and the lifted file, so I checked in at reception, put the acquired objects into the top level safe, reported them to Mr Waverly's secretary in case he wanted to take a look, and went to get cleaned up before I even tried to do any work. The specialists passed me along their little deconstructing conveyor belt, scrubbing and peeling and dabbing at me with god knows what chemicals, then running me through a brief session with the headphones to make sure I was clear of the personality programming—not that it had been too deep-seated—I hadn't really felt un-Napoleon at any point, only just able to access this other persona for the purposes of disguise. By the time they had finished, I looked like myself again, and I went to find some running water. The showers were blissfully hot after a night in the cold, and I took my time, letting the warm water ease out most of the residual stiffness, and wash away all traces of Juan and his skilled mouth. I couldn't wash him out of my head though. That dark face with its deep brown eyes and solid jaw kept flicking past my eyes whenever I closed them. Well, what do you expect when you sleep with people in the field?
It must have been around lunchtime. The showers started to fill up with people coming off physical training and some of the muckier jobs in the business. I was too tired and too stacked up with mixed emotions to start making chit-chat with anyone else. Anyway, I'd been in there far too long, my skin was starting to prune-up, so I got out, dressed from my locker, and went back to my office.
I think I had missed Illya. He must have returned from his assignment before me, because there was a note from him on my desk, reminding me to pay for both of us for the UNCLE February Ball. I shuddered—I had promised him I would pay for him the last time I'd leant on him for a few dollars to tide me over a cash-flow problem. Now my billfold was empty again—I do have the money, it's just I just forget to carry it... most of the time. Then a date catches me unawares... Hell, I can see the look on Illya's face just thinking about it. That amused look from a man who barely spends anything except on the cheap canteen food and the books and records he can't do without. I don't think, even after all this time, that he's quite gotten used to the idea of having money that he can just spend. So he lends it (or, to be fair to him, gives it, though I do pay it back eventually, in money or in kind) to me, and gives me that look that makes me feel about fifteen, asking my mother for money to buy something I know she doesn't think I should be buying at all. He does amused resignation so well it should be illegal. I rummaged in my desk and managed to come up with an assortment of coins that added up to nearly the right amount.
I sat back in my chair, drumming my fingers on the desk. Not enough, and the tickets were selling fast. The UNCLE balls seem to work on the premise that you have to be there, but there's not enough room for everybody, so better be quick. Illya had tried to duck out of this one, his first since joining us—he'd been in his last week at survival school last year, or rather, he'd long since passed out, but had stayed on to make three-quarters of the new intake respect him like hell around explosives, and privately hate his guts just a little bit, like you do when your instructor puts you through your paces like he did and doesn't let you go back to your nice warm dormitory until you've got perfect marks all along the line. Anyway, I'd explained to him that you didn't miss the February Ball unless you wanted your photo to go up on every notice-board in the place with entertaining little labels stuck to them suggesting that you were a cheapskate or a social outcast of various, colourful descriptions. He's still learning how to fit in, not that he needs to around me, but even in UNCLE, it can be tricky to get people to believe the best of a Section Two Russian.
So I explained about the scarcity of tickets, and he shrugged and told me he'd go, but I have to get the tickets. Then I found I had a date and nothing in my pockets to pay for it, and he handed me the money without a word, and I said I'd stand him the tickets, and now...
I gazed across at his desk, butted up hard against mine, because I'd rather look at the top of his head than the wall when I'm working, and remembered that he kept a bit of money tucked up under the edge of the footwell of his desk. Okay, so it was unworthy of me to steal it, but I'd have money later in the week, and it was better than going back on my promise. He knew I knew it was there, he'd told me it was, for some reason. I couldn't help wondering if it was for situations like this. Not that that excuses my taking advantage, but...
I went round to his side of the desk and fumbled around under the edge for the money. There it was: sandwiched between the frame and the top. I took what I needed and peeled a piece of paper from the top of his notepad. I scribbled an I.O.U. on it, wrapped it around the remaining bills and replaced them where I'd found them. I felt like a naughty schoolkid, but I had the money and I hurried down to Communications, where Sandy had the tickets in a tin box.
Of course, my trip down there cost me a few more minutes than it would have taken Illya, but I wasn't in the mood to chat, and I was soon back at my desk, the tickets in my pocket.
I wrote that report by the book. Usually I embellish a bit, give the girls in admin something to amuse them when they break the rules and glance through what they're supposed to be filing. I say that because, although I would never directly accuse any one of them of doing anything like that, I've noticed the odd little fact creep into one or two of their conversations over dinner, that they could not possibly have garnered from any other source. Anyway, this time, if they were going to get any juicy gossip out of it, they were going to have to work it out for themselves. They were getting all the events by their number in the rule-book. I don't think the girls are au fait with what you might call the grubbier end of the field regulations, so they'd have to be making a real effort to find out what I had done. Then I filled in the separate form for personnel, where you put all the details you did, or didn't, find out about your man (or woman). Among a slew of ''not known''s, I filled in his given name, with the appropriate notification that it was almost certainly a fake, and his basic appearance, with an additional note to the effect that I couldn't be sure he was not wearing some sort of prosthetics. It was so dimly lit in that corridor, and though nothing moved, the faint smells of hair dye, spirit gum and latex had lingered around us, and I don't know whether it all came from me or not.
When I was satisfied that I'd given all the information I could, I sealed up the folder, put the ''Eyes only'' stamp on it, and dropped it off with Mr Waverly's secretary. She told me he was in a meeting, but that I was not to leave the building in case I was being watched, and that I should go and get some sleep.
I headed to the bedrooms via the canteen, where I glanced round for Illya, but didn't see him. I picked up a sandwich and a few cookies to go, and treated myself to a hot chocolate to help me sleep. I knew alcohol would be a bad plan, with Mr Waverly liable to get out of his meeting at any moment and decide that the middle of my nap was as good a time as any to call me in for a debrief.
I let myself into the vacant third room along—my favourite, no real reason, I just have fond memories of an interesting night when we were in a precautionary lock-down, with a cute little blonde who thought getting that friendly actually inside Headquarters was a hell of a turn on. Suited me just fine!
I ate the food sitting on the edge of the bunk, underneath the sign that admonished, ''No food or drink in the bedrooms.'' I was careful not to drop any crumbs—I've been caught out by our dragon-like cleaners before now—and once I'd drunk the last of my chocolate, I took off my shoes and suit, swung myself onto the bunk, pulled one of the thin blankets over me, and tried to sleep. I had problems. Juan's face kept swimming across my consciousness, along with pretty graphic memories of what he'd done to me last night. Damnit! I could feel the memory stirring me up again. I tried to banish it, but when I tried that, I got Illya's face with that damned amused look, and I didn't want to let him get associated with what was happening in my shorts, so I gave in and let Juan do his worst. In fact, when I stopped fighting it, it was like... like he just took a hold of me and lay down next to me. Okay, so in my mind, his face kept swapping back and forth between him and Illya, but that can happen when you see somebody most every day, so I didn't let it bother me, and having given in, I went off to sleep pretty quickly.
I sleep better at HQ that almost anywhere else. Not that I like sleeping there, but it's as safe as you ever get as a Section Two agent, and you know that if there's trouble, all hell will break loose before it gets to you. You can almost relax, so I did, and I slept through to the next morning, must have been about twelve hours. I knew I'd be tired that day, always am when I get too much sleep, but I guess I must have needed it, and you get used to having to recharge that way, even if it throws your body off for a day afterwards.
I went to get some breakfast. It was about six-thirty and some of the night-shift were in there eating before heading home to bed, next to some of the day-shift getting in early to beat rush-hour and eating breakfast here, alongside the usual number of Section Two agents who were in the middle of, or just off assignment, and didn't have a clue what meal they were eating and didn't much care. You can always tell when we're doing that—we're the guys with a bowl of soup, three rounds of toast, a plate of lasagne, a jelly sandwich, a slab of cake and a glass of orange. You can also tell if we're mid-affair—half of it will be left on the plate, no time to finish. End of affair: plates cleaned—haven't eaten properly in days. Only problem is, at either time, we're not great company, so I ate with some Section Threes I see around quite a bit. We made small talk and I did my duty, trying to find out if they were gossiping about anything that should be top secret, but I couldn't draw them if they did know anything they shouldn't, and I wandered back to my office just before seven, to find Illya sitting at his desk.
'Good morning!' I said cheerfully. I was pleased to see him. Hell, I'm always pleased to see him—he never looks happier than I feel. That's sort of friendly.
He looked up and gave me a half-smile. 'Good morning. Mr Waverly's expecting you.'
'Oh. Okay.' I nodded and left again. You don't hang around when Waverly's expecting you.
My meeting with Waverly was more routine than I'd have expected for such a secretive affair. He'd read my report and, as I suspected, I got the raised eyebrow and the suggestion that I go see the UNCLE psych to talk out any emotional consequences of my duty-bound exploits. I didn't fancy explaining to the Old Man that I'd enjoyed it, a lot, so I made the sort of noises that officially mean ''Yes sir, I'll do that.'' But which you both know mean ''Not on your life'.' He made the grunting noise back at me which means, ''Okay, well, neither would I, if I were you, but we play this by the rules.'' He gave me back the file, effectively declassifying it—it's not as if there was anything sensitive in there—and told me to drop it into Admin as usual.
I went back to the office first, wanting to quiz Illya on his assignment, if he could tell. He was poring over some report or other, and I sat down and watched him until he got fed up with being stared at, and looked up, irritably pushing the papers away from him.
'What do you want, Napoleon?'
I grinned at his annoyance, he hates being crowded when he's reading. 'I want to know what you've been up to while I was crawling round in freezing cold buildings. If you can tell me,' I added, leaning back in my chair. He took off his black-framed glasses and looked at me.
'Where have you been?'
'Heard about the big swoop on the file-storage facility? Had files on every organization and its w-'
'I know. I was in there too,' he said, catching me by surprise.
'Yes. I don't know why you're so surprised. It made sense to send in the two people who had been inside the facility previously. Only we would be able to get around quickly enough to be sure of success.' He can make things sound so infuriatingly obvious when he wants to.
I nodded. 'Want to swap reports?'
'Hm, I'll read you mine, you read me yours. I want to know what you were up to in there while I was half killing myself.'
'Okay,' I said, leaning back in my chair, I was intrigued, I wanted to know how we'd managed to pass each other by completely when we were in the same building, and I wanted to check he hadn't spotted me leaving with Juan. That could have been a little awkward to explain, though under the circumstances, I was sure he'd understand. 'Shoot.'
Illya put his glasses back on and read through his report, from his arrival at the facility, through his investigations into the files, to the destruction of the lower basements. How we missed each other I don't know. He must have been a way behind me, I'm glad of that—wouldn't like to think I might have blown him up, though by the sound of it, I came pretty close to it.
He kept on reading. 'The lower basements now being totally impassable, I was forced to take a route through the main part of the building. On the fourth level, I was trapped when one of the other agents working in the building tripped the automatic shutdown designed to prevent ease of getaway. We were in no particular danger, the enemy being largely rousted by this time, and the affair concluded to my satisfaction, with the exception of knowing exactly who else was in the building. I found myself trapped with a man from another organisation, whose presence I had noted earlier, appearing to be on a similar mission to my own, and intent on discovering my identity and affiliations. Naturally, as per my brief, I was equally keen to ascertain his own credentials, and having attempted normal coercion and methods as outlined in section eight....uh, that should be a five, not a three...' He corrected it with his pencil. 'Uh, section eight-five, it soon became clear that standard methods would not be sufficient to persuade him to give up his identity. I therefore resorted to use of the methods outlined in part three, subsection four of the appendices to section eight, and...' He stopped, I don't blame him, I was grinning from ear to ear. He looked at me in confusion, but it was so funny. I'd been concerned about having to tell him that I'd been on the job, on the job... if you like—he has been know to get all sullen when I do it—and here he was, telling me he'd been doing exactly the same thing. 'What?' he asked. 'Come now, Napoleon, surely you don't find that subsection that amusing. I know it's a little sordid, but...'
I leaned forward. 'No, no. Really Illya, I just find it rather entertaining that we both resorted to the same means to get the information we required...or rather, to not get the information—mine never coughed up. What about yours?'
'No,' said Illya sourly. 'Although, I will admit I have had worse assignments. He was not unskilled in the area of subsection four.'
I sniggered, 'So did you find out anything at all?'
'Only his name. I suppose if we run it through the computers we might come up with something. If he was telling the truth.'
'Same here,' I sighed. Illya shrugged.
What was yours calling himself?' he asked.
'He was Spanish, or claimed to be.' I checked my notes for the surname, 'Juan Bici,' I replied. He frowned, looked down at his report and slipped it back into its folder.
'Bike, huh? Obviously Bici by name, Bici by nature. Who'd choose that as a pseudonym?'
'What about yours?' I asked. He sighed, and started to get the report back out of its folder to check, but then he paused,
'Napoleon, why is there an I.O.U. wrapped around the emergency funds under my desk?'
I shuffled uncomfortably. 'Sorry. I was a bit short for the ball tickets. I will...'
He shook his head, that hint of amusement back on his face. 'Well, you paid for most of mine. I'll call it...what is it? Quits?'
'Uh huh.' He reached under his desk and pulled out the money, unwrapped the I.O.U. And passed it across the desk to me. I held up my hands to reject it, but he shook his head,
'I'll only throw it away myself. You might like to keep it for the next time. You can just change the amount then.' His eyes sparkled at me, and I took the piece of paper, slipping it into my drawer. Maybe it would help remind me to carry ready money... Maybe not. I was going to remonstrate with him anyway, but there was a tap on the door and we were summoned before Mr Waverly to be briefed on a new affair. I hate when they follow each other so quickly, it means you're running on empty by the end, and you can end up getting sloppy about things, and that's when you lose your head. Literally. But unless you can prove to the doctors that you're unfit, which none of us would dream of even trying to do, even if we actually were, you'll be back out of that door and in the field before you know it, if the occasion demands it. So quickly in this case that I never did get the chance to read him my side of the report, and he never did tell me who he'd been eight-three-fouring.
Mr Waverly was looking at us with the same piercing look he had given me when I was in there earlier, but by the time we had finished our briefing and were all set to go, he was looking at us normally again. He has these phases when he seems to want to peer into your soul. Maybe that's what he does. God knows he seems to know us inside out.
Illya looked like hell when he got back to our room on that seventh day of the affair, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. He'd taken the worst of things today, the worst climbs, the worst beatings, the hardest falls, and it showed. He was trying to stand tall and walk normally, but his body just wouldn't let him, it was too knotted up and painful.
He half-staggered to his bed and sat on the edge, pretending to be fine.
'Want me to see if I can massage out some of those knots for you?' I asked. We do it for each other from time to time, but it's always a struggle to admit you need it. We both know we'll always give in in the end, but it's one of those things we always play up to. He was going to play by the rules tonight, too.
'I don't need your help, Napoleon.'
I found I didn't want to draw it out, he looked too miserable, so I let his bluff ride, just stopping short of calling it. 'Okay, well, if you want to walk around bent over like a croquet hoop for the next week or so, that's fine, I've got a book to read anyway.' He rolled his eyes at me, but I think he was grateful to me for forcing his hand quickly.
'No,' he said sullenly, 'I suppose not. All right then.'
'Good.' I closed my book, having just opened it for show. 'Get your top off and lie down.'
He complied and I sat beside him, wishing I had some oil to make this smoother for him, but I hadn't had time to pack anything extra in my overnight bag and the hotel bathroom didn't carry anything beyond the complimentary soap and shampoo.
'Sorry if this is a bit rough,' I said. He grunted at me, his eyes closed and half-buried in the pillow. I started at his neck, though that wasn't the worst of it, looking at how he'd been moving. I still managed to loosen it up a lot though, and moved on down his shoulders to follow the solid, bulky ridges of muscle down either side of his spine. He moaned as I got down towards his kidneys, working out the hard mess of tight, twisted muscle. I ran a hand down over his flanks, and it was then that I felt it. Felt it first, before I saw it: a sickle-shaped crescent of a scar, still red and white, raised and a little inflamed, the faint pattern of removed stitches visible down its length. I compared it to the position of a crescent scar in my memory, and as I ran my hands up over his back again, touch-memory flooded me, making the impossible certain. A freezing cold hand clenched around my stomach and twisted. I couldn't tell him. How could I, when it had hit me like a bullet in the gut? How could I do that to him? Christ, Illya! I screamed inside, while my lips calmly asked him, 'Where did you get that wound? It's new, isn't it?'
'Oh, that international files affair,' he muttered into the bed. 'I got in the way of some shrapnel when some guy blew up the basements. It wasn't deep, just annoying.'
I should have told him. I knew it at that moment, that it was really my only chance to mention it honourably. But the seconds ticked by and I tried, but I couldn't do it. I could not make him feel as shellshocked as I suddenly did. And it was so stupid. I know the difference between work and leisure. I know that strictly speaking what we did was in the line of duty and had nothing to do with our own personal lives, but somehow I couldn't make my body see it that way. My stomach churned and the rest of the room was suddenly very hot. I felt paralysed, but in a moment he would notice my silence and ask what was the matter. I could not let that happen. I traced the line gently with my finger, seeing it as it had been—fresh and bleeding.
He winced. 'Do you have to?'
'Sorry.' I found my voice just in time to reply. 'It was me. I blew up the basements.' I couldn't deceive him further than I absolutely had to.
'Really? I suppose we never did get to finish comparing reports. Besides, I think Mr Waverly would rather that one wasn't discussed too much.'
'No, probably.' I got to work on his back again, the panic subsiding as I focused on the repetitive motions. Eventually his back seemed more mobile and I got up, giving him a final slap on his uninjured side.
'There you go. You might actually be able to walk tomorrow now.'
He rolled onto his side to face me. 'Thank-you. Are you all right? You look shifty.' I grinned my best grin at him.
'Yes. Sorry. Just a bit tired. I'm going to bed.'
He flopped over onto his back, nodding. I stripped off and got into my own bed, slipping my gun under my pillow, and lay with my back to him.
'Good night,' I said.
'A peaceful one,' he replied softly. It made me smile, though I did not feel light-hearted.
I wasn't remotely tired, and I stared at the wall for a long time. It bothered me that I had reacted so strongly to the discovery that I had inadvertently had sex with my partner. Like I said, I knew it wasn't something that should matter in terms of what passes for our private life, and it's not something that disgusts me. I'm... well, I'm comfortable enough with the idea of sex with another man, particularly when it's for work, so... It took me a while to work out that what was really... frightening me, I think, was that I hadn't recognised him. Yes, his disguise was good, but I can always tell it's him. Always.
I thought I knew my partner like the back of my hand. I thought his soul, the essential Illya, would register with me no matter how heavy the disguise, no matter what; and here I was, suddenly realising that I had done that: made love to him, with enough foreplay to have made him my own for that little time, and I had not known him. He had been the unknown stranger to the end.
And the knowledge tore at my heart more than my guilt at deceiving him now.
Illya leant in, smiling a knowing smile at me, and I smiled back, leaning in myself to listen to what he was saying.
'You know what they're saying on the UNCLE gossip tree?' he asked.
I shook my head. I didn't much care. If you spent your time worrying what the boys and girls of the other sections were discussing, you'd have no time left to enjoy yourself. I wasn't sure why he was asking me. Illya certainly doesn't pay them any attention in the usual way of things.
He leaned a little closer, conspiratorially. 'They're saying we're dating.' He sniggered a little, but didn't move back. I didn't think. I swear I didn't have a lucid thought in my head. Maybe it was the way he'd lowered his voice, maybe it was the fact that the set-up was identical to something I'd experienced with my female companions a hundred times before, but my subconscious, or whatever the hell it is that does these things, took over and I didn't even notice what I was doing until I'd done it.
'Really? Well, maybe,' I leaned in that much more and kissed him quickly on the nose, 'they're right.' Oh God! Oh God! Dear God Illya, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do that...
He looked at me, startled, eyes wide, then closing to a shrewd, narrowed stare. 'What was that?' he asked, in exactly the same way he'd ask me what was in the lunch I'd brought him. I can't begin to imagine what kind of expression was on my face.
'What is this Napoleon?' he asked, leaning back a bit, settling in his chair. 'It's been very pleasant being fed almost every other night for the last...what is it? Five weeks? And I've enjoyed the theatre trips and the museum and playing chess with you and... But it's not normal, is it? I mean, it's not what we used to do. It's not what I've ever done with anyone else I know. It could get... stifling. They're right you know. it feels like I'm being dated.'
My stomach froze over, just as it had on the night I'd found out about what we'd done. It clenched and twisted and made my mouth go dry and my bowels tell me to head for the bathroom, quick. I smothered the impulse and closed my eyes to collect my thoughts. He was right. No matter how you looked at it, I'd approached this like I was dating him. Perhaps I did it because it's the only way I'm used to getting to know people, except through working with them, and that approach hadn't cut it for Illya... And now I'd accidentally kissed him. I snorted a brief laugh and he raised an eyebrow. In that moment I must have seemed crazy, laughing to myself when I'd just done something so stupid. Thank God it was only a peck on the nose. He was rubbing at the spot now, not to wipe away the touch of my lips, but thoughtfully. 'Sorry. Reflex,' I said, which was true.
'What are you trying to do?' he asked, his finger still resting on his nose.
'Get to know you better,' I replied without thinking.
He gave me a searching look. 'Why?'
'Because...' my rational brain suddenly caught up with me, tying my tongue in knots it wasn't used to.
He waited, then gave up. 'Because...?' he prompted, more irritably.
I still couldn't do it. I couldn't tell him. What does that make me? I guess it makes me a spy who's as sneaky as he is and twice as underhand. At least I know I'm in good company, but what would he have done in the same circumstances? Who knows.
'Because I... want to be sure of knowing it's you when we're out on an affair together. I nearly killed you at the damned file-store.' Quit holding back, Napoleon. Yes, you did, but tell him, tell him before you can't any more.
'I set off the explosion that belted that shrapnel at you. I knew there was someone behind me, but I had to let it off. If I'd recognised you, it wouldn't have happened.'
He gave a humourless laugh and returned to me, standing in front of me and to the left, his pelvis level with my eyes. I flicked my eyes down to stare at his knees. Illya's pelvis was the last thing I needed in my field of vision right now.
'You'd have hesitated then? I don't think Mr Waverly would have liked that. If you got the same briefing as me, you were meant to do whatever it took to capture or destroy that information. All in all, it was probably better that you didn't.'
I nodded into my knees. Reprieved again. Well, I'd just have to let things slip back to normal. It seemed I hadn't achieved much. I wouldn't say I knew my partner any better than I had before I'd embarked on this ridiculous, idiotic activity. But Illya had accepted my explanation and that would be that.
'How do you know it was me behind you? I know I caught the blast a bit, but it could have been anyone right behind you. It wouldn't have made any difference who it was.'
I looked up. Damn him! Does he have to be so tenacious? 'I... It must have been you. Who else was there?' You're digging a hole, Napoleon. Put the shovel down!
'Oh, only the combined forces of half the world's secret and not-so-secret services. How do you know it was me?'
'I saw your wound at the time.' Was that okay? Must be. I could have seen it anytime when he was following me, up to...
'No... No, that's a lie Napoleon. If you saw me following you, that was before the explosion. Afterwards, I didn't see anyone. Except for the man I got trapped with.'
'Uh...' At that moment, I knew he knew. It was there, clearly, in his eyes, in the way he sat down, cross-legged on the floor in front of me and squeezed my knees painfully hard.
'When did you work it out?' he asked, his tone level. I stared straight back, unable to shake his gaze.
'Only when I saw that scar.'
'Only? Only? That's five weeks. What kind of way is that to treat me?'
My mouth went dry again and I stared at him, my mouth hanging open, so full of remorse that I couldn't answer for a moment. He scowled at me and I found a rather croaky voice to use.
'I didn't want you to have to worry about it. I feel so bad about it, I didn't see why you should too.'
He laughed, actually laughed a proper laugh. 'Um, that was my reasoning too.'
I stared at him. He gave me a little shrug and I spluttered, 'When did you know?'
'Longer ago than you. When you told me the name your conquest had given, of course. Why do you think I changed the subject so quickly? It might have been a bit obvious if I'd fired your own pseudonym straight back at you, hmm?'
'I didn't know you knew. I thought you'd be horrified.' I scratched my head, I couldn't quite look him in the eye.
My evasion must have irritated him, because he let go my knees and snapped at me, 'I don't give a damn!'
'I don't care that we had sex. It was work. It was a mistake in the line of duty. I didn't know it was you, you didn't know it was me. We do this for our work. What does it matter what you do or don't do when there are few choices?'
'I do know the difference between work and leisure,' I snapped. I was annoyed with him for brushing me off with this debrief-psych rubbish.
'I know,' he fired back at me, equally annoyed for some reason. 'But I do care about the other part.'
'What other part?' I was confused.
'It was quite impressive,' he said, watching me closely.
He grabbed my shins, digging his fingertips into my calf-muscles, shaking my legs slightly as if to prove to himself that contact was okay. 'Your disguise,' he explained. 'You're not usually-'
'Very good at disguises,' I finished sourly. Why did he have to remind me? It didn't make me a worse agent, just one who knew his limitations and used his charm rather than his chameleonic appearance to fool the enemy.
'No, you... okay I can usually recognize you without looking twice. But then I can usually recognize you if you cough. That's what's so strange. I'd never have believed you could fool me for this long.'
'Nuh,' said Illya firmly, squeezing my shins. I wished he'd let go, the contact was making certain parts of me sit up and take notice. I rationalized it to myself as just being due to the knowledge of having had sex with the man who was doing it, but it was disturbing. You don't want that happening when any man, much less your partner, just touches a fairly non-sexual part of your anatomy. I concentrated on trying to work out what had been different this time to make me so unrecognizable.
'I don't know how.' I said after a while. I really didn't. Perhaps the only answer was the necessity of being completely unrecognisable. Necessity is the mother of complete self-sublimation, after all. 'The same way you fooled me, I guess. I've never been through such intensive orientation before—certainly not so quickly.'
'So that's what this was all about?' His temper seemed to subside a little, and I felt my own anger draining away. 'I agree with you. I shouldn't be able to have sex with my partner without realising at some point that it's him. That's why I agreed to spend more time with you, I didn't know it was the same thing for you.'
I nodded. 'So what do you want? A code? A signal?'
'No. I want to recognise you no matter what. Back in the... In my other jobs, where I have relied on someone else, I knew them to the core. I thought I knew you like that, but my knowledge is defective. I should know you so well that I could see an inch of skin in a mirror and know it was you. If I accidentally got into bed with you again, your body should scream 'Napoleon' at me, even if you were wearing a full-body prosthetic. And the same should go for you with me. Was that what you were trying to do? Get me to have sex with you again so that you could make a little inventory of what I'm like in bed for reference next time?'
'No! I was annoyed that he could think that of me. But in a way he was right, wasn't he? That hadn't been my conscious intention, but it had certainly looked that way. 'Is that what you suggest?' I laughed, 'That we sleep together every night until we're sure?'
'Be serious, Napoleon. I'm not joking, we should be better than this.'
He put his hands on my knees again and stared at me, then his face relaxed into a gentle smile. 'You look so scared.' That got my attention. He's not allowed to say that. It's against the rules. Yes, I was scared, scared of what we'd done and what it meant for us, but you don't point it out. You never point it out. I got to my feet, tipping him back, away from me, and started to remove my jacket, ready to fight him, to prove I wasn't scared. He remained seated.
'I'm not fighting you, Napoleon.' He got up though, and stepped away from me, keeping a wary eye on me for my next move. I felt terrible. I hate it when my anger bubbles up like that. I don't let it happen very often, and it's never directed at the generic enemy—they get my generalised anger, but I can control that. It's only ever directed at people who I love, or people who have hurt the people I love.
I looked back at him, apologising with my eyes, because I couldn't say it out loud. He nodded, reached out and squeezed my shoulder.
'Let's go for a walk. It's too hot in here.' It wasn't too hot. In fact, I'd have called it cold. Certainly it was below freezing outside. But Illya tends to think of freezing-point as balmy and tropical, and there's no arguing with him. It wasn't a bad idea though, to get out. My heart was thumping in my chest and making me feel sick, and I needed to be able to walk a bit further away from him.
I threw on my lumberjack coat and hat and tugged on a pair of boots, while Illya buttoned up his long black wool coat and pulled his huge furry Russian hat onto his head. It's almost the only concession to his heritage that I ever really see him make, but it seemed eminently sensible as we stepped out of the front door and were hit in the face by an icy wind that seemed to be blowing in straight from Siberia. He pulled his collar up and I pulled on my gloves as he dug his hands deep into his pockets. He looks wonderful in that outfit. At home, perhaps. For a mad second, I wanted to slip my arm through his, and go walking down the street like that. I shook off the idea, passing it off as a shiver against the cold.
We didn't bother to ask where we were going. We just turned right and headed for the park. Somewhere where we could talk in private, but with the safety of the public space all around us, the other people coming and going. Quiet while we walked past the blocks and blocks of apartments and shops, Illya spoke as soon as we were across the last street and into the park.
'You know, we're a good physical match.'
'That's not funny, Illya.'
'It was not meant as a joke.' He blew out his breath in fast little puffs, watching the warm cloud of moisture melt into the air.
'Then what exactly did you mean?' I asked, wondering why he was so relaxed all of a sudden.
Illya flashed his eyes wickedly at me. 'Wasn't it good for you?'
'You must have been surprised yourself when you found out,' I replied evasively. I did not want to have that particular conversation in the middle of Central Park.
'It is always a surprise to have a stranger turn into your partner without warning. Particularly when your partner is usually less than hopeless at disguise. But Napoleon, it was work, we both know we did it because it was the most expedient means of getting the job done. I just thought it was interesting how well it worked out, that's all.'
'Uh huh.' We wandered down a path between tall trees which stood skeletal on either side of us, rattling and creaking in the wind. I tried to let his improved mood carry me along with it, but I still felt a painful lump in my chest, a mocking ball of disgust that I had been so thoroughly duped. That I had missed out on the key point of that encounter.
'Your reputation is well earned, you know.'
'Mmph,' I replied.
'I wish I had realised earlier that it was you. It would have been more pleasurable than doing it with a complete stranger.' He gazed steadily at me, and I met his stare suspiciously, fired with emotions I don't usually bother with. Illya frowned, returning his eyes to the floor. 'Would you not have preferred...?'
'No!' I interrupted, wondering, even as I said it, why I was so vehement. 'No. Sorry. Like you said, it's work. It's....it's better if it doesn't matter who they are.' I fell silent. Illya waited, then spoke again, a child picking at a scab.
'You liked Juan.'
'I liked...no, not really. I liked bits of him. He was devious and manipulating and dark.'
'Do you mean physically or-'
'Illya,' I growled, 'are you going to drop it, or do I have to fight you over this?'
'What did you like about Juan?' He can be so dogged in his pursuit of answers. He had the grace not to look at me though. I did not answer. Illya continued, his voice emotionless, giving nothing away. I had no idea what he was up to, and I didn't much want to know. 'Did you prefer the parts of him that were more like me...or the bits that weren't?' I remained silent. Illya raised his head, revealing the pinkness around his throat where his coat collar was keeping him warm and chafing him a little. He looked over at me, huffed and pursed his lips. 'How can we work this out if you won't talk to me?'
'I don't want to ''work it out'',' I sighed, 'I want to forget it. Forget the last five weeks ever happened. Just...' I gave up. I couldn't explain how my approach had failed to achieve my goal, how there were no options left but to go back and be satisfied with what we had had before. I tilted my head back to look at the clear blue sky, the colour of Illya's eyes, and lost my footing on an iced-over puddle. He grabbed my wrist, bringing me back on balance, then slowly let go. I should have thanked him, but instead I glared at him.
He tutted at me, rolling his eyes. 'When are you going to start being civil to me again? I have done nothing wrong, as you are well aware.'
'I'm not being uncivil.'
'No? What would you call it?'
I kicked at the offending ice. 'Practical. I can't forget what happened. You seem to have just laughed it off, but I don't know how.'
'Do you honestly think it's helping, behaving like this?' he growled, stomping on ahead of me, the steam from his breath forming a halo round his head as the sun caught it, while the folds of his coat-skirts billowed and flapped around his legs.
'It's helping me.'
'I thought you said you knew the difference between work and leisure,' he called back.
'I thought you did, too.' I yelled forward at him.
'I do.' He stopped, turned to look at me from ten yards away. I caught up with him, stopped two yards from him.
'You enjoyed it,' I said. An accusation.
He held his ground in front of me, shoulders hunched, wisps of silky blond hair (how had he gotten all that black dye out of it before I'd seen him the day after that affair?) poking out round the edges of the black-bear hat.
'So did you.'
I made no reply. He was right of course. I had enjoyed it far more than I should have, and it bothered me all the way back through the park and long after he had gone home and left me to my thoughts, without another word being spoken about what had happened.
I didn't like it. Getting in had been far too easy. A place like this should be crawling with guards, and instead it was deserted. I kept my back to the wall, hiding in the shadows as I rounded each corner. My mind wandered, although I should have been concentrating. This was the second time in barely six weeks that I'd found myself in this level of disguise. I concentrated on my left elbow, which didn't itch, in an attempt to keep from scratching my prosthetic nose, which did. I wouldn't have minded so much if it had been the same disguise as last time. At least then I wouldn't have had to go through such a comprehensive orientation this time. But no, once again, my face was apparently known—another piece of work to thank our clever little mole for, I guess. They must have been passing out photos of all us Section Two guys to whoever could pay for them. Of course, in a situation like this, they didn't want me to appear to be good hostage material myself, or a possible source of information. Nonetheless, I could have done without this. Besides, this level of disguise now has certain... associations for me.
I cursed Intelligence for their sloppy work. Usually you get some clue why you're going in, even if it's all on the 'need to know'. Here I was with very little idea what I was going to find, or why I was here. A hostage situation. That was all, the limits of the information they had been able to give me. Well that's not a lot of help when you're trying to plan a strategy. How many hostages, who they were, what they were being held for... hell, even whether it mattered whether they got killed or not would have been nice to know. I'm not saying I'd ever want to let an innocent die, but some hostages are more innocent than others, and likewise, they have their varying levels of usefulness. You don't get yourself killed, and all that top-level UNCLE training wasted if you know full well the guy you're saving is a crook and a coward who knows nothing about anything.
I inched around the next corner and saw the sort of door that says 'detention' ahead of me. I checked behind me and snuck up to it, peering through the bars at the top. It was inky black in there, nothing to be seen. I was ready to try the handle, when a hand fell on my shoulder, gripping hard. I whirled round, trying to throw my assailant, but they knew everything I knew and I didn't get the element of surprise. Sure surprised me. I hardly ever meet anyone whose martial arts training is up to standard with UNCLE's, and usually only when we're out east someplace.
I hit the floor hard and waited to get back my wind. I watched the man put his hand on the door and tap out a code on the panel next to it, then push it open. Skilled fighter he might be, but otherwise, stupid. I had my gun in my hand before he could turn back, and as he went for me again. Not knowing who he might be, I fired, aiming to put his gun arm out of commission, then, with a second shot, to take out a leg.
He went down, clutching the leg with his left hand. I couldn't see blood, but no doubt he'd have plenty to deal with in a minute. I got up just in time to catch the door before it slammed shut, and pushed my way inside.
The lights flicked on and I squinted at a shape in the corner, which turned into a man as my eyes adjusted to the glare.
'Welcome,' he said, in really unpleasant, oily tones—the sort that make you want to punch a man down before he gets a chance to explain himself. I straightened myself up and gave him my best smile.
'Well, hello there,' I said, pleasantly, keeping my gun on him. 'Nice little place you have here.' He nodded, a little bow, a false humility that grated on my nerves. I tightened my grip.
'Oh, you can put that little toy away,' he said, getting up and walking towards me, gesturing at my Special. 'You won't be needing it. I think you'll find I have some people here you'd rather like to get out alive, and I'm afraid that without my... specialist knowledge of the contraption in which they are currently... er, hanging; you would be very lucky to release them all... unharmed. Oh,' He seemed to have a sudden thought. 'You are from UNCLE, aren't you?'
'I am,' I replied, ignoring his instructions regarding my weapon of choice. He frowned, then smiled again,
'No, really, do put it away, or I'm afraid I shan't be able to indulge you in a little game I've prepared. I should have to kill you instead, and that would be rather tiresome.'
I shrugged and reholstered. No point arguing with him—he knew far more than I did. He sat down again and steepled his fingers, watching me over his fingertips.
'I expect you know who I am, of course?' he asked. I stared at him, a vague recollection swam through the mess of names and faces in my head. An old dossier, inactive for years. He didn't look much like his photo any more, but a criminal life can age you badly... or so we like to think.
'Charles Pinkworth, I presume?' I said, hoping I was right. It's embarrassing to be shown up on your knowledge of world-class criminals, which I assumed he must at least pretend to be.
'Very good!' he replied, his fingers tapping infuriatingly at each other. 'I would be interested to know what your organisation has on me. Indulge me?'
I scrabbled through my memory for the appropriate notes. 'Gambler, relying on various types of criminal activity to fund your bets. Mostly organised robberies carried out by smaller-time crooks, but some larger scams including defrauding companies, corrupting officials, and, er, hostage taking.' I gave him the benefit of a condescending smile. I was unimpressed. For some reason I object to criminal activity to fund gambling, far more than I do criminal activity for the sake of pure accumulation of wealth. I don't mind the gambling either. It's the combination of the two that sticks in my throat.
'Splendid!' He clapped his hands. 'Yes, I'm afraid I do have a little weakness for the odd wager. For example, I could force you to pay for the release of my hostages, but I prefer a more... what shall we say? Entertaining method. I have placed my five hostages in a little device I won from a gentleman in France. I thought it was of little use at first, except perhaps to sell on; but then I thought how much more secure my guests would be in this contraption than in an ordinary cell.'
I sighed: another megalomaniac who wants to tell you his life story and then kill you in slow and interesting ways, rather than just shoot you and have done with it. I gave my message. 'I have to tell you, Mr Pinkworth, that no monies are to be paid to you in return for these hostages. A settlement allowing your continued liberty might be arrived at, given certain conditions, should you wish to discuss it.' He cocked his head to one side, smiling slightly at my attempt.
'Ah, I'm afraid that will not do. If I do not get the money, I'm afraid the ladies and gentlemen in my care will have to die. But I am a sporting man, as you have so recently pointed out, so I wager the life of one of them. You are UNCLE. I have a fair working knowledge of your... codes of practice. I wager you will not seek to save the life of one over the others. I tell you, it is not possible to save them all, only one. The machine is a finely balanced piece of apparatus. At present, it delivers a fine stream of paralysing drugs into their systems, they cannot move while it is being delivered, though I assure you they still have all their other faculties and will recover swiftly once the drug's influence is removed. I am not a monster. Remove one person from the equipment without properly disconnecting the device—an operation which I assure you can only be carried out remotely—and the balance of the drugs will be lost, the excess flowing into the other hostages and certainly killing them. One door may be opened, that is all. Opening the door releases the prisoner, that is all there is to it.
'I will give you two minutes alone with the hostages, to choose which you will save. If you are undecided at the end of that time, I will permit you to leave. You may gamble your life against my little collection of booby traps on the way out. I'm afraid you will find the way you entered blocked off by quite heavy steel shutters. It would be much quicker to leave the way I say.'
'Why would you let me go?' I asked, suspicious.
'Why, for the entertainment of seeing you run the gamut, of course! Now, give me your gun. I do not intend to have you shoot me once you have made your decision.'
I had no choice. I handed him my Special and he patted me down for anything else and took my explosives, even the buttons on my shirt. Another gold star for our mole. He nodded towards a curtain at the far end of the room, then left via a door to the right.
I went over to the curtain and pulled it back. Behind it was his contraption, a great old-fashioned looking thing, all brass and rivets and cast iron. There was no way of getting at whatever this drip-feed was delivered in. The tubes must be sealed inside the metal pipes that fed right into the wall. Without explosives I didn't stand a chance. So it came down to a choice. He seemed to think there would be grounds for an informed decision, and each of the five heavy, submarine-style doors had a porthole around waist height, so I went to the first and peered in.
It was dark inside the sealed cubicle. All I could see was a waistband of some dark fabric, the gleam of a button—black pants, probably a man. One hand was just visible in the gloom to the left. I did not recognise it.
The second showed the top of a skirt—a woman. This time I could see both her hands, but neither looked familiar. I rubbed my face. Time was short. I was sure he wasn't lying about the drug. UNCLE had acquired a very similar, if not identical serum not all that long ago, and if this was the case, those people would be aware, and probably frightened.
I went to the third window, wondering why he was doing this. It made no sense at all. Yes, he was a gambling man, and presumably got a thrill out of seeing whether or not I would do this, but to save one or save none? It's not much of a decision. Even if you get it wrong, you've still saved a life that would otherwise be lost. I was bound to choose one. Probably the woman. Unless I could recognise one of the men as a great asset to the world, or there was a second woman in one of the other cubicles, it was the proper thing to do. The third cubicle contained another woman. I cursed under my breath. Then I looked again. I recognised the ring on the third finger of her right hand. A very distinctive coiled snake design, unique, as far as I knew. I had rolled it between my fingers on more than one occasion. This was Janice. The ring was a gift from her father—something of an explorer, according to her explanation. He had brought it back to her from one of his trips, and she never removed it. So, a girl I knew, versus one I did not. Janice's worth to UNCLE has never been in dispute. She does her job efficiently and always with a smile. Apart from which, she is one of the top girls in her section. Her training outweighs even mine and Illya's in terms of hours of study and cost. Besides, we are disposable assets, those girls are not. They hold the key to the UNCLE codes. We're just expensive cannon-fodder, when it comes down to it. The other woman's worth I could not know. I would save Janice in preference.
I moved on to cubicle four. Here was another pair of black pants. A man. I could not see the hands, they were out of sight in the shadows. No way of knowing who it was. I moved on.
Then I stopped and went back. Something had arrested my attention. The faint light slanting through the porthole had caught a ridge in the otherwise skin-tight fabric of the man's shirt. I had taken it for a wrinkle, but looking again, the appearance was wrong—it did not taper off as a wrinkle would. Instead it moulded itself to the shape of a scar. I watched the breathing—heavy and drugged as it was. I noticed a tiny hitch at the end of each long inhalation, the faint sign of a cracked rib that was still healing—though he'd never mention the pain, I'd noticed the tiny tell of it. It was Illya! I was certain of it. I pressed my nose to his porthole, my heart thundering. Technically, I was sure Janice outranked Illya in terms of value. As I said, although we represent a great deal of investment, her kind take more to get to her level. And they expect to live.
I did not want to look in the last cubicle. I didn't care who was in there. It could only get worse. How would Mr Waverly see my saving Illya over Janice? I just didn't know. I wasn't sure whether he would consider that she outranked Illya. After all, Illya is by far her senior in the organisation. What if Janice was a man with the same job? Would I save him for preference? No. Maybe not. But...
I steeled myself to look into the last cubicle, and saw another man, but not one I could recognise. So, a choice of two. Janice whom I had dated and who was very important to UNCLE, and who was a woman and therefore merited special service. Or Illya, whom I had... Well, not really, but still... who was also fairly important to UNCLE, especially as he is technically on loan from our genial Soviet friends. And who was important to me. Damn. That was it. I'd never get past Waverly if he complained about my choice. But that was it. I had ten seconds to go, and there was nothing to do but choose.
So I chose Illya.
I wrenched open his door and a stranger fell out, right into my arms, his eyes fixing on mine, and full of pure terror. I looked into them, and despite the heavy disguise, despite the coloured contacts and the latex mask and the wig and the altered skin tone and the padded-out shoulders, I knew it was Illya. Maybe six weeks before I would have doubted it, but not now. I know this man. I can can say that now. I recognised him from a four-inch diameter, badly lit portion of his covered belly. I think I can say I know him. Death doesn't scare him, injury doesn't scare him. Drugs do. He'll sit there calmly when the enemy is trying to get a reaction from him by threatening him with them—that's his training—but they scare the hell out of him. He doesn't like not being in control. None of us do, but it's worse for him. I think he's afraid they'll leave him different to how he was before. Injury does that, but you can work around the physical stuff. It's not knowing if you'll wake up with no memory, or a changed personality, or... Anyway, it frightens him, and I hated Pinkworth for doing this to my friend. I held him upright, waiting to see if the drug would wear off quickly. I felt his legs try to support him and grinned slightly. 'That's the way, my friend, make those legs work, come on, you've got some walking to do.' He kept on staring at me, willing me to reassure him. I had to. 'You'll be fine. UNCLE's got some stuff the same as this, no side-effects, I promise. You'll be right as rain in a minute or two.' Some of the panic left his eyes and Pinkworth re-entered the room.
'I see you made a choice, you disappoint me. Oh well, I lose again. But, perhaps I will win on your escape, hmm? I will let you go, but you will still run the gauntlet through my little house of fun. I fear I am a bad loser.' He turned his back on us. 'Go away. If you don't leave soon, I may change my mind and kill you here, which would put me in a terribly bad mood, I hate to have my fun spoiled.' He slammed the door behind him and I turned Illya roughly to face me. His legs barely supported him. I shook him.
'Come on, Illya! Snap out of it! Work those legs. Come on! The drug wears off fast. Work, dammit!'
He muttered something, and I put my face close to his to listen.
'...nks,' he said.
'Ch'sing me,' he slurred through thick lips. I brushed the dribble off the corner of his mouth, waited for him to get more control. It was flooding back to him now; his legs becoming steady under him, his arms suddenly tightening around me. He pressed his lips together hard, swallowed and pulled me tightly against him, pressing his forehead to mine, leaving our noses barely an eighth of an inch apart. He closed his eyes, swallowed again. 'You recognised me.'
'You recognise me.' I held his shoulders, felt his forehead, hot and sticky against mine. I loved him at that moment, more than I'd ever loved anyone in my life. I closed my eyes, let the feeling pass. I can't think like that about him, or I'll lose my mind.
'I wouldn't have done... before.' He sounded apologetic. The last of the drug faded from his system and he let go of me, testing out his balance, then he nodded hard, cutting us off from that moment of closeness.
'Come on,' he said, back to being efficient, cool Illya again. I nodded, came alongside him and we left the room together.
The corridor was silent. I noticed that the guard I had felled on my way in had gone. There was no blood on the floor—he must have been helped away before it soaked through his clothes. I motioned to Illya, leading him back the way I had come. Pinkworth might have been bluffing.
Within a few seconds, we came upon a heavy steel wall, blocking our path. Pinkworth had not been bluffing. I shrugged and Illya gave me a mock-despairing look. He had obviously been able to hear us from inside his prison. We retraced our steps and followed the only other route, moving cautiously down the corridor, on the look-out for Pinkworth's booby traps.
This corridor ended in another door and I rolled my eyes at Illya, wishing I had my gun. The door was solid, no way to check what was on the other side, but we had no choice. We exchanged a look. That was all we needed. Illya understood. He crouched down, giving at least one of us a chance to surprise anyone waiting for us on the other side. I put my hand on the door and pushed gently, easing my head around the edge to look. Then I opened it all the way and stood there with my mouth gaping.
Mr Waverly sat at a desk, the duplicate of his usual one back at Headquarters, puffing on his pipe and looking completely at home. Around him, secretaries and technicians buzzed about their business, and sitting in a row on a long couch in the corner of this large room, were three men, and two women. One of the women was Janice, glaring at me with furious eyes, presumably for not rescuing her; and one of the men was Charles Pinkworth. My hand shot to my empty holster, but Mr Waverly waved at me to stop.
'Our disguise technicians do quite a convincing job, wouldn't you say, Mr Solo?' I could not think of anything to say. Beside me, Illya stood up. Flicking my eyes to the right told me that his mouth, too, was hanging open. 'Oh do close your mouths, you two. I am not in the habit of employing goldfish.' My Waverly tutted irritably, then gestured at us with his pipe. 'On you two no less than on Mr Siner here.' He gestured to the man I had identified as Pinkworth. 'In fact, would you all be so good as to remove what parts of your disguises you can. I find it most aggravating talking to apparent strangers when there is no need for it.'
Illya and I started to pull at our faces, peeling off the latex, ripping off the wigs, rubbing at the thinner areas which had not come off with the main elements of the masks. Illya's shock of blond hair stuck up in all directions, disregarded as he rolled thin sausages of latex off the skin around his eyes. With his blond hair back in place, his greyish-green eyes looked completely wrong, and I looked away. On the couch, a similar transformation had taken place. Mr Pinkworth was gone, and in his place, a jovial-looking man, presumably a Section Three. I didn't recognise him, but then he wasn't necessarily from the New York office, and there are enough people there to make it difficult to have anything more than a vague feeling you've seen them around.
I smoothed down my hair. 'Ah, may I ask what is going on, sir?'
Mr Waverly nodded, 'Of course you may, Mr Solo. No doubt it is most puzzling, to come into a room expecting to see the start of a... a maze of booby traps, and instead to be confronted by a home from home. But not here. We will return to my office, where it is a little more private.'
I frowned. 'It is you, isn't it sir? How do I know you're not a fake? Ah, begging your pardon, but Mr Pinkworth was very convincing.'
'A very appropriate observation. No, Mr Solo, I assure you I am as I appear. I could prove it with a mention of the antics of a certain friend of yours in New Orleans two years ago on the... ninth of April, I believe... but I'm sure you don't want to go into that here.'
I accepted his proof. No-one but Waverly ever knew about that. When you take a personal matter to the boss, it stays personal.
'Yes sir,' I replied.
He got up and took his coat and hat from a stand near the door. He beckoned us to follow, then led us down a series of corridors to an outside door, where a car was waiting. He got into the front and we took our places in the back, shooting glances at each other from time to time. I was gratified to see that Illya seemed as nonplussed as I was. It seemed that the other so-called prisoners had been in the know, or at least, they had not looked as confused as us.
We reached Headquarters and entered through Del Floria's, Mr Waverly tipping his hat to him as we passed through, I nodded to him. Illya walked by with only a glance of eye contact to show a little politeness. I grinned: I'd recognise his mannerisms anywhere.
Mr Waverly led the way right through to his office, where he removed his hat and coat and sat down, frowning at his pipe, which had gone out during the journey—much to our relief—sharing a car with Mr Waverly's pungent smoke is less than comfortable. He had us sit, then leaned back in his chair and told us.
'It was an idea from Section Six. It was passed around in a few memoranda, and found favour with some of the gentlemen down in research, who worked it up into a more structured programme for us. They wanted to investigate the nature of partnership within Section Two. Whether it mattered, and the extent to which it was helpful, or hindering. The idea was to place you in situations where you would be working together, but would not know each other. We did have a few more scenarios worked out, but it was noted that you and Mr Kuryakin were able to recognise each other, even through your disguises this time, so the plan was changed and we brought you out into the operations centre, instead of allowing you to play out the scenario.
'The file repository. That was all a set-up?'
'Yes, rather a clever one, I thought. It has been interesting. Only I knew which agents had been sent in—a sort of double-blind test, so they would not be prejudiced by knowing your history together.'
I winced, 'I nearly blew Illya up, sir.'
'Well, I'm very glad you didn't, Mr Solo. It would have been quite galling to lose a good agent like Mr Kuryakin here, simply as a result of your carelessness.'
I thought for a minute or two. No wonder this last scenario had seemed ridiculous. A fabrication. I felt a little anger at the deception, but dismissed it. Training is training. You do it, even if you don't like it. And call it what you like, effectively, this had been training. Mr Waverly was silent; he could see I was thinking and let me work it through. Before I got there, however, Illya piped up.
'You read our reports, sir. It put us in rather an awkward position, the events of that affair...' Mr Waverly nodded and I held my breath. That was what I had been trying to work out—had we made it clear in our reports who we had eight-three-foured? Of course we had. The Old Man knew what we had done.
'You seem to have coped admirably with the knowledge. Although, I'm not sure when you came to realise?'
'It took a few weeks sir,' Illya answered. I couldn't my mouth had gone dry. There are some things you don't want your boss to know. Illya always has been more matter of fact about these things.
'Now tell me, I am sure the gentlemen down in research will with to have a debrief with you, but I should like to know now. How did it come about that you could recognise each other this time, when you failed before. Were the disguises less impenetrable?'
'No sir.' I found my voice at last. He raised an encouraging eyebrow. 'We made an effort to... make it impossible not to recognise the other.'
'I see. Well, I'm not sure whether your rescue of Mr Kuryakin over the other trapped personnel will count as good or bad in terms of the experiment, but I can't see that an ability to read each other so well is a bad thing in the field. In my experience, the closer the better.'
He dismissed us, telling us that our debrief would commence in the morning. I had never heard Mr Waverly speak like that. It almost sounded as if he endorsed an close emotional...possibly even more sexual relationship, which I would never have believed of him before. After all, you try suggesting you might get married while you're in the field. You'll never find a quicker route to a permanent desk job.
Illya and I walked back to our office to collect some essentials. Illya fumbled under his desk for the money and took it out. He stuffed a couple of bills into his pocket, then glanced at me. I shrugged. He gave me that amused look again, and held out a few dollars in my direction. I took them and he returned the rest to its hiding place. When he stood up again, his eyes locked with mine. I took a step towards him. He broke the gaze and reached across for my coat, hanging on the stand. He passed it to me, never saying a word. I pulled it on, watching him swathe himself in black wool.
'Napoleon,' he said, hesitantly. I nodded, no way I was breaking my silence now. 'We won't stop going around together completely, now that we know we can recognise each other, will we?'
I shook my head. 'Why should we?' I said after a moment. He put an arm around my neck, pulled me close, rested his chin on my shoulder. I dropped my chin on his own shoulder, put an arm up, embraced him. He pulled me tighter, and I knew why. I had the same feeling. I loved this man so much I was going to burst with it. I squeezed him tighter, squashing him until his cracked rib must have been screaming at him. He didn't let go.
It was like a sob building up inside. It was like saying goodbye to your most dearly loved one at the airport, knowing you'll never see them again. Because this—this moment we were sharing now—could not happen again. No matter what Waverly seemed to imply. You cannot exist in the field with that sort of weakness. You cannot love your partner so dearly that you would rescue him above all others, that you would endanger everything for his sake. Waverly knows that. I think he meant something else. I think he meant that we should know each other as well as we know ourselves. Well, we've proved conclusively that we do that. I know Illya and he knows me, and in that tight embrace in our little grey office, we passed it back and forth, that hot ball of longing and... love. We didn't need to go to bed together to find it. It was all settled without that mess, the untidiness and emotional danger of sex.
I don't know how long I held onto him. My arms were aching as much as my heart and the throbbing lump in my throat by the time unspoken mutual consent allowed us to release each other. He tilted his forehead to press it briefly against mine as he withdrew. Like a kiss.
Who could speak straight after an experience like that? We left by the back way, dropping our badges in the slot, rather than having to be sociable at the front desk. I booked out a car and drove him home.
As he was getting out of the car, he leant on the door, looking back in at me, and he smiled softly, the first sign I had seen that he was recovering from what we had done—something which I had yet to do.
'I stand by what I said, Napoleon. We are an incredibly good sexual match.'
He tapped the door, flashed me a smile, and walked off. And because it was him, his body language told me, as clearly as any words, that he was waiting for me to follow him.