Look Harder

by TheRimmerConnection

Disclaimer: No, they're not mine. I am just failing to order them around for a while.

The day that I was partnered officially with Napoleon Solo, I was the happiest man alive. I suddenly had everything I had everything I had ever wanted for myself. I never wanted much, you see. Just the chance to work with someone I truly admired. And I did. I do.

I had seen him in New York Headquarters as I worked on my assigned tasks; heard more about him, even before I came to New York. I had even worked with him a couple of times, accompanying him on assignment, I suspect as part of Mr Waverly's own personal system of personnel distribution. He certainly debriefed the two of us more thoroughly for some of those unremarkable affairs than he has for many more serious and convoluted affairs ever since. In essence, I knew the surface of the man before I met him, some of what lay below before I was partnered with him; but my respect for him only grew as I worked more closely with him and saw how little of his great abilities as an agent were visible to the majority of people, how well he disguised the ruthless core of himself beneath an affable exterior which I could never hope to assume myself. That is something I have never told him I admired.

From the day we were partnered, if my Soviet masters had called me home, I think I would like to have told them where to go (as they say), and I am no defector by nature. My motherland and my adopted home both have their merits and I could have happily made a life in either; but only one of them contains Napoleon Solo. He is the vainest man I know, yet also the least vain, when necessity demands it; the most cock-sure and yet at times the most self-effacing. A man of many contradictions. Perhaps that is why we clicked so quickly. For I, too, am a man of many contradictions.

It did not take me very long to fall in love with him, and to tell the truth, I was not in the least surprised when it happened. I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on. By that time he had overcome his initial nervousness around me—which had manifested itself in a species of bravado and mastery over me, which had merely served to give me a little more insight into the human insecurities to which he, like all the rest of us, is prone. However, once he got over that, he started to treat me as an equal of sorts, and that is when everything began.

Why did I fall in love with him? I don't know, any more than I know why we are naturally so close when one may work perfectly well with another without such a strong and, at times, inconvenient bond. Why does anyone fall in love with anyone else? I think that because of my background, people imagine (and they are not corrected because I do not share them with them), that I have no dreams, no desires But I do. Of course, I desire peace for the world; freedom, in a way; safety. Otherwise, why would I continue to do this work? But I also have my own desires, my own personal dreams. Show me the UNCLE agent who does not have dreams to cling to when he is a prisoner, when he is being beaten; show me a man who does not let his mind wander then to impossible things, and I will show you a madman. All I can say is that Napoleon made it easy for me and although at the time I knew I could never tell him, I have never been the highly sexed creature that he is, and I was content enough to take whatever he gave me all unknowing—a smile, a touch, a word; and he has given me plenty, over the course of time.

I often find Napoleon frustrating, I make no bones about that; but frustration usually gives way to amusement because I know what makes him tick, and if he stopped being his usual, frustrating self, I would miss my good friend. I have always kept a few other friends in town—men and women blissfully ignorant of my real job, with whom I can drink, discuss music or art, enjoy a few hours of semi-relief from the tingle of never-ending danger and intrigue that comes with the UNCLE territory. But not one of them compares to Napoleon. I laugh with them a little, but only he can give me that sheer joy of just being in his company, even when he is being insufferable. No-one else can force me to lose the impenetrable facade I keep up for my own safety, and make me truly laugh until I can't breathe. Which is why I put up with so much from him. It is why I let him mess with my hair, criticise my clothes and fiddle with them, making unnecessary adjustments, of the type I would make to him if he weren't always perfectly dressed, and if I dared indulge my desire to touch him. Most of all, it is why I let him flirt with me, tease me, caress my face, sweet-talk me until I am ready to crumble in front of him and cannot keep myself from smiling, unless it is by snapping at him, making a pretence of a bad mood to put him off the scent.

But please forgive me if this seems at all melancholy. I suppose I have been, a little, but on the whole I have been in love, with a man with whom I have been forced to spend a great deal of my time, and I have been insanely happy, when I had the time to think at all.

As I say, I knew I was in love, but the first time I realised just how bad it was, we were sitting in a bar, with the innocent who had just been dragged through hell with us, all of us enjoying a post-mission drink. It was the first time I had really experienced this sort of situation, though it was one I would come to recognise with a resigned sinking feeling, dulled to the barest ache by familiarity. That first time, however, the pain was sharp and unexpected. She sat between us at the round table, fidgeting her legs around so that they butted alternately into Napoleon's legs and mine. She was flirting with both of us. We had each saved her at various times during the course of the affair and it had gone to her head, as it does. She was trying hard with me, I could see it clearly, so she must have been laying it on thick—I tended to completely ignore advances like that from most girls, back then. Just occasionally I would give in to the necessity of finding a bed-mate and I would wait for a girl with whom I could put up more easily, and smile at her and talk. That always seemed to be enough to net me an agreeable enough night. This one didn't get anywhere at all, so she shifted her focus to Napoleon, who naturally lapped it up, joking with her, sharing long, meaningful looks, showing her silly little tricks with the napkins and brushing back a stray hair or two from her face.

Invulnerable as I was to her charms, the sight of her and Napoleon getting so close, playing the fake mating game so assiduously, shot straight past all my defences and sent shockwaves through me. Burning jealousy filled me like hot gas until I didn't dare speak, but retreated into my drink, watching them, nonetheless, over the rim of the glass. I wanted him. I was in no doubt about that. I wanted to excuse us from her and from the bar, take his hand—damn discretion—and lead him out of the bar, up to a room where I could hold his face in my hands, kiss his lips, enfold him in the Russian bear-hug he'd joked I was too cold and insular to give. I would push my hands up under his clothes, run my palms over his solid muscle, pull him close and press our cheeks together so that I could whisper in his ear, lightly rebuke him for having thought me cold, and find out how good his colloquial Russian was.

I didn't, of course. I waited and watched, and eventually Napoleon offered to walk her back to her room, saying he'd meet me back in ours. I finished my drink alone, swilling the last drops around the glass, watching the way the alcohol stuck to the glass a fraction longer than water would have done. Then I returned to our room, sat on my bed and waited. I waited for an hour, in fact, reading through the hotel literature, Napoleon's notes on the affair, my own notes, the local paper... I waited because I could not sleep without knowing that he was back, this time. I pulled out my gun as the door clicked open, had it trained on him as he came in, his tie a little looser than it had been.

'Me,' he affirmed, with that wry little twist of his lips and eyebrows that suggested he thought I was overdoing it a bit. I suppose I was. I wouldn't do it now, for instance, but although I wasn't green, I did still have the excessive caution that survival school drills into you, and it was worse when I was feeling protective... or possessive, and I certainly was feeling that way.

'You shouldn't have waited up,' he said lightly, as if he didn't really think I had waited up just for him.

'I didn't realise you were going to take coffee with her,' I said, trying to make it sound like I was joking, but it didn't come off, because the unavoidable innuendo was probably the truth.

He frowned a little. 'Sorry. I didn't know I was meant to be on my best behaviour.' I shook my head. I had gone too far and stopping now was the only way to avert the situation.

He stripped off—easy locker-room stripping—totally un-self-conscious, totally unaware that my indifference, my casual disregard for what he was doing, was not only completely false, but a strain I could have killed him for inflicting upon me. I went to the bathroom to change. I didn't trust my genitalia to behave themselves in front of him just then. When I came back, he was sitting up in bed in his pyjamas, waiting for me so that he could go and use the bathroom himself before retiring. I gestured at the door,

'It's free now.' He nodded and got out of bed, swinging his blue-clad legs off the bed, standing up and stretching, every inch of him oozing satisfaction. If he hadn't had sex, he'd had something damn good. I got into my bed and turned out my light. I'd done enough reading for this evening and I could do without the conversation. When he came back, he took it that I was asleep, and I listened to him creak and rustle himself into a comfortable position, shuffle through his notes a time or two, then click off the light. I heard his satisfied little grunt, which my mind linked to his hand falling on his own groin, happy to find it sated and comfortable. More comfortable than my own, which twitched at my thoughts and tried to force me to deal with it. I ignored the temptation—time spent in crowded bunk rooms and boats with dozens of room-mates can make you a master of silent masturbation, but it doesn't help your sanity if the object of your fantasies is only a few feet away and you might just be drunk enough to do something stupid with the addition of your own brain's sex-manufactured drugs.

Then... well, the years went by, and the UNCLE budgets got tighter, and more and more frequently, we found ourselves obliged to share a bed. Initially, we would arrange ourselves with a pillow between our pyjama-clad bodies, but as time went on, I suppose we became more comfortable with each other and just kept to our own sides of the bed, then when it was too hot, or even when it wasn't, but we felt the need for freedom, we went without the pyjamas and I pretended I was one of those all-American football buddies and being naked next to my partner meant nothing more than fraternity and... oh, I don't know, all those ridiculous terms they wheel out to cover all manner of strange goings on at their colleges of education. But Napoleon was used to sharing a bed in the fullest sense, and often closed the gap. I have woken more times than I can remember with his morning erection prodding me in the small of the back, his arm flung carelessly over my midriff, his fingers rising and falling inches from my groin with every breath I took.

We never allowed ourselves the drowsy 'good morning' which is the preserve of those who have shared a bed less innocently. But every time we went on an affair together, we grew closer, a mixture of living and sleeping so near to each other, and spending our working lives depending on each other, looking out for each other, making decisions about whether or not to risk our lives for each other. So eventually sleeping in the same bed, waking up on occasion clutching each other like true lovers, became almost normal, even to the point where I could cope well, could do it without worrying that my body would betray me past the usual, unavoidable, morning problem, which is, at least, not something he would ever think was attributable to him. I liked it. Even though it still made me rueful from time to time, I liked being able to be so close to him, so natural with him. We slipped into easy friendship, teasing each other, flirting, I suppose, in our own way, but on his part, I knew, it was simple friendship, the double entendre of comfortable companionship with somebody who would die in your place without a moment's hesitation.

And yes, I know it is a terrible thing to say, but I half hoped on every affair that he would come back injured, because then I would have him all to myself. Of course, if he is in hospital, I share him with every nurse who enters his room, but even Napoleon flirts with less conviction when he is ill. When I am well and he is sick or injured—a rare occurrence, in fact, for I seem to come off worse from many of our affairs—I will keep an eye on him, stay for hours to watch him sleep, check he is comfortable, bring him supplies and chat to him to keep him sane when he is awake and lucid. I will tease him, make believe I don't care how long it takes him to get well. Then, when he gets home, I will chivvy him up, stop him from moping around—he actually has a tendency towards despair when he is not in action, and he does nothing to counter it—and then I have always stopped and listened to him, so that he knows I do care. Of course, what I did or did not wish for all that time made no difference to what happened in reality, and affair after affair brought about situations that I both wish I had never had to face, and would not have missed for all the world.

We were on an aeroplane, two businessmen travelling to a conference, perhaps. Our flight was to Italy, to follow our quarry, who was travelling by a different flight. As we approached Europe, Napoleon answered his communicator, to be told that our man had swapped flights to one bound for Paris. We were to land in Italy, and the time required to find a connecting flight and get back to France would almost certainly have given him a chance to get thoroughly lost. Somehow we had to find a way to set down in France. Parachuting from the door of a commercial airliner is frowned upon, for some reason. We had to get the plane to land.

Napoleon tucked his communicator away and leant back casually in his seat. He coughed and muttered through his handkerchief to me. 'Get sick, my friend.' I thought for a moment, uncomprehending. He shot a wide-eyed glance at me, looked away and tapped his chest with his knuckles a couple of times. His meaning was clear. I loosened my tie, undoing the top button of my shirt; made my breathing a little more laboured. Not much, just enough to notice. He glanced at me, this time the conscientious colleague, looking out for his partner. I shifted in my seat, mopped my brow with my own handkerchief. I saw his almost imperceptible nod and felt his hand fall on the side of my leg, hidden between our suit jackets. A stewardess was heading down the aisle towards us. His fingers tightened against my leg. At first I thought it was just a reflex reaction to seeing a pretty girl, but then I realised he was signalling: an increase in pressure for an increase in illness.

I gave greater difficulty to my breathing, pulled at my already loose tie, leaned back in my seat, closing my eyes, arching my neck a little. Rubbed my arm for good measure. I heard Napoleon launch into a low-voiced spiel.

'Illya? Illya my friend? Are you all right? Miss, I think my friend is ill.' This to the stewardess, I presumed. 'I think he might need help...' I could hear the faint tinge of panic in his voice. It made me want to grin, he did it so nicely, but instead I let my breathing become still more laboured, then clutched at my chest, jerked in my seat, gave the rest of the plane my very best heart attack and started on a loud series of unpleasant sounding breaths.

'Miss! Miss! Illya! Illya, can you hear me?' He was rubbing at my chest, pulling back my eyelids, playing the inexperienced companion with consummate ease. 'What's wrong with him?' he asked.

The stewardess was beside me in a second, I could smell her light perfume, feel her breath as she bent close, felt my pulse—about which I could do very little—and listened to my breathing. She was trained, but only to help with medical situations, not to diagnose with great accuracy. She called out for a doctor, but to my intense relief, there was none on board, and her decision, that I had suffered a heart attack, had to stand as the most expert one on board. I was lowered to the floor, covered with a blanket, and Napoleon held my hand. I mean, he took it between his own hands and held it tightly, as if I really had just collapsed, and his thumbs rubbed at the flesh on my palms, and he squeezed. Perhaps he was just losing himself in the role, but businessmen do not usually take care of their colleagues to that extent—they are not so used to having life disappear before their eyes. At any rate, I enjoyed the sensation while it lasted, and I relaxed apart from my act of ill-health, while the stewardess went to tell the pilot.

She returned a few minutes later and knelt beside us. 'We are very close to an airfield where we can get medical help. We have radioed ahead and will land there so that your friend may receive treatment. Please, return to your seat sir, for the landing.'

'Thank-you, I'd rather stay here,' Napoleon said and gripped my hand more tightly.

'Sir I cannot allow... It is much safer if you...'

'Please, miss. I'll get a hold of the seat, okay?'

The captain was already making the announcement, informing those passengers who had not eavesdropped on our little charade, that there would be an unscheduled landing. She hesitated for a moment, but I suspect one of Napoleon's charm-the-socks-off-you smiles worked its magic on her and she acquiesced.

Safely down in France, where I had been loaded onto a stretcher and carried out to a small emergency room on the edge of the airfield, Napoleon and I took our chance, as we all waited for the doctors to turn up, to unstrap me and make a run for it, ducking out of the back of the building and running for the perimeter. We were over the wire and scrambling down into an overgrown ditch before they even knew we were gone. We called Headquarters for our position, kept to the cover of the hedgerows for a few miles, then commandeered a car and drove, laughing and joking like fools all the way to Paris, where we found our man, only just landed, and followed him, letting him do all our work for us.

At the end of that affair, when our man was caught red-handed, his work destroyed, his contacts dispensed with, Napoleon excused himself from my company, along with a girl who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up sheltering us in her rooms, at some inconvenience to both her and us. He took her off to some night-spot or other, and I went to find myself a quiet corner in a bar providing soft music and hard drinks. When I got back to the hotel, nowhere near as drunk as the less rational parts of me wanted me to be, I could tell he was back. I could hear the soft rustles inside the room that speak of someone moving within. Even after all this time, I could feel the grip of his hand, back on that aeroplane, and despite his obvious lack of sexual interest in me, the thought warmed me and I was smiling as I slipped my key into the lock.

I walked in, not bothering to knock or wait. After all, it was my room too. And there he was, standing by the window, kissing the girl, whispering something in-between his little kisses. Irritation whirled around my head, followed by an emotion I recognised as extreme jealousy—of her, more than him. I slammed my jacket down hard on the table and they jumped apart. I felt a nasty satisfaction. I am not proud of it, but it is always the same. My day-to-day tolerance of his little affairs snaps at times and... well, I should have better control, but there are some things you can only repress for so long. She was scared of me now—most women find it alarming to suddenly see me like that—I suppose I do not really give them a more pleasant side to latch onto. They appreciate my looks, I understand, though why, I cannot for the life of me think; but they do not understand the subterfuge I employ to hide my true emotions. So she took fright and she left, bidding Napoleon a farewell that was final enough for my needs.

If he was annoyed at me, he didn't show it. He lay on his back on the bed, arms behind his head, whistling at the ceiling in a way I found singularly infuriating, given the circumstances. I perched on the bed next to him and prodded him hard in the stomach. He curled up instinctively.

'Not paying attention?' I jibed.

'Hmm,' he grunted back with that wry little twist of his mouth that tells you he knows the joke's on him and he'll take it with good nature. I was in no mood for it, however.

'Move over,' I ordered him, pulling off my shoes, shedding my suit, my holster, my shirt and tie.

'Ready for bed?' he asked, still happy and teasing. I grunted, ill-humouredly, and he shook his head fondly. Yes, fondly. He was fond of me. That fact destroyed my equilibrium on a regular basis.

'Sorry, I shouldn't have brought her back here. I should have known you'd want an early night.'

And I could not hold onto my anger. He can do that sometimes. Just apologise and truly make it all okay. I didn't bother to hide the fact that I was watching him as he undressed that night. He didn't notice, or he did, but chose not to say anything or acknowledge the fact in any way. Instead, he took his time, folded his clothes neatly, wandered around the room putting things ready for the morning, giving me ample time to gaze at his body in the drowsy, evening-yellow glow of the bedside lamps. I think he did know. He made up for his earlier crassness with practised ease, giving me something I craved, without a thought for what it might mean to me.

So of course I was twitchy for the next few days, yearning to touch him, wishing I was stupid enough to make a move on him. I didn't, and the feeling faded back to manageable levels.

At the end of another affair, after a fight where we had allowed Section Three men to take to majority of the damage, I found myself lying on the floor, aware that it was all over, and that, apart from having cracked my head on the floor and knocked myself out for a second or two, I was unhurt. Napoleon appeared in my field of vision, smiling, also uninjured, and ready to help me up. I took the hand he offered me, levered myself up with it, and felt his barely noticeable squeeze before he let go. I met his eyes with a barely concealed grin, my body thrumming with contentment. I was with Napoleon, he was with me, and that connection burned brightly between us. We could go home now, affair complete, world put to rights; and we would open a bottle or two, slump on his fat, decadent sofa together, lean on each others' shoulders and drowse late into the night, speaking when we wanted to, relaxing in comfortable silence when we didn't.

I got into the car next to him, letting him do the driving today. I stretched and let my left arm fall along the back of the seat, my fingers brushing his shoulders when he leaned back. He settled back on purpose, pushing against my hand, conscious of what he was doing, I was sure.

'I want to know what Lewis was doing with those codes,' he said, glancing at me. 'He should never have been in a trusted enough position to acquire them.'

'No. They had to be stolen, or, at least, taken under false pretences.'

'Hmm. I'd like to venture that THRUSH didn't have a clue what was going on there. Particularly about the food.' He turned and smiled one of his really blazing smiles at me. My heart jumped and I smiled back, poking the back of his neck.

'You're just jealous that you didn't get the time I did to sample it.' I had certainly had ample time to determine the high quality of the provender available at the complex. 'I'll describe it to you when we get back, if that will help.'

He shot me a would-be sour look, but it cracked into a smile and he shook his head. 'Okay. Do your worst, my friend. But you'll have to wait for your moment of glory. I've got a date.'

My heart sank. Literally. I could feel it drop from its fluttering, comfortable perch, and land gasping, floundering somewhere in the pit of my stomach. We hadn't even been involved with any girls on this affair, innocent or otherwise.

'Who?' I asked, miserably. He shrugged.

'Oh, just a girl from records. I promised her. I'm already a day late. In fact, you couldn't...?' I picked up on his train of thought and shuffled in my seat, bringing my arm down off the backrest to dig in my pocket for the money-clip holding the last of the bills I had drawn for this affair. It was expenses money, anyway—for once I had managed to get some money up front, rather than having to deplete my own resources and then claim back.

'Here. That's all I've got. You'd better be cheap with her.'

He took the money with no shame whatsoever and patted me on the knee. 'Thanks. I'll, uh...'

'I know.' He grinned and returned his hand to the wheel, and I resigned myself to yet another evening alone with my thoughts.

That wasn't the only time he did that to me, by any means. You can't expect to spend all your free time with your partner—in fact, many of the other Section Two and Three agents would recoil in horror at the idea of spending even more time with the men they have to work with for days on end—but I lived for time together when we weren't acting or running for our lives, and Napoleon never showed any sign that he wanted to get away from me. Nevertheless, he always had an uncanny habit of picking the times when I needed him the most to go off on a personal mission with some girl or other, and who could blame him? Who'd choose a sullen Russian over an effervescent little redhead with curves in all the right places?

One cosy night when we were both on leave, on an October day, when the temperature was just starting to drop and the nights were drawing in, making the prospect of staying in with a good friend and a bottle of something very appealing.

We sat there, staring into the crackling fire, pulling the day's newspaper to bits, rolling the sheets into balls and throwing them into the fire, making a competition of how accurately we could hit the logs, watching those that bounced back out for signs of being alight. We competed with the fervour of those off the leash, throwing mischievous glances at each other, deadly serious about wanting to win, even as we knew it was entirely silly. I was full, contented, ready to doze off next to him. Then he looked at his wristwatch. Eight o'clock: time to go dancing, I suppose. He got up.

'Sorry, Illya. comfortable as this is, I have a date to keep, and I can't break it.'

'Who?' I asked, without really wanting to know.

'Louise from records. We're only going dancing, but I did promise.' Yes, and your eyes promised me I could stay. I thought morosely, already staring to dig myself down into a little trench of maudlin for the remainder of the evening. Napoleon looked slightly remorseful. I suspect he knew he should have told me earlier.

I got up, pulling myself reluctantly out of the soft cushions, and together we prepared to leave. It seemed, in a way, that neither of us particularly wanted to go, but maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. He watched me quite openly as he buttoned his coat.

'Next time, I'll try to keep the evening clear. Okay?' I didn't know why he had said that, so I didn't answer. He nodded and smoothed my coat collar, though it was already straight.

When we left his apartment, we were obliged to turn in opposite directions, and I smiled pleasantly at him as he gave me that odd little salute he uses when he knows he's in the wrong. Then I turned my back on him with a great effort, resisting the need to scream my frustration at him. A quote from somewhere or other fluttered through my mind, repeating itself, building itself in self-recognition to a litany, a cacophony of awareness, until I muttered the phrase out loud and it vanished into the sky, chasing its own meaning. 'Praying to a god I didn't believe in for a miracle that could never happen.'

One night in particular is burned into my memory. We were the guests of a prince in some eastern principality—a man of roughly my age, whose position we had just defended, successfully, against a THRUSH-backed usurper. Napoleon thought my hair was too long for the formal occasion of the prince's celebratory dinner, and had stood me in front of the mirror in our room to demonstrate it to me. His fingers brushed down my hair so softly and I was alarmed to notice in the mirror, that when he did it, my head tilted, unbeknownst to me, into the touch. He laid his palm on my cheek and laughed. He was relaxed; the affair was over, he was almost on leave, and there were no girls around to distract him.

I fended off his comments about hairdressers and we went to dinner together. He needn't have been so concerned; it was an informal, men-only meal, and I was content to discuss local politics with the neighbour on my right, or to watch Napoleon holding forth about some trivial notion on my left.

The prince was a good humoured man, who seemed genuinely to like us. After dinner, he ushered us through to one of the comfortable lounge rooms, where I enjoyed his really quite interesting company for an hour or two. Like me, he had attended an English university, and we swapped tales of our student days while Napoleon looked on, chipping in with a related anecdote of his own from time to time. The prince did not run these private rooms as a court, and the other guests came and went as they pleased, eventually leaving me and Napoleon alone with him.

'I was going to invite one of you to take a late supper with me in my rooms,' he said with no preamble as the door shut. But I see you are spoken for.'

I guessed at his meaning and didn't know what to do. Trust Napoleon to stick his nose out.

'Spoken for?' he asked quizzically.

'The two of you—you are not together? Partners?'

'Oh!' Napoleon's face relaxed. 'Partners, yes, we are.'

The prince nodded. 'Pity.' He curled up like a cat in his chair, watching us for a while, as we sat there, trying to find a new topic of conversation. Shortly, however, he seemed to tire of it, and excused himself. Then I escaped back to our room, with Napoleon hot on my heels.

I had assumed that Napoleon had missed the prince's meaning, but as he shut the door, Napoleon sank back against it, grinning at me.

'He thought we were lovers, Illya!' he laughed. I didn't know how to respond. For Napoleon to laugh had to mean it was a ridiculous idea, impossible.

'I know,' I said.

He came to me, laughing and I knew he was just fooling around, but I couldn't help laughing along with him as he grabbed me around the waist—a thing I firmly aver that no-one else in the world, outside of the Soviet Union at least, may do to me without incurring my displeasure. He swung me around, no mean feat in that position as I weigh much the same as him. I laughed along and grabbed his shoulders to steady myself, and we fell on the bed, still laughing. He ruffled my hair and I grumbled at him, repositioning my emotionless mask with a great deal of difficulty. I can honestly say that no-one back at UNCLE headquarters would have believed their eyes if they had seen what we just did. They would not believe it of either of us, and as we lay side by side, occasionally glancing at each other to see what we were thinking, the knowledge that he had done that so easily faded like a dream until I barely believed it myself.

With my weapon gone and a gun pointed straight at me, there was no sensible choice but surrender. Napoleon was nowhere to be seen—I just hoped that he would make it before I was taken off to some dark room in an unknown building.

I raised my hands in he air, rested them down on my head, signalled surrender with my eyes. He grinned at me—a vile look on his face, his gun was levelled at my chest and I stayed motionless, not wishing to give him any reason to fire. I watched his grin contract to a nasty smirk, and was powerless to do anything as his finger tightened on the trigger and he fired.

I dropped, feeling pain of unexpected intensity spreading from the right side of my chest, suddenly gasping to breathe, too shallow, too painful. As soon as I was down, it was as if he lost interest in me. He holstered his gun. If I could have moved, I could have shot him. He turned and started to jog away.

Suddenly Napoleon was by my side. He grabbed my wrist, checked my pulse. Anger seemed to radiate from him—he had seen my surrender, seen the shot fired.

'Don't move Illya, I'll be right back.' He squeezed my hand. I couldn't even squeeze back, only listen to the odd whistles and gurgles coming from my chest. Napoleon belted off after the man. I watched him through half closed eyes, aware of a certain lightness beginning to counteract the pain in my chest.

Napoleon caught the man just before he reached the door that would have secured his liberty. He grabbed his shirt collar, twisted it, used his momentum to slam him against the wall, followed him down to the ground. Then he did something I have never seen him do. I have done it, when I was younger, and possibly less controlled, but not Napoleon. But there it was: he beat the man to death. Napoleon doesn't fight dirty. He'll fight to survive, and use whatever means are necessary to do that, injure, knock out, kill; but I had never seen him mad like this. And it could only be a kind of madness that made him keep on hitting when the man was already down and out. I knew my partner was a dangerous man. We are all dangerous men, but my partner hides it better than most.

I watched him roll the body viciously over the edge, then take a single breath and run back to me. He sagged down next to me, and only his laboured breathing revealed what he had just done. He pulled me so gently into his arms, the madness had left him and all I could see in his eyes was fear, which was only increased when he realised, for the first time, that Mr Waverly had made one of his occasional forays into the field and come to check up on our exploits.

'I am very glad, Mr Solo, that I had already taken the time to extract his information before you made the decision to deprive that gentleman of his life.' Napoleon's grip on me tightened fractionally. 'I trust there was a good reason for it?'

I could see, blurrily, Napoleon trying to form a reason that did not include personal revenge, but Mr Waverly looked piercingly at us, then waved his hand. 'Still, no real harm done. He was probably too dangerous to leave alive.'

There is only one benefit that I can see to constantly being in and out of UNCLE Medical. (I can see no concomitant benefits in visits to other hospitals.) That is the familiarity of the surroundings upon waking from anaesthetic or whatever other state of unconsciousness you've managed to get yourself into. After the first five or six times, I have not suffered that severe disorientation upon waking, so my heart rate now remains steady and I do not feel that moment of panic. It helped this time that Napoleon was sitting in a chair near my bed, reading some report or other. Although he maintained that cool, unworried state we make believe represents our true feelings, I saw a brief flash of pure relief cross his face.

'Welcome back,' he said.

'Thank-you,' I replied.

'How do you feel?' he asked. I considered for a second. Woozy would have been the most honest answer, but I chose:

'Starving. Will you get me some food?' Familiarity does not induce acceptance of the taste of the food in Medical. We assume it works on the basis of nasty things being good for you, but that is no real comfort.

'Shall I get a nurse?' he asked, a twinkle in his eye as he got to his feet, slipping the reports into a folder. I looked daggers at him, so he went on, 'Well, I suppose I could fetch you in some gruel?'

I raised an ironic eyebrow. 'Bring me something edible.'

He grinned. 'Well, what then? I'm not bringing in a steak in my pocket again—that nurse can smell them out at two hundred paces.'

'Then just bring me some borscht.' Why is it that being under-the-weather makes you long for the stuff of your childhood?

'What kind?' I could have hugged him. That's what a perfect partner does—knows that plain beetroot is not the only decent soup.

'Borscht with body. Meat and potato would be good.'

He didn't even ask where to get it. He just came up to the bed and ran his hand through my hospital-sticky hair. I don't know why I let him do that. Anyone else who did it would find themselves on the floor with a sore jaw. I suppose it's a privilege earned by being willing to smuggle in borscht.

I held out until he was gone before I threw up. Clearly, having been kept under for three days, just to make sure, my body and my brain had different ideas about the prospect of food at the moment. Napoleon would know, of course, but he'd still bring the food, and chat up the nurse and blow me a kiss from the door, not realising that that made me feel more sick than the prospect of solid food.

I could hear him, although he sounded distant, but I couldn't get my mouth to form words; couldn't persuade my limbs to move. He was trying every trick in the book to bring me around, and although I felt too detached to really care, I was still grateful.

'Illya, wake up!' He slapped my face—I noticed a faint sensation, relating roughly to my own cheek, though it seemed to come from miles away.

'Illya, I'm not carrying you.' He dragged me to my feet, prised one eye open, but I could not see out of it—my brain was otherwise engaged. He gripped my arms, supporting my weight as I leaned unwittingly against him. Then he bent down and flung me over his shoulder.

'Okay, I am carrying you.' He started forward, the motion meant nothing to me, it was all so far away. 'You need to eat less, my friend,' he gasped. I dreamed about the wind blowing past my face, and a man who held me in his arms and made the world a very, very safe place.

I laid the explosives carefully all around the barrels containing the formula the enemy had fought so hard to prevent us from seizing. Napoleon waited outside, I knew, covering the only way in and out. The thought warmed me from top to bottom. We had had a hard time getting in, and for once, he had taken the brunt of it and was labouring under the accumulated discomfort of a hundred cuts and bruises. It had been one of those fights where you are suddenly insanely glad that you no longer have a spleen left in you to rupture. Still, he was grinning and giving me the thumbs up as he waved me in to do my favourite job, his hands instantly back around his fully-assembled Special, jammed back against his aching arm. I laid my hand on his shoulder for a fraction of a second as I passed him, wishing for him strength and concentration.

I pulled the fuses out of my belt and set to priming the explosives. The quantities and positioning were crucial. I did not want anything to be left intact, or even in pieces you could pick up with your fingers, but I did not want to bring the roof down. The whole building was a potential death trap if fire got out of that room—I could see the flame-runs between the floors, the lack of alternative exits, the flammable building materials—and we were unlikely to have made it all the way out before the fuses blew. I would have to time them, I wanted to be further away than radio detonation would allow, but the micro-timers I was using did not allow for a very long time-lapse.

I was sorry not to watch this one—the crump! of an explosion is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world; the way you feel it through your toes, the thrill of knowing that if you get it wrong, the blast could rip your intestines out through your nose. Add to that the satisfaction of knowing that you have just thrown one more spanner in the works of those who wish you ill, and all told, it makes for a very fine job.

I set the final fuse, initiated the timer, and got out of there. Napoleon was still outside, a couple of bodies at the far end of the corridor told me he'd been busy, and I nodded my head sideways towards them. He nodded back and we ran down the passage, jumping over the corpses together, leaping down the stairs, swinging around the corner, Napoleon's weapon held ahead of him, ready to fire even if he were hit first.

Perhaps I made a slight miscalculation. I know they think I'm too good for that—I am the best explosives man they have — but even I can be fooled by a badly mixed bit of marzipan. I think I may have been a little over-enthusiastic, but it didn't matter much. We were near the exit when the blast came after us, picking us up and flinging us towards the doors. I laughed as we sped towards the floor, had the laugh knocked out of me by the impact. Napoleon picked himself up first, anxious to get off his bruised torso, and reached down to me, shaking his head at the grin on my face.

'Idiot,' he said fondly, pushing open the door, pulling me up and through it, brushing the dust off his hands as he bent to retrieve his gun.

We hid in the gully beside the building, watched the guards running to the entrance, all dashing inside, probably half of them destined to die when the middle of the place caved in a few minutes later. We crept out of the compound when the coast was clear, and ran a mile or so to our pick-up point, where we collapsed behind a bush and waited for our relief. I was so happy that day. We had completed our assignment, I had played with fire and survived, and Napoleon was with me, our shoulders heavy against each other as we slowly recovered and drowsed, each in turn, while the other kept watch.

Another affair, another woman. Not so innocent this time. Napoleon has a dangerous, risk-taking streak when it comes to women—less comprehensible to me than the general risk-taking with our lives in which I am happy to indulge while it remains thrilling and full of interest and excitement. This one was an admitted THRUSH, a beautiful killer, five foot nine in her heels and bouffant hair, smoky-eyed and honey-tongued; and my partner was all over her, playful and temporarily besotted; fully aware of the risk and convinced he could handle her, which I had no real doubt he could. I thought we had lost her, and I was just starting to relax, when she appeared in the bar, smiling like the deadly creature she was, and making a beeline for Napoleon.

'Well, hello again!' My smooth partner in full seduction mode, ignoring the fact that I was right by his shoulder, in my customary place.

'Hello!' she replied. Oh, good, she was responding. I rolled my eyes, unseen by either of them—they only had eyes for each other, or at least they were only letting themselves have eyes for each other.

'You, ah, looked excessively pretty at that party last night. I was very sorry to have to leave without saying goodbye.' He kissed her hand and I shook my head. I couldn't believe it. The woman was poison, and he knew it. I nudged him in the back, but he ignored me. 'Would you do me the honour of allowing me to take you for a drink? Somewhere a little more private?' She was nodding. What could I do? I fixed my eyes on his ear until he felt my gaze and remembered he had company.

He turned slightly to me, grinning at his apparent conquest, turned it into an apologetic shrug.

'Where are you going?' I hissed at him. He laid a placating hand on my arm.

'Leo's. Don't worry. I won't let her get me alone, my friend,' he murmured. I gave him a disbelieving look.

'And when you take her to bed?'

'If I take her to bed, I swear I'll call to ask your permission first. Deal?' His eyes twinkled at me, and I caved in.

'Oh, do what you like. Just don't expect me to come and rescue you.' He squeezed my arm and then turned and held out his crooked elbow to that woman. I dug my hands into my pockets to stop myself throwing them in the air in despair, and I wished I could stop him.

Napoleon staggered up off the chair, trying to make his way towards me in a straight line, but failing, weaving his way across to the left before turning with the deliberate care of the very drunk, and trying to get to me from a different angle. I grabbed his arm as he sailed past me, and felt his weight drop against me. I held him up, trying to keep my face straight and severe, when all I wanted to do was laugh. The enemy was gone, but she'd trussed him up as cleverly as if he were bound in chains.

He stared at me with those big brown eyes, dilated pupils playing havoc with my good intentions. He licked his lips with a dry tongue and shrugged apologetically in incongruous self-recognition.

'I think,' he slurred, 'th't 'm a lot drunker th'n should be.' He lost his balance and sank to his knees next to me, giggling. I left him there and went to sniff his glass. The drop of liquid in the bottom knocked me back; and strong alcohol and I are not exactly strangers.

'I'm not surprised,' I said, returning to his side and pulling him to his feet where I could get an arm around his waist. 'That stuff smells lethal.'

'Hmm...mmm...mmm' he hummed. I looked away from him and smiled where he couldn't see it. I don't often get to see Napoleon drunk. He holds his drink well and is careful not to get drunk, though I've seen him fake it often enough. I enjoyed it though—there is something... he is desirable when his eyes are unfocussed and his smile is suddenly goofy and untrained. More desirable, I mean. I pulled him against me to support him and he flung a heavy arm around me, which slid down my back as he lost control of it, until his suit cuff buttons caught in my waistband and his hand dangled there, slapping against my hip. He turned his face to look at me and breathed a powerful jet of alcoholic breath. I closed my eyes and felt a slobbery, drunken kiss land on my cheek, slide across my skin to land in the corner of my mouth. I allowed myself a single second of daydream, one isolated moment of imagining if he were not drunk, and the kiss were not quite so messy. Then I opened my eyes and half-dragged him, singing, down the corridor and stairs, to where the relief team I had called were just entering the lobby and the contingent from Medical were ready to take him off my hands. As they took him away, he looked back at me, his eyes wide and mournful.

'Don' leave me...' he called, trying to get the medics to stop. 'Illy! Illlllllyyyyyyy! Come hol' my hand...' He was still calling that stupid abbreviation of my name as they bundled him into the waiting ambulance and I turned to get back to work on the clean-up. My brain helpfully put the name into Russian for me, leaving me with the knowledge that if either of us died now, the last words he would have said to me were 'Or...or...or!' 'Or what? Napoleon?!' I wanted to shout back at him, but he would be in no state to dredge up his dreadful Russian and work out what I meant. I shook my head and pulled out my gun and lock-picks to make a start on checking the locked rooms for information.

There it was. As usual he had run off with the woman, and as usual, he had looked to me when the deed was done. It struck me for the first time that, in fact, he was as reliant on me for support and a greater friendship than I ought to offer, as I was on him. A pair of prize fools, rushing about our lives, pretending that we leaned on each other's shoulders to stop ourselves falling over, when in fact we did it stop ourselves falling into each other's arms.

Eventually I felt trapped with him in limbo—in my own mind we were lovers in all but reality; lacking only that final act, performed consciously and without the subterfuge of pretence, to make it real. The way he behaved towards me had changed over the years, from the first days as uncomplicated colleagues, through growing trust and friendship, to dependency and a kind of symbiosis we could no longer ignore. I knew he loved me, was in love with me. I was certain of it, but I wasn't going to ask him. In case I was wrong.

It was the end of another ludicrous affair, latest in what seemed at the time to be a never-ending line of stupid, or downright unbelievable situations. We had seen them all through, just as this one had been completed after spending two days stuck in the tunnels with him, sleeping up against his shoulder, in the circle of his willing arm, waking to find him gazing at me by the light of a match, and wondering why he looked at me like that one moment, and ignored me the next. Maybe he was wondering the same thing about me.

I was soaked to the skin, spitting water, my hair poking into my eyes. I could have done with a comradely hug. You may not believe it, but it's true: just sometimes this self-sufficient Russian needs some of the contact he was so used to as a child and young adult, in the country where not to hug your friends, your associates, even, is unthinkable. Napoleon looked at me with an expression with which we are both perhaps too familiar. When I use it, I mean, 'You are my friend, but I am not getting wet and filthy just to help you out when you'll manage perfectly well on your own.' I imagine Napoleon means the same. Only this time he also meant that he was abandoning me, again, to go off with the girl I had rescued—at some personal peril, I might add. He nodded to me and saluted carelessly.

'Be good. Go and get yourself warmed up—I don't want you catching a chill,' he called to me, sounding altogether too happy for my taste.

That was when I decided. I had liked the girl. I could have taken her out to dinner, taken her to bed even, if I had wanted to, but she would not have made me feel any better. The only person who could do that was walking away with that attractive little thing, and I was not going to take it any more. I watched him go until I felt my eyes prick, and I blessed the water trickling down my face from my hair that meant I could pretend, even to myself, that this man could not do this to me.

'Napoleon!' I called after him when I had made certain my eyes would stay dry. He was still just within earshot.

He turned around, questioning, cupping his hand around his ear to make me aware that he could only just hear me, his mouth open in that curious way that seems to allow us to hear better—lips drawn back over teeth, jaw dropping foolishly.

'Come back here, please!' I shouted. He seemed to say something to the girl, patted her on the arm, left her where she was and came back to me at a jog-trot.

'Yes, Illya?' he said, obviously torn between worry, irritation and confusion. I pushed my hair out of my eyes and grabbed his wrist—I did not want him leaving before I had had my say. He looked down, then gave me a reproachful look for the water mark spreading up his sleeve from where my wet hand touched his cuff.

'Napoleon, I am wet, I am cold, I rescued that girl and you are just walking off with her, like you always do.'

'Now Illya,' he countered smoothly, 'I hate to point it out, my friend, but you are hardly in any condition to take a young lady out to dinner.'

I spluttered, 'I don't want to take her out to dinner, Napoleon! I just want you not to. I just want you to go for just one affair without running off with some girl or other straight afterwards and leaving me to go through all the clean-up on my own. Your company would actually be greatly appreciated,' I added, unaccountably feeling slightly sorry for him as his face dropped.

'Hell, Illya, I'm sorry. But I can't just leave the girl, she...'

'Oh, Mr Waverly is waiting a few miles down the road. Why not call him to take her out? She's his type,' I finished acidly. Napoleon shrugged. Again that thought shot through me: he doesn't care who the girl is or whether she's any good for him. It's just another date among thousands.

'I am fed up with it. Every time. Every affair, if there's a girl involved, off you swan with her. You string me along all the time, then, poof! you have a shot at a girl and whether you like her or not, off you go. Well I've had it up to here with it.' I indicated the level of my eyes and he blinked at me, looking genuinely confused. 'Why do you do it?' I asked recklessly.

'Because, Illya, I need—hell, you don't understand. It doesn't seem to matter to you if you only get laid once a year. I need more than that. Ah, a pretty girl is a pretty girl, you know.'

'You don't love them.' I couldn't help it. He doesn't.

'No.' He paused, reviewed what he had said, waved a hand to negate it. 'I mean, I do love them. How could you not love those delicate bodies, those breas-' He stopped and flashed me a rueful look, aware that this wasn't necessarily the best direction in which to take the conversation. 'I'm not in love with them, it's true.'

'Then why do it?' I asked. I knew exactly why, but... 'Why not find some girl at home and be content with that? You've got the whole secretarial pool for a start.' And I can avoid watching you working your magic on them, I thought to myself.

'Look, Illya, these girls — they are fairly safe and always willing. I get frisky at the end of an affair, you know.' And in the middle, too, I added in my head. 'They're a much better option than just taking what I really want.'

My heart started to race in idiotic anticipation. 'Why? What is it you really want?' I asked levelly.

'Something I can't have,' he replied, digging his hands deep into his pockets.

He wouldn't discuss it any more, and I sighed and let him go, watching him all the way to the car, lifting my eyes to the sky as I saw him slip his arm around her waist and fall into that easy act he does to make them all fall in love with him; wishing I didn't get the fall-out from it.

I watched him simper over her, adjusting her coat long after she was comfortable, kissing her hand, making eyes all the time. She was no-one. She was not important to the success of our mission. She wanted him, oh yes, even I could see that, but to play up to her like this... I had told him we had to hurry, but he can be so sure of himself, he just smiled at me and said,

'There's plenty of time Illya. A gentleman doesn't just abandon the lady when there's a choice.' He raised that infuriating eyebrow at me, looked at his watch, decided it was, after all, time to go, and bid her 'adieu'.

We were not late—I almost wish we had been, just to prove the point — but he never jeopardizes the mission, never. On the other hand, because we could not get into the building by the front door so close to the rendezvous time, we had to creep right around the edge of the roof, watching our footing rather than the enemy, and then creep in under the vents, when earlier we might have had the option of the easier route. I gashed my head on the underside of a metal heating duct and he wrecked the knees of his suit, crawling around on the gritty flat roof. I consoled myself with the thought that Mr Waverly would be quizzing him hard about that with the current budget restraints.

When it was all over, and we were driving back to the inn, with the wind ruffling our hair, to pick up our things before heading back to town, Napoleon was all charm and seemed to have forgotten my earlier annoyance entirely. He asked me whether I'd mind taking the car back to the garage while he stayed around the inn, he'd find some transport back in the morning and... but I cut him off before he could get the girl's name into it.

'That's it. Positively it. Just one more time, Napoleon, and I leave. I go. I hand in my notice and you can get on with it without me.' I was shaking all over—he must have been able to see it. I could not believe what I had said. What if I had to carry it through? There was nothing I wanted to do less. Nothing filled me with such a feeling of dread and utter emptiness. How could I go? How could I leave this ultimately satisfying life? Leave him? Although, I thought to myself, it might be better. What good are two men, so involved with each other as to be impossibly distracted from the main purpose of an affair, to the Command? If I dropped him off now, I could leave, dignity intact, hand in my notice, take my papers and go. It would be better. It would be safer. Given what I had just revealed about my need for him to be there for me, it might be the only option. I pulled in to the side of the road, up against the first row of trees on the edge of the forest. It was deserted, silent except for the birds singing out the end of the day in the twilight of late evening.

He had gone deadly pale. 'Okay. Ah...' he began, then he looked at my deadly serious face — uncontrollable shaking and all—and his face seemed to collapse and he shook his head violently. 'No!' he muttered frantically, then more loudly, 'Illya, no! I...' His hands waved stupidly in the air, ran through his hair, deranging it as he never does. I watched him uncertainly. 'Damn!' he shouted, turning away from me, staring out of the side window, his hands back in his hair. He took a deep breath. I watched his shoulders rise and fall as he fought to make his voice come out quiet and calm. 'Illya, I'm sorry.'

'Well, that makes it all fine then, doesn't it?' I huffed. He hung his head and a wave of remorse washed over me.

I was so busy wondering at it, that I nearly missed his whispered, 'I love you.'

It took me a few seconds to register it. 'What?' I croaked. Ach, why does your throat go dry at moments like this?

'Illya. You-' He paused, turned to face me. 'You're what I can't have. You are my temptation.' He stopped again, rested his hands on the dashboard. 'I, ah, love you,' he said, not looking me in the eye.

'I know.' Well, I wasn't lying. I did know. Very deep down. I'd known for a long time. It was nice to have it confirmed though.

'You, er, do?' he said warily. I shrugged, kept my hands purposefully in my lap, non-aggressive, non-defensive. Whatever he wanted, he could do it. So long as it kept him here.

He swivelled in his seat as best he could, leant as close as we had become accustomed to standing — that is, far too close for most American men. I waited, following his eyes with my own. He watched me for a while, his hands halfway to my arms, not quite able to touch me now. His eyes moved across my face, until I felt he was mapping every inch of it. A couple of times, he opened his mouth, started to speak, but couldn't get anything out. Then he raised a hand, cupped his palm around my cheek—a thing he has done many times before to hold me still to see how tired I am, or to emphasise a point, or just to provide a friendly touch. I closed my eyes. I could no longer look at him while he was so questioning.

I felt his warm breath across my cheek before his lips pressed into the hollow where my closed eyelid met my nose and I caught my breath and felt myself melting stupidly into him. I stopped myself, pulled together the little sense I had left and stiffened. His lips pulled away, leaving a ghost of sensation upon my eyelid.

'Do you mind? Illya?' he asked softly. I opened my eyes, found his eyes just a few inches from my own. He looked concerned, worried. I smiled at him, I had to, my face wouldn't stay straight. I laid my hands on his shoulders, my smile broke into a grin, and I watched as he mirrored it.

'I don't,' I said, resting my forehead against his.

It was awkward, being stuck like this, and too exposed. The last of the light was gone, but with the open top, a single car's headlights would easily have picked us out, revealed what we were doing. He pulled back and got out of the car. I shuffled across the seats to get out of the same side, barking my shin on the gear-change and almost losing a shoe to the brake. We wound up shielded from the road by the car and the trees on either side of us. Not as well hidden as I might have liked, but well enough that we could crouch down if we heard a vehicle approaching. He stared at me and I reached out, dragging his head to mine, making him stumble to catch his balance, so that he ended up pressed against me, the hot, hard groin pushing against my own leaving me in no doubt that we would never be able to stop at a simple kiss.

But whatever I had envisaged in my years of dreaming about my first time with this suave, gentlemanly man, this was not it. A primitive rutting in the darkness of the shadows behind the car parked among the trees was not part of my hazy fantasy vision, daydreamed while hanging in manacles or hiding in scrubland. I had seen us stretched out together on clean, crisp sheets — at home, mine or Napoleon's, or in a hotel somewhere—taking things slowly, gently learning each other with hands and lips before making the decision of whether or not we needed that last gesture of penetration—of trust and completion.

Nowhere in my fantasy did we do what we did now, each as desperately as the other after that one long kiss—a life-time's worth. I should have known better, even in my wildest, most secret imaginings, I should not have forgotten that he and I are alike, far beyond the bare symmetry of our working life, in contrast to the complementary differences of our skills and strengths. We share what our fellow agents do not see of us, but ought to guess, knowing, as they do, that we are the best partnership in the Command. We are both killers, both authorised to do what most of the normal, pedestrian world barely dares to whisper about; both determined, both driven by something not quite wholesome, for all our genuine ideals of world peace and safety. I am his mirror—albeit a distorting, carnival side-show mirror—and he is mine, so I knew, but had not admitted it, that those years of desperation, of frustration and longing were not only shared, but liable to be redoubled in someone who needs the physical act of love as much as I need food and frequent solitude.

That single kiss—lips to lips, not bothering to open our mouths and press deeper, because that is what Napoleon does with all his women, and I am not one of them. Then I was on my knees in the dirt, scrabbling at his clothes, freeing his rock-hard penis to cast a barely-visible silhouette in the warm night air. I covered it with my mouth for the first time, not to give him pleasure, but only to get him wet, here where we had no lubrication of any kind to hand, save what we could make ourselves. Then, when he was dripping with my saliva, and I had touched myself with fingers loaded with my own spittle, his hands clenching in my hair all the while; I stood, twisted myself around, pushing my clothes out of the way, spreading my legs, offering myself to him, feeling not the least hint of humiliation, which I would have expected if you had asked me beforehand.

I didn't care that I wasn't ready; that we were both inexperienced at this; that it hurt as he pushed ungently into me; that I was far too dry, despite the drops of fluid oozing out of me all the time as I fondled myself because he was too preoccupied to do it, so that it was uncomfortable in the extreme when he surrendered his control and began to thrust hard. It was of no consequence, because this was simply the result of our combined frustration at the necessity of always lying: the splintering of the make-believe happiness we had made ourselves believe was enough.

I buried my head in my crooked arm, leaning our weight on the narrow edge of the car door, and barely kept myself upright as I came, shuddering around him.

He felt my orgasm, heard me and slipped an arm around me, across my chest, pulling me back against him, and I waited as he held me and pushed harder into me, until I felt as if he would break right through me, maybe already had, if I had dared to look down, which I didn't.

Then he came in me, and his other arm slipped around me and we leaned against the cold metal and glass, only his arms between me and it.

I sobbed under him as he withdrew, because it hurt, and because he was gone. Then he turned me around and I gasped as my back hit the chill of the car's bodywork. He looked a little sad.

'That was careless, Illya,' he said, closing his eyes for a moment to swallow a heavy breath. I laid a hand on his chest, on the white shirt and his tie pulled halfway loose.

'I have always known you are more dangerous than you look,' I said firmly.

He tucked his shirt back in and ran a hand through his hair, looking quite lost. I felt sorry for him. I always was better at rationalising the emotional things than he is.

'Are you going back to the inn?' I asked. I know it was tactless, but my pride was mortally wounded a long time ago.

'No,' he said, and left it like that. He understood my need to hear it. Of course he did.

'Well, that's just as well, because I'm not driving in this condition.'

He looked me up and down, his face crumpling in sorrow for what he had done, but I was damned if I was going to let him apologise for something I had wanted so badly.

'No,' I warned, before he could even shape the word. 'No apologies. I'm not complaining. Just try to avoid the pot-holes.' That made him smile a little, and he touched my arm and headed around to the driver's side.

I got in and lowered myself carefully onto the seat. It stung: no doubt I had various interesting tears and bruises that were going to play merry hell for a few days, but it was nothing I couldn't deal with. We've both suffered far worse on affairs we'd label injury-free.

I held his communicator up to his lips while he drove so that he could report in, and his breath over my fingers made my whole body tingle. If he tried to leave me tonight, I would throw him to the ground, punch him out and drag him home with me without a second's thought. Instead, and rather more rationally, I waited until he had drawn up outside my building, then said,

'Come in.' He stared at me for a second.

'You sure?' he asked. He'd never been into my apartment. I'd been in his plenty, but then he has the Section Two standard, which, while not exactly luxurious, is comfortable and slightly bigger than necessary, with a spare room—a sort of sop to the fact that we don't spend as much time there as we'd like and will, likely as not, never set foot in it again every time we leave for work. In comparison, I have held on, by choice, to the apartment I was given when I first joined UNCLE. What you might call graduate entry level. Not the tiniest little one room affairs they give to some of the secretarial and security staff, but only a pull-down bed in the main room, and a kitchen and bathroom off to the side.

I like my privacy, too. I like having somewhere that only I go. Where I can leave my possessions lying around and not think about it. Not that I do that. My early life hammered into me a natural tidiness, even if it didn't allow for much in the way of the privacy I so value now. So I had never asked Napoleon to come to my apartment, and he never seemed to mind. His was more comfortable, he knew that much, so it made sense to have our occasional dinners and post-affair private debriefs there.

He followed me up the stairs, trailing one step behind. I unlocked the door, dealt with the alarms, let him walk past me before resetting them all. He waited. We go through the same rigamarole at his place.

When I turned back towards the room, he was standing there, looking around. His expression was very hard to read. I think curiosity was a large part of it. He knows me inside out, knows me as no-one else does. Possibly knows everything there is to know about me. But he doesn't realise that he knows so much—doesn't expect that I've trusted him with so much, I imagine.

He turned back to me and I watched him steadily, my eyes asking what I refused to ask: the 'Well?' that he expected.

'You know, it's exactly what I imagined,' he said, taking off his jacket. I smiled. Yes. It would be.

I took hold of his shoulders and pushed him backwards across the floor, so quickly that he didn't have time to stop me. Thankful that I had left the bed down and reasonably well made before I left this time, I pushed him onto it, and he sat down hard, then lay back as I pressed on his shoulders. I grabbed his feet, pulled off his boots and holster and pushed him further up the bed. He watched me, obviously trying to think of something to say. I wrenched off my own boots, jacket, holster, tossing them onto the chair next to the bed, and crawled up the bed next to him, then shuffled over and laid myself, full-length on top of him.

I don't know what made me do that, I had never done it with anybody else. Though I knew he could easily take my weight, which a lot of girls certainly couldn't. I folded my arms across his zig-zag collarbones—victims of too many fractures—and looked down at him. The majority of my weight fell upon his ribcage, and our bodies rose and fell together with our breathing. I could feel his heartbeat—hard and fast—hammering through my own chest.

Our eyes were inches from each other, and we couldn't help staring into them. I could so easily lose myself in Napoleon's eyes—always a lighter brown than I remember, as if to point out his light-hearted streak, which has rubbed off on me more and more as the years have gone by, making me surprise myself by laughing when before I would have shaken my head and kept my expression blank.

'Illya,' he said, very quietly, then he paused and slid his arms up around my back, though he couldn't pull me any closer if he tried. His voice was strained by the compression of my weight on his ribs, but he didn't try to shift me at all. 'Is this...permanent?'

I blinked to give myself time. How could it not be permanent? For my part, this was what had been waiting for us for years.

'Do you still need all those women?' I asked. He blinked back at me, the exact counterpart to my own reflex. He tightened his grip.

'Not if this is permanent.'

I rested my nose against his, unfolded my arms, gripped his shoulders with my fingertips, feeling his muscles give deceptively easily under the cloth of his shirt.

'Then it is.'

I could feel his breath rushing across my lips, see every fleck and irregularity in the irises of his eyes. I could feel his erection swelling in his pants as he watched me, pressing against my own—an erection gained solely from lying on top of this man who pulled my head down until my lips brushed feather-soft against his, then waited, his other arm still encircling me.

'I am sorry for what happened earlier,' he whispered. I shook my head.


He smelt bitter: the tang of anger and animal lust rendered in sweat, not hidden by after-shave since we had been working covertly and the stink of that stuff can give you away, so he doesn't wear it when we're working like that. Not his usual scents: after-shave, gun oil and morning coffee.

My lips brushed across his neck and he shivered, but didn't move, and I knew then that I had him a captive for whatever I wanted of him. And there was my partner, exactly as I knew him: he had taken ultimate control earlier and now he was letting me take my revenge, if you like. I didn't need it—we passed that stage years ago—but I knew I shouldn't really pass it up; I had no idea whether this would be the only chance I got.

I let myself be still for a moment, enjoying the sensation of riding up and down on his breaths. For all that he was doing nothing at all, his eyes were locked with mine and I could read him so clearly that I wondered why we had never managed to get this far before.

Yes, it is so easy to get lost in Napoleon's eyes—he knows that, and uses the knowledge to great effect in his work-related seductions. However, knowing that he knows he is doing it does not make it any easier to resist. He blinked slowly at me, obviously determined not to say anything until I showed my hand.

I licked the tip of his nose, opened my mouth against his forehead. He tasted familiar—not that I had deliberately licked him in the past, but I desperately wanted to do things—anything—that would distinguish me from his myriad female conquests. Then I felt his hands come to rest in the small of my back, his fingertips rubbing on the fabric of my shirt, until he pushed it up from my waist and continued those little, gentle movements on my bare skin, while I went on staring at him. I have spent hours and hours of my life with no option but to stare at him. It's the way we work out what to do when we are forced to plan in silence near to a waiting enemy. We can make full and detailed plans in utter silence, and never, ever misunderstand each other. That is why it felt so familiar. We have flirted with our eyes for years. I suspect neither of us actually misunderstood in all that time. We just failed to trust our instincts. I was aware that I was doing it, but I told myself it was merely wishful thinking that his eyes meant the same as mine when they flashed and dipped and made my stomach flip over. We have talked with our eyes almost since we were first partnered, and only ever misread one thing.

Reluctantly, I pushed myself up a little so that I could undo his shirt, let him get to work on mine, pulling it off my arms when I gave him a chance. He ran his hands over my arms, making me suddenly self-conscious, feeling him tracing the muscles I forget I have. When I was younger, I was wiry—scrawny, even—Napoleon forced me to work on my body, quickly developing muscles that still don't really show under clothes, but which I cannot deny have saved my life on more than one occasion. I only have one very small mirror in my bathroom, where Napoleon has big ones littered around his apartment, so I forget to notice. I pushed his shirt back, concertinaed around his shoulders on the bed. He tried to shrug out of it, but I wouldn't let him up.

I rested my weight on him again, now skin to skin. It was tempting just to stay there. My backside was throbbing gently, still protesting its earlier treatment, and although I could feel desire for this man bubbling in my chest, the discomfort was undoubtedly dampening my enthusiasm for any sort of activity on my part. I considered—he had already achieved a satisfactory orgasm today, not all that long ago. There are times, when no matter how much it means to you, physically demanding sex is not the answer. For me, right then, my real answer was to rest here, on top of my dearest, only truly trustworthy, friend.

'Am I crushing you?' I asked. He shook his head. I rested my full weight on him and he slid a hand up my back, feeling the slight chill on my flesh. Then he reached across, drawing the sheets over us and then returned his warm hands to my back before laying one on my head, turning me so that he could brush his lips against mine, then gently urged my head down onto his shoulder. I had been about to make an attempt to explain why it was I didn't want to do anything right now... but he had pre-empted me, settling down to sleep under me as easily as if I had just said 'goodnight'. I do not doubt that he read it in my eyes. I closed them, my nose buried in his neck. I must have been cutting off some of his circulation, and it was a while before the semi-hardness at his groin faded away as his breathing levelled out, but I listened to him and felt him against my entire length, and I drifted off to sleep wondering if we ought to have talked more about this.

I was woken to semi-consciousness by him gently rolling me off him, what felt like an hour or so later. How he put up with my weight for that long, I'm not sure, but I loved him for it, and for the fact that he kept a heavy arm slung over me. Drowsing, half awake for a minute or two, I considered the fact that what I had denied myself tonight would still be a hot possibility in the morning. I had never had sex in the morning, never. I had never woken up next to someone I really wanted to have sex with at that point. I fell back to sleep planning my moves for the morning.

I was woken by the whining beep of a communicator. Thinking it was mine, I reached out to the chair and fell, quite unceremoniously onto the floor. My body had rolled away to find a clear space and left me balanced precariously. On the bed, Napoleon shot upright, fumbling for his own communicator on a table that wasn't there. That we were both so disoriented, when usually we make careful mental notes before sleeping, was a clear indicator of something vastly important happening. I picked myself up and stumbled over to his jacket, searching for the inside pocket where he keeps the trick pen.

I tossed it to him and stood up straight, stretching and tiptoeing to the kitchenette across the cold floor. I filled the kettle and set it to boil, glancing back to the bed, where Napoleon was frowning into his communicator and talking earnestly to whoever was on the other end. My ears were still a little foggy from a night horizontal, and I headed back towards him to listen in.

He re-capped the pen as I approached.

'We're off to Paris,' he said. I rubbed my eyes, crossed my fingers and wished. I had hoped for just one day off...

'When?' I asked, still wishing.

'Ten o'clock flight.' He rested his chin on his hand and gazed at me. 'I wanted to spend the morning in bed,' he said with a wry smile.

'No rest for the wicked.' I shrugged. We'd waited so long, and to be honest I should have known: never put things off as an UNCLE agent. Carpe diem, as they say—you might never live to see that second chance.

I shook my head, went and poured coffee for both of us, brought it back. He was about to get up. I stopped him. We had time. A couple of hours before we had to go, even with check-in. Hand-luggage-only has its advantages. I passed him his mug and slid in next to him. He sipped it, then put it down. Too hot to drink yet anyway, so I followed suit.

He started to laugh, words crackling between gasps of laughter. 'I haven't slept in a bed in my clothes since I was in the army.'

'Sorry,' I said. After all, it was my fault; both our suits would need pressing to be halfway respectable.

'Want to make it up to me?' he asked, his laughter still ringing through his words.

'We don't have time,' I replied, though I knew we did.

'Yes we do. Don't play that one, there really isn't time for that. It's, ah, a bit late, but I wouldn't mind getting out of this suit, hmm?'

I found that I could no longer wait while we went through the usual verbal sparring. This time I could not keep up the teasing, couldn't even take it from him. His laughter was infectious and I was sniggering as I reached under the covers for his belt and started to undo the fastenings.

In seconds, his hands were all over me. We were naked before I knew it—we both seem to be unusually talented in that area. I put my arms around him, and he resisted for a second, but only, I realised, to push us up until we were sitting. The position was uncomfortable and we swivelled, until we sat between each other's legs, arms and legs enfolding us, and clung like that, still laughing, so that we shook against each other, giggled hopelessly, each in the other's ear, clung tighter and let out all the happiness at each other's company that we'd both kept almost hidden for years. Then, when we were back under control, he pulled back to look at me and we kissed. I mean that we kissed properly, as we hadn't done last night. He moaned, a little whimper of contentment I'd never heard him make before, and I ran a hand up into his hair, holding him there. His lips were firm and warm against mine, and his tongue was ticklish and more welcome than it would have been last night when I was still nervous about the motives directing us both. His lips plucked at mine and I tipped my head back, letting him trail his mouth down over my neck, because now I was having trouble breathing, and needed all the air I could get. I cursed my body for being so easily disturbed, but it didn't listen to me, and with his hands rubbing furiously over my back, his lips on my neck and his heels digging into my buttocks, he had me writhing like an idiot in seconds.

I pressed against him, feeling the length of his erection lying snug and warm against my thigh. I knew that feeling: the same feeling as the endless mornings waking next to him on affairs, except that this time there was intent, and the way he looked at me when our eyes met was not that early-morning, dopey look that I was used to associating with this feeling, but a perceptive, questioning look, which softened to something fond and loving which melted me, quite unexpectedly.

I wrapped my legs more tightly about him and took his erection in my hand, starting to pull on it, the way I like it, maintaining eye contact and murmuring to him,

'This is what I've wanted to do every morning for the last three years.'

I thought he'd come back with some smooth, quick-fire answer. He did open his mouth to reply, but then the arms holding me grew tighter and he took a deep, sighing breath, moving towards me so that his lips were barely an inch from mine and his one-sip-of-coffee breath was all I could taste.

'Yup.' Perhaps not the most erudite affirmation I'll ever hear in my life, but I liked the way he chose not to dress it up. I increased the tempo of my fist around his penis and he gave a curt little groan and reached for my own aching erection.

The first touch of his fingers shocked me—I had almost convinced myself, even up to this point, that this was something he would never do for me. I don't know why I was so convinced, but it made this first touch all the more enjoyable. I noted with irritation that the hands of the clock seemed to be flying round its face, and I grunted my displeasure. It jolted him out of whatever reverie he was in, and he twisted his head to follow my gaze. He saw the clock, brought his other hand up to grasp me by the chin and turn my head back to him.

'We have time,' he said firmly. I nodded, tipped my head and kissed his fingers. His thumb and forefinger encircled me, but his other fingers were flicking at my scrotum, driving me crazy. I batted at his hand—I really couldn't stand it. When you've accidentally-on purpose abstained for a while, getting back to it can be more... intense than you remember. Your own hand just isn't the same somehow. Maybe it's the same as not being able to tickle yourself.

At my touch, he instantly removed his hand, and I was going to complain, even though it was what I had wanted, but before I could, that hand came to rest flat on my thigh, and as he leaned back in to kiss me, it stroked softly from my hip to my knee and back, in maddeningly gentle passes. This was worse than the more intimate assault I had just suffered. I'm no novice when it comes to sex, but Napoleon knows how to get responses from spots other people could prod all night without result.

And suddenly I was terrified that the few tricks I knew, the basic, no-nonsense language that I had mastered, would not be enough for him. That with none of the curves and softness that he so enjoyed in his female companions, he would need more from me than I knew how to give.

Damned if I was going to let him see my anxiety though. The fervour that had allowed me to propel him to the bed last night returned and I pushed him back, brushing his hand to one side and scooting down the bed to bury my head between his legs. I nuzzled his testicles with my nose, gripping his penis in my hand, stroking from mid-way to tip, driving him crazy with the need for more. Then I pushed on down, kissing softly down to the skin below, my nose buried in his buttocks, my tongue lashing firmly at his perineum. He laughed, actually laughed, and I glanced up. His penis obscured my view somewhat, but what I could see was reassuring—his head was thrown back and the smile on his face was genuine and relaxed.

'Where the hell did you learn to do that?' he asked, slightly hoarsely. I just smiled—I wasn't about to tell him about the Illya who had worked his way through endless, unsatisfying partners before giving up and vowing never to let it happen again; nor about the single one of them who had managed to teach that Illya a useful thing or two. I sent that one a silent thank-you now though, for giving me one thing, one little hand-hold over Napoleon.

I went back to my work, wondering at what point this had become the easiest thing in the world to do. Napoleon tangled his fingers in my hair, not holding me down, nor pulling me away, until I suppose it got too much for him and his hand locked around my upper arm, pulling me up to his level, reaching between us and taking hold of me. I felt a shiver of pleasure run through me and put my arms around him, rolling over so that he was on top of me. I'm not sure why, but I wanted to feel his bulk on top of me. He stared into my eyes and set up a rhythm, rubbing himself against me. He was so much further along than me that he was soon losing his discipline, his hand on my erection going slack and merely encircling me. I reached down to replace it, pulled on him until he buried his face in my neck, breathing hard. I felt him shudder and in a moment the damp spatter of his semen glazed my thigh. I tilted his head back and kissed him. He gazed at me, bleary eyed, then started to kiss me back, pulling at my lips with his teeth. I wrapped my legs around him, bucked my hips against his, ignoring his gasps as I battered against his sensitive flesh. He rolled me back on top of him, trapping my ankles beneath him and I roared my disapproval as I could no longer move myself. He grinned, pushed me away from him, fingers splayed on my chest. I sat on him, his flaccid penis hot against my thigh, my own hardness swaying over my balls, cushioned against his. Then, with one hand gripping my upper arm, he took me in hand again, while I watched. His fist pumped while his fingertips tapped randomly at my skin and the grip on my upper arm increased as if he were fighting to keep the control for which he is famous. I felt the numbness in my feet, but he had me pinned and I didn't care—my brain was in my groin and it told me I was doing the right thing. I thrust into his hand, as well as I could, and he smiled, ran his tongue wickedly over his teeth, pulled at me, twisting at the end of each stroke, brushing the tip with a rough thumb, sending a twitching, body-doubling spasm through me. And I felt the heat and the delicious discomfort build in me, and I looked down and watched him, followed his gaze down to that hand around me, moving in a blur now, while his other thumb rubbed viciously at my shoulder, leaving bruises.

I swear time stopped for a second. Imagine the moment the machinery stops while you're watching a movie, and you're left with one frame—a good frame, but all on its own, with no sound but the expectant breathing of the people in there with you. Then a couple of jerky frames, stop motion, a fist pumping up and down, once, twice, root to tip, drawing my orgasm out of me like a siphon. And the normal rush of the world came flooding back so fast I could almost hear the chatter of the film reel, and I watched my own semen flick out across his chest, a splash of white against his brown belly, and a single drop flung easily to his chin in a high, arcing path. He waited until he was sure I was watching before his tongue darted out and licked it away.

The hand on my arm relaxed and I sank forward onto him, rolling to the side to give my tingling groin a chance. He gave me a chance to kiss him, and I took it, wondering what, in all that mix of morning flavour, was me. Then, before I could drift off into contented sleep, we both remembered our assignment, gave each other the look we use when neither of us wants to get up but must, and we were up and dressing, pulling on our creased suits, praying for a decent dry cleaning service in the front-shop at Paris HQ.

He came striding out of the room with her, looking smug. I waited, feeling my heart sink lower and lower. He had promised, promised me that we could spend the evening together when we had finished...I mean, he hadn't actually said it in so many words, but everything he had said had pointed in that direction, every finger he had run through my hair meant that this time he would be around. And now... Now he was sitting the girl down at the table, pulling out her chair, putting her coat neatly on the back, laughing with her about something. I wanted to yell at him, but instead I caught his eye and he gestured me over before I could give him the look that would tell him I was angry.

'Illya!' he called, 'Come over here, have a drink with Lilian before we go.' I stared at him, then recovered myself. I went to the table, my heart racing.

'How are you?' I managed to ask. Well, she had been through a lot and deserved a little attention, even if Napoleon didn't. I picked up the drink that was waiting for me and took a long swig.

As she replied, 'Fine, now, thank-you Mr Kuryakin.' I couldn't help glancing at Napoleon. He looked completely unconcerned, totally oblivious to the fact that I might be upset at the idea of his going with the girl after all we'd...'

'You're sure you'll be okay in a cab?' Napoleon asked her. My head jerked up, what?! 'We could accompany you back to your hotel, if you like.' The ice around my heart melted and I swallowed hard. You see what comes of it when you start second-guessing situations, Illya Nicolaievitch? I berated myself. I couldn't feel too bad though; my mind was singing with happiness, with anticipation, with joy at the sudden reversal of my fortunes—as I saw it.

'Yes, I'll be fine. I take cabs home at this time of night all the time. I know you're busy, don't worry,' she soothed.

Napoleon nodded. 'Well, if you're sure. Here's a number you can reach me on. Leave a message if I'm not there, just to let me know you got back safely.'

She drained her drink and nodded. Napoleon stood and helped her on with her coat, then showed her to the door once I had murmured a goodbye.

I sat in my chair, trying to drink the rest of my glass, but so brim-full with uncertainty that I couldn't. I didn't even notice when Napoleon returned, but jumped as he laid a hand on my shoulder, reflexively went for my gun; but his hand was already over the bulge in my jacket, preventing me from drawing.

'Uh uh, not such a good idea in here. Besides, I thought you liked me!' I relaxed and nodded barely believing the reality of it all as we returned to the hotel, to spend our last night in Paris in the way that all last nights in Paris should, strictly speaking, be spent.

I know now that it might have been better, as I suspected at the time, to have left back when I first suggested it to Napoleon, before anything happened between us. Because here I am, sitting in the room I requested in which to freshen up, dressed as a man I truly hate, ready to become him again the moment the door opens and they come to fetch me. I know they have Napoleon and if I can get us out of this without actually killing him, it will be one of those miracles I stopped believing in when I was seven.

Because it all changed when we let ourselves do this. I had never seen Napoleon ignore women, yet now he does it all the time. (The door is opening, and I am Nexor again, and when I look Napoleon in the eye, I fear that this time, there will come the moment when we cannot read each other, because I am no longer Illya; and the loss will kill us, figuratively, or perhaps, given the circumstances, literally. I stand, smile horribly, and follow them towards him.) He is still polite, but he doesn't chase them. He will woo them for work, from necessity, but the innocent, the enemy female, the helpful lady scientist...they are no longer the object of his secondary mission. All of a sudden, Napoleon is mine. Mine.

Hold that thought: it could be the last one you'll ever have.

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