The Mid-Life Crisis Affair

by Graculus

Afterwards, he lay in Napoleon's arms and stared at the wall as he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal, and wondered just what momentary loss of sanity had allowed him to go along with this absurd idea. Napoleon's quiet snores punctuated Illya's thoughts as they ruffled the hair behind his ear, comforting in their regularity. Typical of his partner to fall asleep immediately, leaving him to fret over the consequences of their actions.

Illya knew he'd always found it difficult to say no to Napoleon, but this was the strangest thing he'd ever agreed to as a result of that monumental character flaw his partner had unearthed.

It would have been simple to refuse, to continue to do what he had always done in the face of Napoleon's open interest in him, but instead Illya had finally given in to his partner's blandishments. He'd finally fallen for the lines Napoleon had used with equal success with women from every continent. In some ways it was flattering, in others utterly aggravating.

He hadn't heard the same tales regarding Napoleon's prowess where men was concerned, but surely he couldn't be the only one his partner had attempted to seduce? That would be monstrous, something that would send his ego into freefall, one way or another.

But the lines had worked on him too this time around; the same rhetoric Illya had overheard his partner using on any woman that crossed his path had been equally successful in talking him into Napoleon's bed.

He had learned there that his partner's reputation was not undeserved.

Illya had found himself crying out more than once as sensation overwhelmed him, Napoleon's talented hands and mouth wringing sound from him despite his better judgment. Napoleon was a generous lover, he'd learned that too, ensuring Illya's passion was spent long before he'd concentrated on his own pleasure. He'd muttered something about there being plenty of time for Illya to reciprocate before he'd coaxed Illya into helping him come, fingers interlaced as both their hands had brought Napoleon to climax.

Then he'd fallen asleep and left his partner alone, metaphorically at least.

Illya could imagine what Napoleon would say right now if he wasn't asleep, the kind of comments he'd make about the fact that his partner's mind was still working even after the best sex he'd had in years. The only sex he'd had in years that involved someone else, if he was being brutally honest.

Early on in his U.N.C.L.E. career, Illya had discovered that his status as the Soviet Union's grudging loan to their organization protected him from some of the more distasteful and morally dubious missions U.N.C.L.E. agents often undertook.

He wasn't sure whether to be glad or appalled at being left in limbo that way.

While he didn't begrudge those other agents their part in honey trap missions, having had a surfeit of them before he left the Soviet Union, his lack of involvement also meant that Illya had been left to whatever solace he could achieve via his own ministrations. And the comfort attained by the use of his right hand had little in common with the times he'd once shared a bed with someone.

Anything else was too dangerous, even if he had been able to put his duty to U.N.C.L.E. aside long enough to risk an encounter with someone outside the organization. Years of living under scrutiny had added to Illya's own inherently cautious nature, making him suspicious of anyone's attempts to get close to him. Their motivation must always be suspect, particularly as his own protective carapace had grown thicker over time.

There was too much secrecy in his life already, even if he embraced it as a necessary evil of the profession, to lie to someone with whom he intended any form of intimacy.

So, despite the tales of easily accessible sex of every variety known to humanity that some of the other U.N.C.L.E. agents told, Illya had remained alone, focusing all his concentration on doing the job he had been asked to do to the best of his ability.

And that dedication had led to a transfer to New York and ultimately to his partnership with Napoleon Solo.

Illya made sure he was out of Napoleon's apartment before dawn, slipping away without waking his partner and heading back across town to his own place for a shave and a change of clothes. In the cold light of day, what he'd done looked even more reckless than it had felt when he'd been writhing under Napoleon's attentions. By weakening, by finally giving in to his partner, he had changed the dynamic between them in a way that could never be undone.

Not that Napoleon was innocent of blame where the events of last night had been concerned, but he had been the one who finally weakened. The rest was just how his partner was; that air of interest in everyone around him was so much a part of what made Napoleon Solo the person he was that Illya couldn't imagine him without it.

Of course, that had been before. It was too much to hope that things between them would continue to be the way they had now that he was no longer a challenge to be conquered.

Sunday was his own, this weekend at least, to do with what he wanted. And what he wanted most was to figure out just what the hell he had done last night.

If he'd been unable to say no to Napoleon before, now Illya knew he had given him even more leverage than he could ever have imagined. His partner would be unbearably smug, secure in his ability to always get his own way, no matter what. The thought of facing him, of sharing an office with him come Monday morning, or of returning to the normalcy of missions and briefings and paperwork seemed impossible to tolerate.

He'd worked hard to be accepted in U.N.C.L.E.'s New York office, to be accepted in his own right and not merely as a pale shadow at his partner's back. Illya had earned his place as Number Two of Section Two, even as Napoleon had earned the position of Chief Enforcement Agent. They were the best, together and separately, and he'd lost sight of the importance of that in the heat of the moment.

If anyone ever found out they'd been intimate, that hard-earned reputation would be destroyed forever, replaced by rumor and innuendo.

Illya felt his face heat as he imagined the kind of comments that would be made about him, about his willingness to do whatever it took to climb the hierarchy at U.N.C.L.E. Everyone knew Waverly looked on Solo as a potential successor. That had been the talk of U.N.C.L.E. London when Napoleon Solo was little more than a name to Illya. It would be easy for people to think Illya had acted in a mercenary manner, using whatever resources he had to tie his fate to that of New York's golden boy, and ignoring in turn his own hard work. That possibility was intolerable.

The telephone rang, but he ignored it. There was little chance it was anyone other than Napoleon—Mark and April were in Patagonia, so it was hardly likely that they would be calling him, and there were few other people who even knew his number. And his partner was the last person on earth he wanted to speak to right now.

First, Illya knew he had to figure out what he was going to do tomorrow. They were expected back at work and the thought of sharing an office with Napoleon filled Illya with dread. It was ironic, really—he was the one who didn't turn a hair at the worst of situations, yet the concept of being in the same room as his partner now utterly unnerved him.

U.N.C.L.E.'s New York headquarters were not all that large, but his knowledge of them gave Illya lots of possibilities for keeping away from his partner.

He'd arrived later that morning than he usually did, heading down to Section 8 without bothering to check in at their shared office first—the last thing he needed was Napoleon's knowing smile to remind him what a mistake he'd made on Saturday night. There was little chance Napoleon would follow him down to the labs, unless they were summoned by Waverly, and even then, it was likely he would be contacted by communicator instead.

He'd hardly set foot through the door before the Head of Research cornered him. Illya tried to concentrate on what Dr. Webber was saying, but he found his concentration wandering. He was certain it had been Napoleon whose phone call he hadn't answered the previous day and he couldn't help wondering just what his partner was calling to say.

He wasn't foolish enough to think Napoleon would continue his pursuit now that Illya had finally given in, even if the romantic notions still lingered somewhere in his mind. That was not the way his partner operated, so there was no reason to think he would break out of the usual pattern. He wasn't callous, but he didn't leave any of the women he bedded under any misapprehensions about what the encounter should mean to either of them.

Illya became conscious of the fact Webber had stopped speaking and was looking at him with a mixture of interest and concern.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It sounds like you're making good progress." That seemed the thing to say and the way Webber's face lit up at the praise supported that theory.

By the time Illya returned to the office he shared with Napoleon, it was almost lunchtime. He opened the door carefully, only to find the room empty. Napoleon had been there, the half-empty coffee cup on his desk indicating his partner's earlier presence, but there was no way of telling when that had been or when he might return.

Illya sat down at his own desk and idly flicked through the paperwork that was waiting for him. None of it was particularly urgent, the majority of it passed on from his partner, who dearly loved to share the load his C.E.A. role produced. Illya wondered if Waverly knew that Napoleon did this, but there was little that went on in U.N.C.L.E. that the old man didn't know.

There, in the middle of it all was a note from his partner, in the familiar scrawling hand he'd come to know so well: 'Lunch—1pm.' The fact it was stuck in the middle of the latest pile of paperwork meant that Napoleon had to have put it there this morning. He could, of course, pretend he hadn't seen it and delay the inevitable once more.

Illya glanced up at the clock. It was only just gone noon, there was plenty of time to take himself down to the firing range or somewhere else in the building and create an alibi.

The paper that lay on his desk did not specify a location, which meant Napoleon expected they'd meet in the commissary.

The positive part of such a public lunch appointment with his partner was that Napoleon couldn't talk too openly about what had gone on between them. That, at least, meant some semblance of normality had to be maintained—they had to look just like they'd done a thousand times before, partners having lunch together.

Except that Illya wasn't sure he could do that now, despite his years of training in subterfuge.

However, turning tail and hiding did not appeal. It made it look as though he had something to hide, as if he were guilty of something. And it would be fruitless anyway, since he knew full well Napoleon Solo would hunt him down.

In the end Napoleon was late, joining Illya at the table where he was already half way through a plate of meatloaf with an apologetic shrug and grimace. Illya felt the meatloaf turn to lead in his stomach, though he wasn't totally sure whether that was the result of nerves or the often-dubious quality of the cooking in the commissary. He forced himself to take another mouthful anyway, focusing his attention on the plate rather than looking at his partner.

"You got my note, then?" Illya didn't dignify that with a response. "I wasn't sure you'd get it in time," Napoleon continued, his voice dropping until it was quiet enough that there was no chance of being overheard, despite the innocuous nature of the comment.

"I am here," Illya replied, annoyed at being made to talk at all.

"So you are." Napoleon poked at the meatloaf with a desultory fork, before bringing a forkful up to eye level for inspection. "What do you think?" he continued, in a more normal tone.

It was a standing joke between them, one that had been instituted since the first meals they'd shared together in this very room. The utter normality of it all added to the sinking feeling in Illya's stomach. Was Napoleon going to handle matters this way? Pretend nothing had happened between them and carry on as if their relationship had not turned far more intimate than either of them might ever have imagined?

"Aardvark," he continued, after a moment.

"They move too fast," Illya said. "Three-toed sloth."

"Are those the ones who're so slow they grow mould on their fur?" Napoleon asked, turning the forkful as if wanting a better angle at what it held. He frowned. "I think you could be right."

Illya had eaten all he could by now, having given only a small amount of attention to the discussion. He placed his fork carefully on the plate, making his movements as precise as if he were defusing a bomb. When Illya looked up, Napoleon was eating with methodical movements that disguised his usual grace. He tried not to stare at Napoleon's hands, at the fingers wrapped around the fork handle whose deft actions had brought him so much pleasure only a couple of nights earlier.

"You wanted to see me?" he said, chiding himself when the words sounded uncertain. Napoleon's dark and perceptive gaze flicked up from the meatloaf and Illya forced himself to speak more steadily. "Was it something in particular?"

"I need an excuse to have lunch with my partner?"

"No, of course not, I..." Damn it, now he was stammering like an idiot. "No," Illya said firmly, once he could get his speech processes under control. He picked up his coffee cup as if signaling the end of that conversation, taking a mouthful of lukewarm sludge as gratefully as he could.

This was exactly why he should never have let it happen. Things had spiraled out of his control and his own weaknesses were the cause.

Napoleon had finished eating now, though Illya had been conscious of being the subject of his partner's silent scrutiny all along.

"I have to be going," he said, finally, and put his cup back onto the table even as Napoleon was laying his fork down alongside the part-eaten meatloaf on his plate.

Illya pushed his chair back; he winced at the grating sound of chair legs on concrete even as he imagined everyone in the commissary looking at him.

He didn't look round—he didn't need to. Illya knew Napoleon watched him every step of the way to the door.

By the time he'd sought sanctuary in the firing range, Illya was kicking himself for being a fool of the first order.

He'd practically run out of the commissary as if all of Thrush were after him. If nothing else, Napoleon would never let him forget that, along with all the other things that had happened between them. Things that he could not bring himself to regret even though, in hindsight, he realized their consequences.

New York had been different, though. He'd been so desperate to fit in somehow and then he'd been partnered with Napoleon Solo. Even when they'd first met, when he was still trying to find his way around HQ and still figuring out the intricacies of the subway system, Napoleon had taken an interest in him. He'd been able to overlook the spikiness with which Illya found himself greeting the world and they had clicked, in a way he was sure neither of them had expected to happen.

That was always the gamble, with a new partnership. There was history to overcome, on both sides, that unspoken measurement against those who'd gone before. Illya didn't know a great deal about Napoleon's previous partners, just that he'd been working alone for a while and seemed to like it.

As for Illya himself, he'd been eager to make a name for himself, eager to have his abilities overshadow his origins for once. If anyone would let that happen, Illya knew he'd be their friend for life, or at least as long as his U.N.C.L.E. career lasted. He had not expected that someone would be his partner—that had been something he hadn't dared to hope for.

He'd known of Napoleon's reputation with women, of course, and as a result had thought himself safe. That had clearly been one assumption too far. Gossip traveled as fast as U.N.C.L.E. communicators could carry it, no matter what Section One might want, and Illya had no intention of providing fodder for the next round, then or now.

Illya also hadn't accounted for Napoleon's tenacity, and that his partner would continue to pursue him long into their partnership. He'd never counted on giving in to that pursuit.

The alarm system was off and Illya drew his U.N.C.L.E. Special, before pushing the door open carefully.

The quiet brush of fabric as Napoleon moved on the threadbare couch was echoed in Illya's sigh of relief to discover it was only his partner, waiting for him.

Then reality hit and Illya remembered why he shouldn't be glad that Napoleon was here, in his apartment.

"Perhaps I should have called first," Napoleon said, his voice almost a purr.

Illya bristled immediately—he'd heard that tone before, usually directed at whatever beautiful woman was in earshot. The novelty of being the center of Napoleon's attention had worn off a little, it seemed.

"You should have," Illya said. He followed Napoleon's gaze, realizing suddenly that his gun was still in his hand. He holstered it quickly, embarrassment making his face redden a little. "I could have been entertaining."

"I thought I was the one with the busy social schedule."

Illya pulled off his jacket, hanging it over the back of the nearest chair. He was tired; tired of this game, tired of hiding from what had happened and the consequences of it.

"What do you want, Napoleon?"

"Who says I want something?" There was an uncertainty in Napoleon's expression, something unfamiliar.

"I have no time for this kind of charade, Napoleon. Tell me what you came here for, or go home."

Illya almost winced at the tone he took with his partner, but it got a reaction. Napoleon sat up on the couch, moving from the languid pose he'd been adopting and faced him, arms resting on his knees.

"Don't try to deny that you enjoyed yourself, Illya. Would a repeat performance be so wrong?"

"That's not going to happen." Illya sat down on a hard-backed chair, with his arms across the back, so he could use it as a shield.

"Is that what the hide and seek today was all about?"

Napoleon leaned forward and the expression on his usually pleasant face was positively predatory once more—that was a more familiar expression, though Illya got the unexpected feeling now that it was merely a mask his partner slipped on when necessary. Illya remembered the last time he'd seen that particular look, much closer up—he was forced to look away. He was right about this, he had to be. There was no future for them in what Napoleon wanted.

"Why so prudish, Illya?"

"I have no wish to discuss this further," he replied, calling on all the composure he could muster. The task wasn't made any easier by his treacherous memory reminding him just how prudish he hadn't been the last time he and his partner had been alone together. "I would very much like you to leave." Before you start to remind me exactly what happened last time.

He watched carefully as Napoleon got up from the couch, hands raised as if surrendering. It was only when the door closed behind his partner that Illya let out the breath he'd been holding, hearing it hiss shakily into the otherwise silent room.

Tuesday wasn't much better than Monday.

Napoleon was waiting for him when he arrived at the office, all smiles despite their encounter the previous evening. Illya didn't intend to mention it and it seemed that his partner didn't either.

The atmosphere between them was more than a little strained, making the summons they received mid-morning from Waverly extremely welcome.

They didn't speak on the way up to Waverly's office, but that was not all that unusual. What was different, different enough for Illya to remark on it to himself, was the way Napoleon didn't seem to notice various shapely women they passed in the corridor. That was out of character, enough to make more than one of the women in question half-turn and watch them walk past.

Napoleon seemed oblivious, to both the woman in question and Illya's own scrutiny.

The briefing was nothing unusual, another crackpot plan by a Thrush-backed scientist to take over the world. Some things never changed, even if Illya wasn't sure just what was going on with his partner and whether their own actions had turned the world upside down. In some ways, it was reassuring to discover Thrush's evil plans continued unabated.

They had to rush to catch the plane Lisa had booked them onto, which was itself nothing unusual either. Once there, sitting side by side, as the plane began to taxi down the runway, Napoleon seemed to forget he wasn't traveling alone, staring out of the window as the plane speeded up.

"I give in," Illya said, once they had taken off. "What is wrong?"

He spoke against his better judgment. Whatever was troubling his partner was probably going to be related to their encounter the previous day, but they couldn't go off on a mission with Napoleon like this. It was only common sense, Illya told himself, to try to establish what the problem was. His curiosity was unrelated to the uncertain state of their relationship now.

It didn't sound convincing even to himself.

"Don't you ever get tired of all this?" Napoleon asked, without looking round. Illya looked round him, out of the window. They were above the clouds by now, with little to see other than endless white stretching below a brilliant blue sky.

"You know I love to fly, Napoleon," Illya said, deciding that deliberate obtuseness was the way to draw his partner out.

That got a response, even if Napoleon only turned from the window for a moment to look at him, one eyebrow raised a little in inquiry, and then turned back to the window.

"I was thinking," Illya admitted, "how some things never seem to change, no matter how many missions we undertake."

It was a little unnerving, speaking to the back of Napoleon's head this way, but in some ways it was also comforting. Napoleon knew too much about him by now—his weaknesses and his faults—at times he could be a little too perceptive for his own good.

"Perhaps it's time for a change."

"Change?" Illya wondered if he was misunderstanding what Napoleon was saying. "You're thinking about quitting U.N.C.L.E.?" Napoleon turned away from the window, settling himself down as comfortably as the cramped seats in coach allowed. "But Waverly..."

Illya bit down on the words even as he spoke them, knowing how little his partner liked to be reminded of the plans the Head of Section One apparently had for him.

Napoleon frowned. "I know what Waverly wants from me," he said, a little testily. "But I'm not sure I'm prepared to go along with it."

"If you were a businessman," Illya said, pitching his voice so the passing stewardess couldn't overhear them, "you'd be driving a sports car and trying to seduce your secretary by now. Instead of which, you get to do that kind of thing all the time, so it's no wonder you're looking for something else..."

It felt strange to be his partner's confidant once more, as if they'd never shared anything more intimate than huddling together for body warmth on a mission. As if he could forget that, put it to one side in his desire to give Napoleon some kind of comfort and reassurance.

Except he couldn't help wondering where what they had done together fit into this pattern, what part their intimate encounter played in the apparent dissatisfaction Napoleon Solo was now showing with his well-ordered life.

Despite the conversation they'd had on the plane, and the sense of unease it left Illya with, the mission turned out to be as straight-forward as they had expected.

Napoleon pulled his weight despite his apparent dissatisfaction with life, no more and no less than Illya thought he would, and in a matter of hours they'd turned the scientist in question over to the local U.N.C.L.E. office with New York's blessing.

Now they were sharing a room in a less than salubrious motel, apparently the only one with any rooms left—it seemed there was a car sales convention in town. On inspecting the room, Illya wasn't surprised it was vacant; the air of damp neglect was almost tangible even as they walked through the door.

Still, beggars couldn't be choosers.

Napoleon sagged onto the nearest bed, seemingly careless of whatever might be on the less than clean bedspread and the result it might have upon his suit.

"Do you ever think of getting away?" he asked, just as Illya was closing the bathroom door.

The apparent non sequitur threw him for a moment before he cast his mind back to the amateur psychoanalysis that was their conversation on the plane. Illya walked back into the room and sat down on the other bed. He wasn't sure he wanted to be alone in the bathroom anyway, considering the size of the roaches he'd seen scuttle under the bathtub when the light was switched on.

"I'm happy with things as they are."

Illya thought about that statement for a moment after it emerged from his mouth and was almost surprised to discover that it was the truth.

If there was anything to be said about working for U.N.C.L.E., it had the virtue that in some ways it was very predictable. There was little chance, unlike his former employment with the KGB, of anyone's sudden desire to take revenge on him for some real or imagined slight getting him shipped off to keep an eye on those poor individuals left guarding a missile installation in Kazakhstan.

Even the sudden weakness he had shown where his partner was concerned wasn't enough to truly put a crimp on the positive view Illya Kuryakin currently had on how his part of the world worked. However, it was clear his partner did not share this positive view, at least not any more.

"Well, at least you're talking to me now," Napoleon continued. "I was starting to wonder if I was going to get the cold shoulder all the way through this mission."

There it was again, the elephant in the middle of the room. Perhaps it was time to acknowledge its existence, once and for all.

"What happened..." Illya began. "It shouldn't have happened, that's all. It was a mistake." He busied himself with checking his gun, suddenly interested in anything other than Napoleon, who had rolled onto his side to face him.

"Is that what this is about?"

"I've said all I intend to say," Illya replied.

"Have you." Napoleon was silent for a moment, just watching him. Illya felt the short hairs on the back of his neck rise in response to the scrutiny, but said nothing. "You know that you're partly responsible, don't you?"

"What are you talking about?"

Napoleon rolled onto his back once he'd finished speaking and Illya found himself studying his partner's profile. It was so familiar and yet at the moment the face seemed to be that of a stranger, one whose very desires and ambitions were unknown to him.

"It's been years since I've been with a man," Napoleon said. His tone was unhurried, and they could as easily have been discussing the weather as his sexual preferences. "But lately." He paused, as if considering just what it was he wanted to say. "Lately I was looking for something. Something different. And you were there..."

Illya snorted.

"I suspected as much." That didn't stop the admission from hurting, a little. It was one thing to think himself pursued by his partner, but quite another to discover that he was a novelty and apparently nothing more. Even if Napoleon was expressing renewed interest in him. "Like I said, it was a mistake."

"I don't think it was," Napoleon said. He was motionless, arms lying by his sides, as if laid out for burial. "But perhaps it's too late to change things now, anyway."

The flight back to New York seemed even longer than the flight out.

Napoleon refused to be drawn any further, refused to talk about anything other than the mission they had completed. He didn't even bother to flirt with the stewardess, much to her disgust, concentrating on the cheap paperback he had picked up at the airport as if it held the secrets of the universe.

They were met at arrivals by an agent they both recognized, gratefully turned over their suitcases to his care and followed him out to where a car waited to take them back to Headquarters.

It was only when they arrived back at the entrance to Del Floria's that Illya got a chance to really look at Napoleon—he decided he didn't like what he saw. His partner's expression, the unguarded one he wore when he didn't think anyone was watching, was the face of a man close to the edge. It was the work of a moment, when Napoleon realized he was being observed, for the familiar competence to replace it but the expression was etched into Illya Kuryakin's prodigious memory by then.

He might have been the one only days before wondering how the world had been turned upside down, but it seemed Illya wasn't the only one feeling that way. And as much as he'd felt trapped, painted into a corner by the things they'd done together, the sight of that expression on Napoleon's face seemed to put everything back into perspective.

He'd grown so used to Napoleon always being there when he needed him, Illya decided, that he'd forgotten the other man was a human being like himself. He'd bought into the façade his partner presented and allowed that to supercede the memories he had of Napoleon when he wasn't quite such a shining example of U.N.C.L.E.'s finest in action. That was the thing about being partners—the thing they didn't tell you at Survival School—you didn't always get to see the best side of your partner, no matter how competent they were.

He followed Napoleon through into reception, noticing how his partner barely even glanced at the curvaceous brunette manning the desk, and then into the corridor beyond.

"Lunch?" Illya asked. All his concerns about the repercussions of what they'd done seemed trivial now, particularly if Napoleon was really serious about leaving U.N.C.L.E. "After we see Waverly, of course."

Napoleon nodded, but Illya could see he was still not quite himself.

He got the feeling Waverly could see it too—there wasn't much the old man didn't catch onto, despite the way he liked to pretend otherwise. Waverly was a perceptive individual, with years of experience to back that up. He hadn't asked much about the mission and had listened to Napoleon's recitation of the previous day's events with little response, his eyes fixed on his C.E.A.

"Very well, gentlemen," he said finally. "You seem a little distracted, Mr. Solo."

"I'm fine, sir," Napoleon said, rousing himself a little at the unspoken reproof in those few words.

"I'll be the judge of that," Waverly replied. He fixed Napoleon with a gimlet stare, until the C.E.A. broke eye contact. "Mr. Kuryakin, please ensure that you and your partner are back here tomorrow morning at nine sharp for a mission briefing."

Illya nodded, glad to have Waverly's attention focused on himself. Waverly turned his attention to the pile of files that teetered on the desk, an unspoken dismissal of both of them.

"Lunch?" Illya asked again, once the door to Waverly's office had slid shut behind them.

Napoleon didn't say anything, so Illya headed for the commissary, more aware than usual of his partner's silent presence as they walked towards the elevator.

He couldn't imagine how things had changed so much in a matter of hours. Only the previous day, Illya had been avoiding his partner and now he was worrying over him, insistent on keeping him company.

He wondered, in hindsight, if it had been such a good idea to turn Napoleon down when he'd shown up at his apartment—was that rejection the trigger for this apparently self-destructive behavior? It wasn't as if their previous encounter had been a traumatic experience for either of them.

The elevator doors slid closed, cocooning them from the rest of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.

"I was thinking..." he began, not really certain where the sentence would end even as he spoke." About what you said when you came to my apartment the other day." Illya looked around as he spoke—it was quite possible that there weren't any cameras in the elevator but that was a chance he wasn't prepared to take.

"What was that?" Napoleon asked.

"I changed my mind," Illya said, hoping that would be explicit enough to remind his partner just what they'd talked about without actually talking about it, just in case. He had changed his mind, after all.

Napoleon's expression could only be described as suspicious. Illya looked at him, then flicked his glance up towards the corner of the elevator—the place he would have put the camera if he'd been the one involved in installing it—and then back again to meet his partner's gaze. Napoleon nodded, showing he'd got the message, though he still looked skeptical.

Lunch was quiet; the afternoon passed in a haze of triplicate paperwork. Illya found himself watching the clock covertly in a way he couldn't remember doing before. There had always been a high price to pay for not appearing the most diligent student in the class or the most enthusiastic recruit.

"Time to go," Napoleon said finally, dropping the last report onto the pile in his Out tray.

Illya nodded, finishing the sentence he'd been dawdling over and then signing the paper with a scrawl. He could feel Napoleon's eyes on him even as he straightened the papers, put them carefully back into the relevant folder and crossed to add them to the pile.

Suddenly this didn't seem like such a bright idea.

"Not here," Napoleon said. He was apparently in tune with what little emotion Illya allowed himself to show.

Illya nodded once more, then followed his partner out of the office and down the corridor to the agent's entrance. This time, he watched as his partner flirted briefly with the blonde now stationed there—who gave Illya a warm smile too as he handed back his badge—and then out into the New York street.

"You don't have to look so worried, Illya," Napoleon said, as they headed towards where he'd left his car. "I'm fine."

He didn't even bother to reply to that, since the lie was so transparent.

"Where are we going?" Illya asked, as he climbed into the car.

"Back to my place," Napoleon replied, looking momentarily uncertain again. "We can order in later." The implication was there—once we've built up an appetite.

"Sounds good," Illya said, settling back into the seat.

Perhaps by the time they got around to food the nervous butterflies in his stomach might have found a new home.

No matter how often Illya visited it, Napoleon's apartment never felt like somewhere he would ever be comfortable.

In his own, smaller, place he'd replicated the surroundings of his youth—the clutter and lack of space felt like home. Napoleon, on the other hand, had room to spare for everything and yet what things he did own looked like they were chosen merely to fill the space. There was little personality about most of them, little which spoke of who their owner was and what he'd experienced. Napoleon's apartment had the same sterility as a hotel room.

Behind him, his partner was fiddling with the alarm system, as usual. U.N.C.L.E. had recently upgraded and Napoleon had taken a while to come to grips with the latest device. Illya knew better than to suggest he could help.

"What made you change your mind?" Napoleon asked. "You seemed pretty sure you didn't want this last time we spoke."

"I have given it some consideration," Illya said. He crossed to the couch and sat, feeling much more in control of the situation than he had expected. Napoleon came over and sat down as well, on the coffee table, just a couple of feet away and directly in Illya's line of sight. "I rejected your offer out of hand."

"So, what's changed since yesterday?"

Damn him. He couldn't be pleased with Illya's change and accept it without explanation, could he? The only possible way forward here was a mixture—truth and lies, with enough veracity to make the falsehoods palatable to both of them.

"In hindsight," he said, "I find that I enjoyed our previous encounter more than I had expected to." That much was true—Illya had entered into that particular intimacy with no great idea of its possible outcome. "And so I see no reason not to repeat the experience." That was the lie; one he hoped his partner would swallow whole, helped down in part by his own healthy self-esteem.

Napoleon still didn't look completely convinced.

Illya moved then, taking his partner by surprise. As he went backwards, Napoleon's head hit the coffee table with an audible thump, making Illya wince a little in the part of his conscious mind that wasn't engaged in making sure his partner didn't get out from under him. Not that Napoleon seemed to be struggling all that hard—his hands clutched fitfully at the back of Illya's jacket and he was definitely writhing, but it didn't seem like a genuine bid for freedom.

Napoleon's mouth was as talented under his as Illya remembered, even if last time around his partner had been the one in control. The sensation of being in charge was euphoric to say the least, and Illya reveled in it, enjoying it while it lasted.

"Oh god, Illya," Napoleon gasped, when Illya finally broke off the kiss and allowed him to speak.

Napoleon was already hard against him, a bar of heat against his thigh. Somehow, Illya seemed to have discovered it wasn't quite so nerve-wracking if he took the initiative himself—his own arousal spoke volumes about that.

His hand was busy with the flies of Napoleon's trousers, even as he used his weight to ensure his partner stayed where he was. It would take a concerted effort to move Illya from his position and the expression on Napoleon's face told him that kind of coordination was going to be a difficult thing for him to achieve right now. If he could keep Napoleon off-balance, keep control of this situation long enough for both of them to achieve what they so obviously desired...

Coffee tables made for an uncomfortable place to rest, even if only for a few minutes, once the adrenaline rush had abated. Illya peeled himself off his partner and scowled at the mess they'd both made; he'd forgotten how soon the afterglow wore off.

The table creaked as he moved. Napoleon was still sprawled there, flies open and cock lying limply against his thigh. He always had a high dry cleaning bill but there was a possibility that the suit he was currently wearing was beyond redemption—not only covered in the evidence of what they'd been doing but also creased and rumpled where Illya had grabbed handfuls of the cloth.

"That was..." Napoleon's voice trailed off as he sat up, wincing. "Not the best venue for that kind of entertainment."

Illya shrugged as he headed for the bathroom. "You seemed to enjoy yourself," he said, on his return with a damp cloth. "I didn't think those noises you were making were complaints."

Illya handed the cloth to his partner, who took it without a word. "Was that performance for my benefit or yours?" he asked, as he wiped off the worst from his suit.

"I..." Illya found himself fixed by Napoleon's gaze as he looked up. He found he couldn't dissemble any longer, even if he wanted to. "That was what you wanted? Wasn't it?"

Napoleon turned his attention back to his suit, even if it seemed like something of a futile exercise to do so. "I don't know what I wanted," he said. "Just that I wanted something different from what I have now."

They went out for dinner after Napoleon had changed his clothes, to a small Italian restaurant where his partner was treated as if he were a long-lost relative, which he might well have been. Illya took a step backward as the waitresses flocked around Napoleon, before an older woman came out of the kitchen and chivied them all away in terms so vehement they would have made a sailor redden. She then took her turn in greeting his partner, graciously allowing him to kiss her on both cheeks, and blushing as he whispered something to her. Her glance at Illya was inquisitive and he tried not to squirm beneath its regard.

"Your usual?" she asked, leading them to a quiet table at the back of the restaurant.

It was the only one, Illya observed, with an unobstructed view of the front door and a clear path through to the kitchen. Some habits were never forgotten, even in the light of intimate liaisons, he was glad to see.

"If you would, Zia Antonia," Napoleon replied. She smiled at him once more, and then bustled away, driving one of the lingering waitresses before her as she did so.

"You have a usual?" Illya asked, when they were alone. He'd never been to this restaurant before and felt slightly aggrieved to discover there was a whole part of his partner's life he apparently didn't know anything about.

Napoleon shrugged. "There's a lot of things you don't know about me," he replied.

Illya looked at him, wondering how true that was. It seemed to be the case, though, that he was learning just as much about himself these past few days as he was about his partner.

"What happened," he said. "Before."

He didn't want to specify what, partly because he couldn't find the words to describe what had taken place—if Illya had been told he'd have found himself masturbating Napoleon Solo on his partner's coffee table, he wasn't sure he would have believed it could ever happen.

"What about it?" Napoleon's eyes held his, the expression in them a good deal less troubled than only hours before. "You didn't feel obliged to do that, did you?" He was starting to look worried now.

"No." The concern vanished as quickly as it had appeared. At least Napoleon trusted him enough to believe he was telling the truth. "I wanted it too."

"What happens now?" Napoleon asked, his gaze intent. "Last time I wanted something from you, you practically chased me out of your apartment at gunpoint. And now this..." His voice trailed off—it seemed Illya wasn't the only one having difficulty with description.

"You were..." Illya searched for the right word. "Unhappy... with how things are." Napoleon was silent, which gave him encouragement to continue. "I thought that if I gave you what you wanted..." He was frowning now and the words stopped coming.

"That has nothing to do with you."

"And you leaving U.N.C.L.E. has nothing to do with me either?" Illya could hardly believe he'd said the words. "I don't want another partner."

Napoleon smiled at that, the first real smile Illya had seen from his partner in days.

"Neither do I, my friend."

By the time they got back to Napoleon's apartment, Illya was much more relaxed than he'd been before. His partner was very much his old, debonair self, charming his way around Illya and the ever-attentive waitresses both, so much so that he could almost forget the circumstances that had led them to this point.

He hoped that was a good sign. It was possible the mid-life crisis was over or at least in remission. Certainly the looks Napoleon was giving him in the elevator boded well for when they would finally reach the apartment itself.

Illya was barely in the door before Napoleon grabbed him, pinning him up against the wall beside the alarm panel and kissing him fiercely even as he entered the code to turn off the alarm. It seemed that was the way to do it, not giving the matter his whole attention, since the code was accepted the first time for once.

Illya didn't usually get turned on by being manhandled, which was probably a good thing considering what they both did for a living. And it wasn't that Napoleon was all that much stronger than he was, anyway. It was true his partner was taller than him, but he didn't work out quite as much as Illya did, so when they sparred they were usually quite evenly matched. Added to that, Illya had learned a lot of dirty tricks along the way—things he wouldn't do to his partner but which would serve any Thrush agent right if their paths crossed.

This was another matter, though. Napoleon had him pinned up against the wall, one thigh pressed between Illya's legs and working against his erection. He couldn't get a great deal of leverage, but he'd be damned if Napoleon would make him come in his pants like a teenager—he'd never live that down.

"Now what?" Napoleon asked, smirking at him from only inches away.

Illya twisted in his grip slightly, feeling Napoleon's hands tighten on his upper arms as he put more of his weight into keeping him pressed back against the wall. It was a good thing he wasn't quite as worried about the condition of his clothing as his partner always was, otherwise he'd be worrying about the state of his suit right about now.

"If you don't let me go..." Illya began, all the ice he could muster creeping into his tone.

"You'll what?" If anything, Napoleon's smirk grew as he spoke. His grip, however, loosened a little.

He'd been in this situation before and hadn't liked it much then. As a result, Illya had worked on the problem, making sure he had a way out of a repeat performance of his prior humiliation. He hooked his foot quickly behind Napoleon's ankle—a twist and push had them both falling, his partner's body there to soften his landing. Napoleon had the wind knocked out of him, Illya's weight an unexpected burden.

The tables were turned once more.

"...then I won't fuck you," Illya continued.

He felt Napoleon's arousal harden against his hip—his partner was busy dragging air back into his lungs but his eyes darkened at the idea and gave Illya enough of an indication of how that was received.

"Bedroom," Napoleon gasped. "Now."

That was another suit ruined, Illya thought, as he watched Napoleon strip hastily. It seemed that whatever he was going through had not only changed his perspectives on working for U.N.C.L.E., it had also affected his sartorial concerns. Who knew how long either change would last, though?

Illya pulled off the turtleneck he'd been wearing, glad that he'd chosen to wear that rather than a shirt and dropped it onto the floor alongside his already-discarded pants. Napoleon was on the bed now, his erection straining as he grasped it with one hand.

"No," Illya said, joining him hastily and grabbing at his wrist to pull Napoleon's hand away. "Not till I say so."

"Is that so?" Napoleon asked, grinning up at him as Illya arranged himself so they were aligned, his leg falling between Napoleon's thighs, their cocks pressed between them.

"If you want me to fuck you, Napoleon," Illya said. He smiled to himself at the slight tinge of red that his use of the vulgarity produced on Napoleon's face. "Then it is." His ultimatum definitely had an effect. Napoleon's cock leapt where it was pressed against Illya's stomach, a sure sign that his partner very much liked that idea. "Is this part of your mid-life crisis too?" he continued.

"My what?"

"Mid-life crisis," Illya said. "A sense of panic and frustration." He punctuated his words by moving against Napoleon, shifting so their trapped erections rubbed against one another. "Commonly experienced by men in their late 30's."

"I'm feeling some frustration," Napoleon agreed, gasping a little as he spoke. Illya kept moving, feeling Napoleon's arousal harden even further. "But I don't think it's got anything to do with my age."

"I believe I can help you with that. Roll over."

He shifted his weight back, going to his knees and watching as Napoleon did as he was bid. Illya reached up and pulled one of the pillows away from the headboard, shoving it under his partner's hips and eliciting a further gasp as the cotton brushed against the sensitive head of Napoleon's erection.

"I'll need something," Illya said, eyeing the nightstand. Napoleon had his head pillowed on his crossed arms and didn't look up at the question. "You've done this before?"

"It's been a while," he admitted, still without looking. "Top left-hand drawer."

Illya found what he needed, closing the drawer even as he surveyed Napoleon's body, laid out before him like a banquet. There was tension in the shoulders, even though his voice had been calm. He dropped the lube onto the bed beside Napoleon, leaning forward as he rested his hands on the tense shoulders in front of him. Napoleon let out a hissed breath, and then a moan as Illya's fingers found every knot of muscle and every tense sinew that his partner possessed.


"Much." Napoleon shifted on the bed. "Thanks."

"You're most welcome," Illya replied.

One hand strayed down Napoleon's back, Illya's fingers tracing the curve of muscle that led to the cleft between his buttocks. That was enough to make Napoleon open his legs a little further, then pull his knees up beneath himself as if in invitation. There was no doubt that his partner wanted this, no matter what his previous womanizing reputation had been.

"How long is 'a while'?" Illya asked, imagining what it would be like to take Napoleon that way. He was about to discover just what that would be like, it seemed, if his nerve held out. Napoleon didn't answer. "Very well," he said, when it became clear that nothing more would be said. "Let's do this."

It had been a while for him too, the years of surveillance as Illya was officially a student and unofficially in the employ of the KGB taking its toll on his sexual proclivities. He still remembered, however, what it was like to indulge in hasty love-making with little preparation, and had no intention of making Napoleon experience that too.

Napoleon was as tight as he'd expected, tight enough to make Illya think that his last encounter really hadn't been all that recent. Illya did his best to prepare him before wiping the excess lube onto his own erection and positioning himself between Napoleon's thighs.

Napoleon was starting to tense a little, once more, even as he must have felt Illya take hold of his hips and start to enter him. He groaned, his body stiffening even as the very head of Illya's erection penetrated, then pushed back against Illya until the entirety of his erection was inside.

"Damn you," Illya said, moving so that the full length of his body was pressed against Napoleon's back and he could hiss the words into his partner's ear. "You said it's been a while."

"Couldn't wait," Napoleon replied. "Now move. Please."

That was an invitation Illya couldn't refuse, moving back onto his knees and pulling out of Napoleon's body till only the tip of his erection remained sheathed, then pushing back, setting up a punishing rhythm of thrusts. Napoleon cried out, only the once, as he came across the bed, the sudden movement making Illya break his rhythm as his partner shuddered beneath him.

It didn't take long before Illya joined him in release, his head bowed against Napoleon's shoulders as he climaxed inside him.

"How long is 'a while'?" Illya repeated the question Napoleon hadn't answered before, once he'd got his breath back and could form a coherent sentence again. He mumbled the words, lying with his face still pressed into Napoleon's back even though he'd slipped from his partner's body. He wondered, when there was a pause, whether Napoleon had understood or even heard them.

"Ten years, give or take," Napoleon replied, finally.

The words penetrated, after a few moments, and Illya sat up. Napoleon didn't move, though Illya could see that he had opened his eyes.

"Ten years?" Illya found himself lost for words. "You should have said something."

Napoleon shrugged, and then closed his eyes once more.

"Then you wouldn't have done it," he said. Illya had to agree his partner's assessment was an accurate one. "At least you won't have to worry about that next time."

Illya lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling he'd contemplated only days before with a very different emotion. Next time. That had a nice ring to it.

The next time he saw Napoleon Solo was for the nine a.m. briefing.

By the time he'd woken up, his partner had already left, a note on the table in the kitchen saying that he'd gone to pick up some dry cleaning and would see Illya at headquarters.

They sat in silence, side by side, as Waverly told them what their mission would be, and then spun the circular table so that the relevant folders stopped in front of them. His expression was just as speculative as it had been yesterday, but he didn't question Napoleon's readiness for the mission—whatever he saw in the C.E.A. today obviously met with his approval.

Illya didn't speak till they were in their shared office. Napoleon seemed different somehow, changed from how he'd been only hours before. He wasn't quite sure how to ask, though, even when Napoleon looked up from the folder and their eyes met.

"Ready for a trip to the rain forest, Illya?"

That was all he needed. Napoleon knew he much preferred their missions to be in colder climes than that; he didn't do so well when the humidity was high, for some reason. Napoleon laughed at the face he must have pulled at the question.

"You seem like your old self." There was truth in that statement, even though he'd picked up on the fact almost subconsciously. Napoleon seemed relaxed, utterly at peace with himself. "That's a good thing, isn't it?"

What he meant, and he was sure what Napoleon heard, was the unspoken question about their partnership, and about Napoleon's future with U.N.C.L.E. Napoleon nodded, answering that question even as he spoke in answer to the other one.

"All I needed was a change, tovarisch. A permanent change." He smirked, but for some reason Illya didn't feel his usual antipathy to that expression, knowing as he did, this time, the cause of it. "You know the expression: a change is as good as a rest."

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