Hilary Duff, Captain of the Starship Scotia, surveyed his crew.
In one corner, Uhura and Sulu were sitting together, heads bent over an intricate puzzle.
"Aww, pish!" Sulu exclaimed as one of the miniature vodka bottles -- which he had been commendably emptying in order to use in this battle of wits -- tumbled from its position.
Uhura muttered a curse under his breath. He bent to pick up the bottle. Damned fine woman, that one.
"Oh, tush, Sebastian," Uhura said, pouting his lips attractively. "Our tipple tower is toppling."
Duff walked over to give them both some words of encouragement. "Dashed good job you chaps are doing on the iso-modulator," he said. "Those Romulans won't know what's hit them."
Sulu and Uhura exchanged a look.
"Thank you, Captain Duff," they chorused.
Then, as soon as Duff's back was turned, Sulu added. "Steve, I'm telling you, that man is two wheels short of a bicycle."
"More like two wheels short of a unicycle," Uhura replied.
"Oh, deary me."
Duff felt sorry for the poor blighter whose mental facilities were being so devastatingly critiqued. It didn't do to fall afoul of Uhura's keen observation or Sulu's sharp tongue. And what a tongue it was.
Sitting across from them was Dr McCoy, arms folded as she, too, contemplated the rag-tag bag of men, women, Vulcans, Klingons and Bajorans who made up their unlikely crew.
"Doctor!" Duff hailed her as he approached.
She didn't look up. Must be engrossed in some medical mystery the like of which a mere starship captain could never truly understand. Such a mind, that one. Such a mind.
"Doctor," he repeated.
This time she met his eyes. "Oh, Captain Duff!" she exclaimed, leaping to her feet.
"At ease," he reassured her.
For some reason, the good doctor did not look very reassured. Perhaps some small-talk would help.
"What do you think of our crew's chances, doctor?" he ventured.
"What?" Her eyes flashed with the native wit and cunning that only a medical degree could confer. "The perfumed ponce and the ginger freak?"
That was going a bit far. "Now look here, Bones," Duff said, "if I may call you Bones?"
McCoy fluttered her eyelashes disarmingly. "Oh, Captain Duff, you can call me whatever you like."
Duff cleared his throat. "Thank you, Archduke Ferdinand. I take it we understand each other?"
"Eh?" she said, on the ball as ever.
Duff schooled his features into his most encouraging expression. "Good work, Franz. Good work."
Perhaps they might survive the Romulan problem after all.
Duff emerged, blinking, from the cupboard under the stairs, only to find Hermione and Ron waiting for him. A very jolly surprise, that, if not the most sensible.
"Quick!" he ejaculated. "Hurry, the Dursleys will be back soon! They mustn't see you here."
Hermione and Ron exchanged a puzzled glance.
"Captain Duff?" Hermione tried, his carefully gelled dark hair quivering with eager young curiosity. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I think what my esteemed colleague Sebastian is trying to say," Ron said, "is: Eh?"
"They'll lock me back in that cupboard," Duff explained, tilting his head towards that hell hole.
"That's the cockpit, Captain," Hermione said.
Duff looked again. Dash it all, the girl was right. Damned smart woman, that one. He'd make someone a fine wife one day.
Perhaps-- But no. Duff couldn't allow himself to dream of such things as love and marriage, not when he was destined to battle Voldemort and could perish in the attempt. Not when he needed to apply every bit of courage and gumption he possessed to defeating that fiend, and even that might not be enough.
As Duff thought of his tragic fate, he shed a single tear. No one understood him.
A voice cut through his despair. "What in the name of arse pimples is going on here?"
Ah, good old Dumbledore. Always ready with a kind word and smile.
"If I find out which one of youse turd flies made the Captain cry, so help me, you'll be scraping chewing gum off the bottom of every seat from here to Aberdeen." Dumbledore paused, waiting for her words to sink in. "With your teeth."
"Yes, Miss Spurtle," Ron said.
"Sorry, Miss Spurtle," Hermione said.
"That's better." Dumbledore turned to face Duff. "And as for you, sir, it's back to the cockpit. This plane won't get itself to Heathrow."
Duff nodded. Trust the headmaster to get to the root of the problem. "Quite right," he said. "Without a portkey, how else will those muggles get anywhere?"
Duff gripped the wheel of the Impala tightly, trying to focus on getting back to his sons in one piece. The werewolf had been dashed difficult to hunt down and kill, and Duff was looking forward to a hot bath, a stiff drink, and getting to see his boys again.
He was so close, he could almost hear them. Their dulcet tones played about his ears, as if wishing could truly make it so.
Keeping his eyes focussed on the road ahead, he allowed his mind to wander.
In his mind, Sam -- or was it Dean? he always got them confused -- was saying, "How about this? 'Looking for like-minded lad for light lasciviousness'?"
Dean -- or was it Sam? -- replied, "'Scottish sodomite seeks same for s--'"
Duff chuckled to himself. Those were his boys, their spirits as high as ever. He was damned proud of them. Damned proud.
The open road stretched out in front of him, and Duff leaned back, content to listen to his boys' imagined chatter.
"If you're not going to be supportive, you can--"
"No, no, Sebastian, I'll be good, I promise. It's just. No. Nothing."
"It's just what, pray?" Probably-Sam's voice sounded strained.
"It's just, are you sure about this?" Most-likely-Dean didn't sound much happier. "You meet all sorts of weirdoes on the internet."
Duff held his head up high as he walked into the Kents' kitchen. Whatever they thought of him, it was nothing compared to what he saw in his own father's eyes.
They didn't notice him at first, instead continuing their own conversation.
"I've supported your every attempt to sleep your way through any available female this side of Stirling, you lacklustre Lothario," Mr Kent was saying. "You could at least pretend to think I have a chance with HotHunk72@yahoo.com."
"Sebastian, no," Mrs Kent protested. "It's not that."
This seemed as opportune a moment as any to interrupt.
"Mr Kent," Duff greeted them. "Mrs Kent."
Clark's parents turned to look at him.
"Captain Duff," said Mr Kent, looking surprised. "What are you doing here? Who's flying the plane?"
Surely Clark would have warned them. "I'm here about Clark."
Mr and Mrs Kent exchanged a look.
Only long training at the hands of his father kept Duff from sighing out loud with envy. That perfect understanding, that true accord the two of them possessed, he wanted that. He wanted the trust and near-telepathy that came with building a life together. He wanted that. He wanted that with Clark.
"Riiiight," said Mrs Kent. "How's about we go back to the cockpit, and talk about 'Clark' there?" He made quotation marks in the air around Clark's name, acknowledging their shared secret.
It was Satan. The monster was Satan. Duff thumbed on the intercom. "We need bigger guns," he said. "Big, big fucking guns."
Satan was in deep shit.
Duff dismounted his camel with the ease borne of long practice. He handed off the reins to one of Ali's men, whose native cry of, "Where the effing chuff did he get a camel?" faded into the background chatter of the camp.
"Ali," he said, bowing stiffly before his old friend. It had been too long. Too, too long.
"Captain Duff?" Ali greeted him. His red hair shone brightly in the desert light.
Did Duff deceive himself, or was there a single tear threatening to make its way down Ali's normally stoic cheek?
"Now, man, get ahold of yourself," Duff reproached him sternly, hoping Ali could hear the warmth in his voice. "I bring news of Aqaba."
"Ah," said Ali slowly. "Did you forget to take your medication today, Captain Duff?"
Ali's man was back, having disposed of the camel admirably. "There's no medication'll cure that," he said. It must be a native saying of some sort. Duff wondered if it lost something in the translation.
Duff ran a hand through his hair, causing a shower of sand to tumble to the floor, just like the men he had killed, whom even now he saw in his dreams, his terrible, terrible dreams.
"Where'd he get the sand from?" Ali asked his man.
"Never mind the sand, what I am supposed to do with a camel?" the man replied.
"Aye, don't get the hump," Ali replied.
"Oh, deary me."
Duff watched the exchange with envy. Would he ever belong as truly to these people, these people he loved with all his heart?
"Ali, I must speak with you privately," he said, a trace of gruffness the only thing betraying his longing. "The news I bear cost lives. We must not let their sacrifice be in vain."
"Oh aye," Ali agreed.
As soon as they were in the tent, Duff let all pretence drop. "Ali, my friend, I know." He tried to convey his sincerity in his gaze.
"Do you have something in your eye, Captain?" Ali asked.
"Dash it all!" Duff exclaimed, letting his frustration get the better of him for a brief moment. "This is no time for denials, man. I know about your ambitions." Damned politics, making everything so tricky.
Finally, finally he seemed to get through to the man, to his friend, to the one person he'd thought he could trust.
If he didn't know better, he'd think Ali looked afraid.
"You can't tell anyone, Captain. Please."
What manner of man did he think Duff was? "Of course not. I owe you that much, and far, far more."
Days like these, even his vast mansion seemed oppressive. The walls, so richly lined with ghosts of the past, began to close in on him.
"Alfred!" Duff called, certain his manservant would be there before he turned round.
"Captain Duff?" she answered, prompt as ever.
"Alfred," he said. "I grow troubled."
"Surely not, Captain?" she simpered. "Is it those havering half-wits? Would you like them fired?"
Duff contemplated this. "On balance--"
"Yes?" she prompted, eager to do her duty, whatever that may be.
"No. Leave Dick and Tim alone. It's perfectly natural for boys their age to experiment."
Duff burst into Morgana's room without knocking. "Gwen! My Lady! You've got to get out of here!"
Gwen and Morgana looked at him with twin expressions of shock. Dashed beautiful women, the pair of them, but deplorably slow on the uptake sometimes.
For some bizarre and undoubtedly feminine reason, they shook their fists at each other three times. Then Morgana opened his hand, palm flat, and Gwen kept his own hand fisted. Duff mused it must be something to do with embroidery, or possibly kittens.
"Damn, damn, damn," said Gwen to himself. Then, to Duff, "Sir? Can we help you?"
"Uther knows everything!" Duff explained. "He knows about the ma--" He cut himself off suddenly, sensing a disturbance in the Forc-- No, damn it, that wasn't right. But. Yes! Sensing a disturbance in the Magic behind him.
He turned slowly. "My lord," he said, scraping a bow before Uther that even Arthur would have allowed was suitably subservient.
"No, Captain Duff," Morgana said, foolishly -- but bravely! damned bravely -- trying to take some of the brunt of Uther's mighty anger. "This is Julia. She's replacing Shona today, while Shon's off with her wee problem." Then, as an aside to Gwen, he hissed, "Steve, a little help?"
"Oh," said Gwen, "now you want my help?"
Morgana nodded slowly, his eyes wide. "Yes, Steve. Now I want your help."
"Ach, well," said Gwen. He took Duff by the arm. "If you'll just step over here, Captain."
"No! You don't understand!" Duff protested, but he'd been raised never to hurt a lady, and he couldn't throw off Gwen's surprisingly strong grip without risking injury.
"You mustn't mind him," Morgana was saying to Uther, who mercifully looked more puzzled than angry. "Completely cracked, but a brilliant-- Well, a good-- Well, he's a pilot."
Uther nodded her understanding. "Air Scotia cut-backs?"
"We certainly save on sanity," Gwen said.
"Oh, deary me."
"Gwen," Duff hissed. "Enough of this diverting banter! We must plan our escape while Uther is distracted. Much as it pains me to leave Morgana, we must make haste!"
Gwen gave him a suspicious look. Duff might have known it would take more than a few pretty words to get Gwen to leave his lady behind.
"I know how you feel about him! But this is about more than just our petty lives! This is about the future of Camelot!"
His words must have stirred something deep within Gwen's soul, because without another word, he turned and dragged Duff out of the room.
Behind them, he heard Morgana's valiant cry of "Eh?" buying them more time.
Duff watched the detectives as they mulled over the evidence before them. It went without saying he would do anything to help them discover the truth behind the dastardly deeds that had shaken his quiet Oxford college to its very foundations.
The red-head -- Hathaway, he thought, though he had been understandably distracted when they had introduced themselves -- was shaking his head, while his boss -- Tolkien? Sayers? Lewis? Yes, Lewis -- frowned manfully.
"What did he mean, he knows how you feel about me?" Lewis asked.
"I don't know!" Hathaway was losing his composure. "What does he mean about anything? Ever? He's mad as a box of stoats."
"Chaps," Duff interrupted, not unreasonably. While he was, of course, of course, willing to donate his time to Thames Valley's finest as and when they required it, he did have a college to run. "If you have any more questions about this most unfortunate affair?"
"Aye," said Lewis, "I've got some questions for you."
Hathaway finally snapped. "You," he said to Lewis, "shut it. And you, Captain Duff," he said, turning to point his finger directly in Duff's face, "you've done more than enough. Vamoose, before I vam it for you."
There was a pause. Duff fancied he could hear their hearts beat, so total was the silence that had fallen.
"I mean, uh, vamoose, sir," Hathaway corrected himself, slowly lowering his finger. "If you wouldn't mind. Sir."
Duff felt magnanimous in the face of such contrition. "Say no more of it, Sergeant. I understand you boys in blue are under a tremendous amount of pressure these days. Targets and paperwork and whatnot."
Hathaway gave him a long, piercing stare, betraying the keen mind that must hide behind those dishy good looks. "Right, Captain." Then he nodded curtly at his superior officer and left the room.
"Inspector," Duff felt it incumbent on himself to say. "I still haven't told you how we found the bodies."
The Bentley steered like a dream. Duff patted the dashboard affectionately. Antichrists may come and go, but a good car was a good car.
Rum business, that whole apocalypse thing. He had a mind to write to the manager. Standards should be maintained at all costs, that was a rule to live by. Or at least exist by. He was theologically uncertain as to whether he was classed as living, existing or simply dashed unlucky.
Next to him, the angel was rabbiting on about something. "I don't understand those two," she was saying. "Thick as thieves since before they joined the company, and now they won't exchange three fudding words."
"Hmm," Duff said. It paid to give Aziraphale the impression that he was paying attention. Otherwise it was stern glances and offended harrumphing from here to cocktail hour.
"It's all, 'Shona, will you tell Steve this,' and 'Shon, will you tell Sebastian that' -- I've half a mind to put them on different flight schedules, if the others stewards wouldn't revolt at the mere chuffing thought of having to deal with them."
"Ah," Duff said, sensing a pause in the flow of angelic conversation.
"I told them, I don't know what's got up their collective jacksie and I don't care, I just want it out."
"Very good?" Duff ventured.
"Oh, Captain Duff," she said, "it does me the power of good, talking to you."
Duff nodded happily. The angel might have swapped her flaming sword for a mug of hot cocoa, but that made her more dangerous, not less. Get between an angel and her flaming sword, and all you have is an angel. Get between an angel and her cocoa, and hell hath no fury. And on that count, Duff should know.
"I'd bash their heads together, Captain, but I don't think they can spare the brains."
Duff twirled his moustache. "Now I have you captive," he said to his prisoners, "with no hope of escape, I find myself wondering, do I really need the information you possess? Or would I rather watch you die?"
"What's up with your face?" Solo asked. "Sebastian, he's got something stuck to his face."
Kuryakin made no reply.
"My moustache, you mean?" Duff asked.
"So that's what they're calling it these days?" Solo said.
"Oh, deary me."
But for once, Solo's caddish catchphrase was -- hah! -- spoken solo. Oh, Duff was a wit, he really was.
Joshing aside, Duff frowned in confusion. Why had Kuryakin not joined in with the trademark trill? Was this part of U.N.C.L.E.'s latest plan to outfox T.H.R.U.S.H.?
He put the question to his prisoners.
"Eh?" said Solo. "Thrush? Oooh, nasty. Sebastian, didn't you have some cream for that?"
Kuryakin maintained a stony silence.
"Captain," Solo continued, trying to talk his way out of even this most terrible of fates. "You've got to let us get back to the passengers now. It's nearly time for their mid-morning refreshment. Those luke-warm coffees won't spill themselves. Tell him, Sebastian."
That, at last, got a rise out of the Russian.
"Captain Duff," Kuryakin said, "will you tell Mr McCracken I have no interest in conversing with him on this or any other topic until he apologises for sabotaging my date with HotHunk72?"
It was a code, but a dashed complex one. Duff furrowed his brow in concentration. "Hmm," he said, twisting his mouth in honest puzzlement.
His moustache fell off.
"He was not hot, he was not a hunk, and 72 was nearer his age than his birthday," Solo said. "And I'm not sorry."
"Oooh!" Kuryakin sucked in a breath. "You take that back!"
For possibly the first time in his life, Duff had the feeling the conversation had got away from him.
"Bodie," Duff said, getting down on one knee, "I may be a bubble-permed ex-copper with a fondness for art classes and an unprofessionally short temper, but I love you. Say yes, and we can run away together to the exotic climes of East Grinstead, where true love flourishes and all is joy."
Behind him, the sounds of a city falling to crime reminded him why he and Bodie could never in good conscience abandon CI5.
The people needed them. And more than that, the good citizens of this fair nation needed to remain oblivious to this very fact.
Duff allowed his hand to brush one of Bodie's leaves as he stood. "I understand, Bodie. I understand."
Duff pondered. Everything would look clearer with a drink. But it was never one drink, and -- even Duff had to admit -- the only thing that looked clearer after the twelfth drink was the path to the thirteenth.
With a sigh, he moved his hand away from his desk drawer and his mind back to the case.
The Count von Weierstrass had been very clear on his terms of stay in the city, and none of them had included being staked in the back during a moonlit stroll along the Ankh. Though given the state of the Ankh, you could argue it was a mercy killing.
The Patrician would probably not be best pleased with such an argument. He might even raise an eyebrow.
Outside his office, he could hear Colon and Nobby going about the busy job of ignoring crime and hoping it went away.
"But I'm not sorry," Nobby was saying. "I'm not."
Duff could practically hear Colon widen his eyes. "If our friendship means so little to you."
"Sebastian, it's not that."
Had the Count made any enemies in his brief stay in the city? Apart from the Black Ribboners, the delightfully named United People to Ban Undead Monsters Society, the Reformed Omnian Church, the Followers of Blind Io and the newly widowed Mrs Higgins, of number 34 Turn Again Lane.
Duff leaned back on his chair, looking up at the collection of suspicious stains that had accumulated above his head over the years. They were as inspiring as ever, which was to say, not.
"Look, it's--" Nobby paused. "I didn't want you to go on a date with HotHunk72."
Colon's voice could have cut glass. "You made that perfectly clear, thank you very much."
"No, don't you see? I didn't want you to go on a date with him."
"Oh," said Nobby, with a voice that spoke of a man -- well, in Nobby's case, hominid -- that had been pushed beyond his -- or, indeed, its -- limits. "Fudd it."
There was a pause, and then a wet, smacking sound.
"Oh," said Colon. "Oh."
Duff hoped whatever enlightenment Colon had just availed himself of, he'd brought enough for everyone.
Duff was as forgiving as the next woman, and it wasn't as if the Cardiff Coppers' Christmas Cocktails had never got out of hand, but even he had to draw a line somewhere.
He opened the door to the Hub, keeping his eyes covered. "Are you two decent?"
There was an embarrassed pause.
"No, Captain Duff," Jack called out.
"Sorry, Captain Duff," Ianto followed.
Duff closed the door again, not bothering to hide his smile. Good for them, he thought. Bally well good for them.