Lie back and think of U.N.C.L.E.
VISA, electric, telephone and cable. The same list of bills he had due this time of the month. All in Sharon Owens' name, not Janet McGill's. Either Sharon paid all the bills, or Janet handled the bills in the next pay cycle. Napoleon Solo finished sorting through the stack of window envelopes, then dropped them back onto the small basket adorning the oak desk.
This whole thing rankled. Death had stolen the dignity of two fine young women, and he was stripping away the last of it. The women had chosen to pose as roommates, but just a few minutes of examining the apartment had made it obvious that the office grapevine had been right. They had been lovers.
He wanted to respect their privacy, but the death of two members of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement had stripped away that option. The best he could do for them was invoke a few of the privileges of being the Chief Enforcement Agent and handle the investigation himself.
He walked past the second bedroom, the one that would have been occupied in a mere roommate situation, but it had little personality invested in it, the closets full of off-season wardrobes and the bed made up with stiff pillows. Nothing more than an unused guest room.
He could easily see the influence of both the women he'd so enjoyed flirting with adorning the master bedroom. Sharon had loved whales and dolphins. The poster of a dolphin in mid-leap hanging over the bed's headboard was one of her own photographs, part of a series of shots that also decorated her office walls. Janet would have chosen the dragon prints on the far wall. He could come up with a hundred things to reveal their secret, but so far the reason why the women had ended up in their car at the bottom of the Manhattan reservoir had eluded him. Napoleon sighed and hoped his partner was having better luck in the kitchen.
Set of spatulas, some wooden spoons, pizza cutter, an ice cream scoop. Illya Kuryakin picked up each item from the counter, examined it, then returned it to the large utility drawer it had originally come from. A wire whisk, as equally devoid of anything but the signs of wear and tear as the rest of the lot, was the last of it.
A slight sigh escaped the young Russian agent. He'd been through every drawer, every cabinet and over every surface in the small apartment kitchen. That left the refrigerator with all those bottles and jars to go through. He supposed it was too much to hope for that they would stash something in a phony head of lettuce.
Freezer first, he decided, not yet ready to face the jar of mayonnaise. Nothing on the ice cream bar box or the wrappers of the two bars left inside. The bars themselves dissolved into an uninteresting mess beneath his examination.
He picked up the pizza box next. Unopened, but the back seam looked a bit off. Re-glued? When the file folder fell out of the box along with the pepperoni pizza, Illya spared a moment to roll his eyes at the four hours he'd spent looking for potential microdots, then he called, "Napoleon, how do you like your pizza?"
Once was unfortunate, twice a possible coincidence, but three times indicated a pattern. And Napoleon suspected one, a very ugly one. He pushed the file, including the photos he'd marked EYES ONLY for a clearance level of his own or higher, across the table to Alexander Waverly.
The head of North American Operations for U.N.C.L.E. looked over the photos, then sealed them back up in the classified envelope. "Any possibility that the ladies took these for their own enjoyment?"
"Highly unlikely, sir," Illya answered. "The angles and quality of the various shots are inconsistent with do-it-yourself erotica in general and specifically lack the polish of Sharon Owens' photographic skills."
Waverly nodded. "Blackmail material then."
"Yes, sir," Napoleon said. "The notes we found along with the photos contained some sketchy details of Project Babylon, one of our new encryptogram devices. Neither woman was assigned to that operation."
"Then they were given the choice of betraying U.N.C.L.E. or seeing the nature of their relationship exposed."
"It looks like it."
Waverly shook his head. "As a nurse, Ms McGill's position lacked the clearance level necessary to even know of Babylon, making her of no use to Thrush, and I find it difficult to believe that Ms Owens would do such a thing."
"We are not entirely certain that she did, sir," Illya said. "Intelligence does indicate that Thrush has acquired parts of Project Babylon, but nothing that would have required Ms Owens' clearance level. The ladies may have been murdered because they refused to cooperate. Perhaps we will know more on that matter after I have questioned her partner."
Illya glanced at Napoleon, leaving the rest to him. Oh, fine, do the easy part, the senior agent thought, but said, "It gets worse, Mr. Waverly. We don't think Sharon and Janet were the first victims of whoever is behind this."
"Explain yourself, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, reaching for the pipe he reserved for listening to information that he had no real desire to hear.
"Five years ago, Robert Fowler from Finance and Agent Trevor Mills were both shot and killed while coming out of a restaurant. The two men were known for spending quite a bit of off duty time together. A few days later a South American operation went sour when Thrush seemed to have somehow gotten wind of it.
"Last year, a car bomb killed Agent Shawn Williams and another man, who did not work for U.N.C.L.E. Thrush somehow came up with the plans for our Geneva office during that time period. Since none of the dead personnel had anything to do with the projects compromised we didn't spot the pattern until we discovered Sharon's notes." Napoleon shifted in his chair, still uncomfortable with discussing the personal lives of his people.
Illya apparently decided to let him off the hook and dropped the final piece of the puzzle into place. "In each case, office gossip had indicated that the pair was involved in a homosexual liaison."
Waverly rewarded the Russian's news with a scowl of disapproval. Napoleon knew it rankled the old man that a top secret organization would have to deal with gossiping among the staff, but when people got together, they invariably talked.
"But this is ridiculous, Mr. Solo," Waverly insisted. "U.N.C.L.E. does not discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual preference. We have several admitted homosexuals in the ranks."
"Yes, sir," Illya dared the old man's wrath again. "But interestingly enough none of those people work in the Enforcement Section. That all the personnel in our section are exclusively heterosexual is doubtful given the numbers of people involved. It is more likely that sexual preferences are kept hidden to keep from clashing with the perceived image of our field agents."
Napoleon nodded his agreement while Waverly considered the notion. It left a sour look on the old man's face, but, after a moment, he also nodded. "Thrush could set back almost a year's worth of work if Babylon fell into their hands," he said, tapping absently on the bowl of his pipe. "That could make them a bit anxious to try this approach again. See that they do, gentlemen."
Seeing his own puzzlement mirrored on Illya's face, Napoleon said, "I'm not quite sure I understand, sir."
"Come now, Mr. Solo. Babylon must not be compromised further, making it obvious that we cannot allow Thrush to pick its victims randomly. You and Mr. Kuryakin should prove an irresistible target."
Quite pointedly not looking at Illya, Napoleon said, "Sir, that would mean we'd have to give them the opportunity to take photos of us as well."
"Both of you have performed for hidden cameras before. I see no reason for you not to do so in this case. Do you, Mr. Solo?"
Given a moment, Napoleon felt certain he could come up with quite a few, but none that would impress the old man, so he tried the only one that might. "It won't work, sir. Thrush is bound to become suspicious if Illya and I suddenly become lovers."
Waverly actually seemed close to laughing. "There would be nothing sudden about it. Your obvious affection for one another has had vague rumors floating around the office for years. I've often suspected it myself."
That was news to Napoleon, and he opened his mouth to splutter a protest, but Illya said, "It is true, Napoleon. I have heard the whispers before, and more than one Thrush interrogator has asked me what it was like to be the lover of Napoleon Solo. Given their need, Thrush would undoubtedly be most willing to accept the notion that time had made us careless."
"Quite so," Waverly said, rising. "See that you are careless in two minutes." He left the briefing room. A file from a less sensitive case sat in front of his chair giving mute warning to expect company.
Just another assignment. Napoleon said it over and over in his mind, a mantra that also tracked the passing seconds. It took him a full minute and twenty before he could finally look at his partner. "Illya, I --"
"Usually conduct your seductions on your feet," Illya said, standing.
Right. He did. So he, too, stood.
Illya moved over to him, stopping just before their bodies actually touched. He looked up into Napoleon's eyes, the thoughts behind his own blue ones carefully hidden. "This is another fine mess you've gotten me into," he muttered, then put his arms around Napoleon and lifted his mouth for the taller man's kiss.
Their lips touched for only an instant before the door slid open, and Illya took a quick step backwards, breaking the contact with enough smoothness to leave their visitor uncertain of what had passed between the two men. "Thank you, Napasha. You seem to have gotten rid of whatever it was," he said, rubbing his right eye.
Napoleon heard the soft gasp behind him and turned to see Mr. Waverly's secretary, Lisa Rogers. Oh, well played, Illya. Just last week, he'd used the something-in-her-eye excuse when Illya and Waverly had walked in on one of his more physical flirtations with Lisa. Well played indeed. "Something wrong, Lisa?"
"Ah, no, Napoleon," she said, doing a credible job of covering how flustered she must be. "Mr. Waverly sent me for a file he forgot."
Napoleon picked it up and handed it to her. His glance shifted from the uncertain expression on the lovely woman's face to Illya who had almost managed to slip out of the room. "My office, Illya. Ten minutes."
Illya nodded, his usual acknowledgment of an order. "Of course, Napoleon," he said, the use of his partner's full name a quiet underscore of the 'accidental' use of the affectionate Russian nickname he'd used earlier. Poor Lisa had never stood a chance against the devious workings of the young agent's mind.
He watched her swiftly follow Illya from the room. He knew her fairly well. She wasn't a gossip, but when troubled she always sought out a friend to talk to. He guessed that she would turn to Angela over in Communications. She, in turn, not trusting her own opinions would confide in a friend, and so it would go, one person at a time, until by the end of the day, tomorrow at the latest, everyone in the building would know that there might be some truth behind all those silly little rumors after all. Hell, if he knew rumors, by the end of the hour the story would be that she'd walked in on something far more graphic.
Napoleon sighed heavily. It was going to be a long few weeks.
Illya tossed the used alcohol swab into the wastepaper basket, then picked up a small syringe filled with a pale blue fluid. "You are certain of this, Simon?" he asked a slightly older man with light brown hair.
Simon Bainbridge nodded. "I don't want there to be any doubts about what I say, Illya," he said. "Give me the shot."
Standard procedure was to have someone from Medical do all injections, but Napoleon wanted to keep the fact that they were investigating Sharon Owens as well as her death quiet for the time being. Illya agreed there was no reason to cloud the woman's reputation with accusations of treason until there was proof, and he was quite familiar with the administration of truth drugs.
He gave Bainbridge the injection, then sat down in a chair on the other side of the small table and waited for the drug to take effect. Illya did not like using it on a fellow Enforcement agent, but knew it would not cause the man much lingering discomfort as long as Bainbridge did not fight it. It was certainly a more pleasant option than the physical methods of interrogation Illya had also learned from his mentor, a former-KGB agent who preferred to do things the old-fashioned way. Though he personally considered both sets of skills fairly useless.
Pain could be resisted, as Thrush had forced him to demonstrate more than once, while the current crop of truth drugs would prove effective only until someone figured out how to inoculate or program against them. Illya preferred to look for the truth in a person's eyes, and that was the real secret to his success as an interrogator. A face could stay passive, but without a great deal of practice, few people could keep the truth from their eyes.
The green eyes he studied now were those of a man who had lost a large part of himself. There was a haunted, empty look to them and not a small amount of guilt. To Illya it all said my partner is dead, and he had spent the last five years doing all he could to prevent the day from coming when he saw the same look in his bathroom mirror.
A glaze seemed to settle over Bainbridge's eyes, and Illya sat forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. "Simon, we need to talk about Sharon."
As Illya had suspected, Bainbridge knew relatively little about Sharon's death or her possible involvement with Thrush. He confirmed that Sharon and Janet had been lovers, but that something had been wrong for the last few weeks. The few times he'd seen her, Janet had seemed almost shell-shocked to him, but when he'd asked about it, Sharon would only say that her lover had been in a minor accident, then she'd change the subject. She'd never mentioned Babylon or been less than her usual efficient self in the field.
Illya sat back in his chair and fitted Bainbridge's impressions to his own investigation. After three years of near-perfect attendance, Janet McGill had spent the two weeks prior to her death on sick leave. She'd offered no explanation to her supervisor beyond vague references to the flu and promises to see a doctor. It stood to reason that they had received the photos the night before her mysterious sick leave had started. At that time Thrush had already obtained the information they currently possessed on Babylon, lending credence to Napoleon's hope Sharon and Janet had been killed because they had refused to cooperate. On the other hand, Janet could have been upset by Sharon's decision to aid Thrush.
Illya sighed. This was pointless. Whatever had happened, Bainbridge knew nothing about it. He sat in the interrogation room with the agent for another half hour, waiting for the last effects of the drug to wear off. "How do you feel?"
"Useless," Bainbridge answered. "I couldn't save her, and I can't clear her, but Illya, I know Sharon would never have had any part in helping Thrush."
Illya stood up. "If it helps, neither Napoleon nor I believe that she did."
Bainbridge looked relieved. "Then Waverly will allow the memorial service this afternoon?"
"I will not recommend otherwise."
Illya started for the door, but Bainbridge said, "Illya."
"Be careful. We work with good people, but there are enough small minds among them to make your life hell."
Illya sighed. It had only been two hours since Waverly had given them the assignment. Another fine mess, indeed.
"So they are lovers." Randal Stewart sat back in his chair and only half listened to the person on the other end of the phone relay the latest rumors about his favorite subjects.
Almost from the day Solo and Kuryakin had become partners, Stewart had made them his life's work. He'd studied the reports on their every encounter with Thrush, examined any surveillance collected on them, and had even occasionally managed to observe them in person. He found them fascinating and had never seen a partnership that worked so well. He'd made it his goal to eventually destroy it.
Personally, he'd set the odds at a little less than even against their being lovers. Solo was a sensualist more concerned with fun and games than the gender of one of his flings, and his partner was more than mildly attractive. But what Stewart had been able to uncover about Kuryakin's past indicated several unfortunate encounters with unwanted attention. It explained the Russian's emotional distance from others, his lack of active sexual pursuits and made him an unlikely lover for Solo. Still, if anyone could breach Kuryakin's defenses, Stewart had always known it would be Solo. Discovering Solo had obviously succeeded left Stewart with the question of what to do with the information.
Thrush Central was pushing hard for information on the Babylon device, information either of his two favorite agents could provide, but they were also very dangerous men. Torture or drugs would not turn them, nor would threatening the life of one to gain the cooperation of the other. The two of them had some annoying agreement against that option working. While he found the notion of bedroom keyhole peeping distasteful, there was already a blackmail operation in place, and it might be the solution here.
He found the notion of Solo caring one way or the other about who knew of his sexual practices amusing, but Solo always protected Kuryakin. The right set of pictures would threaten both the intensely private Russian and their partnership. If anything would make Solo cooperate, it would be that.
However, getting those pictures would be the problem. He'd had a special set of video cameras installed in both Solo's and Kuryakin's apartments months ago when they had been out of the country. The equipment was difficult to detect at all, but impossible to discover as long as it was switched off. So far, the few times he'd risked turning the cameras on the information gathered had been utterly useless.
Thanks to Thrush technology, he knew Solo liked to lounge around in expensive sweatsuits, that Kuryakin worked crossword puzzles with a pen, and both spent very little time at home. And not once in all the time Thrush had watched had either Solo or Kuryakin ever brought a date home for so much as a drink. Not much blackmail potential there.
On the other hand, Solo had a rather strong mother hen complex when it came to his partner, and Stewart knew from his own experiences agents tended to get rattled when other agents died. Tomorrow U.N.C.L.E. would bury two of their own, which meant the memorial service should be some time today. That might make Solo careless. Yes, he decided, it was time to turn the cameras on again.
Napoleon walked into the main briefing room with Illya at his side and almost felt a draft from all the heads turning in their direction. At another time he would have been amused and most eager to hear the details of the current version of what Lisa had seen, but now he felt annoyed. He did not want this foolishness distracting anyone from the reason they were gathering.
Illya apparently had the same thought because he leaned close and whispered, "I should leave."
"No," he whispered back, automatically taking hold of Illya's arm which sent a little ripple through the large room, but he did not pull away. "They'll just talk about that, and you should be here."
"All right," Illya agreed, then slipped away to his usual spot.
Napoleon walked to the front of the room, then sat down next to Doctor Leslie Graham. As the section heads of the departments the two women had worked for, they were among the speakers slated for the service.
The room quickly filled with everyone who could be spared from Medical and Enforcement, plus friends from other sections. It was the sort of gathering Thrush and other foes of U.N.C.L.E. dreamed about, as one well-placed bomb would literally wipe out a good portion of the New York office. Such an occurrence was why Bainbridge would be the only Enforcement agent at the funeral tomorrow. Napoleon didn't know who Leslie had authorized to attend the funeral, but U.N.C.L.E. guidelines forbade the attendance of more than two people from any one section, and section heads could not attend at all. Thus, memorial services had been established so everyone could say their goodbyes without compromising security.
The form was always the same. Waverly spoke first, then the department head the deceased had served under. Afterwards, anyone who wanted to could come to the podium and talk a while. The service usually lasted for hours as people came and went as duty demanded, but it always proved to be a very cathartic experience.
Waverly walked up to the podium and launched into his usual speech about sacrifices necessary to make the world a safer place for others. It should have long ago descended into the realm of cliche but Waverly always varied it enough for it to never fail to move several listeners to tears.
Napoleon stood up, then replaced Waverly at the podium. He never opted to prepare a formal speech opting to speak about his experiences with the agent he'd lost. He'd liked Sharon a great deal and had more than a little difficulty narrowing their encounters down to a few representative stories.
As he began to talk about the first time a young Sharon Owens had reported to him, his eyes fell on Illya. He was standing at the back of the room, leaning against the wall right where he always did, but for the first time Napoleon realized how deliberate his placement was.
It kept Illya apart from the others and all the distasteful open emotion, but it also put him directly in Napoleon's line of sight. For some reason, whenever he was eulogizing one of his agents Napoleon had always needed a visual reminder it wasn't his damned fool partner about to be buried. Napoleon had known this, but until now he hadn't consciously known Illya did too.
He found the thought someone knew him so well both annoying and very comforting. And suddenly he found he wasn't exactly dreading what would happen tonight.
Illya stood in his favorite spot in Napoleon's apartment, in front of the large picture window that afforded a marvelous view of the New York City skyline. He especially loved the view at night. Right now though, it felt like a frame holding him up for all the world to see. But then that was the whole point.
The two men had talked about their 'romance' most of the afternoon, settling the details in their minds and deciding how to handle tonight. It seemed unlikely Thrush would know of a rumor just gaining credibility in Headquarters, but assumptions had destroyed more than one operation in the past. And, in all probability, both men lived under a constant, if casual form of Thrush surveillance. No, if this was to be done, it must be done immediately.
The lamp switched off behind him, leaving only the fireplace to illuminate the room. His heart began to pound, and he lifted his wine glass to give his nervous energy a channel, but he'd emptied it on the last swallow.
"Do you want some more?" He managed not to jump at the nearness of his partner's voice.
"No," he answered, surrendering his glass.
Napoleon's breath felt warm against his skin. "You look beautiful in the firelight," he said, his lips nuzzling Illya's neck above the black turtleneck sweater.
"Please, Napoleon, do not speak to me as if I were another one of your conquests," he said, flinching away from his touch. This was not easy on either of them, so they'd sought reasons for the hesitancy of their relationship. Reasons for them to seem awkward as they worked up the courage for the trip to the bedroom. Or rather he did. He had the suspicion this would be no trouble at all for Napoleon. "I know all your lines; I've heard you use them often enough. Grant me some shred of dignity by not using them on me."
Napoleon sighed and propped himself on the back edge of his couch. "We've been over this a hundred times, Illya. This is no more a casual fling for me than it is for you."
Illya glanced skyward. "This from a man who could best be described as a sexual shark. Why should I believe I'm any more special to you than all the others you've lured into your bed?"
"Because I've never told anyone else I loved them, and I do love you."
Illya's breath caught in his throat for a moment. There was an honesty behind those words all the play acting in the world couldn't produce. A foolish reaction and an equally foolish thought. He knew Napoleon loved him, as he loved Napoleon, but not like this.
Get on with it. His head dropped, his glance fixing on the carpet. "I know, but I thought this part of our relationship was over."
"So did I, but when I saw Sharon's and Janet's bodies in the morgue, I realized how much you mean to me. I want to make love to you, Illya, then wake up in the morning with you in my arms so that I know that you're still alive. Still mine."
Illya sighed again. "You always tend to rediscover me when we bury one of our own. It never lasts."
"No, this time it will. This time is forever."
Napoleon reached out, then took his hand. "I won't hurt you."
Hurt. Sometimes it seemed as if pain were the only constant in Illya's life. His small body and almost pretty looks made him seem somehow weak to others and the one more likely to break when answers were needed. In his time with U.N.C.L.E., Illya had been beaten, drugged, raped three times, dined upon by mutant vampire bats and almost guillotined, but it had been Mother Fear and her damnable strap against his bare back who had taught him what true pain was. He measured all other encounters with Thrush's mercy against what she had done to him. Nothing had even come close. Certainly not the rapes, and Napoleon wasn't going to rape him, so why was he so afraid?
"Of course you will," he said, finding his voice. "But I seem destined to always come running when you call."
Napoleon didn't answer, pulling him instead into the circle of his arms. Illya tried to draw upon the image of a woman as lips brushed against the hair over his right ear. Tried to imagine some soft, feminine voice whispering, "I love you."
"And I, you," he answered automatically, while trying to focus on something to get him through the next hour without compromising the entire operation. But, while more infrequent, Illya's past liaisons had consisted of little more depth than Napoleon's. A hazard of the job that left him with no strong memory to call upon. He tried to construct in his mind the fantasy woman his training had taught him to visualize when a target proved less than arousing, but his body was too familiar with Napoleon's presence and his touch to push the man from his mind.
His clear and certain knowledge of his partner had saved both their lives on many occasions, but now it left him bereft of fantasy. His panic must have shown when Napoleon swept him off his feet.
"I know a trick or two," he whispered as he carried Illya to the bedroom. "Just relax."
Illya almost laughed, finding nothing at all relaxing about Napoleon's hands removing his clothing or the all too soon feel of the bed against his bare back.
Lips moved slowly across his face, exploring the curve of his jaw, the line of his nose with small kisses. His own lips parted easily when the kiss reached his mouth. A tongue flicked against his front teeth, then behind them. A quick brush against the roof of his mouth tickled and almost pulled something suspiciously like a giggle from him. Unwilling to risk that indignity, he used his own tongue to urge a firmer taking of his mouth.
He shifted against the body holding him, finding it difficult to lie still. His hands only trembled a bit when they reached out to caress Napoleon's shoulders and back. The tongue abandoned his mouth, then the lips began to move slowly downward.
Down his neck, over his collarbone, then he gasped when the kiss closed around his right nipple. His hips shifted again, pushing upward, and he felt the press of Napoleon's obvious arousal against his thigh. The man could find sexual gratification with a cabbage, Illya thought with some irritation, then moaned when the kiss shifted to his other nipple.
Again Napoleon's lips began moving downward, and, to his amazement, when the kiss paused long enough to tease his belly button, Illya felt his own erection forming.
Pleasure and an inconvenient sense of outrage clashed in Illya's mind when Napoleon's mouth finally reached his groin. Confused by the sensations, Illya tried to squirm away, but Napoleon's hands reached beneath his hips and trapped him. Illya groaned his protests at the stroke of the tongue, the caress of the lips, then it stopped.
He opened his eyes at the sound of the bedside drawer opening, then watched Napoleon pull out a tube of lubricant. The beat of Illya's heart became a roar in his ears as lubricated fingers began to probe and prepare him. No one had ever touched him there with such gentleness, and he surprised himself by parting his own legs and lifting them up over Napoleon's shoulders.
Napoleon kissed him one more time, his tongue doing a delightful dance inside Illya's mouth, then he drew back. His warm brown eyes captured Illya's blue ones with a single glance.
Illya nodded and forced himself to relax, a skill he'd acquired to lessen the damage of a rape. Never had he thought to use it with his partner.
The older man's weight shifted, his hands holding Illya still, then he entered the tight passage. Sweat beaded on Illya's forehead. It did hurt, but only for a moment, then the gentle thrusting began.
Napoleon's body rubbing against his groin quickly pushed Illya over the edge, and he cried out in surprise as the sticky warmth of his release flowed between their bellies. A moment later, Napoleon came, the familiar sensation of a man's seed filling Illya's bottom passage. Amazing how different it felt when someone did it in pleasure instead of conquest.
After a moment Napoleon recovered himself and slipped out of Illya's body. He settled down on the bed beside the younger man and pulled him close. Instinctively, Illya snuggled up against him as he had done when he'd almost died of a fever in South Africa.
Napoleon kissed the top of the head nestled against his shoulder. "Good night, Illyusha."
"Good night, Napasha," he answered, and soon the sound of Napoleon's breathing told him his partner had fallen asleep, leaving him to wonder how he had managed to feel so much pleasure when never once had his mind forgotten every touch, every taste had been Napoleon.
"Just another day at the office"
Stewart looked through the stack of photos one last time. The quality was less than he would have liked, a hazard of lifting still photos from video tape, but he'd found enough good shots to make things interesting.
He came up with twelve he liked. Each featured at least one of the two agents' faces and an intimate sex act. Stewart shook his head. He had to admire Solo's style. He hadn't known there were that many ways to make love to a man.
He picked up the phone, dialed a number, then smiled as a familiar voice answered.
"I think it is time to have a talk with Mr. Kuryakin," Stewart said. "Arrange it."
"He's an agent, not an innocent or someone from the office who is only marginally trained in defensive techniques," the voice reminded him. "He won't be easy to take."
"I'll have all the men you need at your disposal."
"Good. Just make certain they're ready to move at a moment's notice."
"Oh, don't worry, they will be." Stewart hung up, a smile on his face.
The tampon on his desk chair had pushed him over the edge.
For two weeks Illya had endured whispered conversations behind his back, former paramours of Napoleon's bursting into tears at the very sight of him and a variety of veiled insults. He'd discovered he possessed the amazing ability of being able to clear out the men's locker room simply by walking through the door -- he imagined Robert Gearhart had developed quite a rash by dressing before he'd even rinsed off all the soap.
Two agents from the Paris office with a bad case of testosterone on the brain had tried to teach him what real men thought of perverts like him. Instead he'd showed them why he was Napoleon Solo's partner and had sent them both home with matching arm casts. Explaining his own bruises to Napoleon had required relatively little creativity.
Carol Harris had asked him on what date he had finally succumbed to Napoleon's charm so she could settle the bets in the office pool. He'd told her Napoleon had no charm and had suggested she donate the money to the widows' and orphans' fund.
Art Shoemaker had assured him he wasn't the first to fall victim to Napoleon's sexual appetites nor would he be the last. Dubious comfort at best. And then there was the damned button.
The large red button had been waiting in his mail bin a few days ago. I got laid by Solo it proclaimed in words designed to look scorched by heat. Actually, he'd found the existence of such a thing mildly amusing and kept it after glaring at it for several hours, but he had decided the matching bumper sticker was in rather poor taste. He'd burned it.
All of this and more because of rumors. He wondered if Sharon, Janet and the others had been subjected to this mean-spirited nonsense or if he were being singled out. Certainly, Napoleon had not suffered from more than an occasional odd look. Illya wasn't certain if this was because everyone was wise enough to not irritate someone with the title of Chief Enforcement Agent or if Napoleon's notorious reputation absolved him of any responsibility.
In either case Illya had grown more than a little irritated with this bizarre double standard, and it was in that mood that he had returned to his office from doing some work in the lab. Still reading a report, he'd sat down on something wet.
Someone had placed a tampon on his chair, then had upended a bottle of red ink all over it. He'd changed from his ruined suit into a pair of jeans and his black turtleneck, called building maintenance and requested a new chair, all with his usual calm, then a glance at the clock had told him it was a minute after noon.
Suddenly furious, he'd nearly broken his finger on the phone when he had punched up Napoleon's number. "Is it your intention to stand me up again?" he'd snapped before his partner could even say a word. Somehow he'd managed to forget he had no audience and no reason to play the jealous lover, something which had done nothing to improve his mood.
"Ummm, no, I'll meet you in the commissary in three minutes," Napoleon had answered in a tone of voice that made it quite clear he'd rather have dental surgery.
Illya knew he wasn't being fair, but he felt wronged enough to not make too much of an effort to calm himself down as he went through the cafeteria line. Too tense to really be hungry, he bought a bowl of tomato soup, then retreated to one of the back tables on the far end of the long, plain room.
True to his word, Napoleon arrived three minutes later, sitting down across from him, seemingly oblivious to the stares following him through the room.
Yes, by all means, everyone watch closely. It is not often you get to witness the utter perversion of a man eating a tuna on rye sandwich with his partner." "Next time order whole wheat," Illya muttered.
"You changed your clothes."
A long silence, then, "Is that all you're going to eat?"
"I am not hungry."
Napoleon moved half the potato chips from his tray to Illya's. "Eat these. You're losing too much weight."
"And who would know better than you," he snapped, but ate the damned chips, then half of the tuna sandwich in a sullen silence.
Napoleon bolted down the remains of his lunch, obviously desperate to return to the relative peace of his office, but Illya had no intention of allowing an easy escape. "Tell me, Napoleon, is there a single person in this entire building with whom you have not had sex?" A strangled cough answered him as his partner choked on too large a gulp of iced tea.
"You have the self restraint of an alley cat," Illya hissed, his mind screaming to know why he was the one paying for Napoleon's reputation. Napoleon Solo, the great heterosexual, brought low by a scheming Russian pervert. "You --"
"Illya...." Napoleon's hand touched his arm, and Illya started to jerk away. Then he saw the pain caused by his reaction in the older man's eyes and despair filled him. No. Napoleon's touch had always been one of comfort, never of pain. He couldn't allow anyone, not the bigots, Thrush, or even himself, to take that away from them.
"I am sorry," he said softly, his attention fixing on an imaginary spot on the table top.
The hand on his arm squeezed gently. "We need toothpaste."
Illya looked up. "What?"
"I used the last of the toothpaste this morning. If you worked at it, I'm sure you could take the whole afternoon buying some more."
An afternoon away from this. He knew it would give his tormentors all the more time to plan their next round of pranks, but right now it sounded like paradise. "I will be home by seven," he said, standing.
"See that you are," Napoleon said with a smile. "It's your night to cook."
"Perhaps I shall make a souffle," he said, recalling the time he'd actually attempted to cook dinner during a case in suburbia.
"Poisoning me will only result in your having to do the dishes, too."
Napoleon signed his name and tossed yet another file folder into his out-bin. Being Chief Enforcement Agent gave him a certain degree of power and the best assignments, but it also tended to increase his paperwork. He scowled at the still all too high pile in his in-bin, but reached for yet another file.
"Napoleon Solo doing his own paperwork? I must be hallucinating."
He smiled at the pretty redhead standing in his office doorway. He'd known April Dancer and her partner, Mark Slate, had returned from Brazil late last night, but he hadn't expected them to make an appearance at the office today. "A man's got to do, etc.," he said.
"That usually translates as getting Illya to do it for you," she teased. "Is he sick?"
"No, just feeling abused. It makes him uncooperative." A damned shame too, since the Russian tended to go through a stack of reports in half the time he did and with twice the efficiency. A trait he shared with Slate, who was undoubtedly busy writing up the reports on the Brazil mission.
April slipped into the office, then closed the door behind her. "So what's the scoop with you and the Russian iceberg?"
Napoleon blinked in surprise. "Good Lord, April, you've only been in the office a few minutes and you've already heard something?"
She dropped into a spare chair. "Napoleon, I don't think anyone is talking about anything else."
"Must be a slow news day," he muttered.
"Oh, come on, Napoleon. Your sexual escapades have been the talk of the office for years, and you've loved it. Don't get all grouchy because Illya's involved this time. I hear someone even sent him the official Solo button."
Wednesday. It had to have been last Wednesday – would explain the Russian's hellacious mood that day. He was going to have to have a talk with his partner about the value of admitting what was bothering him.
She seemed to finally notice he was upset, so she said, "Don't worry about it, Napoleon. They're admittedly more intense this time, but the rumors will blow over soon enough. They always do," she said.
He shook his head. "This time they aren't rumors."
To her credit, April's eyes only widened a bit. "You're kidding."
"Afraid not." If he and Illya were U.N.C.L.E.'s top agents, then April and Mark were a very close second and the best backup he could think of. He had the feeling they were going to need them. "We've been making pictures for a blackmailer."
He filled her in on everything they knew, including their theory the office grapevine could well be the starting point for the blackmailer.
She frowned. "It makes sense, but it doesn't. If Thrush already has an inside man, why would they need to blackmail anyone to get the information they want?"
"Too low of a security clearance to gain access to important information, not wanting to risk him until something bigger comes along, any of a dozen reasons, but most of them are, admittedly, a reach. We just can't take the chance of not considering the possibility."
She nodded her agreement. "What can we do to help?"
"Keep your ears open, back us up, and have Mark talk to Illya. They're friends -- maybe he can get him to open up. I don't want my partner's head all messed up when things get dangerous."
"But... you're his best friend. Surely if he were going to talk to anyone it would be you."
"Right now, pretty lady, I am his problem."
She stood up, walked over to him, then sat down on the edge of his desk. "This has been hard on you, hasn't it?"
"It's harder on Illya." An obvious evasion, but true enough. While he usually preferred female partners, Napoleon had more than a few male lovers in his past. He'd even toyed with seducing Illya when the young Russian was first assigned to him, thinking a little sex might loosen the boy up, but their relationship had moved in a different direction. Illya was his partner, best friend, and kid brother all rolled into one irritating package. Still, it had proven remarkably simple to draw on old curiosities in order to make love to him. In truth when he was being honest with himself, he had to admit he was enjoying having Illya in his bed.
Illya, on the other hand, had never been with a man who hadn't taken him by force or one whom the job hadn't required him to seduce. In all reality very few women fell outside of those categories either. It galled Napoleon to find himself in the lie-back-and-think-of-U.N.C.L.E. group. The inscrutable brat knew he loved him, so why did Illya insist on making him feel like such a closet rapist?
"That's not what I asked you," April said, not about to let him get away with focusing her attention on Illya. "You don't like mixing any kind of love with sex. It's one of the reasons I don't qualify for that button."
"You had your chance," he muttered in protest, but it was true. He'd stopped propositioning April almost the very second they'd become friends. While sexual encounters on the job could certainly be limited, they could never be totally avoided. To see sex as part of love meant he would eventually be forced to betray that love. Even with his late wife, he had sought only mutual pleasure in the bedroom, not a physical expression of love, but it hadn't been easy. Nor was this mess with Illya.
He sighed. "I'll survive."
"Of course you will, since there's no real reason for you to be afraid of him," she said.
She shook her head. "You already have the most important commitment with him two people can share."
Napoleon stared at her, wondering if she'd injured her head in Brazil. "What are you talking about?"
"He's your partner."
Napoleon sighed, not appreciating being told the obvious when he was expecting some pearl of wisdom that might make things easier. And he decided things had gotten far too serious, so he forced a smile and said, "Just be glad your partner's name isn't Marcia or I would have palmed this assignment off on the two of you."
A shrill beep interrupted her response, and Napoleon pressed a button on his desk to open the communications channel. "Go ahead, Illya."
"Napoleon," an urgent whisper answered, "I think I'm in trouble."
"A little something for the photo album"
A long walk in Central Park with a bright blue sky overhead and an ice cream cone to nibble on had done much to improve Illya's mood if not the future. At least the ice cream cone would get Napoleon to stop nagging him about his weight. And really, it had been quite a long time since he had cared what anyone other than Napoleon thought. He saw even Waverly's opinion as less than a force in itself and more of a powerful influence on Napoleon. Was it another sign?
Had he fallen in love with his partner? That's what was really worrying him. Not the insults and the threats, but the possibility he had done the one thing he had never wanted to do with anyone, especially Napoleon.
His feelings had not seemed to change, but every night and morning for two weeks, Napoleon had touched him in a way that made him wonder.
He shook his head, tired of thinking deep thoughts and turned his musings to dinner. He had quite deliberately set out to learn how to cook after the first miserable soufflé, and he was sick of take out food, no matter how elegant. A stir fry perhaps? Or....
A tingling in the back of his neck warned him his subconscious had picked up on something, and thoughts of dinner evaporated. He walked over to a nearby hot dog vendor and ordered one of the loathsome things with everything, using the wait to glance around.
It seemed a very popular day for men walking alone in the park, he decided, his casual glance noting at least four possible Thrush agents within a fifty yard radius. They'd almost surrounded him, but with luck he'd spotted the trap in time.
He paid the vendor, then started down one of the few paths open to him. A quick turn to the right put him out of their sight for a moment, and, tossing the useless hot dog into a trash can as he passed it, Illya began to run.
The layout of the park long ago committed to his memory, Illya moved from path to path, doubling back and around any Thrush pursuit. A wasted effort, he discovered, when he emerged from the park to find two Thrush agents waiting for him.
They must have had every entrance covered, he realized ducking under the arms grabbing for him. Smaller than both of them, he went low, sweeping the legs out from under one with a kick, then driving upward with his fist into the belly of the other man.
Another team behind him cut off any escape back into the park, so he trusted in luck and darted into traffic light enough to actually be moving. He made it to the far side without incident, but the squeal of brakes and a loud thud told him at least one of his pursuers had not been so fortunate.
He ran up the alley to the right, turned left, then up another alley to the next street. He knew every street and alleyway in Manhattan, but such knowledge would also have been part of the indoctrination of any Thrush agent stationed in New York.
Through an alley, up two streets this time, left, up another alley and over the fence in the back. Did he dare risk hailing a cab? He'd picked up more than one fleeing Thrush agent by posing as a cab driver. The further he got from the park the better his odds of getting a real cab, he decided, and kept running.
But every turn he made seemed to lead him right back to another Thrush agent. An incredible amount of manpower to capture one lone U.N.C.L.E. agent not even currently assigned to a case. It must be the group after the Babylon Project, but somehow blackmail seemed a much more solitary activity. Still, he began to question the wisdom of escaping.
He decided he had to take the chance these were the men he and Napoleon were after, so he made a deliberate mistake and ducked into a dead end alley. In the seconds he had remaining he yanked out the silver pen-like communicator and said, "Open Channel D, emergency relay to Solo."
"Go ahead, Illya," his partner answered after a brief pause.
"Napoleon," he said, his run reducing his voice to a breathless whisper, "I think I'm in trouble."
A sharp pain in his neck brought his hand flying upward to the small dart lodged in his skin. The world started to spin, he had the absurd thought that he wished he'd picked a cleaner alley, then he fell as darkness claimed him.
"Illya? Illya!" Napoleon shared a look of alarm with April and stood up without even realizing it.
"He will be quite all right, Mr. Solo," an unfamiliar voice said over the communications line. "We just want to have a little chat with him."
"If you hurt him...." It was a stupid, useless thing to say, but somehow it made Napoleon feel a little less helpless.
"Oh, we won't. At least not much," the voice assured him. "Go home, Solo. He'll be returned to you before midnight."
The line went dead with the distinctive crunch of a communicator being destroyed and with it went his only way of tracing his partner.
April touched his arm. "What do we do now?"
Babylon. This had to be about Babylon, and that meant they would send Illya back to him. "Go home and wait."
A pounding headache greeted his return to consciousness. Bitter experience with Thrush tranquilizer darts had taught him not to move abruptly when waking up, so he merely blinked to clear his vision. Judging by the shadows around him, there were only a few moments left of twilight. Looked like he would be late for dinner after all.
His arms were held over his head by chains attached to thick leather cuffs fastened around his wrists. A bar cuffed to his ankles and chained to the floor held his legs shoulder-width apart. His clothing lay a few feet away in a tidy pile on the floor. An oddly familiar setup.
He concentrated on the shadows, trying to place his surroundings, then he groaned. They'd brought him to an old bondage club on the East side. The one that had served as a front for Thrush, until he'd helped close it down last year. He'd had a most distasteful experience posing as a waiter here and had never been able to look at whipped cream in the same light again.
His mind did a fast inventory of all the little goodies that could still be here, and he began to wonder if Mother Fear's treatment would move down to number two on his list.
His shoulders and wrists ached from supporting his weight, and the headache refused to let go but, having examined his surroundings, Illya settled into the manner of someone without a care in the world.
As usual, his disinterest rankled, and the waiting game ended after only a few minutes. A spotlight flared into life, surrounding him in a circle of brilliant white light. They'd sought to blind him, but he'd remembered the lights from before, so his eyes were closed and his headache remained a mere steady throb.
"Good evening, Mr. Kuryakin," an electronically altered voice filled the room. No way to know if it was male or female.
When in doubt, be polite -- it drove them crazy -- one of his rules of etiquette for interrogations sounded in his mind. "Good evening," he said, slowly opening his eyes.
"You know, we are going to have a little talk, Illya. If you say and do the right things, you know, I may allow you to return safely to your lover's arms."
"I'm afraid I do not understand what you are talking about."
The voice chuckled. "You know, I would have thought Mr. Solo's attentions were a bit more memorable than that. But, you know, we are going to have that chat."
You know. Someone had suffered from the annoying American trait of using the phrase as punctuation around him recently, but who? "I really don't have anything to say to Thrush. And torturing me won't do you any good. I took a course in resisting."
"Oh, you don't currently posses the knowledge that we need, you know, but you can get it for us."
"I am not in the habit of helping Thrush."
"Perhaps these will change your mind," the voice answered and the expected stack of photos landed near Illya's feet.
"You know, that isn't important. What is of your concern is that if you do not cooperate with us, we will see to it that all your U.N.C.L.E. friends get copies."
Illya could not imagine his life getting more miserable than the last few weeks, but he managed to look horrified. "Wh--what do you want?"
"Oh, don't decide now. Show the pictures to Solo and discuss the matter. You know, we will be in touch."
For a moment, Illya dared think that was it, but then someone behind him pulled a black silk hood over his head. "You know, I've always wanted to have one of Solo's women," a muffled voice said in his ear.
Illya noted another indication he might know this man, then amended his list. Raped four times.
Illya lay naked and face down on the bed, a sight Napoleon normally would have found quite fetching, but the cuts and bruises covering the bottom of Illya's feet kept any fires cool. The young man's captors had released Illya as promised, but had given him nothing back but his jeans. Without a single dime in his pockets, he'd had to walk, barefoot, all the way from the East side to Napoleon's mid-Manhattan apartment.
Nothing looked too serious, but his partner wouldn't be very fast on his feet for a few days, or so they must have thought. If Napoleon knew anything at all about Illya, he would move all the faster just to spite Thrush.
Illya had gone straight from the front door to the shower, pausing long enough to drop the folder full of photos on the coffee table. The shower had cleaned the wounds, leaving Napoleon with the unenviable task of applying the antiseptic.
He wet the cotton ball with peroxide, then hesitated a moment. "This is going to hurt."
"Just get it over with," Illya muttered around the pillow cradling his head.
At each touch, Napoleon felt the lean body tense beneath his hands, but Illya didn't utter a sound. "Those pictures..." he said, falling back into his part to distract them both from what he was doing.
"I do not want to talk about them."
"Illya, why did they give them to you?"
"They wanted..." he paused a moment, the only indication of how badly Napoleon was hurting him, "Babylon."
"They made a rather sweeping threat, but you can assume we will be the subject of office gossip for a long time to come."
"Illya, gossip and suspicion is one thing, evidence is another." Finished, he set aside the cotton and peroxide, then picked up a tube of antiseptic ointment. At least this shouldn't hurt as much. "Waverly will have to act on it."
"U.N.C.L.E. does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, religion, nationality or sexual preference," Illya spat back the text of the manual handed out to every new hire.
"Which sounds all very grand and noble, but in practice it doesn't work that way and you know it."
"Do not say 'you know,' and you should have thought of that before you seduced me."
"I can't help it if you're adorable when you're sulking," he said, moving to sit on the bed beside Illya's knees. "And you're always sulking."
"I am not. I simply have more important things to think about than how to seduce the newest member of the secretarial pool."
"I told you, I'm all through with that." He rested his hand on the back of Illya's thigh. "Were you... um...."
"Raped. The word is raped and, yes, I was."
"I need to take a look."
Illya sighed and lifted his hips. Napoleon's hands parted him the rest of the way. "There doesn't seem to be much trauma," he said, rubbing the antiseptic into the mildly swollen tissue to be on the safe side.
"Of course not. I'm perfectly capable of dealing with an unwanted entry, Napoleon, and he wanted to establish dominance, not to create pain."
Napoleon tried not to apply the words to himself and thought of how much he would like to kill the man who had done this to his partner. Not that it would please or impress Illya. Dealing with the emotional trauma of torture, including rape, was a large part of an U.N.C.L.E. agent's training, but no one had ever mastered it as Illya had. The first time the young man had been raped during their partnership, Napoleon had been certain the calmness hid a great emotional trauma, but he'd finally understood it did not. Since the goal of a rape was to humiliate, Illya had simply decided he would not be humiliated. When pushed on the matter, he would give Napoleon an impatient look and list all the things he'd experienced that had hurt him more.
Shaking his head with something between admiration and amazement, Napoleon pulled the covers up over Illya. "If Waverly sees those photos, our careers are over. At best we'll end up on permanent desk duty."
Illya didn't answer him.
"Illya, he could reassign you to the Moscow office."
"Then he'll have you deported. You're still a Russian citizen."
Illya twisted up and around to move into Napoleon's arms. "I cannot do it, Napoleon."
Napoleon had spent the better part of the day worried sick about his partner and, for a moment, he indulged himself by holding Illya. It cost him to break the embrace, but his hands tightened around Illya's upper arms, pushing him back so he could see his face. "Will you stop me?"
Doing a masterful job of looking truly miserable, Illya shook his head. "No."
He pulled the lean body back against him, and captured the soft lips with his own, but Illya stiffened suddenly and pushed away from him. "Did you get rid of the cameras?"
"The drapes are drawn," Napoleon muttered, reaching for him, but Illya slapped away his hands.
"They are closed in half the pictures, as well. Somehow they've managed to plant cameras inside your apartment. Do not touch me again until you have found them," he said, then pulled the covers up over his head.
Well played, Illya, Napoleon thought for about the millionth time since this assignment began.
Even using the photo angles as a reference, it took almost three hours to find and extract four tiny video cameras the size of a postage stamp. Ingenious little trinkets, they'd been mounted inside the walls. The lab should have a field day with them, but he guessed they were some sort of transmitter with a camera on the other end of the link. He would be most interested in finding out how they managed not to register on the scanner he routinely used to check his apartment. He locked them in his briefcase; then, with a yawn, he returned to the bedroom.
He stripped off his clothes, then crawled into the bed. Illya had fallen asleep a long time ago, but he stirred at the motion in the bed and settled into his usual spot, his head on Napoleon's shoulder. With a smile, Napoleon kissed the silky blond hair, then fell fast asleep.
In the morning they woke up, made love, then got ready for work. It wasn't until Illya was fixing his tie in front of the mirror that he remembered the cameras were gone.
Do not say you know.... Stewart stopped the tape and frowned. He'd found the first viewing rather entertaining and more than a bit informative. Alexander Waverly turning out to be a closet homophobe was more than he could have hoped for and almost insured Solo's cooperation. But something had nagged at him enough he'd decided to watch the tape again.
He rewound it and replayed the small segment again.
Do not say you know.... Of course, Kuryakin had picked up on the speech pattern. Damn.
It had been a calculated risk allowing his rape. With the others, raping the non-agent of the pair had driven a psychological wedge into the relationship that had helped split the couple mentally when they'd needed to be united. He'd known it wouldn't work in this case since both of them were agents, and Kuryakin had too much experience with that sort of torture.
Still, his man had insisted on it, saying it was part of his payment. Stewart found it disgusting and utterly unprofessional, but he'd needed the bastard's cooperation, so he had not forbidden it. A mistake.
He picked up the phone, then dialed. "We may have a problem," he said as soon as his contact answered.
"Illya has a bad day"
The chains had held him approximately two inches off the floor, and Illya had the impression his rapist had been forced to bend into him. Made him about five feet, eleven inches tall. He'd felt a small paunch pressed up against his back, and the body had lacked power. A lean build then, but probably about 190 pounds. He'd smelled of garlic. A pity the computers did not track what personnel had for lunch.
Illya finished coding in the general descriptors, then keyed in the 'search personnel files' command. Within a few moments thirty-four possible matches appeared on his screen.
He eliminated fifteen based on their security clearance. Too high or too low to fit the profile of the inside man. He had to be someone who could not gain access to Babylon, but knew of it.
Another ten were dismissed for the simple reason he had not talked with any of them in the last few weeks. Two more worked in the labs and had the usual rough skin typical of someone constantly washing his hands between experiments. He would have noticed that. Of the remaining seven, only three suffered from the annoying habit of dropping you knows into every other sentence. One of them was Art Shoemaker.
Now he remembered. "You know, I'm not trying to find out if you and Solo are doing anything," Shoemaker had said. "But you know, you shouldn't look so down-hearted. You wouldn't be the first to fall into Solo's bed, and you won't be the last, you know. Next week someone else will be in the hot seat." The comment had seemed mean-spirited given Shoemaker'd had every reason to suspect he was talking with someone who was in love with Solo. Solo. Not Napoleon. Not Napoleon Solo. Just Solo. The same way the man from last night had referred to Napoleon.
A lot of circumstantial threads, but he felt confident he had found his man. He called up Shoemaker's file and started reading. Forty-one, hired as an electronic technician level three when he was twenty-one. He had a mid-level security clearance, and though he hadn't done any actual work on the Babylon project, he was definitely among the number of personnel who had access to the information Thrush had acquired. Only two promotions, both due to level changes rather than merit. Not the most unlikely candidate for Thrush recruitment.
Satisfied he could convince Napoleon and Waverly, he picked up a nearby phone and dialed his partner's extension. He rolled his eyes as Napoleon's voice mail answered. "This place is becoming altogether too corporate," he muttered after the beep. "I think I have identified my friend from last night. Do give me call when you've finished with whomever you've cornered in the supply closet this time."
He hung up, copied the pertinent files onto a flashdrive, then with a nod of thanks to the personnel manager, he left the department and headed back to his own office.
He spotted Shoemaker in the hallway behind him as he rounded the corridor to the technical areas. It was where the man worked, so it might be a coincidence, but it did remind Illya he'd neglected to tell Napoleon who he suspected.
Brilliant, Illya, just brilliant. There did not seem to be any way Shoemaker could harm him in the middle of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, but Illya had the uncomfortable feeling he was in trouble again. Keeping his pace steady and hiding his movements as best he could, he pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote Napoleon's name on the flashdrive. When he rounded the next corner, he took advantage of the brief second he was out of Shoemaker's line of sight and palmed it into a stack of inter-office mail awaiting pick up.
Duty taken care of, he decided to find out what was on Shoemaker's mind, so he stopped at the water fountain for a drink. It didn't surprise him when the older man also stopped. "My mother always said it was a bad habit," he said, leaning against the wall next to the fountain.
"Pardon me?" Illya said, then took another swallow from the cold stream of water.
"The 'you knows.' She said they were irritating. People tend to notice things that irritate them, don't they, Illya?"
"It's possible. Now, if you'll excuse me," he said, but Shoemaker caught hold of his arm. Though taller and heavier, they both knew the technician was no physical match for Illya, which meant he must have some other advantage. Best to wait and find out what it was.
"You kn--" he caught himself and smiled. "Since Solo started bedding you, it's been a lot easier on average guys like me to get a date. One of mine works in personnel. She was horrified you were checking through the computer files. Thought you might be looking for information on potential rivals."
"You were the one who pointed out I had good reason to be jealous," Illya countered, giving his arm a twist, then a jerk to free himself from the restraining hand. "Now, I believe we both have work to do."
Shoemaker smiled. "Did you know Solo takes his watch off when he works out in the gym?" he said, holding up the watch Illya had given Napoleon for Christmas two years ago. "Oh, I didn't steal this, you know. I just made a little trade. The one I gave him is fancier."
"How generous of you."
"You and I are going to leave this building and get in a car waiting for me."
"I press the button on the little box in my other hand and a needle pops out of his new watch to shoot a nice concentrated dose of a special Thrush poison straight into his vein. Death is instantaneous."
Illya's feelings about Napoleon had been in an uproar, especially since this morning, but one thing had not changed since they had first gone on a mission together -- he would die to keep the irritating man alive. "You win." For now.
Damn it, where was that blasted Russian? Napoleon had spent the better part of the day working with Waverly and Mark Slate to create a phony version of Babylon loaded with goodies for Thrush, something Illya would have been far better suited for. But his partner had been in such a snit since this morning Napoleon had decided it would be easier on his nerves to use Slate instead.
What was the big problem, anyway? They'd woken up aroused and had done something about it, something they'd both undeniably enjoyed. Hell, he'd forgotten about the lack of cameras until he was in the shower but, of course, Illya hadn't believed that and had given him a look implying he'd moved Napoleon from the duty demands category to the rapist side of the list. Well, that might be too harsh, he told himself. Vile seducer was more like it.
He'd hoped, no, he'd assumed Illya would eventually cool off, but he'd disappeared the moment they'd entered headquarters. Frustrated and out of patience, he'd been seriously considering the merits of turning the irritating blond over his knee, when he'd heard the voice mail message.
He should have known Illya would have filed away every detail about the man who had raped him. He must have recognized something, but he'd been too busy throwing a fit to tell Napoleon what it was. A quick phone call verified Illya had spent some time in personnel, but that had been hours ago.
A sick feeling began to churn his stomach. He snatched up his phone and dialed. "Dancer, grab Slate and report to my office immediately," he snapped when April answered her phone, then he hung up.
Illya wasn't in the building, that much he knew for certain. All the temper tantrums in the world wouldn't keep his partner from immediately answering a page. And only trouble would keep him from answering his communicator if he were outside.
He'd finished calling all the standard exits when Mark and April arrived. He filled them in, then concluded, "He must have gone out one of the emergency exits." Or he was dead, stuffed in one of the closets, but Napoleon refused to consider the thought for more than an instant.
Mark shook his head. "That would have triggered half a dozen alarms. Illya's good, but even he doesn't know how to by-pass all those systems."
"Easy answer is one of the electricians who service them."
A call to technical revealed Art Shoemaker had also gone AWOL. So they had the name, but the where was more important. And why had Illya gone with him?
The ropes cut into wrists already slick with blood. Illya consoled himself with the knowledge it would make them easier to slip out of. Of course, he would not be able to stand once he did. He bit down hard on the rubber ball buckled into his mouth. A fancy gag and cheap rope, but at least he did not have to worry about giving Shoemaker the satisfaction of hearing him scream.
Not that it was likely. He hadn't screamed yet and his back was starting to grow numb against the whip. The man lacked Mother Fear's style, but he made up for it with enthusiasm. He had a good tie running for the number one slot, might even win if he didn't accidentally kill Illya first.
Tired of the repeated violations, he tried to twist away when Shoemaker's hands settled onto his hips. It earned him the handle of the whip against his right temple, and the room began to spin. He fought to steady his vision and keep his body relaxed while Shoemaker enjoyed himself.
He couldn't afford to pass out. He knew Napoleon would come for him -- he always did
-- but his partner didn't know about the booby-trapped watch. Restraints and all, he had to think of some way to warn him. Which meant staying alive and conscious, but he couldn't lose much more blood and manage either.
He tried hard not to think about his life depending on the efficiency of the inter-office mail. Instead of every hour, the deliveries had been running twice a day, on a good day, but if Napoleon got the files, he'd find the text Illya had marked.
Shoemaker had been one of the electricians who'd de-bugged the bondage club after the U.N.C.L.E. raid. He'd taken part in three other clean-up operations, and this place was one of them. His and Napoleon's only chance was that his partner could find him before Shoemaker killed him, then used his dead body to lure Napoleon into a trap.
Illya heard rather than felt Shoemaker finish. He'd gone relatively numb there as well. After a moment, the whip cracked again, and Illya glanced skyward. Didn't this man ever get tired? Tired, so tired....
Napoleon stayed low as he moved toward the warehouse. The area seemed to be crawling with Thrushies tonight, but he was in a rather dark mood, so that suited him just fine.
He shot the first two guards he came upon, his silenced weapon not making much noise, but as he drew closer to his destination he opted against making even that small sound and pulled a knife from his boot. Illya was the expert with the blade, but the Russian had spent a good deal of time making certain his partner was proficient as well.
The loading dock seemed the best point for an unobserved entry, so Napoleon slipped around the side of the building. A guard stood at the door he had in mind. He took hold of the tip of the blade, then threw it. The knife struck smack in the heart.
The guard looked surprised, then died.
Napoleon checked the door. Locked. He pushed a small glob of an incendiary compound into the lock, stepped to the side, then hit a transmit button on his watch. The lock melted in a brief, intense flash of heat. He pushed the door open, then moved quickly into a shadow.
Since the U.N.C.L.E. raid last February, the warehouse had stood empty, but the light was on in the office area. He moved toward it. A guard, whose attention should have been on the big dark emptiness around him, was watching intently what was going on inside the office.
Napoleon moved up behind him with ease, grabbed his head and with a fast twist broke his neck before he could make a sound. Lowering the body to the floor, he got his first good look inside.
Oh, God, Illya. His partner was hanging in the center of a room the size of an average hotel lobby. Shoemaker stood close behind him, the motion of his body making what the bastard was doing obvious. Before Napoleon could move, the traitor shuddered, then stepped back from his prisoner.
Napoleon opened the door as Shoemaker picked up the whip. The heavy leather struck Illya once as Napoleon raised his gun. It took everything Napoleon had in him to remember the mission as he aimed, then fired.
The soft cough of an U.N.C.L.E. special pulled Illya back from the darkness, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw half the whip fall to the floor. The bullet had split it in two. Nice shot, he thought, somehow finding the energy to lift his head enough to watch Napoleon step into the room. Hoping Shoemaker's attention would stay on his partner, Illya began to twist his wrists and pull.
"Get away from him," Napoleon ordered, his gun trained on Shoemaker's chest.
"You're early, Solo," Shoemaker said, obeying, but Illya knew the little box had to be hidden in one of his hands. "That wasn't part of our bargain."
"Neither was killing Illya."
"Ah, but he has to die, you know. He knows who I am, and even if he didn't, his loyalty to you is certain to vanish the first time you stray, you know. Then his conscience would make him turn us both in."
Next time Napoleon played the jealous, noble part, Illya decided, while, with small movements of the hand furthest from Shoemaker, he motioned for Napoleon to come closer. White hot pain flashed through him as the ropes slipped from his wrists to the fleshy part of his hand. One more pull would do it.
Napoleon held up the briefcase. "This is what you wanted, so give me the negatives and go."
Yes, a nice phony but impressive-looking Babylon would neutralize Thrush communications for a time. Illya understood the strategy, but knew this would be a lot simpler if Napoleon would just shoot the bastard. Closer, Napoleon, come closer. He knew he would collapse when his arms came loose, but if he could get some control.... Damn it, Napoleon, I'm supposed to be your lover, so stop being cautious and rush over here to save me.
Shoemaker shook his head. "I don't think so, Solo. You're too dangerous. I can't let you live any more than I could the others, you know. Once you're no longer any use to me, I have to get rid of you."
"Is that what happened to Sharon and Janet?"
"Actually, I had to get rid of them because dear Sharon was not being cooperative. In another day or two, she might have figured out who I was, you know."
"So either way, anyone dealing with you ends up dead."
"Yes, but I think I'll make an exception with your little blond baby doll, at least for a while. He's so much fun to play with, you know."
Napoleon finally moved close enough, and the 'blond baby doll' decided he'd put up with more than enough. He jerked hard, then fell free, shifting his weight so he toppled into Napoleon's arms. Illya didn't even try to pull the gag free, instead his hand darted to Napoleon's wrist, his fingers pushing between the watch face and his partner's skin.
He felt a sharp prick, but no sensation of poison moving into his system. Guessing the plan and hoping he could match the symptoms, he stiffened, then went limp and concentrated on looking like he wasn't breathing.
"Illya!" Napoleon screamed, sinking to the floor to cradle the body in his arms. "Illya!"
Illya had gone for the eyes-open-dead look, so he could see Shoemaker walk over to them. The man picked up the briefcase and the gun Napoleon had dropped when he'd found his arms full of bleeding Russian. "Such a waste to love a man like you so much that he would die for you, you know."
He pointed the gun at Napoleon's head, and for one moment Illya feared U.N.C.L.E. had decided getting a phony Babylon into Thrush's computers was worth the lives of two agents, then Napoleon said, "You only made one real mistake."
"I don't give a damn what anyone thinks of my sex life," he said, then called, "Mark!"
"Perimeter is secure, Napoleon," the Englishman said, stepping into the light. "Drop the gun, Shoemaker. Your men are all in custody."
Illya pushed hard against the floor, propelling himself up and knocking Napoleon away from the gun muzzle, his partner holding onto him tightly enough to also pull him out of the line of fire.
His shot spoiled, Shoemaker swung the gun around and fired blindly at Mark, who ducked instead of returning fire. He took the opportunity to cut and run. Mark hurried after him, no doubt under orders to make his escape look convincing.
Over. It was all over. Drained, Illya sagged against Napoleon. He felt the older man's hands working on the buckle behind Illya's head, then the ball was eased from his mouth. The relief to his aching jaw granted him a trickle of energy, and he muttered, "Next time you 'die.' Your 'grief' is utterly unconvincing."
Napoleon glanced pointedly from the gag in his hand to Illya. "He bought it."
"He also thought I was one of your women. Hardly a sign of someone with an ounce of sense. And...." The room started to spin. "And... I think I shall pass out now...."
Stewart glared at Shoemaker. "You damned fool," he hissed, shaking in cold fury. "You just had to have your fun with Kuryakin, didn't you?"
Shoemaker shifted from one foot to other, squirming like an errant child called to the principal's office. "You have Babylon, what more did you want?"
"You blew your cover and jeopardized our entire operation. Is it really necessary for me to point out that U.N.C.L.E. won't rest until they capture you?"
"So get me out of the country," Shoemaker said, growing bolder. "I was tired of playing the mole for you anyway."
Stewart backhanded him hard across the face. "I'll get you out of the country all right." He pulled his gun, then fired.
The bullet struck the startled U.N.C.L.E. traitor between the eyes.
"Clean this mess up!" Stewart snapped at one of his subordinates. Loose end taken care of, he wasn't quite certain why he was so angry.
Despite the best efforts of that fool Shoemaker, Thrush had won. Babylon was on its way to Thrush Central, Kuryakin was in the hospital and out of commission for at least two weeks and U.N.C.L.E. itself was in an uproar over the revelation there had been a traitor in their midst. All in all a most satisfying conclusion for everyone but himself.
He had sparred with Solo and won, but Solo did not know he existed. It spoiled the victory. Soon, he promised himself. Soon they would meet and that would be sweet indeed.
"What about the pictures?" his contact asked. "Will you send them to U.N.C.L.E.?"
His mood improved, he turned and smiled. "Not yet. I think I'll let them worry for a while."
Illya lay face down on the hospital bed, his body assuring him he would neither be sitting nor sleeping on his back for at least another few days. He curled onto his side, propping his head up on his pillow so he could talk with the man sitting on the side of the bed. "How did you know about the watch?"
"You won't like it," Napoleon warned.
"I seldom like anything you have to say, so you might as well tell me."
"He couldn't use physical force on you, and a weapon would have been picked up on our scanners. That meant you had to choose to go with him."
And you know my only weakness is wanting to keep you alive. It all made perfect sense, but he found it perfectly irritating. "You are an insufferable egoist."
Napoleon scowled, but Illya could see the affection in his eyes. "And you don't value your own life highly enough. If I hadn't started checking everything around me that was even remotely electronic...." He sighed. "Damn it, Illya, try guarding your own life for a change."
"It is not my way, Napoleon. Nor is it yours." He shifted his hand to rest on Napoleon's forearm. "We each protect the other from his carelessness. It is not the best of systems, but it does work reasonably well."
Napoleon gave his hand a caress. "You always seem to be the one who ends up in the hospital."
"That is only because you are more careless, and I am better at my job than you are."
"Miserable brat," Napoleon said, ruffling Illya's hair.
"Yes, I have been that of late. I am sorry, Napoleon. I allowed my confusion over our relationship to affect my judgment. It will no longer be a problem."
"Does that mean you're no longer confused?"
Illya had to fight not to laugh at the look of fear in his partner's eyes. It would have been cruel for he knew how terrified the man was of commitments. "Do not worry, Napoleon, I do not expect you to... marry me? My feelings for you remain as they have always been. It was only my arousal at your touch that confused me for a time."
"I am quite good at that sort of thing."
"You are being insufferable again."
"Well, it is one of the reasons I am rather popular with the ladies," Napoleon said, looking altogether far too smug for Illya's taste.
"I knew it could not be your personality."
Napoleon clutched dramatically at his chest to acknowledge the barbed comment, but then his manner turned more serious. "Illya, it really is all right to enjoy having sex with me. Not every damn thing must be endured."
Perhaps not, but this was also his way. Still, he thought of how it felt to lie beneath Napoleon and found himself reluctant to say never again. "While having you inside me was... not altogether unpleasant," he said, "I do remain uncertain as to whether or not I wish to be with you in such a manner again."
"That's okay, kid," he said, brushing Illya's bangs to one side. "I can restrain myself, even if you are beautiful when you're aroused."
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "That is not exactly something I ever expected to hear you say to me."
"You'll survive it, tovarish." The American leaned over and kissed Illya on the forehead. "Surviving is what you do best."
Illya reached out and took hold of the American's hand. "A necessary skill when one is Napoleon Solo's partner."
The door opened, but Illya did not try to remove his hand from Napoleon's when Waverly walked in. "Good morning, gentlemen," the old man said. "I trust you are feeling better today, Mr. Kuryakin. We can't have you lollygagging around for too long."
"I shall do my best to effect a speedy recovery, sir."
"Excellent. Someone has to look after our Mr. Solo here, and you seem to be the only one up to the task."
It was a horrible and all too obvious cliche, but Illya found he could not resist it. "It is a dirty job, sir, but someone has to do it." Napoleon gave him a look which clearly told Illya he was fortunate his backside was far too tender for a well-placed swat.
"You'll both be pleased to hear Thrush communications seem to be having a few problems, courtesy of Mr. Slate's computer virus. It should take them months to make repairs."
"That's good news, sir," Napoleon said, "but I have the feeling there's a 'but' hidden somewhere in there."
"Quite right, I'm afraid," Waverly said. "A search of the warehouse where Mr. Kuryakin was held has failed to turn up the blackmail video."
"Sounds like we'll be seeing it again."
"Undoubtedly. Well, it shouldn't prove too much of a problem. Oh, they may muddy the waters but, if we make it clear the two of you were on assignment, things should get relatively back to normal."
"Yes, Mr. Solo?"
"Oh, nothing, sir. I was just thinking that if we had a broader definition of normal, six good people might still be alive."
Waverly considered that. "Perhaps, but though the times are changing, we cannot expect them to change overnight."
Illya thought of the tampon on his chair, the rude comments and the constant stares that had followed him everywhere the last few weeks. It would all go away now. For him. But, despite all his misdirected anger, he had lived with unpleasant labels most of his life -- a side benefit of being one of the few U.N.C.L.E. agents recruited from a former enemy nation. One more should not cause him much concern now that he understood how he felt. "Perhaps we could give change a little push."
Napoleon gave him the perplexed look that said he didn't have the faintest idea what his partner was thinking. "Illya?"
"If we say nothing and merely go on as we have always done, they will continue to tell their tales and play their pranks, but eventually they will grow tired of it. Some of them may even come to accept the world is not a simple place. In any case, it will be easier on the next person who falls under suspicion."
"But it won't be easy for you, tovarish."
"Once you resume your amorous pursuits, I will become another of your former lovers. The worst of it will stop then. The rest will be easy enough to endure."
A slight nod from Waverly drew the two men's attention to him. "Well, Mr. Solo, the decision seems to be yours. Do we release the details of your assignment?"
Napoleon smiled, then drawing it up to his lips, he kissed the back of Illya's hand. "Let 'em guess."
Six months later…
The other shoe drops
How does he do it? Illya sat behind the desk normally occupied by his partner and worked his way slowly through the impressive pile of folders threatening to spill out of the in-bin. The full attention of his mind not needed to do the work, he occupied himself by planning the murder of one Napoleon Solo.
No matter how many times he resolved his senior partner would not con him into doing all the paperwork, Illya always seemed to end up here, pen in hand. This time Napoleon had avoided the paper mountain by volunteering for courier duty. It had been an admittedly rather sensitive set of documents, but nothing warranting his personal attention. However, the maneuver had left Illya Acting Chief Enforcement Agent and had gotten Napoleon a few days off in Paris. There was no justice in this world, Illya decided, and picked up another file.
When he opened the folder and got a look at its contents, he rolled his eyes in exasperation. Their encounter with the Thrush docility drug had been months ago, right after Illya had been released from hospital, but here it was still on Napoleon's desk. Illya had even done the hard part, his report on the mess a principal part of the contents of the file. He scanned everything again for completeness, then signed his name, officially closing the case. The other five cases they'd handled in the intervening months were underneath.
To be fair to his partner, only their own case files were delinquent. The considerable stack of remaining cases were those of other agent teams and less than a week old, several of them having come in after Napoleon had left for Paris. It seemed Thrush and minds with similar bents had been very active of late.
Seven files also required nothing more than the Chief Enforcement Agent's signature to close them. The paperwork on four others lacked a certain completeness, so he routed them back to the attention of the agents involved. While Napoleon might enjoy getting Illya to do the paperwork, the agents in the Enforcement Section had good reason to dread the Russian's famed thoroughness.
The babysitting roster came up next. The United Nations handled most of the monitoring duties on treaties, but sometimes nations agreed to dismantle facilities of a more classified nature. In those cases, U.N.C.L.E. did the monitoring. There were eight such assignments coming up, and Illya frowned as he looked at the dates agents would be needed for the three United States operations. They should have been assigned over a week ago. Napoleon might detest paperwork, but it was not like him to be so careless.
A quick check of the received date cleared up the mystery. The requests had only arrived this morning. There could have been some accidental foul-up on the American military's end. But more than likely it had been one of those deliberate inconveniences designed to let U.N.C.L.E. know how thrilled the host government was to have an outside agency checking up on them.
Fortunately it was easy duty and needed little preparation time. It required an agent assigned to the pertinent hemispheric office, but not a native of any of the countries involved. Illya had pulled it quite often in his earlier days with the organization. He reviewed the files, approved the codes and assigned an agent to each operation.
Next he reviewed the schedules copied to U.N.C.L.E. from various outside agencies. Three he marked as not requiring further U.N.C.L.E. attention, two were directed to Alexander Waverly's attention, and he assigned teams to assist with four other operations. That left ten reports to write up. He decided on dragging Napoleon around New York Harbor from the stern of his ridiculous boat and keyed up a blank screen on the computer to start the next report.
"Illya!" He looked up as April burst into the room, her face flushed, something clutched in her hand.
Not liking the looks of this at all, Illya stood up. "What is it?"
For a moment she seemed at a loss for words, then she sighed. "This was on the bulletin board in the vending area," she said, laying an 8x10 photograph on the desk.
Illya's first thought was of an American expression about the other shoe finally dropping. It was almost a relief to see it, but as he studied the image, he knew he was in big trouble. Both he and Napoleon were clearly identifiable, while Napoleon was undeniably inside him. But it was the look on his own treacherous face that concerned him. It was one of pure rapture. Napoleon is going to be quite insufferable about this.
He looked from the photo to April. Though she was one of the few who had known of its existence, she was obviously embarrassed at to finally see it. "It is the one I would have used," he said.
"Mark is checking the vending areas on the other floors, but it's a safe bet there are photos there as well."
He nodded his agreement, not certain what to say to her.
She was silent for a moment, then admitted, "This one had drawn quite a crowd before I ripped it down."
Illya sighed. Suddenly drowning Napoleon for leaving him here to face this day alone didn't seem like enough. The notion of shark-infested waters carried a very satisfying image with it.
"How much trouble do you think this is going to cause?" she asked.
Personally, quite a bit, but professionally? "Not much," he answered. "U.N.C.L.E. does not discriminate etc., etc." The most he would have to endure was the embarrassment of a temporary suspension from the field while his partnership with Napoleon was re-evaluated. But since Waverly had gotten them into this, it was not a real threat. Of course Thrush didn't know that.
Like any employee, Shoemaker had known about U.N.C.L.E.'s anti-discrimination policy, so Thrush must know of it as well. But in addition to the pictures, Thrush also had a recording of Napoleon dismissing the practical protection of the policy. Given the carefully staged conversation, Thrush had every reason to believe Waverly would see to it Illya was on the next plane to Moscow. They must have thought themselves very clever in giving Illya six long months to agonize about it.
He took some comfort knowing Thrush would soon learn how thoroughly he and Napoleon had misled them. In fact, making the operative behind this look like a total fool almost made the trouble it would cause Illya all worthwhile. Almost.
He turned his attention back to April, who looked uncertain of what to do next. He gave her one of his infrequent smiles. "Thank you for bringing this to me. It would have been unpleasant to walk into the section head meeting not knowing about it."
April frowned. "I thought the section head meeting was on the first Thursday of the month."
He shook his head. "It is on a floating schedule right now. Part of the attempts to shake up the routine Shoemaker knew about." Silliness as far as he was concerned, but if it made everyone feel more secure, who was he to argue? "Now, if you will excuse me, I only have twenty minutes before it starts."
She looked somewhat relieved to have an excuse to escape the situation, but she was a good friend so she stopped in the doorway. "Forgive me, Illya, but," she nodded toward the photo on the desk, "you look like you were having a good time."
It was an offer to talk about it, but he shook his head. "I was supposed to." Maybe he would settle for strangling Napoleon with his bare hands.
Very nice. Napoleon took his club soda and lime from the flight attendant, then gave her a smile. Beautiful, curvaceous and interested -- just his type. Almost a pity he considered himself officially off duty. Oh, he could still enjoy himself with his customary gusto when he encountered a sultry bedmate in the course of an assignment, but ever since the blackmail mess, he had found the one night stands serving as his personal life singularly unsatisfying. Blasted Russian.
The constant threat of Thrush traps seductively baited had long since taught him never to go to a date's home or to bring one to his own, so he favored hotels -- always picked at random. Another rule was to be charming before, during and after the act, but to never stay long, certainly not for the night. Waking up with his arms around someone was a form of emotional intimacy he had avoided since his wife's death. And then Illya had been forced into his bed.
Though he'd had better, the sex with Illya had been very, very good. But, he'd meant it when he'd said he could resist the Russian's charms if it was what Illya wanted. In fact, it had seemed like an easy promise as he seldom lacked for willing partners. He hadn't thought a thing about it when he'd left the hospital that night, gone home, then fallen asleep on the couch while reading. However, the fifth night in a row it had happened, he'd finally admitted to himself he was avoiding his bed.
He'd forced himself to return to it the next night, but as he had done every evening and every morning since, he'd missed the warmth of Illya's body nestled up against his and the silken head resting against his shoulder. When he'd realized he was thinking of Illya when he had sex with others, he'd simply stopped going out in search of new sex partners. Instead of the night clubs he'd used to haunt, he now spent most of his nights at home, watching movies he'd never gotten around to seeing.
Sometimes he had even invited Illya to join him, but invariably Napoleon had ended up trying to seduce him. Of course, he had always been careful about it, his overtures subtle enough Illya would know he was interested, but would not feel pressured. At least not too much. He wanted Illya, but more importantly, he wanted to keep their partnership intact. So he'd kept the invitations and the seductions limited to once every two or three weeks.
But he'd also discovered when they were on assignment things were different. As usual, they had shared a room each time Waverly had sent them out of town, and having Illya asleep in the next bed had been enough to make a difference. It seemed as long as he knew he would not have to wake up in an empty room, Napoleon could enjoy himself with something resembling his former zeal.
He sighed. He had not liked the implications. Since the day Illya had first become his partner, the Russian's life had rightfully become the most important one in the world to him. It was the life he could count on to save his own, the one he could turn to when the battles threatened to overwhelm him, but he had never wanted Illya to be important to him in an intimate way. Commitments had never mixed well with Napoleon's life. And though he had dearly loved her, he knew if his wife had not died, their marriage would not have survived the strains a life in U.N.C.L.E. created.
You already have the most important commitment with him that two people can have. He's your partner. April's words came back to him as they did every time he had tried to dismiss the notion of a commitment with Illya. Napoleon was finally ready to admit Illya was a part of the one thing keeping him from looking for someone else to spend his life with. If there was anyone who could still wake up next to him fifty years from now, it was Illya.
His brief excursion to Paris had only confirmed everything. He'd hoped an ocean between them instead of a few apartment floors would give him enough distance from his partner to let him enjoy himself. Though dumping his paperwork on Illya had been a happy side benefit, it was the experiment with distance that had made Napoleon jump at the chance for a trip without the Russian along.
He'd caught the plane out with visions of wining and dining a different beautiful woman each night. Instead he'd spent the time playing heir apparent to the North American Hemisphere throne. Observing how the Paris office worked, getting to know the agents, sitting in on a briefing or two -- none of it was anything he'd had to do, but it was better than going back to New York early. He did have a certain reputation to uphold.
He'd had his usual good time flirting with the lovelier members of the staff, but the wining and dining had consisted of coffee and sandwiches in the office commissary. Every time he'd considered something more physical, his thoughts had returned to a blue-eyed blond back in New York. Blasted Russian indeed.
"I didn't think anyone could melt that iceberg."
"You've obviously never spent an evening with Napoleon Solo."
Must be a slow day, Illya thought, hearing yet another version of the same conversation as he walked through the hallways. No matter what the emotion behind the words, they always came back to the same theme. You look like you were having a good time. As if Napoleon would ever let him forget. As if he could ever forget.
He entered the outer office of the Security Section and surprised Mohammed ab Sur's secretary as she was studying a photocopy of the photograph. Illya sighed inwardly as she scrambled to hide it. By evening the only personnel who hadn't seen some copy or other would be those who had deliberately decided not to look at it. He refrained from asking the blushing young woman if she wanted him to autograph hers and nodded instead toward the inner door. "Is he in?"
"Yes, but --"
"Tell him the Chief Enforcement Agent needs to see him. Now." Illya disliked throwing the weight of titles around, especially of one he had only a temporary claim to, but there wasn't enough time before the meeting for a lot of nonsense, and this had to be done.
A moment later the inner door opened, granting him an audience with the Chief Security Officer.
When he entered, ab Sur looked at him like something offensive clinging to the bottom of his shoe. Illya didn't take it personally. The man tended to give anything remotely associated with the Soviet Union the same look. The fact that the Soviet Union no longer existed – had not for Illya's lifetime -- did not impress the Afghani at all.
Mohammed ab Sur, a tall, lean man, with only a touch of grey about his temples to betray his 55 years, glanced over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses at the file folder in Illya's hand and guessed what must be in it. "There is a procedure for reporting harassment, Kuryakin. Coming directly to me is not part of it."
"I am aware of that, but a security breach is something that is properly brought to your personal attention."
"And how does a pin-up picture of you and your lover constitute a security breach?"
"Thrush took the picture." Illya sat the file down in front of him. It was an edited version of the original file, which had an Eyes Only status. Basically it protected a few details no one outside of Enforcement should have access to. It did however contain vague descriptions of all twelve photos, plus a detailed report on Illya and Napoleon's involvement. "This will explain the matter more fully, but our affair was merely a lure for a Thrush blackmailer."
ab Sur considered this, then said, "So that is how you caught Shoemaker."
Illya nodded and the tension in the room eased. It had rankled ab Sur Enforcement had caught the Thrush mole instead of his own people. Apparently the method used had convinced him he was better off with things as they had worked out. "Waverly opted to destroy the photos Thrush gave us, so today's copy had to come from the Thrush video."
"I'll look into the matter. Personally," ab Sur said.
Illya nodded, then started for the door.
Illya turned back to face him. "Yes?"
"Do you want me to be, shall we say, careless about some of the details?"
You did your assignment. You should not have to suffer for it. It was nothing more than Waverly had suggested doing six months ago. Illya had wanted to keep things ambiguous then. Let 'em guess, as Napoleon had put it. For six months he had lived with the decision, had even become comfortable with it. And as he had hoped, things had settled down around the office. There were still those who avoided him, who looked at him with contempt and disgust, but the pranks had stopped. Although that particular blessing was not so much a sign of growing tolerance, but a result of Illya taking the time to find out who was doing what. A few quiet... talks with those responsible had ended the problem not only for him, but for anyone else who fell under suspicion.
And so he had found balance in ambiguity, but the pictures were proof. The file explained the proof away. He was not fool enough to believe anyone would dismiss those pictures so easily, but again there would be doubt. Yes, perhaps a few words from Security in the right ears would restore the balance. "I would appreciate it."
ab Sur nodded, then said, "There is, however, the matter of your security dossier."
Illya sighed. One of the first things sacrificed on the altar of security clearance was the right to secret relationships. Entering into anything more than a one night stand required fairly substantial paperwork, something he had often thought contributed to the casual state of Napoleon's love life. "What about it?" he asked, though he knew what was coming.
"I will need to note when you and Solo became lovers."
Illya opened his mouth to deny it. Then he thought of a morning when he had wanted Napoleon, the lack of cameras conveniently forgotten. If he never let Napoleon touch him again, to him the memory made any denial a lie. He gave ab Sur the date.
A consultation on a minor crisis in an Alaskan operation delayed Illya, so he arrived at the meeting a good fifteen minutes late. Normally this would have earned him nothing more than a scathing look from Waverly. Painful, but survivable. However, this time an oppressive silence filled the room when he entered.
"So nice of you to join us, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said, breaking the silence and giving him the expected look.
Illya flinched in spite of himself. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," he said as he quickly took his seat at the conference table.
"Now, then, I believe you were in the middle of your report, Ms. ok Paik."
After a long, uncomfortable moment, Chin ok Paik, head of Section Eight: Personnel Support, picked up where she left off.
When she finished, Waverly nodded to Alice Ramsey, and the head of Section Seven reported on the state of U.N.C.L.E. transportation and heavy equipment.
Slowly, Waverly moved through the sections in the usual reverse order. Dr. Leslie Graham, Medical; Howard Wainwright, Technical Support; Mohammed ab Sur, Security, who casually mentioned a matter Enforcement had asked him to look into; and Arthur Matthews, Intelligence and Communications; all gave the usual status reports, and pretended nothing unusual was going on.
Illya listened carefully, noting anything that directly affected Enforcement, and pointedly ignored the occasional glance directed at him.
Lisa Rogers entered the conference room with a fresh pot of coffee, but Illya declined her offer when she reached him. He hated the stuff, but appreciated the slight encouraging smile she gave him. It had to cost her, since she numbered among Napoleon's many amorous targets. She must be wondering what the hell was going on, but now was not the time to tell her.
When his turn came, he kept his own report brief and vague, as between the classified and unimportant items there was really very little that happened in the Enforcement Section that could or should be discussed here. He did not mention the photograph. "Finally, our agents have confirmed Thrush communications have managed to make a full recovery from the Babylon virus."
"Ah, well," Waverly said. "It was fun while it lasted."
Illya smiled. "Yes, sir. That is all I have, sir."
"Excellent," Waverly said. "Well, I believe this concludes today's business, ladies and gentlemen. You will be notified of the day and time for the next meeting."
Too easy, Illya thought and waited for it.
It wasn't a long wait. With a skittering sound, the photo slid from Matthews' hand to the center of the table. "I take it you haven't seen this."
No one had to look at it to know what it was. Waverly said, "On the contrary, Mr. Matthews, I am responsible for its existence." That got everyone's attention. "All part of an operation that netted a traitor and delivered the Babylon virus to Thrush. Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin are to be commended for an excellent performance."
Illya stared along with everyone else at their superior's choice of words. Given Waverly's age it was easy to forget at times he and Napoleon had been cut from the same cloth -- which was why Napoleon got away with so much. "Thank you, sir," the he said, forcing himself to sound like he always did when enduring praise.
"Of course, the appearance of this does have its disturbing elements," Waverly admitted. "When last seen it was in the hands of Thrush. Mr. Kuryakin?"
"I have turned the matter over to Mr. ab Sur."
"Then we will leave it in his more than capable hands."
ab Sur nodded. "Thank you, sir."
"Now was there anything else, Mr. Matthews?"
Matthews exploded. "You can't let this... this obscenity go un--"
"Punished? Is that what you were about to say, Mr. Matthews?" Waverly asked. He lit his pipe, something Illya had come to recognize as a sign of agitation. Doctor's orders had reduced the old man to only one pipe a day, so he tended to reserve it for moments such as this. "Perhaps you have not grasped what the nature of their assignment was."
Matthews swallowed hard, shaking with what he undoubtedly felt was moral outrage. "Those aren't two agents doing their job! Any fool can see they are lovers."
"Ah, I see," Waverly said, a coldness entering his eyes Illya would have been hard pressed to match. One did not challenge the lion in his own den. "We are not here to discuss your personal prejudices, Mr. Matthews. And if you will consult the by-laws of this organization, I believe you will discover where I stand on such matters."
"My God, Alex, Solo is your successor. You can't allow this."
Illya bristled at the attack on his partner. His own weaknesses might be fair game, but not Napoleon. "If I may, sir," he said his quiet voice like a shout in the tension-filled room.
Waverly looked surprised, but nodded.
He sat very calmly, his hands folded in front of him, nothing more than a detached professionalism about his manner. "It is the right and obligation of everyone in this room to report any indication a field agent is no longer performing his or her duty to required specifications. Mr. Matthews, do you know of any instance in which either Napoleon Solo or I have ever failed our sworn duties?"
There wasn't, of course. Unlike Napoleon, Illya knew the value of humility, but he also knew they had well earned their reputations of being the top agents for this or any other hemispheric office. Matthews glared at him, and Illya had the distinct impression the man would have shot him like some rabid dog if he could. This suited Illya, for he would have gladly returned the favor.
Furious, Matthews ignored everything and shouted the only real question anyone wanted answered. "Are you and Solo still lovers?"
A suffocating silence filled the room as the two men glared at each other, and more than one person jumped when Illya finally broke it. "That is none of your business."
Napoleon watched the woman in front of him run with a squeal of delight into the arms of an older couple who he guessed were her parents. It wasn't until he reached the baggage area that he noticed he had his own reception committee to deal with.
Two men, one in a blue suit, one in grey, stood on the opposite side of the baggage claim area. Nothing about them seemed particularly suspicious, but they looked at him for a moment too long, and instinct told Napoleon they did not have his best interests at heart. A quick glance around the area identified three more possible greeters -- a woman who didn't seem the right fit with the tall, broad-shouldered, redheaded man she stood next to, and a hulk who looked more like a linebacker for the Giants than an enemy agent.
So much for needing a workout tonight, Napoleon thought with a sigh. Not for the first time since he'd left for Paris, he wished Illya was with him, but at least his U.N.C.L.E. identification allowed him to keep his sidearm at all times. It would also smooth out the consequences of any mischief he got into in the next few minutes.
He walked over to the luggage belt; then, while he waited for his suitcase, he considered his options. He could go screaming to airport security, but this gaggle of unfriendlies looked a little on edge. If he made a move toward a guard, the guard and half a dozen innocent people would probably be dead before he could shout a warning.
The front door was out as well. His new friends had taken up positions in an arc around him and had him cut off from the user-friendly exits. One place left to go, and they knew it as well as he did.
Napoleon frowned. He detested being herded. Not only did it mean a nasty surprise waited at the end of the trail, it was usually very hard on his suit, and he was wearing one of his favorites. Perhaps he could make things less predictable.
He moved closer to the end of the luggage belt, then leaned over as if he were about to pick up a suitcase. He was obviously expected to follow the suitcases through the rear flap and out into the loading area. He had no choice other than to go along, but he twisted and lunged at the last moment, diving through the flap of the luggage belt one behind him, instead of the belt servicing his own flight.
Drawing his gun in mid-lunge, he cleared the outer edge of the belt, rolled as he landed on the concrete beyond, then came up on his feet.
A man who could have been Linebacker's twin swung his gun from where Napoleon should have come out toward where he was, but Napoleon fired first, the bullet striking the big man right between the eyes. Two more shots took care of Blue Suit and Redhead as they came through the flaps of other belts, but before he could eliminate Grey Suit as well, a foot connected with his gun hand.
The weapon went flying as he ducked a second kick from the woman. She recovered her balance, then brought her foot around again in a fancy tornado kick but, expecting it, he stepped in and punched out. Her own motion slammed her into his fist, and she collapsed.
Napoleon ducked, then dove under the massive fist Linebacker aimed at his head. As he rolled, he pulled his fountain pen from his inside jacket pocket, then came up on his feet again.
A knife with Grey Suit on the other end of it flashed in the corner of his eye, and Napoleon threw himself backward, triggering the pen as he fell. The single charge of sleep gas burst out, filling Grey Suit's lungs.
Napoleon stood up as Grey Suit fell. His last weapon used, he sighed, then turned to face Linebacker. Where is that blasted Russian when I need him?
"What do you mean it didn't work?"
The voice on the other end of the phone sighed. "I don't understand it either, Randal, but Waverly took no action against Kuryakin. In fact, the old man said their whole affair had been a ruse to catch Shoemaker."
Stewart cursed, realizing he'd been had. For six months, whenever he had been bored or had felt particularly irritated at one of Solo and Kuryakin's triumphs over Thrush, he had rewatched the video of the night Kuryakin had brought the photos to Solo. He had always taken a great deal of pleasure and comfort from knowing he could have ended their careers at any time. He'd particularly enjoyed the thought when the Babylon device had turned out to be a destructive fake. Fortunately, he'd been able to lay all the blame for the disaster on Shoemaker. A dead man could hardly contradict him.
The only question remaining had been exactly when to use the photos. Thrush Central had made the decision simple when they'd put him in charge of Operation Thunder Head. He needed to have a chat with Solo to pull it off, but the Russian was not only the man's partner, but a very effective bodyguard as well.
When Solo had left for Paris without Kuryakin, Stewart had thought he might not have to use his precious photographs after all, but U.N.C.L.E.'s Chief Enforcement Agent had quickly made it clear he would not be playing tourist. Stewart had set up the attempt to take Solo at the airport, but he'd never really expected it to succeed. Too many people, too many things to go wrong, so he'd sent several copies of his favorite photograph to someone he knew would make good use of them.
He'd thought Waverly would eliminate the problem of Kuryakin for him, which would leave Stewart free to concentrate on capturing a Napoleon Solo who would be more than a bit off balance at the sudden, involuntary absence of his partner. He was not at all pleased to discover he had been played for a fool.
He sighed, then said, "It seems we will have to resort to cruder methods."
Illya knew he should have said nothing. Certainly he had not been obligated to answer, and one of his nice icy stares would have ended things perfectly. Instead, he had said yes. At least that is what Napoleon kept telling him "it's none of your business" meant. To Illya it meant 'the answer may be yes or no, but this matter is not something in which it is appropriate for you to express interest.' Americans.
Lisa's reaction had bothered him the most. He had found her sitting at her desk quietly crying when he'd finally escaped Waverly's conference room. He'd tried to comfort her, but had not been doing well, when Robert Gearhart, one of Matthews' people, had arrived to take her to dinner. He had given Illya a look of pure hatred, so the Russian had exercised the better part of valor and had made a hasty retreat.
He shook his head at the memory. Poor Lisa. In love with Napoleon, but knowing it could never go anywhere, she had tried to get on with her life. Gearhart had to know, and Illya suspected the look he had given him had been meant for Napoleon. Illya sighed. Sometimes he felt like he was in one of those American soap operas.
"We're not all jerks, you know."
Illya blinked, Mark Slate's voice pulling him from his thoughts. "What?" he asked, turning his attention to the Englishman behind the wheel of the car.
"We work with good people, Illya. The picture just caught everyone off guard."
"They've had six months to get accustomed to the idea."
Mark shook his head. "Rumors are a funny thing, mate. People love to hear them, and the worst of the lot was ready to damn you for them, but most know better than to pay much attention to them. However, to paraphrase an old saying, a photograph is worth a thousand rumors."
"So the best of the lot will make life miserable for me this time?"
"No." Mark sighed. "Illya, I don't think you understand what is creating such a stir. It's not so much the proof you are Napoleon's lover, but that you can be."
"I don't follow you."
"Oh hell, Illya, most would admit Napoleon's capable of seducing anything this side of a week-old corpse, but...."
Illya remembered the conversations he'd overheard, then it clicked. "No one thought I could match his sex drive."
Illya sighed. He had a well-deserved reputation for a detached manner, so he'd thought the photo of him being quite undetached had merely shattered his image. It seemed it went deeper. So now I am not only a pervert, but a sex maniac as well. Wonderful.
He looked at Mark. "So you are saying things will get back to normal once everyone gets over the shock of my not dying from sheer exhaustion after the first time I slept with him."
Mark nodded. "That's about the size of it."
Illya scowled. He hated this. Then something else occurred to him. "You are speaking as if Napoleon were really my lover, when you're one of the few who knows he is not."
"Do I? I've always thought you made a rather cute couple."
Illya glared at him. "How enlightened of you."
"Remind me to tell you some time about my favorite cousin. He ran off with the captain of his rugby team."
"Spare me the details of your sordid family history," Illya grumbled.
Mark laughed, then turned his car into the drive in front of Illya's apartment building. "Just so you know. Whatever you decide to do, you'll always have friends to annoy you."
"How comforting," Illya muttered and got out of the car, a large envelope in his hand. He supposed as he watched Mark drive off he was lucky to have such friends, and even luckier he'd asked Mark for a lift while his car was in the shop. Illya was certain he did not want to have had the same conversation with April.
He shook himself, realizing he was standing at night in a well-lit doorway. Not the best route to longevity for a man in his line of work, so he went inside, then straight to the elevators.
It had been a long, hard day, but Napoleon should be in by now and he needed to be told about what had happened. With great regret, he pushed the button for the penthouse floor instead of the sixteenth floor where his own apartment was.
The elevator opened on a short hallway with only one door, but instead of going to it, he stopped outside of the elevator and leaned against the wall. Thanks to the damned photograph he was tired, depressed and, oddly, aroused. All of which left him in absolutely no shape to resist Napoleon tonight.
For six months his partner had rather subtly been trying to seduce him. Illya had pointedly ignored him, but he had heard the underlying argument. He believed Napoleon had put it something like if you're going to be damned for something, you might as well do it. A dubious philosophy in most cases, but he could see the value of it here.
What Napoleon didn't seem to understand was Illya didn't really care what people thought. It was an issue of control for him. As the senior agent, his partner dominated much of his life. Napoleon even had a specific tone of voice to command instant obedience from his independent-minded partner.
Illya had no such tone for Napoleon. Only the urgency of a situation and Napoleon's trust in him compelled the older man to listen to him. Trust. It all boiled down to trust.
And he did trust Napoleon. He trusted him to be a vain, egotistical, hedonistic source of constant irritation. But he also trusted the American to be there whenever he needed him. He wondered if Napoleon knew how rare the trust he gave him was. Illya had been brutalized and used sexually so often in his life he had never dreamed he could feel so close to, let alone so completely trust, another person.
He pushed himself away from the wall, walked to the door, then knocked, but there was no answer. He took out the key Napoleon had given him, then slipped it into what looked like an ordinary lock. The magnetic coding in the key caused a hidden panel to slide aside, and Illya pressed his palm against the plate. A quick scan identified him, then the steel plate hidden inside the door slid away, and he finally could turn the key. It would be some time before Thrush or anyone else would be planting hidden cameras in Napoleon's apartment again.
The sound of the shower running greeted him as he opened the door, so he reset the lock, then walked into the front room. He dropped the envelope onto the coffee table, precisely where he'd thrown the original photos. He found himself wondering what would have happened if Shoemaker hadn't put him in the hospital the next day. Five days in the hospital, then a quick case had left Napoleon with no opportunity to pursue him immediately, and had let Illya restore a measure of distance between them. Not that it had done any good, he thought.
He took off his suit jacket, shoulder holster and tie; draped them over a nearby chair; then headed for the kitchen. He spotted three empty containers of Chinese carry out in the waste paper basket. His stomach growled, reminding him how long ago lunch had been, and he pulled open the refrigerator door. An extra egg roll and a container of kung pao chicken, a spicy dish Napoleon hated and he loved, sat on the top shelf. So his partner had expected him to show up. Did he already know or was this part of another one of his little seductions? Guess I'll find out soon enough, he thought as the shower was turned off.
A blow dryer started up while Illya ate, then stopped as he opened the freezer door and pulled out the bottle of Stolichnaya Napoleon kept for him. He poured himself a healthy glassful. Half of the vodka disappeared in a long swallow. The icy fire surging down his throat felt good, and between it and the food he almost felt human again.
Glass in hand, he walked back into the living room, then groaned inwardly. A satisfied smirk on his face, Napoleon was examining the photo with a little less than professional detachment. Illya didn't know if it was the smirk or finding himself noticing how good Napoleon looked in the blue sweatsuit which irritated him more. "Would you stop admiring your technique and say something?" Illya demanded.
If Napoleon had made some crack he might have made it through the evening, but Illya knew he was lost when the smirk vanished and his partner looked up at him. "How much trouble did this cause you?"
Illya pressed the cold glass against his forehead as he dropped down onto one of the bar chairs. "A few uncomfortable moments, but nothing I could not handle."
"I'm sorry, Illya, I should have been there," he said. "The whole trip to Paris was a dumb idea to begin with."
He was tempted to agree, but decided on mercy instead. "Well, it wasn't a total loss. I managed to clear most of your desk."
Napoleon smiled. "My hero," he said, then walked over to the bar and pulled out a bottle of his favorite scotch.
As he poured some into a glass, Illya got a close look at his partner's hands and the fresh bruises on his knuckles. "You flirt with some football player's girlfriend?"
"No, but one of them certainly looked the part." Napoleon sipped at his drink and sat down on the chair next to Illya's. "Actually if you hadn't shown up, I was going to call you. I had a little run-in at the airport. When someone's ticked off at me, they usually aren't too fond of you either."
"We do seem to have a way with people. Any indication of who was after you?"
"Nothing that screamed Thrush, but they're always a safe bet."
Illya had to agree, but if Thrush had decided to get aggressive on a shoot-on-sight order, something didn't quite make sense. "Why would they try for you here? You're not as familiar with Paris; it would have been easier to take you there."
"I was never alone in Paris."
Illya tossed him an I have no doubt of that look. "Your paramour of the evening would hardly have intimidated Thrush."
Napoleon was quiet for a moment. "Once I arrived, I didn't leave the Paris office, Illya. Consultations and all that. I was still working with a couple of agents right up to the time my flight took off." He said it like it was some sort of confession.
Illya stared at his glass, toying with the notion of refilling it, but decided he was tired enough for a second glass to make him tipsy. "No romances?"
"I wasn't interested."
Illya's eyebrows arched in disbelief, then, as was his habit, he started to analyze things. Contrary to popular opinion, he did not keep constant track of his partner's sexual exploits. But he was aware Napoleon talked more often about evenings spent at home, and he could think of a half a dozen beautiful visitors to the New York office who had left without the American indulging in more than his usual outrageous flirtations.
Illya could, however, think of two duty demands conquests and dalliances with women who had gotten sucked into their cases when they had been in Prague, Vienna and London. Budget constraints demanded they share a room on most assignments, and on those occasions Napoleon had returned with a satisfied smirk on his face and smelling of women's perfume. Business as usual. But not in New York. Not when they weren't on assignment. In an odd sort of way, for an U.N.C.L.E. agent, especially one named Napoleon Solo, it was monogamous behavior. And he was the only one he knew Napoleon was trying to seduce.
Illya shook his head in confusion. "Is this some sort of game you win if I become a willing notch on your bedpost?"
It wasn't the politest way to put it, but Napoleon seemed to opt against taking offense. He leaned back in the chair and looked at the Russian for a long moment. "I was in love once. I married her, and I lost her. I don't expect to feel that way about anyone again."
Napoleon stood up and touched Illya's cheek. "But I love you, Illya. And I want you."
Illya drew back from the tender touch, then shook his head. "My life has to mean more to you than a one-hour fling."
"I am well aware that I could never be so casual with you."
"I thought you were the one who was afraid of commitments."
Napoleon shrugged. "We already have one."
Illya looked at him. "We what?"
"Illya, we're partners. If that isn't a commitment, what is?"
"That is different."
"It was until we made love."
Napoleon's hand moved to his shoulder, and Illya looked up into a pair of warm brown eyes. How many times had Napoleon's touch soothed him after Thrush had finished with him? How many times had he drawn strength from those eyes when he hadn't any of his own left? The warm intimacy of their partnership had kept them alive against all odds, but, thanks to Waverly, sex was now part of their bond, and try as he might, Illya knew he could never make it go away. "ab Sur asked me when we became lovers. For the files."
"What did you tell him?"
"March 28, about 6:30 in the morning."
Napoleon smiled a sparkle in his eyes. "You can do the paperwork."
"I never doubted it," Illya answered with his own slight smile. "Napoleon, I...."
"I won't hurt you, Illyusha," he promised.
"I trust you, Napasha," he answered, tilting his head back to lift his lips in a silent invitation.
The kiss easily lived up to his memories, the warm strength of Napoleon's arms moving around him, making Illya marvel at how long he'd managed to hold out. The press of a tongue made his lips part, and Napoleon quickly took possession of his mouth. Lost in the intimate touch, it took him a moment to feel Napoleon's arm moving beneath his legs to pick him up.
He pulled back abruptly and swatted the hand away from his legs. "I am not a sack of potatoes, Napoleon. I will walk to the bedroom."
Napoleon sighed. "You have absolutely no sense of romance."
"I am not one of your paramours, Mr. Solo. You may have me tonight, but it would be best if you did not forget that." Illya turned on his heel, then stalked off into the bedroom.
I knew this was too easy. Napoleon watched Illya disappear into his bedroom and shook his head in bemusement. He'd managed to forget for the few weeks they had been lovers, Illya had been playing the part of a young man desperately in love with him. Apparently part of the role had been a certain tendency to go along with things. It seemed tonight Napoleon would find out what had been real and what had not.
Oddly, he found himself not at all disappointed. On the contrary, he found he looked forward to it.
He gave Illya a moment to forgive him for presuming, then entered the bedroom himself.
Illya sat on the bed, still dressed, though he'd slipped off his shoes and socks. With someone else it would have been difficult to recapture the mood, but Napoleon had spent too many months wanting this. He undressed while Illya watched with eyes made unreadable by the dim light from the bedside lamp.
His nakedness was aggressive, yet made him vulnerable, so Napoleon moved slowly as he walked over to the bed. His hand cupped Illya's cheek, and the younger man leaned into the touch, a simple act but it sent a jolt of arousal all the way down to Napoleon's toes. His other hand touched the top button of the Russian's shirt. "May I?"
Slowly, button by button, he worked his way down the shirt, until the slender, muscular chest had been bared. The gentlest touch pushed Illya back against the bed, and Napoleon gave the marvelous torso the attention it deserved. The nipples were hard already and the teasing of his tongue and teeth brought a gasp of delight with each touch. A fine, silken patch of hair decorated the center of the chest and, not being one to pretend he was with a woman when he was with a man, Napoleon rubbed his cheek against the tickling softness.
Then there were the scars -- so many on such a compact, beautiful body. He made certain to kiss each one, to trace them with his tongue, until Illya began to squirm, then finally whispered, "Napoleon, please."
Napoleon unfastened the trousers, and Illya lifted up to help him slide them off. The older man sighed, drinking in the sight of the now-naked body. He'd told Illya he was beautiful when he was aroused, and he'd meant every word. And now that arousal had his full attention. He avoided the tip at first, sliding his tongue down the hard length to another dusting of blond hair.
The hips started to twist as he continued his explorations, and Napoleon grabbed them, holding them still so nothing could escape the probe of his tongue. Illya moaned several times, trying to get free while at the same time demanding a tighter imprisonment. "Napasha," he groaned.
At the urgency in the voice, Napoleon instantly took the engorged organ into his mouth and loosened his hold enough for the slender hips to begin to thrust. He loved the taste and smell of Illya, so he drank greedily when the Russian came.
His lover satisfied, Napoleon hesitated, waiting for some sign of what to do next, the manner of his own release becoming more urgent.
It took Illya a moment or two to recover himself, then he reached out to the night stand drawer. His hand dipped inside and drew out the ever-present tube of lubricant, but he didn't give it to Napoleon.
Instead he poured some onto his palm, warming it before he reached for Napoleon without any hesitation. His Russian was reserved, not shy. Napoleon groaned as the hand closed around him. With the efficiency in which he did all things, Illya coated the hard penis. Then his hand moved to Napoleon's, gently transferring the excess lubricant to the older man's fingers.
Illya shifted onto his side, then groaned in pleasure as Napoleon prepared him. Once he was ready, Napoleon started to move closer, but Illya shifted away. "I want to see you," he whispered, settling onto his back.
"I was hoping you'd say that," Napoleon admitted, lifting the Russian's legs up over his shoulders. They watched each other as Napoleon slipped inside the tight passage with a practiced ease. Looking into those blue eyes while he once again loved Illya to the brink of climax nearly pushed Napoleon over the edge before he was ready, but he kept control of himself.
Illya was more aggressive than he'd ever been, the competitive nature of their partnership spilling into their bed as he matched Napoleon thrust for thrust. For a moment, Napoleon worried he would hurt his partner, but the absolute trust was there as well as the competition. With a sigh, Napoleon lost himself in the delicious sensation of being so utterly connected to the young man beneath him.
Illya groaned loudly, and a liquid warmth spread between their bodies. Three hard thrusts, and Napoleon's own release flooded the passage.
For a time neither of them moved, then his softening flesh broke the connection. Napoleon sighed with regret, but knew Illya was hardly in a comfortable position. Reluctantly he got out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
He washed quickly, then soaked a fresh wash cloth with warm water. He returned to find Illya out of bed and about to pull on his trousers. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Home. It's been a long day and I am tired," Illya answered.
"Is there some reason why you can't sleep here?"
Illya looked utterly perplexed, a sight Napoleon found rather enjoyable. "But...."
Give me strength.>/i> "Illya, get back in bed."
"You want me to sleep with you?"
"It will make what I'm planning on doing to you tomorrow morning much more convenient. Now get back in bed before I throw you there."
"You and what army?" Illya muttered, but he stepped back out of his pants, then climbed into the bed.
Napoleon settled down next to him and pressed the damp cloth against the stickiness clinging to Illya's belly.
"That's cold!" Illya protested, squirming away.
"Well, it wasn't until you decided to be an idiot." Napoleon captured the smaller body with his free arm. "Now, hold still."
Illya's body obeyed, but Napoleon didn't get lucky enough for the rest of his lover to be so compliant. "How was I supposed to know you wanted me to stay?" he demanded. "You never sleep with --"
"My paramours. Yes, I know. Damn it, Illya, if you don't want to be treated like a one-hour fling, don't act like one."
Illya fell silent for a moment. "Point taken."
"Good." Napoleon dropped the wash cloth into a large ash tray he'd put on his night stand during their first affair for this sort of occasion, then settled himself. "Come here."
Illya curled up against him, his head coming to rest on his lover's shoulder.
Napoleon drank in the scent of the blond hair and sighed, a sound of pure contentment.
The movement of Illya's facial muscles told him the blond eyebrows were arching, a sign he'd finally figured out what was going on in his partner's mind. "Wouldn't it have been simpler to get a teddy bear?"
"Shut up and go to sleep."
"Yes, Napoleon," he answered, and Napoleon felt his lover smile.
Illya found a fresh box of Cheerios and a tin of his favorite tea in the cupboard the next morning. He poured a big bowlful of cereal and wondered if his ancestors were turning over in their graves at his idea of breakfast. Though he handled mornings just fine, he could never stomach much before mid-morning.
He ignored the smell coming from the automatic coffee pot on the counter and poured enough water into the kettle to make himself his usual generous cup of tea. He put the kettle on, then got the milk from the refrigerator, noting with satisfaction that Napoleon had not switched back to whole from 2% after Illya's previous stay.
Arms encircled him from behind as he poured the milk over the cereal. "I don't know how you can eat that stuff," Napoleon said.
"So am I," his lover said, nuzzling the Russian's neck.
Illya groaned in utter exasperation. "Napoleon, I have already gotten dressed twice." Not to mention the trouble he'd had taking his shower. The man was utterly insatiable.
"You know what they say about third time's a charm." His arms tightened around Illya's waist.
"We have to go to work."
"No one will take over the world if we're a few minutes late," Napoleon answered, his hands beginning to roam.
Saying no to Napoleon was definitely going to be a problem, especially since the man's touch quickly stirred an answering heat within Illya's own body. Fortunately he had a trump card to play this morning. "If you say so. Still, I would think Mr. Waverly might want to talk to you after yesterday. But if you want to explain why we weren't in on time, who am I to argue?"
"Killjoy," Napoleon muttered, but released him.
Illya favored him with his best triumphant grin, then happily set about eating his cereal.
Still grumbling, Napoleon fixed his usual morning bagel and washed it down with a cup of coffee. He was about to pour a second cup, when Illya stood and said, "I'll meet you at your car."
"Don't trust yourself to be alone with me, Illya?"
Illya gave him a disgusted look. "I may not be the fashion plate you are, Napoleon, but I will not wear the same shirt two days in a row," he said, then swallowed the last of his tea. "I need to stop by my apartment for a clean one."
"Wear one of mine," Napoleon said, though they both knew that his shirts hung on the smaller man.
"Fine. Then I need to stop by my apartment for my I got laid by Solo button. They should compliment each other nicely."
"Point taken." Napoleon finished pouring his second cup of coffee, then glanced at Illya. "I guess you'll just have to move in to avoid this inconvenience in the future."
Illya sat back down and stared at him. "You want me to live with you?"
"Lock stock and limited wardrobe," Napoleon answered. "I'll even find room for all your books. Or do you want to argue about this for six months?"
Illya started to splutter something, thought better of it, then tried to think. Acting like some blushing virgin seemed pointless. They had known each other for over five years, a good part of which had been spent together in small hotel rooms. And packing a bag every night or going back to his apartment to change every morning would grow old quickly. But he wasn't quite ready to surrender a place to retreat to. "Most of my limited wardrobe and I will stay with you, Napoleon, but my books will remain in my apartment."
Napoleon smiled. "Agreed."
"There is one condition."
"You will not subject me to your ridiculous American custom of humiliating euphemisms masquerading as endearments," Illya said. "One sugarpie and I take your head off at the shoulders."
"Perish the thought," Napoleon said, doing a less than successful job of keeping a straight face. "Now get that disgracefully dressed body of yours downstairs and change. You know how I hate waiting."
Illya sighed and headed for the door.
He stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked back. "Yes?"
Napoleon's eyes were gleaming, which always meant trouble. "Wear the grey sweater. You always look so cute in that."
"I am never cute," he muttered, then made his escape. Napoleon would drive him mad yet.
Worth communing with a few penguins...
Illya hit his apartment door on the run. Yanking off yesterday's clothing, he quickly replaced the suit with his jeans, boots and the grey sweater. As he pulled his shoulder holster back on, he thought it would be interesting to see the expression on Napoleon's face when he saw Illya had honored the teasing request.
He had always made it a policy with Napoleon to choose his battles with care. He'd wear grey every day if it was what his lover wanted, but right now Illya was more concerned with not keeping his partner waiting.
He took the elevator to the lobby, but opted for the stairs to reach the parking garage beneath the building. He opened the door to Level Three and started toward Napoleon's assigned parking spot. Napoleon was nowhere in sight, and Illya sighed. Apparently he'd moved a little too quickly. Oh, well, he could do the bomb check while he waited.
Life in U.N.C.L.E. tended to make one justifiably paranoid. Any agent who hoped to live beyond the next sunset never stood on the outer edge of sidewalks or subway platforms, kept his eyes open in crowds, and avoided like the plague simply getting into a car and starting it up. And while any attempts to tamper with an agent's car would cause a sensor grid to subtly change the paint color on the car doors, a wise man took the time to look for any wires around the hood, beneath the car or under the steering column.
A wise man also paid attention to subtle warning signs in parking garages full of nooks and crannies for unfriendlies to hide in. Illya had only moved a few steps away from the door when something told him to pull his gun. He held the weapon close to his body, so he could hide it quickly if someone who belonged here showed up.
He moved toward Napoleon's Porsche in a shallow arc, trying to figure out what was making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. A sound. That was it. Though he couldn't smell exhaust, he could hear a faint sound like some highly muffled car engine idling. He could think of a half-dozen innocent reasons for a car to be idling in a parking garage, but he knew better than to relax. He reached the mid-point of his arc, putting him an equal distance from the safety of either Napoleon's car or the stairwell.
A black sedan leapt from a parking space at the far end of the garage, and Illya threw himself backwards. He brought his gun up and fired as he fell, his bullet catching the gunman in the back seat right between the eyes. His own momentum carried him clear of a barrage of bullets, but not far enough to escape the gas canister accompanying it.
He got a partial lung-full before his mind separated the bullet impacts from the canister's explosion. The noxious taste of Thrush's particular blend of knock out gas filled his mouth as he rolled away from the rest of the cloud.
A grogginess swept over him, and he fought to clear his head as he heard the sedan screech to a halt. He brought his gun up and around, but a foot slammed into his hand, sending the weapon flying. While the car had distracted him, he'd been flanked, and now he found himself unarmed, staring up the barrel of a machine pistol.
Out of the corner of his eye, Illya saw two pairs of feet get out of the car, one in expensive sneakers, the other wearing a shabby pair of cowboy boots.
"Get him up!" the owner of the pistol snapped in a deep, gruff voice.
"What do you mean get him up? Do him and let's get back in position!" Cowboy Boots protested. "Solo could show up at any minute."
"Yeah, and that bastard killed a couple of my friends yesterday," Gruff Voice snapped back. "I want to give him a little thank you present."
"There's no time to argue about it. Just do what he says," Sneakers said, grabbing Illya's right arm.
Grumbling, Cowboy Boots grabbed the left arm, then they yanked Illya to his feet.
Illya did not fight them, going limp instead to make them think the gas had affected him far more than it had.
Gruff Voice sat the pistol down on the hood of a nearby Cadillac, then pulled a switchblade from his inside jacket pocket. "Get his head back," he ordered, snapping the blade open.
Sneakers grabbed a handful of Illya's hair and jerked his head back, the pain clearing the last of the fog from Illya's brain. Stupid, the Russian thought as he watched Gruff Voice approach. A knife was an intimate way of killing someone, which meant one had to get close to use it. Not a wise way to conduct business.
He let the man get within three feet of him, then Illya straightened, the sudden shift of his weight throwing the men holding him off balance. He brought his right leg up and out, the full force of the kick striking into his would-be killer's groin.
Gruff Voice's eyes bulged and he dropped to the floor.
Illya brought his foot back down, his boot heel smashing Sneaker's instep. The thug howled in pain, pure reflex making him release Illya's arm and head.
Cowboy boots had the most time to recover, and he brought up his gun, while trying to jerk Illya off balance. The Russian moved with the pull, his free hand coming around to grab the gunman's wrist, but to the side he could see Sneakers raising his own gun.
Illya twisted hard, spinning Cowboy Boots between himself and the gun. Sneakers jerked his gun up, trying not to hit a fellow Thrush agent, but the bullets struck Cowboy Boots in the head.
Diving to one side as the body fell, Illya hit the floor then rolled beneath the Cadillac and out the opposite side. A quick lunge netted him the machine pistol Gruff Voice had so carelessly set aside. The Russian fired a short burst, the bullets catching Sneakers in the midsection.
The Thrush operative's body fell to the concrete, and Illya swung around, firing at the sedan as Gruff Voice jumped inside. With a squeal of tires, the car raced off.
Illya sighed, relieved to be alive, but irritated with himself for letting Gruff Voice get close enough to disarm him. If the man hadn't been equally stupid, the outcome would have been far less to Illya's liking. Now where had his gun gone?
He dropped to the floor and looked in the direction in which it had gone skittering off. There, three cars over and one up, beneath a red Volvo. He got up, walked over to the Volvo, dropped back down, then reached out.
"Illya!" he heard Napoleon shout.
"It's about time you showed up," Illya answered, getting hold of his gun. "What did you do? Stop for donuts on the way down?"
Napoleon's expensive shoes appeared on the opposite side of the car. "The office called. One of our information brokers phoned in with a tip that Thrush might try to kill us."
"Now there's a useful piece of information," Illya muttered, stood up, reholstered his gun, then started brushing himself off. "So what do we do now?"
Napoleon returned his own sidearm to its holster and shrugged. "Check my car for bombs and call in a clean-up crew to take care of this mess."
Illya nodded, but sighed. He hated it when a day started like this.
Stewart fired once. The only survivor of the attempt on Kuryakin fell dead at his feet. "Fool," Stewart spat, then gave the body a kick in the ribs for good measure.
Now both U.N.C.L.E. agents would be on guard, making it nearly impossible to take them.
He sighed. He'd tried clever, surprise and crude, perhaps it was time for elaborate.
Napoleon glared at the file on his desk and willed it to evaporate. He would rather face anything Thrush could throw at him than deal with the quarterly budget for the Enforcement Section. Of all the things for Illya not to have gotten around to. Finance had prepared it, of course. All it required was his authorization, but he had to read it first. By the look of it, he had about an hour's worth of the dullest reading on the planet ahead of him. He sighed poking at the file with his pen.
"My secretary assures me that such things do not bite," ab Sur said from the doorway. "I, however, remain unconvinced."
"Have a seat, Mohammed," he answered, more than grateful for an interruption and a kindred soul. "I wonder if Thrush has to deal with all this paperwork."
ab Sur sat down in one of the two chairs opposite Napoleon's desk. "Where there is an organization, there is paperwork, my friend. Perhaps the true universal evil."
"Has my vote," Napoleon muttered, once more considering how he could beg, seduce or con his partner into reviewing the report. "Ah, well, what can I do for you?"
"I wanted to inform you that we have located the person behind yesterday's incident. One of Matthews' men, James Anderson. He found an envelope containing the photos on his doorstep when he went home for lunch yesterday."
"Any particular reason Thrush picked him?"
"He is a right-wing Fundamentalist with somewhat outspoken homophobic views, or at least as much as one can have these qualities and pass the standard U.N.C.L.E. psychological evaluations." ab Sur paused for a moment, then added, "Although Medical seems to have made a mistake in approving this one. According to what I learned during the interrogation, this is not the first time he has sought to humiliate Kuryakin."
"It seems that he was behind many of the indignities your partner suffered last March. Most notably an ink-soaked tampon on Kuryakin's chair."
Napoleon frowned. "This is the first I've heard of it."
"Myself as well," ab Sur said, looking even more displeased about the fact than Napoleon felt. "Kuryakin opted to handle the matter himself."
"I'm almost afraid to ask."
"Let us just say Anderson had reason to be grateful your partner used catsup, instead of ink, to redden the tampon he gave him in turn."
In spite of themselves both men smiled at the mental image, then ab Sur shook his head slightly. "After his snack, Anderson behaved himself until the photos showed up. It is a case of a small mind and even poorer judgment, Napoleon. There was no direct involvement with Thrush. He will, of course, face the disciplinary board, which will undoubtedly recommend dismissal."
Napoleon couldn't muster up much sympathy for Anderson. He had never suffered idiots or self-appointed bastions of morality well. He was more concerned with the damage the bastard had done. Things had seemed very quiet when they had come in, but in matters like this, Napoleon had to admit he was out of the information loop. He found it ... irritating. "What's the mood like out there?"
"On the whole, I'd say most are embarrassed by their behavior yesterday," ab Sur said, leaning back in his chair. "Everyone seems to love a good rumor, Napoleon, but this was a gross violation of your privacy. Something few people approve of. Also, between Waverly and my department, it is now common knowledge Thrush was behind this, and while everyone may not approve of same-sex relationships, we are in the business of hindering Thrush's goals, not furthering them. It may take a week or two for some to look the two of you in the eye again, but things should return to normal shortly. There will, of course, be exceptions, but nothing Kuryakin can't handle."
ab Sur stood up. "As for myself, I am appalled by your choice of bedmates," he said. "Really, Napoleon. A Russian?"
Napoleon chuckled. "We all have our character flaws, Mohammed."
The Chief of Security smiled, but only for a moment. "Some more unpleasant than others. If I were you, I would keep a watchful eye on Arthur Matthews. We both know you are virtually untouchable, Napoleon, but he may see your partner as vulnerable."
Illya had mentioned a few uncomfortable moments had occurred yesterday. Finding out Matthews had been behind at least some of them didn't surprise Napoleon. Arthur Matthews was one of the few people who had absolutely refused to believe the rumors, dismissing them as merely vicious gossip leaving him totally unprepared for the shock of seeing the picture. Given gathering information was what the man's section did, Napoleon had always found the refusal to even consider there might be a touch of truth to the rumors odd. He should have known there was something behind it. "Tell me exactly what happened in the meeting."
Napoleon stopped in the doorway of the Communications Center and took a moment to evaluate the importance of what was currently occupying the attention of the Chief Intelligence and Communications Officer.
The section occupied most of the fourth floor, the main room taking up over half that space. Monitors covered the walls, filled with the images of every television station from here to halfway to Boston. If there was a news station anywhere within the area, someone was assigned to watch and analyze it. The radio broadcasts also had to be monitored, and a constant, random scan for suspect private signals had clued U.N.C.L.E. in on more than one plot against world security.
Photo analysis and decoding occupied other areas on the floor, but Matthews was here, talking with a young woman at a desk in the troubleshooting section. In addition to monitoring the local communications, the New York office also lent a hand to any problems encountered at regional offices in the hemisphere.
As Napoleon made his way through the maze of desks, he tried to attach a name to the short, pretty redhead and came up with Sharon Rennie.
"They're having trouble zeroing in on it, sir," she was telling her boss as Napoleon moved into hearing range, "but something seems to be causing some low grade interference with the university station in Vancouver."
Matthews frowned. "Thrush communications' tight signal band can cause this sort of disruption," he said. "That's how we tumbled onto Field Marshal Gurnius and his alliance with Thrush last year."
She nodded. "But they must have improved on their technique. Vancouver can't locate the source."
"Give them whatever help you can, Sharon. If you need another pair of hands, pull Ming-Chang off of CNN for a while. And keep me posted."
Matthews turned toward his office and saw Napoleon. Pure disgust twisted the man's face, but it didn't bother Napoleon at all. In fact he found the honesty refreshing. "A moment of your time, Art?"
"I have nothing to say to you, Solo," Matthews spat with too much volume to go unheard, and several of his people glanced toward the two men.
Napoleon smiled sweetly and kept his own voice low enough only Matthews could hear him. "Here or in your office. Your choice."
Matthews glared at him, but headed for his office.
Napoleon followed, then closed the door behind him. "It's come to my attention that you and I need to reach an understanding, Arthur," he said, casually sitting down on the edge of Matthews' desk. It was a typical perch for him, but today he used it as a way of re-enforcing who had the most clout.
"I have no desire to have an understanding with a fucking queer."
The smile returned to Napoleon's face. "I thought it only polite to tell you that you may say anything you like about me. Or Illya. After all, that kind of verbal garbage diminishes you, not us." The smile vanished. "However, if you make any formal move against him, you'd better have a hundred witnesses to back up your case, or I will intercede until Waverly has no choice but to assign either you or me to the Antarctica Monitoring Post."
Napoleon stood up, straightened the line of his jacket, then walked toward the door. Both men knew the most probable winner of any clash between them, but there was always a chance things might take an unexpected turn.
His hand on the door knob, the Chief Enforcement Agent looked at Matthews and said, "Loving Illya is worth communing with a few penguins, Art. I guess you'll have to decide if destroying him is worth the same risk."
Illya knew he was in trouble the moment he entered Napoleon's office. The thought of lunch had been a source of irritation to the Russian most of the morning. The two of them often ate lunch together, the time usually spent on brainstorming about one problem or the other. It was also not unusual for Illya's lunch to be a quick sandwich gobbled down while tinkering away in the lab on something too important or too interesting to be abandoned for a lunch break. A day's events tended to dictate the option he chose.
Today, however, Illya had found himself actively thinking about it. Or rather, thinking about what others would think about it. If he didn't have lunch with Napoleon would it look like he was avoiding his partner? If he did, and they ate in the commissary, the assumption could be they were avoiding being alone together. And he could well imagine the looks he'd receive if they had lunch in Napoleon's office.
By 12:30 he was hungry as well as annoyed by all the analyzing of something he wouldn't have given a second thought to last week. By 1:30 he felt like he was starving and, in an act of what he saw as pure defiance, he stalked into the commissary, got two sandwiches to go, then headed for Napoleon's office, everyone's opinion be damned.
The moment the office door closed behind him, Illya discovered he should have been more concerned with what Napoleon was thinking. More than once, Illya had seen his partner give a woman he was involved with a long, sensuous look. Not even close to something as crude as the expression about undressing someone with one's eyes, Illya had overheard one woman describing it as an arousing caress. Now this same look slid along his body and, to his utter irritation, he found himself susceptible to it.
Willing the fires stirring inside him to cool, he opened his mouth to say something to divert his partner's attentions, then thought better of it. They had already established his evasions were tacit permission to try and seduce him. Mixed signals would not do. Illya took a deep breath to chase away the tickle of arousal, then said, "No, absolutely not. I will not be taken on your floor like some love-sick fool," he said firmly. "Consider me off limits at the office."
Napoleon sighed, a martyred expression on his face, but he nodded his agreement, then said, "So what's for lunch?"
Considering most of the morning a total loss, Illya headed back to the lab as soon as they'd finished eating. As he walked through the hallways, he noticed a few people stopped when they saw him and changed directions to avoid any further contact, but most glanced toward the floor as he passed. He quickly stopped making even those observations and let his mind turn back to the captured Thrush files he was analyzing.
Back to back cases would burn out any agent, so U.N.C.L.E. had established a minimum of two days down time, preferably a week, for any team coming off a case. For Napoleon and Illya this inactive time had occasionally lasted for up to two weeks.
Napoleon assigned the case loads for the other agents, but Waverly assigned the two of them. Though they might be the best U.N.C.L.E. had, any assignment involving them had to be weighed against the risk to someone of Napoleon's position. This kind of dire case came up all too frequently, but not so often the Chief Enforcement Officer's partner could be nothing more than another agent. Illya was also a scientist. He held his doctorate in quantum physics, but very little happened around the lab he couldn't help out with.
Coupled with his field skills, his scientific background had made Waverly peg Illya as Napoleon's partner the moment he had finished his doctorate. And it was generally acknowledged when Napoleon actually did take over Waverly's job Illya would have the rare opportunity of choosing which section he would head -- Technical or Enforcement. Illya thought he'd surprise everyone and chose Enforcement, but the decision was years away.
His thoughts on more important matters, he didn't really see Arthur Matthews until the larger man grabbed his upper arm, then fairly slammed him up against the wall. The hand stayed on his arm, holding it in a grip that spoke of a former field agent who had kept in shape. There would be bruising the next day, but Illya ignored both the pain and violation of the touch. Instead he merely looked up the six inches separating their eyes and, in a very casual voice, he asked, "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Matthews?"
"I just wanted you to know, Kuryakin, I'll be watching you. Solo can make all the threats he wants. One slip up is all I'll need. There's no place in U.N.C.L.E. for perverted filth like you."
Illya noted the reference to Napoleon and filed it away in the back of his mind, then focused on the current problem. Several people had stopped and were staring at the two of them. In a moment at least one of them would either try to intercede or call Security. Worse, one of them might think to call Napoleon. Illya had no intention of being rescued by anyone. "Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?" he asked.
Shortly after Russian Intelligence had recruited Illya, one of his training officers had told him he was too small and pretty to ever be of much use for anything but bait since no one would ever take him seriously. Afterwards, every spare minute Illya had, he'd spent standing in front of a mirror, working on a certain look, the same one he now turned on Matthews.
A cold ice to match the Siberian winds filled his narrowed eyes, a coldness carrying with it the assurance he never bluffed, never threatened, only made promises. His voice hard and also full of the promise he would do exactly whatever he said he would do, Illya said, "Then remove your hand, or I will break every bone in it. Twice."
Matthews let go.
Fairly squirming in the oppressive silence filling his car, Napoleon glanced at his passenger, willing him to say something, even some scathing remark about his driving. No such luck. Illya was in the middle of a full blown sulk and nothing short of a major pile-up was going to get a word out of him.
Napoleon sighed and tried to concentrate on watching the road to kill the remaining time to this sentence in Purgatory. Normally, he would have ignored the whole thing, letting Illya work out whatever he was angry about in his own good time, but one or two looks in Napoleon's direction had told the senior agent he was the culprit this time. A quick review of the day's events made it simple enough to figure out what he'd done to displease Illya, but he was puzzled by the intensity of the displeasure. It made him leery of forcing the issue while driving in rush hour traffic.
What absolutely had to be a full year after they'd left Headquarters later, Napoleon turned into the parking garage of their building. Napoleon considered weeping for joy when he stepped out of the car, but they still had to deal with inconvenience of making certain they got upstairs alive.
Napoleon hated stairs, but given his partner's mood, he followed Illya to the stairwell without his usual complaints. Their guns drawn, he pushed open the door, waited a moment, then took a cautious look upward. The stairwell was empty, requiring neither their guns nor split-second decisions about friends or foes.
They stayed on their guard as they climbed the stairs, then moved their guns into jacket pockets as they entered the lobby. A walk across the carpet, a nice wait for the elevator, then inside the car and pray the cables hadn't been tampered with -- nothing like coming home to relax a person, Napoleon thought as the elevator doors closed behind them.
As Napoleon had expected, Illya reached out and stabbed the button for the sixteenth floor. Napoleon did not press the penthouse button.
Illya made no response, though the temperature in the elevator seemed to drop at least ten degrees. Like it or not, and right now neither of them did, with a Thrush contract out on them it made more sense to stay together.
They left the elevator the same way they'd gone into the stairwell and met with the same nonexistent reception. Illya's apartment was down a long hallway and to the right, and they kept a careful eye on the other apartment doors as they passed them.
Illya's door had the same fancy, high tech lock as Napoleon's, but Thrush had found their way around other security measures in the past, so they kept their guns drawn until a quick check of the small apartment verified that were indeed alone. Only then did the closest thing to a sense of security their lifestyle allowed settle over them.
Unfortunately, this same security returned Illya to his sulking mode. The Russian glared at him, holstered his gun, then stalked off into his bedroom.
Napoleon shook his head. No avoiding this storm, even if he could find a place to sit down and wait it out. In addition to three full floor-to-ceiling bookcases, Illya's books were stacked everywhere. Several weighty scientific tomes covered the tables, while the counters held the literary classics, several of which Napoleon had given him for Christmases and birthdays. He made a note to switch his gift buying to something that took up less room.
He spotted a lone paperback book sticking out from beneath the sofa and out of curiosity picked it up. It was a spy thriller by an author Napoleon liked. He remembered teasing Illya last week about his utter unfamiliarity with anything even remotely qualified for the bestseller lists. Illya had made some remark about not having time for mind candy, but apparently he'd decided to eliminate the small character flaw. Or he'd been reading these things all along, but Napoleon doubted it.
He sat the book down, then with a sigh, he went after his partner. He didn't go into the bedroom, opting to lean against the door frame instead.
Illya was lying on the bed, his arms folded over his chest in a defensive posture, while he stared up at the ceiling. He did nothing to indicate he knew Napoleon was watching him, but they both knew he did.
"This is about Matthews," Napoleon said.
Illya remained silent for a long moment, then he sat up and finally looked at him. "When did I become helpless in your eyes, Napoleon?" he asked. "When did you join those who now think of me as nothing more than your plaything?"
Napoleon could have lost his temper or snapped back his own accusations about Illya keeping things from him, but he knew Illya had been through hell the last six months, a hell Napoleon had escaped almost untouched. His partner had more than earned the right to feel a little hostility.
"Not to be difficult, Illya, but let me answer by asking a question of my own," Napoleon said. "Why didn't you tell me about Anderson's harassment?"
"I saw no purpose in telling you."
"I could have stopped it."
Illya shook his head. "How? The way Matthews dealt with me today? I think better of you than that."
Napoleon appreciated the thought and hoped it was not misplaced. He found he enjoyed the notion of knocking out a few of Anderson's teeth. "I am Chief Enforcement Agent, and there are procedures to handle that sort of thing."
"Which is exactly why I did not wish to ask for your help. Your involvement would have required a more formal form of censure and the risk of dismissal. He was good at his job. I tried to give him the opportunity to continue doing it. I am truly sorry he did not take it."
Napoleon saw Illya's reasoning, had figured it out on his own, though he still didn't like it. He didn't like the bastard harassing his partner or idea of any of his agents' lives depending on the information gathered by a man with such a small, petty mind. Which brought them back to the subject of Arthur Matthews. "Matthews has all those formal forms at his disposal as well," he said. "I merely let him know I wouldn't stand for any bureaucratic nonsense as far as you were concerned. I dealt with the section chief, Illya. I know you can handle the bigot behind the title."
A slight sad smile touched Napoleon's face. It still stung he'd had to find out about everything from ab Sur. "Although it wouldn't kill you to pretend you could use my help from time to time."
Illya looked at a loss for words, and Napoleon suddenly felt tired of his suit, not to mention in dire need of a drink. Thrush be damned. "I'm going home. You have the key."
Illya stared at the empty doorway long after Napoleon had left. He'd done it again, hadn't he? For twenty-five years Illya had stayed alive by trusting his instincts, but now he seemed to be second guessing things too much.
He'd known all along why Napoleon had gone after Matthews, had also known he should have told him what had happened in the meeting, but he could neither accept the first nor do the second. He had to solve his own problems, it was his nature. To do any less made him feel like he was a child in the orphanage once again, being passed around from one set of cold hands to another until a former KGB agent had taken him to Kiev. They had taught him how to keep away the hands he did not want to touch him, but it seemed learning to allow others to touch him emotionally was the harder lesson.
He got up, pulled his largest suitcase from the closet, dropped it on the bed, then started packing. Underwear, socks, shirts and sweaters, pants -- he threw in enough of them to last a week. If he and Napoleon survived that, he would bring up more, although he wouldn't be surprised if he got upstairs and found the lock's programming changed to reject his palm print.
The last thing he threw in was the book he'd been reading. He'd accurately described it as mind candy, but he had to admit he was enjoying it. Another guilty secret he'd kept from Napoleon, who knew it now, since he had to have been the one who'd moved it from beneath the couch to the end table. Perhaps if he chose the secrets he kept from Napoleon with the same care as he chose the battles he waged with him, things might smooth out.
He closed the suitcase, turned off all the lights, then locked the door behind him. Not forgetting Thrush could be lurking nearby, he kept his eyes open as he went from his apartment to Napoleon's.
He managed not to laugh when he stepped through the front door and saw Napoleon. He was sitting on the plush couch, wearing a designer sweatsuit that cost more than Illya's best suit, a glass of red wine in one hand, the financial section of the Times in the other. A true picture of decadence. How had their partnership ever lasted more than a week?
Inwardly shaking his head at the odd twists and turns his life made, he carried his suitcase into the bedroom, then set it down in the corner. While Napoleon might complain about his books, Illya did not even want to begin to think about where in this miniature clothing store he was going to find room for his own things.
He took off his jacket, then the shoulder holster, and draped both over the suitcase. He put his socks and boots beside it. Only the need to apologize remained. He would have rather taken on an entire satrap with his bare hands, but he knew he'd been a brat.
Now how to do it? He stopped in the doorway and looked at Napoleon, who was now doing his imitation of someone who didn't know someone else was in the room. It seemed at the very least they deserved each other. Trying to think, his glance fell on the coffee table and another section of the Times.
Inspiration struck, so he walked into the room, picked up the paper, got a pen out of the end table, then sat down on the couch outside of the reach of Napoleon's arm. Not wanting to put on his reading glasses, he squinted as he went to work.
He filled in ten words before he got up the courage to ask, "Napoleon, what is an eight letter word for utter idiot?"
The older man looked at him strangely. They both knew Illya needed no help with a crossword, especially on figuring out a word as simple as imbecile, then he saw the light dawn in Napoleon's eyes. "Kuryakin."
Illya wrote it into a row of eight boxes, not at all concerned with what was actually supposed to go there. "Yes, it does fit," he admitted, then said, "I am sorry."
Napoleon sighed. "It's all right. I should have told you I talked to Matthews when we had lunch. If you had known before he waylaid you --"
"We would have had this fight at lunch."
"Yes, well, I suspected that. Illya, you're a hell of a lot of work."
"And I suppose you are a pure delight to work with?"
"Of course. Now, finish your damned puzzle so we can get some dinner," Napoleon said, then turned his attention back to the financial section. "And use a pencil like the rest of us mortals. I hate it when you use a pen."
Illya smiled sweetly. "Yes, I know."
There was a brief moment of calm, then the American lunged at him. Papers went flying as they crashed to the floor, a quick twist of Napoleon's body pinning Illya beneath him.
Illya looked up into a pair of warm brown eyes and tried to scowl. "You are squashing me."
"Serves you right," Napoleon answered, then bent down to kiss him.
Illya's lips parted at the touch, his arms encircling the older man's torso. He heard the soft little gasps of pleasure escape his own throat as Napoleon's tongue explored his mouth. "What was that for?" he asked when the kiss ended, his voice sounding annoyingly breathless.
"Mmm, consider it a thank you for wearing your grey sweater."
Illya rolled his eyes. "Why is this so easy for you?"
"I learned at a tender young age no matter how you conduct your life, when it comes to matters of a sexual nature, there will always be those ready to damn you for it. It's a lot easier on the nerves, tovarish, if you accept it and do what feels right."
"In that case, stop admiring my ridiculous sweater and take it off of me," he said, raising his hips to press his arousal against Napoleon's thigh.
Amusement glittered in Napoleon's eyes. "Why, Illya, I thought you were the one who didn't want to be taken on the floor like some love-sick fool."
Illya glared at him, spluttered something about not mixing business with their pleasure, then sighed and tried a different argument. "You have obviously never been on the bottom when making love on a cheap office carpet. The rug burns are most unpleasant."
"Spare me the sordid details," Napoleon teased, stealing one of Illya's favorite lines, then turned his attention to getting rid of the grey sweater.
Illya takes a fall
"Good morning, gentlemen," Waverly said, when Napoleon and Illya entered the conference room off of his office.
Illya returned the greeting, sat down in his usual chair, and turned his attention to the screen on the far wall. He shared a questioning glance with Napoleon. There was nothing pictured but water. The view was a straight-down shot from a satellite camera and showed a violent wave pattern, as if a tremendous storm churned the waters. But any clouds would have obscured the water.
"You are looking at a point exactly 15 miles off the Pacific coast of Canada," Waverly said. "The time is 9:38 p.m., Pacific Standard."
The slide changed, and a large freighter filled the center of the slide, the waters surrounding it calm except for the ship's wake. "This is the same position at 9:36."
Freighters did not move that quickly. The ship should have still been in the later shot. "And at 9:37?" Illya asked.
The projector clicked and a white ball of light filled the screen. An explosion, but conventional explosions usually left debris and the first slide had contained none. "Some sort of nuclear device, sir?"
Waverly opened his humidor and scooped the last of his special blend into a pipe. "Satellite telemetry recorded a massive surge of radiation as the explosion began, but most of it was re-absorbed into the blast itself."
Illya stared at Waverly for a moment, then picked up the file the old man offered him. He studied the figures on the satellite readouts, shook his head, re-read the figures, then had to admit, "It has a quantum signature."
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly lit his pipe, and the room quickly filled with the scent of Isle of Dog Number 22.
"Quantum? That blast had something to do with quantum physics?" Napoleon asked, though he usually sat back and listened during the technical aspects of a briefing.
Illya nodded. "Atoms have a fairly violent reaction when destabilized, and it is difficult to control. The explosion and a radiation flux of this sort are consistent with quantum theory."
"It seems your theory has produced an extremely powerful weapon."
"But I doubt a practical one," Illya said. "A device capable of atomizing a freighter would have to be massive in both size and power consumption."
"That should make it fairly simple to find."
"And indeed we believe we have, Mr. Solo," Waverly said. The slide changed to a fly- over shot of a large compound on the coastline. A respectable harbor, an airstrip with two hangers and five buildings were all clearly identifiable.
Napoleon recognized it first. "Criton Industries. Outside of Vancouver. Communications was having a problem tracing a signal in the area yesterday."
"Yes, and a quite fortunate happenstance it was, since a great deal of our monitoring array was focused there because of it," Waverly said. "Both the signal and a tremendous power surge prior to the explosion have been traced to Criton."
Napoleon frowned. "Art thought Thrush was probably behind the signal."
"We cannot be certain, of course, but it did have a Thrush signature to it."
"Criton Industries does a lot of government work," Illya said. "Is it possible this was a test for the Canadian government?"
"We have been assured that is not the case, and our assistance has been requested," Waverly said. "Mr. Kuryakin, your background makes you particularly suited for this mission."
Any other team going in on a fact-finding mission would have to take along a physicist who would have to be protected. Illya would not require babysitters. But Waverly's choice of words puzzled him. "My background, sir?"
"Yes, I believe you know this woman."
Illya suppressed a groan as the slide changed to an attractive woman in her early sixties. "Dr Helen Greyson," he said. "She was one of my faculty advisors at Cambridge."
"I trust she would remember you."
"Oh, yes," Illya answered, his tone drawing a questioning look from his partner.
"Excellent," Waverly said. "Dr. Greyson is now chief physicist for Criton Industries."
Illya muttered a Russian curse, then flinched at the look of disapproval Waverly threw him. "Sorry, sir," he apologized. "If Dr. Greyson is there, it is quite likely she is responsible for the weapon's development. When she was at Cambridge, she was working on a molecular destabilizer that would contain the explosion. Such a weapon could, for example, virtually dematerialize the main smokestack of a ship while leaving those walking on the deck below relatively unharmed."
"Apparently she still has a few bugs in the system," Napoleon said, his face grim.
"It remains a powerful weapon, Napoleon."
"Quite right, and one we cannot allow to remain in hostile hands." Waverly took another puff on his pipe, then said. "Mr. Kuryakin, I think it is time you looked up your former teacher. Find out if this quantum weapon is indeed at Criton Industries, then destroy it."
"Yes, sir," Illya answered.
"Your plane leaves in two hours, gentlemen. Good luck."
Napoleon waited until the door to Waverly's office had closed behind them before he asked, "So what's the story with you and Greyson? She yet another in the long line of those of us who want your body?"
Illya's glance shot to Lisa's desk, but she was talking with Gearhart again and did not act like she had overheard. It had been said quietly, but he gave Napoleon a disgusted look, then started down the hallway. "Actually I had an unrequited crush on her," he admitted. "She considered me promising, but undisciplined." And was not at all shy about telling him.
"You? Undisciplined? You must be joking."
Illya shook his head. "You forget, Napoleon, I disappeared quite frequently in those days. All those little assignments you sent me on to see if I was worthy of the honor of becoming your partner. I could hardly tell my faculty advisor I was off playing U.N.C.L.E. agent."
"So you lost the fair lady and won me instead."
Illya switched to Arabic and made a rather rude comment that was anatomically impossible.
Napoleon laughed as Illya pushed opened the stairwell door, then started down the stairs leading from the Policy level to Enforcement. "Well, if you can find the camel, I'm willing to give it a try," he announced, quickly catching up with the Russian.
"You would," he muttered over the sound of the door they'd gone through opening again. "Have you no shame?"
"None at all, tovarish, but then who would know that better than you?"
"Napoleon --" He half turned to give his partner the proper scathing look, his foot lifting off the step to move down to the next. At that moment, a shape barreled out of nowhere and slammed into him.
Caught totally off balance, Illya fell forward. He tried to twist around to minimize the impact, but there wasn't enough time or distance, and first his side, then his head struck concrete.
And here we are again. Napoleon stood to the left and near the head of the infirmary bed and, to his disgust, he realized Illya had ended up in the damned thing enough times he didn't even have to think about where to stand to be both nearby and out of the way. He looked down at the pale face, hoping for some sign of motion, but Illya hadn't moved since his head had impacted against the stairs with a sickening thud.
He reached out and brushed the blond bangs aside. Napoleon always felt a twinge of guilt whenever he stood here perfectly healthy while he waited to find out how badly Illya had been hurt -- but this time it was much worse. This time it had been his fault.
If he hadn't been teasing Illya, or if he'd been faster when that bastard Gearhart had rammed into him, Illya wouldn't be in the bed this time. Napoleon had grabbed for Illya, but Gearhart had lunged for the stair rail to prevent himself from falling, putting his body between Napoleon and his partner.
Leslie Graham glanced up at him as she took a pen light from the pocket of her lab coat. She was an attractive woman with graying dark brown hair and a face reminicent of Katherine Hepburn. "Blaming yourself isn't going to do him any good," she said, then checked Illya's left pupil.
Napoleon's eyes narrowed. Even doctors without psychology degrees could be annoying when they were friends who knew him well enough to know what he was thinking. He started to say something as she shifted the light across the bridge of Illya's nose to his right eye, but then he saw the slight tremor pass through his body as she pulled the eye open.
Napoleon's hand shot out at the same time Illya struck to remove the pain the light caused. He caught hold of the his partner's wrist, stopping the blow short of Leslie's throat, and snapped, "Illya, stop!"
Illya obeyed instantly as he always did when Napoleon used what he called his Chief-Enforcement-Agent voice. Napoleon shifted his hold from the wrist to the hand, and he let his voice soften as he said, "It's all right. You just had an accident."
Illya's eyes opened, and Leslie smiled at him. "Well, there is certainly nothing wrong with your reflexes, young man."
"Sorry," Illya said, looking sheepish, then he gave Napoleon a grateful look. It really was bad form to try and kill one's doctor. "How long was I unconscious?"
Napoleon would have guessed hours, but Leslie surprised him by saying, "A little over ten minutes. A good indication nothing major is wrong."
"Gearhart accidentally pushed you down the stairs," Napoleon answered. "So I accidentally broke his nose."
"My hero," Illya said. "I would have broken his leg."
"Now, boys," Leslie said, her fingers moving to probe the area behind Illya's left ear, "behave. I have enough work to do without you creating more."
Illya lay still, but his hand tightened on Napoleon's, telling him the pain worsened at her touch.
"You have quite a bump, but the skin isn't broken," she said. "Do you feel any nausea or dizziness?"
"No. Just a headache."
"A nasty one, I'll bet. Try sitting up."
Napoleon helped him, then she repeated the question.
"No, still just a headache."
"I reserve the right to change my mind after your x-rays are developed, but you seem to have a mild concussion," she said. "So you should let someone drive you home and put you to bed for the next 24 hours. Then I want you to keep your activity level as low as you can for the next week. Any chance of you following my sage advice?"
A slight smile touched Illya's face. "None. I have a plane to catch."
"I don't suppose anyone else can catch that plane instead?"
This time Napoleon answered. "I'm afraid not."
"I should have been a veterinarian," she sighed. Leslie had the undisputed authority to remove Illya from the active roster and order him to bed, an authority Napoleon could tell she was sorely tempted to exercise. She looked at him. "You really need him?"
"He's the only point man we have for this one, Leslie. I'm the excess baggage."
She sighed again and muttered something about wondering why she'd ever bothered to go to medical school when no one ever listened to her. The doctor in her seemed to be screaming to say no, but Leslie had reached the rank of colonel in the U.S. Air Force before coming to U.N.C.L.E., and she understood all too well the concept of the mission coming first. "All right, I'll release you," she finally said. "But, Napoleon, I expect you to watch him carefully. If he exhibits any odd behavior, experiences any nausea or dizziness, you get him to the nearest emergency room as fast as you can."
Napoleon nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
Having given Napoleon his orders, she turned her attention back to Illya. "You're going to have a murderous headache for at least 24 hours and every time you exert yourself for the next week. Take aspirin for it."
"Yes, ma'am," Illya answered.
"And, for crying out loud, rest when you can. Remember you are not the --"
"Rabbit in that battery commercial," Illya finished for her. "So Napoleon tells me. I will sleep when I can."
"All right. Get out of my infirmary. Both of you," she ordered. "I have a broken nose to take care of, then I think Mohammed would like to have a chat with the jerk attached to it."
The phone rang. "Yes?"
"They're on their way."
Stewart smiled. "Excellent."
Pain was many things to Illya. An inconvenience, a familiar acquaintance, an impairment, but most of all, it was exhausting. He had a reputation for successfully completing assignments while in such a state of agony others would have been curled up in a ball, sobbing in hysteria. He did this partially by looking at pain as another part of himself, like his arm or a leg, but he also knew when to surrender to the pain.
He stayed awake and alert in the airport terminal, but the moment the flight attendant closed the L-1011's door, he allowed himself to fall asleep. The pain kept it from being a deep, restful sleep, and he drifted in and out for some time. The bump on his head made resting with his head straight back or to the left impossible, so he kept turned to the right. His head dropped too far, and he woke to the sensation of falling into one of the two empty seats separating him from his partner, who sat in the aisle seat happily flirting away the time with one of the prettier members of the crew.
"Having trouble sleeping?" Napoleon asked when Illya sat back up.
"It is difficult to get comfortable," he admitted, rubbing his forehead and seriously considering the benefits of a cyanide capsule.
Napoleon turned his attention back to the statuesque redhead standing in the aisle. "Janice, my lovely," he said, "I don't suppose there's a nice empty aisle for my friend to stretch out in? He had a fall this morning."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Napoleon, we're full up. The only available seats are between the two of you."
And U.N.C.L.E. had paid for those. A small measure of security against agents being trapped by hostile seatmates. "Ah, well," Napoleon went on, "I guess we'll have to make do. Hand me a pillow, would you?"
He pushed back the arm rests separating him from his partner, then put the pillow Janice handed him in his lap. "Come on, Illya," he said. "Lie down."
"I am not going to --"
"Illya, you need to sleep." Napoleon's voice told him he considered this the only practical solution and any further protests would be met with The Voice.
Illya sighed. He was second guessing his behavior again. Six months ago, maybe even six days ago, he would have already been asleep. He stretched out, his head sinking into the pillow. He noted that he had a lovely view of the magazines in the pocket in the seat in front of him, vaguely heard Napoleon returning to his conversation with Janice, then closed his eyes.
The sensation of someone shaking his arm slowly penetrated Illya's dreams, pulling him back to a very painful reality. He wanted to groan as he opened his eyes, but out of the corner of one he could see Napoleon watching him, so he cracked a joke instead, "Not tonight, Napoleon. I have a headache."
His partner's lower jaw shifted to one side in his typical very funny expression. "The plane's about to land. Time to put all seatbacks and Russians in an upright position."
Illya sat up and refastened his seatbelt. He must have been asleep for over three hours. He felt like it had been less than three minutes, but by the time the plane arrived at the gate, he gave no outward sign he was anything less than fine.
A brunette from the Vancouver office met them at the baggage claim, and after giving their suitcases a quick check for any sign of tampering, they headed for her car.
Illya climbed into the back seat and had to fight the temptation to curl up and go back to sleep. There could still be trouble before they reached the hotel, and Agent Sarah Tompkins was pretty enough to distract Napoleon's attentions. An inconvenience now, but she seemed interested in Napoleon, which ought to keep his partner entertained well into the night.
"We've already checked you into the Radisson," Sarah said as she pulled the blue sedan away from the curb. "Now, what can I do to help you?"
"What can you tell us about Criton Industries?" Napoleon asked.
"Not much, I'm afraid. That complex is like a mini-city, and it's a very closed community." She held up a file. "These are all the blueprints that we know exist. If Old Man Criton holds true to form on the secrecy end, you should consider them sketchy and a bit fabricated."
Illya took the file. He'd memorize it before they went out to the complex in the morning. "Any ideas as to whether we're looking at a Thrush satrap or an infiltration?"
"Our best guess, and I'm afraid it is little more than a guess, is Criton finds Thrush a useful ally, but is not a member himself."
Criton Industries was born in 1945, the brainchild of Winslow Criton, an arms dealer who saw the mushroom cloud as opportunity knocking. Over the years he had gathered together one of the finest scientific teams in the world. It had developed more than a few nasty government devices. However, retirements and a growing anti-war sentiment among newer generations had depleted his think tank and his profit margin had dipped low enough to make him ripe for a few Thrush promises.
"Certainly the profits for the last five years can't account for the money needed to build the complex, yet the whole thing was built with a very cavalier money-is-no-object attitude," she finished, and turned into the hotel drive.
Illya got out, then waited for Napoleon to follow. As expected, he heard Sarah say, "Mr. Solo, perhaps we could continue this... briefing over dinner?"
"A tempting offer," Napoleon said, getting out of the car. "But I'm afraid I have other responsibilities tonight. Perhaps tomorrow night?"
She smiled and gave him their room keys. "I'll look forward to it."
Illya scowled. Couldn't he count on anything any more? Then again he should have counted on that response. Napoleon might be a sex fiend, but he also had a very strong mother hen complex when Illya was injured. Frankly, he would have preferred a sex fiend who went off on a date and left him in peace.
They went straight to their room. Forty minutes had passed since their plane had landed, and another thirty slipped by as they checked their accommodations for listening devices or any other nasty surprises. Only when the job was done did Illya let the utter exhaustion show as he sank down onto his bed.
"Do you want anything from room service?" Napoleon asked.
"No, I'm too tired to eat."
Napoleon called downstairs and ordered a sandwich and some soup, and Illya guessed he would soon be fending off spoonfuls of chicken soup. He definitely preferred the sex fiend.
"I do not need a babysitter, Napoleon."
"Just consider me your live-in nurse."
Illya sighed. Arguing would get him nowhere when Napoleon was in this frame of mind, so he opted for graceful surrender. "Then could you get me some aspirin?"
He must have dozed off for a second because the next thing he knew Napoleon was helping him sit up. Illya downed two fat orange tablets plus the entire contents of the glass of water, then without thinking, he curled up against Napoleon and went to sleep.
Nature seem to call a moment later, but as he stumbled into the bathroom he noticed the bedside clock read 3:12. When he finished, he took some more aspirin, then noticed he was wearing his blue pajamas. While sleeping nude or in one's underwear might have its benefits at home, the threat of activity at night made such states of undress impractical when in the field. The thought of having to deal with a midnight intruder was far easier to take when one was wearing something.
Still, it bothered him he'd slept through Napoleon undressing him, then dressing him in the pajamas. He did not like being in such a deep, oblivious sleep. It seemed Napoleon had been right in insisting on staying in to care for him.
He walked back into the main room, then stopped. The bed nearest the door, the one Napoleon always took, was empty. Instead, his partner was sleeping in the bed Illya had abandoned.
He sat down on the edge of the empty bed and tried to think over the pounding in his head. It was not supposed to be this way when they were on assignment. Napoleon's behavior in the past six months had implied they would be nothing more than partners when they were on assignment. Had the rules changed again?
He heard Napoleon sigh. "Illya," his partner said, "this isn't exactly the first time you've slept with me when you were hurt."
True enough. Napoleon had sat up all night holding him so he wouldn't move and aggravate the gashes in his back after Mother Fear had finished with him. Napoleon had called it his penance for escaping torture himself. "That was different," Illya said. "We were in a Thrush cell, and you were afraid I would bleed to death if I didn't stay still."
Napoleon sighed again and sat up. "All right, this is different. So indulge me."
"I indulge you far too often as it is," he said, but he shifted over to sit on the edge of the other bed. "I have to know what the rules are, Napoleon." He reached out and touched the face he could just make out in the darkness. "Even though I know you'll find a way to break every last one of them, I have to know what they are."
He felt Napoleon smile at the rather accurate assessment of his dubious character. "All right, Illya, what do I have to agree to to get you to go back to sleep?"
"Because I am hurt?"
"Tell me what happens when I am not hurt."
Napoleon thought a moment, then said, "There will always be certain duty demands situations, but beyond that I can refrain --"
"No, Napoleon," Illya stopped his lover before he could say something absurd. They both knew Napoleon was not the one sex-partner type. "I do not require such absolute fidelity. Even if you were actually capable of it, in truth, I doubt I could survive it."
"What do you suggest?"
"When we are on assignment you are free of all commitments to me other than professional ones."
He thought Napoleon would eagerly agree, but he was quiet for a few moments, then he said, "Won't you end up feeling used?"
Though he found the assumption he would not take similar advantage of an on-duty arrangement irritating, it was for the most part an accurate one. There might be an occasional exception, but he was not the sexual creature Napoleon was. "I will do or not do what is right for me, Napoleon." He smiled. "However, if it will make you feel better, I will promise to cut your heart out if you ever do more than flirt with anyone when we are off duty."
A serious threat given how proficient he was with a knife, but Napoleon chuckled. "All right, Illya, I'll be an utterly irresponsible cad outside of our leisure time. Now come here."
Illya let Napoleon draw him into his arms, then poked his partner/lover/mother hen in the chest with a finger. "Not too irresponsible, Mr. Solo. I expect you to take the proper precautions when you are with someone else."
"I always do," he said. "Cross my heart and pass the little foil packet."
"Then shut up and let me sleep," he said, his head settling against Napoleon's shoulder.
A twenty-foot electrified fence and a gate with armed guards served as Criton Industries' first line of defense against uninvited guests with mischief on their minds. Good thing we have an invitation, Napoleon thought as the gate rose to admit their taxi. "Nice to have friends in high places," he said.
Illya had called Dr. Greyson first thing in the morning and had arranged a mid-morning visit. Advance notice to any unfriendlies in the area, but not too much, and a simple "we're expected" to the guard was a lot easier on Napoleon's suit than a midnight climb over the fence would be. Of course, if things turned out the way they expected them to, that climb might still be in the cards.
A non-committal sound came from Illya, and Napoleon looked at his partner. There was a slight paleness to his face and his eyes were still too bright. "I thought the murderous part of your headache was supposed to be gone by this morning," the senior agent said, wondering if it wouldn't be wise to plan a trip to the doctor between the tour and the fence climbing.
"Apparently no one told my head," Illya answered, then seemed to figure out such a comment might net him a trip to the hospital. "Truly, Napoleon, it is down to a mere dull throb. I will be fine."
Even a half-dead Illya Kuryakin was worth more than three fit agents as far as Napoleon was concerned, but he detested fielding injured agents, and his partner was certainly no exception. Though he would have much rather confined Illya to his bed until he was well enough to be confined for more interesting reasons, Napoleon merely nodded. Much as he might hate it, he needed Illya on this one.
The cab stopped in front of the main building. Napoleon paid the driver, then got out and joined Illya on the front step. The Russian sighed. "I suppose it is too late to consider a career in fashion design."
Napoleon frowned, worried about how down his partner seemed. "We've walked into worse situations, tovarish."
Illya looked at him. "Speak for yourself. You've never had to deal with Dr. Greyson."
"Remind me to tell you some day about Sister Mary Katherine from my school days. I'd rather walk on ground glass than meet up with her again."
Illya smiled, but it took on a somewhat forced quality as the front doors opened and Dr. Greyson emerged.
Napoleon noted the woman looked older than she had in the photo Waverly had shown them during their briefing. Given it had been a recent photo, it stood to reason the good doctor was under an undue amount of stress. Well, maybe they could do something about that, Napoleon thought as Illya exchanged greetings with her.
"And this is my friend, Napoleon Solo," Illya said, turning toward his partner.
"A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Greyson," Napoleon said.
Greyson shook Napoleon's hand, though she seemed less than thrilled about it. "Mr. Solo. Or should that be Dr. Solo?"
Napoleon smiled, mostly at the amusement he saw flash in Illya's eyes. "I'm afraid not, Doctor. I sell computers."
This seemed to relegate Napoleon to the utterly unimportant category, for the woman turned back to Illya and scowled. "Illya, I'd expected to see at least a few major papers with your name on them by now. How could you waste such a brilliant mind and a fine education?"
Illya sighed. "My work has its rewards, Doctor, but neither fame nor fortune is one of them."
Greyson looked thoughtful. "That sounds like government work to me. Does everything you do have a big red Classified stamped on it?"
Greyson visibly brightened at that. "Then perhaps you can help me with a problem I've been having."
"Really, Helen, you could at least let the poor boy come inside before you start picking his brain," said a booming voice.
Napoleon looked up as Winslow Criton started down the front stairs to greet them personally. The man was an inch taller than Napoleon, with a full head of gray hair and the soft, flabby body of a man who had lived the high life for too many years.
"Mr. Solo, did I hear you say you worked with computers?" Criton asked after the introductions were made.
Apparently even the rich and powerful enjoyed eavesdropping. "I own a small computer company."
"How delightful! You must allow me to give you the grand tour and show off all of my toys."
"A generous offer, sir, but I don't want to trouble you."
Criton dismissed the remark with a wave of his pudgy hand. "Nonsense, Mr. Solo. Helen here has designs on your young man, so she has enlisted me to try and convince him to stay. You must give me the opportunity to convert you to the cause as well."
Though a tour of the place was precisely what Napoleon had wanted, he'd hoped for an easier guide to manipulate. He certainly wouldn't see anything Criton didn't want him to with the man himself along. And the offer of the tour was also a mite too easy for his tastes. Ah, well, one makes do, he thought, then glanced at Illya. "Do you mind if I disappear for a while?"
"Not at all, Napoleon. You will only be bored if you stay with us."
"Well then, Mr. Criton, I would be happy to take you up on your offer."
"Excellent, Mr. Solo," the old man said. "I can promise you a most interesting day."
Napoleon smiled, but an old curse he'd once heard flashed through his thoughts. May you live in interesting times.
Illya rubbed his forehead and tried to concentrate on the computer screen in front of him. He hadn't lied to Napoleon when he'd told him the pain was down to a mere dull throb, but that was before Greyson had given him a tension headache on top of his injury.
The science labs were in a long five-story building near the back of the complex. The physics labs took up two of those floors and part of another. It took two long hours on his feet for her to show him every shiny, little, state-of-the-art piece of equipment. Worse, despite his assurances he had not abandoned his scientific interests, as she had showed him around, she had quizzed him constantly. He had been able to answer most of the questions, but he was a field agent first, and a physicist second. A decision for which she had made him pay dearly, for with each wrong answer had come a long lecture about waste and lost opportunity.
Finally, she had tired of showing him the facilities and had led him back to her lab. Before he could even ask for an aspirin, she had started hauling out the data on her pet project. A waste of a brilliant mind though he may be, apparently she still wanted his opinions on it. He'd expected something diversionary, but instead the data on her molecular destabilizer had popped up on the screen.
She'd made some improvements in the design during the last five and a half years, but little else had changed since Cambridge. She was certainly no closer to eliminating the explosive side effects, but he had known that from the freighter incident. And as he'd expected, the device would also have filled half the floor and required something close to its own nuclear reactor as a power source. Thrush wouldn't have gone for something this impractical, so he had to assume he wasn't looking at the real files. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to play along.
"As you can see, Illya, I'm still struggling with the same old problems," she said. "Fortunately, I've had enough success with other projects to keep Criton happy, but I always keep coming back to this one."
"It does seem to be somewhat of an obsession with you."
She gave him a slight smile. "True enough, but Illya, just think of the implications of a working molecular destabilizer. It could eliminate an enemy's fortifications with minimal loss of life on either side."
He nodded his agreement. "It would be useful, but you are a long way from a weapon that could be carried into a war zone."
"But what about one that didn't have to be carried?" she asked, sitting down on the edge of the computer table. "I've been thinking building it into a satellite might be the way to go."
"The size and power problems could be improved with such a delivery system, but it would do nothing to eliminate the explosive reaction."
"One thing at a time," she said. Her manner softened. "We could do it together, Illya. I know we could."
At one time in his life, he'd desperately wanted her approval. Even now he found he had to force a calmness into his voice as he said, "Perhaps, but I have other commitments."
The lines of her face shifted into a deep frown. "To what? The United States? You aren't even an American. Or are you referring to that strutting peacock in the Armani suit?"
Illya opened his mouth to protest, but it was an awfully good description of Napoleon. She always had been good at quickly sizing up someone's character, and she'd certainly picked up on at least one aspect of their relationship. Something about that bothered him, but he dismissed it, and decided Napoleon was his to insult, no one else's. "We are not going to have this conversation, Doctor," he said, his manner cold.
"Oh, Illya," she sighed. "You deserve so much more than some stuffy government office and a man like that."
She reached out to brush his bangs aside, an old gesture of affection. Not wanting the touch, he turned his head without thinking, and her fingers brushed against the bump on his head. He hissed in pain and jerked back from her.
He barely heard her demand to know what was wrong over the roar in his ears, but he forced the pain back into a small corner of his brain. "It is nothing," he assured her. "I took a fall down some stairs yesterday morning."
She insisted on taking a careful look at the bump, though she knew no more about medicine than he did, then said, "I'll get you some aspirin."
Illya let a few moments pass after she had left the room, then he turned his attention back to the computer and began searching for the real files.
Interesting proved to be a word and a half. After three hours of touring the complex, Napoleon had dismissed his earlier concerns about not seeing what he needed to see with Criton along and had started focusing on the this-is-too-easy side of the equation.
Criton seemed very much a man bursting to tell a secret as he led Napoleon around. They'd started at a huge salt water tank the old man had said the marine biologists used to study dolphins, though there had not been a dolphin in sight. Criton had apologized for the absence of the "delightful creatures," explaining the tank had been needed for a brief, alternate project. He had been quick to reassure Napoleon the six dolphins would be returned to the tank to entertain him on any future visits.
Three hours later, when they had finished up at the Communications Center, Napoleon had the distinct feeling he and Illya were in trouble. Between the Cheshire Cat smile and the tour of sensitive areas that should have been restricted from any but authorized personnel, Criton had made it clear not only did he know they were U.N.C.L.E. agents, but that he wanted Napoleon to know he knew.
The old man stopped in front of a console covered with a lot of buttons and monitors, smiled the blasted smile again, then said, "And this is our current crowning glory. A little something your government contracted us to do, then went elsewhere when we hit a few minor setbacks. Fortunately, I found an alternate source of funding."
"Imagine my delight," Napoleon said dryly. "Dare I ask what it does?"
Given Criton's eagerness to flaunt his cleverness, Napoleon wouldn't have been at all surprised if the man had said it was the firing controls for a quantum cannon. Instead he said, "It transmits data to satellites."
Sounds benign enough, Napoleon thought, then remembered the water tank and a few other stops on the tour. "Shit."
"An accurate assessment of your situation, Napoleon," said a voice behind him.
Napoleon turned. A forty-something man in an expensive grey suit stood about twenty feet away. Two men dressed in Thrush coveralls and armed with rifles stood on either side of him.
Napoleon raised his hands, noting two more Thrush minions moving to cover him from either side of the room. "You seem to have the advantage."
"Forgive me for the familiarity, Napoleon," Expensive Suit said, "but you've been a project of mine for so long I feel we should be on a first name basis."
"Again you seem to have the advantage."
"It seems I must beg your forgiveness again. Randal Stewart, at your service," Stewart said with a solicitous bow.
Before Napoleon could respond his communicator trilled.
Stewart smiled. "Oh, do answer. I think you will find it most interesting."
He pulled out the silver pen-like device, shifted the cap to the bottom, then activated it with a twist. "Solo here."
"Code 20-A," a voice so calm it sounded mechanical announced the end of the world. May you live in interesting times, indeed.
Illya sat very still and told himself it was all a nightmare brought on by Chinese carryout. He'd wake up soon and discover his head no longer felt like it would soon explode, one of the few people he had admired in his life did not work for Thrush, and he would not feel nauseous. ...get him to the nearest emergency room as fast as you can.
Leslie's instructions echoed in his mind, yet again. At first he'd tried to pass off the churning of his stomach as the lack of dinner and a scant breakfast, but a feeling had settled in which told him if he moved, the room would start spinning. He knew he should call Napoleon, tell him he was probably bleeding inside his head, but something stopped him.
Except for the pain, he'd been fine for over twenty-four hours, and he kept thinking of the water and aspirin Greyson had given him. Either one could have been more than it had seemed, making him more the fool for swallowing them. But she'd been watching him like a mother expecting a child to fake taking his medicine, so he'd had no real choice. The lack of choice left him with two possibilities now. He was either dying or had been drugged and would soon be in Thrush's tender hands. Not the best selection he'd ever faced.
Sighing, Greyson sat back from the terminal, looking not at all pleased with either the figures on the screen or the quite useless input he'd given her. "You know better than this, Illya," she said, starting what seemed to be yet another lecture, but then she gave him a rueful smile. "I guess I deserved it. I am sorry. I had no business saying those things to you."
"I am accustomed to it."
"I guess I deserved that as well." She shook her head as if trying to clear it. "I should have told you not to come. I'm still so tired from being up all night a few days ago that I'm forgetting even my meager grasp of good manners."
"A few days ago?"
"Night before last actually." She smiled again. "I'm too old for all-nighters, and Winslow's whole idea for a movie studio is ludicrous to begin with, all of which has left me short-tempered."
"Movie studio? What has Criton Industries got to do with a movie studio?"
"Oh, he wants to make the next Star Wars. I must have watched that freighter explode a thousand and one times before the special effects people finally got it right and let me go home to bed."
Special effects. Of course. Illya might have laughed if he hadn't been in such a mess and understood now why he had found no sign of hidden computer files. Greyson had showed him the genuine data. There was no working quantum weapon. There had been no quantum explosion. Somehow the satellite had been programmed to relay false information, including a scene worthy of the next science fiction blockbuster. Even the signal flux that had drawn U.N.C.L.E.'s attention to the area must have been part of the scheme. It had all been a hoax, but why?
Helen here has designs on your young man.... What had been tickling away at the back of his brain all morning finally fell free. How could he have missed the slip? Illya cursed himself for a fool. He'd let his familiarity with Greyson's usually accurate snap judgments distract him from her employer knowing what his relationship with Napoleon was. Unless he'd been briefed. The whole thing had been a trap.
Thrush had known his physics training had guaranteed he would be assigned the case. But why all this to take the two of them? It made no sense.
He pushed himself to his feet and, as he'd feared, the room tilted wildly.
Greyson grabbed his arm, steadying him until he caught hold of the computer table to support himself. "Illya, what's wrong? Should I get a doctor?"
He could feel his consciousness beginning to ebb and knew he wouldn't last much longer. "What did you give me, Helen? Was it poison or some unpleasant knock out potion?"
Gaping at Illya, she took a step back and away from him. "Have you gone mad? What are you talking about?"
She seemed so utterly astonished, he suddenly wondered if she truly understood what was happening. On impulse he pulled his U.N.C.L.E. identification from his inside jacket pocket, then tossed it to her.
Greyson stared at the yellow card. "You work for U.N.C.L.E. now?"
"I have since before you knew me. How long have you worked for Thrush?"
"What? I --"
The trill of his pen cut her off. "Kuryakin here," he said, once he'd activated it.
"Code 20-A." Waverly is down.
A cold chill swept through Illya as the last piece fell into place. Thrush had not set a ridiculously elaborate trap for two field agents. They'd set it for a man who'd just become the acting head of U.N.C.L.E. North American Operations.
Out of the corner of each eye, he could see the guards in Thrush uniforms coming for him. A signal the game was indeed over. He drew on everything he knew about resisting pain and fighting off drugs, then let himself collapse. As he fell, he pulled his gun, then fired twice, a bullet hitting each guard right between the eyes.
Their bodies joined him on the floor. Illya knew he had to get to Napoleon, but he could barely move. The room spun, Greyson screamed and his head throbbed, but a thought managed to occur to him. Before he blacked out, he lifted his gun one last time, then fired a single bullet.
Code 20-B meant Alexander Waverly was dead, 20-A that he was seriously incapacitated, so, though it wasn't much, Napoleon felt some hope as he said, "Understood."
Five guns of various makes all aimed at his chest convinced him of the folly of trying to say more, so he switched off the pen.
Stewart held out his hand.
Seeing no other choice, Napoleon handed over his only link with not only U.N.C.L.E., but his partner as well. "Where is Illya?"
Stewart dropped the pen onto the floor, then stomped down on it with his foot, smashing the fragile antenna relay at the bottom. "Fairly certain he's dying, I would imagine."
"No, but I'm afraid his headache will not have improved when he wakes up." Stewart sat on the edge of one of the consoles, looking far too pleased with himself. "I knew if we slipped him a drug that made him think he was dying he'd ignore it until he was too far gone to defend himself against a baby with a rattle."
An alarm sounded, a wail hovering on the far side of painful, and Criton's people started rushing around in something akin to controlled chaos.
"What the hell is happening?" Stewart shouted over the din.
Criton looked up from a control panel. "Somebody's pushed the panic button in Greyson's lab. That means evacuate."
Napoleon smiled slightly. A few less guns on him, a bit more chaos, and he might have been able to make his own escape. It was a good try, tovarish. Now, for once, do the sensible thing and get clear.
Stewart cursed. "No more chances," he snapped, jerked out a cigarette lighter, then he gave Napoleon a face full of sleeping gas.
Illya woke up in hell. His head throbbed with an agony even he considered beyond endurance, and he tried to pass out. The noxious smell that had invaded his dreams returned, his body jerking awake in response. "Illya, get up!"
He wanted to scream for someone to shut off the alarm. His hands flattened over his ears, trying to block out the sound, and he started curling up into a little ball. "Illya, Solo needs you!"
That got his attention. He forced his eyes open, then had to put an equal effort into making them focus. Greyson knelt beside him, the small capsule in her hand close enough he could still smell the fumes. "Where is Napoleon?" he demanded.
She shook her head. "I don't know. You set off a full-scale evacuation alarm. With everyone rushing about, he could be anywhere."
He'd actually hit it? When he'd aimed at the alarm plate on the far wall of her lab, he'd seriously doubted he could hit it. He'd even been less certain of the results if he did so. He pulled out his communicator, then said, "Open Channel D. Napoleon? Napoleon, come in."
Nothing. Apparently setting off the alarm had done his partner no good. Still, the alarm would soon have both the press and the Vancouver authorities swarming all over the place -- which meant even if Thrush had originally planned to hold them here, they'd probably want to move to another location now. "The airstrip," he said more to himself than to Greyson.
He requested a different channel, raised the Vancouver office, told them to get something into the air, then signed off and turned his attention to doing what little he could.
Requiring all too much help from Greyson to do so, Illya got to his feet and for the first time noticed they were outside. "How?"
She smiled. "Fortunately, you're small, and I'm in shape, but dragging you was no picnic, I assure you."
"Thank you," he said. If she hadn't got him out of the labs, Thrush would undoubtedly have had two prisoners by now. He took a few steps away from her, but they were slow and unsteady.
She sighed, pulled his arm over her shoulders, then started toward the airstrip. "You know, Illya, if you'd stuck to physics, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"What do you mean you can't find him?" Stewart glared at his men, thinking seriously of having the lot of them shot. He was also beginning to think Illya Kuryakin was his own private demon. How could one agent cause so much trouble?
Solo was already on the jet warming up behind him. Strapped to a seat and out for the next few hours. Stewart had wanted Kuryakin in a similar state or dead. Missing, held no appeal at all.
"Spread out and see if you can't keep him away from the plane," he snapped, then turned his attention to Criton.
The old fool had been told to keep the two U.N.C.L.E. agents busy until Waverly had been taken out of the equation. A touch of delicious drama Stewart now knew had been a mistake. He'd wanted to take Napoleon Solo at the precise moment when the agent found out about his mentor. Criton had ruined it all by teasing Solo with all the information he needed to put things together.
He should have had his guards take the two agents the moment they were inside the walls of the complex. If he had done so, he would have had the information he needed by now, and Solo and Kuryakin would be in their graves. Instead, he had the interrogation ahead of him and Kuryakin was prowling about almost certain to cause trouble. All for a moment he never got.
He glared at Criton, who didn't have enough sense to look worried about it. Of course, it made the look on the old man's face when the first explosion rocked the complex all the more satisfying. "Ah, so much for your communications center," Stewart fairly purred the news.
"What! Are you insane?" Criton screamed over a succession of explosions. "It will take years to recreate that technology!"
"Something Thrush is counting on," Stewart assured him. The design specifications were safely stored away at Thrush Central, which gave his people a few years of technical dominance. "Since Kuryakin saw fit to evacuate your complex, I thought it might be nice to indulge in a little pyrotechnics." Maybe he'd even get lucky enough for the Russian to be standing next to a building when it blew.
"You can't do this! I'll report you to Thrush Central. They --"
"Have no further need for a fool like you," Stewart answered, drew his gun, then shot Criton twice in the heart.
The pilot signaled he was ready to go. Stewart gave the same signal to his men, then climbed inside the small jet. The five members of his personal guard moved toward the plane to follow him inside. One of them stopped suddenly, his attention on another. Three shots sounded, three of his men fell. Stewart slammed the jet's door and shouted for the pilot to get going. He also promised himself that if it was the last thing he ever did, he would see the Russian was a long time in dying.
Walking had helped and by the time they had reached the airstrip Illya was moving quickly and on his own. They slipped up alongside the far hanger, then he motioned for Greyson to stay where she was.
She nodded, and he moved forward. His head felt clearer, his body steadier, but he knew he was in no shape to try anything fancy.
Deciding to save his gun's ammunition, he pulled the knife from his boot when he came up behind the first Thrush guard. His arm flashed around the taller man's neck, then pulled him down onto the blade. The man died without making a sound.
The first explosion roared as he pulled the knife from the body. Just what he needed -- more complications. But at least the explosions dulled the monotony of the damned alarm.
He reached the end of the wall, then peered around it in time to see Criton fall. The jet still out of range, he moved forward with the guards, then had no choice but to start shooting when the closest one got a good look at him. He dropped three of them, then the fourth. The fifth man turned and ran away from both Illya and the plane.
Not that it mattered. The others had delayed him long enough. Out of range of both his gun and his overtaxed body, the jet zipped down the runway and out of sight.
Your Russian is quite predictable
April met Illya the moment he cleared reception. "Oh, God, Illya, you look terrible," she said, falling into step beside him.
Illya did not doubt her. He still felt sick from the lingering effects of the Thrush drug, his headache had moved well beyond murderous, and he'd spent two hours crammed in the jumpseat of an F-16. It might have gotten him back to New York quickly, but it had almost put him in the hospital. "Any word from Vancouver?" he asked.
Given all that was going on, the question was telling, and she touched his hand. "Yes, none of it good. The plane never appeared on radar. It either stayed too low or had some stealth characteristics. Vancouver didn't get a plane up in time for a visual."
Then there was no way to trace the plane. "All right, I want the word put out to anyone who even remotely qualifies for our information net," he said, as they reached the elevators. He pushed the up button. "Someone saw the plane land."
"Already in the works, Illya." She tried a comforting smile, but he could see his own fears mirrored in her eyes. "We'll find him."
No, we won't. Not in time. Better at hiding his emotions, he trusted his own smile at least reassured her she had given him hope. "Of course. Now, what about Waverly?"
"He collapsed, that's all anyone knows. There's a section head briefing scheduled in ten minutes. His conference room."
A loud ping announced the elevator's arrival. "Matthews in charge?" he asked as they stepped inside. He pushed the buttons for both Enforcement and Policy.
"No, Waverly's standing orders named Leslie."
"Good," he said, hoping his relief wasn't too obvious.
He'd worked well with Leslie during the disaster drills Waverly constantly staged to make certain things would keep running no matter what part of the office hierarchy was destroyed. The Chief Medical Officer did not seem a logical replacement for the Chief Policy Officer, but her military background more than qualified her. Matthews, on the other hand, had always been difficult to work with even before the rumors and the photos. Now, it would have been impossible. He suspected that was why Leslie had drawn the nod from Waverly when everyone had assumed it would go the other way. The thought made him pause a moment. Yes, it was another piece to the puzzle.
The doors opened, and April stepped out. Illya held the door for a moment and said, "Tell Mark he's relieved, but not to get too comfortable about it. Leslie could be difficult about a Chief Enforcement Agent who looks terrible."
She nodded, squeezed his hand, then took off down the hall.
Illya let the doors close, then got out of the elevator himself when it opened on the next floor up. He entered the outer office area, saw Lisa's desk was empty, and allowed himself the luxury of sitting down for a moment. He stared at the door to Waverly's office and a thousand memories of the old man flooded his thoughts. One stuck.
Someone has to look after our Mr. Solo here, and you seem to be the only one up to the task. The words spoken only partly in jest echoed in his mind, and he shook his head sadly. I'm sorry, Napoleon. It seems I did not do a very good job of it this time.
A crash on the other side of the door brought him to his feet, then into Waverly's office. Lisa stood beside the old man's desk, the shards of Waverly's prized humidor and clumps of tobacco at her feet. "Oh, God," she whispered in something between horror and shock.
Her face was swollen and streaked, her eyes red from crying, and Illya hurried over to her. "It's all right, Lisa," he said, then stopped a foot away from her, uncertain whether his presence would help or disturb her further.
"I -- I was just getting the files.... Leslie might need them. I didn't see...." She sank downward and picked up one of the larger pieces. "Oh, Illya, he loves this horrible old thing."
"It's all right, Lisa," he repeated, this time his hands reaching out to touch her shoulders. "We'll find him another one."
She shook her head. "He'll never forgive me. He'll...." Lisa looked like she wanted to cry, but she seemed to have cried herself out, so she began to tremble.
He drew her to him and held her for as long as he could, but finally he had to say, "I have to go, Lisa. The briefing."
"I'm all right," she said, lifting her head from his chest.
He didn't believe a word of it, but he could not be late for this meeting. "Call building maintenance, Lisa," he said. "You will cut yourself if you try to clean it up when you're this upset."
She nodded, then kissed him quickly on the cheek. "Go."
He obeyed, emerging into the outer office as Leslie entered. "Illya, you look --"
"Terrible. So I've been told," he said, making certain to stay between Leslie and the inner office door until after it had slid shut behind him. He studied her face for a moment. "You do not look much better."
She took his arm and headed for the conference room door. "It's bad, Illya."
"Will he survive?"
"I honestly don't know."
They were the last to arrive, and he walked her to Waverly's chair at the far side of the round table, then took his own.
Leslie swallowed, then said, "As most of you know, four hours ago Mr. Waverly collapsed. He's still unconscious. His symptoms suggest a massive stroke, and he is not currently responding to any treatment."
She paused to let the worried murmurs die down. "We are, of course, checking for an outside cause, but Mr. Waverly is seventy-six, and it is possible this is a genuine stroke."
"No, it is not." Illya would never have spoken so abruptly if Waverly sat in his chair, but he had found the same informal approach he used with Napoleon worked best with Leslie as well. "Vancouver was a trap."
He briefed them on the details, then summed up, "The only way it makes any sense at all is if Thrush knew something was about to happen to Mr. Waverly."
ab Sur spoke up first. "Reasonable, but flawed. Napoleon would have had to return to the office to have Waverly's current security codes turned over to him. He was still Chief Enforcement Agent when Thrush took him."
"They did not want the codes," Illya said. "We would have changed them too quickly for Napoleon knowing them to have done them any good. They wanted this office in chaos."
Leslie shook her head. "Illya, it still doesn't make sense. Losing both Waverly and Napoleon is a terrible loss, but they could kill everyone in this room and this office would still function smoothly."
"Would it?" Illya asked. "Mr. Waverly's standing orders name Napoleon as his successor. Everyone knows that. The rest of the list is not well known, but I believe everyone would agree we all expected Arthur Matthews to be next on it."
"What's your point, Kuryakin?" Matthews demanded.
"Give me your professional opinion, Mr. Matthews," Illya said. "What would be the result on this office of a Chief Policy Officer waging a moral crusade against his Chief Enforcement Agent?"
Matthews turned a look of pure hatred on him. "Chaos."
Illya shifted his gaze to Leslie. "Such chaos would not last long, since you would be forced to step in and end it. Thrush will try something major in the next few days. We must find out what it is."
She nodded. "That's your job, Illya. Mine is to find out when and how Mr. Waverly was poisoned." She turned her attention to the others in the room. "Let's get to work, people."
Illya stood with everyone else, but she touched his hand, so he did not follow the others out.
When they were alone she said, "I have to know, Illya. Can you handle losing Napoleon like this? Can I count on you?"
He looked at her while he considered the question. The man whose life his world had revolved around one way or another for the last five years was gone. He could tell her how bleak the years stretching out in front of him looked, tell her how off balance he felt at the idea of facing anything without Napoleon backing him up, even tell her how utterly empty he felt inside. He knew precisely what look he wore in his eyes. My partner is dead. What did she want him to say? He knew she would think less of him for it, but he looked her straight in the eye and spoke the truth, "Of course."
In a way it was fascinating. Napoleon's rational mind floated in the back of his drug-fogged brain and watched the interrogation like any other observer. He was already quite irritated with the efficiency of this new Thrush truth drug. The first thing Stewart had asked him was how he planned to escape and, just like that, he'd told him. So much for the easy way out. He'd have to come up with something else, but he deliberately did not think about what the something else was.
"What are the access codes for Thunder Head?"
What? "I don't know," his drugged out little motor mouth answered.
Stewart looked utterly perplexed, a sight Napoleon appreciated even more than seeing Illya look that way. "You have to know what those codes are," Stewart said. "The dismantling operation takes place in three days. You had to have assigned it by now. What are they?"
A part of this struck Napoleon as wildly funny. They had grabbed him for information he didn't have. It must have come across his desk while he was in Paris. All this fancy plotting and he didn't know the answer. "I don't know."
Stewart picked up the vial of truth serum as if he were considering a second injection. Napoleon hoped he'd try it. It certainly wouldn't do Thrush any good, and he suspected an overdose of it would prove a pleasant way to die. But Stewart set the vial back down. "The facility is in the middle of an U.N.C.L.E. security lock down. The codes have been assigned. Someone had to do it; if not you, who?"
Napoleon fought giving the answer even harder than he'd fought betraying his own escape plan, but his traitorous mouth said, "Illya."
Stewart cursed and struck Napoleon hard across the mouth in a display of utter frustration.
Napoleon tasted blood and something trickled from the corner of his mouth. He wanted to wipe it away, but even if his wrists weren't bound to the chair arms, he was far too incapacitated to make his body work.
With a heavy sigh, Stewart started pacing. Napoleon's sense of time was utterly fouled up, so he had no idea of how much of it passed before he saw inspiration strike the Thrush official.
Stewart leaned over him. "Napoleon, if he knows where you are, will Illya come for you?"
Say no! Damn it, say no! "Yes."
"Excellent." Stewart sat down on the edge of the table. "Now, Napoleon, I am going to brief you on the layout of this complex, then you are going to tell me exactly how Kuryakin will break in. Do you understand?"
Stay away, Illya. For God's sake, stay away. "Yes."
Illya sat behind Napoleon's desk and stared at the folder holding the budget report. It was the only thing left on the desk to do, but he found himself completely unable to touch it. He'd absolutely sworn he would not let his partner con him into taking care of it this quarter. Now, he felt like if he opened it, he would be admitting Napoleon was dead.
Yesterday he had been certain of that, but not now. Leslie had insisted he spend the night in the infirmary and, not ready to face an elevator with buttons to the penthouse and the sixteenth floor, he had agreed. Exhausted, he'd slept almost twelve straight hours before waking up, his headache finally gone. It let him think clearer.
He'd figured out each piece of the puzzle, but the whole didn't fit together right. If what he'd said yesterday had been Thrush's goal all along, then what had come before Vancouver did not make sense. Thrush had wanted Napoleon since Paris, of that much he was certain.
His sudden sense of monogamy had made taking Napoleon in Paris impossible, so Thrush must have turned their attention to New York and the elimination of one major obstacle to such a kidnapping -- Illya Kuryakin. It hadn't been a mere unfortunate coincidence the photo had appeared shortly before the section head meeting. Tempers had been hot in the meeting and, if Waverly hadn't backed him, snap decisions could have been made that would have at least temporarily neutralized his active agent status and his right to carry a gun. He should have been helpless when they'd tried to kill him the next day.
Having failed to eliminate him figuratively and literally, Thrush had come up with the Vancouver plan. They must have seen it as almost foolproof. Napoleon had walked right into their hands, and his own fate was inconsequential. If they had taken him as well, they could have used his life as leverage to make Napoleon more cooperative. Dead he would have been no further threat to them. Alive and uncaptured, he should have returned to the New York office and a war with Arthur Matthews.
Waverly's elimination must have been planned for a long time with only the timing in question. Leslie had been right when she'd said they could all die, and the office would still run smoothly. But running smoothly did not mean at its top efficiency. Poisoning Waverly had not been necessary to take Napoleon, so Illya still believed something important would happen in the next few days.
Waverly was what bothered him the most. If the old man had collapsed before they had gone to Criton Industries, Napoleon at least would have returned immediately to New York. Thrush had not dared to administer the poison before they entered the complex. Illya had checked Waverly's schedule. The old man had not left headquarters during the entire day. There must be another mole, and one high up enough to have free access to Waverly. Shoemaker had not been working alone and it made trust a dangerous commodity.
"The last time I saw Napoleon, he was doing the same thing."
Illya looked up to see ab Sur standing in the doorway. "What?"
He walked into the office and nodded at the folder sitting next to Illya's hand. "He was doing his best to avoid that report, too. Though I thought such avoidance was out of character for you."
Illya had no reason to distrust ab Sur, but until he figured out who was behind this he deemed it best to trust only April and Mark. "Such things must be done, but I enjoy them no more than he does," he answered the assumption instead of correcting it.
"Then perhaps you will also appreciate a distraction," ab Sur said, then held out the file he was carrying. "A transcript of Gearhart's interrogation. You might find it interesting reading."
Illya took the file, did a fast scan, then looked back up at the Chief Security Officer. "You used truth serum on him?"
"It seemed wise. A man who would seek to impair one of our best agents has a common goal with Thrush. I wished to make certain it was all he shared with Thrush."
Except the act of pushing Illya down the stairs had made Gearhart the only one who could not possibly be the traitor. Napoleon had gone to Vancouver only because Illya had, and the fall had almost removed the Russian from the case. Gearhart's push had definitely been at odds with Thrush's short-term goals. "He say anything interesting?"
"Yes. I suggest you consult page five. Let me know if you wish to pursue the matter any further."
ab Sur started to leave, then stopped in the doorway. "I am sorry about Napoleon. He was a good man, but so are you. Enforcement is in good hands, Illya."
It was the first time ab Sur had ever used his first name, and Illya recognized it as an offer of friendship. And right now, he could use all the friends he could get -- even those he didn't dare trust. "Thank you, Mohammed."
Once he was alone again, Illya turned to the indicated page and started to read. When he finished, he hovered somewhere between anger and relief. It seemed there was one other person he could trust.
He was still contemplating this when his phone rang. "Kuryakin," he answered.
"We may have located Solo," Arthur Matthews said, then hung up, his summons issued.
Illya stood up slowly, one thought sounding clearly in his mind. So now Thrush wants me.
It was a very complicated trail, one Paul Coswell had managed to trace. Someone had overheard someone, who overheard someone, and so on down a line of over a dozen more someones until it had reached a rancher in a Colorado bar who had been complaining about a plane flying too low and scaring his herd. It sounded legitimate and Coswell was one of U.N.C.L.E.'s most reliable information brokers, not to mention the one with the highest prices but, to Illya, it felt like a trap with his name on it.
He studied the photo on the screen in front of him. A high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft had taken it, Thrush's new technology courtesy of Criton Industries making satellite photos too suspect for now. It showed what seemed to be an abandoned mine not far from the mountains, except there were several people milling about. Guards walking their posts, no doubt.
Illya could see the route he would take in, so he turned and looked at Matthews. "Have you informed Leslie about this?"
"No. Her team seems to be making some headway on the poison. I thought it best to come up with a few recommendations before interrupting her."
Illya shook his head. "She will not allow me out in the field until my head has healed, and I must go, so she must not be told."
"You're crazy, Kuryakin. Not only is it against procedure, but you wouldn't stand a chance. This is a strike team job, not a task for a lone Enforcement agent."
"If a strike team shows up, Thrush will have time to kill or move Napoleon before they can reach the entrance to the mine. And the possibility of my death should not trouble you."
He'd hoped the chance to be permanently rid of him might sway Matthews, but the man said, "No, I won't risk my career for you to go charging to the rescue of your lover."
Illya sighed. Only the truth remained between him and a call to Leslie. If he'd reasoned it out incorrectly, if Thrush had wanted to abort Vancouver and make another attempt in New York, then speaking it would get Napoleon killed.
He decided he had to take the chance. "Gearhart was angry about Lisa and her feelings for Napoleon. During his interrogation, he said you mentioned to him the best way to hurt someone was to hurt someone they loved. Later you gave him something to deliver to Policy when you heard we'd been called to Waverly's office. You knew we always took the stairs back to Enforcement."
"If you are suggesting...."
"That you in essence told him to push me down those stairs? We both know you did. So does ab Sur. He offered to pursue the matter for me, but I think I shall decline."
"In exchange for what? Letting you go on a suicide mission? Either way, my career is compromised. I'd rather go in a way that thwarts your plans."
"Mr. Matthews, all I want is for you to listen to me for ten minutes with your head instead of your hatred," Illya said. "Do this and I promise you that the only career that could possibly be ruined is mine."
Matthews sat back in his chair. "All right, I'm listening."
Illya told him everything.
When he had finished, Matthews looked at him for a long moment, then said, "You'll need a plane."
The chronometer read 2:15 a.m. when the small jet approached the drop site. Illya checked the auto pilot and sighed. It would have been a lot easier on U.N.C.L.E.'s fiscal bottom line if he'd brought a pilot along, but it was a risk he simply could not take. He set a course that would crash the jet in the high rocky planes of the mountains, then got out of the pilot's seat.
He slipped on his parachute, picked up his equipment bag, opened the door, then stepped out into open sky.
"We've sighted a parachute, sir," a voice crackled over the radio. "Shall we meet and apprehend?"
"Good heavens, no," Stewart said. "Let our little mouse get much closer to the bait. Blow this one, and I'll have every last one of you shot. Is that clear?"
Stewart turned to Napoleon. "In his own way, your Russian is quite predictable."
His blond hair hidden beneath a black stocking cap, Illya slipped through the darkness toward the compound. The quarter moon overhead cast little light, aiding him in avoiding the attention of the outer guard as he moved from one shadow to the next.
He managed to reach the fence without using his gun, but the inner guard was not so sparse. There were three guards and a possible fourth along his intended path. Opting against taking any chances, he fired four times.
The soft cough of the silenced weapon drew no attention, and beyond a slight initial jerk, his targets gave no sign his shots had hit their marks. He smiled. Fallen bodies signaled loudly something was wrong, but thanks to an U.N.C.L.E. variation on an old hypno-paralysis drug Thrush had once used, the guards would stay frozen right where they were. Eventually their lack of motion would attract attention, but not as quickly as a body or a missing man.
Illya moved toward the fence.
Napoleon pulled against the straps holding him the chair, but the heavy leather refused to yield. His helplessness added to his fury.
How could Illya be so stupid? Bad enough Napoleon had walked blindly into the trap, why did Illya seem so damned determined to do the same thing? If Thrush got hold of the Russian, they'd get their information on Thunder Head, whatever it was. It offended Napoleon's sense of justice. He also had no desire to watch Stewart torture Illya to death. His partner seemed to have mortally offended the Thrush official, and Stewart had spent the better part of the last hour outlining precisely what he intended to do to Illya once he had the information Thrush needed.
Damn it, Illya, do something clever and get us out of this.
The radio crackled, "He's inside the compound."
Illya slipped along the outer wall toward the entrance. Two guards were posted on the door. Two shots eliminated the problem. He walked past the rigid, oblivious soldiers, and over to the security panel. The door in front of him was a chunk of concrete two feet deep and reinforced by five inches of steel plating on either side. A host of sophisticated scanners stood ready to examine, then exterminate him if he failed to meet a single qualification for entrance. He touched a button on his watch and felt a slight vibration as a biosignal began to broadcast. If the techs in the lab had gotten it right, the signal should mask him from the scanners, while replacing his readings with the only person currently authorized to enter the facility. He pulled on a thin latex glove, then stepped into the sensors' range. For a moment nothing happened, then a hidden panel to the right of the door slid open. He pushed his right hand against the palm plate, while his left hand moved over a number pad, punching in the proper access codes.
The heavy door opened and he walked into a large, empty room, then over to the far wall where another security panel waited. He repeated the procedure with the palm plate, punching in a different code this time. An elevator door opened.
He stepped inside, then pushed the button for the first sublevel. He had to swallow twice to clear his ears on the long trip down into the mountain, making him more than a little happy to hear the ping signaling the elevator had arrived at its destination. The door opened, and Illya found himself looking into the muzzle of an M-16.
"We've got him!"
Stewart grinned in utter triumph, then ordered, "Bring him to me at once."
Napoleon bit back a groan of utter frustration and prayed Illya had some sort of plan. Right now he would have settled for a bomb in the Russian's shorts blowing them all to kingdom come.
Two guards entered, dragging the slender man between them. Napoleon couldn't tell how badly Illya was hurt, but he seemed very limp, his head down, a few blond wisps of hair sticking out from beneath a cap. But something didn't look right....
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, how nice of you to finally join us," Stewart said, his hand forcing his captive's head up.
"Name's Slate, actually," Mark Slate said with a grin.
"Let him go, boys," a voice ordered from the doorway, and everyone turned to see April Dancer holding a very lethal-looking machine pistol in her hand. Simon Bainbridge stood behind her and to the right, a similar weapon in his hand.
The guards obeyed so quickly Mark had to scramble to keep from falling. April moved to him, a touch of her hand asking the question. "I'm fine, April," he assured her and pulled off the cap, the few strands of bright blond hair going with it.
While April and Mark trussed up the Thrush operatives, Bainbridge moved to Napoleon. "The strike team has the area secure, boss," he said, releasing the straps. "Illya's plan worked like a dream. They were so busy making certain they got him, they didn't see the rest of us come up from behind."
Napoleon shook his head, embarrassed he'd doubted the workings of his partner's devious little mind. He looked at Stewart and flashed his own smile of triumph. "It seems my Russian can still surprise us both."
Stewart cursed -- pure music to Napoleon's ears.
Napoleon looked at his three agents. "Now, just where the hell is my partner?"
April smiled. "Well, he didn't dare come here, Napoleon. If something went wrong, we all agreed he shouldn't get caught and risk interrogation."
"So he's loitering around my office?"
Napoleon scowled. "Where is he?"
"You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow evening, sir," the guard said, his rifle leveled at Illya's chest.
"That's all right," Illya answered, dropping his gun, then he slowly raised his hands. "You weren't supposed to be here at all."
As his right hand reached the level of the guard's face, Illya touched the trigger on the fountain pen he'd palmed. The gas charge erupted, and Illya threw himself to the side, the gun burst the guard fired in reflex just missing him.
The soldier crumpled to the floor. Illya sighed, picked himself up, then turned his attention to the slumbering man. The guard's presence verified he'd been right about the last piece of the puzzle. The clerical delay in getting the U.N.C.L.E. lock-down into place indicated the United States was the latest country to try and get cute with a treaty agreement, but he'd hoped he'd been wrong.
He dragged the young man inside the elevator, retrieved his own gun, then wedged his knife beneath the elevator door to make certain it would not close. A pity the soldier wasn't even close to his size. A uniform might have come in handy when encountering anyone else who was 'accidentally' locked inside the research complex.
Once the lock-down started, no one could go in or out until the agent assigned returned with the international delegation to begin the liquidation of the facility. Fortunately, Illya knew who the agent was and the codes needed to override the lock-down, since Illya had been the one to assign them.
Illya started down the hallway of the first level. It hadn't been difficult at all to figure out what Thrush wanted after it became clear they wanted him instead of Napoleon. They had to want something that had come across the Chief Enforcement Agent's desk, something Napoleon should have seen before leaving for Paris, but hadn't. It also needed to be something too minor for Illya to have briefed him on once he had returned. As the he recalled, he'd merely told him he'd assigned eight babysitters.
Something late and minor, but with major implications. Thunder Head was the only fit. It was a germ warfare facility with a very impressive stockpile. Thrush would have found it useful enough, but the data in the computers was what they must have really wanted. He'd read between the lines of the reports and had figured out Thunder Head was responsible for a minor virus turned world-wide health disaster. That was the trouble with germs -- no sense of patriotism or respect for government borders. With proof of what had caused the outbreak, Thrush could have controlled the U.S. government. A far more ambitious blackmail scheme than Thrush had tried to use against him and Napoleon, but it was still the same game. And with Waverly out of the way, it would probably have worked. The old man personally knew several key members of the American government, and if anyone would have noticed something was wrong, it would have been Alexander Waverly.
Three technicians looked up from their work stations when he entered the computer rooms. A woman reached for the alarm, but he shot her before she could reach it. She froze, her face blank. Her two male coworkers stared at him in shock.
He held up his U.N.C.L.E. identification, then said, "We will be leaving soon and in a hurry. Since I cannot carry all of you, I suggest you behave yourselves."
He used duct tape to bind their hands, then made the two men sit in the far corner to keep them out of mischief for the few minutes he needed. Pulling a flash drive from his bag, Illya sat down at the main terminal, then loaded it. He entered the access codes, typed in a string of commands, then activated them by hitting the 'enter' button. The computer virus flooded the system, eating away at every scrap of data carrying this complex's prefix codes. He also made certain it was transmitted along with the data his three companions had been sending elsewhere. So much for sneaking around treaties, he thought with satisfaction.
Next he turned his attention to the self-destruct sequences of the complex itself. He'd debated long and hard on this decision. Though everything in Thunder Head was scheduled for shut down, much of the equipment itself could be reused as well as the facility itself. His plan would result in several billion dollars worth of unscheduled destruction. On the other hand he'd needed every bit of his U.N.C.L.E. clearance level to access even the files admitting to this facility's existence. He'd gotten the rest through some very fancy, highly illegal computer hacking which had still relied heavily on his clearance. He did not like Thrush knowing of Thunder Head and of the impending shut down. It suggested a Thrush mole in the Pentagon, and one very high up. A problem for another day, he told himself, but it also made the destruct system the only way to insure Thrush did not gain access to Thunder Head.
He accessed the command functions and was relieved to discover the system matched the plans he'd studied. A last-minute upgrade or a false set of files had blown more than one operation in the past. There were five levels of destruct protocols, each based on a particular type of disaster. The signals could be triggered or overridden from here or from the Pentagon. Before he could wrap this up, he had to disable the Pentagon's override. A special circuit box snapped into the proper spot, the reconfiguring of a few wires, and the scrambling of a few codes insured the computers would reject any signal received from Washington. He looked at the taller of his two male captives and demanded, "It there anyone else down here?"
"Just a guard."
The soldier he'd already met. "You are certain?" Illya asked. "It will be extremely unhealthy down here in a few minutes."
"We didn't think we could hide anyone else," the man answered.
Satisfied, Illya activated all five destruct sequences.
Alarms flared into life, a piercing sound that quickly restored his headache. "Self-destruct sequence has been initiated," a charming computer voice announced. "You have five minutes to evacuate the area."
As the computer began calmly reciting the countdown, Illya cut loose the technicians, then pulled the woman he'd shot over his shoulder. At an inch taller than him and no more than a few pounds lighter, she wasn't an easy load, but getting her out was his responsibility. "Let's go," he said, shoving his charges toward the door.
As Leslie had promised, the exertion quickly returned his headache to this side of murderous, but he ignored it. They all crowded into the elevator and he pulled the knife loose. The doors shut, and they started the long trip upward.
The computer reached T minus thirty seconds as the doors finally opened. The technicians dragging the soldier, they all ran for the main door. Illya entered the exit code, the door slid open, then closed behind them. The ground rumbled beneath their feet, and Illya dropped to his knees, letting his burden slide gently to the floor.
"Don't move!" a voice snapped.
Illya looked up to find himself surrounded by five very angry-looking soldiers, all armed with assault rifles which were pointed at him. He managed a weak smile.
Randal Stewart sat in the same cell he'd slated for Napoleon Solo's last days. Now Solo was on his way to fetch his lover, while his agents dismantled Stewart's base. He was not a happy man.
The damnable Russian had ruined everything. Thunder Head was lost to Thrush, and Thrush Central was certain to want Stewart's life in payment.
He sighed. He disliked confinement, but knew he would not have to endure it for long. He knew the identity of a Thrush mole placed very highly in the Pentagon. U.N.C.L.E.'s truth drugs would get it out of him, but statements made under the influence of such drugs were not admissible in U.S. courts. He would simply cut a deal with the American government to gain his freedom. His lawyer was probably already talking to the proper people.
While Thrush had been a valuable ally, Stewart had his own resources and a number of men personally loyal to him who would insure his own operation's survival until he gained his freedom. Yes, he would be free soon. Free of imprisonment, free of Thrush, and free once more to plan the destruction of his two favorite U.N.C.L.E. agents.
He smiled, then settled back against the cot to dream about a suitably painful end for one blond Russian.
Illya walked into an office, his hands cuffed behind his back and a large M.P. on either side of him. They stopped in front of a desk. The name plate on it said Colonel Benjamin Harris, and the man Illya assumed belonged to that name studied him for a long moment.
"You are in a lot of trouble, Mister," Harris said.
Perhaps. Illya looked at Harris and the young captain standing beside the window. If these two played by the book, he would be fine, but.... His U.N.C.L.E. identification sat on the desk top near Harris' hand. Illya nodded toward it. "You are aware of what that means."
"A sweeping blanket of immunity, but there are ways around that sort of thing."
None of them legal. An U.N.C.L.E. agent could not even be deported without the express permission of the pertinent Hemispheric Chief, and such permission was very rare. Illya imagined the colonel knew this, which suggested he had a more violent way around it in mind. Illya opted to say nothing.
Harris glared at him. "You just destroyed a multi-billion dollar government facility, and you don't have anything to say for yourself?"
"All right. I am the Acting Chief Enforcement Agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. While the method I chose was a trifle flamboyant, I was charged with seeing to the destruction of Thunder Head as established in Treaty 3045289. None of my actions were a violation of either the powers of my office or U.N.C.L.E. itself," he said in a very calm, almost mechanical tone of voice. "All of which you know, Colonel, making this entire conversation quite pointless."
Illya sighed to himself. He knew somehow some other government must have gotten wind of Thunder Head and forced the United States into the treaty, probably with the threat of disclosure. Such near-blackmail circumstances were typical of how most of the treaties U.N.C.L.E. monitored ended up being written and signed, but it would certainly make life easier if governments would stop signing treaties they had no intention of honoring.
Harris' face flushed red with rage. "You are not going to get away with this."
There it was again -- the threat of violence. Illya decided prudence was called for and said, "I should remind you U.N.C.L.E. knows precisely where I am."
Illya did not find Harris' smile encouraging. "Captain Michaels, perhaps you could tell our guest about your recent phone conversation," Harris said.
Michaels stepped forward. "I called an old friend at your New York office, Mr. Kuryakin. He said the place was in an uproar because the Chief Enforcement Agent had left without leaving any word as to his whereabouts."
Great. His fate rested in the hands of two officers who had reason to believe he was the only outsider who knew about the treaty violation. This might not bode well for his life expectancy, but it wasn't what twisted Illya's stomach. If New York still did not know where he was, Napoleon had not checked in yet. If he had destroyed Thunder Head before Mark's strike team had gotten Napoleon out....
The intercom buzzed. Clearly annoyed, Harris hit the switch, "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Sorry to disturb you, sir," came the answer, "but I have a Napoleon Solo on the line. He insists on speaking with you immediately."
Illya sighed with relief. It was almost over.
Napoleon paced beside the jet, the wait doing more to age him than the last twenty-four hours combined. A Russian national had destroyed a multi-billion dollar, top secret American research facility. Talk about straining U.N.C.L.E. immunity to the limit. He'd had to do an awful lot of fast talking during the flight from Colorado to get Illya out of this one, and his stomach was patently refusing to settle down.
April's hand touched his shoulder, and he shared a worried glance with her and Mark. Bainbridge and the rest of the strike team had stayed behind in Colorado to oversee the clean-up job of the Thrush satrap, but the two of them had insisted on coming to make certain Illya was all right.
April's grip tightened, then she pointed toward a jeep heading for the runway. "That may be him."
"Mark, watch from inside and keep your gun handy," Napoleon said.
The Englishman nodded and April took up a position near the door.
Napoleon resisted the impulse to cross his fingers as he watched the vehicle approach. He caught sight of a distinctive blond head, then sighed with relief. It had been a very close thing. At first the military had tried to deny they even knew what Thunder Head was. He'd had the distinct feeling Illya had been slated for a shallow, unmarked grave somewhere in the high country. Dead Russians told no tales and all that. It had taken a great deal of Napoleon's persuasive skills to convince them otherwise.
The jeep stopped, then two M.P.s yanked Illya out of the back. A captain joined them, then shoved the Russian forward and, his hands cuffed behind him, his partner stumbled, then fell. Napoleon caught him, but the bump on Illya's head collided with his chest and he moaned.
Napoleon pulled Illya up, then around so the uninjured side of his head now rested against Napoleon's chest. He looked down and could see blood on the cuffs imprisoning the younger man's wrists. "Keys," he snapped in a voice promising dire consequences for anything less than immediate compliance.
The smug look vanished from the captain's face, and he handed the keys to April.
The cuffs sprung loose at the turn of the key, and Illya stood up, breaking the contact between his body and Napoleon's. He turned, rubbing his wrists. "Thank you for your hospitality," he said.
The captain flushed, climbed back into the jeep, then the soldiers drove off.
Illya turned back around to face Napoleon. "You're looking well," he said.
Napoleon shrugged, feeling strangely guilty for not bleeding from places he didn't even know he had. "They used drugs instead of indulging themselves."
"Yes, they usually treat you that way."
"I have a less irritating personality."
Illya rolled his eyes, then boarded the plane.
"Really, Napoleon, he's such a devious little shit."
"No argument." Napoleon leaned back in his chair and smiled at Leslie's image on the small screen in front of him. "Just be glad he's on our side."
"Believe me, I am," Leslie answered. "I'm even more grateful he didn't complicate his head injury. Trying to perform surgery on that thick skull of his wouldn't rank up there on my list of fun things to do."
Napoleon stretched, his muscles far from happy to find themselves confined to yet another chair. Even the relative luxury of one of U.N.C.L.E.'s command aircraft was stifling after a twenty-four hour imprisonment. In addition to an impressive communications array, the jet also featured four sofas, three of which contained a slumbering Mark, April and Illya. That left the fourth sofa for Napoleon, but first he had to finish his call to Leslie. "I'm surprised you aren't screaming for his head on the chopping block."
"Oh, I thought about it, but it's difficult to argue with success. He got you out, uncovered a treaty violation and shut down said violation all in one hour's work."
"All without your authorization," he reminded her.
Across the aisle and to the right, Illya rose up on one elbow and mouthed, "Whose side are you on?"
Napoleon gave him a stern look and pointed at the pillow. Illya scowled, but lay back down on the sofa, and Napoleon returned to his conversation with Leslie. "I expected you to at least demand I put him over my knee."
She chuckled. "I doubt you'd survive the attempt, my friend." Her smile faded. "Seriously, Napoleon, I know he didn't tell me because he didn't dare trust me."
Napoleon didn't like the thought of not being able to trust Leslie, but trust was a foolish concept right now. "The poison?"
"Yes," she said with a nod. "When he had to make his decision, we were all assuming someone had slipped something into Alexander's lunch. I'm one of the people he eats lunch with."
"But the poison wasn't in his food?"
"No, it was air borne and very fast acting. Security figures there was some sort of self-destructing triggering device hidden in his office. It could have been placed weeks ago, which makes a good third of our happy little office a suspect."
Napoleon sighed. "Wonderful."
"Well, at least Alexander is well on his way to recovery. By the end of next week, we should both be out of his damned chair." She looked at him. "I don't know how you stand the thought of having to sit in it permanently."
"By hoping it won't be for a long time."
"I'll do my best to see to it. And now you should get some sleep. I have no intention of doing this rotten job one second after you reach New York."
He nodded. "I'll see you in a few hours."
Napoleon broke the connection and the screen went dark. He stood up, stretched again, then glanced at Illya, who was still wide awake. Frowning, Napoleon walked over to the sofa. "You're supposed to be asleep," he whispered.
Illya shifted, giving Napoleon enough room to sit down on the edge of a cushion. "I was thinking."
"You shouldn't do that," he said, brushing Illya's bangs to one side. "I might not be able to keep you out of trouble the next time."
"Keep me out of trouble? You were the one suggesting beheadings and spankings."
"We have enough enemies, Illya. I wanted to make certain she hadn't become one of them."
The senior agent smiled and squeezed Illya's arm. Long before they had become lovers, Napoleon had often felt the need to touch Illya. He always said it was the Italian in him needing the contact, the physical reassurance his partner was all right. Just looking had never done any good with Illya. He was far too skilled at hiding how he felt. But a touch could feel the tremor of damaged muscles, the shivering of a cold or feverish body, the yielding of limbs too weak to last much longer.
Though his touch deprived Illya of some of his precious secrets, he'd always allowed it, even seemed to take comfort from it. Now, Napoleon's touch had the more intimate edge of a lover, but it still asked the same questions, sought the same answers.
Illya looked at him with those incredible eyes. "They did not hurt me, Napoleon."
"They could have killed you. I'm certain they wanted to."
"It was a possibility, but it was the only way to insure Thrush did not gain access to the facility."
He took hold of Illya's hand. "Perhaps, but if you ever do anything like this again, I will turn you over my knee."
"Try it and you'll lose a kidney."
Napoleon smiled. "It might be worth it." He wanted to make love to Illya, not so much because he was aroused, but because he wanted to hold him, and his Russian wasn't the snuggle up and cuddle type. Illya had to be seduced into it, but they were far from alone, even if everyone else was asleep.
He settled for giving Illya's hand a squeeze. "Go to sleep or I'll find a reason to keep you awake."
"Yes, Napoleon," Illya said, then settled down into the pillow and closed his eyes.
Napoleon waited the few minutes it took for the sound of Illya's breathing to change to one of a sleeping man. He waited a few more minutes to make certain he wasn't faking it, then got up and walked over to his own sofa. He stretched out. It felt like pure heaven, but even as he fell asleep he had the feeling Illya was up to something.
Napoleon signed his name for what had to be the one millionth time, then glared as yet another sheet of paper appeared in front of him.
"Don't scowl, Napoleon," Lisa said with a chuckle. "It'll give you wrinkles."
His lower jaw shifted and he looked up at her. "If this is supposed to be the computer age, why am I signing all these blasted pieces of paper?"
"Transfer of power. If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Waverly will have to sign twice as many when he gets back."
He rolled his eyes, then signed the damned thing. "Lisa," he growled a warning as she picked up the paper.
"Oh, behave," she said. "There are only two more."
Grumbling, he signed his name the last two times. "Now can I worry about world security disasters instead of terminal paper cuts?"
She nodded. "Do you want some coffee?"
"A marvelous idea. Do you want me to authorize a raise?"
"An interesting notion," she said, sliding open the door to a small kitchenette, "but I'll settle for the answer to a question."
"Why do you always set up shop in here?" she asked, making a sweeping gesture at the conference room. "Mr. Waverly's office is more comfortable."
"It's also full of his personality. I prefer the neutrality of this room until the office is really mine." May that be at least forty years from now.
"I see your point. He can be an overwhelming man."
Napoleon let a certain twinkle enter his eye. "Well, I'm not exactly a wall flower myself."
"Oh, no you don't, Napoleon," Lisa scolded him. "I owe Illya one. Find someone else to cheat on him with."
"Flirting is not cheating," Napoleon muttered. "Besides, our relationship was just --"
"Oh, please, Napoleon. Save the it-was-just-an-assignment bull for the rubes in the cheap seats." She picked up the coffee pot, filled it with water from the small sink, then walked over to the automatic coffeepot. "My only solace is the only people slower than me to realize the two of you deserved each other was the two of you."
Napoleon wasn't certain he liked the sound of 'deserved each other,' but he opted for a graceful surrender. "So how about those Knicks?"
Lisa laughed and poured the water into the reservoir of the coffee maker. "You want caffeine or not?"
"I'd kill for some caffeine." It had been a long couple of days without much sleep.
"Hmmm, Turkish coffee it is," she decided, reaching for the appropriate can.
"Bless you my child."
"It's your stomach lining."
Napoleon picked up the latest batch of reports and started scanning them to the sound of a scoop moving in and out of a coffee can.
The door slid open and Illya stepped into the conference room, ab Sur behind him. "Do you have a moment, Napoleon?"
For you, always. Napoleon dismissed such a sappy response and settled on nodding.
The two men walked over to the large round table, then sat down. "I had a thought about our mole problem," Illya said.
Imagine my surprise. "Why do I think I'm not going to like this, Illya?"
"Because you won't," he assured him, then glanced at ab Sur.
"We all agree timing was critical with Waverly's poisoning," the Chief Security Officer said. "Whoever did the deed had to be notified you and Kuryakin had walked into the trap."
Napoleon still winced at the thought of how thoroughly they'd been taken in. Not one of their better days. "You checked the phone logs."
ab Sur nodded. The number and time of every incoming and outgoing call was logged by computers, not an unusual procedure for any office, and at U.N.C.L.E. it had come in handy more than once. "Of course, Thrush was not careless enough to call in from Vancouver, but there were forty long distance calls received between the time you arrived at Criton Industries and Waverly's collapse."
The pungent smell of strong coffee filled the room, pure perfume for Napoleon, but he glanced at Illya wondering if his stomach was turning. "I suppose well over half those calls were to shared phones."
"I'm afraid so."
Illya stood up, then walked over to Lisa. "That smells awfully strong," he whispered.
"The boss needs a jolt," she whispered back. "Do you need one?"
"No, thank you. I'll have some tea later, but perhaps you should have some."
Napoleon shook his head, trying to focus on two separate conversations. "Any way to narrow down the search parameters?"
He could hear the sound of Lisa picking up a mug. "Me? Why would I want to drink this crank oil grease?" she asked.
"It must have been a very busy week for you," Illya said.
ab Sur shook his head. "According to Leslie, the poison must have worked almost instantly, but the notification to use it could have come any time after you entered the compound."
Coffee flowed from the pot to the mug. "Well, it has been a busy couple of days, but before that it wasn't anything to get excited about."
"Hmm, I thought you were having trouble getting everything done."
"Illya, what are you talking about?"
"Well, for instance, I could not help but notice you let Mr. Waverly run out of tobacco when you normally refill the humidor whenever it gets below half full."
"Oh, well, things were hectic enough to make it difficult to get to the tobacco shop," she said. "Mr. ab Sur, would you like some coffee?"
"Please," ab Sur answered. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The majority of the calls were to Communications, a few went to Enforcement, four to Policy, and one each to Transportation and Medical."
Napoleon heard the clink of a second cup being set on the counter, and Illya said, "You have my sympathies. I remember when Mr. Waverly ran out of tobacco a few years ago, before you became his secretary. He was quite short-tempered until he was able to have his pipe. As I recall, he smoked one the moment the humidor was finally filled."
Napoleon frowned. "Medical? We aren't back to Leslie again, are we?"
ab Sur shrugged. "We cannot really rule out anyone, Napoleon."
The coffee flowed again, and Lisa whispered, "Even a mild nicotine addiction can be a trial, Illya."
"Agreed. But since you knew this, I cannot help but wonder why you waited so long to fill the humidor."
"I just told you I didn't have time to pick up the tobacco."
"The trouble with being a beautiful woman, Lisa, is people tend to remember you," Illya said. "The clerk swears you picked up a pouch of Isle of Dog Number 22 the night before Waverly was poisoned. So even though you had it when you came in that morning, you still waited until after lunch to give it to him."
A dead silence fell over the room. Suddenly it wasn't at all difficult to guess who had received one of those calls to Policy.
Napoleon watched ab Sur lift his hand from beneath the table. The gun in it was trained on Lisa.
Napoleon slowly swiveled his chair around. Lisa was standing in the doorway of the kitchenette, the pot of coffee in her hands. Illya stood a few feet away from her, putting his body quite deliberately between the coffee and Napoleon. Not a good day for Illya to have worn a shirt and tie instead of one of his heavy sweaters. Though his suit jacket would spare him some injury, standing so close to her Illya could expect several first degree burns and a few second.
Napoleon drew his own gun. "Lisa, if you throw that coffee, I swear I'll blow your pretty head off."
The pot clinked as she sat it back down on the coffee maker. "Oh, I wouldn't, Napoleon," she said. "After all, I did tell you I owed him one."
She handed her holstered gun to Illya, then looked at ab Sur. "Guess it's my turn for a little truth or consequences."
"I am afraid so, Ms Rogers."
Lisa shuddered. "And I just abhor needles. Ah, well." She gave Napoleon a sad look. "The funny thing is, I'm glad you won this one, Napoleon. I've always liked the two of you, and Stewart is such a pompous ass."
Napoleon stared at her. "Get her out of here, Mohammed."
ab Sur took hold of her arm. "You coming, Illya?"
Napoleon glanced at his partner at the use of his first name. Lose one friend, gain another.
Illya shrugged, then followed ab Sur and his prisoner out the door.
Illya entered the outer office and found Heather MacNab sitting behind Lisa's desk. He distinctly hoped this wouldn't be a permanent situation. Heather was the best researcher he had ever worked with, but she was someone Napoleon could trust. Of course, Lisa had also fitted the description. "Is he in?"
The attractive blonde nodded. "But he's in an enter-at-your-own-risk mood, Illya," she said. "If it wasn't a slow afternoon, I think he would've been responsible for at least a minor war or two by now."
"Wonderful," Illya sighed, but stepped forward, breaking the electronic eye controlling the door.
It slid aside and he walked into the conference room. Napoleon was bent over a report, and Illya could almost see the waves of tension radiating from his partner. "Napoleon?"
At the sound of his voice, Napoleon looked up. "About time you got back," he growled, but the tension seemed to vanish.
"I was not aware you required my presence," Illya answered, though he understood. Trust was a fragile thing, and the last few days had severely damaged it, but not between the two of them. Never between the two of them.
"You find out anything?"
Illya walked over to the table, then sat down in his usual chair. "Lisa was a Thrush plant from the beginning," he said. "She doesn't know of any other moles, but she did know about Shoemaker. She gave us the names of her outside contacts. I lent ab Sur a few agents to round them up. But her job was collecting our secrets not Thrush's."
Report given, there was no further reason for the Acting Chief Enforcement Agent to take up any more of the Acting Chief Policy Officer's time, and every reason for both of them to get back to work. "I will see you tonight," Illya said, standing.
"That's a long time away."
Something in Napoleon's tone set off an alarm bell or six, and Illya's eyes narrowed. "Napoleon..." he warned.
Napoleon managed to look innocent, a rather absurd expression for him in Illya's opinion. "Perhaps you could help me out with a little project before you make your escape," he said, standing.
Illya instinctively took a step backward. "What?"
"I've always wondered what it would be like to make love to a beautiful blond on this table," he said, his eyes racking Illya with a smoldering caress.
He swallowed hard, took two more steps backward, then said, "I'll go look for volunteers."
Napoleon smiled, then touched a button on the control panel.
Illya heard the buzz of the door locking, then groaned inwardly as he realized his mistake. He'd evaded instead of saying no. "Napoleon, unlock that door," he demanded.
His partner's hand moved back to the control panel, but he depressed the intercom switch, not the lock release. "Heather, hold my calls. Mr. Kuryakin and I will be in conference until something more important comes up."
"Of course, Napoleon," Heather answered, having the nerve to sound pleased. No doubt she had reasoned a 'conference' would improve his mood.
"Oh, and if Enforcement comes looking for him...."
"I'll give you a good three seconds warning before I override the lock," she quipped.
Napoleon laughed and switched off the intercom.
Illya scowled. "In conference? Good grief, Napoleon, why didn't you just tell her we were going to have sex?"
"I thought I did," Napoleon answered, advancing on him.
Illya retreated, but knew better than to turn his back on this one. "You are the most irritating, arrogant --"
"I think you'll look quite fetching against this dark wood," Napoleon said, running his hand along the edge of the table as he walked.
"We are at work."
"And likely to be here until tomorrow."
"If this is true, neither of us has time for fun and games."
"Now, Illya, I can tear myself away from three tons of paperwork long enough to spare you a minute or two."
"How generous of you," he muttered, then bumped into a chair. The one he had been sitting in a few minutes ago. He was literally being chased around the table. "This is ridiculous!" he said, holding his ground and trying to look menacing.
Napoleon stopped inches away, not in the least intimidated. "I agree," he said, slipping off Illya's tie. "So say no or shut up." The hands moved to the shirt buttons. "As you pointed out, we don't have much time."
Illya sighed, yet he couldn't manage to fight it when his shirt, holster and jacket were whisked off in one deft movement. "Must you be so good at this," he grumbled as his trousers were pushed down his legs.
"Part of my charm, Illya," Napoleon answered, having the gall to actually lift him up, then sit him down on the table.
"You have no charm," the Russian reminded him for the millionth time, but he lay back against the dark wood.
Illya had expected Napoleon to take him quickly, but when his lover joined him on the table, his attentions were slow and sensuous. Illya lost track of time, then nothing seemed to exist but Napoleon's hands, his lips and the weight of his body against him.
When Illya could think again, Napoleon was stretching out beside him, then his lover pulled him into his arms as if they were settling down for the night. The protest they certainly did not have time for this died before Illya could speak it. Ah, this was what Napoleon had wanted all along. How like his partner to do things the hard way he thought as his head moved to Napoleon's shoulder.
Illya had to admit it felt good to hold Napoleon and be held by him. It was a comforting reassurance the other lived and could be counted on. Still, there was only so much of this self-indulgence Illya could stand, and after a few minutes he said, "Wouldn't it have been easier to just say..." Now what had the ridiculous bumper sticker he had seen the other day said? Oh, yes, "I need a hug?"
Napoleon shifted, easing Illya back against the table, then rose up on his elbow. He looked down at Illya with brown eyes dancing with laughter. "You are such a spoil sport."
"I am responsible," Illya answered, then something else occurred to him. "'I'll blow your pretty head off?'"
"I guess I was tired of playing the fool," he said, then kissed Illya. "And I had plans for your body besides rubbing on burn ointment."
Illya gave him a disgusted look. "ab Sur would not have let her throw the pot."
"Probably, but I noticed you kept yourself between me and the coffee."
"You are my responsibility."
"And you're mine. My responsibility and my pleasure."
Illya didn't fight the kiss, even let the tongue slip into his mouth, but when Napoleon finally drew back, he said, "We do not have time to do this again."
Napoleon sighed. "I hate it when you're right," he said, but got up, then off the table.
He headed for the washroom next to the kitchenette and said, "By the way, how did things go with Matthews while I was away?"
"We reached an understanding," Illya said, hopping off the table. He'd decided against telling Napoleon about Matthews' part in his little trip down the stairs. The connection was tenuous, unprovable and likely to provoke a violent reaction, making it definitely something better kept to himself for the time being. He pulled his pants back on. "But I doubt he will ever stop looking for a way to get at least me out of U.N.C.L.E."
"Lucky for us you're so perfect," Napoleon called over the sound of running water.
Illya rolled his eyes, then started looking for his socks. He found one on a chair, the other in the far corner. He thought about the logistics of it, then decided he didn't want to know. He shook his head -- the things Napoleon did to his equilibrium.
Worse, there was absolutely no controlling his lover. Illya knew he could set all the rules he wanted about the office or assignments, but Napoleon had always pursued sexual liaisons at inconvenient moments, and he would always find a way around any rules. Nothing had changed, but everything had. Now he was the target of all those sexual advances instead of the disgusted observer.
Illya sighed as he pulled on his shirt. He'd liked things the way they were before Babylon and Shoemaker had intruded into their lives. Now, he had to learn how to deal with an entirely different side of Napoleon, and he feared nothing would ever be the same again.
He adjusted his shoulder holster, then finished with his tie. He tripped the lock release on the door as he pulled on his jacket. "Napoleon, I'm going to try and get some work done."
His partner stepped out of the washroom, adjusting his own tie. "Illya."
"Finance needs the budget approval for Enforcement by the end of the day. Make certain they get it."
An odd sense of relief vied with irritation. Irritation won. Once again Fate had conspired with his partner against him. "Of course," he answered, heading for the door. Disembowel him first, then drag him through shark-infested waters. Some things never changed.