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The Surly Bonds Affair

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“Get out of here!” Illya dropped his communicator pen and ground it under his heel while he continued to set the final charge. He didn’t look at the security bars that had come down cutting off his escape. Napoleon had what they’d came for, the assassination list and the deprogramming protocol for the sleepers THRUSH had prepared for the hits.

Finished, Illya looked around the roughly hewed service space. The ultra modern complex had been inset into an ancient mountain fortress, and they’d shoved their infrastructure services into the rock itself. Illya wormed his way into the narrow crevice, popping a capsule before he became thoroughly wedged in. He mouthed ‘moy droog’ as he let his memories of Napoleon wash over him, until they unspooled.

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Napoleon looked back at the blast. At the woof of dust, riding out the rumble that wasn’t quite sound. He focused on his escape. He’d mourn once the champagne ran free. He stayed in his groove during the scramble down the cliff, the ride in a farmer’s cart, the border crossing by zipline, and his drop into the bespoke coif of Felicity DuBoise. It was only as he was whispering ‘there theres’ to the eight year old princess that he allowed himself to think of Illya. Napoleon sat down hard when the governess swept away her charge.

“Napoleon.” April knelt down when he didn’t respond. “Napoleon, it’s time to go.”

Napoleon turned, taking in April’s costume. “Telling bedtime stories?” He let her guide him up from the floor. “The others?”

“They’re taking care of it. Diabolical little twist.” Her bells tinkled as they walked away from the courtyard.

“Why kill leaders when you can have them caught red-handed for murder?” Napoleon shut down then, the hours since leaving his partner, his lover, behind finally catching up. That there was nothing he could have done didn’t matter.

April slipped her arm under Napoleon’s, pulling him to the waiting car. Once inside she pulled him against her. There were no words. He’d not opened his communicator, hadn’t asked about Illya. Mr. Waverly would learn the details. April knew. She held him, resting her cheek on his hair.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Mr. Waverly settled back in his chair at his round table. This was the trouble with alchemy, you could make agents more effective by careful pairing, but then you were left with just pieces when one died. It was early days yet, he’d just gotten back from Tunis and debriefing Mr. Solo. There was still a chance they’d be able to reforge Napoleon.

Terrible business losing Mr. Kuryakin. Not that it was unexpected; in this business agents died, sometimes horrible, terrible deaths. As they went, self-set explosives was fairly clean. Naturally they’d checked the site, which had been most thoroughly destroyed. It wasn’t without reason Cutter had held onto Mr. Kuryakin after the Russian’s graduation of the survival course. His artistry with shaped charges was just one of the ways he’d been an exceptional young man.

Mr. Waverly smiled as he’d thought about Cutter’s turnabout. A man of strong opinions but ultimately fair, he’d warmed to Mr. Kuryakin’s skill. It had actually been Cutter’s assessment that had made him think to pair his Russian prize with Mr. Solo. “He’s a frosty bastard. Excellent operative material.” Ice cracked. He’d often found that two problems could be balanced against each other to solve them both.

Mr. Solo had needed a solution. He didn’t work well with others, though he was a natural leader. He was glib and reckless as the finely honed sometimes became. It’d been explained to him once, that after dancing with Lady Fortune so often, men became moths. They sought to be burned. It was a terrible fault in a potential successor.

His alchemy had surprised even him and that wasn’t easy after so many years in the craft. Between them they’d completed sure death capers and walked away so often, people forgot how dangerous this job was. He’d have preferred a less costly reminder.

He’d have to consider Mr. Solo carefully. Too much promise in that young man. Mr. Waverly did hope his chief enforcement officer didn’t bed a swath through the female personnel in his grief. The latest crop didn’t have the built up resistance to his charms. If it developed as a problem he’d get a few of the old hands recalled from European and Asian offices. Yenta was where he drew the line, the women would have to self-chaperone.

Mr. Waverly turned to the rest of his roster of crises.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Mark rang Napoleon’s doorbell before he turned tail. April was entirely too persuasive. Which was the only reason he was here, when he knew good well only Illya could fix what ailed their CEA. When your partner pointed out she couldn’t very well extend brotherly care, you took your assignment and considered yourself lucky. Even here he knew it’d been the only choice.

Napoleon opened the door. He was well-groomed, if dressed more casually than Mark normally saw him. “April sent you.”

“Yes.” Just because Napoleon looked like a tutor didn’t mean lying was a good idea.

“Come on in.” Napoleon stepped aside, then locked the door behind Mark.

Mark noticed the minute tell of a well disguised back holster. One less thing to worry about.

“I must be losing my touch.”

Mark shrugged diplomatically. “Any idea what she’ll consider as duty dispatched?”

“Sit down. What will you have?” Napoleon went over to his bar and made Mark his gin and tonic, pouring himself a scotch. He passed the other agent his drink before sitting down. “She knows I cleared his apartment.”

“Where’d you put the boxes?” Mark took no pleasure in Napoleon’s fallen expression. It lasted only briefly. He never wanted to face the abyss that looked back at the other agent. He sipped from his drink.

“In my closet.” He wanted to rail. Illya’s entire apartment packed up into three boxes and the suitcase he’d bought his then new partner. That was in their office, as was Illya’s labcoat and safety glasses. One box for his limited kitchen and linens, phonograph, radio, and few knickknacks, with room for Illya’s record collection on top. Two for books. Napoleon had gone over when he’d returned to New York, swept for bugs, then packed up Illya’s life. He’d drank the vodka straight from the frozen bottle before carting the load to the small service elevator. He pulled away from the curb, seeing the cleaners in his rearview mirror.

The records he had put into one end of his stereo cabinet right when he got home. The boxes he shoved into his closet. The suitcase had been left beside the door, which was how he’d taken it into HQ. He’d not had the courage to touch it since.

“Want another?” Mark was standing beside the coffeetable, his glass in hand. He picked up Napoleon’s rocks glass at the nod of assent. He over-toniced his own drink, and poured Napoleon a double. He suspected it’d be a long afternoon.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

The circus was a small one, a cat act, trapeze artists, jugglers and tumblers, highwire, clowns, trained dogs and three elephants. He’d started cleaning up after the cats, casual labor paid in food. He’d stepped in when one of the band came down sick, then got added to the juggling routine. Slowly he worked through most of the acts, balking only when asked to help with the poodles. It evoked a certain amount of mirth among the small troupe, put down by their ersatz Gypsy fortune teller.

Currently, the trapeze act was determining if they could make a flyer out of him. They’d determined he had the athleticism to consider it. His clown routine had progressively gotten more physical, finally including one of the elephants as a stage cum gymnastics horse. Their head stood below, looking up as their erstwhile clown swung into a knee hold of the trapeze. That, he liked. What he didn’t like was the way he stretched for the catcher’s grip. “Trust your swing, trust your catcher’s swing.” Body memory was a difficult thing to change. The young man had beautiful business; even a simple throw would make him a fine addition. If this didn’t work they might still work up an aerial act for him. Edvard had hopes, aware that hopes could be like gravity.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Napoleon was glad to be back in the field. It meant Mr. Waverly had taken off the kidgloves. It was true that he didn’t get quite the same sorts of assignments, but that had as much to do with his resistance to taking a new partner. Oh, he’d team up when required, but ad hoc arrangements were exactly that. The missions that used to go to them, when he’d been part of a them, went to other partners. Successfully, and otherwise.

No, he now got the sorts of missions he’d get split from Illya to run. Before. Where he was debonaire, a caricature, or a hardass as the main qualifier. Occasionally all three by turns. He was left doing his own dirty work, and that suited him fine. It didn’t escape him that he had to survive his affairs to conclude them successfully. That was rather a stroke of good planning on the Old Man’s part. Eventually it wouldn’t work that way. Then he’d see if Luck had returned to Lady or not.

He allowed himself time to consider Illya; onboard an intercontinental flight that there was in profusion. As places went during an affair, it was safer than many. He missed his good soviet. Not because the savor was gone without his friend’s grousing about decadence, though that was true. He smiled as he thought about them on the roof of an embassy in Copenhagen drinking champagne from one flute and eating canapés.

He missed Illya, because he’d not called him on their ‘arrangement’. He’d not wanted to change things too fast, ignoring the first tenet of an agent. ‘Do today, tomorrow you die.’ He’d never backed Illya against a wall and plundered his mouth. He’d not gone down on Illya as precursor to having his sweet way with him. Never told him he loved him. He expected Illya knew the latter. Knew he’d made as much of a commitment as their profession permitted. It had put Angelique thoroughly off her game when he turned down her invitations. It wasn’t something Illya had asked of him; well, he had regarding Angelique but that had started well before their ‘arrangement’. Her blackwidow games paled against Illya’s attentions, infrequent as those were. He still bedded women when duty demanded it; it was amazing how rarely that was when he was motivated to find an alternative. He’d gone out with girls from work depending on their pride not to compare notes on what he wasn’t doing with them after dinner and dancing.

He regretted. It was an ache, one he couldn’t do anything about, save wait for it to fade. Napoleon could do his job; he’d done his duty broken and bleeding, so this was in that way a familiar limitation. Save then he could depend on that Illya would come, and he just had to hold on.

Napoleon pushed such thoughts away. He had a mission. He signaled to the stewardess. “Miss.” Time to be on his game.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

“A circus?” April looked at Mark.

“A circus.” He paid for their tickets and escorted his partner inside.

“There’s no tent.”

Mark laughed. “One ring. This concern seems to have lost its horses. It’s not nearly as distracting as the American style. And we’ll be much closer to the acts.”

April took her seat. It was more cozy, with chairs like any theater. She smiled when Mark offered caramel corn. Or a cabaret without tables. The show started.

Acts flowed one to the next, attention redirected to allow smooth equipment changes. The clowns were much more like Abbott and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy, in that they conversed and bantered. There were some that were silent, but as the exception they were more effective. Like Harpo. She was missing some of the business to a language barrier, and cultural references she didn’t know. Clearly the rest of the audience understood and were in stitches. The aerial act was amazing, poetic and scored like a ballet. She looked at one of the trapeze artists, finally realizing he’d been one of the talking clowns. He was just as eloquent high in the air.

“April?” He didn’t comment on the tear descending her cheek.

She quirked the corners of her mouth. “I wanted to tell Illya about this.”

Mark patted her hand. It was a splendid circus.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Napoleon slid into the crowd, jaunty in his sailor’s uniform. He’d spent a very taciturn time aboard, his language lessons only allowing him to know his orders. The rolls of film secreted in the flare of his trousers showed how far THRUSH had infiltrated naval contractors. Aware of those behind and the area before him, he sought his drop location and meandered back and forth between several shops, comparing postcards and similar inexpensive items. One sharp stomp and the canisters dropped, swept up by a conscientious shopclerk and ‘cousin’. He left and made purchases at two other vendors, flirting with the salesgirls in a singularly ill-fated mix of Italian and Russian. He looked around the Djurgården for something to do, somewhere to effect a change in persona. He smiled as he saw the Cirkus ahead. He been not hearing a lot about a certain troupe traveling in Europe, a troupe which was currently here in Stockholm. Napoleon looked over at a large clock. One that should be presenting presently.

He’d wondered just what April had been turning silent about when he ran into her and Mark, before he subtly got the information from one of the new research clerks. A circus was so unexpected, he broached the subject with April head on.

April had grabbed his hand, apologized “Sorry for being so silly. They’ve got a very nice aerial act, so different than a Barnum and Bailey, more... gymnastic. We saw it first so soon after, well, I guess I didn’t want it to open similar wounds for you.”

He’d looked at her in confusion, then turned to Mark. The British agent had shrugged him back towards April. “You were wounded by a circus act?” It felt like some new codephrase being tested. “First time?”

Mark covered for his partner. “It really is a fine circus. If it happens to be where we are once we’ve no business to attend, we go see it.”

Napoleon was intrigued. This wasn’t the sort of thing April often revealed.

“Sometimes I’m struck by things I want to tell Illya. It, the act, was one of those things.”

Napoleon had nodded, taking it in stride, reassuring April he appreciated her concern while mock admonishing her from keeping him in the dark about the next It thing. It had made so many other silences more sensible. And raised questions on how many in U.N.C.L.E. thought they needed to walk on eggshells when he was around.

Now, he’d see just what made everyone clam up around him.

Napoleon noted each act as it went through its paces, his anticipation distracting him from complete absorption. Finally, the ringmaster was directing their attention up. Several ladies posed pleasantly before taking to the flying trapeze, flinging themselves at the catcher in turn. He supposed they were good, but wasn’t sure April hadn’t been more distraught than he’d thought, that this would become so meaningful to her. Then there was a man on the swing, moving under and over the bar as it swung, keeping it in motion with his moves, then suddenly flying in a whirl of twists to be caught and then released back to the abandoned bar. Returned, he performed more feats before seemingly dropping from the trapeze, though it was moving forward and imparted its momentum to him, placing him into the catcher’s grip.

Napoleon watched the act to its denouement, utterly flabbergasted. It was almost a relief when the tumblers started up, to be followed by trained poodles. He could see why ‘soon’ after Illya’s death April would have thought of mentioning the act to his partner. The man was uncanny, in the way Illya appreciated people honed in their craft. He thought about how Illya had almost gone to Helsinki in 1952, before the Kremlin decided they had other ways for him to serve the Motherland.

Napoleon bent forward in his seat during the start of the unicycling, pegging his bellbottoms. Sitting up he watched the show, more in earnest now that he wasn’t waiting for the trapeze artists. He blinked when one of the unicyclists started jumping rope, the wheel hopping side to side while two other unicyclists spun the long rope. Two clowns came out, hurling things at each other, through the rope. As they whizzed past the center unicyclist too close, he plucked them from the air, first seeming to bobble them, then as they became more numerous clearly juggling them.

The rope was dropped in place, and the center unicyclist threw fore and aft from his cache of objects, the others joining in on the juggling. As they started to actually travel again instead of rolling in place, still juggling, Napoleon recognized the trapeze artist was the ‘jumper’.

The remaining acts played out, the end coming too soon for Napoleon. As the crowd stood, he shirked out of his sailor blouse, tucking his bonnet into the new bundle. The combination of his now all navy blue outfit and untamed hair made him think about Illya’s Village haunts.

Three hours later, Napoleon was on a plane in his more usual attire, having lost his feathered tail. Mr. Waverly had decided to lend him out to the European bureau chiefs, ostensibly because he was sent to Europe so often, there wasn’t that much point to keep paying to shuttle him back and forth over the Atlantic. Napoleon suspected two other reasons were more salient. The first, his Arcadian accent, which he acknowledged was at times inconvenient, was to be subjected to intensive language coaching. “Since you’ll be right there.” The second reason was getting him away from Ronnie, an intense research girl he’d taken out before finding out she was Someone’s niece. She’d sort of fixated on him, and moving her precipitously was more difficult than keeping him away for awhile.

He leaned back, thinking about how Illya might have handled Ronnie. He wasn’t unaware that at various times his partner had declared him radioactive, a kazoo enthusiast, and even worse things. Only after they’d started their ‘arrangement’ did he realize his partner had been jealous. He closed his eyes, thinking of all the times Illya had tried to ‘improve’ his French.

He missed his surly, brilliant, selfish lover. His partner that forgot to eat, forked food from his plate, who ignored him for heavy books and scientific experiments. For their job. Napoleon sat back up, scanning the plane while he reminisced. It was not unexpected that their work would ultimately separate them. They were expendable when it came down to it. He just had never expected to be the one left, the one to go on. So often they’d both come to a hairsbreadth, one or the other coming up with a last minute save.

There was so much of Illya that was never his, a beautiful riddle he’d found inside the enigma of the first soviet U.N.C.L.E. and the mystery of a field agent/scientist. Why Illya started their arrangement, why it had the contours that it did. Not that Napoleon hadn’t seduced as well as been seduced. There had been boundaries that he first found and then respected, uncertain of their crossing. Never thinking just how short Illya’s lifetime or long his own would be.

He should have pushed. Illya had to be making it up as they went along, had to have been. Napoleon locked that line of thought away. A plane was no place for such a path. What could have Illya said, other than no? Napoleon could tempt a no into a oui. Moot now.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

“Nickie.” She ran up to the blond aerialist, lightly resting her hands on his shoulders. She leaned back as he swung dipped her along his left, then his right side, before planting her back upright. “You’re better than Champagne!” She leaned into him, giggling.

“I’ve not been called intoxicating before. What brings you to flattery?” He chucked his finger under her chin, his head tilted down. Michelle had named him, and considered this a stake in him. She looked up at him with dark eyes. Somehow, they weren’t the right eyes.

“Help with my tumbling. What else?” She grabbed Nickie’s hand and pulled him after. She turned back to see what bit of clowning he threw in. Just a quick pop up and heel click. He could be springloaded.

Memory could be a strange thing, ‘Nickie’ mused as Michelle threw her proto-routine for him. He’d staggered away from a haystack, bruised and bleeding from cuts, and everything before that was lost. Except he knew skills, which he’d find at his disposal with no awareness he had them. Even knowledge, like the show’s Gypsy was no Rom. A good fortune teller and a practical physic. A Belgian that had lost everything in the war.

He couldn’t remember what he’d lost. The scars on his body were suggestive; not old enough for them to have come from the war, he shied away from the possibilities. Tsura had told him not to presume the worst of himself. She’d thrown in a lot of hokum, along with minute examination of his hands and pushing up his sleeves, declaring heavy mists and a thick veil blocked her way to visions of his future.

Nickie made several suggestions for Michelle’s routine, then stepping forward to show her some additional options.

“Nickie! I couldn’t possibly.”

“You can.” He gave her multiple examples comparing relative muscular force needed for his suggestions and her routine business. He noted her expression as he finished. “Tsura?” He offered his hand to Michelle as she nodded, following her with less enthusiasm than he’d so recently had.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Mr. Waverly set the headset down on the console desk, back still to his table. There were many things that he kept track of; some matters had no papertrail and only came in verbal code. His ears only. Clearly, Mr. Solo was going to be more difficult than he’d considered. There was no swath, no trail, no thread through Europe. Just crumbs of flirting. At least that was something. Respiration.

He’d have to keep an eye on the young man. Such extremes were to be expected, he mulled. He’d not been unaware of the extent of the men’s partnership. This was the first that it posed a problem. The irony didn’t escape him.

He’d allow Mr. Solo his mourning for awhile longer. He turned to other pressing business.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Napoleon crouched on the balcony, face smudged and a riflesight to his eye. He looked to the corner on the next block. Hemlines were coming up. Hosiery sales were going down. He could hear Illya’s ribbing. If his partner could deliver those words, he’d press up against his back and point out he didn’t follow women’s fashion. They’d missed too much. Would Illya have been agreeable? The uncertainty had stilled Napoleon from broaching the subject.

He refocused on the job. Street. Sight. Target to acquire. Double-agent. He sifted through the passersby. Tall. Short. Men, women. Humanity swirled past his lens. He smiled a bit at the pretty half of a couple, heart dropping as he saw the man.

Illya? The blond left his sight. His earpiece picked up the signal. The target was coming. He exhaled, waiting for his shot. In his sights. Napoleon squeezed. Discreet bloom of blood, the man fell. Cry of ambulance, orderlies rushing in, crowd roiling about. Napoleon slinked away.

Only once his face was clean and he was rejoining the gala did he spare a thought to what he’d thought he’d seen. It wasn’t a question of hair. He’d been distracted a few times by co-eds with cornsilk moptops. The blond’s hair was short, not austerely as Illya’s had been in the early days, but fashionably. Was he cracking? He’d been thinking of Illya, a blond of lithe athletic build walked by. It just didn’t feel that simple, and Napoleon trusted his gut. Until he knew what he’d seen, he’d worry at it like a loose tooth.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Napoleon walked down the metallic hall of New York HQ. He wasn’t sure that his stay in Europe had achieved all of Mr. Waverly’s objectives. Airfare had been reduced, but it was difficult to attend to his CEA duties from across the ocean. His tutors declared his accent pernicious, though his usages were piquant. He had learned how to make some ironclad personas from his ‘impediment’, various sorts of New World pretenders or ascending men. He’d been admonished that he’d have to show more of his intellect when working the higher registers. His luggage included a fair library of current belle lettres and erudite novels.

He smiled at Lisa when he arrived at her desk. Napoleon straightened up just a mite more while she announced him and was told to send him in. He walked in. “Mr. Waverly,”

“Sit down. I’ve got a bit of work for you I’m afraid, just a moment.” He spoke into the microphone, taking notes afterward. Finally he took the headset off. “Reggie has been playing the Game so long, it’s a question if he even can speak English anymore. Deep cover, you see.”

“India?”

“Ten years ago you’d have been right. No, it’s a bit more awkward than that. The mountains in that part of the world are so impenetrable that exactly where the borders are... Perhaps these satellites will solve that one day, though like as not they’ll just be the excuse for another war.” He reached for his pipe. “What’s important is there is a valley in those mountains, and in that valley there is monastery. In the mountains, there is cobalt.”

“And where there’s cobalt there’s uranium?”

Mr. Waverly smiled wolfishly. “It’s in the interests of both the monks and the world that what’s in the mountains remains unmined. You’ll be flying to California, and from there to Bombay, then up by train until you join a caravan that will take you to one of Reggie’s men. It’s all detailed in that folder.” He spun the table so it stopped with the sheaf just under Napoleon’s raised right hand. “Naturally, something less conspicuous than a Newfoundland adventurer would have been wished. I’ve been assured that’s within your capabilities.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. In consideration of your short preparation window and your imminent departure time, I’ll take your reports in lieu of a debrief. Your luggage has been prepared, both what you’ll take to Bombay, and what you’ll be united with in India. Anything you need?”

“No, sir.” Napoleon left at the distracted dismissal Mr. Waverly gave him, already cogitating the next knotty situation. He headed down to Medical, knowing he might as well read between shots.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Naturally, even the Silk Road led to Rome. In his case by way of Mongolia and machinations against Manchuria, Turkey and a plot to chain the Dardanelles, and a rather nasty situation in East Berlin. He’d given himself the afternoon to play the tourist in the Forum and its surrounds, relishing the absence of the Stasi. The sunshine of a fine autumnal day was just the right prescription.

And then he saw Her. He had perfect recall of women. Illya had jibed him often enough about the ability. Napoleon looked for her friend. He needed to see the blond, prove to himself he wasn’t Illya. He nonchalantly changed his course to intersect hers.

Nickie turned from the vendor with the waxed paper cups in his hands. He sought out Michelle, not liking having both hands full. He spotted her, and assessed the stranger speaking to her. Well-dressed, dark hair. American. He closed, passing her her beer. The American’s Italian was good. Northern, Milano? Brown-eyes.

Napoleon stood still as they left. How could he know if he could trust his eyes? The blond looked to be Illya. Had sounded like Illya, jealous for him talking to the woman. Had not recognized him. Illya was dead, entombed where even rats couldn’t get to him. Napoleon walked away.

He kept walking. He’d had terrible dreams of Illya’s broken body. He’d seen that the site was impossible, tons of rock that would never be shifted. A self-built mausoleum. He knew he was angry with Illya for that. Another set of walls, walls within walls.

The loose tooth was still there, his gut was still talking. Napoleon would have to appease them.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Nickie wondered who the American was. There was something, not familiar, something. Dangerous. That’s what the American was, dangerous. His stance was that of someone with a reason to be alert and vigilant. Michelle had chided him that he was jealous about the stranger talking to her. He wasn’t. He was concerned.

Nickie knew the story his scars told wasn’t pretty. They’d healed well, most just thin white lines, or slightly wider shiny paths. Nearly smooth puckers. They spoke of violence, calculated and cruel. Nothing made sense. How had he gotten them?

He knew things, physics and chemistry, that weren’t common knowledge. He’d since censored this knowledge, knowledge well beyond bodies in motion. Sometimes he looked at buildings and just knew how they could be dropped where they stood.

The American hadn’t spoken to him, other than to concede the field. As if Michelle was a bone to fight over. It irked him. Michelle was a person. Who did tend to think of him proprietarily. Not that he encouraged her.

He pushed the whole affair from his mind, concentrating on his warm up and his routines.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Napoleon couldn’t see the circus that day or the day after. He’d followed them, careful not to be spotted. He’d just about lost them several times, trying to avoid notice. Duty called, fortunately after he’d learned their destination, and he obeyed. Now, he was settled in, the ringmaster opening the show.

Unlike the first time, every act had his undivided attention. This allowed him to pick out the woman as one of the tumblers, twisting into her place high in the human pyramid. One of the clowns was her escort. He sounded like Illya, like Illya would sound if he was in the role of a clown. He watched the clown jest and- ‘Pratfall’ wasn’t a lyrical enough description for his sudden walk throughs of doors carried by other clowns and near misses as props were moved across his path.

Napoleon watched cats jump through hoops of fire, and dogs through hoops of windblown ribbons. Jugglers of indian pins, balls and knives, of flaming torches, and eaters of fire. Then his attention was drawn up, into the flying trapeze. He could see Illya up there, poised on the platform as the others of the act flew in turn.

His gut churned. There was a net. They didn’t work with a net, and often there was shooting. And now Napoleon was afraid. Then Illya was sweeping the air, and Napoleon felt the fear drop away. He watched open mouthed as the man spun, twisted and then was caught, swung and released, thrown back to catch the bar, built momentum and hurtled again to be caught.

The trapeze stilled. Illya had gone into a handstand on the bar and pressed with his legs the ropes it hung by, transforming it into conjoined roman rings. Napoleon didn’t breath, just watched the stillness of motion, of Illya’s whirl and the undisturbed trapeze. Like a bubble the moment popped and the trapeze was again flying and Illya arced through the air. A sporting dolphin, twisting and spinning. Caught.

The crowd stood, clapping, exclaiming one to another. Napoleon stood, his attention focused on the man still flying, while his own instincts let him mimic his surroundings. The act ran through its denouement undisturbed by the agitation of the spectators, who settled back into their seats.

He was surprised when a clown unicycled through an act and an outbreak of jumprope ensued. This time it was the jugglers ‘interrupted’ that started throwing things, and Illya lobbed them back.

It was Illya. Impossible as it was, he was alive. The show ran to its end, Napoleon buoyed by the the impossible. The cold slap of reality hit him as he was swept out with the audience. Illya was between two dangers, the fire and the frying pan. THRUSH or any spoonful of alphabet soup could realize what he had. That was the fire.

U.N.C.L.E. was the frying pan. Few section two agents lived to serve fifteen years. Napoleon thought about the devil and the deep blue sea as he returned to his hotel.

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He’d known U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t a choice Illya had made, but an assignment he’d been given. Napoleon now had the opportunity to free Illya from that obligation. Did he have an obligation to give that to Illya? At the price of Illya’s past. At the cost of ghosting him. His own desires were a distraction. He knew his lack of decision was a decision.

He was able to learn Section Six had developed an improvement over capsule B. Untested. His partner would have had access; he tended to pocket any cheat he could. Illya knew the dead couldn’t be punished and the successful rarely were. Living was its own vindication. Illya would dice with Death if he could gimmick the knucklebones. His partner had ‘field tested’ more ‘mostly ready’ items and materials than any five agents. He could judge the risks better than any ten. Instead of 72 hours, its effect was of indefinite length, with an antidote to bring the span to an end. Also untested.

Napoleon hadn’t understood all of the scientific niceties he’d been told over his investigations of R&D. Illya would have known the amnesia effect could be depended on. Death could be considered an extreme form of memory loss.

Napoleon had pocketed a dose of the antidote. The pill was now heavy in his signet ring. Whether it was effective was still in rat trials. Short term side effects were minimal.

He hadn’t told Mr. Waverly. He hadn’t returned to the circus. He flipped through several papers each day, brought up from research. He’d noticed they’d added some fine assets during his absence. What would happen to Illya if he brought him back without his memory? He kept finding new questions instead of answers.

Mr. Waverly had ended his cost saving ‘expedient’, having found being without his CEA between missions was more trouble than fending off accounting. The recall meant he was less likely to tip off inimical forces. He was also farther away should something happen.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Nickie spotted the American immediately. Brown-eyes. The American noticed he’d been recognized before Nickie could change his path. Brown-eyes fell in with him, walking beside him. Nickie knew running would be futile. How he knew stayed just outside his grasp; he hated the sensation. The American was the model of the dark haired stranger fortune tellers had offered wishful girls for centuries. He exuded charm. It didn’t quite mask that he was danger through to the marrow.

Nickie looked at him, noting the large mole. “Do you have a name?” He turned his head back straight ahead. Brown-eyes smoothed through his reaction to the question. Nickie set it aside to dissect later. He needed to be alert to the moment.

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

Nickie turned. Brown-eyes smiled, and Nickie bristled at being baited. The man was vexing. He was aware he was being herded, the foot traffic was thinning. “What do you want?”

“Ah.” He walked a few more steps, then suddenly pulled Nickie into a deep doorframe.

His head didn’t impact. That surprise was cut off by Brown-eyes’ mouth on his. He fought. It was futile as his wrists were grasped tightly. The kiss deepened its soft plunder. His hands released Nickie grasped Handsome’s neck, and wrapped his other arm over the stranger’s holster.

Napoleon sank into the kiss. He had everything he wanted in his hands. Illya. His surly Russian, cold scientist, giddy pyrotechnicist, vengeful agent partner. Napoleon deepened the kiss and pushed the antidote pill into Illya’s mouth. He secured Illya’s right arm, continuing the kiss as he made Illya swallow.

Nickie’s eyes flashed as he realized how deep the stranger’s game was. What had he been dosed with? His limbs became heavy, but he retained consciousness. Tenuous consciousness. He was pulled against the man’s right side.

“Tovarishch.” Napoleon draped Illya’s left arm over his shoulder, transferring his gun into Illya’s right pocket. He kissed his partner’s brow, then pulled him out of the doorwell , portraying the ‘adjusted’ steering the ‘fallen’.

Nickie couldn’t keep his eyes open now they were inside. He tensed and forced himself to relax as he was laid on a hotel bed.

Napoleon took back his gun, and untied Illya’s shoes, pulling them off. He sat down on the bed, uncertain how long they’d have to wait. He looked at his watch, noting the time, and judging how long their walk had taken. “Don’t worry, I’m keeping notes.” He considered the mission they had before them. Even Hell was a garden with Illya at his side. This would test that.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

He woke up. He looked out one slit-opened eye. His ‘captor’ was asleep. He’d showered at some point, though redressed. His hair fell forward, so different than the suave man that had dropped in beside him on the street. Innocent shouldn’t be possible while rigged with a holster.

He turned over how his question as to the man’s name was taken. Then, “Napoleon, wake up.” He allowed a quirk to his lips as his partner smiled. “Explain yourself while I shower. We do have the time?”

“No.” Napoleon looked at his watch. “Brush your teeth.” Napoleon picked up while Illya crossed to the en suite bath. He leaned against the doorframe. “We’ve got suitcase bombs to find.” He smiled at the well timed flush and sink tap.

“THRUSH?” Illya spoke around his brush, Napoleon had been sure of himself.

“Oh, no. Even THRUSH doesn’t want to rule a cinder. Suppose this would be more a glowing pile.” He smirked as Illya scowled at him before turning back to spit. “It’s a little uncertain if they purchased goods that weren’t delivered, or if an underling had a second employer.”

“Using U.N.C.L.E. as a catspaw?”

“Our goals aren’t totally in agreement.”

“Our?” Illya heard the knock at the door. He located his weapon and armed himself. Napoleon went to the door.

“How forward, Jonquil.”

She was nearly as pale as her namesake, more naturally so than Angelique. Illya bristled. “What’s your part in this?”

“Dr. Kuryakin. Reports of your demise I see were exaggerated. Job advancement, naturally.” She turned to Napoleon. “You’ve explained the agreement?”

“We’ll go over that on the way.” Napoleon picked up the suitcase, tipping his other hand back towards the door. Jonquil exited with a smile. Illya brushed past him, tucking his Walther into the band of his slacks. Napoleon followed, closing the door.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Illya growled as he looked up from the scale. While they’d intercepted the bombs, and he’d personally defused one already ‘delivered’, Jonquil had escaped with fissionable material. He wiped his mouth again.

“She doesn’t even wear lipstick.” Deal or no, Napoleon had nearly set on her, after she kissed Illya as her parting shot.

“She does.” He scowled as Napoleon pondered that. “We’ll see her again.”

“Oh,yes. She’ll shake up THRUSH in the meanwhile.” Napoleon shifted. “Illya.”

“I’m not typing the report.”

“Illya.”

“No.”

Napoleon grabbed him by the elbow.

Illya looked down. “Seven o’clock.”

Napoleon released him and watched him go. They’d been in motion for 53 hours. He didn’t sleep as easily in the field. He left the lab and headed to the loaned office. He set an alarm and stretched out on the modern couch. He’d need his wits for Illya.

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

Illya thought. Why he’d taken Capsule G was still a blank. There was the possibility he’d not recall a patch prior to dosing and/or just after awakening. He could recall he’d been known as Nickie, but the particulars were fuzzy like a dream partly remembered. With Jonquil listening he’d not been able to ask Napoleon. She was extremely dangerous. Women generally were.

Illya forced himself to consider what he was avoiding. Napoleon’s delivery method of the antidote perplexed him. Inflamed him. He could recall the entire acquisition. The frision of it remained. No wonder women fell before his partner. Why turn it on him?

It worked. Why Napoleon would think it’d work was what worried him. He supposed it could have been a joke, proving the great Napoleon could romance a stone. The answer didn’t set quite level. He was touched that his partner had kept an eye on the time of administering and his waking up.

Capsule G still had development. He supposed saving the world so soon after retrieval was contraindicated. There was a knock at the door. He crossed, looked through the peephole and quickly opened the door. Napoleon.

Napoleon noticed the chill right off. He lifted the white bag, then resisted counting his fingers as Illya grabbed it. “My dinner’s in there too.” Napoleon was nervous, and this was a shameless act of deflection. He closed the door and walked into the kitchenette. Illya had already started in on his sandwich, though Napoleon’s sat on a plate unwrapped. Napoleon took his seat.

“What?” Illya lowered his sandwich slightly. Napoleon’s regard was disconcerting. He resumed eating, a bit more slowly.

“Just glad to have you back.” Napoleon risked grabbing the box of fried potatoes and shaking out half. He could count on Illya stealing at least a third of his. His best intentions were fleeing the flesh and blood reality of his partner. He started eating. He would have this conversation. He’d pick a moment he wasn’t distracting his partner from food. He settled into the diner’s picnic lunch. He’d smiled at the waitress when she’d asked what he wanted it for, and she’d blushed like a schoolgirl. It’d dropped more years from her than it was polite to consider.

His partner wasn’t such an easy mark. He always did like a challenge. “Thought we could save the pie for with coffee.” The motor lodge was the favored U.N.C.L.E. respite for this field office because of its ice machine and the in room coffeemakers. He dropped his hand onto Illya’s.

Illya looked at Napoleon. If this was a joke he’d have to hide the body. No mere thumb on his hand should be this distracting. He knew this look, this mesmerizing look that made anyone believe they were the world. And then his partner’s hand was off his. He grabbed the potato slice that had been his goal.

Napoleon stood up. “I missed you. I thought you were dead. I grieved for you. I regretted how we’d left things. I thought.” Napoleon forced himself to face Illya. “How things could have been different.”

Illya bottom lip dropped slightly. This aspect of anguish was-- something out of their missions. Not one of Napoleon’s lures or ploys. “Different?”

Napoleon got into Illya’s space, pulled him up by a bicep. “Partners, full partners. I want to make love to you. Leave the minefields at work.” He pulled Illya close, waiting for an answer.

Illya considered, his judgment impaired by the feel of Napoleon’s body. Only his knowledge of how Napoleon played the game allowed him to let go. To slide his arms around him. He didn’t make romantic promises he couldn’t keep. This might be a mistake but he wasn’t another notch. He sunk into the moment.

Napoleon kissed Illya’s brow in relief and his mouth in passion. He ran his hands over Illya, noting the changes. He slowly moved them towards the bed. No rushing. Just tactics. He pulled his arms free, continuing the kiss while he stripped out of his jacket. He threw it over a chair back, and pulled Illya tight to him. They were both wearing too many clothes. He pulled at the hem of Illya’s knit shirt, revealing a band of skin above his belt.

Illya kissed back, also breaking the embrace, taking off his sportscoat, unfastening his holster and skinning off his shirt. He broke the kiss to pop his head through the neck. Throwing down his shirt, he started unbuttoning Napoleon’s.

Napoleon pulled them down to sit on the bed. He spared a hand to pull Illya’s special from its holster and tuck it under the pillow. He permitted Illya to draw his gun and place it under the pillow. He pressed Illya back, causing him to lie down. Napoleon leaned over him, plundering his mouth.

Napoleon reached awkwardly to untie his shoes before easing them off. He did the same for his lover while stepping on the toe of one sock then the other to pull them off. He shifted position and pulled back to look over Illya. He was very fortunate. He leaned back in, kissing Illya’s chest.

Illya lifted against Napoleon, clutched the back of his head, then resumed working on his shirt tails. He skinned dress and t-shirt off together, Napoleon balancing on one arm and then the other in assistance. He pulled his partner down, kissing his neck. “Pants.” He moved his hands to Napoleon’s fly.

Napoleon levered off the bed to de-trou, palming the travel size jar of Vaseline from his pocket. He secreted it in the bedding, before pulling off Illya’s pants and briefs, catching his socks in the process. He stretched back over his lover, kissing him deep, their hips moving in tandem.

Illya cupped Napoleon’s ass firmly. “Now.” Napoleon heard the lid being unscrewed, as he registered the loss of Illya’s hand from his cheek. He smiled, entranced by the soul-boring stare, blue eyes black in desire. He dragged two fingers through the petroleum, circling one over his lover’s hole. He prepared Illya, first with one, and then two fingers. He pulled them free, then dug out more jelly with ringfinger and pinky.

Illya moaned, first at the sight of Napoleon coating his cock, then as the head of his cock breached him. He pulled up his legs, bore down and relaxed. Gradually his partner filled him, then as gently drew back and repeated. Illya kissed him on the chin, then over his mole.

Napoleon smiled. This was heaven. He peppered Illya’s face with kisses, adjusting the angle of his strokes, mixing up the rhythm. He found a combination that worked for Illya, taking him right to the brink. Napoleon eased him past the edge, slowly pushing him higher
and higher.

Illya arched, Napoleon firing him from within and without, sparking him with pleasure. Each time he thought he couldn’t take any more, Napoleon proved he could. Saturated with satisfaction, the least thing could catalyze his orgasm. Memory of Rome crystalized him and Illya shattered.

Napoleon came.

“Illya.” Napoleon started to raise up, surprised Illya’s legs were over his shoulders, knees nearly against his own. The pressure against his neck stopped him midmotion. Next moment he was flat on his back, still sheathed in Illya.

“What took you so long?”

Napoleon tried to frame a response, still in a post-coital haze.

“You saw me in Rome.” Illya waited for an answer, then pulled himself free and stalked into the bathroom.

Napoleon got up and barged into the bathroom, whipping open the shower curtain. He couldn’t explain his thoughts. “It was the second hardest thing I’ve ever done.” He stepped into the showerstall. “The hardest was after the mission, going on without you.” Napoleon wrapped his arms around his partner.

“How long?” Illya wondered how he’d missed the signs, begrudging missed opportunities.

“Five months, seventeen days, five hours.”

“That you’ve wanted me.” Illya finished his shower and stepped out, toweling off.

Napoleon washed while he tried to catch up. When he exited the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist, Illya was fastening his pants. “Consciously? Ever since you made love to me. Clearly before that subconsciously.”

Illya stared at Napoleon in confusion.

“Illya? You do have your memory back?”

“Since I made love to you.” The sentence made no sense even as he said it.

Napoleon caught his partner’s hand, half-afraid he was about to wake. So much whirled in his mind tipped on its side. Illya had been totally on his game. Napoleon hadn’t expected any less, despite the months since he’d seemingly lost his partner, months Illya had spent in a chemical amnesia. “What don’t you remember?”

Illya pulled Napoleon against him, ran his hands up his sides. They’d been lovers. That piece clarified Napoleon’s actions. “You do know it’s no gilded cage?”

Napoleon snapped his eyes up to look at Illya.

“You can’t set free what was never bound. ‘If you love someone, set them free, if it’s love they’ll return’ has no bearing on us.” Illya rang the point home by plundering Napoleon’s mouth. To forget this... Forget so much more than this.

Napoleon abandoned himself to the embrace, only belatedly pulling away, opening just a gap between them before he couldn’t stop. He desperately needed to be Section II chief, while every fiber was yearning to be a man with this man. “Capsule G. It wasn’t through its testing.”

“Nothing like this was hypothesized. Neuroscience isn’t my specialty. It may be temporary.” It would be temporary. “What was the mission?” Maybe knowing what he was thinking when he took the pill...

Napoleon turned the question over and over. He should take Illya straight back to New York. “The usual, THRUSH base, remote location. You’d set charges, I had the ball, you told me to go. How did you escape?” What had gone wrong?

“I don’t know. I must have thought there was a chance I’d found a safe spot. If I was right, then it was possible I’d yet be incapacitated and captured. You’re right, we do need to return to New York.” Illya took off his pants and untucked Napoleon’s towel.

Napoleon tried to interject. It might have been more of a squeak.

“I never let go willingly.” He swung them back to the bed. “The next flight is hours from now.” He nudged Napoleon down. “Plenty of time before you need to call.” He smiled wickedly. “Not enough for everything I want to do. Enough not to waste.”

Temptation being the one thing Napoleon couldn’t resist, he acquiesced. He could be forgiven for not knowing there was a problem for a few more hours. During the flight he’d figure out which of his sins would have to be confessed. Lies were much easier to sell wrapped in truth. He gave himself into the caresses he’d thought lost to him.

Illya studied Napoleon with lips and fingers, learning his responses to touch and heat. He thought for a moment of the ice machine, discarding it as a waste of time. He’d save that for Napoleon’s perfect ice cubes. He licked his tongue down just the path he’d use. Delicious. His. He stored every detail, shiver and exhale. He played scales, then phrases.

Illya took his time. Researched. Tested his findings. Found new inquiries. He looked at his handiwork, In Extremis. Illya roughly meshed their groins together, bringing them off quickly.

“Better call in.” Illya fell asleep.

“Yes, dear.” He couldn’t be angry. That was pure Illya. Napoleon just hoped he’d stay put after sex once he got his memory back. He wanted to wake up to Illya. It was dangerous, and it might have to be rare. But at least once, he wanted the luxury to sleep sated and wake to the best part of his life.

He picked up the phone, called the airport, flirted with the ticket agent to get two seats together. Done, he hung up the phone and crossed to the bathroom for a quick wash, then came back out to pack. He set to one side clothes for them to travel in, and gathered up their discarded clothes of the night before.

He turned at the slight noise of springs from the bed. He smiled at the expression on Illya’s face. His partner got up, pulled their weapons from under the pillow and went into the bathroom, handing off the hardware on his way. The shower went on, then quickly off. Once more on, then Illya was out and getting dressed. Napoleon did the same, got out his comb, dropped it and crossed to the bed. Finding the lid took some digging, but screwed back on he tucked the jar into his toiletries case. He pulled out his Brycreme.

Illya reached out. “Comb your hair, then come back out here. We’ve got time.”

Napoleon wondered just why Illya said it, but did as instructed. He came back out.

Illya dragged his hand forward over Napoleon’s head, knocking his forelock out of the shower damp hold. He looked at his doing and kissed him quick. “Make yourself presentable.” Illya holstered his Walther, and shrugged into his jacket. He was waiting when Napoleon came back out, sliding his partner’s automatic snug, and picking up his suitcoat. “We’ve a plane to catch.” He squeezed Napoleon’s shoulders once he’d slid his arms through the sleeves. With that Illya was at and then through the door.

“But I love to watch you go.” Napoleon finished latching the case and with one last look around followed.