Alexander Waverly stood before the rain-lashed window nursing his empty glass. It had been an exceptionally fine college dinner, as always, and had provided the usual matchless opportunity for information-gathering, but now he was ready to call it a night. Seated on the Master’s left, and surrounded by a plethora of British establishment figures, he’d felt the customary detachment from his alma mater. It had been the dream he’d lived before he woke to the reality of his current life.
Not that he hadn’t relished his time here. Far from it. Balliol, in the mid-twenties, had picked itself up after the devastation of the Great War and set about restoring its position in the first rank of Oxford colleges. Waverly had flung himself with youthful fervour into everything it had to offer. His cricket blue had been a source of pride almost overshadowing the First he’d taken in history. Yes, his memories were fond. He revisited them from time to time, but always returned to the present with some relief, his occasional attendance at a college dinner enough to keep his past in context.
He turned towards the voice and his hand was immediately pumped by a stout, sandy man a head taller than himself. Despite his obviously bespoke dinner jacket, efficiently tailored to disguise his girth, he looked a lot like an unmade bed. Waverly smiled up into the benign features of his former first XI cricket captain.
“Brooke, old chap,” he said with genuine warmth. “Good to see you. How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you.” The man’s watery eyes shadowed and he cast a hasty glance around. Dropping his voice, he said, “Can we find a quiet corner somewhere? I’ve something I’d like to chew over with you.”
The unease in the man’s voice made Waverly frown. Always more gifted in sport than study, Brooke had been an affable chap and honest. He’d come away with blues in cricket, rugby and rowing but managed only a Third in history. The disquiet was uncharacteristic.
“By all means,” said Waverly. He made for the door, drawing Brooke with him. “The Master’s study is free, I think.”
The door opened as they approached and a college scout headed straight for Waverly’s companion. “Ah, Mr Home Secretary,” he said, a look of relief on his face. “There’s a telephone call for you in the Master’s study, Sir.”
Brooke glanced briefly at Waverly. “Thank you, Edgecombe,” he said moving towards the door. The scout planted himself firmly between Waverly and his companion.
“May I get you another drink, Sir?” he said, reaching for Waverly’s glass. The Home Secretary leaned around him.
“That’s all right, Edgecombe,” he said, taking the glass from Waverly and handing it to the scout. “Mr Waverly is with me.” He took Waverly’s arm. “Please bring the Laphroaig and two glasses to the Master’s study in ten minutes,” he called over his shoulder, “and see that we aren’t disturbed.”
“Very good, Sir Henry.”
Ten minutes later, the Home Secretary blew out a sigh of frustration and dropped the phone back into its cradle. “Damn him!” he growled. “Why couldn’t the man keep his prick in his pants?”
Waverly steepled his brows and his fingers and sank deeper into the leather armchair.
“Was that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“What?” Brooke gave him a distracted look. “Oh, no,” he said, drawing up the other chair to the fire and settling into it. He lit a cigarette and inhaled. A button popped off his waistcoat into the hearth. He gave it an injured look as though it were responsible for all the ills of the world. He waved his hand in dismissal. “That’s a problem for another day.”
There was a tap at the door and the scout entered with the drinks tray. By the time the man had settled them with their drinks and left, the Home Secretary seemed to have gathered himself and looked merely dishevelled. He took a long pull of the single malt and leaned forward.
“Have you heard of a group calling themselves Spies for Peace?” he said.
Waverly took out his pipe. Under cover of the filling ceremony he marshalled his thoughts. “Assuming you aren’t referring to my operatives,” he said, tamping down the bowl, “I believe they’re associates of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, aren’t they? Anti-war activists?”
Brooke nodded. “We have no confirmation of their identities, although we have our suspicions. Special branch can’t seem to come up with anything at all.” He snorted. “Too busy chasing after all these damn Russian spies. MI5 would have us believe they’re everywhere, you know.”
Waverly struck a match and gave his attention to the draw until it was glowing to his satisfaction. Tossing the spent match into the fire, he blew a miasma into the room. “Sounds as though you don’t subscribe to the view,” he said, squinting through the smoke at his old acquaintance.
Brooke shook his head distractedly. “It isn’t that,” he said. “It’s just that my plate’s pretty full these days. Russian spies, cabinet members’ peccadilloes…”
“Surely somewhat more than a peccadillo,” Waverly interrupted.
“Quite so, quite so,” his companion said with a nod. “The point is, there’s a lot going on and the security services are a bit like an ocean liner. Point them at one thing and they go at it full steam ahead. If something else pops up in the meantime it can be over before they’ve changed course.
“Once they got their teeth into the Cambridge Four thing they managed to set Special Branch onto Blunt, but we could have done without Profumo muddying the waters.” He raised an eyebrow at Waverly. “And God knows where that’s going to end,” he said.
Waverly declined to be drawn into speculation. “So tell me about Spies for Peace,” he said.
The minister took another sip of his Scotch. “A month ago they broke into a secret government bunker, Regional Seat of Government Number 6, near Reading. They copied the material they found there and published it.”
“I thought you’d slapped a D-notice on it,” said Waverly.
His companion nodded. “We did, but not before they’d managed to publish a pamphlet saying that the vast majority of civilians would not survive a nuclear attack, and that the RSG’s were intended as elite seats of post-holocaust military government.”
Waverly harrumphed. “Rather weakens the case for a nuclear deterrent, doesn’t it?” he said. “How convenient for CND. And how embarrassing for the government.”
Brooke’s features drooped. “The PM feels it may be only the beginning unless we take action. ’5 has intelligence that the CND Aldermaston march at Easter is being stoked by anarchists. The PM sees it as a potential flashpoint and wants me to cancel it.”
Waverly shook his head emphatically. “No, no,” he said. “If you want to avoid giving them a platform the march must go ahead as usual.”
“I know.” The Home Secretary looked up. “Would you like to convince the PM?”
“I’m afraid,” said Waverly with a smile, “That’s your job. However, I can run some checks of my own and see what we come up with. U.N.C.L.E. is rather more manoeuvrable than an ocean liner. ” His companion’s face slackened in relief. “I’ll have our London office look into it.” Waverly tossed off his drink and they both stood. He offered his hand to the minister. “It’s good to see you again, Brooke,” he said and they shook hands. “I’ll be in touch.”
The body to his right shifted slightly and Napoleon Solo flashed a sharp glance across. The eyes that met his were immediately rueful and the movement stilled. Holding his breath, he raised the night-vision binoculars once more and scanned the facility below them in the valley. All was quiet. No sign of his partner. Damn. He lowered the field glasses and flipped back the cover on his watch. The luminous second hand swept mockingly past the rendezvous time.
“Sir?” a tentative voice to his left whispered. “Should we go in?”
“Negative, Mr Maddingly,” he whispered back.
Solo felt the tension in the other two. He chewed the inside of his lip. Illya always cut it fine but…
The wail of a siren cut the silence and all three started. Fabian to his right half rose and Solo was about to drag him down when the sky flashed and there was a roar that made his ears ring. A moment later the pressure-wave washed over them.
Solo found he was panting for breath as he stared at the fireball soaring skywards. The shocked silence around him lengthened. He felt a touch on his arm and Fabian spoke.
“Sir… your partner…”
Solo yanked his arm away and snatched his communicator from the breast pocket of his fatigues.
“Open channel D,” he said around the ringing in his ears. “Thunderhead for Eagle.” There was a moment of static and then the response came clear.
“Eagle here, Sir.”
“Home in on my signal. Three for a pick-up.”
Solo sagged. “Highley didn’t make it,” he muttered.
Waverly raised his eyes from the mission report and scrutinised his CEA surreptitiously. He frowned. Solo was staring out of the window, eyes shadowed, face drawn, a pencil tapping rapidly on the blotter in front of him.
Waverly dropped his eyes back to the letter of condolence to Highley’s parents, signed it and closed the file with a snap. The tapping stopped. Waverly fixed Solo with a contemplative look.
“Do you have anything you wish to add to your report Mr Solo?” he said, leaning back and reaching into his pocket for his pipe.
After a moment Solo spoke. “Highley was entitled to expect better back up from his senior agent,” he said. “I should have gone in after him…”
Waverly cut him off. “And then neither of you would have returned,” he said.
“He was inexperienced. I could have allowed him more time,” said Solo, throwing down the pencil in frustration. “Given him a greater margin…”
“Given Thrush more time to discover the explosive charges and disable them.” Waverly leaned forward. “Your mission would have failed,” he said slowly. He watched Solo’s jaw working.
“I made an error of judgement, Sir, and it cost an agent his life,” said Solo quietly. He shook his head. “This isn’t an excuse, but I’m used to working…”
“Mr Highley was not Mr Kuryakin,” he said, adding almost as an afterthought “He was, however, fully field-certified in the tactical use of explosives.” He pinned Solo with his gaze. “I expect my Section II operatives to be flexible enough to work with anyone in the section if required.”
Solo looked chastened and Waverly relented a little. He sighed. “The mission was successful, the satrapy destroyed and the loss of an agent was not your fault, Mr Solo. Regrettable, but not your fault. I don’t need to remind you that there are casualties in war. An unpalatable truth I’m afraid but a truth nonetheless.”
His CEA met his eyes but said nothing. Finally he gave a barely perceptible nod. Waverly acknowledged it and felt a little of the tension leach out of his shoulders. He stuck his pipe in his mouth and drew another file towards him.
“Now, I have another mission for you.” He leafed through the file and withdrew a folder. Setting it in front of him he spun the table until the folder stopped in front of Solo. His CEA picked it up and began to page through it. “You are booked on a Heathrow flight this evening…”
“England?” Solo’s eyebrows rose. “Isn’t that where Illya…?”
Waverly silenced him with a look. “As I was saying,” he said, “you are to join Mr Kuryakin in London. Apparently his progress in his current mission has come to a standstill. I think he may value your skills of – shall we say diplomacy, in helping to overcome the block with the… ah… establishment. Dismissed.”
As Solo left the room, Waverly began to fill his pipe. Maintaining his agents in top condition was a fine balancing act. Fitness and field work. Discipline and reward. Waverly had an instinct for it. He insisted on overseeing the pairings for each mission. He didn’t always intervene, but Solo had had a tough one this time and needed to get back to his partner. Waverly lit his pipe and reached for a switch on the desk console.
“Please book Mr Solo on the overnight flight to London Heathrow this evening.”
“I’ll make sure that the tickets are waiting for him at Reception, Sir.”
The rose of flame bloomed into the sky, its heat searing his lungs as he gasped his partner’s name. “Illya…!”
Napoleon jerked awake, heart hammering, at the touch on his arm and the soft voice. He blinked into the curious gaze of the senior stewardess and arrested his hand in its plunge towards his shoulder holster. She smiled tentatively at him.
“We’re commencing our descent to Heathrow,” she said. “Do you need me to help you fasten your seat belt?”
He took a shaky breath and glanced at her name badge. “Ah, thank you Carol, but I think I can manage.” Coming back to himself he added with more assurance, “I’ll take a rain check though, if I may.” He smiled right into her eyes and was gratified when she caught her breath and coloured slightly. As she moved away up the aisle he ran a hand roughly over his face, sloughing off the vestiges of the nightmare…
He cleared customs on the nod and headed out of the terminal building, turning up the collar of his trench coat against the seeping drizzle. He spotted a familiar figure almost hidden under a large golfing umbrella, leaning against the hood of a car in the tow-away zone. Fighting to keep the grin from his face he headed towards his partner – just as a policeman materialised from the other side of the umbrella. Quickening his pace, Napoleon arrived in time to avert the potential incident by grabbing the umbrella and shoving his partner into the right-hand seat.
“We’re just leaving officer,” he called as he dumped his luggage in the trunk then wrestled the umbrella in after it. “Sorry for any inconvenience,” he said as he climbed into the left side and slammed the door. And was immediately nonplussed by the absence of a steering wheel. To his right Illya rolled his eyes, let in the clutch and pulled out into the stream of traffic.
Napoleon indulged himself for a moment and allowed his eyes to roam over his partner’s form. He reached over and brought some order to the rain-spiked, blond mat.
“Hey,” said Illya, without moving his head or taking his eyes from the road. “Don’t handle the goods.”
“What? Even if I’m going to keep you?”
Kuryakin snorted. “You couldn’t afford me,” he said.
“S’okay,” he said. “My partner’ll sub me ‘til pay day. He’s a soft touch.”
Illya turned with a glare and then stopped. His face softened.
Napoleon looked away and settled himself deeper into the seat. “I’m fine,” he said. When there was no response, he glanced over to find his partner scrutinising him. “What do you think?” He shrugged. “Just off the red eye. I’m tired.”
“I heard that there were…” Illya paused, “…complications in Oklahoma.”
Napoleon chewed his lip and stared at the rain-slick streets of Staines as they slid past the window.
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Illya after a moment.
“How d’you know?” Napoleon growled. “You weren’t there.”
“I read the report.”
Of course you did, thought Napoleon. He no longer bothered to wonder how his partner managed these things in the midst of his own missions, even half a world away. “You weren’t there,” he repeated, and tried to keep the accusation out of his voice.
The silence stretched and then Kuryakin sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could have been…”
Solo sat up in his seat and rubbed his face. “Jesus,” he said behind his hands. “No I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault. I had no right to imply…” He thought back to the hillside and the moment he knew the other agent wasn’t coming out. He let out a long breath. “It was no one’s fault. Bad luck, bad timing, Thrush joining the dots for once in their life – whatever. No one’s fault.” He said it with more confidence now. “It’s just that – I trust you, partner,” he said. “You...”
He started as he felt Kuryakin grip his right shoulder and looked up into blue eyes that sparkled with delight. Napoleon found he didn’t want to look away.
“In that case - want to play poker this evening?” the Russian said archly. It cut across the train of thought that was gathering speed. Solo reached for insouciance.
“Strip?” he said.
“In your dreams.”
He closed his eyes and slid down in his seat again. “Wake me when we get there,” he murmured with a smile.
He woke as they were crossing the Hammersmith flyover. Refreshed from his dream-free catnap, he yawned and stretched and glanced across at his partner. Illya’s face was sombre and he was clearly working on something.
“Are we there yet, Dad?” said Napoleon.
Illya gave him a look.
“So,” Napoleon said. “Bring me up to speed on what you’ve been up to without me.”
“Speed?” said Illya, snaking between two taxis and ignoring the horns that hooted around him as he shot down the exit slip road. He frowned. “Molasses in winter,” he said as they took the roundabout on two wheels.
“I wish,” muttered Napoleon. Grabbing for the dash.
Illya scowled at him. “It was you who chose that seat,” he said.
“My mistake,” he said, as Illya zipped through an amber light. “Just don’t make it my last.”
They were crawling along the Cromwell Road before Kuryakin spoke again.
“Everyone here seems frozen by paranoia,” Illya said. “Harry Beldon’s over in Berlin liaising with MI6 on a six-month secondment…”
“Not all bad then,” said Napoleon.
Illya shot him a look. “At least he’d have moved things along if he were here,” he said.
“I’ll remind you of that the next time he’s on your case.”
Illya ignored him. “Since the Cambridge fiasco, ’5 are obsessed with Russian infiltration. They see Reds under every bed.”
Napoleon kept quiet as Illya negotiated Hyde Park Corner and headed into the maze of Mayfair streets.
“Anyone been hiding under your bed, tovarisch?” he said.
Illya said nothing.
“I have been the subject of some… attention,” his partner said quietly.
Napoleon forced himself to breathe evenly. “Just how much ‘attention’ have you been getting?” he said.
“The usual,” said Illya. “Rather obvious tails, mail delayed, an invitation to take tea with Special Branch. Nothing I wasn’t expecting.”
“And the home team? Anyone in U.N.C.L.E. London hassling you?”
Illya paused then looked up with a rueful grin. “No more so than when I first came to New York.” He shook his head as Napoleon opened his mouth. “It’s fine. I have dealt with it.” The grin turned feral. “And if medical has had an increase in its quota of abrasions and minor lacerations...” He shrugged. “I haven’t kept anyone out of the field for longer than forty-eight hours.”
Napoleon shook his head and snorted a soft laugh. “Mad Russian,” he muttered.
“Ah, yes,” said his partner conversationally. “I believe you will find that I am known as – Rasputin.” He winked at Napoleon. “Although no longer to my face.”
Illya eased the car into a parking space outside an end-of-terrace Georgian property. As Solo gathered his belongings from the trunk, the Russian trotted up the front steps and checked the door, turning to scan the vicinity before unlocking it.
“No really, I can manage the bags,” Solo called up to him as he mounted the steps. Illya ignored him and disappeared down the hallway leaving Napoleon to shut and lock the door after them. He followed his partner through the door at the end of the hall and stopped. The room was huge and light with a high ceiling, and a large cooking range along one wall. The centre of the room was occupied by a massive oak table, and dressers of crockery lined the other three walls.
“I guess Her Majesty is out at the moment then,” he said dumping the bags. “Impressive.”
Illya put a kettle on the hob and produced a teapot. “It doesn’t take much to impress you, does it?” he said.
“Oh, I don’t know. You impress me.”
Illya stooped to grab one of his bags and moved past Napoleon to the door. “Come on,” he said. “I may as well give you the guided tour whilst the kettle boils.”
The scale of the kitchen was mirrored throughout the house. Dining room on the ground floor next to the kitchen, large drawing room and bedroom upstairs. When Illya showed him the bathroom, Napoleon whistled.
“Pool party later then, huh?”
Illya ignored him and crossed the landing, to the bedroom. Napoleon followed.
“What? A place this size and only one bedroom? Er… one bed?”
Illya pointed upwards. “There are two more floors above us but the rooms are full of electronics. This is the communications hub for the London headquarters. Space is at a premium in these properties so the main equipment lives here with a feed through to Alan Michaels at HQ. It’s manned twenty-four hours a day by a team of three and we all share the kitchen.”
“What about the bathroom?”
Illya shook his head. “They have their own facilities up there. The bathroom, this bedroom and the drawing room are for occupants of the safe house only. At the moment that’s us, so you can indulge your hedonism to the full and spend all night undisturbed in the tub if you wish.”
“I was rather counting on some disturbance,” Napoleon muttered under his breath.
Solo left Alan Michaels’ office and went to look for his partner in the gym. Slipping in at the top of the gallery he paused inside the door and took in the spectacle below him. Two figures surrounded by a group of onlookers were engaged on the fencing mat moving forwards and backwards at speed. In spite of the disparity in their sizes, the slighter, blond figure clearly had his tall, bulky opponent on the run. Napoleon smiled. The man must have had a good eight inches of reach on Illya, but he was nowhere near as agile nor as skilled.
As he watched, Illya drove his opponent to the end of the mat and with a flick of his wrist disarmed him, the foil arcing through the air into the onlookers. One of them scrabbled it from the floor.
“Here, Winterburn,” he said and tossed it to Illya’s opponent.
The man caught it and removed his mask. Illya did likewise. They saluted each other. Both men were breathing hard but Winterburn had spittle at the corners of his mouth and heat in his eyes. Illya turned away, pausing slightly as he caught sight of Napoleon. He didn’t see the lunge behind him but Napoleon did.
“Illya…!” he cried as the now-unprotected foil swished through the air.
The Russian’s reflexes almost had him out of range but the tip of the foil slashed across his neck, catching him just below his ear. There was a surge of motion in the group.
“Don’t move!” bellowed Napoleon. The onlookers froze and all eyes swivelled towards him. He leapt down the gallery steps and vaulted the low rail to the floor of the gym. He made his way to the mat, eyes locked on his partner’s. “You okay?” he said.
Illya nodded, hand to his neck, blood seeping through his fingers. “It’s just a scratch,” he panted. “Your intervention was timely – as ever.”
Napoleon regarded the group slowly and deliberately. The sullen Winterburn wiped his hand over his mouth.
“Forgive my manners,” said Napoleon wrapping ice in silk. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr Kuryakin’s partner.” He paused to allow that to sink in. “Napoleon Solo, Number One, Section Two, Northwest.” There was a ripple in the group. “Mr Waverly has sent us to… ah… offer some - support - to Mr Michaels whilst Mr Beldon is on secondment to Berlin.
Winterburn, still breathing hard, fire in his eyes, sneered. “Does that support include babysitting your commie partner?” he said.
Napoleon looked at him hard then grinned dreadfully. “Believe me, Mr Winterburn,” he said. He glanced at Illya. “Mr Kuryakin doesn’t need me to protect him.” He snapped his gaze back to the bellicose man. “But if you don’t get off his case, you might. So,” he said. He brushed a non-existent piece of lint from the man’s chest and gave it a pat. “Consider yourself babysat.”
He turned to the rest of the group and softened his tone a fraction. “It’s important we don’t lose sight of who is the enemy here.” He looked pointedly at Winterburn, then back up at the rest of them. “All right,” he said with a nod. “I’m sure you all have places you need to be.”
The group began to disperse. “Oh, Mr Winterburn?” Napoleon called. Winterburn halted but didn’t turn around. “My office. Eight o’clock tomorrow morning, please.”
“Sir,” muttered Winterburn and hurried off.
Napoleon turned to Illya. “Want to tell me what that was all about?” he said quietly.
Illya glared at him. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“I know that. I’m really not looking to fight your battles. But I need to know whether it was more of that ‘attention’ you mentioned.”
Illya nodded. Napoleon blew out a breath in frustration.
“Come on, Rasputin” he said. “Let’s get you to medical and get that looked at.”
His partner rolled his eyes. “It is just a scratch, Napoleon,” he said removing his bloodstained hand from his neck. “See?” The wound had indeed stopped bleeding. He turned towards the showers. “I’d have bled to death by now if it hadn’t been,” he grumbled.
Napoleon smiled after him. “Let me know when you’re through showering and I’ll come put a Band-Aid on it, then.”
April is the cruellest month, Illya thought as he pressed himself into the doorway to avoid the worst of the driving sleet. 0500, and there were already around a hundred protesters, some with furled banners, gathering in desultory groups and blowing on their hands or slapping their arms around themselves in an effort to stave off the cold. The megaphones and uniformed police wouldn’t be here for hours yet so all Illya could do was observe. And freeze.
His communicator trilled softly from the depths of his sheepskin coat. He uncapped it with sluggish fingers.
“Rise and shine, tovarisch. This is your early morning wake-up call.”
Napoleon sounded sleepy. And warm. Most of all warm. Damn him… Illya snorted.
“Imagine my gratitude. Are you still in bed?”
“Mm-hmm.” Napoleon had the temerity to yawn. “Warm and cosy and…”
Illya allowed his irritation to show. “Did you want something, Napoleon?” he snapped.
“Mmm… apart from the obvious?”
“Napoleon!” Illya hissed. It was an open channel. Napoleon’s dark chuckle sent Illya’s blood racing south. He blessed the freezing weather he’d cursed a moment ago. “Don’t you have a meeting with Winterburn?”
“Not for a couple of hours. Anything happening your end yet?”
Illya glanced out of his refuge then ducked back out of the stinging sleet. “A few of the die-hards are beginning to gather. None of the feathered variety as far as I can tell.”
“Far too early for men of discernment to be out and about.”
“Speaking of which…”
“I’m heading for the shower as we speak. Call me as soon as anything changes, and…”
Illya interrupted his partner. “I will.” He paused. “You too.”
“I don’t like you out there unarmed.”
“I’m never unarmed…”
“You know what I mean. I don’t like the thought of you encountering any of our feathered brethren without a weapon.”
“I’m supposed to be infiltrating as a peaceful campaigner, not announcing myself to Thrush and the world as a law enforcement agent.” Illya sighed. “Would it help if I told you about the knife in my boot? Or my exploding belt buckle? Or…”
“Okay. You have a fully-stocked arsenal with you. Try and make sure you don’t need it. And keep in touch, y’hear?”
“Don’t I always?”
“Ha!” snorted Napoleon. “See you later.”
Illya smiled as he capped his communicator and stowed it once more in the depths of his clothing. The thick sheepskin kept out much of the cold but sopped up the sleet. Unless the weather improved soon he’d be unable to move for its weight. He stamped his feet and tried not to think of warm beds and Napoleon.
Two hours later, the sleet had given way to a watery sun. Nelson, atop his Column, glistened. There were now around three hundred people in Trafalgar Square, uniformed police outnumbering the largely peaceful protesters by about two to one. An area at the foot of the Column had been cordoned off and a team was setting up a bank of microphones. The Campaign speakers would be arriving with the main phalanx of the march from Aldermaston. As Illya watched, a BBC outside broadcast van drew up and parked outside the National Gallery, followed by a catering trailer. Cold and stiff, Illya’s thoughts turned to hot tea and bacon sandwiches.
He waited until the catering crew had set up, then he sauntered across the square, surreptitiously picked up an abandoned coil of cable and looped it over his shoulder. Stomach rumbling, he mingled with the staff collecting steaming mugs and plates of food from the trailer…
After two mugs of tea and three bacon sandwiches he felt warmer and restored. He slipped behind the van and dropped the cable where he’d found it, then made his way back to his vantage point.
The crowd in the square was beginning to swell as the desultory groups coalesced. Banners were unfurled, mostly hand painted and bearing the circular CND logo. Illya stretched, then came to full alert as the crowd began to wash around him. Smaller groups of protesters were beginning to filter into the square from St Martin’s Place and Charing Cross. These carried no banners and were largely male, fit and moving swiftly and with purpose towards the bank of microphones. There was no obvious need for the heavy walking sticks that many of them carried.
Illya’s senses moved into overdrive and he tried to scan the crowd for any familiar faces. His lack of height not only hampered his vision, it also made him more vulnerable in the crush. Flexing his arms he made his way diagonally towards the edge of the crowd. He found himself buffeted against a lamppost at the opening of a narrow side street as the body of the crowd surged past. On the edge of his vision he was aware of the police ranks moving to cordon off the area immediately in front of the podium. Although the Campaign speakers were still about half an hour out, it was clear that the authorities wanted to preserve a perimeter for their arrival. Pushing against the sea of bodies, he turned and shinned up the lamppost to gain a vantage point. There was a shout and he felt a hand on his foot.
“Oi! You get down, right now.”
Illya looked down at a stray policeman, clearly separated from his cordon and becoming frustrated in his efforts to rejoin them. Illya opened his mouth to apologise. What came out was a Russian curse as the policeman’s head snapped sideways under a vicious swipe from a cudgel. A second blow crushed his skull on the way down. The assailant looked up and Illya met the wild stare of a Thrush agent he’d last seen at the bottom of a dry well in Georgia. Where he’d left him, fervently hoping he’d rot.
“Kuryakin!” the man snarled, and swung his weapon backwards.
Adrenalin flooded him. As the weapon swung back, he launched himself from the lamppost over the man’s head. He landed in a roll that took him to his feet, and set off down the side street. The shrieks of the crowd grew fainter behind him. The sounds of pursuit didn’t. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Three; built like refrigerators and armed with cudgels, and who knew what else hidden. Realistically, unarmed, he probably couldn’t take them. But he probably could outrun them.
He faced forward to put on a spurt, and was immediately floored by a huge blow to his chest. He lay semi-stunned, cursing his carelessness and unable to catch his breath. A shadow fell across him. He looked up at the circle of his pursuers now joined by a fourth who was grinning evilly. Illya felt unaccustomed panic wash through him. It wasn’t the man’s grin that horrified him. It was the knife in his hand.
It shimmered red.
The sound of police whistles in the distance stirred the Thrushes into movement. Illya was vaguely aware of their receding footsteps and then silence. No sound of pursuit, no sounds moving towards him. He tried to sit up but was slammed back down by a shock of pain. Turning his head back the way he’d come he registered a commotion at the end of the street; a crowd around the fallen policeman. No one was looking his way.
Turning his head left, he noticed an area of greenery, trees and small bushes, probably where Thrush number four had hidden before ambushing him. He began to edge himself towards it. Each movement sent hot waves of agony through him. Eventually he made it through the gates and rolled, sweating and panting, into the bushes.
Reluctantly, but knowing that he had to assess the damage, he rolled onto his back. It immediately became harder to breathe. He felt under the front of his coat. His turtleneck was already soaked. Warm and sticky and the overpowering sweet-metallic stench of blood. His blood. He gritted his teeth, and reached for his communicator. His hands and arms felt loaded with lead. His head was buzzing. He was shaking violently and his ears were ringing. He tried again for the communicator but it was futile. He had no feeling in his limbs now.
As he was obliterated by darkness, his final thoughts were of his partner, and full of bitter regret that he’d never told him…
Sir Arthur Forbes’ office was as far removed from Waverly’s in character as in distance. Napoleon allowed his gaze to wander, if not his mind. Across the room, Waverly and Forbes moved quietly around documents on an immense mahogany desk, as they shared their intelligence to date on the march and its vulnerabilities. The room was cavernous. Oak-panelled and with enormous windows overlooking Westminster, it was hung with canvases of ancient conflicts. Sound-swallowing drapes and thick carpet muted the conversation at the desk so Napoleon had to strain to follow it.
The heads of U.N.C.L.E. and MI5 agreed the march was a potential flashpoint, but disagreed on the identity of the subversives. U.N.C.L.E. intel, and Napoleon’s gut, pointed to Thrush, whilst Forbes had deployed extensive Special Branch resources in tracking suspect Soviets in the UK and believed that the threat came from that direction. Napoleon understood the British paranoia about Soviet infiltration, but not the delay in establishing facts. As far as he was aware, Illya was U.N.C.L.E.’s only man on the ground at that moment. It always made him tetchy when his partner was out in the field on his own, and an unpredictable mob was the last place he felt Kuryakin should be without backup.
The intercom on Forbes’ desk buzzed apologetically in the quiet room.
“Update from Special Branch, Sir Arthur. It’s Griffiths. Shall I put him through?”
“Thanks, Miss Drake.” Forbes flipped the speaker switch. “Griffiths? What do you have for us?”
“Bit of a fracas in Trafalgar Square, Sir.”
“How much of a fracas?”
“70,000 crowd, pockets of extreme violence, several hundred injured,” Griffiths paused. “One uniformed plod dead at the scene, Sir.”
Solo found himself at Waverly’s side as Forbes snapped, “And what were your men doing at the time?”
“Sir, it was orchestrated and we weren't expecting the numbers. As soon as it was clear how many were involved we deployed as many officers as we could to back up uniform. Sir, the rumours of Russian infiltration seem to have been accurate…”
Solo leaned across Waverly and Forbes to the intercom. “And where did these rumours originate?” he said.
“Sir…?” Griffiths paused, wariness in his voice.
“Go ahead, man,” said Forbes. “The room’s secure.”
“Sir, we have witness reports that it was a Russian who killed the uniform. There were several of them. They ran off together. We think one of them may be injured…”
Solo didn’t hear any more. Communicator in hand he crossed to the window, heart thumping. “Open Channel D, Solo for Kuryakin…” Long moments of static hiss; no response. “Illya,” he breathed. He capped the communicator and headed for the door.
“Mr Solo!” It was Waverly’s voice and it brought him up short. He half turned. “We don’t know at this stage…” Napoleon knew. His gut clenched.
“Sir…” Solo began.
“Waverly, what’s going on?”
Holding Solo’s gaze as though he feared he’d bolt, Waverly addressed the MI5 head. “Mr Solo believes that the injured man may be his partner.”
“What? One of your operatives killed a police officer?”
Waverly rounded on Forbes. “No! Christ, man, that isn’t what I’m saying at all. Let’s stick to the facts for the moment shall we, hmm? Mr Kuryakin is Russian — fact; He was deployed this morning to monitor the march for Thrush infiltration — fact; Mr Solo is now unable to raise him by communicator — fact.”
“Sir,” said Napoleon, “if Illya recognised Thrush he’d stick to them like glue. It’s more likely they tried to take him out because he witnessed their involvement in the murder…”
“I thought we were dealing with facts,” said Forbes icily.
Solo turned to Waverly who nodded. “Go, Mr Solo, and see if it is our Mr Kuryakin. If not then I need you back here for debriefing with Special Branch,” Waverly turned to Forbes. “If that’s agreeable to you, Sir Arthur?”
Napoleon didn’t wait for an answer. He was already out of the door.
Napoleon sprinted the length of Whitehall, mind numb and dread fighting him for air all the way. Trafalgar Square and its surrounding streets were cordoned off completely by the time he arrived; mounted police and ambulances everywhere, interspersed with bulky Special Branch officers. Napoleon flashed his U.N.C.L.E. ID at one of them and for a moment thought the man would balk. Whatever he saw in Napoleon’s face clearly changed his mind and Napoleon was allowed through the cordon and into the press of bodies. Once through, he realised he’d no idea where to start looking for Illya. He needed a vantage point - or a second pair of eyes. He spotted a mounted policeman a few yards away and made his way to his side.
“Excuse me, officer,” he said, flashing his ID once more. “Do you have any idea whereabouts your colleague was… er…”
The man leaned down and nodded grimly. “Word is it was over by St Martin in the Fields.” He sat up and pointed.
Napoleon shrugged. “Can’t see,” he said.
“Oh, sorry, Sir. Come up.” He offered Napoleon a stirrup. He soothed the bay that rolled her eye at Napoleon’s awkward scramble. “There,” he said, pointing to a huge Georgian church on the far side of the Square. From his vantage point, Napoleon saw that a perimeter had been established around the mouth of an alleyway down the side of the churchyard. The crowd nearby was thinning out as officers began moving folk away from the area. Most were moving quietly under instruction; many looked shocked. This was in contrast to the mass of people on the other side of the square who were clearly not done yet with protesting. It had the potential to turn ugly and Napoleon had no time for it.
The policeman helped him back to the ground. “Bleedin’ Russians,” he snarled. Our lot are out looking for ‘em now. Bastards. They’ll wish they’d never been born when we catch ‘em…”
Napoleon murmured his thanks. As he buffeted his way through the thinning crowd towards the alleyway, the policeman’s words shivered down his spine. The crowd finally parted and Solo ran, ID raised like a talisman, towards the huddle in a taped-off area by a lamppost. Two men were just lifting a stretcher on which a blanket-shrouded body lay. Blue serge trousers and large black boots protruding from the bottom of the blanket confirmed it as the body of the murdered officer.
“Was he killed here?” Napoleon addressed the question to a shabby-looking man in the group who was puffing on a cigarette. Despite appearances he seemed to have an air of authority.
The man blew out smoke and coughed. “And what’s that to U.N.C.L.E…?” he said carefully.
Napoleon held out his hand. “Napoleon Solo, Chief Enforcement Agent, U.N.C.L.E. Northwest,” he said.
The man replaced the cigarette between his lips and slowly shook Solo’s hand. “You’ll be wanting my esteemed colleagues in Special Branch, I expect,” he said. His voice dripped irony. He nodded down the alley. “They’re doing their Special work down there. If you ask them nicely, they may not slap cuffs on you immediately or smack you with the rubber hose.” He winked and nodded. “Nicely, now, eh…?” He turned away, coughing and waved the stretcher towards a waiting black van.
Napoleon was already trotting down the alleyway towards a group of solid-looking men. They looked up as he approached, their synchronised movements almost sending Napoleon’s hand to his own shoulder holster. Instead, he kept his arms out, palms down and slowed to a walk.
“Napoleon Solo, Chief Enforcement Agent, U.N.C.L.E. Northwest,” he said as he approached. “Who’s in charge here?”
A rangy man detached himself from the group and moved towards Napoleon. “Let’s see some ID,” he said.
Slowly, with fingertips, Napoleon reached for his ID once more and handed it to the man. No point in antagonising him from the get go. He needed him on side to find Illya. The man glanced at the ID and handed it back. He offered a handshake.
“DCS George Griffiths, Special Branch,” he said. “Heard from your partner yet?”
Napoleon guessed Waverly or Forbes must have briefed him. Napoleon hoped they’d skimmed over the issue of Illya’s nationality. He didn’t need some commie-basher hindering his search. He shook his head and the proffered hand. “Any luck in finding the Russians?”
Griffiths inclined his head down the alley. “It was empty when we arrived. My men are just about to start a search.”
“Mind if I join you?”
Griffiths shrugged. “The more the merrier.” He turned at a shout from one of the men.
“Sir? We have blood…”
Napoleon’s mouth dried. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. On jelly-legs, he ran to where the man stood. At the edge of the alley was a sticky red stain. It seemed huge to Solo. Surely no one could lose that amount of blood and live. A dark drag-trail led from it towards the gateway into the churchyard. One of the search team drew his weapon and made his way slowly through the opening, eyes ranging left and right. As Napoleon drew his own weapon instinctively and began to follow, the man snapped into a firing stance and aimed his weapon low under the bushes.
“Armed officer! Move your hands where I can see them! Move, move, move…” he bellowed. There was no response.
Napoleon beat Griffiths and the others to the officer’s side, crowding him and straining to see beneath the bushes where the gun was pointing.
“Back off, Solo,” snapped Griffiths. “Let my men do their job.”
Napoleon ignored him. “Illya…?” his voice faltered in his dry throat. He swallowed. “Illya?”
“Solo!” Griffiths grabbed his arm to drag him away. “I said back off!”
The glint of gold in the foliated gloom was enough for Napoleon. He snatched his arm back and cannoned into the officer holding the fugitive at bay. He raised his own weapon and covered the astonished group. “Wait!” he said, breathing heavily. “That isn’t the perpetrator. It’s my partner.” The tableau was frozen for a moment, until Napoleon pulled up his weapon and flipped on the safety. “Help me get him out,” he said as he holstered the P38 and dropped to his knees by the body of his friend.
Kuryakin didn’t look good. Blood had frothed from the side of his mouth and begun to dry in ruby speckles. His face looked like fresh putty and his lips like faded denim. His sweater and sheepskin coat were soaked in blood. So much blood. The uniquely appalling smell nearly made Solo retch. Behind him he was vaguely aware of Griffiths shouting for a medic and an ambulance, but all he could think of was the bleeding Russian in front of him, and cursed himself for never telling him. Well, he’d tell him as soon as he came round. Any minute now. He grabbed one of Kuryakin’s hands and held on. Still warm. Good
“Come on, Illya. It’s me. We’re getting you to the hospital.” He chafed the cooling hand. The dried blood dragged under his fingers. The Russian’s chest seemed so still. He leaned down to listen for breath. He thought there was a faint whisper. “The ambulance is on it’s way, tovarisch.”
“Hey,” a rough hand grabbed his shoulder and Napoleon looked up into the glaring face of the man who’d first followed the blood trail. “Is he a Russian?”
Napoleon shook off the hand. “He’s my partner,” he growled. “U.N.C.L.E.’s finest. And I don’t have time for this.” He turned his attention back to the still figure before him. “Get your boss to speak to Mr Waverly if you have a problem with it.”
Illya knew by the clock on the wall that he was drifting in and out of consciousness; knew by the chemical smells that he was in hospital; knew by his inability to think clearly that he was on pain meds, and knew by the rhythmic hiss that a machine was breathing for him. None of this was good. Worse still, there was no Napoleon touching him, anchoring him, keeping him safe as he healed.
His nose itched. He tried to raise his hand to scratch it but was brought up short. He glanced down. Bandages secured his hands to the bed rails.
He began to struggle and immediately the ventilator alarm triggered. A female face in a white cap swam into view. The alarm continued to shriek and Illya struggled all the more, fighting his restraints. Fighting the ventilator. Fighting the nurse’s hands on him.
“Hold still and try to relax, Sir. We’ll have this out in a moment.”
More people came into the room. They crowded the bed. Who were they? Were they trying to kill him? There was a babble of voices, some raised, some angry. Where was Napoleon? Illya thrashed his legs in a futile attempt to free himself.
“ILLYA!” Over the babble, a voice he knew. A presence he felt. He stopped thrashing, but now he was choking in earnest as he tried to catch his breath around the tube down his throat.
“… two, three and…” The tube was pulled from his throat and he retched and coughed uncontrollably, gulping in air despite the agony in his right side.
“Get those hands free.” Napoleon’s voice. In seconds Illya’s hands were released. Still choking and coughing, he came upright in bed, wrapping his arms around himself against the searing pain in his chest.
“Easy, partner,” a gentle hand on his back rubbing slow circles. “They’re going to give you some more pain meds now…”
“No…” He tried to shake his head but he already felt the disabling fuzz start to wrap around his brain.
“It’s okay, lyubov. I’m not going anywhere. It’s safe to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
He was dimly aware of his partner arguing with the nurse.
“What the hell were you thinking, tying down a trained agent?”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” she said. “He kept trying to pull out the tube when he was coming round.”
All the while, his partner’s assured touch never left him. Illya let go of awareness…
He woke to a familiar touch on his hair.
He opened his eyes in the mercifully dim light. The clock had moved on another couple of hours.
“Nap…” His throat felt as though it had been reamed.
“Sshh… don’t try to talk yet. Here,” Solo reached for a glass on the side table. Ice chips tinkled. “Have some throat therapy.”
Illya sucked a couple into his mouth gratefully. He looked up into his partner’s drawn face.
Solo looked grey and rumpled and his eyes were shadowed deep in their sockets.
“Hey,” Illya croaked. “I’m okay.” He reached out to lay his hand over his partner’s and the pain shards in his chest came back with a vengeance. He ignored them with some difficulty. “I think,” he gasped. “No, really, I am,” he said, at the fear on Solo’s face.
“I’m getting you some more drugs,” said Solo grimly, reaching for the nurse-call button. Illya grabbed his hand.
“In a minute,” he muttered. “I need to know what’s happened to me.”
Solo looked as though he might throw up. “You were stabbed,” he said, his voice not quite steady. “That damn dead sheep you call a coat took most of it, but the blade went into your lung.” Illya felt his partner’s grip tighten on his hand. “There was blood and air trapped in your chest. It stopped your heart twice before they got a tube in to drain it.” He paused and Illya returned the pressure on his hand. Solo’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I thought you were gone…”
There was silence apart from the beeps and bubbles and ticks of the equipment around them. Then Illya raised Solo’s hand to his face and planted a kiss on the palm. They stayed like that until the pain became just too much for Illya to handle and he drew in a sharp breath. Solo stroked his face once then reached for the call-button.
“Drugs,” he said emphatically. “Now.”
It was five days before they let Illya out of intensive care and another five before they finally took the drain tube out of his chest. Five days after that he was authorised for discharge into convalescence. Napoleon was hard pressed to decide whether he, his partner or the nursing staff would have cracked first if the Russian had had to remain a moment longer.
Waverly had released Solo from the affair as soon as his report had been submitted. The London headquarters were handling the aftermath with MI5. Since he was ordered to keep an eye on Kuryakin in the hospital and to return with him to the safe house on discharge until he was fit to fly, Napoleon was about as happy as he had any right to be after nearly losing his partner. He’d also had plenty of time to think.
He unlocked the front door of the Georgian terrace and ushered the Russian in ahead of him before dumping the bags in the hall and locking up behind them. He followed Illya to the kitchen and found him slumped at the table.
“Tea?” said Napoleon, filling the kettle and heading for the stove.
Napoleon nodded. “All mod cons.” He crossed to one of the big cupboards, took down cups, teapot, milk jug and spoons, then reached to another shelf for the tea caddy and jam. As he worked, he observed his partner covertly. He looked exhausted and Napoleon reminded himself of how close to death he’d been barely three weeks ago. He’d need a lot more time to heal before he’d be cleared for air travel.
Illya pushed himself more upright at the table and his gaze pinned Napoleon. “Are you going to indulge me throughout my convalescence?”
“Of course,” said Napoleon cheerfully, pouring boiling water onto the leaves. “Don’t I always?” Illya snorted. Napoleon grinned at him. “Watch me,” he said. “Then when we’re home you can do it to me.”
“There’s always an angle with you, isn’t there?”
Napoleon brought the teapot to the table, ruffling Kuryakin’s hair in passing. The Russian bore it with barely a wince. Napoleon poured tea for them both then settled opposite his partner. He watched in silence as Kuryakin sipped his tea. The Russian was pale and drawn, his distorted posture and the dark smudges around his eyes evidence of the abuse his body had taken. The hands that dwarfed the teacup weren’t quite steady, and Napoleon found he wanted to hurt someone, preferably Thrush, very badly. He frowned.
“Time for your meds yet?”
Kuryakin returned his frown. “I don’t…”
“You do and you will. It’s the price of this exclusive pampering service.” Napoleon held out his hand. “C’mon, hand ‘em over.” Kuryakin glared at him. Napoleon didn’t move. Finally Illya banged his cup down on its saucer and reached into his pocket.
“There,” he sighed, slapping the container into Napoleon’s outstretched palm.
“And the antibiotics, please.”
Illya handed over a second container with ill grace. “I can’t wait to see you in starched whites and black stockings,” he said.
Napoleon affected to consider this. “Nah,” he said. “You have better legs.” That surprised a shadow of a smile from his partner. “Come on. Meds then bed.”
“Ah, the famous Solo silver tongue. No wonder your women cannot resist.”
Unreasonably stung by ‘your women’, Napoleon cajoled his partner up to the first floor and left him to undress whilst he fetched a water carafe. Kuryakin was under the covers when he returned, unexpectedly compliant.
“Sit up and take your meds then you can sleep.” Grumbling, the Russian struggled upright.
“I’ve met Thrush interrogators who’d make better nurses than you.”
“You are not a very patient patient.” He handed the water to his partner and stood over him whilst he took the pills and drank. Illya grimaced then opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue.
“There,” he said, wriggling under the covers once more. “All gone. May I be left in peace to sleep now?”
“What? No bedtime story?”
As Solo watched, his partner’s eyes drifted closed. He stroked the blond hair and drew the covers up. “Sleep well, my friend.”
Downstairs in the kitchen Napoleon cleared away the tea things and poured himself a Scotch. He took the bottle with him to the table and sat down.
After three years and fifty ops, Napoleon felt his knowledge of the reclusive Russian was probably better than anyone’s. What exercised him more at this moment was the possibility that it was mutual. Kuryakin knew him to the bone. Solo felt he ought to be alarmed, but wasn’t. Not really. For a spy to be so known was uncomfortable at best, mind-fracturing at worst. Their stock-in-trade was deception, their instinct to dissemble. For partners to be so close, so known, was believed to jeopardise their ability to function as Waverly’s weapons.
This affair had rattled the bars of Napoleon’s safety-cage more than any before. He wasn’t entirely sure why. Illya had been hurt before; missing, presumed dead, before. This time was different.
They’d fallen into a pattern of spiky one-upmanship from the start of the partnership. Over time, the one-upmanship had transmuted into no-less spiky banter and occasional flirting. Napoleon was finding it harder not to follow through on the flirting. It wasn’t that he feared rejection. If he’d read the signals right, he was pretty sure that the Russian wouldn’t turn him down.
No, the flirting wasn’t an issue, any more than affectionate, if casual, sex might have been if they’d taken it to that level. The real issue for Napoleon was the sudden clarification of the complex feelings for his partner that had been roiling around in him for months. They’d finally penetrated his beleaguered defences, and it left him feeling raw and vulnerable.
He popped the cork from the bottle of Chivas and poured another three fingers of courage into his glass.
Illya woke to the call of his bladder. It was dark. He rolled over, wincing at the flare of almost-pain in his chest and padded to the bathroom, barely opening his eyes. On the way back, he spotted the glow from the downstairs lights and squinted at his watch. Three-thirty. He listened: a nominal hum from the equipment on the second floor but otherwise - nothing. Pausing only to collect his gun from the bedside table, he moved silently downstairs to the kitchen door. It stood ajar and light streamed through the gap. There was no movement, although the sound of heavy breathing interspersed with the occasional snort came from inside. Slowly, he pushed the door open.
Napoleon was alone, head slumped on his forearms at the kitchen table, snoring gently. The empty glass and half-empty bottle told their own story. Illya sighed and flipped the safety back on his Walther. He crossed to the table and stood next to his sleeping partner. Napoleon’s face was slack, care lines obliterated by the alcohol. He looked younger and vulnerable and Illya couldn’t resist running his fingers through the disordered hair. Napoleon rarely looked so dishevelled and the temptation to complete the effect was overwhelming.
After a moment or two the dark head stirred and Illya was fixed with a bleary eye.
“‘O’ ‘iy i’ i’…?”
With a final stroke, Illya checked his watch. “Quarter to four.” Napoleon raised his head and squinted at the windows.
“At quarter to four in the morning it usually is.”
“Mmmpf… bed.” Napoleon’s head slumped back to the table, without benefit of cushioning arms. “Owww…”
“Excellent idea, but you’ll have to get yourself there, I’m afraid. Come on.” Illya eased his partner into a sitting position once more and prodded and poked him until he was standing. He turned his shoulders until Napoleon was facing the door and gave him a gentle push. “Through the door and up the stairs, then.”
They made it to the top of the stairs without mishap.
“Need t’pee,” Napoleon muttered, before veering off suddenly towards the bathroom.
Suspecting the worst, Illya followed. As it turned out Napoleon really did just need to pee, although without Illya’s help, there might have been a minor disaster. After he’d finished and flushed, Illya made him sit on the seat and drink three glasses of water.
“Just emptied,” mumbled Napoleon. “Now’m filling up again.” He giggled.
“You’ll thank me in the morning… No!” said Illya, as his partner tried to flush again. “Come on, Napoleon. Bed.” He prodded him to his feet.
Solo looked him straight in the eye, no mean feat for a man as drunk as he appeared to be. “I thought you’d never ask,” he said clearly, and pressed whisky-flavoured lips to Illya’s.
Illya couldn’t claim, in future, that he was taken by surprise. It had been a long time coming and he’d imagined - fantasised - every possible permutation of being kissed by Napoleon Solo. It just seemed that, at last, it felt entirely right that he didn’t pull away with some acerbic put-down; that he simply let his disinhibited partner explore his mouth with that tricky silver tongue of his; that he allowed Napoleon to grind his hard erection against his own heavy cock.
A hot flash of pain around his chest-wound made him catch his breath. Instantly Napoleon pulled back, panting, semi-focused eyes huge, apologetic.
“’m sorry, ’m sorry,” he gasped. “Where’d I hurt you? ’m so sorry…”
Illya leaned against him, breathing heavily. He felt laughter bubbling up inside him at the irony. “I’m all right, I’m fine - really,” he panted, looking into Napoleon’s clearly squiffy eyes. He laid a hand against his cheek. “But perhaps neither of us is in any shape for this at the moment.” Kuryakin took the crestfallen face in his hands and kissed the corners of his partner’s mouth. “Sleep now. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day, I fancy.”
Illya was warm. Warm and comfortable. Warm and comfortable and… hard. His cock was gloved in warm wetness and he found himself rocking into the gentlest of suction. He moaned. And the suction immediately stopped. Disappointed, he opened his mouth to protest and was silenced by another mouth covering his, licking and nibbling at his lips and tongue. He tasted himself there. It made him even harder.
Coming up for air he opened his eyes. Napoleon’s face was inches from his, eyes huge and dark. He was smiling.
“Good morning,” said his partner, lipping around his face. “I was afraid you were going to sleep until lunchtime.”
Illya stretched. “Mmm… what time is it?” He yawned.
“Eight o’clock,” said Napoleon.
“A time when all good spies should be about their business.”
“And our important business of the day is… oh wait. The diary seems to be empty. Well, then, how shall we spend our day, hmm…?” He rested his chin on his hand and waggled his eyebrows outrageously at Illya.
Illya grunted. “You’re disgustingly chipper for a man who didn’t get to bed until four in the morning after quaffing most of a bottle of Scotch.”
“Well, you know a friend of mine taught me a trick with water, and I have to say - it works.” Solo beamed at him.
“Speaking of water, I need to pee.”
He threw back the covers but before he could move, Solo grabbed him and kissed him again, hard and long. “There,” he said finally, panting a little. “Have that on account.” Illya gave him what he hoped was a severe look and climbed out of bed. Napoleon called after him, “Don’t forget to write.”
Kuryakin brushed his teeth whilst he waited for his erection to subside enough to pee. His body felt sore and depleted, yet the bubble of elation inside him refused to be quelled. He’d held his feelings for Solo in check for months. It would have been madness to reveal them. Compromise their efficiency, jeopardise them in the field, target for blackmail etc; he’d run all the permutations, assessed all the risks. He rinsed and spat and looked at his reflection in the mirror. Madness. Well, if it was, then they were both mad. Because it was now as clear as day to Illya that Solo was as mad as he.
He smiled at his reflection and went to pee before anticipation filled his cock again.
Six Months Later
Affairs fifty-one through fifty-five had come and gone without any impaired efficiency. Indeed, once Illya had been field certified again, they’d pulled off a couple of major coups against Thrush satrapies that had closed down Thrush operations in North America for a whole month. That earned them unqualified praise from Waverly. Illya suspected he knew they were sleeping together, but the Old Man was a pragmatist. He was unlikely to split his most effective team. He remained as cordial towards them as he’d ever been. And as ruthless, when he needed to be.
And the sex was incendiary.
Unaccustomed to regular intimacy, Illya had wondered at first if it might prove too much of a distraction. That was until he experienced what regular sex with Solo was like: challenging, energising, liberating - and exclusive. It was a revelation…
Illya’s breath caught on a grunt, as he thrust a final time and came hard. Buried in his partner, his cock pulsed into perfect tightness, his hand fisting Napoleon’s erection until Napoleon too groaned and shuddered in orgasm, a hot spill of semen bathing the Russian’s hand. They lay spooned together, stroking and petting each other languidly as their breathing returned to normal and sweat cooled. Illya’s spent cock gradually softened and slipped out of his partner.
After several minutes of silence Solo rolled over and gazed down at him.
“You okay?” he said, brushing sweat-dampened tendrils of hair from Illya’s forehead.
Illya nodded slowly as he reached up to cup Solo’s face. Something close to contentment was blooming inside him. He couldn’t find the words he needed in English.
His partner kissed him lightly. “That was… fulfilling,” Solo said with a smirk. “I’ve been meaning to ask where you learned such debauchery but I think I don’t want to know.”
“I told you,” said Illya. “You are the first.” He laid a hand on his heart and simpered, “My first love; the love of my life.”
Napoleon kissed him again, not so lightly this time. “And you mine,” he said. Illya raised an eyebrow. “Well, the first to ravish me like that, anyway. And the love of my life…ow!” as Illya poked him in the side.
“Any more declarations and I might vomit,” Illya said.
“Yeah? Remind me, who started this?”
They fell silent again. “I was so mad at myself,” Illya said, after a while. “For not telling you.”
Napoleon nuzzled his shoulder. “What, you think I didn’t know?”
“You did? Well, I didn’t. Not until I was…” He dismissed with a shudder the image that was trying to form. “Not until… that moment in the churchyard.”
“Sure you did. You just didn’t know you did.”
Illya knew Solo was playing with him. He didn’t care. He was sated and drowsy and prepared to play along.
“So… when did you know, Sherlock?”
“What? That I wanted you to ravish me?”
“Oh, I see. The… ‘other thing’.” Napoleon rolled onto his back and gazed at the ceiling. “Months ago… years. Dunno.” He glanced at Kuryakin briefly. “The fiasco in Oklahoma rattled me. I was raw.” The silence lengthened. Eventually, Solo sighed. “I guess I didn’t actually admit it to myself until that night at the safe house. The night you had to put me to bed. And that took the best part of a bottle of Scotch.”
“As I recall we put each other to bed that night. I was too damaged and you were too drunk for anything more than sleep.”
“As I recall, we made up for it the following morning.”
“Mmm… we did indeed.” To his surprise, the memory of his partner inside him began to stir his flaccid cock. He leaned up on one elbow and ran a thumb over Solo’s jaw, rasping at the stubble there.
He was no stranger to sex, but a virgin to this. This complex, aching imperative that, by turns, broke and healed him. He knew that, for him, there would be no others.
He began nibbling at the cleft chin.
“Speaking of which…”