This is a version of the story that appeared in Clandestine Affairs 2; it is a longer, more self-indulgent version, not containing some of the changes requested by the zine's tireless and insightful editors, Jane Terry and Clare Chew, so if it sucks, it's wholly my fault.
"That's him? That's the CEA's right-hand man?"
Brad Bradley, fresh from the Los Angeles office, stared down the length of the lab at the hunched blond figure, eyes obscured by heavy-rimmed tinted glasses, sitting arms crossed in front of a beaker of green fluid bubbling over a Bunsen burner. A radio behind him was playing something classical.
"Shh..." Tom Kell, his Section Two tour guide, touched his arm. "He'll hear you."
Bradley shook his head. "Man, the stories I've heard ... I expected him to be 12 feet tall and breathing fire."
Kell snorted. "He does, pal. Don't make any mistake about that." He looked at the new transfer, 6-foot-4, 26 years old, chestnut hair, green eyes, tanned and fit and handsome and well aware of it.
Bradley kept his voice down, making it clear he was doing it out of consideration for Kell rather than any concern for himself. "So that's the famous Russian ice prince. He looks like a kid. Hard to believe the Command's top agent trusts that guy with his life."
"Believe it," Kell said. "You wanna meet him?"
"Yeah, sure," Bradley replied.
A woman poked her head in the door. "Tom, can I see you a minute?"
"Sure." To Bradley, Kell said, "Hang on a second." He went into the corridor, and a moment later another man came in, dark-haired, wearing a well-cut blue suit Bradley eyed appreciatively.
"Excuse me," he said, sidling past Bradley into the room, his gaze traveling across the lab to focus on Kuryakin. As far as Bradley could tell, the Russian hadn't moved.
The music from the radio swelled, weird and angular, and Bradley winced.
"What is that?" he asked.
The man in blue cocked his head. "Faure's Violin Sonata No. 1, I think."
"How can he do lab work with that racket?"
The man smiled. "It's entirely possible he's napping." He advanced on Kuryakin. Bradley, curious, followed.
When the man got within three feet of Kuryakin, the Russian, not shifting, said:
"What brings you to the servants' quarters?"
The man chuckled. "Our boss sent me to find out if you've had any success."
Kuryakin leaned back and turned down the radio. "I've learned that the poison is some sort of amalgam of prussic acid, a psilocybin-based hallucinogen and an adhesive."
Bradley, bewildered, saw the newcomer grin.
"Other than that I've succeeded only in going numb from the waist down." Kuryakin took the beaker off the flames, got off the stool and turned to face them. He examined Bradley, expressionless, and said, "You must be Bradley, from Los Angeles."
"That's me," Bradley said. "Of course I know all about you, Mr. Kuryakin." He grinned. "You and Mr. Napoleon Solo, top dogs at UNCLE. I've got a lot to live up to if I expect to reach that spot myself some day."
Kuryakin shot a look at the other man, who said, "Well, I don't know that Solo is such hot stuff." He smiled. "You know how stories grow. It's probably mostly just rumor."
"Or that I make him look good," Kuryakin said.
"Yeah?" Bradley said, politely dubious. He looked Kuryakin up and down. "Gotta be a lot of work keeping up with the CEA, from what I hear. Tough job."
Kuryakin shrugged, but his eyes were cold; Bradley saw that he knew he was being baited, and didn't like it.
"I do my best," Kuryakin said.
"Well, if you ever want a break, I'd be glad to fill in for you." He grinned. "I could use the experience. I imagine I could learn a lot from a man like Napoleon Solo."
"Yes, I imagine so," Kuryakin said, removing his glasses and sliding them into the pocket of his lab coat.
"Who knows?" Bradley said, "Maybe he'll like me better!" He laughed, slapping the man in the blue suit on the arm. Both men looked at him levelly.
"No offense," he said. "I was only kidding. But, you know, Mr. Kuryakin, you and him, you must be polar opposites. There must be a lot of friction."
"You have no idea," Illya said.
"Solo's not hard to get along with," the man in blue said.
"How would you know?" Kuryakin asked him. "You do everything he tells you to do."
The man laughed. "That's true."
"Oh, kissin' up to the boss, eh? That's one route to advancement," Bradley said, chuckling. "I'm joking, buddy."
"Let's just say I trust Solo's judgment," the man said. "More than anyone else's. Well, almost anyone else's." He glanced at Kuryakin, who responded with a faint smile.
"Almost?" Bradley said. "So he's not infallible."
Bradley laughed. "True. Well, I'm sure looking forward to meeting him. Tell him if he's ever in the market for a new partner..." He chuckled again.
"I don't know," the man in blue said. "You'd have a lot to live up to."
Kuryakin shook his head, slightly, but Bradley saw it.
"Modest, eh? I hear you're a terror in unarmed combat, Mr. Kuryakin. Is that the truth?"
"No," Kuryakin said quickly.
The man in blue muttered, "He's a terror all the time."
"Don't you have work to do?" the Russian asked frostily.
"Nope." The man grinned at him, at Bradley. "Free as a bird, Mr. Kuryakin."
"I'm not too bad at hand-to-hand myself," Bradley said coolly. "Maybe you and I could ... of course, it wouldn't be a fair match."
The man in blue chuckled softly. "No, it wouldn't."
"Will you be quiet?" Kuryakin said. He looked up at Bradley. "Are you issuing a challenge?"
"Why not?" Bradley said, still grinning. "In the gym? Half an hour?"
Illya glanced at his watch. "If we must."
"You can always say no," Bradley said. "A reputation like yours would survive."
"But it isn't really my reputation that's involved here, is it, Mr. Bradley?" Illya asked, looking up the six inches that separated them in height. He shrugged off the lab coat and hung it on a rack against the wall. "I'll see you in the gym in half an hour."
He walked out without another word to either man.
Bradley watched him go, then looked at the man in blue, who was leaning on the lab counter, arms crossed.
"Hm. So that's the famous partner of the great Napoleon Solo." He shook his head. "Oh—sorry. Didn't mean to be rude." He extended his hand. "Brad Bradley."
The man in blue reached out to shake his hand. "The great Napoleon Solo," he said.
Bradley went pink. "Well I'll be ... why didn't you say something?" He glanced after Illya. "Look, Mr. Solo, I didn't mean anything by it. By all that. I just ... well, you know. A man wants to test his mettle."
Napoleon said, "I know. I understand."
Scowling, Bradley said, "If you're the boss ... I mean, can he talk to you like that?"
Napoleon smiled. "He's earned the privilege."
"How come you didn't say anything?" Bradley repeated.
The CEA shrugged. "I enjoy watching Illya toy with his prey." He nodded politely. "Good meeting you, Bradley." He left the lab.
Napoleon poked his nose into the gym half an hour later to see Bradley, in grey sweats, and his partner, looking smaller than ever in grey sweatpants and a black t-shirt, squaring off on the mat. Illya had been doing some weight-lifting in recent months, and it showed, but Bradley still outsized him considerably. They were surrounded by a crop of agents who obviously found a challenge bout far more interesting than the workouts it had interrupted.
Tony Alberti, a Section Two agent, was playing referee.
"Now I want a clean bout, or I'll kick your asses." He glared at Bradley, then at Illya—softening that glare, Napoleon was glad to see, with a wink.
Tony clapped his hands and darted out of the way and the combatants—Bradley smiling, Illya relaxed but intent—moved toward one another.
Napoleon loved to see Illya in action; generally he didn't get the opportunity to stand safely by and watch his partner exercise his skills. Apart from being a visual treat, it reassured him that his life was in the best possible hands.
Bradley was fast and strong. He moved in quick, seizing Illya's arm for a throw. Illya twisted free and caught him in an armlock, shoving him away without doing any damage. Bradley caught himself and turned, still smiling. A couple of agents called out encouraging remarks disguised as jeers—spies were masters of disguise.
He came in again, trying a few feints to get closer, then grabbing Illya's arm near the shoulder for a throw. He turned his body—Napoleon couldn't see what ensued—and Illya was free again, on his feet, and Bradley was shaking out his arm as if he'd strained it. He tried a couple of jabs, a little off balance, and Illya caught his arm and flipped him. Bradley slapped the mat hard, on his back, and rolled to his feet, pink-faced. He dove at Illya, low, getting him around the waist, and they both went down, rolling on the mat. Illya used an elbow to the gut to keep Bradley down while he continued the roll, springing to his feet.
Bradley got up, red-faced now, angry, and attacked once more.
Illya had had enough. He swept Bradley's feet out from under him with a low spin kick, but this time he didn't wait for Bradley to say uncle. He grabbed his elbow, flipped him over and drew his arm up behind his back, setting one knee between Bradley's shoulder blades.
Illya bent low over his captive. Napoleon couldn't hear what he said, but he smiled at the things he imagined.
Breathing hard, Bradley nodded. Illya bounced off him and into a standing position and Bradley climbed to his feet, shaking his head and muttering. The audience clapped and offered a few helpful bits of sarcastic advice.
Napoleon scraped the grin off his face. "If you're done embarrassing the new recruits," he called out, "can I talk to you a minute?" He made his tone friend to friend, not CEA to subordinate, and it wasn't lost on Bradley or the audience as every head turned.
Bradley, who obviously hadn't realized his new boss was watching, seemed to shrink about three inches in height.
Illya picked up his towel and crossed the mat as the others murmured. He joined Napoleon, who saw he hadn't even worked up a sweat, and said, "Don't say it."
Napoleon put his arm around his partner's shoulders and guided him out of the room. "Don't say 'nice work'? You went easy on him."
Illya shook his head. "Sorry. I'm angry at myself for rising to it. Or rather, lowering myself to it. It's not very professional."
"Look at it another way. Bradley obviously packed a rather oversized ego with him from Los Angeles. I can't take him down without risking ruining his confidence as an agent. He dug the hole himself."
"You handed him the shovel," Illya muttered sidelong. "In fact—I was the shovel."
Napoleon shrugged. "Better here than in the field. The others will give him a hard time for a while, and if he has any sense he'll realize that a spoonful of graciousness helps the humiliation—"
Illya shot him a look.
"Sorry. Humility—helps the humility go down."
Illya muttered, "I didn't mean to humiliate him."
Napoleon pushed his partner ahead of him toward the door to their shared office. It slid open and they entered.
"You didn't. He needed taking down a peg. I appreciate your help in doing it."
Illya pulled the towel off his shoulders, clenching it in both hands. "I shouldn't have..."
Napoleon enjoyed the view as his partner's motions flexed his recently developed biceps. Few things were more alluring than a beautiful creature unaware of its beauty. It took him a moment to remember what Illya had said. As the door shut behind him, he asked, "Then why did you?"
Illya glared at the towel, then snorted a soft laugh. "He irritated me."
"What?" Napoleon mocked, brows raised. "You? Never."
Illya flung the towel at him. Napoleon caught it deftly, twisting it and drawing back as if to flick his partner.
Blue eyes sparked, narrowed. "You wouldn't dare."
Napoleon, towel at the ready, slowly advanced on his partner. Startled, Illya began to back away. Napoleon reached out and flipped the towel over his partner's head, around his shoulders again.
"You're right," he said, tugging the towel ends. "I wouldn't dare. Not here, anyway." He grinned at the surprise that crossed his partner's face and let go. "Seriously, though. Don't worry about him. He's a hot dog. We were all that young once."
"I was never a ... hot dog."
Napoleon regarded his friend, considering the idea. "Hm ... maybe not in the traditional American way. You're insufferably arrogant, true, but you're quiet about it."
Illya rolled his eyes. "You wanted to talk to me? I'm assuming that abusing me doesn't count as talking."
"Yes. Two things. Has Mr. Waverly mentioned the satellite office talks with you?"
Illya nodded. "He had some questions about the KGB. And about Kiev."
Illya's brow creased. "Yes. Why?"
Napoleon cocked his head, puzzled. "I'm not sure. I had the impression he wanted to send you over there."
Illya's gaze wandered a bit as he thought back to the conversation he'd had the day before with Number One Section One. Finally he shook his head.
"He didn't suggest it. Which proves nothing. He always knows more than he tells."
"That's a trait all spies share," Napoleon said. "Never mind. I was just ..."
"Worried?" Illya teased.
"About losing you?" Napoleon said airily. "Why on earth would I worry about that?"
Illya peered at him. Napoleon kept a straight face but grinned inside.
"I don't know if I've just been praised or insulted," the Russian muttered. "But knowing you, I can take a stab at it." He glanced at his desk, saw a letter opener, and mischief brightened his face. "In fact..." He reached for the letter opener, slowly, and Napoleon let out his smile. Few things made Illya light up: Explosions, role-playing, and, occasionally, banter with Napoleon.
Illya stalked toward him, letter opener upraised, and Napoleon, with his instinctive knowledge of how to play a scene, spread his arms and closed his eyes.
"Go ahead," he said. "Right through the heart. I know you've wanted to for a long time." He screwed his face up as if expecting the thrust, waited a reasonable length of time, then opened one eye cautiously.
Illya had lowered the letter opener. A curious, even puzzled expression pinched his eyes as he looked at his partner.
Napoleon opened both eyes, raising his brows—and the stakes. "Now, I know you know where my heart is."
Illya lowered his gaze, set the letter opener back on the desk. "I think you give me too much credit." He shoved a couple of files around for a moment while Napoleon watched, thoughtful.
Then Illya looked at him. "What was the second thing?"
"You said you had two things to talk to me about."
Napoleon blinked. "Oh. My vacation starts tomorrow."
"One week in a lovely five-star manor house in the Highlands. No THRUSH, no enemies, no bombs, no guns, no poisons, no extremes of weather, not even any really steep hills to walk up."
"Yes, I remember."
Napoleon sat on the edge of his desk, arms crossed, brows arched, waiting.
"Oh, Napoleon..." Illya took hold of the towel ends again, clearly uncomfortable. Napoleon thought, looking closely, that his partner was also pleased.
"Give me one good reason," Illya demanded, exasperated.
"I can't go on holiday while you work," Napoleon said. He knew he didn't have to explain. Each man's safety had become the other's peace of mind.
Illya's hands dropped from the towel. "That was a low and unscrupulous thing to say."
"I'll stop at nothing." Napoleon got up. "Go home and pack. The flight leaves at 8 a.m."
Illya had to admit, the place was storybook perfect. The sprawling, grey stone manor house stood in a grassy vale beside a loch, surrounded by pine-covered hills. They parked on the gravel drive in front of the arched stone portico and a man in a old-fashioned black suit came out to take their bags.
"Welcome to Thorburne Park, gentlemen," he said as Napoleon opened the boot.
Illya got out, breathing in fresh autumn air, and noted there were three other cars in the small lot, apart from two paneled trucks with the name of the hotel discreetly stenciled on their doors. A black BMW, a cream-colored Rolls, and a red MG were soon to be joined by their blue Jaguar (Napoleon's choice of rental car, of course).
He walked to the edge of the lot where the grounds began, sloping down to the lakeside. He watched the small waves break white against the shore, scanned the green-clad hills all around, then turned back to the hotel.
He went into the elegant stone-and-panel lobby, where Napoleon was filling out some paperwork. A pretty blond woman, about 30, stood behind the counter.
"Oh, is this your friend?" she said. Napoleon glanced at Illya and continued writing.
"Illya Kuryakin," he said, shaking the hand she extended.
"Caroline Thorburne-Hennessy," she said. He looked for a ring and saw none. Divorced, then, or widowed. "Proprietress of this quaint old pile. I hope you'll enjoy your stay, Mr. Kuryakin, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon finished writing, gave her his patented charming smile. "I'm sure we will, Mrs. Thorburne-Hennessy."
She glowed. "Call me Caroline. Edgar will show you to your suite. You've missed tea, but supper is at 8. Don't hesitate to ring down if you need anything at all."
"Thank you, Caroline." Napoleon took her hand, kissed her fingers lightly. Illya turned his head to hide his smile at her blush and the agents followed Edgar into the tiny wood-paneled elevator.
"All the modern conveniences," Napoleon said, surprised, as the door slid shut.
"Oh yes sir," Edgar said dolefully. "All rooms ensuite, with showers and telephones. Two lifts. Electricity in all rooms, although we also keep candles and firewood, for both practical and—" he coughed—"romantic purposes."
Napoleon glanced at his partner. "Very sensible."
Illya was ignoring him, looking around at the carved paneling. "It must have been a very expensive renovation," he observed.
"I believe it was, sir. But madame caters for an elite clientele."
The suite was on the fourth floor, an elegant sitting room with a fireplace, and bedrooms on either side, each with its own bathroom.
Illya tipped Edgar and shut the door behind him, then went to the tall mullioned windows that flanked the fireplace. From the left-hand window he could see the edge of the loch and the woods that marched northward from the house. The right-hand window, much wider, with a cushioned seat, offered a broad vista of the water and the hills across it.
Napoleon came out of his bedroom, suit jacket removed.
"How about a walk before supper?" he said. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to limber up."
"Reconnoitre," Illya said, turning around.
"Same thing," Napoleon agreed.
The American, in the midst of pulling off his tie, paused. "Yes?"
"This must have been very expensive..."
Napoleon said, "Hasn't anyone ever told you it's impolite to inquire how much a gift cost the giver?"
Illya stood irresolute, courtesy warring with his natural desire to not be beholden to anyone, even his partner. Napoleon observed the battle, unbuttoning his shirt, untucking it, waiting for that moment when the right word would tip the balance.
The Russian glanced at him and Napoleon said gently, "Illya. It's only money."
Illya met his eyes, sighed.
Napoleon pulled his shirt off. "Anyway, you'll pay me back one way or another. Come on. Change and let's go for a stroll." He caught the surprise and suspicion in his partner's eyes and held in his grin until he was heading for his bedroom.
In jeans, flannel shirts, leather jackets and hiking boots, the two men set out for a brisk exploration of the vicinity. A crisp evening breeze set the leaves dancing and the pines waving; the loch water, dark blue, swirled in white eddies. They walked along the edge of the loch until they were off the house grounds, then toiled up a hill for a while, seeking access to a low stony ridge that overhung the water, promising a panoramic view of the area.
A little scrambling got them to the top of the ridge, where they stood, chill air in their lungs and the whole valley spread before their eyes. The sky was dotted with white clouds; the loch looked cold and uninviting; the house, about a mile to the south of them, appeared fairy-tale perfect.
Napoleon took a deep breath. "Well?"
Illya looked at him, face reddened by the wind, eyes alive with exertion and pleasure. He smiled his pretend-grudging smile. "You've dragged me to worse places."
Satisfied, Napoleon sat cross-legged on a flat space. After a moment his partner sat as well, dangling his legs over the edge where the rock dropped sheer about 20 feet to the loch. A hawk passed overhead and screamed once. Napoleon watched the wind toy with his partner's hair. He was surprised Illya had given in so easily to coming along. Usually he at least made a good show of not needing holidays or letting Napoleon coerce him into anything not work-related.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," he said. Illya twisted around to look at him.
"Sit so close to the edge. You're not required to recklessly endanger yourself when we're not working."
Illya peered over the edge. "It's only water."
Napoleon let his gaze scan the cloud-dotted sky, said blandly, "For all you know there are jagged rocks only inches below the surface."
"Aw, gee whiz, mom," Illya whined in a perfect 10-year-old American boy voice.
Napoleon tried not to laugh. "I worry. If I didn't love you..." He pouted a little.
"Oh, please." Illya picked up a rock and tossed it into the water. Napoleon said nothing. His partner waited a full minute, then scooted back from the edge.
"Happy?" he said darkly.
"Delirious," Napoleon replied, strangling a grin.
"Why did you choose this place?" Illya asked him.
"Mr. Waverly recommended it," Napoleon said. "As I recall his exact words were 'even you and Mr. Kuryakin ought to be able to stay out of trouble there.'"
Illya scowled. "You told him I was coming along? Before you even asked me?"
"No. I simply suggested you might."
Illya turned his gaze out to the water. "Do you take everyone for granted, or am I the sole beneficiary?"
His tone wasn't angry, and Napoleon smiled, though not in amusement. "One day you'll find out how untrue that is. But for now..." He got up, grabbed Illya's shoulders, sinking his fingers into the supple leather of the jacket and hauling his startled partner to his feet. He steadied him a moment, which Illya, with his catlike balance, didn't need. He turned to face Napoleon, and Napoleon almost—
He stopped, seeing puzzlement in Illya's eyes, and stepped back.
"Let's go get some dinner. I'm starved."
After dinner the guests gathered in the great hall. A fire blazed at one end; the other boasted floor-to-ceiling views to the loch, with a grand piano below the windows.
Napoleon, pouring scotch for himself and Colonel Grantley, an aged Brit, saw Illya and Caroline standing by the piano, the Russian running a covetous eye over the gleaming ebony instrument. Caroline, Napoleon noticed, was giving Illya a very similar look. He did look well, Napoleon had to admit—particularly now that he'd managed to persuade his Russian partner to trade in the ruffled shirts and red bow ties for a more classic tuxedo.
Illya said something and Caroline laughed, leaning against his shoulder. She stroked his bow tie.
"Something wrong?" Col. Grantley said.
Napoleon blinked. "Oh. Sorry, colonel. Neat, wasn't it?"
"Crime to drink good Scotch any other way, my boy."
Napoleon smiled. "I agree."
Napoleon handed the colonel his scotch, nodding.
"Doing any shooting?"
"Hope not," Napoleon said absently. "We're on holiday."
The colonel scowled. "What? Shoot for a living, then, do you?"
The first delicate notes of Schumann's Traumerei drifted along the darkly paneled hall toward them. Illya sat at the keyboard, Caroline beside him, one hand on the sheet music.
"They make a handsome pair," the colonel's wife said, coming up to join Napoleon and her husband. She gestured with her wine glass.
"Russian fellow," Grantley said. "Your friend?"
"He can play, give him that," the old man said grudgingly.
"Excuse me." Napoleon slipped away, away from the fire where the other guests were gathering around a table and a deck of cards, toward the french doors in the middle that opened out into a courtyard garden. He looked at the lighted fountain for a moment, hearing the murmur of conversation from one side and the music from the other. Then he turned to watch his partner play.
This was another side of Illya he saw only rarely, and one he cherished; his partner, as relaxed as he ever got in public, absorbed in the creation of something that gave him profound pleasure (although he sometimes—when Napoleon teased him about his poetic soul—insisted it was purely a matter of mathematical execution).
The two divorced sisters from London, Louisa and Angela, left the card game before the fire and came to join him. Both were lovely, educated and elegant. It was a surprising effort of will for Napoleon to shift his focus to them.
Well, maybe not surprising. From the day he and Illya had been partnered, this moment had been as inevitable to Napoleon as the ground to a skydiver. Exactly when and how he was going to hit was still a mystery, but, like any good parachutist, he'd been preparing for some time. He smiled ruefully. I hope it doesn't hurt too much.
"Your friend plays beautifully," Angela said. Illya had moved into Strauss waltzes.
"He's a man of many talents," Napoleon replied.
"I imagine you are as well," Louisa said.
"I like a woman with an imagination," he said.
She laughed. "For instance, I imagine you dance divinely."
He set down his scotch. "Shall we find out?"
Illya observed Napoleon talking with the stunning sisters. It was natural for him to watch over his partner at all times in the field, but he'd found that even in nonprofessional situations Napoleon had a knack for drawing his eye. He smiled to himself and emended the thought: not just his eye.
Sleek and elegant, Napoleon wore his personality like the finest tuxedo; intellect and confidence radiated from him, along with a natural warmth that made him irresistible to women and appealing to men. His charm was no less genuine simply because he used it as a weapon in the line of duty.
"What is it?" Caroline asked. He glanced at her. She'd stopped sorting through the sheet music and was looking at him curiously.
"I was thinking," he said, honestly, finishing the sentence with a blatant lie. "Something softer."
"More romantic?" she said, surprising him by adding, "to help your friend with his conquests?"
They smiled together, but Illya said, "My friend needs no help in that arena."
She laughed. "I can well believe that. What do you say to some Debussy?"
About an hour later, Napoleon and Louisa advanced on the piano.
"You seem to be out of vodka," Louisa said, pointing back at the drinks tray with one long red nail.
"There's more in the bar." Caroline started to rise, but Napoleon forestalled her.
"We can get it. My friend still needs a page-turner."
"Oh, I wouldn't..." Caroline began a polite protest, but Napoleon recognized it as form. She was where she wanted to be.
"No fear. I think I'll recognize a bottle of vodka when I see one."
Caroline smiled at him. "It's behind the bar."
He waved at her. "We shall return."
"Don't forget the ice," Illya said over his shoulder. Napoleon passed behind him, laid one hand on his shoulder, pressing for a moment before continuing across the hall and lobby toward the bar.
Caroline said, "You're good friends, aren't you?"
Illya looked at her, surprised. "Does it show?"
She smiled. "It does, Mr. Kuryakin."
Napoleon danced several times with Angela and Louisa, then once—with the colonel's permission—with Mrs. Grantley. The colonel, pleading a game leg earned in the war, sat watching benevolently as Mrs. Grantley smiled and blushed like a girl in Napoleon's arms.
When the music stopped Napoleon took a rest, surrounded by his female admirers. He looked up to see Caroline and Illya, still at the piano, deep in conversation.
Illya nodded, then glanced up, his gaze unerringly locating his partner's from across the room. Warmth like good scotch flowed into Napoleon at that look. He smiled and returned to exchanging bon mots and innuendo with the ladies.
When Col. Grantley interrupted to indicate it was time for him and his wife to retire, Napoleon again shot a look toward the piano. Illya was gone. Scanning the room, he spotted Caroline at the fire with the Stover family, a pasty uptight London businessman, his equally high-strung wife, and their lively red-cheeked twin sons, age 11, up well past their bedtime and playing a rowdy game of checkers on the bear rug in front of the fire.
Napoleon noted that Illya's departure had doused quite a bit of their lovely hostess' sparkle. He covered a yawn.
"I think I'll call it a night as well," he said, bowing to Angela and Louisa. Both ladies pouted.
"So early?" Angela said.
He kissed her hand. "Alas."
Louisa extended hers, holding on to Napoleon's as he bent over it. "It seems a shame to end the evening on such a ... tame note." Her eyes glittered at Napoleon.
"I agree," he said. "Unfortunately, I have this affliction."
"Affliction?" she repeated, startled.
"I turn into a pumpkin every night at precisely—" He glanced at his watch—"1:18. Good night, ladies." He bowed and withdrew, smiling to himself. Napoleon Solo, vaunted ladies man, abandoning a pair of lovely, bright, charming and very willing ladies so he could ... what? Tuck in his irascible partner?
Napoleon was shaking his head when he reached the elevator. You've got it bad, chum.
Illya sat in the deep window casement, vodka in hand, barefoot, wearing blue pyjamas, stretched out to almost his full length along the cushioned stone seat. The fire was down to embers, but the window was open, letting in chill air.
"You didn't even say good night," Napoleon said, closing and locking the door.
He went into the bedroom and doffed all the clothing he could reasonably remove: tie, jacket, vest, shoes and socks. He returned to the sitting room, unbuttoning his collar, and saw a scotch already poured, waiting for him on the table. Smiling, he collected it and went to the window. The broad glass bay offered a sweeping view of the loch and mountains.
"Cheers." He touched his glass to Illya's where it rested on his bent knee.
Napoleon leaned on the wall, gazing out as his partner was doing. The loch glittered black and grey in the moonlight. His eyes shifted to Illya. His partner looked thoughtful, but relaxed. At ease in a way Napoleon seldom saw, in a way he knew others never saw. The sight stroked more than Napoleon's ego.
"Are you enjoying your holiday so far?" he asked.
A smile touched Illya's mouth. "I am, thank you." He paused. "You seem to be as well. I'm a little surprised to see you back here so soon. Did the stunning sisters have an early appointment tomorrow?"
Napoleon lifted the scotch. "If you weren't expecting me..."
"I said a little surprised. You ..." Illya stopped.
His partner shook his head, scowling as he traced a thought that he'd obviously not pursued before. "I don't know. I've seen you in action enough times to know when you're just playing, I suppose."
Napoleon sipped his scotch, nonplussed that his partner read him so well and flattered that he went to the trouble. "That's not really why I'm here."
"Not for recreation?" Illya challenged.
Seriously, Napoleon said, "That kind of recreation is easily had. I'm after something a little harder to come by."
"Some quiet time with my partner," Napoleon braved. "Without anyone shooting at us or poisoning us or shoving us off cliffs."
The warmth that welled up in his partner's eyes thrilled him. As always, though, Illya fought against a full smile, and his words were sarcastic:
"That is harder to come by."
"I think I've managed it, though, wouldn't you say?" Napoleon said.
"You may find yourself disappointed," Illya said. "I'm not the most fascinating company."
"Let me be the judge of that," Napoleon said.
Illya shrugged one shoulder, downed the remainder of his vodka. "Well, if you don't know what my company is like, I don't know who would." He got up, returned to the cupboard for a refill.
Napoleon sat on the sofa and looked into the fire. He'd thought of so many avenues, so many ... the word techniques came to mind, and he cast it off in appallment. It smacked of deceit, of the persuasions he used on those women he bedded in the line of duty. Whatever he said to his partner, when he said it, would be the truth. That was the problem. There was too much truth in what he was feeling. He wasn't used to mixing this much truth with sex. With love, he might have said, but love was the easy part of his relationship with Illya.
What he could never seem to come up with was the courage. No one he'd ever known defended his soul the way Illya did. Napoleon thought, as he'd thought countless times, that maybe he should just be grateful his partner had let him in at all, and not ask for more.
Illya came around the sofa and sat down next to Napoleon. Napoleon looked at him. Small and neat in the dark pyjamas, Illya crossed his legs on the couch, both hands loosely framing the glass of vodka. His chiseled features could appear hard, cold; in profile, as now, even cruel. But sometimes ... sometimes he showed his heart in his eyes. Not on missions. Not in public. Sometimes ...
Like a child reaching for an illicit sweet, Napoleon said, "Illya."
His partner looked at him. Looked at him in that 'sometimes' way, the way that, so far as Napoleon knew, the Russian reserved for him.
Napoleon shook his head. He knows a thousand different ways to kill someone. But when he looks at you like that, you can almost believe he wouldn't use them on you if you moved over there and took him in your arms. You can almost believe he wants you to.
"What is it?" Illya asked.
"I ..." Napoleon blinked, quailed. "Nothing."
Illya returned his gaze to his drink. "Thank you for inviting me."
Puzzled, Napoleon said, "You've already thanked me. I'm glad you came. What's wrong?"
Illya shook his head, just once. "Nothing is wrong. I've just been thinking."
Lightly, Napoleon said, "I wish you wouldn't. Even if nothing's wrong when you start out, if you think long enough you're bound to find something."
Illya didn't react to the joke. "Do you know why I didn't want to come?"
Uh oh. "I can think of a number of reasons. None of them good, by the way. Would you care to narrow it down?"
Illya lifted his glass, took a swig, swallowed. "Do you think we are too dependent on one another?" He slid a sidelong glance at his partner, not long enough for Napoleon to read.
Illya shook his head again, sharply, impatient. "You say that without thinking."
"I don't need to think about it," Napoleon said. "Contrary to popular opinion, I can only speak for myself. I depend on you completely. Totally. Utterly. All those words that mean to the end. And beyond."
Despite himself—Napoleon could clearly see him fighting it—Illya's mouth twitched.
"Is that too dependent?" Napoleon sipped his scotch. "All I know is I've never regretted it."
"It's so easy for you," Illya said softly.
Napoleon shrugged. "Some things are. You're difficult as hell in a lot of ways, but in some ways, my relationship with you is easy." He emptied the scotch, set the glass on the side table. "That takes care of me. Now do you want to talk about what's bothering you?"
Illya drained his vodka but held on to the glass, turning it in slow circles.
"My life has revolved around UNCLE for many years. And ... in the past few years, it has come to revolve around you."
Though Napoleon's heart cringed at the thought that Illya regretted their partnership, their friendship, their invaluable closeness, his concern for Illya enabled him to keep his tone even.
"And that bothers you?"
"I think it should bother you," Illya said, again giving him a sidelong look.
"Hey." Napoleon leaned forward, lifted Illya's glass out of his hands and clasped them in his own. Illya's startled eyes locked onto his.
"You can never be too close to me. Okay?" He tugged gently on his partner's arms, let him go. "What are you really worried about?" Illya would gnaw his own leg off rather than admit to being caught in the trap of needing reassurance, but he clearly needed it.
"There's too much time to think here," Illya groused. "I was thinking about what would happen if ..." He shook his head, irritated at himself. "Sorry."
"No. Say it." Illya shot him a look. "That's what we're here for."
"Partly. One of the unfortunate side effects of downtime is that you start questioning your existence as soon as you stop having to protect it. The minute the outside demons stop chasing you, the inner ones start up." Napoleon got up and went to refill his glass. He'd been so preoccupied with his own feelings that the turn of the conversation had taken him by surprise. He poured more scotch, forcing himself to admit that he'd hoped his partner's thoughts had been running along the same lines as his.
He came back to the couch, this time sitting in a chair across from Illya where he could see his eyes. Illya glanced up at him, almost shyly, as though he were relieved not to be chastised for doing something so foolish as feeling.
"It's me," Napoleon said. "You can say it."
"I just ..." Illya flung himself upright and moved to the fire, then to the window, where—not facing his partner—he blurted out:
"I would not know what to do if I lost you."
Napoleon's hand clenched around his glass, and the surface of the amber liquid trembled. He ought to have gloried in the revelation of how much he meant to Illya, though his independent-minded partner saw it as a weakness. Instead, he felt sick with the knowledge that he could not, now, do what he most longed to do—and more sick with knowing exactly why. If he got up and took his partner in his arms right now, he wouldn't stop there. And Illya would think it some cheap distraction—the infamous Napoleon Solo doing what he did to shut someone up when he was hearing something he didn't want to hear. Illya had seen it too many times to understand, right now, that it would have had almost nothing to do with his current distress.
Carefully Napoleon said, "Never in my life have I received a higher compliment."
Illya glanced at him. "You always know the right thing to say, don't you?" His tone made it evident that he heard, and appreciated, his partner's sincerity. They lied constantly. Lies were necessary weapons in their work, no less than guns. That made the truth they knew between them all the more precious.
"Not in this case," Napoleon said. "I've got no guarantees, no promises, no comfort. I've tried, believe me. If I had come up with one solid reassurance in all the hours I've spent agonizing over it after the nightmares woke me ..."
Illya's eyes returned to him, intent. Napoleon chuckled softly.
"...I'd share it with you," he went on. Calmer, he got up, following his partner's path to the window. Illya watched him advance, expressionless.
Napoleon sat down in the window seat in front of his partner, stretched out his legs along its cushioned length, and sighed.
"We're in this together. We're at sea with no land in sight, and the sharks are circling." He looked out at the loch, black under the moonlight, and smiled. "But there is no one else in the world I would rather have in the boat with me." He glanced at Illya. The Russian gazed down at him, a wondrously rare affection softening his sober face. Napoleon's hand rose of its own accord; he gently brushed the backs of his fingers across his partner's jaw. Illya blinked, surprised but unoffended. Napoleon clenched his fist, let it fall. Not now.
"You can only lose me to death," he said. "And that's inevitable."
Illya's smile was tentative, strange. "I take it back. You don't always know the right thing to say."
"I'm hampered by my inability to lie to you," Napoleon said, raising his glass to his partner.
"Inability?" Illya echoed, leaning on the wall, aplomb reestablished. That it had wavered, however briefly, gave Napoleon some hope.
"There are some absolutes even in a spy's life," Napoleon said. "You're the chief absolute in mine."
"That's a heavy burden," Illya said.
"At least I know what I would do if I lost you," Napoleon said. "After I killed whoever was responsible, of course."
"Of course." Illya waited. "Were you going to tell me?"
"Hm? Oh." Napoleon shrugged, although the matter wasn't a casual one. He'd thought about it a lot. "Well, there is a bullet out there somewhere with my name on it."
Illya closed his eyes, cursing softly in Russian. His eyes opened, narrowed in entreaty. "Napoleon..."
"I'd continue to do my job," Napoleon said levelly. "Mostly because I know you'd want me to. But when that bullet came ..." He looked out the window again, seeing that all-too-possible future, black as the surface of the loch. "Sometimes the only thing that's stood between life and death for me has been knowing which side you were waiting on."
He shook his head at his own mistake. Never look any further ahead than victory; it was drilled into them in Survival School. What if was a trap, the crippling trap of fear.
Illya's hand slid onto his shoulder, squeezed. Napoleon turned. The pain in his partner's clear eyes made his heart flinch.
Illya said, "You shouldn't need anyone that much."
Napoleon exhaled a soft laugh and covered Illya's hand with his own.
A smile tickled the corners of his Illya's mouth, but didn't reach his eyes. Napoleon crossed his legs and faced the window again, patting the space beside him. Illya curled into it, Indian-style like his partner. Side by side they gazed at the water, wrapped in silence and in their need to be close.
Finally Illya said, "The sun will be up in four hours."
Napoleon replied, "I have nowhere to be."
They spent two days exploring the countryside and the house. Napoleon found himself, strangely, in no hurry to press his case with his partner. It occurred to him that, ulterior motive aside, they both needed the vacation. They rose early and hiked the hills, came back to the house for a hearty breakfast, then took a rowboat out on the loch before lunch. Afternoons they spent in the well-stocked library or playing cards or chess in the great hall, with one another when they could manage it. Caroline recruited Illya, afternoons and evenings, to play the piano, and Illya did so willingly. On their third day there, she took her small party of guests on a tour of the house.
In the dungeons, they stopped in front of a modest collection of medieval torture devices. The colonel and his wife were properly horrified by the display; the stunning sisters were equally fascinated and disgusted; the Stovers told their children not to look, but the boys did anyway. They were too young to be embarrassed by their own interest. Watching them all, Napoleon wondered what was on his own face, what would be on theirs if they'd seen these items in action. Had them used on them, or on someone they loved.
"I'm not exactly sure what that is," Caroline said as the boys exclaimed over a sort of cage shaped like a head, with a thin metal protrusion, like a tongue going backwards, attached to the mouth area. "A helmet or something. I don't know what the little prong means, though."
"It's called the scold's bridle," Illya said, fingering the rusting metal. "Or the brank." The boys turned to look at him. So did Caroline. "It was put on the heads of gossipy women, or nags, as punishment; the prong would extend into their mouths."
Mrs. Grantley gasped. The boys grinned.
"It wasn't fatal," Illya said fiendishly. "Just very uncomfortable."
"What's this then?" one of the boys asked Illya, dragging him over to a circular metal device.
"That's called Skeffington's gyves," he said. "Or the scavenger's daughter. It was fastened on a man's body in such a way that he was folded up in thirds—" Illya illustrated with his hands, and the boys cringed dramatically—"then it was tightened ..."
"Good God, man!" Col. Grantley exclaimed.
Illya and the boys looked up. Napoleon almost laughed aloud; their expressions were identical: three children caught being fascinated by something horrible.
"There's no call for all this," the colonel huffed. His wife was leaning on his arm, looking rather pale. The other women were simply gaping.
"Perhaps we should continue on," Napoleon said, gesturing toward the door.
Caroline collected herself with a start. "Yes. Yes of course. This way, everyone, please."
Sidelong to his partner as they trailed the others, Napoleon said, "You're just a font of appalling information, aren't you?"
"That's why you love me," his partner said drily.
Napoleon grabbed the back of his neck and shook him lightly. "No," he said. "That's not why."
The next day Napoleon let Mr. Stover talk him into going fishing with the twins. Illya, lying on his stomach on the thick wool rug in front of the fire, book before him, declined in a fair imitation of horror.
"Two hyperactive spoiled boys and one anal-compulsive father in a small boat? I'd rather stick my head in the brank." He shook his head, turned a page of the fat tome. "Go ahead. Have fun. I've been wanting to read this history of the house."
"I'll bring you back a trout," Napoleon said, waving. He went downstairs, mind full of the image of his partner sprawled on the rug, of turning him over and peeling those damn' jeans off him...
Napoleon blinked the image away. Maybe it was time to surrender patience.
Out on the loch, the first thing he caught was a headache from listening to the spineless wheedling Mr. Stover mistook for parenting. They weren't bad kids, just unmanageable by a dad who'd clearly forgotten what it was like to be one, and they both took a liking to Napoleon when he showed them the easiest way to bait their hooks.
"You and your friend have an interesting variety of talents," Mr. Stover observed as they cast their lines. The day was cold and drizzly, with a sharp wind.
Perfect for staying indoors. Why did I do this again?
"He's fab!" one of the twins exclaimed.
"He knows all about torture!" the other cried.
Napoleon grinned. "Mr. Kuryakin is an expert in many things." Torture being one of them, in more ways than one.
"What is it you gentlemen do?" Stover asked.
"We're international spies, Mr. Stover." The boys eyed Napoleon, half impressed, half sure he was kidding. "Yourself?"
"Dad's only a banker," one of the boys said.
Napoleon observed, "Well, someone has to be. Looks like you've got a bite, there, Mr. Stover." He winked at the boys while Stover wrestled with his pole.
Napoleon returned that afternoon with two trout, a mild case of windburn and the headache. Typically, it stopped raining the moment he stepped inside. He deposited the fish with Caroline's cook and went upstairs. Illya wasn't in their rooms as he passed through. He took a leisurely hot shower to wash the scent of bait and fish and annoyance off his tired body, then threw on chinos and a casual shirt. When he came back into the sitting room, his partner stood at the window, disassembling his communicator.
"What's up?" Napoleon asked.
Illya glanced at him. "That was Mr. Waverly."
"Oh no." Despite his protest Napoleon's brain instantly switched back into work mode.
Illya shook his head. "Not a mission. He ... he wanted to warn me. The satellite talks. It looks ... promising."
"I've heard that before," Napoleon said. "I can't believe the Soviet will go for it."
"They're willing to consider it, but they have told Mr. Waverly that I must be part of the deal."
Napoleon snorted. "As hostage?"
Illya shook his head again, turning to the window. "As head of the office. I don't know what has possessed them, but they told Mr. Waverly they wouldn't trust anyone else."
Napoleon scowled, feeling a small burn in the pit of his stomach. "That doesn't make any sense."
His partner shrugged. "In a twisted way it does. In any event, Mr. Waverly wanted to warn me that the possibility is being discussed. That I need to be prepared."
Napoleon sat on the back of the couch, watching his partner. "You can't ... do you want to do this?"
Illya snorted. "An administrative job, in the Soviet Union? That would be as close to hell as an atheist can get."
Napoleon forced a smile. "Did Mr. Waverly give you any idea which way things would go?"
Illya shook his head. "He said he doesn't want to give me up, but he doesn't have complete authority over the decision. There are other organizations involved, with interest in having a neutral observer behind the Iron Curtain."
I'm not giving you up, Napoleon thought fiercely. I don't care who has authority over what.
He realized his partner was peering worriedly at him.
"Don't be angry," Illya said. "I'm sure Mr. Waverly will do his best."
"I'm not angry at Mr. Waverly. I'm just ..." He waved a hand. "Angry. When will they decide?"
"Mr. Waverly said they are supposed to be finished by the end of the week." Illya moved abruptly, startling Napoleon. "Come on," he said, headed for the door.
"Where?" Napoleon said, drawn in Illya's wake.
"I need to go for a walk."
"In lieu of killing something?" Napoleon said, not really joking.
They hiked south along the rocky loch edge, a route too rough and slippery for the house's usual guests. Napoleon simply scrambled along beside his partner, knowing that Illya needed to physically work out some of his anger and frustration before he could talk about it.
Finally they stopped at a little inlet, surrounded by trees and boulders, where the tiny pebbles on the beach hissed as the waves stroked them, first one way, then the other. There Illya at last stopped, breathing hard, and Napoleon stopped behind him, waiting. The Russian walked to the edge of the water, catching his breath, jaw set, posture stiff.
Napoleon sat on a flat rock. He felt grateful Illya hadn't wanted to walk out alone. That said something, something he was glad to hear. But it didn't make the situation any better.
"What will you do?" he asked.
Illya laughed, a bitter, soft sound. "What I'm told."
Napoleon shook his head. Despite all their training and talent and ability, ultimately they were no more than weapons. UNCLE pointed them at a target, and they attacked. UNCLE's noble goals, he supposed, were what made that possible. Maybe inevitable. I never wanted to be sacrificed for the sake of the world, but I'll do it if I must. He looked at his partner. But do I have to sacrifice you too?
Illya drew in a breath, shoulders rising and falling. "Kiev isn't the moon. And there is the real possibility of doing good."
"Oh, no you don't," Napoleon said. "Don't throw that in my face. So you're willing to just pack up and return to the world you left behind in the hope things have changed enough that you can make a difference? They haven't. You know that."
"You forget it's not my decision." Illya finally looked at him, a brief, sideways look, not angry.
"You could quit," Napoleon said, despising himself for suggesting it.
Illya shook his head. "That is unacceptable."
The coward's way out, Napoleon thought, but knew Illya would never place himself in so heroic a light as to put it that way.
"It's not decided, anyway," he said with an effort. "If Mr. Waverly can't sway the panel, I can't imagine who could."
Illya's silence shot down Napoleon's hope effortlessly. Finally he said:
"I don't want to leave."
Anger jerked Napoleon to his feet. He wanted to shout, you're not leaving. But the last thing Illya needed was for his partner to act like a child. He advanced on Illya, laid his hands on his shoulders from behind.
"Maybe you won't have to. Don't give up." He shook him gently. "Besides, I'll have a thing or two to say about that."
He felt Illya's shoulders shift in a faint laugh. "I wish you ran the world, Napoleon."
"Don't." Darkness welled in him, and he found his arms sliding around Illya's shoulders, found the truth slipping out. "I'm not letting you go. I don't care who decides what."
Illya stiffened for one heartbeat, then his hands came up, wrapping around Napoleon's forearms. "Napoleon ..." The word held worry, affection and doubt ... and above it all a question.
Napoleon leaned closer. He felt the rapid rise and fall of his partner's chest within his embrace. Reassured and excited at the same time, he tilted his head, let his lips rest, warm, on Illya's neck, more a revelation of intent than a kiss. Illya's pulse accelerated against his mouth; his fingers tightened on Napoleon's arms.
Napoleon's blood surged as his partner leaned into that small contact. Napoleon turned him around. Illya's eyes were stunned, sparkling.
"What ... are you—"
Napoleon repeated, "I'm not letting you go."
Illya blinked, shook his head.
Napoleon silenced his protest by covering his partner's mouth with his own. Illya's lips, cool in the autumn air, warmed instantly under the gentle contact, strangely familiar and at the same time electric. Napoleon held his partner's shoulders lightly, ready for resistance, ready to back off and, if necessary, defend himself. Those concerns dissolved when Illya eased closer, his mouth melting open, inviting Napoleon's tongue.
Illya's low groan rumbled against Napoleon's chest. Body igniting, he pulled the Russian close—then Illya pushed away, a sharp shove that jolted Napoleon.
"Someone ..." Illya paused, breathing hard, eyes glazed. "Someone might see."
"I don't care," Napoleon said, moving closer. Illya stiff-armed him and moved away, striding off toward the house. Napoleon let his partner have a few yards' headstart while he caught his own breath, then followed.
Caroline stood at the lobby desk as Illya slammed through the front doors.
"Good evening," she said. "Did you have a nice amble?"
"Lovely," Illya snarled as he strode past her for the elevator.
Bewildered, she looked at Napoleon as he came in.
"Is something wrong?" she asked. Napoleon looked at her, shook his head.
"No. Everything is fine. Why?"
She looked toward the elevator. "Well, Mr. Kuryakin ... looked ... well, disturbed."
Napoleon grinned. "Good. Would you excuse me?" He hurried after his partner.
Illya was disappearing into the elevator. The doors started to slide shut.
"Hold!" he called out, and a hand appeared to catch the doors as they started to close.
Napoleon darted inside. Illya let go the door and backed against the wall, eyeing him warily. Napoleon glanced at the counter. "Four," he said speculatively, then advanced on his partner.
Illya straightened up against the wall, but had time only for the first syllable of protest before Napoleon pressed against him, his lips hot on his partner's, bodies hard against one another for the time it took Napoleon invade and conquer Illya's mouth.
He clutched at Illya's tensed arms as he tasted him, sucking each lip, biting ... until the pounding in his body and brain forced him to pull back, dizzied.
Napoleon clenched his teeth, unable to speak. He leaned against his trembling partner, breathing hard, listening to Illya's panting in his ear. He smelled of heather, of pine and fresh air and himself.
The elevator dinged and stopped, and Illya bodily lifted him away as the doors slid open. The Russian's fingers, knotted in Napoleon's jacket, told him as much as lllya's flushed face. They separated and walked, two drunken men, along the silent stone corridor to the suite.
Napoleon watched as his partner dug in his pocket for the key, his eyes tracing the outlines under those jeans as he rarely allowed himself to do. Illya opened the door and moved inside. Within, Napoleon pushed the door shut and locked it even as Illya turned to face him.
"What are you—" Illya began, but the remainder of the question was lost as Napoleon pinned him against the wall, his mouth burning a trail of devastation across the Russian's face and neck.
Illya grabbed his head and pulled him up for a blindingly hot kiss, then pushed him back, holding him, one still moment for Napoleon to feel the blood throbbing against his skin as if demanding exit. His erection pulsed in his pants, his fists clenching and unclenching with the hammerfalls of his heart.
Illya let go, his eyes holding Napoleon's, hypnotic in their intensity. He shrugged off his leather jacket and the holster underneath, dropping the latter atop the former. He pulled his sweater swiftly over his head and discarded it.
He paused, hands at the top button of his jeans, and Napoleon's eyes stroked his length, feeling his skin, tasting it in his mind. He zeroed in on Illya's fingers, slowly unbuttoning the jeans, and clenched his teeth as he waited for each additional inch of taut flesh to be unveiled.
After the fourth button revealed not only the absence of briefs but the presence of a lovely turgid cock, Napoleon glanced at his partner's face, exhaled, "Teasing bastard."
Illya paused. Smiled.
Growling, Napoleon attacked, pulling down the jeans and sliding his hands up the backs of Illya's hard thighs, caressing his ass, trailing his mouth and tongue along his partner's taut, trembling stomach.
Illya yanked Napoleon's jacket and holster off his shoulders, tore ineffectually at his shirt for a moment before Napoleon took his lips from one gold-red nipple and ripped the shirt open, scattering buttons as he dropped the crisp white cotton to the floor. He moved against his partner again, gasping as skin sizzled against skin.
Illya breathed raggedly against his cheek. "I n-need ..." The demand was punctuated by the Russian's tongue in his ear, then along his neck. Napoleon shuddered as teeth grazed the line of his shoulder, down his arm. He slid one hand into that silky golden hair, wrapped the other around Illya's firm ass, and pulled his partner against him, ravaging his sweet mouth.
Illya said something in Russian—Napoleon had no idea what—and pulled him into the sitting room, past the glow of the fireplace and into his bedroom.
There Illya grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him, and pushed him onto the huge, soft four-poster bed. Napoleon landed, bounced, and laughed breathlessly, clutching at his partner's arms as the Russian braced himself above him.
"Now what?" Napoleon breathed, teeth clenched, aching.
With one hand Illya undid Napoleon's belt and whipped it free of his pants. Then he unbuttoned the chinos and unzipped them, careful not to touch his partner's flesh, though Napoleon arched back and closed his eyes, blood howling.
He felt his pants and briefs yanked down, away. The cool air of the room tickled his hot skin and he lifted his head to look at his partner. Illya hovered over him, flushed, jaw taut, eyes scorching down Napoleon's feverish body.
Not letting his partner go, Illya slid his lower body over Napoleon's, a fiery brush of skin at first, no more, but Napoleon was already so hot, so close, it was like striking a match.
Then Illya eased down onto his partner's hips. Napoleon clenched his jaw as their erections pressed together.
Illya let his weight rest between his partner's thighs, their mingled heat generating a sheen of sweat. Then he moved, hard muscle, hard cock, gliding his hips up and down. Napoleon groaned, tried to get free, to pull Illya even closer, but Illya wouldn't let him go. He glared at Napoleon, eyes narrowed, glazed with need. Napoleon's hips jerked up, forcing them tighter; the fire swelled as they pumped against each other, building, exploding between them in a one-two burst that forced cries from them both.
Napoleon took advantage of the moment to grab his partner and pull him down, against him full length, feeling the aftermath of orgasm in Illya's trembling body and the fast breaths against his neck. He wrapped heavy arms around his partner and held on, breathing deeply until thought crept back in to his sensation-blinded brain.
Illya's breath slowed against his skin. Then his lips caressed the pulse point just under Napoleon's jaw. His tongue followed.
"You taste good," he said, low. Napoleon tightened his arms and exhaled a sigh, sated.
Illya shifted a little. "Shower."
Napoleon groaned. "Now?"
"Clean as a cat," Illya said, throwing one of Napoleon's accusations against him in his face. In fact they both practiced scrupulous hygiene when possible—perhaps because on so many missions it wasn't.
"Yes. And just as selfish," Napoleon riposted, then, after a moment of fantasizing about cat baths, when Illya shifted again, Napoleon let him go. He watched that sleekly muscled golden body disappear into the adjoining bathroom. He lay there a few minutes longer, savoring content, then got up, following his partner.
Illya leaned in the doorway of the shower cubicle, twisting the faucets. Hot water gushed out and he drew back, looking over his shoulder at Napoleon. Steam misted around him.
Napoleon stood in the doorway, watching the steam collect in glistening beads on Illya's skin. He smiled. Puzzlement, then understanding, touched Illya's face.
"Come here," he ordered, an answering smile not on his face, but warm in his voice.
"God." Napoleon spread out, limp, atop the comforter. Faint sounds from the sitting room told him his partner's location. "I feel like a 17-year-old. That is, I felt like one a little while ago. Now I feel my age. And then some."
"All Americans are soft," Illya said as he plunked down on the bed.
Napoleon opened one eye as something hard and cold settled on his chest. A glass of scotch.
"Cheers." He took hold of it and had a few sips. His partner sat naked, cross-legged, his own hair still damp from the shower, a crudely made bread and cheese sandwich in one hand, a glass of vodka in the other. He looked 17. Except for the eyes. And the scars.
"Decadent," Illya elaborated. He still pronounced the word in a very European way, accenting the second syllable.
"Thanks," Napoleon said sourly, setting the scotch on the bedside table. "I love you too."
Illya bit, chewed, swallowed. "No stamina. Thin blood." He took a drink of vodka.
"After my nap I'm going to kill you," Napoleon said, closing his eyes again.
After a long silence—Napoleon was on the edge of sleep—Illya said, "Look at you."
The American opened his eyes. He'd never seen Illya look at him like this, gleaming gaze stroking him up and down. Had the Russian been hiding it too, as he had done, sneaking hungry glances when he could, storing up the fierce desire toward some idyll like this?
"Lying there," Illya said in faked contempt. "Naked, asleep. Helpless."
Napoleon closed his eyes again, smiling. "Not while I have you watching over me."
Illya snorted, obviously pleased. "And what if I wish to sleep?"
Napoleon opened his eyes, sat up, turned and plumped the pillow beside him, then pulled the comforter back and looked at his partner. "Then I'll watch over you." He crossed his arms and waited.
Illya shook his head in amaze. "You are a bastard. How did any woman ever stand a chance?"
"Hey, I give as good as I get. If not better." Napoleon grabbed him, pulling him down.
"I'm cold," Napoleon lied, wrapping his arms around his struggling partner. He rolled until Illya was under him, and had stopped struggling.
"That's what blankets are for," Illya said as Napoleon lifted up a little.
"Blankets are fine..." Napoleon bent to kiss his partner's adam's apple, roaming Illya's throat and chin as he spoke. "...as a last resort..." a warm kiss to the notch between the collarbones "...if you don't have..." a stroking tongue down the chest—Napoleon smiled to feel Illya's shuddering intake of breath "...something better..." his lips and tongue danced lower "...to warm you up." He slid his hands under Illya's arched back, to his taut gluteal muscles, wrapping his fingers around his partner's thighs as he slid his body between them, zeroing in on one erection, already under way.
Illya groaned, and Napoleon glanced up to see his hands squeezing the life out of the comforter on either side.
"Did you say something?" he purred innocently, tasting the underside of Illya's cock, tickling the moist tip with his lips and tongue. Illya gasped, spoke through clenched teeth:
"I thought you said ... you were going to kill me."
Napoleon grinned. "I didn't say how." He pounced.
Napoleon awoke slowly, heavy, with a smile on his face whose cause became clear when he realized a hand rested on his chest—the only remaining contact between himself and his tossing and turning partner.
Illya slept beside him, on his stomach, sprawled, uncovered to the small of his back, his face mashed into a pillow. He slept like a cat, boneless, shameless. Napoleon stared, bewildered that he had never realized, in years of seeing his partner asleep, how unbearably sexy he was in that state.
He wondered, marveled. Sex hadn't been like this in years—insane, thought-blinding, intoxicating. Because he was with Illya, the only human on the planet he trusted. Only with Illya could all guard, all fears, be left outside the door. Whatever concerns he had—they both might have—about this overwhelming shift in their relationship, the bedrock of that relationship was trust, and it was that which had allowed them to experience this ... Napoleon smiled. There were no words for it, for this that he had longed for. It was unbelievable, and at the same time more real than anything he'd ever known.
He got up, carefully so as not to wake his partner, and went into the sitting room.
Illya stirred out of a sleep so deep he wondered if he'd been drugged. If he had, considering the marvelous sated lassitude that purred in his veins, it was a drug he wanted more of.
Then he remembered. He shot upright, heartrate doubled as he looked around at the devastated landscape of the bed. Still dark; his clock said 1:13. But where was ...
Napoleon walked in the door to see Illya sitting up in the rumpled four-poster, naked, hair and alarm in his eyes.
Napoleon stopped. He wore a red silk robe, and his smile was like slowly poured brandy.
"I went out so I could come back in and see you sleeping." He approached the bed slowly, relieved to see the taut shoulders relax, the alarm fade from Illya's eyes, replaced by dubious pleasure. "But I think this is even better."
He crawled onto the bed, advancing on his partner. Illya scooted back until he was against the carved wooden headboard. Napoleon stopped, no more than three inches away, and looked him up and down, breathing in Illya's scent, now mingled with his own.
"Napoleon ..?" Illya said.
His voice burned like the finest scotch along his partner's nerve endings. Napoleon leaned closer, his cheek next to Illya's, and said, "Yes?"
He stroked Illya's face with his, feeling the unfamiliar scrape of stubble against his own unshaven skin, and even that was erotic. He turned his head as his partner did the same, then took advantage of angle and proximity to run his tongue across Illya's mouth as it opened. His lips closely followed.
Whatever the Russian had planned to say at that moment got lost in transmission, but much else was communicated in a few steaming seconds.
Illya grabbed his shoulders and flipped him onto his back, holding him down. Blood tingling, Napoleon didn't struggle. Somehow Illya twisted free of the blankets.
"Please ..." Napoleon breathed, or thought, and Illya descended, slowly, tasting the skin of his chest, his ribs, his navel, his hip. The Russian used his lips and tongue and teeth to paint flame along his partner's body, igniting his blood.
"God ..." Napoleon groaned as his cock hummed, hard and needy. Illya paused, nibbled both rock-muscled thighs. Napoleon clutched at the blankets, hips jerking up. Illya seized his legs and held him down.
"Ill...Illy..." Napoleon couldn't speak, couldn't think—couldn't breathe. His partner's breath tickled the hair at his groin, then Illya's mouth surrounded him, hot and tight, and he cried out.
Illya stroked him with his mouth and tongue, hard, fierce strokes, and Napoleon writhed under him, pumping, gasping, stabbed with fire. Control, thought, everything flared to ashes as he came hard, emptying into that unforgiving mouth, shuddering helplessly, stars exploding behind his eyelids. He had no idea what he shouted as he came, no idea how long it was before he became aware of himself lying damp, limp, panting.
Then he was aware of his partner, stroking his chest affectionately. Amazed, Napoleon raised his heavy head to look at his partner. He'd never seen Illya show any spontaneous physical affection, not even with the women he'd been involved with.
"Are you all right?" Illya asked, tracing his partner's jaw with his fingertips.
Napoleon shook his head. "I don't know. I think I may have died and gone to heaven."
Illya smiled faintly. "I don't think they do things like this in heaven."
"Then it's a damn good thing we're not likely to end up there," Napoleon said, forcing himself to sit up. "Ah, just as I suspected."
Illya followed his partner's gaze, down to his own unrelieved erection.
"You don't have to—" he began. Napoleon shook his head once, a clear warning, and his partner stopped.
"Now," Napoleon said softly, punctuating his words with a slow, deep kiss. "What do you want?"
Illya slid his hands around his partner's back, cupping his ass. His fingers slipped deeper and Napoleon gasped, his hips jerking toward his partner's.
"Oh ..." He exhaled the word, feeling his dead body coming back to life.
Illya held his gaze. "Do ... do you trust me to ..."
Napoleon glared at him, hard, almost annoyed. "I'd trust you to cut me in half and put me back together. Jesus, Illya, I've wanted you so bad I could taste it for years." He turned over and pressed his backside against Illya's groin. "Don't chicken out on me."
Illya clutched at him, breathing harsh in his ear, but then said: "We should use ..."
Napoleon bounded up out of the bed and marched from the room. He went into his bathroom, dug into his toiletries case, and was back within a minute.
Illya stared at the vial in his partner's hand, astounded at the implications.
"You mean that ... that you ..."
Napoleon tossed the lubricant to his partner, whose reflexes were such that, despite his state, he caught it easily. Then the American flung himself onto the bed, threaded his arms around Illya and treated him to a lingering kiss that left Napoleon with a fresh erection and his partner in a knot of grit-toothed need. Illya grabbed his partner and bodily turned him over. Napoleon bounced, laughing again at the thrill of unaccustomed muscle used on him in bed.
"You are for sure not a lady," he said. Illya growled and pushed him flat, trailing teeth and tongue down his spine, over each cheek—then between. Napoleon sank his own teeth into the pillow as his partner's tongue probed that hot cleft. Slick fingers followed, stroking delicately, deeper with each touch.
He turned his head to grind out the words: "And you're no gentleman eith—ohh ..." His body arched as his partner gently entered him. "God..." He pressed backward, blood and electricity flooding him, his own cock jolted by the connection, the hot moist slide of his partner inside him.
"You feel so good," Illya breathed into his ear, wrapping his hands around his partner's hips to pull them closer. Delirious, Napoleon clutched a pillow to his chest, fingers digging into it as his partner began to move, slow, tight, rocking him, filling him. Illya's teeth fastened on the meat of his shoulder; the sounds he made, unintentional, unavoidable, pumped life into Napoleon's cock. He reached down to stroke himself and Illya shoved his hand away, wrapping his own grip around his partner. The feel of his partner's sweat-slicked body against him, shuddering as he came hot and hard inside Napoleon, drove the American to his second orgasm. Illya milked him, frantically at first as his own orgasm jolted him, then gentler as they finished together, slower, gasping, groaning, taut bodies easing into a sated pool of warm limbs and calming hearts.
Illya drew slowly from him and Napoleon turned over to pull his partner close, closer, into one space, into one being, one heart beating the words "I love you" at every pulse. Maybe he said those words aloud, as they slipped into sleep. Napoleon was never sure, afterward.
Napoleon woke up near dawn to the certainty he was being watched. He opened bleary eyes to see Illya seated beside him, looking at him, brow pinched.
Napoleon, like most agents, had an acute sense of self preservation. Right now it was telling him to tread carefully and assume nothing.
"Good morning," he said, looking his partner over. "Have I ever told you how gorgeous you look in the morning?"
"Not that I can recall," Illya said. The answer, though perfunctory, was at least not angry. "I'd like to ask you a question."
"You may ask me anything you like, particularly if it involves invitations to such activities as I remember from last night."
That, to Napoleon's relief, generated a ghost of a hint of a suggestion of a smile in his partner's eyes. I just might live to see the sun set.
"You brought ..." Illya's gaze darted to the bedside table.
Ah. "Lubricant," Napoleon supplied, shifting to sit up in the bed. "The word is lubricant, and yes, I did bring it."
"Because you thought ..." Illya's naturally warm tone cooled noticeably within those few words.
"Because I knew." Napoleon sat up straighter, needing to be eye to eye with Illya. "I knew that I was going to find some way of telling you that, in addition to being my partner and my dearest friend, I wanted you to be my lover. I didn't know how. I didn't foresee this exactly. But I knew I wanted you. I knew I was going to tell you that."
"And you knew what my response would be."
Napoleon cut off his partner's burgeoning anger. "I knew what I wanted to say to you. I didn't know what you would do. I was prepared for everything from a broken neck to ... well, to this." He reached out, tentative, and touched his partner's wrist. "I know you pretty well. But I didn't know how you'd react to what I had to say. As it turns out, I didn't get a chance to say half of the things I'd planned to say." Thinking back, he said, suspiciously, "You weren't even surprised, were you?"
"I was ... startled."
"But not surprised."
Illya eyed him wisely. "If you had really not wanted me to know how you felt, Napoleon, I wouldn't have known."
Napoleon nodded. "Like I didn't know, about you."
"You had no idea?"
Napoleon could see Illya didn't quite believe him. Had he really been offered signs, signs he'd missed? He refused to accept that he could be so blind to something he wanted so much.
Illya said, "You were taking quite a chance in that case, weren't you?"
Napoleon smiled. "Don't think I didn't know it. I figured you were worth the risk. Besides, even though you can kill me, I was betting you wouldn't, no matter how mad I made you." More seriously he said, "You never gave me a hint."
"I hid it," Illya said bluntly. "I'm a spy. I hide things."
"From me?" Napoleon said gently. He wasn't angry or offended. He wasn't even hurt that his partner had kept so monumental a secret from him so successfully. But he did wonder why.
He waited, but Illya just looked at him, expressionless, and Napoleon thought that maybe he knew why. He carefully slid his hand down to his partner's, wrapping his fingers around it.
"You said I took you for granted. One thing I want you to know is that that is not true. I don't know what crazy damned god or goddess looks out for spies, but I thank that deity every day for you. Every day."
Napoleon flinched; then he saw the pleasure teasing his partner's eyes and mouth.
"You're going to make me weep."
Napoleon smiled. "That'll be the day." He pulled Illya's hand to his mouth, kissing the palm. "How long have you sat awake worrying that I was a complete asshole?"
"Not long. And the word you mentioned never entered my thoughts. It's just that I know how cunning you can be when you want something."
"I hope you didn't mean that the way it sounded," Napoleon said, worried that Illya somehow felt manipulated.
Illya shrugged one bare shoulder. "You are irresistible."
His tone made the words an indictment. Stomach knotted, Napoleon said, "You make me sound like a god-damned hurricane."
Illya shook his head, wry amusement on his face. "No. It isn't destruction you leave in your wake. It would be easier if you did."
Napoleon debated releasing his partner's hand, decided against it. "Illya ... if you're angry ... if you regret this ... just tell me."
Illya pressed Napoleon's fingers. "No. I'm not angry. I don't regret this. But ... if I have to leave ... this will only make it worse."
Napoleon shook his head. "Nothing could make that worse. Nothing. Besides, you aren't leaving, damn it."
"Is that a direct order?"
Napoleon lifted his partner's hand to his mouth, took Illya's index finger between his lips and sucked it for a moment.
"If I were to give you an order right now," he said as Illya's eyes widened, "It wouldn't have anything to do with work." He drew Illya's second finger deep into his mouth, then licked his palm, seeing Illya's worried expression melt into pleasure.
"Don't worry," Napoleon said gently. "We're the best in the world. Mr. Waverly won't split us up. I won't let him."
Illya shook his head. "Tell me something: Have you ever in your life had more than a nodding acquaintance with humility?" A faint purr underlay the sarcasm, and Napoleon smiled to hear it. He chuckled, pulling his partner against him.
"I'm only the best with you at my side, you snide Russian. And without me, you'd be in the labs figuring out how to help other people blow things up."
He wrapped his arms around Illya, silencing him with a kiss. Illya responded in kind for a moment, then nipped Napoleon's tongue, just hard enough to make Napoleon back off with a sound of protest.
"What'd you do that for? You're worse than Angelique."
Illya propped himself up, severing all physical contact. "I'm nothing like Angelique, or any of your ... women." The word was a spit of contempt. "You'd do well to remember that."
"I know it." Napoleon sighed, touched his tongue with his index finger. "Why do you have to be so difficult?"
Illya met his gaze, defiance and apology tangled in his expression. "In self-defense." He looked away.
"You already have the advantage in so many ways ..."
Napoleon sat up, looked hard at his partner. Illya wouldn't meet his eyes.
Napoleon's stomach churned with realization. Or hope. And the fact that he was hoping brought him yet another realization.
Voice colorless, Napoleon said, "Did I hear you wrong, or is that as close as you're ever likely to come to saying you love me?"
Illya looked at him. Though his face betrayed no emotion, the struggle that had required had left its mark.
Both men started at the sound of the communicator at the bedside. Illya reached across his partner's body to pick it up.
"Open channel D."
"I realize it's the middle of the night there, but I thought you ought to know as soon as possible."
Napoleon sat up. Illya shook his head once, a warning, and spoke into the communicator.
"It's all right, sir."
"The panel has made its decision. I made my case, but I'm afraid I was overruled." He sounded most put out about it. "You're to head the Ukraine satellite office. I'm sorry to interrupt your holiday. An agent from our Edinburgh office will pick you up immediately."
"Yes sir." Illya shut off the communicator and gazed at it in silence. Napoleon looked at his face and, astounded at what he read there, said:
"You knew, didn't you?" He sat up. "That was why you came with me. That was why you ..." He tried to swallow the emotion boiling up in his chest. "You knew."
Illya met his gaze, blue eyes frosted with pain. "Yes."
A knock came at the door of their hotel room moments after Waverly signed off. Suddenly strangers, the agents rose and dressed quickly, opening the door to Edgar, the aged butler.
"A car and a gentleman downstairs, sir," he said, directing his information to Illya. "Waiting for you." Knowing Waverly, the timing was not accidental.
Agents knew how to pack quickly. Napoleon and Illya used that knowledge, and found themselves in five minutes standing under the portico in a cold dawn drizzle, looking at a two-seater with Angus McLarie, UNCLE Edinburgh, in the driver's seat.
"Illya. Napoleon," he greeted them. "Only room for one this time, lads. Sorry." He got out and opened the boot. Illya, without looking at Napoleon, went around and flung his bag into the tiny trunk.
Napoleon set down his suitcase. "Am I to take it I'm not needed back in New York quite so urgently as my partner?"
At the suppressed anger in his tone, Illya didn't look at him with even more vehemence, climbing into the passenger seat of the car and hunching down. Angus touched his cap to Napoleon.
"Sorry. The old man chartered a plane for our precious Russian cargo. You're to fly out of Heathrow in—" he dug into the inside pocket of his tweed jacket, pulled out a plane ticket folder, then glanced at his watch. "10 hours." He whistled, handed over the tickets. "First class, too. Looks like someone's apologizing for something."
"Someone had better be," Napoleon said. Illya willed Angus to get in the car and get him the hell out of there. Finally the Scotsman did so.
Illya didn't talk to Angus on the drive. He didn't speak to anyone, all the way back to New York. He was too busy thinking that, of all the things he had said to Napoleon, he had said none of the things that mattered.
"Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly closed the fat file in his hands. "I apologize for cutting your holiday short. You'll be glad to know, no doubt, that your partner caught the next flight from Heathrow. He'll be here within the hour. I wanted to have this talk with you alone. Sit down."
Illya sat. He was weary, sticky, jetlagged and, worse, miserably unhappy. Once he had the details of his mission, that would pass, changing into a kind of grim, unfeeling determination. Loaded, he would be a weapon again, not a man. Right now he was empty.
Illya shook his head, attended to Waverly's words.
"The Soviet has agreed to our satellite office in Kiev. They have insisted that you lead that office, citing your background as reason to ... well, to mistrust you slightly less than anyone else. You'll fly out tonight.
"The Soviet has agreed to this for one reason. They believe they have a traitor, or traitors, in their midst. They have admitted to the failure of several of their own clandestine operations, and their own inability to learn who caused them. They are taking advantage of our desire to open the satellite by insisting we deal with this ... problem of theirs. No doubt they want something else, something to do with you, or they would not have demanded you specifically."
"And we agreed to this because?" Illya asked.
"Two of our missions in the Ukraine were aborted in the last year. Two men died."
"A triple agent?" Illya said. "Working against us and the KGB?"
"That is our hypothesis. THRUSH is certainly high on our list, but by no means the only possible culprit. There is a chance the enemy is already inside. Inside the KGB and inside UNCLE. You'll be in rather a tenuous position, Mr. Kuryakin. You represent UNCLE, of course. But you should present yourself as ... open to other possible allegiances."
"The KGB?" Illya asked, puzzled. "Or a third party?"
"Both. Your heritage and background should make that more plausible than it might be for any other agent, and it may help you in the investigation. And should your discontent with the status quo lead this ... mole to invite you to join his team, you're by no means to appear unwilling."
"I've already indicated your willingness to go to Kiev, and my ... disapproval of that willingness. Rumor has been let drop that you have been considering leaving UNCLE. You are ... eager to return home, eager to be back among your fellow Ukrainians. Eager to be away from Americans, to be out from under my thumb and to ... I believe the phrase is 'be your own boss.' Also ..."
Illya, having seen it coming, braced himself to show nothing.
"Your partnership with Mr. Solo must be severed. Not just your partnership. Your friendship as well. Immediately. Publicly," Waverly went on, and Illya allowed himself to breathe as he saw what his superior was getting at. "Loudly. As bitterly as possible."
"Yes sir," the Russian said. "I'm to be completely out in the cold."
"Well, not so much out in the cold as willing to be."
"Sir, I ..." Illya began a protest that he could not possibly finish aloud, not if he wished to keep his job, or for Napoleon to keep his. He changed tack. "It will be difficult for me to fool Napoleon. He knows me very well. Can we not tell him?"
Waverly shook his head. "We absolutely can not. Nor can I tell you the reason."
"Napoleon isn't under suspicion?" Illya said sharply, before he could catch himself.
The old man shook his head, surprising Illya—not because Napoleon wasn't suspected, but because Waverly had troubled to answer the question at all.
"No. Nor are you. The issue is safety, not security. That is all you need to know on that score."
"Yes sir," Illya said, though he longed to know the danger to Napoleon his taking this mission would entail.
"You and he must part in anger, and that anger must be visible. It must be real. For a little while, we have to let this run its course as if it is what it claims to be."
Illya let it go. Working in the dark, or out in the cold, didn't worry him. That was what spies did. But other things worried him, and when Mr. Waverly spoke, he realized that it showed.
"I understand," Mr. Waverly said. "I know you don't like to deceive your partner. It has to be done. He'll understand, eventually."
Illya shook his head, clearing his expression, saying nothing. He could not tell his superior how much more than deception this would be, how much more painful than a sin of omission. No egotism was involved in his certainty that Napoleon loved him. And he was about to shoot that love full of holes, a cold-blooded execution in the name of duty. If they must part in anger, that was the obvious route to it—indeed, the only route. Illya would say that it had meant nothing to him, that what he had given Napoleon in Scotland had been, not love, but a sop to his partner's infamous libido.
He could see the shape of the upcoming argument clearly. It would start the moment he left this room and returned to his and Napoleon's office. That part of it could be played out here at headquarters as Mr. Waverly had ordered. But the inevitable turn of the quarrel ... that had to be taken away from UNCLE and its constant and pervasive monitors.
That had another advantage, if there could be anything positive in what he must do: In private, Napoleon would have no reason to think Illya was lying. He would believe him, eventually.
For a brief, subversive moment Illya considered that in private, he might tell Napoleon the truth. But if, as Mr. Waverly had hinted, Napoleon's knowledge of the truth might sabotage the mission, it could endanger lives. Napoleon's life. That Illya would not risk.
Illya closed his eyes. Please don't make me hurt him like that. But he couldn't even ask for that. It would destroy their careers and their lives. Nor could he say no to a mission that might save numerous lives—not unless he wished to resign right now. And what plausible reason could he give for that? I don't want to hurt my partner's feelings? He could only play it out.
Waverly passed his unlit pipe from hand to hand. "This situation will be exceedingly dangerous. Not simply the usual mission dangers, but a danger particular to you."
"Yes sir," Illya said.
"I wish that I might offer you the chance to refuse the mission because of that risk. However, in addition to the reality that you are the agent best suited to the case, the KGB insisted on you. Though I don't know why, it's reasonable to suppose that their aim, or one of their aims, is to reclaim you or kill you. And at least at the start, your only backup will be that which you can arrange yourself, among your fellow satellite agents." He slid a thick stack of files over.
Illya opened the top file folder; profiles of the four agents who'd be working under him in Kiev. He ran his eye down the list of names, closed the folder.
"I should advise you to trust no one if I didn't already know that to be your standard practice."
Illya met Waverly's shrewd grey eyes, knowing his own showed nothing of what he was thinking. I trust no one. No one but Napoleon. That thought had never hurt before.
Napoleon looked up from the papers he had obviously not been reading as Illya walked in.
They looked at one another for a moment, both aware that something fundamental had changed, both wary because of it.
"You were in there a long time," Napoleon said, pushing back his chair but not getting up. He was rumpled and unshaven, tired-looking; clearly he'd come straight to headquarters from the airport.
"There will be much to do," Illya said. Napoleon held his eyes, disbelief wrestling with anger in his steady gaze.
"So. I thought ... " He stopped. "You're going."
"I'm going," Illya said, wondering whether it was because he knew Napoleon so well, or because he wanted to hear it, that he detected the faint plea in his partner's words.
"I'm going to talk to Mr. Waverly," Napoleon said, getting up.
Illya started to speak, stopped himself. It would play out better if he protested at once, but he hadn't the heart yet; he was still preparing himself for the role. And anyway maybe it would go a little easier if Waverly explained the situation to Napoleon. Cowardly, Illya berated himself, but he'd take any help he could get in this fight.
Napoleon paused beside him. Illya, unable to look at his partner, started when Napoleon's fingers brushed his cheek.
"Don't give up," Napoleon said, and left.
"Nap—" Illya turned, far too late.
Half an hour later Napoleon returned, visibly chastened. Illya looked up from his desk, where he had spent the time well, formulating his strategy and, as in chess, pursuing all the various game plans he could think of. This would not be easy. He would have to be prepared for any angle of attack.
Napoleon stopped at Illya's desk, as if waiting in line at a bank teller.
The Russian lowered his eyes to the files before him. The agents assigned to him for the satellite office had excellent records.
"I take it you had no success," he said. It was easier to be cold speaking to the desk than to his partner.
"That's an understatement," Napoleon said. Illya heard the anger, and realized Waverly had begun the deception himself. What had he said? Your partner wants to go home? He's tired of the U.S.? He's tired of you?
Illya shook his head, turned a page. "It's for the best."
He looked up. "Opening a satellite in Kiev is a real coup. I can make a difference there. I want to."
"You do want to leave," Napoleon said, incredulous, waiting for the punchline. "Mr. Waverly said that. I didn't believe him."
"I want to do this," Illya said, knowing Napoleon would notice that he had not directly addressed the issue. "I miss my homeland." That, at least, was true. "I want to help if I can." That's two in a row, Kuryakin. What do you think the odds are against a hat trick?
"You want to leave me?" Napoleon said, quietly enough that the monitors, perhaps, did not pick up the last word. Illya had no such defense. "Yes" was a lie he couldn't manage, not yet, not this close. "No" would get them no nearer the break he had to cause.
"It's not up to me," he said flatly.
Silence. Feeling the air change as Napoleon moved away, he risked a glance and saw his partner pacing.
"Did I dream the last few days?" Napoleon said. "Or am I dreaming this now?"
The CEA stopped, turned on Illya, his voice taut, dangerous as a garotte.
"What about Scotland? What about what happ—"
lllya shushed him fiercely. "Are you out of your mind?"
"I should be asking you that." Napoleon faced him, eyes sparking. "I am asking you that."
"Not here," Illya said, rising from his desk.
"Then let's go," Napoleon snapped. He grabbed his coat and strode from the room, Illya trailing, unsteady in the turbulent wake of his partner's anger. He saw the looks on the faces of those Napoleon passed, saw them wondering what had happened, or who had died, or, maybe, who Napoleon intended to kill.
They descended to the garage in knotted silence, giving Illya time to plan the next step.
His place? No. It was home ground, true, but then he couldn't leave if things got too ugly. What do you mean, if?
At Napoleon's car they stopped. Napoleon unlocked his door and said, across the roof, "Your ring or mine?"
Illya swallowed a sigh. It could well come to blows; that might be better than the words with which they would pound each other tonight. "Yours."
Illya closed Napoleon's front door, locked it. He knew better than to pause there, though he would have liked one more second to marshal his strength, his defenses. He couldn't afford a slip-up; Napoleon would see through any chink in his armor. The American had driven the way he did when angry: intently, with silent grinding impatience at the slightest delay. Illya had huddled in the passenger seat, grateful for any postponement of the moment of ... not truth, but its opposite.
He set the alarm codes and went into the living room; Napoleon stood on the sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace, facing him, waiting for him. Expectant but not angry. Not yet. Illya read that look as clearly as words: Something is going on and I expect you to tell me what it is. Napoleon didn't have to say it.
Illya sat on the couch, keeping his body relaxed. Method acting, he thought, looking at his deliberately unclenched hands. Be the tree. Be the table. Be the heartless, calculating Soviet who cares for nothing but the Motherland.
"I want to go," he said, forcing his head up. You must meet his eyes. He'll never believe you otherwise.
"That's not what you said two days ago," Napoleon said, still calm—controlled, rather. Waiting.
"That was ... not exactly the truth."
"And this is?"
Don't blink. Don't sigh. It took a lot of effort, sometimes, to look effortless. "It is time. I am Russian. I am Ukrainian. I can help my homeland. I want to. Is that hard to believe?"
Napoleon shook his head. "That isn't the part I'm having trouble with, Illya."
Had Napoleon always said his name like that, like a caress? Illya slew that dragon thought instantly.
"You think it should be a harder choice," he said. "But you forget I have no choice."
Finally Napoleon cracked. A slow blink, a short sigh. Not much, just the first step toward the explosion that at least one of them knew was coming.
"It isn't that either."
"I know. You want me to be unhappy about it."
That hit home. Napoleon scanned the rug, as if hoping to find his reason there somewhere. Failing that, he laughed shortly. "Yes." He looked at his partner. "We go where we're told and we do what we're told. But we aren't machines, however often UNCLE treats us that way. I want to know what you feel."
"What I feel doesn't matter."
"It matters to me."
"Then it isn't really about what I feel, is it?" Illya said. He wished they could skip this journey and just go to the end; every step from here on was going to hurt. "It's about you, about the sop to your ego that my distress would provide. You want me to be unhappy so that you can feel good about how much I adore you and how much I'm going to miss you. That isn't going to happen. We have been good partners. Now it's over."
Silence; the silence between the angry, clumsy movement and the moment something fragile hits the floor to shatter into a thousand irreparable pieces.
"You didn't argue at all, did you?" Napoleon said then, in clear realization. "Jesus. What happened? Is it something I did?"
Illya met his stare, silent, motionless, all his energies bent on keeping his eyes blank.
"It is something I did," Napoleon said, his tone heavy.
"I have to do this," Illya said blandly.
"But something has changed to make you want to," Napoleon insisted. He moved away from the fireplace, running a hand through his hair as he paced, short, tight steps. He stopped, shaking his head, and faced Illya again.
"Tell me. Just tell me what it is. I'll apologize. But I don't have the faintest damned idea what I've done."
"It's nothing you did. It is myself. I realized something. Or ... this assignment has made me realize it." Why was it so hard to tell these lies? He was a trained liar, a professional liar. "I cannot allow myself ..."
"To be dependent. Not on you. Not on anyone. I cannot. I will not." He met his partner's narrow, incredulous gaze. "I need to do this. I need ... distance."
Illya nearly froze at the grain of truth that caught in his throat. Am I so frightened of the power he has over me? Appalled, he forced out the word. "Yes."
Napoleon stared at him, mouth open. "You need distance from me. Is that the usual result of making love where you come from? Distance?"
Illya got up, moving away, behind the arm of the couch. "That ... that wasn't my intention. I wanted to ... to clear up that issue."
Napoleon shook his head. "What the hell is going on?" He stalked across the room, stopping a foot away from Illya. The Russian held his ground against the palpable anger radiating from his partner. "Illya, god damn it, tell me what is going on."
Illya formed the words carefully, not emotionless—that would be a giveaway—but without the emotion Napoleon was asking for.
"I gave you what you wanted so that you ... wouldn't want it any more."
"I've seen how you operate. It's the chase for you. The chase, the orgasm, the notch in the bedpost. Well, you've had that. It's done with and you can move on." He edged toward the door.
"Move ..." Napoleon stared, striving to see his partner in the stranger who stood before him, within arm's reach and yet miles away. A veil of unreality shrouded his vision. This is not the truth. This isn't Illya talking.
"Yes. To your next conquest."
Napoleon shook his head. "I thought ..."
"You thought what?"
That you loved me. That you loved me the way I love you. "I thought ..." I thought that I knew you. That you would never do this, or anything like this.
With brutal effort he controlled his voice. "I thought that it meant something to you." He felt as if he'd been suddenly deprived of gravity, of air, of something essential that he relied on unthinking.
Napoleon looked bewildered, openly hurt. They hid their hurt from everyone but each other. Illya had cherished that, until now. But then, until now he'd never been the cause.
"It ... it did. I enjoyed it." There was no point in lying about that; the truth had been evident. "You are ... very good at what you do."
"So you're telling me that everything you said to me in Scotland was a lie?" Anger vibrated in Napoleon's voice. "I just want to be clear on that. Everything you said, everything you did. All lies."
Illya shook his head. "Not lies. A mistake. My mistake. I was wrong to ... to let myself ... respond to you. I ... I did want you. But I cannot allow that to ... to take over. We don't have that choice. At least, I don't. I won't allow myself to ..."
"To need you."
Napoleon stared at him, into him; Illya stilled himself against motion, against confession. Finally Napoleon whispered, "I don't believe you."
Then Illya did sigh. "It doesn't matter whether you believe me or not. It doesn't matter. I am going. I must go. I want to go. You'll find another partner. You will certainly find another ... lover." He moved toward the door. "I did not, and do not, mean to hurt your feelings. As I said, we have been good partners."
Napoleon was still shaking his head, still unbelieving. Later, Illya would let himself hurt over the trust that showed. Right now he had to get out.
"Illya ... God. What the hell—"
"Talking changes nothing," Illya said. "I have to go. I have to pack."
"Go," Napoleon said, his tone abruptly hard, brittle. "If you have to go, if you want to go, go. I won't try to stop you. I won't try to make you explain who you are and what you've done with my partner, or what I might have done to bring this about."
Illya moved to the door, stopped. "You've done nothing wrong," he said, unlocking the locks. The truth, a fine parting shot.
"Yes I have," Napoleon said. Illya opened the door, risked a glance back. Napoleon stood in the living room, looking at him, unmoving. He was not a big man, but his presence usually filled a room. Right now the room felt empty.
"I trust you. I love you." He sounded calm, the eye of a storm, as he catalogued his truths.
Illya clenched the door handle, looked at the skin stretched white over his knuckles. His insides felt the same way. "Those are mistakes, not wrongs." He slipped out and shut the door quietly.
Unable to wait for the elevator, he hurried down the stairs, stood on the street and hailed a taxi.
It had been an utter failure, he told himself. Napoleon hadn't believed a word he'd said. He'd known he couldn't pull off this magnitude of falsehood, not with Napoleon. Napoleon wasn't a fool, and he was the opposite of a stranger. He knew it was all lies, that something else was behind it. Illya had failed.
The cab screeched to a stop. Illya climbed in, giving the driver his address and huddling in the back seat, sick to his stomach because he knew better. He hadn't failed.
"Yes, Mr. Solo?" Waverly didn't look up from the Times.
"Sir ... I'd just like to know what's going on." Napoleon realized he sounded pathetic, begging for an explanation. What kind of spy expected to have things explained to him?
"Please be specific, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, and Napoleon's faint hope of understanding wavered.
"Why is Illya really being assigned to lead the Kiev office? Why are we being split up?" And why is he willing to go?
"Ah." Waverly turned his chair to face his CEA, let the top of the newspaper droop over the backs of his fingers. "I regret separating you, Mr. Solo. You are my best team. But a higher good requires this."
"Sir, Illya is one of the best field agents in the world. Surely there is someone more qualified for a desk job in Kiev." Only after he'd said it did Napoleon realize his boss might take it as a personal slight.
"Mr. Kuryakin is best qualified to run the satellite, if for no other reason than that we would not be permitted to open it if we had not agreed to let him run it. It seems the Soviets ... trust him to have their interests, if not at heart, at least somewhere near there."
Napoleon hesitated. He couldn't ask Waverly what he really wanted to know. Even if he could have said it, Waverly couldn't answer. If Illya wouldn't share his reasons with Napoleon, he wouldn't share them with anyone.
At least, the Illya he thought he knew wouldn't. That certainty had been badly shaken over the last few hours.
"I'd like you to escort your former partner to the new satellite office," Waverly said. Napoleon's jaw dropped.
"Yes. There is some danger that the KGB want him back only to kill him. Once he is in Kiev he'll have others as backup, but I want him guarded on the way."
Waverly looked him over; Napoleon imagined that something of the train wreck he felt inside showed.
"You are qualified for security escort duty, are you not?"
Through clenched teeth, Napoleon said, "Yes sir."
Illya was packed and staring at his suitcase, thinking how small it was, how he could pack everything in his apartment and still have nothing that was important to him, when the phone rang.
He answered warily, but it was only Mr. Waverly.
"Mr. Solo will escort you to Kiev. He's on his way to pick you up now."
Illya closed his eyes; it felt as if his superior was doing everything in his power to make this as bad as possible. "Does it have to be Napoleon, sir?"
Waverly said, "It has to look good, Mr. Kuryakin. I want whoever is watching to see that you are no longer a team. To do that we must put on a show. I realize it is distasteful to you. If it's any comfort, as soon as we've discovered the traitors in our midst, Mr. Solo will be briefed as to the true state of affairs."
And if he is willing to forgive me, after that, will I be alive to be forgiven?
The taxi driver buzzed him from the lobby and he went downstairs to see the cab at the curb and Napoleon standing on the sidewalk, diligently scanning the crowd, the street, the buildings, looking everywhere but at the man he was protecting.
Illya threw his bag into the trunk and climbed into the cab. Napoleon got in front with the driver, and they drove in silence to the airport.
Napoleon paid the driver and led the way into the airport, to their check-in counter. They'd done this a thousand times, and this time differed only in the coldness between them as they checked their bags and boarded the plane for Kiev, claiming a window and an aisle seat on the half-loaded jet.
Napoleon closed his eyes and remembered Illya's body against his, inside him, moving in harmony, in trust, completely in tune with one another. A connection far more profound than the physical. If that wasn't love, there's no such thing.
He opened his eyes. Illya sat staring blankly out the window, one seat and a million miles away.
Helpless anger twisted in Napoleon's stomach. He wanted to strangle someone, but he didn't know who. He couldn't believe it, but he had no choice. As Illya had said. I have no choice. But that wasn't the point. Illya wanted to leave. That was the point, a point so sharp Napoleon hadn't even felt it going in. He hadn't felt it until it had pierced his heart.
Please. Please talk to me. Tell me what is going on. Even if Illya stated Napoleon's deepest fear—that it was making love itself, that it was Napoleon pressuring for that change, that had destroyed their partnership—Napoleon needed to know. Is it me? Did I break our partnership by holding it too tight?
He opened his lips to try one more time.
His partner started, turned, looked at a point about a foot to the left of him.
"I won't ask again," Napoleon said, not meaning it as a threat.
"Good," Illya said coldly. He turned back to the window. If there had been anything to see, he would not have seen it.
In the next row back, a red-headed woman in a blue wool coat listened and smiled, turning the page of her fashion magazine.
They landed at Borispol Airport in a grey predusk downpour. They collected their wet, piled-up luggage on the tarmac and passed through the cold, dismal airport building. Their UNCLE IDs and a little previous warning from the KGB got them through customs and outside again, where they hailed a taxi for the 18-mile ride into Kiev. Illya told the driver where they were going, then crunched himself into the corner of the back seat, grunting in response to the driver's occasional queries. Napoleon, whose Ukrainian was fragmental at best, simply stared out the window at the dark, indistinguishable countryside. His brain flipped like a light switch between two thoughts: To hell with the bastard and What the hell is going on? Impossible to figure out, impossible to let alone. He was angry and exhausted from it, ready to kill someone or something at the first opportunity.
As the car crossed the Peshehodny Bridge over the Dniepr, Napoleon remembered the last time they had been in Kiev. Smuggled uranium and a very resourceful lady courier had kept them usefully occupied for about a week, after which Illya had shown Napoleon the less well-traveled culinary and musical charms of the city. They'd ended up down a dark stairwell, in a windowless former storage room now known as Skhodi, an unpretentious, friendly restaurant with good traditional food and service. On learning Illya was Ukrainian, they'd taken both him and Napoleon to their hearts as near-family.
Napoleon remembered how different his partner had been; more at home than he had ever seen him and at the same time more melancholy. After sufficient alcoholic lubrication, Napoleon had leaned across the table to ask him:
"Do you miss Kiev?"
And Illya had looked him in the eye and said, "I am where I wish to be."
The cab jerked to a stop alongside a lamppost and Napoleon started, glancing at his partner. Illya stared dead-eyed out the window, and anger flared in Napoleon's stomach. Why the hell wouldn't he talk, tell him what was wrong? If he had to be reassigned, so be it, but that was no reason for this distance, this coldness, this ... betrayal.
Stop it. Napoleon wrenched the door open and got out of the cab. They were in front of the satellite office. It was just after 10 p.m. The rain had paused.
Illya got out and paid the cab driver while Napoleon scanned the quiet, dark street. Illya got his bag from the back and watched the cab pull away. Something hammered into the lamppost next to him, less than a foot from his head. He flung himself down and sideways, toward the semi-shelter of a doorway, dropping his bag and grabbing his gun, seeing Napoleon duck behind an empty car, gun in hand, eyes searching the buildings across the street. A pair of bullets cracked into the concrete molding of the doorway where Illya stood. It took Napoleon only a moment to spot the man; UNCLE Special in hand, he calmly drew a bead at about the eighth floor of the building across the street from UNCLE's satellite. Illya followed the line of sight to a balcony as Napoleon fired twice.
The man might have survived the bullets if he hadn't chosen to fall forward. He toppled off the balcony and hit the sidewalk eight floors down with an audible thud. His hat fluttered down after him, landing 10 feet away in a puddle in the street.
Illya pulled out his communicator, contacting the Kiev office for the first time. He spoke briefly to a stranger in section three, arranging to have the body collected.
They crossed the street, thankfully devoid of traffic at this hour. The man had landed next to a parked car; he wore a dark trenchcoat. Mist appeared in the air, a ghost of rain.
Napoleon knelt beside the man and turned him over.
"Nice shot," Illya said automatically. The look Napoleon gave him physically pushed him back a step.
"No identification," Napoleon said. "The gun's a Tokarev. Four rounds fired."
Illya put his communicator away. His hands were shaking, and he knew it had nothing to do, in the usual sense, with the inch that had separated the bullets from his head. I want to live through this. I want to be alive to apologize to him. To tell him the truth and try to make it right.
"Clean-up is on the way." He met Napoleon's gaze. "Thank you."
The words, words he would never have said a week ago, hit Napoleon like a slap in the face.
"I'm just doing my job," he said, a reciprocal blow. "Let's go."
UNCLE's satellite, 12 vulitsa Prorizna, was on the edge of old Kiev, on a sidestreet just off Kiev's main boulevard, the Khreshchatik. The building was one of many old, ornate structures lining the street, well built but falling into disrepair. The agents, Illya included, would live above the offices. Looking at the fading grandeur of the building, Illya found himself wondering exactly how long he was going to live there. The case could take a week, a month, or a year. He might be killed tonight or at any future time he let his guard down.
At the reinforced doors, he punched in the code that allowed them entrance, and they passed darkened offices to the well-lit stairs at the back. He felt Napoleon, three stairs behind him, and fought to stay silent as his throat constricted. He'd thought about death many times, of course—every time it had stared him point-blank in the face. He'd thought about dying without ever having told Napoleon how much he meant to him. That was bad enough. Now, if you are killed, you will die leaving the only person you love thinking the opposite.
He blinked rapidly, and his vision cleared by the time they reached the fifth floor, the first level of living quarters. He knew the layout of the building as well as he knew the names and records of the agents who'd work for him; it had given him something to do on the flight when he could no longer pretend to sleep.
The corridor was cold, thinly carpeted but well lit, like the stairs. UNCLE's financial situation, though scarcely anything to boast about by Western standards, would allow them a level of comfort here beyond that of most Ukrainians.
Illya stopped at his quarters, opened the door and entered, setting down his bag. He could still feel Napoleon behind him, watching his back even though he had to believe that Illya had given up the right to that.
Illya looked around the sparse, clean room, a slow 360 that brought him back face to face with his partner. His former partner.
"It's been cleared," Napoleon said. "Nothing above the third floor." He felt sick, sick with anger and frustration and ... cold. He needed to be cold, needed to be calm and just do his job. There was nothing else here, nothing in the diminutive blond man who faced him, nothing in those pinched, pained blue eyes. Nothing but the job.
"Napoleon," Illya said, fingers curling into fists.
Napoleon waited. He should just go. He had his own hotel, his own plane to catch in the morning. His own career, his own life. Alone. Without Illya. Without a partner who had brought his skill and his brain to the partnership, but nothing else. Not his heart. Nothing. There was nothing here for him and the sooner he accepted it—
"Napoleon..." Illya's tone, warm, burning, a candle to his moth. He didn't move.
"It ... it may be a long time until I see you again," Illya said, his voice admirably controlled. Of course. He doesn't give a shit. He told you, or as much as told you. He fucked you because you wanted it. To shut you up. To make you stop. That's all. Just leave.
Illya's fists opened, helpless, beseeching. His eyes said please.
Napoleon moved into the room and Illya's arms were around him, strangling-tight, careless of the open door and any potential witnesses. Napoleon let his head fall onto his partner's shoulder, eyes burning, brain flaring at the unreason of it. Why? Why, after what he's done, after what he's said ... why?
I love you, he thought, exhaling a sigh, and the arms clenched him tighter. That was why.
Illya's lips touched his throat, his chin, claiming his mouth, dousing him with liquid flame. Had it only been days since they'd made love? His body ignited like a dry leaf in a bonfire as Illya slid his tongue between his lips, savoring him as a drowning man savored air.
Napoleon flailed at the door with one arm, slamming it shut, fumbling at the lock. It snicked and he let it go, his shaking hands ripping at Illya's sweater, at his jeans, at his own jacket.
Illya broke away, flushed, intent, and pulled off his black sweater, flinging it aside. Napoleon shrugged off his jacket and undid his shirt, ripping at least one button from its threads in his haste. Illya pulled the shirt from his body and attacked his trousers, yanking them down. Napoleon stepped out of them and grabbed his partner about the waist, undoing the black slacks to slide them over Illya's narrow hips. For a moment Napoleon pulled him close, skin burning against skin, a voice in his head wailing what the hell are you doing? Illya grabbed his neck, forcefully drawing him into a starved kiss, raking Napoleon's mouth with his tongue.
"I..." Illya breathed, holding Napoleon's face between trembling hands. "I need you."
Angry, bereft, Napoleon bodily turned his partner around and yanked him hard against his chest, sliding his arms around Illya's torso.
"Do you?" he said into his partner's ear, tightening his hips, pushing his erection between Illya's sweat-damp cheeks. "Do you need me?" Illya braced his forearms against the rough wall, hands fisted, turning his face toward his partner.
"Yes..." Illya exhaled—and his body arched as Napoleon entered him, one ruthless stroke, connecting them utterly. Illya released a tiny cry, as much as he would admit of the pain Napoleon's entry had caused. His eyes were pinched shut, his jaw clamped.
He was so tight Napoleon felt he would explode, come instantly at the hot embrace of his body, but he held Illya closer, still, letting the anger/hurt cool his nerve endings. He doesn't need you, he doesn't love you, he told you...
The words warred, like curses in a church, with the incredible rightness of Illya's body against his, his cheek pressed to Illya's cheek, the sounds of animal pleasure his partner made, the knowledge of the trust Illya must feel for him to allow without hesitation such a forceful invasion of his body.
Illya's hands crept around, dug into Napoleon's ass, forcing him deeper as Napoleon supported his trembling body in his arms.
"Please..." The word shivered like a ghost out of Illya as Napoleon moved, deep into his partner, desperate to hold on to him. Napoleon felt Illya shaking, felt his sweat-slick chest expand and shrink in the circle of his arms as Napoleon drove into him, driving cries of pain and pleasure from Illya's throat.
Napoleon moved one hand down to grasp Illya's cock, hard and wet. He stroked Illya, tight, frantic, counterpoint to his own slick thrusts, and Illya again braced himself on the wall, fingers clenching and unclenching in spasms as sensation racked his body.
Napoleon slid his grip up and let his thumb dance across the tip of Illya's cock. Illya's body convulsed as he threw his head back:
The harsh cry pushed Napoleon over the edge. He tensed and plunged deep into Illya's body as he came, explosions tight in his balls and his cock, shards of sensation impaling his body and brain as he shuddered against his partner's back. Groaning, he squeezed and felt Illya's hot ejaculate spurt over his fingers. Illya grabbed Napoleon's hand in both of his own and moved him to stroke every last drop of semen from him, moans fading to silence as they slumped against one another.
Exhausted, Napoleon drew gently free of his partner's body, aghast yet not surprised to see the traces of blood there. He turned Illya in his arms and pulled him close, wordless, bewildered, desperate to hear Illya say something, anything to make it right, to make the last 24 hours a lie. His partner permitted the hug for the space of perhaps three seconds before drawing away.
Napoleon met his eyes—Illya looked drunk. Drunk and stunned and ... hurt.
"I'm sorry," Napoleon found himself whispering, anger erased by guilt. He raised one hand, let it fall. "I'm sorry. Illya. I didn't—"
Illya shook his head. "It's all right." He even sounded drunk; warm, syrupy, at once sated and dejected. "I wanted it. I ..."
He turned away, leaning one shoulder against the wall, arms crossed, shaking his head again.
"Illya..." Napoleon didn't move. Naked, hunched, his partner looked so small.
"Go." Illya's voice choked. "Go."
Napoleon fumbled into his clothes and fled. Coward, he berated himself as he huddled in the back of the taxi on the way to the airport. Coward. You've never run from anything in your life.
The next morning Illya explored the UNCLE satellite, offices and communications on the first two floors, labs and kitchens in the cellars. The armory was sufficient, the auto pool consisted of two serviceable sedans, and the coffee was tolerable. The employee complement of the satellite was 20, but he would work most closely with his section two agents.
His staff awaited him in the main conference room. Four agents and Vladimir Gurov. Ukrainian, but a representative of the KGB. Illya knew him a little, and had formed an opinion edging slightly toward the favorable.
Three men and one woman. He had worked with Simone and Andrei; the other two, Karl and Voytek, he knew only by their reputations, which were sterling. All four sat attentive, straight-backed, those who knew him slightly more at ease than those who did not, reminding him that he carried a reputation of his own, probably more steel than sterling. He felt keenly that he stood in this room as only half of that reputation.
"I understand that each of you speaks Russian," he said in that tongue. "How many of you speak Ukrainian?" he asked, switching to that language.
Simone and Andrei raised their hands.
Illya nodded. "It will be your job to teach the others. Speaking only Russian here excludes you from too many situations. Western Ukraine is not Russia—"
Gurov shifted but didn't protest.
"—and Ukrainians do not consider themselves Russian. If we hope to find the person, or persons, sabotaging our operations, we must be able to move comfortably here."
He looked directly at Gurov for the first time since he'd entered the room. The man sat stiff, impatience on his narrow face.
Illya returned his attention to his agents. "Simone and Andrei, you oversee the autopsy on my admirer from last night. He may be carrying something that will give us a lead."
Illya felt Gurov stiffen in surprise. Had the KGB not known about the attempt?
"The rest of you familiarize yourself with the file on the case while I talk with Comrade Gurov." He paused. "Two of our agents have been killed. It's our job to see no others die the same way."
The agents scattered quietly, Simone giving Illya a brief curious look before departing.
"Is it inappropriate for me to welcome you home, comrade?" Gurov said.
Illya let his gaze sweep the street below, the few shoppers, the very few dressed in a way that would be called, in New York, simply middle class.
"I would call it vicious rather than inappropriate," Illya said. "This is no longer my home, and I am not welcome. You know that. Shall we talk about the reason for my presence and leave off taxing my patience, the limits of which you no doubt recall?"
"I requested you," Gurov said. "I knew I could work with you, that you are an honorable man. This once, UNCLE and the Soviet have a common goal."
"You're assuming a great deal in believing the man who is sabotaging your operations is also the man sabotaging ours."
Gurov smiled, shrugged, looking around the office. "I'm not even assuming it is a man. A man, a woman, within our ranks or without, someone knows too much and is using it against us. I am given to understand the same is true of your operations in this area."
"I wonder is each of us thwarting the other and denying it," Illya said, forcing his tired mind to focus on the case. He couldn't honestly say he'd slept badly; he'd closed his eyes only to blink. The morning's dose of caffeine was wearing off, loosing the chains on the emotions he'd throttled down and abandoned in the basement of his brain.
"This would be a great deal of trouble for UNCLE to go to in order to cover that," Gurov said reasonably. "It seems finding our traitors is the only way UNCLE thinks it can find their traitors."
Think, Illya snapped at himself. The sooner you finish this, the sooner you can go home.
"Now," he said, with a significant glance around the room to indicate he was well aware the place was bugged. "What can you share with me about the KGB's recent espionage misfortunes?"
"The case that made us suspect was the diversion of some U-235. That was a year ago. The uranium disappeared during transit between the Black Sea and Moscow, near Kiev. It could somehow have been our error. But then about four months ago we received intelligence to suggest Dr. Golz planned to defect."
"The nuclear engineer," Illya said.
Gurov nodded. "His wife had recently died and he had no family. His letters to friends in the West suggested growing dissatisfaction—"
"I'm familiar with the signs," Illya said coldly.
Gurov lifted one shoulder, a resigned half-shrug. "We watched for six weeks, allowed him to arrange transport with his friends in the West, and made note of his route, through Tallinn into Scandinavia—"
"Where you would greet him and bring him home, of course?"
"Of course. He was almost literally in our hands, in Helsinki. A car pulled up and he was bundled into it. I was there. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to us. That was two months ago."
"Yes," Illya said. "I understood that Dr. Golz had disappeared. We assumed you had caught him in the attempt and that he was either dead or in the gulag."
Gurov said, "And for some time we thought his escape had been engineered by the West. It was only recently we learned that your intelligence agencies were as much at a loss as our own."
"Therefore the third party theory," Illya said, thinking also that it was probably THRUSH. Uranium, a nuclear engineer, and the stolen data that had cost two UNCLE agents their lives in Turkey—that added up to a chilling possibility.
"Exactly. Whoever intercepted Dr. Golz had knowledge of our workings. It was no fluke, but well planned and with the help of someone on the inside. When my supervisor was assigned to this he realized UNCLE's special expertise with those groups highest on the list of suspects might be of assistance."
"So the KGB finally caved to UNCLE's desire for a satellite office," Illya said.
Blandly Gurov replied, "I understand this office to be temporary, contingent upon permanent approval by the Soviet."
Illya smiled coolly. "I see. And were the bullets of the assassin the KGB sent to kill me last night also meant to be temporary?"
Gurov showed neither surprise nor defensiveness. "We sent no one. To go to all the trouble of allowing UNCLE to open this office simply to take a shot at you is more Machiavellian than even we prefer to be. I would guess whoever has infiltrated our ranks—and perhaps yours as well—does not want the case investigated by UNCLE."
"Have there been any assassinations within the KGB?" Illya asked.
"You mean other than the usual?" Gurov replied with the first hint of humor he'd shown. "No." He glanced at his watch. "May I make a phone call?"
Illya waved at his phone. "By all means. I'll leave you in privacy." He let a drop of irony color his tone; both of them knew there was little privacy in this office.
The morgue was a rather bare room in the basement with extra ventilation added by UNCLE. Bright light shone down on the table where Dr. Simak stood, pointing out various things on the corpse to Simone and Andrei. Simone's pretty face was impassive. Andrei, tall and dark and normally a little threatening in appearance, looked as if he was going to be sick.
Simak looked up. "Oh. Hello, Mr. Kuryakin. I am Dr. Simak."
"Yes." Illya nodded. "Forgive me if I don't shake hands."
Dr. Simak glanced down at his extended hand, gloved, the glove stained and spattered. He smiled. "Oh. Yes. I was just telling your colleagues what I've learned."
"It's fascinating," Simone said firmly, only a hint of humor in her voice.
"Nothing of benefit to you, yet," Simak said. "He's a white male, about 30, in good health if he weren't dead, all his own teeth, well-developed musculature." He shrugged. "No identifying marks whatsoever."
Illya looked down at the naked body, tinged blue in the harsh light. His only feeling on seeing the two closely spaced black holes over the man's heart was a kind of morbid pride in his partner's accuracy.
He is no longer your partner.
Dr. Simak said, "His things are in the next room. I suspect they'll be more help to you. It's early days yet, though. I might have something more by tonight."
Illya nodded. "Continue, then." He beckoned Simone and Andrei, who followed him into the next room, which clearly served as Simak's office and storage space. It was cluttered with boxes, mostly unopened, standing in a circle around a desk, two file cabinets and a rickety wooden chair.
Simak followed them long enough to point at a box on the desk. "That's all of his things." He went back into the other room, humming.
"Nice to see someone enjoying his work," Andrei said sourly.
"You two go through these things," Illya said, gazing at the box. "I'm going to talk further with Comrade Gurov."
Simone nodded as Andrei picked up the box.
Gurov hung up the phone as Illya walked back in.
"So what did your superiors have to say about the attempt on my life?" Illya asked. Gurov smiled.
"They were officially shocked and surprised. Unofficially, surprised."
"And disappointed, no doubt," Illya said. He sat behind his desk and opened the top file. "Is there anything else you can share with us that might help us find these moles?"
Three hours later he visited the conference room. Andrei and Simone, the box between them, sat making notes. Clothing and papers were spread neatly across the table.
"Lunch time," Illya said briskly, startling the intently focused agents.
"Gostinny Dvir," he went on. "It's a long walk in this weather, but it will help familiarize everyone with the city."
Simone got up. "I'll get the others." Andrei put down his pen and followed her out of the conference room.
It had stopped raining as the five UNCLE agents left the satellite for the long stroll into the Podol. Illya walked first with Karl, the expert on electronic monitoring devices.
"You've been over the whole building?"
Karl nodded. "Found all the bugs and left them alone. Except for one in the kitchen. It was too close to the sink. Anytime water was running they wouldn't have been able to hear. I moved it a little."
Illya considered. "Risky."
"But better than having them realize the problem later and come in to fix it themselves." Karl grinned. "It's all in the report I sent to New York. No cameras, no booby traps, nothing at all above the third floor."
"The KGB have always been economical."
Karl shrugged. "Just means you have to do some climbing if you want to have a private conversation."
Illya knew Karl was one of UNCLE's best surveillance men; if he said he'd found all the bugs, he'd found them. But the perfunctory nature of the surveillance worried him a little; why bother to bug half a building, even if it was the working half? Was it simple carelessness, or were the listening devices for show only? Did they have another way of monitoring them?
Karl apparently read the expression on his face. "I know. But since they know that we know they're going to monitor us ... it's all rather an open secret anyway, isn't it?"
"True," Illya agreed. He also knew that anything he told Vladimir Gurov would find its way back to the KGB.
A rifle cracked and a bullet spattered plaster from the wall a foot behind him. Illya ducked, face stinging, and drew his gun as the other agents fanned out, weapons in hand, in a semi-circle around him, their eyes searching the broad, nearly deserted street. The few other pedestrians, all distant enough to not be sure what was happening, paused to look at the group, to watch their curious actions.
Andrei pushed Illya into a doorway as another bullet cracked into the building. He started to edge out but Andrei blocked him from moving. "Sorry. You're the boss now, not a field agent."
"There!" Karl yelled; he, Voytek and Simone darted across the street. Illya caught a glimpse of a big man in a bulky coat jogging down a sidestreet, gathering stares from passersby as he ran.
Andrei holstered his weapon and pulled out his communicator, contacting the satellite and requesting a car.
Illya listened while picking bloodied pieces of plaster out of his face and neck.
"Sorry about that," Andrei said as he put his communicator away.
"Never mind," Illya replied. "You were right. I'm not used to..."
"Letting someone else do the work?"
Illya acknowledged the truth of the remark with a rueful half-smile, and they crossed the broad Khreshchatik to the street down which the other agents had chased the man. A rifle lay by a trash bin. Illya knelt beside it.
"Sloppy," Andrei said, eyes darting up and down the quiet side street.
"But less conspicuous to leave it behind if he wants to disappear," Illya said, looking over the battered Kalashnikov. Old and beat-up, but well-oiled. Someone was taking reasonably good care of the weapon. He'd probably be sorry to lose it. Illya smiled to himself; no matter how poor a country or region, one could always get a gun.
Simone and Karl came jogging back up the street toward them, guns holstered, faces angry. Illya bit down on an automatic outburst of irritation that they didn't have the gunman.
"We lost him," Simone snapped.
"Where?" Illya asked.
"A basement nightclub. The White Crow." She waved over her shoulder.
"It was closed, but he got in a back door. We followed and searched, but he was gone," Karl said. "Voytek went around to the front of the club."
"We didn't want to take too long," Simone added, "In case he wasn't alone." She glanced significantly at the buildings surrounding them, inside any one of which a sniper might be watching them.
Andrei collected the rifle as the UNCLE car pulled up to the curb. Voytek appeared at the head of an alley, scanning the street as he holstered his gun. When he saw them he trotted their way, shaking his head. "He didn't come out the front. I don't know where he got to."
Karl cursed softly.
"Sorry," Simone said.
Illya shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
That was a lie. He was used to working with ... well, with Napoleon. The best. Someone he could trust blindly to watch his back. These people were good, but ... but they weren't Napoleon. He might pay for that lack of perfection with his life.
Who would have thought, of all the reasons I have to miss my partner, this one would be forefront in my mind now?
"You were hit?" Simone asked, looking at his neck. Illya dabbed at his skin; his fingers came away dotted with blood.
"Only by shrapnel." And reality. Illya brushed off his jacket, straightened it, said, "Let's go. Being shot at always makes me hungry."
The knot of agents piled into the sedan.
"Welcome back, Mr. Solo, Mr. Bradley." Teresa, the receptionist on duty, gathered their badges and pinned them on, giving Napoleon a smile that vanished as she pinned Bradley's badge to his coat pocket.
"Thank you, Teresa," Napoleon said.
"How was Arizona?"
"Not quite as hot as hell," Napoleon replied. "Is Mr. Waverly in?"
"Yes. He's expecting you."
Mr. Waverly was talking to someone on his communicator when they entered. He held up a hand to beckon them in. Napoleon and Bradley took seats across the table from their boss as he said:
"Yes, we'll send you the full report on that."
"Thank you sir. Another thing..."
Napoleon started: Illya's voice. Bradley glanced at him, but he was already back under control, at least outwardly.
Illya continued. "Evidently the lone gunman theory doesn't apply in my case either."
Waverly scowled, feeling the tension spike in his CEA's body. "Speak plainly, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Someone took a shot at me in the Khreshchatik four days ago."
"A shot?" Waverly barked.
"Well, several. None that connected."
Napoleon's hands curled into fists, tightening like his insides. The Russian's voice was as precise and beautiful as always. Dispassionate. Napoleon wondered if it was only in his mind that Illya sounded as lifeless as he himself felt.
"Considering that my earlier admirer is in the basement of our office, with most of his major organs in jars, it's probably someone else."
"Did you catch this latest assassin?" Waverly asked.
"No sir. We lost him in a seedy nightclub. We also found a matchbook from that same nightclub amongst the possessions of our ... guest. We set up a surveillance at the club, and he's been back. We're going in tonight to see what we can find out."
Waverly shook his head slowly, and his dissatisfaction showed in his voice. "Very well. Keep me posted, Mr. Kuryakin. And keep your head down."
"Yes sir. Kuryakin out."
Waverly turned to the newcomers. "Sorry about that." He sorted the files on his desk until he found the report on the Arizona mission. "Good work, by the way, gentlemen."
"Thank you, sir," Bradley said crisply.
Waverly opened the file, perused it. "I see you managed to bring in Asher and destroy his transmitting station."
Bradley waited. When Napoleon said nothing, he said, "Yes, sir. We tried to salvage Asher's data but he had set the apparatus to self-destruct. We thought it was better to at least get him out of there."
"He's at the Los Angeles headquarters?" Waverly asked.
"Yes sir," Bradley said. "They're questioning him."
"Yes." Waverly looked at Napoleon from under his brows. "Well, good work. I'll expect your reports tomorrow."
"Yes sir." Bradley stood up. Napoleon rose as well.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly began, still watching his top agent. Napoleon paused.
Waverly looked at him for a moment, shook his head. "Nothing. Dismissed, gentlemen." He turned away and proceeded to light his pipe.
They walked along the corridor in silence. Near Napoleon's office, Bradley said, "You all right?"
Napoleon glanced at him. "Fine."
"Do you want to grab a cup of coffee?"
Napoleon shook his head. "No thanks."
"I'll see you later, then." Bradley paused in the hallway. Napoleon went into his office without responding, locking the door when it shut behind him. He stopped in the middle of the room he had shared with Illya, and fought against shaking.
It was always bad when his partner was in danger and he wasn't there. He'd never imagined it would be this much worse when the distance between them was in more than miles. He'd never imagined them being distant in that way.
The anger and grief eased their chokehold on his muscles, and he drew in a slow breath, suddenly cold.
I'm bleeding to death, he thought, looking at the floor as if he expected to see the spreading pool of red. Every day I feel a little less. One day, I won't feel anything at all. I'll wake up dead.
He chuckled weakly. He remembered the flight home, five days past, how he'd sat hunched, miserable, sick. Illya's scent still clung to him. He remembered how he'd curled in on himself to savor that scent, breathing it like a diver breathing oxygen, in a daze of pain and confusion and anger—anger at himself for what he had done. I took him like an animal. Like an enemy. It didn't matter that Illya had seemed to want it; what mattered to Napoleon was how his self-control had shattered. He'd hurt the one person in this world he would have thought nothing could make him hurt.
Brad Bradley left UNCLE and went to dine at an out of the way bistro, then walked several blocks, seemingly at random, before coming to a phone box in a quiet office district. He pulled out a quarter, dropped it in, dialed, and listened to a long series of clicks as connections heretofore unknown to the phone company were made.
After two rings, a woman answered.
"This is Bradley."
"Go ahead," she said.
"Just back from Arizona. It will take some time for Solo to trust me, but the rumors about Kuryakin appear to be true."
"That he hates Kuryakin and Kuryakin hates him. At least Solo gave a good impression of it. And there's no reason for him to put on a show for a fellow UNCLE agent. Solo seems to think Kuryakin might even be willing to go back to Russia, back to the KGB. "
"What about you?"
"So far so good."
A pause. "Continue as you have done. We must be patient, wait for the optimum opportunity."
"What about Kuryakin?"
"Kuryakin is our problem, Bradley. Have you anything else to report?"
The line went dead. Bradley hung up the phone and walked back to his apartment, where he went about his usual evening routine.
Illya and Simone drove to the White Crow. Simone, behind the wheel, glanced at him. The Russian had disguised himself, darkening his hair and applying a short beard and moustache, as well as glasses. He'd also done something with putty, Simone thought, on his nose and cheeks. He looked nothing like himself.
"What's your plan?"
Hunched in a well-made but slightly-too-large greatcoat, Illya shrugged. "To ask questions. I think under the guise of wanting to hire a thug for some dirty work. We may learn something about our guest in the morgue and about his still-breathing cohort."
"Sorry about that," she said, tugging at the blond wig she wore.
He looked at her. "That wasn't a criticism."
She shook her head. "It was self-criticism. Solo got the first one by himself. There were three of us and all we managed to do was lose our man."
"No one is perfect," he said, staring ahead into the grey rainfall. "Besides, we may well find him again tonight. The two assassins weren't coincidence. They're tied together somehow."
She drove in silence for a few minutes, but he could feel the questions building in the damp warm air of the car. Finally, at a stop light, she spoke.
"You didn't want to come here."
He said nothing.
"Illya, you're miserable. It's obvious."
Illya looked away, jaw tight. It should not have been so difficult to lie to her, she wasn't that close a friend. You're weak. Napoleon has made you weak. Then, automatically, No. Not his fault. Your own.
"You left someone behind," she divined. That drew his eyes to her.
"Even spies can make mistakes," she said. "Even that most foolish of mistakes. I've heard about your former partner. Is it some lady he stole from you that drove you here?"
"No," he said softly.
"I'm sorry," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "It's none of my business, except that I like and respect you, and I can see how unhappy you are. Can I help?"
He shook his head. "You are doing all you can by doing your job," he said. "You are the only one here I trust at all. I'm going to need your help."
She smiled. "That wasn't what I meant, but of course." She pointed ahead with her chin. "There. That's the place. The place on the matchbook, the place your second ... admirer disappeared into."
Illya looked at the small dark sign and the stairs descending to the basement level below a big office building. "And he's been back..."
"Every evening, so far, Voytek said, annoying one of the waitresses. Too short a time to be sure of a pattern, but if all is well, he should arrive within half an hour."
The rain had stopped, but it was cold as they parked a little way up the street and walked to the basement club, descending the dark steps along with a few other patrons. Inside a jukebox played a tinny Russian folk tune and a few couples danced the slow dance of the tired, or drunk. The club was big and low-ceilinged, dimly lit and bare of decoration save for a few posters on the walls. Illya guided Simone in and they took a table in a corner near the door where they could see the whole room. A few extra bulbs hung naked over the long bar across the room; a stage in one corner suggested they occasionally had live music.
They sat and ordered vodka. Simone leaned close to him as the waitress left and said, "He's here already. At the bar."
Illya scanned the bar and noticed a big man leaning over it, trying to get the attention of a dark-haired girl who was washing out glasses over a sink, her back to him. He had an empty glass framed between his fingers, but his movements were sober.
lllya started to get up, but Simone caught his arm. Illya shook his head slightly. "Cover me."
She sat back, wariness on her face, and he moved through the sparse crowd to the empty chair next to the man. The girl had turned and was speaking impatiently to him.
"...heard it before," she was saying. "A thousand times."
"I heard it from your brother and I hear it from you. Nothing changes," she said.
"It's the truth," he insisted, falling silent as he noticed Illya.
"Vodka," Illya snapped. He spoke Ukrainian, as they were doing.
The girl poured as the man beside Illya gave him a quick once over and dismissed him. Illya pegged him as about 25, heavy-muscled, dark with bushy hair and thick brows; he bore a strong resemblance to the body in their morgue. Brothers, Illya guessed.
"Can I meet you after work?" he said to the girl.
She sighed. "Yury ..."
"Come on," he pleaded. Illya paid for his drink and she scooped the money up, shaking her head and walking away without answering.
Illya downed the vodka in a gulp, growled out, "Women."
Yury grunted what sounded like agreement. Illya waved to the bartender.
"Another. And one for my friend." He indicated Yury.
The bartender took their empties and slid two half-full glasses onto the counter. Yury grunted again, said, "Thanks," and drained his vodka.
"Want want want, all the time," Illya muttered. "They don't have any idea how hard a man has to work to get anywhere."
Yury snorted. "Even when you work you don't get anywhere."
Illya shrugged, slugged back his drink. "That depends on the work."
Yury looked at him; Illya, turning back to wave to the bartender, felt Yury's eyes take in the quality of the clothes he wore—clothes he'd deliberately worn, for that reason.
"Another for two men who don't understand women," Illya called to the bartender, who smiled as he poured.
"This won't help, my friend," he said.
Illya dropped money on the counter. "But it won't hurt either."
When the bartender walked away, Yury said carelessly, "So what work do you do?" He lifted his glass, toasted his benefactor, and drank.
"Different things," Illya said, equally careless. He drained his vodka and looked at Yury as if for the first time, looked him over. "Why? You looking for a job?"
One heavy shoulder lifted. "Maybe. What kind of job?"
Illya pushed his glass across the counter, squinting at Yury. "You look strong. If you're willing to work, you can make good money."
"Is it legal?" Yury asked. Illya laughed, clapped Yury on the shoulder.
"I'll tell you what," he said, sliding off the chair. "I'm going. If you want to make good money for a few hours' work, wait a few minutes and follow me out. I'll wait on the corner—" He nodded toward the Khreshchatik. "If not, we forget we ever met. All right?"
Illya laughed again, waved to the bartender and threw more coins across the bar. "Another for my friend here."
He strode through the crowd for the door, making brief eye contact with Simone as he passed her table. She sat back, keeping watch on Yury, as Illya left the club.
He waited near a doorway, visible but at the edge of the light cast by the nearest streetlamp. He heard slow, heavy footsteps approach and stepped forward as Yury neared him, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his battered jacket—the same jacket he'd had on when he'd fled after taking several shots at Illya.
Illya smiled. "What's your name?"
"Yury Kostyuk." Yury glanced around at the deserted, dark street. "Who are you?"
Illya cocked his head. "Don't you know me?"
Clearly Yury didn't, but the words alarmed him. He started to back up—and was stopped by the gun in his ribs.
"Stay right where you are," Voytek snarled in his ear. Yury glanced over his shoulder at the newcomer; when he turned back, Illya too had a gun pointed at him.
Simone pulled the sedan up to the curb.
"Get in," Illya said. "We want to talk to you."
Yury sat in the back seat, Voytek, gun in hand, next to him. Simone sat in the driver's seat, turned, her gun also pointed at him. Illya had put his gun away; he sat in the passenger seat, examining Yury closely.
"I want to know who hired you to kill the man you tried to kill four days ago," Illya said. Yury looked at Voytek, at Simone, eyes widening.
"You ... you chased me," he said.
"And now we've caught you," Illya said. "Who hired you? Talk and we might let you live."
"If I talk she will kill me," Yury said. "Do you—" He stopped himself.
"But we have you and she doesn't," Illya said. "Work with us and we might be willing to protect you. Who was she?"
Yury shook his head, shrugged. "A woman. I don't know. Red-haired. Beautiful. Nice clothes. Jewelry. She ... first she hired Gleb."
"My brother. Is he—" He stopped himself again, and Illya realized what he wanted to ask. "Do you have him?"
"Yes," Illya said coldly. "I thought I detected a resemblance."
"This woman," Illya said. "She hired your brother. For?"
"To kill a man. A foreigner. An American."
Illya smiled inside at the idea that his defining trait in the United States—his Russian heritage—had been erased, here where he was born, by his residency in America.
"She gave him a lot of money. Said there'd be more afterward. That was six days ago. I haven't seen my brother since then."
"But you've seen the woman," Simone said.
Yury nodded. "She came into The White Crow. She said ... she said Gleb had failed. I asked her where he was. She wouldn't tell me either." His tone turned accusatory.
"She wanted you to do the job he'd failed at," Illya said. "When was she to contact you again?"
Yury shook his head. "She said she would know if I had done it. She wouldn't pay me until it was done."
"Where was she planning to meet you?"
He shook his head, more adamantly. "She didn't say. She just said she would know, and she would pay me."
"You undertook to assassinate a man on the word of a stranger who hadn't even paid you yet?" Illya challenged. Yury met his eyes for a moment, lowered his head.
"She said she would tell me where my brother is. And ... she said she knew I had his share of the money, from ... from the first time." He shook his head, muttered a curse.
Illya simply looked at him, long enough that Yury began to fidget. Then Illya nodded at Voytek.
"Let him out."
Voytek opened the door and got out, still covering Yury, whose wide-eyed stare flickered between Voytek and Illya.
"Go," Illya said. "Get out."
Yury scrambled out of the car, shot a wild-eyed look back over his shoulder, then jogged up the road.
Voytek got back into the back seat. "Why are you letting him go?"
Illya watched Yury until he disappeared down a side street. "I want to see where he leads us."
Simone started the car.
One phone call and one roundabout walk home later, Yury slid the key into the lock—and his door swung open.
"Come inside and close the door," a woman's voice came to him, softly, from the darkness.
He slipped inside and hurriedly shut the door. A dim lamp flicked into life, and he turned to see the red-haired woman, seated at his kitchen table.
"You said you needed to see me," she said. "I know you haven't accomplished your task. What is the problem?"
He told her.
She sprang up. "Fool. Were you followed?"
He shook his head. "They just let me go. I swear I told them nothing."
She paced, short steps in the tiny apartment, hands in the pockets of her long black coat. Yury waited, questions about his missing brother on the tip of his tongue.
She stopped, shook her head. "They may still find you. Konstantin was a fool to ..." She spun, confronting him so sharply he started.
"I told them nothing," he repeated.
Her eyes narrowed. "Whatever you told them, you'll tell them no more."
Eyes still on the palm-sized device in his hand, Illya nodded toward the shabby apartment building. "There. Upstairs."
Simone stopped the car.
"Come with me," he said to her. "You wait here."
Voytek obligingly climbed behind the wheel and watched Illya and Simone enter the quiet, dark building.
Following the lead of the tracker, they climbed to the top floor, finding a narrow, dimlit corridor, bare-floored.
"Rendezvous?" Simone said softly. "Or does he live here?"
Illya shrugged, gestured ahead. "End of the hall."
The apartment door was open. Yury lay supine, arms outspread, in the middle of the room, on a tattered rug.
Illya knelt beside him. His eyes were open but he was not yet dead. As Illya started to unbutton his coat, Yury exhaled a sound.
Illya leaned closer, laid one hand on the man's chest—and it stilled beneath his touch.
At the window, Simone hissed his name. He sprang up beside her, looked down into the alley to see a mass of red hair atop a black-coated body, getting into a big shiny black car.
Illya pulled out his communicator. "Voytek."
"In the alley. Black sedan, late model—"
The engine's roar carried faintly to them as the car moved away. Simone moved away to check the rest of the small apartment.
"—headed west," Illya went on. "Follow it."
Illya put away the communicator as Simone came out of the bedroom. "He said Konstantin."
She regarded Yury's body. "Perhaps the woman's associate. Perhaps her boss?" She shook her head. "Thugs. If it is THRUSH, why are they not using their own people?"
"Because their own people can be traced back to them," Illya said.
"Maybe you should talk to Gurov."
Illya knelt beside the corpse again. "Or maybe not."
"You think it might be him?"
He reached under the collar of Yury's coat and removed the tiny transmitter he'd affixed there, pocketing it with an irritated shake of his head. "I haven't even ruled out myself."
When Konstantin Zhelnikov returned to his office after a leisurely lunch, a woman waited there for him, seated on the edge of his desk, smoking and gazing out the broad windows that overlooked Sofiisky Sobor, St. Sophia's Cathedral.
He shut the door and locked it behind him. "I've told you I don't like it when you smoke in here," he said, crossing the room to stand beside her.
"Kuryakin found Yury," she said, flicking ashes toward the previously spotless ashtray on his desk.
Zhelnikov hesitated. "And?"
He head snapped left, right. "I don't know what he told them before I killed him."
"Irina." Zhelnikov clucked his tongue. "You are too quick. You should have told me. I could have made him talk."
"They followed him," she snapped. "They were already there when I left." She glanced at him, smiled to see his face tighten.
"Did they see you?"
Satisfied, she resumed staring out the window. "They sent a car after me, but the driver doesn't know the city. I lost him."
He moved closer to the glass, away from her. "Unfortunate. Gleb and Yury were of use to THRUSH. I don't like using my people here for that kind of work."
"You're going to have to, now," she said.
"Even if they did see you, Kuryakin has no way to connect you to me. How can he even know who you are?"
"He may not," she said, grinding out her cigarette. "But Vladimir Gurov may."
"Gurov knows you?" Zhelnikov barked.
"He has seen me," she said patiently. "In your company. If Kuryakin talks to Gurov about what he saw..."
He cursed. "We've worked too long for this to lose it to that damn' Russian UNCLE agent."
Irina got up. "Time to bring in the big guns?"
"In a way. But not THRUSH's big guns. I don't want to risk blowing my cover. This will remain a KGB operation for now."
The intercom buzzed and Zhelnikov switched it on. "Yes."
"Vladimir Gurov is here to see you, sir."
"Tell him to wait."
Zhelnikov smiled humorlessly at Irina. "I have an idea. Let me find out what my loyal Vladimir knows. If he has no suspicions, I'll simply arrange to have him eliminate Kuryakin."
"And if Kuryakin has told him enough that he does have suspicions?" she asked. "How will you know? Gurov isn't an idiot." She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her purse, unthinking, and put it away again at Zhelnikov's glare. "We should have recruited him for THRUSH."
"I'll know," Zhelnikov said. He pushed the heavy ashtray toward her. "Take that with you."
"What will you do?" She picked up the ashtray.
Zhelnikov shrugged. "No one but me knows who the mole is. I will simply direct these two loose cannon at each other. With some additional ... peripheral firepower to see to it that the danger is eliminated." He leaned over the intercom, flicked the button.
"Send him in."
The red-headed woman slipped out through a side door.
Alexander Waverly held his pipe in one hand and Illya Kuryakin's latest report in the other, equally unaware, it seemed, of both. He stared instead out the windows of his office, past the New York City skyline as if he could see all the way to Kiev and the problems there. So far the Kiev office had had little success; his own researches at home had been more to the point. He knew who the mole was in the United States; indeed he'd had his suspicions from the start. He only wondered, now, how he should play the hand he held.
April Dancer stood before Napoleon's desk, arms akimbo. When it became evident he wouldn't acknowledge her until she spoke, she did so.
"Napoleon, what happened?"
He stopped writing, glanced up. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you saying you're glad Illya's gone. That he's glad to have gone himself. That your friendship ... that you were never friends at all."
"Son of a bitch," Napoleon muttered, dropping his pen. "Don't our people have anything better to do?"
"Bradley mentioned it," April said reasonably. "You have to expect that people are going to talk."
Napoleon glared at her, trying to not be angry. It wasn't her fault. It wasn't anyone's fault.
She sat on the edge of his desk, crossed her arms and lowered her voice.
"If you're so glad to be rid of him why are you walking around like a wraith?"
"Napoleon, look in a mirror. It's obvious. You aren't sleeping, the only nourishment you get is when you bite the head off some poor agent for not being as perfect as Illya always was ..."
He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes.
"Napoleon, I know there's nothing I can do to change what's happened, but if you need to talk ... if it would help ..."
"Talking won't help," he said, forcing his eyes open. "Sorry, April. I appreciate your concern, but I have to get through these reports."
Visibly stung, she backed away. "Okay. Sorry. If you need anything ..."
He stared unseeing at the papers, heard the door open and close, and felt only relief that she was gone. So it was true that if you felt bad enough, you didn't care who you hurt.
He laughed sourly. I should know. I'm the poster child for hurting the ones I love.
His desk intercom buzzed and he blinked, reached for it. "Solo."
"Mr Solo, will you come to my office immediately please."
"I'm on my way, sir." He moved briskly, hoping it was a case, something challenging. Something he could immerse himself in to douse the feelings that burned his insides.
"Mr. Solo. Sit down. How are you holding up?"
Napoleon eased himself into a chair. "Holding up?"
Waverly exhaled sharply. "Kindly do me the courtesy of not treating me as if I am blind, Mr. Solo. Or stupid."
"Yes sir," Napoleon said, chilled. How much did the old man know, or suspect? "I mean, no sir. That is ..."
"Never mind." Waverly looked at his watch. "There is a flight to Kiev in two hours. You and agent Bradley will be on it."
Napoleon said nothing, but every muscle, every cell of his body went on alert.
"Our Kiev office has been on the hunt for a double agent—well, possibly more than one—who has foiled several of our Eastern European missions and several of the KGB's as well. Mr. Kuryakin and his people are on that case."
Forcing a businesslike tone, he said, "What else can you tell me, sir?" The words were the tip of the iceberg of questions he had—he wasn't unaware of his own desire to rip open the titanic calm of the man before him to get the answers he craved. The image almost made him smile.
Waverly looked at his Chief Enforcement Agent, a steady regard that Napoleon felt all the way through him. Every pound he'd lost, every hour he hadn't slept—he had the disturbing sense Mr. Waverly could see it all, and knew what it meant.
"Yes. It was a ... deception. Mr. Kuryakin was ordered to break his ties with you, Mr. Solo. With everyone. To break them as ... unpleasantly as possible."
Napoleon felt the week-old cold knot in his gut dissolve at Waverly's words. He slid his hands from the table to his knees, not wanting his boss to see them shaking. Christ. Lies. It was all lies. He concentrated on breathing evenly, raising his eyes to Waverly again. All lies. And some part of you knew it. But you still—
Waverly harrumphed, seeming a little put out with himself. "I had hoped if he seemed to be ... out in the cold, as it were, the mole would reveal himself, perhaps make Mr. Kuryakin an offer. So far, at least, that has not occurred. Something else has, however, something that may enable us to flush out the double agents."
Napoleon bit down on the words and bring my partner home. Whether that could happen or not, saying it would only irritate his superior.
"Yes sir," he said instead.
Brad Bradley entered Waverly's office to see Solo standing at the table, a file folder in hand. Number One of Section One sat in his accustomed place.
"Napoleon," he greeted the man he expected soon to be his permanent partner. "Mr. Waverly."
"Mr. Bradley," Waverly nodded at him. "You and Mr. Solo will be flying out to Kiev within the hour."
Bradley nodded crisply. "Yes sir." Again he looked at Solo, who held out the file folder.
"Here's the background. You can read it on the plane," Solo said.
Bradley took the folder, shrugged. "Okay. Let's go."
Simone poked her head into Illya's office while he was going over the files on the failed UNCLE missions, hoping for some clue he'd missed the first dozen times.
"We've had a communique from New York. Mr. Waverly is sending a couple of ..." She glanced at the note in her hand. "... experts to assist us."
"Experts?" Illya echoed. "In?"
She smiled sourly. "He doesn't say. He doesn't say much of anything. Except that they'll be here in a few hours."
"I'm glad to hear Mr. Waverly has such confidence in us," Illya said, returning his attention to the reports.
"Anything?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing we don't already know. The KGB mole must be fairly highly positioned to have done what he did. Our own missions ... it looks like routine THRUSH work. I don't know what that means."
"Except that the KGB mole is more highly placed than the UNCLE mole," Simone said.
Restraining his tone, Illya said, "Yes. Except that."
"Sorry. What should I do about these experts?"
He glanced up. "Pick them up at the airport and bring them here."
"Alive?" she asked.
"Use your own discretion." He didn't raise his eyes from the files again.
She chuckled. "Understood."
The phone rang and Illya picked it up. "Kuryakin." He closed his eyes, rubbing them with his free hand.
"Vladimir Gurov is not what he seems." The voice, male, measured, spoke in Russian. When the voice paused, Illya could hear nothing but the faint static of the phone line. He waited.
"He hired those men to try to kill you. He will try again."
"How do you know this?" Illya asked.
"He is the man you are looking for."
"Who does he work for?" Illya didn't expect the answers to any of his questions, but the more this man talked, the more he might learn.
"What about the woman?"
The phone clicked and went dead. Illya cursed and dropped it into the cradle. He got up and paced—away from the big window that overlooked the street—playing back the man's words a few times. Impossible to determine their truth or falsity; what it did suggest was that someone was anxious for him to believe Gurov guilty. Someone whose voice Illya didn't know, but obviously someone on the inside. Something, though ...
He hired those men to try to kill you.
Those men. Gurov knew about Gleb. Illya hadn't yet told him about Yury. But the caller knew.
When the phone rang again he started.
"Illya." It was Vladimir Gurov. He sounded tense, anxious. "We need to talk."
"Talk," Illya said.
"Somewhere we won't be heard. Meet me at the old tractor factory, west of the city. Do you know it?"
"I know it."
Illya found himself smiling. "Alone?"
Gurov clearly heard the cynical amusement in his tone.
"I'll be alone too. I don't trust anyone right now, and you shouldn't either."
Illya sighed. "When?"
Illya glanced at the clock. "It will take me half an hour to get there."
"Fine." Gurov hung up.
Illya buzzed Karl and Voytek and explained the situation, telling them to meet him at the cars. Picking up a couple of extra clips, he left, running into Simone in the corridor outside his office.
"What is it?"
"I'm meeting Gurov," he said, grabbing his jacket. "In half an hour."
"Not here?" she asked, following him down the stairs and into the lobby of the office.
"At an old factory outside the city," he said. At the look she gave him, he said impatiently:
"I know. But I might learn something." He told her about both phone calls. "Something or someone is about to break."
Tightly she said, "It seems to me it is you that they plan to break."
"So we must be close," he said, collecting the keys to one of the sedans from the receptionist by the door. He shrugged into his jacket, shoved the clips into his pocket, and headed toward the rear of the building, where the cars were kept.
Simone ran after him. "What about the people Mr. Waverly is sending?"
"Pick them up. If they have anything of use to share, contact Voytek or Karl. Not me. I'll have my communicator, but I want Gurov to believe I'm there alone." He banged out the rear door. Karl and Voytek were leaning on one of the cars, smoking.
"Should we follow in the other car?" Karl asked.
"No. Simone will need it." Illya walked around to the driver's side as rain started to mist down from the heavy sky. "I'll drop you at a safe distance and you can walk in."
"Don't get too far ahead of us," Voytek said ominously. "I've never seen a more obvious planned assassination."
Illya gave him a cool smile. "Then we should be able to thwart it, da? Let's go."
A black sedan that had seen better days awaited them outside the airport. A petite dark-haired woman leaned on the driver's door, arms and ankles crossed, smoking a cigarette.
"Where's Illya?" Napoleon blurted automatically.
Her eyes widened a little, then narrowed. "He sent me to pick you up. I am Simone Cartier."
"Is he—" Napoleon stopped himself at the look on her face. He waved to Bradley, still trailing behind him with the bags, and climbed into the passenger seat.
Simon got behind the wheel and slammed the door, flicking cigarette ash onto the floor. "So it is you. The famous Napoleon Solo." She chuckled. "I should have guessed. You heartless son of a bitch."
Napoleon drew back in surprise at her casual venom.
"Your English is very good," he said, then, "I had a heart, once."
"What happened to it?" She waited, eyes on his, searching him for the truth that he could see she already knew. He recognized her name, remembered that she was a friend of Illya, that he liked and respected her.
"Illya," he said.
Her hard expression eased. "Napoleon Solo. Done in by our surly Soviet friend. Who would have thought it?"
Napoleon shrugged, looked out the window at the misting rain.
"He is miserable," she said. "One might be tempted to hate you for that."
Napoleon rubbed his face tiredly, massaged his temples. "Get in line, mademoiselle."
To his astonishment, she touched his arm, a short, comforting stroke. "He said nothing against you. He is doing his job here. It's remarkable how efficient a man can be even without his heart and soul. Perhaps more efficient. We are only machines, after all, are we not?"
Napoleon slumped back against the seat. "No."
Brad Bradley strode up to the car, big suitcases dangling from each hand. Simone surveyed him.
"This is your partner, then?" she said, nodding toward Bradley.
Napoleon sighed. "No. This is the man they assigned to work with me." He looked at her, irritated, now, at her needling. Again she searched his face.
"I apologize. You are miserable too, are you not?" She rolled down her window, handed Bradley the key to the boot, rolled the window up again. "How sweet and how funny."
"It's neither one, mademoiselle, and I'd prefer we change the subject to the case, if you don't mind."
She leaned close for a moment, said, "He doesn't know you're coming, you know."
Napoleon stared at her as she drew back.
"He knows someone is coming, of course. Not that it is you. I sometimes think Alexander Waverly is Old Nick in disguise, he is so cunning."
The trunk thumped shut and Bradley got into the back seat, passing the key to Simone. She smiled at Napoleon and started the car.
"I'm sorry the head of the office won't be there to greet you," she said, abruptly businesslike. "He's meeting with ... one of our suspects."
"Where?" Napoleon asked. "When?"
She glanced at her watch. "In about half an hour, in an old factory outside the city."
"We should probably join him," Bradley volunteered, adding, "Don't you think?" to Napoleon. "He might need some help."
"I think it's a good idea," Napoleon said.
"Illya already has backup," she said, "but I have no objection and no other orders, so ... I am at your service, gentlemen."
Illya dropped off Karl and Voytek up the deserted, grass-grown road that led to the abandoned factory. Rain still misted lightly down, but the clouds were breaking up.
"Don't kill anyone unless you absolutely have to," Illya reminded them as they checked their weapons. "We'll want to question them."
"Bah," Voytek growled. "Part of the reason I joined UNCLE was so I could kill people unnecessarily." Karl grinned; even Illya snorted a short laugh.
"Drive slowly," Karl told him, and the two agents started off through the fields toward the factory, looming square ahead of them. Illya pulled back on to the road.
A sedan similar to the one they were in sat parked by the front of the derelict building, and a small figure in black was entering a side door next to the tall, imposing front doors.
"Illya," Simone said. She slowed the car and pulled onto the drive that led to the building. Illya disappeared inside.
"Stop back here." Napoleon drew his gun, scanning the front of the factory. No windows, which meant that at least their approach couldn't be observed from inside the building. And the flat countryside would make it difficult—though not impossible—for other observers to hide. "Where's his damned backup?"
Simone looked about. "They must be out here somewhere."
Napoleon bit down on the sarcastic response, turned to face her. "Wait. Keep your eyes peeled." Then, in quick French, "Watch him." Then, even as Simone blinked, back to English. "If you see or hear anything, come on in and join the party."
"Maybe we should try to find Kuryakin's backup," Bradley said. "Coordinate our forces." He looked at Simone, at Napoleon.
Simone said levelly, "That makes sense. We don't know how many men Gurov might have with him."
"All right," Napoleon agreed. "Be careful."
"You—" Whatever else Bradley had been about to say, Napoleon didn't hear. He jumped out of the car and hurried toward the building.
He slipped inside to find himself in a small office area, glassed in, the windows so filthy it was impossible to see out onto the factory floor. Illya stood at the inside door. Napoleon's stomach tightened as he whispered his partner's name.
The Russian spun and Napoleon held up a staying hand.
Illya stared at him, unmoving, and Napoleon got a sudden and alarming sense of his partner's fragility.
Partner. That reminded him of his own fragility, his own tenuous grasp of reality. He isn't your partner. Not now. Maybe not ever again.
Illya mouthed his name, moved closer. "What are you doing here?"
Napoleon quietly shut the door behind him. "This is a set-up."
"Napoleon, what are you doing here?" the question came firmer this time, businesslike.
"Mr. Waverly sent me. They set you up."
"I know that." Illya paused, admitted, "What I don't know is exactly who 'they' are."
At the familiar sarcastic tone, Napoleon found himself almost smiling. "I might be able to assist you there."
At the call, coming from within the main factory, both agents started. Illya opened the office door a crack and peered out.
High windows on two sides of the building let in bright sunlight that filtered through dust floating in the air. The walls were lined with catwalks and stairs leading to various parts of the derelict machinery that stood about the factory.
Vladimir Gurov waited in an open space on the factory floor, looking around himself nervously. He held a gun, but his arm hung at his side.
Illya eased the door nearly shut, glanced at Napoleon. "He's out there. He's waiting for me."
"The mole?" Napoleon asked.
Illya said, "I don't know."
"Where's your backup?" Napoleon asked.
Illya pointed with his chin. "Outside. We're supposed to meet alone."
Napoleon chuckled and Illya rolled his eyes impatiently.
"I know. I don't expect he came here any more alone than I did. I still want to talk to him, though."
He moved to go out, but Napoleon caught his arm, the warning in his eyes clear.
Illya met his gaze. "I told him I'd meet him. I might learn something."
Napoleon hesitated, then let go. "Okay. I'll be up there." He nodded toward the maze of overhead catwalks. Illya returned the nod and walked out to meet Gurov on the dusty, cluttered factory floor. He was aware as he walked of Napoleon slipping around the machinery and climbing silently up to a good vantage point. He hadn't felt this much at home, this safe—this alive—in days.
He walked slowly up to Gurov, who didn't relax upon seeing him. Illya didn't draw his gun; Gurov's gunhand rose a little, fell again.
"I'm here," Illya said.
Gurov's eyes searched the factory as if he expected men to appear out of the machinery. He spoke quickly, nervously.
"My superior ordered me to set up this meeting with you. He told me a number of things. One of them was that you are the traitor."
"To whom?" Illya asked.
Gurov shook his head, a sharp, impatient movement. "The more he talked, the more I wondered what was going on." He lowered his voice. "I asked him if we were the ones trying to kill you. It seemed to make sense, if you are indeed a danger to us. He said that the two men who tried to kill you were from UNCLE."
Illya shook his head, smiling. It was starting to come together.
"Two men," Gurov said. "Is that the truth?"
"That they were from UNCLE? No. That there were two men? Yes."
"I didn't know that," Gurov said.
"I know you didn't. How do you suppose your superior did?"
Gurov cursed in Russian, fluent curses that had Illya listening in admiration. When he stopped, he said, "And here we both are."
"And we aren't alone," Illya replied quietly, letting his glance dart upward toward the metal catwalks above them.
"We were set up," Gurov hissed. "We were both set up."
Illya thought back to Yury and his red-haired assassin. Maybe he should have told Gurov more.
"Does the name Konstantin mean anything to you?" Illya asked, already half-certain of the answer. Gurov's eyes widened. A crack sounded and they snapped wider as he jerked forward. Illya caught Gurov's limp body, heard another crack—the sound of an UNCLE Special.
A man plummeted from a catwalk to the factory floor, rifle tumbling after him. Illya dragged Gurov into the cover of a conveyor belt motor, but he was already dead. Illya let him go and drew his own gun, scanning the dusty half-lit building as scattered shots were exchanged high above. He heard glass shatter, then a shout in Russian.
A man ran along a catwalk in front of him, firing toward Napoleon's position. Illya tracked the man and shot him, then glanced toward his partner's spot in time to see Napoleon fall backward from the catwalk. Illya scrambled up and dashed across the factory floor, flinching as three evenly spaced shots struck the machinery around him, sending up sparks.
Napoleon lay on his back on a pile of crates and dust cloths, knees bent, arms slightly upraised, gun missing. Illya dropped to his knees beside him, lay one hand on his chest, looking him over with sharp, urgent eyes.
"Are you hit?"
Napoleon blinked, shook his head as if just waking up. "No. Damn ... I slipped up there. Oil or something." He gestured at the catwalk over their heads. Illya blew out a short exhalation, curled his fingers into Napoleon's shirtfront and pulled the still-stunned American upright.
"Do not get killed," he snarled into Napoleon's face, rising and turning back to scan the room.
Napoleon got his feet under him, shook his head again. Taken aback, he muttered, "Ah ... okay," but Illya was already moving away. He spotted the other gunman and took careful aim, dropping him with a single shot.
"Where's my gun?" Napoleon muttered, scanning the vicinity, peripherally aware that the firing had stopped. Illya, too, paused, looking around.
Brad Bradley came out onto the floor, took in the scene in a moment, and pointed his UNCLE special at Napoleon, no more than three feet away.
"Bradley..." Illya's tone went from surprise through speculation to understanding in the space of those two syllables.
"Drop it," Bradley said. "Or I drop him."
Illya let his gun fall from his fingers. "So it's you," he said.
Bradley smiled. "It's me. Come on."
He urged them outside, to the car.
"Behind the wheel, Kuryakin," Bradley said. "Napoleon, you get in next to him."
They did as they were told and Bradley climbed into the back. "Now drive."
"Where?" Illya asked.
"North. Start the damn' car and get moving."
The key was in the ignition. Illya started the car, glancing at Napoleon. The American half-turned in his seat, looking at Bradley.
"What are you doing, Bradley?" he asked as Illya pulled onto the road.
"I'm bringing home the prize," Bradley said. "It wasn't supposed to go like this, but ..." He shrugged. "Zhelnikov screwed up. Someone has to clean up after him."
"Zhelnikov," Illya said. "He was Vladimir Gurov's superior."
"And he's THRUSH," Napoleon said.
Bradley grinned. "It's a shame that Kuryakin and Gurov—the two moles—killed one another here. And a shame that you, Napoleon, got caught in the crossfire."
"No one will buy that," Napoleon said.
"No one will have any choice," Bradley said. "There won't be any ... competitive product. Not once you two are dead."
"Are you going to shoot us?" Napoleon asked, smiling. Bradley grinned back, coldly.
"Well, now, there's a thought."
"You'll need a gun I didn't take the precaution of jamming," Napoleon said.
Bradley chuckled. "Very funny."
"We've known you were the THRUSH plant for some time, Bradley," Napoleon went on, aware of Illya both listening and scanning the road for some helpful distraction. "Why do you think we were sent over here? Mr. Waverly thought you'd do something to tip your hand. And you just did."
"I did nothing," Bradley said.
"Except tell us the name and position of the KGB mole and confirm that he's THRUSH," Napoleon said. He nodded at the gun. "You might as well put it down. It's useless to you."
"Why don't I test it on your former partner?" Bradley said, touching the muzzle of the UNCLE Special to Illya's skull.
"It's bad luck to kill the driver," Illya said, not moving his head. "Especially on a narrow road next to a deep river." Napoleon caught the movement of his partner's left hand toward the door handle, caught his sidelong glance and inched his own hand that way, silent agreement.
Bradley shrugged, shifted the gun toward Napoleon. "Then I'll kill the passenger."
Illya yanked the wheel and opened his own door; Bradley lurched sideways, gunhand wavering. Rather than jumping out, Napoleon dove half over the back seat.
"Jump!" He shoved Illya as he grabbed Bradley's gun hand. Illya fell out of the car, hit hard and rolled, scrambling to his feet in time to see the car careen off the road. He thought he heard gunshots; then the car plunged over the cliff.
"Napoleon!" He ran for the edge, hoping Napoleon had managed to jump, but he saw no sign of anyone as he stopped on the cliff to look down at the brown swirling waters. Both front doors open, the car was already sinking, turning slowly as it moved down the river.
Illya yanked his jacket off and threw it aside, moving to the edge.
He was kicking off his shoes when Napoleon's voice, taut with effort, said, "Can I get a hand here?" Fingers and a dark-haired head poked up from the cliffside, followed by a straining forearm.
Illya leaped forward. He grabbed Napoleon's shoulders and hauled him bodily into a more or less standing position, drawing him away from the cliff—then crushed him into a furious hug.
"Ow—" Napoleon's hands came to rest on Illya's shoulders as he spoke, laughter and pain in his voice. "Ouch. Not so tight."
Illya released him abruptly, stepping back, at last able to breathe. Napoleon, still leaning on him, moved close again.
"I didn't say I wanted you to let go."
Illya blew out a tired laugh, slid his arm around his partner's shoulders, and pulled out his communicator with his free hand.
"Open Channel B. Voytek? Karl?"
Silence. Then Simone's voice. "Illya? Where are you?"
"Up the road," Illya said. "Where are you?"
"At the factory. Bradley knocked me out. I came to a few minutes ago. I found Karl and Voytek," she said, her voice flat. "Dead."
Illya cursed. "We're about 5 miles north. Come and get us."
They walked slowly southward to meet the car. In a few minutes, Simone pulled up and they climbed wearily inside, Illya in front with her, Napoleon in back.
Simone looked like hell, pale, her jaw swollen and red where Bradley had hit her.
"Everyone at the factory is dead or incapacitated," she said. "I've radioed Kiev for a cleanup crew. Where is Bradley?"
"In the river," Napoleon said. "Didn't you get my warning?"
"I got it. He got me anyway. Bastard. Can he swim?" she asked, turning the car around to head back for the city.
"Probably not very well, considering I put two bullets in him," Napoleon replied, slumping back against the seat. His entire body hurt from the tumble he'd taken before the car had gone over the edge.
"Good," she snapped. "Was he the THRUSH plant?"
"Yes," Napoleon said.
"How did you know?" Illya asked.
"Mr. Waverly told me," Napoleon said. "Just before we left for Kiev. He was hoping Bradley would lead us to the KGB mole."
"And it didn't occur to you to tell me?"
Illya scowled: the expression was so familiar Napoleon felt his throat tighten.
"Well, I didn't exactly get the chance ..."
"And were those gunshots I heard from the famously jammed gun?" Illya went on.
Napoleon shrugged, faintly abashed. "I couldn't take the chance. He might've noticed—"
"It was a bluff?" Illya glared at him.
"I didn't hear any better ideas out of you—"
"Does someone want to fill me in?" Simone said.
"It's a long story," Napoleon began.
"We're in a car," Simone said, sarcastic. "Do you have something better to do?"
"Stop at the factory," Illya said, pulling out his communicator. "I want my gun back." He waved the silver faux-pen. "Then we can tell both Mr. Waverly and you at the same time."
"Efficient as always," Napoleon remarked.
"Open channel D," Illya said. "Overseas relay to New York. Top priority."
Alexander Waverly was silent as Illya Kuryakin explained the situation.
"Yes. I see." His tone indicated less than complete satisfaction with the conclusion of the case, and Illya couldn't blame him. "You three return to the Kiev office. I'll contact the KGB through slightly less ... violent channels."
"Shall we wait to hear from you, then, sir?" Illya said, tired but obedient.
"Yes. Waverly out."
Illya gazed blankly at the communicator for a moment, then disassembled it, sighing. They were done, but he couldn't find so much as a grain of satisfaction or triumph inside him anywhere.
"Where are we headed?" Napoleon said, and Illya looked around to see they were going the wrong way down the Khreshchatik if Simone meant to return them to the office.
"I'm kidnapping you two," she said, obviously fighting a smile. "I don't think you should go back to the office right away."
"What are you talking about?" Illya asked.
"I'll take care of things there for the rest of today," she said, pulling the car up in front of The Dnipro. "And Mr. Waverly can reach you on your communicators if he needs you urgently."
Both men looked up at the blocky concrete facade of Kiev's best hotel. Then they looked at her.
She met their stares. "You have an expense account, surely?"
Napoleon took the initiative. "I'm too tired to argue." He climbed out.
"What makes him think we won't be arguing?" Illya muttered as he followed the American out of the car, giving Simone a quick scowl over his shoulder as he departed. She grinned at him, said distinctly, "And no bugs."
He shut the door and she gunned the car away.
Both men stopped in the middle of the tidy, shiny-clean room. Hardly elegant, but the best the city had to offer. They exchanged a tired, resigned look and went over the chamber for monitors of any sort. Whatever words they exchanged here, neither of them would want them to go any further.
Finally, satisfied, they turned to face one another, Illya at the nightstand by the broad, velvet-covered bed, Napoleon at the light switch by the door. The American checked the lock then moved slowly into the room. Illya shifted away from the bed, toward the windows. The clouds had cleared and the sun was setting over the city. The back of his neck tickled in anticipation. He didn't know where he should start—or even if he should start. All he wanted to do was hold Napoleon, but there were words that had to be said first. He knew it even though he didn't know what they were.
"Is it over with?" Napoleon said.
And though the tired query might have referred to anything, Illya knew what he meant.
"It's over with," he answered.
"I thought I had lost you," Napoleon said.
Illya turned, listened to his partner's soft words, both soothing and painful.
"That it was something I had done." Scowling, Napoleon wrapped his arms around himself, as if he were cold, or in pain. "It's been a long time since someone broke my heart. I didn't think it was possible." He laughed.
"It's not your fault I thought I was invulnerable." Napoleon sat on the back of the couch. "I tried to make it your fault. It frightened me that I need you so much. No one likes to have his weakness shoved in his face."
Illya regarded his partner. "Is it a weakness?"
"Once you left, it became a weakness." Napoleon's eyes squeezed shut, as if he were marshalling calm, scraping the fragments of calm from the floor. When he opened them, he said, "I understand why you did what you did."
"Yes. If we're willing to kill or die for UNCLE ... there's not much we won't do. I no less than you. You did what you were told, just as I would have done. I'm the one who fell short, not you." He shook his head, laughed bitterly. "Short. Jesus. The word doesn't come close. The way I treated you was unforgivable, and I'm not asking for forgiveness. I just wanted to explain that it was ... fear." He shrugged, head hanging. Illya had never seen him look defeated. "That's all. I'm sorry."
Illya crossed his arms. "Are you finished?"
Napoleon raised his head, focusing pinched, pained eyes on him.
"I knew what you were feeling," Illya said. "I always know. Why do you think I let you ... take me, like that? Besides the fact that I wanted you so badly it was killing me?"
A twisted half-smile pulled at Napoleon's mouth.
"I knew," Illya said. "I knew you felt ... betrayed. I had deliberately led you to believe it. How can I be angry that you reacted the way any man with a heart would react? I knew that it meant that you ..." He felt himself flush, forced the damning words out. "That you loved me."
"You always hurt the one you love?" Napoleon quoted. "That's no excuse. It's bullshit."
"Of course you hurt the ones you love," Illya said. "How do you hurt someone who doesn't care?"
"I should have trusted you," Napoleon said. "But I didn't know how to, when you stood there and told me that it meant nothing. That I meant nothing. I ... didn't believe you, but I knew you wouldn't lie to me, so I had to believe you."
Illya moved in front of him, lifted his face in both hands. "I am sorry. I did what I had to do."
"I know—" Napoleon began.
"Shut up." Illya seized Napoleon's shoulders, shook him. "I knew what I was getting into. I only hoped that when it was over, you would forgive me."
"What I did—"
"Stop. I wanted you. I knew this was a risky mission. I might not have come back. I wanted to feel you. I wanted to be close to you again. Just in case."
Napoleon leaned away. "What I did wasn't ... we weren't close. The opposite."
"It was enough," Illya said. "I could have stopped you if I had wanted to. You did no irrevocable damage to my body or my soul. You were angry. I was instructed to make you angry. If you had ignored my words, I would have had to find others to anger you. If you're looking for blame, you're looking in the wrong place."
Napoleon stopped leaning back, met Illya's eyes uncertainly. "So you forgive me?"
A split-second smile touched Illya's mouth; his voice wrapped around Napoleon like a warm cloak. "If you forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive."
A hint of steel, now, in the deep voice, and Illya shook him again. "Exactly."
"Hey." Surprise narrowed Napoleon's eyes; he lifted a hand, touched the scrapes along Illya's cheek and jaw. "What happened here?" His index finger lightly traced each cut.
"Napoleon," Illya began mildly, "Don't fuss—" The words caught in his throat as Napoleon stroked his face, then his neck, cupping his chin. The Russian leaned into that warm touch, breathing in the sense of safety and strength that was part of Napoleon's scent.
"I have missed you," he confessed.
Napoleon's expression was open, longing and unsure at the same time. His free hand rose, warm fingers framing Illya's face while sparkling bourbon eyes searched it for assurance.
"What am I going to do with you?" Napoleon said.
Illya smiled. "What do you want to do?"
Napoleon chuckled softly, shook his head in wonder.
"I want to make you happy."
Responding to the puzzlement in his partner's tone, Illya said, "What is it?"
"I can't remember the last time I said that," Napoleon admitted. "I can't remember the last time it was all that mattered to me."
Sternly, Illya said, "You are still feeling guilty. You have never been that selfish, no matter what you are telling yourself now."
"I don't deserve you," Napoleon whispered, gently drawing Illya's face closer.
Illya smiled, closing his eyes. "Try."
Napoleon didn't laugh. "I will," he breathed, kissing Illya's closed eyes. Illya yearned forward at each touch, fingers clenching on Napoleon's shoulders. When Napoleon's mouth moved to his, Illya pressed his body against his partner, allowing Napoleon to make gentle love to his lips and tongue. Eventually he realized Napoleon's hands were on his back, that he was between Napoleon's thighs, hips moving in a slow rhythm against his partner's. Heart skittering, he drew away to inhale a shuddering breath; air tasted bland, dry and unnecessary after the flavor of Napoleon's kisses.
Napoleon rested his forehead against Illya's, panting softly. "God," he groaned. "The taste of you makes me drunk." His hands slid lower, curving to Illya's shape, pressing their groins together. Hungrily Illya sought his mouth again, deep, hard kisses that trailed down Napoleon's neck, to the pulse racing under his jaw.
Napoleon grabbed Illya's head—careful, gentle—and drew him up. "What do you want?" he asked, voice and eyes glazed with passion.
"I want you," Illya hissed, pushing to reconnect. He licked at Napoleon's mouth, sucking his bottom lip before delving deep with his tongue again. Hearing Napoleon's primal sounds of need made him press closer, his body tight, pounding.
Napoleon broke free, gasping, holding him hard for a moment as they caught their breath. He reached into his jacket then, pulling out his gun and communicator and setting them on the bedside table. Illya followed suit, depositing his own devices on the other table. They met again at the foot of the bed; Illya's fingers were immediately at Napoleon's clothes, pulling off his jacket, racing down the buttons of his shirt. Napoleon, smiling, let his partner strip him efficiently, heedless of his costly tailored clothing being scattered carelessly across the floor.
Illya stood back a moment to revel in the sight before him. Napoleon stood, aroused, breathing hard, fiery eyes locked on Illya's.
"Beautiful," Illya murmured, setting his hands to his own clothing.
"Let me?" Napoleon moved close. Illya raised his arms; Napoleon drew his sweater over his head, dropped it, and stroked his hands down Illya's sides, slipping his fingers inside Illya's trousers to cup his ass for a moment.
Illya undid his pants and stepped out of them and against Napoleon's body. Napoleon's exhalation of pleasure was echoed by Illya's own.
"You feel good," the Russian said against Napoleon's shoulder as his hands renewed their familiarity with the hard planes and curves of his partner's body. "All of you feels so good. I want you ..." Napoleon covered Illya's mouth with his own, his tongue tickling, teasing.
Illya pulled back. "I want you," he growled. "Inside me."
Napoleon held him firmly, a distance of only a few inches, but a distance that spoke volumes.
"I want to," he said. "But we don't have anything here..."
Illya began to protest that he didn't care; Napoleon stopped him, one hand gentle over his mouth, then caressing his lips, his chin. "No. I will never hurt you again. Never."
Hearing the choked grief in his partner's voice, Illya subsided, pulling him into a hug, silent understanding and absolution. Napoleon held him for a moment, hard, then backed away, still holding Illya's arms, easing him back onto the bed, onto his back. He crawled over his partner, hovering above him, caressing him with starving eyes.
"Let me love you," he said, kissing Illya's throat, collarbones, sternum. His tongue and lips aroused each nipple, then began a leisurely exploration of Illya's body.
Illya lay still, exquisitely aware of each touch of Napoleon's mouth against his skin. His heart beat hot blood into his erection; he felt the cool air of the room on his skin, felt acutely every inch that separated Napoleon from his aching cock.
Napoleon's tongue dipped into his navel, and Illya's hips jumped.
Napoleon chuckled as his hands slid under Illya's back, slid down between his cheeks to stroke the tender flesh there. Illya heard himself whimper, without shame.
"Napoleon ... please ..." Hands clenched, he raised his head. Napoleon met his eyes for one moment before opening his mouth and descending on Illya's erection.
Illya groaned as hot warmth enveloped him. Napoleon took him deep, his mouth and tongue pressed tight and wet around him. Then Napoleon pulled back, abandoning his cock as his fingers pressed and stroked between Illya's cheeks. The Russian choked on a cry of need as his body yearned upward.
Napoleon nestled between his legs and massaged his testes with his tongue, long firm strokes that forced incoherent grunts from Illya as his hips pumped wildly.
"God ... please ..." he gasped out on the remnants of air in his lungs, and Napoleon raised his head and engulfed him again with his mouth, a deep hard suction, then a light tonguing of his leaking crown before Napoleon again drew Illya's pounding cock into his mouth.
Illya cried out and thrust uncontrollably as he came, white-hot jolts spearing his body and mind. Then he was empty and trembling, exhausted, but able to see, and breathe, and think, again.
Napoleon released his thighs—he hadn't realized Napoleon had been holding him down—and moved up on the bed to enfold him in a powerful embrace.
"I love you," Napoleon said. Illya laid a shaking hand on his partner's chest, heard his own wordless sound of satisfaction and contentment as he buried his head in Napoleon's neck.
"Napoleon," he breathed, a declaration. He lay in quiet joy within Napoleon's embrace for a while, then said, "You ... you didn't ..."
"I'm just fine, thank you," Napoleon said, a smile in his voice. "Seeing you like that was enough to make me come too."
Illya's hand, exploring, came to the evidence that what Napoleon had said was the truth. He raised himself up to look at his partner's face, at the undisguised, unashamed emotion on that normally controlled visage.
"Napoleon..." He swallowed. "I ..."
Napoleon smiled. "I know you do." He touched Illya's cheek lightly. "I know."
Illya lay against him again, their heartbeats counterpoint, then indistinguishable.
Illya's communicator beeped. He started to get up but Napoleon held him down with one arm, the other reaching across him for the silver device. He picked it up and Illya, still pressed against Napoleon's chest, took it from him, activating it awkwardly.
"Is Mr. Solo with you, Mr. Kuryakin?" Waverly asked, peremptory as always.
"Yes sir." Possibly their boss didn't notice the sudden blazing warmth of those two words, but Napoleon did, and a grin spread over his face.
"Come home, gentlemen."
Illya looked at Napoleon. "Both of us, sir?"
"Both of you. I'm afraid we must close up shop in Kiev. The Soviets plan to investigate Comrade Zhelnikov and his cronies, but they also have ... withdrawn their permission for the satellite. At least for the present." His tone made his irritation evident, but Napoleon looked at his partner and saw a rare full-on smile erasing years from the sober Slavic face.
"We're on our way, sir," Illya said, shutting off the communicator and tossing it aside. Napoleon beat him to the punch, though, wrapping his arms around his partner's warm, hard torso and pulling him close.
"But not just yet," he said into Illya's ear, laughing, feeling his partner's chuckle rumble against his chest.
"Aren't you eager to go home, Napoleon?" Illya teased. Napoleon lifted him up to meet his eyes, no longer laughing.
"I am home."
Illya's smile melted; his brilliant summer-sky gaze held Napoleon's.
"Yes," he promised. "Yes."