Napoleon was talking animatedly on the telephone when Illya walked into his office. He hung back unsure if the conversation required privacy. Solo looked up, smiled, and waved him in. Kuryakin took a seat on the couch, crossed his legs and waited somewhat impatiently. It was lunchtime, and he was hungry.
"No, of course not. That bid is reasonable. Go ahead and place it and see if they bite. But wait another couple of hours before doing so. I wouldn't want to appear too eager. Yes, that's right. Contact me if it falls through. No, not at all. Thank you, Montgomery." Napoleon hung up and smiled at his partner. He pushed back from his desk and swung his legs onto it, crossing them at the ankles. Hands behind his head, he looked like the cat that ate the cream, Illya thought.
"What are you up to now, Napoleon? Some nefarious underworld double dealing, I suppose?" Illya teased.
"Now, Illya, you know me better than that," he answered.
"Yes, that's why I asked," Kuryakin replied drolly. His stomach growled and he watched the amused look on Solo's face another minute before saying, "If you're quite through with your wheeling and dealing, might we have lunch now?"
"Sure thing, partner. I wouldn't want to see you keel over in a dead faint from starvation." The tone was serious, but the glint in Napoleon's eyes was mischievous. He stretched, plopped his feet back down on the floor, got up from the desk and walked to stand over Illya. Bending down close to him so he could see his watch, Napoleon remarked, "Just about time for your one o'clock feeding?"
Illya ignored him. Napoleon's certainly in a good mood today, he thought. Something's going on with him, something unusual, even for Napoleon. He glanced quickly at his partner, trying to gauge the difference in him.
The two men walked to the door and Illya casually asked, "Who is Montgomery?"
"Jealous, Illya?" Solo smirked. At a pained look from his friend, he chuckled and said, "He's an art dealer I'm working with. I'm trying to get a Chagall I saw at an exhibit last week. Montgomery Bradley is a young, hungry upstart with an impeccable eye and the tenacity of a bloodhound."
"The two of you should get along famously, then, I would think." Now it was Illya who was teasing. They walked along the steel corridor and waited for an elevator to arrive.
"When did you become a connoisseur, Napoleon? And on your salary?" Illya nosed.
"I have a few pieces I've been acquiring. My aunt Amy left me a tidy sum and my accountant suggested I invest in collectables to take the sting out of the inheritance tax."
Illya's eyebrows rose at that, and he added the information to the long list of 'Napoleon-isms' he was accumulating. "Just don't forget the little people on your way to the top, Napoleon," he added dryly.
"Why, Illya, of course not. You're one of my favorite little people."
"Just for that I'm letting you buy me lunch. And I'm very hungry," the Russian stated.
"When are you not, IK?" Solo countered and followed Illya to the self-serve line. He was amazed as usual at the prodigious amount of food his partner piled on the tray, and groaned when he added the total up in his head. Maybe he'd have to rescind his bid on the painting after all, he thought wryly.
The agents moved to an empty table near the door, as was their custom, preferring to be available at a moment's notice. Illya attacked his lunch the way he attacked everything else in life and Solo felt amused at the display. He ate his sandwich and kept quiet, not wanting to have to pay for dessert, too.
"So, Napoleon. What items have you collected thus far?" Illya's curiosity was piqued, and he wondered just what could catch the American's eye so badly that he had to have it.
"You're not going to let this go, are you Illya?" A quick shake of his head was the blond's answer.
"Anybody ever tell you you're like a terrier, my friend? Compact, powerful, and you have to sink your teeth into everything and shake it until it's dead." He laughed at the stricken look on the agent's face and let him off the hook.
"Okay, okay. I give. So far I have a set of Delft Blue, some Baccarat, a 1939 Chateauneuf DuPape, and an original Modigliani. I'm hoping to get the Chagall, and then I'll only have a couple more categories to fill. Montgomery helps me keep abreast of the up and comers, so I can get by cheaper than you think. What the heck, it keeps me off the streets."
Illya smiled at that and said, "I seriously doubt that, Napoleon."
They ate for a while in companionable silence and finished with strong coffee. Solo glanced at his watch and announced, "We've got a meeting with Mr. Waverly in ten minutes. I trust you got enough to eat, mon ami?"
"Yes, thank you. It was nice of you to volunteer to pay for lunch," Illya jibed, getting in a parting volley.
Solo chuckled and pointed to the door. "After you, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Of course, Mr. Solo."
The weekly Threat Assessment Briefing was unusual in that it was practically unnecessary. THRUSH had been keeping a low profile in the last week; an observance that tended to put the agents on edge rather than lull them into complacency.
Mr. Waverly knew better than to let his best men sit on their hands during these occasional respites. He almost smiled at the image of Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin as lions that would pace in their cages if not stimulated enough. However, he hid the expression in a scowl he directed at the two young agents.
Pointing his pipe in their direction he spoke almost gruffly to them, as a headmaster would when chiding his favorite students. "Don't think, gentlemen, that this slowdown is anything other than the ruse I believe it to be. I'm certain that THRUSH is up to something, and something big by all the signs. I need the two of you especially sharp now."
"Yes, sir," they said in unison.
Waverly nearly smiled again. These two were so alike yet so different at the same time. He wondered if they recognized that fact in themselves. In all his years with the Command, Alexander had never seen partners more in tune with each other than these particular agents. They had the eerie ability to sense each other almost pre-cognitively, an asset that had saved their lives more than once. He was sometimes taken aback at their combined strengths and abilities and was extremely grateful that they were on his side. Waverly shook himself from his reverie and began refilling his pipe.
"Mr. Solo," he continued. "I want you to take over the Infiltration and Retrieval class for the time being. Harrison is out with appendicitis. Mr. Kuryakin, I want you in the Cryptography Lab. We've intercepted part of a THRUSH message that utilized a distinctly devious encryption code. Start on it right away. It's been giving the crypto lads fits." He looked down at the file at his elbow and began to peruse it. He seemed to forget the two were in the room, and when he looked up to see them still seated there he groused, "Well, what are you waiting for? Get on with it, men." He waved a dismissive hand at them both.
They rose rather sheepishly, Napoleon saying, "Right away, sir." He shot a glance to Kuryakin as if to say, 'What did we do now?' but kept the look from Mr. Waverly. They made their way to the hall, and Illya sighed in relief when the door whooshed shut.
"At least I'll be in the lab and not some third world country this week," he said. "Be nice to stay clean and dry for a while."
"And I'll be playing teacher. Ahh, Illya, nine-to-five, no night duty, no weekend marathons. I could get used to this. Plus, I'll have more time to work on my collection." He gave his partner a big smile and saluted jauntily. "Well, guv'nor, I'm off then. Do be a good chap and ring me up when you're through," he said in his worst English accent. He turned smartly on his heel and sauntered down the hall. After a few steps he turned and called after Illya. He was still watching him go, a look of distaste on his face at Napoleon's attempt to be passably British.
"Why don't you come over tonight for supper, Illya? I'll show you my etchings." He grinned evilly at his remark and watched as Illya dropped his head, shaking it slowly from side to side.
"Only if you agree to stop trying to be humorous, Napoleon. It really doesn't suit you." He turned and walked away, leaving Solo standing alone in the hallway. Now it was Napoleon's turn to watch his partner's retreat. He noticed how the female agents turned their heads to gaze at him admiringly in passing. He also noted that Illya was, as always, oblivious to them.
Napoleon was not, however, oblivious to the effect Illya had on him. It was a large part of the reason he frequently invited Illya to his place. He liked spending time with the little Russian, off-duty, especially. Illya let his guard down only then, enabling Solo to catch glimpses of the hidden man behind the mask. Plus, Napoleon could relax and enjoy himself with his partner better than with anyone else, women included. He thought that odd, but didn't waste any more time contemplating it. He had to get to work. It wouldn't do to incur the Old Man's wrath any more today.
He whistled softly on his way to the training center. He'd only have to run one class through this afternoon and then he would be left to his own devices. Sometimes being Chief Enforcement Agent was a distinct advantage.
Four hours later he was watching the last of the trainees sign out and leave for the barracks. Some of them looked all of sixteen, and Napoleon suddenly felt old at thirty-six. He smiled when he remembered how young Illya had looked when they were introduced. He'd sworn he couldn't have been more than twenty, and had shook his head in disbelief when he'd been told Kuryakin was twenty-eight. Illya had surprised him many times over with his maturity and intelligence in those first days.
Solo still entertained the thought that U.N.C.L.E. must be getting recruits straight out of high school if this latest bunch were any indication. Must just be getting old, he mused. He called down to Crypto, but Kuryakin had already left for the day. He had gotten a step closer toward breaking the code and had taken the work home with him. Solo sighed. The kid never knew when to stop and call it a day. He'd have to explain it to him tonight.
As he pulled into his apartment's garage he spied Illya's car in one of the guest spots. He was still sitting there, head buried in a computer printout, obviously waiting for his partner to make good on his promise of dinner. Solo got out and slunk over to the right side and tried to surprise Kuryakin with a sneak attack. He pointed his Special at his head through the side window and tapped on the glass. Illya merely glanced up briefly before returning his attention to the printout.
"Illya? What if I had been a THRUSH agent?" he pointedly questioned.
"Then you'd be dead, of course." Kuryakin casually moved the paper aside to show his finger poised above a button that controlled a nasty little device U.N.C.L.E. had added to his car's options. With a touch Illya could have electrified the exterior of the car while he would have been shielded inside. "Do you prefer your spies medium or rare?" he joked. Folding the form, he placed it in his briefcase and activated the anti-theft mechanism. As Solo holstered his weapon, Kuryakin got out and locked the car as well. U.N.C.L.E. agents were nothing if not cautious.
"Crack the code yet?" Solo inquired.
"Of course not. Not on the first day. I have to appear needed. Job security, you know. I'll crack it tomorrow." He smirked at Napoleon and the dark agent wasn't sure if he was being led on or not. Sometimes he just never knew about his stoic friend.
"Right. Well, come on, Nostradamus. We're off duty now and I'm hungry for once."
They walked to the elevator and argued about the menu. They finally decided on Thai food and lots of cold beer to wash it down with. Solo was anxious to call his dealer and see if there was any news.
Kuryakin chuckled at his eagerness. "You are becoming a true hedonist, Napoleon. As well as an Ugly American."
"Why? Because I appreciate the finer things in life? Unlike a certain Soviet I know who thinks a three course meal consists of a can of tomato soup, vodka, and a Twinkie."
Illya had to smile at that, since it was true. He liked sharing his evenings with Napoleon. They had an easy camaraderie he had never known with anyone else. And he had a fully stocked kitchen that the Russian could plunder to his heart's content.
Napoleon unlocked his front door and keyed in the alarm sequence. Illya slipped inside first and began to make himself at home. He moved to the bar and poured them both a drink. Handing his to Napoleon, he lifted his glass and said, "Za vashe zdorovye," and tossed the vodka back in a flick of his wrist. Solo drained his drink as well and said, "Here's mud in your eye, and don't throw the glass in the fireplace this time, Illya. That's part of my Baccarat collection you're holding."
Kuryakin looked at the finely cut leaded glass and saw its beauty for the first time. He held it against the lamp and turned the facets, watching them catch the fire of the light in the exquisite craftsmanship.
Napoleon watched the expression on Illya's face as he gazed at the crystal and felt his breath catch in his throat. Illya was as beautiful as the glass he held in his hand. He felt his chest constrict when Illya looked at him and said, "Elegant choice, Napoleon. I approve."
So do I, Illya, he thought.
He covered his lapse by sitting next to the phone and dialing Montgomery's number. He exchanged pleasantries for a moment and then inquired about the deal.
"Yes? They took it, huh? No quibbling? Great, terrific. Yes, the normal percentage. No, I'm home now. Yes, I'll be here. If you're sure it's not too much trouble. Perfect. I have a friend who'd like to see it. Yes. I'll see you soon. Good work, Montgomery."
He grinned from ear to ear and looked jauntily at Illya. "The Chagall is mine. I have one priceless item in each of my categories now. Well, all but one, actually. But I'm saving the best for last, you might say."
He called in their food order and sprawled out on the couch, shucking off his shoes and unknotting his tie. Illya had gotten comfortable while Solo had been on the phone and the two men enjoyed the quiet. They talked shop for a while, Napoleon telling stories about the ineptitude of the trainees and Illya admitting that the code may prove harder to break than he originally thought.
The doorbell broke the companionable silence. Solo padded to the peephole and drew his Special while Illya stood to the side of the door. In perfect sync they nodded to each other as Napoleon opened the door. The delivery boy stood there with their order of Thai. He grinned good-naturedly at Solo as he took in the gun and the backup.
"That's why I always love delivering to you, Mister. I always get a big tip after I have guns stuck in my face." He handed the food to Illya and stood there with his hand out expectantly. Solo smiled at Illya and forked over the money. Kuryakin began to sort out the foodstuffs on the coffee table as Napoleon shut the door.
"Get the beer, will you, Napoleon? We're going to need it. I heard you order the hot sauce."
The next twenty minutes were spent in indulging their appetites. They tried a little of everything, eating off each other's plates like an old married couple. The beer was ice cold and expensive, a perfect complement to the palate. Finally Solo groaned and pushed back from the table.
Illya gave him a look and merely said, "Lightweight," as he piled another helping of chicken on his plate. Solo shook his head at the gastronomic capability of the smaller agent. He nursed his beer and watched Kuryakin eat. When he'd finished he got off the floor and sat on the couch next to his partner.
"Napoleon, I'm curious. You said earlier you had almost finished your collection, but you had one more item to acquire."
"You have fine wine, cut crystal, an original sculpture, contemporary art, and flawless china. What else could you still want?" Illya asked inquisitively.
"Illya, I'm amazed. You're a spy and you haven't figured it out? I collect beautiful things, priceless things. What makes you think I would stop until I have the one thing I want more than anything else in the world?" Napoleon scooted closer to the blond and locked hazel eyes to blue.
"And that is?" Illya prompted. His heart had begun thudding in his chest with Napoleon's words and his proximity.
"One flawless, blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian export, exquisite in its complexity and unparalleled in its unobtainability. Until now."
Napoleon brought his hand up and caressed the side of Illya's neck. He felt the shiver that coursed through the solid body and felt an answering tremor in his own hand.
"Simply put, Illya: you." He bent to the soft lips and pulled the unresisting treasure into his arms, adding it to his collection.
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