The Lab Rat Affair
They had been funnelled into the alley between the two lab buildings, and Napoleon had the horrible feeling that that had been exactly the plan. It had been too easy for them to get into this place, the lab they had broken into had not been guarded well enough. He was certain that when Illya got a chance to look over the papers they had stolen that he would find they were useless. It was a plant. The whole thing was a plant. But why?
He could hear feet pounding. They would be catching up with them soon. A gun fired, and again.
‘Look,’ he said, nodding towards a drainpipe to the right. ‘You get up there and go over the roof. I’ll hold them off.’
‘Uh-uh,’ Illya immediately refused. ‘What will happen to you?’
‘You’ll get out with the plans.’
‘Napoleon, I’m not leaving you here,’ Illya grated. ‘Now come on.’
He ran ahead of Napoleon, and as he did he must have broken some kind of sensor, tripped a tripwire – something Napoleon couldn’t see – because a fine spray suddenly hissed out into the air at head-height from the alley wall. Solo rolled to the ground, scooting under the cloud, but Illya was caught full in the face. There was a bitter, acrid scent in the air, and Napoleon held his breath. The Russian kept on running, hacking the scent out of his lungs, but as Napoleon scrambled to his feet on the other side of the cloud of spray he could see that something was wrong. Illya seemed disoriented suddenly. He stumbled.
Napoleon caught up with him just as their pursuers rounded the corner into the alley, and shots burst out again.
‘Come on,’ Napoleon urged him, grabbing hold of his partner’s arm and jerking him onwards. Illya’s legs worked fine, whatever the gas had been, and Napoleon ran through the gathering twilight, his heart pounding fit to burst, his fist gripped hard on the fabric of Illya’s jacket.
‘You okay, partner?’ he gasped out as they pelted across the field on the other side of the labs, back towards the hole that Illya had cut in the fence earlier. ‘Come on, not far now. What is it, Illya?’
‘I don’t – I can’t – ’ He seemed unable to say what he wanted to say. Illya was stumbling, his eyes streaming tears from whatever that spray had been, his free hand coming up as if to rub at his face and then dropping again. Both of them knew that rubbing at something like that could make it worse, no matter how bad the discomfort.
‘Come on, down now, under the fence,’ Napoleon was talking his partner through it, putting his hand on Illya’s back to make sure he was low enough to get his backpack through the gap, before following him through. ‘Now the car. The car. Illya, were you hit or was it just the spray?’
He couldn’t see blood on him, but the light was failing badly now. He jerked Illya to his feet now they were past the fence, dragged him onward, and the Russian slammed into the car. Napoleon stripped the backpack from his partner’s back and threw it into the car. Illya fumbled for the door handle before wrenching the door open and throwing himself into the seat.
‘Hold tight, I’ll drive,’ Napoleon reassured him, shoving Illya over so that he could get into the driver’s seat. He turned the keys and the engine roared into life, headlights suddenly making a yellow cut of light across the dirt track ahead. ‘Illya, were you hit?’ he asked again.
‘No,’ Illya ground out. ‘Just that spray.’
The Russian gave a moan of suppressed pain and coughed the last of the bitter stuff from his lungs. His hand patted at his jacket pocket before pulling out a handkerchief, which he lifted to press delicately to his eyes, sponging the liquid away. Napoleon spared a glance away from the road, but it was hard to see in the darkness of the car, with the dazzle of headlights before them.
‘What is it?’ Napoleon asked. ‘Chemical burn?’
Illya shook his head, and the note of fear in his voice cut through to Napoleon’s core. ‘I – I don’t know. Napoleon, I – don’t think I can see.’
Solo almost lurched off the road as he turned to stare at his partner, then he jerked the wheel back again, turning his eyes firmly back to the road ahead. He glanced in the rear view mirror. There was nothing behind them but dead, empty road.
‘It’s all right,’ he murmured. ‘No pursuit.’
‘They wanted us to get away,’ Illya said.
Illya still had the handkerchief pressed to his eyes. ‘Think about it, Napoleon. We got in too easily, we got the plans too easily – ’
‘Yeah, I already figured that.’
‘Then they chased us deliberately into that set up. I broke a tripwire just before that spray. If you’d been a bit closer you’d’ve been caught too. We got away with maybe ten men chasing us, and now there’s no one in pursuit? They let us go, Napoleon. They did it on purpose.’
A kind of cold dread settled in Napoleon’s chest and spread out to his extremities. The possibilities for that spray were endless. It could be a corrosive. It could be a slow-acting poison. Illya could be dying beside him right now.
‘I’m getting you to an emergency room,’ he said.
‘Napoleon, we are barely forty miles from New York City,’ Illya said flatly. ‘Take me to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Napoleon began, but Illya snapped over him, ‘Napoleon, do you think a Westchester emergency room will be equipped for whatever Thrush decided to trial on me? Take me to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.’
Illya’s lips pressed closed and he rested his head against the pillar of the car, inviting no further discussion. Napoleon put his foot down hard on the gas. He knew his partner was right.
Napoleon broke all kinds of speed limits on their way back into the city, but it was the early hours of the morning, and the streets were dead. He didn’t even see any cop cars, and he thanked god for that, because they would have pulled him over instantly. Fast as he was driving, he kept stealing glances at his partner, kept talking to him to be sure he wasn’t slipping away, kept asking him, ‘How are your eyes now? Can you see?’
‘I don’t know,’ Illya said tightly each time, and Napoleon wanted to scream at him, ‘How can’t you know if you can see or not?’
They screamed into the street that ran along outside the long U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, concealed behind the innocent looking façades of the brownstone and whitestone buildings that made up the block. Since Del Floria’s was shut at night, Napoleon made for the Masked Club. The exclusive restaurant was open until Del Floria’s opened its doors again in the morning, under the guise of admitting cleaning staff even after all the diners had gone home.
Napoleon made no pretence at elegance or politeness. He grabbed both Illya and the backpack from the car and hustled him in through the service entrance to the restaurant, through the kitchen, and out into the dining area, where a single woman was plying a droning vacuum cleaner across the carpets with very little enthusiasm. Of course she was an U.N.C.L.E. employee, and she barely spared a glance for the strange sight of the dark haired man hustling his blond companion into a curtained booth.
Napoleon burst through into the brightly lit corridors of headquarters, noticing with growing dread that Illya barely reacted to the sudden light after the dim of the streets and empty restaurant. The Russian’s eyes were still streaming and he was still clutching the handkerchief to his face. All along the virtually empty corridors he kept watching Illya, holding onto his arms as he manoeuvred him left and right, until he got him into the infirmary, where someone was always on duty. Standing there in the bright lights, Illya looked scared, small, bewildered. It wasn’t a look he was used to on the Russian, but he could completely understand. He was waiting for Illya to collapse, for his breathing to become laboured, for the skin to start peeling from his face.
The night staff mobilised at once, hurrying Illya to a cubicle, calling the doctor, and that was where he was now, lying on a narrow bed with the doctor leaning over him asking him question after question.
‘What was it? the doctor asked, and before Illya could answer Napoleon said, ‘It was some kind of spray, caught him right in the face.’
‘I do have the power of speech,’ Illya cut in, and the ice in his voice silenced Napoleon at once. ‘We were at the Westchester Thrush lab,’ he continued, ‘making an escape. It was some kind of chemical primed to go off at head height. It caught me straight in the eyes. It was obviously designed that way. It was a trap.’
‘Hmm,’ was all Dr Malhotra said. Napoleon could have decked him. The doctor got out a scope and leant close to the Russian, lifting an eyelid at a time and peering into his eyes. Napoleon crowded in too, seeing that his partner’s pupils were barely reacting to the bright light.
‘It tasted bitter,’ Illya supplied. ‘Very bitter. Reminded me of denatonium saccharide.’
‘That’s one for the labs, but it’s not dangerous in itself,’ Dr Malhotra murmured. ‘Maybe a deterrent additive.’
‘I was thinking the same,’ Illya replied. Napoleon stood with his hands on his hips, resisting asking what the hell the two were talking about. If the chemical wasn’t dangerous it didn’t matter. It was the one that was blinding his partner that counted.
‘Can you tell me exactly what you see?’ Dr Malhotra asked, sounding ridiculously calm.
Illya’s blue eyes widened, his head turned to the left and right, and he lifted a hand. ‘Some light, there,’ he said, waving his hand in the general direction of the strip light on the ceiling.
Illya’s eyes narrowed now as if he were trying desperately to focus. ‘It’s all a blur. Some colours, a kind of grey and some yellow. And the general direction of the light. That’s all.’
‘I want to try to get a sample of this chemical,’ Dr Malhotra told the Russian. ‘Now, I’m going to scrape a little at the skin on your cheek, okay? I’ll send that handkerchief off too.’
Napoleon paced as Dr Malhotra did his work. No wonder Illya hadn’t been sure what he could see. In the dim of the car, the night all around them, he had only been able to perceive the blur of bright lights in the darkness. Now, in the brilliantly lit U.N.C.L.E. infirmary, it was quite obvious that he was blind.
‘We will irrigate the eyes,’ the doctor was saying, ‘and cleanse all of the skin around. Do you feel any irritation or pain?’
‘Not now,’ Illya said flatly. ‘At first there was a stinging sensation.’
Napoleon kept pacing. He didn’t know how to look at his partner because every time he looked at him he saw blind, blue eyes and an unaccustomed look of fear that the Russian was desperately trying to mask. He picked up the backpack he had brought in with them and opened it up, pulling out the papers that they had taken from the safe. Had that safe-cracking been Illya’s last job with U.N.C.L.E.? Was this it?
He bit down on those thoughts, spreading the papers on a cabinet at the side of the room. Illya’s head jerked at the noise.
‘Napoleon? Are those the papers?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ Napoleon muttered, scanning his eyes over the figures before him, rustling through the layers and reading snippets.
‘It’s as we thought?’ Illya asked, his voice hardening.
‘Yeah,’ Napoleon replied again. He only just stopped himself from throwing the whole lot to the ground. No matter what he thought of them, Cryptography would have to go over them, just in case. ‘It’s garbage, Illya. Nothing but garbage.’
The silence filled the room. They had been acting on a tip-off when they went to retrieve the papers. They knew the Westchester lab was a front for Thrush. They knew that the enemy agency was developing something new, something that was causing a stir in the right circles. The tip-off had come at just the right time, telling them when the place was least guarded, and just where the papers were kept.
Napoleon hurled a kidney bowl to the floor. The doctor turned and gave him a reproving look.
‘Mr Solo, if you feel like destroying things, please do it outside of my infirmary,’ he said.
‘I – er – I’m sorry,’ Solo said guiltily, picking up the dish and putting it carefully back where it came from. ‘Look, have you finished with Illya?’ he asked.
The doctor looked between the two men. ‘As I said, I want to send off these samples for analysis. I’m going to get a nurse to irrigate the eyes thoroughly. And then I want Mr Kuryakin to have a shower to make sure there are no traces of that chemical on his skin surface. You will be staying here overnight, Mr Kuryakin, to be sure there are no complications.’
Napoleon recognised the prickly look as Illya shifted on the bed. More than anything, Illya hated to be in the infirmary. He almost thought he would rather be tortured than treated for said torture afterwards.
‘Is that really necessary?’ the Russian asked, pushing himself up on his elbows as if to prove there was nothing wrong with him.
‘Er, Illya, I think this one time – ’ Napoleon began, coming across the room to his partner.
‘Now really, Mr Kuryakin. It’s four o’clock in the morning. Will it make that much difference for you to sleep a few hours here instead of in your own bed?’ the doctor chimed in.
Oh, Napoleon thought silently, to Illya it makes all the difference in the world. Illya could have slept on a park bench, on the back seat of a car. It wasn’t about sleeping in his own bed, it was about sleeping anywhere that wasn’t a hospital bed.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Illya flinched minutely as if he had not been aware that he was so close. ‘The doctor’s right. We don’t know what that spray was. It might start affecting your nervous system, your respiratory system. I need to take those papers up to Cryptography and I need to type up a report for Mr Waverly. You just go to sleep, and it’ll be morning before you know it.’
Illya was very silent. He just lay there, propped up on his elbows, his head slightly lowered. Then he asked, ‘How will I know that it is morning?’
Napoleon took the risk of ignoring the dark tone. ‘Because I will be at your side with coffee and pastries,’ he promised. ‘I’ll get my report done and I’ll sleep in one of the beds here. And maybe in the morning – ’
He didn’t say it. He wanted to say it. Maybe in the morning your eyes will be fine. But he didn’t say it, because he didn’t believe it was true.
Illya lay on the bed in silence after Napoleon left. He had been in many situations since joining U.N.C.L.E. that had made him feel helpless. He had been strung up from his wrists, staked to the ground, drugged, imprisoned. But nothing came close to this. No one was holding him down. No one had tied him up. But he felt tied. He felt as if he could not move from the bed.
The doctor supervised the irrigation of his eyes, which made them sting all over again, and then left him. A few minutes later someone entered the cubicle, and he had to hold every muscle in his body to prevent himself from reacting defensively. It was one of the nurses, he was sure, and when she spoke he knew.
‘Mr Kuryakin, I’ve come to help you with your shower,’ she said in a soft, sympathetic voice that made him want to vomit.
‘I do not need help to shower,’ he said darkly. ‘I take a shower every day.’
‘Now, Mr Kuryakin,’ she said in a pacifying tone.
She had a slight southern accent that grated on Illya’s ears. He thought he remembered her from another time in the infirmary, a strawberry blonde that Napoleon had flirted with shamelessly, but he couldn’t be sure. It irritated him that he could not positively identify her from her voice.
He pressed his lips together, hard. But he knew he needed help. He knew where the showers were in the infirmary; he had used them before. But he did not know which cubicle he was in, which way he was facing. He didn’t know what might be in the way. He couldn’t get to the damn showers alone.
‘Do you have a robe?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ she asked, sounding distracted.
‘Do. You. Have. A. Robe?’ he repeated, his tone of voice murderous.
‘Er – well yes, I have a robe for you right here,’ she told him.
‘Give it to me and step outside,’ he told her.
She hesitated, but perhaps something about his tone indicated this was the only cooperation she would get. She deposited a fluffy heap of towelling into his arms, and he heard her footsteps retreat and the curtain hooks scrape back along the rail.
He couldn’t tell if he were being watched. He hated that. He knew he was in U.N.C.L.E. medical and the only people to watch were medical staff, but he hated the sense of vulnerability. He shrugged it off, though. He had to. There was enough to be suspicious of in the outside world without suspecting people here in the safety of headquarters.
Meticulously, Illya removed his jacket, then his holster and gun. He felt by the bed, looking for a surface; but of course this was just an examination cubicle. No night stands here. So he carefully laid his gun and communicator pen together on the bed, then removed the rest of his clothes and laid them down. He shrugged on the robe, belted it, then said in a dark voice, ‘You may come in now. I have put my gun and communicator on the bed. I expect them to be there when I return.’
The curtain scraped aside again.
‘They’ll be there, Mr Kuryakin. Don’t you worry.’
Her kindness was starting to sound forced. She took hold of his arm and he almost shook it off, but then acquiesced and let her lead him to the shower. With a surprising amount of consideration she handed him a bottle of liquid soap, turned on the water, and then left him to it.
Illya stood under the hot spray, breathing very slowly, in and out. After a while he unscrewed the lid of the bottle and shook some of the soap into his hands. It smelt medicinal, disinfectant-like, but if it would remove this stuff that had sprayed over his face and hair then he supposed it was good. He tried to find the little shelf he knew was in there to put the bottle on, and failed, so he simply dropped it on the floor. Then he stood scrubbing at himself until he realised that the motions had become obsessive. He couldn’t rub the soap into his eyes, and he was compensating by trying to remove his top layer of skin.
He turned his head up to the water and let it stream over the planes of his face. He opened his eyes wide and hissed at the sting as hot water hit his naked eyeballs. He blinked and blinked again, but nothing changed. When he rubbed the water out of his eyes he was still surrounded by a dim blur. When he held his hand in front of his face he could tell it was there only by a flicker in the light.
He stood there for so long that eventually the nurse outside became worried. A tap on the door became a louder thud, and then her voice asked, ‘Mr Kuryakin? Are you okay in there?’
‘I am just fine,’ he replied irritably, reaching out to turn the shower off. He found the knob, turned it, and the water suddenly became freezing. Giving up, he stepped out of the cubicle with the water left on, and found his robe where he had left it. Shrugging it on, he took a deep breath and said in a very controlled voice, ‘I have finished. Could you help me back to my bed?’
Napoleon was as good as his word. He had spent a terrible, almost sleepless, night in one of the small rooms in Headquarters designed for agents to retreat to in times of need. Of course there hadn’t been much night left after taking the documents to Cryptography and making his report. He didn’t type as fast as Illya. He woke just after eight, having gained barely three hours sleep, and although he knew he could probably push for another hour he just couldn’t make himself do it. Instead he got up, re-donned his dishevelled clothing of last night, and strolled out to the local bakery.
The morning sunlight seemed very bright, the streets almost painfully beautiful with trees in spring leaf, bits of garbage blowing along in the wind, the occasional car or cab rolling by. The sky was piercingly blue, the skyscrapers a few blocks away glittered in the sun. He stood for a moment outside the bakery just looking at what was around him, knowing that the swelling pain in his chest was because Illya could not do the same.
No. He shook himself out of that. For all he knew, when he got back in to the infirmary Illya would be sitting up in bed absolutely fine, chomping to be released. They would be back on another mission that day, running the gauntlet of danger again, together.
He stepped into the bakery and gave his most charming smile to the man behind the counter.
‘And what will it be this morning, Mr Solo?’ Luigi asked magnanimously. ‘Pain au raison? Cinnamon Danish?’
Napoleon rubbed his chin, noticing absently that he needed to shave. ‘Something makes me think I come here too often.’
Luigi shrugged expansively. ‘I make the best pastries, you buy the best pastries. Is there anything wrong here?’
Napoleon smiled, in the full knowledge that his smile could light up a room. It certainly reflected well on Luigi, who mirrored the smile and picked up long metal tongs.
‘You are buying for Mr Kuryakin too, huh?’ he asked, and at Napoleon’s nod he said, ‘Well, I give you one of these, one of these, two bear claws, yes – and these two I give you for free.’
Napoleon thanked the man profusely and tried to pay him for the six pastries, although Luigi insisted on only taking money for the four. He left the shop thinking that he and Illya really did come here too often, if the man could pick out all their favourites just like that. Then he wondered if Illya would come to buy pastries here again, and his heart lurched.
He hurried back to Headquarters then, suddenly switching from a subconscious desire to put off seeing Illya to a need to see him straight away. He stopped only long enough to pick up two black coffees, and then barged straight into the infirmary, a coffee in each hand and the bag of pastries under his arm. He looked around and caught the eye of a nurse, who smiled brilliantly at him.
‘Lucette, I’m after Illya,’ he said. ‘Is he in a private room now?’
She nodded down the corridor. ‘First on the right,’ she told him, adding as he walked away, ‘Better take a chair.’
Napoleon looked back, startled. ‘They already have chairs in there, don’t they?’
Lucette gave him an apologetic smile. ‘I meant like a lion tamer,’ she clarified.
Napoleon’s mouth formed a silent oh. He understood that only too well. Illya hated the infirmary, and was apt to act like a cornered beast. He found the door, pushed it open with his hip, and swung himself into the room.
Illya was sitting up in bed in borrowed blue pyjamas. His holster was hanging over the visitor’s chair. His gun and communicator were on the night stand. And Illya was directing brilliant blue eyes towards the door. Napoleon took a step forward, grinning; but then the illusion was shattered.
‘Doctor, surely I’ve been poked and prodded enough,’ Illya said irritably. ‘Even prisoners are given breakfast before their day’s torment starts.’
‘Er – it’s me, Napoleon,’ Solo said awkwardly, coming further into the room. ‘How are you feeling this morning?’
Illya’s head jerked up. He looked as if he had been caught getting something terribly wrong, and Napoleon’s throat tightened. The phrase blind as a bat passed through his mind, and he thrust it away angrily.
‘Come closer,’ Illya murmured, and when Napoleon did his nose wrinkled and he said, ‘Ah yes, I can smell that terrible aftershave you wear.’
Napoleon bit back the retort he wanted to make. Since he had not had the chance to shave this morning, he definitely hadn’t applied aftershave.
‘I promised you pastries and coffee,’ he said, keeping his voice light and cheerful. ‘Now, if I can scrounge a couple of plates...’
As he spoke Lucette, the nurse from outside, poked her head in and passed Napoleon a couple of paper plates. ‘I saw your bag and thought you might need these,’ she said.
‘You are an angel. You read my mind,’ Napoleon said with his most winning smile.
‘Can you stop flirting even for one minute?’ Illya asked acidly as the door closed again.
Napoleon sighed and came over to sit by the bed, relaxing his spine into the utilitarian chair. ‘Illya, can you play nice?’ he asked. ‘I’ve had very little sleep.’
Illya closed his eyes, and suddenly he just looked very small, very tired, and very vulnerable. It was not often that he permitted anyone to see that side of him, and Napoleon knew just how privileged he was that he was one of the few who ever did. He decided to try to be understanding of Illya’s foul mood, that was obviously coming from his deep distress.
‘Here,’ he said, putting three of the pastries on a plate and depositing it on Illya’s lap. ‘Some of Luigi’s finest pastries. One of them was gratis, out of the kindness of his heart.’
‘You told him what happened?’ Illya asked, his head jerking up.
‘If you become any more prickly, my little Russian, you will turn into a cactus,’ Napoleon warned him. ‘No, I didn’t tell him anything. Now, do you want your coffee?’
Illya held out a hand silently and Napoleon put the tall cup into it. Then he sat back and stayed quiet while Illya launched in to his food. He had an appetite completely belied by his slim stature, and after a mission like last night’s he always seemed extra hungry. Silently, Napoleon slipped one of his own pastries onto Illya’s plate.
‘Did the doctor say when you could get out of here?’ Napoleon asked when Illya was finally brushing the last flakes of pastry from his fingers.
‘Was that all the pastries you got?’ Illya asked, laying his hand flat on the paper plate to be sure it was empty.
‘Your appetite is legendary, tovarisch,’ Napoleon said, making an auditory display of screwing the bag up in his hand and tossing it into the trash. ‘Yes, that was all I got, and you’ve had four to my two. Now, what did the doctor say?’
Illya sighed and pressed his lips together, and Napoleon started stitching together scenarios in his mind. None of them ended with a happy Kuryakin.
‘The doctor said that there is nothing he can do,’ Illya said eventually.
‘N-nothing? Nothing?’ Napoleon echoed. Those words seemed so final.
Illya’s voice became very formal. ‘The chemical went to the labs but they had only a very small amount and it was contaminated by my perspiration and tears. They have been working on it overnight but they have no conclusions as yet. The doctor has ascertained that somehow the vitreous fluid in my eyes has been made opaque but there is nothing he can do about it. Physically, there is nothing else wrong with me. I have been subject to peak flow tests, skin sensitivity tests. They’ve even checked my hair isn’t falling out. There are no ill effects from that spray – apart from the obvious.’
Napoleon sat silent, digesting those facts. ‘Illya – what are you going to do?’ he asked finally, not really expecting an answer. He was at a complete loss.
Illya answered him by draining the last of his coffee and putting the cup on the night stand, then pushing back the covers and swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
‘I am going to go home,’ he said in a level tone.
‘You’re – what?’
‘I am going to go home,’ Illya repeated, and Solo recognised the dangerous tone in his voice.
‘And – er – how are you going to do that, comrade?’ he asked very softly.
Something very like a growl sounded low in Illya’s chest.
‘You are going to be courteous enough to not make me beg,’ the Russian replied. ‘You are going to give me my clothes, and we are going to walk out of here.’
‘Illya, you’re – you’re blind.’
There. That was the first time he had said it out loud. The word felt like poison on his tongue. Illya actually flinched, but he composed himself immediately and stood up, feeling for the night stand by the bed, slipping his hand down to the drawers and opening them to feel for his clothes.
‘Where are they, Napoleon?’ he asked when his hand encountered nothing.
Napoleon spread his arms wide in an expansive shrug. ‘How do you expect me to know? I wasn’t here when you were brought to this room.’
Illya closed his eyes and Napoleon could almost see him creating a mental picture of the room. Then, very carefully, the Russian began to step across the floor, aiming almost straight at the small wardrobe on the other side of the room.
‘You’re a mite off,’ Napoleon said in a soft voice. ‘You need to go about two degrees left.’
Illya straightened his shoulders and turned to the left, holding out one hand until it touched the wardrobe doors. Inside he found his shirt, tie, dark jacket, and trousers. He took out the clothes and, heedless of Napoleon watching him, stripped off his pyjamas and started to dress.
‘Illya, the doctor is not going to like this,’ Napoleon warned him.
Illya turned to him, in the act of trying to button up his shirt.
‘It’s inside out,’ Napoleon said helpfully. ‘Someone obviously didn’t hang it carefully.’
The Russian stripped the shirt off in disgust and began again. He didn’t button it all the way or bother with his tie, but left the collar open, and moved back carefully to the bed to fetch his holster.
‘I do not care if the doctor does not like it; he has no medical reason to keep me,’ Illya said in a very controlled, very careful voice. ‘I am going home.’
‘And – er – who’s going to nursemaid you?’ Napoleon asked, going over to him to help as he tried to strap on his holster. Those things were devilishly confusing in the dark.
Illya stiffened. ‘I don’t need a nursemaid. I know my apartment like the back of my hand.’
‘Right,’ Napoleon said softly. He waited a moment, then said, ‘Come on, let’s get you signed out, then we’ll get a cab.’
‘I suppose I should check in with Mr Waverly first,’ Illya commented, but he didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect.
‘Mr Waverly’s not in yet. I called up earlier and his secretary said he’s in a meeting across town until lunch. So come home and you can call him later, okay?’
Illya was quite right about one thing. The doctor tried to quote all the regulations that he could think of, but Illya countered him with a better, deeper knowledge of all the rules. He was not still under treatment. He was not in need of being confined to bed. He did not need any ongoing medication. Eventually, having given a promise to return next day for a check up, Illya was at the front desk putting a straggling signature on the discharge form where Napoleon placed the pen.
‘Mr Kuryakin, I’ll – have to ask you to hand in your gun,’ the on-duty doctor reminded him quietly.
Illya stiffened. Napoleon knew just how he felt. Even if he should not, could not use the gun, he needed to have it there, nestled against his ribs. As agents, their guns were almost another extremity. Napoleon patted Illya’s arm and reached in under his jacket, removing the revolver.
‘I’ll take care of his gun,’ he promised.
The doctor could hardly argue in the face of the CEA of U.N.C.L.E.. It would be Napoleon’s responsibility to process the handed-in weapon anyway, being the senior one in their partnership.
‘You are going to give that back to me,’ Illya said in a very dark voice as soon as they had exited the infirmary.
Wordlessly, Napoleon put the gun against Illya’s hand, and he took it and slipped it back where it belonged.
As they sat in the cab all Napoleon could think of was what it was going to be like once he had got Illya to his apartment. He felt terrified on the Russian agent’s behalf, thoughts racing through his head as everything he saw reminded him of what Illya had lost. The car, the cab driver’s hands on the wheel, led him to thinking how Illya had been an excellent driver, with the highest pursuit qualification one could get in U.N.C.L.E.. He had driven everything from trucks to corvettes, not to mention his ability to expertly pilot a helicopter and put a lear jet on the ground when he needed to. He had even astonished Napoleon once with his working knowledge of how to drive a steam engine. And now what? He was relegated to taking cabs, to catching rides from friends? He made up his mind at that moment that whenever Illya asked, whatever he was doing, he would drop everything and take him where he needed to be. It would play havoc with his dating, but dates be damned.
‘Illya, I – ’ he began, looking sideways at his companion. Illya was sitting motionless, his hands lying on his lap, as the cab jolted over a particularly bad piece of road.
‘They need to resurface Canal again,’ Illya murmured.
‘How did you know we were on Canal?’ Napoleon asked, whatever he had been going to say erased from his mind. He wasn’t sure he had even known what he wanted to say, what he could say.
Illya shook his head as if he were very tired. ‘I travel this route almost every day, Napoleon. The potholes are etched into my spine.’
Napoleon grinned at his friend’s turn of phrase, then taking a chance he reached out and placed his hand over Illya’s.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he said.
Illya lifted an eyebrow, giving a snort of a laugh in which there was very little humour. ‘I hear they are working on safe total vitrectomy but there isn’t expected to be a breakthrough for some years,’ he said.
‘I – er – don’t even know what that is,’ Napoleon confessed.
Illya grimaced. ‘It is the removal of the vitreous humour of the eye, Napoleon.’
‘Oh.’ He didn’t like the sound of that. ‘Do you know everything about everything, Illya?’
‘I read a lot,’ Illya said flatly. ‘Or – I did.’
Napoleon sighed, but the cab drew up outside their apartment building and he was glad of the chance to get out of the claustrophobic atmosphere. He leant in to pay the driver, then opened Illya’s door.
‘Come on, tovarisch,’ he said in a falsely cheerful tone. ‘I got you home from the ball, and before midnight, too. Let me see you back to your humble abode.’
Illya got out stiffly, looking very much as if he did not know how to approach this. Perhaps returning home really did feel like the end of the fairy tale, and Napoleon regretted his choice of words.
‘Come on. Mind the kerb,’ Napoleon said, taking hold of his arm and guiding his friend across the sidewalk and into the lobby. Illya’s arm was rigid under his. He could tell that his friend hated this. But he took him into the elevator and pressed the button for Illya’s floor, hoping that once he was in familiar surroundings things would be easier. He took out the spare key he kept for Illya’s apartment and let him in, deactivating the alarm system just after they walked in through the door.
‘Home sweet home,’ Napoleon commented.
Illya moved away from his hand, holding his own hands out as he stepped tentatively across the room. Napoleon watched him, wishing he could do something, wishing he could offer help that wouldn’t be rebuffed. No matter what he did Illya seemed alone in this, and he hated it.
‘Hold it there. Hold it right there,’ Napoleon said as an idea crossed his mind.
Illya turned a little towards him, hand still held out from his body. ‘What is it?’
‘I’ve just thought of something. I’ll be right back.’
He left Illya standing in the middle of his apartment and bolted out into the hall and then the elevator. Moments later he was in his own apartment, searching in one of the tall closets.
‘It’s in here. I know it’s in here somewhere,’ he muttered under his breath, pulling out a dusty tennis racquet in a damaged cover, a trenchcoat that had fallen to the floor, a fishing pole he was sure he would never use again in his life. And then he found it – a light, crook-handled cane, something he had bought once when he had a leg injury that took a while to heal. Triumphantly he fished it out from the back of the closet. As an afterthought he grabbed himself some fresh clothes to change into later, and left, slamming the door behind him.
Illya was still standing in the middle of the room when he got back down to his apartment. Momently cursing himself for being so careless as to leave the door unlocked behind him, he swung the door closed again and locked it, then held out the cane triumphantly.
‘Here. This may help.’
‘What may help, Napoleon?’ Illya asked peevishly.
‘Oh.’ He walked over to Illya and put his hand over his, moving it to the curved handle of the cane. ‘I just remembered this old walking cane I had. I thought you could use it to – er – ’
He trailed off at the expression on his partner’s face.
‘A – cane?’ he asked, running his hand over the undulating wooden surface. ‘You thought you would bring me a cane?’
‘Illya you’re walking around with your hands out like a zombie,’ Napoleon began. ‘This will help you work out – ’
Instantly he knew that again he’d said and done the wrong thing. The fury that came over Illya’s face was something that he rarely saw in the controlled Russian. His hand clenched around the handle of the stick, and then he hurled the cane across the room with such anger that it smashed his record player and a stack of records off the sideboard and onto the floor. Napoleon bit his lip into his mouth, trying to restrain his own anger. He had been so pleased to think he could give Illya something that would help him.
‘Illya – ’ he began, holding out hands the Russian couldn’t see to pacify him.
‘Get out!’ Illya roared. ‘Just get out!’
His own anger swelled. After all, he had only been trying to help. He had been trying to help from the start. He walked out and slammed the door.
Outside in the hall he leant against the wall, chest heaving.
‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’
He kicked his heel so hard against the wall behind him that it left a dent. Then he sank down so that he was sitting on the floor and rested his head on his knees. He couldn’t bear this. He couldn’t bear Illya’s anger and pain, his helplessness, his frustration. He couldn’t bear trying to help him and being rebuffed. But he couldn’t leave him either. No partner could. Even Mr Waverly understood that, and he knew he would be given leave alongside Illya’s medical leave, at least at first. Partnerships didn’t just break up the instant one of the pair was taken out through injury. They didn’t work that way.
He steeled himself, knowing he would have to go back in. For all he knew the stubborn, bull-headed Russian was in there trying to light the gas ring or something equally dangerous. Sighing, he stood and opened the door.
He caught his breath. Illya was sitting on the floor over by the sideboard, shattered records lying in his limp hands. His head was tilted back against the wood behind him, his eyes wide open, bluer than their usual blue because of the tears that were in them.
He crossed the room without thinking, kneeling down to lay his hands over his partner’s.
‘Illya,’ he said.
That record player, he knew, was one of the first things Illya had bought when he had come to this country. At first the record player had stood on the floor, the stack of records under his bed. Gradually the stack had grown bigger, and he had acquired other things, the sideboard to put the player on, a cabinet for the records, a better bed. He knew how much Illya loved that cheap record player and the music he played on it.
‘I don’t even know which ones I broke,’ Illya said blankly.
‘Well, let me help you with that,’ Napoleon said, afraid that words of comfort would set off his friend’s bitter anger again. He took the pieces from Illya’s hands and looked at some of the labels. ‘Er – Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Shostakovich. Bix Beiderbecke. The – er – the Blue Back Trio?’ he asked enquiringly.
‘Jazz,’ Illya murmured. He reached out to his right to feel the record player, skewed on the floor. ‘Is it beyond repair?’
Napoleon smiled sadly. The cover and the cowling were smashed, the needle arm dangling uselessly. ‘I’d say so, Illya,’ he said. ‘Look, I’ll buy you a new one. I’ll replace the records too. I’m sorry about – ’
‘It was not your fault,’ Illya cut across him. He was silent a moment, then said, ‘Don’t bother about the Blue Back Trio.’
That single unspoken acceptance of Napoleon’s generosity warmed him all through. He knew how hard it must have been for Illya to do it. Napoleon pushed aside some of the fallen records and sat down next to Illya, mirroring his pose with his legs stuck out in front of him.
‘They’re that bad, huh?’
‘Worse,’ Illya replied.
‘So – what’s this – er – total vitrectomy you were saying about before?’ Napoleon asked, afraid he was getting onto shaky ground but desperate to follow any lead that might help his friend.
Illya grimaced. ‘It’s no good, Napoleon. Like I said, they’re not expecting a breakthrough for years. The eye is more likely to be irreversibly injured than helped.’
‘What do they do? Just suck all the – ah – jelly out and – ?’
Illya closed his eyes as if the idea pained him. ‘They do not – at least, not on me, Napoleon.’
‘Well then,’ Napoleon began.
‘Well then, my career is over,’ Illya said.
It was more than a career. Napoleon knew that. It was a way of life for Illya. It was for all agents. They lived and breathed their jobs, never really off duty. Even now, Illya was not safe, and that worried Napoleon deeply. The Russian was more vulnerable than he had ever been, and there was a host of enemies just waiting for revenge on him.
‘Listen, Illya, I’m going to stay with you. No,’ he said, grasping Illya’s hand as he raised it in protest, and pushing it back gently to his lap. ‘You have to be sensible about this. You’re not safe here alone. You can’t set the alarm systems, for a start.’
That’s it, he said to himself. Appeal to the security side of things. No need to mention that you can’t cook for yourself, that you’ll need to learn to use a telephone without sight, that every time you order in you won’t be able to check out the person delivering.
It seemed to be working. He could see the acknowledgement on Illya’s face.
‘For a little while,’ Illya said grudgingly.
‘For a little while,’ Napoleon nodded. For as long as it takes, my friend.
‘So, what now?’ Illya murmured. ‘The record player’s broken, or I’d put on some music.’
Napoleon was grateful for that dark humour. He looked around the apartment. When Illya had first come here the walls had been almost bare. Now books lined half the walls, books on physics, books on chemistry, the greats of literature. There were whole shelves of books in Russian, and Napoleon wondered just where Illya had got them. He couldn’t believe they were easy to source in this cold war era. He wondered what they were. His Russian was good enough to pass in light conversation, but he knew he didn’t have a hope of reading any of these tomes.
So, now what? There wasn’t anything he could think of, anything he could stretch his mind to. They should both be in work, finishing up reports. Illya should be studying those documents they retrieved. Perhaps Mr Waverly would be giving them a briefing for a new mission, and then they would be down in the research department, finding out everything they could before they went into the field. But now – the day stretched ahead, endless, empty. Ordinarily Napoleon would suggest perhaps strolling down Mulberry and visiting their favourite Italian restaurant for lunch. Perhaps, just for fun, they would visit Central Park and wander down to the zoo. It was ridiculous things like that that made the constant stress of an agent’s life tolerable. But now; should he suggest hauling Illya out to a restaurant when he had been struck blind only hours before? What would be the point of the zoo when he could see none of the animals?
‘I’m very tired, Napoleon,’ Illya said, breaking the silence.
‘Well, yeah, it was a long night,’ his friend admitted.
‘I might just go to bed for a while.’
Napoleon squeezed the hand that was still under his. ‘That is an unparalleled idea, tovarisch. Mind if I bunk on your couch for a few hours?’
A half smile touched Illya’s mouth. ‘You go ahead. You probably got less sleep than I did.’
Napoleon put his hand under Illya’s elbow to help him up, then watched him as he walked with great care into his bedroom, resisting an offer of help. He waited a while, watching Illya move beyond the open doorway, until he finally lay back on his bed and turned onto his side. Napoleon got to his knees and picked up all the shards of shattered records, taking note of their names, intending to call the local record store later and have them replaced, along with the defunct record player. Then he stretched himself out on the couch and closed his eyes.
Illya waited until he heard the soft sound of snoring from the other room. Napoleon did not snore heavily, or regularly, but today it was just enough to let him know that his partner was asleep. He had intended to sleep himself, but as soon as his body had touched the mattress he knew it was impossible. He was just too wound up.
He sat up and swung his feet to the floor. For a moment he wondered if he were doing the right thing, but it was driving him crazy doing nothing. He didn’t mind being inactive, listening to music or reading with a glass in one hand, but right now he couldn’t even do that. He needed to do something, to prove to himself that his life hadn’t just fallen apart.
But it had. It had fallen apart. In one night everything he knew had been taken away from him. And he feared it. He feared for his future. He feared that once he was no longer an agent the U.S. government would finally decide they did not want a highly-trained Soviet spy in their country, and he would find himself back in the U.S.S.R.. He feared that he would find himself destitute, useless, unable to support himself. But most of all, he feared being helpless.
He patted his hand against the bulge of the gun under his jacket. At least he still had that. Sightless, he would not fire it, but would-be assailants didn’t know that. And he still had his communicator. He had his apartment key and his wallet in the pocket of his trousers.
He moved out of his bedroom silently, and stood in the living room, listening to Napoleon’s breathing. He must have been tired to fall asleep so quickly.
Illya made his way to the door. Then he reconsidered, remembering the cane that Napoleon had brought him. He had been overwhelmed with disgust at the idea, but he had to admit that it would make things easier. He moved back to the sideboard and ran his hand along the edge before it knocked into the slim piece of wood. Napoleon had retrieved the cane and leant it up right next to the destroyed record player. He took it in his hand, then slipped open the drawer beneath his record player. He had a number of pairs of reading glasses in there, but they were all in cases. His sunglasses, chunky and very dark, were loose in the drawer, and he fished them out and put them on. He hated the thought of people seeing his eyes as they must be, staring about with nothing to fix on.
All those preparations done, he turned for the door, thanking his upbringing for the fact that his place was not cluttered. He dealt with the complicated lock, opened the door, and then shut it behind him.
Outside, he stopped and sighed, leaning against the closed door. The world suddenly seemed very large, and he was standing on the edge of a precipice. But he knew this place. How many times had he walked down this hall? He had left early in the morning and returned late at night. He had come home injured, exhausted, sometimes drunk. He knew the way. It was only fear holding him back.
He walked, one step at a time, trying to increase his awareness of his surroundings. He was used to creeping around in the dark. This couldn’t be so hard. He trailed his hand along the wall, feeling a number of recessed wooden doors before he touched the smooth metal of the elevator. He found the call buttons and pressed down. That was easy enough. Then there were the buttons inside. It took a moment to find the panel, and then he slipped his fingertips down the floor buttons. The bottom one was engraved with B. He pressed the one above it.
When the elevator stopped a flight down he gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to have to deal with someone – much less the cloud of perfume that entered the lift.
‘Oh, Mr Kuryakin! Gee, isn’t it a lovely day? Are you going out somewhere?’
He tried not to let his jaw clench too tightly. He was certain that this was Nancy, who lived on the second floor.
‘Obviously,’ he said, his voice indicating that he was in one of his darkest moods.
She hooked her arm through his as the door opened again. ‘Well, there’s a coincidence, so am I. I’ve a cocktail party tonight and not a single thing to wear for it. I don’t have a date, either.’
Illya ignored her clumsy hint and let her pull him through the lobby. That, at least, made it easier. But he stopped on the sidewalk outside as she started to tug him to the left.
‘Sorry, I’m going the other way,’ he said.
‘Oh, Mr Kuryakin, you’re impossible,’ she sighed. ‘I thought you might at least take me for gelato.’
‘No,’ he said firmly. If she had been a man he might have decked her by now, the tension was coiled so tightly within him. ‘I am going the other way.’
‘Oh well,’ Nancy sighed. She took hold of his other arm and spun him to face her, startling him as she leant forward and kissed him on the lips. ‘One day, Mr Kuryakin, I’ll have you.’
With that, her high heels clacked off down the street.
‘Sorry, you’re not my type,’ Illya muttered under his breath, once he was sure she was far enough away.
Now he could not be sure which way he was facing. He took a moment to listen to her heels on the street and to the passing cars, and then decided. He turned until he thought he was standing parallel to the building and began to walk.
It was horrible. After a few steps he felt horrifically vulnerable. After a few more his pulse was racing and his collar felt too tight.
Buck up, he told himself internally. You’re an agent. You’ve faced death without sweating.
But this was different. This was so different. He took a few more steps, trying to use the cane in his hand discreetly, as if he were just using it for support. But in that way it was little help, so he found himself sticking it out further in front of him, slipping it over the uneven slabs of the sidewalk. He thought he had walked twenty yards, twenty yards that felt like a mile. Then the cane clattered into something that must have been a car, and someone yelled out, ‘Hey, watch it, will you, pal? That’s new paint!’
He stepped backwards, muttering apologies as the guy got into his car, slammed the door, and drove off. He felt even more lost. This was ridiculous. He felt paralysed. The sounds of the city were overwhelming, confusing. He was adrift, and he needed help. But how could he get help? How could he stand there on the sidewalk calling out and just hoping someone would stop?
He touched the communicator at his breast pocket. How he hated to do this. But he pulled it out, held it discreetly near his mouth, and said, ‘Open channel D.’
The response was almost instant, if a little sleepy. ‘Solo here.’
‘Napoleon, it’s Illya.’
He waited for the explosion. Through the communicator he heard Napoleon jumping to his feet, thudding across the room, probably to look in the bedroom. And then it came.
‘Illya? Where the hell are you? What do you think you’re doing?’
Illya sighed. ‘I am roughly twenty yards down the street from the entrance to our apartment building.’
‘Wha – ? Just stay there, Illya. Just hold it. I’m coming.’
Illya started counting. On thirty he heard a door slam and footsteps thudding down the street. On thirty-five Napoleon was next to him, panting, one hand gripping onto the arm of his jacket.
‘Do I – even have – to ask?’ Napoleon panted out.
Illya shrugged. He did not express his relief when Napoleon laid his arm around his shoulders and turned him back towards home.
‘You are a stubborn, stupid, pig-headed, idiot – ’ Napoleon was ranting, then interrupted himself to say, ‘Okay, here’s the steps in. Okay?’ Then when Illya started to mount the steps he continued, ‘Of all the stupid, idiotic – Just opening the doors – crazy, bull-headed, idiot – ’
‘You have said idiot three times,’ Illya pointed out as they stepped into the elevator.
Napoleon’s arm was still around his shoulders, and the grip tightened and shook him a little. Illya noticed that as well as last night’s aftershave Napoleon smelt a little of sweat, and of the scent of dry-cleaned clothes. It was a very Napoleon smell, ridiculously reassuring.
‘If I said it ten times would it make a difference?’
‘Perhaps not,’ Illya said quietly.
The elevator doors slid open again and Napoleon took him into the corridor.
‘Illya, are you crazy?’
‘Apparently so,’ Illya replied dully. He felt depressed at the terrible abortive attempt he had made to prove that nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
Napoleon fumbled with the lock and opened the door, and the familiar scent of Illya’s apartment surrounded him. Until now he had not even realised his apartment had a scent. Napoleon bumped the door shut, and then suddenly his arms were around Illya so tightly he had trouble breathing.
‘Don’t do that again,’ Solo said, his voice very close to Illya’s ear.
Usually the Russian would have pulled away, but this time he didn’t. He just stood against the solidity of Napoleon’s chest, listening to the thudding of both their hearts, eyes closed.
‘What were you trying to do?’ Napoleon asked eventually.
‘Do you think you could release me?’ Illya asked awkwardly, and when Solo dropped his arms he made for the couch. Solo dropped down beside him. ‘I was trying to adapt,’ he said, leaning back into the cushions.
‘Adapt? You’re taking things a little fast, aren’t you? You told me you were going to sleep, and you waited for me to drop off, and ran off the first chance you had. Illya, there are people out there who would kill you as soon as look at you, they would use any advantage.’
‘Well, what can I do, Napoleon?’ Illya asked in frustration. ‘Whatever I do it won’t make my eyes work.’
‘In time you’ll be better adapted. You could get a seeing eye dog, you know – trained to guard you as well.’
‘I don’t – like – dogs,’ Illya said, aware Napoleon knew that was an understatement.
‘One trained for you from a pup? Oh you could get used to it, I’m sure.’
‘Dog or no dog, my eyes do not work, and so I would always live in fear,’ Illya said blackly. ‘Napoleon, it is impossible.’
‘Where were you trying to go? I can get what you need.’
‘I was trying to go to the grocery on the corner, but that’s not the point, Napoleon,’ Illya snapped. He knew that Napoleon was deliberately avoiding the subject. It was his own fault for being so irritable. But he needed something more than surface reassurance. ‘Napoleon – what am I going to do?’
Suddenly something burst inside him, and those last words fractured as they left his mouth. He held in tears, but he wanted to cry. Napoleon was right. Even if he took all the rehabilitation courses – and U.N.C.L.E. would surely fund them – there were still people out there who would kill him without a moment of mercy, and besides every other difficulty in this new life they would always be there, watching and waiting. His chances of surviving like this without a whole new identity, without leaving everything he knew behind, were almost nil. And he did not want to leave everything he knew behind. Not now.
Napoleon held him. He did not cry, but he pressed his face against the reassuring fabric of Napoleon’s jacket shoulder, pressing it so hard he could hardly draw in breath. The fear inside him felt like a tumour, swelling until it inhabited all of his body, until his breathing was ragged in his chest. His partner’s hands stroked gently up and down his back as he murmured soothing words, and somehow those motions and those words had the magic ability to make the fear smaller and distant.
After a long while he pushed himself upright again.
‘I’m sorry, Napoleon,’ he said.
‘You really are an idiot, my little Russian,’ Napoleon told him, touching a hand to his arm. ‘Don’t ever feel the need to apologise.’
Illya shrugged, smiling a little.
‘Now, what were you after at the grocery store?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Nothing. I was simply testing myself. Seeing how well I could manage. Apparently that’s not very well.’
Napoleon sighed – more loudly than he would normally, Illya was sure. He was making certain that Illya was aware of his disdain for that opinion.
‘Illya, if someone had put a blindfold on me what – ten hours ago? – I would not expect to be a fully competent blind person before lunch. You are the most stubborn, i- ’
‘Idiot, yes, I know,’ Illya cut in before Napoleon could say it. ‘Is it lunchtime?’
‘You’re the most centred around your stomach too. It’s about a quarter of twelve. Want me to fix you something to eat?’
‘I want to fix me something to eat.’ He heard Napoleon sigh again, but he stood up, ignoring him. ‘I think I have salad and some kind of sausage in the fridge. I definitely have bread.’
It was a relief that Napoleon did not shadow him into the kitchen. Instead he heard his friend pick up the telephone and ask for the number of the local record store. As Illya made his way into the small kitchen he heard the clatter of the broken pieces of records, and Napoleon saying, ‘Yeah, I wanted to get a delivery. Can you deliver? … Uh-huh … And what’s your best record player? No, I don’t care about the price.’
Illya allowed himself a smile. He would let Napoleon do this for him. Protesting the money or his generosity would make his friend feel bad, and through all of his frustration and fear he still understood that Napoleon was finding this hard too, and that he, Illya, was making his life hell right now. He turned his attention away from the phone conversation and opened up the bread bin, poking the loaf in there to see if it had gone stale. A quick sniff told him there was no mould, and he found the bread knife and started very carefully cutting enough slices for sandwiches.
Once he was off the phone, with a promise of delivery of his order in the next few hours, Napoleon strolled over towards the kitchen and stood in the doorway. From behind it looked as if there were very little wrong with his partner, who was standing at the counter spreading butter onto slices of bread and then moving each slice onto a plate at his side.
‘Well, aren’t we domesticated?’ he asked smoothly, stepping into the room and going to the refrigerator. ‘Want me to get the fillings?’
Illya stiffened for a moment as if he were trying to work out if this would be an infringement of his independence. Then he relaxed again and said, ‘Thank you, Napoleon.’
A moment later they were standing side by side at the counter, Napoleon filling his own two sandwiches with what he wanted, but deliberately letting Illya do his own. He watched his partner’s hands as he worked, his fingers carefully touching the sliced meats then searching for the sharp knife he had put on the counter. Napoleon resisted offering help, but when the sandwiches were made he picked up both plates.
‘I’ll carry those through,’ he said, and was glad when Illya did not argue.
They sat down on the couch and Napoleon pulled the coffee table a little closer.
‘You want me to make coffee?’ he asked. ‘You make a good sandwich but I think it’s a bit early for the gas ring.’
‘Maybe later,’ Illya said, so Napoleon got two tall glasses of water instead and set them down as Illya picked up one of his sandwiches and took a huge bite.
‘You’re doing okay,’ Solo said after a moment.
Illya’s head turned as if to look at him, an enquiring look on his face.
‘It’s hard, I know,’ Solo continued, ‘but most people would be in a ball in the corner right now, and you’ve already taken a morning constitutional and made your own lunch.’
Illya grunted, and Napoleon read a world in that grunt. His ‘constitutional’ had hardly been a success, and making sandwiches was a far cry from being able to manage in the wide world. But Napoleon had meant what he had said. He was impressed with the determination of his Russian friend, and if – God forbid – nothing could be done about Illya’s sight, he was starting to be able to imagine a future where he could at least have some kind of future in U.N.C.L.E.. Working for the organisation wasn’t all about going out on field missions, and they didn’t just throw out their agents when they were broken. There was Frank Robbins, confined to a wheelchair after a bullet lodged in his spine. He still came in every day to his new job in Intelligence. And Illya had one of the most acute minds U.N.C.L.E. had ever known. He wouldn’t be thrown off because he couldn’t see. There must be a job for him somewhere.
A communicator beeped, taking him by surprise. He patted his jacket pocket, but it was Illya’s communicator, and the Russian drew it out of his pocket.
‘Kuryakin,’ he said. Napoleon could read the tension in his voice.
‘Ah, Mr Kuryakin.’ It was Mr Waverly, as Napoleon had expected. ‘I thought you’d be available. I’ve just finished reading Mr Solo’s and Dr Malhotra’s reports.’
‘I see, sir,’ Illya said cautiously, then his mouth twisted as he registered the irony of his own response.
‘Mr Kuryakin, you have my sympathy,’ Waverly said, and Napoleon saw Illya about to form a reply, but the man carried on, ‘Of course, I don’t expect this to be a permanent affliction. Not by a long shot. But for now you are relieved of all duties and put on medical leave for an indefinite period. Mr Solo – Is Mr Solo there with you?’
‘I am, sir,’ Napoleon said, leaning closer.
‘Mr Solo, you have two weeks partner’s leave to allow you to assist Mr Kuryakin. If he is still having trouble after that time I expect alternative arrangements to be made. Can’t have you out of the field for too long, you know.’
‘Uh – no, of course not, sir,’ Napoleon replied, wishing he could exchange a glance with his partner. In lieu of eye contact he laid his hand on Illya’s knee, and Illya smiled rather ruefully.
‘Nevertheless,’ Waverly continued, ‘Nevertheless, gentlemen, I understand that Mr Kuryakin isn’t injured in any other way, and that he’s due in tomorrow for a medical check up. I expect to see you both in the office after that check up.’
‘In the office?’ Illya echoed.
‘While on leave, sir?’ Napoleon put in.
‘Yes, yes,’ Waverly said impatiently. ‘In the office. If I thought either one of you would take this lying down I would have thought to have been very much mistaken. I’ve had Intelligence compiling reports all morning on the Westchester lab’s personnel. Now, one of them must have developed that blinding spray, and I expect you to look into it fully. Ah, pardon the expression, Mr Kuryakin.’
‘No problem, sir,’ Illya muttered.
‘Now, I can’t possibly have you on anything but medical leave, Mr Kuryakin. Personnel would have my head – the fact not withstanding that I am the head. And Mr Solo, I can’t have you going out into the field and leaving Mr Kuryakin to his own devices. But understand this. I don’t intend to lose a perfectly good agent to a tin-pot chemist’s concoction. I will see you tomorrow, gentlemen.’
When the communicator cut off Illya sat for a moment, feeling stunned, before putting the device back into his pocket. The last thing he had expected was to be simultaneously signed off duty and called in to the office when he could not see to read or write or do any kind of research. He could not see how he could be of any use.
‘Napoleon, can you believe that?’ he asked in frustration.
‘Well, maybe the old man’s got a point,’ Napoleon said contemplatively. ‘You know, Illya, maybe we’re going about this the wrong way.’
Illya turned his head, intrigued by the tone of voice, still caught up with wondering how he was possibly going to manage his immediate future.
‘I don’t know what you mean, Napoleon. How should one go about blindness?’
‘No, no, I don’t mean that. I mean, we’re acting like this is it, like this is you, stuck for life. Like it’s a foregone conclusion.’
‘Mr Waverly has no real reason to believe there’s an antidote,’ Illya said in dismissal. ‘And unless someone hurries the research into vitrectomy...’
‘Illya, this was an experiment, remember. I mean, not the spray itself, but the way you were blinded. They herded us towards that spray. It wasn’t just part of their defences. They lured us in and then headed us towards that spray.’
‘Yeah, they did,’ Illya nodded, ‘But – ’
‘Well, then they let us go. They’re watching you, Illya, I’ll bet you anything. You’re under observation.’
The space between Illya’s shoulder blades crawled uncomfortably at that thought.
‘I still don’t understand – ’
‘Illya, what if they have a treatment – an antidote – to whatever it was they sprayed in your eyes?’
Illya stiffened. ‘Why would they have that?’
‘Because they have to,’ Napoleon said resolutely. ‘Because it’s the only option I’ll accept.’
‘Napoleon, while your optimism is gratifying...’
‘Not just my optimism. It’s Mr Waverly’s optimism too, and he didn’t get to be the head of U.N.C.L.E. by chasing rainbows and unicorns. Illya, if they’re going to develop a spray like that why wouldn’t they concoct an antidote? It’s not exactly a targeted delivery system. Are they going to risk blinding their own people?’
Hope started to kindle in Illya’s chest.
‘Thrush are not always so logical,’ he said quietly, pushing away that small spark of hope.
‘Maybe not, but they often are. They didn’t get to be where they are by hiring mad scientists who don’t know what they’re doing. Sure there’s always a crazy in there, but the majority of them are fine scientists who happen to be playing on the wrong side. If you made something like that, wouldn’t you make sure there was an antidote?’
‘I would not make a spray that would blind anyone who ran through it,’ Illya said darkly.
‘Wouldn’t you?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya fiddled with his hands. ‘Well... Yes, I’d make sure there was an antidote,’ he conceded.
He reached out for his sandwich and smacked his hand into a heavy glass that spun away across the coffee table. Liquid started dripping to the floor.
‘It’s my fault,’ Napoleon said immediately, jumping to his feet and hurrying to the kitchen. On his return he said, ‘I should have told you about the water. I’m sorry.’
Illya bit down on the rising feelings of impotence and anger, listening to the sounds of Napoleon mopping up.
‘The learning curve is rather steep,’ he muttered.
‘Illya, how’d you feel about coming into HQ today?’ Napoleon asked suddenly. ‘We’re not doing any good here, either of us. Wouldn’t you rather be doing something?’
Illya felt a confusing stirring of fear and anticipation rising in his chest.
‘I – don’t know, Napoleon,’ he prevaricated. ‘I really don’t know.’
Napoleon sighed and patted a hand on his friend’s back.
‘I’m sorry, I’m pushing you. I guess as much as I try to understand I can’t really understand. You want to just stay here, huh? Look, they’ll be delivering the records and the player in the next hour, and I threw in a few extras with the order. We could have a music day.’
Illya felt that prickling feeling of anger rising again, and though he knew Napoleon didn’t deserve to be its target he didn’t know what else to do with it. Instead he clenched his hands into fists and stood up, walking as briskly as he could into the bedroom and throwing himself face down on the bed. Anything but vent his anger on Napoleon again, who was going above and beyond in his attempts to help.
With his face pressed into the blankets he could pretend that there was nothing wrong with his eyes. This was a familiar dark, not the strange soup that he was forced to look through. But when he raised his face from the bed the soup would still be there. He hardly dared to believe Waverly, to believe that there was an antidote to this thing out there.
Jerkily he got to his feet again and made his way to the bedroom door. He stood there holding the doorpost, listening.
‘I’m sorry Napoleon,’ he said with something of a smile.
‘Aren’t your countrymen supposed to be moody types? Isn’t that what Dostoevsky’s all about?’ Napoleon asked. There was the rustling of paper, as if the American were folding a newspaper and setting it down. ‘Illya, it’s all right,’ he said seriously. ‘I can take it. I can take a lot. Now, I’ve taken the opportunity of settling our plans for the day, in here, at least – ’ There was a faint tapping ‘ – I mean in my head. We are going nowhere. We’re waiting for the record delivery and we are going to stay in and peruse the new LPs I threw in on the order. I’m going to take this opportunity to introduce you to the Rat Pack – ’ Illya groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. ‘No, I am. Then later I am going to order the best Chinese takeout you’ve ever had, and we’re going to raid your – hmpph – ’ Napoleon made a considering noise, then said, ‘I’m going to order in some liquor too.’
At that he picked up the phone and started speaking rapidly to someone on the other end about a dizzying array of alcohol. Illya shrugged and made his way into the bathroom to run a bath. It felt easier that Napoleon had made the decisions for him. He felt so overwhelmed with this huge thing that had happened to him that he was grateful for his friend’s guidance.
He trailed his hand into the rising water until it was deep enough, and then he stripped off and sunk himself in up to the neck. It felt good to let the heat wrap around his body, and he closed his eyes and tried to forget the situation that he was in for a while. After a time there was a soft knock on the bathroom door, and he jerked himself out of his mindless stupor.
‘Napoleon?’ he asked.
‘Can I come in?’ his partner’s voice came from beyond the door.
A moment of uncertainty passed through his mind. He had seen Napoleon naked many times, and Napoleon had seen him. But somehow it felt different to be exposed like this before his friend unable to look back at him.
‘Illya?’ Napoleon asked, his voice rising with concern.
Illya sighed and said, ‘Come in. It’s fine.’
‘I made that coffee,’ Napoleon said, coming in to the small room. ‘Want it?’
‘Thanks,’ Illya replied, holding out a hand, and Napoleon carefully put the cup to his hand. He took a sip and almost spluttered. ‘Ahem – you could have warned me it was Irish.’
‘I thought you could do with it, and luckily you had about two inches of scotch left in your abysmally neglected drinks cabinet. Tell me, Illya, when are you going to acclimatise to the idea that you can own more than two different liquors simultaneously without being branded hopelessly bourgeois?’
Illya shrugged, and the resulting lap of water about his chest reminded him that he was lying naked in the bath. Napoleon, presumably, was fully clothed, and probably sitting on the closed toilet. It suddenly struck him that he had no idea what Napoleon was wearing, that he had been conjuring an image of what he might be wearing all day. The uncertainty disconcerted him badly.
‘What are you wearing?’ he asked directly.
‘Uh – ’ Napoleon sounded taken aback. ‘Well, considerably more than you, my friend.’
‘What are you wearing?’ Illya repeated, failing in an attempt to keep the impatience from his voice. ‘I want to know.’
‘Well, er – nothing special, I tell you,’ Napoleon replied, regaining his suavity. ‘Just a grey pinstripe suit and white shirt. A rather natty black tie with a diagonal stripe cut through with red. I particularly like – ’
‘Thank you,’ Illya cut across him, then gentled the words by repeating more softly, ‘Thank you, Napoleon. I – didn’t like not knowing.’
He half hoped that Napoleon might pat him on the shoulder in one of the delightful gestures of friendship that he was so free with, but the lines were strangely drawn with him here in the bath, and Napoleon did not touch him. Perhaps it was best. He took another gulp of the Irish coffee and felt it warm him inside as the bath water was warming him outside. He could hold his liquor just as well as Napoleon – probably better – but today he let himself succumb to the warm, fuzzy feeling because it pushed away some of the razor edges of his awareness, and all his awareness was doing was bringing him pain.
He closed his eyes and carried on drinking, hardly aware that Napoleon was still there, although he had not heard him leave. He wasn’t even sure why he was in the bath. He certainly didn’t need to wash – he had showered last night, or early this morning, he supposed. He had just wanted the warm and weightless reassurance of the water around him.
‘You got any more of this?’ he asked after a while, waving his empty cup aimlessly towards Napoleon. ‘Without the coffee?’
Napoleon laughed, and although Illya had been talking to him he was startled a little out of his own world by that audible reminder that Napoleon was so close to him.
‘Illya, I gave you a double shot in there, and that’s all there was in the bottle,’ he reminded him. ‘If you’re so fond of Irish coffee without the coffee, you need to keep your cabinet stocked, old friend.’
Illya grunted. ‘You put through an order to the liquor store, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, I did, but it hasn’t arrived yet. In fact none of it – oh.’ At that moment the doorbell sounded, and Napoleon got to his feet. ‘Talk of the devil, and he’s at your elbow,’ the American quoted smoothly.
‘Pomyani chorta, on i poyavitsya,’ Illya murmured half to himself. It had been so long since he had been at home, in his own land, able to hear old women trot out these trite sayings, and he suddenly felt a swelling in his heart at everything he had left behind.
‘Uh – what – ?’ Napoleon asked, then said hurriedly, ‘Never mind. That’s probably your Irish coffee at the door.’
Illya closed his eyes and listened idly as Napoleon went to the door, gun drawn, he was sure, just in case. Then there were noises of something being wheeled in to the outer room, Napoleon speaking, and then the door closed again.
‘You’re in luck,’ Napoleon said cheerily, coming back into the bathroom with no cautious knock this time. Records, record player, liquor, all arrived together. Now our evening can start.’
Illya repressed the urge to say, if it must. Napoleon was doing his best for him.
‘I’ll just set this lot up,’ the American said, sounding as if the spring were back in his step, and Illya smiled. Napoleon loved to give gifts, and his joy brought a little happiness to Illya’s heart. After a little time Napoleon was back in the bathroom encouraging his friend out of the bath, holding a robe for him to step into, even going so far as to towel away the water that was dripping from the hair at the back of his head. Illya was weary enough to just let him tend to him, lead him through into the sitting room, and carefully settle him on the couch.
‘Let me pour you one of those – well, what should one call an Irish coffee without the coffee?’ Napoleon floundered.
‘I’ll take a scotch on the rocks without the rocks,’ Illya offered instead, and when Napoleon poured and put the straight sided tumbler in his hand he drank it like water.
‘Now then, I promised to introduce you to some of my greatest friends,’ Napoleon said, and Illya could hear the smile in his voice. That amazed him, that he could hear a smile. He had never realised that facial expressions were passed through speech.
He closed his eyes, resigning himself as the needle hissed and crackled through the first few grooves of the record, then swing music began to sound through speakers of a considerably higher quality than those on his old player.
‘Napoleon, must I?’ he asked.
The couch cushions shifted as the American joined him, then glass clinked as he poured more liquor.
‘Hush, child, and listen,’ Napoleon told him with his best paternalistic air, still with that smile in his voice. ‘And drink up.’
Illya hushed, listened, and drank.
Napoleon had never intended to get Illya really drunk, but so far that seemed to be how the day was shaping up. The sun hadn’t even started to lower behind the brownstones on the other side of the street, and Illya had already downed three glasses of scotch and was sitting with his head tipped back, eyes closed, as the voice of Dean Martin crooned from the record player. Since Illya was silent, Napoleon found himself sitting in silence too, his fingers crooked around his own half-forgotten drink, just looking at his partner.
Illya was still wearing the fluffy blue towelling robe and nothing else, the v split of the front plunging low to reveal a strip of tan pink flesh lightly dusted with golden hair. His eyes were closed, but if they had been open Napoleon knew they would have been set off perfectly by the colour of the robe. He knew that because he had bought it for Illya himself, protesting that although one could easily just use a towel after a bath, it was far nicer to have a robe. What was slightly disturbing was that that opaque, milky substance, whatever it was that had robbed his partner’s sight, had the effect of making his pupils very slightly milky too, which only enhanced the clear blue of his eyes.
His eyes settled on the line of Illya’s throat, on the white skin that had been largely shaded from the New York City sun, on the rise of his adam’s apple that was thrown into profile by the way his head was tilted back. There was something about that bare, exposed throat that was ridiculously endearing. Perhaps it was because although Illya was so vulnerable, here in his apartment, in Napoleon’s presence, he did not feel the need to protect himself. For a moment Napoleon wanted nothing more than to lay a kiss on that bare, naked throat.
Napoleon caught himself, stopping those thoughts in their tracks. This was the last thing that Illya needed at the moment, to have his libido-driven, sexually permissive partner indulging in erotic thoughts about him. Napoleon had found Illya attractive almost from the moment they had first met, but beyond what Illya always interpreted as tongue-in-cheek flirtation he had never been careless enough to actually expose those feelings to the notoriously solitary Russian. Really, seriously, this was the very last thing Illya needed…
Solo shook himself, feeling as if he were returning to the real world from some warm fantasy.
‘Yes, Illya?’ he asked.
Illya waved his empty glass at his partner.
‘Fill it up?’
‘All right, Illya,’ he sighed, knocking the neck of the scotch bottle against the rim of the glass. Illya held the tumbler steady until Napoleon stopped pouring, then proceeded to empty the glass with an almost workmanlike dedication. Napoleon huffed out a breath, drained his own tumbler, and refilled it.
‘Are you all right, Napoleon?’ Illya asked, turning his face towards his partner.
For some reason Napoleon felt as if he had been shot straight through the heart. Perhaps it was those blue eyes, directed towards him but not quite at him. Perhaps it was something about the crook of Illya’s wrist as he held his glass. He didn’t know what it was but suddenly he hurt like hell, for Illya’s sake, for his own sake. On the record player Sammy Davis Jr was singing out too close, too close for comfort, and shivers ran through him. Was he right to keep pouring liquor into his vulnerable friend? He had thought that he was helping Illya to numb the swirling emotions that had come with his sudden blindness, but now he felt like the alcohol had gently scoured away at the rigid boundaries between them both. Illya looked soft and easy and relaxed, and Napoleon – god, how much he wanted to close the space between them on the cushions and give in to that feeling that was starting to pulse down below.
‘Illya,’ he murmured huskily.
‘What, N’polyon?’ Illya asked, his speech a little slurred now. ‘S’it time for Chinese food?’
Napoleon took a look at his watch, although he already knew it was nowhere near the late dinner time they both usually favoured.
‘Not yet, tovarisch,’ he sighed. ‘In a little while.’
‘M’hungry now,’ Illya said with a level of innocence that seemed to break Napoleon’s heart all over again.
Napoleon deliberated, but not for very long. After all, at this rate Illya was only going to get more drunk, and the sooner he got some food into him the better.
‘All right, what do you want?’ he asked.
‘Dim sum,’ Illya replied succinctly.
Napoleon shrugged and picked up the phone. There was a great place for dim sum just a few blocks away. He put the order through and then opened up his U.N.C.L.E. communicator, calling up one of the lesser agents from his section.
‘Hey, Dirk. You heard about Illya, right?’
He glanced sideways, seeing Illya grow a little more rigid at his words.
‘Yeah, thanks,’ he replied to Dirk’s words of sympathy on the other end of the connection. ‘Listen, he and I are going for a little alcohol therapy tonight. Yeah, in his apartment. We hardly got any sleep last night, either. I want you to station someone in the hall outside. I just want for us both to have a night without worrying. Okay?’
At the man’s affirmative he signed off, then let his shoulders relax, seeing Illya do the same. It was extremely rare to ask another agent to cover one at home like this, but once in a while it was acceptable. Everyone needed to be able to fully relax sometimes.
He woke without quite knowing where he was and what had happened. For a moment adrenaline made itself felt as it rushed through his body, because the sense of dislocation and the pounding headache were both symptoms of Thrush abduction. But as the smells and then the sight of where he was sunk in, he remembered.
It had been a long night by anyone’s standards. There had been a lot to drink, a lot of greasy food, and after the last of the Rat Pack’s crooning had died away Illya had insisted on introducing him to LP after LP of obscure jazz. In the end, Napoleon recalled guiltily, although he had felt no such guilt in last night’s alcoholic haze, he had started telling Illya that the records he was requesting had been broken with the others, slipped behind the sideboard and unnoticed until now. Illya had accepted that and requested Der Ring des Nibelungen instead, and he had flaked out on the couch halfway through the rising strains of Das Rheingold. Napoleon hadn’t been sure how anyone could sleep through that racket, but Illya had managed it, and so Napoleon had lifted the needle from its groove, shut the record player, and somehow decided in his drunkenness that it was a good idea to grab some cushions and blankets and bed down on the floor next to Illya’s couch. His hungover morning self bitterly cursed his relaxed drunken self for that mistake. Not only was his head pounding and his throat feeling like a frog had died in it, but his whole body ached too. At least a good bed would have saved that discomfort. But then, he didn’t know that Illya’s bed was a good one. Knowing Illya it was a cheap single, the first he got his hands on, and the couch was probably worse. He made a mental note to get hold of a good camp bed for the rest of his stay here.
He lifted his head from his makeshift pillow and craned blearily up to look at Illya. In sleep he had the innocence of a child, one arm flung backwards in careless abandon, the blanket Napoleon had carefully laid over him half thrown off. He had never changed into pyjamas from that blue towelling robe, but at some point he must have shrugged one arm out of it and he was lying half-nude, golden and blue.
‘Oh,’ Napoleon sighed, almost making no sound, just gazing at that body in the ultimate state of relaxation. He lifted one hand, reached out, almost about to touch the silken down of a lolling thigh, then retreated as if he had been stung. This was Illya. Illya for god’s sake. He neither needed nor wanted this attention. He clenched his fist and drew it back to his body. He needed to get those thoughts out of his mind. He wanted to cover his friend up but Illya was an agent and at the first disturbance he would bolt awake, so he left him as he was, stretched out on the couch like a cat, a morning erection starting to form beneath the bunched towelling gown.
Napoleon bit his lip into his mouth and got cautiously to his feet, anxious not to wake his partner. His head throbbed and he stumbled into the kitchen in search of an alka seltzer. He was coming back into the living room with the tablets fizzing in their glass and dusting his hand with little white specks when Illya started to stir.
‘How you feeling, comrade?’ Napoleon asked clearly, wary of Illya waking as disoriented as he himself had, and with the added uncertainty of blindness.
‘Umphh,’ Illya grunted, stretching himself out, blinking.
Napoleon watched his face intently and saw that moment when he remembered and a kind of frozen look came over his face. Illya took a moment to deliberately compose himself and then sat up, noticing the dishevelled state of the dressing gown he wore and fumbling his arm back into the sleeve and knotting the belt tightly around his slim waist. He rubbed his hands over his face and turned towards the windows, which Napoleon had neglected to shade.
‘I suppose it’s morning,’ Illya said.
‘The morning after the night before,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘Does your head feel like mine?’
Illya’s eyebrow arched. ‘Without knowing how your head feels – ’
‘Do you feel like a rat died in your mouth?’
‘Oh is that what it was?’ Illya commented, and Napoleon handed him the alka seltzer he had meant for himself, touching it into Illya’s fingers. ‘What’s this?’ Illya brought the glass to his nose and recoiled at the spatter of fizzing droplets. ‘Ahh.’
As Illya applied himself to the medicinal liquid Napoleon went to fix himself another, downing it this time as he stood in the kitchen and set the kettle on the gas to boil. He still wouldn’t put it past Illya to try to light the gas ring himself and maybe he would do it just fine, but he didn’t want to risk it. The last thing his friend needed right now was first degree burns and another blow to his pride.
‘Tea?’ he called back into the living room. ‘Or coffee?’
He was greeted with silence, and he wandered back into the other room to find it empty. There was water running in the bathroom and he wandered over to the door, which was open just a crack. Peeking through without touching the panel he saw Illya standing before the basin, still in that blue bath robe, holding his safety razor in one hand and seemingly frozen in indecision.
Napoleon deliberately turned his back before asking, ‘You okay in there, partner?’
There was a moment of hesitation, then Illya said, ‘Yes, I’m all right.’
‘Do you want tea or coffee? Are you up to eating?’
‘Coffee,’ Illya said with his customary efficiency. ‘And yes, if a little delicate.’
Napoleon left him alone. He knew Illya was hesitating at applying the blade to his skin, but that it wouldn’t help him any to hover over him, and for Illya to give in to the thought of Napoleon shaving him would be worse. He wondered for a moment what Illya would say to the idea of going to one of the many high class barbers in Manhattan for a luxury shave, but he had to admit that were he the one in Illya’s position he would hate the idea. It would just smack of carefully considered condescension.
He went back into the kitchen to put coffee in the pot and pour the now boiling water over it, and then he put a pan on the stove and scanned briefly through Illya’s cupboards and fridge. He settled on scrambled eggs, good for the stomach and not too overwhelming, and pushed four slices of bread under the grill. By the time Illya was out of the bathroom, shaved and sporting a couple more shaving cuts than was his norm, Napoleon was tipping the eggs onto buttered toast and setting the plate on the table.
‘I made eggs,’ he said as Illya came into the kitchen, still wearing the blue bath robe and moving very carefully, lips pressed together. ‘Here, let me – ’ And he took hold of Illya’s elbow and guided him to his place at the table, relieved when the Russian neither berated him nor pulled away. He sat listlessly poking at the eggs with the fork Napoleon gave him, and Napoleon poured the coffee and tried to act up-beat.
‘What time’s that appointment in the infirmary?’ he asked lightly, poking at his own eggs. He had just as little appetite as Illya.
‘Ten-thirty,’ the Russian replied without lifting his head.
‘Well, I’ll call a cab for ten,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘We can see Waverly afterwards. No doubt he’ll want to hear the latest medical report.’
‘No doubt,’ Illya murmured. He lifted a forkful of eggs, which spilled back onto the plate just before the empty tines clashed on his teeth. Illya muttered something in Russian under his breath and dropped the fork. ‘I’d be better off eating with my fingers like a two year old child.’
Napoleon didn’t know what to do with this dark despair. ‘Maybe you could try a spoon?’ he suggested softly.
He noticed Illya’s abrupt movement just in time, and whipped the plate out of reach before he could throw it across the room. The fork impaled itself in a cupboard door.
‘Now, I spent time making those eggs,’ he said in his most soothing voice, with just a hint of humour in his tone. He recovered the fork and came around to put his hands on Illya’s shoulders. He began to massage them firmly, trying to ease out the knots of tension. ‘The least you can do is eat them.’
‘If I could eat them,’ Illya began, his fists clenching and unclenching.
‘You can,’ Napoleon promised him. He wanted to bend down and deposit a kiss on that golden crown before him, but he just kept rubbing diligently at Illya’s shoulders. ‘There’s no one here but me. You just need a little time and practice. I’m not watching you and waiting for you to fail, Illya. Trust me.’
At those two words Illya relaxed a little into his pummelling fingers. He had trusted Napoleon almost from the first days of their acquaintance. Napoleon gave one more squeeze on his shoulders then went to fetch a spoon, passing it and the plate back to Illya.
‘Eat up,’ he said with a smile. ‘We’ve got an hour before we need to be gone. I’ll pour the coffee.’
Breakfast passed with little more incident beyond Illya’s dark mutterings, which Napoleon suspected were in some dialect so as to bypass Solo’s limited knowledge of Russian. He ate slowly, deliberately not watching Illya as he ate, even though Illya could not see him not watching. He spoke platitudes about a hangover making it none too easy to coordinate, and Illya grunted replies. After a while the Russian asked for his fork again and tried with more steady patience, and succeeded. Ten minutes later the plate was empty and he asked hopefully if Napoleon felt like making more. Napoleon sighed, and made another round of toast and scrambled another four eggs. His own stomach did not feel up to taking so much food this morning, but sometimes he suspected that Illya’s stomach would accommodate a nuclear bomb and he’d still be up to a square meal the next morning.
‘All right, clothes,’ Napoleon said finally, clearing the plates away. ‘I’ll wash the dishes later. Actually, hell, you can wash the dishes. What do you want to wear this sunny morning?’
Illya rested his chin on his hand, considering, blue eyes distant, then he shrugged and said, ‘Black suit, white shirt, tie.’
‘I thought you might go for a turtleneck,’ Napoleon commented, and Illya snorted.
‘At least with a shirt I can be sure it’s not back to front. Pick me out a tie that isn’t glaring, won’t you?’
Napoleon picked out a tie that was plain black, and left Illya to dress alone, despite his urge to offer help.
‘You want that cane?’ he asked when Illya emerged from his bedroom, looking just as smart as he always did.
Illya grunted. ‘May as well be hung for a lion as for a lamb,’ he replied. ‘And pass me those dark glasses, please.’
‘You know, your eyes look perfectly normal,’ Napoleon tried to assure him as he fetched the required items.
‘Be that as it may,’ Illya muttered, slipping the glasses onto his face. ‘There. Do you have the time?’
Napoleon flicked a look at his watch. ‘Ten to ten. I’ll call that cab.’
Napoleon could see the frustration building in his friend as he sat through his examination in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary. The resident doctor had brought in an eye specialist from outside, but even he could say nothing reassuring. As Illya sat in the examination chair apparently working harder and harder to control the temper that was boiling under the surface, a nurse touched Napoleon’s arm and asked quietly if she could have a word.
‘Yeah, sure,’ he nodded. ‘Illya, listen, I just need to pop out for a minute, okay?’
‘I’m going nowhere,’ Illya replied darkly, and Napoleon exchanged an apologetic look with the frustrated ophthalmologist.
‘Okay, Sandy, what is it?’ he asked as he left the room with the perky young nurse. A few days ago he would have given her his undivided attention and probably wound up asking her out on a date, but right now it seemed that all he could think of was Illya.
‘Just a few tips,’ she told him with a gentle smile, as if he had been added to some kind of extended rank of the disabled because of Illya’s injury. ‘You’re the one looking after him full time, right?’
‘Yeah, I – guess,’ Napoleon nodded, feeling rather awkward at that designation.
‘Well, I took the liberty of getting a few leaflets for you from various organisations,’ she said, grabbing a thin stack of folded paper from the admission desk behind her. ‘You might want to have a read through. They just give you some basic guidance on how to deal with – well – ’
‘The blind,’ Napoleon supplied dryly. ‘Thanks, Sandy. I’ll cast an eye over them.’
‘May as well do it here and now,’ she told him. ‘I’ll get you a coffee.’
‘Thanks, Sandy,’ he said again, but he was already looking at the leaflets. It didn’t take him long to discover he had been doing it all wrong by grabbing Illya’s elbow to guide him, and that was just the start. He sat down, leant back, and settled himself for a long and enlightening read.
Illya looked pensive when he came out of the examination room, and Napoleon’s heart sunk a little at the expression on his pale face. The ophthalmologist was guiding him just as the leaflets had said to, with Illya’s hand closed on his arm just above his elbow, but just through the door the doctor raised his hand to Solo and said, ‘Ah, I’ll hand you over to your partner now, Mr Kuryakin. I need to go discuss my findings with Dr Malhotra. I want you back in two days. Be assured I’ll pass on my full report both to you and your superior.’
‘Thank you,’ Illya said tightly, and Napoleon saw it as a bad sign that the Russian had not snapped a query as to how he would be expected to read the report.
‘Right here, comrade,’ Napoleon murmured, shoving the leaflets into his jacket pocket and coming over to his friend.
‘Must you always call me that?’ Illya asked irritably. ‘You do realise friends don’t call each other that?’
He sighed. He knew that and Illya knew that he knew. He also knew that Illya understood the affectionate humour in the term; or at least, he understood it when he wasn’t in such a wretchedly bad mood. He took Illya’s hand and transferred it to his own arm, patting his fingers lightly as they curled closed.
‘You can talk to me in the elevator,’ he murmured.
‘I’ll pass on everything he said to Waverly in a few minutes. Can’t you wait until then?’ Illya asked, and Napoleon didn’t know whether to be pleased or dismayed at the irritation in Illya’s tone. He supposed it was better than apathy, if a little harder to live around.
‘I can,’ he conceded. ‘But I thought you might like to – ’
‘Really, it is very wearisome to have to go through the details over and over,’ Illya cut across.
Napoleon bit his lip over his retort and said, ‘Okay, I’ll hear it with Waverly.’
Illya continued to be silent and pensive as the elevator hummed upwards, and he followed Napoleon without a word out into the corridor beyond, the crooked cane held rigidly in his right hand.
‘Ah, gentlemen,’ Waverly greeted them as they came through the door into his office. ‘Mr Kuryakin, how are you – ’ He drifted into silence as if understanding a platitude such as asking how Illya was feeling would be of no use at all. ‘Well, sit down, sit down,’ he blustered, and Napoleon moved forward to the table, remembering the tips he had read and putting Illya’s hand to the back of the chair in front of him. Perhaps it was instinct that prompted Illya to slide his hand down the back to the seat, because he certainly could not have read the leaflets. Perhaps the ophthalmologist had given him some quiet advice.
Napoleon seated himself next to his partner and looked between Illya and Waverly as Waverly sat down and occupied himself in packing tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.
‘Well, Mr Kuryakin,’ Waverly said as a match flared. Napoleon’s eyes narrowed as he saw Waverly’s gaze on Illya’s face, wondering if he were trying to gauge if the Russian had any reaction to the sudden light. ‘What did Dr Peterson have to say?’
Illya clenched his hands before him on the table, dropping his head a little, and Napoleon waited to hear what he had to say. Apparently he remembered the sunglasses that he had taken off for his examination, because he pulled them from his breast pocket and returned them to his face, perhaps in response to Waverly’s trick with the match. The pipe was still unlit.
‘The labs have got no further in developing any kind of antidote to the chemical that was sprayed on me,’ the Russian began. ‘It seems to be some kind of calcium based polymer which reproduces itself using the vitreous humour as nourishment. They don’t know how to combat it. Furthermore, it has increased its opacity as time has gone on. I can see less today than I could yesterday.’
Napoleon looked at Illya in shock. ‘You didn’t mention – ’
‘It’s a negligible increase,’ the Russian shrugged wearily. ‘I hadn’t noticed the slight increase until I was sitting in that same room with the same light above me, but it will continue to increase gradually as time goes on.’
‘Will it spread?’ Waverly asked, and even that staunchly businesslike voice was tinted with deep concern.
Napoleon felt a chill run down his spine. What if it did spread? What if it crept down the optic nerve into the brain?
‘They think not,’ Illya shrugged. ‘It seems to find the interior of the eyeball a peculiarly hospitable environment.’
‘But this is all stuff Dr Malhotra could have told you,’ Waverly said impatiently. ‘What about Dr Peterson? We called him in at great expense.’
‘Dr Peterson tested the extent of my sight loss and the pressure in both eyes, among other things. He says there’s no increased pressure, which is apparently good. He wants to keep checking the extent of sight loss every two days to see how much the opacity is increasing, and to make sure no pressure builds up. There was very little more he could do, but he is staying on to discuss the situation with Dr Malhotra,’ Illya said rather stiffly.
‘Then there is no positive prognosis?’ Waverly asked, rubbing the bowl of his pipe against his lip and lightly sniffing the unlit tobacco inside.
Illya smiled rather bitterly. ‘No. According to Dr Peterson, that’s a conundrum for the labs. This is not within his experience.’
Napoleon found himself looking at his partner with a feeling of sadness thickening his throat. He itched to do something about the situation but Illya was the scientist in the partnership, and he, Napoleon, just didn’t have the expertise. He doubted Illya had the expertise either, since his PhD was in quantum mechanics, not biology or chemistry.
‘Sir, you mentioned yesterday that you expect us to look in to the situation ourselves,’ Napoleon said rather hesitantly.
Waverly turned to the sideboard that ran along the edge of the room, picking up a sheaf of files and slapping them down onto the circular table.
‘Yes indeed, Mr Solo,’ he said. Illya jerked his elbows from the table as Waverly spun it so that the stack of files ended up just in front of Napoleon’s position. ‘The birds have flown from the Westchester lab and they’ve taken a lot of their records with them, but these are all the files we could compile on the place. I suggest you take them away and study them fully. Go through them with Mr Kuryakin. I want him just as conversant with the contents as you are. There’s a plan of the complex and biographies of all the known personnel. One of them may have been responsible for developing that chemical. He may also have developed an antidote.’
‘Sir – ’ Napoleon hesitated, then ploughed on, ‘Sir, you must have other teams working on this. More – um – ’
‘More able teams,’ Illya cut across him. ‘Teams of two men without an average of one eye each.’
Napoleon winced, but Waverly didn’t seem to notice Kuryakin’s cutting tone.
‘Yes, yes, we have Dancer and Slate working on it, but you have – how shall I put it? You have an added incentive, don’t you?’
‘An incentive?’ Illya sounded flabbergasted. ‘If you think – ’
He stood up from the table, pushing his chair back as if he intended to walk away. But then he just stood there, mouth working, until Napoleon stood too and put his hand on Illya’s arm.
Waverly’s voice was like a whip. ‘Mr Kuryakin, I understand you’re not on top physical form but there’s nothing wrong with your mind – and you know that insubordination will not be tolerated.’
Illya’s hands worked in and out of fists at his side. He seemed to not know what to say or do. Finally he reached out for the chair behind him and reseated himself, mumbling, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’
Under the table, Napoleon reached out to touch the Russian’s thigh in a gesture of reassurance, since he couldn’t do the same with a look.
‘I think what Illya meant to say,’ he began, but Waverly cut him off.
‘Oh, I completely understand Mr Kuryakin’s position,’ he said coolly. ‘That is why I’m giving him something to focus the mind. Rest assured that Dancer and Slate are doing all they can for your case, Mr Kuryakin. But I want your mind on it too – both of you. Now, take those files away and do what you can with them.’
Illya was still seething when they sat down in the small office that he shared with Napoleon. Waverly was right about one thing, though. He did have something now to focus his mind, something that wasn’t dwelling on the constant dim fog that he moved in, that was cut to almost nothing by the dark glasses. He preferred the darkness. It was less distracting, less confusing. And the longer Napoleon spent diligently reading each page of the file of information aloud the smaller the ball of seething anger grew, until it was just a niggle at the back of his mind.
He sat in his chair with his feet up on the desk, but his mind wasn’t entirely focussed on Napoleon’s words. The hangover wasn’t helping, and he was noticing small things; that he could smell the soil and the strong geranium scent of the potted plant on the filing cabinet, something one of the secretaries had given to Napoleon and promised to keep watered when he was away. He could hear the rustle of Napoleon’s suit material every time his sleeve rubbed against his body. He could hear the hum of the air conditioning and outside, slightly softened by the intervening wall, he could hear the footsteps of other U.N.C.L.E. employees going about their day.
‘Shall I go back to the top?’ Napoleon asked him.
Illya rubbed a hand over his forehead. ‘Yeah, do,’ he nodded. Start at ‘Miss Sophie Winslip.’
Napoleon cleared his throat. ‘Uh, Miss Sophie Winslip, born 10 10 43, graduated MIT at the top of her class in molecular chemistry. Worked at Unilever before quitting her job with a month’s notice and – ’ Napoleon paused and said, ‘What would you say to coffee and a handful of aspirin?’
Illya jerked his feet back to the floor and asked, ‘What time is it?’
‘Almost one. Coffee, aspirin, and lunch? I can grab a sandwich from the commissary?’
Illya grumbled. ‘And have it come back slathered in mustard? I’ll come with you.’
‘I’ll bring the files,’ Napoleon decided. ‘Call it a working lunch.’
Illya gave a small smile of acknowledgement. He knew that he was being a terror; he would be the first to admit it. He was glad of Napoleon’s light insouciance in response to his decision to come to the commissary. Napoleon probably expected him to hole up in the office all day, and truth be told that was what he wanted to do, but he knew that getting out of the chair, getting a little exercise, and moving on relentlessly as if everything were normal was probably the best way to go about things. He had no desire to expose himself to the pitying eyes of the secretarial pool and all of the hale and able-bodied agents, but it would have to happen sooner or later, and he would rather it was on his terms. At least, he consoled himself dryly, he wouldn’t be able to see their pitying stares.
He stood with Napoleon in line to get the sandwich, still under the pretence that he was protecting his sandwich from applications of mustard and ketchup. Really he just didn’t want to be seen waiting at the table like a cripple while Napoleon did everything for him. He carried the tray with the sandwiches and Napoleon carried the drinks. It was a small piece of independence, and although he was holding onto Napoleon’s arm all the while, it was something.
‘All right, want to get back to the reading?’ Napoleon asked once they were settled at the table.
Illya held out his hand. ‘You promised me aspirin. Give.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Napoleon put a couple of tablets into the palm of his hand. ‘Water?’
‘Please.’ He took the glass Napoleon touched to his fingers, swallowed the tablets, and nodded. ‘Now you can get back to the reading.’
Napoleon’s voice droned on, interrupted occasionally by the sound of biting, chewing, and swallowing. Illya attacked his own sandwich diligently, wondering if perhaps sandwiches were the way forward: manageable finger food where all of the fiddly bits of meat and salad were trapped between two slices of bread. Napoleon reached over the table to dab at the corner of his mouth with a napkin, and Illya batted his hand away.
‘I can wipe my own mouth, thank you,’ he said icily, although he wasn’t sure where his napkin was. He trusted that Napoleon had completed the task, and started feeling for his coffee cup with tentative circles of his hand on the table.
‘What about this map of the complex?’ Napoleon asked him. ‘You studied it before we left that night, yes?’
‘I studied it,’ Illya nodded, ‘but I don’t have perfect recall of it any more. I put these things out of my mind once I think I won’t need them any more – make space for new things. Do you think it’ll help us at all?’
Napoleon made a noise of consideration. Illya listened as he spread the paper out on the table top and, he thought by the sound, weighted the corners with salt and pepper shakers, perhaps with the glasses of water, too. ‘Well, it could do. Look, here’s the alley we were trapped in...’
‘Looking is my current weak spot,’ Illya remarked blackly.
He could almost feel the cogs turning in Napoleon’s head. Then the American got to his feet, clicking his fingers. ‘Hey, Elsbeth, you going back to the office? Be an angel and bring me some glue, huh? The quick-drying stuff.’ Napoleon’s footsteps snapped across the floor of the commissary and he called, ‘Freddie? Yeah, have you got a box of matches there? Can I borrow it? Yeah, and a steak knife?’
‘What on earth do you have in mind?’ Illya asked as Napoleon returned to the table.
‘A map that you can use,’ Napoleon said with glee in his voice. He tapped his fingers on the table and then rattled the box of matches. Illya heard card slip against card and the rattle of matchsticks being poured out. The sharp scent of phosphorus filled the air, and he caught the tiny sound of the thin sticks being snapped.
‘On my table too!’ came the irate voice of Freddie, one of the kitchen cooks. ‘Only Section 2 agents… Mr Solo, here, use this.’
Something slapped onto the table and Illya sat resisting questions. Perhaps it was a chopping board. He thought that Napoleon had started cutting the matchsticks with the steak knife right on the formica surface.
‘Napoleon, you wanted some glue?’ the soft voice of Elsbeth Higgins from the Weapons Research asked, and there was a soft smack as something landed in Napoleon’s palms. ‘Illya, I – ’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Illya forestalled her, immediately growing taciturn. He hated professions of sympathy.
‘No, really,’ she insisted. ‘All of us in Weapons Research were horrified. If there’s anything we can do – ’
‘Tell Sandy Williams to stop blaring popular music out into the corridors,’ Illya said with stone-faced seriousness. ‘That will be to the benefit of the entire organisation. Unless you want to persuade him to take his radio to the closest Thrush listening station and ruin their eardrums for a bit?’
‘Uh – I’m sorry, Elsbeth, I’ll be sure to keep him on a shorter leash next time,’ Napoleon said in the silence that followed. ‘He gets ratty when he’s unsettled and I should know better than to take him to the park with the other doggies.’
Illya picked up his coffee and ignored everyone around him until it seemed that he had been left alone. Then he sat listening as Napoleon hummed softly to himself, filling the air with the scent of glue and cutting more matchsticks. After a while he asked rather impatiently, ‘What are you doing with glue and matchsticks, Napoleon?’
‘Give me your hand, your right hand.’
Illya held out his hand, but then a flood of self consciousness flushed over him.
‘Let’s take it back to the office,’ he said said quickly, closing his hand into a fist. ‘It’s a better place to be discussing this than here.’
‘Now look, here,’ Napoleon said once they were back in the office. ‘Give me your hand.’
Illya reached out his hand and Napoleon’s closed over it. They had both reached a silent agreement not to mention Illya’s moments of upset in the commissary, and Napoleon had pulled Illya’s chair over to his desk so they could sit side by side. Carefully Napoleon straightened out one of Illya’s fingers and touched it to what he had been working on, matchsticks glued onto paper.
‘Now, here’s the alley we were caught in,’ Napoleon said as if there had been no interruption between now and that moment in the commissary. He ran Illya’s finger up and down between two matchsticks. Illya realised he had made a tactile map. ‘This is the main lab complex with three labs side by side,’ he said, moving Illya’s finger again. ‘Some kind of canteen area here. Toilets. Storage areas to the side, and a big warehouse over here.’
The map of broken matchsticks was by no means perfect but it jogged Illya’s memory enough to allow him to bring a better version of the map into his own mind. He could feel the alleyway where the blinding spray had been released and follow his and Napoleon’s path to the fence beyond. He could tell that the alleyway stood between the third and smallest lab and the slightly larger second one, with the spray being sent from the wall of the third. The matchsticks were better than Napoleon describing the plan because they gave him exact angles and distances.
‘You think this is where they manufactured it?’ he asked Napoleon. ‘Make it here and set it up to come straight through the wall?’
‘It’s possible,’ Napoleon said musingly. ‘The files indicate the relevant chemists probably worked mostly in that lab. And what’s easier than to drill a hole through the wall right where the stuff’s produced. There are better places to channel us if they’d considered moving the stuff.’
Illya imagined that Napoleon was rubbing his chin as he considered, and he quashed a sudden spike of frustration and misery at the fact that he was working in this blind fog. It was ridiculous to be sent into a spiral of depression just because he couldn’t see his partner’s face, but he wanted to see it, to see anything.
‘Hey, are you okay, tovarisch?’ Napoleon asked, and Illya heard the softness in his voice, a different register from the one he used when they were discussing business.
Illya straightened his spine and pulled a kind of rictus smile onto his face. ‘I don’t have much choice but to be so, do I, Napoleon? Waverly doesn’t tolerate anything less than a hundred percent.’
Napoleon’s hand settled on his shoulder.
‘We don’t have to be here for the rest of the day, if you want to go home.’
‘And what can I do there?’ Illya asked, his voice coming close to despair. ‘Listen to records and drink?’
‘We can carry on discussing the situation in a less pressuring atmosphere,’ Napoleon said calmly, as if he were talking down a suicide.
‘Dr Peterson recommended I visit the local blind association for advice,’ Illya said darkly, remembering that particularly awkward and unpleasant part of the conversation. The idea of it made his skin crawl.
‘And that would make it real?’ Napoleon hazarded. ‘Would make it permanent? Illya, we’re working right now on it not being permanent.’
‘And if it is?’ Illya asked flatly, covering over the great gaping chasm of despair in his chest.
Napoleon seemed to have no answer to his question. The touch of his hand on Illya’s shoulder became a gentle grip as his fingers curled in, and his other hand gripped onto the other shoulder. Napoleon had come to his feet and was standing behind him, and he seemed very, very close, so that the heat of his body was radiating through his clothes and through Illya’s clothes into his body. And then he felt the touch of Napoleon’s lips against the top of his head, and he froze. Even his heart seemed to freeze, and Napoleon’s hands stilled on his shoulders too. Then the American seemed to come to life again and he slipped his arms over Illya’s shoulders, crossing them over so a palm sat flat on each side of his chest, and Napoleon said, ‘It’ll be all right, Illya.’
That moment of ice had passed, and Illya leant his head back against Napoleon’s belly and just allowed the closeness. He had felt so terribly alone, and now he felt a little less so. He lifted a hand to put it over Napoleon’s, feeling the heat shared between his palm and the back of Napoleon’s hand.
‘I promise, it’ll be all right,’ Napoleon repeated.
Illya had no answer, because he knew it was entirely possible that it would not be all right. If he gave prophecies of a dark future Napoleon would refute them, and Illya would know he was speaking from emotion, not rationality. There was no point in pursuing it.
‘Napoleon,’ he said, unable to stop himself from speaking entirely.
‘Come on,’ Napoleon said, slipping his hands to the sides of Illya’s shoulders and gently pulling him to his feet. ‘Home. It’s almost half past two and you’re on medical leave. Waverly can’t expect you to stay in here all day. You look exhausted.’
That was something that Illya could agree on. He certainly felt exhausted, and the rational side of him understood that he was under great mental stress, which could easily induce tiredness. But he also knew that Waverly was right. Being here was giving him purpose, purpose which would be conspicuously absent back in his apartment. They couldn’t carry U.N.C.L.E. papers out of the building, so any further work would have to be done from memory. If he had been suffering from any other infirmity he would have suggested walking back, but he couldn’t stand the thought of stumbling through the streets holding on to Napoleon’s arm, so he sighed and nodded and said, ‘Why don’t you call a cab?’
‘I’ll get a car from the pool,’ Napoleon told him. ‘I don’t want to keep getting cabs to and fro. Too obvious.’
He got a car from the pool, a huge pale blue Buick convertible that made him feel as if he were gliding along the streets in a boat. Illya was fond of nippy little sports cars, and Napoleon liked them too, but he did like a proper, big American car around him at times.
His lips still seemed to tingle from where he had bent and brushed them against Illya’s golden hair. He hadn’t been able to help himself, seeing his partner in so much mental pain that he had so little ability to alleviate. There had seemed nothing left but to press his lips against the source of the pain, and he had done so. Now he felt as if he had kissed the sun, his lips burning in response.
Illya seemed to have brushed off the touch, taken it as nothing more than brotherly sympathy. But now he had pressed his lips once against that silken hair he wanted to do it again and again. He wanted to take Illya in his arms and do more than just comfort him.
He glanced sideways at his partner. He was leaning back into the white leather and had his face tilted to the warmth of the sun, those dark black shades hiding his blue eyes. His right hand was loose on the top of the door, and his hair was being gently ruffled by the slight breeze as they crawled through the Manhattan streets. On impulse Solo took the road north until they hit the freeway, and then floored it as hard as he dared.
‘I thought we were going home?’ Illya asked curiously, his voice raised over the buffetting wind.
‘Thought you could do with an airing out,’ Napoleon replied, keeping his eyes on the road. He pressed his foot down a little more. After all, if they were stopped he could just flash his U.N.C.L.E. card and flutter his eyelashes.
Illya grunted, and Napoleon took that as consent. He knew better than to try to extract outright statements of joy from Illya while he was in this black mood, but he could also tell that he was enjoying the feeling of speed and the wind in his hair. He was glad he’d made this decision. He didn’t know what he would have done with Illya all afternoon and evening in his apartment.
As if by instinct he found himself making towards the Westchester lab, and once he realised that he didn’t see a reason to argue with himself, but he did baulk at the idea of springing it on his partner. He pulled over at the side of the road, and Illya seemed to come out of a daydream as the engine died.
‘What is it? Where are we?’ he asked slightly confusedly, turning his head to listen.
‘Look, Illya, I didn’t mean to come this way, but this road takes us right by those labs,’ Napoleon began. ‘What do you say we drop in on the place?’
Illya looked momentarily startled, but then he shrugged, ‘Since we’re here. Just don’t rely on me as backup.’
‘You have your gun?’ Napoleon asked him.
Illya patted his jacket. ‘I always have my gun, but you know I can’t shoot it. They’re only sleep darts, but still...’
‘You can point it at people and look menacing,’ Napoleon shrugged. ‘You’re excellent at menacing.’
That actually elicited a smile, and Napoleon smiled too in sheer gladness that he had managed to eke anything but resignation from his friend. He started the engine again and rolled away from the side of the road. Some five minutes later they were cruising past the wire fencing of the lab buildings. The place looked very deserted to Napoleon. There were no cars, no trucks, no guards on the gates and no signs of life.
‘Waverly said it was cleared out,’ he commented. ‘It looks that way. Do you want to stay in the car while I take a look around?’
‘That would probably be best,’ Illya replied dryly. ‘As I mentioned before, looking is not my strong point.’
‘All right. Well, keep that gun handy,’ Napoleon told him seriously. ‘I’ll see you in a bit.’
He watched while Illya pulled his gun from its holster, then raised his hand in a farewell which he realised belatedly was perfectly useless. He walked a few yards towards the main gates, then on a whim, looked round. At the same moment he saw his partner fumbling for the catch on the car door and Illya called out, ‘On second thoughts, Napoleon – ’
He jogged back to the car, feeling lightly relieved. He hadn’t liked the idea of leaving Illya alone. He didn’t like the idea of wandering around this place with a partner who couldn’t see, but he liked the idea of leaving him less.
‘Come on, then,’ was all he said when he reached the Russian. ‘Yeah, take my arm. Now, I can’t see anyone, no sign of life at all, but just be ready.’
‘I have entered hazardous situations before,’ Illya commented.
Napoleon glanced at him with pursed lips, but resisted comment. The pair walked in through the main gates, which were not even locked, then Napoleon paused to look around.
‘We’ve come in at the main entrance?’ Illya queried.
‘Uh-huh. And no one in sight.’
‘Well, then, Lab 3 is over there to the right, isn’t it?’ Illya asked, waving his arm in the general direction. ‘May as well start at the heart of the matter.’
Napoleon felt an itching of trouble down his spine and at the back of his neck, but perhaps that was just because this place seemed so eerie now it was deserted. The revealing light of day made it seem even more so, showing up the tattered fronts of the ageing buildings, the occasional piece of paper scudding over the bare ground, the weeds pushing up through cracks in the concrete.
‘Looks like they didn’t take much care of this place,’ he murmured. ‘It’s different in the light.’
‘The records showed it as occupied by their front, Wilson Pharmaceutical, for the past fifteen years,’ Illya commented.
‘Maybe the records have been doctored,’ Napoleon suggested. ‘In the dark you wouldn’t notice, but to me it looks more like the place has been abandoned for fifteen years. Either that, or their professional pride was appalling. Okay, this is Lab 3,’ he put in as they reached the door, which was flapping open on tired hinges. ‘Let’s go inside. Watch the step, won’t you?’
Illya sniffed sharply as they stepped through the door. ‘Damp,’ he commented.
‘Yeah, there’s black mould on that back wall and the ceiling tiles are peeling off,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘I can see the remains of their equipment over there by the back wall, just where they would have had to pipe it through to spray into the alley. Wait there. I’ll take a look.’ He moved away from Illya’s hand over to the lab bench. ‘There’s a hole in the wall where they ripped the pipe out,’ he said.
‘We should have brought a swab kit,’ Illya murmured.
‘This visit wasn’t exactly planned,’ Napoleon responded, glancing back as he heard Illya start to move. He was carefully walking across the room towards Napoleon’s voice, using the stick in his hand to help him. Napoleon swallowed on a hardness in his throat, forcing himself to wait for Illya to reach him. There was nothing in his way, although in the light of day he could see that the linoleum tiles were curling slightly away from the glue that held them to the floor.
‘Smell that?’ Illya asked as he reached the bench.
‘What?’ Napoleon asked. He grabbed Illya’s wrist as he reached out. ‘Better not start poking your fingers into things.’
‘It’s the same smell as the chemical that blinded me. I suppose I have a more intimate familiarity. It was in my nostrils for roughly twenty-four hours.’
Napoleon took an experimental sniff of the air. He thought he could smell the scent, lingering along with the smell of damp and other chemicals.
‘Well there’s nothing here to contain it. It must just be a residual smell.’ He pulled up a lab stool and sat on it, looking around the place with a feeling of aimlessness. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Illya was much more suited to reading the little clues left by scientists, since he spent enough time in the lab himself. Used to spend enough time, he corrected himself silently.
‘They couldn’t have worked here,’ Illya said, turning his head as if looking at the room around him. Napoleon assumed he was listening, possibly scenting the air. ‘No self-respecting scientist could have worked here for long. Not with the damp in the place, with the spores that must be filling the air. It’s ridiculous. Napoleon, they must have set this whole thing up.’
‘All of it?’ Napoleon asked incredulously.
‘Think about it, Napoleon. What did we really see? A few guards, some equipment in the half light. This place was supposed to have been run by them for fifteen years, but we only got wind of it two weeks ago? And what a rotten wind that was...’ he muttered darkly.
‘Then all of this,’ Napoleon said, waving his arm at the room at large, ‘all of this was just to trap you – you and me – and trial that gas? But why not just take us prisoner and do it that way? Why deliberately let you go? They could have caught us.’
Illya clenched his hands at his sides. ‘I don’t know. But I’ve had about as much as I can take of this place. Let’s go. I feel like I’m waiting for Koschei the Deathless to come and grab me...’
‘Koschei the Deathless?’ Napoleon echoed curiously.
‘Oh, Russian folklore,’ Illya replied with a wave of his hand. ‘Never mind.’
‘Well, ordinarily I wouldn’t give credence to the bogeyman,’ Napoleon said, putting a hand on his partner’s arm, ‘but this one could be armed with a laser-sighted rifle. You’re right. Let’s go.’
‘Here, let me take your arm like they showed me. It’s easier,’ Illya said, rearranging his grip.
Napoleon led him back through the room and out into the open air. As soon as they were outside he started to feel a little easier. Visibility was reasonably good out here, with clear ground all the way to the wire fences and beyond. Conceivably someone could be hiding in the low scrub beyond or in any of the buildings, but he didn’t see a reason why they would be. As he and Illya had already decided, if they’d wanted to they could have taken them both that night.
‘It’s clear?’ Illya asked, sounding uncharacteristically nervous.
Napoleon set his shoulders a little more solidly. Illya actually had reason for nervousness, since he couldn’t sweep the area visually. It was up to him to keep guard for them both.
‘It’s clear as far as I can tell,’ he nodded. ‘Let’s get back to the car.’
It wasn’t long before they were heading back down the narrow road that ran to the labs, and Illya had opened a Channel D communication to Agent Dancer to ask her if she and Slate had already looked around. They had, and their conclusions were similar to his and Napoleon’s. The place had been deserted for a long time and only briefly dressed for the set-up to infect their expected U.N.C.L.E. visitors.
‘But I don’t have an idea why they’d do that, Illya,’ Dancer said over the communicator. ‘Why let you go? Why not take you both and experiment on you in confinement?’
Napoleon saw Illya shudder. The idea was obviously infinitely worse to him than his present situation.
‘I don’t know,’ Illya replied, ‘but we’re working on finding out. Did you recover anything from the labs?’
‘A few swabs from the benches which only confirmed what we knew they’d been working on – the blinding spray. Nothing else but the leftovers from a few pastrami sandwiches and a spilled bottle of Coke. We found the tripwire, too, rigged up to something that’d obviously been yanked out of the wall when they cleared out.’
‘Humph,’ Illya grunted. ‘All right, thank you, April. What’ll you be working on next?’
‘We’re going to try to trace a few of the names Waverly gave us,’ she told him. ‘And I’d suggest you leave that to us, Illya. In your condition – ’
‘Yes, I know,’ Illya cut across rather abruptly. ‘Well, Napoleon and I are quitting for the day anyway. Report in if you find anything. Kuryakin out.’ Illya capped his pen communicator and pushed it back into his pocket, his lips pursed. ‘Tell me, Napoleon,’ he said after a moment of silence. ‘Why are we engaged in an investigation that already has two highly competent agents on it?’
Napoleon took a hand off the wheel to briefly pat Illya’s thigh. ‘Because the old man thinks you need to occupy yourself, and because while Slate and Dancer are highly competent, we’re a cut above.’
That made Illya smile a little. It was not conceit. It was simply true. There was a reason why he and Napoleon were U.N.C.L.E. New York’s top pairing. But then his smile flitted away.
‘Perhaps you should pair up with Slate and Dancer, Napoleon. I do not need ‘occupying.’’
Napoleon didn’t bother arguing. He swung onto the freeway and picked up speed, winging them back into the city, where he would have to try to think of something else to occupy Illya for the evening.
Illya found himself in the bathtub again, letting the warm water soothe around his naked body. He sank his head back into the water and let the length of his hair move like seaweed in the currents caused by his movements, and sighed.
He didn’t usually give up time to baths unless he had come back from a particularly damaging mission. There was something about a bath that really excised grime and soothed aching muscles and bruises in a way a shower just couldn’t. But he had no bruises and had been exposed to no grime. He was taking a bath because he had nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing with which to occupy his time.
He balled up the sponge in his hand and threw it hard against the opposite wall, trying to throw away the depression, and with it the frustration and anger which came hand in hand. The sponge hit with a splat, and something clattered and then smashed on the floor. A strong scent of liniment filled the room. Almost immediately there was a solicitous knock at the door, and without waiting for an answer Napoleon came in.
‘The liniment is not,’ Illya replied, carefully avoiding answering the question.
‘Uh – you stay right there. I’ll clear that up,’ Napoleon said rather tentatively.
When he came back and started clearing the mess with clinks of broken glass, something prompted Illya to say, ‘I am not going mad, Napoleon. There’s no reason for you to be nervous around me.’
Napoleon laughed softly and sat down on the closed toilet. ‘I wouldn’t blame you for being mad – angry-mad, I mean. I’m sure I’d be mad as a hornet.’ He was quiet a moment then asked, ‘How is it now?’
‘Am I still blind, do you mean?’ Illya asked, turning his head towards his partner. The blurred light in his vision altered as he moved but he could not make out so much as a vague shadow to locate Napoleon. ‘There is no improvement.’
He thought that if anything what he saw was a little dimmer than before, but there was no point in speculating on that until he met with Dr Peterson again and he could do proper tests.
He pulled on the chain of the bath plug with his toes, and felt it pop out of the hole. The water started swirling away.
‘Can you pass me my robe?’ he asked. It occurred to him that he was almost living in that robe while he was in his apartment, but maybe that didn’t matter. Napoleon didn’t seem to mind.
‘Yeah, here it is,’ Napoleon said, putting it to his outstretched hand. ‘Want me to get out of here?’
There was an unusual note of self-consciousness in Napoleon’s voice, but Illya brushed it aside.
‘Haven’t we seen each other in the nude a hundred times?’ he shrugged, standing up out of the bath and shrugging the robe straight onto his water-beaded body.
‘That’s true,’ Napoleon said, again with that awkward note. The American’s hands settled under Illya’s elbows as he stepped out of the bath, steadying him so he could not slip on the tiled floor. Ironically, the gesture caused Illya to misjudge the distance to the ground, and he stumbled a little, pitching forwards against Napoleon’s body as his foot skidded on the slick tiles.
‘Steady there,’ Napoleon murmured, his arms suddenly right around Illya’s narrow torso, holding him up. ‘Steady.’
His voice had become soft, melting. Illya was leaning against his chest, getting him wet, he was sure, because his hair was dripping, but Napoleon didn’t seem to mind. Illya felt Napoleon’s fingers stroke a swathe of his fringe back from his forehead, heard the splatter as he flicked the water from his hand. And then something soft and warm was touching his forehead. Napoleon’s lips were touching his forehead, pressing there, holding very still. Illya felt the freezing feeling again, remembering how Napoleon’s lips had touched the crown of his head earlier. And then Napoleon was muttering, ‘Oh, brother. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Illya. I’ll get out of here. I’ll – ’
And suddenly Illya was alone in the bathroom and Napoleon was gone. He stepped forward, reaching out, then gave an involuntary cry as something sliced into the bottom of his foot, bringing with it a hefty stinging sensation from the liniment that must have been all over the errant piece of glass. He hobbled to the bathroom door and grabbed the doorpost.
There was no answer, but he was sure the man was still in the apartment. Napoleon had honed the ability to stay absolutely still and silent over years of spy work, and Illya would have heard the door open and shut if he’d left. Perhaps he would have been able to smell his aftershave if he were close enough, but all he could smell was liniment and warm bath water.
‘Napoleon, I think I’m bleeding like a stuck pig here,’ he said impatiently. ‘Please – ’
Instantly there was movement. Napoleon was by his side, telling Illya to use his back to lean on while he bent over to carefully pull the shard of glass from the sole of his foot.
‘Now, come on, hobble over to the couch,’ Napoleon told him. ‘The water’s making it bleed more. We’ll get your foot up – that’s it,’ he said, elevating Illya’s foot with cushions as he sat down. He began to pat the foot dry with a bunched up towel while Illya tried not to wince at the sharp singing sensation.
‘It’s not too deep,’ Napoleon told him. ‘You have a first aid kit?’
‘Kitchen cabinet above the bread bin,’ Illya replied.
‘Just a moment.’
Napoleon was gone for less than a minute, and then he was putting cream and then something soft over the cut, and sticking a band aid firmly over the top.
‘Keep it elevated for a while, until we can be sure it’s stopped bleeding,’ Napoleon said.
‘Napoleon,’ Illya said softly.
‘I must have missed a bit of glass. I’m sorry, Illya.’
‘I should go check there isn’t anything more on the floor in there – ’
Napoleon became so quiet that Illya heard him swallow. He thought the American was sitting on the coffee table. He wished he could see his face.
‘You’ve kissed me twice today,’ Illya said quietly.
‘Yeah, I, er – Gee, Illya, I don’t know what came over me,’ he began to bluster. ‘It’s been a strange few days, neither of us have gotten much sleep – ’
‘Speak for yourself,’ Illya said softly.
He could still feel Napoleon’s lips on his forehead, as firmly as if they were still pressed there. It felt right. It felt good. He reached out a hand and waited until Napoleon’s fingertips touched his, at first tentative, and then catching hold, pulling into a proper clasp, palm to palm, fingers locked. Illya swallowed, balling up the churning nerves in his stomach and forcing them away.
‘Kiss me again, Napoleon,’ he said, touching his fingers to his forehead. ‘Right here.’
He could hear Napoleon’s breathing. He took in one deep breath, then another. And then there were those lips again, pressing softly against the drying skin of his forehead. Illya lifted a hand, felt forwards until his fingertips touched Napoleon’s neck, stroked into the short hair at the back of his head. He tilted his own head up, closing his eyes against the confusing blur, lifting his lips towards Napoleon’s and hoping that he would have the courage to meet them. And he did. How many times softer Napoleon’s lips felt against his own than they did on his forehead. It was like touching warm silk.
He understood why women fell at his virile partner’s feet. Napoleon was an excellent kisser. He pressed firmly but not too hard, moving his lips gently, not ravenously. And as Illya’s lips parted, Napoleon’s tongue found its way slickly into his mouth, touching over his teeth, touching Illya’s own tongue with firm gentleness. Illya felt as if he were falling into Napoleon’s body, as if they were becoming one. And then, too soon, Napoleon was drawing back and they were sitting, foreheads touching, their breathing mingling between them.
Illya kept his hand on the back of Napoleon’s neck, feeling the warmth and pulse of his blood, wanting to stay like that with his eyes closed for a long, long time. But it was Illya who moved first, suddenly becoming self-conscious and drawing back.
‘Well,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ Napoleon replied, equally incoherent.
‘Have you – er – ever done that before? With a man?’
‘Some,’ Napoleon replied in a non-committal way, and Illya tried to interpret that single word.
‘Some?’ he asked. It was maddening not being able to read his partner’s face. ‘With some men? Or you have done it, in your American dialect, some? You have done it – a bit?’
Napoleon laughed softly and put his hand over Illya’s. ‘You are very scientific, my Russian friend. I have done it a bit, with some men. Not a lot, not often, but some. Have you – er – ?’
Illya felt his face flush. He had long been conditioned to keep any thoughts like this very, very close to his chest.
‘Once,’ he said. ‘Once, in Cambridge.’
He recalled that short, that briefest of encounters. There was a fellow student in his digs, a fellow student who was quite obviously homosexual. Illya had never considered himself to be homosexual. If anything he allowed himself to consider romance so little he almost thought himself asexual, but he had known from an early age that he was just as capable of being attracted to men as to the female form, and Philip had been possessed of the kind of body and mind that attracted him deeply. And there had been that one instance, when he was going down the narrow stairs as Philip had been going up. They had been forced to turn sideways to slip past one another and Illya’s extra step had put him on a level with the taller Englishman. And Philip had slipped his hand into Illya’s over-long hair and ruffled his fingers through it, and then they had kissed.
He had blushed then too. He could remember the absolute heat that had flooded his whole body, the sweat that had stained his fresh shirt. Philip had asked him if he wanted to go to the jazz club that evening and Illya had stammered some kind of negative reply, and fled. It took him a long time to come to terms with that moment on the stairs. In England it was almost acceptable, but in his homeland he would have risked imprisonment, hard labour, or hospitalisation in an insane asylum.
He had not done anything so overt as changing his accommodation or calling Philip out or speaking to him frankly on the subject. They had both simply acted as if the encounter had been erased from their minds, continued as friends and house mates, and had gone their separate ways when Philip completed his PhD, leaving Illya with two more years to complete his own.
A lot had changed since then. For one, he was older. Secondly he felt a lot more secure. Living in New York and travelling the world for U.N.C.L.E. had helped him to accept the wild rainbow that was human sexuality and to understand that the U.S. was far more accepting of it than some other nations, including his homeland. He no longer felt that he was under the outstretched hand of Mother Russia; no longer feared that a momentary infraction of unspoken moral rules would have him plucked back.
‘Once?’ Napoleon asked, pulling him back to the present, in his apartment, where everything had changed so much.
‘Once,’ Illya nodded. His tone indicated that he was not about to go into details.
‘Illya, have you – uh – ’
Illya waited with a growing amusement that was supplanting his feeling of unease at these developments. It was not often that the sexually promiscuous – more sexually promiscuous than he had previously realised – American was at a loss for words, and he quite enjoyed it when he was.
‘Have I what?’ he asked eventually, inserting a little faux impatience into his tone.
‘Have you ever fucked a man?’ Napoleon asked in a rush.
He felt that irritating flush of embarrassment colour his face again. Suddenly his mind was racing, not back towards thoughts of his previous sexual experience, but forwards to what Napoleon was almost hinting might be in the future. He opened his mouth, choked a little on an in-breath that contained saliva, and waited while Napoleon beat him on the back with the palm of his hand.
‘Er – no, Napoleon,’ he said once he had regained his voice. ‘No, I have never – fucked – a man. Have – er – ’
‘Have I?’ Napoleon asked softly.
He was still sitting on the coffee table, and Illya wished he were on the couch beside him. But Illya was taking up the length of the couch by lying on it and the only place for Napoleon would be under him with his head in the American’s lap. He almost wished it were. If he were just holding Napoleon’s hands he might be able to read him a little better. He couldn’t bring himself to reach out.
‘Have you?’ Illya persisted. ‘Have you ever made love to a man?’
Napoleon laughed suddenly, quietly. ‘No, Illya, I have never made love to a man. I’ve reserved that for the women in my life. But I have fucked one. Some.’
That confession momentarily took Illya’s breath again, but then he asked archly, ‘You have fucked some men, or you have fucked one man some?’
‘Oh good lord...’
Yes, this was fun, Illya decided. Napoleon was squirming. He wished he could see his face, although perhaps if he could he would have been forced to look away because of his own embarrassment. He felt like a twelve year old talking about girls with friends.
‘You have certainly not fucked the good Lord,’ Illya pointed out, and at that Napoleon was overtaken with laughter that was edged with a certain amount of hysteria.
‘I – er – I never expected to be having this conversation with you, Illya,’ he confessed finally, when he had his voice back. ‘I have done both. I have fucked some men, and I have fucked one man some. Only one, when I was in Korea.’
At that Illya held his breath. He had hardly ever heard Napoleon speak of Korea.
‘I didn’t like to take advantage of the local women the way some men did,’ Napoleon added softly.
‘How very chivalrous,’ Illya said, lifting his eyebrows high.
He sat up, touching his fingers tentatively to his bandaged foot, trying to gauge if the blood were coming through the band aid and how painful the cut was. It seemed all right, so he swivelled to lay his feet on the floor. He winced a little, but he could put pressure on it without too much pain.
Napoleon was still sitting on the coffee table, although now there was plenty of room for him on the couch.
‘So,’ Illya said after a brief silence. ‘Where does that leave us?’
Napoleon sighed, and Illya waited. He wondered if the same thoughts were running through Napoleon’s head. We’re good friends, we’re partners, would this spoil it, how can we manage this, what would Waverly say?
After the silence had gone on for too long Illya got to his feet and very deliberately walked away into the kitchen. The matches were right by the stove, and he ran his hands over the knobs on the front of the hob until he was oriented. Then he turned the gas on and struck a match, turning the knob until the sound of the flame was right. He found the kettle on one of the unlit burners, and filled it with water, then carefully set it on the lit ring.
The water in the kettle was just starting to hum when Napoleon entered the kitchen and padded silently across the room to stand behind the Russian. Illya felt both his hands come to rest gently on his shoulders, and he turned around at Napoleon’s gentle pressure.
‘You shouldn’t have done that alone,’ Napoleon commented.
‘It is my kettle and my stove and I did it perfectly well,’ Illya countered. ‘I even threw the match in the sink where it can do no harm.’
He could feel the softness and introspection in Napoleon’s mood. And after a moment he felt the touch of Napoleon’s lips again, gently and softly against his own. It was a chaste, close-mouthed kiss.
‘That’s where it leaves us,’ the American said quietly, brushing Illya’s drying fringe back from his face again, and letting his finger trace down his cheek. ‘I would like to do more than this.’
‘And fuck?’ Illya asked directly.
Napoleon laughed quietly. ‘I have never felt much of an emotional attraction to the men I’ve treated to that particular dance. With you I’d rather make love.’
The kettle suddenly started to whistle, and Illya turned to jerk it off the lit ring, shaking his hand as the steam imparted a sudden burn. He made a mental note to remember next time how the kettle was oriented, so as not to pass his hand over the spout. He reached out towards the place on the shelf where he always kept his tin of coffee, and floundered.
‘Sorry, I didn’t put it away last time,’ Napoleon admitted. He passed the tin to Illya before asking, ‘Why don’t you let me?’
‘Is the coffee pot where it belongs?’ Illya asked, opening the cupboard above the shelf where the coffee was supposed to be. To his surprise the pot was right where he expected it to be, and he drew it out and carefully measured coffee grounds into it. He put the kettle back on the lit ring for a minute, took it off just before it boiled, and then very carefully poured the water onto the grounds, keeping the spout pressed against the rim of the pot and listening to judge how full the pot was.
‘That’s it,’ Napoleon said, just as Illya was ready to stop pouring.
‘Next time I will fill the pot with cold water first and then pour the measured amount into the kettle,’ Illya decided, placing the lid on the coffee pot.
‘Good plan. You did well, though. If only I’d put the tin where it belonged there wouldn’t have been a hitch.’
‘Yes, I can make coffee,’ Illya said with a small, rather sardonic smile. ‘Is there no end to the miracles I can perform?’
Napoleon’s arms enfolded him, and he had to admit that he was very grateful for the new found closeness that allowed Napoleon to do so and allowed him to reciprocate by leaning back into the warmth and support of his body.
‘So, you want to make love to me?’ he asked, tasting the words in his mouth and trying to apply them to thought of his and Napoleon’s very masculine bodies coming together. ‘Not to fuck me.’
‘I would like to do both,’ Napoleon whispered in his ear, his breath billowing hot against Illya’s skin. ‘I would love to do both.’
Illya stirred himself from Napoleon’s arms, wondering at this sudden and unprecedented change which for this moment seemed even bigger than the shock of finding himself blind. He wasn’t sure how long he had stood resting against him, just letting him hold him, but it had been immensely comforting.
‘Coffee must be ready,’ he murmured.
‘Uh – yeah, I guess it must be,’ Napoleon agreed. ‘You get some cups. I’ll bring the pot.’
They settled on the couch, and Illya sat rather nervously, feeling as if he were on a first date with someone that he cared about. He had gone out on a handful of first dates, nothing compared to the legions Napoleon had notched on the bed head, but the conspicuously lacking factor had always been his feelings for the other person. There was a world of difference between light fun with a woman he barely knew, and the deep, trusting relationship that he had with his partner.
‘You can relax,’ Napoleon said after a while, obviously noticing Illya’s nerves. ‘I’m not going to jump you.’
Illya swallowed. ‘I have never done – this – before.’
‘Well, that makes two of us,’ Napoleon said softly.
‘I thought you said – ’ Illya began indignantly.
‘I said I had kissed men, and that I had fucked men,’ Napoleon corrected him. ‘But this – no.’
‘Then – what is this?’ Illya wondered.
‘This is my best friend and my partner,’ Napoleon said, ever so softly. ‘The closest was the guy I told you about in Korea, but I knew him for six months, and in the seventh month he was blown apart by a tripwire bomb. We’d only been – well, fucking, for want of a more highbrow term – for a month. That doesn’t – That doesn’t compare to this.’
Illya heard the tightness in his friend’s voice, and reached out a hand towards him. Napoleon caught it and began a soft, gentle circle of his fingertips over the back of Illya’s hand.
‘Illya, I have known and trusted you almost from the moment I met you,’ Napoleon began. ‘I trusted you even before we were friends – and we became friends as soon as I got through that porcupine exterior.’
Illya smiled a little. It felt easier that he couldn’t see Napoleon’s face. Maybe it helped Napoleon too.
‘I understand that you’re in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment,’ Napoleon continued, and Illya felt some of those porcupine quills rise. ‘No, you are,’ the American insisted. ‘I’m not talking physically. Emotionally you’re in a hole. I don’t want to take advantage of that.’
‘Napoleon, please do me the favour of trusting me to shepherd my own emotions,’ Illya said rather curtly.
‘All right. All right. I will assume that you can handle your own feelings, and that I can handle mine,’ Napoleon conceded. His fingers kept on doing their slow, stroking dance on the back of Illya’s hand. ‘But to get back to the point, I am not going to jump on you and have you on this couch.’
‘I would hope not,’ Illya said wryly. ‘It is far too narrow.’
‘That’s not what I do to people I care about,’ Napoleon continued as if Illya hadn’t spoken.
‘So when do I begin to be nervous?’ Illya asked. ‘When you are pouring me a glass of red wine and making me your special pasta sauce and telling me there are no cabs to be had out there?’
‘At this rate I won’t give you any chance to be nervous,’ Napoleon said in rather a hurt tone.
Illya held up his free hand. ‘All right. My nervousness is making me – prickly, would you call it? Shall we just drink our coffee and let nature take its course?’
Napoleon laughed, and Illya wondered if that had been a poor choice of words. Napoleon as a force of nature was often unstoppable.
‘Perhaps we could – could do more of that kissing?’ the Russian wondered. ‘It was very pleasant.’
Napoleon’s hand came to sit snugly at the back of Illya’s neck, drawing him forward a little. He closed his eyes and waited until those silk lips touched his again. But this time Napoleon was nowhere near as soft and controlled as he had been. Instead he felt a hunger that had either not been there before, or that Napoleon had kept very well controlled. He responded with his own kind of desperation, putting all of his pent up energy and emotion into the kiss, plunging his tongue into Napoleon’s mouth and tasting his sweet saliva. It was easy to forget everything else with no sight to distract him, and he let his hands slip over Napoleon’s body, feeling the contours of his muscles through the thin fabric of his shirt, exploring him in a way he never had before. Napoleon was solid as a side of beef, and how he loved the feel of him beneath his hands.
‘Now – now, if we carry on like this there will be fucking,’ Napoleon cautioned, pulling away at last.
Illya bit his lip into his mouth, remembering he was wearing only a bathrobe, and wondering if Napoleon had noticed the tenting of the material at his groin. Suddenly fucking seemed like a splendid idea, but he realised that while his hands had explored Napoleon’s torso fully, Napoleon had been remarkably restrained.
‘Are you having second thoughts?’ he asked, trying to keep his voice causal, keeping his very real worry out of his tone.
‘I’m not having any such thing,’ Napoleon promised, ‘but I told you, I don’t want to fuck you. If – when – it happens I will make love to you, Mr Kuryakin. I will not treat you like a cheap trick I picked up in a bar. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Illya nodded, and was rewarded with the touch of Napoleon’s lips on his forehead again.
‘Now, I will pour the coffee, and we will take things from there.’
It made Illya smile to think of Napoleon being so chaste and gentlemanly with him, but all the same, there was the slowly subsiding hardness beneath the heavy cloth of his bathrobe that wished he could be treated like a cheap trick Napoleon had picked up in a bar. He started to wonder what those men had been like, then very quickly stopped himself. No good would come of that.
‘Here’s your coffee,’ Napoleon said, touching the cup to his fingers. ‘And when we’ve drunk this I will put a record on the player and you will sit back and rest, and I will see about fixing you some of that special pasta sauce you mentioned, with a big plate of spaghetti and a bottle of red wine besides.’
Illya widened his eyes. ‘If I’m getting that special sauce then will I be expected to – how do you say it? – put out?’
Napoleon laughed. ‘Now, that was your insinuation, not mine. You are a very dirty minded Russian. You might have to get back in that bath.’
Illya groaned comically. ‘Oh, no, I will turn into a prune, and you do not want to share dinner with a prune.’
‘Not a prune, nor a prude,’ Napoleon replied smoothly. ‘The only person I want to share dinner with is you.’
Dinner over, Napoleon insisted on introducing Illya to more swing music and while gritting his teeth and putting up with it Illya was discovering that he actually quite liked it. Enough wine had been drunk that he felt pleasantly relaxed, the wine had been tempered with coffee, and now the sobering effects of the coffee were being subtly eroded by a liberal application of brandy. Without the brandy Illya thought he would have been a bundle of nerves. With it, he merely felt a slight apprehension that was being gradually dulled as his inhibitions softened.
‘I would pay for that pasta sauce,’ he was saying to Napoleon. ‘If you made up a batch I could freeze it in portions. I would pay you. I am being serious.’
Napoleon was close enough that Illya’s head was resting on his shoulder and Napoleon’s arm was soft around him.
‘You don’t need to freeze it in portions,’ Napoleon told him. ‘Not when I’m here to make it for you.’
‘But when you’re not,’ Illya said. ‘When you’re back on duty and I’m – ’
‘Hey.’ Napoleon’s arm tightened and shook him a little. ‘When I’m back on duty you’ll be back on duty. We’re going to find a way to beat this.’
‘While I admire your optimism,’ Illya began.
‘Optimism nothing. It’s straight common sense. You don’t develop something like that without also developing an antidote.’
‘I hope to god you’re right.’
Illya was by no means a religious man, but he had found himself praying recently, and hoping against all rationality that there was someone listening at the other end.
‘Now, shush,’ Napoleon told him. ‘Listen. Listen to that. Can you beat Dean Martin’s voice?’
Illya thought he could beat it with a number of things, but he stayed silent and listened, relishing the warmth and the quiet and the security of his position. Napoleon’s fingers started to gently stroke the hair at the side of his head, and he smiled, enjoying the touch.
‘I really never have done this,’ Napoleon commented. ‘It’s nice, you know. It’s a world away from Korea, and it’s a world away from anything else I’ve known.’
‘Oh, you’ve done this with women, I’m sure,’ Illya commented, then waited rather anxiously for the reply.
‘Y-es,’ Napoleon said uncertainly, ‘but never quite like this. I’m usually thinking about how to palm them off next morning.’
Illya raised his head a little. ‘And me?’
‘I don’t want to palm you off, ever,’ Napoleon said softly, gently pressing Illya’s head back against his shoulder. ‘Sometimes you are a very foolish Russian.’
‘I have never had this,’ Illya confessed. ‘I have never had a friendship turn into something – like this.’
‘Like this?’ Napoleon asked, stroking his fingers through Illya’s over-long hair again. ‘Like this?’ and he touched his lips to Illya’s cheek.
Illya turned his head and caught Napoleon’s mouth with his own, and then they were kissing, losing themselves again, and Napoleon was gently unbuttoning the first few buttons of Illya’s shirt and slipping his hand to the bath-soft skin beneath. Illya arched his spine under the touch, feeling like a cat basking before a log fire. Napoleon was like a fire, hot, comforting, making him melt. Napoleon was softly teasing back the shirt from his shoulders and then his mouth was there on his chest, hot over his nipple, teasing it into a peak with his tongue and pulling it into his mouth.
‘You needn’t have bothered to get dressed after all,’ Napoleon told him with a laugh in his voice, before moving to the other nipple and giving it just the same attention.
Illya reached out to feel Napoleon’s casual v-necked jumper, murmuring, ‘I’m at a disadvantage. You have no buttons.’
Napoleon’s mouth stilled on him and he pulled back. A rustle of fabric, and something dropped on the floor.
‘There. Equals,’ he said with a smile in his voice, and Illya felt out and touched his shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. He moved both hands down the front, slipping each button out of its hole, until he could slip Napoleon’s shirt off and run his fingers over his warm, solid chest.
‘Is this really you?’ he asked in wonder, feeling Napoleon’s heart beat through its narrow sheath of bone and flesh under his palm.
‘Never more so than now,’ Napoleon replied in a low voice that was resonant with pleasure.
They were kissing again, hands slipping over backs, stroking necks, ruffling into hair, and Illya found it hard to tell where he stopped and Napoleon began. He stroked his fingertips down Napoleon’s chest and found the waistband of his trousers, and left them there in an unspoken question. Napoleon’s hands came down to cover his, dislodging the button and moving Illya’s fingers to the zip. Illya slipped his hand down over the fabric first and felt a hardness there straining to be released. Napoleon sighed at his touch, so Illya slipped the zip down and helped Napoleon to shuck off the confining fabric. Then, with tentative fingers, he stroked across the flat, warm belly into the thicker hair beneath, almost too nervous to go further, to touch before he could see.
‘Please,’ Napoleon whispered. ‘This is for you, you know.’
He felt out and finally touched that hot, rigid hardness, skimming his finger along the silken skin towards the tip, and Napoleon gasped aloud. His own cock was straining at his clothing now, but he ignored its urging and closed his hand around Napoleon’s length to stroke hard, then loosened his grip again and touched lightly, trying to decipher every inch with his fingertips. He moved his fingers lower, feeling the soft, ridged skin of his balls, cool under his fingers. It did not seem real that this was Napoleon that he was touching.
‘Let’s – er – let’s take this into the other room,’ Napoleon said breathlessly.
‘Huh?’ Illya asked, for a moment bewildered as the American’s voice broke into his intense exploration.
‘The bedroom,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘Come on.’
Napoleon’s hand hooked under his elbow as he stood, and Illya flicked open the button on his own trousers, shoving them down as he walked. By the time they reached his bedroom he was naked, and Napoleon piled him onto the crisp cotton sheets of the single bed, pushing the blankets aside and applying himself to touching Illya’s body with hands that seemed to be everywhere at once. They lay together, crowded on the narrow bed, and Illya gasped as the hardness of Napoleon’s cock pressed against his own.
‘Bohze moi, you feel amazing,’ he growled, running his fingers down Napoleon’s spine and then cupping the muscular buttocks that seemed to fit perfectly in each hand. Napoleon bucked, grinding his cock against Illya’s, his mouth against Illya’s mouth and his tongue seeking his tongue. And then Napoleon’s hand came around both straining shafts, gripping them together, pressing Illya’s heat into his own. He started to move, thrusting, and Illya met his movement, forcing his erection through Napoleon’s firm grip until they had set up a steady rhythm. Illya gripped his hand over Napoleon’s, helping him stroke, increasing the pressure, until he could feel Napoleon becoming ragged and uncontrolled, jerking harder, grunting a little with each thrust, and the fire of his own imminent orgasm was licking at the corners of his mind and body. And then Napoleon stilled, only his cock jerking as slick fluid erupted between their bellies, and a moment later Illya felt his own explosion, whiting out his consciousness of his surroundings in a glow of pleasure.
Illya lay still, eyes closed, his head against Napoleon’s shoulder and one arm about his back. Gradually the world reformed and he grew aware of the stickiness between them, of Napoleon’s breathing and the thump of his heartbeat. He grew aware again as he opened his eyes of the dim blur in which he lived, and something broke inside him. He leant his head back against Napoleon’s body and tried to hold back the sobs.
‘Hey,’ Napoleon said as he realised what was happening. ‘Hey. I wasn’t that bad – was I?’
Illya bit his lip into his mouth and then released it. ‘Napoleon, you have an ego the size of the Winter Palace,’ he said, fighting to keep his voice steady.
Napoleon’s finger traced tears off his face. ‘You don’t have to hide these from me,’ he whispered. ‘It’s all right. You’re going through hell. God knows, sex can act as a catalyst sometimes. Don’t I know it?’
He wrapped both arms around the Russian and held him tightly against the length of his body, heedless of their mingled seed that was still sticky between them. Illya pushed his face against Napoleon’s chest and let himself cry out his despair, his frustration, his fear for the future.
Later Napoleon uncurled from him long enough to fetch a warm, damp cloth and come back to gently clean the skin of his stomach and chest. Then he climbed back into the bed and wrapped himself around Illya’s body until the Russian finally slipped into an exhausted sleep.
Illya was sitting in the infirmary in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters again, submitting to another examination at the hands of Dr Peterson. He and Napoleon had spent the intervening day without leaving his apartment once, and he had not wanted to leave it for this examination, knowing that nothing productive could come of it. Every time he came in to HQ he was just reminded again of how much he had lost, and furthermore he was exposed to the sympathy and pity of those on whom he looked as his former colleagues. He could not imagine ever coming back here to work, although people kept trying to assure him that with some simple adaptive techniques he could still be useful in the organisation.
He wanted to be useful as a field agent. That was all he had ever wanted. Even most lab work was beyond him now, and he did not relish the idea of becoming someone who worked only in the theoretical, sitting behind a desk in darkness while Napoleon and Slate and all the other field agents were sent out into the world. Besides, who would Napoleon pair with now? It wasn’t safe for him to work entirely alone, even if Solo insisted he could. Every agent needed backup.
‘Mr Kuryakin,’ Peterson was saying.
‘Oh – I’m terribly sorry,’ he replied, realising he had drifted off into his own world. He was sitting in the chair in the examination room, and Peterson’s bright pencil light was no longer in front of his eyes. ‘What was that?’
‘I was saying you have a reduced perception of light on the readings two days ago,’ Peterson said, his voice brittle. ‘Have you noticed this yourself?’
‘I – er – it’s hard to tell,’ Illya replied, disconcerted by that fact. ‘The light levels are always changing out in the real world.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose they are,’ Peterson muttered. ‘What about in yourself, Mr Kuryakin? How are you coping?’
Illya didn’t know what to say. Badly might have been one response, but he didn’t feel inclined to discuss his emotional state with this man. He had spent most of yesterday in a funk, and at one point, in his anger, he had smashed half of the crockery on his draining board. Napoleon had been the only one privy to that scene, and, bless him, had simply held his partner until the screaming anger had faded away, and held him again as tears followed the storm. Then he had tidied up the kitchen and popped out briefly to the local homeware store to replace the broken items. Illya had not been proud of himself yesterday.
‘I’m managing,’ was all Illya replied to Peterson, through tight lips.
‘Well, I would suggest you see a counsellor, and I would also strongly suggest you consider applying for residency – temporary, of course – at a school for the blind,’ Peterson said. ‘You could learn a lot of things and get your hands on a lot of devices that would make life considerably easier.’
Illya felt his heart skip, and he tightened his hands on the arms of his chair. A school for the blind suggested a terrible permanency in his condition. He couldn’t bear to admit to that.
‘I will – think about it,’ he said finally, when he thought he could answer in a steady voice.
‘That’s all I can do for you today, Mr Kuryakin,’ Peterson told him. ‘I’ll see you again in two days.’
‘Must you?’ Illya asked wearily, slipping the dark glasses he was growing accustomed to wearing almost permanently back onto his face. ‘You’ve already admitted there’s nothing you can do.’
‘Mr Waverly wants you closely monitored,’ Peterson insisted as Illya got to his feet. ‘Besides, there is another test I want to run. Nothing as onerous as it sounds, but I want to use a needle to draw off a little of the vitreous humour within one eye, so that I can send it for testing.’
Illya tensed at that, a squeamish feeling worming through the pit of his stomach.
‘You want to insert a needle in my eye?’ he asked.
‘Really, it’s nothing to worry about. A little local anaesthetic, and you won’t feel a thing. It’s necessary, Mr Kuryakin. It might give us a way to fight this thing.’
Illya took in a breath, and nodded. Despite the horror he felt at the idea of the procedure, he would undergo it if it offered him hope.
‘All right,’ he nodded. ‘Next time.’
‘Good, good,’ Peterson said in a warm, reassuring voice. ‘Now, I’ll take you back to your companion.’
The doctor touched the sides of Illya’s jacket as if to straighten them, and Illya stiffened as he felt the man slip something into his inside pocket. Years of experience had taught him not to react to such covert moves. Although the doctor couldn’t possibly be doing anything covert, instinctively Illya acted as if nothing had occurred. He just took the doctor’s offered arm and followed him out of the examination room to where Solo was waiting.
‘Want to go home?’ Napoleon asked as soon as they were alone. He sounded a little nervous, as perhaps he had a right to be after Illya’s emotional displays of the day before.
‘Let’s go to our office first,’ Illya said. He could feel the stiffness of a folded piece of paper against his chest.
‘I – don’t know,’ Illya admitted. ‘Just wait until we’re in the office.’
‘Illya, did he say something bad about your eyesight?’ Napoleon pressured him anxiously, and Illya patted a hand on his arm.
‘Please, Napoleon. In private.’
They walked the half-empty corridors, stepped into the elevator, and then Napoleon guided Illya carefully into the office. Once inside, Illya let go of his arm.
‘No, let me make it to my chair,’ he said. ‘I know the office well enough.’
He sat down in his chair and drew the piece of paper out of his pocket, running his fingers over it. He had wondered if it were a leaflet of some kind, but it felt more like a folded scrap of note paper. Silently he handed it to Napoleon. Napoleon whistled softly through his teeth.
‘What is it?’ Illya asked impatiently.
Napoleon cleared his throat. ‘Mr Kuryakin. They have my wife and they have me bugged. I have to report back all my findings to them and administer certain tests of their devising. I am ashamed, but they have my wife.’
Napoleon stopped reading, and Illya heard the sound of him folding the paper between his fingers.
‘That’s it?’ he asked, immensely frustrated that he couldn’t look at the paper himself. ‘No more?’
‘That’s it,’ Napoleon said in a kind of verbal shrug. ‘Maybe he didn’t have time for more. Maybe he’s afraid he’s being watched too.’
‘Maybe he is being watched.’ His fingers itched to take the paper, although he knew he would gain nothing from it. ‘So – they have my wife. Thrush?’
‘And I am – a guinea pig?’ His skin crawled at the idea. ‘But why not just capture me at the start?’
‘Cooperation,’ Napoleon said dryly. ‘Would you cooperate with their examinations if you were in a Thrush cell?’
‘I’d rip their heads from their bodies,’ Illya said darkly. ‘But you’re right. Half the tests Peterson runs on me rely on my answers to his questions about how much I can see. They couldn’t be certain of that with an unwilling patient. What can you get from the paper, Napoleon? Any clues?’
‘It’s a standard prescription slip,’ Napoleon told him. ‘Written in blue ink, probably a fountain pen. Nothing that tells us anything new. Unless he’d been lifting Thrush stationary I don’t see how it could.’
‘Hmm...’ Illya rubbed his finger over his lip, then pushed himself to his feet. ‘Well then, I suppose we should make a visit to Mr Waverly.’
He stood for a moment, waiting, listening to Napoleon pushing back his chair and standing too.
‘I – er – will need your help,’ he ventured after a moment.
‘Yeah, sorry, I was just looking over a document on my desk,’ Napoleon told him, and an awkwardness settled between them. Illya hated to ask for help and he knew that Napoleon felt awkward in giving it. He silently took his partner’s arm as he came to him, and followed him out of the room.
‘Ah, Mr Kuryakin, Mr Solo,’ Waverly said as they entered his office. ‘Yes, I’ve got a few minutes. Take a seat.’
Napoleon glanced at Illya and then took him over to the chairs about the large revolving table that sat at the centre of Waverly’s room. Waverly caught his eye as Illya sat, and Napoleon shrugged in response to their superior’s unspoken query, choosing to remain standing instead of taking the invited chair. However Illya was doing, it was far too complex to put into a single silent look. Waverly could certainly pick up a certain amount of it himself. Illya looked a little paler than usual and there was the slight discolouration from bad sleep under his eyes. He had cut himself shaving again, and there was a downcast look to him generally. Perhaps it was nothing a stranger would pick up, but Waverly knew Illya and he knew his business, a large part of which was centred around correctly reading people.
‘How are you, Mr Kuryakin?’ Waverly asked simply.
‘Fine, sir,’ was all Illya replied. He was running his fingertips over the edge of the tabletop in a slightly nervous gesture.
‘Sir, Illya’s Dr Peterson – the eye specialist, you know,’ Napoleon began, dipping into his breast pocket for the folded prescription slip.
‘He passed me a note,’ Illya said. He was listening acutely.
Waverly took the paper and unfolded it. It only took him a moment to read it, then he looked up from under his bushy eyebrows and fixed Napoleon with a hard gaze.
‘Well, well, well,’ he murmured. ‘They are devils, aren’t they?’
‘I – beg your pardon, sir?’ Illya asked, lifting his head.
‘Thrush, Mr Kuryakin. Devious sorts.’ Waverly made a noise of exasperation. ‘Mr Kuryakin, must you wear those sunglasses indoors? It’s really not the done thing, you know.’
Illya touched his hand briefly to the glasses but he didn’t remove them. Napoleon shot Waverly a stricken look, and he shook his head, silently tutting.
‘Well, I suppose I can let it pass in the circumstances, although there’s really no reason for you to cover your eyes up.’
‘I prefer it,’ Illya said darkly, and Waverly shook his head again.
‘So. Dr Peterson’s wife is being held hostage, is she? I’ll have to get a team on it. Oh no, not you, Mr Solo,’ he said at Napoleon’s unconscious movement. ‘I don’t want to send you out without a partner and your duty is with Mr Kuryakin at present. Spend time on it in the office if you like but someone else can do the legwork.’
Napoleon glanced at Illya. His fingers were working on the edge of the table still, as if he were trying to elicit a genie from the unresponsive material.
‘Sir, will you continue to let Dr Peterson see me?’ the Russian asked after a moment. ‘He wants to run further tests...’
Waverly rubbed his finger across his lip. ‘Well, I think until the unfortunate spouse has been recovered we ought to keep the status quo, don’t you, Mr Kuryakin?’
‘I suppose we should,’ Illya nodded, although he looked not at all happy about the idea.
Waverly wandered round and plucked the lid off his humidor and started to absently pack tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. ‘Has the good doctor been able to offer any constructive insights?’
Illya shook his head, listening keenly to what his superior was doing. ‘He just runs his tests – tests Thrush had demanded, no doubt.’
‘Well, I want a full outline of those tests, Mr Kuryakin, to be passed on to our chief physician here. It could be he could glean something from them. See that you do that.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Illya nodded. Napoleon noticed his rather wan tone and moved closer to his partner so that he was able to very discreetly touch his hand to the back of his shoulder.
‘Well, that will be all, gentlemen,’ Waverly dismissed them abruptly. ‘Oh, but Mr Kuryakin,’ he added as the Russian got to his feet, ‘I’ll just speak to you a moment, please. Mr Solo, you can wait outside.’
‘Oh, are you – ’ Solo began, suddenly flustered at the idea of walking out and leaving Illya alone. Apart from his medical appointments they had spent very little time apart at all since that night at the labs. But he caught Waverly’s determined gaze, and nodded.
Left without Napoleon, Illya reached out to the table edge again, feeling suddenly uncertain. Waverly came around the circular table to stand very close beside him, and he waited for him to speak.
‘Tough show, Mr Kuryakin. Very tough show,’ Waverly said in his most British of tones.
‘Well, yes, sir, it is rather,’ Illya nodded, equally stiff.
Waverly’s hand descended on his shoulder in a stiff, firm pat.
‘I want you to know, Mr Kuryakin, that U.N.C.L.E. will look after you completely in the event that – well – ahuh – ’ He cleared his throat forcefully. ‘Yes, you’ll be well supported, Mr Kuryakin. You’ve given a lot to this business. We fully intend to return the favour.’
Illya wasn’t sure how to respond. He was mortally afraid that this was some kind of speech presaging a forced retirement, and his throat felt so hard he could barely swallow.
‘Are you – are you retiring me, sir?’ he asked finally.
Waverly stepped back. ‘Good lord, no! You’re far too useful for that, Mr Kuryakin. Retirement would be a last resort, a very last resort. No, I still hold out hopes for the complete restoration of your sight, you know. Retirement...’ He chuckled suddenly, as if in response to a private joke. ‘Retirement indeed.’
A feeling of warmth spread through the Russian’s chest, and he smiled, suddenly feeling a little less miserable.
‘Well, that’s very good to hear, sir,’ he admitted. ‘Is – er – Will that be all?’
‘Ah, yes. Yes, that will be all. Yes, you can – ’ Waverly hesitated, then he must have pressed his intercom button, because he said, ‘Send Mr Solo back in, won’t you, Miss – er – ’
The secretary responded in patient tones, and a moment later Napoleon was back at Illya’s side, giving him his arm and taking him out of the office.
‘What was that all about?’ Napoleon asked, sotto voce, as they walked down the corridor.
‘I – er – I’m not exactly sure,’ Illya admitted. ‘I think, in his own way, Mr Waverly was letting me know he cares.’
Napoleon faltered in his step and Illya almost tripped.
‘Ah – sorry,’ Solo said quickly. ‘I was just – taken aback.’
Illya smiled. ‘As was I,’ he admitted. ‘Shall we go down to the infirmary? I want to give Dr Malhotra the information Waverly asked for. It’s a shame you weren’t sitting in on the examinations. I’m not exactly the best eye witness...’
‘I was there at the start of the first one, remember.’
‘Oh, I suppose you were,’ Illya nodded. ‘You were unusually quiet.’
‘Are you saying I talk too much?’ Napoleon asked, giving Illya a sideways glance.
Illya grunted. ‘Take it as you will.’ He was silent for a moment, following the gentle tug of Napoleon’s arm through the corridor and into the elevator. As the car moved off he said, ‘Peterson wants to insert a needle into my eye next time.’
He heard Napoleon’s wince clearly. ‘Is – er – is that for a particular purpose?’
‘He wants to draw off some vitreous humour for testing.’
‘And you think that’s on the level?’ Napoleon asked, his voice full of concern. As the elevator doors opened Illya followed Napoleon out into the corridor, but he stopped as soon as they were outside. ‘Seriously, Illya. Will you let him do that?’
Illya pursed his lips. ‘I do not want him to do that but there’s scientific logic in the idea. It’s the opacity in the vitreous humour that’s blinding me.’
‘But – ’ Napoleon lowered his voice, ‘ – if he’s just doing it to satisfy Thrush’s demands?’
‘No doubt their demands are also scientific,’ Illya shrugged. ‘The man is a skilled specialist.’
‘A specialist whose wife is being held, who is doing exactly what Thrush tells him to. Illya, you can’t let him – ’
Illya felt a surge of desperation. If Napoleon had asked him to describe the root of his feelings he would have had difficulty, but he was being pushed by the knowledge that even if Dr Peterson were being directed by Thrush, his only hope for the restoration of his sight lay in the hands of doctors.
‘I have to let him, Napoleon,’ he said in a voice that was almost a hiss. ‘Don’t you understand?’
He felt his partner’s reaction, a subtle stiffening in the arm that he held. ‘I don’t know that I do, Illya. This man’s experimenting on you.’
‘Yes, yes, he’s experimenting on me, Thrush is experimenting on me. I know how the lab rats feel now. But I’m not going to cure this with healthy living and positive thoughts. And I have to cure this. Napoleon, I can’t live like this.’
There was a long, deep silence as his words sunk in. Then Napoleon said hopefully, ‘We could go to another doctor. I could take you to one right now.’
‘And see Peterson’s wife killed?’ Illya asked tartly.
‘Well...’ Napoleon sighed. ‘Waverly’s getting someone on that right now. The moment she’s safe – ’
‘Then my only link with those who created this chemical is gone,’ Illya said sourly. ‘The team Waverly is sending out do not have my eyesight as their priority – and they should not. They will be acting to save her life. Napoleon, doesn’t the fact that Peterson needs some of the fluid for testing suggest that they don’t yet have an antidote?’
That obviously gave Napoleon pause, but after a long silence he said, ‘I don’t know, Illya. I don’t know that it does that. They might just be trying to monitor its progress in a human eye.’
‘Then the suggestion is that they have not yet tried it in a human eye – that I’m their first test subject. Why would they try it on one of their own when they can try it on a convenient – and stupid – U.N.C.L.E. agent that they can lure into a trap?’
Napoleon’s hand came to rest over his. ‘My friend, you are far from stupid.’
‘Well, I walked straight into their trap, didn’t I? We both did,’ Illya said bitterly.
‘Oh, Illya, Illya.’ Napoleon’s voice was almost a whisper, and Illya tensed inside at the display he was afraid Napoleon was about to make in the public corridors of U.N.C.L.E..
‘All right,’ he growled, putting his partner off becoming any more tender. ‘I am not stupid. You are not stupid. In that case we must put our lack of stupid to work. How can we contact the people who created this chemical if our only link with them is removed?’
‘Illya!’ Napoleon suddenly swivelled to grab hold of Illya’s arms in his hands. ‘You were right. We are being stupid.’
‘We are?’ Illya asked, taking a step back. He hadn’t expected Napoleon to agree with him.
‘We are. What will they do when they’ve lost Peterson, Illya? They can’t grab another doctor and send him in to you. They’ll know we’re on to them. So what will they do?’
Illya did not like where this was going. ‘They will attempt to grab me,’ he said in dull tones.
Napoleon batted him lightly on the arm. ‘Exactly.’
‘So I am to let myself be taken?’
Although Illya knew that it was their only option, the thought of being taken while blind, and rendered even more helpless, filled him with cold dread.
A day passed in doing nothing more than going over the dossiers from the Thrush lab again, and no progress had been made with locating Peterson’s wife. Illya had to steel himself against the fact that he would face another examination tomorrow, with the dreaded biopsy of the eye as well, and Napoleon was trying to distract him with all of his power. Although Napoleon knew that Illya was more comfortable in his own familiar apartment, he had managed to persuade the Russian to come up to his own tonight.
‘I’m a bit tired of sleeping on a camp bed, to be honest,’ he admitted.
‘Napoleon, you’ve only been on it for two nights!’ Illya protested, stopping in the hall of their apartment building with an incredulous grin.
‘Yeah, and I’m tired of it already. Before that I had your couch breaking my spine. If you could see the bags under my eyes, Illya. They’re practically dragging on the floor.’
He was relieved to see Illya continue to smile at that, rather than bristling at the reminder that he could not see. He patted his hand over his partner’s.
‘Come on, tovarisch. Humour me. My kitchen’s much better equipped than yours. And I, unlike you, have a double bed.’
Illya snorted. ‘Well, I suppose you need it. You get enough through traffic.’
Napoleon gave him a wounded look. ‘You prick me to the heart, mon ami. I don’t want any through traffic in that bed right now.’ He lowered his voice to a pitch that only Illya could hear. ‘I just want you.’
Illya stiffened, just as he had expected him to. The Russian was prickly indeed about any public intimation of their relationship, no matter how oblique.
Napoleon stopped outside his door and slipped his key into the lock. He led Illya inside then left him to swiftly cross the room and deactivate the alarm system before it set off and summoned a crack team from U.N.C.L.E.. He turned back to see Illya still standing hesitantly where he had left him.
‘Now, you remember the layout,’ he said with a soft smile. ‘I haven’t changed anything since you were last in here. Sofa about five paces in front of you, coffee table in front of that. Wing chair and side table with lamp on the other side of it. I’ll let you get yourself settled while I go put the coffee on.’
He deliberately walked away without looking back, recognising Illya’s uncertainty but knowing that being able to settle himself in the room without help would be a boost to his self-esteem. Once in the kitchen he looked through the crack in the door, and saw Illya moving very carefully across the room, using the crooked walking stick as a probe until he found the sofa and moved around the end to sit down. Smiling, he turned back into the kitchen and went to fill the percolator.
This was all still so horribly strange for him. Stranger still for Illya, he knew, but he was not repressed enough to ignore his own feelings and pretend that everything was fine. Almost every time he looked at his friend something seemed to swell in his throat. He wanted to kick his foot through a door when he let himself think too hard about what had happened to Illya. And he hated what it had done to their relationship. It was beautiful that enough barriers had been lowered that he could kiss Illya, that he could lie with Illya and make love to him, but he didn’t know how to navigate that awful tension that kept rising between them because Illya had fallen into the role of dependant and he had become something of a carer. He wanted Illya to become independent as much as Illya himself did. He wanted to be equal again.
He started at Illya’s call, coming back to the kitchen door and looking into the sitting room. Illya had half-risen off the couch.
‘Sorry. I got caught up,’ he said quickly, coming back into the room. ‘Coffee should be ready soon.’
‘I thought you’d got lost in there,’ Illya smiled, but there was a tint of sadness in his face, and Napoleon wondered if he had been dwelling on the same things.
‘No, sorry, just distracted,’ Napoleon apologised again.
He went busily over to the balcony doors and opened them wide to let in the sounds and scents of the East River outside. Then he stepped out onto the concrete balcony and pressed his hands onto the rail, just gazing at the life far below. The scent of salt water rose on the intermittent breeze.
‘Distracted again?’ Illya asked.
He had got up from the sofa and moved towards the sound of his partner. He was walking towards the open balcony doors with one hand held out. Something clenched in Napoleon’s chest and he was jogging towards the Russian before he was even aware he was moving. He knew Illya wasn’t about to precipitate himself over the railings and onto the ground below, but he had seen enough people pitch over balcony railings, far more because of his line of work than most normal people had. True, that was usually in the course of a fist fight, but he wasn’t going to watch Illya do the same.
‘Little step,’ he warned his partner as he got to the sill between room and balcony. ‘That’s it. The rail’s about – ’
‘I know, Napoleon,’ Illya said rather tersely, reaching out for the railing and catching it with his fingertips.
The Russian stood silently for a moment, his face tilted up towards the evening air. He had ditched the sunglasses since entering the apartment, and Napoleon gazed at him, at his blue eyes with the odd hint of milkiness in the pupils. They were whiter than they had been, he was sure. The fact that the opacity was progressing worried him deeply. He was certain there must be some way to reverse the effect but he was afraid that the thicker the calcium deposits in Illya’s eyes, the harder it would be to tackle.
‘Do you know, I can’t even tell if the sun is still up,’ Illya said after a while. There was a tone of wistfulness in his voice that made Napoleon wince, but he tried to keep his voice casual.
‘I bet you can,’ he said quietly, putting his hand on his partner’s back. ‘Try. I bet you can tell.’
Illya’s face creased in frustration. ‘Napoleon, I mean I can’t see enough. I can’t even tell if there’s a bright light source somewhere...’
‘Then tell in other ways,’ Napoleon urged him softly.
Illya’s hands clenched so tightly on the metal rail that his knuckles whitened to bone. But then he relaxed and let his head drop. It was obvious to Napoleon that he was listening intensely.
‘The sea birds are quieting,’ he said at last. ‘And there’s a chill, a bit of dampness coming into the air. Traffic noise is softening. I think it’s twilight. I think the sun’s just dipping down. Not quite gone, but close.’
Napoleon let his touch firm against Illya’s back. ‘You’ve got it just right. The sun’s glinting off the windows of Brooklyn, liquid gold. I think it’s just about down. It’s going to get chilly soon.’
He put his hands on Illya’s shoulders now, turning him towards him and bending his lips towards the Russian’s. Illya pulled away as if he had been stung.
‘Napoleon, not out here!’ he hissed.
‘Then in here,’ Napoleon told him firmly, taking him by the hand and leading him back inside. He closed the balcony doors firmly and made an audible show of drawing the curtains. Then he came back to his partner and touched a finger beneath his chin, angling his face upwards a little. There was not much difference in their heights, but just enough to make him want to look after his partner, despite the fact that he was quite capable of looking after himself. He knew Illya would knock him flat on his ass if he ever said such a thing out loud, and that he would deserve it.
‘Let me kiss you,’ he said, his voice soft and almost pleading. ‘In here, in private, all alone. Will you let me kiss you again?’
A smile curved the edges of Illya’s mouth, just enough to let Napoleon know that he had permission. But Napoleon stood there for a moment, just looking. The line of Illya’s jaw, the line of his nose, the almost pouty fullness of those lips, the oh-so-blue eyes and the mop of blond hair that set them off like a golden wheat field set off a blue summer sky. He traced a finger along that jawline, feeling the slight rasp of a day’s growth of stubble, and Illya blinked.
‘Are you going to kiss me?’ he asked, almost impatiently.
Napoleon silenced him with his lips, falling into the kiss, losing himself. His arms were around Illya’s back, pressing against the thick fabric of his jacket to feel the muscles beneath. He closed his eyes, letting himself drown in the scent and the feel of Illya, kissing him so hard that his lips were grazed against the Russian’s teeth. He wanted him, all of him. He wanted to strip him naked and hold him so tightly that he wouldn’t be able to, wouldn’t want to, fight free.
‘Oh, god, Illya,’ he murmured huskily, drawing back. ‘God, you drive me mad. Did you know you drive me crazy?’
A smile crooked onto the Russian’s face. ‘You’ve told me often enough.’
Napoleon shook his head impatiently. ‘Not like that. I’m serious, Illya. I’m wild for you. I want to sweep you off your feet.’
Illya opened his arms, his smile becoming slightly shy. ‘Well, here I am.’
Napoleon lent in to kiss him again, ruffling his hand through Illya’s hair, feeling the curve of his skull. He couldn’t pick him up like a woman and carry him into his bedroom. He could feel that raw power locked in every one of Illya’s muscles. He might have capitulated to Napoleon’s desire but he was in no way the weaker of the pair.
‘Come on,’ he said huskily, twining his fingers with the Russian’s. ‘Come with me.’
He took him into the bedroom, a room Illya had done no more than peek into in the past. It was a far cry from Illya’s own little bedroom, with its narrow bed and stacks of books and journals on every surface. Napoleon kept his bedroom to the high standards of the rest of his apartment. It was just as much on show to many of his female guests, and women appreciated attractive décor and clean sheets, he found. His queen size bed was made up with Egyptian cotton sheets, and he made it meticulously every morning. Illya’s own bed had looked as if he had tumbled out of it and never looked back.
‘Where am I?’ Illya asked, and that tightness clutched in his chest again.
‘Bedroom,’ he said sparely. ‘Bed.’
Illya grinned. ‘How eloquent. Is that an order?’
Napoleon said nothing, but suddenly he gave in to his ridiculous urge, lifting the small Russian off his feet and carrying him without delay to lay him on the crisply made bed. Illya landed there, looked momentarily startled, but then rose to the occasion, starting to peel off his clothes with nimble fingers. Napoleon followed suite, and when they came together on the bed it was skin to skin, flushed and over sensitised and eager. Illya was already hard, his cock standing up from tawny brown curls, and he reached out for Napoleon, pulling him close.
‘Are we going to – ’ he began.
Napoleon laid a kiss on his lips, then onto his chest, down, down the sparse trail of hair to that hard rod of flesh. He kissed it, and Illya arched.
‘No, no, Napoleon, are we going to – ’ he began again. ‘I mean, do you want to really – fuck me? I haven’t – ’
Napoleon brushed his fringe softly from his forehead and kissed him there.
‘I want you to fuck me,’ he said throatily.
Illya looked startled, and Napoleon suddenly wondered if he’d got it all wrong, if he knew his partner even less than he’d thought. He stilled, laying himself along Illya’s length, slipping an arm beneath his shoulders, and regarding him.
‘Illya, you – er – you said you’d never been with a man. But you have – I mean – ’ It had suddenly occurred to him that his intensely private partner might not have ever got close enough to a woman...
‘Napoleon, I am not a virgin,’ Illya answered him tartly. ‘I promise you.’
Napoleon felt a flush of relief that sent heat through his body. ‘Oh, thank god...’
Illya propped himself on an elbow. ‘Would it really have made a difference?’
Napoleon suddenly felt intensely self-conscious. ‘Well, I suppose not,’ he admitted. ‘Not really...’
Illya took advantage of his raised position to suddenly jerk himself up, smoothly pushing Napoleon onto his back in the same motion, and straddling him with his slim thighs. His cock pressed against Napoleon’s, and he slipped down a little, moving his hands to explore the heat of Napoleon’s erection and the soft coolness of his balls.
‘You want me to make love to you? You would really let me do that?’ he asked, almost disbelievingly.
It was on the tip of Napoleon’s tongue to say that it was nothing he hadn’t done before, but this was no time to drag up past lovers. The memory of Korea was strong in his mind, and he didn’t want to associate Illya with that dark, desperate time, with the near-death urgency that had made him fuck and be fucked because it was one of the few sparks of joy in this rotten world.
‘I really want you to make love to me,’ he said in utter sincerity. ‘You, right now, to me.’
Illya slipped himself backwards, nudging Napoleon’s thighs apart so that he could kneel between them. Then he stroked the contours of the hard cock again, down over the silken balls, further down into the space beneath. Napoleon let his legs fall further apart, let nothing but trust show in his body’s responses. Illya’s fingers probed further, down into the cleft between the buttocks, until they touched the exquisitely sensitive pucker of muscle.
‘Wait a moment,’ Napoleon said, and Illya withdrew as if stung. ‘No, it’s all right,’ he said quickly. He reached into a bedside drawer and pulled out a small bottle. ‘It’s just you’ll need this,’ he said, sitting up enough to place the bottle in Illya’s hand. ‘Oil,’ he said at Illya’s questioning expression. ‘We need to use lubrication, my friend. Otherwise things will get awfully painful.’
Illya flushed, turning the small bottle in his hands. ‘Napoleon, are you sure – ?’
Napoleon stayed half-sitting long enough to squeeze his partner’s hand. ‘Illya, for the lord’s sake, fuck me. Please.’
There was that smile again, and then Illya was pouring oil into his hand, letting it warm, then tilting his fingers to let it seep down between Napoleon’s legs.
‘Use your fingers first,’ Napoleon instructed him gently. ‘It’s been a while...’
The Russian was nothing if not a fast learner. He followed the path of the oil with his fingertips, tracing where it had trickled to that dusky pucker, touching the opening hesitantly with one well manicured finger.
‘That’s it,’ Napoleon encouraged him, leaning his head back, gasping a little as Illya’s finger started to penetrate the intensely tight muscle. He moaned. ‘Oh god, yes, Illya. That’s it. Go on, please...’
His pleading obviously gratified Illya, because a smile lit his face, and he slicked more oil onto his hand and probed further. Napoleon clenched his hands on the sheets, groaning aloud as the finger deepened, turned, explored the hot cavity.
‘Another,’ he gasped out. ‘Another one, Illya. And another...’
A moment later he gasped as Illya slipped another oiled finger to join the first, scissoring slightly to stretch the tight muscle. He relaxed his neck, turning back to look at Illya’s face, and was blown away by the secret but unguarded expression on his blind face. Illya looked captivated, his lips a little parted, his cheeks flushed. The soft smile on his face entranced Napoleon for a moment, but then he was brought crashing back to his own body as a third finger joined the first two, and then in their inquisitive probing Illya’s fingertip brushed against the bump of his prostate, and Napoleon cried out aloud.
Illya froze. ‘Did I hurt you?’
‘God no,’ Napoleon said with feeling. ‘Fuck me now, Illya. Fuck me, please...’
When Illya’s fingers withdrew Napoleon almost sobbed. The Russian fumbled for a moment to cap the bottle of oil, but then he tossed it aside, an intense look of resolve on his face. He used his oily fingers to stroke his own cock, hardening it with an abstracted look of pleasure on his face that made Napoleon whimper with need. And then he nudged Napoleon’s legs apart again and put a hand under each thigh to gently lift them up and back, and he positioned his cock against Napoleon’s opening, and softly pushed forward.
Napoleon groaned aloud, but his groan was lost in Illya’s own guttural moan of gratification as the head of his cock pushed through the tight muscle. He followed it with the rest, pushing smoothly home until he was buried in Napoleon’s body, his hands gripping firmly at the American’s hips. All hesitation was gone. He held still for a moment then steadily withdrew, and pushed forward again. Napoleon groaned, wanting to beg for more, faster, harder, but not wanting to rush his friend. Illya was taking it slowly, relishing the tight feel of Napoleon’s body around him, apparently lost in the sensations of those slow, measured glides. He paused a moment, buried deep in Napoleon, to rearrange his legs so they were bent up, pressing against Illya’s chest, his calves over the Russian’s shoulders. Napoleon cried out aloud as Illya began to move again, pushing deeper with the new angle, setting his prostate alight with each penetration. His own cock was unmercifully hard, and he almost sobbed when at last one of Illya’s hands curled around it, and he began to pump with the same rhythm with which he was pushing into Napoleon’s tight passage.
‘Oh god, Illya, god, Illya,’ he groaned, his head dizzied with the twin sensations inside and out. Illya’s pace picked up, he began to push harder and faster, his breath coming raggedly and small grunts being forced from him each time he slammed home, his belly slapping against Napoleon’s upraised thighs. He was losing himself, being drawn further and further into pure hedonism, losing awareness of the noises he was making. And then suddenly he stilled, deep inside Napoleon, his cock jerking hot fluid into him, and a moment later Napoleon came with a gasping cry too, semen streaking across his torso through Illya’s clenching fingers.
They stayed like that for a long frozen moment, Napoleon’s thighs against Illya’s chest, one of Illya’s arms wrapped across his legs and the other hand slipping from his diminishing cock. Illya’s eyes were closed, his face a picture of satiated joy. And then he slipped from Napoleon’s body and let his legs down with great care, before running a hand searchingly up his torso to his face. He felt Napoleon’s smile beneath his fingertips, and sighed in contentment. He bent to kiss his partner’s lips, once, softly, then fell beside him, resting his head against Napoleon’s chest, his smile fixed on his face. To Napoleon it was like sheltering the sun against his side.
They were quiet for a long time. Words would only break the spell. But finally Napoleon said with undisguised affection, ‘I guess I’d better get you into the shower, filthy.’
Illya snorted a quiet laugh against Napoleon’s side.
‘I thought you were the one who got covered,’ he pointed out.
Napoleon lifted his head long enough to look at the streaks drying on his chest, then dropped it back to the pillow.
‘I guess I am at that. Well, I’ll do your back if you do mine?’
‘Oh, Napoleon, let’s just sleep,’ Illya murmured, already sounding half gone.
Napoleon shook his arm to rouse him, then sat up so abruptly that Illya’s head jerked and dropped to the mattress.
‘We are going to get up and shower, if I have to carry you into the bathroom,’ he promised.
Illya groaned. ‘You’re worse than a Thrush torture session,’ he muttered.
‘I don’t care. It’s too early to sleep. Besides, I’ve just remembered I put coffee on about a year ago in the kitchen. It must be done by now. Come on, filthy.’
He shook Illya’s arm, and finally the Russian sat up. For a moment Napoleon was transfixed, just looking at that flushed post-coital body. Illya’s hair was ruffled and his cheeks were pleasingly pink, and for fifty cents Napoleon would have thrown him to the mattress and returned the favour. But instead he hauled Illya to his feet and walked him into the bathroom, where he set the shower going and carried through on his promise to scrub Illya’s back – and every other part of his body that he felt needed special attention.
‘So, virgin no longer,’ Napoleon commented as they sat together on his broad and comfortable sofa.
Illya bristled a little. ‘I already told you I was not a virgin. I’m not as unversed in the ways of the world as all that, Napoleon.’
He couldn’t see Napoleon’s placating smile, but he was sure it was there.
‘I meant in the ways of that particular brand of love, my dear prickly one. I thought I could call you my little flower again after that shower, but I think I’m going to have to change it to my little cactus.’
‘I prefer Illya,’ Illya said tartly.
He felt disconcerted by the idea that Napoleon thought him so naive, but all the same, he enjoyed this warm, boneless after-sex feeling, and although he wasn’t exactly cuddled against Napoleon, he was close enough to hear his breathing and smell his scent, and that was a warm feeling too.
Napoleon’s hand settled over his. ‘All right,’ he said, his voice still light but no longer teasing. ‘Illya. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that with me.’
‘Are you going to become effusive and emotional?’ Illya asked suspiciously.
‘With you? I wouldn’t dare. I was going to offer to cook you dinner, something better than I could manage in that galley you call a kitchen.’
‘Only if I can help,’ Illya replied immediately.
Napoleon sighed, and Illya waited for the response. He knew that Napoleon wanted to do this for him, not as a sap to his blindness but because Napoleon was a good cook and liked to do things for others. But still, he hated the feeling of being left sitting here, useless, because he was still almost incapable of looking after himself.
‘I could make a soufflé?’ he offered, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.
Napoleon snorted. ‘Uh, no, I think I’ll skip that particular delicacy tonight, filthy. But I’ll find you something to do as my sous chef.’
Illya grinned. ‘You can’t call me filthy any more – we washed, remember?’ All the same, it was infinitely better than little flower.
In the kitchen Napoleon set him to tenderising two steaks with a metal hammer, and Illya enjoyed the visceral nature of the work. He wondered if at some point he would be able to cook a soufflé, then he realised that he was thinking as if this blindness were permanent, and he pounded the steaks extra hard. He found himself not knowing what to think; whether to try to adapt as quickly as possible or to fight this thing every inch of the way.
‘Hey, hey, I don’t need the counter doing too,’ Napoleon told him gently, locking a hand around Illya’s wrist. ‘I think they’re tenderised enough.’
Illya allowed Napoleon to take the hammer from him. For a moment he had imagined he had been driving into the head of the person who had devised this experiment that had turned his life upside down.
‘Here, peel these,’ Napoleon said, and what Illya deduced to be potatoes tumbled onto the counter with a series of dull thuds. Napoleon put a potato peeler into his hand. ‘And try to leave some potato in the middle.’
Illya smiled. The work was cathartic, and when his thoughts ran away with him at least it gave him something to pull himself back to. Later, when they settled down in the dining room to eat two exquisitely cooked steaks, he felt almost relaxed, although he wished Napoleon had cooked a vegetable that was easier to eat than peas, because he was tired of either lifting an empty forkful to his mouth or resorting to using a spoon.
After a while Illya broached the subject that they had both been studiously avoiding.
‘Napoleon, will you sit in on my examination tomorrow?’ he asked. ‘I don’t think it will make Thrush suspicious for you to be there considering the procedure Peterson has planned.’
‘Oh, I fully intend to,’ Napoleon assured him. ‘You couldn’t stop me if you tried.’
‘Good,’ Illya said. He wanted Napoleon to be there to be able to observe the tests and procedures that Peterson put him through, but more than anything he wanted Napoleon to be there while the man slipped a needle into his eye.
The atmosphere was tense in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary. Both Illya and Napoleon knew that Peterson was a Thrush plant, and Peterson knew that they knew. Illya hoped that the man’s hand would be steady as he began the biopsy. He wasn’t sure whether he was glad he couldn’t see if he were shaking, or disturbed. The man’s voice seemed relatively steady, at least, as he asked the questions that were becoming all too familiar.
‘Do you feel you can see less or more today, Mr Kuryakin?’ Peterson asked.
Illya hesitated a moment, in the full knowledge that both Napoleon and Thrush were listening to every word.
‘On the whole I think less,’ he said after a moment, and caught a sense of Napoleon’s disappointment in the way he stirred nearby. ‘That light, for instance,’ he said, waving his hand towards the centre of the ceiling. ‘Assuming I’m in the same examination room as usual, I can barely make it out as a stronger point of light at all.’
‘Hmm,’ Peterson said in an infuriatingly non-committal way. ‘Well, I’m getting a lower response from the light I’ve been trying to bounce off the back of your eye too, so that would seem to correlate with your experience. The calcium deposits are increasing, and seem to be firming up to some extent, looking at the pressure in your eyeball. I really do think it’s the right time to take this biopsy.’
His hand descended on Illya’s arm in a firm touch, and Illya sensed he was trying to impart reassurance that he couldn’t give in words. He could do nothing obvious that would let Thrush know they were on to them, and Illya had to credit him for performing as well as he was so far.
‘All right,’ Illya said, swallowing on his reluctance. ‘I suppose it’s inevitable. How do you want me?’
‘Just on the examination couch at the side of the room, Mr Kuryakin. I’ll have to call a nurse in to assist with the local. I know you’ve already had topical anaesthetic for the pressure tests but we need something a little stronger, and I need you lying down. Mr Solo, can you – ?’
‘Uh – yeah, I can help him,’ Napoleon said quickly, coming to Illya’s side. Illya resisted the urge to shake off the over-solicitous hands. Napoleon was nervous too. He stood and let Napoleon guide him to the couch, where he lay down on the leatherette surface and folded his arms across his stomach. Napoleon’s hand touched his shoulder firmly.
‘You know he’s the best,’ he said in a low voice.
‘Yes, I know,’ Illya said rather stiffly. Knowing Peterson was the best was slightly dulled by knowing Peterson was also following the orders of Thrush. Anyway, regardless of who was doing what on whose orders, he still hated the idea of someone pushing a needle into his eye.
Napoleon’s hand stayed on his shoulder, warm and solid, and he wanted to reach his own hand up to lay over it. But he had to guard every movement, to judge everything now to be sure it was seen as only friendship, and not a less platonic love.
‘All right, Mr Kuryakin,’ Peterson said as he re-entered the room with another pair of footsteps. ‘I have Nurse Richardson with me, and she’ll get you prepared. You haven’t eaten this morning as per my orders?’
‘No,’ Illya said shortly, and Napoleon added more effusively, ‘Not a morsel has passed those cherry lips. Not a morsel of food, anyway.’
Illya concentrated on not blushing. Napoleon had said nothing out of the usual. Everyone knew that Napoleon was just like that. The doctor and nurse would think he was talking about toothpaste, or perhaps a drink of water. They wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Napoleon had introduced him to the delights of mutual fellatio.
It was no good; he could feel heat entering his cheeks as soon as his thoughts turned that way. But Lucette Richardson distracted him by coming over to him and speaking to him quietly about the sedative and local anaesthetic and how the biopsy would proceed.
‘Roll up your sleeve and extend your arm, please,’ she said in a businesslike manner. Illya did as instructed, grateful that she was being professional rather than trying to reassure and coddle him. Most of the nurses were used to his preferred manner. ‘Now, I’ll just swab the area,’ she said, and something soft touched his inner arm, carrying the cool of a rapidly evaporating alcoholic antiseptic. ‘And a little prick.’
‘Must I really be sedated?’ he asked, in vain hope.
‘Yes, you really must,’ she told him firmly. ‘It’s important that you’re relaxed and hold still for the doctor. You wouldn’t want him to get it wrong, now, would you?’
Illya shuddered, and Napoleon’s hand pressed more firmly on his shoulder. He would rather undergo Thrush torture than this, and Napoleon knew it. The needle stung at the crook of his arm, and he winced as the fluid entered his vein.
‘How are you feeling, Mr Kuryakin?’ Nurse Richardson asked cheerfully.
Illya tried to think of a response that adequately summed up his feelings, but he found his thoughts suddenly woolly, so he simply said, ‘All right.’
Napoleon had taken his hand. When had that happened? He pressured his fingers against Napoleon’s and was pleased to feel Napoleon press back.
‘What are they doing?’ he asked. He felt floaty and a little drowsy, his feet seeming to rise up higher than his head then sink down again as if he were lying on an inflatable in a pool. ‘Oh, wow...’
‘Is that normal, Nurse?’ Napoleon asked, and the nurse gave an affirmative.
‘It’s a rather strong sedative, Mr Solo, just to make sure he’s nice and relaxed. Mr Kuryakin usually has a high tolerance to these things so we give him more rather than less.’
‘Oh, I’m relaxed,’ Illya smiled. He stared into the dim blur in front of him, trying to adjust to the odd feeling of swaying while lying quite still. ‘What’re they doing?’
‘Er, the doctor’s just preparing his things,’ Napoleon told him. ‘Nurse Richardson’s standing right next to you.’
‘All right, Mr Kuryakin,’ came the voice of Dr Peterson. ‘Now, there’s going to be a small injection just by your right eye. That will be the local anaesthetic. I’m going to use a small spring to hold your eyelids open, then once I’m sure the anaesthetic has taken effect I’m going to insert a fine needle through the sclera and I’ll extract the sample. It will be the work of but a moment. Are you happy for me to begin?’
‘I – er – s’pose so,’ he murmured, and Napoleon’s hand tightened on his again.
‘A small sting,’ the doctor said.
While Illya felt the prick in the skin near the side of his eye, the sedative meant that he didn’t mind it at all. He lay still as the doctor placed the device to hold his eye open, and then felt a strange, odd pressure against his eye.
‘Do you feel that, Mr Kuryakin?’
‘Feel,’ he murmured, remembering not to nod his head, ‘but no pain.’
‘Good, good. Now, hold very still, please. Oh, yes, Mr Solo. Keep hold of his hand. Some of them don’t like it much, you know. Now, Mr Kuryakin, you’ll feel some slight sensation...’
Illya held still and tried not to think, momentarily glad that he couldn’t see the needle that must be descending towards his eye. Then there was that strange feeling of pressure again, and a slight wave of panic rose in him. He tightened his hand on Napoleon’s, and Napoleon murmured something reassuring. Then the doctor was saying, ‘There, that’s the sample taken. Nurse, a pad, please.’
Illya exhaled a long breath as the nurse pressed a pad over his eye and taped it.
‘You don’t really need to keep this on,’ she told him, ‘but just keep it there while you’re lying here.’
‘Well, was that it?’ Napoleon asked brightly. ‘Nothing to it!’
‘Speak f’yourself,’ Illya murmured.
‘Mr Kuryakin, I have the sample now and I’ll be sending it off for thorough testing,’ Dr Peterson said, coming back to his side. ‘Your eye will stay numb for a couple of hours, and the sedative will be in your system for a little longer than that. Be sure to stay with someone for the rest of the day, please, and don’t exert yourself. I want you to stay here lying down for the next half hour just in case you suffer any adverse reaction.’
‘Really, Doctor, I’ll be in th’building anyway. Don’t see any need – ’ Illya began, starting to sit up, but at the same time that the nurse’s hand pressed him back his head swam, and Napoleon said, ‘Oh, no, no, you’re not going anywhere, mon ami. Don’t worry, Lucette, I’ll stick to him like rubber to glue.’
‘Must I really stay here?’ Illya started to complain, although truly he knew the answer. He still felt as if he were floating, and until that feeling wore off he wouldn’t trust himself to walk.
‘You really must,’ Napoleon told him with a smile in his voice. ‘Trust me, I like nothing better than watching over a stoned Russian.’
‘Oh, ’m not really stoned,’ Illya protested. ‘Not like – like those – what d’you want to call them – the hip cats in th’village with all their hair and their black, black – ’
‘Their overlong hair and their all black clothes?’ Napoleon asked him with a soft laugh. ‘Oh no, Illya. You’re nothing at all like them. Hey, Lucette, is he okay?’
‘He’s okay,’ came the woman’s reassuring voice. ‘I’ll leave you two alone. Don’t worry if he feels sleepy. Just keep an eye on him.’
Illya closed his eyes, aware of how odd and numb his right one felt compared to the normal feeling in the left.
‘You going off to sleep, comrade?’ Napoleon asked him.
‘No, no, jus’ lying, jus’ thinking,’ he murmured.
He lay, thinking, his thoughts drifting between the many names and biographies of the Thrush lab personnel, the procedure he had just undergone, the predicament of Dr Peterson’s wife, and the possibility that he would always be blind. His emotions rose and fell with each new train of thought and although the bed stayed firm underneath him he felt as if he were rocking. The thoughts began to tangle in his mind, becoming bizarre and unreal. He was sitting in a bright room with his arms held to his chair with solid metal bonds, where a Thrush man was bending over him and shining lights in his blurred eyes, and then bringing an instrument closer, closer, and pressing sharp metal edges under his eyelids to hold the eye open unnaturally wide. And then there was a needle, closer, closer... He could see it despite the blindness, and when the tip sunk into his unprotected eye he screamed aloud.
‘Hey, hey! Illya! Wake up, Illya!’
He gasped in air, sitting bolt upright, snatching a hand to his face to feel a soft pad against his stinging eye. Everything was blurred out in a monotone grey, and he flailed, panicking, getting ready to fight.
‘Illya!’ the voice called again, urgently but warily. ‘Illya, you’re dreaming. You’re all right.’
He stilled because that was Napoleon’s voice. Napoleon meant safety. He remembered the biopsy, the fact that he had been sedated and lying on the examination couch at the side of the room.
‘Illya, are you with me? Are you okay?’
He breathed hard again, then said, ‘Yes, I’m all right.’
Only then did Napoleon’s hand curl around his. A trained agent in a blind panic like that was dangerous to touch, and Napoleon knew it, but Illya was indescribably grateful for that eventual contact.
‘Bad dream,’ he said, as if the explanation were necessary. ‘I’m all right.’
‘Those drugs can mess you up pretty good,’ Napoleon said sympathetically, squeezing his hand. ‘How do you feel? You’ve been here long enough to leave if you want.’
Illya touched his hand to the pad over his eye again. There was a slight stinging but it felt all right, and he was no longer swaying with the sedative in his system. He peeled the pad off carefully and put it on the bed.
‘Oh, I want,’ he said sincerely. ‘I want.’ He patted his jacket pocket for his sunglasses and slipped them on, wincing a little. ‘Am I bruised?’
‘Just a bit of a black eye where the needle went in,’ Napoleon told him. He leaned in close and whispered, ‘Let me take you home and I’ll kiss it better.’
‘Napoleon,’ Illya hissed. Louder he said, ‘Take me up to our office, won’t you? We can go over those files again.’
‘Straight after minor surgery?’
Illya shrugged. ‘It was hardly that. I could do with something to wrap my mind around,’ he confessed. ‘Humour me.’
‘I could give you something to wrap something about,’ Napoleon offered. Illya batted his arm, quite hard, so Napoleon capitulated and took him up to their shared office.
‘These dossiers,’ Illya said, rummaging through the thick pile despite the fact that he could glean nothing by touching them. The paper was slick under his fingers, the covers of each dossier slightly glossy, the paper inside rougher, and he found himself wondering if he had the sensitivity to be able to learn Braille. Then he felt slightly sickened, and pushed the thought aside angrily. He couldn’t condemn himself to that kind of a future. He just couldn’t.
‘Uh-huh,’ Napoleon asked, sounding bored.
‘What?’ Illya asked.
‘I think that’s my line,’ Napoleon half laughed. ‘You said these dossiers and then you drifted into some kind of little dreamland. What about the dossiers?’
‘Sophie Winslip. She’s young, I know, but she has a solid background in the right area. I think she’s our most likely candidate.’
‘Huh, you really think so?’ Napoleon sounded surprised. ‘What about this – er – ’ He took the dossiers and Illya felt a slight breeze as he began to leaf through them. ‘Hugo Ward. A good background in chemistry and he’s worked in the field of eye diseases.’
‘Hmm. But we’re not talking about a disease, are we, Napoleon? We’re talking about a wretched chemical reaction.’
‘There’s no reason it has to be either one of them in particular,’ Napoleon countered. ‘What if they were working in tandem?’
‘Yes, what if they were?’ Illya asked, his thoughts racing. ‘Ward and Winslip.’ He reached out to the intercom on his desk, and Napoleon’s hand came to guide his as he fumbled for the buttons. ‘I need some more complete research done into these two names,’ he said once he was through to the research department. ‘Yes, Sophie Winslip and Hugo Ward. Got that?’
‘Got that, Mr Kuryakin,’ a smooth female voice replied.
He made to flick the button, but the woman’s voice continued, ‘Mr Kuryakin, if you needed anyone to pop round to your apartment and give you a hand – tidying up, cooking, anything like that...’
Illya bit back the sharp retort he wanted to make. In a very controlled voice he said, ‘Thank you, Miss Wilson. I will bear that in mind.’
Napoleon laughed once he cut the connection. ‘Tidying, cooking, anything, Illya?’
‘I have all I need,’ Illya responded darkly.
Napoleon came around to lay his hands on Illya’s shoulders and started to massage the tension out of them. Illya leaned back into the touch, giving a low groan.
‘I didn’t realise you were so good at this,’ he murmured.
Napoleon brought his mouth down close to Illya’s ear. ‘I’m good at a lot of things, comrade. And you’re very tense.’
‘Well, do you blame me?’ Illya asked irritably. ‘I have a lot on my mind.’
Napoleon’s fingers started to knead more firmly, deliberately working on each tight muscle until Illya began to relax into his touch, eyes closed and head tilting back a little.
‘We could go home,’ Napoleon reminded him. ‘I could give you something a bit more complete. Not like that,’ he protested at Illya’s bristling reaction. ‘I can control myself, you know. I just thought that it might help. You’ve had a hard day.’
‘I’ve had harder,’ Illya shrugged, then winced as the movement made Napoleon’s fingers slip awkwardly across a particularly sore muscle. ‘Besides, I want to wait for research to get back to me. Meanwhile, maybe you could check up on how they’re getting on with finding Peterson’s wife.’
Napoleon’s hand stilled on his shoulders, squeezed gently, then let go. ‘I’ll go find out if Slate or Dancer are in. You’ll be all right on your own?’
Illya grimaced. ‘I’m sure I’m capable of sitting in the office alone, Napoleon.’
‘No, I mean because you’ve just had minor surgery,’ Napoleon backtracked; at least, Illya thought he was backtracking. ‘You’re not still feeling woozy, huh? You feel okay now?’
‘I feel fine,’ Illya said, unable to keep the impatience from his voice. ‘Just fine. Go and look for Dancer and Slate.’
‘Well, okay...’ He squeezed his hand on Illya’s shoulder again, and left the room.
Illya sat at the desk, tapping his fingers on the hard surface. Then he decided he may as well be useful. He had left the desk in a mess the night they had gone to the lab, and most people knew not to touch his desk because his was a kind of organised chaos. But now most of the stuff on top was useless. He couldn’t tell all the paper apart, but he could do some things. He felt across the surface for pens and pencils and put them carefully in the organiser. He sharpened the pencils that felt blunt in the desk-mounted sharpener. He could tell bound journals apart from loose papers, and he stacked all the journals in one corner and the papers in another. He would have to get Napoleon to look later to see what those loose papers were, but he discovered by lifting the paper to his nose and sniffing lightly he could tell the special treated U.N.C.L.E. paper from regular stuff, so he put all the papers that had that distinctive scent in one place. Napoleon could sort through them later and put them somewhere secure. He shouldn’t really have left them on his desk at all, but then he hadn’t expected to be out of commission so suddenly and so irrevocably.
He rapped his knuckles on the desk in his frustration. He had been telling Napoleon the truth – he was fine to be left alone in the office, technically. But there wasn’t much Napoleon could do about the frustration or boredom. He toyed with his hand on the intercom system, thinking about calling down to records, or perhaps to the labs to find out if they were working on the sample so recently extracted from his eye, but he wasn’t sure which button was which without seeing them, and he didn’t want to get through to someone like Waverly by accident.
He did, at least, know where the labs were physically, so he made his decision. He picked up the stick that Napoleon had lent him, pushed his glasses properly onto the bridge of his nose, and prepared to get up. Then he remembered Napoleon, so he grabbed his notepad, pulled a sheet from the back to be sure it was clean, and wrote with one of the newly sharpened pencils in careful writing, ‘Gone to the labs. Find me there. IK.’
He left the piece of paper clearly in the middle of the empty space on his desk, and got to his feet.
The corridors were quiet, and Illya was deeply grateful for that. The last thing he wanted was some well-meaning person – worse, some well meaning woman – grabbing hold of him and pushing him to where he wanted to go. He exited the office and turned to the left, walking with great care down the corridor, knowing that the elevator was at the very end, and he couldn’t miss it. There shouldn’t be anything in the way. There never was anything left in the corridors – or almost never. Sometimes cleaning trolleys got left there, or trash cans were put down as the cleaner exchanged them for a new one. But today he could hear no cleaning activity and he got to the end of the corridor without trouble. He stepped into the elevator feeling rather more buoyant. He felt more confident than he had on his last foray out alone, in his apartment building, and he had completed this bit successfully.
But now there were the elevator buttons to tackle. He touched the brushed steel panel lightly. The floor numbers were not engraved, but printed on, and there was almost nothing to distinguish by touch. He brushed his finger over the bottom button, which should be the lowest basement, and counted upwards. If he got it right, he would know exactly where to go when the doors opened. If he got it wrong he would be walking around an identical floor plan, but would find himself somewhere completely wrong.
The doors slipped open and he walked out, tapping the stick against the closing doors and then against the wall to ground himself. He could hear no one in this corridor either. When everyone was working at their desk, as most people were at this time of day, you didn’t tend to get many people wandering in the corridors. He stood still for a moment, trying to discern if this were indeed the correct floor, but it was impossible to tell. The small sounds he could hear from various offices were the same sounds he heard on his floor, or any of the others. Perhaps if something wild were going on in the lab then some scent might penetrate the corridors, but Waverly tended to discourage wild.
Three doors on the left, and the fourth should be the first lab, the lab that dealt most often with medical queries. The stick trailed along the smooth wall, jerking inwards an inch when he hit a doorway, then popping out again when he regained the wall. At the fourth door he tapped and then opened it, leaning in slightly and asking, ‘Have I found the lab?’
There was a scraping of something – a stool across linoleum, he was sure – and a familiar voice called out, ‘Well, Illya, Illya! How wonderful to see you down here! Yes, you’ve found the lab. Well done, old chap! Come in, come in!’
He stepped in cautiously, extending the stick before him, very aware of the possibility of blundering into some vital experiment.
‘I could use some help, George,’ he admitted. The voice had been that of George Dubanowski, a small, slightly overweight and balding man he had worked with on many occasions. He was the perfect U.N.C.L.E. scientist, a man who almost never left the lab and produced brilliant results.
‘Oh, of course, of course,’ George flustered, coming over to him and grabbing his arm, tugging him companionably across the room. ‘So stupid of me. Sit down here, Illya. Yes, here. That’s it. How are you doing, buddy? How’s it going?’
Illya shifted himself up onto a high lab stool, and grimaced. ‘I think you can see how I’m doing. But how are you doing, George? Are you working on the sample Dr Peterson took?’
‘Half of it, yes. Half of it. The other half he sent off to his people at the hospital.’
Illya wondered immediately whether the other half had been sent to a legitimate hospital, or had been packed off to Thrush. Or perhaps Peterson had split the sample three ways. He wondered just how much fluid the man had taken from his eye, and winced internally. There was no pain apart from a slight lingering soreness, but still the idea of what had been done to him bothered him like the thought of a dentist’s drill descending on a sore molar.
‘Have you found anything?’ he asked, leaning forward eagerly.
‘Well, you know, you need to give these things a little time,’ George said reprovingly. ‘You know that, Illya. You’re as much a scientist as I am. These tests, you know, they don’t just run themselves in a few seconds. It’ll take hours of work.’
Illya tried not to show his disappointment, but some must have come through, because George’s hand clapped down onto his arm warmly.
‘I know, I know. You must be feeling terrible. Don’t know if you’re coming or going. I’d be so strung out I don’t think I’d even be able to come in. I’ll tell you what, Illya. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll go through all the tests with you and tell you what I’ve come up with so far. But I haven’t found any solutions yet, old man. I have to warn you. I’ve nothing to get your hopes up.’
Illya sighed, and settled in to listen to George’s tests and findings. He hadn’t really expected him to have come up with a miracle cure, but he had allowed himself to hope. He had schooled himself long ago in caution where the emotion of hope was concerned, and he berated himself for letting that foolishness slip in this time. Hope didn’t affect anything. Something either happened or did not happen, and no amount of positive anticipation would change that. It would just make one disappointed when the needed breakthrough failed to materialise.
‘You haven’t found anything that will halt the progress of the calcification?’ he asked once George had reeled off his list of tests and results.
‘Not a thing, Illya. I’m sorry.’
‘And nothing that will dissolve the deposits?’
‘Nothing that won’t dissolve the inside of your eyes too.’
Illya winced visibly. He had endured quite enough poking and prodding in that area and he was starting to feel sick just thinking about it all. Useless as his eyes were, he didn’t want to lose them.
‘I wish I could just get my hands on it,’ he growled, his frustration slipping through.
‘If you could, old chap, I’d still out perform you on results,’ George reminded him. ‘Not exactly your field, you know.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Illya sighed.
Silence descended, which George broke after an uncomfortable moment by asking, ‘You want me to make you some coffee?’
Illya grinned. No food or drink was supposed to be consumed in the lab, but nevertheless George had a packet of ground coffee in his filing cabinet and he used a small kettle on the Bunsen burner. He was grateful that instead of effusions of sympathy over his predicament, George was offering comfort by way of caffeine.
‘Yes, please, George,’ he said. He would have refused anyone else, but it was hard to refuse George because he offered with absolutely no expectation of being told no.
A lighter clicked, flame hissed, and he heard George filling the little kettle. Not long after the scent of coffee filled the air, then liquid was poured into clinking glass.
‘There, you got that?’ George asked, passing Illya what he knew was a glass beaker with a paper towel wrapped around it for insulation.
‘I’ve got it. Thanks George.’
He took a sip. George’s coffee always tasted a trifle odd, but it hadn’t killed anyone yet.
‘All right,’ George told him warmly, patting his shoulder. ‘Now, you just sit there and I’ll carry on with my work – but I’ll talk you through everything I’m doing, and if you want to throw some insights at me, just feel free.’
Napoleon came back into the office buoyant with what he had been discussing with April Dancer, who had not long ago returned to the building. He stopped short as he walked through the door, looking around, for a moment taken aback. He had expected to find Illya; probably Illya with his feet up on the desk and bored out of his brain, but Illya nonetheless. But the room was empty. He stared at the desk, which was a good deal tidier than when he had left it, and then his eyes lit upon the scrap of notepaper there in the centre. He picked it up and tried to decipher the rather spidery writing which although obviously Illya’s hand, was just not quite right. Some of the letters had run into one another, and the line was nowhere near straight.
‘The labs, eh?’ he murmured. He didn’t know whether to grin or be put out that Illya had taken it upon himself to start wandering about the building on his own. He was not, he knew, Illya’s keeper, but then this was a high security building and he was half afraid, illogically so, of Illya wandering into the wrong place – like perhaps the firing range.
He shoved the note into his pocket and went down to the lab. Before he went in he peeked through the glass window in the door and saw Illya there perched on a high stool looking like an extremely dour gnome, drinking something out of what looked like a scientific beaker with a green paper towel wrapped around it. George Dubanowski, the medical lab chief, was bending over a microscope on the other side of the room, saying something that Illya obviously found funny. The Russian’s face lit with a smile that became a laugh, and for a moment Napoleon was torn between gladness and jealousy. He had not been able to elicit nearly enough pure joy from Illya recently.
He knocked lightly and opened the door.
‘Hi George, Illya,’ he greeted them, and Illya’s smile transmuted from one of humour to one of such gladness that it dispelled any lingering hint of jealousy.
‘Napoleon! My note must have been legible, then.’
‘It was, just, but don’t go after any jobs in calligraphy,’ Napoleon said dryly, crossing the floor to casually eye George’s notes, which were lying on the lab bench in front of Illya. He hadn’t expected to be able to make much sense of them, and he wasn’t disappointed. ‘I found April Dancer. She said that she and Slate are pretty certain they know where Mrs Peterson’s being held, and they hope to have her out by tonight. If they succeed – no more creepy eye exams, eh?’
Illya smiled tightly. ‘I’m not sure how to feel about that,’ he admitted.
Napoleon touched a hand to his arm, understanding. Not only did it mean that Dr Peterson would no longer have all of Thrush’s knowledge of the chemical behind him, and so would become as useless as the next man in monitoring his condition, but it also meant the likelihood of him being grabbed by Thrush would increase a hundredfold.
‘Feel glad for Mrs Peterson,’ he suggested. He turned to the portly lab man. ‘Any joy, George?’
‘Not yet, Napoleon. I’ve just been going through it with Illya. I’ll keep on it, though. I’ve put everything non-urgent aside and I’m going to focus on this until I’ve worked out just how to beat it.’ George came across the lab to put a hand on Illya’s shoulder. ‘Don’t you worry. I’m looking out for you.’
‘I’m looking out for him,’ Napoleon said, rather nettled.
Illya held up his hands, one still holding the beaker of coffee. ‘All right, all right. George is looking out for my medical welfare. Napoleon is looking out for me in – other ways. Shall we not argue, gentlemen?’
Napoleon stepped back and straightened his cuffs, realising that he was being slightly ridiculous.
‘Uh – well, I’m all finished upstairs, Illya,’ he said. ‘Want to go for some lunch?’
‘Do I?’ Illya asked, slipping off the stool and carefully putting the almost empty beaker of coffee on the bench. ‘I haven’t eaten since last night. I could eat lunch and dinner in one. George, thanks for taking me through what you’re doing. Let me know if you find anything – please.’
‘You’ve got it,’ George assured him, giving Napoleon something of an odd look which made Napoleon realise all over again how stupid he had been in feeling jealous of the man.
‘Come on,’ Napoleon said to his friend. ‘I know a place just a block away that does the best brunch.’
‘A – restaurant?’ Illya asked uncertainly as Napoleon took him through the door into the corridor.
‘Yes, a restaurant. I thought since you’d missed breakfast and lunch you might want the two rolled into one. Then we can have dinner later. What d’you think of that, huh?’
Illya shook his head firmly, and Napoleon was dismayed to see some of the colour had left his face and his lips were set in a firm line. He wished he could see the eyes behind the dark shades.
‘Not a restaurant, Napoleon, no. I’m not ready for that.’
‘Oh, come on,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘They do the best eggs Benedict – ’
Illya stopped abruptly in the corridor, jerking Napoleon’s arm backwards in his grip. ‘No, Napoleon. I am not going to sit there in front of a score of diners while egg yolk runs down my front and I fumble for my food like a blind man. It is not going to happen.’
If it hadn’t been for the slight break in his voice Napoleon would have thought there was only cold fury in Illya’s words. That smallest hitch made him realise that instead the Russian was close to tears, and fighting as hard as he had ever fought for anything to keep from breaking down in the corridor. He grabbed Illya by the arm and tugged him the final few steps to the elevator. Once they were inside and between floors he hit the emergency stop, and as alarms started to blare he slipped his arms around the smaller man and held him so tightly that he could feel Illya’s heart beating against his chest.
‘It’s all right, it’s all right,’ he murmured, hardly aware of what he was saying. All he wanted was to heal this great wound in his friend, and he would say anything to achieve that.
‘It’s not all right,’ Illya ground out against his chest. ‘It won’t be all right until – ’
His voice hitched again and he stopped speaking, obviously afraid that if he opened his mouth again only sobs would come. Napoleon pressed his hand against the back of his partner’s head, threading his fingers into the silken hair, stroking his other hand across his back.
‘We’ll go home,’ he said softly. ‘We’ll go home right now. And I will make it right.’
Illya took in a deep, shuddering breath and then swallowed hard, stepping away from Napoleon and pressing a shaking hand against his mouth.
‘Yes, let’s just get out of here,’ he muttered in a barely controlled voice.
Napoleon released the stop button on the elevator, and when the doors swept open to three men with guns drawn from their holsters he held up his hands with his most charming smile.
‘It’s all right, gents. False alarm. I tripped against the button. You can put those away.’
The three looked suspiciously between one another, but Napoleon warned them with his glare that if even one of them had anything to say that he didn’t like, there would be trouble. Finally one of them nodded and said, ‘All right, Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin. Carry on.’
‘Come on,’ Napoleon said quietly to Illya, grabbing his arm and taking him out to the reception. He plucked Illya’s badge from his chest and gave it to the receptionist along with his own, then took his friend out through the small tailor’s shop. ‘Here’s the door. You okay with the steps?’ he asked quietly.
Illya nodded, and followed Napoleon up the stone steps, stumbling and not bothering to use the crook-handled cane to help himself. The car was parked just a few yards away, and Napoleon got Illya in. The tyres squealed on the hot road as he pulled away in a manner that would have drawn censure had there been any cops handy. Luckily, there weren’t.
Illya was silent all the way home. Napoleon took him back to Illya’s own apartment, thinking that familiarity would be best for him in his current state, although he half wished he could bring his own kitchen down here. Illya’s was truly a bachelor’s kitchen. It had every basic necessity but nothing above and beyond, and Napoleon was torn between just fixing something basic and leaving the Russian long enough to get in some much needed groceries. Illya had eggs, milk, and bread, though, and he decided that it was more important to stay with him than to feed him anything fancy. If it hadn’t been for the fact that his friend needed to eat he would have gladly taken him to the queen-size bed in his own apartment and just curled up around him, holding him until the pain went away.
Illya sank himself onto the sofa and dropped the cane with something of a disgusted flourish as soon as Napoleon had deactivated the alarm system.
‘I’m sorry for that display, Napoleon,’ he muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. ‘You must think me – ’
‘I think nothing bad of it,’ Napoleon cut him off, coming to sit beside him, deciding that nurturing Illya mentally was far more important right now than physically. He wasn’t sure if he dared suggest making him eggs anyway, after the eggs benedict breakdown.
Illya had been mute the entire way back from headquarters, his fist pressed hard against his mouth, and now when Napoleon took hold of his hand he saw that the Russian had left reddened dents in his knuckles from the force with which he had pressed them against his teeth. He had obviously been doing everything in his power to keep himself from breaking down. Napoleon wished he would just let himself. A storm would clear the clouds, he was sure, and he had to work out how to make it happen.
‘It’s been a long, hard day for you and it’s only early afternoon,’ he commented. ‘How does your eye feel?’
Illya shook his head wretchedly. ‘It’s nothing,’ he murmured. ‘Just a little sore.’
‘I tell you, when I saw that needle I winced, even though it wasn’t me he was sticking it in. Do you think George will get anywhere with the sample?’
‘Who knows?’ the Russian shrugged. ‘He’s had it under the microscope all morning. If I could only see what he could see – ’
His voice broke a little, and Napoleon felt a mixed feeling of satisfaction and pain. He just needed to push a little further. An angry, distraught Illya was a frightening thing, but his friend needed the release.
‘Well, you can’t see what he could see,’ Napoleon said, wincing at his own harshness. ‘You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t take a walk without using that cane to feel your way. You can’t even fix yourself a meal.’
He could hear Illya’s breathing becoming more ragged, feel the tension building in his body.
‘Your entire future’s been flushed down the pan by Thrush,’ he tacked on.
Suddenly Illya reacted, grabbing a cushion from the sofa and hurling it across the room. He ripped the sunglasses from his face and threw them so that they smashed into the window and fell broken to the floor. And then he bellowed, something halfway between a cry and a scream, an audible cloud of frustration and fear and anger. He pounded his fist over and over onto the surface of the wooden coffee table that sat in front of the couch. Napoleon grabbed him, afraid he would break a bone in his hand. Illya was sobbing incoherently, saying words that were so garbled Napoleon couldn’t even tell if they were English or Russian. Knowing the Russian could flip him to the floor without a moment’s notice, Napoleon took the risk of pressing his arms around his friend, pressing his palms against his back, and holding him as the sobs jerked out of him.
It took a long time, but eventually the sobs quietened, and Illya was just leaning against Napoleon’s chest, his breath hitching every now and then, his hands clenched into balls uncomfortably between their bodies. Napoleon held him more tightly still, stroking his back, pressing his lips against the top of his head. He felt like crying too after witnessing such a storm. Illya was the one suffering the deepest hurt, but Napoleon felt too as if everything had been thrown up and turned upside down and scattered around him.
‘I’m sorry,’ Illya said eventually, but he didn’t move his head from Napoleon’s chest.
‘Illya, today you have been sedated and given a local anaesthetic, and a man has stuck a needle in your eye. And that’s on top of the obvious. You needed to let it out, and you let it out, and I’m glad. Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry.’
Illya snorted against his chest. ‘Will you say that when I wake you up at four a.m. with existential angst?’
‘Always,’ Napoleon promised, laying his cheek down against the softness of Illya’s hair and stroking the back of his head. ‘Always, I promise.’
‘Good,’ the Russian murmured, ‘because four a.m. seems to be a bad time for me right now. At least, it always feels like four a.m.. I can’t tell the time any more.’
‘I will also tell you the time, whenever you ask. Maybe we should get a clock that chimes?’
Illya lifted his head a little and raised one eyebrow. ‘We?’
‘All right, you.’
‘I never liked them. It makes it feel like your life is being ticked away. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,’ he intoned in a resonant voice.
‘Well, there’s no pleasing you,’ Napoleon said with an indulgent grin. ‘Look, you must be starving. Do you want me to fix you something? How about French toast?’
Illya smiled, and Napoleon couldn’t stop himself from brushing away a tear from the wan face with his thumb. Illya leant in to the touch, seeming to like it, so Napoleon bent to kiss the rest of the stray tears from his face.
‘Grenki,’ Illya said after returning one of the kisses that were salted with his tears. ‘Make it with salt and pepper. There might be some sausage patties in the ice box.’
‘It’s no different to French toast, really. I suppose these things are universal. My mother used to make it every Sunday, but the funny thing is that I remember it more during the war and I can’t have had it more than a few times a year. She’d get so excited when she got her hands on the wherewithal to make it for me. Things were scarce so often and you couldn’t spare an egg and milk for fancy bread. Often we didn’t have bread.’
Napoleon smiled, but he didn’t know what to say. Illya spoke so little about his past, and he didn’t like to think of him as a boy between six and twelve in a country torn by war and hardship. No wonder he had never grown very tall, considering his start in life.
‘Make it savoury and fry some sausage patties along with it, if I have them,’ Illya said, oblivious to Napoleon’s moment of wistfulness. ‘I am hungry.’
‘You should be.’ Napoleon kissed his forehead, then lifted the hand Illya had used to beat the table, checking for injuries. ‘I think you’ll do. Nothing broken. Now, do you want coffee or tea with your – grenka?’
‘Grenki. And tea,’ Illya said decisively.
‘Tea it is.’
Napoleon went into the kitchen and looked in the ice box. There were sausage patties and a few other things disguised by lumpy ice, so he pulled the patties out and put them on the counter. He glanced at the samovar nearby with more than a little trepidation, then noticed with relief that Illya also had an ordinary teapot. The chances of his being able to make Illya authentic Russian tea were nil, and he was sure Illya knew it.
Before he started cooking he turned back quietly to the door to look through at Illya. The Russian was lying back with his head on one arm of the sofa and his legs stretched out along the cushions. His eyes were closed, and he looked very tired.
‘You want me to put something on the record player?’ he asked on an impulse, and Illya jumped a little, opening his eyes.
‘Not really. I’m enjoying the silence.’
Napoleon went back into the kitchen and began to augment the silence with the sounds of cooking, wondering if this would be the pattern of his future. If Illya remained blind he couldn’t walk away from him. He didn’t want to walk away from him either. It was quite accepted for two bachelors to live together and even more expected that someone with a disability such as Illya’s would not live alone. Perhaps he would go away to one of these schools for a few months and come back so much more capable and independent, but Napoleon could be there to drive him to work and cook for him when he came home and slip into his bed at night. It was a strangely cosy future, and he had to kick himself out of it. Illya remaining blind was in no way an ideal. The only real future he wanted to entertain was Illya whole and capable again, at his side through all dangers, and there when they crawled into bed at night after painful hours of battling the evil forces of the world.
Half an hour later Napoleon deposited two plates on the coffee table, and put two steaming mugs of tea beside them.
‘Grenki,’ he announced in a satisfied tone, ‘otherwise known as savoury French toast, with sausage patties and tea. I cooked as much as I could get my hands on in your pitifully stocked kitchen, in the confidence that you’ll manage to eat it.’
‘I could manage to eat a horse,’ Illya said with great sincerity.
After the physical and emotional trials of the day his entire insides felt hollow, and he wasn’t sure there was enough food in the apartment to satiate his appetite. He reached out to where he had heard Napoleon deposit the cutlery, and started to attack what was on his plate.
‘Just like mother used to make?’ Napoleon asked hopefully.
Illya chewed his mouthful of sausage and swallowed it down. ‘You make it just as well,’ he said. In truth it did not taste like mother used to make. American bread was not Russian bread and American sausage was not Russian sausage. But it was hot and it was good, and he thought he could get used to Napoleon cooking for him.
‘You’ll have to teach me how to make authentic tea for you,’ Napoleon commented after a while.
Illya lifted his cup and tasted the tea. It was no different to the tea his housemates in Cambridge had made for him, although Napoleon did tend towards putting in a little too much milk. Napoleon had often made him tea at headquarters.
‘The tea is fine,’ he said. ‘How do you mean, authentic?’
‘Russian tea,’ Napoleon clarified. ‘With that samovar you’ve got. I was glad to see you also have a teapot.’
Illya chuckled. ‘Napoleon, I make my tea in that teapot. You only boil the water in the samovar.’
‘You do? I thought – ’
‘The samovar is an indulgence; a little of home. I don’t think you would like authentic Russian tea. Too sweet.’
Illya smiled. ‘I put strawberry jam in it.’
He couldn’t see the face Napoleon made but he heard his expression of disgust. ‘It’s a miracle you have any teeth left. Wait, is that why you keep a pot of jam in the third drawer of the filing cabinet? I thought you were having sneaky sandwiches.’
Illya grinned. He had thought it apt to keep his jars of jam and honey in the section labelled ‘Known Honey Traps.’
‘Yes, that is why,’ he nodded. He sat suddenly straighter, making his expression very serious. ‘Wait, Napoleon, did you use my Russian teapot to make English tea?’
Napoleon sounded disconcerted. ‘I – ah – I thought I was making American tea... I used the brown pot bellied one on the counter.’
Illya relaxed, and grinned. ‘Well, that’s my English teapot.’
‘You – ah – need a special teapot for English tea and a special teapot for Russian tea?’ Napoleon asked, sounding really worried now.
Illya burst out laughing. When he composed himself at last he wiped his eyes and said, ‘I’m sorry, Napoleon. I’m playing with you. Yes, I do make English tea in one pot and Russian in another. I bought the English pot when I was in Cambridge and the Russian one I had sent from home. Yes, I like to keep them separate because I use different teas in each. But no, you would not have created an incident of cultural outrage had you made me English tea in the Russian pot. And one of these days I will show you how to make Russian tea.’
‘I look forward to it,’ Napoleon said, and he sounded sincere. ‘Illya, do you think in Russian?’
Illya shifted a little on the sofa, considering. ‘Not so much,’ he admitted. ‘You know how it is when you’re speaking a foreign language. If you don’t think in that language, you’re lost. And I speak English ninety nine percent of the time nowadays. Sometimes I go to places I know Russian will be spoken, immerse myself in it. Ukrainian too. I can’t risk losing my mother tongue.’
‘Teach me,’ Napoleon said on a whim.
Illya snorted. ‘Napoleon, your Russian is perfectly passable.’
‘Passable, yes, but not good. I want it to be good.’
Illya smiled. ‘You want me to talk Russian to you every day, to berate you when you get it wrong, to drop new words on you when you least expect it? We don’t spend much time in that part of the world. You’d be far better perfecting your Spanish.’
There was a slightly hurt tone in Napoleon’s voice. ‘Are you saying my Spanish is no good?’
‘I’m saying Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and you’re already nearly fluent. When Waverly wants a man to go to Russia he picks one who can speak the language like a mother tongue – or at least sends us – them – in together.’
He corrected himself quickly as he remembered that the chances of himself being sent on any Russian missions in the near future were completely nil.
‘I’d still like to improve my Russian,’ Napoleon persisted.
‘Well, when I wake up at four a.m. with my existential angst I will remember to tell you my problems in Russian,’ Illya said with a slight smile. ‘Oh, by the way, can you tell me what happened to my sunglasses after I – er – ’
‘After you hauled off and threw them at the window like the Yankees’ best pitcher?’ Napoleon sounded rueful. ‘You didn’t manage to break the window but I’m afraid the glasses have shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to meet the choir invisible.’
Illya grunted. ‘I may have another pair in that drawer.’
‘I don’t know why you insist on wearing them,’ Napoleon protested. ‘Your eyes look almost normal.’
‘Almost?’ Illya echoed. He touched his hand to his face, feeling tenderly the spot where the local anaesthetic had been injected. ‘Besides, they cut down on the light. It’s like looking at thick fog. I prefer it darker.’
Napoleon sighed and heaved himself off the sofa while Illya began to attack his plate of food again. He heard the drawer slide open and Napoleon rummaging through.
‘You’re in luck, comrade,’ Napoleon told him, putting a pair of glasses to his hand.
‘They’re not my reading glasses?’ Illya asked, running his fingertips over the frame.
‘They’re not your reading glasses – not any of your many pairs. I don’t know why you have so many.’
Illya grunted. ‘I used to lose them a lot. So I’d buy a new pair. But then I started keeping track of them a little better and now I have too many pairs.’ He slipped the glasses on and sighed as the light level dimmed.
‘I don’t understand how you can be so hopelessly disorganised and so perfectly organised in different ways,’ Napoleon admitted, but before Illya could answer Solo’s communicator beeped, and the American hurried to answer it.
It was April Dancer. ‘Napoleon, is Illya with you?’
‘Yeah, he’s right beside me,’ Napoleon said warmly, as if that were the only place he wanted Illya to be.
‘Great. Well, we got Mrs Peterson out safely. She was being held in the abandoned subway station on Roosevelt Avenue. She’s a little shocked and scared but they didn’t rough her up. If she’s suffering from anything it’s neglect.’
Illya leant closer to the communicator in Napoleon’s hand, and Napoleon used the excuse to slip an arm around him. ‘And Dr Peterson?’
‘Hi, Illya,’ April said with a smile in her voice. ‘Dr Peterson and Mrs Peterson are currently together in U.N.C.L.E. HQ, under our protection. They’ll remain under our protection until we can be sure they’re no longer under any threat from Thrush, which will be – ’
‘Either when I’m cured or when we give up for good,’ Illya nodded. ‘Of course. April, have you had any hint of anyone else being affected by that chemical? Or any hint on the grapevine that they might have tried it on their own people?’
‘No hint,’ April responded, ‘which I suppose is good. I mean, you wouldn’t want to wish it on – ’
‘I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone, not even Thrush,’ Illya said darkly.
‘But what a weapon,’ April continued. ‘Imagine – you protect your own people either with an antidote or protective gear, and you send them out against an army, a hostile group, anything. The stuff could be sprayed out, carried on the wind – and you instantly incapacitate your foe.’
‘Yes, just imagine,’ Illya said very blackly. April’s voice sounded dreamy, but he was living the nightmare.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Illya,’ she said quickly, and Napoleon’s hand stroked against his arm at the same time, hugging him a little tighter. ‘Look, I’d better go. Mark and I need to put in our reports. And we’re going to carry on probing this thing, Illya, I promise. If there’s an antidote, we’ll find it.’
‘If there’s an antidote,’ Illya echoed as Napoleon closed the connection. ‘That is a very, very large if.’
‘There’s only one way I think we’re going to find out,’ Napoleon said very seriously. ‘And you know what that is.’
‘Yes,’ Illya nodded. ‘Yes, I know what that is. I’m going to have to let them take me.’
The atmosphere in Central Park had never been more happy and relaxed, but Illya felt anything but. The midday sun burnt on the side of his face and he could hear children running and shouting, adults talking, leaves rustling in the slight breeze. It all felt bizarre considering the semi-darkness that he was walking in. It felt bizarre that everyone but him was able to see the blue sky and the trees unfurling their spring leaves, the lawns recovering from the snows of winter and the hard surfaces of the road and paths. It felt bizarre that everyone else was capable of going about their own lives without help, just as he had been capable ten days ago, and now he was walking only by holding on to someone’s arm. Given the choice he would not have stepped out of his apartment except to go to headquarters, but he had agreed with Napoleon that the fastest way to progress in this case was to expose himself to Thrush, now that they could no longer rely on Dr Peterson’s examinations and forced reports. They had been taking walks around the streets of New York for the last few days, and so far nothing had happened except that he had realised that spending a long time walking around unfamiliar places while blind was tiring, just as everything else was exhausting to tackle without seeing.
‘Oh, look – ’ Napoleon began, and cut off. It was the fourth or fifth time he had done that. Napoleon couldn’t help but point things out that were of interest, and he never remembered until he had uttered those words, oh look.
‘Napoleon, just describe it to me,’ Illya said a trifle impatiently.
‘Oh – uh – well, there’s a kid just over there with a kite in the shape of a dragon. Impressive thing, but there’s not quite enough wind for kite-flying. He keeps throwing it up and running and it holds for maybe thirty seconds, then comes crashing back to the ground. It’s going to get wrecked if he carries on.’
Illya gave a wordless response, and carried on after Napoleon’s arm as he resumed walking. Napoleon wasn’t a bad guide, if a little distractable. When he paid attention Illya trusted him implicitly, and when he didn’t, at least the crook-handled cane helped.
‘Hey, there’s an ice cream seller,’ Napoleon said happily. ‘Let me treat you?’
Illya sighed, but the temptation was great. It was a hot day, and acquiescing would make Napoleon happy. It was good to do things that took his mind off the fact that he was waiting for someone to swoop in and take him.
‘Yes, please,’ he said after a moment. ‘Where is it? Where are we going?’
‘Oh, just over on the other path. We need to cross the grass, but it’s all quite level. That okay?’
‘That’s okay,’ he smiled. Napoleon really was solicitous when he remembered to be. He followed his partner off the hard path and onto the softness of grass that had recently seen a lot of rain, and then back onto hardness again. Napoleon warned him each time of the change in ground before he stepped onto it.
‘Now, what do you want? I’ll spring to two flavours if you want. They have – uh – cherry, rum raisin, pistachio, vanilla of course, chocolate – ’
‘I’ll have chocolate,’ Illya cut him off before he could reel off a list of every flavour in the world. ‘And – er – rum and raisin.’
‘You heard the man,’ Napoleon said in a rather louder voice. ‘And I’ll have pistachio and cherry.’
‘Whatever you say, sir,’ returned the man selling the ice creams, in an accent so Italian it sounded like a cliché.
Illya tilted his head a little, listening at the slight clatter and liquid sound – that must be the man rinsing the scoop – then an almost imperceptible sound followed by the rasp of the scoop against wafer. The sounds repeated, and then Napoleon was awkwardly saying, ‘Illya, can you hold these while I pay, huh?’
He hung his stick over his arm and held up his hands for the two cones, listening to the jingle of money passing hands. Then Napoleon took his own cone back and said, ‘My arm, Mr Kuryakin?’
‘How about we find a seat?’ he asked, not feeling like having to concentrate on eating the ice cream and walking at the same time.
‘Oh, yeah, there’s one – just on the other side of the path,’ Napoleon said quickly. ‘Come with me. That’s it.’
He took Illya’s hand and touched it to the back of a wooden bench, and he felt down to the seat and sat down, leaning the stick beside him.
‘You know, waiting around as bait for Thrush isn’t usually this pleasant,’ Illya said in a low voice, taking a lick of his ice cream. ‘Are you sure there’s no sign?’
Napoleon was silent, evidently looking around, then he replied, ‘No sign yet. Plenty of starlings but no Thrushies.’
‘Would it seem awfully cowardly if I confessed I hope they take us both, not just me?’ Illya asked after a moment of silence.
Napoleon bumped shoulders with him companionably. ‘It would not,’ he assured him. ‘I don’t want to see you dragged off without me either.’
‘I would like at least one working pair of eyes on my side,’ Illya admitted.
‘I will do all I can to stay with you, short of being shot,’ Napoleon promised, ‘because if I’m shot I immediately become far less useful. You do still have both homing devices on you, yes?’
Illya patted his jacket. ‘Yes, I still have them.’
They sat in companionable silence as each finished his ice cream, then Napoleon handed Illya a tissue to wipe his fingers, and said in an exaggeratedly gallant voice, ‘Will you let me escort you further on round?’
Illya grinned. Just for a moment, he felt at ease. ‘I would be delighted.’
He felt for Napoleon’s arm and started to stand up. And then something exploded against the back of his head, and he went from seeing a dim mist to seeing stars, and then to knowing nothing at all.
The air seemed thick and heavy, and smelt of petrol. Illya’s head throbbed, and throbbed even harder as the hard surface he was lying on jerked over a bump in the road. By the engine sound he was in a truck, and he could be anywhere. He had no idea how long he’d been out.
He groaned a little, and tried to roll over. His hands and feet were tied so tightly with rope that the extremities were numb, and vicious pins and needles started up with his movement. He groaned again, a little louder, as the odd pain of his limbs coming back to life galvanised him.
It was pitch dark in the back of the truck, and he was reassured that even with twenty-twenty vision he would have been able to see nothing. That told him there were probably no guards in here – but what about Napoleon? Had he been taken too?
‘Napoleon?’ he murmured, and just that small sound made his head ache harder. He closed his eyes, steadied himself, then tried again. ‘Napoleon?’
There was no answer. If it had been entirely quiet he could have listened for breathing. If he had not been tied up he could have felt around the truck floor. But he could hardly move, and all he could hear was the engine rumbling. To all extents and purposes, he was alone, and he had to assume that Napoleon had been left behind.
He tried a few times to work on the ropes around his hands, but to no avail. He could barely reach the knots. He tried arching his back and kicking his legs backwards to see if he could tackle the ropes on his feet with his hands, which were behind his back, but his fingers were too numb to make sense of anything. He wished he had his watch, which was equipped with a small blade hidden in the backplate, but he had stopped wearing it some days ago.
Resigned, he lowered his head to the metal floor and lay still, conserving his energy. Since the object was for Thrush to take him he needn’t make too much of a show of trying to escape. It was better to just lie still and wait for events to take their course.
Napoleon woke in a towering rage that was edged with frenzy. Before his eyes opened he realised that he was strapped down in a moving vehicle, so when he did open his eyes he was ready to wrench himself out of the surprisingly lax restraints and knock flat whoever might be watching over him. Luckily he realised in that first instant of looking that the young man watching over him was an ambulance man, that the straps were holding him to a gurney, and that the vehicle was an ambulance.
‘Relax! Relax, Mr Solo!’ the ambulance man told him, jerking back a little at the look in Solo’s eyes. ‘You’re with friends. You’re only restrained for your safety.’
‘How – how do you know my name?’ he asked stupidly, looking around. Just that tiny movement made his head hurt like hell. They had coshed him at the same time they had coshed Illya. He hadn’t had a moment to warn him before he was unconscious on the ground.
‘Your identity card in your breast pocket, sir,’ the man said smartly. ‘We’ve contacted U.N.C.L.E. and told them where we – oh, here we are now, sir,’ he interrupted himself as the buildings flashing by slowed and gave way to the sight of what was obviously a hospital.
‘I – don’t need treatment,’ Napoleon said through gritted teeth. ‘Just let me out of here, okay? I need to report – ’
‘When we contacted your boss he said something rather confusing. So I suppose that means they have Kuryakin,’ the ambulance man told him. ‘Does that mean anything to you?’
‘My partner. They have Illya,’ Napoleon groaned. It was inevitable, of course; it was what they had been courting. But he had hoped against hope that they would take him too. ‘And Mr Waverly knows they have Illya. Did anyone see him taken?’
‘Sir, by the time we got there you were the only victim there. But there were a couple of cops and they were talking to a handful of witnesses. They knew you were U.N.C.L.E., so I guess they’re in touch with your boss too.’
Napoleon lifted his hand, trying to unbuckle the straps over him as someone came round to the back of the vehicle to take the gurney.
‘All right, thank you, gentlemen,’ he said in his most charming voice, managing to get the first buckle open, ‘but I’ll have to be going now.’
The ambulance man put his hand over the second buckle as the gurney was trundled out into the open air.
‘Sir, you’ve spent about ten minutes unconscious and you need to be monitored for concussion.’
Napoleon tried to hold in his seething frustration. Getting angry with these people would gain him nothing. They were just doing their job. Discreetly he patted his hand against the side of his chest to check he still had his weapon. He did.
‘Sonny, I’ve had concussion more times than you’ve had hot breakfasts. I have to get out of here.’
He was being wheeled in through wide glass doors, into the chaos of a New York Emergency Room. He took advantage of his escort’s distraction as they spoke to their colleagues to release the strap across his legs, and he stumbled upright feeling more than a little disoriented and nauseous. Simultaneously he drew his gun, and someone screamed.
‘Now, sir,’ the young ambulance man said in a very reasonable voice, holding his hands away from his body. ‘You’re not going to use that. We’re on your side. We’re only trying to help you.’
‘Yeah, and I’ve had a pretty hard blow to the head, so I might not be in my right mind,’ Napoleon cautioned him in a deadly serious voice. ‘Thank you for your help, but I am walking out of here now. I will seek treatment if I need it at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.’
The man shook his head in disbelief, and Napoleon began to back away towards the glass doors. As he slipped through them he heard the man say, ‘Leon warned me never to take an U.N.C.L.E. man as a patient...’
Once outside, Napoleon became suddenly aware of the intensity of his own distress. If it hadn’t been for Illya he would have turned around and walked right back in to the hospital. But Thrush had Illya and he couldn’t afford to be out of action. He swayed over to a concrete planter and was discreetly sick between the geraniums, then stepped out onto the street and hailed a taxi.
The crashing pain in his head told him to go straight to headquarters and check into the infirmary, but there was the more urgent matter of Illya. He told the driver to take him straight back to Central Park, as close to the ice cream stand as he could get. There was still a small crowd of interested by-standers, who became even more interested as one of the victims reappeared on the scene, and he pushed his way through to the two police officers at the centre of the gathering.
‘Napoleon Solo,’ he said, flicking his card. ‘My partner was taken. Have you been given anything concrete about his abduction?’
The officers looked nonplussed. ‘Sir, you have blood running down the back of your neck,’ one of them said in concern. ‘I thought you were taken to the hospital.’
‘I don’t have time for that,’ Napoleon growled. He pressed his hand to the back of his head as it throbbed, and saw that the officer was right. His fingertips came back red. ‘Did anyone see where they took Illya?’
‘Joey, carry on talking to the witnesses, won’t you?’ the officer asked of his colleague. ‘Now, sit down here,’ he said firmly to Napoleon, taking him back to the very bench on which he had been knocked unconscious. The man looked up at a young woman in a blazing orange mini dress who was watching proceedings. ‘Ma’am, can you ask the ice cream seller if he can spare some ice for this poor fellow?’
She skipped away eagerly, and he turned his attention back to Napoleon, who was trying hard to hold in nausea.
‘Now, sir. I’m Officer Dewhurst. The man who was taken – was he an U.N.C.L.E. agent too? I’m getting some conflicting reports. Some people think he was blind?’
‘Uh – yeah, he’s blind. A recent injury,’ Napoleon said, trying hard not to nod because every movement hurt. ‘Yes, he’s an U.N.C.L.E. agent. He’s my partner. He’s most probably been taken by Thrush.’
‘And this is his?’ the officer asked, pointing at the crook-handled cane that was lying half under the bench.
‘Yes, that’s his. Can you tell me what the witnesses have said? I didn’t see a thing. They came from behind.’
‘Well, sir, it’s the darnedest thing,’ Officer Dewhurst said with a puzzled expression. ‘I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t been that multiple witnesses said the same thing.’
‘What did they say?’ Napoleon almost shouted, wishing the man would just get to the damn point. But at that moment the orange-garbed woman returned with a bag of ice, and he took it gratefully and pressed it to the throbbing wound on the back of his head.
‘Well, they said it was an ice cream cart,’ the officer continued. ‘Came right up on the path opposite, and everyone knows that Mr Giancarlo has the rights to this patch. But they came up without music playing, most probably with an electric motor because there was little sound, and two men dressed as ice cream men got out and they hit you and your partner on the back of your heads with – well – with choco-nut ice cream sandwiches.’
Napoleon sighed. The tale did sound ridiculous on the face of it – but then, that was Thrush all over. No wonder he was bleeding. It was probably the nuts.
‘And then?’ he prompted the officer.
‘And then the two of them grabbed your friend and dumped him in the back of the cart – where the ice cream should be, I guess – and they drove away, playing Brahms’ lullaby, if you’d believe.’
‘I’d believe...’ Napoleon sighed. ‘It’s a favourite of theirs. Mama Thrush must have played it to them in their cradles. But they can’t have got very far in an electric ice cream cart?’
‘There are reports that the cart met a truck at the edge of the park, sir. An elderly woman called in what she thought was a kidnapping when she saw an unconscious man being carried from the cart to the truck. Blond, she said, wearing a dark suit, and with blood on the back of his head.’
‘She witnessed a kidnapping all right,’ Napoleon said grimly. ‘Do you have her details? I’d like to talk to her.’
‘Yes, we’ve got them, but she doesn’t remember much beyond size and colour of that truck. Her eyes were on the unconscious man. She couldn’t even tell us what the abductors looked like.’
‘You’ve got people looking out for trucks of that description?’
‘As far as we can, sir.’
‘All right, well, give me the details of that lady. We’ve got techniques we can use back at U.N.C.L.E. that might help her memory.’
‘Uh – ’ The man pulled out a notebook and flicked through the pages, before reeling off a name and address.
Napoleon uncapped his communicator pen and called straight through to headquarters.
‘Wendy, I need a lady bringing in from this address, okay?’ he said, and relayed the name and address from the policeman’s notebook. ‘She witnessed Illya’s abduction and I want her to go through the new memory enhancement techniques to see if we can get any better leads. It sounds like she’s elderly, so send someone who won’t scare her out of her wits, yes?’
‘Well, Napoleon, that sounds like your kind of job,’ Wendy said in a flattering tone.
He pressed the ice a little harder to the back of his head. In as much pain as he was, he couldn’t even remember right now if Wendy was a brunette or a redhead. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right, but I’m a bit tied up here right at this moment. Why not send Agent Audley?’
‘Georgia Audley? Yes, she’s in. All right, Napoleon, I’ll send her right over.’
‘Thank you, Wendy,’ Napoleon replied. ‘I owe you.’
‘Well, if you owe me, Napoleon, how about taking me to the Palm Club on Saturday night?’ the U.N.C.L.E. woman asked flirtatiously. ‘Ever since Illya got injured you’ve been a veritable hermit.’
‘Uh – ’ Napoleon faltered. What could he say? I’m sorry, Wendy, but I can’t take you out because I’m having sex with my intensely male partner? ‘I, uh, I’ll have to see,’ he palmed her off. ‘If we haven’t recovered Illya by then I can be certain to be unavailable, and if we have I’ll need to be there to take care of him.’
‘Oh, you could bring him too,’ she offered gallantly.
Napoleon bit down on frustration and moderated his voice. ‘Wendy, I need you to get that elderly lady in. It’s urgent. I have to go, okay. Solo out.’
He capped the pen with some relief, and turned back to the police officer.
‘Officer – er – Dewhurst. I need to get back to headquarters. Will you be sure to pass on all your information to U.N.C.L.E.?’
‘Will do,’ the man replied smartly. ‘Listen, you sit there and I’ll get you a cab. You don’t look like you should be up and about at all.’
Napoleon sighed. He didn’t feel as if he should be up and about either, but he didn’t have much choice in that. He let Officer Dewhurst get him a cab and accepted his arm to lean on as he walked across the grass to it. Once back in HQ he allowed one of the infirmary doctors to check him over as he went through the police details that had been sent through and gladly accepted a painkiller and something for the nausea. He could only guess at how Illya must be feeling right now, having been subjected to an identical attack and with none of the amenities of the U.N.C.L.E. medical department to hand.
Illya was feeling decidedly unwell. He was still trussed tightly in the lightless back of the truck, and the constant engine vibration and petrol smell were conspiring to exacerbate the pain in his head to the point of violent nausea. So far he had managed to keep himself from being sick, because the last thing he wanted was to be tied up like this in a pool of vomit, but it was a tough struggle.
He hadn’t bothered trying to sit up, since there was very little point. He just lay on the truck floor trying to hear anything useful, but the only things he heard were the occasional honking of horns and the sounds of other traffic. Perhaps they were on a large road. They certainly seemed to be travelling faster now than New York traffic would allow. But he had no idea where, or how long he had been unconscious in the truck, or how long he would have to continue to lie here.
His final question was answered sooner than he expected. The truck’s speed diminished and he slipped sideways as it turned off to the right and headed down a slope. The vehicle continued to trundle along rather slower roads, until finally it made a last turn and rolled to a halt. Illya exhaled with a mixture of relief and trepidation. It was only a moment before the doors were opened, and the thick blackness was replaced by the wearyingly familiar grey blur. In the darkness of the truck he had almost been able to forget that he couldn’t see.
The adrenaline that began to surge helped with the pain in his head. He shuffled himself up so that he was sitting, listening intently to the sounds he could hear of more than one person at the rear door.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said smoothly. ‘I hope one of you will help me out. I’m really tied very tightly.’
To his surprise it was a woman’s voice that answered.
‘Cut his feet,’ she said briskly, ‘but not his hands.’
‘I stand corrected, madam,’ he said cautiously.
The truck rocked as someone jumped in. His urge was to fight, but he wasn’t that foolish. For all he knew there could be ten guns on him. Rough hands grabbed at his legs, and he winced as the ropes were cut and the blood started flowing back into his feet in earnest.
‘All right, out,’ a rough male voice said.
‘Give me a moment,’ he muttered. ‘My feet are dead.’
The answer was a hand grabbing hold of his upper arm and viciously wrenching him up onto his feet. He staggered, almost falling, and was manhandled out of the back of the truck. The sudden drop caught him before he expected it, and he fell hard to his knees on what felt like dirt and gravel.
‘Bring him inside,’ the woman said.
Hands grabbed at his arms again and he hobbled along with his captors, too distracted by the screaming nervy pain in his feet to pay much attention to anything else.
‘Hold him there a minute,’ the woman said in a curious tone, and he was jerked to a halt. The sunglasses were ripped from his face and thrown to the floor and he blinked, turning his head at the sudden increase in light. There was a moment of silence in which she came very close to his face, and he could smell soap and a popular brand of perfume. Then there was a click and he smelt lighter fluid burning.
‘Well, he really is blind,’ she said in a tone of muted appreciation.
‘Are you the one I have to thank for that?’ Illya asked, unable to hide his bitterness. ‘Miss Sophie Winslip, perhaps?’
‘I and a few colleagues,’ she replied. ‘Yes, I am Miss Winslip, but you can carry on calling me madam.’
Illya didn’t like the tone in her voice. He had encountered women like her before. She was very pleased at her current mastery of her captive. He had the urge to spit at her, but he restrained it.
Her voice became businesslike again. ‘All right, bring him inside. Put him in his room and prepare him as I’ve instructed you.’
He tried to grab as many details as he could glean on the short walk inside. The scent of pine in the air, and of damp earth. The quite distant rumble of traffic. A few bird calls. It all spoke of somewhere relatively isolated, definitely not a built up area. But then he was inside and a door was closing behind him, and all he could tell about the inside of the building was that it smelt of cleaning fluid and was very bright and echoing, with hard floors and hard walls. He concentrated on remembering his path from the front door to wherever he was being taken, just in case he would be called upon to follow it alone and in reverse, but his attempt was severely hampered when he was taken into an elevator. Although he was almost certain he was being taken down, he had no idea which floor he had started from and which floor the doors opened on when it stopped. He was marched through a long space and then jerked to a halt again.
‘All right, Kuryakin, in,’ one of his male guides said, pushing him roughly through a door.
He focussed on not falling, since his hands were behind his back, but then the two men guarding him were back on either side of him, cutting the rope around his hands.
‘Ah, that’s better,’ he nodded, trying to preserve a light manner no matter how vulnerable he felt.
‘Yeah, that’s not the end of it. Get out of your clothes.’
‘I – I beg your pardon?’ he asked, momentarily thinking he had misheard.
‘Miss Winslip’s orders. Get out of your clothes. We know what you U.N.C.L.E. agents carry in your shoes, in your buttons, in your tie clips. Get out of your clothes or we’ll get you out of them.’
Illya swallowed, but evidently this was a nastiness that couldn’t be avoided. Without hurrying, he began to strip until he was standing in nothing but underwear. He hardly could hurry with the pins and needles waking up his numb hands.
‘Everything,’ his guard told him.
‘Everything? Now really – ’
The guard brought his face very close. Illya could smell everything the man had eaten for lunch, including the red wine he had finished with. He stepped back a little. He couldn’t help himself.
‘U.N.C.L.E. agent once took a guy out with an ink bottle and the elastic from his underpants. Miss Winslip says everything, so you take off everything. Or I take them off for you.’
Illya grimaced. He had been the agent who had taken out a man with his underpants elastic and an ink bottle. He bit back a bitter retort about the likelihood of him being able to take anyone out in that way while blind, and peeled off the final garment.
‘I – er – don’t suppose you have something for me to wear?’ he tried hopefully, feeling rather more vulnerable in front of his guards now.
‘I don’t think we carry your size, shrimp,’ the guard said nastily.
A moment later Illya was alone in the room, and the door was locked. He stood still for a moment, just listening, but all he could hear was the sound of two sets of footsteps walking away. He felt disinclined to search the room because he couldn’t see how he would manage to break out of it. Sometimes he carried a lockpick in his mouth, but not today, and every single item of use had been taken from him. He was not so modest that nudity would prevent him from attempting to leave, but he needed to have tools. His one hope was that although he had no pick in his mouth, he did have a small homing device fitted in one of his back teeth. It was an experimental model, and could only be picked up in a radius of five miles, so U.N.C.L.E would have to have some idea of where he was in order to pick it up. But the more powerful homing device in his jacket button would almost certainly have been detected and destroyed by now, so this was all that he had.
He sank to his knees, feeling incredibly tired. His head was throbbing, and when he touched his hand to the base of his skull his fingers came back sticky and iron tasting with blood. He pressed his hands to the floor, feeling a relatively thick-piled carpet, and that gave him the impetus to explore further despite his exhaustion. This wasn’t a stark cell, and as such it might have possibilities.
He hoped no one was watching him as he began to crawl about the room making a fingertip search, but after a few minutes he stopped caring, lost in the fascination of his exploration. He found a bed, made up with sheets and blankets, and a night stand beside it which held a small lamp with a conical shade. When he flicked the switch on and off he could just perceive the increase and then decrease in light. He found the door to the room, which seemed to have a small glass window set into it and was locked with a conventional lock. There was a light switch beside the door, and when he pressed it the room was plunged into utter darkness. He left it off, rationalising that it didn’t help him at all, and at least now he couldn’t be watched.
It wasn’t exactly a cell – perhaps at some time it had been living quarters – but a room didn’t need bars to make it a prison, just a locked door. As he felt over the walls he found a couple of picture hooks from which the pictures had evidently been removed, and then he found a narrow door which did open, onto a bathroom that seemed to be equipped with toilet, basin, and shower. He used the basin to splash cold water onto the wound at the back of his head. He worried instinctively for a moment about getting blood on the towel, but then decided that if they didn’t want blood on their towels they shouldn’t have hit him so hard, so he gingerly towelled the water away, and went back into the main room. Shaking and weary from his head wound, and knowing he could do little in this state to effect an escape, he sank into the bed and pulled the clean blankets up over his head.
He lay there considering what he had discovered in his search of the room. It might be possible to strip some wire out of the lampshade for a lockpick. He hadn’t found out if there was a mirror in the small bathroom, but there probably was, and smashing it and wrapping a shard in a torn piece of sheet would give him a weapon. The glass in the door was probably safety glass and he wouldn’t be able to break it. Even if he did he didn’t think he would be able to reach through to the level of the handle outside, in the case of there being a bolt on the door. But there were possibilities in the wire lampshade, and he continued to cogitate them as he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
The elderly lady’s eyes were unfocussed as she sat in a comfortable leather office chair in a small room deep in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. In front of her a light wheel was revolving, and the multicoloured lights it cast flickered over the creases of her face and turned her white hair a rainbow of colours. Edie Wilkins was proving to be a very amenable subject for questioning, wanting to do anything she could to help that poor young man.
Napoleon had a thumping headache that the infirmary’s best drugs were hardly touching, but he sat in on the interview, anxious to gather the facts as soon as they were elicited from Mrs Wilkins’ now pliable memory. He had left the actual questioning up to Georgia Audley, who had made a very good impression on the old woman. Usually Miss Audley made a very good impression on Napoleon too, with her Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair and her shapely figure, but all he could think about now was Illya.
‘So, there were two men in the ice cream cart and two men and a woman in the truck?’ she was asking very gently.
The woman’s voice sounded as if it were coming from far away. ‘Yes, two men dressed as ice cream men took that poor young man out of the back of their cart. He was quite limp and I could see blood in his hair. And two other men jumped out of the cab truck, and the woman with them. They manhandled him like a sack of wheat into the truck, poor thing, just threw him in and jumped back into the cab and drove off.’
‘They probably stopped later to tie him up,’ Napoleon muttered. ‘They wouldn’t leave him unbound. He’d get out of a truck like that in – ’
He broke off. Would Illya be able to break out of a truck when he couldn’t see? Perhaps he could force or pick the door, but what then? He had a vision of Illya wandering, blind and concussed at the side of some freeway, and his stomach clenched. But he forced himself not to dwell on that. Illya had meant to be captured so he wouldn’t be trying to escape.
‘Mrs Wilkins, what did the woman look like?’ Georgia Audley asked softly.
‘Oh, she was very pretty, very pretty. Young. She had chestnut hair. A tall lady but just a child really, no more than twenty five I’m sure. The most amazing eyes now I think of it, those ones that look like blue lakes with dark around the iris edge. A very pretty girl. My Lionel would have – ’
Napoleon leafed through the dossiers he held and drew out Miss Sophie Winslip’s. He brought it over to the woman and handed it silently to Miss Audley. She held it in front of Mrs Wilkins.
‘Edie, is this the woman?’
Her eyes became a little more focussed.
‘Oh yes, that’s the girl. Yes, my Lionel liked girls like that. I used to have hair almost that colour, you know...’
‘And the men?’ Miss Audley asked patiently. ‘Can you tell me more about them?’
‘Oh, they were tall fellows too. They wore odd looking things. Blue coveralls they were, with a badge. A little black bird on white. A sweet thing. They weren’t very gentle with the poor man.’
Miss Audley made an adjustment with the lights. ‘Edie, what did they look like? The men with the truck?’
Napoleon sat forward, ready to key the details into the U.N.C.L.E. computer, where all the records of known Thrush personnel were kept.
‘The first one I think must have been six three, six four. He had light hair. Yes, number two there,’ she nodded as Miss Audley showed her a colour chart. ‘Blue eyes.’
The computer whirred, narrowing down the records.
‘Was he well built?’ Miss Audley asked.
Mrs Wilkins smiled. ‘Oh, yes, very well built. Quite a handsome man too, conventionally so.’
That eliminated another swathe of characters from the records. Napoleon murmured to Miss Audley, ‘That’s enough. I’ll call down those records,’ careful to keep his voice low so as not to disturb Mrs Wilkins.
Miss Audley nodded and started to elicit the details of the second Thrush man. Before long Napoleon had that narrowed down to a handful of records too, and had ordered them to be sent down. After half an hour Mrs Wilkins had positively identified the blond man but could not find the other in their records. It was enough, though. The records identified the blond as being affiliated with a northern New York State satrapy, and her description of the dark haired one matched hearsay descriptions of another Thrush man seen in that area. Napoleon thanked the old lady effusively, kissing her on both cheeks so that she became quite flustered and blushed pink, and went upstairs to start looking into known and suspected Thrush installations in that part of the state.
Illya woke to someone trying to pull his eyelid open, and he jerked backwards so hard that he slammed his head against the wooden headboard, bringing his arms up instinctively to defend himself.
‘Take care, Mr Kuryakin,’ the voice of Sophie Winslip said smoothly from the other side of the room. ‘I have a cattle prod here which is quite capable for stunning you for a nice long time. Don’t make me use it.’
He froze for a moment, pulling in breath, then reached to pull the blankets back up over his chest. He didn’t know if he had pushed them off in his sleep or if his visitors had done so. He felt horribly vulnerable, and he tried not to show it.
‘Hugo, carry on checking him,’ the woman said carelessly.
‘I guess he doesn’t need checking for concussion now he’s awake,’ a male voice replied, much closer to him. That must have been the person who was trying to open his eye.
‘Well, check him anyway, just to be sure. Lie still, Mr Kuryakin. Remember the cattle prod.’
‘How do I know you even have such a thing?’ Illya asked tersely, and she laughed lightly.
‘I could use it on you. Then you’d know. But take my word for it.’
‘I would,’ the man, Hugo, said conversationally. ‘Miss Winslip doesn’t mess around, you know.’
‘It’s good to hear,’ Illya said cynically.
The hand came again to hold his eyelids open, and an intensely bright light flickered across each in turn.
‘His pupils don’t react much, but that’s to be expected,’ Hugo Ward said. ‘Not with the calcium compound interfering with the natural processes. He probably needed those sunglasses he was wearing because his pupils weren’t contracting as they should.’
‘In that case, maybe I can have them back,’ Illya said tartly.
Mr Ward shook him roughly, then continued speaking to Miss Winslip. ‘Both pupils are dilated the same amount, anyway. I’m not quite a doctor, you know that, Sophie, but I think he’s fit to be dealt with.’
‘No, I suppose flunking out in your third year doesn’t make you quite a doctor,’ Miss Winslip said musingly. ‘You’re qualified to collar him, though.’
Before Illya could ask what she meant he felt the man’s hands fitting a leather collar around his neck. He had the suspicion by the click it made that it was locked closed once it was on, and his stomach dropped a little. He had encountered Miss Winslip’s type before in the person of Mother Fear, and of the half-insane Miss Diketon, who had carried her strange sexual dominance far too far for his liking. Somehow these types seemed drawn to him.
‘All right, Kuryakin. Get up,’ the woman said briskly. ‘No. Leave the blanket,’ she ordered him as he tried to stand with it wrapped around him.
With great dignity he left it behind, and stood straight.
‘Oh, well aren’t you dinky,’ she said in a delighted tone. He knew from her dossier that she was slightly taller than he was, and she was probably wearing heels. How she must be getting off on that height difference now.
‘Where do you want me, Miss Winslip?’ he asked with icy politeness.
He heard a slight click like a dial being turned, then he cried out involuntarily as something deposited an electrical charge into his flank.
‘You called me madam outside and I told you you could carry on that form of address,’ Miss Winslip told him as he stood panting and gasping, recovering from the shock. ‘That was the lowest setting on the prod. I will turn it up one more notch each time you force me to use it. By the end it will be beyond pain. Do you understand?’
‘Yes – madam,’ Illya replied, using the word but unable to hide the sullen tone.
He heard something click onto what must be a ring on the collar, and abruptly he was tugged forward. Disgustedly he realised that she had him on a leash.
‘I always wanted a pet,’ she said serenely. ‘Come now, Kuryakin. We’ve got work to do.’
Sometimes Illya thought there wasn’t enough money in the world to pay for the job he did.
The last received signal from Illya’s main homing device had placed him somewhere in a twenty mile area of northern New York State, so it was a question of patrolling likely areas and trying to pick up the less powerful transmitter in his tooth. Napoleon drove up himself to meet with the local U.N.C.L.E. agents in a sporty red open-top Triumph. The weather was beautiful and the roads were clear, but he found no joy in the journey. He was consumed with concern for Illya and his head was still throbbing. He had only just managed to persuade the U.N.C.L.E. doctor to clear him to go, and he thought half of the reason he had been cleared was because the doctor knew how much trouble he would cause if he were grounded.
Every now and then Napoleon slipped his communicator out of his pocket and held it against the wheel, trying to contact Illya. He knew that his communicator would have been taken away the instant he was captured, but it seemed senseless not to try at all. After each failed attempt he contacted the local teams and badgered them for information, but all he got was, ‘No sign of him yet, Mr Solo.’
When that happened he capped the communicator pen furiously and shoved it back into his pocket until he was ready to try again. He stopped once to fill up the gas-hungry car’s tank, but other than that he kept his foot down and drove like a man possessed. When he got to the local U.N.C.L.E. office they tried to sit him down and give him coffee, but he found he couldn’t sit still. He drank the coffee because it made sense to rehydrate after the long drive, and to give himself another dose of caffeine, but he didn’t taste a single mouthful.
‘Mr Solo, shall I go get you a sandwich from down the street?’ the lovely blonde receptionist asked him. ‘We only have drinks facilities here, I’m afraid.’
If the coffee had been tasteless he was sure a sandwich would be like ashes in his mouth, but he nodded distractedly, and when she asked him what filling he wanted he shrugged and told her to choose for him. He didn’t really want the sandwich either, but again he knew that he would function better for it, and functioning better was important right now.
The receptionist hesitated at the door, then held out her hand.
‘Why don’t you come with me, Mr Solo? You’ll get your food sooner and be on your way faster.’
He smiled in gratitude at her understanding, and followed her out of the place. She turned a sign to ‘Closed’ in the glass door of the community centre that functioned as the office’s cover, and grinned at his look of astonishment.
‘There’s only me in, Mr Solo,’ she told him. ‘There are only six guys here and they’re all out looking for Mr Kuryakin; so if I leave I lock up. I have to run the centre too, but that doesn’t take much effort. It’s really only a place where people come to put up notices – you know, lost cat, job wanted, when the summer fair’s on. That kind of thing. Pretty much everyone local knows it’s an U.N.C.L.E. office anyway. After all, we have to pay rent to Mr Pienkowski, and he talks to everyone.’
‘Huh,’ Napoleon nodded at that interesting local titbit. ‘Not much opposition to U.N.C.L.E. here, then?’
‘Oh no, we’re very well supported. We’re too small to be a draw for Thrush and we do a lot of community work. We’re just a hub. Most of our agents’ work is being sent out to other areas – like the guys are now, searching for your friend. Here,’ she said, touching his elbow to turn him to a small glass-fronted café with the legend ‘Aunt May’s Sandwiches’ above the door.
‘Ah, thank you, – uh, Rosalie? It was Rosalie, wasn’t it?’
‘It was indeed,’ the receptionist smiled. ‘The boys call me Rosie.’
‘And with good reason,’ Napoleon complimented her almost automatically, looking her up and down. ‘Uh – you’d better get back, and I’ll go straight on from here to join the search. They’re radiating out from Section 3, aren’t they?’
‘That’s the one.’ She stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek briefly. ‘Good luck, Mr Solo. I can see how worried you are about him.’
Previously Napoleon would have felt his insides lurch at a kiss from so beautiful a woman, but he barely felt her lips. All he could think of was Illya. Illya had been held captive many times by Thrush, more times than he could count. The Russian had been an inch away from death more times than he could count too. But the thought of Illya being held by Thrush in his current condition, with his current physical and emotional vulnerability, horrified him.
There definitely wasn’t enough money in the world for this. Somebody could have wheeled a pallet covered in gold bars into the room and he would have refused it. Of course, Illya reflected ruefully, they would have to tell him about the pallet before he knew it was there, and he would have to touch the gold to assure himself they were telling the truth…
Those black and wandering thoughts weren’t enough to keep him from his current situation. It had been bad enough being tugged through the halls of this building by Miss Winslip with the leash attached to his neck, feeling that horrible vulnerability of nakedness in a place where he could see nothing and no one could be trusted. But now he was fastened to a table at neck, ankles, and wrists, his head held perfectly immobile in some kind of brace attached to the surface, and Hugo Ward was about to repeat Dr Peterson’s procedure with the needle. His right eyelid was already being held open by a metal device, and the surface was drying uncomfortably with his inability to blink.
‘Didn’t Peterson send you your own sample?’ he asked through gritted teeth. He heard the click on the dial of the cattle prod, and quickly added, ‘Madam.’
Miss Winslip laughed musically from near his side, and he flinched. She had stepped closer in that brief moment before he had addressed her as she wished.
‘Oh, that. That was hardly enough for a single slide. Besides, that was three days ago. No, Mr Kuryakin, we need a little more.’ Illya bit his lip into his mouth as she continued on to Ward, ‘Hugo, dear, make sure to only take it from the right eye. We’ll keep the left as a control.’
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ Ward murmured, and Illya got the sense that he was weary of this woman too. ‘Now, Mr Kuryakin, I want you to hold your eye absolutely still.’
‘You’re – not going to anaesthetise the – ’ Illya began, then trailed off as he realised that no, of course he wasn’t. That would be too easy. A flame of fear licked through him and he found himself wishing rather pathetically for Napoleon’s hand. He wondered how much fluid an eye could give up, and how much damage would be wrought if they kept mining him for samples in this way. He didn’t even know if their equipment was properly sterilised. It would be no good if they did discover the cure but his eye was wrecked, even if it were only his right. A one eyed man could not be an active agent.
‘Sophie, come here and make yourself useful,’ Ward said. ‘Right here. Click your fingers above the man’s head. Keep clicking. Mr Kuryakin, I know your vision is next to useless but direct your eyes towards the sound and don’t be tempted to look away. This will be quite unpleasant.’
There was something approaching regret in the man’s voice, and Illya wondered if that would be something he could work on.
The clicking started up, sounding ridiculously like the slow start to a jazz number, and he directed his blind eyes towards it, pressing his head back so hard against the table that it hurt. Fear paralysed his body but he was afraid that reflexes would kick in when the needle touched.
‘I will count you down, Mr Kuryakin. Three. Two. One.’
Even his breath froze as the needle plunged swiftly into his eye, and then he let out a wail like deflating bagpipes, nothing moving but his chest as it forced the air out of his lungs. The needle could not have been there for more than two seconds, but it felt like an eternity as he struggled against every instinct to jerk his gaze away, trying to focus instead on that wordless cry coming out of his mouth. Then the man’s hand clenched on his shoulder and he said, ‘You can move.’
The breath he took in was shaking. A sob burst out before he could catch it, and Ward’s hand pressed a little more firmly. Illya was too lost now in his shaking mire of fear and relief and emotion to think about manipulating the man. He was just trying to hold in his shameful reaction, because he wanted to weep. He had faced torture before, but this reached right to the heart of all his current fears; and this time there were no answers he could give that would stop their experimentation.
The back of Miss Winslip’s fingers trailed across his wet cheek, and he bit his lip again, willing himself not to snap. He didn’t want her to touch him, ever.
‘You have enough?’ she asked, and Illya assumed she was speaking to Ward.
‘It’ll do,’ Ward replied, ‘but I don’t want to do that again without drugs. It’s – too dangerous.’
‘Too dangerous?’ she replied icily. ‘Are you worried about the little pet?’
‘No, it’s – If he moves and tears the sclera we’ll be unleashing a whole pile of problems we don’t need. If we want to use him for research we need to keep him healthy. Anyone who works with lab animals knows that. And I want to do more tests than just this one on him tomorrow, when I have all my things here.’
There was a long, thick silence, while Ward removed the device holding his eye open. Illya clenched his hands at his sides, blinking furiously as his right eye streamed tears and his left did the same in sympathy. Finally Miss Winslip said in a pouty tone, ‘Well, I suppose we do need to keep the creature whole. How does the fluid look?’
‘At first glance? I need to get it under the microscope of course, but it seems more opaque. The calcification is proceeding well.’
‘Well?’ Illya blurted, unable to keep silent any longer. ‘You foul – ’ Then he cried out aloud as the cattle prod lunged into his side and his entire body spasmed, dragging his limbs and neck against the restraints.
‘The best little pets are seen and not heard,’ Miss Winslip cooed, stroking his cheek again.
Illya swallowed on intense nausea, but he couldn’t stop himself from asking that one question that had been burning in him since the night he was blinded.
‘Just tell me. Is there any cure – madam? Mr Ward? Have you developed a cure?’
Miss Winslip laughed again. ‘The poor little lab rat is scared. Mr Kuryakin, does it really matter? Do you think you’re going to be let out of here no matter which way it goes?’
‘My mother taught me to be an optimist – madam,’ Illya murmured, trying hard to cling onto the façade of black humour that usually served him so well. This time the words were nothing but words, and did nothing to paper over the feelings beneath.
‘Well, it’s sweet to think of it as a child, isn’t it, Hugo?’ Miss Winslip asked. ‘Did it play games with its little friends? Did you, Mr Kuryakin?’
There wasn’t a way he could avoid reply to such a direct question. ‘Y-yes, madam,’ Illya said, feeling a deep apprehension about where this was going.
‘Well, maybe when your eyes become petrified little orbs we can pluck them out and use them as marbles. Wouldn’t you like that?’
‘Not really, madam,’ he replied.
‘No, I shouldn’t think you would,’ she said sweetly. Her voice was directed away from him again as she said, ‘Oh, it does make such a darling pet, doesn’t it?’
Her hand touched his collarbone, then trailed down his torso to circle his navel, then started to move lower. Illya closed his eyes, bracing himself for a more intimate touch which he didn’t have the mental resolve to accept at the moment, but then Hugo Ward said in a disgusted tone, ‘Oh come on, Sophie. Do you really need him for that too?’
Her hand froze just below his navel. He could feel each fingertip against his skin. The skin of his genitals seem to crawl in horrified anticipation. But then her hand was abruptly lifted away.
‘Not when I’ve got you, Hugo,’ she said, her voice an odd mixture of placation and regret.
‘Well, I’m done with him for now,’ Ward said rather tersely. ‘I’ll take him back to his cell.’
Illya breathed out very slowly. He was waiting for Miss Winslip to protest, but she said nothing as the restraints were unlocked and he was told to sit up. He swung his legs to the floor and found he was ridiculously shaky. He was glad of Ward’s hand holding him under the arm.
‘She’s a fucking psycho,’ Ward muttered in a low voice as soon as they were out of the room.
Illya stumbled along the corridor, leaning a little on Ward’s arm, uncertain if he should reply or whether doing so would expose him to more abuse. He wasn’t even sure if he could reply. He didn’t know if he was shaking from the electric shocks or Miss Winslip’s near molestation or from the psychological and physical horror of having Ward extract vitreous fluid without an anaesthetic. Perhaps it was all of those things, combined with the after effects of the vicious blow to the head that had brought him here. He barely felt capable of walking, let alone speech.
When they entered the elevator Ward propped him against the wall, and Illya sank involuntarily into a crouch, head dropping as his ears screamed and garish lights flashed somewhere inside his head. He felt as if he were about to faint. He told himself he was being ridiculous, but telling himself that couldn’t stop the sensation. Ward hefted him up again when the elevator doors opened and he tried to step forwards, feeling as if he were walking through a world of cotton wool. He was barely aware of being taken into his room, but he felt the bed beneath him, and Ward folding the blanket over him with a surprisingly gentle touch.
He fought back from the screaming and lights and intense nausea to raise a hand, which Ward took as if by instinct, fingers curling around his in wordless comfort.
‘Is there a cure?’ Illya asked, his own voice sounding very far away.
There was silence, and he thought that Ward would refuse to answer him. But bending closer under the guise of lifting Illya’s eyelids to check his eyes, Ward brought his mouth very close to the Russian’s ear and said, ‘There will be if I have anything to do with it.’
Then the man straightened up quickly and said, ‘He’s back in his room.’
Illya realised he must be talking through some kind of radio when a distorted female voice replied, ‘Well, leave it there and get to looking at that sample, then.’
‘I will be there in a minute, Sophie,’ the man said with strained patience. ‘But I want our subject left alone for a while to rest. Your goons hit him far harder than they needed to to get him here, and with that and everything else I think he’s in shock.’
‘I don’t care if the rat’s in shock, it’s – ’ the indignant reply began.
‘Well I do,’ Ward cracked across her words. ‘I told you before. If you’re going to experiment on animals you have to look after them, otherwise they’re no use to anyone. I need him coherent and cooperative if I want to get any replies from him during examination. Sure, you can prod it out of him but we’ll have no idea if he’s telling the truth or not. He needs to be left to rest, then he needs some food, and then we can start again.’
‘I want you to take another biopsy at the same time tomorrow,’ Miss Winslip replied sharply. ‘We need the rate of progression.’
‘Tomorrow,’ Ward said. ‘But not before tomorrow. Until then, he rests.’
Illya was indescribably grateful for that small mercy. He thought he should say something as the man left the room but as he floundered for words the door shut and locked. Now was his chance to strip some wire out of the lampshade or make that weapon from the bathroom mirror; but instead of doing that he just lay in bed and shook.
Napoleon felt as if he had seen enough of this corner of New York State to last him a lifetime. After driving for hours to get here now he was driving endlessly again, trying to cover as much ground as possible in order to pick up Illya’s signal. The thought haunted him with every road he drove that if he were just a foot, half a foot, even, out of range he would pick up nothing. What if he were missing Illya by the tiniest of margins?
Grimly he took a left turn down a narrow road with a terrible surface, and started to bump along with a field on one side of him and dark pine trees on the other. Every jolt made the back of his head throb, and his forehead tightened and throbbed in sympathy. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could carry on without taking some pretty serious stimulants. The light was beginning to fail as evening wore on, and his own exhaustion, pain, and nausea were all building relentlessly. When it got to the point that he almost ran into another car at a junction he stopped and leant his head against the steering wheel, his heart pounding along with his head. He was exhausted and he had to acknowledge that.
He opened his communicator to check in with the local U.N.C.L.E. office, and was surprised when Rosalie Thomas replied.
‘Ah – er, Miss Thomas. Still on duty?’ he asked.
She laughed lightly. ‘Mr Solo, I’m always on duty. If you must know, I’m in the bath. We don’t have night staff, so I carry a communicator at all times.’
‘Oh – well – I’m sorry,’ he began, too tired even to indulge in flirting innuendo.
‘Mr Solo, you sound terrible!’
‘I am pretty exhausted,’ he admitted. ‘Look, can you triangulate my location and direct me to the nearest place that might have a room for a weary traveller?’
‘I can’t triangulate from my bath, Mr Solo,’ she reminded him. His mind drifted momentarily, visualising her lying there with a body to match her face, her hair probably piled up on her head to keep it out of the water. Then he snapped himself back, realising he had almost drifted into sleep. ‘Can you tell me anything about your location?’ she was asking him.
He frowned and looked around, then told her the name of the last place he had driven through and a rough description of direction and distance he had travelled since. At that she told him he should hit a big enough place if he made north-west. He thanked her wearily, reflecting that he could probably have managed without calling her, and bade her goodnight.
He took a left, drove until the roads were large enough to have signs on them, and followed one for the nearest town. He picked the first motel he came to on the outskirts. The room he was shown to was run down and couldn’t quite be described as clean, but he didn’t care. He just crawled into the bed and dragged the sheet over his head, to fall into dreams about Illya lost in the bath, blind and threatened and unable to get out.
Illya slept deeply at first, but as he began to recover from his exhaustion his sleep became broken up by dreams that were deeply psychologically disturbing: not the type that woke one up screaming, but the type that lingered in the psyche and tainted the waking hours. He dreamt of being held down, of the needle entering his eye, of scenarios that were more grotesque and twisted than what had actually happened, but left him in utter dread of what was going to happen again tomorrow.
He was woken finally by the sound of the door being unlocked, and he lay pressed into the bed for a moment, disoriented and confused, before remembering exactly where he was. He caught the scent of food, and recalled that Mr Ward had ordered him left alone for the rest of the day, but also to be fed.
‘Well, hello,’ he said after a moment, fairly certain that this would not be Miss Winslip, who he didn’t think would stoop to bringing him food.
The person remained silent. He or she put the tray down on the night stand; on consideration, going by the heaviness of the sounds, he thought it was probably a male. Then the person left the room, and the door closed.
He waited a moment before sitting up and reaching out to the tray. His fingers touched a metal edge and slipped into a long, narrow hollow that held a plastic knife and fork. This was not a tray with a plate of food on it, he realised, but the kind of compartmentalised tray used in schools or prisons to carry inmates’ meals. They weren’t risking giving him anything he could turn into a weapon.
He picked up the fork and poked experimentally into the next depression. As he stirred at the food the scent of meat and gravy rose, surprisingly appetising. Apart from his ice cream in the park Illya hadn’t eaten since breakfast and he was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. He discovered chunks of meat – maybe they had cut it up either in deference to his blindness or because the plastic knife was next to useless – doused in a thick gravy, beside a mound of creamed potatoes and peas. He had learnt that creamed potatoes made an excellent glue for peas. He didn’t have the patience to sit trying to balance forkful after forkful to his mouth and was hungry enough not to want to miss a single pea, so he swirled the vegetables and the meat indiscriminately into the potatoes and started shovelling them into his mouth.
Somewhat sated when the depression in the tray was empty, he lightly passed his fingers over the rest and was surprised to discover what seemed to be a slice of pie in another section, and a plastic cup which proved to contain milky coffee. He would have preferred it black, but milk meant calories, and he was grateful for both that and the pie, which turned out to be cherry. He wondered if perhaps Ward had had a hand in this, unless there was someone else here sympathetic to his plight. Miss Winslip, he thought wryly, would probably have given him water and a bowl of kibble, and made him eat it on the floor.
He had a moment of irrational panic after he had eaten, and pressed his finger into the back of his mouth to check that the homing bug was still firmly set in his tooth. It was there. Even if he did swallow it he knew it would still be functional and he wouldn’t need to worry until he had a bowel movement. Even then, the likelihood would be that it would stay in the area for some time. But he desperately needed it to call Napoleon to him. He feared death less than he feared another needle biopsy of his increasingly sore right eye. It was not something he could rationalise. Just thinking about it made his heart race.
Get a hold of yourself, he told himself disgustedly, slapping the empty coffee cup back down into its niche on the tray. If Napoleon didn’t find him before tomorrow afternoon he would be certain to face another one of those biopsies, and he had to be able to face it without falling apart. Miss Winslip, he was sure, would love to see him reduced to begging, and there was no hope that she would relent.
He lay back on the bed and folded his arms behind his head, trying to conjure a picture of nonchalance that he hoped would eventually seep through to his jittery mind. It often worked: act happy and eventually one becomes happy. Act as if there is no pain, and you cease to feel it. But the idea of the needle was on another level entirely. He found himself wondering if he could barter with Ward, maybe even with Winslip. Please, I promise to answer every question truthfully if you just don’t put the needle in my eye. Please, I’ll do anything you want, madam, if you tell him not to use the needle. I’ll offer you my body, anything…
That was a dangerous path to go down. If they understood the exquisitely focussed fear that the needle conjured then they would use it. They would try to get more than just answers about his eyesight. They would probe him about U.N.C.L.E., and he wasn’t sure how long he would be able to resist.
He realised that his breathing had sped up again, his heart was pounding, he was feeling dizzy. He felt disgusted with himself. He forced himself to sit up, to wrap a sheet around himself and arrange himself cross-legged on the floor. He rested his hands lightly on his knees. Napoleon would laugh to see him. He’d call him a little Buddha and a hundred other annoying but endearing names. Napoleon hadn’t seen him meditate before; he’d taken good care not to let him. But Napoleon wasn’t here to either needle or cajole him into rationality, so he tried to steady his breathing and still the shaking and sink into the meditation techniques he had learnt long ago in his first university days and which had stood him in good stead over the years.
He didn’t know how long he sat for, but he was jangled out of his contemplative state some time later when the door was unlocked and someone came in to take away the tray. He stayed in his tranquil position, eyes closed and hands on his knees, keeping his breathing even and slow, as the door was locked again. But thoughts began to intrude after that brief disruption. He wished he knew what the time was. It must be late evening but he assumed it wasn’t past sleeping hours since there was someone here to take the tray; someone who he was sure wasn’t Winslip or Ward. There must be other personnel here, even if they were only cleaners or lowly assistants. It felt like a reasonably large place.
The question of the time began to gnaw on him. Even if he could see, he didn’t have a watch, but perhaps he could have gained clues from the light in the corridor outside, or from what he could see through the glass window in the door. Eventually he knew he’d lost his calm state completely, so he unfolded his legs, arranged the sheet like a toga, and moved over towards the door. The person bringing the meal had put the light on and he had not turned it off again. Illya turned it off now, and became aware when he brought himself close to the door of a slight increase in light that told him the corridor lights were still on.
He went back to the bed and sat down, leaning against the pillows. Perhaps the lights out there were kept on permanently, but he hoped that at some point that small glow of light would go, and he would know the complex had settled down for the night. And then he would make his attempt. He had to. Despite his long meditation he had not been able to rid himself of that near-irrational fear of the needle, and that made him an utter liability. He had to try to get himself out of here, even if they killed him in the attempt. Even if he couldn’t get out of the building, perhaps he could find some storage closet or out of the way corner, and just huddle there until Napoleon found him. A good agent understood his limits, and Illya was sure that he had found his. If they threatened him with that needle again he would break, and then they would know that every secret he held was theirs for the taking.
He estimated he had waited for two hours before the light finally went off. Instantly he went to work. First he stripped the pillowcases from his two pillows. He walked into the small bathroom and ran his fingers over the small mirror above the basin. Then he wrapped one of the pillowcases around his hand and punched the mirror smartly in the centre. The splintering of the glass sounded unnaturally loud as it clattered and clinked down into the ceramic basin, and he held his breath for a moment, listening for running footsteps. He had no idea if the room was bugged.
But nothing happened. Very carefully he dipped his fingers into the basin and began to pick up the shards of glass, depositing them with great care into the second pillowcase. He had the thought that if necessary he might be able to use them like throwing knives. He cut himself more than once, but it was a small price to pay. He took the biggest shard and wrapped the other pillowcase around one end, so that he could hold it like a knife. That was his best weapon.
Carefully he stepped back into the main room and laid his bounty down near the door. Then he tackled the lampshade on the small light by the bed. It was easy enough to rip the papery covering and then pull the wire apart. Now he had something he could use as a pick. As an afterthought he ripped the flex out of the base. He could use it as a tripwire, as a short rope, as a flail with the vicious plug on one end, or, if necessary, to strangle someone.
He knelt by the door and carefully inserted his bent wire into the lock, hoping against hope that it was the kind of lock that would yield to picking. If there were a bolt outside he would be lost, but he hadn’t heard one being drawn.
After a few minutes of careful poking and jiggling, he heard it: the lock clicked. He let out breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding, picked up his pillowcase full of makeshift weapons and his improvised mirror-glass knife, and slipped out of the room.
The corridor was undeniably dark. There was no light in any direction. That was good. The light couldn’t help him. It would only be a distraction. He could remember the direction and distance to the elevator, and he took it slowly and steadily, keeping one hand on the wall, his fingertips trailing over other doors and once over something that felt like a coiled fire hose, before touching the smooth double doors of the elevator. He pressed the call button, and held his breath.
The mechanism began to hum and clunk, horribly loud, and after an agonising ten seconds of waiting the doors slid open.
He slipped into the small space and immediately felt for the buttons. It was light in here. The light must be automatic. His fingers touched the small panel by the door, and he felt the buttons carefully. There were the open and close buttons with raised arrows on them. And then there was a series of buttons above them. He made out a B1 and B2 and numbers from 1 to 3. It would make sense for the main exit to be on 1, surely? He pressed it, and held his breath again as the elevator began to move.
The doors opened onto utter darkness and he stepped out into the space, listening keenly and trying to remember his path from the main door to this lift. He began to walk very carefully, aware of the slight clinking noise of the shards of glass in the pillowcase bag, holding out his improvised knife ready to slash if needs be. He made it along the first corridor, but then he became confused. He remembered a turn to the right, and there was no turn. He stopped, bewildered, running his hand over the wall, moving on a little further just in case he had misjudged the distance. But there was no corner. Could he have remembered it wrongly? He was good at turning plans around in his head. He wasn’t remembering a right turn when it should have been left. But there was no corner.
He bit his lip into his mouth, and continued on. He was on the first floor, so if necessary he could find a window and just climb out. He could drop a shard of glass first to check the distance to the ground, or use the lamp flex like a sounding line, just in case he had got the wrong floor.
That thought steadied him a little. There were always possibilities. In almost every situation, there were possibilities.
He felt a door, and slipped his hand to the handle. It was unlocked, and he opened it, and the sudden light startled him just as much as the voice that greeted him.
‘Well, Mr Kuryakin. It’s a surprise to see you up here, isn’t it?’
It was Miss Winslip, and she sounded disturbingly pleased.
Illya snatched the makeshift knife upwards, holding it before him threateningly.
‘Take care, madam,’ he said coldly. ‘I will not hesitate to use this.’
She laughed at him. ‘Oh, it thinks it’s clever… Mr Kuryakin, which would you say was faster – a knife, or a gun?’
He held his breath, taking half a step forwards. He was almost prepared to risk it. Then he heard the click of a safety being released, and he froze.
‘I’d bet on the gun, myself,’ she said.
That irrational fear of the needle rose in his chest again. He would rather be shot. He lunged forward, and was satisfied to hear her stumble back.
‘I could play Around the Mulberry Bush for hours, little pet,’ she said, recovering herself. ‘I really don’t need to shoot you. I’ve already pressed the call button by my bed, so we won’t be playing alone for long.’
He just needed a window. He wouldn’t even bother with dropping something to gauge the distance. He could crash through it, and run…
‘I see panic in its eyes,’ Winslip said in a supremely satisfied tone. ‘Poor creature.’
Illya moved sideways slowly, certain her gun was tracking him. He needed to make for a wall, to hope for the window. He jerked forward suddenly, but he smacked straight into the soft, low edge of a bed, and fell. At the same time someone else burst into the room, there was suddenly the bulk of a man on top of him, his arms were wrenched behind him and cuffs clicked soundly onto his wrists. He had fallen on his outstretched glass blade, and his chest stung where it had cut him. Thankfully it had glanced across his skin instead of stabbing him to the heart. But he almost wished it had.
He was chained by the wrists and ankles, his arms pulled up wide above his head and his ankles apart so that he described an X, bent inwards because his feet were some way out from the wall. He was still in her bedroom, and she must have had the set up in her room already, the rings already installed on the wall and the floor. That thought sickened him. She had not left the room to get the whip, either. It sounded as if she had merely opened a drawer and taken it out. After having her men chain Illya up, they had been left alone.
She spoke to him for some time, trailing her hands over him and touching him intimately as she talked in a way that made him shrink away mentally in horror, although he tried to keep his body still and unresponsive. He largely ignored her voice, just saying, ‘Yes, madam,’ and ‘No, madam,’ as he thought necessary as his mind raced over what had happened and what was about to happen. She was clearly furious with him, not so much for his escape, but for his calm, withdrawn responses. She was probably glad that he had attempted escape, he reflected, because that gave her reason to punish him. She told him at length about how she was going to punish him. At the end, when he was truly humbled, she told him, she was going to rape him. But first she would whip him.
She rigged up the cattle prod so that it was in front of him, jutting towards the soft skin of his belly, and then she lifted the whip and began to flog him. Every time he jerked forward as she struck him he came into contact with the cattle prod’s vicious end. The lash came down again and again, expertly plied to inflict the most pain. By the end of the session he was sobbing his breath in and out and the only thing keeping his legs rigid was the knowledge that if he sagged forward he would be constantly pressed against the cattle prod. He knew that the repeated shocks and strokes of the whip had caused him to lose control of his bladder even though he had not noticed it happening, because she was trying to shame him for it; but Illya Kuryakin was hard to shame. He knew enough about the automatic reactions of the body to understand what could and could not be helped, understood that a person could not always control their bodily functions any more than they could control a sneeze. He even knew that it was possible for someone to stimulate a man to climax against his will, although he was not sure how his sense of shame would make out when she took her sadism that far.
‘Well, what did you think of that, little pet?’ she asked finally, coming up close behind him and tracing a finger along the edge of his ear.
Illya spoke through teeth gritted against the ongoing pain. Sweat soaked his hair and was dripping down his face, and he wondered if she would really want to touch him further while he was like that. He hoped not, but he didn’t have illusions that his hope was well founded.
‘I think you must have to pay a tidy sum to your therapist, madam,’ he said in his most cutting tone.
It was a mistake. He knew before he had even spoken that it would be a mistake. She took the cattle prod and turned it up higher than he had yet experienced, then jammed it against those soft parts between his legs until his screaming echoed in his own ears, and his throat grew so raw he could make no more sound.
Footsteps thudded in the corridor outside, coming to his ears as if from far away. For a moment his heart lurched, and he imagined Napoleon running towards the room, gun in hand. But the voice that came as the man burst in was that of Hugo Ward.
‘What in hell are you doing to him, woman?’ he asked. ‘Some of us are trying to sleep!’
The cattle prod was snatched away, and Illya sagged, moaning low in his throat. All of his weight was hanging from his wrists now. His arms were chained too high for his knees to be able to reach the floor. His chest and cheek pressed against the cool wall, and he carried on moaning hoarsely, unable to hold in the animal sounds of pain.
‘If you treated a dog like that it’d be taken away,’ Ward muttered disgustedly.
Miss Winslip laughed. ‘A dog is dumb, Hugo. This thing has higher reasoning. Why should I treat it as if it’s stupid?’
‘I don’t ask that you treat it – him,’ Ward corrected himself furiously, ‘as if he were stupid. I ask you to give him the basic respect that one accords a fellow human being.’
Miss Winslip sounded incredulous. ‘Hugo, this is an U.N.C.L.E. agent! It is my subject. I blinded it and I brought it here so that we could further our research. For Thrush, Hugo. We are doing this for Thrush.’
‘Even your – our – glorious overlords might baulk at this, Sophie,’ Ward muttered. ‘Are you – done with him?’ he asked with great distaste.
Illya’s muscles flinched as the woman’s hand touched the hollow of his flayed back, her fingertip moving along one of the throbbing welts and then down to cup his buttock. He bit his lip into his mouth and closed his eyes, knowing that Hugo Ward was his single unlikely protector right now.
‘It woke me up, Hugo, and now I’m frisky,’ she complained, moving her fingers caressingly across Illya’s behind, towards his inner thigh, and then upwards.
‘I swear – ’ Ward muttered in frustration. His footsteps moved away towards the door, and almost inaudibly, without even intending to speak, Illya uttered one word.
The footsteps stopped. Illya held his breath, and the woman’s hand froze, her fingernails just touching his balls from behind.
‘Give me the key, Sophie,’ Ward said flatly. ‘Give me the key, and I’ll – come back and give you what you want.’
The silence was long and filled with tension. Illya hardly breathed, but each breath was a little moan. And then Miss Winslip suddenly said with affected languor, ‘Well, if I turn it round it’ll get blood on my wall, anyway...’
There was a stretched silence again, and then Illya felt hands at his ankles, releasing the cuffs, and then Ward was reaching up and unlocking his wrists high up near the ceiling. The tension gone, Illya sagged, slipping down the wall into a small ball on the floor.
‘Come on,’ Ward said tersely, gripping at his arm.
Illya forced strength into his legs. As he stood he cried out at the movement of his whipped back and his knees almost buckled. He was shaking all over.
‘I’m going to have to start bringing a wheelchair for you at this rate,’ Ward complained as he pulled Illya out of the room.
When they had gone a few yards down the corridor Illya risked whispering, ‘Th-thank you.’
Abruptly Ward slammed him against the wall, grabbing hold of his shoulders and shaking him. He cried out as the welts on his back were agitated and pushed against the cold wall.
‘She was wrong. You are stupid. What the hell did you try to get out of here for? How far did you think you’d get, blind? I can’t keep pulling you away from her. She means to have you, and soon. Don’t make any mistakes, Mr Kuryakin. I’m not your friend. I’m not your saviour. I just don’t like to see human beings treated like animals, and I don’t like to see her particular brand of sadism practised on unwilling subjects. Why the hell did you try to get out? You’d never make it.’
Illya’s head dropped. He couldn’t tell Ward how deeply he feared the needle biopsy. If he couldn’t get free his only hope was to completely clamp down on his fear, and pray that it wasn’t discovered.
Ward shook him again. ‘Come on. I want to get a little sleep tonight, and she’s going to extract the pound of flesh from me that I wouldn’t let her take from you.’
Back in his room, Illya discovered that his attempted escape had affected things badly. She had ordered her men to sort out his room before sending them away, and now he understood what she had meant. The bed was gone. The night stand was gone. The wrecked lamp was gone. The socket had been covered over with a flat panel and the light switch by the door had gone. The light was permanently on.
In the bathroom the shattered mirror had been cleaned away as if it had never existed, and even the shower curtain and rail had been removed. Everything that wasn’t tied down or breakable had been taken, and he was left with no more than a towel, and a pile of blankets in the corner of the main room where the bed had been.
Illya stepped, shaking, into the bathroom and fiddled with the shower control until he got the water running fast and warm. Then he stepped onto the shower tray and sank down so that he was sitting under the warm pulse of water. He hissed as it ran over the welts and cuts on his back, but he was sure that it would help once he had grown accustomed to the heat, and at least it would clean off the blood and sweat and ensure that the wounds were clean. His hands and his chest stung where they had been cut by the mirror glass, and his genitals pulsed and burnt from the direct application of the cattle prod. He dropped his head to his knees, feeling the water stream either side of his neck, and contemplated what had almost happened. He was not naïve enough to think that a woman couldn’t rape a man. There were ways to ensure arousal, most notably the stimulation of the prostate that would have involved her invading his body with a foreign object. He sincerely didn’t want that to happen. The first time anything had been put up there was his first glorious time with Napoleon, and he wanted nothing to sully that.
Napoleon... Where was Napoleon? He felt for the module in his tooth again with his tongue. It was still there. But it relied on U.N.C.L.E. being close enough to pick up the signal. What if they had never got close enough? What if Napoleon had the entire world to search?
Napoleon would search the entire world, he knew, starting with the most logical locations. But when he found him it might be too late.
Oh, Napoleon, he thought, please find me...
Finally he left the shower, gingerly patting himself dry with the towel before sinking down into his nest of blankets in the corner of his room. His entire body hurt. His arm and leg muscles hurt from straining against the restraints; his stomach and back muscles hurt from the involuntary spasms provoked by the cattle prod; his throat was raw from screaming; his back was in agony from the whipping; his hands and his chest stung from the glass cuts; his genitals throbbed from that agonising application of electricity. He wasn’t sure how he would manage to sleep, curled as he was on the floor, little moans coming from his mouth every time he moved, almost every time he breathed. He almost didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want tomorrow to come. He wished he had found a window when he had the chance. Alive, or dead after an unexpectedly high drop to the ground, nevertheless he would be away from here.
Napoleon had undoubtedly slept better than Illya, but he felt as if he’d had his worst night in months. He woke blinking and rubbing his eyes and trying to orient himself in the room, before folding himself upright in an instant and pulling on his clothing without taking time to shower or shave. He had already spent enough time sleeping that he could have spent in looking for Illya.
He checked out of the room and went to the local diner to grab a coffee and sandwich to take away, and as soon as he was out of there he pulled out his communicator to find out if anything had transpired while he was asleep. Nothing had, so he got wearily back into the car, balanced the coffee against the steering wheel, and set off again.
The one good thing was that his head was better this morning. He hoped Illya’s would be too. That set him to worrying intensely about Illya again, and he needed to keep focussed. He pulled over and unfolded his map of the area, looking over the places that had already been swept. It struck him that this plan was okay as long as they didn’t move him. If they moved him, they were screwed. If they moved him… he would take apart the country piece by piece until he found him. He would search the world.
He gave a quick look over the local road network, chose a direction, sighed, and moved on. He drove for hours, to the point of running out of gas once and having to refill from the can in the trunk. He thanked god for that one piece of forethought he’d had. If he hadn’t taken that gallon he would have been stuck on the edge of the highway until someone came to help him.
The sun was high in the sky, burning uncomfortably down on him and moving relentlessly towards the west, before he got any sign of progress; but when it came, it came with a jolt. His communicator beeped, and he answered it wearily. The other men checked in occasionally just as he did to update their progress so he could scratch more sections off the map. So this time he answered with a tired, ‘Solo here,’ and the voice replied excitedly, ‘Cartwright. We have him, Solo!’
Napoleon swerved violently to the side of the road, leaving the car behind him honking and the male driver gesticulating and swearing viciously as he accelerated past. Napoleon didn’t care.
‘How is he?’ he asked instantly.
‘No, no, you misunderstand me,’ the voice replied, rather abashed. ‘We haven’t recovered him, but we’ve picked up the signal.’
Napoleon’s heart was thudding so hard against his ribs he could hear it, but he could also hear the throbbing of rotors in the background.
‘Cartwright, you in a chopper?’ he asked.
‘That I am. Want me to swing by and pick you up? Where are you?’
Napoleon glanced at the map spread out on the passenger seat and gave his coordinates.
‘Yeah, I’ll swing by,’ Cartwright confirmed. ‘It won’t lose me more than a few minutes, and you say he shouldn’t be in immediate danger?’
‘No, they need him alive,’ Napoleon confirmed, hoping to god that was still true.
When the chopper landed in the middle of the highway, provoking more cursing and honking motorists, Napoleon abandoned the soft top sports car without a backward glance. He would radio once they were in the air for someone to pick it up.
‘All right, Cartwright, where is he?’ he asked as the chopper left the ground. The grey ribbon of the road dwindled beneath them and the cars that now looked like toys started to move again.
The pilot extended a hand. He was a tall, all-American type with dark hair and a chiselled jaw. ‘Call me Jack. It’s a facility a little north of here, right in the middle of the woods. Explains why it took a while to pick it up – there are no public roads within a good few miles in each direction, so we were always skirting the edges.’
‘Do you have men moving in?’ Napoleon asked tersely.
Jack laughed. ‘There are only five other men, remember, and most of them are over a half hour drive away even at law breaking speeds. No, Solo, it’s you and me. We’ll need to drop down at a safe distance and move in on foot. Hopefully by the time we need to extract, some of the other guys will be here, because we’re not getting an extra body in this bird.’
Napoleon shuddered involuntarily at the use of the word body, but he remembered to reach out his hand and say, ‘It’s Napoleon. All right, Jack. Let’s get this done.’
Perhaps it would be prudent to hold off until the other men could reach the building. Perhaps. But although he was ninety percent sure Illya was safe from being killed, the ten percent chance was just too big. They could be getting ready to dissect him just to see the effect of their chemical on his optic nerves. That thought made Napoleon shudder. No, he needed to be extracted right now, and there were two trained agents to do it. He wished he knew more about Cartwright, about his abilities and weaknesses. It was hard working with a partner in a situation like this when one did not know the other. But it was all he had, and it would have to work.
They set the chopper down roughly a mile from the building. Not only would it give them away to come in closer, but there were no clearings in which to land. A single track wound from the main road to the building, and that was not quite wide enough for the rotors to clear. Cartwright had spoken about the possibility of waiting until dark, but Napoleon would not entertain that even for a moment. It was too risky. Thrush people were often volatile, and even if they fully intended to keep Illya alive there was a chance of them killing him by accident, or in temper. No. They would go in now.
They landed in a ploughed field just at the edge of the wood, close enough in towards the trees that the helicopter wouldn’t be immediately obvious. And then they stalked in through the tall pines, constantly on the alert for patrolling guards or booby traps. The clear forest floor was one mercy. The thick canopy allowed for very little undergrowth, and so Solo and Cartwright were stealing in over a slick carpet of fallen needles which made very little noise underfoot. Cartwright held a compass in his hand and kept them oriented while Napoleon kept the majority of the lookout for threats. He was far more experienced as an active agent.
‘Little more to the south,’ Cartwright murmured, touching Solo’s arm to turn him. It was easy to get thrown off a direct route when one was constantly having to dodge around tree trunks.
‘How much further?’ Solo asked.
‘’Bout a quarter mile, but – yeah, look there.’
Cartwright stopped and pointed up ahead. Through the straight boled trees Napoleon could just make out the glint of something silver.
‘Fence?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Yeah, and a tall one.’
‘I don’t know.’
Napoleon considered that. ‘You got any tools?’ he asked.
Cartwright patted his hand against a neat bundle at his belt. ‘A few. Gloves and wire cutters if we need to disable an electric fence. At any rate, we can cut our way in, and bridge it in case it’s alarmed.’
Napoleon suddenly recalled the similar conversation with Illya when they had first made their way to the Westchester lab. It had been Illya who had cut the hole though the fence. It always was Illya. He was just good at that kind of thing. And although Cartwright was a fine man, he was not Illya. Napoleon would have trusted Illya to lead him into hell and get him out safely again.
‘You all right, Napoleon?’ Cartwright asked him.
Solo shook himself. ‘Yeah, I’m all right, Jack. Thank you. Let’s go.’
The morning brought nothing good for Illya. He had finally fallen asleep last night curled in the corner in a bundle of blankets, and had slept fitfully and painfully, waking often as a muscle cramped or his back spasmed in pain. He had let himself hope that he would be wakened by a team from U.N.C.L.E. crashing in through the door, but he was woken instead by the sound of the lock turning and then the clatter of a tray being put on the floor.
He opened his mouth to say something to his visitor and found that after last night’s screaming he had no voice at all. But the person left as soon as they had put the tray down, and Illya shuffled across the floor to it hopefully, suddenly starving.
The tray contained nothing but some cold toast and a cup of water. He had been hoping at least for a warm drink to ease his vocal chords, but perhaps Hugo Ward was determined this morning to impress upon him the truth of what he had said last night, or to punish him for causing him trouble. He was not Illya’s saviour. He just wasn’t as twisted as Sophie Winslip.
Grimacing at the tightness of his lash wounds and the aching of his muscles, Illya went into the bathroom to tip the cold water away and fill the cup again with warm water. It wasn’t luxury, but it might help his throat. He sat on the floor dipping the toast in the water so it did not scrape so badly on his sore throat, and running his fingertip under the collar that he wore, idly trying to find a weakness. There was none, and he wasn’t surprised, but he wished he could take the thing off. It was an unpleasant reminder of Winslip’s domination of him, and of the fact that rape was almost inevitable at some point in the future. He feared the needle more, but his skin crawled at the thought of her hands on him again.
Once the tray was empty he slid it listlessly away across the floor and huddled back up in his nest of blankets, pulling them right up over his head to block out the light. His vision was even more milky this morning, the light dispersed more evenly, so he could not make out the direction of the source at all, even though he knew it to be in the centre of the ceiling. Perhaps as the calcification continued eventually the light would be blocked out entirely, and he would know nothing but darkness. He swallowed at that idea, wondering if Winslip would let him live that long, and if he really wanted her to. He wondered how many more biopsies there would be. Then he remembered that Ward had insisted on having proper drugs for today’s examination, that he would be administering a local anaesthetic, and maybe a sedative. But then, should he have eaten? Was Ward qualified enough to completely understand the protocol? Would he give the correct doses?
Suddenly the meagre amount of toast in Illya’s stomach felt like a brick, waiting there to choke him if he vomited when given the drugs. They wouldn’t even be able to turn him with the restraints they used. He unwrapped himself from the blankets and crawled into the small bathroom and put his fingers down his throat, stimulating the retching reflex until he vomited his breakfast into the toilet. Then, shaking, he crawled back into his corner and covered himself in the blankets again.
He had to not focus on the thought of the needle. It would be all right this time, wouldn’t it? Ward would sedate him. And after all, it had been the idea of the first procedure with Peterson that had been worst of all. The thing itself had been all right, hadn’t it, once he was sedated and anaesthetised? It was just the thought of it, the needle slipping into his vulnerable, blind eyeball, the thought of them taking out fluid that surely, surely was vital to the eye’s integrity? Just that thought made his stomach heave.
His hands clenched on the blankets around him. He had been trained better than this. In telling himself not to think about it he shouldn’t have found his thoughts racing away like that. He steadied his breathing, wondering if meditation would help again. And if he could not think of nothing perhaps he could think of good things, of Napoleon crashing through the door, shooting down his enemies, leading him out to safety. He tried again, moving very deliberately into the centre of the room, pulling his aching legs into the lotus position, resting his hands lightly on his knees. He took in a good deep breath and let it settle in his lungs. He started to empty his mind. And then his calf cramped so hard he almost screamed, and he had to grab it with both hands and start to massage the muscle that was like rock.
Meditation could pull the mind away from many things, but not from muscle cramps, and he suspected he would be getting muscle cramps for some time. He went for another tactic, and instead of trying to meditate he limped into the bathroom and stood under the shower, letting the sound of the falling water and the drumming of the drops on his body soothe him like a warm rain. He should, he supposed, count himself lucky. He didn’t often get the chance for a shower in a Thrush cell.
Afterwards he dried himself thoroughly, taking care to dry carefully under the collar around his neck. He thanked the fact that it had not shrunk with last night’s shower and probably wouldn’t be affected by this one. He spent a little time fiddling with it again, but the lock wasn’t even discernible to his fingers; and anyway, what would happen if he did manage to get it off? Miss Winslip would certainly make him aware of her displeasure, and he had felt enough of that recently.
He huddled himself in his blankets again, waiting for something to happen – either for someone to bring a lunch that he would not allow himself to eat, or for Napoleon to smash down the door, or, as seemed more likely, for Miss Winslip to come for him. And in the end that was just what happened. She seemed pleased to find him huddled on the floor.
‘Well, isn’t it a good pet?’ she asked softly. ‘All clean and ready to use. Get up, Mr Kuryakin.’
Illya stood because there was no use in resisting, but his cramped calf gave under him. She waited silently while he tried again, and when he stood she clipped the hated leash onto his collar. She didn’t even speak to him; just tugged, and he followed, limping painfully and trying to still the churning in his stomach. He was afraid that he was going to be taken by blind panic. He tried to control it, tried to steady his breathing, but he could feel dizziness starting. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t walk into that room and lie on the table and let them strap him down.
In the elevator he stood silently as Miss Winslip prattled at him. It felt as if there were no air entering his lungs. He closed his eyes and swallowed and clenched his fists at his sides. He tried to focus on other things; on the collar that was firm around his throat, on the feeling of the floor beneath the bare soles of his feet, on the small air currents on his naked body. He lost himself so far into those sensations that he didn’t notice the elevator doors opening and only realised that Miss Winslip was telling him to move when she jerked viciously at the leash and he stumbled, flailing out an arm which hit the side of the doorway hard.
That pain helped to anchor him. He focussed on the throbbing in the back of his hand. He focussed on the tight pulling of all of the lash wounds on his back. He focussed on the knot of pain in his calf where it had cramped so badly. But then he could feel the clinical atmosphere of the treatment room around him and he knew he was only steps away from the table.
Ward said something and, unexpectedly, his calm voice was the trigger. The panic welled up suddenly, all at once, a flood bursting through his body. He jerked away so hard that Miss Winslip must have lost her hold on the leash, and he backed until the wall touched his shoulder blades, cold and unyielding. There was nowhere to go, and he braced himself for the punishment of the cattle prod.
‘No, leave him to me,’ Ward snapped suddenly. ‘I don’t want him in this state when I have to put a needle in his eye.’
At those words acid rose in Illya’s throat, but Ward came towards him, speaking very rationally.
‘Now, come on. There are two men in this room with guns, beside me and Miss Winslip. You can’t go anywhere and you can’t resist this exam.’
‘Like hell I can’t,’ Illya ground out, his voice still barely more than a whisper after his screaming of the night before.
There was a click, and he felt the very familiar feeling of the muzzle of a gun pressed against his temple. Ward was holding his right arm with one hand, and was holding the gun to his head with the other.
‘Now, come on,’ he said in a voice so gentle it almost made Illya wonder if it were someone else holding the gun. ‘I don’t want to have to make this a post mortem. Step forward. Come on.’
Illya took one step. The gun stayed firm against his head. Rationality spoke to him. It was better to endure this than to die. It had to be better to endure this than to die. It was only one quick insertion with a needle and then it would be over. And Napoleon would be coming. He took another step, and then another, taking in very slow breaths as he moved. With Ward’s hand on his arm he climbed onto the table and lay down, and lay still as the restraints were locked around him.
‘There. That’s good,’ Ward said, still in that very gentle voice. ‘Now, I’m going to give you an examination and ask you a few questions first. I want you to answer truthfully because it will help me in my research. Do you understand?’
Illya couldn’t nod because of the frame holding his head still, but he did understand. Ward was trying to devise a cure. He needed to answer truthfully. He opened his mouth to say yes but his tortured vocal chords gave up and no sound came out.
‘Has he – Have you lost your voice?’ Ward asked incredulously.
Still he couldn’t nod. He couldn’t speak. He mouthed yes.
Ward tutted in disgust. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake… You see what happens when you lose control, Sophie? You made him scream so hard he’s lost his voice. How in hell am I supposed to question him if he can’t damn well speak?’
‘Well how was I supposed to know the creature would lose it that bad?’ she shrilled in return. ‘I thought U.N.C.L.E. agents were supposed to be tough!’
‘Sophie, you had a fucking electric prod jammed against his balls! What in hell did you expect him to do?’
Illya lay silent, eyes closed. If he hadn’t been so horrified by his situation he might have found their argument amusing. He heard Ward talking about cough medicine that Miss Winslip had used last year and footsteps moved and a small door was opened and slammed closed again. Then Ward was putting a hand on his forehead and saying to him, ‘Open your mouth and swallow this.’
He recognised the scent of cough syrup well enough. It conjured times when he had caught colds at the worst possible moments – on missions, at times when one had to be silent, had to be in peak condition. It reminded him of a time when he had been struck down with ’flu in his apartment and Napoleon had appeared at the door to take care of him. Now, he supposed, he would associate it with this time too. He opened his mouth and swallowed the foul tasting liquid, licking the slight sweet residue off his lips. It was an odd, mundane moment in this horrifying few days.
‘All right, now can you talk?’ Ward asked him impatiently.
Illya cleared his throat a little, wincing at the pain not only there but also through his stomach muscles and back.
‘Yes,’ he whispered.
‘All right,’ Ward replied. The man’s hand touched his forehead again, but this time his thumb held Illya’s eyes open, and he assumed that he was making a visual inspection. ‘No pupil reaction to the light,’ Ward murmured, and Illya realised with surprise that Ward must have been shining light into his eyes. He had not noticed a change at all. ‘Pupils are dilated to – hmm – five millimetres and seem fixed. Sophie, are you noting this down?’
‘Of course I am,’ she spat from somewhere behind Illya’s head, and Illya experienced a quiet satisfaction that she was experiencing so much trouble with her mood. As long as Ward kept her away from him he was perfectly content for her to feel as bad as she could.
‘Mr Kuryakin, the light on the ceiling,’ Ward said. ‘Can you tell me where it is?’
Illya made to shake his head, and was frustrated by the frame holding it still again. ‘No,’ he whispered simply. His vocal chords weren’t up to anything more forceful.
‘All right, a couple more procedures...’
The soft thumb held his lids open again, preventing him from blinking. Ward murmured something and then carried on, apparently flashing different colours and strengths of light at his eyes, according to the brief explanations he gave Illya. He could perceive none of them.
‘All right, it’s time to take the sample,’ Ward said, and Illya’s heart suddenly started thrumming hard in his chest again.
‘The anaesthetic,’ he faltered in his hoarse whisper. ‘You haven’t given me the anaesthetic.’
Ward’s hand touched his shoulder firmly. ‘Stop it,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you to send your blood pressure up like this. I’m going to give you the goddamn anaesthetic in a moment. I wish to god we’d gotten some sedative too. Now, hold still.’
As if he had the choice of moving. There was a needle prick at the side of his eye, and after a moment he began to feel that strange lack of sensation again. He forced his breathing to slow, to concentrate on the sound of his breaths. Any moment now Napoleon would appear. Any moment now…
The pressure against his eyeball was sudden and unexpected and seemed to last a long time. He would have jerked his head if it hadn’t been for the frame holding it still. But it was different, and his lips parted, a question hovering.
‘That was the tonometer test for intra-ocular pressure, not the needle,’ Ward muttered in a bored fashion. ‘It’ll be more uncomfortable on the left eye since I haven’t anaesthetised it. Blink a couple times then hold quite still, won’t you? Breathe normally.’
This time the touch made him want to squirm away, making his stomach churn, but he managed to hold still for long enough for Ward to take his measurements.
‘Now the biopsy,’ Ward murmured, putting his hand back near Illya’s right eye.
He did hold his breath this time, and as he experienced that odd pressure again and knew that the needle was in his eye his heart began to race and his fists clenched and adrenaline surged through his body.
‘That’s it,’ Ward said, putting something down with a clatter. ‘Done.’
The relief almost made him vomit. Acid lurched into his mouth and he coughed and choked until someone released the head frame, lifted his head with a hand behind it, and touched a glass to his lips. He drank gratefully, eyes streaming.
‘Better give me that pad,’ Ward said in a rather worried sounding voice, and Illya noticed that the light filtering into his right eye seemed slightly pink.
‘Did the stupid thing tear it?’ Miss Winslip asked, her heels harsh on the floor as she came across the room.
Ward sounded preoccupied. ‘Don’t know. I can’t see through the blood. Maybe I hit something, unless it was the coughing… Damn, I hope I haven’t contaminated the sample… No. No, it’s clear. Must have been on the withdrawal. But I won’t be able to take more until this has cleared. Here, give me some tape.’
Illya felt the soft pad being taped over his eye.
‘Oh, take it from the other eye,’ Miss Winslip said carelessly. ‘That’s why it has two. Does it really matter if you damage them?’
‘Not to you,’ Ward said tersely, ‘but how do you think I can monitor his progress properly if both eyes are full of blood?’
‘Hugo, you know this project is my brainchild,’ Miss Winslip hissed. ‘Now, you know that. You know how important it is.’
‘Then stop trying to damage my patient,’ Ward responded tersely.
‘You know, I’m getting pretty sick of this,’ the woman snapped. ‘Your acting as if this is all your party and I’m just the – ’
Illya closed his eyes, tuning himself out from this petty bickering, until suddenly he realised that his restraints were being released and he was being tugged onto his feet by the leash, and as he was dragged out of the room on unsteady feet he heard Miss Winslip call back, ‘ – and this time I don’t want you running in and spoiling it all, no matter how much he’s screaming.’
The fence was electrified, and Jack Cartwright dealt with it quickly and efficiently, putting in a bypass so that no alarms would be set off by a break in the circuit and then cutting the power to a single section. That done, he snipped through a gate-sized section that could be folded open and then folded back so that the gap would not be obvious. There didn’t seem to be guards on patrol, but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks.
First Napoleon and then Cartwright sneaked through, and then Cartwright folded back the wire.
‘Where now, great white leader?’ he asked with a humorous look.
Napoleon surveyed the territory again. He had given it a good going over before they made it through the fence, but now he had a different angle. The building was an oddly shaped one, very modern architecture with a flat roof, hard angles and big windows, but it was built into a considerable slope, and while at one side two stories rose above the ground at the other there were four sets of windows from ground to roof.
‘We need something like a side door,’ he murmured.
‘You think they’ll have one?’
Napoleon shrugged. ‘Most places have something.’
Although they could not see it, the location of the main entrance was quite obvious by the dirt road that led that way. It would lead into the building on the higher side, on what would be counted the third floor if judged from the other side of the building. But usually there was some other door; a fire exit or tradesman’s entrance or some such.
‘Let’s skirt the building a little,’ Napoleon murmured.
‘Look,’ Cartwright said suddenly. ‘Look there.’
He was pointing to a window on the taller side of the building, a wide picture window one storey above the ground level. Napoleon followed his outstretched finger and saw too. The afternoon light reflected off the window and obscured some of the room behind, but he could make out enough. A blond head against the wall, a pink-gold chest beneath, and arms outstretched and pointing upwards as if they were tied wide above his head.
‘Illya!’ Napoleon hissed. He couldn’t see enough to tell if Illya were injured, in pain, alone or with someone. He thought he was conscious because his head was upright, but that was it. A moment later a blind dropped, and he could see the Russian no longer.
‘What floor do you think that is?’ Cartwright asked.
‘With that layout, I don’t know, but it’s three from the top, so I guess as long as we find an elevator we can work it out. Come on,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘We need to find a door.’
‘Let’s try this way,’ Cartwright said, nodding towards the lower levels of the building. ‘Looks more promising.’
Sure enough there was a door. It was a steel plate affair, but the lock didn’t stand up to what Napoleon had concealed in his shoe heel, and after a brief burst of light and a rapidly dissipating stink of cordite, they were in. The corridor beyond was windowless and dark, and Cartwright pulled a flashlight out of his pack and passed it silently to Napoleon. He turned it on and angled it downwards, and they started along the corridor.
‘Lift or stairs,’ Napoleon murmured.
‘Elevator will tell us the floor numbers,’ Cartwright pointed out.
‘Yeah, true. But keep an eye out for stairs. I like to have a backup. And remember our route.’
‘Sure thing. I always do.’
Illya was shackled to the wall in Miss Winslip’s room again, but this time he was sure there would be no interference from Ward, and she was making certain that he knew that. He did not feel as weakened by shock as he had the first time Ward had taken a sample from his eye, but he wished with every fibre of his being that she had let him go back to his room. It was certain he would have this to face later, but he would have appreciated a little time to gather himself.
He pressed his head back against the wall. This time he was facing outwards, but that position only made him feel more vulnerable and exposed. Because the ankle restraints were so far out from the wall, because his arms were so high, and she had put something solid behind him to prevent his leaning back, he was forced to stand uncomfortably with his pelvis thrust forward. He suspected that was just how Miss Winslip wanted him.
There was a sudden crack, and despite himself, he flinched. She had that whip out again, and after a few warning cracks it suddenly hit, catching his right nipple, either by expert aim or by luck. He decided it must be expert aim, because with the next crack the very tip of the lash caught him between the legs, and he gave a hoarse, almost soundless cry, instinctively trying to draw his legs closer together and feeling the ankle restraints jar against his skin.
‘Ah, the little pet liked that,’ Miss Winslip simpered.
Illya composed his face and pressed his lips together. He would not gratify her by engaging with her. When she struck him again he held in the cry he wanted to utter, and kept his eyes closed.
Once in the elevator looking at the buttons it became clear to Napoleon that what had looked like the second floor outside was technically the first floor, and that was where Illya was being kept. They didn’t take the elevator straight away, but slipped back out into the dark corridor to consult about what they meant to do. At the same time Cartwright’s communicator beeped, and he answered it sotto voce.
‘Cartwright. Is that you, Billy?’
‘Yeah, it’s me,’ came the reply. ‘Drove almost all the way down the track then got the car into the trees. I’m just outside the fence. I’ve found your cut.’
Cartwright put his hand over the receiver and said aside to Napoleon, ‘Billy Solley. Good man. Shall I call him in?’
Napoleon turned his wrist to look at his watch, picking out the time in the phosphorescent blobs on the dial. He was growing increasingly worried about Illya, and about how they would get him out if there were too many men here.
‘Yeah, call him in,’ he nodded.
‘Billy, come on in,’ Cartwright relayed quickly. ‘Steel door round the back on the lowest level. It’s already unlocked. Meet us in the corridor behind it.’
It was only a few minutes before the door creaked open and a brief burst of daylight illuminated the corridor. Cartwright jogged down with the flashlight to fetch Solley, and returned with a muscular black man with his gun already drawn.
‘Billy, I’m Napoleon,’ Solo said briskly. ‘Look, we’ve seen where Kuryakin is. We just need to get to him. I want you and Cartwright both to cover my back. Once I’ve secured him the priority is to get him out safely, but we also need to get as much scientific info from this place as possible. Shoot the grunts, try to keep the scientists for questioning, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Solley and Cartwright nodded simultaneously. ‘Wilkinson is only about ten minutes behind me,’ Solley added, ‘and the others are coming in as fast as they can.’
‘Good,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘Now, we’ll take the stairs. It’s easier to defend ourselves. Come on.’
Without further delay he led the pair to the stairwell a few yards away from the elevator, and pushed the door open. The stairwell was dark too at this level, but light filtered down from above. Napoleon took stock of what he saw briefly. The stairs went down one more level, if they corresponded with the buttons in the elevator, and rose above them for three more floors. They only needed to climb one, though, and then they needed to locate the room where they had seen Illya.
As soon as he had opened the door onto the first floor he stopped worrying about how to locate the room. He heard the whip crack like a shot, and he was running. What he didn’t understand was why he didn’t hear Illya cry out, but for now that didn’t matter. He snapped for Cartwright and Solley to cover him, and he kicked opened the door without even bothering to try the handle. And there Illya was, naked, restrained to the wall, red welts streaking his chest and his mouth open in a silent cry. The woman was standing before him, her arm in the air, poised to strike again, and Napoleon shot viciously but precisely. The silenced gun dropped her and she rolled onto her side, clutching at her shoulder and whimpering. Edie Wilkins had been right. Sophie Winslip was a very beautiful woman; but right now Napoleon hated her more than anyone in the world.
‘The key,’ Napoleon said without preamble. ‘Where’s the key?’
Her mouth worked. He was moving to shake her when she whispered, ‘No key. Just – ’
He glanced across at the cuff about Illya’s closest ankle, and saw that she was telling the truth. Napoleon Solo had seen a lot of restraints in his time, and it was instantly obvious that these weren’t Thrush standard, just something the woman had got hold of and installed here in what he now saw was her bedroom. A sick feeling of disgust rose in him. He wanted to kick her, but it would be unthinkable to kick an injured woman. Instead he picked up a scarf that was hanging over the back of a chair and used to it tie her hands behind her back, heedless of her moan of pain as he moved her. Now she was secured he moved to Illya, undoing the cuffs at his ankles and then standing on the chair to release his wrists. Illya sagged and he caught him in his arms, pressing his hand against his naked back, and feeling his shudders.
‘I’ve got you,’ he whispered. He looked up briefly to see Cartwright and Solley both there in the doorway, staring, and snapped almost angrily at them, ‘Go! Secure the rest of the building. And remember, we need the scientists for questioning.’
He turned back to Illya, brushing a sweaty strand of hair from his forehead and saying, ‘It’s all right, Illya, I’ve got you. You’ll be okay.’
‘Napoleon,’ Illya whispered, then reached his hand up, wrist red from the cuffs, to touch his throat. ‘Afraid I screamed it raw last night,’ he whispered.
Bile rose in Napoleon at the thought of what would make Illya scream so hard he couldn’t speak the next day. He looked over his shoulder to be sure Cartwright and Solley were gone, then bent and touched his lips to Illya’s throat.
‘I’m sorry it took so long to find you,’ he said.
Suddenly someone scoffed, and he jerked around. He had forgotten about the woman, tied on the floor. She was watching them with a harsh glitter in her eyes.
‘Fucking perverts,’ she said coldly.
Napoleon’s gaze hardened. ‘Excuse me a minute, Illya,’ he said, and he lifted the Russian bodily and laid him gently on the silk covered bed. Then he turned with barely controlled fury on the woman on the floor.
He picked up the whip and raised it, but instead of lashing it at her he just flung it at her in disgust. Then he brought his face very close to hers and said in a quiet, spitting voice, ‘Inflicting pain on an unwilling and helpless person for sexual gratification has to be one of the most perverted acts I’ve ever come across.’
‘Yeah, and she wasn’t going to stop at pain,’ Illya murmured from the bed.
Napoleon stared at Illya in astonishment, then looked over him at a tray on the night stand which contained a vicious set of equipment that he could only imagine, in this context, were meant for painful insertion into someone’s body. At that his temper broke and he grabbed hold of the woman by her hair, heedless of her shriek of pain as he pulled her across the room and cinched her wrists into the cuffs that had not long ago held Illya’s ankles apart. She fell suddenly silent as he clicked the second cuff into place, and he realised that she had fainted. He took a moment to use the scarf he had previously tied her with to pack and bind her shoulder wound, then turned back to Illya.
‘Illya, she didn’t – ’
Illya shook his head, then tried to speak. Napoleon saw a wine bottle by the bed and gently lifted it to his partner’s lips. Illya coughed a little, but drank some of the wine. It was a wretched vintage, Napoleon noticed, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
‘Better?’ he asked.
‘A little,’ Illya whispered. ‘And no, she didn’t get that far. But – can we get out of here, Napoleon?’
Napoleon heard a muffled shot from some distance away, and stiffened.
‘Give it a few minutes,’ he said. ‘I want to be sure the building’s clear first. Cartwright and Solley are seeing to it.’
Illya stiffened suddenly, making as if to sit up. ‘They mustn’t shoot Ward. He’s really the one with all the knowledge. He’s working on a cure for this.’ And he touched a hand to his eye. Napoleon noticed as if for the first time the pad taped over his right eye.
‘Illya, your eye,’ he said. ‘Is it okay?’
‘I don’t know,’ the Russian replied, his voice starting to die again from the continued talking. ‘There’s some bleeding.’
Napoleon bit his lip into his mouth but didn’t move the pad. It was best left to an ophthalmologist. He gave Illya more of the wine, figuring that he probably needed it.
‘Ward,’ Illya said again.
‘They have orders to make sure the scientists are taken alive,’ Napoleon assured him.
Illya nodded, finally managing to sit up on the bed without Napoleon pressing him back down. ‘Good, because for all his evil he protected me, Napoleon. He stopped her touching me more than once.’
The urge to take Illya in his arms was massive, but he didn’t give in to it, because anyone might come in, either an U.N.C.L.E. agent who would see the start of a scandal, or a Thrush man who might shoot them.
‘Listen, Napoleon, can you do something about this?’ Illya asked hoarsely, lifting a hand, and suddenly Napoleon noticed the dark leather collar around his throat.
‘She put that on you?’
‘She led me around on a lead and called me her pet,’ Illya said disgustedly.
Napoleon looked carefully at the collar. ‘It’s locked,’ he muttered. ‘Hang on.’
He moved away to rummage through the woman’s drawers, which contained a bizarre mixture of sex toys and girlish keepsakes. He found a small ring of keys, and picked a likely looking one.
‘Ah, that’s it,’ he grinned as the collar was unlocked. ‘You – er – sure you don’t want it as a memento?’ he asked, making himself sound very innocent.
‘I would be happy if you burnt it,’ Illya said darkly. Napoleon threw the thing into the furthest corner. ‘Napoleon, let’s go home,’ Illya said very tiredly. ‘I’ve been whipped, electrocuted, beaten up, and experimented on. I’ve had enough. I want to stop.’
‘And you will,’ Napoleon promised. ‘Very soon, you will. Can you walk?’
‘If it will get me out of here? Definitely.’
Napoleon suddenly remembered again that Illya was stark naked. He looked around the room but could see nothing that would be useful to clothe him in but the yellow-green bedspread he was sitting on.
‘Here, put this round you,’ he said, gathering up the bedspread and pulling it around Illya like an extravagant toga. ‘It – ah – it brings out your eyes.’
Illya fingered the rich, slippery fabric blindly, bringing it up close to his eye as if to try and discern something of it. He shook his head, apparently unable to perceive anything. ‘Blue?’
‘Green,’ Napoleon told him. ‘Here, let me help,’ he said, putting his arm around Illya’s back to guide him, trying not to pull away instinctively as he winced. ‘She certainly did a job on you,’ he muttered.
‘I – er – may have staged an escape last night,’ Illya confessed. ‘But I got confused over the floors and walked straight in here. She took out her anger on me.’
Napoleon saw the way his face clouded and decided not to probe him any more right now. He took out his communicator instead and called Cartwright.
‘Jack, how goes?’ he asked quickly.
‘I think we’ve got them all,’ came the quick reply. ‘There don’t seem to be many, but we’ve been joined by the other local agents and they’re sweeping the building right now. We’ve killed a guard and incapacitated two others, and we’ve got a man in custody, uninjured. He says his name is Hugo Ward.’
‘That’s him,’ Illya nodded, nudging Napoleon’s arm. ‘He’s the one we want.’
‘Okay,’ Napoleon murmured, then raised his voice to Cartwright again. ‘Jack, we want Ward brought out safely. We’re going to need to extract him to New York. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to take Illya out of here, take one of your cars, and arrange our transport back to NYC in the nearest town. You make sure the building’s secure and bring in a science specialist to help you pack up all the notes and samples and so on, because we’ll need them. Liaise with me through the communicator, but otherwise it’s goodbye for now. I really appreciate all your help.’
‘Sure thing, Solo,’ Cartwright replied cheerily. ‘It’s been good to see some real action. It’s been a while.’
Napoleon felt Illya sag a little against him, and he turned to him quickly as he put his communicator back in his pocket.
‘Hey. You okay?’
‘I’ll make it,’ Illya promised. ‘It’s been a long day.’ He fingered the silky material. ‘So – I’m going home in this?’
Napoleon laughed. ‘Not that I don’t like the look on you,’ he told him, ‘but I’ll make sure to find you some proper clothes in the nearest town. But I want to get you far, far away from this place first.’
Despite himself, Illya slept a little in the worn leather passenger seat of the Buick that Napoleon had borrowed from the local agents. He had been aware of Napoleon speaking to him, and then he was lost in dreams. Then he woke suddenly, alert and on edge, feeling the vibration of the car around him and the sensation of moving backwards.
‘Oh – um – Napoleon?’ he faltered, completely disoriented.
‘Yeah, that’s me,’ Napoleon replied with casual humour. The car stopped. ‘I was just reversing into a space. We’re outside a clothes store called Little Joe’s in a charming town I think I missed the name of. I’m going to pop in and get you something to wear. I’d suggest you come in but I’m afraid you might scare the natives.’
Illya fingered the silky fabric that he still had wrapped around him.
‘You’re a spoilsport,’ he complained. ‘Just – please – try to be a little sensitive to my tastes, won’t you? Don’t buy anything too garish.’
Napoleon laid a hand on his arm. ‘Discretion will be my middle name.’
‘I thought your middle name was – ’ Illya began, but Napoleon cut across him.
‘Don’t even go there.’
‘Hmm,’ Illya replied.
‘Listen, take this,’ Napoleon told him, and pressed a gun into Illya’s hands. Illya ran his fingertips over it, feeling the familiar contours of the U.N.C.L.E. special revolver with Solo’s initial S engraved into the butt. ‘I’ve put the sleep dart clip in. If you feel threatened, use it. You can’t afford to take chances. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Illya promised.
He sat holding the gun as Napoleon left the car and walked away. He hated this feeling of vulnerability, of not being sure of exactly what was around him. He wished he’d asked Napoleon for a detailed description of the surroundings before he left, but he supposed he just needed to get over that need. He reached out a hand to touch the window beside him, assuring himself that it was closed. So that vulnerable point was as protected as possible at least. He rested his head back, keeping the gun just hidden in the folds of cloth he wore, and tried to keep himself calm and rational. And then came a tap on the driver’s side window that he knew was Napoleon’s because he always knocked that way, and the door was opening as Napoleon said, ‘Just me, tovarisch. They had everything you need. I went for basic black and simple – T-shirt, pants, underwear, socks, and shoes. You need help to change?’
Illya flushed. ‘Napoleon, I can’t change here. I’d be arrested!’
Napoleon sighed, and Illya heard him scratch his head. ‘I hate to say it, but you’re probably right. Listen, they’ve got cubicles in the shop...’
It was such a relief to be back in New York that for the first night that much of the frustration and anger caused by adjusting to blindness was absent from Illya’s mind. With his entire body aching and sore after his treatment by Miss Winslip, he was content to lie on the sofa and let Napoleon minister to him. It was a little like being ill in bed. But when he woke the next morning, in Napoleon’s apartment because, jokingly, he had said he was tired of Napoleon complaining about the camp bed, the emotions seeped back. He felt rested enough to go into the kitchen and make himself breakfast, but he didn’t know how to manage it in Napoleon’s kitchen, which was not as intimately familiar to him as his own. Always worse at waking in the mornings, Napoleon lay like a log beside him, and Illya itched to just get up and look after himself instead of waking Napoleon and being dependent yet again.
He lay for a little while stewing on his thoughts before pushing himself up abruptly and getting out of bed. He ran his fingers lightly over the lash marks on his upper back, probing them to see how they were healing. The muscle cramps were almost gone and his voice was recovered. It was mostly the burns from the cattle prod that were still bothering him. Of course, Napoleon had insisted on applying cream to the ones on his genitals last night, and he had lain and let him, pleased to experience a sexual touch that was not predatory to push away his memories of Sophie Winslip and her sadism. It had been nice just being pampered with no expectation of further response.
He found himself hardening at the thought, and grimaced. He had only just rid himself of his morning erection, and he didn’t need another one. He needed the toilet.
Napoleon found him in the kitchen trying to find the coffee and becoming mired in dark frustration. He had cut himself a couple of slices of bread and then failed to find the butter, and was starting to wonder if he was doomed to have dry bread and water for breakfast, which didn’t seem that different to his treatment by Thrush. He stood with his hands on the counter and head bowed, and jumped when Napoleon’s lips touched the back of his neck with lingering softness.
‘Anything I can do for you?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Not creep up on me and risk me knocking your block off?’ Illya asked irritably.
He heard the rueful tone in Napoleon’s voice. ‘Ah, the little cactus is back... Tell me, Illya, will I have to rescue you from the clutches of sadists every time I want you to be nice to me?’
Illya groaned a little and turned to face him, looping his arms about Napoleon’s neck.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said sincerely. ‘I wanted breakfast. And then I couldn’t find the coffee and I couldn’t find the butter...’
‘Ah, I’m not sure I have any butter,’ his partner admitted. ‘But the coffee’s right where I keep it.’
‘Which is?’ Illya asked rather tersely, turning back to the counter.
‘On the shelf behind the percolator. Have you ever used the percolator?’
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with a kettle and a coffee pot,’ Illya grumbled.
‘Well, it depends on whether you want coffee or good coffee,’ Napoleon told him, kissing his ear from behind. ‘And because I’m not a good little Bolshevik like you I want the best coffee, not average. No, no, no,’ he continued as Illya made to move out of his way. He slipped his arms around the Russian and put his hands over Illya’s, moving with him towards the percolator. ‘Now, here is the coffee,’ he said, reaching out with Illya’s right hand tangled in his. ‘And I’ll show you how to use the percolator. That way you can make your own coffee tomorrow and maybe I won’t find a cactus in the kitchen when I wake up.’
Illya couldn’t help but laugh. Even through all the frustration and upset churning in his chest, Napoleon reached through and made him laugh.
In the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary later Napoleon watched Illya with his lip bitten into his mouth as Drs Peterson and Malhotra examined him. He had been given a cursory examination on his return yesterday, of course, but this appointment was so that his eyes could be properly checked, and Solo felt a mixture of sympathy and hope. He knew Illya was sick of the incessant examinations, especially since they had been punctuated by the less than pleasant ones at the hands of Thrush, but perhaps finally something could be achieved. Hugo Ward was in custody and apparently more than willing to keep working on his proposed cure, and all of the notes and samples had been retrieved as well, and were undergoing analysis in the lab.
‘Well, the calcium deposits have certainly thickened,’ Peterson murmured, bending over the Russian and shining a light directly into his eye. ‘Of course we won’t be able to tell by how much without taking another sample.’
Illya flinched, and the doctor put his hand on his shoulder reassuringly.
‘Relax, Mr Kuryakin. I won’t be doing anything of the kind after your recent experience, not for at least a week. But I’m told that there’s clear evidence in Ward’s notes that he’s on to a way to break the deposits down over time. There isn’t very much that I can do except to monitor your progress and pray that he and your scientists can do their job. What I must do, though, is keep an eye on your right eye to make sure that no infection develops after Ward’s inexpert sample taking. I will prescribe an antibiotic that you must be sure to take, and give you some eyewash that I want you to apply morning and evening to both eyes. Are we clear on that?’
‘I am clear on that,’ Illya responded, and Napoleon winced a little. Illya did hate to be patronised by doctors, and was apt to take anything as patronisation, no matter how innocent.
The doctor turned away and wrote something down on his prescription pad. ‘Now, here’s the prescription slip,’ he said, putting it in Illya’s hand. Illya folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. ‘And you’re free to go, Mr Kuryakin,’ Peterson continued.
‘At last,’ Illya muttered, and Napoleon gave the doctor an apologetic look, wanting to apologise in words but not daring to. Illya was an ass when he was scared or stressed, and he had been waiting all through this exam for Peterson to stick another needle in his eye.
‘Come on, tovarisch,’ Napoleon said heartily. ‘Let’s go get some coffee.’
‘We are going down to the labs,’ Illya corrected him. ‘I want to see how Mr Ward is progressing.’
Napoleon sighed. He was sure there was nothing they could get from the labs that they couldn’t hear through the intercom, but then maybe Illya wanted more of George Dubanowski’s dubious coffee instead of paying for it in the commissary. He gave Illya his arm and walked with him out into the corridors.
‘No needle today, at least,’ he said brightly, giving Illya a smile that he couldn’t see.
Illya nodded briefly. He no longer had the pad over his right eye but the sclera was bloodshot and the milkiness in that pupil was tinted with rust. All in all, the eye didn’t look healthy, and surely that was another cause for concern for Illya. It would be awful if Hugo Ward devised a cure for the blindness but Illya’s eyes were destroyed by infection from his inexpert treatment.
‘Give me that prescription,’ Napoleon said, holding out his hand. ‘I’ll give it to one of the girls and they can run out and get it filled. The sooner you start on the antibiotics the better.’
Illya reached into his pocket and drew out the folded paper. Napoleon took it and turned sideways to dart into the secretarial room that they were just passing.
‘Hey, Liza,’ he began in a wheedling tone.
Illya cut over him. ‘It is my prescription,’ he reminded Napoleon. ‘Miss Mandel – or one of – you others,’ he said, rather vaguely waving his hand into the room. ‘I have a prescription that needs filling. Could one of you do it for me? I will be in the labs when it’s ready.’
Napoleon felt rather aggrieved at how quickly the bevy of women in the room jumped to their feet and started bickering lightly over who would be the one to fetch Illya’s prescription when he had asked them so bluntly. Illya was known in office gossip as the Ice Prince – so why were they all bending over backwards to help him?
Glancing at Illya, he knew. He knew already. Blue eyes, blond hair, cute, intelligent, and resolutely unavailable. If Illya had been a woman he would have jumped at him years ago, and it had only taken a small change in their relationship, a few days of Illya being utterly dependent, to show him what he was missing.
He quickly snapped himself back to reality before the women realised he was standing there making doe eyes at his partner. Liza Mandel seemed to have won the toss and was now holding out her hand for the prescription. Napoleon gave it to her, reflecting that really he was the winner. After all, he was the one going home to Illya in his bed.
‘All right, all right,’ he said, raising his voice a little, aware that the women were about to start crowding round and trying to engage Illya in conversation that would no doubt alternately embarrass and annoy him. ‘We need to get to the labs. Bring that prescription down there, huh?’ he asked Liza. ‘Illya?’
‘Thank you, Napoleon,’ Illya nodded, taking his arm again, apparently eager to get out of the room too.
‘Just in time. I thought they were going to maul you,’ Napoleon grinned as he led his partner down the corridor. ‘All you need is a hangnail for them to start mothering you, and since you’re burnt and whipped and bruised and blind you’re like the ultimate prize at the funfair.’
Illya snorted. ‘I have no desire to be anyone’s prize.’
‘Except mine,’ Napoleon suggested very quietly, and was gratified to see a small smile lift the corners of Illya’s mouth.
They treated the lab as a safe haven from over-solicitous females, Napoleon shutting the door behind them and leaning on it with some relief. Then he looked into the room before him and saw George Dubanowski and another man huddled around a microscope on the lab bench. His expression hardened as he recognised Hugo Ward.
‘George?’ Illya called rather tentatively.
‘Yeah, he’s in,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘They both are,’ he added darkly.
‘Both?’ Illya echoed, turning his ear to the room.
‘George, and our resident Thrush egomaniac mad scientist,’ Napoleon clarified.
Illya shuddered suddenly, drawing back a little. ‘I would have thought they’d keep Miss Winslip out of here,’ he muttered in a low voice. ‘She hardly adds anything to the situation.’
Hugo Ward cleared his throat. ‘I think he means me, Mr Kuryakin,’ he said in a rather apologetic voice, coming across the room. He made as if to shake hands and Napoleon looked daggers at him. ‘Er – I have agreed to help Mr Dubanowski here with developing the cure to your blindness,’ he continued, dropping his hand.
‘How – generous,’ Illya said rather dryly. ‘No doubt in return for sympathetic treatment from the legal establishment.’
‘Of course,’ Ward nodded. ‘But I was sincere, Mr Kuryakin, when I told you I was trying to develop a cure. Miss Winslip developed the drug, of course, but it seems unconscionable and really quite foolish to not be able to counter its effects. After all, accidents happen.’
Illya arched an eyebrow. ‘Forgive me, but a Thrush with a conscience is quite a new concept to me.’ He raised his voice, directing it into the room at general. ‘George, have you made any progress?’
‘Maybe some,’ George replied, not looking up. He was obviously concentrating hard. Illya let go of Napoleon’s arm and used the cane to navigate with great care over to the lab chief. Napoleon watched him, holding himself back from helping. It was gratifying to see how Illya’s confidence was growing, although the couple of lab stools out of place were something of a difficulty to him.
‘Ah, here,’ George said, looking up as if in surprise as Illya reached him. ‘Sit down, Illya. I’ll talk you through it. Oh – er – I heard you don’t like the needles much?’
Illya touched a hand to his eye, and shuddered. ‘Needles I don’t mind. Needles in my eye, though...’
George grimaced. ‘Well, the solution we’re working on will involve more needles in the eye, I’m afraid. Both eyes. Basically it’s a catalyst that will start to break down the calcium deposits, and it will possibly require a few treatments. Nothing’s going to happen fast.’
‘But – it will work?’ Illya asked, and Napoleon could hear the hunger in his voice. He stepped forward quickly. He wanted to hear it too.
‘It should work,’ Hugo Ward nodded, coming up behind them and resting one hip against the lab bench with a nonchalance that made Napoleon want to deck him. ‘Of course we only have the one test subject.’
Illya moved uncomfortably at that. Napoleon knew that he was heartily tired of being a test subject.
‘We’ll have to take it very slowly, old chap,’ George confirmed. ‘After all, we’re talking about your eyes here. If we damage them there’s nowhere else to go. So you’ll have to be a little patient yet, and let us keep fussing over you.’
Illya nodded, but Napoleon could see how tight the muscles were in the back of his neck. He wished he could take him in his arms right now and comfort him; or at least give him a neck massage.
‘How long before you can start the treatment?’ Napoleon asked quietly.
George peeked into the microscope again, adjusted the focus, looked at his notes, and then shrugged. ‘It might be a few days, a week, until we’ve got it perfected. Mr Ward here had a sound basis but he needed someone to work with, and since that Miss Winslip didn’t have any interest in creating a cure – ’
‘Yeah, she was all hurt and no comfort,’ Napoleon muttered, seeing Illya stiffen again at the woman’s name. ‘Listen, Illya, I get the feeling we’re just keeping these gentlemen from their work. Let’s go get some lunch, huh? We can call in later, pick up your prescription, and see how George is getting on.’
A small smile lifted the corner of Illya’s mouth. Napoleon knew that he was itching to be involved in the development of the treatment, and that being here in the lab was burning him up with impatience and frustration. That was why he wanted to get him out as soon as possible.
‘All right, lunch,’ Illya nodded. ‘In a restaurant, if you like, Napoleon.’
‘Really?’ Napoleon asked, delighted.
‘I will not be ordering eggs benedict,’ Illya said firmly. ‘But yes, really.’
Illya was gratified that his lunch passed without incident. He had chosen very carefully from the menu so as not to have anything too difficult to eat, and had limited his wine to a single glass, and he thought that he had managed well. At least, Napoleon had assured him that he didn’t have streaks of food down his shirt and tie, and he thought he believed him.
It had been strangely intimate sitting at a table surrounded by other patrons that he could not see. He focussed intensely on his immediate area, on the sound of Napoleon’s voice, on the feeling of the linen tablecloth beneath his fingertips, the heaviness of the cutlery and the taste of the food in his mouth. There was no visual distraction of other diners moving and interacting with one another, and none of the usual sense of being on guard because he could not scan the other patrons for suspicious movements and had to leave that entirely to Napoleon. He had enjoyed it more than he had expected.
‘Now, let’s get back and pick up that prescription, and then go home,’ Napoleon told him after he had paid the bill, putting his hand on Illya’s shoulder in a gesture of intimacy that made him shiver. How many times had Napoleon touched him like this before they had begun on this affair? It had never sent ricochets through his loins before. Illya took his partner’s arm and followed him out of the restaurant onto the street outside, feeling a sense of lightness at the thought that perhaps soon this would all be over.
-‘Let’s walk back,’ he suggested. ‘Or some of the way. We can go through the park, at least, and pick up a cab on the other side. I feel as if our last day there was rudely curtailed.’
Napoleon laughed. ‘Maybe because it was. Okay, Illya. Let’s walk through the park.’
Illya hooked his arm through Napoleon’s, relaxed and glad. He stood with him at the kerb and trusted him to take him across the road, and he could feel the open space of the park as soon as they entered it. The sounds of traffic died away somewhat and he could smell the scent of the sun on damp grass and plants.
‘You know, this is nice,’ he said lightly, and Napoleon rested his hand over Illya’s. He wondered if Napoleon were smiling too, but the heat of the sun on his face and the gladness that was pushing away some of the anxiety of the last few weeks made it no more than an idle wondering, not a painful sense of missing something he had a right to see. But he reached his hand up to Napoleon’s face anyway, wondering if he could trace the smile with his fingers.
Someone suddenly bumped hard into his shoulder. Adrenaline surged, a hundred scenarios of a Thrush attack entering his mind. But instead a man’s voice said, ‘Stinking fags. Get a fucking room.’
Napoleon’s voice was like cracking ice, calm, level, but so brittle it seemed to freeze the air. ‘He is blind.’
‘Oh – I – I’m sorry, buddy...’
A hand touched Illya’s shoulder, as if brushing off dirt, and he raised his own hand to snap it away as the man who had accosted them continued muttering confused apologies. Illya laughed, suddenly understanding.
‘He doesn’t know what to do, Napoleon. He doesn’t know whether to knock me on the ground because I’m a stinking fag, or to pity me because I’m blind. Is that it, buddy?’ he asked, using the word cuttingly. He held out his hand. ‘Sure you don’t want to just shake and make up, and walk away?’
The hand touched his, and as soon as it did Illya had the man smoothly trapped, his arm twisted behind his back, Illya’s free arm about his neck, forearm lying just hard enough across his throat to make him cough a little.
‘Don’t pity me,’ Illya said very softly in his ear. ‘And I don’t think you want to try knocking me on the ground, either, because I have killed men with one hand in the past. Just – go away. Go back to your petty life.’
He let the man go, secure in the knowledge that in the unlikely event that he were armed, Napoleon would have his gun out in a moment, and would shoot far more accurately than an amateur.
The man ran.
Napoleon whistled softly. ‘Remind me never to pity you.’
Illya exhaled hard. He had suddenly remembered the residual pain of the healing burns, bruises, and lash marks, and as the adrenaline rushed away from his body again he realised he was shaking.
‘Hey, you okay?’ Napoleon asked him in concern.
He nodded tightly, taking in a steadying breath. ‘Yes, I am – fine.’
‘Illya, let’s sit down,’ Napoleon said softly, and he walked him over to a bench and touched his hand to the back of it. ‘I think we need to talk about this,’ he said very seriously, as they both sat down.
Illya flexed his fists. The shaking was going now, just a reaction to the sudden burst of adrenaline after his ordeal of the last few days. But Napoleon’s voice was very serious.
‘Illya, you’re going to see again soon,’ Napoleon said.
‘I certainly hope so,’ he nodded. ‘George is doing his best.’
‘And then?’ Napoleon asked rather falteringly. ‘And then – what about – us?’
Illya’s head jerked up, suddenly apprehensive. ‘What about us? I don’t understand.’
‘Illya this happened – this relationship happened – at a very vulnerable time for you. When you can see again, are you sure you’ll still – I mean – ’
‘You mean, will you wake up in the morning to an empty bed? Will I tell you thank you for the lovely time, but it’s best we don’t see each other any more?’ Illya asked very quietly, uncertain about how alone they were.
‘Yeah,’ Napoleon said, and in that one word he sounded more vulnerable than Illya had ever heard him.
‘No, Napoleon,’ Illya assured him, wishing he could take the risk of reaching for his hand. ‘No, you will wake up with me beside you, and I will want to look at you every moment I get,’ he promised.
He heard Napoleon’s out-breath of relief. ‘You know – we won’t be able to do anything in public,’ Napoleon said very softly. ‘We couldn’t risk it.’
‘Well, after today’s incident I wouldn’t be inclined to try,’ Illya said with a wry smile. ‘Napoleon, you do remember where I come from, do you not? The U.S.S.R. is not kind to such degenerates as we have proven to be. I understand about being discreet. It is our business, after all.’
Napoleon laughed suddenly. ‘Well, I guess it is, at that. Well then, it will be our little secret eh, pussycat?’ he said, putting on his over-exaggerated French accent which amazed Illya every time it fooled someone. ‘We will be one thing behind closed doors, eh, and be another in en plein aire?’
Illya smiled, shaking his head. Napoleon could never fail to make him laugh, even when he didn’t let the laugh reach his mouth.
‘If you promise to never call me pussycat in public I will do whatever you like behind closed doors, Napoleon.’
He could hear the sparkle in Napoleon’s voice, the sparkle that must be in his eyes right now. ‘Mais non, my little pussycat. I will call you pussycat in public tous les jour, because I know you like what we do dans le maison just as much as I do. You would do nothing to stop it. Nothing at all.’
It took a week for George Dubanowski and Hugo Ward to be certain of their supposed cure, a week that was a mixture of contentment and irritation for Illya. Spending so much time with Napoleon was a boon in the early flowering of their relationship, but living with blindness was still deeply unpleasant, even with the prospect of his blindness being cured soon. He was tired of being able to do so little for himself, tired of having to ask Napoleon for help or attempting things himself and failing. He didn’t fail all the time, true, but with the cure in the pipeline some of the urgency to adapt was gone, and that didn’t help with his mindset. But Napoleon, at least, was a patient helper who never made him feel foolish and spent as much time trying to help him do things himself as taking over and doing it for him. He was afraid that Napoleon would be called back onto duty as Waverly had threatened, since Napoleon’s two weeks of leave were up, but Waverly relented since an end was in sight, giving a loose agreement that Napoleon could stay off duty until Illya was able to look after himself – as long as the vaunted cure actually did its job. Otherwise, Illya would have to look towards an entirely different future.
As soon as Dubanowski and Ward were confident of their serum Illya was called with the news, and he was scheduled to come in the next day. The first treatment was, thankfully, administered by Dr Peterson, without Hugo Ward in the room, but that didn’t stop the nervousness from taking over. Illya gladly accepted the sedative this time, especially since both eyes were being treated. The memories of Ward’s drugless infiltration of his right eye were still far too fresh in his mind. Illya made no secret of his hard grip around Napoleon’s hand as the needle slid in, and didn’t bother to keep a decorous distance from him as they walked away from the infirmary back to the car to take them home. He could blame any clinging on his blindness and the unsteadiness left by the sedative.
Back at home he leant tiredly into Napoleon’s side on the sofa, Napoleon’s arm firm around him, and just sat like that for a long while, eyes closed, relishing the stillness and quiet. He hadn’t realised he had fallen asleep, but then Napoleon was shaking his arm gently and saying, ‘I hate to rouse you, but if I don’t get to the bathroom I’m going to spoil your couch.’
Illya chuckled sleepily and heaved himself away from Napoleon’s arm, which by the sound of Napoleon’s gasp of pain had fallen as soundly asleep as he had.
‘Is there any change?’ Napoleon asked when he returned from the bathroom.
‘What?’ Illya began, then realised. ‘Oh, um – ’ He blinked hard trying to focus on the blur in front of him. ‘I don’t think so, Napoleon.’
He heaved himself off the sofa and wandered towards the window, hand out, and stared into the brightness outside, trying to tell if there were any direction or definition in the light. He pressed his hand against the cool of the glass, thinking how odd it was that to Napoleon it was completely transparent, that to him it had been completely transparent a few weeks ago. Now it was no more than a muffler of sound and a barrier to wind and rain, little different to the brick walls around it.
‘No, I really can’t tell,’ he said, ‘but we have to give it time, don’t we?’
‘I wish we didn’t,’ Napoleon murmured. ‘I wish I could just snap my fingers and you’d have twenty twenty vision.’
Illya grimaced. ‘Not as much as I do. Although, of course, I’ll always need reading glasses.’
He turned away from the window and went to the bathroom, then into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil. He was distracted a moment later by Napoleon following him into the room and slipping his arms around him, pressing his palm against the flatness of Illya’s stomach and nuzzling at his neck with his teeth.
‘When it does work, we won’t have half as much time for this,’ Napoleon sighed regretfully.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Illya replied. ‘Think of all those hotel rooms we have to share to save the old man money...’
‘Ah, yes...’ Napoleon nuzzled some more. ‘Well, Mr Kuryakin, maybe we need to start a list.’
‘Yes, of the places we get to christen. Just think. The first time I have you in Algiers with the sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer.’
‘Blasphemy,’ Illya said happily.
‘Well, the first time in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower lit up in the window. There is no blasphemy in the city of love.’
‘The first time on the hard ground somewhere in a central African wilderness after we’ve had to bail out of our plane,’ Illya said, warming to the challenge.
‘With the scorpions nuzzling at our toes,’ Napoleon added doubtfully. Meanwhile he deftly pulled Illya’s shirt tails free of his waistband and slipped his hands to the hot skin beneath. Illya shivered.
‘The first time in an Arctic blizzard, safe in our survival tent...’
‘With frostbite nuzzling at our toes...’
Illya grunted his disapproval, but the sound was transformed to one of gratification as Napoleon turned him around and sank his lips against Illya’s. The kettle began to scream, and then was silenced as Napoleon pulled it off the heat. Steam billowed around them.
‘The first time in some Turkish bath somewhere, disguised by the steam,’ Napoleon said, inspired.
‘With a burly Turkish attendant watching? No thank you. The first time – oh, the first time we find ourselves stranded out on an American prairie and we fall down into the waist length grass and – ’
‘What little prairie there is left,’ Napoleon objected. ‘And besides – ’
‘The snakes nuzzling at our toes. Illya do you have a hidden fetish for outdoor sex?’
Illya grinned. ‘Not so hidden.’
‘Aha.’ Napoleon put a finger under his chin to lift his mouth up and they drifted into another kiss, long and languid and hot, and Illya realised that his shirt was falling off him like the leaves from a cob of corn, only binding at his wrists. He undid his cuffs even as Napoleon’s tongue was searching deep into his mouth, and dropped the offending garment on the floor. He brought his arms up to tackle Napoleon’s clothes, tie and then shirt. His cuff links clinked and scudded away on the linoleum floor and Napoleon started to mutter something, but Illya stopped him with his mouth. He slipped his arms around Napoleon’s chest, feeling the broad warmth of his back, the hardness of muscles under their thin layer of silk skin and just enough fat. Their chests and bellies pressed together, heat shared with heat, hardness rubbing against hardness in the confining fabric of their trousers. And then Napoleon remedied that by bringing his hands to Illya’s waistband and freeing him, freeing himself too, so they were naked in the kitchen standing in a litter of clothing, hands moving against flesh, lips against lips.
And then Napoleon lowered Illya to the floor, ever so gently, and he barely shivered as his shoulder blades touched the cool of the linoleum. He lay there, boneless and easy as Napoleon covered him in kisses, trailing across his chest, nipping at the softness of his inner arm, coming back and finally moving down to nuzzle in the musky sweetness of his groin, until he took the stiff cock into his mouth, and Illya moaned aloud. He pressed his palms against the floor, fingers spread wide, trying not to thrust into the hot, wet space as Napoleon’s fingers moved across the silk of his balls and began to massage the wide, flat place beneath.
Napoleon’s mouth withdrew, and he whimpered, but the mouth was gone only long enough for Napoleon to say, ‘Don’t hold back, sweet. Please don’t hold back.’
And then the mouth was back again, the fingers exploring downwards, lightly tracing the puckered muscle between his cheeks and then pressing a little so that Illya couldn’t help but arch up, thrusting his hardness more fully into Napoleon’s mouth. Napoleon sucked hard and Illya thrust again, an urgency building that he couldn’t ignore. The world narrowed down to that one cubic foot of space where he was pushing himself into the receptivity of Napoleon’s mouth and Napoleon was sucking, massaging with his hand, sucking and sucking and drawing and – oh!
The world burst into a shower of incandescent sparks, into a bellow of sound, into pure joy, as he jerked hot fluid into Napoleon’s throat. He came back to himself realising his fingers were tangled in Napoleon’s hair, his back was sweaty-slick against the cool floor, and that every joint in his body had utterly let go.
Napoleon took advantage of the strengthless state, gently nudging his legs upwards, bending those boneless things towards Illya’s chest, and when he trickled oil between his legs Illya was so sensitised that he cried out aloud at the exquisite feel of it. His head lolled back, his arms incapable of movement, his legs loose and dipping towards his chest. He felt the soft-hard tip of Napoleon’s cock touching his entrance, and he was so relaxed that there wasn’t so much as a hint of resistance or pain as the thickness slid home, until Napoleon’s body was pressed against his, the coolness of his balls soft against Illya’s buttocks. The sensation of Napoleon filling him made him groan all over again. He hadn’t the wherewithal for words. And then Napoleon withdrew almost entirely, and he sobbed.
But, oh, Napoleon came home again, swift and sure. Each withdrawal was a bereavement but each re-entry was such pure bliss that the bereavement mattered not at all. Napoleon’s hands were hard against his thighs, gripping him, and then they moved down to take his hips, to hold him tight as he started to move faster, harder, coming home so hard that Illya jerked a little across the linoleum floor each time, brushing each time across that place inside him that set him on fire.
And then he felt it, Napoleon pushing in one last time with an animal cry, and stilling, the only movement the jerking inside him as Napoleon filled him with his hot seed. And then Napoleon fell down over his chest, his breath a heaving half-sob, his skin slick with sweat against Illya’s own.
‘Dear god, my love, my love,’ Napoleon murmured, but Illya was wordless, eyes closed, his own breath heaving from his lungs under Napoleon’s dead weight. He tried to move a single arm, to caress Napoleon in a wordless thank you, but no muscle would obey his urgings, so he just lay, still, until finally Napoleon rolled off him and touched his lips lightly with his own, in a kiss so innocent it almost made him weep.
He blinked his eyes open, and gasped.
‘What is it?’ Napoleon asked, instantly solicitous.
‘Shadows,’ Illya said, staring at the blur before him. ‘I think – I see shadows.’
Suddenly everything was very still and quiet. Napoleon hardly seemed to be breathing.
‘You see – shadows?’
‘There,’ Illya said, just managing to move his arm enough to wave vaguely. ‘There’s something dark, just there.’
Napoleon moved, coming closer to him as if trying to get his head in almost the same place as Illya’s.
‘That’s the table,’ he said. ‘That’s the table in front of the window.’
‘Oh, the window,’ Illya said suddenly. He had forgotten about the window. ‘I – don’t suppose the shades are down?’
Napoleon laughed. ‘Illya, did you hear yourself just now? I’m surprised there aren’t people beating on the door asking where’s the murder. Besides, from down here I don’t think there much that can be seen. But Illya, shadows?’
‘Yeah,’ Illya said. He began to sit up, watching in fascination as the shadows and light moved. He reached out tentatively and touched the hardness of the table where the shadow was at its darkest. ‘I – think the treatment works.’
He was caught into an embrace, and Napoleon kissed him hard, tongue coming into his mouth, tasting still of Illya’s come. And then Napoleon levered him up and together they went to shower, and then finally made the coffee that Illya had been intending to make an hour ago.
‘So it’s working, Illya. It’s really working,’ Napoleon said as they sat together on the sofa, Illya in his blue bathrobe, Napoleon clad only in a towel around his hips.
Illya peered into the confusing mist before him.
‘I think it is. I’m almost sure. I’ll see Peterson again tomorrow, Napoleon. He’ll be able to tell us what progress there is.’
‘I think you should go see him now,’ Napoleon said resolutely, but Illya laughed.
‘Napoleon, he’s probably at home with his wife right now. It must be – what – six o’clock in the evening? I will see him tomorrow at two. There’s no need to disturb him now. Anyway,’ and he nuzzled closer against Napoleon’s side, ‘I don’t want to be anywhere but here. Right here.’
‘Well, I have to say, right here is very pleasant,’ Napoleon admitted.
‘And it will keep on being pleasant,’ Illya said in contentment. But then his thoughts drifted on to the future, and he said musingly, ‘How do you think we will manage it, Napoleon?’
‘Manage what?’ his partner asked curiously.
‘This. Us. You and me together like this. Because this is it, isn’t it? We’re not going to drift apart. We’re not going to decide it was a mistake.’
‘We are definitely not going to decide it was a mistake,’ Napoleon said firmly, squeezing his arm around Illya’s shoulders. ‘The only mistake was in waiting so long.’
‘Well then,’ Illya said.
‘I understand that we cannot make eyes at each other over candlelit dinners in public or kiss in the park,’ Illya said, ‘but we live in separate apartments. I – very much do not want to live in separate apartments.’
‘Ah,’ Napoleon said slowly. There was the sound of his thumb rasping across his chin. ‘Yes, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Because I don’t want to live in separate apartments either.’
‘And you are the consummate flirt, the greatest ladies’ man U.N.C.L.E. has ever known. If you stop dating...’
‘Well, let them talk,’ Napoleon said suddenly, almost savagely. ‘Damn the whole lot of them. Let them talk their mouths off.’
‘And when the police come knocking at our doors?’ Illya felt a real frisson of fear at that. He knew that American police were not quite the same as law enforcement back home, but it was hard to let go of that kind of fear.
He felt Napoleon shake his head. ‘They won’t come knocking at our doors, Illya,’ he promised. ‘It’s not like that here. And I think – well – I think we could make a good case for sharing an apartment. Fiscal reasons, you know. You’re one of the most – ah – frugal people at U.N.C.L.E., and everyone knows that. As long as we maintain separate bedrooms...’
‘For appearances,’ Illya murmured.
‘For appearances,’ Napoleon confirmed. ‘You can keep your nasty little single bed. I have my queen-size. And I will carry on an appearance of dating, but I won’t bring my women home to my apartment because my dour Russian friend will be there, and everyone knows that will be like a bucket of ice water to two young things hoping for a romantic evening. And every time I kiss a woman I will think of you.’
‘And every time I kiss a woman?’ Illya asked rather darkly.
Napoleon laughed. ‘When was the last time you kissed a woman anyway?’
Illya cast his mind back. ‘I think her name was Bethany. The Cable Car Affair, remember?’
‘Huh,’ Napoleon said, then shrugged that off. ‘As far as I remember, she kissed you. And you were both more than a little drunk.’
‘Well then,’ Illya said. ‘I don’t see any need to remember kissing women. I have everything I want to kiss right here.’
‘You do, huh?’ Napoleon asked, sounding enormously contented.
‘Yes, I do,’ he nodded, leaning forward towards Napoleon’s voice.
They sat on the sofa, kissing, trailing fingers across flesh, lightly nipping. Napoleon’s hands started moving downwards again, and Illya caught them with his.
‘You are insatiable,’ he said with tolerant humour.
Napoleon carried on kissing and caressing. ‘Yeah, well, have you seen the temptation I’m faced with? A man would have to be a saint.’
Illya pretended to consider that. ‘Saint Napoleon. Hmm. You’re right. It doesn’t suit you.’
‘Saint Illya,’ Napoleon considered in his turn. ‘No, I can’t see it. Although,’ he ruffled his hand in Illya’s hair, ‘you already have a halo.’
‘Elijah was a saint,’ Illya commented, although he was distracted by the tips of Napoleon’s fingers trailing across his lower belly, brushing into the hair there, just above his pubic bone. The fingers dipped just a little lower. ‘Oh...’ He had to work hard to retain his train of thought. ‘I doubt he would have approved.’
‘Huh. Elijah. Is that where it comes from?’
‘It is the Ukrainian version. And he would not have approved of you taking me as an idol.’
‘He was keen on raising the dead,’ Napoleon countered, slipping his fingers lower, to where Illya’s flaccid organ was rapidly coming back to life.
‘He – ah – brought fire down from the sky,’ Illya commented, gasping as Napoleon’s strong fingers closed around his cock, kneading it from half-soft to steel sheathed in silk.
‘You have the sky in your eyes and fire – god, Illya,’ and he pumped harder, his whole fist hard around Illya’s length, ‘Illya, you are made of fire.’
‘My good orthodox mother would be shocked,’ Illya murmured, but his head was tilted back and he couldn’t stop the small gasps from escaping his lips.
‘Ah, but you’re a good communist, eschewing religion.’
‘Somehow I don’t think Lenin intended for this,’ Illya said wryly, but he lost the ability to banter further as Napoleon took him into his mouth and blew him to a climax right there on the couch. After he had recovered he bent to return the favour, and confirmed that Napoleon was just as godless as he.
A week had gone by, and Illya lay on the medical couch in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary again, sedated into a warm fuzziness again, holding onto Napoleon’s hand as Peterson bent over him with the syringe in his hand. After three treatments he was almost, almost, getting used to this. And he could actually see Peterson; not clearly, not in any way he would previously have defined as seeing; but he could see the dark solidity of him, the pinkish hue of his face, the dark of his hair. He stared, fascinated, as the dark blur of his hand came down and there was that odd anaesthetised pressure of the needle going in. He tightened his grip on Napoleon’s hand, and Peterson patted his shoulder before removing the device that held his eye open.
‘That’s the right done. Now the left. Are you ready?’
‘I am ready,’ Illya said, carefully keeping his head still as Peterson bent to fix his left eye open. There was that strange pressure again, and he kept his mouth closed against the nausea that threatened to rise.
‘All done,’ Peterson said blithely, putting the syringe down with a clatter on what was probably a metal tray. ‘You know the drill by now, Mr Kuryakin. Stay here for half an hour, and then you’re free to go. Come back day after tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, Doctor,’ Illya said with feeling.
Peterson patted his shoulder again. ‘I really am very pleased with your progress, Mr Kuryakin. At this rate I think you should be back to normal within ten days.’
That simple pronouncement started to sink in as Peterson walked out of the room. Knowing he was alone now with Napoleon, something burst inside. Illya felt tears running onto his cheeks, tears he had not felt start in his numbed eyes. Dr Peterson had not given him such a definite prognosis before now, and those few words overwhelmed him, his emotions made soft and quick to come by the sedative in his system. He tried to speak but couldn’t make the words come, but as he sat up against the dizzying sedative Napoleon took him into his arms and just held him as he breathed deep and hard. He could hear Napoleon’s heart thudding against his ear, the whisper of his breath, the small murmured words of comfort, and he couldn’t wait to see the face that went with those words, see the body beneath the fabric of his clothes. It all felt too much, too wonderful, but too, too long to wait.
‘I think he’s just a little overcome,’ Napoleon said, and Illya jerked, realising someone else must have entered the room. As he started to draw back Napoleon held him close again. ‘It was just a nurse, and she’s left us alone. Believe me, the gossip that she’s seen the Ice Prince crying will be far more titillating in the commissary than the gossip that she’s seen you in my arms.’
‘Oh, something to be grateful for,’ Illya said, but he could hardly inject the intended acidity into his tone through the tear-invoked shaking of his voice.
‘We have everything to be grateful for, Illya,’ Napoleon whispered, and for once Illya didn’t protest as he felt Napoleon’s lips against the crown of his head. ‘Come on, lie back down, and when you’ve served your half hour we can take a walk outside, get some fresh air. Good idea?’
‘Good idea,’ Illya said. He was overcome with an urge to walk further, to travel further, to be somewhere beautiful when his sight finally returned, somewhere with spring trees in blossom and a wide blue sky and delicate clouds scudding past the sun. ‘A very good idea,’ he said.
‘I know. I’d like to go somewhere too,’ Napoleon said, making Illya wonder how his partner managed to read his mind, ‘but I don’t think Waverly would approve a vacation right now – not after all this time out of the field.’
‘How about the gym?’ Illya asked suddenly. ‘I feel like I haven’t had a proper workout in weeks.’
‘Because you haven’t had a proper workout in weeks,’ Napoleon agreed with a smile in his voice. ‘I should have thought. You could at least use the exercise bikes.’
‘No, I want a workout,’ Illya said forcefully. ‘With you, Napoleon. I want to fight.’
He could feel it welling inside him, the overwhelming need to work the adrenaline out of his muscles and joints. All his recent stint under Thrush care had allowed him was to build up the need without releasing it, and besides, over two weeks had passed since then. He wasn’t used to going so long without some kind of release, and although sex worked well it didn’t quite have the edge of physical violence.
After his half hour period lying down he took Napoleon’s arm and walked down to the gym. Neither had thought to bring gym clothes, so instead they stripped down until they were shirtless and sparred in trousers and bare feet.
‘God knows,’ Napoleon said, ‘what Mr Waverly would say if he knew I was risking the fine tailoring of my pants to – oof!’
And he slammed over backwards onto the mat. Illya stood over him, grinning, unable to see anything but the dark pink-grey blur of Napoleon against the yellow mat, but knowing that he probably had a slightly puzzled and exaggeratedly hurt expression on his face.
‘Okay, if it’s going to be like that, comrade,’ Napoleon said, getting to his feet and squaring himself in front of his partner, ready to strike.
Illya flipped him again, and heard the rush of air leaving Napoleon’s lungs as he hit the mat. Napoleon popped up again like a child’s toy and grabbed Illya’s arms instantly, twisting him in turn so that he slammed to the floor. Illya hit awkwardly and cried out, grabbing at his shoulder. Napoleon was instantly solicitous, kneeling down beside him and reaching out. Illya grabbed at the ill-defined shape and flipped him again so that they were both sprawled on the ground.
‘I thought you were hurt!’ Napoleon complained.
‘I was,’ Illya said ruefully, rubbing at his shoulder, ‘but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t take advantage.’
‘Are you really – ’ Napoleon came towards him, then lifted up his hands, pink blurs that separated from the blur of his body, saying, ‘Truce, truce. Are you really hurt?’
‘Just jarred my shoulder,’ Illya assured him, still rubbing at it. ‘I can see enough to tell where you are but I can’t make those snap judgements about how to fall.’
‘You want to stop?’ Napoleon asked.
Illya grinned dangerously. ‘I’ve hardly worked up a sweat. I’ve fought with worse than a stiff shoulder before.’
‘Well, as long as you don’t turn it into more,’ Napoleon warned him. ‘If I was worried about what Waverly would say about me ruining my pants, what would he say about you acquiring a broken arm just before you’re due to come back on duty?’
‘Well, let’s try to keep it without the flips for now,’ Illya begrudgingly agreed, but then amended, ‘Actually, I can flip you. You can see where to land.’
‘Oh, wonderful,’ Napoleon said, his voice loaded with sarcasm. But they both stood and Illya reached out towards his partner again, getting him into a deadly clinch. He could feel that Napoleon was holding himself back, and he growled, ‘Fight me, dammit. Just don’t flip me.’
‘It’s – hard,’ Napoleon puffed, ‘to fight you – without being allowed – to knock you – on your backside.’
His words were punctuated with his thrusts of effort. The sweat that was coming on both their torsos began to blend together, making them both slick, making Illya’s hands slip where they gripped on Napoleon’s arms. He was breathing hard too now, trying to get a hold on Napoleon that would allow him to bring him down safely. But Napoleon was larger and heavier than him, and was resisting with more force. He heard someone enter the room, and then another, and realised that they were gathering a crowd. No doubt it was somewhat entertaining to watch a blind agent wrestling with a fully sighted one. He felt Napoleon get distracted and took the opportunity to bring him down hard onto the mat and hold him there.
‘Okay?’ he asked, sotto voce, as Napoleon panted beneath him.
In answer Napoleon rolled him over and was suddenly on top of him, pinning him down. Oh, but this was dangerously close to what went on in their bedrooms now. He could feel Napoleon’s heat over him, his breath coming warm and fast over his face. He wanted to lean his head up and kiss him, but instead he jerked suddenly, throwing Napoleon back off him and twisting his arm behind his back with a firmness that should stop just short of painful. If he had lain there any longer under Napoleon’s weight he would have started to get hard, in front of all those watching eyes. He could hear them now taking quiet bets on who would win. That made him laugh internally, because there would be no winner. They weren’t fighting for points, just to get out the excess energy of inactive days.
‘Okay, I give,’ Napoleon said suddenly, and he realised he was still holding his partner’s arm twisted behind his back. ‘Haven’t you had enough yet?’
Illya grinned his sudden, fiery grin. ‘Does that mean you give up?’
If Napoleon said yes then Jim Rawlins and Pete Wright would win their bets, while the others would be left disappointed.
‘I give up,’ Napoleon said, and Illya heard a quiet groan from the losers in the pack of watchers. He smiled in quiet triumph. He knew it wasn’t really a win, not with Napoleon pulling his punches, but it was satisfying enough. As he walked out of the room with his hand on Napoleon’s arm a couple of the bystanders patted him on the shoulder, and he grinned all the harder.
‘Shower?’ Napoleon asked him.
‘Very necessary,’ Illya agreed. He was still panting a little, and still dripping with sweat. He turned towards Napoleon, and almost bit his tongue.
‘What is it?’ his partner asked in concern.
Illya reached a finger out and accurately touched Napoleon’s nose. ‘This,’ he said simply. The blur had cleared to the point where he could make out the dark splotches of Napoleon’s eyes blending into the arch of his eyebrows. He could see the red smear of his lips, and above them he could just see a dark blotch that indicated his nostrils.
Napoleon’s hands clamped onto his bare shoulders. ‘Illya?’
‘It’s not perfect, not near perfect, but – Napoleon, I think physical exercise straight after a treatment increases its effect. Do you remember last time – ’
‘Oh, I remember that well, tovarisch,’ Napoleon grinned – and Illya could see the grin in the way the red of his mouth changed shape.
He moved away from Illya and the Russian heard the sudden hiss of the water in the communal showers.
‘Let’s get clean and dry and then we can report in to the doctor. You must want to report this?’
‘Oh, I do,’ Illya grinned, swiftly stripping off his trousers and pants and handing them to Napoleon. He wished he could shower with Napoleon as they did at home, but since that often ended in mutual masturbation it wouldn’t be a good idea here, where anyone could wander in and see what was going on. He stepped under the water, glad it was a little cooler than was comfortable, because the thought of standing here with an erection was mortifying.
Clean and dressed, the pair went directly back to the infirmary to speak to Dr Malhotra. He invited them into his office, which wasn’t much different from the office Napoleon and Illya shared apart from in his choices of knick-knacks – a photograph of his family, some paper reproductions of great art works tacked to the wall, and a couple of framed certificates.
‘I’ve noticed a distinct improvement twice after indulging in strenuous exercise not long after the injection,’ Illya said seriously, after describing the improvement.
‘Yeah, and we thought it would be a good idea to pass that on,’ Napoleon chimed in.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ the doctor said, making a few notes on a piece of paper on his desk. ‘Well, that certainly is fascinating. I can pass it on to Dr Peterson, certainly, although he’ll probably want to check that exertion so soon after the injection doesn’t cause any negative issues that outweigh the benefits. There could be a risk of causing a bleed in the eye with heightened blood pressure. Can you be more specific? Type of exercise, amount of exertion, duration?’
Napoleon glanced sideways at Illya, seeing his fair-skinned companion reddening slightly.
‘Uh – well, we were sparring in the gym,’ Napoleon said quickly. ‘For – er – about half an hour. Quite intense levels. We were both out of breath, breathing heavily, heart racing.’
‘Of course,’ Malhotra said, looking between the two men. ‘And this was both times?’
Napoleon’s mouth opened, but as he said, ‘Yes,’ Illya said, ‘No,’ and then Napoleon didn’t know what to say.
The doctor looked at Napoleon and then back at Illya, a slight smile starting on his face.
‘You – were, or you weren’t working out?’ he asked, looking directly at Illya.
Illya flushed further and dipped his head. Napoleon had so rarely seen Illya blush at anything that he couldn’t keep his eyes off him. It seemed that sex was his only weakness in that respect.
‘I – er – ’
‘Yes, he was working out,’ Napoleon said very quickly. ‘Again, for about half an hour, intense, heart racing. Very much like today’s workout.’
Dr Malhotra gave him a hard look, and then nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said, jotting down on the paper again. ‘Well, I’d suggest checking with Dr Peterson at your next treatment, but it looks like a – ahem – a workout would be a good idea after that one. I assume you’re eager to hurry things up?’
‘Oh, I am,’ Illya said earnestly. ‘Very much so.’
The doctor got to his feet. ‘Thank you, gentlemen. I’ll be sure to pass that on right away.’
Napoleon tossed him a casual salute, and touched his hand to Illya’s arm. ‘Ready, comrade?’
Illya took his arm, and they walked towards the door.
‘Gentlemen,’ Dr Malhotra said softly, as Napoleon’s hand touched the door handle. ‘Take care with your working out, won’t you? Some people have different opinions about more unusual gym routines. And if you should need any – ah – advice or treatment relating to more unorthodox workouts, please come to me before seeing anyone who might be – er – less understanding of these things.’
‘Well, thank you, doctor, we’ll be sure to do that,’ Napoleon said very smoothly. He could practically feel Illya coming apart inside, and he hurried him out through the door. ‘Illya,’ he said in a soft, warning voice as they left the room. He had never seen his partner so rattled.
‘Napoleon, he knows,’ Illya hissed in an undertone.
Napoleon put his free hand over Illya’s where it touched his arm. He looked around momentarily, then took him into the elevator and didn’t press any of the floor buttons.
‘You heard what he said,’ he said reassuringly. ‘He was discreet – very discreet – and understanding. He’s not going to say anything to anyone. And if anyone did know, a doctor who’s bound to hold medical confidences is the best person. Okay?’
Illya took in a deep breath, held it, then breathed out again. ‘Okay,’ he said slowly. ‘I – am sorry, Napoleon. I – I’m afraid I lost it for a moment there.’
Napoleon smiled warmly at him, a smile he didn’t think Illya could quite make out although his extremely blue eyes were directed straight at his face. He wanted to lean closer to that gaze, close enough so that his lips would butt up against Illya’s generous ones, but he knew if he did that here his partner would really freak out.
‘It’s all right. Where you come from, you have good reason to be concerned. Your country really did a number on you, didn’t they?’
Illya gave a snort. He looked wan and despairing. ‘Napoleon, have you ever read descriptions of the gulags, or the fate of those in mental institutions who are not ill but simply non-conformist? I would rather be shot – which would be a distinct option.’
Napoleon patted his arm. ‘I take your point. But you don’t need to worry here, I promise you. If we’re discreet, it will be all right.’ He took hold of both of his partner’s hands. ‘Illya. I promise.’
He pressed the button for the exit level, and touched Illya’s arm again in reassurance as the lift jerked into movement.
‘Let’s go for that walk in the fresh air and spring blossoms,’ he said. ‘And later – ’
‘And later, we will be alone, together, in private,’ Illya nodded, a smile helping to ease the pale, peaked look of his face.
‘We will,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘And we will do whatever it takes to put you at your ease. Whatever it takes, I promise.’
Two Weeks Later.
Napoleon stood for a moment in the open doorway, just gazing at his partner. Illya was seated behind his desk, typewriter pulled to the centre, fingers moving with ridiculous speed as he transferred handwritten notes to carbon paper. Any number of U.N.C.L.E.’s resident secretaries would have been very happy to do it for the Russian, he was sure, but he knew that Illya preferred to do it himself. Less mistakes, he always said in a dark tone. He was concentrating so hard that he hadn’t noticed his partner’s arrival.
‘Hey, Inky,’ Napoleon said once he had gazed long enough, and Illya looked up, pushing his green-tinted reading glasses further up and leaving a charming black smudge on the bridge of his nose.
The joyful smile that flashed over Illya’s face was like lightning, bright and rare. ‘I have not been called that since my Cambridge days,’ he said.
‘So you were just as filthy then?’ Napoleon asked with studied insouciance.
Illya’s eyebrows arched. ‘Because of my initials,’ he clarified. ‘What do you mean, filthy?’
‘Ah, I thought it was because you can never change a typewriter ribbon without getting it on your fingers,’ Napoleon said affectionately.
He took out his handkerchief, made a show of wetting the corner with saliva, then reached forward to rub the smudge from Illya’s nose. Illya recoiled, but a gentle hand at the back of his head stopped the retreat, and after a moment Napoleon withdrew the handkerchief, showing Illya the ink on the corner. Illya’s nose was now a pleasing red where it had been rubbed, and he resisted the urge to kiss it. Next Napoleon took his right hand and turned it over, touching each dirty fingertip in turn.
‘Here, and here, and here,’ he said, rubbing off the offending ink with the damp corner. He looked at the left hand which had, as he had expected, picked up its own black marks from the dirty keys. ‘Don’t you ever notice the smudges on the keys?’ he asked, leaning over to inspect the black keys with their white letters. ‘Half your letters are gone.’
‘Napoleon, I don’t need to look at the keys as I type,’ Illya said tolerantly. ‘I touch type.’ He took the reading glasses off and sighed. ‘Which is a good thing, considering...’
‘Considering?’ Napoleon asked, suddenly concerned. He leant in to look intently into Illya’s blue eyes, searching for any hint of strain. ‘Hey, should you really be doing this? Didn’t Peterson tell you to rest your eyes as much as possible?’
Illya smiled rather ruefully. ‘Well, Napoleon, you know how the old man is – ’
‘Bunk!’ Napoleon argued immediately. ‘There is no reason on earth why you couldn’t give your notes to a secretary to type up. It’s just your innate pickiness that won’t allow – ’
‘Pickiness?’ Illya’s mouth gaped.
‘Yes, pickiness. Perfectionism. You don’t trust the secretaries to do their jobs. You won’t let a mission report fall on Waverly’s desk unless you’ve typed it with your own fair fingers. But that’s not good enough at the moment, Illya.’ He was actually starting to get angry now, although he had started out with teasing. ‘Didn’t a month of blindness teach you to value your eyesight? Why would you risk it now?’
Illya sighed, pushed the typewriter away from him, and rubbed his eyes.
‘All right, Napoleon. I concede your point. I will let Mary Hemingway finish it off. Only Mary Hemingway,’ he insisted.
‘Only Mary Hemingway,’ Napoleon nodded with a tight smile. ‘I will make sure that memo goes through. But you, Mr Kuryakin, are going to step aside from the desk with your hands away from your body, and walk away from here without looking back. I have secured us three day’s leave, and it’s almost five p.m., so it’s time for you to come home and pack.’
Illya looked at him, astonished. ‘How on earth – ?’
‘I had a word with Mr Waverly about what Peterson said, and about how you were sure to be here straining your eyes to their limits catching up with what you’ve missed. It took a bit of wrangling, but in the end he agreed that three days are worth it if it will mean your full recovery.’
‘But both of us?’ Illya asked. ‘What did you do? Offer him your soul?’
Napoleon rubbed at his nose. ‘I – ah – may have slightly exaggerated your current symptoms,’ he admitted. ‘Implied you couldn’t quite get by without some extra help.’
Illya grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and put it on with alacrity. ‘Then let’s get out of here before – He has spies everywhere, you know.’
‘I know,’ Napoleon grinned. ‘You’re speaking to one of them. And so am I.’
Illya leant back contentedly into the leather seat as Napoleon picked up the pace, now out of the city and on more open roads. He was happy not to be driving, and he couldn’t anyway, since his long distance vision still hadn’t returned to its normal acuity and he was still occasionally plagued with blinding blotches which were, apparently, a residue of the calcium compound which should clear in time. But he could see. He could turn his head sideways and casually let his gaze linger on Napoleon’s face, something he had longed to do for weeks. He could make out the leaves on trees and flowers in the verges of the road. When he woke his vision was still fuzzy for an hour or so, and when he was tired it grew worse again. Napoleon had been right, really, to insist on being with him for these three days’ leave. He had tried to cross a street yesterday and almost been hit by a cab he hadn’t seen through one of those drifting blotches. He struggled a little with depth perception. But he could see.
Napoleon noticed his gaze, and turned briefly to meet his eyes with a smile.
‘Happy?’ he asked.
‘I will be if you tell me where we’re going,’ Illya said, injecting something of a growl into his voice that he didn’t really feel.
‘Ahh, patience, mon ami. We’ll be there soon.’
Illya glanced up as a green road sign drifted by, but he couldn’t make out the words. Really, it was too bad of Napoleon to keep their destination a secret from him if he couldn’t even gain clues from the road signs.
‘Why don’t you do your usual trick and go to sleep, huh?’ Napoleon asked with a grin. ‘Stop bothering me.’
Illya grunted, but he decided to take Napoleon up on the suggestion. The American had woken him up early, early even by Illya’s standards, which were far more generous than Napoleon’s. There was still dew on the ground and the sun was low in the east. He closed his eyes, shifted a little in his seat, and let himself drift away.
The honk of a horn jerked him awake and he lifted his head so quickly off Napoleon’s shoulder that he got a crick in his neck.
‘Did you have to do that?’ he asked, rubbing the sore tendon, covering his embarrassment at having apparently chosen Napoleon as a pillow in his sleep.
‘I did. We’re here, Illya,’ Napoleon said brightly. He looked like a child on Christmas morning, his face aglow. He waved his arm expansively, and Illya followed the direction of the gesture. ‘It’s a private beach, too,’ the American said. ‘We’re at the end of a two mile long road, and no one should come through those gates.’
Illya made out a long line of blue sea, twinkling and glistening under the sun, which was now almost overhead. He made out the yellow of a line of sand, and the closer green of pristine grass. They were parked outside what looked like an old lighthouse built on a small rise above the beach, apparently converted to a less vigilant purpose now. The sign outside said Sunny Rest Lighthouse.
‘Sounds like a retirement home,’ Illya grumbled, getting out of the car onto grass that was scudded through with sand; but somehow he couldn’t keep up the air of sullen Russian.
Napoleon joined him and put an arm around his shoulders in quiet contentment.
‘Would it help if I told you that name was applied by the current owner – apparently someone with very little imagination – but that it used to be called Masefield’s Peak?’ Napoleon asked with a grin. ‘P-e-a-k or p-e-e-k. No one seems clear on the spelling, or whether it was named after the more famous Masefield or just your run of the mill Masefield.’
Illya sighed contentedly, wondering why on earth anyone would ever change that to Sunny Rest Lighthouse.
‘I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife,’ he reeled off, savouring the words as much as he would a fine liqueur.
Napoleon startled him by suddenly embracing him and pulling him into a hot, long, fevered kiss. Illya returned the kiss just as fiercely, trusting Napoleon that they were utterly alone, pushing his fingers up into the short hair at the back of Napoleon’s head and loving the silky feel.
‘God, what it does to me when you quote poetry from memory,’ Napoleon said in a husky voice. ‘How do you even know so much in the English language?’
Illya smiled, remembering the past. ‘It was a book I had in Cambridge,’ he said rather wistfully. ‘I did a lot of extra-curricular reading, much to my tutors’ dismay.’
‘And I’ll bet you know the whole poem, not just one line.’ Napoleon had always been slightly envious of Illya’s near-photographic memory.
Illya looked up, met his eyes, met the challenge.
‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,’ he started, his voice sonorous, abstracted, and beautiful.
‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
‘And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
‘And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
‘I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
‘Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
‘And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
‘And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
‘I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
‘To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
‘And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
‘And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.’
He turned back to Napoleon, eyes sparkling at his partner’s brown-eyed look of utter adoration.
‘Be careful, Napoleon. Keep looking at me like that and I shall have to call you Fido,’ he warned.
Napoleon cuffed him playfully. ‘Don’t you get seasick, for all your experience in the Russian Navy?’
Illya snorted. ‘Only sometimes,’ he said. ‘I managed perfectly on Captain Morton’s dirty British coaster. Besides, I wasn’t in the navy long, what with my degree and my masters and my PhD. How much sailing do you think I really did?’
Napoleon reached over into the almost non-existent back seats of the little sports car and pulled out a twee wicker hamper.
‘Make yourself useful,’ he said. ‘Take that down to the beach and find a good spot for lunch. I’ll put the cases in the house and join you.’
Illya took the hamper but he waited while Napoleon deposited their cases inside, making sure that he had his gun to hand. Neither man was wearing his holster, but even here it was right to be cautious.
‘Tardy,’ Napoleon commented as he turned back and saw Illya still there.
‘Just waiting for you,’ Illya said. He didn’t like to say that he felt slightly nervous of making his way down what looked like quite a rocky path with the current flaws in his vision. He just took Napoleon’s arm in a companionable way, and walked with him down to the beach.
They spent some time first in the bracing waters of the north Atlantic, Illya pushing in and out of the waves like a porpoise, Napoleon swimming rather more decorously back and forth in lines beyond the breaking waves. Illya saw that Napoleon spent as much time gazing at him as he did watching Napoleon’s bronzed, muscular arms making strokes through the water, his sinewed neck turning as he grabbed air, his dark hair plastered against his head, the beads of salt water running down his skin. Finally hunger spoke to them both, and they waded back out onto the sand, where the sun and light breeze breathed away the water on their bodies. Since the beach was utterly deserted, they were both nude.
‘Good god, Illya,’ Napoleon said, and Illya turned to see him standing motionless, as if transfixed.
‘What is it?’ Illya asked, slightly concerned.
Napoleon grinned. ‘You, you Russian idiot. You, dusted with sand, with the sun turning your hair to gold, with beads of water showing up every line of your body.’
And his eyes tracked down to Illya’s groin, where his cock, although much diminished by the cold, glistened with sea water in its gold-dark surround of hair.
‘God, you’re beautiful,’ Napoleon sighed, reaching out a single finger to Illya’s face as if afraid that more would disturb his beauty. ‘Your eyes – did you know your eyes are the exact colour of the sea out there? Did you know that the sand on your shoulders is the same gold as your hair when it’s dried by the sun?’
Illya wasn’t quite sure what to do with those effusions when they were directed straight at him. He wished he could think of similar words to describe Napoleon. Perhaps he could, written down, but standing here having to produce words from his mouth he could only remember that he had recently compared Napoleon’s eyes to a dog’s. Nevertheless, they were beautiful. All of him was beautiful. He glanced down and saw that Napoleon’s cock was fighting against the chill of the sea, growing longer and thicker as the blood piled in, and then he realised that his own was following suite, and that in a moment he would be helpless to resist anything Napoleon proposed. Napoleon was like that, had always been like that. He was addictive and irresistible.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon said, and with that one word Illya knew he was lost.
Napoleon moved away from him rapidly, bent over the picnic hamper, showing taut, pale buttocks and the dark swing of his balls to Illya’s view. He took out a tartan blanket and shook it out, covering a patch of sand with red and green. And then he straightened and opened his arms in welcome.
Illya accepted it as a coming home. They tumbled together onto the blanket, the soft of acrylic over hard-soft sand. And they were kissing, tussling, rolling together on the soft surface, moving hands over skin alternately bedewed with sea water or beaded with sand. Illya almost sobbed in his urgency, his cock straining now, aching with need. He laid kisses down Napoleon’s chest, plunged his mouth over the sea-brined cock, licked off salt and pre-come and listened to Napoleon’s groans. But he pulled away, moving his fingers to the taut curves of his lover’s buttocks, spreading them apart, revealing the clean entrance that he so coveted. And Napoleon reached behind him into the picnic basket and pulled out a small tin of vaseline. Illya couldn’t contain his laugh. Only Napoleon would have the forethought to pack lubricant in with their lunch.
He took the little metal tin, pulled off the lid, dipped his fingers into the semi-clear contents. And then he applied it to Napoleon’s body, pushing his fingers in delicately at first, very gently, moving them so that Napoleon groaned in need. And then he slicked the stuff down the length of his cock, nudged Napoleon’s legs up, positioned himself, and slid in, luxuriating in his ability to hold Napoleon’s gaze with his own, to see Napoleon’s pupils dilate as Illya’s cock slipped over his prostate, to see the widening of his eyes and the look of utter trust.
It was almost too much. He thrust and thrust again, ignoring Napoleon’s weeping cock, intent only on his own pleasure and the pleasure that Napoleon gained from those swift, sure thrusts. He gripped his lover’s hips in bruising hands, slipping in to his full length again and again, feeling the need build in him, his balls tightening, his body getting ready to give its all.
And then he orgasmed, crying out as he jerked hotly inside Napoleon’s tight body, falling forward over him and kissing him passionately and hard. To his amazement, Napoleon hadn’t come. His length was still hard and hot between them, so hard he was almost afraid of it bursting like a ripe fruit. He had always known the American’s resolve was legendary, but this went beyond all bounds.
As his wilting cock slipped from Napoleon’s body his partner growled as if they were on the wrestling mat in the gym, grabbing the Russian and turning him over in one swift movement. In his post-climactic state he could do nothing to resist as Napoleon set him on hands and knees, grabbed the lubricant for himself, generously plied it into his lover’s body, and then pressed his burning cock home. Illya’s arms and legs were like jelly, and Napoleon held him up with an arm about his chest, but he could only hold up so much, and Illya’s arms collapsed, his head falling onto hot sand, his mouth filling with it as Napoleon thrust and withdrew and thrust again. It was like being set alight, and despite his exhaustion he hardened again with each firm thrust that Napoleon drove into him. Napoleon trusted him to hold himself up now, grabbing hold of his shoulder with one forward reaching arm and twining his other hand around Illya’s cock, pumping it in time with his urgent ramming home. And then they exploded in twin orgasms, Napoleon filling Illya with his hot seed, Illya bursting across Napoleon’s hand and onto the twisted blanket and sand beneath them. His legs gave way, and they both fell boneless on the ground, panting, small whimpers coming from Illya’s mouth and sighs of gratification from Napoleon’s, coming together in a kind of song.
After a long time, they moved. Napoleon shook out the blanket and turned it over so the sticky dampness of seed and sweat soaked into the sand. They moved together down to the incoming tide and stepped into the foaming waves. Chest deep in the chill water their hands roamed over each other’s bodies, seeking and routing the sticky come and the trapped sand, sweeping off the sweat, even as their mouths joined together and they shared each other’s heat against the frigid sea.
Then they walked back to the shore, let the sun dry them again, lay on the sand idly pulling out morsels of food and offering them into each other’s mouths. Napoleon took a bottle of white wine from a chilled jacket and opened it. They didn’t bother with glasses, just passed it between them, drinking from the neck, glad of the cool now under the heat of the sun. And later, much later, sated with food and sex, made easy by wine, they packed up and moved hand in hand back up the rocky path, to explore the lighthouse with its circular bedroom, to fall boneless into bed, and sleep in each other’s arms.