The Old Masters Affair

by AconitumNapellus




1.

The man on the pavement was slight, pale, blond-haired. He was also unconscious. One hand was stretched out above his head as if he had been reaching for something when he fell; the other was crooked at a strange angle, the black fabric of his thin turtleneck sleeve shiny with blood. His face was bruised, his otherwise smart clothing torn and soiled with dirt from the streets. Near to his body was a revolver.

Elidh Jones was arrested by the sight. Momentarily frozen, she dithered, not sure whether to approach the man or call for help. She had seen plenty of sights like this at the hospital, but somehow this wasn’t quite the same. Something wasn’t right. She couldn’t put her finger on it. Maybe it was the gun unnerving her; but something wasn’t right.

The thoughts whipped through her head in seconds, but then training kicked in. She ran to the man, dropping her handbag on the street as she crouched beside him, pressing her fingers to the side of his neck to feel for a pulse.

It was there. It was weak, but it was there.

She touched her fingers to his cheek, not wanting to shake him until she could be sure he had no damage to his spine.

‘Can you hear me?’ she called in the loud, clear voice she was used to using in A&E to seemingly unresponsive patients. ‘Sir, can you try to wake up?’

Her eyes flicked over him again. There was rope knotted around each wrist. That wound to his arm looked to be a violent break of some sort. Bruising to his head and neck. No doubt there was bruising to his body too under his torn clothes. He reeked of stale urine.

‘Can you hear me?’ she called again, getting her mouth close to his ear.

He hissed in his breath in a sudden motion that startled her into almost falling over backwards. His eyes snapped open, and she saw a flash of startling blue before he sat up in one coiled motion, and grabbed at the collar of her blouse.

Well, that’s one for the bin, she thought as he fell back again, leaving a smear of grime and blood on the white fabric.

‘There, just lie there quietly,’ she told him.

At least she knew now that he probably had no severe spinal injuries, but that burst of movement had left him even paler than before. She started to roll him onto his side, just in time, because he vomited pitifully onto the concrete slabs of the pavement. It was pitiful because there was so little in his stomach that nothing came up but water and bitter bile.

She pulled out her handkerchief and wiped his mouth.

‘I need to leave you,’ she said clearly. ‘I need to get to a telephone box, call an ambulance.’

His eyes snapped open again, and she saw that her impression of brilliant blue irides had not been mistaken. He looked distracted, in pain, but his eyes were startling.

‘No. No, no ambulance,’ he murmured, obviously struggling against great pain. ‘No, need to get somewhere safe. Fast. No ambulance. Please. They’ll find me. Take me to...’

But his eyes rolled back in his head, and he fainted.

Elidh was left kneeling on the pavement, her head spinning. He had sounded Russian. She was sure of that. He looked damn near Russian too. And that gun… She reached out to it tentatively, and picked it up in her fingertips. Now, guns certainly weren’t something she came across every day, not in this neck of the woods.

Her conscience warred within her. The man needed medical attention. He needed it badly. And if he were Russian, a Russian carrying a gun, come to such grievous harm in the London streets, then surely this must be something the authorities should know about? But there was something about him, something about his eyes, something about the desperation in his voice, that overrode that higher, rational brain. She needed to help him. She wanted to help him. And here she was on her way back from a night shift at five a.m. on a clear summer’s morning, with apparently nothing else that she could do.

She shrugged off her coat and laid it gently over him.

‘Stay right there,’ she said, although she knew he wouldn’t hear her. ‘I’ll be right back.’

It was a matter of minutes, once she’d pulled off those ridiculous heels, to run in stockinged feet the rest of the way home through the streets and get into her car. It took less time to get back.

He was still there, still unconscious, lying on the ground with her coat still over him. He was hard to get into the back seat of the car, and even unconscious he groaned faintly as she dragged him up onto the fake leather seats, but she hadn’t spent five years working at the Royal without lugging quite a few heavy bodies around. This man was small, at least, without an ounce of spare fat on him.

It was harder once she got him back to the house. She opened the door near his feet but there was no way she could pull him out of the car and get him all the way inside, not without help. She opened the other door and leant in over him, patting his cheek.

‘Come on now, come on,’ she said in her most encouraging voice, keeping it low so as not to wake the neighbours. ‘Come on, you need to wake up now.’

The man groaned, his eyelids fluttering open. He was going to have a good bruise around one of those eyes and all down his cheek.

‘Wha- ’ he began, as if he had forgotten what was happening.

‘You’re in my car,’ she told him clearly, ‘and I need to get you into the house, but I can’t do it on my own. Can you manage to walk?’

Without speaking, the man started to shuffle himself painfully across the seats, unable to stop the occasional cry of pain. As he lowered his feet to the ground she saw him definitely favouring one of them.

‘Come on, there we go,’ she said softly, pulling his good arm – or, at least, his better arm – around her shoulders. He leant almost all of his weight onto her as she helped him inch by inch up the path and to the front door. She had intended to get him upstairs, but as soon as the door closed behind them he failed in his efforts to stay upright, and she couldn’t do anything more than make his slide to the ground more gentle than otherwise.

He lay there for a moment, eyes closed, gasping as if he had run a mile. Then, ‘My gun? You got my gun?’

‘I got your gun,’ she promised him. ‘It’s in my bag.’

‘Ahh...’ The acknowledgement was on a slow outbreath of air. He was exhausted, and she wasn’t quite sure how he was conscious considering his injuries.

‘All right, Mr – ’

‘Kuryakin,’ he murmured. ‘Mr Kuryakin.’

‘All right, Mr – Kuryakin,’ she said, stumbling for a moment with the foreign name. ‘Now, you’ve fallen on your feet, so to speak, because you have some pretty severe injuries, and I’m a nurse. I wish I could be a doctor too, because you need one, but I’m guessing – ’

There was that near look of panic again as his eyes opened. ‘No doctor,’ he said. ‘No doctor...’

She dearly wanted to ask him to explain what the hell was going on, but there were much more important things to deal with for now. That arm injury was bleeding. She didn’t know what the landlord would say about the stain on the carpet, but for now that wasn’t a concern. She looked around, wondering if she could get the man into the living room, or even the kitchen, but by the look of him that wasn’t going to be an option. She would just have to make the hallway into a treatment room.

Half an hour later she sat down on the hall carpet and leant her back against the wall. He was unconscious again, but at least he was clean and bandaged. She had had to resort to cutting his filthy, torn, blood and vomit stained clothes off him, but that was little loss, torn as they were. She had the horrible feeling the clothes had been deliberately torn so as to gain better access to the sensitive flesh beneath. She discovered that not only had he been subjected to a horrific beating with blunt objects, probably fists or boots, but he also showed evidence of burns and whipping. At some point he had wet himself, whether from pain and fear or because he had been given no other option, she didn’t know. The right arm was broken, and she was terribly afraid that it had been broken by a bullet. She wasn’t familiar with gunshot wounds, but that pulpy mess of flesh and bone below his elbow seemed like one to her. The only consolation was that there were both entry and exit wounds, so there was no bullet inside him. The bone splinters she could do little about, but the bleeding was stopped at least.

The rest of his injuries were confined mostly to burns, cuts, and bruising, although he seemed to have a few broken ribs. She would have been happier if she could x-ray and set his arm instead of just splinting it, happier if she could consult with a doctor about internal injuries, happier if he would let her take him to a bloody hospital.

She let her head sink onto her knees, deadly tired. She had been on duty all night and looking forward to a cup of tea and crawling into bed, not finding a grievously injured man on the way home. But there wasn’t time for self indulgence now. She spared herself enough time to make a strong cup of tea with sugar and light a cigarette, and then came back to sit next to her patient, made as comfortable as he could be on the floor with a pillow and blankets from upstairs.

On the floor beside her she had laid out his possessions. There was that wicked looking gun. A pen, or something very like a pen, but it didn’t seem quite right. Too heavy, too solid somehow. There was his watch and his wallet, and a few loose coins from his trouser pocket – English coins, mind, a few shillings and pennies, a thruppence and a farthing. She had gently removed a ring from his left hand, wondering if he were really married, and if so, to whom.

She turned her attention to his wallet. He wasn’t badly off, with a sheaf of English notes in there and a few American ones too, tucked into the back. And then she found it. A yellow card with black print that made a shiver run through her spine. He had been telling the truth. His name was Kuryakin, Illya Kuryakin, and he worked for the U.N.C.L.E..

2.

Illya was cold. He was cold, and in so much pain. His entire body felt knotted up, held rigid, tortured and in pain. And then he remembered. He remembered being tied in that warehouse, his arms lashed above his head, his hands numb with lack of blood flow. He remembered someone cutting the rope that strung him up, and falling to the ground like a sack before they laid into him for the last time. They had already tortured him, and understood that they would get nowhere. Now they simply wanted to kill him.

He had spent a long time withdrawn into himself, trying to suppress his reactions to pain and indignity, but now he realised it was time to act. He had hung there for so long, been subjected to agony for so long, that it had started to feel like a way of life. Now, when he hit the floor like so much coal being dropped from a lorry, the sudden cold, the jar of pain through his body, reminded him that he was still alive, and that he still had some modicum of say in what would happen to him, if only he could manage to fight.

His shoulder joints screamed pain at him. His ribs, his right hip, his right leg, were all aflame with pain. In his time as an U.N.C.L.E. agent he had learnt that there were many types of pain. There was the sharp, encompassing insistence of broken bones, a pain one could hardly learn to push away. There was the sudden sting of whipping, which was gradually replaced by the ceaseless throb of the developing welts. There was the dull ache of bruising that only really made itself known when one moved or touched the affected area. There was the hot, throbbing sting of cuts and burns. Then there was the short, nervy jolt of electric shock that stung the area to which it was applied but also sent the whole body through a horrifying moment of paralysis. There were places on the body where electric shock was tolerable, and places where it was not. This time they had applied it to both.

He had tried, this time, to keep his pain to himself, but all of those methods of inflicting pain had been used on him, and he had heard himself cry out, had heard himself whimper. He had felt the hot stinging flow of urine down his leg, but so far he had managed to keep his bowels closed, thank god. There had been no offers of toilet visits, no food, just the occasional cup of water held to his dry lips, at which he had sucked like a newborn, trying to keep from showing his gratitude for that one act of kindness. It wasn’t kindness, he knew. It was necessity. Until they decided to kill him, they would keep him alive. A simple formula, and one into which pain did not enter for them.

But now things had changed. He sensed it in their attitudes as much as read it in the fact that they had cut him down. He lay nervelessly on the cold concrete floor, taking some comfort in its cool against his many wounds. His urge was to try to get up now, try to make a break for it, but that would be stupid. There was a still a guard watching him, a man who thought he was unconscious, and if he tried to attack him now with his arms like rubber and in so much pain, he would simply flail at him like a windmill. The attempt would be laughable. They probably would laugh, and just string him up again, and then he would have no chance.

But the attempt would have to be finely balanced. He knew the atmosphere had changed. They were just waiting for word from the top, he was sure, before they put a bullet through his brain and ended his suffering.

Illya very much didn’t want his suffering to end. He was in agony, yes, but he still preferred life over death.

He lay very still, and waited. When his eyes were open he had seen that it was dark beyond the warehouse windows. It was night. People got careless at night. Night watchmen rarely enjoyed their duties, much less Thrush night watchmen like the one left with him. He needed to wait until the time was right, until that darkest hour just before the sun started its relentless track back up to the horizon. He needed to not fall asleep, exhausted as he was. They hadn’t outright denied him sleep, but hanging from his arms with broken ribs and a pounded body wasn’t his first choice of bedroom arrangements.

But it happened anyway. He lay there, cheek on the ground, thinking of other things. It was so easy to let his mind drift. How much nicer it would be to be sitting in his apartment with a book in his hand. Maybe with a guitar… It unwound him to sit there gently strumming, mostly classical pieces, occasionally folk. His mind, almost always busy, would focus first on the chords, on the placement of his fingers, and then on the music, on each reverberating note. He could let his eyes rest on the New York skyline outside his window, and let the music drift him…

He snapped awake, holding in a gasp. He must do nothing to let the guard know he was conscious. There was no warm apartment any more, no soft music. He could feel the cold concrete under every jutting bone. He could smell blood and sweat and stale urine in the air. His stomach was clenching on hunger. His lips were dry. And his arms… The initial agony had gone, but he needed to move them, he desperately needed to move. But he must not.

He opened his eyes enough to see it was still night, and then let them drift closed again. He waited, resisting the screaming imperative to move his aching arms. Apart from the damage to his wrists from the rope that was still knotted around them, and his shoulders from the hanging, his arms had largely escaped damage. He hoped that would be his greatest asset. That, and the element of surprise.

Time stretched so thin and so quiet he swore he could hear the ticking of his guard’s watch. He risked opening his eyes again just enough to gauge the light through the windows. He could see the Thrush man sitting there on a wooden chair, his feet loosely apart, arms crossed over his chest. He wasn’t asleep, but he wasn’t alert either. He had a revolver, but it was loose in his right hand. On the floor beside him were Illya’s wallet and communicator pen, removed from him at the outset but not taken away, because they told them nothing they did not already know. He still had a few coins in his trouser pocket. That fact felt so ridiculously mundane that it made him want to laugh.

Illya let the adrenaline surge, blotting out pain, blotting out fatigue. This was his one chance, and he couldn’t blow it. He moved in one swift burst, like a snake, uncoiling from the floor at at the man in the chair so fast that he had knocked him over backwards before the Thrush man knew he was coming. He heard the man’s head crack onto the hard floor and saw his eyes roll back until only the whites were showing beneath half-closed lids, but he didn’t stop to see if he were unconscious or dead. He didn’t care. He just scooped up the revolver, stuffed the wallet and communicator into his pockets, and ran.

He didn’t expect to get away without anyone noticing, and he didn’t. As he heaved the warehouse door open he heard a shout from behind, and the crack of a shot. His right arm exploded in pain and the gun dropped from nerveless fingers, but adrenalin was still doing its job. He slipped through the gap and dragged the door shut, anything to delay them. Grabbing the gun in his left hand, he ran.

Illya had spent plenty of time in London, often coming down here on the train during his studies at Cambridge. He had enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the night life, the galleries and museums. It was different to the stuffy atmosphere of Cambridge, more like the England he had expected when he arrived on its shores. But that didn’t mean he had a clue now where he was or where he was going, because they had moved him across town after he had been captured. He was somewhere near the river, or a river; he could smell it in the air. But that told him very little, so he took advantage of the dark, of the lack of street lights in this scrubby area, and lost himself in narrow streets. If he didn’t know where he was, maybe they wouldn’t know either.

After a while he slowed to a walk, reasoning that he would be quieter, that he could make better decisions. He could hear no one in the area. Perhaps they had assumed he would make for the river, trusting to its dark waters to slip him away. He continued on, seeing that it was growing lighter now, that he was reaching an area of wider streets, of houses with gardens.

It was only now that the adrenalin started to ebb and the pain burst over him like a sudden downpour. His heart was thudding in his ears. He touched his left hand to his right arm and felt the slick of blood that was soaking his sleeve. Suddenly his body betrayed him. He felt the flood of faintness washing over him. He took a step, another step, but there was a screaming in his ears and he could barely see through the jazzy fluorescent lights in his eyes. He needed to get somewhere safe, concealed. He couldn’t just faint here, not here in a suburban street, flat on the pavement.

He fainted.

The first thing he was conscious of after that was a woman’s voice, a touch on his cheek. He came to in a surge of adrenalin, jerking upwards, grabbing hold of what he found before blood loss and pain sent him flailing back to the ground. Instincts were there before rationality, telling him that the woman was no Thrush agent. But where was he? It was light, daylight, and he was exposed. Couldn’t go to a hospital, they would be searching the hospitals. Had to get under cover, had to get somewhere safe…

His world was a blur, but he was aware of her, her hands on his body, gentle but professional. Somehow he gleaned that she was a nurse. She smelt like a nurse, like the nurses that clucked over him in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary whenever he was laid up. He could sense safety, even while his nerves jangled relentlessly at him that he was in danger. He slipped away again, woke up long enough to stagger from the car – he was in a car? – and in through a door, before he lost himself again, and fell.

And now here he was, cold again, on a floor again, consumed with pain. The adrenalin started to rush into his limbs, but he quelled it and listened to his rational mind. This was not the same floor. Not the same place. There was carpet under him and a covering on top of him, even if it wasn’t keeping him as warm as he would like. There was something soft under his head, and even though he was in pain, the pain was different. It was not the kind of pain one felt from injuries just inflicted. The stiffness and soreness spoke of time passed. But by god and all that was sacred, his arm hurt. It hurt so much that to even think of moving it brought tears to his eyes.

He drew in a long breath, allowing himself to relax and assess further. Although there was still the bitter taste of vomit in his mouth, there was no scent of urine any more. He could still smell the iron tang of blood. His hair still felt lank, greasy and filthy, but his face felt clean, his body felt clean, and – he was naked. He realised that now. Under the coverings he had been stripped of all his clothing. That was not an unfamiliar sensation either. He was quite used to medical professionals cutting off his ruined clothes and throwing them into a bin for incineration.

Above him there was an artexed ceiling, a light bulb hanging down from it with a savage looking modern glass shade. The bulb was lit, glaring into his eyes, making him realise through all the other pain that he had quite an overwhelming headache. The walls were close around him, papered with something green-patterned from the last decade. There was a scent of cigarettes in the air.

He finally turned his head on his stiff, aching neck. And then he saw her, the woman who had appeared in glimpses, almost in his dreams, it seemed. She was sitting beside him in this ordinary suburban hallway, her back slumped against the wall and her head resting on her knees. Beside her was a half-drunk cup of tea, and the end of a cigarette stubbed out in a cut glass ashtray.

He sighed his relief almost silently, looking at her shoeless stockinged feet and her sensible knee-length skirt and the cardigan that wrapped her sleeping arms. Her hair was brown, and not cut in the latest fashion. He couldn’t see her face, but this was certainly no Thrush agent.

He cleared his throat a little, hesitant to wake her but also feeling deeply in need of some kind of human contact beyond his recent experience. If he stayed here in this bizarre scenario of lying naked and injured in an oppressively domestic suburban hall he might start to think he was dreaming.

She woke so quickly at the noise that she knocked over the half cup of tea.

‘Oh, bloody nora, wait a moment, I shall have to clean that up,’ she flustered, still evidently half in dreams. Then her eyes focussed, she looked at him, and smiled. ‘Oh, hello,’ she said.

Illya tried to smile but his face hurt. He could feel bruising all down one side and around his eye from a particularly vicious blow when he had given what they had judged to be too acerbic a response to their questioning.

‘I – think I have a lot to thank you for,’ Illya said, realising as he spoke how much his throat hurt, roughened by the cries they had forced from him with their torture.

‘Oh, give over,’ she told him.

She didn’t look much above forty, and her face was pretty, if not beautiful. Whatever the current magazine fashions, Illya decided that he liked her.

‘You have saved my life,’ he continued.

‘Well,’ she smiled again. ‘Well, there’s no denying that, I suppose. Listen, do you think you can make it up the stairs? There’s a bed up there with your name on it, and my hallway’s no hospital.’

‘I – can try,’ Illya promised, the lure of a soft bed warring with his knowledge of how badly it would hurt to move.

‘Come on then, chuck,’ she said, peeling back the blankets.

As the chill hit his skin Illya felt himself flush. He was, as he had thought, entirely naked. The woman noticed his embarrassment.

‘Nothing I haven’t seen before a hundred times,’ she assured him. ‘I’ve given men better looking than you sponge baths in my time. Come on.’

‘You certainly know how to flatter a man,’ Illya murmured, not unkindly.

He lay still for a moment, focussing his thoughts on how he would do this. His right leg ached and throbbed, but it wasn’t broken. There was something wrong with his knee, he thought, but not a break. It was his arm that was the real trouble, but he would have to ignore that and do what must be done.

Carefully and slowly he started to sit up, noticing with disapproval as he did that his head started to swim.

‘Are you ready, love?’ she asked him.

He closed his eyes, concentrating hard on not fainting or vomiting.

‘Give me a moment,’ he muttered.

Then he started to stand, her warm arm around his back supporting most of his weight. The pain in his knee flared and his arm screamed pain as well, despite the splint he now realised was holding it stiff. The fluorescent spots were starting to dance in his eyes again, his ears were singing again. But he put one foot in front of the other, all concerns about his nudity now firmly at the back of his mind.

He had climbed mountains with more ease than this single flight of stairs. By the time he reached the top his heart was pounding and his teeth were gritted against the insistent spasms of his stomach. He could taste acid in his mouth. But he saw the bed through an open door and made for it like a drowning man. He had never felt anything as beautiful as those crisp white sheets that received his body and the blankets that covered him.

‘There, now,’ the woman said, sitting heavily in a chair near the bed, breathing hard herself. ‘Better?’

Illya kept his eyes closed for a few moments longer, the bed rocking beneath him. Then he nodded, and managed, ‘Thank you.’

He noticed then that her clothes were still smeared with rust coloured blood. His blood.

‘You need a doctor,’ she said, turning back the blankets briefly to look at his arm and slightly readjust its position at his side. He grimaced through the movement. ‘I can’t deal with the kind of wounds you have. You need IV fluids, you need antibiotics, you need surgery on that arm. I may be a nurse, but I’m not a miracle worker.’

‘Oh, I think you have performed miracles today,’ Illya assured her, but it was time to stop with pleasantries and turn to business. ‘Listen, I had a pen in my trouser pocket...’

‘All your personal items are downstairs,’ she assured him. ‘But I had to burn the clothes, I’m afraid, and I don’t have a shred of men’s clothing in the house.’

Illya shook his head impatiently. ‘But the pen – ’

‘I’ll get it,’ she promised him, turning towards the door. ‘I looked in your wallet,’ she said as she left the room. ‘I know who you work for. I’ve heard of U.N.C.L.E.. You do fine work, you know.’

Another layer of anxiety left Illya’s mind. It wasn’t always easy to explain his profession to civilians. He grasped at the pen when she returned, and she dropped the rest of his personal effects on the side table with a clatter. The pen was all he was concerned about for now. He pulled the end out with his teeth and managed to set it into communications mode. Then he said eagerly, ‘Open Channel D.’

3.

Napoleon had been on edge for days, ever since Illya had gone missing. He always worried anyway when Illya was sent alone into the field. They worked best as a pair. Illya always managed to get himself into the most dangerous, ridiculous, life threatening situations, and Napoleon liked to be there to pull him out of them. But this time Mr Waverly had decided that with the time Illya had spent studying in England he would find it much easier to pass as a native, and there was no place for the all-American Solo on the team.

Illya had done well, infiltrating himself into the local Thrush group, making contacts, sending back details. And then, just as Solo’s partner was scheduled to come home, he had gone silent. It had been a week since the last call, and he knew that something had gone badly wrong. It hadn’t taken much to persuade Waverly to let him come over on the red eye flight, but waiting in U.N.C.L.E.’s London headquarters was no easier than waiting in the New York HQ, and Napoleon had taken to scouring the streets, going to likely addresses, talking to what he thought were the right people, all in vain.

He would know if Illya were dead. Wouldn’t he? Surely he would know? His heart practically beat in time with his Russian partner’s. If Illya’s stopped beating, wouldn’t his suffer a similar failure?

He was walking through the West India Docks when his communicator sounded. He opened it wearily, expecting one of the secretaries from London HQ. But instead Illya’s voice, raw, exhausted, but beautifully familiar, galvanised him.

‘Napoleon? Is that you?’

No matter how extreme the relief, Napoleon was used to playing it cool. He took a moment to steady himself before he replied.

‘Illya. A bit late, aren’t you?’

‘I was nearly even more late,’ the Russian’s voice replied darkly.

‘Are you in danger?’ Napoleon asked then, urgency sharpening his voice.

‘Not immediate danger,’ Illya replied, but then a woman’s voice cut in, saying, ‘This man needs a hospital. If you can – ’

No,’ Illya responded, and Napoleon trusted that insistence. ‘Listen, Napoleon, they’ll be looking for me. They know I’m injured and they must have seen the blood from the gunshot – ’

‘You’ve been shot?’ Napoleon asked, apprehension blooming.

‘Napoleon, I need extraction but I’m in a civilian house and I don’t dare do anything that might expose the woman that’s helped me. I can’t be that far from where they were holding me. I’m all right for now; she’s a nurse. I’m not in immediate danger.’

‘What’s the address?’ Napoleon asked, reaching around in his pocket for paper and pen. He shifted the communicator to his other hand and wrote down the address as Illya passed control to the woman.

‘Napoleon, I also need clothes,’ Illya said with feeling as he got the communicator back. ‘And some effective painkillers.’

The fact that his stoic Russian partner was actually requesting painkillers hit Napoleon hard, but he covered his concern and said, ‘Clothes, eh? You’re a fast worker, my sly little Russian.’

Illya’s splutter of derision was clear through the speaker. Napoleon grinned, and shoved the paper with the address in his pocket.

‘I’ll be there, okay,’ he said. ‘Let me get back to HQ and gather some things. Tell your esteemed nurse not to expect me to knock. I don’t want our feathered friends to know I’ve arrived, so I won’t come in the front door.’

((O))

‘But how will he get in?’ Elidh asked in amazement as Illya closed his communicator and dropped it with some weariness on the side table.

‘Napoleon has his ways,’ Illya said somewhat cryptically. ‘Don’t forget, he’s in the business too.’

He leant back into the pillows, aware that his face was probably pale and that she was looking at him with a professional air of critique.

‘If you were in hospital I think the doctor would be giving you a pint of blood,’ she commented, leaning over to adjust the pillows slightly to make him more comfortable. ‘I – ah – don’t suppose you know your blood type?’

‘My blood type is B, and if I were in hospital one of my nurses would probably belong to my enemies, and that pint would contain more than just blood,’ Illya said pessimistically. ‘I know too much, and they want to kill me. I’m serious, Miss – ’ There he flailed, and said apologetically, ‘While it seems you know a lot about me, I know nothing about you.’

‘Elidh Jones,’ she smiled, making as if to shake his hand, then dropping it before he tried to awkwardly shake with his left. ‘There’s not much left to know about me. Nurse for fifteen years, five years down here in London. And that’s it.’

Illya favoured her with one of his rare, fleeting smiles, fleeting this time because of the pain and stiffness in his bruised face. He could be as charming as Napoleon when he wanted to be.

‘Illya Nickovitch Kurakin,’ he returned.

‘You’re Russian,’ she said rather unnecessarily. ‘But you don’t sound so Russian.’

He pursed his lips at that. ‘Well, I have spent rather a lot of my adult life abroad,’ he confessed, ‘mostly America, but some of my formative years were spent in Cambridge.’

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘University?’ she asked. ‘If so, I’m impressed.’

A smile twitched at his mouth. ‘You have the honour of addressing a PhD in Quantum Mechanics, Miss Jones.’

Her eyebrows arched further still. ‘Then I am impressed.’

Illya snorted. ‘I would be more impressed with myself if the ‘Dr’ I am entitled to put before my name allowed me to prescribe myself antibiotics and painkillers,’ he murmured. ‘Preferably morphine.’

A frown passed over Elidh’s face. ‘If you would just let me call an ambulance – or even call in one of the doctors from the hospital – ’

Illya’s expression became resolute at that. ‘I have told you, Miss Jones. These people want to kill me, and they would not hesitate to kill you or anyone else you brought to the house if they had to get through them to get to me. Thrush operatives are not gentlemen. It was they who brought me to this deplorable state.’

‘Well...’ She shook her head, standing up. ‘I must let you get some rest, Mr Kuryakin, and to be honest I could do with some too. You caught me on my way home from a night shift. I have put a bell by your bed. Ring it the instant you need anything. The instant,’ she reiterated sternly, as Illya looked doubtfully at the small metal bell on the side by beside his wallet and other personal effects.

‘I promise,’ Illya replied, ‘as long as you promise not to call in any of your medical friends. Miss Jones, it could mean both our deaths,’ he said seriously.

She sighed. ‘I promise,’ she said softly. ‘Now, before I go and catch up on some shut eye, would you like anything?’

The thirst and hunger came crashing over him like a wave. He had forced it aside while he was captive, but now with the promise of food Illya’s stomach clenched.

‘I have not eaten since Tuesday last,’ he confessed.

‘But it’s – it’s Wednesday morning?’ The shock registered openly on her face, as if she expected him to correct her. When he didn’t she continued, ‘Why didn’t you say? Here I am chatting...’

Illya smiled a little. ‘To be perfectly honest, Miss Jones, I had not thought of it until now.’

She looked at him incredulously. ‘Tuesday last? A week yesterday?’ She shook her head. ‘You’re a card, Mr Kuryakin. You really are. Now, what would you like to eat?’

He regarded her, thinking. ‘Do you have eggs?’ he asked.

She grinned at him, and left the room.

As he heard her footsteps track back down the carpeted stairs his ghost of a smile slipped from his face. He had not been joking when he had lamented the lack of morphine. His right arm in particular was in agony, and the rest of his body was not far behind. His head was spinning from his lack of food, exhaustion, and blood loss, and if he had not been able to get Miss Jones out of the room he would not have been able to keep up a façade of relative nonchalance any longer.

He closed his eyes, taking a moment to himself. He could only hope Napoleon would be here soon. Napoleon was not a doctor, but he would bring the much needed painkillers, and his presence alone would help. Illya hated to be injured, he hated to be helpless, and right now he was very much both.

Despite himself, his mind drifted back to his week’s captivity. He recalled the sudden blows to his legs and torso, recalled them slipping a sack over his head before taking the electric wand and applying it to his body, taking care to concentrate on the most sensitive areas; face, flanks, inner thighs, groin. There was no way he could hold in his cries of pain when they did that, and they delighted in hearing him whimper and cry. He was not sure which had been the worst humility, the fact they had exposed him physically like that, or the fact they had forced such sounds from his mouth.

Napoleon, come to me soon, he whispered inside his head.

The pain in his right arm swelled in a burning, throbbing ball of fire. He could hear his heart thudding in his ears. He wanted to rest but the smallest movement set a ricochet of pain through his body, and even as he drifted away he was woken up again.

Then he heard a clattering in the room, and his eyes snapped open, instantly alert. It was only Miss Jones, but apparently he had somehow got enough sleep for her to have the time to prepare him a generous tray of food. She was wheeling a table into the room, one of the type that could be slid over a bed.

‘Now then, this won’t rest on the bed so it shouldn’t hurt your arm,’ she said kindly, flattening out the top and adjusting the height. ‘Do you think you can manage to sit up a little?’

Illya tried to push himself up on his left elbow, and grimaced. Elidh tutted at him, and helped him to shift himself up the bed, somehow plumping his pillows behind him at the same time. A moment later she was setting down plate, cutlery, and a mug on the table. Illya’s mouth watered at the sight. She had used a vast oval meat plate, and on it were five poached eggs on five slices of buttered toast.

‘Now, do you take milk?’ she asked, lifting a fat bellied brown teapot to pour a stream of tea into his mug.

‘Definitely,’ Illya said with relish, lifting his knife in his left hand and trying to work out how to tackle the eggs. In the end he simply smashed the egg across the surface of the toast and lifted the slice to his mouth as Miss Jones laid a napkin over his chest. Table manners were for men who had not spent the last week being tortured and starved. He did not bother to speak for the next ten minutes. Elidh sat drinking her own cup of tea, watching his appetite with approval.

‘I have not eaten such a welcome meal since I was a child,’ he said honestly, laying down the knife at last and wiping crumbs from his fingers. ‘Thank you.’

She smiled, but asked critically ‘How’s the arm?’ as she wheeled the table to the side of the room.

‘Hellish,’ Illya replied darkly.

‘I can’t give you anything stronger than this,’ she said ruefully, depositing three aspirin in the palm of his hand. ‘It’s all I have. Now – ’

‘You will try to get some sleep, and so will I,’ Illya finished for her. ‘I will remember the bell.’

She smiled, and walked out of the room, leaving the door ajar. Illya watched her disappear into another room on the other side of the landing, then downed the aspirin with the rest of his tea. It would be like applying a band aid to a haemorrhage, he was sure, but they couldn’t hurt.

He found himself drifting into a state that was half sleep, half wakefulness. The pain through his body and his constant agent’s sense of wariness conspired to keep him from fully falling asleep. Somehow, though, time passed. He had a peripheral sense of the hot noonday sun through the window, easing some measure of relief into his bones. He woke at intervals to notice the shadows moving in slants across the room, to notice the heat of the day fading. Sometimes he heard footsteps and half opened his eyes to see Miss Jones standing over him, looking down at him critically. Once she roused him enough to be sure that he was still lucid, then let him drift away again. He lay in a half-sleep, wondering idly if she had any alcohol about the place. Illya was not a hard drinker, but he was not averse to using the chemical if it would relax his painful muscles and ease away some of the pain.

And then he caught something different. A scent of aftershave, masculine and heartbreakingly familiar to him. His eyes opened to a room that was dim with night, lit only by the bedside lamp, and the face of Napoleon looking down at him. The relief that swelled in him was huge, but he only said, ‘I hope you remembered to bring the painkillers.’

‘And hello to you, too, my little Russian,’ Napoleon replied smoothly, taking a seat by the bed and showing Illya a suitcase as he did so. ‘Yes, I remembered the painkillers, and certain other medical supplies, along with a full change of clothes – and pyjamas.’

‘Where’s Miss Jones?’ Illya asked, glancing towards the bedroom door, which was now closed.

‘Downstairs,’ Napoleon said in a low voice. ‘She doesn’t even know I’m here yet.’

Illya grunted a laugh. ‘You would make an excellent house-breaker.’

‘Oh, I do,’ Napoleon said cheerfully. His face became serious, and he reached out to brush Illya’s fringe back from his forehead and touch his skin. ‘How are you feeling?’

Illya debated between honesty and stoicism, but he was afraid that Napoleon would see through the latter. He had woken stiff, hot, disoriented, and in pain.

‘Terrible,’ he said eventually.

‘You look like a starved Russian who’s been dragged through barbed wire backwards. What did they do to you?’

Illya grimaced. ‘Standard Thrush procedure. They really do seem to like hanging me up by my wrists...’

Napoleon gently turned the covers back to take a look. The bandage about Illya’s right arm was stained with blood that had seeped through the layers, and he pressed his lips together at the sight of the fire poker and short piece of wood that had been used as a splint. The Russian’s chest was a bloom of bruises, green-yellow from the start of the week and angry red-purple for those inflicted later on. The bruises overlaid cuts and burns and welts. Napoleon hissed in his breath through his teeth.

‘I take it the rest of you is no better?’

Illya smiled ruefully. ‘You’ve had a fair sample. You don’t want to see the rest.’

‘Hmm. Broken ribs?’ Napoleon guessed, looking hard at the worst of the bruising on his chest.

‘I think so. They gave me a thrashing, Napoleon. Like I said. Standard Thrush procedure.’

Napoleon’s eyes drifted to his arm again. ‘They didn’t do that while you were strung up?’

Illya shook his head. ‘Shot me while I was escaping. I was lucky.’

‘I’ll say,’ Napoleon said with feeling. A shot through the arm was unpleasant, but a great deal better than one through the head or chest. He glanced at the door. ‘I suppose I should make my presence known to your guardian angel.’

‘Wait a moment,’ Illya said, reaching out to his partner. Napoleon curled his fingers, warm and strong, about Illya’s hand. ‘I’m glad you came.’

Napoleon pressed his lips to the Russian’s knuckles. ‘I’m glad you’re alive.’

‘Do you have a plan for extraction?’ Illya asked anxiously. While Napoleon’s presence helped a hundredfold, he would have been far happier if he were surrounded by the thick walls of U.N.C.L.E.’s London HQ.

‘A plan,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘It’s not going to be easy getting you out under Thrush’s eye, and we have reason to suspect they’re narrowing in on this area. You’re going to have to be able to walk.’

‘I can walk,’ Illya promised.

Napoleon looked at him sceptically.

‘At least to the end of the block?’ he asked.

Illya harrumphed. ‘Napoleon, you have a typical American’s view of the world. We’re in England. There are no blocks. I can walk to where I need to go.’

‘We’ll see,’ Napoleon said doubtfully. ‘I need to get the nod from the lovely nurse downstairs that you’re capable of making it. When you are, I will call through to HQ to arrange a pick-up. We will leave the house in the early hours of whichever morning it may be, and meet a car. The car will take you to our London infirmary. Sound like a plan?’

Illya’s forehead creased. ‘Why not simply bring the car to the door?’

‘Because, dear friend, we have reason to suspect that Thrush are watching the area, remember? They know how badly you’re injured. They’ll be looking for someone coming to collect you, not for you walking out on your own two feet. Now, there are a number of alleyways behind these houses that should provide good cover, and if we can slip out as quietly as I slipped in, they’ll never know we were there.’

Illya lay silent, cogitating. He hated to be incapacitated. Even when he was considerably battered he had trained himself to at least act as if he were in peak condition. There was no such option now, though. No matter how hard he ignored bruises, burns, and starvation, he could not ignore breaks and blood loss.

‘Well, it might be a couple of days,’ he said finally, his voice dark with disapproval.

Napoleon squeezed his hand briefly on Illya’s arm, silently acknowledging his friend’s pain and his annoyance at not being able to simply overcome it.

‘I’ll go down and find your nurse,’ he said. ‘She might be able to do something with what I’ve brought. At the least she can help me get you into pyjamas.’

Illya watched Napoleon leave. His tread down the stairs was almost silent, and the American’s arrival was announced by a brief cry of shock from Miss Jones and the clatter of breaking china. Some minutes later both came back upstairs and entered the bedroom.

‘Well, you told me your Mr Solo had his ways, didn’t you, Mr Kuryakin?’ Elidh said cheerfully, regarding Napoleon with a look of admiration that was boringly familiar to Illya.

‘Ways,’ Illya repeated. ‘Yes, he does have them. I’m more interested with what he has in that suitcase, though.’

‘I can give you some morphine,’ she promised him. She looked at Solo. ‘I assume you brought antibiotics? Tetanus?’

Napoleon nodded. ‘Not tetanus – his records show he’s up to date. But antibiotics, yes.’

‘Good,’ she nodded crisply, then turned her attention back on Illya. ‘I’m going to redress that arm too. Mr Solo says you’re leaking. And we’ll get some bottoms on you at the same time. I take it you don’t want to bother with a pyjama jacket even if I cut off the sleeve?’

Illya felt himself blanch at the thought alone.

‘Just bottoms,’ he nodded. ‘I – er – don’t suppose the morphine could come first?’

‘I wouldn’t do it any other way.’

Elidh lifted the suitcase onto the cleared wheeled table and popped the catches. Illya turned his head to catch a glimpse of the contents, and watched her taking out a syringe and bottle while Napoleon rummaged for underwear and pyjama bottoms. He proffered his arm for the needle, welcoming even the small stab as it punctured his skin. After a short time the drug started to kick in, and the pain melted into a beautiful feeling of warm contentment where although he could feel Miss Jones’ and Napoleon’s hands touching him, he simply didn’t care, even when Napoleon pulled the underpants up over his hips, even when Miss Jones came around the bed to attend to the badly broken arm. Time became warm and elastic, and he watched proceedings through eyes that kept closing.

‘He’ll probably sleep for a while. Perhaps you should too, Mr Solo,’ Miss Jones said, seemingly from far away.

‘...bed on the floor,’ he heard Napoleon respond.

He idly listened to the two talking about blankets and cushions, and then the world drifted away into a distant place, and he slept the most perfect sleep of his life – since the last time he had lain in a hospital bed with morphine in his veins.

4.

Illya did not rouse when Miss Jones came into the room in the early hours to give him another dose of the painkiller, but Napoleon, on full alert, was sitting up with his gun in his hand the instant she opened the door. He hadn’t even changed his clothes to go to sleep, preferring to be ready for anything.

‘Relax,’ she whispered, holding up the syringe to show him. ‘Just a little more to help him sleep. Sleep will help him heal.’

Napoleon exhaled, and put the gun down with an apologetic smile. ‘I’ve honed my reflexes over the years,’ he said. ‘You never know when Thrush are going to come a-knocking, and they can enter a house just as quietly as I can, I assure you.’

She smiled, bending over Illya to take his temperature before baring his left arm to carefully inject another dose of morphine.

‘I’ve learnt something from your entry, Mr Solo,’ she said grimly. ‘I have tied empty cans on strings to all of the windows and doors. This is the only room I haven’t done, because I didn’t want to wake him – or you.’

Napoleon gave her an approving grin.

‘I should tell the London headquarters about you, Miss Jones. They’re currently recruiting.’

‘Elidh, please,’ she replied, and Napoleon could see enough in the dim light to tell she was blushing.

‘Ay-lee?’ he repeated curiously, giving her a flattering amount of the attention that he almost did not know how to turn off any more. ‘That’s an interesting name.’

‘E-l-i-d-h,’ she qualified. ‘My mother was an Irishwoman, God rest her soul. Most perfect woman I ever knew. I know that all children think that of their mothers – ’

‘Not all are so lucky,’ Napoleon quibbled. ‘Some people wouldn’t give their mothers the time of day.’

‘Well,’ Elidh replied, then trailed off, seeming lost in thought.

‘I have a little Irish in my family history myself,’ Napoleon commented.

‘Well, don’t all Americans who once happened to look at a shamrock?’ Elidh asked rather cynically.

Napoleon was a little taken aback, but he liked that the woman was a straight talker.

‘Well, I do like a lady who can speak her mind,’ he said with his most charming smile.

‘Mr Solo, I’m getting rather mixed messages from you,’ Elidh said directly, fixing him with her gaze. ‘You flirt with me like a professional, but when you look at him...’ And her eyes moved to Illya, asleep in the bed. Napoleon’s gaze drifted with hers and settled on Illya’s face, childlike in sleep, his blond hair mussed, his full lower lip in a slight pout and his eyelashes dark along the edges of his eyelids. Only the vicious bruise down one side of his face spoke of a more sinister scenario than the sleep of the innocent.

He shook himself. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Jones,’ he said softly. ‘Flirting is a habit with me. I have been – ahem – a charmer, I guess, all my life, and it is also very useful in my profession.’

‘And him?’ she asked, glancing at Illya again.

It was a rare moment that Napoleon found himself blushing, but it happened this time. Although he was gregarious as a façade, he was actually intensely private over the central core of himself, and what Elidh was trying to elicit from him was an admission of something that was a crime in most countries in the world. In Illya’s home country it would probably get him killed.

‘He is my partner,’ he finally settled on saying. ‘I rely on him to keep me alive, and he relies on me.’

‘That almost didn’t work this time, though,’ Elidh said softly.

‘No,’ Napoleon echoed her soft tone. ‘No, it didn’t.’

That was what always rankled on him the most. Illya had been injured many, many times, so often that Napoleon was, in a fashion, used to it. Illya regarded his body like any other tool he used for his job, and if it was broken on a mission, he repaired it and moved on. So far, thank god, he had escaped permanent disability or death, and he was sensible enough to do all that he could to avoid those eventualities. He was not a masochist, just a pragmatist. So Napoleon had grown almost – almost – inured to the idea that on half their missions he would find Illya beaten, battered, strung up, or otherwise affected by Thrush’s diabolical machinations. What Napoleon could never grow used to was that feeling of anger, of self-recrimination, at not having got there in time to prevent those things from happening. No matter that Illya was the most bull-headed man he had ever known, with a tendency to go off like a lone wolf in pursuit of his prey. Napoleon still blamed himself when he wasn’t there to prevent Illya from getting hurt. He hadn’t been there this time, as per Waverly’s orders, but he didn’t blame Waverly, he blamed himself.

‘He’s alive,’ he said, aware that Elidh was watching him with a good deal of understanding in her eyes. Rather too much understanding, he thought.

She settled herself in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. Napoleon suddenly felt rather dominated, sitting as he was cross-legged on his bed of cushions on the floor.

‘I am a nurse, Mr Solo,’ she said. ‘A nurse who works in A&E in an extremely busy hospital in the culture capital of the United Kingdom. I live in a melting pot. I have seen many, many things, and I have learnt not to judge. I wouldn’t say that all of my kind are without prejudice, but that doesn’t matter. I’m talking about myself. I have seen people of every hue walk, crawl, be wheeled through my doors, and I treat them no matter what. They all bleed red. I have seen people with disabilities and disfigurements that would have some people in the street crossing to the other side. They bleed red too. I have seen people with an array of household implements pushed into places in their body that that would make your eyes water. I have removed them, with no further comment than a little common sense safety advice. And I have seen a gentleman die while the man who loved him was excluded from the room, because their love was not approved of. Love is not a crime, Mr Solo.’

Napoleon cleared his throat. ‘I – haven’t said that Mr Kuryakin was anything more than my partner – my business partner, if you will,’ he clarified.

Her eyes were steady on his face, and she smiled. ‘You don’t need to,’ she said.

She picked up the empty syringe and bottle of morphine, and left the room.

Napoleon sighed the sigh of the weary. It was almost four in the morning and he hadn’t had nearly enough sleep recently. He got up from his makeshift bed and moved to the chair placed so conveniently next to the bed. Illya shifted a little in his drugged sleep, and a slight smile pulled at the corners of the Russian’s mouth.

‘Illyusha,’ he murmured, putting his hand softly on his partner’s arm. Illya barely tolerated such terms of endearment in his waking life, leaving Napoleon to use terms loaded with ironic humour; tovarish, little Russian, and so forth. But he could not stop Napoleon from thinking, Illyusha, my sweet, golden, idiot friend…

((O))

There was something about the relief that night that made Napoleon fall into a deep sleep, the kind of sleep he had grown to regret. Perhaps it was the knowledge of the cans Miss Jones had so cunningly tied to the windows. Perhaps it was because he knew Illya was finally out of pain, sleeping well, and so close to safety. Perhaps it was just that he was exhausted after a week of ceaseless worry and walking the streets of London every day trying to find his partner. Whatever it was, he did not wake until he was gifted with a sharp kick to his ankle, and his eyes opened to the muzzle of a gun pointed directly at his face. Instinctively his fingers twitched for his own gun, but he had left it on his bed. It didn’t really matter anyway. The second man, who had a gun pressed tight against Illya’s forehead, would have prevented him from even starting to raise it.

He hoped that Miss Jones was safely asleep in her bed. He wondered why the cans she had spoken of hadn’t made a noise – but then he remembered that she had explicitly told him there were no cans on the window in this room, in deference to Illya. The breeze on his face told him that Thrush had exploited that one weakness, in the only room that had a light in it. When she had told him she hadn’t defended this window he should have got up and done it then. But he hadn’t. He had been tired. He had been distracted. He had let Illya down again.

‘U.N.C.L.E. are surrounding the area, you know,’ he said, keeping his voice much calmer than he felt. ‘How do you propose to get us out of here?’

The thought occurred to him suddenly that perhaps they had no intention of getting them out of here. Perhaps their plan was a quick bullet to the brain. But then if that were so, they’d already be dead, wouldn’t they?

‘We got in, didn’t we?’ the swarthy Thrush operative behind the gun told him in a low voice. ‘We’ll get out.’

He glanced at Illya. He was still asleep, despite the gun muzzle that was pressing so hard onto his forehead that the flesh around it was white.

‘Be careful with him, won’t you?’ Napoleon asked. ‘You damaged him rather badly last time, and I want to be able to return him to the store.’

A hand under his arm jerked him to his feet. He glanced at Illya but tried not to look too concerned. Things like that could make things even harder for them. He cursed silently under his breath as another Thrush man entered the room with Miss Jones held firmly by the arms and a strip of white cloth gagging her. Damn it! They had got into the room, even gone through into the rest of the house, and he had slept through it like a baby.

‘Leave her,’ he said seriously. ‘She’s just a nurse. She’s not U.N.C.L.E. and she doesn’t know anything.’

The swarthy man grinned. ‘Since when has not harming innocents factored into Thrush plans? That’s your weakness, pal. Orders have changed. We want him alive,’ he said, nodding towards Illya, ‘and looking at the state of him a nurse will be a useful asset.’

Miss Jones’ eyes widened, but she looked relatively calm, to Napoleon’s relief. She struggled for a moment as if trying to reach the gag, but the man holding her was too strong, so instead she nodded her head emphatically towards the suitcase.

‘Er – yes, the suitcase,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘It’s full of medical supplies and clothes for Mr Kuryakin. If you want to keep him alive it might behove you to bring it along.’

‘Check it,’ the swarthy man said, and the operative holding the gun to Illya’s forehead removed it and walked round swiftly to give the case a brief search.

‘Clothes, drugs, and bandages,’ he said briefly.

‘Any shoes? Any tie pins?’ the swarthy one asked.

‘No, nothing like that.’

Napoleon grimaced. It had taken Thrush a while but it seemed that they had finally caught onto the fact that U.N.C.L.E. agents often had a small arsenal and escape kit in their jewellery and shoes. It was obviously time to change concealment tactics.

‘It’s essentially a medical kit,’ he said dryly. ‘That’s its only priority.’

‘Take the case along,’ the man in charge nodded.

‘What about Illya?’ Napoleon asked tensely.

‘He’ll manage,’ the Thrush man said without sympathy. He touched his gun to Napoleon’s temple and nodded at another of the men. ‘Search him – thoroughly.’

Napoleon stood motionless as one of the Thrush minions slipped his hands carefully up and down his body, removing tie, tie pin, shoes, and watch.

‘He got cuff links?’ the swarthy man checked.

Napoleon smiled his most charming smile, jerking his cuffs out from under his jacket sleeves. ‘A gentleman is never without cuff links,’ he said, revealed two gold links that also contained a blade and a small amount of explosive.

The cuff links were removed. Standing without tie and shoes, Napoleon took stock of what they had missed. There were a few explosives and incendiaries in his jacket buttons, a pick in one side of the collar and a small blade in the other. His trouser cuff held a couple of homing pins, but they wouldn’t be much use. All in all, the Thrush men had been annoyingly thorough.

‘Take the jacket, too,’ the swarthy man said, and Napoleon’s heart sunk a mite further as he shrugged off his last repository of useful items.

‘All right,’ swarthy man nodded. ‘Get the Russian.’

At a jerk of his head the other man hauled Illya upwards out of the bed. Suddenly coming to consciousness, Illya cried out involuntarily, trying to reach his left hand towards his injured right arm. He looked confused and horribly vulnerable in his loose pyjama bottoms. It was suddenly obvious to Napoleon just how much weight and muscle he had lost in the past week.

‘Be careful with him,’ he said, rather more tersely than he had meant to.

‘Come on,’ the Thrush leader said unsympathetically, jerking Illya towards the door. The Russian stumbled forwards, apparently with hardly any idea of what was going on.

‘Look,’ Napoleon said, spreading his arms wide. ‘Let me. I’m hardly going to be a flight risk if I’m supporting him, am I? Whereas I’m proficient enough in judo to flip a man holding me before he’s had a chance to know what’s happening.’

There was a moment of silent consideration between the Thrush men, then the top man nodded.

‘Let him take his pal,’ he said.

Napoleon went to Illya’s side and put his arm around the thin, bruised body. He hadn’t seen the lash marks on his back until now, and they made him wince. He knew he had risked exposing a vulnerability in showing such open concern for his partner, but then all agents knew that the bond between partners was strong, virtually unbreakable. Love did not have to enter into it. As he had said to Miss Jones, they kept each other alive. Illya was like air, light, and warmth to him. Love was a different thing entirely.

‘Come on, tovarish,’ he murmured. Only Illya would understand the sentiment of endearment behind the ironic appellation. ‘Just a little walk now.’

Illya’s eyes were unfocussed, his body limp, but Napoleon could see the tightness of pain around the edges of his mouth.

‘Thought we were waiting til – ’ he began incoherently. ‘...hardly walk...’

‘Plans changed,’ Napoleon said shortly. If Illya had no idea they were being removed from the house at gunpoint then there was no point in telling him. ‘Come on, you can walk. It’s not far.’

Illya gave a slight snort approaching a laugh. ‘A wide, wide sea,’ he murmured, and stumbled as his bare foot caught under the edge of the floor rug.

Napoleon sighed, and gritted his teeth, thanking god that Illya was not a big man.

‘Let me sweep you off your feet,’ he said, carefully turning the Russian so that his injured arm was on the outside, and then lifting him in his arms.

Illya grunted and made noises of pain, but his eyes closed as Napoleon settled him against his chest. He recalled how many women he had lifted like this, usually as a preamble to depositing them on the nearest bed and divesting them of their clothing. It always looked so easy in the movies, but it really wasn’t. Even less so when one was trying not to aggravate bruises, a broken arm, and broken ribs.

Carrying the Russian down the stairs was an awkward business, but Illya seemed utterly unconscious of anything now he was nestled against his partner’s chest. As they were taken outside to a waiting van Napoleon wondered what had happened to the U.N.C.L.E. agents who were supposedly stationed about the place – but then Thrush had plenty of means at their disposal for rendering people inert. They could have taken out the whole area with gas if needs be. He only hoped that they had used non-fatal force. Dozens of good agents didn’t deserve to die just so Thrush could get their hands on the famed Solo-Kuryakin combination.

He settled Illya as comfortably as he could on the bare metal floor of the van, and turned to Miss Jones as she was shoved in behind him, reaching out to tug off her gag as the doors were slammed behind them. His eyes would have spoken a million apologies, but it was utterly dark as soon the doors closed.

‘I never meant you to get into trouble,’ he said quietly.

Somehow he knew she was smiling. ‘I got myself into that when I came across your partner bleeding on the road,’ she said. ‘Just as I told you, Mr Solo; I’m a nurse. I’ve seen a lot of things. And I don’t like to leave a patient who needs me.’

He knew that being kidnapped by Thrush personnel, that being almost certainly scheduled for execution when her usefulness was exhausted, had never come up in the line of her duties, but in deference to her bravery he said nothing.

‘Is the case in here?’ he asked.

‘I think they’ve got it in the front,’ she replied. ‘I can’t exactly tend to Mr Kuryakin in the pitch dark anyway.’

‘No, no, I suppose you can’t,’ Napoleon murmured.

The van’s engine started up, with an accompanying vibration and bloom of exhaust scent. Illya stirred and asked dazedly, ‘Napoleon, what’s going on?’

Napoleon felt for him on the dark and put a hand on his arm.

‘Take it easy, Illya,’ he murmured quietly.

He felt the realisation of trouble shudder through the Russian’s body. He was trying to rouse himself further.

‘Nap-Napoleon? What is happening?’

‘Tell him,’ Miss Jones said quietly in his ear. ‘Or you risk agitating him even more.’

‘Illya, we’re not being extracted by U.N.C.L.E.,’ Napoleon said heavily. ‘We’re in the back of a Thrush vehicle.’

Illya was still and silent, as if trying to let those facts sink in through his drug dampened brain.

‘Thrush?’ he asked after a moment, disbelief sharp in his voice.

‘Yeah.’

Napoleon leant against the divide between cab and cargo area, and let the vibrations run up through his spine. They weren’t travelling very fast but that didn’t tell him much. They were still in suburban streets, where a speeding van would gain unwanted attention.

‘Napoleon?’ Illya asked again, apparently struggling hard against the morphine that was dulling his mind.

‘There’s nothing you can do, so lie still,’ Napoleon said more tersely than he meant to.

He waited for the inevitable argument, but it did not come. He wasn’t sure whether to be gladdened or concerned about that. Illya rarely missed the chance to peevishly assert his ability. A lifetime of being judged too small and too weak had seen to that. What Illya lacked in size he made up for in skill, strength, and bloody mindedness. Napoleon kept his hand on Illya’s arm, glad of the darkness that hid both his worried expression and the fact that he was gently stroking the Russian’s arm from the perspicacious nurse who was trapped in the van with them.

5.

The best that Napoleon could say for the cell was that he had been in worse. He had not seen any of the Thrush installation because they had been hurried through with bags cinched over their heads, but this place was obviously professional, not just any old building turned to the purpose. It fascinated him, because the implication was that there was an up-to-the-minute Thrush base within two hours of London, a place about which U.N.C.L.E. had previously had no idea. They had not been taken from the van until their arrival here, so unless the van had been driven up into a plane then they must have done the whole journey by road. He was sure they had not been driven onto a plane. For one thing his ears would have popped.

They were all in one cell, and they still had the suitcase. That was one good thing. It meant that they had Illya’s medication and fresh dressings. It also meant that they had the various U.N.C.L.E. devices hidden in clasps and locks and lining, which was a relief after Thrush had so thoroughly searched his own clothing.

He heard a groaning from behind him, and he turned from the bars as if he had been stung.

‘Illya?’ he asked, kneeling by the Russian’s side.

Illya was blinking hard, trying to rouse himself. ‘Napoleon, what is going on?’ he asked. His eyes tracked Miss Jones as she began to open the case, and he muttered, ‘No, no morphine. What is going on?

Napoleon held up his hand to Miss Jones as her worried eyes met his. He knew Illya and knew he needed at least a moment of drug-free time to fully understand their situation. In a safe place, in a soft bed, Illya would succumb to the pain, but here, fuelled by adrenalin, he was capable of pushing it aside enough to function.

‘I don’t know exactly where we are,’ Napoleon explained in a low voice. ‘We were travelling for around two hours, maybe a bit over, so we could be – ’

‘Anywhere within a hundred mile radius of London,’ Illya murmured.

‘Yeah, given that we were travelling pretty slow at first,’ Napoleon agreed. ‘We were in the van the whole time. They bagged our heads on the way in so we didn’t see anything, and they could have driven us roundabout the houses just to throw us off. I think I maybe caught some smells, countryside smells, but what does that tell us?’

Illya gave a half smile, half grimace. ‘That we’re anywhere within a hundred mile radius of London, barring a large town.’

‘Yeah, and from what I can see through the bars this is a proper Thrush facility. Big too – we walked a while after going in through the door. So what – is it underground? Well disguised? We need to find out.’

‘We can be certain they don’t mean to ever let us leave,’ Illya replied grimly. ‘Napoleon, do you have anything useful?’ he asked meaningfully.

‘They took my tie, jewellery, jacket, and shoes,’ Napoleon told him, knowing that Illya would automatically calculate what he had left. He could not risk being more specific for the fear the room was bugged. He looked over toward the case near Miss Jones, and Illya’s eyes followed his. Illya would recognise the U.N.C.L.E. ‘special’ suitcase and know what hope that held.

‘Well, we’re in a pretty pickle,’ Illya muttered, looking around the cell, taking in the narrow bunks, two on each wall, the small toilet and sink, and the slick white tiles that covered the walls. There were no air conditioning ducts or windows. The only weakness to exploit was the barred door.

Miss Jones looked between the two of them. ‘Mr Solo, what are our chances?’ she asked in a low voice. ‘I would like to know.’

Napoleon sighed. ‘Not very good,’ he admitted. ‘But we will do our best to even them out.’

He saw Illya glance over at the suitcase. ‘I think now might be the time to get dressed,’ the Russian said.

Miss Jones pursed her lips disapprovingly, but Napoleon ignored her, going straight to the case and ruffling through what was in there. He pulled out a shirt and a pair of trousers, and offered them to his partner as if he were working in a haberdashery.

‘Will sir take the black pants?’ he asked suavely.

Illya smiled faintly. ‘Sir will take the black pants, but if you could tear the right arm off the shirt sir would be extremely grateful.’

‘An unusual fashion choice,’ Napoleon murmured, but he was glad to be able to elicit banter from his partner. He took the shirt and carefully ripped away the sleeve. It was difficult and uncomfortable helping Illya change, and he was obviously in pain. When they had finished he lay back on the bunk, panting, sweat standing in beads on his forehead.

‘If you pair have quite finished,’ Elidh began, going over to the case.

Napoleon exchanged a glance with Illya.

‘Really, I do not want any more morphine,’ Illya said firmly. ‘I need to have my wits about me.’

‘I can give you something a little less invasive,’ she offered, shaking two pills from a bottle and holding them out on the palm of her hand. Illya took them and swallowed them dry.

Napoleon sat down on the opposite bunk, suddenly feeling extremely tired.

‘I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to try to get some sleep,’ he said. ‘We had rather a disturbed night.’

Elidh looked at him in amazement. ‘You think you can sleep – in a situation like this?’

Illya grunted. ‘One has to make the best of one’s situation.’

Napoleon grinned, gesturing at the Russian. ‘This is a man who could sleep balanced on – uh – Nelson’s Column if he wanted to. Me, I require some kind of a bed – and since I have one...’ He stretched himself out on the bunk and folded his arms behind his head. He could see Miss Jones’s astonishment, but it wouldn’t stop him trying to get some rest. He had a feeling he would need all the energy he could get, and soon.

((O))

Illya watched Napoleon settling himself into sleep with some relief. He only wished that Miss Jones would do the same. Perhaps it was irrational, but he wanted to explore this cell himself, and he knew that Napoleon would refuse to let him get up. It made the palms of his hands itch to lie here without knowing what could be seen through that barred door behind, and it was even worse to not even know why they were here. He assumed that Thrush wanted to know exactly what he had found out about their London operations, and what he had passed on, and he was not eager to find out how they would try to eke that information from him.

He sat up, hissing in breath as his injured arm moved. Elidh was suddenly galvanised, turning towards him and holding out her hands.

‘Now, look – ’ she began.

He fixed her with a glare. ‘I am getting up, with or without your consent, Miss Jones.’

He stood, and grabbed hold of the upper bunk as the world wavered around him.

‘Really?’ she asked drily, evidently assuming he was about to fall back onto the bed.

Illya straightened his spine, blinking the dizziness away with a huge effort. ‘Really,’ he replied.

He walked towards the cell door, so stiff he felt like Frankenstein’s monster. His arm was agony and he could feel the dizziness rising again. He angrily tried to suppress it, but his knees gave a little as he reached the bars, and Miss Jones was immediately behind him, holding him up.

‘Now will you get back into bed?’

‘Wait.’

He pressed his forehead to the bars and looked up and down the corridor outside. Other doors to other cells. Some solid doors. What looked like a guard station a little further up, but that was, for now, unattended. He let the scene burn into his eyes, then nodded.

‘Okay. Okay,’ he murmured. ‘Help me...’

She helped him back to his bunk without a word, and he lay back with a ridiculous sense of relief at being horizontal again. Whatever happened in the next few hours, he knew he was in no state to attempt an escape. It would endanger everyone.

‘It’s time for your next dose of antibiotics,’ Miss Jones told him, turning to the suitcase and pulling out both a bottle of pills and a thermometer. ‘Here, put this under your tongue.’

Illya resignedly took the glass thermometer and stuck it under his tongue, tapping his fingers on the mattress as he waited for the mercury to stop rising. After a while the nurse exchanged it for two bullet-like tablets and a plastic cup of water.

‘Well, your temperature’s fine,’ she murmured, as he swallowed the pills, ‘But I really wish you could get into surgery for that arm...’

‘In the interests of keeping our guests alive,’ came a voice from outside the door, ‘we are going to do just that.’

Illya’s eyes snapped open. A suited man stood at the door flanked by two Thrush-uniformed guards.

‘Napoleon,’ he said in a low voice, and Solo instantly blinked his eyes open and sat up.

‘Well, well, well. A reception committee. How nice,’ the American agent said in a smooth, sarcastic tone.

One of the guards pulled a gurney into view in front of the bars, and Illya grimaced. Much as he wanted relief for his arm, he didn’t relish being treated by Thrush. He was astonished, though, when Miss Jones stepped in front of him and folded her arms, looking as immoveable as an Easter Island statue.

‘I take it you have a qualified surgeon here?’ she asked in a prickly tone.

‘My dear, we have enough injuries amongst our own ranks to necessitate it,’ the suited man nodded. ‘Gunshot wounds, of course, are a staple.’

Illya watched Miss Jones’s back, seeing her shoulders relax a little.

‘He needs débridement, irrigation, external fixation...’

‘I am sure that the surgeon understands all that,’ the Thrush man said, his voice becoming clipped with impatience.

‘I want to attend the surgery,’ she continued.

Illya concealed his smile behind Miss Jones’s back. He regretted, as always, that an innocent was caught up in the everlasting battle between U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush, but if it had to be any innocent, he was glad it was Elidh Jones.

The Thrush man was silent for a moment, apparently deliberating, then he spoke into a small receiver hanging from a wire at his belt. A muffled reply came, and he nodded. ‘Dr Smythe thinks you might be useful. You can come.’

He gave a signal and the door slid open to let the men with the gurney in. The suited Thrush man kept his gun firmly on Napoleon as Illya was lifted, with surprising care, onto the wheeled stretcher.

‘All right, bag them,’ the Thrush man said, and Illya sighed as his head was roughly covered with a heavy black bag that blocked out all light. He was not looking forward to surgery at the hands of Thrush operatives, despite the benefits he might gain from the operation.

‘Now wait just a bloody minute!’ Elidh began as her own head was covered, but her protest was cut off.

Illya lay still as he was wheeled out into the corridor, hearing the noises of the others following, Elidh apparently stumbling due to the bag over her own head.

‘Wait, what about me?’ Napoleon asked, stepping forward hastily as the door was slid closed.

The Thrush man laughed nastily. ‘Well, Mr Solo. I hardly think you’re next of kin.’

The door was locked, and Napoleon left behind.

((O))

When the bag was removed, Elidh looked around the small surgical anteroom with some satisfaction. It at least bore all the hallmarks of being a properly equipped place, and there was a nurse in a starched uniform standing at the side of the room apparently waiting to receive them. Elidh turned her attention to Illya now as the bag was removed from his head and he blinked in the light. His face was almost expressionless, but she was experienced enough to notice the small signs of apprehension in his eyes.

With a glance at the Thrush guard she moved to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

‘It’s a relatively simple procedure,’ she reassured him. ‘They look well equipped.’

Illya grunted, but he looked even less happy when the starched nurse came forward to remove his clothing and get him into a gown, and when the anaesthetist came through and inserted a cannula into his hand he looked unhappier still.

‘All over before you know it,’ Elidh promised him, hoping that she was right.

When Illya’s eyes drifted closed she felt a little more alone. The Thrush nurse did not look friendly and would not speak to her, the anaesthetist was occupied with monitoring his patient, and she was actually relieved when a doctor strolled out of the room beyond.

‘Ahh, our lucky guest from U.N.C.L.E.,’ the man smiled. He turned towards Elidh. ‘I’m Dr Smythe. And you are?’

‘Miss Jones,’ she replied crisply, declining to shake his hand. ‘RCN,’ she added.

The surgeon sauntered over to Illya and casually poked at the bandages about his arm.

‘A nasty wound.’

‘Courtesy of your people,’ Elidh said pointedly.

‘Well, if they will run away, these things will happen.’ The man fixed her with cold blue eyes. ‘So don’t think of running away, Miss Jones, will you?’

‘I have a patient,’ she said crisply, ‘and I wouldn’t dream of it.’

Dr Smythe chuckled, and then nodded toward the room beyond. ‘Let’s get him in. You can brief me on his treatment while we get him prepared.’

6.

Napoleon prowled the cell like a trapped tiger, checking for cameras, checking for bugs, checking for anything that might prove useful or a threat. He didn’t really want to admit to himself that what he was actually doing was trying to keep his mind off Illya, who was somewhere in this complex under a Thrush knife. The fact that they were operating on him merely to make him healthy enough for interrogation bothered him even more. Illya had said that Thrush were ready to kill him before he had escaped from the London warehouse. Why did they now want him alive?

He found no cameras, no bugs. That was one relief, although he couldn’t be absolutely certain that he had not missed something. It was easy to hide a microphone behind a solid panel, and even cameras could be reduced to seeing through pinpricks nowadays. He wished he still had his jacket with the pick and blade in his lapels. The pick would be useless on this door, though. There was no key hole in which to insert it, on either side of the door. The lock seemed to be activated electronically.

His thoughts turned to Illya again. He imagined him being somewhere above him, although in fact he had no idea if he were on another level or not. Despite himself, he trusted the Thrush man’s assertion that they had a fully qualified surgeon here. It was necessary in an organisation such as this. Ordinary hospitals could not be relied on. They were too vulnerable, and too many questions were asked. Still, he didn’t like Illya being in their hands.

He paced back to the front of the cell and pressed his face against the bars. That was when he saw two Thrush guards and a new suited man turn the corner and walk towards the cell. He stepped back from the door, holding his hands slightly away from his body in anticipation of their arrival. He didn’t intend to use this moment to escape, and he wanted them to know that.

The suited man stopped before the cell door.

‘Ah, Napoleon Solo,’ he said with a satisfied smile.

‘You have the advantage over me, sir,’ Napoleon replied smoothly. The man was apparently English, probably either from the home counties or via a public school going by his accent, but he did not recognise him from the many Thrush dossiers he had pored over in the past.

‘I suppose I do,’ the man smiled. ‘I am Barnabas Fink, head of this humble establishment.’

‘This humble establishment?’ Napoleon echoed, raising his eyebrows. ‘Mr Fink, I get the feeling I’m addressing the head of Thrush U.K.’

Barnabas Fink smiled again. Napoleon had the urge to wipe that self-satisfied smile from his face, but he stayed composed.

‘Ah, I can’t be telling you everything, now, can I?’ Mr Fink said.

‘I have to apologise for my attire,’ Napoleon said in his politest voice, looking down at his tie-less shirt and bare feet. ‘I don’t suppose you have some shoes you could let me have?’

‘Mr Solo, this is not Clarks,’ Fink smiled. ‘We are not a shoe shop,’ he clarified at Solo’s baffled expression. ‘And there’s no need to stand on ceremony. I think I prefer you as you are.’ He nodded to the guards. ‘Open the door.’

Napoleon kept the guard in the corner of his vision, watching him as he touched his finger to a control box on his hip. The door slid smoothly open with an electronic hum.

‘Come on, Mr Solo,’ Mr Fink smiled.

Napoleon stepped forward, but as he reached the door the now-familiar black bag was pulled over his head, and he was reduced to stepping tentatively with one hand held out in front of him, a guard’s hand on his arm.

‘I – uh – think you could treat your guests a little better than this,’ he said lightly as he was stopped in what seemed to be an elevator. ‘It’s generally polite to let them see where they’re going.’

‘Now, Mr Solo, would you let a Thrush agent walk around U.N.C.L.E. headquarters unfettered?’ Fink replied.

Under the bag, Napoleon smiled. Fink hadn’t exactly admitted to what this place was, but the comparison spoke volumes.

The elevator deposited them in a carpeted room, and Napoleon stood where he was led, taking in the scents that filtered through the bag. After a moment, though, the bag was removed to reveal a very modern looking office room, furnished with desk, chairs, bookshelves, and even a number of pot plants. There were windows, but the blinds were closed.

‘Don’t you miss the sunlight?’ he asked, nodding pointedly at the windows.

I don’t,’ Fink replied, seating himself behind the desk. ‘But you might, after a while, Mr Solo. Sit down, why don’t you?’ he asked, gesturing at an easy chair. ‘Drink?’

‘Uh – no thank you,’ Napoleon politely declined. The risk of the drink being drugged was too great.

Fink smiled, folding his hands in his lap. ‘Perhaps we both need to learn something about hospitality, Mr Solo – about the behaviour of the host and the guest. Are you sure you won’t take a cup of tea? I will pour it for each of us from the same pot, milk from the same jug.’

‘The English must have their tea,’ Napoleon murmured. Right now he was feeling like he could murder a strong coffee, but after a moment he nodded. ‘Thank you. I will take tea. And perhaps while I’m drinking you can explain why I’m here.’

Fink gestured to one of his men, who nodded, returning a few minutes later with a tray holding an absurdly chintzy teapot, a small jug of milk, and two identical bone china cups. It was put down on the desk, and the man left them. Fink nodded towards the tray.

‘You can be mother, Mr Solo. That way you can be sure I haven’t put anything in your cup.’

Napoleon smiled politely, pulling the tray a little closer. It would, of course, still be possible to drug him simply by giving them both a drug to which Fink had already taken the antidote. Still, it was verging on paranoia to go on in that frame of mind. He had eaten courtesy of Thrush before, and he had not always been drugged. He poured the tea, and accepted the consequences. If Fink really wanted to drug him he was not exactly in a position to resist.

‘You might be interested that I spoke to our surgeon a few minutes ago,’ Fink said, accepting his cup graciously as Napoleon passed it over. ‘Thank you. Er – he says your friend is doing quite well. The wound needs a certain amount of cleaning, but the external fixator shouldn’t take too long to fit once that is done.’

‘And you’re fixing him up for what?’ Napoleon asked, unable to stop a hard edge entering his voice. ‘So you can beat him to a pulp again?’

Fink laughed. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Solo, but my methods are nothing like as crude as a few low-grade men from our London operations. Killing agents gets us nowhere. I want to find out what Mr Kuryakin has in that pretty little head of his, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have you with us too, does it? I mean, you are U.N.C.L.E. New York’s CEA.’

Napoleon took another swallow of tea to hide his discomfort. It was almost inevitable, then, that both he and Illya would be interrogated, and that the interrogation would be of a psychological nature. In a curious way, he didn’t mind pain. Neither did Illya. Pain could be rationalised. But psychological interrogation was insidious. It got inside one’s head and could linger there for months. Men had been forced to leave U.N.C.L.E. after particularly harsh bouts of psychological trauma, and more than one had ended up as gibbering wrecks.

‘Never mind, Mr Solo,’ Fink said, and Napoleon saw that his discomfort had been evident. ‘My Kuryakin is our priority right now. To save him too much – ah – discomfort – perhaps you’d like to tell us what he knows. He must have passed on his report.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Napoleon said reflexively.

‘Really, Mr Solo? Don’t you debrief your agents at U.N.C.L.E. any more?’

‘I came to extract Mr Kuryakin yesterday,’ Napoleon said tartly. ‘When I got to him he was deeply sedated with morphine. He’s barely been conscious since. When was I supposed to debrief him?’

‘Hmm,’ Fink murmured.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s brain was racing. They thought Illya knew something – but Napoleon was almost certain that if Illya really had stumbled upon something that important he would have told Napoleon immediately on waking up. Illya had relayed all of his reports up to the moment he was captured in London and they had contained useful information, but nothing startling. Now Thrush were anxious that he knew, and had passed on, something very, very important – and if so, what?

‘The tea doesn’t contain any drugs, Mr Solo,’ Fink said, taking a sip of his own drink. ‘But I can assure you, I do have at hand a fine array of drugs which will make you much more susceptible to psychological interrogation. If I have to use them on either you or Mr Kuryakin, I will.’

Napoleon smiled grimly. ‘Well, why don’t we let Mr Kuryakin get through his surgery first,’ he said. ‘And then you can start torturing him by other means.’

His heart constricted a little at the thought, but this time, he thought, he didn’t show it.

((O))

Coming round from anaesthetic was a too-familiar feeling to Illya. He opened his eyes feeling as if it were just a second ago that he had closed them in the very same room, although he knew that some time must have passed. His throat was raw and his stomach was churning. He opened his mouth to speak but suddenly he was vomiting, and the first person to rush to his side was Miss Jones.

‘You’re all right, it all went well,’ she told him clearly, helping him rest back onto the gurney. ‘You’ve had an operation before, haven’t you?’

‘Yeah – yeah,’ Illya gasped hoarsely, looking around as she tried to wipe his mouth. ‘Too often,’ he added.

He felt disconnected, nauseous and confused. He lifted his left hand to see it still held the cannula, then turned his head to look at his right arm. His skin was still yellow-brown in places from iodine, the bullet wound was stitched closed, and the arm was held solid by a brutal looking external fixator with pins that pierced his skin and went into the bone.

‘Didn’t – didn’t know they were using meccano nowadays,’ he murmured, eyeing the contraption with distaste. He had needed external fixation before on breaks, but he never liked it. He looked around the room again, blinking. ‘When can I get out of here?’

For a moment he had forgotten where he was, but then it came rushing back.

‘Damn,’ he said, before she could answer. He looked up to see the doctor standing over him.

‘That was a nasty wound, Mr Kuryakin,’ the man began.

‘All courtesy of Thrush,’ Illya said sourly. The groggy feeling, sore throat, and nausea did not incline him to forgiveness.

Dr Smythe snorted, then said, ‘Well, you will stay here for an hour under observation, then you can go back to your – er – accommodation. I feel confident Miss Jones here can look after you.’

Illya declined to answer, feeling that if he did he would not be able to help saying something sarcastic which might garner punishment that he did not feel fit to take. He closed his eyes and let himself accept that right now he was as helpless as he had been before when he was drugged out on morphine. He noticed that the pain was much less now, at least, with the bones stabilised and in a fixed position, although there was a good deal of soreness centred on the wound.

‘Very well,’ Dr Smythe said after waiting for an answer that did not come. ‘Miss Jones, observe the patient. Nurse Robbins, you observe Miss Jones.’

Illya turned his head to see the same unsmiling blonde nurse who had been in the room when he arrived for the operation. Despite her crisp white uniform, she also held a vicious looking gun. He sighed and closed his eyes again, reasoning that the more he rested the sooner he would be on his feet.

‘Illya, are you feeling all right?’ Miss Jones asked him cautiously.

He let his eyes drift open, slightly startled. He thought this was the first time she had called him by his first name.

‘Yeah, yeah I’m fine, Elidh. May I call you Elidh?’ he murmured. ‘A little sleepy...’

He felt her fingers on his left wrist, taking his pulse, then she said, ‘Certainly you can call me Elidh. I think we’re friends now, aren’t we?’

‘Yeah, I think so,’ he said.

‘Now, you go to sleep if you need to,’ she said, letting go of his wrist and smiling at him. ‘I’ll be here watching you.’

‘Ah, my guardian angel,’ he murmured, remembering Napoleon’s words. Really, she had been his guardian angel. But then so was Napoleon. He didn’t like to think of Napoleon somewhere else in this complex, not knowing what was happening to him. But he was powerless to help him. He was powerless to do anything at all...

7.

When he woke again he saw above him the underside of a bunk, and knew he was back in the cell. His right arm lay awkwardly alongside him, its frame digging into his side on the narrow bed. The light was dim, and he supposed it must be night. When he looked across the small room he saw Elidh Jones fast asleep on the bunk opposite. Napoleon must be on one of the upper bunks.

He huffed out breath and turned uncomfortably. Instantly Napoleon sat up on the higher bunk opposite, banged his head, cursed under his breath, and then dropped soundlessly to the floor.

‘Well, how are you, sleeping beauty?’ Solo murmured, keeping his voice almost inaudible.

Illya smiled, for the moment just glad to see Napoleon’s face in the slanting light and shadow that came through the bars.

‘I’ve been better, but I’ve been worse,’ he replied. He reached out his left hand, wincing a little at the bruise left by the removed cannula, and touched it to Napoleon’s cheek. ‘My arm is greatly improved,’ he said. ‘But I can’t say the same for the rest of me.’

Napoleon smiled in return, clasping the bruised hand gently between his.

‘Listen, Illya,’ he said, still keeping his voice very low. ‘When you were in surgery I was taken upstairs to meet the boss man. Barnabas Fink. Mean anything to you?’ he asked as Illya hissed in breath.

‘Not exactly,’ Illya replied. ‘I heard that name a lot when I was infiltrating in London. Got the sense he was a big man. But nothing concrete.’

‘Well, look, I think they think you did hear something more concrete,’ Napoleon continued, moving his mouth closer to the Russian’s ear. ‘They think you’ve heard something vital and they want to know how much you know and how much you passed back to U.N.C.L.E.’

Illya digested that slowly. His thoughts still felt sluggish.

‘But I didn’t hear anything vital,’ he replied.

‘Illyusha, Illyusha,’ Napoleon sighed, pressing his lips against the hand he held. ‘They really knocked you for six, didn’t they?’

Illya felt impatience rise. How he loved Napoleon to call him that in their quiet moments, back in his or his partner’s apartment, even if he never let on that he enjoyed the endearment. But he felt too tired and too confused now to focus on both business and pleasure.

‘Cut it out, Napoleon,’ he murmured, but he squeezed his hand a little against Solo’s. ‘You’re going to have to spell it out for me. I’m afraid I’m still feeling the anaesthetic.’

‘Probably the painkillers too,’ Napoleon said. ‘Illya, if they think you heard something vital, something so vital that they went to the risk of recapturing you to find out if you passed it on, then it’s something we must find out and report back. Yes?’

‘Yes, I see,’ Illya said. It was obvious really. How he hated how drugs in his system affected his mind.

‘They’re going to interrogate you to find out how much you know,’ Napoleon continued.

‘They’ll be disappointed,’ Illya said darkly. ‘Or pleased, I suppose. They don’t want me to know.’

‘Illya, it might be that you can get them to tell you something while they think they’re getting the information from you,’ Napoleon said. ‘Not everything, but maybe enough.’

Illya swallowed. After all he had gone through he did not feel anywhere near up to going through interrogation at the moment. But still, he was an U.N.C.L.E. agent before anything else. It was his duty to find out, and it wasn’t as if they were going to ask him if he wanted to be interrogated.

‘Are you sure there isn’t an easier way?’ he asked bleakly.

‘I don’t know, there may be,’ Napoleon replied. ‘I hate it too, Illya. They’re going to use psychological methods, drugs and so on, and you know what that’s like. But there might be a chance...’

‘Well...’ Illya’s mouth felt dry, and he coughed. ‘Well, we can do our best,’ he said.

Napoleon went to the small sink at the end of the cell and brought back a plastic cup of water. He put his hand gently behind Illya’s head to lift it, and touched the cup to his lips.

‘Better?’ he asked, when his partner had drunk.

‘Much,’ Illya smiled, feeling the liquid revive the dry tissues of his mouth and wash out some of the bad taste from the drugs he had been given.

‘We’ll get out of here,’ Napoleon promised. ‘Illya, we’ll get out, okay?’

Illya looked into his eyes. They looked black in the low light. He always trusted Napoleon, always believed him, even if he kept up a façade of mistrust, sarcasm and digs. He wished for a moment that there was a diminutive of Napoleon’s name, just so he could let it slip from his tongue.

‘I should let you get back to sleep,’ Napoleon said.

Illya grunted a dismissal of that idea. ‘I’ve done enough of that. I admit they didn’t let me sleep much in that place in London, but I think I’ve made up for it.’

Napoleon turned back the blanket a little to look critically at the bruising he could see reaching up from under the collar of Illya’s hospital gown.

‘You’ve needed it. Sometimes I think sedating you is the only way to keep you from getting broken.’

‘You know, I’m not exactly on top form,’ Illya said seriously. ‘It might be that they take me for interrogation and I just lose it. I should steer clear of the painkillers at least, and try to hold them off from interrogation until the anaesthetic is completely out of my system.’

‘Yeah, I agree,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘You think you can?’

Illya smiled. ‘Well, if I just – milk the situation a little, so to speak. Appear worse than I am. They seem anxious to have me well enough for interrogation, anxious enough to spend a lot of time fixing my arm. I might be able to hold them off for a day, at least.’

Napoleon reached out a hand to brush Illya’s fringe back from his forehead. ‘Will you try to get some more sleep?’

Illya sighed. ‘In a little while, I will try.’

‘I wish these bunks were a bit wider...’

‘Napoleon...’

‘Not like that!’ he protested, holding his hands up. ‘I just want to be close with you.’

Illya gave the cell around them a cursory glance. ‘Locked together in a room six foot by ten foot. We’re not doing badly.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ve got a chaperone,’ Napoleon commented, glancing over at the sleeping form of Miss Jones.

‘Napoleon, we have a large segment of Thrush U.K. as well,’ Illya reminded him.

Napoleon stroked the hair from his forehead again. ‘I know, I know… But you know, most of them are asleep.’

‘Napoleon,’ Illya said in a low, warning growl.

‘Didn’t Napoleon march into Russia, all the way to Moscow?’ Napoleon asked him with a grin, before bending his head down to touch his lips to his partner’s.

Illya fought not to respond. ‘He also found himself defeated by the strength of the Russian winter,’ he replied.

The American slipped his hand behind Illya’s head, lacing his fingers into the strands of golden hair, and Illya moved a little, having to admit that it felt good to have his hair touched like that after lying down on it for so long. Napoleon’s fingers stroked deep into his hair and massaged his scalp, and he had to hold in a sigh of pleasure.

‘I always make it my personal mission to melt Russian winters to the ground,’ Napoleon murmured, touching his lips to Illya’s again. This time Illya responded, parting his lips, letting his partner’s strong tongue dart into his mouth. He used his own tongue in response, tasting the sweetness of Napoleon’s mouth, tracing his smooth teeth. He could feel a fire stirring low in his abdomen, stiffness growing beneath the fabric of the hospital gown.

‘You – always did melt me to the ground,’ he murmured, pulling away, ‘but Napoleon, we cannot. Not here, not now.’

Napoleon gave a half-whimper, and Illya knew that the American was as hard as he himself was becoming. It had been far too long. But his body was tired and aching and sore, and the awareness of Miss Jones only a few feet away acted like a cold shower. Besides, broken ribs did not go well with physical loving. He knew, because he had tried in the past.

‘Call it an incentive to get out of here,’ he said, reaching out with his good arm to tousle Napoleon’s dark hair. He was rewarded by Napoleon’s smile. He looked pleased as a cat.

‘Like we need an incentive.’ Napoleon’s eyes locked with his. ‘But it’s a very good incentive. Now, get some sleep.’

Illya snorted. ‘As if you weren’t the one keeping me awake.’

He lay for a while after Napoleon had regained his bunk, trying to calm the stirrings of need in his body. He felt completely messed up by the chemicals in his body, and thrown out by the dead time spent under anaesthetic. He hated that sense of disorientation that came with losing several hours of one’s day. It was not like sleep. It was like amnesia. If it had not been for the pain in so much of his body, and for the fact that he was trapped in an enemy cell, he would have accepted Napoleon’s advances and the two of them would have fucked as if it were their last day on earth. He liked to think of it like that. He had made love to Napoleon plenty of times, but it was times like this when he – when they both – needed the earthy, vital, red-blooded vivacity of simply fucking.

A shiver ran through him. The next best thing to fucking would be walking, walking a long way, perhaps in rain that beat down until it trickled under his collar and down his back and soaked his shoulders and arms and legs until his whole body was drenched. He could do neither of those things here, and he hated it. Trapped by his body and trapped by Thrush. It was insufferable.

He put his good hand behind his head to stop himself from reaching out and satiating his need manually. His right arm, he did not have to worry about. It felt stiff, aching and sore, and the wire frame around it dug into his side. He lifted it and regarded it in the light as a kind of monstrosity, seeing the angry wounds where the wire entered his skin, the surgery scar hidden beneath a white adhesive bandage. He wondered briefly if he could make use of that frame in any way as a weapon. He wouldn’t want to be hit round the face with something like that, and he was sure his enemies would feel the same.

He sighed. As he was right now, it would be a while before he could even consider using the external fixator to bring down his enemies. He closed his eyes and lay quietly, going over everything he had seen and heard since he first infiltrated the London group almost a month ago, trying to draw out any threads that might be useful. It was as he had told Napoleon. He had heard that name, Fink, many times, always referred to as the head man, the boss man, the guy in the know. He recalled something mentioned about plans, but they had never said what the plans were. In his time before he had been found out he had discovered frustratingly little. It was all just minor details of shipment times for weapons, methods of smuggling them in to the country, names of local connections, small links in the chain. He had passed them all on and he knew that Thrush’s activity in this country would be damaged because of him, but all the time he had felt the frustration of missing out on the big prize. Now, perhaps, he could finally claim it.

8.

The feeling of being a caged animal did not wear off. In fact, as the effects of the anaesthetic faded away Illya felt even more trapped, even more frustrated by his inability to shake off both injuries and captivity and get out of this place. It did not help that he was doing as he had told Napoleon he would, and exaggerating his incapacity by spending most of his time flat out on his bunk. It was almost a relief when he heard footsteps and looked up to see Dr Smythe standing outside the cell.

‘All right, bring those two out first and cover them,’ the doctor told the accompanying guard, nodding at Solo and Miss Jones. Solo exchanged a glance with Illya, then stepped out of the cell with the woman. They were made to stand against the opposite wall, while Smythe sat on the bunk opposite Illya and regarded him.

‘Mr Fink is quite anxious to see you,’ the doctor said. His smile had no humour behind it. ‘Would you sit up, please, and let me look at that arm?’

Illya pushed himself up, grunting at the movement of his broken ribs.

‘I’m told you’ve been quite unresponsive when the guards have asked you how you are,’ the doctor continued.

‘Well, wouldn’t you be?’ Illya replied darkly. He did not feel in the mood to humour this man. He had been studiously avoiding painkillers and his arm hurt like hell.

‘Let me have a look,’ Dr Smythe said, taking Illya’s right arm with surprisingly gentle hands. ‘Well, there’s no infection around the entry points for the frame. Let me take a look at the stitches.’

He peeled the dressing back, and Illya gritted his teeth as the adhesive pulled at the hairs on his arm. The stitches looked like curling black spiders against his skin, but the wound was clean.

‘Miss Jones, dress this wound and take his temperature,’ Dr Smythe ordered, and Elidh was let back into the cell.

Illya smiled reassurance at her as she crouched beside him to dress the healing wound. He opened his mouth for the thermometer, and waited while the mercury rose.

‘Nine-eight point four,’ she told the doctor crisply, taking it out of his mouth. ‘Just about perfect.’

‘Very well, very well,’ Dr Smythe murmured. ‘How about those ribs?’

Illya shrugged. ‘They’re broken ribs. What can I say?’

The doctor huffed, and tugged the hospital gown off Illya’s left arm so he could expose his chest.

‘Nurse, will you get this bandage off him?’ he asked, and Elidh silently unwrapped the supportive dressings about Illya’s chest. This time there was not so much gentleness in the way the doctor prodded at the flesh over the broken ribs.

‘He’ll do,’ Dr Smythe muttered. ‘I wouldn’t advise rough treatment, but he’ll stand up to interrogation.’

‘Oh, joy,’ Illya responded sarcastically.

Dr Smythe smiled. ‘It may be a joy yet, Mr Kuryakin. I developed the drugs myself. Some of them can impart quite a euphoric feeling. It depends on what Mr Fink decides to use.’

Illya’s eyes met Napoleon’s through the bars. Napoleon did not look happy either.

‘Well, either way I’m sure it will be an enlightening experience,’ Illya said grimly.

‘Bandage him up again, Nurse,’ Dr Smythe told Elidh. ‘Mr Kuryakin, Mr Fink will see you in about an hour. Maybe you can spend that time thinking about what you have to tell him.’ He took a syringe from his bag and filled it from a small glass bottle. ‘Meanwhile,’ he said, stretching out Illya’s arm and injecting the fluid straight into a vein, ‘This will help to start the process.’

Illya hissed at the sting of the needle and the chemical entering his bloodstream. He would have rather been beaten a hundred times than subjected to drugged interrogation. By the time Dr Smythe had left the cell and Napoleon was back at his side he was already starting to feel strange, as if he could not trust himself.

‘You all right, Illya?’ Napoleon asked in a low voice.

‘Yeah. That stuff works fast,’ he said, lying back down on his bunk.

‘What do you think it is?’ Napoleon asked, as Miss Jones crowded in to take the Russian’s pulse.

‘Probably something to make me rather more suggestible,’ Illya decided. He laughed. ‘I do feel rather permissive. A little drunk.’

Napoleon looked worried, but Illya found it hard to care.

‘Illya,’ Napoleon said intently. ‘You remember what we talked about last night. You need to try to keep control.’

‘Yes, Napoleon. Yes, I know.’ Illya reached out a hand and pressed it against Napoleon’s cheek, losing himself in the chocolate eyes.

Illya,’ Napoleon said forcefully. ‘You are an U.N.C.L.E. agent, remember. Remember that? You have your duty. You know what you need to do.’

‘Yes, Napoleon,’ Illya replied with a smile. The way he felt right now he would do anything to please his partner. Nothing seemed more important than doing as he asked.

‘They may have erred in giving him that drug while we’re still here,’ Napoleon said covertly to Miss Jones. ‘Putting him in a suggestible mood before they take him up could work to our advantage.’ He turned back to the Russian and met his eyes again, and Illya found himself drowning in those dark irides. ‘Illya, do you remember our conversation last night?’

‘Yes, Napoleon,’ Illya replied dreamily. Oh, he remembered. The burning need to have Napoleon then and there, the lust rising in his loins.

Illya. The part about what they want to know. Do you remember that?’

It drifted back. Thrush thought he knew something that he didn’t know. It was his job to find out what that thing was. His job to resist their psychological probing and somehow draw out what it was he was supposed to have found out. Napoleon wanted him to do this. He was an U.N.C.L.E. agent. Napoleon wanted him to find out.

‘Oh, I remember that,’ he smiled. ‘Yes, I need to find out – ’

‘Shush, shush!’ Napoleon pressed a single finger onto Illya’s lips, and he was overcome by the urge to suck it. He parted his lips and took the digit into his mouth before Solo whipped it away as if he had been bitten. ‘Illya, it’s very important. You need to be covert. Remember that. You are a spy. It’s your job not to let anything out. You need to find out that thing that we talked about.’

‘That thing,’ Illya repeated dreamily, smiling at Napoleon, feeling the taste of that finger in his mouth. He wanted to take that hand back and suck each finger in turn, and watch Napoleon melt as he moved on to other parts of his body.

‘Illya!’ Napoleon clicked his fingers in front of his face, the flush suffusing his cheeks indicating that he was reading his partner’s illicit thoughts. ‘You need to do it to please me, Illya. I’m the most important thing to you, aren’t I? Remember that. I want you to please me.’

‘Oh, I want to please you, Napoleon,’ Illya sighed. He felt extremely happy, extremely safe. He reached out his left hand and caressed the back of Napoleon’s neck, taking delight in seeing his cheeks blush a deeper red. ‘Why don’t you kiss me before they take me?’

Illya,’ Napoleon hissed.

Miss Jones studiously turned her back, and said, ‘You know my opinions on the subject, Mr Solo. Don’t mind me.’

Illya didn’t mind at all. He pulled Napoleon down and kissed him, his body seeming to fill with fire as his mouth opened to his partner’s.

‘Can we do it now, Napoleon?’ he murmured, as Napoleon pulled away, flushed and smiling.

Napoleon took hold of his hand and squeezed it. ‘Not right now, Illyusha,’ he said in a low voice, and his tone made Illya shiver. ‘Later, huh? I want you to get through this interrogation. I want you to come out with what we need to know, remember? I’m counting on you, Illya.’

Napoleon was counting on him. That made him feel so warm. He lay watching his partner dreamily as Napoleon moved away from the bunk and turned to talk to Miss Jones. He didn’t listen because he didn’t really care what they were saying. He was just trying to remember what Napoleon had said. Napoleon was counting on him. He needed the information. It was important to Napoleon.

He lay in a happy, distracted state until he heard the door of the cell slide open, and his warm contentment was disturbed by hands under his arms, jerking him up.

‘Hey, hey,’ he said, ineffectually struggling a little. ‘Hey, there’s a draught,’ he complained as the hospital robe flapped open at the back.

‘Never mind,’ one of the men who held him rasped, jerking him forward. He stumbled, but he didn’t care very much, even when they put a stifling black bag over his head. It felt nice to be in the dark, peaceful and calm, nice to take a stroll after so long cooped up, even if his ribs were throbbing and his arm was throbbing too. The throbbing was nice, really. It was warm, rhythmic. He liked it. He walked until he started feeling a bit tired, but then there was a nice bed to lie on, and they put soft cuffs on his wrists and ankles that made him feel secure, and when they removed the hood the lights above his head were like a rainbow.

‘Oh, pretty!’ he grinned, eyes following the moving lights. ‘Pretty lights.’

‘They are pretty, aren’t they, Mr Kuryakin?’ asked a man’s voice. ‘And they’re just for you, just so you can enjoy them.’

It felt like there was something important then, trying to break through the happiness in Illya’s mind.

‘Barnabas Fink,’ he said eventually. ‘Hey, are you Barnabas Fink? That’s a funny name, isn’t it?’

‘I like it,’ the voice replied dryly, and Illya felt a numbed sense of unease. He liked Napoleon’s voice better. Napoleon’s voice was warm and made him want to melt. Napoleon’s voice had said things to him. What was it? He needed to find out the information. He wanted to tell Barnabas Fink that but there was a kind of block stopping the words from reaching his tongue

You’re an agent. You have your duty.

Those words swum in his head. His duty was important to Napoleon. He had to do his duty.

‘Yes, I think he’s ready,’ another man said, and then there was a sting in his arm and he looked down to see a needle injecting something clear and blue beneath his skin.

‘Now, Mr Kuryakin,’ Barnabas Fink said.

The bed he was on was swung to a shallow tilt, and Illya looked up at the man whose name he had heard repeated so often. I am an agent, he remembered. It was his job to take in details, and he’d take them in, for Napoleon. Clean shaven, short hair that was light brown, rather a long face. A stain on his teeth when he smiled that indicated he smoked a pipe. Tweed jacket. Yes, this was one of those types. He probably had a waistcoat underneath. One of those types who weren’t past their thirties but liked to live as if they were in their seventies. Important, important, his brain told him. This was important to Napoleon, and Napoleon mattered.

‘Mr Kuryakin, are you with us?’

He blinked, but his eyes kept following the moving lights.

‘Mr Kuryakin, you infiltrated our east London operation,’ Barnabas Fink said, bending close enough that Illya could smell the tobacco now. Perhaps the bulge in the man’s pocket was a pipe. Perhaps it was a gun.

‘Oh yes,’ Illya smiled. ‘Yes, that was fun.’

‘Tell us what you found out, Mr Kuryakin.’

Illya’s eyes drifted after the lights again. He wasn’t supposed to tell them. I am an agent. Agents didn’t tell. He felt like giggling. That should be written down in the rules of U.N.C.L.E.. Agents don’t tell.

‘Agents don’t tell,’ he said aloud, then went to press his hand over his mouth, but the soft cuff stopped him. Napoleon thought agents shouldn’t tell but Illya thought he shouldn’t say that to Barnabas Fink. It felt important that Fink didn’t know Napoleon had given him instructions.

‘Oh, but they do, Mr Kuryakin.’ Fingers snapped in front of his face. ‘Mr Kuryakin. It’s your job to tell. I want to know. You want to please me, don’t you?’

‘I want to please...’ Illya began, but he stopped himself, because he remembered that he wanted to please Napoleon too, and he mustn’t tell Fink that.

‘What did you find out in our London operation, Mr Kuryakin?’

Illya smiled. He felt good about that. ‘Oh, lots of things,’ he said. ‘They were terrible at their bookkeeping – you should really have a word, Mr Fink. Fink’s a funny name, isn’t it?’

Fink growled. ‘What did you find out?

‘Oh, about the arms shipments and when they went out and where they went to and how Mr Morton was depositing the money in a false account in the Bank of England and did you know he was keeping a little back for himself too? I don’t suppose he’d want me to tell you that, would he?’

‘Note that down,’ Fink said in a dark voice to someone unseen, and Illya felt a little sad, because he didn’t think Fink sounded pleased. He wanted to please – No. Napoleon. He wanted to please Napoleon.

‘Now, Mr Kuryakin,’ Fink continued. ‘I know all about those minor details. What else did you find out?’

Illya giggled. ‘Mrs Speltman doesn’t like sugar in her tea but Mr Morton keeps putting it in because he wants the old hag’s diabetes to kill her one day.’

Fink seemed to be holding in enormous frustration. He clenched his hands and walked away, asking in a low voice, ‘Smythe, can you make him more focussed? He’ll be telling us the colour of everyone’s underwear next.’

‘Oh, Mr Morton wears white ones,’ Illya called out, eager to please. ‘I saw the waistband when he was bending in the filing cabinet. But I never saw Mrs Speltman’s.’

The doctor loomed over him and grabbed his arm with rough hands. Suddenly he felt alarmed, and started to struggle a little against the soft restraints, but the metal cage around his right arm caught on the padded cushions of the bed and pain jolted through him, shocking him momentarily out of his haze.

‘Now, Mr Kuryakin, settle down. Just another injection,’ Smythe said in a voice that was meant to be soothing, but that Illya didn’t like at all. ‘You don’t want to damage that arm.’

There was that sharp prick at his arm again, and then Smythe said, ‘Lower the lights. Yes, just a few feet.’

The pretty rainbow lights got closer, and Illya found himself staring at them again, his eyes moving in circles as they moved.

‘Now, Mr Kuryakin,’ Fink said, coming closer again.

When Illya took his eyes off the lights to look at the man he felt sick, so he looked back to the lights again. He remembered a time when Napoleon had taken him to Coney Island and he had eaten too much cotton candy, and as the sun had gone down all the bright lights of the funfair had flashed around him. Napoleon had persuaded him to go on the roller coaster, but oh, the cotton candy, he had eaten so much, he had never had it before, and the roller coaster swooped up and then dropped down again, and Illya Kuryakin, who had never so much as turned a hair in all of his training flying aeroplanes and helicopters, had lost his dinner over the front of the cart.

‘Up and down, up and down,’ he sang, watching the lights and trying not to let the cotton candy bring up his stomach contents.

Now, Mr Kuryakin,’ Fink said again, in a harder voice. ‘I want you to tell me more.’

More, more, Illya echoed inside his head. Napoleon wanted him to find out more. It was very important that he find out more, he needed to get Fink to tell him.

‘Which bit?’ he asked aloud, and realised his voice was slurring now so it made him think of singing. ‘Very important. Which bit do you want to know?’

‘About Operation Old Masters,’ Fink said, coming closer again, his voice softer now. ‘Tell me all you found out about Operation Old Masters.’

Operation Old Masters. Illya filed that away in a happy space in his brain. Napoleon would be pleased with that. Operation Old Masters.

‘The painters,’ he grinned. ‘Yes, yes, all those painters. They were rather good, weren’t they?’

Fink’s hand rose and started to fall again, and Illya watched it. It seemed to be moving terribly slowly, but suddenly the bed that he was strapped to shook as the hand made contact with it. He watched the fabric move in ripples from where the hand struck and thought how fascinating it was that he had apparently slowed time down.

Illya lay thinking. Operation Old Masters. Napoleon wanted him to find out more. It was an event, events were things that happened, operations were events. He had had an operation on his arm, and that had had a time and a place.

‘Time and place,’ he murmured. ‘Oh, I told them time and place. Oh, they know it all.’

He grinned, terribly pleased with himself for the lie he had just made up. Napoleon would be pleased.

That slow motion hand struck the bed again, and Fink walked away, muttering. Illya strained to listen, then thought perhaps his movement was too obvious, and let his eyes follow the lights again as Fink spoke.

‘Well we can’t change the place, Smythe. No, don’t be ridiculous. The National Gallery is the art gallery. We’d slash our profits if we went anywhere else. No, but maybe we could push it a little earlier. They’ll step up security of course, but the sooner the better.’

Smythe said something in the distance. It was as if Smythe were far away, as if Illya were only attuned to Fink’s voice.

‘No, that doesn’t give us enough time,’ Fink snapped. ‘But Friday would do, early hours. We could mobilise by then. We’ll need to source the vans… Yes, tell the labs to step up on the gas production. The tests went well when we brought in these two U.N.C.L.E. agents and we’ll need to put a square mile to sleep.’

Illya felt as if he were singing inside. It was all he could do to stop himself singing aloud. How easy it had been. How stupidly easy.

And then he felt as if he had fallen off a cliff as his mind made a great connection. For Fink to be speaking openly of this in front of him it must mean he never meant to let him go. He tried to hold on to the facts as he fell. Operation Old Masters, National Gallery, Friday, early, a square mile of gas. Napoleon had to be told. But oh, he was falling and falling, and crying out, and the lights whirled above him, miles away and close to his eyes. He cried out, and felt their attention rivet back on him.

‘He’s had two shots,’ a man’s voice echoed above him, far away and loud. ‘Had his up, and now’s the down.’

Down, down… He grabbed hold of the bed with his hands and his right arm shrieked with pain. He was going to be sick. He was on the roller coaster, plunging towards the sullied earth, a place of garbage and plague. He was screaming and screaming, and falling, falling, falling...

9.

‘Illya! Illya!’

He was falling still, spinning in circles, shaking with terror. He opened his eyes to bright white light, and reached out, smashing his right arm against something hard so the fixator frame reverberated through his bones.

‘Illya, stop!’

Someone’s hand was on his left arm, a hand pressing on his right shoulder, a face leant over him, and he locked on to that vision.

‘Napoleon? Napoleon?’ he faltered.

‘It’s all right, Illya. You’re back in the cell,’ Napoleon said. His voice made Illya think of slow moving rivers, of melted chocolate. His pounding heart started to slow. The hands pressing hard on him made him feel safe.

‘I think you’ve got him, Mr Solo,’ said an English woman’s voice, and he looked frantically until he saw the face of Miss Jones.

‘N-Napoleon?’ he asked again.

‘Well, that was a hell of a downer,’ Napoleon said with a smile. ‘You okay, comrade? Illya?’

He stared hard at Napoleon, trying to fix himself by the vision, trying to feel as if he were no longer falling.

‘Napoleon?’

‘You’re all right,’ Napoleon said gently. ‘They said you were pretty high, and you had a long way to drop. You’re in bed, Illya. You’re safe.’

Something seemed desperately important. ‘C-can I talk?’ he asked, jerking his head around, trying to make his eyes focus on something further away than Napoleon’s face.

Napoleon leant close, came right in, put his ear next to Illya’s mouth. ‘Talk,’ he said softly. ‘Quietly. We’ve got a guard out there.’

Illya pressed himself against the bed, trying to make his mind work, trying to drag that important thing out of the haze. And then it came to him.

‘Operation Old Masters, National Gallery, Friday, early, a square mile of gas,’ he said. ‘Operation Old Masters, National Gallery, Friday, early, a square mile of gas.’

Napoleon’s eyes widened, and then he kissed Illya square on the forehead.

‘Operation Old Masters,’ he began again, and Napoleon touched a hand to his cheek.

‘It’s okay. You can stop now. I’ve got it.’

Illya realised he was panting. His ribs hurt again and his arm hurt terribly. His head was throbbing like the worst hangover he’d ever had. But he wasn’t falling any more. He could feel the bed beneath him, and he wasn’t falling.

‘What I would give for black coffee,’ he said.

‘Sorry, best I can do is water,’ Napoleon smiled. Then he asked in an undertone, ‘What is this thing, Illya? Anything more you can tell me?’

He narrowed his eyes, trying to pull something out of the psychedelic nightmare that Fink had brought him through, trying to glean sense out of the words he could remember. The world was starting to feel more real around him, the sense of fear and falling a more distant thing.

‘I – think it’s a plot to strip the National Gallery,’ he said at last. ‘They would be able to sell the paintings to black market collectors world wide. It would fund Thrush operations for decades.’

Napoleon whistled softly.

‘You didn’t get a hint of that while you were in the London warehouse?’

Illya shook his head, but the movement made his brain feel as if it were spinning again.

‘No hint,’ he said. ‘I suppose someone there knew or they wouldn’t have thought I’d know about it, but I never heard it.’

He became aware of Miss Jones staring at him, eyes wide. ‘They must be mad!’ she said in a whisper.

He allowed a crooked smile onto his face. ‘They often are,’ he replied darkly. ‘But they’re often successful, too. Napoleon, it sounds like they trialled some kind of knock out gas on the area around Miss Jones’ house when they captured us. They’re going to do that again in London, I suppose to make sure the streets are clear. I’d expect some kind of road blocks too. I convinced them I’d passed on their plans, which is why Fink brought it forward to early Friday morning.’

Napoleon nodded. ‘So we’ll need to make sure we have gas masks, silenced weapons, full backup...’

‘Mr Solo, I think you’re forgetting something,’ Miss Jones said in a low voice, nodding towards the locked door. ‘They’re not aiming on letting us go, are they?’

‘No,’ Napoleon said pensively. ‘No, and they probably mean to put me under the same kind of interrogation as Illya. Will they crack me, Illya?’ he asked.

Illya pursed his lips. ‘It wasn’t pleasant. I mean, it felt wonderful at the time, but you saw how hard I fell. But no, they won’t crack you if they stick to what they gave me.’

‘They won’t stick to that if I don’t crack,’ Napoleon muttered. ‘And god knows what else Fink has got in his arsenal. Illya, are you up to making an attempt?’

Illya smiled ruefully. ‘I’m going to have to try, anyway.’

He pushed himself up on his good arm, feeling his ribs and multiple bruises protest. His time strung up in the warehouse was starting to feel like so long ago, but his injuries reminded him how recent it was. His wrists were still scabbed with sores from the ropes, his bruises were an impressive mottle of green and yellow, and he was still covered in welts and lacerations.

‘Okay?’ Napoleon asked in a murmur.

He stiffly swung his legs over the side of the bed, and nodded. ‘As good as I’m going to be.’

He still felt surges of paranoia and a sense of falling from the drug in his system, but at least now he knew those things weren’t real. He looked towards the bars of the cell and saw a single Thrush man beyond, looking bored, his Thrush-issue machine gun resting slackly against his leg.

‘Do you have any kind of weapon?’ he asked Napoleon in an undertone.

‘Standard explosives in the case but no guns or blades,’ Napoleon replied.

‘Ah, gentlemen,’ Miss Jones said softly, reaching her hand under the mattress of her bunk. She drew out a small, glittering scalpel.

Illya exchanged a glance with Napoleon. ‘When did you manage that?’ he asked in astonishment, keeping his voice low.

‘Dr Smythe may think he’s God’s gift, but he doesn’t run a tight operating room,’ she replied with a smile. ‘I thought it might be useful.’

‘Put it back under there,’ Napoleon muttered. It was imperative that the blade wasn’t discovered. ‘So, when do we try?’ he asked. ‘Are you ready, Illya?’

‘As I’ll ever be,’ Illya nodded.

Napoleon nodded in return. ‘Good,’ he said, sotto voce, then he raised his voice for the benefit of the guard. ‘Illya, do you want to get out of that hospital gown?’

‘I would love to,’ Illya grinned. Aside from anything else, the gown still smelt of disinfectant and iodine, and he would have happily burnt that reminder of undergoing surgery at Thrush hands.

Very soon he was wearing black trousers again, and the shirt from which Napoleon had ripped the sleeve, with some of the side seam split too now so it could be pulled on over the frame on his arm. As Napoleon slipped socks onto his feet he felt like he had taken a step closer to the land of the living. The Thrush guard seemed to take an interest in the proceedings, and wandered closer to the bars.

‘Thinking of taking a walk, shrimp?’ he asked, grinning at Illya.

Illya’s expression hardened. He grew tired of comments about his size, especially from six and a half foot brainless muscle men like this Thrush guard.

‘One likes to be properly dressed,’ he said, turning away dismissively.

Then Miss Jones was at the bars, smiling. Illya was startled to see that at some point she had opened a few more buttons on her blouse.

I’d like to take a walk,’ she said with a winning smile. ‘You’ve no idea what it’s like, cooped up with these men.’

The Thrush guard grinned back at her. ‘I’ve got a fair idea, love. I’ve been standing here for six hours. All I could do to stay awake.’

‘It must make your shoulders ache,’ she said in a sympathetic voice. ‘As a nurse I hate to see people in pain.’

‘Doesn’t it though,’ he said with feeling, then he laughed rather lecherously. ‘I suppose you’re good at massage, eh, as a nurse?’

Illya exchanged a covert glance with Napoleon. It was obvious what Miss Jones was doing. What was amazing was that it was not obvious to the guard – but then he had often noticed that these low level grunts were not chosen for their intellect. Thrush didn’t like intelligence low down in the ranks. It was a threat.

‘Why don’t you let me give them a rub?’ Miss Jones asked in her most helpful tone.

The man laughed again. ‘If you think I’m letting you out...’

‘I can reach through the bars,’ she offered.

His eyes moved between the nurse and the two men in the cell. Then he said roughly, ‘You two, go and stand at the back of the cell, and stay there. Understand?’

‘Completely,’ Napoleon murmured. He exchanged another glance with Illya as both men moved back. Illya wanted to ask Napoleon if he thought Miss Jones knew what the hell she was doing, but it was too dangerous to speak aloud.

The Thrush man turned his back to the bars and leant against them. ‘That do you, love?’

‘Oh, but you are tall,’ Elidh simpered. She looked around, then picked up the closed suitcase and laid it down so she could stand on it. ‘There, I can reach now.’

She lifted her hands to the man’s shoulders, her slim arms slipping easily between the bars. And then suddenly the man seemed to be choking, his breath coming in liquid rattles, and he collapsed to the floor, blood pooling around his corpse.

Bozhe moi!’ Illya hissed. He had killed in his time, but he had not been expecting this.

Miss Jones was wiping the blood off the scalpel onto the bedclothes, a kind of grim smile on her face.

‘I’m not used to that,’ she said simply. Her hands were red with blood and she went to the tiny sink to wash it off.

‘It might have been cleaner to let us hit him,’ Illya commented.

‘By the time you’d made it across the cell he would have been away from the bars,’ Miss Jones replied.

‘Never upset an English lady,’ Napoleon murmured. ‘Come on. The sooner we can get out the better.’

He reached his arm through the bars, grasping for the control box on the guard’s hip. A quick flick of the switch there and the cell door slid open with a low hum. Quickly he pulled the body inside the cell while Illya shook out one of the white bed covers and laid it over the pool of blood.

‘It’ll probably soak through but it makes it less immediately obvious,’ he replied to Miss Jones’s questioning look. ‘Blood tends to hit a nerve.’

Napoleon picked up the suitcase, wiping off blood with another of the bed covers.

‘Come on,’ he said, picking up the machine gun, which was covered in blood too. ‘It looks like there’s been a massacre,’ he said in a disgusted tone.

Illya caught the flicker in Miss Jones’s eyes, and told her, ‘Don’t worry. You did the right thing.’

She smiled gratefully, and followed the pair out of the cell. The corridor beyond was empty, but Illya felt terrifically vulnerable with no weapon in his hand. He wished the man had had a revolver too, something he could have held in his one good hand. He didn’t really feel up to physical fighting right now.

‘Well, at least having no shoes makes things quieter,’ Napoleon said in an undertone, and Miss Jones immediately made an effort to walk more carefully. She was the only one of the trio left with her shoes.

Napoleon slipped ahead to the empty guard station and the corner beyond.

‘All right,’ he hissed. ‘It’s clear to the elevator. Come on!’

‘It’s quiet,’ Illya commented as they slipped through the metal doors. He leant against the brushed steel wall, feeling tired and unsteady.

‘It’s evening,’ Napoleon replied, studying the buttons on the inside panel. There were six basement floors and as many above ground, so he pressed the G and the lift started upwards. ‘Maybe it’s dinner time. Sometimes they’re more careless in the evening than they are in the middle of the night.’

‘We cannot rely on that,’ Illya said grimly. His eyes turned to Elidh, who was still gripping the scalpel with a fierce, scared expression. ‘Don’t use that unless you have to,’ he warned her. ‘You have to get too close. It’d be too easy for them to turn it on you.’

‘Would you like it?’ she asked with half a smile.

‘No, thank you,’ he said. He glanced at Napoleon, admitting darkly, ‘I feel naked without a gun.’

‘Well, you’re too damaged a Russian to tote this thing,’ Napoleon replied, hefting the Thrush machine gun with a sympathetic glint in his eyes. ‘But I’ll see what I can do.’

The elevator doors slipped open onto a wide space with a number of Thrush personnel standing around. Illya’s heart jerked as he saw that there were doors to the outside just ten feet away. Napoleon didn’t wait, but fired instantly, sweeping the muzzle of the gun across the space and watching the bodies fall. Illya saw the closest man slump to the floor, twitching, and took the moment to relieve him of his handgun.

‘Sorry,’ he said with a wry smile, ‘but I don’t think you need it.’

‘Come on,’ Napoleon urged the others. ‘Out, out, out.’

Illya felt himself flagging, but Miss Jones noticed and grabbed his arm. ‘You’re all right?’

‘I’m all right,’ he nodded, gritting his teeth. As they pushed out through the clear doors gunfire erupted behind them, and he and Napoleon both threw themselves into rolls. After a moment’s hesitation, Miss Jones did the same, coming to rest in the bushes outside the door. Illya lay huddled on the ground, pain clenching through him after rolling over the broken arm.

‘Come on,’ Napoleon said urgently, grabbing at his arm.

It was obvious their trial was not over yet. Although it was evening it was quite light outside and they needed somewhere to hide. Some thirty yards away the place was surrounded by an eight foot wall which Illya had no hope of climbing in his condition. Napoleon cast another burst of shot back into the lobby behind them, and then dragged Illya relentlessly after him, away to the left and around a corner of the building where a thick, deep row of shrubs stood against the building. They pushed back through the bushes until they were hidden. Illya thanked whichever bit of hubris had prompted Thrush to go for landscaped gardens in this place instead of good, clear ground where no one could hide.

‘Gotta work out a way to get out of here,’ Solo muttered as they stood pressed against the wall. He risked a peek back around the corner, raised his gun, but didn’t fire. ‘They’re swarming out there,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t want to give away our position.’

‘They must have cars,’ Illya said, straining to see from their sheltered position. ‘They must have a gate...’

‘Yes, they must, but – ’

A man came pushing through the bushes, obviously searching, but looking in the wrong direction. Instinctively Illya made to chop him across the back of the neck, but he made the movement with his right arm. The man dropped instantly, his collar tangled in the metal frame around Illya’s arm, dragging Illya to his knees. He worked so hard to hold in his cry of pain that he almost vomited. His vision disintegrated to spots and patches, his ears singing, and mercifully the darkness took him.

‘...you okay, Illya? Illya?’

Napoleon’s hand was patting his cheek, and he gasped as he came back to consciousness. The pain in his arm was excruciating.

‘R-remind me never to do that again,’ he gasped.

‘If you give him some morphine will he be able to run?’ Napoleon asked someone else, and Miss Jones’s voice replied, ‘I can’t guarantee it.’

‘I can run, I can run,’ Illya insisted, forcing himself to sit, seeing that someone had disentangled his frame from the unconscious man’s clothes. He looked down at the arm, seeing that the fixator was decidedly bent, meaning the fractured bone was now bent too. The pain was so intense that he could barely breathe.

‘No, wait,’ Napoleon muttered. ‘This guy looks my size.’ His hands were already busily stripping the clothes from the man’s body and pulling off his own clothes. ‘Miss Jones, while I’m dressing, I need you to use my clothes to tie this guy up and gag him. I mean properly gag him. Stuff something in his mouth and tie it in. Best knots, okay?’

She smiled. ‘Mr Solo, I spent a large amount of my youth in the Girl Guides. When I wasn’t doing that I was sailing. I grew up on the Wirral.’

Illya leant back against the wall behind him, content to not have to take part in anything for the time being. He concentrated on trying to control the pain, on trying to push away the very deep biological instinct to let unconsciousness soothe everything away. If he did that it was likely he would never wake up again. Meanwhile Napoleon was getting into the Thrush uniform and Miss Jones was tearing his discarded shirt into strips and using it to tie up the unconscious sentry. He was pleased to see her stripping off the man’s socks and shoving both of them into his mouth before she tied a strip of shirt around mouth and nose. The man might be able to thrash about and grunt but he wouldn’t be shouting. He’d probably be concentrating on breathing.

‘All right,’ Napoleon nodded, adjusting his Thrush-regulation cap. ‘Shoes are a bit big, but how do I look?’

Illya smiled wryly. ‘Should I answer that? Like a typical Thrush blockhead.’

‘It’ll do for now. Ready to go?’

Illya nodded, and Napoleon put a hand under his arm to help him up. When he stood the world seemed to waver.

‘You sure you’re all right?’ Napoleon checked solicitously.

‘I am not all right, but we don’t have time for this,’ Illya grunted. ‘Come on. Maybe there are vehicles out back.’

‘All right then, come on,’ Solo nodded. He let Miss Jones take over support of Illya so he could usher them both out of the bush, his gun aimed at their backs and the suitcase in his free hand. Illya took a moment to tuck his own weapon into his waistband so it could not be seen.

Brazenly, they walked across the open ground outside the building. The search seemed to have moved on, but still, Illya felt the threat prickling at his back, and Miss Jones was trembling. He wanted to reassure her that it would be all right, but he couldn’t do that with a clean conscience. It was very likely they would all die.

‘Come on,’ Napoleon murmured impatiently, but Illya knew he was mostly talking to himself. They couldn’t possibly break into a run. That would be a sure way to be stopped.

‘There,’ Illya muttered suddenly, seeing a Land Rover parked on a gravel drive fifty yards away.

‘Perfect,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘Come on.’

They had to work hard at keeping their pace normal, but the gods seemed to be on their side. Illya could hear footsteps and shouting voices, but they were all on the other side of the building, Thrush efficiency working at its usual low grade. They were thirty yards from the vehicle, twenty yards, then ten. They were at the door and Napoleon pulled on the handle, but it was locked.

‘Damn,’ Napoleon muttered.

‘Smash it!’ Miss Jones hissed in a panicked voice, but Napoleon shook his head.

‘Don’t want to make that much noise. They’d come running,’ he said. He put the suitcase on the ground and opened it, beginning to rip piping from the edge of the lining. The piping proved to be slightly tacky, and he ran it around the edge of the window glass, sticking it on firmly. That done, he ripped a hole in another bit of the lining and slipped out a match.

‘Well, that was a special case,’ Miss Jones murmured admiringly, as Napoleon struck the match on the sole of his shoe, and then touched it to the piping on the window. A brilliant white light flared, and then raced along the piping like a fuse. Once the fire had run its course Napoleon tapped his fist against the pane of glass and it slipped inward as if it had been cut with a glass cutter. Napoleon caught it deftly before it hit the seat, and leant it up on the floor. Then he unlocked the door from inside.

‘Get in the back,’ Napoleon said urgently to the other two. ‘Looks like there’s a tarp or something in there. Come on.’

His heart beating so hard it hurt his broken ribs, Illya knelt onto the front seat and clambered over into the rear of the vehicle, moaning low in his throat as his injured arm caught again. As Napoleon had said, there was a tarpaulin covering a few crates in the back. He and Miss Jones slipped under the thing and lay between the crates in the smell of rubber and damp while Napoleon made sure they were covered. Despite the fear and the adrenalin, now that he had stopped Illya could feel himself slipping again. His arm hurt enough to force tears from his eyes. He let his head rest against the metal floor of the Land Rover and gritted his teeth, determined to stay conscious until this was over, one way or another.

10.

Napoleon made sure that the two in the back of the Land Rover were completely covered, then turned his attention back to the vehicle. He patted his breast pocket, checking that there were some kind of Thrush identification papers in there, then felt under the steering column before him, ripping out the ignition wires and touching them together so that the engine sparked into life. Quickly he got the thing into gear and pressed his foot down on the accelerator, taking the vehicle smoothly along the gravel drive at what felt like a painfully slow pace. But he didn’t know where he was going and he was afraid that any sign of haste would be like a red flag. He could see Thrush men now, milling about, guns held ready, and a strafe from any one of those guns would pierce the panelling of the Land Rover like hot lead through butter.

His eyes lit on a gap in the high wall that surrounded this place. The gravel drive led straight towards it. Biting his lip into his mouth for a moment, he continued smoothly on, creeping closer and closer to that promise of escape. There was a barrier down across the gap, but no locked gates, thank god. A sentry box stood near by, with a guard who looked to be on high alert standing just outside. As Napoleon drew up the man jerked his gun a little, and Napoleon rolled to a halt, keeping the engine idling. He touched his hand to his cap.

‘All right, mate,’ he said in his most passable attempt at an English accent. ‘Been sent out for supplies.’

‘No one leaves the compound after eight,’ the guard said suspiciously. ‘Especially not during an alert. Let me see your papers.’

‘Well, er, you know how Mr Fink likes his tea,’ Napoleon said smoothly, feeling in his pocket for the papers. ‘And he’s run out of milk.’

He handed the papers out towards the man, but he knew he wouldn’t pass close inspection. For a start, the man he had stolen them from had blond hair. Just before the man’s fingers touched the folded documents Napoleon dropped them.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ he said.

As the man bent, Napoleon shoved the car into reverse, backing off twenty yards before slamming it back into forward gear and screeching forwards, straight towards the guard who now had his gun raised. His body made a dull thunk as it hit the bonnet, and Napoleon slammed on through the barrier, smashing it apart as he accelerated onto the road beyond. He kept glancing in the rear view mirror, but there was no sign of pursuit as yet. As soon as there was a turning he sheered off onto a smaller lane, hoping they would assume that the escapees would have taken the most direct route possible.

There was noise in the back of the vehicle, and Illya and Miss Jones emerged from under the old tarpaulin.

‘I’m impressed, Mr Solo,’ Miss Jones said, grinning. Napoleon recognised that smile. He had seen it on agents’ faces many times after making an incredible and daring escape.

‘Don’t be impressed yet,’ he said cynically. ‘We’ve still got to get away – and I have no idea where we are. Do you recognise anything?’

She shuffled forward to peer out through the windscreen. ‘It’s nowhere I’ve been before,’ she shrugged.

Napoleon took another turning onto a slightly larger road that was banked with high hedges bursting with wild flowers. The rolling countryside seemed to be largely composed of small wheat fields – small to one used to American farmlands – separated by dark hedges and sporadic trees. There were no towns in sight.

‘Well, I’ll just keep driving,’ he murmured. ‘Does Illya need medical attention?’

‘I’m fine,’ Illya said from the back of the vehicle, sounding as if he were talking through gritted teeth.

‘Miss Jones?’ Napoleon asked.

‘He needs medical attention, but it’s not technically an emergency,’ she promised Napoleon. ‘His arm must hurt terribly, but if I can give him some – ’

‘I am not having any more morphine,’ Illya grated out. As if to prove himself he shuffled himself up from between the boxes and worked himself back through into the front seats. Napoleon slowed a little to let him sit down, then sped up again. He deliberately didn’t focus on his partner’s face, because it was sheet white and made him want to hold Illya down and inject the morphine himself.

‘We could do with finding a telephone,’ he commented.

Illya looked around bleakly at the empty countryside. ‘Good luck. Do you think the houses around here are even connected?’

Miss Jones scoffed. ‘You’re not in Outer Mongolia, gentlemen. I’m sure half of the farms have a telephone. They’d need one.’

‘Still, we’d be better finding a call box than involving more civilians,’ Napoleon muttered. ‘We’ve got half a tank of gas but I don’t know how far that’ll take us...’

As they continued on through the narrow lanes the light began to fade into something more like evening and Illya slumped more in his seat. Napoleon glanced at him in worry. His face was paler still, looking even more starkly so against the green-yellow mottle of the bruise down one side. He knew that Illya had suffered a hellish two weeks, with capture, torture, escape, capture again, surgery, drugged interrogation, and not nearly enough to eat. He had shed fat and some muscle, and looked just about done in.

‘Here, take a left,’ Miss Jones said eventually as they came up to a crossroads marked with a white and black signpost. ‘Kings Langley. That’ll do. There’s sure to be a phone box somewhere there.’

‘You know where we are?’ Napoleon asked, relief stealing through him.

‘Well, I’m not intimately familiar, but I recognise the name,’ she smiled. ‘We’re not too far out of London. Oh, look, there!’

Not far down the road was a layby, and in it was a red-painted telephone box. Napoleon pulled over and proffered his gun to Illya.

‘Can you manage this?’ he asked.

Illya grunted, and pulled the hand gun he’d acquired from his waistband. ‘Better with this,’ he said.

‘Okay, then keep watch,’ Napoleon told him. ‘I’m going to make a phone call.’

He took the machine gun with him just in case, and jumped out of the vehicle. Pulling open the heavy door of the call box he slipped inside and lifted the receiver. He had the operator connect him with U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in London, and felt a surge of relief when a polished English accent said, ‘U.N.C.L.E. London. How may I help you?’

Napoleon rested back against the glass in relief, trying to pull the name of the woman into his head. He was sure he recognised the voice from his time there looking for Illya. ‘Ah – Sylvia – it’s Napoleon Solo,’ he said smoothly.

‘Napoleon!’ she exclaimed, and he grinned. He must have got her name right, and he must have made his usual impression on her. ‘Where are you, Mr Solo?’

‘I – er – I’m not exactly sure,’ he said. ‘Somewhere close to – um – Kings Langley. We’ve just escaped from what seems to be a large Thrush base about ten miles north-west of here. They’ll be looking for us, and we need urgent extraction.’

‘We can trace your location from the call,’ the woman said swiftly. ‘Hold tight, and we’ll have someone with you very soon.’

‘Mr Kuryakin needs medical attention,’ Napoleon put in quickly. If they felt inclined to dawdle at all, hopefully that would speed them up. ‘We’ll be in a blue Land Rover, right next to the call box, licence plate – er – ’ He craned his neck to look out at the car, then reeled off the registration number. ‘If there are signs of any little birds sniffing about we’ll move on. Clear?’

‘Yes, that’s quite clear, Mr Solo,’ the cut-glass accent replied. ‘Hold tight if you can, and I’m sure we’ll get you out of there. We’ll send a helicopter.’

Napoleon breathed another sigh of relief as he put the phone down. He went back to resume his place in the driving seat of the car, ready to go at the first sign of trouble. He hoped there would be none. Illya looked completely exhausted, and although Napoleon had left him supposedly on guard, he was sitting with his eyes closed and his head resting against the window. It was only the tightness around his mouth that showed Napoleon that his partner was still conscious.

‘Miss Jones, that arm,’ he said tentatively.

She leant through from the back to look more closely at Illya’s arm. There was fresh blood seeping through the bandage over the surgery scar and blood where the pins went into his arm. The fact that the arm was no longer straight made it look all the more gruesome.

‘I don’t like the look of it, but it won’t kill him,’ she said quietly. ‘I’d be much happier if he’d take a painkiller but – but I understand why he doesn’t want one,’ she said clearly as one blue eye opened to look at her balefully. ‘No, Mr Kuryakin, I know that you want to be alert. I’m not going to slip you something against your will.’

‘You’d better not,’ Illya muttered.

‘On the one hand you’d have a peeved Russian on your hands,’ Napoleon said, ‘but on the other hand you’d also have a very sleepy Russian.’

Illya favoured him with the same kind of look he had given Miss Jones, and he ruffled the golden hair, before slipping his hand across Illya’s lap to take the Russian’s good left hand in his.

‘We’re going to get you out of this,’ he promised.

‘Well, you’re not doing too badly so far,’ Illya replied, opening both eyes now and favouring Napoleon with a wan smile. His eyes flicked to the rear-view mirror as a car came along the road. Napoleon tensed, but it moved smoothly past and away around the next corner. His eyes started to drift closed again and Napoleon assured him, ‘You relax, Illya. I can keep watch.’

‘Better with two,’ Illya murmured, dragging his eyes open again.

‘There are three,’ Miss Jones reminded him tartly.

Illya gave her a half smile. ‘Oh, yes, I forgot that you have been initiated into the ranks of those who have killed their first Thrush.’

‘Yes, well...’ Miss Jones looked down at her hands as if she were expecting to still see blood there. ‘I don’t exactly feel good about that. And I’m more than a little frightened about the consequences.’

‘There will be no legal consequences,’ Napoleon assured her. ‘U.N.C.L.E. will take care of that. I wouldn’t advise speaking of it to anyone outside the organisation, though.’

He glanced in the mirror again as another car approached, relaxed again as it drifted past.

‘Do you think they’ll catch up with us?’ Miss Jones asked, worried. ‘We’re a good way away now.’

‘Well, they weren’t following immediately behind but they’re almost certainly out looking for us,’ Napoleon said pensively. ‘We’re in one of their vehicles. It’s even possible there might be a tracking device in it. I guess we’re lucky they haven’t branded it with a big white thrush with their usual bravado, but I can’t say we’re home and dry until that ’copter’s landing beside us.’

He kept his eyes flicking between the mirrors and the front windscreen. He wanted nothing more than to succumb to tiredness but he was vibrantly aware of Illya next to him, struggling to remain alert against his own exhaustion and pain. No matter what Miss Jones said, he, Napoleon, was really the only able person in the car to look out for Thrush. They wouldn’t necessarily come skidding in with guns blazing. It was just as likely they’d send an anonymous looking man in a car who would draw alongside ostensibly to ask for directions, and would then either gun them down or take them captive again.

‘It must be time,’ Illya muttered, and Napoleon glanced at his drawn face. He saw Miss Jones casting her eyes to the suitcase with its doses of morphine, but she resisted reaching out for it, and Napoleon was glad. He hated the thought of withholding painkillers from Illya if she insisted they were really necessary, but he wanted Illya to stay alert.

There was a drubbing in the sky, a noise that gradually grew louder, and he sat up straight.

‘I think that’s it,’ he said, squeezing Illya’s hand. ‘Illya, I think that’s it. Do you hear?’

‘Sounds like an U.N.C.L.E. model,’ Illya murmured, opening eyes which had drifted closed again.

‘Yeah, I thought so. Let’s stay in the car though until they land, just in case.’

‘Coming closer,’ Illya said, seeming more alert now.

‘Yeah...’

Napoleon leant out of his window and looked up in the sky. The sun was lowering in the west and the east was growing dark, but he could see a speck against the sky.

‘Looks like the real thing,’ Napoleon said as the shape began to resolve. ‘Yeah, that’s it!’

The helicopter was closing rapidly now, beating down through the darkening sky to hover above the flattish wheat field just behind the layby. Napoleon flung open the door to the Land Rover and ran around to help Illya out while Miss Jones climbed out over the seats and followed them to the gate into the field. The wheat was flattened as the air blast of the rotors hit the field, and the helicopter set down on the golden crop.

‘Come on, let’s go!’ Napoleon grinned. ‘Keep down, Miss Jones.’

They ducked low beneath the wind from the rotors as the helicopter door was slid open. With more than a little relief Napoleon recognised the first face he saw, an agent named Hawking who was leaning out with an outstretched hand to help them in. They tumbled into the back and Illya collapsed onto one of the seats as the door was slammed closed. The helicopter rocked and lifted away from the ground.

Now will you take some morphine?’ Napoleon asked, kneeling close to Illya and shouting into his ear above the sound of the helicopter.

Now I will take some morphine,’ Illya said with great relief.

11.

The U.N.C.L.E. London infirmary was much like the New York one, although it was sited in an old building and there were windows that actually afforded a view of the street outside. The nurses and doctors had different accents but otherwise they were no different to the ones in New York, and they irritated Illya to an equal level. He had been barely conscious when he had been whisked into this place, but now, after a long surgery to repair the damage and replace the external fixator on his arm, he was far too conscious for his own good.

He had been awake for a few hours, and fussed over by far too many nurses, when Napoleon strode in, looking dapper again in a new suit, with his hair brushed and looking much refreshed.

‘You look much better than I feel,’ Illya complained. His mouth was dry and filled with a disgusting taste. ‘How long was I out? No one’s seen fit to tell me what the time is.’

‘It’s – uh – about ten,’ Napoleon smiled, casting a glance at his watch. He looked positively buoyant. ‘Long enough for me to have a sleep, a shower, and a shave. And since we’re talking about shaving, I think you could do with one too. You’re starting to look quite the swarthy little Russian.’

Illya rubbed his left hand over his chin. It was rough, but he hardly thought the ginger-gold hair that grew there could be described as swarthy.

‘Well, I haven’t exactly had the chance to visit the facilities,’ he grumbled. ‘Napoleon, could you get me some water?’

Napoleon came over to the bed, poured a cup of water, and slipped his hand under Illya’s head to help him raise it enough to drink.

‘I am not a total invalid,’ Illya murmured, but he felt grateful for the touch and for the drink.

‘Not a total invalid, no,’ Napoleon conceded, ‘but you’re my invalid.’

In this place they needed to be careful about showing too much open affection, but it was nothing new that partners in this kind of job tended to grow very close, so Napoleon was able to affectionately brush Illya’s fringe back from his forehead and to put his hand over his partner’s.

‘You’re going to be all right,’ he said with a warm smile.

‘Yes, I know that,’ Illya replied. He always felt irritable when he was stuck in a place like this. ‘But what about everything else, Napoleon? The Thrush base? Operation Old Masters? No one will tell me a thing.’

‘Ah, that’s still on the boil.’ Napoleon sat back in the visitor’s chair and crossed his legs. ‘Most of the London headquarters are working on it. We’re putting a plan in place to foil the National Gallery raid and agents will simultaneously raid the base outside of London. I managed to pinpoint it on a map after we got back. Their cover was that it’s a head office for some kind of geological survey company – the company doesn’t exist, of course, but everything in official records suggests that it does.’

‘Well, they are cunning little Thrushies, aren’t they?’ Illya asked with a twisted smile.

He tried to sit up in bed, and Napoleon immediately fussed around him, helping him up and readjusting his pillows. Illya was gratified that at least he wasn’t trying to make him stay completely horizontal.

‘They were cunning little Thrushies,’ Napoleon smiled. ‘But it’ll be over in a couple of days.’

‘Next Friday morning,’ Illya mused, looking down at his arm, which was supported by a new frame. ‘Hmm, I think our surgeon is better than theirs,’ he said approvingly.

‘No doubt,’ Solo agreed.

‘Well, maybe I’ll be on my feet in time, then,’ Illya grinned. ‘It’s almost a week, after all.’

Napoleon looked at him sternly. ‘Even with your own personal variety of stoic Russian superpower, you can’t heal a break like that in a week,’ he told Illya firmly.

Illya shrugged that off. ‘No, but the rest of it...’

‘Beating, starvation – all that rest of it?’ Napoleon asked archly.

‘All that rest of it,’ Illya nodded. He had no intention of being out of the end of this mission.

‘Well, maybe you can come along if you promise to stay in the car,’ Napoleon grinned.

‘And what about Miss Jones?’ Illya asked, suddenly remembering the English nurse.

‘She’s spent a good long time in debriefing,’ Napoleon told him. ‘You know U.N.C.L.E. London are recruiting. She’s actually considering it.’

Illya pursed his lips. ‘She’s getting a little old for active duty, isn’t she? She’s not exactly a twenty year old just out of university.’

Napoleon snorted. ‘I don’t like to think what that says about us. We’re only ten years or so behind. But anyway, there are places here in the infirmary, so you never know, come next week she might be the one emptying your bedpan.’

Illya made an expression of disgust. ‘I don’t aim to provide anyone with bedpans that need emptying,’ he said. ‘I am quite capable of walking.’

Napoleon grinned. ‘I know that. Actually, the doctor says you can leave in the next couple of hours, as long as there’s someone at home to look after you.’

‘To – look after me?’ Illya asked in an icy voice.

‘To look after you,’ Napoleon nodded firmly. ‘You need someone with you while the anaesthetic is wearing off. Come on, Illya, you’ve done this often enough.’

‘Well, I should be grateful that I get to leave, I suppose,’ Illya muttered.

‘Yes, you should be a very grateful Russian,’ Napoleon agreed heartily. He lowered his voice. ‘Anyway, are you dismayed at the idea of spending time with me in a rather luxuriously appointed London hotel room?’

Illya’s eyes lit up. ‘Even the most terribly appointed hotel room tends to have a bed.’

‘That it does, tovarisch,’ Napoleon grinned. ‘That it does.’

‘Though it does seem a shame to think of getting you out of those clothes.’ The Russian reached out to feel the fabric of Napoleon’s jacket. ‘Saville Row, of course?’

Napoleon flicked a non-existent speck of dust from his lapel. ‘Of course. You wouldn’t expect me to not take advantage while I’m here.’

‘Of course,’ Illya echoed dryly. ‘Well, it may be exceedingly bourgeois, but it looks fine.

Napoleon grinned widely.

((O))

It did not take long for Illya to persuade the doctors that he would be perfectly fine to leave the infirmary, as long as he was left under Napoleon’s care. The speed with which the Russian got into his clothes and out of the hospital was very familiar to his American partner, although he was frustrated by the difficulties again of getting clothes on around the frame on his arm. He had to settle for another shirt with a ruined sleeve and a split down the side that was pinned with a safety pin once the shirt was on. At least it was warm enough that he needed no jacket, and Napoleon couldn’t say he entirely disapproved of the sight of Illya’s muscled and unhurt upper arm, or the flashes of sleek nude torso that he got through the split in the shirt side.

The pair got into a black London taxi which deposited them after a few minutes outside a hotel with an impressive façade. Napoleon gave a jovial salute to the doorman, who looked a little startled at Illya’s bruised and battered appearance, and ushered the Russian in through the door.

‘Are you putting this one on Mr Waverly’s tab?’ Illya asked, arching his eyebrows as he looked around the vast lobby with its crystal chandeliers.

Napoleon grinned. ‘I promised him I’d pay the excess,’ he confessed. ‘He would have had me stay in Mrs Miggins’ Guest House or somewhere equally horrifying. I’ve been somewhere else up to now, but I thought we both deserved this after our stay with Mr Fink.’

‘Yes, and my stay with his lackeys before that,’ Illya muttered darkly.

Together they walked to the elevator and took it up to the third floor, where Napoleon opened the door onto a suite that looked as if it had been decorated for George III. The place was glittering with cut glass and gilt, and rich with damask.

‘How does this chime with your Soviet ideals, comrade?’ Napoleon asked with a grin.

Illya gave him a withering look, then elbowed past him into the room, looking around with a great show of impassivity.

‘Where is the bedroom?’ he asked.

‘As long as there’s a bed and a light bulb in the fitting,’ Napoleon sighed in mock hurt. ‘I could have just found an attic somewhere and dragged a mattress into it, couldn’t I?’

For all of his affected indifference, Illya could not hide the gleam in his eyes as he opened the bedroom door to reveal the massive, lavish bed.

‘Oh, Napoleon, it has been too long,’ he said with great feeling.

He began to unbutton his shirt with his left hand, fumbling in his impatience. Napoleon came over to him with a grin, reaching his arms around the slim body from behind and slipping the buttons through their holes. As Illya stripped away the shirt and Napoleon helped ease it over the frame on his arm, he let his eyes feast on the body before him with a mixture of delight and pain. Illya’s wrists were still scabbed from the rope wounds from being left hanging for a week. His back and chest alike were streaked with healing welts, scabbed lacerations, and burns, and coloured with a storm of fading bruises. He was thinner than he had been when Napoleon had bedded him the night before he left New York. His spine stood out like beads and his collarbones were hard lines. But his body was beautiful, perhaps a little too slim right now, but toned and clean, the light shining from planes of muscles and limbs as if Illya were gilt too. In the time he had been captive his hair had grown a little longer, just a little; perhaps he had been due for a cut just before he was captured. The gold of his hair under the room’s lights reminded Napoleon of the colour of the wheat fields of Hertfordshire beneath the setting sun, and he wanted nothing more than to run his fingers through the blond strands. He looked forward to the thought of getting his partner into the bath and massaging shampoo into his scalp. Illya could never resist a scalp massage.

‘Napoleon, are you with me?’ Illya asked, and he realised he had been standing transfixed.

‘Oh, I am more than with you,’ he said earnestly. He sat down on the edge of the bed and hiked one ankle up onto his knee.

‘Aren’t you getting undressed?’ Illya asked archly.

‘There’s world enough, and time.’

Illya harrumphed. ‘I see I am nothing but a floor show.’

‘But a very good one.’

Napoleon grinned, and sat patiently waiting. After a moment Illya shook his head, stripped off shoes and socks, and proceeded to unbutton and unzip his trousers one handed. Pausing, he looked at Napoleon again.

‘You’re not going to help?’

‘Oh, I think you’ve got this.’

Illya shook his head in mock disgust, but Napoleon noticed that he positioned himself just right so that as he awkwardly pushed trousers and underpants down together his toned rear was nicely angled towards his lover. Napoleon hissed in breath as Illya bent and he caught a glimpse of the soft swinging sac between his legs.

‘Oh, you kill me,’ he groaned.

‘Then get your damn clothes off and join me!’ Illya growled in return.

‘You are a hasty, impatient, greedy Russian,’ Napoleon grinned, but he didn’t tarry in peeling off his own exquisite Saville Row suit and dropping it in a crumpled heap on the floor. He saw the light shine in Illya’s eyes as he revealed his own well-conditioned body, but he only had eyes for Illya.

‘Lie down,’ he said in a husky voice, and miraculously Illya obeyed, spreading himself languidly across the covers on a bed so huge that it made him look small and fragile. The smile on his face had an endearing hint of shyness. Napoleon caught his breath at the sight, at pale skin and rose-coloured nipples, at the trace of darker hair leading across the taut abdomen from the dimpled navel, down to a full blush of gold-brown about the soft cock.

‘Oh god, Illya,’ he murmured, reaching out a hand. He almost felt hesitant to touch, there were so many bruises on that slim body. Even the muscled legs with their down of golden hair were marked with green-yellow clouds of bruising.

‘You won’t hurt me,’ Illya promised him, fixing sapphire blue eyes on Napoleon’s. ‘I promise.’

Napoleon bit his lip into his mouth. For all of Illya’s promises, he knew he would hurt him, couldn’t fail to hurt him.

‘Napoleon,’ Illya said rather more firmly. ‘They gave me some pretty good drugs in the infirmary. It will be all right.’ At Napoleon’s further hesitation he said in a growl, ‘Napoleon, I swear to god, if you don’t do something about this I will flip on on the bed and have you my way.’

‘About – ’ Napoleon’s eyes tracked back to his lover’s groin and saw that while he had been prevaricating the soft organ had filled with blood, and was now standing proud and yearning up from the Russian’s body. ‘Oh, god...’ he murmured.

He didn’t argue with the fact that Illya thought he was capable of flipping his heavier partner despite a broken arm and a host of other injuries. He didn’t care. He knelt between the Russian’s spread thighs and tracked kisses across his neck and down his torso, taking as much care to set them between the bruises as if he were treading through a minefield. Illya let loose a tiny gasp, writhing a little under his lover’s hot lips.

Finally Napoleon bent to the column of flesh as if he were worshipping a god. Taking Illya in his mouth, he was gratified to hear his lover groan aloud. He sucked the hot flesh in as far as he could, until the tip was butting against the back of his throat and Illya was writhing again. He took the tight, soft balls in his hand, stroking fingertips over the ridged skin, feeling it crawl beneath his touch and knowing the reaction was all for him. He withdrew his mouth, exposing the veined, now glistening cock, slipping back the soft foreskin to reveal the silken head beneath. As he tongued the flaring head Illya groaned again, thrusting forwards, and he swallowed him again, sharing the pressure between hand and mouth as he sucked his lover towards crescendo. With one hand on the Russian’s abdomen he felt all of his muscles tighten as he neared his blistering climax. As Illya’s hot seed exploded into his mouth he swallowed and swallowed again, warmed through with the knowledge that he and he alone had brought the icy Russian to a point of nerveless ecstasy.

‘Oh god...’ Illya murmured, his eyes closed, his voice almost gone.

Napoleon waited until the organ wilted from his mouth, then moved his head up to lie with his cheek against the Russian’s soft abdomen, just looking at him, one hand over Illya’s damp and now flaccid genitals, loving the feel of their soft warmth under his palm. Illya’s cheeks were flushed and eyes glazed as if he had a fever. His hair was wild on the pillow, his good arm flung behind his head and his injured one thrust out at right angles to his body, resting on the soft counterpane. Napoleon grinned, tracing his fingertips over the uninjured parts of his lover’s torso, few that they were.

‘That good, huh?’

Illya’s smile could light up rooms, and when it was directed at one person alone it felt like a supernova. The smile was answer enough.

‘God, I need you,’ Napoleon murmured. His own cock was rock hard against the bed, and the counterpane felt unbearably rough compared to what he knew was waiting for him within his lover’s body. He positioned himself between Illya’s thighs again, lowering his head again, this time concentrating the lapping of his tongue on the broad perineum until Illya fingers laced through his hair and gripped it tight.

‘You torment me,’ Illya muttered darkly.

Napoleon reached out for the oil on the bedside table and dropped some into his palm. He let it warm there, then gently let it trickle down between the Russian’s legs until it found the pucker below. Illya writhed on the bedclothes.

‘Impatient,’ Napoleon tutted.

‘You are a tease,’ Illya gritted out.

Napoleon looked up from between his lover’s legs. ‘Shush. You’re an invalid. Just lie still and let me – look after you.’

He trickled more oil onto his hand and slipped one finger through the puckered muscle, deep into the heat of Illya’s body. The Russian groaned, impaling himself further as Napoleon stretched the hot cavity, adding a second finger, then a third. Too impatient to wait any longer he withdrew, slicking the oil now over his aching erection, and he positioned himself between the Russian’s thighs. Softly he pushed through the ring of muscle, and Illya groaned again as Napoleon filled him, burying himself to the pelvis inside the tightness of Illya’s body. Napoleon smiled. It felt so good to be home.

‘Napoleon, stop daydreaming and just – fuck me,’ Illya gasped out, his need illustrated vividly by the rare use of such a coarse word.

Napoleon’s smile became a grin. ‘It will be my pleasure, my gorgeous, beautiful, darling Russian,’ he promised.

Leaning forward over his lover’s body he pressed his lips against Illya’s, plunging his tongue into his mouth as he withdrew and plunged his cock back into his body again.

‘Oh god, I love you,’ he murmured, nipping at Illya’s ear, his neck, lapping at him as he continued to thrust over and over into his hot, waiting body. As he glided over the Russian’s prostate Illya almost cried out aloud, and then grabbed the pillow to press it over his own face and stop himself from making too much noise. What they were doing was a crime.

Napoleon focussed on the hard nubs of the nipples, on the flung back arms and the dusky swirls of hair in the hollows of his armpits. All the while he kept on with the regular, smooth plunge and withdrawal between the Russian’s legs, playing him until he knew Illya was biting down on the pillow to prevent himself from screaming. As he felt himself coming to the edge everything else faded away, and all he was conscious of was the Russian’s beautiful, lithe body beneath him, the heat of him around him, and then he was exploding, jerking his seed into Illya’s body, biting his mouth against his own arm to stop himself from crying out aloud.

‘Jesus, Illya,’ he murmured when he could finally speak.

Illya made a muffled noise, and then batted the pillow away from his face, so that it thudded lightly to the floor. Suddenly remembering his lover’s many injuries, Napoleon rolled off him and came to lie beside him, his head on the Russian’s shoulder, lips against his skin.

‘You are beautiful, Illyusha,’ he murmured.

Illya’s left hand drifted through his sweaty hair. He seemed to be wordless, bereft of all power except to move that one hand. His breath was coming in short, soft gasps.

‘Illya, are you okay?’ Napoleon asked anxiously.

‘Oh, yes,’ Illya murmured, turning beautiful blue eyes to his lover. ‘Oh, yes… Tired… but okay...’

Napoleon was suddenly riven with guilt.

‘Oh god, oh god, your ribs – and you’re only just out of surgery,’ he muttered, pulling away and getting to all fours on the bed. ‘What the hell was I thinking?’

‘Napoleon,’ Illya said, then repeated a little more firmly, ‘Napoleon,’ when his partner did not respond. ‘I asked you for this. I wanted this. I do not care how tired I am.’

Napoleon met his eyes anxiously, and Illya nodded.

‘I promise,’ the Russian said.

Napoleon lowered his mouth to leave a gentle kiss on his lover’s lips, then said firmly, ‘Stay there. I’ll be right back.’

He disappeared into the en suite and returned with a warm, damp flannel, which he used to wipe the glistening sweat from his lover’s body and carefully wash between his legs. Illya lay still, his eyes drifting open and closed, watching Napoleon lazily as he kissed him again and then went back into the bathroom to wash out the cloth. He returned with an oversized white towel, which he laid gently over Illya’s now cooling body, and then came back to snuggle alongside him.

‘Is that okay?’ he asked. ‘Need any painkillers? Are your ribs okay? Your arm?’

‘My arm was hardly involved,’ Illya assured him with a wry smile, ‘but it’s best not to ask about my ribs.’

Napoleon stroked a hand down his cheek, but he knew he would only annoy Illya by voicing continued concerns about his health, so he simply rested his head back on Illya’s shoulder and grunted in satisfaction about the perfection of his position.

‘I may fall asleep,’ Illya warned him, bringing his hand up to lightly stroke his lover’s hair.

‘On a lover’s lips I slept, dreaming like a love-adept in the sound his breathing kept...’ Napoleon murmured.

‘You are misquoting Shelley there,’ Illya replied sleepily.

‘I don’t care,’ Napoleon smiled. ‘I’m just glad you’re here so I can misquote it at you.’

12.

[A.N. I don’t have intimate knowledge of the various ways into the National Gallery, despite visiting many times. I’ve never planned a raid on it. But this is all fiction, after all.]

Some time later Illya awoke, feeling stiff and sore and confused. It took him a moment to remember where he was, lying stretched out on a luxurious bed covered with a thick white towel. Napoleon had rolled away from him in his sleep and was curled naked on the other side of the bed, an appealingly vulnerable sight with his arms pillowing his head and his dark hair disarrayed. Illya lay there for a moment just looking at him, indulging in the pleasure of having nowhere to go, no reason to wake his sleeping lover. Then he stretched, and caught in breath as his ribs protested.

‘Damn,’ he murmured.

He had suffered broken ribs before, and he knew that they took time to heal, but still every time he woke he hoped that the pain would have magically gone away. It was not the pain that bothered him so much; it was the knowledge that if he did anything too foolish he would risk aggravating the breaks, risk a punctured lung if one of them decided to give and turn inwards. He would just have to keep taking care for now, and he hated to have to spend time giving consideration to his body. He liked it to just work, without thought or concern.

He moved softly off the bed, gathered up trousers and underpants, and padded into the other room, closing the door silently behind him. There was no need to disturb Napoleon. He probably needed the sleep, considering all that he had been through the day before.

He pulled on his underwear and trousers and sat in a deep wingback chair near the window. The street below was busy with traffic, cars largely in black, greys, and green moving along with beetle-black taxis and the occasional brilliantly red London bus. New York cabs imparted a lot of colour to the city, but Illya rather liked the quiet and unassuming nature of British traffic. The buses just livened it all up a bit.

Always the agent, he took a moment to scan the pavements on either side of the road, checking out the pedestrians, craning his neck to see the telephone boxes a bit further down, then looking up to inspect each window in the façade opposite. He saw nothing of which to be suspicious, and relaxed. At that moment his stomach gave an almighty grumble, and he remembered the single slice of toast he had been given that morning.

Picking up the phone, he called room service and ordered eggs benedict and a full English breakfast, dismissing the man’s quibbles that it was far past noon with his best uncompromising Russian growl. He was tucking in when Napoleon emerged from the bedroom, wearing nothing more than the white towel under which Illya had slept.

‘Ah, you ordered us breakfast – lunch? – brunch?’ he faltered, trying to gauge the time by looking at the light through the windows.

Illya looked up from the eggs benedict. He was halfway through the second poached egg. He raised his eyebrows.

‘I ordered myself breakfast – or lunch,’ he clarified. ‘You were asleep.’

‘Then – uh – that’s not – ’ Napoleon waved his hand towards the full plate of fried bread, bacon, eggs, sausage, black pudding, baked beans, and mushrooms.

Illya brushed the crumbs from his mouth and pushed the empty eggs benedict plate aside, drawing the other plate closer in its place. ‘This is mine,’ he said firmly. ‘But the telephone is right there. They’re quite prompt in their service.’

Napoleon shook his head, and expression of disbelief on his face. ‘You’re unbelievable,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand how you can pack away that much food. You’re not even – ’

‘I’m not even what?’ Illya asked, looking up with a sausage on his fork.

Napoleon grimaced. ‘You’re not even a big man, Illya. I’m not the tallest, and you’re smaller than me. Where do you put it all, for goodness sake?’

‘Oh, I have room,’ Illya said unconcernedly. He pushed half a sausage into his mouth, and sat there chewing. ‘Besides, I work it off,’ he added once his mouth was empty, ‘and they barely feed you in hospital.’

‘They usually give enough food for mere mortals,’ Napoleon harrumphed. He picked up the telephone and was halfway through ordering a Caesar salad and a pot of coffee when Illya poked his arm and said through a mouthful of mushrooms, ‘Tea.’

‘Huh?’ Napoleon asked. Into the phone he said, ‘Yeah, just hold a moment, would you?’ then to Illya, ‘What was that?’

‘Tea,’ Illya said more clearly. ‘I neglected to order tea.’

Napoleon sighed. He put the receiver back to his mouth and said, ‘Yeah, could we get a pot of tea with that too? English breakfast? No, do you have – er – Russian caravan? Ah, okay. Thank you, that would be fine.’

Grinning, he put the phone down and met Illya’s eyes. ‘I am quite happy with English breakfast,’ Illya said. ‘In fact, it is my favourite. You know this.’

Napoleon laughed. ‘I do know this,’ he acknowledged. ‘I thought you might like something from the homeland, though. But don’t worry, my little Russian rose. They didn’t have anything Russian. You’ll have to make do with the English breakfast. It’ll go well with what’s on your plate.’

‘You delight in tormenting me,’ Illya complained.

‘Why yes, I do,’ Napoleon grinned. He had the spark in his eye that Illya knew by now to associate with carnal satisfaction. He had often seen Napoleon come in to work with that spark in his eye and spring in his step. He was eternally grateful that now that buoyant mood was exclusively bound up with himself. Napoleon might still flirt with everyone he came across, but he was never unfaithful.

‘You go on, eat,’ Napoleon said cheerfully, waving his hand at Illya’s half-finished plate. ‘I’ll enjoy my salad just as much, I’m sure.’

Illya looked up at him, and grinned. The relief that they both felt was a wonderful feeling. He wondered if they would ever be able to leave behind this life they led. He did not court torture; he did not court capture; but nothing could compare to the adrenalin burst of beating the odds, and the sense of exhilaration of being safe again when everything was over. Part of the reason why he was so hungry now was because for now it was over. For now they were safe.

Napoleon was pouting again, and Illya reached out to touch a finger to his lips.

‘If you’re not careful they’ll stay like that,’ he warned. ‘Are you jealous Napoleon, really, at my capacity to eat?’

‘Well, I would like to be able to sink a cheeseburger and fries on occasion without it going straight to my hips,’ the American said a little sulkily.

‘I think your hips are perfect,’ Illya promised him, replacing his finger with a soft brush of his lips. ‘And I think that is your food,’ he said as there was a subtle knock at the door. He looked at Napoleon, with only the towel around his waist. ‘Would you like me to get it?’

‘If you would,’ Napoleon conceded. He retreated into the bedroom as Illya went to the door and received the wheeled cart into the room.

‘It’s safe,’ Illya called once the door was closed.

Napoleon reappeared, pulling on underwear and carrying his trousers and a shirt over his arm. For a moment Illya felt unbearably sad. He was tired of having to hide this, of always having to pretend to be two bachelors sharing, of having to pretend that his love for Napoleon was merely platonic. It wasn’t fair. Men and women could walk down the street arm in arm, they could kiss in public. It didn’t even matter if they were married or not. A married man could walk down the street with his mistress on his arm and no one would know, but if he and Napoleon walked down the street like that people would mutter and stare, he would hear the words fag and queer dropping from disgusted lips, and they would risk ending up in a police cell.

‘Hey. You all right?’ Napoleon asked, pressing a hand to Illya’s shoulder.

Illya gave him a smile, then turned to pour a stream of rich, dark tea into one of the waiting cups.

‘I’m perfect, Napoleon,’ he replied, and Napoleon believed him.

((O))

Illya had found his own his own niche in the labs in U.N.C.L.E. London, and that was where Napoleon found him the next day, after waking up distressingly alone in their luxurious hotel bed. Illya had left a note on the nightstand, brief and to the point as usual. Gone to London HQ. There had not even been a kiss, but then they were very careful about that kind of thing. Write nothing down, leave nothing behind, nothing that could be used to incriminate them. Even the hotel suite had two beds; it was just that they only used one of them, and rumpled the sheets on the other to make it look slept in.

‘You could have woken me, you know,’ Napoleon complained when he lighted on the Russian, seated comfortably on a high stool at one of the lab benches, wearing slightly tinted glasses to correct his long sight and peering at something in his hand. Illya was wearing another butchered white shirt because of his arm, but had attempted smartness with one of his typical skinny black ties.

‘But you looked so peaceful, sleeping,’ Illya said with his customary hint of sarcasm, and no one else in the lab would have guessed that he meant it from his heart.

‘How long’ve you been here?’ Napoleon asked, wandering over to see what his partner was working on.

‘Oh, a few hours,’ Illya said distractedly. ‘I’m working on your watch.’

Napoleon grinned. Even with only his left hand really functional – he could use his right a little now, but stiffly – Illya was working on replacing the gadgets that had been stripped from them on their capture. Both men hated to be left with nothing up their sleeves, and Napoleon might have known that Illya wouldn’t trust to job to some English guy they’d never met.

‘The shoes are already done,’ Illya added, nodding towards a pair of polished black shoes standing together on the bench. ‘All the usual equipment.’

Napoleon picked up one of the shoes and turned it over, flipping open the heel and looking at the gadgets neatly tucked inside.

‘Well, aren’t you a regular little elf? he asked with a smile.

‘Here, can you hold this?’ Illya asked, nodding at the watch, and Napoleon steadied it while Illya made an adjustment to something he was fitting over the workings inside. ‘It’s a blade,’ he explained. ‘The detonator’s on the other side this time. I don’t think I can work on cuff links with my arm like this. Too small. I wanted to make sure you’ve got a blade somewhere, at least.’

‘You are doing the same for yourself?’ Napoleon checked.

‘I will do,’ Illya nodded, ‘but you’re more likely to be active over the next few days.’

Napoleon laughed. ‘Like this is inactive?’

Illya looked up at him, putting the watch down on the bench. ‘This is safe, Napoleon. No one is going to grab me here.’

‘No one’s going to grab you anywhere if I can help it,’ Napoleon said darkly.

‘Our personal alert status is back down to normal,’ Illya shrugged. ‘Command think that they won’t try anything out of the ordinary now I’ve been through Thrush interrogation. They got what they wanted to know, or at least they think they did.’

‘It’s nice to think you’re moderately safe from little Thrushy claws,’ Napoleon said, laying his hand on Illya’s shoulder for just a moment longer than he would with a simple friend. Every time Illya was taken by Thrush he felt as if his heart grew a little more fragile.

As Illya looked up at him questioningly he realised the touch had gone on a little too long for the monitored environs in which they were now. He dropped his hand quickly, and smiled.

‘Well, I was planning on going upstairs and working through the details for the National Gallery raid. Of course all the organisation is falling to the local head, but he wants us in on it. Did you know they’ve got Elidh Jones in too?’

Illya’s head jerked up again. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah, just looking through catalogues of mugshots to see if she can pinpoint anyone from the Thrush base or our capture. I know we’ve both already been through them, but the more confirmations the better. It might help us in our observations around the Gallery. There’s bound to be some of them there now, prepping for the raid.’

‘Well, I’m almost done here,’ Illya muttered. ‘I can only do so much and then my hand starts cramping.’

‘Your right hand?’

He nodded.

‘Well that’s because you shouldn’t be using it,’ Napoleon chided him, batting at the back of his head lightly. ‘Bad Russian.’

Illya muttered something in that very language, something Napoleon did not catch and decided he didn’t want to have translated. Instead he escorted Illya upstairs, dropping into the small interview suite on the way up to see if Miss Jones had finished looking at the mugshots.

‘Illya!’ she said brightly, as the two looked round the door. ‘Oh yes, I’m quite finished here,’ she nodded at Napoleon’s query.

‘Then would you like to join us for lunch?’ Illya asked in his most gallant way.

Napoleon shot him a startled look. ‘Illya’s it’s only half past eleven.’

‘Well, we’re going to be working the rest of the day,’ Illya shrugged, ‘and unlike you, Napoleon, I have been here since seven.’

‘Since you’re technically on sick leave, you only have yourself to blame,’ Napoleon pointed out, but he didn’t argue further as Illya turned down the corridor to the cafeteria. They grabbed three trays of food and sat down at a table to eat. Illya poked pensively at the gold patterns in the blue formica with his fork while he studied a sheaf of papers he had brought along.

‘And I thought you were the one who was hungry?’ Napoleon asked, exchanging a glance with Miss Jones. She smiled and shrugged.

Illya looked up. ‘Oh, I am sorry, Miss Jones,’ he said, much more courteously than he would have spoken to Napoleon if he had been the only one there. ‘I was studying the plans of the gallery. We still don’t know how they’re going to get in.’

Napoleon turned the plans towards him to take a look. ‘There’re plenty of side doors,’ he murmured, ‘back doors behind the scenes and so on...’

‘But weren’t they going to put the whole area out with gas?’ Miss Jones asked transparently, looking between both men.

‘Yeah,’ Napoleon muttered, staring at the plan.

‘Well, I’d just go straight in the front door,’ she shrugged.

‘Steps,’ Illya muttered. ‘Look, there are plenty of steps leading up from Trafalgar Square to the main entrance. Would you want to walk down them with priceless artworks?’

‘All right,’ Napoleon murmured, ‘so somewhere that’s easy to access from the street.’

‘Look, here,’ Illya nodded, pointing. ‘Orange Street. That looks the most likely to me. There’s room for trucks to pull up, they can take everything out this door here...’

Miss Jones was staring down at the plans herself. ‘It’s a big, big place,’ she said, ‘and they’re not short on manpower themselves, are they? I suppose it’s possible they could use more than one entrance.’

Illya rubbed a hand over his forehead, nodding tiredly. Napoleon noticed his sudden languor, and tapped Elidh on the arm.

‘Miss Jones, I think we’re in a need of a professional opinion,’ he murmured, nodding his head towards his partner.

She looked at Illya critically. His cheeks had lost all of their colour and he looked exhausted.

‘How long did you say you’d been here for, Illya?’ she asked him in an uncompromising tone.

He looked up, startled. ‘Oh – I came in about seven,’ he replied, looking between the nurse and Napoleon. ‘I am absolutely fine, I assure you,’ he added, catching on to the meaning behind their looks.

‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on,’ Elidh said grimly. ‘You have cracked ribs and a broken arm, not to mention all the other injuries. You only came out of your second surgery for it yesterday.’

Illya looked more indignant still. ‘I am fine.’

‘Do they have a room where people can rest here, Mr Solo?’ Elidh asked.

‘Uh – I’m not sure,’ Napoleon said. He had never needed to use one, and so had never found out. ‘I’m sure there’s space in the infirmary if necessary,’ he added, his voice hardening.

Illya’s eyes widened. ‘Napoleon, you wouldn’t!’

Napoleon only grinned at his partner. ‘Oh, I would,’ he countered. ‘I’ll tell you what, Illya. Technically I’m your senior here and I can exclude you from the National Gallery operation if I want to. I don’t really want to. I’d at least like to have you on hand in one of the cars. But that’s dependent on you getting enough rest between then and now and not running yourself into the ground. So you go back to the hotel like a good little Russian, huh, and I’ll see you this evening. Okay.’ He did not phrase it as a question. ‘Miss Jones, will you take him?’

Take me?’ Illya asked, his voice rising with outraged indignation.

‘I’ll take him,’ Miss Jones nodded. ‘Come on, Illya.’ At his mutinous look she added, ‘Do me the favour of letting me be seen strolling through London with an extremely handsome man, won’t you? It’s been a while.’

At that, Illya looked momentarily confused, but then he seemed to soften, although he looked daggers at Napoleon as he got to his feet.

‘I’ll speak with you later, Napoleon,’ he said in a meaningful tone.

‘Yes, you will, tovarisch,’ Napoleon said lightly, unconcerned. Illya’s bark, with him at least, was far, far worse than his bite. ‘And I hope you will have had a sleep, so you’ll have plenty of energy for that chat.’

13.

‘Let’s take a stroll through Trafalgar Square,’ Elidh said on impulse as they exited the small retail establishment that was the front for the entrance to U.N.C.L.E. London. ‘It’s on the way – it makes no odds whether we go that way or the other back to the hotel.’

Illya quirked a look at her. ‘I expected you to insist on a cab,’ he confessed.

She grinned. ‘I thought of that. I expected you to refuse. I don’t see the harm in a gentle walk as long as you rest afterwards. And I mean that. Your body was put through a lot, Illya, not to mention to two surgeries you’ve been through. You need to take care of it.’

‘Hmm,’ Illya muttered.

She was right. He would have refused a cab. Just being out of the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the London headquarters and out in the fresh air and sunshine was helping the aching tiredness.

Elidh looped her right arm through his left, and turned him to the right onto Charing Cross Road, where the pavement was thronged with pedestrians making the most of the glorious sun.

‘Watch that arm,’ she warned him, and Illya gave her a look implying that was an unnecessary instruction.

‘Hey, watch it. What do you think you are? A blond Beatle?’ a police officer asked as they nudged past him. ‘Ruddy beatniks...’

Illya made as if to tip an imaginary cap, then flashed his U.N.C.L.E. ID at the man, and he flushed, backing off immediately.

‘Well, that’s useful,’ Elidh said, impressed.

‘It can be,’ Illya shrugged.

She regarded him as they walked. She had not quite understood the ridiculous fuss about those four boys from Liverpool and the raucous music they made, but she could quite understand the attraction of the look, the slightly over-long hair and the ever-so-smart clothing. She had found herself gazing more than once at pictures of John in the record shops, and now she had a rather beautiful young specimen on her own arm. It was more than obvious to her that Illya was quite taken, and that she was hardly his type anyway, but it had been true what she had said to Mr Solo. It did feel good for her ego to be seen with someone like Illya; trim, mysterious, sleekly strong, and extremely good looking.

‘I’m not sure I want to ask the meaning behind that look,’ Illya commented, and she flushed, realising that she had been simply gazing at him without saying a word.

She patted his arm. ‘Allow me a moment of fantasy, Illya,’ she smiled. ‘My biological clock is ticking, after all. I’ve never really given myself to much but nursing.’

‘But you are considering an application to U.N.C.L.E.?’ he asked her.

‘That I am,’ she sighed. ‘Not in search of a handsome young spy, I must add, but I’d be lying if that wasn’t a side benefit.’

‘You might be better looking for someone who works internally,’ Illya said, taking her words very seriously. ‘Being an active agent hardly allows for personal relationships.’

‘Unless – ’ she began softly, but she saw colour flush into the Russian’s fair cheeks, and understood that this was a subject he did not want to broach. ‘There,’ she said as Trafalgar Square opened up before them, and Illya seemed relieved at the change of subject.

Flocks of pigeons were rising and settling around tourists who were throwing breadcrumbs to encourage the pests. There were a number of policemen on duty, who mostly seemed to be employed in shouting at small boys who tried to mount the lions that stood around the base of Nelson’s Column. Meanwhile the fountains disgorged water which sparkled in the summer sunlight, traffic moved slowly on the roads ringing the square, and there was an air of happy chaos to the place.

Illya looked uneasy at the large crowds.

‘It’s good they’re planning their raid at night,’ he muttered. ‘Too many innocents.’

‘Would they kill?’ Elidh asked.

He met her eyes. ‘In a heartbeat,’ he nodded. ‘What do Thrush care for happy families, for workers on their lunch breaks? Yes, they would kill.’

‘And the guards in there at night?’

‘They’ll be our men,’ Illya murmured, looking around first to be sure that no one was listening.

They sat down on the edge of the large pool in the square, the fountain playing lazily behind them, and gazed at the broad façade of the gallery before them.

‘I do love these fountains,’ Elidh commented, letting one hand drift in the water.

‘They were welcomed by the establishment because they reduced the risk of riotous assembly,’ Illya replied darkly, and she looked at him, startled.

‘You live in a cynical world, Illya Kuryakin,’ she said.

‘I like to avail myself of the truth,’ he said simply.

‘Well, I still like the fountains,’ she said staunchly. ‘And I’m not so keen on riots. They create a lot of work for us nurses. Are you all right?’ she added, casting a professional glance at his face.

‘I welcome the opportunity to sit down,’ Illya said.

‘We can get a taxi from here.’

‘Yes,’ Illya murmured, his eyes still on the edifice before him.

The steps before the gallery were covered with people moving up and down, some in groups, some loners. Elidh idly watched a young woman who was carrying an easel in one hand and a rolled up painting in the other; a beatnik if ever she saw one, with her long straight hair, shades, and rather unusual clothes. The woman stumbled and dropped the painting, and it rolled and bounced down the steps, almost all the way to the street below.

Illya’s eyes suddenly widened, his spine straightening as if he had been electrified.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes!’

‘What is it?’ Elidh asked.

He looked at her, his eyes alight. ‘They will roll the paintings up, yes? Slit them from their frames and roll them and put them in tubes?’

‘Well – I expect so,’ she nodded, looking back to the stairs, where the young beatnik was stumbling downward after her painting.

‘And then all they must do is drive their trucks to the front of the gallery, back them up against the steps, and roll the paintings down. They will roll straight into the trucks. They can enter anywhere, but they will take the paintings out through the main entrance.’

‘Can you be sure?’ Elidh asked, looking between Illya and those broad, shallow steps.

‘They are megalomaniacs, lovers of gimmicks. Barnabas Fink will be at the head of it all, with his waistcoat and his pipe and his delusions of grandeur. He won’t sneak out through a side entrance. He will want to take his paintings in style. Elidh, we need to go back to HQ.’

She looked at him cynically. ‘You mean this is a gem of information you can’t trust to that communicator pen thing you have?’

He touched his pocket, prevaricating. ‘Well...’

‘Well,’ she echoed. ‘I’ll get us a taxi. You can either call from there or from the hotel room. Your choice.’

He gave her a look of blue-eyed defeat, and then shrugged.

‘Yes, miss,’ he said deliberately. ‘Anything you say.’

She would never confess to Illya the tingle that ran through her loins at those words. She envied Napoleon Solo more than she could express.

‘Come on,’ she said briskly to him, and Illya followed her through the thronging crowd to the road that ran between gallery and square, slipping into the taxi that stopped at her hail. As soon as they were settled in the back of the cab Illya got out his communicator pen and called Napoleon to tell him of his idea.

‘That’s good thinking, Illya,’ Napoleon replied quickly. ‘From what I’ve seen of Fink I think you’re right. And I wouldn’t mind betting they’ll go in through the front too, so pleased with their knock out gas and the fact the whole place will be dead. It’s not enough to steal those paintings. He’ll want to own the place.’

‘Have they found anything out about that gas from the people who were knocked out around Miss Jones’ house?’ Illya asked, his eyes on the buildings passing by outside the window as he talked.

‘They’re working on it,’ Solo replied. ‘They managed to extract just enough from the bloodstreams of the victims. I don’t know if you can be of any help, Illya.’

Illya shook his head. ‘I’m a physicist, not a chemist, Napoleon. Better leave that one to the experts. If they can’t find any antidote to it we’ll just all have to go in wearing gas masks.’

‘Well, the positive is that no one affected by it has reported any lasting effects beyond a little extra tiredness.’

‘That’s one mercy,’ Illya muttered. ‘All right, that’s all, Napoleon. We’re almost back at the hotel now. I’ll see you later.’

‘Later, tovarisch.’

There were no explicit endearments in their signing off from the conversation, but Elidh was perfectly aware of the feeling between the pair, particularly from the look in Illya’s eyes as he capped the communicator and put it back in his pocket.

‘Do you mind my coming up to your room?’ she asked the Russian, after the cab had dropped them off at the hotel.

‘Oh – no, I suppose not,’ Illya replied. He looked even more tired than earlier, and Elidh was sure that he just wanted to be left alone, but she wanted to be sure that he was going to rest, rather than sit up in his rooms working on something.

‘Well, good,’ she smiled. ‘You know, it’s not all secret agents who have their own private nurse,’ she teased him.

‘I have never had a nurse quite so diligent as you are,’ Illya admitted.

‘I bet you wish I were a little less diligent,’ she grinned.

‘You were diligent enough to make certain of our escape from Thrush headquarters,’ Illya said as he let them into his room. ‘You will always have our gratitude for that – both mine and Napoleon’s.’

He sank into one of the large armchairs in the sitting room, and waved his hand idly at the other chair.

‘Sit down, and feel free to order up tea if you want,’ he told her with a wan smile.

‘I would very much like some tea,’ she said. ‘But first – do you have painkillers prescribed for you, and have you taken them at any point today?’

‘I do – and I have not,’ he admitted. ‘They are in the drawer by the bed,’ he added, nodding towards the bedroom.

Elidh promptly went to fetch the tablets; codeine, she saw with approval; and brought him two pills and a small glass of water, standing by him until she was sure he had taken the tablets rather than simply palming them.

‘Good,’ she nodded. ‘Now tea.’

She picked up the phone and put the order through, adding on as an afterthought a request for a proper English cream tea. Then she relaxed in her chair and regarded the Russian agent. He had donned his tinted reading glasses and was leafing through a magazine. He looked even smaller than he was, his body diminished by the large armchair. His face was very pale, and she thought he looked thinner than was healthy. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to mother him or love him. Perhaps it was a mixture of both, because she knew she was too old, he was too young, that he was entirely committed to his partner, that there were a raft of reasons why she could never go further than being a concerned friend.

She leant forward in the chair, feeling like she was taking a risk in broaching the subject, but also feeling very much that it was important that she did so.

‘Did you know, Mr Kuryakin, how very close they are to legalising homosexuality in this country?’ she asked him.

He seemed to freeze, and a flush reached his pale cheeks. He pushed his glasses more firmly onto his nose as if they would act as a shield.

‘I don’t know how relevant – ’

‘Now really, Illya,’ she said with soft sternness. ‘We both know it’s extremely relevant. I know that you and Mr Solo are resident in the United States, but doesn’t it help to feel that there are some places in the world that are becoming more open to the idea of love between consenting adults?’

He finally removed the reading glasses and fixed her with an intense gaze, his eyes seeming almost grey now. She hoped that the change wasn’t a precursor to some kind of storm. Then he said, ‘Miss Jones – Elidh – I do feel we have become friends, and I do very much appreciate what you are attempting to do. But this is not a subject I am comfortable discussing.’ As she opened her mouth he held up his hand. ‘I am Russian. I have lived in the United States for a long time, but I was born Russian, I grew up Russian, knowing that to survive I must be invisible, I must bury my feelings so deep that even I could hardly access them. In Russia I would be at risk of incarceration in a mental institution, or of imprisonment, or of being sent to a forced labour camp. The very likely alternative is that I would be shot and thrown into an unmarked grave. Your country is not tolerant to homosexuals. My country is worse. Do you know what forced labour does to men?’

She swallowed, dropping her gaze, unable to take the intensity of his eyes any longer. She had been caught up with her thoughts of how endearing was the obvious bond between Napoleon and Illya, and how delightful it would be if they could be open in their love. Now she looked at Illya and imagined him dressed in rags, greyed and bowed by interminable labour, held in a psychiatric hospital being treated for something which was not a sickness, or worse still, being shot over an open grave. The idea made her feel nauseous. And even with the change of law, she knew that society would not be so quick to change. Just for the couple to walk down the street hand in hand would open them to slurs of queer, faggot, shirt-lifter, and probably even to violence.

She reached out and put her hand over his. ‘I am sorry,’ she said, ‘and I will not discuss it any more.’

She was saved by a subtle knock at the door, and she leapt up from her chair to let in the bellboy with his wheeled table of food.

‘I thought you might enjoy this,’ she said once the door was closed. ‘I’ve noticed that you enjoy your food.’

Illya’s eyes lit up at the sight of scones, cakes, and the great silver pot of tea.

‘I haven’t had something like this since I was at Cambridge, and then I didn’t have enough money to do it more than once,’ he said, leaning forward to the table. His smile was filled with all the relief at the change of subject, and it seemed to light the entire room.

She sat back and watched him attacking the plate of scones, wondering at this enigmatic man who must have come through so much to be where he was today. All in all, she thought, Napoleon Solo was very lucky to have him, both in his business life, and his personal. But she hoped Napoleon had sense enough never to get between the man and his food.

14.

Although Illya and Napoleon had re-christened their hotel bed almost every night since checking in to their hotel, Illya’s ribs were proclaimed to be healing nicely on Thursday morning, and he was grateful for the chance to slip downstairs from the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary to join the teams working on the imminent National Gallery raid. Men were milling around the large conference table poring over the plans of the building; these were the ones set to disguise themselves as security guards for the evening, who would take over from the real guards who worked in the building. U.N.C.L.E. had taken great care to be sure that none of the gallery’s employees were in the pay of Thrush, but rather than risking an infiltrator pre-warning the organisation, the regular guards would be hustled off the scene just as their shifts started.

‘Ah, Mr Kuryakin, nice of you to join us,’ Napoleon said in a raised voice when Illya stepped into the room, and Illya fixed him with a stare through the tinted reading glasses he had just donned as everyone else looked round.

‘Yes, it was good of medical to let me out,’ Illya countered in the same fully audible tone, knowing that no one but Napoleon would consider teasing him for lateness in view of the very obvious medical issues he was suffering. His right arm was still very much enclosed in its fixator frame, which was starting to drive Illya mad, and there was still the shadow of bruising on his face and scabs on his wrists that were visible to all.

Napoleon broke away from the group and came to join Illya on the other side of the room, his eyes giving an unspoken apology for his teasing.

‘What did the doctor say?’ he asked, and Illya shrugged.

‘Healing as expected. The damn frame needs to stay on, though.’

‘Well, you didn’t expect that to come off yet, did you?’ Napoleon asked with raised eyebrows. ‘You really are an impatient Russian.’

‘I am a Russian who is tired of carrying around a hamster cage on his forearm,’ Illya contradicted him.

‘Well, that hamster cage stays until your arm is all better,’ Napoleon chided. ‘And it means you’re staying in the car tonight.’

Illya practically pouted. He hated to miss out on the centre of the action. He would have been happier posing as one of the guards.

‘I am almost as good a shot with my left hand as my right,’ he attempted.

‘No dice, comrade,’ Napoleon told him firmly. ‘Waverly would hand me my job on a plate if I sent you in there.’

‘Oh, come on, Waverly would send an agent in with all his limbs broken if he thought it would be to the benefit of U.N.C.L.E.,’ Illya countered cynically.

You are staying in the car,’ Napoleon repeated.

Illya gave him an icy look and moved past him to go and look over the plans on the table. He had to nudge someone aside and take a seat, unable to bend over with his healing ribs. He knew he really could not be part of the action tonight; he knew he would say exactly the same if the tables were turned; he knew Napoleon wanted to protect him from further harm. But still, he wanted to find some way to make sure he was on the ground, watching his partner’s back.

His inspiration about how the Thrush gang would likely evacuate the paintings from the gallery had been agreed on both by Napoleon and by Arthur Duncalfe, Napoleon’s British equivalent in U.N.C.L.E. London. Two thirds of the men were focussing on monitoring that one massive entrance, while others would watch smaller entrances, just in case, keeping in touch with their communicators. The ideal would be for none of the paintings to even be touched by the Thrush men, because the thought of cutting these priceless artworks out of their frames was horrifying to anyone with the slightest bit of feeling for fine art.

Meanwhile, Illya would be waiting in the passenger seat of an anonymous looking van which would happen to be packed to the gills with police officers, since U.N.C.L.E. resources did not stretch quite far enough for the manpower required. Illya tried not to feel like a dog that had been thrown a bone. It really was necessary to have an U.N.C.L.E. man heading the police team, and he was one of the best that there were. It just galled him – and worried him a little too – to think of Napoleon in the thick of the action while he sat back with the reserve troops.

‘If you leave that pout on your face a fairy will land on it, and you’ll be stuck like that all day,’ said a soft, deep voice right by his ear.

Illya jerked out of his reverie to realise that Napoleon was leaning down over him. It took all the self-control he had to keep a blush from his cheeks. Napoleon was disturbingly good at eliciting such responses just with the timbre of his voice.

‘Is that one of your cultural myths?’ he asked, his voice dripping with derision, ‘along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? No wonder your society struggles so much with reality.’

‘I didn’t realise we did,’ Napoleon harrumphed. ‘Now, do you really need to study those plans so hard that they’re branded into your brain, or would you be amenable to getting a coffee?’

Illya let a smile quirk at the side of his mouth.

‘I would be amenable to coffee,’ he replied.

Once in the almost-empty cafeteria they sat either side of one of the formica tables, while Napoleon leafed through some of his papers on the upcoming raid.

‘So, how did your appointment really go?’ the American asked as Illya sipped at his coffee.

An unwonted blush coloured Illya’s cheeks. ‘Well, the doctor did ask if I’d been doing any heavy lifting, because he thought my ribs weren’t quite as far along as he’d expect, but he did say they were doing well enough that I’m cleared to come on the raid – as long as I stay in the van.’

Napoleon met his partner’s eyes with a knowing look. He knew exactly what had strained Illya’s ribs in the last week.

‘And the arm?’ he asked.

‘The breaks are starting to knit but the external fixator needs to stay on until the surgery wounds are closing well. He needs to be sure that infection won’t set in before he puts it in a cast.’

‘Well, that’s fair enough.’

Illya could see a light in Napoleon’s eyes that spoke of unsatisfied desire, and he shook his head as his partner’s foot moved under the table to discreetly rub against his socked ankle.

‘Really, Napoleon. Is three times in twenty-four hours not satisfactory?’ he asked in a very low voice.

Napoleon grinned. ‘I just know we’re going to be very busy later,’ he admitted. ‘And I hate to miss out.’

‘Well, you will have to,’ Illya said hard-heartedly.

Napoleon pressed his hand against his heart, his eyes wide with mock hurt. ‘You wound me, mon cher.

‘Not as much as I shall wound you if you keep being so indiscreet,’ Illya replied darkly, tucking his legs resolutely back under his chair, away from Napoleon’s straying foot. ‘Now, you brought the plans for the raid down with you. Let’s go over them. That might help keep your mind off the delights of the flesh.’

‘There’s a little filing room just off the first floor corridor with an eminently lockable door,’ Napoleon said in his softest, most seductive tone. Illya knew that he got a certain thrill from proposing such things with the ears of other employees just out of reach. He never let on to Napoleon that the idea of being discovered gave him a very real shiver of fear in his spine.

‘I could give you a broken arm to match my own,’ Illya warned him. He tapped his fingers on the plans spread over the table. ‘Concentrate, and if the raid goes well then – we will see – about a reward.’

Napoleon’s smile spread across his face, and Illya wasn’t sure who had emerged triumphant from the discussion. Nevertheless, the American agent at least bowed his head to the paperwork at last, and started to discuss strategies with his Russian partner.

((O))

Even though the sun had been hot on the pavements all day, now that night had fallen beneath a crystal clear sky Illya found himself shivering a little. It was all but impossible to get any kind of coat on over the frame on his arm, and he had been forced to make do with a v-necked woollen pullover, which really didn’t do the job he wanted it to do. He was afraid the men in the van behind him wouldn’t do the job he wanted them to do either. There were often subtle tensions between U.N.C.L.E. and local law enforcement agencies, who tended to resent a perceived stepping on toes. Add to that the extra layer of tension at the orders coming from a slight, small Russian, and the situation was not conducive to comfort. Illya found the British much more welcoming than the Communism-obsessed Americans, but there was still no denying that he had come from the other side of that almost impenetrable curtain of iron.

‘Just make sure you all keep your gas masks on,’ he called back into the rear of the van, aware that there had been mutterings of disbelief over the idea that Thrush could pull off the gassing of such a large area. A couple of the men barely even believed in Thrush. After all, if Thrush existed why hadn’t they, the upstanding British constabulary, encountered them in their day to day patrols of the streets?

‘You listen to the man. He knows what he’s talking about,’ the sergeant next to him called back, and Illya felt a silent swelling of gratitude. Sergeant Theroux, who had driven them all here, was, at least, friendly, unprejudiced, and reasonably intelligent.

‘The gas doesn’t harm, just knocks unconscious,’ Illya reminded the man, then added the caveat, ‘unless they’ve changed the formula, of course.’

The sergeant pulled the mask straps a little tighter, and nodded at Illya. Illya thought the man was trying to grin, but it was almost impossible to tell.

‘I think it’s coming,’ he said in a low voice, nodding forward at a light whitish drift that was starting to curl through the street ahead like mist. He touched his left hand to his own gas mask, making sure it was secure, then picked up the small detector he had brought along, that would tell him when the air was safe to breathe again. Right now the needle was wavering up towards the red part of the dial. Right about now, he had to assume, almost everyone in the vicinity would be slumping unconscious. He had to hope that the gas would work slowly enough that vehicles would not crash, or people otherwise be jeopardised as they would be by instant unconsciousness. He did not, at least, hear any sounds of metal crunching into stone. The entire of London lay in silence around him.

He kept his eyes on the dial, watching the needle hover in the red area, until finally it began to settle slowly back down towards the white two thirds of the semicircular dial. Cautiously he peeled his mask off and took a deep breath. He met the eyes of the sergeant beside him, and nodded.

‘All right, you can take them off,’ the sergeant called back once he had removed his own mask. ‘You all okay back there?’

‘Yeah, except for Mulligan,’ came a laughing voice. ‘He never got his straps tight enough.’

Illya sighed, wondering if these people realised that this was not a game, and they would possibly be facing men with machine guns.

‘All right,’ he nodded. ‘So, we wait...’

15.

Like all the other U.N.C.L.E. agents in the gallery, Napoleon was dressed as a security guard, in dark but rather intimidating looking clothing that would hopefully serve both to conceal the agents’ presence if necessary, but also look formidable when spotted. Napoleon touched his hand against the gun, in its unfamiliar position in a hip holster instead of the usual shoulder holster. As a supposed security guard he had no need to hide his weapon.

In his hand he held an identical gas detector to the one that Illya had used, and the needle was well down into the white section now, after peaking up to red for the past few minutes. He shoved his now unnecessary gas mask under a bench and pulled out his communicator, opening a channel to the other agents in the building.

‘All right, the gas has dissipated,’ he murmured. ‘Time to play possum.’

All over the gallery now, he knew, the other agents would be hiding their gas masks and settling themselves down on the floor in mock unconsciousness. It was not the best position to be in, but they couldn’t risk the Thrush infiltrators suspecting anything. They would likely shoot first and ask questions later.

Napoleon settled himself in a slumped position over the bench in the centre of the room he was in. That way he was at least propped on his knees, and would be able to get to his feet more quickly. His apparently relaxed right arm was actually as close to his holstered gun as he could get it without it looking unnatural.

Ten minutes passed before he heard anything. With the advent of the gas this area of the capital had become so quiet that he could hear the creaks of the building as wood and stone contracted in the cool of night. He had thought it had been quiet before, but it was nothing to now. Even the pigeons must be unconscious, he thought with a small degree of humour. Poor things. In their tiny brains they had probably never considered a night like this.

He had to focus on the task at hand. Over the stunning silence of the night he began to hear just the slightest rumble, suggestive of vehicles moving through the streets. This, then, must be the Thrush trucks coming to pick up their ill-gotten gains. Then he was galvanised by a sudden sharp sound – a muffled woof as of an explosive under some kind of cover. They had blown the locks on the doors. Illya had been right, of course. There would be no sneaking in through the back doors for Thrush. They were coming in as they meant to leave, up the steps, beneath the portico, and through the grand front entrance.

Napoleon forced himself to lie still, although every fibre of his being itched to grasp at his gun. He waited, though. He waited until he heard footsteps tentatively enter the room he was in. With one eye half open he recognised the almost absurdly pedestrian Thrush uniform of a blue jumpsuit and cap. The man was holding a Thrush machine gun in one hand, and what looked like a blade in the other.

In one swift motion Napoleon drew his gun and shot, the silenced sleep dart making no more than a pop as it left his gun and found its target. The Thrush man had never got near a painting. He slumped to the floor.

In the half light the next entrant to the room must have thought the unconscious man was merely a gallery guard, because he prodded the prone form with his toe before moving forward. Another pop, and that man fell only yards from his partner in crime.

Just when Napoleon had decided that this was going well, two men together came into the room, each of them carrying a load of tubes under his arm, no doubt to receive the paintings they would have expected their forerunners to have already started slicing from their frames. This time Napoleon had no choice. He could only shoot one at a time, and when he hit the first the second started and managed to yell out before Napoleon brought him down.

At that, hell seemed to explode. There was no point in subterfuge any more on either side. All through the gallery U.N.C.L.E. men were coming to life and their Thrush counterparts were yelling out the alarm. As Napoleon brought down another assailant he was also getting out his communicator and hissing, ‘Open channel D!’ Without waiting for his partner to speak he continued, ‘Illya, we’ll need that backup.’

‘Coming,’ Illya replied in one clipped word, and the connection went dead.

Belatedly, Napoleon realised exactly what Illya meant with his single word. He should have made it completely clear that they needed the police officers, not his injured partner. It was too late now, though. Illya knew he should not come, and Napoleon knew he would come. He didn’t have time to re-open the channel and tell him not to be such a damn fool. He was levelling his gun at two more Thrush men who were entering the room, sending sleep darts into them, fetching a new clip from his pocket and fitting it swiftly into the gun. He hoped to god that the machine gun bursts that he kept hearing were avoiding the priceless artworks on the walls, as well as the softer, and to him ultimately more important, bodies of his men.

Leaping over the bodies slumped on the floor he barrelled out into the main lobby of the gallery, where the real battle was taking place. Thankfully the Thrush men, with their absurd brilliant white Thrush badges on their breast pockets and caps, were much more visible than the U.N.C.L.E. men in their all-black security guard attire. On the other hand, the U.N.C.L.E. men were armed with handguns, in deference to the priceless and irreplaceable artworks surrounding them, and facing machine guns with handguns was akin to facing a dai katana with a butter knife. The only saving grace was that the Thrush men did seem to have some respect for the artworks around them – whether because of their cultural or their monetary value Napoleon could not say – and were using their guns sparingly.

He caught a flash of bright blond as a burst of men entered the fray, and he cursed audibly. There he was, Illya with the ridiculously cumbersome frame around his right arm, wielding his gun in his left and bringing down two, no, three Thrush men with apparently no difference in accuracy to when he was using his dominant hand.

‘Illya!’ he called out in strangled annoyance, and his partner’s eyes jerked towards him. ‘Where are the rest of the cops?’ he yelled, instead of hurling the incredulous abuse he wanted to at his partner for being such a reckless idiot.

‘Outside with the Thrush lorries,’ Illya yelled back, bringing down another Thrush assailant with a swift shot. ‘Plenty of little birds roosting out there.’

And then Napoleon saw it. Illya was caught trying to reload his gun with his stiff and awkward right arm and a Thrush man was bearing down on him, machine gun aimed straight for that tousled blond head. Napoleon was raising his gun and shouting a warning, but it would be too late – he knew it would be too late. The muzzle of the Thrush gun flashed at the same time that Illya lunged out viciously with his caged right arm, the machine gun coughed into silence, and both men slumped to the floor.

‘Illya!’ Napoleon bellowed.

He covered the vast space of open floor between them like a professional athlete, heedless of the bullets flying in the air, somehow dodging each one. Illya was splayed on the floor, his face a deathly white, eyes rolling back into his head while brilliant scarlet blood pulsed from a wound in his chest.

Suddenly everything was silent and he couldn’t fathom why. Then he realised the bullets had stopped flying, the last Thrush man was being dragged away with his hands behind his back. It was over, all over – except for Illya lying there on the floor, his life blood pooling out onto polished stone.

‘Duncalfe, take over,’ Napoleon snapped, seeing the London CEA hovering over him anxiously, and the man immediately nodded, clapping his hand onto the American’s shoulder.

‘Sure thing, Solo. Get Kuryakin out of here.’

Napoleon needed no telling. He scooped Illya up in his arms and barrelled out of the gallery, taking the steps as if they were flat ground. The smaller man felt like no weight at all at that moment, even though he was very much flesh and bone. There was a police van parked near the lined-up Thrush trucks, and he made for it without thought.

‘Here, what are you – ?’ a stentorian voice challenged him, then the man said, ‘Good lord, Kuryakin. Yes, put him in the back there. You stay with him. St Thomas’ is closest. I’ll drive.’

Peripherally Napoleon recognised Sergeant Theroux, the man in charge of the police detail, but he took very little notice of him, intent as he was on settling Illya on the floor of the van as the vehicle lurched away along dead roads.

‘Illya,’ he murmured, pressing his bloodied hand against the side of the pallid face. ‘Illya...’

The Russian’s eyes drifted open, seeming glazed at first, but then they caught and fixed on Napoleon’s worried face.

‘NaNa - ’

‘Shush,’ Napoleon told him softly, wishing he dared lay a kiss on that white forehead or the crown of blond hair. He did not dare, not with a police sergeant in the front of the van, even if the man’s eyes must be entirely on the road. ‘We’re taking you to hospital. It’s very close.’

Illya’s lips worked, but he seemed unable to speak. He coughed, the movement made him moan, and blood frothed on his lips. Real, heart-rending fear lurched in Napoleon’s chest. He wanted to scream at Illya Why did you come? but such recriminations could be saved for later – if there were a later...

In lieu of a kiss he curled his fingers around Illya’s limp hand, hoping that all of his love would pass through the touch. His skin was growing cold and clammy; he was going into shock. Illya’s eyes drifted open again, his head moved just a fraction to the right, and he whispered, ‘That bloody arm again...’

Napoleon’s eyes followed Illya’s and saw that once again the frame around his arm was distorted and damaged, the line of the bone no longer straight.

‘We’ll get it fixed,’ he promised. ‘Now hush.’

‘No, Na – Napoleon,’ he sighed, ‘no, I want to – ’

Napoleon never found out what he wanted to say, because Illya’s eyes closed for a final time, a final breath exhaled through bloody lips, and he lay utterly still.

Napoleon wanted to bellow out his rage and fear, instinctively feeling that his partner had just died in the back of this van. But he caught that in forcing his agent’s brain to come to the forefront, touching his fingers to Illya’s white throat and feeling a fluttering pulse. He was still there. There was still life in him. Without hesitation he leant his lips down to his partner’s and blew his own breath into Illya’s body. His hand on Illya’s chest told him that his heart was still beating, and he kept on forcing his own breath into Illya’s lungs.

Then he was aware that the van had come to a halt, that the doors were being opened and someone was pulling him away. The human part of him took over again and he fought furiously to get back to his partner’s side while someone shouted at him to control himself, and he realised it was Sergeant Theroux who was holding his arms so tightly and saying something about having to arrest him if he didn’t calm down.

‘All right. All right,’ he conceded, letting all the fight go out of his body. ‘Just let me go with him.’

‘You won’t get far,’ the sergeant warned him pragmatically, but Napoleon ignored him, pushing after the medical team that was drawing Illya rapidly away.

‘Good god, Napoleon!’

The familiar voice was the one thing that got through to him, and he blinked in the excruciatingly bright light in the emergency department, the face of Elidh Jones coming clear before his eyes.

‘Go with him,’ Napoleon said urgently. ‘Just go – ’

‘I shall,’ she assured him, and then she was gone.

Napoleon stumbled back to lean against the corridor wall, thanking god, actually believing in God for that one moment, that Elidh Jones was there. He could not have borne letting Illya go alone in that state, even though the Russian was unconscious and would have no idea whether he was alone or not.

‘Here, come on,’ a man’s voice said, and he blinked, looking up to see Sergeant Theroux reaching out to his arm. He worked very hard against the instinct to knock the hand away, to punch Theroux into next week. There was absolutely no reason that Theroux deserved that. It was just that Napoleon was a ball of tension and he wanted to release it in a deadly and blistering way.

‘Come on,’ the sergeant repeated more softly. ‘You can’t do anything right now. Come and have a cup of tea. You’ll feel better.’

Napoleon almost snorted with laughter, but he was afraid that if he did this man might arrest him for being mentally unstable. The British proclivity for thinking a cup of tea would fix anything was truly astonishing. However, once he was seated in a waiting area with his hands closed around a hot china cup he had to admit that it helped. It wasn’t just the lightly caffeinated liquid that did it; it was the warmth against his palms, the feeling of having something to hold. One couldn’t break down with a cup of hot tea in one’s hands, not without risking severe burns to the crotch.

‘They’re the best here,’ Sergeant Theroux told him quietly. ‘He’ll be all right.’

Napoleon’s gaze hardened. ‘You don’t know that.’

‘No,’ he acknowledged, ‘but what would you have me say?’

Napoleon smiled wanly at that. ‘I’m sorry. I guess I’m a bit – wound up.’

‘I know, you want to put your fist through a wall,’ Theroux nodded. ‘It won’t help him, though. Do you want me to go and make enquiries? The uniform helps.’

Napoleon looked down at his own security guard’s uniform, suddenly hating it. The fact that it was sticky and iron-scented with Illya’s blood didn’t help. He had barely realised until now that his hands were engrained with the blood, that he had left sticky rust-red fingerprints on the cream china cup.

‘Yeah, please,’ he said belatedly. He rubbed his hand over his forehead then realised that he must be smearing Illya’s blood over his face now. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. ‘Yeah, go see what’s going on,’ he nodded.

He fumblingly put the cup down on a small table and sunk his face into his hands as the sergeant walked away. He would have given or sold anything to make sure that Illya would be all right.

Time stretched so thin that Napoleon felt the world could have been shattered with a single blow. The policeman seemed to be gone for ever, but Napoleon kept checking his blood-smeared watch and knew it was no more than five minutes before he returned.

‘He’s doing all right,’ the policeman said, sitting back heavily in a chair near Napoleon’s.

‘All right? What the hell does all right mean?’ Napoleon snapped, fixing him with a glare. ‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ he backtracked, holding up his hands at the man’s taken aback expression. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so on edge it’s not even funny. What did you find out?’

‘Well, if you can guarantee you won’t punch me...’

‘I won’t,’ Napoleon promised. ‘What did they say?’

‘Your partner’s in the operating room right now. They couldn’t be definite about all the damage but it looks like one bullet went through the soft tissues below his shoulder, missing anything vital. The other one went through his lung and out the other side.’

The breath seemed to catch in Napoleon’s chest as that information settled in his mind. He could hardly bear to think of Illya there in the operating room, his chest laid open, ribs probably broken anew.

‘Is it – Are they hopeful?’ he asked tentatively.

‘They are very hopeful,’ the man nodded. ‘He’s getting transfusions to replace the blood he’s lost, and they’re working on him. They’re the best, I promise. You already know the nurse, don’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘Yeah, by a weird set of coincidences… I – I called her his guardian angel the last time she had the chance to save his life.’

‘There are no coincidences,’ Theroux said staunchly. ‘Trust in his guardian angel.’

Napoleon sunk his face into his hands again. ‘I wish I could,’ he murmured. ‘I really wish I could.’

16.

That night seemed to last for years. Napoleon ignored all of the voices that urged him to go back to the hotel, to wash and get changed and come back in the morning. In the end Sergeant Theroux effected a compromise by sending one of his officers around to the hotel to fetch Napoleon a change of clothes, and he washed the best he could in the hospital bathroom, then stretched himself out on the uncomfortable seats in the waiting area in a plausible imitation of sleep. In reality sleep was worlds away. How could he sleep when Illya was only a few hundred yards away in the hands of surgeons? It did feel better to be clean, and it did feel better to be in his own clothes, but what he really wanted was to be at his partner’s side.

‘Napoleon? Napoleon? Mr Solo?’

He blinked his eyes open, simultaneously startled and furious at himself for finally succumbing to exhaustion.

‘Wha – What is it?’ he asked, jerking upright. ‘Illya?’

Elidh Jones sat down on the seat beside him. She looked exhausted.

‘They’ve taken him to the intensive care unit,’ she told him with a tired smile. ‘He’s all right. I can’t give you guarantees, but he made it through the surgery.’

‘He’s – he’s all right?’ Napoleon asked, feeling too dazed to understand. He looked around, seeing that he was alone now. The English police sergeant must have left while he was sleeping.

‘He’s on a ventilator and he has a chest tube inserted. He’s sedated right now, and he’s still having transfusions because he lost a good deal of blood. He’s not really supposed to have visitors, but I’ve got special permission for you to come and sit with him, if you want to.’

‘If I – want to?’ Napoleon felt so bewildered with exhaustion and stress that he hardly knew how to speak, but he didn’t need words to convey his gratitude to Miss Jones. That was fully evident in his face.

‘Come on,’ she told him, putting her hand on his arm. ‘I’ll show you the way.’

When he stood he almost staggered.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t – ’ he began, but she smiled at him and took his arm.

‘You’re exhausted, Mr Solo. Don’t worry about it.’

It was unlike Napoleon not to take intimate interest in his route in case he needed an escape, but in his exhausted state he barely even looked where he was going, trusting to Miss Jones to guide him. She took him quietly into a small room which seemed to be filled with machines, wires, and tubes. It was only after a moment of blearily blinking at the lot that he saw Illya in the middle of it all, a small figure in the white hospital bed. He tried to snap himself into better awareness, taking in the tube that must run from a catheter to a urine bag; the high up drip bag full of clear fluid; the pipe running from the chest tube that was draining the space around his lung; the bag full of dark, almost black seeming blood that was replacing that life-giving fluid that he had lost from his veins.

‘God, Illyusha,’ he murmured, too tired to catch himself before he uttered that endearment. A white-clad nurse looked up as he entered, and Miss Jones said, ‘It’s all right, Sophie. Take a break for half an hour. I’ll watch him. Oh, but can you bring Mr Solo a cup of tea first?’

She lifted a chair and put it by the bed, close to Illya’s sleeping face.

‘Sit,’ she told Napoleon sternly, and Napoleon sat.

‘He’s sedated,’ she reminded him as he gazed at that pale face. ‘He won’t wake for some hours. There will always be someone here watching him. Now, ordinarily we wouldn’t allow anyone in here, maybe family or next of kin if it were really necessary, but I have spoken with the Matron and convinced her that as an esteemed agent of the U.N.C.L.E. you won’t get in the way or misbehave. Have I spoken out of turn?’

‘No, no, you haven’t,’ Napoleon muttered gratefully. He couldn’t seem to drag his eyes from Illya’s face.

‘They were quite astounded at what he’s obviously been through,’ Elidh told him with something of a smile. ‘It’s rare to get a gunshot wound in, but to get a gunshot wound in a patient who has obviously been soundly battered two weeks in the past and has an external fixation on such a badly broken arm – an arm also broken by a bullet. Well, it took some explaining, I’ll tell you.’

‘Yeah, I guess it would,’ Napoleon smiled.

He wished that she would just be quiet. He wanted nothing more than blessed peace. When the nurse, Sophie, returned with a cup of tea he took it and started drinking merely so he would have an excuse for his short and poor replies. Miss Jones seemed to understand, though, and fell largely into silence. He supposed she had spent plenty of time in situations like this.

When he finished the milky cup of tea she took the china from him and set it at the side of the room.

‘He won’t be waking up until morning, Napoleon,’ she told him softly. ‘Now, I’m not foolish enough to ask you to leave, but I will ask you to sleep. I or another nurse will always be here, and you will be woken immediately if anything changes.’

‘I – don’t think I could sleep,’ Napoleon murmured, although his spine was sinking deep into the thin padding on the chair and he felt sick with tiredness.

‘I think you can,’ she smiled. ‘Would you like a sedative?’

‘No, no I want to stay alert,’ he immediately refused. He met her eyes and smiled. ‘I will try to sleep, I promise.’

‘Good,’ she nodded. ‘I was afraid I might have to sing a lullaby, and I really wasn’t made for lullabies.’

Napoleon smiled, but he was really too tired for anything else. He wanted to catch hold of Illya’s hand but he couldn’t see a way of doing that, not around the various wires and tubes attached to his body. He rested back against the chair, and was momentarily surprised as gentle hands tucked a folded blanket under his lolling head.

‘I think you’d do okay with lullabies,’ he murmured, but he didn’t hear her reply. He was already too far gone.

((O))

There was an alarm sounding, and it wasn’t his travel alarm clock. Napoleon turned his head, trying to shut out the sound, and something soft fell from under it. Then he remembered that he was in a chair, then he remembered he was in a hospital room, and then he remembered – Illya!

He found himself fighting with something that clung to his body, and as his eyes adjusted to morning light he realised he was draped in a blanket and that Illya was awake beside him, his eyes wide and panicked. A nurse was bending over him trying to get him to calm. Napoleon snapped into full wakefulness, turning to his partner, touching a hand to his cheek where his head was thrashing and he was trying to reject the tube down his throat.

‘Illya, Illya,’ he insisted, trying to catch those blue eyes. ‘Illya!’

Eventually the eyes settled on his own, and some of the fight dropped out of Illya’s body.

‘You have too much attached to you to put up such a fight,’ he smiled gently. ‘You’ll have to put up with the ventilator for now. I’m sorry. It’s keeping you safe.’

Illya wanted to speak with every fibre of his being; that was obvious to Napoleon. But he would have to make do with the silent language of the eyes for now.

‘Now listen to me, tovarisch,’ Napoleon said firmly. ‘You’re in a bad way. You’ll be all right, but for now you just have to stay still and do as you’re told. I know that’s not your usual modus operandi...’

The rebellious look in Illya’s eyes told him he had hit the nail precisely on the head. Then the door opened and a doctor hurried in, looking between the nurse and the man in the bed.

‘He’s just woken, Doctor,’ the nurse told the man. ‘He seems lucid.’

‘Ah, that’s good.’ He was a tall, dark man with a West Indian accent, and brimming with self-confidence. He could have seemed overbearing, but Napoleon felt like he liked him. The doctor looked over at him enquiringly, and he held out a hand, offering, ‘Napoleon Solo. I’m Illya’s partner.’

‘Mr Solo,’ the man nodded, but he turned almost instantly then to the patient. ‘Now, Mr Kuryakin, I’m Dr Evans. I can give you a little more morphine. Would you like that?’

Solo waited for the usual refusal. To his surprise, Illya gave a very slight nod, and as the nurse increased the flow into the drip bag he saw his partner start to relax a little more.

‘Now, you’re still with us, Mr Kuryakin?’ the doctor asked.

He blinked an acknowledgement, his eyes moving between his partner and the doctor.

‘Do you remember what happened last night?’ he asked, and Illya blinked again.

‘You tell him just as it is,’ Napoleon said, fixing the doctor with with his eyes. He nodded in silent assent.

‘Mr Kuryakin, you came in last night with two bullet wounds to the chest,’ the doctor said clearly. ‘Now, one was through the fleshy part of the shoulder, and wasn’t too much of a worry. The other went through your left lung. It narrowly missed your heart.’

A sickness rose in Napoleon’s gullet at that news. Just another inch or two… Then he realised Illya was looking at him, trying to catch his eye, trying to reach out with a hand that had a cannula inserted into the back of it. He touched Illya’s fingers, be damned with appearances. If he couldn’t hold his partner’s hand at a time like this then when could he?

‘You were lucky, Mr Kuryakin,’ the doctor said clearly. ‘We were able to repair the damage with no loss of the lung.’

Napoleon let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. If Illya had lost part of his lung he also would have lost his status as an active U.N.C.L.E. agent. He saw his relief mirrored in Illya’s eyes.

‘I’m going to get you off the ventilator very soon, Mr Kuryakin,’ the doctor continued. ‘We’re also going to get you sitting up as soon as you can. It helps prevents problems,’ he added at Napoleon’s startled look. ‘I know that sitting up is the last thing you feel like doing, but trust me, Mr Kuryakin, it’s necessary.’

Illya looked dazed, and Napoleon gently squeezed his hand.

‘It’ll be better as soon as that tube’s gone,’ he reassured his partner, and Illya’s eyes told him he agreed. ‘How long before he can be moved?’ he asked, looking back at the doctor.

The doctor looked startled. ‘Mr Solo, you do realise this man almost died last night?’

‘Yes, I understand that,’ Solo nodded impatiently. ‘But understand, Dr Evans, that Mr Kuryakin is in a very sensitive line of work. I’m going to arrange for an U.N.C.L.E. guard as soon as possible, and at the first opportunity he’s best being transferred to the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary.’

The doctor’s eyebrows rose. ‘You must lead an interesting life, Mr Solo,’ he said. ‘Both of you. I’ve read Mr Kuryakin’s notes, know all about his previous injuries.’

‘Then you understand why it’s best he’s in a secure location as soon as possible,’ Napoleon said crisply.

The doctor held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. ‘Yes, I understand that, Mr Solo. As soon as you can be moved, Mr Kuryakin – safely, that is – I will authorise it.’

Illya blinked his eyes, looking grateful for the understanding. The doctor spent some time looking at the readouts on various monitors, then nodded.

‘Yes, I think we can take you off the ventilator now, Mr Kuryakin. I want you to try to be relaxed for me. I’m going to take the tube out, and I want you to cough as you need to. It’ll help expel the tube from your trachea. Understand?’

Illya gave one of his minute nods, then his eyes caught Napoleon’s again. Napoleon smiled in reassurance, and renewed his grip on his partner’s hand, being sure to keep out of the way of the doctor and nurse who were crowding in close now. He found he couldn’t look at Illya’s face as they performed the procedure, but then Illya was coughing, the doctor was praising him, and Illya said in a croaking voice, ‘Napoleon?’

‘I’m here. I’m right here,’ Napoleon assured him, regaining his place near Illya’s head as the doctor stood back. ‘How do you feel?’

His partner looked a world better just for having that tube removed, but he croaked, ‘Awful.’

‘So you should,’ Napoleon said affectionately. ‘You were a silly boy last night, Illya. A very silly boy.’

He trusted that Illya was in too weak a condition to protest, and he was right. Instead he just looked daggers at Napoleon, and Napoleon dropped it. He knew that Illya would face censure enough when he got back to New York and Mr Waverly spoke to him about rushing into a scene of conflict while disabled with his broken arm.

‘Never mind,’ he murmured. ‘You’re back with us. That’s what counts.’

Illya looked awkwardly down towards his broken right arm. ‘I did it again,’ he rasped.

‘Yes, you did,’ Napoleon said ruefully.

‘We managed to realign the frame on that arm while you were in surgery, Mr Kuryakin,’ the doctor put in. ‘But really, I wouldn’t advise repeatedly using it as a cudgel. No good will come of it.’

‘I – er – don’t suppose we could have a little time alone, could we?’ Napoleon asked tentatively. He glanced at Illya, then said, ‘You know we’re both agents for the U.N.C.L.E.?’

The doctor looked doubtfully between the pair. ‘Ordinarily I wouldn’t like to leave you so soon without a nurse attending,’ he began, ‘but I suppose you have highly confidential – ’

‘Oh, highly confidential,’ Napoleon nodded, and Illya met his eyes with a world of gratitude in his.

‘Well, I can give you five minutes,’ the doctor nodded. ‘Nurse Alcott will have to wait just outside the door.’

‘That will be fine,’ Napoleon nodded with his most gallant smile.

‘Oh, Napoleon,’ Illya sighed as soon as they were alone.

‘That bad, eh?’ he asked gently, turning his chair a little so that both his face and Illya’s were masked from the window in the door.

‘I feel as though I have been shot through the lung,’ Illya rasped, ‘and my body has sprouted wires and tubes.’

‘Well, there’s a reason for that,’ Napoleon smiled. ‘Illya, you really are a damn fool. You know that?’

‘Yes, I know that,’ he acknowledged. ‘But I needed to – ’

No you didn’t,’ Napoleon insisted. ‘That little stunt nearly cost you your life. Your arm stopped you reloading.’

‘You don’t need to tell Mr Waverly that – do you?’ Illya asked anxiously, very real worry in his eyes.

Napoleon managed to look innocent. ‘Me? I didn’t see a thing. I can’t guarantee anyone else in the room, though.’

‘I think they were busy,’ Illya replied with a tired smile. ‘Napoleon, when you called for back-up, I thought – ’

‘Good U.N.C.L.E. agent that you are, you thought we were all in mortal peril,’ Napoleon nodded. ‘You weren’t focussing on rushing in for the sake on one particular U.N.C.L.E. agent.’

‘No, no, of course,’ Illya nodded, then grimaced. ‘My throat hurts.’

‘It’s meant to,’ Napoleon said with mock harshness. ‘It’s teaching you a lesson about being rash.’

‘But did it work, Napoleon?’ Illya asked. ‘Was the mission a success?’

Napoleon’s eyes widened. ‘Do you know, I have no idea. I think so. I think things were pretty much over just after you went down. But I haven’t checked in and no one’s called me, and I don’t know about the base out in Hertfordshire either.’

‘And you have the temerity to criticise my actions as an agent.’

Napoleon got out his communicator pen. ‘Well now, Illya, there’s a world of difference between not calling in for the results of a mission, and running into a fire fight with a broken arm,’ he said seriously.

Illya closed his eyes, and Napoleon smiled. It was not often that he won an argument with Illya. He took a moment to brush a few strands of hair back from the pale forehead, thinking that on the whole he would rather lose arguments with Illya than have him in this condition. Then he opened the pen and connected with London headquarters, getting hold of a lovely agent called Rosalin in the communications section.

‘Napoleon Solo,’ he said crisply. ‘I’m calling in Mr Kuryakin’s condition and checking on how last night’s missions went.’

‘How is Mr Kuryakin?’ the woman asked very anxiously, and Napoleon gave Illya a flashing grin.

‘Mr Kuryakin is off the ventilator, conscious and talking,’ he told the woman. ‘Illya?’ he asked, holding the pen closer to his partner’s mouth.

‘I am – all right,’ Illya said rather awkwardly. ‘Thank you for asking.’

‘All the girls were so worried,’ Rosalin gushed.

Napoleon murmured only for Illya’s ears, ‘Well, someone certainly made an impression.’ He raised his voice then and asked, ‘Rosalin, darling, how did the raids turn out?’

‘All Thrush personnel either captured or killed at the National Gallery, almost no damage to artworks,’ she replied instantly. ‘There’s an El Greco that will need restoring, a fair number of bullet holes in the plasterwork, and chipping in the columns in the lobby. But no paintings were removed from their frames.’

‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ Napoleon said warmly. ‘And what about the Hertfordshire base?

‘Completely emptied out,’ the disembodied voice replied. ‘They must have had wind that we’d be coming because there were very few personnel there, but we’ve captured an important building, computer equipment, lab experiments, weapons, and records. They left in too much of a hurry to take much. Barnabas Fink was not among the captured.’

‘Ah, thank you, fair Rosalin,’ Napoleon smiled, putting all of his charm into the words. ‘I’ll report in again later. Meanwhile, can you send a couple of men round to guard Illya’s hospital room until he’s well enough to be moved?’

‘Will do, sir,’ she replied crisply.

‘Ah, good. Solo out.’ He capped his pen again and turned to Illya. ‘Well, you heard, tovarisch. It’s a shame about Fink, but it was a good night’s work.’

He watched a smile steal over the Russian’s face, although his eyes stayed closed.

‘It makes precious little difference,’ Illya muttered. ‘They carry on or they are replaced. They are all diabolical.’

‘You tired, Illya?’ Solo asked gently.

Illya’s eyes blinked open. ‘Just a bit,’ he murmured.

Napoleon threw a glance at the door to be sure they weren’t being watch, then bent over and touched his lips gently to his partner’s forehead.

‘Get some sleep,’ he said. ‘I’ll send the nurse back in. I need to go round to HQ and give in my report, but I’ll be back the moment I’m free. Okay?’

Illya opened his eyes again to meet Napoleon’s dark gaze, and he smiled.

‘Okay,’ he murmured. ‘I won’t be going anywhere.’

17.

They were able to move Illya to the infirmary in the London HQ after a day of recuperation in St Thomas’, and Napoleon was mightily relieved to have him there, behind bomb proof walls and bullet proof windows, and with armed staff always in attendance. Still, it was a long week of waiting, of being separated at night and outside of strictly enforced visiting hours, until Illya was cleared to be released into Napoleon’s care. It was another week until he was cleared to travel on the commercial airline through which Mr Waverly insisted they book their flights. Napoleon vividly remembered his gruff put down through the communicator: Mr Solo, U.N.C.L.E. is not made of money, no matter how much you desire a private jet to take you home. First class is the best I can give you, and that’s only because Mr Kuryakin was so careless as to allow himself to be shot through the chest.

On the flight Napoleon kept finding himself stealing glances at his partner, despite the continued attentions of stewardesses who seemed to want nothing more than to flirt with the handsome American. He was just glad they were leaving Illya alone. Pale and tired looking, he was also extremely attractive to the types who liked to look after people, and most of the stewardesses were just that type. That was why Napoleon had arranged their seats so that Illya was on the window side, away from the aisle, and had firmly but discreetly told the senior stewardess that as he was injured he was not to be bothered. He had no fear that Illya would fall prey to any of their advances, any more than he himself would be now he was committed to Illya, but still, he never liked to watch women flirt with his partner.

‘Where are we now?’ Illya asked after a while, head nodding towards the window where a partly broken blanket of cloud blazed white under an early sun.

Napoleon leant over towards his companion, making a show of craning towards the horizon and examining the view of the puffy clouds and scraps of ocean below.

‘Over the Atlantic,’ he said after a good length of apparent consideration.

Illya gave him a withering look, and batted his arm with his left hand, before wincing at the pain the movement occasioned.

‘Serves you right for hitting me,’ Napoleon told him with a grin.

‘I have been asleep,’ Illya said tartly. ‘How far into the flight are we?’

Napoleon stretched his wrist out of his cuff and looked at his watch. ‘Oh, about six hours. Not far now, impatient Russian.’

Illya grunted. ‘You’d be impatient if you were trapped on an aeroplane while convalescing from the injuries I have.’

Napoleon regarded his partner carefully, trying to gauge just how bad he was feeling. Much as he enjoyed teasing Illya, he really didn’t want him to suffer.

‘Can I flatten out the seat more?’ he asked solicitously. ‘Are you warm enough?’

Illya grunted again, closing his eyes. ‘I am more than warm enough,’ he muttered, but said nothing about the seat, which Napoleon took as a tacit invitation to flatten it a little more. As he worked the lever and the seat reclined Illya rolled his head towards him, and smiled.

‘What would I do without you?’

‘Bleed to death more often,’ Napoleon said succinctly, but he found himself gazing at Illya’s face, haunted by the serious truth beneath his tart statement. ‘Maybe it would teach you not to rush in where angels fear to tread,’ he added.

Illya grinned, keeping his eyes closed. ‘Angels don’t like to get their feet dirty. I don’t mind at all.’

It was Napoleon’s turn to grunt. Illya would be off field work for the next few months, and Napoleon could not expect to be confined to office work that long himself. That meant that Illya’s gesture in rushing in to the art gallery would leave Solo without his most trusted backup until he was cleared to go out again.

‘I’m serious, Illya,’ Napoleon told him, meeting his eyes, hoping to impress upon him the import of what he was saying. ‘I’ve had to write you up for rushing in with your arm in that state, and Waverly will have a pretty stern dressing down waiting for you when we get back. If I’d added that your arm hindered your reloading – ’

‘But you didn’t,’ Illya cut across him quickly.

‘I didn’t, no.’

Illya sighed, and a small smile flitted across his pale features. ‘It was a foolish decision, Napoleon. Perhaps I can blame the painkillers for addling my thinking. Perhaps I should just blame myself. But I was almost killed, so I think you can trust that I have learnt my lesson.’

Napoleon pressed his lips together. He hoped that what Illya said was true, but then he knew that in a similar situation he himself would have been very close to joining the battle regardless of injuries already sustained.

‘Just don’t do it again,’ he said, impressing his point home by jabbing his finger into Illya’s arm at each word. ‘Promise?’

Illya sighed again, and Napoleon recognised the beginnings of a mutinous look in his eyes, but then he shook his head and said, ‘Promise. Scout’s honour.’

‘Do they have boy scouts in the Ukraine?’

Illya half opened one eye to cock a look at his partner. ‘Well, I was never one for group work, anyway.’

((O))

Illya would have far preferred to have gone back to his apartment after stepping off the flight from New York. It was galling enough that Napoleon had called for a wheelchair to meet the flight and take him to their cab, and he wanted nothing more than to go in through his front door, lock it securely behind him, and collapse on the couch with some jazz playing on the turntable and a glass of whiskey in his hand. Instead, he and Napoleon were both committed to returning straight to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, suitcases and all, for debriefing.

The jet lag wasn’t nearly as bad coming this way as it was returning to the continent from America, but this time it had hit Illya hard. He felt as though he didn’t know if he were coming or going, and whichever way he was going he was doing it through a pall of sleepiness and exhaustion. He hated to admit to weakness but a shot through the lung, as Napoleon kept telling him, was not something to take lightly.

Napoleon came round quickly to open the door for him when the cab drew up in front of Del Floria’s, and Illya almost batted his hand away.

‘I am quite capable of getting out of a car,’ he growled, manoeuvring himself stiffly out onto the pavement.

Napoleon held his hands away from his body in mock surrender, and went to fetch the luggage while Illya paid the driver.

‘You’ll at least let me carry these,’ Solo said, nodding at the cases in each hand.

‘If you must,’ Illya grunted, but he was silently grateful. He almost felt like he wouldn’t make it into the tailor’s shop, let alone if he were carrying cases. The heat and humidity of New York were conspiring against him to make him dizzy and short of breath. Humidity in particular was something he did not miss when he was away from his adopted city.

‘Come on, let’s go find the old man,’ Solo told him, and Illya blinked at him, wondering where the cases had suddenly disappeared to. ‘I skipped ahead and deposited them behind the counter,’ Napoleon told him with a grin. ‘While you were in a little world of your own, leaning on the railings.’

‘Some agent I am,’ Illya murmured darkly, and this time he took the offered arm, leaning on Napoleon a little as they made their way down the stairs into the semi-subterranean shop.

‘You know, you look terrible,’ Napoleon said as they moved through the false back of the changing room into the U.N.C.L.E. reception.

‘Hmm. Maybe he’ll go easier on me,’ Illya grunted, standing stoically as the good looking woman behind the desk pinned on both his and Napoleon’s badges and waved them through.

Napoleon made a show of craning his neck, looking around carefully at all the corners of the corridor’s ceiling, before shrugging, ‘I don’t see any pigs up there today. Maybe we should go away and come back when there’s a blue moon?’

‘Funny,’ Illya replied, in a tone that made it clear that it was not funny at all.

By the time they reached Waverly’s room, the nerve centre of the entire of U.N.C.L.E., he was more glad of the chance to sit down than apprehensive of Waverly’s reaction. Nevertheless, there was a reaction, and he sat trying to look attentive while his boss gave him a thorough dressing down and he replied with the appropriate apologetic noises and sincere tone.

‘Meanwhile, Mr Kuryakin, Mr Solo, I have a guest here who’s been most eager to welcome your return,’ Waverly continued, and at that Illya’s attention sharpened. He noticed that the warm, grandfatherly glint had returned to the Englishman’s eye, and felt considerably relieved, if too tired to think hard about who the guest might be. He watched Waverly press the intercom button and say, ‘Yes, yes, you can send her through now, thank you.’

Illya exchanged a glance with Napoleon, who looked as bewildered as he felt. A moment later the door to the office slid open, and in walked Elidh Jones, wearing not a green guest’s badge, but the yellow triangle that designated an U.N.C.L.E. employee.

‘You’re in?’ Illya asked, some of his exhaustion dissipating.

Elidh looked about to reply, but Waverly did instead. ‘She is, as you put it, in, Mr Kuryakin. In to U.N.C.L.E. London, the Infirmary of course, but I wanted to meet the young lady who proved so efficient in our latest affair. A very welcome addition to our ranks. I’ve spent the morning having the most entertaining conversation with her.’

For all of his reputation as a gruff Russian iceberg, Illya could not keep the grin from his face, and Elidh came forward to hug Napoleon, and then gently hug and kiss Illya before looking critically at his face.

‘Mr Waverly, I hope it’s your intention to send this man straight home,’ she said sternly. ‘He isn’t in any fit state – ’

Waverly looked rather startled, but then a pacifying smile crept over his face. ‘Well, of course, I – ’

‘You were about to order him home?’ she asked, then glanced at Napoleon. ‘And he probably shouldn’t be on his own overnight.’

‘Miss Jones, I do expect my agents to – ’ Waverly began, but he faltered uncharacteristically at her stern expression. ‘Well, perhaps in this case...’ He looked between Illya and Napoleon, then waved his hand impatiently at the door. ‘Well, go on, you two. Do you have to wait for a direct order every time? I don’t employ you to have such an appalling lack of initiative. Come in tomorrow for a full debriefing.’

Illya waited until they were safely out in the corridor before aiming a grin at Miss Jones.

‘I don’t know when I’ve been more grateful that our Mr Waverly can be so easily cowed by a woman who knows her own mind,’ he said.

Napoleon glanced between the two. ‘You know, I wouldn’t dare to make plans tonight, but will you be in town for a little longer, Miss Jones? Can we offer you dinner, say tomorrow evening at seven?’

Elidh smiled brightly. ‘Well, I’m pre-booked with Mr Waverly and his wife tonight. I’m in New York until the end of the week, and I would love to share dinner with you both in a place that isn’t a Thrush cell or an U.N.C.L.E. infirmary.’

Napoleon grinned. ‘Then it’s a date.’ He looked sideways at Illya. ‘But the only date you’ve got right now, tovarisch, is a date with a well made bed. Kapische?’

Illya sighed. ‘If it’s a choice between that and saying I feel fine, and facing Waverly again, I will take the bed. Miss Jones, I’ll be very glad to see you tomorrow.’

‘As will I,’ she smiled. She leant forward to kiss him on the cheek, then said, ‘Oh!’ and brought out something rolled up in a brown envelope from under her arm. ‘I picked this up for you from one of the ex-pat shops here in New York, Illya. I thought it probably passed you by.’

‘A newspaper?’ Illya asked, curiously, peeking into the top of the envelope.

‘Oh no, wait until you’re home,’ she urged him. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

((O))

Back in his small apartment, tucked into a bed made to military precision, Illya was nursing a glass of whiskey while Napoleon reclined with his own drink in an armchair brought in from the other room. The bedroom window was open to the late-afternoon heat because while Napoleon would have hauled an air conditioning unit out by now, Illya did not believe in such intrinsically American luxuries. He was lying under no more than a thin sheet, basking in the warmth now he had nowhere to go, and listening to the faint sounds from the street below. Then Illya remembered the newspaper in the envelope again.

‘Could you pass me that, Napoleon?’ he asked, nodding towards the newspaper on the nightstand.

‘Huh?’ his partner asked, putting down his own glass and looking over in the same direction. ‘Oh, that. What is it?’

‘A newspaper,’ Illya said, taking the envelope from Napoleon and drawing out the tightly rolled paper. He uncurled an edition of the Independent dated just a day ago, and spread it out to look at the headline. Then he grinned and let his head fall back on the pillow, tossing the paper over to Napoleon. ‘Maybe we left London just too soon,’ he said.

He reached out one hand to grab Napoleon’s lapel and drag him closer. The paper fell from the American’s hand as he leant into a long, languorous kiss in which Illya used his full lips to great effect and flicked his tongue wetly into his partner’s mouth to taste him after what felt like a long drought. He found his partner’s teeth one by one, smooth and clean, and darted his tongue against the heat of the Napoleon’s, revelling in the touch of that strong muscle that could draw such delight when applied to different parts of his body.

After what felt like a long, timeless period he drew back and met his lover’s eyes, and said, ‘In London what you’re thinking about right now is perfectly legal. They passed the law.’

There was fire in Napoleon’s eyes, but he said, ‘In New York or London what I’m thinking right now is very, very contrary to medical advice. But I look forward to spending all the energy that I would spend doing that on getting you all better so we can do that. And then when we can do that I might book us both some leave and take you to a remote Yorkshire cottage or similar, and do that to you so much that you need another vacation to recover from all of the that that we’ve done.’

‘We can’t do that now?’ Illya asked, almost plaintively. He had taken his painkillers and they were combining nicely with the whiskey to give him a mellow feeling that would allow him to do almost anything, as long as it could be followed by sleep.

Napoleon deposited a kiss on his forehead. ‘We can do this,’ he said. He laid another kiss on his cheek. ‘And this.’ Another on the flat golden skin between the part-unbuttoned sides of his pyjama top. ‘And this.’ He tugged back the thin sheet covering him and lifted up the bottom of the shirt just enough to expose a small amount of flat, soft belly, and laid another kiss on the skin, and by that point Illya was shivering.

‘I’m not really tired,’ he protested.

Napoleon grinned. ‘Well I am. A little tired.’ His fingers toyed with the drawstring fastening of the pyjama bottoms. ‘Kinda tired.’ He pulled loose the bow and skimmed the trousers down over slim hips, revealing the tawny-gold hair that bushed around Illya’s stiffening dusky-pink cock. ‘Not so tired.’

As Illya started to sit Napoleon pressed a hand very gently on his chest.

‘Uh-uh. Stay.’

Illya settled back into the pillows, the medication and the whiskey making him amenable, soft, malleable. He lay and watched as Napoleon’s hands, a little darker than his, a little larger, scattered with dark hairs, deftly unbuttoned his pyjama top. He folded back the sides to reveal Illya’s chest, still a little bruised over the healing ribs, swathed in white dressings over both the lung and shoulder wounds. Only one nipple was exposed, peaked from its golden-pink surround, and Napoleon let his fingers linger on it, pinching just enough so that Illya hissed breath in between his teeth. Simultaneously his cock jerked in anticipation.

‘Hasty,’ Napoleon murmured.

Illya reached out his broken arm towards Napoleon’s body, a look of longing in his eyes, but his lover shook his head. ‘Oh no. You rest. I’m giving it all to you this time. I can look after myself.’

Illya sighed, a vision swimming into his head of Napoleon resting back in that chair later with a handful of tissues, maybe, stroking himself to climax, never dropping his eyes from his lover’s. He felt his cock harden a degree more, and bit his lip.

‘Whatever you’re going to do to me, Napoleon, just – ’ he gritted out, before realising that made him sound like a less than grateful recipient.

‘Patience, mon amour.’

Napoleon’s fingers strayed down his chest and belly, followed by his lips, which were kissing, nibbling, stopping just short of biting. Illya wished he would bite.

‘I will have you,’ Napoleon promised. ‘I will have – every inch of you.’

And suddenly his mouth was descending over his lover’s eager cock, swallowing it deep into the back of his throat, drawing back just enough to tease and swirl around the hooded head before slipping back the foreskin and applying himself like a starving man to the soft, velvet glans. Illya pushed his head back into the pillow behind him, grabbed onto the sheet with his good left hand, fought with every fibre of his being against jerking his hips up and pushing harder against Napoleon’s mouth. Napoleon’s hand settled flatly on his belly, keeping him still with gentle pressure that turned into firm, regular stroking. His other hand crept down between the Russian’s legs, toying with the soft sack beneath his rearing cock, stroking his perineum with firm strokes, then moving down to circle the tight ring of muscle below. Illya couldn’t help it this time. Despite Napoleon’s left hand on his belly he arched upward, groaning, and the teasing, apparently oiled, hand between his legs followed his movement, circling, dipping through the tight muscle and slipping out again.

‘Oh – god,’ he gasped through gritted teeth. ‘God, Napoleon… Please...’

He did not know what he was pleading for but he got it as the finger teased into his body again, plunging in as Napoleon’s mouth surged over his cock again, until another two fingers had joined it and fingers and mouth had set up an inseparable rhythm, a piston beat that became the one real thing in his life.

‘God,’ he ground out again, fighting against his urge to thrust because he knew he was in Napoleon’s hands; that Napoleon would have him just as he wanted to have him.

He watched that dark head moving over his body, the blood-stiffened red of his cock appearing and disappearing under the ministrations of those lips and that tongue, and found it the most erotic thing he had seen in far too long. The fingers inside him reached deeper, pulsing, until they slipped over the bump of his prostate, and he had to shove a pillow over his face to muffle his scream. His balls tightened, the ache released, and he was fountaining into Napoleon’s mouth as it stilled around him, the fingers stilled now inside his ass.

Illya’s spine suddenly relaxed as if the nerves had been cut, and he lay gasping, short of breath, the pillow light and loose over his face.

Suddenly Napoleon was at his head, batting the pillow away, face all concern despite the swollen lips and flushed cheeks. He laid his hand on Illya’s chest again, over his heart, as if to be sure it was still beating.

‘You okay?’

Illya favoured him with a smile that would out-shine the sun.

‘I am more than – more than fine,’ he promised, trying to pull the wheezing back to normal breathing. ‘Doctor’s orders,’ he added, keeping his words brief in deference to his need for air. ‘Endorphins. Good.’

Napoleon grinned back at him. ‘Endorphins good,’ he agreed. He picked up the discarded English newspaper and returned it to the nightstand. ‘But this headline notwithstanding, I don’t think doctors will be prescribing this kind of therapy for a hole in the lung any time soon.’

The American carefully pulled the pyjama trousers back up over Illya’s hips and tied the string with a proprietorial air. He left the pyjama top flapping open, and Illya lay quietly watching him, smiling, as Napoleon moved about the room. All the while he felt himself sinking closer into sleep, relaxed all through, his breath back now but his spine still ridiculously loose, his arms nerveless at his sides. Whatever words Waverly might have for him tomorrow after the full debriefing, he didn’t care. He was here and Napoleon was here, safe and whole, just waiting until they were ready to go out and save the world again.

END




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