The White Knight Affair
The train whistle shrieked as the wheels spun and then bit.
Standing in the open doorway Solo turned to look at his partner. Kuryakin’s hair was starting to float in the draught, a yellow tell-tale for their gathering speed.
“I will. You too. Go.”
As Solo turned, he was halted by a hand behind his neck and pulled into a fierce, if fleeting kiss. Panting, Kuryakin grinned at him.
‘That should hold you until New York,” he said, and nodded to the door. “I think this is where you get off.”
With a final terse nod, Napoleon Solo leapt into the slipstream.
Kuryakin settled back into his window seat, settled a hand on the P-38 under his jacket and risked closing his eyes. He felt as though he hadn’t slept for a week. In the three days since he and Napoleon had liberated the toxin formula from Thrush Geneva, they’d been shot at (missed), bombed (missed again) and pursued almost to capture at Paris’ Gare de Lyon. Illya regretted the grisly mess of Thrushes they’d left on track seven. He’d have regretted it more had it been himself or Napoleon who had tangled (and lost) with the incoming train. They’d made it across Paris to the Gare du Nord with moments to spare before the departure of the Calais train and Napoleon thought he’d spotted another Thrush on the concourse.
It had seemed wise at this point to split the formula between them and take separate routes home to New York, Napoleon by air from Beauvais and Illya from London. Illya smiled to himself as he thought of his partner’s two-mile hike from the rail track across country to the airport. He looked up as the ticket collector entered the carriage.
“Messieurs ’Dames. Vos billets, s’il vous plait.” Illya had his ticket checked and clipped then settled back into his seat for the journey to Calais Maritime.
In the rear of the speeding Bentley, the dark-haired woman opened her compact and smiled at her reflection. She flipped the mirror aside, silencing the shrill beeping and spoke.
“It’ll be Ramsgate, Ma’am,” the voice from the speaker was distorted by mild static. “He took the hovercraft.”
“Was he alone?”
“Affirmative. There was no sign of Solo.”
“Excellent!” She drew out the sibilance. “Return to base — and prepare the accommodation. And stay alert. You know how devious they can be.” She flipped the mirror back in place and checked her make-up. Satisfied, she slid the compact back into her purse and pressed a button on the armrest. In front, the chauffeur’s head came up and he met her eyes in the rear-view mirror.
“Ma’am?” His voice was clear through the speaker.
He touched the peak of his cap. “Very good, Ma’am.”
The Bentley surged forward into the outside lane.
Three Days Later Napoleon bounced a pencil, eraser end first, on the table and waited for Waverly to finish signing the last report in front of him. Number one Section one regarded him balefully, pen poised above the paper, and Napoleon arrested the pencil mid-flight. His chief blinked slowly and returned his attention to his task. After a final brisk underscore, the Old Man gathered the pile together and handed the reports to his secretary with barely a glance.
“Thank you, Miss Rogers,” he said. “And see that Mr Solo and I aren’t disturbed would you, please?”
As the door swished shut, Alexander Waverly took out his pipe and swivelled his chair towards his CEA. “I take it you’ve heard nothing from Mr Kuryakin?” he asked. Napoleon shook his head.
“Communications are monitoring all frequencies and I’ve called in a few favours. Not a dicky bird since he was seen boarding the hovercraft at Calais Maritime.”
“Any sign at all that he reached Ramsgate?”
Napoleon frowned. “ No, Sir, but that doesn’t mean…”
“At the moment, Mr Solo, we don’t know what it means. We have insufficient information to make any reasonable deductions but,” Waverly added, not unkindly, “we need to be prepared for all eventualities.”
Expect the best, prepare for the worst, thought Napoleon. And tried very hard, despite the growing knot in his stomach.
Waverly drew a file towards him and opened it before sending it round the table to rest in front of Solo. “This is a summary report on the half of the formula that you and Mr Kuryakin extracted from the Thrush satrapy in Geneva.”
Napoleon flipped to the end of the document. After a moment he raised horrified eyes to his boss. Waverly nodded grimly.
“Quite so. Your device of splitting the formula between you was prudent in the extreme. Section VIII speculates that the portion held by Mr Kuryakin is the key part.” He turned a page in his own file. “You’re certain that Professor Lizl was dead before you left the satrapy?”
Napoleon nodded. “Illya’s explosives totally pulverised the lab area and demolished most of the surrounding buildings. It was just bad luck that the helipad caught the tail of the blast otherwise we’d have been home free.”
Waverly harrumphed. “It seems, then, that we must play a longer game. I think it’s time for you to travel to the UK and…”
The intercom on the desk interrupted him. The fearsome eyebrows drew together as Waverly hit the button. “Miss Rogers, I specifically said we were…”
“Sir, please,” Lisa Rogers’ voice was agitated. “We’ve received a package that I think you need to see immediately.”
Napoleon caught his boss’ eye and was out of his chair before the thought had coalesced. Illya…
“Sit down Mr Solo,” Waverly barked, then turned back to the intercom. “I assume it’s been checked, Miss Rogers?”
“Yes, Sir. It’s been through sections VI and VIII.” The voice faltered. “May I… may I bring…?”
“Immediately, Miss Rogers, if you please.” Waverly flipped off the communicator and stood — joining Napoleon who hadn’t moved a muscle.
The door swished open and Lisa Rogers’ face was waxy as she approached them. Napoleon thought his probably was too. As she handed the small, nondescript box to her boss, Napoleon’s hand shot out and intercepted it. He raised his chin to Waverly who merely nodded.
The box was stiff cardboard, about the size of a flip-top pack of cigarettes, and it was addressed to him â,,... U.N.C.L.E New York. There was no return address and it had clearly been dusted for fingerprints. To no avail, it seemed. Napoleon wondered if Lisa and Alexander Waverly would notice the tremor in his hands as he slid the lid upwards.
The first thing he saw was a hand-written card that read, ‘Happy Anniversary, Mr Solo!’ overlaid by a crimson lipstick kiss. Lifting it aside revealed a nest of bloodstained cotton wool. He swallowed hard, and lifted it aside…
…to reveal an ivory chessman — a knight — dark-stained like the cotton wool.
Without a word, he passed the card to Waverly. His boss took one look and his lips tightened.
Napoleon nodded and did a quick calculation. “It’s ten years since the Giuoco Piano affair which must mean that…”
“It will be ten years tomorrow since Harold Bufferton’s death,” said Waverly.
Napoleon moved to the communications console. Waverly turned to his secretary.
“Miss Rogers,” he said. “Please find me the files on the Quadripartite and Giuoco Piano affairs.” He paused. “That is, after you have something to drink, my dear — a strong coffee, perhaps? And bring some for Mr Solo and myself too, if you would.” He patted her shoulder abstractedly as she left. “Thank you.”
Napoleon jumped as a buzzer sounded on the console in front of him. He flipped a switch. “Solo.”
“Mr Solo? This is Heather McNab in communications. Is Mr Waverly with you?”
“Go ahead, Miss McNab,” the Old Man replied.
“Sir, I have a transmission on Channel D. Overseas relay from Mr Kuryakin’s communicator.”
“Put him through,” Napoleon and his boss chorused together.
“Sir… it isn’t Mr Kuryakin…”
Napoleon exchanged a glance with Waverly, who nodded.
“Put it through anyway, Heather,” said Napoleon. “And run a triangulation.”
“Already on it, Napoleon.”
There was a brief burst of static and then a gleeful female voice. “Alexander?”
“Miss Ravel? I would say it’s good to hear you but I’m afraid that in spite of everything I remain a truthful man.”
“How very archaic of you. However I’m touched that you still remember me. Is Mr Solo with you?”
“Yes Mr Solo is here with me. It’s been a while since we heard from you. May I assume that you’re no longer a guest of the state?”
There was an inelegant snort. Then, “Do keep up, Alexander. The cells were tiny and the uniform execrable. Didn’t suit me at all. I couldn’t bring myself to endure them a moment longer, so with a little help from my friends…”
Abraded by concern for his partner, Napoleon’s tolerance reached its limit. “Is there a point to your call, Gervaise?”
“Ah, you are there, Napoleon. How delightful! We’re all here, then. Old friends remembering together. Remembering the third anniversary.” The voice became harsh. “Three years since my Harold was murdered.” Ravel’s pitch rose. “Executed by…”
Napoleon swallowed. “Gervaise…”
“Oh, but wait. Isn’t there somebody missing from our anniversary party? Oh yes, that’s right, your partner’s missing isn’t he, Napoleon? Missing in action — MIA? Not KIA, not like my Harold…” A chilling little laugh, then, “not yet anyway. Whether he remains simply MIA or gets promoted to KIA depends on you and U.N.C.L.E.”
Napoleon opened his mouth to respond but Waverly beat him to it. “What is it you want, Miss Ravel?”
“Alexander, you’re slipping. I should have thought that was obvious. You have half the formula and I have the other half — and Kuryakin. I suggest we can do business. Your half of the formula for Mr Solo’s white knight.” She paused. “You may have twenty-four hours to consider your response whilst I play a little more with him…”
“Wait, Gervaise,” Napoleon was surprised by the steadiness of his voice. “How do we know you aren’t bluffing? Let me speak to Illya.”
“I don’t think he can come to the phone right now…”
“He does or there’s no deal.”
Ravel gave an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, very well then.”
Napoleon did his best to tune out the groans and sounds of dragging.
“Napoleon…?” Illya slurred.
The relief made Napoleon light-headed. “You okay, partner mine?”
“Peachy.” He coughed wetly, then said more clearly, and in a rush, “Do not deal. She doesn’t have the formula. I…”
There was the sound of something solid hitting flesh, a cry and then the sound of retching, overlaid by Ravel’s voice.
“Naughty, naughty, Mr Kuryakin. For that we’ll play even more games later.”
Napoleon was on his feet before he realised it. “Gervaise…”
“I’m sure your girlies will have tracked our location by now, I’ve given them long enough. See you in twenty-four hours, Napoleon. Your white knight can’t wait.”
Static filled the room and Waverly reached past Napoleon to turn off the receiver. Napoleon’s breathing sounded loud in the silence. He jumped as Lisa Rogers entered with a tray containing their coffee and two files. He let Waverly pour and finally took a cleansing breath. His chief handed him a steaming cup and added cream and sugar to his own, gazing at him as he stirred.
“Mr Kuryakin is right, you…”
“I know. I’m not that naive.” Napoleon glanced an apology at his chief. “But I have no intention of leaving Illya in the hands of that madwoman for a moment longer than I have to.”
Waverly’s eyebrows raised a challenge.
“I know we’re all expendable, Sir,” Solo continued. “But we need to take the other part of that formula out of circulation ASAP. I think Illya was going to say that he’d destroyed it. You know his memory.” He tapped his temple. “If he’s seen it once then it’ll be in there. If that’s so then Ravel will keep him alive at all costs.” He suppressed an image of what ‘at all costs’ might mean for his partner. “Let…”
The console buzzed and Waverly flipped the switch. “Miss McNab?”
“Sir, we’ve traced Mr Kuryakin’s communicator to London.”
“Can’t you be more specific?”
“We’re re-running the triangulation now, Sir. Should have a reference for you shortly.”
“Thank you, Miss McNab. Let me have it as soon as you can. And put a call through to Mr Michaels in London. I need his most senior agent on this one.”
Napoleon read the resolve in Waverly’s face and caught his breath. “Sir? I need to go on this one. By all means have Nick Hay back me up, but I need to be point.”
Waverly gave Napoleon a long look.
“Mr Solo, you know the standard operating procedure in this situation. Extraction is too risky.” The Old Man paused, then said more quietly, “It would be monstrous of me to send you to neutralise your own partner.”
“It’s monstrous not to give me a chance to extract him first. You know Ravel’s capacity for duplicity. With due respect to Nick Hay, he doesn’t have the flair to handle that.” Napoleon found himself in Waverly’s personal space but didn’t care. “Send him and you’ll lose him. And Illya. And the formula. You can’t want that Sir… Sir?”
The silence stretched. Both men jumped when it was broken by the beeping of the communications’ console. Waverly stepped slowly around Napoleon, holding his gaze, and flipped the switch.
“Go ahead, Miss McNab.”
“Sir I have the map coordinates for you. The location is in Wapping, near the river.”
“Very well.” Waverly pressed a button on the console. “Send them through.” He paused. “And patch them through to Mr Solo as well. He’ll be leaving immediately.” Waverly closed the channel and turned to Napoleon. “Please understand that this goes against my better judgment, Mr Solo.” He regarded him sternly for a moment then huffed. “Very well. See Miss Rogers for your travel essentials and liaise with U.N.C.L.E. London as soon as you arrive. I’ll speak to Alan Michaels in the meantime and ask him to have Mr Hay meet you at Heathrow.
“And remember, if that formula is for what we think it is, it cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands. It must be destroyed. By whatever means. Are we clear, Mr Solo?”
Napoleon nodded once. “We’re clear, Sir.” He headed for the door.
Illya couldn’t seem to stop shivering. He hoped it was just the single-figure temperature in his cell. He didn’t think he was bleeding internally. They hadn’t worked him over hard enough or long enough for that. Yet. It was hard to take a breath, though, for the abdominal spasm. And the pain from the weals on his back.
Apart from the discomfort he was safe. For the moment. Gervaise Ravel would not willingly kill him until she had the formula. He was almost amused. Didn’t she know that he wouldn’t give it up under torture? U.N.C.L.E. trained its agents well. If she really wore him down he’d eventually give her anything to make the pain stop. Anything, other than the formula, which by then he would have disassembled and dispersed around his brain beyond even his retrieval.
When they’d first started work on him, his worry had been that she was softening him up for Napoleon’s inevitable arrival; injuring him in overt ways that would reach beyond his partner’s sangfroid and stir the sleeping beast within.
He’d witnessed the beast on only two occasions, both when he was being tortured by Thrush. The first time he observed the transformation in his partner, it shocked him more than any torture. Dead-eyed, Napoleon had executed the Thrush agents without apparent compunction. Afterwards he’d seemed dazed and it was Illya who, despite his injuries, had led their escape. Once Napoleon had recovered himself, he’d refused to admit to any loss of control. Illya’s main worry was for his partner’s safety: ‘reckless’ and ‘dead’ were adjacent pages in his book.
It was shortly after the second episode that he and Napoleon had become lovers. It took some time for Napoleon to acknowledge the lapses in control, and longer still before they’d agreed a strategy that wouldn't jeopardise them in the field. It was a work in progress.
They came for him again two hours later. A long enough gap for his mind to clear from the previous session, but for the anticipation of remembered pain to flood his system with cytokines. The torturer’s friend. This time Gervaise Ravel was waiting for them, in breeches, boots and carrying a riding crop.
“Ah, Mr Kuryakin. How nice.” She addressed his captors, “Hang him a little higher this time.”
Illya closed his eyes as they began again…
After an indeterminate time, he became aware that they’d stopped. Eventually he was able to open his eyes. Ravel walked around his suspended form. The tapping of her riding crop against her boot was rapid-fire. Through his stupor, Illya noticed.
“You’re beginning to sound frustrated, Miss Ravel,” he panted. “I wonder…” He gasped as the crop descended twice in quick succession on his abused back.
Ravel stood in front of him breathing hard. “Tell me what I want to know, and it will stop.”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m a little sceptical on that.”
“All right, then.” She paused. “Tell me what I want to know and I won’t need to go to work on your partner when he arrives.”
Illya’s heart did a quick scuttle. He hoped he’d kept his face impassive. “Don’t hold your breath.”
“What? You don’t think he’ll come for you? Don’t be disingenuous, Mr Kuryakin. He’d walk through fire for you, wouldn’t he? He’ll be here.” She ran the crop slowly down his torso. “And then you can have a nice rest whilst we play with him. How tight-lipped will you be then, I wonder?” She nodded to the Thrushes and turned away…
He came to curled in a corner of in his cell, wracked with pain. Far worse than the physical torment was the gnawing fear that Ravel would get her hands on Napoleon and that he’d be forced to watch. He knew without a shadow of a doubt he’d give her anything to prevent that. The misery was almost enough to dull the spasms in his back.
It wasn’t until his pain-fogged brain realised that Napoleon wouldn’t be coming that he began to feel calm. This was not an extraction situation and Waverly would not send him on a neutralisation mission. Not for his own partner.
No, Waverly’s best plan would be to send a London operative. He hoped it wouldn't be too long. And he hoped the man would be good at his job. He shifted position and gasped at the burning from his flayed back. The prospect of a clean kill was becoming increasingly attractive.
The sound of the cell-door mechanism made his gut cramp. Too soon. He’d no defences. For the first time he wondered if his mind could hold out. A hand on his shoulder made him flinch.
He spun round without thinking and gasped out a Russian curse. “Napoleon…?”
“Well, I’d expected a warmer welcome, but - yes - it’s me. I’m…”
Illya struggled upright and thrust against his partner’s chest. “Napoleon you have to go. She’ll…”
Solo grasped his arm. “Easy, partner. I am going, and so are you. Come on…”
“No!” Illya struggled against the restraining hand, trying to make his partner understand the danger he was in. “You have to kill me — now. And then go. I can’t watch… can’t…”
“Whoa… what are you…?”
Illya’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t catch his breath. His fear dumping adrenaline into his system. “Kill me. Please, Napoleon. If you love me, you have to…”
Two things happened. There were distant noises of gunfire and Napoleon shook Illya so hard his jaw snapped shut and he bit his tongue.
“Illya! Come on, I need you to focus. We’re here to get you out, but you have to help.” Napoleon brushed the hair out of his eyes and planted an apologetic kiss on his forehead. “Can you walk?”
Illya felt as though his head was full of porridge but he nodded at his partner and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.
Napoleon looked at him with soft eyes and tutted. “Aaah… you bit your tongue.” He took the clean handkerchief out of his breast pocket and gently dabbed the trickle of blood from the corner of Illya’s mouth. “There,” he said, tucking the handkerchief back in his pocket. He held out his hand. “Come on.”
Clutching the hand as though his life depended on it Illya followed his partner from the cell.
The gunfire was coming closer. He ran towards it, his hand in Napoleon’s, aware of a slithering sound behind him. It was getting harder to run. Something was dragging him back. He looked round and shrieked. The slithering sound was Napoleon’s flayed body, Gervaise Ravel grasping his partner’s other hand…
Illya woke with a gasp, heart pounding. A grey dawn light filtered between the drapes and outlined a gently-snoring Napoleon in the chair next to his bed. Gradually his heart slowed and he reached a shaking hand towards the water jug on his bedside table. As he poured himself a glass, the jug clattered hard against it.
Napoleon came instantly awake. He yawned and stretched then gazed appraisingly at Illya. “Good morning. I see you’re awake.”
Illya took a sip of water, the horror of the nightmare fading. He put down the glass carefully and lay back down on his side. “Not much escapes you, does it?”
Napoleon grinned at him. “I should ask Waverly for a raise.” He ruffled the Russian’s hair. “How are you feeling this morning?”
Illya thought for a moment before choosing how to interpret the question. “A bit sore. Better than last week. Hungry…”
“Situation normal, then. Let’s get you some breakfast.” Napoleon turned to activate the call button.
Illya took a breath. “Napoleon?” His partner turned, eyebrows raised. “I think… that is… I need…” Napoleon sat on the edge of the bed and Illya winced. It was not entirely due to the pull of the linens on his back. “Please… sit in the chair,” he said, unable, now that the moment had come, to meet his partner’s eyes.
“Sorry, moi droog.” His partner settled himself back in the chair, brown eyes wide with concern, scanning Illya’s face intently. “Whatever it is, I get the feeling I’m not going to like it am I?” he said.
Illya shrugged, then relented and shook his head. “I’m thinking of putting in for a transfer to U.N.C.L.E. London…”
“What…?” The colour drained from Napoleon’s face. It was all Illya could do to go on.
“I think we each need a different partner, so I’m…”
“You want to split up the partnership?” He paused and Illya saw real pain flit over his partner’s face. “Is there… is there someone…?”
“No! Of course not. How could you think…” Illya forced calm into his voice. “It’s for your own good…”
HIs partner’s face darkened. “Oh, I see. This is for my benefit is it?” Napoleon’s voice was icily calm. “Excuse me, but was I sleeping when this discussion took place? Hmm?”
Illya swallowed. “Please, my friend, don’t make this…”
“Your friend? Well, Illya, if this is what it means to be your friend, I’d hate to be your enemy.” Napoleon was breathing hard now. Illya looked up into his friend’s tormented face and felt his eyes brim.
“You don’t understand…” he said dully and turned his face away.
Napoleon sat down sharply. “No. I don’t,” he said. He ran a hand over his face. “You’ll have to explain to me why you want this — and no crap about it being for my own good,” he said jabbing a finger at Illya. “We’ve just pulled another impossible mission out of the fire and eliminated Gervaise Ravel in the process. We could write our own ticket with Waverly, and you want to dissolve the partnership? Why would you?” Napoleon leaned forward and took Illya’s hand. “Is it something I’ve done?” he said gently.
The hurt in his partner’s voice almost made Illya relent but he reminded himself what was at stake. He couldn’t afford to be beguiled by Napoleon’s compassion for his weakness. For his weakness was Napoleon. And sooner or later it would get one or both of them killed. He pressed his back against the mattress until the pain made his eyes water.
“Since you ask — yes. I need a partner I can rely on and I find I can no longer rely on you. You left me in that hell-hole for two days.” His voice rose. “Do you know what that was like, Napoleon? Forty-eight hours of unrelenting…?”
Napoleon’s hand flew to his mouth, as though to stifle a sob. “I’m sorry, love — I’m so, so sorry…” he whispered.
“Go,” Illya panted. He turned his face to the wall. “Just leave me alone.”
He didn’t shatter until he heard the door close…
Napoleon slid onto the bar stool and caught the eye of the barman. “Large Scotch.”
The barman took a glass. “Ice with that, Sir?” Napoleon merely raised his eyebrows. The barman nodded. “Of course, Sir”, he said, dumping cubes in the glass and raising it to the optic.
He put the glass on a coaster in front of Napoleon and began to turn away. “Same again,” said Napoleon. The barman turned quizzical eyes on him. Napoleon drained his drink in one and smacked the glass down on the bar. The barman shrugged and fixed a fresh glass with ice.
Napoleon wanted to drink until he could no longer feel. He knew this wasn’t the place to do it. A private club in Soho was many things, but not a safe haven for an armed man to get hammered. Still, he could handle a couple more before he’d need to head back to the hotel. He’d order a bottle sent to his room and lock the door and never…
“Napoleon?” He turned a little too quickly and swayed slightly on the stool. “Whoa, steady there old chap.”
He looked up into the grinning face of Nick Hay, London’s CEA. “Hey Nick.” They shook hands. “Care to join me?”
Napoleon caught the barman’s eye. “What’ll you have?”
“G and T please. No ice and lots of lime.”
“And I’ll have the same again,” Napoleon tipped his glass to the barman.
Hay waited until their drinks had been served and then turned to Solo. “Cheers,” he said. “I’m glad I found you.”
“Oh?” said Napoleon. “You were looking for me?”
Hay took another sip of his drink. “I thought I might find you here. I wanted to discuss something with you — off the record.”
The last thing Napoleon wanted was anything that would waste drinking time, but since he’d invited Hay to join him he felt a certain obligation. He made a half-hearted effort to avoid the inevitable. “Can’t it wait until we’re in the office tomorrow?”
Hay shook his head and picked up his glass. “Let’s find a table,” he said. Reluctantly, Napoleon eased himself from his stool and followed his London counterpart to a quiet table close to the fire door.
Once they were seated, backs to the wall, Hay leaned in and said in a low voice. “I was in Michaels’ office this morning when the internal mail arrived.” He glanced around and then pulled a folded sheet of foolscap from an inner pocket. “This was in it,” he said passing it to Napoleon.
Napoleon read it and thought for a moment he was going to throw up. It was Illya’s transfer application. He read it again then crumpled it in his fist. He drained his glass and wiped his mouth with the back of a shaking hand.
“Well, that answers one question — or maybe two,” said Hay. “You didn’t know, did you?”
“Yes. No. It’s complicated.”
“You two have a fight?”
“Don’t tell me. It’s complicated, right?”
“Isn’t it always?” Napoleon raised an eyebrow. “Did Michaels’ see this?”
Hay shook his head. “I palmed it whilst he was taking a call. He’ll have my balls for breakfast if he finds out.” He nodded towards the bar. “Look,” he said. “I’m going to settle for the drinks. I’ll meet you at the cloakroom, then we can go back to your hotel and you can tell me all about it.”
Napoleon reached for his wallet. “Wait, it’s my tab.”
Hay shook his head. “Your tab at your hotel. I have a feeling I get the better deal.”
It wasn’t until they were settled with their drinks in Napoleon’s hotel room that he could bring himself to look again at the crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket. Smoothing it out on the coffee table he satisfied himself that it was indeed Illya’s signature on the form, before thrusting it away from him and sitting back in the chair.
He looked at Hay. “Why did you pull it?” he said.
The London agent shrugged. “It’s less than a week since Illya was beaten to breaking point. I was there when you got him out, remember? I saw the damage first hand. You don’t come back from that overnight and you certainly aren’t up for making life-changing decisions within a week. You know that, Napoleon.”
Napoleon nodded slowly.
“So when I went looking for you, they said at reception that you’d looked fairly grim as you were leaving and had asked about local bars. Ergo, I deduced you and Illya had had a fight and tracked you down here.”
“How did you know where to look?”
“Charlotte told me she’d given you the names of a couple of places where our chaps hang out. I hit lucky first try.” He took a sip of his drink. “Do you want to tell me what the fight was about?”
Napoleon shook his head.
Hay leaned forward. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to pry. Partner stuff is, as you say, complicated. But when something threatens U.N.C.L.E.’s best pairing and I’m in a position to offer support, then I’m glad to do it. It’s what you or I would do for any of the agents under us, Napoleon.”
The silence lengthened.
“I’m guessing it has something to do with this last mission,” Hay continued.
Napoleon sighed. “He thinks I left him at the mercy of that bitch Ravel.” His eyes brimmed. “He says he can’t trust me any more…” He shook with silent sobs, finally sucking in a tortured breath. “Waverly wanted him neutralised and I…”
“Whoa…” Hay frowned and shook his head. “No. At least not according to the briefing that Michaels gave me.”
Napoleon sniffed. “What…?”
“Waverly’s briefing to Michaels was that you were coming over on the red-eye and were to be given every assistance in a top-priority extraction.”
“You and I both know that every extraction carries a risk to the life of the target. But in this case, Michaels was told emphatically that neutralisation was to be considered only as a last resort.” He looked abashed. “You know it would have been up to me in that event, don’t you? My orders on that were very specific. Me, not you. Not his partner. ”
Napoleon took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. As he folded it he saw the blood from Illya’s bitten tongue. He took deep breath.
“We’re not just partners, Nick.”
Hay waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, Napoleon saw the light dawn in his eyes. “And more than just friends?”
Solo nodded. “Three years,” he said. “Before you ask.” He tried a watery smile.
Hay nodded slowly. “It can’t have been easy,” he said.
“But so very worth it.”
Hay smiled. “With Kuryakin’s Rasputin reputation? I’ll take your word for that.” He raised his hands, palms outwards. “I mean no offence, Napoleon.”
Solo read sincerity in his colleague’s eyes. “None taken,” he said. “If I may say so, Nick, you don’t seem shocked…?”
Hay shook his head. “Shocked? No. Surprised… well maybe a little.” He grinned. “Although chatter has had you two together almost from the moment Waverly paired you.”
“This would be the same scuttlebutt that has Alan Michaels as Waverly’s bastard, would it?”
Hay snorted a laugh. “The very same,” he said. He drained his glass and Napoleon refilled it. “Thanks,” he said. “I don’t know how things are in the states, but there are several ‘more-than-friends’ relationships in the security services here.” The quotation marks were implied. “They’re a kind of open secret. MI5 and 6 recruit largely out of Oxbridge where they’re used to tolerance. As long as the job gets done and they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”
“None of which may apply to Illya and me for much longer…”
“Look, it really is none of my business, but,” he indicated the mangled transfer form on the table, “having this out of the system buys you some time. Kuryakin needs to heal a lot more before you have the conversation. And you need to plan your strategy.”
Napoleon drained his own glass and regarded Hay for a moment. “Why are you doing this, Nick?”
“What? Sitting here drinking your liquor?” He smiled. “Because I respect you. Because you’re a fine agent. And because no one wants the Mad Russian on the loose.” Hay mugged dismay. “Did I say that? What I mean, of course, is that it’s in all our interests to preserve U.N.C.L.E.’s best partnership. Ahem…” He raised his glass to Solo with a grin.
Napoleon refilled his glass and returned the salute. “I’ll drink to that.”
One week later Illya pressed a knee onto the contents of his case and zipped it closed. In deference to his back, Waverly had agreed that he could have a week’s recuperation at one of U.N.C.L.E. London’s safe houses before undertaking the transatlantic flight. At least Illya assumed it was the injuries to his back that Waverly had taken into account.
His debriefing with the psych team had not gone well. He couldn’t seem to make them understand what a liability he now was. How close he’d been to breaking. He hadn’t told them, of course, the one thing that would have broken him. He’d kept that buried deep. No point in raking through all that if he and Napoleon were no longer partners.
He checked his watch. Ten forty-five. The mission debriefing with Alan Michaels was scheduled for eleven. He hefted his duffel off the bed, wincing at the pull on the skin of his back, and turned towards the door. And stopped. Napoleon was leaning against the frame as though he had every right to be there. As though Illya hadn’t ripped out his heart a week ago. As though he hadn’t been carefully excised from Illya’s life. As though…
Napoleon moved towards him with a soft smile, and for one alarming moment Illya thought he might embrace him. But he merely held out his hand for Illya’s bag.
“Are you going to be stubborn from the get go or are you going to let me help you with that?” Illya found he couldn’t look away, couldn’t speak, so he let the bag be taken from him. “Good job,” said Napoleon and stood aside, sweeping his hand towards the door. “Shall we go?”
Illya found his voice. “I have a mission debrief with Michaels at eleven.”
“Yes? And who else do you think was on that mission, tovarisch? Off we go.” Illya would have protested but Napoleon took his arm. “Time waits for no man, and all…”
It was one of the most difficult journeys Illya could remember. Although possibly the shortest. Napoleon’s proximity robbed him of thought and speech and, at the moment outside Michaels’ office he finally found his voice, Napoleon forestalled him.
“Ah, incidentally,” he said, “I understand that there have been some problems with the internal mail here. Paperwork getting lost and suchlike.” He raised his eyebrows, his face a picture of innocence. “Just thought you ought to know.”
The door swished open and Solo moved through ahead of him. Choking down his outrage, Illya followed his tenacious partner to join Hay and Michaels.
The debriefing with the chief of U.N.C.L.E. London was over in a scant hour. There was no reference to a transfer form and Illya didn’t raise it. Napoleon knew he was only biding his time and he was glad he’d planned his defence. The Russian would pull no punches.
As they rose to leave, Michaels called Hay back. Napoleon swept up his partner’s bag before he could reach for it and led out of the office. Illya caught up with him at the elevator.
“My bag, please,” he said, planting himself firmly in front of his partner.
“It’s okay. I’ve got it. I’ll carry it to the car for you.”
Illya didn’t move. “Napoleon…”
Solo sighed. “Okay, have it your way.” He handed him the bag as the doors opened then walked past him into the elevator. His partner stood outside scowling at him. “What?” he said, with a shrug.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the Russian snapped.
“I think I’m going via reception to the parking garage. Where do you think you’re going?”
Illya hesitated a moment then stepped into the elevator, standing at the opposite side from Napoleon. Neither spoke.
As the doors opened, the Russian slipped out first and headed to the reception area. He handed his badge to the receptionist. “Would you arrange for a car to take me to the house, please?” He said coolly. The receptionist glanced at Napoleon then back to Illya.
“I’m sorry, Mr Kuryakin,” she said. “I understood from Mr Hay that Mr Solo was giving you a lift.”
Napoleon winced at the look his partner gave him and handed his own badge in. “Thank you, Charlotte.”
She beamed at him. “You’re welcome, Mr Solo.”
Napoleon followed his partner’s retreating back.
Philip Rose from section III met them at the safe house. “Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin.” They shook hands. “All clean; swept for microphones and cameras. The ‘fridge is stocked. Anything else you need just give us a ring,” he pointed to the telephone. “It’s a scrambler. Or,” he held up his communicator, “Channel L is dedicated and always monitored.”
“Thank you, Mr Rose. We’ll keep in touch.” Napoleon shut the door behind him and shot the bolts. He leaned on it briefly to gather himself then turned, ready for the fray.
Illya was nowhere to be seen.
Deflated, Solo glanced up the staircase — then checked his watch. Lunchtime. Illya was bound to be hungry. He headed for the stairs down to the kitchen.
His partner was leaning against the big range cooker, a half-eaten sandwich in one hand. A plate on the large, scrubbed table in front of him contained several more. Enough for two. Or one hungry Russian.
Napoleon located the small refrigerator under the kitchen window. It was indeed well-stocked. Not least with beer. He pulled two bottles, popped the caps and carried them back to his partner. He offered the Russian one and took a swig from his own. Feeling he was about to enter the lions’ den, he leaned his backside next to his partner’s against the stove and took a breath.
“I’m not changing my mind.”
Napoleon forced himself to be reasonable. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask you, but I do think you owe me some kind of explanation about why you want to dissolve the partnership.”
“I told you,” said Illya, avoiding his eyes.
“You told me what? That you can’t trust me any more? That I left you at the mercy of that…” Napoleon was shocked at how much it hurt him to say the words. “Illya believe me, if I could have got you out any sooner I would. I tormented myself on the flight over for not having remembered Bufferton’s anniversary.” He felt his throat tighten. “Lyubov, I’d willingly have taken your place…”
He wondered what had hit him. There was a crash as his partner’s beer bottle hit the opposite wall and then the Russian was clutching him by the shoulders.
“No! Not you. Never you…” Illya was trembling now. “I can’t… not you…”
Napoleon put down his beer and carefully took the Russian in his arms, alert for the slightest indication that he might flee — or punch his lights out. “Shhh,” he whispered. “It’s okay. You’re safe.” His partner shivered. “We’re both safe, now. Shhh…” His brain was doing some rapid processing and coming up with answers that were beginning to make sense. He planted a kiss on the blond head. Illya’s breathing calmed, but he continued to shiver despite the warmth of the kitchen. Napoleon took hold of his partner’s chin and tilted his face up. The eyes that finally met his held love and defeat in equal measure. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you to bed.”
He took hold of his partner’s hand and led him upstairs. When he’d got him tucked under under several layers of quilts and blankets, he sat next to him on the edge of the bed, stroking the blond hair back from his forehead. “Talk to me,” he said gently.
Illya took a breath. “You’ll have guessed most of it. I’d worked out what the formula was on the channel crossing. Knew we couldn’t let Thrush — or anyone — have it. At any price. So I memorised it.
“When Ravel’s men were working on me, I kept telling myself that I only had to hold out a little longer and you’d come. As you always do.” He looked directly into Solo’s eyes. “You have never failed me in that and I trust you unreservedly.”
Napoleon continued his rhythmic stroking, letting Illya take his time.
“And then the rules changed and Ravel was laughing and saying that you were on your way and she wondered how long I’d hold out when it was you hanging in that room, with me watching. That’s when I thought I might provoke them into killing me but by that stage I was so weak. They knew I wouldn’t pose a serious threat to them and I couldn't access any means of doing it myself.
“And then finally I worked out that you wouldn’t be coming. That Waverly would want me neutralised to make sure that the formula was terminally inaccessible. And that he wouldn’t send you to do it. The relief that you were safe from Ravel was all that kept me going in those last twenty-four hours.” He paused and shuddered. “Can you imagine how it felt to wake to find that you’d walked into her trap…?”
Napoleon withdrew his hand.
“Let me get this straight… you were going to kill yourself out of some misguided notion that it would save me? And then you thought that the best way to prevent a similar situation happening would be to end our partnership? So you’d be out there without me to watch your back and I’d be out there without you to watch mine…?”
Illya shrugged and looked a little shamefaced. “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”
“Enough with the good ideas.” Exasperated, relieved, incredulous, Napoleon took Illya’s face in his hands and examined it closely for any trace of doubt or regret for what they were to each other. Finding none, he leaned in and kissed an eyelid. “Did you imagine it would save either of us from further pain?’ He kissed the other. “Did you imagine we’d care less? Hmm? Too late for that, I’d say — wouldn’t you?” Finally he kissed the full lips, and the month-long tightness in his chest became a tightness at his groin as Illya’s mouth opened under his.
His ears were ringing when they broke for air. Kuryakin’s eyes were dark and soft, his lips moist. “Want you,” he growled. “Now…” At the need in his partner’s voice, Napoleon’s cock came to full hardness.
“Wait,” he panted, scanning the room, then cursed as he remembered his overnight bag, still in the trunk of the car.
He leaned down and kissed Illya swiftly. “Don’t go away,” he said on his way to the door. He turned in the doorway. “Oh… and you’re overdressed,” he murmured with his best leer.
He pounded down the stairs to the basement kitchen, wincing at the discomfort from his hard on. It took him a moment to find what he was looking for and then he took the stairs back up to his lover two at a time. In the bedroom doorway he lurched to a gasping halt, arrested by the scene on the bed. Illya was sitting back on his heels, naked and slowly fisting his cock. He regarded Napoleon through half-lidded eyes. It didn’t help Solo’s breathing.
“You’re out of condition,” Illya breathed. “I recommend more training.”
Solo advanced slowly towards the bed, shedding clothes as he went. “I’m up for that,” he said.
Kuryakin’s gaze flicked down and back up. “So I see.”
Napoleon leaned down and kissed him. “Seems I’m not alone,” he said, brushing the back of his hand against the Russian’s weeping erection. He straightened. “One of us is going to need this, then,” he said and held up the pack of butter he’d rescued from the refrigerator. Holding the Russian’s gaze, he gently took his partner’s hand and placed the pack on the outstretched palm. “You, moi droog, I think.”
Passion flared in Illya’s eyes and he patted the bed next to him. Napoleon piled the pillows in the centre and laid himself face down over them, watching out of the corner of his eye as his partner dug thick fingers into the pack of softening butter. Face to face would have to wait until Kuryakin’s back was healed. He gasped as a slippery finger entered him, then moaned as it found his prostate. A moment later a second finger entered and he pushed back against the delicious pressure, wanting more. Illya pushed and stretched, adding more butter from time to time until Napoleon was almost keening with need.
“Sometime this week would be good,” he muttered, “Ow!” as the Russian bit him on the ass, then soothed it with a swipe of his tongue.
“Aren’t you in rather a vulnerable position to get smart?” Illya said as he removed his invading fingers once more and eased Napoleon to his hands and knees.
“That could change,” said Napoleon with a hint of intent. The last thing he wanted. What he wanted, craved was…
“Aaah…” He sighed with contentment as the Russian’s buttered cock entered him, filling him in one slow, inexorable thrust. Behind him, the echo of his own sigh.
“Napoleon,” on a whispered breath, as Illya held him, impaled and liberated.
Eventually his partner began to move, fucking him slowly, grunting in counterpoint to each slap of his thighs against Solo’s ass. Napoleon reached down and began fisting his own cock. The twin assault on his senses was indescribable. His breathing grew more ragged as pleasure flooded him, and then he was soaring towards oblivion. From behind, he felt Kuryakin tense then, with a shudder, spend himself hard and wet inside him. Semen pumped over Solo’s fist as he was overwhelmed by his own shattering orgasm. He collapsed forward, Illya following him down, panting like bellows.
Gradually their breathing settled. Napoleon felt Illya soften inside him and ease out. He hissed at the discomfort. His partner turned him gently, plucking at his face with soft lips.
“You okay, lyubov?”
Solo reached up and pulled him down for a lingering kiss. “I’ll survive,” he panted as they separated. He petted the sweat-damp hair and regarded his partner gravely. “Compared to what you went… mmph…” The Russian silenced him with a finger to his lips.
“Love hurts, Napoleon,” he said softly.
Napoleon looked long into the beloved face. “Oh yeah. But as I said recently to a good friend, so very, very worth it.”