"Boy..." Napoleon sat up in the passenger seat as Illya pulled their sedan into the small clearing. A new Cadillac sat parked in front of the cabin, a gleaming contrast to the rustic cottage and to the bucolic beauty that surrounded it.
"Interpol treats its people pretty well," he muttered as Illya parked next to the Cadillac. Two men in black suits came out of the cabin, shutting the door behind them, and stood on its covered wooden porch, their hands inside their coats.
"I hear they're hiring," Illya said, opening his door. Napoleon shot him a look but Illya was already out of the car.
"Is this the archaeopteryx-watchers' club?" the Russian asked the men. One of them replied:
"Never in a million years."
Illya nodded. "I am Illya Kuryakin. This is Napoleon Solo—" He indicated his partner as Napoleon climbed out of the car, trying not to favor the leg with the knife wound in it.
The Interpol men came down the steps. "I'm Dave Cook and this is Jeremy James." Hands were shaken all around.
"Any problems?" Napoleon asked.
James shook his head. "All quiet. Perimeter alarm activated. No sign of any unwelcome guests." His accent revealed that he was English. "Your VIP is inside." He tilted his head toward the cabin. "You're welcome to the little blighter."
"Not the best company, is he?" Napoleon asked. The UNCLE men had no idea who it was they were to be guarding, only that he was important, that they'd be his bodyguards until a means of secreting him elsewhere had been devised by the cunning brains of UNCLE's Section I.
James said, "Only in comparison to bloody near anyone else on the face of the planet." He watched Napoleon start up the steps, remarked, "You all right?"
Napoleon glanced at him, then down at his leg. "Old war wound."
James smiled. "Old?"
Napoleon returned the grin. "Well. New war wound."
"We won't keep you gentlemen," Illya said, coming up behind Napoleon and taking his arm as if to hurry him up the steps. In reality he took some of his partner's weight on him and helped Napoleon to ascend without limping obviously.
"Good luck," Cook called out as he and James waved and headed for their Cadillac. The UNCLE agents watched them drive away in a cloud of dust, down the winding mountain road that led back to civilization.
"You can let go now," Napoleon said quietly. "I'm not going to fall over."
"Oh." Illya released his arm, gave him a small smile. "Sorry."
Napoleon grinned, grabbed his partner's wrist and pressed it briefly. "Don't be." He let go, nodding toward the door. "Let's go meet our VIP."
The main room was divided into a kitchen and a sitting room, with a big riverstone fireplace against the far wall. As they took in the reasonably comfortable, if rustic, surroundings, a door in the left-hand wall opened and a man came out—a small, good-looking young man in jeans and a sweater, who stopped in the doorway to regard them with a sudden and charming smile.
"Well well. Napoleon. Illya. Welcome to my humble abode."
Illya stood suddenly very still.
Napoleon actually felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. He bared his teeth in what even a stranger could hardly have mistaken for a smile.
"Make yourselves comfortable. I'd offer you something to drink, but I'm afraid all we have is this year's vintage of well water."
Illya edged past him and went into the bedroom, ignoring Damien's curious glance. Napoleon forced himself to move, to not say anything until he was sure he could be businesslike. He checked the small but modern bathroom and the windows, noting that the cottage was so placed as to give them at least a little clear viewing of any potential intruders. There was plenty of old newspaper and wood next to the fireplace, and canned and boxed foods in the cupboards.
Illya came out of the bedroom—the sight tweaked Napoleon; he told that tiny devil voice to shut up—said, "I'll check outside," and went out before Napoleon could respond.
"Well," Damien said. "Was it something I said?"
Napoleon eased himself down at the table. "It's his job." Finally he asked, "How are you, Damien?"
He was favored with the infectious smile he remembered all too well. "I've been worse, Napoleon. And yourself?"
"The same," the agent replied. He also remembered that he had actually enjoyed each of their brief meetings. That Damien could be witty and appealing. That he'd sort of liked the man.
Before. Before last Christmas.
"Can I get you something?" Damien asked brightly. "Coffee or tea?"
A moment of distrust was followed by the recollection that they were on the same side. At least in most things. Napoleon shook his head at himself. "Coffee would be good, thanks."
"Coming right up." Damien moved efficiently about the small kitchen area and had the coffee percolating by the time Illya came back in.
"We're all right," he said. "There's no way up here except the road unless you want to hike, and the perimeter alarm is functioning." He set a small metal box on the table. The green light was on, the red off.
Damien came to the table, regarded the device.
"Clever," he observed. "I feel quite safe." His gaze met Illya's, blue on blue, for a moment that felt entirely too long to Napoleon. He made himself stay still and silent.
Damien smiled—and Napoleon had to bite his tongue to remain quiet, though inside his head he resorted to a few choice insults.
His anger metamorphosed as his eyes traced Damien's form and face and hair, wondering if the latter, in autumn colors of red and brown and gold, was as soft as it looked, if the former, encased in jeans and sweater, was as hard. He didn't know if he was torturing himself with the knowledge of what Illya had done with this man, or if he was simply hyper-sensitive about Damien because of that knowledge. Buzzing with anger and awareness, he forced his eyes down.
Then Damien turned away, returned to the kitchen counter. "I'm making coffee. Would you like some?"
"Thank you." Illya sat at the table, watching their host's back. "Can you tell us what brings us all to this... state of affairs?"
Damien glanced over his shoulder. "I like to think of it as fate." He turned back to his work while Napoleon clenched his jaw and visualized belting that smile off the man's face.
"But in fact," Damien went on, "I ran somewhat afoul of the GRU in transferring a trifle of information from Odessa to London. I managed to get the data delivered, but I was identified." He paused, staring down at the tin mugs he held in each hand. In that hesitation and those clenched fingers, Napoleon read clearly the man's disappointment with his own performance. He felt a slight thawing in his hostility.
Damien shook his head. "In any event... despite my clumsiness I did conclude the mission, with a host of irate Soviets on my heels. Having destroyed my own usefulness—" Here his self-reproach was evident- "I was told it was best I disappear, at least for a while."
Napoleon and Illya exchanged a look that spoke one word: Waverly.
"Imagine my surprise and pleasure to see my two favorite UNCLE agents again." Damien turned around, distributing piping hot coffee. "I'm desolated to be unable to offer you cream, but there is sugar."
"This is fine," Napoleon said as both agents accepted the mugs.
"Presumably you are to see me to my final resting place."
Illya, raising his cup to his lips—Napoleon forbore to warn him it was probably boiling hot—paused. "You sound as if you think we were sent here to kill you." He blew on the black liquid.
Damien watched them handle their tin cups. "A made spy is a worthless spy."
"Our assignment," Napoleon said, "is to wait for the word, then escort you to a more... permanent safehouse. If you're set for termination, it's not by us." He glanced up at Damien, who gazed at him, expressionless. Not doubting, but not trusting either.
Napoleon's communicator went off, strident in the sudden quiet. He set down the coffee and pulled it out.
Waverly, business as usual. "Is everything secure, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes sir." Napoleon—unable for some reason to look at Damien at that moment—glanced at Illya, who watched him in calm silence.
"We're working on the... details of delivery for your cargo. I'll contact you again within 24 hours."
That was the end of it.
Damien smiled. "Cargo." He shook his head and turned back to the counter. Napoleon clenched his jaw on the desire to apologize for Mr. Waverly, to explain. Surely Damien and his father understood their own relationship; he had no business interfering.
Illya said mildly, "It's an open channel."
Damien snorted a soft laugh. Silence stretched for a heavy moment.
"You needn't bother," Damien said then, turning to face them. "I'm only trying to calculate my position. My value. Like a cat, I have a certain number of lives. I like to keep track."
"Your... value?" Napoleon echoed. "To Alexander Waverly?"
Damien laughed. "Napoleon. You are a romantic. Where my usefulness ends, there his interest in me dies the death. It would be dangerous for me to imagine otherwise." He shrugged. "So I don't."
Napoleon watched him, saw cold amusement in his eyes. "He's never done anything for you?"
Illya got up, moved around the table, around the room, investigating. Though aware of his movements—it was hard for Illya to sit still for long on duty, unless he had to—Napoleon didn't take his attention from Damien.
Damien's sarcasm was unshaken. "Due to the nature of our relationship, it's impossible for me to guess what, if anything, Alexander Waverly has ever done for me."
Illya looked out the windows, then went into the bedroom.
"I do, however, know the things he has not done," Damien went on.
For some reason that annoyed Napoleon. He'd never imagined Mr. Waverly in the role of Santa Claus, but one of his firmest beliefs was that his superior was an honorable man.
"He is your father," he said mildly.
"In the... biological sense only."
"He's a good man."
Damien cocked his head, smiled. "My mother will be most surprised and enlightened to learn that."
Illya, coming out of the bedroom, shook his head. "Leave it, Napoleon."
He went to the door, a pause and a glance asking his partner to accompany him. Napoleon took a sip of the hot black coffee—it tasted pretty good, considering—and got up, careful in his movements to disguise his limp. He followed his partner out onto the porch.
The afternoon sun hung over the trees. Shadows stretched from the woods toward the cottage, across ground still dotted white with the remnants of the last snow, and scattered with leaves and branches from a recent windstorm; already the spring air was chill, full of the sounds of birds and forest creatures.
Illya stood at his side, saying nothing, while Napoleon shuffled and cut his anger until a reason that didn't embarrass him made its way to the top of the deck.
"I don't like hearing him malign the man who's protecting his life," he said.
"He was raised by a woman whom Mr. Waverly left for another." Illya watched his face, expecting him to understand. "Is it any surprise he's bitter? For all he knows, Mr. Waverly has agreed to his termination—"
Napoleon opened his mouth.
"—just as he might that of any other spy," Illya concluded.
For that Napoleon had no answer. They were all expendable. For the first time he wondered if Waverly had tried to dissuade Damien from entering the espionage business.
"Let him hurt," Illya said softly."You don't really think if he hated Mr. Waverly he would be doing what he now does? Following in his father's footsteps?"
Napoleon shook his head, still irritated—more irritated, he realized, both that Illya was defending Damien and that his defense made sense. It brought home to him how eager he was to find fault with Damien. And why.
Illya slid his hand into Napoleon's, intertwining their fingers, and squeezed. He let go, but not before the unexpected gesture had completely disarmed Napoleon's anger. He looked at his partner, warmed, fighting a grin.
"We should get back inside," Illya said, his face sober.
Napoleon shook his head. "Go ahead. I think I'll take a walk around the perimeter first."
Illya glanced down at his leg.
"I'm fine," Napoleon insisted. "I need the air. Go on in."
"Half-shifts?" Illya said, suggesting a familiar pattern of 4 hours' sleep each, on and off.
Napoleon nodded. "Fine. We shouldn't have to wait too long."
Illya looked around the clearing. "Do you think ..?"
Napoleon somehow divined his meaning. "That he'll be terminated?" He chuckled. "Not if Mr. Waverly has anything to say about it."
Illya shook his head. In that simple expression of futility, Napoleon saw their entire careers. They gave their all on every mission; so far, their all had not included death, but if it did, they would not hesitate. That didn't mean they had to like it that they were no more precious than the bullets in a gun, designed to be used without regret. Agents were the epitome of idealistic cynicism. They did what they did for the good of mankind, knowing in advance they'd never be the beneficiaries of that altruism.
He leaned against Illya for a moment, as much as he dared, and said, "Go on in. I'll be in in a few minutes."
It was getting downright cold and dark when Napoleon finally limped back to the cabin, collected their gear from the car, and climbed the porch. He walked the length of the porch, unwilling to go back inside for some reason, and glanced in the windows as he passed them.
He saw Damien and Illya, seated at the table. Damien's head was bowed; Illya touched his face gently, then, when Damien looked up at him, Illya smiled and pressed his shoulder.
Napoleon felt sick. He went to the door and opened it noisily.
Both men looked up. Illya released Damien's shoulder, neither hurried nor surreptitious.
"Perimeter still secure," Napoleon said. "Any word from Waverly?"
"Not yet," Illya said, getting up from the table. "I'm going to get some sleep. Wake me in four hours."
Napoleon nodded, not looking at his partner. Illya hesitated, then went into the bedroom, easing the door almost shut behind him.
Napoleon thumped the bags onto the floor by the table, opening the weapons kit and sorting through it, thinking about what they might need if they were set upon here.
He could feel Damien's eyes on him; when he sat up straight some minutes later, he met that cool gaze evenly.
Damien's nodded toward the bedroom door, not visibly disappointed. "You've come to an understanding."
"That's one word for it." Napoleon got up and went to the kitchen counter. He was surprised Damien could tell; also surprised he'd bring it up. "You could see it?"
Damien shook his head. "Not from your actions. Those haven't changed. Your... body language—" he gestured at Napoleon, looked him up and down, a surprisingly intimate insolence- "is the same."
"Really?" Napoleon said. He poured himself a cup of the still-warm coffee and sipped it.
Damien shrugged. "Bodies know. Sometimes before brains catch up. You two have always been... close."
Napoleon let the innuendo pass; it seemed wasted energy to rise to such an easy jibe. "Then ..?"
"Napoleon," Damien chided. "Your jealousy fills the room."
Startled, Napoleon bit back his automatic retort. Within seconds he was under control again. He said, coldly, "And you feed it, don't you?"
Damien shrugged, bright eyes still tight on Napoleon, as if awaiting attack. "I think my presence here is all the fuel that fire needs."
Napoleon put down the cup. "Speaking of fire..." He went to the hearth, gathering a couple of logs and a handful of newspaper. He crumpled the paper, more fiercely than necessary.
"How long have you been up here?" he asked.
"Two days. Two blisteringly tiresome days."
Napoleon patted his pockets. "Do you have any matches?"
Damien knelt beside Napoleon on the hearth. "I'm afraid I'm a little out of practice in basic scouting skills." Napoleon continued arranging the wood and paper while Damien pulled out a matchbook. They were shoulder to shoulder; after a few moments Napoleon realized the contact was pleasant. More than pleasant.
Son of a bitch. Napoleon stopped, hand clenched on a log. His nerve endings were tingling. How the hell did he do it? How could he be so damned obnoxious and so... so damned alluring at the same time?
Damien, to all appearances oblivious, struck a match and held it up between them, smiling in mock triumph at Napoleon. "I'll make Eagle Scout yet," he said.
"We'll see about the badge later," Napoleon said, getting to his feet. He wasn't about to give the man the satisfaction of either lingering or hurrying to get away. He brushed off his knees.
"I'd only stick myself sewing it on." Damien held the match against the papers until they caught, then dropped it and sat back on the stone hearth, looking up at Napoleon curiously.
Napoleon realized he was hesitant to speak, hesitant to offer any words Damien could twist into weapons—weapons designed not to kill but to disarm. Maybe to hurt, too. Napoleon wondered what sort of upbringing Damien had had, and if he'd have been a better man had that upbringing been supervised by Alexander Waverly.
"You needn't be so wary of me," Damien said.
Napoleon chuckled, moved to the counter, leaned on it, retrieving his coffee mug. Cold. "Said the spider to the fly." He put the mug down.
Damien stood up, leaned on the hearth, arms crossed, eyeing the taller man. The fire grew, crackling, behind him.
"Napoleon. I'm not trying to take anyone from anyone. I don't wish to. I've made no secret of that. Even if I should wish to, I can't, in my position." He laughed softly. "Particularly this position."
Napoleon was overcome by an awareness of the man's aloneness. Damien had made a virtue of the necessity, but something, something in his tone or eyes, made it clear that it was necessity. Or that at least, if it was choice, it had been a hard one. Napoleon found himself grudgingly respectful that nothing in Damien's words or manner asked for pity.
Don't go too far down that road, he told himself. You might end up actually liking him.
That idea made him chuckle to himself.
"But I wouldn't be averse to borrowing either one of you," Damien said. His eyes again wandered down Napoleon's body, making the return trip in a manner no less leisurely, no less intimate. "Or both of you."
Astonished, Napoleon felt his face burn.
"Oh, come now," Damien said, laughter in his tone. "Your partner has surely confirmed what you must have long ago suspected. And you cannot be ignorant of the fact that you are both, in your different ways, very desirable."
"He's in there, in your bed," Napoleon said, before his brain could stop the incredible words. "He's a grown man. I only tell him what to do in the line of duty, and then only just. What are you waiting for?"
Damien looked at him, moved toward him, not touching, a few inches away, smiling sadly. Head cocked, he rested his gaze on Napoleon's face, searching it, reading it.
"Napoleon," he said. "Just the thought torments you, doesn't it? I had no idea." His voice thrilled along Napoleon's skin; his blue eyes were deep, unreadable but no longer cold. "How is it that you resisted him for so long?"
Napoleon grabbed his shoulders, pulled him close, slid his hands down Damien's back and pressed them together. His mouth found Damien's, found it soft and warm and tasting of desire. He probed deeper, sampling forbidden flavors with his tongue and with his hands, molding Damien's body to him, his own body flickering, flaring-
Damien pulled back, panting, and Napoleon let him, needing the air himself.
Damien put his hands on Napoleon's chest, not pushing, just bracing himself. He examined Napoleon's face minutely, his own flushed, excited, beautiful. Napoleon felt his heart hammering, imagined Damien feeling that call to action under his hands.
"Napoleon..." Damien said softly. "Be careful."
"Of you?" Napoleon asked, low.
Damien shook his head. "Of yourself. You see me as a threat, and you want to eliminate that threat, but you are starting something that could destroy what you have."
Napoleon inhaled, let him go, but didn't move away. He felt as if he were stirring from a dream.
"This is not about Illya," Damien said, reading his thought. "He would forgive you. He hungered for you for a long time. He understands desire." He shrugged. "He wanted me too."
Napoleon blinked, stared at him, now fully awake. "You... arrogant..."
Damien sighed. "I believe 'little prick' is the phrase you're looking for."
The humor got to Napoleon, fully shook him from the strange angry daze he'd been in; he realized, too, that it had been deliberate on Damien's part. He moved away, overwhelmed by his own weakness, floored as well that Damien had had the—what, consideration?—to stop him. "Sorry."
Damien laughed, backing up, awkward. "Not half as sorry as I am. I expect I'll be in some sort of record book as one of the few who turned down the legendary lover Napoleon Solo."
"Lover," Napoleon said, and laughed coldly. Love, even making love, had been the last thing on his mind. He moved, sat at the table again.
"I know," Damien said, uncanny. "You wanted to... master me. To make me harmless."
Chilled, Napoleon looked at him, said nothing. Fool. Has loving Illya—has fear of losing Illya—brought you to this?
"Illya loves you," Damien said.
"But he still... wants you," Napoleon said through clenched teeth. He added, in his head only: So do I.
"I can't help that," Damien said, infuriating. "You two will have to work that out between you. Besides, you of all people must know how little that means."
"It can mean nothing," Napoleon said. "Or it can ruin everything."
Again the tilted head and charming smile. "If you want to be certain your gorgeous Russian friend hates my guts..." He leaned on the arms of Napoleon's chair, his face close to the agent's- "we can continue where we left off."
Napoleon didn't move. Damien stroked their cheeks together, said in his ear, "He'd be happy to kill me, if he saw us."
Napoleon considered his partner, how hard it was for him—even harder than for Napoleon—to trust, to open up, to be vulnerable. Illya would hate Damien if he and Napoleon had sex. But... would he hate Napoleon, too? Even the chance of it was dreadful. Betrayal was an expression Napoleon would rather die than see on Illya's face.
Damien rubbed his face across Napoleon's, bringing their mouths together. He delicately licked Napoleon's lips, then kissed him. Despite the tingle in his groin—and he was angry that he felt that tingle—Napoleon didn't respond.
Damien backed away, waiting.
"Sorry," Napoleon said. "I don't want you dead that badly."
Illya came out of the bedroom at 10 p.m., after his allotted four hours, looking a little rumpled.
"No word yet," Napoleon said. "There's fresh coffee if you want it." He got up stiffly, stretched, and went into the bathroom. A deck of cards sat on the table next to the perimeter monitor, which still flashed green.
Illya went to the window, ignoring Damien, who sat reading a battered paperback in a chair near the fire.
The night sky was clear. Illya laid his hands on the glass and felt the cold. He listened to the bathroom door open, listened to Napoleon come back into the room.
"Don't wait," Napoleon said. "Wake me if we get the call."
Illya turned around, searching his partner's face for some explanation of the strain in his voice.
"I will," he said, and Napoleon went into the bedroom, closing the door firmly behind him.
Damien chuckled, said softly, "He doesn't want to know what's going to go on in here." He didn't look up from his book.
Illya went to the counter to pour himself coffee. "Nothing is going to go on in here."
Damien turned a page. "Then this will be a very dull four hours."
"What went on in the previous four hours?" Illya asked.
Damien smiled, a full-on, brilliant—and disturbing—smile. "Nothing."
Illya sat at the table and picked up the deck of cards, passing it idly from hand to hand. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Damien lower his book to his knee.
"You're dying to ask," Damien said, laughter behind his voice.
"You're mistaken," Illya lied, shuffling the cards.
"Oh, of course. I forgot for a moment who I was speaking to. You don't ask for anything, do you?"
Illya stopped shuffling, squaring the deck with a sharp rap on the table before turning his gaze to Damien.
"I might ask you to stop baiting me," he said, his tone low. "If only for your own sake."
Damien put the book aside and got up, moving silently behind Illya's chair.
Illya started when he felt Damien's hands on his shoulders; he relaxed a little when those hands began a firm kneading.
"Don't be angry with me," Damien said. "You know I only goad from a deep-seated sense of inferiority regarding those more... decent than I." He chuckled. "Which is practically everyone."
"You say it as a joke in the hope no one will recognize it as the truth," Illya said, relaxing further under the massage.
Damien bent to his ear, said, "But I know that you know better."
Illya's anger melted. He reached up, grasped one of Damien's wrists, pulled it down so that he might press his hand.
"You are so unhappy," he said.
Damien pulled free, gently, fingers trailing over Illya's cheek as he moved away, toward the fire.
"I've made my own bed of nails," he said, eyes on the flames. "You are too decent, too good, probably, to understand that."
Illya stared at the cards in his hand. "Tell that to those I've killed. Or to those who died simply because I wasn't fast enough. Or smart enough."
Damien smiled. "I said good, not perfect."
Illya bent the deck one way, then the other. It felt good to bend something in his hands that wouldn't break.
He thought, inevitably, of Napoleon. No matter how much he asked of his partner, it was given him. No matter his fears or his errors, Napoleon was there, as constant and as necessary as the air he breathed.
And here was Damien, so accustomed to being alone that he was unable to accept even the smallest offering of sympathy.
Illya put down the cards and got up, taking Damien—startled—into his arms, hugging him tight.
"Will you permit me to be your friend?" he said into Damien's ear. "As much as that is possible?"
He felt Damien chuckle. "You do have my number, don't you, Illya Nickovetch?" Damien pushed away, gently. "You're asking for trouble."
Illya eased back, still holding Damien's shoulders. "I wasn't suggesting I intend to trust you," he said, smiling. "Only to care about you."
Damien laughed. "Illya." He reached up, stroked Illya's arms, let his own hands fall, awkwardly, as if not trusting himself to do more. "You are a remarkable human being."
"The jury is still out on the latter part of that," Illya said, letting Damien go.
"Your partner would differ," Damien said. "He longs to strangle me."
"He'll have a long line to wait in," Illya muttered. "You collect enemies as if there were some profit to be had."
"The safety of certainty," Damien said.
Illya scowled, his instincts prickling at the sound of truth. "What do you mean?"
Damien shook his head. "Let's play cards. I'm bored with exchanging platitudes." He shifted his body abruptly against Illya's. "Unless you'd like to exchange something else, while your gallant partner lies asleep."
Illya backed away, said, "Let's play cards. Any preference?"
"Strip poker?" Damien asked, brow arched.
Illya allowed himself a small smile. "I think I should warn you; Napoleon taught me how to play."
Damien grinned. "I don't mind losing."
Illya chuckled, sat down at the table and picked up the deck. "It's a little too cold for strip poker."
"Truth poker, then? The winner of each hand asks a question the loser's bound to answer honestly?"
Damien's brows rose in mock-surprise. "Why, Illya Nickovetch. Do you imagine you have more secrets than I?"
"I wouldn't use yours against you."
"Good point. But I thought you wanted to know what went on with your partner and me while you were asleep." Damien arched his brows suggestively.
"You are a bastard," Illya said. Then he could have kicked himself. Then he wondered why he should care, when Damien was being deliberately provocative.
"There," Damien said. "That's got you back on track."
Then Illya thought about the reason Damien was deliberately provocative, and the urge to kick himself returned.
Damien slid into the chair across from Illya, elbows on the table, hands clasped. "Deal."
A warm mouth touched Napoleon's, covered it for three seconds. He didn't move or breathe.
Then it was gone, and Illya said, close to his ear, "Rise and shine."
Napoleon opened his eyes, feeling his lips curve up. "You shouldn't sneak up on me like that," he said. "A good thing I was awake, and knew it was you."
Still bent over Napoleon, Illya snorted softly. "A good thing I knew you were awake and knew it was me." He straightened, his outline just visible in the moonlight filtering through the thin curtains on the window behind him.
"I'm getting confused." Napoleon sat up; his internal clock told him he'd slept for about two hours. The door to the other room was shut. "Is it time?"
Illya hmmed in the affirmative. "We're to take him to a private airfield about two hours from here; there's a plane waiting. The signals are arranged."
They moved to the door. "Any word about whether we're being watched?"
Illya opened the door and shook his head.
"Which only means they don't know," Napoleon remarked.
"The Interpol men checked in as scheduled; no indication they were followed or observed." Illya shrugged. They both knew that was no guarantee.
Damien sat at the table, his chair tilted back on two legs, his feet on the tabletop. He was near the end of the paperback book.
"Ready?" Illya asked him.
Damien nodded. "My luggage has been sent on ahead."
Illya picked up one of their bags. "I'll do a quick perimeter check before you bring him out," he said to Napoleon.
After he'd gone out Damien said, "Did you have a good sleep?"
"Wonderful," Napoleon said. "I dreamt about strangling someone. I'm not sure who..."
Damien laughed. "I'm sure it was very refreshing."
Napoleon picked up the still-green monitor and put it on top in their "mayhem" bag. He noticed the deck of cards. "Who won?"
"You know," Damien said, closing the book, "I'm not entirely sure."
"What did you bet with? Illya never gambles."
Damien put the book down. "No?"
"Not with money."
Damien got up. "It would be most accurate to say we laid our cards on the table."
Napoleon regarded him, wanting to ask, knowing Damien wanted him to—and irritated that, despite knowing that, he still wanted to.
Illya came back in, blowing out mist as he spoke. "It's clear. And cold."
Simmering, Napoleon picked up the bag and walked past his partner. "Let's go."
He got in the front passenger seat, the bag of weaponry on the seat beside him. Illya directed Damien to the back seat and got behind the wheel.
Napoleon dug into the bag while Illya started the car.
"Do you shoot?" he asked Damien.
"Only back," Damien said. Napoleon pulled out a spare semiautomatic. "Eight rounds," he said, passing a couple of extra clips back as well. Damien took them without comment, setting them on the seat and examining the 9mm with experienced hands.
Illya pulled away from the cabin and headed down the mile-long dirt lane to the gravel logging road that would take them back to civilization.
They'd gone perhaps two miles along the narrow tree-lined road when, coming around a sharp bend, they spotted a tree lying across the road. The road here hugged a cliff on one side, dropping off into further thickly forested hills.
Illya slowed; Napoleon scanned the vicinity. Not a thing was moving that he could see, but the moon was gone and light was poor. The thick evergreens to their right could be hiding anything or anyone. To their left was air—no room for error, nowhere to run.
"This is a nice coincidence," Illya said. "A roadblock."
"There was a storm," Damien said mildly. "A few days ago."
"Yes, we noticed on the drive up," Illya said. "But there were no trees in the road."
"One might have fallen later," Napoleon said. "Maybe."
"There's no other road out of here," Illya said.
Napoleon cursed. It screamed set-up, and they all heard it. "Well, we have to move it. We can't sit here, and can't go around or back."
Illya stopped the car, putting it in park but leaving it running.
"Come on, then," Damien said, reaching for his door handle.
"Stay in the car," Illya said, opening his door.
"Why?" Damien challenged reasonably. "Is it bulletproof?"
"Somewhat more than air," Illya replied, getting out.
"Touche," Damien said to Napoleon, who chuckled sourly.
"I don't need to tell you: If anything happens, get the hell out of here," he said, following his partner. If Damien responded Napoleon didn't hear it.
The two agents went quickly to the top of the tree, a narrow but tall elm, and grabbed branches. It was heavier than it looked, scraping by inches across the gravel as they set weight and muscle to moving it out of the way.
"How can something as light as paper be made out of these?" Napoleon grumbled as he and his partner put their backs into it. Both felt their necks tingle at their exposure on an open road next to dark woods; they wanted to present a moving target and get back into the car as fast as possible.
Damien got out of the car and went to the side of the road, bending over the jagged stump.
"This tree was cut," Damien said, touching the moist white pulp. "It didn't break."
"Get back in the car," Napoleon snapped, but Damien had already turned back.
Shots split the quiet—several, fast, evenly spaced. Damien spun and slammed into the car. Illya and Napoleon flung themselves toward him, weapons drawn. Illya grabbed Damien as he slid down the front passenger door. Two more shots pinged into the car. Crouched at the front, Napoleon fired into the woods with only the vaguest idea where their attacker was.
Illya opened the car door and grabbed Damien. A shot cracked the air and he gasped, falling on top of Damien. Another brace of shots sprayed gravel against the side of the car.
Napoleon fired into the trees again. "Illya!" In the dimness, his partner was no more than a dark lump covering the courier. The lump shifted.
"Go!" Illya hissed. "I'll get him in the car." He got up and lifted Damien. Napoleon went around to the driver's side—another three shots, and the side mirror exploded, spraying glass over him. He squeezed off the last shots in his clip and dove inside, shaking slivers of mirror glass off his hands. He started the car, then leaned over the seat to bodily haul Damien's limp form onto the backseat.
Illya scrambled in behind. "Go!"
Napoleon twisted around, planting bloodied hands on the wheel. He had the car moving before Illya could pull the door shut behind him.
Napoleon swerved around the tree, nearer the edge than he would have liked had someone not been shooting at them. Gravel crunched under the tires as he accelerated. The branches scraped along the side of the car. He pulled back onto the middle of the road and stepped on the gas. The tires spat gravel for a second before grabbing; the car roared away from the sound of rifle fire.
"How bad?" Napoleon asked, eyes intent on the curving mountain road.
"Bad," Illya gasped. "Pulse, but I can't tell... I think he's not breathing."
Shit. Napoleon pressed the accelerator a little harder, squinting into the dimness as if by will he might see farther ahead than the headlights permitted. "I meant you," he said—a half-lie.
"I'm not sure about me either," Illya replied, the familiar dry humor in his voice balm to Napoleon's nerves. He heard Illya moving around, heard a faint exhalation of pain. "I think this sweater is ruined."
"Call it in," Napoleon said. "The nearest hospital is 20 minutes away." Son of a bitch. If Damien wasn't breathing, he would probably be dead by then. "And we might be followed. See what Waverly wants us to do."
Illya pulled out his communicator. "Open Channel D."
"Channel D open."
"This is Kuryakin." Before Illya could ask to speak to their boss, the girl on the channel said:
"Oh yes, Mr. Kuryakin. I'll put you through to Mr. Waverly."
Without preamble Waverly demanded, "What's going on, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Waverly's tone was sharp with anger. "I spoke with Interpol not half an hour ago. Their men missed their last check-in. Now I wonder if they were captured as soon as they left the mountain."
Napoleon cursed. That would explain how the GRU agents knew. And if the Interpol men had been forced to check in earlier—that would have sufficed to ensure no one knew anything was amiss.
"Agents will be sent to meet you at... ah... Morris Hospital."
Napoleon heard Illya moving around in the back.
When the gravel logging road gave way to the paved highway into Morris, Napoleon floored it.
Waverly was nothing if not thorough. Though the backup agents hadn't yet arrived, the local sheriff was there, and had been apprised of the situation and the need for his cooperation. With his authorization Illya was permitted to be treated in the emergency room alongside Damien.
Napoleon waited in the anteroom—the only way in to the emergency room—saying nothing to the hovering sheriff, who was clearly dying to ask. Napoleon's communicator went off about half an hour into the wait; he was informed the fresh agents were within minutes of the hospital.
Illya came out an hour later, his sweater and holster bunched in his hands and a bandage taped along his back and shoulder. His gun was tucked into the waistband of his pants. An elderly male doctor accompanied him. His name tag said Dr. Travis.
Napoleon looked at Illya. "How is he?"
The doctor answered. "He's got three bullets in him. He's on life support."
The doctor blinked. "Because he's got three bullets in him."
Napoleon shook his head. "You misunderstand me."
Illya took his partner's arm. "Never mind him. He's not very fond of your patient." He eased Napoleon away from the doors.
"We're moving him to intensive care right now," the doctor said. "He's stable, but critical."
Napoleon thanked the sheriff for his help and sent him on his way. The doors opened and the doctor joined his colleagues surrounding the gurney; the whole troupe moved slowly through the room and out into a corridor. Napoleon and Illya followed, meeting up with the two additional UNCLE men as they passed the lobby of the small hospital.
The four agents waited, exchanging quiet introductions, while the medical staff arranged the tiny intensive care cubicle and its new resident. They all filed out, then, except for the elderly doctor, Travis, who went to the agents, clearly uneasy.
"I know you men are here to protect this patient," he said quietly. "But I will ask you to remember this is a hospital. Please... be as discreet and as quiet as you can."
"We will, doctor," Napoleon said. "Thank you for your cooperation."
Still scowling dubiously, Dr. Travis left.
"Were you careful coming in?" Napoleon asked. The men, Ken Grant and Jim Nakashima, both young, were known to him by sight and record, but he'd never worked with them.
Grant nodded. "We parked on a side street and came in separately. There was a jeep parked across the street with three guys in it. Just sitting. They didn't move."
"The jeep was pretty dirty, too," Nakashima said. "Like it'd been up in the mountains."
Napoleon and Illya exchanged a look.
"Well," Napoleon said. "Our job is done."
"Sorry, sir?" Grant said, puzzled.
"You men are here to relieve us," Napoleon went on. "I think it's time we called it a day. What do you say?" he said to his partner.
Illya looked at him for a long moment, then said, "Yes. I think you're right."
"Comrade!" the man in the back of the jeep poked his colleague in front. "They're coming out."
The three GRU men turned to watch the two agents get back into their bullet-hole-damaged car. The car started up and pulled away from the front of the hospital, and the leader of the men looked at his fellows.
"Let us finish the job," he said.
A few minutes' petty pilfering of records told the men where their quarry lay. They simply strolled unchallenged into the intensive care wing of the hospital and located the room they wanted.
The door was ajar; two doctors stood bent over the patient, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors. The men shared a pitiless glance and drew their weapons; three dead was no different to them than one.
The white-coats turned, as one, and fired. Two UNCLE specials, suppressors attached, spat death with a blunted pop that would not have awakened the patient in the next bed, had there been one. The GRU agents toppled like bowling pins, clustered in the doorway, their guns falling from limp fingers.
The two white-coats approached the bodies.
"Show off," Napoleon said, bending to check the men.
Illya gave him a brief sardonic glance. "You should spend more time on the firing range. If I can double your tally with a wounded shoulder..."
"I left two of them to you on purpose," Napoleon said airily. "I figured you had a score to settle."
He watched Illya look back at Damien, motionless, hooked up to various machines. The Russian unscrewed the suppressor, pocketed it, and holstered his gun.
"Maybe I do."
Grant and Nakashima ran along the corridor, guns drawn, only to see as they neared the room that in their absence the problem had been taken care of. The two agents stopped; the nurses hurrying behind them also stopped, wary.
Napoleon holstered his gun, stepping over the bodies out into the hall. To the frightened medical personnel he called out, "It's all right. The trouble is over. Can someone have Dr.... ah... Travis called? He'll explain everything." To Grant and Nakashima he said, more quietly, "Help us get these uninvited guests out of here and call a cleanup crew, will you?"
Grant grinned while Nakashima stared, open-mouthed, for a moment before pulling out his communicator.
Illya and Napoleon stood guard in Damien's room while the junior agents dealt with the clean-up.
"HQ said they're going to arrange to move him somewhere a little less... open to the public," Napoleon said quietly. "He's getting the royal treatment."
"Why do you dislike him so intensely?" Illya asked, apparently genuinely puzzled.
Napoleon considered denying it. Finally he admitted, "Because he's dangerous." He hoped he wouldn't have to spell out how. His ego had taken enough of a thrashing in the past 24 hours.
Illya read his expression, poring over what lay behind it. Surprise and understanding flickered in his eyes.
"Napoleon." He didn't smile, didn't touch his partner, but his words were an embrace, a vow. "He is no danger to us."
Napoleon breathed in the soothing truth. "Sorry."
A figure blocked the light from the corridor. The agents looked up to see Number One of Section One in the doorway.
"Mr. Waverly," Napoleon began, but had nothing to follow that with.
Waverly looked down at Damien, covered in blankets and medical monitoring equipment.
Napoleon and Illya found their eyes riveted to Waverly's motionless form. Napoleon realized he was both searching for some sign of feeling and dreading the discovery of it.
For his part, Number One of Section One seemed oblivious to their presence. He stared at Damien from across the room, showing no hint that he would move closer, or that he wanted to. After a while, Napoleon saw the old man's face shift slightly, saw his jaw working, tiny, spasmodic motions. Napoleon realized the old man was blinking rapidly, but his hands and body remained still.
"He's stable, sir," Napoleon found himself saying.
Waverly came as close as Napoleon had ever seen him to starting. The look he gave Napoleon made clear that he'd forgotten his top agents were in the room. He shook his head a little.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Solo, you said something?"
"Sorry sir. He's in stable condition. The doctor said he can be moved if necessary."
Waverly nodded, turning back to face the bed. "Yes. Transport to a secure medical facility is being arranged."
Napoleon wondered how many of Waverly's cohorts in the espionage world would have been just as happy to let Damien die. If he had a reputation among his fellows, Napoleon had never heard it mentioned. Yet he'd always delivered the promised items when Napoleon or Illya had been involved. Perhaps he had some value to others besides UNCLE's chief.
But then, Napoleon knew that he had value, too—and that he might nevertheless be sacrificed without hesitation at any time.
Waverly turned around and walked out without another word. Startled, Napoleon and Illya exchanged a glance and followed him. Grant and Nakashima were waiting in the hall. Napoleon quickly waved at them to stand watch at Damien's door; then he hurried after Waverly.
At the hospital entrance, where Waverly's security awaited, he stopped, turning to face Napoleon and Illya.
"Well done, gentlemen," he said absently.
"Sir?" Napoleon blurted out, incredulous.
Waverly looked around the room, vaguely. "A bad situation," he muttered. "A bad situation all around. Still, you did your best." He seemed about to say something else, then shook his head, scowling. He walked outside; all four agents followed him. His car waited at the curb.
He turned again to his top men. "Your part in this is done. I'll expect your reports tomorrow."
Waverly got into his car, followed by his escorts, and was driven away into the night.
Napoleon sighed, glanced at Illya. "Can we go home now?"
"Whose home?" The Russian's black tone made Napoleon look harder at him. Illya was scanning the street, still on the alert. Still on guard, still... protective.
Napoleon felt a fresh surge of resentment. He forced himself to remember Damien was Waverly's son, that he was one of the good guys, at least insofar as it was possible to do this and remain good.
"Grant said our car is around the corner," he said, starting off. Illya hesitated, then followed, close at his side, but still... distant.
"What's wrong?" Napoleon asked.
Illya didn't look at him.
"You've said you won't share me," Illya said then. "Does that work both ways?"
Napoleon stopped, struck in the stomach by the realization that Illya knew what had happened in the cabin. Had he seen? Heard? Or had Damien—that malicious little bastard—said something?
"If I say yes," Napoleon began, careful to be honest and accurate, "it will sound like a lie. But I can't say no, because that is a lie."
Illya finally looked at him.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Napoleon went on. "He... I don't know what it was..."
"Napoleon," Illya said. "You seem to have forgotten that I was there too. I know what Damien is. I know what he's like. I know that he is... desirable."
Napoleon shook his head, determined to not admit anything that might hurt his partner.
Illya went on. "And I know that you... are jealous. Damien knows it too."
"So he told you what I did?" Napoleon snarled. "That son of a bitch was playing with us."
Illya—incredibly—smiled. "It's what he does. But this is what he told me: That you are so frightened of losing me that you want to destroy anything, or anyone, you perceive as a threat."
Napoleon snorted a laugh. "That's probably the only true thing he's said in his entire miserable life."
Illya nodded. "So it is true." In tacit communion they began walking again, around the corner to their waiting car.
"It's true I behaved like an asshole," Napoleon said. "I don't ever want to do anything to hurt you. Unfortunately, I'm not..." He gestured vaguely, disgusted with himself.
"Did you think you were hiding it?" Illya said calmly. "I know you backwards."
Napoleon felt a flush of angry shame burn up his neck, over his face. "Then you know why I... what I was... well, not thinking..."
Illya shook his head in mock-impatience at his partner's blithering. "I think I do."
"Then maybe you can explain it to me," Napoleon said, surrendering. They stopped at the car.
Illya bumped him with his shoulder. "Let's go. I'm hungry. You can... make amends after dinner."
Napoleon heard the grin in his partner's voice and found himself grinning as well.
They stopped at an all-night delicatessen to collect food on the way to Napoleon's apartment. In deference to Illya's injury, Napoleon carried the armloads of bags into the building. In the corridor to Napoleon's apartment he stopped. Illya, sensing it, stopped too, turning back to look at him, his key to Napoleon's place dangling from his fingers.
"What is it?"
"I was... I was thinking about Mr. Waverly," Napoleon began, unable to articulate the muddle of sympathy and anger and resentment and grief he'd felt.
"And?" Illya prompted, stepping closer.
"And..." Napoleon swallowed. "I just wanted to say that I love you." Before something happens, he thought, pain twisting in his gut. Before it's too late.
Surprise and pleasure sparkled in Illya's eyes. He shifted his gaze a little, embarrassed. "You had to say that out here in the hall?" he asked, his tone suddenly warm as mulled wine. "You couldn't wait 'til we got inside?"
"I have too many other plans for when we're inside," Napoleon said.
Illya rolled his eyes, obviously resisting a smile, and resumed his march down the corridor. Napoleon followed, swallowing the fear. We're alive. To hell with tomorrow. It'll take care of itself.