The Mephisto Affair
Author's Note: My thanks to Di T and Nataliya—two of the best betae on the planet—for their skill and patience in attempting to prevent my worst excesses. Any remaining howlers or clunky bits are all mine. I'm an expert in ignoring good advice...
"Napoleon..." Illya murmured softly, feeling the smile stretch his lips. He sighed and reached for the warm body next to him.
The cold and empty space mocked him.
His eyes flew open and he felt the leaden ache of loss settle itself a little deeper in his chest. The bedside clock showed 5.20am. He rolled over and buried his head in the pillow, tasting the salt of unshed tears.
Finally, knowing that sleep had fled for the night, he flung back the sheet and headed for the bathroom. By the time he'd dealt with his importunate bladder, he felt in command of himself once more. It was illusory. His hand shook as he turned on the shower.
In the month since Napoleon's death he'd discovered the shocking depths of his dependency. There were moments when the bereavement threatened to crash through his veneer of control and overwhelm him. He knew his façade remained imperturbable— but inside the torment diminished him a little each day. He wondered whether he should measure his half-life in years, months or weeks. Roughly, he stripped off his pyjama bottoms and stepped under the steaming shower.
The door of the pale blue convertible—Napoleon's final extravagance—closed with a solid thunk. The Austin-Healey had represented a major victory in Illya's war against his partner's slavish devotion to American automobiles. In the end he was certain it was only the pretty paint-job that had swung the battle his way. Whatever the reason, he'd relished every opportunity to filch the keys and commandeer the left-hand seat. Now, even the redundancy of subterfuge was a source of pain.
As he turned away, the dented fender caught his eye. He stroked it absently, looking down at his hand and flexing his fingers. The fine scars on his palm barely registered now. Unlike the ding on the fender and the THRUSH bullet they'd dug out of the passenger seat, their acquisition was a mystery. He recalled only that his hand had been heavily bandaged when he'd awoken in medical. And that his partner was dead.
When the bandages eventually came off he'd been perplexed to discover the ragged letters 'H' and 'C' there as angry red weals. Speculation as to how they came to be carved into his palm made his head throb and his stomach churn. On two occasions in the infirmary he'd passed out. After a while he stopped even trying to think about it.
The scars had required diligent stretching since. It was mandatory for agents to re-qualify for firearms certification after any hand injury, and a contracture would have put paid to that. Kneading his palm absently, he made his way down the steps of Del Floria's towards his seven o'clock appointment at the firing range.
He inserted his third clip, chambered a round, and took aim at the head of the target, finger lightly caressing the trigger. He breathed out and squeezed...
Eight rounds struck unerringly within a two-inch radius. He popped the clip and inserted a fourth, sighting this time on the heart. Part of him was incredulous at his detachment as he fired off another round, and another.
The third round pulled wide as his control wavered. Gritting his teeth he closed his eyes and took a slow breath. Composure regained, he sighted once more and emptied the clip into the centre of the heart. He ejected the empty magazine, and laid his weapon on the bench, breathing heavily.
At this hour of the morning he was the only agent on the range. He heard the armourer enter the booth behind him and press the button to recall the target. The man squinted briefly at the paper outline before folding it and attaching it to his clipboard.
"Well, Mr Kuryakin," he said with a soft laugh. "As expected, we can give you a clean bill of health in firearms." He passed Illya the clipboard. "Sign here please."
As Illya reached for the pen and signed his name, the lights suddenly dimmed and klaxons howled. Snatching up his weapon and a full clip thrust at him by the armourer, he burst out of the booth and raced to the comms panel, hitting the switch for the emergency channel.
"Kuryakin here. What's happening?"
Alexander Waverly's clipped tones broke through the reply from the comms operative. "Cut along to my office immediately, please, Mr Kuryakin."
The door to Alexander Waverly's office hissed open and Illya hurtled through, weapon drawn.
And stopped as though he'd run into a brick wall.
His eyes flitted from the tableau of medics to Waverly... to the only other person in the room. Behind him the door hissed closed. Blood roared in his ears but the sound that crept past the constriction in his throat was barely a whisper.
Solo was dressed in a THRUSH jumpsuit. His hair was as long as Illya had ever seen it and he was thinner and dishevelled—but alive. Wondrously, gloriously alive. Breathless, Illya took a step towards him.
"Mr Kuryakin," Waverly's voice came to him as though from a great distance. "Please access the computer terminal immediately. Voice activation protocol."
Illya glanced at him briefly before returning his gaze to Napoleon. His partner's eyes, inexplicably sad, held his as Illya holstered his weapon and slid into the chair at the console.
Reaching forward, Illya activated the microphone. A row of red lights blinked into life before him and he paused briefly before speaking. His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. He took a deep breath and tried again.
"Kuryakin, Illya Nikolaievich. Section two, number two. Northwest."
One by one the red lights on the console turned to amber. Illya glanced at Waverly who nodded sharply.
"Voice activation protocol," he continued, then closed the microphone and turned to their boss, puzzled. "Sir...?"
Waverly ignored him and turned to his partner. "Mr Solo—if you please."
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Sir..."
Napoleon shambled across the floor to the console and laid a shaking hand on Illya's shoulder. "Illya... dushka—I'm..."
"Now, Mr Solo." Waverly's voice held compassion, but was unequivocal.
Napoleon took Illya's face in his hands. Bewildered, Illya searched his partner's eyes, and was shocked to see tears brimming there. After a long moment Napoleon spoke.
"Forgive me, my friend..."
Six months previously...
"Thank you, Mindy, my sweet." A bead of perspiration dripped from the end of his nose. "I know you'll do your best. Solo out." Napoleon's head drooped. It would be tomorrow night at the earliest before he and Illya could transport out of this god-forsaken spot.
With a sigh he recapped his communicator and flung himself flat on the unforgiving bed. It gave a squeal of protest and he winced. It sounded terminal.
The ceiling fan moved lazily above him stirring the warm, saturated air. Engorged flypapers rippled beneath its hub. He closed his eyes and dreamed of air-conditioning, a luxury suite and a dry martini—in that order. He snorted. Since he was already in Esquilinchuche's most luxurious hotel suite, he supposed that it was also blessed with the Honduran village's top-of-the-range air conditioning system.
Maybe he'd have a shower and go in search of that martini.
He glanced over to the balcony where sounds of laughter and splashing drifted through the open French window. Water. It sounded heavenly, and that provided him with enough impetus to drag himself from the bed to investigate.
The view below was worth the effort.
In the middle of the dusty street a large water-trough was surrounded by several small, yelling children—one of whom held a hosepipe trained on Napoleon's partner. Water streamed off the taut form and Illya's black T-shirt and jeans clung to him like a second skin. Two children were in the act of climbing out of the trough, almost beside themselves with glee.
As he watched, Illya lunged and grabbed two more youngsters around the waist and with a roar, dumped them unceremoniously into the water. They splashed and shrieked in delight and Illya turned in search of further victims. Napoleon noticed with a grin that he allowed himself to remain captured in the hosepipe's spray.
Eventually, when even the hosepipe marksman had joined the others in the water, Illya grabbed the discarded hose and circled the trough with triumphant whoops, giving its joyful occupants a final dowsing before turning the water on himself. Barefoot in the dusty main street, he stretched, face upturned to the water that cascaded from his hair and over his body. The vision took Napoleon's breath away and he felt his cock beginning to fill.
He really, really needed to get laid. The immediate prospects seemed remote at best, given their billet. He swallowed and thought of Mindy—now at least forty eight hours away. Damn, indeed. His hand moved inside the loose robe and gave his cock a reassuring stroke. Well, there were other ways...
With a sigh he moved back to the bed, shucked off the robe and lay down. His penis rose, fully hard and he palmed it purposefully. Closing his eyes he tried to conjure an image of Mindy; doe-eyed with chestnut hair and full breasts. The image had barely coalesced before it was shattered by the vision of Illya in the dusty street. Napoleon screwed up his eyes and tried again. Serena... Nope—same effect. Angelique... but the strangely brittle blonde morphed insistently into multi-hued silk. Dammit. His hand moved more determinedly.
At the whisper of an air current, or maybe it was a subtle change in the light—later he was never quite sure—his hand flew reflexively to the Walther on the bedside table and his eyes shot open.
He caught his breath.
Illya stood dripping at the foot of the bed, panting slightly with hands half raised.
"Don't shoot." Illya inclined his chin towards the Walther and his eyes gleamed. "At least, not with that."
Napoleon tried to swallow but his tongue stuck to his palate.
Without releasing Napoleon's gaze, Illya stripped off the tee shirt and flung it into a corner where it landed with a splat. His eyes flicked to Napoleon's erection and he raised an eyebrow. "Need some help with that?" he said softly.
Napoleon's breath left him.
And he should—he really should—have said no, made some smart retort, laughed— anything. Anything but the silent, almost desperate nod he gave.
Illya wriggled out of his sodden jeans—no underwear, Napoleon noted—and moved to the side of the bed, his own half-hard cock bobbing at every step. The blue eyes were full of warmth and mischief.
"You can put the gun down, Napoleon," he said. "Three's a crowd, don't you think?"
Napoleon laid the Walther on the bedside table, his eyes never leaving Illya's. Somewhere he found enough breath to speak. "Well at least you didn't ask me to lower my weapon..." he said.
"Could you?" Illya's tone was curious.
Napoleon hazarded a grin. He shook his head. "Probably not."
"Good. That would be a little... disappointing."
The bed dipped and gave another of its protests as Illya knelt and reached for him. And Napoleon watched, mesmerised, as Illya took him in his strange-familiar grasp, and stroked his cock firmly from root to tip.
Napoleon closed his eyes and moaned softly at the contact. The hand squeezed and tugged at him gently—assessing, then fell into a rhythm. It became harder to breathe as Illya's thumb stroked over the head, now moist with pre-ejaculate. Napoleon fought in vain for some semblance of control, but he'd wanted this for too long.
"Illya..." he sighed. And reaching out blindly, he grasped his partner's own erection.
He was rewarded by a choked gasp and Illya's hand stilled on him momentarily, then began to pump in earnest. Napoleon groaned as the friction from that big, calloused hand - the knowledge that it was Illya's hand—sent him spiralling towards...
"Illya—wait," he panted.
The Russian paused and turned his head to fix him with eyes gone dark with arousal. Napoleon was taken aback by the desire—and something indefinable—he saw there. Ah. Not just a hand-job then, albeit mutual. No, this was... He swallowed.
"Come here, then," said Napoleon. He sat up and slid his fingers into his partner's damp hair, guiding him. The bed groaned in protest again as Illya shifted until he knelt astride Napoleon's thighs.
Napoleon cradled Illya's head in his hands. He searched his partner's face for signs that what he was about to do might be unwelcome but the eyes that looked back were clear, inviting. He shifted his gaze to the full mouth and watched as it quirked into the familiar, lopsided grin. Something throbbed inside Napoleon's chest.
Slowly, Illya licked his lips. It was consent enough.
Released, Napoleon leaned in until he could feel the erratic puffs of Illya's breath against his own lips. Heart pounding, he closed his eyes and kissed him.
It was like nothing he'd ever imagined. It was everything he'd ever hoped for.
He was unprepared for the speed with which Illya's tongue darted between his lips and began a curious and then playful exploration of his own tongue and teeth. How could he have known surrender would be so easy? He allowed himself to be carried down to the bed by his partner's weight, still not breaking the kiss, which after several moments became more urgent. He felt Illya's hand snake between them once more, aligning their cocks. He caught his breath and his pelvis surged upwards. Illya groaned at the friction and broke the kiss, dropping his face into the crook of Napoleon's neck, panting. Napoleon grinned, burying his nose in the tickle of blond hair.
"Ready, tovarisch?" he panted.
Illya mumbled something in Russian that might have been an insult or an endearment or both, and began a sinuous movement of his hips. Napoleon matched every thrust, and the bedsprings shrieked their approval. It felt perfect. Hot and moist and the thrill of it pushed Napoleon alarmingly close to joy. He was still wondering at the unaccustomed elation, when his orgasm ripped through him and he came, gasping, in a spill of wet heat that spread between their bellies. Seconds later there was a harsh grunt in his ear as Illya shuddered out his own completion.
Some time later, sweat and semen drying on his skin, Napoleon's breathing returned to normal. It was novel to be blanketed by Illya's solid warmth without the added dimension of someone trying to kill them. He basked in it and found his fingers riffling through the blond mop, mapping the shape of the skull beneath.
Illya finally groaned. "Shower," he said and rolled off.
Instinctively Napoleon grabbed his arm. "Wait," he said, unaccountably diffident. "Illya...? I... need to know..."
"What?" The voice was gusty, impatient.
Napoleon paused. Silver tongue still drowsing in satiety, he had no idea how to say what he needed to say. Is it all right? Have we just made a huge mistake? Are we still partners?
He tried again. "I need to know whether we've broken anything here."
The Russian smiled. "Well I don't think this bed's in great shape..."
Napoleon shook his partner gently. "You know what I mean." He gestured between them. "This..."
The bed gave another of its potentially terminal squeaks as Illya pushed himself up onto one elbow and looked down into Napoleon's face. The blue eyes were soft, amused and Napoleon dared to hope. Illya leaned down and kissed him, slowly and comprehensively, until Napoleon felt his ears begin to sing and his groin begin to stir again. He pulled away, breathing heavily, until he could focus once more on the familiar—transfigured—face.
Illya smiled. "It was... important." He trailed a finger over Napoleon's jaw.
"Important...?" Let it go Solo... "Important as in—submitting my expenses on time? As in - not pissing off the Old Man? As in..."
The finger came to rest over his lips.
"...breathing, Napoleon. I was thinking—as in breathing."
The indefinable defined...
One month previously...
Alexander Waverly flipped off the comms link and sighed in frustration. Another one. Spinning his chair towards the windows his gaze settled momentarily on the familiar skyline.
It was coming to the end of a long and bruising month. A series of inelegant minor failures punctuated by a couple of fairly significant catastrophes had made everyone edgy. His European counterparts seemed to have suffered the worst of the disasters. Carlo Ferenti had lost six good men at a stroke in a debacle that ought to have been a routine mop-up operation. Even Harry Beldon's monstrous ego seemed to have been punctured by a series of abortive raids on THRUSH premises that had turned out to be empty nests.
Waverly picked up his pipe and eyed the humidor that beckoned from the credenza. With a sigh he eased himself out of the chair. To hell with his physician. After a month like this he felt he needed the extra edge.
The intercom buzzed and he swallowed his irritation as he flipped the switch.
"Well?" He endeavoured to keep his voice even.
"Sorry, Sir," Lisa Roger's voice sounded apologetic. "Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin are here for their eight-thirty appointment."
He glanced ruefully at his pipe and slipped it into his pocket.
"Very well, Miss Rogers," he sighed. "Show them in."
He sat and swivelled his chair to observe the pair's entrance. They were grinning at each other, and as the door swished shut behind them Solo tossed something into the air that Kuryakin snatched with a smirk and pocketed deftly. Waverly cleared his throat in mild disapproval.
They glanced at each other, affecting an air of contrition as they sat.
"Last month's activity report, gentlemen."
He sent twin folders spinning round the circular table until they came to rest in front of his agents. He noted wryly that Solo turned immediately to the summary on the final two pages whilst Kuryakin took out his glasses and began to speed-read from the front. As they read he marshalled his thoughts and tried to quell his sense of impending disaster.
Over a lifetime in espionage he'd learned to trust his intuition—a quality he recognised also in his CEA. It was frequently the one quality that differentiated a live from a dead agent. However Waverly felt Solo still lacked the necessary persistence in pursuing corroborative evidence in support of his instincts. Kuryakin, however, covered Solo's blind spot in this as in several other crucial areas, and Waverly congratulated himself once again on their pairing. Their complementary skills made them a formidable team.
As Waverly observed the pair, Kuryakin frowned. "Apart from Sections V and VII, everyone seems to have had a less than stellar month, Sir." He flipped a few pages ahead. "And this seems to apply across the board—Europe, South America, Asia." He looked up. "Is there any sense that this might not be coincidental?"
Waverley glared at him. "You know my beliefs on coincidence, Mr Kuryakin."
Solo shook his head and tsked disapprovingly at Kuryakin before turning guileless eyes to Waverly. "Do you have any thoughts on what this might indicate, Sir?"
"I was rather hoping, Mr Solo, that you might give us the benefit of your expert analysis." Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Kuryakin's hastily smothered grin as he ducked behind the file.
"Well, I..." Solo foundered and Waverly found himself hard pressed to keep the smirk from his own face.
Kuryakin spoke from the depths of his file. "In contrast, Sir, THRUSH seems to have had a very satisfactory month," he looked up with a contemplative frown, "if Section IV's report is at all accurate."
"Ah, yes, Mr Kuryakin," said Waverly. "Well spotted." The Russian flashed a smirk at his partner. "THRUSH does indeed seem to be having rather better luck than we are."
Kuryakin was all business now. "Four separate raids on major satrapies found them already decommissioned," he read. "Two in Europe, one in Rhodesia and one in Jaipur."
Solo raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
"Quite so, Mr Kuryakin. The birds had flown long before our strike teams arrived."
"And," the Russian continued, "two labs we'd had under surveillance in the UK and Ireland were raided by THRUSH almost under our noses and crucial research data taken."
Waverly took out his empty pipe and sucked absently on its stem.
His CEA fixed him with a thoughtful gaze. "Then there's the Texas disaster of course."
"The strike team." He sighed and nodded dispiritedly. "Yes, Mr Solo. The explosion completely destroyed the facility they were infiltrating. They never had a chance."
Solo rubbed his chin.
Kuryakin watched distractedly, then raised an eyebrow. He turned to Waverly. "Mole?" he said.
Waverly shook his head. "The missions were scattered across the globe, Mr Kuryakin. They involved multiple Offices in several continents. No single person has access to all that operational data at any one time." He removed the stem of the pipe from his mouth and cleared his throat. "Well, except for me of course."
His two agents regarded him speculatively for a moment then grinned at each other before returning to their files. After a moment Solo stood and moved behind Kuryakin's chair, folding his arms on its back and leaning forward to read over the Russian's shoulder. Solo pointed to something in the file and murmured something so close to his partner's ear that the blond hair, rather too long by Waverly's standards, was ruffled. Kuryakin nodded, apparently completely unperturbed by Solo's proximity. After a moment he looked up at Waverly, an actinic gleam in his blue eyes.
Aha. Waverly felt the first stirrings of hope.
"Sir," the Russian said. "I'd like to run this data through our new computer system."
"Very good, Mr Kuryakin. You'll see to the programming yourself? Until we know what we're dealing with here, we need to keep this confidential to the three of us."
Kuryakin nodded. "I will arrange it so that only I have the necessary access permissions for both Sections VIII and II."
He gathered up the file and moved towards the terminal in the corner. Solo watched him for a moment, hands in pockets, head tilted to one side. Waverly sighed.
"Don't you have somewhere else to be, Mr Solo?"
His CEA straightened immediately. "Ah, yes, Sir." Solo turned to his partner. "Come find me when you're done, Illya." He turned then paused as the door swished open. "Or when you need to eat—again. Whichever happens first."
Waverly jammed the stem of the pipe between his teeth to suppress a smile as he opened the next file on his desk.
Napoleon sat in the commissary nursing his second cup of coffee as the clock ticked over to two-thirty. He was just considering pocketing the two unopened packets of sandwiches in front of him and going in search of his partner when Illya pushed through the door, nose buried in a computer print-out. A quick glance around the almost empty tables and he homed in on Napoleon.
"I knew your stomach wouldn't let me down," Napoleon said leaning back.
Illya dumped the print-out onto the table followed by his reading glasses. "Didn't you get me something hot?" he grumbled.
Napoleon pushed the sandwiches towards him. "At this hour, tovarisch, you're lucky they had even these left," he said. Illya scowled but sat and began to unwrap a sandwich.
"Find anything interesting?" continued Napoleon.
Illya nodded and began to devour the sandwich. It took all of three bites. Napoleon shook his head and waited patiently.
"The computer is beginning to identify patterns," Illya mumbled around a mouthful of food and swallowed. "Our misfortunes seem to have begun a couple of months after Chaqua."
Napoleon frowned. His strongest memory from that affair was how mad Illya had been at him. Mad enough to lay into him in front of the innocent-of-the-day and send her scuttling for cover—after she'd delivered a stinging slap to Napoleon's face that had made his eyes water. His partner had sulked throughout the flight from there to Honduras...
Napoleon dragged his thoughts from stifling heat and water troughs and the squalid, magnificent hotel room, back to the present. He cleared his throat.
"And that's significant because...?"
Illya shrugged. "We do not yet have sufficient data to determine that."
His partner started on the second sandwich and Napoleon's eyes were drawn to his Adam's apple as he swallowed.
"What time will you be through tonight?"
The last bite of sandwich disappeared and Illya licked his fingers causing Napoleon's breath to catch in his throat. "Not sure." He fixed Napoleon with a penetrating look. "Don't wait up."
Napoleon held out his hand. "Best let me have the car keys now, then."
Illya grinned and shook his head. "Uh-uh. There'll be plenty of cabs around at the time you're heading home. I may not be so lucky."
"I could hot-wire it."
"Since when?" Illya snorted. "Isn't that what you have me for?"
Napoleon couldn't repress a smirk. "Well... amongst other things."
Illya rolled his eyes and pushed himself up from the table to leave.
A quick glance around confirmed to Napoleon that the commissary was now completely empty. In a flash his hand shot out to his partner's jacket pocket...
...and he found himself face down on the table with the hand pressed up his back, hovering on the cusp of real pain.
There was a jingling sound and he raised his eyes—about the only thing he could move— to see his key fob, the single bright key barely inches from his nose. His eyes crossed in an effort to focus and then the breath whooshed from him as his partner's solid body pinned his. He felt hot breath against his ear.
"Let us be very clear about this, Napoleon..."
"Ouch!" as his earlobe was nipped sharply.
"I've told you, once you learn to drive a stick-shift with the skill and sensitivity the engine deserves, then you can have access to the keys."
Napoleon felt his temper beginning to fray. "Dammit, Illya—it's my car!"
"It is also a fine piece of precision engineering. At least, it was when I parked it in the lot this morning and I'd like it to stay that way. I'm just helping you protect your assets."
"My assets are..." Napoleon groaned as he felt Illya's half-hard erection grind once against his ass. "Illya..."
There was a soft kiss at the nape of his neck. And then suddenly the weight was gone and he looked up to see the commissary door swinging shut.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
Napoleon woke from a light doze and slipped his weapon out from under the adjacent pillow. Thumbing off the safety, he held his breath as he lay in the semi-darkness listening intently. The noise of his apartment door closing was followed by the soft beeping of the security system being reset. Familiar footsteps headed for the bathroom and a moment later he heard the shower come on. He breathed out slowly and placed the Walther on the bedside table. With a smile, he stretched in anticipation and contrived to arrange himself in casual abandon across the centre of the bed.
He doubted THRUSH would go to the trouble of breaking into his apartment to take a shower.
Illya rubbed his hair dry vigorously then tossed the towel at the rail and scooped up his clothing in a bundle. He checked in the mirror, ran his hand once through his damp hair, and switched off the light before heading for the bedroom. He paused at the open door and smiled as he noted the arrangement of the lump in the middle of the bed.
"You could be a little less subtle, maybe?" he muttered as he crossed the room to dump his clothes onto the ottoman at the foot of the bed.
"Shhh... I'm asleep," Napoleon replied. "I'm waiting for a ravishing blond to come through that door and—ah... ravish me. I don't suppose you've seen him? Grumpy? Workaholic? Steals cars? Ouch..." as his backside received a thwack.
Illya slid his weapon onto the other bedside table then climbed into bed and spooned behind his partner. "No," he said. "No one like that here. Will I do?" He nipped a bare shoulder then soothed it with his tongue.
Napoleon sighed heavily and rolled towards him. "Well, you know what they say—'needs must when the devil drives'," he said.
"They say that?" said Illya. "Hmm," he murmured, nuzzling an ear. "In that case I'd better hang on to the car keys..."
"I have much better things than car keys for you to hang on to," said Napoleon, and took his hand, guiding it downwards. Illya caught his breath at the feel of the solid flesh and then his mouth was engulfed in warm softness.
After six months of blissfully unbridled lovemaking with his partner, it was still Napoleon's kisses that most affected him. It was as though the man put his soul into them.
Over the years they'd worked together, Illya had observed with wry amusement the effect of Napoleon's kisses on women. In time, that wry amusement had migrated through curiosity to desire. Somewhere along the line collegial duty had drifted through friendship to love. And finally, and against his better judgment, Illya had admitted to himself that he was in love with Napoleon.
The discovery, in a squalid Honduran hotel room, that it was mutual, had been one of the defining moments of his life.
Illya had never been so aware of another human being. Together or apart, it seemed that fragment of Napoleon Solo etched onto his soul pulsed in synchrony with his own. He felt liberated in a way that nothing previously had made him feel; in a way he hadn't previously needed to feel.
Eventually his ears began to pound from lack of oxygen and he pulled back to snatch a breath. Napoleon gnawed gently along the line of his jaw, reaching his ear and plunging his tongue deep. Illya moaned and shivered as his own cock filled.
Breaking free, he nudged Napoleon onto his back, and swiped his tongue roughly over his Adam's apple, smiling as it bobbed beneath his touch. He began to nibble his way down the smooth torso, tonguing each nipple in turn and exulting in the little gasps drawn by his caresses. He laid a finger over the glistening lips, and grinned as it was drawn beyond them into hot, wet suction. His eyes drifted closed as he savoured the sensation, and his penis lurched.
"Korosho," he murmured.
He continued his exploration nipping sharp kisses across Napoleon's belly and, engrossed, was almost taken by surprise by the damp swipe of Napoleon's erection across his cheek. He pulled back a little, savouring the sight and then his eyes slitted as the wet heat swirling around his finger increased. He glanced up at his partner's face. Moist-lipped and hollow-cheeked, Napoleon suckled his finger hungrily. Illya stifled a moan and bent to fill his own mouth.
He began to work his way down the thick shaft, stretching his lips and throat and swallowing until finally his nose was buried in thick, dark hair. Napoleon. He wondered if he'd ever be able to get enough of the scent of the man. It eddied around him, intoxicating, and his head bobbed faster. He could barely breathe. His jaw ached. He didn't care.
Napoleon's head suddenly snapped back and there was a wet pop as Illya's finger came free.
"Illya..." Napoleon gasped.
And almost came off the bed as Illya's saliva-slick finger found his opening and slid home. With a choked-off cry, Napoleon bucked once, twice then came, warm pulses down Illya's throat. Elated, Illya swallowed and held him as he arced and shuddered, and not until his partner had spent himself fully did he release him.
They lay together, breaths and hearts slowing, and Illya shifted until his head was pillowed on his partner's thigh. After a moment he felt Napoleon's fingers petting his hair.
"That was some ravishing," Napoleon muttered. "Want me to return the favour?"
Illya smiled and rolled his head to plant a light kiss on his partner's inner thigh. "I have something else in mind," he murmured. "Roll over."
He heard the catch in Napoleon's breathing.
Illya planted another kiss, reassuring. "Shh... it's OK," he whispered pushing himself up until he was nose to nose with his partner. "We have an early start in the morning, I know. And you'll have a long day at your desk." He leaned in and kissed him softly. "But if you're up for something a little less invasive, I think we shall both sleep well."
He rolled away from Napoleon and reached into the drawer of the bedside table. Rolling back, he handed his partner the pot of petroleum jelly then, gazing into eyes the colour of warm toffee he gave his own aching cock a couple of leisurely tugs.
His partner's eyes widened.
"Do that once more and all bets are off," muttered Napoleon, shaking his head, "early start or not." He dug his fingers into the pot then reached for Illya, coating his cock with deliberate strokes. Illya let his head fall back, breath hissing between clenched teeth. When Napoleon gave the turgid flesh a squeeze, Illya's hand shot out and clamped his wrist.
"Do that once more and it's game over," he gasped. He took a steadying breath. "Turn over for me, lyubov," he murmured.
Napoleon rolled and Illya spooned behind him, fitting his penis carefully between his partner's thighs and snugging the head tight behind Napoleon's sac. He wrapped his arms around him and lay still for a moment, relishing the warmth of Napoleon's sweat-slick skin along his whole length. Covering Napoleon this way made him feel absurdly protective. It still astonished him that his partner allowed it, with or without penetration.
Illya gave a few tentative thrusts, adjusting himself until the angle was right, then flexed his hips extravagantly and picked up the pace. His balls ached for release.
As the pressure-wave built he heard Napoleon moan beneath him. His breathing harsh, Illya reached around to grasp his partner's rapidly burgeoning cock, pumping hard as he rocked his own shaft in its slick channel. A moment later Napoleon cried out as his second orgasm hit and thick ropes of semen fountained over Illya's hand. Illya sighed with pleasure and thrust for home, leaning down to nip the soft skin at the nape of his partner's neck.
"Dushka moi," he breathed, and came without another sound.
Napoleon woke to the early morning light filtering through the drapes. He grimaced at the feel of his crusted groin and then smiled to himself. Ravished indeed. Illya was plastered against his back, one leg insinuated between his. Warm breaths puffed against his neck. He reached back and found Illya's hand, drawing it forwards around his waist, trapping it there with his own. An occasional snuffling snore told Napoleon his partner still slept. A glance at the clock told him it was ten off six. No need to move just yet...
From the beginning, sex with Illya had been a revelation. It was wilder, subtler, more vital than he could ever have imagined. They clicked in this as they did in every other aspect of their partnership. Napoleon hadn't expected it to fit so seamlessly into their established friendship. Instead the added dimension was like the last piece of a puzzle slotting into place. Napoleon felt completed, and he hadn't even known he'd been incomplete.
He felt the subtle change in Illya's breathing and brought the captured hand up to his lips, gently nibbling the fingertips. His partner sighed and nuzzled the soft hair at the nape of Napoleon's neck.
"Mmm... you need a haircut," Illya mumbled, voice still thick with sleep.
Napoleon gave his hand a squeeze. "Hey, that's my line."
Illya yawned. "What time is it?"
"Time for you to shower," Napoleon said. He pressed his lips briefly to Illya's palm, then slipped out from under the covers. "Go ahead," he said, reaching for his robe. "I'll put the coffee on."
Napoleon had spent the morning desk-bound in conversation with various regional section heads as he backtracked through the events in Waverly's file. He was met with a universal absence of any common thread. Nothing tweaked his sixth sense or raised his nape hairs. He hoped Illya had had more success with the computer.
At one o'clock he dropped the phone into its cradle with a groan and tried to rub away the incipient headache at his temples. A twenty-minute conversation with Gerald Struthers would do that to a man.
His communicator trilled.
"Mr Solo? Karl Zuckerman, section four."
Napoleon took a quick inventory of his mental images of section IV personnel and found the one he needed. "Go ahead, Karl."
"Sir, I've been monitoring THRUSH east-coast wireless traffic and Mr Waverly said you might want to hear this."
There was a pause and a click before a voice distorted by heavy static emerged from the communicator.
"...need to run the final check on the accelerator prior to the full test at 08.00 on the eleventh."
"The array is aimed at The Capitol but the range will depend on how the accelerator performs in the final check. We may need to pull it in to a more local..."
The transmission dissolved into white noise followed by another click. Zuckerman's voice returned.
"We've triangulated, and the message source appears to be in Annapolis." Napoleon's incipient headache vanished at the prospect of getting out of the office. "Er... Mr Waverly thought you and Mr Kuryakin might want to get right on it."
"And Mr Waverly was right. As always. Thank you, Karl. Solo out."
He twisted the pen cap and spoke again. "Open channel D, local relay for Kuryakin." It was mere seconds before his partner answered.
"We have an assignment. Meet me in the lot in ten minutes with a night manoeuvres kit and maps of Annapolis and DC." He paused. "Oh and don't forget the keys."
His partner snorted and cut the connection.
Napoleon grinned to himself.
As he entered the underground parking garage he heard the unmistakable sound of the Austin-Healey roaring into life. Illya, already in his night-ops black, had the top down and Napoleon stowed his duffel behind the passenger seat before sliding in next to him. Illya gunned the engine and backed out of the bay with a squeal of tyres.
Napoleon clutched at the door and grimaced. "Where's the fire?"
"I assume you'll tell me on the way."
The car shot out of the exit ramp into the lazy afternoon traffic to a cacophony of horns, curses and whistles. Illya ignored them and reached into his pocket for his dark glasses as he deftly weaved his way across three lanes, heading south. Napoleon was pressed back into his seat as Illya accelerated towards a gap ahead, cutting off a yellow cab that hooted its outrage.
"Uh... it would be a bonus to get there in one piece, if you could arrange it," Napoleon said, as the torrent of abuse from the cab-driver disappeared rapidly behind them.
Illya glanced briefly in the mirror and grinned. "So tell me," he said as he ran an intersection, "what is at the naval station that requires our immediate presence?"
Napoleon donned his own dark glasses and disciplined the wayward tail of his tie that streamed back over his shoulder, tucking it in firmly and fastening his suit jacket. He settled himself a little lower in his seat.
"You're assuming it is the naval station."
"Are you telling me it isn't?"
Napoleon chewed his lip. He couldn't have said why, but something in his gut felt wrong. "I'm not sure," he said. "The transmission that section IV picked up was only a fragment..." He drifted into silence.
"So if it isn't the naval station," Illya said, leaning on the horn as he passed a pick-up that had wandered across the lane, "where else should we be heading?"
"Well... there must be other places in Annapolis of interest to THRUSH."
"You mean you don't know?" That was definitely a note of exasperation he heard in his partner's voice.
Napoleon shrugged. And then jumped as Illya smacked a folded map hard onto his thigh. "Ow..."
"Here. And try to hold it the right way up."
Napoleon opened his mouth to reply and then thought better of it. He unfolded the map and after a battle with the turbulence managed to fold it so that it was centred on the town.
The traffic was thinning as they hit the I-95 and Napoleon watched the speedometer climb as Illya gave in to his indulgence. Napoleon laid his arm across the back of the seat and gave in to his own indulgence, letting his gaze linger on the wind-whipped blond thatch next to him. He gave his partner's shoulder a squeeze.
"So where have you been playing all afternoon?" he said, voice raised above the buffeting wind. "I thought you were supposed to be wrestling with the computer?"
Illya raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I wasn't?"
"Well, I called the labs and they said you weren't there."
"Checking up on me?"
Napoleon grinned. "Somebody has to," he said. "'Quis custodiet...' after all, tovarisch."
Illya glared at him. "The Section VIII terminal is always busy with data entry," he said. "If I have any programming to do I prefer to use the one in Waverly's office. Only he and I have access permissions for that one, and besides, it's the only terminal that can directly access the U.N.C.L.E. Northeast and Southern Hemisphere systems. And the NORAD link."
"Ah. I see," said Napoleon. Who didn't. "So how did you and your mechanical friend pass the time? A game of chess perhaps?"
Illya snorted. "It would probably give me a better game than you could."
Napoleon made a face. "Well then, did it tell you what the stock market's going to do tomorrow? Are the Russians about to launch an attack?"
Illya shot him an inscrutable look. "We Russians never announce our intentions. We prefer to take our prey by surprise."
Napoleon grinned. "Hmm. So I've noticed."
Illya smirked at him. "Napoleon," he continued with mock patience, "computers are not fortune-telling machines. They are good at spotting patterns, but they cannot predict..." his voice tailed off. Napoleon glanced sideways to see Illya's eyes narrow in thought. "Or maybe..."
The silence lengthened until Napoleon could stand it no longer. He tapped his partner's thigh.
"Care to share?"
Illya roused and blinked at him. "What?"
Illya frowned. "I'm not sure."
"I think I'm glad I wrote the lock-down sub-routine," said Illya slowly.
Illya rolled his eyes. "I wrote a programme that gives extra protection to the information we store on the computer. Once it is activated it tells the Northwest computer to isolate itself if it gets a call from a computer it doesn't recognise. It identifies the interloper then locks itself down."
"Once it's activated?" A nascent sense of unease flickered in Napoleon's stomach. "You mean it isn't already?"
The crease between Illya's brows deepened. "It's in place but I wanted to run it once more as a test programme to be absolutely sure there were no bugs. It's voice-activated. My voice," his voice dropped until Napoleon could barely hear him over the wind noise. "And only I have the password... Chyort!" Illya turned alarmed eyes on him. "Napoleon I really need to get back to HQ."
"What?" His partner's urgency sent a shiver down Napoleon's spine. "Why...?"
"Because I need to activate that programme."
Napoleon pulled his communicator from an inside pocket. "Give me the password. I'll call Waverly and get him to activate it from his terminal."
"He can't, Napoleon," Illya snapped. "Have you not been listening to a word I've said?"
He caught up quickly. "It has to be your voice."
Dammit. Damn them both for credulous fools. Illya was conveniently away from U.N.C.L.E. HQ on the slim premise of an interrupted radio transmission...
Illya glanced in the mirror and Napoleon saw his eyes widen.
"Shooter—eight o'clock!" Illya yelled, and stood on the brakes, swerving, amidst a volley of horns and squealing tyres.
Finding himself half in the footwell, Napoleon clutched at the dashboard as the car fishtailed onto the hard shoulder and glanced off the crash barrier. He righted himself, Walther already in his hand as he searched frantically for their attacker. Nothing behind. He spun to check ahead, just in time to see an object land in the footwell and explode into thick yellow fumes. He drew breath to warn Illya... and saw the world spin away into darkness.
The pounding in his head competed for his attention with the churning in his stomach. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard as the room seemed to pitch around him. After a moment it stilled. Finally, so did his stomach and he was able to take stock of his surroundings.
The steel cell was about ten feet square with the fourth wall entirely barred. A cot was fixed to one wall and a lidded pail stood next to a wash-hand basin in the corner. The most important item in the room was lying in an untidy heap against one wall, and Napoleon sighed with relief at the steady rise and fall of its chest. Mercifully, there were no signs of consciousness yet.
Struggling to his feet he weaved his way unsteadily to the basin where he splashed cold water over his face. That felt better. He soaked his handkerchief then grabbed the bucket and headed over to where Illya lay against the wall.
There were no obvious injuries but he checked anyway and was eventually rewarded with a snorting breath as Illya fought his way back to consciousness. With a sigh of relief, Napoleon positioned himself behind his partner and drew him into a sitting position against his chest. Laying the wet cloth next to him, he placed the pail between his friend's knees and settled back to wait. It didn't take long.
It was as far as Illya got before he was overtaken by a paroxysm of vomiting. Napoleon held him gently as he retched over the bucket. It took several minutes, but eventually the spasms diminished and then ceased altogether. Illya groaned and laid his head back against Napoleon's shoulder, panting.
"Gas?" he croaked.
Napoleon nodded. "Yellow."
"THRUSH then," Illya muttered.
"Uh huh." Napoleon wiped the Russian's face with the damp cloth then laid it on the high forehead. "You done?"
Illya groaned again. "I think so." He took a deep breath. "Thank you."
Napoleon smiled as he leaned forward to remove the bucket. "Don't mention it." He squeezed Illya's shoulder. "Think you can stand?"
"As long as the room doesn't attempt any more acrobatics I'll be fine."
At the sound of several pairs of booted feet approaching, Napoleon felt Illya stiffen against him. With the help of the wall they hauled each other to their feet, Napoleon keeping a steadying hand on Illya's arm as his friend swayed.
A familiar tableau arranged itself beyond the barred cell wall. Four THRUSH goons, bristling with weaponry, flanked a tall, finely-muscled man with greying hair. The calculated elegance of his appearance was marred only slightly by his starched white lab coat.
He beamed at them showing even white teeth. "Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin," he said. There was a light accent that Napoleon couldn't place. "How delightful to meet you at last. My name is Aldous Schiller. I've heard so much about you from my colleagues. Opinion seems equally divided as to which of you is the more..." he paused and his eyes travelled between them appraisingly, "...engaging."
Napoleon turned to his partner with an exaggerated shrug. "Name mean anything to you, tovarisch?"
"No," Illya shook his head and contrived to look bored. "If he was anyone important we'd have heard."
Napoleon turned back to their captor with an apologetic smile. "Well, I'm sorry to say that your fame hasn't preceded you."
Schiller observed him with studied tolerance. "No matter, Mr Solo. In a very short time my fame will be assured for posterity."
Napoleon sighed inwardly at the entirely predictable hubris of the man.
"It is a singular pleasure to have you with us," Schiller continued. "I have to admit that I had some doubt as to whether U.N.C.L.E.'s top pairing would fall for something as simple as a hoax radio transmission but," he spread his arms and chuckled, "here you are. You, Mr Solo, will be with us for some time," Schiller's smile was unpleasant. "At least as long as it takes for you to share with us everything—and I do mean everything—that you know." He turned to Illya once more and took a step towards the grille. "Alas, Mr Kuryakin, your visit will be much, much too brief. We have a job for you, you see."
Illya smiled, equally unpleasantly. "Don't think me ungrateful," he said, "but I already have one."
Schiller chuckled. "Indeed you do, Mr Kuryakin. And we want you to keep it. In fact the success of our project depends on it."
Napoleon had heard enough. "You know that when we miss our check-in others will come looking for us," he said.
Schiller gave him a withering look. "Please, Mr Solo," he said. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but your next check-in isn't due until 0600 by which time Mr Kuryakin will have been found alive and only slightly the worse for wear, albeit with a bit of a gap in his memory. You, sadly, will be missing presumed dead—an untimely presumption as it happens. Nevertheless," Schiller's eyes glittered, "all things come to him who waits.
"Now I have some questions I wish to put to Mr Kuryakin. You may watch, Mr Solo. I think you will find it—illuminating."
Schiller turned to the guards. "Bring them," he barked.
To Illya's disappointment, the THRUSH goons were unexpectedly well-trained. Two kept them covered whilst one cuffed Illya's hands behind him. Napoleon caught his eye and made a face as his own hands were safely secured out of mischief. They were herded out of the cell and along the corridor, the guards keeping them just off balance with random prods from their weapons.
The corridor ended at a reinforced steel door. It slid back with a pneumatic hiss as Schiller touched a panel in the wall. A shove in Illya's back almost sent him sprawling into what appeared to be a laboratory. It was alarmingly well-equipped.
In one corner, its windowed door standing open, was a smaller, glass-fronted booth. Through its doorway Illya could see a couch with restraints and a squat machine with a range of multi-positional arms that gave it the appearance of a large, silvery spider. It was a less-than-inviting prospect.
He glanced around the lab area itself. A central island bench dominated the space, teeming with the usual racks of glassware and burners. Elsewhere, clusters of futuristiclooking electronic equipment were grouped around half a dozen dentist-type chairs. There was a world of pain ahead for someone. From past experience Illya had every reason to believe it would probably be him. He caught Napoleon's grim expression and his chin came up.
"Welcome to my domain, gentlemen," said Schiller with a sweep of his arm. "I see that you are impressed."
Illya hoped the man's conceit might at least buy them some time. He wasn't disappointed.
"You, Mr Kuryakin, are to be the star of our show today." Schiller opened a drawer in the island bench and removed a syringe and a box of ampoules. Illya almost rolled his eyes.
"It is a performance in two acts," their captor continued, snapping the neck of an ampoule and drawing up a syringe-full of the straw-coloured liquid. "First," he expelled the air and capped the needle, "you will tell us everything you know. And then," Schiller tilted his head towards the corner booth, "we will help you to forget."
Illya's gut clenched at the expression on the scientist's face. His ability to withhold information under physical torture was a matter of some pride to him, but the thought of pharmaceuticals always made his skin crawl. Even when he and Napoleon had been prepared with counter-agents. Which in this case they hadn't. His eyes sought and found Napoleon's and he took a breath, grounding himself.
Schiller nodded to one of the chairs and addressed the guards holding Illya. "Take him over there and strap him in." Illya knew it was futile to struggle against the iron grip of the guards, but he did it anyway for form's sake.
Schiller smiled indulgently and turned to Napoleon. "And you, Mr Solo, are our independent observer." He beamed. "Think of this as a privilege. A foretaste of things to come."
"Well, Dr Schiller," Napoleon said as the guards strapped Illya in the chair. "I tell you, I'm flattered—truly, but I think both Mr Kuryakin and I can pass on the demonstration."
Schiller's beam widened. "Nonsense," he said. "It will be my pleasure." He moved to stand by Illya's chair, smiling as he slipped the needle into a vein and depressed the plunger.
Illya was powerless to suppress the adrenaline that was already coursing through him, flooding his system rapidly with the drug. It burned. His arm felt as though it were on fire where the needle had entered and the scalding sensation spread through him in waves that took his breath yet made him want to scream. He bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted copper, but couldn't prevent a whimper escaping.
And then as suddenly as it had overtaken him, the burning stopped. He gasped and then sighed as the fire was replaced by a comfortable lassitude. He was pleasantly warm. How foolish he'd been to think it was burning. He felt wonderful. He tried to move, but his arms and legs seemed stuck. Well that was fine. He didn't want to move anyway. Someone was whispering in his ear from a long way away.
"Name and rank."
Well that couldn't hurt. "Kuryakin, Illya Nikolaievich. Number two. Section two. U.N.C.L.E. northwest."
"Whom do you work for?"
"Waverly, Alexander. Number one. Section one. U.N.C.L.E. northwest." Illya paused. "In the New York office," he added helpfully. He felt a surge of pleasure, like he did after his fourth or fifth vodka.
"Very good, Mr Kuryakin. That feels good doesn't it?"
He nodded. It did.
"Now, tell me why you're here."
He thought for a moment. "Mr Solo and I are following a lead from a radio transmission..."
He was aware of scuffling sounds and then Napoleon's voice as though from a long way off but loud. Louder than the voice he'd been listening to.
"Fight it, Illya! Fight it!"
He forced his eyes open, trying to focus, disturbed by the urgency in his partner's voice.
"Listen to me, Illya. You have to..."
"Gag him!" The other voice—Schiller—snapped. And Napoleon's voice stopped.
Illya's breathing quickened, dispelling some of the fog in his brain. Of course—he must fight it. It was the drug. It made him feel so good—but he must fight it. Napoleon was right. He would listen to him. He sighed in relief. He felt in control once more. He felt great.
"Now, Mr Kuryakin. Tell me what you were working on this morning at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters."
"I was working on the computer." No! He hadn't meant to say that. It slipped out before he was ready...
"The computer." There was a smile in Schiller's voice. "Ah yes. And what were you doing on the computer?"
The answer sprang instantly into Illya's mind and his mouth opened to deliver it. No! He bit down hard on his lip. He wouldn't say it, wouldn't...
He was unprepared for the shock of agony that sliced through his euphoria. It felt as though he were on fire, burning from the inside. He glanced down at his belly, half expecting to see it smouldering.
"Tell me." The whispering voice caressed his ear.
He strove to master the pain; felt himself take a breath to speak.
"Was writing—submarine... security lock-down..." he gasped, "submarine..." Sweat poured off him and he struggled for breath.
"You were writing what, Mr Kuryakin?" Schiller's voice held a sharp edge of real interest now.
"Programme for..." His chest felt as though someone had filled it with hot coals. But 'fight it' Napoleon had said and fight it he would. "Icicle station," he gasped in triumph.
There was a pause and then an unpleasant chuckle from Schiller. "Ah I see. You were writing an isolation sub-routine. A security programme to isolate the U.N.C.L.E. computer." Illya could have wept with frustration. "Is that right Mr Kuryakin?"
Illya said nothing. This was too hard. He simply wouldn't answer. Hah! That was it—he wouldn't answer at all. Panting, he raised his chin in defiance.
Instantly the molten heat was gone and was replaced once more by delicious warmth. If only he'd known it was so simple.
The whispering voice was back urging him to talk, to explain. He took a breath to speak again; had no will to halt the words now... "THRUSH... THRUSH spying..."
"THRUSH, spying?" Schiller laughed uproariously. "Well, yes I suppose we are. It's what we do, you see. In this case spying on your computer system—inside the very workings of U.N.C.L.E. I must say it's been a fascinating, fascinating experience to see them at first hand over the past few months. And it's only the hors d'oeuvre, of course.
"Now tell me, Mr Kuryakin, why would you want to isolate the U.N.C.L.E. computer, hmm?"
The final lingering fragment of resistance in Illya's mind dissolved in the sea of contentment.
"To make sure that whoever was mounting attack," he took a deep breath, "could not use U.N.C.L.E. Northwest computer as route into other systems."
"Very good, Mr Kuryakin." Schiller's voice was oily. "Very good indeed."
Illya felt inordinately proud.
"Now, did you discuss this with anyone else?"
He frowned as he tried to remember. "Napoleon, maybe?"
"I see. And no one else?"
Illya shook his head.
"And was anyone working with you on the security programme?"
Illya was beginning to find the questions annoying. He just wanted to float... "No," he mumbled. "I always work alone until I have tested programme thoroughly."
"Excellent!" Next to him Schiller rubbed his hands. "And we must see that it stays that way. At least until the final phase of our plan is implemented. So, Mr Kuryakin, you will return to U.N.C.L.E. and make sure that no one else follows in your footsteps. Not that I imagine anyone else in your organisation shares your deductive brilliance. Still—better safe than sorry, eh?" He paused. "Ah yes, of course. How were you planning to activate your security programme?"
Illya was drowsy now. He wished the questions would stop. "Is voice-activated. My voice only. And there is password..."
Schiller interrupted him, his voice sounding urgent. "Ah, no, Mr Kuryakin." He chuckled again. "No we don't want you to remember the password. We want you to forget."
Illya was vaguely aware of footsteps moving away. Moments later Schiller was back and pushing up his sleeve. The scientist's voice seemed loud in his ear.
"And now, Mr Kuryakin, a little antidote to clear your system before the next phase."
Illya looked down incuriously in time to see the needle slip into his vein. He gasped as the burning sensation flooded him once more, searing through the lassitude—and then it was gone as though it had never been. Clarity of thought returned, and with it a nagging sense of guilt. He slapped it away. It was the drug, he told himself.
"And that next phase would be?" he said.
Schiller's eyes gleamed. "I am going to cut some holes in your memory." He nodded towards the glass-fronted booth. "The equipment in there is another of my inventions. It can excise inconvenient memories with surgical precision and replace them with new ones. Brilliant, no?"
Illya shuddered. He knew he didn't have much time. He craned his neck to see around his captor to where Napoleon sat, gagged and cuffed to a lab stool.
"Looks as though we may have to postpone our next visit to the Met, Napoleon," he said, flinching mentally at the bewilderment in the depths of the hazel eyes.
Schiller gave a twisted grin. "Oh, I can guarantee that, Mr Kuryakin. In fact a cancellation might be better. You and your partner won't be seeing each other again at all, so you may want to say goodbye now." He called over his shoulder to Napoleon's guards. "You may remove Mr Solo's gag now. We should at least allow him to say farewell to his partner."
He nodded to the guards standing by Illya's chair. "Take Mr Kuryakin and secure him to the couch."
Illya needed a distraction. As he was uncuffed and manhandled towards the booth he caught Napoleon's eye. To his relief, this time the comprehension was clear. His partner nodded almost imperceptibly and gave an anguished yell.
As his captors' attention snapped towards Napoleon, Illya dropped and twisted. He felled one of his guards with a jab behind the knee and heard a satisfying shriek as he drove his elbow into the other's groin.
In two strides he was at the bench. Snatching up one of the discarded glass ampoules, he dragged its jagged edge across his palm; three linear gouges and a ragged crescent. The pain made him gasp but he dug his fingers into the wounds until the blood welled between them.
"Stop him!" Schiller roared.
A blow to the side of his head from a rifle butt sent him spinning to the floor and he fought to hang on to consciousness. He was aware of a further roar from their captor.
"No! Don't damage him you fool! Get him into that booth."
Rough hands snatched at him and hauled him upright, then dragged him kicking and gouging to the booth. He was thrown onto the couch and his wrists and ankles secured by webbing straps. He glanced down in grim satisfaction at the blood streaming from his hand. When he looked up, it was to see Schiller standing over him, a thunderous expression on his face.
"I had heard you were stubborn, Mr Kuryakin," he spat. "I don't know what you hoped to achieve by that little display of temper but I assure you it will not be repeated."
With that he grabbed Illya's head and slammed it back into the couch, clamping it in place with a metal band. He turned to the machine and positioned two of the arms so that their terminals lay alongside Illya's temples. After a couple of adjustments he tightened the terminals hard against the skin until Illya winced.
"I trust you are not too comfortable," gloated Schiller.
Illya kept his voice steady despite the fear that licked at him. "Perish the thought."
Schiller flipped a switch and an electronic hum filled the air. Illya gasped at the sensation that thrummed in his head. Not pain, exactly, more a sense of disorientation. Schiller's hands flitted over the console adjusting controls as he checked screens and dials. Finally he seemed satisfied.
"Bring Mr Solo over here," he called to the guards. "He deserves a front row seat, I think."
Unable to move his head, Illya was only vaguely aware of his partner being brought to stand next to the observation window. "Well, I trust the two of you will enjoy the performance," he muttered.
"I'm sure we shall, Mr Kuryakin," Schiller murmured as he turned the control on the machine. "But I doubt that you'll remember much about it."
The machine's hum rose in pitch. Illya's sense of disorientation became frank unease and then panic. "Chyort!" he gasped. "Napoleon!" He dug his nails into his bleeding palm and cried out at the lancing pain. "Chyort! Chyort! Chyort..."
Pain was familiar.
Pain he knew.
Oh, friendly pain...
Napoleon watched in misery as his partner writhed on the couch. Illya thrashed against his restraints, blood from his torn hand spattering the floor, as he spat Russian invective at their captor.
"Chyort! Chyort! Chyort..." Illya moaned, over and over again.
"Illya..." Napoleon whispered.
"Quite the little hellcat isn't he?" Schiller turned to Napoleon with a twisted grin. "Your partnership must have been something of a challenge, Mr Solo."
Napoleon fought against a rising sense of despair and gave Schiller the benefit of one of his smoothest smiles. "Why not at all, Dr Schiller. In fact Mr Kuryakin's a pussycat once you get to know him."
Schiller turned a speculative gaze on the Russian as Illya continued to struggle. "I very much regret that I shall not have that opportunity, Mr Solo," he murmured almost to himself.
Illya's curses were becoming fainter now. Finally he stilled on the couch, mouth slack, eyes half open and glassy.
"Ah—very good," murmured Schiller. "Your partner, or rather your ex-partner now, Mr Solo," he flashed a smile that made Napoleon's flesh crawl, "is now ready for the first stage of programming." He flipped a switch. "His memory of the last twenty-four hours is being erased. When he is found in your car later it will appear as though he has post traumatic amnesia from that bump on the head. It is, after all, common in motor vehicle accidents so your colleagues at U.N.C.L.E. will suspect nothing untoward." Schiller beamed. "Clever, no?"
"I'm overcome with admiration," said Napoleon. He flexed his wrists, testing the cuffs. They were a snug fit and immovable. He sighed. Somewhere at the back of his mind an elusive thought was tantalising him.
Schiller was speaking again. "Of course that is only part of the story." He adjusted one of the dials in front of him and the machine's note changed subtly. "Once we have erased the significant memories we can replace them with fragments of others more suited to our purpose."
On the couch Illya moaned.
"Now the machine is telling him that you are dead, Mr Solo. He believes that you were mortally wounded at the time of the accident, as you were being abducted. Hmm... ah yes. A gut shot I think." Schiller twisted a dial. "That should finish you off nicely—if slowly."
As Napoleon watched, Illya's eyes flew wide open and he let out a wail. Napoleon mentally cursed the man implacably manipulating the equipment in front of him. He breathed through the anger that rose in him like a tide.
The elusive thought mocked him.
Schiller flipped another switch on the machine and its note became a deeper throb. He turned to Napoleon. "This final part takes a little longer, I'm afraid," he said. "It's a precaution, you understand, should the programming begin to break down." He reached for a dial. "Occasionally a subject may experience flashbacks in which he recalls certain isolated memories. For the most part this can be attributed to the common pattern of incomplete amnesia."
"That must be... inconvenient for you," said Napoleon.
Schiller shrugged and began slowly to turn the dial. "Barely even that," he said. "Isolated incomplete recall is hardly enough to trouble us. There are, however, certain memories which we do like to stay buried forever.
"In my latest refinement to the process we have built in a fail-safe layer of programming to ensure this." He shot Napoleon a triumphant look. "For example, should Mr Kuryakin eventually remember his password, or attempt even inadvertently to use it to activate the security programme, then a series of catastrophic physiological events would be triggered in him that would result in his death."
"Diabolical?" laughed Schiller. "Yes, isn't it, Mr Solo."
After a final adjustment Schiller turned away from the machine and moved to the door of the chamber. He regarded Napoleon with cold eyes. "This phase of the treatment will take about half an hour and then Mr Kuryakin will be ready to play his part in the penultimate act of this opera."
Napoleon fought to contain his fury. And then caught his breath as the thought he'd vainly been chasing suddenly turned on him and smacked him between the eyes.
Chyort! His partner so rarely cursed. He should have known...
Their outing to the Met the previous month had been to a performance of Faust. Chyort! The devil. The black one.
And he knew then with crystal clarity the password that would isolate the U.N.C.L.E. Northwest computer from its world-wide counterparts within the organisation; that would sever its link to NORAD; that would save the world from nuclear holocaust.
That would condemn Illya Kuryakin to death.
Napoleon was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He'd watched the guards unstrap an unconscious Illya from the couch and roughly bind his bleeding hand before carting him away. He had no illusions. He knew that it might be the last time he saw his partner. Knew too the futility of 'if only', yet his mind had seethed with words unsaid; commitments unspoken.
Schiller had promised Solo a lengthy interrogation from which death would be the ultimate and welcome release. That it was yet to occur, was due to Schiller's abrupt recall to THRUSH Central to deal with some other aspect of their master plan.
"Ah, Mr Solo. Business before pleasure, I'm afraid," Schiller had said as he prepared to leave. "You might wish to make the most of these next few days—your last, in fact." He gave Napoleon a dazzling smile. "When I return, we will have a long, long talk and you will tell me everything you know."
But he hadn't returned. It was a month since Schiller had left, a delay from which Napoleon took some small comfort. He had no doubt that the doctor would reappear sometime before THRUSH's plan was finally executed, if only to gloat. But so far—well— so good.
Considering he was in THRUSH custody, Napoleon was pleasantly surprised to find he was treated reasonably well. In Schiller's absence he was fed regularly, if frugally, allowed to sleep undisturbed and even permitted the luxury of a daily shower and clean clothes. Well, a clean THRUSH jumpsuit at least.
There was no gratuitous torture, no taunts and no one even questioned his parentage. In fact no one spoke to him at all, except to give him instructions in monosyllables. It was all vaguely disorientating.
But at the end of the fourth week of rigorously examining his environment and his captors' routines he was still no closer to escape. It frustrated him that there was slim prospect of rescue. There'd be no Illya appearing out of the blue, eyes rolling in exasperation at the need to come to his partner's rescue. Again.
Illya believed him dead. He was on his own.
The sound of the door at the end of the corridor being unlocked brought him to his feet, as was his custom. There may be no immediate prospect of rescue, but he'd be damned if he'd be caught napping.
Two guards approached with his lunch. Walter and Igor this afternoon, he noted; Igor carrying the tray. Well he didn't suppose Igor was his real name, but the man was so squat and ugly that it would do as well as any other. Walter—and Napoleon had established that this was indeed his real name—was unfortunate enough to have retained a spectacular case of acne well into his thirties. They made an unprepossessing pair. THRUSH ugly, thought Napoleon. In addition, today Walter's nose was bright red and dribbling and he sniffed sporadically in a way that reminded Napoleon of a dredger he'd once watched on the East River.
With studied indifference Napoleon glanced down at the THRUSH jumpsuit and flicked an imaginary speck of dust from the shoulder. Then he beamed at them. As ever they made no response, so he merely stood close to the grille with his hands in his pockets and waited, as usual, to be motioned towards the rear of the cell with the barrel of Walter's rifle.
Except that Walter was busily mopping his nose with a large handkerchief as Igor unlocked the door.
Napoleon's hands slipped casually from his pockets. He slackened his knees and balanced on the balls of his feet, every sense alert. As Igor began to push open the cell door Walter gave an enormous sneeze. The tray wobbled as Igor jumped in surprise. Before the shocked guard could regain his equilibrium Napoleon exploded into action.
A chop to Igor's neck took him down without a sound and before Walter could lower his handkerchief Napoleon had felled him with roundhouse punch to the side of his head. Liberating the pistols from the waistband holsters of both guards, Napoleon checked them for ammunition and tucked them into his belt. He grimaced at the rifles and snatched one up reluctantly. Useless for close combat but he might be grateful of it later. Snatching Igor's keys from his belt he hauled the two into the cell and locked it. With a final check of his arsenal he set off down the corridor.
At 0600 Alexander Waverly sat in his office checking through the day's schedule. He paused as one item caught his eye. Illya Kuryakin was to undergo firearms re-evaluation at 0700 that morning. If he were certified as weapons-fit by the armourer, it would require only Waverly's signature to put him back on the active roster for field duty. Waverly rummaged in the heap of files in his out tray until he found the one he wanted; Kuryakin's recent medical report. He flipped through it until he came to the psych evaluation. He frowned slightly as he read it.
When they'd found Kuryakin by the car he'd been disorientated from a bump on the head. Eventually, after rigorous interrogation, all he could tell them was that THRUSH had run them off the road before abducting Solo, and that his partner had been fatally injured during the skirmish. He was obdurate in his insistence that Solo was dead. He had been unable to explain the wound on his hand, becoming agitated if pressed. Waverly took off his spectacles and stared into the middle distance.
Since his release from medical, Kuryakin had haunted the labs and corridors like a wraith. At least, he did when he wasn't hovering over Waverly's computer terminal. Waverly had observed patterns of bereavement in far too many agents in the aftermath of losing a partner and had learned the importance of vigilance. He monitored Kuryakin closely and was taken aback by the intensity of the grief he witnessed in the normally dispassionate man.
The misery was palpable; an ugly scar running through all Kuryakin's actions. It pained Waverly to see his Russian agent's ruthless efficiency disintegrate. But something more aroused his concern. By his instinct, something was off.
He'd observed Kuryakin on several occasions become pale, clammy and breathless. The interludes lasted only moments but were clearly devastating, leaving the Russian momentarily disorientated until he regained his composure. There was nothing in his medical file to account for this and he was evasive when questioned. Despite the fact that the medics had certified him fit for duty, Waverly still had major reservations about signing him back into the field.
He glanced at the clock—0635—and reached for the intercom. It sounded as his hand was in mid air. He paused before flicking the switch.
"Sir?" Lisa Rogers sounded uncharacteristically flustered.
"Well? What is it Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, I have security on the line from the Del Floria entrance." She paused. "They say they have Mr Solo down there."
Waverly's mind raced. It wouldn't be the first apparent resurrection of his CEA. He'd been missing presumed dead on more than one occasion. Previously, that damned stubborn Russian partner of his had refused to accept the loss and had moved heaven, earth and THRUSH until he'd found him and brought him home. This time, of course, the damned stubborn Russian had insisted from day one that Solo was dead. There'd been no intemperate outbursts demanding the use of U.N.C.L.E. resources to search for him; no threats of resignation; no unauthorised absences; simply the dismantling grief.
Waverly's unease of the past few weeks transmuted into something equally intangible that nevertheless screamed 'threat'. He felt the tingle of adrenaline—a rare pleasure these days.
"Very well," he said. "Have a security detail escort him up. And initiate a level two security protocol."
He snapped off the intercom and crossed to a drawer in the communications console. He opened it and took out his Webley service revolver that lay there. After a moment he gave an exclamation of disgust and replaced it. He slammed the drawer shut and moved back to his desk. He raised his head as two security officers entered, weapons drawn. They glanced quickly around the room before moving to flank him.
"Thank you, gentlemen," Waverly said. "I trust you have sleep darts loaded?" They nodded. "Good. I hope these precautions won't be necessary but we must be prepared."
The intercom buzzed once more and he flipped it open. "Well?"
"The security detail is here with Mr Solo, Sir."
Waverly raised his eyebrows at the two officers who nodded and stood poised.
"Very well, Miss Rogers. Send them in." He closed the intercom and turned to face the door.
Solo walked into his superior's office flanked by the security detail that had met him at reception. His hands were cuffed behind him. Later he'd have time to appreciate and commend them on their diligent response to his unexpected reappearance. Right now the single thought in his mind was how to save his partner.
For a long moment Waverly eyed him impassively from between the two armed agents that flanked him. Then he nodded briefly and motioned him to a chair.
"Please remove Mr Solo's handcuffs, gentlemen," Waverly ordered as he sat and reached for his pipe. "Your report please, Mr Solo."
The cuffs off, Napoleon sat and rubbed his wrists absently. "Thank you, Sir," he said. He leaned forward. "I believe we haven't much time. When THRUSH realises I'm gone they may try to bring forward their plan."
"What plan is that, Mr Solo?"
"To gain control of the US missile launch systems."
"Holy shit!" It was one of the security guards. Waverly took his pipe from his mouth and glared at him. The man blushed crimson. "Sorry, Sir," he mumbled.
"Security detail, dismiss," said Waverly quietly and watched as the men shuffled out. He turned to Napoleon. "Explain yourself please, Mr Solo."
Napoleon sighed. "It has to do with our computer system, Sir. It also explains why U.N.C.L.E. seems to have had such a bad run of late, and why THRUSH has been experiencing unprecedented levels of success."
"They've somehow managed to tap into our computer here at Northwest. That's given them access not only to our information storage, but also given them a heads up on all our active projects.
"Whenever we've planned an assault on a satrapy they've simply cleared out ahead of the attack. If we've acquired new intelligence they've known about it as soon as we have. They've been one step ahead of us all the time."
He paused whilst Waverly got his pipe going.
"That isn't the half of it, Sir," continued Napoleon. "They also have the potential to take advantage of the links between our computer and U.N.C.L.E.'s Northeast and Southern Hemisphere systems. And, of course..."
Waverly hissed softly around his pipe stem. "NORAD!"
Napoleon nodded. "I believe their exploitation of our system has merely been a test run for their primary objective."
Waverly blew a fragrant cloud of smoke. "Proposals, Mr Solo?"
Napoleon felt sick. "We can stop them, Sir, but..." He took a deep breath.
"Well? Come on, man," snapped Waverly. "If what you say is true then we need to move quickly. Out with it."
Napoleon was appalled to find he was trembling. He snatched his hands from the desk and balled them into fists in his lap.
"Sir, Mr Kuryakin has created some sort of programme in our computer." He took a steadying breath. "There's a password that will stop THRUSH from being able to link through it to the NORAD system."
Waverly frowned. "Odd that he didn't think to mention it to me." He reached for the intercom switch.
"Wait!" Napoleon's voice was louder than he'd intended and it arrested the Old Man's action. "Sir, please," he rubbed his brow and continued. "We were detained by a Doctor Aldous Schiller. He's developed some form of mind-control machine for THRUSH and he used it on Illya. I don't think Illya will even remember he's been working with the computer, let alone the password to activate the programme."
"I see." Waverly's eyes narrowed and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Do you know this password, Mr Solo?"
Napoleon didn't trust himself to speak. He nodded.
"Very well, then." Waverly was reaching for the intercom again.
Napoleon swallowed. "Sir—there's a problem."
"Oh?" Waverly's hand stilled.
"It's voice activated," continued Napoleon. "Only Illya's voice can activate the security protocol. Schiller did something to him with the machine, though." Napoleon dug his nails into his palms as he fought for control. He took a deep breath. "He said that if Illya were to try to activate the programme—it would kill him."
He held Waverly's gaze as the Old Man eyed him levelly.
The silence lengthened.
Waverly slowly removed the pipe from his mouth and laid it quietly on the desk. His face was grim but when he eventually spoke his voice was infinitely sad.
"Mr Solo, you of all people must know the price that may be asked of any Section II operative. Mr Kuryakin too knows that he is expendable in the service of the greater good."
Napoleon's throat had closed. He dropped his eyes and nodded once at his chief. Waverly reached for the intercom panel and hit a button.
Immediately yellow lights flashed on the panel and the sound of muffled klaxons could be heard beyond the doors of Waverly's office.
Napoleon started as though stung as his partner's voice echoed from the desk speaker.
"Kuryakin here. What's happening?"
Waverly reached for the microphone. "Cut along to my office immediately please, Mr Kuryakin." He flipped a switch and spoke again. "This is Waverly. Full emergency medical team to my office, now."
Waverly swivelled his chair and faced Napoleon once more.
"Believe me, Mr Solo; I know what it is to lose a partner, a friend..." Waverly faltered and stared into the middle distance, then continued. "But the stakes here couldn't be higher."
Napoleon nodded numbly. As the doors to Waverly's office opened, his head snapped round. His breath gusted out as the medical team rushed in and slid to a stop in front of Waverly.
"It's all right, gentlemen," Waverly inclined his head to the nurse in their midst, "and lady. Everyone here is fine for the moment. Stand by, please. We may have need of you very soon."
The doors hissed open again and this time Napoleon's heart thudded painfully. Illya hurtled through the doorway, weapon drawn, and stopped as though he'd run into a brick wall. His eyes flitted from the tableau of medics to Waverly and finally Napoleon was pinned by the blue gaze.
"Napoleon...?" Illya whispered.
Napoleon's heart rabbited in his chest as Illya took a step towards him.
"Mr Kuryakin," Waverly's voice seemed harsh in the silence. "Please access the computer terminal immediately. Voice activation protocol."
Illya glanced at the Old Man briefly before returning his gaze to Napoleon. Their eyes held as Illya holstered his gun and slid into the chair at the console. He activated the microphone. A row of red lights blinked into life and he paused briefly and cleared his throat before speaking.
"Kuryakin, Illya Nikolaievich. Section two, number two. Northwest."
One by one the red lights on the console turned to amber. Illya looked at Waverly who nodded sharply.
"Voice activation protocol," he continued, then closed the microphone and turned to their boss, with a puzzled frown. "Sir...?"
Waverly ignored him and turned to Napoleon. "Mr Solo—if you please."
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Sir..."
Napoleon stood and shambled across the floor to the console. He laid a shaking hand on Illya's shoulder. "Illya... dushka—I'm..."
"Now, Mr Solo." Waverly's voice held compassion, but was unequivocal.
Napoleon felt the prickle of scalding tears behind his eyelids, and saw the bewilderment in his partner's face as Illya drew breath to speak. Trembling, Napoleon took the well-loved face in his hands. For a long moment he found he was unable to speak.
"Forgive me, my friend," he said eventually. "Mephistopheles, Illya," he whispered. "Hurry. You need to programme that in now."
Illya blinked once and then opened the mike again.
"Mephistopheles. Activate," he said then flipped off the mike.
Napoleon watched as the amber lamps lit green in sequence and the computer whirred into a fever of activity. Illya turned to him, an ironic eyebrow raised, and for a moment he thought it was going to be OK.
"Napoleon, what..." Illya began, and then suddenly started to choke.
Napoleon moaned in horror. Illya's eyes rolled back in his head as he went rigid and started to seize. Grabbing the Russian's shoulders he lowered him to the floor as gently as he could whilst Illya arced and thrashed and ground his teeth until the foam that flecked his lips was red.
Napoleon was only vaguely aware of competent hands drawing him away as the medics surged into action, an implacable green cordon shutting him out.
After several dreadful moments he found himself seated in Waverly's swivel chair, shaking as the Old Man pressed a glass into his hand.
"Come, Mr Solo. Drink this."
Incapable of thought he obediently emptied the glass and gasped as the fiery liquor caught his throat. His gaze swung back to the mêlée only feet away from him as the medics continued to work intently on his partner.
Anything, he thought, uncaring of which deity might grant his request. I'll give you anything you want. Just let him live... Napoleon would have pledged his soul if it hadn't been lying on the floor convulsing in front of him.
Wiping his mouth on his sleeve he drew a shaky breath. He felt Waverly's hand a momentary weight on his shoulder.
"You and Mr Kuryakin have just averted Armageddon, Mr Solo." The Old Man nodded towards the medical team. "They're doing all they can."
When they finally allowed Napoleon into Illya's room it was some six hours after the Russian's seizure. It felt like six years. Waverly's foresight in having the medical team standing by meant they'd been able to act as soon as Illya had begun to seize. It had saved his life.
Napoleon stood in the half-light by the bed. His partner lay disconcertingly still. Tubes seemed to run from every orifice and Illya's breath hissed in and out at the behest of a hulking machine next to the bed. Underpinning it all was the steady cadence of the heart monitor.
It was the same as all the other times he'd waited by his partner's bedside in medical, fear gnawing at his belly as he replayed their last conversation, pinpointed all the missed opportunities of their lives. He promised himself that this time—this time—when Illya woke Napoleon would clarify for him and with him all the oblique allusions around which their lives were built. The same promise he'd made the last time. And the time before that.
The same but different.
It wasn't uncommon for one of them to be lying in the bed whilst the other hovered, wracked with self-recrimination. Perceived sins of omission, or indeed of commission, were part of the baggage each of them carried. Usually they managed to work through it together, each providing healing for the other as needed.
Napoleon looked down at his friend and wondered if this time there might be no healing.
Because of a choice he—Napoleon—had made, Illya's life now hung in the balance. He railed against the knowledge that he could have made no other decision. In choosing to save the world, Napoleon felt as though he'd lost his soul. It appalled him to discover that he was no longer interested in being part of a world that didn't have Illya in it.
Napoleon sank into the metal chair with a sigh, loosening his tie and toeing off his shoes. Despite a hot shower and a change out of the reviled blue-grey uniform, he felt soiled. He reached for his partner's hand and gave it a squeeze before turning it and pressing his lips to the palm.
The lumpiness there made him draw back and he shuddered at the memory of Illya in Schiller's lab slicing into his own hand. He kissed the palm again, an apology for his involuntary recoil, then traced the lines of the scars with his thumb. Startled, he held the abused hand to the light and stared.
His throat constricted and the silvery 'HC' began to shimmer and blur.
The first words Illya had taught him to read in Cyrillic were their names. He'd learned to speak his first Russian endearments while Illya loved him, whispered into the heat that burned between them.
He squeezed his lips together tightly as he held the limp hand carefully in his.
Six days later...
As he took his accustomed place next to Illya's bed, Napoleon couldn't remember when he'd last felt this exhausted. Six days of debriefing, fractious discussions with the Pentagon and the failure to locate Schiller, had taken their toll. What had taken even more of a toll was the absence from his side of the one person who made it all worthwhile. Illya still lay comatose and unresponsive.
Around three in the morning one of the nurses brought him coffee and took Illya's observations. When she left, Napoleon returned to his seat and collected Illya's hand in his once more, absent-mindedly tracing the now familiar scars.
There was a barely perceptible movement under his fingers. Hardly daring to breathe he squeezed the lax hand gently. There was no response. He tried again.
"Illya?" he murmured. "Come on, partner. You in there?"
He reached to stroke the fringe of now lank hair back from his friend's forehead. And caught his breath as Illya's eyelids flickered open.
Napoleon couldn't seem to get enough oxygen into his lungs. He tried and failed to speak, tried again and managed a tremulous croak.
"Hey, tovarisch. Did ya smell the coffee?"
The blue eyes blinked, sought his and almost focused before closing once more. Then there was nothing. Napoleon held his breath. A faint squeeze to his fingers released it in a gust. He leaned down and planted a quick kiss on his partner's forehead before pressing the nurse call button.
Forty-eight hours later, Illya had managed several spells off the ventilator. When Napoleon arrived in medical he was met by Grace, one of the senior nurses he'd dated a time or two.
"We took out his breathing tube earlier, Napoleon," she said. "He's asleep now but you can wake him and give him some more ice chips if you like. His throat's still sore from the tube."
He followed her towards Illya's room, the sway of her full hips bringing back some very pleasant memories but no current desire. His present longing was for something much more compact. "Thanks Grace," he said. "I appreciate all you're doing for him."
She turned at the door with a slight frown and laid a hand on his chest. "Just one thing, Napoleon," she said. "We've noticed that Illya becomes a little agitated from time to time." She gave him a direct look and coloured slightly. "It seems to happen more when you're around or right after you leave."
Napoleon gave her an appraising look. "I—ah—seem to have that effect on a lot of people," he said and watched her colour deepen. "And...?"
The nurse dropped her gaze. "Well, don't..." she gave a little shrug. "Just... don't. All right? He's still very weak."
Napoleon grinned, amused. "I promise to behave," he said. "Scout's honour." He raised three fingers in salute. She shook her head and went ahead of him into the room.
Despite Grace's encouragement to wake his partner, Napoleon simply sat watching him sleep. Pallid cheeks and eyes sunken in lavender hollows showed clearly the ravages of the past six days.
Alive, he thought.
After about an hour Illya sighed and opened his eyes. Napoleon smiled into them.
"Hey." He unconsciously raised Illya's hand and pressed a kiss to the wounded palm.
He couldn't have predicted the reaction.
Illya's breathing became laboured and a fine sheen of sweat shone on his upper lip. Napoleon was taken aback. Alarmed he let go of Illya's hand.
"Lyubov...?" he muttered. "What is it? Did I hurt you?"
Illya's eyes squeezed shut and he began to shake as sweat poured off him. Napoleon leapt to his feet and hit the emergency call button.
"Illya—tovarisch...? What's wrong?"
The door opened and Grace rushed in flanked by two other nurses. She took one look at Illya. "Out!" she snapped as she moved to the bed. "Now, Napoleon..."
"What's the matter with him?" he whispered as he stepped back from the bed.
She spared him a glance as she fitted an oxygen mask over his partner's face. "Wait in the corridor, please."
Grace turned to him sharply. "Napoleon I asked you not to..." she paused and looked back at Illya, still gasping despite the oxygen. Turning querulous eyes on Napoleon as she took his partner's pulse she said, "What did you do?"
Napoleon had no idea what to say. He imagined this was what paranoia must feel like. With a shrug he left the room.
He passed the next half hour in the corridor, taut with worry as the medical team worked once more on his partner. They finally got Illya stabilised without needing to re-intubate him, but it was a close-run thing.
Eventually Sidney Goldstone, the duty medical officer, emerged. He guided Napoleon into his consulting room and shut the door. Motioning him to a seat, Goldstone pulled a bottle of malt and a glass from a filing cabinet and poured two fingers. He handed the glass to Napoleon.
"What happened in there, Napoleon?" he said quietly.
Napoleon tossed back the liquor and set the glass down. He rubbed his hands over his face then regarded his palms thoughtfully. He shook his head. "I'm not sure, Sid," he sighed. "Whatever it was, it happened when I... touched the scar on his palm."
If the medic noticed the hesitation he didn't pick up on it. He nodded slowly. "Ye...es," he said. "It's troubled him since we got him back from THRUSH." He shot Napoleon a glance. "I understand it's self-inflicted."
Napoleon hesitated then nodded. "But it isn't what you think." It sounded defensive and he winced.
Goldstone's eyes narrowed. "Oh? And what do you think I think?"
Napoleon shook his head. "Sorry, Sid. I didn't mean it to come out that way."
Goldstone perched on the corner of his desk. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Napoleon shrugged. "Not much to tell. We were captured, Schiller was about to do the mind wipe when Illya grabbed a piece of broken glass and slashed his palm..."
The scene replayed vividly in Napoleon's mind's eye. The blood; the sense of impotence as he watched his partner's mind being dismantled in front of him; the overwhelming desire to disembowel Schiller.
He only realised he'd lapsed into silence when he heard the clink of bottle neck on glass.
"Here," said Goldstone, holding out a refill to him. "Drink, Napoleon." He turned to the filing cabinet and took out another glass. "Maybe I'll join you this time."
Napoleon took the drink mechanically and raised it to his lips. He took a sip. "I think he needed something to distract him from Schiller's process," he said. "I guess he figured pain would do that." He looked up at Goldstone and gave a weak smile. "Illya's always been a bit bloodthirsty."
Goldstone grinned. "He's Russian. It's in his genes." The physician raised his glass in salute, then took a swallow. He scrutinised Napoleon's face as he drank. Lowering his glass, he said slowly, "Which doesn't explain why it was your initials he carved into his palm."
Napoleon looked at him and then set his half-full glass down carefully on the desk. "No it doesn't."
"So. Care to enlighten me?"
Napoleon shook his head. He still felt defensive and he wasn't used to it. It made him irritable. "That's one you'll have to ask Illya, Sid."
"We have a problem there, Napoleon," Goldstone sighed. "The scar seems to be one of the things that are tied up with the odd anxiety responses we've noted in him since we got him back. This afternoon's episode is more extreme than we've seen before, though." He rubbed his nose, looking thoughtful. "The response could have been heightened as a result of his major seizure, or it could have been something else entirely. We just don't know."
Napoleon picked up his glass and swirled the amber liquid.
Goldstone continued. "Waverly wasn't ready to field-certify him you know."
"The morning you came back, Kuryakin had just passed his firearms evaluation. But Waverly still didn't want to sign him off."
"He'd had a couple of... well they can best be described as—panic attacks."
"Illya? Panic attacks...?" Napoleon was incredulous.
"And he was still having sleep disturbances." Goldstone paused. "Waverly thought it was because he was mourning for you."
Napoleon's remorse ramped up a notch. "But now you think it may be something to do with this process of Schiller's?"
Goldstone nodded slowly. "Napoleon, Kuryakin is very—how shall I put this—very altered. Even before the seizure. In the month you were away he pushed himself as hard as ever. You know what he's like—scrappy little SOB. But there were these different aspects of his behaviour that none of us had seen before.
"We think Schiller may have put blocks in his subconscious that are evoked by certain triggers. If he has, frankly, it's a brilliant piece of work. Unprecedented." He looked away as though embarrassed by his enthusiasm.
Napoleon felt suddenly cold. "Sid," he said. "All this... it is temporary, right? Illya will recover?"
It was only momentary but the medical officer's eyes slid sideways before meeting Napoleon's steady gaze. "It's still very early days, Napoleon. He just had the tube out and hasn't really had a chance to speak yet." Goldstone patted him on the shoulder. "Give him time. He's tough. Hell, he's Russian. Small steps, Napoleon. Small steps."
They kept Illya heavily sedated for the two days following his relapse. Napoleon had been assured that this was a normal part of the treatment protocol to allow his partner's brain to rest. He called in each night on his way out of the building, of course, but stayed only long enough to assure himself of Illya's continued existence. He himself was exhausted after the mission and by the unremitting anxiety about Illya's welfare.
On the third day, Napoleon entered medical, nodded to the nurse on duty, Sandy this time, and made his way to the now familiar room. He'd slept badly the previous night. He'd tossed and turned troubled by a deep sense of unease, and when eventually he'd got to sleep, the terrifying image of Illya's face as he seized had haunted his dreams.
He was alarmed and frankly puzzled by the violence of Illya's response to the touch on his scar. Illya had to have been stretching and touching it for weeks in preparation for his firearms test.
He found he couldn't yet bring himself to consider the possibility that the severity of the response might indicate that the condition was permanent. He couldn't even admit to the other possibility that tried to worm its way into his thoughts in unguarded moments.
He paused outside Illya's room to gather himself before shouldering his way in.
Napoleon crossed the room. Much to his relief, the wheezing behemoth no longer loomed next to the bed. One by one the other accoutrements of coma had also been removed until all that remained was the indignity of the urinary catheter.
Illya's face was lax in sleep. It was entirely different from the vacant slackness of the coma and it was all Napoleon could do not to reach out and stroke the newly animate features. He drew up the chair and watched Illya sleep for a few more moments then laid a hand hesitantly on his friend's forearm. After a while the cadence of Illya's breathing changed as he rose towards consciousness. Finally he sighed and opened his eyes.
Napoleon smiled. "Hey, sleeping beauty," he murmured.
Illya struggled to focus on him and frowned. He tried to say something but nothing came out.
"Hang on," said Napoleon and searched the top of the bedside locker until he found the cup of ice chips. "Here," he said as he sat on the edge of the bed. "They haven't all melted yet." He spooned some carefully into his partner's mouth and sat back a little. "If you want more you only have to ask," he said with a grin.
Illya cleared his throat and tried again to speak. "More..." he squeaked.
Illya cleared his throat again. "More ice." A croak.
"And the magic word is...?"
Illya frowned again. "Now." Hoarse but clear.
Napoleon was still smiling as he fetched a fresh cup of ice chips from the corridor. When he got back into the room his partner was struggling to raise himself on one elbow.
"Wait!" Napoleon growled, shaking his head as he wound the bed up a little. "Dammit, Illya," he muttered. "Why do you always have to make it so difficult? You just have to ask."
"And that has just worked so well, hasn't it?" Illya rasped as he glared at him. "Higher..."
"No. I don't want you passing out on me again. You've only just woken up." Napoleon retrieved the ice chips from the top of the locker and Illya craned, bird-like towards the spoon. "Steady or you'll be sick," Napoleon grumbled as Illya sucked. His partner ignored him and sagged back against the pillow with a sigh, closing his eyes.
Napoleon took the opportunity for an indulgent appraisal of his friend's appearance and allowed the tension in him to unravel another notch.
"So," he said eventually. "You been a good boy today?"
Illya glared at him.
"I almost didn't recognise you without your tubes," Napoleon continued. He indicated the catheter. "I—ah—see they've left you one."
Illya flushed slightly and shook his head. "Just a bit uncomfortable." He shot Napoleon a look. "When can I leave?"
"You can leave when the nice doctors say so." His partner looked sulky and Napoleon allowed exasperation to colour his voice. "Illya, you were in a coma for almost ten days with a machine breathing for you," he continued. "You're pumped full of enough drugs to pacify a rhinoceros, you're so weak you can barely sit unaided let alone stand and your present diet consists solely of ice chips." He rattled the cup.
Illya blinked at him slowly, once. "When can I leave?" he said.
Napoleon huffed. "Fine," he said in exasperation. "Give me a couple of days to get the shower fixed though. It seems to have sprung a leak while I was away."
"And this is a problem for me because...?"
"Tovarisch, whenever you get out of medical the first thing you want to do when you get home is to spend at least a day in the shower."
"As far as I'm aware there's nothing wrong with my shower."
"Sure, if you like showering under a trickle in an ice box..."
Illya gave him a withering look. "You Americans are so grossly self-indulgent."
"And you are a pig-headed Russian. Why would you want to go back to your place with all the comforts mine has to offer, hmm?"
Illya's face went totally blank for a second.
Napoleon raised his hands in submission. "OK, OK," he said. "But maybe we can give this a wash in the meantime." He reached out to finger the dulled hair plastered to his partner's head. "I'll see if they'll let me do that tomorrow."
Illya jerked his head away from Napoleon's touch, a familiar frown-line between his eyes. "What?"
Napoleon shook his head and sighed. "You are the only person I know, IK who can get out of bed on the wrong side, without even getting out of bed." The frown line deepened. Napoleon gave a slight shrug. "C'mon, it'll make you feel better."
"Napoleon," Illya croaked. "I am surrounded by extremely attractive nurses who would kill to wash my hair. Why on earth would I want you to do it for me?"
Sensing a confrontation building, Napoleon said the first thing that came into his head.
"How's your hand doing?"
Illya clenched his fist and blanched a little. "I'm fine," he snapped.
"I heard you had to requalify."
Napoleon grinned. "Scores?"
Illya shot him a glance. "You will not be surprised to learn that they beat yours. As usual."
Napoleon decided to take a chance. "Can I see?"
"I'm sure that if you go down to the range and speak nicely to the armourer..."
"Ha, ha," said Napoleon. "You know what I mean."
Illya's hand remained tightly furled and his breaths became shallow. Napoleon watched him carefully and shut his mind to the nagging doubt. It took just over a minute, but Illya slowly began to uncurl his fist. He looked down at the scarred palm and Napoleon hardly dared breathe. Finally Illya looked up at him with anguished eyes.
"How did I get this?" he whispered.
"You cut yourself," replied Napoleon softly. "It's a long story, my friend, "and best left for another day, I think."
"I don't remember doing it." His partner looked down and traced the ragged letters on his palm. "Your initials..." Illya said absently
Napoleon shook his head fondly. "Illya Nikolaievech," he said. "SOP for lovers is to carve their initials on a tree. You had to use your own body?"
At first he thought Illya was laughing as he began to twitch, and Napoleon looked up with a grin. It fell from his face in an instant as he took in his friend's increasing pallor, rapid breaths and sweat-beaded face. He grabbed the Russian's shoulders and shook him gently.
"Illya...? Illya!" he muttered. "What is it? Tell me." He was about to reach for the call button when he felt the tremors begin to diminish. After a moment they stopped altogether and Illya gave a sigh and blinked at him dazedly.
"N—Napoleon...?" he whispered, his face a blank. "What happened?"
Napoleon swallowed the fear that was rising in him and forced his voice to co-operate. "It's OK, tovarisch. It's over now. How do you feel?"
Illya wiped the moisture from his face and stared at his shaking hand. In a moment he'd gone from caustic banter to dazed vulnerability and it made Napoleon ache. The knot of fear in the pit of his stomach grew.
"How do you feel?" he said again when Illya made no response.
His partner seemed slowly to gather himself. "I'm fine," he croaked, then pinned Napoleon with wide eyes. "This happens—happened. Before, I mean." He shook his head. He looked exhausted. "I will be glad when it stops." He closed his eyes and lay back on the pillows. "I need to get some sleep."
Napoleon suppressed the urge to touch the damp cheek. "Sleep, then," he said softly. "I'll be here."
Illya's eyes opened sluggishly. "I'm all right," he said firmly. "Don't fuss me. And besides, don't you have a date? Go take care of Mindy—it is still Mindy isn't it, or have I been out for longer than twenty-four hours?" There was a shadow of the familiar lop-sided grin. "Let me sleep." Illya's voice faded and he drifted into sleep.
Napoleon laid his head against the glass of the vast window in his apartment and tried to stop himself from coming apart. The glass in his hand was untouched, the ice long-since melted. The golden glow of the sunset leached from the sky and one by one the lights of Manhattan winked into life.
He had little recollection of the drive home but his car keys sat next to the phone so he knew he must have made it. He'd remained in Illya's hospital room until he was sure his friend was deeply asleep and then left, his mind a turmoil of unwelcome facts, hopes and fears. Pushing aside the hopes and fears he tried to look at the evidence dispassionately.
Whether permanent or not, whatever Schiller had done to Illya's mind still held the Russian in thrall. Napoleon repressed a shudder as he recalled the moment in Waverly's office when Illya had begun to seize. He thought he'd lost him then; the greater part of his soul—his humanity. Many times during the subsequent days as Illya lay in a coma Napoleon had wondered how he'd go on if Illya died. What sort of a man he'd be without the need always to honour his friend's existence.
Let him live, he'd begged, and Illya had. In defiance of the odds and of Schiller's plans for him, his wilful and intractable partner had lived. But he'd been changed. And Napoleon was only just beginning to realise the implications of the changes.
'I'm going to cut some holes in his memory,' Schiller had said. Napoleon's own experiences of U.N.C.L.E.'s Capsule B were unnerving enough. Illya's behaviour suggested that Schiller's process was a whole different ball game.
During the month Napoleon had been held by THRUSH, his partner had clearly been able to function, albeit as a non-field operative, despite his hand injury. Whether he could in the future continue to function as Napoleon's partner in the field was less clear.
All the time they were together Napoleon felt he was negotiating a minefield; afraid of triggering another seizure in his friend; never knowing what might detonate the explosion.
You're lying, Solo. You know...
And there it was. The growing awareness from which he'd tried to hide since Illya had woken from the coma; the escalating fear, the diminishing hope.
Sealed behind an impenetrable wall in Illya's mind was the remembrance of all that they'd been to each other in the six months since the Honduran mission. His partner's catastrophic meltdown in the wake of Schiller's process had ripped it all away as though it had never been.
They might find a way to work as partners again, but a return to what had become for Napoleon the lifeblood of the partnership was out of the question. It could kill Illya.
And so Napoleon was faced with yet another choice in which his partner's existence hung in the balance.
Until the Honduran mission, he'd worked alongside Illya as partner and best friend, sublimating the deeper feelings he had for fear of destroying the partnership. He could surely do it again in the knowledge that so much more than their partnership was at stake.
Memories welled up, unbidden: the caress of Illya's skin on his, his own name on Illya's lips in passion, his soul reflected in those blue eyes. He tried to stem the tide. It was futile.
Napoleon felt something inside him finally come apart.
His stomach spasmed and he barely made it to the bathroom in time.
Six months later
"Well done, gentlemen. That will be all." Waverly shuffled his papers as he rose and Napoleon roused himself from semi-awareness. The Old Man paused by the door of the briefing room. "Oh, I believe you both have some time owing," he said. "You may want to think about taking it as things are so quiet." He stuck his pipe in his mouth and left.
Napoleon didn't move. He became aware that Illya had spoken.
"Sorry, partner. Did you say something?"
"You look—tired," Illya said.
Napoleon rubbed his eyes. Tired didn't even scratch the surface. He felt shattered and then some.
The Old Man was still being circumspect about placing Illya in the field. He kept him close at HQ, putting him to work extensively in the labs and on the revised computer system. When he finally relented and did allow him out, it was on rookie missions with Napoleon babysitting. In the six months since Napoleon's escape from Schiller's laboratory there had been only two missions. Two successful missions with no mayhem involved and yet Napoleon felt shattered. On the last one, barely a week ago, they'd had to share a bed for three nights.
He hadn't slept a wink.
Illya moved to stand by his chair. "Aren't you overdue for a vacation, my friend?" he said softly.
Napoleon's throat tightened at the compassion he heard. "Mmm. You and me both," he said thickly.
Illya snorted. "You know that I'm perfectly happy at home," he said. "I'm still behind with my journals." He looked thoughtful. "Or I have a couple of prototypes in the labs that need a tweak." He brightened further. "And there's a project launch at MIT that I've been invited to attend."
Despite himself, Napoleon smiled. Only his partner would consider attending a technology symposium a vacation option. He grasped for a lightness he didn't feel. "A project launch...?" he said. "My, my—that sounds fascinating. Tell me more."
Illya opened his mouth as if to comply then shut it and glared.
Napoleon raised his eyebrows. "All work and no play..." he said.
"You can go and play for us both, then," said Illya, shrugging into his jacket. "Why don't you ask the new communications assistant—Thelma is it? I'm told she used to model swimsuits." Illya gave him a half smile. "I'm sure she'd love to play with you." He leaned over Napoleon's shoulder to collect his belongings from the table.
Not close enough.
"See you in a week. Don't play too hard," he said, and Napoleon heard the door swish as he left. He sighed and put his face in his hands, dismayed by the fine tremor he felt.
Eventually, he heaved himself to his feet. He could do this... Illya was alive and at his side in every way that mattered. Well, almost every way. Everyone knew that wounds healed— he'd never had one that didn't. He imagined even the aching void in his chest would heal one day.
And if, occasionally, the pain of loss became too great to bear alone—well, there were ways of coping.
He shot his cuffs and went in search of Thelma.