The fire crackled and spat as the elderly drinker coaxed the peat-brick into place with a hob-nailed boot. He shambled back to his seat. Picking up his dominoes, he gazed at them for a moment then huffed a curse around the stem of his pipe. He slapped the bone counters back onto the table-top and glared at his grinning companions.
"I'm knockin'," he complained.
There were hoots from around the fire.
"'Bout time too," a voice chortled.
"Give some other bugger a chance."
He ignored the taunts and took a pull from his pint. The man on his left nudged him in the ribs almost causing him to splutter.
"Looks like the next round's yours then, eh?" he said.
The man hawked and spat into the flames, cloaked in displeasure.
To Napoleon, drawn deep into the inglenook corner, his swollen ankle propped up on one of the fire irons, it seemed as though the game had been going on for days. The men nursed their pints with sly glances at their neighbours' glasses, desperate not to finish first and so have to stand the next round. Napoleon and Illya had bought them a couple of rounds earlier in the week and joined their game once or twice. At first Napoleon had found its monotony soothing. Now it abraded his nerves. He'd had enough.
He sighed and popped his neck, wondering whether a second malt would leave him pleasantly relaxed or less sharp than he might need to be. Glancing at the hearth he grimaced at the phalanx of insect life pouring away from the grate at speed, refugees from the peat inferno.
When he'd arrived with Illya a week ago, he'd been charmed by the rustic inn—"The Sloop"—and its open peat fires. The Russian had smirked but had said nothing as Napoleon moved to light the one in their room on their first night. Kneeling on the hearthrug moments later watching his partner unpack, Napoleon had leapt to his feet only just in time to avoid being overtaken by the wildlife exodus as the flames caught hold of their former sanctuary. He clearly needed more practice at his leaping-to-the-feet-whilstlooking -nonchalant manoeuvre as he'd then overbalanced and trodden on one of Illya's unpacked boots, going down as though pole-axed and wrenching his ankle horribly.
His partner's initial amusement had given way to concern when they realised just how badly Napoleon had managed to injure the joint. Enough for them to revise their mission strategy. Illya would now need to be the one to take out the small boat to monitor the offshore Thrush installation whilst Napoleon stayed home.
Over their years together as partners they'd fine-tuned their practice to play to their strengths. Napoleon sailed, Illya swam. Napoleon was the strategist, Illya the tactician. Napoleon used his charm to devastating effect, Illya used his intellect. Sure, they could work from their weaker areas if necessary, but those missions tended to be less than successful at best. Occasionally they'd been disastrous. Even post-mission they'd slipped into a pattern. Napoleon watched girls, Illya watched... well... Napoleon dismissed the thought and looked at his watch.
His jaw tightened. Whichever way he cut it, Illya was well overdue for check-in.
He caught his breath, belly tightening, as the door began to open. Not his partner, but the local coastguard entered and threaded his way to the bar. Napoleon's stomach flopped. The landlord nodded at the man and reached up for one of the mugs hanging there. The officer shook his head.
"Sorry, Petroc," he said. "Still on duty..."
The noise in the bar trickled away to nothing.
The coastguard looked around the room. "We've a wreck off the rocks by the harbour," he said. " "The Magpie" . Anyone know her?"
Napoleon eased himself to his feet and limped towards the bar.
One of the domino players turned round. "Aye, she's Wilf's," he said. "He's over at his sister's for the week so she must be out on a rental."
The coastguard looked hard at the man. "You sure?"
"That he's at his sister's."
"Aye, course I am. I ran him over there in the wagon yesterday. Why?"
The coastguard looked abashed. "There's a body inside."
There were murmurs from around the room. Napoleon was finding it hard to breathe.
"Well whose is it?" said the landlord.
"We don't know," the coastguard said looking uncomfortable. "It... er... isn't that easy..." he trailed off, and Napoleon's imagination heaved with appalling images.
"May I see the body?" he forced himself to say. The coastguard gave him a doubtful look. "My friend took "The Magpie" out yesterday and..." his throat closed. The coastguard's look turned sympathetic and he nodded.
"Come on, then," he said and turned for the door, pausing when he noticed Napoleon's limp. "You okay?" Before Napoleon could answer, one of the domino group thrust a blackthorn cane at him.
"Here, Mr Solo," he said gruffly. "You leave it behind the bar wi' young Petroc when you're done with it."
Napoleon nodded his thanks and followed the coastguard out.
Finding himself at the slipway Napoleon was shocked to realise he had no memory of the journey down from the inn. Under the jury-rigged arc lights the remains of "The Magpie" were drawn up out of the water. Most of her superstructure was gone and she was badly charred with a gaping hole at the waterline. A crowd of about a dozen locals was gathered to one side. As Napoleon and his escort approached, the group parted to reveal a tarp humped next to the boat. The air was heavy with the smell of burnt... something.
Napoleon tried to swallow with a throat that was desert-dry. His mind rebelled at the task before him. Given the lives they led, neither he nor Illya were strangers to the desolation and emptiness of believing the other dead. Each occasion took its toll. Each of them had dealt with it differently. Napoleon knew that this time all the willing women in the world wouldn't be enough for him. This emptiness couldn't be filled.
Feeling the watchers' eyes on him he moved to the edge of the tarp. Two of the group grabbed a corner each then waited. Napoleon closed his eyes and nodded once. He heard the tarp flap back at his signal.
He opened his eyes and the image assaulted them. Clothes and hair had been burned off. Seared muscles and tendons had pulled the limbs into a foetal parody. The body was unrecognisable.
Napoleon's legs suddenly felt weak and he was glad of the excuse of his ankle to lean heavily on the cane. Wearily he took out his U.N.C.L.E. id and flashed it at the coastguard.
"Please see that the body is kept safely until I can arrange for collection," he said and turned to limp back up the slipway. The coastguard called after him.
"Wait a moment, Mr Solo," he said, "'n' I'll drive you back to The Sloop.
A long, solitary walk was what Napoleon craved but he knew his ankle wouldn't take it. He sighed and nodded.
On the way back he called Waverly.
"Sir, Mr Kuryakin is missing," he paused, "presumed dead."
He'd said it.
And the world continued to turn.
The rest of the conversation was a blur. He was vaguely aware that the expected reprimand for carelessness and jeopardising the mission hadn't come. He agreed to meet the back-up team, dispatched by his boss, the following afternoon and closed the connection.
The coastguard dropped Napoleon at the door of The Sloop. "Sorry about your friend," he said. "Hell of a way for a man to go. Gas tank must have exploded."
"That must be it," said Napoleon without expression. "And thank you. I'll be down in the morning to check over the boat, if I may."
"Of course. Goodnight."
Napoleon swung down from the Land Rover and made his way to the front door of the inn. All was in darkness now, it being past midnight, and he had to use his key. Arriving at their—his—room he paused at the door in desperate hope. But all was as he'd left it, except for the fire glowing in the hearth and an unopened bottle of single malt on the bedside table with a note beside it. "On the house" . From the landlord. He flopped down on the nearest bed and loosened his tie. Tossing the cane aside he poured himself four fingers of the malt and knocked it back in one. Illya would have been proud of his cavalier treatment of the fine liquor. He poured a second glass and raised it in salute.
A noise caught his attention and his free hand dived to his shoulder holster. Setting the glass down carefully, he limped to the door, weapon drawn, and listened. Someone was on the landing. He flipped off the safety. There was a soft thud against the door, then silence.
Napoleon's brain joined the dots and he flung open the door. The next moment his arms were full of Russian as Illya toppled into the room. Ignoring the protest from his ankle Napoleon lowered him to the floor and shut the door. His partner lay in a rubbery heap, wetsuit torn in several places and blood seeping from a wound in his side. Fingers hot against the chilled and clammy skin, Napoleon checked for a pulse—and found one.
Almost sobbing with relief, he rolled his partner and unzipped the wetsuit, peeling it off as gently as he could to expose the wound. A clean eight-inch slash ran along Illya's ribs on the left. It would need stitching and the sooner the better whilst his partner was still unconscious. Dragging him closer to the fire, Napoleon removed the wetsuit entirely. He found several purpling bruises but no other open wounds. He grabbed a pillow and blanket from one of the beds, the field kit from his suitcase and set to his grisly work.
He was just over half-way through when Illya began to moan. As the needle went in for the final stitch, the Russian began to struggle weakly.
"Easy partner," Napoleon murmured. "You're safe. It's me. I've almost done." The blue eyes opened then shut against the pain. The Russian began to shiver. Napoleon tried to ignore his partner's gasps as he finished his task. "There," he said taping a dressing in place. "Any quilting circle would be proud to have me." Without thinking, he dropped a kiss to the damp hair and sat back on his heels. Illya made a face at him. Napoleon handed him a couple of pain pills. "Here," he said. "These'll take the edge off." Illya looked at them sourly.
"Do I have to swallow them dry?" he complained. Napoleon sighed and passed him the glass from the bedside table. His partner grinned and handed him back the pills. "Nazdarov'ye," he said, raising the glass in salute and tossed back the golden liquid. He gasped and wiped his mouth then held the glass out for a refill.
The bottle rattled against it as Napoleon poured and his partner looked at him intently. Napoleon put the bottle carefully on the bedside table and looked away. Putting the glass next to the bottle, Illya leaned towards his partner.
"Tell me," he said.
With an effort, Napoleon kept his tone dead flat. "I thought it was you... in the boat."
"Ah," said Illya. "The Thrush lookout." He frowned. "He would not be pretty. I'm sorry."
"When you hadn't checked in..."
Illya shrugged. "I lost my communicator overboard in the scuffle. I'm sorry," he said again.
The silence lengthened.
Eventually Napoleon scrubbed his hands over his face. He muttered half to himself, "This is getting old." After a moment his partner moved closer to him.
"You will be fine, my friend," Illya said, encircling Napoleon's shoulders with his unimpeded arm. "There must be some unattached women in this place. You will take one on a date this evening and in the morning you will have forgotten this, da?"
"What if I don't want to?"
"What... forget it?"
"No. What if I don't want to take... a woman on a date?"
Illya looked at him guilelessly.
At length he said with infinite care, "Don't you think that you and I are past the dating stage?"
Napoleon met the Russian's gaze and allowed himself the indulgence of holding it, watching the pupils dilate into the blue, noting Illya's breathing shorten, feeling the loose grasp around his shoulders become firmer. Something that had been knotted inside him for years finally unravelled. He smiled slowly.
"Long past that," he said reaching up a hand to ruffle the salt-stiff hair. "More like an old married couple."
"Less of the old." Illya winced. "Although right now I feel about sixty." He moved to stand up but Napoleon grabbed him. "Ow! Let go," Illya grumbled. "If we're going to do this I want to be comfortable."
"If we're going to do this...?" Napoleon blinked and wondered when he'd lost the advantage. "Wait! Illya... I need..."
"What?" His partner's voice was tinged with impatience.
"I need... to tell you..."
Illya gave Napoleon one of his half smiles. "After all this time, did you think I might not have noticed?" He shook his head. "You need to work on your obfuscation."
"I just needed to be certain," said Napoleon. Rising to his feet and offering his partner a hand up, he pulled the Russian into his arms, petting his hair. "In case we have to go through this again." Illya reached for him and Napoleon's breath caught.
"And I'll probably need to tell you too... at some point," Illya said. "In case you were wondering."
"Smart Russian," said Napoleon with his remaining breath.