If he'd ever been pressed on the question, Alexander Waverly would have admitted he didn't have a particularly clear picture of the afterlife, but even if he'd given it much thought he was certain that there was no way he would have expected any of this.
At least his body was gone now, removed in a pleasingly-reverent fashion on a stretcher borne by soberly-suited U.N.C.L.E. agents, once the medics had pronounced that their Section One, Number One had indeed shuffled off this mortal coil. He hadn't expected to be around to witness his own departure in this way, though, and Waverly found himself wishing for a glass of scotch and a pipeful of tobacco in order to give the overall matter the consideration it deserved.
He was distracted from his increasingly maudlin thoughts by the sound of the door to his office—his former office, he supposed now—sliding open to admit the second half of the pair who'd formed his number one team of agents not so many years before.
"It's true, then?"
Waverly hadn't seen Illya Kuryakin look this discomposed in years; his tie was askew, jacket clearly hastily thrown on, face a little flushed as evidence he'd run down the steel and concrete corridors that separated this office from the laboratories Kuryakin now called home.
The last time Waverly remembered seeing Kuryakin similarly affected was as a result of that abortive Yugoslavia mission, the one that almost destroyed the Russian's career with U.N.C.L.E. The aftermath of that had required all the patience and persuasion Alexander Waverly could muster and he still wasn't sure he'd sufficiently dealt with all the repercussions. He also wasn't quite certain what it was that had finally persuaded Kuryakin to remain with U.N.C.L.E. despite everything that had happened. While he usually knew everything that was going on within the organization, that was one thing that had eluded him.
The man Kuryakin was addressing, the other half of that once-famous team, didn't seem to notice his former-partner's distress. Napoleon Solo was still busily rummaging through Waverly's desk as he'd been doing for the past half hour or so, pulling out folders and making an untidy pile of beige and white where the contents threatened to slide out onto the floor. Waverly found himself scowling at the sight.
He'd never been the most organized of people himself—he'd always admitted that—but this cavalier attitude was enough to make him glad he was apparently haunting U.N.C.L.E. New York. Perhaps it would enable him to get some kind of spectral retribution for this blatant abuse of his filing system?
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" Solo answered, without looking in Kuryakin's direction. "Though I always thought the Old Man would die in harness..."
Waverly couldn't find it in himself to bridle at the term Solo used. While none of his agents had ever had the temerity to use it to his face, he knew what they called him. There were unspoken capital letters in the term, so much so that it was clear that it was a term of respect, a term given to an elder statesman of U.N.C.L.E.—in his case, to the last surviving member of the men who had founded that organization what seemed like a lifetime ago.
And it had been a lifetime ago now, his lifetime. Back when the world had seemed on the verge of new hope, before greedy governments and greedier corporations had conspired with Thrush to make numerous attempts to crush that hope for good.
Back before men like Solo and Kuryakin had helped try and keep things on an even keel.
Waverly studied the two of them thoughtfully. He'd always been so busy, thinking about a dozen things at once, manipulating circumstances like a spider in the middle of a particularly busy web, that he'd apparently missed the fact that time had passed for Solo and Kuryakin as well.
He remembered the first time he'd seen them both and that seemed like a lifetime ago too. Both of them bore the scars of the things that had happened since, visible and otherwise, picked up on a hundred missions or more.
Kuryakin had been a little too thoughtful for Waverly's liking when he'd first encountered the man, too calculating to appear ideal Section Two material. He'd come within a whisker of being shipped off to Section Eight permanently, not knowing how close he'd come to never partnering the man who currently ransacked his late boss's desk.
Solo, on the other hand, had been a brash young man, confident in his own abilities and needing a little humility pounded into him by life. He'd got it, though—he'd learned his lesson the first time he'd been sent on a mission that didn't quite go to plan and was lucky to return with his skin intact.
Kuryakin had sunk into a nearby chair. He looked as though all the wind had been knocked out of him, his curiosity and dismay all that had driven him to this place—eventually it was his silence that seemed to get through to his former partner when his words had failed to do so.
"We'll be fine," Solo said. He pushed the pile of folders back into alignment as he walked out from behind the desk, coming over to take a seat at the circular table which still took up the bulk of the room. "U.N.C.L.E. will survive the passing of Alexander Waverly, like he always planned it would."
Kuryakin had leaned forward a little as Solo spoke, his hands coming to rest on the highly-polished wood in front of him.
"You really want all of this, Napoleon?" he asked, one hand coming up to gesture in an all-encompassing fashion at the room, with its banks of computers and high bullet- and bomb-proof windows. "I know you've been waiting for a while."
Solo grimaced at that. Was that scorn in Kuryakin's voice? Waverly watched the back and forth with increasing interest—this was a side of these men he rarely saw.
"I'd have waited as long as it took," Solo replied. "I can be patient, no matter what you might think..."
Kuryakin's hands were back on the table in front of him and he stared down at them. From where Waverly stood, he could see the crooked fingers that were testament to the Yugoslavia business; broken and never re-set properly, he knew they ached in damp weather though Kuryakin never complained. At least not to him or the U.N.C.L.E. medics.
They sat in silence for a while and Waverly continued to watch the two of them. He'd spoken earlier but Solo hadn't heard him so he assumed there was no opportunity for communication between this plane of existence and the one he'd recently departed.
He'd always been told that ghosts—and that was the only explanation he could give for his continued presence here—were the result of unfinished business. So what was it he was meant to do? How could that happen if he couldn't communicate with anyone? And how did these two men fit in?
Hours later, Solo was still working his way through the files he'd extracted from the drawers, one by one, and while Waverly doubted it was particularly exciting for his successor, it was even less so for someone observing him.
There was bound to be plenty of unfinished business for U.N.C.L.E. at Waverly's demise, even if Napoleon Solo had taken the step up from Number Two without faltering, as his superior had always hoped he would. He'd had almost ten years to polish off the few rough edges being Chief Enforcement Agent had required and Solo had been waiting in the wings for quite long enough.
He could have retired, of course, and let the younger man have the job before now, but the thought of it had filled him with nothing but horror. If his wife had still been alive to share his retirement, that might have been a consideration, but with her passing ten years earlier there had been little to recommend that possibility.
If he'd still been alive, he'd have been working his way through another pipeful of tobacco now, contemplating the man who currently occupied the position he'd come to know so intimately over the past thirty-something years.
Was Solo as lonely as his name suggested?
Waverly was struck by that thought, something he'd never particularly considered before. He crossed over to the windows and looked out on another day's New York skyline. He wasn't sure if he walked or floated, since his legs seemed to disappear a little if he didn't concentrate on them, but in the end what did it matter? The fact was, he was still here at U.N.C.L.E. and didn't seem to be in any hurry to pass over to whatever lay beyond.
His mother, true Victorian that she was, had been a great believer in all those things his father had more than once decried as superstitious mumbo jumbo—séances, phrenology, mesmerism—things Waverly's own scientific training between the Wars had also decried as utter nonsense. Skeptical to the last, it was the ultimate irony that Waverly found himself here without a clear picture of just why that was.
It seemed that it was something to do with Napoleon Solo, whatever it was. Waverly had tried to float through the wall that separated his office from the rest of Headquarters, but without success. He'd found himself starting to dissipate, the further he got from Solo, and that seemed evidence enough that his former C.E.A. was the reason somehow for his still being here.
Waverly studied the man once more. As a younger agent, if the UNCLE rumor mills were to be believed, Solo had his pick of his female counterparts and not a few female Thrush agents as well.
There was little opportunity for that kind of behavior outside of the heady world of Operations and Enforcement, though. Spending long hours behind a desk didn't give a man like Solo the freedom to pursue the companionship of a string of women, and Waverly found himself wondering just how the other man had coped. It must have been something of a culture shock for one so renowned as a lady-killer.
He'd been lucky, Waverly supposed. When he'd needed someone, Martha had been there, the steadfast Mrs. Waverly he had come to rely upon. She'd been understanding to a fault, never begrudging the time and energy he'd chosen to devote to his newly-formed agency, never openly criticizing him for the nights' sleep he lost worrying about missions gone wrong. He missed her more than he'd ever thought possible and that was a wound that had never healed.
It wasn't that he ignored what his Section Two agents did, it was just that he hadn't thought about what happened once they weren't out there in the field any more. Maybe that was why he was still here? Because of a need for some kind of matchmaking for Solo, other-worldly machinations to ensure the man had the emotional support he'd need for the role he'd taken on?
One thing was different about the afterlife, Waverly decided, and that was the passage of time. He'd found himself limited still to his old office, watching Solo work his way through piles of files, interrupted by regular messages from Communications and demands on his attention, and hadn't noticed that it was now well past the time he'd have expected Solo to be heading out.
The door slid open behind him, a familiar sound, and Waverly turned to see who would be the latest in a seemingly endless line of visitors. He knew he'd been as busy when he'd been alive and he was starting to wonder how he'd ever got anything done with so many interruptions.
"Still hard at work?"
Solo looked up with a small smile. He let the file he was perusing fall closed and dropped it onto the tabletop.
"Never too busy for you, my dear," he said, getting up from his seat. "How long has it been?"
"Five years, I think," the newcomer said, taking the seat Solo pulled out from the circular table for her. The same seat Kuryakin had occupied an indeterminate number of hours before. "At Jeremy's funeral."
"I've been a little preoccupied, April," Solo said, ducking his head a little at the unspoken reproof.
From where he was standing, Waverly knew why he hadn't recognized the woman for who she was. Still as slim as ever, the ebony cane April Dancer leant heavily upon as she entered the room had distracted his attention—her hair was shorter now too, cropped close to her head as if it had recently re-grown and peppered with gray.
"And now all this is yours," she continued. "Though it's a tough act to follow." Solo nodded. "Was it quick?"
He knew what motivated that question, one Waverly would expect from an experienced Section Two agent.
"You don't need to worry on that account," Solo said, taking a seat close by. Waverly watched the two of them, the ease with which they interacted, and thought back on the concerns he'd had about the very idea of women going into Operations and Enforcement, so many years before. April Dancer had been the first, but she hadn't been the last. "And now it's my turn."
"You've trained for it long enough," April said. "And how is Illya?"
The apparent non sequitur caught Waverly's attention, pulling him back from thoughts of the dire predictions of his former counterparts about how women agents would mean the end of U.N.C.L.E. as they all knew it.
Solo grimaced a little, then dodged April's cane with ease, as she made an effort to prod him with the end of it.
"Not happy," Solo said. "But what do you expect?"
They were comfortable together, these two. Waverly smiled to himself, wondering just how close they were, the many missions they had spent together cementing that familiarity. Maybe he wouldn't have to look too far afield for Solo to get the support he'd need after all.
"Well," April said, after a long moment's silence had hung between them, "I only stopped by to say I'd heard the news and was back in New York. I'll come to the funeral, of course, and be here as long as I'm needed." She had got up from her seat as she spoke and Waverly watched how painstaking a process that was, watching too how Solo clearly wanted to help her stand but knew better than to interfere beyond what April was prepared to accept. Both as stubborn as each other, even now. "I'm staying at the Algonquin, as usual."
"Old habits die hard?" Solo asked, as he took her hand briefly and squeezed it. "It's good to see you, April."
"That's what I get for marrying a hotelier," April replied. She leaned forward and kissed Solo on the cheek. "Say hello to Illya for me. I'll catch up with him another time."
"I will," Solo said. "And you'd better. You know how cranky he gets if he feels like he's missed out."
April nodded, with a smile, then turned towards the door. Waverly watched her cross the expanse of carpet, back as straight as the first time she'd entered that room, then turned to watch Solo watch her leave. There was an expression on Solo's face, a vulnerability Waverly had never seen there before, even in their long acquaintance.
Maybe there really was something between the two of them, something Waverly needed to discover how to encourage. He wasn't happy about leaving Solo alone with all this responsibility and nobody to rely upon.
More time passed, Waverly wasn't sure how much. He could see the clock, watch the hands move across its face, but the passage of time those movements denoted didn't seem to have much in common with the activities that were going on in the office. Solo was still there, the piles of paper at each side of him seemingly immovable, no matter how long Waverly watched. He was starting to wonder if this was some kind of limbo, a purgatory full of endless paperwork, when the door to the office slid open once more.
"I should have expected this," a voice said, and Waverly wasn't sure for a moment which man to watch. Solo had reacted to the voice, dropping his pen as if it were electrified, then a guilty glance at the clock before his gaze settled on the newcomer. Kuryakin was scowling and he still looked a little disheveled, but this was more within the range of the man's normal dress. "That you'd try and work yourself to death, now you've finally made it to Waverly's chair."
"I lost track of time," Solo said, his tone surprisingly conciliatory. It was such a contrast to the last time they'd spoken, the brusqueness with which Solo had shouldered the responsibilities that Waverly's death had left him with, and Waverly found himself wondering at it. "I don't plan to make a habit of it."
Kuryakin snorted, the noise a derisory response that told Waverly exactly what he thought of Solo's promise.
"And how is the seat of power?" Kuryakin continued. "Comfortable?" He'd walked round to stand beside Solo, dismissing the piles of paperwork either side of the desk with a glance. "Considering how long you've been in it today, I should hope it is."
Solo had pushed himself back from the desk and then leaned back in the chair, further back than Waverly had ever done in that particular seat, a smile growing on his face. The more Kuryakin scowled at him, the more his smile grew, till he was all but grinning at the other man. To Waverly's surprise, Kuryakin said nothing in response to that, only moved till he was between Solo and the desk, leaning against the edge of it.
"I am a little stiff," Solo admitted.
Kuryakin snorted again. "You are no longer thirty, Napoleon." Waverly wondered if the use of Solo's first name was a sign Kuryakin was wavering in his attitude—certainly his tone was much less derisory than it had been when he'd first entered the room. "Neither of us are what we were."
"Some things don't change, my friend," Solo said. "I am still your boss, like it or not."
Kuryakin settled himself more comfortably in place, arms crossed, as if prepared to stare Solo down. Waverly moved to a better position, drifting round till he could see the two men, rather than his previous view of the back of Kuryakin's head and not much else.
"And I am still your partner," Kuryakin countered. "Official or otherwise." Solo shrugged, as if unwilling to argue, and that was apparently enough of a response for Kuryakin to relax a little where he stood, the desk taking more of his weight. "Or possibly your keeper—the job description appears similar."
"Well, one of the perks of being the boss," Solo began, "is that I decide when I go home."
He got up from his seat, leaving the discarded paperwork, pen lying across it, without a backward glance and headed for the door. Kuryakin watched him for a moment, then moved to follow, even as Waverly was drawn in that direction too. It seemed as though his theory was correct—it was Solo he was bound to, not U.N.C.L.E., and maybe now he was about to see why.
The two men lived in the same high-security apartment complex, one solely owned by U.N.C.L.E. and reserved for those employees whose knowledge of sensitive information made them a target, not just to Thrush but to various foreign powers as well. As a result, the US government effectively turned a blind eye to the security measures in place, treating U.N.C.L.E. just as they would the embassy of a nation state and allowing it to organize itself. It came as no surprise then, to Waverly, that Solo and Kuryakin drove home together, or that he found himself accompanying them, first in the car and then into the elevator that led from the underground parking garage.
He had never been to either man's apartment so he had no idea how they were arranged. As Section One, Number One—after the death of Mrs. Waverly, at least—he had lived an even more cloistered life, in a purpose-built apartment attached to Headquarters and he supposed that Solo would move there at some point. It was early days yet, though, since the ink was barely dry on the messages announcing that anything had even happened.
As it was, Waverly wasn't sure whose apartment he was going to when Solo and Kuryakin got off the elevator at the same floor, or even if they were neighbors and lived side by side. They didn't separate, however, and Waverly found himself following the two men into a spacious apartment which didn't immediately appear to be the property of either.
"April is back in town," Solo said, as he took his suit jacket off and draped it casually over the back of one of the couches in the living room. Waverly looked at Kuryakin but he didn't respond and the gesture looked like ownership—maybe this was Solo's place after all. "She told me to say she'd catch up with you later in the week."
Solo headed towards the small kitchen that lay off the living room and disappeared from view—Waverly wasn't pulled in that direction and that seemed to reinforce the likelihood that this was Solo's apartment. He could hear the other man, the sound of cupboards opening and closing, and perhaps that was enough to satisfy this strange bond he had with his successor?
"We will have much to do," Kuryakin said. He was still standing just inside the door, as if uncertain of his welcome, though somehow Waverly couldn't believe that was the case. "I know this is what Waverly would have wanted but somehow I doubt he realized just how much turmoil his death would cause."
Turmoil? Solo had seemed calm as the hours had gone by since Waverly's death, processing copious amounts of information in a way that struck Waverly as being horribly familiar, no sign of any problems in terms of the handing over of power to another man.
Kuryakin took a couple of steps towards the kitchen, as if he wanted to be sure that Solo heard him.
"You may have been Waverly's first choice, Napoleon, but you know that his opinion was not universally held."
"I know," Solo said, appearing at the doorway with glasses in his hand. "I hope I can change their minds, but if I was good enough for Waverly, I ought to be good enough for any of them." Kuryakin crossed to where the other man stood, that former lack of confidence now gone, and took the glass Solo offered him. "To Alexander Waverly," Solo said, "May he rest in peace." The two men raised their glasses, then drank.
Waverly found himself oddly touched by this gesture, a quiet moment amid the hubbub of what had happened—his attention drifted momentarily, as a result of what he had seen and heard, and he almost missed what followed.
The kiss was enough to tell him that it seemed he had worried about Solo for nothing. He couldn't be sure who had started it, but both men seemed equally involved and there was no doubt at all that it was reciprocal. Kuryakin reached out with one hand and carefully placed his now-empty glass on a small table that stood beside the door, all the while pulling Solo into the living room with a hand wrapped around the back of his neck. Waverly could only assume Solo had put his own glass on a kitchen counter as he didn't hear the sound of anything breaking as the two men moved. They didn't separate for a moment, as they groped their way slowly backwards to the nearest of the two couches, apparently pressed so close together that even air could not have slipped between them.
Waverly found himself becoming more insubstantial as the moments passed, for which he was heartily glad. It would have been the height of ungentlemanly behavior to spy on another's intimacy in that way, even if he himself was no stranger to witnessing such things—he had been an officer in the war, after all, and knew what bonds sharing danger together could create.
They might argue, Solo and Kuryakin, but it was clear to this particular Old Man that the two of them cared for one another deeply. That had probably been the reason Kuryakin stayed, Waverly realised now, and was just what he had been worried that Solo lacked—someone who would support him when the going got tough, as it doubtless would in a shorter space of time than Waverly had ever anticipated. It seemed that was what had tied him to Solo, a subconscious concern that the other man lacked the resources to do the job, not because of his ability but because he was alone. Which he manifestly was not, even if that companionship was not what Waverly had expected.
While Kuryakin was probably not the partner Waverly would have chosen for a Section One, Number One, there was no doubting his loyalty both to U.N.C.L.E. and to the man he was currently attempting to divest of his clothing on a nearby couch even as Alexander Waverly finally winked out of existence.