The Way Back
Betaed by the ever-wonderful Di T, whom I'm proud to call friend and who deserves many bouquets for her patience and persistence. All remaining howlers are mine—all mine...
Napoleon Solo mopped his eyebrows with his forearm, as the sweat trickled down his face. Taking a handkerchief out of the pocket of his combats, he steadied the powerful flashlight he was holding and leaned forward over the console to mop the sweat-soaked forehead of his partner, Illya Kuryakin, who lay awkwardly in the confined space beneath.
"Thank you, nurse," Kuryakin muttered, as his nimble fingers flitted amongst the nest of wires that emerged in profusion from the console's underside.
"You're welcome, Dr Kuryakin," smirked Napoleon. "I'm off duty at 3.00a.m. Maybe we could..."
He was interrupted by a Russian expletive.
"Ah... problem?" Napoleon was suddenly U.N.C.L.E.'s Chief Enforcement Agent to the core.
"Yes, you," his partner snapped. "Hold the flashlight still."
Napoleon complied with a smile but said nothing.
"I have isolated and disabled the non-interference circuit," his partner continued "but there appears to be a subsidiary defence circuit hard wired to the console. It may take me a while..."
Napoleon cut him off.
"We have seven minutes until the pick-up team arrives, IK."
"Napoleon, unless I get this right there will be nothing for them to pick up," replied his partner acerbically. "Anyway, the charges that I planted are set to blow in..." he stole a swift glance at his watch as his hands flew amongst the wires "...five minutes. If we have not liberated this shielding unit by then it won't matter a great deal. This sub and the whole pen, not to mention ourselves, will be..."
The sudden wail of a distant klaxon cut him off. He froze. In the flashlight his eyes met Napoleon's for a split second.
"Out," Napoleon snapped, laying down the flashlight carefully and snatching up the knapsack at his feet. He checked the clip on his Walther. "Now, tovarisch."
Illya continued to clip wires under the console with increasing urgency.
"Illya! Now!" snapped Solo in full CEA mode.
"Just... there," Illya exclaimed, triumphantly, as he backed out from under the console. He tossed the wire cutters towards Napoleon who caught them deftly and dropped them into the knapsack. "Now we can bring home the bacon after all."
Illya flipped the four locking clips at each corner of the typewriter-sized device and lifted it bodily from the console and into the waiting bag. He shot Napoleon a broad how-perfect- is-my-timing grin. Napoleon rolled his eyes at him, fastened the flap on the knapsack and flung it over his shoulder. He motioned Illya ahead as they made for the exit ladder, and Illya went up it like a monkey. Napoleon extinguished the flashlight and followed.
As they emerged into the cool night air the klaxons were a howl about them. Napoleon watched as Illya shinned up the inside of the conning-tower and risked a quick glance over the edge before dropping back.
"Two emplacements, one either end of the quay," he panted as he drew his weapon and chambered a round. "One searchlight each end. You head for the inflatable with the device. I'll give you cover. Take it out wide to the left and I'll join you out there"
Accustomed to directing in the field, Napoleon opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again and nodded once. They'd agreed that on this one his partner would call the shots by virtue of his superior technical ability. The technology in the shielding device they'd been sent to liberate from the THRUSH submarine was crucial to preserving the balance of power. U.N.C.L.E. needed the device intact. At all costs.
He fixed the knapsack more securely on his back, and turned towards the conning-tower ladder. As his foot landed on the first rung, he felt a squeeze on his shoulder. Turning he was pinned by concerned blue eyes. He smiled grimly.
"I know, tovarisch," he said with a nod. "You too."
And then he was rolling over the top of the tower and landing on the deck on the seaward side. Back to the metal wall, he took out his modified Walther and worked the slide to slip a round into the chamber. A searchlight swept the conning-tower as he lurked in the shadow. As it moved away he heard Illya's weapon cough once and the light was suddenly extinguished.
Immediately, the second searchlight snapped round and bathed the tower in daylight. Illya's weapon coughed again and Napoleon was suddenly engulfed in blackness. He drew a breath and pelted from his shelter along the deck of the submarine towards the gangplank. As he ran he heard the sound of automatic gunfire strafing the conning-tower. His gut clenched momentarily before he berated himself mentally. If he knew his partner, he'd already be out of that tower and heading along the deck in the opposite direction. Sure enough, he heard the modified Walther's distinctive sound again from far along the deck as one or two desultory lights appeared on the quayside.
Solo was down the gangplank and along the quay, almost to the far end where the inflatable was moored, before the first of the hollow-sounding explosions echoed in the belly of the submarine. The vessel rocked in the water and began to wallow.
Dammit, IK. Napoleon thought as he ran. That one wasn't on the agenda.
He was almost at the mooring before the first shots came his way. A round zinged past his head and he dived and rolled, squeezing off a shot towards the nearest gun emplacement as he came up.
The next second he was on his knees again, rocked by the shock wave as the emplacement bloomed into a fireball. Lurching to his feet, half-stunned, he glanced down in momentary bewilderment at the weapon in his hand then shrugged and staggered the final few feet to the inflatable. Yanking free the painter, he shrugged out of his pack, dropped it into the inflatable and then leapt in after it. The engine caught at the first pull and he lay down in the bottom of the craft and gunned it as he swept a wide course out to the left as Illya had instructed. A further series of explosions shattered the night air and lit up the sky behind him with a surreal light.
Suddenly his communicator sounded. He snatched it from his pocket and activated it.
"Solo," he panted.
"Napoleon," his partner's voice was steady "I have a second dinghy here, courtesy of our feathered friends. Get the machine back to shore. I'll join you there."
Napoleon swallowed his sudden, prickling unease. "Last one home's a party pooper," he said evenly. "Solo out."
Turning the inflatable towards the shore that lay about half a mile ahead across the sound, Napoleon activated his communicator again.
"Open channel D, local relay for pick-up team."
"Redgrave here, Sir," came the eager response. "We were monitoring the channel."
"Where are you?"
"On the beach. Seven of us. Steer a course twenty degrees to starboard," the agent instructed crisply. "We'll give you covering fire if you need it."
"OK, what's the ETA of the choppers?" As if in answer, a harsh clattering became audible over the desultory gunfire and the sporadic explosions from the submarine pen. Napoleon allowed himself a grim smile. "Ah, speak of angels and hear the rustle of their wings."
"Yes, Sir." Redgrave's voice was uninflected.
A couple of rounds buzzed over Napoleon's head. Shit!
"Ah, Redgrave...? That cover you mentioned?"
A burst of automatic fire sounded from the shore.
"On it, Sir," came Redgrave's voice urgently.
Napoleon raised his head tentatively above the gunwale and saw to his relief the shore speeding towards him and a group of dark-clad agents in the shallows, waiting to assist him to land. To their right, there was the occasional muzzle flash as another group exchanged fire with THRUSH personnel on the quay of the submarine pen. He knelt in the inflatable and cut the engine, as he coasted towards the agents in the shallows. As they grabbed the bow, he leapt out and together they began hauling the vessel towards the beach.
At a further sustained burst of gunfire from the pen, Napoleon turned, and caught sight of two figures running along the quay towards an inflatable bobbing alongside. They appeared to be hand in hand. There was no mistaking his partner's cantilevered run. What the hell...?
Napoleon frowned in perplexity.
"Hold your fire," he yelled to the group on the beach, and heard Redgrave, over the radio, instruct the helicopters to do the same.
As Napoleon watched, he saw one figure slip into the dinghy and heard the engine start as the other cast off from the quay. The dinghy turned towards them and there was a burst of automatic fire. The figure on the quay spun and returned fire and Napoleon heard the unmistakable bark of a Walther.
The inflatable was now moving towards them, and picking up speed. Napoleon's frown deepened and his mouth set in a grim line. As he watched, Illya dived gracefully off the quay, his hair glinting briefly in the light of the multiple fires. There was a simultaneous burst of gunfire from the shadows, and the perfect arc of the dive was broken as the body shuddered in the air before hitting the water with a splash.
"Illya!" moaned Napoleon in horror. Unthinking, he dragged the bow of his inflatable round and was diving back in over the gunwale, before a hand gripped his biceps hard.
"Sir!" Redgrave's voice was stentorian. "No! Sir, you can't."
"Fuck no!" Napoleon spat back, as he struggled to release his arm from the younger man's grasp. "Let me go, you sonofabitch."
"Sir!" To his credit Redgrave's voice remained steady in the face of his CEA's wrath. "The machine, Sir." He indicated the pack in the bottom of the craft. "Leave the machine."
Napoleon stared at the younger agent, then suddenly he snatched up the knapsack and thrust it at his chest almost knocking him over.
"Take the damn thing," he snarled.
As he turned the inflatable away from the land once more, it almost collided with the incoming vessel. Its occupant cut the engine and began babbling in a language Napoleon couldn't identify.
"Why the fuck did you leave him?" he almost screamed at the man, who cowered in the bottom of the dinghy, trembling.
Why the fuck did you leave him, Solo?
"Secure him," he snapped at the agents in the shallows as they moved to draw the dinghy up the beach, and with that he grabbed the tiller of the outboard and began to nudge his own vessel out of the shallows.
He got no further. There was a deafening whoosh and a shattering explosion and the night was suddenly day-bright, as one of the two U.N.C.L.E. helicopters hovering out over the water disappeared in a coruscating flame that seared eyeballs and sucked the oxygen out of lungs. The shock wave threw Napoleon from the inflatable into the water and he was momentarily stunned.
He became aware of the sound of Redgrave's voice beside him, tremulous with shock. He still held the knapsack with the shielding unit clutched to his chest.
"Fuck me," the younger agent seemed almost frozen. "The bastards have a rocket launcher."
Napoleon ears sang and he shook his buzzing head in a futile attempt to clear it. Staggering to his feet in the shallow water he turned Redgrave towards the shore. The hissing carcase of the downed helicopter was just sinking below waves that were incandescent with blazing avgas.
A burst of large-calibre automatic fire sounded from the remaining helicopter now hovering over the shore as it targeted the rocket launcher on the quay.
"The bastards," Redgrave continued to intone like a mantra as he and Napoleon staggered through the shallows towards the shore.
Once on the beach, Napoleon gave him a controlled shove towards the surviving helicopter that was hovering low and taking on board the remaining agents.
"Get that out of here, now," he commanded, CEA once more, as he indicated the knapsack.
With that he turned towards the inflatable still bobbing in the shallows.
"Sir," Redgrave's voice behind him was steadier now. "Sir! You have to come with us too."
Napoleon turned in exasperation towards the voice—and was incredulous to find himself staring down the barrel of an U.N.C.L.E. Walther.
"You have to return with us, Sir."
"You have a lot to learn about partnership, Redgrave." Napoleon's voice was dangerous.
"I'm your CEA, goddammit, and my partner's still out there, in case you'd forgotten..."
"I'm sorry, Sir," whispered Redgrave as he pulled the trigger.
Napoleon stared down at his chest as his hands flew to the yellow fletching of the sleep dart that was embedded there. He drew a breath to roar his fury—and folded slowly towards the sand.
U.N.C.L.E. HQ New York; twenty-four hours later
Alexander Waverly sat at the circular conference table in his office, his unlit pipe between his teeth. The communications console, the nerve centre of the New York headquarters, chirruped softly behind him as it monitored U.N.C.L.E. communications worldwide. He took the pipe out of his mouth and glared at it, then eyed the humidor on the credenza by the window. He knew that his physician, who had instructed him to cut out at least one pipe a day, would consider it too early for his first dose of nicotine. Shaking his head, he scowled and thrust the pipe back viciously between his teeth.
In front of him was an untidy heap of personnel files which he'd been browsing through and from time to time annotating, sometimes with a black pen and sometimes with a red. The four he'd annotated in red were placed in a tray marked archive, the others in the out tray, awaiting their return to records. Now there was only one file left in front of him. He took the pipe out of his mouth and tapped the stem against his lips, frowning in thought.
It had so nearly been the perfect mission. Indeed the unexpected bonus of retrieving Dr Kovàcs along with his invention might still, in some quarters, qualify the mission as exemplary, were it not for the fact that they'd lost agents—good, loyal men—in pursuit of the objective.
He wasn't used to error in himself. His position as head of U.N.C.L.E. northwest was predicated on his almost uncanny ability to achieve seemingly impossible objectives with minimum loss of personnel. Although he ordered the lives of scores of agents on a daily basis, he was more mindful of these than his own. When losses did occur despite his best efforts, he felt each almost as a personal affront and was rigorous in analysing, retrospectively, how he himself might have prevented it.
He wasn't naïve enough to believe that U.N.C.L.E.'s goals could be accomplished without loss of life. Service through two world wars had taught him a different lesson and his agents knew, since he often told them, that ultimately they were expendable; their lives forfeit to the greater good. All the losses were painful. Some were more painful than others...
No less distasteful to him than the loss of life was the need to try to justify the losses to the survivors. Redgrave, Hopkins and Solo. Survivors.
His frown deepened as he anticipated their imminent debriefing. It was never simple, even on those occasions when he could be straightforward with his agents. The complexity of this mission and the fact that his CEA was among the group of bereaved survivors drew a sigh of frustration from him.
The intercom next to his left elbow sounded. Gathering his thoughts he flipped the switch. "Yes, Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, agents Redgrave and Hopkins are here to see you."
"Very well, show them in," he replied. "Oh, Miss Rogers...?"
"Hasn't Mr Solo arrived yet?"
He harrumphed impatiently. "Well show him in the minute he does."
He glanced up briefly as the door whooshed open and Alec Redgrave stepped into the room followed closely by Tony Hopkins. As they approached the conference table he made a vague gesture with the stem of his pipe, motioning them each to a seat. Redgrave's rather soft features were more than usually pale. Hopkins, sitting to his left, looked pinched and drawn. Neither spoke.
"Gentlemen," Waverly began as they settled themselves, "your preliminary report was rather thin on detail. Do you have anything further to add?"
The two exchanged a quick glance.
"Sir," Redgrave began hesitantly, "we thought you might want to wait for Mr Solo. After all he was the senior agent on the mission."
"Mr Redgrave," Waverly said, rather more brusquely than he'd intended, "I asked for your report, not Mr Solo's. In case you hadn't noticed, gentlemen, Mr Solo has not yet deigned to join us."
Redgrave flushed. "Sir, sorry, Sir. We... I..." he faltered.
Hopkins interjected quickly. "Sir, I apologise if our preliminary report seemed a little sparse. Since we were in radio contact with you throughout, we..."
Waverly made an impatient gesture with his pipe. "Yes, yes, gentlemen. Well, what can you tell me about how you came to rescue Dr Kovàcs along with his machine?"
Redgrave glanced at Hopkins.
"Sir, that was Mr Kuryakin. He got Kovàcs out." Redgrave's voice was steady now. "We didn't even know the Doctor was being held there until he arrived on the beach in the dinghy. Mr Kuryakin got him away from the base single-handedly."
Yes, I expect he did, thought Waverly. Just as I expect he told his partner to leave him, and then set those critical charges that ensured the base was destroyed.
He sighed as he felt a sharp pang for his Russian protégé. "I see," he said. "And what happened next, Mr Redgrave?"
Redgrave paused and swallowed. Glancing at him briefly, Hopkins took up the narrative once more.
"That's when we lost the chopper, Sir," he said quietly, his voice tinged with bitterness. "They had a hand-held rocket launcher we'd somehow missed."
Waverly looked at Redgrave who had paled further. Collins, he thought. Survival school, class of '63. He was the pilot. He cleared his throat.
"Mr Redgrave, I believe you and Mr Collins were at Survival School together?"
Redgrave nodded once, his lips a thin line.
Waverly softened his voice a little. "I'm sorry, Mr Redgrave. We lost some good men yesterday..."
He was interrupted by the sound of the intercom.
"Yes, Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, Mr Solo has arrived."
He glanced regretfully at the humidor that mocked him from the credenza. His CEA was likely to be at least a one-pipe undertaking.
"And not before time," he snapped. "Well, send him in, Miss Rogers."
He flipped off the intercom and turned back to the conference table as the door opened to admit Solo, looking haggard and dishevelled. He motioned him to a seat and turned to Redgrave.
"As I was saying, Mr Redgrave, we lost some good men. Regrettable, most regrettable. There will be posthumous commendations for Mr Collins and the helicopter crew. For your part in recovering both Dr Kovàcs and his invention you and Mr Hopkins are also to receive commendations..."
He turned at Solo's sharp intake of breath.
"Sir, they abandoned an agent in the field, shot and abducted a superior officer, and..."
"All of which actions they undertook on my authority, Mr Solo." He winced inwardly at the harshness of his own words.
Solo's gaze flitted from Waverly to the compact piece of equipment that occupied the centre of the conference table. The Kovàcs Mk I interference device sat accusingly in the midst of a collection of wires and smaller devices.
Solo swallowed. "I trust it was worth it," he muttered.
At the uncharacteristic challenge in Solo's voice, Waverly pinned him with a sharp gaze.
Redgrave and Hopkins were motionless in their seats as Waverly glanced at the machine then looked back at Solo.
"Mr Redgrave, Mr Hopkins thank you. You are dismissed," he said coolly without ever taking his eyes from Solo's face.
"Sir." The two junior agents pushed back their chairs hurriedly and strode from the office, their sense of relief palpable.
Waverly looked appraisingly at Solo, taking in the rigid posture, the muscle that twitched in his pallid face, the dark shadows around his eyes.
"Sir?" Solo broke the silence. "Am I missing something here?"
Solo looked closer to the edge than Waverly was used to seeing him, and for a moment he wavered.
Finally he said mildly "If you mean is this shielding device worth the lives of five agents..."
"Four agents," Solo interrupted him. "We lost four agents. Mr Kuryakin's whereabouts are unknown, since I was prevented from..."
"Mr Solo..." Waverly sighed.
Yes, you would have gone back for him, wouldn't you? And you might have pulled it off, God knows, you've done it before.
He continued pointedly, "In spite of what you might think, Mr Solo, the mission was a success..."
"A success?" Solo sounded stunned.
"The mission was a success, Mr Solo." He paused before continuing, "We now have in our possession both the prototype shielding device and its inventor. THRUSH may have the technology to create another device to prevent the detection of underwater craft, but we now have the man who created the concept.
"Dr Ladislaus Kovàcs was abducted by THRUSH eighteen months ago and, thanks to Mr Kuryakin's timely intervention, he is now in a position to work with us to develop the concept further. We are already taking steps to reunite him with his family."
Solo leaned forward in his seat.
"Sir, we lost four men."
Waverly didn't miss the accusatory tone. On this occasion he felt he deserved it.
"And they were good agents, Mr Solo," he replied evenly. "Each will receive a posthumous commendation." He paused then continued, softening his voice, "Mr Kuryakin's will read 'highest commendation'..."
Solo was suddenly very still.
Waverly watched him intently, poised for an outburst that never came.
The communications console suddenly beeped and he rose and stepped over to it, flipping a switch.
"Sir, the clean-up team are on Channel D," came a slightly distorted female voice.
"Very good, Miss Cameron." He flipped another switch and the noise of a helicopter's rotors came over the console.
"Go ahead, Mr Crane."
"Sir, we found nothing," came the agent's dispirited voice over the background noise. "The base is destroyed. No one alive." There was a pause. "No sign of Mr Kuryakin's body."
Waverly's jaw tightened briefly. He watched sympathetically as Solo balled his fists and slowly closed his eyes.
"Very well," he responded heavily. "Return to headquarters. Waverly out." He flipped the switch on the console, cutting off the blades' roar.
There it is, then. Officially missing, presumed dead. Nothing left now but the interminable, soul-destroying wait.
He looked at Solo, somehow diminished before him, and considered, not for the first time, just how close these two had become. He'd long wondered what would happen to the other if one failed to come back. Losing his formidable and unique Russian agent would pain him more than he cared to think at this moment. Losing his CEA as well was simply not an option.
He turned from the console towards Solo.
"Mr Solo, I want you to check in with Dr Scott for your post-mission evaluation then take seventy-two hours leave and go home." He raised his hand as Solo opened his mouth to speak. "No, Mr Solo, that's an order. I do not want to see you back in headquarters until 09.00 hours on Thursday. Is that clear?"
Solo nodded dumbly and rose.
"And..." Waverly said quietly, "please accept my condolences, Mr Solo, on the loss of your partner. Mr Kuryakin was a fine agent—exceptional, as I'm sure you know. He will be greatly missed."
He could have bitten his tongue out.
Picking up his pipe he jammed the stem between his teeth. "Do whatever you need to do and try to get some sleep."
He watched Solo swallow convulsively, then turn on his heel and stride from the office.
Frowning he crossed the room, finally, to the humidor and began to fill his pipe.
Napoleon paused in the darkness of the lobby and listened carefully. Beyond the muted beep of the alarm system he'd just deactivated there was nothing. No sound, no scent, no sense of a presence other than his own. Barely breathing he moved forward, un-holstering his weapon and slipping off the safety. Street lights cast a sodium glow into the apartment leaching colours and giving the shapes a surreal quality.
He glanced over the breakfast bar and checked the kitchenette area. A faucet dripped monotonously.
Moving across the small, empty living area to a recess he pushed the bathroom door open with his toe. A towel was slung carelessly over the side of the tub, the shower curtain drawn back.
The bedroom door stood opposite and slightly ajar. Taking a steadying breath he toed the door open and flattened himself against the wall, listening, before slipping quickly through the doorway. No one took a flying leap or a shot at him. Slowly he reached out and turned on the light.
He holstered his weapon and surveyed the room.
It was orderly without being pristine. The dresser was uncluttered and held a hairbrush and comb, an empty coin tray and a set of lock picks tossed carelessly at the back. His eyes moved to the closet, the louvred doors of which stood open. The contents were sparse; a couple of suits, a pair of black pants, a few white shirts, a couple of pairs of Levis and a hideous maroon sport coat. An empty shoulder holster hung from a hook on the rear wall and, on the shelf, several boxes of cartridges and a spare clip lay alongside a pile of neatly-folded black sweaters.
Around the edges of the room, books were stacked in ordered piles to a height of about three feet. They reduced the room's meagre dimensions further giving it a cramped if not claustrophobic quality. A guitar rested on a stand in the corner. He moved along the collection of books, touching one here and there and glancing at the titles; text books, novels, poetry—titles in many languages, some in Cyrillic script.
Finally, gritting his teeth, He turned and allowed his eyes to be drawn to the single bed in the centre of the far wall. It had clearly been made in haste as, although the sheet and blankets were drawn up, there was still an indentation in the pillow where a head had lain. He tried to swallow but his painfully dry throat constricted and he couldn't.
He crossed the room slowly and reached down to the pillow, lightly touching the impression there with a hand that was far from steady. Gathering up the pillow, he buried his face in it and was immediately overwhelmed by the scent of his partner. Illya was everywhere, filling his senses, rebuking him for his desertion, making him ache with a yearning he knew could never be filled.
Overcome by a sense of injustice and self-recrimination and loss, he slid to the floor clutching the pillow, squeezing his eyes shut to hold back the scalding tears. It was futile.
The dam finally burst and his body shook with wracking sobs as he finally tumbled into exhaustion.
Six weeks later
He stood by the window nursing his third Chivas of the evening. It was 6.00pm and he'd barely stirred since he arrived home. These days he was rarely in the office before 9.30am, unless he had an early meeting, and rarely after 5.00pm. Missions—well, he hadn't been on one since... hadn't been field certified after that one. Still grounded and weekly psych visits. After the initial debriefing session Waverly had been too busy to see him for more than a few moments and then only on matters of routine. He refused to discuss the mission.
He tossed back his drink, grimacing at the fire that burned his throat. He needed more. One more and it no longer burned, two and he felt warm and comfortable, three more and he felt no pain. Correction, felt almost no pain. The unremitting, leaden ache that seemed to consume him from the inside never quite left him. Sometimes he almost didn't notice it. This wasn't one of those times. Sighing he crossed to the bar and poured another large Scotch.
No point in eating just yet, he thought as he made his way a little unsteadily back to the window and sipped the liquor. He had no date tonight. In fact he tried to recall the last date he'd been on. Mandy? Martie? Marsha, that was it. Blonde, petite—worked in records. When was that? Solo screwed up his face in an effort to remember. Two? Three weeks? With a snort of irritation, he took out his diary and flipped through the pages.
He went very still.
Napoleon Solo, lothario and seducer par excellence had not bedded a woman in over a month.
He took a deep breath and emptied his glass in a single swallow.
His dearth of dates was no doubt a result of the influx of new Section II agents from Survival School over the summer. Everyone knew that Section II agents had a lot of adrenaline to burn off and that a pretty girl was just about the best way to do it. He frowned. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd been turned down over the past weeks. He thought ruefully back to his last date.
Marsha. From records. She hadn't been his typical choice of date. Not sophisticated. Not voluptuous. Blonde, with help from a bottle. Small breasts and no ass.
He'd taken her out for dinner to his favourite Italian restaurant and she'd eaten hardly anything. It had pained him to see how she picked at her food. Afterwards they'd strolled round to her apartment a couple of blocks away and she'd invited him in for coffee, giggling as she told him that her room-mate was away. He recalled clearly her making coffee in the kitchenette. He'd come up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist...
"Napoleon!" she squeaked between giggles "Be careful! I don't want to spill the coffee."
He nuzzled her ear and nibbled on the small lobe, smiling as she arched herself back against him with a sigh.
"Like that, hmm?" he murmured as his hand came up to fondle a soft breast and tweak its nipple into hardness.
"Oh...yes," she gasped, coffee forgotten.
He turned her in his arms and took her mouth, sucking and nibbling the lipstick from her lips, forcing himself to ignore the cosmetic taste. He buried his fingers in her hair. It was thick and uniformly blonde—and brittle to the touch. She panted against him and he pressed himself against her... and felt nothing.
No arousal. No erection. Nothing...
He hadn't had another date since then.
With a grimace he crossed to the bar once more...
He awoke suddenly to the muffled sound of his communicator. His head pounded in time with his rapid pulse and his mouth felt as though it were lined with carpet. He was lying fully clothed on the bed and sunlight streamed into the room through the wide-open curtains. He squinted against the light and fought a wave of nausea as he sat up. The sound of his communicator immediately increased and he fumbled it from his breast pocket and uncapped it.
"Solo," he muttered thickly.
"Ah, Mr Solo," came Waverly's sharp tone "I was wondering if you were planning to join us today."
He peered at the bedside clock—which had stopped. Shit! He glanced down at his watch and his head throbbed in protest. 9.15am.
9.00am meeting. Shit! Shit! Shit!
"Ah, yes, sir. On my way," he mumbled. "Just, ah, dealing with a minor domestic issue..."
"My office at 10.30 hours, please, Mr Solo," snapped Waverly and cut the connection.
Napoleon stared, slack-jawed at his communicator then launched himself from the bed towards the bathroom as his tumbling stomach demanded immediate relief. He just made it in time. Kneeling with his head over the porcelain he gave in to his body's attempts, over the next five minutes, to invert itself.
Eventually, with streaming eyes and trembling all over he stood unsteadily. His head still pounded and his stomach fluttered but he had nothing left within. He turned on the shower and stripped, plunging under the steaming torrent and allowing it to pummel him awake as he soaped away the sordidness of the last twenty-four hours. He allowed himself a full three minutes before gritting his teeth and turning off the hot water. The sudden assault of the icy spray finally shocked his system into full awareness and he gasped. After a further minute he turned off the cold tap and stepped out of the shower.
As he towelled himself off he took stock of his reflection in the mirror. Bleak, puffy eyes stared back at him. His complexion looked mottled and waxy and the shadow of a beard couldn't disguise the unfamiliar softness of the jaw line. Christ! he thought as he dropped his head and closed his eyes against the image. You're a mess, Solo.
He reached into the bathroom cabinet for the bottle of aspirin and shook three into his palm. The tooth glass clattered against the tap as he filled it and he washed down the tablets with three full glasses of water. He wiped his mouth with the back of a shaking hand and reached for his shaving kit.
At 10.25am he sauntered through the door into Lisa Rogers' office, hands in his pockets and feigning a nonchalance he didn't feel. She looked up from her typing and her eyes widened slightly as she took in his red eyes and the three shaving cuts on his jaw. Raising his eyebrows he inclined his head towards the door to his boss's office. Lisa gave him a half smile.
"Have a seat, Napoleon. I'll tell him you're here."
He'd normally flirt shamelessly with Lisa Rogers despite the fact that she was renowned for her cool reserve with Section II agents and immune to their blandishments. Nevertheless, he habitually persisted and was tolerated with less frostiness than the rest. Today he sat in silence. He couldn't remember the last time he'd even attempted to engage her in the seductive Solo banter.
Shaking her head slightly she pressed the intercom. Waverly's voice emerged.
"Yes, Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, Mr Solo is here, sir."
There was a pause.
"Very well. Send him in, please."
Napoleon stood and squared his shoulders as the office door slid open, then took a deep breath and crossed the threshold. Sitting around the conference table with Alexander Waverly were Alec Redgrave and Tony Hopkins. His fragile stomach did a flip as he recalled the last time they'd been together in this office. Waverly looked up and harrumphed as he moved mechanically to the table.
"Good of you to join us, Mr Solo."
He moved to a vacant seat at the table and Alec Redgrave looked up and met his eyes. There was a hint of something indefinable in them. Napoleon looked away, unable to hide the disdain in his own expression.
In the six weeks that had passed since they last sat here together, he'd studiously avoided the young agent. Not difficult, since the in-house duty rosters were his responsibility and he'd ensured that, for a large part of the time, Redgrave had been confined to Communications and Security in Section IV. For the first time he felt a frisson of shame at his cowardice; it had never been his habit to try to avoid the inevitable. He'd told himself he'd get round to dealing with it, whatever "it" was, as soon as he was back in the saddle. How hard could it be to get Andy Scott to certify him for field duty?
You haven't managed it yet, Solo, he thought.
Waverly paused and laid his unlit pipe on the table. His eyes met Napoleon's in frank appraisal and Napoleon felt an unaccustomed urge to squirm.
"What do you know about underwater tracking systems and the acoustic properties of metals, Mr Solo?" inquired Waverly.
"Sir...?" He did his best to hide his confusion at the question.
Waverly sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
"Mr Solo, those of us who have been here since nine o'clock have had the opportunity to assimilate the information in the file in front of you."
Napoleon dropped his eyes to the file, discomfited at the mild reproof.
"However, a brief summary may help us all to grasp the situation better. Dr Ladislaus Kovàcs is the foremost exponent alive of the concept of shielding underwater vessels from detection," Waverly continued. "He was abducted by THRUSH eighteen months ago. That he is alive and, more particularly, is safe and now working with U.N.C.L.E. is due almost entirely to Mr Kuryakin's courage and invention during your last mission."
At the mention of Illya, Napoleon's throat closed. Dammit, get a grip, Solo, he thought. His head began to throb again and he thought longingly of the aspirin back at his apartment. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"THRUSH was about to commence sea trials when you and Mr Kuryakin liberated the device from their base.
"Although we'd discovered the location of the vessel to be used for the sea trials, we had been unable to determine just where THRUSH was holding Dr Kovàcs," Waverly continued. "Mr Kuryakin was of the opinion that, even if we were able to liberate the machine, reverse-engineering would not be sufficient to create a working model. We needed Dr Kovcs himself and his expertise, and so Mr Kuryakin came to me with a plan to achieve just that."
Napoleon sat forward in his chair, all attention now. Illya had said nothing to him about a plan. He glanced round the table and wondered dispiritedly whether everyone but he had known. He looked hard at Waverly.
"And this plan was?"
"We leaked misinformation to THRUSH that Mr Kuryakin had been working on a means to enhance the acoustic properties of certain metals used in earlier prototypes of the shielding device. THRUSH was also led to believe that he was somewhat disaffected and had a zealot's desire to work with Kovàcs. Poppycock of course," Waverly added with a snort "but they weren't to know that."
Napoleon's head was now pounding again.
"The plan was, that, having liberated the device, Mr Kuryakin would allow himself to be captured and taken to where Dr Kovàcs was working. He would then engineer their subsequent escape." Napoleon shook his head in disbelief.
"Sir, we'd gotten the device," he said tightly. "It was in Redgrave's hands. Mission accomplished." He paused and fixed Waverly with a piercing gaze. "I was going back for Illya. I could have gotten him too, if Redgrave..."
"Mr Solo..." Waverly interrupted him and his voice was almost gentle "Mr Redgrave was acting on my direct orders to prevent you from returning for Mr Kuryakin. He was authorised to use any means at his disposal short of lethal force."
He held up his hand to quell Napoleon's imminent protest.
"Mr Kuryakin was insistent that you shouldn't know, Mr Solo," he continued. "He felt you would be reluctant to let him put himself in jeopardy. That you'd feel obliged to be on hand to ensure his safety. It was imperative for the mission's success that he be allowed to contrive his own capture according to the situation in which he found himself. He was adamant that you should be prevented at all costs from attempting a rescue."
Napoleon clenched his jaw. Damn, stubborn, idiotic Russian.
Waverly picked up his pipe and then put it down with a grimace. "Unfortunately, what we didn't know was that THRUSH had moved Dr Kovàcs to the submarine pen ahead of the trials, rather than bringing him in as an observer on the day. Mr Kuryakin must have discovered him there at the last moment and released him."
"Bring home the bacon," mused Napoleon.
"It's what Illya said when we were extracting the device in the pen."
Waverly glanced at him and then looked down.
"Mr Solo, I don't need to tell you that situations in the field can change in the blink of an eye. Had I known that Dr Kovàcs had been released, I should, of course, have rescinded Mr Redgrave's orders to prevent Mr Kuryakin's rescue."
Waverly's tone was conciliatory as he looked up and held Napoleon's gaze. "That is my burden."
He nodded. It was the closest he'd every heard the Old Man come to an apology. He felt light-headed and rubbed his hands vigorously over his face. What a stupid, goddam mess.
He heard Redgrave clear his throat and looked over to where he sat next to Hopkins.
"Hmmph...?" said Waverly as though suddenly remembering the presence of the other two agents. "Ah, yes Mr Redgrave. Perhaps you'd care to share with us the fruits of your sojourn in Section IV."
He raised an eyebrow at Napoleon but said nothing. Napoleon was so far off his game he almost started guiltily.
"Yes, sir," said Redgrave enthusiastically, "thank you, sir."
He turned to address Napoleon, who, reeling from Waverly's explanation, still found himself unwilling to meet the eager gaze.
"Sir, how much do you know about the periodic table of the elements?"
"I, ah..." he paused and forced himself to meet Redgrave's eyes. "That's Illya's specialty." Is. Was. He took a breath. "Quantum stuff—and blowing things up."
Redgrave flushed slightly and smiled. Goddam him, he actually smiled.
"You find this amusing, agent Redgrave?" Napoleon's voice was sub-thermal.
"Er... no, sir. Well... that is..." he faltered to a stop, casting a glance at Waverly.
The Old Man rolled his eyes. "Mr Redgrave, we'd all very much like to hear what you're trying to say. Please continue."
Napoleon watched as the young agent composed himself and began again.
"Mr Solo, whilst I've been in Section IV over the past four weeks..."
Napoleon bristled momentarily but there was no hint of reproach in Redgrave's voice.
"...we've been monitoring the THRUSH radio traffic from Scandinavia as one of our routine exercises. We picked up some intermittent anomalies from the Stockholm relay station, including requests for certain pieces of arcane equipment. We've also intercepted a request for a large quantity of lutetium," Redgrave paused briefly. "It's a rare earth element, genuinely rare in this case—it's about four times the price of gold. It has no commercial uses and few people need it so any order is relatively easy to track. This order was for about fifty pounds."
There was silence. Redgrave and Hopkins glanced at Waverly who raised his eyebrows and nodded before turning to Napoleon as though waiting for him to speak. Napoleon returned the gaze. He felt as though he were part of some bizarre charade in which everyone but himself knew the rules. His head throbbed, his stomach was beginning to protest against its breakfast of aspirin and his mind was foggy and uncooperative. He rubbed his temples with his fingers.
"I'm sorry sir, but I don't seem to be quite up to speed yet," he murmured. He turned back to Redgrave and Hopkins who regarded him expectantly. "Would you care to explain what all this actually means? In layman's terms?"
Hopkins took up the narrative. "Sir, when Mr Kuryakin was planning to go undercover he devised a fictitious scenario that he thought THRUSH would find plausible enough to swallow without investigation. He would offer to build them a device superior to the one they already had. The one we now have."
Napoleon fixed him with a glare. "And you know this how?" he said icily.
Hopkins didn't respond to the overt reproof. He tapped the file in front of him. "It's...er... in the file, sir. You have one too."
Napoleon felt his world begin to shift.
Redgrave interrupted his partner's tale. "The thing is, it required some unusual equipment—and large quantities of lutetium," he said excitedly. "Fifty pounds in fact."
The shift became a landslide. Napoleon struggled to catch his breath. He looked at Waverly who regarded him impassively.
"He's alive, isn't he," he gasped.
Waverly nodded slowly. "We believe so, Mr Solo, although you must understand that this is at present unconfirmed. I can't think of anyone else, though, who would have a use for fifty pounds of lutetium, can you?"
Napoleon closed his eyes and made a silent promise. He opened them, when he could trust himself to speak, and met Waverly's direct gaze.
"When do we start?" he said.
Twelve hours later U.N.C.L.E. NY
Napoleon found himself outside Alexander Waverly's office once more. He'd pored over the file yesterday sifting all the current information they had on Illya's probable location. Finally he'd gone home and slept eight hours straight—without the aid of the bottle. He could have slept for eight more and then some, and it would barely have touched his deep enervation. Nevertheless, his mind was now clearer than it had been in weeks.
Despite his underlying exhaustion he felt strangely energised as he paced the area by Lisa Rogers' desk, chafing at the delay in heading off to find his partner. Intellectually he was fully aware that the primary purpose of this next mission would be search-and-destroy. Only incidentally would Waverly expect him to locate and rescue his partner. He knew and accepted this. On an emotional level, however, he also knew that, whatever the cost, he would not be able to abandon Illya again. He somehow suspected that Waverly was well aware of this too.
Unsure how much more information the Old Man would have gleaned from the Stockholm HQ since he left the office, he proceeded to weigh options and probabilities using the limited amount of data available. He was so engrossed that he almost didn't register the door from the corridor swoosh open to admit Redgrave and Hopkins. They both halted inside the door regarding him warily.
Napoleon looked up at them and met Redgrave's uncertain gaze. He respected the young agent. When he'd interviewed him fresh from Survival School, he'd been impressed by his potential and had looked forward to developing a positive working relationship with him. Napoleon knew that his own behaviour and the events of the past month had jeopardised this. He was determined to find a way back.
Nodding to both agents he held out his hand. They glanced briefly at each other and Napoleon saw in the look surprise mingled with relief. Redgrave moved towards him, Hopkins in his wake.
"Mr Redgrave, Mr Hopkins," he said slowly, shaking hands with each of them. "I believe I owe you an apology." He regarded them levelly. "It was a tough mission, gentlemen, and you conducted yourselves admirably in the field—and since."
His mind flitted briefly to the personnel log he'd prepared for the mission all those weeks ago. "I'm sorry about Collins, Alec," he said quietly.
Redgrave flushed slightly but met his eye. "Thank you, Sir," he murmured.
"Sir, do you have any idea why we're here?" asked Hopkins.
Napoleon smiled slightly. "I have an idea, but I expect Mr Waverly..."
Waverly's voice over the intercom on Lisa's desk interrupted him.
"Would you ask Agents Solo, Redgrave and Hopkins to step in please? We have no time to waste."
She glanced at the three agents as she released the door to Waverly's office. "Right away, Sir." Napoleon raised his eyebrows at the two junior operatives as he moved ahead of them towards the open door. "I... ah... expect we can catch up on the plane, gentlemen."
One week later. THRUSH facility, somewhere outside Ytterby, Sweden
He gasped as he rolled over on the narrow cot. The pain from his back and hip bone was momentarily exquisite and he breathed through it until he was once more in control. After six weeks the pain seemed only marginally less than at the time of the injury. He suspected that in his present circumstances he was unable to give it what it needed to heal.
As abductions went, he supposed this was better than some. He'd had at least some control over the means of his capture although getting shot in the back wasn't part of his initial plan, nor even the revised, flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants version. He swatted away the thought that a couple of inches to the left would have meant rather more than ripped muscle and mangled bone.
So far he'd been fed reasonably well and allowed access to washing and medical facilities. His wound had been dressed daily by a nurse of indeterminate gender and surprisingly low standards of personal hygiene. He hoped he hadn't caught anything.
They'd even provided him with clean clothes, although gunmetal serge wasn't his favourite colour or fabric and the stylised bird logo always struck him as vaguely absurd. Sadly they hadn't returned to him his own clothes, with their minor arsenal, so he knew he'd have to bide his time and improvise if he planned anything spectacular as part of his escape.
He was good at escapes, the more explosive the better, although not quite as good at improvisation as his partner. In his remote solitude he allowed himself that small admission. He knew, though, that it was due to his own skill in improvisation that he was here and alive, for the time being. He felt secure in the knowledge that U.N.C.L.E. now had both the prototype device and its inventor. The fact that he was still alive told him this must be so. He knew he was his captors' any-port-in-a-storm.
The main problem was that the pain from his injury still made movement so difficult. Just turning over in bed brought him out in a cold sweat, and he'd almost passed out the previous evening when he tried, inadvisably as it turned out, to walk without his crutch. Two for the price of one, he thought cynically. He was effectively hobbled by his injury, which also kept him in constant pain and therefore more malleable than he was prepared to admit.
He wished he'd been able to remember exactly the events around his shooting. He remembered putting Dr Kovàcs into the dinghy, and then the searing pain when he was shot. There was a vague recollection of a deafening noise, and bright light and heat but nothing further until he woke in a strange medical facility with the creature he later heard someone calling "nurse" standing over him stitching his wound together. The pain then had helped him to focus and he'd welcomed the lack of medication for the clarity of thought it allowed him. No matter that he'd panted and trembled uncontrollably for an hour after they'd left him alone until the adrenaline had washed out of his system.
In fact he felt remarkably sanguine about the whole situation—or would have, if he could have been certain of Napoleon's welfare. The fear that he'd failed in his self-appointed role to watch his partner's back nagged at him constantly. Each time it worked its way to the forefront of his mind he pushed it away roughly and focused once more on the task in hand. The worst times were at night. Several times he'd woken, bathed in sweat with a vision of Napoleon's face, full of reproach, slipping away from him into some ghastly end.
The unease he felt was magnified by the deceit he'd been forced to practise on his partner. At the time he'd believed he was sparing Napoleon by not including him in his discussions with Waverly. Had their roles been reversed it would have taxed his resolve to the utmost if he'd had to abandon Napoleon to an uncertain fate. They'd both danced around the edge of this particular pit for a long time. He regretted that Napoleon had been the one to be forced over the edge first.
The noise of a key in the door of his cell-like room brought him suddenly and painfully into a sitting position on the side of the cot. He willed himself to ignore the escalating burn in his back as he brought his breathing under control and faced the door.
It opened to admit a single, albeit well-armed, guard. He almost swaggered into the room, a THRUSH rifle slung over his shoulder and a machine pistol loosely trained towards the cot. Having established that Illya was no threat he graced him with a leer and stepped to one side to allow the nurse into the cell. Illya had finally been forced to admit that the attributes were, on the whole, feminine. If one discounted the moustache. She bustled in with a trolley of dressings and instruments and set it at the side of the cot. Illya tried to ignore the appalling odour from her that filled his nostrils. No stranger to smells of corruption and worse, he was intrigued to find that it offended him the more coming from someone who was part of the supposedly antiseptic medical environment.
"Good morning, Herr Dr Kuryakin," she greeted him in a strangely breathy, girlish voice. "We must be quick today. Herr Carlsson has special and important work for you and he waits."
She busied herself laying out a dressing pack on the tray. Illya watched her for a moment then gingerly lay down again on the cot on his belly, facing the wall. He drew his undershirt up with a grimace and steeled himself for the nurse's attentions. He heard her pour out antiseptic into a sterile pot then gritted his teeth in anticipation as she moved to stand over him. She removed the dressing from his side with careless haste and he felt her foetid breath on him as she leaned over to examine the injury. He was caught off-guard by the pace of her movement and was unable entirely to suppress a whimper as she pressed around the sides of the wound.
"Is good. Ja," she finally pronounced after several more heedless prods. He turned his head to look up at her reluctantly. "Not infection, but you should stay sit, Herr Dr. Walk too much on bone..." she shook her head and waved an admonishing finger at him, "not heal well. Too much pain."
Working with unexpected speed she cleaned and re-dressed the wound and was tidying the dressing trolley when the door opened suddenly. Not wanting to be compromised in such a vulnerable position Illya sat up quickly, stifling a moan, as a tall blond man swept into the room. The newcomer barked something in Swedish that caused the nurse to flush and compress her lips, before she grabbed the trolley and wheeled it rapidly from the room. The man watched her go with a sneer and then turned to Illya, his expression hard.
"Ah, Dr Kuryakin," he smirked. "I trust that Helga has given you all you need?"
Illya eased himself forward painfully and reached for his crutch where it lay on the floor by the cot. "Everything I need I have, thank you, Herr Carlsson," he muttered without looking up.
The carefully-cultivated demeanour of helplessness slipped over him as he struggled to stand, biting his lip against the sudden wash of pain from his back. Chyort! He was no longer sure just how much of the helplessness was an act. He could barely move let alone fight if it came to it.
"Come. You must dress quick, Dr Kuryakin," Carlsson urged impatiently. "Today we have the lutetium delivery and so we can begin the final phase, ja?"
Illya pasted a look of consternation onto his face and blustered. "Herr Carlsson, there is much still to do before we are ready for the final phase. The lutetium is..."
Carlsson cut him off brusquely. "No delays, Herr Doctor. The sea trials are set for the end of the week. This is no time for niceties." He nodded to the guard.
"Wait, Herr Carlsson," he said with mild reproach. "Might I at least wash?" He injected a whining note into his voice.
Carlsson snorted his impatience but nodded once more to the guard. "Take Dr Kuryakin to the washroom but do not allow him to linger."
The guard grinned unpleasantly and levelled the pistol at Illya who grabbed his uniform and began to hobble painfully towards the door.
"I will see you in the lab in twenty minutes, Dr Kuryakin," said Carlsson determinedly as he swept out ahead of them.
Illya limped along the corridor and into the washroom. Alone inside, his minder standing guard out in the corridor, he filled the basin, set out his shaving kit and began his ablutions.
He was just fastening the insufferable grey uniform when he heard a crash and a commotion along the corridor. Glancing through the reinforced window in the door he was in time to see his guard move away from his post to investigate.
Opening the door a fraction he spotted an overturned trolley twenty yards away. It was surrounded by a group of technicians and the guard all arguing as they strained to lift the heavy items now scattered about the corridor. He'd waited weeks for such an opportunity. Slipping out of the washroom he headed as fast as he was able in the opposite direction, turning the first corner that he came to.
He found himself at the top of a set of stone steps with a handrail in the middle. Hearing no sounds of pursuit and nothing below he hitched his left hip onto the handrail and slid down to the bottom, dismounting onto his good leg in perfect balance outside an elevator. A short corridor stretched ahead of him ending in a heavy-looking metal door. The three black blades on their yellow circle emblazoned on it brought him up short. He compressed his lips as his mind worked to process the information. Seeing no hooks or storage in the corridor for protective clothing he made his way to the door, took a breath and opened it.
The room on the other side contained about half a dozen technicians absorbed in apparently mundane tasks involving banks of controls. To his left, one was staring intently through a window in front of him and manipulating a set of mechanical remote arms. Illya's mind did some fast processing and he didn't like what he came up with.
Snatching his glasses from the pocket of his uniform he put them on and grabbed a clipboard lying abandoned on a console. He appeared to give it his full attention as he sidled over to join the technician by the window.
"Any problems?" inquired Illya glancing briefly at the technician before shifting his gaze beyond the window.
"Not that I know of," the technician replied. "What happened to you?" he asked, nodding at Illya's crutch.
Illya's attention was arrested by the chamber beyond the window. It was a high-ceilinged concrete construction around twenty feet by twenty five, with a circular opening in the centre of the floor roughly four feet in diameter. A lead plug of the same diameter swung from a thick chain suspended from a gantry some six feet above the hole. Close to the hole on each side, narrow gauge rails ran from below the window through which he now looked. On the far side of the chamber they disappeared under a heavy-looking metal door about twelve feet wide.
"Hmm?" Illya's attention snapped back. "This? Oh, fell over the cat."
As he watched, the plug was moved along the gantry and a mechanical grab descended into the hole and drew out irregular lumps of a dull, metallic looking substance. These were deposited in an ore bucket standing on the rails adjacent to the hole. Once full, the motorised bucket moved towards the window.
It stopped within reach of the mechanical arms manipulated by Illya's new acquaintance. With a whine of servos the technician gathered the metallic lumps from the ore bucket and loaded them into a second metal container under the window. It reminded Illya of the pot-bellied stoves of his childhood.
A chill settled over him.
That he was looking at a nuclear device of some kind was evident. It was clear also that it was unsophisticated since there was no precision in the amount or placing of the material in the container. Probably waste; mostly cobalt60 and strontium90, Illya thought with disgust, packed with plenty of conventional explosives to disperse it. Entirely predictable that THRUSH should have no compunction about the use of a dirty bomb.
Illya nodded to the window. "How many more do you have left?"
This shift? Illya covered his start of surprise and nodded.
"This is my first." The technician nodded towards the ceiling of the chamber beyond the window. "We had a bit of a problem positioning the gantry this morning so we're a bit behind." He looked directly at Illya and grinned. "Don't tell Carlsson though."
Illya forced a distracted smile. He hoped THRUSH hadn't skimped on the protection measures for the control room. None of the technicians was wearing a dosimetry badge and he was unsure whether to be alarmed or reassured by this. His skin crawled at the thought of the effect of the ionising radiation from the amount of nuclear waste in the open bucket. He dreaded to think how much more material was in the pit beneath the chamber.
Illya opened his mouth to ask when the door suddenly opened to reveal a very angry THRUSH guard. Catching sight of him the guard swore and rushed towards him, the butt of his rifle raised to strike. Illya dropped reflexively into a defensive position and was unable to suppress a gasp at the pain that shot through his back.
"Stop!" Carlsson's voice rang out as he stepped into the room. The guard froze then lowered his weapon.
"You will not damage Dr Kuryakin," snapped Carlsson. "He is needed for much work. Am I make myself clear?"
The guard came to attention and nodded, a thunderous expression on his face. Illya stood up slowly, feeling sweat pricking his forehead.
"Well, Dr Kuryakin," continued Carlsson coldly, "you seem to have take a wrong turn."
"I do, don't I?" panted Illya. "I was looking for the executive washroom."
Carlsson jerked his head at the guard and strode from the room without a word. The guard turned to Illya with a leer. Chyort! thought Illya. He shrugged, replaced his glasses in his pocket as nonchalantly as he could and limped towards the door.
As he drew level with the guard the man slammed the butt of the rifle into the gunshot wound on his back. The resulting explosion of pain wrenched a cry from him. Fighting down a wave of nausea he staggered out into the corridor as the guard pursued him, and almost sighed with relief at the sight of Carlsson waiting by the elevator at the bottom of the steps. He hobbled towards him as the doors opened and Carlsson stood aside to allow him to enter. The guard made to follow but Carlsson turned on him abruptly.
"I will see Dr Kuryakin to his laboratory," he said in an icy voice. "Report to deployment for reassignment." The door slid shut in the dismayed guard's face.
Illya leaned against the wall of the elevator, gritting his teeth as he tried to regain his composure. The burst of pain had made him tremble and he tried to breathe through it. So far he'd managed to maintain his mask of stoicism. But six weeks of battling with the pain in his back and pelvis from his unhealed wound was beginning to wear down even his formidable resilience. Carlsson watched him, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Your order of lutetium has arrived, Dr Kuryakin," he said. "You are pleased, no?" Illya met his penetrating gaze and nodded evenly.
"There was a minor mishap," Carlsson continued, "on the way from the loading bay but no damage done."
Ah. The trolley incident, thought Illya. A use for lutetium after all.
The elevator doors opened and Carlsson motioned him out ahead. As they made their way along the upper-level corridor towards Illya's lab, there was the sound of running footsteps and a uniformed THRUSH agent clutching a signal transcript drew level with them.
"Sir?" he said breathlessly.
"What is it?" asked Carlsson.
"Sir, this just arrived from our agents in Stockholm."
He passed the sheet into Carlsson's outstretched hand. Carlsson's face darkened as he read it and he thrust it back at the agent with a grimace.
"Tell them to intercept and terminate," he snapped as he strode off with Illya limping in his wake.
Illya caught up with him at the door to the laboratory and Carlsson turned.
"It seems, Dr Kuryakin, that your ex-colleagues in the U.N.C.L.E. may have discerned—yes?—discerned your whereabouts."
Illya raised his eyebrows. "Indeed?"
"Indeed," echoed Carlsson. "Now how do you think they might have done that?"
Illya merely shrugged. Carlsson looked at him hard.
"Three of them are spotted at Arlanda. They will, of course, be taken care of," he said with a twisted smile, "especially your Mr Solo."
Illya felt the flutter in his chest. Alive! He schooled his face to remain impassive as he counted slowly to five. Carlsson pushed open the door into Illya's lab and Illya followed him through, his heart pounding. The lab assistants were stacking the lutetium ingots on the bench. Next to the growing pile was the rig containing the shielding device on which he'd been working. He barely noticed the activity.
"Well, Dr Kuryakin," Carlsson said after a moment. "It seems we have to change our plans a little. We have a working shielding device for our submarine," he indicated the rig on the bench, "although, sadly, without your new refinements. We have also the bombs—ah yes—you discovered our little secret store this morning, did you not?" His eyes gleamed. "Enough for the major cities we will target."
"So THRUSH gains what?" Illya asked. "Widespread chaos? Economic failure? Governments willing to deal?"
Carlsson looked at him mildly. "Ah, THRUSH now, is it, Herr Doctor?" he said slowly nodding. "Not we? Not what-can-I-do-to-help,-Herr-Carlsson? Perhaps, after all, I should not wonder how your friends knew how to find us."
Illya cursed his slip of the tongue. He shrugged in resignation. "What can I say? I was bored with my toys. I wanted someone to play with."
"Ah, so perhaps I can give a new toy for you and your friends to play with together," Carlsson gave a hollow laugh. "Have you ever played with cobalt60, Herr Doctor? Or strontium90?"
"I try to avoid it." He strove to keep his voice level. "The surgeon general has determined that it is hazardous to my health."
Carlsson nodded slowly. "Ja, that is so. The ionising radiation is not healthy. But you have such a short time to live that it will not matter much to you, I think."
"What will you do?" Illya asked, voice determinedly casual.
"Do?" mused Carlsson. "I think—nothing. Yes..." He narrowed his eyes then walked to the nearest intercom on the wall and hit a button. "This is Carlsson," he said with urgency into the microphone.
"Sir?" came the tinny voice in response.
"Cancel the order to terminate the U.N.C.L.E. agents. You understand? Cancel it, but keep me informed of their progress."
"Yessir. Cancel the termination order. Will do."
Carlsson cut off the intercom and turned to Illya with a terrible smile. He hit another switch on the intercom.
"Carlsson," he said smoothly. "Do you have a bomb on the track?"
"No, sir," came the tinny voice. "We're about to start filling one. We have a casing in position."
"Excellent," Carlsson hissed. "Do not fill this one with waste. Just the explosive—the TNT. Ja? Set a time fuse to the explosive for..." he glanced at the clock on the wall of the lab, "...three hours."
Carlsson laughed then, and his eyes glittered. ""When the timer is set I want you to lower the casing into the pit." He looked at Illya. "We have someone here who is dying for some new toys to play with. His friends will join him soon. It will suit them well, I think."
The pit. Illya suddenly found he couldn't swallow. Fear flickered as an icy spark in his gut. He ruthlessly quelled it before it could flare into panic.
Carlsson flipped off the intercom and regarded Illya with contempt.
"So, we leave you here to play, ja? It will be brief, but excruciating I'm afraid, Dr Kuryakin. You will not survive for three hours in the pit. Half hour maybe, but..." he shrugged, "by then it will not matter. If by any remote chance you do survive, well you and your Mr Solo and anyone else foolish enough to be in this building when the bomb detonates will die anyway.
"Everything within ten miles of this facility will be contaminated by our device. It will let U.N.C.L.E. and the authorities know what to expect from our other devices." He paused then gave a shout of laughter, "But not where, eh? Your shielding device has done that, Herr Doctor."
Carlsson moved briskly to one side and barked an order at the two guards standing by the lab door. "Cover him!"
Knowing he was too disabled for any evasive action Illya stood where he was but tightened his grip on the crutch. The small movement was not lost on Carlsson.
"Step away from the bench, now, Dr Kuryakin," he snapped, and Illya heard the slides worked on two machine pistols behind him. Yes! he thought with grim satisfaction as he stepped slowly to his right, away from the rig.
"That is good," hissed Carlsson. "Load the device into the submarine," he called over his shoulder to the other technicians.
Obediently they moved to the rig and began to dismantle the shielding device.
Carlsson nodded to the two guards by the door. "Take Dr Kuryakin down to the control room. I will join you soon." With that he turned and hit an alarm button on the console in front of him. Immediately amber ceiling lights started to flash and a klaxon began to sound intermittently.
Illya limped from the lab between his guards. His mind recoiled from the image of himself dropped into the pit full of nuclear waste. As a physicist he was well aware of the terrible effects of ionising radiation on the human body. Had witnessed it at close hand in poorly regulated labs in the Ukraine. His intimate knowledge of handling procedures and safety precautions did nothing to dispel the nightmare vision. It took a supreme effort to drag his thoughts away from his horrors towards a survival strategy.
He had to survive and function for the three hours before the device was due to detonate. Had to somehow prevent Napoleon and the rest of the U.N.C.L.E. contingent from coming anywhere near the facility. Had to alert the authorities to evacuate the area.
Three objectives. Three hours to achieve them. He took a deep breath.
They were approaching the top of the short flight of steps down to the control room, the guards on either side of him. He groaned and pretended to stumble on the top step as though his back had given way. The guards stepped closer as he toppled forward. With an agile twist as he fell, he swept the guards' legs from under them, grabbing one by the neck and snapping it cleanly on the way down. He almost passed out himself from the pain in his hip bone as he landed heavily at the bottom of the steps on the second guard. Panting against the haze that threatened to envelop him, he jabbed his rigid fingers hard into the front of the guard's throat and heard the crackle as the hyoid bone shattered.
Desperate measures, he thought ruefully, sparing a glance at the bodies. He cursed the vulnerability of his present condition.
Breathing hard, he hauled himself to his feet and snatched a rifle from one of the guards. He slung it round his shoulder and tucked his machine pistol into his own belt. He hit the elevator button and gave a fleeting look around, listening. No signs of pursuit. The elevator dinged its arrival and he flattened himself against the wall as the doors opened. No one emerged. He risked a cautious glance inside. Empty.
Gritting his teeth against the pain he managed somehow to drag the two corpses into the car and, gasping, hit the button for the top level. Offices, he recalled from the plan of the facility in his head. Unlikely to be busy during an evacuation. He hoped.
The elevator continued its uninterrupted journey upwards. As it approached the top floor, he unhitched the THRUSH rifle and braced himself against the back wall. The doors opened onto an empty corridor. Dragging one of the bodies half out of the elevator to block the doors he stepped out into the corridor with the weapon readied. Apart from the now muted sound of the alarm there was nothing. No movement. To his left was the stairwell door. He glanced briefly at the ungainly weapon in his hand and used it to jam the door's mechanism. Taking the machine pistol from his waistband he set off down the corridor.
In the fourth office he came to, he found what he wanted. A phone sat on a desk in the corner. With a last quick glance down the corridor he slipped inside and snatched up the handset, closing his eyes in relief when he heard the dial tone.
His hand shook slightly as he dialled the lengthy number and waited. He realised he had no idea of the current routing protocols but trusted that calls from the facility were being monitored routinely now by Section IV. There was a click as his call was answered.
"Yes?" a female voice. Napoleon would have known her name, he thought.
"This is Illya Kuryakin, number 2 Section II, New York. I have a priority one message for Mr Waverly."
"I'm sorry, sir you must have the wrong number."
Illya knew the call was being traced and verified. He wasted no time in arguing.
"Please tell Mr Waverly that I am compromised. There is a large Radiological Dispersal Device at the THRUSH satrapy in Ytterby, Sweden. It is set to detonate in two hours and twenty minutes. I repeat, a device with a nuclear payload is set to explode here two hours and twenty minutes from now. Recommend evacuation for a radius of ten miles as a precaution..."
"Mr Kuryakin?" Alexander Waverly's voice interrupted him. "Your report please."
"Sir, the civil authorities need to be involved in this. The RDD contains primarily cobalt60 and strontium90 but there could be almost any nuclear debris included. I will attempt to defuse the device if I have the opportunity but..." he faltered briefly, "it is located in a highly radioactive area and I may not have enough time. All other personnel should be kept away. All personnel."
There was a brief pause and Illya knew Waverly was processing the implications of his report.
"Understood, Mr Kuryakin," Waverly said finally.
"Sir, they're evacuating the base. They have several RDD's loaded onto a submarine and, for obvious reasons, they're in a bit of a hurry to get away. They do have targets for the devices although I'm afraid I have no information on these. You should have no problem tracking the submarine, though." He gave a small smile into the phone. "I think I convinced Herr Carlsson that the shielding device will protect them."
"Very good. What will your next move be?"
"If I can stay out of their way until they've all gone I may get a chance to deactivate the device they left here before it detonates. Failing that, I hope at least to prevent the radioactive dispersal."
"If you do not hear an explosion then you will know that I have been successful. I will try to contact you again but, if you do not hear from me, do not send in a clean-up team without ionising-radiation protection. Is that clear, sir."
"Yes, Mr Kuryakin. Understood."
"Please tell Mr Solo..." his voice faltered as his throat constricted. Shit! Not now. Please not now. "Please tell Mr Solo that I am sorry—for the deceit."
Waverly harrumphed. "I trust you will be able to give him your apology yourself when you next see him."
There was a pause and then Waverly's heavy tones came down the line, "Thank you, Mr Kuryakin. Goodbye."
He dropped the phone back onto the cradle, bowed his head and took a deep breath. Finally he stood and made his way slowly out of the office and back towards the elevator.
Alexander Waverly put down the telephone softly, suppressing the urge to throw it across the room. For most of his adult life it felt as though he'd had to weigh men's lives in the balance. Always, there was the greater good to consider; always the human consequences of choice. He was tired.
The affair had required every bit of his skill to manage from the start. It had felt as though U.N.C.L.E. had been skating round the rim of the abyss from the moment he'd reluctantly acceded to Kuryakin's plan. To have his Russian protégé return from the dead only to slip into the abyss once more filled him with bitter frustration and a deeper sense of grief than he'd anticipated. He spared a brief thought for what it might do to his CEA's already battered psyche.
His final ace had been trumped by the nature of the device that now threatened not only the small Swedish community but also the world's fragile east-west relations. If anyone were able to deactivate an explosive device he'd back Kuryakin against all comers. The fact that doing so would be his agent's last act on this earth was the cruellest of ironies. Allowing Solo to go in and rescue Kuryakin was no longer an option. The prospect of losing his Russian was nearly insupportable. He'd be damned if he'd lose his CEA into the bargain.
He flung his pipe down onto the desk in exasperation, observing with detachment as the stem snapped in two. Sighing heavily he turned his chair to the communications' console behind him and reached for the microphone, wondering how much could be salvaged from the fiasco.
Somewhere over Ytterby, Sweden
The noise of the rotors was muted by the radio headphones but he still wasn't sure he'd heard correctly.
"He's what?" Napoleon was incredulous. "Sir, only Illya would be crazy enough to try to deactivate a nuclear bomb." Actually, he could probably do it, he thought, shaking his head.
"Not a nuclear bomb, Mr Solo. This device is packed with conventional explosives but is surrounded by a large quantity of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Mr Kuryakin's plan is to attempt to deactivate the conventional explosive to prevent its dispersal."
It took him a second to process the information and then Napoleon felt his gut clench in horror as the inference hit him.
"Sir, you can't let him do this. Even if he succeeds, it's suicide."
"Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin has made a field decision on this and I trust no one's judgement better."
"No! Sir, please—you have to stop him. There has to be another way..."
"If there were, Mr Solo, don't you think I'd already have ordered it?" Waverly said, the weariness seeping through his sharp tone.
"Then let me..."
"Mr Solo, your sacrifice will not prevent your partner's..."
"Mr Solo! Others are in need your help. Your orders are to assist the local authorities with the evacuation and civil order measures. You'll need to clear a radius of ten miles from the THRUSH facility in case Mr Kuryakin is unable to prevent the detonation."
Napoleon's gut roiled. He swallowed hard and tried once more, "Sir..."
"Do I make myself clear, Mr Solo?"
"Understood, Sir," he said, as the bitterness nearly choked him.
There was a slight pause.
"I'm sorry, Mr Solo," said Waverly evenly. "Report when you have made contact with the local authorities. Waverly out."
Napoleon cut the connection and swallowed. He looked up to find Redgrave regarding him steadily from the front seat as Hopkins banked the helicopter towards Ytterby.
"What will you do, Sir?" Redgrave asked evenly.
He said nothing for a moment then lowered his head and rubbed a hand roughly over his face. An unbearable ache had settled once more in his chest. He took a deep breath as he recalled the promise he'd made to himself in Waverly's office only a week beforehand. Lifting his head he looked into Redgrave's open face—and trusted him.
"I can't do this again, Alec," he said shaking his head. "Maybe Illya was right not to tell me before." He grimaced. "He knows me better than I do."
Well, partner mine, I can make choices too.
And he made it.
"I want you and Tony to assist with the evacuation and civil order measures," he said crisply. "They may not have much of an infrastructure in place; it's a fairly remote area, so you may need to take charge of coordination. You'll need to maintain frequent contact with headquarters for updates, and also with the Stockholm office."
"Will do, Sir. Leave it to us." He gave a small smile. "Go get Mr Kuryakin and call us when you need a pick-up."
Napoleon gave him a grateful nod. "Call me if you need me. Understand?"
He leaned forward, staring out of the windshield as he placed a hand on Hopkins' shoulder.
"Tony, I need you to detour and drop me at the THRUSH facility first."
Hopkins turned briefly from the controls and met his eye. "Understood, Sir," he nodded with a tight smile as he banked the machine away from the town.
THRUSH facility, somewhere outside Ytterby, Sweden
Illya pushed his sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes with a hand that shook slightly. He felt light-headed with adrenaline and the debilitating effects of prolonged pain. The screwdriver slipped in his slick palm and he cursed. He wiped his hand down his trousers and laid his forehead against the cool steel of the plate on the wall for a moment. Taking a slow breath he attempted to steady his rapid heartbeat.
Despite the shakes, despite the physical discomfort, his mind felt remarkably clear. He knew what to do and how long he had to do it. Roughly ten minutes, given his current level of debility and the potency of the ionising radiation in which he'd be working. After that he probably wouldn't be able to see or function and after twenty minutes... he'd probably be dead. If he were lucky.
He'd dismantled and deactivated a timing device in minutes—seven to be exact—in the control room and was confident he could do it in the time available. There were no built-in interference mechanisms and he doubted whether Carlsson would have had the time or the inclination to install any before he and the rest of the THRUSH personnel evacuated the premises.
The problem that was frustrating him now was his inability to open the door from the control room to the assembly chamber. With characteristic THRUSH subtlety its mechanism had been disabled by the simple expedient of shooting out the control panel on the wall. He glanced up at the clock and did a quick calculation. Forty-five minutes before the three-hour deadline was up. His gut lurched and he set to work once more.
It was the hairs on the back of his neck that alerted him, even before he heard the scrape of the door from the corridor behind him.
Dropping the screwdriver, he snatched the machine pistol from his waistband and whirled round, back to the wall and weapon braced, grimacing at the bloom of pain from his back and pelvis.
He felt the blood drain from his face...
Napoleon leaned against the doorframe and took in the sight of his dishevelled partner; noted the crutch leaning against the door, the pallid face, the sweat-darkened hair, the slight tremor of the weapon directed at him. In the six weeks since he'd last seen him, his partner's weight must have dropped by a good twenty pounds, most of it muscle by the look of him.
Illya looked like hell, and for this Napoleon suddenly found he wanted to hurt someone. Badly. Terminally, in fact. Illya was also very obviously and gloriously alive, and for this Napoleon wanted to dance. That his partner was also holding a THRUSH weapon on him and was staring at him as though he'd seen a ghost made him want to laugh.
He grinned slowly.
"Ah, not quite the reception I was expecting, tovarisch."
Illya lowered his weapon and scowled at him.
"Mr Waverly's direct orders not enough for you now, huh?" he growled. "What do you think you're doing here, Napoleon?"
"Well, I'm glad to see you too, partner..."
Illya cut him off.
"Isn't it enough that one of us has to be here... to do this? What the fuck were you thinking?"
"What was I thinking...? What the..."
"We don't have time for this," Illya snapped, as he picked up the screwdriver and turned back to the panel on the wall. "You have about forty minutes to get out of here to a safe distance. Ten miles should do it. I assume you have a chopper standing by."
"Nope." Napoleon crossed to stand right behind his friend. "Paid off the cab. Say, tovarisch, you need a hand getting that door open?"
Illya spun round with a glare. Napoleon waggled his eyebrows as he held up a small lump of plastic explosive. With a snort Illya snatched it from his hand and turned to position it over the door's locking mechanism.
"Care to share the plan with me?" Napoleon said quietly over his partner's shoulder as he worked. "You know—for a change?"
Illya became very still for a moment then continued moulding the lump of explosive. He held out his hand without looking at Napoleon.
"Detonator," he snapped.
Napoleon pressed it into his palm and Illya slipped it into place.
"The plan is simple, Napoleon," he said, stooping to pick up his crutch and turning towards the shelter of the console in the centre of the control room. Napoleon followed, shaken by the sight of his partner's pain-distorted movements.
They ducked behind the console and Napoleon reached for the winder of his watch.
Illya continued, "Once we get the door open, I go in, slip down into the pit..." his voice faltered almost imperceptibly, "...and deactivate the bomb. It should take around seven minutes."
Napoleon let his hand drop. He looked into his partner's eyes and saw a battle for control raging in their depths. He frowned.
"This is the bomb that's surrounded by..." full understanding dawned on him. "That's what this pit is full of isn't it? Tons of this radioactive crap?"
Illya looked at him steadily. Finally he nodded once.
Rage rose in Napoleon and he banked it down.
He stood up.
"Napoleon, open the damn door..."
"I said NO, Illya. I will not let you do this." He paced towards the control room window, the unfairness of it all a simmering ache in his chest. "There has to be another way."
Illya rose and limped towards him. "Napoleon," he cajoled, "there is no time..."
He spun and grabbed Illya by the shoulders and shook him hard.
"No! I've watched you die once," he hissed through gritted teeth. "I will not watch you die again." He knew how absurd it sounded even as the words left him. Even as the ache grew in his chest and threatened to choke him. "I said find another way. Or do you want to die? Hmm? Is that it? You have some twisted death wish? Dammit Illya, you're the science geek. There has to be something else we can do."
Illya was staring at him, open mouthed, stunned eyes wide. His gaze suddenly shifted to a point above Napoleon's shoulder and the eyes narrowed as a feral grin twitched the corners of his mouth.
Napoleon's breath caught as he saw the look on his partner's face. Illya had a plan, and Napoleon trusted that if there were any way back from this nightmare, his partner would find it.
"We..." breathed Illya.
"There are two of us..."
He tore himself free of Napoleon's grasp and began dragging him back behind the console.
"Open the damn door, Napoleon," he growled, "then go and find me a mirror and something to attach it to. We are going fishing."
"Tell me, tovarisch," Napoleon insisted. "I need to know what you're planning."
Illya looked at him, eyes gleaming.
"I couldn't do it on my own, but there is a way to do this so we both get out. I don't have to defuse the bomb in the pit. We can bring it out of the pit into the chamber using the grab mechanism."
"Smart Russian," he said. "You want me to work the grab?"
"I couldn't do it before because I couldn't see into the pit and manipulate the grab," he said. "And besides, I was never very successful at those lucky-dip fairground games of grabbing sweets."
Shaking his head, Napoleon pressed the winder of his watch. There was a "whoomph" and the pressure wave washed over them as the plastic explosive did its job. The door to the assembly chamber swung ajar and Illya rose and began limping towards it.
"Wait!" Napoleon called after him.
Illya turned, an impatient expression on his face.
"I'll find you your mirror-on-a-stick," he nodded towards the grab controls. "You position the grab over the pit opening. Save time. Oh —" He took a roll of instruments from his pocket and tossed them to his partner. "— and you might need these. For the bomb."
Illya caught them deftly in his free hand.
"Hmm... you catch on quickly, for an American," he said with a grin. "It is as well that you are not as stupid as you look, my friend."
When Napoleon returned to the control room with a piece of a washroom mirror lashed to a broom handle, Illya was nowhere to be seen. His heart missed a beat and then he spotted his partner out in the chamber. He was beside him in a second.
"How long do we have?" he asked, handing him the mirror.
Illya took hold of Napoleon's left wrist and turned it so that he could see his watch.
"Twenty minutes." He looked up into Napoleon's eyes. "I'm sorry we do not have time for you to practise."
"Hey, those fairground games that you mentioned? I was the kid who always went home with a pocketful of candy." Napoleon grinned and flexed his fingers. "Good hands. See?"
Illya looked at him steadily. "So I have heard," he said quietly.
Something in his partner's tone caused Napoleon to hesitate. Without warning Illya grabbed him behind the neck with one hand and dragged his head down, kissing him hard on the mouth. It was almost brutal, not quite platonic and very Russian.
When they parted, they were both breathing heavily. Uncharacteristically speechless, Napoleon was taken aback by the momentary fire in his partner's eyes. Then Illya shoved him away and grinned broadly at him before turning and limping towards the centre of the chamber.
As high on adrenaline as he'd ever been, Napoleon raced back into the control room. Pulling himself together, he reached for the grab controls and made a few experimental manoeuvres.
He watched through the window as Illya approached the ominous hole in the chamber floor and paused to check his improvised viewing device. Satisfied that the mirror was securely attached he turned and grinned at Napoleon again and then lowered himself to lie on the floor well clear of the deadly beam of gamma rays emanating from the pit's opening. He extended the mirror out over the aperture and began twisting it to scan the contents of the pit.
"Napoleon?" he called. "I can see the device. It's on its side, about six feet down and more or less directly under where I'm lying."
Illya removed the mirror and rolled onto his back to watch the grab as Napoleon began to manoeuvre it into the opening.
"OK, tovarisch. Watch and learn."
Napoleon lowered the grab about six feet into the aperture and then paused to allow Illya to reposition the mirror.
"Ready?" he called. Illya raised one hand in a thumbs-up salute.
Gradually Napoleon began to swing the grab gently from side to side. He glanced briefly at the control-room clock. Fifteen minutes. Sweat prickled in his armpits as he allowed the momentum to build.
"Sometime today would be good," his partner called in a tight voice.
He gritted his teeth, took a guess and dropped the grab.
Illya shook his head. "You need to be farther over to the right, Napoleon."
He raised the grab and began to swing it once more, letting the amplitude build almost to the full diameter of the aperture. He held his breath and dropped the grab.
There was a pause.
"That will do, I suppose," his partner grunted.
"What?" Napoleon called.
Illya turned and rolled his eyes at him. "Napoleon, close the damn grab. You're right on it. Just don't drop it on top of me on the way out."
Napoleon grinned, closed the grab and began to with withdraw it from the pit, complete with its cargo. Illya slithered back farther from the pit edge and began to unwrap his roll of instruments. Finally Napoleon set down the device about two feet from Illya.
"How much time do we have?" his partner called.
Napoleon glanced up at the clock.
"Eight minutes." He swallowed. "Think it's enough?"
"It is about average, I hear," Illya said, leering at him.
"Average is not a word I'm used to hearing, partner mine," he grinned.
"You need more practice, then." He paused. "Napoleon, I would feel somewhat more comfortable if you could replace that lead plug in the hole. The controls for that are to your left."
Napoleon moved to the console to his left and with a whine of motors, lowered the lead plug on its heavy chain into position. Finally he left the control room and ran to join his partner.
He squatted next to where Illya lay and watched as his partner withdrew the final bolt from the masking plate and laid the plate on the ground.
"Do you have a torch?" Illya said as he selected a tool from the roll on the floor next to him.
Napoleon merely raised his eyebrows at him.
"OK, a flashlight," Illya snorted. "Do you have a damn flashlight?"
Napoleon grinned and pulled a pencil flashlight from his combats. He shone the beam into the recess, watching Illya's face as his partner began deftly to clip wires.
Deep lines of strain that hadn't been there two months ago were now etched into the pale features. His mop of hair was longer than Napoleon had ever seen it and hung almost in front of his eyes. He tossed it aside from time to time with a flick of his head. Napoleon suddenly found himself fighting an urge to run his fingers through it.
"Napoleon I have only the one," Illya said, without looking at him as he continued to clip wires.
Napoleon started guiltily. "Ah, should I be relieved to hear that, or..."
"It is a myth you know."
He felt he was beginning to lose control of this conversation.
"That radiation causes people to grow two heads. I still have only the one -," Illya's eyes flicked up to his briefly, "— between my shoulders. You are looking at me as though I might have two."
He found himself smiling like an idiot.
"There," Illya said clipping a final wire with a flourish. "Time?"
Napoleon checked his watch and grinned. "Three minutes in hand."
Illya let out a sigh and rolled his head on taught neck muscles.
Napoleon stood and held out his hand to his partner. "Come on," he said. "Let's call it in."
Illya stumbled against him with a whimper as he struggled to his feet. Napoleon's arms were round him in a second, steadying him as gently as he could. Illya looked up at him and held his gaze.
For weeks he'd feared Illya dead. Thought he'd lost his partner—his friend; had almost been unhinged by his sense of loss. The sheer relief and—yes—the joy in finding him alive must finally have deranged him completely, because he now found he wanted... he wanted...
What he'd always wanted.
"Illya..." he breathed.
His heart pounding, Napoleon brought his hand up and gently rested his thumb on his friend's chin, tilted it up and kissed him.
It was nothing like their earlier kiss. No trace of any social gesture rooted in Russian culture. This time there was nothing brutal or platonic, but there was heat and, eventually, tongue and the first stirrings of deeply-buried longing too.
Illya dropped his crutch and wound his arms tightly around Napoleon's neck and leaned into the kiss like a starving man. Napoleon felt himself grow hard and groaned as he felt Illya's erection nudging his thigh. The blood roared in his ears and if his vision hadn't begun to darken he would have stayed there suckling at that mouth forever.
They pulled apart, panting, and Illya dipped his head to Napoleon's shoulder and leaned in again. They spoke simultaneously.
"I thought I'd lost..." / "I'm sorry..."
Illya lifted his head and Napoleon grinned into his partner's eyes. God, they were so blue.
"Later, tovarisch. Let's call this in, then get you to medical. We'll do the talking bit later."
He felt Illya tremble against him and suddenly his partner seemed to sag.
"I'm all right, Napoleon," Illya grunted, releasing his grip. "But I do not think this is the ideal position for..." he waved his hand between them, "this."
Napoleon marvelled at the resilience that had brought his friend so far. Stubborn Russian, he thought. Defiance came as naturally to Illya as breathing, whether towards THRUSH interrogators, over-attentive medical staff or death itself. He grinned down at him and pushed the over-long, sweat-soaked fringe back from Illya's forehead.
"Then maybe we should find you somewhere to lie down, hmm?" he said and kissed the tip of Illya's nose.
Illya raised an insolent eyebrow and gave him a shove, then winced. Frowning in concern Napoleon picked up Illya's crutch from the floor and handed it to him.
"And then I'm taking you straight to medical," he said grimly as he helped his partner back into the control room.
"We'll both need checking out," said Illya tightly as he sagged against the console. "I don't think there's been any dust but we cannot be sure."
Napoleon forced himself to ignore the implications of that as he uncapped his communicator. "Open channel..."
"It won't work," said Illya with a look of disdain. Suddenly his look changed to one of alarm. "Or at least I sincerely hope it won't."
A burst of static came from the pen as it hunted for a signal and Illya sighed with relief. Napoleon looked from the communicator to his partner in bewilderment.
Illya rolled his eyes at him. "Lead lined. This room was lead lined for protection whilst the material was being loaded into the bomb casings out there. Come on." He began to limp towards the corridor. "If we want to speak to Waverly we'll have to go elsewhere. Let's try the lab."
Napoleon cast a final glance through the control room window. Suppressing a shudder he headed off after his partner.
New York; Three weeks later
Napoleon paid off the cab outside his apartment building and headed wearily inside. It was coming up to 1.00am and he'd slept only fitfully on the flight from Sweden. He'd accepted with a degree of fatalism his superior's insistence that he remain behind in Ytterby to supervise the clean-up at the THRUSH facility. Now, however, post-mission fatigue had bludgeoned him into near exhaustion.
The two-hour debriefing in Waverly's office, where he'd gone straight from the airport, had been exacting. He'd anticipated the reprimand he'd received from the Old Man for disobeying a direct order; acknowledged it as no more than his due, despite the hundreds of lives that had been saved as a result. Still the delay in returning to New York had rankled. The fact that the only life that Napoleon cared about right now had been discharged from medical ten days previously, without support in Napoleon's absence, did nothing for his general mood of discontent.
On the way from HQ in the cab, it was only the lateness of the hour and the fact that Illya was still convalescent that had prevented him from giving the driver his partner's address. Their parting in Sweden had been of necessity brief and formal as Illya left with the medics in the helicopter on the first stage of his journey back to New York. Napoleon had been flung immediately into overseeing the clean-up operation of the base at Ytterby. Despite his exhaustion he was desperate to see Illya again.
Not a night had passed since their separation that he hadn't dreamed vividly of the kiss they'd shared. Few nights that he hadn't woken, panting, his heart pounding and, frequently, a warm stickiness at his groin. He'd then lie awake in an agony of fear that their encounter at Ytterby had all been merely that—a dream; that he'd only imagined the hunger he'd felt in Illya's kiss.
He stepped out of the elevator and headed blearily for the door of his apartment. Maybe now that he was home in familiar surroundings he'd manage an undisturbed night's sleep. He unlocked the door and toed it closed behind him before resetting the entry alarm. He sniffed. The air in his apartment was warm and carried a faint scent of shampoo. Turning and laying his bag silently on the floor, he was barely aware of unholstering his weapon.
Without putting on the lights he crept stealthily into the living area, weapon braced. The familiar outlines were bathed in the orange glow of the street lights. He glanced down the short hallway to his bedroom and drew in his breath. A line of light showed beneath the bedroom door. His heart thudded in his chest as his trained responses elbowed aside his wild hope. He covered the distance to the door in three silent strides and paused with his back to the wall, weapon cradled close to his chest. He told himself the fine tremor in his hands was adrenaline and jet-lag.
Taking a deep breath he flung open the door and went in low, rolling to the side and coming up into a crouch, weapon pointed at... the scowling figure sitting cross-legged on Napoleon's bed pointing his own weapon at Napoleon.
There was silence apart from Napoleon's harsh breathing. Neither man moved. Finally, Napoleon spoke.
"Is that a gun...?"
"Do not even think about completing that sentence, Napoleon," growled Illya as he lowered his weapon, sliding on the safety and replacing it under the pillow.
Napoleon stood slowly from his crouch and holstered his own weapon. He didn't trust himself to speak as he took in the sight of Illya, in his bed, clearly naked under the sheet. He wondered for a moment whether he'd somehow fallen into an exhausted sleep at headquarters and was in the middle of one of those dreams. He swallowed.
"What?" Illya's chin came up. "You couldn't call ahead?"
Napoleon gave his partner a long look. "Well, see, I live alone, usually, and I didn't think anyone would pick up."
Illya snorted. "Yes, I soon learned not to do that," he said giving Napoleon a withering look. "You'll find a list of messages by the phone from Tracey, Tina, Cindy, Pat, Jill..."
"OK, OK," Napoleon said, raising his hands in mock surrender. "I get the... message."
Illya rolled his eyes and lay back on the pillows with his arms folded firmly across his chest. "And your housekeeping leaves a lot to be desired," he complained. "There was hardly anything in your cupboards. I've had to order in all the time."
"All the time...? How long have you been sleeping here?"
"Since they released me from medical."
Illya's scowl deepened and he gave a cursory nod.
Napoleon shucked off his jacket and hung it over the back of a chair. He felt his heart-rate pick up again as he approached the bed and looked down at his partner. Illya wouldn't raise his eyes. Napoleon reached out an almost-steady hand and tucked a loose strand of blond silk behind his friend's ear. Illya flinched but allowed the touch. Napoleon sat down on the edge of the bed and tilted his head, waiting, until Illya finally met his eyes.
"How're you doing, IK?" Napoleon said gently.
Illya shrugged. "I'm fine, Napoleon." He paused. "Really."
"The medics have said they won't field-certify me for another month."
"So?" Napoleon grinned at his partner. "I thought you liked it in the labs."
"It is—refreshing, yes, but..." Illya paused and looked down. "You are out there in the field. Alone." He looked up again, the unease clear in the blue eyes. "And who will watch your back, you clumsy American?"
Napoleon met the blue eyes. "Aah, Illya," he murmured with a grin. "There's no one I'd rather have at my back than you, tovarisch. No one. But it's only another month and..." He tailed off, finding it suddenly hard to think.
Damn. What had he been about to say? His eyes moved to his friend's mouth. And now it was breathing that he was finding difficult. Illya moistened his lips with his tongue and Napoleon barely held back a whimper as he felt himself elongate and harden, his penis straining against the material of his pants. He swallowed and then was suddenly aware that the mouth had formed a word. His name?
"Sorry, Illya," he croaked. "What did you say?"
Illya raised one eyebrow and leaned forward until his mouth was inches from Napoleon's.
"This," he murmured, and took Napoleon's face in his hands and kissed him.
And Napoleon, the seducer, the libertine, the orchestrator of a thousand affairs was left breathless and aching in the wake of his partner's devastating kiss. It was all he'd remembered, all he'd hoped for—and more. He was conscious only of the escalating need in him as shameless Russian lips ravaged his mouth and his senses.
How he found himself, moments later, lying naked on the bed as Illya's demanding mouth and hands played over his heated body, he never quite knew. He was vaguely aware that Illya was speaking but couldn't decipher the words.
As Illya's roughened hand closed over his weeping penis and squeezed, Napoleon capitulated. Accustomed to being the director in his sexual encounters, he ceded control to his partner in this one without a second thought. Not that he was capable at present of even a first thought as his heart pounded in his ears and he fought for breath.
Illya nipped his way along Napoleon's jaw, dipping a hot tongue into his mouth from time to time as he pumped his shaft with increasing vigour. Napoleon's world had condensed into a single, burning need focused in his groin. He looked up into Illya's blue gaze and was momentarily shocked at the need he saw reflected there. He closed his eyes. The next moment he arched off the bed with a yell as his cock was engulfed in silky, wet heat.
When he had sufficient wherewithal to look, he raised his head and almost came at the sight of his throbbing length disappearing into Illya's talented mouth.
"Aah... god, Kuryakin," he gasped. "Your mouth... You're killing me..."
In response Illya gently rolled Napoleon's balls in the palm of one large hand and began sucking in earnest. A moment later Napoleon felt his balls tighten and knew he was close. He buried his hands in the soft silk of Illya's hair as he started to thrust into the wicked mouth. As Napoleon's rhythm began to disintegrate, Illya clutched his hips firmly, pinning him to the bed and swallowing hard. Napoleon threw back his head and howled in utter abandon as the shattering orgasm tore through him.
When his scattered senses finally rearranged themselves into some semblance of order he found himself sprawled bonelessly on his back. Illya's head was resting on his shoulder, his arm round Napoleon's waist and his softened genitals pressed warmly against Napoleon's hip. With a deep sigh of satisfaction Napoleon shifted his arm from a patch of cooling dampness and draped it around Illya's shoulders giving him a squeeze. Illya murmured against him and wriggled closer.
He wondered vaguely just when his partner had come, and felt a pang of guilt that he hadn't attended to that first. It was his habit during sex to take care of his bedmate's needs before his own. But then he hadn't exactly been the one in control of this encounter. And Illya was no ordinary bedmate. Not ordinary at all. Extraordinary, in fact. But, no, extraordinary didn't even begin to cover it. Superlatives eluded him.
In the long moments before he gathered himself sufficiently for speech, doubt sidled its way through his torpor. There was no doubt in his mind that he'd just experienced with his partner the best sex he'd ever had. Neither was there any doubt that he definitely, but definitely wanted to repeat the experience. The doubt lay in just how to deal with things on this side of the defining line they'd just crossed in such a blaze of glory.
He sighed then began tentatively.
"So... do you want to tell me what we just did, IK?"
Illya snorted then insinuated himself even closer to Napoleon's sweat-slicked body.
"Napoleon, even for an American that was remarkably obtuse."
Napoleon heard the smile in Illya's voice as he shook his friend's shoulders gently. "I'm serious, Illya. I don't know what this is. I know what I want it to be, but I need to know what you want." He paused. "I need to know whether you plan to be here when I wake up."
Illya raised his head and looked at him with mischief-laden eyes as he drew circles on the smooth chest.
"I'll have even less food at home than here, Napoleon," he muttered. "And my apartment will be cold after all this time, so of course I'll be here when you wake up."
"And besides," he said as he thrust his flaccid cock against Napoleon's hip, "in the morning you owe me a return match at least."
"Illya, we need..."
Illya placed a finger on Napoleon's lips. "Hush, Napoleon. I am here because this is where I have wanted to be for... a long time. And because I think you have wanted it too." He drew up the sheet and comforter and wriggled under it close to Napoleon's side. "And as long as it's what we both want, it's where I plan to stay." He paused then added, "And someone has to guard you from telephone harassment. And from your own foolishness."
Napoleon closed his eyes and brought his other arm up around his partner, clutching him as though his life depended on it. For he was certain, in that moment, that it did. Somehow they'd managed again to find a way back from annihilation. It seemed inconceivable that they shouldn't be able to find a way forward from here.
"Illya Nikolaievich..." he murmured into the soft, pale hair.
Illya muttered something unintelligible against his chest and his arm tightened briefly around Napoleon's waist. A moment later he began to snore softly. With a profound sense of peace, Napoleon too finally slid into sated slumber.