He forced himself not to look back.
With an effort, Napoleon Solo kept his pace to a casual stroll -- the stride of a man with a destination in mind, but no particular hurry. He paused occasionally to look at the displays in shop windows. It was early Sunday morning and the shops were closed, the street nearly deserted. Everyone was either in church or in bed.
Which made the half dozen men following him stand out all the more.
Damn. First job. First time out as a courier and he had to pick up a tail. Tail, hell. The whole damn dog. Or bird, rather. Thrush. No doubt about it. Just great. Get killed on the first job.
What the hell was he going to tell Waverly?
There were no crowds to lose himself in. No one else on the street, in fact, but a blond fellow ambling slowly toward him with his nose in a book. Napoleon stopped at another window and surveyed his reflection. He made a show of straightening his tie, adjusted his cufflinks, and absently worried at the button on the left cuff of his jacket. With a last furtive glance at his pursuers in the reflection, Napoleon picked up his pace almost imperceptibly.
Illya Kuryakin was reading, as usual. There was never enough time for everything he needed to read. As if research on his doctorate didn't keep him busy enough, his extensive curiosity led him into dozens of other subjects. His feet knew the path home, so he left them to their work and kept his eyes on the text.
Without warning, another pedestrian burst in upon him, almost knocking him down. Strong hands steadied him by the elbows, and he glanced up into bright brown eyes.
"Sorry," the man offered distractedly. He glanced back the way he'd come, then quickly continued on up the street.
Illya picked up his book and dusted it off. At least none of the pages were bent. He continued on his way, paying a little more attention to where he was going this time.
A good thing, too. The six ruffians he encountered next weren't the sort to help steady his balance. Illya sidestepped quickly without removing his nose from the book, and they passed him by without a second glance.
Something made him look back, a moment later. The first man was just disappearing around the corner, and the six with their vague air of menace weren't far behind. With a shrug, Illya continued on his way. Not his problem.
No doubt the man knew his way through the maze of alleys he'd just entered. No doubt he could take care of himself. Sticking your nose into other people's business was a dangerous pastime.
He stopped again and looked back down the empty street, unwillingly thinking of the strong grip on his elbows, and those bright brown eyes.
Sighing, he closed the book with a snap and tucked it into one of the capacious pockets of his overcoat. He headed back the way he'd come, hearing his father's voice in his head every step of the way, an all too familiar refrain. Curiosity will be the end of you yet, Illya Nicolaievich; the boy will never learn to leave well enough alone.
The minute Napoleon cleared the corner of the store, he dropped all pretense and broke into a run. Though he was well out of sight by the time his pursuers rounded the corner, his escape was of a temporary nature only. The rabbit warren of narrower and narrower alleys proved his undoing.
A dead end flushed him back the way he'd come, and he pulled up short when the Thrush muscle hove into view. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as the way they arrayed themselves across the alley reminded him of ten-pins waiting for a strike. The man in the foreground, clearly the leader, had hair almost as blond as the bookworm on the street, but there the resemblance ended. The Thrush was a good head taller, and considerably broader: the standard son of Norway. He had one of those nondescript faces, remarkable by virtue of being so very commonplace, and somehow all the more threatening for that very reason. Napoleon circled warily sideways, slipping through a narrow walkway to emerge in a small courtyard.
Feeling them close on his heels, he turned at bay. Two of them had drawn guns. He raised his hands to shoulder level and tried to look harmless. Not very hard under the circumstances.
Even though he knew the alleys well, Illya was forced to backtrack three times before he hit on the same path the men had taken. He emerged with shocking suddenness onto the scene of an armed confrontation. Reacting on instinct, Illya faded instantly into the shadows. No one noticed. Their attention was focused entirely on their quarry.
"For the last time, where is it?"
"Since you won't believe that I don't know what 'it' is, I don't suppose you'd believe I don't know where it is either?" American, by the intonation, he smiled a little, as if to share the joke with his audience, one of whom growled. "Really! Makes sense, doesn't it? If I don't know what or where it is, I can't just up and give it to you, can I? Safer that way."
Unfortunately, Napoleon knew the flaw in the logic, as did his attackers, he was sure. But if he could only keep them occupied long enough, his little ploy just might work.
"Well, then. We'll just have to find it ourselves." The Thrush leader slapped Napoleon hard enough to make his ears ring, then turned away disdainfully, gesturing at one of his subordinates. Napoleon forced himself not to close his eyes as the man lifted his gun.
"Is this a private party, or can anyone dance?" Illya stepped out of the shadows, wincing as he admitted ruefully to himself that his father was just about to be proven right.
Startled, the gunman whipped around, training his weapon on the newcomer. Seeing his opening, Napoleon drew and fired in one smooth motion, and the gunman deflated like a leaky balloon, his wide astonished eyes still fixed on Illya. His soft slow motion collapse was punctuated by another sharp crack of gunfire, this time from the tall blond Thrush with the everyman face. Napoleon staggered, right shoulder pierced by burning lead, and twisted, gunning down the other man before he could fire again.
Barely had their leader hit the ground before the others were on Napoleon. The first punch splattered blood from his shoulder, his gun falling from numbed fingers. He'd shot two of their own, and they went for the kill.
Illya stepped skittishly over the pool of blood spreading around the man at his feet. He had to pry the gun out of the man's hand, and his fingers shook as he curled them awkwardly around the grip.
Though Napoleon got in a few good blows of his own, he had no illusions about his chances. In a fair fight, even injured, he figured he could have taken them. But a fair fight was not in the offing. No Marquis of Queensberry rules here. The four took turns pounding him, concentrating especially on his injured shoulder. He went down under the weight of superior numbers, expecting, with an odd calmness, never to rise again.
He almost didn't hear the gunshots.
The man directly in front of him exploded in a red haze, dropping lifeless to the worn pavement. The other three followed quickly, two clutching their chests, the last sprouting a third eye gruesomely in the exact center of his forehead.
Napoleon pushed himself up on his good elbow and wiped someone else's blood out of his eyes. The blond scholar slowly lowered the gun, held with natural ease in rock-steady hands. His face was perfectly calm, though there was something about the piercing blue eyes which didn't jibe. He knelt, laying the gun on the ground with exaggerated care, then lurched forward onto his braced hands as he lost the contents of his stomach.
Napoleon winced. He dragged himself together with some effort and crawled awkwardly over to join the man. Why bother standing? Everything was on the ground: himself, the blond, the gun.
"Steady there." He wrapped his good arm around the man's heaving chest and simply held on until he got control of himself. It didn't take long.
The blond sat back on his heels and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. His eyes strayed away from Napoleon's.
"First time?" Napoleon picked up the gun and used his shirttail to polish fingerprints off the shiny surfaces. The man nodded silently. "I did the same thing my first time."
"Where?" Illya asked thickly, hating the sour taste which clung to the back of his throat.
"Korea." Napoleon tilted his head to one side, his expression oddly guileless, given the circumstances. "You're pretty good for someone who's never done this before."
Illya shrugged. He shook out his handkerchief and used it to accept the offered gun. Following Napoleon's silent gesture, he gingerly placed the pistol back into the curled fingers of the dead man.
"Let's get out of here before the police arrive."
"Police?" Illya glanced around with poorly concealed anxiety and quickly helped Napoleon to his feet, demonstrating more strength than Napoleon had anticipated, and somewhat less gentleness.
"Get my gun." The painful jostling of his shoulder chasing away his curiosity over the bookworm's obvious fear of the cops, Napoleon concentrated on the important details and let the rest slide.
Retrieving the gun, Illya handed it to the injured man despite his misgivings, and watched impatiently as he awkwardly slid it into the holster with his left hand. Task accomplished, Napoleon looked at him, quirking one eyebrow in query. A sharp jerk of the blond head set them off in the right direction, leaving the blood-spattered courtyard behind.
Neither looked back. Neither saw one of the corpses stir.
Napoleon followed Illya through a confusing maze of alleys and narrow streets, luckily all deserted. No passerby could fail to notice the blood, both his and others', which liberally coated Napoleon. He kept close on the blond's heels, hurrying the pace as much as the man would allow. So far, the ache in his shoulder and ribs was bearable. That would end when the shock wore off. He preferred to be as far from the scene as possible before calling for help. No U.N.C.L.E. team could arrive before the police and, with six dead, the cops wouldn't be particularly patient, no matter what identification Napoleon could produce.
There was also his companion's nervous reaction to the very mention of the police. Whatever the man had done in the past to earn that caution, he'd proven himself to Napoleon. The ice cold violence which lurked beneath the scholarly facade was shocking, but useful, whatever its source. Hardly the sort of prize to simply hand over to the authorities.
"Hold on," Napoleon panted finally, grabbing his companion's arm. His breath came short, the blood pounding in his shoulder and behind his eyes in an increasingly frantic rhythm. "How far away are we?"
"Half a mile. A mile." He shrugged.
"Far enough for now," Napoleon decreed, letting himself slowly down on an overturned crate. The blond walked about ten feet away, stride stilted with silent emotion, paused at the outside edge of his arc, then returned.
"Really? I hadn't noticed." His breath was coming back, and the pain made him sharp, spoiling his mild attempt at humor. "Why did you follow me? You could have been killed."
"I don't see where you have any cause to complain." He pulled out his handkerchief and pushed it against Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon tasted blood. He damn near passed out. "You need a hospital."
"You want to bleed to death out here? Durak! " He shook his head, hands pressing steadily against the red-stained cloth, wondering why he cared if the stranger committed suicide by stubbornness.
"Russian, eh?" That explained the nervous distrust of the police. "Kak vas zovut? "
The blond regarded him silently a moment. "Kuryakin Illya Nicolaievich."
"Napoleon Solo." He smiled faintly. "I'd offer to shake hands, but..."
"Under the circumstances, I'd settle for you getting us out of this," Illya remarked sardonically.
"That I can do." Napoleon fumbled in his inside pocket with his left hand, producing a metal cigarette case with the flourish of a magician. "Voila."
"I don't think now's a good time for a smoke," Illya pointed out, hiding his disappointment.
"No, but it is a good time to call for help." One-handed, Napoleon awkwardly extracted his communicator. "Open Channel D, please."
"Channel D open," an efficient female voice responded. Illya looked instantly fascinated.
"Emergency pick up. I need a doctor and a clean up crew. Hunting season's open."
The eyebrow Illya cocked at that spoke volumes about his opinion of Napoleon's sanity. Napoleon winked at him.
"Location?" the woman asked.
Napoleon grinned faintly at Illya. "Where are we?"
p"You may not enjoy it for a while, but you'll live."
"Gee, thanks doc."
The U.N.C.L.E. doctor frowned at his patient. He wasn't fond of flippant Yanks. It wouldn't take much to sew up that exit wound, but he could do without the comments from the peanut gallery. Or, for that matter, the head of Section One, North America looking over his shoulder. U.N.C.L.E. Great Britain would heave a collective sigh of relief when their own chief was back in action, and this man with the piercing gray eyes and the habit of poking his nose into every level of operation had returned to his own bailiwick.
"Getting back to your report, Mr. Solo..."
"Sorry, Mr. Waverly. I'm afraid I wasn't successful in losing them; they trapped me in a courtyard. That's when Mr. Kuryakin came to my aid." Napoleon glanced over at Illya, who leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets and his feet crossed at the ankle, inquisitive blue eyes watching every movement of the doctor's hands.
"You graduated from survival school with every recommendation, Mr. Solo. I find it disturbing that you were unable to shake a tail on your own. And, furthermore, that you were forced to rely on a civilian for help."
"Excuse me, sir, but there was nothing said in survival school about how to take on six at once." Napoleon's breath hitched as one of the doctor's stitches penetrated through the veil of local anesthetic. He fell silent, belatedly remembering just who he was arguing with.
"Just so," Waverly admitted with a brisk nod. "But you still put yourself, an innocent bystander, and -- most importantly -- the information you carried, at unnecessary risk. By the way, what have you done with it?"
Napoleon turned to Illya, who merely looked confused. "Try your left jacket pocket."
Illya frowned. His left hand dipped into his overcoat, fished around a moment, then came out with a small plastic disk. The button from Napoleon's jacket.
"You put it in my pocket."
"When you ran into me on the street."
"Yes." He shrugged with one shoulder. Finally done stitching the wound, the doctor started wrapping yards of bandages around Napoleon's shoulder. "I figured that way the information would be safe if they grabbed me. There's a tracer in the button," he explained gently to Illya's confusion. "When I didn't deliver, U.N.C.L.E. would track it down to you."
"If Thrush didn't get there first." Waverly frowned, holding out his hand for the button.
"By the time they realized I didn't have it on me, Mr. Kuryakin should have been long gone." Napoleon tried another aborted shrug. "A calculated risk."
Illya dropped the little disk into Waverly's open palm, then returned to his place against the wall. "You miscalculated."
"Well, I didn't think you'd come after me, if that's what you mean." He cautiously flexed his shoulder, finding the swath of bandages prevented all but the smallest movement. The doctor clucked at him in annoyance and started taping his bruised ribs.
"And why did you?" Waverly's piercing gray eyes were intent on the Russian, and Napoleon felt a pang of sympathy.
Illya only cocked his head to one side, unimpressed. "He looked like he needed help."
"Apparently not as much as you thought. He seems to have coped adequately with his assailants."
"Actually, sir," Napoleon cleared his throat, "I only killed two of them. Mr. Kuryakin shot the other four."
Waverly raised one eyebrow. He opened the report he'd been holding under one arm and looked it over. The long-suffering doctor finished and helped Napoleon into a clean shirt, then silently took himself off. Napoleon and Illya exchanged an uncomfortable glance.
"The clean up crew cites four dead of surgically precise gunshot wounds. Where did you learn such excellent marksmanship, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"You weren't in the Russian army? The navy?"
"I get seasick, sir."
Waverly nodded, as if that answered the question. "There is such a thing as a natural. Rare, but not unheard of." He regarded the silent man a moment. "You're here as a student?"
"Yes, sir. My doctorate."
"Quantum mechanics," he said matter-of-factly. Napoleon blinked.
Waverly closed the file. "How would you like to remain in the West?"
"You mean... defect?" He'd never said the word before, in any language. "You must be crazy! My grandmother--"
"Will be perfectly safe. I'm not talking about defecting." He sighed. "All member nations of the U.N.C.L.E. are required to provide support, both money and manpower."
"I have no training," Illya pointed out cautiously.
"Neither did Mr. Solo when he joined. Trained agents represent an investment most nations are naturally reluctant to surrender, even if it wasn't a matter of security. Theirs and ours."
"You'd finish it before joining U.N.C.L.E., naturally."
The quick blue eyes moved from Waverly to Napoleon, then settled into the middle distance as the man cocked his head. The offer was tempting, but... "I would have to consider."
Waverly nodded. "Certainly. Mr. Solo, please show Mr. Kuryakin out. Oh, and you'll be on restricted duty until you recover from your injuries."
Grinning, for all the world as if he'd just been given a vacation, Napoleon jumped lightly down from the table. Illya shook his head at what he was coming to recognize as Solo's irrepressible playfulness. He didn't know whether to be relieved the future of the world occasionally rested in such hands, or terrified.
"Sir? What about the police?" Illya glanced from Napoleon to Waverly and back again. "With six bodies..."
"You need not concern yourself with that, Mr. Kuryakin," Mr. Waverly reassured briskly as he headed out. "The situation has been taken care of. Good day." He turned back suddenly from the door. "Did you say six men, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Indeed." Waverly consulted his report again. "Only five bodies were recovered."
Illya and Napoleon shared a glance, from which Illya turned, mouth crooked in ironic amusement. "Then I suppose I shall have to join U.N.C.L.E
Dr. Elkin fell without a sound. The puff of snow that billowed up from the impact drifted leisurely back down to dust his warm overcoat like ashes.
Illya pushed himself cautiously onto his elbows, meeting his partner's gaze over the fallen man. The sharp crack of gunfire was conspicuously absent now, and Illya dared to inch himself closer to the doctor. Napoleon had rolled onto his back, holding his head up out of the cradle of snow, his gun flat against his body, and was intently scanning their surroundings. Finally, he shook his head. The light was bad in the white dusk, but there was no sign of movement.
Napoleon helped Illya carefully roll their charge over. There was no doubt he was dead. Snow fell softly into the doctor's blankly staring eyes. Illya cursed. Napoleon closed the dead man's eyes with perfunctory reverence.
"Whose turn is it to call in?" Napoleon asked with a sigh.
"I was afraid of that." He pulled his collar tighter with a shiver. "All right, I'll explain this to Mr. Waverly. Somewhere warmer."
Illya smirked a little at his partner's voluble sensitivity to the cold, and rose in a low crouch to vacate the tiny field. A buzz like an insect heralded the next bullet, which plowed up the snow not two feet from his nose. Napoleon squeezed off a few blind shots into the woods behind them, scuttling close on Illya's heels, and they reached the cover of the trees unharmed, leaving Elkin in the slowly sifting snow. He'd be covered in less than an hour.
Somewhere warmer turned out to be an abandoned barn, which was in truth little warmer than the outside. Napoleon stamped his feet and hugged himself for warmth, shivering loudly. Illya shook his head and settled in the hayloft near a frosted window which overlooked the doors. He listened with half an ear as Napoleon explained the loss of the scientist to their superior.
"Well?" he asked, when Napoleon climbed up to join him.
"He's not happy."
Napoleon watched Illya lounge comfortably in a rickety chair, supremely untouched by the cold, or their near brush with death. It was sometimes hard to connect this man with the bookish scholar who'd thrown up in an alley after his first kill. Napoleon found that both reassuring and vaguely annoying.
"Can we go in now?"
Napoleon shook his head. "Mr. Waverly wants us to find out who killed Elkin."
"Presumably not by getting killed ourselves."
"One would hope." Napoleon settled on the floor and leaned against a bale of moldering hay, tucking his arms around himself for warmth. "We could wait until morning."
Illya snorted. "Eight hours from now. We'll freeze."
"In such luxurious accommodations? Perish the thought."
Napoleon grinned unrepentantly at Illya, who scowled. Why must everything be a joke for the man?
"We'll rest a bit," Napoleon decreed, fighting annoyance. It wouldn't hurt Illya to crack a smile every now and then. "Give them a chance to pass us by." He burrowed down into his coat a little and gave a great shudder. "God, I hate being cold."
"Cold? This isn't cold. When I was a boy in Kiev--"
"Yes, Napoleon." Illya smothered a grin at having successfully diverted Napoleon's recreational complaining.
Sometimes, Illya wondered whether there was any hope for this partnership. They were so different, the Russian and the American, and for reasons which had little to do with their respective nationalities. Napoleon was so... flippant, so incapable of taking anything seriously. Illya's life relied on a man who joked about everything, who let his balls do the thinking for him more often than not, or so it sometimes seemed. He'd certainly seen Napoleon distracted by pretty women on several occasions. However, they'd only been partnered a few months, and never on a serious mission. Napoleon's record was excellent. Give it time.
"Thrush," Napoleon suggested after a long silence.
"Perhaps. Elkin was a Thrush scientist. But why not kill us too? They had the opportunity." He saw Napoleon shrug in the dim reflection of moonlight on snow. After a moment's thought, Illya added: "It was too easy."
"It was supposed to be easy. U.N.C.L.E.'s been working on the man for years."
"No, not Elkin's willingness to come along. A Thrush scientist: there should have been more guards."
"Apparently there were," Napoleon reminded him drily.
"Again, why not kill us too?"
"Maybe they're just waiting for the right moment." Napoleon shivered again, but not because of the cold this time.
"Why did Mr. Waverly give us this assignment?" Illya mused thoughtfully. "Section III usually handles defections. Perhaps he expected trouble?"
"He'd have warned us if he did." Napoleon shifted uncomfortably, his breath fogging the still air. He laughed softly. "You mean you didn't guess why he gave this one to us?"
"Five years ago, an U.N.C.L.E. plant compiled a list of Thrush scientists who might be... encouraged to change sides. The information was sent via courier. A particularly young and inexperienced one who, as it turned out, needed help."
Illya saw the flash of Napoleon's teeth in the darkness. He shook his head ruefully. "So that's what you were carrying."
Napoleon nodded. "Elkin's the last scientist on the list. Or he was."
"Someone knew we were coming."
"We're not going to find out who sitting here." Napoleon climbed to his feet, shook himself all over, and started down out of the loft.
Illya snatched a final glance out the frosted window and followed his partner. The faint ghost of daylight, trapped and reflected between snow and low clouds, lingered to paint the night white. The light made it easy to find their way, and easy for others to find them. They didn't discuss their options. Both knew the most logical place to start was back at Elkin's house. It was also the most dangerous.
Illya dropped the handful of paper back onto Elkin's desk. "Not even a laundry list. He planned his departure well."
"Wouldn't do us much good to take the scientist and leave his nasty little inventions for Thrush," Napoleon remarked, sliding the bureau drawer closed and moving on.
"If Elkin suspected an ambush," Illya quickly looked behind the trio of pictures on the living room wall, "he didn't leave any clues."
"I don't think he knew anything about it." Napoleon's soft voice carried well. Illya followed it through to the kitchen, where his partner was industriously turning chairs upside down. He helped him check the bottom of each one. Task completed, Napoleon glanced up at him and shrugged. "He'd have told us. Simple self-preservation."
"Speaking of which..." Illya grabbed Napoleon by the collar and dragged him to the floor as a brilliant beam of light swept across the kitchen window. He was up again and peering cautiously out the window as soon as the light faded.
"Car?" Napoleon fussily straightened his collar, for all the world as if he were wearing one of his expensive suits, instead of the same white snowsuit as Illya.
"Party's over, time to leave." Napoleon crouched low, pushing Illya before him with a light hand on his back as they scuttled quickly toward the opposite side of the house, and an open window in the master bedroom.
The roar of the snowmobile engines rose and fell in growling counterpoint as they slipped silently out the window and into the shadows. Luck was with them, and the machines stayed on the far side of the house until the agents were out of the clearing. Napoleon hauled Illya down into a snowdrift in the dubious shelter of a tree just as the first snowmobile cleared the corner of the house. They were black, sleeker and faster than the typical commercial machine, with white Thrush birds painted on the sides. Looking like huge black insects in their helmets and goggles, the three riders roared in ever-widening circles, heads turning this way and that.
Cursing the lingering light, Napoleon pushed Illya flat, wrapped his body over his partner's to obscure the shining blond hair, pulled up his hood and buried his face in the white jumpsuit. White on white, they vanished into the snow. Finally, the snowmobiles were recalled by a piercing whistle, and Napoleon breathed easier as the engine roar faded.
"If you don't mind, Napoleon -- I'm freezing, and you're heavy," Illya's faintly muffled voice emerged from under the American.
"Sorry." He rolled off and dealt briskly with the snow creeping under his collar. Napoleon climbed to his feet, whisked as much snow off his jumpsuit as he could, and held out a hand for Illya. The Russian suffered himself to be pulled to his feet and briskly brushed off.
"Elkin," Napoleon suggested.
"Nothing like returning to the scene of the crime."
"You have any better ideas?" In the ensuing silence, Napoleon nodded decisively. He glanced around quickly to get his bearings, then started off in the proper direction. Illya sighed and followed.
The snow began falling more heavily as they trudged through the night, reducing visibility drastically. They found the body when Napoleon tripped over it. Illya helped him up, then crouched and began going through Elkin's pockets.
"Tell me: why didn't we do this before?" he asked as he pried the half-frozen material away from the stark white corpse.
"A desire not to join him?" Napoleon worked quickly on his side of the scientist, shivering distastefully every time his fingers brushed the ice cold skin. "Damn it!" The man's pockets were empty.
"He must have brought something with him."
"I think we can safely assume they have whatever he was carrying."
"What a pleasant thought."
Napoleon had already opened his mouth to respond when a bullet kicked up snow near his hand with a breathy pfutt. He dropped flat and rolled, his gun in his hand before he stopped moving. Illya was just barely visible across the body, likewise pressed into the snow with his Special in his hand.
"Haven't we been here before?" Napoleon grinned between clenched teeth.
This time, Illya laid down the covering fire, and they crawled through the snow to the safety of the woods. Crouched in the cover of the trees, Illya put his back to a sturdy trunk and scanned the far side of the clearing. A few faint lights bobbed and winked, but offered no clear target. Noise was easier to follow, if harder to aim at. However, after less than a minute of listening to the shouting and engine noise, Illya decided discretion would be the better part of valor. A glance at Napoleon assured him they were in agreement on the subject.
"Keep your head down and stay in the trees." Napoleon grinned blithely as Illya snarled at the unnecessary warning, then followed him in orderly retreat.
As orderly, at any rate, as you could be in the snow, in the dead of night, with heaven knows how many bastards with guns on your tail. Especially when you could tell by the noise that the bastards were catching up.
If the snow made the footing treacherous, at least their pursuers seemed to be having as hard a time of it as they were. The lack of engine noise indicated the Thrush had abandoned the snowmobiles, which gave Napoleon and Illya a fighting chance. The near dead silence of the chase was eerie. Bullets zipped past occasionally, barking trees both near and far, and all they could do was keep low and keep moving.
The woods ended without warning, replaced by a spare, blasted area, dotted with the snow-shrouded stumps of dead trees. To go back was nothing short of suicidal; right or left only delayed the inevitable. They ran out into the clear, dodging around the irregular pinnacles of snow. Something caught at Illya's foot, and he went sprawling with a soft cry. Napoleon skidded to a halt, dropped into a crouch and scuttled back to him.
Sitting up, Illya glanced back at the offending stump or tree root. His stumble against it had knocked some of the snow off. He brushed at the rest.
"Alan Ladd 1898-1940," he read off the stone.
"A graveyard," Napoleon whispered, looking with new understanding at the snow-clad shapes of varying sizes.
"How appropriate." Illya tugged at his partner's arm, urging him into motion again.
They skirted the tombstones, using the larger ones for cover. Napoleon tried not to think of all the graves they treaded on unknowingly, struck by a shiver of unaccustomed superstition. The noise and light of pursuit entered the cemetery before they reached the far side, forcing them down into the snow for cover. Napoleon crouched behind a tall, vaguely angel-shaped statue, Illya in the lee of a large headstone. Their eyes met as they listened to someone give directions to surround the place.
"Split up," Napoleon mouthed at Illya, patting his pocket with one hand to indicate they could use their communicators to join forces later. Illya hesitated a moment, not liking the idea one bit, but conceded the point with a jerky nod.
Illya let Napoleon pick his direction, watching as the man crawled from his cover to another snow-carved stone, cautious movements all but invisible in the shadowed ground. Satisfied, Illya headed off in the opposite direction.
By the time he glanced over his shoulder to check on his partner's progress, Napoleon was entirely out of sight. Not having watched his partner's path, Illya could only have told where he went by following his tracks in the snow. The night had shielded them both so far in that respect; the tracks were all but invisible to any but the closest scrutiny, and the snow would quickly fill them. However, if the moon escaped the shroud of clouds...
Illya slithered silently through the graveyard, his path from stone to stone circuitous. He calculated he'd be free of the cemetery in another five minutes, and back into the shelter of the woods. Hard on the heels of that thought, he found himself nose to nose with a rifle. He looked ruefully up the barrel at the man still half concealed behind a large monument. Grossly crooked teeth smiled down at him, and the gun twitched against his cheek. With a sigh, Illya climbed to his feet, hands open and away from his sides.
"One bird flushed," the man announced loudly, shoving the muzzle of his rifle against the base of Illya's skull with unnecessary force. "Where's the other?" Illya remained silent, forcing himself not to wince at the cold metal digging into his neck. "Come out, little bird, or I'll scatter your friend all over the cemetery."
Illya grimaced at the threat. If it weren't for the fact that he liked his skull right where it was, he'd have laughed. Not even Napoleon was foolish enough to show himself.
"Now that's odd," a familiar voice answered, proving Illya wrong, "I'd have guessed that you and your friends were the birds. Little Thrushie birds."
Napoleon rose from behind a substantial tombstone like a spirit from the grave, right hand flung out in an expansive gesture, left close in the shadows by his side. In the split second the Thrush's eyes were drawn to Napoleon's right hand, the left rose, gun firing. The muzzle of the rifle went high and wide, its explosion blasting ineffectually at the sky, as the man stumbled back with a cry. Illya ducked and twisted, sprinting for the woods. Simultaneous shots from either end of the cemetery punctuated the exchange of fire, and Napoleon dropped like a stone. Illya felt his heart plummet along with him.
"Ah, ah, ah." The censure was as gentle as the hands were heavy. Illya sprawled full-length in the snow, nursing an already bruising jaw. A Thrush thug built like a gorilla hauled him easily to his feet. "Now where'd you think you were going?" He pushed Illya back over to where the man with the crooked teeth and his two men gathered.
"I got him," the younger of the two shouted, twirling his gun around one finger like a flamboyant cowboy.
"No, I did." Sallow and sour.
"Never mind," Crooked Teeth growled, silencing them both. The handkerchief he pressed to his right side, none too clean to begin with, was rapidly turning red. "Back to base."
"What about the other one?" Cowboy shifted restlessly from one foot to the other.
"Hyatt wanted 'em both--"
"Hyatt ain't here," Crooked Teeth snarled at Sourpuss. "I'm bleeding bad, and that one's as good as dead out here in the cold. We leave him." He bared his gnarled teeth in a warped parody of a grin. "It's a cemetery, isn't it? Let the snow bury him."
Illya could barely make out where Napoleon had fallen, a black smudge half hidden by the tombstone. Gorilla took him by the elbows and forced his hands out for Sourpuss to tie. He kept his eyes on the place Napoleon had stood last, and let them think he paid no attention to them while he used a few tricks he'd learned once from an escape artist to make sure the ropes weren't as tight as they thought. Before they dragged him out of the cemetery, he fancied that black shadow in the snow had moved the slightest bit. Illya had never considered himself a man easily touched by imagination.
He was marched through the deepening snow to where three snowmobiles waited, engines ticking quietly to themselves under bonnets wet with snowmelt. Crooked Teeth climbed on one, with Sourpuss behind to steady him. Cowboy took the second, and Gorilla the third, one end of the rope clutched in his hand and wrapped twice around the support bar for good measure. Illya was damn near catapulted off his feet when they started.
If it weren't for the increasingly poor visibility, the captive agent would have been dragged through the snow. As it was, they were forced to proceed slowly enough that he could trot alongside, foundering through snowdrifts. Any thought of digging in his heels and dragging Gorilla off the snowmobile was futile. It was all he could manage to keep up.
When they finally slowed, Illya staggered to a stop and wavered there, bent over at the waist, struggling for breath. Half-melted snow slid out of his hair, most of it plopping onto the ground. Illya stuck his tongue out to capture the ice which ran down his face, sucking the cold water into his parched mouth.
He was hauled unceremoniously upright and pushed down a gentle slope by Gorilla's impatient prodding. Sourpuss and Cowboy brought up the rear, half carrying Crooked Teeth between them. Emerging suddenly from the shelter of the trees, Illya was blinded. He raised his bound hands to shield his eyes from the light which shone with unexpected brilliance on the edge of nowhere. He was roughly pushed down the steadily steepening slope, the sound of running water growing in his ears, until his feet struck suddenly on the hollow echo of wood.
Blinking rapidly, Illya cautiously lowered his hands. The light seemed to fade a bit as his eyes grew accustomed. Gorilla never ceased the heavy pressure between Illya's shoulderblades, and he stumbled across a wide bridge with klieg lights at either end. A man stood in the middle of the bridge, at the exact center of its span, tall and dark and imposing in the harsh light. Four Thrush agents and one U.N.C.L.E. captive stopped before him. It was fair to say the U.N.C.L.E. agent was the least apprehensive of the lot.
"Where's the other?" the man demanded without preamble.
"Dead." Cowboy's bravado was a thin shadow of its former self.
Cowboy shrank back at the angry hiss, sidling behind the protection of Gorilla's bulk.
"Leave the boy alone, Hyatt," Crooked Teeth said, the tremor in his voice belying the order. "He didn't do nothin'."
"I told you I wanted them both alive."
Crooked Teeth quailed under Hyatt's baleful regard. He barely kept his balance when his prop, Sourpuss, released him and stepped away, a rat deserting a sinking ship. "No help for it, Hyatt," he offered weakly, slowly retreating on shaking legs. "The U.N.C.L.E. man shot me. Why bring a dead man back here?" He jerked, startled, when his back came up hard against the railing.
"Why indeed?" Hyatt mused softly. He moved like a striking snake, tumbling Crooked Teeth over the railing and into the icy water below. The injured Thrush sank without a sound. Hyatt turned, brushed his hands together distastefully, and started across the bridge. "Bring him," he ordered, with a wave of his arm.
Unperturbed, Gorilla shoved Illya between the shoulderblades, nearly knocking him off his feet. The other two trailed reluctantly after, death in their faces.
The opposite shore came into view as they passed the midpoint of the bridge, materializing out of the falling snow like an illusionist's dream. The ice-encrusted water's edge, then the snowbank of the land, then the woods beyond. A light shone through the wide-spaced trees, warmer and friendlier than that on the bridge. A small house or lodge, about a quarter mile from the water's edge, windows blazing with light. All it needed was a robin redbreast in the snow outside the window to be a dead ringer for a particularly nostalgic American Christmas card. Illya snorted mirthlessly. American Christmas cards never showed dead bodies and thugs with guns.
They stumbled to a halt three quarters of the way across the bridge. Hyatt took Illya's elbow and led him over to the edge of the bridge, then released him and turned, leaning on the railing.
"Do you know who I am?"
Illya merely blinked at the urbane question.
"Have you so short a memory?" Hyatt tilted his head a little, so the light fell on blond hair and regular features. A completely nondescript face once, perhaps even handsome, forever marred. An angry scar stretched from the hairline above the left eye, across the bridge of the nose, to just under the right ear, missing the right eye by mere inches. "I assure you, I do not."
"Sir, couldn't this wait 'til we get inside?" Cowboy's bravado again, a thin thread which shattered in the ensuing silence.
"I have good reason to remember you and your partner," Hyatt continued after a moment, ignoring his underling. One finger stroked over the long scar. "Thrush exacts payment for failure. I've waited a long time for my chance to settle the score."
"Five years," Illya responded calmly.
"Even so. And not even Thrush will interfere with my revenge. I used their scientist, their equipment and even their men, for my purposes. Amusing, isn't it?" But he didn't smile. "Too bad your partner can't be here to join you in your fate. It would have made matters more... interesting."
"I suppose you'll just have to make do with me." Bravado of a different bent than Cowboy's, certainty in the face of death. But Illya's hands shook.
Hyatt's eyes dropped to Illya's hands, face creasing in an expression of disgust. It was a matter of no moment to Illya what his captors thought of him. Only Napoleon would have recognized the involuntary tremor for what it was.
"What idiot tied his hands in front of him?" Hyatt didn't wait for an answer. Producing a pair of handcuffs and a pistol, he handed the former to Sourpuss and shoved the latter up under Illya's chin. "I suggest you stand very still."
Illya's hands were released and yanked roughly behind him. He bit his tongue to swallow a shout when the metal cuffs were slammed down on his wrist bones. The gun was withdrawn, and Hyatt turned away, gesturing silently for Gorilla to remain at the foot of the bridge. The big man complied without argument.
Illya glanced back across the bridge, unable to make out the far shore. Instead of illuminating the region, the lights reflected off the falling snow and created a curtain of white between them and the night, keeping only the bridge itself illuminated. In a single moment of unbroken silence, Illya thought he heard a faint splash, a ripple of displaced water. The body floating up against the ice-edged shore, perhaps.
The house was small, a single room with a large fire roaring in an impressive hearth. Cowboy and Sourpuss immediately gravitated to the fire, but Illya hung back. Whatever else these Thrush men were, they weren't smart. After that heat, a trip back out into the snow would be torture. Hyatt obviously recognized that fact himself, for he smiled unpleasantly as he approached the fire.
"Outside, both of you."
"Do you dare question my orders?" Hyatt hauled Cowboy to his feet and flung him bodily across the room. "Outside. Patrol."
"There ain't anyone about for miles." However, Sourpuss ducked his head and slunk quickly toward the door when Hyatt rounded on him, Cowboy close on his heels.
Hyatt turned and held his hands out to the fire, for all the world as if Illya weren't there. The man settled negligently on a long threadbare couch pulled close for warmth, and crossed one leg over the other, the foot bouncing aimlessly to an inner tune. Illya set his back against the cold outer wall, wishing Hyatt would remain distracted long enough for him to get his hands in front of him. A sidelong glance out the window showed Cowboy and Sourpuss sneaking around the corner of the building. He calculated they were planning to huddle under the eaves next to the chimney, where they could pick up some of the heat from the fire.
"They aren't very good watchmen," Hyatt commented without turning, "but it really doesn't matter. You're not going anywhere."
"You must know I won't talk."
Hyatt laughed. "Information is not my objective. I don't want you to talk, Illya Nicolaievich. I want you to scream."
"I won't oblige you in that either."
"We shall see."
Hyatt yawned, stretching mightily. He leaned forward to pick up one of the andirons next to the hearth and poked idly at the burning logs, raising a shower of sparks. After a moment, he stopped prodding and simply held the poker in the flames.
"You seem unwilling to come to the fire," he remarked softly. "Perhaps I ought to bring the fire to you."
Illya restrained a shiver. Hyatt paid no attention. He seemed mesmerized, his eyes on the flame-licked point of metal, beginning slowly to glow. Illya took a chance. Crouching down quickly, he brought his cuffed hands down his back, wrestling them over his hips. Only a few strenuous inches from freedom, he was interrupted by an enraged roar.
His head coming up instinctively, Illya was nonetheless blindsided by Hyatt's rush. A heavy blow caught him upside the head, throwing him to the floor. He groaned as his weight wrenched at his bound arms. When he looked up, blinking the two Hyatts into one, the man was standing over him, his pistol in hand. Unstable in his vengeful fantasies, Hyatt seemed prepared to forego the long, drawn out scenario in favor of instant revenge. His thumb lovingly slid off the safety catch.
Illya lay on the floor, and saw his death, and his salvation, in a single indelible image. Hyatt, with his back to the door, never saw it coming.
Utterly silent, Napoleon lunged into the room, bringing the snow with him, and grabbed Hyatt from behind, wrapping him in his icy embrace. Illya blinked once, almost disbelieving. Napoleon looked like something out of a Norse myth. He was coated from head to foot with ice, crystals of falling snow frozen to his clothes, his hair, his face. He glittered with it.
Hyatt heaved, throwing his full strength against Napoleon's clasp, but the American stood firm. One arm encircled Hyatt's chest, the other forced his gunhand up. Illya writhed on the floor, forcing his hands down over his back and finally drawing his feet through the circle of his arms. Hissing at the pain, Illya shook feeling into his arms just as Hyatt's gun dropped to the floor, almost at Illya's head. He scooped it up in his cuffed hands and climbed awkwardly to his feet.
Napoleon still held Hyatt's right hand aloft. His other hand had risen to close over his captive's throat, and Hyatt's free hand scrabbled at the frosted fist which cut off his breath. Napoleon hung on grimly, trapped in a world of frozen rage until the outcome of the fight was determined, one way or another. The struggle was utterly silent but for the crack of Napoleon's icy coat breaking with each movement.
Illya met his partner's eyes for a wordless moment, then cocked the pistol and ducked out the door. His hands were utterly steady. Cowboy and Sourpuss were precisely where he anticipated, so focused on keeping warm they never saw him coming. He put bullets in them both before either even touched his gun. For a moment, Illya watched steaming blood melt the snow in surrealistic red paintings. Then he turned and ran silently through the woods. Gorilla still watched the bridge, unperturbed by the sound of gunfire, no doubt inured to it by his boss's tastes. Illya slipped up behind and shot him in the back of the head at point blank range.
He left the body, as he had left the other two, as they had tried to leave Napoleon, and as he and Napoleon had left Dr. Elkin, to freeze to the unyielding ground, and be covered by gently drifting snow. A gruesome treasure only to be unearthed come spring.
Napoleon still held Hyatt when Illya returned to the house, though the man no longer struggled. He released the corpse when Illya coaxed his hands free, and allowed himself to be led to the fire's edge. The room's heat was already beginning to thaw his frosted face and hair. Illya left his partner for a moment to rummage quickly through Hyatt's clothes for the key to the handcuffs. Rubbing his bruised wrists, Illya turned back to Napoleon.
He stripped his partner as quickly as he could, cursing as he struggled with the ice-stiff cloth. A thin bullet crease on Napoleon's left shoulder started to slowly ooze blood as the skin grew warm. Illya bound it with his handkerchief, and rolled Napoleon into a bundle of blankets as near the fire as he dared.
Luckily, Hyatt hadn't got around to relieving Illya of his communicator. Napoleon's, having taken the icy plunge with him, was utterly useless. Illya called in a sketchy report and arranged for pickup as soon as day broke and the weather cleared. After terminating the call, he sat on the couch and watched his partner in the firelight.
Where was the philanderer, the joker, the man not to be trusted? When the chips were down, Napoleon came through. The final piece of the puzzle which made up his partner. Yes, definitely his partner.
Illya stripped to his underwear and crawled into the blankets with Napoleon, shivering as his bare skin pressed up against Napoleon's cold back. Caught between Russian warmth and the blazing fire, Napoleon slowly felt himself thaw. It hurt to come back to life, but it was sweet, too.
"We're even, now," he whispered hoarsely, and felt Illya's softly-accented chuckle ghost over his skin.
Son of a gun. The man had a sense of humor after all.
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