The walls came down, the monuments fell, and the people of the Soviet Union experimented for the first time with democracy. It was a heady time then, before the millennium, especially for the young. A time of freedom. Freedom to speak your mind, freedom to act your desires, freedom to rule yourself. And freedom to starve.
It was a hard time. Capitalism made paupers of us all. No doubt the people had envisioned an Americanesque utopia as the instant result of our political upheaval. But the Americans had had centuries to practice their capitalism. They had experience; all we had was idealism. Idealism is an insubstantial thing. It lifts the heart, but leaves the stomach empty. You can't eat dreams.
I was a child then. I had never experienced the privations of communism, never known the world of my father and grandfather. All I knew was the hunger. I didn't understand the freedom that was part and parcel of the want.
There were many times I heard my grandfather, or even my father, speak of the old days with nostalgia, affection clouding their voices and their eyes. There were times when it had been better than it was now. The times it had been worse were often easier to forget.
We moved to Kiev when I was still a boy, my father and grandfather and I. It was said there was work in Kiev. The same was said about a lot of places. There was always work, somewhere else. A child in a house of adults, I grew up quiet and scholarly. As soon as I was old enough, they sent me off to school. I saw little of them. Better, they thought, to send me to live apart from them, to a place where room and board were provided, than to raise a child in the midst of such uncertainty. The school was not much better, and there were many times I focused my prodigious attention on my lessons to distract myself from my empty belly.
It was a military academy, where privation was used to teach fortitude and obedience. The first lesson I learned exceptionally well, the second only when it suited me. If nothing else, my schooling made something useful of the hunger, and groomed me for a place in the rising government.
My father was proud, I think, when I took my place in the
democratic regime. I can only thank the fates he was not around to see
it, and me, fall.
The millennium changed everything. It was only the passing of one year, but with it passed the century, and the world slowly became a colder place. Violence was easy and quick; right and wrong difficult concepts, too amorphous to grasp. Money was power, and power was everything. As the rich became richer, the poor suffered, and this was true of countries as well as people. And somehow, no one was poorer than Mother Russia.
When the desperation became too great, the people began to turn back to the world they had once known. Nostalgia ruled their minds and their memories. The old ways, though harsh, were easier, for the rules were known; decades under their sway had made them familiar. The rules for capitalism were harder to understand, not as clear cut or easy to follow. I think none of us were prepared for the speed with which the existing government was torn down in favor of a return to the old. I should have foreseen it; but then, I had not been around to see the downfall of the previous government. I did not, then, know enough of the world, and of the people in it, to correctly predict the path desperation would take.
Unfortunately, I was no better then than I am now at choosing my allies. I cannot control the choice of my heart. I was a nobody; second-rate and second-string to those holding true power. But I had chosen to ally myself with a man of principle and ideals, a man whose very name was a threat to the new communist regime. For that loyalty, the price was high and absolute.
Thus it was I found myself on a train in the dead of winter. Chained up in a cattle car with others whose very existence was politically embarrassing, on my way to Siberia, there to work out the remainder of my probably very short existence. To say I was depressed would be putting it mildly. It became a point of pride not to allow it to show.
I withdrew into myself, as I had on many occasions in the past
when I found the world too harsh for bearing. In my mind not cold nor
hunger nor hardship could touch me. I was safe there.
I was aware of the train pulling to a jerky halt, but I paid it no mind. Some of my fellow prisoners got up to look out the tiny glassless window. I failed to see the point. The manacle chafed my ankle if I moved around too much. Besides, there was nothing to see for miles upon miles but snow and ice. It was too soon to be arriving at our destination.
I could hear soldiers crunching up and down in the snow outside the train, murmured discussions, shouted commands, but nothing distinct or to the point. Finally, after some significant time, during which the cold became, if possible, even deeper, one of the soldiers threw open the door to our car. To our surprise, all the able-bodied men were unchained and escorted out at gunpoint. I thought at first that I would be spared their fate, for the soldier with the keys had passed me by, apparently taking me for a boy. I huddled deeper into myself, nothing loathe to foster that impression. However, the man's compatriot pointed out his error, and I was released and shoved outside to join the others.
It took but a moment to perceive the problem. Deep snow covered the tracks, impeding the train's progress. An avalanche, perhaps; the slope on our side of the train was steep enough to have produced that much tumbled snow. It was clear we would be going nowhere until the tracks were cleared.
There were no shovels, of course, though that was of no concern to the soldiers. We were less than slaves; we could dig with our bare hands. I had emerged from the second car. Looking ahead and behind, I could see the soldiers herding shivering men out of every car on the train. It was not, perhaps, the wisest choice. There were quite a few prisoners, and not many soldiers. We milled uncertainly, huddled near the cars, the soldiers spacing themselves unevenly along the length of the train, a little up the slope from their dispirited charges.
I let myself be shoved toward the back, pressed up against the train, holding my breath to control the atavistic fear of being crushed by the crowd. An idea, an opening, presented itself.
They didn't expect us to run. Where was there to run to, out here in the icy wastes? It was nothing short of suicide. Better that, I reasoned, than to continue on to my eventual death by attrition. And there was always a chance. At least, my father had often said so.
With a quick glance around to make certain I was unobserved, I dropped to the ground and rolled under the car. Holding my breath, I lay still, waiting for an outcry that didn't come. A moment later, I crawled silently, muffled by the snow, to the other side of the train and slid out after a cautious look around. Still no one had seen me.
At first glance, there was nothing on the other side of the train but an empty wasteland. No place to hide. In my dark gray coverall, I would stand out like a fly on a newly white-washed wall. I swallowed my despair and looked again. There was a tiny copse of trees about five hundred yards out, so shrouded in snow that I had missed it the first time. Perhaps...
I had covered nearly half the ground when I heard shouting behind me. I kept running, not daring to look behind. The snow was deep, crippling in its drag on my lightly-shot feet. If I had been heavier, I would have sunk deeper in the snow, and my mad sprint would have been impossible. As it was, I staggered and lurched, losing ground with every step.
I heard shots behind me and tried to pick up the pace.
The soldiers had on heavy boots and coats, but they were warm and well-fed. I had eaten almost nothing for days. My heart pounded and I felt dizzy. The shots came again: closer, louder. Snow sprayed up in a little fan just before me. Then I was staggered forward by a hard blow to my left shoulder. At first I thought one of them had caught up and shoved me. I foundered, snatching a glimpse behind me. The closest man was still more than a hundred yards back. A few steps later, another bullet slammed into my right thigh, throwing me to the ground.
More stunned than anything else, I lay face down in the snow, motionless. The sound of their running stopped some distance away. I could faintly hear them talking and laughing. Then their voices faded away entirely. They presumed me dead, or soon to be so. Either way, they were not willing to expend the further energy to find out.
I remained where I was for a very long time, not daring to move any more than was strictly necessary to breathe. The cold crept into my bones as the snow melted into my prison uniform, soaking me. Or perhaps it was blood which saturated the thin cloth. The pain hit me hard after the initial shock wore off, and I bit into the snow under my face to keep from screaming. I was almost too stiff to move by the time the train finally pulled away.
Pain and cold be damned, determination and simple mulish stubbornness dragged me to my feet. The cold actually did me a good turn, though it threatened hypothermia and frostbite: my leg was so numbed the pain didn't impede my movement. It didn't seem to matter which direction I chose, so long as it was away from the tracks, so I picked one arbitrarily and started off.
My leg didn't collapse under me, which I took to be a good sign. It was no easier going than before. If the snow dragged less at my slower steps, my weakness grew by the minute. I panted, my breath fogging the air before me, and remembered vaguely that oxygen hunger was a symptom of severe blood loss, as if I needed the further proof. My head spun, and it was all I could do to steer a straight course into oblivion.
At one point I remember looking back and thinking giddily that my blood made a rather ghoulish bread-crumb trail. I had no desire to follow it back home.
I expect I must have collapsed at some point, though my
memories are vague and misshapen. When my legs refused to carry me
farther, I crawled for a while, until even that became too difficult.
Finally, I lay in the snow, no longer feeling the cold, and gazed up
into the night sky. The stars dazzled me before I faded into
My only feeling upon waking was one of bewildered surprise.
Though the world was full of soft-edged corners which quite clearly indicated I was drugged to the gills, I forced my eyes open and made an effort to look around. The head of the bed was tilted up a bit, allowing me to take in my surroundings without moving anything but my eyes. Medical equipment, bed, bandages, white walls, closed door, no windows, indirect lighting. Almost a hospital, but not quite.
There was no pain; only the disturbing numbness which bespoke pain kept in abeyance. I was grateful for the drugs and simultaneously annoyed at the way they fogged my mind.
I dreamt, or remembered, lying once again in the snow.
Powerful arms lifted me and held me close to a warm, broad chest. My
hands were tucked carefully away from the cold, my face turned into a
rough collar which smelled of a man's musk-scent. I couldn't see the
face of my rescuer, nor did he speak to me, but I sighed and let my
consciousness slip away, safe beyond any doubt.
I drifted in and out of awareness for some time. Always there was the pain, though usually it was muffled by the soft cushion of drugs. The room never changed. Nor was there ever anyone with me, though someone was clearly attending to the needs of my healing body.
Finally, I awoke and stayed that way.
I was still surrounded by that stark white efficiency which aspired to be a hospital room, but somehow didn't succeed. The bed, a chair, a rolling table, four walls, the door, and me. I wondered fatalistically if I might be in heaven, or hell. Sartre claimed hell was other people; did that make the absence of anyone heaven?
Even as I summoned up a half-hearted grin at the thought, the lock clicked and the door swung open. The sudden evidence that there were, indeed, people here was somehow more disturbing than the previous absence of them. I blinked at the man standing in the doorway, knowing somehow that, though there was nothing particularly remarkable about him, I had never met a man like him before in my life, and never would again.
He was dressed all in black, not as some will do purely for effect or fashion, but as if it fit the very nature of him. Black suit over a black shirt, no tie, the glittering gold cufflinks in each immaculate sleeve the only color about him. His hair and eyes were also black, or so dark brown as to make no difference. I thought absurdly that I must indeed be dead, for this could only be death personified. On any other man, the unrelieved black might have looked like artifice. It might even have been laughable. But not here; not him.
His handsome face was blandly expressionless, with the sole exception of a slight tilt to the corners of his mouth, which almost made him look, if not benign, at least approachable. It lent him a sort of solid warmth, the hint of someone trustworthy, perhaps even likable. His eyes, however, belied the whole -- hard and cold as any stone.
Those eyes met mine and it took all my nerve to hold that depthless gaze. It lasted maybe a minute, maybe two. His gaze didn't shift, but suddenly it was no longer his will which held me, merely his eyes. The slightly ironic quirk of his mouth twitched upward minutely, and he stepped aside to allow another man to enter the room.
The new stranger was slight, swathed in a white coat and an air of preoccupation, the universal costume of physicians. He examined me with meticulous care as the man in black looked on.
The doctor rebandaged my shoulder and thigh, listened to my
heart and lungs, gave me an injection of some sort, then strode out
again, closely followed by the man in black. The door closed behind
them, and I was alone once more. Not one word had been spoken the
entire time. Not knowing where I was, or why, I feared that to speak
might be to somehow give myself away. I wondered what their reasons for
silence were, but not for long. The injection soon had me tumbling back
into a healing sleep.
The weeks that followed were an exercise in sheer boredom. There was, quite literally, nothing to do. I was awake more often than I slept, and the inside of that room soon became entirely too familiar. I found myself looking forward to the visits of the silent man who delivered my food. Even more, I anticipated the regular visits of the man in black, though the intensity with which those dark eyes watched me tended to be uncomfortable, the moreso as I could discern no reason for his scrutiny.
Though I did eventually give up my silence and attempt to converse with my jailers, it was to no avail. No question, in any language I knew, and I knew quite a few, produced any reaction whatsoever. I returned to my silence, determined to discover for myself in what sort of place I was held captive.
In the end, however, even that proved impossible. There were, quite simply, no clues. The only thing of which I could be fairly certain was that the room in which I was locked was underground. Not just a basement, either, but someplace deep. The faceless concrete walls were cool to the touch, and there was something about the texture of the very air: cool and slightly damp, despite an obviously first-rate heating and air-conditioning system, which bespoke the depths of the earth itself. No hospital or prison I knew was dug that deep; this must be some sort of military bunker.
As I healed, I became restless. As soon as I felt well enough to move fairly comfortably around the room, I began a regiment of exercise, being careful at first of my newly healed limbs. It gave my mind and body something to do other than fret over my fate. After a few weeks of almost constant effort -- there being nothing else to do -- I was not only restored to my original level of fitness, but had surpassed it.
The better and stronger I felt, the more determined I was to break out of the blind box I'd been put in. Such an endeavor was hampered not only by the locked door, but by my complete lack of knowledge about what was on the other side. Still, by my admittedly somewhat shaky estimate, more than two months had gone by without anyone deigning to exchange a single word with me. I was convinced these people could not have my best interests at heart, despite their care of my ravaged body.
|Finally, healthy of body and anxious of mind, I determined to
escape my confinement. I was aware there was probably a surveillance
system focused on me at all times, but there was nothing I could do
about it. The same restless determination which I had felt on the train
overcame me. Better to do something, and die in the attempt, than to
wither away doing nothing.
The man in black seemed to be on whatever business it was which occasionally drew him away, interrupting his daily visits. It seemed as good a time as any. I calculated I had at least one more day before my autocratic jailer returned. I resolved to jump the guard on the first opportunity which presented itself, and occupied myself near the door with that intent.
When next the door opened, I was prepared. As it began to swing inward, I pulled with all my strength, throwing the guard off-balance. He stumbled toward me, his forward momentum nicely complementing my swinging fist.
I didn't wait for him to clatter to the floor. I grabbed the gun out of his holster and examined it quickly. It was similar to those I had practiced with in school. I released the clip and checked the ammunition; it had been so easy so far I almost expected to find blanks. But the bullets were real enough. I slid the clip back into place, thumbed off the safety and pulled back the slider to cock the gun. Then I stepped cautiously through the door.
The hallway was long and featureless, broken only by rows of doors, which looked very much on the outside as my cell door had done on the inside. I didn't try any of them, for I figured they would lead only to new prisons, but headed instead down the corridor.
At each branching of the corridor, I peered carefully around the corner, never finding anyone. Always choosing the hallway which looked most-traveled, I made my way cautiously through the extensive maze. It was impossible to tell if I was getting anywhere; my sense of time and direction had been badly confused by the days spent in this changeless environment. Finally, however, I found myself in a corridor with no branchings.
At the end of the hall, standing calmly before a large steel-bound door, waited a man in black. My man in black. His hands were clasped loosely before him, his expression indecipherable. I kept the gun trained on him as I approached, looking as menacing as I was able, which is very menacing indeed, or so I've been told. He never moved. There was no fear in his stance, only patience. He waited.
"Open the door." I knew he understood me. His expression flickered, though with what I could not say. I repeated the command in all the languages I knew, all to the same lack of overt response. He moved not a muscle. I stepped forward and pressed the barrel of the gun to his forehead, precisely between his dark eyes. "Open the door."
Nothing in his face changed. I might as well have threatened a statue, but for his eyes. Somewhere deep in the black wells, I thought I saw something I might have called fear. I stared hard, trying to read his mind; if the eyes were truly windows to the soul, these were shuttered hard and fast. Yet there was something there, something that dared me to shoot, dared with an emotion that was not bravado, that was more like desire.
My hand trembled on the gun. I curled my finger more snugly around the trigger, knowing he saw the movement for what it was. He wouldn't open the door, and he wouldn't step aside, and I would have to pull the trigger. I stared into his black eyes and tightened my grip.
I couldn't force myself to shoot him. Had it been any other man, I might have been able to, but somehow not him. After a long moment, I stepped back, letting the gun fall to my side.
"Well done, young man." The voice startled me, only partly because it came without warning from the speaker over the door. The language was English, with a hint of a British accent; I had thought myself still in eastern Europe. "Show him in, Mr. Solo."
The man in black moved at last, turning to lay his hand on the sensor beside the door. The featureless gray steel slid open with a soft hiss, and he turned back to me, holding out his hand for the gun. I hesitated to hand it over, but saw it would do me no good, particularly now that he knew I would not shoot him. I gave him the gun. He did not put it in his pocket, but neither did he point it at me. He flipped the safety back on, and gestured with it that I should precede him.
"This way." His voice was a surprise: deep and warm, with just a touch of sibilance. In a daze, I passed with him through the door into what looked like another world. Shiny metal walls and crisp indirect lighting dazzled my eyes and, oddly, pricked up my courage.
"Have I passed some test?" I asked in my imperfect English.
"No." He didn't look at me. "You failed."
"I failed?" I stopped walking to stare at him. After a few more steps, he stopped and turned to face me.
"Yes. You should have shot me. You failed. But you showed potential."
He continued walking again and, after a minute, I followed.
What kind of place was this, to so callously risk a man? And what kind
of man was this, to speak so calmly of dying?
"Welcome to the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement," Solo said, with a small sardonic bow, as he ushered me into a sumptuous office, all dark wood and thick carpeting.
The name rang a bell, and I searched quickly through my memory to find the pertinent entry. It came to me after a moment, and I frowned in confusion. "I was under the impression the U.N.C.L.E. disbanded more than forty years ago."
"Oh, not disbanded." The voice was the same as that which had spoken over the loudspeaker. It came from a man seated on the opposite side of an enormous round oak table. At first glance, he looked like someone's grandfather. Like Solo, however, the eyes gave him away -- there was nothing at all grandfatherly in the cold steel orbs which watched me with the intensity of a predatory bird. "We merely took our operations underground. There is nothing that limits effectiveness in this trade more than visibility." He pulled out an old-fashioned pipe and started tamping tobacco into it. "Our services are in higher demand now than ever before. The world teeters on the brink of chaos." He lit the pipe, and the pungent smell of tobacco smoke tainted the air. Realizing it would be hazardous to offend this man, I hid my distaste for the filthy habit and tried to breathe shallowly. "Men like Mr. Solo here, and you, are required to keep things running on an even keel."
"Me?" I didn't try to hide my surprise. "The U.N.C.L.E. was ... is a spy organization, is it not?" Now how did that old saying go? "Travel to strange and exotic places, meet interesting people, and kill them?" Solo made a soft sound of startled amusement, though when I glanced over at him his expression was unreadable. "I don't think that's the sort of life I'm cut out for."
"Nonetheless, it's the sort of life that appears to have found you." His gaze didn't shift from my face, but I was suddenly aware of the lingering throb from my nearly healed wounds.
"I'm really not certain it's a life I want to lead, Mister...?"
"I'm known as Number One," he responded, swiveling his seat to gesture with his pipe at the world-map which covered one wall, "I oversee operations in Command offices all over the globe. Our primary purpose is not killing, you know." I resisted the strong desire to seek shelter from his piercing gaze behind Solo, and wondered briefly when I'd started to think of my man in black as an ally. "There are many people who have cause to thank the Command for its role in their lives. Yourself, for example. Or have you forgotten it was an agent of this organization who rescued you?"
"No, sir, I have not." I stood a little straighter, annoyed at the implication. "I would like the opportunity to thank the man who saved my life."
"Unnecessary." He negligently waved away my request. "You will demonstrate your gratitude for his help, and ours, by serving the Command."
"Do I have a choice in the matter?" I smiled a little, to show I intended no insult. I needn't have bothered; Number One responded calmly, as if the question was perfectly reasonable and not in the least discourteous.
"You may choose whether to join the Command permanently, or merely work out your debt for a limited period. If you join the Command, you will be trained to fill whatever position you're best qualified for, and paid a salary in addition to room and board. We take very good care of our employees."
I clearly couldn't afford not to take advantage of this opportunity. While I wasn't sanguine about "permanently" joining an organization about which I knew almost nothing, I had no money, no one to turn to, and no place to go. I was certain working out my debt to the Command, while temporary and likely not to be too arduous, would not come with a salary.
"What makes you so certain I'd make a good agent for the Command?"
"Your intelligence is unquestionable, your record excellent." Somehow it didn't surprise me that this man had not only learned my name, but been able to pull buried information out of the New Russia. "Most importantly, your resilience and initiative are to be commended. Your will to survive is apparently inexhaustible."
I must have looked confused at that, for he raised an eyebrow at Solo, who spoke without turning. "Your blood trail stretched for more than three miles."
I shivered involuntarily. Marshaling my reserve, I turned back to the man called Number One and cocked my head to indicate my interest. He puffed on his pipe for a moment before continuing.
"I see no reason to spend the time and money to train agents who are simply going to go out and get themselves killed."
"I'd certainly do my best to avoid that, sir." He merely blinked at me, his face expressionless; however, I saw Solo's lips twitch slightly, and it heartened me. "The will to survive is simple instinct; every living creature has it. But how do you know whether or not I can kill?"
"That is also instinctive, young man. Should you lack the aptitude for field work, you have the intelligence and technical background to make yourself indispensable in the labs. However, I have no doubt you'll prove an able agent, should you choose to join us." He shuffled some papers about on the desk absently. After a moment, the piercing gray eyes flicked up sharply. "Well?"
I looked sidelong at Solo's averted face and made the best and worst decision of my life. "I would like to join the Command, sir."
Solo shifted slightly. Number One only nodded, as if my answer had been a foregone conclusion. Perhaps to him it was.
He handed me two documents from the stack of papers on his desk.
The top was my death certificate, morbidly official. I glanced briefly at it, then handed it back at his imperious gesture. As I later learned, only Number One knew anyone's true identity. The second document was an American passport, bearing my picture and a name unfamiliar to me. It was that simple.
The man I had been no longer existed. Only Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin remained.
We were shooed out of Number One's office soon afterwards, Solo still acting as my guide and, no doubt, guard.
"It's spelled wrong," I commented to the man at my side once we were safely back in the featureless corridor.
I tapped the passport in emphasis. "The first name is spelled wrong and the patronymic is a joke. Don't your people know anything about Russian names?"
"They know enough. It's better that way."
"I don't follow." Although of course, I did, if only in the most literal sense of the word. Doors opened automatically as we walked, paying us more mind than the people we passed.
"There is nothing more suspicious than something completely ordinary. In our line of work, it's safer to be noteworthy. 'John Smith' would be dead in a week."
"There are plenty of ordinary people in the world, Mr. Solo, who are in very little danger."
"And if you were commonplace, you'd be safe too. But you're not. People are less likely to question the validity of your identity if there is something odd about your name. They tend to assume that, if you had forged your papers, you'd have at least picked a less conspicuous name. None of us here have what you'd call 'normal' names."
"What's your name?" I couldn't help asking. I was certain, at first, that he wouldn't answer.
I knew better than to ask if it was his real name. Or smile.
They sent me to Survival School. Aptly named. One did not graduate from Survival School; one merely persevered. The bullets were real, and so were the consequences of failure. If you were alive when your period of confinement there ended, then you passed the course. I saw a lot of men die.
I also began learning about the organization which I had joined, both from the Command instructors and my fellow trainees.
The Command was sworn to uphold international order and maintain the rule of law. It seemed an absurdly optimistic concept to me at first. How could a single organization do what billions of people could not? I expect the altruistic nature of the Command's goals arose from the century in which it was established, though its ruthlessness in the pursuit of those goals was a more recent development. Though the Command was, as Number One said, as necessary now as ever, in many ways the idealism it represented was a thing of another time.
The Command was only called in when all other forms of law
enforcement had failed, or when Number One took a personal interest in
some national or international occurrence. Furthermore, Enforcement
agents were sent in only as a last resort, when diplomacy, guile and
out-right threat had proven useless. Violence was the last line of
defense, and the primary employment of men such as myself. Though I had
the aptitude to prove useful on the technical side of things, my true
calling manifested itself during Survival School. I had all the talents
to make a superlative Enforcement agent, and that is what I became. I
cannot say I was sanguine about my new position, but it suited my mood
following my narrow escape from my homeland.
I was posted to the New York headquarters upon graduation from Survival School. My accent by that time smoothed out, I garnered no unwelcome attention as I made my way from the airport to the site to which I had been directed.
The hotel was large and very busy. A man could disappear through the doors and not be missed for days. Little did the regular customers know that men and women did indeed commonly vanish into the hidden depths from its urbane interior. Quite a change, I was led to understand, from the entrance's previous incarnation. It was beyond me how anyone could have escaped noticing people disappear for hours or days into a tiny tailor shop. Times change.
The interior of the New York headquarters was identical to the Command to which I had first been introduced, the exact location of which I was never able to ascertain. All the headquarters looked the same, used the same defenses and fortifications, and were buried deep in the earth, virtually impenetrable to attack. The extensive defense system was a matter of practicality; not only did the operation of the Command in any given sector depend upon its headquarters, but the entire staff lived within its bulwarks.
Solo met me, as he had that previous time, just outside the
steel doors which guarded the hub of activity. Everything outside those
doors was expendable, the people easily evacuated; inside lay the heart
of the Command. He watched my approach with the same endless patience;
I wondered if he remembered that previous occasion as vividly as I. He
silently shook my hand, and led me inside.
I was startled to discover that Solo had appointed himself my guide. He was polite, genial, even amiable, but no more approachable than he'd been as my jailer. I found my normal reserve further deepened by his manner; it would have been easier to speak to impassivity than this public faade.
He took me to Security first, to finish the perpetual paperwork that apparently even so odd an organization as the Command could not completely avoid. I received a yellow and black identification card in the name of Illya Kuryakin, and a numerical designation: Two. Solo was Eleven. There didn't seem to be any particular meaning behind the numbers (other, of course, than Number One); it was purely random. There were not so many Enforcement agents that they risked running out of simple two-digit numbers.
Then on to Personnel, for more paperwork. This was simpler than in most occupations; no insurance forms, taxes, next-of-kin or anything of the kind. The Command had its own Medical section, agreements with all member nations exempting it and its employees from taxation (it would have been difficult to tax men who didn't exist in any case), and a policy of choosing Enforcement agents with no living relatives. Just a single slip of paper, informing me that the partner assigned to me was none other than Napoleon Solo.
I found myself both frightened and exhilarated. Thankfully, Solo had drifted away to speak to one of the receptionists, and I was able to reassert my habitual calm faade before he returned. For himself, he didn't show any visible reaction to the assignment. But then, he probably already knew of it.
With that, all the necessary paperwork had been dealt with, and we left the administrative offices.
"Welcome to the Command," was Solo's wry comment as we stepped back into the stark metal corridor. He offered me his hand again, and a friendly smile which glinted faintly in his eyes.
"Thank you." I took his hand, and was oddly surprised at the warmth of his strong grip. It had not so unnerved me the first time. Quickly, I sought to distract him from the slight tremor in my fingers. "Is that all, then?"
"Yes. It's the last time you'll have to deal with the administrative side of things." He released my hand, but was still regarding me too closely for comfort.
"What, no retirement plan?" I was almost, but not quite, joking.
"No Enforcement agent ever leaves the Command." There was a flicker behind the dark eyes. "Alive."
Well, it made a certain kind of sense. Our deaths were inevitable. No one had made any demur about that. We were the shock troops and the last line of defense all rolled into one, and expendable into the bargain. Though only the best were permitted to join the Command, even the best found their fates eventually sealed when constantly sent on the most dangerous or impossible of missions.
It did not, at the time, occur to me that there were other interpretations that could be placed upon Solo's words.
We spent that entire day together. He gave me an extensive tour of the facilities, while I tried simultaneously to absorb all the information he provided and become accustomed to the idea of having a partner, particularly to having him as a partner. Of all the things I had expected upon leaving Survival School, being partnered with Napoleon Solo wasn't one of them.
I knew his reputation, of course. Even Command trainees indulged in gossip, and I had listened avidly to tales of the man who had made such an impact on me in our brief acquaintance. Whether they would admit it or not -- and, surprisingly, many of them would -- every one of them was afraid of him. I was startled to discover that Solo was only a few years older than I, and not at all surprised to find his experience much greater, and darker. There were those who claimed he was something less than human, and others who believed him more.
I heard much of his incredible luck. Solo's luck. I knew there had to be more to his success, measured in the span of his life, than that. Luck will only take you so far before it gets you killed. To have survived so long, there must be luck and skill. Solo's reputation went before him; every agent knew and feared him, yet few had ever even met the man. I honestly didn't know what to believe.
Over the next few months, during which we conducted our own version of Survival School, I set myself to understanding Solo. I had to relearn how to see him, to make this man over from a dark shadow into my partner. It wasn't easy.
We trained together, learning to work in tandem. When it came down to the wire, there could be no confusion about which way we'd jump. We worked out, practiced at the firing range and on every kind of obstacle course I could imagine, doing everything side by side. We engaged other teams in war games which, though less deadly than those at the Survival School, were no less serious. Every minute of every day was spent together.
Through it all Solo remained a mystery. The black hole of his personality sucked up all my suppositions, guesses and expectations, with never a waver in the opaque facade. I honestly didn't know what to make of him.
It has only recently occurred to me that he didn't know quite what to make of me either.
"Where are those blueprints, Kuryakin?"
I grabbed the architectural plans for the dam and its surrounding buildings off the kitchen counter on my way into the living room. Solo's apartment was no less institutional than my own; hardly surprising, as they were side by side in the Command's New York headquarters, and the acquisition of bulky personal items was frowned upon. I could just as easily have been in my own apartment, for all the impact this man's distinctive personality had had on the room.
Solo was perched on the edge of the sofa, pouring over the file he'd flipped open on the coffee table, a piece of pizza balanced precariously in one hand, half-forgotten. It was amazing the gyrations one had to go through simply to order take-out from headquarters; Solo was remarkably good about getting around inconveniences like that. It was one of the reasons I liked working with him: he knew what he wanted, and how to get it, and he wasn't shy about doing so.
Setting the sodas I'd collected from the kitchen out of the way on an endtable, I unrolled the plans on the coffee table, barely missing the pizza box. Solo absently rescued it, handing it over to me. I appropriated a piece before relegating the box to the floor and joined Solo in looking over the blueprints. Getting them had been simplicity itself, with Solo there to charm the woman who controlled access to the planning office. He had a rare talent for that. Women simply loved him, and he knew it. To the best of my knowledge, however, he only used that deadly charm while on the job, and then only when strictly necessary. It was beyond me why he didn't seem to date in his, admittedly rare, spare time. If I'd had the sheer sex appeal he did, I would have... well, perhaps not; but then, I've never been very good with people.
He had a quick and engaging smile, which never seemed to reach his eyes. Though the black orbs -- which I now knew turned chocolate brown with specks of burgundy in the sunlight, yet could never think of as anything but the dark voids they had originally seemed to me -- rarely gave anything away, I occasionally read unhappiness in their depths. I knew, from the pattern of lines on his face, that he had once known happiness, and was equally certain that he didn't expect to ever find it again. I never asked him about his past, and he never offered any information. Nor did I ever tell him anything of my own history, though he had obviously been acquainted at least with that which had brought me to the Command.
I never understood how the women he charmed could be unaware of the blankness which crept into his eyes when he was flirting. It was as if they saw only the exterior urbanity, and were unable to perceive the danger that lurked within the man. Perhaps that was why he never seemed to enjoy his flirtations.
"What do you think?" His silk-smooth tones brought me out of my reverie, and I refocused my attention on the blueprints.
"Won't be easy." I had already made my evaluation of our options, but I was waiting for some indication of which way Solo wanted to go. "The place is a fortress."
"Sometimes that makes things easier."
"Not when the only feasible entrance is the front door. It's unfortunate we can't simply blow the place up." I opened both cans of soda and handed one across to him, then paused to nibble on my lukewarm pizza.
"Choosing this building at the base of the dam for their center of operations was a stroke of tactical genius; we can't launch a full-scale attack without also destroying the dam, and bringing several hundred tons of water down on the cities downstream. No, something more subtle is called for."
"The ventilation system, then."
He gave me a measuring look and turned back to the plans. "Show me."
"The ducts are fairly large and vent to the outside here and here. Once inside the ventilation system, it should be possible to get to the control center to deactivate the alarms and open the front doors."
"Letting the strike force inside," he finished, nodding. I was surprised he hadn't seen it himself. Then again, perhaps he had; it was hard to tell with Solo. "These ducts look rather narrow, are you sure someone will fit?"
"I will fit." He shot me another of those looks, which were beginning to annoy me. We hadn't been on many missions yet, but I had thought him satisfied with the results of our partnership. We'd been successful so far and we were both still alive, which seemed perfect proof that we worked well together. Yet I felt he was vaguely surprised. It made me unusually defensive, though I flatter myself I hid it well. "I also have the necessary skills to convince their computer to deactivate the alarms and door locks."
"Yes, I know." Solo raised his soda in a sketchy salute and drank deeply. "We go tomorrow, then."
The ducts were indeed narrow; once or twice I thought I was stuck for good. Still, there's something to be said for the power of determination -- and a mild case of claustrophobia.
It seemed to take hours, though Solo's murmured updates through my headset indicated the elapsed time was closer to minutes. Finally, however, I saw the unmistakable computer banks of the control room through one of the many grills. I watched patiently for a few minutes, but no one passed across my field of vision, so I set about getting into the room. The opening covered by the grill was even narrower than the duct had been, and I dropped into the control room feeling a certain affinity with a tube of toothpaste.
"I'm in," I whispered into my throat mike, moving swiftly to lock the room's single door, not being keen on any interruptions.
"It's about time," came the expected response. Solo's tone was as impossible to read as ever, but I suspected it leaned more toward relief than actual annoyance.
"Next time, you can play air-conditioner repairman." There was no response, not that I'd expected any, though I could imagine that slight quirk to the edge of his mouth lifting a little in amusement. "Accessing computers now."
"Well get a move on; the guards will be back on this side of the complex in ten minutes and there's no shelter over here."
I was too busy to respond; the computer system was more complex than we'd anticipated. Five minutes later, I'd exhausted all the tricks I knew for getting at the controls through the usual channels. Not one had had any appreciable effect. Everything was on a complex password system, and I mean everything, down to the environmental controls and the locks on the bathroom doors. Angry with myself for having wasted the time, I exited the system and hacked my way into the programming itself. The screen was instantly alive with code.
"What's wrong?" Solo's voice instantly demanded from my headset. I had forgotten the mike was still open.
"There must be ten thousand lines of code here."
"So?" Computers were not Solo's forte.
"So it looks like it was written in Swahili, translated into code and transcribed backwards."
"There's no chance you can break it?"
"Oh, I can break it all right. It's not nearly as complicated as the Command computers."
"How'd you get into the Command computers? Never mind; I don't want to know. Just get us in."
"I can break it, but not in the next five minutes. Half an hour, maybe..."
"We don't have half an hour." He sighed audibly. "Forget the security system and just get the door open."
"If I cut the door locks without disabling the system, every alarm in the place will go off."
"If you don't get the door open before the guards come back, we'll be mincemeat out here. Just open the door."
"Very well." I fiddled around another minute or two, trying various obscure tricks I knew, with no luck. It looked as if there was no choice. I found the electrical mainstream behind the second bank of computers and pulled off the access panel. It only took a few seconds to isolate the power leads to the main doors. "So much for subtlety." I yanked them out of the wall with a quick jerk.
There was the simultaneous squeal and pop of destruction (the wires') and the smell of singed flesh (mine), coupled with a shower of sparks. It was immediately followed by the blaring of the loudest alarm I'd ever had the misfortune of hearing. It went beyond simple noise into auditory hell. Putting my hands over my ears only marginally muffled the noise. Thankfully it modulated almost instantly into something no less annoying, but not nearly so painful. I was able to remove my hands from my ears and return to the computers and surveillance cameras.
The main doors were sliding ponderously open; it would be only a matter of seconds before Solo and his six man team could slip through. As I'd anticipated, every alarm in the complex was going off, and its large complement of soldiers were swinging into action to repel the invaders. A pounding had already begun on the sturdy door to the control room. Ignoring the noise, I turned back to the computers and, noticing a red light blinking on and off over the secondary system, moved to take a look. I was too shocked even to swear.
"Solo! The device has been activated. It's on a thirty-minute countdown."
"Are you certain?"
"Of course I'm certain." I heard him swearing softly and comprehensively, numbly noting that he had an extensive and varied vocabulary. It had been a risk, of course, but no greater than the risk of leaving a nuclear device in the hands of these fanatics. They'd demanded an impossible ransom in return for not starting a nuclear war, and no one had been certain that they wouldn't go through with it. Apparently they were serious about using it.
"Location?" Solo had regained his equilibrium and was putting his wits to work again.
"Northwest corner of the building, third floor."
"Solo to strike force: you heard it; we have thirty minutes. Seventeen and Thirty-One, defuse that bomb. Everyone else, clear the building of all inhabitants." His voice was unnaturally calm, though I knew he himself could not be. Even without the threat of annihilation, it was unnerving to issue an order to shoot on sight.
Knowing I'd do more good out there than I could locked in the control room, I checked my weapons, drew my semi-automatic, and took up position behind the door. The pounding had reached a crescendo, and the door buckled almost immediately thereafter. Four men rushed into the room. I shot two of them immediately, and caught the second two as they turned. Then I trained my gun on the computers and did as much damage as I could to the delicate machinery. It blew behind me in an incandescent shower of sparks as I exited the little room.
Thirty minutes to Armageddon.
The destruction of the computer shut down most of the normal operating systems. The alarm shut off, leaving my ears ringing in the sudden silence. The main lights went out, replaced by the reddish glow of backup generators. The sounds of gunfire and explosions, the shouts and screams, made it seem like some nightmarish war zone. We eight slunk purposefully through the darkened corridors, killing all we met. The Command knows what it's getting when it authorizes deadly force.
I took myself up to the third floor and headed generally northwest, hoping to provide back-up to the disposal team. I almost tripped over one of them three corridors over from the stairs. Seventeen, I think. I didn't know his name, or the names of any of the strike force. His chest was covered with blood, and the life-monitor on the inside of his collar showed black. I left him to his death and continued, keeping low and moving as fast as I dared.
A man and a woman came at me from the left. I dropped, firing as I rolled, and found I had killed both when I came to my feet again. Four corridors over; the room itself. Thirty-One knelt before the device in the obscenely cheery glow of its countdown display, ignoring the steadily expanding pool of blood under him. The numbers quickly ticking off on the display said five minutes and change. It didn't surprise me that time had passed during the strange limbo of death and slaughter, only that so much had gone by.
He looked up briefly and saw me there, but said nothing. I hovered in the doorway, knowing he'd tell me if he needed any assistance, and guarded his back. Three more black shadows dropped under my gun before I heard a satisfied exclamation from within. Thirty-One held the detonation device in his hands; even as I watched, it hit zero and stopped counting. I took the arming device from him and attached the explosives I carried on my belt to it before tossing it into a nearby room. The explosion was brief and satisfying; the nuclear device was unique to its arming charge -- with the latter destroyed, the former was defunct and relatively safe, if one can reasonably consider that high a concentration of plutonium in one spot "safe."
Thirty-One was slumped over the forward edge of the bomb, his life-monitor sliding from red to black as I examined it. I settled him on the floor gently, and crossed his arms over his chest.
Solo very nearly shot me as I exited the room.
"Dammit, Kuryakin..." He grabbed my arm and hustled me back toward the stairs. "The charges are laid; we have about ten minutes to get out of here."
I pulled free of his hand and passed him, going first into the stairwell, and almost got my head blown off for my efforts. Solo rolled to the floor a second after my instinctive dive and started firing down the stairs. We'd have to go up. I let him lay down the covering fire and started nimbly up the stairs, keeping as low as I could. He followed on my heels, firing as he went. At the fifth floor, Solo shoved me through the stairwell door, locking it behind us. In a matter of seconds, pounding commenced on the other side.
"Blueprints," he responded shortly, pulling me along behind him once again, "the connection to the dam is somewhere around here."
"The rest of the strike force?" Now that I knew where he was headed, I shook off his hand and strode along with him, half a step behind this time. Silently, Solo pulled the receiver out of his pocket and handed it to me. Only two green monitor lights glowed on its surface: Solo's and mine; all the rest were red or black. I handed the device back to him.
The floor seemed deserted. The most heavily guarded floor of the building due to its connection with the dam, its security complement must have gone down to help repel our attack; there was no one left to impede our progress. A few minutes later, we emerged into the crisp, bright environs of the dam and started upward once again. The detonation of the charges came as a muffled thump through the thick concrete walls. Carefully set to avoid damaging the dam in any way, the charges reduced the building, and especially the northwest corner, to so much slag. No one would even be able to get to the nuclear bomb housed at its core. Mission accomplished.
I dreamt in red for a month.
Solo closed the door to the hotel room firmly behind him, the lock sliding into place with an audible click. "And thank god for that," he muttered, almost too low for me to hear.
I shared his relief at finally being able to place a barrier between ourselves and an outside world which was too often full of sharp-edged choices. The mission had been hard and unrelenting. Each of us had been captured at one time or another, and a complete disaster had been only narrowly averted. In the end, however, we had escaped largely undamaged and the mission was, nominally at least, a success. My heart still beat quick-time from the final excitement of the affair. Solo's dour manner annoyed me, the sort of irritant that can overtake you when the excitement is over and the adrenaline turns sour in your veins.
"I don't know why you're so gloomy. At least you got the girl; all I got was a swim in the mud." Mud with the consistency of cement, at that. I still hadn't gotten all of it out of my hair.
"I'd rather have had the mud," Solo responded rapid-fire.
It was probably true. But that wasn't how Solo's luck worked. He always seemed to end up with the easier, or at least less messy, side of our missions. I knew he wasn't shirking; Solo threw himself into his work with a diligence I might have taken for enthusiasm if I weren't so certain he was half-hoping it'd get him killed. Not that I had any hard evidence to base that belief on; if I had, I'd probably have asked for reassignment. No one wants a suicidal partner, not in our business. No, it was simply his luck that I ended up with all the messy jobs, at least in the purely physical sense.
I hadn't really wanted the girl, in all honesty. I can think of nothing worse than having an innocent clinging to you in the midst of a dangerous situation; trying to keep her alive nearly got Solo killed. Still, it rankled that he attracted them without even really wanting to.
"Take it, with my blessings." I swiped my hand through my gritty hair and patted his immaculate cheek. Childish, really. His startled expression, so different from his usual somber demeanor, not to mention the perfect muddy handprint on his cheek, set me unwisely to laughing.
Suddenly feeling uncharacteristically playful, I brought my muddy hand up for another go at him. He caught my wrist before I could connect, his grip just short of painful. I pulled away, but he only followed my movement, and we both ended up on the floor, Solo's weight driving the breath from my lungs. I grabbed at him with both hands, no longer sure whether I was playing or not and, as usual, almost completely uncertain of his mood.
I rolled with Solo on the floor, wrestling for the upper hand. Neither of us was trying to do real damage to the other; when you can kill a man with your bare hands, you're careful of yourself around friends, even in anger. No punches, kicks or bites, just the pitting of strength against strength. Eventually Solo managed to trap me under his greater weight and pin my hands above my head. I couldn't read his mood in the black eyes which stared down at me as we both panted for breath. Not inclined to end the contest so soon, I bucked, trying to throw him off, and began to squirm.
I'm not certain when our playful wresting became something else. All I know is one minute I was fighting to free myself, and the next we were locked in a different sort of clinch. The spark of anger became a conflagration of desire. Fully clothed, we grappled with each other, mutual combatants in a sensual race which shouldn't have achieved the rapid results it did. I found completion under Solo's solid body, my hands still pinned over my head, his breath sobbing against the side of my neck. It's not supposed to happen that fast, like a flash-flood; nor is it supposed to corrode the very nerves, imprinting them with the eternal remembrance of the moment. It was the oddest, and most powerful, sexual experience I had ever had.
We did not speak of it later, and I often wondered if he had felt the same fire as I.
Getting in was easy.
The target was enfolded in a shroud of military protection, swaddled in a mansion-cum-fortress with a troop of bodyguards on constant alert. With that many people roaming around, slipping through the well-oiled defenses was simplicity itself. There is no role easier to step into than that of a military man. The uniform speaks for itself; it's what people remember, and what they respond to: the seeming of things.
We ambushed two soldiers on their way to the site, dragged them into the bushes and bashed them each over the head. Then we took their places. Not very delicate, but effective.
Finding the target was made simple by the party in full swing at the residence. The host stands out in a crowd, and the crowd allows easy access to any individual in it. Especially if one has taken a post on the interior balcony off the master suite, overlooking the ballroom. I was prepared for any eventuality, except the simple fact of who we'd come to kill.
"You watch the hallway; let me take care of the crowd." Solo's voice came to my ears low and even, as always when we were in the field. I obeyed automatically, taking several steps back to give myself a clearer field of fire, should someone wander into this deserted hallway.
"For god's sake, Solo; it's a woman!" I kept my voice down. I was shocked, not suicidal.
"So?" He knelt by the railing, unshouldering his rifle and preparing it with steady hands.
"So... doesn't it bother you?"
"No more than killing any human being." By which, I realized only later, he meant just as much as it bothered me. At the time, I merely felt chastised for imagining a difference between this one woman and the many men I had already killed in the line of duty.
"But shouldn't we even find out why?"
"We are Enforcement, Kuryakin, not Policy." His voice was deadly cold; his version of anger. "We carry out policy; we don't make it."
That, I realized, was all the answer I would ever get, from him or anyone else. I tucked my discomfort away in the back of my mind, to dwell on at a safer moment, when distraction wouldn't get me killed. There are those who would fault me for that, I know, for not demanding answers. Following orders is little justification for wrongdoing. But I do not believe I ever truly did wrong in my actions for the Command. There had to be some sort of trust; if nothing else, I trusted that the reasons for my orders were good ones. Perhaps it is true that the end justifies the means.
Solo finished affixing the sight and silencer to his rifle and lifted it to rest on the rail. He wrapped his arm through the strap to steady the weapon and brought it to bear on the target.
She was laughing, young and beautiful and alive. He hesitated. Perhaps he was having trouble finding a clear angle of fire. After a minute, the gun gave its modified explosion, and all hell broke loose downstairs.
We were already halfway to the third floor fire escape we'd chosen for our point of departure before the alarms started sounding. Subduing the impulse to run is difficult at times like that, but Solo and I strode unhurriedly toward our goal, neither acknowledging the effort it took to remain outwardly calm. I had taken to walking slightly behind him, especially when on a mission. Thus, I saw the soldier pelting down the corridor we'd just passed before my partner did.
I turned without breaking my stride, smoothly shifting to face the man who lifted his revolver even as I watched. I realized suddenly that it wasn't pointed at me, but at Solo, whose rifle hung from his shoulder by its nylon strap. He was still unaware of the danger. There was no time to shout a warning, or fire, or even think. I stepped into the soldier's line of fire and brought my gun to bear. I think I fired at the same time he did.
The soldier went down, a third eye spouting crimson in the center of his forehead. I felt myself falling as well, an all-too-familiar shocking numbness spreading down my left ribcage. Solo caught me and hauled me up again, all but carrying me to the fire escape. I helped as much as I could as he bundled me down the iron ladder and out into the deceptive safety of the shadowed grounds.
We collapsed momentarily behind a large flowering bush as half a dozen men ran past. Then Solo dragged me to my feet again and steered my stumbling steps in the seemingly endless jog off the grounds and out of danger. He boosted me over the stone wall which marked the edge of the property, and helped me stagger another two dozen feet to where undergrowth and darkness obscured and protected us.
Finally, I was allowed to rest.
The initial numbness had given way to a burning pain which had me biting the inside of my cheek. Though I could feel the hot blood running down my left side, I already knew the wound was not severe. Solo knelt by my side and tore into my ruined shirt, investigating the injury with efficient, and surprisingly gentle, hands.
"It's just a crease," he finally decreed, his voice flat, "but you're bleeding like a pig." He pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it against the torn flesh before pulling my shirt back over the makeshift bandage and applying enough pressure to send up an outcry from my outraged nerves. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"Do what?" I gasped.
"Step between me and that soldier. Were you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Don't know. Didn't plan it." I briefly closed my eyes, trying to overcome my body's weakness.
"Well... don't ever do that again." His voice sounded oddly muffled, and I opened my eyes to find his face turned away from me, hiding his expression.
After a time, Solo was finally convinced the bleeding had subsided a bit, and we moved on. My limbs had stiffened up, and he had to help me to my feet. He continued to keep his face averted, but his hands shook, just slightly. For the first time, I realized all that impassive practicality was just a facade. As cold and hard as glass. And just as brittle.
Six terrorists. Thirty hostages. It should have been the province of the locals to deal with the situation, but someone had called in the Command which, in this case, meant Napoleon and me. The terrorists had locked down the elevators after gaining access to the ten-story building, and posted their sentries at the stairwell entrances to the third floor, where they'd set up shop. They obviously felt secure, with good reason. It was our job to prove them wrong. We circumvented their precautions by coming in from above.
Not being particularly sanguine about heights, I still break into a cold sweat thinking about that stunt. We slid down to the roof on a ridiculously thin wire from the fifteen-story building adjacent. How Solo came up with his battle plans, I never knew; nor was I ever in a position to argue with any of them. He always went first into any situation, willing to take the consequences of his plans head-on. Even if it hadn't been my duty to follow him, that sort of arrogant responsibility required a certain loyalty.
The weight of my Kevlar vest comforting on my shoulders, I slipped ghost-silent down the fire stairs. Two minutes to descend seven floors and be in position at the time Napoleon set. The last I'd seen of him, he was heading down the stairs on the opposite side of the building, little more than a shadow in his black fatigues.
The door said "three" and I paused a moment outside it, catching my breath. I pulled my gun from its holster and checked the clip. The report as I cocked the weapon seemed to echo over-loud in the stairwell, and I winced at the noise. Finally, as ready as I was likely to be, I crouched low and nudged open the door. The first volley of gunfire passed harmlessly over my head, and I straightened and fired before the single sentry just inside the door was able to readjust his angle and fire again. He fell back without a sound.
I stepped over the body and moved cautiously toward the center of the building. Solo would be coming toward me from the other stairwell; the plan was to catch the terrorists between us.
The place was eerily silent, as all office buildings are when deserted. I slipped stealthily through the winding corridors until I finally came to the center of the building. The enormous vaulted ceiling canopied the first three floors, a grand staircase sweeping down to the lobby, with careful balustrades running the full length of the extensive balcony to either side. The hostages huddled at the back of the large open area, as far from their captors as possible.
There were four armed men in the room. Two stood facing the hostages with weapons at the ready, quelling any thoughts of escape. Two more had ranged themselves at opposite ends of the balcony, the closest no more than ten feet from me. I had already killed one terrorist, and no doubt Napoleon had killed the sentry at his stairwell. Six terrorists, as anticipated.
I ducked back into the hallway once I had a clear mental image of the room's layout. Directly across from me, I could see Solo crouched in a doorway on the opposite side of the room. I signaled him cautiously and, receiving the corresponding gesture, took careful aim on the sentry nearest me. My silenced pistol coughed softly and the terrorist slowly crumpled, his collapse simultaneous with the one nearest Solo. Two down; two more to go.
The two guarding the hostages were too busy watching their charges, and too certain of their safety, to notice the nearly-silent deaths of their comrades. Napoleon and I crept forth, moving stealthily closer to a position from which we could safely shoot the remaining men without risking the hostages. I slid up the right side of the room as Solo took the left. The assault went off without a hitch: luckily, the few hostages who noticed us remained silent, and the terrorists never knew what hit them. Two more soft pffts and the remaining terrorists went down.
I called in the coup while Solo supervised the hostages' orderly retreat down the center stairwell. Easy. Too easy, as it happened. Our intelligence was wrong. There were seven terrorists.
The gunshots were simultaneous. My head whipped around at the sound of the terrorist's un-silenced gun. A man in a dark suit, who must have been planted among the hostages, crumpled to the floor as Napoleon's bullet found its mark. I could only watch helplessly as the terrorist's aim proved true as well. The bullet hammered into Napoleon's chest, staggering him back against the balcony railing. I shouted in horror as his momentum tipped him backward over the railing to fall two stories to the lobby.
Shoving people aside, I raced to the edge of the balcony. Looking down, I was both surprised and relieved to see that the second floor extended out, beyond the third, to meet the slope of the staircase. Napoleon hadn't fallen all the way to the ground floor; he lay sprawled on his back about ten feet below me. I ran halfway down the stairs and vaulted over the railing to reach his side quickly.
Napoleon was already beginning to stir, trying shakily to get up. His uncoordinated movements bespoke a man whose brain had not yet caught up with his body. I gently pushed him flat again and held him there as I reached for my communicator.
"Open Channel D. This is Two. Seventh terrorist terminated. Medical team required on the second floor. Eleven is down." Thankfully, my voice didn't shake audibly when I said it.
"This is Channel D. Please clarify, Two: seven terrorists?"
"Yes, seven terrorists, damn it!" Never had I hated that unemotionally efficient voice more. "Send up the medical team, stat!"
"Confirmed. Medical team on its way. Close Channel D."
I put my communicator away and pressed both palms against Napoleon's shoulders. His random movements worried me, both because I feared they indicated some sort of injury to the brain, and because I was afraid he would hurt himself further. A fall like that was almost certain to break bones.
"Lie still, Napoleon. Help is on the way."
His movements slowed, then stopped. He blinked up at me, his face a study in confusion. His hair had fallen across his forehead, giving him a remarkably boyish appearance. I stroked back the soft dark locks.
"Illya?" Aware, if breathless.
"Yes." Now that he seemed more coherent, holding him down was no longer necessary. I put my hands to more important tasks. Napoleon was clearly breathing okay, and there was no blood in evidence. His Kevlar vest parted under my gentle determination, and I carefully brushed aside the shirt underneath to reveal a nasty red bruise just under the collarbone on the left side. The impact injury from the bullet which was deeply imbedded in the material of the vest, it was already turning black. The terrorist had fired from almost point-blank range; if not for the Kevlar, Napoleon would be dead.
"Illya." Napoleon's hand closed on mine. I couldn't think of
any words of reassurance; nor do I suppose he was asking for any. But I
held his hand until the medical team arrived.
Napoleon Solo's infamous luck held: there were no broken bones, bruises the worst he suffered in that fall. Concerned about possible concussion or internal injuries, the doctor kept him under observation in the hospital for the night, what little remained of it, but released him late the next morning with no further incident. To me was left the unenviable task of beginning the clean-up.
It was just as well; I couldn't have slept anyway. The thought of going back to our empty hotel room simply didn't hold any appeal.
By the time Napoleon was released the next day, I already had a line on four of the seven terrorists: identities, backgrounds, next of kin, associations, what-have-you. The idea was to trace any possible connections to established terrorist groups and, incidentally, find out if anyone was likely to stage an attempt at revenge. It went quicker with Napoleon's help.
We interviewed all the hostages, read the ballistics and autopsy reports, ran fingerprints, pictures and retinal scans through the Command's extensive computer system, and generally worked our way through all the unenviable tasks necessary to close the case file. Though he moved a little gingerly, Napoleon's mind was clearly still firing on all cylinders. We identified the last man, the one who'd shot Napoleon, just after six that evening. I think we both breathed a little easier when we were done. None of the seven had been members of any particularly dangerous organization; it seemed an isolated incident, quickly set aside.
Dusk was well advanced when we finally left the local law enforcement offices and headed for the hotel. By unspoken consent, we stopped at the hotel restaurant for a quick dinner. Though Napoleon didn't allow it to show by so much as a word, I suspected fatigue was beginning to lay effective siege. I felt remarkably good, considering I'd been up for more than thirty-six hours; no doubt it would hit me hard once I let myself slow down.
The food was mediocre, but came hot and fast. We ate in familiar silence before trudging up to our room. Napoleon's communicator began beeping the moment we walked through the door. It was Number One. As Napoleon began making his initial report, I nipped into the bathroom for a quick shower, thankful I didn't have to report directly to the head of the Command. He was just signing off when I emerged from my struggle with the ancient plumbing, freshly scrubbed, shaved and wrapped in a towel. Napoleon barely even looked at me as he brushed past to take over the bathroom.
I finished drying my hair and pulled on my pajamas, then began a restless pacing. My shower had left me feeling oddly wakeful, despite my fatigue. I picked up the paper that had been delivered to the unoccupied hotel room that morning, and put it down again unread. Likewise, I turned the television on, then off again, almost before the image registered. I couldn't seem to concentrate on anything but a single thought which had been running amok in my mind since the night before. My roving eye fell on the security kit and I realized Napoleon hadn't had time to run the check; I pulled out the equipment and began going over the room. The activity was too familiar, however, to sufficiently distract me from my thoughts.
I'd long danced around the truth; now I could no longer deny it. Contrary to all expectations, and every effort on his part, I had actually come to trust my partner. I didn't trust the Command, or any of its members; I didn't trust Napoleon's sense of duty where it was concerned, for I knew he'd follow orders to the detriment of his own life, and mine; but I did trust him. He had been the sole constant in my life for the last four years, and the only one I could rely on to get me out of a tight spot. I had begun to think of him as a friend, though that was by far the least of my worries.
Somewhere along the way, I had made the colossal mistake of falling in love with Napoleon Solo.
The thought was viscerally terrifying. I didn't believe Napoleon capable of wanton cruelty, but neither was I certain of his ability to be kind. To love like this was stupidly self-destructive. Loving Napoleon meant living in constant terror of losing him, if not to an enemy bullet, to his inevitable withdrawal should he ever become aware of my feelings.
It had hit me hard last night. Watching Napoleon go over the railing, being unable to do anything to avert the disaster I saw, had torn away the final self-protective veils. A hopelessly painful realization. What good could it do me? I could neither stop loving Napoleon, nor let him know of my love.
I realized suddenly that I'd completed the security check and couldn't remember a minute of it. Cursing my distraction, I started again, forcing myself to pay attention this time. Napoleon was still closed up in the bathroom when I finally finished and packed the equipment away. I realized I hadn't heard water running for some time. No doubt he'd run himself a bath, and was soaking his bruises. Still, he'd been in there overlong.
Moving slowly, so as not to startle, I pushed open the bathroom door. When there was no immediate response, I took a moment to glance around. Napoleon had turned the lights off, leaving the room dully illuminated by the faint light from the room behind me and a tiny glow near the sink, no doubt installed by the management to prevent guests from injuring themselves when making necessary trips in the dark. Still, there was just enough light to see Napoleon. I leaned my shoulder against the door frame and simply stared for a time.
He had indeed run a bath. He lay in the ancient white claw-footed tub, head leaning against the rim, eyes closed, arms resting along the sides of the tub like drowsing sentinels. The water must have been quite hot when first run, for steam still rose from its surface. Moisture dewed his face and upper chest, and curled his dark hair into little tendrils on his forehead. He was really quite ridiculously handsome.
Not one of the glistening muscles even twitched, but his eyes were open suddenly, regarding me steadily.
"I ..." I hesitated, not knowing quite what to say, then changed direction. "Sitting in water that hot for more than fifteen minutes is bad for your heart," I reminded him.
"But good for aches and pains," he remarked quietly without moving.
"So are massages."
"Is that an offer?" His voice was so completely neutral that I couldn't guess whether he wanted it to be or not.
"If you like." It took some effort to keep my own voice equally level. Napoleon's eyes were closed again and, for a moment, I thought he'd already made up his mind.
"Turn out the light in the other room, would you?" He rose slowly to his feet, water pouring off him in thick rivulets. "My eyes have adjusted to the dark."
I complied quickly; it gave me an excuse to turn away, and I was in danger of staring at him as he stepped from the tub. I dawdled over switching off the lights in the hotel room, giving him a chance to towel dry and exit the bathroom. Finally, though, the room was dark and I could just make out the shadow-image of my partner hesitating near one of the beds. I brushed past him and switched on the light in the bathroom, leaving the door open to let the glimmer encroach into the stygian darkness of the bedroom.
I pulled a bottle of hand lotion from my bag and turned to face Napoleon. He had settled into one of the beds and was pulling the blankets up to his neck.
"Be hard to give you a proper rubdown with all those blankets in the way," I pointed out calmly.
"You're my working partner, Illya; not my personal servant." Though his voice was soft, I felt the words like a slap of rebuke. "I'd just like to sleep."
"I somehow doubt you can sleep in that much pain." I'm not sure what gave me the courage; it wasn't always safe to push Napoleon.
"What makes you think I'm in pain?"
"The way you move. Like you're a hundred years old."
He laughed at that. His amusement, though rare, was contagious, and I couldn't help smiling in return. "Only a hundred? I thought a hundred and five, at least." He pushed back the blankets and turned on his belly.
I couldn't move for a moment; something like fear tied my chest in knots. The paralysis broke before Napoleon could become suspicious, however, and I moved to the bedside. With a deep breath to steady my nerves, I climbed onto the bed and straddled his narrow hips. I poured lotion into my hand and set the bottle on the nightstand. The lotion was cool, and I warmed it in my palm a moment before beginning to spread it over his broad shoulders, keeping my touch impersonal with an effort.
Even in the dim room, I could see the dark line of a bruise which cut horizontally across his back just above his waist. The place he'd hit the balcony rail. There were other mementos, though none as bad; I was very careful around each, no doubt painful, contusion. His muscles were drawn tight in protest of his body's pain and the strain he'd put them through. Diligently I worked at them until they slowly began to slacken.
I tried not to notice the velvet feel of his skin under my hands, or the warmth of his body. I couldn't help but notice the scars. The rounded pucker of bullet wounds I had expected, but not the lines of slightly-raised skin, slick of texture. They ran parallel across his back, too many for me to count. Only a whip made such injuries, and this one had been wielded with strength and enthusiasm. Hardly a square inch of skin left untouched. I was careful not to let my fingers linger, or trace the terrible evidence. I forced my hands to pass briskly over his broad back, working at the heavy muscles, my touch as reassuring as I could make it.
His body continued to relax until it finally went completely lax. The cadence of his breathing changed, and I knew he slept. There was a soaring joy in my heart that felt remarkably like pain. He trusted me enough to sleep.
I allowed the tenor of the massage to change. His slumbering oblivion freed me to touch as I desired, but had not dared. My fingertips passed lightly down the length of his spine, sensitized to the warmth and softness of his skin. My hands measured the breadth of his shoulders, the narrowness of his waist, and the angle of his hips. I couldn't feel his ribs through the layer of muscle which blanketed his torso. The short soft hair at the nape of his neck drew my fingers like a magnet. I lightly stroked the upturned cheek, marveling at its smooth perfection. He must have just shaved; perhaps, despite his fatigue, he found it as difficult to sleep on two-days' stubble as I. His lips were soft, and I let my fingers rest against them for a long time, feeling the soft ebb and flow of his breath. The unquestioned proof of life.
Napoleon stirred, murmuring. Startled, I bolted from the bed. Thankfully, even my sudden departure failed to penetrate his deep slumber. He had probably been awake at least as long as I -- doubtless the doctor had forbidden him to sleep while he was under observation for concussion. Silently berating myself for my stupidity, I wandered into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. Bad enough to have dared touch him at all, even with his consent; but downright idiotic to have let myself caress him as I'd done.
My eyes squeezed shut against the light in the small room, triggering my own long-ignored fatigue. A jaw-cracking yawn overtook me. I dried my face and, not bothering to turn out the light, stumbled back into the bedroom.
I can only blame my exhaustion for the fact that I climbed in
with Napoleon. He had rolled to his side, and I curled up against his
back, pulled the covers over us both, and dropped into sleep like a
stone into deep water.
I awoke suddenly to find our positions reversed, and Napoleon Solo wrapped warmly around my back. From the leaden feel of my limbs, I knew I hadn't slept long enough, yet every nerve was suddenly wide awake with a sweet exhilaration.
Napoleon's hands stroked slowly over my bare chest, their unruffled precision unequivocal assurance of his wakefulness, despite the unbelievable nature of his actions. I bit my lip to stifle a moan as his fingers found and gently stimulated a nipple. I could feel his biceps flex under my side, his arm trapped between my body and the mattress. The fingers of that hand rested warmly against my belly, coyly wandering back and forth just above the elastic waist of my pajamas. His moist breath fanned the back of my neck and I couldn't forestall the impatient shift of my body.
I heard his low chuckle, then I was past hearing anything, as his hands dipped into my pajamas and closed around my ready erection. Before the pleasure swallowed me utterly, I had a moment to marvel at the swiftness of my response. How long, I wondered, had he caressed my sleeping body before I awoke? Then it didn't matter any more; nothing mattered.
Napoleon's hands were moving, milking me with a sure, gentle touch. I gave up trying to stifle my moans and pressed myself back against his solid torso. One hand released my swollen cock and slid lightly up my chest, pausing to torment my nipples before traveling up to caress my face. I could smell my own musk on his fingers. My chin cupped in his large palm, he tilted my head back against his shoulder, his lips nuzzling under my ear. I shivered, fighting the impulse to turn my head and let my lips meet his. Such a move could only betray my deeper feelings.
After an eternity of gently sucking the sensitive spot under my jaw, Napoleon released me, shifting marginally away. I shivered once in the cold of his absence, and then he was back. My pajamas were stripped quickly from me, and the bedcovers thrown unceremoniously back. Nudging my top leg forward, he gently pushed me half onto my stomach. I moaned involuntarily as his fingers, slick with lotion, slid between my legs. He continued to stroke my aching cock as two fingers plunged into my welcoming body.
I don't know how long I writhed at the command of his hands. Time had become meaningless. I trembled suddenly on the brink, fighting completion with a desperation I hadn't ever felt before. I couldn't let it happen this way.
Frantically, I grabbed his wrist, stilling his hand on my cock. My desperate grip must have been bruising, but he didn't make a sound, or pull away. The fingers of his other hand slowed, then stopped their intoxicating thrust. I pulled away carefully, oddly surprised when he released me without demur. Hardly able to command the shaking of my limbs, I rolled slowly to my back and guided him down on top of me. His warm chest pressed to mine, I spread my legs to cradle him between my thighs.
In the dim light from the bathroom, I could see him staring down at me with a mildly questioning look. After a brief hesitation, he pulled away, leaving me bereft of his weight. Napoleon warmed the lotion in his hands before spreading it on his erection, and I tried not to tremble with the joy and fear.
He gathered my legs in his arms and leaned down over me, pushing my knees back towards my chest. I felt his hands on my hips, and the snub head of his cock pressed against my ass. Then there was nothing in the world but the hot, hard length of him sliding into me. I climaxed on the instant, awash in a world of light and sound and untold pleasure, crying out his name and bruising his strong arms with my grip.
When the world returned to me, Napoleon was waiting with an easy patience belied by the hot throbbing erection still sunk to my core. I made to apologize for my lack of control, but his hand covered my mouth before I had done more than open my lips. Gently, he slid my legs off his shoulders, guiding them down to clasp loosely about his waist. I heard myself moan as the changed angle pressed his cock more firmly against my prostate. He lowered himself until his chest brushed mine, and I closed my hands over the heavy muscles of his shoulders. Then he began to move.
There is no way to describe the feeling of Napoleon's body possessing mine. No simple sexual pleasure this, to be summed up in a few inadequate words. It was tenderness, and power, and a pleasure so strong it was pain. For the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid of being owned. Not so long as it was to this man that I belonged.
I was glad I had already come, for it meant that I wasn't overwhelmed by my own sexual response. With no distractions, I could focus on the feel of him moving in and over me. The broad head of his cock clove my flesh, stretching and caressing as it plunged deep, then retreated, only to repeat the action again, and again. The powerful muscles of his back rippled under my hands, and his smooth chest brushed over mine. The friction of his cock over my prostate sent sparks of ecstasy cascading through me at odd intervals. Wanting him deeper, I lifted my knees and wrapped my legs higher around his barrel chest.
He made a small gasping sound, and thrust harder into me. The power of his possession, and the broadness of his chest between my clasping knees, made me feel that he might split me in half. Wildly, I wished he would, so that I might encompass him completely, body and soul, and close around him, that I might keep him safe and protected, and forever mine.
I opened my eyes, not remembering when I had closed them, and looked up at him. In the semi-dark, his face shone with sweat, only inches from mine. Napoleon's eyes were open, and I tumbled into the black depths. It was like looking through a telescope into the night sky: what had been featureless darkness was now awash in light and color. Tenderness and laughter, love and fear, and a million other emotions tumbled about in the depths of his suddenly unshuttered eyes, culminating in a supernova of such depth and passion it was almost insupportable.
Napoleon groaned, stiffening in the extremity of pleasure, but
his eyes never left mine as his body spilled itself into me. The hot
wash of his seed filled me, provoking a completely unanticipated
reaction as I climaxed again. Panting at the unexpected wash of
pleasure, I gratefully accepted Napoleon's anchoring weight as he
settled wearily against me. He laid his head on my shoulder and sighed,
sinking instantly into slumber. Releasing my cramped legs to slide down
his, I stroked his dark hair, cuddling him close with impunity, and
followed him into sleep.
The next day, we went about our business as usual, as if the whole world hadn't changed that night. I might have believed that I alone had felt the power of it, except that he occasionally sought me out after that. It wasn't just sex, for he always stayed and held me in slumber. And he never again took me from the front, for fear of what his eyes would show me.
It wasn't entirely what I wanted, but it was enough.
I have often thought of all we might have been in another time. Napoleon might have been a suave sophisticate, his bland expression hiding nothing more than his desires; a lady-killer only in the most benignly euphemistic of terms. I might have been given the chance to learn trust and a more open manner of relating to people. I could not imagine myself more outgoing, but the world might have been more tolerant of my faults. The relationship Napoleon and I shared might have been something in which we could both believe, a source of strength to draw on when pitting ourselves against the world. We might have approached our foes with the anticipation of victory, and the certainty of our own place on the side of justice. We might have been partners in everything; one of mind and heart as well as body. We might have been everything to each other.
But there was no other time. There was only here and now.
I had killed so many times the incidents blurred together. I could no longer recall a single face. It seemed to me that I should have been able to remember those people whose lives I had cut short. Yet even that was not the reason, though it was reason enough.
I was tired. Tired of killing, tired of the struggle to
survive. But, most of all, I was tired of watching Napoleon get hurt.
Though I would never have more of him than I encompassed in the
occasional shared bed, I couldn't help but love him. His pain was mine.
And it finally became too heavy to bear.
However, one could not quit the Command as easily as all that. It was a life-long commitment.
No Enforcement agent ever leaves the Command. Alive. The Command gave its Enforcement agents everything, taking superlative care of those who served it. But it could never allow the training and knowledge given to us to serve anyone else. As such things could not be entirely erased from the mind, no agent could be allowed to leave the Command.
I was lucky; in my five years with the Command I had never received a termination order on another agent. I knew without asking that Napoleon had not been so lucky in his tenure. I dreaded what I was about to do to him.
I knew that, when I ran, they would send Napoleon after me. He was the best, and had the advantage of knowing me from the height of my skills to the depth of my soul. I knew they would send him, and I knew he would find me. And when he did, he would kill me. I had no illusions that I had reached past the barricades into the heart of the man, that I had perchance touched him deeply enough to steer him aside from his duty. No, Napoleon Solo would kill me. There was an odd sort of comfort in that.
How many times in my life would I come to the moment of reckoning? How many times would I have to choose between a slow lingering death by inertia and the sudden and potentially lethal blaze of action? Run and be killed or stay and be damned.
I planned carefully. The Command, and Napoleon's own tutelage, had taught me to anticipate and plan for all variables. It took me six months of secretive preparation.
An enforcement agent's salary was good, and I had spent very little of the money funneled monthly into my account. I started there. Weaving my way in and out of the Command's computer system, and the banking systems of a dozen different nations, I created a complex chain of transactions which could be set in motion by a single command. There's no such thing as "untraceable," but I hoped to slow them down enough to be able to get my money before they worked their way through to the end of the trail. The timing would be close, but I was used to that.
A new passport would have to wait until I had the money in hand. If I got one before making my escape, it might be discovered before I was ready to run. Besides, I couldn't afford to limit the number of black marketers they had to search to find the one I had used. However, if I used my own passport to fly to Europe, I could move from country to country within the European Community without betraying myself. Somewhere there I'd take my new name.
I had no belongings I couldn't do without; nothing with a sentimental attachment. There was nothing I'd miss when I left the Command, and only one person. I fully expected to see him hard on my heels once they figured out what I'd done.
One last time; one last time he had to come to me. I couldn't say goodbye, but I had to feel his smooth warm skin against mine, the hot brush of his breath against my neck, the tender fury of his possession. Once more. One more time to last a lifetime.
And that last time, for the first time, he kissed me. Napoleon's lips brushed mine; he took my breath away, and returned it mixed with his own. In the sweet slow return to reality I felt the touch of his mouth and could have cried for the joy and pain of it all.
I left the next day, before the sun rose.
Napoleon caught up with me in Paris, and again in Rome. Both times I escaped by the skin of my teeth, and the lucky chance of seeing him before he caught sight of me. For once the Solo luck was working for someone else.
The first thing I did was dye my hair from its distinctive white-blond to a nondescript brown. I knew Napoleon would assume I'd done so, but my natural hair color made me stand out too much in a crowd. Perhaps it was that precaution which saved me those first two times; knowing I wouldn't be blond wouldn't have stopped him from automatically looking for a blond when he cast his eyes around a crowd.
I beat him to the final bank on my money's whirlwind tour by no more than an hour, withdrew the lot in cash and deposited most of it in another bank on the other side of Venice. Two days later, I established a numbered account in Geneva from a cybercafe in Athens and electronically transferred the money into it. I didn't buy a new passport (blackmarket and very expensive) until I hit Bonn.
I'll never know how he finally caught up with me. Perhaps it
was the same psychic link that had made us an almost unbeatable team.
But just after I left Berlin I started to see him again, always just at
the edge of my vision. It made me nervous to catch sight of him in a
crowd, or notice the car trailing me at an easy distance. Why didn't he
just get it over with?
I can only assume I must have become careless, so caught up in looking over my shoulder that I forgot to keep a weather eye on my surroundings.
The tire blew with a muffled explosion, twisting the wheel out of my hands. I grabbed hard, trying to control the car's wild swerve on the narrow unpaved country road. A low wall of unmortared stone sprang up before me, bringing the automobile to a crunching halt. After a long moment of paralyzed shock, I fumbled out of the car to take a look around.
My head ached; I suppose I must have hit it on the steering wheel. But there was no blood, which I took to be a good sign. The car had not fared so well. It was smashed against the rough stone wall which paralleled the road. A cursory inspection revealed that it wasn't likely to be going anywhere on its own: the front axle was broken.
I had only just crawled back out from under the car when a jeep surged out of the undergrowth and fishtailed onto the road. It screeched to halt, disgorging half a dozen shabbily dressed men who descended on me post-haste. Another six or seven pelted out of the underbrush after the vehicle. More than half of them were armed, and several brandished rifles with a disconcerting fervor. I dared not make a move, as I knew for certain that at least one of them was a good enough marksman to shoot out the tire of a moving car. At any rate, my pistol was unfortunately still in the car. Berating myself for my stupidity, I cautiously raised my hands.
They were all over me in an instant. I patiently bore the brisk prodding of filthy fingers until they were certain I wasn't armed, ruthlessly containing my relief as they missed the explosive concealed on the underside of my belt buckle. I was forced to kneel in the road near the jeep, the muzzle of a pistol pressed to my temple, while they held an excitable, and almost entirely incomprehensible, discussion over my head. Having been in worse situations, I stayed calm and waited for an opportunity to present itself, occupying myself with trying to figure out what they were talking about.
I wasn't familiar with the dialect but, from what I could make out, the argument seemed to be about what to do with me. The options began with killing and robbing me of all I owned, and went downhill from there. Of all the stupid, idiotic... To have survived my imprisonment in Russia, five years of the Command, and countless harebrained stunts with Napoleon, only to be killed now, by a band of pennyante criminals. It didn't bear thinking on.
The loud conversation was interrupted before it could come to any definite conclusion when a man who'd been stationed a little down the road as a sentry came rushing up. I didn't have to understand his shouting to figure out what was going on; once the bandits fell silent the engine noise of an approaching vehicle could be clearly heard. They deployed themselves quickly around the two vehicles, prepared to mimic the dazed participants in a car wreck. My position close to the jeep would keep me out of sight until their next victim arrived.
I knew it was Napoleon even before he rounded the corner on a sleek motorcycle, bare-headed, his light jacket billowing as he bent low over the handlebars. Seeing him only confirmed it. And I knew they'd kill him outright; jackals like this wouldn't dare try to take on another live captive. He made an easier mark than I had, vulnerable on his motorcycle, a dark shadow against the sky.
If I warned him, one of two things would happen: they would kill me instantly, or he would kill me once he'd thwarted their attack. If I did not warn him, then they would certainly kill him, and I would only have one set of enemies to deal with, and at least a fighting chance at survival. It was an oddly easy decision.
"Napoleon, look out!" I shouted the warning at the top of my lungs, simultaneously pulling the feet out from under the man who held his gun on me. I smashed his head against the jeep, and scrambled to snatch up the gun dropped from nerveless fingers.
The rest of the thieves were on the other side of the jeep from me, and several bullets pinged off the carapace when I popped my head quickly up to survey the situation. Napoleon's motorcycle was abandoned in the middle of the roadway, the front wheel spinning lazily in ever slower revolutions. Of him I could see no sign, although knowing him I guessed he had probably leapt off the bike at my shout and vaulted over the retaining wall.
Deciding to focus on the closer threat, several of them came over the jeep at me. I shot one, then rolled under the vehicle, placing the explosive charge from my belt on the undercarriage before squirming out the other side. The last thing they expected was for me to suddenly stand up in their midst.
I fired twice before they could get their wits about them, then threw myself out of the immediate blast range. The jeep went up with a dull whump and a tongue of flame, immediately followed by an even larger explosion when the gas tank caught. I prudently stayed down until the shrapnel stopped flying, then leapt up to deal with the remaining bandits, most of whom had dropped their guns to clap their hands to their ears when the jeep blew. I lost the pistol somewhere along the way, but it hardly mattered, as the wrap-up was mostly a matter of fisticuffs.
After that, things became something of a blur.
I didn't need to look to know what Napoleon was doing. We were as we had always been: a perfect team. Even in the midst of the fight, I had a moment of grief for that. I had known I'd miss Napoleon as a lover; it had never occurred to me that I'd regret the loss of this wordless communion in the eye of violence.
It was over fairly quickly. The thieves had chosen the wrong prey this time; they wouldn't have the opportunity to regret their mistake. When the only bodies around me were scattered in the dust, I drew myself up and turned to face my executioner.
Napoleon stared at me for a minute, gun dangling casually from his hand, then slowly holstered the weapon before glancing down at himself with a grimace and starting to brush road dust off his jacket. He paused, touched his fingers to his left shoulder, and looked at them in bemusement. They were splotched with red. We both stared at his hand with a sort of startled incomprehension for a moment. Then he laughed softly and sat down suddenly in the road. I was at his side in an instant.
Peeling his jacket away, I was relieved to see the wound wasn't too bad. The bullet -- or piece of shrapnel from the jeep, I'm not sure which -- had passed cleanly through his shoulder without, apparently, hitting bone or any of the vital arteries. Solo's luck again. I wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him slide back until he was propped against the stone wall. Never one to carry a handkerchief, I pulled Napoleon's out of his inside pocket and pressed it to the slowly-bleeding wound.
He hadn't said a single word, though I could feel his eyes on me. After several nerve-wracking minutes, I broke the silence.
"Aren't you going to kill me?"
"I should. At least then I'd always know where you were."
Warm fingers lightly brushed my cheek, but I didn't dare look up. I felt suddenly that to do so would be the most dangerous action of a dangerous life. I concentrated on pressing his handkerchief tightly to his shoulder.
"Does it hurt?" I finally found the courage to look at him.
"Horribly." Napoleon's eyes locked with mine and I knew he didn't mean his arm. The smile that twisted the corners of his mouth changed him entirely. The cold-blooded killer was gone, and the Napoleon I had known in only brief scattered moments looked out from behind his eyes.
His gun was suddenly pressed to my chest, the muzzle deathly cold, even through my shirt. His eyes didn't release mine, which was just as well, for I had no particular desire to look down at the means of my death. For a second that lasted an eternity, I remembered my initiation into the Command: pressing the muzzle of a gun to Napoleon's forehead, and being unable to fire. I knew he had no such compunction. Almost before my skin had registered the press of hard metal, he pulled the trigger.
There was a dull click as the hammer sprang down on an empty chamber. My lungs ached as I drew in a shaky breath.
"You knew the clip was empty."
"Yes." Napoleon put his gun back in the holster. "You bought a new passport."
"Yes," I responded, though it was not a question.
"Don't tell me the name." The instruction was spoken rapidly, as if to forestall a more pressing desire. I would not have told him, even had he asked, but I couldn't help wishing somehow that he had. "Give me your Command ID and papers."
Silently, I handed them over, the freedoms and shackles of the last five years. I don't even know why I'd kept them until then -- a connection with Napoleon, perhaps. Napoleon looked at each piece carefully, turning them over in his hands as if he were memorizing them. He deliberately smeared my yellow and black identification card with his own blood before tucking it into the inside pocket of his jacket. The other papers burned quickly when touched by the flame of his lighter. We watched them sift into ashes.
"Now I may truthfully tell them that Illya Kuryakin is dead. I put my gun to his heart and pulled the trigger."
I blinked at him. I suppose, in a way, I was still expecting him to kill me. He smiled suddenly, brilliantly... bitterly. One palm pressed against the rough stone wall for balance, Napoleon slowly pushed himself to his feet. I stood and helped him up.
Braced against the wall, he reached for me. His palms framed my face and, for a time, he merely looked at me. I couldn't have turned aside if I'd wanted to. His eyes searched my face with an intensity I'd only ever seen once before: flat on my back with my legs wrapped around his waist, his face hovering in the dark above me, eyes burning into mine.
Finally, he sighed and drew my mouth to his. Napoleon's kiss was strong and somehow desperate. He fed at my mouth as if he'd draw my soul from my chest along with my last breath. He broke off only when both of us were gasping for air, and leaned his forehead against mine.
"Go," he whispered once he'd refilled his lungs with crisp air. His warm breath fanned my face. I didn't move.
His hands had moved from my face to my shoulders. His fingers tightened on my arms, hard enough to leave bruises I would hate and love for the next week, for they would remind me bitterly of him. The strength of his hands was brutal, despite the shoulder wound. Napoleon pushed himself back against the cold stone wall, setting me away from him, though his hands never left me.
I swayed closer to catch the soft words, incidentally drinking in the warmth of the man. He growled inarticulately.
Napoleon's hands turned me by the shoulders, setting my back to him. He released me, then gave me a small push. "Go. Now. While I still have the strength to let you."
And I walked away from him. Through the bodies, the smoking wreck of the jeep to the left, the crumpled hulk of my car on the right; our own private Golgotha.
I looked back. I had to. He was watching me. Leaning against the low wall of rough fieldstone, immune to the insidious cold which seeped from the rock: my man in black. He held a white handkerchief to his shoulder and the blood stained his fingers crimson. His dark hair looked stark black against the gray sky; his eyes, stones of deepest obsidian set in that handsome face. I wondered if there was anyone alive in the world but me who knew how they could soften and sparkle.
I turned and strode away, before his siren call could lure me back.
He never said the words. I doubt they are even in his vocabulary. But I know that Napoleon Solo loved me, for he let me go.
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