|Artie hurried as much as possible under the constraints of
silence, checking each door he saw. Jim had to be around here
somewhere. He refused to admit the possibility his partner might
already be dead. Dr. Miguelito Loveless's greatest failing was his
tendency to keep James West alive. Not that Artie was complaining, mind
you. Like a little boy, Loveless was so full of himself and delighted
with the genius of his work that he just had to share it. For some
reason, only West would do. So the mad genius invariably kept Jim
alive, gloating over his planned revenge, showing him all his plans and
inventions in his eternal search for approval.
Slipping into Loveless's stronghold had been simplicity itself -- one only had to look the part. This time, all it had taken was a hooded cloak. Artie wondered vaguely why Loveless always hired stupid henchmen; maybe he would have felt threatened by smarter men. Getting in was easy; finding Jim, however, was another matter. The endless corridors of blank doors, all unlocked, all opening onto bare rooms, proved taxing on Artie's nerves.
Finally, he discovered a door which didn't yield when he tried the handle. Subduing his excitement, Artie pulled out his lockpick and set to work.
"Jim, I..." Artie began speaking before he stepped through the door, and stopped abruptly once he got a look inside. "You're not James West."
"Not last time I looked," the man responded amiably. Handsome, with dark hair and twinkling eyes, he smiled in a friendly manner. For all his geniality, however, there was an air of impersonal menace about him. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, cradling the motionless form of a smaller blond man in his arms.
"What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for our good host to decide what to do with us, I expect." He didn't seem particularly concerned, his flippant attitude reminding Artie of Jim. The stranger lifted one shoulder, shifting his clasp on the man lying against his chest.
"What's wrong with your friend?" Artie belatedly found his concern.
"Nothing. It's his turn to sleep." That half-shrug again, accompanied by another faint grin. Artie wondered how anyone could sleep through the conversation. "Your friend, James West -- he an athletic-looking fellow, dark hair, tight pants?" Artie grinned at the description, nodding vigorously. "Well then, the little guy has him cooped up in that lab of his."
"You must mean Dr. Loveless."
"Oh, is that his name?" Again, he didn't seem too concerned one way or another. Artie raised an eyebrow at him, and he explained, "We didn't really bother to ask."
"Meet one megalomaniac scientist, you've met them all," the blond remarked in a lightly-accented voice without opening his eyes.
"You might have told me you were awake," the dark-haired one commented with a slight overtone of annoyance. "My arms were beginning to cramp." He released the smaller man, who sat up and patted his hair into place, both hands running briskly through the sides, then one smoothing down the bangs. "So," the first man said, standing and brushing the dust off his oddly-cut suit with absent-minded precision, "shall we go find Mr. West?"
"We?" Artie questioned, not at all certain he trusted either of these men, who gave off the menacing air of professional gunfighters.
"You want to find your friend; we want out of here," the blond answered, accepting his companion's hand-up and striding quickly toward the door, oblivious to the light coating of dust on his dark suit. The dark-haired man followed close on his heels.
Artie shrugged and trailed along behind. He probably could use some help dealing with Loveless and his henchmen.
"... a gateway into another dimension," Loveless gloated, wringing his hands in maniacal glee.
"I see," Jim countered in a bored tone, "a magic door."
Artie grinned at his partner's typical insouciance, always so effective with the little doctor. He and the two strangers peered cautiously through the door into Loveless's lab. Jim looked his usual healthy self, though his patience was clearly wearing thin. Artie couldn't blame him; West hardly looked comfortable, with his hands tied to a bracket high over his head, feet barely touching the floor. A quick glance around the room offered Artie no clue what Loveless was up to this time. Though he was of a scientific bent, Artemus would have been hard-pressed to discern the use, or even origin, of three-quarters of the gadgets in the large room, which hummed with energy.
"No, no, no!" Loveless indulged himself in a brief fit, jumping up and down in annoyance. "How could you, with your dull, mundane mind, even begin to comprehend what I've done? I've forced an opening in the fabric of time and space itself! Don't you see what this means?"
"I'm sure you're going to tell me," West responded, deadpan. His bright eyes met Artie's briefly; clearly he was aware of help on the way, but in no way did the knowledge show on his handsome face.
Artemus was all for staging an instant rescue, but the dark-haired stranger held him back, gesturing that he wanted to hear what Loveless was raving about. On second thought, Gordon had to admit that was a good idea, given Loveless's propensity for inventing nasty gadgets.
"Through that gateway is a whole other world," Loveless boasted, gesturing at an oddly distorted door frame on the opposite wall, through which a vague mist floated. "An entirely different time and place. I've already been able to drag people from that world into this one. Once I'm certain it's safe, I'll go through myself. Just imagine," he giggled, "another world -- one free of your incessant interference -- a world of unknown resources and incalculable possibilities. Imagine what I could accomplish."
"I think I've heard enough," the dark-haired man murmured to Artie. He tapped his partner on the shoulder and they exchanged some sort of abbreviated sign language. Half a second later they were through the door, rolling smoothly to each side, moving in perfect tandem. The men Loveless had stationed just inside the door never knew what hit them.
Gordon watched the performance with aesthetic appreciation for a moment before recollecting himself and moving to free Jim. His knife made short work of the ropes binding Jim's hands and feet. In his hurry to release his partner, however, Artie made the mistake of turning his back on Loveless. Taking full advantage of the brief lapse of attention, Loveless scuttled out one of his tiny escape hatches, shouting for Voltaire. Though Artie lunged after him, the trapdoor snapped shut before he reached it and proved impossible to budge. Jim and Artie exchanged a resigned glance.
Luckily, Loveless's tame giant did not put in an appearance. Voltaire was, Artie concluded dismally, probably helping the little doctor make good his escape. Instead, a dozen mangy cowboys burst into the room, collectively less intelligent than any one of the men already there, but physically a disaster in the making. The two strangers, having just finished dealing with their opponents, turned to meet the new rush, Jim and Artie only steps behind.
The room dissolved into a melee.
Napoleon ducked instinctively as a limp body flew past him. Momentarily free of the brawl, he glanced around to see the young man -- Jim, wasn't it? -- right in the thick of it. He seemed to make up in athleticism what he lacked in stature, and was giving his half-dozen attackers a run for their money.
"He's pretty good," a slightly-winded Illya commented from
Napoleon's right. Solo was forced to agree; the young man was more than
holding his own. The two U.N.C.L.E. agents shared a brief look of
understanding before leaping back into the fray.
"You okay, Artie?"
Artemus gave himself a good shake in an attempt to reorient himself, and looked up to see Jim offering him a hand. He took it and let his partner pull him to his feet, still feeling the effects of the last couple of blows his opponent had gotten in. His misfortune, not having a head as hard as Jim's.
Glancing about groggily, he noted the battered bodies strewn all over the floor and the general destruction of Loveless's lab. The two strangers were picking through the debris, apparently looking for something.
"Loveless?" Artie asked, when he could get his tongue around the word. Jim shook his head, and Artie sighed, knowing that only meant the little man would reappear sooner than usual. Somehow, Loveless always managed to slip away; and he had a knack for showing up again at the worst possible time. Feeling steadier, Artemus shrugged off Jim's support and turned to watch their strange colleagues.
"It's no good, tovarich," the blond sighed, gingerly letting broken glass sift through his fingers. "Even if we knew how he did it, there's no chance of piecing this back together."
The older man sighed as well and stood up, dusting off his hands. He gave his partner a hand up and glanced around the room with vague distaste. "We're stuck here, then."
"And Waverly doesn't know to look for us, even if U.N.C.L.E. could figure out where. You always do pick the wrong places to vacation," he added with a sketchy smile.
His companion only shot him a speaking look.
"I don't know who you are," Artie stepped into the unexpectedly heavy silence, "but thank you for your help."
"We were trying to help ourselves as well," the dark-haired man answered with a shrug, "though it all seems to have been for nothing."
"I don't follow," Jim responded, moving forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Artie, who found the physical proximity reassuring and worrisome at the same time. West only found such solidarity necessary when he felt threatened.
The blond smiled faintly, without amusement. "You might say we're a long way from home."
"Loveless said he'd dragged people through from another world," Artie remembered suddenly. "You?"
"Unfortunately," the brunet answered, his gesture encompassing the defunct gateway, through which they could now only see the wall. Leaving the conversation to his companion, the blond wandered off to poke through the smashed room some more. The brunet rubbed the back of his neck, his expression rueful. "I honestly don't know what to do now."
"Come back to the train with us," Artie offered, torn between a desire to keep an eye on these two and pity for their plight. He ignored the warning pressure of Jim's shoulder against his. "We'll see what we can do from there. Loveless almost never completely abandons his projects; he may build another doorway."
"Then we'll have to stick with you. We can't afford to let him make his way through to our world." He glanced briefly at his partner, who nodded shortly and stood, the pockets of his jacket bulging with whatever he'd salvaged from the wreckage.
"Imagine what Thrush would make of him," the man commented cryptically, returning to join them. The dark-haired one winced emphatically.
"Lead on then, mister...?" He raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Artemus Gordon," Jim spoke up, "and I'm James West."
The blond man muffled a sound suspiciously like a snort and elbowed his companion. "Artemus -- that's almost as good as yours."
"And you're a fine one to talk, Illya Nickovetch," came the prompt retort, accompanied by a return nudge. He turned urbanely to introduce himself, as if the aside had never occurred. "I'm Napoleon Solo, and this is my friend and partner, Illya Kuryakin. We're enforcement agents for U.N.C.L.E."
"That would be this Uncle Waverly you mentioned?" Artie clarified, not sure what to make of "enforcement agent" yet.
Solo grinned in genuine amusement. "Ah, not exactly. U.N.C.L.E. is a what, not a who. It stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. We're what you might call international troubleshooters. Mr. Waverly is our boss."
One of the bodies abandoned in the wreckage on the floor chose that moment to stir and moan, reminding them they were hardly in a safe location.
"I suggest we retreat post-haste," Artie recommended, already
heading for the door. The others were apparently in general agreement,
for they followed without comment.
"I left the horses over that hill," Artemus directed, striking out for the green hollow where he'd hobbled the animals to graze. He was eager to get out of there before they were caught in one of Loveless's inevitable traps.
"Horses?" Solo echoed in disbelief.
"Only two, I'm afraid," Artie responded, mistaking the question in the man's voice. "We'll have to ride double."
"Ride double? I'm not sure I can ride at all!"
"Don't worry, Napoleon," Kuryakin put in, a suspicious tilt to the corners of his mouth, "I'll steer; all you have to do is hang on."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, you little Cossack?"
"Haven't you ever ridden a horse before, Mr. Solo?" Jim asked suspiciously. He tended to believe that anyone who couldn't ride was certain to be up to no good. Something about his upbringing, no doubt.
"At summer camp, when I was five! There's not much call for it in New York," he added, a little defensively.
Jim frowned, exchanging a look with Artie. Even in the city, riding was more a necessity than not.
"Napoleon," Kuryakin broke in suddenly, his eyes on the small town just visible in the distance, "did Loveless claim he could transport people through time, or space?"
"I think he said both, why?"
"Well, considering the clothes I've seen, the buildings over there, and the guns our friends are carrying, I'd say we've been pulled back in time. I think you Americans call this the 'wild wild west,' do you not?"
"There's only one 'wild' in that phrase, tovarich," Solo corrected him.
Kuryakin sighed. "American idioms! Nevertheless..."
"Nevertheless, you seem to be right." He stopped walking to look critically about him. A look of uncertainty, almost fear, passed briefly over his face, and his hand moved automatically to his left shoulder in a gesture Artie couldn't quite place. Alarm and annoyance replaced the fear. "Damn! Illya, we left our guns and communicators back there."
"No, we didn't." The blond pulled two odd-looking guns and a pair of strange silver pens out of one bulging pocket and handed one of each over to his companion. He slid his own gun into an unusual holster inside his jacket and looked critically at the pen for a moment before tucking it into an inside pocket. "The communicators are completely useless, of course, unless we get back home."
Napoleon examined his gun with brisk efficiency before slipping it into its holster and tucked the pen into a pocket of his jacket. He smoothed the fabric briefly, his hand instinctively patting the holstered gun. This time Artie placed the gesture; it was no different from the way Jim swept his fingers over the butt of his gun when he was nervous. Clearly reassured by the weight of the weapon at his side, Solo started walking again. Jim shadowed him, walking a wary distance from the man, and just slightly behind. Artie fell in beside Kuryakin.
"That's a strange-looking gun you have there," Artemus said after a moment, overcome with curiosity. The blond flicked him a quick glance out of the corner of one intense blue eye. "May I see it?" Artie ventured when no reply was forthcoming.
Both eyes turned fully on him then, subjecting him to a perusal which more than surpassed even Jim at his iciest. Jim's eyes were a darker, softer blue, capable of glittering hardness, but not quite this level of frost. After several long minutes, the ice seemed to thaw a bit, and the blond actually smiled a little.
"If I may see yours," the softly-accented voice responded. Detecting the curiosity in that tone, Artie grinned, realizing he'd met a kindred spirit.
"Here," he handed over his gun without a moment's qualm, vaguely glad that Jim's suspicious attention was focused on Solo, leaving Artie to "guard" Kuryakin. West would probably have his head for this. The cold weight of Kuryakin's gun settled into his hand a moment later.
Though all afire with curiosity about the weapon he held, Artie found it more interesting to watch his companion's investigation of the revolver. Illya's fingers passed quickly through an experienced check of the weapon, cracked the cylinder to shake out a bullet for brief examination, then reloaded and reset the gun. He glanced up with a smile in his eyes.
"A Colt .45," he decreed. "I've practiced with one similar to this at the firing range on occasion. A nice weapon." He handed it back, watching curiously as Artie returned his revolver to the holster on his hip and turned his attention to the strange gun in his other hand.
"Where's the cylinder?" he asked after a quick visual perusal of the weapon, a little chagrined that he couldn't demonstrate an equal familiarity with this weapon as his companion had shown with the Colt.
"The magazine is housed in the butt," Kuryakin explained, showing Artie how to release the rectangular container. "It holds eight rounds: four bullets and four sleep darts."
"Sleep darts?" Artie questioned, gingerly sliding the slim rectangular magazine back into the gun with a satisfying click.
"U.N.C.L.E. prefers that we take our adversaries alive whenever possible," Kuryakin explained.
"But sleep darts!" Artie persisted, having had some experience of such weapons. "By the time they take effect, your opponent will have shot you."
"Actually, they're very fast-acting. No less effective than a bullet." Illya smiled a little, seeing Artie's continued skepticism. He lightly lifted the gun from Gordon's hands and checked the magazine, flipping a small lever on the side of the gun. "Shall I demonstrate?"
Before Artemus could protest, or even have time to be concerned, Illya had turned and shouted his partner's name. Napoleon swung around, his eyes widening when he saw Kuryakin's gun.
"Don't you dare, Illya Nickovetch!"
"Sorry, Napoleon." And he pulled the trigger.
The sound was the same as a bullet, but there was no explosion of blood on the other end. Napoleon staggered slightly, his eyes already glazing over.
"I'll get you for this," he managed softly before swaying off his feet.
"Jim!" Artie shouted, and his partner quickly grabbed the unconscious man before he toppled over on his face and lowered him gingerly to the ground. They knelt at Solo's side, watching in confusion as Illya checked over his partner with gentle hands. He carefully extracted the drug-dart and handed it over to Gordon.
"You see; it takes effect very quickly."
"He's going to be mad when he wakes up," Artemus predicted. Kuryakin only shrugged.
"No doubt. But I still owed him for that 'pussycat' thing last
time we were in Paris." Illya pulled Napoleon into a fireman's carry
and stood with a grunt, settling the larger man's weight on his
shoulders. "Besides, he really hates horses."
Napoleon didn't stir until they reached the train. The nearest siding to Loveless's hideout was some distance away, and the unconscious man had made the entire journey slung over the saddle in front of Kuryakin.
Artemus swung down from behind Jim and took the reins from Kuryakin. He watched critically, ready to jump in should his help be required, as Illya manhandled his partner off the horse. Jim helped Illya guide Napoleon's stumbling feet up the stairs into the train and Artie led both horses around to the ramp entrance to the stable car. He left the horses in the care of the engineer, who also doubled as a stablehand, and returned to the parlor.
Napoleon was lying on the couch with one arm thrown over his eyes. "I'm going to report this to Waverly," he threatened weakly.
"We're not on assignment, Napoleon," Illya reminded him, taking the wet cloth Jim offered him and sitting on the edge of the couch. "Mr. Waverly won't be asking for a report on our vacation."
"I'll report it to him anyway. Insubordination; attacking a superior officer!" Napoleon pushed himself up on one elbow, then apparently thought better of the move. Illya helped him lie back down, then laid the damp cloth over his eyes.
"Just lie still and you'll feel better in a moment."
"Damn Russian," Napoleon murmured from under the cloth.
"Stubborn American," Illya retorted with a smile. He smoothed the cloth over his partner's face, then patted his chest lightly, with obvious affection.
"Was it really necessary to shoot him?" Jim asked after a moment. He offered a second wet cloth to Artie to wash off some of the dust of the road. Artemus was glad to see that West had relaxed a little; he was now firmly convinced that their guests were on the same side as they were, and it was a relief to know that his partner apparently thought the same.
"Your partner wanted a demonstration," Kuryakin answered with a shrug. "It seemed appropriate at the time."
"Artie usually tests his gadgets on himself," Jim supplied with a smile, and a teasing look at Artemus, who frowned at him.
"Now there's an idea," Napoleon opinioned. Illya patted his chest again, almost absently.
"You said something about getting back at him for Paris," Artie prompted, both out of curiosity and to get the attention off himself.
"Forgot the furniture," Napoleon muttered.
"That was hardly my fault!" Illya frowned at the cloth-covered face. "How was I to know they'd hidden the diamonds in the furniture? It wasn't very nice of you to tell Mr. Waverly that it was my fault we hadn't discovered them sooner." He glanced up at Jim and Artie. "I spent more than two extra weeks in Amsterdam trying to figure out how they'd stolen the diamonds in the first place while he was romancing his way through Paris with that singer."
"You hold grudges a long time, Illya Nickovetch." Napoleon slowly levered himself into a sitting position, then buried his head in his hands with a soft moan. "Waverly should have you shot for this!"
"Waverly would congratulate me for my excellent aim!" Illya retorted, picking up the cloth Napoleon had dropped. "You drive him to distraction with your flirting. Anything in a skirt will divert your attention from the matter at hand, even if it's your own imminent demise."
"Except a Scotsman," Napoleon shot back with a grin. It was obviously a very old argument.
"Except a Scotsman," Illya agreed grudgingly. "It's a wonder you haven't been lynched by the steno pool yet. All those beautiful, jealous women at headquarters."
"All of whom Waverly hired. And you accuse me of skirt-chasing!" Napoleon clutched his head and moaned again. "Damn it, Illya. My head's killing me. Don't you have an aspirin or something?" he requested pitifully of Artie.
"He means a painkiller," Illya supplied, laying a comforting hand on his partner's shoulder.
"There's brandy, and we probably have some laudanum around, if that will help."
"Brandy will be fine," Illya answered for Napoleon.
"Since when have you approved of my drinking?" Napoleon asked with a pained smile.
"Laudanum is a morphine solution, Napoleon. You'd be better off with the brandy."
Artie shrugged and went to pour their guest some liquor. It was still early in the day, but he never objected to the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes. Handing the glass to Napoleon, Artie sat down on a chair opposite the couch and steepled his fingers. He waited until Solo had drained half the glass before casually asking, "Is there anything wrong with morphine?"
"Other than the fact that it's highly addictive, no," Illya answered shortly.
"Considering the drugs that have been pumped into us over the years, Illyusha, I very much doubt it matters," Napoleon murmured. He drained the glass and set it aside, then grinned and deliberately messed up Kuryakin's shining hair. "Illya's very tenacious when it comes to protecting me."
"Oh, very," Jim responded skeptically. "Given that your current headache is a result of his shooting you."
"I'd rather have the headache than the horses," Napoleon admitted semi-seriously. "Damned untrustworthy animals."
"Why must you base your judgment of the whole species on a single bad experience?" Illya asked with some asperity.
"Oh, and I suppose you've changed your mind about bats?"
Illya subsided gracelessly, muttering under his breath in Russian. Artie laughed aloud at one particularly explicit, and anatomically impossible, suggestion.
"You speak Russian," Napoleon noted with an approving nod.
"So do you," Artie answered, smiling slightly.
"Survival tactic," Napoleon explained with a glance at his partner. "What's your excuse?"
"Russian grandmother. I can't read a word of it, but I speak it pretty well."
"Fluently," Jim corrected, with a trace of almost defiant pride in his voice that Artie was hard-put to explain.
Napoleon shifted to find a more comfortable position on the couch, accidentally elbowing Illya in the side. Oddly, it was the American who yelped and drew back, rubbing his arm.
"Just what do you have squirreled away in your pockets this time?"
Illya scowled. "I collected some of the debris from Loveless's lab. It seemed likely he was using some rare chemicals, and it occurred to me that, if we could identify them--"
"We could use the sale and transport of future shipments to track the little doctor down," Artie finished for him, simultaneously excited by the idea and kicking himself that he hadn't thought of it.
"Exactly!" Kuryakin favored him with a small smile.
"Well then, we should get started." Artie stood and indicated the door to the back of the car with a courtly gesture. "After you, my good sir," he invited in flawless Russian.
Illya joined Artemus, who draped a friendly arm around his
shoulders as he led him off to the lab. Napoleon watched them go,
vaguely amused to see that Artie's charm had apparently already gotten
through his partner's habitual standoffishness. Or maybe it was the
fact that the man spoke Russian; Illya had a weak spot for his native
language. He noticed that Jim's stare followed the two men down the
hall as well. Napoleon lay back down on the couch, giving in to the
lingering lassitude generated by the sleep dart, and drifted off,
knowing Illya would wake him if anything happened.
Illya and Artie spent almost six straight hours holed up in Artie's lab near the front of the private car. Napoleon slept for several hours, but eventually Jim's pacing woke him up. West prowled the car restlessly, apparently unsatisfied with the various activities he began, then abandoned. Solo lay on the couch, his eyes half-closed, and watched the lithe grace of the young man with an appreciative eye, careful not to be caught in the activity.
He preferred Illya's golden leopard to this dark panther, though he freely admitted himself to be biased on the subject. He couldn't quite put a finger on the cause of the younger man's unease; his sixth sense, which he could usually rely on to warn him of impending danger, drowsed calmly. Nor did this restlessness seem typical for West. Napoleon watched him through another two and a half circuits of the room before speaking.
"Quite a place you have here."
Startled, Jim whirled on him, then relaxed, a little sheepishly. Napoleon realized that, whatever was bothering the man, it had encompassed nearly all his attention. He was clearly making an effort to dredge up a suitable reply. Taking pity, Napoleon continued blithely.
"Wish I could afford to live in such luxury. Does the train belong to you or Artemus?"
"Neither. You might say it's the property of a rich uncle." Jim smiled slightly.
"Ah, yes," Napoleon returned the smile, "Illya and I have one of those ourselves. Who's yours?"
"Uncle Sam. We're Secret Service agents," he clarified grudgingly.
"I see. So we're in the same business." Of course, he'd already deduced that, but it was good to have the instinct confirmed. Napoleon remembered just enough of his history to know that the Secret Service hadn't always been glorified bodyguards.
"Apparently." Jim shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "If you'll excuse me?" It wasn't quite a question, and he'd left the room before Napoleon had time to answer in any case.
Solo watched him go, frowning. He felt certain the young man's curtness was a departure from his usual good manners. Clearly something was bothering him, and that mystery intrigued the U.N.C.L.E. agent. There was more going on here than met the eye.
Rested and restless, his headache a faint memory and his curiosity roused, Napoleon rose and took himself off for a self-guided tour of the train.
There were only two cars following the powerful-looking engine. The end one, where he had started, contained the parlor and three private compartments, two of which bore signs of recent occupancy and the faint imprint of distinct personalities. The third was impersonal: a guest room of some sort, perhaps for the comfortable transportation of visiting dignitaries. Finally, near the back of the car, Solo paused briefly before a closed door under which faintly noxious fumes dispersed. Deciding it must be Artie's lab, and knowing better than to interrupt his partner in any scientific pursuit, he left them to it and passed on.
The middle car housed a surprisingly large and well-appointed kitchen and a sort of modified stable. Napoleon peered briefly through the door to the latter and, seeing Jim there intently currying his horse, wisely retreated. At least the young man had finally found something to occupy himself.
Finding nothing else to entertain him on the train, Napoleon took a walk in the surrounding countryside. Communing with nature was more Illya's style than his own but, faced with a world gone very strange indeed, it was a relief to get away from it all. Trees and grass looked like trees and grass anywhere. He was careful not to wander too far, and kept his eyes peeled and his hands free, preferring not to run into unfriendlies if he could help it, and determined to be prepared if he did. Eventually, bored with the Daniel Boone bit, he returned to the train.
His stomach reminding him that it was getting around toward dinner time and, seeing no evidence that Artie and Illya were likely to emerge anytime soon, nor any sign whatsoever of Jim, Napoleon headed for the kitchen. It took him a while to puzzle out the stove and to find water for cooking, but eventually it all came together. Cooking always relaxed him, and it was with a cheerful mien that he rapped on the door to Artie's lab an hour later.
The voices within, which were conversing in Russian, broke off, and footsteps approached. Artie was grinning when he opened the door. Napoleon was relieved to see that his guess had been right, and the animated conversation indicated they were finished with whatever tests they'd been doing.
Smiling back, Napoleon offered an elaborate bow and said, in his best gothic butler voice: "Dinner is served."
Artie finished washing up first and went to help Napoleon rearrange the furniture in the parlor. It was lighter than it looked, designed to make it easy for Jim and Artie to arrange the room to their liking -- whether it be an exercise arena or dining for four. Then he and Solo ferried the food from the kitchen to the table.
"I did," Napoleon admitted, almost defiantly.
"Oh, good!" Artie exclaimed, and laughed when Solo's eyebrows rose. "Jim's cooking is deadlier than his fighting."
"Isn't that funny? Illya's too!" They shared a grin.
"Speaking of Jim, where is he?" Artie asked after the table was set to his liking. Napoleon shrugged.
"Not on the train last I looked--" Solo broke off, interrupted by West's appearance in the doorway.
"Speak of the devil," Artie teased. Jim's return smile was faint, and therefore a cause for concern, but Artemus wasn't inclined to mention it around strangers. "Go wash up for dinner, James my boy."
"Yes, mother." Though the reply was everything Artie had come to expect from his partner, the alacrity with which the young man moved to obey was unusual.
He frowned, watching Jim's retreat through the door. West and Kuryakin met in the hallway, the Russian flattening himself against the wall to allow Jim to pass. Artie's brows drew together in consternation as he noted Jim's bare-bones civility to the blond.
"Napoleon," Illya nodded to his partner as he entered the room. Artie was aware that Solo had been watching him watch Jim, but the other man made no comment.
"So, Illya, any luck?"
"Hmm... yes," the Russian responded absently, sniffing hungrily around the table, "Artie and I were able to isolate several unusual chemicals. This Dr. Loveless will have to make some very specialized orders before he can reproduce his efforts."
"And then we'll have him," Napoleon grinned.
"Hopefully," Artie cautioned, knowing how slippery Loveless could be.
Jim returned and joined the others at the table. Solo dished out the meal: a savory stew, simple but filling. For a while, there was silence, but for the clink of silverware.
"Have you telegraphed Washington?" Jim asked, after a bit.
"About an hour ago," Artie responded. He shot a glance at his oddly subdued partner. "I didn't see either you or Napoleon out here."
"I went for a walk," Solo offered, frowning at his partner when Illya shot him a surprised look. If he weren't so concerned about his own partner, Artie would have truly enjoyed watching those two: what they said was only half the conversation.
"I went for a walk as well," Jim answered the concern in Artie's eyes. The look Illya gave him said quite clearly that he'd guessed what Jim's "walk" had entailed, and West apparently saw no point in pretending he hadn't followed Napoleon. "Not all the tribes in this area are friendly."
The Russian snorted.
"Not now, Illya," Napoleon responded, as if his partner had actually said something. His eyes, however, remained on West. "Thank you for your consideration, Jim. You could have simply joined me, you know."
Jim only shrugged, returning his attention to the stew. For all the attention he showed it, however, he wasn't making much progress. The Russian, on the other hand, had already put away three servings. His apparently bottomless stomach touched Artie with bittersweet amusement, as it only underscored the absence of Jim's usually voracious appetite.
"Well," Napoleon exclaimed heartily, breaking another long period of silence. He rose and stretched. "It's been a very long day for Illya and me. Perhaps we ought to turn in now."
Kuryakin's expression was bemused, but he rose to join his partner without comment. The two men made as if to gather up their dirty dishes, but Artie waved them off.
"Jim and I can take care of the dishes." He stood and led the way to the spare room, which abutted directly onto the parlor. "I'm afraid we only have the one extra sleeping compartment..."
"That's quite all right."
"Napoleon and I have bunked in together before," Illya added his assurances to that of his partner, an ironic smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. The two men disappeared into the room with soft goodnights, the door closing behind them with a gentle click.
Artie returned to the parlor to see Jim still poking at his stew, his head propped on one hand, shoulders curled in. Leaving the dishes for the moment, Artemus took the seat across from his partner. Jim didn't even seem to notice him, and Artie finally reached out to lightly touch the man's arm. To his surprise, West jerked away as if startled.
"Okay, Jim. What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Artie." James stood and started stacking dishes. Artie took them out of his hands.
"Don't 'nothing' me! You've been acting strange ever since we left Loveless." He peered suspiciously at the subdued young man. "What'd he do to you?" It was a constant worry where Loveless was concerned. Usually, the partners immediately told each other everything they remembered of their time as Loveless's prisoners, just in case he'd used one of them as a guinea pig in one of his experiments. This round, however, there hadn't yet been time.
"Nothing, Artie. Really!" Jim sat back down with a sigh. He ran a hand through his hair, shook himself a little, and was suddenly more like his old self. "Just his usual ranting about the cruelty of people and unfairness of the world. You know how he is."
"Then what's the matter?" Artie pressed quietly. "You don't trust our friends?"
"No... no, it's not that." Jim shook his head. "I don't know. It's nothing, Artie. Don't mind me." He stood and started gathering dishes again. This time Artemus joined him and the two men set about silently clearing away.
Artie didn't pursue the subject any further at the moment. Once they'd transported everything to the kitchen and left the dishes to soak in the sink, however, he laid a light hand on Jim's arm. "You'll let me know if you figure it out?"
"Sure, Artemus." James patted his hand, then made his way to his own sleeping compartment.
Artemus sat for a long time in the parlor, smoking and thinking, before turning in for the night.
Artie sat with his back to the window, letting the mid-afternoon sun illuminate the pages of his book. His feet propped on the edge of the sofa, a glass of wine by his hand, he was quite content.
There being nothing constructive to do until receiving notification of the sale or shipment of one or more of the chemicals discovered in the debris of Dr. Loveless's lab, the four men were left to their own devices. At Jim's orders, the engineer had moved the train during the night -- they were now parked further out, and hopefully Loveless would believe they had left. Though all of them would have been more comfortable taking an active part in the search for the little doctor, they couldn't risk the chance that it would tip their hand. If he knew they were still about, waiting for him to show himself again, Loveless would vanish without a trace. The only thing to do was wait, each passing the time in his own way.
The one thing they didn't do was talk about the future. While itching with curiosity, Artie had enough sense to know it would probably do more harm than good to question their guests about the time they came from. He had a feeling they wouldn't respond in any case.
The moritorium on talk about the future didn't apply, of course, to the present, or its trappings. Illya was probably still crawling all over the train, asking the engineer questions that set him to stuttering. The Russian was fascinated by the enormous steam engine, and seemed determined to figure out the entirety of its workings by sundown.
Disavowing any inclination to ruin his only suit crawling around in the soot, Napoleon had borrowed one of Artie's books and joined him in the parlor. Artemus looked up for a moment and smiled, seeing Napoleon engrossed in a book on the other side of the room, a glass of the excellent wine at his elbow. It seemed he had almost as much in common with Solo as he did with Illya.
As for Jim... he'd been in a much better mood that morning, so Artie refused to worry about where his young partner had got himself off to. No doubt he was amusing himself as only he could. Artie had only just returned his attention to the text when the gentleman in question entered the room.
"Hey Artie, have you seen my throwing knife?"
Artemus only glanced up long enough to note that Jim was, as usual, stripped to the waist, before resolutely returning his attention to his book. "On the sideboard, where you left it."
"Right." Jim picked up the weapon in question and strode out of the parlor, humming softly to himself.
"Tease," a rich voice chuckled from across the way, and Artie turned to see Napoleon, who had observed the whole interchange with some interest, watching Jim's naked back disappear through the doorway.
"Pardon?" Artie narrowed his eyes in confusion.
Napoleon's eyes drifted from the now-empty doorway to meet the question in Gordon's. "He do that to you often?"
"Wander around half-dressed like that."
"Constantly," Artie smiled, though he still had the feeling he was missing something.
"Illya used to try that sort of thing with me when we were first partnered." Napoleon put down his book and rose. "Nothing obvious, of course -- Illya's a little more subtle than Jim -- but the unspoken invitation's the same." He smiled reminiscently. "Cocky young things."
"What did you do?"
"I took him up on it." With that, Napoleon winked insolently and strode out, leaving Artie gaping at the innuendo.
"But if you change the molarity of the solution by point oh one five, I think you'll find the efficiency increased by almost a quarter."
Artie was already nodding, jotting quick notes in his log. The little Russian was a whiz with anything scientific, it seemed. Just talking with him the last few days had cemented several tenuous notions he'd had floating around his mind and provoked a few new ideas. "I can't think why I didn't try that earlier." He watched as Illya tipped a very carefully measured quantity of the appropriate chemical into the solution.
The contents of the glass flask immediately turned a rather ominous shade of yellow and began boiling violently.
"Look out!" Artemus grabbed Illya, throwing both of them to the floor and out of the way of the explosion. Bits of glass rained down on the laboratory floor and a puff of noxious smoke floated serenely out the vent in the ceiling. Artie coughed at the faint whiff of smoke he'd inhaled and shook his head ruefully. "Now I remember. The reaction is somewhat... precipitous."
"Well, chemistry was never my strongest suit," Kuryakin admitted with an apologetic smile.
"Artie!" Jim burst through the door, Napoleon hot on his heels. West stopped suddenly on seeing Artemus and Illya still tangled on the floor, his expression flickering quickly through an unidentifiable series of emotions before the impassive mask dropped into place.
"It's okay, Jim," Artie quickly reassured him, picking himself up and carefully dusting bits of glass off his jacket. He held out a hand to haul Illya to his feet. "Just a small miscalculation. No damage done."
"So I see." Jim turned on his heel and left, pushing past Napoleon without a word. Solo shrugged, winked at his partner, and started to follow the young agent out.
"Oh, Napoleon," Artie called after him, "I was thinking it might be nice to have lunch outside today. There's nothing much to do hanging around here. Why don't we have a picnic?"
"As long as horses don't come into it," Napoleon laughed. "Shall we say an hour?"
"Sure. Tell Jim, will you?"
Receiving Napoleon's nod in reply, Artie turned back to his slightly scorched lab. Illya was already starting to sweep up and Gordon cheerfully joined him.
"Sorry about that," Illya offered after several minutes of silent work.
"Don't be. I blow up my lab on a regular basis."
"Not that," Illya corrected, emptying his dustpan into a nearby waste can. "Jim." As if that explained everything.
Artie turned to look in the direction West had gone, though there was no longer any sign of him. "What about him?" When he turned back, Illya was giving him a very odd look. Before he could ask, however, the Russian merely shook his head and turned away.
"He seemed... upset," was all Illya said. Artie got the distinct impression it wasn't what he'd intended to say.
"Don't worry about it. He'll get over it."
Still, Artie finished cleaning in silence, puzzling over recent events.
Napoleon appropriated one of the picnic baskets, claiming that Illya couldn't be trusted to carry the food. Jim silently took the other one, and started out at a brisk pace which Napoleon didn't attempt to match. Illya and Artie followed along behind, softly conversing in Russian.
Solo kept a weather eye on all three of his companions. It wasn't easy, with Jim marching stoically ahead and Illya and Artie sauntering along behind. He kept an easy pace in between and enjoyed the day. He had to admit that it was pleasant to be able to slip into the cool forest after only a brief walk, and that the air was crisp and clean, with a sweet tang to it that he'd never tasted in his own time, no matter how far from civilization he strayed.
Jim led the way into a secluded dell, and put down his basket in clear indication of his choice for their luncheon spot. Having no reason to disagree, Napoleon set down his own basket next to the first and knelt to begin unpacking. After a moment, West joined him in laying out the blanket and food they'd brought.
The entrance of the two stragglers onto the scene was heralded by the sound of laughter. From the wisp of Russian Napoleon had heard just before, he gathered Illya had been telling Artie one of his infamous jokes. Solo was interested to note that Jim's back stiffened perceptibly at the sound of his companions' merriment.
They settled down to eat, enjoying the good food and the excellent day with equal fervor. Stuffed to the gills, Napoleon lay back on the blanket, his hands laced behind his head, and stared dreamily up into the sky until its blueness dazzled him. He closed his eyes, listening with half an ear to the conversation of the other three. He heard Jim's voice only infrequently, Illya's a little more often, Artie's most of all. Gordon was conversationally shuttling between the two quieter men with a cheerful disregard for the occasional awkwardness.
Napoleon was certain Artemus was very much aware of the strained civility of the conversation. He had the feeling that Artie was confused as to the reason for it, however. Simply listening -- and feeling no guilt for not taking part, either -- Napoleon thought the source to be quite obviously Jim. There was an alternating coolness and warmth in his voice, depending on whether his comments were directed at Illya or Artie. Napoleon smiled to himself, certain now that he'd read the situation right from the first, and wondering when their new friends would catch on to what was so painfully obvious.
"What's that?" Jim interrupted some story Artie was telling Illya about their run-in with a man who'd intended to take over the United States using a series of tidal waves. Napoleon had to admit that the bad guys' creativity hadn't increased over the years; these plans were no less bizarre than some of Thrush's.
"What, Jim?" Artie asked patiently.
"That thing on your wrist," Jim clarified, his voice a mix of amusement and suspicion.
"Oh, that. It's called a wrist watch. Illya gave it to me, in exchange for my pocket watch. Look at how small the workings are. It's even got an alarm." Artie's voice was full of excitement, like a little boy with a new toy. Napoleon recognized the tone; Illya had sounded the same when he'd shown him his new pocket watch. Though he found Illya's excitement over an item he could probably have picked up at any good antique store back home rather amusing, the watch he'd traded for it had been neither U.N.C.L.E. issue nor a gift from Napoleon himself, so he didn't feel it necessary to argue with Illya's enthusiasm over the exchange.
"I see." Jim's voice was full-on frigid now. There was the sound of movement and Napoleon opened his eyes to see West rise and walk away from their little picnic.
"I can't think what's wrong with him," Artie murmured, clearly surprised. "Excuse me." He rose and followed the young man.
"What was that all about?" Illya asked Napoleon, too expert a shammer of sleep himself to be fooled by his partner's pretense.
"I think you know perfectly well, Illyushka," Napoleon scolded
softly. "If you don't watch out, you may find yourself on the wrong end
of that young man's gun. He's not safe to tease, my friend."
"Will you be careful with that?" Artie frowned at his partner, who was idly playing with his throwing knife. He didn't object to the activity itself, even in the close confines of the parlor; it was the constant thump of the knife into the target on the wall that bothered him. The irregular noise was distracting. "Our guests can hardly appreciate that racket. Wasn't Napoleon trying to sleep over there?"
"I doubt it. Kuryakin said he was going to take a bath; I think he conscripted his partner to help out." Jim didn't pause in his activity to reply, blithely unaware of Artie's annoyance. Or courting it.
"Ah." Artie grinned, remembering their guests' reaction to the state of the plumbing on the train. He still wasn't entirely clear on what they were used to, but Napoleon in particular was definitely missing his creature comforts. Illya, on the other hand, had merely smiled, and teased his partner about being soft. Apparently, however, the Russian wasn't above bullying the older man into the role of water carrier.
The next toss of Jim's knife went awry by mere inches, hitting a hidden catch in the woodwork. West swore under his breath and rose to retrieve the projectile and close the spyhole he'd inadvertently opened. The train was swisscheesed with hidden passages, cubbyholes and the like; they proved invaluable when undesirables snuck into the private car.
Artie looked up from his book at Jim's soft hiss. "Hey Artie, take a look at this!"
He frowned, but rose and strolled over to where his partner was peering through the spyhole. "Don't you know it's impolite to spy on guests?" Artemus kept his voice down, knowing if anyone could hear the faint sound of his voice through the glass that bisected the spyhole, it would be the men in the other room. The rest of the lecture, however, was swallowed unspoken when he looked over Jim's shoulder.
Swathed in a large towel, Illya Kuryakin sat curled on the floor in the next room, nestled between his partner's legs, while Napoleon dried his hair for him. Solo sat on the side of the bed, his full attention on toweling the blond's damp hair. Had either of them looked up, they might have noticed the open spyhole, though it was cleverly concealed from easy view.
Napoleon slowed his brisk toweling and gently smoothed the disarrayed strands of gold. Apparently finished drying, he draped the towel around his neck and, picking up a comb, began to run it through his companion's hair. Illya sat quietly, eyes closed, basking in the attention with the sleepy self-satisfaction of a cat. When he was satisfied, Napoleon absently laid the comb aside, his other palm running over Illya's neck and shoulder in a practiced caress which bespoke long familiarity. Kuryakin tilted his head back and Napoleon leaned down, their lips meeting in a gentle kiss.
Artemus could feel the jolt of shock that passed through Jim's body as he reached over the younger man's shoulder to close the spy-hole. "I think they deserve their privacy," he remarked quietly as he moved away.
"Yes?" It was difficult to keep his voice even, with what he had seen and the possibilities it conjured running rampant through his mind.
"What they're doing... it's... well, it's wrong!" Jim was flushed, his face and voice seeming oddly younger than his years. Artemus wondered briefly whose words his partner was parroting, for they were hardly typical of his normally open-minded partner.
"They don't seem to think so," the older man responded softly.
"Neither do I." He excused himself before he could say anything more
damaging, and strode briskly down the hall to his own room.
"Don't look now, but I think we're being watched," Napoleon whispered against Illya's warm skin.
"Wha...?" the blond gasped, writhing slowly under his lover's weight.
"Jim," Solo deduced, remembering the sound of a slightly heavier tread passing down the hall than he knew the young Secret Service agent to possess.
"Polya!" Illya exclaimed, his fingers tangling commandingly in Napoleon's hair.
Solo grinned affectionately. He really ought to know better than to expect coherence out of his lover at this point in the proceedings. He wasn't far from the edge of madness himself.
"Shall we let him watch?" he whispered into a pale pink ear.
"Napoleon, no!" Illya managed to get out, demonstrating that his grip on reality hadn't completely slipped.
"If you insist."
Napoleon lifted his head to look straight at the open spyhole and winked saucily. Instantly, there was a distinct click, and the sound of footsteps racing down the hall.
Chuckling, Napoleon lowered his mouth once again to his intoxicating lover.
Artemus also heard Jim's quick retreat. He smiled a little, wondering exactly what their guests had done to rout the young man.
He didn't blame Jim for watching; he'd have done the same himself, given the opportunity. After years in the Secret Service, his moral qualms about eavesdropping were nearly non-existent, but his sense of self-preservation convinced him he'd rather not risk angering either of the gentlemen in question. His desire to watch was not prompted by the same motivations as Jim's, however. Quite simply, he couldn't think of anything more arousing than watching two such beautiful men make love. Except, perhaps, making love to a certain young man of his acquaintance.
Artie was hardly an innocent. After half a lifetime in the theater, he knew very well the love that could exist between two men. However, when he had left the theater for the army, and later the Secret Service, he'd deliberately locked all that experience away in a dark corner of his mind, knowing how much trouble it could get him into. He'd done such an excellent job of it that, by the time he was partnered with Jim, he'd all but forgotten he could feel that way about another man. The risk of being such an excellent dissembler was that, sometimes, you even fooled yourself.
It had kept him safe, though. Until Napoleon had called Jim a tease in that amused knowing tone, Artie had never consciously thought of the man as anything more than partner, friend, brother. The sudden rush of desperate emotion prompted by Solo's suggestive commentary had startled Artie, sending him fleeing back behind his own protective walls of incomprehension. But he could only deny the truth for so long.
He loved James West. Had for some time, though he had been incapable of admitting to the emotion. He could almost hate Napoleon for making him see it, for he had been, if not happy, at least content, in his self-induced delusion. Now... now he could not escape the knowledge -- seeing Napoleon and Illya together had flung down the last of Artie's walls, denying him even the excuse of pretending Napoleon had not known what he was talking about.
He envied Napoleon and Illya their security in their love. Even in the few moments he'd watched them through the spyhole he'd recognized the serenity between them. They clearly had no qualms about what they did. Artemus doubted he'd ever feel that way with any lover now, male or female, for he would never be able to take to bed the one man who had stolen his heart.
Jim's attractiveness was unquestionable. Every woman they met commented on it, and most of the men clearly noticed it. Loveless was a case in point. Certainly, he hated Jim for his steadfast loyalty to his principles and his country as much as for his strong young body, but there was a level to his emotions which was sexual in its overtones and frightening in its intensity. Perhaps that was why he could never quite bring himself to kill Jim.
For his part, Jim was oddly gentle with Loveless. Artemus doubted his partner actually recognized the sexual level of Loveless's emotions, any more than he believed Loveless capable of admitting it, even to himself. But there was a hint of leniency in Jim's dealings with the little man which was absent in his behavior toward any other enemy of the country, with the possible exception of the occasional female criminal. Under no circumstances would West ever deliberately let Loveless go free, but he did not turn the full force of his disapproval on the doctor, and he was capable of pitying him. The only time he had ever seen Jim turn hard and cold with Loveless was when the little man threatened Artie.
It helped, to know that Jim loved him in his own way. Unfortunately, Jim's feelings were pale shadows of Artie's love. Unless... unless Solo was right, and Jim had been teasing him. Artemus considered the idea, wondering if it sounded perfectly reasonable because it was, or merely because he wanted it to be. He ran things over in his mind, a slow smile growing on his face as he turned over everything he could remember about Jim's behavior toward him over the years, and especially in the last few days. Maybe, just maybe, Napoleon was right.
Jim's shock at their guests' sexuality suggested that he had never consciously considered a relationship with Artie. However, his curiosity gave Artemus hope for the future.
Now, if only that hope were justified.
Artemus dropped the drawing he was working on when he heard the tapping of the telegraph. He reached the desk in a few brisk steps and pushed the machine out of its concealing box. By the time he'd sent the answering code, he was sitting at the desk, pencil in hand. Jim walked into the room as the message began coming through.
"You'd better get Napoleon and Illya," Artie told him, writing furiously as he translated the Morse code. He was only vaguely aware of James leaving the room at a run.
"Well?" Jim asked as he returned, the two U.N.C.L.E. agents in tow.
Artie tapped out 'message received' and shoved the telegraph back into its box. He picked up the paper he'd been writing on and handed it to West, then leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head with a smile.
"Large quantities of all the chemicals we discovered in Loveless's lab have recently been ordered from a Boston firm," Artie paraphrased the message. "They were delivered yesterday."
"Here." Jim dropped the paper back on the desk before Artie. "Now why would Loveless have those supplies delivered here? We've already raided his stronghold once; why return? Unless..."
"Unless there's something special about that particular place," Artie finished, sitting up abruptly. "Something that makes his little doorway possible here, and no other place."
Illya grinned wolfishly. "When do we leave?"
There were no guards at the door for Artie to contrive his way past this time. No one at all. Everything was closed and barred and locked up tight. Either the good doctor was taking no chances this time, or he'd been unable to hire any replacement underlings.
Jim scaled the outer wall of the building, returning quickly to unbolt the door from the inside. The four men moved cautiously through the apparently empty stronghold, guns drawn and at the ready. It was possible Loveless had out-guessed himself this time, thinking that West would believe he'd never return to the same place. By the same token, however, it might very well be a trap, and the little doctor waiting for them, like a spider at the center of his web.
They didn't waste any time in making their way directly to the doctor's lab. Jim and Artie slipped silently around to one door, Napoleon and Illya staking out the other. The chamber once again hummed with energy, mists drifting in and out of the gateway in clear indication that Loveless had got his "magic door" open again. Only Loveless and Voltaire could be seen in the half-destroyed room.
"Now, Voltaire, now!" Loveless was at his most manic, bouncing with remarkable energy from one machine to another, his little face lit up by the arcs of energy discharging from his various contraptions. "I've done it. I've done it again. And this time there'll be no stopping me!"
"Think again, Loveless." Jim stepped through the door, his gun trained on the little man, Artemus at his shoulder. Taking their cue from the Secret Service agents, Napoleon and Illya stepped into the room from the opposite side, Voltaire squarely in their sights. Illya measured the huge man with a glance, bristling a little, as he often did when faced with threats significantly taller than he was. Napoleon laid his free hand on the Russian's shoulder.
"Where are your henchmen, Dr. Loveless?"
"The ones you and your friends didn't put in the hospital ran off," Loveless admitted unwillingly, glaring angrily at Jim. "You really try my patience, Mr. West," he gritted. "Is there no place free of your meddling?"
"Just one," West indicated the misty door, "but you won't be going there."
"And if you did, you'd find that we can be as much of a damper on your plans as Jim," Napoleon added. Seeing that West and Gordon had the situation well in hand, he tucked his gun in its holster and moved to investigate the gateway. "How do we know it's the right one?"
"I guess we'll have to look," Illya answered, holstering his own gun and joining his partner. They clasped hands and Napoleon braced himself against the door jam as Illya took a step into the mists. There was apparently a tremendous pull from the other side, for the strain of holding his partner showed on Napoleon's face. However, after a moment, he was able to pull him back through the doorway. "It looks right to me," Illya decreed, smoothing down his hair.
Without warning, Voltaire smashed his fist into Jim's face, throwing him back against the wall. Artemus grabbed his arm before he could follow up the heavy blow, and Jim pushed himself up to join the fight. Illya drew his gun, but could find no clear shot in the struggling figures. In the midst of the confusion, Loveless made a dash for the gateway. Napoleon caught him up just as he was about to slip through, swinging the little doctor around, away from the door, and trying to stay out of the way of his flailing fists and feet.
"Stop, or I'll drop him," he shouted.
Whatever else he might have been, Voltaire was loyal. He put Artie gently back on his feet and took a careful step away from Jim's punishing fists, hands held up in mute surrender. Loveless stopped struggling in Napoleon's grip and folded his arms crossly over his chest.
"You're even more infuriating than West."
"No doubt. Will you behave if I put you down?"
"You needn't speak to me as if I were a child." He sighed heavily. "I'll behave."
Napoleon set him, none too gently, on the ground. The doctor dusted himself off fastidiously, glared briefly at Solo, and moved to stand next to Voltaire. The instant he was once again near his large protector, Loveless deliberately pulled over a makeshift table, sending its contents crashing to the floor. A loud bang, accompanied by a large puff of red smoke, obscured the room for a minute. By the time the four men had fought their way free of the crimson smoke, Voltaire and Loveless had disappeared.
"Where did he go?" Artie started looking under the tables, just in case.
"I'm not sure," Napoleon wiped at his streaming eyes. "Not through there, I hope?" He waved his gun at the gateway. Illya was still standing squarely before it.
"No one came past me," he affirmed.
"Well, the little doctor got away from us again, Artie." Jim put his gun away. "At least he didn't make it through to your world, though."
"Yes, at least we accomplished that much." Artemus holstered his own weapon. Loveless and Voltaire seemed to have departed for good... for now.
"I'm sorry we couldn't help you catch him."
"Oh, I'm sure the good doctor will give us another chance at it before long, Napoleon. He always does." Artie gave the doorway a good looking-over, knowing even as he did so that, like so many of Loveless's inventions, it was useless to try and figure out how it worked. "I wonder what was so important about this particular spot."
"It hardly matters," Jim answered, with his usual lack of curiosity about such things. "As soon as our friends are through, we'll blow up the entire room. Whatever he needed here will be destroyed. I don't think you'll have to worry about running into him on the other side."
"That's a relief," Napoleon answered with a grin. "I really hate to think what he could accomplish with the resources available back home." He looked around him, his expression both relieved and a bit sad. "Ah... I guess it's time to go, then?"
"Past time, probably," Illya agreed. He held out a hand to Jim, who shook it strongly, without any trace of reluctance. Napoleon shook hands with Artemus, who found himself feeling unaccountably sad.
"Take care of yourselves."
"It's what we're good at," Napoleon grinned. He moved to take Jim's hand, drawing him at the last minute into a quick embrace. Jim looked startled as he was released, then smiled a little. "You remind me of myself at your age, James. Stay out of trouble."
"Dostvedanya, moi droog."
"Goodbye to you too, my friend." Artemus shook hands with Illya, then was pulled into a bear hug, complete with kisses to both cheeks. Though startled, he returned the traditionally Russian embrace.
Jim bristled visibly, moving to stand close to his partner. Napoleon laughed and collected Illya, guiding him toward the door. "I told you not to tease Jim."
"Don't worry, 'Polya. He's just jealous." Illya turned, flashing them his Cheshire cat grin, just before they both disappeared into the mists of the gateway.
Jim refused to make eye contact with Artie throughout the
entire time it took them to place the bombs and check through the
rubble after the explosions had leveled the building to make certain
nothing substantial remained.
"Have you seen my throwing knife, Artemus?"
Artie looked up from his book to see Jim, bare-chested, rummaging through the cabinet under the side-board. He closed his eyes briefly, experiencing a moment of deja vu, Napoleon's rich voice chuckling 'tease' in his memory.
"Ah, no, I can't say I have," he managed finally.
"Oh, I remember; I think I left it in my room." Jim straightened up and stretched lazily, muscles rippling under his tanned skin, then turned, his eyes meeting Artie's boldly. He was gone before Artemus could catch his breath.
Artie blinked. Once again, Napoleon's voice came to him, like an echo from the past or, more properly, the future: I took him up on it.
With a broad grin, Artemus tossed his book aside and followed Jim.
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