by Blondie

Everything in life is balanced by its opposite: where there is light, there is dark; where there is cold, there is warmth; were there is day, there is night.

And where there is good, there is evil.

February 1962

It was late evening when the private jet landed on the small, anonymous airfield on the outskirts of New York City. It slowly glided to a stop at the end of the runway and seemed to wait, the dying engine's whine sounding eerily like the plaintive wail of a lost soul caught between torment and despair. The jet, painted black, was almost as dark as the soul of its master.

Silently, the door dropped down and a dark shape appeared in the space left behind. Nicolas Nicolson, a Rumanian by birth — and forty years of age, though looking considerably less — stepped forward and took his first look at America. There was little to see in the early evening's gloom, but the smell of this world told him many things. He took a deep breath and inhaled: corruption, greed, poverty. Yes, he could feel at home here, in this place that offered so many possibilities. But first, there were things he needed to do.

A base of operations had been acquired at considerable expense, though money was no object for him. He had managed to secure a large house that had its foundations firmly planted in the beginning of this country's relatively brief history. It had all he required: privacy, plenty of space and, most importantly, a large basement, deep in the bowels of the earth.

So, he had his setting, he had his acolytes, and soon he would have all that was necessary to carry out the ceremony that had brought him here. He was so close to being the most powerful man in the world, just one or two more necessities and he would soon have those in his grasp.

The most powerful man in the world — Nicolson shivered at the very idea. He had been born into poverty, the only son of a wayward mother and a talentless father — something he regarded as both unfair and unjust. He'd always felt — always knew — he was meant for better things. Success, however, didn't just fall at your feet. Nicolson had discovered early in his life that there were easier ways to get the things he coveted. He developed a keen interest in the black arts and used their dubious powers to aid his ambitions. In time, he'd learned to manipulate and control the forces he invoked — Nicolson was a man who made things happen.

And things were about to happen for him in a big way.

He would make sure of that.

On the other side of New York, Nicolson's arrival had not gone unnoticed.

Frederick James D'Ascoigne had always considered himself a soldier of sorts, a warrior on the side of all things righteous, a general in the eternal battle against evil. An inherently good man, his lineage could be traced back as far as the seventeenth century. But more importantly, his line was pure and untainted.

Tradition was important to his family. Rituals and practices had been kept finely polished and handed down from generation to generation, exercised and refined, honed to near-perfection. He had fought against the forces of evil all his life, like his father before him and his father's father before that, all the way down a long and ancient line. It was in his blood, so deeply ingrained that he'd inherited a highly attuned sense of the world around him, a sense so keen it could detect any disturbance in the balance of power between light and dark. His senses spread out around him, like a spider's web, and the least disturbance, the smallest vibration, had him on full alert.

He'd felt such a disturbance several days ago: strong, malevolent, powerful.

And it was coming here.

A man dark and evil, bereft of pity and morals. Corrupt to the point that human life meant nothing to him, unless it furthered his ambitions. And it was the Dark Man's ambitions that worried Frederick. His presence tweaked the strings of harmony, threatening discord in this world. The sensation on Frederick's senses was like cracking ice, the fissure growing ever wider, its screeching report dissonant and menacing.

It had taken years — decades — of dedication to his craft and arts to achieve this degree of awareness. And now, when his power of perception was at its height, he was too old to fight. His son, Peter, had died a few years ago in a tragic road accident, leaving two sons and a young daughter behind. Thomas, the eldest of the boys, had chosen to carry on the family tradition, but on the verge of his seventeenth birthday, he was too young, too inexperienced. And so Frederick needed a proxy, a knight worthy of the cause, someone pure in spirit and mind, someone with all the right qualifications to cope with the coming storm.

Frederick collected his grandson and a few tools of his trade and set about finding the right man.

Napoleon Solo strode through the office door of the Head of Section One, exuding the confidence that had already earned him much respect and admiration during his few years with U.N.C.L.E. He was smug in his role as one of the senior agents in Section Two, and it showed in his relaxed posture as he entered the inner sanctum.

Alexander Waverly was not alone. Napoleon's glance went immediately from his superior to the blond young man sitting next to him. Waverly, who rarely missed anything, noticed Napoleon's slight change in attitude and gestured briefly towards the other man. "Mr. Solo, you remember Mr. Kuryakin, of course."

"Yes, sir. Illya," Napoleon said, with a slight nod of the head, and received a similar, brief acknowledgment from the young Russian.

Mr. Waverley's introduction had been a statement more than a question. Waverly's memory was impeccable and he knew, of course, that these two had met before. Up until a couple of months ago, Illya had been a 'white-coat,' one of the egg-heads from R & D, one of the sort that people of Napoleon's ilk tended to avoid. That is, until Kuryakin had been seconded to Section Two to assist him on a mission and Napoleon had discovered that the Russian had many other hidden talents. Illya could fight and think himself out of a tight situation and had an apparently endless store of knowledge that could be utilized, thanks to an eidetic memory. They had spent two weeks in Boston on their one and only assignment together. Napoleon had been more than happy with the results, all things considered. There had been the usual crop of unpredictable problems, but he'd been pleased with the young Russian's handling of the situation under stress. At twenty-three, Kuryakin had turned out to be one of the most ruthlessly efficient operatives that Solo had worked with, and the end result had been satisfactory.

Despite Illya's frosty reputation, Napoleon had found himself, rather perversely, liking the serious young man. Someone who wouldn't make the finals in a personality contest, he was still a good, solid, reliable operative, with an intelligent, analytical mind and a quick-fire wit, when he chose to display it.

Yes, he remembered him. The man was cool, calm and tenacious. But most of all, he remembered that hair, and those eyes, and a body that moved with the economy and grace of a cat.

Shortly after their return from that assignment, Waverly had asked Napoleon for an assessment of the young operative and Napoleon had duly provided a glowing reference, suggesting that when Mr. Waverly finally decided to assign a new partner to Napoleon, the Russian might be taken into consideration.

Waverly had 'harumphed' at his suggestion. And Napoleon was still without a permanent partner. Illya had returned to his post in the labs — something Napoleon regarded as a complete waste of talent — and Napoleon had taken his next assignment with yet another in a long line of agents. Waverly, it seemed, was intent on pairing him with each and every operative who passed through Del Floria's hallowed door. Napoleon knew he was being tested, but wondered if his patience would run out before the available agents did.

Napoleon helped himself to coffee and took a seat on the other side of Waverly. Without explanation, his superior turned in his chair towards the wall and flicked a switch. A white screen flickered into life and a picture of a handsome dark-haired man appeared, his busy surroundings telling Solo that this picture had been taken by a telephoto lens. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Illya sit to attention.

"Nicholas Nicolson, gentlemen," Waverly said. "A little known but highly successful philanthropist, he recently arrived in New York and has set up home in the Bridgehampton area. Rumanian by birth, he was formally known as—"

"Nicolae Constantin Nicolescu," Illya said in almost a whisper.

Waverly turned in his chair at the interruption. "Quite correct, Mr. Kuryakin. Am I to understand you've met this gentleman before?"

"Yes, sir. However, he's no gentleman."

Napoleon frowned in concentration. "Nicholas Nicolson...." he repeated the name thoughtfully. "The tycoon who made his money through, amongst other things, arms dealing. I thought he was a recluse?"

Waverly huffed. "Not so much a recluse as notoriously difficult to contact. He shuns publicity and social functions and is rarely seen out in public."

"Why are we interested in him, if you don't mind me asking, sir?" Kuryakin asked.

"Because Thrush has shown some considerable interest in him. And if he interests Thrush, then he interests us."

"What would Thrush want with Nicolson?" Napoleon asked.

"That's unknown, at the moment, though it's possible their reasons are purely financial. Apparently a representative of the organization contacted Nicolson not long after he arrived here, claiming to represent a company called..." Waverly paused for effect. "...Starling Enterprises."

Illya smiled. "What is this obsession Thrush has with naming their nefarious outlets after birds? That's one reason I stay out of the Flamingo Club."

Napoleon chuckled. It was one of the things he'd liked about the Russian, his dry sense of humor.

"How do you come to know him?" Napoleon asked Illya.

"Before my appointment to U.N.C.L.E. in London, I was assigned to the Chernekov Institute in Moscow for a short duration. The facility was involved in cognitive research. Nicolescu was, at the time, their prize pupil."

"Cognitive research?" Napoleon asked, with a hint of incredulity.

"The Soviet government has funded research into the possibility and possible use of anyone with so much as a hint of talent in the, shall we say, paranormal department. Telekinesis, telepathy, that sort of thing. I believe your own government has dabbled in the field of 'remote viewing' as a means to spy on their enemies."

Napoleon looked puzzled. "Remote viewing?"

"Yes, it's very interesting." Illya sat up and Napoleon recognized that he was about to get a lecture on the subject, whether he wanted one or not, but Mr. Waverly's cough brought them back to the fact that they were not alone.

"Interesting, I'm sure, Mr. Kuryakin, but not relevant at this moment in time. Might I ask what your purpose was at this facility?"

"I was part of a research team, sir, analyzing results, checking data. To be frank, most of the people claiming to have abilities were proven to be frauds, but Nicolescu was... exceptional."

"In what way?" Napoleon asked, curious to learn more about a part of the Russian's past.

"He displayed astonishing anomalous cognition that couldn't be explained. Nicolescu himself claimed his powers came from involvement in the black arts, stating he was a conduit, a channel if you will, to the dark side."

Napoleon's eyebrows took a short journey north. "By 'black arts,' I take it you mean witchcraft."

"I do," Illya stated categorically.

"Surely you don't believe in that kind of hocus-pocus?"

"During my time at the facility, Napoleon, there were things I witnessed that could not be explained by science. Nicolescu appeared to have certain powers, abilities that went beyond explanation. He was an arrogant man who made particular demands, believing himself to be above authority — and perhaps he was. Those who refused to co-operate with his requests or tried to oust him from his privileged position at the facility met with an unfortunate end."

"Are you saying he murdered them?"

"That was difficult to prove. Those he regarded as his enemies met their deaths in bizarre and painful ways."

Waverly sighed. "Death has followed this man around the globe, it seems. Usually to his advantage. He's risen quickly amongst the ranks of the rich and affluent. His uncanny good fortune in business has been the subject of gossip and conjecture for years, since his rise in power seems to coincide with a number of rather unusual deaths amongst his competitors."

Napoleon was scanning the paperwork on the desk before him. "One death by bee stings?"

Illya spoke up. "Jack Pentworth. He was allergic to bee venom. His manservant found him dead in his bed one morning, covered in bee stings. Nicolescu bought up his shares in a pharmaceutical company, effectively making him the major share holder."

"Raul Delgado, drowned in his tub," Napoleon said, still reading the bizarre series of deaths in the report.

"With the door locked on the inside," Illya added. "Delgado had tried to block Nicolescu's sale of arms to a South American despot." He picked up a paper from the file in front of him. "And this one, Martin Carrick, a reporter guilty of making reference to Nicolescu's dubious character in his newspaper, spontaneously combusted in the middle of a crowded restaurant."

"Still," Napoleon objected, "these deaths can be explained rationally. The bees could have been swarming and got into the apartment."

"It was winter, Napoleon. Bees hibernate."

"Well, what about the man in the tub? Someone could have got in through the window."

"On the twenty-first floor?" Illya replied, frustration evident in his tone.

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Kuryakin," Mr. Waverly interrupted. "I think we get the picture."

Napoleon let the papers in his hand drop to the table. "All right, I admit these deaths are difficult to explain but I'm not convinced that these aren't just subject to chicanery. They're just... strange."

"Tis strange but true, for truth is always strange," Illya quoted absently. He had always kept an open mind on the subject, but at the research facility there had been things that even his scientifically-oriented mind could not explain: incredible cognitive powers, telekinesis. He had witnessed a woman move a matchbox, secured beneath a glass bell, three inches without touching it. It had taken considerable effort on her part and it had left her with a severe migraine, but there was no doubting what he had seen. Unfortunately, the government was searching for abilities that could be utilized for their own means, and the displacement of a matchbox by a mere three inches was of little use to anyone.

"Regardless of the circumstances of these deaths, gentlemen, Nicolescu, or Nicolson as he now calls himself, has benefited in one way or another," Waverly said, bringing them back to the situation at hand. "We need to know what interest Thrush has in this man, and put a stop to any future alliance."

"Do we know who Thrush sent to woo Mr. Nicolson?"

"Yes. An old acquaintance of yours, Mr. Solo. Talbot Lloyd."

Napoleon grimaced. Talbot Lloyd was well suited to his position in Thrush. Smooth talking and handsome, but behind an innocuous veneer beat a heart of pure malice. Lloyd was ambitious, having risen from the lower ranks to a position of power that he'd managed to keep by shear ruthlessness. He'd been responsible for putting one of Napoleon's partners in the hospital for weeks.

"Do we know where Lloyd is staying?"

"It's all in the file," Waverly said. "I suggest you take it away and study its contents." Waverly turned in his chair as one of the communications lines lit up. He turned towards it and flicked a switch as he picked up the receiver. "One moment, please," he said to the caller. "That will be all, gentleman. I suggest you make a start first thing in the morning."

Both men rose and headed for the door.

"Mr. Kuryakin?" Waverly called.

"Sir?" Illya paused in the doorway.

"Please be sure to finish that report on the prototype miniature tracking device before you leave in the morning."

"Of course, sir." He turned and followed Solo out of the office.

Napoleon spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the contents of Nicolson's file. There wasn't much on the Rumanian, and most of the information on Lloyd Napoleon was already familiar with. Except for the very latest information — Waverly had set up surveillance on the Thrush man, and the results had been interesting, if a little perplexing.

Napoleon rubbed at his eyes. He was tired. He glanced at his watch and decided to call it a day.

When he entered the lift, he found his finger pausing on the button for the ground level. He hesitated, lowering his aim for the sub-basement level where the laboratories were housed.

Curiosity. It was simply curiosity, he told himself, that impelled him to an area of headquarters he'd only ventured into once before, and only then out of necessity. Most people stayed away from the labs. The boffins were, by their very nature, an odd breed. Their thought processes were different from normal people, their sense of style apparently sacrificed in favor of the lab uniform of baggy cord slacks and rumpled tweed jackets. Many in enforcement regarded them with disdain, referring to the men in the labs as Morlocks, a cruel comparison to the underground creatures from H. G. Well's Time Machine. And certainly, the head of the department, Andrew Crispin, could easily fit into that category — he even had that wild-eyed, shaggy-haired, slightly mad appearance.

But not Illya. Kuryakin, though bereft of style and in need of a haircut, was an odd amalgam — brains and beauty. And that intrigued Napoleon.

The lift door opened on the sub-basement and Napoleon stepped out. It was quiet: no voices, no movement, no hum of machinery. Perhaps Illya was no longer here. Napoleon gently pushed open the door at the end of the corridor and walked through.

He wasn't sure what he heard as he entered the laboratory, but he was sure it had to be some kind of Russian curse, judging by the intonation. His theory was correct, he discovered, as he approached Kuryakin's desk and saw him furiously mopping spilled coffee with his handkerchief.

"Accident?" Napoleon asked.

Illya spared him a look, a sad smile touching his lips as he held up the coffee-stained paper and shook off the excess fluid. He sighed and dropped the ruined paper back on the desk top. "My report for Mr. Waverly." Kuryakin rubbed at tired eyes.

Napoleon picked up the sodden report. "I have a good friend in the steno pool. I'm sure she'd be happy to type this up for you."

"Thank you, but Mr. Waverly wants this for tomorrow's meeting."

"What time's the meeting?"

"Three p.m."

"I guarantee she'll have it done by lunch time. Trust me, she never lets me down," he said, his eyebrows dancing up and down, suggesting he wasn't talking about her typing skills.

Illya hadn't seem to notice the leer. "Thank you. That would be a great help." He looked at Napoleon as if he'd just noticed he was there. "I'm sorry, was there something you wanted?"

"You. Just wanted to let you know I read the report Mr. Waverly gave me. It included surveillance on Lloyd. Apparently, he's been spending the last few days in antique book stores. Which is strange, since he always struck me as the type that likes to read with his finger."

"Books...." Illya looked away, a thoughtful expression on his face. "What was he looking for, I wonder?"

"Maybe tomorrow we can find out. C'mon," Napoleon said, tapping the Russian on the shoulder. "You look beat. It's time to call it a day."

"I am a little tired," Illya admitted. He stood, obediently shrugging out of his lab whites and slipping on his jacket.

Napoleon glanced at him as they waited for the lift. Illya Kuryakin was a refreshing change, a man unimpressed and unaffected by Napoleon's charms.

The lift arrived, and Napoleon waved his temporary partner in before him. They rode the elevator up to the garage level and as the lift came to a halt, Napoleon turned towards Kuryakin. "Do you need a ride home?"

Illya shook his head, exiting through the doors as they hissed open. "Thank you, no. I'll see you in the morning."

"Make it seven-thirty," Napoleon suggested. "We'll get an early start. With luck we'll have this over with and I'll still be able to make my dinner date."

Illya nodded his agreement and walked away. Napoleon watched him for a minute, strangely fascinated by the way the man moved. There wasn't that cocky swagger that some of the men in Section Two seemed to effect, instead there was elegance in the way he moved, light and graceful on his feet, and a proud set in the way he held himself.

Illya disappeared around the corner and Napoleon shook himself out of his strange musings. He shoved his hands into his pockets and headed for his own car.

Frederick D'Ascoigne had given the problem of the Dark Man much consideration since he'd felt his presence. His search for a champion had brought him here, to a part of town he'd never visited before. He had no idea when the man would show, but Frederick was endowed with endless patience. He would wait in his battered old van for as long as it took. Besides, he had company in the form of his grandson, Thomas. A fine boy, intelligent and capable and a credit to his family. Frederick was pleased to know that he would carry on the family tradition.


Frederick turned from his introspection towards his grandson sitting by his side. "Hm?"

Thomas nodded towards a figure walking down the street. "Is this the one?"

Frederick peered out of the window, pushing his glasses further up his nose as he studied the man: fair, slight, with an air of intensity about him, but beneath that intensity, his whole being glowed with an inner light, his aura shone and sparkled, crisp, clear and as bright as a rainbow.

Yes, this was the one.

Frederick nodded, pleased with his grandson's keen awareness. "That's him, Thomas." His grandson was perceptive, a natural, as most born into the D'Ascoigne family were. It wouldn't take much to train the boy up to the finer arts of their craft. They were becoming stronger with each generation — as, sadly, were their opposition.

Frederick handed the boy a small, sackcloth bag. "Now, you know what you must do, Thomas. But be careful," he warned, and watched as the boy climbed out of the van and strolled towards the stranger.

Illya Kuryakin was feeling somewhat peeved: today had been one sadly lacking in good fortune. At the start of the day, his alarm had failed and Illya had found himself skipping breakfast in order to make it to Waverly's briefing in time — he'd been grateful that he managed to make it before Napoleon Solo, unsettled by his own need to impress Waverly's up-and-coming golden boy. Then Illya had spilled a cup of coffee over a report that had taken him two hours to write. And to cap off an eventful day, his car had refused to start after he'd turned down a lift from Solo. In a fit of pique, Illya had left the vehicle in the garage and taken the subway home. It was just a three-block stroll from there; Illya thought the walk might calm his temper.

Ever alert to his surroundings, he saw the boy and watched him approach, unperturbed by his youth. He unconsciously assessed each passer-by, a lifetime in the spy-business making him wary of threats or possible attacks. This boy was no threat, there was nothing intimidating about him, not so much as a hint of danger — and yet, the furtive glance he gave the agent as he passed prickled the skin on Illya's neck.

"Excuse me, sir?" The boy's tremulous voice came from just behind. Illya turned, unprepared for the boy's actions. The youth's hand rose, his palm opened and the boy blew the contents of his hand into the agent's face.

Illya stopped in his tracks as he coughed in response, his body trying to expel the foreign matter that had entered his lungs. He tried to look at the boy, his eyes watering, and could just make out the boy's outline being joined by another figure. His surroundings began to spin and fade, hands clutched at his arms, urging him forward, guiding him into the dark recesses of a vehicle and then, as in sleep, his senses closed down, one at a time.

Illya awoke to the familiar, steady two-tone chirp of his communicator. The warm, languid feeling in his limbs made him reluctant to move, but the insistent, demanding noise forced him to respond as his agent's training stirred him into action. He opened his eyes and the rest of his senses suddenly came awake with a jolt as he took in the rotting smell of vegetative decay and the feel of a gritty concrete surface beneath his cheek.

He pushed himself upright at the same time that his hand reached into his pocket and pulled out his communicator. He twisted the cap and opened the channel, but still under the influence of the lethargy, replied with a simple grunt.

Napoleon Solo's voice came over the airwaves. "Illya? Illya." Illya shook his head — he should know this voice. Ah, yes, Napoleon Solo. He cleared his throat.

"Napoleon?" he replied groggily.

"Wake up, sleepy head. I've been trying to rouse you for the last hour."

Illya looked around. He was seated on the floor of an alley between a garbage dumpster and a pile of old boxes. The obligatory alley cat dashed across to the exit, deftly avoiding the litter of old newspapers blowing across the concrete.

Where was he? Where had he been? He stared down towards the entrance. One alley looked pretty much the same as another — only this one happened to open up onto a familiar street. Opposite, in the dim light of early morning, he could see O'Malley's second-hand bookstore — and O'Malley's was just down the street from his apartment.

He raised a hand to rub the sleep from his eyes. That's when he noticed the markings.

Puzzled, he paused and stared at the fine reddish-brown lines that weaved their way across the palms of his hands. A delicate motif, an intricate, curlicue pattern curving and curling in such a way, the markings appeared to move as he looked at them. Symbolic patterns, convoluted, yet ornately decorative. The design had him riveted — he forgot about Solo till his voice shook him out of his self-examination.


Illya raised the pen to his mouth. "Yes? What was it you wanted?" He spit on his palm and rubbed a thumb hard against the marks, but though the dirt cleared, the patterns remained firm.

"Just to let you know, we have a meeting with Mr. Waverly at ten." There was a pause, then Napoleon asked, "Are you sure you're okay? You sound a little tired. Did you have trouble sleeping?"

"I haven't been home, yet."


Illya heard the leer in Napoleon's voice and glared at the communicator. "I had a little... trouble." The last word came out of his mouth with difficulty. How he hated admitting that.

"Trouble? What sort of trouble?" Solo's voice took on the tone of concern.

"I'm not sure. I appear to have lost several hours. I just came around."

"Where are you?"

"Close to home. I'm in an alley, five minutes from where I was taken. I think." He looked at the stains on his palms. "I need to go home and clean up."

Napoleon's tone changed, all business and concern. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Hm, think so," Illya replied simply. He was too tired, too dirty and too confused to get into a conversation right now. "I'm going home; I need a shower." Illya pushed himself to his feet, wiping his hands together to brush away the dirt.

Napoleon's voice was charged with authority. "As soon as you've cleaned up, stop off at the infirmary before our meeting with Waverly."


"That's an order, Illya. I'll see you there."

The channel closed abruptly before Illya could respond. He returned the pen to his pocket and sighed. He was too tired to be fussed over. He wanted to go home, take a shower and scrub his hands clean. He started to walk towards the end of the alley, brushing his palms against the side of his jacket.

His peevishness returned. Caught out like an amateur — and by an innocent-looking boy, of all things.

Yes, it was turning into one hell of a week.

Napoleon entered the infirmary, concern for Kuryakin quickening his pace. Where had he been? What had happened to him? He ran the possibilities over in his mind. It was unlikely that Lloyd would be involved in Illya's disappearance, not this early in the game. Kuryakin was a neophyte in Section 2; he'd have little Thrush would be interested in. And a mugging seemed improbable, given Kuryakin's extensive martial arts training. Having witnessed him in action, Napoleon doubted a simple thief could have gotten the better of him.

He rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen the tension that had settled there. Illya was young, but capable of looking after himself. There was no need for concern. And there was no point in speculating; he'd just have to be patient and wait for Illya's report on the incident.

Doctor George Carver, the resident physician, was scribbling notes on a clipboard and didn't notice he had company until Napoleon coughed. "Ah," Carver said, glancing up with a pleased expression on his face. "Two of you in one hour. Things are looking up." George Carver was dedicated to his job, but was far too enthusiastic for Napoleon's liking.

Carver greeted him like a seldom-seen old friend, welcoming Napoleon into his office with a broad smile and a wide sweep of his hands. Napoleon couldn't help but grin at his enthusiastic reception. "Things a little slow today?"

Carver huffed and rolled his eyes. "Two headaches, a hangover and an irritable bowel. Not the most challenging of days. Somewhat dull. Still," he said, heartily rubbing his hands together, "you're here and I can always guarantee that Section Two agents will have something challenging for me. And now I have two of you in the space of one hour. What seems to be the problem?"

"I'm looking for Illya Kuryakin," Napoleon replied.

Carver looked disappointment. "Oh. He's getting dressed. Through there," George said pointing to an anteroom.

"Is he okay?" Napoleon asked as he crossed to the door.

"He's fine. If a little more... colorful than usual."

Napoleon puzzled over the statement as he opened the door. Illya, still wearing the white examination gown, was just in the process of bending over to pull on a pair of white cotton briefs. Napoleon's unexpected entrance stopped him in the process and they hung in his hand like a white flag of truce.

"Sorry. Everything okay?" Napoleon asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of his voice.

"Physically, yes," he replied, a small pucker of a frown chasing away the smile.

"But?" Napoleon asked, sensing there was something.

"But I seem to have fallen into the hands of a demented body artist," Illya said, raising his marked palms for Napoleon's inspection.

Perplexed, Napoleon's face creased as he studied the patterns on Illya's hands. "Pretty. They knocked you out just to draw pictures on your hands?"

"Oh, no, not just my hands. There are more." Illya slipped the gown off his shoulders and let it drop onto the floor.

Napoleon's jaw gaped open at the sight, as the naked agent slowly rotated on the spot, arms raised to allow Napoleon a view of his entire body. Across the shoulders and upper part of his back, a reddish-brown, triangular pattern enclosed several angular symbols composed of lines and circles. On his lower back, just above his buttocks, a similar design with its own set of marks. As Illya turned back towards his partner, Napoleon could see the pattern continued across the flat planes of Illya's stomach, into the curled hairs above his penis. And though Napoleon was loath to stare, under the circumstances, even Illya's pale penis had its own set of delicate markings.

Napoleon was too dumb-struck to comment. "What... what...?"

"What are they? I have no idea."

"But... where...?"

"Did they come from? I don't know that, either. But I intend to find out."

Napoleon circled him, fascinated by the design. "What do you remember before you blacked out?"

Illya frowned in concentration. "A boy, walking down the street. He seemed... nervous. Of me. I'm not sure, but I think I remember hearing an older man."

"Did you recognize his voice?"

"No. I only heard him in a vague sort of way, like listening to a conversation through a wall. And the words sounded foreign, like no language I'm familiar with."

"How do you feel now?"

Illya shrugged and the corners of his mouth twitched in a brief smile. "I feel fine. Better than fine. Like I woke up from a good night's sleep." He turned, picking up his clothes and dressed, while Napoleon looked on silently.

When they exited the exam room, Carver was sitting at his desk, flipping through the papers on the clipboard. He looked up at the agents and grinned. "Well, this is interesting."


"Yes. I've never had a case of human graffiti before. I'm thinking of writing a paper on the subject."

"What are your findings?" Napoleon asked.

"Well, he has markings over his upper back, extending over his shoulders and upper arms, across—"

"Erm, Doctor Carver? We already know that much. We have to see Mr. Waverly at ten. Could you just give us the abridged version of your findings?"

The disappointment clearly showed in Carver's tone. "Fine."

Napoleon smiled. Carver's day must have been bad. He recalled something someone had once said about the esteemed doctor: Carver by name, Carver by nature. A wry comment on how overzealous the doctor seemed to be to wield his scalpel.

Instead, Carver took out a notepad. "No nausea, dizziness, or unexplained puncture wounds. No bumps, bruises or abrasions." Carver sighed, his chagrin evident. "Not even so much as a chipped nail," he added, almost in disgust. "Other than the art work, he appears to be disgustingly healthy. Still, though I didn't find any puncture wounds, I've taken some blood samples to check for any drugs in his system. And I've taken a skin scraping from his palms, though I'm pretty sure it's some harmless vegetable dye, probably henna." He smiled as he saw Illya rub at the marks on his palm. "They will wear off. Eventually."

"When will the results be ready?" Illya asked.

"Shouldn't be too long. I'll send them down to your office when they come back. Anything else I can do for you gentlemen, while you're both here?"

"No," Illya replied shortly. "Thank you for your time."

Carver smiled. "No problem. Hope to see you soon," he called cheerfully as they left his office.

"Not if I can help it," Illya murmured as they walked out of the door.

Napoleon glanced at his partner, aware that the tension was leaving his body as they left the medical section. "Doctor Carver's unique, isn't he? It's so rare these days to find a man who gets so much pleasure out of his work."

"The man is a ghoul. He's only happy when he's knee-deep in someone else's blood," Illya murmured as they walked towards the elevator.

Napoleon chuckled. "Just be grateful he's on our side."

"Hm," Illya said thoughtfully. "Maybe we should send him to Thrush."

Napoleon didn't comment. He knew Illya didn't mean it; he just seemed averse to physical intrusion. That had been apparent on their last mission together. Illya shied away from physical contact and even tried to refuse medical assistance.

Napoleon led the way into the elevator when it arrived and pressed the button for Waverly's floor.

Their meeting with Waverly was brief and none too helpful. The tail that had been put on the Thrush agent who'd been in contact with Nicolson had reported that the Thrush agent had tried, unsuccessfully, to see a Professor George Franklin at a local museum. Waverly suggested that both agents visited the museum to try to ascertain what Lloyd had been looking for.

The museum was in the process of closing its huge oak doors when the agents trotted up the steps. Napoleon already had his identification card held before him as the rotund guard tried to push the door closed. He paused, unsure exactly what this U.N.C.L.E. organization was, but certain that the two young men looked like they meant business. He stood aside and ushered them in, and while he finished locking up, asked, "What can I do for you gentlemen?"

"We're looking for Professor George Franklin. We have an appointment," Illya said.

The guard glanced at his watch. "Well, it's the end of my shift, so you'll have to make your own way to the professor's office." He turned, pointing towards the end of the vast hall. "See the stairs at the end? At the top, turn left, go straight down to the end. The professor's office is the last door on the right." Without further ado, he picked up a thermos sitting on a nearby table, tucked it under his arm and left.

Their footsteps echoed loudly in the grand hall as they passed row upon row of glass display cases, following the guard's directions to the back of the museum and up the wide, carpeted staircase that led to the upper level.

They had reached the top of the stairs when a woman's high-pitched scream galvanized both men into action.

Napoleon reached the door to the office first, in time to see a pretty young woman trying to wrestle a book from the grasp of her assailant. Talbot Lloyd turned in surprise as Napoleon entered. He dropped his hold on the book and made his escape through the open window and out onto the fire escape. Napoleon went directly to the woman while his partner dashed out of the window after Lloyd.

"Are you okay?" Napoleon asked her, with concern.

"I'm fine," she replied, hugging the large tome to her chest as she backed away. "Who are you? And what do you want?" she asked, suspicion clear in her expression.

"My partner and I are with the U.N.C.L.E.," Napoleon said, stepping closer. He turned on the charm, allowing his easy smile and casual manner to calm her. He held out his hand, empty palm upwards, and she seemed to relax, reaching out to grasp his hand in a quick hand-shake.

"Charmed, I'm sure." She withdrew her hand, wrapping her arm back protectively around the book. "I wish you'd come sooner, though. That man...." She shivered.

Napoleon reached out and rubbed his hand gently up her arm. "His name's Talbot Lloyd and he works for a somewhat disreputable organization called Thrush. Might I ask what he was after?"

"This!" she said, patting at the book's cover.

Napoleon looked away as Illya climbed back through the window. "He got away."

Napoleon frowned. "From experience, he won't go far. And he never travels alone. Keep watch." He turned back to the young lady, their meeting with the professor forgotten with these new developments. If Lloyd was after this book, then it must be important. "What's so special about this book?"

"It's very rare," she replied, holding it close to her chest. "It's one of only three copies in existence."

It certainly looked ancient to Napoleon's untrained eye, thick and dusty with age, its leather cracked and torn in parts. "Did he say why he wanted it?"

She shook her head. "Perhaps he's a collector."

Napoleon held back a grin. "Trust me, the only books he collects are the kind he'd hide from his mother. What's the book about?"

"About?" she repeated, as if the very word was derogatory. "This is a copy of the Black Dawn, an ancient Grimoire, written in the fifteenth century. It contains the translated scripts of the Court Advisor to King Solomon. It's said to contain secret incantations and rituals on how to summon the spiritual powers. This book," she said, holding it before her, excitement written on her face, "explains how the choice of time and place, preparation procedures, incantations, fasting, robes, fumigations, conjurations...."

Napoleon looked at Illya, whose eyes glanced heavenwards with impatience before he returned to watching out of the window. The woman continued on, unaware that she had lost Napoleon's attention. He tugged at his lower lip, considering the facts. "Nicolson's specialty was the black arts," he said aloud. Lloyd's sudden interest in books was starting to make some sense. "What do you think, Illya?" he asked his partner, interrupting her monologue

Illya took a step back from the window, moving out of sight. "I think we should be getting out of here. We have company."

Napoleon crossed the room to join him. Outside, two cars had pulled up and what appeared to be a group of linebackers were levering their heavy bulks out of the vehicles. "We'd better move." He turned back to the woman. "Is there another way out?"

"There's the tradesmen's entrance, where the deliveries are made."

Napoleon took her gently by the arm. "Lead the way."

They ran into two of the Thrush men as they exited the building. Sleep darts put a quick end to the encounter, and left them with the back alley to themselves. They paused at the alley's entrance, and Illya carefully peeked around the corner of the building, visually locating their car parked a little way down the street. There was no sign of Lloyd or his men. "All clear," Illya whispered over his shoulder.

Napoleon wrapped his arm about the shoulders of the frightened woman, comforting in the way he knew best, while she clutched onto the book like it was her lifeline. "Think you can run in those heels?" he asked her.

She nodded. "If I have to."

"You have to," Illya replied, gesturing at Napoleon with a snap of his fingers.

Napoleon instinctively knew what he was asking for and threw the car keys into his waiting hands. He gripped her by the elbow. "Ready?"

The three dashed past the opening to the alleyway, Napoleon risking a glance behind him as he heard a shout from one of Lloyd's men.

Illya reached the car first and slid quickly into the driver's seat. The engine was revving when Napoleon and the woman got into the back. Before the door had properly closed, Illya had floored the gas pedal and was pulling away.

Napoleon turned to look out of the rear window. Two of Lloyd's men appeared at the mouth of the alleyway they'd just exited, pointing in their direction.

"Back to headquarters?" Illya asked.

Napoleon shook his head. "Too risky. I'm pretty sure Lloyd recognized me and he'll probably have the area covered. We need to lay low for a while. Think you can find a motel?"

Illya nodded and turned his attention to the task.

It was a long drive, finding a place far enough away from the heat of the chase, but finally they pulled into a motel on the other side of town, exhausted and in dire need of rest. Napoleon booked them into a room, registering unimaginatively as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, while Illya waited nearby for their return.

The room was small and sparsely furnished, but adequate for their purposes. Out of habit, Napoleon quickly checked their room, while Illya secured the door and windows. Satisfied, Napoleon turned to his partner. "Do you think you could find us something to eat?"

"If there's one thing I'm good at, it is detecting food."

Napoleon smiled. "So I've heard." He pushed Illya towards the door. "Be careful."

"I usually am." Illya slipped out of the door and Napoleon pulled the curtain aside and watched him till he was out of sight.

Napoleon turned back to their female companion. "I'm sorry, we didn't have time for formal introductions." In the heat of the chase, they'd managed to drag this poor woman across the other side of town with them — and they hadn't even bothered to find out her name.

"Oh, my name's Georgina. Georgina Franklin. Or George, to my friends."

"George...." he repeated, softly, using the diminutive of her name. Then something clicked in his memory: Franklin? George Franklin? "Wait, you're Professor Franklin?"

She laughed, understanding his surprise. "One and the same."

Napoleon sighed. "My name's Napoleon Solo. We had an appointment." He shook his head. "If I'd known, I would have introduced myself earlier."

She grinned at Napoleon's embarrassment. "That's okay. It's a common misconception. Being female and having such a dusty old title at my tender young age, well, people tend to come to the wrong conclusions." Her mood turned serious once more as she glanced down at the tome in her arms. "That man who was after the book, will he come looking for us?"

"He'll try. But don't worry, you'll be safe with us," he said gently, reaching out to push a stray lock of hair from her face. She was probably attractive, without the austere clothes and thick-rimmed glasses. Behind the lenses of her spectacles, her eyes were large and green, the lashes naturally long and dark and unencumbered by the thick layers of mascara favored by today's fashion.

She blushed as she caught him studying her and he smiled in reassurance. "Why don't you rest. Illya may be some time."

Obediently, she sat on the bed, toeing off her shoes and leaning back against the headboard. She carefully laid the book on the bedside table, near to hand. "Please don't take this personally, but how long do you think I'll be stuck here with you two?"

Napoleon shrugged. "A few hours. Overnight, maybe."

"Not that I mind spending the night with two handsome men, but couldn't we just call for help?"

Napoleon threw a quick smile in her direction. "If we called for backup every time we bumped into a little trouble, headquarters would be permanently empty."

"Oh." He heard the bedsprings squeak as she shifted restlessly on the bed. "Then... you don't think we're in too much danger?"

"Been in worse," he told her with a smile. He turned to look back out of the window, muttering, "Been in much worse."

Napoleon kept his attention on the view out of the window, aware that she watched him intently. After a few minutes silence, she asked, "Do you like your work?"

"Hm?" The question caught him off guard; no one had ever taken the trouble to ask before. He didn't need long to consider it. "Yes. Yes, I do." He said no more; he didn't feel an explanation was needed. Besides, it was difficult to put into words, the satisfaction he got from his work. He was a small cog in a much greater wheel, but the most insignificant of parts were often the things that helped the machinery keep turning. He did his part; he helped change things for the better, helped make the world a safer place. It's what he was good at.

"It must be exciting," she continued, intent on talking. "More exciting than my life, anyway. My life is so... dull."

Napoleon smiled. "Don't condemn it. Dull is safe. Exciting loses its charm when you're dodging bullets or running for your life." He turned towards her. She lay on her side, head propped up by her arm, her shapely legs bent slightly, allowing her skirt to slide up farther than modesty would normally allow. She didn't seem to notice. Napoleon tried to keep his eyes above shoulder level. "By the way, what are you a professor of?"

"Middle Eastern History."

"Sounds... interesting." Napoleon tried to sound sincere.

Georgina laughed. "No, it's not. I followed in my father's footsteps, more to please him than to please myself." He heard the rustle of her clothing as she slipped from the bed and walked up behind him, felt her presence before her gentle perfume assailed his nostrils. He stayed at his post but briefly turned his head. "Are you okay?"

She drew closer, wrapping her arms about herself. "Shaky," she replied quietly.

Napoleon nodded in understanding. It was always the same once the adrenaline wore off: the tremors, the fear. He extended an arm about her shoulder and pulled her nearer. "Don't be afraid. Not here. Not with me."

At his words, she looked up into his face, and he smiled to reassure her. He felt her move a little closer, drawn by his warmth.

Napoleon's hand stroked along her shoulder, his fingers playing with the strands of hair resting there. He felt a shiver of anticipation run through her when she looked up at him. Her face was close, her mouth inviting. She inched nearer and Napoleon did likewise until their lips met. He kissed her gently, non-aggressively, without passion or intent. A kiss meant to soothe and calm. She wrapped her arms around his neck, trying to draw him down, but he gently pulled them away, smiling at her to soften the rebuff. It was excitement she craved, not him. Napoleon would never take advantage of a woman.

She was inexperienced, that much was obvious from the tension in her body and the shyness of her kiss. This woman had spent far too long cloistered away in a fusty old museum with only her ancient books and equally ancient professorial colleagues for company. She was hesitant, unsure, an innocent. One of those unlucky few who found themselves dragged headlong into an affair, usually by accident. Filled with fear and unaccustomed adrenaline, they often turned to the agents for solace and comfort. He knew what she wanted, but he wouldn't take advantage of her.

Napoleon gently pushed her away. "Why don't you rest for a while? Illya should be back soon. We'll eat, make plans, then rest before we make a move."

She averted her eyes as a blush colored her cheeks. She nodded in agreement and Napoleon turned back to his silent watch.

It was almost forty minutes before Kuryakin returned, a large paper sack in his arms. Napoleon opened the door as he saw him approach and relocked it as soon as his partner was safely inside.

"It isn't much, I'm afraid," Illya said, dropping his load onto the table top. "It took me a while to find a place that sold anything remotely edible."

Napoleon peeked into the sack. "Is this all they had?" he asked, pulling the contents out one by one. "Root beer, potato chips and... Twinkies?"

"I like Twinkies," Kuryakin said defensively.

"I was hoping for something more substantial. Couldn't you find a Take-Out?"

Irritation colored Kuryakin's voice. "Probably. Had I wanted to walk another fifteen miles and risk exposing myself to Lloyd and his cronies."

George slipped in between the bickering agents. "This will be fine. I'm not really that hungry anyway. Thank you,'m sorry, I didn't catch your name earlier," she said apologetically.

Napoleon gestured at Kuryakin. "George, this is Illya Kuryakin." He leaned close to her ear. "He likes Twinkies."

George laughed. "My name's Georgina Franklin. But you can call me George." She extended her hand to the Russian, who automatically reached out to shake it. As he did, she noticed the markings on his palm and before he could pull his hand away, she turned his palm over. Her face creased into a frown. "These are rather unique markings, Mr. Kuryakin? How intriguing." Illya pulled his hand away. Oblivious to his discomfort, she continued. "Henna decoration isn't something I've seen much of in the western world."

"He has them all over his body," Napoleon supplied blithely, earning himself a look of annoyance from his partner.

"Really? How unusual."

"They're not self-inflicted," Illya replied in defense.

Napoleon added to his discomfort. "No, someone decided to use him as a canvas."

Professor Franklin's interest was piqued. She grasped his hand again, fascinated by the designs. "Odd. Some of these markings look like cuneiform. An ancient form of writing," she explained to a puzzled-looking Napoleon. "One of my interests is ancient scripts. Do you mind if I see the rest?"

"Yes, I do," Illya replied, mild irritation coloring his tone.

Napoleon sighed. "Illya, you said you wanted to know what they are, well, now's your chance. Show the professor your tattoos. Take off your shirt," he directed with a wag of his finger. His tone of voice brooked no argument, but he thought for a moment that Illya was going to refuse. Napoleon impatiently waved his hand at him again, and in a sort of compromise, Illya tugged loose his tie and opened the top three buttons of his shirt.

The professor slipped on her glasses and peered at the marks she could see. "They are cuneiform. Somewhat stylized, but cuneiform, nonetheless. See? These wedge shapes form letters. Remarkable. Who did this?"

"I have no idea."

"This is very interesting." She didn't seem to notice his discomfort as she peered at the visible patterns on his neckline. "I'd really like to see the rest. May I?" she asked the blond agent.

"No," he replied, testily.

"Illya," Napoleon growled in warning. But it was difficult for Napoleon to keep a straight face as his partner ground his teeth and pulled his shirt-tails from his pants. He watched with amusement as Illya pulled the shirt off over his head without bothering with the rest of the buttons, and stood rigidly still.

She moved behind him, resting a hand on his back as she peered at the strange symbols dancing across his shoulders. One of her fingers trailed over the reddish markings and her lips moved silently, like a young child reading. Her hand followed the design over the top of his shoulder and she moved back in front of him, closely studying the marks on his chest. All through this unwelcome intrusion, Illya remained still, as stoic as he was under any torture, his eyes fixed on the wall behind her. He could feel her breath, puffing out in warm sighs, too close and too intimate. When her fingers trailed down his chest, following the pattern down his sternum and past his waist, he reached out and intercepted her hand viciously. "That's enough," Illya said, none too gently. Tired of being under such close scrutiny, he turned away and pulled his shirt back on.

"I'm sorry," she said, flustered. "I didn't mean to... that is... do they go all the way down?"

"Yes," Napoleon replied, a little too hastily. Illya turned and glared at him. "Well, they do," he said, defensively. "So, do you have any idea what they are?" he asked Georgina.

She pulled off her spectacles and used the edge of her blouse to polish the lenses. "Well, I can't be certain, not without my research material, but I think they may be Assyrian or Persian in origin. They appear to be a form of...." She paused, shaking her head in wonder. "Well, some sort of spell."

"Spell?" both men asked.

"Yes. I couldn't say more than that, I'm afraid. Cuneiform isn't the easiest form of communication to decipher."

"Spells? Too much of a coincidence, don't you think?" Napoleon asked his partner. "Do you suppose this could have something to do with Nicolson?"

Illya shook his head. "That doesn't make sense. Why would Nicolson kidnap me, paint a spell on my body and release me close to home?" Illya's brow furrowed as he pondered the problem. "Perhaps someone else is involved."

"A third party? That's all we need; a loose cannon. But the question remains the same. Why?" Napoleon asked, unconvinced.

Illya shrugged and rubbed at his temples. "I don't know, but thinking about it is giving me a headache."

"Why don't I take the first watch," Napoleon suggested, shrugging out of his jacket. He pulled a chair towards the window. "You get some rest."

Illya was only half awake, drifting towards awareness with a lack of haste borne out of the security of knowing Napoleon was keeping watch. His jacket had been discarded and his shoulder holster removed for comfort, though he clung to it in sleep like a babe clings to its mother for comfort.

His senses came to attention when he heard his partner move suddenly. Napoleon touched his arm lightly and whispered, "Lloyd and his men just pulled up outside." Illya rose, his shirt badly wrinkled from sleeping in his clothes, and quickly pulled on his holster and jacket. He moved to the window beside Napoleon, watching through a chink in the curtain. Lloyd and his men had left their vehicle and two of them were checking out the U.N.C.L.E.-issue car.

"It's time we left. Any suggestions?" Napoleon asked.

"Bathroom window?" Illya nodded towards George, sleeping peacefully on the other bed. "You rouse the good professor, I'll check out the escape route."

Getting to their car was now out of the question, so they skirted around the back of the motel towards the main road, and luck held as they managed to catch a passing bus.

The next town along the route was small but busy, the shops were just opening as they hopped off the bus.

"What now?" Illya asked, deferring to the senior agent.

Napoleon looked around, scanning the street for inspiration, but finding himself distracted by a pretty blonde across the street. He watched her wiggle and totter in her high heels as she moved out of sight into the post office.

Post Office. Napoleon looked up at the sign and shrugged. "Now, we buy some stamps."

Illya frowned in puzzlement, but followed across the street as Napoleon grasped George's hand and dragged her across.

The post office was busy with the lunch time crowd. Illya kept watch while Napoleon and the professor joined a queue. A few minutes later, Napoleon was back by his side, grinning in satisfaction.

Illya immediately realized something was missing. "Where's the book?"

"Neatly packaged and safely on its way back to headquarters via the U.S. Postal Service."

"Will it be okay?" Illya asked doubtfully.

"Of course. Don't you trust the U.S. postal system?" Doubt still lingered in Illya's eyes. "Look, Illya, it's safer than it would be with us, at the moment. If Lloyd wants it, he'll have to fight the entire postal service." Napoleon glanced about. "Let's find some transport."

At the local bus station, they turned a corner and almost ran into Lloyd and his men. By the looks of it, they must have just arrived; Lloyd was gesturing to his men, sending them off in different directions.

Across the road, a bus was boarding. Napoleon gestured in that direction. "Let's see if we can find a way round the back."

They kept to the rear of the buildings, avoiding the crowd of people meandering around. They paused to get their bearings, while Napoleon peeked around the corner of a wall to check out the terrain. A familiar face caught Napoleon's attention: Talbot Lloyd. Napoleon drew his weapon. "Well, there's Lloyd, but where are the others?" Napoleon said over his shoulder.

He heard Illya sigh deeply in reply. "I think I can answer that."

Napoleon turned at Kuryakin's resigned tone to find one of Lloyd's men standing behind his partner, a gun pointed at the blond head. Lloyd and the other men appeared on the scene, surrounding them, and Napoleon surrendered, letting his gun hang limply from his upturned hands.

The car pulled up to the front of an impressive Colonial style house. Over the years, alterations had been made to the building, making it more than twice its original size. The three of them were hustled out of the car and herded towards the front door with Lloyd at the head of the group.

A large man stood waiting at the entrance.

"Tito," Lloyd called as they approached. "Is your boss at home?"

Tito, Nicolson's main muscle, nodded, his face showing no emotion. "He's waiting for you." The big man stepped aside as Lloyd and his three prisoners walked past, but when his men went to follow, Tito stuck out his arm and halted their progress. "Not them."

Lloyd turned towards him. "Hey, what's going on here?"

"Mr. Nicolson wants to see you. Not them. They can wait outside," Tito said.

Lloyd was about to argue, but from his previous dealings with Nicolson, knew it would be useless. Nicolson was a demanding man, and he wouldn't budge a centimeter in order to compromise. It was simpler to keep him sweet. This was Nicolson's game, and he would comply — for now. He nodded, instructing his men to wait in the car before following the large man into the main hallway. He glanced back at his prisoners, noting that two of Nicolson's armed men had moved in behind the small group.

At a pair of sliding doors, Nicolson's man stopped, and gestured for them to enter.

The room was dominated by a large mahogany dining table, and standing at the far end was Nicolas Nicolson, hands deep in pockets, his smooth face wearing an amused smile. "Ah, Mr. Lloyd. What have you brought me?"

Lloyd walked up to him. "I'm afraid I don't have the book, but I have managed to procure the other items you requested." He turned and gestured as the U.N.C.L.E. agents and the professor were herded into the room by Nicolson's men. "We searched everywhere. They don't have the book with them." He stepped forward to face Solo. "Still, I'm sure one of them can be persuaded to tell us where it is. I have certain methods that can be very persuasive."

Napoleon smiled smugly. "I know your methods, Mr. Lloyd, and I assure you, they won't be necessary." He turned towards Nicolson. "I'm perfectly happy to divulge the book's whereabouts."

Nicolson approached the small group, his head cocked to one side, intrigued, despite his self-assurance. "Do tell."

Napoleon glanced at this watch. "Well, by now, it's probably en route to the main post office in Central New York. Somewhere."

Nicolson clapped his hands together and chuckled, genuinely amused. "Very good, very good. You have a greater imagination than your counterpart, Mr. Solo."

"Thank you," Napoleon replied graciously.

Lloyd stepped forward. "To show good faith, I've done what you asked, Mr. Nicolson. You said we'd talk. Now, it's time to discuss business."

"Business? Ah, yes."

Lloyd's eyes narrowed at the dismissive tone in Nicolson's voice. "Might I remind you, Mr. Nicolson, you were the one who contacted us."

"Correct. And might I say, you have performed up to my expectations. That is to say, barely adequately."

Lloyd bristled. "Under the circumstances and considering the task you set, I think we did a good job."

Nicolson shrugged. "You did a fair job. It could hardly be described as good," he said, reasonably.

Lloyd's face twitched as he tried to control his annoyance. "What are you playing at? We are a very powerful organization, Mr. Nicolson. You don't want to cross us. You need us."

Nicolson smiled pleasantly. "Need you? Why on earth would I need you and your trite organization with its petty ambitions?"

Lloyd shifted uncomfortably. "I think you'll agree, so far we have been helpful. We believe an alliance between yourself and our organization could be mutually beneficial."

"It would seem, Mr. Lloyd, that you and I have different definitions of the phrase 'mutually beneficial.' I know something of your organization, you see. Manned by maniacs, murderers and underachievers, whose only goal is to rule the world." He turned, studying his reflection in the mirror with a degree of self-admiration. He ran a finger over his eyebrow, smoothing down an errant hair. "In fact, I have the same ambition. However," he said, a slow smile curving his lips. "I don't like to share."

Lloyd's face reddened with anger. "You owe us! A lot of time and effort went into locating that book!"

"Which you failed to retrieve," Nicolson pointed out.

"I brought you the U.N.C.L.E. agents and the girl. You owe me for that!"

Nicolson turned away from the mirror. "And I shall repay you. I promise." He picked at imaginary fluff on his jacket. "I had planned to kill you straight away." He looked up at Lloyd. "But I'm going to give you a chance to run before I send someone after you. I'm willing to give you...." He glanced at his watch. "An hour to get a head start." He smiled graciously. "I'm feeling in a generous mood."

"What?! You can't kill me!"

"Can. And will." Nicolson tapped pointedly on his watch-face. "Time's running out, Mr. Lloyd," he reminded him.

Lloyd glanced about the room, as if seeking support, but there was none to be had: he'd left his men downstairs, waiting in the car. He shook with anger and fear. "You're going to regret this, Mr. Nicolson!"

"I doubt it. Tito!" Nicolson called. The large beefy man appeared in the doorway. "Show Mr. Lloyd to the door. Have someone escort him and his cronies off the premises."

Napoleon almost felt sorry for Lloyd as he snatched up his jacket and stormed out. Tito paused in the doorway. "Would you like me to take care of him?" he asked.

"No, I'll see to it later. He can't hide from me. Let him sweat a little first. We have more important things to attend to at the moment."

Nicolson sat down at the end of the large dining table, and poured himself a glass of brandy from the decanter there. "Welcome to my humble home, gentlemen. And lady. I'm glad you could all make it in one piece. I was beginning to think I might have to postpone this evening's entertainment." Nicolson gestured towards the table before him. "Please, sit, all of you. I think an explanation is due."

Napoleon sighed inwardly. Why did these megalomaniacs always insist on explaining their plans? "Perhaps some other time," Napoleon offered, glancing at his watch. "We have another appointment." He stopped as the hard metal of a gun barrel dug into his back.

"Sit!" Nicolson commanded. He watched, amused, as the agents coolly obeyed, seating themselves around the table, the nervous female following their lead.

Nicolson placed the glass down in front of him and folded his hands together on the table top. "Now, where to begin?" he said, thoughtfully. "Perhaps, at the beginning.

"I was eleven when I first realized my potential. My father was a habitual gambler and my mother was a common whore. So, it was a relief when they sent me to stay with my grandmother." He smiled, almost serenely. "In fact, it turned out to be the most educational time of my life. For it was she who taught me the black arts, showed me the path to true enrichment, brought out my potential. I proved to have a talent that outshone even her lifetime of practice. When she grew too old, she sent me to the Chernekov Institute in Moscow, where I learned to sharpen my skills to perfection."

"Black magic?" Napoleon said, a hint of disdain in his voice. Illya would have kicked his shins, had he not been sitting too far away. This was a powerful man. Illya had witnessed what he was capable of; it wouldn't do to irritate him.

But Nicolson didn't seem to mind. He steepled his fingers together, like a teacher giving a lecture. "Magic is as old as time itself. It stems from a time when man and nature were in harmony, and gods and demons were revered for what they truly were." A light came into his eyes, adding a madness to the air of menace that he exuded. "I, too, wish to have that power, to be worshipped and revered. It was at the Institute that I learned about the Black Dawn Grimoire and the secrets it contained." He sat back, his gaze touching on each person seated around the table, to be sure of their attention. "I knew then, that this was meant to be."

"What was meant to be?" Napoleon asked, carefully.

"The greatest achievement man can attain, Mr. Solo. Ultimate power."

"Don't you already have enough power?" Illya asked.

Nicolson smiled graciously at him. "One can never have enough. Power is like a drug, Mr. Kuryakin, a heady aphrodisiac. It's no longer enough to rule my little empire with its petty minions and paltry income. I want more! I want supreme dominion!" His eyes glistened with madness as his voice rose to a deafening roar. "I want to rule the world!" he bellowed, his hands raised skyward.

The room fell silent. Nicolson was panting with exertion, sweat beading a face that was red from frenzy. He shook himself, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, visibly gaining control of himself. With a final calming inhalation, he stood and walked over to Napoleon, leaning over until he was almost nose-to-nose as he added softly, "Tell me, is that so wrong?"

"You're insane," Napoleon told him calmly.

Nicolson frowned and pushed himself erect. "Nobody likes to be reminded of their shortcomings, Mr. Solo." He stepped away and, like the unpredictability of the weather, his composure returned and the calm demeanor was back in place.

"Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The Grimoire. This ancient book contains the incantation for the raising and control of an ancient demon, the Gothlor. Once I have his power at my command, I shall rule supreme."

Napoleon cringed inside. Nicolson really was crazy, and the crazy ones were the most dangerous. "If this book has been around for centuries, than how come nobody else has ever cast this spell before?" Napoleon asked.

"Good question," Nicolson said, like a school teacher praising a pupil. "You see, it isn't simply a matter of repeating the words on the page, it's a matter of conviction, of belief. And there are certain artefacts that are essential to the ceremony. One of those, the Sword of Solomon, I have searched years for and, at the cost of many lives, it is now in my possession." He smiled at his captives around the table. "And the other essential 'commodity' for the ceremony is now here. Miss Franklin, I take it you have read the contents of this book?"

She frowned, unsure what his question was leading up to. "Yes, of course. Who wouldn't?"

"Indeed. Then you are aware of the... requirements for the successful invocation?"

"Yeesss," she answered slowly.

Nicolson's smile was cold and malevolent. "Excellent," he hissed, as he walked slowly around his captives. "The ceremony will take place tonight, during the alignment of the five visible planets. You see, with your arrival, I now have everything that I need. The stage, as it were, is set. "

"You have everything you need, except the book," Napoleon took great pleasure in reminding him. "And that's on its way back to New York."

Nicolson chuckled as he paused behind Georgina's chair. "The Grimoire, Mr. Solo, whilst valuable in its own right, isn't a necessity. I already have copies of its contents and the ritual it describes therein, and they," he said, tapping his temple, "are committed to memory. I have everything ready. The acolytes have been assembled, the setting has been prepared, and all the elements required for the ceremony are present, now that your little group is here."

"Our little group?" Napoleon asked. "What do we have to do with your insane plan?"

"Oh, I have a role for each of you to play. For instance, the ceremony specifies that there must be seven acolytes present. I have six. You, Mr. Solo, will be my seventh man."

"If you think I'd help you, you're crazier than I thought."

"Thankfully, this won't require your cooperation, merely your presence." Nicolson tugged thoughtfully at his lip. "Now. Where was I? Oh, yes." He walked at a leisurely pace around the table, preparing to give his captive audience a lecture. "To complete the ritual, a sacrifice is needed. Someone pure in spirit and body. Someone untouched, chaste. A virgin, if you will."

Solo glanced at Georgina and she returned his look fretfully. "So, that's why you had us brought here. The book was irrelevant. Georgina was the real target."

"Miss Franklin?" Nicolson laughed. "Dear me, no."

Puzzled, Napoleon said, "But I thought you said—"

"You misunderstood. I have proof positive of Miss Franklin's... lack of credentials in that department."

Georgina gasped. "What? How dare you!"

"Come now, Miss Franklin, you protest too much. Weren't you caught in flagrante, at the Boston Conference last fall?"

Georgina blushed. "That's a vicious lie!"

"And then there was the incident at the Shipton Golf Club," he continued, enforcing her humiliation. "I believe you and your gentleman friend were thrown out after being caught 'playing in the rough,' so to speak."

Napoleon turned to look at her as Georgina audibly ground her teeth. So, not the innocent she seemed to be. Napoleon felt a little foolish. He prided himself on his perception of women. "If you know all this, then what's your point?" Napoleon asked impatiently.

"The point?" Nicolson stepped around the table, pausing behind Kuryakin, to lean indolently against the back of his chair. "The point, Mr. Solo, is that there is in fact another member of your party who qualifies. Isn't that right, Mr. Kuryakin?"

Napoleon couldn't keep the surprise off his face. Was he talking about Illya? Ridiculous! The very idea caused Napoleon to laugh out loud. His partner was twenty-three years old and good looking, for God's sake. He'd seen the look of interest from the female members of staff as they'd walked through the typing pool together. Kuryakin would have had no problem attracting the ladies, not with so many willing opportunities around.

"That's absurd," Napoleon stated.

"Is it? Mr. Kuryakin?" Nicolson's hand moved from the chair back to rest possessively on Illya's head. "Would you care to enlighten your colleague?"

Napoleon stared at Illya, awaiting — expecting — a denial. But the younger agent remained silent, his face turned away, clenched fists resting on the table. Napoleon noted absently that the visible skin around Illya's neck had gone scarlet.

"Illya?" Napoleon said, his tone demanding. At last, Illya turned to look at him and Napoleon knew from his expression of misery that Nicolson's words were true. Napoleon took a deep, calming breath as he returned his attention to Nicolson.

Nicolson smirked. "As I said, I like to plan well in advance. I had marked Mr. Kuryakin as a possibility many years ago, along with several others with potential, during my stay at the Institute. Two of those possibilities are no longer accessible to me, one has since died. Mr. Kuryakin's transfer to America simply made him more accessible."

Illya was looking at him over his shoulder, a mixture of disbelief and puzzlement on his face. "But how...?"

"Could I know? I have my ways." Nicolson leaned over, resting his hands on Illya's shoulders, his lips close to his ear, as he whispered, "I know all your little secrets." He straightened and continued to stroll around the table. "I confess, I did consider Miss Franklin — a female is usually traditional in these circumstances — but on closer inspection, it would seem she was not the demure young lady she appeared to be." He paused, standing across the table from the agents.

"However," Nicolson continued, "Miss Franklin will still have a function in this ceremony."


"Yes, my dear. As we've already established, you are familiar with the rituals outlined in the Grimoire. If you are willing to perform the task of the high priestess, I am willing to make it worth your while."

"Me? High priestess?" she breathed. She leaned forward, her face lighting up with interest. Napoleon frowned as his unease grew. He knew George craved excitement, but surely she could see the whole idea was insane.

"The rewards will be... prodigious," Nicolson said, sweetening the offer with unspoken promises.

Napoleon watched as a smile appeared on George's face. He looked with disbelief from her to their captor and back again. "George, you can't seriously be considering—?"

"Shut up!" she snapped at Napoleon. Her interested gaze returned to Nicolson. "Go on."

"Why don't we talk about it over dinner? I seem to have worked up something of an appetite. Afterwards, Tito will take you to one of the guest rooms. There you'll find all you need to prepare for the ceremony, my dear." He turned to the big man. "Tito, please show Miss Franklin to the library, for now. She can wait for me there. I have some private business to conduct with these two gentlemen."

She stood and Napoleon reached out, grasped her tightly by the wrist. "Don't do this, George."

She twisted her arm free, her pretty face turning ugly in anger. "You don't understand what a privilege this is, what an honor. To be a major participant in one of the most ancient and daring rituals of all time? I'll never have another opportunity like this again." She turned away from him, following Tito to the door. She paused as she drew level with Nicolson and glanced back over her shoulder at the two agents. She leaned closer to Nicolson, whispering something in his ear. Napoleon saw the Rumanian's eyebrows rise as his attention turned thoughtfully towards Kuryakin.

"Thank you, my dear. We'll talk more later, I promise." He watched her leave before turning his attention back to the agents. "Well, now the young lady is out of the room, this would be a good time for you gentlemen to dress appropriately for the occasion." He picked up a bundle of black clothing from the top of a nearby chair and threw a robe at each agent. "Both of you, take off your clothes and put these on. Now, please."

"No, thank you." Kuryakin threw the robe back at Nicolson.

Irritated, Nicolson walked up to his captive, pushing his face close to Illya's. "Do not test my patience, Mr. Kuryakin, you'll find it sadly lacking. You will put it on or my men will do it for you."

That wasn't a prospect Illya relished. He frowned his displeasure and reluctantly began tugging his tie free.

Napoleon glanced up at Nicolson's men standing guard. "Could we at least get a little privacy here?"

"No need for modesty, Mr. Solo. Not since you have...." Nicolson glanced at his watch and pursed his lips. "Oh, I'd say, less than six hours to live."

Napoleon sighed. "How about a little something to eat? Even a condemned man gets a last meal," he pointed out, hoping to stall for time.

Nicolson's smile was mocking. "Do I look the compassionate type to you? Now, please, let's not waste any more time. Put on the robes."

Napoleon began to pull off his tie, aware that Nicolson's attention was wholly on his partner. As Illya undressed slowly, Nicolson moved closer. Illya paused as he began to pull off his shirt, disconcerted by his nearness, and acutely aware of the henna tattoos he was about to expose. Georgina obviously felt she could score points by informing Nicolson.

"Everything, Mr. Kuryakin," Nicolson prompted. Illya removed the remaining garments, dropping them to the floor.

As the last item was removed, Nicolson began to walk around his captive, his eyes taking in the decoration on the pale skin. "So, she was telling the truth." He drew a finger along one of the lines of the tattoo and smiled as Illya's skin prickled with goose-bumps. "Whoever did this has a deep knowledge of the craft, and I don't believe you're a practitioner, are you, Mr. Kuryakin?"

Illya didn't respond.

"So, who did this to you?"

"I really have no idea," Illya replied, tired of answering the same question.

Nicolson looked deep into his eyes, nodding faintly. "I believe you speak the truth." He took a step back, away from his captive. "And you have no idea what they are?"


"Of course you don't, unless you speak ancient Assyrian. Which means that they are irrelevant." He walked around his captive again, intrigued by the design that wove its way across this man's torso.

"This is a spell," Nicolson explained. "Written in the ancient tongue. But it matters not. For unless you know how to read them, you cannot invoke their protection." He finished his circuit, ending up face to face with the Russian. "They're just pretty patterns on a pretty body. Quite useless." Nicolson pushed the robe into Illya's arms. "Now, put this on."

As Illya slipped the robe over his shoulders, the door opened and one of Nicolson's men strode into the room. He went directly to his employer's side and whispered in his ear. Nicolson's face turned scarlet with anger. "Incompetents! Must I do everything myself! If this ceremony isn't performed on time tonight, I will have to wait twenty years for another alignment of the planets!" He turned back to his captives. "Well, my friends, it seems you have a short reprieve. Take them to the storage room in the basement, post a guard outside the door. I'll be back before ten."

The storage room was small and damp, and filled with the unwanted clutter of the house's past occupants. Napoleon glanced about their surroundings before dropping into an old battered sofa in one corner. His action raised a small cloud of dust, making him cough to clear his throat. He waved the air-borne particles away and watched Illya on the other side of the room. His partner was studiously studying the door, fingers running over the fastening and hinges, seeking a weakness. Napoleon was aware that he should be helping him look for a way out, but he was preoccupied for the moment, by this latest revelation.

Illya had never had sex. Never had sex. The words replayed over and over in Napoleon's mind like a mantra. Twenty-three and he still had to sample the fruits of life. It was unimaginable. Illya had the looks to attract, even if his social skills left a little to be desired. It seemed such a waste of a perfectly beautiful body.

Illya continued to study the lock, while Napoleon continued his study of the Russian. He suspected Illya knew what he might be thinking, since he was making every effort to avoid eye-contact. The door seemed to fascinate him, holding his attention far longer than was necessary. Escape that way would be impractical, since Nicolson would almost certainly have stationed someone to keep guard. The tense atmosphere persisted, while Napoleon tried to pluck up courage to ask the question that was foremost in his mind, but before he could formulate his words, Illya seemed to suddenly loose his cool facade, and he snapped over his shoulder, "What?"

Napoleon sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Illya, you're... you're..." Napoleon sighed in frustration as the words wouldn't come to him. Illya cocked an eyebrow and his chin went up, daring Napoleon to say the word he was thinking. Napoleon let out a frustrated sigh. "I just don't understand," Napoleon said softly, inviting the Russian to share.

Illya turned back to the lock, even though it was pointless — he had no tools, now his clothes had been confiscated, but he needed the distraction. Somehow he couldn't look Napoleon in the eye. "What's to understand?" he asked, though he knew perfectly well what Napoleon was referring to.

Napoleon sighed. "Illya, that you're a... that you've never...." Napoleon closed his mouth, unable to say the appropriate word. Virgin. Illya was a virgin. It was like calling him a Martian — it simply didn't seem appropriate for a man this attractive.

"It isn't a disease!" Illya snapped back. "Listen to yourself. You can't even bring yourself to say the word."

Napoleon stood, brushing off the dust. "Illya, I'm sorry. It was such a surprise. I guess I find it hard to believe that, in this day and age, you can still be... chaste. You're twenty-three, for God's sake."

Twenty-three! Napoleon had lost his virginity at fourteen! Sex had been the one constant in his life, something that, besides his occupation, he knew he was good at.

"I know how old I am, Napoleon. Don't judge me by your standards. Celibacy really isn't that difficult. Or unique."

"But Illya, this is the sixties. There are so many opportunities these days. Women are more liberated in their attitude. They have sexual freedom, thanks to the pill. Besides, haven't you heard the modern axiom? Make love not war. If you tried, you could have any woman you wanted."

"Sexual promiscuity has been made socially acceptable, Napoleon, it hasn't been made compulsory." He shook his head in exasperation. "I've just never had sex. I'm not ashamed of the fact. I'm not," he insisted.

Napoleon wasn't convinced. There was more to this than Illya was letting on, a problem that went deeper than mere lack of interest. It didn't make sense that a healthy young male like Illya wouldn't feel a need. Napoleon shook his head, unable to understand. "Didn't you have urges? Or did you just never want to?"

"Of course I had urges!" Illya turned back towards the door, trying to hide the shame that colored his cheeks scarlet. He shook his head in frustration, his voice dropping to a soft whisper. "It's just that... they were the wrong kind of urges."

"Kind?" Napoleon repeated, puzzled. Napoleon was close behind him now, close enough that he could feel the heat from Illya's body. Despite their close proximity, Illya still wouldn't turn to face him.

Illya's voice was full of despair and resignation, as he answered, "The kind that can get you into trouble in my country."

Napoleon mentally sifted through the clues and came to the only conclusion. "Are you trying to tell me you're homosexual?" he asked, quietly.

Illya shrugged. "I don't know. Does it count if you only think that way?"

Napoleon's hand closed on his shoulder and Illya seemed to sag at the contact. He sighed deeply and leaned his forehead against the cool of the door. Napoleon's hand was kneading the tense muscles on Illya's shoulder. "Why don't you tell me about it," he suggested.

Illya shook his head. "I can't."

"Share with me. You know what they say, 'a trouble shared....'" he offered.

Illya pulled away, putting distance between them, wedging himself into the corner of the room. He remained silent, and for a while Napoleon thought he would stay that way. He gave him his solitude, knowing that to push would only make him dig his heels in deeper. Eventually, Illya spoke.

"I was fourteen when I realized I wasn't like the other boys at my school. I'd always been a late developer, you see. Well, physically. Most of my friends developed an interest in girls a year or so earlier. I never saw the attraction. Girls were strange to me, like another life form. I preferred to be with my friends." Napoleon remained silent as Illya slid down the wall to rest on the floor. "As I got older, I started dating girls." He looked up at Napoleon. "It seemed the thing to do. What was expected of me. But they held no real attraction and kissing them was..." He pulled a face. "...repulsive. It felt so unnatural."

Napoleon moved closer, crouching down to be on the same level. Illya was skittish; Napoleon needed to gain his trust. "Go on," he encouraged softly.

"That's pretty much all there is. When I found myself getting an erection in the showers with the other boys, I decided to close myself off from those around me. If I didn't become emotionally attached, I couldn't get aroused. It wasn't worth the risk." Illya shrugged, keeping his eyes averted. "Anyway, I don't know what all the fuss is about," he murmured.


"Sex. Why it's so important to so many people, so necessary?"

Napoleon smiled. "It's how the human race survives. Procreation, reproduction."

Illya raised a cynical brow and smiled faintly. "If reproduction was the only criteria for having sex, then, judging by your reputation, you should have enough children to fill the Yankee Stadium."

Napoleon chuckled. "I think the rumors about my sex-life have been greatly exaggerated. But I admit it — I do like sex. Maybe that's why I find it difficult to believe you could go without it."

Illya shrugged. "You don't miss what you've never had. Besides, you can learn to live without anything, if you have the willpower." He glanced at Napoleon. "Well, some of us can."

Napoleon moved closer, resting on the floor next to Illya, wanting to offer his support. What a lonely existence, he thought, incapable of finding women attractive and unable to form relations with men. Instead Illya had chosen to avoid both genders and push people away from him with his frosty exterior. It certainly explained a lot about Kuryakin's reputation.

Napoleon studied Illya's profile. He was good-looking; Napoleon could feel the pull of attraction towards this man. There must have been someone, at some time, even in a regime as strict as the Soviet Union. "You never found someone you could trust enough?" he asked.

"I'm many things, Napoleon, but never a fool. In my country, you learn to trust no one. So, I kept myself to myself. It was safer that way."

He put a conciliatory hand on Illya's arm and Illya glanced at it before looking up at his partner. "Don't feel sorry for me, my friend. Sex isn't as important to me as it is to you. Right now we should be more concerned about Nicolson's plans. If he follows through with this insane idea, he could become more powerful than either of us can imagine. He'll make Thrush look like amateurs."

Illya was right. This was not the time or place for this discussion. But.... "Surely you don't think it's possible, what he's suggesting?"

"I've seen Nicolson accomplish the impossible before. If he believes it, then the possibility exists. We must, somehow, scupper his plans."

Napoleon nodded. "Throw a wrench in the works, you mean. But how?"

"There is a solution," Illya suggested, hesitantly. He stood and Napoleon watched him pace to the far end of the room, one hand rubbing nervously against the side of the robe.

Napoleon realized he was reluctant to voice his opinion and coaxed him, "Go on."

Illya turned, hesitating a moment before he spoke. "Nicolson said that if the ceremony wasn't performed tonight, he would have to wait another twenty years for the alignment of the five planets." Illya paused, making sure he had Napoleon's attention. "Well... if there is no virgin to sacrifice, then there can be no ceremony."

Napoleon sat to attention. Of course, such a simple solution — why hadn't he thought of it? Hadn't they just been discussing that very subject? "You're right," he agreed with a snap of his fingers.

Illya took a deep breath. "Then you know what we must do?"

Napoleon nodded eagerly. Illya must lose his virginity — and they only had four hours in which to accomplish that — not a difficult task, though the circumstances were far from perfect.

Napoleon rose and faced his partner, glancing over the slender figure standing at the other side of the room, his arms wrapped around himself as if to ward off the chill. Illya looked like a little boy lost, with his large liquid eyes peering at Napoleon from beneath a cropped fringe of hair. There was something alluring about his sexual innocence, something desirable. Napoleon had recognized the attraction the first time they'd met, though he'd never acted on his desires. Making advances towards a fellow agent was something you just didn't do, regardless of their sex.

Sex with Illya. It wouldn't be difficult for Napoleon, making love to this man, but for the inexperienced Russian, it might be the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. Losing his virginity — and to another male. But — Illya was attracted to men, he'd said so. And Napoleon would be his first.

His first.

Napoleon felt an uncharacteristic thrill at the thought, a thrill that went straight to his groin. He felt the damning evidence as his restless cock twitched in anticipation, and he took a step nearer as he tried to keep his eagerness concealed. "All right," he said. "Let's do it."

Illya shivered, wishing Napoleon didn't sound so keen. He felt they had become more than partners, he felt that they were becoming friends — this would be difficult for them both. "I won't put up any resistance," he told Napoleon.

Napoleon almost smiled at the statement. "It would help the proceedings if you could co-operate. You can trust me, Illya. I know what to do."

"I know. And I do trust you." Illya took a deep, steadying breath. "How... how will you do it?"

Napoleon took the few steps necessary to bring himself in front of Illya. He raised his hand to gently touch his face, offering reassurance. "I'll be very gentle. I've had experience in this area before."

Illya smiled. "Yes, but those were different circumstances."

Napoleon stroked a thumb along Illya's cheek. "We'll take it slow."

Illya frowned. "Not too slow, Napoleon. We don't have all night to do this." Napoleon watched Illya's face, patiently waiting, knowing his partner was mulling over the problem. Illya nodded, as he came to a decision. "It might be best for us both if you take me from behind, I think."

Napoleon didn't argue. Though Illya had never indulged his baser instincts, he'd obviously gleaned some information on this kind of sex from somewhere. "Agreed. If you think that would be best for you."

Illya gulped down nervously. "I think it would be best for us both. That way, I won't have to look into your eyes as you do it. And you can get a better hold around my neck in that position."

"Your neck?" Napoleon repeated, puzzled.

Illya nodded. "A quick counter-twist on the neck and head should disrupt the joint between the skull and the first vertebrae, breaking the spinal cord. That should do the trick."

Napoleon's hand dropped from his face. "What? What are you talking about?"

Illya frowned. Hadn't Napoleon been following this conversation at all? He thought he'd understood. Unable to verbalize, Illya shook his head, made a slicing motion across his windpipe and imitated a snapping sound.

Napoleon blanched. "You're asking me to... to break your neck?"

"Yes, of course. If I'm dead, they cannot perform the ceremony." He tried to laugh. "And where are they going to find another virgin at this time of night," he added, with dark humor. Illya paused, suddenly looking perplexed. "What were you talking about?"

"Sex!" Napoleon blurted out. "I thought you meant... I mean, that we..." He stopped and tried again, gesturing wildly with his hands. "I was talking about sex."

"What?" Illya took a step back, his expression one of incredulity. "You want me to have sex? With you?" he asked incredulously.

"Are we sharing a cell with anyone else?" Napoleon stepped closer, compassion in his eyes. "Illya, would that be so bad? Isn't sex with someone you know, someone who cares about you, preferable to death?"

Illya glanced about, suddenly unable to meet Napoleon's eyes. Never before had anyone said they cared for him, or shown concern for his welfare. It brought an unexpected lump to his throat. "But... I've never... done it before."

Napoleon smiled. "Isn't that the root of the problem here?" He moved closer, backing Illya up against the wall. "And if I'm honest, I prefer my solution to yours. The alternative is unthinkable."

Illya ducked his head, shame coloring his cheeks. How could he have thought that Napoleon would take the simple solution, the easy way out? Illya was mortified by his own thought processes, that the only resolution he could come up with was one that would end his life. But it was the way he'd been taught, trained to sacrifice even his own existence to accomplish his mission.

He looked up into Napoleon's calm face and tried to sound unaffected. "Okay. How do we start?"

Napoleon seemed to sag with relief. "Well, why don't we get comfy first," Napoleon suggested, glancing about. Not the most romantic of settings, but beggars couldn't be choosers. "Well, comfier," he amended, walking over to the old settee and pulling off the horse-hair cushions. He dropped them onto the ground and waved a hand at them. "Take a seat."

Illya stepped onto the cushions and slid gracefully down, crossing his legs before him. Napoleon knelt behind him, resting his hands on Illya's shoulders. "Try to relax," he whispered, as he carefully began to knead the muscles along Illya's collarbone. As he expected, the sinew was taut, knotted with tension. He persevered, sure of his touch — he'd done this as a prelude to sex so many times. It was guaranteed to reduce the most overwrought body into a boneless mass.

Gradually, Napoleon felt the tension draining from Illya's body. He continued to stroke across the shoulders, down his arms and along his back. Now Illya was relaxing, getting used to his touch, he needed to deepen the contact, he needed to feel skin. He slid his hands over Illya's shoulders and gently took the collar of the robe in his hands, pulling it free of his friend's shoulders and down his arms, till it rested at his waist. Napoleon paused, admiring the sight. Illya's upper back was flawless, free from blemishes and pale from lack of sun. The pallid hue of his skin contrasted sharply with the henna dye that danced across Illya's back. Napoleon traced the strange patterns with his fingertips; they felt warm, alive. He leaned forward, pressing a kiss to Illya's shoulder and felt the prickle of goose-bumps rise along the skin.

Napoleon closed his eyes as his hands unknowingly followed the trail of sepia across Illya's shoulders, while his lips skimmed across the collarbone.

Illya's head dropped back and he sighed, caught up in the spell Napoleon wove. Each kiss tingled across his flesh and awakened nerves he never knew existed. He shivered as a pleasant, light breeze trailed down his backbone, felt himself floating backwards towards the floor and, in an almost dreamlike state, watched his surroundings fade from dingy low light to midnight blue.

Napoleon was aware of nothing except the precious life he held in his arms. Their cell had faded into the background, so that he could only feel and see Illya. It was strange, yet he didn't question why and didn't feel the need to. His actions were unconscious, allowing his hands to find their own way, heedless of his usual exacting methods of seduction. This encounter was different, natural in its desire, not spurred on by lust. He wanted to couple with this man, not for his own pleasure, not to foil some maniac's plan, but to complete a necessary part of himself.

Somehow, his lips found Illya's, and the kiss was perfect, sensual, his probing tongue a vanguard of things to come. Momentarily satisfied, his lips roved lower, travelling down the neck, licking along the chest, nibbling across the taught stomach muscles, till he felt the object of his desire pressing against his chin. Without hesitation, he swallowed the cock whole, feeling Illya jerk and buck under the attention. He slowly withdrew his mouth, only to sink quickly down again, revelling in an act that he'd indulged in many times, but only as the recipient. Never in a thousand years would he have considered doing this to another man, and yet.,, and yet, this felt wonderful. Powerful. His arousal was such, that at the moment of Illya's ejaculation, Napoleon happily swallowed down every drop, as though it were a fine wine.

He barely had time to relish the taste before Illya was was pulling free, turning, rolling over in the circle of Napoleon's arms, until Napoleon's cock nestled naturally between his cheeks, finding its target without any effort or practice.

On the point of penetration, Napoleon paused, painfully aware that he was taking from Illya something that could never be regained. He knew it was necessary; Illya's life would be the greater loss.

He pressed on through the tight ring of muscle and distantly heard a groan. Illya, no longer a virgin, pierced and plundered, his chastity given to another man.

And then Napoleon was slipping deeper inside, no resistance, no effort. A part of Napoleon's mind said this shouldn't be possible, shouldn't even be attempted without lubricant, but another part of him recognized that there was something more here, something that wouldn't be denied — and couldn't be stopped, now that it had been given life.

It was like nothing he'd ever experienced before, metaphysical, transcending normality. Their skin seemed to connect at each point where they touched, combining, setting fire to already sensitive nerves. He was aware of Illya on a level that was all-consuming in its intensity. He could feel his heartbeat, hear his breath. The delicate patterns of henna on Illya's body became a physical entity, winding their way around Napoleon's hands and up his arms, binding the two together.

When Napoleon felt himself fully sheathed within Illya's body, he hesitated, enjoying the simple pleasure of possession. But he couldn't wait too long — time was limited. He carefully began to slide in and out, gently thrusting, taking delight in the friction of cock against tight flesh, relishing the slow climb that would bring him to his peak. He could feel his own pleasure echoed in Illya, as if the physical desire reverberated through him, to be echoed back tenfold. His pleasure was Illya's; his delight was Illya's; his life was Illya's.

And somehow he knew Illya felt this, too.

Two people: one soul.

And then he was coming, filling his lover with his seed, claiming this man for his own. Creating a new life, in the melding of body and mind. His orgasm reached its peak, then began the slow climb down to normality. Enveloped in a warm haze, he opened his eyes to the star-filled void around them: the cosmos, womb to all new life, giving birth all around them; stars and planets, men and microbes. He and Illya — just another creation in the vast scheme of life.

Gradually, his breathing slowed and the world slowly came back into focus, as the stars faded from view, to be replaced by harsh reality. But reality was different, somehow, like a veil had been lifted from his eyes and the fog cleared from his brain. Everything was brighter, clearer. Even their cell seemed less desolate.

Napoleon was certainly no novice when it came to sex, but never, in all his sexually-active years had it ever been like this: explosive, all-consuming, breathtaking in its intensity. Fireworks exploding and crashing waves against a sandy shore — he understood those cinematic metaphors now. The air felt charged, somehow, as it was during a thunderstorm, the static prickling his skin and making the fine hairs on his arms stand on end. It slowly dissipated, leaving Napoleon in a state of unaccustomed contentment.

And here in his arms, Illya, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as comfortable as if they were home in bed, not locked inside a dingy basement room. He gently turned him over, gathered him up into a warm embrace. Napoleon's breathing grew less labored as his heart slowed its frantic pace. He kept his eyes closed, savoring the moment.

Illya shifted in his arms. "I feel different. What happened?"

Napoleon chuckled, the light sound tickling Illya's ear. "What do you think happened?"

Illya opened his eyes and leaned up. "No, it's not that." He grinned. "Though, that's certainly part of it." He looked around — same cellar, same clutter, and yet.... "Everything looks... different, more colorful."

Something had changed; Napoleon felt it in the new awareness of his partner: the steady rhythm of his heart, the flow of blood beneath his skin, the shared lethargy of satisfaction. Emotions that were his, too.

Idly, his finger traced along Illya's jaw line. "I'm not sure what happened. All I know is how I feel. But please don't ask me to put it into words." Because he couldn't. All he was certain of was he could never be separated from this man, not if Nicolson ripped them apart and deposited them on opposite sides of the globe. A significant piece of him would always be a part of his lover: permanently bonded, psychically attached. There was an invisible link between them now, a link that couldn't be broken.

Together, they would be invincible — it was a shocking revelation, but welcome.

Napoleon squeezed his lover's arm and felt Illya return his grip with a soft caress on his arm.

"Let's think about it later. We should move," Illya suggested.

"Mmmm," Napoleon agreed, though he made no effort to do so.

Illya chuckled. "Well, one of us should, don't you think?" He eased away from the shelter of Napoleon's body and pushed to his feet, wrapping the robe back around himself.

Napoleon felt the chill as normality set in. Illya was right; it would soon be time. He rose, slipping his robe back on to cover his nakedness.

Right on cue, he heard noises outside the door. Napoleon stood back, instinctively taking a step in front of Illya as the door opened.

The big man, Tito, was the first to enter, followed by two of Nicolson's gun-toting guards. Nicolson squeezed in behind them, keeping his distance at the rear. "It is time, gentlemen. You have less than an hour to live, but you may take solace in the fact that your sacrifice will contribute to a greater cause."

Napoleon held up his hand as Tito stepped forward. "Wait! I think there's something you should know—"

"It's too late to make any pleas for your lives, Mr. Solo. Besides, you know it would be a waste of breath. And you should reserve all you have left."

"I think you'll want to hear this—" Napoleon said, doggedly.

"This one talks too much, Tito, put a gag on him," Nicolson ordered, gesturing at Napoleon. "I don't want to hear him muttering all though the ceremony." He rubbed his hands together in glee. "Tonight, gentleman, will be my night. Nothing will interfere with my plans. Shall we go?"

They were led into a large, stone basement smelling of singed candle-wax and damp. Napoleon looked around. Several of Nicolson's acolytes were arranged in a rough circle, an altar in the center, cold and forbidding as the stone walls surrounding them. Georgina, wearing a white, gossamer robe that barely covered her breasts, stood at the head of the altar, a large black candle held between her hands. She gazed straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact — they could expect no help from her.

Gagged and cuffed, Napoleon was dragged to one of the large supporting pillars and fastened into the chains that were cemented into the stone. He turned to watch as Illya tried to put up some resistance and received a punch to the jaw that stunned him long enough for Tito and another man to tie him down onto the altar. One of the acolytes came forward and placed lighted candles at Illya's head and feet. Another pulled open Illya's robe to expose his bare body, and anointed the flesh over the heart with amber oil.

The acolytes returned to the circle around the altar, moving aside as Nicolson stepped through them to take his place. Nicolson removed his hood and smiled at the attendees gathered about him. "Well, I think everything is in order. Let's waste no more time. Shall we begin?" He gestured at Tito, and the heavy man came forward, reverently carrying something covered in a black velvet cloth. Nicolson laid aside the folds of the cloth, revealing a short, ornamental sword: the Sword of Solomon. He picked it up, caressed the blade tenderly, sighing with reverence and pleasure. He held it tightly before him in a two-handed grip, the lethal-looking point poised over the breast of his intended sacrifice. He looked about one last time to check that all was in place. His eyes drifted closed as he began to speak.

The words he uttered were quiet at first, foreign words that were guttural and unintelligible. Georgina stood at the head of the altar, chanting a response to Nicolson's words in a bizarre parody of a religious mass.

As the ceremony progressed, Illya began to fidget, shifting restlessly against his bonds as Nicolson's incantation became louder and more excitable, impassioned by the invocation. Illya's hands flexed open and closed, his head tossed from side to side, his legs tried to move away from their bindings. It looked to Napoleon like his partner was in the grip of a bad dream.

Only this nightmare is real, thought Napoleon. He tugged ineffectively at his iron bonds, but it was no use. He'd never felt so helpless in his life. He could only watch as Illya lay on the altar awaiting certain death. Napoleon tried to call out Illya's name, but the gag muffled his cries.

Despite the hindrance to Napoleon's call, Illya responded, and his head turned, seeking Napoleon out. They locked eyes, and Illya managed to say, "Napoleon, I feel—"

He saw Illya tear his gaze away to look down at himself, hands spread open as if in supplication. Napoleon watched in muted shock as the tattoos on Illya's body seemed to glow, a strange, luminous contrast to the paleness of his skin. The luminosity spread from his palms and up his arms, disappearing out of sight up the sleeves of the robe, and reappearing on the visible skin of Illya's body. The fire-like glow followed the lines of the henna decoration until Illya's body seemed almost incandescent.

Then, as if galvanized by an electric current, Illya's whole body went into spasm as some unseen power raced though him. He gasped as his spine arched off the stone, and long, filigree tendrils of blue energy sparked from his body and danced in the air above him, like an electric charge seeking to ground itself.

Georgina screamed. "What's happening?!"

"It's coming!" Nicolson shouted, fervor turning his face to a mask of madness.

Tito, spooked by the strange lights, un-holstered his gun, instinct telling him there was danger here.

Georgina shrieked and stepped back in fear as one of the blue ribbons of energy, crackled past her head and earthed itself to Napoleon. Napoleon gasped as the charge went through him, connecting the two men by a chord of light.

Illya's bowed body relaxed as the discomfort dissipated with the contact and became a gentle resonance between them. Napoleon felt a gentle vibration begin through the chord, settling deep in his bones. The vibration quickly deepened and spread from his body to encompass the stone that held him prisoner. It was odd, he thought, that he felt no fear, only a strange serenity that soothed his rattled nerves.

He knew Illya felt it too. Napoleon watched in wonder as the stone altar that held Illya began to shake slightly. The shake became more pronounced, rattling the candlesticks placed on the altar. It became more violent, causing the candles to topple to the floor amidst the dust and loose plaster that had begun to drift down from the ceiling.

The air felt charged. Nicolson gasped as the raw energy prickled at his body, raising the hairs on his head in an almost comical fashion. The strange light crackled around the altar like sparks from a wild fire.

"Yes! Yes! The time has come...." Nicolson raised the sword as he neared completion of the incantation.

Napoleon struggled against his chains as the shaking in the stone floors became more pronounced, more violent. It was no use; it would take a miracle to get out of these shackles. He watched in despair as Nicolson continued his chant, the sword poised to strike. But as he was ready to make his blow, the earth beneath their feet seemed to buck wildly, catching Nicolson off guard and throwing him backwards. The attending acolytes looked about fretfully. This display of unbridled power was obviously not what they had expected. One by one, they started moving away from the altar, breaking up their circle as they began to filter towards the exit.

Nicolson didn't notice their exodus, determined as he was to complete the ritual. He stood, awkwardly balancing against the shaking earth, and returned to the side of the altar. He raised the sword once more into the air and repeated the words.

Another loud and sudden judder displaced him again as a long crack appeared in the stone floor. It spread from one side of the room to the other, following the line of blue energy that connected the two agents. One end of the fracture crept towards Napoleon, and he watched its progress, helpless to escape as it snaked across the flagstones until it reached the pillar he was bound to. It snaked upwards, splitting the stone as easily as a hot knife cuts through butter, moving inexorably towards the metal ring keeping Napoleon prisoner. Napoleon heard a loud crack as the ring split asunder, and suddenly he was free. He didn't stop to think; Illya was in danger. Napoleon's training came to the fore as he went straight for Tito, wrapped the chains around the big man's neck and twisted hard until he heard something crack. Tito crumpled to the floor, his neck falling at an unnatural angle.

Napoleon picked up Tito's fallen gun and spun towards the altar, just in time to hear Nicolson finish his incantation. With madness gleaming in his eyes, Nicolson began to plunge the sword towards Illya's breast. Napoleon saw its descent and fired. With satisfaction he saw the bullet catch Nicolson in the shoulder, stopping midway the blow that would end his partner's life. Blood exploded from Nicolson's wound, splattering the white robe in a grotesque flowery pattern. Nicolson stopped in his tracks and looked at his shoulder as if surprised to see the stain of red there. He looked at Napoleon, then back down at his sacrifice on the altar, the sword still in his hands.

The madman roared with fury. "Nooooo!" He raised the sword again, ignoring his pain as he tried bring it down in a final, defiant gesture.

Napoleon fired again, and kept firing, watching dispassionately as Nicolson jerked like a demented marionette with each impact. As the final missile entered Nicolson's body, he stopped his manic dance. His last breath left his body with a harsh sigh, and for a few moments he remained impossibly upright, swaying slightly before gravity won and toppled the dead body towards the earth.

Napoleon ignored Nicolson's corpse and went quickly to Illya's side, freeing him from the restraints. Illya sat up, tugged down Napoleon's gag and planted a quick kiss on his lips. "Thank you. Your timing was impeccable."

For a moment, Napoleon couldn't speak. Impeccable or not, his timing had been too close for comfort. He pulled Illya into a tight embrace, sighing with relief as he felt the life and warmth beneath his hands. The thought of losing him was suddenly unbearable. Had they really only know each other such a short time? Been lovers for even less? It seemed like an eternity.

Napoleon finally composed himself. He pushed Illya gently back so he could look at him. "Are you okay?" Napoleon asked, as Illya rubbed the circulation back into his wrists.

"I'm fine," he replied, looking down at the bloodied body on the floor. "Better than Nicolson, at any rate." Napoleon helped him down from the altar and they both stood over the cooling body of the Rumanian, whose features seemed benign in death.

"Well, let's hope he's in whatever hell he deserves," Napoleon said.

"Hm. Hell is too good for him." He looked at Napoleon and tenderly brushed back a wayward lock of dark hair. With that simple gesture, Napoleon felt himself melt as the tension left his body. He caught Illya's hand and brushed a kiss across his palm before releasing it.

Illya turned away and bent down to pick up the sword that lay limply in Nicolson's hand. He studied the intricate design on the pommel, admiring the decoration and craftsmanship on the ancient artefact. "Those who live by the sword..." he murmured.

"Get shot by those who don't," Napoleon said, waving the gun about. "Hey!" He ducked as Illya playfully swung the sword about, slicing through an imaginary opponent. "Were you planning on taking that home with you?"

Illya grinned, apparently unaffected by his recent close call. "Souvenir. Besides, we may meet opposition on the way out."

"Not if they've any sense. Anyhow, I suspect they'll be halfway home, by now," he said, looking around the empty basement. They had the place to themselves, with the exception of two dead bodies. The only traces that Nicolson's acolytes had been there were a few discarded robes and hastily dropped candles. It was quiet now, almost peaceful — and hard to believe that moments before, it had seemed like the beginning of the end of the world.

"Where's Georgina, do you suppose?" Illya asked.

Napoleon shrugged; who cared? "Gone back to her dusty museum, I suspect. I think the excitement she craved was just a bit too exciting. We'll get someone to pick her up later."

Illya stood looking down at the crack that split the floor from the altar to the pillar that Napoleon had been chained to. Dust still swirled around the deep crevice, disturbed by some unseen draft. Illya shook his head in wonder. "What happened here tonight?"

Napoleon moved up behind him, sliding his arms easily around the Russian's waist. His lips whispered against Illya's ear, "Mmm, I think the earth moved."

Illya smirked. "I'm not talking about earlier."

"Oh." He turned Illya around, gathered him closer and sighed. "Does it matter? A tremor, an earthquake. A perfectly natural phenomena."

"Hm," Illya said, obviously unconvinced. "Rather timely, don't you think?"

"Luck, then," Napoleon explained, confidently. He pressed a kiss to Illya's lips. "I'm full of it."

"Yes, you are," Illya agreed with a quirk of an eyebrow.

Napoleon wasn't sure if he was being insulted or whether Illya was simply agreeing. He decided he didn't care. He squeezed Illya closer until they were nose to nose. "Why don't we blow this joint? Go somewhere quiet, cozy...."

"Headquarters. We need to report in. Although, I'm not sure how we're going to write this up."

Napoleon wrinkled his nose in disappointment. Illya was right, of course — but he didn't have to like it. He sighed. "Fine. We'll report in. But let's leave the writing till tomorrow. I can think of more interesting things to do tonight."

Illya may have lived a life of celibacy, but he was fairly certain he knew what 'things' Napoleon had in mind. And if he was being honest with himself, he was keen to explore this newly discovered phase in his life, too. Still, the fastidious side of his nature would prefer to do it in comfort. "First, I'd like to get out of these robes."

Napoleon ran his hands over the soft cloth covering Illya's chest. "Mmm," he purred. "I like that idea."

Illya gave him a sour look. "Not now. I'm cold."

"I can warm you up," Napoleon replied, easily sliding his hands under the fabric. He stroked along the prominent ribcage and felt Illya tremble, but not with the cold this time. Napoleon moved in for a kiss, but Illya leaned away.

"This is hardly the time, Napoleon. Or the place," Illya objected, though he made no attempt to move from Napoleon's embrace.

Napoleon relented. "Okay. We'll report in, then go back to my place, take a shower...."

"Maybe I can scrub off these designs on my body?"

Napoleon chuckled. "I have designs on your body, too...."

"You're shameless. But I suspect you've probably been told that before." Illya pulled away and started to walk towards the door. "After our shower, can we eat?"

"Oh, you'll be too busy to eat." Napoleon caught up with him, keeping close to his side as they walked up the stairs. "You see, tonight, I plan to show you what you've been missing all these years."

Illya sighed dramatically as he nodded his agreement. "I have a lot of catching up to do." He elbowed Napoleon in the ribs. "But not all in one night."

"Hm. We'll see," Napoleon replied, without much commitment, then added, "And if not tonight, then tomorrow night. And the night after that, and the night after that...."

Illya stopped, letting Napoleon walk ahead, uttering promises of things to come. He shook his head in amusement. "What have I let myself in for?" he muttered, before hurrying to catch up to his partner. "Are you sure you won't be too tired tonight?"

Napoleon slipped an arm about Illya's shoulders, pulling him close as they reached the top. "I think we should start your education as soon as possible. For instance, has anyone ever told you how many uses there are for whipped cream?"

Frederick D'Ascoigne was enjoying the early morning sun as he sat in the park. It was quiet at this time of day. Few people were around so early in the morning, just the occasional jogger or passer-by out walking their dog. For once, the chords of life were harmonious and calm; it was nice to just sit here and watch the world go by.

He looked up as a shadow fell across the grass at his feet, and smiled, gesturing for his visitor to sit in the space next to him on the bench. "Alex. It's so nice to see you after all these years."

Alexander Waverly shuffled on the hard seat, trying to find a more comfortable position. "I could hardly let you go back home without at least saying hello."

Frederick laughed. "We said hello, on the telephone the other day."

"Ah, yes, but that was business, Frederick."

Frederick nodded. "True, true. Speaking of business, how are those two young men of yours?"

Waverly was removing a pipe and a pouch of tobacco from his coat pocket. He pinched a small clump between finger and thumb and carefully tamped it down into the bowl of the pipe as he spoke. "They're both well. I think they're going to make an outstanding team." Waverly set a flame to the tobacco and sucked, drawing oxygen into the bowl. The tobacco glowed red for a moment before releasing its delicate aroma into the air.

Frederick's eyes crinkled with affection. It had been an old habit of Alexander's, starting during the war. He'd never known Alex to be without his pipe, even in the trenches. "They are a remarkable pair, you know, Alex. And perfectly suited to each other. You mustn't split them up."

Alexander Waverly chuckled. "I wouldn't dream of it. We could do with more of their calibre." Waverly sighed. "This is a war we're fighting, Frederick. And it's a never-ending battle, isn't it?"

Frederick tapped Waverly's leg. "It's one we'll win, Alex, as long as we have the likes of those two young men." Frederick rose. "Well, I must be going. There's no rest for the wicked."

"More trouble?" Waverly asked, concerned for his old friend.

Frederick smiled wanly. "Of a kind. My six-year old granddaughter's birthday party." He sighed. "Facing a handful of wilful six-year olds can be more daunting than an army of dangerous madmen, believe me. Take care, my old friend. And keep in touch." He winked and turned away, heading leisurely across the park.

Waverly watched him go. Frederick was right; Solo and Kuryakin would make a good team.

He sat back, allowing himself to enjoy the sunshine for a few minutes before he had to return to the clamor and chaos of daily life.

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