The agent had stopped talking long ago. He was past the point of being helpful to his captors and well past the point of being able to withstand any more torture. His life was slowly trickling out of him and the man watching him knew that. He carefully collected the dripping blood in a pewter cup. Dried blood, especially of a fallen enemy, would fetch a good price in the more seamy parts of the practice. He didn't embrace their methods, but he also wasn't about to turn his back on easy profit or their apparent success either.
"It's a shame you weren't more forthcoming, but I suppose not everyone can be a font of knowledge."
The agent didn't answer him, not surprising seeing how his jaw was fractured and most of his teeth gone. Blood and drool oozed from his mouth instead.
Kneeling, the man took out a deck of cards, soft and well worn. Shuffling them, he closed his eyes and dealt the three top cards, settling each of them well clear of any pudding blood.
"Ah, the Hermit." He tapped the card. "That was your past. You were seeking a solitary path to enlightenment and truth. You had inner strength, caution and vigilance, but you failed by keeping everything to yourself." He indicated the second card. "The Hanged Man. This would be you now. You are bored and feeling abandoned." He laughed. "Well, I don't know about bored, but abandonment certainly is true in your case. No one even knows you are here. You are willing to sacrifice to escape and make a change in your life. Well, exchanging life for death does allow for an escape of a more personal kind." He held up the third card. "And your future—Death. People usually get very anxious when they see this card. They immediately think it's bad luck, but it can merely indicate transformation and making way for the new, along with unexpected change. Sadly, in your case, it is as it is..." He realized then that the man was dead and he smiled. He dropped the Death card by the man's lifeless body, as it hung suspended from the ceiling. "At least you will not have died in vain. We have grown tired of their ways. Now, we will do it ours."
Twin communicator beeps broke the still of the room and Napoleon Solo groped for his on the nightstand table. For his part, Illya Kuryakin just buried himself deeper into his pillow and ignored the noise and the light as his partner clicked on a small reading lamp.
"Slacker," Napoleon muttered as he twisted open the instrument. He yawned and then, "Solo here."
"Mr. Solo, where are you?" The voice of his superior shook the last bit of sleep from him and Napoleon sat up a bit straighter.
Napoleon thought frantically for a moment, and then he nudged the prone figure with his foot, whispering, "Illya, what are we?"
"Shrewsbury, just across the border from Wales the last I looked, and in the last bed left in the entire country. Now let me sleep."
"Shrewsbury, sir, England."
"I need you to report to me immediately, Mr. Solo, and Mr. Kuryakin as well." Waverly paused and then added. "But don't break the bank doing it, Mr. Solo. You young people have no money sense these days."
"Understood. Solo out." Napoleon set the communicator aside and picked up his watch, squinting at the time. "Immediately, it's always immediately with him. It's the middle of the night there. Doesn't that man ever sleep?"
"Not according to the rumors." Illya pushed back the blankets as he stretched. "You want first dibs on
"Sure," Napoleon muttered and then grinned as Illya started to burrow back down into the pillows.
"You can make the travel arrangements."
"Thanks... partner." The voice was muffled.
"You're welcome... partner."
Napoleon didn't feel any more awake or even vaguely human as he led the way into Waverly's office some twenty hours later. Short of ox cart, they'd pretty much utilized every other method of transportation in their quest to reach New York from the wilds of rural England. Illya had taken refuge behind his tinted glasses in an attempt to hide his bloodshot eyes from the world. Napoleon didn't have any such option and had already had his fill of snide comments regarding excessive partying from his co-workers.
He took his usual seat at the circular table and waited patiently for his boss to acknowledge them. Illya sat quietly, hands before him, reminding Napoleon of a school boy. Granted, one who had recently taken out a small army almost single-handed and laid waste to a vast underground complex with a few well-placed charges, but a school boy, none-the-less.
Waverly hung up the phone, shaking his head. He reached over and toggled on a screen. Napoleon found himself wincing at the sight. It was a man, chained and suspended by one leg. As gruesome as the sight was, it wasn't the obvious violence and bloodlust that made him grimace; it was the fact the background revealed an UNCLE interrogation room.
"This happened on the premises, sir?" Illya had pulled off his glasses to study the image. "We'd never resort to such brutality. How did this happen?"
"We have no idea. This man was a small time THRUSH agent. We were preparing to release him back to THRUSH in exchange for one of our own agents only to discover his body yesterday morning in this sad state..."
"What does Braddock have to say? He's head of interrogations," Illya said once it was apparent that Waverly had stopped talking.
"Mr. Braddock is in Medical with what appears to be a severe case of poisoning. He was fed..." Waverly broke off to pick up a sheet of paper. "Gymnopilus spectabilis or a Showy Flamecap as opposed to Cantharellus or common Chanterelles mushroom, and was admitted into Medical on the brink of liver failure. At this moment, it is unknown if he will survive."
"Who fed him these mushrooms, sir?" Napoleon's mind was racing now at the thought of a fox in the henhouse.
"We have no way of knowing. He had lunch at the canteen, along with another forty or so UNCLE employees, all of whom partook of the same entrée as Mr. Braddock did. Yet only he was stricken."
"Then it's unlikely he ate the mushrooms there. It would be virtually impossible to target just one victim in such an uncontrollable environment." Illya had put his glasses back on and looked up from his study of the toxicology report. "No one saw anything?"
"Precisely, Mr. Kuryakin, no one saw anything." Mr. Waverly hesitated for a moment and then picked up something and placed it on the table. Napoleon barely had enough time to get his arms off the table as, with a deft twist of his wrist, Waverly sent it spinning. "That was found near the body."
Napoleon lifted what he thought was a playing card and flipped it over. "It's one of those fortune telling cards."
"Tarot, Napoleon, it's a Tarot card," Illya corrected him, leaning closer to his partner to study the card.
"You are familiar with them, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Not really, sir, but I have a friend who is. She dabbles in Tarot readings."
"Would she be willing to cooperate with us? We could use someone who could explain the intricacies of them to us."
Napoleon flipped the card over and over in his hands. "It says Death. That's pretty straight forward to me, sir. Of which intricacies do you refer?"
"My understanding is that there are several ways to interpret the cards rather than on face value alone,"
Illya spoke to his partner almost as an aside, but it didn't surprise him when Waverly answered instead. "Precisely, Mr. Kuryakin, this is exactly my concern. Find me someone who can decipher this, preferably with a minimum of emotional encumbrance."
Napoleon made a face at his partner, who merely smiled in return.
He moved easily through the corridor, no one paid him any attention, but why would they? He was just one of a multitude of suit-wearing employees that littered the halls. That was the glory and the simplicity of this plan. He walked in plain view and no one ever saw him. Their priest was a genius and a gifted spell caster.
He paused and waited for the door to open for him. He was greeted with a weak smile.
"How are you?"
"Not too bad, all things considering." His priest's voice was weak, but that was to be expected. "It was a long night. Your task is complete?"
"He was eliminated."
"Is duly concerned. He called the Golden Boys back."
The priest regarded the two cards on the table, the Knight of Swords and the Knight of Cups. "Solo, the Knight of Cups. His is an impetuous nature, a generous friend and an equally generous lover. He is destined to move hastily upon his journey and that will be upsetting, possibly to Waverly or even to ourselves. He bears close attention. His partner, however..." The priest lifted and studied the Knight of Swords. "His partner is the one who bothers me, for he's the one foretold to move in expected ways. Strong, brave, and both skillful and clever, he is destined to rush headlong into a situation and not consider his actions. He needs to be removed from the mix." The priest flipped one last card and shook his head slowly. "But not now, not yet. The Nine of Wands cautions us that to move against him now will not be to our benefit. It tells of his preparedness and his eventual victory over us. His health is good and his energy high, but that cannot last. His past is against him; it will lay him low."
"Understood. We will watch, vigilant, but silent." He patted his priest's arm gently. "Get some rest."
"I will, but first, a call. We need to lead them away from here, away from us if we are to succeed."
"I know exactly what to do and who to call."
Antoinette Chagoya sat, her forehead crinkled with thought as she studied the daily crossword puzzle. Her herbal tea had gone cold and the LP record she put on had finished. It didn't really matter. She was the only one in her shop this morning and she didn't much care for the Middle Eastern music she played. It was just part of the ambience people expected when they visited a fortune teller. The bells over the door tinkled and she hurriedly slipped the paper under the table and assumed what she hoped was an air of confidence and mysticism. She closed her eyes and swayed slightly, as if in a trance.
"I sense you are..." She opened her eyes. "Illya!" She sat back in surprise
"You are indeed a gifted seer of the future, Toni," Illya said, grinning. He gestured to Napoleon. "This is my..."
"Solo, yes, ma'am, although I am not altogether sure with regards to the ownership issue."
"Illya has talked about you a lot, Mr. Solo. I'm pleased to finally meet you." She stood to shake his hand. "But I have a feeling you aren't here in an official capacity, so what can I do for you? Some tea?"
"Ginger?" Illya asked hopefully, slipping into a chair opposite her. Napoleon remained standing as he studied the room.
"I wouldn't disappoint you, Blondie." She rose and pushed aside an ornately hand-painted curtain to revel a small kitchenette. "And you, Mr. Solo?"
"No, I'm fine, Miss... Chagoya... and you are mistaken. We are actually here in an official capacity."
"What? Really?" She looked over her shoulder to grin at Illya. "Really?" The kettle started to whistle and she quickly prepared the tea. "Really really?" she asked again.
"Yes, Toni, really." Illya took the cup as she offered it and blew on it. "My organization has a need for your special talent."
She laughed. "Illya, don't bullshit me! We've know each other too long."
"He's serious, Miss Chagoya." Napoleon finally settled in a chair beside Illya and regarded her with his best reassuring smile. "We need someone who is familiar with this." He took an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to her.
She opened it and set the card down on the table. "Hmm, Death, lucky Number thirteen of the Major Arcana cards from the Rider Waite deck. Nearly everyone starts out with this particular deck, but once you get the feel for the cards, you usually swap to something that better suits you."
"There are hundreds to choose from. It's a personal choice really."
"So the person who owned this card was a beginner?"
"I don't think so. The card is worn more than it should be for a training deck. I think this is someone's daily deck."
"And now they are missing a card from it." Napoleon looked hopefully at his partner. "Can you tell us anything else about the owner?"
"C'mon, Mr. Solo, it's a piece of paper." She laughed and waved her hand dismissively. "What do you think it's going to do, stand up and sing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' to us?"
"I think he was referring more to the particular meanings attached to the card, Toni," Illya said and she laughed.
"Sorry." She lifted the card and studied it for a moment. "The Death card is the one most often misinterpreted as to mean literal death. This isn't always the case. It can symbolize rebirth, new growth after some sort of difficulty and often can mean a period of time when a fresh start is indicated. It's often misused to shock or scare people who don't know any better. It's part of a larger cycle or journey of the Major Arcana. It can indicate a shifting point to move beyond troubles or overcome difficulties in the past. Within the Major Arcana, Death is part of a four card cycle including the Tower, which symbolizes sudden change, the Devil which represents fear and Temperance, which indicates a respite from strife, balance that comes from difficult times. These four cards: Death, the Devil, the Tower, and Temperance, are the turning point of the journey described by the Major Arcana. At this point the person asking the question of the deck has come to the point of either pushing on to the conclusion of this lesson or choosing to become stuck in the mire of fear and indecision."
At the blank look both men were offering her, she started to laugh. "You guys really are rookies, aren't you? Okay, there are two ways to interpret a card upright and reverse. For this card, it can be good or bad news either way. Upright can be telling you to make way for the new or to expect an unanticipated change, or it could mean illness, bad luck or even death. You flip it over and it can mean that you are able to cheat death or narrowly escape it in some fashion, or it can indicate stagnation, immobility or really slow changes."
"You keep saying it can or could mean this or that. There's no hard and fast rule in this?"
"That's the glory of Tarot, Mr. Solo. It's all a matter of interpretation. I might not be much of a fortune teller, but I can read moods. Someone comes in here all down in the dumps and pulls a Six of Cups. I'm not going to mention that they might just be living in the past or have outgrown their current friends and need to move on. I'm going to tell them they might be getting a gift from a childhood acquaintance or admirer, happiness and pleasure brought from the past, good memories or even a new friendship." She pushed the deck of cards towards him. "Go ahead and I'll show you what I mean."
"Just paper and ink, Mr. Solo. Shuffle them, thinking of a particular question, and lay three of them, face down, in front of you."
"Go on, Napoleon," Illya urged. "You're always telling me to keep an open mind."
"Very well." Napoleon shuffled the cards and did as instructed. "So?"
Toni smiled and said, "Okay, let's see what the cards say. The first one represents your past." She flipped over the King of Wands. "This tells me that in the past you were considered a gentleman. You were passionate, generous and noble. In short, you were a good leader." She flipped over the next card. "The Knight of Cups. That tells me that you have a poetic yet driven soul and that your path is a rough one, but that you are helped and protected by someone who shares your vision. You seem to be waiting for something... a promotion, possibly. And there's a proposition in your near future that will have the power to change your path." She turned over the last card and grinned. "The King of Swords is your future. You will end up holding a judgmental position at some point. You will be a powerful commander and a firm friend, but you will be often overcautious with that friendship, for fear of losing it. In the end you will prove to be a wise counselor. Was I close?"
Napoleon shook his head slowly. "Incredible."
"Not really, I just got the sense that you are the kind of person who thinks a lot about your career and guessed that your question would be about that and tailored my responses accordingly."
"Been trying to for years, sweetheart," she muttered softly and pushed the deck towards the blond. She watched as Illya dropped his gaze to the table as if suddenly shy or afraid of revealing something, but he picked up the deck. He shuffled it, frowning in thought, and after a long moment selected three cards and placed them in front of her.
"Your past, the Eight of Pentacles. You spent your early years learning a trade or profession in lieu of following your heart, and that delivered you into your current position. You gained it through skill, perseverance, and hard work. The next card, your present, is the Knight of Swords. That shows that you are intelligent, but a bit of a romantic dreamer; the coming or going of an emotional matter is distracting you and you need to resolve it before much more time passes or it might be possible that your heart will become hidden even to you. Your future, the Lovers...now that's promising..."
"Something you want to share, Illya?" Napoleon, grinning, gave his partner a gentle jab in the ribs.
"See? It's like with the Death card," Toni admonished him gently. "You see it for face value without thinking of other possibilities, Mr. Solo. This card doesn't necessary mean physical love, although it can. It can also indicate harmony, trust, and honor between close friends. It can indicate the beginning of a romance, but it's just as likely to suggest the strengthening or redefining of a meaningful relationship or partnership." She looked over at Illya. "Anything?"
"Not even." Illya met her eyes and offered her an apologetic smile. "I was wondering if I was going to see my vacation this year."
"Damn it, Illya..." She gathered up the cards and began to shuffle them again. "I just don't know why you are so hard to read..."
"Try being his partner sometime," Napoleon muttered. "So, back to the matter at hand, Miss Chagoya, what you are saying is that the cards are just that, cards."
"It's only if you place value upon them, and the readings, that makes them significant." She shuffled the cards and placed three cards face up in front of her. "Now, my turn—what are you two? The past card is the Fool, from the Major Arcana. It tells me that you began a journey together or soon after each other and have had many adventures and opportunities. While you might have appeared thoughtless or rash to some, it has led to unlimited possibilities, pleasure, and passion for your work and your lives." She tapped the next one. "The present card is The Emperor and is another Major Arcana card. This stresses that you both find a sense of accomplishment with your work and that you are confident, stable, and see each other as brothers. Not bad. As to your future..." She indicated the last card. "It's represented by the Eight of Wands, a minor card, but no less significant. You are both approaching some sort of mutual goal, but you might not yet be aware of what it is or what it could mean to either of you. There is a need to embrace new ideas and you will be taking a journey by air soon. Of more interest, love will find its mark, although I'm not sure which one of you it refers to." She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. "So you liked your jobs, you currently like your jobs, although some days more than others and whatever you're both hoping to achieve, you will, and one—or both—of you are going to get lucky."
Napoleon settled back in his chair and smirked. "And I wonder which one it will be?"
"There's no accounting for taste, Napoleon." Illya finished his tea and set down the cup. "Toni, would you mind coming back to the office with us? Our superior would love to take advantage of your expertise... and he's willing to pay for it."
"Hell, I'd do it for free, Illya, my boy."
"Do me a favor and don't say that in front of Mr. Waverly. With his cost-cutting moves these days, he'd take you up on it," Illya said, standing as Toni rose. "And I know you can use the money."
"Just let me get my coat and I'll be right with you."
She walked away and Napoleon shook his head, slowly, regarding his partner with a devilish smile. "Lovers... one of us will get lucky... tell me something I don't know."
"She never met you before today, my friend, and she already knows you're trouble."
Making sure the door was locked and he'd obscured his actions from view, the man shuffled and laid out the cards in a row. For a long moment, he sat with his eyes closed, thinking and meditating until it would have appeared to an observer that he'd have nodded off.
Only when he felt a veil of peace settle around him did he slowly turn over the first card, a Five of Cups. Our mission's past... my past... sorrow, loss of a loved one, disillusionment, and regret. Yes, it was all that. His hand tightened on the edge of the desk. Even now the anger and depression clawed at his heart. They'd only been together a short time before a THRUSH assassin found and murdered the love of his life, the light of his heart. Mistakenly, he thought UNCLE would provide a way to avenge past wrongs, but they were no better than the police, the FBI and a host of other organizations he'd approached. No better. His hand hesitated over the second card and he sat back, pausing until he'd re-centered himself. The Moon—it heralded deception, trickery, disillusionment, danger, disgrace and double-dealing and was most certainly where he was currently. To follow the path he was on would lead to all of that but it didn't matter. He would lie, cheat, steal, and kill for the opportunity to destroy THRUSH. If UNCLE lacked the guts, he didn't. Reverently, he lifted the third card and kissed it, for it would reveal his success. It had to. He longed for a Three of Pentacles or an Eight of Wands. Eyes closed, he set it down and looked. Instead he stared down at the Devil as it beamed back at him. Angrily, he threw the card aside and rose. Nothing was going to stop him now—nothing and no one!
Toni, her eyes wide, tried to take everything in at once. They'd brought her in through the employees' entrance and the most direct route, but even that involved seemingly miles of steel corridor with armed men and women rushing by.
"This is what you do for a living?" she asked Illya, holding her purse close to her chest lest one of the multitudes of strangers try and snatch it from her. Illya kept a hand on the small of her back, propelling her forward whenever her pace slowed or faltered. "I always thought you were some jazz musician."
"A common mistake, Miss Chagoya," Napoleon teased. "It's the hair and his bohemian attitude. It gets them every time." He winked at his partner, who scowled in return.
A man walked hurriedly from one of the numerous unmarked doors and nearly collided with the trio. "Hey, slow down, Andrew, where's the fire?" Napoleon asked and the man stared at him for a moment as if he didn't recognize him and then smiled sheepishly.
"Sorry, Napoleon, head's in a different place today." He nodded to the Russian, but locked eyes with Toni. "Illya, how was New Guinea?"
"Hot, as always." He gave Toni an encouraging little shove and the woman took a step, but continued to stare after Andrew as Illya led her away.
"Andrew? What about him?"
"There's something not right..."
"You're telling me. A man like that should never have been forced to give up a promising football career for that of a research clerk. Sometimes there is just no justice in the world."
"No, I mean... never mind." She laughed. "This is all a little much to take in."
"You should try working here. It took me months just to figure out how to get to the men's room when I started."
"But only a day to manage the ladies' locker room," Illya interrupted as they drew up in front of the elevator.
They waited quietly and the doors slid open. The man who stepped out was small and dark and, involuntarily, Toni took a step back against Illya and his arm slipped around her waist. The stranger regarded them for a moment and hurried off.
"You all right?" Illya murmured to her as they moved into the elevator.
"Yeah, just don't get too far away, okay? You got some seriously bad karma floating around in here."
"Who? Simmons? He's about as dangerous as milquetoast," Napoleon reassured her.
"Those are the most dangerous kind, Mr. Solo." She repressed a shudder and wrapped her arms around herself.
The meeting was upsetting. There was something about the woman that was unknown and he didn't like it—not at all. As was his habit, he headed straight for his priest.
"There is a new player," the priest announced as he entered.
"The cards have warned you of that?"
"No, I saw her come in with Solo and Kuryakin on the monitor. I'm good, but not that good." He reached for a card and turned it over. "A Seven of Wands." He flicked nearly colorless gray eyes at his supplicant. "It means?"
"We are to stand strong against her and we'll win." He sighed, reassured. "I have placed the call to our friend. Events are in motion. Soon they will be called away and we will be able to proceed. By the time they can react, we will be in control and THRUSH will cower at our feet."
He waited for his priest's nod and retreated out of the office and back to his own, delighted when he didn't run into Solo and Kuryakin again. Once a day was more than enough for him. He felt like they could see through his façade and knew his inner mind immediately. And the introduction of that woman into the mix was vexing. At least the cards were in their favor.
"You look just like my Uncle Albert," Toni blurted out the moment Illya introduced her to his boss. It wasn't polite, but she couldn't help it.
"I assure you Miss, I have no brother, Albert or otherwise." Waverly shook her hand carefully, as if afraid he'd hurt her. "You are Mr. Kuryakin's friend? The one who reads Tarot cards?"
She darted a nervous glance over at Illya, but was bolstered by his smile and a fast wink. "I am, yes, sir."
Toni took the chair Napoleon offered her and sat carefully at the table, leaning back so that she wouldn't smudge the highly polished surface. "Would you like a demonstration?"
"I long ago learned to trust Mr. Kuryakin's and Mr. Solo's instincts and recommendations, but if you feel the need."
Toni grinned and began to search in her ample purse for her deck. She pulled out a small purple velvet pouch and set it on the table before triumphantly locating and taking her Tarot cards and setting them beside the bag.
"What's in there?" Napoleon indicated the pouch.
"Oh, those are my runes."
"Ask a silly question," Napoleon murmured and Illya smirked.
"They're casting stones, Napoleon. Druids used them as written language. You can find them on Stonehenge." Toni dropped the pouch back into her purse. "They do the same thing as Tarot, but those aren't what we're after this time." She unfolded the soft cloth surrounding her cards and touched them reverently. She turned the cards and looked through them until she'd picked one and placed it face up on the table. Toni then passed the deck to Mr. Waverly. "That's your significator card. This is the card I think best represents you at the moment."
Waverly looked down at the King of Swords. "What does it mean?"
"I'll tell you once we start. Now shuffle them while thinking of the question you want answered." She watched the old man hesitate for a moment and then take the cards, holding them as if measuring their worth. "We'll go ahead and do a Celtic cross for you. This will give you more information with regards to your question. " Carefully, she instructed him until eleven cards were laid out in a specific pattern. "Now, let's see what they say about you, Mr. Waverly."
She grinned as both Napoleon and Illya leaned forward for a better look at the cards. "This first card is you as I see you, the King of Swords. You are a strong authority figure with a belief in truth and justice. You can be a firm friend, but an equally strong enemy. You're a wise counselor and a powerful commander."
"What of Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin?"
"They are your knights. Mr. Solo, the Knight of Cups. He's your right hand man, driven, not above taking matters into his own hands, but always with your best interests at heart. Mr. Kuryakin is your man of action, the Knight of Swords. His is a headlong rush into life, without regard for his past or future. In short, he lives in the present. He's a strong man, brave and as skilled as he is clever. And he's unfaltering."
"And give him big enough shoes and he can walk on water," Napoleon whispered for Illya alone to hear. The Russian hushed him.
Toni laughed at the pair. "And now to your question. This first card represents your environment, the world around you as you see it. Hmm, the Three of Swords—that can indicate a civic war or the separation of lovers or partners. This can weaken or strengthen you. Next we have your obstacles. The Moon... someone has it in for you, Mr. Waverly, and they are going to pull out all the stops. They will resort to deception, trickery, and disillusionment in previously held beliefs. As attractive as it would be to trust, you need to question yourself deeply."
"You mean trust no one?" Napoleon asked.
"I think rather, trust but with a degree of doubt. Don't take anything for face value just because." She flipped the next card. "This one indicates the best that you can hope to achieve after all the dust has settled and you have a Wheel of Fortune. This isn't bad, for it can indicate fortune, a special gain, or an unusual loss. It does, however, indicate the end of a problem although possibly through unexpected events. No matter what, it's going to be interesting."
"Somehow, it always is." Illya slid into a chair and leaned back. His head ached from a lack of sleep and he just overall didn't feel himself, but that was his usual reaction to excessive jet lag.
"This card indicates what you have to work with at the moment—The High Priestess. She represents wisdom, knowledge, learning, and a teacher."
"That would be you then, Miss Chagoya." he heard Napoleon say. He just met her and already was courting her. Pure Napoleon and Illya considered for a moment sending a barb in the direction of his partner, but it just didn't seem worth the effort. Without meaning to, his eyes closed as he concentrated upon their voices.
"Possibly, but the cards are gender neutral. This could just as well mean a man."
Illya was startled to find himself in a familiar corridor. It could have been one of a dozen that threaded throughout UNCLE HQ, but he instinctively knew it wasn't. The feel and smell was wrong. Two women, each wearing the standard UNCLE uniform of a straight dark skirt and white top approached him. They were wearing deep gold, almost brown, badges, six and nine. He frowned as UNCLE had no gold badges that color that he knew of.
"Excuse me, where am I, please?"
The words that greeted him were gibberish and he struggled to translate. He was fluent in a dozen languages, understood even more, and this sounded like nothing he'd ever heard before.
"I don't understand." Illya looked from one of the women to the other and they seemed to shimmer. He closed his eyes and tried again. "I can't understand you. Where am I?"
One of the women smiled sweetly at him and leaned forward, tracing a pattern on his chest. The pain that followed her finger made him want to scream but he was wordless. His voice caught and the second woman whispered softly in his ear. "Alhaz." And then he was falling.
"Illya!" He became aware of the voice and struggled to open his eyes. He was flat on his back on the floor with Napoleon and Waverly bending over him. Illya sat up quickly and grabbed his forehead with his hand, grimacing at the pounding and gasping involuntarily.
"Here." Toni held out a glass of water, but Illya pushed her hand aside and struggled to his feet, swaying slightly.
"Where am I?" His chest heaved with the effort of getting his breath back.
"We're in Mr. Waverly's office, partner." Napoleon slipped a hand under one of Illya's elbows and settled the other hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "You collapsed. We thought you were having a seizure or something. Are you okay?"
There was a knock to the door and it opened to reveal a man wearing a white coat and a stethoscope and carrying a small black bag.
"I don't need a doctor," Illya protested even as Dr. Samuels moved in his direction.
"Mr. Kuryakin, you will allow the doctor to examine you and make that decision for himself," Waverly snapped and the Russian reluctantly nodded.
"Sit over here if you please, Mr. Kuryakin, and I'll just get your vitals." The doctor pointed to the couch and Illya settled onto it well aware of the eyes upon him.
"I'm really all right. Just a little tired that's all." Illya rubbed his upper chest, the pain still fresh in his memory.
The doctor tilted his head back and flicked a light into each eye. "If that were the case, I'd be a mattress salesman. Hmm, have you been taking any medications? Are you in pain? Your eyes are dilated."
"Not even an aspirin, although I wouldn't mind a couple." Illya still panted and swallowed. "My chest hurts a little," he admitted, hating to say even that much.
"Open your shirt for me and let me check your ticker." Illya unbuttoned his shirt with thick feeling fingers. It was like his hands were partially numb. The doctor started to place the stethoscope down and sucked in a breath. "Alexander, you need to see this." Branded into the skin of Illya's chest just below his left shoulder was a symbol—and the doctor shook his head. "What are you playing at Mr. Kuryakin?"
"What the hell...?" Illya stared down at it and up at Napoleon. "How did that...? Napoleon?"
"He's been with me since we left England, sir, and not out of my sight, except for a few minutes to... freshen up. Not long enough to do anything like that."
"He's been marked," Toni said in a small voice and then she cleared her throat. "It's Elder Futhark—the oldest of runic writing. It symbolizes Alhaz or Elhaz, the Elk. It's a protection sign. I think a third party has just been heard from."
He fell back a step and took a deep cleansing breath. The spell had taken much out of him and he didn't have all that much to spare these days. While he could appreciate the need and drive of his fellow agents in their quest for the total destruction of THRUSH, he knew they also needed their champions protected.
He lit the bundle of sage and began to smudge his work space carefully. And in order for him to protect them, he needed to protect himself from the forces that were snapping at his heels, offering him such enticing power and delights should he take a step in their direction. It was so appealing, it would be so easy, and he smiled. The wrong way often was.
Napoleon stared into the paper cup that dangled precariously in his grasp and Toni sat quietly beside him in the small waiting room. In the examination room, Illya was being given a once over by the doctor and his staff.
"Why him?" Napoleon's voice and his tone made Toni's head turn in his direction.
"I don't understand, Napoleon."
"You said a third party was involved. Why would that party go after and do that to Illya?"
"Remember what I said when we first met?"
Napoleon frowned and thought. "That you'd been trying to do Illya for years?
Toni giggled, "Trust you to remember that... No, I said that Illya was the warrior. Someone knows that and wants to offer him extra protection for the conflict that is to come. You are the leader and don't need the same sort of protection."
Napoleon glanced down at his hand and he wrapped it into a fist, easily crushing the cup. "I'm pretty good in a fight too, you know," he said softly.
"And Illya is capable of leading, but his core is fighting. He was born fighting and he'll probably die fighting, although not necessarily a fight born of conflict. It's his nature, just as it is your nature to lead and inspire people." She reached into her purse and pulled out the bag. "I'll show you what I mean. I want you to clear your mind. Don't think about your job, your family, friends, nothing, just let your mind go blank. Okay?"
"I'll try, but it's tough sitting beside a beautiful woman like you." Napoleon's mouth played with a smile.
"Man, Illya was right about you... Okay, I'll help. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think about a pool of calm water and drop a pebble into it. When the ripples calm, take another breath and drop another pebble. Got it?"
Napoleon nodded and she watched his features even out and grow relaxed. She lifted his hand, guiding it into the sack. "Now feel the stones, one will call to you, bid you to pick it up."
Napoleon's hand worked in the sack for a moment and then he pulled his hand free. The pebble in his fingers bore a symbol that looked like a backwards 'F'. Toni giggled and Napoleon opened his eyes.
"You pulled Ansuz."
"Is that good?"
"It means Divine Breath. It symbolizes stability and order. It's directly associated with intellectual activities, authority, justice, and leadership, among other things. Its magical property is for wise decisions and success in leadership."
"Really? All that from a rock with a backward 'F' on it?"
"And what's more, by pulling it, you already bear its mark internally and I'm going to bet that our third party knows that." Toni took the stone back from him and returned it to the bag. "I would be will to bet if Illya pulled anything from this bag, it would be Isa."
"Stands for ice. And it indicated some deep internal conflicts. He's just waiting for the right spark of energy to break through that sense of stagnation and move forward. In short, he's an immovable object waiting for an irresistible force to break him free."
"Huh... what do you know about that?" The sound of footsteps approached and both turned towards the sound.
Dr. Samuels entered and hunched his shoulders at the pair. "He's fine, although I'd prescribe a good night sleep for both of you. He's dressing and should be right out." The doctor turned to leave and paused. "Considering what has happened, you might want to consider staying in house tonight and the young lady as well."
"Thanks, Doc, we'll consider it." Samuels left and a moment later Illya appeared, draping his tie around his neck.
"So how does it feel to be a marked man?" Napoleon asked, standing.
"Like someone stuck me with a cattle prod, thanks for asking." Illya began to knot his tie and then stopped, his task forgotten. "I am a man of science and all of this is a bit unsettling to me."
"Why's that?" Toni had also stood and walked to him to take up where he left off. "As a scientist, you must believe in things that are only theories, conjectures made by others."
"How is this different?"
"This is mysticism, superstition."
"So was gravity once upon a time. And then someone proposed a theory and someone else listened. Now it's a fact and yet it remains just as much a theory as it ever was. We simply accept it as part of our real world."
"You're referring to a leap of faith, yes? And you know that I am a good Soviet..."
"There's more than one sort of faith, Illya," she chastised softly as she finished knotting the tie.
"Yes." He stared at her for a moment until, unsettled, she turned.
"The Doc recommended a good night's sleep, which I won't argue with, but he wants us to stay in house."
"All of these problems have occurred 'in house,' Napoleon. I'll take my chances out there."
"Then I think we should stick together..." Napoleon settled a hand on Toni's shoulder. "That includes you, my dear."
"But I'm not part of this."
"By being with us here and now, you are as much as player as anyone else."
"I'm not checking into a hotel with two men."
"Of course not, you can stay at my place," Napoleon said, then continued quickly. "I have a guest bedroom. You'll be safe there. Illya, objections?"
"No, your sofa and I are well acquainted." He pulled on his jacket and smiled at the woman. "It really is the wisest move."
"Okay, but I need to stop by my place first."
Toni looked around the penthouse and then swirled about, giggling. "I haven't seen this much room in an apartment, ever!"
Napoleon set her suitcase down in the hallway and smiled. "Well, thank my Aunt Amy for that. She doesn't like to see me suffer. What can I get you to drink?"
"An Old Fashioned would be great if you can manage. If not, whatever's being poured works for me."
Illya smirked, but dropped his duffel bag by the front door and headed for the kitchen. Both men were equally at ease in each other's apartment, although Illya had to admit, it was much nicer raiding Napoleon's refrigerator than his own. He pulled a bottle of vodka from the freezer and rummaged through a cabinet until he found a water glass. Napoleon always frowned on him drinking straight from the bottle.
Napoleon moved to his wet bar and started mixing the drinks while Toni continued to prowl.
"So, where's your couch, Napoleon?" Toni stopped in her study of the living room.
"I needed to have it reupholstered. For some unknown reason, the cushion fabric was getting worn." Illya choked on the mouthful of vodka he'd taken and coughed. Toni and Napoleon turned to him and he just shook his head and wiped his eyes with his free hand. "You okay there, partner?"
"I should know better than to laugh and swallow at the same time." Illya set the glass down and took another breath before clearing his throat.
"But where will Illya sleep?" Toni had settled for an overstuffed armchair and perched on the very edge of it as Napoleon passed her a glass.
"With me, like he usually does." This time it was Toni's turn to choke.
"You do have a way with words, Napoleon." Illya moved to pat her on the back. "Because of cut backs at UNCLE, we are frequently forced to share sleeping quarters and even more frequently beds these days. Mr. Waverly is really cutting everything to the bone. Next he'll have us sleeping in hostels or taking along our own tents to camp in the local parks."
"Don't even suggest that, Illya. He'd jump at the idea." Napoleon settled into the other armchair. "You seemed to have brought an awful lot of clothes for an evening's camp out."
"Not just clothes. I wanted to..." She broke off and dropped her gaze to the floor. "I know you think this is just mumbo jumbo and silliness."
"No, I..." Napoleon started, but she cut him off.
"Yes, you, too, Napoleon. Like I said before, I can read people and what you two think about all of this is screaming in a voice that anyone who wants to listen can hear." She took a breath and continued. "However, you've chosen to include me in this and if that's the case, then I'm going to do what I know to protect me and mine."
Napoleon smiled and nodded slowly. "All right, but what about us?"
"Like I said before, you don't need it; you have each other."
"You're my protector," Napoleon murmured, locking eyes with his partner.
Illya drained his glass and started to pour more vodka into it. "Wonderful, I'm always pulling your... reputation... out of the fire anyways. So what are we ordering for dinner?"
Napoleon settled into the bed and took a deep breath. "I'm still not sure if I like that sage smell or not."
"I vote for not," Illya said, flicking his attention from his book to his partner and then back to the book. "Thinking that burning a bunch of weeds, lighting candles, and hanging randomly strung beads and the like is an adequate form of protection against anything is ridiculous. I'll put my money on my Walther."
"Agreed, but she's resting easy and there's a benefit in that." Napoleon stretched out his legs. "So how's the chest?"
"Better, the salve the doctor gave me is helping." Illya had returned to his book and Napoleon left him to it for a moment and then he spoke, keeping his voice soft.
"You're the most logical and rational man I know, Illya, how do you explain what happened to you?" At the silence that followed, Napoleon turned over in bed towards him, thinking he'd lost Illya to sleep, but the blond was staring at the far wall, apparently lost in thought.
Finally and with deliberation, he said, "That's the problem, Napoleon, I can't, and I don't mind confessing to you that I am at a loss. I know I didn't do this to myself, but I cannot explain it. I do not necessarily accept Toni's explanation, yet I cannot discount it entirely either."
"Guess we just sleep on it and see what happens tomorrow." Napoleon clicked off his light and settled back against his pillows. "Sleep well, old friend."
Napoleon was running. From what he couldn't tell, but he knew he had to keep running. The overwhelming sense of danger and the need for escape kept flashing in his mind. He ran without direction or conscious thought. The forest he was running through struck back at him, whipping his face and body with branches and tripping him with roots. The darkness around him seemed to have taken on life and he felt it bearing down all around him.
The wall he slammed into came as a shock, but not one that he took time to dwell upon. Instead of turning left or right, he was driven to scale it, his fingers finding precarious holds on the rock face. He climbed as if the Devil himself was at his heels, reaching the top almost before he had realized he'd even started to climb.
Thankfully, his survival instinct either took over or took a breather because he stopped then and realized the wall had protected him from a sheer drop of several hundred feet. Why he could plainly see that and not the darkened forest was a mystery, but not one he thought about at the moment. He panted, trying to get his bearings. Then a noise from behind him made him turn, he lost his balance and started to fall. He shouted and a hand suddenly caught his, a familiar gold band catching the light. A moment more and he was pulled to safety and leaning back against Illya's familiar shape.
"Why were you running?" Illya asked his mouth close to Napoleon's ear, almost nuzzling it. "Why do you fear me?"
"I'm not afraid of you, Illya. You're the last person I fear." Napoleon turned his head slightly and saw something he'd never seen in Illya's eyes, a hunger and... passion? He became aware of Illya's hands and body, and his own shameless response to them.
"Then take me."
"NO!" Napoleon sat straight up in bed, panting.
"Napoleon?" Illya clicked on the light on his side of the bed. "What's wrong?" The way his partner looked at him kept him from moving closer. Napoleon has a look of confusion, fear and something else in his eyes and then it was gone.
"Nothing, bad dream, that's all." Napoleon slid back under the covers, carefully situating them to cover his groin. Illya kept from smiling. It certainly wouldn't be the first time one of them had had that sort of dream in each other's presence, but he was at a loss to explain Napoleon's embarrassment of it. It wasn't like he'd never seen an erection before.
"You want to talk about it?"
"Nope, can't remember it, sorry." Illya could see the lie in Napoleon's eyes, but he didn't push the issue. He merely nodded, turned his back to his partner and shut off the light.
For a long time Napoleon lay quietly, staring up at the ceiling, trying to work the bits of his dream around in his mind. It wasn't the first time he'd dreamt about Illya, although it usually didn't happen when the man was in bed with him. It usually would hit him after Illya had had a close call and Napoleon could attribute the feelings he had to feeling over-protective. He'd always been very careful to keep his attraction towards his own sex quiet and overplayed his skirt chasing. It was easier and more socially acceptable than admitting the truth.
Napoleon glanced over at Illya and studied the back turned to him. Just once he'd like to reach out, not as a friend, but as a lover and feel the strength in that body in his arms. His eyes opened in alarm when he realized he'd actually started to reach for him and whipped the arm back to wrap it around his own torso.
Even if he was inclined to discover whether or not Illya would clean his clock if he tried, Napoleon certainly wasn't about to find out with a guest in the next room. Still, the desire to reach out and run a hand over that back, caress that ass, so appealingly tight, so... close.
"What's wrong, Napoleon?" Illya turned back towards him.
"You're lying again. I can see it in your eyes. I know you want me. Why do you stop? Are you afraid I'll cry out or that I'll make you cry in pleasure, in pain. It's all the same, you know. The sex, the heat, the wanting..."
"No, I would never hurt you."
"What if I wanted you to? What if I wanted you to bind me and beat me, wouldn't you do that for me?"
"Never." Napoleon was aghast at the suggestion. They saw too much of that in their line of work for him to even contemplate it for pleasure. He couldn't believe Illya would either.
"But you'd like it... I'd make you like it."
Illya woke and glanced over at his partner. Napoleon was apparently having the Mother of All Nightmares, if the way he was thrashing was any sign. It was obvious that neither of them were going to get any sleep tonight.
He reached out a hand to shake his partner awake. "Napoleon, you're having another nightmare, wake up..." And Napoleon's fist caught him hard, popping his head back and making him see stars.
"I won't hurt you," Napoleon growled and Illya blinked a couple of times.
"A little late for that, I think," Illya muttered, then louder, more firmly. "Napoleon, wake up!"
The thrashing stopped and a moment later came the sleepy, "Illya?"
"Yes." He exhaled loudly and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. He turned the light back on and looked at the blood for a second before wiping it onto his tee shirt.
"What happened to you?"
"You were having a dream. You said 'I won't hurt you' and then you punched me. Rather mutually exclusive I would argue."
Napoleon sat up and ran a hand through his sweat-drenched hair. "I don't think I've ever had a nightmare like that before in my life."
"I... can't... it's sort of embarrassing." At Illya's smirk, he shook his head. "I'm serious, Illya."
"You were screaming you wouldn't hurt me and you have a hard on, I think I can probably guess the nature of your dream, Napoleon."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Napoleon, you are my partner, my friend, why would that bother me?"
"You... you wanted me to... hurt you... sexually." Napoleon turned his face away from Illya so he couldn't see the reddening of his cheeks. "You wanted me to tie you up and beat you."
"It's not your fault..."
Both men glanced over at the doorway at Toni. She looked slightly lost in her oversized pajamas and robe and more than a little embarrassed about standing there.
"Toni, we didn't mean to wake you. I'm sorry..."
"No, listen to me, Napoleon. I know what you think and you're wrong. You weren't just dreaming. Someone was trying to direct you. They can't get to Illya, but they were trying to manipulate you to do it for them. And you resisted them. That's not going to sit well with your bad guys." She walked to the bed and Napoleon shifted his feet so she could sit down. "I'm sort of getting out of my element here. We may need to call in the Big Dogs."
The familiar on/off blat of his communicator cut her off.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly's voice filled the room. "I need for both you and Mr. Kuryakin to report immediately to the London office."
"Sir? We just returned from..."
"I'm not used to having my orders questioned, Mr. Solo, just do it!"
The channel went dead and Napoleon looked at the instrument. "Okay, was that odd or is it just me?"
"Not just you." Illya pushed back the sheet and blanket to stand, apparently unconcerned that he appeared in front of Toni in just his underwear. She colored and dropped her gaze to the floor. "I'm heading in to HQ and then I will continue on to London." He tugged on his pants hurriedly and looked around for his socks. "I think perhaps it might be wise for you to remain here in New York. I will assess the problem and report directly back to you."
"I thought I was CEA." Napoleon tried to hide his smile as Illya pulled on a turtleneck and started to shove his feet into his shoes.
"If you have a better plan, I'm open to hearing it. I know the London office well."
"No, you're right. Just be careful."
Illya tapped his chest gently. "Protected, remember? Stay out of sight until I tell you otherwise." He grabbed his holster, strapping it on as he walked. He paused at the door, looking back at the pair. "Be careful, my friend, and when I return, we shall discuss your dream at length."
Napoleon sat for a moment longer after Illya's departure. "I think I'm through with sleep for the time being."
Toni's laugh was mirthless. "I sort of know how you feel."
"Were 'they' bothering you as well?" Napoleon climbed out of bed and pulled his robe on, knotting its belt around his waist. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, please. No to your first question, but I'm not a major player in this. Your bad guys aren't interested in manipulating me because they don't see me as a threat."
"That's going to be their biggest mistake." He walked through the apartment to the kitchen, still distracted by his earlier thoughts. Even with Illya gone, the man's presence threatened to overwhelm him. He gave his head a shake. "So, Toni, what do your cards say?"
The woman disappeared and then reappeared carrying the deck. She held them out to him with a smile. "You tell me."
Napoleon took them and closed his eyes, thinking, trying to narrow his thoughts down to a single question. After a moment he sat down at his small dining room table and dealt three cards, laying them face up.
"Hmmm, an inverted Hierophant, that can mean in the past you've resorted to unconventional actions or dealt with a problem in an unorthodox manner."
"Well, possibly not to your way of thinking, but to that of the group, yes. " She reached down to touch the second card. "Strength, it means what is says, you're strong and you have the courage, energy and conviction to follow an action to its conclusion. This is you at present and possibly why you are able to resist being manipulated without your permission."
"Damned straight." Napoleon moved back to the kitchen and collected items on a tray. "So my future?"
"Um.... Rosy, I'd say—the Ten of Cups."
"What's that?" He offered her a cup and sat back down.
She sighed. "It's the one we all want, the fairy tale ending. You have a boatload of happiness and bliss coming your way. You are going to or already have a great friendship teetering on the brink of a great love. Lucky... girl?" She sipped her coffee, watching him over the rim of the cup.
Napoleon paused in stirring his coffee and stared at her for a long moment. "Yeah..."
"If you're going to apply it to work, it means you'll win, but I don't think that's what was on your mind. I'm not asking, Napoleon. That's not my job and it's your right to keep things private." She gathered the cards back and pushed the deck back towards him. "Now, ask the question that's really on your mind. One card should do it."
Without taking his eyes off her, Napoleon shuffled and placed one card, face up on the table. Toni studied it a mere second and smiled.
"Yes?" Napoleon repeated back to her.
Toni nodded and handed the Two of Cups card to him. "Yes."
As he paused before Waverly's door, Illya glanced down at the clipboard he carried. As he suspected, there had been no outgoing transmissions from Waverly to Napoleon. He waited for the door to slide back and Waverly to acknowledge him before he entered. The old man looked surprised to see him
"Mr. Kuryakin, I was under the impression that you and Mr. Solo had been sent home."
"Yes, sir, we were and then Mr. Solo received a call from you ordering us to London."
Waverly's face went blank and he slowly shook his head. "I never sent such a message, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Mr. Solo suspected as much, but in the light of what has been occurring, he thought it prudent for one of us to respond."
"I see." Waverly nodded to a chair. "And his suggested course of action?"
"That one of us remains behind out of sight while the other travels to London. For some reason, still unknown to us, it seems imperative that we be off site in order for this unknown party to continue."
"Lure them into a sense of misguided comfort."
"We believe it is necessary to force their hand, sir."
"Do as you see fit, Mr. Kuryakin. Report in when you arrive in London."
Illya waited until he arrived at the gate and settled quietly in the corner of a phone booth. He dialed in Napoleon's phone number and waited.
"Napoleon, I am the airport and about ready to board. Waverly is aware of our plans."
"He never made that call, did he?"
"No." Illya hesitated. "Napoleon, for the sake of security, we need to be sure of each other."
"You mean, that we are who we say we are?"
"Yes, to that end..."
Napoleon flicked a look over at Toni and she held up two cards. "Cup and sword. You're sword."
"Acknowledged. I will contact Waverly upon my arrival at the London office through regular channels and then you."
It didn't take a mind reader to hear the concern in his partner's voice and know his mind. "I know, I will. You too." Napoleon hung up the phone and sighed. "He's off."
Toni set aside her coffee cup and stretched. "Do you two ever speak to each other in complete sentences?"
"When we need to, but after awhile, we break into a sort of shorthand." Napoleon gestured to the bathroom door. "You can shower first, if you'd like."
"Then we have some breakfast and sit tight, just as Illya requested."
"Does he frequently tell you what to do?"
"No, so when he does, I try to listen. Not always successfully, but I do get points for trying."
Napoleon's communicator signaled and he answered it. "Solo."
"Your whereabouts, Mr. Solo?"
"Just getting ready to hop a plane to London, sir."
Napoleon made a motion with his hand and Toni pinched her nose and intoned, "Flight 86 to London in now boarding, all passengers to Gate 42, repeat, Flight 86 with service to London Heathrow is boarding."
"Excellent, Mr. Solo." The man glanced over at his priest and smirked. "Out." He toggled off the switch. "That went better than we thought."
"They are off balance now and merely responding as they have been trained, a sort of UNCLE version of Pavlov's dog." The priest placed a card, glanced at it and discarded it. "Now we must move quickly. Once they arrive in London and discover no reason for their presence, they will be quick to return."
"I have arranged a welcoming party at the airport. They won't have the opportunity to return. Trust me, my priest, we will succeed." The man smiled and strode from the room. The priest drew another card and set it upon the tray before him, pushing aside the remains of a less-than-exciting hospital breakfast.
"Alas," he said, touching the Ten of Wands sadly, "I fear that will not be the case." The pain in his back made him sigh and he tucked the cards under his pillow and laid back. In spite of what his doctor told him, he still didn't feel well. No matter, the wheels were set in motion now and he was but a passenger.
Illya stopped in midstride and suddenly looked at his surroundings. He felt that he'd been walking a long time and not paying attention. That was not a good sign in his line of work.
There was a building to his left and for some reason he felt drawn to it. The exterior told him it had long since been abandoned. Posters, once bright and attractive, clung to a dirt-caked window, tattered and faded. He eased down the few steps, his weapon drawn. Pushing the door open, he caught his breath.
He was in Del Floria's, but not his Del Floria's. This one hadn't been used for years. Thick dust caked every surface and cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Then he saw the body, nothing more than a skeleton now, lying face down across the counter, the remnants of what had once been a suit barely holding the bones together.
Still holding his weapon at the ready, Illya moved cautiously further into the room, closer to the body. It took no effort to turn the body and his voice caught at the sight of an UNCLE badge, yellow 11 still pinned to the suit jacket.
Then the skull moved, lifted and whispered, "Eihwaz."
Illya jumped back and cracked his head against the side of the airplane. A curse died on his lips as he brought a hand up to hold against the bump.
"Are you all right, sir?" The stewardess was bending closer to him, hand on his shoulder, and smiling.
Illya nodded and continued to rub the spot. He looked back up at her and the skeleton was staring back. "Eihwaz," it repeated. "Laguz."
Catching his breath, Illya opened his eyes and stared at the airline seat in front of him. The whine of the engines told him that they were starting their approach into Heathrow and a moment later the 'fasten seat belt' flashed on. The lights came on and around him people started moving, slowly coming awake in their seats.
Illya brought a hand up to his chest, wincing at the pain his touch caused. He reached into a jacket pocket and found his small note book. Frowning, he tried to remember the words. Unsure of the spelling he jotted down 'highways' and 'lagoose'. With any luck, Toni would be able to help him out.
Illya, as was his habit, waited for the rest of the plane to disembark and then stood, gathering up his rain jacket and moving down and out of the plane.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he approached the terminal and at the last minute he turned away, heading back out onto the tarmac.
Almost instantly, there was a shout and a security guard riding in a small golf cart approached him. The officer looked no more than in his early twenties. He climbed from the vehicle and pointed in the direction that Illya had just come from.
"You need you go back, sir. The terminal is that way. This is a restricted area."
"I have reason to believe my life is in danger. I need you to put me into protective custody." Illya pulled his ID from his pocket.
The policeman looked perplexed, first at the card and then at him. "I don't know how they do things in America, but here in England, we don't just arrest people without due cause."
The Walther slipped easily out of its holster and Illya aimed it at the man's midsection. "Then how about threatening a police officer?" Then Illya pushed him roughly backwards and the man stumbled back against the cart. "Or assaulting one."
"You're asking for trouble, mate."
"No, I'm asking for help, but you don't seem to be inclined."
"All right, you are coming with me." The man grabbed Illya's arm and pulled the pistol from his grasp. Although Illya didn't like to relinquish the weapon or have it out of his control, he acknowledged the need.
"They weren't on the plane."
He frowned at the news and shook his head. "That's impossible."
"No one came off the plane that fit their descriptions. There was an incident out on the tarmac, but that's it. Some guy apparently got a noseful on the plane and started pushing a cop around and got himself a night the drunk tank for his efforts."
"That was Kuryakin, you idiot, he must have been creating a distraction so Solo could slip by. You need to get to headquarters and head them off."
"Fast and permanent works for me. We just have to make sure they don't report to Larkins or they know something is up."
He hung up and moaned loudly. Idiots abounded everywhere, even in their world. He slid in behind a console and began to type slowly on the keyboard. With Waverly's security ID, he typed in the orders for the Brazilian UNCLE office to attack a suspected satrap with all due force and the orders of 'no prisoners'. The Section Two in charge there would know better than to question the orders from a superior, not like Solo or Kuryakin. Bring down that satrap; they would cripple THRUSH's trade route from the south. Then it would be a piece of cake to eliminate most of Mexico's THRUSH offices as well. Once that was finished, they would start with the North and clean up Canada. At that point, THRUSH would indeed be feeling the burn.
He laughed and flipped up a card. He stared at it and shook his head. "No, that's not possible. I don't believe you! I won't believe you. We will succeed. We must succeed." For its part, the Five of Swords was silent—its message was already clear—failure, defeat, cowardice, cruelty and an empty victory.
The phone rang and Napoleon glanced up from his book. "Toni, you're closest, would you mind?"
She stretched back, grabbing the receiver on the third ring. "Hello?"
"Toni? This is Illya, is Napoleon there?"
"Who?" She gestured wildly to Napoleon, who leaned close to her, his ear against the receiver.
"Ah... Mr. Cups, is he there?"
"Absolutely." She barely had time to get the word out before Napoleon removed the receiver from her hand.
"Illya, what's going on?"
"I got arrested at the airport, you're my one call... after I convinced the Sergeant of my sincerity. "
"Why did you get arrested, Illya, or should I even ask this?"
"It was safer than facing the welcoming committee inside the terminal. I'm not certain how much longer this is going to afford me sanctuary however and I need Toni's advice."
She moved closer, her lips nearly on Napoleon's as she spoke. "Why? What's wrong?"
"I had another dream... this one was a bit more disturbing. There was a talking skeleton and he, she... it said... hang on, let me check my notes... 'highways' and 'lagoose' or something that sounded like that."
"Say the first one again."
Toni thought for a moment and snapped her fingers. "Could it have been Eihwaz?"
"Probably. The other one sounded like Lagoose."
"Again, I will have to bow to your greater knowledge in these things. What does it mean?"
"They're warnings and encouragement. Eihwaz is usually connected to death, but also to the confrontation of fear. You need to confront something, but it has to be experienced, it can't be taught. It means that you are going to be tested and that test is going to bring about a profound change to your life."
"Hopefully not death, which would, arguably, be a profound change to life."
"Illya, I'm serious..."
"I know... and the other."
"It represents your primal fears and is associated with emotions and subconscious feelings. Illya, it's used to enhance psychic abilities and uncover hidden things."
Illya glanced over at the sergeant, who was doing his best to look like he wasn't listening to every word, and smirked. "Wonderful. That and a buck will get me a cup of coffee. I'm going to find some place to lay low for a bit." He hung up the phone and spoke directly to the sergeant. "Sergeant, could you recommend accommodations nearby." He paused and took a deep breath. "And perhaps a magic shop..."
Illya Kuryakin hung his jacket on the back on the straight back chair and slipped out of his shoulder holster. He'd rigged the door to the room as best he could and now sat down on his bed, with his new purchases spread out in front of him. He still wasn't given to believe in all of this, but he'd never been given to dreams before. And there was the mark on his chest. The clerk at the last store he'd visited had nearly fainted after seeing it.
He took the pouch of salt he'd been given and stood, pulling the bed away from the wall so that he could slip behind it. Then carefully he sprinkled the salt in an unbroken circle around his bed. That accomplished, he removed several blue candles from their protective bag and set them, one at each corner of his bed, as instructed. Blue, he had been told, was the color of protection. He lit them and then reseated himself on the bed, letting each one go out on its own accord. When he was satisfied, the last of the candles was out, he stretched out on the bed and took several deep breaths, preparing himself to sleep.
He blinked and he was standing within a circle of white-cloaked individuals. Their heads down, he couldn't easily discern the sexes, although some were more obvious than others. They were in some sort of clearing and there was a fire burning. He could hear voices, but they were subdued, nearly impossible to even hear, much less understand. That was when Illya realized he was naked and he flushed slightly. Not from shame; he was far too comfortable within his own skin for that, but because Napoleon was standing a few feet from him, in a similar state of undress, and watching him in a way that both delighted and alarmed him.
"Napoleon?" When in doubt, he'd been taught to go to the source. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in New York."
"I am." Napoleon closed the gap between them and reached out to place a hand, palm down, on Illya's chest. "But I'm here as well."
"Yes," Illya admitted readily, still confused. He'd loved Napoleon as a brother, as more than a friend, but he'd never allowed himself to take his desire beyond that. Even though you couldn't be put to death for homosexuality, there were laws against it, taboos that claimed it one of the worst of the worst. He remembered reading Dante's Inferno and discovering that homosexuals dwelt in a part of Hell that was deeper and more horrific than just about any other crime against God. He decided, at that time, it was just as well that he believed in neither God nor Hell and went off to have a delightful evening with a fellow student equally bent on sins of the flesh. He thought of Paul now and felt his penis stirring.
Napoleon took his hand and brought it to his chest, a smooth, glistening plane in the firelight. "And you are within me. You need this, Illya. You need my fire."
"Your fire? I don't understand," he said to Napoleon, studying him and then the surrounding crowd. "I don't understand."
Napoleon turned Illya's face back to him and touched his lips to his forehead. Illya shut his eyes as if in pain, although it wasn't from Napoleon's touch, but rather from his own feelings. He needed to control, to stop... Napoleon's lips drifted down to his, feather light, brushing, teasing until Illya moaned at the effort to keep from responding. Wrong course of action, and Napoleon's tongue, wonderfully wet and supple, slid into his mouth, exploring every bit it could reach.
Illya tried to push him away, but Napoleon easily caught his hands, guiding them down his body to cup his genitals. Napoleon thrust into them and Illya couldn't help himself, his hand enveloped the hardened penis, so incredibly firm and warm. Still a voice screamed out to him that not only was he about to have sex with his best friend and partner, but have it with an audience.
He tried to protest, but Napoleon's mouth was unrelenting, only permitting a slight gasp to escape now and again. And Illya knew he was rapidly approaching the Point of No Return, that moment when inhibitions and carefully-honed civilized behavior goes out the window and something much more primal takes command. The fact that it was Napoleon bringing him to such a state wasn't lost on him, but it didn't matter. He'd wanted this almost from the moment they had met, felt that connection, but his respect for Napoleon prevented him from acting upon it. He felt, he denied, and that was the end of it, or rather it was until now.
Illya felt his hips rocking, thrusting his anxious penis into Napoleon's fist, growling at the sensations that made his nerves fire like a machine gun. Then Napoleon pulled away and bent, braced against a rock, assuming an unmistakable position.
"Now Illya, I need you now," he demanded. While a part of Illya's brain still argued, he couldn't stop; his body was out of his control. He positioned himself and pushed, relieved that Napoleon's responding groan was one of passion, not pain. He pistoned in and out, for desperation was now the order of the day. His hand still worked Napoleon's penis and suddenly his fist was flooded, warm and sticky with Napoleon's climax. Illya tilted his head back and ejaculated like he hadn't done in many months. He heard a growl, deep within, break the surface, and it was then that he realized the growl and the man in his arms were both his. He dropped his mouth to Napoleon's sweat damp neck and bit, sucking blood to the surface, marking him, claiming him, telling the world that man was owned. He felt Napoleon climax again and...
Illya sat upright in bed, his shorts clinging to him, sticky and very wet. His heart was still pounding and he was gasping for air. It had been years since he'd had a wet dream of that magnitude and never one involving his partner. He dropped back onto the pillow and, grimacing, easing the material away from his penis. Thank the stars above that Napoleon would never know of this...
Napoleon stared at the communicator for a moment before answering it cautiously. "Solo here." He rubbed at his neck and shoulder, trying to relieve the tension he felt growing there.
"Napoleon, this is Arturo... Chacabuco."
"Arturo, bom dia, como você é?"
"I'm not sure, my friend. I have just received very odd orders from your boss and I am...deixado perplexo."
"Why are you perplexed, Arturo?"
"When did UNCLE adopt a 'no prisoners' policy?"
"We were just given order by your Mr. Waverly to take out the Brazilian THRUSH office."
"That's ridiculous; we've been working with the office for almost a year to negotiate their surrender. We're so close we can taste it."
"So why were we told to attack and kill everyone we found? He was quite clear that there were to be no survivors."
"Arturo, thank you for calling me about this. Our security has obviously been compromised. Waverly would never order such a thing. Sit tight and wait for my word. Solo out." He wiggled the pen-like instrument in his fingers for a moment and chewed on a corner of his mouth. "They've just upped the ante a bit, Toni. How would you like to take a trip to Brazil?"
"But I thought Illya said we were to stay here."
"Change of plans." He lifted the pen back to his mouth. "Open Channel F." He waited for a moment and then he heard Illya's groggy
"Just the man to take his sword from my heart." Napoleon winked at Toni and she giggled nervously.
"My cup runneth over. Napoleon, it's the middle of the night, as if you don't know that. What's wrong?"
"I got an emergency call from Arturo Chacabuco, the Number Three out of our Rio office. They were just ordered by Waverly to storm the Brazilian THRUSH compound."
"What? Why? We're in negotiations with them."
"Exactly the problem. And there's more." Napoleon couldn't keep his hand from his neck, wincing at the pain lancing through the muscle. He must be getting old or something.
"When was that policy changed? We always take survivors."
"Agreed. I'm going to put into HQ for a quick visit to Section Eight and then Toni and I are headed for Rio."
"I'll join you there. No one here sent for us. Still, I can't help thinking that we both shouldn't be gone at the same time."
"Can't be helped. Solo out." He continued to rub his neck and Toni caught his hand.
"My neck is killing me for some reason."
"I happen to deliver a mean massage." She patted a chair and grinned. "Do you have some liniment?"
"I'm an UNCLE agent; we buy it by the gallon." He disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a bottle of green liquid. He loosened his tie and pulled it free as he handed the bottle to her and then unbuttoned his shirt. Pulling it off, he sat and leaned forward.
"Get prepared for the massage of you...oh my Goddess..." Toni's hand fell away from him and she took a step back.
"Toni? Toni, what's wrong?" He vainly tried to look over his shoulder.
"Do you have a hand mirror?"
"In the bathroom, the second drawer down." He watched her trot from the room and return a moment later.
She positioned the mirror. "That's what's wrong. What were you and Illya up to last night... two nights ago?"
"Nothing." But Napoleon couldn't help but grimace at the mark on his neck. He could even see the teeth impressions dotting his skin.
"Call him," she ordered.
"And say what exactly? Hello, Illya, did you bite me in your sleep last night?"
The dark-haired agent shook his head slowly, but pulled out his communicator. "Open Channel F, you there, Mr. Sword?"
There was a pause and then, "No I haven't left yet. It takes time to make arrangements, even for me."
"That's not it... Illya... did you...um... I don't know how to ask this."
"Did you have a wet dream about Napoleon?" Toni asked abruptly and Napoleon shook his head.
"Or you could just be blunt and say that," he muttered to her.
"Why?" Illya's voice was guarded, overly cautious.
"Next time don't bite so hard," Napoleon said, still glaring at her.
"How did you know... what?"
"I'm looking at the bruise you left."
"I don't... didn't... it was a dream."
"That makes two of us, partner," Napoleon said, taking back control of the communicator. "I don't know what this means."
"It means you're connected, on just about any level you care to talk about and whatever is going to happen, we're going to need both of you back together to fight it," Toni said, not quite ready to give up the reins yet.
"That I will agree with," Napoleon said. "I will see you as scheduled. Solo out."
"Why haven't we heard anything?" He flung down the pack of cards and they scattered across the bed.
"Perhaps because the battle is engaged and the lines of communication are down." The priest reached out to start to push them back into a pile. "Have patience."
"I'll have patience when THRUSH is gone for good. I have had a lifetime of being patient. Now is the time for action and for resolution. I would just feel better knowing that Kuryakin and Solo are out of the picture."
"And there's been no word from England?"
"None, so either they can't find them..."
"Or they already have and are awaiting your command." His priest smiled benevolently at him. "When you get older, you will realize the wisdom of letting people see their own fates to the end. Now is the time to collect your power, center yourself and prepare. When the word comes down of the fall of South America 's THRUSH, the repercussions will be immense. Faced with the loss of his two best field agents, Waverly's path will indeed be changed."
"You're right, my priest. I will be patient and I will wait."
"Meditate and ask to be shown the path. It is your destiny to follow it."
"Yes." He bowed rather formally and left, remembering at the last minute to gather his cards.
The older man waited a moment and sighed deeply. The doctor's news could have been better, but it didn't matter. He knew he would have the strength to last this out. All that signs pointed to that. Still, he lifted his hand. The Ten of Swords heralded sudden misfortune, the ruining of plans, defeat, failure, pain and tears; hardly a positive sign of success.
It was obvious that Fate had chosen a path and it was time to call in the reinforcements.
Toni settled herself back onto the seat and tried not to make the small boat rock. It wasn't that she was afraid of getting seasick as much as she was afraid of all the stories she'd heard about piranhas or these nasty little fish that swam up and into parts of the body that she had no desire to have fish be a part of.
Still to think that she was not just in South America, but traveling up the Amazon with a spy and a local guide. was too much for words.
"Quanto mais longe?" Napoleon asked, smiling over at her.
"Não muito distante absolutamente agora."
"He says it's not much farther. How are you holding up?" He took her hand in a gentle grip.
"Besides being terrified and confused, I'm not too bad. I'd like to be home, but I'd be watching TV or reading some stupid romance; how could that compare to this?" Lower, she asked, "What about Illya?"
"If I know him, he'll already be entrenched at the site," Napoleon leaned closer, nuzzling her ear, looking very much the part of a honeymooning couple that was their cover. "I keep meaning to ask this, but forget. How did you come to meet Illya? You don't seem to travel in his usual circle."
Toni giggled and dropped her eyes to the bottom of the small boat. "I don't want to tell tales out of school, Napoleon," she murmured back.
"After what I've experienced the last couple of days, nothing could surprise me."
"He and my brother... they used to be... um... you know... together."
"Together? Oh, 'together,'" Napoleon air quoted the word and sighed. "I suppose I should be surprised, but again, my surprise threshold is running pretty high these days." He pointed to the shore as if indicating something she should look at. She turned and smiled at him.
"They haven't been for a long time, but we hit it off and he comes around now and again just to touch base. I have a feeling that once Illya considers you a friend, you are until you prove to not be."
"Aí está, senhor, Santarem." Their guide pointed at a distant dock.
"Bom," Napoleon answered back. "We are nearly there. Once we get you settled some place safe, I'll check in with Illya."
"No way you're ditching me in some hotel room and running off, mister," Toni argued, then colored slightly, embarrassed.
"I don't want anything to happen to you. This place can be pretty rough and tumble. I have no intention of falling upon my sword for you, my dear."
She took a deep breath. "I just don't like the idea of you being out there alone."
"Trust me, I won't be."
They arrived at the dock and a flurry of men gathered around them , each one yelling a bit louder than the other, waving their hands in an attempt to garner Napoleon's attention and offer their services with help to a hotel. He finally settled on one who looked like a breeze would topple him, but he eagerly shouldered their luggage and started at a half trot towards their destination.
"Why do I have a feeling that I will never see my suitcase again?" she muttered to Napoleon as they started to walk away from the pier.
"Oh nonsense, Illya is many things, but he doesn't go into luggage thievery...as a rule, that is..."
"You didn't recognize him?" Napoleon half chuckled at her open-mouth expression.
"How did he... he looked just like..."
"That's my boy," Napoleon said, with a wink. "I meant that in a manly way, of course, and not an impingement upon his masculinity."
Toni smiled and quickened her pace to keep up with him. "Do you guys do this all the time? I mean, run around with code words and disguises?"
"Most days, we sit in our office and fill out paperwork. It's no different than most jobs. You go to work, hope that you don't get killed before lunch, eat, hope you don't get killed before quitting time and then, if you're really lucky, no one tries to kill you on your way home."
"Ha, ha. I'm being serious, Napoleon."
"I know, ah, here we are, The Tropico." He indicated a building with a wave of his hand. Toni winced at the exterior.
"It is and that's why it's perfect for us." He ushered her in and checked them in, being careful to play the dutiful husband in front of the desk clerk. He asked that their luggage be sent up and quickly escorted Toni to their room.
He opened the door and Toni hesitated, then screamed as a shape moved towards them. She pressed back again Napoleon, half turning as if blocking the sight would send their attacker away.
"She's very high strung," the stranger said, handing Napoleon a glass.
Toni suddenly recognized the voice. "What? Illya?" She stared at the scruffy and near rag-wearing stranger looking back at her. "How did you get here before us?" She looked around and saw their suitcase set to one side of the veranda doors.
"I knew a shortcut. I've gone over the room and it's clean." Illya looked around and chuckled, readjusting the collar of his tattered and dirty tee shirt. "Relatively speaking and contrary to appearances."
"Did you have any trouble?"
"No, none. You?" Illya continued to smile as Toni stared at him.
"Likewise." Napoleon sat on the corner of the single bed. "I made contact with Arturo and he's heard nothing since that first order."
"What are they waiting for?" Toni asked him, but Illya answered.
"Perhaps word from the Rio office or through the grapevine. As much as it pains me, I made nice with Swenson and alerted him as well. He's moving shop as we speak. They should be clear in another hour."
"Good. Now I think it would behoove us to get in touch with Arturo and tell him to go ahead with the strike," Napoleon said. "Make sure no one gets close enough to realize they are attacking an empty building."
"I can go in and set some charges that Arturo can trigger, make it seem like they are fighting back."
"Do that. I'll wait for your all clear."
Illya nodded and reseated the dirty baseball cap over his tangled mass of dark hair. "There's a small restaurant around the corner. Food isn't bad and it's secure." He stood and started towards the veranda. "I'll be on Channel F if you need me."
And he was gone. Toni stared after him for a long moment. "You can't tell me you hate this."
"On the contrary, this is one of the jobs you have to love or it will kill you—literally and figuratively."
"How do you do it? How do you get up each morning and dress, knowing that this might be your last day on the planet?"
"By not thinking about it and by keeping my focus on the here and now and not what might happen tomorrow."
"That sounds lonely."
"Not really, it's a matter of knowing what you want and being willing to take what's offered."
"That's what finally broke the camel's back, you know." She brushed the wrinkles out the bedspread and then pulled back the cover to check the sheets before sitting. "Between Illya and Gordie, I mean. He wanted some kind of a commitment and Illya wouldn't."
"Ah, commitment—the one word an UNCLE agent fears more than death itself. It's probably wasn't as much wouldn't as couldn't." Napoleon sat beside her and took her hand. "You see, we know far too well how very short our life expectancy is. UNCLE agents tend to have a shelf life shorter than potato salad sitting in the sun. And if by some miracle we make it to forty, most of us are pretty much set in our way, too much so to pick up a wife and start a family. We know this when we start and no one holds a gun to our heads to pick this life. It's something that picks us." Napoleon patted her hand. "Besides, worst comes to worst, I still have Illya..."
"You really do, you know, have Illya," Toni said, slightly wistful. "It's like when he's in the room, it doesn't matter who else might be here because you only see him."
Napoleon's smile was generous and warm. "I see you."
"That because you-know-who is out blowing things up." She laughed and patted Napoleon's arm. "And that's okay, Napoleon. You and Illya might never be lovers..."
"Why would I want Illya as my lover?" Napoleon interrupted.
"The cards suggest the possibility, but there is no denying the connection between you two. You may never be lovers, but you will always have something more than a friendship, something that binds you both physically and mentally to one another. No matter what, you two are joined at the hip."
"Well, that I won't argue with."
"So, now that we are here, what do we do?"
"Well, as a honeymooning couple, we let a discreet amount of time pass, then we have a little dinner and wait for Illya's signal." He stretched out of the bed, kicking at the sheets with his shoes, easily pulling them free from the mattress. "Then you sit tight and Illya and I will do what we are paid to do."
Napoleon smiled and handed her a pillow. "Smear your makeup on that pillow if you would, my dear."
"Why? Illya said no one knows we're here," she said even as she complied.
"Experience had taught me that hotel clerks often answer to more than one master."
Illya Kuryakin brushed away a fly that seemed overly affectionate and watched the abandoned building. He had watched the last THRUSH depart an hour ago and made short work of setting charges. When Arturo decided it was time to attack, the building would go up in a suitably pryoclastic ball of flame. Now it was just merely a matter of waiting and watching.
He felt before he heard the person approach, but that didn't matter. It was still not enough of a window for him to adequately respond. He lashed out, but contacted only air while his assailant was more successful. He caught the stick, bat, whatever, right across his kidneys and went down with a grunt.
Even while his body was protesting, he started to move, fight or flee, he didn't much care at this point, but it didn't matter. There was a sharp stab to his thigh and he immediately started to relax, a vain attempt to slow the effects of whatever he'd been injected with. It didn't help, but it gave him a small sense of momentary control before slipping away.
"You should know better than to trust, my friend," Arturo said to the unconscious agent. He lifted the communicator to his lips. "This is Page of Cups. My target has been eliminated."
The man grinned and leaned back in his chair. This close to success, it was like a fine perfume permeating the air. Not only would he soon be the hero, the destroyer of THRUSH, but he'd also relieve UNCLE of two of its greatest liabilities.
"Put him in the building and wait. Solo will be along shortly," he instructed. He looked over at his deck of cards, now missing several of its less desirable cards and smiled. He would succeed.
He tucked the communicator away and walked from the room to the elevator. People passed him in the hallways, never seeing or even registering his presence. Soon they would either fear or worship him, it didn't matter which, just as long as he was visible again...
He reached Medical and moved quickly past the nurses desk and into his priest's room. Truth be known, the old man wasn't looking too good right now, but that didn't matter either. Once the plan was set in motion, he would have no need for the fool. He wasn't strong enough to take the priest on, but what he couldn't be, a small amount of foxglove would fix. And wouldn't it be a shame that the man was able to withstand a case of poisoning, just to die of a heart attack...
"My priest," he said and bowed low to that man once he was sure they were alone.
"You have word?" The voice was weak and he kept a smile from his face. Perhaps he wouldn't even need to worry about the foxglove after all...
"Kuryakin is being taken as we speak and Solo will be soon to follow. Once they have been properly detained, we will detonate the building with the charges Mr. Kuryakin so thoughtfully planted for us. In effect, they will appear to die in the battle with THRUSH. We martyr them as a rallying cry and move forward."
"You have thought of everything, my young friend."
"You have taught me well." He bowed again and backed from the room, too quickly to see the sadness in the old priest's eyes. He studied the cards brought to him, the ones that heralded failure and profound grief.
"But not enough apparently , for simply refusing to see your fate doesn't let you ignore it."
Napoleon moved quickly through the dense underbrush, his attention never stopping anywhere for more than a moment. Unable to raise Illya, he hadn't waited. He pressed through the foliage, even as it seemed to be pressing back, keeping him from his goal.
Then abruptly the jungle disappeared and he was facing a small building. Obviously the THRUSH outpost that Illya had mentioned. He'd thought it would have been bigger from the way Arturo had talked but no matter... He drew his weapon and moved cautiously inside.
It was dark and it took a few precious minutes for his eyes to adjust, time he didn't have. Still it wouldn't help his partner if he broke an ankle. Napoleon couldn't push aside a feeling of dread when he thought of Illya.
The first two small rooms revealed nothing but the hasty retreat beat by the THRUSH. Then he found Illya chained spread eagle to a small podium. It looked like an altar from a 'B' horror movie, but he didn't stop to ponder that. Instead he moved to Illya, checking for a pulse and trying to ignore the fact that his partner was very naked.
Illya's head turned to his touch and he smiled weakly. "You finally got here."
"I'll have you free in a minute." Napoleon dug through his pockets for his lock pick.
"There isn't time, you need to leave. The place is going up." He twisted in his manacles. "You can't let them kill us both. I'm expendable. Get back to New York, save the organization from the maniac."
"What?" Napoleon paused in his search. "What maniac, Illya?"
"Run, hide, don't look for me..."
Napoleon watched in horror as blood began to ooze around the manacles binding his partner. "Illya, be still, you're hurting yourself."
The Illya sat up, flailing at him with handless arms, blood pouring from the stumps. Napoleon pulled back in spite of himself and Illya started shouting, nonsense words....
Napoleon sat back in his chair and stared at the peeling wallpaper of their hotel room. Toni walked from the bathroom and smiled.
"You were right, Napoleon, a shower did make all the difference...oh my God, what did you do?"
"Do? Nothing," he protested even as he looked down at the front of his poplin shirt, covered in a glistening red, and brought a hand to his nose. He pulled it away, staring at the blood smeared palm. "Must have had a nose bleed."
"Or something..." She disappeared back into the steamy bathroom and returned with a washcloth. "You are as white as a sheet, Napoleon. What happened?"
"Like the last one?" Her eyes involuntarily dipped to his lap and back up.
"No, nothing like the last one. Illya was hurt and he was warning me, but he was speaking some nonsense..."
"Why do you say that?"
"I speak half a dozen languages and understand a few more than that and this was nothing like anything I'd heard before."
"Can you remember any of it?"
"That's Runic language again. It's the Sun and is usually associated with success, positive energy, and health. It's supposed to let us see things more clearly."
"I was seeing things pretty clearly before we started."
"Someone thinks otherwise. The next one?"
"It's another protection Rune. It represents the warrior's path and often that of a voluntary sacrifice..."
"That's what Illya was doing. Telling me to get out while he was buying me time."
"Does that surprise you?"
"No, but I don't have to like it."
""And it might not be Illya that the caster is referring to. Any others?"
"Uruz? Are you sure? That's sort of an odd one."
"And the others aren't?"
"It represents the power we can't control or own. It's usually used to boost sexuality and sexual potential and passion."
"Ah... seeing the odd factor now." He looked down at the washcloth, stained pink now. "Moreover what does it mean, Toni? This thing has gotten way out of my league."
"Mine too. A few days ago, I was just a so-so reader of Tarot cards. I believed, but sort of didn't either. If this stuff is scary to you, imagine how it's sitting with me. I've told people things, sometimes lying to them because the cards didn't say what I thought they should. What damage have I done by not fully vesting myself in this? Have I hurt people by simply not telling them the truth?"
"Maybe this is how you are being allowed to redeem yourself." Napoleon pulled his shirt off and then his tee shirt, shivering as the air caught his sweat-dampened skin. He walked to his suitcase and pulled out a fresh shirt. Slipping into it, he came to sit by her side. "And at times the greatest gift in the world that you possess is not telling someone the truth, because the lie is kinder, easier. That's not a bad thing, Toni." He reached over and pulled her head down to his shoulder. "It's when the Truth is so painful, so incredibly hurtful, that we show our greatest mercy."
"You know what, Mr. Solo?" She pulled away to study him.
"What, Miss Chagoya?"
"You're one smart guy." Napoleon smiled and returned her head to his shoulder. "But it wasn't Illya warning you. It was someone else, someone more powerful. He used Illya because he knew you would instinctively listen to him without reserve."
"Oh, I had a few reservations more than once, believe me."
"Not when it mattered."
Napoleon pulled out his communicator and manipulated it. "Open Channel F. Illya? Illya, can you hear me? " Nothing but static answered him. "I'm going to speculate that part of that dream is already true. Illya would respond if he could. That means he's either been captured or..." Napoleon paused for a moment and then shook his head. "Or incapacitated."
"But not dead?"
Illya woke with a crick in his neck and to the sensation of being crushed. He cracked one eye open cautiously and stared directly into a charge that he'd previously set. Not a good thing by any stretch of the imagination he thought and struggled to put distance between himself and the explosive.
The feeling of being crushed was explained by the rope tightly coiled about his body. His torso was trussed up like the proverbial Christmas goose, but his legs were free. That was... odd.
After a bit of struggling, he finally got up into a sitting position and then to his feet. Between the after-effects of the knock out drug and his bonds, he staggered like a drunken man, slamming into the wall with no little force. He rested against the metal for a moment, savoring its coolness against his skin.
Move, his mind ordered and he staggered a step forward, breathing hard from the effort of just staying upright and somehow managed to get to the double doors that led from the room into a utility corridor. The doors shifted slightly against his weight, but he heard the rattle of chains. Whoever tied him up had chained the doors shut, that's why they hadn't bothered to tie his feet. His hands free, he might have had a chance.
This was an observation room. If he could get free, he might be able to climb up and smash his way through the plate glass window and escape that way. It was a long shot, but the only one he had at the moment.
Illya worked his shoulders against the rope, twisting and shifting, trying to contort his body into a position that would loosen the rope enough to permit him to slither free of it. He twisted and yanked at his wrists until he felt them grow wet and knew they were bleeding. That only increased his efforts, hoping that the blood would provide slick the ropes, making them easier to slip out of. No luck, either the person tying him up was a professional or knew his habits. Either way made him anxious and he redoubled his efforts.
"You're not going to get free, you know." The voice was distorted, but almost familiar.
Illya paused, panting, at the voice and looked around, but he was alone. He glanced up towards the window and saw a shadow there. Of course, it made sense that someone would be monitoring him.
"You don't mind if I don't take your word for it?" he said, staring up at the figure.
"I just thought you might like your last moments on this plane of existence to be pain free."
"Let me put my hands around your neck and I assure you, pain will be of no consequence to either of us."
The voice broke off laughing and Illya felt a twinge go through him; he was just on the cusp of recognizing that voice. "Where's Arturo?"
"He's of no consequence now...nor has he been for quite some time. He was merely convenient."
"If I'm going to die anyway, let me see you. I want to know my enemy."
"Ah, but you see there's the rub, Mr. Kuryakin." A light flared and the man looked down at him. "You already do."
"Andrew? What the hell...?" Illya shook his head. "You? You've been behind all of this? I don't believe it."
"Why not? Don't you think us measly research clerks are as capable as you big bad agents?"
"But why? We're on the same side."
"We've never been on the same side," he screamed. "They killed her! THRUSH killed her!"
"My life, my world, the reason for my existence!" The admission came out as a half sob and he pounded his fist against the glass. It cracked from the impact and Illya instinctively took a step back from it. "We were happy together and in a second it was all gone!"
"Again, who?" Illya thought furiously for a moment. He knew that other UNCLE personnel had greater freedom than agents. They could marry and have families, a life outside the organization. It wouldn't be the first time THRUSH found them and exacted revenge.
"Career? This is all because you had to give up football?" That's the most asinine thing I've ever heard." The shattering glass caught him by surprise and he bowed his head to keep his face protected. He was out of the main path of the glass, but shards still caught and nicked him.
"Shut up!" Andrew looked seriously deranged now and Illya stopped from bending down for a shard with which to saw through his bonds. He'd be lucky if the clerk didn't shoot him on the spot. "You don't understand!"
"Then help me to understand, Andrew. You haven't gone so far that you can't come back."
"That's where you're wrong." He held up a card, but it was too far away for Illya to make it out. "This tells me I have. No going back, no second chances!"
"Paper and ink," Illya repeated something Toni had said earlier. "It's only has power if you chose to give it power."
"Your world is so small, Kuryakin. You have no idea." Andrew turned from him and Illya took that moment to bend down and snatch up a long glass shard. Keeping his back from view, he started to saw through the rope. "And it's about to get smaller. Guess who's on his way in? Your lover."
"Who?" Illya kept his shoulders as still as possible to keep from attracting attention to his attempts. "I don't know who you mean."
"Don't you? What have the cards been telling you? What of your dreams?"
"What of them? They're dreams, nothing more." Illya could feel the ropes starting to loosen.
"Keep telling yourself that while you watch him die."
"Who's going to die, Andrew?"
Napoleon's voice made the man spin and Illya worked frantically at the ropes. They started to loosen and he wiggled frantically to hurry them along. All the while he kept an eye open for Napoleon, but he was just out of his field of vision.
"How did you... ?" Andrew was obviously shocked at his partner's appearance, but Illya didn't stop to question it.
The ropes fell away and Illya took a deep breath. Blood streaked his hands and he had no doubt that he would be hating life once the adrenaline that was pumping through his body subsided. But for now, he made use of it. He dashed to beneath the charges and checked them. It wouldn't do him any good to defuse them. There was still enough explosive to send the place sky high.
"Napoleon, the door, it's chained."
"Why did you do it, Andrew?" He could hear Napoleon, but not see him.
The window was up about seven feet. Not an impossible climb for him, but the jagged edges around the window 's edge was sort of taking the joy out of that escape route.
"I will kill you!" Andrew screamed. "Just like I killed the others."
"I don't think so..."
Napoleon's voice sounded odd and Illya shook his head, wondering if it was an after-effect of the drug. He tried for a better angle to look into the booth, but he still couldn't see Napoleon. Stranger than that, he couldn't feel Napoleon, the sort of small hum in his head when his partner was around.
Illya took another step back and that's when he realized Andrew was backed up against the paneless window.
"Andrew, the glass!"
The man shot one look over his shoulder, lost his balance, and toppled into the room, landing with a stomach-turning crunch at Illya's feet.
The Russian darted a look to him and then back up to the booth. "Napoleon!"
There was no response and Illya shook his head again. He ran to Andrew and helped him into a sitting position.
"Andrew , how much time?"
"Fifteen, maybe a bit more..."
Illya's eyes grew wide and he darted a looked over at the explosives. "Seconds?"
"Minutes..." Andrew coughed and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "Just wanted justice..."
"We all do, Andrew, but we take a slower path to it. This isn't something you can just arbitrarily decide for yourself." That's when he saw the communicator and slipped it from Andrew's pocket. "Open Channel F. Napoleon, where are you?"
Napoleon's communicator went off and he grabbed it quickly to silence it. "Illya?"
"Where are you?"
"We're just coming into the clearing. I should be there in five."
"Make it less, the whole place is about to go up.... Quickly! I'm in the observation room. Third door on the left, it's chained shut."
Napoleon doubled his efforts. "Toni, stay here!"
"But..." She watched Napoleon put more distance between them, still puzzled as to why he was talking into a silent communicator.
"No buts, I need you safe!"
Napoleon made the building and pulled his gun. The exterior door yielded to his kick and he bolted in. He paused but a moment to get his bearings and raced on.
"In here!" The voice was muffled and Napoleon skidded to a stop, aimed, and shot the lock off the door. The chain surrendered with a death rattle and fell to the floor.
"Illya!" he shouted as he entered.
Illya startled at the gunshot and reflexively went for his weapon. A moment later he heard Napoleon's shout and he jumped to his feet. Andrew was past saving now. The door opened and Napoleon stuck his head in, grinning.
"Ready to leave? Shall I call a cab?" He looked over and frowned. "Andrew?"
"Long story—run!" Illya gave him an encouraging push and they both started back out.
The man lay on the floor, amid the glass, feeling his life ebbing from his body.
"You cannot manipulate the cards, my young friend." His priest was standing there, watching him.
"But how? I left you in New York."
"And I am no longer in New York or anywhere else, but in a state of flux. One that you will sadly not be experiencing. These men, they were the ones meant to succeed, not us."
"You knew... you," Andrew broke off to cough, spitting out a mouthful of blood. "You warned them..."
"I set them on the proper path. There are more mysteries than you would ever admit to and other divinings even older than the cards." He glanced over at the explosive and smiled. "It's time, Andrew. Good bye."
The explosion knocked Napoleon and Illya onto the jungle floor and Illya could feel the searing of the flames against the tattered cloth of his tee shirt. He kept low, waiting, and another explosion followed on its heels.
Debris was falling around them and Napoleon covered his head protectively with his arms. "Done?" he shouted over the noise.
"Almost." One more explosion, set further back than the others, detonated. A space of a few minutes passed and Illya moved, sitting up and looked back at the burning compound.
"How do you make concrete burn, my bombastic friend?"
"Lots and lots of practice," Illya muttered, drawing a deep breath, leaning against Napoleon. "I am so tired."
"You look like hell." Napoleon tilted Illya's head to the side to examine a cut.
"You too." Illya nodded to him and Napoleon glanced down at the bloodstains Illya had left. "Where's Toni?"
"Oops, almost forgot about her. Can you stand?"
Napoleon's communicator went off and he uncapped it. "Solo here."
"Mr. Solo." Waverly's voice was tinny. "I am calling to check on your progress."
"The threat, I believe, has been eliminated, sir. It was Andrew Cleaver. He was killed in an explosion."
"And we lost Mr. Braddock as well—a complication from the poisoning, or so I was led to believe. I'm not really sure what to believe anymore. When they went through his personal effects, they found several items of mystical origins."
Napoleon felt the warmth and the movement of Illya's body as he breathed through the aftereffects of the adrenaline surge. Napoleon brought a hand up to wipe a trickle of sweat from the broad brow, pushed back a lock of blond hair, and smiled. "I do," he said quietly. "I know exactly what I believe in."
Illya glanced up from the bed where he was relaxing and reading. First aid had been rendered and a long hot shower had eased the inevitable aches and pains following a mission. He glanced up as the hotel door opened and Napoleon slipped inside.
"So did you and Toni have a nice evening?" He set the book aside and glanced over the rim of his glasses to give his partner his full attention.
"We did and she's happily tucked in her room until our flight tomorrow morning." Napoleon slipped off the lightweight sports jacket and carefully hung it. Their new accommodations in Santarem's best hotel was a far cry from the one-star they had crashed in earlier. "From what she tells me, she was going to soak in her tub, eat the chocolates I bought her and languish amid the splendor of her boudoir."
"Hmm, sounds good."
Napoleon undid his tie and hung that, then shrugged out of his shirt.
"What happened to your back?"
"Where?" Napoleon was busy emptying his pants pockets.
"Up by your neck... sorry..." Illya belatedly made the connection and he dropped his eyes back to his book.
"Why? It's hardly the first time I've gotten a hickey." Napoleon undid his belt and let the trousers fall. Stepping out of them, he lifted them back up by the cuffs, seam-to-seam so the crease would stay crisp. These he also hung.
"Yes, but I don't usually make it a habit of leaving evidence behind."
Napoleon chuckled as he went to his suitcase for his pajamas and walked to the bathroom. "I'll remember that." He re-emerged a few minutes later, wearing just the bottoms of his pajamas and sat down on the corner of Illya's bed. "I still have a couple of questions though..."
"Just a couple? I have one for every minute of every day and every time I look in the mirror." Illya lifted his hand to the still healing mark on his left shoulder.
"So, Braddock was behind the initial plan."
"And then Andrew went rogue."
"And Braddock turned the tables on him, in a manner of speaking, and brought us in."
"In a manner of speaking, yes. "
"I suppose because he thought the connection was already there. Even Andrew thought we were lovers."
"Huh..." Napoleon let the comment trail off and just watched his partner reading. Finally Illya pulled off his glasses and looked at Napoleon, smiling slightly.
"Would you mind?"
"Would I mind what?"
"If we were lovers?" The comment was out before he was even aware of formulating the thought.
Illya regarded him for a long moment and then shook his head. "Not particularly. At least with you, I always know where you are." He paused. "And it would answer one of the questions I've had for a very long time."
Napoleon grinned and ducked his head for a minute, then looked back up. "Which is?"
"Are you really as good a kisser as I've been led to believe?"
"One way to find out." Napoleon moved at the same moment Illya did and they met. Mouths worked, hands held and for a split second, the universe seemed to pause. Napoleon pulled back slightly, but Illya was having none of it and surged forward, leveraging his partner down to the mattress. Easily, Napoleon let Illya take control, opening his mouth, his heart, even his soul to the blond and even though not a word passed between them, Napoleon somehow knew that Illya knew this.
Illya pulled back and smiled. "Not bad...for a rookie."
"Rookie?" Napoleon flipped him easily and Illya arched up to meet his mouth again. "Rookie?" he asked again as he leaned down into the kiss. Then he pulled back sharply.
"What's wrong?" Illya rocked his pelvis against Napoleon's. "Second thoughts?"
"First, really. Have you done this before?"
"Stuffed into a sub for fifteen months with a hundred other very healthy young men, what do you think?" Illya chuckled. "Yes, I have, a time or two. You?"
Napoleon grinned back. "A time or two."
"Good. More kissing, less talking, please." Illya tilted his head back, allowing Napoleon free access to his neck. Napoleon, whose mother raised no fool, took advantage of the offer.
Toni sat quietly at the small café table and shuffled the cards, her mind drifting pleasantly. For the first time in many years, she felt centered and at peace, not only with her life, but her gift. Her eye caught a movement and she saw Napoleon and Illya walking down the stairs. There was a sense about them, something had changed, and she smiled. Silently she asked a question, shuffled the deck once more and flipped up the top three cards.
The Nine of Sword, representing suffering, doubt, desolation, death of a loved one, suspicion, cruelty, misery, and loss. A less than pleasant past for anyone to have, much less these two, she thought as she returned it to the deck.
A Two of Cups heralded the start of new romance, that a well balanced relationship was beginning and harmony would be the result. She watched as the two moved from the stairs to the front desk, noting how they stood just a bit closer to each other today. Napoleon just being a little more protective of his recently rescued partner, or something else? Likewise, she replaced the card.
And the last card, she thought and studied the Four of Wands. There was no bad way to interpret that card. It marked perfected work, prosperity, peace, celebration after labor, end of romance in marriage, and happy holidays to come. They really were each other's safe harbor.
As they approached, she gathered the last card up and grinned up at them. "Did you two have a good night?"
Illya glanced over at Napoleon, smiling in an impish way as they sat. "Oh, after a fashion..."
Toni could just see the hint of a mark on his neck and she repressed a giggle. She pushed the deck towards Illya .
"I don't know, those things have already caused me a world of pain."
"And some good, I think. Just one card, one last time that's all."
Illya sighed, flicked a quick glance at his partner and drew a card. "The Ten of Cups," he announced.
Toni beamed at the card. The Ten of Cups is not just the happy family card, it represented the Family of the Heart, the family we gather to us, our chosen family. Sometimes we are lucky and get born to a family full of love and acceptance but most often we must find our family, the family we choose with our heart not our genetics. Even though Mr. Waverly put them together for work, Napoleon and Illya had taken it the step further to make a real partnership, to look out for one another. Despite Mr. Waverly constantly telling them that they could take care of themselves, they always seem to come to each other's aid in the end anyway. Toni pushed the deck towards Napoleon.
Napoleon shrugged and paused, finally drawing a card. "The World."
Toni sighed happily and tucked the deck back into her purse. The World card represented discovering a sense of oneness, not only in yourself, but in a relationship and in the world that surrounded you. It meant completion, success, and euphoria,—something that even a blind man could see in the eyes of her male companions. She didn't know what happened last night, but it was obvious something had occurred to move these two on a new path.
"And are you planning on sharing this little bit of knowledge that had you so tickled," Illya asked, reaching for the menu. He pulled his glasses out and began to study it.
"No, not really. You guys are just going to be really, really happy."
"Only if the portions are large. I am very hungry this morning," Illya said, his attention still on the menu. "Whose expense account is this coming out of?"
"Ours, I suspect." Napoleon leaned closer to him and pointed to something, their shoulders brushing. Illya's smile at the touch was sweet. Toni picked up her cup of hot chocolate and tried to keep from beaming.
The World represented completion, perfection, with the end result being a success and fulfillment for eternal life. Illya's card was no less positive, a happy family life, true friendship and a lasting happiness. As far as Toni was concerned, their happiness was assured and in the cards.