"What am I looking at?" Napoleon squinted and fiddled with the microscope's focusing knob. Illya slapped Napoleon's hand and gave him a none too gentle shove away from the instrument.
"It was in perfect focus."
"For you!" Napoleon protested. "I'm not nearsighted like someone else I know."
Illya took Napoleon's place and readjusted the instrument before gesturing back to it. "What you are looking at is something that very few men have ever seen. It is one of the only known samples of the element known simply as E."
"E? Like Ee i ee i oh?"
"Only you, Napoleon, could single-handedly reduce a find as spectacular as this to the lyrics of a children's song." Illya shook his head and stepped back. "Now, look."
"It looks like up close Harris Tweed." Napoleon made a face. He'd been expecting something much grander.
"That's a fair description. However, what you are looking at is something that could revolutionize space travel as we know it. The element has been known for years, but it's so rare and in such limited quantity, nothing has ever been done with it."
"Until now." Waverly's voice made both men turn. "I'm not surprised to find you here, Mr. Kuryakin. You, Mr. Solo, are an unexpected surprise. "
"I... ah... like to stay involved." Napoleon let his gaze slide over Mr. Waverly's shoulder to Miss Stanblum, the newest assistant in the labs.
"Quite." Waverly bent to look through the microscope. "Hrphm, so this is what the fuss is all about."
"Yes, sir. For a quantity as large as reported to have been discovered, it's a rare find indeed."
"Are we certain that it is indeed element E?"
"That remains to be seen, sir," Miss Stanblum said. "We won't know until we get a sample back here for testing."
"Your task, gentlemen." Waverly straightened slowly. "You are to travel to Tibet and rendezvous with our man there. He will pass on the sample, which you, in turn, must bring to us in all haste."
"Tibet, I've never been there before. That's almost the ends of the earth." Napoleon patted his hair and straightened his tie, his attention still on the oblivious Miss Stanblum. "What will our cover be?"
"You will go undercover as sherpas. Mr. Lewis will contact you."
"A sherpa?" Napoleon looked less than enthused by the news.
"Another first for you, Napoleon. Now you can add pack animal to your long list of disguises." Illya gave Napoleon's stomach a playful punch. "Work off some of that pasta and expensive wine that you are so fond of."
"This has got to be the worst assignment ever." Napoleon would have blown on his hands if he thought it would have done some good. At this point, even his breath was too cold to be of any help.
Illya grunted and dropped his pack to the snow-covered ground. "Do we even have an idea of what this guy looks like?"
"Nope, Mr. Waverly just said this guy is one of our best. He's so undercover that not even Mr. Waverly knows exactly what he looks like." Napoleon shaded his eyes against the sun. "I feel as if we've been hung out to dry here."
"You're just tired. Have some jerky." Illya offered him a pouch of the thick, tough meat.
"If I eat any more yak, I'm going to turn into one." It didn't keep him from taking two pieces though. "Here come our charges... finally. These guys climb slower than anyone else I know."
"Perhaps they are enjoying the process as opposed to looking upon it as a job." Illya stood as the men grew closer.
One of the pair of men waved to them and gestured wildly. After three days on the mountain with these men, Napoleon and Illya still hadn't exchanged more than a dozen words with them. Of course, their cover was that they were locals and didn't speak much English. They had been transformed into Tibetan nationals from their heads to their toes. Apparently their efforts had been too effective. In the month they'd been here, they'd taken a dozen people up the mountain. Never had anyone approached them as UNCLE agents.
"We go back downhill, okay?" The man made a gesture with his hands.
"Down? No, up, up!" Napoleon gestured to the mountain, even as a gust of wind tore a cloud of snow from a high peak.
"No, down! We no up! Down! These idiots! Why can't they speak English? Everyone should be required to speak English!" He pointed again. "Down!"
"Down, okay, Joe," Illya grinned at their temporary employers. As the hiking pair tromped off to their tents to begin the process of packing up, Napoleon leaned close to Illya and gave his partner a half smile. "Told you they'd play the English card eventually," he murmured. "That's another twenty bucks you owe me."
Illya grunted and started the process of breaking down the base camp.
Napoleon preceded Illya by only three paces, yet by the time Illya had crossed the threshold, Napoleon was already stretched out on his bunk. The interior of the small cabin they were renting was cold, but compared to the mountain, it was practically roasting inside. They left the door open for that reason and for another.
Illya made a face and shrugged out of his heavy jacket. "I smell goat."
"It's probably me," Napoleon murmured, not all that pleased with the admission. He lifted an arm to his nose and sniffed. "Sorry, not me. I smell like a yak. I told you so. I'm well on my way. Must be you."
Illya looked around and walked into the backroom. A moment later, three goats raced from the back and out into the dark.
"Great, so they are using our place to stable goats while we're gone? After this, the next flea bag dump we book is going to seem like a luxury hotel." Napoleon managed to get off his bunk and peel off his jacket. Just as he was hanging it on a peg, his communicator chirped and he grabbed it happily.
"That's rather the question, Mr. Solo. Why are you still there?"
"We were notified by Mr. Lewis that he passed you the sample. He became worried when he did not hear from us confirming delivery. Why aren't you on your transport home?"
"I... we... did he tell you what the sample looked like?"
"Indeed he did, Mr. Solo. Waverly out."
"Thanks for a heaping helping of nothing," Napoleon said to the dead communicator.
"Not nothing. At least we have spent our last night sleeping with goats." Illya sat down with a grunt. The past month had left both of them in quite probably the best shape they'd ever been in, barring the months spent in Survival School. "I just wish he would have told us what the sample looks like so we could protect it more."
"Doesn't matter. It's not like we had any problems with that. I've seen more action in my bathroom on a Sunday night. I can't wait to get back to civilization."
Napoleon Solo made a face and tried to get a straw beneath his cast. The itching was making him crazy.
"If Nellie sees you doing that, she'll put your other hand in a cast as well." Illya Kuryakin stared up at the ceiling, not that he had any choice. With both legs in traction, the ceiling was all he was going to be seeing for a while.
Waverly came walking in, a smile on his usually dour face. "Good day, gentlemen. How are you feeling?"
"Itchy," Napoleon muttered.
"You gentlemen are to be congratulated," Waverly said.
"I'm not sure I understand, sir. From where I'm lying, it looks as if we've failed." Napoleon looked over at his partner. "THRUSH took every suitcase we brought back, along with searching us very thoroughly."
Illya squirmed uncomfortably. "Very thoroughly. They took everything but the clothes on our backs and the coins in our pockets."
"Exactly, Mr. Kuryakin. We were able to take the sample of Element E that you brought back to the lab and it has tested to be one of the purest samples that has ever been mined. Needless to say the space program will be very excited with our results. If the size of the mine is to be believed, Element E is no longer lost or rare."
"But, sir, we didn't bring anything back," Illya replied and then realization dawned upon him. "It was one of the coins?"
"You remember the second week you were in that Tibetan village, you met a young man and his wife?"
"That young man was Agent Lewis?" Napoleon had given up trying to scratch beneath his cast.
"No, Mr. Solo, the wife was agent Lewis."
"I thought Lewis was a man."
"He is." Waverly said with a smile. "At the end of their trip they gave you both a generous tip."
"I remember. I thought it was odd that they would pay us in local money, then give us a tip in francs. Then the group following tipped us in pounds. I guess they thought we had an exchange booth hidden in the backroom."
"That group from America stiffed us," Illya muttered. "They give ugly Americans a bad name."
"The French coins they gave you were the samples of element E." Waverly grinned. "When we drew up your job description, we indicated that you should be paid your fee in local currency, but tipped in foreign because of a more generous rate exchange."
Napoleon looked over at his partner in amazement. "You mean we could have come back three weeks earlier?"
"Yes, Mr. Solo, but then THRUSH would have been alerted."
"As opposed to the very subtle reception committee we experienced upon our arrival in New York." Illya sighed. "Of course there is one thing to be said for the entire affair."
"And what would that be, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"It's a long way to tip a rare E." The blond barely had time to duck the pillow.