"No one's asking you to leave U.N.C.L.E.," Solo said
"No one's asking me to stay either," Kuryakin pointed out.
"You're such a pain in the ass." (Solo)
Great men are meteors designed to burn so that the earth may be lighted
Proposals make cowards of us all
"Look, there's Illya," April said, as she pushed out a chair beside Mark Slate in the commissary. "Illya!" She waved him over.
Kuryakin nodded, a hint of a smile touching his lips, and brought his tray to the table. "Good morning. I didn't know you were in from London, April, Mark. Welcome back."
"I'm glad to be back. London reminds me too much of my inglorious youth," Slate replied.
Kuryakin grimaced at that, thinking of his own in that town.
"And the humidity frizzles my hair something fierce," Dancer chimed in without a beat. "I was so glad when Mark finally got back on the hit parade," referring obliquely to what agents called the active list, "that I flew over to drag him back. Fieldwork isn't fun without your partner." She smiled at Mark, who grimaced at her over Kuryakin's head and coughed slightly. Her eyes widened at her inadvertent faux paux. But if Kuryakin took her slip amiss, he didn't let on. Head down, he was unloading his breakfast dishes from his tray and arranging them before him. As usual he had collected a big breakfast.
"Your leg healed with no problems?" Kuryakin inquired politely of Slate.
"Aches a little in the damp," Slate said with sideways glance of reproof at April. "Another reason for me to get out of London. I would have thought you'd have everyone's movements in and out of here pegged two days in advance," Slate added. "Rumor is, New York HQ's security is tight as a drum now. It's gotten quite a rep."
Kuryakin shrugged as if the changes had nothing to do with him, and unrolled his silverware from the napkin wrapping it. "Resident enforcement agents are all cleared. I don't have much to do with local Section Two. Security includes only the transient agents in our scrutiny. You two are still considered ours so we basically let you come and go without a lot of fanfare."
Mark put a hand over his heart and mock bowed, pondering that even the way Section Two agents held so innocuous a weapon as a butter knife was different than anyone else. Kuryakin sketched a formal nod in return. He set the knife aside from where it had been scraping jam across his toast and picked up his fork.
"You're planning on going back to fieldwork soon though, aren't you, Illya? I've heard you recovered completely from that gunshot. According to the rumor mill, you haven't even gone on a milk run in months." Drizzling honey on her own toast, Dancer missed her partner's daggered look. Forced to be less than subtle, Slate kicked her under the table. She raised her head enquiringly.
Kuryakin turned guileless blue eyes on her and shrugged non-committally. "Eventually, I will, I suppose."
She glanced up at him through her lashes at his unrevealing answer. They shared an enigmatic look and Dancer turned casually back to her food. "How's Napoleon?" She asked unphased, as if it were the next obvious subject.
Kuryakin frowned slightly and looked at Mark. "You haven't seen him yet? How long have you been back?"
"We have a two o'clock briefing," Slate said. "We just flew in this morning."
"I figured it had to be something like that," Kuryakin commented. "He doesn't usually waste field talent these days. Napoleon is fine," Kuryakin added after a brief pause, turning back to Dancer.
She looked at him again, not missing the fact that he hadn't embellished on his answer. It was typically Illya, and yet, there was something. She sipped her coffee and her eyes widened. "This is wonderful," she exclaimed. "The coffee," she added in explanation, as both men turned to her in surprise. "It both smells and tastes. In fact," she added, taking another bite of her bread, "even the toast is better than decent. Something has happened while I was over in London holding Mark's hand."
"Napoleon changed our sources of supply," Kuryakin admitted, addressing himself to his eggs with his usual hunger. "Added some new cooks." He paused as if actually tasting the food he was swallowing, then shrugged in agreement. "The food doesseem better."
"That's an understatement. It was about time," Dancer said appreciatively. "Just think of the lives we'll save now that agents aren't going out to lunch."
"It was a nuisance," Kuryakin said, stabbing at his bacon aggrievedly. "I spent weeks vetting every supplier. And then their suppliers and their suppliers. Arranging dummy corporations for the food deliveries that couldn't be traced back to HQ." He shook his head slightly. "Then of course, the foodstuffs all have to be re-examined daily and brought here. It's a great expense; the food costs more and it takes half again as much staff as the former system." He shrugged. "The food before was edible."
"Just. If you didn't stretch the point too far." Slate said with a shudder.
"Mark, you used to tell me it reminded you of the food in that public school you went to," April chimed in.
"None of which we ate, if we could avoid," Slate agreed. "I'm sure Napoleon has every field agent's infinite gratitude. Not to mention the support staff. After all, the daytime and evening shifts had other resources, if they wanted to risk them, but facing that gluey food at 3 a.m. was brutal. And this is more secure than having field agents leave HQ just to eat." Slate pointed out, swiping a piece of toast from Dancer's plate. "You're right, love," he said over her protests. "If I'd known I would have gotten myself some breakfast."
"Well get some now, and stop taking mine," she countered, but ignored him loftily when he merely grinned and took another piece.
But Kuryakin was frowning at Slate. "All Napoleon had to do was give the order," he said. "I had to do the legwork."
"Well, you have our gratitude too, Illya," said Dancer. "It goes without saying, you know. Whatever Napoleon does, we know you are always two steps behind him."
Kuryakin's eyes did widen at this and he drew a deep breath.
Slate kicked her ankle again.
"Or two steps ahead," she hastily amended.
"You are so much like Napoleon," Kuryakin said darkly, addressing his female colleague, "that I constantly wonder at a world that allowed two of you to plague me. He gathered his dishes. "Mark," he nodded to the Britisher and took his leave.
"April, when are you ever going to learn that twigging Illya is dangerous business?" Slate asked, letting out a relieved sigh as he watched Kuryakin walk away.
"He practically asks for it. Anyway, how can I stand up to Napoleon, if I don't get a little practice off his Number Two?" Dancer asked, rubbing her ankle. "And only my respect for your newly healed leg kept me from kicking you back. You don't get to be CEA on looks alone, Mark dear, no matter how handsome our Napoleon. Or in Illya's and my case, how pretty."
"Illya would kill you for that," Slate winced. "It's one thing to call him cute, but he'd murder you for calling him pretty. Please don't do it where he can hear you, at least not without giving me time to leave the country."
"He is, but that's partially his fault. There's a dozen ways he could look less attractive, if he cared to. And don't think he doesn't know them -- shave off that gorgeous hair, wear those horrible glasses. And his clothes! You and I both know he has better taste than that! He puts on a front, but our Illya is not as immune to male vanity and the adoring sighs of girls slobbering over him, as he pretends. He's certainly at least as vain as Napoleon in his own way. He missed the handsome boat, he isn't at all averse to flaunting what he does has. We girls recognize the signs. If we can see a prince in a frog, we can certainly see a prince in a prince."
Slate sighed and sipped his tea. "We haven't even had our first meeting with the chief, and already you're ready to get us shipped back to London. Or someplace worse. Don't do anything stupid, love. These are the big leagues. I remind you again, we've been in the bogs and are out of practice."
"Then we need to get back in practice."
"Just for god's sake, please don't twig Napoleon," Slate said, alarmed. "If you try to sharpen your sword on him, you'll not just end up disarmed, you'll be dead."
Dancer looked at him curiously. "Mark, I'm not that dumb."
"Anyway, it would be cruel." Dancer said thoughtfully.
"Cruel?" Slate asked curiously.
"Illya's not back on fieldwork," she mused. "He didn't even rise to my teasing, which means he's not even being slightly turfy about agent pecking order." She eyed her companion. "You know Illya could be turfy at times -- remember what you told me about the Godiva Affair? When he's feeling his oats as senior agent, Illya can be obnoxious."
"Which is why I've told you to back down. You don't know his mind-set."
"I'll never find it out tiptoeing around."
Slate groaned slightly. "Just remember, Napoleon's the old man, now. Not just CEA. And this isn't London. This is the top Enforcement HQ."
"We were second string here when Napoleon and Illya were first. If Illya's neither gunning for, nor even in the running for the top slot, then we're almost guaranteed an equal shot at first." April commentary was purely practical. "If we are back in the big leagues, Mark, we need to know where we stand. And play like it."
"There's Morton," Slate pointed out, slightly uneasily. He didn't share April's driving ambition, one reason why in their team, she acted as senior agent. Someday he fully expected, if April didn't get him killed first, to sit out his retirement as a station chief in some mid-level U.N.C.L.E. HQ. Not a first class one, like New York or Tokyo. Or even a second string like Berlin or Moscow. Probably a third level, if he had the choice of it. London would suit. He had a knack for handling field talent, he just didn't care for the consequences and the heavy heartache that could go along with each decision. New York would never be in his league, but he'd handled London fine, if only because he'd had Napoleon to lean on for advice and decisions. Plus, he was himself still young and in his prime, and able to handle the challenges. By the time he reached forty though, he didn't think he'd want the headaches of a big shop. April, however, seemed to fully intend to either go out in a blaze of glory or give every other top field agent a run for their money in the race for the golden ring. She wasn't in Napoleon's class, perhaps not even in Illya's, though the Russian, like Slate, rarely put himself forward in open competition. But she had wanted them to feel her breath on their necks. Napoleon, of course, had had so much confidence she'd merely amused him, and he'd tacitly approved of her ambitions. Illya generally ignored her, as he ignored most everyone, only occasionally growling when she trespassed too close to his turf. Morton, on the other hand, as well as quite a few other top field agents in the other major HQs, actively disliked April. And the feelings were returned.
Of course, it sometimes went without saying that it was almost impossible to keep two highly competitive top field agents in the same HQ, unless, of course, it was so busy that it was rare for them to both be in the office at the same time. With much of the top field talent based in New York, Waverly had learned to juggle a lot of alpha level egos. When your staff routinely save the world, keeping them in line is an art in itself. But he had been a sharp-tongued legend as well, capable of putting any hot shot in his place. Still he'd minimized contact between teams, playing his agents in and out of the field like chessmen. He rarely had his top teams work with each other. When Solo and Kuryakin were at one end of the world, he and Dancer were usually at the other. And when he paired them, as he had paired Solo and Dancer, Kuryakin and Slate, he generally split teams to do it. Morton had mostly worked out of London.
April made a hand gesture that airily dismissed Morton and all other competition. "He's only made it so far because Solo has managed him. He's not really CEA material for New York. And Illya just took everything I dished with barely a murmur. It's obvious he's not even thinking about rejoining ranks." April sighed, and lost interest in her toast and, at least momentarily, in her ambitions. "That being the case, I do feel sorry for Napoleon."
"Why Napoleon?" Slate asked, suddenly at sea. "If he's not used to Illya, no one is."
Dancer covered Slate's hand and gave it a pitying squeeze, as if in absolution for the density of her partner's perceptions. "Because dear blind Mark, if Illya's not free to even think about competing for the field, then Napoleon must need him very badly. Either it's the job -- Thrush gunning for him. Or it's just the job, meaning he can't face it without his partner. I know how he feels," she added, glancing fondly at her partner, who'd been absent for close to three months.
"Why, thank you, love," Slate said, and kissed the hand covering his in a courtly manner.
But April returned to practicality. "So much of being on top of your game is knowing the game, the moves. With a new partner, or no partner at all, it's a different game."
"It's a different game for Napoleon in any case, luv. Continental Chief isn't much like being CEA."
"Either way it must be rough," April said feelingly. "It's hard enough to be out of the field when you know it's only temporary."
"Harder for Illya, if what you say is true. He doesn't have the compensation of being Chief," Slate said thoughtfully.
Dancer shrugged. "Maybe. He never seemed all that enamored of fieldwork."
Slate snorted, and slid his hand out from under hers to steal the last of her toast. "Senior agents always think first of themselves. That's the Napoleon complex. Just because Illya didn't step on your pretty neck when you made alpha moves on him doesn't mean he couldn't knock you into left field if he cared to. I have personal experience working with Illya. He's no pushover. I think long ago Napoleon told him to go easy on you."
"You devalue my charm. But maybe you're right. Still, that's said it all in itself. You know what they teach us in Cutter's Camp," Dancer said absently, but no so much she didn't notice the theft. "You have to take care of Number One first."
"And that's the first thing every junior partner in a team learns," Mark commented archly.
End of chapter one
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