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Best Laid Plans

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Victor Marton - debonair and lethal, a high-ranking THRUSH operative of the European branch, reputed to be destined to sit at the head of the THRUSH Council one day. Alexander Waverly, the irascible and overworked head of UNCLE New York, probably destined for the same position at the U.N.C.L.E. eventually, if he so elected. Four agents - Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, Mark Slate, April Dancer. Quite different individuals, of course, but we know them so well after all this time, know they are very much 'what you see is what you get'. They are as familiar as our favorite teacher in school, or our best buddy - as obvious as the lead character in our favorite book or television show. So familiar are these individuals, so predictable, that the mere suggestion that you are perhaps receiving a skewed vision, interpreting matters quite different from the underlying reality, was truly laughable. Well, appearances can be deceiving at times, even about those you thought you knew quite well. What if your most basic assumptions, perhaps even just one or two of them, are wrong? What if?

 

Alexander Waverly and Victor Marton, agents of the U.N.C.L.E., partners, watched the activity on the open, sunny meadow. There was talent there, no question of it. Undeveloped, certainly, but like a flower in bud form, just waiting to burst forth under the right influence.

Finally, removing the pipe from his lips, Waverly nodded to his companion - "those three," he pointed to three of the ones chasing around, all intent on the game.

He turned to Victor Marton. "I can't quite decide on the fourth. Perhaps you could choose the last."

Victor Marton studied the scene in front of him. Whatever he had expected when Alexander had requested him to join him in scouting out new talent, it hadn't been this.

Viewing the children laughing, playing soccer on the grassy meadow, he reviewed what had gone before, who had really stood out from the rest. Yes, Alexander had a good eye, if his choices had been rather a surprise. Though, they weren't scouting for regular talent, he had to admit to himself, but talent to be purposed toward a goal shared only by the two of them.

The auburn-haired girl, although one of the younger ones, had been too fast, too skilled, for the rest, sweeping the field. That had annoyed a few of the others, perhaps, but most were taking it in stride. Perhaps they had become accustomed to it; after all, they'd been here for over two weeks now, had had time to suss out each other's strengths and weaknesses, talents and failings.

One of the players, a thin blond boy perhaps a few years older, had taken to watching her back, blocking those who thought to get the ball away, thought to intercept her moves, protected her when one or two thought to roughly eliminate her from the game entirely. It had quickly became obvious they worked well as a team, though, according to Waverly, this 'summer camp' in this small European country was the first time any of these youngsters had so much as caught a glimpse of each other. Each of those on the field had been hand-selected from records obtained in some undisclosed manner, invitations specifically tailored to get ready compliance from those in charge of the youngsters, whether parents or others. Out of twenty such invitations, fifteen acceptances, fifteen children arriving for an 'exclusive camp experience'.

Marton's attention narrowed. Things had turned in the action when another boy, larger, probably the oldest of any on the field, enough you wondered at his being included, dark instead of fair, had lost his temper. He'd gotten around the pair, and grabbed the ball, shoving the girl roughly to the ground in the process. It hadn't been necessary, that roughness, but there was such a sense of satisfaction in the boy's face, it was apparent it hadn't been an accident. No more than the rest had been an accident - the fist that was then slammed into his gut by the wiry blond, accompanied by a few snarled words, quickly to be followed by the girl snatching the ball back and taking off with it.

Another boy, a short blond, had watched stoically, then walked over to say a few words to the one laying on his back in the grass, stunned expression telling the world that he hadn't expected ANY backlash, much less such a strong one. One hand was offered, one brushed aside impatiently, getting only a more impatient word or two, an abrupt gesture from the blond.

Then, the dark one had flushed, accepted the offer of help and gotten up and back into the game, though now keeping his distance from the troublesome pair who once again headed the pack. Though there were black looks sent in that direction, he made no move other than what the game required.

Victor wasn't sure if that was a backing down, or if he was merely bidding his time for a better opportunity. Somehow, he thought those few words from the small blond boy might have a great deal to do with it. He would have given a pretty penny to know just what those were - a reprimand for his roughness, comfort for being overset, perhaps just an impatient "come along, don't just lay there!". Whatever, it was impressive, that level of influence over one obviously wanting to BE the one in control.

Victor gave Waverly a questioning look, then surveyed the scene once again. For his partner, his friend, to select the girl had been astonishing, though she was an attractive little thing, would likely grow up to be a beauty. Still, was beauty really what Alexander was looking for? Beautiful women were easy enough to find, surely, without going so far out of your way, at least for any usual purposes. Hardly any need to groom them from this early an age. Well, she had talent, obviously, perhaps would be a wise choice.

The two blond boys? They each had their attributes, Victor had to admit - both were quick on their feet, certainly. The one was English, though the smaller one was of Russian extraction, they'd been told. That could - well, yes, come to think of it, that might work out quite well, long-term, at least for his and Alexander's purposes.

But that Alexander hadn't snapped up the more aggressive one, that was a surprise. Well, he would do that, right now, though what that might bode for the future, this aggressive tendency, especially toward the girl and her 'partner', the odd interaction with the Russian, who could tell.

What the foursome might bode for his plans, BOTH their plans, his and his own partner's, that was even more uncertain. Still, they were master manipulators, both of them; Victor decided they could find a way to make those choices work well for them.

"I'd say the dark one. He seems to be quite promising, and the interaction even more so," he'd told Alexander, and at a nod from Waverly, they got back in the car and headed for the building ahead. A quick meeting with the administrator and it was done. The opportunities for more 'camps', more 'special lessons', 'opportunities', all at no cost, would be pressed on the parents or guardians or in the Russian's case, the State-run orphanage; neither Waverly or Marton thought there would be any difficulty overall.

 

"Are you using the Soviets as a model for this venture, Alex?" Victor asked, curious as to what put this idea in his partner's head.

Alexander Waverly shrugged, "perhaps they reminded me of the possibilities, but really, it is hardly a new concept. Consider the Spartans, with their Agōgē system of rearing warriors. Weeding out of the unsuitable started soon after birth, but the choosing of those deemed exceptionally good candidates, the ones who promised the most, happened at age seven. A little younger than even the youngest of those we saw this afternoon. The training was quite harsh; many did not survive it. Obedience and courage, with the stronger emphasis being on obedience. That is what I am looking for, along with talent, of course. Of course, they didn't include females in the warrior training, but this is a more modern world."

Victor huffed, "this is hardly ancient Sparta, my friend. We'd never get away with some of those practices today, or even the ones used by the Soviets! Society at large would belabor us left and right at the very notion, never mind the families!"

"Well, what society does not know, nor the families, means they won't interfere, doesn't it, my dear Victor? And I daresay the families won't turn down the proferred education and training and other incentives I intend to offer. It's not like I'm intending to snatch the children from them; they'll still be allowed to nestle in the nurturing arms of their loved ones, such as they are, until the time is ripe.

"Then, we will dangle the just right, most tempting opportunities to the youngsters themselves; I'm sure I can come up with the best lure for each. And with the Russian boy, I'm sure I can find a way to get his keepers to cooperate, again, at the appropriate time.

"In the meantime, a nudge here, a little encouragement there, perhaps an avenue of study that might not otherwise be undertaken. Much can be done without taking them directly into our hands. Not only do we not have the resources to do that, it is better that they don't make the connection, each to the other, until the time is right. We do not want UNCLE to become aware of this tidy little program. And I certainly do not want Miriam involved; she would only become attached, even if she didn't try to put a stop to the entire experiment. And that would hardly do. It isn't as if I could share the true purpose of this interaction, after all; Miriam has such inconvenient notions about honor and such."

"Meanwhile . . ." Victor Marton urged.

"In the meantime, we will meet each of the four, just a friendly discussion, you might say. That will perhaps tell us more, offer new ways to form the necessary threads of attachment, an initial bond.

"After all, I will eventually want them to be looking to me for their guidance, their direction; while I don't want, or intend, for them to clearly see me at this stage, enough to consciously recognize me later, I believe the psychological imprinting will give me a considerable edge as time goes by. There have been experiments in that, you know, whether a young animal, even if blindfolded, can somehow 'imprint' another on their subconscious, enough for recognition even after a great deal of time has passed."

Victor shook his head with fond indulgence. Well, Alex always HAD been the one for such things, AND for long-range planning. HE would have been just as content for the two of them to settle into either one of the organizations, gradually taking control. But not Alexander Waverly, he was far more ambitious than that!

"Why take one, either the U.N.C.L.E. or THRUSH, when with a little effort you can have both?" Waverly had argued late one evening. "Between the two of us, with our talents and determination, nothing is truly impossible!"

Victor hadn't been totally convinced, but he'd rarely been able to deny Alex anything that the irritating man truly wanted. After all, it had been Alex who had determined the U.N.C.L.E. would be the best entry point, arguing it would be far more believable for a man to fall from the good toward the evil, rather than that evil would be transformed into good.

Now, as usual, he only sighed, shook his head, and asked, "which one do we interview first?"

 

The meetings were in a dimly-lit room, the acoustics also somewhat lacking. That was not by accident. When next they met, and that would be many years in the future, neither man intended to be recognized as having ever touched these lives in any way.

How different they were, in their bearing and in their response to the overtures made to them!

The Russian was polite, outwardly respectful and aloof; if there was any emotion under that cool demeanor, neither Waverly nor Marton could detect it. The suggestions, the understated warmth of the outreach, were ignored as if they didn't exist. If they hadn't read the file, they would have thought he didn't understand English well enough to comprehend, but that was not the case. Nor was he lacking in intelligence, quite the opposite. Marton could see that the boy's reaction, or lack thereof, what in anyone else would have garnered only disappointment, in Waverly brought a deep satisfaction.

The girl, April Dancer, was also polite, though willing to wear a cautious smile. She moved well, Marton had to admit, as if she were indeed a dancer to her very core. While her eyes blinked with interest at some of the things offered, she returned only a careful, "it would be as my father wishes, of course. You will have to speak with him."

Mark Slate, wiry by nature, probably never going to bulk up much, had a ready grin, but there was an innate skepticism behind those clear blue eyes. Intelligent, yes, but restless inside, as if searching for something - something perhaps not even he could readily identify. There was a cheerful deferring to his family with him as well. If he had any particular interest in whatever these two men were suggesting, offering, he took pains not to show it overly much.

The last, though, Napoleon Solo {"of all the odd names!"}, he was a different story. Older than the others, he also was restless, searching, yearning after something. A slow smile from Waverly told Marton that his partner thought he knew at least part of what the boy was looking for.

"You could think of it as my being a godfather, in some ways. Or," seeing the slight disappointment in those dark eyes, "perhaps better, a grandfather. One who doesn't live in the same country, true, hasn't the ability to remain in close contact, but always with your best interests at heart."

Marton could see the hunger burning now, and a hesitant "a grandfather?" confirmed his observation.

"Yes, exactly," and there was a slow smile, slow but still somehow eager. Victor got the impression that the Solo family wasn't particularly close or nuturing, if there was such an eager acceptance of an out-of-the-blue 'almost grandfather'.

That reaction got an approving nod from Waverly. Yes, that was what he would be, in some ways, and this one seemed to understand that, though the others were more reserved. Respectful, but perhaps not as needy of being able to claim him, although it would be at a distance; they all understood he was sponsoring them at some level.

He even offered giving them a new name "just between us, you see," but none took him up on that offer, rather to his disappointment. Although the smaller blond did accept the suggested slight variation of the one he'd worn for these first years of his life. What his name truly was, either he did not know or elected not to share, and the official documents from the orphanage were no more helpful.

Alex and Victor left within the hour after the last interview, Alex well satisfied at what he had put into motion. Victor wasn't so sure of the benefit, but if it made Alex happy, well and good.

 

They did not meet again, not for many years, those children. And when they did, they were each agents for the U.N.C.L.E., some having been at the job long enough to gain a bit of a reputation of one sort or another. One however, April Dancer, was newly-fledged and ready to be introduced to her first partner.

The connection was immediate between April and Mark Slate, as if something missing from their lives had just clicked into place.

On Mark's part, yes, the auburn-haired beauty seemed to remind him of someone, but he wasn't sure just who. But the uneasiness, the awkwardness he'd expected with a new partnership, that was strangely missing, to be replaced with a strange sense of comfortable familiarity. It made no sense, of course, but there it was.

But as for April, there was a clearer recollection - clearer in some ways, although puzzling in others. The introduction swiftly led to a realization, a memory of blue eyes and a shy smile, had made her blink. She remembered those eyes, that summer camp, even the game in the sunny field, yes, but one of the details, ah, that had somehow been altered. "Those eyes, I could swear - !"

And Waverly watches. And thinks. But his thoughts he shares only with one person, his partner. Even though they are no longer that, 'partners', not in any sense UNCLE would understand or accept. As far as UNCLE is concerned, Victor Marton is a turncoat, abandoning UNCLE and all it stands for, aligning himself with THRUSH and their goals.

Assignments came, for each team, sometimes the two teams together. Time passed. Threads of connection were formed, relationships developing, evolving with each new challenge, each new experience.

All the while Alexander Waverly watched, took note. Some of what he saw he could nod with approval; other things, those would lead to a frown - not so much of worry, more of annoyance. Oh, well. Everyone knew the Old Man was the testy sort at times.

On one occasion, April had come back bruised and battered, and Waverly had lashed out at her partner. She'd tried to intercede, but started coughing at the pain in her ribs, her lungs. Waverly poured a glass of water, hurried it over to her, handed it to her with a grandfatherly 'there, there, my dear. There, there."

The others had watched, Mark flushed with shame at the damage his partner had taken, damage he had been unable to prevent. Illya's eyes were their usual, cool, detached. Napoleon? He watched the scene, and it wasn't long before he was looking disapprovingly at the hapless young man as well.

Then, he sympathetically smiled, got up, poured another few inches of water into April's glass. Waverly was amused but approving as the man send another disapproving look in Mark's direction, then laid a comforting hand on April's shoulder, "there, there. Take another sip or two, April. I'll take you home once we're finished here, perhaps stop and get some dinner on the way. You'll see, it will be fine."

The Russian was watching, quiet, inscrutable, though there were palpable ripples in the atmosphere, enough to catch Waverly's attention, enough that Napoleon blinked rapidly, cast a quick look in Illya's direction. Whatever he was looking for, Waverly couldn't begin to guess, and so discounted the whole thing as just his imagination. Well, surely if Napoleon had any issues, was looking for guidance, that inquiring look would have been directed at Waverly, not Illya.

{"Yes, he is, as always, taking my lead. He will be a quite competent heir, if we have to shift to Plan B. Perhaps even we don't shift to Plan B. He seems quite easy to manoeuvre into place, and quite adept at playing 'Waverly', at least 'Waverly' as he sees that persona I have so carefully built. And, after all, I won't be able to lead forever; SOMEONE will have to take my place. Unless they get that cloning business perfected, I would think Napoleon Solo would suit nicely."}

Waverly was more than a little pleased with himself, his foresight. Well, perhaps it had been Victor who'd selected Napoleon, but that was only because he had allowed his partner to make one selection, strictly as a courtesy. Partners did that occasionally, no matter who was more dominant; it solidified the relationship, evened things out a bit.

Mark had interjected, "I am quite capable of seeing my partner makes it home - " only to be interrupted by a gruff retort from Waverly.

"That would appear doubtful, Mr. Slate, from the appearance of things. Mr. Solo will attend to that; you and I have various OTHER things to discuss."

Illya looked from one to the other, then watched as Napoleon gently guided April out through the door, ignoring her wordless protests, her desire to somehow defuse the coming scene between Waverly and Mark.

"Do you require my presence, Mr. Waverly?" Illya asked, carefully indifferent to the response, or so it would appear.

"What? No, no, go and do whatever else you need to," was the impatient reply, Waverly obviously anxious to get on with his tongue-lashing, glancing down to the file in front of him.

The inscrutable glance Illya gave Mark, that Waverly didn't notice; Mark did, and thought he understood.

Giving a tiny grateful nod, he resolutely returned his attention to the Old Man and the lambasting he knew he was in for. He wouldn't protest, not much anyway. Although there was no way anyone would have known about that trap, especially since it was triggered by a rogue sleeper agent, one not even from one of their usual opponents, still he WAS responsible for his partner's safety, to the best of his ability, just as she was responsible for his. He was, however, ruefully aware that, when HE came back bunged up, Waverly didn't deliver the same scathing review to April as the Old Man now proceeded to deliver to Mark Slate. It was oddly heartwarming to know that April found THAT even more annoying than he did.

Outside the door, Illya stepped up his pace, hurrying in fact, making one fast call then hurrying even faster til he caught up with the visibly-annoyed, even tight-lipped Miss Dancer and his suave, smiling partner just on the verge of leaving headquarters. By then, that calm, slightly disconnected expression was back on his face as he listened to the senior agent delivering a fond but firm direct order, and April, battered and bruised but seething with defiance, obviously on the verge of telling him what he could do with his 'direct order'.

Whatever Napoleon had been expecting from his partner, it hadn't been direct intervention in his plans, but there it was, not to be denied. There it was, and not much appreciated by the senior partner, though he did his best not to show it too much.

Illya gave a measuring look at the young woman, then offered his suggestion - not so much a suggestion, perhaps, more a fait accompli, one to counter the one Napoleon had delivered.

"It occurred to me, April, that, although Napoleon means only the best for you, certainly, YOU might prefer to go straight home, have food delivered and have some privacy. There is a place that makes a very comforting meal; I took the liberty of ordering what I thought you might like. Napoleon and I will see you home, get you settled and leave you to rest. Your meal should arrive shortly thereafter."

That he had ordered enough that Mark could partake once the dressing-down was over and the Englishman was dismissed, Illya didn't bother to mention. He was quite confident that April would understand, if not before, then once she saw the variety and the quantity of what the corner Chinese place delivered. The four of them had eaten together often enough she would recognize not just her favorites, but the ones that her partner preferred. He would just have to make sure Napoleon and he were gone before the food arrived; word getting back to Waverly wasn't something that would help the increasingly difficult situation. And once he and Napoleon departed, he planned a quick return to Headquarters to find a way to distract Waverly sufficiently as to allow Mark to make his escape and find his way to his partner's side, if he had not already done so. Illya knew April would not truly rest until that happened.

 

Time passed, as it inevitably does.

Alexander Waverly was an unhappy man. He preferred it when his plans went without a hitch, but somehow this, one of his earliest and one he had anticipated being one of his most successful, was NOT going well! Oh, in some ways Napoleon Solo was performing as expected, had rapidly established himself as the Crown Prince - the resident Prince Charming, so to speak, though the outcome was not quite what Waverly had intended. And the new complication of the personal relationship between Solo and his partner, Illya Kuryakin - that might be beneficial or it might prove to be quite the opposite, but for now it was uncertain. Waverly did not care much for uncertainty. When he put together a plan, he expected to see more the fall of a row of dominoes, not the spin of a roulette wheel!

He'd also become more and more unhappy with the partnership between April Dancer and Mark Slate; that wasn't working out as he'd planned either. And somehow, when he tried, repeatedly, to get things back on a course he was more in favor of, he was stymied by the odd and ever-growing close relationship between the four agents.

 

When the medical psychological review after an intense mission brought to light new information, obtained by a deep reading obtainable only by that new drug developed by the UNCLE labs combined with deep hypnosis on top of whatever cocktail of drugs THRUSH had pumped into the man, Waverly seized on it as his golden opportunity. Surely THIS would be the key to removing the one member of the four-some who was proving such a thorn in his paw. Soon Mark Slate would no longer be a problem, and he could focus on situating Miss Dancer on a more favorable path.

{"A meeting, I believe. Yes, that would be best. Out in the open, all four of them there - let them bear the shock, HIM bear their scorn and rejection. He'll leave, one way or another, either by resigning or by being forced out by the others. I'll assign a new partner for our Miss Dancer, at least for now. Things should settle down quickly after that!"}

That he would be thwarted by their sheer obstinate refusal to follow his lead, he would never have anticipated. Oh, Mr. Slate's reaction - turning dead white, then scarlet, then white again - that was only to be expected. There had been no refuting of Waverly's information, just a tightening of the young man's mouth, a strained "yes, sir, though I would think any of that would be my business and no one else's", then only a stolid waiting for pronouncement of his fate.

But Miss Dancer? He had expected many things, but her calm, "yes, of course, I know. I've known since we were children, Mr. Waverly, on some level anyway. And the current partner arrangement suits me quite well. I believe our performance reports will back me up. "

He was stunned, not having considered the young woman would even REMEMBER that meeting so many years ago, much less have come to some subconscious revelations that it had taken his medical department some rather extreme techniques to discover, but other than biting the mouthpiece of his pipe in irritation, let the matter drop.

Yes, he could have made it a direct order, that reshuffling of the partnership, but there had been something in the young woman's eye, some quiet resolve, that gave him the uneasy feeling that the results would be, well, unfortunate. He certainly did not want to risk losing her, not after all this time, especially after his more recent understanding of her rightful, if yet unresolved, place in his orbit.

Napoleon was stunned when Waverly laid out the conclusions he'd recently come to. Stunned, confused, and far more. But he had not responded as Waverly had anticipated - NOT with an edict that he would no longer work with that particular agent again - no immediate demand that Mark Slate be deprogrammed, sent into exile or worse. No, the senior agent had taken a quick sideways glance at his own partner, read the silent message there, and said nothing.

Well, as the Russian had commented earlier that week, "I do believe you are reaching a new level of maturity, Napoleon. Soon we might even be able to retire your rubber duckie, and have me cease making choo-choo train noises when I am feeding you soup after you have yet again injured yourself." He would hate to speak, react too hastily and make his partner rethink that assessment.

Illya? Illya gave his customary cool, distracted stare, then shrugged, "and this affects me, us, in what way? Is this any different, at its core, than you and the others thinking of me as Russian, while I think of myself as Ukrainian? Than you thinking of me as 'Illya', which is an assumed persona and only a part of who and what I am? It seems not. We work well together, I trust Mark more than I trust many in this organization," and that accepting philosophy made the usually staid Waverly shake his head in disbelief. No, this was NOT what he had anticipated, hoped for.

The next mission, an intentionally difficult and stressful one, one intended to test the extent of their resolve and their trust, their dependence on each other, had both teams working together, and although Waverly eagerly read the reports, not just what had been achieved, what was written in those reports, but what was written between the lines, in the interaction, was seriously confused and more than a little annoyed. He had been so sure . . .

 

Later, however, discussing matters with his 'partner' over that private communication device, Waverly fumed.

"This was supposed to be one more dividing point for the U.N.C.L.E.! Napoleon, with his aggressiveness, his obvious inclination toward womanizing and manipulation, his imperious inclination to take control of every element of his surroundings; an inclination I have encouraged at every step of the way. Then, adding a Russian to the volatile mix. Followed by a woman, even one of Miss Dancer's qualifications and skills. Then, this revelation! There should have been a break before this!"

Victor snorted into the transmitting device, one keyed to a channel known only to himself and Waverly. Well, he always had thought his partner was a little too complacent, thinking bringing down the U.N.C.L.E., breaking it to the point that a joint takeover of the U.N.C.L.E. and THRUSH resources by the two of them would be quite that simple.

"Instead, you have Napoleon, while certainly creating turmoil in the hearts and minds of your female staff, certainly still a master manipulator, still holding the respect and admiration of nearly the entire organization, now mellowing under the influence of at least his partner, possibly the other two as well. Kuryakin has been at least grudgingly accepted by many of those at New York Headquarters and elsewhere, something we could not have predicted. Miss Dancer is now considered a rising star, though many still watch her carefully, wondering when she will allow her womanly instincts to hamper her performance in the field; still, there has been no outright rebellion at her inclusion. Mark Slate you have carefully presented as a clumsy fool, purposefully undermined his position since the beginning with secret hints of inattention and incompetence, though we both known he is quite competent and reliable. Yes, most disappointing.

"Still, you have not yet revealed Mr. Slate's nature, if you wish to define it so, to those at New York Headquarters yet, and that could easily cause the rupture we anticipated.

"Really, Alex my dear, I believe I have made far more progress in the undermining of my own organization than you have of yours! Perhaps it is time to also reveal the closer relationship between Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin. Or did you think I was unaware of that, my dear friend? Perhaps a double-blow to the provincial mores of the U.N.C.L.E. would do the trick? I have found that to be highly effective, as well as rather amusing, here at THRUSH; surprising just how conservative some of them are, considering their goal of world domination. And, of course, drawing back the shades can be a very beneficial smoke-screen as well."

Waverly hurrumphed in annoyance. "I would prefer not to do the latter. Solo and Kuryakin are a most effective team, and I would hate to lose that technical advantage, at least at this stage. THRUSH is not the ONLY adversary we face, after all. Of course, their odd ability to surmount any roadblocks I, we, place in their path on the assignments where THRUSH IS involved is disturbing, as well as what seems to be an unhealthy level of deepset, if mostly hidden, rebellion. If I didn't know better, I would think we have someone unknown combatting our efforts," Waverly grumbled.

The tone in Victor's voice changed, developed a sort of raspy purr; Waverly knew that sound could sometimes be quite promising, hinting at shared delights, but at other times, something quite different. It would appear, from what followed, that this was one of those other times.

"From what I can gather, they are BOTH quite effective teams, Alexander. I sense a certain PERSONAL animosity on your part toward the young Mr. Slate. Perhaps there is a waning of affection elsewhere? I would hate to think of being set aside for a certain auburn-haired beauty! Perhaps we should discuss that on our next meeting?"

There was a chilly warning in that suggestion, one Alexander Waverly took due note of, and hastened to reassure his partner on various levels. No, Victor had a temper, a rather vicious one; Alexander was well aware of that, and they'd been working together for far too many years to have a falling out now.

 

The word was out, that was obvious from the stares when they entered the cafeteria. Mark stiffened his jaw, glancing at the three accompanying him.

"This might get a bit touchy, mates; if you don't want to go in with me, sit with me, I'll understand. I'd skip the whole thing, myself, make tea in my cubby, but this has to be dealt with sometime, I suppose. Better than in an empty corridor or the parking garage. Doubt it'll be any too pleasant, though, even here."

He didn't intend to defend himself, certainly not to explain himself. He didn't even try to explain himself to himself, not since his early teens. He had gradually just come to accept he was more, well, complicated in some ways than anyone else he knew.

Biologically he was male, though he ruefully acknowledged that emotionally and mentally and at his deepest self-awareness he held characteristics of both male and female, sometimes in wild swings between the two. Sexually, he was firmly, decidedly - well, bi-sexual, with no greater tendency toward either men or women as his amatory companions. Whether he was the dominant one in a partnership seemed to depend on the person he was with, certainly not their gender, which only confused matters more, or would have, had he bothered to think all that much about it, which he didn't, not anymore.

Several years ago, Mark had come to a decision, had decided not to bother with finding a particular label that best fit, wasn't sure there actually WERE any such labels, and decided on something simpler, if not particularly illuminating. In the end, it had been quite simple, at least to him. Basically, he 'identified' as being 'Mark', not bothering to delineate matters any further.

But later in the evening, he'd attempted to explain all that to his partner, as best he was able - who Mark Slate truly was when all the 'outside' was unraveled - after a relaxing round of drinks. Well, no, after he was seriously sloshed, he had to admit through his pounding hangover the following morning. Well, he felt he HAD to, somehow, after that hugely embarrassing meeting with Waverly, April, AND, for some odd reason, Napoleon and Illya, anyway.

Oddly enough, it seemed not to have phased her in the least, none of what he'd disclosed. If he hadn't known it to be impossible, he would have thought he was giving her old news, at least a goodly part of it, maybe all even, with her only surprise being that he'd bothered to mention any of it in the first place, other than as part of their growing exchange of deeply personal information. SHE seemed to be perfectly willing to just brush that entire meeting with Waverly aside, other than offering comfort for his own DIScomfort.

In a way, he supposed that made sense. After all, he now knew about her distant (if no longer quite-so-distant) family that was such a deep secret, trusted him not to reveal any of that to Waverly or to UNCLE; she now knew a few more secrets about him. It seemed only fair, somehow, that exchange of things they'd not think of discussing with anyone less close. That she took all of his current revelations far more in stride than she had her discovery of his occasional sexual sprees with Theodora O'Hare, he found extremely amusing.

(That a day would come when there were actually mainstream labels for his various characteristics, he would never have believed. And, even if he had, he would have ruefully acknowledged that it would be challenging to decide just which really suited, as well as being utterly cumbersome to group the appropriate ones in the right order at any particular time. Of course, April had laughed and said much the same applied to her, certainly, the way things had turned out. "What matters, darling, is that we are partners, Mark and April, then, now, always." And, truthfully, she was right, he decided; anything else was purely academic.)

The other two agents, that was a different story. They had also been highly embarrassed at Waverly's including them in that 'Aha!' exposure by their leader, though, since they all four worked together so frequently, perhaps there was some small justification for the disclosure, if not for the manner in which it was undertaken.

Still, at least Illya seemed to think all that was Mark's business and none of his; Napoleon hadn't seemed so blasé, but at least he hadn't gone off in a rage or a cold fury as Waverly had been more or less expecting. Indeed, had been DEPENDING on.

The rest of Headquarters, indeed the rest of the U.N.C.L.E.? Since gossip did tend to spread like wildfire, (though the source this time was one the four held in deep suspicion), there Mark was expecting all kinds of trouble coming his way.

The next morning, at the door to the commissary, when he'd given them that disclaimer, a way to gracefully withdraw, he hadn't been sure what to expect, no matter how it had seemed the evening before.

But April had simply gurgled at him, "we'll outmatch them, darling. I even have a roll of quarters already in hand, just in case it's needed. Like a member of my family is wont to proclaim, "tuck a roll of coin in yer fist, remember to keep yer thumb on the outside, and aim for the nuts. Works a pip, it does!".

Mark gave her an incredulous frown and decided that, when they had more leisure and a great deal more privacy, he needed to hear a little more about that 'member of the family'. There was just something about that cheery East End accent, not the same dock-and-alley one he'd coached her in, more like from one who'd been away for awhile and tried to temper it slightly, and with a slightly husky note he'd never heard her use before.

He glanced at Napoleon and Illya. Illya was stone faced, more or less as usual, returned Mark's gaze in calm assurance, obviously just waiting for them to get moving again, in to where food awaited.

Napoleon? Well, Mark expected a little more hesitation on Napoleon's part. Yes, he was a comrade in arms, but he was also the senior agent, Waverly's heir-apparent. That last just might sway him more than the first.

Still, Napoleon had grown, far past what Waverly had ever intended, certainly past what the older man wanted. A TOO mature Napoleon Solo would not be beneficial, after all, at least in the Old Man's eyes.

While Illya was responsible for a great deal of that growth, other events, at Hungry Shadows Gap, at the Bridge, at the farm he had inherited from his Aunt Jo, and elsewhere, all had made their inroads into his previous certainty about things - a wide variety of things.

Now, giving a reassuring smile to Mark, a firm beckoning jerk of his handsome head, Napoleon took the lead. "Onward and upward, or something of that nature, anyway," he urged, and made his way confidently to the counter where coffee and other sustenance awaited. "We're here for coffee and lunch. If anyone elects to try and dish up anything else, we'll just refuse delivery, as firmly as necessary. If they insist, we'll return the unwanted goods with interest."

But other than some decidedly odd looks, and one aborted jest by Charles Cayman, words that stuttered to a halt in his suddenly-parched mouth at the cold, measuring gaze given him by four sets of eyes, nothing happened to make a stir.

And so it passed into gossip territory, there to swirl awhile and starting to bubble, before it was set aside with the discovery that the reason Lucilla Chambers had taken such umbrage at Devon Green was because she'd walked in on him in the midst of a mini-orgy with Lucilla's cousin Gert, Devon's cousin Trisha, and Claude McNally - the entire second shift team from Atmospheric Sciences. As she'd proclaimed loudly and most bitterly, it was a double insult - first, that the orgy had taken place in HER loft while she was pulling a double shift due to Claude's supposed migraine, AND that she hadn't been invited!!!

 

And time went by, and the organization changed, as time is known to cause. The four agents suffered their injuries, and eventually, there were only the two left, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.

But all the hopes and plans that Alexander Waverly had made so long ago, so many were only dust now - dust in his mouth, dust at his feet. And so he grew older, still commanding the desk in the big office, still pausing every morning and evening to read the plaques on his wall, his thoughts known only to himself.

Until the transmitter buzzed that fateful day, the day he finally acknowledged just how much, or perhaps how little, he had really accomplished

 

Alexander Waverly, head of UNCLE New York, was, as always, keeping up appearances. It was hardly a change, or a challenge; he'd spent his entire life, at least from his adulthood on, keeping up appearances.

The trip to Castle Mòr had been touted as a retreat, one to gather his thoughts while preparing for the upcoming transition. Well, for one in his position, that was understandable, the need for occasional respite and hardly the first time he'd indulged in what he, and indeed, the Council, had considered a reasonable necessity.

Of course, considering the number of people and entities who had Alexander Waverly on their 'eliminate at any opportunity, at whatever the cost' list, there had been protections in place the entire trip, trained and well-armed guards near him at all times. Even on this train headed for the village at the base of the mountain, his final destination perched far above, there were several stationed at various places, including one right outside the door to his rail compartment as well as the one sitting opposite him on the tufted seats.

No, he wasn't a prisoner, not by any means. He was, however, the head of UNCLE New York, a constant target, and a resource to be guarded carefully. Usually that was acceptable; in this case, it was irksome, for this meeting could not be observed by anyone - could not even be suspected. Even a whisper on the wind was unacceptable to his mind; certainly was so to the one he was meeting.

Luckily, he had a friend who had the resources, the contacts to make this meeting possible.

{"Castle Mòr. What was that business a few years back? If I remember, the report didn't indicate anything too terribly strange, but often the reports didn't. Especially with those four, the Solo/Kuryakin team, the Slate/Dancer team. Still, to end up there, now, under these circumstances. Most thought provoking, almost as if it were fated somehow."}

Now, on the last leg of the journey, he sat back and was grateful for that friend, for what she had been able to accomplish for him, this last favor.

{"A friend,"} he mused silently to himself, taking a welcome first puff at his newly-filled pipe. Well, perhaps she was and perhaps she wasn't, but at least Ruena was someone with whom he shared a long-standing relationship. NO, not THAT kind! He found himself shuddering at the very thought. Not that she wasn't an attractive woman, in her own distinctive way, and many years younger than himself, but he was quite sure she would have eviscerated him, coldly, without remorse, without even blinking an eye, had he ever suggested such a thing. He doubted she would have even required a weapon to accomplish that.

In fact, the relationship with Ruena, the Grandmother of Clan O'Donnell, was one he had inherited, though most gladly. He had known her predecessor for several years prior to Ruena inheriting the position, had maintained a wary if discreet and mostly long-distance companionship. There had been, with both women, serious conversations over a transmitter with a frequency unknown to any of his compatriots, a few in-person conversations over a quiet game of chess, a few glasses of strong drink shared.

They'd had some things in common, he and the two women, other than the chess, enough to allow them to overlook their many, many differences. They and Waverly were each highly-intelligent, each ruthless in their own way and on behalf of the causes they each (never jointly - well, except for trying to counter Berlin's madman) adhered to.

They made a point of not meddling in each other's business, though occasionally a hint of disapproval had been evident, on each side (though primarily on their side, and he had more than once decided to rethink his actions accordingly). Yes, perhaps there had been a few times when he gotten the uneasy feeling that she HAD stirred her finger in his game, though never blatantly, never openly enough he felt justified in delivering a strong protest. Still, he had few enough people to just sit and BE with, that he could hardly let that be a deterrent.

There was something similar about their positions, the two women, (first one, then the other) and himself, each being the head of a large, powerful, but mostly subrosa organization, one with all the stresses and responsibilities thus entailed. And he had never doubted, not for one moment, that should either of them ever thought it necessary to protect what she'd been entrusted to protect, she would slit his throat without hesitation. He had to respect that in a woman.

Well, he would have done the same, of course, though considering the protections always surrounding the Grandmother, and the natural abilities in the women themselves, he doubted he would survive the attempt. Frankly, he didn't know of anyone who WOULD survive such an attempt; just as well the occasion had never arisen, he supposed.

He'd known Ruena's predecessor as 'Banshae D'Or', though surely that couldn't have been her real name. He'd once heard someone call Ruena the same, so perhaps it was as much a title as a name. {"Golden Banshee, indeed!"). He had assumed it was a descriptive name, similar to a nickname if you could think of the Grandmother with such a common attribute. It DID seem fitting in a way. After all, her temper was supposedly legendary in a family with an abundance of notable tempers, and her piercing shriek could easily be heard from one end of the castle to the other, similar to what a banshee might sound like, and those golden tattoos on her face (not something he would have considered attractive on a female, yet on her they somehow seemed only fitting) would explain the latter part.

Well, a favor here, a favor there, back and forth across the years, and now one last favor asked and granted. He glanced around with a start at the sound of the whistle, the one indicating the end of this leg of the journey. Next the helicoper, and then he would be there - Castle Mòr.

 

He was greeted with a professional smile by the owner/manager, Aubris Dunter, and calmly ushered to his private suite. His guards were dispersed to the areas considered to be most vulnerable, though at this remote location, high in the mountains of Scotland, there were really few readily available access points for a potential assassin to enter. And truly, as Waverly thought with some amusement, sending an assassin to Castle Mòr was rather like sending coals to Newcastle, as the saying went. If rumor was right, the castle itself, or perhaps its owner, was in itself an assassin of the highest regard. He'd thought to use that to his advantage, a time or two, but it would appear the local powers made their own determinations as to which tasks with which to involve themselves. Disappointing, really.

He watched as the assigned assistant unpacked his case, as another brought him a bottle of extremely fine Scotch from a small private distillery known only to a privileged few. Reaching for the bottle once the man had left, he savored the color, then poured himself a neat portion.

{"Ruena always drinks bourbon, also from a private source; she was absolutely rude when I suggested she at least try the Scotch she had provided me with during our last in-person encounter.} "Would as soon drink champagne, Alex, and that's just as unlikely. Just a stronger dose of cat piss, to my mind!" he remembered her saying in disgust. "No, I'll stick to my own tipple, thank you!"

{"Odd, I think that Scotch bore the same label as this bottle."}

One of the UNCLE guards was outside the door, he knew, with orders not to enter unless summoned, and while he chaffed at the waiting, he resigned himself to the necessity. The guard had been told he was NOT to be disturbed for any reason whatsoever; yet, until darkness fell and the castle grew quiet, he knew he needed to remain in place. He had been told to do so, that someone would come to guide him to his destination. And so he waited, and waited, both eager and yet reluctant for what was to come.

It was after a fine dinner, served in his suite, a dinner he had only toyed with, that he felt himself being observed. Turning, he saw a portion of the wall had disappeared, seemingly as if by magic, and a young man stood there patiently.

His appearance was unusual, even to Waverly's distracted mind. Exceedingly thin, hair deep auburn, but streaked with metallic silver; chin and nose a little more pointed than you usually saw; eyes flashing green with silver sparks seeming to dance around. Upon seeing he had Waverly's attention, the young man motioned with one hand, beckoning the elderly man through the opening.

Down a stone-hewed corridor, down two turns, and with a wave of his hand, the guide opened an entrance into another suite.

"Press the buzzer on the side table when you wish to return. If you do not signal, I or someone else will return one hour before dawn. Your people will expect to see you in the morning," Waverly was told. It went unspoken that his staying longer, his room being found unoccupied, drawing attention to the secret ways of this place, was not acceptable and would not be permitted.

Waverly hesitated, drew in a deep breath, and moved forward into the luxurious suite.

"Hello, my dear. I do hope I didn't keep you waiting too long," he offered in a voice oddly tender, certainly one few, if any, had ever elicited from him. Were he to be honest, only one person had ever had this effect on him, drew forth these warm and honest emotions, only one.

"You have, of course, but it was mostly my fault. I got here several days ago, out of a tiresome necessity, and even with the excellent library at my disposal found the hours dragging awaiting your arrival. Come, sit, Alex. I have missed you a great deal, you know," came in fond tones from the elegant if aged figure in the tapestry armchair.

Alexander Waverly stood for a momen, gazing on that so-familiar face. Somehow he could see not just the old man sitting there in the brocade dressing gown, but also the younger, the one he'd first met during the earliest fight against the Nazi regime - the older, the younger, and now, somehow, all the faces, all the changes as the years had progressed. Beloved, each of those faces - the faces that belonged to his partner, Victor Marton.

 

Now they sat, ruefully examining the plans they'd made so long ago, plans that had gone so far awry as to be unrecognizable at this stage.

Oh, what they'd dreamed of accomplishing!!! All they'd gone through, all they'd done to make those dreams come true!!! Now, if not exactly ashes on their tongues, neither was the reality more than bitter-sweet at best.

"And so, here we are. UNCLE is now different, assuredly, but not what we'd envisioned; more self-indulgent, yes, more opportunistic, but not in our control. THRUSH has been lessened, but more by the competition by the amateurs, the petty dictators, the politicians who have taken the reins, no longer amenable to being directed even by the most talented of hands. It would almost be amusing, Victor, were it not so frustrating! It was to be accomplished long ago, smoothly, efficiently - two organizations, supposedly independent, adversarial, but both firmly under our control, under our direction, working to our purposes alone. Two sides of the same coin, but that coin being firmly in our joint pocket."

Well, that was true. They had envisioned a long struggle, all sub-rosa, of course, but eventually with each of them in command of their respective organizations; each guiding, coordinating with the other, unbeknownst to anyone other than themselves. They accepted there would be losses; well, skirmishes, even outright battles could be anticipated, between the two organizations and others. Those were acceptable losses, however, in light of their ultimate goal. After all, one did not make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

That had been the plan well before Victor Marton had departed the U.N.C.L.E., going over to THRUSH. Actually they had intended to flip for the role, but Alexander seemed the one the U.N.C.L.E. would most likely accept, would accommodate even the oddest of directions in which he might point them. MRS. Waverly was also partly the reason, they both had to admit. Miriam Walker Waverly was a most impressive figure, had been even at her young age, so much so that even the Council had to be impressed. And SHE would never have countenanced that change in apparent loyalty.

"I have always thought she was what had made the difference. Oh, I admit, I was jealous of Miriam, even before I realized how she was changing you, tempering your resolve. I never expected that, you know, that little chit could have that much influence. Did you grow to love her, Alex, in spite of your protestations to the contrary? So much that you let her override the quite-sensible decisions you had made for the furtherance of our plans?" Victor inquired, not angrily, but with a touch of sadness in his voice.

"Love her? No, Victor, not that, certainly. I suppose it seems that way, from your point of view, since I married her while you made do with a long stream of beautiful mistresses and such. Well, I've had a few of those, myself, of varying natures, but with Miriam, it was - it was like she was my better angel, sent to keep me from following my own inclinations so far as to, as she put it, 'damage my soul'. Not that I admit to having such, sometimes find it a discomfiting thought and often an annoyance, but still, it was a heady thing, intriguing, tempting, that someone would care so much as to put in such effort, risk my wrath, to protect me from myself. I suppose I was flattered, and gradually, it became habit, listening to her cautionary words. And she IS highly intelligent, made sense far more than I had ever expected when I first gave in to her lures.

"I wouldn't have, I'm sure, given in to her notions, I mean, had she nagged me constantly, but in truth, I can count only a few times she stepped squarely in my path enough I felt I had to turn aside. Even that time with the annoying young Mr. Slate, she found a way to convince me to alter my plans, to see how disasterous they would truly be."

Marton lifted a brow of skeptical inquiry, causing Waverly to flush uncomfortably.

"Well, Victor, really I could see no other choice. In her mind, to proceed would be to turn from honor, and her implied threat to walk away and leave me if I did that? Just how would that have been perceived by others? And, what if she should decide to do more, to be more public, more vocal in her supposed fight for my spiritual and moral wellbeing?"

That there had been something else, that uncomfortable feeling that it wasn't just Miriam who would have been disappointed, taken some unpleasant action with unfortunate repercussions, but that Ruena, the Grandmother, would have done something even more unpleasant. He'd never figured out if there truly WAS a link between April Dancer and Ruena's Clan O'Donnell, though the suspicion was certainly there, but even the possibility was surely enough to give a prudent man pause.

Victor snorted with wry amusement. "Dear heart, I could have taken care of that little matter for you, most willingly. A small accident, a sudden illness, blessedly brief, of course, turning undeniably tragic, and the oh-so-protective, far-too-watchful and intelligent, overly-honorable Mirian Walker Waverly would have been only a much-regretted part of your past. A quick funeral, handkerchief at your eye dabbing at the tears barely glimmering there, graciously accepting the heart-felt condolences of others, and you could have gotten back to business. You would have been far too heart-broken to ever marry again, of course."

Waverly winced, "I admit, it did occur to me, on various occasions, but she provided the perfect - well, almost perfect - shield. After all, if the wife of Alexander Waverly was such an upright, honorable individual, could the man himself be any less?

"A mistake in judgement, perhaps, I will admit. As much so as the selection of those four youngsters. How could I have been so wrong, Victor?? I was so sure I, we had chosen well!!"

Victor sighed heavily. "I admit I thought so as well for the most part, although I had my reservations about the girl. But for MY choice to go so wrong? Especially after all the personal effort you put into nurturing and guiding and mentoring him?? That truly boggles my mind, Alex. Not just the looks, of course, but the aggression, the overwhelming self-confidence, the belligerant jut to his jaw, the compulsion to be the one in control, the more-than-obvious need for someone to look up to and copy - I couldn't see him mellowing, only growing more and more into what we wanted, needed him to be, under your continued tutelage and direction."

"Well, at least we can't lay that at Miriam's door," Waverly said, pouring them each a small drink.

"No," Victor admitted, "that was not her fault. But whoever would have, COULD have imagined that the four of them would somehow balance each other, encourage such unexpected growth and in totally the wrong direction! And for them to set themselves in opposition to you, that we certainly never anticipated!"

Waverly nodded, glumly. "Solo's faults seemed only to endear him to a great many people, perhaps far more on the feminine side, but a goodly number on the other. Kuryakin's presence was meant to unsettle the delicate balance at Headquarters, and while it did so for some time, and while some never have accepted or trusted him, many came to respect, admire, certainly fear him and for reasons other than his possibly being a Soviet plant."

"I know we discussed the pairing of him with Solo, thinking that would increase the tension, especially with Solo having never really had a successful long-term partnership, and even his short-term ones were rather tense and created ripples in the community. Well, with his arrogance and womanizing, that was understandable. Not exactly a glory-hound, but still the impression did remain.

"We truly did think pairing him with Kuryakin would lead to a disruptive situation; that they seemed to become natural partners, neither of us could have foreseen. Partners in far more ways than just professional, if my information is correct," Victor twitted Waverly.

That got him a hurrumph of annoyance. "Yes, far more than just professional. I had considered breaking them up, for all of those reasons, but by the time I was aware, they had become rather the focus of THRUSH, as well as KAOS. That was more than beneficial on occasion, and truly, Victor, I wasn't sure what would happen if I DID dissolve the team, even sent Kuryakin back to the Soviets. I had the increasingly-strong feeling that they would both just vanish, like smoke. We put in a lot of work for that to happen, especially when they still had their uses. Of course, in the end . . ."

Victor nodded, carefully sipping his drink. This was a treat; his physician had denied him such luxury as liquor for almost a year now, and he savored the rich, smokey flavor of the fine, aged Scotch.

"And the other two proved just as difficult. I have to say, I agreed with you. I was rather relieved, as I know you were, when your Mr. Slate managed to get himself captured and killed by one of our more inventive satraps. But that Miss Dancer would follow him in death, or at least as far as we can determine, she did so, that was most unexpected. That partnership seems to have been, if not as intimate as the one between Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, at least in the same way, as deeply entrenched. Why on earth did you not take action sooner, Alexander, before she intertwined herself so irrevocably?" Victor asked.

Waverly hesitated, then decided to confess. After all, this was to be his last opportunity.

"I tried, on several occasions. Indeed, if the poor young man had been even one quarter as feckless and irresponsible and hapless as I made him out to be in my reports, in the whispers I spread throughout Headquarters, he never would have made it through training. Actually, he was quite good, you know, in spite of that odd kick or two to his stirrup; managed to get the job done any number of times I'd not intended him to succeed.

"When the psychologists did some deep-search drills, hypnosis, various others, and clarified some of the oddities, I thought that would give me an out - thought Miss Dancer, Solo and Kuryakin would turn away, would even encourage me to have him deprogrammed, replaced.

"That didn't happen, you know, and I still don't understand that. You would have thought I was declaring the sky was up, and furthermore, often blue as far as Miss Dancer was concerned; it was like she was waiting for me to get to the relevant part of the conversation, and afterwards just dismissed thoroughly the notion of changing partners. Kuryakin was totally dismissive of the importance of the revelation, and Solo, blast him, followed their lead! That truly was unforgiveable, my dear! After all those years, training him up to follow me, trust me above all others, he followed THEM, not me!

"Though, I must admit it WAS Miriam who put, as they say, a spoke in my wheel and caused me to abandon my solution to the problem of our Mr. Slate. It seemed she had somehow discovered my clever little plan, and just as cleverly let me know it. She even formed her PHD thesis on the subject, to the extent of citing the story of King Solomon and the inconvenient Uriah. For that to be published, for Mr. Slate's unfortunate 'death in the line of duty' to be connected - and yes, she had already submitted an outline, so it was too late to be brushed aside - would have been disasterous.

"Of course, all four had become equally aware, and again, I was at the impossible point of them not only making that widely-know, but vanishing into smoke if I continued in that direction. That the problem would resolve itself, with Mr. Slate, was most fortuitious. How much of that was your doing I've never asked; frankly I found it rather amusing to speculate on just how that THRUSH group latched onto Mr. Slate and Miss Dancer, just as those OTHER two ambitious agents decided to remove Mr. Slate. Yes, quite good timing. However, that it would send Miss Dancer into such a tail spin, have her follow her partner in such a manner - that truly had never occurred to me."

Victor nodded sympathetically. "And now even the last part of our plan, that Napoleon Solo would succeed you - that has fallen by the wayside. Who WILL take over your desk, have you decided?"

Waverly gave a disgruntled snort. "I truly have no idea. That Solo and Kuryakin would debunk like that, out of the blue, was totally unexpected. Oh, the rumors are flying fast and furious, of course. They are to be running a charter boat for deep-sea fishing in the South Seas. They have joined the People of the Crimson Star, as monks, no less! There was even a rumor that they were going to take up farming, of all things! Well, that is quite ludicrous, of course, all of it! I tried to find out more, but frankly, I found I could no longer work up any enthusiasm for the task. That they vanished without being debriefed or deprogrammed just points out how inept and slipshod the organization has become, despite my best efforts. The Council can decide whatever they decide, just like your group did when you vanished when you became ill; I wash my hands of the whole lot of them!"

 

Alexander Waverly spent considerable time over the next three nights, along with some odd hours in between, traversing that corridor between his suite and that of his partner, in the company of that rather strange young man. Each trip he saw Victor getting weaker and weaker, expecting it, yet finding it increasingly heart-wrenching each time.

"I'm due to leave tomorrow. I could perhaps postpone it for another day or two, but any more . . ." Alexander said at their parting in the late afternoon.

"No, you cannot postpone it, Alex; you would have a world of questions, questions you need not have the awkwardness of answering. It was enough, what we have shared the past few days; I am more than grateful that you were able to arrange this. Perhaps not how we thought it would end, but still, the end has come and we must make our peace with it."

Victor reached for his glass, but couldn't quite make his hand grasp it sufficiently. Waverly hastened to put the glass to his partner's lips, waiting patiently for the slight nod that told him to take it away.

"Tonight then will be our last together. At least here. I do wonder sometimes whether we will get a second chance, you know. I would like that, at least, the chance to try again, with you. Perhaps we would do better, next time."

Victor's voice was getting slurred now, not from drink, but from age and the illness he'd fought for the past three years.

Alexander nodded, "I would like that as well, my dear. Some believe that is possible; I know some who believe that with all their being, and I choose not to doubt them overly much. To travel side by side, not to be separated as we were in this life, though that was perhaps due to our own ambition as much as anything."

"If we got that chance, Alex, would we remember? Enough not to ruin it, spoil it next time? How sad it would be, to get another chance, only to make the same, perhaps even worse mistakes."

Victor was starting to nod, now, and Alexander gently tucked the covers closer. His partner had been unable to leave his bed for the past two days, even with assistance, but Waverly's young escort had been most accommodating, moving furniture here and there, making a cozy seating spot beside Victor's side, table and all else they might need close at hand.

"Later, Victor. Sleep, and I will return this evening," he murmured as he patted the gently-moving quilt that covered Victor's chest.

 

It had been a long interval between his leaving and his return, a call or two coming in that required his attention. And there had been, after considerable thought, an outgoing call or two of his own, followed by a brief meeting with Aubris Dunter, the owner and manager of Castle Mòr, them coming to a congenial accord.

"I see no difficulty with that. Your friend is not even officially here, and from what you tell me, the world at large considers him most likely dead since he has been 'missing' for quite some time now. As for yourself, yes, what you wish can certainly be arranged, though you will need to find a way to manage the technicalities on your end. If you can see that your associates, your wife, do their part, I will certainly do mine. The Grandmother has asked that I do what I can to accommodate you, as long as it doesn't cross any of the boundaries she or I have in place, and what you have asked will not do so in any degree that I can determine."

Finally the evening came, dinner sitting on the table, ignored and growing cold. His guide, one he now knew by his given name of Todh ("well, Todhchaí, actually, but I go by Todh.") returned, saw the untouched meal but said nothing.

Alexander entered the room to the sound of uneven breathing, but the sight of Victor sitting upright waiting for him, deep purple velvet smoking jacket tied neatly in place, brought a smile to his weathered face.

"So, are you ready for our evening together, Victor?" he asked. "Our host has promised a treat, something from his own private reserve that few others have ever been allowed to sample."

And Todh moved forward, smoothly and gracefully, pouring a measure of the deep lilac beverage from the decanter into each of the two glasses waiting. That one of the two glasses already held a small measure of a crimson liquid none of them remarked on, only watched as the two merged in gentle swirls. The other glass, one taken up by Alexander Waverly, had held a brilliant green liquid at the bottom, but it also dissolved and merged quickly and easily.

And so the two old men, partners since their early days, sat and talked over old times - dreams they had dreamed, plans they had made, and the evening passed in gentle harmony.

And it was in the early morning hours that Todh opened the door on the two.

"Tis time to leave, sir. Your men will be waiting for you to arise and join them soon. Your breakfast is in your room. And I was told to remind you - any decent Scotch will complete the chain reaction. Should you change your mind, you will need to avoid that particular beverage most assiduously. Otherwise, the timing is of your own choice."

Waverly nodded absently. "Yes, I understand, thank you."

He paused at the foot of the bed, watching the still - oh so still! - figure lying there.

"Farewell for now, old friend. It won't be for long, I promise. A few things to clear up on my desk, with various individuals - nothing too arduous, I assure you."

Alexander hesitated, very aware of the presence of his young guide, but firmly set that aside. Walking back to the side of the bed, he pressed one last kiss on the cold lips of his beloved Victor, then turned and resolutely walked away. He had things to do, a will to revise, arrangements to be made.

While it might come as a surprise that he would specify his ashes be delivered to Castle Mòr to be scattered privately by the owner in a location known only to that worthy, he knew Miriam would carry out his wishes. She always had been quite reliable; he was certain he could rely on her now in this last, ever-so-important task.

And Victor would wait for him here, if not in quite the same form, but still he would wait. And at long last, they would be together, for whatever came after. If that was only the companionship resulting from the mixing of their ashes together in a private spot, so be it. He might hope for more, but he thought that would, in itself, be more than he could have hoped for, considering how the other of his magnificent plans had gone.

{"Ah, yes. You said it so very well, Robbie Burns. 'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men' DO 'gang aft agley'. Best laid plans, indeed,"} and he sighed.