Somebody was whispering.
No, make that two somebodies. The voices were oddly soft and high-pitched. Young. Illya struggled to open his eyes, taking stock of what his body was telling him. Sore and achy all over, his arms twisted and pinned awkwardly above and behind him, his feet locked in place on the floor. He shifted his arms, feeling for the mechanism that had him trapped, and stifled a hiss of pain as the movement tugged on what was probably at least a few bruised ribs. The whispers stopped, then picked up again, closer.
"Dude, I think he moved! Did you see that?"
"No way, man, they look like they've been here forever. They gotta be passed out by now."
"Nah, he totally moved. I bet they're used to hanging like that. I bet they practice!"
"TJ, stop that! I already said, no way they're spies! How would they have even gotten here?" Illya squinted his eyes open in the dimness, trying to observe the speakers without being noticed. To his surprise, two boys stood on the damp flagstones maybe five feet away, their bright, casual clothing incongruous against the ancient stone. They couldn't have been more than 11 or 12 years old, although Illya had always been terrible at judging the ages of children. How they'd bypassed the THRUSH security, he had no idea.
"I told you, this creepy old castle has all sorts of weird stuff going on. Maybe it's aliens!" the shorter boy, TJ, exclaimed, his pudgy fingers waving through the air in excitement.
The other boy, thinner and covered in freckles, blinked. "Are you saying they're aliens?"
The first boy sighed. "Don't be stupid. They're not green enough, and the other guy's way too tall. But maybe they're abductees or something!"
Other guy? Illya snuck a peek to his right, where the boy gestured. Apparently, Napoleon had managed to get himself captured after all. He looked much worse for the wear than Illya felt; Illya could see darkening bruises all across Napoleon's face in the dim light, and his shirt was torn, his jacket hanging haphazardly with one of the sleeves missing. He appeared to still be unconscious. Illya shifted his attention back to the boys' argument, trying to puzzle out how they'd come to be here.
"...and they're not ghosts, either. They're not nearly scary enough, and Fear Street is clear on the other side of town."
"Well, that's easy to test, isn't it?" The freckled boy said, sidling closer to Illya and reaching out. "All we have to do is... Oh." His eyes jerked up to meet Illya's, widening. "TJ! He's awake!"
"What?" The other boy dashed over and peered up at Illya. "Hello, Mister Spy! Why are you hanging up like that?"
Freckles elbowed his side. "Now who's being stupid? Obviously he got captured. Didn't you?" His eyes met Illya's again, sparkling with excitement. Seeing no other option, Illya swallowed and cleared his throat. "It appears that way."
TJ's face lit up. "Ooh, he's Russian! That's so cool!", he gushed. "But what did you get captured for? This isn't even the interesting part of town."
Illya stared at him askance. What kind of town was this, that a mouldering castle sitting on top of an underground THRUSH lab didn't even merit an "interesting"? But if these boys were here, that meant that THRUSH was not; they'd never let local children just wander this far in. The question was, were they somewhere else, waiting and planning, or had they picked up stakes and fled once they realized they'd been discovered, leaving him and Napoleon here to rot? He decided it couldn't hurt to play along a little. Maybe the boys knew more than he thought.
"My partner and I were... investigating some suspicious activities in the area. We came across some of our enemies, and they trapped us here. Have you seen anybody else?"
TJ glanced at Freckles, something shifty in his expression, but Freckles just grinned. "Nope! We've been exploring here for at least an hour, too. Everybody over here says it's haunted, but that doesn't scare us, does it, TJ?" He grinned at his friend. After a split-second hesitation, TJ grinned back.
"No siree!" He turned to Illya again. "We're the local weird stuff experts!"
"Is that so?" Illya contemplated them. Something wasn't quite right.
His reverie was interrupted by a familiar groan to his right. Napoleon! He twisted in his confinement. The other man was indeed stirring, his arms tugging abortively at the manacles trapping his wrists as he winced in pain.
"Illya?" he murmured, squinting. "Who are your friends?"
Freckles stepped forward with a disarming smile. "My name's Andrew, Mister Spy. This is my friend, TJ." TJ waved. "We're paranormal investigators! We were exploring this castle and we found you and your friend here. He said there were bad guys?"
Napoleon glanced at Illya, who shrugged as best as he was able with his arms pinned like they were. Napoleon turned his head back to the boys. "My name's Napoleon, and this is my partner, Illya. Did you not see anyone else while you were exploring?" Again, there was that split-second of hesitation, then both boys shook their heads.
"I guess they must've left," Andrew said with a shrug. Then he lit up again. "Hey, do you guys have any cool spy stuff?"
"Yeah! Like a laser cuff link or an exploding button or something! Something that could get you out of those cuffs!" TJ chimed in.
Napoleon smiled at them indulgently. "I'm afraid those are more the kinds of tools you'd see in a James Bond movie. We try to be a little more... subtle than that."
"Oh." The boys deflated.
"But," Napoleon said, with a quick wink for Illya's benefit, "I do have a set of lock-picks hidden in one of my socks. They must have missed it when they searched us; I can feel it against my ankle". He shifted his foot. "If one of you boys could pull it out and hand it up to me, I'd appreciate it." The two boys practically knocked heads diving for Napoleon's feet. He grinned over at Illya; apparently nobody was immune to the Solo charm. Illya rolled his eyes.
"Got it!" TJ thrust his hand up, triumphant. Before he could climb to his feet, though, Andrew snatched it from his fingers and was stretching up his hand toward Napoleon's. "Hey!"
Handoff completed, Andrew snorted and helped his friend up. "You're too short to reach, anyway, dodo brain."
"You're a dodo brain!"
"No, you are!"
"Boys!" Napoleon said, his eyes closed. "I need to concentrate." They both held their breath at the same time, staring up at Napoleon's fingers with the picks. After an indeterminate moment, Napoleon huffed in triumph, and the manacles clanged open. The boys rushed to support him as he slumped against the wall.
"Are you okay, Mister Napoleon?" TJ asked, worried.
Napoleon shook himself and straightened with a wince. "Nothing too bad. Just been standing for a while." Carefully, he crouched and undid the cuffs around his ankles, rubbing the skin to increase circulation once the locks came open.
"Any day now, my friend," Illya muttered. Napoleon glanced up at him and smiled. Standing with the help of the wall and Andrew's arm, he made his way over to Illya and fiddled with his impediments until he was free, as well. Illya had just started rubbing the feeling back into his wrists when multiple sets of footsteps became audible in the hallway outside. Their captors, probably, back to check on them. Illya's eyes darted to the two boys. Their eyes widened as they stared back, frozen.
"Quick, boys!" Napoleon hissed. "See that alcove over there, near the door? Hide there and don't move. We'll take care of this." They swallowed and nodded, hastening to tuck themselves into the shadowy nook. Illya and Napoleon stepped back and resumed their former positions.
Not a moment later, the door banged open. Through it stepped Jacob Chandler, the head of this particular operation, backed by four of his goons. He clapped his hands in glee.
"Look at this! Two UNCLE agents of my very own! What perfect timing! And to think, we were about to try capturing somebody from the town for the next stage of our experiments! This is much better. Boys!" He snapped his fingers and gestured. The goons trooped around him and headed for Illya and Napoleon, pulling handcuffs out of their pockets as they moved. The two men glanced at each other in silent communication. "Do be careful with these men, boys; they can be very--"
With a cry, Illya bashed his linked hands down on the top of the closest goon's head, sending him sprawling. At the same time, Napoleon pulled up against the manacles, lashed out, and kicked another man in the solar plexus, winding him. Another goon grabbed him from behind just as he dropped from his hold on the manacles. Illya was prevented from going to his aid as the fourth man punched him in his injured ribs, and the fight was on.
Momentarily distracted, Illya missed the stifled cry from the alcove, but Chandler didn't. Just as Illya took out the last thug, a strangled squeak made him look up and freeze. Chandler had Andrew! He held the boy tightly, his arm wrapped around his chest and pinning him against him, lifting the kid off his feet so Andrew was forced to cling to his forearm. More importantly, he had his gun out and pressed against Andrew's temple, safety already off. TJ stood, still as a statue, a few feet away, his eyes riveted on the weapon. Slowly, Chandler backed toward the door.
"I didn't realize UNCLE had stooped to using children," he sneered. "Oh, well, no matter. Give up, or he dies."
Illya looked over at Napoleon, whose face reflected his horror for a moment before smoothing over into his usual mask. The other man held up his hands. "You're mistaken, Chandler; we'd never risk the lives of innocents. These boys just wandered in here. They said they were exploring. They've nothing to do with us. We'll cooperate; just let them go."
Chandler snorted. "You expect me to believe that? Every entrance here is heavily guarded. There's no way two kids could just 'wander in'. Now shut up and go back over to the walls where you were. I have plans for you." Seeing no other choice, Illya and Napoleon backed up against the damp stone. Grinning, Chandler turned to TJ. "You, too, boy. Unless you want me to hurt your friend, here."
TJ backed up into the alcove again, quailing under the attention. Confusion and hurt warred on his face. "Would you really shoot him? Just like that? A kid?" Chandler smirked.
"Just part of the job. I don't know how you two got mixed up in all this UNCLE business, and I don't care. As long as everybody plays along, nobody gets hurt, but if you don't?" He pushed the gun harder into Andrew's temple, making him wince. "Blam. Nice and simple."
"Oh. Okay." Something changed in TJ's face, his voice going from quavering to almost... nonchalant. Illya and Napoleon stared. TJ straightened from where he'd been clinging to the edge of the alcove and took a few steps back into the room, his posture suddenly smooth and unconcerned. "That makes everything much easier."
Chandler's brow furrowed in confusion. "What are you talking about? Get over to the wall, or your friend gets it!"
At that, TJ actually grinned. "That was a pretty stupid move, grabbing Andrew like that. He's older than me, and he's the one who gave me his whole lunch earlier today because I forgot mine. So he's much hungrier."
Chandler goggled, his face red with anger. "What the fu--?" With blurring speed, Andrew twisted in his grip, arms and legs coming up to wrap around Chandler's torso as he tucked his face against the side of the man's neck. Chandler screamed as if he was being gutted, dropping his gun to claw at Andrew's back ineffectually.
TJ snatched the gun up before anybody else could move, aiming it with surprising expertise at Chandler's stirring goons. "Don't try anything." He looked over at Napoleon and Illya, apparently unconcerned at the wet, broken noises Chandler was making behind his back. "You guys set to take care of this?"
With immense effort, Napoleon pulled out of his gape, Illya following suit. "We have backup waiting for our call, but unfortunately they must've taken our communicators when they captured us."
TJ smirked, then shifted the gun to one hand, his aim unwavering as he dug around in his jacket pocket. He pulled out something shiny and tossed it in Napoleon's direction. "Found that in one of the other rooms, on top of some filing cabinets. Figured it was important. I've got the rest of it here, too." He patted his pockets.
At that moment, Chandler gave a quiet gasp and fell to his knees, Andrew's weight bearing him backwards in a controlled slump. His malicious face was now grey and slack, his eyes staring at nothing. Andrew moved his head back and forth a bit, as if nuzzling Chandler, and then he let go with a sigh and wiped his mouth as Chandler slumped in a lifeless heap. Detangling his legs from Chandler's, Andrew stood and turned to TJ. "What'd I miss?"
Illya resisted a gasp, but it was a near thing. Andrew's lips were red as if he'd just applied lipstick, but had been sloppy about it, and a streak of crimson traced along his cheekbone. More noticeably, his eyes were glowing almost the same shade, and it was only in comparison to his now-rosy cheeks that Illya realized how pale he'd been only minutes ago.
The boy's eyes locked on something just past Illya, and he grinned in delight, inadvertently showing off a mouth of bloody teeth and a pair of improbably long canines. "Cool! Is that a laser or something?"
Illya followed his line of vision, reluctant to look completely away from the youth, and saw that Napoleon was fiddling with their communicator, having missed the whole sequence of events. Before he could look up or reply, the device crackled, and Napoleon murmured "Open Channel D, open".
A female voice emerged from the noise. "Channel D, open. Is that you, Mister Solo? We were starting to worry."
Napoleon smiled at the invisible lady. "All fine and dandy, now. We've got Chandler and his main muscle under guard; if you cover the exits we pinpointed earlier, you should be able to make a clean sweep of the facilit--" He froze, eyes fixed on Andrew and the pile of Chandler next to him.
The radio squawked. "Mister Solo, are you there? Mister Solo?" Napoleon glanced down at it and back up again.
"Yes, I'm here. Make sure to mark Chandler as a casualty; I'm afraid it... couldn't be helped. Solo out." He twisted the dial again and returned to staring at Andrew, who now looked confused. TJ hissed at him and made scrubbing motions on his own face with the hand not holding the gun. Andrew blinked and rubbed his face roughly. When he pulled his hands away, his eyes were back to their normal brown, and his lips had lost their garish hue.
TJ nodded. "Better." He turned to Napoleon, who was closer, and gestured with the gun, his expression business-like. "If I give this to you, will you promise not to shoot us? It won't do much, but it'd be a waste of bullets, and it stings like a bitch." Illya startled at the curse word, then smirked at himself that that had surprised him, compared to everything else that had happened.
With a rough jerk of his head, Napoleon agreed, and TJ flipped the safety back on and handed over the gun, as well as Napoleon and Illya's weapons and the assorted other UNCLE gear in his pockets.
Andrew gestured at Chandler. "There shouldn't be any marks anymore. You could leave him like that, or you could shoot him or something. There's not much blood left, but people miss things like that all the time."
He and TJ turned and walked to the door as one, their movent inhumanly fluid. Just as they reached the doorframe, Andrew turned back. "Just so you know, if you hadn't shown up, this would've disappeared on its own. You probably shouldn't come back. There's a lot of weirder stuff than this, and we don't need help. We have this town covered."
Illya and Napoleon nodded, automatic. Andrew smiled, and then both he and TJ vanished like they'd never been. After a moment, the two agents took a deep breath, then turned to deal with their prisoners while they waited for backup to reach them.