Napoleon Solo sat at his desk and tried very hard not to scratch an itch.
There were many, his partner among them, who would have said he had never failed to scratch an itch, of any sort, in his entire life. But since this itch was only in the newly healing stitches in his arm, he was determined to prove them wrong.
Not that it was easy.
He felt his hand creeping up to his shoulder of its own volition.
"Napoleon," came the order. "Don't you dare."
"C'mon, Illya, it's driving me nuts."
"Dr. Lawrence said it would heal without a scar if you left it alone. Don't you have enough scars?"
"I'm trying to match your collection."
His partner only glared at him, making him feel just a bit guilty.
"Sorry." He straightened his shoulders in an effort to regain control. "It's just making me crazy. You know?"
Illya eased his look, a fraction.
"I'll make you a deal. You go the rest of the afternoon without scratching, and I'll buy you dinner. And we'll do anything you like after dinner."
"Anything?" Napoleon gave Illya his best leer. He couldn't help it; he loved it when Illya played right into his hands.
"Yes, and don't give me that look."
"What look?" Suddenly he was all innocent choirboy.
"You know, Napoleon." He frowned again. "Some days I believe you will be the death of me."
"Only the little death." He smiled widely.
"That's it." Illya stood, his face going a light pink. "I f you can't behave, I'm going back to the lab. I'll see you in Waverly's office at four."
"And don't forget your part of the report, Napoleon." The Russian gave him one last glare.
"Of course not," said Napoleon, not letting the grin fade from his face. He watched the view as Illya left the office, and the door closed behind him.
When he was alone, he sighed, the smile still on his face, though dimmed.
He wasn't sure he would ever get used to being this happy.
Having Illya as his partner had always been good, but having him as a lover was better. And it meant he could tease Illya, if only in private, even more than before.
Of course, having nearly lost Illya on their last assignment in Latvia had certainly helped to put things in perspective. Until that point, he had thought the whole thing was just an excuse for great sex with a good friend. Now, however, they both knew it was much more, and much more important.
Not that it couldn't be fun, too.
Napoleon smiled, and thought of increasingly outrageous ways in which to embarrass his dinner companion that night.
Alexander Waverly had a problem, and that problem's name was Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin.
Getting the Russian into U.N.C.L.E. hadn't been easy, but keeping him was proving to be even more difficult. Every time there was a power struggle in the Politburo, or the Soviet or the KGB, his hold on Kuryakin became tenuous.
Worse, this time, it wasn't just Kuryakin, but U.N.C.L.E.'s presence in the whole of the Soviet Union that was in jeopardy.
Factions of the KGB were fighting amongst themselves, again, and this time the focus of the dispute was international involvement, and U.N.C.L.E. in particular. Kuryakin and Solo had only just gotten out of Latvia alive last week. And there were still forty agents and allies from the Baltic network missing, detained by the KGB. All of whose release had been promised if Kuryakin returned to Moscow to speak for U.N.C.L.E.
Waverly hadn't been in the business as long as he had without being able to smell a trap. And this was definitely a trap.
He chewed on his unlit pipe, weighing his options.
He could send Kuryakin, and risk losing one of his best operatives, in hopes of getting his Baltic network back .
Or, he could refuse to send Illya, and risk losing forty people, not to mention the limited good will of the Politburo and KGB.
One man versus forty.
One man versus his hopes to push U.N.C.L.E. further into the Soviet Union.
The choice should have been easy. But that one man was someone he'd long had plans for. Kuryakin had been a unexpected windfall. Waverly had spent the first half of the fifties fighting to obtain a Soviet agent for U.N.C.L.E. Both Western and Eastern Bloc members had been wary of the plan. Finally, in 1955 he had wrung an agreement for one Soviet-trained agent from all parties, and was informed that the agent would be chosen for him.
He hadn't been happy about that, but in the end, he couldn't have picked a better man himself. Kuryakin had been brilliant, resourceful and independent from the start, qualities that made him a perfect addition to U.N.C.L.E. Waverly suspected those same qualities had also encouraged his superiors in Russia to get him out of their hair. He could almost sympathize with the KGB officer who had made the decision to send Kuryakin to the West.
Now, after ten years, Kuryakin was nearly indispensable. He was half of the best enforcement team in U.N.C.L.E., a top researcher when not in the field, and destined to be one of the leaders of the Command in the next decade.
He would not lose him now.
He brought his pipe down heavily onto the desk, not even noticing when the stem snapped.
He sank heavily into his chair, knowing what his decision must be, and not liking it one bit.
Four o'clock saw no improvement in Waverly's mood. He was firmly decided on what he had to do, and equally certain that what he had to do was, in a great many ways, wrong.
But he hadn't gotten where he was by being soft, and he wasn't going to start now.
At one minute past four, Lisa Rogers escorted Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin into his office. Both men were attentive if relaxed, and both clearly had no idea what he was about to do to them.
"Gentlemen, you have completed your reports on the Baltic affair?"
"Yes, sir." Napoleon answered for both of them, and laid the documents in front of him. Waverly flipped through the reports before setting them aside, though he was to distracted to even begin to try and read them.
"They seem to be in order." Waverly stared at the table, trying to determine how best to proceed. But there was no best way, so he would just have to muddle through.
"Gentlemen, we have a problem." Both young men snapped to attention, suddenly alert to the fact that this was more than the usual debriefing meeting. "You are both aware that the KGB have detained most of our Baltic agents. A total of some forty odd people."
Solo and Kuryakin nodded, and he could see understanding dawn in both their faces. Kuryakin merely looked grim, but he thought that Solo looked like he might be sick for a moment. Both quickly assumed bland masks, doing their best to hide their reactions. They would have succeeded if Waverly had not known them both so well.
"I have been contacted by the KGB. They want to discuss the release of our people." He paused. Even though all three of them knew what he was about to say next, he still felt like a betrayer. "They have asked Mr. Kuryakin to return to Moscow as U.N.C.L.E.'s representative.
Kuryakin said nothing, but Solo exploded.
"With all due respect, sir, you can't send Illya. We barely escaped from Riga, and it was Illya they were after." Solo stood up and paced, barely controlled anger radiating from his frame. "You can't ask this
Waverly fixed his CEA with a grim stare.
"Forty people, Mr. Solo. I have to ask."
"You've lost forty people, and now you want to lose one more?"
"I want them back."
"Surely you're not that na•ve."
"Mr. Solo!" Waverly let his own anger show.
Kuryakin said something that was lost to both of them.
"What Mr. Kuryakin?" barked Waverly, not wanting insubordination from both his top people
"I said, I'll go." The Russian looked down at the tabletop, a set look on his face.
"Illya, no." Waverly recognized the grief in Solo's voice, and he shared it.
"Mr. Waverly is right to ask, Napoleon. I may be able to help."
"You may get yourself killed, is more like it. And if either of you think they'll actually release our people. . ." He tried to gather his thoughts. "You worked for them, Illya. You should know better."
"Napoleon." Kuryakin's voice was soft, but there was no doubt that he meant business. "We don't know it's a trap. Not for certain. And if there's a chance of getting our agents out." He paused and drew a deep breath. "Some of them are my friends, Napoleon. And you don't know what the Lubyanka is like. Not really. But I do."
Napoleon Solo looked at his friend, clearly torn. Then he stared at Waverly. If he'd been a lesser man, Waverly would have looked away. As it was, it took all the strength he had to maintain his own calm in the face of Solo's anger and hurt.
Solo was the one who broke the connection first. And the silence.
"Fine. If you insist on doing this, I'm coming with you. No arguments. To do this without some sort of backup really would be suicide. I speak Russian, and I'm your partner. I'm the best person for the job."
"But you're still recovering."
"The worst part is the itch. It won't hold me up. I'm going, Illya."
Waverly was partly relieved, partly proud of both his men, and partly disgusted that he had to ask this of them at all. He knew there were those in U.N.C.L.E. who accused him of callous disregard for his agents' lives, but it cost him every time he had to affect such a front. He covered his own unease with his usual gruffness.
"Thank you, gentlemen." That was the difficult bit done with. The next part should be more palatable. "Now that you've decided to go, we must plan for the eventuality of Mr. Solo being right."
"Sir?" both men asked at once.
"Surely you don't think me a fool. I know that this is likely a trap, and that the KGB most probably only want Mr. Kuryakin in their clutches. We must have a backup plan for that outcome."
Kuryakin reacted to this revelation with a grin at his partner. Solo, however, clearly wasn't having any of it. He glared at his partner. Had Solo turned that look on him, Waverly would have had to reprimand him for insubordination.
Ah, well. To expect that this assignment would go at all smoothly was clearly too much to ask. He decided to ignore Solo's hostility.
"Mr. Kuryakin, who do you know in the KGB that you would trust with your life?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well you had better get sure. It's your neck that will be on the line." Waverly knew that sounded short, even for him, but he didn't really care.
"In that case, Vassili Rodchenko." He looked to his partner. "We were undergraduates together. We also had parallel careers in the Soviet espionage community. Vassili was as," he paused to clear his throat, looking slightly embarrassed, "rebellious as I was, but he managed to hide it better. We've kept in touch. He's a colonel now."
"Would he act against his own superiors?"
Kuryakin hesitated, his eyes scanning widely across the room.
"I-I don't know."
Overcome with frustration, Waverly slammed his fist on the desk. Both his agents jumped.
This time there was no hesitation.
"I believe he would. We both have strong personal loyalty to each other."
"That's something, anyway," Waverly said, almost to himself. "Now, does he have powerful allies in the KGB, that you know of? People who would protect him?"
"I believe so. He had several mentors, and I believe they are the type of people who still support U.N.C.L.E. and international cooperation, in spite of the growing swing to isolationism."
"Good. I would hate for a man to be punished for helping us. Now, Mr. Kuryakin, I want you to contact Vassili Rodchenko . . . "
They worked for the next two hours, laying the groundwork for their plan. Multiple messages were sent, some as decoys, some for redundancy. Courses of action were laid out, abandoned, revised and solidified. By the end, they had a plan they could all live with, and hopefully would.
Waverly looked at both his men. They were clearly exhausted. He could see the Kuryakin was still going over everything they had done in his mind, looking for the one thing they had not thought of. Solo was extremely unhappy with the whole assignment. If he didn't do something, neither of these men would be ready for what they must face tomorrow.
He made a quick decision.
"We've done all we can here today. I'll have any other relevant files forwarded to your offices tomorrow. You'll leave tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, since there is nothing further you can do here, I suggest you take the evening to relax. Go out for dinner. Get a good night's sleep."
They stood looking at him as if he'd just sprouted a second head.
"That's an order, gentlemen."
They didn't need to be told twice. They left the office together, Solo guiding Kuryakin out with a hand on the small of his back.
That simple touch between them was not lost on Waverly. In fact, that touch was why asking this of Kuryakin was even harder than it would have been.
Alexander Waverly knew everything about his agents, and that included the fact that Solo and Kuryakin had become lovers a month ago.
The fact might have shocked some of his subordinates, and even one or two members of Section One, but Waverly had little patience with conventional morality. He couldn't afford such outmoded beliefs in his job.
In fact, he had been hoping for this since teaming the two agents four years before.
He knew everything about his agents, including the fact that Kuryakin was gay and Napoleon Solo was, quietly, bisexual. With a taste for blonds of both sexes. He had hoped that if Solo channeled his attentions towards his partner, then he would be less likely to stray in the direction of some of his more dangerous conquests.
Somehow, however, he had never considered how close the two of them might become. It had seemed impossible that two people so different would come to care for each other so much.
But they had become close, and now he was sending them on an assignment that might result in both their deaths.
Disturbed at the turn his thoughts were taking, Waverly shook himself, and sat down roughly at his desk.
"You're becoming a nervous grandmother in your old age, Alexander," he muttered to himself, before settling down to solve the next crisis.
Napoleon guided Illya out of the office, his emotions a confused mess. For the first time in his life he was experiencing uncertainty about his loyalty to U.N.C.L.E. He felt as though he had been betrayed by the one thing, other than his partner, that he had never doubted.
What was worse, he knew that Waverly was right to ask this of them. Had he been in charge, he would have had to make the same decision, no matter his personal ties. The problem was, he wasn't in charge. He didn't have the good of the Command to think about. All he really cared about in the world was the man walking beside him.
They traveled the halls, neither of them saying a word. Napoleon had some idea what was going through his partner's head, and he didn't like that much either.
Illya had always had an unhealthy streak of self-sacrifice running through his personality. Given a chance to either save himself or be the hero, he would be the hero every time.
It drove Napoleon crazy, even if some deeply buried portion of his brain realized it was a trait he shared.
Usually, however, Illya's heroism was of a sort that could make a difference. In spite of Waverly's protests, Napoleon was convinced this mission was doomed from the start. Illya's contact in Riga had already warned him of a rumour that he was the special target of this campaign against U.N.C.L.E. agents.
The assignment stank, from beginning to end, and yet he could see no alternative. Illya would not be talked out of it, if he knew his stubborn Russians, and Waverly was not someone who invited second guessing. They were stuck with it.
They traveled the distance to Napoleon's office without either of them saying a word. Napoleon could only guess at how grim he looked by the fact that everyone they encountered on that long trip studiously avoided both his gaze and Illya's.
Once they were safely in his office, and the door had been firmly closed, they both started talking at once.
"How can you do this ..."
"I don't want an argument ..."
They both broke off their verbal attacks. Napoleon looked carefully at Illya, trying to find a chink in his armour, a strategy he could use to halt this madness.
Illya looked back at him with equal determination, his jaw slightly stuck out as it was when he was determined to follow a plan that seemed insane to his partner.
Napoleon knew there would be no convincing him. For good or ill, they had been set on a path that they would have to play out till it's end.
He felt himself deflate as he realized the futility of continuing the argument. He sank down into his chair.
"Christ, Illya, what are we doing?"
"We are going to do what Waverly has ordered us to do. I will negotiate the release of our Baltic agents, we will retrieve them, and then we will come home. And then, perhaps, I will move in with you." Illya sounded so confident, as if by sheer force of will, he could make their mission a success.
"It's not going to be that smooth, and we both know it." He closed his eyes tightly. "You're going to break your promise to me."
"What promise is that?" Illya asked, confusion evident in his voice.
"You promised that you wouldn't die on me."
Illya breathed in sharply, but said nothing for a good long minute.
"You don't play fair, Napoleon."
"I don't care about fair right now. I just want you alive."
"Contrary to what you believe, I am not eager to commit suicide."
"You could have fooled me. You're walking into a trap, with your eyes wide open. What else is that but suicide?"
"But I know it is a trap. And I will have you behind me. What could be more reasonable than that?"
"Jesus Christ, Illya, we're not indestructible. I'm not indestructible. We can't just take on the whole KGB., whatever you think."
"It's not the whole KGB, Napoleon. Just a portion of it."
"I don't care if it's one agent. It's dangerous and foolhardy." He looked straight into his partners eyes. Clear blue eyes stared back at him, full of confidence and trust. He was the first to break the gaze. "My god, you really believe you can do this, don't you."
"With you at my side, Napoleon. With you at my side."
The American let his head fall into his hands.
"You're crazy," he said softly.
"Yes, but isn't that why you love me?" He found it difficult to believe that Illya sounded as cheerful as he did. He raised his head again, astonished.
And was even more astonished when a pair of full Russian lips took possession of his mouth.
The kiss was deep, sweet and probably calculated to take his mind off their dilemma. Napoleon had to give Illya credit; it nearly worked. Finally, after an eternity, his partner pulled away. Bereft of the kiss, he drew in a gasp.
"I thought you were the one who didn't approve of such things inside headquarters?"
"You're not the only one who doesn't play fair, Napoleon." Illya got one of his sly grins on his face. "And besides, before I was trying to prevent Waverly from learning of our relationship. Now, I'm fairly certain he knows."
"What?" Napoleon was convinced Illya had decided to be the death of him. Tonight. "How?"
"He is a spy, after all. Just as we are. And why else would he have insisted we go out for dinner tonight." He looked slightly embarrassed. "It was only a matter of time. We would have had to tell him soon, when we move in together. U.N.C.L.E. is in charge of security on our homes."
"I don't believe it."
"What don't you believe?"
"I don't believe you can be thinking about U.N.C.L.E. security and our living arrangements when we're facing an assignment that is quite likely going to get us killed."
"I thought I was the practical one."
"Practical, nothing. You have ice in your veins, Kuryakin."
Illya merely smiled, and leaned in for another astonishingly deep kiss. When he finally pulled back, the Russian was still smiling.
"Now, was that the kiss of a man with ice in his veins?"
"You may not have ice in your veins, but you have do rocks in your head."
"Hmmph. Insults from the man I love. Perhaps you are not my Prince Charming after all." Illya frowned deeply and leaned against the wall of the office.
Napoleon refused to let himself be distracted.
"You don't need a Prince Charming; you need a keeper. Someone to keep you in that strait jacket you've obviously escaped from.'"
Illya was suddenly at his side, and one broad index finger was pressed to his lips. The Russian shook his head, sadly. Napoleon suddenly noticed his partner's eyes. There was still the confidence and defiance in them, but also a sorrow buried behind it all.
"Don't, Napoleon. Don't start this again. I'm going on this mission. I won't be talked out of it, just as I will not be able to convince you it is a good thing. Let's call a truce for this evening. I just want to follow Waverly's orders. We should go to a good restaurant, have a wonderful meal, and then have a gloriously sensual night of pleasure."
In spite of his state of mind, Napoleon couldn't resist making a jab.
"I don't think Waverly's orders included us sleeping together."
"Perhaps not, but they should have. It's a wonderful plan."
Napoleon stopped to think. Illya was right. Neither of them was going to change their minds, and they both knew it. Illya would remain stubbornly convinced that he was right, no matter what he said. As much as he hated to admit it, Illya's plan was the best one.
He let a shadow grin spread to his face. Besides, letting his partner win, for the moment would probably unsettle the Russian enough that he would enjoy it.
"Fine, I bow to your superior wisdom. Where do you want to eat?"
They ended up at one of their favourite places, an Indian restaurant around St. Mark's Place. The naan was excellent, the prices satisfied even the penny-pinching Russian, and it had the advantage of having booths for privacy.
They spend the whole meal avoiding the one topic that neither could forget. Instead, they talked about the new jazz club Illya had found, about Napoleon's tailor, and Waverly's complaints that he spent too much on clothes that were certain to be destroyed on a mission. They concentrated on the food, even though neither could taste it properly, and they drank a pleasant Indian beer with the meal.
Illya thought he would scream at the pretense of it all. They were both trying so hard to ignore the obvious, that neither was truly enjoying himself. He decided it was up to him to remove the grim look from Napoleon's face.
They were finishing the last of dessert, a light homemade pudding, rich with the flavours of saffron and cardamon and pistachio, when Illya decided to broach the subject of where they should go next.
"We're almost finished here. Would you like to visit the jazz club I was telling you about, or . . ." He paused, and licked his dessert spoon suggestively.
"Illya!" Considering how experienced Napoleon was, shocking him was sometimes far too easily done.
"What?" He decided to take the innocent approach.
"I don't think I trust you in polite company tonight," Napoleon said, shaking his head. "Why don't we go back to your place. It's closest."
"No. You are the one with the hedonistic lifestyle, and I feel a definite need for hedonism."
"Good choice. Your bed is definitely too narrow."
Illya smiled. Napoleon had fallen straight into his trap. The American's body language was beginning to ease. Illya could feel his own tension beginning to fade as well. He continued to play his role in this little comedy.
"My bed is perfectly fine."
"For a solitary monk, maybe. It's narrow, and it's hard."
"It's good for your back."
"I have bruises from sleeping on that bed."
They kept the patter flowing. Illya could see that his partner was quite aware of what he had done. But now that they were no longer dwelling on the dangerous mission they were about to undertake, neither of them was willing to run the risk of breaking the more pleasant mood.
They paid the bill, leaving a generous tip at Napoleon's insistence, and walked over to Fifth Avenue to catch a taxi.
They never made contact once, neither on the walk to Fifth, nor on the taxi ride to Napoleon's, yet Illya was acutely aware of the physical presence of his partner.
As they rode the elevator to Napoleon's penthouse, Illya found himself unable to look his partner in the eye, afraid of what he might find there. Still, they had not touched.
Once in the apartment, Illya made his way to the living room as Napoleon reset his security system.
The next thing he knew, he was surrounded by Napoleon's arms. He turned into the embrace and met a mouth as needy as his own.
For a moment, Illya had to close his eyes. He couldn't bear to see open longing in Napoleon's face, tinged as it was with fear. The look was disturbing not only because it was so foreign to Napoleon's personality, but because he knew his own face bore the same expression.
His eyes opened as he felt fingers undoing the buttons on his shirt. Napoleon bent to run his tongue around one exposed nipple. When he looked up again, the desperation had been banished, and replaced with a mischievousness that was a better fit on his lover's face.
He smiled in response.
They made their way down the hall to the bedroom, shedding clothes as they went. The next morning, they would find a belt in the light fixture, and a tie in a potted plant. One of Napoleon's socks would remain forever lost.
By the time they reached the bedroom, they had both lost every last piece of clothing. Illya took a second to appreciate his partner's body. The compact, hairless chest, the powerful legs. He noted with pleasure the flushed skin at Napoleon's throat.
His contemplation was interrupted violently as he was thrown onto the bed, and straddled by his suddenly quite energetic lover. His cock jolted to life as it came in contact with his partner's balls. Napoleon rubbed himself shamelessly against him, making them both harder by the second.
Napoleon leaned in close to his ear.
"Enjoying that, lover?" his voice purred.
He could only moan in response.
"How about this?"
Napoleon quickly changed positions, and the next thing Illya knew, a warm wetness enveloped his cock. The feeling was exquisite, but so was seeing his lover go down on him. Watching his cock disappear into Napoleon's mouth was one of the most erotic things he had experienced.
He didn't last long.
He felt the explosion of orgasm start in his balls, a force he couldn't have stopped if he'd tried. He made no sound until the sensations began to fade, and even then all he could manage was a small gasp.
Napoleon lay beside him, kissing him deeply, and he had the pleasure of tasting himself on his lover's lips.
The kiss began lightly, but soon became as steamy as anything that had preceded it that night. Usually Illya felt rather drowsy after orgasm, but this night he felt positively energized.
He reached down and took Napoleon's cock in his hand. His action was rewarded with a moan.
"Oh, that feels good."
He kissed Napoleon again, and again he tasted himself. He knew what he wanted.
"Come inside me," he said, surprised at the throaty whisper his voice had become.
Napoleon smiled, and gave him one more kiss, before reaching for a bottle of aromatic oil, kept especially for this purpose, from the bedside table.
There was the inevitable tangle of limbs. Illya always insisted on seeing his lover's face. At last their positions were arranged and he felt Napoleon's heat enter him. He exhaled a breath in appreciation, and rotated his hips to increase his partner's pleasure. He would have been hard himself, had he not just had an orgasm. As it was, it felt indescribably good.
He watched Napoleon's face as he built to climax. The increased concentration, the flush creeping up his face, the look of utter surprise and joy as his final release came.
Then they lay tangled together, the sheets a twisted mess at the foot of the bed, pillows tossed to the floor. He wondered briefly what Napoleon's housekeeper thought of the state they often left the bedroom in. Then again, the woman was U.N.C.L.E. approved; there probably wasn't much she hadn't seen.
"We should probably take a shower," Napoleon mumbled into his shoulder. He nodded in agreement, but neither of them made a move to the bathroom, or anywhere else.
Illya knew why.
If they moved, took a shower, slept in pajamas, straightened the sheets, they would be pulled back into the real world. The world where people wanted to kill them, and they had to risk their own lives to save others. Far better to do nothing for now but lay in your lover's arm, coated with sweat and smelling of sex.
The real world would catch up with them both soon enough.
The next day passed in a blur. Later, Illya could never remember how he spent the hours before the flight, or even the details of the flight itself.
They landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, and Illya let instinct guide him through customs and baggage pickup and all the other mundane details that air travel necessitated. He pushed himself and Napoleon through the queue waiting for taxis. Probably out of some misguided notion of nostalgia, he asked the driver to take them on a tour of the city before dropping them at the hotel.
Illya sat back and tried to relax as they were driven through the streets of Moscow, but he couldn't concentrate on the view. Memories had taken over from sight.
Moscow had at one time represented something sacred to him. Kiev may have been home, but Moscow was the seat of power. It held a mystique that the Ukraine could not.
He couldn't help remembering how he had felt on his first visit, as a young Naval recruit, still in his teens and fascinated by all he encountered. He had ridden the Metro every chance he got, and visited all the places that had been legend to him since he could remember: Gorky Park, the Pushkin museum, the Bolshoi. He must have seen the Bolshoi dance four or five times in a few weeks. And of course he had visited Lenin's tomb, standing in line for hours to see the Father of the Soviet Union lying in state. It had all been so exciting then.
He wasn't sure when his feelings for the city had begun to change, grow more sinister.
Perhaps it was when he had been seconded to the KGB.
He had always been a talented scholar. He supposed that he had been watched for his potential from an early age. When he also proved to be an able seaman and young officer, the protectors of his country had probably considered the chance too good to miss.
He was never quite sure what to make of that time of his life. He had been honoured to be chosen for such a trusted position, but it had also made him uneasy. While he never would have thought to criticize the secret police, not then, his ambitions had never included being a spy. Though the career had become a vocation, his relations with the KGB had never been so comfortable.
His first visit to the Lubyanka had set the tone for his career with the organization it housed. The building loomed over Dzherzhinskaya, it's solid bulk not filling him with confidence, but with apprehension.
He did well at his tasks, but the apprehension he had felt on first joining the KGB never entirely left him. He supposed it had been mirrored by his superiors apprehension with him. He had never been given assignments requiring very high security clearance, in spite of his high aptitude for the work, and as soon as they saw a chance to get rid of him, they had jumped at it. First he was sent to Paris, to continue his studies at the Sorbonne. Then, he was pawned off on U.N.C.L.E., the first Soviet agent in the Command.
Since he had left Moscow that last time for New York, he had seldom been back, and never under good circumstances. Either he was trying to foil some plot aimed at destroying Russia and it's people, or he had been called back to explain himself to the KGB and the Soviet.
There was a small but vocal faction that was convinced he was a traitor to his country, conveniently forgetting that it was his country that had sent him to his present position, and that he had shown his commitment to U.N.C.L.E.'s neutrality time and again.
Memories of his initial joy at visiting the capital had long since been mixed with disquiet and suspicion. Even the simple pleasures of a street market in this city had him checking behind his back, looking for the agent that was inevitably tailing him.
Now he had volunteered to come back, and at a time when his worst fears were likely to be realized. Worse, he had brought Napoleon into this madness.
The American really had no idea what being Russian could mean.
Pulling himself from his thoughts, he reached over and squeezed his partner's hand. The pressure was returned, and he saw Napoleon glance over at him, a questioning look on his face. He could only shake his head. He was not ready to share any of this yet.
He suspected that this was the end of the line, that his somewhat dubious luck was about to desert him completely.
He turned to his partner again, and couldn't help smiling. Napoleon was staring out the window in rapt fascination as they passed the domes of the Kremlin. It never ceased to amuse him that for all the American's finely polished exterior, he could still take great pleasure in the most unexpected things. It was just one more thing he loved about the man.
He sighed, very quietly, to himself. There was another problem. Love.
He loved Napoleon as he had no one but his now long dead family. And just as he would have done anything to save his family, had he only been old enough, so now he would do anything to save Napoleon.
Napoleon, however, was unlikely to let him do any such thing. Nor would he expect him to. They were both, after all, experienced agents, quite familiar with the dangers of their job. Still...
He forced himself to stop such an futile train of thought. He would wait, and deal with whatever happened. That was all he could do.
He noticed the taxi was beginning to slow down. At the same time he heard a low whistle from his partner. Ah, his little surprise had been discovered.
"Illya, how did you manage to get Waverly to spring for this?"
"A little persuasion, a little emotional blackmail. It was nothing," he said, affecting a nonchalance.
"Nothing, he says. He manages to get our tightwad boss to cough up for the most exclusive 5 star hotel in all of Russia, and he calls it nothing," Napoleon ranted at their driver. The driver shrugged, clearly not understanding a thing, but Illya knew who the display had really been aimed at. He looked at Napoleon with an innocence that he had only been able to perfect after hours of practice. The American growled at him, but allowed a smile to show in his eyes.
Well, if he couldn't protect his partner, he could at least make sure he had the best of everything while they were here.
Raising his eyebrows suggestively, he exited the cab, and invited his partner to follow him.
As he slowly awoke, Napoleon gave his body a relaxed, languorous stretch. The barely conscious portion of his brain noted the feel of the fine linen sheets against his skin. The only thing that could have made the night more perfect was if he'd been able to share the bed with his partner. The inevitability of KGB surveillance had made that pleasure far too dangerous for them. It was bad enough that his former superiors thought Illya a traitor; if they also knew he was actively homosexual he would not leave the country alive.
He shuddered, and purged that last thought from his mind. He would allow no negativity at this late date. He would instead think of how good the sheets felt. He smiled, thankful that his partner could show the same ruthlessness that his ancestors no doubt had on the steppes of the Ukraine. There was surely no other way that the Russian could have convinced their boss to authorize their stay in an extremely expensive hotel.
Napoleon gave one last yawn and opened his eyes. And found himself staring into the eyes of a Soviet Naval officer.
"Jesus, Illya, you might have warned me." Napoleon sat up abruptly, feeling his heart beat fast in his chest.
"I'm sorry. I had no idea the uniform would have such an effect on you." The apology was belied by the smile playing around the corner of his lips.
"Yeah, right," Napoleon groused. He got out of bed and stumbled to the chair where he had tossed the bathrobe last night.
Thankfully, Illya had already ordered room service. Fresh coffee and toast awaited him. The remains of Illya's own breakfast lay on the coffee table in the room's sitting area. Napoleon poured himself a cup of coffee, and grabbed a piece of toast before stretching out on the sofa.
"Why the Naval uniform anyway?" Napoleon absently waved his toast at his partner. "I thought you were KGB."
The look of distaste on Illya's face said it all.
"Not by choice. I simply wish to remind that I was first in the Navy."
"You're declaring your independence from them."
"If you like." Illya nodded. "I joined the Navy by choice, just as I'm now with U.N.C.L.E. because I choose to be. There was never any choice with them."
Napoleon thought as he chewed, a slight crease forming between his brows. He wasn't entirely sure what to say to Illya. His partner had always had a strong contrary streak. He would do something merely because someone had told him not to. Or, worse, had told him it couldn't be done. So, to tell him that he was risking his life to make a point would be to make sure that he would risk his life. Deciding to let the moment pass, he merely nodded and chewed his toast.
Illya sat beside him, and they sat comfortably in silence for a few moments.
Napoleon hated to break the moment, but he had to. They needed to stage their little act for the inevitable KGB listening post. He dug down, not too deep, and found the part of himself that had to scratch at his stitches, would pick at half-healed scabs and venture into emotional minefields just to see what would happen. He used that part of himself now to make their charade believable.
"When are you expected?"
The expected answer came.
"Half an hour. They're sending a car."
"What?" He was supposed to sound shocked. Panicked even. The worst part was, he wasn't really acting.
"A messenger came while you were getting your beauty rest."
"And you didn't wake me? What were you thinking Illyushka?"
Illya blinked at the harsh form of his name, but let it pass.
"I was thinking that if you were awake and knew, you would do nothing but worry. And you see, I was right."
"Of course, I'm worried. Who wouldn't be?" He threw down the crust of his toast and began pacing the room. "But I thought my partner would at least keep me informed. Christ, Illya, we need to make contingency plans or something."
"What plans we have must do. I must go alone. And no tracking devices will be allowed inside the Lubyanka. I will have to leave my communicator as well."
"Sneak it in," Napoleon nearly shouted.
"They would find it, and then would trust me even less than they do now."
"Damn it." Napoleon found that he really wanted something to hit, even knowing that he was likely to break a knuckle, or re-open the stitches in his arm. This was all an act, he had to remind himself. But he knew that it wasn't, not really.
Illya said nothing, but only watched. Finally the Russian came over and took him by the hand.
The feel of Illya's broad, slightly callused hand in his own calmed him, brought him back to the centre he had briefly lost. And that touch, a touch which may have only signified passing acquaintance or slight friendship, was one of the most passionate things he had shared with Illya. With that touch, the two of them shared everything they felt for each other.
The moment passed. Napoleon squeezed the Russian's hand and nodded. He released his partner's hand, letting the touch linger for a second longer than necessary.
"Better?" Illya asked, his head cocked to one side.
"We are neither of us helpless, Napoleon. Do you remember what Mr. Waverly said?"
"Yeah. How could I forget it."
"That's what we'll stick to. We don't need contingencies. We are our own contingencies." He looked at Napoleon, and this time Napoleon felt as if he was being subjected to a military inspection. "You look disreputable. I suggest you get dressed before our hosts arrive. The head of Section 2 should not be seen by a member of the KGB with bed head."
Napoleon would normally have sputtered indignantly at any suggestion that he was less than elegant at all times. This time, he let his partner have his way.
He retired to the bath, and worked at making himself presentable. Even moving as fast as he could, he was still straightening his tie when there was a knock at the door. Swallowing, he buried any hint of frustration or unease. One of his chief assets as an agent had always been the ability to keep a perfect game face. Unlike a certain Russian he knew.
He exited the bath and looked over at Illya. He found not his partner, but a haughty, aloof Russian officer. He took back anything he had thought about his partner's game face.
"Ready?" Illya asked.
"Yeah." Napoleon pulled the cuffs of his shirt down. "Let the games begin."
Illya opened the door
The Lubyanka was just a building. People worked there, as in any other office building. It was no more ominous than U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. It was his old place of employment. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin kept telling himself all of these things as he was driven through the streets of Moscow.
He didn't believe a word of it.
The Lubyanka was one of the most feared places in the Soviet Union. Most had heard only rumours of what went on there, and for most that was enough. No one wanted to have first hand knowledge of the workings of that building. If you were 'invited' to spend time in Lubyanka, your next step was likely the Gulag. Or a firing squad.
Illya Kuryakin knew what went on in the Lubyanka. He had been an employee there for a blessedly short time. Even though he had never been trusted enough to learn the darker secrets of the place, he knew enough.
He was stepping into the lion's den. He didn't have an all-powerful god to watch over him, as Daniel had, but he did have a very determined American partner. He trusted Napoleon more than he would have any mystical being.
The car stopped, and the driver opened the door for him. He walked through the front doors and was immediately confronted by a pair of guards. His credentials were examined and he was passed over to another officer who escorted him through the labyrinthine passages of the building. He exchanged only a few words with the guards, and none at all with his guide.
He managed to keep his calm as he walked through the halls. He nursed the tiny spark of optimism that had somehow managed to survive inside of his otherwise imminently practical heart.
That optimism died as he walked into the room that was his final destination. He only had to look at the two men who awaited him to know that he and Waverly had been wrong, and Napoleon had been right. He was not going to leave this building. At least not out the front door.
"Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin?" the first man asked. This one was very tall, probably selected especially to intimidate him.
He nodded in response to his name.
"You are under arrest for crimes against the State." The man's Russian was impeccable. He had clearly been trained at all the best KGB schools.
Illya sighed. "I suppose it would do no good to remind you that I am here on official business for U.N.C.L.E.?"
"We do not recognize that agency." This time is was the second one who spoke. He wasn't as large as the first man, but made up for the lack of size with a positively vicious demeanor. Illya was willing to bet on which one would be most likely to enjoy torturing his subjects. "You are being charged with working for a foreign government to pass on secrets of the Soviet Union."
"The Soviet Union assigned me to U.N.C.L.E. in the first place." The sheer idiotic inevitability of this situation made him impatient.
"The Soviet Union did not expect you to work directly under an American. It is felt that his influence has corrupted you." The first one delivered this line without a trace of irony. They must be recruiting particularly gullible officers these days.
"Both that American and myself have worked to save this country on numerous occasions." Illya knew he was destined to lose this argument, but he couldn't help mounting a defense.
"You only acted to preserve your cover as an agent of a capitalist country."
Illya couldn't help himself. He laughed. In their faces.
"Oh come now, that's a feeble excuse, even from your organization. Has the KGB no imagination these days?"
The smaller one sneered at him
"I would expect such a response from one who has been corrupted by the West."
"I may have been corrupted by the West, but at least I'm not a vicious bastard of slight intelligence.
That almost earned him a blow but it seemed that both of these creatures had more restraint than he gave them credit for.
"I'll allow your little outburst. You'll have few enough opportunities for such behaviour after this."
"Oh yes. And what are your plans for me after this?"
"After interrogation here, you will be taken to one of our less pleasant vacation spots deep in Siberia. You will be buried alive." The man moved closer to him, his burly partner keeping a close eye on Illya. "I believe the plan is to bury you so deep in the labour camps that even if your precious U.N.C.L.E. tries to find you again, it will take them years." He smiled, a distinctly unpleasant expression. "You are a dead man, Comrade Kuryakin, even if you don't know it yet."
Illya considered his next course of action carefully. He was alone in the enemy's fortress. He was outnumbered. He was already considered the worst sort of traitor. He should do nothing to make his situation worse.
All this passed through his mind in several seconds, and he still found he was capable of only one course of action.
His fist went straight into the smaller man's face. He was smiling as his victim doubled over, and the larger man moved in on him. He knew he couldn't win, and was likely to lose badly, but he was determined to enjoy the damage he knew he was capable of inflicting.
And he did enjoy it, right up until the point where he was knocked unconscious.
It was a pleasant fall day. The air was crisp, but not too cold. The sun was shining, cheering up the drab streets. Under other circumstances, Napoleon might have enjoyed himself considerably on a day like this.
On this day, however, he found the weather an affront. It should have been raining and miserable. The elements should have reflected his mood.
Instead, he had to put up with a nice day.
He supposed he shouldn't complain. His practical partner would have noted that it was more comfortable to maintain surveillance in good weather than in bad. He wished his partner were here.
He pulled out the homing receiver from his pocket and took a look at the screen. A single green dot pulsed on the screen. The readout showed the dot was 200 meters from his present location. In that building just across the street. Not very far away at all.
It might as well have been half way across the world.
He stuffed the receiver back into his pocket and set off for another stroll around the block.
The receiver was his only link to his partner. They had known that they couldn't sneak a conventional transmitter in on Illya, and that he would be forbidden to bring his communicator, so the labs had suggested something new. A tiny subcutaneous transmitter, injected under the skin of the forearm. So far it seemed to be working.
They had both made that fuss about the communicator in the hotel room because they knew the KGB would be listening, would find it unusual if they were both nonchalant about Solo's inability to track his partner.
Well, he was far from nonchalant now.
He sighed, and put his hands in his pockets. He tried to keep his mind only on his task, on making sure that he wasn't spotted. On keeping an eye out for vehicles leaving the KGB building that looked like someone could be smuggled out in them.
He completed his circuit of the neighbourhood, and pulled out the receiver again. The blip still showed on screen, still in the place it had been for most of the day. Whatever they were up to, they weren't letting Illya move around much. He just hoped he had more patience than the KGB. Much more of this, and he was going to feel like going into the building with guns blazing, just to get this over with.
He followed the same pattern all day. Stationary for small periods of time, broken up with walks in the neighbourhood so he wasn't too conspicuous. Finally, the sun tracked its way across the sky, and sunk below the horizon, and twilight fell over the city. The blip remained where it had been.
He was beginning to decide what to do when the signal to his communicator went off. He pulled it from his coat, hoping that it was good news.
"Mr. Solo, we have news," Waverly said, his voice obscured by the slight crackle one always seemed to get on the overseas relays.
"Good news, I hope."
"The KGB have informed me that Mr. Kuryakin has been reassigned. He will not be returning to U.N.C.L.E."
Napoleon had been expecting this, had considered it as inevitable, and yet it still felt as though he had been sucker punched in the gut.
"Yes sir, I understand."
"I hope you do, Mr. Solo. You are to proceed with your mission, and return to New York."
Waverly signed off without further comment, leaving his agent standing, stunned, on a Moscow sidewalk.
Illya reassigned. He knew what that really meant. He was going to disappear somehow, whether into a mental institution or prison camp or shallow grave, it was hard to say. But whatever fate Illya's former employers had planned for him, it was now up to his partner to thwart it.
He pulled his collar around his ears and started walking. When he was nearer to their hotel than to the KGB's headquarters, he found the nearest pay phone. He dialed the number he had memorized and waited.
"Da?" A male voice answered the phone.
"Krohlik," Napoleon said. The Russian word for rabbit. Illya had chosen the code word, thinking it was funny. Napoleon had wanted to wring his neck.
"Understood," answered the man, his accent tangible even with only one word.
Napoleon hung up and walked quickly away. He checked the homing receiver once more, comforted by the steady, stationary blip on its screen. He just hoped that the transmitter wasn't giving him the location of a dead man.
He shook his head. No, they would keep Illya alive, for a while at least. They would want to gather as much information from him as they could. And besides, he was far too stubborn to die this quickly.
He put his hands into his pockets and stepped up his pace. His rendezvous was set for two hours from now, and he couldn't be late.
He just hoped this mysterious friend of Illya's was as trustworthy as he needed to be.
Vassili Rodchenko hung up the phone and swore. Loudly. In as many languages as he could remember profanity in, which was quite a few.
He wished he wasn't mixed up in this whole thing. Or that he was a less honourable man, and could turn his back on it.
Unfortunately, he was mixed up in it, and his Papa had made very sure that he had turned out an honourable man.
All of this because he had happened to befriend a scrawny, sarcastic Ukrainian-born Russian at Kiev University, far too many years ago.
Damn Illya Kuryakin. Damn his American friend. And damn his own superiors in the KGB for forcing good men to be reduced to this sort of skulking around.
He ran a hand through his unruly, dark hair, and mentally went over all of the preparations he would have to make before meeting this Napoleon Solo--what a ridiculous name--in two hours. Fortunately, he had laid all the groundwork when he had received Illya's coded message yesterday.
It was lucky for the idiot boy that he was still trustworthy, even after all these years. He shook his head. There were few enough people left in the KGB that he would trust himself. It was all so far from the idealistic vision of the organization he'd had when he, when they, had first joined.
He put on his uniform, not worrying that he looked ready for an inspection, and then threw an extra uniform into a duffel bag. Fortunately, at the Lubyanka, people were used to seeing unusual behaviour. Of course, they were also used to reporting unusual behaviour. He would just have to trust his luck.
He left his apartment, using all of his discipline to keep to his usual pace and not break into a run. He would cause a stir if he arrived at his office out of breath and disheveled.
He locked his door, as he was making the mental calculations. He should have enough time to have the orders for the U.N.C.L.E. prisoners changed, draw up orders for their escorts, meet this U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya seemed to trust so completely, and get them both into position.
He should have enough time. If nothing went wrong, and all went as planned.
That was the problem though, wasn't it. Nothing ever seemed to go as planned.
Sighing, he squared his shoulders and left the building.
At first, there was just a feeling of being jostled, of being uncomfortable. Then, the realization that he had a monstrous headache. Finally, he remembered what had happened, and where he must be.
He had visited the lions' den, and one of the lions had taken a sizable chunk out of him.
There was a creaking sound, then he was thrown onto a rather hard floor. He almost thought he was going to pass out again, but managed not to, through force of will if nothing else. A loud slam rang out, making his head ring. He lay on the floor for several minutes before he finally felt ready to think about opening his eyes.
The first thing he saw was the floor. A worn, stone floor. Not the most inspiring of sights. He pushed his hair out of eyes, and sat up. That was slightly better. He could now see the stone wall directly in front of him. Which no doubt had companions on the other three sides.
A noise from behind startled him. He had thought he was alone, but apparently some lucky person was sharing his accommodations. He turned quickly, and immediately regretted it as his head pounded wildly. His vision blurred, and he could only see a large shape in front of him.
"Illya Nickovetch?" his companion said hesitantly.
He knew the voice, if he could only place it. He squinted as his vision cleared, and he recognized his fellow prisoner.
"Andris?" He blinked several times, but the person leaning against the opposite wall was definitely Andris Cirulis. He was a tall, rawboned man, with the lank, light brown hair so common to Latvians. "What in god's name are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Didn't I just smuggle you back to New York?" The big Latvian bent over and helped him onto one of the narrow metal cots that was the only furniture in the room.
"I came to negotiate to have U.N.C.L.E.'s people released. You haven't answered my question."
"I told you I planned to break out the members of my organization who had been arrested."
"You numbskull! You must have known you wouldn't succeed."
"Your argument would have more weight if you weren't in exactly the same place as me, for exactly the same reason." Andris was feeling his head for injuries. He must have hit one of the larger bumps on his head.
"Ouch. It's not the same thing. I am here on behalf of U.N.C.L.E."
"Ah, yes, that must be why they have you in the guest quarters." He poked at another tender looking spot. "Does that hurt?"
"Yes it does, and would you mind." Illya grabbed at the offending hand. "I'm perfectly fine. There is no need for you to prod me like a piece of butchered meat."
"You don't look fine, Illya Nickovetch."
"I am." Andris looked at him with extreme skepticism. "Listen, I don't have double vision, or blurred vision,"--he didn't mention that his vision had been blurred--"I'm not nauseous, and I remember everything that happened. The concussion can't have been too severe."
"Perhaps you're right." Andris stopped his examination. He looked around, then leaned in close to Illya's ear, no doubt conscious of the likelihood of listening devices, and whispered. "At least tell me you have a plan."
Illya said nothing. He couldn't risk revealing their little surprise to anyone at this point, not even to Andris. Instead, he shook his head and gave a slight enigmatic smile.
Andris was clearly not at all amused.
"I hope you can keep that sense of humour in this place, you crazy Russian bastard," Andris said, his tone harsher than Illya had ever heard it. "You're going to need it."
After making the phone call, Napoleon returned to the hotel. He took a circuitous route and entered through a back door. He watched carefully for tails as he entered the room. There, he threw off the clothes he was wearing, stuffing them carelessly into his bag. He would normally rather be caught dead than treat a suit so casually, but he had no time to be neat.
He changed quickly into the outfit he and Illya had prepared for this eventuality. It was as close as they had been able to manage in New York to the dress of an average Muscovite. Napoleon knew that it wouldn't hold up to close scrutiny, but hopefully it would throw off any pursuers. The last thing he did before leaving the room was to place his Special into the pocket of his overcoat. This was one night that he was going to make sure he was well armed.
He left the hotel by the back again, gaining some surprised looks from the staff he ran into in. He prevented anyone from examining him too closely by turning a fierce frown on anyone who looked too long. The offending party invariably turned quickly away, no doubt convinced that this aggressive interloper was involved in something they wanted nothing to do with. Paranoia could be a useful weapon, used correctly.
He spent the next hour and a half riding the Metro, changing trains frequently, shaking any unwanted observers. He got rid of several obvious KGB types, and shrugged off the interest of several possible agents. After an hour he was confident that there was no longer anyone following him. Only then did he start making his way to the rendezvous point, by as circuitous a route as he could manage.
He arrived in the night club district that had been chosen by Illya as their meeting point perhaps fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Instead of choosing a single point, Illya had suggested using a full block. That way, if one of them arrived ahead of time, they wouldn't draw suspicion by remaining too stationary. Instead, they could wander the street, joining the light crowds who naturally populated the area.
Napoleon now did just that. It should have been the easiest part of the assignment, but this night he found that it was almost impossible to maintain the cover of a man just out for a night on the town. His normally suave exterior, the thing he depended on for protective colouring on every assignment, seemed to have evaporated in his anxiety for Illya. He felt the need to fidget, to squirm. He felt exactly the way Illya must whenever he was forced to wear a tuxedo.
He walked up half a block, nodding at several passersby, before returning to his starting place. He hoped that the walking would exhaust this burst of nervous energy, and that his clothes were good enough camouflage to make him look like a Russian to the casual observer.
He let his eyes scan up and down the street, seeing if there was anyone who matched Illya's description of this Rodchenko.
"Tall, taller than you. Dark hair that always seems to be in need of a cut. No, not like mine, so don't even say it. Handsome, but in a more rugged way than you. Napoleon, don't pout. You know I don't like rugged. He has self-confidence, and also seems slightly impatient. I think you will like him. Either that, or you will hate each other on sight."
Napoleon mulled over that description in his mind and compared it against every man who passed by. In the end, though, it was Rodchenko who found him.
Vassili approached the night club district cautiously. His comrades at the KGB should have no reason to follow him, yet, but he wanted to take no chances.
He circled the surrounding area twice before venturing onto the street where he was to meet Solo. He kept his interest in the people passing light, hoping that would be enough to spot Solo.
He needn't have worried.
Solo wouldn't have stood out more if he'd been wearing a Spanish bullfighter's outfit.
His clothes were right, the kind of clothes a well-off Russian might wear when slumming it in this district. Everything else, however, was dead wrong. He was too curious by far, more curious that the average Russian was, or could afford to be. In fact, his whole appearance, down to that ridiculous cleft chin, was wrong for this place.
It was lucky that he hadn't already been picked up by the security police. Vassili shook his head, wondering what his young friend saw in this man.
He moved in to make contact, coming up behind the man as he turned to watch another man pass.
"Comrade Solo," he said quietly. Solo spun quickly around, one hand going automatically to a pocket. To his credit, he was startled for only a second.
"Rodchenko, I presume?" His Russian was passable, at least, with only a slight accent.
"Yes. We should get off the streets."
Solo nodded, and followed as he led the way. At least there was to be no grandstanding by the worldly American agent. Not yet.
Vassili led the way to a small club that played mostly traditional music, but occasionally allowed one of the more subversive folk singers to grace its tiny stage. Vassili had made a deal with the owners. They would let him use the back room, no questions asked, and he would turn a blind eye to the political messages of the singers they hired, and would encourage other authorities to do the same.
He led the American into the back area, more a big closet that a true room. It was cluttered with crates of beer and vodka, and its only window had been nailed shut several generations back.
He sat on one crate, and invited Solo to do the same. He gestured for the American to begin.
"Is it safe to talk here?" Solo asked, looking extremely skeptical.
"As safe an anywhere I know. You may say anything here."
Solo nodded, accepting his word. That was good, at least. It would be difficult to work with someone who didn't trust him.
"You know they have Illya?" Vassili nodded. "We need to get him, and our other agents out of the Lubyanka, and Russia."
"You don't ask for much, comrade Solo."
"Illya said that you could manage it, if anyone could."
"That sounds like my crazy friend. He always did think that with a good enough plan, we could accomplish anything." He paused for effect.
"He still does." Solo smiled slightly. "He's all morose and Russian one minute--no offense--and the next he thinks he can conquer the world."
Vassili decided he like this American. Illya had chosen his friends well.
"Fortunately, this time his confidence has not been misplaced. I believe I have an idea that will work. Although it does depend on your speaking at least a little Russian like a native."
"How am I doing so far?"
"Eh, not bad." Vassili cracked a large grin. "But I do not think I will have you say too much." To his credit, the American didn't take offense, but smiled widely himself.
Yes he definitely liked this man.
It was late in at night, or morning really, and Illya Kuryakin lay awake in his cell, staring straight ahead, but seeing nothing. In spite of how tired he was, he was unable to sleep.
A few hours earlier he had been the reluctant recipient of a visit from several young KGB agents. No doubt they had found out there was a traitor on the premises, and seen it as an opportunity to prove both their loyalty and their masculinity.
They had entered en masse. One had held a gun on Andris, preventing the Latvian from evening the odds, while the others had taken turns 'punishing' him. Hurting from the beating earlier in the day, Illya had thought it prudent not to antagonize his tormentors, and the strategy had paid off. Frustrated at getting no response from their victim, and looking a bit intimidated by Andris in spite of their numbers and guns, they had left after a relatively short time.
Now the worst reminder of their visit was the tender spot on his jaw where one of them had made contact. His only consolation was the thought that the knuckles of the man who had punched him were probably in worse shape than his jaw.
The lights in the cell had been dimmed for the night, but not completely turned off. If he looked across the cell, he could see Andris, asleep on the other cot. The sound of Andris' breathing reached him across. Napoleon had often complained about how annoying it was that Illya could sleep when he himself was too keyed up to do so. Now, Illya knew what he meant.
But he was too upset to sleep. Upset with himself, and the whole situation. He had been betrayed by his own government and thrown into jail. Worse still, he had put himself in the position where he could be betrayed. If he hadn't been so bloody self-confident, he'd be at home in New York, preferably curled up in a warm bed with Napoleon at his side.
Instead he was in a drafty cell on a lumpy cot, and his only companion was a large, overly loud Latvian who didn't look nearly as good in a tux as Napoleon.
Napoleon. His thoughts kept returning to his partner. He hoped the American was all right. He hoped mostly hoped that he and Vassili were working to get him out of this hell hole before he had more to show for the experience than a bruised jaw, and a few bumps on his head.
What was driving him crazy, what had managed to get under the cool exterior of the Ice Prince and was keeping him awake at night when neither natural disaster nor Thrush assassins had managed before, was the fact that he had no idea what Vassili had planned. He had only had time to send him a coded message with the expected outcome of his meeting with their superiors, a rendezvous point and time, and the code word Napoleon would use. He had received no reply back. Perhaps Vassili was even one of those who was keeping him confined here.
No, he couldn't think that. When he had been much younger, he had trusted Vassili as he now trusted Napoleon. He bestowed that kind of trust rarely, and only on those about whom he was absolutely sure. Vassili Rodchenko would always be there with help when asked, as he would be there to help Vassili. No other possibility was allowed.
He tried to relax, forcing himself to think of nothing, to relax each muscle, using every trick he knew to grab at elusive goal of sleep. He could survive for several days without sleep, but he would be much better prepared for what was to come if he could manage even a brief nap. His body had other ideas, however, and he remained resolutely awake.
So it was that he was awake when things began to happen.
At first he was only aware of an increase in the ambient noise of the prison. A few more scrapes and bumps from outside the door. The voices of a few more guards down the hall. The activity escalated, with more voices joining in the chorus. He began to hear the distinctive resonant sound the cell doors made when opened.
The noise rose to such a level that even Andris woke up.
"What the hell is going on, Illya Nickovetch?" Andris demanded, sitting up with a start.
"Shh." Illya moved closer to the door. "It sounds like they're moving prisoners." He listened more attentively. "Quite a large number of prisoners."
"Why?" Andris stood and joined him at the door.
"If I knew that, you oaf, I would likely not be in this cell with you."
"Hmmph." Andris was clearly paying more attention to the sounds from outside their cell than he was to his companion.
They were both listening so hard, that they jumped in surprise when the door to their cell opened. Two guards with submachine guns entered first. Two other guards, with manacles, and an officer followed.
"You. Sit," the officer barked at them both.
Illya caught Andris' eye, sensing that the Latvian might do something foolish, even with two guns aimed straight at them. He shook his head at Andris, and glared to emphasize his point. Andris merely shrugged, then followed the officers' orders.
Their hands were manacled, but not their feet, and they were pushed out of the cell. The guards with guns prodded them out of the detention area. They walked through a myriad back passages, taking several upward staircases along the way. Eventually they arrived in a small outside courtyard. There were a number of other prisoners in the yard, also manacled. A group of guards, armed with submachine guns, presided over the scene.
Illya looked at the other prisoners, and began to recognize faces.
Andris leaned in close to his ear.
"U.N.C.L.E." he whispered.
Illya nodded. It seemed that most of the captured Baltic agents were in this courtyard.
"Your people?" he asked Andris.
Andris made no reply, but only motioned with his head to a corner of the courtyard. Illya followed his friend's gesture, and saw a group of three men in the corner.
"You two. No talking," a guard shouted at them. He emphasized his point by directing his gun at Illya's head. Illya raised his hands slightly in surrender, and they both shut up.
Since he was not to be allowed to talk, Illya decided he would restrict himself to other forms of communication. He tried to make eye contact with the other prisoners. Most he got at least a nod out of. A few even had enough audacity left to give him a wink or a smile. He was worried about the two who would not even look up, but remained staring straight down, their posture marking them as defeated men. Illya recognized them both as the first agents to disappear, which meant they had endured this place the longest. He knew what that could do to a person. He just hoped they could be helped if they all got out of here. No, when they all got out.
Speaking of which, he began to look at the guards, trying to determine why they had all been brought to this courtyard in the middle of the night. None of the guards were giving answers away. Except for a few shouted orders to maintain silence, they said nothing, not even to each other. Illya began to think that they were all destined for a mass execution, here in this squalid little yard, when there was another burst of activity from the guards.
Two of them ran to a large gate at the courtyard's far end, while the others ordered the prisoners into a corner. The gate was opened, and a canvas covered truck entered.
Illya nudged Andris and looked at the truck.
"At least they're not going to shoot us here," he said, voicing his fears.
"Unless they want the truck to transport the bodies," Andris answered.
"And Napoleon complains about my attitude."
"Quiet!" It was the same guard who had yelled at them before. They were getting to be his pet project.
After some shuffling about, the prisoners were loaded into the truck. Illya arranged it so that he and Andris were the last on. They were able to sit beside the two guards who joined the prisoners in the back. If any opportunity arose, they were in a position to capitalize on it. They could also see the outside world, slightly, by looking around the edges of the canvas that was pulled across to block the view out of, and into the truck bed.
They heard the sound of an engine starting, and began their journey. At first they traveled within the city. Illya could see the large buildings, some recognizable, through the gap in the canvas. Soon enough, however, they were in the country side, on open highway.
At one point, Andris looked over at him and mouthed the word 'Siberia'. Illya only glared at him in response. He was working hard to see this trip as one stage on the road to liberation. He would not allow a cur of a Latvian to point out the possible, even probable downside. That was usually his job.
Time passed, and the dark of night began to brighten with false dawn. Even inside the canvas cover of the truck, they began to see more light.
It was at this point, as the light of true dawn began to appear, and Illya could even hear the odd chirp of a bird over the sound of the engines, that the truck slowed, and came to a stop.
Illya felt fear clench in his belly. They certainly weren't in Siberia. Perhaps it was a simple disposal job, after all. They had been transported into the middle of nowhere only to be shot, and the bodies buried where they would not be found until the bones were old and white.
He heard the men in the cab of the truck jump down to the pavement. He expected to see them at the back of the truck, but they didn't appear. He looked to the two guards in the truck. They were trying not to show it, but beneath their stern faces, they seemed confused. This couldn't be a scheduled stop, a good sign.
The sound of voices drifted back from the front of the truck. It sounded as though the driver was talking to someone, but Illya couldn't distinguish words or even voices.
Hope began to emerge inside Illya's heart. Perhaps, just perhaps, this was what he had waited for. He would not give words to the hope yet, but it was enough that it was alive.
The men outside of the truck seemed to be having an argument. Voices were raised enough that Illya could distinguish at least four different speakers. He still couldn't identify words, however.
There was a change in the tone of the discussion. It seemed to become friendlier. Shortly after this change, he heard the sound of footsteps walking to the back of the truck. The footsteps stopped, and there was a pause, then the tarp covering the truck was thrown back.
The two guards in the back had been looking at each other with growing unease. They jumped to their feet when the covering was thrown back. A KGB officer stood at the tailgate, his cap pulled low over his eyes.
The newcomer nodded at the two guards.
"We have been sent as reinforcements."
The guards seemed uneasy. They had clearly not been expecting this.
"Where are your orders?" asked the largest one.
"My friend has them up front." The officer started climbing up the tailgate. "Could you help me?"
The new man was barely in the truck when things started happening very fast. The two guards still had hold of his elbows when he pulled a small gun from his pocket and shot the smaller of the two. Andris must have anticipated the action, because he roared, and stood, bringing his fists into the face of the larger guard. The officer fired at the second guard, and he went down as well.
Two gunshots sounded from the front of the truck, and then, after a long silence, a third.
Then there was quiet.
Illya was always amazed at the stillness and silence that fell after an act of violence. Even if you were expecting the violence, or had done it yourself, it was astounding how everything stopped afterwards. Just for a moment.
The moment broke.
The officer tugged off his cap and offered Illya his hand. Illya could only stare stupidly at the man.
Andris nudged him.
"Shouldn't you say hello to you partner?"
That broke his paralysis. He stood, stepping over the body at his feet. Immediately, he was swept into a bear hug by Napoleon.
Throughout the truck, U.N.C.L.E. agents were standing and jumping. Andris' men made their way to his side, talking to him excitedly in Latvian.
"Glad to see you, doushka moy," Napoleon whispered in his ear.
Illya nodded, overwhelmed by the moment, his own hands trapped both by his partner's embrace and the manacles.
He was released, and held his hands up.
"Can we do something about these?" He waggled his fingers at the American.
"Sorry." Napoleon searched one of the dead guards and came up with a ring of keys. He unlocked Illya's manacles, and Andris' then surrendered the key to the Latvian. Andris and his men set about unlocking the rest of the prisoners.
Illya rubbed his wrists where the manacles had cut off his circulation. He looked around the truck, and noticed again the two men who had seemed to have lost all hope back at the Lubyanka. They were smiling like the others, but there was a haunted quality to their expressions. He called Andris over, and pointed the two men out. Andris nodded his understanding. He would make sure they were treated with care.
That task done, he gestured to Napoleon, and they both jumped from the truck.
"I take it your partner in crime was Vassili."
"Uh-huh." His partner twisted his face. "Do you mind if we switch to English for a second. My mouth is starting to hurt."
"Of course," Illya said, laughing. "I hadn't realized I was still speaking Russian."
They walked to the front of the truck. There, they found Vassili pulling one of the two bodies into the ditch. The KGB officer looked up from his disturbing task, and a wide grin split his face.
Illya was the victim of another hug. Vassili was the first to let go.
"My god, Illya, you look like hell. What did you do to annoy our colleagues?"
"Why do you always assume it is my fault when I am beaten?"
"Because he knows you too well." Napoleon caught up to the two of them. Illya made a face at him.
"I see I'm going to have to defend myself against both of you now."
"Before you do anymore 'defending' I think we should get our two friends here out of sight." Vassili pointed to the two bodies on the ground. "We've been lucky so far, but there will be other traffic on this road soon enough."
They all stopped short. For a moment, Illya had almost forgotten that men had died, and that he had assisted in their deaths.
All light banter temporarily halted, they got to work. With Andris' help, they hid the four bodies in a nearby drainage pipe, after first stripping off their uniforms, and removing any identification they had. Unidentifiable bodies would not be investigated as thoroughly as dead members of the KGB. Besides, they had a use for the uniforms.
It would look odd if a large group of prisoners was being transported by only two guards. Andris and Illya and two volunteers took the uniforms.
It was decided unanimously that Vassili and Illya should ride in the front of the truck. They were the only two native Russian speakers, and the bullet holes in Illya's inherited uniform were not quite as bad as some of the others..
Another unanimous decision was that Napoleon be placed as much out of sight as possible. In spite of his superior command of the Russian language, it was agreed that even the Estonians and Lithuanians looked more Russian than he did.
Illya squeezed his partner's shoulder in sympathy.
"Don't take it personally. It would be as ridiculous as passing me off as Japanese."
He danced quickly out of range to avoid a swat from Napoleon, since they had done exactly that a year ago.
Smiling, he left Napoleon to arrange their passengers, and strode up to the front of the truck. He regretted the fact that there could be no proper reunion with Napoleon at the moment. He was quite sure that none of the other agents would be thrilled if he followed his instincts and planted a sloppy kiss on Napoleon's lips.
That would have to wait for a more private time.
For now, he was content that they were together and safe.
He joined Vassili in the truck's cab. His friend had volunteered to take the first driving shift. Their best guess was that it would take all of the day, and to the middle of the night to reach the Finnish border, their destination. Especially since they would need to stay off the major roads, and stick to smaller roads that were less likely to be maintained.
When a knock on the back of the cab told them that all was ready in the back, Vassili started the trucked, and moved off. Their timing was impeccable. Within ten minutes of beginning their journey, they saw two farm trucks on the road.
At first, Illya and Vassili spent their time catching up. They had not seen each other in over two years. Vassili told him about his family. How his youngest sister had recently married a boy from the civil service. How his mother still asked about his young friend from the Ukraine. How his father always shook his head in despair over Illya being sent to the United States.
For his part, Illya told about his life in New York. The difficulty of getting good vodka; the ease of finding good jazz.
Conversation eventually drifted to Illya's partner.
"You are good friends, then, with this American?"
Illya nodded. "You seem surprised."
"Not really. I believe he is good for you, Illya Nickovetch."
Illya thought about the phrasing of that statement for a moment. It's meaning suddenly became clear.
"You know?" he asked, shocked. He had never dared to broach the subject of his homosexuality with Vassili. Not in university when he had shared all other thoughts with his Muscovite friend. Not when he was older, and began to truly realize what the stakes might be. The danger of exposure had always stopped him.
"I have know about your, shall we say preferences, since university. I just saw no reason to comment on them before."
Illya tried to come up with a comeback, and failed. He thought of all those years when he thought he had a horrible secret that he could share with no one. And Vassili had known?
And now, having dropped this bombshell, he just sat there, a maddening smile on his face.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Illya finally managed.
"Yes, I believe I am." Vassili smiled even wider. "After all, it's not often you get to shock one of your oldest friends.
"Oh my god," Illya moaned. "You can never tell your mother. I couldn't bear her knowing."
"My mother was the one who figured it out."
"Don't tell me any more. I don't want to know."
"Not about my sister wanting to fix you up with one of her charming male friends," Vassili laughed.
"It's a good thing you're driving, Vassili Sergeiavich. I believe we would now be in the ditch if I were at the wheel."
"It's all part of my grand plan, Illya Nickovetch."
"I think my grand plan may be to shoot you for being a general nuisance." Illya made his best show of sounding cross, but his shock was already fading. In a way, it was comforting that he could now share that part of his life with Vassili. It made his relationship with Napoleon seem even more solid, if he didn't have to hide the fact of it from his friend. Not that they could be open, by any means, but at least he didn't feel quite so furtive now.
The long drive to the Finnish border took its toll on Illya. Although it was good to spend time with Vassili, his injuries began to ache, and his lack of sleep began to catch up with him. He could only imagine how Napoleon and the others were holding up in the back of the truck. The cab might not be luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better than a bare truck bed. So, he was grateful when, long after midnight, they finally rolled to a stop.
They were still several miles shy of their final destination. They were to leave the truck with Vassili and walk across the border through the woods. Vassili had obtained a schedule of patrols before he had left Moscow. They would exploit a gap in the patrol grid. An U.N.C.L.E. truck awaited them in Finland.
Vassili would go no further. He jumped out of the truck and started rolling his shoulders to get rid of the cramps that sixteen hours on the road had caused.
Napoleon and Andris helped the others out of the truck, while Illya and Vassili scouted slightly ahead. They returned to the truck when it seemed that all was clear.
Illya offered Vassili his hand, but it was knocked away.
"Is that what they teach you in the West," he said, then gave Illya a great hug, kissing him on both cheeks. "Go with god, or whatever you believe in, Illya Nickovetch." Vassili looked Napoleon's way and shouted at him. "And you, American, you look after him or I will find you and torture you with bad balalaika music." Napoleon looked at him shocked. Illya only shrugged his shoulders.
"Will you be safe," Illya asked his friend.
"I have set up my alibis and protection. It won't be easy, but it should work in the end." He poked Illya in the rib. "But if you see me in New York, I am probably going to ask your Mr. Waverly for a job."
"He would take you anytime."
Vassili smiled, and with a wave he was in the truck and gone.
Napoleon appeared at his side, giving him an odd look.
"What was that all about?"
"I'll tell you later." Much later, he promised himself.
After everything that had preceded it, the hike into Finland was distinctly anticlimactic. They could see easily by the full moon. They ran into no Russian patrols. The U.N.C.L.E. truck was exactly where it was supposed to be. There weren't even any wild animals that caused them problems.
The Finnish U.N.C.L.E. team was waiting, with yet another old transport truck, a stack of sandwiches, and gallons of hot coffee.
There was surprisingly little celebration. Everyone was too tired. Tired from having walked for an hour through the woods, tired from having ridden all day in an ancient Soviet Army truck. Tired from everything.
They set off for Helsinki as soon as everyone had eaten. There was little room in the truck, no room for preserving personal space. And they were all so exhausted that no one had the energy to care if their leg was touching their neighbour's, or if a stray hand ended up in their face. They were all asleep soon enough.
Which was why no one thought it unusual that Number 2, Section 2, New York fell asleep with his head in the lap of his CEA.
They had not been back in New York headquarters for fifteen minutes, when Waverly asked to see Illya, alone.
Illya was not looking forward to the meeting. His body, suffering from the strain of the last few days, was crying out for rest. All he really wanted to do was go to Napoleon's apartment, and fall asleep in his partner's arms. But duty called first.
He walked to Waverly's office with a sense of dread following him the entire way. After what had gone on in Russia, he kept thinking that their superior was going to ask for his resignation. A disgraced Soviet agent, he could only be a liability to the Command now.
He entered Waverly's inner sanctum and found the Old Man buried in some report. He looked up only long enough to wave him in.
"Mr. Kuryakin, come in. Take a seat. I'll be with you in a moment."
Illya gingerly took a seat at the round table, and watched as Waverly finished reading the report, then made contact with an agent and delivered his orders. That job done, he put down his papers, and turned his full attention on Kuryakin. Illya found the effect more disconcerting than he ever had before.
"Do you know why I asked to see you, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"I can guess it has something to do with my status, sir."
"Exactly. We need to make some decisions."
"I hope you do." Waverly shuffled around until he came up with a rather crumpled sheet of paper. "Your government has asked for your return. There's some nonsense about charges of treason, sabotage, and the like"
"Yes, sir." Illya felt his chest begin to pound in his chest. He was going to be shipped home in disgrace. He would never see New York again. He would never see Napoleon again. He swallowed hard. If he was lucky, they would put a bullet in his brain and be done with it.
He suddenly realized that Waverly had asked him something. He was waiting for a response, and Illya had no idea what he was meant to say.
"I'm sorry, sir. What did you say?"
"I said you have some decisions to make. Do you want to remain in U.N.C.L.E.?"
"Pardon?" Illya couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Pay attention." Waverly's tone was sharp. "Do you want to remain in U.N.C.L.E.?"
"Yes sir. But you can't . . ."
"Don't tell me my job." Waverly frowned and looked back down at his papers. "Do you object becoming the citizen of another country?"
"No, sir." This was all happening too fast. He decided to let it wash over him and not think.
"That's good." More shuffling of papers. "We are going to do something very irregular." He stopped and pulled out a sheaf of papers that Illya could see were messages from the communications section. "Since your government has become so difficult, Section 1 has proposed that you become a citizen of another country, and serve as its contribution to U.N.C.L.E. Almost every member country has volunteered to take you on."
"But . . ."
"Yes, this will make it difficult, if not impossible to work with the Soviet Union. But in case you haven't noticed, young man, it's been almost impossible to work with them anyway." Waverly drew his eyebrows together. "We haven't been able to trust the Soviet, or the KGB for some time. The people who initially tried to assassinate you were a splinter group, but that splinter is taking over the whole. We need to pull back from the Eastern bloc, and wait for a time when we can work with them constructively again."
"Won't my defection make that even more difficult in the future?" There, he'd said the word. Defection. He was going to be a defector.
"No more than it will be at any rate. They will continue to be impossible, whether they get you back or not. And we have a considerable investment in your services now. You must realize that you are our senior-most agent in New York, after Mr. Solo. We are willing to suffer a substantial amount of inconvenience to keep you."
Illya almost laughed. Standing up to the Soviet Union seemed to entail more than 'inconvenience.' He bit his lip and nodded.
"What country am I to be assigned to?"
"You aren't going to be assigned. You can choose."
"Sir?" It was too much.
"I told you, almost every member country volunteered to take you on. Except for Russia and China. You can choose which country you wish to become a citizen of."
Illya blinked. Any country. He could become a citizen of any country, all he had to do was decide. And it wouldn't just be a fake identity, as he had traveled on so many times. This time it would be real.
"Do you have a suggestion as to which country I should choose?" He had a sudden attack of self-doubt. Perhaps Waverly was set on him being American.
"I've already told you, it's your choice." His boss' voice was becoming tinged with irritation. Illya supposed it came of making hundreds of decisions daily. He was no doubt impatient with anyone who couldn't make a decision. Especially one of his top agents.
"Then I choose England. I studied there the longest." He did not add that Napoleon would be far too smug if he chose either American or Canadian citizenship. He could not take a smug Napoleon.
"Very well. I will inform the Prime Minister. We should have the paperwork complete in several days."
"That's all, Mr. Kuryakin. You may leave, now." Waverly gestured him out with his pipe, and immediately began reading the paperwork on some new emergency. He overturned people lives so casually, then moved onto something else.
"Yes sir." He turned, and left the office.
He was no longer Russian, or wouldn't be in a few more days. It was an interesting feeling. He had always been Russian. It was the one thing he had though would never change. He might assume different identities, work for different organizations, hold different positions in U.N.C.L.E. itself, but he had always been Russian.
Now he would be something of his own choosing. He had chosen to become English. He had chosen to remain in U.N.C.L.E. And he had chosen to be the partner, in love and work, of one very particular American agent.
He really couldn't ask for more.
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