Illya froze as he felt the muzzle of a gun press into the back of his neck. He knew he should have expected it. He'd managed to get too far up the building without incident and, even though it had felt like a trap, the Russian had carried on. He raised his hands in surrender.
"Welcome Mr Kuryakin," the owner of the gun said happily. "Of all the U.N.C.L.E. agents they could have sent, I'm so glad it is you. With your explosives expertise, I think you will appreciate the little scenario I have waiting for you."
The gunman urged Illya forwards and they entered a large, almost empty, apartment. At the far side there was an instantly recognisable explosive device and in the centre of the floor was a two foot square metal plate. Illya couldn't begin to imagine the purpose of the plate, but he would soon find out.
His captor moved round to stand in front of Illya and instructed him to remove his jacket, gun & holster and communicator. He dropped them onto the floor, unceremoniously.
"Go and kneel on the metal square."
Illya did as instructed and knew from the moment his knees met the metal that he was in very serious trouble. Something clicked beneath him and he froze for the second time.
"I suggest you remain in position Mr Kuryakin. You are now part of the detonator. If you move, everything goes boom."
Napoleon Solo stepped into the reception area from the corridor. Ruth could tell he had something on his mind when he failed to give her one of his trademarked smiles.
"Has Illya returned yet?" He asked her. "I can't get hold of him on his communicator."
His partner had missed a meeting with Mr Waverly and hadn't called in to give a reason. That alone was enough to cause concern.
"No, I'm sorry," Ruth answered. "I've been here all morning and he hasn't come back through."
Napoleon frowned. Illya had gone on a simple re-con to and abandoned apartment block, following a vague tip off about a THRUSH hideout. It shouldn't have taken more than an hour, but he had been gone over three hours.
"Tell Mr Waverly I'm going to look for Illya."
Illya was in agony. He had no idea how long he'd been maintaining the kneeling position but knew it wouldn't be for much longer. His legs had begun to tremble slightly and his back was begging to be stretched out. It felt to him as though every joint was on fire and he was sure they would all lock up permanently. Illya wasn't even sure the device was genuine, and was itching to get a look at it properly, but he couldn't risk moving. His only hope was that he had been missed at HQ by now.
Fifteen minutes later, his prayers were answered. When he'd first heard someone enter the apartment it took everything he had not to turn round to see if it was friend or foe. His heart rose at the sound of a voice he'd know anywhere.
"Be careful," the Russian hissed. "I'm on a pressure sensitive plate linked to that rather sizable explosive device over there."
Napoleon let loose an expletive and immediately fished out his communicator. He called for a bomb disposal team, a medical team and ordered the surrounding neighbourhood to be evacuated. Once everything was organised, he knelt down in front of his stricken partner.
"Can you hold on?"
"Don't have a choice," Illya replied wearily. "Though every muscle is threatening to cramp and I also really need to use the bathroom."
Napoleon couldn't help but smile.
"Don't worry chum, we'll have you out of here soon," he looked back at the bomb. "One way or another."
Before long, the apartment was bustling with people. Three explosive experts and two doctors had arrived, along with a contingent from section three.
"Napoleon," Illya whispered. "The pain is becoming too much for me."
"You want the doc to give you a shot of something?" suggested Solo.
"Calm down Tovarisch."
"Sorry," the Russian apologised. "I can't risk painkillers. They might fool my body into relaxing."
Solo had to concede that his friend had a point, but he was becoming very worried. He had been watching Illya closely for any sign of imminent collapse and had noticed his trembling was becoming more pronounced. If it became an all-out shake, he would probably activate the device.
"How long will you be?" Napoleon called over his shoulder to the bomb disposal team. He tried to keep his voice calm.
"We think we're almost there Sir," one of the three men called back. "There are four levels of security and we've managed to get past two. It seems to be a deceptively simple mechanism."
"I can't do it Napoleon. Izvinitye (sorry)."
"Hey! Don't you dare quit on me!" Napoleon ordered. "You've gotten through worse than this. How about a little incentive?"
Illya snorted. Not blowing up the neighbourhood had been incentive enough for him, but the human body could only tolerate so much. His reserves were almost depleted.
"If you're about to offer me a frivolous evening with a frivolous women, I'm afraid that's more of an incentive for you."
"You wound me," Napoleon retorted, with a friendly smile. "I was actually thinking of something I was going to save for your birthday, but after today I think you might need it."
"You have my attention. In fact, I'm practically riveted."
Napoleon grimaced at the attempted joke.
"There's a new, very high end, Russian Tea House opened up. I thought you might enjoy it."
That piqued Illya's interest. There were many Russian tearooms in the city but they catered mainly to Russian immigrants. He'd heard about this new one which was aiming itself at New York's elite classes. The sort people who publicly condemned Russia's government but secretly admired the way it kept the classes, and the wealth, very separate.
"I would very much like to visit it," Illya confessed. "It is a pity however, that none of us will be alive to go."
This is bad, Napoleon thought to himself. He'd tried appealing to Illya's stomach and culture, but neither prompted a positive reaction. Then he noticed Illya was starting to list to one side.
Without thinking, Napoleon reached forward to try and prevent Illya's fall. Time seemed to slow down as everyone heard the click from under the Russian's knees. At exactly the same time, one of the bomb experts turned round and announced they'd disarmed the bomb. A collected breath was exhaled as all those present realised they'd survived by the skin on their teeth. Not for the first time, but it never made it any easier.
Time pinged back to normal and the medical team leapt into action. Illya was fully unconscious, the last of his energies spent. At least he was no longer in pain, Napoleon reasoned. Though how this would affect him in the long term was anyone's guess.
Three days later, Illya was still very sore but had been discharged from medical. Before taking him home, Napoleon decided to make good on his offer. The Tea House he had promised his friend had been given the grandiose title 'The Winter Palace'. The interior had been decorated to reflect the palace for which it had been named. Illya's poor communist background instantly clashed against the outright opulence and decadence of the place. However, having lived in Paris, London and New York, his attitudes to a little decadence, once in a while, had warmed.
The two men were seated and a samovar placed on the table, as well as a selection of pies, pasties and sweets. Napoleon had never seen Illya look so joyful and it made him realise just how difficult it must be for the young Russian to live in such a foreign culture. He held up his glass.
"Nravitsya, moy drug (Enjoy, my friend)," he toasted.
"Spasibo Napoleon," Illya reciprocated. "Spasibo (Thank you)."