"Nyet," Illya whispered to himself as he sat on the cold, damp ground. Arms wrapped around his knees, he was slowly rocking himself ever so slightly and yet unaware that he was doing so. It didn't help relieve the pain. The night was his alone.
Only moments before there had been sounds of an automatic weapon firing in short bursts, yelling and screaming. His ears still rang with the echos and adrenaline raged through his veins. Now, all was quiet. The light of the moon shown down on him, accusingly.
They were gone, an entire family wiped out by a madman he'd been unable to stop in time. It wasn't supposed to end this way. He'd promised safety and new identities but now their bullet-ridden bodies lay in the field before him, scattered like discarded rag dolls. As he stared at the lifeless bodies, his gaze settled on the two young sisters, the wind gently blowing at their hair ribbons. He squeezed his eyes shut and rested his head on his knees.
They'd almost reached the safety of the trees, almost.
The air reeked of discharged gunpowder and rusted iron; was it their blood he was detecting or his own? He was wounded, a bullet buried in his left shoulder but the pain he felt was not physical. Illya made no move to staunch the flow of blood. Nothing mattered; he had failed.
Forcing himself to move, Illya stood and stumbled towards the shooter. With a trembling hand he withdrew his blade from the gunman's chest and tossed it away, dissociating himself from the weapon. He'd never use it again. The corpse still grasped the Colt automatic rifle and Illya pulled it from him.
That the assassin was dead held no satisfaction.
With a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, he lowered himself to the ground and spoke into his silver communicator.
"Open Channel D."
The sound of a helicopter startled Illya momentarily. He watched it set down a few hundred feet away and a familiar figure exited and make it's way towards him.
Napoleon crouched beside him and placed a comforting hand on his arm. "Did you check?" he asked solemnly, tilting his head towards the field.
"None of this was your fault, my friend; you were ambushed."
"He came out of nowhere, Napoleon. I was caught like a raw recruit. I promised them. 'Come with me and U.N.C.L.E. will keep you safe.' We may never know the information the chemist was bringing to us." He turned away.
Napoleon tugged gently on Illya's jacket so he could see his face and felt the warm, sticky wetness from the shoulder wound.
"You've been hit." Solo pulled out his handkerchief and applied firm pressure to the wound.
"Leave it," Illya gasped and flinched away. His brain finally registering the physical pain.
Solo knew and understood his friend's frustration, but the wound needed immediate attention.
"Come on," Napoleon said as he pulled him to his feet by his good arm. "There's a medic on board."
Illya sighed heavily and pointed with his chin, "They won't need one," he said flatly.
Solo steadied his partner and led him to the aircraft. Silence hung in the air between them.
Much later, after the ride back to headquarters, after the rush to remove the bullet and stabilize him, Illya rested in his hospital bed, his partner at his side. He was bone-tired and glad for the mattress beneath him as he barely had the strength to lift the water glass to his lips. It was a monumental effort to keep his eyes open. Sleep would be his only escape from this night's tragic events. Soon, the consuming darkness of sleep would swallow him and the memory would melt away temporarily. If only Solo would leave...
Napoleon shifted uncomfortably in the yellow molded plastic chair. He knew his partner wanted solitude, to suffer what he considered to be an abysmal failure alone; it was his way. He couldn't allow that to happen. This wasn't Illya's fault, damn it! It wasn't anyone's fault but the madman's.
"We have some unfinished business, Illya."
After a sideways glance, Kuryakin shook his head.
"How long do you plan on carrying around this false guilt?"
Napoleon watched Illya's expression carefully, he wanted to get a rise out of him, to keep him from blaming himself. Solo knew his friend felt culpable for tonight's fiasco. Illya tended to take defeat personally.
The blond swirled the ice in his glass, wishing it were alcohol, any alcohol, instead of water. This was a topic he had hoped to evade. He had failed; it was as simple as that. Emotional pain was always the hardest for him to control and he was struggling even now.
The uncomfortable silence that followed left Solo wishing he'd kept quiet. Usually he had impeccable timing; he must be slipping. His partner's eyes were glassy and Solo suspected the morphine was wearing off. Perhaps now was not the right time...
"This can wait until tomorrow, tovarisch. It's been a long day and I should let you get some sleep." Napoleon rose and stretched, muscles stiff from all the sitting and waiting. Head down, he mumbled, "I'll see you in the morning."
"No need to leave just yet, Mr. Solo." Alexander Waverly entered the room and moved to stand at the foot of the bed.
"It was most unfortunate we were unable to bring Doctor… ah, Kwolek and her family to safety."
Illya turned to face his superior squarely and winced, having moved his shoulder the wrong way.
"You'll have my resignation on your desk in the morning, sir."
"Will I, Mr. Kuryakin? Whatever for?"
"I am responsible-" Illya was stopped by the lift of a single, wiry eyebrow.
"While it is indeed unfortunate that this mission failed, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly began, "there were unforeseen circumstances surrounded it. Probable engine failure for one. I was informed the ground crew found problems with our helicopter. Routine maintenance revealed it would never have taken the weight of eight people. 'Dropped out of the sky,' was the phrase used I believe. All souls aboard would have been lost, including my two best operatives."
The agents glanced at each other, absorbing this information. They waited for their chief to continue.
"How many times did you fire your weapon tonight, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya frowned, why did this matter? "I emptied a full magazine of sleep darts, sir. The man never even flinched. There wasn't time to switch out the magazine to live ammo before- "
"...they were all dead?" Waverly finished his sentence. Illya nodded.
"Section 3 men I sent in for cleanup informed me the shooter was wearing some sort of protective suit." Waverly continued, "It was impervious to your darts. The team counted seven embedded in the material. Bullets would have had no effect either I'm afraid. You finished him off with your knife?"
"Well done! I will assign our scientists in Research and Development to study this new material and perhaps replicate it for our own agents to use. We may need to rethink our weapons policy in the interim. I won't have my agents defenseless in the field."
When Waverly was finished, Illya spoke up. "If I may, sir, I'd like to head the R&D team."
"Certainly, young man. I wouldn't have it any other way, however…" he paused, eyes narrowed as he studied the Russian, "only after you are officially released from Medical. The doctor's tell me you'll be here for at least two more days, and I do not want any reports of you escaping before then."
"You'll see to it, Mr. Solo." It was a command, not a request. With that, the U.N.C.L.E. left his two top agents alone.
Illya was able to relax, a heavy weight lifted from his shoulders.
"I'll stay the night if you need me," Solo said, "or not, whichever you like."
"I don't need a babysitter, Napoleon. It's only a flesh wound." Illya closed his eyes.
"It's not the shoulder I'm worried about. Even Waverly thinks the odds were stacked against Dr. Kwolek's family. You did your best for them, Illya. I couldn't have done any better. No one's at fault except the assassin's."
Napoleon was certain the blond never heard his last statement as sounds of a soft snore were emanating from him.
The CEA turned down the lights and tiptoed out of the room. He knew Illya would be back to his usual cantankerous self in a few days, after putting this incident behind him. It was something they both needed to do to continue being effective agents.
He stopped by the nurse's station to make a small request. "Please allow my partner some uninterrupted sleep tonight, ladies." With a wink he promised to see them in the morning.
A/N- Dr. Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist who in 1965 invented poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, better known as Kevlar, the lightweight, stronger-than-steel fiber used in bulletproof vests and other body armor around the world. She was 90 when she died in 2014.