When Illya Kuryakin appeared in the gym, dressed in his sweats, it was surprising, Napoleon thought, how busy the gym started to become. Despite its being situated in the bowels of the building, a surprising number of the staff found reasons to call by on their way to somewhere else. Women most definitely, but a fair number of the men dallied too.
Standing at the back of the room, watching as pockets of chattering agents, secretaries and filing clerks all pretended to be conducting vital business of their own, it was clear that every eye in the room was fixed on the slight blond in the corner, silently doing press-ups. The men were clearly admiring the youthful Russian's technique, and wishing that they could make an activity like press-ups look as effortless. The women, however, were there to stare and sigh and ogle, as Kuryakin, having finished five-hundred press-ups, bounced to his feet looking almost as fresh as before, and claimed a running machine.
Napoleon smirked and left the room. It had been the same ever since the Russian first arrived. He was so fit and supple, he made all the exercises in the gym look easy. From the first he had attracted attention. The first time it had apparently been for all the wrong reasons. Napoleon had gone down there to find him and found Kuryakin in the middle of a display fight with nine or ten section two agents, which although it had ended in a friendly manner, it had clearly not started out that way.
These days the admiring throngs were made up of women wishing and panting for his attention, and men watching his technique, hoping to pick up some tips that might one day even allow them to best him. If Kuryakin noticed them, he gave no sign of it. He went through his exercises with a fierce concentration that allowed no room for anyone else. When he was through, he grabbed his towel and headed for the shower, ignoring the ripples of comments that broke out in his wake.
Napoleon headed into the locker room and waited until his partner emerged from the shower dripping wet, his towel busily employed in rubbing his hair dry.
"Napoleon!" The Russian acknowledged his presence, starting to pat himself dry completely unselfconsciously. He grabbed his pile of clothes waiting in an open locker and glanced at Napoleon who had turned away and seemed fascinated with some detail on the far wall.
"Napoleon, is everything alright?"
"Um…you have a visitor upstairs. The new Russian Ambassador has finally arrived."
"Who is it?"
"I don't know. I didn't catch his name…sorry."
"Too long and unfamiliar to remember, I guess, correct? Why would he want to see me?"
"To view their agent perhaps? You're still fairly new here. Perhaps he is interested in finding out how we are treating you?"
"Mmmmm." Illya replied indistinctly, as he pulled his head through the neck of his black turtleneck sweater. "I suppose I had better go and find out."
"Well, Mister Waverly has put him in the conference room. The Ambassador wanted to see you in private."
Illya's eyebrows arched at that. He finished dressing hurriedly and bypassing the conference room, went straight up to Mister Waverly's office. The old man was sitting calmly, puffing on his pipe as though he had been waiting for Kuryakin to show up; which quite possibly he had.
"Sir, Mister Solo tells me the Russian Ambassador had arrived to see me."
"Yes, he is in the conference room. You may take as long as you need, Mister Kuryakin."
"Sir, isn't it irregular for an official to pay a call on a top-secret organization without first making an appointment?"
"Indeed it is Mister Kuryakin. The man did have an appointment to see me. He has, however, expressed a keen desire to see you privately. It seems you are known to him personally."
Illya's mind raced. An Ambassador known to him personally?
"Who is it, sir?"
"Aleksander Illyich Surikov."
At the sound of the name, Waverly observed the young man's face turn white, and then red with, he guessed, suppressed rage. Kuryakin's expression, however, remained a complete blank. He shook his head.
"Sir, I must respectfully refuse to meet Comrade Surikov!"
Waverly was taken aback at the venom in the young man's tone.
"Mister Kuryakin, he is already in there waiting for you."
"Sir, if he needs to see me on official business, he would be obliged to state his business in your presence. If he wishes to see me in private, then it can be only one of two things. Either he has the intention of officially requesting me to become a double agent and spy on UNCLE for him, or it is a personal matter. In either case sir, I cannot speak to him. I will not spy, for him or for anyone else, and I have no intention of listening to anything he has to say to me on a personal basis…sir."
Waverly sighed, and shot the young Russian an appraising look.
"Are you willing to tell me, in confidence, the reason for your hatred of this man?"
Illya stared back for a long moment, searching Waverly's face, then drew in a deep breath.
"In confidence, sir?"
A tall, upright man, in his late sixties with iron-grey hair and a surprisingly young looking aspect paced up and down the conference room, impatience beginning to darken his features. What the hell was taking so long? After what seemed an eternity, the door opened and an attractive young woman entered. He frowned at her.
"You are not Illya Kuryakin."
"I know that sir. If you will please follow me, sir?"
"I am going nowhere. I am waiting for my fellow countryman, Kuryakin to show his face. What is taking him so long?"
"There is a difficulty, sir. If you will please accompany me?"
Surikov could see the young woman's determination to have him accompany her, and he was also aware of the loaded weapon she carried in the holster at the small of her back. There was no doubt she would pull it if he gave trouble. Sighing in annoyance, he gave a curt nod, and followed her back to Alexander Waverly's office. He strode in without waiting for the invitation, passing the girl without a second glance.
"What is this about? You gave me to expect you would order Mister Kuryakin to meet me in your conference room."
Mister Waverly was on his feet, and he walked to the window, where the sun was shining brightly into the room, and turned his back to the window and faced the annoyed Russian, casting himself in shadow against the bright sunlight. Surikov was forced to shade his eyes and squint.
"In fact, Ambassador Surikov, I told you that I would inform him that you are waiting. I did so, and I must tell you that Illya Nikovich Kuryakin has refused to see you."
Surikov was momentarily silenced. The boy had refused?
"He cannot refuse to see me. I am his Ambassador!"
Waverly allowed a small smile as he stepped forward and finally invited the other to take a seat.
"In fact, you are not his Ambassador. You are the Soviet Ambassador. Every man and woman who enters the employ of U.N.C.L.E, regardless of where they were born, becomes completely neutral from all national affiliations. No man or woman is Russian, or British, or American or French or anything else. We are a multi-national organization, with agents from many countries around the world. When a country or government gives one of its men to the UNCLE organization, it is on that basis. That is one of our basic, fundamental rules. Mister Kuryakin is still a Soviet citizen, but your government agrees to give up all rights to him whilst he is in our employ. You cannot order him to do anything without my leave, and as a member of UNCLE, Mister Kuryakin in within his rights to refuse to see you alone. If, however, there is an important official matter, you are free to bring it to me and I could then translate it into an order if I see fit."
Surikov growled in frustration, and Waverly repressed a smile. Surikov sat down suddenly and put his head in his hands.
"It is a strictly personal reason you wanted to see him, isn't it, sir?" Waverly said gently. Surikov nodded.
"Yes. I…I made a mistake a long time ago. In my stupid arrogance and prejudice, I disowned my own, my only daughter, because I hated the man she married. Not who he was exactly, but what he was."
"He was a Gypsy, correct?"
Surikov looked up.
"He told you?"
"Considering the life that young Kuryakin has led, Mister Surikov, in his defense, I quite understand why he is unwilling to see you."
"The life he has led? He has had a good education, received training from the best organisations in my country, and is now doing a job that gives him freedom only dreamt of by the majority of his fellow countrymen. I fail to see…"
Waverly nodded sadly.
"You do fail to see Mister Surikov. It is not my place to put you in the picture. Simply to let you know of his decision."
"But I knew how intelligent he was. The government were always…are always looking for intelligent youngsters to train up."
"Yes." Waverly narrowed his eyes. The man clearly was clueless. "So, when a skinny, starving, orphaned child of eight knocked on your door, called you dedushka, and begged for your help, rather than give him help, you turned him away and called the local authorities? You knew he was your own flesh and blood, didn't you?"
"He looked exactly like his mother. The same face, same hair, the same defiant expression in the eyes. I was blinded by my pride. I was still angry with her for defying me."
"So, you took it out on her child? Mister Surikov…exactly why did you come here today?"
"I was assigned to be the new Ambassador to the United States, and I learned that one of my own countrymen was in New York representing us to the U.N.C.L.E. When I learned the man's name and realized it was my grandson, I…I have never known him, and I…"
"You could have taken Illya in when he came to you for help as a little boy. If you had, you would have been in the perfect position to guide his development. As it was, you turned him away, and he spent his entire life being half-starved, beaten, and abused by those around him. The fact that he is here, and is my most promising new agent is not down to your credit, but to his own. Now if you will forgive me, Ambassador, I have a lot of work to do."
He leaned forward across his desk and pressed a button.
"Mister Kane, will you please escort the Ambassador back to his car?"
The door opened, and an UNCLE security man stepped in.
"This way sir."
Surikov shook Waverly's politely extended hand. He looked deflated, and Waverly felt a slight twinge of…what? Sympathy? The man did not deserve his grandson's love after all, but war did things to people, and everyone made mistakes.
"He knows you are here, Ambassador. Perhaps, in time…?"
Surikov nodded sadly, and followed the security man from the room.
Illya entered the office he shared with his partner, and sat down at his desk. Napoleon looked at him suspiciously.
"That was quick."
"I thought you had a meeting with the Ambassador in the conference room."
"I refused to see him."
"Why would you do that?"
"I would rather not discuss it."
"Aren't you in danger of making an enemy of the Ambassador? It usually pays to be in good…"
For the first time since he had known him, Illya had raised his voice, and Napoleon was shocked into silence. Illya's eyes were full of danger for a moment, then the moment passed, and Illya dropped his head.
"Sorry for shouting Napoleon, but believe me, the Ambassador will not be a threat to anyone. He is an old man."
"An old man with contacts in high places."
"That cuts both ways."
"You have something on him, don't you? Give!"
Illya shook his head.
"Sorry Napoleon, it is a personal matter, and I don't wish to discuss it. I am hungry."
"Something to do with your vigorous workout? Commissary?"
Illya shook his head.
"No, I want to get away from watching eyes and…I'd rather eat out. Coming?"
Smiling, Napoleon nodded.
"Sure. Your treat."
"My treat? Why should I pay for your lunch?"
"Because I am curious about your visitor, and I am dying to ask questions."
"Feeding you will encourage you to keep your nose out of my affairs? No way, my friend. You can ask all the questions you want. I will not answer unless I choose to."
Napoleon grinned and followed his partner from the room. He almost bumped into him outside the door. Illya had stopped still, as the Ambassador happened to be passing by in the corridor on his way back to reception. The Ambassador stopped when he saw the blond.
"You're Kuryakin! I would know you anywhere!"
"You refused to see me."
Illya did not reply. Ambassador Surikov looked him up and down.
"You're looking well."
He inclined his head back towards Waverly's office.
"Mister Waverly thinks well of you. Alina would be very proud."
"What would you know, Ambassador?"
"Perhaps I don't know anything. I do know that people make mistakes, and frequently live to regret them."
Illya nodded, and to Napoleon's consternation, brought his face uncomfortably close to that of the Ambassador.
"Your mistake cost you nothing at the time did it Ambassador? But you will never know how much it cost me. You can afford to sit in your comfortable office and regret all you want to. I am the one who has had to live with the scars. I am not going to salve your conscience for you"
He stepped back and looked at his partner.
"I am sorry, Napoleon, but I am no longer hungry. I need to take the rest of the day off."
Napoleon nodded and watched his partner stride away, aware that something of import had occurred, but uncertain what it might be. The Ambassador looked discomfited.
"Are you alright, Ambassador?"
The old man nodded sadly.
"I think I am done here." He fished in his pocket and brought out a chain with a circular locket. He handed it to Napoleon.
"Will you give this to him? Tell him it belonged to his mother. She inherited it from her grandmother. An old family heirloom?"
Napoleon nodded, and took it in surprise.
"You are a relation of Illya's aren't you?" he asked with a flash of insight. The old man shook his head.
"Not any longer. I used to be his grandfather, but now I am nothing but an Ambassador. For what it is worth, perhaps you will tell him that if he ever needs me…" the old man's voice cracked and dried up. Napoleon nodded and watched as Kane led the Ambassador away.
That night, for a long time after Napoleon had left his apartment, Illya stood looking out across the twinkling lights of the city, memories racing through his mind, very few of them pleasant ones. He had no reason to forgive the old man for turning him away that night. Illya remembered being freezing cold, hungry, terrified and grief-stricken, but still warmed by a sparkle of hope that his dedushka, his grandfather who was still alive and wealthy would take him in and give him somewhere warm to sleep, and food in his belly. That hope had kept him alive as he had walked for miles and miles and miles, dodging Nazi soldiers, hunting parties and pack dogs in his determination to get there safely. Then finally he had arrived on the doorstep of a large house in the middle of the city. The door had opened, and little Illya saw light and warmth inside. He smelled food, too. Roasting pork and hot bread and his empty tummy rumbled in response. Then the man had turned him away and slammed the door in his face. Illya remembered that sparkle of hope fading and dying.
He looked down at the pendant in his hand that Napoleon had given to him. He wanted nothing from Surikov. He almost threw it over the balcony, but checked himself and opened it.
A small picture, a painting rather than a photograph, so tiny but so perfect, but Illya recognized it instantly. It was his mother, Alina Aleksandrovna Surikov, as she had been just before she had married. She would have been his age thereabouts, twenty-two. The wavy fair hair, blue eyes and the shy smile so like his own. It was the first time he had seen her face since the night of the attack on their Gypsy camp, over fourteen years ago. He clutched it tightly in his hand, then swiftly put it over his head and tucked the pendant inside his sweater, close to his heart. This was Alina's. He would wear it for her, to keep her close to him for always.