Intrinsic Natures

by

Patricia Jean Foley

For years, his opponents had wondered what led to his success, but Waverly himself attributed it to knowing his own goals and astutely managing his people toward that end. He considered U.N.C.L.E. to be his greatest accomplishment, above even his own children. He had nurtured his organization with the same, if not greater care than he had a family. Barring the world becoming a more peaceful and less contentious place, he had great hopes his legacy would long survive him and remain a useful and viable concern. To that end, he gave particular attention to his top enforcement teams, especially as time passed and he knew the need for his own replacement became more and more a pressing issue.

His replacement, Napoleon Solo, had captured his attention before the man even became a working agent. When the first Solo legends had come out of survival school, he had been skeptical, even though he knew the instructors there were hard-boiled men, unimpressed with undergraduate precocity. Regardless of his own reservations, though, he'd heeded his advisors, annexing Solo upon graduation to his own New York Headquarters rather than starting him in a local field office for a year or two as was the custom. Solo had impressed him, not so much for his easy confidence. So many men started the job with confidence, but lost the ability to retain it in the face of adversity. But Solo went through the worst of missions, both in success and failure, without having his own faith in himself or in U.N.C.L.E. shaken. That impressed Waverly. That he could see the rigors of the field and remain uncowed, keeping that implicit faith in his ability to overcome that evil, was a rare characteristic.

When a lone organization takes on the combined villainies of the world, an optimistic attitude becomes a necessary prerequisite.

And Solo had that. He rarely miscalculated the requirements or the sacrifices his duties entailed, but in spite of their difficulties he still kept his calm view that he could meet the challenges they offered. And he imparted that outlook to others. A natural leader.

Waverly had soon observed that, young as he was, the agents on Solo's missions inevitably looked to him for guidance, that they took his faith in their combined abilities for their own. It was then he realized he might have his replacement, young and inexperienced, but definitely a talent to be watched and nurtured.

It was perhaps a crucible test that Napoleon Solo could even lead Illya Kuryakin. The Soviet agent had also done well in Survival School, almost as good as Solo in many areas. But he was more loner than leader, both by choice and because his Soviet background inspired more distrust than confidence from his fellow agents. Kuryakin had spent two or three years being juggled like a hot potato from one HQ to the next after his graduation before Waverly finally brought him back in New York. Within a year or two, Waverly became aware of a side of his Soviet agent that Kuryakin hid from many superiors, but had eventually come to express fairly freely to Solo, a cynical, pessimistic view that, completely opposite to Solo's personality, dwelt on difficulties and questioned the opportunity for success. That Solo had by then virtually annexed the Russian as a partner had concerned Waverly. He had no desire to see his potential heir poisoned by such an outlook.

Instead what he saw was an unlikely juxtaposition of their temperaments. Solo didn't seem to change Kuryakin, nor did Kuryakin change Solo. The Chief Enforcement Agent largely seemed bemused by his partner's cynical posturing, yet for the most part ignored it or took it in stride as only a mild distraction. And Kuryakin's performance often belied his pessimistic outlook. Contrary to Waverly's misgivings, the Soviet agent's talent focused under pressure, like coal turning to diamonds. The Russian also snatched victory from the field and dragged it home in triumph. His accomplishments came more battered and bedraggled in execution than his senior partner's, and at a higher cost in terms of injury; he definitely did not manage his missions with the same easy grace or consummate style as his partner, but he still succeeded.

So Waverly, who'd been poised to consider the judicious removal of this potentially dangerous influence, kept his counsel. When Kuryakin had pulled enough wins out of the field to convince even him, he finally promoted the dour Russian to the number Two position. Solo had been delighted and proud; Kuryakin surprised and a trifle embarrassed. No more surprised than Waverly himself, when it came to that, but he was pleased enough with his top enforcement team to be in an indulgent mood. The rest of Section Two, after a few unfortunate incidents, adjusted.

Kuryakin had turned out to be a better choice than Waverly had first anticipated. In addition to his talents in the field, the Soviet agent demonstrated a surprising facility for paperwork, relieving Solo of much of the administrative detail for his section, something Solo had never favored and that Kuryakin seemed to take as his due. Kuryakin also added a touch of ruthlessness to the team, a quality that Solo possessed but kept largely repressed. Perhaps a little too repressed. With Kuryakin it lay less deeply under the surface, more available when his partner needed it.

Waverly was counting on that. He felt sure the time was coming when Solo would be welcome those skills. Waverly himself was counting on the ruthlessness of his one Russian wolf. For nothing brought the fire to his Soviet agent's eyes than a threat to his partner, friend, and Chief Enforcement Agent.

"That's it," Kuryakin punched in the last of the settings into the receiving station and folded the set of technical specifications he'd been consulting. "It's triangulated on Thrush HQ and will pick up all the radio, microwave and other transmissions from this satrap. Video on demand, too."

"Until Thrush discovers it and takes it out," Solo commented, his eyes scanning the terrain through a set of binoculars. In addition to the usual U.N.C.L.E. armament, he carried a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights.

"They are well shielded. They won't find them all, not immediately." Kuryakin glanced around and headed for the jeep.

"And we still have to decode the transmissions," Napoleon said, following his partner.

"At least we have something to decode."

Solo grunted skeptically and slid into the passenger side of the jeep just as Kuryakin put the vehicle in gear. He had to clutch the side door to keep from being thrown against his partner as the Soviet agent put the jeep into a hard turn.

"You're driving like a maniac," Solo straightened with difficulty, and got a tighter hold on the rifle, which had been banging about dangerously.

"We might have tripped off some sensors getting in here," Kuryakin said as he floored the vehicle. "The sooner we get on public land the better. Thrush knows we've been snooping around; they'll soon be trying to find out why."

"Nothing visible so far," Solo scanned the countryside. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh?" Kuryakin glanced uneasily at Solo. "What, Napoleon?"

"Helicopter at six o'clock," Solo scrambled around in the seat, and shouldered the rifle. "Try and drive nice and straight and smooth, so you don't ruin my aim."

"This is a jungle, Napoleon," Kuryakin retorted, concentrating on his driving, resisting the temptation to look over his shoulder. The roar of the helicopter grew louder. "Aren't you going to fire?"

"The minute they do," Solo murmured. "Can't fire on a potentially friendly aircraft, can we?"

"You and your nobility," Kuryakin growled, "They've as much chance of being friendly as --" he flinched instinctively backwards as the copter sent spurting a double line of fire in a wide swath just ahead of them, but kept his foot hard on the accelerator, well aware any change in speed would throw Solo off balance.

Solo responded instantly, the high-powered automatic rifle sending round after round aloft at his target. Unlike the copter gunman, he aimed precisely and with good results. Kuryakin, struggling to keep the vehicle even as Solo aimed and fired, heard a small explosion and then a larger one. Then the wind blew the stench of fire and a gust of warmer than normal air over them.

The Soviet agent spared a glance at Solo, still perched unsteadily backwards and scanning the skies. "Any more pursuit?"

"None so far," Solo said softly, as if too loud a statement would cause more Thrush agents to materialize out of thin air.

"We'll be at the highway in two minutes." Kuryakin zigzagged gently around a fallen tree.

"Don't slow down," Solo said unnecessarily.

Kuryakin didn't reply.

They made it to the highway. Less than a minute after Kuryakin pulled the jeep onto the roughly paved road, a couple of armored vehicles bearing the skeletal globe symbol swarmed up around them and bracketed them neatly, neither slacking speed. The rear vehicle blinked its lights in the prearranged pattern. A gunnery team waved cheerfully from the roof of each, and Solo slowly sank back into his seat, still keeping the rifle at ready.

"Nice shooting," Kuryakin commented.

"Didn't think I had it in me, did you?" Solo replied, trying for a light note.

Kuryakin ignored the opening, "They wanted us alive, you know. That's why they fired over us, rather than hitting us dead center. Or firing on the gas tank."

"Dead would be right," Solo answered easily.

"They were hoping I'd brake, and throw you clear. Or they were just trying to scare us into stopping."

"Illya," Solo frowned now. "Save the postmortem for the report."

"They wanted you alive," Kuryakin reiterated darkly. "That's the second time they've avoided killing you, hoping to capture you. Last time was Majorca, last month. Third if you count what happened in Lisbon four months ago."

"Coincidence," Solo replied, dismissively.

"You know it isn't," Kuryakin swung the jeep into the crude landing strip, and let himself be hustled by the waiting agents into a transport plane standing ready on the airstrip. "You just want to think it is."

Solo scrambled into the plane behind him, and was saved from replying by the beep of his communicator. He flipped it on, to hear Waverly's voice issuing from the tinny speaker.

"Congratulations, Mr. Solo. We received very clear images of the chase once the audio sensors registered the gunfire. And, good shooting, by the way."

Solo grinned and glanced meaningfully at his partner, who looked disgruntled. "Thank you, sir."

"I need you two gentlemen back in New York," Waverly went on. "There will be a jet waiting for you at the airport. Don't dally," he added, before closing the connections

"No, sir," Solo said, swallowing his questions, and tucking his communicator back in his jacket. "What do you think?" He asked Kuryakin, whose face was closed and thoughtful.

The Russian shrugged. "We'll know soon enough. I'm going to catch some sleep while we can. You should too. We don't know what Waverly will have for us."

"Mmmn," Solo watched as Kuryakin stuffed his safari jacket into a semblance of a pillow under his head and stretching out on the cold steel deck, closed his eyes. He was still too keyed up to consider sleeping. Instead, he leaned back against the corner of the plane, stretched his legs out comfortably and let his eyes settle, unseeingly, on his partner and companion.

Since Summit Five, no actually since the Christmas before that, Illya the cynical, the skeptical, the man who never looked forward to the future because he never expected anything of it, had become hypersensitive. Not so much about his own future, but about their joint future, more specifically, his senior partner's future. Solo's.

When Solo had finally realized his partner had actually changed his spots, rather than going through some unusual and temporary short-lived behavioral stage, he called him on it. Illya's rather grim response had been that he'd taken a New Year's resolution that they'd both make it to the next Christmas.

Solo hadn't actually been displeased. More amused and a bit relieved. Of the two of them, in spite of the fact that he was a more tempting target to Thrush, Illya had always taken the brunt of punishment. Though they never counted favors, Solo knew he must have won the tally for rescues. Some of that wasn't Kuryakin's fault — because Solo was the senior partner, Thrush sometimes assumed Kuryakin would be easier to get to. Some of it was just the difference in luck. It wasn't that Illya had bad luck, as so many said. It was just that Solo had better luck. Next to him, anyone's luck could look bad.

But Solo also knew that Kuryakin, especially in his early years with U.N.C.L.E., had a fatalistic attitude. On the surface, Illya had mellowed over the years, but he at heart he was still Soviet: cynical from the roots of his hair down to his toenails. At times, his fatalistic ways worried Solo. He didn't mind coaxing Illya out of them when he descended into them on a mission, that was just Illya's nature. He also made it a practice not to dwell on future difficulties, so he couldn't say he actually worried what would happen to his partner if he wasn't around. In his experience, given no alternative but dying, Illya usually rose to the occasion. But if Kuryakin actually had decided to change his fatalistic ways for a more positive outlook, Solo wouldn't exactly see that as a problem.

Even when it took the recent turn of mother-henning their own safety.

Back at Headquarters, Kuryakin spilled the beans to Waverly about his suspicions before the old man could even brief them on their next mission.

"Hmmm," Waverly considered Kuryakin's words, his face inscrutable. "I can't say I disagree with your conclusions. What have you to say, Mr. Solo?"

Solo shrugged. "I was a target yesterday. I'm a target today. I'll still be a target tomorrow. I'm not saying Illya isn't right," he threw his partner an apologetic glance as the Soviet agent scowled, "or that it isn't a concern. But I'm not sure how much difference it makes. I can't stay hidden in headquarters because Thrush wants me. It wants all of us." He smiled slightly. "Even my partner."

"I see." Waverly's face was closed and thoughtful. "I'll take this under advisement." He looked up. "Very well, gentlemen. You may go."

Solo rose uncertainly. "But you said you had an assignment for us, sir," he pointed out delicately.

"No need to remind me; I'm not senile, Mr. Solo," the irascible old man snapped. "I said I would take Mr. Kuryakin's concerns under consideration, and I plan to do so. I will discuss your assignment after that."

"Great job, Illya," Solo muttered as the two agents filed slowly out of the office. "Maybe you've forgotten, that as field agents, we work in the field? Field agent? Field work? See the connection there?"

"You're more than just a field agent now, Napoleon," Kuryakin muttered back. "And if you don't recognize that, Thrush does."

"What I recognize is that my partner just sandbagged me," Solo said in a normal voice as they cleared Waverly's floor and stepped into the elevator.

"I what?" Kuryakin turned to look at him.

"You just knocked me out of the field," Solo clarified, his brow creasing in the beginnings of a frown as he realized the import of that.

"I did not," Kuryakin returned as the doors opened on their own floor.

"For at least this mission, anyway," Solo qualified as they walked down the hall to his office.

"We don't know that. We don't even know what the mission was. Or if there was one." Kuryakin followed Solo into his office. "Let's just take one mission at a time and get the report from the last one written."

Solo folded himself behind his desk and scowled as Kuryakin settled at the typewriter. "We wouldn't be stuck here writing reports if you'd just kept your mouth shut."

Kuryakin rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter. "We'd have to write it sooner or later," he said reasonably.

"Later is preferable."

Kuryakin cut him a look over a sheaf of bond paper he was settling at the side of his typewriter. "You'd better get used to paperwork if you're going to take Waverly's place."

Solo paused in pulling the case folders out of his credenza, and smiled wickedly. "Years of being Chief Enforcement Agent have taught me how to minimize paperwork."

"Foisting it on me," Kuryakin said without heat over the clacking of his keys.

Solo shrugged, finding the right folder and spilling out the background material they'd need. "It's worked so far."

"It won't work when you're Continental Chief."

Solo looked at him. "What makes you say that?"

"I won't be here," Kuryakin replied. His communicator beeped as Solo opened his mouth to call him on that. The Soviet agent scowled and untwisted it. "Kuryakin, here."

"Mr. Kuryakin, please report to my office."

The Russian eyed Solo uncertainly. "Mr. Solo is with me, sir. Should I ask him to report as well?"

"Just you."

"Just me," Kuryakin repeated automatically. His stricken eyes met Solo's.

"Well don't be all day about it," Waverly added impatiently.

"Yes, sir. Right away, sir." Kuryakin said hastily. He capped the silver communicator and dropped it back into his jacket pocket.

"Thanks a lot, partner," Solo commented.

"Oh, Napoleon," Kuryakin paused as he rose.

"What?" Solo was trying not to be irritated, but he was finding it hard not to feel a little put out.

Kuryakin stood uncertainly. "Just...be reasonable."

"You knock me out of the field and I'm being unreasonable?" Solo challenged as the Russian turned to go. "How do you figure that?"

Kuryakin paused at the doorway. "Waverly will risk you when he has to, but do you think he will unnecessarily now? When he needs you more than ever, and has precious little time to train a replacement? You're it, Napoleon, and you know it."

"Not to sound conceited, Illya, but I've been it for a while. How are things suddenly any different?"

"How many future Continental Chiefs do you think Waverly has lined up? Or can train in the time he has left?"

"I just know he has one in dry dock whose partner is going into the field. Don't you think Thrush is even mildly interested in you?"

Kuryakin laughed shortly without amusement. "That's the thing about the partner of a future Continental Chief. He's not a spare part. He's an unnecessary one." He slipped out the door.

"Illya!" Solo called. But the Soviet agent was gone.

Solo made it to the doorway in time to see Kuryakin still walking down the corridor, the uncompromising set of his shoulders squared against Solo's call. He didn't look back.

"Illya!"

Now at the very end of the corridor, Kuryakin paused and turned impatiently.

"At least take care of yourself," Solo said. "That is, if you don't want me running after you, rescuing you!"

Kuryakin grimaced, tipped a careless salute and disappeared around the corner.

Solo's fingers tightened on the door frame, swearing softly. Then he turned back to his office, fighting the urge to go after Illya and argue his case to Waverly. Kuryakin was probably right. If the case were critical, Waverly would put him on it anyway, and if it weren't, he had no business trying to argue assignments with Waverly. He and Illya did work apart. He didn't necessarily always like that they did, but they did.

The report from his last mission sat in the typewriter, paper probably permanently curled. He pulled the sheet out. It would have to be redone by a girl from the typing pool anyway. Unlike his nimble-fingered partner, he was no typist, nor was it a skill he felt necessary to acquire.

He pulled a yellow pad toward him, thinking Waverly should have left Illya back here to write up the reports and sent him into the field. Illya was better at the paperwork. Had always been, mostly because Solo put only the effort necessary into it and Illya, in spite of his careless dressing and occasionally irreverent attitudes toward authority, was a perfectionist at heart, and seldom put a foot wrong on paper. Whereas Solo's attitude toward such reports was far more casual. No one, after all, became Chief Enforcement Agent or made it to the inner ranks of Section One by concentrating on paperwork. You could lose a coveted position like that if you were sloppy at it. But Solo was never sloppy at it. He merely put only the necessary effort required toward it. Not for him the perfectly turned phrase. He left that for Illya, who had a lifetime in the Soviet Union to inure him to bureaucracy.

He would never have considered a facility with paperwork as any kind of criteria for choosing a partner, and it hadn't entered into his choice of Illya, in spite of his Soviet partner's dire allegations to the contrary and his aspersions against that facet of Solo's character. But it was true that once Kuryakin had demonstrated his abilities, Solo had taken full advantage of them. Playing up strengths and mitigating weaknesses was how one succeeded, whether on a simple mission or a with the running of a headquarters. And with a section of his own to run and a crushing load of fieldwork, he'd delegated where he could.

He read over Illya's neat summary, and picking up a pen, added the next line where his partner had left off. No one who read the report would probably notice the switch in authors. But Solo's brow furrowed as he wrote line after line, reliving the past. He wished Illya were there across from him as he'd been in the mission, adding his input here and there, interspersed with caustic comments and rueful grins.

How like Illya to comment on his superfluousness when he was really the most important person in his partner's life. And vice versa, of course. Who else did they have? The very idea that he'd be unneeded when Solo was finally kicked upstairs. Solo didn't doubt he'd need him at his side more than ever. And he was as firmly determined to keep him there.

Of course, he'd never let Illya know that. The wily Russian would never let him hear the end of it.

Smiling a little, Solo wrote on.

Waverly shuffled his folders of field cases like cards in a poker hand, considering them, rejecting some, taking on others. Matching U.N.C.L.E.'s resources to the right situation, matching the right agent to the right case was critical to the success of any mission.

And he had wanted Solo for this mission. But he was forced to admit, Solo was not essential to its success. Another team would do as well. Good for him, to be forced out of his own occasional complacency in feeling that he had a relatively sure thing with Solo.

Nor could he deny the warnings of the man's partner. He had come to an understanding, over the years, of Illya Kuryakin's temperament. Certainly Kuryakin did not have Solo's grace and favor, nor his seemingly effortless charm. But he did have a shrewd eye where it counted, and lately where it counted most was in regard to Solo. Waverly had come to recognize that since the affair in Berlin. Sometimes suspicions could be overcautiousness, the beginnings of paranoia in an all too beleaguered agent. Fighting enemies for a lifetime, an agent could begin to lose the ability to discern, seeing them everywhere. But that had never been a problem for Illya Kuryakin. For all the man's quirks of temperament, he had a solid ground in reality. If he indicated that Thrush interest in Solo was growing, then it undoubtably was. Probably had been growing for some time. Unlike Solo, Kuryakin rarely put himself forward.

That thought made him consider another, more unwelcome one. Kuryakin's reticence was rarely a problem in his present position. With an extrovert for a partner, Kuryakin seldom had to depart from his introverted ways. But Waverly had to consider the future as well. Kuryakin had always puzzled him in this regard. The Soviet agent had no trouble leading when he was forced to, in fact, if the agent grapevine were true, he sometimes took the senior role with a bit too much forcefulness and glee. Solo often reckoned leading his section as 'how to drive a pig'. Certainly direct methods often fell short of full effectiveness.

But Kuryakin's occasional heavy-handedness could be related to unfamiliarity, and perhaps, exuberance at being out from Solo's influence. For all the two agents worked well together, for all of Solo's ease and delicacy in leading his section, no one could doubt he held all the reins of control. Waverly had come to recognize, through his own management of agents, that any agent could chafe under a too tight rein. As Kuryakin worked the most closely with Solo, his behavior when Solo was temporarily displaced from the management of Section Two, was understandable. If not completely forgivable. Kuryakin did curb it sufficiently so that most agents only grumbled a bit. It was most noticeable because it was so contrary to Solo's handling of the section. Given the assignment full time, and a chance to settle down, he felt sure Kuryakin would develop more finesse. After all, the man learned quickly and had an excellent teacher in his own partner.

What concerned him more about Illya Kuryakin was his seeming ambivalence regarding his position. Kuryakin did lead when the situation required it. But too often, when it did not, he continued his practice of standing back and observing, almost detached from the events. Acceptable when he was Solo's second. Unacceptable if he was not.

Unlike most of his agents, Kuryakin was not in the U.N.C.L.E. by choice, he was a Soviet officer under orders. His career required more strenuous effort and pain than his equivalent position in Soviet intelligence. At times Waverly had thought he seemed disenchanted with it. When Kuryakin had first joined, there had been some concern that he even had the physique for it. Cutter's first missive to him regarding Kuryakin had been a blistering comment that he was too small to keep, Waverly should throw him back to the Soviets and work on reeling in one that could actually make it in the field. That had been Cutter's last complaint regarding Kuryakin's abilities. Trained in the harsher schools of the GRU, the Russian had rapidly shown Cutter he more than met his standards, regardless of his lack of stature. Now, of course, with the addition of female field agents, the issue was nonexistent.

Kuryakin's ability non-withstanding, Waverly sometimes wondered whether his Soviet acquisition would want Solo's job, given a choice. It preyed on his mind more now that Solo's retirement from the field was fast approaching. Kuryakin would have more than two years of fieldwork left. By all rights, he should take Solo's position. But Waverly would face strenuous opposition putting a Soviet agent as Chief of Enforcement in New York. He was well able to stem that tide, but before he committed to the effort, it would help if he were sure that Kuryakin had the desire to take it on.

To testing that question, he set up a little experiment.

Illya Kuryakin passed the phalanx of secretaries and security guards to Waverly's office, swallowing a hard lump in his throat. He would never have thought that at age 37, he'd be in the sundown of his career as an enforcement agent, but those were the breaks. He was, after all, lucky to have made it this far.

All things being equal, if he continued to survive his missions, he should have had nearly another three years at the zenith of his career before mandatory retirement, and whatever uncertain fate awaited him after that. But nothing was that equal. He'd had the good luck or the bad luck, however one interpreted it, to be partnered with Napoleon Solo, a man two years his senior and slated to get bumped from the field in less than a year. And a man destined to replace the Continental Chief, probably sooner rather than later.

Waverly was looking more frail every day. Kuryakin's sharp eyes hadn't missed the stiffness in the Waverly's walk or the fact that he very seldom went to his favorite chess club. More and more, his friends came to him at HQ or he didn't see them at all. He didn't go out. His impromptu trips into the field, so maddening to security, had virtually ceased. And lately his hands sometimes shook on his pipe, the pipe he had been advised against smoking and more often than not now just held unlit.

Napoleon saw these things too. He even understood them. But with Solo's characteristic lightheartedness, he didn't dwell on them. Kuryakin did, and on the Thrush shadow he had felt growing over Solo.

He'd heard all about Solo in survival school. Two years ahead of him, Solo had seemed to leave an indelible mark among the instructors. He had become a yardstick against which every other student was compared and found wanting. Even then there had been rumors about his abilities. Some said Waverly had begun the former policy of rotating promising enforcement agents into the C.E.A. slot because he couldn't think of another way to try so young an agent in the job without a general uproar. It was a management practice that was rather ahead of its time. And all had noted that when Waverly had finally decided Solo deserved the slot, the rotations ceased.

Kuryakin had remembered the man from their brief meeting upon his arrival in New York, and he had felt rather surprised by the Survival School references. Solo hadn't seemed particularly exceptional to him. Because he'd also done well in Cutter's Camp, he'd heard more of the legends and more comparisons than most. The sneering references to the fact that he wasn't quite up to Solo's scores in certain areas hadn't endeared the memory of the man to him.

But he'd recognized that for a man so lauded and praised, Solo had seemed remarkably easy-going. He'd been self-confident and proud, but hardly arrogant.

As Kuryakin's tenure with U.N.C.L.E. grew, he overheard more Solo legends. When he met up with the man again some years later, he was once again struck with how unassuming he was. He carried power in his hand like a glove; he'd had Waverly's nod for permanent tenure as New York's enforcement chief, he had what was rumored to be a lock on the old man's job himself, and not incidentally, he had every woman's eye he passed, and more action in bed than anyone's wildest dreams.

But he rarely used the power he held so casually, never used it cruelly and he never bragged or flaunted it. Cynical as he himself was, Kuryakin had been unwillingly impressed. When Solo had chosen him, even temporarily, as a partner, he'd been unaccountably flattered.

And there he discovered the truth of the other Solo legends. But principally among them, Solo had whatever agent coveted. Luck.

Perhaps it was true as the old stories said, that luck was a lady. If she was, then she was as smitten with Solo as all the other ladies he charmed and entertained. And she smiled on him, and Solo doffed his hat to her, largely attributing his various successes to luck rather than his own skill or hard work. As a formula, it seemed to work as luck continued to be charmed by him. Over the years, hard as their work was, and regardless of the many setbacks and petty failures they encountered, luck continued to favor Solo in every important way, and that favor spilled over onto his less fortunate and more cynical partner.

At first Kuryakin had been skeptical, then accepting of Solo's unlikely good fortune. He didn't see Solo as invincible as some of his colleagues and adversaries did. No, never that. He knew him too well, and saw him struggle and sweat, occasionally bowed with failure. But he saw him as lucky, and he began in subtle ways, to rely on Solo's luck himself, accepting that Napoleon had something he did not, never had and likely never would. At least he'd relied on it until the last year or so.

The affair in Berlin had reminded him anew what he had once felt himself, had known and had grown complacent about. At least, complacent for him. Solo's success and popularity attracted its own kind of enmity, both from without and within UNCLE. As Solo rose higher, that enmity would strengthen. Men, even men who had been saved by Solo's efforts, might not strive too hard to defend the life or even the reputation of someone they'd been jealous of for years. The disturbing dreams of the Christmas eve before had been an odd premonition of the future. He didn't necessarily believe in such gypsy things as premonitions, but he didn't disbelieve in them either. He did believe in what could be proven, and since that time, he'd been watchful of their joint future. The shadow growing over Solo, and thus over their partnership, had strengthened since then. Thrush didn't want to kill Solo; they wanted him alive. As for himself, he figured they'd just as soon kill him as not. He was of interest only due to his proximity to his partner. Most often an inconvenient shield thwarting Thrush's intentions, sometimes almost as effective as Solo's Lady Luck. And sometimes he was bait. He had decided, though, that he was never going to be that again. As bait, he was an all too effective lure to draw Solo out, at a time when his partner had to think of himself, and U.N.C.L.E.

But with all his own convictions, it was hard, if not impossible to convince Napoleon of them.

Well, at least for now Solo was safe in HQ. And he had no intention of allowing himself to be captured. No matter what it took to prevent that. That was a change too. In the past, they had always rescued each other, going back when it was necessary, even against orders at times, and never counting the cost. It was a comfortable feeling, going into the field, knowing you had such an ally. That he'd chosen to relinquish that, that he'd closed the door on another cornerstone of his past life, was painful. But he knew he couldn't allow Solo to risk himself on his behalf. Fortunately, even though U.N.C.L.E.'s training didn't emphasize it, in the GRU he'd been trained in the myriad of ways a man could dispatch himself. But it was an unpleasant thought, especially starting out on a new mission.

He shook off the dark thoughts, walked through the automatic doors, and discovered Dancer and Slate in Waverly's office. Alone. He looked a question at them, then turned as someone came in behind him.

All three agents turned as Waverly's assistant, Heather McNabb paused in the doorway. "Mr. Waverly asked that you get started without him." She put a sheaf of folders on the table. "He had an unexpected emergency."

"Right," Slate nodded.

"Thanks, Heather," April said, and shrugged slightly. "Well. So, here we are."

"Napoleon joining us?" Slate asked.

"Not this time," Kuryakin answered evenly.

"He under the weather?" Slate asked amiably.

"What a shame," Dancer murmured.

"No," Kuryakin said, trying with his tone to close off that line of inquiry. "He's just fine. Not sick, not injured."

Slate and Dancer looked at him, then looked at each other and shrugged in unison.

"And how are you, Illya dear?" Dancer asked brightly.

Kuryakin looked at her. In spite of being assistant enforcement chief, and Dancer's tacit superior, of all the agents in HQ, he often felt at a loss with her and it had nothing to do with her sex. He liked April. It was hard not to, for in many respects, she was like Napoleon. Perhaps in too many respects.

"Well enough," Kuryakin said. He hated to make small talk, but he knew it was sometimes necessary. "And you?" He didn't have to ask. She was blooming with health. And Slate looked as cheerful as a Christmas tree. He found himself almost envying them, both young enough that they had years before they'd be bumped from the field by force, not responsible for anything but their mission and each other. Kuryakin had almost forgotten what it was like to be only a field agent, without the responsibility for a Section or all the Section One headaches that trickled down from Waverly through Solo to him. They had all that, and were still well-favored by Section One. Yes, at times, he found theirs to be an enviable position.

Just as there was a subtle, or not so subtle ranking between teams, there was a ranking within teams as well. As the second ranking member of the most senior team, he ranked her, at least on paper. But as the senior partner of Waverly's second-ranked team, she was more on Solo's level than his. Waverly had marked her as senior partner material before she was halfway through survival school. Kuryakin often suspected that however many wins he himself pulled back from the field, Waverly had the deepest suspicions about whether his Soviet agent had the requisite temperament to lead a section or even a team. He couldn't blame the old man. At times he felt that way himself.

When Solo's star ascended out of the field, he personally felt there was at least an even chance Waverly would team the then unpartnered Soviet agent with another man regarded as senior partner material. Kuryakin might possibly end up as senior partner of the second string team below April. Or he might end up as the second string partner on a team considered nearly equivalent to Slate and Dancer, in spite of the new partnership's untried state, with Waverly keeping the ranking unofficial until the two teams proved their mettle. But he thought it unlikely that he'd end up as the unquestioned senior partner of the senior team. He could well end up working for April if Waverly gave her the CEA position. All this was in his mind as he looked at her. He realized he'd been only listening to her chatter with half an ear, and missed her last question.

"Illya?" Dancer looked concerned.

"Sorry," Kuryakin said, clearing his throat in and shaking his head a little as Slate and Dancer looked at each other again. "What did you say?"

"It doesn't matter." Dancer looked at her partner, received a puzzled shrug in return. "I guess we should get started." She eyed Kuryakin measuringly, one field agent to another.

He smiled fractionally, well aware of what was happening. April couldn't help her temperament, or the fact that she had natural leadership abilities. If field agents were a flock of birds thrown into the room, he was aware that in the natural pecking order, she'd end up on top, another 'type A' personality, just like Solo. And he would end up in a corner of the room, watching the show as the others battled for position, neither a natural type A nor a type B. He was an anathema among New York's partnered Section Two teams, a natural loner, neither leader nor follower. Waverly had recognized right away that only a very strong leader could handle him at all. Like Solo.

With Solo gone, he felt he would fit in nowhere. He didn't want to be responsible for another, more junior agent, and he winced at the thought of being paired with any of the likely agents senior enough to be considered a fair match for him. He didn't want the close, living with your skin off relationship that characterized a partnership with just anyone. Most of the C.E.A. class senior agents that were relatively unpaired he found loathsome, and they didn't particularly care for him either. His reputation, for being Soviet, for being a loner, for being contrary and solitary went against him. His record in the field intimidated them. Most C.E.A.s would respect a fellow leader, and would simply dominate agents of junior rank, but he fit nowhere in that mix, and as a result they didn't care to deal with him at all. He'd end up a specialist, most likely, pulled in for jobs here and there that required his particular mix of skills. Until he died in the field for want of a partner's committed backup, or retired to be sent back home, a welcome burden lifted from the Command and a new problem for his Soviet compatriots.

In any event, he wouldn't hang around New York to be a burden to April, should she be given Solo's title, or to embarrass Solo. Napoleon shouldn't have to watch as his old partner scrambled to find a niche in New York's closely partnered ranks. No, he'd go elsewhere. There were plenty of headquarters where agents didn't form long term partnerships, working in loose teams or small groups. Places where a contrary, Soviet-born loner could work out in dignified exile the few years till his own mandatory retirement. His own future reasonably settled in his own mind, he had only the worry that he see Solo survive until he graduated from the field.

"Illya?"

Kuryakin looked up through his bangs at Dancer's puzzled face. "Sorry," he apologized automatically. "I was just thinking."

"Deep thoughts," Slate chimed in. "Anything we're entitled to know? Are you sure Napoleon is all right?" At Kuryakin's look, he elaborated. "It's normal to worry when a partner is hurt, but --"

Kuryakin shrugged. "No, Napoleon is fine," he answered Dancer's original question. "Waverly just needs him in HQ right now."

"Instructing the crown prince," Slate said wickedly, but without rancor. "No doubt big secrets of state. Well, that leaves us rum lot to do the work, eh? So what's our mission, April," Slate sat down at the conference table, nodding at the folders spread there, unthinkingly handing over the reins to his own senior partner.

Dancer reached for them just as absently and then as quickly colored, looking at Kuryakin still standing in the center of the room.

Kuryakin smiled slightly, well aware that if the old man had just set up his own 'flock of birds' test, he had just failed it miserably. Solo would have dominated everyone in the room just with his presence, reached for the folders first, handed them round, taken control of the group as effortlessly as if it were no different than breathing. Whereas he himself?

He sat down at the round conference table, shifting only slightly as he recognized the yoke that slipped around his neck at the action. If you want to be CEA, take over now, a voice, more than slightly accented with Russian, stormed in his head.

"What have you got there, April?" he asked.

Fool! a part of him raged. You could have had it, if you just reached for it. The mission, the agents, the section, the control. It was your title, just like Continental Chief is Solo's!

But I don't want it, he answered back. Go away. Leave me alone. I have to do this my own way.

Oh, Illya, another voice said in his mind. A familiar as his own, affectionately exasperated.

It took him a moment to recognize it as Solo's.

Singularly frustrating, was Waverly's though, as he watched Kuryakin defer to April's command. Not at all what he had hoped or even expected to see.

Still, the Russian agent had just come back from a mission, seemed preoccupied, even tired. Not that this constituted an excuse. Agents were expected to perform at their top potential all the time. A CEA couldn't afford to lose a mission because he was having an off day. Nor risk showing a divided command.

Waverly reminded himself that in spite of the fact that Illya Kuryakin generally rose to the situation as required, sometimes an agent simply had to be proactive. Not merely reactive in the case of adversity.

He pondered his options a while. Kuryakin obviously believed in energy conservation, most specifically, his own. It could be that once he became CEA, he would relinquish his lackadaisical ways and settled down for two years of concerted effort. Or he could be an unmitigated failure. Championing a Soviet agent as enforcement chief would cost Waverly even if the Russian was a success; he couldn't afford to sponsor a failure.

After some thought, he decided to leave the situation in Solo's hands. The man was politically astute, and his sharp mind would instantly discern where Kuryakin's actions would lead. He would hardly fail to question his partner on his behavior. Solo could get to the root of the Russian's motivations as only a partner could; he had access to Kuryakin's confidence in a way that Waverly did not. As a rule, Waverly preferred to keep a level of distance between himself and his agents. He would use Solo to broach this with Kuryakin. Whether Kuryakin mended his ways or not, Waverly would have his answer.

Waverly prepared himself for a brief trip. He might as well take advantage of Solo's confinement to Headquarters. Thrush's interest in Solo was inconvenient in one respect, but could turn out to be advantageous in another. Waverly would leave his headquarters, and this particular pickle, entirely in his successor's hands. It would be interesting to see his reaction.

Being the reigning crown prince was sometimes a royal pain in the ass, Solo thought as he plowed through the Section One donkeywork Waverly had foisted on him. With Solo minding the store, Waverly had apparently decided to disappear, though whether it was vacation, impromptu tour of other HQs or test for Solo, the C.E.A. didn't know. Waverly hadn't told him, taking off on his own. Frankly, he didn't much care, nor would it do him any good to be curious. The old man had his own secrets, and Solo respected that as only a man who lived under constant security could. Regardless, Waverly was away and he was in charge. He didn't even have to worry about him. For the last few years, the old man had his own security teams, hand-picked and devoted. His own section had no need to play guard duty anymore. Now when he and Illya happened to be in HQ and the alarms sounded, they still dashed to the old man's office, but it was more to be available to take over the reins of command if necessary, or to offer assistance, or to be available for deployment, than to defend the old man.

He paged through the Section Three paperwork that Waverly had ordered on Thrush's supposed new interest in capturing him, and found it all very old hat. Of course Thrush wanted him. They had wanted him before; they wanted him more now. That didn't mean they would get him.

Illya worried too damn much, sometimes, he thought, his exasperation tinged with affection. Particularly since Berlin, he'd been hypersensitive toward any threat to Solo.

He automatically checked the roster of field teams still out. Kuryakin, Dancer and Slate were on it. Their last check-in had been six hours ago. They were expected back in HQ any minute. Their next check-in would essentially be from the security entrance.

A routine mission. Snatch, split and shatter the pieces behind them, as the younger agents said. They'd checked in reporting success. No problems. He drummed his fingers briefly on the table, mentally comparing the time against how long he expected them to take to arrive.

Solo caught himself, and laughed silently. Illya worried too much?

The group finally reported back to Waverly's office — his office for the moment. Triumphant. Exuberant Dancer came in first, laughing, Kuryakin close on her heels, not laughing but looking smug. Slate followed, his easy grin lighting up the room.

Solo grinned in return, his eyes meeting Kuryakin's. The Soviet agent flushed slightly and looked away. Solo raised a quiet eyebrow in question, but Kuryakin didn't look back toward him.

"So?" Solo questioned. "Sit down, all of you."

"Um, I think not, Napoleon," April apologized. "I'm afraid we're all a bit grubby."

"But successful," Slate chimed in.

"You did get our field report?" Kuryakin asked.

"Just being thorough," Solo said.

"And so were we," April said. "We had to blow the lab, but Illya got a good portion of their records out on computer tape."

"I'll submit a report of the findings right away," Kuryakin added.

"You can change first," Solo said generously. "All right, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for a fine job. I'll see you for debriefing in a few hours. Heather will set it up."

The group nodded and headed out.

"Illya?" Solo called after him.

"Yes?"

Solo waited until the other two had left and the door had shut behind them, enclosing himself and his partner in privacy. "Good to have you back," he said warmly.

Kuryakin grimaced. "No doubt you just have some paperwork you want me to do."

"Always," Solo smiled. "Go on, get cleaned up. For a top agent, you look a disgrace."

Kuryakin dropped the report on his desk in record time. He'd showered and was in his old standby, a black turtleneck. Solo picked the report up and looked through it. Then stopped and glanced up at his partner curiously.

"Illya."

Kuryakin turned, already halfway out the door. "Yes?"

"Your name isn't on this as senior agent."

Kuryakin said nothing, his face a blank.

"Dancer's is."

Kuryakin hesitated, then shrugged. "Her team. She was senior partner."

"But you were the senior field agent." Solo persisted.

"What does it matter?" Kuryakin asked, his voice suddenly sharp.

Solo rose from Waverly's desk and walked around it, to perch on the conference table, trying to be casual about something that was actually very important. "How can you think it doesn't? Whom do you think reads these reports?"

"You do," Kuryakin said, as if in blunt accusation. "Waverly."

"Yes, Waverly. And if the case is high enough, any other Section One chiefs that are interested. How could you let your name be on this case as a supporting agent?"

Kuryakin shrugged again. "Dancer can use the experience. And the exposure."

"And you think you can't?"

Kuryakin flushed. "I've had plenty of both."

"That's not the point. At this stage in your career, you should be reminding Section One of that, not hiding behind some other agent's name. You know it's not going to be long before Section Two needs a new chief enforcement agent?"

Kuryakin's chin went up, grey eyes suddenly stormy. "So?"

"So as Assistant Chief of Enforcement the job belongs to you," Solo said reasonably, "but you are going to have to show you want it, at least a little bit."

"I don't have to show anyone, anything," Kuryakin snapped coldly. The words, coming from Solo, enraged him. He had a lifetime of proving himself to others. To his Soviet superiors, his had to prove his intelligence, his ruthlessness, his commitment to his Soviet ideals, his loyalty. To his U.N.C.L.E. colleagues and associates, he'd had to prove his worthiness to join the close-knit ranks of Section Two, in spite of his limiting physique, reserved nature and Soviet philosophies. To Section One and the American government that only reluctantly tolerated him in their country, he had to prove his lack of professional bias in taking orders, his incorruptibility, the absence of the stain of double agent that could have caused a quick and speedy imprisonment, perhaps even execution. But he'd trusted enough in his partnership that he'd felt it a bit of oasis against that constant strain of evaluation. He shuddered at the thought that, with Napoleon in Section One, he would have to endure it from him as well.

No, never.

"Illya. You don't have to prove yourself to me, no. You know that," Solo said, unconsciously denying the conclusion Kuryakin had reached. He was pacing a little in frustration. "But it would help if you were the unquestioned choice of Section One. And things like this," he slapped the report, "don't help. Sure, I can present the reasons why you did it, and try to make it look good. But --"

"Don't," Kuryakin interrupted.

"Don't what?" Solo paused, looking at him.

"Don't try to make me look good," Kuryakin said sharply, appalled at the thought. "I don't need you to do that for me."

"Well, you're sure not doing a bang-up job for yourself," Solo retorted. "Can't you look out for your own career, even a little?"

Kuryakin flared, suddenly angry. "What do you care? Do you need your former partner to take over your job as some testimony of how good you were? A legacy of your former tenure? Proof of all you taught me?"

Solo stood still, staring at him. "Are you telling me you don't want the job?"

Kuryakin laughed harshly. "Do you have to ask?"

"Yes. Because right now I don't think I know what you want."

"Just right now?"

"Illya —"

"Supposing I did want the title," Kuryakin challenged, "wouldn't I have gone for it before? New York isn't the only HQ with a Chief Enforcement Agent slot. I could have gone to Paris, or London, or Tokyo. Do you expect me to wait until you're kicked upstairs, or even worse, dead, to step into your shoes? What does that make me?"

Solo was staring at him as if he'd grown three heads. "My partner?"

"Yes, if you don't mind having a ghoul or a coward for your partner!"

Solo was shaking his head, impatient at the discussion of the past. "You're not making any sense. Whatever you did or didn't do before is history. This is your time now. You should be showing that you know that and that you want everyone else to realize it too," Solo said. He paused as if struck by a thought. "Did something happen on this mission?"

"Nothing happened on the damn mission!"

"Snapping at me doesn't convince me of that fact."

"Napoleon," Kuryakin spoke very softly, very reasonably. "Suppose you were thirty-five years old, and had a great record, but you weren't a C.E.A. You wanted to be one, but your own C.E.A. was also doing a 'bang-up' job, as you so succinctly put it, and you didn't wish him dead. What would you do?"

Solo stared at him. "What would I do?"

"Yes, you. Not me. You." Kuryakin said the words, punctuating them with the intensity of a bullet.

Solo frowned. "I don't know."

"You do," he insisted.

"I suppose it would depend."

"On what?" Kuryakin snapped. "On the weather in whatever HQ seemed the best bet for a quick and speedy rise to the top? Because only if we were talking about Iceland do I think you would hesitate for a moment!"

"Damn it, Illya, we aren't talking about me," Solo picked up the report again. "I am C.E.A. We were talking about you. Who is not."

"Precisely,"

"That doesn't matter," Solo said impatiently, "New York is the best HQ in enforcement. You know as well as I do that Assistant Chief here is equal to or better than the C.E.A. job anywhere else. But with your current attitude, you're making it difficult for everyone to see that."

"I would think that would speak for itself." Kuryakin raked his hair out of his eyes. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I haven't had much sleep for the last couple of days. So I plan to go home and go to bed. Unless you insist on discussing my career paths further."

Solo stared at him.

"I take it that is a 'no'. Good day." Kuryakin spun on his heel and walked out.

Solo sat there, staring at the report in his hands. Then he abruptly tossed it in a drawer and walked over to the window. He stared out sightlessly for a while, and then his attention focused downward. On the street level, Kuryakin was leaving the building. Even from the top floor, Solo could see the slump in his shoulders, the slight break in his walk that, to Solo, who was as familiar with his mannerisms as he was with his own, said he was tired. And in a little pain, old injuries flaring up. He suddenly broke into a jog. Solo watched as he chased down the cross-town bus, caught it at the corner, and swung aboard.

Illya must have been tired. Stupid of him, to bring this issue up directly following a mission. He knew his Soviet partner wasn't particularly ambitious, and just after a mission, tired and probably hungry and sore, he'd be less interested in it than ever.

Solo sighed and went back to his desk, wishing Waverly back. His doors suddenly swished open and Dancer stood framed in them.

"April." Solo frowned at her. "Did you want something?"

"Debriefing?" Dancer raised her eyebrows at Solo's confusion as she crossed to the conference table. "You know, first Illya, then me, then Mark? Fifteen minute intervals?"

"Oh, right," Solo shook himself.

"Are you okay, Napoleon?" Dancer asked hesitantly.

Solo laughed shortly. "Actually I was just going to ask you if Illya had seemed okay to you. On the mission."

Dancer looked puzzled. "So far as I could tell. He was a bit quiet. Though it's hard to tell with Illya."

Solo looked at her.

She shrugged. "I'm sure you can tell, seeing as he's your partner. I know when Mark is down, even though he never loses that silly grin. But with Illya, with anyone but you, it's hard to know what he's thinking."

"Even with me." Solo said absently.

"We figured he was just a little off balance, working with someone other than his partner," April went on. "It can be a bit unsettling being odd agent out on a team."

"It's not that unsettling."

"What do you want me to say, Napoleon?" Dancer asked.

Solo shook his head, looking at Dancer. "Nothing. Let's do the debriefing."

Home, Kuryakin went straight to the cabinet that held a bottle of vodka. He normally drank very little. Now he poured himself a drink with a generous hand, his grip on the bottle shaking ever so slightly. He took a healthy swallow and nearly choked on the burning liquid, tears burning behind his eyes as he gasped for breath. He had come a long way since his younger days, when as a Soviet officer he had to do a certain amount of heavy drinking just to appear normal and remain above suspicion.

Now the bite of the alcohol was unfamiliar, and Kuryakin suddenly knew that getting drunk wouldn't be any kind of panacea for his pain. He doubted that it would dull it in any way at all.

He set the glass down carefully on the counter, too self-disciplined and mature to smash it as he wanted. He felt he needed to smash something, if only to mirror what he felt was happening in his own life.

His partnership was in its death throes, and Napoleon, his dear friend of a decade, didn't notice, didn't understand, didn't seem to care or value that demise. Instead, Solo was moving to the next phase of their relationship, as smoothly as if he were changing partners in a dance. Climbing blithely into Section One, pushing Kuryakin firmly toward the slot he expected him to take in Section Two.

Well, why not? Solo had known he was Section One material for years. And Kuryakin was glad for him, indeed would have fought to see Solo get that place which had for years been rightfully his.

It was what came after that distressed Kuryakin. It was foolish for an intelligence agent to be enamored of stability, but he had never been an intelligence agent by choice, and he had enjoyed the stability of his partnership with Solo. At times being under his thumb, being the forever subordinate partner had chafed. Such a position would chafe any man, any person. But Solo had never been offensively overbearing. Well not often. Kuryakin had found the advantages far outweighed the occasional discomforts. That was all ending.

They would be colleagues, perhaps even still friends, but very definitely superior and subordinate. The gulf between Continental Chief and CEA was far, far wider than the gulf between CEA and Assistant CEA. Solo had always been his superior, but he had never been his boss, not in the way Waverly had. He tried to imagine himself as CEA, with Solo as Waverly, tried and failed. He felt Waverly's job naturally required a distance of emotion, a set of judgmental and too often callous expectations that he felt would not come naturally to Solo toward him, and that the practice of that on Solo's part would flay him alive.

He valued Solo too much as a friend to want to be his CEA. Even if Solo asked it of him. He owed him much, had given him more, but this, this was perhaps beyond him. Better to part, then see himself become the expandable subordinate he knew the job would require him to become.

He remembered one day, October 1961, when his government began building the wall in Berlin. Solo had been left in charge while Waverly flew off to Europe for an emergency peace conference. Waverly's last words to Solo, after updating him on the running of the office had been indelibly burned in Kuryakin's mind. He could hear then even now, spoken in Waverly's gruff, slightly clipped voice.

"And keep Mr. Kuryakin out of sight."

"Sir?" Solo had questioned.

"You heard me, Mr. Solo. This situation only wants a spark to ignite it into a conflagration. Both in Berlin and here. If a situation comes up that requires you to deploy a team, send whom you need to, but keep Mr. Kuryakin here under wraps.

Solo had given him a quick glance, laced with guilt and apology for their superior's hasty words. "Yes, sir."

Kuryakin had gone back to his desk in the Section Two office, rife with confusion and pain. It was, indeed, near war between East and West, had been since Kennedy had taken office. His supposed colleagues glared at him or gave him a wide berth. Half probably suspected him of being a double agent. Others simply did not know what to say as they watched their respective countries square off across the line that was being drawn in Berlin.

When Solo called him up to Waverly's office, he had at first been reluctant to report, but duty and ingrained obedience had forced him up there. Solo had every satellite feed trained on the confrontation. He hadn't spoken to him, just gestured to take a seat before the screens. Both helpless, they had watched as the tanks rolled, well knowing that if their respective countries went to war they would be on opposite sides. The sight of the tanks had raised Kuryakin's childhood nightmares from hazy memory. Only he was no child, and this was no nightmare. It was reality, a world poised on the brink of war. He was a Soviet officer still. If it came to war, the U.S. government would never allow him to return to his country. He'd probably spend the intervening years of conflict in a prisoner of war camp. He had no doubt U.N.C.L.E. would be forced to hand him over. He'd probably spend years behind bars, forgotten by his U.N.C.L.E. colleagues, useless to his Soviet ones, unless the unthinkable happened, and the two nuclear-powered countries settled it in the worst possible way. Either way his future, or the future of the world, was as dark as a thunderstorm.

Kuryakin hadn't realized how tightly his hands were clenched, impotently fighting against each other as they could not fight in action. Hadn't realized in fact, until Solo reached across and covered his clenched fists with his own hand, interlacing it between them, his palm warm against his. Squeezing it hard. They sat there together before the view screens, while the bricks and barb wire rose, until the superpowers danced their way to a final uneasy truce. One warm moment in a very cold war.

His Russian background had been a particular handicap since Cuba, but since the wall, that animosity had risen to a fever pitch, both without and within U.N.C.L.E. One delicatessen he'd been patronizing for years suddenly refused to sell to him. He'd been spat on in the street. He received threats and veiled insults at work, petty things, like his gym locker being vandalized, and more serious ones, like his gun being tampered with, jamming on him in the firing range.

He'd almost requested a transfer, though he hardly could think where he could go that would accept him. All of Europe was in an uproar. But he would have found somewhere. One thing that stopped him in that quest was Solo, his staunch presence at his side, daring his detractors. He could no more challenge Napoleon's insistence that he had a right to be in NY/HQ than his critics could.

Eventually, the heat of the cold war cooled. His associates who generally had friendly intentions felt less constricted about expressing them, his detractors disapproved of his presence no less but no longer expressed themselves publicly. Waverly had dealt swiftly with any operative, agent or office, who acted in defiance of U.N.C.L.E.'s charter. Most of them had moved onto the CIA or the FBI, where their viewpoints were more appreciated and even valued.

But the incident had taught him something, something he had never fully appreciated until he'd realized he just might survive to see Solo take Waverly's chair. At the time, Solo had been everything a partner should be, and everything a Continental Chief could not.

Someday, their respective governments might very well go to war, or engage in some conflict that would put his loyalties to U.N.C.L.E., to his country, to his partner, at violent odds. He'd spent his childhood in war, his adulthood in the aftermath of war and in cold war. He was a military officer stationed in what was essentially a hostile power. He spent his career opposing the violent forces of others, often by violence himself.

To him war was no remote possibility. It was a daily reality. Whether it would directly involve his country of birth and his country of residence was sometimes more than an even chance.

Should that happen no U.N.C.L.E. privileges would spare him. He didn't care to see Solo put in the position of being forced to hand him over to the U.S. authorities. He would rather remember him as they had been, hand in hand together, watching their countries square off in conflict.

So he needed to leave before that could happen.

Solo would miss him, but hopefully not irrevocably. After all, he had scores of friends and close associates. Once out of the field, Solo might well marry, making his long time partner doubly superfluous, both personally and professionally.

And that was another issue, less globally inspired than the first, but still painful. Solo would have a new life on assuming Waverly's position, a life of power, position and prestige where affiliations with lowly field agents would hardly do, and where an affiliation with a Soviet one was even more ill-advised. He didn't...quite...think that he could bear seeing himself shunted oh so graciously aside when that happened, as it must.

Not that he had to transfer immediately. Indeed, he'd prefer to stay as long as he could. He had to stay with Solo at least until the Thrush focus on him had lessened. And he'd prefer to stay until Solo's field career was over, sparing him the danger and inconvenience of breaking in a new partner.

To that end he had to play all the games that entailed. Including becoming the very image of a future C.E.A.

But he could deal with it. Considering the alternatives, he had no choice.

Solo had barely gotten in the office this morning before Heather buzzed him on the intercom. "Mr. Kuryakin requested a meeting with you sir. Any five minutes you have free today."

Solo grimaced, shrugging out of his topcoat as he fumbled with the send button. He'd tried calling Kuryakin last night, but Illya hadn't been answering his phone and he was reluctant to call him by communicator for something purely personal. He had wanted to talk to Illya, but he'd preferred doing it out of this office. And he would have liked some coffee first. But it was better to do it now, since he never had any idea what crises the day would bring. "Tell him to come on up."

He walked over to the credenza and sighed gratefully when he saw the full pot, clearly made fresh to coincide with his arrival. Once advantage of subbing for Continental Chief, someone always made his coffee for him. He heard the doors open behind him as he was pouring. He added milk, took a welcome first sip and then turned. "Hi. Would you like some coffee?"

"No, thank you." Kuryakin was stiff, for once not in a turtleneck or in his dreadful maroon sport coat, but in a neatly pressed suit that looked new or nearly so. His shirt was white and well pressed. His hair was even combed. "I came to apologize for my behavior yesterday."

Solo frowned slightly. He wanted to talk to Illya about it, but his partner didn't seem in a very approachable mood. He looked uncomfortable enough to bolt. "Sit down," Solo suggested.

Kuryakin grimaced but sat stiffly. "I had promised myself that I wouldn't add to your difficulties when you were covering for Waverly," he said in explanation. "And yesterday I seem to have done so. It won't happen again."

Solo was looking at him thoughtfully, thinking that this wasn't at all what he wanted to discuss. "Illya," He paused and shook his head. "This isn't necessary."

"Do you accept my apology?" Kuryakin asked in a low, intense voice.

"Yes."

Kuryakin caught his breath and then let it out slowly. "Thank you. Well," he rose. "Thank you for the time. I'll go now."

"Illya."

Kuryakin paused.

"I still don't understand."

"What?"

"Whether you want the job or not."

"What I want is that you not concern yourself with it."

"How can't I? You're my partner."

"But it's my career. I don't want you manipulating circumstances for me. I don't want you even concerned about it. I would think," he added pointedly, "you'd have enough of your own issues to worry about, with taking over Waverly's job. You don't need mine as well."

"Picking a C.E.A. is part of that."

Kuryakin raised his head, his nostrils flaring. "But you're not Continental Chief yet. Deal with it when you are."

"But as I told you yesterday, there are long term--"

"All right. I promise you I won't embarrass you by behaving in a way not consistent with my position. What I did was a dereliction of duty and I apologize. I'll accept any disciplinary action you impose."

"Would you stop this?" Solo said in frustration. "I am not calling you on the carpet for what you did. And it certainly wasn't dereliction of duty. It was just ..." Solo trailed off.

"Behavior inappropriate for an up-and-coming C.E.A."

"Yes, it was."

"I promise not to repeat it. But, I'd appreciate in return if you would dissociate yourself from my career. I don't need an advocate, and if I did, I wouldn't choose you."

Solo drew back at that, stung at the words. "Mind telling me why?"

"Yes."

Solo drew a sharp breath. His eyes met Kuryakin's, seeking an explanation, but Kuryakin didn't relent. "All right then. I'll stay out of your business." His voice was cold.

"Thank you." Kuryakin hesitated then softened. "Napoleon, please don't be angry."

Solo shook his head, sighing a little. "Angry." He paused a moment and shrugged. "I don't understand you, Illya."

"You don't have to. I don't expect you to."

"I want to." Solo said, his voice mild but firm.

"I don't want you to," Kuryakin answered in the same tone.

Solo closed his eyes at that, shaking his head, his mouth hardening into an angry line. "Illya. We're partners. I thought we were friends, too."

"We are." Kuryakin took a step closer. "Napoleon, we are."

Solo clenched his teeth, shaking his head ever so slightly in rejection.

"Napoleon, please."

Solo rose abruptly, walking away from him. "What the hell areyou asking? It seems you don't want anything from me."

"Give me some room."

Solo turned at that, stricken.

"One of the reasons you're so good at your job is that you take over everything," Kuryakin said in a low tone. "Like a whirlwind. And most of the time, on most things, no one minds. You do it that well." He raised his head. "But you can't take over me in this, Napoleon. I won't let you." The latter words were said with a definite edge, a promise, the barest hint of an unvoiced threat.

Solo reacted to them instantly. Illya had a myriad of moods and ways, from innocent to predator. He could play them all, too. But when he was a predator, he was worthy of the title. Solo had never doubted that inner core of ruthlessness, and Illya guarded nothing so much as his privacy. He occasionally forgot that, but he hadn't forgotten that respecting that need was a key to keeping him. "I wasn't trying to crowd you, Illya."

Solo abruptly switched methods. He'd learned early in their relationship that often the best way to handle Illya, particularly when the stubborn Russian was in this kind of mood, was to let him know what he wanted, and then give him the space to deliver it. Illya rarely disappointed him, but, a loner at heart, he didn't take well to overly direct handling or supervision.

Over the years they had gotten so comfortable with each other that Solo occasionally forgot that essential facet of his partner's nature. But it was Illya's habit to withdraw when he pressed him too hard. It was the most difficult and annoying facet of Kuryakin's personality, but Solo had learned to deal with it. He'd gotten extensive practice in patience over the years that way. He girded himself for a stint of it now. "I'm sorry."

"You don't need to apologize, Napoleon. Just...don't crowd me."

"All right." Solo sighed, and shrugged, letting the anger go. "All right, Illya. You have your space."

Kuryakin drew a breath and nodded. "Thank you. I won't abuse it."

"I know that," Solo looked his partner over, determined to break the tension. And one thing that invariably did that, in spite of all Illya's quirks of personality, was food. "Why don't you join me later for lunch? We'll have to eat in, but I'll have something special delivered. You look like you could use a square meal."

"That sounds good."

"Come at noon," Solo ordered. "When I start this early, I want an early lunch."

"I'll be here," Kuryakin promised, and slipped out the doors.

"You'd better be," Solo muttered. But he was smiling again as he took the first call of the day. It was typical of Illya after all. To resist, to grumble, to complain and make a fuss and then deliver the goods in the end. He'd be a trial as his Chief Enforcement Agent. But he'd be one.

Kuryakin slid behind his own desk, mentally loosening his tie. He'd have loosened it physically as well, but improper dress wasn't consistent with the image of a young enforcement chief. His mouth curled at the thought, then he shrugged.

He understood that Napoleon couldn't imagine he'd want anything else. For Solo, climbing the ladder was as natural as breathing.

That Napoleon didn't find it inconsistent that he was expected to want the job, but not go for it until Solo had vacated the position, was just Napoleon: a combination of ego, an implicit faith in the strength of their partnership, and the fact that Illya hadn't shown any interest in a timely rise to the top of the Enforcement chain. But had their positions been reversed, Kuryakin felt, without a doubt, that Solo would have gone off seeking greener pastures. It was, after all, his nature, and Kuryakin was a firm believer in the strength of nature prevailing when it came to questions of character. Napoleon had been born to lead and nothing and no one should get in his way.

Certainly not a displaced Soviet agent who had definitely not been born to lead. Trained to lead, yes. But the difference between the two spanned a gulf wider than any ocean, belief or ideology.

He wasn't sure if he wanted the C.E.A. position or not. He certainly wasn't blinded that the position's questionable perks would in any way outweigh its inconveniences.

He was more inclined to continue as he always had, and let the chips fall where they may. It would be interesting, at least, to see how Section One would choose.

But Napoleon had made it clear he intended to interfere and that was a major problem. Try as he might to stay out of it, Napoleon wasn't likely to, no matter what he promised. He would manipulate where he could, what he could, and who he could.

That was his nature, too.

Which was a good reason to keep Napoleon in the dark about his true feelings. Had he confessed to Solo that he didn't want the job, Napoleon would very likely try to convince him otherwise, based on what he thought his partner should have. And knowing his partner's persuasive powers, Solo would probably succeed. That Kuryakin could not have.

So he had to keep Napoleon in the dark about his true intentions. Not too hard since he didn't quite know them himself. He'd just have to feed Solo enough clues so that Napoleon felt he did know what Kuryakin wanted, but that his irascible partner was just being difficult about admitting it. Solo would think he did want the job, but was being irascible about it, in his usual way. He would leave him alone, rather than turn his charms to convincing him otherwise.

And what would be the result of this campaign of deception?

He didn't know. But in the short run, he'd buy himself time. Time to see Solo achieve his goals. But as for his own?

He was still a Soviet officer. He didn't believe for one instant that he'd been forgotten here in New York. First and foremost, he was under orders to his government. There might not be a lot of room in his future for his own inclinations anyway. He didn't know what his government might do if he did get the C.E.A. slot when Solo became Continental Chief. And he didn't know what they might do if he didn't. All things considered, he'd prefer not to find out.

Unlike Napoleon, who'd make it his prime business to do so, and to make it come out as he chose.

His mind shied away from that. Napoleon was at the apex of his career, and he wasn't going to have that ascension spoiled by his own concerns.

He wanted to see Napoleon reach that goal, almost more than anything. He wanted to be there for it.

But afterwards, when Napoleon had assumed Waverly's chair? Partners might be partners until 'death do they part', but a kick out of Section Two could end that relationship with just as much finality. For a long time, considering all the problems that could crop up from his continued association with Napoleon, he'd thought the best thing that he could do, once Solo was secure in his new position, was disappear.

And there were lots of ways to do that.

Solo stood up respectfully as Waverly entered the office. "Welcome back, sir."

"I trust everything is well in hand, Mr. Solo?" The old man seemed peeved, perhaps he was as reluctant as anyone to return from what could have been a vacation.

"Yes, sir," Solo assured him. He placed before him the various section statuses and reports and stood back while Waverly paged through them. His assistant brought in some tea, and Waverly paused to fuss with it, while Solo waited patiently to give any additional information the old man would require.

Waverly paused on the report from Section Three regarding Thrush's interest in Solo. "What do you make of this?" he questioned.

Solo hesitated, well aware his response could result in his continuing field restrictions. "I think it means I'll have to be cautious, sir. Perhaps more cautious than before. But I don't see how it merits more than that.

Waverly harrumped, but whether it was in disagreement or disgust at the necessity, Solo couldn't be sure.

The CEA watched as Solo worked his way slowly through the reports. He had left Kuryakin's field report to last, hoping the old man would only skim it. It was after all not of very great interest. The mission had been successful, the objective gained, surely Waverly would concentrate on that...

"What's this?" Waverly pointed to a section of the report with a gnarled finger, the hand livid with age spots.

"Sir?" Solo asked, leaning respectfully forward.

"Something wrong with Mr. Kuryakin, that he couldn't lead this mission?" Waverly demanded.

"I don't think so, sir," Solo answered, preferring to answer the overt, rather than the implied question.

Waverly didn't let him ease by with that. "So? Why did he defer to a younger, less experienced agent?"

Solo debated several answers, from denying that he knew why, to asking Waverly to query Kuryakin himself, to making some outlandish excuse of temporary disability, to the out and out truth. He generally preferred the latter, the problem was that he didn't know the literal truth. Illya hadn't seen fit to share it with him.

"I believe it was a combination of factors, sir," Solo temporized.

"And those might be?" Waverly asked, going in past bluff.

Solo shrugged, his own ire raised. "I not exactly sure, sir. As the mission was successful, I didn't dwell on how they accomplished it," his own dig there, as Waverly only too often preferred to be blind as to how his agents sometimes accomplished things, as long as they succeeded and didn't implicate U.N.C.L.E. doing it. The old boy was the soul of propriety, but even he knew the field required some exigencies. "I believe he felt it would give Dancer some experience, that he could also observe her performance as team leader.

"This wasn't a training mission, Mr. Solo."

Solo stayed quiet, first on his mind was that it had been Waverly after all, that sent the team out. He was calling the wrong man on the carpet if he didn't like how they sorted out their roles.

"Perhaps your partner believes he is less qualified to lead a field team than Miss Dancer?" Waverly said. It was a nasty dig, but Solo had been prepared for that since Waverly had raised the question.

"I would say Mr. Kuryakin's record speaks for itself," Solo pointed out.

"Indeed. Then I take it you find this acceptable?"

Solo drew a sharp breath. In fact, he hadn't found it appropriate, and he balked at the corner Waverly was pushing him into, forced to condone Illya's temporary sideswipe of responsibility, or to condemn him. He didn't particularly understand Kuryakin's motivations, but still mindful of his partner's demand that he not defend him, he couldn't help presenting them in the only light he could understand them.

"Every field agent makes decisions regarding a mission," Solo instead said carefully. "And I prefer not to second-guess them out of the field, with hindsight," Solo was repeating a philosophy Waverly himself had espoused. "What Mr. Kuryakin did, seemed to work well enough. His scientific expertise served him in deciphering the lab layout, and Dancer handled the tactical maneuvering well. His initial assignment, had our team taken the field on that case, was essentially the same. I can't fault his assumption of the role that best suited the needs of the job. I would hope, sir," Solo made the appeal delicately, "that you would have regard for what seemed to have been a judicious and perhaps a self-sacrificial choice."

"Are you saying Mr. Kuryakin gave up the leadership role out of the expediency of the mission?" Waverly asked sharply, well aware this was hardly the case. Kuryakin had deferred before he'd known what the mission was.

"No, sir. I'm not assigning motivations to any agent," Solo said stolidly. "I'm evaluating them on their performance. In this case, the results were excellent."

Waverly huffed impatiently, paging through the rest of the mission report, and tossing it aside. Solo stood at attention as he did, wishing now Waverly would dismiss him so he could go and ponder this all in solitude. He didn't often turn introspective. He avoided it, in fact. Perhaps in spite of that urge toward reflection he shouldn't, should find some attractive companion, and leave Waverly and Kuryakin to settle their differences as they chose. It was, after all, what his partner had demanded he do.

"Do you believe Mr. Kuryakin should succeed you?" Waverly asked, cutting to the chase.

"Yes," Solo said it firmly, with absolutely no misgivings.

The answer surprised Waverly, though the old man hid it well.

"Indeed. Do you believe Mr. Kuryakin intends to succeed you?"

A different question and a harder one. Solo deplored being made to second guess his partner. He'd had preferred having Waverly question Illya directly. But he supposed Waverly must think he had the right to ask his CEA that question. "I must say, based upon his position, yes, he does."

"Hmm." Waverly grunted, clearly unconvinced, but at least for the moment willing to accept that answer. Or perhaps to recognize Solo didn't intend to be more forthcoming. "Very well, Mr. Solo. You may go."

"Good day, sir." Solo said, stepping outside the office, taking a deep breath as if of fresh air. He sighed a little. He'd known there would be fall out from Kuryakin's actions. Waverly was a stickler for propriety, for rank, for all the little niceties rank dictated. Well, he had warned his partner to play his part to the letter. He suspected Waverly intended to make sure of him in the near future. He had every confidence Illya would be up to it. It was, after all, part of his own planning.

Waverly stood at his window, Kuryakin's field report open behind him. It was clear that Solo had been uncomfortable answering his questions, which meant he had his own concerns regarding Kuryakin's behavior. But that, in itself was good. Solo was a tangible force when he chose to use it, and forced to reckon with that, Kuryakin would come around quickly, or prove himself untenable. In that respect Solo was even better than Waverly at getting field agents in line. And he wouldn't be likely to spare even his partner, not on something as serious as this. Waverly felt sure that having brought the problem to Solo's attention, he would deal with it to Waverly's satisfaction.

He balanced the mission folder in his hand, then marked it to be reduced to a quick synopsis. He'd pass the condensed version onto his Section One colleagues, not the undistilled report. And in that condensation, he'd ensure the agents listed were ranked by seniority. He'd give Kuryakin one slip, one fall from grace. And trust that Solo would ensure it was the last. For he intended to send Solo back out into the field, but he wanted Kuryakin's sharp eyes on Thrush. After some thought he called the Soviet agent into his office.

Kuryakin's stomach clenched when he received the summons. He knew Waverly was back; the office grapevine was swift when it came to such issues. Even those who didn't have the inside track on Waverly's arrival knew when they had seen Solo come through the corridors to his own office.

Kuryakin had been expecting some feedback from the mission, mostly because he had felt from the moment he had walked into Waverly's office and found only Mark and April there, that it had been a setup. And his instincts had been right. He was about to be raked over the coals for his behavior. Solo had tried to warn him, and Solo had, of course, read Waverly's reaction right.

He sighed softly, raked his hand through his hair, and stepped through the door. It was only after he was in the room that he realized he should have made an effort to check his tie. Now that he was standing before the old man, it was a little too late. Though Waverly's bushy eyebrows stayed down, his gaze fixed on some report he was reading, apparently taking no notice of him. Kuryakin cleared his throat awkwardly, but Waverly didn't look up. It was then he knew for certain that he was in for it. Perversely, his spine stiffened in outrage. Five minutes before he'd been queasy at the thought of a tongue-lashing from the old man; now that he knew he was due for one, he suddenly couldn't care less. It was, he knew, his own odd nature that responded to adversity with defiance, yet dodged everyday difficulties. At times he felt he set himself up for such episodes. Perhaps that was the reason why he had let Dancer lead the last mission. He had, after all, known better. U.N.C.L.E. was not quite a military organization, but it was hierarchical enough to nearly qualify.

He frowned down at the old man, and grew bolder. Perhaps Waverly intended to make him stand before him like a recalcitrant schoolboy forever. But he was no boy. And he hadn't made it through the Soviet military to stand quaking before an old man who couldn't even have him shot.

"You sent for me, sir?" His voice was cool. Challenging.

Waverly looked up. Measured him from his too long hair to his too short body to his imperfectly tailored off-the-rack suit. "I did, Mr. Kuryakin."

The Soviet agent waited under his superior's critical gaze and despite his own sense that he should force Waverly to make the next move, he finally said. "May I ask what I can help you with?"

"I find myself in need of your analytical abilities."

This was totally unlike what Kuryakin had expected. He blinked, non-plussed and said, "Mine, sir?"

"Yes, yours," Waverly said.

"Any assistance I can give..." he offered blankly.

"You can tell me, for instance, how you see your role within this organization."

Caught. Kuryakin flushed. He had walked right into that one. "I assume this is in reference to my last mission. I've already assured Mr. Solo that won't happen again."

Now it was Waverly's turn to blink, though he didn't let it show. Waverly supposed it could be part of Solo's ethics, that having chastised a subordinate privately, he wouldn't mention the incident to his superior. But it could also be just as easily construed that failing to bring this to the attention of his own superior, essentially hiding the uncharacteristic behavior, was favoritism. Regardless, he was annoyed Solo hadn't mentioned it to him, particularly in the light of their recent conversation. And he had no desire to rehash old history with Kuryakin. For one thing, it made him look weak, to follow up on something Solo had presumably already dealt with. Instead he switched smoothly to a new tactic. "I was referring to your long-term role."

Kuryakin hesitated, then shrugged and confessed the truth. "I haven't spent a great deal of time considering it, sir. Staying alive from day to day has been more of an issue," he added.

Waverly only harrumphed at that, not the slightest bit deterred. "I'm afraid that is not good enough."

"I know, sir." Kuryakin admitted.

"You have an implied inherited role within this organization, particularly as Mr. Solo will become ineligible for fieldwork within the next year.

"'But I have to show I want it, at least a little bit,'" Kuryakin said, quoting Solo, not without a touch of bitterness. "I'm well aware of that, sir," he added in his normal voice. " Mr. Solo made that quite plain. I am considering the situation."

Waverly did blink this time. It seemed Solo had cut to the heart of the matter with his partner. "Well, don't spend the whole year doing so," Waverly snapped. "I have plans to make as well."

"I understand that, sir. I will get back to you as soon as possible." He hesitated, eager to escape, actually shifting one foot to the next. "Is that all?"

"No," Waverly turned to the next item on his agenda. "I take it you have read the Section Three reports on Thrush intelligence with regard to Mr. Solo."

Kuryakin's look turned suddenly feral. "Yes."

"And your opinion?"

"I think they didn't go deep enough. The local interests of any Thrush satrap will be on their private initiatives. Dealing with U.N.C.L.E. enforcement agents is only a defensive issue for them. The offensive moves against U.N.C.L.E. are generally planned within Thrush Central. If we wish to know their interest in Napoleon, we will have to go there. Section Three didn't do that."

"Yes, I quite agree their investigations, particularly in the timespan they had allotted, were necessarily limited. What do you suggest?"

Kuryakin hesitated. "If we can't keep Mr. Solo from their grasp, then we have to convince him that he's too expensive a target."

"The former is impossible. Mr. Solo is simply too valuable an operative to keep confined to Headquarters."

"Then Thrush must be brought to realize that attempts against him will cost them dearly."

Waverly turned that over in his mind. "Perhaps. At least for a time."

"It won't be for much longer in any case, sir," Kuryakin pointed out.

"Very well," Waverly said, making a decision. "You have my authority to take such action in Mr. Solo's defense as you see fit."

Kuryakin hesitated. "No restrictions?"

"I don't expect you to take out innocent lives." Waverly paused. "But I have no severe objection to your use of Thrush ones."

"Yes, sir," Kuryakin said. "I will act accordingly sir."

"Very well," Waverly said. "You are dismissed. But, Mr. Kuryakin?"

"Yes, sir?"

"We'll consider this conversation private."

Don't mention it to Solo, Kuryakin instantly deduced. More than likely Waverly himself intended it to be concealed from the rest of Section One. "Yes, sir," he said quickly, and received Waverly's curt nod of dismissal in response. He left the office, pausing on the outside of the doorway as was his wont. Catching his breath, so to speak, and evaluating the damage. This time, he decided it wasn't much. In fact, he felt surprisingly good about it. He had Waverly's leeway to use whatever force he deemed necessary against Thrush, and he had time to consider his own options within U.N.C.L.E. Not bad at all.

He almost whistled as he walked to his office.

Solo sprinted over the crest of the hill, lungs laboring, the backpack with the bulky plans bumping against his spine. His thoughts were running on the bad stretch ahead of him, flat out, no cover. He'd been concerned about that in the preliminary mission plans, but they couldn't change the physical terrain just for an UNCLE operation.

But now behind him, Thrush henchmen were converging. He figured he had a start of some five hundred yards, but the men pursuing him weren't hampered by field equipment. His speed was slow. Soon they would get within rifle range, and then he could be dead. It was a distinct possibility. He'd acknowledged the thought that Thrush Central wanted him alive more than dead, but individual satraps cared more about their operations than what Central wanted. A point that figured poorly in his survival now. They'd couldn't let him escape with the plans he'd stolen. They'd have to kill him.

He ran, spots dancing in his eyes with the lack of oxygen as his lungs labored. Behind him he heard a roar as the Thrush force crested the hill and began to converge. He ran, his limbs heavy with fatigue, his mind set on reaching the prearranged pickup point. It was at least another hundred yards. In the mission briefing he'd been confident he could make it. Well, pretty confident.

And now...

He heard the barking of an order. He couldn't even brace himself for a bullet, he just had to keep moving. But then, behind the crest of a hill, came the thwap-thwap-thwap of a helicopter. Kuryakin must have decided to abandon their plan. Solo wondered briefly if he himself was late in addition to being slow and under pursuit.

Kuryakin must be mad. This was no good place for a pickup. The open plain would offer no cover when Solo ascended the rope ladder tossed down to him as Kuryakin hovered. The pickup spot was supposed to be behind the crest of the next hill, where they figured they'd have at least 30 seconds before the Thrush caught up enough to be in position to fire, with the hill giving him cover while he ascended. It was best compromise between the pickup Kuryakin had wanted, which had been the rise just before this plain. Solo had vetoed that as being too close to the installation. So close that Thrush could have easily picked off the copter and Illya. But likewise, he had no cover here, he'd be a sitting duck as he ascended.

Illya, what are you thinking?

He's thinking you'd have never made it to the pickup point alive, Solo thought, as he made it to the bottom rung of the dangling ladder. Behind him men were shouting orders in chaos and confusion at the arrival of the helicopter.

He held himself against the first shot from below as he scrambled upward. But the sound of rifle fire didn't come from below, it came from above. Kuryakin had a clear advantage over the men pursuing them. The Soviet agent left the copter on autopilot and reached for his automatic rifle. At full auto, he fired it at the Thrushmen, some who were still in pursuit, some who'd stopped and knelt to a steadier position to fire. Solo heard the screams and cries of pain as Kuryakin laid open a wide, murderous swath, swinging the fire back and forth until he cut down their opponents like grain before a scythe. When Solo ascended the latter, he saw the field was full of dead and bleeding men.

"Get in, get in!" Kuryakin insisted, his face almost as beaded with sweat and tension as Solo's. "This is no time to sightsee."

"Jesus, Illya," Solo said, looking at the carnage left behind on the field as the copter swung away. "Was that necessary?" He wondered how this would look in the mission report. UNCLE agents were expected to always use the minimum of force to accomplish their goals. Sleep darts instead of killing force, and selective force when killing force was required. They took lives, but they weren't supposed to be rabid about it, or to take them en masse, and certainly not merely to save their own. What Kuryakin had done was close to murderous and it was against every policy in U.N.C.L.E.

"You're alive, aren't you?" Kuryakin retorted. "The mission was a success, wasn't it? And that's what matters."

Solo had no answer.

"I tend to concur with Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said unexpectedly, when the point came up in debriefing. Solo had awkwardly glossed over the incident. Kuryakin himself had pointed out that it was essentially excessive force, but that he also felt it was warranted considering the alternatives included losing Solo's life, as well as the mission for the dubious benefit of protecting a Thrush assault force.

"I'm not sure that my life should be worth more than that of any other operative," Solo said, in objection to Kuryakin's emphasis on the former goal.

"Then it is just as well that you have Mr. Kuryakin to protect you from undue modesty," Waverly said. "Very well. That will be all gentlemen."

No 'good job', Solo noted as they left. But that wasn't Waverly's style in any case. The absence of censure generally indicated a good job. He left slowly, half-tempted to hang behind and debate Waverly's collusion with Kuryakin, but then he changed his mind and followed his partner out.

Kuryakin checked his watch. "If we hurry, we can get the written report done and on Waverly's desk before lunch," he noted. "That would leave the afternoon free."

Solo glanced sideways at him. "Free for what?"

The Soviet agent cut blue eyes at him. "Free for whatever we want."

Solo shrugged. "I'm a little tired. I'm not in any hurry to write this report. Anyway, we could use the afternoon to think about how we're going to word it."

"Word what?"

Solo glanced sideways at his partner. "Your lavish use of force?"

"Waverly approved," Kuryakin said, turning away in dismissal of that subject. He stepped into Solo's office.

Solo caught his arm. "I don't."

Kuryakin stared at him, then deliberately wrenched free. "And what's that supposed to mean?" He looked cynically amused. "Are you planning to write me up?"

"I just might," Solo said, troubled. As CEA he had the responsibility to do so. "In fact, if it had been any other agent, in any other circumstance, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment."

"That's Waverly's point. You're not just any other agent."

"Illya, you can't blow away two dozen people just because they're Thrush agents who might point a gun on me."

"Yes, I can. In fact I did."

Solo grimaced as he saw someone approaching down the hallway. Hopefully their conversation hadn't been audible. He hustled his partner inside, and didn't continue until the door shut safely behind them. "I thought you got carried away in the heat of the moment. It happens. But not even you are blood-thirsty enough to do it in cold blood."

"Try me."

"This is no joking matter."

"I'm not joking.

"Illya, you used a machine gun."

"It did the job."

"And what's next," Solo snapped. "An atom bomb?"

"That's an American specialty," Kuryakin pointed out coolly. "Anyway, considering the use Thrush would have made of that research, not to mention your own life, it was more than a fair trade."

"That's Waverly's job, to make those kind of trades," Solo countered. "Not ours."

"So write me up," Kuryakin said indifferently. "If it will assuage your conscience, by all means do. Leave it in Waverly's hands."

"I just want you to take it easy in the future."

"Then you'll need to get another partner. Because this one isn't going to let his CEA get captured by Thrush if he can help it. Anyway, for all that you say it is Waverly's job, it's going to be yours soon. You better get used to those sorts of trades. That goes with the job, too. Or have you conveniently overlooked that?" Kuryakin sat down at the typewriter. "Now can we please get this done? If you're going to spend the afternoon writing a disciplinary report, we need to move this along."

"Illya, I'm not going to put you on report," Solo said in exasperation, even as his mind turned over Illya's casual reference to his assuming Waverly's duties. He began to wonder if the old man had intended it as a lesson of sorts. Not that Waverly had planned it, of course, but he used what came along.

"Go ahead," Kuryakin said in reply. "It will be interesting to see what Waverly does with it."

But he didn't, of course. It was ridiculous to even consider doing that to his partner, not to mention that word would get out and the rest of the section would be puzzled and demoralized at such an action by their CEA. He decided to forget about it, rationalizing that Illya had been overly worried about him lately, and worry could cause anyone to overreact.

Though Illya wasn't the overreacting type.

And Waverly hadn't seemed too surprised.

Solo rounded the corridor of the Thrush installation, Kuryakin at his heels. Through the doorway opposite, two Thrushmen entered. One turned immediately and ran the opposite direction, the other hesitated. Kuryakin shot him directly in the heart, the man dying instantly.

"Didn't you load your weapon with sleep darts?" Solo grunted as they rushed passed the guard.

"Must have got the clips mixed up," Kuryakin answered. "Come on, let's hurry."

Solo pulled a skeptical face, though there was no time to argue. Agents didn't get their clips mixed up. The weight alone easily differentiated a clip full of darts from a clip of live ammunition.

They pounded in unison toward their waiting jeep, Kuryakin reaching it first and swinging behind the wheel. Solo jumped in as Kuryakin swung the vehicle around.

"Hurry, hurry!" Kuryakin was urging, even after Solo was in.

"Floor it, will you?" Solo said, glancing behind to where five guards had run out of the building. Solo couldn't hear the exact nature of the orders, but he gathered they weren't any sort of welcoming committee.

Kuryakin glanced behind them, then swore softly at the Thrush. He pulled his weapon out. He shot three of them before Solo knocked his hand away, ruining his aim. "Just drive, Illya!"

When they were well clear of pursuit, Solo gestured to the side of the road. "Pull over."

Kuryakin squinted at him against the rays of the setting sun, but did so, choosing to pull up near a clump of bushes, as if Solo needed to take a leak.

"Just exactly did you think you were doing back there?" Solo asked quietly.

"What do you mean?" Kuryakin asked guilelessly.

"You know what I meant. You could have just driven away; there wasn't a need for more casualties. And how does a trained agent get his clips mixed up anyway?"

"It can happen to anyone, " Kuryakin said blandly. "This is no place for a post-mortem, Napoleon" Kuryakin added, putting the car back in gear. "We can discuss this at HQ."

"And we will," Solo promised over the roar of the engine.

And he had every intention of doing so. But Thrush had other plans, setting up an ambush at a crossroads near the state line. As they approached it, Solo noticed the cars sitting innocently across from one another at the four way stop made no move to cross the intersection, even though the normal procedure would have been to alternate until they were all through. Solo felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, and he poked his partner. "Illya?"

It was too late. Though Kuryakin had already pulled the jeep off to the shoulder, a vehicle in the opposite lane suddenly swung in front of them to block their passage. Another boxed them in from behind.

"Gentlemen," the Thrush agent, carrying his own machine gun, gestured to them from the car in front. "If you would get out of your vehicle, please."

Solo drew a sharp breath, feeling capture closing in. He scanned the cars around them. Thrush agents all, heavily armed, appeared through the opening windows.

"I have to undo my seat belt," Kuryakin said.

"Slowly, Mr. Kuryakin," the Thrushman warned, and his voice hardened. "I should kill you right here, considering your past behavior. But unlike you, I do follow my orders. I will kill you, though, if you force me. I really only want your partner."

"I'll keep that in mind." Kuryakin said mildly. His tone raised the hairs on the back of Solo's neck again. He cut a quick glance at Kuryakin, who had taken his hands off the wheel, reached down to his side, and unhooked the belt. When he came back up, he had something in both hands. A lump of something. Like soft putty.

"Oh, my god!" One Thrushman cried as Kuryakin lobbed the explosives in two directions. The Thrush officer ahead of them got off one shot before he dropped by Solo's dart. It whined past them, ripping a hole in Solo jacket sleeve before burying itself in the seat upholstery next to them. Kuryakin already had his foot on the pedal and was concentrating on driving, making a hard right that nearly overturned the vehicle, then forcing the jeep through the chaos before them. He veered hard left, back on the road, the jeep bouncing crazily on the rutted shoulder. Solo could hear the exploding gas tanks, the stench of burning rubber acrid in his nose. Although he kept his weapon at ready, there was no pursuit. In smoke and confusion, and more than a little death, they escaped.

Solo hung over the back of the car, his arms growing heavy with the weight of the rifle he had taken from he back of the jeep. He shifted it restlessly from hand to hand, eyes fixed on the fast disappearing smoke. No one followed, though the black clouds from the fires lingered in the air even when they were miles away. "I think your plot worked," he finally commented still keeping his eyes fixed on pursuit, "But next time, warn me when we're carrying live explosives in an open car. That was dangerous, Illya."

"I will," Kuryakin said, his voice oddly breathless.

"That's a first," Solo said, looking over at him. From his position, he could only see the top of his head. "No complaints that it was less dangerous then being in Thrush custody?"

"No."

"You sound strange," Solo noted.

"Do I?" Kuryakin asked faintly.

"Are you all right?" Solo asked, turning around in his seat to get a better look.

"Yes. But Napoleon?"

"Yeah?" Solo settled the loaded weapon carefully at his knees.

"I think you'll have to drive," Kuryakin said before pitching forward over the wheel. Solo grabbed it, wildly steering the car to the shoulder. "Illya. Illya for god's sake brake!"

But the Russian was unconscious, his skin pale and clammy. Solo forced him to the side and pulled the emergency brake as he fuddled for the brake pedal from the wrong side of the car. He finally brought the jeep to a wrenching stop. One look told him to get it moving again, to the closest emergency room. The bullet hadn't buried itself in upholstery. With Kuryakin's typical bad luck, it had landed a few inches to the left, in his partner's side. He pushed Kuryakin over, as gently as possible, to the passenger seat. The Russian didn't even moan; he was that deeply out. Shock, Solo thought. He could hardly deal with it here, with Thrush probably marshaling itself to send some pursuit after them. He got the car moving again, opening his communicator with one hand and his teeth. He wished, not for the first time, the damn engineers would come up with a communicator that didn't require two hands to manipulate it.

"Yes, of course, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, sounding not at all ruffled at the call. "There is a local U.N.C.L.E. office not more than ten miles from you. They have a reasonable infirmary set up for Mr. Kuryakin."

"I think he's going to need more than an infirmary, sir," Solo said. "Where's the closest hospital?"

"Farther than that, I'm afraid. And I'd hate to trust Mr. Kuryakin to the dangers we've discovered lurk in every hospital. As you know from prior experience, we've found them not very secure places for injured agents. And that would be doubly true for you or Mr. Kuryakin now. But if you think it is that serious, I'll send a medical chopper to the Watertown U.N.C.L.E. office. They can airlift Mr. Kuryakin to our facilities here.

'Thank you, sir," Solo said and floored the jeep to get there.

A wild shot, the doctors said, probably not aimed at all, fired in reflex as the Thrush captain was hit, perhaps ricocheting into Kuryakin. And lucky, too, if you consider all the places the shot could have done serious damage. Or even if the man had hit the jeep's gas tank and blown them both up. Kuryakin had only been shot in the side. He'd lost a couple of loops of intestine, more than a little blood, and some skin. The intestines he wouldn't miss, he'd been transfused and they grafted new skin over the chunk torn out by the bullets. He might not even show a scar.

He'd been lucky, the doctors assured Solo. But Solo didn't feel particularly lucky as he went to report to Waverly.

"Splendid mission, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, for one not chary of praise.

"Thank you, sir," Solo responded. "But I can't help but feel that a mission isn't an unqualified success unless the team comes back intact."

Waverly harrumphed. "Perhaps you will find this piece of news heartening," Waverly passed an intelligence report to his Chief Enforcement Agent.

"Thrush Central has declared Illya Kuryakin to be Thrush enemy number one," Solo read dubiously. "Why would this be considered good news?"

"For one thing, it means the onus is off of yourself," Waverly answered.

Solo grimaced. "Hardly consolation if it's on Illya instead."

"Nonsense. Splitting a target is always a good tactic."

Solo shrugged in reluctant consensus. As a tactical point it was true, but when it meant his partner he felt it was a moot point. If the focus was on Illya, he'd have to be his shield, as surely as Kuryakin was his own. Waverly seemed to be missing that point. In fact, Waverly seemed unaccountably cheerful about the fact that his second in charge of Section Two had earned such an exalted position in Thrush's ire.

"For another it proves that Thrush can be moved to acts of desperation, and manipulated accordingly," the old man went on, still uncommonly pleased.

Solo shrugged again.

Waverly noticed his lack of enthusiasm and waved a hand in dismissal. "Very well, Mr. Solo. You may go and complete your written report. Yourself, since Mr. Kuryakin is unable to do it for you."

Solo nodded. If that was supposed to be an attempt at mirth, it was lost on him. "Yes, sir."

Later, Solo sat by his friend and partner. Illya was so incongruous in a hospital bed, small and pale, lost amid the white sheets and blankets, hardly like a top enforcement agent. The blond Russian didn't have a heavy beard. Whereas Solo felt he needed to shave twice a day to look his best, even after a couple of days sans shaving, Kuryakin hardly looked scruffy, adding to the deceptive look of innocence.

At thirty-seven, Kuryakin still appeared incongruously youthful, closer to his twenties than his mid-thirties. That worked to their advantage on occasion, such as at Blair College, when Kuryakin had posed as a student. Superior Russian genes, Kuryakin had smugly claimed, when Solo had teased him about it.

Now, bandaged and ashen, he looked particularly vulnerable, stirring Solo's partnerly instincts. Solo's fists clenched as he thought of Waverly's announcement. Kuryakin hardly appeared to be an obvious candidate as anyone's enemy. Yet there he was, Thrush "Enemy Number One" with only a partner for a shield against the massed forces that organization was apparently prepared to bring against him. It was just as well he was out of the action for a bit. Fortunately Thrush, like most poorly managed organizations, had a short attention span.

"See why I stay low-key, Illya?" Solo commented to the sleeping man. "Grandstanding like that only gets you noticed. First thing they teach you in Survival School."

"He won't wake up for hours," a helpful nurse said, poking her head in, hearing his voice as she passed by. "Probably not till tomorrow morning."

"That's all right," Solo said absently.

"Why don't you get some rest yourself, sir," the nurse suggested. "Right now your friend is being more sensible than you are."

"Yes, I will," Solo said. "Thank you."

There was just enough of an edge to his tone that the nurse shrugged and took herself off. Solo sighed. He was weary, and bed did seem like a good place to be. But he still felt as if he and Illya had unfinished business. He wished Kuryakin would wake up, if just for a moment, so they could talk. He had a lot to say.

First Waverly was the main target, or one of the other Section One chiefs. Then me, as the heir apparent. Now you. I don't disagree with Waverly's statement that it is better to keep one's opponents swinging from one target to another, but I do disagree with your tactics. You're no indiscriminate slaughterer of lives, however reprehensible they are. Why you've become so ruthless lately, I have no idea, but I have my suspicions, and they begin in Section One.

But Kuryakin was deaf to his musings, only sleeping on. Solo sighed and gave in to the inevitable, at least temporarily. He'd talk to Illya about it later on.

Solo was trying to keep his voice down, low and reasonable. For one thing, he felt guilty enough raising the issue with Kuryakin still recovering. And for another, he felt sure if the infirmary staff could hear them, they'd throw him out immediately for upsetting Kuryakin with mission issues while he was still in the infirmary and supposedly in respite from such problems. He'd meant to just tell Kuryakin to cool it, and he expected Kuryakin to have agreed. His resistance had spurred Solo to press the issue further, till now they were arguing. It wasn't what he intended, and he had no idea why his Russian partner was being so stubborn.

Solo had peeked into the infirmary room, almost hoping Kuryakin would still be sleeping. But he was awake, and from the looks of it, well able to bear a visit in spite of the sign on the door that said NO VISITORS. Solo ignored it. U.N.C.L.E.'s infirmary had a number of signs. The first, which said POSITIVELY NO VISITORS, THIS MEANS YOU, Solo regarded as meaning Partners and Waverly only. NO VISITORS meant anyone who could sneak in --which meant the majority of Section Two and Three and a good measure of the support staff could feel free to visit. No sign at all meant the agent was well enough that he should feel duty bound to escape himself.

Kuryakin showed evidence of having had a few illicit visits already. There was a string of cards hung over the foot of his bed, a few flowers in a vase by his beside, and a couple of magazines on the bedside table. Kuryakin didn't look up to reading just yet, but he was idly thumbing through one of the magazines.

Solo sighed a little. Although being an enforcement agent inevitably meant getting injured, one positive note to that fact was how the rest of U.N.C.L.E. responded. An injured agent in the hospital or infirmary generally meant a flurry of support staff making visits. After the Karmack affair, when Waverly had finally agreed his various health plans might make good economic sense, but left injured agents too vulnerable, he'd beefed up U.N.C.L.E.'s medical staff and the infirmaries around the globe till they were very nearly as well equipped as any hospital. Now agents had to be admitted to hospitals only in extreme emergencies when they couldn't reach an U.N.C.L.E. office, and then they only stayed long enough to be stable before being transferred. One side feature of the resulting safety was that injured agents were even more accessible to staff visits. Solo suspected, though he didn't know for sure, that the support sections actually had some sort of schedule down, for even newly transferred agents were visited as conscientiously as the older, or in Kuryakin's case, more standoffish agents. Not that Illya didn't have his following among the ladies, but he tended to be in a bad temper when in the infirmary. Even Solo found him trying. But a partner was expected to visit frequently, and at least according to the custom of New York's HQ, a partner was also supposed to come up with an actual present rather than a card or food.

Contrary to the common opinion that Kuryakin was hard to buy for, he was actually extremely easy, as he bought himself so little. Because Kuryakin was so frequently injured, Solo kept a few items at ready, so to speak, against the day they'd be needed. Consequently, when he brought in Kuryakin's bag with a few clothes and personal items he'd taken from the Soviet agent's apartment, he also brought him a new terryrobe — his old one was so threadbare it was virtually in tatters, and a gift-wrapped package that held a tin of watercolor pencils and a watercolor pad. Once in a stationary store he'd seen Kuryakin looking over similar sets of such things with an acquisitive hunger in his eyes. When Solo had come up next to him, Illya's face had gone blank, as if he had washed the expression off of it with a brush. Solo had never seen him do more than technical drawings, but that didn't mean much. One thing he'd come to realize about Russians, and his own was no different — regardless of their various degrees of cynicism which with they cloaked themselves, they were all secret romantics at heart. He'd never met a Russian spy, or a scientist, or a military officer yet that, when prodded, didn't reveal a hankering to write, paint, do something musically, or indulge in some other artistic activity. Scratch any Russian engineer, and you found someone who went through hell to get East German records, photographic film or English novels, and who secretly dreamed of giving up his state job to pursue his life-long love interest. Illya was more cynical, and he was too cheap, or too cautious, to indulge in too much blatent consumerism. It was, after all, considered the bane of American society. While Kuryakin was out of the direct supervision of the KGB and GRU, they were never entirely indifferent to him. Had he indulged in any kind of lavish lifestyle, Solo felt sure there would be repercussions and Kuryakin knew it. But in terms of hankering after such pursuits, he was, Solo suspected, very little different than his fellow countrymen. Illya could, however, accept a few minor gifts from his colleague with little risk, and Solo found it rather enjoyable to be the means of plying Illya with a few token decadent Western consumer items.

"How are you doing?" Solo asked. He set the suitcase carefully on the rack meant for it. "I stopped by your apartment and packed a change of clothes for you for when you're ready to leave. And I added your shaving and personal stuff from your field kit. I sent the clothes that were in your suitcase from the last mission down to Del's for cleaning."

"Thanks," Kuryakin set aside the magazine, moving a little carefully.

"Do you want these things in the bathroom?" Solo took Kuryakin's shaving kit out of the suitcase.

"Yes, please."

Solo scrutinized him as he came back into the room. "So how are you feeling?"

Kuryakin shrugged. "Well enough. I'm told they might let me out of here in a week or two."

"More like two or three," Solo said, having heard it was closer to that. It was typical of Kuryakin to shave a week off of any medical estimate. "I brought you something to keep you busy while you're recuperating." He put his present on the bed.

Kuryakin scowled. "I wish you wouldn't do this, Napoleon. It's embarrassing."

"It's expected," Solo pointed out.

"Not by me." Still his curious fingers slid down the wrappings separating them.

"Every service has its traditions," Solo replied, settling down carefully on the bedside to watch Kuryakin's expression. It was always rewarding to see if he'd guessed right, but Kuryakin was so quick to mask his expressions, you had to be watching right when he first saw the item.

Kuryakin looked puzzled and disbelieving when he pulled away the paper to reveal the tin inside, and he gave Solo a quick glance and then opened the tin, as if expecting to find it concealed something else. His face flushed when he saw the neat rows of pencils. The sharp smell of shaven wood filled the air. "How did you — why in the world would you get me this?" he covered quickly.

Solo shrugged, pleased he now had a new area to expand into. Drawing supplies. The way Kuryakin got hurt, he needed plenty of options. "The doctors are always complaining that you overtire yourself reading. And your guitar playing disturbs the other patients. I thought this would be a nice change."

"You're crazy."

"The proper answer is 'thank you'," Solo replied, not at all offended. "I got you a new robe, too. Your old one has more holes in it than you do. And that's going some." He pushed the package over to him. This one only required that Kuryakin lift the box lid.

"Napoleon, this is too nice," Kuryakin said, hands deep in plush terry velour, eyes a bit wide at the softness. Solo had splurged on that item. Kuryakin's last robe had been as rough as a burlap sack. And about as absorbent. Solo had been waiting for a good time to replace it. No doubt his frugal Russian would rip the old one up into towels. Or use it at home and keep the good one for missions.

"Color brings out your eyes," Solo said, grinning. "You'll look wonderful to all the girls coming into succor the wounded hero."

"I'm no hero," Kuryakin denied.

"Now, now, don't spoil their fun," Solo chided. "That's a tradition, too."

Kuryakin sighed, sitting back, his face paling. "Thank you."

"Are you getting tired?" Solo asked, approaching the subject on his mind with caution.

Kuryakin shrugged fractionally, mindful of his injuries. "Just a bit. I'm more bored than tired."

"Then, if you're not too tired, I wonder if we could talk about what happened on the mission."

Kuryakin turned toward him, his eyes guarded. "All right."

"I'm a little concerned about the tactics you've been using lately."

Kuryakin looked at him.

"They seem a bit excessive."

"You're here, aren't you?" His voice was almost rude. "I don't think you have much reason to complain."

"Illya I can't have any of my agents violating U.N.C.L.E.'s charter regarding force," Solo insisted, keeping his voice even. "Not even you. Not even when it's in my defense. You have to promise me, here and now, that it is going to stop."

Kuryakin looked actually amused. "Or what?"

"What?" Solo was non-plussed.

"Or what will you do?"

"Are you telling me you're refusing me?"

"Just asking for information."

"Well, don't. This isn't optional, Illya. I'm telling you it has to stop. There are no options."

"And I am asking you what you will do if I don't."

"Damn it, I'm not playing games here. You know what I'll have to do."

"Refresh my memory," Kuryakin suggested.

"At the very least, I'll have to write it up," Solo said tersely. "An official reprimand. It will go on your record."

Kuryakin shrugged fractionally again. "I guess I'll have to take that chance. At least you'd be alive to write me up."

"That's not good enough. I want you to promise me this, Illya before we go back in the field."

"No."

Solo blinked. "Are you out of your mind? What drugs are they giving you here? Didn't you hear me? I said--"

"I heard you. The answer is still no. I'll use my own discretion, as a top field agent, to take whatever actions I see fit to complete the mission and secure the safety of our field team."

"You're discretion is tending on the violent side lately," Solo said, trying to keep his voice down, in spite of his frustration.

"Maybe it's warranted."

"Damn it, Illya--"

"What is going on in here?" Theodore Abernathy stuck his head in the room. "Mr. Solo did you see the sign? It said No Visitors. I do presume you can read?"

"Yes, Napoleon, you wouldn't want to break those all-important rules," Kuryakin mocked.

Solo opened his mouth, but was quickly forestalled as the physician pointed to the door.

"Out," said the doctor. "A brief visit from a partner or close friend is one thing, but that doesn't include a post-mission debriefing. Kuryakin is not cleared for light duty; and you'll just wait to discuss cases until he is."

"I've discussed cases with injured agents before," Solo said cooly.

"If Waverly's cleared it as urgent and life-threatening. He hasn't and you haven't. If you want to continue this, get your clearance. In the meantime, get out." The doctor shrugged, softening a bit. "You can come back if you can avoid talking shop."

"I'll see you later, Illya," Solo muttered, half promise, half near-threat.

Kuryakin leaned back against his pillows, his heart racing, his cheeks flushed.

"You agents," Abernathy muttered, taking his pulse and shaking his head at the result. "If you can't find a fight in the field, you make them at HQ, even in a sick bed."

"We're a blood-thirsty lot," Kuryakin agreed, watching Solo as he disappeared out the door. He closed his eyes. Suddenly he was unbelievably tired.

"Just remember, a man only has so much blood to lose," Abernathy warned. He settled his patient back against the pillows and pointedly turned out the lights in the room.

"Oh, we know, doctor," Kuryakin muttered. "We know."

Solo paced back to his office, still unaccountably furious. Not so much because of Kuryakin's virtually admitted use of excessive force. Any agent could lose his head in a crisis. Though it was usually characteristic of the younger, less experienced ones, an older agent could react inappropriately under pressure too. Nor was he even furious because Kuryakin's use of force hadn't been a loss of control, but a planned and deliberate tactic, essentially in violation of U.N.C.L.E. policy. Solo had broken rules and skirted policy before himself, and they both had watched their boss do the same, where there was need. But it was a skirting, an infrequent act under dire circumstances. What infuriated him was his partner's apparent refusal to stop, his unwillingness to cease now that his partner had called him on it, his unstated intention of continuing that practice in the very face of Solo's opposition. To put it simply, he was furious because Kuryakin had defied him. And seemed to plan to continue to defy him. That was new in their relationship.

That alone made him calm down and reconsider, his own analytical abilities clicking in. Kuryakin was not the defiant type. He had very little ego, particularly for a top enforcement agent. In fact, Kuryakin in general regarded defiance of authority as a very risky proposition, better chanced by other men than himself. He rarely gave Waverly trouble. And outside of a fair bit of grumbling, he had never given Solo trouble. It was the mutiny, the near betrayal of the act, that had so raised Solo's ire and momentarily short-circuited his thinking processes. But now that his rational mind had homed in on the situation it suddenly became clear to him.

Why would Kuryakin, who preferred to remain anonymous, who never foisted his field title around, who had let Solo lead throughout his entire career suddenly kick up the traces now — and over such an issue? Kuryakin was ruthless, but not blood-thirsty. He didn't even have the same instinct for revenge that Solo had when he saw his Russian partner threatened. Why would Illya change the habits of a lifetime, his very personality?

The answer was clear. He hadn't. He wouldn't act this way unless he were under orders. And those orders could only come from one person. Waverly.

Solo sighed, settling behind his desk, wishing he had a window out of which he could gaze while in thought. The problem was, he himself could not march up to Waverly's office and demand he rescind Kuryakin's orders. After all, he took his orders from the same man.

Solo pondered how to turn about this seemingly insurmountable chain of events, and then it struck him. He need not. He would simply act in accordance with policy, as if Kuryakin were no different than any other field agent who had defied him. He would put him on report. And for the very circumstances Waverly had so clandestinely ordered. Excessive force. Waverly could not buck him without making his own involvement public. He would have to back down. And Kuryakin would cease being Section One's latest combination of executioner and prime target.

He sat down to compose an appropriately scathing rebuke of his partner's tactics. He almost enjoyed himself. Illya wasn't the only one who liked to play act.

When Waverly saw Solo's official report the next morning, his eyes nearly bulged out of his head. "Mr. Solo. You can't seriously be submitting this to me."

"I am, sir," Solo said. "Very seriously."

Waverly eyed him skeptically. "It's hardly conducive to partnerly loyalty," he pointed out.

"True, sir, but you yourself have repeatedly stated that our first loyalty must be to U.N.C.L.E. In spite of my partnership and friendship for Mr. Kuryakin, I think I have proven that primary loyalty. I can't abandon it simply to avoid a distasteful disciplinary action."

"I would think you should be able to find some other way of dealing with the problem. A public reprimand is hardly called for."

"I did ask Mr. Kuryakin to reconsider his actions. He refused. I'm afraid that in the light of that, I must take this step. It won't do for even the least of our agents to get the impression that position and rank denotes any special privileges or abilities to disregard U.N.C.L.E. policy."

"You actually intend to make an example of Mr. Kuryakin?"

"I do, sir."

"This is most irregular, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, looking vexed.

"I agree, sir," Solo said, deliberately mistaking Waverly's statement. "That is why I feel that I must take this action. It is simply too risky to allow our agents to assume they can run rampant through the community with all the firepower U.N.C.L.E.'puts at their disposal, and with a free license to act only as their own consciences see fit, ignoring the larger rules of this organization. As much as it may pain me, for the good of this organization, especially for the younger agents who may look up to Mr. Kuryakin as an example, I must take this action."

Waverly's aged hand had clenched on his pipe, and his mouth was set in a thin line. He said nothing for a long moment.

"Don't you agree, sir?" Solo pressed.

It was clear Waverly did not, but that he was momentarily trapped between his desire to avoid Kuryakin's public censure and his reluctance to make known to Solo his own role in Kuryakin's activities. Solo was torn himself between wanting the story revealed and wanting it kept secret. If revealed, he would be forced to follow Waverly's orders, even where he violently disagreed with them. The alternative was resignation, for there was no court of appeals higher than the old man. But if Waverly kept silent, then he would never know the true story. It was also true he'd be forced to reprimand Illya. But he didn't worry too much about that. Kuryakin wouldn't like it, but he'd taken the fall for Section One before, even as Solo had himself in the past.

"I suggest you try Mr. Kuryakin again, when he is feeling better," Waverly said reluctantly. "No doubt he didn't completely understand you. I gather he is under some medication."

Rather so you can get to him and change your orders, Solo thought. "No, sir. I am confident that Mr. Kuryakin understood completely what he was doing, and did it willingly, and with prior intent. That requires a reprimand, at the very least."

"You had no business discussing mission outcomes with Mr. Kuryakin until he was cleared by the medical staff," Waverly said, quoting a rule that was ignored far more than it was ever heeded. "I am ordering you to wait."

"No, sir," Solo said, thinking two could play at this game.

"You are defying my orders, Mr. Solo?" Waverly asked in astonishment. "Isn't that the very thing for which you would put Mr. Kuryakin on report?"

"Not quite, sir. I am putting Mr. Kuryakin on report for breaking U.N.C.L.E. policy, regardless of who ordered him to do so, or who he is planning to defy to continue it. That is my prerogative; in fact it is my sworn duty. If you wish to put me on report for defying this particular order, that is your prerogative. Regardless I have no intention of allowing Mr. Kuryakin's actions to continue."

"You forget yourself, Mr. Solo," Waverly said coldly.

"No, sir. I am remembering, only too well, what my position requires."

The stared at each other, squared off in contention, before Waverly waved an irritable hand at him. "Very well. Go and do what you feel you must. I warn you, however, there will be repercussions within your section."

"I hope so," Solo said gravely, and left Waverly 's office.

To say there were repercussions was putting it mildly. When the reprimand was made public, Solo found himself regarded by his agents with surprise, shock, even some fear. To reprimand one's partner seemed a cold and callous thing to do, disloyal and heartless, particularly since everyone recognized Kuryakin's actions had been taken primarily for his partner's welfare. Solo received more than a few cold shoulders from some of his colleagues. The opposite side of it was that discipline in Section Two and Three immediately tightened, something Solo saw for the better. Obviously, his agents thought, if he was SOB enough to reprimand his partner, he was going to run a tight ship for everyone.

Solo waited two days to tell Kuryakin, fully expecting that Waverly would have gotten to him first. According to the medical staff, his partner was doing well, but Solo winced a little as he came through the door, ignoring the posted sign. Illya never looked well in a hospital bed, his pale coloring leached out by the white surroundings. He looked like he transfused out a pint of blood a day, rather than the other way around. It didn't make his delivery any easier.

Solo saw he'd been sketching, but Kuryakin flipped the cover over the pad so quickly that he couldn't get a glimpse of the subject. It was clear the grapevine had gotten round to his partner for he braced himself a little as Solo approached.

Solo didn't beat around the bush. He told him exactly what he'd done and why. Kuryakin took the news of the reprimand stolidly, his face closed. Solo waited when he finished to see if there was any reaction and when Kuryakin gave him none, said "I know you must think I'm a bastard, Illya. But I have my reasons for this."

"I know your reasons, Napoleon," Kuryakin said colorlessly.

"And you hate me for them," Solo sighed. "I suppose I can't blame you."

Kuryakin gave him a look of exasperation. "I don't hate you, Napoleon."

Solo grinned a little. "Does this mean you're not going to ask Waverly for a new partner?"

"Don't be an ass."

"I hoped you wouldn't, but I couldn't be completely sure."

Kuryakin sighed and shifted restlessly. "I just wish I could get out of here."

Solo hitched a hip over the footboard of Kuryakin's bed. "The doctors say at least two more weeks," he said with some sympathy.

"No, no," Kuryakin looked alarmed. "Only one, at the most. No more than one."

Solo sighed, remembering Kuryakin's rule — one week less than the doctor ordered. Tell him two weeks, he'd hear one. And when the one was up he would begin nagging so relentlessly that the doctor would probably give up and release him a day or two later. It never failed. But one thing was going to change. "Illya, you are going to take this seriously, right?" Solo referred to the reprimand. "No more excessive force?"

"I'll think about it," Kuryakin allowed as he slid back under the covers, shifting to get comfortable.

"Illya! Damn it, I'll keep you out of the field till you agree," Solo threatened, rising abruptly.

"Then I agree," the Soviet agent said mildly, shrugging slightly. "You're the boss, after all."

"If you break that promise, I'll ground you," Solo warned. "I swear it."

Kuryakin shrugged again. "If we're both alive for you to take that action on me, I'll be happy to have it happen."

Solo swore, realizing he had, at least temporarily run out of options. "You are ruining my victory."

Kuryakin looked amused at his partner's frustration. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm merely giving you a hard time."

"You are?" Solo said, unconvinced. Kuryakin was giving in far too easily.

"As usual. I can't afford to have you become complacent. Not the terror of Section Two, Simon Legree with his own whip. But how can I not do as you asked?"

Solo frowned, looking skeptical. It was hard to tell if Kuryakin was being truthful now or had been truthful before. Right now he was looking at Solo, a brief smile in the corner of his lips, as mild as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Ensconced in his hospital bed, he looked deceptively compliant. But Solo wasn't fooled, he knew too well all Kuryakin's ways and schemes. He finally realized that he just wouldn't know if Waverly had ordered Kuryakin to cease his activities. Kuryakin had no intention of telling him, one way or another. He'd have to accept that he'd done his best to prevent it and be satisfied with that. At least unless and until Kuryakin broke policy in the field again. He'd have to wait and see how it came out. Just like real life. No absolute answers.

Kuryakin watched his partner walk out the door, Solo's shoulder's stiffening as he walked back into the melay of headquarters, his own affection for his friend undisguised to Solo's departing back. He wouldn't deny the reprimand had stung a little, but he understood that Solo had used the move to check Waverly.

He found it at times amusing, at times unnerving, but always interesting to watch Waverly and Solo manuveur when they were at cross purposes. Solo was winning more and more now, mostly of course, because he had one advantage over the old man. Waverly needed Solo now, more than the reverse. Ten years ago, it had been entirely the opposite. But it was also true Solo was clever at these sort of games. He would be a good Continental Chief. He was even, Kuryakin reflected ironically, thinking of his reprimand, learning to sacrifice his staff for the good of U.N.C.L.E., just like a good Continental Chief should.

Kuryakin sighed and shifted, hating the confinement of being in bed. One more week, he promised himself, and pulled the sketchpad out from under the covers. He'd started the sketch the day the least desirable of headquarters had leaked the news to him of Solo's reprimand. As was his habit, he hadn't replied to any of the gossip mongers who wanted to see how he was taking the news. He'd simply started the sketch, a depiction of the Pursang at sail. He didn't like sailing or boats, and he'd been on the Pursang very little, so it was a difficult intellectual exercise to remember and transcribe her accurately. That task challenged him sufficiently to keep him occupied in his presently confined state. Nor had he made any attempt to conceal it from anyone but Solo, in fact he'd deliberately worked on it openly, going so far as to ask people what they thought of it. The sight of what he was working on silenced everyone who'd been curious to see if Solo's action had raised a riff between himself and his partner, their questions dying unasked on their lips. After all, it would be rather gauche to raise the issue when Kuryakin was clearly working on what had to be a gift for Solo. He'd found that rather amusing too.

But he'd be happier when he was out of the infirmary. One week, he promised himself. Or he'd call into one of the many favors Solo owed him and have him break him out. It was the least his partner could do, after all this.

In Section One, business soon got back to normal, such as it was. Waverly had Dancer and Slate do enough damage, in a series of raids on various satraps, that Thrush moved Kuryakin from public enemy number one to well down the top hit parade even before he'd been released from the infirmary, ten days after he'd been admitted.

Kuryakin wasn't cleared for field duty, but he was allowed to putter about the office and labs for half a day on light duty. Privately Abernathy had told Solo it would be another ten days before Kuryakin could be field certified, but he finally yielded to Kuryakin's and Solo's urgings and released him. The physician bent the rules where he could, but not where it counted. The day after he was released, Solo hung a watercolor sketch in his office, where anyone who entered couldn't fail to see it, or the initials INK in the right corner. The rumor mill, which had been roiling with gossip that Solo and Kuryakin were a team no more, that Kuryakin would resign, that the team had engaged in a terrible fight in the infirmary, trickled to a halt, was momentarily silenced, then moved onto other topics.

Life went on for the upper echelons in U.N.C.L.E. Solo had cracked the whip over his partner, and thus obliquely over his Section, and after a bit of fallout, the group was even more meshed and efficient. Waverly was pleased at that unexpected outcome. Waverly himself had thrown a Russian bomb at Thrush, and it had pulled back from its overt interest in his replacement, first in hopes of retaliation against Kuryakin, then diverting its attention to the latest set of gadflies to plague them. They would return to Solo again, but Waverly would think of something else when that time came. And something else after that. It was, after all, all part of a Continental Chief's job.

And in spite of a too cocky Chief Enforcement Agent, and his devious Soviet partner, he was still Continental Chief. At least for now. And in spite of allowing his subordinates their respective victories, he still, always, and ultimately, won.

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