Patricia J. Foley
"...To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part"
The Book of Common Prayer
"...Men of few words are the best men..." William Shakespeare
U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, NYC, 1970
"The mid-day mail and dispatches," Heather announced, setting a respectable pile of paperwork on his desk.
Solo scowled at them, reaching for the 'CONFIDENTIAL/URGENT" stack first. "Could you order me some lunch, Heather? Something light. Oh, and see if Illya is in the building and free."
"He'll just tell me 'No man is free who must work for a living," Heather replied dryly.
"Especially since he works for me," Solo replied. "Ask him anyway."
"Yes, Mr. Solo," Heather said primly, leaving Solo smiling as he slit open the seals on the first packet. Ever since he had taken over for Waverly, Heather's approach to him had been as decorous as if they had never dated. Not that he didn't agree or approve. The only other option would have been a transfer, something neither had wanted. For his part, he genuinely liked Heather, and no one knew the old man's filing system so well. On her part, she preferred being at the nexus of power and was as aware as himself of the impropriety of continuing their on-again, off-again relationship now. The result was a mutual agreement to move on. Heather was now happily dating a recent transfer to Section Two, a rising star in Enforcement, and they had both relegated their past history to the past. So everything had worked out well.
He'd always been lucky that most things worked out for him. He was also pragmatic enough not to overly dwell on past failures, and shrewd enough not to take future successes for granted. As a life's philosophy, it worked for him. As the current Continental Chief for U.N.C.L.E. North America, it was the only sensible approach to a crushing load of responsibility, and he not even forty yet. Though that milestone was fast approaching. And judging by the rigors of his job, he wondered if he would be as fit handling it at eighty as the old man had been. At times, it made fieldwork look like a child's game.
He sighed went through the documents, most of them from his fellow Continental Chiefs and not the least bit urgent or confidential. He stopped, frowning slightly, at one document from London HQ, confirming their approval and acceptance of the transfer of one Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin from Section One Security, North American HQ, New York Office to Section Two, Number Two, Western Europe HQ, London Office, subsequent to Solo's authorization. He set that one aside, resolving to deal with that when Illya arrived. At the bottom of the pile was a envelope in rich cream linen paper that looked vaguely familiar. When he turned it over, he noticed a hammer and sickle burned into the red wax sealing the envelope. He slit it curiously. It only took a second to read the contents. He sat there, frowning, the opener in his hand like a dagger and said, "Damn," very softly. The word echoed in the empty room, vibrating softly in the hum of electronic equipment and computer consoles. But suddenly the room was emptier than it had been only a moment ago.
Or was it half a lifetime ago. Or many lifetimes ago?
How many times had Illya pulled him out of danger and vice versa? Certainly far more than either of them had bothered counting. Each time they had cheated death; till sometimes Solo felt himself almost dangerously immortal. A sensation that didn't last much longer than the next bitter crisis. Still, he'd managed a lifetime of critical saves in a career that depended upon such teamwork.
He hadn't been willing to give that up for Illya's misjudged sense of what was proper exile for extraneous partners, regardless of his ex-partner's feelers to London. But the Soviet Union might be a bit harder to budge than it's sole representative to North American HQ. And while Solo had been able to so far block or at least delay Kuryakin's London move, sidestepping the Soviets might not be so easy.
He punched the intercom to Heather.
"Did you get in touch with Illya yet?" he queried.
"Mr. Kuryakin said he would be up as soon as he finished some arrangements with the fifth exit sir," Heather replied. "You did say it wasn't urgent."
"Call him back and put him off," Solo said. "Tell him something has come up. And bring me his file."
"His complete file?" Heather said, not sounding at all surprised.
"That's right. Including the charter documents Waverly signed to get him in here."
Solo stared at the blood red of the hammer and sickle, now broken along the lines of the envelope, blurred and cracked. Heather had known what he would want. She'd seen the envelope before she'd brought it in, had left it last in the pile, knowing his reaction. His musings were confirmed when Heather delivered the file, a full two minutes faster than she could have if his request had caught her off guard and she'd had to dig it out of the archive. She deposited it on his desk and left without comment. It stared up at him, across from the open envelope with its broken hammer and sickle seal. An ordinary manilla folder, with a name typed on the tab in courier script.
KURYAKIN, Illya N.
He'd never bothered to ask for it, not even when he subbed for Waverly and had the clearance for it. And when he'd taken over for the old man, he'd had a lot more on his mind. But now he reached for the folder, and opened it, spilling out ten years and more of history. Illya's own and his intertwined. The dog-eared file displayed a mute contrast to the stern parchment document and stark black type:
It has come to our attention that the agent on temporary loan to the United Network Command has been transferred from the field. As this negates the contract which our agency has with the U.N.C.L.E., we are exercising our option to reclassify the status of said agent, pursuant to Clause 4B of Section 12.
Captain Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin is hereby recalled to active duty in Moscow by order of the First Directorate, and ordered to report for reassessment and reassignment at 14:00 hours, January 12, Staraye Square. An acknowledgment of these orders is required.
Yorkshire England, 1959
Illya Kuryakin finished his climb up the steep hillside in the high Pennines and dropped down to the turf, setting his back against a rock wall, displacing a number of small songbirds hunting for ants in the stone chinks. An lazy early morning wind cut around and through him, ruffling his hair and nipping his ears. He closed his eyes and ducked his head against it, turning up his collar, grateful he was still warm from the climb. Though only late summer, in the early morning the air was beginning to be nippy in these lonely stretches of high hills, a reminder that autumn and winter were not long off. Below, stretched out before him like a scene from an old English tapestry, rolled the sheep-nibbled turf, hummocks of heather and gorse bushes, a flock of heavily fleeced ewes and their well-grown lambs, the silver ripples of brooks and rills, and, snuggled against the side of a hill, his real purpose for being here, a Thrush lab.
He'd been watching it off and on for weeks, under the guise of a local farm-hand. He knew next to nothing about sheep, and thought little of creatures too stupid to take shelter at night without the prodding of the dogs. He cared even less for the sheep dogs that really guarded the flock, and they returned the suspicion. He hadn't been bitten; the dogs were too well trained for that. But they weren't above the occasional snarl if he got too close. That was fine with him; he was more than willing to keep his distance, content to affect the manner of a lackadaisical shepherd, going out every day behind the sheep dogs with a packet of sandwiches on coarse, home-made bread, and spending the day ostensibly watching the sheep and actually recording the coming and goings in the lab.
The wind nipped him again, and his shoulders flattened against the wall, rubbing its lichen-scarred surface. When the sun crested the surrounding hills later in the morning, this spot would be drenched with a clear, translucent light, and by noon he might find the basking rays too warm for comfort. But now it was a cold, damp, desolate spot. He reached for the thermos of hot tea he'd brought with him, and the packet of honey-laden bread he made for his breakfast. He'd just undone the thick oilcloth when he heard the familiar twitter of his communicator.
He glanced around the wind-swept hillside reflexively, then huddled further back against the wall and took out his cigarette case/transceiver. It was an incongruous device for a simple shepherd to have, not that anyone was close enough to see or care. Still he hunched into the wall and kept his voice muffled as he answered, "Kuryakin here."
Kuryakin sat up a little straighter at the sound of his superior's voice. "Mr. Ireson. I wasn't due to report in for another —" he checked his watch, "six hours, sir."
"You're going to have to cut short your assignment." Ireson was an easy-going man with a broad North Country accent, a huge pipe, an affection for bitter, and a less standoffish manner than most area chiefs had for their field agents. Kuryakin knew he had to be exceptionally tolerant to have put up with the unexpected addition of a Soviet agent dumped into his division during the hot-potato shuffle that had so-far characterized Kuryakin's U.N.C.L.E. career. Kuryakin liked Ireson, so far as he allowed himself to like anyone, and had condescended to take a pint or two of stout with him in the local pub when he met his chief for weekly reports. Ireson had actually apologized to him for the unprepossessing assignment, promising him something more exciting in the future. Kuryakin hadn't commented, well aware from experience that the newest agent to any office got the worst jobs, and actually not too discontented with his lot. He was not ill-suited for solitude. By the time this job was over, he expected he would have picked up the local accent well enough to mesh more credibly with area operations. His proper Oxford British was acceptable in London, but it limited him severely here. The chief had agreed, and had amusedly coached him a bit in the broad Yorkshire that was the local exchange. But now Ireson's strong, gruff voice was unusually tense, with no trace of camaraderie, either affected or real. "Something's come up."
Looking out over the peaceful countryside, Kuryakin happened to catch the eye of one of the border collies. It raised one lip over a gleaming set of incisors, lowered its head and growled low in its throat, perhaps reacting to his own subtle changes in body language. He shook his head slightly and deliberately relaxed, reminded of his cover as an indolent shepherd. "Yes, sir. Where do you want me to go?"
"One of the Pros from Dover is down," Ireson said shortly.
Kuryakin's breath caught in his throat. A golf madness affected many of his colleagues stationed this close to the sport's birthplace. He never found any point to the game. Still, he did understand the current reference. Pros from Dover was the local office's quasi-affectionate reference to the crack enforcement team flown in by Alexander Waverly as a whip against the regional Thrush satrap. Kuryakin was too lowly an operative to know the specifics, but he knew his own surveillance monitored part of the satrap's outlying operations, and was passed onto New York's enforcement group. Now it looked as if something in that operation had gone horribly wrong. Kuryakin noted that Ireson hadn't said injured or hurt, but down. When an agent was down, it was a euphemism for a bad, generally fatal injury.
Kuryakin didn't ask any details. It wasn't his nature, and if he'd needed to know them, he'd be told. Pragmatic and practical as always, he cut to the chase. "What is my assignment?"
Ireson told him. Kuryakin noted the specifics while inconspicuously gathering up his few things. Within moments after Kuryakin signed off, the wind cut along the hills again, stirring the sun-warmed fleece on the sheep and ruffling the heather, but when it reached the intersection of turf and stone that formed the wall, it flowed, unobstructed, over it and the down the steep hillside toward the rills. Kuryakin was gone.
New York, 1969
Solo narrowed his eyes at the sight of the highway sign up ahead. 90 more miles to New York. Another hour and a half, he calculated automatically. Two hours if they ran into traffic, though that wasn't likely so late at night. He looked across at Illya, behind the wheel as usual, giving him the same speculative glance he'd give a potentially serviceable weapon. But though a bit worse for wear, his partner seemed functional enough.
If you're getting tired, I'll take over for awhile," Solo offered perfunctorily.
Kuryakin glanced at him, torn from whatever reverie he'd been lost in, then shrugged. "This keeps me awake."
Solo found the knobs for the radio, and twisted the tuner till he found a station not too jarring to be raucous — his own head was aching too much for that — but not so soothing as to be sopophoric.
Kuryakin nodded approval, and they drove on silently for a while, the tires eating up the black ribbon of the road, the tinny sound of the rental car's cheap AM radio a counterpoint to the steady drone of the engine. Solo leaned back in his seat, trying to stretch his legs as much as possible in the cramped space and looked out at the night sky. A thunderstorm was brewing; stars appeared and disappeared through the clouds and swatches of heat lightening crossed the sky. After a time, the radio signal faded and then broke up into static. Solo fiddled with the dial again, but the station was lost, leaving then a choice between a few jarring rock and roll stations or an evangelist interspersing messages of doom with requests for money. Either caused Solo's headache to spiral.
"Don't bother, Napoleon. It's three in the morning," Kuryakin noted, stretching as best he could from behind the wheel. "You're not going to find much."
"AM radio and rock and roll," Solo shrugged and turned the radio off. "Sure you don't want me to drive?"
"I'd rather not stop and switch," Kuryakin said. "We'll be there soon enough." Thunder rumbled again and then crashed. Rain began to fall against the windshield, the first drops just creating enough liquid to smear the glass to an quasi-opaque shield. Kuryakin sprayed the windshield with fluid to clean it. Then the rain came on in earnest, and Kuryakin switched the wipers on high.
"We've only another hour or so." The Soviet agent shifted again restlessly and resettled his shoulder holster. "Talk for a bit."
Solo cast about in his mind for a subject. "What about?"
Kuryakin paused for a moment, then said diffidently, "How do you think the old man is doing?"
Solo shifted, trying to see his partner's face in the darkened car. "That's a strange question."
"Not so strange. He didn't look all that well before he saw us off on this one."
Solo fumbled in his suit pocket for the cigarette case he still carried, and lit one, using the time to ponder Kuryakin's question. By the glow of his lighter, Kuryakin's expression was characteristically grim, but that meant little. The nicotine kicked in with the smoke he inhaled, sharpening his mind and chasing the cobwebs away. He wondered, not so much at the question, but at Kuryakin's reason for bringing it up.
'He's due for a vacation," Solo rationalized finally. "He'll be better when he comes back from it." He opened the window a crack to let the smoke out, then pulled back as rain slashed him across the face. He was now wide awake.
"He's well due for retirement," Illya said gently.
Solo ground out his cigarette, suddenly irritated by the harsh smoke. "That's not my call."
"I wondered if you were thinking about it," Kuryakin prodded.
"As little as possible," Solo assured him.
Kuryakin made a rude noise. "I know that's not true. With all your faults, you've never been deliberately unprepared for anything. And you must see the danger."
Solo turned. "Danger?"
The Soviet agent frowned at him across the darkened car. "With Waverly failing, taking out his successor would be a double blow to U.N.C.L.E. You'll need to be extra careful now."
"They've been trying to take me out for years," Solo pointed out. "Without success."
"Never-the-less." Kuryakin frowned inexorably at the road ahead. "When you take over for Waverly during his leave, we're going to guard you very well."
Solo considered the meaning behind his partner's words, the increased security, the lack of privacy and freedom, the constant hours, and shifted uncomfortably. Knowing he'd been tapped to be Waverly's successor was at times a heady thought. There was a minus side to it as well that he preferred not to dwell on, but Illya, with his pragmatic nature, would naturally consider first. "This is too gloomy a conversation to have post-mission," he commented, effectively closing the subject.
"When should we have it?" Kuryakin countered. "Obviously, not during a mission. Directly before a mission, there are more immediate concerns. In the interstices, you're too busy chasing skirts."
Whose fault is that? Solo wondered, then immediately buried that thought. "Skirt-chasing" as Illya so rudely called it, actually had begun to have less of an appeal for him. A bit surprising considering he was approaching his fortieth birthday, a time when even dedicated family men were supposed to resurrect the habit. But then, since he'd never dropped the habit, he supposed that approaching middle age wasn't an excuse.
In quantity, he supposed, he'd hardly slacked off at all, but personally, the thrill of the chase had paled from him a little. Women seemed to still fall into his lap, perhaps because of his reputation. But he sought them less, his practiced charms were more ingrained habit than conscious effort, and as the chase grew less interesting, he occasionally yearned toward the idea of coming home to a familiar face and spending a quiet evening. But only briefly. As an agent, he still couldn't seek any long term relationship with a woman. As Waverly's successor, any wife he chose he'd put at significant risk. He found it rather irritating that his colleagues and even his superior commented derogatorily on his habits when his profession really only gave him a choice between playing the field or abstinence. He couldn't imagine spending every night at home alone. But a glance at Illya reminded him that his partner managed abstinence rather well. Unlike his other detractors, Illya might be censorious, but at least he wasn't a hypocrite. Solo struggled past his annoyance to concentrate on the actual subject.
"All right. Waverly doesn't leave for two weeks. We'll find time before then."
"Morton will be here on Monday. We should be ready before then."
Solo scowled at that. "I still don't see the point in bringing Morton back from London."
Kuryakin shrugged. "Section One didn't take the problem with his fiancee very much to heart. We're all vulnerable to such things. And once burned, twice shy, as they say. He won't be making that mistake again." The Soviet agent shifted his shoulders again.
"Is your shoulder bothering you again? Sure you don't want me to take over?"
"I'm fine. Just give me one of those lemon drop things medical handed out."
Solo rooted around in his pockets, found what his partner wanted and handed one over. He almost unfurled one for himself, then grimaced at the thought of the inevitable aftertaste and shoved it back in his pocket. The latest invention of the labs, the combination of C and B vitamins in a sugar base was supposed to give a field agent a boost of energy on a mission, or temporarily assuage thirst. Solo had found them a limited success. The strong citrus flavors didn't entirely mask their essential ingredients, at least for him, and the vitamin had a tendency to turn his stomach. But they were light to carry and occasionally useful.
He shoved the wrapper in his pocket and continued. "I can see why they brought him back from Antarctica to London. He'd done his penance. But I don't see the need for him in New York."
Illya laughed softly . "For someone who is so canny, you can be blind, Napoleon."
Solo scowled. "All right. I'll take the bait. What am I being blind about?"
"It's obvious — at least to me, anyway — that until the event of your succession occurs, Section One is going to try various candidates as North American CEA," Kuryakin said seriously. "This is Morton's shot at it. His little fiasco aside, he did well enough as CEA in the UK area. New York is a reasonable step up."
"That's your slot," Solo said shortly. "And I don't see what business it is of theirs. Waverly chose his own staff. So will I."
"Waverly has a bit more power consolidated than you will, just coming into the job," Kuryakin noted. "Anyway, we don't know what conditions Waverly might have had to meet, to get the people he wanted in the slots he had for them." His voice trailed off, brow furrowed as he no doubt considered what Waverly had done to get a Soviet agent in New. York. Then he shrugged philosophically, dismissing that ancient history. "Regardless, this is Morton's chance."
"Scuttlebutt around HQ says that he's just temporary help while Waverly's out," Solo pointed out, curious where Kuryakin was getting his information from. "Not that we need foreign imports."
Kuryakin cocked an eyebrow, willingly taking the bait. "I've heard roundabout from London that Masters has been tapped for a possible assumption of the number one slot there, given that Morton works out here. Morton's been told to get his things in order for a long term move. And HQ here has been told to put him in a permanent residence here, not temp quarters."
"Masters is already number two in London. That's no scoop," Solo pointed out. "As for putting Morton in permanent quarters, he's a CEA. They wouldn't be likely to put him in one of those flea-traps we call temporary housing for transient agents. Rank has some privileges, Illya, in spite of how it galls your socialist soul."
"We socialists have no souls, Napoleon, but that's hardly the point. You could be right about Morton," Kuryakin crunched his candy thoughtfully, considering. "He's good, but he has some strikes against him. It's a toss up who'll Section One will choose."
"It's your slot," Solo repeated stubbornly. "You done CEA duties often enough to have proven yourself, and you are number two. They'd have to have a damn good reason to pass you by."
"Napoleon, I don't know whether to admire your lack of prejudice, or be appalled by how it's blinded you," Kuryakin shook his head indulgently. "I'm Soviet. Section One will never accept me being given New York."
"We do have a charter," Solo pointed out.
"And a very pretty document it is," Kuryakin retorted ironically. "Be practical. It would create too many problems with the local agencies to make a Soviet agent permanent CEA in New York, and I wonder if the Soviet government would be entirely easy with it. Every one in U.N.C.L.E. seems to acknowledge that but you. They've tolerated me as Number Two because they couldn't buck Waverly. And if I do say so myself, I am good," he added, with mock modesty. "But with Waverly gone," he continued, turning serious again, "I'll be lucky to hold onto my current slot." I'm wondering if I should even both to try, or if it wouldn't just be better for me to switch HQ's entirely. London would probably be willing to take me back, particularly with Morton gone. And France is relatively tolerant toward socialists, if not Russian Communists. I do speak fairly decent Japanese, though it would be hard for me to blend in there --"
"Illya," Napoleon said slowly. "You can't be serious."
"I'm always serious." Kuryakin squinted at him in the dim light. "Could you hand me another one of those candy things?"
"What, did you eat all your own?" Solo pulled his from an inside overcoat pocket and put the package on the dash before them. "You've confirmed your cast iron stomach. Just one of these turns mine."
"You were dining in fancy banquet halls while I was camped out eating Sterno-heated reconstituted meals," Illya retorted. "By comparison with those, they're not bad."
Solo absently picked one up, twirling the furled cellophane wrapper ends between his fingers without opening it. "You're not going anywhere. Not if I have anything to say about it, and I will. I'd have to sign your transfer papers, remember? And unless you plan to forge my signature, that isn't going to happen."
Kuryakin was silent for a long moment, then he said. "It probably would be for the best. If I stay in Section Two, in New York, I'd have to get used to a new CEA. That would be... uncomfortable, both for the new person and myself. There would always be suspicions of favoritism from you, since we were partners for so long --"
Solo turned sharply. "What's this 'were' stuff?"
"Once you move to Section One, it's history," Kuryakin pointed out. "And that move is coming soon." Kuryakin sobered. "For my part, I'm not entirely sure how well I'd deal with being supplanted by another CEA in New York. Or even with the notion of you in Waverly's chair."
"Illya!" Solo said, stung this time.
"It's not what your thinking. I think you'll handle it fine, but I'm not sure I can treat you with the ...well, with the reverence we've had to give Waverly."
Solo grinned, amused at the picture that created in his mind. "I'll have to keep you around just to see you try."
Across from him in the glow of a passing car's headlights, he could see Kuryakin shaking his head in frustration. "Be serious."
"Oh, I am."
Kuryakin shrugged. "See what I mean? I'm afraid we'd fall into our usual banter."
"It would set a bad example for the rest of staff," Kuryakin argued. "The Continental Chief is supposed to be infallible, omnipotent, immutable--"
"Who said I wasn't?" Napoleon interrupted, with mock offense.
Kuryakin ignored him. "If I stay around, people will be reminded of when you were just CEA."
"You won't be the only agent there who will have known me as CEA," Solo reminded him. "We'll deal with it. I don't expect the same respect Waverly got, anyway."
Kuryakin's jaw set stubbornly. "You'd better get it, if I have anything to say about it. That job is hard enough without kibitzing from the staff."
"My hero," Solo said, amused. "See, you really can't even consider a transfer. Who'd defend my honor?"
"You have no honor," Illya shot back, in the same tone, then sobered. "Really, Napoleon, I do think it's for the best. I've been putting feelers out to London and --"
"I'm beginning to think I should be the last candidate for Waverly's job." Solo cut in sourly. "My own partner is making transfer noises to London, and no one tells me?"
"Very quietly." Kuryakin assured him. "Very carefully --"
"I don't care if you asked how the weather is there, I want to know about it before you do it!" Solo snapped. His vehemence rebounded in the close car, startling them both.
Illya was silent for a moment while he assimilated that, then he asked quietly, "Don't you think you're being a bit presumptive?"
"You're my partner."
"I was investigating something which has nothing to do with out partnership. Which in itself has a short future anyway," he pointed out.
Solo was shaking his head in denial. "Illya, we will always be partners."
Kuryakin didn't answer for a moment, pondering that. Then he said. "That means a great deal to me. But surely you see the problem. You'd be assigning me cases. Do you think I'd leave you open to speculation of favoritism if it could be prevented? My transfer would easily solve those issues. And it's not as if it has to be a permanent leave-taking. We could call it a long term loan — I'd go to London, while Morton comes to New York. After a while, when you're well established in the chair, I could return."
"No," Solo was smiling, but there was a look in his eyes that said otherwise. "Never in a million years will I trade you for Morton, not even with Waverly's chair thrown in as a sweetener."
In the darkness of the car, Kuryakin couldn't see that, he heard only the tone. "Napoleon, will you be serious? This is going to happen. It is happening, with your cooperation or without it. If you didn't want it to happen, you should have done something years ago, before you became Waverly's heir apparent. You could have refused the role then, you know. One word to him would have been sufficient. But you didn't. So since it is your promotion, and will be your HQ, I'd think you'd have your own best interests in mind."
"Believe me, I do. I'm not signing any transfer papers for you."
Kuryakin shook his head in frustration, hands clenched on the steering wheel. "Then Waverly will sign them. He agrees --"
"Did he put you up to this?"
"No one 'put me up' to anything, Napoleon. We're just thinking of the future, as you should be."
"Never mind. I'll deal with the old bastard and tell him myself that your staying in New York is part of the deal. We've been partners for too long to split up now."
"You don't need a partner as head of Section One."
"Your wrong, my friend. I'll need one more than ever."
Kuryakin gritted his teeth. "You seem to forget the detail that this is my life. Perhaps I want to go to London or Paris. Perhaps I'm tired of New York."
"Too bad," Solo said, with a complete lack of sympathy.
"Perhaps I'm tired of you, dictating too many of the shots the last few years!"
Solo's eyes narrowed, but he let that one pass. "Maybe I have a prerogative from having deflected more than a few of those shots from snuffing you out permanently."
"And vice versa, as I recall," Kuryakin retorted furiously. "The obligation is mutual."
"If you didn't like it, you should have said 'one word' to Waverly years ago. There were times when he would have welcomed an excuse to break up the partnership," Solo countered ruthlessly. "Too late now."
Kuryakin took his eyes off the road to stare a him a moment, then shook his head, "Napoleon --"
"You plotted behind my back with Waverly in this little scheme--" Solo said cooly, beginning to be outraged over this unlikely collaboration.
"I didn't--" Kuryakin began to deny.
"Willingly or not. Now I'm going to pull my own strings. You see to have forgotten I always win at these games."
The Soviet agent was glaring fixedly at the road. "Not with Waverly."
"Especially there." Solo fixed his partner with a cool look. "Do you think I became the top field agent, or Waverly's chosen replacement, just by accident? You've just discovered for yourself that pure merit alone doesn't guarantee anything." He paused for effect then slid the words in as ruthlessly as a knife between the ribs. "Sometimes all it gets you is a shove downstairs and a plane ticket to London. Right, partner?"
Kuryakin drew back from that. However often he watched Solo wield his considerable talents to beguile, influence or otherwise manipulate the actions of others, it was always a sharp shock to have them used against himself, abruptly cast from the role of an amused and cynical co-conspirator or bystander to the one manipulated. His tongue momentarily tied, Solo glanced across at him with the briefest smile of triumph. But reality soon inserted itself . Until Waverly stepped down, he was Number One. Not even Solo could buck that immutable force. Nor should he risk trying, merely to keep hold of a now redundant colleague. After a moment, striving for a matter of fact tone, Illya said "Still --"
"Forget it. Unpack your books, Illya, and put your London Underground map back in storage. You're staying."
The Russian's back went stiff, and his chin jutted out just a bit. Solo was CEA, but in all the years of their partnership, he rarely gave him orders, and certainly never in that tone of voice. "We'll see."
"Leave it to Uncle Napoleon," Solo said wickedly. "I'll make everything all right."
Kuryakin didn't dignify that with a reply.
New York Headquarters, 1970
Heather buzzed him around 3:00. "Mr. Thigpin is here, sir."
"Send him in, Heather. Transfer field calls to Morton, please and hold all the others, unless it's something urgent.
In between taking calls from field agents and dealing with day-to-day Headquarters issues, Solo had read and reread the contract between the GRU and U.N.C.L.E. After the second reading, he'd sent for Daniel Thigpin, U.N.C.L.E.'s chief counsel in New York.
Solo had dealt with him rarely; legal issues didn't come to him unless they were particularly pressing. One of Thigpin's virtues was that he ensured that few if any became so.
U.N.C.L.E. was rife with attorneys of every kind. Most of them settled simple cases of property damage. Others handled the onerous tasks of compensation where civilian lives were lost. Some were criminal attorneys who handled cases where local law enforcement agencies mistakenly filed charges against agents after the assault or death of Thrush operatives A very few handled international law. Daniel Thigpin specialized in the latter, and in particular oversaw U.N.C.L.E.'s charter and the agreements between its member nations.
Solo gestured his council to a chair at the round table, pushed the contract between U.N.C.L.E. and the GRU over to Thigpin, the recent letter on top. Raising curious eyebrows, Thigpin settled glasses on his nose and perused the first document, then read the letter slowly. Finishing, he took a glassine paper from a packet in his suitcoat and polished his glasses carefully before settling the glasses back on his nose. He read them a second time, shaking his head slightly as he reached the peremptory demands of the letter. Finishing, he looked up speculatively at Solo. "I take it you are not inclined to come into compliance with the demand?" he inquired.
"You must be joking."
"Attorneys don't have much of a sense of humor," Thigpin regarded him gravely.
"No, of course not." Solo sat up abruptly. "Do you know what they'd do to Illya if they got ahold of him?"
Thigpin blinked, taken aback. "Not in the slightest. I take it the end result would be unpleasant?"
"To put it mildly." Solo rose, pacing a little. "I want to know what my options are. Legally that is." He added as an afterthought.
"Before you decide to take your own?" Thigpin asked, with a shrewd look at Solo, who raised an eyebrow. He came back to his desk and sat back cooly.
"That's not your concern." Solo said, a trace of warning in his voice.
"Forgive me, but it is." Thigpin said, a little painfully, but determined. "I am well aware of the risks field agents take, and the ... ingenuity..." he fumbled for the right word, "it can take to succeed in the field. And in Section One," he added pointedly. "I served your predecessor as well, sir. Sometimes you don't have the luxury to seek legal advice, and even then, sometimes you must act in spite of it. But to proceed without even seeking it when there is time," he added firmly, "is folly, not virtue. If someone in the past had taken better care over this," he raised the contract in his hand, "your friend might not be in the position he is in now."
Solo sat back a trifle, cooly reevaluating the man before him. "That took some guts," he commented. "For a briefcase-wielding paper-pusher, you seem to have some sense." His voice was mild enough to take the worst of the sting out of his words, and Thigpin smiled painfully.
"And I've heard you don't always settle things with your balls and your bullets."
Solo laughed softly at that. "All right, Danny. We understand each other so far, I think. Know this, I'm not giving Illya back to the GRU. U.N.C.L.E. owes him more than a long painful interrogation and then a swift execution at the hands of his compatriots."
Thigpin's eyes widened slightly and then he shrugged. "I still sometimes am surprised by this business, and then I wonder why I should still be. I don't understand why Kuryakin should get such a reception, but then, I know enough about foreign governments and agent contracts to realize these a maze of politics and rivalries caught up in each. This," he held up the contract signed so long ago, "doesn't give you many options. Basically, as long as Kuryakin stays an active field agent, we've kept the terms of the contract. They can still recall him; he's a military officer under detached service and they can change his orders. But if he's on a case, we can defer the recall temporarily until the termination of an active case and until we have another Soviet agent in trade. If we transfer him from the field or he leaves the field permanently through disability, the contract expires and they can recall him." He raised his hands in a gesture of explanation. "Plain and simple, you want to keep him, you have to put him in the field."
Maybe that was the reason for London, Solo thought. "Did Illya know about this?" he asked.
Thigpin shrugged. "His signature isn't on it. No reason he should have seen it. He was the exchanged goods, not one of the agreeing parties. I doubt Waverly showed it to him; our old boss was close-handed. He might have told him." The lawyer's tone was edged with doubt.
"Hmm." Solo said agreed skeptically. "Waverly was close-mouthed too, except when there was reason not to be." He shifted in his seat, taking the contract in his hand. "All right, what happens if I refuse? Just on speculation, you understand. Illya has an U.N.C.L.E. passport. He's not dependent on them for anything."
Thigpin was shaking his head. "You can't do that. For one thing, they'll raise the issue in the U.N. that U.N.C.L.E. is refusing to honor agent agreements. That would be disastrous for us internationally."
Solo scowled, his silence conceding that point.
"And second, he has a U.S. passport and green card based on U.N.C.L.E.'s charter with this country. They'll take their argument to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, who will revoke Kuryakin's documents with due speed. You can well believe there are people in this government, highly placed at that, who would loved to see a Soviet national removed from U.N.C.L.E. New York. You may not be aware of this Solo, it's hardly your purview, just standard operating procedure, but U.S. Immigration and Naturalization does a regular review of all the documents relating to our foreign agents residing in this country. Issues regarding your former partner come up regularly. His documents, up to now, were all in order. But if the Soviet government challenges his position here --" his voice trailed off meaningfully.
"Our friends in the U.S. government will be only too happy to deport Illya."
"They won't have a choice," Thigpin added, in response to Solo's scowl. "This is a legal issue and the terms of the agreement have to be honored on both sides. Ignoring that puts all our agent contracts in jeopardy. Unless we take other steps." He looked quizzically at Solo.
"You're saying the easiest solution is a transfer to Section Two," Solo conceded. "Fine. I'll do that. With the notice that he is pulling temporary duty in his current position. Will that do?"
"It will buy negotiating time," Thigpin conceded. "And muddy the waters. Which always helps. But I imagine if he's not an active field agent, it will be challenged, so you had better consider a defense. My office will as well, if we are so directed. But over the long run, there is a time limit to even that solution. If you are concerned about Mr. Kuryakin's long term future --"
"Illya will be 38 in September," Solo said absently. "He has a good two years and more before he's permanently barred from fieldwork. But after that, he'll be ineligible for the field. And according to this, vulnerable."
"Then I suggest, Mr. Solo, that you consider what actions you plan to take to keep Mr. Kuryakin permanently safe from Soviet hospitality should we managed to keep him until then. Two years can pass quickly. And there will be no grace period then. Once he reaches forty, we will have to discharge him to Soviet custody."
"Hell of a birthday present." Solo said.
Solo smiled grimly. "In the field, we often just worried minute to minute about staying alive."
"But not always, Mr. Solo. Or you wouldn't be where you are now."
The young Continental Chief nodded grimly. "All right, sort through that verbiage and see if you can come up with any legal loopholes. In the meantime, I'll arrange with Morton to have Illya transferred to Section Two, on temporary assignment to Section One Security." He sighed. "I certainly didn't need this now."
"Precisely. You must wonder, Mr. Solo, why someone would try and rob you of your Security Chief." Thigpin asked delicately. "And so precipitously. Of course, you are fortunate that it didn't happen before Mr. Kuryakin had the bulk of your security arrangements in place. But that delay also leaves some questions."
"Why now and not before?" Solo echoed aloud.
"And what change in Soviet operations might have brought this about?"
"Good point." Solo said, and gave the prim attorney a respectful glance. "You're better at this then I thought you would be."
"And you are more tractable than I had hoped."
Solo laughed and stood. "Danny, we might just have a future together. Particularly if you can keep my partner permanently out of his antagonistic Soviet colleagues' clutches."
"I will do my best, sir." Thigpin accepted the hand, and collected his briefcase. "I'll have your secretary make a copy of this, with your permission." He took the contract with him from the room. Solo sighed and punched the intercom to call Morton to his office. This was one interview he wasn't relishing.
Yorkshire, England, 1959
Napoleon Solo, Chief Enforcement Agent for the North American branch of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, had fallen into a confined and repetitive pattern that belied his lofty title and far-flung travels. His universe had shrunken to a tiny room, and a limited set of options. When he could sit no longer, he paced the narrow confines of the hospital waiting area. When he became dizzy from the restless pacing, he stared sightlessly out the window. The window faced the main road of a mid-size English market town. An ordinary, prosaic little burg that had rarely been guested with the exotic or the foreign. Local traffic flowed continuously past the window, car horns tooting in spite of the QUIET — HOSPITAL ZONE signs posted on the roadside verges. But he saw none of it, nor did he pay more than minimal attention to the traffic inside the hospital, scanning each fellow waiting room occupant briefly, almost automatically, searching for concealed weapons or a certain look that said Thrush Agent. But his transient waiting room companions all had the same abstracted look as himself, caught in the limbo between hope and despair, helplessly waiting for the verdict on what it was to be. There were two others beside himself: a woman whose husband had a foot injured in some farming implement, and the father of a boy who'd been injured in a accident with his scooter. Gradually even they disappeared, and he was left alone, the only person caught waiting for the fates to make their celestial decision. Solo was ambivalent about the outcome. Lady Luck had been kind to him in the past, but she had a reputation for being fickle as well.
He smoked until he ran out of cigarettes. When he emptied the pack, he crumpled it in a pocket and did without, oblivious to the vending machines that lined the walls of the tiny waiting room. He'd sit until the nagging adrenalin surge urging him to do something, do something, do something forced him into motion. Then he paced, stared, sat when exhausted, and paced again, a mindless routine that occupied his body while his mind revolved on a similarly circular track.
The last few minutes of the mission revolved in his mind in counterpoint to his own restless motion. The job had been routine, mundane almost, at least for U.N.C.L.E.'s new up and coming Chief Enforcement Agent. Infiltrate a Thrush installation, steal some information, get clear. Ever cautious, they'd reviewed the layouts, rehearsed the plan. Solo had felt as confident as anyone could get. He damned that confidence now, but even in hindsight, what had happened was pure accident.
They'd timed the mission precisely, for the lull between two shifts. The place was a lock down, ultra-secure lab. No one was supposed to be roaming around without clearance, and there was a monitoring system to make sure of that. Part of the mission had been to disable that monitoring system, to allow them to do their job. With that done, they should have been virtually undetectable.
That part had worked well. Thrush hadn't even noticed the system was already down when they shut it down themselves to bring through the corridors the co-worker suddenly stricken with some serious illness. There had been guards escorting the gurney with the stretcher, of course.
They'd darted the first group, but not before a general alarm had been sounded. After that it had been a game of tag, with the U.N.C.L.E. agents as the target.
Still, they'd had a good head start, and their gear was ready. They'd almost finished repelling down the steep cliff that protected the seaward side of the lab, when his partner had been shot. Solo knew they'd been under fire, though the high pitched whine hadn't had much chance to intrude on the necessary concentration he had to give his descent. One slip and a man could fall to a death as certain as that from a bullet.
Even now Solo's mind replayed the sickening sight of his partner's body falling before him, to land on the sea-foamed rocks below, their gray-green hues staining a rusty brown.
He'd more slid than rappel led down the last 50 yards, moving faster and more erratically than his pursuers' aim expected. But his mind had been less on escape than on the thought that he was a lucky man, a lucky CEA, a man who'd never lost an U.N.C.L.E. agent during his tenure. He knew that record couldn't last, but it was inconceivable that it should be broken by his own partner. The man had to have survived rifle and rocks. Solo needed to be there to save him from drowning.
But by the time he'd slid down, a team from the waiting speedboat, their pickup, had already retrieved his fallen comrade, and Solo had to do little more than hustle himself aboard, shielding himself from the spray as the fast craft kicked up a wake in the pursuing Thrush agents' faces.
Then here. Waverly hadn't yet complained about the compulsion that kept Solo tied to this run-down waiting room. That in itself was bad. If it were a minor injury, the old man would already have despatched his CEA to New York, convalescing partner be damned. But even Waverly was sensitive to a agent who's partner had sustained near fatal injuries, and generally abated his near constant demands until the injured half of the team was pronounced stable. Or dead.
No, that couldn't happen, Solo reminded himself. He was a lucky man, and he'd never lost an agent yet. Surely his luck would hold.
Anyway it had been too long. Hours. If he'd lived this long, survived the trip to the hospital, made it into surgery, he'd make it through. The odds were in favor of it, and he'd beaten worse odds than these.
But he had beaten them. It was his partner who hadn't beaten them, who was fighting for his life, while Solo paced outside, free of even a scratch. He sank down, burying his head in his hands in pure weariness, then snapped alert at a soft footstep. This corridor leading to the operating room and the shabby room where Solo waited was now supposed to be off limits to all but hospital personnel, and that footfall had come from the wrong direction, not from the O.R., and a surgeon bearing news of his partner, but from the main body of the hospital.
He drew his gun on the man who put his hand on the door, and then lowered it slightly. He didn't quite recall the name, but he remembered the face of the U.N.C.L.E. agent who paused in the doorway, a foreign agent who'd been stationed in New York briefly before being sent off to Survival School. Solo had thought him still based in Harry Selden's Berlin HQ. His was the last face he'd expect to see in Gibralter.
"What are you doing here?" Solo asked, not caring if he sounded rude.
The agent was wary, his face as closed as Solo's. "I was assigned as backup."
Solo reached into his vest pocket for his cigarette case/transceiver, and soon verified the story was true.
"Obviously you are hardly at your best, Mr. Solo," Waverly said. "I asked our U.K. office to detail someone to cover you and Mr. Wilkins.. Thrush may not know you've handed over the plans, and they may not care, if they're out for revenge."
What could he say to that? He hadn't exactly done a smashing job as backup for his partner. Closing the cigarette case without comment, he did his best to ignore the man who seemed to take his silence as tacit acceptance of the assignment. The agent wove silently around Solo, their movements an odd point and counter point.
Kuryakin, for Solo recalled that was his name, took his guard duties seriously, pacing the corridor outside, surveying the view from the window when Solo gave way to it, always somewhere Solo wasn't and always silent.
Solo took the agent's presence as a giving him enough of a leave to buy a pack of cigarettes from the vending machine. He smoked one after another as the hours passed. He paced and smoked and looked out the window and paced again, not seeing the other agent in the room, not seeing the room, seeing only the replay in his mind of his partner's body slipping from the ropes, falling to the sea, rocking on the waves.
He would see it in nightmares for years to come.
New York, 1969
Post-mission, he and Illya sitting in a Chinese restaurant. They'd indulged themselves with half-a-dozen dishes, and were "filling up the corners" as Illya put it, along with the last of what had been several pots of tea.
"You forgot your fortune cookie," Solo said, tossing him one of the cellophane wrapped cookies.
Kuryakin good-naturedly obliged, breaking the cookie and unfolding the tiny strip. "You will travel far but leave your heart at home," he said, and smiled faintly.
"They got the traveling right," Solo observed. "How could they know you have no heart to leave or take?" he asked reasonably.
"Your turn," Kuryakin said, pushing one toward him.
"Wealth and power you have attained, but you must work for happiness," Solo read, and frowned slightly.
"Chinese fortune cookies are like horoscopes," Kuryakin said, ignoring Solo's discomfort and pouring himself more tea. "They're generic enough to have some meaning for everyone."
"Yeah, right," Solo said absently, then straightened as his communicator began beeping.
Kuryakin made a face. "Can't we have time to write up the reports from the last mission before going out again? He complained as Solo untwisted his pen.
"Solo here," the CEA said, listened, and the color blanched from his face.
Kuryakin paused in sipping his tea. "Napoleon?
"On my way," Solo said, tossing a twenty on the table in the same motion as he put the pen away. He tugged at Illya's arm. "Waverly's down."
They rushed out of the restaurant, the wake of their passage stirring the fortunes, forgotten on the tabletop.
The funeral was large, if not elaborate, and the security arrangements were a nightmare. They put into place the elaborate system of deception to Thrush to make it seem that Waverly was still alive and running U.N.C.L.E., even as Solo stepped into his place trying not to miss a beat in North American operations. Taking over the reins of power permanently was more complex than substituting on a temporary basis. How many things he had passed over lightly when he had subbed, knowing that Waverly would handle them when he returned. But now Waverly would never return. Solo virtually lived in Waverly's office while he got everything firmly in hand.
On a more prosaic front, half of Section Two, everyone not absolutely working on a case, was pulled into the security arrangements for Waverly's funeral, with Kuryakin coordinating the efforts. With Solo's eyes on North American operations, if not the world, and Kuryakin busy trying to make arrangements to get the remaining Continental Chiefs to New York for the funeral without losing another Continental Chief in the process, their paths seldom crossed.
It wasn't until the actual funeral, his head bowed over the old man's grave, that Napoleon had time to consider his grief. He thought of all the years sitting around the round conference table, watching Waverly fuss with his pipe, getting his pride abraded from the old man's irascible temper, calling him in desperate straits, coming back to him flushed with triumph, bowed with failure, or weary from the efforts of just preserving the status quo. But always coming back, seeing him behind that console wreathed in pungent pipe smoke, sometimes avuncular, sometimes irritable, but always irreplaceable.
And he was that replacement.
It was painful and daunting. His eyes suspiciously moist, he looked by habit to his partner at his side, but Illya hadn't been there for days. He glanced around, noticing the glare of disapproval from several dignitaries as he raised his bowed head. Illya was on the crest of the hill, communicator in hand and a wireless headset on his head, coordinating the security team. He frowned over at Solo when their eyes met, and a wordless question crossed his face. Solo shook his head slightly, and looked back down at the grave, already regretting the act. He'd merely scandalized his colleagues and broken Illya's concentration. His eyes dry again he said a quiet goodbye to his old boss, and one for Illya too, wondering, knowing Illya's temperament, if Illya was more relieved than regretful that he was too busy during the funeral to pay the traditional respects. But, hell, if anyone would understand, Waverly would: the man almost never went home, rarely saw his family, seemed to live for his work.
Solo's work now.
He shook off the foreboding mood and dragged his attention back to the business at hand, saying a brief eulogy in his turn, expressing his condolences to Waverly's wife and family. Finally, it was over, and he yielded to the urgings of the security guard sent to herd him into the appropriate limousine, which took him to a discreet and heavily guarded chopper pad. The copter soon was wafting him into the air and back to headquarters.
In their due course, the other Continental Chiefs soon arrived too. There was no general wake or reception planned after the service; it was considered too high a security risk. Even the funeral itself had been far too risky. Each Section had a small gathering planned for them, and Solo himself offered drinks and traded condolences with his own Section One colleagues. But most did not drink at all, and even those that did made it a short one, leery of the vulnerability of having so much of U.N.C.L.E.'s leadership consolidated in one building, however well secured, and anxious about their own operations they had abandoned to pay their proper respects.
In too short a time he'd buried Waverly, and the office he'd thought of for so many years as Waverly's was now his alone. He went without apology to the bar and finally poured himself a drink, noticing that Waverly's tea service, humidor and other more personal items had been wisked away, to be replaced with a simple coffee service and a selection of the liquors he most favored. And the brand of cigarettes he had once smoked and still occasionally indulged himself with, if only on rare occasions. He hadn't ordered any of these changes and he noted them with quiet irony. It didn't take long, apparently.
But then, he could hardly expect Thrush to give him a decent period of mourning.
By habit, he checked with his operatives still in the field, gave them updates or instructions, or just news of the funeral. He'd signed off on the last of them when he was discreetly informed of a visitor, and Carlo Parenti came through the door, closely shepherded by Illya, who was apparently his personal watchdog. Solo made a general offer of refreshments, which Parenti accepted, and while he was fixing his fellow Continental Chief a drink, Illya made his report.
"Every Section One head, except for Senor Parenti here, has either reached their headquarters or back on their private jets with their own security teams. We've turned off the 'blackout chatter'," Illya was referring to the pre-recorded fake messages sent from every HQ to make Thrush believe business was going on as usual, "to let them make normal communications with their field teams and constituencies." He drew a breath and shrugged slightly. "U.N.C.L.E. should be back to business as usual."
Business as usual. It was an ironic thought, with its founder gone. But it was no more than he would expect and demand. Waverly had indulged in sentimentality, but only in moderation, and never to the detriment of his organization. Solo nodded soberly at the end of Kuryakin's report. "Good job."
Kuryakin shifted slightly, his eyes moving toward Parenti.
The older man waved a hand. "You can go now, Mr. Kuryakin. I will call you when I am ready to leave."
Expressionless, Kuryakin glanced once into Solo's eyes, and at his infinitesimal nod, turned sharply and left. The door swished behind him, leaving Solo alone with Parenti.
The old man tasted his drink and sighed softly. "So Alexander is gone. He will be greatly missed."
Solo's fingers clenched slightly as a new wave of grief washed over him, but he nodded agreement.
"But I know Alexander had much faith in you," Parenti said, his grey eyes suddenly sharp, his expression almost feral. "And because I have faith in Alexander's judgement, as well as knowledge of your accomplishments, let me say that I, also, have faith in you, Napoleon." He said the name slowly, giving weight to all its syllables, and meaning to the acts' significance.
Solo smiled with the irony of it. For the dozen or so years he had been acquainted with Carlo Parenti, the man had always referred to him formally. It felt odd to realize that it had taken Waverly's death to elevate him to first name status. No, not Waverly's death, but his assumption of the role of Continental Chief.
"Thank you, Carlo," he said gravely.
"Talent and experience are two separate things, however," Parenti said, returning to business. "Until you amass more of the latter, feel free to call upon me. Mostly it is a matter of good judgement, occasional cunning and constant administrative abilities. Alexander excelled in all three, but I am aware you do not like the paperwork, eh?" Parenti bared his teeth in a slight smile, "No, do not apologize, no good field agent does. So make sure your administrative workers are the best and you will do well enough. That leaves only the matter of security." Carlo took a silver cigarette case from his pocket. Solo obligingly leaned forward to offer him a light, but Carlo refused it and lit his cigarette himself.
"No offense, my friend," Parenti's teeth gleamed again. "It is an old habit, to light my own. I am a cautious man, you see, even among my old friends. But it is how we live to be old, yes?"
"So it would seem." Solo said, folding his lighter back into his suit jacket.
"Alexander's security, if I may say so, was not the best." Parenti brushed a hand in the air, "No offense to this headquarters. I am sure your people tried. But he was set in his ways, and he had not upgraded it for some time. And he took too many risks, Napoleon, far too many trips outside of HQ with only the barest protection. He still liked the field, too much, even at his age, and he appeared in the oddest places, at the oddest times. No doubt that oddity is what protected him, but still, at this level we jeopardize too much to go into the field. To many operations and lives depend upon our security. After all, what do we have field operatives for, if not to trust their expertise? As they trust ours, no?"
"Yes," Solo admitted.
"So you must upgrade. Take every precaution, Napoleon, and then take more. You are young and powerful, and thus you will be a favored target for some time. Every enemy will want to see if you have become foolish with your step up, if you believe yourself impregnable, if you are rash, if you believe youth and strength are a shield against assassins. Do not satisfy them."
"I'll try to avoid it," Solo said dryly.
"You must replace Alexander's personal security team. His men will be set in his ways, but those ways are not yours and your habits will be surprising them, which means that Thrush could be surprising you. Unpleasantly." Parenti drew on his cigarette, exhaling the smoke luxuriously. "It is best to choose men who are familiar with your own habits, know your ways. They anticipate better, and it is anticipation which often precludes trouble. If you will excuse the suggestion, you should consider Mr. Kuryakin to coordinate that team. He handled the funeral quite well. And after all these years he knows your ways."
"Illya?" Solo turned the idea over in his head briefly before rejecting it. "I can't use him for that. I'll need him to manage the action in Section Two."
Parenti smiled thinly. "Forgive me for being very blunt, Napoleon, but the action, as you say, at least for the next few months, is going to be on you. If you believe Mr Kuryakin to be your best, then you will need him at your back, because that is where every Thrush eye is going to be, as sure as if you had a target painted there. Let Mr. Morton manage Section Two. He will not be 'Solo and Kuryakin'", Parenti raised an ironic eyebrow as he gave Solo a nod of the head in acknowledgment of that legend, "but he will do it well enough. If you need other reinforcements, the other Continental Chiefs will be ready. We have all been in your position, and know where the pressure from Thrush will be directed. But put a talented team at your back, because the 'honeymoon' Thrush gives a new Continental Chief can be a deadly one."
"I thank you for the advice," Solo said, "and be assured I will consider it."
"Good. Well." Parenti rose, "I have done my duty here. I have helped put my old friend to rest, and tried to advise my young one. And now I must return to my own problems, as you say."
"Have a safe trip," Solo said, pressing the button that would notify Heather to call Illya back to the office, and rising in term. "And thank you, Carlo. I do appreciate it."
Kuryakin came to escort Carlo out, and when they'd gone, Solo pressed the intercom to Heather again. "Have Mr. Kuryakin come to my office when he's finished seeing Mr. Parenti off," Solo said. "And order me some lunch. No, two lunches. I don't care what. Yeah, Chinese is fine. Thanks." Then he turned to his office window, the only window in the complex, and stared out at the gleaming sunshine and the flags of the United Nations whipping along the flagpoles in the Plaza. He had a lot to think about.
Lunch had arrived long before Illya had come back, and Solo had started without him, a field agent's practice of eating when one could too ingrained to ignore. Besides, Illya would come when he was ready, and his enjoyment of the meal wouldn't be dimmed by starting on it late.
It was more than half an hour after the food arrived, and it was starting to get cold, when Kuryakin showed.
"Finally," said Solo. "Parenti must have taken his time leaving. Any trouble?"
"No." Kuryakin eyed the food. "I hadn't quite finished this." He laid the security report from the funeral primly on the desk.
Solo eyed it askance. "I wasn't expecting that quite so soon."
"It's a preliminary report," Kuryakin said evenly. "I will of course update it after the five chiefs report in."
"Thanks," Solo said, and hesitated. "Is there something in there I need to see immediately?"
"No," Kuryakin looked faintly confused. "Everything went pretty much as scheduled. Thrush was sniffing around as they always do, but they never got wind of what was going on. Our misdirections worked."
"Good. Then you'll forgive me if I don't look at it right now. I didn't ask you to come here to give me your report, Illya. I was inviting you to lunch."
"Lunch." Kuryakin looked as if he wasn't quite sure of the word.
"Yes, lunch," Solo said impatiently. "As in food, as in eating. You look like you could use some. And unless you've changed drastically in the last week, one thing you never turn down is food. So sit down and eat."
Kuryakin sat, and silently addressed himself to the food. Solo ignored him for the moment. If Illya was in one of his sulky Slavic moods, which Waverly's funeral, or even perhaps missing Waverly's funeral had put him in, then only time would take him out of it. And perhaps the rise in blood sugar associated with a good meal. He concentrated on his own meal, noticing that Illya was eating with the kind of steady concentration that suggested he hadn't eaten well in some time.
After his own blood sugar had risen a bit, he wrestled with the problem again. It came to him suddenly, that the last time he and Illya had shared a meal together was just before they'd heard the news of Waverly's death. And it had also been Chinese food.
"Ah, this wasn't intentional, you know."
Kuryakin paused in chewing and looked a query.
Solo gestured to the scattered dishes. "The meal. The food. I just realized the last time we had Chinese --" Now he wondered himself if it was almost sacrilegious for he and Illya to be doing this, food spread out all over the conference table, almost as if they were picnicking on Waverly's bones.
Kuryakin quirked an eyebrow across the table, and Solo realized he didn't remember, or make the connection.
"Never mind," he said.
Illya shrugged and dished himself out more rice.
Solo waited until the rate of his companion's eating slowed. Finally, Illya pushed his plate away, and went for more coffee from the credenza on the side. Solo gathered up the wastebasket and tossed the various goldfish boxes into it. Wetting a paper towel in the tiny washroom, he wiped the tabletop off. Kuryakin came back with his coffee, and stirred a sugar packet into it, his cool gray eyes studying Solo.
"You didn't just invite me here to lunch."
Solo disposed of the trash basket and washed his own hands, coming back to the table slowly. "That was part of it."
"So what is the other part?" Kuryakin sipped his coffee.
"I have a proposition for you," Solo said, and explained Parenti's suggestion.
Kuryakin heard him out without comment until the end, only blinking slightly as Solo described how the security chief should be someone who knew his ways. When he'd finished, Solo poured himself more coffee, waiting while Kuryakin digested the information. But Kuryakin didn't comment, merely sipping more coffee, seemingly subdued.
"Well?" Solo said, exasperated.
"I have no fault with his reasoning," Kuryakin said.
Solo sighed and rubbed his forehead. "That doesn't tell me that you'll take the job."
The corners of Kuryakin's mouth curled slightly in his infinitesimal, ironic version of a smile.
"What?" Solo demanded.
Kuryakin shook his head. "I was only thinking that you seemed to have overlooked one point."
"And that is?"
"I wonder why you ask." At Solo's frown he added in explanation, "I work for you. You can order me to do anything you like."
Solo sighed and sat back. "True," he pointed out, "but if you hated the job and me, you'd be in a unique position to get rid of me."
"I suppose that's one of the perks," Kuryakin said dubiously.
"So what do you say?" Solo asked, studying his former partner's stolid face. "I know it's not what you wanted, but it won't be a permanent assignment. You can set things up and turn it over to someone else in six months or so." He frowned again at Kuryakin's lack of response. "Illya, you didn't really want London, did you?"
"London?" Kuryakin looked up, then shrugged. "Oh. Maybe a little. It doesn't matter. You already warned me you wouldn't sign my transfer papers."
"So I did," Solo grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "So you'll take the job?"
"That should do it. You can even have London then, if you still want it," Solo offered generously, resolving to make sure in six months Illya had no reason to go. If he had to boot Morton out himself. But that wouldn't be necessary. He'd make Morton's appointment temporary. There was certainly precedent. Waverly had tried out several CEAs before he'd settled on Solo, and even then, Solo had held the job temporarily until Waverly had grudgingly concluded he was the best man for it. He'd give Morton six months and then find him something else.
Kuryakin nodded slowly, his eyes focused on the tabletop in front of him, his vision focused inward. "All right."
"Good." Solo let out a breath he was surprised to have been holding.
The Soviet agent slid to his feet. "If you'll forgive me, I have a lot of things I need to do."
"Sure," Solo rose himself, the slight frown back on his face. "So do I as a matter of fact," he went back over to his desk, frowning slightly as he began to sort all the Section One paperwork that seemed to sprout up new every day. "I'll see you later, then."
"Yes, sir," Kuryakin said just as he slipped out the door.
Solo raised his head from a file. Sir? He wondered incredulously. Illya had rarely gifted him with that title, even when he'd first joined Section Two and might conceivably had owed his new superior some respect. He shrugged and decided it must have been part of Illya's ironic humor. How like him to toss it off as he was leaving, so Solo couldn't call him on it.
But then he did have more important things to do than play upmanship games with his partner. He buried his head in work and didn't think about it any more.
New York, 1970
"How badly do you need Kuryakin in New York?"
Solo paused in sorting through the daily stack of reports that came from the various sections. "I could spare him for a good reason," he said slowly. "Why?"
"Two reasons," Thigpin replied. "The Soviets have rejected our initial response and are insisting on Kuryakin's return. It might be better to get him out of the country until we get this settled."
"How do you figure?"
"The U.S. can't deport him into Soviet custody if he isn't here to deport. Having him elsewhere will delay any final action."
"What's the other reason?"
"The Soviets have rejected our initial explanation. They want to send their own legal representative to discuss the issue."
Solo sighed slightly. "What is there to discuss?"
"We won't know until they put it on the table. We may need to exchange a few words with you. I gather it is difficult for anyone to be cleared to your office without some authorization from Section One Security?"
"It would be better if they didn't have any contact with Mr. Kuryakin," Thigpin said pointedly.
"I suppose I can arrange something," Solo said, slowly considering this new wrinkle.
"Have you discussed it with him?"
Solo raised an eyebrow and juggled a report in his hand, as if he were weighing it. "I hadn't discussed it with anyone. Are you implying I shouldn't?"
"This is a legal issue, a contractual issue," Thigpin insisted, " best settled by legal representatives. Having the actual parties present can confuse the issue."
"Are you worried about the Soviets or Illya?" he asked, curious. He hadn't mentioned it to Illya, hoping to leave the problem in Legal's hands. It may, after all, come to nothing, and there was no reason in burdening his partner with it. But also because he suspected Illya's allegiances and loyalties, both to his country and to U.N.C.L.E. had tricky, twisted roots that were best left undisturbed. In the absence of being able to predict his partner's response, he'd kept silent.
"I don't know either well enough to make that judgement, Mr. Solo," Thigpin said a touch testily. " I'm just being prudent."
Solo grimaced, turning the problem over in his mind. He supposed it made sense to shift his partner out of harm's way until this thing blew over, but he wasn't looking forward to it. He could manufacture some excuse to get Illya away, but his Security Chief would eventually find the truth out, and then there would be hell to pay. For him while Illya was gone, it would mean sleeping in his HQ apartment, because if he managed to get shot while he had Illya decoyed, furious wouldn't even begin to describe his partner's wrath.
But though he would end up paying for it in a number of ways, he couldn't deny Thigpin's point. He had no idea how Illya would react if he knew this compatriots were seeking to reclaim him. Having long known his probable fate, Illya might just compliantly put himself in the Soviet's hands out of some mistaken sense of duty to the Soviet Union or U.N.C.L.E. or the contract that had been struck between them. Illya was as rife with contradictions as any spy, and probably more than most. Like all spies he walked a fine ethical line in his daily actions, justifying or excusing the worst of them for the supposed greater good they brought about. But Solo had seen his unforgiving, cynical opinions of those agents who crossed the line and betrayed their oaths. Apart from his testy moods, his personal conduct was exemplary, with few indulgences, much less vices, for which to answer.
Loyalty to the Soviet Union, to U.N.C.L.E., to Solo, to even himself, might sway Illya back and forth across the line and be argued either way. Solo supposed he should have, sometime in their partnership, tried to draw Illya out on this issue, so he would have had a clue now how he would react in this situation.
But Illya never invited such speculation into his personal life. Where his professional responsibilities as an U.N.C.L.E. agent had crossed paths with his status as a GRU officer, Waverly had dealt with it.
He was Waverly now.
"I'll get Illya out of the country this afternoon," Solo said.
"Good," Thigpin said. "Obviously, I can't know his assignment, but it would be helpful for me to say that he is involved in Section Two fieldwork."
"Say what you like," Solo said. "I don't plan to discuss my agent's assignments with anyone, but," he paused fractionally, "you can tell them he's in Section Two."
"Very good," Thigpin said, "I'll keep you updated on the negotiations with the Soviets."
"And you've got the easy part," Solo muttered as he cut the connection. "I have to deal with our own resident Soviet."
Instead he put in a call to London.
"Mark, it's Napoleon," Solo said without preamble.
"Now, look, Napoleon, if you're calling about Illya, I had nothing to do with his looking to transfer here." Mark apparently believed that the best defense was a good strong offense, and he started in before Solo had even drawn breath to broach the subject of his problem. "He put out feelers on that long before I even came over myself."
Solo laughed in spite of himself. "No, Mark, I wasn't calling to ream you out. How's the leg, by the way?" Slate had recently fractured his leg in several places. In the international shuffle of agents since Solo had taken Waverly's chair, he'd transferred to London to take administrative charge of Section Two so that their CEA was free to concentrate on field work. And also, Solo suspected that since Slate couldn't work in the field for the moment and couldn't stand facing Brian Morton day after day in the New York office, he'd chosen a temporary escape.
"Coming along. I expect to be back in the field in a month," Slate offered cautiously.
"We'll be glad to welcome you back," Solo made clear.
"Thanks." Slate was sounding more like himself. "What's up, Napoleon? I'm sure you've got something else on your mind other than asking me about a little thing like a broken leg."
"In fact, I need a favor."
"Anything I can do, I will, of course." Slate offered, curiosity creeping into his voice.
"I'm looking for a place to transfer an agent quickly. I'd like to get him out of the country today."
"Trying to get ahead of the law?" Slate's tone wasn't censorious, merely questioning.
"Not exactly. Just avoiding some past associates. I'd like him to work out of Section Two, but avoid certain situations. This won't be for long, maybe a few days, not more than a few weeks, I hope."
"I see." Slate mused. "Soviets after Illya again?"
Solo breathed out heavily through his nose. "Actually, yes. How did you know."
"Kind of overdue, I guess.".
"Overdue?" Solo questioned stupidly.
"They don't let their own go forever," Slate responded obscurely. "The old man had his own times keeping them at bay."
Solo growled silently. He was well aware that not only Thrush would be interested in testing his mettle as Continental Chief, but it hadn't occurred to him that the Soviets would be interested in the game as well.
"Never mind, Napoleon," Slate said, as if reading his thoughts. "They like to make waves, but I don't think that he's worth a real fight to them. More of a bargaining tool. Maybe they want something."
"How do you know?" Solo demanded.
Slate laughed. "Illya's not the only one Waverly got out of the way when his compatriots came calling. He preferred to have you out of the picture too. Maybe he was afraid they'd see too much."
"What are you saying?" Solo asked carefully.
"Just that Waverly was loath to break up a winning team, even if he thought they might work too well together — professionally only, of course."
"Of course," Solo said, wondering if Slate actually believe any of the gossip and rumors that had been spread around about him. Then a surge of irritation hit him and he said, "Cut the crap, Mark. If you're trying to tell me something, say it plain."
"All right. Waverly could have offed any of us without showing much pain. In fact, I think he put us in difficult positions sometimes just to test himself."
"Hmm." Solo said. He'd wondered about that a bit too.
"But," Slate said. "I don't think you could do that to Illya. And I think Waverly never wanted the Soviets to know it. You've shown more than once that you don't fool around with anyone where your partner is concerned. But this is one time where it may be better if you didn't show it."
"Are you saying he's my Achilles heel?" Solo asked, beginning to feel offended.
"No, Napoleon. I know you well enough for that. But it would throw you off stride if something happened to him."
Solo shifted in his chair. He wanted to deny it, but Slate would know he was lying. He'd had scores of women, and a score of colleagues he thought highly of. But he only had one partner. And as mule-stubborn, bad-tempered, pedantic and scrimping as Illya was, he was his partner. His right arm, the eyes in the back of his head, the hand where he needed it, his devil's advocate and his sounding board. After ten years, Illya had wound himself into Solo's life in too many ways to count, and removal would leave bleeding wounds at a time when he and U.N.C.L.E. simply couldn't afford them. He'd survive, his essential core was untouched, still starkly self-reliant. But his soul would be maimed and he knew it, had acknowledged it long ago.
And so had Waverly. Starkly disapproving of the bond between them, yet too opportunistic to avoid using it.
And smart enough to try and keep it from the Soviets?
"I'll send Illya over this afternoon," Solo said. "I'm going to tell him you need him for something special, so think up an assignment that will use his talents. But Mark?"
"If you get him killed, you can't transfer back to New York."
"Hell, Napoleon, knowing Morton's waiting for me back there, I'd off him myself if he wasn't so damn hard to kill."
Solo smiled grimly. "Thanks, Mark."
Now he only had to get rid of Illya.
The soft voice woke Solo out of the light doze he'd finally fallen into. It was night. Solo had been in this room more than twenty four hours. Across the room, Kuryakin stood warily, one hand on his gun, looking from Solo toward the nurse entering the room.
The Chief Enforcement Agent stood up hopefully.
"If you would follow me," she said in hushed tones.
Solo frowned, suddenly reluctant. But he had no choice but to comply.
Left behind, Illya Kuryakin stared after them, narrowed eyes dissecting the scene. After they left, he sank down, shaking his head slowly.
A green-smocked surgeon met Solo in an alcove just outside a doorway. Even through the closed door, Solo could hear the beep and whine of various machines. "I'm very sorry, Mr. -Mr. -" he looked down at the chart in his hands, "Solo, is it? I'm afraid we did all we could, but the damage was too extensive."
Solo's eyes were fixed on the physician, "He's not --"
"He's dying, Mr. Solo," the physician was blunt. "We have tried everything. Two of our best thoracic surgeons working on him, every possible operation, and some impossible. But his heart cannot be saved."
Solo gritted his teeth. "There must be another way. Another hospital, another specialist --"
The surgeon smiled thinly, as if in recognition of Solo's mistrust of the shabby place. "I'm afraid not, sir. Your colleague wouldn't survive the trip. And nothing could be done, even if we could transport him. I am aware of your organization, and the fact that your superior has authorized us to try any and all measures. I've been in touch with specialists in London, but to no avail. He needs a new heart. Medical science is years away from a transplant, or the development of an artificial substitute. I'm sorry, Mr. Solo. The only thing you can do for your colleague is to say your farewell."
Bile rose in Solo's throat, but he forced it down. He nodded, unwilling to discuss it further, and pushed past the physician into the room.
Inside, alone, he stared at the bed that held his colleague. It seemed impossible, incredible, after the places they'd been, the heights they'd scaled, the depths of danger and risk they'd taken, that his friend was to die here, on a cheap steel gurney in a non-descript hospital in a forgettable British town.
He closed his hand over his partners', felt the thready, ragged pulse, faltering and failing. His other hand clenched in a fist of denial. He drove the fist into a convenient wall, the exclamation torn from his throat in a roar that was beyond pain.
Illya Kuryakin jumped in his seat in the outside waiting room. The connecting wall shuddered in protest as something heavy impacted against it, and a tray of instruments in the hallway rattled in concert to Solo's cry.
But when the C.E.A. entered the room again, he was cool, dry-eyed, distant and silent. Only his fist still showed the reddened traces of his internal rage and despair.
New York, 1969
Solo looked up from his work as his Security Head came through the doors. "Ready?"
Kuryakin nodded. "Whenever you give the word."
Solo flipped the folder shut. "I think now. It's relatively quiet, for the moment. I could use a decent night's sleep."
Illya raised his wrist and spoke softly into the communicator he had strapped there.
"Isn't that a bit Dick Tracy?" Solo commented with a smile.
Kuryakin looked askance, as if he wasn't sure how to respond, then growled softly. "I haven't got time to fiddle with pens." He waited by the door as Solo passed through.
Napoleon kept quiet, appreciating the coordination as Kuryakin's heavily but discretely armed team swept him out of the building, into the waiting vehicle, and then up the steps of his apartment and into the private elevator, their bodies a phalanx against almost any sniper's shot except for one from directly above. And if he bothered to look, he'd see the roof teams, sweeping scrutiny over every window on the street. He almost understood why Waverly had practically lived at HQ, when it was such a production just to get home.
Inside his penthouse, he stayed by the door while the arriving crew vetted the same rooms the departing crew had been guarding. Then Illya went through them himself, before returning and dismissing the crew to their external stations with a terse nod.
"There's no place like home," Solo commented, removing his overcoat. "I'm beginning to think that, as much as I fought the idea at the beginning, perhaps I really should set up an apartment at HQ."
"You've been living in HQ." Kuryakin said in confusion.
"In cramped temp quarters," Solo said. He'd been unwilling to take over Waverly's old suite, and that had been broken down into multiple quarters. There was a limit to how much of the old man's past he could assume. "I meant something decently sized. If I have to spend any time there, I want to be at least marginally comfortable."
Kuryakin moaned softly as he took Solo's coat from him and hung it up. "Please. I just got this setup working to my satisfaction."
"I thought it might help," Solo commented softly.
"It will in the long run," Kuryakin admitted, shedding his own coat. "Anything avoiding a daily routine is best, and Thrush wouldn't be sure where you slept. But in the present, it would be another set of crews to train. Smaller, but still, it would need some security."
"Perhaps in a month or so," Solo suggested.
Kuryakin sighed, and tossed his coat with much less care than he had Solo's over a hanger. "No. It needs to be done and I'll do it as soon as possible. Do you want to pick the suite at HQ, or would you settle on letting me choose which I think is safest?"
"Your taste is execrable, Illya," Solo teased, then shrugged. "But as it's no more than temporary housing, I suppose I can bear it. You give me your recommendations and I'll chose among them." He led the way to the kitchen, noting that Kuryakin dropped into a chair immediately, and began to toy aimlessly with the napkin holder on the table.
"What do you want for dinner?" Solo asked from the refrigerator. "We have some lovely salmon, something that looks like chicken— is there some conspiracy against giving me steak and a potential heart attack? — some --"
Kuryakin rose from his chair instantly, a look of exasperation on his face. "Let me do that.".
"Not at all." Solo replied. "I like cooking. Though in this case, it's more like re-warming."
"I'll get it," Kuryakin said determinedly, trying to edge Solo aside.
"We've been through this before," Solo said, refusing to budge. "You're not here to wait on me. This is your home too."
"I'm getting dinner tonight," Solo snapped, in his best CEA voice, one he rarely used but that could stop Kuryakin in his tracks, and did so now. "Your job is to sit down, shut up and eat."
Illya closed his mouth, slid back in his seat, and waited as Solo put two pre-arranged plates into the oven on warm, and pulled out two plates of salad. "Not that there's much to do in the preparation," Solo grumbled, as he took off the plastic film and slid one across the table before his partner. "I remember when I actually had to cook food. And I enjoyed doing it," he added, forestalling Kuryakin's comment.
"You're supposed to expend your energy on more important things," Kuryakin muttered, not looking up from the tabletop, where he was staring through his salad. "Remember, you're --"
'Continental Chief," Solo sighed. "I know. Believe me, I know. No one ever lets me forget it."
Kuryakin shook his head. "How could we?"
"What about iced tea to drink?" Solo said musingly. "There's a huge pitcher here." He poured into two glasses of crushed ice. "Did it ever occur to you that I can't work all the time?" He asked, as he put them on the table. "That it's therapeutic to do something for myself once in awhile? That as a field agent I spent years working with my hands and now all I do is push papers? That I've begun to hate having four pairs of hands leap to anticipate what I want before I can reach for it myself?"
"Sounds terrible," Kuryakin muttered dryly, plaiting a paper napkin into shreds.
"It's convenient at times to be waited on hand and foot," Solo admitted, setting a glass in front of Illya. "But there are other times when I'd trade it all for a tough assignment, even one at the North Pole, where I'd freeze my tail off and not have even an Eskimo girl in sight."
"You knew what it would be like," Kuryakin countered, with a typical lack of sympathy, crushing the napkin into a ball. "You subbed for Waverly often enough."
"Short periods." Solo sat down at the table and picked up his fork. "I never imagined about what it would be like day after day."
Kuryakin shrugged and picked up his own fork. "You'll get used to it. And, speaking from experience, as your long-term partner," he added wryly, "I've never known you to be bothered by people doing things for you."
"You might consider letting someone do for you once in awhile," Solo said with a sideways look. "You look like hell. When was the last time you did more than snatch a few bites of a meal? Or sleep through the night?"
"You're not supposed to notice me." Kuryakin said tersely. "I'm part of the furniture, remember?"
"You're part of U.N.C.L.E," Solo said, between bites. "I'll notice you when I choose. What good are you burned out?"
"Burned out?" Kuryakin sputtered on a mouthful, nearly choking in conflict between his usual ravenous eating and his outrage. "Burned out?"
"Right now you've got shadows under your eyes so dark you look like someone blacked them in, and you're as skinny as you were in 61," Solo noted dispassionately. "Not a good look. And you're as snappy as I've ever known you to be. What the hell is wrong?"
"Nothing." Kuryakin stabbed a section of lettuce.
Solo took a bite of his own salad, not tasting it. "I could understand your working overtime when you first set up the security, but that's done now. If you're needed round-the-clock, then get a better backup, or hire another relief," he tried to sound reasonable, though his patience was wearing thin. "Working yourself to death won't help anyone."
"Do you have a complaint with how I'm handling my duties?" Kuryakin said stiffly.
"Cut the crap, Illya," Solo said wearily, shoving his salad aside. "It's late. I'm tired. I'm need a break from being Continental Chief for the night. And it would be nice if my partner didn't look like he'd been through a day worse than my own."
"I'm not here to be your companion." Kuryakin snapped out the word as if it were an oath. "I'm here for security purposes. What, when and where I eat and sleep is my own concern."
Solo gritted his teeth, shoving his salad around his plate. There were times when his partner definitely deserved a good right cross. "Maybe you should just do us all a favor, take the afternoon off tomorrow and get yourself laid."
"Unlike you, I don't find that an answer for everything," Kuryakin retorted.
The oven timer buzzed, startling them both. The former CEA gave Kuryakin a rueful look and shrugged as the blond Russian put his Walther back in his holster. "We've got to fix the sound on that thing. It's too close to one of the old HQ alarms."
"I'll speak to Internal Services about it."
"Tomorrow. Let's enjoy the dinner that I've so painstakingly prepared with my own hands." Solo put both plates down. "Careful, that's hot."
They ate in silence for awhile, satisfying the initial pangs of hunger. The food served it purpose, and smoothed ruffled feathers besides. Eventually, Kuryakin stabbed a bit of pasta, and said grudgingly. "This is very good."
Solo considered making some arch remark about anything resembling food looking good, but one look at Kuryakin's face stayed him. After a moment he asked, "Are you all right?"
"Anything you want to tell me?"
Solo sighed. It would take torture to wring the truth out of his elusive partner, and right now, he was too tired. Nor was he sure he wanted the truth. Something else to wrestle with, on the nights that he couldn't sleep. Instead he rose and gathered the plates. "Then do your Continental Chief a favor, and get some sleep and food occasionally. When I have the supposedly killer job, you aren't supposed to look like hell."
"Perhaps I should transfer," Kuryakin muttered into his plate.
Solo looked at him sharply. "Do you really hate it? I know it's not the same as fieldwork, but you didn't have long for that."
"Wouldn't you find it easier if I were somewhere else?" Kuryakin asked, rising to put his empty plate in the dishwasher.
Solo stared at his unrevealing back. "No."
Kuryakin sighed, his shoulders sinking. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed."
"You didn't answer my question." Solo said, eyes burning holes in Kuryakin's back.
"Good night, Napoleon."
Which meant, of course, that he had. Solo pondered that for a bit, and then went to sleep himself.
New York, 1970
"He said what?" Solo echoed, outraged.
"He said no. Apparently the last time you invited him to lunch, you stood him up. As he tells it, he does have some standards."
"Tell him to get his scrawny ass up here, or I'll have his own security team drag him up."
A pause while Heather relayed the message, and then she was back on line, chuckling. "He's on his way."
"Just so that you know, I've arranged to have your security teams stand back on your next assassination attempt." Kuryakin stopped to make a notation on a whiteboard just inside the door, adding two marks to one column, and one to another.
Solo scowled. "Do you have to do that?"
"It keeps you humble."
"I don't mind your tracking the assassination attempts. I suppose you have to. Though I don't see why you have to do it here," Solo complained. "But I don't appreciate your writing up the ones you consider successful."
"We like to give Thrush the impression that they've been lucky once in awhile. Besides it lets us see what their actions would be if they ever were successful."
"How very kind of you," Solo grumbled.
"No trouble at all, don't mention it," Kuryakin sad, turning. His eyes widened at the sight of the dishes spread out on the conference table, and he gave a low whistle. "That's quite a spread. Did you have a working lunch cancel?"
"No, you idiot. I ordered it for us. Compensation for having stood you up before."
"Remind me to tell the teams to cancel their cooperation on the assassination attempt." Without preamble, Kuryakin said down and enthusiastically applied himself to the lunch Solo had ordered from the Mask Club. Solo served himself more desultorily. He had eaten breakfast that morning, where he expected that Illya had not, busy running Solo decoys through the streets of New York. And his own appetite was affected by the knowledge of what he had to do.
Mark's words played on his mind. He had associates, colleagues in plenty. He had scores of casual friends. But he only had one partner, someone he could completely relax with, someone he trusted implicitly. He had few colleague for whom he wasn't either a superior or a rival. His supposed peers were continents away. Sending Illya to London was a sacrifice. He reminded himself grimly that it was all in a good cause. He remembered how often the old man had privately castigated him for letting his professional relationship with his partner deepen into something more. Waverly had known, sooner or later that almost every partnership ended in separation. Of some sort.
He watched Illya eat, envying again his complete absorption in the task and his clear conscience. Was part of being a Continental Chief that he would never have that clear conscience?
Suddenly aware of his scrutiny, Illya raised his head from his lasagna. "Why are you watching me?"
"Just wondering when you were going to get some table manners," Solo lied smoothly.
Stung, Kuryakin flushed scarlet. Solo shook his head, reminded that his Russian-born partner still had some touchy spots. He'd come a long way from that time during the Love Affair when he'd looked at the guests of a 'high-society' party and denied they were any different than himself. But the fact that he had even made the statement had revealed volumes. And Illya worked hard on revealing little.
"Sorry. I didn't really mean that." Solo brushed the remark away with a conciliatory hand.
Kuryakin looked suspicious, but he went back to his food, one eye on his partner, one eye on his partner's little touched plate. Had Solo been the least bit hungry, he would have felt compelled to wrap an arm around it to shield it from that acquisitive glance.
"Are you sure you're not coming down with something?" Kuryakin asked.
"No." Solo took a bite of the lasagna, resolutely swallowed it, and shuddered internally. He pushed the plate away.
"If you aren't going to eat, why'd you order lunch?" Kuryakin asked.
"I ordered it for you, actually."
"For me?" The Soviet agent's brow furrowed. "What is this, be kind to your Security Chief day?"
"I have a favor to ask." Solo began.
"Must be some favor." Kuryakin pushed his own empty plate away, sitting back in his seat, giving Solo's nearly full plate the barest regretful glance. "All right. Ask away."
Suddenly unsure of his ability to lie face to face with those discerning eyes, Solo went to the credenza to get them both coffee. "Mark gave me a call today."
"Mark Slate? From London?"
"Yes." Solo poured smoothly. He picked up the cups and brought them to the table. "One sugar, right?"
"Yes." Kuryakin took a sip, squinting at Solo as he seated himself and fiddled with his own coffee. "He's all right, isn't he? That leg can't be bothering him too much?"
"He's fine, but they're a bit short-handed over there. He asked for some help. I volunteered you." Solo sipped the brew, grateful for the distraction. And the caffeine high. "I hope you don't mind."
"You volunteered me?" Kuryakin echoed, puzzled. "Forgive me for being dense, Napoleon. But haven't you been fighting my transfer to London for months now?"
"I'm not transferring you," Solo said firmly. "This is only a temporary loan. A short-term loan. Just a few weeks.
"Surely there must be other agents."
"He asked for you," Solo cut that thought off. "And as you said, you have things well in hand here. It isn't as if I couldn't spare you for a week or two. He knows that."
"Huh." Illya said skeptically, turning the situation over in his mind. "Sounds suspicious to me."
"Since you've become Security Chief, everything sounds suspicious to you," Solo downplayed. "Not everything is a grand conspiracy, Illya. Just a week or two to help out a friend."
"You're not getting rid of me for some reason?" Kuryakin questioned. "You're not going to play some foolish stunt while I'm away? Something I wouldn't approve, that's going to get you killed?"
"Scout's honor. I'll sleep in HQ every night." Solo raised a hand, and grinned slightly, glad his conscience was clear on that score. "Alone," he added for good measure.
"Huh." Illya said again, truly puzzled now. "I don't know what to say. I still feel like you're getting rid of me for some reason. If I didn't know better, I'd say Angelique had given you a call."
"How could she without your knowing, you tap all my phones." Solo answered, miffed about that himself.
"I wouldn't put it past you to find some way around my security."
"Truly, that's not it. Call Mark if you don't believe me." Solo pushed a nearby phone to him.
Kuryakin regarded him sourly. "I know that look, and I know when I've been out-maneuvered."
"Look upon it as a vacation," Solo said glibly. "You get to check out London a bit, see if it is everything you've been dreaming about."
"But I don't need a vacation, Napoleon. And I never dream."
"And it will give your teams a chance to see how they work without you. Sort of a dress rehearsal."
"Um." Kuryakin turned that thought over. " I suppose."
"Though I still don't intend to sleep at the penthouse. I'll stay in HQ unless it's necessary for me to go out. So you can be sure I'm not going to put up with Mark keeping you indefinitely. It's just a loan, Illya."
"I guess if you already promised," Kuryakin said, still looking unconvinced.
"I did." Solo tossed an envelope on the table. "Here are your tickets. Your flight leaves at 4:00."
"Today?" Kuryakin picked up the envelope, checking the departure date as if his doubt could only be shifted by confirmation in black and white.
"Today. So you'd better get a move on. You have to pack."
"I don't have to pack much." But Kuryakin put the tickets in his breast pocket. He rose, his eyes on Solo. "I wish I knew what this was all about."
Solo walked him to the door. "Have a nice trip. Say 'hi' to the queen for me."
"You know we Soviet revolutionists don't approve of these bourgeois monarchical systems of government," Kuryakin grumbled, as the door swept shut behind him.
Solo sighed. The tick marks of the assassination attempts caught his eye as he turned, and he scowled at them. He turned back to his desk to be faced with Illya's ravaged dishes and his own barely touched ones. He was going to miss him.
New York, 1959
"Go on in," Heather nodded. "There's a Section Two team in there, but it's nothing you won't be hearing eventually anyway."
Solo paused. "Everyone all right?"
"So far as I could tell." Heather took pity on the frozen look that had briefly crossed Solo's face. "And I would have heard otherwise. Go on, Napoleon, he's been waiting for you."
Solo nodded, making a mental note to catch a moment with Heather later. Her treatment of him was as careful and kind as that of a nurse's toward the newly crippled. He had lost a partner, and by rights that was, and ought to be, a violent amputation. But he was only maimed, not crippled. Disloyal as it might feel to heal, to move on, his only other option didn't bear consideration. Squaring his shoulders, he approached the door, but before his body heat could trigger the mechanism, it opened from inside, disgorging several members of his department. In spite of looking a little mission-worn, they all wore satisfied looks or triumphant grins, depending on their temperaments. Solo exchanged a few quiet words with each as they slipped past him. He entered the office just as the last one was collecting his reports. It took Solo a moment to recognize the agent whose identity was effectively masked by an outrageous appearance. While the other team members had the torn clothing and singed faces indicative of being on the front lines of an explosion, this agent's clothing face, and hair were gray/black with ash and soot. His blood-shot, smoke-irritated eyes looked out from a comical mask reminiscent of a chimney sweep's, and in addition, his clothing was damp, and rumpled, and his shoes squelched as he walked. The agent gave him only a curt nod before packing up his reports and, with a brief bow to Waverly, made his way out the door.
Solo craned his neck after the departing agent. "What happened to him?"
"Hmm?" Waverly looked up distracted from the reports he was perusing. "Mr. Waters and his team took out that Thrush installation that was being built next to the subway repairs and construction a few blocks from here. Fortunate. It would have been a nuisance, at best."
"Ah, yes." Solo replied, shaking his head ever so slightly at Waverly's typical understatement, and moved to the coffee service. "No casualties, I trust?" he asked, a bit too easily, and watched as he poured himself a cup. His hand didn't shake even over that question.
"A few civilians are preparing to sue the city over some nonsense over so-called punctured eardrums from the explosion," Waverly huffed in annoyance. "And the mayor wants us to settle with them, privately of course, rather than let the city's transportation department insurance handle it. No doubt he would prefer to have a Thrush terrorist organization take over his precious subway system instead. This society is becoming far too litiginous. As if the noise of the subway itself weren't far more deafening. I've a good mind to move the North American HQ out of the city entirely — perhaps even to some more congenial country, and let him explain that to his superiors."
"I'm not sure how the U.N.C.L.E. governing board would take that," Solo said, hiding a smile, moving to the round conference table. "But if the U.N. gives NA/HQ a longer leash, my vote's for Mexico. Acapulco is nice in December."
"Canada, Mr. Solo," Waverly said disapprovingly. "Toronto has a fine winter festival. And you are much safer to the female civilian population when you have, more encumbrances, shall we say, to your attire."
Solo took a sip of the scalding coffee and smiled around the cup. "Left off wearing thermal undies in grammar school. In defense of the citizenry," he added, around Waverly's harrumph, "it looks like it was quite an explosion."
"Nonsense." Waverly demurred. "If Mr. Kuryakin's hearing wasn't damaged, no one else's could be. He set the explosion."
Solo thought back to the Soviet agent's bedraggled appearance. "It appears he set it a little too close for comfort."
Waverly gave him a shrewd look under his bushy brows, and Solo shrugged as if to bely the trace of censure in his voice, affecting a casual air. He knew everyone, perhaps Waverly especially, would be on guard to see if losing a partner meant he'd lost his edge, that he would hesitate to take the risks necessary to win, even if only for those few critical seconds that victory sometimes hedged on. He took another sip of his coffee.
Waverly flicked an eyebrow, evaluating the pose as well as the man behind it He either found Solo satisfactory or he reserved judgement, for he went on.. "Mr. Kuryakin appears to be thorough. No harm done, at least in this case." He paused for a beat as if to let that sink in, then added, "I'm having him evaluated for transfer."
Solo shrugged indifferently, covering some uneasiness. "You think the political problems that dogged his first assignment here have been resolved?"
Waverly poured himself some tea. "While the Soviets may not have completely resolved their ambiguity regarding their presence in the Network, they seem to have ceased using Mr. Kuryakin as an scapegoat. He would be joining your section," he added, passing a personnel folder to his CEA. "I want your feedback."
Solo paged through it absently. He'd expected Waverly to bring the Soviet agent back to New York as soon as it was feasible. Waverly been the driving force to get a Soviet presence in the Network, and a Soviet agent working out of New York was a visible reminder to their detractors in the United Nations of U.N.C.L.E.'s multinational charter. Solo paused at a notation in the agent's survival school record. "Cutter kept him a month over?"
"To instruct the demolitions class."
Solo thought skeptically back to Kuryakin's bedraggled appearance and then shelved the thought. Cutter was an obsessive perfectionist. If Kuryakin was good enough for Cutter, he was probably good enough even for New York. He studied the papers with half his attention, his mind drawn back to his dimmed memory of Kuryakin's arrival, so many missions ago it seemed part of another past. He shrugged and closed the folder, well aware that after one mission he'd soon know Kuryakin better than he'd ever know him on paper.
"Then there is the matter of your own assignment," Waverly continued.
Solo flipped the folder shut and turned a bland countenance toward his superior, keeping his eyes averted from the empty chair at his side.
"There is an assignment in North Carolina," Waverly sorted through the papers on his desk as if he'd lost the relevant notes. "Nothing dramatic, but it may require a delicate touch."
"How so?" Solo inquired, wondering if Waverly was picking an easy milk run to ease his CEA back into action.
"I've been hearing some disquieting reports regarding our local office there."
Local jurisdictions weren't his bailiwick, but Solo cast through his memory for who was in charge down there. "That's Purnell, right?"
"Parvell. Joshua Parvell. Former Section Two, moved to administration two years ago."
"Do you suspect a problem?" Solo queried, taking the folder Waverly handed him.
"I suspect nothing," Waverly returned tersely. "I am considering sending you to investigate the situation."
Solo nodded, knowing he had overstepped his bounds. Waverly never cared to be second-guessed , nor to have words put into his mouth. But he needed to do it, at least once more. "All right, I can be down there tomorrow." He sketched a glance at his boss. "Or today, if you're in a hurry. I'll see when I can arrange a flight."
"You seem to be forgetting something, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, catching his CEA as the agent was nearly out the door.
Solo stopped, shoulders tightening, not turning. "Yes?"
"The small matter of a partner."
"I'll give it some consideration after this assignment," Solo said and made it a step nearer the doorway before Waverly's voice came, as inevitable as sunset.
"You'll give it some consideration now, Mr. Solo."
"I'd prefer to work alone for a time," Solo said quietly.
"Out of the question."
Solo abandoned the hope of a strategic retreat and faced forward into the confrontation. "It should be a minor assignment. I won't need any assistance."
"None of my agents go into the field without backup."
Solo stood his ground, a frown on his face. "That's not U.N.C.L.E. policy. Plenty of agents work -" he choked on the word 'solo' and added, "on their own."
"Perhaps they do — out of other headquarters. In this HQ, in the enforcement section, all agents are partnered. You are well aware of my experimental work in this area."
Solo said nothing, mutely stubborn.
Waverly paused and then went on, more reasonably. "Of course, as Chief Enforcement Agent, you have certain prerogatives. You may choose anyone you like. If you have your eye on someone outside of this HQ, I can see to having them transferred."
"You expect me to break up an existing team?" Solo asked dangerously.
"I don't expect anything, Mr. Solo, other than you make a reasoned choice. You know the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel. And of yourself, for that matter. Think it over a few days and come up with a decision." Waverly pulled a case folder toward him, tacitly ending the conversation. "When you've made a decision, you, and your partner, may return to the field."
"And if I decide I prefer to work alone?" Solo questioned.
Waverly raised his head from his work, to stare at his Chief Enforcement Agent. "Then there are other headquarters where that would not pose a problem. I'll see you are transferred to one of them."
It was a warning and not an idle one. He was Waverly's choice for CEA, but it hadn't been an easy choice for the old man. It could be argued that Waverly never stopped evaluating anything or anyone. In spite of a glowing career up to this point, Waverly had been singularly chary of praise or approval for Solo, and the CEA had no doubt Waverly would have no problems transferring him if he refused to comply. Solo nodded tersely in acceptance of that and turned on his heel. As the door swished shut behind him he paused a moment to clear his head.
Solo looked toward the sympathetic feminine voice. Heather sat behind her desk, arms crossed, looking him up and down.
He forced a smile. "You know the old man. As cantankerous as ever."
Heather didn't return it. "Actually, he hasn't been that bad lately."
"Must be saving it up for me then," Solo responded lightly.
"Napoleon, you know we all --"
"Yes, thanks, Heather," Solo cut her off quickly. "Sorry, gotta run."
He went to his office in a high dudgeon, wondering if everyone in HQ knew of Waverly's ultimatum. He expected to get partnered again, eventually, but after a period of working alone, checking out one agent or another now, waiting till the fit was right. He didn't want to think of it as mourning, but in a sense, it was. Being partnered was more than a simple business relationship; it was closer to a marriage in its more prosaic details, a marriage your life depended on.
Till death do us part.
Solo shook himself and turned to the soothing, if stultifying, sopophoric of paperwork..
New York, 1969
He remembered his first night in this penthouse. He'd settled his personal kit into the penthouse bathroom, just the few things he'd kept at headquarters until security had been set up here. Everything else had been packed and moved for him. He'd checked the clothes in his wardrobe, pausing to choose a suit, shirt and tie for the next day. He'd smiled to notice the pajamas and dressing gown laid out for him, next to the turned down bed. He wasn't used to such blatant service, but he didn't think it would take him too long to get used to it.
Wandering out into the entrance foyer, he heard Illya, his voice rough and hoarse from unaccustomed overuse, giving final instructions to the security team on watch. His accent was stronger than usual, which meant he was overtired. They both were. Eventually, this would all be as organized as a train, but he'd never done anything as hard as taking over permanently for his old boss. So many details...
"Good." Illya looked over a clipboard and then handed it back to the waiting security agent. "Make sure you run a full check no more than twenty minutes apart, and don't forget to include a grid sweep to ensure that no section has been bypassed or switched. But not every twenty minutes on the dot. Vary it as we discussed. We don't want Thrush to think we're too predictable and take advantage of a routine."
Solo shook his head. Illya hadn't forgotten anything from the times they'd participated in guarding Waverly. And it appeared he planned to use all of it. He switched directions, wandering the penthouse at will. The apartment was large enough for a family, which was probably also giving Illya kittens, being that much more to secure. But Solo found he needed the spaciousness. There was a claustrophobic feeling to being guarded night and day that he needed elbow room to dissipate. After a decade of roaming the world, he'd been suddenly and abruptly confined and it hadn't been an easy transition for him.
He passed around an L-shaped area and came upon what was obviously a less ostentatious area. Judging by the carpets and curtains, it looked like the service area: broom closets, linen closets, cleaning supplies and such. There was also a small bedroom, probably once intended as a maid's room. Sitting on top of the comfortless-looking single bed were a couple of well-worn, familiar suitcases. They were unopened. Being a spy, Solo didn't scruple to snoop. The drawers and closets were bare, and even the bath was empty of toiletries. Solo raised an eyebrow at that. Illya had been here since the day before yesterday, dealing with the logistics of getting the place ready. Clearly he hadn't unpacked or been to bed. Though judging from the look of the narrow bed with its utilitarian twill spread, he hadn't missed much.
Solo turned back to the main rooms. He found the kitchen, and Illya, quite by accident. The Soviet agent was pouring coffee into a single mug. No steam rose from the cup, and judging by the inky color, Solo suspected it had been made some time ago.
"You're not going to drink that?"
Kuryakin jumped in startlement, promptly spilling the coffee he was pouring, and hastily grabbed a paper towel to swab up the mess. Solo scooped up the trash can and brought it over.
"That stuff's ice cold. It must have been made hours ago." Solo put the trash can back and, dipping a finger into what was left in the pot, shuddered and poured it down the drain. You weren't really going to drink that, were you?"
"I just wanted the caffeine." Kuryakin muttered, his voice nearly gone. There were gray shadows under his eyes and his chin was rough with stubble. But he took the pot from Solo with a firm grip. "Let me get that." He rinsed it out and filled it with fresh water.
"Caffeine you'd get," Solo said, taking back the trash can with the towel-drenched remains of the murky brew. "Even you might not sleep tonight after a cup of that rotgut."
"I still have some work to do tonight."
"It can wait till tomorrow."
"No, it can't."
"What's the work?" Solo queried. "Tell me, and I'll decide how important it is."
Kuryakin brushed past him. "That's not your business."
"The hell it isn't." Solo frowned as Kuryakin kept going. "Illya!"
Kuryakin stopped and turned. "Just a few loose ends. It won't take any time at all."
"You must have half of your section out there. It ought to be safe for you to grab a few hours sleep."
"I will later."
"It is later. Considering all the nights you nodded off on guard duty and yet we survived, I imagine we're safe enough with all that security out there."
"I'd prefer you didn't make comments like that before my staff," Kuryakin said tersely. "They're lax enough without you encouraging any more careless attitudes."
"Lax? You've got them timed down to the micro-second. You acting as if you've never pulled security detail before! We guarded Waverly without half this hoopla."
"You know this is different. You're a special target now."
"I've been a target for years." Solo shrugged. "You don't go into this job without knowing there are risks. That doesn't mean we never relax ever again."
"This isn't your concern, Napoleon," Illya said coldly. "It's my job and my business. You have other things to worry about. And you have enough professional pride of your own to understand that I am not going to lose the new head of Section One on my own watch."
"I'm not worried about me losing my life," Solo snapped in return. "The way you're going you'll be the more likely casualty. Keep this up and you won't make a year!"
"At least you won't have me around to worry about," Kuryakin snarled back, and stalked out of the kitchen.
Solo clenched his fists and counted to ten. No doubt Illya was having his own adjustment problems on leaving fieldwork, and probably, sometime, they needed to talk about them. But Solo resisted the thought of doing it now. Right now, U.N.C.L.E. was demanding almost all of his concentration, and he needed Illya in security for two reasons. The first was the reason Parenti had stated. Thrush had been gunning for him ruthlessly, and Illya had been dealing with almost daily attempts. The second was that in spite of those attempts, and the obvious necessity of protection, he had come to hate the constant security he'd been surrounded with. Had it been anyone else handling it, he might have felt some unjustifiable resentment for the person in charge of it. Having Illya there kept his perspective.
And it was, after all, only temporary. Eventually, Solo would have settled into his job, honeymoon over. The security arrangements would be all in place and vetted. Illya would be free to move on to Section Two, or whatever other position U.N.C.L.E. he fancied.
Just a few more months, Solo rationalized. They could stand anything that long.
New York, 1970
He was not going to call, he told himself. He had a dozen teams in the field, no time to chit-chat with his uncommunicative partner, the ungrateful wretch who was having a virtual holiday in London, leaving Solo to deal with contentious Soviets and Section One headaches with not even the comfort of staying in his own penthouse, or having his old associate around with whom he could complain about it to.
Illya was not one of his agents. There was no need for him to report in. There was no reason why he should report in to Solo, even though, Solo was disgruntled to discover, Kuryakin checked daily with his Security team in New York. No, he was not going to call.
But, in point of fact, Illya had been one of his agents for more than a decade. He was used to hearing from him, generally twice a day if they were separated, unless they were on vacation. And as to that they often took vacations together.
In spite of his being Continental Chief, he still had a partnerly concern for Illya's welfare, especially since he was back in the field. Hearing his voice would have done wonders for Solo's blood pressure and stress levels. And in spite of his partner's check-ins with the Security team, the reverse ought to be true as well.
Of course, Illya did always have ice water instead of blood running through his veins. He seldom got the lectures from Waverly about professional detachment. No, it was Solo who generally did the rescuing, broke the rules, or raised Waverly's ire. He wondered why he even bothered to worry about Illya, the detached Russian never seemed to be affected by anything anyway.
After worked himself into a fair approximation of one of Illya's Russian snits, he called Mark instead.
"I told him he should call you," Slate said, completely blowing Solo's pretense of discussing business matters. "April and I still check in daily, even though we've been told its a ruddy waste of U.N.C.L.E. funds," he chuckled slightly. "Still," he added more seriously, "partners can't help it, can they?"
"I wouldn't know," Solo said glumly. "I don't happen to have one."
Slate laughed. "You know Illya," he added. "He enjoys being troublesome and unpredictable."
"Is he giving you trouble?" Solo asked hopefully.
"Well, actually, I've been keeping him so busy he doesn't have time to," Slate chuckled. "So he wouldn't have time to ponder why you'd sent him over here," he justified demurely.
"Hmm." Solo noted, not for the first time, that Slate was good at administering. Some day he was going to make a damn fine Continental Chief. If he could handle Illya, he might be ready sooner than Solo had thought. "What have you got him doing?"
"Guarding the Queen."
"What?" Despite himself, Solo broke into a wide grin at the picture that created.
"Well, not her Royal H. directly, but doing some investigative work into Thrush activity into the Royal entourage. It helps having an agent who is completely detached, actually. Too many Britishers aren't impartial when it comes to the monarchy. And god knows the Irish try to be impartial, but probably harbor secret desires to blow them up. Throw a Russian in their midst and it gives everyone a better sense of perspective. And it's not high risk," Slate added pointedly.
"Thanks, Mark," Solo said. "I know this was a bit of a hassle for you."
"Not a bit. Good to have someone from my old stomping grounds here. We complain about Morton together. Being shed of Morton and able to get a decent cup of tea are the only advantages to this assignment."
"Don't get too comfortable," Solo warned. "I expect you both back in a month." He signed off, forgetting he hadn't discussed any of the business that had been his overt reason for the call.
New York, 1959
At seven o'clock Solo had cleared most of the routine paperwork from his desk, and figured he'd at least earned himself a beer, if not a night free from contemplation over his fate. He wasn't ready to give up New York, or his position, over an ultimatum from a cantankerous old man, but nor was he willing to break up some other team, or settle for any of the raw recruits who weren't quite settled into their partnerships yet. But not every HQ had followed Waverly's example of putting each pair of agents into working teams, and he'd worked far afield these last few years. He decided to search his memory for a likely transfer. With that decision made, he settled into the bar stool next to the group of Section Two agents. "Mark," he noted, in pleased recognition.
"Napoleon," Slate nodded over the edge of his beer glass.
"What brings you from London?" Solo signaled the bartender, and motioned for a beer.
"Courier run," Slate said.
"You on a courier run?" Solo raised a considering eyebrow. Slate was rising perceptibly through the London ranks. Had he been the ambitious type he might have risen faster. Solo had always found him competent, but he had an easy-going, almost casual, nature that made his superiors question if he could be ruthless enough in a clinch. Solo knew Waverly had looked Slate over more than once, and was presently reserving judgement. If Slate was doing courier work, it either had to be an important drop or Slate had some other reason for coming to New York.
"Well, there's this little Broadway dancer," Slate admitted.
The group laughed and ribbed the British agent, who took it with his typical good-natured humor. Soon the jokes wore down and the talk turned serious again, touching gingerly on the latest mission.
"Aye, those that were na caught in the snare have taken flight," said Parvis, continuing a conversation that Solo had interrupted. Alcohol and camaraderie had loosened the strictures on his natural Yorkshire accent, which he generally moderated into proper public school British. "Where they light next is nae secret. They'll already been flocking to the closest roosts. We'll keep a sharp eye on them. He glanced at Solo shrewdly. "Though it seems we'll need another Yorkshire shepherd, now that Waverly's annexed our Russkie.
Solo flicked an eyebrow, unwilling to comment. But his companions in Section Two were more curious, or perhaps suspicious about the stranger suddenly in their ranks. They peppered the British agent with ostensibly casual queries. Parvis clammed up, suddenly wary, but the group was inexorable and turned on Slate, who had the more forth-going temperament.
"I don't know him," Slate relented. "Seen him about a bit; he worked out of London for a while. He's a quiet sort, sort of a lone wolf."
"A Russian lone wolf," someone commented skeptically.
"Aye, he's a fly one, is that," Parvis agreed, suddenly finding his tongue
"Fly?" Solo asked, spurred into curiosity himself.
"Cute," Slate translated absently, looking thoughtfully into his beer, then nodded slowly, his sunshine smile transforming his features. "I suppose he is, at that."
Solo made a face, and Slate laughed.
"Cute in the English, err, the British sense. Not in the American. Though I suppose the girls might think him that, too," Slate noted.
Solo was shaking his head. "Come again?" He inquired politely.
"Fly, with a bit of a cut," Parvis said helpfully.
"Canny," Slate said, then shook his head. "It doesn't translate well. Sly, but on the quiet side, not arch. Smooth, but not the sophisticated smooth. Mild, like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, but knowing." He tilted his head at Solo questioningly, to see if he understood. "You know?"
"I think so," Solo commented, though his companions in Section Two looked even more baffled and put off at this description.
"You can never trust Russians," one was saying darkly. "Can't understand what Waverly is thinking, bringing them in the network. Not to mention here."
Slate shrugged. "I've heard he pulls his weight in the field. Thorough chap. Not the sort for beer and skittles afterwards, but solid where it counts."
"He's a right solid shot," Parvis noted slyly.
Slate took a sip of beer and nodded, his eyes gleaming. "Heard about that, did you? I won a packet on him taking the wings off a moth in a bet against London's top sharpshooter," he said to the others in explanation. "Kuryakin plucked those wings pretty as you please. Chatsworth was livid." Slate twirled a coaster between his hands. "He was fly at that, no doubt. Hardly anyone had a clue what a marksman he was."
"Serves Chatsworth right for being behind on his paperwork," Parvis said in his bitter. "Scores are all in the lad's record."
"Ian does favor the field more than his desk," Slate agreed. But it didn't serve Kuryakin too well, either. He didn't make book on himself, and he was transferred to Glasgow not long after. Guess Chatsworth couldn't handle two top marksmen in the office," he added, finishing off his beer. "And seeing as how I'm heading back to London's HQ, that's all I'd better say." He smiled his easy grin, and waved his goodbyes.
A loner, Solo thought, after Slate had left. A lone wolf. A lone wolf could be difficult to integrate into a close-knit group, and for all their bickering, New York's Section Two were a team. On the other hand, Waverly liked Slate, and Slate seemed to have no problem with Kuryakin. The British agent would probably welcome an opportunity to transfer closer to his dancer friend, and that would pair Kuryakin off.. He thought about the scheme briefly, then shelved it. Kuryakin could wait. Right now, he had his own problems.
New York, 1969
Solo cut the connection and, in a totally uncharacteristic gesture, rubbed his forehead with one hand, resting it briefly on his elbow in one moment of weakness. Then he buzzed the outer office.
"Yes, Mr. Solo?" Heather's voice was normally as professionally deferential as if they had never slept together, but now it was laced with sympathy.
"Send Illya to my office," Solo said curtly. "I'm leaving early today."
"You mean you're leaving on time for once," Heather said.
"Just do it," Solo snapped, then shook his head and spoke more softly into the intercom. "Sorry, Heather."
"I understand." Heather swallowed the automatic words of sympathy. Napoleon wouldn't want to hear any comments that Waverly had been twice as irritable when he lost a team, or that things would be better in the morning after a good night's sleep. Chances were, Solo wouldn't be sleeping too well tonight. She just cut the connection and called Kuryakin to the office pronto. Time was when Napoleon would turn to charming ladies when he was troubled. But she doubted he'd be interested in charming anything tonight. Not even Waverly, after all his years of seeing one brash team after another head out into the field, and more than one fail to come back, had taken the inevitable failures well. And the first time? Well, it was bound to be brutal.
Kuryakin was late by minutes, obviously not having expected a summons for hours yet, and pulled away from whatever duty had been occupying him. He hastened through the corridors up from the bowels of headquarters where he'd been checking the security of the little used subterranean exit, shrugging into his jacket as he went. He glanced at colleagues as he went, noticing they were looking at him and then glancing quickly away when he met their eyes. That wasn't good. Something was up.
He turned to Heather as he reached Napoleon's inner sanctum, but she avoided his gaze as well, her expression professionally neutral. "Go on in," she said, addressing her words to a file she was typing. "He's waiting for you."
Kuryakin shrugged and, running a hand through his hair, stepped through the doors. Solo looked up from packing his briefcase for the evening.
"Finally. Where were you, getting a hot dog in Central Park?"
Kuryakin opened his mouth to answer, but Solo cut him off with a gesture. "Never mind, just get me out of here."
Kuryakin closed his mouth, then opened it again. "Out?"
Solo scowled. "I know the language is still difficult for you at times, but what part of 'out' didn't you understand?"
"You're leaving for the day?" Kuryakin asked.
"Obviously," Solo enunciated with exaggerated patience.
Kuryakin considered this unexpected action. Fortunately the roof teams were already in place. "Where did you want to go?"
Solo counted to ten and closed his briefcase with exaggerated care. "Home."
Kuryakin swallowed any comments about the incongruity of his anticipating Solo going home at five o'clock on a weeknight for the first time since he'd taken over Waverly's chair. Still, he'd known Napoleon to put in a few early nights in their joint career. Perhaps this was one of them. He could have a toothache, or a headache, or...
"Have you gone to sleep over there?" Solo snapped.
He shook himself slightly, suddenly aware of what could have happened. Had he been out of Section Two that long? The question was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed the words, long practice at hiding his thoughts unexpectedly coming to his aid. "Whenever you're ready."
Solo brushed past him. "I've been ready for ten minutes."
New York, 1970
"How's it going?" Solo asked into the phone.
"Not good," Thigpin said. "They want him back here, and they want to talk to him."
"No way," Solo said. He paused, refreshing his memory. "There was nothing in that agreement about what country Illya would work in?"
"No, not at all," Thigpin agreed. "He doesn't have to come back here. And he is working Section Two, so they have no grounds for pulling him."
"So get them out of here," Solo countered uncharitably.
"Napoleon, remember our long term goal," Thigpin said. "What we can enforce now, and two years from now are two different things."
"Get them out of here," Solo insisted. "These people are peons. They don't have the authority to make any long term agreements for Illya. You'll never get anything out of them."
"Mr. Solo, we did discuss this," Thigpin said, exasperation coloring his voice. "You were going to let me pursue this through legal means."
"You've had two hours with these people," Solo said. "If you were going to be able to get any kind of agreement from them, you'd have done it by now. They're just pumping you, Danny. It's time for me to step in. Kiss them goodbye."
"What are you going to do?" Thigpin asked anxiously.
Solo smiled. "Can't tell you that, Danny boy. Trade secret."
"Mr. Solo, I'm your legal counsel in these arrangements. I'm entitled to know--"
"Sorry, Danny. I'll let you handle my will if I don't come back. That's about all you can know." Solo cut the connection on his sputtering protests and patched into his security chief. "Gas up the jet, Mr. Contre. I'm going to be taking a trip."
"Top secret. I'll give the pilot the flight plan at the airport. Now, you can show me how fast you can get the chopper in action."
"But, sir, Mr. Kuryakin said --"
"Do you work for Mr. Kuryakin or for me?" Solo snapped.
Contre moaned softly, "Probably neither by the time this is over, sir."
Solo laughed. "Don't worry. Illya won't kill you unless I don't make it back alive."
"Yes, sir," Contre said miserably. "Your helicopter will be ready by the time you arrive at the chopper pad."
"The roof teams?" Solo asked.
"Already in place, sir."
"I like your style, Contre." Solo cut the connection.
"Yes, sir," Contre said, mindful of the silent connection. "But Mr. Kuryakin will kill me regardless."