Partners

By

Patricia J. Foley

Part 2

New York, 1959

A fly one.

Solo thought of that when he saw Kuryakin reclaiming his weapon in the indoor shooting range early the next day. New York was using a slightly different modification of the standard issue release and Kuryakin's weapon had been confiscated for modification.

The fly one inspected the altered weapon dubiously, as befitted a Section Two agent whose lifeline had been fiddled with, as any parachuter would regard a chute packed by someone else.

"Don't worry," Solo commented as he signed for the ammunition and targets necessary for a practice round, "We have the best gunsmiths in U.N.C.L.E. in this HQ."

Kuryakin glanced at him askance, but claimed his own ammunition and targets without comment, heading for the farthest carrel, next to the far wall.

Remembering the conversation from the night before, Solo chose a spot a few carrels down. Just as he got the protective ear cups settled over his head, he head the cacophony of a clip emptied at full auto from Kuryakin's carrel. He peered down the range to see the Soviet reeling the paper target in, a look of dubious skepticism on the Soviet agent's face. The target was clean except for a hole through the bull's eye. From his distance, Solo couldn't tell if it was larger than usual, as would befit a hole that had seen ten shots go through it. It was clear Kuryakin had his doubts too, inspecting it carefully, then peering down the line to check the wall for bullet marks.. He hung up a new target and reeled it down to the end of the range. There was a pause while he loaded a fresh clip. Through the doors into the range came a group of agents, apparently fresh from the commissary, for the odor of coffee came swirling in with them, briefly overpowering the scent of gun oil and burned powder.

Solo acknowledged greetings as he loaded his own clips. From the far carrel, Kuryakin fired again, slowly, one shot at a time. Solo could see the shots were all widely dispersed on the target. He wondered at that, then he realized there was a pattern to the shots. Kuryakin had fired neatly through the zeros of the point markings, apparently having decided that firing at the bulls-eye didn't give him a clear enough picture of the weapon's accuracy. He reeled the target back in an examined it, apparently satisfied.

But the group that had come in was obviously just as curious, peering over the slight Russian's shoulder at the target. Solo could hardly blame them; a healthy rivalry about such things flourished at every U.N.C.L.E. installation. But he grimaced at the sight of Roger Lowry, a burly Section Three agent in the group. Lowry had twice failed to make Section Two, one ostensible reason being his scores on the firing range. But in fact, Solo had long ago decided that Lowry just didn't have the character to be in Section Two.

But Lowry was delighted to discover a Section Two agent with firing range scores apparently poorer than his own. He snatched the target and held it up for his fellow agents. "Look at this, fellows. I guess Russkies aren't such great shots after all."

Solo threw a glance at Kuryakin. The Soviet agent's eyes were narrowed and cold, but he stolidly went on shoving a reloaded clip into his weapon, and then began refilling his other clips. Solo wondered if Lowry was actually stupid enough to continue antagonizing a relatively unknown man who had a loaded weapon in his hand. Not that any agent should be able to make it through Survival School with that poor a control over his trigger finger, but he was well aware that Kuryakin had always been a special case.

But the Soviet agent merely ignored Lowry, the only evidence of his irritation a hardening of his jaw.

"He couldn't hit the center with a full clip," Lowry mocked. Kuryakin just went on slowly loading another clip, apparently in no hurry.

"Didn't they even teach you how to load a weapon?" Lowry asked, delighted. "God, put you in the field and your buddies would be dead while you're still loading your gun," The Section Three agent guffawed, enjoying himself immensely at Kuryakin's expense. "Hey, I don't think he understands me. You speak English, Russkie?"

Kuryakin stolidly ignored him.

Hearing the commotion, Adam Winter stuck his head out of a carrel. He gave Solo an look of question. With the death of Solo's partner who'd previously held the slot, Winter had been promoted to Number Two, Section Two, and therefore had some responsibility to shut Lowry down. He'd also undoubtably seen Kuryakin's file as Solo had, and knew the Russian's ability with a weapon, which Lowry did not.

But Solo said nothing, concentrating on his own marksmanship. It wasn't his nature to interfere in other's petty quarrels, and he felt even less inclined now. Lowry deserved whatever he was going to get. As for Kuryakin, Solo strongly suspected he'd long ago learned how to handle jerks. He started his own practice round, the sound of his gunfire obliterating the discussion behind him.

When he paused to reload and the noise of the gunfire cleared around him, he heard Winter arguing with Lowry.

"You don't want to do that, Roger," Winter sounded frustrated, and as if he wished he hadn't gotten involved at all.

"Don't be such a killjoy," Lowry replied. "Nothing wrong with a friendly little wager. I'll bet the Russkie here can't hit the bulls-eye once."

Winter looked at Kuryakin, but the Russian stayed silent. It was clear he wasn't going to egg Lowry on, but he also recognized his taunter had reached a point where he had said too much to just walk away.

"Who's willing to bet for the Russkie?" Lowry looked around. "No commie lovers here?"

The rest of the group had taken a mental step back when Solo had come over. They looked disinclined to bet in either case. Solo sized them up as being interested in seeing the outcome between Kuryakin and Lowry, but not in taking sides themselves.

A subtle ranking existed on a myriad of levels among U.N.C.L.E. agents — prowess on the armory range, in the gym, in the field. And in other ways — personal presence, style, popularity. Lowry wasn't well liked. Kuryakin was virtually unknown entity in New York's Section Two. How he would fare in this encounter would settle his informal ranking, at least initially.

Solo at first had merely thought to send them on their way with a few well chosen words, but then he realized that Lowry was almost eager for that, hoping to see Section Two back down from a challenge. From the detached, almost bored looked in Kuryakin's eyes he didn't seem inclined to give him one.

Solo suddenly felt inclined.

"I'll wager on it," Solo answered, deceptively mild.

"You?" Lowry seemed taken aback.

"Why not? My section. My agent," Solo said with an easy smile. "Why not my bet? You don't mind obliging, do you, Mr. Kuryakin?"

His eyes on Solo, Kuryakin shrugged wordlessly.

"Twenty?" Solo asked Lowry.

Lowry gulped.

"Or, excuse me. I forget what a gambler you are," Solo went on. "Let's say fifty."

"Fifty?"

"You seemed sure enough of winning just a moment ago." Solo gestured to the target still clutched in Lowry's hand. Beside him, Kuryakin drew breath, as if finally moved to explanation. Solo cut him off with a surreptitious hand signal. The breath sighed out of Kuryakin like a deflated balloon. His shoulders dropped in resignation.

Lowry saw the sagging shoulders but not the hand signal that had preceded it. He puffed up immediately. "You're on, Solo."

"You don't mind, do you, Mr. Kuryakin?" Solo asked blandly.

The eyes were suspicious, but the expression was bland. He simply shrugged again, and turned back to the carrel.

"Anyone else want to get in on the action?" Solo inquired.

The other agents demurred, none of them wanting to interfere in Solo's action.

"Choose a fresh target, Roger, and reel it down yourself, if you like," Solo offered.

"I believe I will," Lowry huffed, all bravado. "Just to keep things fair."

"And we'll want to set a time limit," Solo suggested. "After all, we don't want to be here all day while Mr. Kuryakin struggles to aim. What do you suggest, Roger?"

Lowry was looking stubborn now, apparently suspecting Solo's accommodating attitude. He took another glance at the used target in his hand, as if to reassure himself. "One clip. Thirty seconds."

"That gives you just three seconds per bullet to aim, Illya," Solo commented. "That okay with you?"

Kuryakin picked up his weapon, weighing it in his hand, as if it were unfamiliar. "Say 'when'," was his only comment.

"You've got the target reeled down, I see," Solo commented. "Jackson, you watch the clock. Polermo, pick up a pair of binoculars; I want you to count any shots that go astray from the target." Solo was beginning to enjoy himself. Kuryakin rolled an eye at him; Solo smiled back. "Just aim for the bulls-eye, Mr. Kuryakin and do your best."

"Yes, sir," Kuryakin said colorlessly.

"Say 'when'," Jackson," Solo said to Jackson, who had his eye on his watch, tracking the second hand. He checked to see that Polermo had the binoculars fixed on the target. Kuryakin sighed, braced his feet and aimed on outstretched arms.

"When," Jackson said.

Kuryakin fired desultorily, one shot at a time, a second apart, almost as if he was counting the seconds with the shots.

"Ten seconds," Jackson said, raising his eyes from his watch after the clip was emptied.

"Holy shit," Polermo said. "Every one's a bulls-eye."

"Roger, would you reel the target in?" Solo asked.

Lowry glared down at the target, and then snatched the binoculars from Polermo's hand. "They must have gone wild."

"None went wild," Polermo said, his voice suddenly dark. "Anyway, you said he only had to get one shot. How do you explain that big hole in the center of the target?" He was a big man, dark and heavy set for an agent. Generally his face was as genial as if he spent his days giving candy to kids. But when angry his whole body could radiate violence. Lowry looked at him askance, then suddenly reeled the target in, in haste. He pulled the paper target off the clips, and shook it at Solo and Kuryakin together with the original target. "This is impossible!"

"Would you like him to do it again?" Solo asked.

"You tricked me!"

"It was your big mouth that got you in trouble, Lowry. Next time, keep it off my agents."

Lowry drew back from Solo , but then turned on the slighter Russian, clenching his fists. But he was suddenly facing the other Section Two agents, barring his path. Instead he balled the paper targets and threw them on the floor and turned to leave.

"There is the matter of the bet," Solo mentioned blithely.

Lowry turned, glared at Solo, then swallowed his words, and opened his wallet. He threw the bills on the floor at Solo's feet with the targets and huffed out of the range. At a glance from Solo, the other agents followed.

Kuryakin's stiffened shoulders slowly relaxed. Solo realized he'd been prepared for a fight.

"Uh, sorry," Solo leaned down to pick up the bills and balls of paper. "I suppose it wasn't fair to spring that on you. But Lowry deserved it."

Kuryakin said nothing, methodically reloading the spent clip.

Solo set the money down on the tabletop.

Kuryakin looked at it, eyes narrowed, then looked away. "I don't want that."

"You won it," Solo pointed out.

"It was your bet," Kuryakin said. "I don't bet."

Solo looked skeptical. "In this business, we all have to gamble sometimes."

"Very well then," Kuryakin said. "I don't wager."

"All right," Solo said. "Suit yourself." He folded the money into his wallet. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

"If you'll excuse me, I have another appointment."

Solo shrugged and stood aside as Kuryakin holstered his weapon, swept the spent cartridges into a nearby receptacle and left the booth. He noticed Kuryakin had left the balled targets behind, and he picked them up and smoothed them out thoughtfully. As he went back to his own carrel, he was joined by the armory master.

"That true about the Russian?"

"What's true?" Solo sighted down his own target and fired a few rounds.

"I guess it is," Gunther said, noticing the creased target and picking it up.

Solo glanced at it, then at the armory master. "You get the scores of all the agents." His tone was faintly questioning.

"I get them. That doesn't mean I believe all the nonsense that gets passed to me from every local field office. But this," Gunther raised the target. "This, I believe."

Solo smiled. "So, you're a skeptic."

"Have to be," Gunther grumbled. "But at least I won't have to teach this one how to shoot."

Solo wondered though, who was going to teach him how to gamble.

New York, 1969

Solo took a long hot shower and then, dressed in pajamas, poured himself a drink and polished it off in one swallow. The liquor burned all the way down to his stomach and he savored the mild pain. It kept him from thinking. Then he resolutely went to his neatly turned down bed and folded himself into it. An early night, a good sleep. Things would look better in the morning, he promised himself. He'd have some perspective. He turned out the light and closed his eyes.

An hour later, he turned the light back on. The formerly neat bed looked like a hurricane had hit it, but then, he'd been tossing at least as much as a sloop in a gale. He left the comfortless haven, shrugged into his robe and crossing the room, picked up the bottle of scotch and swirled it in the dim light. But he'd already used up his self-imposed one drink limit. Never knew when he might be urgently needed and he couldn't risk having his judgement impaired.

Not that it had mattered this time, whether his judgement had been there or not.

He put the liquor bottle down and headed out of the room, not sure where he was going till he felt the chill of the uncarpeted corridor on his bare feet.

"It's just me, Illya," he said outside the open doorway, and added the code word from the days of the partnership that meant he was alone and all was well, saving Kuryakin the trouble of greeting him with the barrel of a gun.

Kuryakin almost greeted him that way anyway, habit and reflex making him grab for his weapon. Like Solo, in an uncertain situation he felt more comfortable with his gun in his hand then not. He made an incongruous picture, one hand still clutching his book, a finger caught between the pages to save his place, the other clutching the automatic. At the slight of Solo, he shoved the gun back under the pillow and sat partially up.

Solo hadn't realized until now that the pale blue pajamas Kuryakin had always worn on assignment were apparently part of his professional wardrobe. 'At home', he wore a t-shirt so frayed at the sleeves and hem, and so pockmarked with tiny holes that Solo wondered how the fragile material stayed together. A pair of equally ancient sweatpants completed his nighttime attire. Ever practical, he had socks on his feet. A pair of sneakers, complete with holes in the canvas toes, waited by the bed for any late night incident. The clothes didn't look out of place in the comfortless room. The twin bed was just as narrow; the twill spread Kuryakin had pushed aside looked just as ugly, and it was clear, from the boxes stacked in one corner of the room and the lack of personal effects in it, that his partner had never really unpacked.

Yet Kuryakin's unruly hair stuck up in tufts and the pillow beside his book was punched into some semblance of comfort. Clearly even in this chintzy, unaccommodating room, his partner had found more comfort than Solo had between his satin sheets.

For the first time, Solo envied his ability to take what small comforts he could of untenable situations. Where the beds were bad, Illya enjoyed the food, when the food was bad he consoled himself with a book; when he had no book he curled himself up in some corner and slept. Solo had noted his partner's Spartan preferences at the same time as he had pursued a more consumable lifestyle without thinking much about it. They were different people.

Illya wasn't above expressing a certain censure for his own lifestyle, but he had never felt the need to express much of pity or envy for Illya's. But now he felt a touch of jealousy over his partner's still unburdened conscience. And he knew, just as suddenly, that he'd come to burden it. That was no more a part of his nature than jealousy. The realization almost made him turn to leave, when Illya, uncomfortable under Solo's unyielding scrutiny, said awkwardly, "Did you want something?"

"Uh, oh" Solo cast his mind about for another reason to have come calling, and hooked on something with relief. "Have an aspirin?"

Kuryakin frowned, but jerked his chin to the tiny bath. "Medicine cabinet."

Solo slunk into the bath and shamelessly snooped. Force of habit, he was a spy. Not that Illya had much to snoop into — not even a pack of condoms to raise an eyebrow over. Not even Illya was that much of a monk; Solo supposed he kept them in his wallet. Or perhaps, Solo thought ironically, he hadn't unpacked them. Solo himself hadn't much chance to need many since Waverly's death.

But here was just the generic bottle of aspirin, shaving gear and toothbrush stuff, and a comb and brush that had each seen better days. On the shelf over the toilet was the tiny kit Illya bundled it all into to take on assignments. Solo popped open the aspirin bottle and dry swallowed a tablet, purely for form, setting the bottle back on the shelf. The only other occupant of the shelf was a roll of adhesive tape and a pair of rounded safety scissors, the kind kids used to cut paper with. Trust Illya to be so guarded he didn't even leave a dangerous pair of scissors around to be used against him.

Kuryakin quirked an eyebrow at him as he entered the room. Solo noticed through a convenient hole in his partner's sock that Illya was taping his ankle again, as he had off an on throughout their partnership. It filled him with a flood of nostalgia.

"Find everything you wanted?" Kuryakin inquired over the page of his book.

"That tendon still bothering you?" Solo gestured to Kuryakin's right foot.

"No more than usual," Kuryakin muttered, eyes still studiously on the page.

"I'd heard there's a new procedure for that," Solo commented. He didn't mention he'd heard it as a result of one agent's near debilitating injury, and that the operation had an estimated recovery time of six weeks minimum. Nor did he see fit to add that he knew Illya would as soon put himself in the hands of a surgeon as he would the hands of a Thrush sadist.

"My ankle is just fine." Kuryakin rolled over and sat up, putting away any pretense at reading. "You want to tell me why you really came here?"

"I told you," Solo said stubbornly. "Needed an aspirin."

"You have a full bottle in your own medicine cabinet. Also one of antihistamines, and a bottle of sleeping tablets and some cold medication, three packs of condoms, six of which you've--"

"You've been snooping in my medicine chest?" Solo accused, mildly outraged.

"Napoleon, I stocked that cabinet with drugs I took myself from UNCLE's own pharmacy; I know which clothes are delivered from Del's cleaning operation. I clear the groceries that are put in the kitchen. I am your security chief, remember? Everything and everyone that comes into this apartment, I check, or I know where they came from and who cleared them. That's my job."

Solo muttered an oath under his breath.

"So do you want to tell me why you really came in here?"

Solo looked around the room. "You don't even have an extra chair in here."

"Why ever would I need one?"

"Oh, shut up and shove over."

Kuryakin moved over a grudging fraction of an inch, settling back against the headboard as Solo sank down on the edge of the bed. "You don't even have your hi-fi set up in here," Solo noted with surprise.

"I haven't had time. And there's not much point to it now. In a month or so I'll be done."

"Done?" Solo echoed.

"This assignment. I've got Contre and his team virtually trained. You haven't given us much chance to test the extracurricular security, but I'm confident enough in it."

"What are you talking about?"

Kuryakin flushed. "You know — the security for when you go out. I call it the extracurricular security. I should work well — we've been testing with your decoys mostly, since you've been too busy to provide us with a live subject on any regular basis."

Solo brushed that aside. "I meant about being done."

"You said this was a six month assignment. It's over in six weeks." Kuryakin shrugged. "The teams are all trained and in place, with backups, reliefs. All vetted and security cleared. I've screened every one myself, and I'm confident they are all clean. And capable. I could finish up in a couple of weeks actually. In fact, London has been hinting they could use me sooner."

"You're not thinking of still transferring?" Solo looked astounded. "You can't be serious."

"You don't need me here. Morton has Section Two well in hand--" he trailed off as Solo visibly winced.

Solo shook his head tiredly. "I can't have this discussion today."

Kuryakin studied him narrowly. "What happened today, Napoleon? We've bandied about the bush long enough."

"Beaten around the bush."

"Whatever. Spill it."

"You mean you haven't heard already?" Solo's mouth twisted sardonically, but then he sighed. "We lost a team today. No. I lost a team today."

Kuryakin's breath caught in his throat, all the while wondering which friendship to cap with a gravestone. "I'm sorry." He drew a breath and asked evenly. "Who was it?"

"Markow and Connor."

Kuryakin blinked. From Napoleon's reaction, he had thought it was someone closer to him. He didn't even know the two: green-stick agents not long out of Section Three, they'd transferred from a local office in the Midwest only a month or so before. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

Solo eyed him narrowly. "You don't remember them, do you?"

Kuryakin shook his head, puzzled. "Should I? I may have seen them about, but I don't think we were ever introduced. Formally, that is."

"They were in Section Two." Solo said evenly.

"Napoleon, I haven't been in Section Two for months," Kuryakin said with some asperity. "Morton and I have never been exactly chummy and it isn't as if I haven't had plenty to do myself. I had no reason to know these agents."

"All right.," Solo said tersely. "I'd momentarily forgotten you're so damned self sufficient, you don't need anyone."

"Did you come here to pick a fight with me?" Kuryakin asked softly. "If you are, I'd appreciate it if you did it from somewhere else."

"What?" Solo's eyes narrowed.

"In case you hadn't noticed, this is my room. The rest of the apartment is yours. But this is my space. My only space," Kuryakin said, not angry, but firm. "If you want to fight, go stand in the hallway and bellow."

The image that conjured up was so ludicrous, Solo just stared at Kuryakin for a moment.

Kuryakin frowned at Solo's lack of response. "Maybe I should just call a relief and go sleep in HQ tonight." He started to rise.

Solo stuck out a hand, and let out a pent up breath, his shoulders loosening. "Sorry." He stood up, shaking the tension from his shoulders. "Look, could we start again?"

"Just don't loom over me. If you want to talk, sit down."

"Let's get something from the kitchen," Solo countered, suddenly uncomfortable about barging into Illya's room. He was right in that respect. At least in the kitchen, if they got into a rolling fight, they'd have neutral corners to retreat to.

And given a choice between neutral corners or London, he choose the former any time.

New York 1970

From the copter, he had watched while one of his doubles entered the jet and took off. Then he disappeared in to the flurry of the airport, appearing in the exit terminal where hordes of passengers had just arrived and were claiming baggage and grabbing taxis. No one noticed a man of medium height and build approach the curb or a non-descript rental car pull up and claim the Continental Chief of U.N.C.L.E. North America. Solo sat back in the passenger seat with a satisfied sigh. "Thanks, Contre."

"Where to now, sir?"

"The Soviet Mission."

Contre looked at him askance, then, noting the grim set to Solo's jaw, put the car in gear and pulled away. It was going to be a long career.

Solo had done his homework. He had two Section Three agents keeping tabs on his quarry for days, reporting on his movements. He knew the man was in, and he had no doubt he would see him. Being a Continental Chief did have some advantages.

"This is quite a surprise, Mr. Solo." General Dmitry Grigorevich Aivasovsky had aged little in the last ten years. His hair had more grey than blond, but his lean, lanky figure and features still looked more British than Russian, and his eyes, like Illya's were the cool gray/blue of Russian seas. He was still the head of the Soviet Mission in New York and a GRU officer, but his power had extended somewhat beyond his local jurisdiction. Solo had no idea how far it carried in Moscow. But he was about to find out.

"Don't discredit us both, sir," Solo said pleasantly. "You must know why I am here."

The Soviet spymaster smiled briefly. "Very well. I am not unaware of the situation your organization has encountered with respect to Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin's Soviet obligations. But I fail to see why you have come to me."

"Because you oversee every Soviet agent in the North and South Americas."

"Even if that were true," Aivasovsky said. "He is not my agent. Has never been that. The terms of his assignment were decided long ago, in Moscow, and by other men than ourselves."

"Perhaps. But they are gone, and we are here now. I now speak for U.N.C.L.E. North America. And as for you, Illya is a GRU officer in New York and you are a GRU general responsible for North America. I think we'll do. "

Aivasovsky smiled slightly. "You simplify matters, Mr. Solo. I have little say on those that were sent to me. Or on what circumstances determine their recall. What ever influence I have on Kuryakin here," he tilted his head at Solo. "And you agree it has been little if any, others now summon him. You must know that."

"But you have influence there, General Aivasovsky, where I do not." He gestured to a chair. "May I sit?"

Aivasovsky shrugged and waved a hand in permission. "I think you must be quite mad. You are here with very little security, in a very dangerous period of your career. I have little regard for your security chief, if he allows you to take such risks."

Solo laughed softly. "No doubt Illya will deal with me on his return. But some risks are necessary."

Aivasovsky's grey eyes met his cooly. "Necessary?"

"Necessary. But I don't have to tell you that, do I?"

The Soviet agent sat back a bit, detaching himself from Solo's intense gaze. "I confess I don't understand."

"Perhaps this will help," Solo removed a photograph from his suit-jacket and laid it on the table. Aivasovsky's eyes moved toward it, and recoiled briefly, as if in pain.

"Colonel Erik Karlovich Gerasimov," Solo said. "I did my homework. I know you had a partner once too. Who was recalled to the Soviet Union in 1966 during a brief power struggle that followed a former promotions of yours.. He was executed by a rival political faction that had just enough power to discredit him. As a weapon against you."

Aivasovsky rose from his chair, staring at Solo. "How dare you show me this?" His voice was strained, barely over a whisper.

"I am very sorry to resurrect painful memories," Solo said. "And I won't pretend that we don't have schemes to discredit political rivals in this country. But you, of all people, should understand why I can't let that happen to Illya."

Aivasovsky turned away. "Surely men of your resources have many options."

"I could try to hide him," Solo agreed, his eyes following the Soviet General. "But then I'd still be losing him. And Illya's just Soviet enough that he might refuse to hide and go back to Moscow, even knowing what would probably await him. Just like Gerasimov did."

Aivasovsky said nothing, staring out the window at the patch of East River he could see glinting in the sunshine.

"So, you see, General, why I won't allow Illya to be used as a weapon against U.N.C.L.E., and against me," Solo said relentlessly. "I have a prior example to tell me what his probable fate would be. And I am counting on you to help me see that it doesn't happen again." Solo paused and added. "One partner to another."

"Even if you found me... sympathetic to your circumstance," Aivasovsky said, turning from the window. "My government would require some reason to permanently surrender a valuable agent. Our people are our most precious resources. They are like coal and iron to us. We don't trade them for sentiment."

"U.N.C.L.E. has influence," Solo countered. He smiled at the General's expression of surprise. "No, I am not offering any excessive favoritism in return for Illya's life. But right now you have a compatriot highly placed in U.N.C.L.E. You know Illya is Soviet; he hasn't lost his respect for those philosophies. And I respect him. Enough to trust him with my life, which is almost the same as trusting him with my headquarters. Illya is a constant, daily reminder to me of the multinational, multi-philosophical nature of U.N.C.L.E." Solo paused. "But if he should be recalled, and to an uncertain, dangerous fate, my faith in that co-existence would be wounded. Perhaps fatally. If I have to lose Illya," Solo paused and his voice roughened. "I will be resentful. I'll try to keep that resentment from unduly influencing my position as North American Continental Chief. But I am only human." Solo's look changed from pleasant to feral. "And in that position, I have a great deal of influence on others, both in North America and in the world."

"Are you threatening?" Aivasovsky asked, sounding more curious than angry.

"I am being honest with you," Solo said. "A luxury men in our position can rarely afford. But you understand me, General."

"Perhaps I do, and perhaps I do not," The Soviet spymaster returned. "Tell me plainly what you want."

"I want Illya's freedom. Permanent, unconditional, uncontestable."

Aivasovsky stared at Solo, his eyes narrowed. "You ask a great deal, Mr. Solo. It is one thing to deliver your friend from temporary peril. That might be in my purview. This is quite another."

"I'll accept nothing less. Political climates can change with the season. Influences wax and wane. I could be killed tomorrow. Or you could. I don't want to rehash this issue with every coup. I'm making one offer — my partner for my good will. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, know that my ire is going to be far more expensive than one obsolete agent."

The General smiled thinly. "And you said you respected him."

"Obsolete to you. Invaluable to me. Both as a colleague and as a friend. But you know that General." He nodded toward the photograph still clutched in Aivasovsky's hand.

Dimitri Grigorevich Aivasovsky nodded slowly, his expression remote. I will pass this conversation on to my superiors, Mr. Solo."

"And your influence."

Aivasovsky nodded distantly. "And that. I will do for your friend what I did not do for my own."

"May I ask why you didn't, General?"

The Soviet spymaster smiled bitterly. "He was stubborn, my Eric. And loyal. To me. To our country. He paid for that loyalty with his life. And my own loyalties blinded me to some painful realities."

"My condolences." Solo said.

Aivasovsky shook himself, distancing the conversation from the past. "Tell your Mark Slate to keep Illya Nickovetch where he is. Not even my most radical countrymen would risk the execution of an U.N.C.L.E. agent in such close proximity to a purely decorative head of state. The British people would no doubt take it as a failed attack against their monarchy. Such things have precipitated enough past wars. He is very safe where he is."

"So much for secrecy," Solo said dryly.

"Provided I am successful in my persuasion, Mr. Solo, your organization will be contacted. The necessary arrangements will take about a week. When you receive the final documents, you can recall your partner home." He raised an ironic eyebrow. "Just be aware that it may need to remain his home. His safety in the Soviet Union could never be fully guaranteed. Not now, and in spite of all anyone might promise you, not ever."

"Perhaps not forever, General. My organization exists in the hope that someday the citizens of all countries can co-exist in peace and safety."

"An interesting goal, Mr. Solo. But, I confess, I respect you more for your practical knowledge of the present than for your noble aspirations for the future."

Solo smiled and held out his hand. "Thank you, General. I hope, for the memory of your partner, and the future of mine, that it does become a reality."

New York, 1959

"Tremarty," Solo greeted the agent dropping a report on his desk. "How did it go?"

"The mission went fine," Tremarty said.

Solo looked up from his paperwork. "Something else a problem?"

"More like someone," the young agent countered.

Solo sighed. "What did Kuryakin do?" Tremarty was the third agent he'd tried pairing Kuryakin with. The first two had been adamant about not wanting to be paired with the Russian again, but wouldn't say why. Solo had more hopes for Tremarty, who was younger and less discreet.

"It's more like what he wouldn't do."

Solo frowned at this. Dereliction of duty was a serious offense. If Kuryakin wasn't pulling his weight in the field, Solo wouldn't send him out again. "He didn't do his assignment?"

"Oh, no! Nothing like that," Tremarty looked embarrassed.

"What is it then," Solo said, getting irritated.

"He wouldn't talk."

"What?"

"Barely said a word through the whole mission."

"English isn't his first language," Solo offered lamely.

"He knows the language. It wasn't that he never spoke, just that he said nothing that wasn't absolutely essential to the job," Tremarty complained, getting bolder as he recalled his frustration. "Sorry for saying this, Mr. Solo. This job isn't supposed to be a picnic, or a tea party, but partnering with someone who won't so much as say 'pass the salt', makes it that much harder."

"I understand," Solo said.

"I hope you won't hold this against me," Tremarty ventured, slightly abashed now that he'd vented his spleen.

"Not at all. Don't worry about it. There are plenty of agents on the free list. Why don't you catch up with," Solo shuffled through a few folders on his desk, "Martinson. He has an assignment you might find interesting."

"Yes, sir." Tremarty left and Solo sat back down to reconsider.

The reports had been coming in, one after every mission. Kuryakin was a loner, reserved in his socialization with the rest of Section Two.

There had been loners before in Enforcement; that was no crime. Kuryakin was not even the first.

There had been difficult agents before, some in far more eccentric ways.

Solo pulled out the free agent list, and Kuryakin's file, determined to find a partner for him, once and for all.

His chart was unusual. Studying it, Solo understood why Kuryakin rubbed people the wrong way. Just like a house built slightly out of proportion could distress the senses, Kuryakin's scores all spiked in odd ways, sometimes very high, sometimes equally low.

Any agent could have an unusual strength or weakness. Solo had a few of his own; agents were only people after all. But Kuryakin seemed to have only strengths or weaknesses. Like the kids' rhyme: Where he was good, he was very, very good, and where he was bad, he was horrid. Anything quantifiable or technical: marksmanship, sciences, languages, ordinance, the list rolled on, he seemed to do well at. Anything 'soft' — personal interaction, intuition, creativity, he dropped down the other side of the scale on. No wonder he drove his fellow agents nuts. For example, extraordinary skills in marksmanship were valued in Section Two. But as Solo knew himself, you had to balance talent with people skills or even the best men could be resentful.

Part of his reticence was no doubt due to the language difference and his foreign status. In time, he'd probably relax a little. Never-the-less, it was obvious Kuryakin was not, and probably would never be a social butterfly. Normally, Solo would consider pairing such an agent with either an agent of equal tendencies, or with one of opposite but complementary skills. The problem was that Kuryakin's profile was so off-the-mark he didn't really have an equivalent complimentary partner.

Unless he considered himself. He had the people skills Kuryakin lacked, nor was he threatened by Kuryakin's expertise in technical matters. In a way, they did dovetail nicely. But Solo had always preferred to team with like-minded colleagues, easy-going, sophisticated, talented men, who didn't rely on a battery of technical baggage to pull out a win.

On the other hand, it would do him good to work with a different set of man. And though he wasn't in the mood to take on a permanent partner, he'd have no danger of doing so with Kuryakin, who was the antitheses of what he preferred. But what he preferred now was what Kuryakin was.

Reserved. Detached.

And quiet.

Solo remember now, during the hours they had waited at the hospital for results, and the hours journeying back to New York, how silent he'd been. Kuryakin had hardly spoken a word, had been as disinclined for conversation as he had been.

It suddenly occurred to him how suitable this trait would be in his own situation.

If he had to have a temporary partner to get back in the field, then why not one so disengaged that he practically belied the meaning of the word? Illya Kuryakin was as far from suitable partner material as one could get and be an U.N.C.L.E. agent. Solitary, silent, standoffish. He would fit Solo's bill perfectly. At least for the moment.

And in the interim, he could keep an eye open for Kuryakin's true match. Or put out the word to have someone with similar qualities transferred.

He made his way to Waverly's office.

"Then you've chosen a partner." The old man unfolded a napkin for the luncheon he was, as usual, having at his desk. Solo marveled at him: breakfast, lunch, dinner, Waverly was all too often in his office.

"Temporarily, at least."

Waverly looked up from pouring tea. "What's that you say?"

"You did say I could take my time, look around the various Headquarters. I plan to do just that."

"And what do you plan to do in the interim?" Waverly replaced the teapot and reached for a plate of lemon slices.

"Illya Kuryakin has just been transferred here, and thus has no partner. I'll work with him until I've made a final decision."

Waverly made a face. Solo waited him out, not sure if the sour expression was from his stated choice or too much lemon in the tea. It seemed the former.

"Why him?" Waverly demanded.

Solo blinked, surprised at the question. "Sir?"

"Come, Mr. Solo. Grant that I concede Mr. Kuryakin is skilled in certain areas and has potential, he is not yet quite in your league. I have no desire to have to scale back your assignments because of your choice of a relatively inexperienced partner. Surely you can find someone more suitable, even on a temporary basis."

"He's a Section Two agent. Surely that's suitable enough."

"Judging from the field reports," Waverly said, slightly disgruntled, "His colleagues seem to disagree."

"He's been matched with our newest agents," Solo said, finding it odd that he was defending Waverly's Soviet acquisition, "That probably hasn't been a good choice. But for the moment, I'm free, and can use the time while I'm searching for my own partner to evaluate Kuryakin more effectively. And you agreed he has potential. I'll take responsibility for my assignments. If I think something is beyond our abilities," Solo paused, then shrugged, "I'll be sure to let you know."

Waverly still seemed disgruntled but resigned. "Very well, do as you please then. But don't be all year making up your mind."

"No, sir."

"Have you notified Mr. Kuryakin?"

"I was waiting for you approval first, sir," Solo said primly.

Waverly harrumphed at that, and waved him away. "Don't bother me with trivialities, Mr. Solo. You're in charge of your section. Manage it."

"Yes, sir," Solo said, and made good his escape.

"Could you hold the lift?"

Solo responded automatically to the request, one arm blocking the closing doors and stood back as Illya Kuryakin practically tumbled through them, hampered by an unwieldy duffle.

The Soviet agent looked up from settling the heavy bag, his pale face flushing pink as he recognized the other occupant of the elevator. "Sorry."

"Not at all," Solo replied. "I didn't know you lived in this building."

"I moved from temporary quarters today." Kuryakin said, raking his hair out of his eyes. The elevator jolted and began to rise. Kuryakin belatedly pushed the button for the second floor, but the elevator couldn't stop so abruptly, Both agents watched while it moved past two, then three, and continued on to the top floor and Solo's penthouse apartment. It reached it finally, and Solo turned to exit, while Kuryakin stabbed a finger at the second floor button again. But Solo stopped in the doorway, one hand blocking their closing. "I never meant to let so much time go by before thanking you for your help."

Kuryakin forehead creased in puzzlement. "Excuse me?"

"In England."

"I didn't do anything," Kuryakin shifted his feet uncomfortably.

Solo shrugged. "Even so. Look, why don't you come in for a moment? Have a drink?" The doors tried to close. Solo wedged his arm against them and blocked it.

"I ---" Kuryakin looked as if he was searching his mind for a suitable excuse. "I should unpack."

"Doesn't look like that will take long," Solo glanced at the duffle. "We have something to discuss anyway."

"We do?"

"Are you going to stand there all night?" Solo asked as the doors tried to shut a second time. "Sooner or later someone is going need this elevator."

Kuryakin picked up his duffle and followed Solo as the senior agent led them to his apartment and let them in.

"This will just take me a minute," Solo apologized as he began to check his security system. "I'd tell you to make yourself at home while I do this, but I'm afraid you'd end up blown to kingdom come. But then, you know all that," he added.

Kuryakin put down his duffle just inside the doorway and looked around while he waited.

"It looks the same," he commented.

"That's right, you've been here before," Solo said absently, as he went through the quick, practiced sweep under furniture, inside lamps and behind closet and cupboard doors.

"A few years ago."

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be able to walk into my home like a normal person." He glanced at his guest, still staying prudently just inside the doorway. "I suppose I haven't changed it much." He caught the odd look crossing Kuryakin's face.

"It's very nice."

Solo straightened up from his last check. "How many places have you lived in the past few years?"

Kuryakin shrugged, closing that subject and confirming Solo guess.

He didn't push it. If he had really wanted to know, rather than just making conversation, he would have just checked Kuryakin's file. "I think it's safe enough. Come in and have a seat. What would you like to drink?"

Kuryakin picked his way through the furniture, settling in an armchair. "Anything is fine."

Solo poured him a vodka and handed it to him. He took a scotch for himself and dropped down on the couch with it, taking a healthy mouthful in with a deep sigh. Across from him, Kuryakin sipped his drink, a faint smile on his face as he tasted the vodka. Solo leaned his back against the couch, relaxing in the comfort of his own home, half closing his eyes as he took another sip of scotch. Kuryakin settled infinitesimally back in his chair, concentrating on his own drink.

They said nothing for long moments.

Kuryakin finished his drink first and set it down on the coffee table. Solo opened his eyes at the faint clink.

"I should be going," Kuryakin offered. "Thank you for the drink."

"Um. No, not yet." Solo stretched a bit. "We haven't talked."

"I really did nothing, Mr. Solo."

Napoleon grimaced at the formality. "Save the titles and the 'sirs' for Mr. Waverly. Napoleon, please." He sighed and stared at the glass in his hand. "This isn't easy for me to say, so I'll just say it. I'm afraid that I wasn't very professional after that last mission. I have a feeling I was rather rude."

"You don't have to say this."

"No, let me finish," Solo said, staring at the glass in his hands, his mind turned back to that day. "I was rude, and you were very tactful. You could have made a difficult situation worse and you didn't. So, thank you."

"You're welcome."

Solo was silent for a long moment, lost in thought, still staring at his hands.

Kuryakin finally shifted slightly. "Well, if you'll excuse me--"

Solo shook his head slightly. "Sorry. My mind was elsewhere. I'd practically forgotten you." He caught himself and grinned slightly. "No offense."

"Why should I take offense?" Kuryakin asked, and then added lightly. "I've been trained to be 'part of the furniture'."

"I don't remember survival school teaching that," Solo said with interest.

"I didn't learn it in the U.N.C.L.E. school."

"Really," Solo eyed him speculatively. "You'll have to tell me about that sometime. Would you like another drink?"

'I shouldn't," Kuryakin stood. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mr.-- Napoleon."

"Stay for dinner," Solo offered. "I still have a proposition I want to discuss."

Kuryakin's face shadowed into suspicion. "A proposition?"

"Nothing like that." Solo gestured the dark thoughts away. "You don't have dinner plans, do you?"

"Well--" Kuryakin looked torn between honesty and escape.

"Come on," Solo took his glass and Kuryakin's and headed for the kitchen. "We can eat and talk. Much more congenial for what I want to discuss."

Kuryakin sighed and followed. "Do you always offer dinner to new agents?" he asked, settling himself at a barstool on the counter.

"No, not always," Solo was casual. "Let's see. I've got a frozen sole I can put in the oven. Should be done in half an hour. That all right with you?"

"Anything," Kuryakin said. "I asked because you seem to have made it a habit with me."

"I wouldn't call twice in several years a habit," Solo said, looking over at him over a bowl of salad. "Would you?"

"I suppose it depends on one's habits," Kuryakin conceded.

"And yours, I'm given to understand, are taciturn and solitary," Solo remarked.

Kuryakin raised his head sharply, a hint of suspicion in his blue-gray eyes.

Solo looked up at the lack of response. "That wasn't intended as a criticism."

Kuryakin digested that a moment. "What was it intended as?"

"Conversation?" Solo offered. "Commentary?"

"Do you discuss the personal habits of all your new agents with them?" Kuryakin asked.

Solo smiled as he set two salad plates on the table. "Not all. Let's get started, shall we?"

Kuryakin lips tightened, but came to the table, sat down, unfolded his napkin and picked up his fork. The subdued force he used to fork up a lettuce leaf was the only outward expression of his displeasure.

They ate silently, and as they ate Kuryakin seemed to mollify a bit. His shoulders dropped a fraction, and some of the fight went out of his body language. Judging by the skinny wrists that extended from the wrists of his turtleneck sweater, Solo thought he could use a few square meals.

Solo finished first and lit a cigarette while Kuryakin doggedly worked on a second helping. Solo fixed them both another drink

"We were discussing personal habits before dinner," he began slowly. "Specifically yours."

Kuryakin looked at him, sipping his drink slowly.

Solo shrugged. "You know I lost a partner recently." He ignored Kuryakin's nod. "And you know all Section Two is partnered?"

"Mr. Waverly and Mr. Winter explained that to me."

"A pet hobby-horse of our boss," Solo clarified. "He thinks our success rate will increase if we have permanent partners. New York has become a testing ground for the concept. And he wants 100 participation." Solo looked pained. "Including his C.E.A."

Kuryakin looked at him.

Solo went on doggedly. "As you can imagine, right now I'm not in the mood to choose a permanent partner. But I have to go into the field with someone."

"You're choosing me?"

"If you're agreeable."

"May I ask why?"

"Personal habits." Solo smiled slightly at Kuryakin's confusion. "You're quiet. And 'good at being part of the furniture'. Right now, that's right up my alley." He sat back, sipping his own drink. "My missions are usually a bit more difficult, but Mr. Waverly will probably tone them back some for now. And anything I don't think you can handle — or you don't think you can handle — I can work with someone else. You should feel free to work with other agents when I'm tied up at headquarters. I'll leave you on the free agent list. With luck, you'll find a partner you feel comfortable with, and so will I. Until then, we'll just work together when we can." Solo cocked an eyebrow at him. "So what do you say?"

Kuryakin turned the thought over in his mind. "Very well."

"That's all?" Solo asked, surprised. "No questions?"

Kuryakin shook his head, finishing the last of his drink. "Thank you very much for the dinner, Mr. Solo."

"Napoleon." Solo corrected automatically.

"Napoleon. Good night."

"Night," Solo rose in time to catch Kuryakin at the door, and set the security system after him. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Kuryakin nodded and disappeared into the elevator.

"There might be such a thing as too much silence," Solo muttered, as he secured the locks.

New York, 1969

"I don't suppose you'd consider canceling this session?" Kuryakin said, running a hand through his unkempt hair nervously.

"Why?" Solo said, packing up his briefcase, choosing one folder after another. He was meeting with the UN governing board that played a big role in funding issues for the organization. It was a regular quarterly meeting, though his first since assuming Waverly's position.

"We're seeing a lot of unusual activity," Illya replied. "And it's harder to protect you on UN territory. Their security regulations hinder ours."

"Can't be helped," Solo said. "I've got to go."

Kuryakin exhaled deeply and Solo looked up, "You're that worried?"

"I'm always worried," Illya snapped and then shrugged. "I can only say I think there's going to be some attempt. Because it is their territory there a limit to how far we can go to protect you. We can't shoot every suspicious person, even if we only use sleep darts. We have to wait for a hostile act, and then we have to hope we shoot faster. I wish you could postpone this. I think Thrush would love to make an example of you in front of the entire UN."

"You know I can't. Anyway, wouldn't that defeat their purpose?" Solo asked absently, back sorting folders. "Showing how much of a threat they are?"

"I think they are going to try and show that U.N.C.L.E. could be ineffectual with Waverly gone," Kuryakin said. "If we can't protect our own..."

Solo paused, considering that and then shook his head. "I can't stay cooped up in headquarters, Illya. I know there is a risk, but that's part of the business."

Kuryakin slumped slightly. "I know. But please be prepared, Napoleon. If the team tells you to move, be ready to move instantly. I've got my best men on this, and we'll do our best to thwart any attempt that's made. But I'm pretty sure there's going to be one."

"Just like old times," Solo sighed, and picked up his briefcase.

He gave his speech before the economic board, and it was a good one. The security going in was almost as tight as the tension he felt coursing through him, like he hadn't felt since he'd moved up from the field. The phalanx of 'advisors' with him, bodyguards all, were rife with adrenalin. It probably would have been easier for them had they been able to carry their weapons at ready, but though UN policy allowed his bodyguards to carry weapons, they had to be kept in shoulder holsters. Still he felt almost comfortable with Illya at his back, grim as death while he gave the speech, and discussed finances and funds and budget increases for the next half hour. He felt Illya's urgency as he shook hands and went through a polite leave-taking, and then he was being ushered out again.

Crowds everywhere in the Great Hall, dozens of school children, shepherded by harried teachers. He let himself be hustled past them, his mind still half on the meeting. But he was an UNCLE agent still at heart, and his reflexes were still just as good. He saw the dull gleam of the automatic weapon as it was raised, but he only saw one. But there were two, one on either side of the hall. He was cursing the lack of a weapon of his own, and heard the dull thwap as a point man guarding one section was taken out. One assassin fell, host to flying bullets from half the team. Next to him Illya had drawn and fired; he could smell the smoke of the power and feel the gun's kick in his partner's body. Then he heard Illya snap at him, an instant before he saw the second assassin, felt Illya push him down even as the Russian covered him bodily and fired. The Great Hall rang with screams but Illya didn't make a sound as the automatic weapon fire ripped through him. The gun fell from Kuryakin's hand and Solo snatched it up, but the second assassin had fallen to Kuryakin's bullet, and the rest of the team finished the job. Solo didn't even have time to protest as the team hustled him bodily out the doorway and into a waiting car, leaving Illya bleeding on the floor of the Great Hall.

He nearly decked his own escort before he saw the recovery team that would have handled him in an assassination attempt swarm over Illya and carry him out. They were at UNCLE HQ before he even acknowledged the frantic questioning of his security team.

"Where are you injured, sir? Sir?"

Solo looked down at himself and saw that his shirt and gray pinstriped pants were smeared with blood. He peeled back his jacket over the worst of it, not sure what he'd find. An area hit by a bullet was often numb for a few moments. But the shirt was clean underneath, white, crisply starched, pristine. It was Illya's blood.

"Get me to medical," he said shortly, and then stormed past the team, not bothering to wait for them.

A doctor came flying over to him but he waved him away irritatedly. Illya lay on a blood-soaked gurney, his sodden chest in ribald contrast to the parts of his shirt that were still white and crisply starched and the bright gold of his hair. As Solo watched, a medical technician cut off the shirt and suitcoat, and another carefully removed the special UNCLE cufflinks and placed them in a receptacle. The shirt was set aside. Solo watched as a unit of blood was started, but it didn't seem possible that that small bottle could even begin to replace what was flowing and had spilled from the bullet holes in Illya's chest.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Solo, but you'll have to leave now," a nurse said urgently. "We need to take him to surgery."

Solo nodded and stepped aside, watching as they pushed the gurney through the doors, into a room where a green gowned and masked surgeon waited, gloved hands raised high in readiness.

"This was supposed to be me," he muttered. "This was all waiting for me."

"Sir? Sir, you're needed upstairs. Ms. Rodgers just called. There's a field team calling."

Solo looked at his side, where Jenday, his own personal security guard and a crack shot, better even than Illya, stood waiting to escort him upstairs.. Young, talented and dedicated. Just like Markow and Connor. Just like Illya, minus a few years. Solo wondered where he'd be in ten years. Alive? Or dead, sacrificed to U.N.C.L.E.'s noble causes.

How many teams had Waverly lost? Solo wondered, turning to follow the guard. How many agents, colleague and friends both, had he sacrificed to this cause? He had hated the old man at times for his sometimes callous remarks when an agent or an innocent was in trouble. But he supposed it was inevitable. You either let this tear you up inside, or you dealt with it.

Right now he would have traded almost anything to be back in the field, conscience clear, just himself, his partner and his assignment to worry about. But his partner was tied up in surgery.

And he had a headquarters to run and a field team in trouble.

It was amazing how that training kicked in. He pushed his worry about Illya aside. Far, far to the back of his mind.

But it was still there. Ticking. Like a bomb.

You're the demolitions expert, he thought. Defuse this one, Illya. Live.

New York, 1970

He let the lawyers handle most of it after that, soothing Thigpin's wounded pride. In return, Thigpin soothed that of the Soviets. The conditions Solo insisted on were granted almost without a struggle. He suspected this had gone very high, and his suspicions were confirmed when the final documents arrived for his signature. With them, came a note.

"In a profession where loyalty can be exchanged as easily as small coins, how refreshing to see one that sustains the test of time. My compliments to you, Mr. Solo. And to your partner. Someday I should like to meet you both." Kir

Solo snorted at that, and set the note aside to read the contracts, word for word. He trusted his lawyers only so far.

But the documents were in order. No loopholes that he could find. Illya had been honorably discharged from the Soviet military, and his discharge papers were included. Further he had been permanently discharged; Solo had made sure there was no reactivation clause. On top of that was the authorization, so rarely granted, for dual citizenship. Illya's Soviet passport, held for more than a decade at the Soviet Mission, lay at the bottom of the pile of documents. Solo had nearly forgotten about it, or that it was standard procedure for the Mission to hold such documents for Soviet nationals traveling in the United States. He flipped it open to look at the serious, impossibly young face that stared out at him, a career and a decade-long friendship ago. The look in the grey eyes was searching, as if Illya had been asking what lay ahead for him. Certainly, Solo thought, nothing that he could ever have expected. He looked so very Russian. Solo suddenly felt guilty about that.

He flipped the passport shut. He closed the folder abruptly, blocking his view of the documents, and went to stand at his window, the only one in the installation. What was he supposed to have done, leave Illya to the wolves? No doubt that would be a fit ending for his Russian soul, but it was one that stuck in Solo's craw. Had they made it through a decade in Section Two, one of the riskiest professions alive, only to have Illya executed for political upmanship in the Soviet Union?

But would Illya see it that way? Now that the deed was done, and in his grasp, he realized he had no idea what Illya would have wanted. They had never talked about it. Illya wouldn't, of course. And he himself had been reluctant to discuss it. No percentage in it then when Waverly had held all those cards.

But he knew Illya still loved his homeland. How he knew, since they never talked about it, was a point that puzzled him momentarily. He turned the thought over in his head.

He remembered Illya meeting up by chance with a Russian journalist that had been invited to tour their facilities in New York. A spy like himself, of course, KGB or GRU, but also a writer for TASS who'd been directed to turn in a story on Soviet participation in U.N.C.L.E., part of some state ordered propaganda piece on Soviet peace efforts with the United Nations.

Illya normally gave his colleagues at the Soviet Mission, or those he encountered working in other places a wide, wide berth. It simply wasn't healthy for him to get too close, nor healthy for any Soviet agent he might come in contact with. But this was a legitimate contact. As Waverly had authorized, no, ordered it, Illya had agreed to show the reporter around as the good will gesture it was meant to be, and give him as much of a grand tour as Waverly had wanted. He hadn't been enthusiastic about the assignment, but somehow, the two had hit it off.

Solo had met the guy, and he didn't seem like such a bad sort: a nice enough guy caught in a not-so-nice system, who had given Illya an excuse to speak his own language. Solo had almost forgotten what his partner sounded like speaking Russian, it had been so long since he'd heard him in fluent conversation. In the beginning of their partnership, Illya had spoken it a very, very little. Gradually, the brief slips had faded along with most of the accent.

But for the three days or so that the Tass reporter/spy had been hanging around U.N.C.L.E., Illya had been his constant companion. The Russian words had flowed like vodka, be they in the lab, the cafeteria, the armory or even the sketchy tour of the Section One offices. Afterwards, the agent/reporter had come back to show them the piece he'd written, printed in the Tass paper. It had a picture of himself with Illya, the Soviet Union's representative in U.N.C.L.E. The man had seemed quite proud of his piece. Illya hadn't been too pleased, particularly about the picture. Photographs of agents were not supposed to be circulated. Not that Thrush hadn't already had his picture, along with a dossier a mile long. But Waverly had been pleased, the article apparently satisfying some political point, and that was all that counted. Solo only remembered the embarrassed, self-conscious look on Illya's face in the Tass photograph, compared to the look he wore when he conversed in his own language, the words spoken so much more freely than his standard style. In English, he seemed to measure every word. And find most of them wanting.

And he read Russian. There was a bookstore Illya frequented, or maybe more than one, that sold such books. Some imported from the Soviet Union, some translated in other countries and reprinted here. Illya enjoyed reading stories of his own country in his own language. Solo remembered him dragging a heavy hardbound copy of Dr. Zhivago through a hot, humid, Chilean jungle. When Solo had commented on the absurdity of it, Illya had translated a passage for him, a description of hoarfrost that had sent a chill down his spine and momentarily banished the steamy air. Read it Russian, it sounded even colder. He'd tried reading the book himself, but his Russian, good enough for newspapers and the like, didn't extend very far to long descriptive passages. And Illya complained he was getting sweat marks on his pages. So he'd been reduced to having Illya read it to him, sometimes translating to English, sometimes in the original Russian, the cold words made colder by their native inflection. One night when Illya had been on guard duty, he'd woken to see Illya reading, a suspicious dampness on his face. Sweat, Illya had said in answer to Solo's half-teasing query. Indeed, it had been unbelievably hot and Solo had rivulets running down his own face. But Illya's blue eyes had been suspiciously red too.

Solo reminded himself that he had burned no bridges for his partner. It was even possible that he'd made it safer for Illya to go back than it would have been had he done nothing. But he'd also made it possible for him to go back. Right now. If he wanted. He wasn't a Soviet officer under orders. He was truly a free agent. A free man. He could go anywhere. When Solo had taken the traces the Soviet Union had on Illya, he'd lost them for himself as well.

Solo returned to his desk and pulled the folder of research he had collected for the negotiations. Most of it was dry political analysis, but there was one section he'd read curiously. Life in Moscow, sans embellishment.

And a dreary life it was too. Moscow was better supplied than most Russian cities and a vast improvement over the outlying areas, where black bread and cabbages were often all that could be had in the kulak 'stores'. But the old, inefficient system still held sway. He tried to imagine Illya going willingly back there, living in a tenth floor walk up, sharing a communal bathroom, standing in endless lines for stale and often moldy bread, sour watered-down milk, dented, rusty cans of food, shabby, cheap clothing that fell apart before it was worn. No, it was inconceivable.

He remembered how hungry Illya had been their first few years of partnership, how eagerly he had devoured the uninspiring commissary food. The first time Solo had taken him to a modern American supermarket — they'd been on a mission in some suburb and Solo had stopped in to get a bottle of aspirin — he'd thought Illya was going to faint. He'd actually grabbed his elbow and steadied him, not knowing what had caused that momentary pause. Apparently, up till then, Illya had eaten mostly in the commissary and shopped, when forced to, at tiny corner stores. The miles of shelving and bright flourescent lights illuminating aisle after aisle of food had actually shaken his hard-boiled partner to the core. The American dream, dressed up in cellophane and waxed paper.

Illya still hadn't learned to cook, seemingly unable to do anything with food but eat it. Umpteen scientific degrees and the man could hardly boil water. The look of puzzlement and skepticism on his face when faced with the simple directions on a box of pancake mix or can of spaghetti sauce still floored Solo. In the field, Illya ate on U.N.C.L.E.'s expense account in restaurants or take out shops or hot dog joints. At home, he survived on commissary food and coffee shops and the occasional deli meal. For weekends, Solo suspected he lived on cold cereal and milk, takeout Chinese or pizza. The thought of Illya cooking was laughable. The only home-cooked meals he ate were Solo's, when his CEA invited him home for a steak. He would starve in the Soviet Union.

No. Illya was a survivor. He would never starve. But he would be hungry on the poor Soviet food. Probably cold, though Illya never seemed to mind cold weather. Definitely unable to satisfy his craving for books and reading material. And far, too far, from Solo's reach and influence.

But was he afraid Illya might throw away relative safety and security, a full belly and a free library, for the questionable charms of his Russian homeland?

Afraid enough to not want to tell him.

He didn't have to.

That thought tempted him.

Nothing required him to tell. Illya knew nothing of Solo's maneuvering. In the normal course of events the issue shouldn't even come up for another two years, when Illya was bumped out of the field. He could wait to tell him until then.

And he could also just imagine Illya's fury when he did, after concealing something this important for two years. If he had any hope of keeping Illya in U.N.C.L.E. after that or even as a friend, he didn't have a choice.

All or nothing, as the saying went.

So he had to tell him. Which meant, essentially giving him his freedom. He might have saved Illya from the Soviets, in the short as well as the long run, only to lose him just as quickly. That hadn't been his intention. But he'd just cleared the way for Illya to quit U.N.C.L.E., to go anywhere he chose, even back to the Soviet Union if he chose to take that risk. And who knew what risks Illya might take, given a free hand for the first time in his life?

No he hadn't intended that. He'd done his job too damn well. But Illya had to be told, and Solo had to prepare himself for that. To decide how to break it to him. To figure out how to say the words in such a way that Illya wouldn't go as drunk on freedom as if on vodka, and disappear forever.

Suddenly, bringing Illya back from London didn't seem like such a priority.

New York, 1959

Six months had passed since Solo had lost his partner. When Waverly prodded him about making a definite decision he put him off. Not that he had any friction with Kuryakin. There were times when he felt they hardly had enough connection to have friction.

In the beginning of their association, he'd kept his distance from the Soviet agent, a distance Kuryakin seemed to respect, and even welcome. They went out on missions, completed them largely successfully, filed their reports and went back to their respective lives all as if working in the field required little more interaction than working in an office. He appreciated having the pressure off, still grieving, secretly and alone, for the loss of his former partner. Kuryakin seemed completely comfortable with an open-ended partnership, such as it was. When Waverly nagged him, Solo briefly and desultorily searched in other HQs for a perfect partner, finding them all wanting.

But as an interim partner, Kuryakin was perfect, demanding nothing, wanting nothing. Solo felt he was giving the Soviet agent something in return, in a breadth of missions and experiences he would never had achieved so early in his career.

Waverly occasionally threatened to set a time limit, but the situation might have dragged on indefinitely had not another death occurred in Section Two.

Adam Winter lost his partner. Not cleanly as Solo had, but in an even more painful way, a long-drawn out torture session in a Thrush prison.

Winter came out of the experience with little seemingly little effect. He was a fairly reserved agent in any case, and his partner had been the same, two of a pair, as they had been known throughout the office. Remembering his own pain, Solo made it a point to catch him when he was back in the office, and express his sincere condolences.

Winter nodded stolidly.

"If there is anything I can do?" Solo offered.

"I'll be fine, Napoleon," Winter said, then added, "You've proved well enough there's life after you lose a partner. First at everything, even that."

Solo blinked, startled at that callousness, but he dismissed it as shock. "It wasn't intentional, I assure you."

Winter nodded. "Waverly pressed you to take a new partner right away?" he asked.

"I suppose he thinks that it's best to move on," Solo said obscurely.

"I noticed Kuryakin is still on the free agent list," Winter commented.

Solo shrugged, unwilling to discuss his own situation. "I'm sure he'll give you the same time to look around."

"So you're still looking?"

Solo deftly avoided Winter's searching glance, regretting he had even made this gesture. Offering condolences to a colleague was one thing. Discussing his personal life was quite another. "I suppose you could say that. Look, Adam, I have to go."

He put the encounter out of his mind, so it was a total shock when Waverly handed him the latest agent roster, pairing Winter with Kuryakin.

"I didn't authorize this," Solo said in astonishment.

"What is there for you to authorize?" Waverly asked from under his bushy eyebrows. "Mr. Kuryakin is a free agent. Sooner or later, in spite of his Soviet background, he would find a permanent partner."

Solo drew breath to protest the transfer, then was caught by the memory of Jake, his body falling through the air, lying broken on the rocks. He closed his eyes against the image, the breath sighing out of his lungs. Who was he betraying? His old partner, now truly fighting on the side of angels, or the man he'd been hesitant to burden with that title?

"Mr. Solo, are you quite all right?"

Solo raised his head to meet Waverly's sharp eyes under their bushy eyebrows. "I don't know."

"What?" Waverly snapped in astonishment.

"Excuse me," Solo muttered, heading out the door.

"Mr. Solo!" Waverly snapped.

For once, Solo ignored his boss.

For the past six months he'd been pushing aside certain thoughts. Now he was ready to entertain them.

He had to have a partner; he knew that. And there was one person who'd earned that title, if he wanted to take it.

And he had no idea if Illya did want it.

Hell of a way to deal with a partner.

He found Illya in the office that he shared with most of Section Two, one desk, one carrel, among many. The room quieted as Solo entered, not so much from noise, but with notice, a sharpened awareness that something would happen. Of course, Solo noted, the listings for partners and free agents were public. Someone would have seen Illya's transfer from one to the other and the news would have spread. Nothing traveled faster than internal gossip.

Kuryakin rose as Solo approached him, his normally unrevealing expression shading into wariness. Solo wondered if he himself looked dangerous. He certainly felt dangerous, his body language taut as a tiger's. He stopped abruptly, suddenly realizing he couldn't have this discussion before half the prying and too discerning eyes of Section Two.

"I want to talk to you," Solo said, in a low voice. "In my office."

Kuryakin rose, one hand snagging that jacket the hung on the back on his chair. Solo didn't wait for him to shrug into it, he turned and left.

Kuryakin caught up with him at the door. Solo could feel his hurry and anticipation in the Soviet agent's quickened breath, almost feel the heartbeat in his throat. Partners were one force in two bodies.

Till death do us part.

Solo's throat closed over that bitter taste, and he stalked into his office. He turned to face Kuryakin and looked at him. For six months, he had avoided it, not wanting to see that the face beside his wasn't Jake's, not caring who it was if it wasn't.

He had cauterized a bleeding wound, denying Waverly's insistence that the amputated limb be replaced and reattached.

Kuryakin looked back, curiosity hidden deep in the wary regard. Solo wondered what he saw. Did he see before him a maimed and crippled man, someone to be pitied, despite power and position? Solo wouldn't blame him. He supposed he deserved that.

"Sit down," he gestured.

"Perhaps I should stand," Kuryakin said, shifting back a pace.

"No." Solo shook his head. "I have some explaining to do."

The wary look reasserted itself, and Kuryakin took another step back. "That isn't necessary."

"Would you stop dancing toward that door and sit down?" Solo snapped.

Kuryakin sat, this time his face shading into a sulky glumness. Solo wondered at his colleagues who complained that Kuryakin had the facial expressions of a sphinx. Then he realized that sometime over the last six months he'd learned to read him.

Well, naturally he had. He was a survivor and his subconscious knew it, regardless of what private grief he had to work through. Jake had died, and he deserved to be mourned. But he was alive. And Illya was alive. And it was past time to acknowledge that.

Kuryakin sat, regarding him sourly. Solo blinked and shook his head. Not what he might have deliberately chosen in a partner: slight, rumpled, silent and sulky. But chosen or not, consciously accepted or not, somehow Illya had become that. An unlikely alliance, but one that had become as real to Solo as if he had chosen it. He may had needed a man like Winter to rub his nose in it to acknowledge it, but he wasn't so far gone he couldn't accept a simple truth.

"I think I owe you an explanation," Solo began slowly.

Kuryakin shook his head. "That isn't necessary."

"Will you let me talk?" Solo said in exasperation.

"If you insist." Kuryakin shrugged and glanced longingly again at the door. "But I do understand. And Winter and I have worked together a bit. It will be fine." He met Solo's eyes expectantly, as if this were enough to terminate the discussion.

"You don't understand," Solo insisted. "I didn't know about Winter."

Kuryakin raised his head sharply at that, his face unconvinced and puzzled. "He told me he spoke to you, Napoleon." His voice wasn't censorious. He sounded as if he were humoring a child. Or an idiot.

Well, Solo thought, I deserve that. I was so busy assuming that Winter was feeling what I had felt. I didn't realize he was inquiring about the status of my partner, not the average time limit on grief.

"I didn't know what he was after," Solo said. "Look, it was a stupid misunderstanding. He asked me --" Solo stopped abruptly, his throat closing. He swallowed hard, shaking his head and went on, "He asked me about --"

Kuryakin stood. "Napoleon, this isn't necessary. I do understand."

"No, you damn well don't," Solo said, furiously. "For one thing, I had no idea he was asking me if I considered you a free agent."

"I was a free agent," Kuryakin said, again with that patient tone. "My name was on the list. Now it's not. It's very simple. There's nothing to explain."

Solo sighed, suddenly defeated. It had begun to seem profoundly unfair to him to suddenly claim Kuryakin as his partner, just because someone else now wanted him.

But someone who'd nursed his grief barely a week before making this choice, while Solo himself had been paralyzed against taking this action for months. He straightened suddenly, galvanized by that. What kind of a man, what kind of a partner, could be so callous toward a partner's death? He looked at Illya, wondering if Winter should lose him too, would the man even grieve a day? Kuryakin deserved better than that.

"I want you for my partner, Illya."

Kuryakin blinked, staring at him.

"And it isn't because of Winter. I should have asked you before--"

Kuryakin shook his head in denial, and Solo's voice died, wondering if he was being refused. "Illya?"

"I was in Yorkshire, Napoleon," Kuryakin said gently, looking down at his restless hands. He stilled them, lacing them in a tight grip. "I do understand."

Solo's throat closed again at the memory of those terrible hours, but he cleared it resolutely. "Uh, excuse me. But really, how could you? I have never discussed it with you. You've never asked."

"That's one of the things about people who don't talk much," Kuryakin said awkwardly, looking up through the blond fringe shading his eyes. "We hear silence."

Solo caught and held that gaze that wrapped them in a wordless exchange, one that covered unspoken volumes.

"Silence, huh?" Solo said finally.

Kuryakin shrugged infinitesimally, looking down at his hands again. "There was a lot of it then."

"And now," Solo acknowledged. He paused a beat. "I always thought you just hadn't gotten the language down yet."

Kuryakin swelled visibly, then caught Solo's teasing eye and deflated, giving Solo his best jaundiced eye. "I do have another offer," he warned. But he had a rueful curl to the corner of his mouth; the briefest hint of a smile. And he slouched back against the metal bench he'd been perched on, finally relaxed enough to do so.

"When would you ever get a laugh our of Winter?" Solo came around his desk, dismissing as inconsequential the fact that for the last six months, he'd hardly been the life of the party. "It is a deal?" He held out a hand.

Kuryakin blinked at the gesture, but took it. Solo gave the hand a squeeze before he pulled Kuryakin to his feet. Forgetting the discrepancy in their weight and using the same force he would have on his former partner, heavier by a good fifty pounds, he nearly pulled Kuryakin off his feet , stopping him with a steadying hand on his shoulder.

"Huh?" Kuryakin said, as he stumbled.

"Sorry," Solo said, straightening his jacket and trying to twitch Kuryakin's tie into place before realizing it was a hopeless cause. Kuryakin didn't just need to fix his tie, he needed a tailor, a haircut, a whole new wardrobe. Solo shook his head, rejecting the notion. He hadn't exactly gotten used to Kuryakin's lack of style, but it was part of his partner. "Clumsy of me," Solo added.

Kuryakin frowned at him, one hand absently raking his hair, the additional tousling only adding to his rumpled look. "Just don't do it again."

"I won't, I won't," Solo promised. And he realized he was promising more than just avoiding the repetition of a clumsy physical action. And that Illya heard that too. He caught Kuryakin's arm, noting the blond's head was shorter than he'd somehow expected, the blue eyes a few inches below his own. He'd get used to that, too. "Let's tell Waverly to correct the agent roster?"

Kuryakin hung back. "Napoleon."

Solo turned impatiently.

You're quite sure?" Kuryakin eyed him. "You aren't doing this just because of Winter?"

"Maybe I am," Solo said airily as he walked out the door.

"Napoleon!"

Solo turned, with a conspiratorial look. "I know you can't stand him, Illya."

"I never said that," Kuryakin denied hotly, his vehemence belying the truth. "Never."

Solo grinned. "I heard your silence."

New York, 1969

"Mr. Kuryakin's out of surgery, sir," Heather reported breathlessly. "The doctor wishes to speak to you about his condition."

"I'll be right down." Solo said.

On the way down to the medical wing, he reflected on the course of their career, his and Illya's. It was an unlikely partnership, he knew. One man who held the fate of the world all too often in his hands, felt far too much, and was compelled by a curmudgeonly British superior to express only what was acceptable. It was hard training to learn to sacrifice an innocent, a country, a continent. Waverly had no qualms about letting him practice those painful decisions, often by sacrificing his partner. It was luck as well as fate that had kept them both alive.

And another man who'd been trained by fate not to feel anything at all, and to show even less. Solo didn't kid himself that it had been any easier for Illya. He'd never bought the act that his Russian-born partner found life a picnic as long as he had enough to eat. Illya had always been good at subterfuge.

But Solo had long ago learn to read him, even in silence. At least as far as Illya allowed himself to be read. Which wasn't always very far.

And now? He didn't have to have his nose rubbed in it to know that Illya had been largely ambivalent about his recent assignment. He always knew. He didn't always reflect on it — Illya's moods swung up and down too much for him to dwell on them. But when they stayed down there was generally a reason and usually a good one. Solo didn't know if he hated the job in Security, or was just missing fieldwork, or was just fretting over the responsibilities — Illya could be a great worrier, given the right circumstances — or what.

Just live, Solo thought. Live, Illya, and we'll figure it out, somehow. He turned into the corridor with the medical wing, glowing flourescent bright.

As a general rule, Solo hated all physicians, but he had worked out a grudging truce with Theodore Abernathy, who now ruled over New York's medical section. The man fussed too much over his diet and insisted on far too many physicals for Solo's taste. But he had proven himself good at getting injured agents back in field condition. Now Solo looked at him hopefully.

"Well?"

"It was a clean shot, Napoleon. He lost a lot of blood, and we had to deal with shock and near cardiac arrest. But the wound itself was through and through the lung. We had to resect some lung tissue, but he won't miss it. No other major organs were involved."

"So he's all right," Solo said.

"Give him a couple of weeks and he probably can go back on limited duty," Abernathy said. "If there are no complications, I'd field certify him in about a month."

Solo let out a relieved sigh. "Can I see him?" He asked.

The physician shrugged. "He's weak as a kitten from the blood loss, but he's conscious, more or less. A little groggy from the anesthesia. Try not to upset him. We transfused him, but he'd almost bled out by then, and blood bank blood doesn't clot well. In spite of the vitamin K we've given him, if he's too stressed he could start bleeding again. Or throw a stroke."

"I'll be careful," Solo promised, and walked past him into the infirmary room.

Illya was as pale as his sheets, but that wasn't particularly unusual. Solo pulled up a chair beside the bed and just looked at him. Other than the chest tube, leaking fluid drop by drop, or the IV in his arm he didn't look particularly bad. The sharp features were chiseled a little finer; he lost some weight in the last few months. But he didn't look all that different than he had the day Solo had first met him, pursued by the KGB, and lost before he'd even gotten to U.N.C.L.E. HQ. He'd been just as skinny and pale then. Only the hair was longer this time, a mass of gold silk that was the bane of every nighttime operation, but that Illya refused to keep cut short enough to satisfy Waverly's standards. And now the old man was dead, no more nagging about haircuts. And Illya had one more close brush, one more tempting of fate. Though not because of his hair, and not at night. This time it was his own fault Illya had been shot.

Security was a dangerous operation; he was probably selfish to keep Illya there. But was it any safer in the field? Well, at least in the field Illya wouldn't be as constant a target as he'd been lately.

I don't want you in the field without me, Solo thought. Not when I won't be able to rush off and rescue you if you get in trouble. Can you forgive me for that, Illya? I'll give you anything you want. But not the field.

Isn't this job dangerous enough for you?

Solo's communicator twittered, and he swore softly and slipped outside the room so as not to disturb Illya with it. The problem was minor; two agents who in meeting up with some Thrush ended up in minor trouble with the local law enforcement. Solo reassured them and put the appropriate legal people on it, detailing another enforcement team to meet them on the scene to provide backup, just in case they encountered anyone else unfriendly while the police had them in custody.

When he went back in, Illya was awake, probably from the sound of the communicator. Solo knew it could pull him out of the deepest sleep.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." Solo slid onto the seat close to Illya's bed. "How do you feel?"

"Napoleon." Illya's eyes focused briefly, then he clearly lost control over them. The Russian blinked, trying again to focus and struggling to sit up as if that could help.

"Uh-uh." Solo caught him and settled him back down. "Abernathy said you were to stay quiet."

"You're all right? Everyone else?" Kuryakin managed.

"You're the only one hurt. As usual," Solo said with mock asperity. "Someday you're going to have to learn how to duck."

"Sorry," Kuryakin mumbled.

"Are you feeling all right? Do you want anything?"

Kuryakin shook his head. "I have...everything." His eyes closed and he seemed asleep again.

Solo sat back down, taking a glance at the monitors to ensure it was only sleep. "I wish I knew what that was," he muttered.

"What what was?" Abernathy asked, coming into the room and looked at the monitor. "His heart rate picked up a little."

"He tried to sit up."

"If you're going to agitate him, you'll have to go," the doctor replied. "Question him later, can't you? Or you'll undo all my work."

Solo laughed shortly. "Doctor, I've never known what questions to ask."

"Well wait a week, and maybe they'll come to you," Abernathy said to him. "By then he'll be ready for them. Go on, go now."

"But will I?" Solo said. He paused to give Illya's hand a squeeze and left.

New York, 1970

It was typical of Illya that he read the Section One security logs before reporting to Solo's office.

"Welcome back," Napoleon said as Illya came through his office doors.

"Thanks." Kuryakin slouched into a chair. "Why did you send the jet out on a wild goose chase?"

He sounded merely curious, not censorious, but Solo inwardly choked. For days he'd been pondering what to say to Illya, how to break the news of what he done. He'd practically forgotten about that little jaunt to the airport. His visit to the Soviet Mission seemed eons ago. He hadn't prepared any story for that to tell Illya, hadn't even been thinking of needing to. But of course, Illya would ask about it; it would be the first thing he would ask. Solo cursed himself for not ordering the damn logs changed and went for bluff, standard when he was non-plussed.

"Oh, I don't know," Solo gave his partner the carefree kind of smile that could silence almost anyone. "Must have been a slow day."

It silenced Illya too, but his long term partner was not amused. The open curiosity on his face faded into taut disapproval, his lips tightened, and Napoleon could almost see every muscle stiffen as he straightened abruptly in his chair.

"I see," Kuryakin replied. He slid to his feet in the same instance. "Well, I have a lot of work to get back to." He turned and headed for the door.

"Illya," Napoleon called.

Kuryakin kept walking.

"Damn it, would you come back here?"

Kuryakin turned. "Is that an order?"

"What if it is?" Solo challenged, suddenly inwardly furious, and trying hard not to show it.

Of course, Illya knew he was furious. Just as he knew Illya was.

The Soviet agent swung back in a loop to stand before Solo's desk, his eyes straight ahead as if facing a firing squad, jaw set. "As you wish."

Solo took a moment to wonder just why he wanted this irritating, obnoxious, difficult, pain-in-the-ass partner around. But he did. He sighed, his anger flowing out with the air in his lungs. "Look, can we start this again? I'm glad you're back."

"So you said." Kuryakin said, unbending.

"Would you mind sitting down?"

"I'd rather stand."

"Illya, the jet was nothing." Napoleon felt the irritation creeping into his voice again. This was not how he planned to tell Illya, confessing his own activities, as if he had broken curfew or something. "I needed a minor diversion, that was all."

"You don't have to tell me anything." Kuryakin said cooly. "I'm only your security chief. Not your keeper."

"Oh, really," Solo smiled, almost dangerously. "So, what does that make me?"

Kuryakin glanced at him uncertainly from under his eyelashes. It occurred to Solo with a blinding flash, that Illya wasn't irritated that he'd taken the damn jet out when he'd been in London. He was hurt because Solo refused to tell him about it.

Not for the first time, Solo remembered that when he raised any wall between them, Kuryakin was quick to respond by building twenty more. And became that much harder to coax out from them. Generally, Solo didn't try. Letting Illya come out at his own speed was less stressful for them both. And if he had tried to keep up with all of Illya's snits and resolve them with patient stoicism, he'd have been dead of exhaustion long before now, with no need for Thrush to keep taking potshots at him. And worthy of canonization for sainthood.

But this time he didn't have the days or weeks that they needed. Or maybe he did, and just didn't care to wait for the inevitable. He tried again. "I had completely forgotten about the damn jet, and it isn't important anyway. I'll tell you all about that later. Now we have something more important to go over."

Kuryakin frowned, a look of concern creeping into his eyes. "Has Thrush --"

"No. Not Thrush. Sit down, will you?" Solo asked with a trace of impatience. "I can't talk with you looming over me."

Kuryakin sat. "So?"

Solo took a deep breath, hands on the folders under his desk ready to bring them out, and then the console beeped. A team in the field. Solo dealt with it, one eye on Illya, who had risen to his feet after he realized this was going to be a long one. After a few moments, Illya shrugged and headed to the door. Solo let him go, realizing he wouldn't have time for this today anyway.

Nor that afternoon, which faded into evening. By the time he was ready to leave for the day, it was late and he was tired, more tired than if he had spent the day running from Thrush.

Too tired to broach the situation with Illya.

Not so tired that he was going to spend another night cooped up in his HQ apartment. He let Illya know he was ready to leave and where he wanted to go. Illya had already anticipated him, the limo was ready, and it slid out into the night. The lights of the city twinkled by as they rode, and Solo watched them, content to say nothing. Across from him, Illya studied the sparse traffic and pedestrians through the black-shaded, bullet-proof glass, his hand resting lightly on his weapon. Solo glanced at him, and slid his eyes away. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

Home, he went straight to bed, having eaten dinner at his desk. Kuryakin said a muttered good night, seeming equally wearing after his trans-Atlantic trip. He went off to his own section of the apartment. Solo watched him go and banished the problem from his mind. He'd deal with it tomorrow.

But he found it harder to banish it from his dreams.

He dreamed of Illya. Locked in a white room, no windows, no doors meant for people, just a seam at the far end of the room where a panel opened. A truck waited beyond it, chugging softly.

In the room, Illya sat on a single white bench that was more like a shelf, hung on the side of the wall. Solo knew the Soviet agent been all over the room with eyes and fingers, trying to find a weakness in it. But there was none and he was truly trapped. At some set point in time, a gas would fill the room and he would choke to death. Then the seam panel would open, and the softly chugging truck would take away the body.

Solo paced outside the room, seeking to get in, to break Illya out, circling the hard bare walls that offered no egress. He pounded on the truck with fists and gun, but the windows were blackglass and bullet-proof. Even when he fired his weapon at it the bullets just disappeared into thin air. And there was no sound. He shouted, but he couldn't hear himself. His poundings and gunshots made not even the slightest dull thud. He didn't think Illya could hear him.

Resigned to his fate, Illya sat on the bench, a book in his hand, oblivious to the rest of the world. He had nothing else, had been relieved of all his other tricks and tools. But the book was only an ordinary book and so they had left it with him. Just a slender figure in black, sitting on a white bench in an otherwise empty white room, reading. He knew he was going to die very soon, but he kept on, turning page after page, absorbed in the words. The gas began to fill the room, hissing ominously. Illya kept reading, not looking up.

It caught at his throat then, and his hand went to the neck of his sweater, pulling at it, the plain gold ring catching the light. The book slipped from his fingers and fell onto the bench, and Illya crumpled across it.

Solo pounded on the doorseam, shouting, not knowing how he knew Illya was dying, but he knew. He woke abruptly, a scream dying in his throat, hearing someone skidding to a halt just inside the doorway. The sudden return of hearing shocked him, and he listened to the sound of his own rasping breath with a surge of grateful relief.

"Napoleon? Are you all right?" A voice hissed.

He turned to see Illya silhouetted in the doorway, his hair catching the dim light. Barefoot and in what passed for him as pajamas, he stood uncertainly, his eyes darting from Solo to the windows and closet doors, his automatic at ready in one hand, his hair stuck up in unruly tufts all over his head.

"What do you want?" Solo mumbled, confused. For a moment he wondered where he was.

"You — you called my name." Illya looked embarrassed, but resolute.

Shouted it, more like, Solo remembered, and shook the fog out of his head. "Sorry. Bad dream."

"Well. As long as you're okay." Kuryakin flicked the safety on his weapon, then caught his reflection in a mirror, and embarrassed, raked his hair into some semblance of order. He glanced around the room again.

"Hang on a minute." Solo sat up in bed, rubbing at his face. "God, what a dream."

"Nightmare?"

"Mmmmn." Solo stretched. "You were dying."

Kuryakin's eyes widened. "I was?"

"You." Solo shook his head at the vividness of the memory, and looked over at Kuryakin, standing very much alive in the doorway. Breathing. "Come're a moment. Put that damn gun down."

"What?" Kuryakin crossed the room, setting his weapon down carefully on the bedside table next to Solo's. He turned on the light, still looking suspiciously around the room as if Thrush had snuck the nightmare into one of the corners.

"Did you ever have a dream so vivid, it seemed more real than what was around you when you woke up?" Solo asked, marveling a bit. "I could have sworn I saw you die."

"If you dream that I'm dead the day I return to New York, perhaps I should have stayed in London," Kuryakin huffed, avoiding the question with his typical aplomb.

"Oh, shut up," Solo said, and snagging his wrist, pulled him down on the bed. Kuryakin landed with a solid thunk. Solo welcomed the jar as the bed bounced under his weight. "You feel real enough," he said with approval.

"I am real," Kuryakin said, reclaiming his wrist. "Honestly, Napoleon. It isn't like you to get so upset over a dream."

Solo sat back against the headboard, studying his partner. "It wasn't just the dream."

Kuryakin frowned, crossing his arms. "Why do I get the feeling you haven't told me something?"

Solo sighed. "Today was a nightmare in itself, and tomorrow is going to be just as busy."

Illya started to rise. "Then I'll leave you to get some sleep." He stopped at the hand tugging him back down.

"Illya."

"What?" Kuryakin looked both nervous and defensive, still on his feet in spite of Solo's capturing arm.

Solo looked at his partner. In pajamas and bare feet, Illya wasn't likely to storm out if he told him now. That didn't mean he wouldn't. It just was less likely.

"Sit down."

Kuryakin sat cautiously.

"You trust me, right?" Solo asked, bemused that he felt he needed to ask the question. "I mean, we have been partners for the better part of a decade."

"As far as that goes, yes," Kuryakin allowed cautiously.

Solo laughed silently. "Don't spoil me, Illya." He worked the tension out of his shoulders, leaning back against the headboard. "You know I'd never do anything that I thought would hurt you?"

The Russian looked further alarmed. "What's this all about?"

"I have to tell you something," Solo said. "And I want you to promise me, that you'll hear me out to the end. That you won't run out of here in one of your Russian snits."

"One of my what?" Kuryakin asked, beginning to be outraged.

"Never mind. You know what I mean. Come on."

Kuryakin sighed and shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "You're not going to tell me that you love me or anything like that?"

This time Solo really did laugh. "I do, you know," he teased, leering a little. "You've always known. I've kept our secret long enough."

"Yes, I have," Kuryakin said. "But I also know your intentions are never honorable, so if that's all there is?" he started to rise, and Solo snagged him again.

"Not so fast."

"It's late, Napoleon."

"You're right about that," Solo agreed. "But there's still something we have to talk about. Could you sleep now, anyway?"

"I can sleep anytime," Kuryakin said defiantly.

"Illya."

"All right." He shifted again. "Do we have to do this here? If you're going to be baring your soul, I could use some coffee. Just in case I start to doze off."

"All right." Solo said, though he didn't want any coffee and he regretted the change of scene. He understood why Illya felt intrusive in his room. Agents could be chary about personal space, even those who'd managed the forced intimacy of being partners for years. In fact, the respect for personal space and privacy was all that partners sometimes had, for they could end up living in each others pockets for long periods.

Napoleon had rarely minded, since Illya had never been the intrusive sort. When Solo wanted privacy, generally to be with a lovely lady, he either took a separate room or Illya took himself off somewhere. While Illya probably didn't have the same opinion of him, Solo suspected the time they spent together was probably a welcome break from his partner's usual solitary habits.

But it had been a long time since they had spent much time together. It wasn't just Illya's trip to London. Before Solo's ascension, they had spent days, even weeks in each other's company, sometimes their sole company. Now that had gone. He saw Illya briefly in the morning, during the trip into Headquarters. He saw him in the evening for the return trip. Sometimes they had dinner together; more often Solo had eaten at his desk at work and Illya in the commissary. Once 'home', they said their goodnights and went off to their separate quarters. The place was big enough that they never had to bump into each other. Solo wasn't wishing for the return of the cramped quarters of their past career, sharing hotel rooms, cells, tents and even sometimes beds. But he too had been missing his field agent career, and right now what he missed was Illya's physical presence: walking down a corridor discussing a case with Illya at his side, running and shooting Thrush agents in the odd ballet of weave and dance that such battles often comprised. Illya, always half a step behind him, stationed at his right shoulder. The hunch in his shoulders when he was driving or folded into some cramped airline seat. The light in his eye when he was particularly hungry. The way he sometimes sighed in his sleep at night. His mischievous grins, so often hidden behind his senior partner's back. He had gone from being with Illya much or most of every day, to rarely seeing him. And as a tactile person, he missed his partner in a purely tactile way.

Good grief, I'm grieving him and he hasn't left yet, Solo thought, and then he thought, but what if he does?

He offered his hand to help Illya up. When his partner bemusedly took it, more out of reflex than need, he used it to pull him, suddenly, into a tight hug.

Oomph," Illya said as Napoleon squeezed the breath out of him. Solo savored the feeling for that moment. Illya's solid weight, all hard muscles and long bones in spite of that too short torso. The silk of his hair tickling Solo's chin. The warmth of his breath. The faint scent of bleach, baby shampoo and gunpowder that was Illya's only cologne.

Kuryakin pulled out of the hug. "What are you doing?" he complained.

"I did say I loved you," Solo commented, straightening his own pajamas and leading the way to the kitchen.

"Be serious," Kuryakin muttered, following behind.

"Do you want coffee?" Solo asked, going to the pot.

"I want some answers."

"Illya."

Kuryakin shrugged. "I don't know. Do you expect to get some sleep after this?"

"Tea then," Solo decided, reaching for the kettle. He filled it and set up the teapot while waiting for the kettle to boil. Illya rose from when he'd sunk down at the table and came up with mugs, spoons and rest of the accouterments. Busy work.

He set them down on the table. "Napoleon? What is this all about?"

Solo put the pot on the table to steep. "I have to get something. Be right back."

When he came back from his bedroom, briefcase in hand, Illya was pouring the tea into the mugs. Steam rose and curled in the air and the scent of the tea was strong. Solo set the briefcase down on the table, twirled the combination locks and extracted a folder. He held it in his hand, weighing it. Confession time.

"First off. I didn't send you to London because Mark needed you."

Kuryakin was silent, refusing to be drawn.

"No angry comment?"

"Napoleon, I don't know what you're driving at, but I just wish you'd come to the point."

"I suppose you should just see for yourself." He extracted the first letter he received from the Soviets and laid it in front of Illya.

Kuryakin's eyes widened when he saw the hammer and sickle seal on the letter. He reached absently for his reading glasses and came up brushing the front of his t-shirt. "I--"

"Go ahead," Solo said. "Go get them. There's a fair bit of reading here. You might as well not squint."

Kuryakin soon returned with the glasses in hand. He slid them on and read without preamble. Solo watched his breath catch as he read. In the space of a few seconds, Illya suddenly turned pale.

He drew a deep breath when he was done, and his fingers tapped restlessly on the letter. "Well." He rose awkwardly, looking anywhere but at Solo. "It's all right, Napoleon. I can leave tomorrow."

"Illya," Solo caught his arm as he prepared to flee. "Wait. You haven't seen it all."

"What else is there?" Kuryakin said, suddenly irritable. "They recalled me. I have to go. It isn't as if I hadn't been expecting it sometime. There's nothing to--"

"Illya." Solo was inexorable. "Sit down."

Kuryakin sat.

"That's why I sent you to London." Solo said. "At first, I handed this over to the lawyers."

"The lawyers?" Kuryakin said dumbly.

"Thigpin," Solo answered. "International law. Agent contracts."

Kuryakin pulled a skeptical face. "I appreciate the effort, but--"

"He told me to get you out of the country. Harder for them to get U.S. Immigration to deport you if you're not here."

"Napoleon--"

"But he struck out."

"Obviously. You don't seem to understand--"

"Then I took over."

Kuryakin drew a sudden breath. "You what? You didn't do something stupid, did you?"

"Your faith in your Continental Chief is touching," Solo said. "But maybe I did. You tell me." He laid the documents before his partner.

Frowning, Kuryakin reached for the first, his original contract with U.N.C.L.E. He read through it, pausing at Waverly's signature on the bottom, together with the almost illegible signature of some Soviet official. When he read the emendation of that contract, signed by Solo, he exhaled sharply, as if knifed. Then, with a dazed expression, he read his honorable discharge from the Soviet military. His approval for dual citizenship. The permanent U.S. visa. The letter from Kir. At the very bottom was still his Soviet passport. Kuryakin took it up in his hand, staring at it.

"Do you know how I lost this?"

"No." Solo said. "You never told me."

Kuryakin shook his head slightly and went through the papers again. Solo watched him narrowly. He seemed in shock. But that wouldn't last long. Finally he had gone through them all a second time.

"Well?" Solo asked, waiting for some reaction. "Well?"

Kuryakin shook his head again.

"Drink your tea." Solo said suddenly.

"What?"

Solo pushed it at him. "You look pale enough to faint. Just drink it."

Kuryakin drank absently, and some of the color did come back into his face.

"Are you ever going to say anything?"

"How did you do this?"

"I just told you."

Kuryakin shook his head again, and rubbed a hand across his face as if to wake up. "I don't know what to think."

"I suppose that's better than, 'How dare you?'," Solo commented.

Kuryakin looked at him.

"I tried not to take anything away from you," Solo said slowly. "Not irrevocably shut any doors. But I had to at least try to set it up so they couldn't just use you for political fodder."

"But how?" Kuryakin said. His eyes narrowed. "You didn't promise anything you shouldn't?"

"I didn't compromise U.N.C.L.E., if that's what you mean," Solo said, slightly miffed at Kuryakin's lack of faith. "I think they recalled you because they were offended," he explained. "Thigpin said he had the impression that your switch to security from Section Two was regarded as an affront. That you weren't good enough to work in the field without me, or something like that. And they probably also wanted to test my mettle and your value to the organization. I suppose I proved it at the same time as I assuaged their wounded Soviet pride. Of course, I did take their agent at the same time." He smiled slightly. "But then, I usually come out ahead in most games." I hope I do in this one.

Kuryakin looked down at the papers again, his discharge from the military in one hand, his passport in another. Solo watched him. Illya might be momentarily stunned, but his steel-trap mind was more than capable of reading contracts. It wouldn't take long for all the ramifications to sink in.

"This is just unbelievable," he murmured to himself.

"Then you're not angry?"

"Angry?" Kuryakin sounded bemused. Puzzled.

"Illya. You've never been too comfortable with people questioning you on your past, much less interfering in it."

"I should hate you because you spared me the honor of being sent home to be shot?"

"Would they shoot you?" Solo asked with interest.

Kuryakin shrugged, hands loosely clasped around his passport. "Eventually, probably yes, though not right away. They'd question me first."

"Even though you hadn't done anything?"

"There is a saying in my country," Kuryakin said, face twisting wryly. "Every man is guilty of something. He just needs help in confessing it."

Solo shook his head. "Need I say I rather hate that aspect of your country?"

Kuryakin sighed, staring at the passport hungrily. "Sometimes I do get homesick, Napoleon."

"I know."

Kuryakin looked at him.

Solo shrugged. "I just know."

"I could go home," Kuryakin murmured. "I could stay here and teach. Or teach in Cambridge..."

Solo's heart sunk. Kuryakin hadn't been too stunned to realize all the ramifications at all. Just unable to choose immediately.

"Why did you do this, Napoleon?" Illya's voice came, quiet and colorless.

"Maybe, just because I could," he admitted.

"No hidden agenda?" Illya asked, his keen eyes studying Solo.

"They're the ones that recalled you, Illya. I had to play, or lose you."

Kuryakin gestured at the documents spread before him. "Isn't this the same thing?"

"Only if you chose to leave. No one's asking you to leave U.N.C.L.E."

"No one's asking me to stay either," Kuryakin pointed out. "So why show me this? I might have wondered what had happened," he added, sitting back in his chair, "based on the security logs, and visitor lists. But you could have kept this from me. Why even tell me?"

Solo temper prickled at this seeming ingratitude. He had some thought to make a flip remark, but the look on his former partner's face stopped him. "So you could choose."

Kuryakin raised his head sharply. "Come again?"

"U.N.C.L.E." Solo said by way of explanation. "You never had a choice before, did you?" His question was perfunctory. "The GRU sent you here. Waverly certainly wasn't going to let you go. Not to mention that doing so would have put you right back in your countrymen's hands, some of who've been longing to crease your forehead with a bullet for some time. But now you can do as you please. I can't guarantee that if you choose to go back to the Soviet Union, you won't be shot anyway. In fact, the chances are good that you would be. But you can take that chance if you choose. And at least you can no longer be involuntarily deported from the U.S. by some whim or change of power in your own country. You have a permanent visa for the United States. It can't be revoked, whether you stay in U.N.C.L.E. or not. You can travel and never be denied readmittance back into the U.S. You can even go for citizenship if you want, or seek it elsewhere, in some country you think might be more favorable to you. It isn't safety," he said, concerned by his partner's continued blank look. "But at least you aren't at the mercy of some power play from home, or some anti-Soviet goon in Immigration."

"There are no pro-Soviet goons in immigration." Kuryakin remarked absently.

"So?"

Kuryakin didn't answer for a moment. The lack of expression on his face wasn't the vacancy of stupidity, or even shock. It was distance, as if he were doing sums in his head, the calculations of a computer, and facial expressions were as unnecessary as to a machine. Solo had seen this look before. It often preceded some calculatingly ruthless act "You've rattled off an impressive list of choices." Kuryakin stated. "But, really, why are you telling me all this?"

Solo sighed. "Because you deserve it." Seeing the incomprehension didn't shift from Kuryakin's face, he added. "We've set a lot of people free in our career, Illya. It's the least U.N.C.L.E. can do for you."

"I see. And what if, being so free, I don't choose U.N.C.L.E.?"

Solo's heart sank a bit, but he kept the easy smile he was fostering. "Well, I'd like you to give Legal at least a month or so if you're planning to hide. They could use the time to set you up an alternate identity, put all the right documents in the necessary files and computers. We can do it quicker, as you well know, but something this important, I'd like to be as thorough as possible."

Illya shook his head, and Solo's breath caught, wondering if he was rejecting the month. He was reminded he'd never known Illya when he was truly unshackled, really free. God, Illya, don't run the minute someone gives you your head and you have the bit in your teeth. "This isn't going to disappear, you know," he said, a bit of strain marking his voice. "You don't have to decide now, or tomorrow. It's permanent. I'm not saying you shouldn't choose," he added as Kuryakin looked at him. "But you don't have to make a hasty choice."

Kuryakin smiled faintly, the barest trace of an ironic twist to his mouth. No one else might have recognized it as such, but Solo was familiar with the expression. "You're asking me not to be hasty about something that has been preying on me for years?"

Oh, god, here it comes, Solo thought. You had to be the noble one. He would have been glad just to have the knife taken from his throat, but oh no, you had to do that and cut the shackles, too. You seem to have forgotten the whole point when you started this was to keep him in New York.

"Napoleon?"

"Sorry." He forced a smile, however weak and insincere. "If you've really made up your mind, don't keep me in suspense."

"No." Kuryakin shook his head. "I think you are right. What's the use of having a choice if you squander it in the first five minutes of having it? I think I'll at least sleep on it for tonight."

"Good idea." Solo said, hanging grimly onto his smile.

"May I keep this?" Illya said, displaying the Soviet passport.

"It's yours." Solo reluctantly conceded.

Kuryakin slid to his feet. "I'll see you in the morning. Oh, and Napoleon?" He turned, holding out a hand.

"Yes?" Solo took it, not quite sure what Illya meant by the gesture. A handshake in thanks? He was still reeling a little from the realization that Illya might just choose to disappear.

Instead Kuryakin pulled him into the same hard hug Solo had bestowed on him minutes before. When Kuryakin let him go, he looked up at him with mischievous eyes. "Perhaps I do love you, after all." He took a step away, but that's as far as he got.

"Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with fire?" Solo responded, and pulled him back, this time giving him a hard, if chaste, kiss full on the mouth. He didn't know he was going to do it until he did, and he was rather stunned himself when he let Kuryakin go. At least it was no different than what passed for affection in many European families, even between brothers.

"That's not how Russians kiss, Napoleon." Illya responded. He took Solo's face between his hands and kissed him solemnly, first one cheek, then another. Then he picked up his glasses and passport from the table.

"Good night, Napoleon."

"Good night.

Solo found himself standing alone in the kitchen. He put the barely touched mugs in the sink, and put the file folder back in his briefcase, locking the case.

He slid between his own sheets, thinking of Illya doing the same. Passport in hand, no doubt. There was really no need; he'd had various U.N.C.L.E. passports for years. But this one was different. Special A ticket home, more or less.

He sighed and shifted, remembering how Illya had felt in his arms. He really had to get laid soon. When Illya was starting to look good he'd been alone way too long.

He fell asleep smiling over that.

"How did it go?" Thigpin queried later that day.

"What?"

"With Mr. Kuryakin," Thigpin elaborated. "Well, I did say we'd want some warning if he wanted to disappear."

"Why?" Solo replied shortly. "No one gets any warnings around here. Just a quick right cross to the jaw."

"I take it that it didn't go well."

Solo shrugged. "He wants to think about it," he said with strained patience. "Tell me, Danny boy, how I could have worked with this man, damn near lived in each other's pockets for ten years, and I haven't the vaguest notion of how he's going to jump?"

Daniel shrugged slightly. "How can you know, if he doesn't know, himself what he wants to do?"

"We all know what we want to do." Solo countered flatly. "We don't always do it," he added with heavy irony, "but we know."

"You know." Thigpin disagreed. "But you know, because you're the type that is damn sure you can go out and make it happen, or at least have a good shot at it. But if you never had that freedom from the start, why think about it? Why torture yourself over choices you can't make? It stands to reason he hasn't; he hasn't the temperament that would, fortunately for him. So, he doesn't know, ergo, you don't know."

Solo eyed the lawyer narrowly. "Either you're damn good at snowing me, or you may have just made a point."

"So I earned my salary for the day," Thigpin shrugged. "Don't forget, whatever he decides, I'd like to be kept posted."

"Sure. Whenever he decides." Solo said. But he was slightly more mollified.

Solo showered when he got home that night, tossing his suit in the bag for the cleaners and dressing in casual clothes. If an emergency took him back to HQ, his staff would just have to suffer seeing him in sweatpants, T-shirt and sneakers.

He was disgusted by all the prepared foods in the refrigerator, and summarily ignored the pre-prepared meals. Fortunately there were enough basic ingredients to prepare a salad from scratch, and after some hunting he found a couple of steaks. He filled the sink with steaming hot water and tossed the plastic packages in, with a heavy serving dish on top to keep them under the hot water. In ten minutes or so, they'd be ready enough to broil.

Illya appeared in the kitchen, dressed, as usual, in near rags. He eyed Solo's unusual attire with a jaundiced eye but no comment. He looked concerned though, watching Napoleon wash and shred lettuce.

"Something wrong with the salad that was in there?" He asked, peering in the trash and then the refrigerator for the missing dish.

"I wanted something different."

Kuryakin swallowed the obvious comment that Solo's salad was little different than the one he was spurning, and studied the submerged steaks curiously, but didn't comment. Solo answered him anyway.

"And I am tired of eating oh so balanced, nutritionally good for me foods."

Kuryakin shrugged. "Is there anything you want me to do?"

"Yes. Stay the hell away from the food until it is ready to eat. You know you can't boil water."

"I'll just go back to my room then, until it's ready," Kuryakin offered warily. "When might that be?"

"Half an hour," Solo growled.

By the time Kuryakin returned, nose quivering at the scent of the steaks, Solo had found and opened a bottle of wine, and a glass or two had lowered his outward irritation, if it hadn't improved his mood.

Ever practical, Illya pulled up a chair without comment and addressed himself to his meal, forking in salad, one eye on the steak waiting for him.

"Don't eat so fast," Solo commented. "You're not supposed to cut into meat when its just off the broiler anyway."

"Really? Why ever not?"

"Because all the juices run out, and it becomes tough and dry," Solo responded.

"Where did you learn something like that?" Kuryakin asked.

Solo regarded him. "Some of us learn radio-astronomy in our spare time. And some of us learn how to cook a steak. I leave it to you to decide what is more useful on a daily basis."

"Since I never cook, it's obviously radio-astronomy." Kuryakin paused as Solo passed him his entree and applied himself to it. "This is really good, Napoleon."

"Yeah." Solo turned a forkful over and wondered where his appetite had gone. He watched Illya, plowing determinedly through his plate, a look of bliss on his face as he chewed, eyes closed to savor the flavor. Then he opened them suddenly aware of Solo staring at him.

He looked down at Solo's virtually full plate and back up to his eyes. "What?"

"Nothing." Solo rose suddenly and put the plate on the counter, returning with a glass of wine. He sipped it, wondering if it was the wine that caused the bitter taste in his mouth, or something else.

"Maybe you're coming down with a bug." Illya sounded almost hopeful.

"Maybe."

Illya put another forkful in his mouth, eyeing Solo warily. "Are you just going to sit there and watch me eat?"

"Maybe."

Determinedly ignoring him, Illya took another mouthful, chewing deliberately, and then snapped open his eyes to meet Napoleon's regard. He swallowed hastily. "What is it, then?"

"Oh, I don't know. Could be something happened recently."

"Did something happen?" Kuryakin demanded.

Solo laughed softly. "I don't know, you tell me." Suddenly he felt almost ugly in his mood.

"I meant something else." Kuryakin said, avoiding the subject at hand.

"Nope. Just an ordinary day."

Kuryakin made a rude noise in his throat. "What is the point, Napoleon, of offering me a choice if you aren't going to give me a choice?"

Solo winced, and signed, rubbing a hand over his forehead. "You're right, of course. And you do have a choice. You can't expect me to be happy about it, though. I liked it much better when I had you boxed in."

"Did you really?" Kuryakin sounded bemused.

"What do you think?"

"I don't know." Kuryakin sounded peevish. "I've known for months you didn't want me to transfer to London. What I don't know is why."

"Why?"

"Yes, why. I could see why you were irritated before. Waverly making changes to your section and your partnership behind your back? Of course you'd try to block it, just out of form. You and the old man played games like that all the time. The young bull sparring with the old one."

"Thanks a lot for that flattering estimation of my character."

But now?" Kuryakin went on, without paying Solo's sour look any mind, "You arranged all this yourself. It's a tribute to your skills of manipulation. Why wouldn't you want me to take it?"

"You think that little of me?"

"Oh, I don't know." Kuryakin muttered sulkily.

Solo opened his mouth and then closed it. "You're such a pain in the ass," he said when he finally opened it again.

"So everyone tells me," Kuryakin said gloomily addressing his plate, poking irritably at the steak for which he'd suddenly lost his appetite.

"You're partially right. I was miffed that you and Waverly were making plans about our partnership without me. And I am pleased I pulled this off for you."

Kuryakin looked up at him, blue eyes cutting under the thick blond bangs. "So where was I was wrong?"

"Do you think I would leave you to die? Now, or two years from now?"

"No." Kuryakin admitted. "No more than I would you."

"So?" Napoleon sat back, hands spread, as if that explained it all.

"You could have waited two years," Kuryakin said shrewdly.

Solo's breath caught in his throat at that blatant ruthlessness, and then when he started breathing again, it was in choked laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"Every time I think I know you, you surprise me. Face like a choir boy, and yet your GRU friends have nothing on you. You can take the boy out of the Soviet, but you can't take the Soviet out of the boy!"

Kuryakin drew back, face flushing. "Don't tell me you didn't think of it. You're no choir boy yourself."

"I wouldn't do that to you, Illya. Anyway, when have you ever known me to do things by halves?"

"Never," Kuryakin admitted. "But I thought, maybe, here..."

"Don't think I wasn't tempted," Solo admitted. "Very tempted, even if only for a moment. But I knew, without thinking about it too much, that you'd probably put the pieces together of what happened while you were in London. And we had the means to do it now. All in all, delay would have been too big a risk, and you would have hated me if I had arranged all this and never told you till you became ineligible for the field."

Kuryakin smiled, faintly mocking, the brief ironic twist of lips Solo was long familiar with.

"So?" Solo asked.

"So what?" Kuryakin asked innocently.

"Illya--"

Kuryakin threw himself back in his chair. "Oh, all right. Though you could have been a little more gracious about it. You gave me a day, remember? I'd like to have at least savored the idea of freedom that long."

Solo blinked. "Are you saying --"

"Do you think I'd abandon you? With a continent of assassins out there gunning for you on a daily basis?" Kuryakin was incredulous. "I'd only have to keep coming back and rescuing you anyway."

"Illya--" Solo shook his head.

"We did make a pact. A long time ago, true, but my memory isn't degenerating over the years."

Solo was shaking his head. "I'm not holding you to that. For once in your life, Illya, I'd like you to have what you want. Not bound to some promise made a lifetime ago. Let me have the satisfaction of giving that to you."

Kuryakin shrugged dismissively. "I have everything I want."

"You what?"

"I have--" he was cut off abruptly as Solo suddenly grabbed him by one arm and pulled him to his feet, propelling him by main force down the corridor. Too surprised to react, Kuryakin yielded to the urging, reminiscent of when Solo had dragged, pushed, pulled him away from one danger or another. The trip was short; Kuryakin found himself outside his room, pushed through the doorway to land hard on the floor, at the foot of his bed. He stared up at Solo.

"You have everything you want? What the hell is that?" Solo swept an arm around, indicating the shabby room. "You have no social life to speak of, no friends outside of work and no time to indulge in them anyway, no home, no family, hardly a damn thing owned, and what you do own —" Solo rounded on one of the boxes haphazardly stacked in a corner, "you haven't even unpacked yet. Tell me what the hell you have!"

Kuryakin shrugged, pushing his bangs out of his eyes. "Freedom?"

Solo froze. His eyes closed as he put one hand to his temple, shaking his head. "Oh, Illya--"

"What?" Kuryakin regarded him warily.

"When you're right, you're right. I hate that about you."

"One of the estimable parts of your character," Kuryakin said, still looking suspicious and making no move to get up off the floor.

Solo opened his mouth to reply, but never drew the breath necessary before he was thrown violently to the floor beside his partner. The explosion rocked the window side walls of the apartment, Solo's rooms being hit first. Illya tackled him in the next instant, rolling him into the relative safety of a corner, where the structural beams were stronger, and shielding him with his body as he fumbled for the wrist communicator. The floor swayed and shook as if in an earthquake, then Illya's windows were shot out, safety glass flying in all directions. Napoleon rolled them both tighter in the corner while Illya struggled with communications. Outside there was a larger explosion, and the night sky lit up as bright as day. The walls shook again, and plaster rained down on them. Illya squirmed up from underneath Solo's stranglehold to cover his charge again, swearing in Russian at the static on the communication lines. Then the static cleared and the voice of Drummond, chief of external site security, came on the line.

"Everyone all right up there?" The man's voice was anxious.

"Report, Mr. Drummond," Kuryakin said breathlessly, moving off Solo enough to let him sit up, but still blocking him with his body.

"We got them, sir. Helicopter attack. A couple of incendiary bombs got away before we could verify hostile intent," his voice was wry. "But they're toast now."

"Nothing left for clues?" Kuryakin sounded regretful.

"Fire department's on their way. There might be something on the bodies. Probably not, knowing who we're up against. Thrush, of course."

"Thanks." He added as an afterthought, "Good job."

"You folks all right up there? Mr. Solo okay? There's a hell of a hole in the side of his quarters."

"He's fine. I'm fine, too." Kuryakin added pointedly, and winced as the apartment sprinkler system came on, showering them, and all the rooms, with water. He purposely avoided meeting Solo's eyes. Being sheltered in the corner of the room, Solo hadn't gotten as much of it, and he was laughing silently as Illya was soaked. The Russian ignored him, and shoved him further into the corner, trying to wedge himself in out of the internal rain. "How bad is the fire?" he asked Drummond.

"Not so bad. We've got our own crew pumping water on it now. We're keeping the fire department on the ground, except for those we've vetted as clean. But there's a lot of confusion here, and with all the gawkers coming out of the woodwork, some crowd control issues. I think Mr. Solo should stay up there for the next couple of minutes, while we get the situation sorted out down here. Unless there's some emergency?"

"No," Kuryakin mopped at the water on his face with his own damp t-shirt. "No emergency."

"Right. Out."

"Don't say anything," Kuryakin muttered, rising to his feet. He glumly offered Solo a hand up.

"At least you don't have to unpack," Solo said, looking around at the partially burned, partially soaked boxes, most buried in shattered safety glass and plaster.

Later, they stood in the ruins of Solo's bedroom, behind the team that was checking out the damage.

"I could very well have been fatal if you'd been here," Kuryakin noted with typical detachment."

"You were damn lucky you weren't in here," Drummond said. "That time of night, they'd expected you to be. Say, where were you Mr. Solo?"

"I was in Mr. Kuryakin's room," Napoleon answered smoothly, ignoring Illya's exasperated look.

"Uh. Sure."

"We were discussing something." Kuryakin said darkly, sending a sideways glare at Solo.

"That's right," Solo said archly. "We were just talking."

"Of course." Drummond's beefy face was red, and Kuryakin's was bright pink. Solo decided to change the subject before Illya finished what Thrush had failed to do.

"Can we protect against something like it in the future?".

Kuryakin sighed, glared at Solo again, then shrugged. "I don't know. Even if we get the Mayor's agreement that we can now protect this airspace with deadly force, we are still going to have pilot errors and such. We can't shoot to kill every traffic or rescue helicopter that strays off course. We'll need to give at least one warning, no matter how we'd like to knock them out of the sky. And we can't have flaming helicopters continually raining down on the city streets."

"You Russians are so bloodthirsty," Solo murmurred.

Kuryakin ignored him. "At the very least they'd be a traffic hazard. At U.N.C.L.E. HQ, we have UN protection over the airspace and we can use more firepower than in a residential area uptown. And there's plenty of internationally based security to chase everyone off. Very few make it through UN airspace, as you well know."

Solo sighed. "You're trying, in your not so subtle way, to convince me to live in HQ."

Kuryakin opened his mouth, then closed it and shrugged.

"I'll think about it," Solo said grudgingly. "I suppose I'll have to for the time being anyway." He turned to go.

"Unless you plan to set up a tent in the street," Kuryakin said, nodding at the various security agents surrounding them to clear the way to the limo.

"Everything I have will now fit in a tent," Solo said, sliding into the limo. Kuryakin followed and the car took off smoothly down the street, toward the UN Plaza.

"Everything I have will fit in a shoe-box," Kuryakin countered, then added. "Cheer up, Napoleon. I'll have the recovery team go through the place tomorrow and see what is salvageable."

"Not much," Solo commented, thinking of his ruined quarters.

"And that wouldn't include our reputations, would it?" Kuryakin said darkly.

Solo laughed. "I couldn't resist. Anyway, those rumors have been flying for years. What's one more bit of gossip?"

"You are unbelievable," Kuryakin said. "You were nearly killed; you've lost everything, and you respond by playing games."

"They were just things, Illya," Solo said, remembering Illya's pale face in his infirmary bed after the budget speech. "It could have been worse."

"I don't see how," Kuryakin muttered. "I lost ten years of jazz records because you couldn't live in HQ.

Solo looked at him sharply to see if he was joking. Illya struggled to keep his sulky expression in place over the smile that was threatening. "And my guitar, " he added in an injured tone.

"Illya."

"And my --" he choked as Solo grabbed him in a headlock. Once immobilized Solo found and extracted the Soviet passport that Illya still happened to be carrying.

"What that?" Solo said, dropping it on Kuryakin's lap and pointing to it.

"Just freedom," Kuryakin said glumly, rubbing his sore neck. "What good is that if I have to live in HQ?"

Solo caught his breath, then stared at him. "You're sure? You don't want to exercise this a little?" He waved the passport. "Take it out for a spin?"

"And leave my lover behind? What would people think?" Kuryakin asked dryly.

Solo laughed. Outside the flags whipped on the poles as the limo cruised past the UN Plaza and slid smoothly into the U.N.C.L.E. garage.

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