The Gift

Somewhere in the Andes, January, 1967. Dawn.

The shots rained down on them like lethal hailstones, chunks of rock popping all around them with the force of firecrackers.

Damn, Solo thought, as the warm breath of a bullet kissed his right ear.

"I thought you said you took care of the guards," Kuryakin called out from a few feet above him, shouting over the cold, knife-like wind. They were climbing the face of a nearly sheer cliff, and the handholds were few and far between. Even if they had a weapon between them — which they didn't — they were in no position to return the fire.

"I did."

"You said the others were sleeping."

"They were."

Another deadly whine, louder than the others, signaled an uncomfortable proximity of lead to his head. Whoever was shooting was aiming not to wound, but to kill.

"Well, someone wasn't."

"Obviously!" Solo roared back, most of the word lost in the wind. Sometimes, Illya could be a royal pain in the ass.

A spray of shots fanned out harmlessly to their left. "He's not very good," Kuryakin observed. He sounded a little breathless.

"Thank God," Solo muttered. Leave it to Illya to critique an enemy's marksmanship at a time like this. As he searched for a foothold, Solo chanced a peek beyond his feet. Below him, the chasm stretched downward the length of twenty football fields.

"If we can just get to the ridge..." Kuryakin said, stealing a moment to point to their goal, barely discernible in the fog-wreathed dawn.

Tell me something I don't know, Solo thought as grabbed another outcropping, pulled himself up, and looked for another. For the moment, the shots ceased. Apparently, their pursuer was reloading.

"It's my birthday today, you know," Solo said, trying to keep his mind off the cold, the pain in his back, and the fact that the small vial in his pocket had the potential to end life as they knew it.

"Oh, yes. Happy Birthday. Made any plans to celebrate?" Kuryakin reply was as casual as if they were sitting in the HQ commissary.

"Surviving it would be nice, though I was sort of looking forward to something with balloons and party favors."

A low ironic chuckle drifted down from a foot or two above. "I heard Sarah was baking you a cake."

"Let's hope she doesn't have to eat it herself. She'll hate the calories."

His joke was punctuated by another round of bullets. The shooter was back. Solo tipped his chin, searching for the outline of the ridge and found it.

Just a couple more yards.

Suddenly, the small, solid ledge he'd just jammed the toe of his boot into wasn't solid any more. There was a telltale crackle as the rock face collapsed like confetti and Solo flailed out desperately grabbing for whatever he could. He felt his weight shift, then drop, and his heart ascended into his throat as the rest of his body went into freefall.

No!

And then, just as abruptly, he was yanked back, a vice-like grip on his right wrist, and the moment was just long enough for his left foot to locate another shelf. Grasping solid granite with his torn and bloody fingers, Solo took a deep breath. Too damn close. He looked up, squinting, and saw Kuryakin staring down at him, an expression of sheer horror flashing across his pale face, as brief as lightening, before it was gone. The Russian agent had gained the ridge first, and now he was back-lit against the sunrise. "Are you all right?" he asked, releasing the wrist.

Solo nodded, grunting, as he hauled himself the last few feet to safety.

"I'm sorry," Kuryakin remarked, matter-of-fact once more, "but I didn't have time to get you a present."

Solo glanced over his shoulder to the mist-choked, seemingly bottomless pit that had nearly claimed him.

"Ah — I think you just did. Thanks."

Kuryakin smiled one of his rare shadow smiles. "Don't mention it."

And then the shots rang out again, and they were off and running again.