I'm going to be upfront with you. If you think Survival School is tough, wait until your first month at UNCLE HQ in New York. Just trying to find your classrooms or the gym, or hell, even the men's room can be a challenge equal to Cutter's worst. All the new agents spend some time here before they are allowed out into the field or herded off to UNCLE's various field offices. It's sort of their way of making or breaking you, which you'd think was Old Man Cutter's job, but he was just softening us up for the experts.
The minute you enter HQ, you realize that you're at the bottom of the pecking order here. Even the secretaries are given more regard than you are. Of course, they are also the first who will approach you and offer some friendly advice: 'Avoid this person or that person.' 'Don't get this Section Eight mad at you,' and so forth. Not all the Sections are that bad, just the big boys, Sections Two and Three. The Section Threes are the bullies. I mean that in a good way; they are our strong arm guys. They go around making sure that we all play nice with one another. This isn't as easy as it seems. Yes, we're all on the side of right and justice and puppy dogs and lollipops, but when you get that much testosterone in one space, well, things are bound to get out of control once in awhile. That's when you want a Section Three guy at your back.
I'm proud to say I'm Section Two. We are, in our own opinion, of course, the cream of the crop, the top of the list. We're the only ones the Section Threes pretty much leave to our own devices. Of course, with all that good stuff also comes the crap. The requirements to even be considered as a Section Two are pretty daunting. You don't get the job on good looks alone, although those don't hurt either. The chances of a Section Two retiring from the field are about one in ten, not such great odds, but you have to keep your eye on the prize. You can pretty much have any woman you want, the money and travel is great and all that adventure, how can you get any better than that? So you will probably be dead or incapacitated by the time you're forty, but hell, you practically dead by then anyways. Who wants to live forever? Isn't it James Dean who said something about leaving a good looking corpse behind? He would have been Section Two.
There are more classes for Section Two than most of the other departments, which in itself is kind of mind blowing. You'd think twenty-eight hours of explosives training would be sufficient, then that smart ass Russian comes wandering in, drops a package on the desk and says, "You have fifteen minutes to defuse that" and leaves. And he's not messing around, there's real explosives being used. It's as close as I've ever come to wetting myself as an adult. I swear I lost five pounds the first time he did that.
Or you're down on the range, trying to qualify, and out of the corner of your eye, you can see Solo. He's not even using his scope and he's out shooting all of us. He give us this "And you think you can shoot" look. He just shakes his head, collects his target and leaves us without a word of encouragement or education. And these are our leaders…Cutter used to hold them up as shining examples of what we could accomplish. Like that would be incentive or something to us. "Yes, God I want to grow up to be a prick." My mother would be so proud!
So one day, I'm in the gym, pumping some weights and trying to build up my upper body strength. Around me, other newbie agents are also working out and I gradually become aware that something's happening. There's a crowd growing at one end of the gym and people are shouting and carrying on. Randy, my partner, slaps me on the leg and points.
"Hey, Sammy, let's check it out."
We head over and there are Solo and Kuryakin going at each other like mad dogs. I mean, I've seen guys wrestle before, but not like this. These two are out for blood, which there is all over the mat. I'd' never seen two people whale on each other that hard and these guys are partners, friends; some say even more than that, but I've never seen any indication myself.
They're both pretty evenly matched. Solo is bigger by a few inches, but Kuryakin has the reputation of not fighting fair. Of course, from the punches I see being thrown neither of them is exactly fighting by Queensberry rules. Whatever this had started out as, now, it was a full blown, knock down and drag out brawl. Even Hawthorne, our gym supervisor, is staying out of range of their fists.
What really amazing is that neither of them will stay down, they punch and kick and keep getting back up for more. The crowd is getting more and more uneasy when they realize where this is headed. Then suddenly there are Section Threes everywhere, breaking up the crowd. A few hardy souls actually manage to get between the flying fists and separate Solo and Kuryakin, but not before collecting a few bruises for their efforts.
As new Section Twos, we're herded into a corner with a bunch of our fellow agents by Hawthorne.
"Wow, what is their problem?" Randy asks and Hawthorne looks at him long and hard until Randy starts to get beet red. No one embarrasses quite as badly as he does.
"What makes you think there was a problem? They were training, that's all."
"They were punching the shit out of each other! No way was that training!" I didn't recognize the speaker, although he was in our class.
"They were training," Hawthorne repeats. "In a real fight, they need to know how the other moves, their own weaknesses and strengths as a pair. You can only get that two ways, in an actual fight with enemy agents or by doing what they do. The latter is the safer of the pair." From where I'd been standing, it didn't look all that safe to me. I'd seen the blood, sweat, and saliva spray when Solo had punched his partner. And when Solo slipped on a puddle of their mixed blood and went down, Kuryakin was on him in a heartbeat.
I glance over at Randy and try to imagine punching him like I really meant it. I couldn't. He's my friend; how could I hit him like Solo hit Kuryakin? Nor could I see Randy ever slamming a foot into my stomach like Kuryakin did to his partner. And the blood was real; they weren't faking or holding anything back. No matter what Hawthorne said, he was full of crap.
I had to the showers, still shaking my head in disbelief that anyone would buy that story. That when I see Solo and Kuryakin just sitting on the bench, talking. We're taught to read body language in school and there is certainly no animosity between them now. Solo was holding an ice pack to the side of his mouth and Kuryakin a cloth to his nose. They're sitting close, knee to knee, and as I approach, I can hear they were discussing the fight, breaking it down, move by move, what did and didn't work. I'll be damned; Hawthorne was right.
I go to my locker and start fumbling with things. These two, however, are in a world of their own and not paying any mind to me. That suits me just fine. I strip down and step into the shower, determined to draw as little attention to myself as possible. It was bad enough being in the locker room with them; I want to be out of the showers before they head in.
No such luck, they're right behind me and that was when I realize how a young gorilla must feel when he sees his first Silver Back. In their clothes, neither man looks like much, but take away Solo's suit and you realize how good a tailor he has. All his physique is carefully hidden, giving him the advantage of surprise in a fight. And Kuryakin, he's nothing but muscle. In clothes, he just looks skinny and still wet behind the ears, but don't you believe it. That's when I realize I wouldn't have lasted three minutes with either of them. Both of them have been honed and molded for just this job.
But more than that, their bodies are a virtual road map of every fight, every run-in they've had with the enemy. I suddenly realize that this wasn't a game. These guys are deadly serious about what they do and our enemies are just as committed to making sure their next encounter is the last one. Bullets, knives, whips -they are all represented by scar tissue, plus several scars that I don't even want to contemplate the cause of. And they are talking and joking like they don't have a care in the world…my world. The path I'd chosen, was it destined to lead me to this, a battle-scarred warrior who lived in a constant state of preparation for the next fight? Is that all there is to this job? Suddenly the money, the excitement, the travel, it all starts to tarnish just a little.
Solo suddenly sees me and grins. It's sort of lopsided because of a split lip, but it's warm and genuine. "So, tell me, Mr. Braymer, what did you learn today?"
I know I have to answer him and it has to be clever and witty, but all I can see were the scars and his face as he ruthlessly punched his partner down to the floor. Said partner is also watching me out of the corner of his eye, as if gauging my response.
"Um, that it's important to know how your partner moves in a fight?"
"Hawthorne's been talking again." Kuryakin chuckles and reaches for the shampoo. "He tries, but he just doesn't understand us."
"What do you mean?" I'm not comfortable meeting his eyes. They're scary enough in the usual setting, but there aren't many other places to look in a shower and I figure better his eyes than staring at his dick, which is just the wrong place for a guy to be looking anyway. "Weren't you training?"
"I wasn't." He swings his gaze back over to Solo as he tosses over the shampoo. "The next time, you call me first!" There's anger in his voice and a tightness around his eyes that was missing a minute ago. I suddenly worry that they are about to start up again.
"It was a momentary lapse, I assure you." Solo's voice is soothing, like you'd hear a mother use on her baby.
"Momentané, mon âne!" Ah, I recognize French - momentary...my ass, I think.
Solo answers in a language I don't understand. I think it's Russian, but it could have easily been Czech or Polish. You can't even be considered by UNCLE if you can't speak at least two languages besides your own, but these guys are way out of my league. It is then that I realize that just about everything I'd experienced today is out of my league.
His partner sort of stares at him for a minute and then he smiles. "Se lei pensa che lei sia l'uomo abbastanza provarlo."
My Italian isn't as good as my French, something about being a man and proving it, I think, but that didn't really make sense.
I rinsed off, dressed and headed for class. I had the sinking feeling I need to get out of here for awhile, or maybe out of UNCLE period, and the thought of connecting with Randy after class, maybe grabbing a beer, seemed a good idea.
To his credit, he doesn't try to talk me out of anything either. He sits and listens and says all the right words at the right times. I'm about to order another beer when Solo and Kuryakin walk in. Outside of HQ and in this bar, they look like two ordinary, if bruised, guys. Still I know both of them are packing a small arsenal on their bodies, not counting their bodies themselves.
"Just think, Sammy, that could be us." Randy nods to them, but these guys, they are solely focused on each other.
"No, that's the problem, it couldn't be us. Randy, I could never take a swing at you and mean it."
"Why would you have to?"
"That's what works for them. I don't think it's the only way to train, if that's what's bothering you."
"I was in the shower with them today. They look like road kill with their clothes off."
"So? They didn't get that way over night. You run the same risks in Section Three or Four or even Eight. Sammy, you need to listen to your heart and decide what you want to do. If you think Section Two is just about the girls and the money, then yes, you need to leave. But if you think that, just for a minute, you can really make a difference, aren't you willing to take that chance, no matter the risk? Isn't what we have here worth fighting for?"
"I don't know…" I realize I'm watching Solo and Kuryakin again and Randy follows my gaze.
"Okay, look at those two then. American and Russian, couldn't come from more different backgrounds. Hell, they even fought on the opposite side of the last war and yet they have one of the most successful working partnerships in UNCLE. Hell, five hours ago they were trying to kill each, now they look like they're on a date or something."
I saw back and made a face. "You're a twisted little monkey, Randy. They're not like that."
"Just seeing if you're paying attention. For them, it's the job that's important and everything is just gravy." He drains his beer. "So safe and sane or crazy with a side of gravy?"
And what can I say? I grin and nod. Being a meat and potato kind of guy, I've always been partial to gravy myself…