What We Leave Behind
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. — Anatole France
Somewhere in Manhattan. December 8, 1955.
The call was unexpected, but not really a surprise. He knew who was on the other end of the line before he heard her voice. He also knew he should have just let it ring, but against his better judgment, he answered it anyway.
"Hello, Clara," Napoleon Solo said, trying to disguise his own weariness. It'd been a tough, nasty mission, and despite a nap on the plane, he was emotionally and physically wrung out — too exhausted to talk to anyone, even her. Especially her. She had a knack for getting him to talk too much, reveal too much, and he had to be terribly cautious with her, which took more energy at the moment than he could muster.
"Hi. I was hoping I'd catch you," she said casually, but it sounded forced. No doubt, she'd been trying his number since breakfast.
"I just got in." Which was the truth. A mere two hours earlier, he'd stepped off a private U.N.C.L.E. transport and onto the tarmac at Teeterboro airport.
There was a pause, a hesitation on the line. Then, finally, she seemed to get up enough nerve: "I need to see you."
"Well, on Saturday, we can talk —" They had a date for Saturday. Tickets for that Joan of Arc play on Broadway. He'd argued for something lighter — a musical perhaps. She'd won.
"No, today," she blurted out. "I need to see you today."
Today? Solo thought, exasperated. He glanced at the clock. It was heading toward 11 a.m. The day was cloudy outside —the forecasters were predicting freezing rain — and his apartment was bathed in grey shadows. Reflexively, he snapped on a nearby lamp. "I dunno, Clara. I'm really tired—"
"Please?" she said, cutting him off. "I really need to see you..."
Solo ran a hand through his hair, pushing back the errant forelock, as he reconsidered his answer. What he really wanted —needed — was a shower, a simple meal and ten hours of sleep. A couple of shots of Scotch might be welcome, as well.
But there was no dissuading Clara and he seldom tried. When she had her mind set on something, she could be more relentless than Patton at the Bulge. Stubborn, determined, and smart — she would figure out what she wanted and go after it, and he rather liked that in a woman — and in her.
But not today.
"Please?" she said again, this time, softer but less yielding: her words were steel in a velvet glove. "I could come by your apartment —"
"No," Solo said, catching himself before he shouted it into the phone. "No, ah... that's all right." There were unpacked weapons lined up on his kitchen table and under his jacket, someone else's blood streaked the sleeves of his shirt. She didn't know what he really did for a living and he couldn't tell her. She thought he was a travel writer.
His eye wandered over the cache on the table: A very well-armed travel writer.
"I — ah, I'll meet you for lunch," he said, surrendering. "Where are you now?"
"On Fifth. I've been Christmas shopping. I could walk to the tree."
"Okay. Give me an hour or so."
"I'll be at the northwest corner, at 50th, near the rink, so—"
"Don't worry. I'll find you." She was probably wearing that winter white coat. He could easily pick her out in a crowd.
After a quick goodbye, he hung up the phone with a sense of impending doom. He was in no mood to play the sophisticated globe-trotter. The mission had been a success but just barely, and they'd lost a man —several men, actually — but one in particular that he counted as his own fault.
I should have gone back.
Then you'd be dead, too, Nate Cassidy had replied with an off-handed shrug. A World War II veteran and Solo's mentor, Cassidy was always the very soul of pragmatism.
Well, there was no help for it. There was no bringing Bestoff back from the dead, and there was no avoiding Clara, either. Hopefully, she'd have a lot to talk about and he could seek silent refuge in a turkey club.
But first, he needed that shower, a shave, and a change of clothes. He pulled off his jacket and inspected the shirt underneath. Both sleeves were spattered with red stains from cuff to elbow, but there was no other damage, so perhaps the shirt was salvageable. He'd drop it off at Del Floria's in the morning.
No wonder U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was located behind a dry cleaning shop, Solo thought ruefully as he went to his closet in search of something decent to wear.
Somewhere near Cambridge University. Same day, same time, GMT
"Kuryakin !" Hugh Wilkinson's voice, which his fellow students maintained could be heard from one end of Old Field to the other, echoed down the hallway so loudly, it rattled the ancient floorboards of the boarding house. When Illya poked his head out his door, Wilkinson waved the receiver of the floor's shared payphone in the air and said, "For you."
The call was a surprise but not completely unexpected. After all, Mr. Waverly, the man he'd met the other day, had promised to be in touch soon. Kuryakin took the phone, and said, "Hello? This is Illya Kuryakin."
"Illya?" His name came back to him, bellowed over the line. The voice was not Waverly's: it was coarse and loud — almost as loud as Wilkinson's — with a vaguely Teutonic accent. Despite the friendly tone, Kuryakin was immediately on-guard. He didn't know anyone who sounded like this.
"This is he," he replied tentatively.
"This is Uncle Harry."
Now Kuryakin was really stumped. He had no Uncle Harry.
"I hear you met with Uncle Alex on Monday."
Uncle Alex. He must mean Alexander Waverly who, Kuryakin had guessed, held a very high rank in the United Network Command for Law Enforcement — U.N.C.L.E. for short.
Logically, this Uncle Harry was a representative of U.N.C.L.E. as well.
Or maybe not.
Kuryakin hesitated, wary of the caller's true intentions and where this all was leading.
"Uncle Alex tells me you have a talent for handling volatile situations."
Monday's conversation had been several hours long and wide-ranging and now Kuryakin tried desperately to recall what he'd shared with Waverly. They'd talked about his service in the GRU, his studies at the Sorbonne and now Cambridge, his hobbies (few), his close relationships (none) and his skill set (eclectic).
Volatile . That could mean only one thing: explosives, or some sort of bomb.
"As it happens, we have just such a situation here," Uncle Harry was saying.
"Where is 'here'?" Kuryakin asked.
"Trafalgar Square. You are needed, my boy. Will you come?"
Kuryakin glanced at his watch. It was after four p.m. "Now ?" he asked.
"Yes, of course now! How quickly can you be here?"
Automatically, Kuryakin did a quick estimate of how long it would take him to cycle to the railway station, when the next train was due, and whether it would be better to get off at King's Cross or Liverpool Street Station. Of course, he'd have to take the Tube to Leicester Square — or would Charing Cross be closer? He wasn't sure — because a bus would be too slow. "Two and a half, three hours perhaps? Maybe more, maybe less."
"Make it less," Uncle Harry replied, and it didn't sound like a suggestion. "You'll come, then?"
"I suppose so, yes," Kuryakin said, the words slipping from his lips before he could reconsider them.
"But how will I find you?"
"We'll meet near Nelson's Column. Don't worry: We'll find you. "
And then the line went dead and Illya was left holding a silent receiver and wondering who "we" were.
Solo was running late by the time he emerged from his apartment building. He was hoping to flag down a cab, but with the uncertain weather, there was none to be had. The few that passed him were occupied with their call lights switched on. Not willing to keep Clara waiting, he headed for the subway instead.
The train came after a short wait and standing on the platform and later, sitting in the subway car, Solo had time to reflect upon the call, Clara, and their relationship thus far. He'd met her the previous summer at the New York Public Library while doing some research for a senior agent in Section II, the sort of boring grunt-work young greensticks like himself were likely to be assigned. He and Clara had bumped into each other — quite literally — and helping her gather up the stack of dropped books had led to a conversation, which had led to coffee, which had led to walking her back to her studio flat afterward. Along the way, he learned she was a grad student majoring in Political Science at New York University, that she was ambitious, an idealist, and an only child; that she liked good clothes, good food and well-made martinis — in that order — and that she came from a wealthy family from Long Island. In other words, except for her money and his lack of it, they had a lot in common.
He reviewed their telephone conversation again, turning over her words in his mind: I need to see you today.
That certainly sounded serious, but with Clara, it could be anything. A personal problem, perhaps; Clara was always having trouble with her family, especially her father. A noted expert in Eastern European studies, Dr. Claude Richards taught at Columbia University and acted as an advisor to the State Department and occasionally, to the U.S. Mission to the U.N. He was a staunch Republican and by contrast, Clara had distinctly socialist leanings, which in the current Red-baiting climate, made things more than merely awkward between them. She had graduated from Barnard and then, fed up with the Ivy League's boy's club, she'd turned down a prestigious graduate fellowship and transferred one hundred blocks south to NYU instead. Her father, to put it mildly, was not pleased.
Solo could sympathize; he hadn't gotten along with his own father very well, either, nor had his parents with theirs. Discord was practically a family tradition. Clara's fierce independence only made him desire her more. They'd been intimate only once, furtively, in his apartment, on his couch, and hadn't (as the college kids put it) quite gone all the way —yet. But Clara could be as passionate as she was cerebral, and Solo guessed it was only a matter of time.
I need to see you today. It couldn't be for romantic reasons, could it? he wondered as he stepped from the subway car to platform and then climbed the stairs to the street. She'd sounded more anxious than amorous. And she couldn't be in that kind of trouble; they'd been extremely careful. Clara was willing to take risks, but not that kind.
By the time he reached the street level of the promenade in Rockefeller Center, the weariness was gone, replaced by gnawing curiosity. Despite the chilly veil of light, misty rain, the plaza was packed with shoppers, tourists, and office workers enjoying their lunch hours, and Solo's progress from the subway entrance to the skating rink was slow. A sharp wind whipped through the concrete canyons, stirring the nine-foot tall angels as they raised their trumpets to heaven. His destination, the huge Christmas tree that towered over the rink at the center of the plaza, was decorated with aluminum icicles and hundreds of light bulbs that were not yet twinkling.
Solo glanced up at the tree, which would be turned on tonight during an elaborate ceremony complete with celebrities and caroling choirs. It was a 65-foot Norway spruce according to the New York Times, and it reminded him of the one in Trafalgar Square in London, which was lit each year with similar pomp but simpler decoration. That one, of course, actually came from Norway. This one, most likely, had come from Jersey.
Solo found Clara just where she'd said she'd be, standing between two overstuffed shopping bags and looking windblown, frazzled and definitely unhappy.
"Are you all right?" he asked, though clearly, she was not. Although she hadn't been crying, it appeared that tears might erupt at any moment. She looked at him with an expression of bitter betrayal and forlorn disappointment.
Solo was not accustomed to seeing her so distraught — even when she was angry, she kept her cool — and he instinctively reached out to her, only to have her pull back. "Jeez, Clara, what's wrong? Did I do something?"
"I don't know," she said, accusingly. "Did you? Maybe you should tell me, but I don't know if I'll believe you any more."
"I don't understand," Solo pleaded, now thoroughly confused. The tension and acrimony that vibrated between them stood in stark contrast to the festive mood that swirled around them. He reached out to her again, and again, she shied away from him. Now, he was really worried. "Clara, stop this. Tell me what's wrong. Why are you so angry with me?"
"Shouldn't I be? Really, how should I feel when I find out the man I've been dating — the guy I'm in love with and thought I knew —" she locked eyes with him now, preparing to sink the dagger "— turns out to be a goddamn spy. "
Kuryakin had managed to arrive just as the train was pulling into the station and now he was watching the scenery rush past from his window seat and thinking about the phone call. In truth, it had been just another in a series of strange events that had occurred in his progressively strange life. Yes, he'd always been an exceptional student. But when he was recruited into the secret world by Viktor Mikhailovich Suslikov — a poetry professor, no less! — he had never expected to find himself the Intelligence officer on a K-class submarine cruising under Arctic ice. Yet, there he was. And just when he thought that a military career would be his life, he was plucked from the junior officer ranks of the GRU and sent to the Sorbonne for post-graduate studies.
He'd expected to be assigned some undercover missions in Paris, but except for a few low-risk courier runs, he was largely left alone by his handler, Sirakov, whom he'd met just once. Nevertheless, he filed a report each month on his mundane activities primarily through dead drops. When his studies were concluded, Kuryakin had expected that he would return to the Soviet Union. But then, a lecturer named Bullard showed up one day to conduct a seminar on superconductivity, and Kuryakin asked questions — the right questions, apparently — and soon they were making plans to bring him to Cambridge to join Bullard's project team at the Cavendish Laboratory. Considering the Cold War climate — Maclean and Burgess has been unmasked just two years before — Kuryakin never expected the request for his student visa would be granted, but it was and once more, reality did not match his expectations.
He'd enjoyed his time at Cambridge, though except for seminars and lectures, he'd been working largely on his own. The other students were polite and friendly, but distant. Because he was still a Soviet citizen, they suspected him of being a spy, and, of course, they were right to be wary. He was a spy. But, again, as in Paris, except for some sporadic surveillance, for whatever unfathomable reason, he was left in peace to pursue his studies like any other international student.
Was he being put on the proverbial shelf to preserve him for some important future mission? He didn't know and there was no one to ask. And now, with his doctoral thesis successfully defended, Kuryakin was acutely curious about what would come next. To be frank, he had to admit, if only to himself, that he liked living in the West. Though the inequities in the social system appalled him, he relished the autonomy, the personal freedom. He even had a certain fondness for his living quarters, a shabby little bedsit with a shared kitchen and bath, and one gas ring to heat his tea.
He had no reason to return home. His stepmother barely tolerated him, his stepbrothers resented him, and his father had become difficult and self-absorbed. Masha, tired of waiting for him, had gotten herself married, so that was that. If he could remain in the West and still serve his country, so much the better.
But then, what to think about this man, Waverly, a spymaster who presented himself as a shaggy, absent-minded don? Would he provide the next turning point in the journey? Although Kuryakin didn't believe in God, sometimes he had the feeling that there was a mysterious, invisible hand guiding his destiny.
Arriving in London, Kuryakin quickly transferred from rail to Tube and the trains were with him. He emerged from the Underground at Charing Cross station to find fat wet snowflakes falling. The temperature was still too warm for them to stick, but the streets were slick and the rooftops of the passing cars were turning seasonal white. Soon, he was crossing the Strand to Duncannon Street at a brisk trot. Trafalgar Square seemed unusually bright and busy, even for this time in the evening. It wasn't until he heard the sound of carols drifting through the snowy evening that he realized what night it was: The tree lighting ceremony. Of course!
Britain had proven to be a great friend to Norway during World War II, supporting the Norwegian Resistance and sheltering the Norwegian king and his government in exile when he escaped from the advancing Nazi forces in 1940. As a gesture of gratitude, for the past nine years, the Norwegians had been cutting a Christmas tree from the old growth forests surrounding Oslo, and shipping it across the North Sea to London.
As he neared the square, Kuryakin could see that this year's edition was huge, at least 25 meters tall — a true "queen of the forest" — topped by a star and decorated with long, vertically draped strings of hundreds of white lights. The ceremony was already in progress. The floodlights of the National Gallery had been dimmed so the crowds of officials, spectators and choirs of school children could enjoy the tree in all its glory.
Turning south, Kuryakin decided to avoid the worst of the crowd by skirting the square, past Nelson's Column and the bronze lions. All the while, he kept alert, waiting and watching, even though he had no idea who he was to meet. In the background, he heard the master of ceremonies announce, "The National Anthems of Great Britain and Norway.." and then a band struck up God Save the Queen.
We'll find you the mysterious man had assured him and they did, a few metres past the second lion.
"Kuryakin!" someone roared over the din and Kuryakin recognized it as the voice he'd heard on the telephone. A great, fierce bear of a man materialized out of nowhere, wearing a full length coat and a ushanka, the Russian-style fur hat on his perfectly bald head.
The ushanka was what got Kuryakin's attention; he hadn't seen one in years. "Uncle Harry, I presume?" he asked.
"Harry Beldon," the man said, extending a hand that was as big as a paw. "Station chief, U.N.C.L.E. London."
"I came as quickly as I could," Kuryakin replied, after they shook hands. "You said it was urgent."
"A bomb is always urgent. I just hope we are in time."
"Where is it?"
"We are still searching," Beldon said and motioned to the square. Now that Kuryakin knew what to look for, he noticed several young men in neat black topcoats weaving smoothly through the crowd. Obviously, Beldon was working with a well-organized team of agents.
"But why did you call me?"
"Our intel indicates that the bomb may be of Soviet design."
Kuryakin frowned. "That makes no sense. Why would the Soviets want to blow up a tree lighting ceremony?"
Beldon's arm wrapped around his shoulders and aimed him toward the scene. "Look around you: what do you see? Two ambassadors, the mayors of London and Oslo, several members of the Norwegian royal family, four dozen schoolchildren from both countries, and perhaps a thousand spectators. That, my young friend, is what is called an 'international incident.' It doesn't have to be the Soviets. It only has to look like the Soviets."
"Yes, but —"
They were abruptly interrupted by one of the young men in topcoats. "Mr. Beldon? We found it."
"Ah!" Beldon said. "Good work, Danny! Where?"
"We thought it prudent to move it over there, sir."
The agent named Danny pointed toward the National Gallery, and then took off, with Beldon following, his strong arm sweeping up Kuryakin in his wake.
Rounding the block, less than a minute later, they joined another group of young agents huddled in a dark, sheltered corner between a stone column and a side entrance to the museum.
"So what do we have here?" Beldon demanded as the men parted to let him pass. Kuryakin peered into circle and saw, in the center of group, something that looked like a baby. Indeed, upon closer inspection, he realized that it was a baby — a life-sized plaster figure of the Christ child.
And it was ticking.
Solo didn't bother to deny her accusation. He respected Clara's intelligence too much for that. Obviously the jig was up.
You should date silly, self-interested girls, Cassidy had counseled, only half-jokingly, although Solo discovered years later that Cassidy seldom followed his own advice. Girls who don't listen or care what you say, girls without a thought in their pretty little heads. It's safer that way.
Clearly, Clara was not one of those, and Solo wondered if he would live to regret it. She wasn't in trouble, but he certainly was. Well, there was no other way to deal with it, and her, except head-on.
"I'm not a spy," he corrected her calmly. "I'm an agent for the U.N.C.L.E. There's a difference."
"Oh, really ?"
"Yes, there is. Spies work for one government against another. U.N.C.L.E. works towards the best interests of all governments, all nations, large and small, all over the world."
"One of the good guys, huh?" she sniffed.
"We like to think so, yes," he replied evenly. "At least, as good as it's likely to get."
She was silent, thrown off a bit by his honesty. Obviously, she hadn't expected it. After a moment, Solo asked, "How did you find out?"
"My father told me. At lunch, today. A secretary at the U.N. knew you and mentioned it to him. He didn't say who you worked for."
Solo nodded. Of course; it made sense. As a field agent assigned to New York, he was always dealing with the office staff there. He even dated a few of them. He didn't bother to ask for the secretary's name, nor inquire why Clara's father hadn't bothered to mention U.N.C.L.E. in his little revelation.
"I'm sorry I lied to you, but I had to. It was necessary. I hope you can understand." Pointedly, he didn't ask for forgiveness because he didn't think he needed it. "I was just doing my job."
"And were you doing your job when you were gone these last few days?"
"As a matter of fact, I was," he said, threading his arm through hers and reluctantly, she allowed it. He picked up one of her shopping bags while Clara reclaimed the other and they began to walk.
"You said you were going to Mexico City," she reminded him, and he nodded.
"That part was true. Actually, the mission was some miles outside the city, in the desert. I can't tell you what I was doing there and why, but I can assure you it was important to preserve the peace and security of the world. And yesterday, before it was all over, I lost a good friend."
She turned sharply and looked at him. "Lost? You mean, he died?"
Solo shrugged, which belied his true feelings. Now, he was the one with emotions roiling just below the surface. "We were trapped in a long, narrow tunnel and both of his legs were broken and the only way to escape was to climb up a steep incline. I tried to drag him, but we couldn't manage it, so he told me to leave him behind." Solo hesitated. "And I did."
Clara blinked at him, her own problems forgotten. "What happened to him?"
"I don't know. He probably died in the explosion that followed." Or maybe not — at least, not right away. Solo squeezed his eyes shut, fiercely thrusting away the thought.
Clara gripped his arm and pulled him closer. "I'm sorry," she said, meaning it.
"Thanks," Solo replied. He looked away, his eyes squinting against the chill wind. "Just another part of the job, or so they tell me."
"But you don't believe that."
She was right; he didn't. "I've only been a field agent for a year and a half, so what the hell do I know? But I can tell you this: I don't care what it takes: I'm not going to leave anyone else behind ever again." He set his jaw, resolute, and repeated for emphasis, "Never again."
Gingerly, Kuryakin turned over the infant figure and found its bottom torn away, replaced by a package of plastic explosive with an electronic detonator. A wire led to a simple stopwatch timer. According to the display, they had 10 minutes and 21 seconds left. In the distance, a children's choir was singing about a pixie and his Christmas porridge in Norwegian, their high, clear, innocent voices providing a counterpoint to the gravity of the situation.
One of the young agents, a redheaded Irishman with freckles, crouched beside Kuryakin and pointed to a line of smudged Cyrillic letters near the detonator. "It's Russian," he said.
"No," Kuryakin corrected him as he visually inspected the package. "Bulgarian, I believe." Or someone who wanted to make it look like the Bulgarians. He still wasn't entirely convinced that this was the work of Eastern Bloc agents. As Beldon had observed earlier, it might have been in a third party's interest to make it appear that way.
"How powerful?" Beldon wanted to know.
"Enough to take out half the square and everyone in it."
"Can you disarm it in time?"
"I don't know," Kuryakin replied, mentally weighing the possible alternatives. Perhaps, they could just heave the thing into one of the fountains, tempering the resultant blast. "I'll try." Now on his knees, he gestured toward the group. "I don't suppose anyone has tweezers or a pair of scissors?"
Danny produced a Swiss army knife and passed it to him. Not an ideal tool for such a delicate operation, but it would have to do.
Kuryakin nudged one of the wires, a red one, with the point of the knife. "Seems like a three-step firing train," the Irish agent commented with a shrug.
"No," Kuryakin said, correcting him for a second time, "Two. This is a lovushka durachka, eh, a 'fool's trap' ..."
"A booby trap?" another agent added helpfully. His accent was American.
"Yes, exactly. The bomber wants to mislead us, to encourage us to cut here, which may actually trigger a detonation sooner."
"You've seen this before?" the American agent asked and Kuryakin nodded.
The children's chorus had finished the first song and was beginning another. Du groenne, glitrende tre they sang: "Thou great and glittering tree..." Only seven minutes remained.
Methodically, Kuryakin explored the mechanism, carefully separating one wire from the other while the stopwatch continued to tick.
...den lille Jesus til verden sendte... the children sang: "When Jesus came to earth ..."
Finally, Kuryakin announced softly, "I've found it." He pointed to where the knife tip touched one of three blue wires. "This is the one to cut."
"Are you certain?" asked Beldon.
I'd better be, Kuryakin thought, or we all may be meeting Jesus a lot sooner, though he didn't say so aloud.
Sucking in a deep breath, he steadied the wire with one finger while he snipped it with an upward flick of the knife. In the background, the choir continued to sing but closer by, the ticking mercifully stopped.
A moment of silence passed before the group exploded into cheers. As Kuryakin struggled to his feet, the agents surrounded him, switching to Russian to congratulate him — Pozdravlyayoo vas...! —and adding, Molodyetz! that is, "good work."
When Kuryakin was standing, Beldon embraced him Russian style, planting a kiss on both cheeks. " Dobro pozhalovatq, tovarisch! " he brayed. "Welcome to U.N.C.L.E.!"
"But I don't understand," Kuryakin said, because he didn't.
Beldon laughed. "You have been recruited, and this was your entrance exam. You answered my call with haste, you were cooperative, dependable, knowledgeable and, even though your own countrymen may have been involved, you did not hesitate with political concerns or questions, but valued the safety of those innocent citizens in the square above all else."
"And you succeeded in defusing a very tricky device," the American agent added.
"That, too," Beldon confirmed. He thumped Kuryakin's shoulder. "You passed — as they say — with 'flying colors.' "
Finally comprehending that it was all an elaborate game, Kuryakin wasn't sure if he felt annoyed or simply relieved. Beldon read the mix of emotions on his face. "Say you will forgive us our little deception, comrade, won't you?"
In the light of all the good will radiating from the assembled agents, it seemed downright churlish to refuse. Kuryakin nodded and a grudging smile tugged at his mouth. "So what happens now?"
"Now? You will be transferred to U.N.C.L.E. of course. Don't worry: your superiors are working out the arrangements as we speak. It will all be taken care of. Next month, you will enter our training school and in less than a year, you'll be a field agent. And if I have anything to say about it, you'll be assigned to London and to me.
"But that's for next month," Beldon added. "Tonight, we celebrate. You do drink, don't you?"
Kuryakin nodded as he ran a hand through his tousled, snow-flecked hair and tried to absorb it all.
"Good! I like a man who drinks. Vodka, yes?"
"Vodka, yes," Kuryakin confirmed.
"To the nearest pub, then," the agent named Danny shouted and they headed off into the night, a boisterous, motley crew, leaving the tree, the choir and Trafalgar Square behind them.
Clara smiled for the first time that night. "See? That's the Napoleon I know!" she confirmed, and hugged him tighter. The hug felt good; just talking it out with her, even better.
If you're going to worry about feeling lonely, son, Cassidy once told him, you're in the wrong business.
But the truth was, for all the camaraderie among the field agents, Solo did feel lonely and isolated, and Clara had become, not only a companion and sounding board, but his intimate connection to the rest of humanity as well.
"But you're not going to quit, right?" she asked. "You're going to hang in there, aren't you?"
"As long as I can." He turned to look at her. "Are you sure you can live with that?"
"I don't know." She was back to being cool, frank and practical. Then she smiled. "But I guess it's kind of exciting having a boyfriend who periodically saves the world. I suppose I'll just have to get used to it."
"Okay," he said, and pressed his lips to her cold cheek. "But if it ever becomes too much, you'll let me know. Promise?"
"Now, Napoleon, really: When have I ever not told you what was on my mind?"
Since the question was rhetorical, Solo didn't bother to answer. "Let's eat lunch," he said, and, hefting the shopping bag, he added, "and then you can tell me what you bought me for Christmas."
"Ho-ho. Not likely."
"Oh, you can't keep a secret from me. I'm a spy, remember?"
"Not a spy; an agent. There's a difference."
And they kissed again in front of the unlit tree, and walked away, laughing at their private joke, neither one of them anticipating that, in two years' time, the next person he left behind in the course of his work, would be her.
It was all that good-natured camaraderie that seduced him, Kuryakin decided years later, long after that night in Trafalgar Square. For the first time in his life, he'd found fellowship and common cause and felt truly connected with those around him. That feeling never faded, even when he encountered pockets of prejudice in London, in New York, and elsewhere in the world. Of course, in his partnership with Napoleon, politics was never a factor.
Sometimes though, it seemed to Kuryakin, that his friend suffered from a kind of survivor's guilt, observing the Innocent life wistfully, like a child out in the cold with his nose pressed against the glass. But Kuryakin never felt that way himself, and was never troubled over what might have been. Though he might complain about day to day irritations, overall, he was content with where Destiny — with considerable assistance from Alexander Waverly — had led him.
Time and again, like all the other field agents, Solo and Kuryakin toasted, Na zaftra —"to tomorrow..." — whenever they lifted their glasses. A superstitious custom, true, but also it was simply easier to look ahead to the future and ignore the messier past.
Which was why, of course, they seldom spoke, for better or worse, and for very different reasons, of how they arrived at where they were, and of what they left behind to get there.