With thanks to my beta readers Roa1 & TheRimmerConnection
Necessary background info:
U.N.C.L.E and Nemesis are international agencies dedicated to preserving world peace. The TV shows 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E ' and 'The Champions' were made in the 1960s and both were, in essence, spy stories. Richard, a Nemesis employee is one of the Champions. Following a plane crash in Tibet he and two of his colleagues, Sharron and Craig, were given enhanced abilities an awareness of each other - especially in times of danger. Illya, a Russian by birth, works for U.N.C.L.E.
Two of a Kind
Richard Barrett moved stealthily forward between the buildings making sure he kept out of the line of fire from the windows of the warehouse directly in front of him. It was unlikely that anyone was in the building but he wasn't in the habit of taking unnecessary chances. He could see Robertson, the man he was following, moving slowly through the shadows just ahead of him and he drew his gun. Taking care to make no sound he flicked the safety catch off. At the moment he couldn't get a clear shot at his prey due to the numerous piles of boxes stacked high at the sides of the buildings. It was essential that the man was taken alive and this was making Richard's task extremely difficult.
"Damn this," he swore under his breath, "just one clear shot that's all I need."
Despite the darkness his exceptional eyesight enabled him to clearly see that his colleague, standing a little to his left, was experiencing similar difficulties. He watched as his companion took aim. Richard calculated that there was only a fraction of a second in which to make the shot before Robertson was once more out of the firing line. If his fellow agent could pull this off it would be one hell of a good shot. The silenced gun went off, making no more than a slight sneezing sound. Robertson fell to the ground clutching his thigh where the bullet had penetrated and the two colleagues ran forward and dragged him back into the shadows, taking care to use the boxes for cover just in case anyone was lurking in the buildings up ahead. They handcuffed him and, between them, carried him back to their waiting car where they placed him on the back seat. Richard climbed in beside him, gun in hand. His companion drove straight to the police station where they left Robertson to the waiting delegation there.
"That was a great shot back there, Kuryakin," said Richard, as the two of them headed back to the car.
"Call me Illya, the mission is over now," said his companion. "And, as for that shot, I've had plenty of practice."
"How about we have a celebratory drink before we go for debriefing?" asked Richard.
"A drink sounds fine," said Illya, "but what I'd really like is something to eat, I'm hungry."
"My hotel does both, you want to try there? I might even manage to charge your meal to expenses along with mine," responded Richard.
"Sounds good to me," said Illya.
Richard reflected on this turn of events as Illya drove them to the hotel. He hadn't been happy when Tremayne had volunteered him to take part in this joint venture with the organisation known as UNCLE. For one thing he'd been due some leave and he'd had to put his plans on hold and, for another, since Tibet when he had been given his special abilities, it was difficult to work with other people without them getting suspicious of his superiority in just about every field. The thought of having to work with someone outside Nemesis and an unknown Russian to boot had been, frankly, disturbing. That was until he'd actually met Illya and recognised a kindred spirit.
Physically they weren't much alike. They were both handsome with startlingly blue eyes and a penetrating gaze and both were slim, but that was where the similarities ended. Illya was considerably shorter. Around five foot eight to his six foot one, Richard estimated and, while his own hair was dark and cut slightly shorter than was fashionable, Illya's was very blond and he wore it longer than most men within either of their organisations. On meeting the UNCLE man Richard had immediately been struck by the fact that he seemed a very private person, very deep, and keen to keep his emotional distance. He himself had always been a very closed off sort of person, sharing little of his thoughts and feelings with other people. It had been a great relief to realise that this man would not press him for answers to awkward questions no matter how curious he might be about the Nemesis agent's abilities. They'd worked together remarkably well, seeming to understand each other's plans without needing to discuss everything in detail. Over the course of the mission they'd both realised that all the initial resentment of each other had evaporated and they'd become friends.
Illya was also thinking about the situation. He too had not been enthusiastic about pooling UNCLE and Nemesis resources and having to work with someone outside his own agency but he'd recognised the necessity on this occasion and had raised no objections. He'd stoically decided to make the best of a bad situation and get the job over with as quickly as possible so that he would be free to return to the assignments he really enjoyed. He'd been pleasantly surprised when he was introduced to Barrett and he hadn't made the mistake of underestimating him as so many people did when first encountering that particular young man. He'd recognised the core of steel than ran through Richard and immediately realised that he would be a good man to have by his side in a crisis. He'd been well aware that, while he was sizing Richard up, the other man had been engaged in the same activity. From the respect that showed in Richard's eyes it was clear that he hadn't been fooled by Illya's small stature and slight build into writing him off as negligible. Maybe it was because Richard himself was a hell of a lot tougher than he looked that he'd recognized the same trait in Illya, or perhaps the man was just good at reading people. Whatever the reason, Illya had been glad that he wouldn't have to waste time proving himself to Barrett and that they could just get on with the job on equal terms.
Illya parked the car in the hotel car park and the two men entered the building.
A little later they were seated in the hotel restaurant having just finished their meal. Illya smiled contentedly,
"That was a very pleasing meal," he said, rubbing his full stomach. "I suppose we should go for that debriefing now."
"I agree, but maybe it would be as well to talk through what we are going to put in our reports first," Richard suggested. "We could have a couple of drinks in the bar while we go through the details."
"All right," said Illya. "On my expense account this time. I don't think UNCLE's expenses budget is as generous as Nemesis' but, all the same, I think they can afford a drink or two."
The two men got their drinks and sat down in the corner of the almost deserted bar. Once they were certain they couldn't be overheard they discussed the details of the assignment they had just successfully completed. In a short time they were satisfied that they had clarified all the important details of the mission. They both relaxed and the conversation turned to their experiences of working within their respective agencies.
"So you think the Nemesis expenses budget is bigger than the UNCLE one?" asked Richard. "Let's compare notes."
"OK," said Illya.
"Right," Richard began. "Do you have to justify everything in minute detail and does your boss go through your whole claim form with you every time you submit it?"
"You're joking? It's really that bad?"
"Well, not always," Richard admitted, "it's just that some people I could mention tend to get a bit carried away with their claims and that makes it difficult for the rest of us."
"Sounds like a bit of a problem?" Illya suggested, tentatively.
"Sometimes it is but, to be honest with you, I quite enjoy arguing with the person in question about it. I usually win," he said, smiling complacently.
"Your partner?" Illya asked, and he didn't miss the slight flicker that passed over Richard's face as his smile abruptly disappeared. He wondered, not for the first time, about the cause of his companion's momentary discomfort. He thought back to the mission they had just completed. Each time Richard had mentioned a particular work colleague, Craig, Illya had been aware of a slight change in Barrett, something that he recognised but couldn't define.
"Mmm? My what?" Richard asked, taking a large gulp of his whisky.
"Your partner, you know, the person you are paired with on assignments; or does Nemesis not work like that?"
"Oh, I see." Richard looked relieved and Illya filed that fact away in his mind for future reference. "No, not really. Well nothing official but, of course, we do tend to get teamed up with the people we work with the best. In my case there are actually three of us, although it isn't often that all three of us work on the same assignment. Sometimes we work alone and other times in pairs."
"And one of them is a bit free with the expenses?"
"Yes he is. Although, to be fair, he says that I'm cheap when it comes to spending."
"You'd fit right in at UNCLE then, we all have to be cheap there," remarked Illya. "I only have my own hotel room this time because my boss didn't like to suggest us sharing to your boss."
"Just as well he didn't, I guarantee my boss would have loved the idea," Richard said, dryly.
"So what happens when the three of you are teamed up? Do they have special discounted rooms for three agents?" laughed Illya.
"That doesn't arise, one of my colleagues is a woman and even Tremayne, my boss, wouldn't expect her to share unless it was necessary for undercover work. I do have to share with Craig quite a lot though." As Richard said this a slight shadow passed over his face, clearly something about sharing with Craig bothered him.
Illya added that fact to all the others he'd been gathering ever since he'd first started this assignment with the Nemesis man. He'd noticed quite early on that Richard enjoyed talking about Craig but also that sometimes, in the middle of laughing about some aspect of his colleague's personality, his face would alter and he'd change the subject. He did this in such a clever way that at first Illya hardly registered that he was doing it and he knew that most people would have missed the subtle clues that indicated that Richard was experiencing some disturbance of mind, something that was clearly connected with Craig. The realisation hit him that he had picked up on them because they were the very things he did himself when talking about Napoleon. Therefore Barrett almost certainly had the same problem as he did. He searched his thoughts for something to say that would help in confirming his suspicions.
"So it's Craig you argue with then?" he said. "What is he like?"
"Tall, dark, good looking– exceptionally so, brown eyes."
"He sounds rather like my partner," said Illya. "I did mean his personality though. I'm not trying to pick him out in a crowd."
"Oh, yes, sorry. He's friendly, supremely confident – some even say arrogant, he likes to be in charge - a born leader, the bravest man I know, generous, utterly dependable, prefers action to words, loyal, a real charmer…."
"Ladies man?" Illya cut in, watching Richard's face closely.
"Well the ladies certainly like him," his companion responded, with a slight grimace.
Illya wondered if the grimace was simply because Richard and Craig competed for women and his friend usually won or for the reason he suspected.
"Your Craig," he said, choosing his words carefully and discerning that Richard found the phrase painful in some way, "your Craig," he repeated, "sounds more and more like Napoleon as your description goes on."
"Napoleon!" Richard exploded, glad of the distraction from the thoughts this conversation was throwing up.
"My partner's name is Napoleon and, believe me, he can carry it off."
"If he's as much like Craig as you say then you're probably right," Richard said. "He's French then?"
"Oh, no, American. What? What did I say?" asked Illya as he saw Richard register surprise.
"Oh nothing really, it's just Craig is an American too."
"Are you sure we aren't talking about the same man? Maybe your Craig," again he chose that particular phrase, and paused, taking a sip of his vodka so he could examine Richard's expression more closely before continuing, "moonlights for UNCLE."
"I wouldn't put a lot past him, but I don't think even he could pull that one off," said Richard, "and he's not my Craig."
But you wish he was, thought Illya, as Richard's face darkened again. Now, how to get you to tell me? He was sure of his ground now. He realised that what he was almost certain of would not even cross the mind of most men, but feeling the way he did about Napoleon made him much more sensitive to the subtle signals Richard had been giving off from the moment Craig had been mentioned. It crossed his mind to wonder why he wanted to manoeuvre this man into confessing. His own refusal to discuss feelings, especially those as private and personal as this, was legendary within UNCLE. He realised that it was because, for once in his life, he really felt the need to talk about Napoleon. Caring so much about his partner made him want to talk about him, tell someone, anyone, how wonderful he could be. Even so, under normal circumstances, he would have denied himself that luxury and turned the conversation to much less revealing channels. What made things different in this case was that he was so sure that the Nemesis man's situation mirrored his own. That, along with the trust that he and Richard had built up, was enough to make Illya take a step he would never have believed possible. He decided to take the bull by the horns but still leave a little room to back off, just in case he had misread the signs.
"It's painful isn't it?"
"What is?" asked Richard, defensively.
"Having to share a room with people like Craig and Napoleon," said Illya.
"Oh, that. Well I wouldn't say painful exactly, but it is irritating. I like my own space and I can tell that you do too," Richard cut in, a little too quickly, as though he was trying to lead Illya away from the subject. But, having taken the decision to have this conversation, the other man was not to be balked.
"It's painful having to share," he went on deliberately, "with someone you care about and being forced to keep it to yourself."
There he'd said it, and the shot had gone home. The consternation on Richard's face told its own story.
"Care about? Well of course I care; we're friends as well as colleagues. We've saved each others' lives several times over," Richard said, and gulped another large slug of whisky.
"That isn't what I meant and I think you know it," Illya said. "And you don't need to worry, Richard; Napoleon means the same to me as, I believe, Craig means to you."
Richard's face was a picture; he was clearly in a quandary. Illya watched and waited while Richard fought a fierce internal battle, pitching his need for privacy against his desire to share how he felt about his friend with someone who obviously understood how things were for him. It was a measure of the respect and trust he and Illya had built up between them in a short space of time that he decided to confide rather than withdraw.
"It's been such a long time; ever since we first started working together," Richard sighed. "I'm not even gay. I admit I've been attracted to men on rare occasions, but generally I prefer women. It's just that Craig is really something special."
"Whereas I, my friend, am gay. Not that I broadcast that fact. Like you I prefer to keep my personal life very private - not because I am ashamed, but just because it's my life and mine alone and I don't chose to lay it open to other people."
"Does Napoleon know?"
"Know what? That I'm gay, or what he means to me?"
"Either, or both," replied Richard.
"He may suspect either, or both, but I haven't discussed it with him. I would never deliberately put him in a position that might make him feel awkward. Besides, he might request reassignment if he found out. Although it can be pure torture to have to share hotel rooms, and sometimes even hotel beds with him, and not be able to do what I want with him, I would rather keep silent than risk losing his friendship."
"You have to share a bed? Nemesis are a little more generous than UNCLE then, they've never suggested that I share a bed with Craig. How on earth do you handle that, Illya?"
"It isn't easy my friend," said Illya, "but it is unavoidable."
"Have you never tried to give Napoleon a hint about your feelings?" Richard asked.
"Why? Have you tried that particular strategy with Craig?"
"Yes, I have. I'm not sure why, hopeless optimism I suppose. Craig is just about the most heterosexual man I know. I've never known him to look at another man in that way and he draws women like a magnet. One thing I will say for him though, he never takes advantage of any lady's attraction to him to further our missions," Richard said.
"I can't say the same for Napoleon I'm afraid." said Illya. "He just can't seem to keep his hands off the ladies whether he is on an assignment or off duty. The nearest I've come to dropping a hint is to make it clear to him that I disapprove of his womanising. He has no idea of the real reason I don't like it of course. Has Craig ever responded to any of your hints?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I think he has, I'll give him a meaningful look and now and again I'll think maybe he's returned it but then, the next time we meet, he has a new girlfriend in tow and I decide I must have been mistaken. It's the same for me as it is for you – there is just too much at stake for me to risk letting him know in a more obvious way."
"And so you continue to hide your true feelings for him, just as I hide mine for Napoleon. We continue day after day you and I, working alongside the men we love, unable to say how we feel but equally unable to draw away," said Illya, sadly.
Richard reflected that even Illya didn't understand the full import of these last words. Because of the events in Tibet he could never totally cut himself off from Craig, drawing away just wasn't an option for him. Of course this wasn't something he could share with the man beside him. Aloud he said,
"Sometimes, very rarely but nevertheless, it does happen," Richard began, "sometimes I think I do have grounds for hope that one day things may be different. Craig can be quite tactile and he often reaches out and touches me, all too fleetingly, but nevertheless it gives me reason for hope that there is more behind it than appears on the surface. I'm never sure if that makes things better or worse for me though."
"I understand," said Illya, "Napoleon is like that too but I suspect that, in his case, it issimply because he is a tactile man. Although, on occasion, I also hope that it does have hidden meaning; I think I am too much of a realist to truly believe there is anything behind it. I have accepted, in my mind if not my heart, that we can never be more than friends and colleagues. Generally speaking it is sufficient for me to watch his back on our assignments and, as far as anyone can, to keep him safe. The knowledge that he would lay down his life for me, just as I would mine for him, has to be enough; there can never be more."
"And if you're wrong, and he does care for you in the way you care for him, would you regret not speaking sooner? That's something that haunts me. If I discovered Craig really did care that way for me would I wish I'd discussed it with him much earlier, regret the time wasted?"
"My friend, life is too short for regrets. If Napoleon were to care for me in the same way I do for him then my life would be complete, I could ask for no more than that."
Both men fell silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts, then Richard gave a chuckle and Illya looked up, his eyes asking the question.
"I was just thinking that it was a good thing that it was you and I who got paired up for this assignment and not Napoleon and Craig. I'm not sure they would have got on as well," Richard said, still obviously amused by the thought.
"I have to agree with you there, although Napoleon does get on with most people," Illya said.
"And it's true that Craig is pretty easy going and very likeable too," Richard rejoined. "However I suspect that the two of them are a little too alike for a working relationship between them to be truly harmonious. I think that you and I are willing to allow them to take charge when they feel the need, even though we are just as capable of leading when necessary."
"When it is right for the assignment I happily follow Napoleon's lead and, I believe, that is one of the reasons our partnership works so well. From your description of your friend he would not be so accommodating."
"Which is why our partnership works so well: with me he doesn't have to compromise, well not usually anyway. I do sometimes wrest control, especially if the situation involves a lot of waiting around and thinking of strategies. Not that Craig isn't intelligent, he is, but all the same he prefers to take direct action if at all possible and he gets impatient when he can't."
As he said this Richard glanced down at his watch. He was astonished at how much time had passed.
"We'd better be going, that debriefing won't wait forever," he said.
"Very well," said his companion.
"Illya, our jobs being such as they are it's unlikely we will be able to keep up any kind of regular contact with one another, but I would be interested to hear if you and Napoleon ever do get together," Richard said.
"I too admit I am curious to know how things work out between you and Craig," said Illya. "Should you ever get together with him, all you need do is telephone UNCLE headquarters. I will give you a codeword that will ensure that they'll give you a number that will put you in direct contact with me."
"Nemesis isn't quite that organised yet, but a telegram will always reach me, eventually," replied Richard.
"Then we are agreed, should the best happen we inform each other?" asked Illya.
"We're agreed," confirmed Richard.
Side by side the two agents left the bar, each heading back to their own organisations and the men they held most dear.
A few years later Richard returned from his latest assignment with Craig. As he headed towards the telephone he thought back to the occasion about three years ago when a telegram had arrived for him from Illya, containing just two words:
At the time his happiness for the UNCLE agent had been tinged with sadness that his own situation had not changed. However, he had swallowed his regret and sent a congratulatory telegram in acknowledgement.
He picked up the telephone and dialled a number,
"UNCLE headquarters," came the female voice.
"Richard Barrett here from Nemesis," he said, "I wish to speak to Illya Kuryakin please," and he smiled as he pictured the expression on Illya's face when the blond agent realised that, he too, had successfully accomplished the most important mission of his life.