"I don't think you want to finish that sentence, Napoleon."
The air was thick with tension as the Russian squared off against his partner on the gym floor. The two men circled as first one and then the other threw out a challenging taunt, hoping to distract and gain an advantage. It wasn't often that either of them gained that elusive prize, the concentration rarely wavering in contests between the two agents.
"Tovarisch… you wound me. I was only going to compliment you on your recent weight loss. Waif is in this year, if you can believe the fashion pages."
The grin was wicked, and he knew his slightly built friend would bristle at the remark. Score one for Solo. He feinted to his left and lunged for the other man's knees, hoping to topple him and get him in some kind of grip. The smaller man was quick, and he easily avoided the move as he rolled and then sprang up from the mat in an irritatingly swift and graceful maneuver.
"Ah, thank you my friend. Unfortunately, it seems for every pound I lose, it finds its way to your middle."
That was too much. Napoleon Solo was not overweight, no matter how many times that skinny Russian tried to infer that he was.
"I hope you can make your weight requirement this week, Kuryakin. I might have to double check all of the results…"
The little Russian slammed into the maligned mid-section and plowed Solo to the mat, toppling the bigger man and rolling over him until he had his arm around his throat, his legs in a scissor grip encircling Napoleon's waist. The maniacal grin conveyed too much satisfaction in his mastery of this encounter, and the little gallery of onlookers chuckled and lent a hearty applause for the show they had witnessed.
"Okay, let me up. You win this round, but you still haven't caught up enough to make us even."
The two untangled themselves, rearranging arms and legs as they brushed off and slapped each other's backs and headed for the showers. Lingering among the onlookers was one new recruit who had his eyes on New York's top agents. Survival School had taught him to be diligent and observant, never yielding to emotional distractions or personal doubts. The mission was everything, and no one was truly innocent. He had learned that from life.
As the two combatants headed for the dressing rooms, they didn't notice the young man who stood on the mats watching them retreat. He didn't know exactly how or when, but with a certainty born of conviction and conceit, the demise of UNCLE's top two agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, appeared before him as a catapult for his own career. It was, he believed, a matter of destiny.
An hour passed before Napoleon received the notice that he and his partner were expected in Mr. Waverly's office. The day had been unusually calm; the most excitement thus far had been their exhibition in the gym. Napoleon cinched his belt to the next notch, pleased to know that in spite of Illya's baiting remarks, his waist was actually diminishing satisfactorily after his decision to cut out sweets. Well, he still enjoyed an occasional ear for nibbling, but at least that only led to working off more calories, rather than consuming them.
"Napoleon, do you know the subject matter of this meeting?'
Illya was not thinking of nibbling dainty earlobes, and so had nothing to remark on when Napoleon was pulled back to the present.
"Oh, uh…no, actually. I have no ideas whatsoever. I suppose the day was too calm for Mr. Waverly's tastes, and who better to stir it up than us. I just hope we don't get a lousy courier run…'
They ambled up to Heather McNabb's desk, allowing Napoleon one more visit to his ear nibbling scenario…
"Good afternoon, Heather."
She batted her eyes at him without meaning to, and blushed slightly when Illya rolled his in disdain. Just once she'd like to not be embarrassed by the Russian. He saw too much. Sometimes she wondered…
"You can go right in, gentlemen, he's expecting you."
Napoleon blew her a kiss while Illya strode into the office ahead of him. Ears and nibbling… Napoleon wondered if Heather were free for dinner tonight.
Each man took his seat and began to peruse the file situated at his place. Illya pulled out his glasses, and Napoleon wondered once again just how the Russian had managed to sneak those into the US. They must surely be Soviet in design, and just slightly less ugly than their cars.
The office was immaculate, as usual. The round table that served as desk, confessional and equalizer of men, was now covered with various aerial photographs of some type of complex.
"Gentlemen, what do you see?"
Illya cut his eyes to get a glimpse of Napoleon's reaction to the question. Having no idea himself where these were taken, he rather hoped his partner would.
"Sir, I… I don't see anything familiar in these. What is this?"
Napoleon decided to just admit his ignorance. Sometimes it was easier.
Waverly harrumphed into his pipe, something that was familiar to the two agents.
"I thought not. It is a top secret installation that houses the latest threat to humankind. It does not belong to any of the world powers that we recognize politically, but is, regrettably, the largest Thrush satrapy known to exist.'
He paused for effect before adding…
"It must be destroyed."
Illya looked at his partner just long enough to convey what Napoleon was himself thinking: 'I knew that was coming'.
Illya spoke up, but not to verbalize his first thought.
"Sir, where exactly is this satrapy located? It seems to be surrounded by trees, but I don't recognize the topography, specifically."
Waverly shook his head.
"No, Mr. Kuryakin, I don't believe we've ever sent you into this region. It will be, perhaps, a first; both for you and the local population."
Illya furrowed his brow in a questioning expression.
"How is that, sir?"
Waverly let a small smile slip between his lips, and his eyebrows waggled in a short burst of amusement.
"You, Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Solo, are going to Georgia."
Waverly chuckled, the only brevity in his day thus far.
"No, Mr. Kuryakin, not Georgia in the Ukraine. Georgia, USA."
Napoleon shifted uncomfortably in his chair, thoughts of humidity and moonshine mixing with a disinclination to go traipsing into the South wearing a new suit and sporting a Yankee accent.
"Mr. Solo, do you have an objection to traveling south?"
Waverly was still amused, in spite of the seriousness of the mission and its goal of annihilating the Thrush compound.
"Ah, no…no, not at all…sir. I, uh…well, is that where they call the inhabitants Hillbillies?"
Illya snorted at that, not understanding anything about the term, but enjoying the effect it had on his partner.
"Napoleon, what on earth is a Hillbilly? You Americans have the most unusual phrases and titles for your population."
Napoleon sat up a little straighter, fixed his cuffs and swiveled his neck until he thought his head was probably screwed on tight enough. He shouldn't have said anything.
"Illya, it's a term used for the people who live in the hills of the Southeast. Not a completely complimentary term, granted, but it is also a region where they tend to make up their own rules, and have been known to disregard the norms of social niceties. I think."
Illya rolled his eyes for the third or fourth time today.
"Napoleon, how exactly is that different from most of the people we encounter? And, since when have you balked at going anywhere and encountering new people? I am a tad concerned for you, my friend, if some common Hillbillies can create this reaction in you."
Illya was right. Napoleon didn't know why he reacted as he did. Something about stories he had heard and tales of Yankees being tarred and feathered. Mark Twain, that's why he was thinking like this.
"Yes, of course, you're right. I'm just caught up in the lore and literary accounts. We'll be fine. Just fine."
Alexander Waverly turned the big table once more, placing two new folders in front of his agents.
"These, gentlemen, are your necessary documents for this mission. Your tickets and travel itinerary are here, as well as the names of your contacts once you arrive in Atlanta. I leave this in your capable hands. Oh, and … do be in touch."
The same young man who had watched Napoleon and Illya so intently during their gym encounter had arrived outside of Waverly's office and, seizing opportunity had chatted up Heather, asking but receiving no information about the conversation being held behind the grey metal doors. She was cautious about everything, and in spite of a charming demeanor, something about this new recruit had put her on edge.
As Solo and Kuryakin emerged from Waverly's office, the new man smiled at the pair, winking at Heather as though they shared secrets. Illya caught the quick look of unease on the young woman's face, a completely uncharacteristic response from the seasoned employee. Napoleon appeared not to notice, but as they moved farther down the hallway, he commented on the brief exchange of greetings and body language.
"Did Heather seem a little uptight back there?"
Illya held his head with a slight cant, suggesting he didn't quite understand Napoleon's remark.
"Uptight? If that means a little tense, then yes, I believe so."
"Yeah, that's what it means. And I have to wonder why she was… tense. Do you know that new man? What's his name… Shields?"
Illya nodded this time, trying to remember something out of Steven Shields's file…
"He is, I believe, just graduated. He showed enough potential to Cutter and Waverly that they have assigned him here for his first duty.''
As the two continued walking towards their office, Napoleon determined to look into the man's background a little more thoroughly. Using Heather's reaction to the man as a gauge of some sort might seem ungrounded, but she was a stable and experienced member of UNCLE. If something about the guy bugged her, then Napoleon needed to find out why.