BURIED IN THE MISTS OF TIME AFFAIR

by

gm

I

There's nowhere - unless you're there

November 22, 2011

Quantico Virginia

Staring out at the dark, slick street, Jethro Gibbs tightened his fists as he watched the green British sports car glide to a stop at the curb. The rain was almost sideways, heavy drops turning to frozen flakes in the air and starting to stick to the freezing ground. Thin sheens of ice reflected the golden beams of the headlights, and the glow lingered even after the car turned off and the lamps faded to black.

It was a chill, breezy night and with a twinge of regret Gibbs watched his medical examiner emerge from the low-slung Morgan. Was it really necessary for the team to come out on a night like this? Yanking the 70-something Doctor Mallard from the possibility of a warm fire, and sending him out to a bar for a group gathering seemed ridiculous.

Abby had been the driving force for this get-together. She suggested the gesture as a pre-Thanksgiving fest before the NCIS unit split for the holidays. Ziva, Tony and Tim had invitations for out of town. Abby was helping at a local food bank. Gibbs was heading down to his hometown to spend a few days with his dad. Ducky had been invited, but insistently claimed he would appreciate a quiet and contemplative day pursuing a novel that had been spending far too long on an end table. Gibbs knew Mallard's excuses for solitude this time of year was thinly veiled subterfuge.

Fully aware of what was at issue with Mallard, Gibbs refrained from prying. This year was made worse because of loss. All day Ducky had been moody, distant, introspective. The death of Mrs. Mallard – his mother - was difficult at the holiday season, but that was a minor contributing factor, Gibbs felt. Ducky was pining for something more ethereal and distant than seasonal loneliness.

Stepping out into the rain, the ever-present winter accoutrement – an English umbrella – popped open in Mallard's hand and he closed the door of his car, waiting for traffic to clear before crossing the street. Gibbs shivered, and stiffened, then moved circumspectly to the door. Not hurrying, but wary. Something was wrong. His chilled backbone spoke to his uncanny sixth-sense. There was something amiss and it had to do with Ducky.

Emerging from his Hunter green, classic Morgan, Donald Mallard paused as an unearthly puff of frozen breath slid across his exposed neck. Every nerve and muscle taut with an old, instinctive pulse of impending danger, he gripped the handle of the umbrella with crushing force. Long-dormant harbingers of peril shot tingles along the hairs of his arms.

As a second-thought, he blinked, realizing he had seen something from the corner of his eye. Or perhaps heard a subtle, barely audible sound above the patter of rain on the car's soft top and the material of the umbrella? Turning his head just a fraction, he peered into the depths of the cavernous mouth of a nearby alley. No motion. No tell-tale figures, no evidence of anything amiss.

Shaking his head, he dismissed the edgy feeling. He was jumping at ghosts that were real only within the confines of his imagination. Old and bitter wraiths that haunted him still after twenty years. He flinched automatically, the physical reaction a habitual twitch that accompanied the raw memories which still stabbed like a blade to the heart even after so long. Some wounds could never heal. Those on the inside were the deepest.

Glancing into the dark pit of the alley one more time, and seeing nothing, he shook his head and checked the street. As traffic cleared he stepped across the pavement, still bothered by the sense of some irregularity. He stopped, just onto the sidewalk, short of the pub. A man in a dark trench coat limped, using a cane, exiting out of the sphere of meager lamplight just down the block. He had no umbrella, but wore a fedora that was ill-suited for the pelting ice that fluxed from drizzle, to frozen drops, to snow. The man was hunched, shuffled, and seemed a dejected, aching figure as he retreated. In another few steps he disappeared around the far corner. It was all a flash in an instance, but Mallard automatically built a profile, a diagnosis, in just those fleeting seconds. The man had seen hard times, was possibly ill, and cast the archetypal picture of loneliness.

Suddenly aware of a presence beside him, Mallard turned and gave a wan smile at his longtime associate, Gibbs. Young enough to be a son, Jethro Gibbs had been a cherished friend for as long as Mallard had been with NCIS. More than that, he was the only person on earth who knew the secrets harbored within one, whom the world saw, as the mild-mannered medical examiner. He flinched again, wishing the memories would stay at bay for a few more hours. Then he would retreat to his home and hide behind the brick fortress, and over a glass of brandy pretend to forget that he once had a much different life. And anything he did now was a shallow attempt to regain meaning, to inject significance, into a lie.

"You all right, Duck?"

The smile seemed forced. "Of course, Jethro. I should have known it would start snowing."

"It didn't think this was a good idea—"

"Oh, no, I think Abigail was right to call our little family together before Thanksgiving."

Mallard approached the door, but was blocked by the younger man. He stared into the blue eyes and flinched again. Jethro knew the sham, knew this was all pretense. All day at work he had been hyper attentive – unduly carful – atypical for Gibbs' usual closed and self-contained nature. He was well aware of what this date meant and was surprised Mallard would travel abroad on this night to join a social gathering. A trained espionage agent, Gibbs understood secrets. He knew how to detect them, to discover them, and most importantly to Mallard, to keep them.

"I am fine, Jethro," he assured quietly. "Thank you for your concern, but there is no need. I have noted this date in my own fashion and have moved on. Let us forget the winter for a moment and indulge in the warmth of good –" He swallowed hard. Tonight, a hovering ghosts pressing on his heart more than usual. He could not surrender the word friend. The brave front was only skin deep. Just under the façade his wounded soul might explode with the slightest provocation. "Good times," he finished after a moment.

Jethro's sympathetic smile was knowing and kind. "Then let's go on in." The words were sincere and thoughtful, but the eyes held the true intent that the shared secret was safe. "The kids are already here."

Mallard snorted out a chuckle and stepped inside, taking one last glance down the empty street. No signs of anything amiss. Turning his attention to the adopted family of agents that had become his closest friends, he felt the chill of memories and a murky past dissipate from the edges of a frosty history that was buried in the mists of time. Here was his reality. He should ignore the date and move on. He told himself that every year and it never worked. Maybe this year, though. . . . Spending the dreaded anniversary with his colleagues who were his new unit should ward off the ghost who haunted him.

Characteristically, Abigail was the first to greet him. A hug and a kiss were followed by the cheery, Goth-dressed young woman taking Ducky by the arm and leading him toward a booth next to a paneled window. The bar was decorated with an American Revolutionary War motif, and Gibbs shepherded Tony DiNozzo – who arrived with more drinks - around the circular table. They waved to Tim McGee, who rushed past the window, toward the entrance. Already seated, Ziva David scooted over and hugged Mallard, adding her delight that the group was almost complete. Only Mister Palmer, Mallard's morgue assistant, would not be joining them. He was spending the holidays with his fiancé.

The door opened, blowing in snow flurries and Tim McGee entered, with Abby going to greet him. Both laughing while they made their way to the booth. Tim apologized for being late. He had been working with NATO representatives visiting the Navy Yard at Quantico. Gibbs had not been in the loop on that, so he turned his attention to Mallard.

Taking up a post at the edge, with a view toward the door and his back to the wall – the gunslinger's seat – Gibbs allowed the conversation to swirl around him like the gathering snow cascading on the other side of the glass. The uncomfortable feeling had dissipated but not vanished. And he would swear that Ducky was feeling a hint of something bad in the air as well. Two old war horses unable to settle into the barn, he inwardly sighed. Still, he kept a wary eye out the window, knowing better than to ignore his intuitions.

On the other side of the table, DiNozzo stayed only for a moment before jumping back toward the bar.

"I was really hoping it wasn't going to snow," McGee sighed, then shook his head.

Abby wagged her finger at him. "The weatherman said –"

"You should know better than to believe TV people!" Ziva shot back.

"The weather isn't as bad as a November in Edinburgh, right Ducky?" Tony questioned as he returned and slid a short glass in front of the ME.

"No, it isn't, Tony," Mallard agreed, and took a tentative sip of the brandy. His mouth twitched.

"Didn't they get it right, Ducky? I ordered you a brandy. That's what you always order when we go out for drinks before Thanksgiving." He angled so he addressed the rest of the gathering when he continued. "But just this time of year, right, Ducky? Other times you have a Scotch whiskey –"

"Malt whiskey," the Edinburgh native corrected. "Yes, uh, thank you, Anthony."

"Now why is that, Ducky? Only brandy at this time of year? You're at the table with a bunch of investigators so we should be able to figure out this little mystery."

Changing the subject, Gibbs took the beer glass from in front of DiNozzo. "And how many of these have you had, Tony?"

Mallard slid away the cheap brandy and brushed glances with the ever perceptive Gibbs, who held his eyes only for a flicker, then both looked away.

'Brandy,yeah.Justnottherightkind,' Gibbs finished the thought that was nearly tangible to him, knowing Ducky the way he did.

The group exchanged details about their excursions that no one had time to share earlier in the week. It had been a rush to finish their current caseload, deal with the two NATO officials, and tidy up loose ends before the extended holiday break. The four younger team members were taking off a half day on Wednesday, hoping to beat the worst of the traffic out of the DC area tomorrow night.

"Well, I hate to break this up too early," DiNozzo continued, "but I have to get home and finish packing." He grimaced as he looked at the snow that had increased since they were in the bar. "Maybe we should leave a little early tomorrow?" He gave an eager glance to the boss. "If the snow keeps up we should get to the airport before things get too bad," he directed at Ziva, then waited for a confirmation from Gibbs.

"Ah, traveling together," Mallard observed. "Good idea."

Abby pouted. "Hey, I wanted to go around the table and have everybody say what they are most thankful for this year!"

Mallard twitched and Gibbs frowned at the thought.

Tony tapped his watch. "No time, Abby, sorry."

"We need to have a toast first!" Abby insisted and raised her glass. "To us! I'm so thankful for our NCIS family."

Everyone clinked their drinks and took a sip. Some more than others. Gibbs noted Ducky's lips hardly touched the liquor, and he didn't swallow.

Next Tim raised his glass and offered, "Here's to a happy holiday!"

After repeating the ritual, Ziva finished on a serious note. "Let's all return safe." Then gave a dazzling smile. "And stuffed!"

They all laughed, touched glasses and drank, trading wishes of good cheer, hearty food and pleasant travel. Standing to allow the others to scoot out of the booth, Gibbs was the first to see the flashing blue strobe lights glittering like prisms against the snow-frosted windows. Tony, then the others in turn noted the all too familiar precursor of doom.

"Police cars," Tony voiced.

Gibbs, then the rest of his team, marched out into the cold and gravitated toward the alley. Now lit with the bright beams of headlights and blue flickers of the squad car lights, they could see a body slumped on the pavement. A bewildered dishwasher from the bar stood to the side talking to one of the patrolwomen. Another officer was scanning the area with a flashlight. Professional curiosity drew the NCIS agents closer to the victim. Instinctively, Mallard crouched to examine the corpse.

"Hey, get away –"

Gibbs already had his ID flipped open and explained their status as fellow enforcement officials. Commenting that this was just a quick visit to satisfy their curiosity, he leaned over to urge Mallard to leave it to the local cops.

With a reluctant nod, Mallard rose slowly, his years of aches and pains catching up to him, and he walked away with Gibbs. Before he stepped off the curb he looked back at the corpse, disturbed.

"What is it?" Gibbs asked, chilled by more than the weather. There was something not right in the very atmosphere around them.

Ducky shook his head. "The body. I just glanced at the profile. Although it was difficult with part of the head blown away . . . " he shook his head in puzzlement. "It seemed – somehow familiar."

The idea that the corpse was known gave Gibbs chills. He had felt something amiss earlier. This only confirmed it. Wanting to get his friend away from possible danger, he urged the ME across the street and to the safety of the Morgan. He waited there until he could no longer see the receding tail lights of the sports car. Then he walked over to the police and questioned them about the corpse. A man with foreign ID. Probably down here looking for a good time and took a wrong turn from DCs red light district.

Well dressed, tall, probably in his 60s, the bald man was no longer a threat. What was unnerving were the two bullet holes in the chest and one to the back of the head. The first pair had killed him, but the executioner had a message and a score with the last hit. This murder was done by a pro.

Only moments after Ducky drove away, Gibbs jumped into his sedan and followed. He waited across the street from the townhouse and watched as the lights went on in the condo and saw, from behind the drapes, the shadow of Ducky back-lit by a fire in the front room. As if watching a pantomime, he could tell when Mallard crossed to a sideboard. Then crossed back to sit by the fire, now holding a glass in his hand. Uneasy, but seeing no dangers around him on the street, Gibbs was reluctant to leave. He knew Mallard was sitting before the flames, drinking alone. Pining for a past that had ended tragically. Toasting a comrade-in-arms who would never celebrate another birthday on this day. Saddened, wishing there was more he could do, he drove away, knowing time did not really heal a broken heart.

Staring into the fireplace, he sunk comfortably into the cushioned, wing-back chair. The expensive brandy swirled in the snifter as Mallard shifted his gaze from the fire to the liquor. Pressing the glass to his lips he closed his eyes. The tapestry of memories never far from his thoughts surged forward. It was as if twenty, thirty years misted away and he was transported back to another life and time. Other birthdays, happier times, in pubs, in restaurants, in airports, train stations and even at their offices. A simple offer of a present, a laugh, a toast.

Tears slid down his face and he whispered a prayer, a hoarse plea, and a fond remembrance of the life he never forgot. Of the friend who would live with him always – only a thought away. While he might not be walking beside him anymore, he was as close as his heartbeat every day.

"Happy birthday, Napoleon."

II

Take me as I am - take my life
I would give it all I would sacrifice

November 23, 2011

Gibbs intended to visit the morgue first thing in the morning. Not surprisingly, last minute duties kept him busy until nearly noon. With the snow falling in heavy sheets, the sun blocked out and the conditions nearly white-out, the team was anxious to be on their way. Over the speaker at Gibbs' desk, Ducky wished them all well. A body had just arrived and he was doing the preliminary work. Mister Palmer had already left, so he would finish the paperwork on his own before he closed the morgue for the long weekend.

Bidding his team good-bye for the holiday, Gibbs went down to see the ME, who sounded fine, but he wanted to make sure. After last night, he was concerned. He knew what November twenty-second meant to his friend, and knew it had been a tough day and night. But one Ducky wished to commemorate alone, in mourning. Gibbs respected his wishes and allowed him to do so, even though he wished he could have somehow helped to ease the pain. There was no way to diminish one's grief, though, no matter how much the desire. He knew that first hand.

Striding into the morgue, he received a nod of greeting from his ME. Mallard was standing next a body bag laid out under a bright light, resting on a bed of metal.

"Welcome, Jethro. Did everyone get off all right?"

"Yes, they were anxious to leave. There's the makings of a blizzard, I'm thinking."

"You should be on your way as well. Abigail dropped by and told me the weather reports are speculating difficult travel."

"Then you should leave this until Monday, Duck."

"Oh, he will wait until Monday, I am sure. One of those NATO fellows who visited yesterday according to the report. I didn't meet either of the dignitaries while they were here. I am curious . . . but, with no lab facilities working over this long holiday, he will have to display patience. And so will his superiors." He finished scribbling something on a form snapped to a clipboard. "What is wrong, Jethro? You have been acting oddly."

With a snicker, he replied, "I was thinking the same about you, Duck. I know yesterday was tough –"

"But I am well, thank you, Jethro." It was an automatic, hurried response. Thoughtfully, he gazed beyond the agent for a moment. "I admit, I felt a bit gloomy, but the date comes round every year. I have learned to accept what cannot be changed. Stiff upper lip and all that." Then he gave Gibbs a level stare. "There was a feeling, though, when I stood at the Morgan." He shook his head. "A figure. The dark. The snow." His face wrinkled with an old hurt. "Old instincts surfacing, I suppose." Then, shrugging his shoulders, he placed the clipboard on a counter. "At any rate, all is well, Jethro." He unzipped the bag. "I just wanted to confirm identification before I put him into cold storage. You know, Jethro, this is the body from the crime scene last night."

Gibbs stared at the ME as the body bag opened. "Really. That's quite a coincidence."

"Yes, except neither one of us believes in them. Yet, here we are. Go and have a pleasant holiday. I shall see you next week. And give my regards to your father."

Gibbs offered his good wishes to his friend, pausing to watch the older man at work. Then he heard the gasp, and saw Ducky stiffen and back away, pale, frozen in shock, staring at the deceased. Without a word, he knew it was the amazement of recognition. Ducky knew this victim. Shaken, he looked like he was about to fall backwards.

Gibbs smoothly grabbed onto his arms and kept him steady. "Watch it, Ducky! What is it? Or who is it?"

Unable to respond, Mallard shook his head mechanically.

"You want to tell me who he is?"

Tight lipped, the doctor kept staring at the body. "A ghost," finally came the broken whisper. Shaking his head, he was still stunned by the magnitude of the shock. "An impossible ghost. And at this time . . . ."

Tense, Gibbs hardly whispered, "From your past."

As bad nightmares always did, this one had come back to haunt his colleague. How serious was this threat? And how was it going to affect Ducky? Was the older man, or any of his team, in imminent danger? Studying the body, the gunshots to the chest – two tight round holes right into the dead man's heart, the single shot to the back of the head – the assurance shot of an assassin – it came together for Gibbs.

"Yeah, this is the body from the alley last night. And he was hit by a pro. What I want to know is how you could know him!"

Ducky gulped. "Last night," he whispered. "On the twenty-second . . . . And – I – I saw the murderer," he gasped out.

"Why didn't you say –"

"No, you don't understand, Jethro." Desperate, he stared at the younger man, pleading and anguish in his face and tone, dread in his eyes. "This is horrible –"

"Whatever it is we can handle it –"

"No, Jethro! We can't! You have nothing to do with –"

Releasing a depreciative snort he affirmed, "Duck, we're family. We're not going to have this discuss –"

Gripping onto his arm with unexpected force, the older man stared at Gibbs. "You cannot handle this, Jethro! This man is a ghost! He can't possibly be alive! Of course, he's not," he clarified, then quickly added, "but he was. And he was here under the guise of a NATO officer! He was following me! He had to be after me!" Leaning his head in his hands he squeezed his eyes shut. "It's all coming unraveled! It's the end of the charade." Opening his eyes he stared at the agent. "Why on his birthday? Of all days, why did they come for me now?"

Firmly tugging the older man to the chair across the room, Gibbs crouched down beside him. "I'm taking you ho –"

"No, I must stay here. The autops –"

"It can wait!"

"No. It can't. This man once hunted me. He found me last night. I know it must be a horrible coincidence, but you know how important that date is to me."

"Yes. But before we do anything else, we're going to sit down and reason this out." He led Mallard to the other room. He dashed to the desk drawer and pulled out a liquor bottle and two glasses, leaving them next to the ME. "I'll be right back. Just stay here while I take care of a few things."

Back in the squad room, as quickly as he could he fumbled his way through the computer commands necessary to call up base security. He got a name and a picture of the visiting NATO dignitary, as well as the man who accompanied him. The names meant nothing to him, but he managed to start a recognition program to find some answers. If only McGee were here, or Abby, they could get this done quickly. Right now he didn't have time to mess with it. He had to get back to a shattered friend who needed him.

III

Don't tell me it's not worth tryin' for
You can't tell me it's not worth dyin' for

Both hands clutching the glass, Mallard – pale – still - stared at the far wall. Gibbs paced, waiting for the stricken man to talk. There was no need to go into the history. Soon after Mallard came to NCIS, Gibbs had intuited there was a mystery behind the educated, quirky Scotsman transplanted to Washington DC. Instinct and curiosity drove him to investigate. Little tidbits popped up over time, small discrepancies muddled behind the elaborate and flowery stories that were so outrageous, and yes, annoying, that no one else questioned Ducky's prattle. Snippets of instinct, knowledge, buried in the mists of time, that surfaced unexpectedly – slip-ups - that were expertly covered up by Mallard.

Like two professional fighters circling each other, studying, prowling, hunting for weaknesses and shoring up defenses, Gibbs and Mallard had danced around the truth for months. Finally, after one of Gibbs' divorces and a particularly cold and heartless winter storm, the two had drinks. It was then the agent noted a chink in the armor that was carefully constructed around the medical examiner. The perfectly-fitting pieces of an intriguing puzzle formed into a solid picture. And on yesterday's date, November twenty-second, Gibbs finessed out of a slightly drunk Mallard, the truth.

"You ever gonna tell me who you really are, Duck?"

Snorting into his snifter of brandy, the Scotsman took a long, smooth drink and gave a slow nod. Staring into the blazing fire in Gibb's hearth, he leaned back his head and gave a short, mirthless laugh. "And I thought I was so clever."

"You are. And good, too. But I know another operative when I see one, Duck. Your paper trail is air-tight, but a little too perfect. To my own credit, I know what to look for."

Biting his lip, Mallard pressed the snifter against his forehead. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tightly responded, "Craft and cunning and confidence are often mistaken for arrogance."

Knowing there was layered meaning to that oblique comment – it sounded too personal - Gibbs probed more. "This is the third year, on this date, that you've gotten morose and quiet. You don't want to go home to your mother and her dogs. And for two years you ended up with me, in a bar, drinking expensive brandy. So this year –"

"You thought you would bait the trap and reel me in, to use a metaphor," came the condemning statement. "Well played, Jethro." He took another long sip.

"Napoleon brandy." Ducky flinched. "And you only drink it on this day of the year?"

Mallard nodded woodenly. "In honor of a brother." It was a tremulous whisper so quiet it was barely heard over the crackling fire.

This was dangerous territory on a battlefield Gibbs was ill-suited to address. The perilous tors and crags of the heart broken from circumstances beyond one's control. He had been there. He had felt it – died inside from it. Able to read anguish that was soul deep in another, he cringed that he had come to this point and could not retreat. Private to a point of obsession, Gibbs did not want to meddle. But he did want to have Duck admit he was right. That was part of that confidence and arrogance, he supposed. Traits shared by whoever it was who had crushed Mallard in the past?

"How much do you know?" Ducky wondered, in a tone that was abstract and almost uncaring.

"That your cover is good. It's tight and solid –"

"But you could see through it."

With a nod, the younger agent admitted, "I know another pro when I see one."

After a short, bitter, chuckle, Mallard nodded. He stared into the fire. "You will know me by another name, but you may not believe me."

The challenge was natural. "Try me."

Studying the brandy, the doctor responded, "Illya Kuryakin."

For a rare instant, Gibbs was speechless. A cough of surprise preceded a nod. "Wow."

Glancing at him, Ducky surrendered a ghost of a smile. "I don't believe I have ever seen you so surprised, Jethro."

"I don't think I ever have been. Illya Kuryakin. You're – you were – a myth! If spies had textbooks your name would be the title of several chapters!"

Sneering, the older man shrugged. "In invisible ink."

Gibbs gave a chuckle, but sobered when he realized his friend was not amused. Still astounded, he shook his head. "You're spoken of like a boogyman or something. A legend in the spy . . . ." His words faded in a hushed dread. "And your partner . . . ." He cleared his throat uncomfortably, almost forcing himself to verbalize the connection. His eyes darted to the brandy snifter, then back to his colleague. "Napoleon."

Mallard's eyes closed in misery. Nodding, he drew in a sharp breath. "I have rarely uttered his name in all these years. Except to toast him on this special day." His face sunk into the palm of a hand. "At first to curse him. Silence, I suppose is a disservice to him. He should have been remembered . . . ." His hand was shaking so much Gibbs moved over and gently took the snifter. "Instead, his legacy is a snifter of brandy – Napoleon brandy - once a year on his birthday. No grave, no flowers, no one to mourn him."

"But you."

"But me." Mallard drew back to sink further into the chair. "He should have been the one to live," he whispered. "Not me."

Still, Gibbs wanted to leave, but this was his house! It was wrong to watch this private grief, but he was torn with the desire to help. There was nothing anyone could do, of course. Past ghosts could not be resurrected, nor would they stop haunting – he knew that well enough.

The chill of the morgue had nothing to do with the frost caking him from the inside of his marrow. Gibbs drew in a deep breath. They were on emotional ground that was as fragile for the heart as a thin sheet of ice over a frozen lake. Any misstep and the cracks would break open, plunging the unlucky traveler into the icy abyss. There was no retreat possible. This was personal. Someone was after his old friend, a valued comrade and member of his team. That made it Gibbs' business now.

"This has something to do with Napoleon."

Mallard flinched, but Gibbs could not tiptoe around niceties. There was a threat to his friend and he would stop at nothing to protect his colleague. Nor would he allow Mallard to push him away, or try to deflect necessary action.

"Who is the dead guy?"

Slowly, Mallard turned toward him. "You remember me explaining my last mission." It was not a question.

Gibbs nodded. He would never forget.

Knowing this was how it must have felt for his father and others who tried to comfort him after the murders of his wife and daughter, Gibbs nonetheless forged ahead. Now that he had peeked inside Ducky – Kuryakin's – secret world, there was no turning back.

Hating to interrogate, yet needing to know, he questioned, "How much is fabricated?"

Mallard gestured a hand in the air. "Everything, Jethro. You know when someone is relocated it must be complete. There was nothing left – no reason to go back . . . ." He shook his head. "Little reason to go on," came the solemn condemnation. "Except to finish the mission. And give some kind of meaning and tribute to Napoleon's –" He drew and released a deep sigh. "It was a favor to an old friend of mine. She had been content to work in Hungry through the Cold War. Until her son and his wife were killed in a traffic accident. She wanted to come back here to raise her grandson." He stared into the fire. "The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Soviet bloc was in disarray, but she was still heavily guarded by the KGB." A derisive laugh. "They didn't just fade away into obscurity with the fall of communism! We got her and escaped almost to the border. To be caught would mean our deaths in a most unpleasant way. Napo – we needed time. He bought us that. As we fled on foot he crashed the car into the KGB sedan . . . ."

The crackling of the fire popped and hissed like subdued gunfire. When Gibbs felt Ducky was calm enough to continue, he put together the clues and simply asked for confirmation of his theory. Kuryakin melted into obscurity with an older woman and a child – teen – Ducky corrected. The KGB would be looking for a spy, and a grandmother and grandson. Two groups. They would never guess the prey was hiding close to the hub of the nation's capital; the master spy legend would masquerade as a medical examiner with an aging mother.

"The credentials are real," the older man assured. "I have several degrees. Had – well – I could have hidden away as anything. I severed all contact with all our old friends. I never surfaced. A few false trails were scattered around the globe, but I remained hidden."

"You had your new charges to protect."

The response was hollow. "Yes."

"Who is the dead man?" Gibbs repeated, sitting across from Mallard in the ME's lounge at NCIS HQ.

Kuryakin flinched. "His papers call him Brawnislaw Belarus. But his true name is – uh – I will always think of him as the monster Vasilli Karkov. I thought he and his partner, Anton Zubov, were dead. I thought they had died in the crash." Admitting he would have done anything to avenge the death of his friend, it was a bitter pill that he had lost that opportunity. Would it have appeased the anguish? No, but it would have fitted his Baltic soul. His fists balled into tight weapons that pounded the arm rest. "I should have gone after them and killed them! If I had known either of them were alive I would have had my revenge. They would have paid for murdering . . . ." He stopped short of speaking the name.

"The important thing is that they have surfaced –"

"And I will make sure Zubov will not leave the city," Mallard intoned with deadly intent.

"You're not going to do anything, Ducky. I'll –"

"This is not your fight."

"It is now. You're my –"

"No!" Abruptly coming to his feet, the whiskey and glass threw to the floor, splashing and shattering against a side table. "I am responsible for the death of my friend, my brother! I will not have you endangered for my sake, Jethro!" His voice broke. "No more death because of me! No more sacrifices!"

Afraid the older man would have a heart attack or seizure, Gibbs crossed quickly and held onto the shaking shoulder. "You might be a legend as Illya Kuryakin, but you are Doctor Mallard ME now. And you are not going to handle this." He took only a moment to finalize his plan. "You're staying here –" At the beginnings of an objection, he pressed on. "NCIS is the most secure place I can think of and you're staying put! I'm going to get more information on Karkov and more importantly, Zubov."

The medical man argued, but Gibbs was already heading for the door. He stopped and spun around to demand a description of the man seen leaving the scene of the crime. When he was met with silence, he reminded firmly that this was the best course. Appealing to the former agent's logic and reason, he at last won a concession that the old skills of a 60s spy legend were no match for a killer out on the streets of Twenty-first Century DC.

"I didn't get a good look at the man," Illya admitted. "Average height. Slumped. He used a cane. He wore a black coat and hat. That he was involved at all was only a guess. It is possible the man in the coat and hat just left the bar from the back."

"So it wasn't' Zubov?"

After a thoughtful moment, Kuryakin shook his head. "No. Zubov was shorter. Younger than Karkov. Besides why would he kill his superior when they were there to ambush me?"

"Good question," Gibbs ruminated. None of this made sense. Yet. "Then who killed him? That's one of the many answers we need. I guess you don't have a guardian angel?" he asked rhetorically.

"Not for twenty years," was the dark response.

Gibbs patted the older man's shoulder, sympathetic to the grief – reopened like a freshly ripped scar. "We'll figure it out, Duck. Stay here. I won't be long."

"I would like to go home."

Gibbs shook his head in flat denial of the request. It was too dangerous for Ducky to return to his condo. The snow storm was turning into a blizzard and he didn't want the target of Soviet assassins isolated away from instant protection. Nor would he allow the older man to go get any of his possessions. An ambush or flat-out gun battle could accomplish what the KGB had tried to do decades before. His first priority was to make sure his friend was safe, then go out and take down the bad guys. Covertly. No one else knew the secret of Mallard's – Kuryakin's – past, and Gibbs wanted it to stay that way.

As if reading his mind, Mallard ruminated that it might be time to share his secret with the rest of the team. It was a matter of loyalty and trust. He was surrounded with the family he never wished for, but was now grateful to have. It seemed a disservice to them to keep hiding. That went against the old spy craft of keeping the need to know to as few people as possible. It did, however, dovetail nicely into the close unit that had within it a father, the kids, and a loving uncle.

Gibbs would dash upstairs and arm himself with extra ammo. He had to alert the SPs. Almost out the door, the older man stopped him.

"You are not going out there alone to find Zubov! I'm coming with you!"

"No you're not!" Ffirmly, with hands gripping the thinner shoulders, Gibbs reiterated with strong resolution, "I've got the computers upstairs searching. I'll have base SPs backing me up. You are staying inside and out of the way. It's the only way to keep you safe. Stay here. I'll be quick."

"I can't let you –"

"I'm sorry, but your field days are past, Agent Kuryakin. Let me handle this."

The older man paled and shook his head. "Don't say that," he whispered. "Not those words."

Trying to back off from the stern yelling, Gibbs more calmly demanded, "Promise me you are not leaving this building, Duck!"

Securing a solemn promise that Ducky would stay within the secure facilities of NCIS, Gibbs left with the niggling feeling that he had done all the right things and Mallard was still in danger.

Hilda and Illya stood on a hill crest overlooking the border of Hungry. Napoleon Solo, bundled in a black trench coat, the collar straightened up to protect his neck, lowered field glasses and handed them to his partner.

"The KGB is right behind us."

With grim dejection, Illya followed the trail of the military sedan racing toward the border crossing. "We will never make it through before they reach us."

Hilda gripped onto Illya's arm and pled with him in Russian. Exchanging a look with his flinching friend, Illya spoke softly to her, then asked Solo, "What is our plan? We cannot allow her to be captured."

A curt nod, then a wink were Solo's response. "Don't worry," he told them. Placing a hand on his friend's shoulder, he quietly instructed, "Start toward the crossing." Giving a tight squeeze of his friend's neck, his stare lasted a few moments. The brown eyes were solemn, steady. "Get going. I'll handle it," he vowed.

Nerves tight, Illya was rooted in place. Hilda was already on her way. Following, he glanced back to his friend, but Solo had climbed into their vehicle and did not look back.

Already down the hill when the horrendous sound of a crash, then an explosion, echoed in the still landscape, Illya halted in dread. Running back up the rise, Kuryakin was immobile with shock. The car, the KGB sedan, were engulfed in flames! The border guards were racing to the scene. Hilda was already nearing the crossing gate. He stood there for timeless moments, waiting to see a sign of his friend running up from some hidden position. He watched for any clue that Napoleon had survived the wreck. No one could have emerged alive. He must have jumped out before – but no stragglers, or injured were visible. The soldiers were working to extract someone from the flaming KGB car, but the old, little sedan Napoleon had driven to destruction was allowed to burn.

Turning, Kuryakin closed out the horror of what had just happened. Woodenly, he joined Hilda and they strolled past an inattentive guard and into freedom. Forever leaving behind his life, and the only person who gave that life meaning. On that day there were two deaths. One from sacrifice – one from grief.

The sitting area adjacent to the morgue was not as cozy as his own home, but it was serviceable. A comfortable sofa and several chairs, tables and lamps, a stack of medical-related magazines, it was designed as a retreat from the high-tension work of an ME. Rather than ensconce himself in the rooms prepared for visiting guests at NCIS HQ, Illya paced in this familiar, and safe, domain. After cleaning up the whiskey, he finally slumped into a chair.

In his ruminations he had convinced himself he was a coward. Allowing Jethro out there alone to fight his battles was wrong. Gibbs had been unusually tactful and restrained in not telling him he was too old and clumsy to handle a field operation. And that was true. He would never be able to hold a pistol steady enough to kill someone as skilled as a former KGB agent.

He paused and for the first time that night started thinking with a measure of clarity. Why was Karkov after him? And who was the killer? Zubov? After all these years they were not much younger than he was! How had they found him? Why would Zubov kill his superior here in America? Although his arthritic back pained him, he paced a few more steps, working at the problem.

Then abruptly he slid to a halt. There on the side table was the answer. A magazine article from last month highlighting an NCIS investigation. There was Ducky in the background. He had been spotted. Even after so long his face was recognizable. What a stupid trick of fate. Of bad luck. A breath caught in his throat and he tightly closed his eyes against a pain that could not be deflected.

Luck. There had been an end to luck twenty years ago. After Napoleon's death there was no reason to go on, except he owed his life to his friend and would carry on because of that sacrifice. The misty years had been a glide through an altered state. Burying heartbreak behind a façade of ambition, he pretended to live, when in reality he was an empty shell for a long time. Not allowing the mourning to hold him back, he pushed aside the tears.

Adopting dedication, he made the most costly venture of his life worth something. He implemented the persona of Donald Mallard without much of a ripple. It was another role, like an extended undercover assignment. He made himself believe he could do it. He would do it because there was no choice. Nowhere else to go. And Hilda and Kurt needed him to deflect suspicion away from them. Romances, devotion to work, even, in the last few years, friends. It all collected onto the new skin, leaving the core of Illya Kuryakin not quite so isolated as he had felt on that wintery hill in Hungary.

IV

You know it's true
Everything I do - I do it for you

"Youdon'thavetoaccompanyme,"Kuryakincommentedashepackedafewofhiswarmerwoolsweatersintoatravelbag."Hildaismyoldfriend.Andyouknowhowyouhatewinterintheoldcountry."

Dapper as ever in his dark blue suit, Solo leaned against the wall of Kuryakin's bedroom, a packed, expensive leather bag at his feet. "You are ditching an extended vacation in Nice to dabble in the spy trade again. Since we are free-lance anyway, then I am free to take whatever jobs I want. And I choose to tag along with you on this one." His smile was tight. There was no humor in the brown eyes. "We have had bad luck in the past with our Iron Curtain friends. My conscience would never allow you to traipse off alone over there. If nothing else, I'll be there to provide the good luck."

Kuryakin continued packing items into the carry on as a distraction. He did not want to meet the shrewd eyes of the friend who knew him better than he knew himself. Too perceptive and loyal, Solo had already guessed there was a hidden story behind this dangerous quest. The last thing he wanted was for Solo to be dragged into the peril that was Illya's responsibility, not Napoleon's.

"I do not need your luck," he returned quickly.

"Tsk, tsk. You have it regardless, tovarich. I will bet you dinner at my favorite restaurant that you will need it before we leave that wretched country."

Knowing the only way to get around his stubborn partner was to appeal to him with complete honesty, Illya snapped closed his valise and starred at his friend. There was no need to exchange comments because both knew what the other felt, and thought in this circumstance. They argued for the sake of airing their sides and trying, in vain, to sway their counterpart to agreeing to an impossible notion. He could not tolerate taking his friend into a menace generated from finishing an old obligation. Napoleon would not allow him to face danger alone.

"I can travel faster on my own. I know these places well, Napoleon. Without having to worry about you I can get in and out quickly."

"Hmmff," was the snort of mock-injury. "I will ignore your insult, my friend, and remind you I know how to take care of myself." He blew out a long sigh. "We are both getting too old for these escapades. We should be retired on some sunny beach. Really give up the game for good. But if you insist on going through with this –" he gestured to the suitcase, "—then I am going with you. After our return we can discuss retirement options."

Grim, Kuryakin reminded if this succeeded, Hilda's enemies would hunt them down. Drastic measures might have to be implemented for their safety, including safe houses and false identities. Leaving behind their friends and comfortable living for a temporary fugitive lifestyle was a possibility.

Solo shrugged an easy, elegant roll of his shoulders under the expensive London suit. It was a habitual gesture born of a lifetime of confidence and certainty in his own skills. And the faith he held in their partnership. "Then you were intending on including me all along." It was a statement. A veiled threat lined the edges of the clipped words. "And when we get bored in those roles, we will just go back to Hungary and kill Karkov so he will not be a threat to us." His lips pressed together in contemplation. "Hmm. Undercover. It might be interested."

Illya's chest tightened with the thought that he might consider leaving his partner behind, cutting off all contact if the mission went askew. It would never be a voluntary choice to abandon his only friend, but his duty to a desperate colleague was one that could not be ignored. And he would rather keep Solo safe and never see him again, than have him come to harm because of a personal responsibility.

"Napoleon. If anything should happen –"

"It won't," Solo sternly interrupted. "So we're not going to mention it again. You provide the language skills, I bring the luck." His dark eyes were somber. He patted the slighter man's shoulder and held it there for a moment in a tight a squeeze. " We're in this together."

Nodding, Illya agreed. Teamed in UNCLE, later breaking away to form their own firm, it had always been about the partnership. It was what kept them alive. It was what they lived for.

The memories, good, bad and tragic, were never far from the forefront of his mind. As age advanced, none of the details of his past life faded. Instead, they became more poignant and forlorn. Countless times he had guiltily replayed Napoleon's ransom, wishing he had done anything and everything differently that fateful day. If only he had been the one to go after Karkov. If only he had gone on his own. If only . . . .

His life was good, surrounded by noble and loyal friends. In the end, he was left as he had always feared. Alone. With only the reminiscences of the best times of his life, and the lies of his current role. He had always dreaded Solo would abandoned him – through circumstance, death or injury – that Solo would be the one to retreat and he would be forsaken as he had by his parents, by his grandparents, by his gypsy friends during the war. In their partnership, Solo had promised to bring them back alive so many times. He had promised good luck, always, too. In the end, it was beyond his power to fulfill such desires. The false promise had turned to cold heartbreak in this harsh altered reality.

The old grief that never left him rippled under the onslaught of an avalanche of anger. Unforgiving of Solo's altruistic heroics, his resentment turned to wrath against everyone and everything. Blood running hot with hatred and rage, Illya pounded a fist against the back of a chair. It was all for nothing! He had hidden away pretending to be an ME! He had lived with Hilda as his fictitious mother, and her grandson, Kurt, as his nephew for a short while, until the youngster was raised and off on his own. While Kuryakin had escaped to a free and easy life, he had left his friend behind to die. Now it was catching up to him.

Stalking out of the room he searched for his coat. Jethro was not going to go out – solo – he mentally stumbled – and sucked in a deep breath. No one was going to die for him again. If it was the last thing he did he would find Zubov and kill him for taking his friend – his life – away!

Before Kuryakin could reach the elevators, the doors opened and Tony, Ziva, Tim and Abby emerged, all chatting, complaining, brushing snow off their heads, coats and shoes. Standing still, the new group stared at their older colleague for a moment. Then they were directing a battery of questions toward him wondering what he was doing back at HQ.

"What are you doing here?" he shot back at them, impatient to be gone. "You are all supposed to be on holiday!"

They reported all roads were frozen wastelands and flights had been canceled. They agreed to make it back to base, where plows and military efficiency had left the installation open, at least for the time being. The freak blizzard had fallen hard and fast and immobilized the whole region. They were lucky to get back to base at all. Cars were stranded all along the highways.

"Well – uh – make yourselves at home, everyone. I must go out –"

"Out!" DiNozzo shot back. "Where? It's a blizzard out there. No one is going in or out of here tonight. Probably not for a while," he finished suggestively, raising his eyebrows several times as his gaze fell on Ziva.

The Israeli agent smirked, but her attention was on the ME. "Ducky, there is nowhere to go."

Agitated, he responded, "I have to. Jethro has gone out and it is my fault. I have to help him –"

McGee shook his head. "The boss' car is in the parking lot. He's still here."

Just then Gibbs, dressed in heavy winter gear, emerged from a side door and kept moving as he took in the scene. He raised his right hand, which clutched his service pistol. "Tony, we're going hunting outside. Get your winter gear. Tim, Ziva, Abby, you stay here with Ducky. Full alert. We have an intruder on the base. He's a terrorist - an assassin who has Ducky in his sights. No one leaves this room until we get back. McGee, I left some information on the computer. See what you can do with it."

The active field agents immediately obeyed the bizarre orders; Abby confused, the doctor defiant. Telling them Ducky would explain, Gibbs exited, DiNozzo at his heels. Ziva's hand was on her weapon as she urged the others toward the back of the office. After checking all doors and announcing them secure, McGee returned.

At his computer, calling up the data, he found Karkov and Zubav's true identities as well as their NATO alter-egos. Visually following the pacing of the ME, he finally stepped in front of the older man.

"Ducky, what's going on? Who are they? Why do they want to kill you?"

Sighing, the doctor stopped and confronted them. "Jethro and Anthony are putting their lives in danger for me," he angrily replied. "There is a Russian assassin out there with the intent of killing me for an old crime. I think you should go out there and help your colleagues rather than babysit me!"

Frightened, Abby hugged Mallard's arm. "Ducky, you're scaring me."

Shaking his head, he calmed, but his tone was resolute. "I am sorry, Abigail. This has nothing to do with any of you." He looked away, out the frosted, winter-scene windows, his mind far away in the mists of time, on the other side of the world, two decades past. "There has been enough death because of me. I can't let anyone else be threatened."

McGee brought up the pictures on the big screen and related to the others what Illya already knew. He did find it fascinating that Karkov and Zubov were not known for their ties to mercenary activities. How they had been cleared for IDs and managed NATO disguises good enough to get on the Navy Yard?

"Someone will be disciplined for the oversight," Ziva stated. Exasperated with the older man's agitation, she stepped in front of him. "Please, Ducky –"

He held up his hands. "Stop calling me that!" His cross demand echoed in the room and was followed by a quiet gasp of surprise from Abby. Looking into each of their eyes, he finished his gaze at Ziva. "It is time you learn the true story. I am a lie. Deception has been my life. For twenty years I have been hiding. All the time you have known me I have been deceiving all of you. My real name is Illya Kuryakin." The surprise registered on her face. Nodding, acknowledging that she understood, he continued. "You know the name."

"A legendary operative," she replied.

"I thought that was an urban legend," Tim added, amazed.

Snorting, Illya shook his head. "No. I apologize for the elaborate deception, my friends. I had no idea this would ever come out. Illya Kuryakin has been dead for many years. Now some old enemies have come back for a final revenge. That is why I must go out there with Jethro!"

Abby returned to his side to embrace him. Ziva's gaze was admiring. Surprisingly, Tim was the one warming with anger. "Why does someone want to kill you? Why didn't you tell us? You could have trust –"

Illya pulled away and faced the tall young man with a fiery glare. "Trust you? It was never a matter of trust. Of course I trust you. But why reveal the lie unnecessarily? There was no reason to ever return to who I was." He scoffed and paced away. "Americans. You want to be so open and inclusive. Can you never understand when one wishes to be left alone? You want to share your Dodger dogs and your hot fudge sundaes and your jazz and your Thanksgivings!"

His voice died in hoarse emotion and he wiped the moisture away from his cheeks. Leaning against the wall he drew in deep breaths to regain control. It was ever so. His legendary cool and calm unraveled by an American. Not anyone in this room, but the one who haunted him from behind the lids of his eyes, from the memories within a mind that could never escape from the warm smile, easy laugh and brown eyes that were never more than a thought away. Even after so long, he the image of his friend remained crisp, the sound of his voice clear, some of his ridiculous comments still echoed, all of his foolish exploits were recollected.

In the quiet nights when there was no companionship except the dogs, or the crackling of the fire in the grate, and a glass of vodka, it was worst. He would close his eyes and involuntary moments would replay as clearly as if he was watching a DVD. He would drift to sleep with that memory, then moments later awaken to the harsh realization that it was only a dream. A pleasant, misty reverie swallowed in the bitter light of a world without his friend.

After all this time he thought he was beyond this hurt, but the pain was with him always, barely under the skin. A simple scratch could bring out the bleeding. Past the murky years of regret and sorrow, the anguish was always so close. Jethro had been the only one he had told, and that was many years ago. While both of them were private individuals, they had grown to admire and respect each other. Beyond that, there was a deep, mutual recognition that they had lost part of their souls, and were trying to survive the pain every day.

Gentle hands on his shoulders brought him from his miserable reverie. Tim turned him around and headed him toward a chair. "We can't let you leave, Du – uh – Gibbs ordered us to watch out for you. Sorry, but here you're going to stay. He and Tony can handle it."

Miserably, Kuryakin shook his head. That was what Napoleon had told him too long ago. It had been a tragic lie.

V

Don't tell me it's not worth tryin' for
You can't tell me it's not worth dyin' for

In the thick, slashing snow it was hard to see beyond a few feet in front of him. Flakes streamed into his face, but Gibbs was trained to ignore the exterior distractions and focus on the primary target. There was killer tracking him just as he was the hunter stalking his prey. He intended to be the one to bag the animal who tried to kill Ducky.

Rounding a white-blanketed car, crouching low, his periphery vision caught the dark shape to his left. Too late? Swinging to a quarter turn and dropping to slide into the powdery drift, he heard the cough of two gunshots even before his trigger finger tightened. The looming figure faltered. Two more suppressed puffs along with a spray of red flying through the frozen air before him. The man dropped even as another two bullets tore open the man's face from the back.

From around the corner of the building a dark object flew out into the open. A pistol, hot and steamy as it melted down into the snow. A gloved hand waved. Gibbs' weapon was trained on the space where the person would emerge.

"I'm unarmed," called a deep, raspy voice.

"Then come out," Gibbs ordered.

A body slid more than stepped along the wall, hands raised, and a cane in one fist. The cane was tossed into the snow. The fedora-topped figure leaned against the bricks. Even through the curtain of white it was obvious the thin, bundled man was fatigued, spent, breathing hard with ivory puffs of air coming out in staccato measure. The way he bowed with a shoulder into the wind made it seem he was having a hard time standing.

Gibbs checked the body in the snow.

"He's a terrorist," the stranger offered. "Anton Zubov. You'll have him on file. He and his compatriot, Karkov, are terrorists-for-hire. They falsified papers to enter the country – the base - under the guise of NATO officers. It was a ruse to assassinate one of your team."

"Karkov is dead."

The stranger's eyes narrowed. "Yes."

Clarity was a common sixth sense to Gibbs. It had kept him alive for years. Through countless dangers he had prevailed because there was an indefinable connection in his brain for almost ethereal deduction. Cautiously approaching, the snow sheets obscured the details of the face, but he saw it was a weathered, aged man, incongruously, who stared him down. The maturity and skill defined his suspicions instantly. He lowered his weapon and gave a nod of acknowledgement. There was no doubt of the identity of this stranger, nor the veracity of his claims.

The man stared at him quizzically. "You are not asking questions."

"No. I believe you."

Relief and a twinge of surprise colored his pale face. A hint of a grin fled across his lips. "Then you are as good as I've heard. I'm –" A nasty cough interrupted his sentence. "I'm glad."

Sliding around the corner, DiNozzo skidded to a halt just in front of the tableau, his pistol trained on the older man. Split-second glances at the scene brought confusion to the youthful features. "Boss?" he questioned. Aghast, he stared at the dead man in the snow. "Hey, boss, did you know that's one of our visiting NATO officers? He's dead!"

"Yeah, Tony. Turns out there are a lot of masquerades going on today. He's really a mercenary."

Uncertain, DiNozzo's weapon did not waiver from the suspect. "And you?" he asked.

"I'm the one who killed him."

"And saved our mutual friend," Gibbs thanked with a nod.

The stranger gave a nod in return. "It was my pleasure. And my duty."

"We're all done here, Tony. Get this corpse wrapped up and put into the morgue. We'll explain it all inside." To the newcomer, he asked as he hefted the thrown pistol, "Your weapon?" Gibbs pocketed the light-weight, silver gun. "Walther P-38," he almost chuckled. It was a small, efficient gentleman's pistol. Standard issue for the old U.N.C.L.E.. He knew it was preferred more for sentimentality than power. "Ballistics gonna match anything in our system, Agent Solo?"

Coughing, Napoleon shook his head, his gaze shrewd and challenging. "No, it's clean." The crow's-feet around his eyes crinkled in confusion. "How – uh - ?"

Nodding to the body in the snow, he told him, "I know who you are." He stared at the man who gave him a level and uncompromising return glare with steady brown eyes. The guy was older and not so spry anymore, but there was nothing wrong with his nerves, his resolve, nor his aim. Amazed, and honored, and those were no common emotions with him, Gibbs stared for another moment. "I thought you were dead. And so did Illya."

A flinch wrinkled his face and the cracked lips set into a frown. The displeasure spread to the cold glare. "I think I still am," he replied. With an ironic lilt, almost to himself, he quietly asserted, "I might be again once Illya gets done with me." Sobering, his eyes narrowed at Gibbs like laser beams. "Is he all right?"

"Should be fine. My people are guarding him inside."

Tony stepped forward. "Wait a minute. Illya? Solo?" Scoffing, the young man looked at the older one as if he was an alien. "Come on. Those are spooky names for enforcement. In training they make up their exploits to intimidate us!"

Gibbs smacked Tony on the back of the head. "Enough, DiNozzo!"

"Shutting up, boss!" he snapped, but is scrutiny remained on Solo.

At Solo's smirk, Gibbs' moved to the former agent leaning against the wall and offered his hand of support by firmly gripping the thin arm. "We have an honored guest back from the dead, Tony."

Wary, the younger man stepped away so he was farther than arm's length from his superior. "Really?" He holstered his weapon and picked up the cane when his boss gestured to it in the snow. "What's his real name, boss? You're not going to try to tell me – uh –" he smoothed the hair at the back of his head and gave a weak smile.

Gibbs waved a hand at his agent. "Tony DiNozzo, meet Napoleon Solo."

Ignoring the younger man's gasp, Solo's somber expression lightened, but it sobered again when he turned to the NCIS senior agent. "I'd like to see him." He took a deep breath and coughed. "Perhaps you should go ahead and explain things. This is going to come as a shock."

Nodding, Gibbs promised he would take care of it. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Hmph. No," he dismissed quietly, clearing his throat and staring away as he blinked moisture from his eyes. "I've waited two decades for this reunion. Our parting was not a good one, though."

"That's not what I meant." The ex-agent's health seemed precarious, and that concerned Gibbs. "Do you need a doctor?"

Again, the cool smirk. "Only the one who serves as your ME."

Despite any misgivings about returning from the dead, Gibbs knew Ducky – Illya – would be shocked, but ecstatic at the reunion. Despite what had happened during the last, disastrous mission to cause the tragic separation, it was all going to change now. What wouldn't anyone give to have loved ones returned from the dead? He knew the answer for himself, and it was easy to guess for these two former partners. "I think you know how much this will mean to him."

Nodding, clearing away the emotion, he agreed. "Nothing on earth could keep me from this moment."

Gibbs ordered DiNozzo to take their guest to the conference room on the second floor, get some hot coffee and make sure Solo was taken care of, warmed up and settled. Then he was to come back with SPs for the body. To Solo he admonished he should settle in. It would be a long night.

DiNozzo nodded, still staring at the embodiment of a mythical spy who most operatives of his generation believed was a phantom ideal. At academies and seminars, Solo and Kuryakin were held at fabled levels of esteem to make younger agents feel daunted. Until this moment, he could not believe the legendary Napoleon Solo, from the fairy-tale UNCLE ever existed. And that their own Ducky was really Illya Kuryakin? Not possible! No way! Even if he thought the old spy had really lived, how could he have survived to be an old man? Well, Gibbs believed it, so Tony was not about to question or voice any skepticism. Still, he just couldn't wrap his head around it.

"Go!" Gibbs snapped.

"Going, boss!" Tony responded and took hold of Solo's other arm as he helped his boss escort the man to the side of the building.

When DiNozzo disappeared down another hallway, Gibbs accompanied Solo to the elevators. Before the lift arrived, the older man sank against the wall and was grabbed by the shoulders.

"Are you all right? Were you hit?"

Eyes moist, Solo shook his head and stared upward. "It's over. I don't know what I expected to feel. Nothing, I think. There's just a liberation. . . and Illya . . . . " He blinked away the wetness in his eyes. "Hatred can be as passionate and deep as love. So can revenge burn as scorching and profound as relief. And joy."

Unexpectedly emotional over the wise observations, Gibbs had to clear away the knot of sympathy, empathy, from his throat. "I know."

Solo studied him for several moments. "Yes, you do."

The elevator car arrived and they stepped in. "You read my packet, I suppose? There doesn't seem to be much that gets past you."

Solo's grin brushed away the philosophizing, the anxiety, and sentimentality. "Yes. Yes. And I believe alike souls on life's troubled journey recognize kindred spirits."

Gibbs looked at the man for a beat, retaking the measure of the legend. He shouldn't be surprised. They were fellow travelers on a similar highway. It was a good lesson that he shouldn't let his guard down, but an even more important one that he should never underestimate anyone who had once been in this game of life and death. Obviously, this man, had never lost the edge needed to remain a top player in the contest – no matter what his age.

Gibbs stopped just outside the bullpen of desks in the squad room. For a change the news he was about to deliver was unexpectedly joyous. A long-dead friend resurrected. Squaring his shoulders, he couldn't repress a smile and some moisture in his eyes. Duc – Illya deserved this. The other part of your soul returning. If only all death threats could end this well.

Briskly entering the room, he met Ziva just emerging from the elevators. "SPs said the base is secure," she reported, then stopped, her head tilting. "What is it? You are not upset . . . you are . . . happy?" she finished, confused.

His smile broadened. "I am. We just bagged the assassin. And more." He winked and led the way to the small knot of people sitting by his desk.

Ducky was in his chair, Tim, his weapon still in his hand, sitting on the desk in a protective stance. Abby was leaning on the other corner of his desk with a supporting hand on Ducky's shoulder. After assuring them everything was taken care of, holding up a hand at their questions about what happened and where was Tony, he focused on the ME. The doctor had come to his feet, quizzically aware of the odd mood.

"There's a whole lot to explain," he began. "But right now you have an appointment, Ducky."

"Don't you mean Illya, boss?" McGee corrected.

The superior's eyebrows shot up to his grey hair. "You told them."

So wrapped up in hunting the assassin and shocked at meeting Solo, Gibbs had not thought this far ahead. Of course the man he knew as the honorable, caring ME would have to reveal all to those closest to him. He was dutiful about personal relationships. Or, at least the ones here at NCIS. He had a pleasant feeling they were about to see a whole new side of their old friend.

Illya scoffed. "Of course. It was the right thing to do." He quizzically studied Gibbs. "Why did you . . . ." he trailed off. "Yes, I told them . . . ." He stared at Gibbs, confused and wary. "What is it? Something has happened." His wonder gave him pause. "What do you mean I have an appointment?"

Gibbs' grin was so wide his lips hurt, cracked in the cold and wet of the snowstorm. "There's someone waiting for you in the conference room." He took the doctor's elbow and led him away from the group. At the elevator he stopped grinning long enough to assure his friend, "This is about the best surprise you'll ever have." He sobered slightly. "Don't be too shocked. Well, you will be, but for the good. Man, I'm suddenly believing in miracles."

Silence in the elevator, but when they emerged, Illya stopped him. "What is happening, Jethro?"

Gibbs stepped in front of the conference room door. "What you have is a holiday miracle – uh – Illya." He chuckled. "Sorry. I won't get used to that name on you. I hope you don't mind if I call you Ducky, still." Fondly, he placed a hand on the shorter man's neck and gave a squeeze of affection. "Anyway, your greatest wish has come true. He's alive and inside the conference room."

Momentarily frozen, Illya suddenly swayed and Gibbs still had a tight hold on his shoulder and arm. Pale, mouth open in shock, the older spy shook his head in disbelief.

"I don't know the details, but it's him, Duck. I don't know if you'll recognize him –"

Pushing way the younger agent, Illya opened the door. The two men inside came to their feet, DiNozzo noticeably quicker than the older man. Dressed in a fine suit, Solo looked more like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company than a resurrected spy. The gray-black hair uncovered, an errant curl falling across his forehead, his lean, strong-jawed face showed the rough years and strained mileage of the past decades. Brown eyes pooling with tears, he leaned on the table and stared at the friend he had not seen since a catastrophic day on a snowy, cold day in Hungary. A soft smile easing the toll of hardship on his face, the fond expression erased years from his countenance.

"Illya," he rasped.

It was more of a gasp than a name. "Napoleon."

Crossing the room, Illya Kuryakin embraced the friend he thought dead for decades. Both softly weeping, Gibbs motioned for DiNozzo to join him in the hall. Quietly, he closed the door behind them as they left.

Drained from emotion and tears after a time, the two old friends sat close beside each other in the chairs, clutching hands, and marveled at the miracle they never hoped to dream of coming true. Although the years marked differences, it was as if there had never been a separation. Feelings and memories and natural instinct fell into place instantly. There were two lifetimes to catch up on, but there was no need to speak. Two halves of the same whole - seamlessly joined again. Solo's cough finally broke the silence.

"You are ill."

Laughing brought on more coughs, and when he caught his breath, Solo shook his head. "Nothing to worry about. I've had worse." Smiling, he assured, "Nothing that six weeks of sleep without looking over my shoulder won't cure."

The medical expert was skeptical. "We shall see. But there will never be need for you to look over your shoulder again. I have found a safe haven here."

Solo's turn to be skeptical, the shrewd brown eyes narrowed. "They know, Illya."

"Yes. Our secrets are safe with these people."

Nodding, there was a tacit agreement from the other partner. "They seem good, tovarich."

Laughing, Illya warmly admitted, "No one has called me that since –" He couldn't finish the sentence. Since that tragic affair in Hungary. Tears trailed down to the corners of his mouth. The bitter taste now sweetened that these were tears of joy. Hoarsely, the admission was whispered, "It was a word I could hear – with your voice - echoed in my mind, moi brat." Russian for Brother. Yes, this old partner, old friend, was more than that – he was a brother.

Clearing away the deep emotion with a cough, Solo agreed. "Hearing you call me your brother again is coming home." Wiping his eyes, he gave a mock-frown. "Speaking of names, what is this nom de plume you have chosen? A duck?"

"An opposite of a Russian spy, yes?"

"Cunning as always, Illya. Your friends use it with such fondness. It shows they are good. Of course, you would not have any other kind of friends," he finished with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

"I have known a rogue in my past," he teased. The tone strove for light, but Kuryakin's blue eyes were somber. "So, Holmes, how did you come to escape the Falls?"

"My dear Illya," he quasi-quoted the famous comeback of Sherlock to Watson when the best friend discovered Holmes had not died at Reichenbach. "For the reason that I was never dead." Replaying the moment several times every day for twenty years, the scene flashed into his mind without volition.

Hilda and Illya poised to escape Hungary. The guards at the border were merely for show since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but Karkov had ordered alerts for all stations. Hilda was too great of a prize to allow freedom and defection to the West. While the news reports declared the Soviet bloc dissolved, the KGB operatives still struck terror in the locals. Like the Nazis at the end of WWII, KGB and other Eastern spies were scrambling to save themselves from unmasking, prosecution, and prison. Armed guards stood at the border, checking and allowing through some people. The older women they were detaining and questioning.

Their rickety sedan parked in a copse of trees, Solo and Kuryakin surveyed the situation. They did not have much time - Karkov was on their heels. Illya suggested disguises. Solo countered there was no time. The drone of an engine buzzed above the quiet of the countryside. They peered around the branches and spotted the KGB vehicle heading to the checkpoint. In the distance, a truck full of soldiers followed.

"We must act now," Illya stated the obvious.

Instantly, the plan came with the clarity that marked many of Solo's brilliant ploys. He was the best for a reason. First in Naval Intelligence, then in UNCLE, then in their private espionage firm. Illya was excellent at constructing clever games, but Napoleon was always in top form when it came to improvising daring and effective escapes, rescues or subterfuge.

Solo firmly ordered him to leave.

There was instinctive stubborn rebellion in the blue eyes that looked up at him with aggressive defiance. It was ever this way, the argument of who would be the bait, the sacrifice, the one to take the chance. In the old days of UNCLE Solo always won because he was the senior agent. Out of habit, Illya reluctantly agreed then, and after, because he knew there was no way to win. While he was Slavically obstinate, Solo was resolute. And unfairly, used the dominance of his easy affection for his friend to soften the demand.

Averse to the plan, Kuryakin surrendered to the press of time. With a last, encouraging touch on his shoulder, he pushed Illya away literally and figuratively and jumped into the car. Speeding down the hill, he quickly tore a button from his coat and dropped it down the heater vent. Already on, the inadequate heater clattered and rumbled at the foreign object. Speeding up as the vehicle slid down the wet, grassy incline, the dashboard started to smoke.

"No!" he snapped, ordering the thermal explosive to stop! It was not supposed to explode so early! He needed to direct the car right into Karkov's sedan, jump clear, then the cars would crash. The explosive would shatter both cars and the truck of troops following so close. Not yet! his mind screamed. This was not intended as a suicide mission! He wanted to live!

The meters were clicking by. Karkov's driver was close enough to see the panic on the face as the young man realized what was happening. About to leap out the door, a ditch in the road came up suddenly. Napoleon had to swerve at the last instant, losing his chance to leave the car, forced to readjust the trajectory. The dashboard flared with flames and a sudden pop! The plastique was going to blow! Almost there –

He leaped out as the car exploded. The force sent him flying into the ditch and rolling down a ravine and into complete blackness.

When he awoke he was crumpled on the rocks of a stream. Freezing, one side of him wet from the lapping water, he could barely move. Head pounding from what had to be a concussion, ears ringing, bleeding from various injuries, he slowly sat up. Trying to stand, the vertigo, nausea and sharp agony from his leg sent him back to the ground in a cry of pain.

Waking up again, he wrapped his knee in his coat and laboriously crawled up the embankment under the pale moon. Local peasants were scavenging the wrecks. In the firelight-ember of the vehicles, pilgrims trudged along the path to freedom at the border. Checking the figures around the checkpoint, he did not see Illya hanging around. Why would his friend stay? His duty was to get Hilda to safety.

Laying back, his eyes burning with emotion, he thought the despair came from the departure of his friend. He hoped it was not self-pity. Injured, alone, behind enemy lines. Bleak, but not too unusual. Things had been dark many times before in his career and he had overcome the odds to triumph. Flying solo had been his hallmark before partnering with Illya. He didn't like it anymore, much preferring adventures with his friend, but he could manage. Illya would come looking for him after a while. He just had to survive until then.

Ingratiating himself with some locals by liberally spending Swiss cash, he learned General Karkov had survived the crash, though no one else had. Soldiers reported enemy spies had died in the car.

Not bad, he thought. The mission was a success. Illya and Hilda were free. Karkov was injured. All right for a day's work. As soon as he mended he could cross the border. They would not be looking for a – solo – spy.

Awakening the next morning, barely able to move because of his stiffened injuries, his knee so badly swollen it would hold no weight. Worse, the peasant who's barn he had stayed in, alerted him that soldiers were scouring the countryside. Contrary to what General Karkov had told everyone, local word was that the spies HAD escaped and Karkov's men were ordered to find them or not to come back.

No bodies in the car had undone his clever ploy. Well, it had held them off long enough for Illya to leave, anyway. Flying out of the car had lost Solo his communicator. He still had his pistol, numerous exploding devices and other gadgets to give him an edge. Survival was now the key and with added forces at the checkpoint, he had to stay alive within this hostile environment.

Time for a disguise. A ruined coat, a rough-hewn crutch fashioned out of a sturdy branch, realistic limp, old boots purchased from the farmer at an exorbitant rate, grizzled beard, jaggedly cropped hair and a wool hat. It would have to do. And it did. Managing to secure a job on the farm, Solo remained in the vicinity. There was no choice. Karkov had the entire region sealed off.

Reasoning that Illya had to return to America, then retrieve Hilda's grandson, he knew they would go into hiding until the heat cooled on Karkov. Before they had come over to Europe the partners had made provisions for Hilda and her grandson to disappear. However, once in Hungary, they learned Karkov's KGB contacts were onto their plot to rescue Hilda. That Karkov was waiting for them when they came for Hilda reinforced the intelligence that he was a step ahead of them. It had been close getting her out from under Karkov's nose. But he and his men would be searching for the fugitives in their known spots around the globe.

Switzerland was where they were to choose new places and identities and arrive stateside with everything set to grab the grandson – who was with trusted friends outside the spy business - and turn invisible. Nothing had gone as planned. It was easy, though, to second-guess his friend. Illya would continue with the program, make sure Hilda was safe, and then come back for him.

Knee not healing, hurting and miserable, Solo was trapped. Literally, there was no place to run or hide and inevitably, he was finally captured. His mind blanked out, as he trained it to, at the months of captivity endured in the secret police prison in Budapest. When at last freed, he learned Karkov had fled prosecution from the new regime.

Not knowing where Illya had gone or what his new identity might be, he went into hiding. Determined to turn tables on his tormentor, he chose not to lead Karkov to Illya, but to track down and kill Karkov.

"Too much like Reichenbach, I'm afraid," Solo sighed out his regret.

Illya shook his head in confusion. "You stayed there? Why?"

"After I was freed from prison I had a choice. Come back here and try to find you, or stay with Karkov and make sure he never found you." He took a deep breath, tears moistened his eyes again. "Following him around the globe I tried a few times, and failed, to kill him." Staring at the far wall, he scoffed. "A pathetic record for a professional. But he was good." A sigh broke into a cough. Illya pushed the nearest bottle of water close to him and he drank a few sips. After a nod of thanks he stared at his hands. "Karkov came here to the States last week, I followed. He was searching for you. Something brought him back." He gulped down a sigh. "I saw the article, then." A few errant tears spilled down his cheeks. He wiped them away quickly with a trembling hand. "To know where you were . . . ."

"I wish he would have come for me sooner," Illya told him.

I wish I could have," he agreed with a heartfelt sigh. "It was easy for him to discover everything about you. And for me, too, thankfully. What he deserved caught up with him then."

Illya quietly replied, "You were the one who killed him."

"You know?" Solo swiveled the chair to face him.

"I must have –" a moan trailed out. "I saw you," he whispered. "Leaving the alley. I almost – we were so close . . . ."

Napoleon patted his arm. "It's all right. I found you again." He drudged up a smile. "They are dead. Karkov and Zubov. And we're together again."

Wiping away the drops on his face, Illya shook his head. "If only you could have found me all those years – I left no loose ends – I am so sorry - "

"You did your usual excellent job at subterfuge, tovarich. Don't blame yourself. It was what you were supposed to do to keep Hilda and her grandson safe." He gave a soft laugh. "You got to be an uncle again."

"Not funny," Illya retorted, his anger growing, surfacing suddenly with his hurt. "All the time and years wasted." Illya's jaw tightened. "You should have tried to find me! I thought you were dead! All these ye –"

Solo placed a hand on his neck. "After I was free it was too much of a risk for you. I had to hope you were safe. I'm sorry if you think it was the wrong choice. It was what I had to do."

Kuryakin pulled away. "Sacrifice yourself for me. That has always been your worst flaw!"

He walked away to lean on the wall. He was no longer the spry young man who had defied death countless times. Neither was his friend. The years, the bullets, knife wounds, lashes, broken bones, rough living and hard recoveries had taken a high toll. Slow, suffering from arthritis and for Solo, it looked like probably many more ailments, he felt cheated that some of the best years of their lives had been sacrificed. All because his friend thought he was – no – he was – a hero.

"You didn't even give me a choice!" Illya shouted.

"I didn't know things would turn out so badly!" Napoleon snapped back. "It was an escape ploy not a suicide mission!" Quietly, with rueful regret, he admitted, "Things don't always go as planned."

Scoffing, Illya countered, "That seems to sum up our career." His glare was cold. "You had no right to arbitrarily decide –"

"What, that you should live a productive life?"

Darkly, Illya replied, "No." His voice quavered with emotion.

Solo's strong jaw clenched with irritation. In the brown eyes, though, there was hurt and fear, where there had been unbounded joy moments ago. "Don't you think I know how you felt?"

"No, you didn't! Do you think I would have chosen anyone's life over yours?" He turned away and paced, then back to the wall, where he leaned. "I had a right to make that decision!"

"There wasn't exactly time!" Napoleon pointed out with irritation. "And what did you expect? That we would be able to sit down and discuss sacrifices? So you could

run off and be at risk? Would you have abandoned Hilda and the boy? I can hardly see either one of us – as jaded as we were – able to turn our backs on a grieving mother who had just lost a son. And asked you to help her reunite with her grandson."

Illya silently scowled at him.

Sighing, Solo agreed, "It was cruel that you believed me dead all this time. It's not what I wanted. I knew you were alive, but to keep you safe I could never see you again. I think we each suffered in our own purgatories."

The bitterness washed away from the Russian-born covert agent, and he shook his head at the incorrigible American that he had allowed to get as close as a brother. The man who had taught him there were loyalties worth sacrificing for. Worth living through Hell – and dying for. What had Napoleon been through? He would find out. For now, it did not matter. The acrimony could not be sustained as he stared at the friend he would have – still would - die for. Whom, he thought, had died for him.

"Don't you ever get tired of being right?"

"Not really." He quirked a sad smile. "Only in moments like this."

"You are hopeless," Illya accused with a fondness he thought never to feel again. He crossed the room and patted his friend's shoulders. An old, comfortable gesture. This time, it brought a flinch from the other former agent. "Arthritis," Illya knowingly diagnosed. He recollected most of the injuries and scars on his friend and knew they were both paying the price for an ill spent lifetime.

"It is a curse to be old." Then, smiling, Solo gave him a nod. "At least we're alive to feel the pain."

Illya kept an arm on the shoulder and sat down close to him. "Yes. And I have you to worry over again."

"Some things never change."

Illya leaned over and embraced him. "That I never want to change again." Trying to lighten the situation he commented, "You are a lot of trouble, Mister Solo. But you are my trouble. And that makes it all worthwhile."

DiNozzo rushed into the squad room ahead of his boss. "Guys, guys, you won't believe who we met! And who we have –"

"Napoleon Solo," McGee supplied.

"And Illya Kuryakin," Ziva finished.

Deflated, DiNozzo scowled at them. "Ducky – I mean Illya—told you guys? He didn't tell me!"

Gibbs breezed past him and DiNozzo flinched away, as the boss moved over to his desk. "Give him some space, guys. Ducky – and we can still call him that – is going to need some time to assess all this."

"What exactly is going on?" Abby asked him.

"A brother has resurrected from the dead. Even our stiff-upper-lip Ducky is going to need time to process a miracle."

VI

Look into my eyes - you will see
What you mean to me

In quiet conversation they traded filling in the blanks of the years. Illya related his erasure of identity and the new life forged with the adoption of a mother and a nephew. Eventually the boy had left to make his fortunes in the world. Often, Illya had wondered what would have happened if the roles had been reversed and Napoleon had been the one to survive. He could never comfortably picture Solo in the familial subterfuge that had been the lie of the last two decades.

Taking on the masquerade had been Illya's sacrifice. When Solo admiringly admitted he would have never been able to handle the domestic situation, Kuryakin scoffed. UNCLE and Illya Kuryakin, Agent 2, Section Two, no longer existed. After that, while the challenges were new and the covert agency different, it didn't matter about the details. He stopped short of saying that with Solo's death life hardly mattered. He dedicated himself to Hilda and her grandson. Guaranteeing their safety was his payment for Napoleon's death. Looking back, it was not a wasted life, just a vacant one.

A quiet knock came at the door and Gibbs leaned in. He smiled at the scene. "If you're ready, we're all hungry. Want to join us and offer some suggestions?"

It was a way to move into the next phase of this strange journey. Illya nodded. "I want you to meet Jethro's team," he told Solo.

The incisive brown eyes studied him for a moment. "Your team." He smiled, a charming reflex. "That's nice. I'm very happy you had people around you to care about."

Gibbs approached them and patted Kuryakin's shoulder. "And people who care very much for him." Looking at Solo, he held his light expression. "And there's always room for an old friend."

Kuryakin stood and pushed at Napoleon's shoulder. "Yes there is. Come and meet my new friends."

Gathered in the break room with vending machines and tables and chairs, DiNozzo was in the act of hitting the side of the soda machine to get the cans out without paying. Everyone froze when the three men walked in. Abby was the first to rush over and take Mallard's arm.

Smiling at the newcomer, she held out her hand. "Abby Sciuto."

Ever the charmer, Solo gave a slight bow and took her hand in a gentle hold. "Napoleon Solo."

Eyebrow's elevated, she giggled. "I love it! That's the coolest name ever!"

"What's in a name?" DiNozzo shrugged, moving into the circle. He offered a salute. "That was an impressive adventure out there in the Arctic Circle. So you're the legendary Solo. You must have some real stories to tell."

Napoleon shrugged. "Many."

"And only believe half of them," Illya admonished.

With a Welch accent, DiNozzo imitated Richard Burton. "I guess it was your time to come in from the cold," he winked broadly. Solo's face went sour, Illya shook his head in long-suffering. "What?" Tony asked his unappreciative audience. "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Classic Richard Burton. "Nineteen Sixty-five black and white mood piece. Alec Leamas is a worn out spy who has a chance to come in from the cold. But he takes one last assignme – " He grimaced. "No offense. It does seem to fit. Kinda literal pun since we're having a blizzard, you know."

"Give it up," McGee advised.

"At least I'm not comparing you to Harry Lime." At the mostly blank looks he informed, "The Third Man. Orson Wells film noir black and white spy flick." He waved his hand in the air. "Forget it."

McGee shook hands with Solo warily, as if still assessing him. Ziva's greeting was polite, but subdued. Her more critical study was for Mallard. While Tony directed Solo to the snack machine, Ziva pulled Ducky aside.

"Are you all right?"

Genuinely joyous, he smiled and patted the hand she rested on his arm. "I am fine, Ziva. Better than fine. If I seem emotional, it is for a miracle that I am more thankful for than I can express." He watched his longtime friend discussing something with DiNozzo. Including a hovering Gibbs in his explanation, the doctor continued. "Few of us have second chances in our lives, Ziva. To find what was lost to your heart is quiet dramatic." He gave a nod to Jethro. "Thank you."

"I didn't do anything," Gibbs assured.

"You could have." Kuryakin pointed out. "And I suppose the legal implications are going to be quite tiresome. But you have accepted Napoleon into your inner circle. And you don't do that for just anyone. For that I am grateful."

Grinning, Gibbs gave an embarrassed shrug. "You're part of that inner circle, Duck. And Solo is part of you. I didn't have much of a choice. Not that I mind. He's worthy of your friendship. As noble as his friend."

Touched, Illya bowed his head. "Thank you, Jethro."

With a whoop of delight a handful of candy bars dropped down the chute of the machine and into DiNozzo's hands. He passed them out, declaring them this year's Thanksgiving snacks.

Tim McGee waved his hands. "Hey, if the roads are still blocked tomorrow we can forage around the office for food and have some kind of holiday meal."

"Why not?" Gibbs added his endorsement. Noting Solo and Kuryakin were looking drained, the doctor sticking at his friend's side and watching him worriedly with each cough, he knew it was time to put an end to the horrendous and glorious day. He suggested they find some places to crash for the night. "We can sort out our plans tomorrow."

The blizzard brought an unexpected element of disjointed unreality to the holiday weekend. Beds were improvised in offices, lounges and conference rooms. In the early, dark hours of Thanksgiving, Illya noted his younger friends had paired off – as he knew they would – Ziva and Tony, Tim and Abby - and disappeared into various areas of HQ.

"Take your chances while you're young. Don't let good relationships be torn away," he admonished.

Gibbs was invited to stay with the two reunited friends. They collected blankets and chatted about old missions and misspent holidays in various, far-flung places around the world.

Solo nodded off to sleep slumped on one sofa in the morgue lounge. Stretched out on the opposite couch, Kuryakin watched him for a long time. Gibbs, resting in a big, cushiony chair, silently studied the man he would always think of as Ducky. Solo had received a brief exam and was given a marginal pass on his health. The persistent cough was exposure to the cold and the doctor was worried about pneumonia. Ducky was able to treat that temporarily with antibiotics kept in the lab, but was anxious about the illness.

Thrilled at the arrival of the resurrected partner, Gibbs still worried for both of the old friends. There would be legal issues about the dead men. There would be questions for Solo and Kuryakin. Would it expose their past? Could NCIS keep their secret, or would this reunion be their downfall? He did not want to lose his ME. But he knew if disclosure was imminent, both of the former agents would be gone.

Eventually, Ducky closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. Gibbs stayed awake much longer, working at the disturbing dilemma they now faced.

THANKSGIVING 2911

In the morning the snow drifts were past the windows with no let-up in sight. The NCIS agents rummaged for food in every office and desk on the property. Illya kept a close eye on his friend, demanding he rest, keep up on his medication, and stayed warm. Drifting to sleep on the sofa next to his friend, Illya frequently woke from his light dozing to warily check to make sure Napoleon was real, that he had truly returned, and that he was still with him.

When he opened his eyes the last time, Illya was surprised to see the familiar brown eyes staring at him, a grin on the close face. "I am all right," he assured. "And I'm not going anywhere, tovarich. My luck has returned."

"So has mine," Illya softly agreed, most surprised they had fallen back into mindreading so easily.

At noon they all gathered tables and chair together in the break room and assembled all the snacks they could. Abby and Tim made kooky decorations and serving plates from lab equipment. A scraggly tube-turkey was the centerpiece. Ziva and Tony had trudged through the snow to the base commissary and managed to scrounge tins of turkey, stuffing, gravy, green beans, an apple and a cherry pie. Gibbs kept his distance from all the groups and remained in a supervisory capacity. His mind was still focused on how to keep the identities of the spies secret, and keep Illya-Mallard with his unit. The solution had not presented itself yet.

With paper cups filled with soda and bottles of liquor that Gibbs had mysteriously liberated from somewhere - they sat around the tables, Gibbs at the head, filling plates and passing food. The boss was pleased with how his team had rallied around Ducky – he would always be that to NCIS – at this incredible moment of happiness. Although a part of him they never knew had been restored, there was an element of reticence in Kuryakin. Maybe it was due to guilt at his elaborate secret life, then his deception with his new friends. Partially, it might have come from the change his past had precipitated upon them all. And maybe a little hesitation came that he had brought a new element into their established family and he was uncertain how that would flow into the future. Caught between the past, present and future, Ducky might be working on his own plan.

Glancing at the smooth, easy relationship that had snapped back into place instantly between Kuryakin and Solo, Gibbs knew there would be no separating the old friends ever again. They were so perfectly in sync, they had abbreviated conversations, one knowing what the other would say, anticipating what the other would do. Nothing overt or energetic, loud or extreme, but the easy affection, the warm expressions, the comfortable conversation, was cemented in every moment spent together. Now that his brother-friend was returned there was no way back.

Everyone looked to Gibbs before they started eating. It was incumbent upon him to make some kind of speech, he reasoned. Standing, raising his paper cup, he looked at each of his friends in turn. Holding his gaze at Solo, his visual rotation stopped at Ducky.

"This year we have a lot to be thankful for. We all had other plans. Then things changed due to powers beyond our control. While this was certainly unexpected -"

A ripple of whispers, noises and Tony's, "That's for sure," sarcastic comment interrupted.

Rolling his eyes at his team, he smiled at Ducky and Solo. "It turned out pretty great. So I'm going to make a toast. To a warm place to stay. And warm friends. To being home for the holiday with our team."

Various emotional and cheerful voices were added in salute, cups touched, some beverages spilling onto the plastic tables. They took sips, trading glances, hovering in that moment of sentimentality. Ducky gave Gibbs a touching nod of approval. Solo smiled and offered a cant of his head in agreement.

"Great! Now let's eat!" Tony declared and eagerly dug into his plate full of food. "Ah, we forgot the cranberry sauce."

Savoring the first few mouthfuls, Solo glanced at his side to find Illya watching him. He gave a smile. "We've spent Thanksgivings in many places and commemorations, tovarich."

"Indeed."

"This is the one that was most unexpected." He raised a glass. "Thank you for being here."

Illya's cup touched his. "Thank you for coming back."

Tony broke the moment by arriving with more refills on the juice. "Hey, did you notice," he leaned closer to the older men. "We're drinking from Solo cups!" Groans and complaints rose at the pun. "What? No one ever thought of that?" he asked Napoleon.

The veteran ignored him and looked to Illya. "Is he always this bad?"

"Incorrigible," was the flat reply.

Tony gave them a smile. "So, who's up for some Black Friday shopping before dawn tomorrow morning?"

An echo of groans and complaints rippled around the table. Illya smiled, feeling a contented happiness he had not known for two decades. There was a crack of disgruntlement, even anger tinged with bitterness marring the perfect picture. That he had been robbed of so much for so long left a bitter taste. How different things would have been if Napoleon could have escaped. If his friend had tried to find him instead of protecting him. Feeling the warmth of family here in this circle, the might-have-beens faded away. Napoleon's cheerful grin, the kidding and joy of the younger operatives, Gibbs' pleased gaze over them all – it was a good place to be. Where he belonged. And finally, whole again, with the return of his friend, his brother.

After gulping down a mouthful of turkey, DiNozzo narrowed his gaze at Illya. "Hey, Ducky, since this was all a cover story, you mean I didn't really have to be so nice to those dogs when I was on security for your mo – uh – your –"

"Hilda was her name," he supplied. "While I admit to some resentment of Hilda over the whole incident, her grandson, nor her dogs, were never at fault." He threw a shrewd glance to Solo. "Dogs offer unquestioned loyalty without complications." At Solo's astonished stare, he raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry. "What?"

In a low voice meant only for Kuryakin's ears, he quietly intoned, "Well, you were never so – forthcoming – in - uh – expressing feelings."

Breathing out a long sigh, Illya nodded, then explained, "Yes, that is true, Napoleon. But I have found, at my peril and regret, that there are some things that can never be said once the opportunity is – lost."

With a slow nod, Solo gave his agreement, holding the look of mutual remorse.

"I think Ducky is hardly one to talk about openness," Tony interrupted. "Who's been keeping a secret identity all this time?" he rhetorically accused. "Illya," he emphasized. At a glare from Gibbs, DiNozzo gave an off-handed apology. "Just saying."

Napoleon's tone reflected his pride. "Of course his performance was complete. He learned from the best." He held his breath, waiting for a response to indicated he had been forgiven, or if there would continue to be a bumpy relationship between them.

Illya's mouth quirked. "So you often remind me, Mister Solo. You have always been a legend in your own mind."

Mutual smiles smoothed the ripple of tension, regret and emotion between them. Shifting to another subject, Solo asked why his friend had been under extra security.

Abby, who had been mostly observant during the exchanges, practically bounced out of her chair. "There was a sociopath killer after him!" she exclaimed. "It was horrible! They kidnapped Ducky – er – uh – Illya – sorry, I just can't get used to that, Ducky." She redirected her answer to Solo. "And they stabbed him – well, I guess I shouldn't get too graphic over Thanksgiving dinner. And Gibbs and Tony and Tim and Kate all got there just in time to save his life."

Solo's frown deepened as the tale extended. He gave a worried look to his partner. "So, without me around you continued to get into trouble. You're all right?"

Giving a scowl of disapproval to Abby, he assured his friend the incident was years before and left no lasting effect.

Solo looked back to Abby when she finished with, "That was before your time, Ziva. Kate. We lost her." To Solo she declared, "This is a dangerous place, Napoleon. People get kidnapped and hurt and – and killed."

Holding his eyes on Illya, he responded, "I'm familiar with the pattern."

Gibbs reached over and patted Abby's hand. "It's okay, Abbs. Ducky is safe now." He nodded to the two veteran operatives, his meaning clear to everyone, but especially the old partners. The danger was over for them. The harrowing, ugly past could be put behind with the death of their enemies. It would be a new chapter for them now.

Since they were at a military installation, a government priority was getting the base cleared and operational again. The roads around them in all directions were still blocked, though, and for the second night the group prepared for a campout at HQ. Ziva and Tony chose the conference room floor. Abby invited Tim to join her in her cozy lab break room which sported a love seat and bean bag chairs. Solo and Kuryakin again occupied the lounge next to the morgue.

Gibbs walked with Mallard to the supply room to scrounge blankets and whatever they could use for pillows and padding for the make-shift sleep-over. Studying the doctor, Gibbs was pleased his old friend was so happy, even humming a Christmas tune! He wished to be more delighted for Ducky, but some deep suspicion was holding him back. And he didn't know why. Not wanting to be the dark cloud around the reunion, he cautiously voiced his concern.

"Duck, I know this is amazing, this return of Solo's, but are you sure you – uh – well – it's been a lot of years. I think you should watch your step here. He may not be the same man that you remember. As you want him to be."

Stopping in the corridor, Mallard stared at him for a moment. "Jethro, I appreciate your solicitude on my behalf, but there is no need to fear. Napoleon is my brother. He is closer to me than you can imagine. His return to life is – inexplicable, indescribable, unimaginable –" He shrugged and laughed. Gibbs and Napoleon were similar in the superb skills, in their cool confidence. Anthony was reminiscent of Napoleon's more arrogant and egotistical charm moments. Strange how he had surrounded himself with shadows of his friend. Perhaps not surprising. While he complained about the brash, arrogant American, there was no one he longed to be with more – loved anyone more - than his friend. "Usually, I listen carefully to your intuition. In this instance, I don't know what your reservations might be, but they are unfounded." He drew quiet and somber, staring off into space. "Jethro, as you know, I have always had an affinity to my profession. Both my professions. This one, the one that you know me for, is about death. I talk to the dead, Jethro, and they tell me their story. Have you ever wondered why I pursued such a talent?"

Shaking his head, Gibbs realized his friend was not looking at him. Perhaps, not even listening. He was far removed from this brittle, cold night. Lost in the past. "No, why?"

"Because death ended everything for me. For Illya Kuryakin. The dead had no way to disappoint – to hurt . . . . I sought out the dead because that was where Napoleon had gone." When he looked back, his eyes were misty, but there was a genuine smile on his face. "I no longer need that escape, or solace, Jethro. Death has been thwarted by the most important person in my life. I am not going to question this miracle. I am merely thankful, and will embrace it."

Hoping his instincts were off target for a change – dreading that they weren't – he gave his friend a smile. "I'm glad it all worked out, Duck. Even if it was a long time in coming."

They delivered all the goods and ended at the morgue lounge. After the NCIS lead agent left, Solo turned to his friend lounging opposite him. A slow smile spread on his lips. "Suspenders and a bow tie?"

"I got lost in my role." Illya shrugged. "It seemed to fit the personality of a pathologist."

"Donald Ducky Mallard?" Solo tsked.

"Hilda was fond of Donald Duck." At his partner's quizzical expression, he explained. "There was some old song from Disney that stuck in her head." He bit his lip, remembering well those dark days when he had returned to America with his new dependents. There had been nothing inside anymore, just a determination to go on and complete his assigned task. Finish the mission that had destroyed his world. "She said she always liked Donald Duck because when someone pushed him down he always bounced back."

"She was right," came the quiet reply. A comfortable silence. He missed those. And the companionship that needed no work, no effort. A seamless partnership. Coughing again, he felt Illya's stare - knowing his friend perfectly - as if the twenty years had only been twenty days. Almost afraid to dare think it, he believed he had won his life back.

"What?" Napoleon asked. He coughed, then rested his head on the chair.

"You didn't tell Gibbs everything," was the shrewd assessment.

Shrugging, Solo gave a slight nod. "There was no need to offer details. Karkov and Zubov are dead and so is their mission of vengeance."

"Jethro will want the entire story. You should tell him." Quiet and comfortable contemplation followed for some time. "Why did Karkov come after me after all this time?"

A shadow in the door stopped Solo from a response. Gibbs stepped into the dimly lit room. "Yeah. That's what I'd like to know."

A nod, a smirk toward the agent. "Rather like you, Agent Gibbs. He never gave up," Napoleon replied, "because that car explosion killed two of the soldiers in Karkov's unit. One of them was his son." He looked at Gibbs, not wanting to face his partner. "He knew Illya and Hilda had escaped. It was only a matter of time before he discovered why and found Hilda's grandson. When he captured me he thought I would break." His lip rippled at the recollection of the imprisonment and torture, but it was only a shadow of the pain he had endured. Most of it had been blanked out and he did not try to scratch the surface of the dark pain. Physical pain, at any rate, had always been easier to endure than the emotional kind. The inner anguish was more difficult. It was why risking his life for Illya time and again had been no choice at all. It was a necessity, an instinct born of love and fear. Love for his friend, terror that he would lose the only person he had allowed to get close to him. "After I escaped I kept an eye on him because I knew he would never let it go."

"And he found Ducky now, after all these years."

Napoleon gave a sad smile. "A blessing in disguise for me. It brought us back together."

Frowning, Illya reached over to the end table and grabbed the condemning magazine with the article that had brought a killer and a friend to him. "Karkov saw this, Jethro."

Gibbs' tone was hard, confrontational. "Why didn't you stop Karkov before he got here?" he asked Solo. "He could have killed, Ducky!"

With a definitive shake of his head, Solo refuted, "Never." After a cough, he finished, "I shadowed Karkov and Zubov every step of the way. I allowed them to lead me to Illya. Then they paid the price."

"But you allowed Zubov to reach NCIS! You let him get right on our home base!"

Sharply, he retorted, "I let him get where he felt secure and thought he had the upper hand!"

Gibbs shook his head disagreeably. "You used Ducky as bait!"

Solo's narrowed glare moved from the NCIS agent to Kuryakin. "Illya, reassure him."

The tilt of a smirk played quickly on the ME. "I was never in any danger, Jethro. Napoleon would never allow any harm to come to me."

Irritated, Gibbs still felt there was something wrong. Despite the faith these two old spies had in each other, his instincts were flaring off the chart. He hated dealing with other agency operatives – even if they were long retired. He refocused on that mental itch that would not go away. They were all missing something.

He turned to Ducky for support and frowned when he saw the older man was just finishing a yawn, his eyes already closed. Glancing back at Solo, the former spy was smiling. Shaking his head, Gibbs left.

Napoleon stared at his partner for a long time in the low light. A worried Gibbs was a concern. He knew enough about the agent to know he was as sharp as anyone ever got in this game. So why was he disturbed? Had Napoleon missed something with Karkov or Zubov? Now he started to worry. He closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on an elusive danger that might be out there threatening his new bliss. But fatigue was too overpowering to catch hold of any clues . . . .

VII

Don't tell me it's not worth tryin' for
I can't help it there's nothin' I want more
I would fight for you - I'd lie for you
Walk the wire for you - Ya I'd die for you

Some indefinable annoyance had niggled at the back of Gibbs' mind all day. The celebration, the snow-in, the unsettling return of Solo along with Russian assassins mingled in his mind with disturbing irritation. Something about the whole mess was bothering him. He stopped in at the lab and interrupted Abby and Tim as they were debating on who should sleep where.

"McGee, Abby. I want you running every computer program you can on Karkov and Zubov. Including facial recognition on the two corpses. I want everything you can give me on any trace evidence on them."

"But Gibbs," Abby objected, "Ducky never processed the body! I don't have anything to analyze!"

"Go through the personal effects, then. Get Tony and Ziva to help." He moved back toward the door as the stunned agents trailed him. "And, McGee, make sure you track when and where they arrived in this country."

"But boss, it's Thanksgi –" McGee's voice stopped. "What's going on?"

"They were after Ducky. And Solo. I want to know everything about them."

"But what about the other NATO officer? Do you think he is a terrorist, too?" Abby reminded.

"What?" Gibbs demanded.

The chief lab tech explained to him that she and Tony had met three NATO officers on Monday. She rushed over the computer and her fingers flew on the keyboard. McGee matched her search on the second keyboard, stating he only knew of foreign officers. Abby insisted there were three. They sent several pictures up on the monitor. The Interpol photos of the two dead terrorists, then three visiting NATO photos dated just days ago at NCIS.

A third impostor. It was possible he was a real officer, but odds were good he was not.

McGee followed along. "You think there's still a threat? How?"

"Old enemies like that don't take holidays, McGee!"

"Where is he?"

"I don't know. That's what we're going to find out. It bothers me that they would come to assassinate Ducky after all this time and leave the job unfinished!"

A shadow appeared in the hallway leading to the NCIS work area, and Gibbs tensed, his hand moving automatically to his pistol. It was Solo, he IDed after a beat, and watched as the former agent slowly limped over to the desks to join the team.

"Illya is asleep." Solo tapped his bum leg with the cane. "Never properly healed after Budapest. Keeps me up at night." He pointed his cane toward the huge computer monitor where pictures of Karkov and Zubov were split with other information streaming in two of the corners. He glanced at Tim, Tony and Ziva, ending his study with Gibbs. "What is all that impressive technology telling you?"

After a beat, and the older man did not volunteer any information, Gibbs questioned, "There was a third NATO officer who came in with Karkov and Zubov! Who was their third partner?"

Pale, Solo shook his head. "I don't know. Are you sure – yes, of course you are. What are you doing about it? We are going after –"

"I've alerted the SPs. We're locked down tight. If he's on the base they'll find him." Solo lacked assurance and Gibbs couldn't blame him. There was still a sixth-sense of danger. He tried another tack. "Tell me everything you remember about that day in Hungary."

Pacing slowly, Solo related the same story he told Kuryakin. After his freedom, he tracked Karkov and Zubov across the world, never letting them far away. Always worried they would find Illya.

"You knew your trade well," Ziva commented with admiration. "That your enemy never knew he was really the prey tells of your skill."

Solo shrugged. "I sense all of you understand to be off the mark even once will kill you. Or someone you care about," he ended morosely.

Tony asked, "What did you do for money?"

"We had assets tucked away in several countries, under numerous identities. Some were too hot to touch, but others I could access without trouble."

Gibbs asked about Karkov.

Solo shrugged. "He was a profiteer and made a good living. He wasn't just running around trying to track Illya. He was a ruthless mercenary. After the fall of the Soviet bloc there were numerous avenues for him to pursue. The Russian mob, revolutions and terrorist hot spots around the globe were all profitable for him. But I knew he never forgot. How could he? I never forgot. I lost a brother that day. He lost his only son."

Ziva nodded. "Vengeance is a powerful motivator."

"After all those years?" McGee questioned.

Solo released a derisive cough. "Of course. Sometimes hate never dies. His only consolation was a grandson. That's why I was so anxious to keep Illya and Hilda and her grandson safe. I knew if Karkov found out his enemy had a dependent to protect he would stop at nothing to destroy the child. That would be his perfect revenge."

Gibbs stopped and grabbed onto Solo's arm. "A grandson? How old?"

Napoleon, now tense, stood still, frozen in a grip of mutual dread. "He was maybe ten when his father was killed. Karkov raised him . . . . You're thinking he is part of the vengeance pact? The third NATO -"

"Yes. Where is he?"

He coughed, a deep echo that lasted so long he held his chest. "Last I heard he was in Prague . . . "

"And you don't think he came here with his grandfather? To kill those responsible for his father's death?"

Pale, fear-stricken, he shook his head. "I never saw him involved in any operations . . ." he turned to McGee at the computer. "Leonid Karkov is his name. About thirty."

McGee brought up the third NATO picture. Solo's gasped. It was enough of a confirmation for Gibbs.

"Get to full alert now!" Gibbs shouted to DiNozzo. "Make sure the SPs get this information!"

Solo was already hurrying back to the lounge. Then he stopped and turned around. "I think this would be a good time to return my weapon."

With a curt nod, Gibbs whipped open a drawer in his desk, removed the Walther, and tossed it across three desks to Solo. The older man caught it in one hand and gave a nod, then he briskly exited.

"Boss, I got a hit on Leonid," McGee almost shouted, his voice tight. "The local PD have listed his rental car as one of the many stuck on the main highway just outside the base! And the computer shows he was here – this morning - he's here boss, no question."

"How did we miss him?" Tony wondered.

"Because we weren't looking in the right place," Ziva shot back as she picked up the phone and punched the button for the morgue.

"We weren't looking at all," gruffed Gibbs.

Ziva turned to Gibbs, the phone receiver in her hand. "Gibbs, Ducky is not answering the phone."

"With me!" he shouted and took off at a run, his team right behind.

A cold draft blew frosty air in and chilled them as they trotted down the corridor toward the morgue. The NCIS team exchanged dire glances. Gibbs held his automatic in front of him, prepared to fire at the slightest provocation. Reaching a corner, they went high and low, sweeping around. A bloodied and still, uniformed Navy Shore Patrol soldier in snow-patterned camo fatigues, was face down on the floor. Tony checked for a pulse and grimly shook his head as the others scurried past and held at the next corner. Clumps of snow and puddles of water smeared the ground, indicating a trail.

Ducky's shout of distress urged him to increase his speed. Gibbs peered around the edge. Leonid Karkov was against the wall. Ducky, shorter and thinner, was in front of him with a choke-hold on his neck and a pistol to his temple. Solo was holding fixed at a stance in front of the Russian; right arm straight out, the Walther solidly aimed at the assailant.

Cautiously, Gibbs and the others behind him, slid around to join Solo. They almost reached the former agent, when Karkov tightened his grip, dug the barrel of the pistol into the doctor's skull, and ordered them to halt.

In his thick accent, the man commanded, "Any other move and I pull the trigger. He is dead."

"So are you," Gibbs returned. "Let him go."

"He will pay first. This is my legacy. And his. For murdering my father!"

"You want to get out of this alive, right?" Gibbs asked, his tone frosty and tough, no wavering from his voice or his dead bead on the man's head. "You don't want to die."

Ducky's eyes worriedly watched Gibbs, but it was his silent friend who really concerned him. Napoleon had said nothing since arriving in the hallway. The cold, somber steadiness was uncannily, like thirty years had been erased and the Solo of his prime as a spy was standing there. An inhuman frost - death – colored Solo's resolute eyes.

"I will leave. With him! And you will allow it," Leonid told them.

"No you won't," came Solo's intent denial.

Solo and Gibbs a few feet apart, generations apart. It was amazing how similar they were; two top professionals nearly side by side in the corridor. Both aiming their pistols at the man holding him. No emotion, no hesitation, no doubt. He had placed his life in Napoleon's hands too many times to count. In Gibbs but a few. He was secure in both. Neither of these friends would let him down.

"You won't hurt him because your grandfather lied to you all these years," Napoleon crisply told the terrorist. "My partner had nothing to do with the death of your father. I was the one who killed him. I set off the explosive."

"No!" Illya gave a strangled cry, but the assailant's arm on his neck tightened. He knew exactly what Napoleon was doing! Fool! Misdirection! He was tempting the murderer to focus on him! Sacrificing again! NO! Struggling, to no avail, Illya desperately tried to get Napoleon's attention. To stop him!

"Your grandfather never believed that and chased Kuryakin." Solo lowered his pistol and took a step closer. "I am the one responsible. If you want blood then kill m—"

"No!" Illya choked out. He could not allow it! Napoleon had destroyed twenty years of their lives! If he died now in his place – right before his eyes – no – there would be nothing left after that. There would be no reason for anything. "Nnoo –" He felt the tears dampen his face and he struggled to get free. The grip loosened. "Stop!" he was able to croak out. "You ruined everything before by your sacrifice! I will not watch you die now!"

"Think of it as Fate catching up to me," Solo responded smoothly, coolly, as if he was in a conversation and not inviting his death. Quietly, he whispered, "Or my luck running out." He took another step closer. Voice clipped and cold, he told Leonid, "Two nights ago I murdered your grandfather. Double-taps to the heart. One to the back of his head!"

The pistol slid away from his temple toward Solo and the twin shots echoed nearly as one, even as Karkov jerked, releasing his hold. Illya fell back against the assailant and the wall. Gibbs and Tony were there to help him up. Ziva was checking the body. Tim took possession of the fallen man's weapon. Illya looked down. Two large holes square between Karkov's eyes. Both shots entering within millimeters of each other. Causing instantaneous death. Ziva pronounced him dead.

Unable to speak, shaking, Napoleon stood back behind Gibbs, smiling, his eyes watery with emotion. He gave a grin and a nod. Jethro did not release his hold on Ducky's arm, still supporting the ME, who made no move to step away from the assistance.

DiNozzo patted Ducky, then moved over to tap Solo on the back. "That was brilliantly played. Wow, two masters at work! Even at your – uh -" he gulped. "Even after your –uh – retirement, you guys were Gibbs-like in your coolness. And I mean that in several different definitions! But all flattering! Awesome!"

Clearing his throat, Napoleon gained control of his emotions, but his eyes were still warm, sticking with his partner. "I knew Gibbs was a sniper." He flipped a confidant glance at the NCIS leader. "I could have done it a few years back." His gaze returned to Illya. "Today, there was no question he was the better shot. He just needed a distraction. And I needed this to be flawless."

Pulling away from Gibbs, Illya stood straight, indignant. "Do you think I was fooled?" His voice cracked. "You were all too ready to sacrifice yourself! Again! I am sick of your selfish, foolish heroics!" he spat out, livid. He did not bother to wipe away the tears coursing down his face. He turned around and walked away.

The others looked to Solo, whose expression turned hard and expressionless, but pale, washed from all color. A sharp cough escaped, then his lips pressed tight. Turning, he moved. about to grab his fallen cane, but Ziva beat him to it and handed it over. Silently, he limped down the hallway.

The NCIS team looked to Gibbs. Biting the inside of his lip, he just shook his head. Life, death and sacrifice were complicated. Nothing in this business was ever easy. Certainly nothing as complex as relationships.

"Maybe we should go – uh – say something?" McGee offered.

"Give them some time," was Gibbs' advice. "Meanwhile, we have two new bodies to deliver to the morgue. Ziva and McGee, go get some gurneys."

When the two latest corpses were wheeled into the cold room, Illya was seated at his desk and did not acknowledge them. Waving away the others, Gibbs stepped over and sat on the corner of the doctor's desk. Ducky wouldn't look at him.

"I know this didn't turn out how any of us planned, Duck –"

"Please do not make excuses for him. He is incapable of change. I don't know why resurrection would make him any different. Why would I make the error of thinking it would?" He gave a humph of disgust. "I am a trained agent! I was the best! Despite what Napoleon boasts! Now, I am a certified forensic profiler! How could I not see this?" Sadly shaking his head, he confessed, "There is no fool like an old one. And a blind one at that."

Gibbs shrugged. "I'm not gonna offer anything, Duck. Just wanted to know if you are all right." He placed a gentle hand on the shaking shoulder. "I know you're not."

"I understand Abigail's abhorrence to the violence faced by all of us. It was part of my job a long time ago. The worst part. When Napoleon died, Illya died, as well. I have lived the life of another. When Napoleon returned - it was – I don't know. Wonderful. A miracle. A second chance. Why did I think anything would be different?"

"You didn't expect to have another life and death situation to face."

"There always is," he tiredly sighed. "You must think me quite churlish for being so angry with the man who risked his life. Again. To save mine."

"I understand, Duck. Being on the receiving end of a sacrifice is pretty humbling. The question is, what do you do about it now?"

Rubbing fingers through his hair, he shook his head. "There is only one thing possible. There is no alternative. It is how I survived our partnership the first time round. I accept his faults and his virtues as they are because I accept him as he is. Napoleon would not be the same partner who became my brother if he did not have all the foolish heroics and insane risks as part of his make-up."

Countless missions there had been peril and ransoms – one life for the other. Insane hazards and miserable failures. Hardship. Pain. Suffering. The single constant had been their trust in each other. Napoleon volunteering to divert the enemy in Hungry had been the last in a long list of impulsive and deadly chances. His ridiculous plan to stop Karkov – solo – and not return to Kuryakin was typically altruistic. The actions tonight made him livid, but there was no other path for Solo to take. It was his nature, his defect. So there was no other choice for Illya but to forgive.

"But I am still incensed with him!"

"Take as long as you want to cool down, Duck," Gibbs quietly admonished.

"Thank you, Jethro. It helps to talk these things out, you know, even though most men are loath to open up their inner most hearts. It took me so long to understand that. And still, I am reticent about my personal life."

"Ya think?" Gibbs countered kindly, ending with a smile. "What are you going to do?"

"It is the season of thankfulness, is it not? I will go inflate Napoleon's ego by thanking him for saving my life yet again. And thank you, as well, Jethro, for your astounding marksmanship."

With a little laugh, Gibbs admitted, "Napoleon was right. He knew I would be able to get Karkov. I probably didn't even need the diversion. But I appreciated it. You were just a little too trapped for comfort." He affectionately gripped onto Mallard's arm.

"Yes, sometimes a team is a very comfortable group to have surrounding one. Is Napoleon with the others in the squad room?"

"I don't know. After you left he did, too. I was a little surprised he wasn't here with you when we came for the gurneys."

Illya frowned. "I am sure I will find him." He rose quickly.

Gibbs called Tony, who reported the rest of the team at their desks, including Abby hanging out with them. They had not seen Solo.

The agent did ask, "Hey, boss what are we going to report about all the dead bodies, shootings and surprise spies showing up for the holidays? Not the typical unwelcome relations."

Gibbs curtly told him he'd be right there.

"You want me to help you look for Napoleon?" Gibbs asked his friend. Holding up a hand, he called Tony back and ordered his people to start a search. "It can be a big building," he explained, but was picking up on the anxiety. There was no reason for it, of course. No more Karkovs out for revenge, right? They were snowed in so no one could escape. Solo had to be decompressing after the blow up. "Maybe the conference room?" he wondered as he and the doctor walked out the door. "He might have gone for a cup of coffee."

"Something stronger if he knew where to look," Illya said with forced lightness, but his voice was tight.

They were just stepping out of the elevator when Gibbs' phone rang. He did not finish his name in response before a tense shout came over the speaker loud enough for his companion to hear.

"Boss, get Ducky over to the conference room. We've got an agent down."

It was then he stopped and pointed to the floor. Red drops stood out starkly against the grey tile. Already on the correct floor, Gibbs broke into a trot. The ME shuffled along as quickly as possible.

"Who, McGee?" Gibbs demanded, knowing all of his team were accounted for. Or so he thought.

"Ducky with you, boss?"

"Who's down, Tony!" was the anxious repeat.

He rushed into the room, not needing a reply on the phone. His team was there, huddled over Napoleon Solo with his head slumped onto the table. Illya rushed to his friend, noting a puddle of blood on the floor, his left hand immediately finding the moisture along the side of the sports coat.

"Unconscious. No response," Ziva supplied.

"I knew it, I knew it," Abby cried into Tim's shoulder. He held onto her and reported. "He's alive. This is how we found him."

Already checking for a pulse, Illya ordered them to rush his friend to the morgue at once. Stating the obvious, that Napoleon had been shot, under his breath he tried to explain why Solo had been able to walk away without any of them noticing the injury! Pressing his hands on the wound, he moved along with the others who carried the injured agent. He kept his mind focused on the need for immediate first aid, but the sentimentality in his core leaked into the rational, professional instincts.

Napoleon had been depleted, unhealthy, weak when he arrived . . .strained . . . now an apparent gunshot . . . only one entry wound? How? He had only heard the two nearly simultaneous shots from Gibbs' pistol . . . had there been another shot? Did Karkov get off a round? Illya couldn't remember. How did Napoleon not know he was hit? Because his mind was distracted – rejected by his closest friend whom he would die for!

Weak kneed and feeling faint, he ripped his mind back to the immediate danger. Concentrate on saving Napoleon. Don't think about how it happened! Don't think about what will happen if this was fatal – no, don't go there! A re-visitation to that black pit of

despair could not be survived. Don't think it!

They raced into the morgue with Kuryakin sunk to an all-time low at entering his domain. Please do not let this be Napoleon's last moments alive. Don't let him stay here, he prayed as he ordered the team to gather bandages, lights, and instruments. Ripping open the once pale blue shirt under the jacket, Illya closed down the oozing wound; one more amid the other scars that were apparent, long-since healed injuries; some from their time as agents, some more recent.

Quickly cleaning the chest and stopping the flow of blood, he learned there were entry and exit wounds, but miraculously, just clipping the side of the chest next to the ribs. The shoulder leather had deflected the bullet, apparently since the holster was chewed up. So the trajectory had been shallow. The tightness of the strap holding the wound closed, perhaps. That explained why there was no blood evidence at the scene where Solo had been standing. Only when he walked for a time, and later relaxed his posture did the flow commence.

It was a stream of thought, a muttered line of comments that he went through as he narrated the sequence of events. He was talking more to Solo – though he was still unconscious – as if he was giving one of his monologues to a corpse as he was wont to do. Gradually, Gibbs ordered his team to back away slowly, clear things away and allow their ME to work with his friend.

The wound sutured and a bandage applied, Illya cleaned up and sat down in a chair wheeled over by Abby. She placed her hands on his shoulders. "Are you all right, Ducky? You don't look very well."

He shook his head. "No, I am most certainly not all right." Disturbed, anxious, staring at his still friend. "Would you mind, please," he asked the others. "I'd like to move Napoleon off of the table." Distracted, he rubbed his face with his hand. "There – I don't want him waking up in –" he drew in a deep breath, his voice shaking as much as the rest of his body as the trauma of the night set in. "It's odd, of course, because there's nothing wrong . . . ." He shook his head, glancing at the two new corpses just on the other side of the make-shift operating gurney.

Gibbs placed strong hands on his shoulders and urged him to stand. "Come on, Duck. You're leaving. We're going to set up the lounge. Napoleon can rest in there and you can stay with him. Just tell us what you want in there and we'll move it." He forcefully tugged the older man along as his team settled Solo onto the sofa. "Don't worry about anything. You said Napoleon would be all right, didn't you?'

Illya nodded.

"Okay, then."

He sat the ME into the cushiony easy chair next to the couch. Quietly, he ordered DiNozzo to bring the bottle of whisky that was in the bottom drawer of his desk. He asked Abby to find the blankets. Ziva and Tim were to secure the building and make double sure there were no more intruders, then follow-up with the SPs about security.

Making sure Solo and Ducky were covered in warm blankets, Gibbs handed the ME a glass of liquor. After a few gulps, he rested his head against the back of the chair and stared at his partner. Satisfied he had done all he could, Gibbs left the bottle and slipped out of the room.

Two more glasses of the warm, burning liquor and Illya allowed the glass to drop from his hands. He was still shaking. After all the years of facing death and peril, he marveled he could be so affected by tonight's – the last few days – events. Leaning over, he placed his hands, then head, atop Solo's hand.

"Why didn't you say something! I could have helped – after I was done yelling at you for saving my life! I told Jethro I was a trained profiler. Yet, I could not understand you. My other half."

Whispered apologies, regrets and truths long buried in his past were confessed. He vowed he would take Solo back in his life no matter what Napoleon said or did. The alternative, he had already endured and survived somehow. Shedding tears of fear, of desperation, oaths , threats and pleading, he jumped when the hand beneath him moved. Sitting up, he blinked away the blur, catching a breath at Napoleon's weary smile.

"I didn't hear all that," the wounded man admitted lightly, "but go ahead. Don't let me stop you. I liked that part about I am always right."

"Egotist," Kuryakin dismissed and gave his arm a shove.

"Hmmm," Solo breathed out, then grinned. "You're calling me names. Did you give me some happy pills? You gave me some, didn't you? Maybe you should take some."

"I didn't get to the part of your insufferable arrogance yet," he countered. "You are a lot of trouble, Mister Solo," he whispered shakily. "Don't ever do anything so frightening again!"

"Da, da," Napoleon agreed. "How did I get here? I was walking and I felt so weak . . . "

"Hmph," Illya snorted. "You fainted, moi brat, but your secret is safe with me. And the others." He gripped tighter to the hand under his. "You were clipped – apparently Karkov got off a shot – we didn't realize it . . . ." He shook his head. "I should have. But I was angry instead of grateful—"

Solo freed his hand and pressed fingers against his friend's lips. "No need to thank me. All part of the partnership deal, remember? Still in effect even after all this time."

Removing the hand, Illya shook his head in disagreement. "Nyet, moi brat. No more of the deceptions. I have lived a lifetime – two lifetimes of lies and double meanings and delusions. We know what is real. We have had it returned to us through the mists of the past. I do thank you, moi brat. For my life. For you bringing me back to life and rescuing me. Not just from assassins and bullets," he emphasized, his voice wavering with emotion. "But saving me from the emptiness. The void."

Solo sighed, staring at his friend for a moment, his eyes blinking as he fought to stay focused. "I should be the one apologizing. You were right. I am selfish. Twenty years ago. Tonight. I was selfish. I needed to be the one to take the risk because I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to you."

"You know I would have done the same if I had thought of it first," he responded, accepting the truth of their natures. Neither could accept the loss of the other.

Eyes drooping with fatigue, Solo mumbled that it was all right. He would never leave again. Not of his own volition, at least. He blinked, trying to keep his eyes open. "Luck didn't desert us. Covered for me again."

"You mean that the bullet just grazed you?"

"Didn't realize the grandson – a threat. Could have killed you. Not as good as I used to be."

"Even you are not perfect, my friend."

"What if Gibbs hadn't figured it out?" He closed his eyes. "Fatal mistake to think I could handle this –"

"Shh," Illya interrupted, leaning close. "You have saved my life more times than I can count. Too many of them were as close as this."

"I should have never left you. Twenty years . . . ."

Somber, Illya whispered, "We cannot change the past. I cannot condemn you. We must move forward and be thankful we have the future. For all these lost years you have kept the wolves at bay so I could live. As always, Napoleon, I depend upon you. Nothing has changed."

Nodding, Solo lips twitched into a shadow of a grin. A tear slipped down his cheek.

Then he fell asleep. Illya double checked to see he was breathing well, his pulse strong considering all he had endured. Then he laid his head down on his friend's hand again and fell asleep, content to be the guardian of the partner who held both their lives and fates.

VIII

Search your heart - search your soul
And when you find me there you'll search no more

November 25, 2011

Friday morning brought sunshine breaking through the clouds. Plows had pushed away the snow from the highways and the airports were open again. Paperwork and reports were quickly attended to so the younger members of the unit could salvage a portion of the holiday weekend.

Stopping first at the airport where Gibbs retrieved a suitcase from a locker – Solo had stashed his luggage when following Karkov into the country. Then Ducky and Solo were driven to the ME's townhouse where they would spend the rest of the weekend. When given the option of taking time off, Mallard indicated he would be in on Monday morning as scheduled. He had things to clear up, including a meeting with Gibbs. The NCIS boss just nodded, foreboding looming at the somber timbre of the tone. He was afraid he knew what Ducky was thinking and hated the notion.

Running through ideas on his way back to the office, Gibbs met with his team. Instead of moving on with their delayed plans, Ziva, Tony, Abby and Tim discussed a quick skiing trip together. First, there were some operations that needed their attention. Gibbs laid out the dilemma before them and allowed his team to offer suggestions. He vetoed the ones he didn't like, of course, and approved the one that was in line with his own thinking.

There was a lot of backstory that would come out, some fancy dancing with paperwork and explanations. The holiday weekend would give them time to come up with some suitable fabrication to cover the truth and preserve the true identities of two remarkable legends.

After a brief debate, which Illya won by default when Solo dozed off in a plush chair by the fire, the bedroom was prepared for his injured friend, and would take the sofa while Solo recovered. After that – well – there were a lot of decisions to be made. For now, the former UNCLE agent relaxed, watched and listened to the steady breathing of his partner, and contemplated the restructuring of his life.

Late afternoon found Illya in the kitchen rummaging to find what to cook for dinner. He enjoyed dabbling in finer cuisine, but was exhausted from their arduous traumas of the past few days. He had decided to call for delivery from a nearby restaurant, when Solo trudged through the door, wearing casual winter clothes.

"Food. Sounds good. How long did I sleep?"

"Hours," Illya responded after he gave a shrug. "Feeling better?"

"Sore. Tired. Those pills you slipped me are pretty potent."

"You're getting old."

"Sadly, yes," he agreed after a contemplative moment. "Not bouncing back from stopping bullets like I used to."

At his friend's silence – distracted by preparing two cups of coffee – Napoleon took a seat at the kitchen table. He made general comments about the nice house and the comfortable furnishings. The neighborhood was quiet and respectable, just where a dignified ME should live.

Sipping at the hot, black coffee, he gazed over the rim of his cup, assessing his friend. Over two decades had passed, but it was like no time at all between them. Illya was so similar, still, in his appearance and mannerisms. And after a few bumps, the relationship was as solid as ever. He could also read his friend as perfectly as he had twenty years ago. And he knew what was on the Russian's mind.

"Your NCIS team is good. They think the world of you."

This brought a smile to the serious face. "They are a fine group. They all have their quirks, but are loyal and steadfast." Briefly making eye contact, he stared into his cup. "Their kindness helped me a great deal over the years. Jethro is probably the most honorable man I've ever known." He looked up and smiled. "I am sorry, moi brat, but you do not fit into that category. Your failure to notify me that you were alive for twenty years, and your annoying penchant for self-sacrifice, has marred your record."

It wasn't a joke, but was delivered with fond directness. So, his friend had learned to be open and revealing about his emotions when cornered. In the old days, intimate revelations were yanked out of him with great effort. The new habit was for the good, probably. Adversely, Solo had spent two rough, hard decades in a fugitive life, with no one to count on as an ally. He had to harken back to the innate honesty he shared with Kuryakin in the past.

"Jethro looks on you as his – uh – Dutch uncle – to use an appropriate pun. Don't do anything rash, Illya."

A smirk turned into a chuckle. "I will have to become accustomed to your mind-reading all over again," he decided. "It is so good to have you back, my friend."

Acknowledging the mutual gratification with a nod, Solo stayed on track. "You know what I mean, Illya. I know what you are thinking. I just don't believe you've thought it through enough."

"Napoleon, you gave up your life for me. You diverted Karkov's attention to save me. This is my decision to make, not yours." Somber, Kuryakin held his gaze steadily, sincerely. "You know what it means to have you back. You know my thoughts and feelings. Everyone else comes second, Napoleon. They always have."

Again, taken aback by the unexpected veracity, Napoleon mentioned one last thought. "We have the rest of our lives to decide what roads to take. Don't abandon your new friends. They deserve some of that inimitable Kuryakin brilliance a little longer maybe."

"We shall see. It is unwise to contemplate life-changing matters on empty stomachs. I was just about to order dinner from the excellent Italian restaurant two blocks away. Their al dente penne, with fresh tomato sauce, eggplant and parmigano regiano is quite brilliant. It will remind you of that hotel on the Amalfi Coast where we ran security for the UNCLE leaders."

Smiling, Napoleon allowed the subject to be changed. "That was the best assignment we ever had in Italy."

"For the food alone," Illya agreed. "Not to mention the weather."

"And the jet-set girls in their bikinis. And less."

There had been good times and incredible memories during their careers. It wasn't always the danger and death, the pain or the sorrow. Unfortunately, those were too numerous, and dire enough to forget. Still concerned that Illya intended to burn his bridges here, Solo decided to bide his time. They would discuss this further tomorrow.

After completing their assignments, the younger agents left. Gibbs stayed at his desk for the rest of the day to work on his new project. In his mind he labeled it Operation Thanksgiving. Good thing he had planned ahead, anticipating several happenings in regards to the attacks over the weekend. On Saturday morning he received a call from Ducky asking for a private meeting early Monday morning. To go on the offensive with a pre-emptive strike, he showed up at the townhouse Saturday afternoon, bearing some snacks, liquor, and a plan.

First, the element of surprise gained him the upper hand right off the bat. The cordial setting, the food and drink, all played in his favor. After the cheese, crackers, vodka and scotch were passed around the kitchen table, he got to the point.

"I know what you want to meet about on Monday, Duck. And I'm not going to accept your resignation."

Illya glanced first at Napoleon, who gave him a silent expression that was the equivalent of I-told-you-so. Then the Russian turned to Gibbs. "I am sorry, Jethro –"

"There's no reason to be sorry. 'Cause you don't need to resign. We've been doing our homework." Looking to his left he eyed Solo. "Napoleon will back me up on this. Karkov's organization was small and tight. Only he, his grandson, and Zubov were on the top tier. There was no other cohesive team. Others were hired guns who moved in and out of their employ. McGee was able to hack into their corporate records and accounts and – well – the bottom line is that no Karkovs or anyone else are going to come after you. Your name, and Napoleon's, weren't even in their records."

"Those are only computer files," Kuryakin objected. "You have no idea who else knows about my new identity. And if I am found, Kurt can be discovered as well. Hilda is beyond retribution, but it is my duty to still protect her grandson."

Napoleon leaned forward to join in. "He's offering you a reason to not leave, Illya."

"I trust your thoroughness, Jethro," Illya countered. "But it is too great a risk. I am not the only one to be considered. Kurt and Napoleon come first."

Tight lipped, Gibbs shook his head. "We checked every record, Duck. No mention of you or Napoleon or Kurt. You said yourself it was visual recognition from the magazine article that brought Karkov here. You are all safe. And why leave a place where you are not only wanted, but are needed, Duck?" There was silence as Illya and Napoleon exchanged a look that was unreadable to him. As an outsider, he did not have their unique code of partnership that used subtle nuances of expression, tone or body language to convey mute conversations and meanings. It was just an impression, but he thought Solo was on his side. "Just give it some thought, Duck, before you make any decisions. We don't want to lose you." He canted his head at Napoleon. "And we don't mind the new addition, either."

"I will contemplate my options, Jethro, I promise," was Illya's final agreement.

Gibbs left shortly afterward, pulling his collar around his neck as he stepped into the fluttering snow. Illya moved to the sitting room and watched the NCIS agent drive away. When he turned back, Napoleon was on the sofa. Illya slumped into his easy chair and stared at the fire. There was certainly a lot to ponder.

For someone who had spent the first half of his life longing for family, warmth and security, he was surprisingly cavalier of such blessings now. Was he ready to move away from all those hard-won positives for a semi-isolated future? What kind of thankfulness did that show? Since leaving the Navy Base, he had thought of little else but exiting from his manufactured life and retiring with Solo. Where? Doing what? He was unlikely to be happy spending the rest of his life fishing or collecting coins! Hardly appropriate for a man who was one of the world's top espionage agents, then moved on to be a noted pathologist and forensic profiler.

Last week, if asked what wish he would have granted, he would have given pragmatic and dour comments that wishes were the stuff of dreams. Now his dream, his wish, had come true. Unprepared to have his friend restored to him, he didn't know what he should do now. Except appreciate his blessings. By abandoning his recent friends?

Aware Napoleon was watching him, he glanced over, confirming the steady look. "You have not told me what you want to do now that you are a free man," Illya said.

"I have what I want," was the simple reply. "Whatever else that comes will be extra. I just don't want you to regret anything."

Nodding, Illya turned his attention back to the fire. "It would be hard to regret any decision," he almost whispered. "Now that you are back I have an entirely different perspective."

The bar across the street from the tailor's specialized in sports on their big screens, and the best pastrami sandwiches and dark ale in three states. After purchasing new clothes and ordering four suits, the ever-dapper Solo suggested they treat themselves to a slice of Americana he had not enjoyed for too long. Grumbling about the cholesterol content, Kuryakin nonetheless agreed and munched his way through half the sandwich and most of his kettle chips before continuing the conversation started while shopping.

"Watching me spend money works up an appetite I see."

"Not my usual fare, I assure you, but today seemed like a good reason to celebrate. How is it you survived at all as a hunter? No three piece suits from Savile Row? No perfectly shined shoes or tailored shirts?"

"It was brutal," was the wry quip. With a cant of his head, Solo smirked. "You know me. I managed to keep up with my sartorial taste. And speaking of old habits, the Morgan is a nice touch. Didn't the UNCLE motor-pool in London have one just that shade of Hunter green?"

"I always liked that."

Amused, Napoleon changed the subject, holding up a chip. "These are tasty."

"And very bad for your health."

"You cave so easily to peer pressure these days. Or you were just waiting for an excuse to come here to eat." He took a long sip of the ale. "You never answered my question I asked when we were at the tailors."

"If we should go to Zurich personally and close out the old company account? Or was it choosing between the blue striped or the green striped silk ties?"

After chewing his small bite of pastrami sandwich, Solo placed the mostly uneaten food back on his plate. He washed it down with a sip of ale. This was a little rich and heavy for his usual fare. On the run, living out of a suitcase, shadowing an enemy and keeping his presence a secret for twenty years had exacted a toll. His health slowly rebuilding – improved even after so short a time. Security, regular meals and a restored friendship made a world of difference. He still had the desire to plunge back into life at full force, but reason compelled him to take it easy. That went for the food, the absorbing of the lifestyle, and advising his friend. This reunion had changed both their lives, and he didn't want Illya to make decisions – based on his return – that would damage the Mallard alternate-reality.

"Since you are suffering from temporary amnesia, I'll remind you of the question. It was about not making hasty decisions for your future for a little while. Wait for a few weeks, maybe a month. Maybe reevaluate at the new year?" He picked at the meat and dipped it into deli mustard. "Give everything a little time."

Very still, Illya stared at him for several long moments. He had gone pale. Knowing his friend so well, guessing at the root of the sudden fear, Napoleon offered a gentle smile. "Don't worry, tovarich, I am not going anywhere. I promise you." On one of their nastier missions, Illya had been tortured and brainwashed, tricked into believing that Napoleon was abandoning him – just as his family had left him in his childhood. (fanfic-epilogsforTHRUSHRouletteAffair-RussianRouletteandAftermath) "Trust me on that, please."

A measure of relief passed through the blue eyes. "I don't understand your caution, then. Most uncharacteristic."

After a quiet spurt of a chuckle, Solo responded, "It's like we've switched personalities. I am advising caution, you are impulsively taking the sentimental road." Leaning back, folding his arms, he admitted, "Not that I mind, Illya, but you have built up a wonderful life here. I don't want to ruin it for you."

"You know my answer to that. You haven't. Now eat this excellent, calorie-filled meal I have treated you to." About to say something, his friend was forestalled. "Your opinion has been noted."

About to take another bite, Solo gave the quiet aside of, "Stubborn."

At which, his friend grinned. "Some things never change."

Never much of a cook in the old days, Solo was always willing to allow his dates to make all the good meals. He sat at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of wine, watching Illya prepare some delectably-smelling food. Munching on raw carrots and celery, when a noise alerted them, he started, dropping his food and reaching for the pistol tucked in the holster at the small of his back. Illya, trained in his new life to not react so negatively, followed his partner at a slower pace to the front door. When the bell rang, Illya checked through the peep hole, while Solo waited in the corner, weapon drawn.

"It's Jethro," he explained and opened the door as Solo holstered the Walther and backed away.

Entering, Gibbs sensed the tense moment and gave a crooked smile. "Smells good. Sorry I didn't bring any wine."

"You are more than welcome to stay, Jethro. We have plenty of wine, and food." Illya led the way into the kitchen. "A social call?" he asked suspiciously. "I feel privileged receiving so many from you in so short a time, Jethro."

"Thanks," the younger man confirmed wryly.

It was uncommon for Gibbs to socialize with almost anyone, but he felt comfortable with Ducky and Solo. There was a silent acceptance that this was business, but they all extended the moment by sharing drinks, discussing the aftermath of the attacks, and reviewing procedure that would be expected in the coming week.

Just before a splendid meal of Caesar salad and broiled salmon with vegetables was placed on the table, Illya asked him why he was really there. With a shrug, raising his bottle of beer in a toast to the perspicacity of his host, Gibbs responded plainly.

"The kids and I have a plan. The whole team worked it out, Duck. We want you to hear it out and consider giving it a go." With a look at Solo, he added, "It will take into account Napoleon and that you want him included into the scene."

It seemed his friend was about to object, so Napoleon stepped in with sincere honesty. "Illya, this shows how much they love you and want you to stay. I know they mean something to you. They're your family now. You would regret moving out of their lives."

"Sacrifice is giving up one thing, for something better," he stubbornly countered.

"But what if you don't have to give up anything for something better?"

Glaring the Russian was silent.

"Why are you in such a hurry to leave a great life?"

He was the profiler. He could answer that question honestly if he knew his own reasoning. After a moment of contemplation, slightly miffed, he countered, "Why are you so anxious to stay, Napoleon?" With a huff of impatience, he responded. "At the risk of admitting – again – that you are correct . . . " he sighed again. Addressing them both, he told them, "I think, perhaps, I am tired of having decisions taken from me. I need to do this myself. Not you, Jethro. Nor you, Napoleon. You decided our fates twenty years ago. And this week. I must make this choice."

Operation Thanksgiving Reunion

Post-holiday Monday morning brought Tim and Abby- arriving together - just minutes before Tony and Ziva entered the office. Gibbs was already at his desk and took a moment to ask how their weekend went. The various responses were amusing to watch. All four of the younger people were a bit nervous and furtive.

He made them squirm as he eyed the sprig of mistletoe that DiNozzo placed on a stand at his desk. "So, nice trip?" he teased. He really didn't want to know any details.

"Ho, ho, ho," Tony responded with a forced smile. "Just a little skiing trip, boss."

"In keeping with the season, it was a winter wonderland," Ziva told him.

Any more insight was lost because of the arrival of Kuryakin and Solo. Both were looking chipper, rested and pleased. Napoleon's pallor was improved, his gait slow, but managed to walk with just a gentle touch of Ducky's hand on his elbow. Dressed in an elegant coat and sporting a slick, black cane with a silver handle, Solo looked like he had stepped out of a gentleman's fashion magazine.

Gibbs had assessed before, there would be no separation now between the two old friends. They had paid steep prices for ideals, duties and the better-good. It was time for them to live for themselves. On the other hand, Gibbs did not want to lose Ducky.

Before the others on the team had left for the weekend, they had all met to organize a plan. Presenting it to Ducky and Solo, he gave them the best possible offer. There was no more threat from the Karkov family. The SPs had concluded it was a terrorist assault against NCIS. Snowed-in agents had thwarted the attack. There was no evidence of a specific targeting of Mallard, or any history of Karkov and two former UNCLE agents.

Playing his role in the ongoing masquerade, Gibbs stood and was the first to meet them. "Morning, Ducky. Glad to see you're doing so much better, Sebastian."

"Indeed he is, Jethro," Ducky greeted with exaggeration. To a few others in the room who had not been on site for the attack, he introduced, "This is my cousin. Sebastian Fox."

Solo nodded to the passers-by, then directed his attention to the younger members of the team, all of them playing along in perfect harmony with the act. They were good enough, Gibbs had known, to understand this façade had to play out this way, or they would lose Ducky.

"Sebastian is recuperating with me until he finds a place of his own."

"That's so nice, Ducky," Abby told him warmly. "Holidays are all about families."

Everyone exchanged glances, their eyes agreeing to the deeper meanings in the statement. DiNozzo broke the seriousness of the mood by singing a few bars of 'Happy Holidays'.

"Yes, very generous of my cousin," Solo agreed sincerely. "I'm thankful for him. For his friends, too."

"Agreed," Illya responded with a slight bow, then quietly added, "It's the least I could do. No one should to be alone for the holidays."

"So true. And nice to have new friends," Solo agreed.

In a spontaneous show of affection, Abby went around hugging all in the circle, thanking everyone for being such a wonderful family group. She sang little snippets of 'I'll Be Home For Christmas'. Everyone murmured echoes of the sentiment, then drifted away to their desks. As Ducky was leading his cousin away, the newest inclusion to the unit – Solo – stopped next to Gibbs.

"Thank you, Gibbs. You've given me back my life."

"No," the agent countered. "I've widened our circle to let you in. Where you belong. Next to your friend and ours." He wryly warned, "And don't think this is a free ride. You might be called in to lend your expertise in a case or two if I think it is warranted."

With a sharp nod, and a twinkle in his eyes, Solo replied, "I look forward to it."

The older men exited the room side by side. When Gibbs turned back, he noted his entire team watched them, too. They were all pleased, with Tony wearing a kind of goofy grin of admiration. Yeah, this was going to be a great holiday season! And this new arrangement would work out just fine.

THE END