Like a Phoenix from Ashes
Illya was in the bowels of UNCLE NY's headquarters in the section that housed the gym, showers and physical therapy facilities. He had been there all morning working out; first with a trainer and then on his own. Tomorrow, he would have to take and pass his physical. It was all that stood between him and the field as he had easily passed his firearms' qualifying rounds. Medical had partially released him from their care. He would be fully released when (if) he re – qualified for field duty.
It had been a long, hard row to hoe. The injuries he had sustained during his last mission with Napoleon had almost killed him. He reached into his locker and pulled out his soap and shampoo. He stripped off his sweat – soaked sweat suit and dumped it into the plastic bag he had brought for that purpose. Completely comfortable in his own skin, he headed for the showers nude except for the towel draped around his neck. No one else happened to be in the locker room but, it would have made no difference to him if someone had been there. He had realized sometime ago that what interested people most about his body was not the shape or tone of it but, the multitude of scars that flourished from his neck to the soles of his feet. He would catch people checking out, not his behind but, the seven long, raised lines on his back that were the result of his whipping by Mother Fear or, the indentations on his legs, arms and torso that indicated where a bullet had either entered or exited or the raised scar tissue that resulted from numerous knife wounds. The newest scars were still an angry red; soon they would fade to pink to match the rest. He bore all his scars proudly as they were a symbol of his fight to make the world a better place. Letting the hot water run over him, he thought, I have earned these scars.
His broken ribs had mended as had his broken thigh bone. He probably would not have been injured at all if he had not thrown himself in front of the car that had been speeding toward his partner. There had been no time to yell a warning. The car had leapt almost cat – like through the garage door they had been approaching down an alley with guns drawn, walking approximately eight feet apart. It was heading straight at Napoleon who began to fire at the driver as Illya instinctively closed the distance between them and shoved him down a flight of basement stairs out of harm's way. Unfortunately, the car slammed into Illya's right leg, snapping the thigh bone immediately and bounced him off the side of a brick building hard enough to crack four ribs and give him internal bleeding and a concussion.
He shuddered as he dried himself, not from cold but, the memory of the pain that had accompanied that hit. Napoleon had been beside himself when he came to my side; barking orders for an ambulance into his communicator, telling me to lie still in that voice that to anyone else sounds calm and in control but, tells me he is worried. I could not focus on what he was saying but, I knew he was afraid for me.
Days later, as he lay in Medical recovering, he had finally felt strong enough to speak to Napoleon. It had been a one – sided conversation until then as the hated painkillers had made him too exhausted and out of it to talk so Napoleon spoke for both of them as he sat vigil next to Illya's bed. He smiled as he wrapped the towel around himself thinking of the first thing out of his mouth to the American.
Napoleon's head snapped up at the sound of Illya's voice. "What did you say?"
Illya swallowed and motioned toward the water on the nightstand. After taking a sip from the cup Napoleon provided, he repeated, "Blockhead. I have been listening to you going on and on about how I am not to take chances like that anymore, that you can take care of yourself and you will write me up if I put myself in that position again."
Napoleon leaned forward. "Yeah, so?"
Illya used the bed's remote to put him in a sitting position. "So, you cannot write me up for doing my job. You are not only Chief Enforcement Agent of UNCLE North America, you are being groomed to replace Mr. Waverly himself." He waved off Napoleon's protestations. "Please do not insult me by denying it; everyone knows it will be you who replaces the Old Man. That makes you indispensable. I am not; if it comes down to it, it is my job to sacrifice my life for you, if need be. I have made peace with that, Napoleon; I suggest you do, too."
The Russian grabbed his clean clothing, exited the locker room and went down the hall to receive massage therapy from Carlos. When he was first injured while working for UNCLE, he had scoffed at Dr. Jameson's suggesting he get massages to help healing and promote his well - being; dismissing it as some Western capitalistic nonsense. But, when he finally submitted to it, he was amazed at how much better he felt.
Carlos specialized in scar tissue massage and used six techniques on Illya's body: manual lymph drainage to optimize circulation around his scars, myofascial release to ease constriction of the skin, deep tissue massage, lubricating the scar tissue with vitamin E to soften it and increase pliability, stretching the scar tissue to improve range of motion and finally, adding heating pads to increase and improve suppleness of the skin.
Carlos was already waiting for him when he entered the room. Nodding wordlessly to acknowledge the masseuse's presence, he dropped his towel and climbed face down on the table and stuck his face in the hole and relaxed as the man worked warm oil into his skin and paid special attention to his scars. He had learned to appreciate and even look forward to these sessions; he felt a sense of renewal after an hour of Carlos' ministrations. As the massage proceeded, he let his mind wander to his conversation with his partner last night.
"So, Tovarisch, your physical is day after tomorrow. Are you ready?" Napoleon asked as he placed a heaping plate of spaghetti Bolognese in front of Illya before serving himself. He had invited the Russian to dinner. Besides the pasta, he had made a caprese salad and tiramisu for dessert. "I have to admit, I really prefer two - person assignments and all the Old Man has been giving me are courier and escort jobs that any new jack agent could do." He took a sip of red wine. "I really miss having you at my side, Partner Mine."
Illya was surprised by the admission. They had grown close in the four years since they were first partnered but, neither one of them was given to emotional declarations. He stopped eating long enough to reply, "I...have missed you too, Napoleon. Do not worry. I will pass the physical challenges and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I will be reborn as a Section II Agent ready to go out and save the world."
Napoleon had simply nodded his head and said, "I hope so, Illya."
Six AM the next morning found Illya Kuryakin on the roof of UNCLE NY HQ stepping into the UNCLE chopper along with Dr. Jameson, Napoleon Solo in his role as CEA and head of Section III Slater Gray, who was there to make sure the CEA did not rate his partner too laxly or harshly. They were headed to what the agents referred to as the "local proving grounds." It was too prohibitively expensive to send an agent back to the Survival School Island to re - qualify for the field so, agents needing physicals to be medically cleared would head to UNCLE owned property in upstate New York to be put through their paces.
The chopper landed after an hour and a half flight somewhere in the Catskills. Dr. Jameson checked Illya's vital signs and declared him fit to undertake the physical. "Physical" was really a misnomer; it was not an exam but, a set of tasks to be performed within a set timeframe. No two physicals were exactly alike; they were customized to test each agent's weakest areas. There was really no way to prepare other than to be fit enough to do what was being asked of you. The tasks were decided by the Medical and Psychiatric Units and were only known to the Medical Director and Mr. Waverly.
"Mr. Kuryakin," Dr. Jameson said as he opened an envelope and read the contents, "the tasks you must complete in no more than two and a half hours are: swim across the lake and back and then, run this twenty miles long path that circles around to this point and then move those logs there to that area twenty feet away. You have your communicator in case you injure yourself or are unable to complete the tasks assigned. Do you have any questions or do you wish to not take the physical?"
Illya shook his head. Napoleon pulled out his stopwatch and said, "Good. Your time begins...now."
Illya ran down to the lake shore, stripping off his clothing and shoes as he ran. He ran into the lake and confidently swam to the far side and back. He dried himself with his shirt, dressed quickly and proceeded at a fast trot up the trail. The three men watched until he was out of sight and then, walked to the small cabin that was there to wait for the Russian's return.
Napoleon sat at the table and pulled out his bottle of water from his knapsack. He looked at the two men with him and stated, "I have no doubt Illya will come through with flying colors."
Slater agreed, "Of course, he will. I'm just here so no one can say you and the good doctor here played favorites."
Dr. Jameson cocked his head to one side like a confused puppy. "Why would I want to play favorites?"
Slater pulled a can of iced tea from his bag and took a deep swig before saying, "Scuttle butt says that Mr. Waverly wants Illya to qualify so that he will continue to keep the Crown Prince here safe from harm."
Napoleon slowly put his water down on the table. "Slater," he said in that low, dangerous voice that warned the sensible that violence was not too far away, "I would be very careful about spreading gossip. It is very unprofessional. I am not the Crown Prince and Illya is not my bodyguard."
Slater was unphased by Napoleon's tone. "I don't mean any harm, Solo but, like it or not, your partner, whether or not it is Illya, is almost by definition, your bodyguard. If it comes down to only one of you making it, Illya's under orders to be the one to lay down his life." At Napoleon's shocked look, he said, "What? You didn't know?"
Napoleon looked at the Medical Director for a denial but, the doctor looked away. "You know about this?"
When Dr. Jameson nodded, Napoleon exclaimed, "Illya told me that and I didn't believe him! Mr. Waverly has never said anything to me about it!"
Dr. Jameson shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe you should pay more attention to the office gossip. Rumor has it that each Number One has his eye on at least one person to take his place when the time comes. These "princes" aren't all Section II but, the ones that are are partnered with the best of the best to boost their chances of survival. The frontrunners for each Number One spot are called "Crown Princes" and rumor has it, you are the only one of those who is active Section Two."
"But I warn you, Napoleon; you cannot approach Mr. Waverly about any of this because all of it is rumor and speculation. Allegedly. He would more than likely deny everything, refuse to discuss anything and you would have damaged your credibility by asking him to comment on a rumor."
Napoleon was stunned into silence. He checked his watch; Illya had an hour and a half to complete his physical. The idea of Illya sacrificing his life to save his because he was less "important" to the organization was more than a little distasteful to him and he thought about what might happen if Illya failed to complete his tasks.
If he were to fail, he thought, he would be assigned fulltime to the labs. He would still be valuable to UNCLE. He wouldn't be able to put himself in harm's way to save me. He would be safe but, he would be devastated if he fails to qualify to return to field duty. It would be like a part of him died; he would work in the labs but, I know he would no longer be happy about it. If the rumors are true, whoever would be assigned as my partner would be under the same orders anyway and, would I really want someone else at my back? I don't think I could trust anyone as much as I trust Illya. And, couldn't that ultimately cause me to make a fatal error? Napoleon sighed and wiped his face with his hand. What does that Serenity Prayer say? Something about having the wisdom to know what you can and cannot change? I can't change this.
"Fine, I'll just leave things the way they are. Allegedly," Napoleon said as he got up to look outside. There was no sign of Illya yet but, he hadn't expected there to be. Knowing Illya, he'll be in sight in about forty – five minutes.
Slater pulled out a report to read. "It's all for the best that you do," he replied, "Just forget I ever mentioned it."
"Gladly," Napoleon muttered as he continued to look out the window. I don't think I like that guy.
Forty minutes later, Illya came into view approximately two hundred yards away. He was sweating but, did not appear to be in any kind of distress. He ran into the clearing in front of the cabin, checked his watch, walked around in a small circle to cool himself off and then proceeded to move the pile of logs from where they lay to the location pointed out by Dr. Jameson. When he had placed the last log, he raised his hands to signal he had finished and Napoleon pushed the top button to stop the timer.
He held it out so that Slater and Dr. Jameson could both read it. "Mr. Kuryakin," Dr. Jameson called, "You completed the tasks assigned to you in two hours and ten minutes. That score combined with your psychiatric assessment and your scores on the firing range qualify you to return to the field. Congratulations."
Smiling broadly, Illya shook first the doctor's, then Slater's hands. "Spacibo, thank you," he said. Turning toward Napoleon, he clapped him on the shoulder. "Like a phoenix rising from the ashes," he said.
That evening, Illya was again at Napoleon's penthouse for dinner. Afterwards, they moved into the living room to sip their drinks and relax. He noticed Napoleon kept glancing at him and looking away. "What?"
Napoleon leaned toward him. "Are you under orders from Mr. Waverly to lay down your life for me?"
Illya stared at him. "What made you ask that question?"
"Something Slater Gray and Dr. Jameson said while you were taking your physical. Are you under orders to protect me with your life?"
The Russian downed his vodka and placed the glass on the coffee table. He looked down at his hands and said, "It does not matter whether or not I am under orders. That is not important."
Napoleon raised his eyebrows in surprise. "That's not important? It doesn't matter? Then, what does?"
Illya looked directly at him. "That I will protect you with my life."
It was Napoleon's turn to stare as he let the enormity of what Illya told him sink in. "You, you would do that? Why? Because I'm CEA? A…Crown Prince?"
Illya snorted, "No, you blockhead! I would do it because you are my best friend, moy brat, because…I have learned to…love you." Blushing a bright red, he stood up and moved to inspect the pictures on Napoleon's mantle.
You're not getting off that easy, Napoleon thought as he went to stand next to the Russian. "You've never said that before. I know how hard it is for you to open up and express your feelings, Tovarisch, so I won't leave you out there by yourself. I love you too, Illya and I consider you my family." He pulled the smaller man into a hug and whispered in his ear, "Don't get used to hearing it too often!"
Illya hugged him back and after patting him on the back soundly, separated from Napoleon and went to replenish his drink. He poured scotch into Napoleon's glass and handed it to him. "I propose a toast: To rebirth and renewal; I am born again as a field agent and our partnership is reborn, renewed and stronger than ever."
Napoleon tapped his glass against his partner's. "I will always drink to that."