A lone soldier stood at attention while his comrades passed by in perfect alignment, each step choreographed by past victories. For Illya Kuryakin, the scene took him back to his youth, the imagery too vivid even now for him to want to revisit.
How many times had the threat of being recalled twisted his stomach into violent spasms while all the time he continued in his stoic performance of the unaffected, mysterious Soviet. Only Illya's friend and partner had seen through that veil of deceit, its only intent to protect the young agent from his own fears.
Without having to defect, finally Illya had been granted the opportunity to remain in the United States without punishing reprisals from the Soviet government. It was a small act within the greater drama of the Cold War; the release of one man for what or whom?
It was never revealed.
This was all going through his mind as the Russian agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement watched the scene play out in front of him. He and Napoleon Solo had come to this Eastern bloc country with an assignment to help a defector escape the tyranny of not only his homeland, but also the THRUSH presence there.
As the two agents stood among a crowd of onlookers and patriots, they spotted the signal they'd been told to expect. Their contact was wearing a yellow hat with a green feather, a most unlikely fashion statement anywhere else but in this otherwise drab scene. Illya followed the path of the hat as it turned into a small café, nudging his partner to follow it inside.
"I see the hat, it's gone in there. Shall we?"
Napoleon smiled, indicating the hunt was now officially on.
The men crossed through the now dispersing crowd of citizens. The parade of soldiers was past them now, the stalwart commander taking up the rear as he followed his men into the nearby barracks. It was an odd arrangement, with a military presence in an old hotel that was now utilized for state personnel. The people outside milled around for only a few seconds, the fleeting sense of freedom an infrequent visitor whenever the streets were emptied of the seemingly ever-present soldiers. The mood lasted only a short time, however, as the citizenry of this little town quickly regained its appropriate, state approved façade.
Illya led the way into the café where he'd seen the yellow hat enter. It was up to him in these environs to take the lead when approaching anyone. His language skills were obviously needed here, as well as his familiarity with customs and idioms, if the opposition were nearby. Napoleon spotted the yellow hat with its feather bobbing above solemn faces, intent on their meals.
"I see it…'
Illya responded to his partner's nod in the direction of their quarry.
"… but I'm not sure I believe it."
Someone familiar to the Russian agent wore the yellow hat, and that caused him to have a momentary relapse into the hated apprehension that dogged him when in this part of the world.
"Don't speak to her, Napoleon. Let me do all of the talking, and I do mean all of it."
That sounded very abrupt to the American, piquing his interest rather than suspicion. Illya didn't often respond with great emotion, and Napoleon waited, wondering why his partner had been so brusque. And he wondered who this woman was, and what it was about her that provoked Illya.
Illya made his way through the tables, arriving at the one occupied by the woman in the hat. Her head was down as she perused the menu, and when she looked up at his approach, her reaction was at least equal to his.
"Illyusha, neuzheli eto ty?"
Napoleon heard just enough to know the woman was surprised to see Illya. He listened in as his partner continued…
"Da, Katya. Chto vy zdesʹ delayete? Eto ochenʹ opasno."
Illya's voice was low and, from the sound of it, concerned.
"I know the danger, Illyusha. I learned about it from you."
Now Napoleon was truly interested in this woman, and apparently, at some point, his partner had been as well. Illya frowned, his eyes a shade cooler than an ice cube.
"Katya, we do not have time to review the past. How is it that you are involved in this business? And how…"
She smiled at that. Finally, something that Illya didn't know. Napoleon recognized the glimmer of humor in the woman's eyes, understood as well the small twinge of pleasure that people sometimes gained from the few instances when the blond encyclopedia didn't have an answer.
"I was sent here by the government, Illya. I am, as the Americans say it, undercover. Like you, I am a spy."
Katya said the last in a whisper, her conspiratorial tone an amusement to Napoleon, but clearly not to Illya. Here was a situation that could turn into something very ugly, and Katya was in danger of being found out if she persisted in this foolishness.
"I understand the need to do something, anything, to help people become free from tyranny. But this, Katya, you are at risk. How are you possibly prepared for this role? And who sent you, who is responsible for this?"
Illya was on the verge of being angry, not an emotion he often allowed. He had learned early on to control his emotions, to safeguard his deepest feelings lest they become a tool for his destruction. Even now, inside of UNCLE, there was no room for examination; he always maintained a veneer of inscrutability.
Katya watched as the silent statements traveled across Illya's face, saw them in his eyes in spite of his efforts to hide them. Gone were the days when she had been smitten by those eyes. Too many years, too much heartache had passed between then and now.
Napoleon was catching some of the conversation, sure that Illya preferred that he not. The man was intensely private, and to encounter a piece of his past while on assignment… well, that had to sting a little. And what about Katya? How did she figure into the other man's life?
Illya gathered his wits and his manners in time to stop the conversation from going where it inevitably would. He and Katya did need to talk, but not here, not now.
"Napoleon Solo, this is Katya Mikhailovna Sidorov. She will lead us to Professor Rabinovich."
Illya cut his eyes in that inimitable way he had to let Katya know he was not pleased, but would acquiesce to the arrangement. She knew, of course, that he had no choice.
Napoleon watched this exchange. Illya was going to be in a bad mood tonight, something that made the wary agent hopeful that Rabinovich was a sociable type.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Katya. Is the professor coming here, or…"
Katya shook her head, causing the green feather to sway back and forth. It was unusually demonstrative, and Illya suddenly wondered why she would wear something so… noticeable. It wasn't for their benefit.
"Katya, who exactly sent you here? And who decided upon the hat and feather?"
The question alarmed Katya, and she understood immediately why Illya asked it. She took off the hat, throwing it beneath the table to their right and hoping that it wasn't too late. Illya and Napoleon were rising from their seats, and Illya grabbed Katya's arm, pulling her along with them as they headed for the open door.
Katya gasped, tugging on Illya's sleeve as she maneuvered herself in front of him. Napoleon took the hint and turned towards the bar, entering into a nonsensical conversation in broken Russian and eliciting laughter from the other men standing there.
Katya was watching the men who entered the café, and on impulse she pulled Illya's face to hers and kissed him. Without thinking, and without restraint, Illya met the kiss. Deep and full of the hunger that marked his life, he was plunged into an abyss in which only he and Katya existed.
Seconds or minutes passed, he couldn't tell.