UNCLE Headquarters was full of activity, and amidst the background of whirring electrical typewriters and ringing telephones, New York's top two agents were engaged in a very important conversation.
"Quirky? Who said I was quirky? I am not. That is utterly ridiculous."
Napoleon chuckled at his partner. Illya would admit to many descriptions: erudite, intellectual, and perhaps even cosmopolitan. Well, he had lived and worked all over the world. Even his old Soviet aesthetics had yielded rather willingly to the West's more self-indulgent pursuits.
But, don't call the man cute or quirky.
"You know, Illya, sometimes you do have a few little quirks that make people wonder about you."
The blond raised an eyebrow and challenged his friend and partner to come up with something.
"Oh really? Perhaps you'd care to enlighten me, since you obviously consider yourself an expert in these things."
Napoleon was not intimidated by the challenge. He had a few examples of Kuryakin quirks just on the tip of his tongue.
"Well, for one, you're always rolling your eyes when people say something you don't agree with."
Illya rolled his eyes.
"And for another, tovarisch, you ignore beautiful women when they are obviously trying to attract your attention."
This time the Russian just glared at his partner. These weren't quirks being recited, merely… idiosyncrasies.
"Clearly you do not fully grasp the meaning of the word quirk. Do you wish for me to clarify?"
The look on his partner's face was clarification enough for Illya to discern that Napoleon did not wish to exchange dictionary niceties.
Instead, the blond reached into his coat pocket to retrieve his communicator as it began its warbling tones. Ah, saved by the …
"Kuryakin here… oh, no sir, I did not."
Napoleon raised an eyebrow at that, observed a slight flush in his friend's complexion. Was Illya in trouble?
"Yes sir, I will… no sir. Well, it is and… I understand. Yes sir. Immediately."
The air suddenly felt warmer, the walls appeared a little more grey.
Illya Kuryakin was not used to being reprimanded. Certainly he had made mistakes in the past, but this was … disturbing.
"Illya? What's wrong, you look… Is everything all right?"
Napoleon felt concerned now, it was taking Illya a long time to collect himself. This was unlike the cool Russian; he usually remained unruffled even in the face of torture. Of course, it had been Mr. Waverly on the other end of that conversation.
Illya looked up at his friend, his expression entirely too transparent for Napoleon's comfort. There was definitely a problem.
Napoleon and Illya found themselves in Mr. Waverly's office in short order. Illya wouldn't explain, only made it clear that they had very little time to get themselves upstairs and in front of their superior.
As they each sat in their respective places, the old man took his time getting the meeting started as he fingered his pipe, threatening to light it but finally setting it down. Freshly filled and tamped, the aroma of his Isle of Dogs #22 tobacco provided a faint sensory element to the austere surroundings.
"Gentlemen, thank you for your prompt response. Ahemmm… Mr. Kuryakin…'
Both men tensed at that, each for difference reasons.
"I assume you have the item with you."
Napoleon noted that it was not a question, and that Illya was considerably paler than usual, a blanched quality to his complexion. What was it that they were on about?
Illya reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small reel of tape. Napoleon hadn't seen him put it in his pocket before they left their shared office.
"Yes sir, I have it here… I apologize for not returning it sooner."
The lights in the big office seemed dim for some reason. The small windows that overlooked the United Nations complex did little to illuminate the ominous surroundings. The round table appeared to Illya as a massive barrier. He had withheld information and now a price was being extracted from him because of it.
Alexander Waverly was not a man given to making or accepting excuses, not from anyone. His estimation of the young Russian was generous on all counts, and he knew a little of the tumultuous past that seemingly still haunted the slender agent.
Illya handed the reel of tape to his superior, not daring to look him in the eye as he avoided letting their fingers touch.
"Mr. Kuryakin, I am allowing Mr. Solo here as a witness to this meeting, for your benefit not mine. I take it he does not know about this tape of your meeting with the magician. Merlin was it? Also, we lost a man on this affair, Mr. Kuryakin, something for which I understand you have assumed a misguided sense of guilt.'
Illya blanched a little more, his face losing nearly all color at this point.
"It was not your fault, Mr. Kuryakin. You performed, for the most part, to the highest standards in this affair, and you are not any more culpable for the results as I am, since I was sitting in the car listening to the entire unfortunate scenario when THRUSH intercepted his flight. We, UNCLE, were unable to alter the course of that young man's destiny."
Illya was staring straight ahead, his hands clasped together in front of him on the table. Mr. Waverly's table.
"Do you wish to explain to me why it is you felt it necessary to hold on to this reel of film? Because an answer is being required of you, Mr. Kuryakin. You have opened a can of worms here, the type that crawl out of one's past and threatens to consume the present, or in your case, the future.''
Napoleon was completely at a loss. He had no background on this conversation, nor had he any idea what was on the tape that Illya had apparently failed to turn in at the end of the affair. That was so unlike his meticulous partner, which led Napoleon to believe that it was a very personal issue that the Russian was trying to protect from prying eyes. But it had been recorded?
Illya Kuryakin did have a history, one that was mostly unknown to the people here in New York; unknown to the entire world as far as he was concerned. He had been careful to maintain his privacy, to bury the past with its war and lack. The magician, Merlin, had unearthed some of it when he delved into Illya's thoughts. Why had he let that come to mind? How had it?
It was no use wondering about it now. He had knowingly kept the reel of tape that had recorded the meeting, and now Mr. Waverly was demanding an answer.
"Sir, it was foolhardy of me to …'
The pause was agonizing as Illya tried to put into words why he had done it.
"I reacted to something that Merlin heard, or saw… however that machine worked. He pried into my past, sir, and I was unwilling for anyone to observe that. I am… it was wrong of me, sir. It was unprofessional, and I apologize. I hope…"
Waverly harrumphed, but his expression was not contemptuous, rather it bordered on sympathetic, Napoleon thought.
"Mr. Kuryakin, I am aware that your past has some, shall we say, unpleasant memories. Your childhood was something not easily understood, especially here in this country. I gather from Mr. Cantrell's unfinished report that a reference was made to Kiev. I am truly sorry, Mr. Kuryakin, if it has caused you to be… uh.. uncomfortable. That is nothing to this organization, however, in light of any possible improprieties that may have occurred by your failure to submit all of the materials related to this… uh… mind reading apparatus."
Napoleon got it now. If Illya had failed to submit anything related to his life in the Soviet Union, it might give rise to questions from other organizations; American intelligence groups were still grasping for a reason, any reason, to boot Illya back to the USSR. Withholding this piece of film, even if it were just a reference to his youth, could be a dangerous piece of evidence if the wrong people found out about it. If Cantrell's report were verbal…
Waverly saw the sudden glint of recognition in his Chief Enforcement Agent. Solo was always quick to discern the less than obvious, it was one of the reasons he held the position he did.
"I see you have come upon my predicament, Mr. Solo. We have a security breach, and a transmission has been intercepted by the FBI in which Mr. Cantrell mentions that Mr. Kuryakin here, our lone Soviet Agent, retained possession of the film of his meeting with Merlin, and that on it a remark was made regarding Kiev. It is uncertain why he felt the need to include that, but he did, in a most earnest report that included every detail of that meeting, the subsequent performance, Victor Marton's presence… everything.'
The old man's eyebrows shot up into arcs of hoary twin bridges.
"Everything, Mr. Kuryakin. And now, thanks to that intercepted verbal report, the FBI wants to see that film, and they want to speak to you about it; they want to know why you did not include it in the courier's package that was sent back here to New York."
It was beyond belief to Napoleon that the FBI should have any interest, or for that matter, any jurisdiction regarding this. Illya, on the other hand, was very familiar with agencies monitoring one another, checking and double-checking and sometimes, taking action. America wasn't so different, perhaps, from what he had left behind.
"I will, of course, answer their questions sir. I have nothing to hide. Kiev…'
Illya sighed, a deep and tired sigh that spoke of years of abandoned memories. He had hoped to not ever dredge them up again, and he still could not understand how that machine…
"I was a child, sir. My only defense in keeping the film reel is that I did not want to reveal… there are things that should not come to light about those years. It was incredibly bad judgment on my part.''
Waverly's expression had softened into something like compassion. He was a man acquainted with war and the casualties of war. Children, widows and orphans… too much, too many terrible consequences to the wrangling for power and dominance. That was the whole point of UNCLE, after all, to try and stop the world from repeating the same horrors.
Alexander Waverly put down his pipe, cleared his throat and looked into the sad blue eyes of Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin. It was like looking at the child whose memories of Kiev had created this incident they were now facing. No one should have to hide from his own childhood.
"Illya, I do understand. I will deal with the FBI, and I will instruct them to divest themselves of their interest in this situation."
Napoleon and Illya were both taken aback at the use of the Russian's name, the near tenderness in the delivery of those lines. Something happened in that moment to cement the younger men's commitment to this old warrior. He had always had their respect, but from this moment on, there was an element of devotion that had been missing in their relationship with Waverly.
Illya was dumbstruck, his sensibilities on high alert. Like the tablature of a musical score, Waverly played this game with a deft hand, fingering each note until it played pitch perfect.
"Sir, I… Thank you. This is a great kindness."
Another harrumph from the venerable chief of UNCLE was their cue of dismissal. Illya and Napoleon exited in silence, and continued on that way for a few minutes. Eventually, it was Napoleon who spoke first.
"Illya, you do realize how close…"
Illya stopped in mid-stride. When he raised his head to look at Napoleon, the blue eyes were not harsh or icy, as was often the case. He simply nodded his head, looking for all the world like the boy Waverly had seen earlier. When Illya spoke, his words sounded hushed, almost a whisper.
"Napoleon, you have no idea."