"You have the wrong number. Don't call me again …"
The voice on the other end was smug, almost condescending.
"Ah, but this is the correct number. You may have changed your office and camouflaged yourself with silks and showrooms, but we know you Mr. Kuryakin. We know who you work for when you're not sending models down the runway, and we know about your daughter and her mother."
Illya's heart nearly stopped at that. Was Nicolette in danger now, because of him?
"Do I detect some hesitation in your denial now? Please remember that wherever you think is safe, we'll be close by."
Illya slowly replaced the phone as a chill invaded the room. When he left UNCLE fifteen years ago it was supposed to be a life-changing event, a break for freedom after too many years devoted to other men's ideals and obeisance to their orders. Perhaps designing women's clothing wasn't the highest calling on the planet, but he had reserved some space in it for the occasional good deed or return of favor.
Then UNCLE had called once again, and the messenger had been none other than his long lost partner, Napoleon Solo. The reunion was bittersweet, the assignment a final chapter. Or, so he thought.
Since that fateful encounter there were several more missions, but more significantly, there had been Nicolette. The daughter he had never known was finally in his life and, to his surprise and delight, she welcomed him into hers. The fact that Marion was also back brought mixed emotions for Illya; it would be impossible to separate them all, and neither of them assumed or even wanted to revisit those days.
"Darling, who was that? It sounded quite dreadful to me."
Illya turned over to face her. Marion was still beautiful, still intoxicatingly fresh and vibrant… the moment seemed suspended in time as he revisited mentally the last time he had been in her bed. Walking away from her had been difficult, but not as dangerous as staying would have been.
"It's just a disgruntled shopkeeper. I believe we were engaged in something very important … let's see, I can't quite remember …"
Marion kissed him then, not entirely believing that she was here with him once again. How the years had passed them by, and yet she had always had Nicolette to remind her of the beautiful, golden man whom she had loved, and feared.
"Illya, are we …? I mean, do you think it's wise for us to … ?"
"No. No, I think it is unwise of us, and yet here we are. You always were impetuous, and I … I could never resist you."
She loved him for that. No, not a love that would sustain them, but one filled with happy memories and heartache and … their beautiful daughter. She would always love Illya Kuryakin for giving her Nicolette.
"My darling Illya. You're right, of course. This one time, perhaps, we can forgive ourselves for being careless. This … one … "
For just this one time, and then Illya would have to find out who was threatening his daughter.
Early morning caught up with Illya. He had seen Marion off a little after midnight, a caution on her part to not be found out by their daughter. The prospect of explaining the tryst to the inquisitive young woman sent pangs of guilt into the pit of Marion's stomach. No less so was her own anxiety about being with Illya again. It was all so natural, so … so impossible. Try as they might, the three of them would never begin to make for a family unit.
Marion still resented Illya's sometime profession, and even more than that, she knew that he couldn't love her the way a woman needed to be loved. Security and long suffering, assurances and … security. Always security, ever since her father had been killed; it was the thing that drove Marion into the reticent Russian's arms to begin with. She had longed for someone strong who would protect her and make her feel safe.
It had been an ironic twist that she fell in love with the stoic young man who had told her to think of him as a piece of furniture or a hulking rock. In the end he had enveloped her in a pair of arms that held promise of an emotional strength and devotion unlike anything she had ever experienced. And yet, in spite of Illya's strengths, there had been unexpected weaknesses.
Marion had found his vulnerabilities unsettling. Her flippant comebacks and numerous suitors had become a stumbling block for Illya, and his dedication to work and the probability that it would kill him someday had driven her finally, fatefully away. When he walked out of her apartment for the last time it was with each of their condolences unspoken.
But now here she was again tangled in the sheets with the enigmatic Illya Kuryakin. For all that was wrong with this situation, Marion was certain that she would regret none of it. She also knew that it wouldn't last, understood that this was something for the moment in which they found themselves.
Illya had no clue as to the caller of the previous evening. It would require a watchful eye on his part, and perhaps that of his former partner as well.
The first phone call that Illya made was to Napoleon Solo. Even after a fifteen year separation, when they found themselves back in the spy game it was with the same precise synchronization that had marked their partnership in the early years with UNCLE. Neither of them wanted to dwell on the past, and each of the men struggled intermittently with the future of this new venture.
Napoleon, especially, seemed to thrive within the revamped New York Headquarters. If it weren't for his reserved respect for Sir John, Alexander Waverly's replacement, Illya had to wonder if Napoleon wouldn't easily step into the Number One spot as though the years hadn't passed without his presence there.
While Kuryakin tended to the daily needs of his design empire, Napoleon spent his days reinventing himself as an Agent Emeritus, the aging professional whose future had once been engraved in the annals of future events as a fate accompli within the knowing fraternity of UNCLE Chiefs. It came as no surprise to the Russian when Napoleon announced he was returning to the Command full time.
"I expected it, Napoleon. Perhaps not this soon, but …"
The voice on the other end of the call sounded confident. Napoleon was seated at his desk in his new office. He was home.
"You know something, Illya, this is quite possibly the most comfortable I've been in my own skin since I left UNCLE fifteen years ago. Wait, it's more like sixteen years now, isn't it?"
Illya nodded, his world suddenly less secure than it had been. He remembered the phone call from last night and wondered if it was connected in some way to Napoleon's news.
"It is a very long time between employment, Napoleon. You're quite certain that you are ready to be back in the bowels of Headquarters on a daily basis?"
Only Illya could make it sound like a retelling of Jonah and the whale instead of a career move. Napoleon looked around his office, no longer gunmetal and chrome as one girl had described it. The new UNCLE was softer somehow, without losing the intensity of its mission. Friday, Sir John's secretary wore ruffles instead of a tight fitting turtleneck; that image contrasted with a quick memory of Lisa Rogers and her acerbic conversations with Illya. Their shared animosity still intrigued him?
"Illya, I am more certain of this than of anything I've done for at least a decade. My company made me wealthy, so there's no need for me to look elsewhere for income. UNCLE is something that I still believe in, and even with the changes that have been implemented, it is the organization we were dedicated to for all of those years."
Illya heard it now, the zeal of a believer.
"I am pleased for you, my friend.'
The thought occurred to him then, the notion that Napoleon might expect his old friend to join him.
"I will leave this business to you, Napoleon. I have my own to manage. Just watch your step, I … Be careful."
The years had not dulled Napoleon's ability to read his partner. The hesitation was all he needed to recognize concern in Illya's voice, something unspoken.
"What is it, Illya? What do you know?"
A sigh at his end of the line signaled the need for a meeting.
"We should talk. Are you free for dinner?"
Napoleon found himself nodding.
"Yes. Same place?"
"Yes. Eight o'clock."
"I'll see you then. Illya?"
"Yes… I will if you will."
Illya's day was spent in conference with his staff. More and more he had turned over the design assignments to his assistants, those still hungry youngsters with the fresh ideas and the pulse of the 80's firmly beneath their eager hands. What had once been an adventure and creative outlet was now the drudgery so often encountered when the thrill, quite literally, was gone.
Napoleon's move was bold, no question about it. After being absent from the U.N.C.L.E. for so many years, to re-insert himself into the daily activities seemed a brazen move to the less brazen man from the Ukraine. Sir John had welcomed the enterprising American, perhaps in relief considering the organization the staunchly appropriate Englishman had inherited. He was a worthy candidate, of course, but lacked the vision of the Old Man he had replaced. Alexander Waverly had built UNCLE from the ground floor vision he shared with the hearty and brave men who founded the Command.
What Sir John brought to the table (although it wasn't The Table of old), was a sort of genteel approach mirroring the spirit of détente that permeated global affairs in this decade. Napoleon couldn't imagine Sir John Raleigh taunting an enemy agent with hidden cameras as he proclaimed "You're our animal now", his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
No, Sir John was not Waverly, nor would he ever be. Only now did Napoleon start to see why the venerable former Chief started grooming Solo early in his career: Training was everything. Sitting as he now was, back at UNCLE HQ, Napoleon began to see his future as something very different from what he had envisioned just a few months earlier.
He was back. More importantly, he was ready.
At exactly eight o'clock Napoleon and Illya were seated at a corner table in the back of Innuendo, a deliberately trendy bistro for the deliberately unconcerned. Neither Kuryakin nor Solo were impressed with the chic clientele scattered about the modern interior. What this place did offer was a table with a view of the house and the street beyond, good food with a decidedly West Coast attitude and a waitress with blue eyes and blonde hair who sometimes called Illya Dad.
"Good evening, gentlemen. May I offer you something from the bar?"
Nicolette Lindsay-Kuryakin was not legally of an age to offer them a drink, but she insisted on trying time after time. With her hair in a ponytail and dressed in black slacks and a white tunic, the uniform of the restaurant staff, she looked more like her father than she did her mother Marion. Napoleon was reminded once again that he had no one like this charming girl to comfort him in his old age. Illya was blessed, even if he had missed out on raising the girl. She would always be a part of his future.
"You may not offer us drinks, I think we've already established that you are not yet old enough, although I suppose you can take our orders."
Napoleon chuckled at the new disguise his old friend had donned of late: that of a doting father. It was slightly unsettling to the solitary Solo; a description of himself he noted with some displeasure.
"Nicolette, you are a clever young lady. Too much like your father, I fear. I will take a scotch, neat. Illya?"
The girl smiled now at the sight of these two men she had grown to adore with typical abandon. It was no wonder that her mother had spent so many years warning Nicolette to be careful, be cautious … surely those were all things that did not describe Illya Kuryakin.
"Illya will take vodka, Stolichnaya only, iced, no ice."
She winked at the last.
"And since when do you call me Illya?
"Oh, I call you that all of the time.'
Had there been a very brief moment of disappointment?
"I mean, I'm at work, right?"
That seemed to solve the dilemma of the newness. Her father, Gerald Lindsay, the man who had raised Nicolette, was the only man she had known in the role. Suddenly and without warning, Illya Kuryakin had come into the picture in a very dramatic way, and there was still a bit of a learning curve to having this man … This Man … as a father. He was exotic and mysterious and good looking … someone out of her mother's past with a story no one had really explained yet.
And still, Nicolette loved Illya Kuryakin as though she had known him all of her life.
"So, drinks will be out in a flash and I'll be back to take your orders … gentlemen."
She turned and left the two friends basking in the warmth of her affection for them. Life was certainly better than before, in many ways.
"So, tell me about joining UNCLE for a second time. Or, is it a third? I'm beginning to lose track of your returns."
Napoleon looked around the room, his eyes catching a modern sculpture that was placed on one side of the door. It struck him that it could serve as a coat rack if it wasn't considered art. He thought it wasn't, actually.
"Well, Sir John and I were discussing the future of the Command, personnel and future objectives…'
Illya raised an eyebrow at that last.
"Future objectives being the tasks ahead of an organization that is rooted in the activities of groups like THRUSH, and the Cold War. That's all getting to be non-issues, with new threats emerging from previously uncharted locales. The world is a different place, Illya, and the role of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement must change as well. We can't let terrorists and hijackers torment the world at large while we sit back and wait for another mad scientist to appear. It's time that the good guys go on the offensive and ferret out the agendas of our enemies before they can strike. Intelligence is the key, and the placement of the right people in the jobs only they can perform."
Illya listened, his mind trying to unscramble what his friend wasn't saying. Obviously Napoleon had given quite a lot of thought to all of this. The drinks arrived and were followed up with the appearance, once again, of Nicolette.
"So, I hope you're ready to order. Let me guess, though…'
An impish grin instantly reminded Napoleon of the same face being made by Illya on occasion. The resemblance was a little scary at times.
"For Mr. Solo, Steak Aubergine… filet mignon served with a hash made of eggplant, potatoes and sweet onions. Blue cheese crumbles on top with a dollop of crème freche. For Mr. Kuryakin, Bourbon Glazed Salmon on a bed of shredded fennel and carrots dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette."
The two men smiled appreciatively.
"I think I'll have what he's having…"
"I'll have what he's having. Good job, Nicolette, but you got them backwards again."
Nicolette groaned; she was disappointed but not destroyed by it. One of these days she would remember that her Russian father still craved beef.
"Right… Oh well, c'est la vie…"
The girl broke into the chorus of a song, eliciting some applause from the nearest table before she returned to the kitchen with her order.
"What was that? She sings too?"
Illya was pleased, with Nicolette's talents and that he actually recognized the song from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's '77 LP.
"Imagine leaving something of me in the world that isn't connected to mayhem or evening wear. She makes me very happy."
Napoleon felt his heart knot up in a wad of disconnected, weary years of waiting for happiness. Illya's seemed so serendipitous, he could hardly be jealous of it.
"You have inherited something very good, tovarisch.'
The two men exchanged looks that defied any attempt to decipher. Life didn't owe either of them a thing in return for all of the sacrifice. That one of them had netted some kind of reward was extraordinary.
"As I was saying… or perhaps I wasn't. Anyway, my return to UNCLE is coming at a time when the organization is shifting again in response to the current global trends. Sir John is unhappy with his tenure, uncertain as to where he can take UNCLE. He has asked me to step in and … '
Now was the time, the exact right time for Napoleon to thump on his chest a little and gloat over what was coming next for him.
"He is suggesting to the other Chiefs that I assume the position of Number One, Section One, Northwest Region. Illya, Raleigh is offering me his job, and I intend to accept it assuming the others agree."
This then, finally, was Napoleon's reward. The years of training under Waverly's command had not been wasted. Napoleon Solo had always been destined for this job, had been anointed the heir apparent from nearly the beginning of his career with the Command. And now, in the most obtuse path he could have traveled, the former Golden Child of New York, possibly the world, would have his due.
"Napoleon, I think this is … well, you deserve it. The job was always waiting for you, I think. You just needed to see the world a bit before settling down to it. I have every confidence in you to succeed at this. Congratulations."
Illya meant every word of that speech, although he had been planning it for a while now. He had known soon after they each returned to the 'fold', as it were, that Napoleon was fated to remain there; the job had always been Napoleon's, he truly believed that.
As the two enjoyed a drink in celebration of Napoleon's announcement, neither of them could have predicted what was coming next.