The Trial By Fire Affair
His normally pale complexion was waxy, colorless, devoid of life like a storefront mannequin. If Illya could have, he would have willed his heart away, gladly trading places with such a lifeless, inert body.
Better to just shoot me, Illya thought as he walked numbly through the maze of corridors at the embassy where he and Napoleon had glad-handed officious dignitaries throughout the evening; where his partner and lover was enthusiastically taking a Russian attaché roughly against the wall near the freight entrance. Even as Illya could still remember the feel of Solo's hands against his body last night as they made love.
He shook his shaggy head savagely. No, not made love. When Napoleon had sex with him, used him just like all the others in his bed. What a fool I've been. To think that I had found someone to trust at last...
Illya lurched to the nearest men's room, his stomach clenching in spasms. He dropped to his knees in the closest stall, retching painfully until his stomach was as empty as his heart.
Eight months prior
Illya idly played with his stapler. He turned the device over and over in his hands as his mind turned over Napoleon's most recent behavior. There was no mistaking the signals the dark-haired agent was sending. Solo was wooing him. Astonishing as that seemed at first glance, Kuryakin had concluded that it shouldn't have been a complete surprise. U.N.C.L.E.'s Number One, Section Two was the most blatantly sexual being Illya had ever come across. The fact that Illya was male didn't seem to matter in the slightest.
Illya frowned, trying to determine when their partnership had begun to change. He'd noticed early on that Solo was "handsy," but Kuryakin had come from the Soviet Union. Men showing public affection toward each other was commonplace there. He allowed it at first from Napoleon because he was his superior, and, later, his friend. Most of the other Americans in the organization were much more aloof—especially where the Soviet was concerned. Consequently, Kuryakin valued their friendship, nurturing it as well.
Have I crossed the line with Napoleon? Sent out my own signals as well?
Illya wondered as he set the stapler on his desk. He rummaged in one of the drawers and pulled out a small framed photo. It was of the two of them, captured by a security camera in a corridor. Side by side, guns drawn, they were crystallized in film emulsion. Friends, partners; willing to die for their beliefs and each other. Illya covered Napoleon's figure with his hand, looking at himself, alone, in the photograph now. He made a decision.
The photo sat on a corner of his desk. He'd called Mitzi and left a message for Solo to stop by his office before leaving for the day. Now he had time to second guess himself. His palms were sweating and his collar felt tight. Illya tried to concentrate on some chemical analyses from the lab but found himself glancing at his watch every few minutes.
The Russian nearly jumped out of his chair when his door whooshed open at exactly five o'clock. Napoleon Solo strutted in and gave him a crooked smile.
"You rang?" Solo dropped into a chair and slouched a bit. He loosened his tie and looked expectantly at his partner.
Illya swallowed hard and dropped his gaze. "Napoleon..." he began but stopped.
"Illya, you have that look on your face," Solo remarked uneasily.
Kuryakin glanced up again. "What look?"
"The one you get when you're about to be tortured."
Illya laughed out loud, breaking the tension coiled in his gut. He ran a hand through his hair and looked Solo in the eyes.
"Well, I certainly hope you won't think this torture." He took a deep breath. "Will you have dinner with me tonight? At my place?"
Solo exhaled loudly and sagged. He shook his dark head and met Illya's gaze. "I thought you'd been recalled or something..." His words trailed off as he got a good look at his partner. The sweat drops, the stained collar, the tense set to the shoulders finally registered. He noticed the picture on the desk last.
Illya watched the play of emotions chase across Solo's face—concern, relief, bemusement. After a moment's regard, Solo's expression changed to one of discovery, and, anticipation?
The American smiled gently at him and replied, "I would be honored, Illya Nickovetch."
Kuryakin managed to say, "Seven all right?"
"Seven it is." Solo left, the metal door closing with a hiss. On both sides of the door, partners let loose with relieved sighs.
Illya paced in his small living room. Solo was due any minute. Wondering if he'd made a colossal mistake, he flopped on his overstuffed couch. Chastising himself for having second thoughts, he said, "'In for a penny...'" The doorbell interrupted his quote. He rolled off the couch, straightened his clothes, and coded the door.
Force of habit made him look through the lens. Solo stood in his hall, hands behind his back, bouncing lightly on his toes. Kuryakin opened the door and ushered the senior agent in.
"Illya." There was a moment of silence before Solo brought out the bottle held behind his back. "I, ah, didn't know what you were having, so I got white."
Illya took the bottle and put in on ice. "Thank you. I ordered from Le Rivage. It will be perfect."
Solo made a face. "Ah, Illya, you didn't order calf brains again, did you?"
The Russian smiled at Solo's discomfort. "No, Napoleon. Salmon and veal with tomatoed anchovies for an appetizer." He motioned them to the couch.
Solo removed his jacket and loosened his tie. "Do you mind?"
"Of course not. I hate ties. Why do you think I wear rollnecks?" Illya waited a moment and then began conversationally, "Napoleon, what is it you really want?"
Solo blinked. "Excuse me?"
Illya chose his words carefully. "You've been...pursuing me. I just want to know why. Why now, Napoleon?"
Solo crossed his legs and settled back into the couch. He said nothing.
Illya began to panic a bit. "Am I wrong? Did I just make a huge mistake?"
Napoleon leaned forward and reassured his partner. "No. You're not wrong." He stood and walked to the window, leaning against the sill. "Why wouldn't I be interested in you, Illya?"
Illya chuckled softly. "Well, for one thing, I am a man."
"I noticed that."
"And not particularly approachable."
"I noticed that, too." Solo grinned at the younger man. Illya ducked his head shyly. "That's why I've waited until now." Solo stood, hands at his sides. "I know how hard it is for you to open up, Illya, to trust. If I'd pursued you before we'd learned to trust each other, would you have allowed it?"
The blond head shook no.
Solo said softly, "Illya."
Kuryakin looked up to meet the chocolate eyes.
The Russian hesitated, hearing the pull the voice had over him. He stood but made no further move.
Napoleon knew it would have to be Illya's call. He would have to come of his own free will. Solo gazed tenderly at the proud man standing ten feet away.
Kuryakin took one step closer. Solo matched him. Five feet separated them. The smaller man seemed to tremble. Solo took a deep breath. They took a half step toward each other in perfect sync.
Illya's arms were the first to wrap themselves around the other. Napoleon slipped his hands up to cup Illya's face in his palms. "This is not a mistake, Illya." He bent to kiss the soft lips for the first time.
Ever cautious, Kuryakin entered into their new relationship slowly. The reality of their profession intruded on his reticence and forbade him to proceed as leisurely as he would have liked. Despite his best efforts, he found himself anticipating the time they could spend together and wishing for more.
Typically, Napoleon threw himself headlong into the affair with as much gusto as he did with everything else. He romanced Illya, bringing him small presents and surprising him with the passionate side of his nature. Solo understood Illya's past was still a specter that hovered just out of reach, affecting the way he perceived the world around him. The American knew Illya did not give or receive affection lightly. Napoleon did his best to convince Illya that he was serious about their relationship and didn't push the skittish Russian. Consequently, Illya had already given Solo his heart before he gave him his body.
Neither man dated anyone else, and eventually settled into a committed lifestyle. They were discreet, still keeping separate apartments, but spent most of their free time together. Waverly knew the true nature of their partnership, but did not broach the subject at any time. The Old Man kept his own counsel until such time as it became an issue.
It became an issue much sooner than he anticipated. The KGB would occasionally recall Kuryakin for sensitive missions on his home soil. A reciprocal arrangement had been agreed upon when the Russian joined U.N.C.L.E. It was one of the reasons he had been allowed to leave his country in the first place. Waverly had signed off on it, but it rankled him to have one of his top operatives held on such a short leash. And the security considerations were bothersome. Each time Kuryakin returned from such a mission, he was supervised with extreme scrutiny until the more paranoid members of the Command were satisfied as to his allegiance.
Waverly wasn't worried about Kuryakin's loyalties. He'd never have paired him with Napoleon Solo if he'd had reservations. But, recently, the Soviets had been heating up the Cold War and Mr. Kuryakin was in a tight spot. His monthly visits to the Russian Embassy were causing some in Section One to tear their hair out. Waverly had soothed the more vocal members and kept the furor down to a dull roar.
Number One, Section One knew better than anyone else that Kuryakin's loyalties would be sorely tested in the coming days and weeks. The placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba was creating a crisis that even the U.N.C.L.E. was having trouble weathering. Many in the organization debated whether having a Soviet in their ranks was wise. The more paranoid among them demanded Kuryakin be transferred to a less sensitive position. They were worried the Russian would disappear and take too many secrets with him.
The situation came to a head when the Russian Embassy sent Kuryakin an official invitation to their upcoming ball. High-ranking Party members would in attendance and Comrade Captain Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin was required to attend. The paranoia meter went off the scale at the news. Waverly called Mr. Solo in to speak to him. He did so reluctantly, the mission he was to give his number one agent distasteful in the extreme. Waverly also knew it was the only way he could prove to the nay-sayers that Kuryakin was indeed loyal. He admitted Mr. Solo with a soul-weary sigh.
"Be seated, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon's eyebrows rose at the abrupt tone of his boss. He was sure he wouldn't like the coming conversation. He sat at his customary chair and nodded at Mr. Waverly.
"I'm sure you are aware of the recent ramifications of our Soviet agent's employment with this organization." He rummaged around in his drawer until he found his briar. He filled it slowly, watching the emotions play across his agent's face.
Solo looked uncomfortable and replied, "Surely you don't question Illya's loyalty..."
Waverly lit the pipe and saw to its draw before answering. "No, I do not. However, many other members of the Command do. And we must find a way to put an end to those doubts. Wouldn't you agree?"
Solo knew when he was being maneuvered. He hesitated and then said, "Yes, sir."
Waverly frowned, his eyes registering Solo's discomfort. He inhaled and blew out a series of rings above his head. He watched them float to the ceiling and cleared his throat. "Even if the means to that end is unpleasant?"
Solo's anxiety rose another notch. "Mr. Waverly, sir, I can't agree to something unless I know what it is."
The elder agent nodded, knowing it was best to get the situation out in the open. He knew he would be testing the very limits of his operatives, pushing the boundaries of their commitment to him. He also knew the men he was testing. He held on to that conviction as he continued.
"Mr. Solo, I know of the true nature of your relationship with Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly waited to see Solo's reaction.
The dark head dropped a fraction and then lifted defiantly to face his boss.
Waverly approved. No embarrassment, just a bit of shock at hearing it out loud. Good, good, that will work in my favor.
The dark eyes met his as Solo said, "And?"
"And that is the leverage we can use to prove Mr. Kuryakin's loyalty to U.N.C.L.E. once and for all."
Napoleon didn't like where this was heading. "Illya's proved his loyalty over and over."
"To you and me, yes; I will agree. But we aren't the ones who will ultimately choose Mr. Kuryakin's fate."
Solo's shoulders slumped. He knew Waverly was right. "What are you proposing?"
"The Russian government has ordered Mr. Kuryakin to attend a ball at the embassy this Saturday evening. He will attend as an officer of the Soviet Navy, in his full regalia. Several ranking Party members will be in attendance. You can well imagine what the Command thinks of that."
Solo dropped his forehead into one hand. He groaned softly.
"Yes, I see you understand the implications."
Napoleon looked up. "What is it you want me to do, sir?"
Waverly puffed furiously for a second or two before replying. "There is one way to prove our Mr. Kuryakin. Hurt him. Badly enough to give him an excuse to do what his detractors seem positive he will."
Solo's mouth dropped open at the words. He knew what Waverly was proposing.
"You must spurn him, Mr. Solo. Break his heart, his very will."
Solo stared at his boss. He couldn't be serious. "I can't," he whispered.
"You must. It's the only way."
Solo's eyes sparked with anger. "You don't know what you are asking, or what this would do to Illya." He pushed out of the chair and stood before Waverly, hands clenched in fists.
"Ahh, but I do, Mr. Solo, I do. If you truly care for him, as I suspect you do, then you must see that this is the only alternative."
Solo's voice was strained. "I won't do it." He turned to leave.
"Then you leave me no alternative. I will be forced to terminate Mr. Kuryakin's contract immediately."
Solo whipped around, stalked back to the desk. "He'll be sent back home if you do that."
"You're telling me I have no choice."
"On the contrary, Mr. Solo. You do have a choice. It's Mr. Kuryakin who does not."
Solo dropped into his chair dejectedly. He would not meet Mr. Waverly's eyes. "How am I to proceed?"
Solo was to tail Illya at the reception. Officially, he was representing U.N.C.L.E.'s interests but he was really protecting his own. He'd wanted a chance to talk to Illya before the party, but the missile crisis was taking on a life of its own and kept him from tracking his partner down.
Illya was taking the train to Washington, D.C. and U.N.C.L.E. was flying Solo there by private jet, Waverly wanting to eliminate any chance that they would run into each other. They were staying at the same hotel, but on different floors, and Illya would be getting ready at the embassy. Solo grumbled as he fastened the studs on his tuxedo shirt. Spit and polish protocols had their places, but tonight the finery only served to annoy Napoleon. He threw on his jacket and flagged down a taxi outside the hotel.
He asked the cabbie to let him off a block from the Russian Consulate. He checked his breast pocket for his invitation and sauntered up to the guards at the gate. KGB most likely. GRU at least, anyway. He gave them a shark smile and let them know another predator was swimming in their pool.
"Dobray danya, tovarisch." He saluted with one finger. One of the agents gave him a dark look, checked his name off the ledger and motioned him forward.
An elderly couple in evening clothes walked in front of him. He hung one step back and appeared to be accompanying them. When they reached the doors, he moved ahead and held the door open for them. The old man said, "Spaciba."
"Nechevo." He allowed them to pull away once inside the building. Solo smiled and nodded to no one in particular, blending in with the stately denizens. He took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and stood at the bar, scanning the crowd. There were enough uniforms here to start a revolution, but Illya was not yet among them. A pretty blonde caught his eye as she passed. He did not escape her attentions as well. She smiled and lingered at the sight of him in his tuxedo. Blue-eyed, round-faced, she could be Illya's cousin. She was wearing a low-cut black dress, probably a minor staff member in some consular's office. She was also tailing him. Which made her dangerous as well as beautiful.
So even the Russians know I like blondes, he mused. Another blond entered the room and Solo's chest tightened as he watched Illya move through the crowd like a ballet dancer. His uniform showed off the slender muscles beneath the cloth. The tailoring severely cut, Illya looked too young to be a captain. Rows of medals lined his left breast and rank mortarboards made the thin shoulders look broader. The sight made Napoleon catch his breath. More than one head turned to watch the striking young officer stride across the room.
Kuryakin made his way to the ranking officers and the resident ambassador. He waited patiently in the receiving line and paid his respects as was expected. Further down the line, Illya was met with much back-slapping and rib-crunching hugs as he caught up with old comrades. Solo watched curiously. Illya rarely spoke of the friends he'd left behind in Russia. Napoleon wondered if he ever got lonely for them and for the life he left behind.
After a few minutes, Solo casually moved closer to Kuryakin, letting him see him. The American drifted away just as casually, but Illya got the message. The Russian also noticed the blond bombshell doing her best to shadow Solo without looking like she was shadowing him. He smiled. It appeared the Russians knew of Solo's penchant for blondes...
Solo easily eluded his tail and drifted behind some ornate drapery as he watched an admiral take Illya's arm and have a lengthy discussion with him. Kuryakin stood at attention and nodded politely. The officer finally patted the young man on the back and gave him his leave.
Illya's gaze skimmed across the room and Solo knew he was looking for his partner. His heart clenched in shame and sorrow as he thought of what he must do tonight. Solo took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows. Illya saw him and took a step in his direction. Solo's tail made an appearance as well, and Illya saw her the same time Solo did. He backed off, reversed direction and went to the bar for a vodka.
The orchestra started playing and Solo knew he had to make his move. He went straight to his assigned blonde and asked her to dance in flawless Russian. She beamed at him and accepted. They moved gracefully across the floor, Solo leading her effortlessly. She nestled closer to him, her interest readily apparent. Napoleon knew she was trained for this. She was to keep his attention at any cost, entertain the American spy, and keep him from interfering with Russian interests tonight. The woman moved sensually against him as they danced, and Solo smiled at her boldness. He was moving in to kiss her cheek when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Comrade Captain Kuryakin stood behind him at attention. He nodded briefly to Solo and asked stiffly, "May I cut in, sir?"
Napoleon moved back a step and stared into Illya's eyes. They held just a glint of annoyance and perhaps a dash of jealousy as well. Solo handed the woman over to him with a move of his wrist, and Illya took his place gracefully. He maneuvered her away from his partner and spoke into her ear.
"Ludmyla, so nice to see you again." She tensed against him, her body language betraying where she would rather be. She allowed him to lead her away from her target but held herself against him stiffly.
Illya's voice became hard and he said, "What are your orders? You are to entertain Mr. Solo, no?" He punctuated his words by pulling her more tightly to his chest. She said nothing.
He smiled against her ear. "See to it that you do not entertain him too well, my lovely."
Ludmyla leaned back far enough to see his face. "Are you jealous, Illya?"
He laughed quietly and pulled her back a bit roughly. "I'm just looking out for my partner. He has an annoying habit of playing with sharp objects."
The song ended and the two spies broke apart, clapping softly and glaring daggers at each other. Illya gave her a curt bow and turned smartly on his heel.
Ordinarily, Napoleon would have taken the hint and dropped the cat and mouse with Ludmyla after one dance. But tonight he had a much more insidious game to play. Waiting until he was sure Kuryakin watched, Solo made an effort to fade into the woodwork. Such behavior would make the Soviets suspicious and nervous. One in particular.
Seemingly lost, Solo wandered around the lobby floor pretending to be interested in the décor. He perused the enormous paintings of Russian battles, touched the gilt-edges of the woodwork, eyed the exquisite samovar sets. He was headed for a massive curved staircase when a soft hand touched his forearm.
Ludmyla clucked at him. "Now, now, Mr. Solo, you must stay on the ground floor. My superiors wouldn't like an American spy wandering around upstairs." She smiled seductively. "I wonder what I could do to peak your interest?"
Solo smiled back, but inwardly cringed. If you only knew what I was interested in right now...
"There are many beautiful things in this place tonight," Solo wooed. He tried not to think of Illya in his uniform. The woman moved into his arms easily, willingly. Napoleon leaned down into a kiss, and couldn't help wondering if she knew she was being used just as much as he. Ludmyla relaxed into his embrace, opening her mouth to allow his tongue inside. She was good at her job. Solo was better.
A long moment later they broke apart and Solo felt a slender hand trace across the front of his tailored slacks. He allowed his hands to roam lower, cupping her firm behind. She groaned and pulled him against her, licking the inside of his ear. He dropped his head to her breast, nuzzling in the hollow of her cleavage.
Ludmyla captured his face, bringing the talented lips back up to hers. "Not here. Come."
She took his hand and led him further down the hall toward the kitchen. Solo smiled as he counted two hidden cameras on the way. She pressed him into an alcove that led out to a freight service door. Molding herself against his sturdy body, Ludmyla undulated her hips against his, trying to interest him anew.
Solo knew there was only one way he could perform tonight. He could fake it well enough to fool Ludmyla, but not Illya. He felt no passion for this woman, but he was angry enough with himself and with his superiors to use that emotion in his favor. He growled into Ludmyla's mouth, and pushed her roughly against the wall. While he plundered her mouth, his hands worked up her body, pushing the dress up and forcing her legs apart. She wore garters but no underwear. Her thighs willingly drew apart and he slipped a hand between them. Ludmyla gasped and reached behind her to unzip her dress. Solo used his free hand to pull the material down, exposing her soft, round breasts. Her nipples were rock hard and he pulled one into his mouth, laving and biting.
The rough treatment seemed to agree with the Soviet spy and she moaned as she worked the fastener and then the zipper free on Solo's slacks. Her small hand disappeared into the fly and took hold of the hardening cock. Napoleon switched to the other breast and suckled savagely as she fondled and caressed his erection. He drove a finger inside her as she bit down on a scream of delight. He covered her mouth quickly and smothered any sound she made.
Panting against Solo's tongue, the Russian pulled his slacks open far enough to release his erect cock, guiding it into the open and pumping it rhythmically with her fist. Napoleon took her by the waist, lifting her up far enough so she could wrap her legs around his hips. Her arms went around his neck and she threw her head back, waiting.
Solo wasted no time. He drove up and into her savagely, hearing her mew of delight in the impalement. He thrust hard and fast, wanting to end this. Ludmyla slammed into the wall and rebounded against him, sending him even deeper into her body. She groaned as he buried himself again and again, feeling the orgasm beginning to build in her.
Solo knew the instant Illya happened upon them. He did not need to turn or to look at him. Ludmyla tensed for a split second, and he saw the look of triumph wash over her features at Illya's pain. She looked into Solo's eyes and said huskily, "Yes, yes, my stallion. Do it. Do it now..."
Solo couldn't take time to think. He wouldn't be able to finish if he did. He merely let his body take what it needed. He pounded into her, feeling her crash against the plaster again and again as he plundered her body and with it, Illya's heart and soul. Somehow it registered that Illya had backed off down the hall. He had to complete the performance.
Quickening his thrusts, he felt Ludmyla contract around him, and cried loud enough for Illya to hear. "Take it, baby; take all of it. Ahh, so good, you're so good..." He stiffened in the throes of his own orgasm and let his body empty itself into Ludmyla's, glad for the completion but taking no pleasure in it. Soft now, he slipped from her body and used his handkerchief to clean off and tucked himself back inside his pants.
He backed off of the spy, leaving her exposed to the security camera, and cared not at all. She untangled her legs and began to straighten her clothes, trying to rub against Solo again to kiss him. He kept her at arm's length, sickened at the part he had been forced to play. Making himself presentable once again, he turned and left her scrambling to catch up.
Once inside the ballroom, Solo looked for Illya. He strolled casually, nodding and making polite small talk with the assembled guests, but had eyes only for Illya. He found him alone on a balcony, leaning against the railing, letting the cool October wind wash over him. Solo stayed near the door, leaning against the frame, drinking in the sight of his lover. Only Solo would have noticed how tightly Kuryakin was strung. His shoulders and back muscles were bunched in anger and his fists clenched the wrought iron of the balcony until the knuckles were blanched white. Napoleon felt horribly for intruding on Illya's pain and embarrassment, but he had to make tonight work in their favor. Otherwise there would never be a chance to make this right between them.
"Dobray danya, Illyusha." Using his private name galled Solo, but he wasn't through playing the game. He saw his partner stiffen at the endearment, the fists tightening even more for a split second. After a couple seconds, Illya slowly turned, a polite smile frozen on his face. His eyes and cheeks were slightly reddened, but that could easily be explained by the cool night air.
"Good evening, Napoleon. Are you enjoying the party? And the company?" No one else would have heard the note of false cheer that Kuryakin used, or the slight stress he used on the word 'company.'
Solo did hear, and it drove a knife straight through his traitorous heart. He cleared his throat. "Yes, it's a full house tonight. The KGB and the GRU are well represented." He gave Illya a lopsided grin.
"As are the CIA and the NSA." Kuryakin crossed his arms over his chest.
"Touché, IK. We have our own version of the Cold War playing out tonight." How true that is, Illya, and if I could just explain...
Illya gave him a sad smile and turned away again, looking out over the gardens.
Solo walked over and stood a few feet away. "I'm sorry, Illya, but I have to ask. Are you having any trouble from your countrymen? Are they leaning on you at all?"
Illya sighed and closed his eyes. He knew Solo was there to protect both himself and U.N.C.L.E. Waverly would expect a complete report of tonight's activities. "Admiral Grushenko made an overture to me tonight. It is my decision to make, of course. There is no threat involved. Yet."
Solo said nothing, letting the silence stretch out.
"I have been offered a place here at the embassy for the time being. They understand my position at U.N.C.L.E. is tenuous and wish to give me an out if I should so desire one. This is Russian soil, and I may remain behind tonight if I so wish."
"And the American government could do nothing about it if so."
The hurt was evident in that one word and Solo closed his eyes against the pain.
"What are you going to do, Illya?"
Kuryakin turned to face Solo. He looked into the brown eyes and asked, "Don't you trust me, Napoleon?"
"I've always trusted you, Illya. And I always will." His own gaze burned into the Russian's, trying desperately to telegraph the truth to him.
Their communicators went off simultaneously and both men started for a moment before digging them out. Illya deferred to Solo and let him answer.
Waverly's harried voice came over the line. "Mr. Solo. Is Mr. Kuryakin with you?" That's the question of the day, isn't it, he thought.
"Yes, he's right here, sir. What is it?"
"I need the two of you back at HQ immediately. We've gotten word of a Thrush operation I want you both on."
"On our way. Solo out." He put the silver pen away. "You coming?"
Illya didn't reply, merely allowed Solo to escort him off the balcony. They walked side by side into the ballroom, Illya's posture stiff and angry. Kuryakin seemed to survey the area before him, taking in his superiors, his friends, his countryman, the very Russianness of the evening.
Solo walked slowly toward the exit, not daring to look behind him to see if Illya followed. He heard his partner's familiar step a few paces behind and Solo swallowed as he passed through the gates that lead to America beyond.
Solo did turn, then, and watched Illya stop inside those gates, his eyes haunted and pained as he looked at Napoleon. Solo dared not move, breathe, or otherwise break the tension. Both their lives seemed to be distilled into this one moment.
The guards seemed to understand the decision being made and backed off, giving Illya room. Kuryakin blinked, seeming to come awake, and then he slowly walked through the gate. He pretended not to hear the relieved sigh of his partner as he passed.
"Get a move on, Napoleon. Waverly's waiting."
Solo had to stop then. He touched Illya's elbow, drawing them to a halt. "Don't you have to tell the admiral your decision?"
"I so informed Admiral Grushenko when he made the offer."
Solo was stunned to silence. You little shit, Illya, he wanted to say. But he knew he deserved the treatment and more. He nodded at his partner and said nothing.
They made the return trip in silence. Even though Solo knew Illya had passed the test, it was not up to him to tell him of it. Waverly wanted to see the results with his own eyes. So be it. Waverly would have to deal with both of their anger this evening.
Illya turned a few heads here as well as he strolled the corridors in his Soviet Naval uniform. He had left the hat on to give the full effect. Once they reached Mr. Waverly's office, Illya removed it out of respect. They moved to their customary positions.
Mr. Waverly looked at Solo first and then let his gaze linger on Kuryakin. "I gather, young man, that you had a rather unusual offer tonight?"
Illya gaped at the old man, his surprise evident.
"Come, come, Mr. Kuryakin. There were enough bugs in that room tonight for an exterminator."
Illya shook his head slowly, taking it in. "Yes, sir."
Waverly's pipe was going full force. He puffed vigorously. "And you turned it down?"
Waverly set his pipe in the ashtray and folded his hands in front of him. "Because of that decision, Mr. Kuryakin, I am forced to be blunt with you. I apologize in advance for being so crude and for using such means. Understand that this was the only way to proceed."
"Sir?" Illya inquired. He looked at Napoleon who had his head lowered and wouldn't look him in the eyes. "Napoleon?"
"Mr. Solo was following orders tonight. My orders, Mr. Kuryakin. Distasteful as they were for me to issue, I have no doubt that Mr. Solo bore the brunt of carrying them out. It is to his credit that he found the courage to act. And, it was an act, Mr. Kuryakin. Remember that."
Illya was slowly coming to understand. He stared at Waverly, then Solo.
"Many in the Command were growing increasingly worried at your tenure here, Mr. Kuryakin. In light of the current situation, I'm sure you can understand some of their trepidation."
Illya sighed. "Yes, sir, I can. My own government feels the same way."
"Yes, quite. Well, it was up to me to prove you out. And, forgive me, Mr. Kuryakin, but I had to use the dirtiest trick in the book to do so. And I had to use your partner to bring it about."
"Napoleon? You were ordered to..." He cleared his throat. "I see."
He directed his gaze to his boss. "And what of the mission we were called away to? Is that a ruse as well?"
"Yes. I needed a reason to recall you."
Illya laughed humorlessly. "To see if I would come to heel?"
Waverly had no answer.
Napoleon spoke for the first time. "Don't, Illya. Don't make light of your decision." Solo kept his eyes on the floor. "You were going to be sent home otherwise. Cut loose. This was the only way I could keep you here." He whispered, "Keep you at my side."
He finally looked at Kuryakin. "I'm sorry, Illya. So sorry for what I did to you."
Waverly spoke softly as well. "I, too, must ask for your forgiveness. I would say that the ends justify the means, but sometimes that just isn't so. You and Mr. Solo will have to work out the ramifications of our subterfuge. Of that, I am truly sorry."
Illya tried to take it all in. It was too much. He shook his head slowly. "Am I dismissed, sir?"
"What? Oh, yes, of course. Take a day or two off. Both of you."
Solo made no move to leave. Illya pushed out of the chair and walked slowly out the door. Once he was gone, Solo dropped his head into his hands. "U.N.C.L.E. may have gotten him back, but I've lost him."
Waverly picked up his pipe again. He pointed it at the door. "Don't be too sure, Mr. Solo. Give him some time. Let him cool off and heal."
"You don't know Illya like I do, Mr. Waverly. I broke his trust as well as his heart."
"And you quite possibly saved his life in doing so."
Solo looked up, puzzled.
"What do you think would happen to Mr. Kuryakin if he returned to Russia now?"
Solo answered, "He'd go back into naval service, I imagine. Or the sciences."
"He would be debriefed and then he would be shot once in the back of the head."
Napoleon stiffened and stared at his boss.
"So you see, Mr. Kuryakin really has no home now unless it is here with U.N.C.L.E. And you. Given time he will realize that."
Napoleon suddenly realized how tired he was, bone-weary and numb. He got out of the chair and turned to leave.
"Forgive me, Napoleon."
Solo started at hearing his first name spoken by Mr. Waverly. "I can forgive you, sir. It is myself I can't." He moved out of the room and headed for home.
Napoleon nodded politely to the doorman as he entered his apartment building. He called for the elevator and shoved his hands inside his pockets impatiently. Since leaving HQ, he'd become more and more agitated and filled with nervous energy. Sleep would not come easily tonight. Solo watched the floor numbers light up and his eyes lingered on number four—Illya's floor. Was he home? Awake? Most likely after a night like he'd been through.
Solo stabbed his floor button and leaned against the brass rail. Just before it was too late, he pushed number four as well. Feeling incredibly apprehensive, he hung back as the doors opened. He looked around the elevator's edge down the hall to Illya's door. The corridor was empty, and he couldn't hear anything unusual. As the doors began to slide shut, he stuck his hand in between them, holding the floor. Solo took a deep breath and left the elevator.
Quietly, he slipped down the carpeted runner and paused outside Illya's door. A thin slice of light bled through from the edge of his door to the hall beyond. He heard faint rustling sounds from inside. His hand reached up to knock before he could even think.
A muffled, "Go away, Napoleon" came from inside. Solo smiled against the door. At least he was home and conscious.
"Open the door, Illya. Please."
"Go away!" Louder this time.
"If you don't let me in, I'll sleep against the door and make a spectacle of myself in front of your neighbors."
Solo heard a deep sigh and the door opened a crack. "You've done that before, anyway. It isn't much of a threat." Illya glowered at him as he spoke.
Solo raised his eyebrows at him and Illya opened the door the rest of the way. He walked back to his couch and plopped down, reaching for his tumbler of vodka. Napoleon noticed the bottle was half empty.
"You going to finish that?" He pointed to the vodka.
"The first one's already in the rubbish."
Solo grimaced. A bottle and a half of vodka already? Illya wouldn't be able to think, let alone argue. Solo went to the kitchen and got a glass as well. He poured a stiff measure and took a gulp. The vodka burned its way down his throat and he coughed. He'd always hated the taste.
Illya watched him, eyes red and puffy. Feeling the scrutiny, Solo walked to the living room window and looked out into the cityscape. After a moment, he turned and regarded his partner.
"Yes, you said that earlier." Illya's voice was slurred, but he was very much aware.
Solo looked at his feet. "I didn't want to lose you, Illya. I didn't know what else to do. Waverly was going to terminate your contract with U.N.C.L.E. If he'd done that I would have lost you for sure."
A quiet voice came from the vicinity of the sofa. "You have a funny way of trying to keep me, Napoleon." Illya stood, swayed a bit and then made his way slowly to Solo. He stopped just short of him and stared out the window over Napoleon's shoulder. He couldn't bear to look in his eyes.
Illya's head dropped and he closed his eyes against the rush of pain. "How could you? How could you do that to me, Napoleon?"
Solo barely heard the soft, anguished words. He wanted to take Illya, hold him, and tell him how sorry he was. He did nothing.
Illya swayed, lost his balance and fell against Solo's chest, his head buried in Napoleon's jacket. He made no attempt to straighten, and Solo took him by the arms, supporting him. He heard muffled sounds and bent closer to Illya's face.
"I loved you. I loved you, and you broke my heart." Illya sniffed and rubbed his cheek against Solo's pocket, breathing in his scent. He didn't have the strength to pull away. "You smell like her..."
Solo moaned at the pain in the beloved voice, and pulled Illya against him, hugging him while tears rolled down his face. "Forgive me, forgive me, Illya." He kissed the crown of his partner's head over and over, murmuring all the while.
Illya went limp against him and Solo bent down to take him in his arms. He carried him to the bedroom and put him in bed, checking his pulse and respiration. A bottle and a half of vodka was a lot even for his Russian. Covering him with the spread, Solo brushed the long bangs back from his high forehead. He kissed the dry lips, and said sadly, "I do love you, Illya. Never doubt that."
Pulling over a chair, he dropped into it wearily and kept watch over his best friend.
Streams of early morning light filtered through the thin drapes of Illya's bedroom window. Solo woke and squinted at his watch. Five-thirty. He stretched and grimaced as his back twinged from sitting in a chair all night. Illya snored softly under the covers and Solo tiptoed over to check on him.
Knowing the proud Russian as he did, Napoleon decided to retreat to his apartment rather than risk letting Illya wake up to see he'd kept a vigil. He stroked the soft hair sticking out of the blanket once, sadly, and then went to the living room to throw the last of the vodka away. He put the glasses in the sink and carefully set the alarm before leaving. Napoleon thought about leaving a note, but knew that Illya would have to come around, or not, on his own steam. What Solo wanted right now was a hot shower and a firm bed.
Napoleon woke around noon and fixed himself a lunch he had no intention of eating. Going through the motions gave him something to occupy his mind. He kept replaying the scene in Illya's apartment and coming up with the same guilty ending. The hurt and bewilderment in Illya's voice was doubly painful since he'd been the one to put it there. He sighed and pushed the soup bowl away.
A quiet knock at the door jolted him to the present. Checking the peephole gave him another shock—Illya. His hand trembled slightly as he unlocked and threw open the door. "Illya?"
His partner looked nearly as terrible as he felt. Dark rings under his eyes and blond stubble told Napoleon more about Illya's night than the red-rimmed and blood-shot eyes. Kuryakin stood there, uncertain how to proceed.
Solo said, "Come in before you fall down."
Illya moved in slowly, almost reluctantly. He stood just inside the threshold, eyes downcast. "Did you come by last night or was I dreaming?" His voice was hoarse and his breath nearly knocked Solo over with the metabolized vodka.
Solo took Illya's arm and led him to the couch. "I was there."
Illya cringed and held his aching head. "Stop shouting..."
Napoleon smiled and disappeared into the bathroom. He returned with a large glass of water and three aspirin. Holding them out to Illya, he nodded as he swallowed the tablets.
"You, ah, really put it away last night. You had good reason to, I know."
Illya sighed and put his hands over his face. He squinted through his fingers at Napoleon. "What do we do now, Napoleon?"
Solo sat on the couch as well, but made sure not to crowd Illya. "I don't know. It's really up to you. Either you can forgive me or not. I can say that I was ordered to betray you, but we both know I could have refused."
Illya's face took on color as he spoke his mind. "When will it end? How many times do I have to convince my keepers that they can trust me to do my job? Chyort, I've given my lifeblood to U.N.C.L.E. I believe in what we're doing. Why can't they believe in me?" He stopped, holding onto his throbbing head.
"What really hurts, Napoleon, is that I have to keep proving myself over and over."
Solo swallowed. "Not to me, you don't."
"Let's not split hairs."
Napoleon let out a long breath. He tried not to get angry. "All right. Let's not. Let me be perfectly frank. Do you know why I did what I did?" The American got up and paced the short distance from the couch to the window.
"I did it because I could trust you. Trust you to do the right thing even if I didn't. Even if I had to betray your trust, your love..." Solo stopped, barely able to hold in sharp words borne out of frustration. He turned to the window and continued.
"I couldn't bear to lose you. Not after what I'd found with you. I knew if I did nothing, I would lose you forever. I was certain you'd prove your fealty to U.N.C.L.E. Whether or not you can ever feel loyalty to me again..." He trailed off, not trusting his voice. Whispering now, he added, "I love you, Illya."
Lost in his misery, Solo didn't hear the soft step behind him. He felt the solid warmth of Illya's familiar body come up behind him, wrapping strong arms around his waist. He dropped his head and struggled with his emotions. He felt Illya lay his head against his shoulder and allowed him to rock them back and forth. The sob he couldn't quite hold in caused Illya to turn him in his arms and enfold him.
Napoleon held on tightly and found his voice. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
They remained locked together until Illya pulled back to look at his partner. He slowly leaned in and kissed the wet trails down his lover's cheeks. "I know, Napoleon."
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