The Imagination Affair
"Imagination is the beginning of creation."
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
"Damn him," Illya muttered, as he stormed between the dresser and the bed, shoving items of clothing into the small suitcase without a thought to their condition. "The arrogant, unthinking, patronising..."
He'd lapsed into Russian before he realised it, muttered imprecations against his partner continuing to roll from his tongue. Solo was the only person able to make his temper flare this way.
What had Waverly been thinking, pairing the two of them? It could never work. They were so different, they were like... what was the American expression? Like chalk and cheese. They were night and day, oil and water, and a dozen more examples of things that were completely different from one another that Illya couldn't think of right away.
The wonder was that they had both survived this long, or that Illya hadn't turned his own gun on his so-called partner after their first mission together had gone awry. As it had. Drastically.
A repeating beep stalled him, halting him poised to close the suitcase, the last turtleneck clutched in his hand. Illya dropped the offending article on the bed and fumbled for his communicator—as usual it was in the last pocket he searched.
"Ah, Mr Kuryakin..." The cultured tones of Alexander Waverly rolled through the room, instantly making Illya straighten up. "Where are you?"
"My apartment, sir," Illya replied, wondering if his apartment was bugged again and Waverly already knew he was there. He hadn't taken the time to check for surveillance devices when he'd returned, merely headed straight for his bedroom and begun to pack.
"And when can we expect your return to Headquarters?" Waverly continued, a thread of steel creeping through his tone.
Illya picked up the discarded turtleneck and shoved it into the suitcase, before closing the lid and flicking the catches shut with his free hand.
"I'm on my way back now, sir," he said.
"Very good. See that you report to my office on your return."
There was a beep and then silence and Illya put the communicator back in his pocket, frowning at the tone he'd heard in Waverly's voice. Surely Solo couldn't have been responsible for that? Their last mission had been close to disastrous, that was true—the two of them had barely made it out alive, and now they were being shipped off together again, this time to Vancouver of all places.
Illya had returned home to grab a change of clothes, hardly certain when he might get the chance again, which would have given his supposed partner plenty of opportunity to report to Waverly. And to report in such a way that any blame for the mission's results—or lack of them—could be firmly pinned on his missing associate.
That was the last straw.
As he left his apartment, Illya made his decision. His request for a transfer back to U.N.C.L.E. London would be on Waverly's desk after this one last mission—that or his resignation.
It just wasn't working.
Every time something happened on a mission Napoleon was reminded just why it was he'd always preferred to work alone, why he'd made a joke out of his surname in the past to get Waverly to go along with it. But this time, putting him together with Kuryakin, Waverly had insisted and that was that. There was no changing his mind, no matter what.
Napoleon kept reminding himself to think of Kuryakin as his partner, even though he didn't like the guy. Sure, the Russian was intelligent and able, there was no doubting that. But the spark just wasn't there, that indefinable chemistry he'd seen at work amongst other partnerships was missing. And he had no idea how it was created.
Maybe he'd just been unlucky? Maybe his perfect partner was waiting just around the corner—it could be as simple as that. All he knew for certain was that Kuryakin, with all his prickliness and silence, wasn't it.
This time, when Kuryakin had headed home, Napoleon had taken the opportunity to corner Waverly in his office, to try and get re- assigned once more (or at least separated from his partner). And again, like the last three attempts, it hadn't worked. Waverly was determined—he'd made his mind up the two of them would be partners and that was the end of the matter. To Waverly, at least, the relationship was as insoluble as a Catholic marriage.
Another time Napoleon might have smiled at the irony of it all, but the memories of their last mission together were too fresh in his mind. His would-be partner didn't trust him, that was as clear as anything—he had no confidence in Napoleon's ability to do his job, no desire to defer to his superior experience. In short, the Russian was a liability.
Sure enough, Solo was already there in Waverly's office by the time Illya arrived, flustered by the difficulties in getting to HQ that time of day. He felt rumpled, sweaty, his partner's sartorial elegance all the more pointed when he compared it to his own current state.
Illya wondered for a moment if Solo knew just how much he despised him at that very moment, before Waverly's voice jolted him back to the memory of being summoned there.
"Ah, Mr Kuryakin. So good of you to join us."
There was no accusation in the words, however, which took the sting away from them—Illya felt himself relax. He had nothing but respect for Waverly, even if his opinions over suitable partnerships clearly left much to be desired. One of the few things he would regret, if his transfer was agreed, was that he would no longer be working for Mr. Waverly. The man was a legend within U.N.C.L.E., and rightly so.
"I apologise for the delay, sir," Illya said, taking the empty seat without a glance at his partner.
He knew this wasn't the way it was supposed to be, this open hostility, but that was how it was between them now. At least this was the last mission where Illya would have to put up with Solo's smug innuendo and semi-concealed scorn. He was mentally drafting his request for re-assignment back to U.N.C.L.E. London even as Waverly told them about Vancouver.
There was, it seemed, a thriving trade in illegal immigrants there, under the auspices of Thrush. A trade that U.N.C.L.E. wanted stamped out, one way or another, since it had recently cost the life of a number of those would-be immigrants. The greed of those involved was the prime factor responsible—Thrush had taken whatever money they could get from them and then left the people they'd fleeced to die of thirst, trapped in an abandoned tanker.
Unfortunately, Illya could imagine it all too well. His own experiences of facing hunger and privation as a child clashed with an over-active imagination. It didn't take much effort to put himself in their place.
Beside him, out of the corner of his eye, Illya saw Solo shift uncomfortably in his chair and wondered for the briefest of moments whether his partner felt some empathy with those who had suffered too. But what common ground could this spoiled child of the capitalist west have with those who'd given their last pennies to try and make a new start for themselves and those they loved?
The possibility seemed to evaporate, any concern Illya might have felt for his partner dwindling along with it. Doubtless Solo was bored, wondering just why they were bothering to try and put a stop to this shameful trafficking. Perhaps he even felt that the immigrants got what they deserved?
By the time Waverly had finished briefing them, Illya was furious, but as much with his partner as with Thrush. It was probably unreasonable, but he wasn't sure he cared. This would soon be over with, this so-called partnership, and that was all that mattered to him at the moment—that and completing this mission.
Side by side in the cab on the way to the airport, Napoleon glanced across at his partner. His apparently incandescent partner, though he had no idea just what the enigmatic Kuryakin had to be so angry about. Still, he'd built up quite a head of steam, that much was clear, and Napoleon had no intention of being the person he exploded all over, when the pressure got too much.
If all else failed he'd sweet talk the stewardess into seating them apart from one another.
Sure, the last mission they'd been on together was a spectacular failure, one that various members of Section Three would probably be joking about for months to come, but they'd survived. Both of them. Somehow. And Napoleon hadn't even managed to persuade Waverly to break up their partnership afterwards, though he wasn't sure whether Kuryakin would see that as a positive thing or not.
He found he wasn't sure about much where Kuryakin was concerned.
The man was an enigma all right. Somehow Napoleon got the idea that he liked it that way too. Kuryakin was clever and sarcastic, but there was a coldness to him as well. He'd hung out a sign that said 'don't come too close' to all his co-workers in U.N.C.L.E. New York and Napoleon had received no encouragement to consider himself the exception to that rule.
That wasn't the way partners were supposed to be.
Of course he wasn't completely sure how partners were supposed to be, but Napoleon was pretty sure from what he'd seen that it wasn't like this. They were supposed to rescue one another at the last minute, tend to each other's wounds, jolly each other through the wreckage of failed romances. As it was Napoleon wasn't sure his partner wouldn't decide it would be less problematic to just shoot him if he were wounded and have done with it.
In theory it should work. In theory, as far as Waverly had deigned to explain to him the first time he'd asked for another partner, he and Kuryakin should complement one another perfectly. The Russian had the scientific background he lacked, while he had more military experience. He was a connoisseur of all things decadent and Kuryakin understood the more ascetic side of life. Together they should make a perfect partnership, if not for one minor problem.
Waverly clearly hadn't considered the possibility that his matchmaking could fail. However his perfect team was thoroughly imperfect and his perfect partners hated one another.
Illya fumed silently, staring at the back of his partners' head a few seats away.
He wasn't quite sure how Solo had managed it, but he'd somehow separated the two of them, getting himself seated in an aisle seat two rows ahead of where Illya currently sat. Just far enough away that they couldn't conduct any kind of conversation, but close enough to monitor one another's presence if they had to. Close enough for Solo to register each time he went to the bathroom, if he cared to do so.
It wasn't as if he'd wanted to talk to his partner, but at least he would have liked the chance to decide whether to ignore him or not. Instead of which Illya was trapped in the window seat next to an old woman who smelt of aniseed and who was currently asleep and snoring slightly.
He could look out of the window, he could read his book, or he could continue to stare at the top of Napoleon Solo's perfectly coiffured head. His partner probably spent more on haircuts in a year than the average Russian family earned in a decade.
There was something a little odd about this fascination with being so fastidiously neat, something that Illya just couldn't understand.
Taking care of your clothes was one thing—after all, you needed to preserve whatever was meant to stand between you and hypothermia, it made perfect sense—but Solo's reputation for being vain where his wardrobe was concerned was built on solid foundations. They'd been working together for months and Illya had lost track of the number of ties his partner owned a long time ago.
He couldn't have imagined the look he'd seen on Solo's face when his peacock of a partner realised that Illya only owned two jackets. And then Illya had been forced to throw one of them away, when it was shredded beyond repair by being trapped in a running piece of machinery. It had been weeks before Illya had been able to replace that jacket and he knew Solo had known that too.
He looked out of the window again, wondering if Solo talked about him to other agents. Perhaps he joked about his shabby Russian partner and laughed with them, as they drank martinis in some dark and elegant bar.
This wasn't working. He was getting angrier by the minute, whatever subject he tried to think about being inexorably twisted into thoughts about Solo. About how much Illya would like to get out of his seat, drag his partner down the aisle by his expensive necktie and then punch him repeatedly in his arrogant face.
At this rate they'd be truly lucky to even make it out of Vancouver airport alive.
He was certain Kuryakin was watching him, the short hairs on the back of his neck seemed to be permanently standing up. His partner had already been aggrieved, for some reason or other, even before they'd reached the airport, and Napoleon had no reason to believe that things would be any better between them now.
But at least he hadn't been forced to put up with Kuryakin's scowls at close quarters. And it was a shame, because Kuryakin was pretty easy on the eye. When he wasn't scowling, which wasn't very often recently, and that was a shame.
As he waited for the plane to taxi to a stop, Napoleon pondered just where those particular thoughts had come from.
He'd never thought of his partner that way before, even though Napoleon had never kidded himself he was completely heterosexual, at least not after his experiences in Korea. He'd gone there a naïve young officer and had come back having lived through hell, learning the wartime lesson of taking pleasure when it came because you might not live to see another opportunity.
Napoleon had never found it necessary to use coercion, or allowed any of his men to use sex to curry favour with him, both those concepts being similarly alien to him. Instead he'd found release with others of his own rank, or anonymously in dark back streets, something of the fear of discovery lending an extra frisson of excitement to the whole experience.
Of course, once he'd started to think about his partner that way, wondering just what it was that he particularly found attractive about Kuryakin, Napoleon discovered he just couldn't stop. Not even when various parts of his body started to react, making him shift uncomfortably in his seat.
He wondered if the element of danger had something to do with his arousal this time. It had been a while since Napoleon had been with a man, other than at the command of U.N.C.L.E., and that whole element had been completely missing from those particular encounters.
Kuryakin was different. Like himself, his partner was a graduate of U.N.C.L.E. survival school, had learned a hundred different ways to kill a man and was currently giving the impression he'd be happy for Napoleon to be his next victim. Knowing that the Russian could kill him easily was a turn-on, Napoleon had to admit.
Damn. He had to get out of here, or at least stop thinking about Kuryakin like this, before he embarrassed himself completely.
Solo was fidgeting in his seat. Was he feeling as desperate as Illya to get on with this mission? Did he somehow know that Illya intended there to be a parting of the ways on their return to New York?
He couldn't see how that was possible. Even Waverly wasn't aware of his intentions, though Illya couldn't see Solo shedding a tear at the thought of their partnership breaking up. Unless it reflected badly on him, somehow. He'd have to be careful how he phrased his request, make it clear that it was both their faults things hadn't worked out, clarify that he wasn't pointing a finger of blame at his partner.
Even if Illya did think that it was more Solo's fault than his own, it didn't pay to advertise that opinion.
It was an open secret at U.N.C.L.E. New York that Waverly was grooming Solo as his successor. If Solo lived long enough to reach retirement age, which didn't seem likely at the moment. Since Illya didn't know how long he'd be working for this organisation, it seemed somewhat foolhardy to alienate the person who might one day turn out to be his boss.
Discretion was the better part of valour, after all, even if a small petty part of himself wanted to protest at the injustice of it all.
It was just a feeling, after all. The idea that, as senior agent, Solo should have tried a little harder to make things work between them—at times Illya felt as though he was being forced to do all the running and at the same time make allowances for the way Solo clearly thought of him. That rankled and he couldn't quite explain it to himself.
Somehow, even though he couldn't understand why, there was a small part of him that wanted Solo's good regard. Even when simultaneously Illya thought the man was an idiot, a lecherous fool. The contradiction puzzled him.
Napoleon had managed to pull himself together by the time he and his partner had left the plane, though it was immediately clear that Kuryakin was in no better mood than when they'd left New York. He found himself cursing Waverly's stubborness, his insistence that matters between them would work out, his refusal to listen to Napoleon's arguments that things were going from bad to worse.
After all, if Kuryakin wasn't his partner, what would that mean for the two of them? The Russian would likely get shipped off to Section 8—no other Enforcement Agent would want to be partnered with the CEA's reject—while Napoleon would resist any attempts on Waverly's part to make him take another partner. Well, for a while at least. He wasn't convinced he'd be able to remain alone for very long.
For the first time, Napoleon began to wonder just what life would be like for Kuryakin after their partnership was dissolved, assuming they both lived long enough for that event to take place. And that in itself wasn't completely certain, not after their last couple of missions.
How would Kuryakin cope with life in Research? From his records, his scientific background seemed to have prepared him for it, but would he miss the sheer adrenaline rush of missions? Napoleon wondered why he should care what Kuryakin would feel, when he'd been so desperate before to sever the ties between them, to see this partnership in the rear view mirror.
He couldn't help feeling some regret, giving some credence to the possibility that Waverly could have been right about them. He couldn't help wondering what it would have been like if he and Kuryakin had hit it off as partners, perhaps become friends along the way, or even something more.
His partner was scowling at him now, as they waited in line at the passport control and Napoleon felt that sense of regret fade. Maybe it was better this way, even if he did find himself attracted to Kuryakin—maybe this way they'd both survive past the end of the week.
They'd checked into a small hotel, one which was squeezed between two tall buildings not far from the centre of the city. Solo was unpacking as Illya studied the map they'd been issued, reminding himself of the locations they suspected were fronts for Thrush.
He was conscious of his partner's movements as Solo fussed over his spare suit, watching him out of the corner of his eye for a moment, then using his reflection in the picture across from the bed to track him.
It was ridiculous really. He shouldn't be watching his partner, surreptitiously or otherwise, he should be focussed on the mission. That was the way Illya had always been during his time in the Russian navy—he'd been considered both dedicated and industrious, so what had changed? He'd clearly grown soft somehow in his time serving U.N.C.L.E., soft and easily distracted.
Illya studied the map once more, reminding himself that he just had to bide his time. This was the last mission they would work together. He just had to survive this, preferably with his partner intact as well, and then it would be over.
"Ready to go?"
Solo's voice brought him up with a start. He looked up, surprised to see his partner standing by the door, one hand already resting on the handle. Illya had managed to concentrate on the map and lost track of where Solo was, so much so that he'd never seen him head for the doorway. He nodded, folding the map as he followed Solo out of the room.
He was able to fuss with the recalcitrant map, smoothing its folds into some kind of order and then putting it carefully away in his inside jacket pocket. All of which gave Illya the excuse not to think about being in the elevator, to follow Solo blindly out of the hotel and onto the semi-deserted street.
It was late afternoon, and while they could see the traffic running along the larger road that ran parallel with this one, only the occasional car travelled past them.
Illya found himself following his partner, watching both their backs in this new and unfamiliar city, his senses alert to the possibility of danger all around. It was possible, of course, that Thrush weren't yet aware of two U.N.C.L.E. agents arriving in the city, but it was equally possible they were already being watched. He saw no sign of surveillance, but that meant little.
Within a few minutes they'd crossed a busier street, heading into the city. They were finally able to hail a cab outside the steps of the art gallery, both of them sinking gratefully into the upholstery of the cab's interior. Illya kept watch out of the window as they pulled away from the curb but there was no sign of pursuit. So far, so good.
When he turned back, Solo was watching him, dark eyes unreadable. Illya found himself nodding, just the once, and he saw his partner visibly relax at the signal. At least Solo apparently thought there was something he could do right, Illya reassured himself, as he watched the cab driver negotiate the turns northwards, towards the docks.
He'd seen a brief moment of something there, something between them that could have been the elusive spark, each of them taking their roles as they made their way towards the possible Thrush locations. Not that Napoleon wouldn't feel far more secure with extensive back- up, not just one petulant Russian in a threadbare jacket.
As they headed towards the docks, Napoleon wasn't certain whether he was hoping for success or a dead end. Of course, U.N.C.L.E. research could be right, they could stumble straight into the midst of a nest of Thrush agents, but there was also the possibility that this anonymous lead they'd received would turn out to be nothing.
Which would mean, at least, the chance of a good nights sleep before they started chasing any more leads.
Kuryakin would need to be fed too. One thing he'd noticed about his partner was the appetite. It was probably something Kuryakin had developed from childhood, making up for lost time or something. Things had been tough in the Soviet Union after the war and Kuryakin's file implied there hadn't been anyone to look after him until he was taken to a state orphanage. Somehow Napoleon got the feeling that kind of care had barely been better than having no one at all.
He was trying not to think about what it must have been like, trying not to imagine his self-sufficient partner having to rely on anyone. The concept of Kuryakin as a child was hard enough to envisage, but adding the prospect of him as something of a waif was almost unimaginable.
Part of the problem was the sympathy he found himself feeling, unexpectedly, even though he knew Kuryakin would doubtless condemn it as pity if he even suspected Napoleon thought on his childhood.
The Russian was a survivor, that much was evident.
If only he wasn't so damn stubborn, though it was hard to see how the two characteristics weren't inseparably entwined. If they hadn't been hard at work now, giving Kuryakin something else to focus on, Napoleon knew that this grudge his partner carried towards him would be the main thing on his mind. If Napoleon could somehow focus that tenacity onto their missions instead, they could make a formidable team.
The problem was, he didn't have the faintest idea how.
He'd suspected all along it would be a dead end—anonymous tip-offs didn't always pan out after all—now Illya wasn't sure whether he'd wanted that to be the case. Of course, if he wasn't tied back-to-back with his partner, the ropes that bound them just a fraction too tight for comfortable breathing, that might have helped his contemplations.
"Stop struggling." Solo's voice cut through the darkness, the tone alone enough to make him freeze. "The more you move, the more the ropes tighten."
That made sense. So, struggling was out of the question, what did that leave?
Illya tried to relax a little, hoping that would allow the ropes to ease—after a moment he took a deeper breath than usual, pleased to see that his theory had worked.
"Much." Solo was silent for a moment. "I should have seen them."
The words came in something of a rush and Illya snorted at them. He'd been thinking the same thing, but about himself.
"We are both tied up," Illya said. "That would imply that we both should have seen them."
This wasn't what he'd wanted to happen, not at all what he'd envisaged as their final mission together. Illya had wanted something more professional, something that, if possible, they both came away from unscathed and looking like they knew what they were doing in this line of work.
"Still," Illya continued, that thought weighing heavily on his mind. "Once this mission is over..." He'd spoken the words before he realised what he'd done, how much he'd betrayed his previously- unspoken intentions.
The silence in the room grew momentarily heavier, it seemed.
"Once the mission is over..." Solo prompted, after a long moment. "What were you going to say?"
Frantically, Illya cast around for possible ways to complete that sentence, but only the truth was within his grasp.
"Once the mission is over, I will be requesting a transfer. Back to London."
The words dropped like a stone into the darkened room. Napoleon could feel the tension in his partner's body, pulling the ropes that bound them together a little tighter once more. Ironic, really, just as their partnership was unravelling.
Yes, it was hypocritical, but Napoleon couldn't help feeling a little aggrieved, regardless of his own efforts to sever their partnership. It was unreasonable too, he knew that as well.
"You are surprised." Kuryakin's voice was cool, thoughtful.
"Yes." It was hardly worth denying. He wasn't sure that Kuryakin would believe him anyway. The darkness and isolation was conducive to confession. "Waverly will turn down your request. He turned down mine."
"You asked to be transferred?"
Surprise, this time. Not that he expected anything else—Napoleon knew the rumour mill's comments on his future prospects within U.N.C.L.E.
"No." Even darkness wasn't enough for some confessions. They'd hardly ever been as open as this with one another—perhaps if they had... Napoleon spoke again, shoving that possibility aside with words he knew would cut Kuryakin to the quick. "I asked for another partner."
"I thought it was just me," Napoleon continued, rushing on. Would further words just increase the chasm his admission had already formed between them? "I didn't think.."
The words ground to a stumbling halt; there was no positive way to say this. What hadn't he thought? Napoleon was simultaneously glad and annoyed not to see his partner's reaction to his words.
"You thought I did not realise how badly things have gone between us."
That and a hundred things more, ranging from Kuryakin lacking insight to the idea that the Russian didn't give a damn.
"Waverly thought we'd make a good team," Napoleon said. It wasn't really a response to his partner's words—there was no response. "He was wrong."
Was that regret he heard in Solo's voice? Surely it had to be something else. Why on earth would his arrogant self-sufficient partner, the one Illya had never been convinced even trusted him out of his sight, regret anything about them going their separate ways? It made no sense.
"I never understood that," Illya said, surprising himself. He'd never been one to question the motives of his superiors, at least not out loud—that was a tactic that could only lead to disaster. He'd changed so much since leaving Russia. "Why he thought it would work."
Why Waverly thought Illya could put up with being partnered with a smug American, or vice versa. When had he begun to see things from Solo's point of view?
Illya knew he couldn't have been the easiest person to work with and Solo wasn't used to working other than alone. He'd never made allowances for that, never taken the time to think about what that must be like for his new partner, to consider just how tenuous a trust existed between them or how to strengthen it.
What if Waverly had been right all along and it hadn't worked not because of something they'd done? Something he had done? The cold seemed to encroach upon him more, despite the warmth seeping through from his partner's body, as Illya considered that possibility.
Surely it couldn't have been so simple.
He didn't want to think about it, didn't want to think about anything else other than getting the hell out of their current situation. Getting them out of there. Even if the future suddenly didn't seem quite so appealing any more, the uncertainties beginning to outweigh the possibilities.
Illya wondered if Solo was right—what would he do if Waverly refused to transfer him?
He could move to Section 8, stay in New York and work for U.N.C.L.E. there, but would his government allow that? He'd left the Soviet Union to work as a field agent, after all—they might consider any move on Illya's part as some sign of betrayal. Perhaps it wasn't logical, but logic had rarely featured large when people were banished to the gulags.
One thing was certain, as real as the ropes that currently bound him to his partner—if Waverly wouldn't let him go, if he and Solo were truly tied together, they would both need to make some effort. Otherwise neither they or their partnership would survive.
Of course it was something Napoleon had given a lot of thought, Waverly's bizarre matchmaking where he and Kuryakin were concerned. On the occasions when they'd fought, after they'd argued over some decision made or step taken and Kuryakin was asleep, Napoleon had found himself pondering just that.
Funny that he'd never thought how much he was attracted to the Russian at those times, even as he'd watched his partner sleep. Maybe it was the way that sleep seemed to strip years from Kuryakin, his face all innocence in repose, a clever mask for the steel and fire that made up the Russian's personality when awake.
Waverly had to have seen something in both of them. The old man wasn't one for impulse decisions, so he would have given their partnership much thought before giving his agreement to it. Napoleon just found himself wishing Waverly had taken as much trouble to explain the reasoning behind his actions.
Instead it was a puzzle to everyone else, himself and Kuryakin included.
Still, if they didn't get out of here, all the reasons in the world would mean nothing. Napoleon wondered if it was just his imagination, or whether the room really was becoming airless, the walls closing in on the two of them. He found himself tensing up, felt the ropes binding him to Kuryakin tighten in response, heard the hiss of expelled breath from his partner as they did so.
It was pathetic really. He'd lived through Korea, been an U.N.C.L.E. agent for a couple of years now, and he was starting to lose it because he was tied up in the dark?
Napoleon felt Kuryakin shrug, the movement obvious and immediately recognisable. Somehow the simplicity of it warmed him more than a hundred words and he felt himself start to relax once more. Whether Waverly had been right about them or not, they were both highly- trained agents, more than capable of surviving their current situation.
"Try and hold still." Kuryakin's voice was cool, but there was a thread of humour running through it, something new and more than a little unexpected. "I will find it hard to extricate us if I am unable to breathe."
Napoleon snorted, biting back the bubble of laughter that threatened to spill over. It was ridiculous, hideously ironic. Now, just as things had threatened to come to an end where their partnership was concerned, suddenly they had started acting like all the other partners he'd ever seen.
"Don't stop on my account," he said, trying to relax a little more.
Illya felt Solo beginning to tense up, had discovered that he also knew somehow just what was going through his partner's mind, even as he'd started to wonder himself what would happen next. This was no time for Solo to lose his nerve and an escape attempt, let alone actually managing to do so, seemed like a good enough way to distract him.
He'd no doubt his partner had a sense of humour, though he'd always doubted any comment he could utter would be found amusing. His cursory viewing of American television had left Illya puzzled, finding none of the things labeled as 'comic' at all amusing. There was little common ground to be found there, or so he had believed.
But there had been the slight tremor in Solo's voice, the tiny catch that told him the American was trying not to laugh. Somehow, though he wouldn't have been able to explain, Illya knew Solo wasn't laughing at him.
The ropes relaxed a fraction more and Illya worked on getting his hands free, or one of them at least. Just a little more.. he could feel the skin on his wrists being abraded, but that was a small price to pay. One hand slipped free, at last, though Illya was glad of the darkness as it hid the damage he'd done to himself in the process.
Once the first hand was free, Illya was able to untie himself, feeling Solo tense once more against his back as he twisted to reach the complicated knots that tied the two of them together. They were free in minutes, standing uncertainly together in the unrelieved darkness.
"Any idea where the door is?"
"No." Illya considered the problem for a moment. "I suggest we try for a wall first, then work our way round."
He felt Solo's hand latch onto his wrist—Illya bit back the hiss of pain as his partner's warm grasp hit the lacerations left by escaping from the ropes. The grip loosened just as quickly.
"You okay?" There was real concern in Solo's voice, the kind of worry you'd expect to hear from your partner.
"I am fine." This time he actually heard Solo snort, a disbelieving sound coming from the darkness.
"Sure." He felt Solo's hand once more, this time groping its way to his shoulder before it slid down to give him a grip on Illya's sleeve. "Let's get out of here."
His partner's stoicism amused and infuriated Napoleon in equal measure. He knew Kuryakin couldn't be badly hurt, though the chafing he'd felt on his wrist had to be sore—he wasn't the kind to gripe too much it seemed. He just hoped that if something really did happen to him, his partner would think to let Napoleon know. Somehow he wasn't convinced that was the case, not yet.
He wasn't kidding himself that, if they did decide to work at this partnership thing, it would all be plain sailing from now on. Napoleon hoped he was more realistic than that.
He inched his way outwards from where they had been standing, one hand holding onto the smoothly worn material of Kuryakin's sleeve, the other reaching into the darkness in search of any kind of flat surface. The air in the room seemed to wrap around Napoleon like an inky shroud, the only reality his hold on his partner's jacket.
When his questing fingers brushed across roughened wood, it took a moment for Napoleon to realise he had encountered something. He stopped, laying his palm flat on the surface, glad of its solidity.
"Left or right?"
"Left, of course," Kuryakin replied, dryly.
Napoleon did as he was told, pulling lightly on his partner's jacket to make him follow, even though it was hardly likely Kuryakin would try and do anything else. The minutes passed, the slow trailing round their prison taking longer than he'd expected—in the darkness the room had seemed tiny, but when it came to surveying it Napoleon discovered that wasn't the case at all.
Finally, they reached the doorframe.
Napoleon let go of Kuryakin's sleeve so that he could trace the outline of the door with his fingertips. It was solid, metal of some kind, one seamless slab from what little he could tell by touch, the metal itself cool under his hands.
"Just looking for the lock," Napoleon said.
"You have a key?"
He'd found it now—Napoleon squatted beside the door, one hand resting on the lock, the other fiddling with his tie pin. Fortunately, when they'd been captured, their assailants had been more interested in disarming them and tying them up than in searching them for anything else.
There was a five-second fuse on this particular explosive device. Napoleon turned, reaching out in the velvet darkness to grab at Kuryakin's jacket, pulling his partner round with him as well, just as the lock erupted from the door in a shower of sparks.
It had felt so natural somehow, following Solo through the darkness, that when his partner let go of his sleeve Illya almost felt as if he'd been cast adrift. It was ridiculous—if he reached out one hand even slightly to the side of where he stood, it brushed against the wall they had followed, and he could still hear Solo's every breath.
After the explosion, they put their shoulders against the door together and shoved. It was a moment before it began to move, and they heard it grate across the rough concrete floor when it finally did. Outside the only light was from a nearby street lamp, casting an orange hue across the entire scene of deserted warehouses.
"The door was locked?" Illya asked, eyeing his partner.
The look Solo gave him in response to his question amused Illya greatly and warmed him a little too—it wasn't cold and critical, like so many looks he'd received from his partner before. This expression was new, a sceptical and sarcastic one, a look that in itself spoke volumes concerning Solo's change in attitude towards him.
"I wonder," Solo said, obviously changing the subject, "where our would-be captors are..."
Solo was looking round as he spoke and Illya took the opportunity to study him. There was something different about his partner, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Whether it was the fact that Solo now seemed to trust him, the realisation of which was more than a little intoxicating, or something else entirely, Illya couldn't be sure.
Flickering light was coming through the grime-encased windows of another building nearby and Solo jerked his head meaningfully towards it. Illya nodded, then followed his partner as they crossed the area silently, before separating from him automatically to look for a way in.
There was nothing his side of the building so Illya returned to his partner, sticking to the shadows till he stood again at Solo's side. There was a door, similar in construction to the one they'd just used to exit the other warehouse, and as likely to be horribly noisy when they entered.
Not that they had a choice, however.
They exchanged a quick glance before Solo took hold of the handle and pulled, giving the door a solid tug. Both agents were surprised to see it opened easily and Illya shrugged as his partner grinned at him. Perhaps the other door had been locked after all—he still wasn't convinced.
The two of them slipped into the building and edged their way round a haphazard pile of crates that stood just in front of the doorway, masking them from the sight of anyone inside.
Illya was forced to stifle a smile as he realised just why the occupants hadn't heard either their previous escape from captivity or the entrance of two tired and pissed-off U.N.C.L.E. agents who were about to engage with them. The three men present were arguing, one of them standing with his hands flat on a small table, as he glowered at the other two. One of the others was clearly sulking, as he sat with his arms crossed, pointedly ignoring the conversation.
Solo nudged him slightly, a smile openly breaking out on his face, and Illya then saw what his partner saw. Their guns, holsters and all, in a pile on a nearby crate.
They reached the crate without anyone in the warehouse noticing and were even able to exchange their bullets for sleep darts before one of their former captors looked their way. Solo shot the man who was standing up before he had the chance to even reach for his gun, as Illya took out the one who'd been sulking. The third dived behind another pile of crates, clearly a little sharper than his colleagues, which wasn't saying much.
With a pointed glance at Solo, Illya left his side, tracking round to his right as his partner circled the other way, both trying to get a shot at their elusive third Thrush agent.
Illya heard the crates begin to move before he realised what was happening. Time seemed to slow as he turned, spotting their missing agent as he shoved at a pile of crates that towered over where his partner stood, oblivious—Solo was looking anywhere but up, then he did so suddenly, but too late.
"Napoleon!" Illya yelled, as the crates crashed down on his hapless partner.
The crates were on top of him before he realised what was happening, even as Napoleon tried to process what Kuryakin had yelled. Instinctively he'd thrown himself to one side, trying to curl up as much as possible, but a number of crates had struck him as they fell, regardless of that.
Napoleon's gun went skidding from his hand across the concrete floor as he hit the ground and all he could do was hope that his partner had shot the man who'd ambushed him.
After a few moments, when all was silence around him, Napoleon tried to move. It was then he discovered that he was pinned down by a couple of crates, his arm trapped in such a way that he had little leverage. Fortunately it appeared the crates had been empty, otherwise Napoleon knew he would have been squashed like a bug.
Napoleon felt something begin to shift on top of him, not daring to try and move anything himself till he was sure that everything was working properly.
That was his partner's voice—the concern shown in the way Kuryakin had just spoken his name was something unexpected, something Napoleon wondered belatedly whether he'd ever worked hard enough to deserve. It wrapped round him like a blanket, warming parts of his soul he'd never realised were chilled before. Napoleon had never given Kuryakin the benefit of the doubt, that was certain, thinking more about getting rid of him than working at making their partnership a success.
But now they seemed to have unexpectedly found some common ground and the idea of losing his partner now sent a chill shuddering its way up Napoleon's spine.
"Here," he said. "Shaken, but not stirred."
After a few moments he could see his partner, whose worried expression relaxed when he had evidence to back Napoleon's confident words. Kuryakin had moved some of the crates which had fallen onto him, others he had been able to shift himself when his arm was finally free. It was bruised, Napoleon had no doubt of that, but not broken.
"I thought.." Kuryakin began, then the words apparently dried up. "Must you watch those ridiculous films?" he continued, seeming to latch gratefully onto the opportunity to change the subject that Napoleon had provided.
"You're just jealous." Kuryakin looked at him for a moment, clearly puzzled by the concept of being jealous of a fictional character. "Want to report in?" He saw his partner relax, even as he sat up.
Kuryakin nodded, crossing to check on the agents they'd shot as he pulled out his communicator. As Napoleon brushed himself down, straightening his suit and getting rid of as much dust from himself as possible, he could hear Kuryakin asking for back-up.
Perhaps they'd be able to get back to New York sooner than he'd anticipated.
Illya kept half an eye on his partner as he reported in, noting the way Napoleon moved, even though he knew the American tried to give the impression he was invulnerable. He knew better, could see the slight hesitation in his movements that spoke of bruises at least, if not more serious injuries. Would Napoleon tell him if he was more severely injured than at first appeared? Despite their recent growth in camaraderie, Illya wasn't completely sure.
"A clean-up team will be here within the hour," Illya said, returning his communicator to his pocket. "Do you require medical assistance?" No one could say he hadn't tried to make sure his partner was well, at least.
Napoleon's voice was cool, detached. It could be just that he was angry with himself for being caught that way—Illya found himself hoping that was the reason.
Or had he misjudged the situation after all? It was possible, Illya told himself, that he'd imagined what changes he thought he'd heard in Napoleon's tone towards him. It could all be a product of severe amounts of wishful thinking on his part.
Napoleon himself was now frisking the unconscious Thrush agents, disarming them at the same time. The sleep darts were pretty potent, there was little chance of any of them stirring before they'd been made secure and Illya forced himself to stop thinking about his partner and give said partner a hand. In the inside jacket pocket of the one he searched, Illya found a small notebook, filled with comments written in what looked like Thrush code.
That was Napoleon's voice, close to his ear, and it took all Illya's years of training not to jump at the sound. How had his partner managed to sneak up on him like that?
"It would appear so," Illya said, handing the small book over his shoulder to Napoleon, as he completed his search of the unconscious Thrush agent. There was nothing else of note.
The temperature in the warehouse seemed to have dropped a couple of degrees in the past few moments and Napoleon was left puzzled. He'd managed to cross over to stand behind his partner, surprised at the ease with which he'd be able to approach Kuryakin, all the time waiting for him to react to another's presence.
When he didn't react, not even when Napoleon spoke to him, other than responding to his comment, Napoleon was even more surprised.
In the time he'd known Kuryakin, the Russian had treasured his personal space as if he expected all the time to be attacked. Even as his partner, Napoleon had no special privileges, though he felt that he understood the reasoning behind that a little more now, with hindsight.
Napoleon knew he had never attempted to change that, never given his solitary partner a reason to treat him any differently from the other U.N.C.L.E. agents with whom they sometimes worked. He shouldn't be surprised that he wasn't treated any differently, then.
But these past few hours had been something of a revelation to him, Napoleon knew that now. Now he didn't want to be treated the same as the others, now he wanted something more.
"Come on, Illya," he said. "They're not going anywhere, let's wait outside."
Outside the night was starless, the only light in the surrounding area that of the streetlamps. Illya found himself relaxing a little, the adrenaline buzz of combat beginning to seep away, his partner's presence beside him for once reassuring rather than annoying.
"Tell me, Illya," Napoleon said, breaking the silence that hung between them after a couple of minutes had passed. "Will your transfer request still be going in?"
Illya thought about this for a moment, knowing Napoleon was watching him, as he turned the subject over in his mind and examined it from all angles.
"Perhaps not," he said, finally.
Illya smiled to himself, hearing the note of frustration in his partner's voice and recognising it immediately for what it was.
"It is a long way back to New York, my friend," he said.
It felt like the right thing to say, and the right way to say it. For the first time since he'd reached New York, Illya began to feel a little at home. He could see the answering expression on Napoleon's face out of the corner of his eye and this time he didn't bother to hide his smile.
The flight back to New York was considerably different than the trip to Vancouver. They'd returned to the hotel, both exhausted and dirty, working around each other in both bedroom and bathroom before collapsing onto the beds to sleep. They were woken by the chirping of Napoleon's communicator, a dispassionate female voice informing them of their new travel arrangements, which they had to scurry to manage.
This time, they sat together, Napoleon taking the aisle seat and Illya the window. While Napoleon chatted to the stewardess, it was clear to Illya that his heart wasn't really in it—it seemed he was going through the motions because his partner expected it of him. If the stewardess hadn't enjoyed it as well, Illya would have said something, but it was a minor inconvenience and did ensure prompt service when they needed it.
After a while, since they'd spoken little to one another, Napoleon had dozed, while Illya tried to concentrate on the book he'd brought along. His concentration was minimal though, the last dregs of adrenaline plus the little sleep they'd managed to snatch before being directed back to the airport, conspiring to rob him of even that. Instead he watched his partner sleep, thinking about what he should do when they returned to New York.
He could still tender his transfer request, but perhaps Napoleon was right. It was likely Waverly wouldn't accept it, and he couldn't help feeling a pang of uncertainty now. Things between them seemed to be going a little better, so perhaps bailing out now was somewhat precipitate? Illya could end up bitterly regretting his decision, unable to do anything to turn back the clock.
It was better, he decided, as the plane began to descend into JFK, to bide his time. After all, if things didn't go to plan, Illya told himself, he could always change his mind. He smiled to himself, then turned to wake his partner.
Illya had woken him—he'd roused Napoleon from a bizarre dream where he was a middle-aged businessman who sold computers for a living, telling him they were about to land. He felt rumpled, disreputable, but Napoleon knew Waverly would expect them to report in immediately regardless of their condition—the weight of the notebook currently nestled against his side also reminded him their presence at HQ was not optional.
Illya was looking out of the window now, watching as they began their descent, and Napoleon watched his partner for a moment.
Had he done enough to change Illya's mind about putting in for a transfer back to London? Only time would tell. He hoped he had, hoped that he would get the opportunity to work with the stubborn and talented Russian from now on, but at the end of the day Napoleon knew that was his partner's decision and no one else's.
Besides, anyone trying to make Illya Kuryakin do anything he didn't want to was in for a nasty surprise.
When the plane had landed, during the seemingly interminable wait till they were allowed to disembark, Napoleon thought back over the mission they'd just completed. Somehow, in a way he could never have predicted, would never have believed, he and Illya had connected. There'd been that indefinable spark of something, that special 'something' between partners.
"Let's get back to HQ," he said turning to Illya, glad that their relative positions made the Russian a captive audience. "We'll report in, and then..."
Napoleon paused, feeling like he was standing on the edge of a high cliff, about to take a chance that could change his life forever. Illya was watching him, his face giving nothing away.
Napoleon told himself that it wasn't just that he felt something for Illya, though he couldn't deny he found himself attracted, but there was something more, something important happening here alongside the attraction he felt toward his partner. Something that twisted round that attraction till Napoleon couldn't see where the attraction began and the nebulous other ended.
"..and then?" Illya prompted when he didn't speak, face still unreadable.
"I know this nice Chinese place," Napoleon said, bracing himself for rejection. When Illya said nothing, didn't react at all, he found himself moving on quickly. "If you like Chinese food. You do like Chinese food?"
He didn't answer straight away, even though he knew Napoleon was watching him, trying to decipher his silence. This was the kind of thing partners did, they went to dinner together and no one thought anything of it—he'd seen enough American television to know that was the case.
And even if Napoleon was merely being polite, Illya was hungry.
"Chinese food would be fine," he said, as they began to disembark. Napoleon just nodded.
Illya found himself following his partner through the airport, then into a cab and toward the city.
Napoleon didn't seem inclined to talk and Illya wasn't inclined to press him for conversation. Instead he thought about the invitation he'd just received and what it might mean—they were partners, this was the kind of thing partners were supposed to do together, but they'd never eaten together off-duty before. In hindsight that lack of informal contact seemed more than a little obvious, a sign of the frailty of their partnership that Illya had never picked up on before.
Nothing had been a shared experience for them before. They'd never even shared a cup of coffee outside of what they consumed together on missions.
Illya began to realise he knew little or nothing about his partner and it disconcerted him a little. He knew some things, of course, but those were all work-related—he knew what kind of ammunition Napoleon preferred but had no idea what music he liked. Only the odd comment here or there had enlightened him, since Illya had never gone to the trouble of asking Napoleon about anything.
Likewise he knew that he was something of an enigma to his partner. Illya had to admit he'd liked to cultivate that air of mystery a little, had certainly never encouraged small talk, but this was ridiculous.
If Napoleon was prepared to offer an olive branch, then he would need to make the effort to take it.
They were drawing up outside Del Floria's before he realised it, and Illya again found himself following Napoleon, down the steps and then through the shop itself and into U.N.C.L.E. New York. As he travelled the corridors towards Waverly's office, Illya found himself wondering just how soon they could get out of there—after all, his kung pao chicken was waiting.
Waverly watched the two agents leave his office, having received the report on their successful mission in Vancouver.
He'd had decades of experience of studying the actions and words of those working around him, comparing the two and often discovering the true nature of people's relationships to one another, no matter how hard they tried to dissemble.
As he filled his pipe, he thought back on the day he'd made the decision to pair Kuryakin and Solo. At the time Waverly had known he was taking a gamble—he couldn't be completely sure that gamble would pay off, though he had every confidence in his own ability to pair two agents effectively.
Solo was an excellent agent, but too used to working alone—he took responsibility for nobody and expected no one to do so for him. In order to one day fill the chair Waverly currently occupied, he would need to learn much more about cooperation and delegation. Neither of which he could learn if he continued to work alone. Having a partner would be a salutory experience for Solo, giving him the kind of background that couldn't otherwise be gained.
Kuryakin was a loner too, but by habit rather than choice. While undoubtedly brilliant and destined, should his government allow, for a successful career working for U.N.C.L.E., he had never learned to rely on anyone else either. Kuryakin had never considered that anyone would want to risk themselves for him, leaving him in a world of his own. A vulnerable, easily-destroyed world, no matter how safe he might think it was.
The right partner could bring Kuryakin out of his shell, and he'd been convinced Solo was the man for the job. Likewise Kuryakin was as loyal as the day was long, given the right partner, and Waverly considered it more than likely he would latch onto Napoleon Solo if the circumstances were right.
And for a while, he'd wondered whether he'd been mistaken.
Instead of cooperation, he'd seen only tension—Solo's attempts to rid himself of his partner didn't bode well for the success of his matchmaking. Now, after an innocuous but successful mission, something was clearly different between them, something important and almost tangible.
Solo and Kuryakin, his two self-reliant and doggedly independent agents, had finally hit it off.
Waverly laid his unlit pipe back onto the desk, as he pulled a file towards him. He flicked it open, studied the psychological report for a moment, then snorted at its summary recommendations. Separate Solo and Kuryakin? Perhaps if the mission to Vancouver hadn't gone well, if they hadn't come back with their relationship so clearly different to when they left, he might have gone along with the recommendation.
Waverly scrawled 'denied' at the bottom of the form, before signing it with something of a flourish. He'd been right after all, though the psychologists with their tests and fancy theories had disagreed with his decision from the start.
Some days it was good to be in charge.