Napoleon Solo thought once more through the months of grooming the successor for his job. In truth he just wanted out, just pack a bag, get on the first plane out of New York and leave behind the life that no longer offered him any satisfaction or pleasure. As Head of Section One of UNCLE he had dedicated himself to running the Command to the point where he no longer had a personal life and having been in the business since his early twenties the spy games no longer offered any satisfaction.
He thought back to the one person he had ever loved, his friend and partner Illya Kuryakin. At least Kuryakin's death had shown him one thing, the futility of his own existence and a longing to have a life beyond the world of international espionage. A desire to be something more 'normal', if there were such a thing. A chance not to die alone.
Of course there had been women in his past. There were always those who would fling themselves at a man who could get them into the 'right' cocktail parties or the 'important' dinner of some visiting dignitary. But if he stood next to them and look in the mirror waiting to be announced to some Bedouin Prince or European King he would see their eyes looking at their dress, assessing it as an asset, or checking their hair and makeup. Their eyes were never for him. There had been at least three women he had pursued but could never fall in love with. Always he ended the affair knowing there could be no deeper emotions between them than agreeing on the next dinner party or which concert they should attend.
There had also been a fleeting affair with another man, a foreign diplomat. Perhaps it was because of his relationship with Illya, that drove him to desire the man. He was handsome in his own way with short dark curly hair but it was his detached almost intellectual disposition that reminded him of his former lover. He spent a lot of time and effort in the relentless pursuit to win his attention. When he finally had him he knew he could not stay with him without resigning his job, so this affair ended quickly. On reflection he was not so enamoured of the short Israeli that he felt it was worth giving up his leadership of UNCLE. At the end of the day he was no Illya Kuryakin.
That name, even just the thought of it brought grief to his heart. Illya had died alone on some jungle. It had been a month before his body was discovered and the identification made. He hoped Illya had not suffered, that he had not lain in terrible pain unable to move, dying of dehydration. He shook the thought away. He had been unable to bring himself to read of Illya's death in detail. Even now, just over a year later he felt nauseous whenever he thought of pulling up the record on his computer.
If only Kuryakin had not returned to the Soviet Union to resume his career with the KGB. Just a week before Solo's name was officially announced as successor to Waverly, he had returned home just to find a note from Kuryakin saying goodbye. He kept it along with some photographs and small treasures tucked away only to be retrieved when the pain was too much. Ten years and now no hope of holding the one person he ever truly loved in his arms again.
As Napoleon emerged from his limo, nodding briefly to his chauffeur and entered the elevator already summoned by his security guard. He sighed as he settled down quickly to his 'at home' routine. Three reports to read, a light supper, bath then bed. The world had become a predictable cage from which there was no relief.
'E 'aint got no shoes!"
"Que?" the prison official looked questioningly at the young woman before him.
"He has not got any shoes" repeated Beth, this time more slowly suppressing her London accent.
Senor Del Gardo sighed. "Look around you, most people in this country do not have shoes. If we started to give them to prisoners there would be riots in the street."
"But surely he had some when he came here?"
"He probably sold them for food."
Beth walked over to the prisoner. The stench made her stomach churn slightly. It seemed pointless to complain. Doubtless washing prisoners would have a similar effect to giving out shoes. She stretched out her hand to touch his forehead. He flinched away but she kept her hand moving till she made contact with his skin. She quickly glanced over his face shaking her head as she returned to Senor Del Gardo.
"'Ere—'e's sick. I don't want any come back if he pops his clogs".
Senor Del Gardo looked impatient. "What are these clogs?" he shook his head impatiently, "We must conclude our business. I must leave soon. Are you going to take him as was agreed with my government?"
Beth had been dispatched to South America to pick up a convicted gun runner to return to New York for questioning. She had grave doubts the man in front of her was the right man—a powerful gun runner such as Herr Hermlich should have been faring far better, able to call in money and favours. Then man in front of her looked like he hadn't got a friend in the world. Had she been working for any other agent than Frenchie she would have called with her doubts but knowing the French man, Savoie, she knew she had to return with this man no matter what. Otherwise she would get the 'you question my orders' routine. He was a complete bastard. She sighed "Give me the form to sign. But I want a note initialled by you that he is in poor health. I suppose there is no chance of a doctor's certificate?"
"Doctor does not come till tomorrow. You may wait if your prefer."
Beth glance over to the prisoner. She had doubts as to whether he would still be alive tomorrow. "No that's fine. I'll take him". She stumbled out the standard phrases as to UNCLE's sincere thanks for the help of the prison authorities and Senor Del Gardo.
"I want to place myself under voluntary quarantine".
Dr. Moleneaux looked at the young agent in disbelief. "And would you like to explain to me exactly what prompts you to do that Agent Wade?"
"I have escorted a prisoner from South America whom I believe to be suffering from some kind of fever. Having been in close proximity to him for the last seven hours I feel it is in my best interests to be in the care of trained medical personnel."
"And where is this prisoner now?"
"He is with Agent Savoie being questioned".
"Why doesn't Agent Savoie bring this man to me?"
Beth wanted to say 'because he is a stupid git' but instead chose the more diplomatic, "I don't know"
Dr. Moleneaux looked long and hard at the agent. "I think I'd better look into this matter." He crossed to the door, "Come with me my dear I think I will entrust you to Nurse Taylor while I make enquiries."
Thirty minutes later Dr. Moleneaux demanded to see Napoleon Solo. Napoleon looked warily at Moleneaux as he entered his office. He had not always seen eye to eye with the good Doctor recently and he wondered if this was yet another round in their on going battle between Solo trying to keep agents in the field and Moleneaux's reluctance to let agents not 100% fit to continue working.
"Do you realize that Agent Savoie is questioning a prisoner that could be carrying a lethal contagious disease? He could have wiped out half this headquarters by the morning." Napoleon inwardly groaned. "Who are we talking about?"
"The prisoner Savoie is holding in interrogation room two." Solo crossed to the bank of screens at the far end of his office. He stabbed at a couple of buttons for one of the screens to display the scene of a man being questioned. If Dr. Moleneaux had taken the trouble to look he would have seen Solo pale, momentarily lean on the desk, his eyes closed, hardly able to believe the image in front of him. By the time the Doctor turned round Solo had regained his composure his slick persona firmly in its place disguising his inner turmoil. The Head of Operations was decisive. "Doctor, can I ask you to make the necessary arrangements? I will speak to Agent Savoie immediately."
He turned back to the screen just in time to witness Savoie slap the prisoner hard across the face. The poor man hardly seemed to notice. There was no doubt in Solo's mind that the prisoner was Illya Kuryakin. He quickly set wheels in motion, phoning the Chief Enforcement Agent to take charge of the situation. At this moment in time he needed to keep a cool head, seeing Illya would no doubt cloud his judgement. But the one fact remained almost singing in his head, Illya is alive!
Napoleon sat quietly in his office. How could he have been so ready to believe the Kuryakin was dead? The report he had was brief, but he just read that Kuryakin had been killed in a terrorist attack in Columbia. No more detail than that, he should have looked harder. Kuryakin had at some point been given Hermlich's identity and lived with it. Why? The whole thing made no sense.
He pushed a button on his desk and in front of him a screen showing the secure sickroom in which the Russian had been placed sprang into view. Dr. Moleneaux and Susan Hardy, the duty nurse were huddled with their patient. The medical team wore gowns masks and gloves. They were in the process of extracting blood samples, their patient struggled weakly against the needle necessitating Moleneaux to hold him down whilst Susan took the sample. For the first time since the night Illya left Napoleon broke down in tears.
The silence in Solo's office was broken by the noise of his secretary buzzing him to remind him of his appointment in five minute's time. He wandered into his private washroom and took a moment to wipe his face and collect his thoughts. What was clear that the forces that had kept Kuryakin from revealing his true identity were still in place, therefore Kuryakin had to keep his false identity. With that thought in mind he struggled into his normal face and taking a deep breath went back to his office to face the rest of his day.
Solo put through an order to class Illya as a 'Category D' patient. This would restrict access to medical personnel only and luckily none of them had been there long enough to have known Kuryakin. Searching through the personnel records there were only eight people in the whole building that could have recognised him and none of those were likely to be in Medical for any reason.
When Napoleon finally got through the day he thought through his options. Illya had meant everything to him. Illya had to get well enough to leave medical. He flipped on the screen in Illya's room. He looked at the frail body lying there, eyes closed, very still. The next few days were going to be hard.
Three days later Solo approached medical. All the arrangements had been made. He was to personally escort Herr Hermlich from the building to hand him back to his organisation. As he swept into medical two nurses snapped to attention and followed in his wake. Dr. Moleneaux was already at the patient's bedside. As he entered Illya's eyes swept up to his face and met his own eyes dead on. He flushed and looked away as if afraid of what he saw.
The patient was half lifted into a wheel chair and Solo silently took hold of the handles and began to push. He just wanted to get the hell out of there. Of course Moleneaux stopped him. Drugs and medical notes had to be handed over.
Napoleon felt a final sense of relief as they entered his apartment. He busied himself with the alarms. Then he mumbled about getting some tea and stumbled into the kitchen. Fighting back the emotion of having Illya in his home he busied himself making tea, mechanically filling the kettle and finding cups. Anything to fill his mind and stop him thinking of the man in the next room. He picked up the two cups of tea to return to the lounge bracing himself .
Illya was sitting quietly on the sofa, seemingly calm. He accepted the tea in silence. Despite holding the tea with both hands the cup trembled slightly. Illya was still a sick man. Napoleon knew Illya of old, he knew that he was just deploying tactics to keep himself safe, that his silence was probably not a comment on their past relationship.
"What time is the hand over?" the Russian finally asked.
"There is no hand over. I just wanted to get you out of medical before you started to riot".
For only the second time that day Illya's eyes looked into his. "Who knows I am here?"
"No one. I've told no one".
"Then what am I doing here. Why am I in your apartment?"
"I wanted to give you some time," Napoleon hesitated. He was beginning to realise how inane it all sounded. "I wanted you to get well and strong so you can make your own decisions. I didn't want to force you into anything you might not want".
Illya remained silent. Slowly sipping his tea. He looked around the apartment, with the occasional sideways glance at his host. Finally when the tea was gone he placed the cup carefully on the table. He asked, "Where am I to sleep?"
Napoleon had already prepared his guest bedroom. He stood and motioned his ex-partner to follow. "In here. As you can see there are some clothes for you. Anything you don't want just leave the labels on and they can be taken back. Illya fingered the black cashmere sweater and examined a shirt still in the packet. "Your secretary has excellent taste." Just at that moment Napoleon did not want to admit to purchasing the clothes himself.
"Why don't you have a rest whilst I make us some dinner?" He neatly closed the door exiting from the room. It had been all more difficult than he had ever imagined. Illya was the one that had walked out on him. What if Illya had never wanted to see him again? The thought spread an icy hand at the back of his neck. Could he handle Illya's rejection?
As he methodically prepared supper he went through their relationship in his mind. A fact he had almost repressed over the years which now hit him round the head with the force of club was that he had been the one to make the first approach. And that approach had not been a gentle seduction but an almost violent encounter. When he thought about it now with the benefit of the distance of time the whole thing had been closer to assault than seduction.
Over dinner, despite numerous attempts to start a conversation, the Russian remained stubbornly silent. In the end Napoleon admitted defeat and completed the rest of the meal in silence.
Their meal finished Napoleon cleared away, leaving Illya sitting at the table sipping water very slowly. He needed to resolve his feeling and decided to achieve this by provoking a response. "All those years ago you were just using me weren't you?" Napoleon was suddenly caught by the shocked look on Illya's face. Of course in reality Illya had never asked for anything, never demanded favours, money, anything.
"Just what was I using you for Mr. Solo? I would really like to know".
There was no answer he could give. But at least Illya was now paying attention to his words. He just quietly asked the question that had haunted him for so long, "Why did you leave?"
"It was all a long time ago, Napoleon, please."
"Did you hate me so much that you could walk out without a word?"
"No.... I... I. In the circumstances it was the best thing I could do for both of us."
And for the first time something clicked in Solo's mind. A conversation with Waverly so many years ago. What were his words? "It was the best thing he could have done." Of course he was a fool to think that Illya would have just walked out like that. Alexander had badly wanted him as his successor, whatever the cost.
He cleared his throat. "For years I had been asking myself what I did wrong. What did I do that made you leave. I think for the first time I realise that it wasn't me."
Illya couldn't meet his eye but quietly said ,"No, it wasn't you."
It was a tremendous burden had been lifted off his shoulders. He felt the tears stream down his face as he stumbled to the couch. Concerned Illya rose and brushed the tears away with his hands before settling next to him. He spoke slowly. "I could never understand why you wanted me. That first time you took me, I tried to fight you off because I didn't understand. I thought you were just using me. Looking back now I know I enjoyed our time together. I always thought that it would be you that ended it, not me."
They held hands. Neither uttering a word. They just sat quietly each dealing with their own pain. Eventually Napoleon looked into the Russian's face. Pale and gaunt he looked exhausted. "I believe you should be in bed my friend. We will have plenty of time to talk tomorrow. Now you need sleep. He tucked his hand under Illya's shoulder and helped him rise from the sofa. It took the Russian a moment to adjust to standing, then he helped him to the bedroom.
"It's alright, I can take it from here," he assured the American.
Closing the door behind him Napoleon went to his own bedroom, suddenly too tired to do anything else.
The next day Solo rose and started to make eggs and toast, the sort of food an invalid needed. He loaded a tray and walked to Illya's bedroom. Illya was already dressed and sitting on the bed. He looked at the tray "I'll come to the kitchen and eat with you if I may, I am tired of lying in bed."
"It was yourself who said I was ready to riot"
After breakfast Illya enquired, "When do you have to leave for work?"
"I don't. I've taken a few days off."
Since when did the Head of UNCLE get time off?"
"Since he announced his retirement."
Solo looked Kuryakin full in the face. He was silent, obviously thinking through the last statement.
He grabbed Illya's hand, "Could I .. I mean could you just try to let me a little closer? " He felt the hand stiffen. " I mean can we just talk? When we were together we used to be able to talk to each other. I just want to be able to talk to you again. Would that be so bad?"
Illya smiled. "No that would not be so bad." They gazed at each other through a silence that shrouded their thoughts. Napoleon couldn't think of anything to say. For years he wanted to talk to Illya and now the moment had come he could only gaze in silence. He focused his thoughts. There was a pressing piece of information he needed.
"Why didn't you tell them you were not Hermlich?"
"Because Illya Kuryakin was in far more danger than Hermlich ever was. I wanted to stay alive."
"I understand." Napoleon nodded quietly. "Now there is something I must tell you. You are dead."
"What?" The Russian's face looked incredulously at him. "I thought the evidence before your eyes suggested that .."
"No, your organisation, Major Yatsev, they all think you are dead. A body was found in the jungle. It was confirmed to be you. Dental records had been checked—the evidence was beyond question." In order to quash any further debate he added the final, "They sent me your things, it was in your will."
Understanding now spread across Illya's face. "That is what you mean by 'making my decisions'? As I am dead I can re-invent myself as anything I want. Now it falls into place."
"I admit, I'm offering you a way out. But I wish..... I wish very much that you would consider me in part of that future." He thought for a moment. Five years ago he had been in Russia and had been under the impression the he would be meeting Kuryakin. It never happened. He was told Kuryakin had requested not to be present at the meeting. "That time in Leningrad, why did you not want to see me?"
"Waverly left clear and explicit instructions with my superiors, we were never to meet. I never had the option."
"I wish I'd known, I never realised just how far his influence lingered till now. It's a pity, so much wasted time." He looked down on his former lover, feeling a deep need that he had suppressed for so long. There was one thing he needed to settle.
Napoleon went to the closet in the hall and returned with a cardboard box. It still had the shipping labels on. He had opened it when it arrived and started to look through the meagre contents, but on recognising so many of the contents he put it back. He now placed it on the sofa next to his friend.
Illya carefully took out each object. An envelope of photographs from his childhood and youth. Ten photographs that started with his family and ended with his graduation from the University of Georgia. Then a bulkier envelope, photographs from his life in New York. Half of them had Napoleon posing in them. Then small souvenirs, a gold coin here, a letter from a friend there. A programme from an opera, cufflinks Napoleon had given him one Christmas. Finally at the bottom several Jazz records. This time it was Illya who started to weep. Napoleon put his arms round him and just held him, waiting for the torrent of emotion to pass.
Finally when the body in his arms finished shaking he turned the dear face towards him and placed a slow gentle kiss. His friend responded, the damp face pressed to his, lips parting. It was the most wonderful experience Napoleon had felt for a long time.
The Illya broke away. "Do you still...?"
Napoleon smiled. "Yes, more than ever. I have never stopped loving you. You are the one."
Then the two lovers embraced, holding on as if around them the world had disappeared, all that remained were two people who were finally reunited. Both had lived in a world that had offered none of the comfort that they felt now. They had both carried their love for a lifetime and now at last they had the chance of happiness together.