A Clean Slate Affair

by GrandeRobino

Illya Kuryakin was smiling as he strode through the hallways of UNCLE's New York headquarters, and those who didn't know him better might almost have said there was a bit of a spring in his step. But those who did know him, would never have assumed such a thing much less said it aloud.

Still, it was apparent that Illya was definitely in one of his better moods. Which was more and more the case these days. You didn't even have to be one of UNCLE's top trained spies to be able to deduce the source of the (formerly) surly, stubborn Russian's improved attitude.

Down the hall, through the sliding, secured door, in the Big Office, with its view of the East River, sat Napoleon Solo. Solo had recently been installed as the new head of UNCLE's East Coast Operations, following Alexander Waverly's retirement. It was a promotion years in the making, and well-deserved. Everyone agreed.

Illya nodded to Lisa Rogers, and arched an eyebrow toward his partner's office. She returned the nod with a smile and announced him via the intercom, to her boss while disengaging the door's security field.

Napoleon had risen to greet his partner and, once the door had slid shut, securely, behind him, Illya dropped any pretense and moved swiftly into his lover's open arms. He couldn't remember a happier time in his life, than this. Right here. Right now. He'd never believed he could be so fulfilled. Or that he could share his life so completely with another person.

"Long morning?" Solo asked, as he took in one last deep lungful of his partner's scent before releasing him from his embrace.

"Hmmm?..." Illya slowly raised loving eyes to meet his partner's. "Oh, no. Not really. I mean, I have been busy reconfiguring the labs, but everyone has been very cooperative. It seems, my being seen as the power behind the throne, has its advantages."

"Well, I should hope so. I'd hate for you to have any reason to regret our association, tovarisch."

"Really, Napoleon. It's not like you to be fishing. But, very well, I shall say it: I have no regrets, when it comes to our 'association'. Except, perhaps, that we had to almost get killed so often before we finally got to this point."

"So, you don't miss it then? The fieldwork, I mean. I wouldn't want you to start resenting me as having been the reason you returned to the labs full-time."

Illya sighed, and tugged at Napoleon's tie. "When have you ever known me to suffer in silence? You would know if I resented anything, because, if you were too stupid to notice, I would be sure to tell you. The fact is, I think our times as effective field agents are behind us. We're too well-known to be effective in any sort of undercover operations anymore and, frankly, being kidnapped and tortured has lost its appeal. I am more than happy to be working in the labs, where, by the way, I am in charge, which was never the case when I was your number two in the field."

"Oh, now you tell me. If I'd have known I was in charge during all those affairs, I might have had my wicked way with you a lot sooner..." Solo leered.

"Well, that hardly would have been appropriate..." Illya demurred sarcastically.

"No. Not appropriate at all. In fact my intentions in regard to you could only be described as...scandalous." Napoleon whispered the last word in his partner's ear, causing a little shiver.

"No doubt." Illya agreed. Then, as he straightened Napoleon's lapels, "Enough of this reminiscing. I came to see if you're ready to go visit Rachel with me."

Solo's face fell, Illya caught sight of it, and immediately set about putting his partner at ease. "It's all right, Napoleon. You're still settling into your new role. Your schedule is not quite your own, yet. It will get better. I promise..."

"It's just that we have a meeting with representatives from these Federal Agencies interested in streamlining our information sharing procedures..."

"That's a good thing Napoleon. A very good thing. You see? You're going to make a difference here, and the world will be a better place as a result. I'm very proud of you, my friend." Illya beamed at him.

"I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I promise to strive, every day, to make you proud of me, so you'll never regret the life we have chosen. When people speak of me and my 'luck', I don't think they realize that you are the source of all my good fortune."

"Keep talking like that, and you might really get lucky tonight." Illya growled into Solo's ear.

Then, switching gears, he asked "So, shall we reschedule with Rachel for another day, or should I go see her myself this afternoon?"

"Both. You go see her Illya, please, stop by Benson's shop and bring her some flowers from me-the biggest bouquet they have- and give her my regrets, and see if she has time to see us this weekend. Either day."

"Oh, good! She will like the idea of another visit, I'm sure of it." Illya, himself, seemed delighted with the prospect.

Solo knew that Illya looked forward to their frequent visits with Rachel Starsky as much as the woman, herself, did.

After the UNCLE agents had worked with Bay City Detectives Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson, to ensure the successful prosecution of former THRUSH kingpin, James Gunther, they realized they had forged a real and lasting friendship. They found they had a lot in common with the detectives and, in turn, Starsky and Hutch counted Illya and Solo among their most trusted friends.

As a result of their friendship, Illya and Solo had taken to visiting Starsky's mother, who lived near-by. They knew that Starsky regretted not being able to personally check on his mother more often (apart from his weekly phone calls), as they lived on separate coasts. And, after Dave introduced Rachel to the agents last year, they took an instant liking to her, and had fallen into a routine of visiting her once a month or so.

It's hard to say who felt they benefited most from the arrangement:

Starsky was relieved that someone he knew and could trust, was there to keep an eye on his beloved mother. And, of course, for Starsky's piece of mind, Hutch was grateful. Both were well-aware that Starsky had a brother, Nick, who still lived in New York. But, neither considered that he was reliable when it came to giving a damn about anyone but himself. Truth be told, they were just glad he wasn't in jail, or some other kind of trouble. With Nick, no news was good news.

Rachel, of course, loved the attention she received from the agents. They would accompany her on errands, occasionally they insisted on taking her to dinner and, once, to a Broadway show. But the times she liked best were when they just came to visit. To sit and talk with her, over tea, in her cozy apartment. They always seemed interested in what she had to say, and, in turn, shared important news of their lives.

Solo, was charmed by Rachel, and enjoyed being able to spoil her. Her presence in his life helped especially this past year, after he lost his maiden aunt Amy, to whom he had been close. He appreciated the wisdom of both women, and, after Amy's death, resolved to make Rachel feel as valued and loved as possible.

And Illya...Well, Illya just loved Rachel. There was no question about it. From their first meeting, he felt a kinship with her. He felt both protected by and protective of her. Anyone who had the briefest acquaintance with psychology would be able to tell you that it probably could be traced back to Illya's childhood, and his being raised in State sponsored orphanages in Russia. Intellectually, Illya could tell you that as well. But he didn't care. He loved her. Love didn't need a reason.

"Illya!" Rachel opened her arms to the Russian, as she always did, and he hugged her as tightly as he felt he could, without crushing her small frame.

He stepped back as he noticed her looking over his shoulder.

"Napoleon is very sorry, Rachel, that he couldn't come with me today. He made me promise to convince you to join us this weekend, for lunch, perhaps? And he wanted me to give you these." Illya presented the slightly smushed, but still beautiful, bouquet from Benson's, Napoleon's favorite florist.

"Oh, my! Let me put them in water...Davey gave me this beautiful vase for my birthday...Here it is. Oh, they're just lovely! Thank Napoleon for me, tell him I'd love to meet you both for lunch on Saturday. And here..." She gave Illya a kiss on the cheek "give him that, from me." She grinned and winked.

"I'm happy to do that, of course, but you can pass that along for yourself on Saturday." He smiled. "And these," he proudly offered her a small white box tied with a string "are from me!"

Illya watched, with anticipation, as Rachel opened the box from the local bakery. She lifted the lid, parted the wax tissue and threw her head back in laughter.

"I thought we could enjoy them with our tea...You'll have to thank David next time you speak to him. I was unfamiliar with these delicacies until he introduced them to me."

"I certainly will tell my Davey. Blintzes! He'll be so jealous."

Rachel began pouring their tea. "Speaking of Blintzes, did he tell you that his Hutch passed the Lieutenant's Exam, and received a promotion last month? And they're in the same precinct! Davey was so proud I thought he was going to burst. I'll tell you, that I'm relieved that they'll both finally be removed from so much of the danger. They've done their fair share of putting their lives on the line in the streets, and now with Davey's teaching at the Academy and Hutch's new position, maybe their lives can settle down..." She paused, looking embarrassed. "Listen to me! Going on about my boys...I've barely let you get a word in. Tell me, Lyubov, how are things with you and your Napoleon? You've had some big changes yourselves. Is he settled into his new job as head honcho? And you. I bet you're happy as a clam to be back with your microscopes and experimenting! Have you invented any interesting gadgets, this week, Hmmmm?"

Illya couldn't stop grinning. Rachel had that effect. He shared with her that he was, indeed, happy to be back in the labs. And that, while he was proud of his partner's accomplishments and of his drive to make improvements in The UNCLE, he worried that Napoleon might work himself too hard.

"Well, then, it's up to you to see that he doesn't do that.'" she urged.

"Of course." Illya agreed. "And your having lunch with us this weekend should help as well."

How quickly the afternoon passed. Illya could hardly believe it, when he heard the clock on the mantle chiming four times.

Excusing himself, he started to gather his jacket and head for the door, while promising that he and Napoleon would be by at noon on Saturday to pick Rachel up for lunch.

It was as he turned to walk toward to door that he noticed the unopened boxes in the corner of Rachel's living room. A large television, stereo equipment, a new television video-recorder. All of which seemed out of place in the elderly woman's apartment. Her furnishings had always been very modest (which Illya had found comforting), well-maintained, but not modern. Illya turned his puzzled gaze to Rachel. She looked...embarrassed.

"Uhmm. Rachel? Did you want help setting this equipment up? I know it can seem complicated, I'd be happy to get these up and working for you..."

"No! Please, forget you saw this. Don't ask me anything more." Rachel had looked away from him, and he sensed that she was beyond embarrassed. She was crying. It was almost as if she was...ashamed? But that couldn't be. Rachel Starsky was a good woman. The best. Illya was certain that she was incapable of doing anything for which she could be ashamed.

"Please, Rachel. Don't be upset. What can I do to help? Please let me help...You know that I love you. David, Hutch, Napoleon...We all love you. You must let us help you." His eyes were brimming with tears.

"Oh. Illya..." Rachel leaned into the Russian's embrace and began sobbing.

"H'lo?" Starsky croaked into the telephone receiver as Hutch tried to focus on the bedside clock. He remembered there was a time when 1:00 a.m. didn't seem like the middle of the night. That was a few years ago, Hutch guessed, as his partner absently stroked his arm eliciting a purr.

"Starsky, it's Illya. I'm sorry to be calling so late..."

"Illya, what's wrong? Is Napoleon okay?" Starsky was wide awake now, and Hutch was fully roused as well, sharing the receiver with his partner.

"Napoleon is fine, and before you ask, your mother is fine as well...But it seems..."

"Oh God! Nick! What's happened? He in jail?" Please let him just be in jail. Starsky and Hutch shared the same thought.

"No, he's not in jail. But your mother thinks he may have gotten involved in something that he shouldn't have..." Illya seemed uncomfortable with casting possible aspersions on a member of his friend's family.

"It's okay, Illya. You don't have to sugar-coat it. Nick's thrown in with some bad guys before, we know the score. How deep is he in this time?" Starsky leaned harder into Hutch's shoulder as if to absorb some of his partner's strength.

Hutch was happy to be able to offer the support. Fuckin' Nick! Hutch seethed. Just when Starsky was getting a chance to maybe, possibly, take it a little easy. Fuckin' Nick has to find a way to screw things up. Swear-to-God, if he wasn't Starsky's brother...

"...Hey, Hutch?" Starsky said, in such a way that it made Hutch realize he'd probably been saying it for a while. Restless after the Illya's call, they had moved to the living room.

"Hmm?...Yeah...what Babe?" That sounded lame, he thought to himself. Try to keep up, Hutchinson.

Starsky just shook his head and gave a mirthless chuckle. "S'aw'right, Babe. I know how you feel about Nick. Believe me, if he wasn't my own brother I don't think I'd cross the street to spit on him if he was on fire."

"You know that's scary, the way you do that." Hutch said, feeling guilty about his uncharitable thoughts regarding Nick.

"Do what?" Starsky smiled weakly.

"Get in my head. Know exactly what I'm thinking. I'm glad you only use your powers for good, not evil." Hutch tried to grin.

"Well, we only got room for one evil brother in the Starsky clan, and it looks like Nicky's doing his best to keep a lock on the title." Starsky said, sounding tired. "Worst part of all, is he gets Ma worked up by dragging her into his little messes."

"So you think that's what this is? More of the same penny ante crap, televisions falling off the backs of trucks again? Look, we've handled that before, we'll straighten him out..." He saw, by the look in Starsky's eyes, that there was more to it.

"From what Ma told Illya, it sounds worse this time. Way worse. She knows his usual crap Hutch, and even she's got a bad feeling, so I'm inclined to believe her. Don't wanna'...but I gotta'. Ya' know?" He had crossed his arms tightly, and was hugging himself now, and Hutch went to him and wrapped his arms around him. They stood there, wrapped up in each other, in the living room, for several minutes. Hutch, rocking his partner and petting his hair. Comforting him, as best he could.

"Yeah, I know. Tell you what. We'll prepare for the worst, but we'll hope for the best, huh? How soon are we gonna' go out to help your Mom?"

"I think it's gonna' have to be right away. I bet Ma's not getting any sleep, that can't be good for her, at her age. I'll just go in tomorrow and arrange for someone to take over my classes at the Academy, then I'll book us on the next flight to...Aww, Hutch!" He said, suddenly.

"What, babe?"

"You can't leave. You've got the Richardson trial going on, and you still haff-ta' testify..."

Hutch had almost forgotten. While it was true, he and Starsky weren't working the streets on cases like they used to, Hutch was often called as an expert to testify in a particular trial. Such was the case this week.

"That's right. I'm due to testify in a couple of days. But I don't think you want to wait that long to see your Mom. I'm really sorry Starsk. I'll get there as soon as I can..." Hutch felt like he was letting his partner down.

"Hey. Listen. Don't beat yourself up about it, Hutch. It means to the world to me that you even want to get involved. I'm not sure taking on my kid brother's crap was what you signed on for when we got together." Starsky said, as if in apology.

"Hey. Now you listen." It was time for the patented Hutchinson-index-finger-of-emphasis "I would walk through fire for you...You are the most important person in my life. Period. I love you Gordo! I love your Mom and...well, I can't say I love your brother, but he's your family which means he's my family. So I guess I've got myself a screwed up little brother too. You bet I want to be there with you and for you. Just try to keep me away."

"Geeze, talk about your soapy scenes..." Starsky smiled at his partner.

"Well, sorry about that..."

"Nah, don't be. Means a lot, you sayin' that. 'Specially tonight. I s'pose you know I feel the same way. I'd be there for you through anything."

"You already have been, buddy. Hey, it's not like spending time with my folks could've been fun for you. Coupla' uptight WASPs. Until you met them, you thought my memories of the cold in Minnesota, only had to do with the weather." At the mention, both Starsky and Hutch shook their bodies, as if to shiver.

"Love your sister though. She's terrific Hutch."

"Yeah, she's a good girl. She's crazy about you too. So, let's see...between us, we've got a great sister and one terrific Jewish Mother..."

"The best." Starsky interjected.

"Yep. So, that sounds like family enough for me. How 'bout you?" Hutch searched his partner's face for a response, and quickly added "And, we'll see what we can do about bringing Nick back into the fold, but we can't make that decision for him. He's an adult."

And, for some reason, they laughed at that.

"You're right. We've got great family...plus, we got Huggy, and the Dobeys, and Illya and Napoleon. 'Sides, that's not even counting the best part." he shrugged.

"What's the best part, babe?" Hutch knew the answer, but thought it might do them both good to have the words spoken aloud.

"Me and Thee." and Starsky put all his strength into hugging his partner, before relaxing a little, without making a move to release him.

"Forever, Starsk. Forever." Hutch was rubbing his hands in little circles on his partner's back. "Think you can go back to sleep?"

"Doubt it." Starsky sighed.

"Yeah, me neither. Let's see what's on the creature feature. I'll make some hot chocolate; you get the pillows and blankets and meet me on the couch." Hutch instructed.

As Hutch added the marshmallows to his partner's mug of hot chocolate, he heard Starsky call to him from the living room.

"Hutch. Hey, Hutch! We're in luck, Salem's Lot just started. Man, I love this movie." Starsky enthused.

"C'mon Starsk, you must have seen that thing at least three times. You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think you had a thing for that leading actor." he teased his partner, glad for the excuse to lighten the mood.

"Well, I admit, he's kinda' my type..."

"Type? You have a 'type' now?...Since when?" He handed Starsky his cocoa, snuggled up close to him on the couch and added "Should I be worried about you leaving me for some empty-headed blond actor?"

"Not a chance, Blondie. You're stuck with me. 'Sides, who else would give me all the marshmallows for my cocoa? Must be love."

"Well, it's not that big a sacrifice, since you know I don't really like marshmallows."

"See what I mean? It's fate. You don't mess with fate Hutch." Starsky's kiss confirmed the sincerity of his words. And Hutch had to admit, marshmallows didn't taste too bad when flavored with Starsky's tongue.

They made it through most of the feature before both were finally able do doze off in each other's arms. Hutch's second-to-last thought before he succumbed to sleep was that they would be sore as hell tomorrow after spending the night sharing the couch. His very last thought was: he didn't care, 'cause he felt damn good where he was. Damn good.

Starsky decided to put off seeing his mother until he had a chance to talk to Solo and Illya, at UNCLE headquarters, to get a better idea of what Nick was up to. Illya met him in front of Del Floria's and brought him in through the entrance of the tailor shop. Not something UNCLE allowed for the general public, but Starsky and his partner had earned special status and privileges as a result of their contributions in putting away James Gunther.

As Solo had predicted at the time, removing Gunther had effectively crippled a large part of THRUSH's operations. And beyond that, there seemed to have been a sort of domino effect, with many parts of the organization acting without guidance, and vying for dominance. It was a mess. Instead of killing innocents and UNCLE agents, THRUSHIES were bent on wiping each other out, until there wasn't much of an organization to claim control of. By then, the remaining, most corrupt (and most cunning) members had disassociated themselves from THRUSH, rather than be dragged down with it.

THRUSH was, essentially, dissolved.

It took a long time for The UNCLE to accept that. In a way, it had been nice to have such a defined enemy. It was a new war now. Not that Solo or Illya had ever romanticized it, maybe it hadn't been an easier war then, but it was somehow clearer cut when their enemies all tended to dress the part (sometimes down to matching suits and bowler hats), and their methods (it not their motives) were a little more elegant. If you didn't count the kidnappings and torture...Illya would usually add, when Napoleon started to wax nostalgic.

No, nothing glamorous in that.

So, it wasn't easier back then. But Napoleon was increasingly aware that the enemy had changed, both in method and motivation. It was hard to say just where the difference lay. Evil was still evil, to be sure. Napoleon wondered if there was such a thing as 'degrees' of evil. If so, he thought today's practitioners were especially adept. But then, he supposed, every generation thought that.

So, he resolved to continue to fight the good fight, and do his part to save the world. With Illya as his support, he knew the world stood a good chance of winning.

Lisa Rogers was happy to see Dave Starsky again at UNCLE headquarters. As always, he made her blush when he called her "Schweet-hart". She presented him with his visitors badge (they were on lanyards now rather than pins, a change that saved a lot of wear and tear on the collars and lapels of UNCLE agents) and announced him and Illya to Napoleon while disengaging the security field.

Solo turned from the window where he was standing to greet the men.

"Napoleon." Starsky smiled "It's great to see you. Sorry, it had to be because of something like this..."

"Dave, I'm glad to see you under any circumstance. Isn't Hutch with you?"

"Not yet. He's testifying in a trial back in Bay City. Thinks he should be able to get here by the weekend. If this thing turns out to take that long..." Starsky said, indicating that he was still in the dark as to the extent Nick's activities.

"About that..." Solo began "we assumed you wouldn't mind if we went ahead and did a little digging..."

"I was counting on it." Starsky confirmed.

"So, we asked Mark and April to tail your brother and see where he led them. Again, I hope you don't mind, Illya and I aren't in the position to put ourselves in the field anymore. Mark and April are more effective than we could be at this point in our careers."

If Napoleon was concerned about his friend's reaction, he needn't have been.

"Thanks, Napoleon. Of course I don't mind. I trust your judgment. From what I remember from the few times we met, Slate and Dancer are top notch agents. I feel bad to be exploiting UNCLE's resources on something like this, though. We can just as easily ask the local PD to help us out. I wouldn't want to take advantage of our friendship..."

"Nonsense. This is as legitimate a use of UNCLE resources as any. And I am the one in the position to judge that." He said firmly.

"As you can see, Starsky, Napoleon's recent promotion has gone a long way toward helping him overcome his timid nature and inferiority complex." Illya's sarcasm was good natured, rather than scathing.

"And you're still a smart-ass Russian, I see." Starsky said with equal humor.

They were interrupted by the familiar signal, indicating the initiation of Communications Channel D. Solo clicked the receiver and mic at his desk.

"Solo, here."

"Afternoon Boss" April's voice came over the airwaves, "We've got some information regarding Nicholas Starsky. We were wondering if Illya was at home to receive it, or if we should bring it to you at headquarters."

"Detective Starsky is here with us now, why don't you stop by the office..."

"Actually, the flight is sorta' catchin' up with me, jet lag.... got maybe two hours of sleep last night... I could stand a shower, not really fit to be seen in public at this point...and I should probably check in with my Ma..." Starsky's voice trailed off.

Illya spoke up, understanding that his friend was exhausted and was in no way ready to deal with potentially crucial information in his current state.

"Why don't you send April or Mark over to our place in a couple of hours? That will give Dave some time to rest" he suggested.

Solo nodded and went back to his microphone. "Agent Dancer, you can stop by my office to fill me in and we can bring Illya and Starsky up to speed this evening."

"See you soon, then. Dancer, out."

"God. I feel wiped out. How can just sitting on my ass on an airplane all morning make me feel that way?" Starsky did feel a little better after a shower and taking the time to shave, which he hadn't that morning.

"I think your fatigue may be due to factors other than merely physical ones." Illya said carefully. He continued "I'm very glad you were able to come so quickly, I was so worried about Rachel. I hope you don't think I was overstepping by involving myself in a private family matter." Illya didn't have much experience with family dynamics to draw on, so his concerns were understandable.

"Illya, I'm sorry I haven't said this already, but 'Thank you.' Thank you for being so nice to Ma, and taking care of her like you do. It means so much to her—and to me and Hutch—that you look out for her. You know she loves you like a son." Starsky wasn't sure Illya was aware of that, but sensed it would mean a lot to him.

Illya blushed a little. "Thank you for saying that. I have come to think of her as my mother as well. I wasn't sure that would be okay with you. Or with her. You know I never knew my mother, and my father was killed when I was still very young...there was really no one who took any interest in me until I attracted the eye of The UNCLE."

"Well, as nice as it is to have a concerned uncle, it's nothing like having a mother's love, is it?"

"Definitely not the same, no." Illya smiled shyly.

"I'm happy to share, Illya. Just as long as you remember who her favorite is." Starsky raised his chin a little, as though to challenge, and grinned.

"I can do that." the Russian replied, still smiling.

"So, how did the subject of Nick come up, exactly, with Ma?" Starsky was ready, now, to process the information.

Illya told him of seeing the high-priced electronics, still in their boxes, and how it had confused him. And of Rachel, only reluctantly, sharing that Nick had given them to her. But she knew his job on the docks didn't provide the kind of income that would allow him to make such extravagant purchases (apparently, there were other items he had tried to insist on giving her). When she tried to ask him about it, he became cold and distant at first, and later downright hostile (though Rachel didn't use that word, Illya thought it appropriate based on what she shared of the conversation).

So, her inner sense told her that these items were ill-gotten in some way or another, and she couldn't bring herself to use any of them.

"This is the same woman who has proudly shown off to me everything you have ever given her. From the macaroni art pictures from the first grade, to the cut glass vase you gave her for her last birthday. But she was ashamed to have anyone see these things from Nick. It breaks my heart Dave." Illya's voice was choked with emotion.

"Me too, Illya. She deserves better than Nick...But, you know. He's been in involved in moving stolen property before. If that's what this is about, it's not something that can't be straightened out..." Starsky stopped talking, seeing the look on Illya's face. Oh crap. So it's not just that, after all, he thought.

"There's more?" He asked.

"It would seem so. Rachel says he has been acting differently, besides just his evasiveness about his financial situation I mean. Now I don't know Nick, except from what you and Hutch and your Mother have shared with me, but his behavior sounds erratic-even for him."

Oh boy... thought Starsky, bracing himself.

"That's why we're hoping Mark and April might be able to shed some light on things. Maybe they'll have some answers for us." Illya said hopefully.

"Well, I don't doubt they'll be able to offer some more details of his activities, I don't expect them, or anybody, outside of Nick himself, to be able to give us answers as to why he does what he does." Starsky said shaking his head.

There was a knock at the door. Illya checked the security monitor, saw Mark Slate standing outside the penthouse entry, and opened the door to greet him.

"Hello Detective Starsky. Good to see ya' mate!" Mark's pleasant baritone filled the room.

"You too Mark. But, remember it's just Starsky, Okay?"

"Sure thing Guv. Where's the other half of the team?" he inquired.

"I guessing you mean Hutch, 'cause you know Illya's other half is back at headquarters. He's in Bay City testifying in a case for the next couple days." Starsky tried to sound brighter than he felt, but there was a little stab of pain at being reminded of his partner's absence.

Geeze, Starsky! He reprimanded himself Get a grip! It's not like you haven't gone a couple of days without him before...

"Bit of bad timing there, ay?" commented Slate "But I imagine he'll be here soon after that, then?"

"That's the plan. So, what did you guys find out about Nick?" And he steeled himself now.

"Well, he's definitely not working in that warehouse like he told you Mum. Seems to have started spending quite a bit of time among some characters whose reputations are less then stellar, I'm afraid." Mark seemed a little reticent about proceeding.

"Names." It was a command more that a question. Starsky didn't mean to sound rude, but he had to know who they were dealing with.

Mark looked briefly to Illya, as if asking for help or permission.

"Oh, for God's sake, Mark! Give him the names." Illya, it seemed, had reverted to the surly Russian, of days past.

Mark produced a manila envelope of surveillance photos and handed it to Starsky. There were a number of photos of Nick engaged in conversation with some heavy hitters from well know crime families. And there was one, in particular, that caught Starsky's attention.

"Is that...?"

"Vic Monte." Illya confirmed.

Starsky's hand unconsciously went to his left shoulder, where he had been shot by one of the hit men hired to take out Monte several years ago. He and Hutch had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and found themselves held hostage as the assassins waited to get their shot at the West Coast Crime Boss. Starsky tried to shield a waitress from getting caught in the crossfire, and took a bullet to the shoulder. Hutch did his best to tend to his partner's wounds, while trying to get them out of the whole situation in one piece.

With an old gun lifted from a cash drawer, and a hastily cobbled-together plan...and sheer determination, Hutch had succeeded too. His main motivation being saving the life of his partner as well as the rest of the hostages: in that order. The fact that, due to the resulting gunfire, Vic Monte had been alerted to the presence of the hit men, and had thus avoided assassination, was merely a fluke.

Starsky remembered hearing that Monte left California after the attempted hit, but lost track of him after that. Didn't really concern him after all. His corner of the world was a little cleaner, for not having Vic Monte in it.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, he saw another face, in one of the photos, that he thought he recognized. But it wasn't possible. That man was dead. Starsky had shot him in the alley, before the goon had a chance to take out his partner. But there he was. Those same crazy-ass eyes. It was Monk. What the fuck was going on here?

Illya had taken a keen interest in the same photo.

"Janus" he said, quietly.

"Who, did you say?" Starsky wondered if he was imagining things.

"Right you are, mate. We confirmed it with Napoleon. That bloke is none other than the former UNCLE operative who went by the name of Janus. Went off the grid following a mission in South America last year. Left his partner swinging in the wind at the time. We hadn't been able to place him until now. There had been speculation that he had joined forces with some drug smuggling operations down there. Very lucrative business, Drugs. Nasty, but lucrative just the same. Can be a temptation to someone with no moral compass, I suppose." Mark kept talking, as if hoping to fill the silence that had permeated the room.

Illya, saw that Starsky was puzzling over something important, and decided he might feel more comfortable sharing his thoughts privately. He began to effectively dismiss the other agent.

"Mark, thank you. And extend our thanks to April as well. We'll let you know when we need more help as we decide how to proceed with this affair."

Never slow on the uptake, Mark started to excuse himself.

"Wait a second...Mark?" Starsky took a minute to decide what, exactly, he was going to ask the agent to do.

"Yeah, Guv?"

"There's something I'd like you to check out for me, if it's okay with Napoleon, of course."

"Napoleon has instructed me that April and I are to be at your 'complete disposal', to quote the man directly" Slate said with a wry grin.

"Great. Well, this Janus guy. He looks an awful lot like somebody that crossed paths with Hutch and me, in Bay City, some years back..."

"You think it's the same fellow?" Mark seemed intrigued.

"No. Can't be. I shot the guy. Dead. He was some hired muscle that used to work for Ben Forest. Went by the name of Monk. Illya, UNCLE can still access mine and Hutch's old case files right?"

"Of course"

"Mark, if you could get your hands of the file dealing with Ben Forest's kidnapping of my partner, you'll find all the information we got on Monk. Could you see if there's any connection with Janus? I'm telling you, it's no coincidence they look that much alike."

Happy to have the new assignment, Mark eagerly headed out, back to UNCLE headquarters.

It was all too much. Starsky needed to lie down; the day's events (which had really begun the previous night, with Illya's phone call) were overwhelming him. And he had to get himself together before he could even think about talking to his mother.

Illya, sensitive to his friend's distress, suggested he get some rest before dinner. He was expecting Napoleon home in a couple of hours, and had promised they'd wake Starsky then.

So now, here he was trying to shut down his mind so he could sleep. But too many memories had been stirred. Ghosts, that should have, long ago, been put to rest. The images were relentless.

Images of his partner and himself from their days in the action, on the streets. Images of Hutch. Hutch refusing anyone's help as he carried his injured partner to the back office of that restaurant, to try to minister to his wounds. To save him. His White Knight. Willing to face two professional assassins with nothing but a gun so old that it was as likely to blow up in his face as anything. But, he was determined to save his partner. And so he did.

And then the really painful images. The ones he never wanted to conjure. Hutch dazed and confused after being held by Monk and the rest of Forest's goons for days, and being forcibly injected with heroin. Strung out. Then detoxing. Cold turkey. Wild and out of control one minute: meek and contrite and just wanting to be held the next. Hutch, after intercepting a message from an informant, going off, still weak as a kitten, without back-up, to get information on the goons. Only to find it had been a set-up. Thankfully, Starsky got to alley as Hutch was making an escape from the thugs and was able to stop Monk from taking away from him, his best friend in the whole world.

The images kept re-playing in his mind...He missed Hutch. He wished his partner was here to help banish those images from his mind. He needed him.

Illya heard Napoleon's key in the lock. He finished setting the oven timer and crossed through the living room to meet his partner at the door. He was both surprised and relieved to see that Hutch was with him.

In hushed tones, Illya conveyed that Starsky was exhausted after the day's travel and other events, and was probably sleeping, by now, in the guest bedroom. It was the unofficial out of town residence for the Detectives when they visited from the West Coast.

"We weren't expecting you for another couple days, at least! Dave will be so glad! He's really taking this hard. It's so much to deal with." Illya said as he led Hutch to sit on the sofa.

"I was able to get the DA to change the order of testimony so that I was able to finish today. I caught the first flight I could. Didn't even stop at home to pack."

"I knew there was a reason we had you two agree to keep a week's worth of clothes here. One should always be prepared." Solo said with a wink.

"I didn't want to call Starsky until I was sure I'd make all my connections. So, here I am. Thanks again, Napoleon, for picking me up at the airport. How's my partner doing?" Hutch asked what he'd been wondering from the time he arrived.

"There are some things you should be aware of regarding Nick..." Illya began, and then he handed the pile of photos to Hutch.

Illya slid his arm around Napoleon's shoulders, and began a surreptitious message. He knew that his partner had seen the photos when April brought them to headquarters earlier. So Napoleon had seen Janus. And Vic Monte. But Illya wasn't sure he was aware of some of Starsky's additional revelations.

For now, the two agents watched as Hutch reviewed the photos for the first time. He groaned a little when he saw Monte. The agents had read the file on the events surrounding the aborted hit, and knew of that tie to the detectives' past. They were also aware of Starsky's resulting injury, so they understood Hutch's visceral reaction.

Then Hutch came across the photo that had most grabbed Starsky's attention.

He let the rest of the pile fall to the floor, as he seemed transfixed by the image of Janus. He swallowed hard, and squinted. Napoleon noticed his face had lost all color.

"It's not him." assured Illya.

"Whu-what do you mean?" Blinking rapidly, Hutch looked at Illya, then back to the photo, shaking his head.

"It's not Monk. Starsky had much the same reaction you did, when he saw the photo. That man's name is Janus. He was an operative for UNCLE until he went rogue last year. This is the first we've seen him since we lost track of him after his failed mission in South America. Your partner thought the resemblance too strong to be a mere coincidence so he asked Mark to see if he could find a more tangible connection."

"Hutch, when I left to pick you up, I saw Mark back at headquarters, and he mentioned something about pulling one of your old case files. This Monk character was involved in your kidnapping by Ben Forest's men?" Napoleon saw a shadow cross Hutch's features, as his jaw tightened.

"Yeah. Yeah, he was." Hutch's voice was almost a whisper. "Starsky shot him just as he was about to finish me off..."

Then it was as if something clicked in the detective, and his voice suddenly became commanding.

"Starsky's seen these?!" Hutch said as he rose and started toward the room where his partner was resting. All he could think about was how Starsky must be hurting. He stopped, and half turned to apologize for his rudeness, and was met by two understanding faces.

"Go to him, Hutch. We can talk tomorrow." Solo reassured him.

Hutch wasn't trying to be quiet as he entered the bedroom, but Starsky was so lost inside his head due to his conflicting emotions regarding his brother, and his association with these men — these men whom Starsky could only ever associate with horrible pain and trauma — that he never heard the soft footfalls of his partner as he approached.

And his aching need for Hutch was nearly that now. A physical ache.

He opened his eyes, and in the semi-darkness saw Hutch. My Hutch, he thought. His golden hair reflected the moonlight as it shown through the open blinds. And he looked every bit the Savior.

Starsky didn't question whether Hutch was really there. Because this is how it was with the two of them. Starsky needed him, and his partner came to him.

"Aww...Hutch!" Starsky pulled on his partner's arms until he fell across him on the bed and rolled them both over to the center of the big four-poster. They didn't talk for a long time. Content just be together and draw on each other's inner reserves, until they felt stronger for the communion of their souls.

"You saw the pictures?" Starsky's question finally broke the silence.

"Yeah, babe. I saw 'em." Hutch said, in a reassuring tone meant to convey that they were going to be okay. They'd get through this, like they did everything else: Together.

"Whadda' we gonna' do, Hutch?"

Starsky sounded so tired, thought his partner. It wasn't fair. Fuckin' Nick! Hutch's anger burned.

What he said, though, was: "We're gonna' get some sleep tonight. We'll figure the rest out tomorrow. Together."

And he kissed his true love, this perfect man, with a fierce tenderness, as if to underscore his words. After their lips parted he kissed each eyelid, and each ear. So gently. Stroking his hair and soothing him. Finally, he was rewarded with the soft snores of his exhausted partner.

His anger for Nick all but forgotten and replaced with the tenderness of the love he felt for Starsky.

"I'm here now, babe. I'm not going anywhere. We're gonna be okay. I promise."

And Hutch, too, surrendered to sleep.

Starsky wasn't all that surprised to see Illya as they rounded the corner to the kitchen at the same time the next morning.

"Hey." he greeted "I was gonna get the coffee started while Hutch finished his shower."

Illya was relieved to see Starsky looked more rested.

"No need. Let me demonstrate the results of my latest modification to our 'Mr. Coffee' machine." Illya fell easily and eagerly into professorial mode "You see. With just a slight adjustment to the timing mechanism, I am now able to pre-program it, the night before, to begin the brewing process, at the time of my choosing the next morning, so that the coffee is ready by the time we are dressed. Viola'!" He proudly presented a cup of the brew to a delighted Starsky.

"I'll be damned...that's terrific Illya! You know, it seems to me you should be able to find a way to make some money off these ideas of yours. Get a patent or something..."

"Oh, I don't think it's that cutting edge. It certainly isn't going to change the world." he laughed at the thought. "I just enjoy tinkering with things."

"And, as long as your 'tinkering' doesn't result in blowing up the kitchen, I am in full support of your activities." Solo proclaimed as he joined them at the table.

"Oh! But I so enjoy blowing things up!" Illya said wistfully.

"Yes tovarisch, I know" Napoleon said indulgently as he gave his partner a little pat on the shoulder.

By the time Hutch was showered and dressed, the table was loaded with an impressive morning repast; eggs, bacon, pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, juice and milk. The Detectives hadn't had much time or inclination to eat the day before, so they appreciatively dug into the entire meal with gusto.

Together, the four men went to UNCLE headquarters to meet with Mark and April, to see what more they had discovered on Nick's newest associates.

Mark caught up with them on the way to the map room where April was waiting to discuss theories and strategy.

"Dave, Ken! You guys get more handsome every time I see you!" she fawned, as she embraced each of them.

"Down, girl." admonished Solo, with some amusement.

"Yes. Well you can't blame me for noticing can you?" she sighed.

"We'd be disappointed if you didn't." Starsky admitted, getting a nod of agreement from his partner.

Mark felt it was as good a time as any to share what they'd found out in regard to Starsky's request the day before. He nodded to April and she dimmed the lights as he switched on the slide projector and advanced to the side by side images he was looking for.

Janus and Monk. Monk and Janus.

Napoleon and Illya hadn't seen Monk's image until now, but they could see why Janus' photo had such a profound effect on their friends.

"So...Brothers, then?" Solo guessed.

"Not just brothers. Twins." Mark supplied. He passed out copies of the dossier he'd compiled on the duos' background.

"Once upon a time," he began "Margaret Janus gave birth to twin boys. Allen: later know as Monk, to friend and foe alike. And Michael. Often, in such a tale, one son will be 'good' and the other 'bad'. In our little story however, it was more a case of on son being bad and the other being worse."

April joined her partner's commentary. "As you are, unfortunately, aware, fellas" She nodded to Starsky and Hutch as they looked at the dossiers "Monk found steady employment, of sorts, as the right hand man to Ben Forest. He of pimping and drug trafficking infamy. Monk thought himself deserving of the finer things money could buy, but didn't particularly like the idea of having to make an honest living to acquire them. He found the capital he could make through Ben Forest's activities could support him in the lifestyle to which he wished to become accustomed."

Mark clicked the projector to reveal another face on the screen. Starsky laid a comforting hand on Hutch's shoulder when his partner grimaced as the image of Jeanie Walton filled the screen. Poor ol' Blintz, thought Starsky, What was it with you and hookers anyway?

"Unfortunately, for him, Forest's obsession with one of his...'working girls' ended up being the end of him: professionally speaking. And it ended up being the end of Mr. Monk Janus: period. I guess you guys know that part of the story already."

Mark continued the narrative.

"As his brother rose through the ranks of Forest's organization, Michael Janus chose a similar career path with Vic Monte. Occasionally the brothers would even work the same contacts in their chosen industries, and were able to maintain a close familial connection. But when Monk was killed, it appeared that Michael left that life behind him. He went straight. Or so it seemed."

"He re-invented himself." April said, in seamless continuation of the tale "Seeming driven and dedicated to bringing down the same evil forces to which he and his brother had, previously, sworn allegiance. He applied to The UNCLE, completed his survival school training, and had just been assigned, on a trial-basis to field work. His Senior Partner was Jack Devlin"

On the screen Jack Devlin's proud image appeared in the standard-issue UNCLE suit and tie. In the dossiers, the photo taken of Devlin's body, taken at the scene of his death, had been stamped "Killed in the Service of The UNCLE"

Illya glanced at Napoleon and witnessed the type of steely gaze he once reserved for interrogating THRUSH operatives.

It was speculated that Jack Devlin's death, and the failure of that last mission with Janus, had been part of the reason for Waverly's finally resigning as Chief. The details of just what went so wrong on that mission were still not fully known. But one thing was certain. Janus was culpable. To what extent, it wasn't clear. Some speculated it was as simple as him being a wash-out in the field, not being able to handle the pressure of a real mission, as opposed to training exercises. But others believed (and Solo was among them), it was more than that. Janus had willfully betrayed The UNCLE and (worse, in Solo's estimation) his own partner.

Solo had secretly vowed to bring in Janus, and make him account for his actions.

The lights came up in the office, signaling the end of the briefing, and Napoleon did a quick rewind in his head.

"So, now we know Janus has been in contact with Vic Monte again..." Solo began, as in summation "Whether this is a recent development or it has been an ongoing association, it seems pretty obvious that his motives, at this point, are suspect to say the least." He suddenly realized he was speaking, as if briefing a gathering of low level UNCLE operatives.

"Jesus. I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm speaking to you all this way...Illya, why didn't you stop me?" he looked imploringly at his partner.

"Napoleon. It's all right. No one wants or expects you to be anything other than who you are." Illya assured him.

"Illya's right. You've probably got as clear a picture of this situation as anyone. Clearer, even. Especially now that you're aware of the connection between Monk and Janus." said Hutch.

Starsky added "In a situation like this, aside from my partner, there's no one I'd want more on my side, Napoleon."

"Well, we still haven't given you many answers in terms of Nick's involvement." Solo lamented.

"Well...there are a few other observations we made about your brother, Dave..." April seemed reticent.

"Don't feel like you have to hold anything back, okay April? I mean it. Hutch and me, we know Nick's no innocent."

"You're right about that, mate." Mark confirmed, though April shot him a look of disapproval.

"Well, your Mother mentioned to Illya about his erratic behavior..."

"And?" Hutch encouraged her to come clean.

"Last night, I approached him in a nightclub where he'd been spending a lot of time, to see if I could get a read on him."

"'Approached' how?" Starsky asked.

"Used what I had at my disposal" She looked at Solo for support "I have had my basic training, after all."

"You seduced him?" Illya sounded surprised. He'd never known Dancer to resort to such tactics.

"Of course, I knew I wouldn't go through with anything beyond a little flirting..." She said, sounding a little defensive

"Damn straight!" Interjected Mark

"I was never in any danger, Mark made sure of that. But it seemed the easiest way to get to know him."

"And what did you find out about Nick Starsky?" Solo asked

"Well, he's not shy, I can tell you that." She gave a little smile, and continued "Anyway, after we shared a couple of drinks- mine which Mark, posing as the bartender, made sure to make alcohol-free..."

"You're welcome, by the way..." Mark said good-naturedly

"Uh-huh, so after the drinks, Nick suggested I might like something a little stronger..."

"Grass?" Starsky suggested, almost hopefully...but he knew it wasn't just grass this time.

"Uhm...no...he had a vial of powder, which he claimed was cocaine, and said there was a lot more where that came from...he may have just been trying to impress me..."

"But, you don't think so, right?" asked Hutch

"Well, he went on in pretty great detail about the effects of the stuff. He was...enthusiastic, in his praises...I'm sorry, Dave." April seemed sincerely apologetic.

Starsky let out the sigh that he supposed he'd held for the past 36 hours or so.

"So. Do you think he was using or dealing...or both?" His gut was in knots. What was he gonna' tell his Ma?

Deciding that April had done her part, in being the bearer of bad news for now, Mark offered his observations.

"He looked like bloody hell, Dave. We had a copy of a photo from your Mum, where he looked pretty fit. Not unlike yourself, if you don't mind my saying. But he looks like he's aged 15 years easy. Dark circles under the eyes, looked like he'd slept in the clothes he was wearing. He was very fidgety too. Couldn't seem to sit still."

April just nodded in silent agreement of Marks assessment.

"And I was chatting with a couple of other blokes at the bar, who pretty much confirmed any suspicion we had about Nick being their local supplier. I am sorry, mate."

"Ya' know, Starsk, that still doesn't mean Nick's dealing. It's just hear-say, right? And you know Nick. He's all talk. But, what are the odds he'd have the guts to get involved with that kind of heavy action?" Hutch said, trying to find a silver lining.

"Nah, Hutch. I think April and Mark's information is right on the money. Nick aint brave, you're right about that. But he is stupid. And, God forgive him, he can be a greedy little bastard. I can see him doin' this all right." Starsky said, shaking his head. Turning to April and Mark he said, "Thanks guys. I know it can't have been easy having to break this to us. Just so you know, I really appreciate your help. Now I just gotta' figure out what to do next..."

"You mean we gotta' figure out what to do. Remember, Gordo, we had a deal. We handle this together." Hutch gave his partner's shoulders a firm squeeze.

"That's right. And I seem to recall you saying that, besides your own partner, you'd most trust me by your side in this type of situation...and, by extension, I'm assuming you meant Illya as well. Because, as you know, we're kind of a package deal." Solo's voice was calm and assured, and he somehow made everyone feel a little better.

"Starsky. I promised your mother that I would help. You know I cannot lie to Rachel." Illya said in all earnestness.

Starsky shook his head. "You guys are somethin' else. Well, I'm not too proud to admit I need the help. I'm open to suggestions...Starting with how I get to Nick, without alerting every Crime Boss in New York to my plans"

"Uhm..." April cleared her throat to signal she was about to contribute "One more thing...."

"Yes, April?" Solo's eyebrows rose with the question.

"Well, since I had taken the time to get so close to Nick, I figured I shouldn't squander the opportunity..."

"And?..." all the men in the room asked in unison.

"Illya had been working on this new tracking device, and had given me the prototype, just to try when I thought it might come in useful..."


"I thought, this might be the time. I attached it to Nick. Seeing as Mark and I weren't going to be tailing him for a while."

"That was brilliant, luv!" Mark crowed. Then, thinking a bit more, he asked "Just where did you 'attach' the device, exactly?"

"Oh, it was an ingenious little device. Really, Illya. It looks just like a dime. You did a marvelous job!"

"Well, thank you." He shrugged "I suppose the really ingenious thing will be if it performs like it's supposed to."

"So how did you 'attach' this faux- dime? Exactly?" Mark asked his partner.

It was April's turn to shrug, "You were observing us the entire time. You saw Nick was not shy about expressing his...uh...attraction to me. It was pretty easy to slip it into his pocket." she squirmed a little under Mark's scrutiny.

"So, what's to say he won't spend the dime, and then you're just out another one of your gizmos?" Starsky asked Illya.

"Well, in deciding on the shape of this particular 'gizmo', I did some research. It turns out that the dime is the least used of any of the denominations of American pocket change. No one knows why. Some theorize that it is due to its size and weight, being the smallest, lightest coin means it's less likely to be picked up than the others."

"So, what you're saying is, size does matter..." Solo murmured, and Illya smiled in spite of himself. So did the Bay City detectives.

"The US Mint has even considered stopping production of dimes...All of this research could be moot, if Nick does, in fact, spend the dime of course. In which case, we're merely, as you said, out another one of our gizmos."

"So, is there a way to check to see if it's working?" Hutch asked.

"Oh. Absolutely. If you'll follow me to the my lab..." Illya had already begun walking down the hallway.

"Illya, my friend, this really is amazing...and how does it work? In layman's terms, please." Solo knew his limitations, and Illya's more detailed scientific explanations could sometimes test them.

"Certainly. We are homing in on the device via a signal triangulated from at least three satellites which are transmitting the data to this handheld device, showing Nick's current location on a map. See?" He held out the display unit for the others to observe. "What makes this application so valuable is its portability. We are no longer stuck in an office of the back of a truck with cumbersome monitoring equipment. It should be great help to our agents in the field." Illya added, with some enthusiasm.

"Hey, look. The signal is moving. That means that Nick's moving again, right?"

"Yes, David. And based on his current trajectory I'd say this might be our best chance to confront him, privately." Illya surmised, after consulting the map.

Solo and Illya were driving with the detectives. It was apparent that Nick was heading to his apartment, and this was where they had decided they wanted to approach him.

They pulled in front of the brownstone within minutes of Nick's arrival. Starsky and his partner went in first, the UNCLE agents respecting their need for some private time with the kid.

"H'lo Nicky" Starsky's tone was flat, when his brother answered the door.

And, God, he thought he knew what to expect, based on what Mark and April had said. But this kid did not look like his brother. Any fleeting hope he may have had that Nick's involvement in the drug trade had only been on the periphery went out the window at the sight of him.

He looked like every junkie or pusher Starsky had ever popped on the streets.

"Davey! Hey, how's it hangin' man? Ma didn't tell me you were in town." He hadn't made a move to encourage his brother to enter his place and, whether intentional or not, he hadn't acknowledged Hutch at all.

Hutch didn't wait for an invitation and brushed past Nick with reserved indifference to enter the apartment.

"Yeah? When's the last time you talked to Rachel, Nick?" Hutch said bluntly.

"Geeze, I dunno'. I been pretty busy. That why you're here? Am I in the doghouse with Ma again? Whadda' I gotta' do to make that woman happy?" He whined. "Why can't she just leave me in peace?"

"You got me, Nick. Personally, I'd've washed my hands of you the last time we gave you 'one last chance' to go straight." Hutch answered.

"Oh that's rich! Gonna' talk to me about goin' straight now? After you turned my brother queer!"

Starsky tensed and looked like he was ready to drop Nick as he clenched his fist. Hutch stopped him, with a shake of his head. This wasn't the time for that fight. Realizing that his presence might only be serving to make Nick more adversarial, Hutch decided to make himself scarce.

"Starsk, if it's okay with you, I'm just gonna' head outside for some air." he waited until Starsky nodded his silent permission, then added "I won't be gone long" as a means of reassuring his partner, while at the same time, warning Nick.

As he started for the door, Starsky reached out his hand and cupped the back of Hutch's neck, drawing their foreheads close. Hutch responded with a familiar pat to his partner's abdomen. Small gestures that, over the years, had always brought them comfort when they needed it most.

Starsky watched as his partner walked out the door, leaving it ajar. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he turned around to face his brother, he saw Nick was already trying to dig himself out of the situation.

"I guess I shouldn'ta' said that..." he stammered.

"Ya' think? Jesus, Nick. We come out here to help Ma...to help you...and the first thing you do is try to insult us? Which, by the way...you're gonna have to try harder to do. 'Cause you pointin' out that Hutch and me love each other...well, aint exactly news. And it sure as hell don't insult us."

"Fine. Whatever. I was just tryin' to apologize..."

"No. You were trying to save your ass. Like always. You do something stupid and then try to weasel out of the consequences. It's gotta' stop Nick!" Starsky implored.

"Look. I didn't ask for your opinion on how I live my life. Turns out, I'm gettin' by just fine..."

"Oh, yeah. I can see that. You look terrific. Seen yourself in the mirror, lately? Used to be a time, you cared what you looked like. Used to be a time you cared about what your family thought of you, too..."

"Look, as touchin' as it is to know you care, man, it's a little too late and I don't wanna' hear it. Take your sanctimonious bullshit and get the hell out of my place! Tell Ma, she doesn't need to worry about me either. I won't bother her anymore, if I'm such a disappointment. I mean it. Get the hell out!" he yelled, as he crossed the room and gestured to the open door. "I got somewhere to be..."

"Where might that be?" Solo's voice sounded a bit menacing as he appeared, behind Nick, in the open doorway.

"Who the hell are you?" Nick spun back around to Starsky "Who the hell is he?"

"Excuse me. Where are my manners? Napoleon Solo." though he did not offer his hand, as he usually would, when introducing himself. "And this is my partner..."

"Illya Kuryakin" finished the Russian as he gave a curt nod, and followed Solo into Nick's apartment. Hutch had returned with the agents and went to take his place by his partner's side.

"Partner? Davey, you brought more cops? What the fuck, man?" Nicky was whining again.

"No" Napoleon gave a feral smile, having slipped into his Chief Enforcement Agent persona. "No, not cops. At least not the kind you're familiar with, young Nick. You'll find our reach extends somewhat beyond than that of local law enforcement. We're here as a courtesy, because of our friendship with your brother and Hutch." And, damn, if Solo's voice didn't just command Nick's attention. Frankly, it scared the shit out him.

"And out of respect for your Mother." Illya added, in a tone that matched his partner's.

"Illya...Hey, you're that little asshole my Ma' is always braggin' on. Goddamn! You bring her some cookies and have a little tea with her, and you'd think you hung the moon or something. What's your angle?" He said petulantly.

"My 'angle', is that I love Rachel, and don't want to see her hurt. I have no hidden agenda when it comes to my feelings for your mother. Not that I'd expect you to be able to understand that." Illya was trying hard to keep his anger under control.

"Well, like I told your buddy, my big brother, here: you don't have to worry about me hurting Ma any more. I'm done with her and the rest of the family. That should come as a big relief to all of 'em." He said, sounding wounded.

And there it was. Hutch knew it was just a matter of time before Nick would default into his poor-me-I-grew-up-without-a-father routine of self pity. I guess that's my cue, he thought. Hutch began softly, but his volume continued to rise with his message.

"As hard as this may be for you to believe Nick, that will not come as a relief to your mother, you ungrateful prick! For some reason, that defies all logic, she thinks you're worth saving." He looked to the other men in the room, including his partner and continued "Of course she doesn't realize just how badly you've screwed up this time. But, she'd still insist we try to help you. Don't flatter yourself that we're making this effort for your sake..." he paused, adding "except, maybe your brother..."

"Nope. You're right Hutch. I'm doin' this for Ma. That's the only reason." he said firmly.

"You see, Nick..." Napoleon spoke his name as though it were a curse "This time, you seem to have taken up with some particularly nasty individuals. Perhaps you'd like to see some examples of their handiwork."

His arched eyebrows signaled to his partner to hand over the envelope he was carrying.

More surveillance photos. As well as others, taken at various murder scenes. Gruesome images to even the most jaded observer. Napoleon waited until Nick had a chance to see all to pictures. Rushing him would have lessened the impact. After he felt enough time had passed, Napoleon took the photos and began looking through them, as if at random. Stopping, when he came the first one he was looking for, and commenting.

"Oh. This was interesting...Nick, perhaps you knew this fellow. No? Well, I suppose it might be hard to tell, based on what's left of his face. He was also one of Vic Monte's associates. Much like yourself, he ran one of the local arms of his drug distribution operation..."

Nick looked sick. Like he might, actually, collapse.

"Unfortunately, this gentleman fancied himself a bit of an entrepreneur. You see, he thought he could parlay his association with Monte's contacts into a profitable side business for himself. Apparently, Vic Monte doesn't really encourage that kind of initiative..." Napoleon made a tsk-ing sound. And Nick swallowed. Hard.

"Was there something you wanted to say, Nick?" Solo's silky voice did not disguise his contempt for the younger Starsky. When Nick didn't answer, Solo went back to the photos and pulled out another one. The image was of a man, dressed in camouflage, his bullet-ridden corpse having fallen in a particularly grotesque manner along a river bank, in a remote jungle setting. It was Jack Devlin.

"This man's story is quite different." Solo said with some reverence. "He died a hero. Though, he will never receive public recognition for his heroism. He died while trying to do his part to save the world. He's dead because of the actions of this man..." Solo produced a surveillance photo of Janus, and Nick flinched.

"Yes. I thought you might recognize him. He's rather well known in Monte's circle, isn't he? Very powerful, no doubt. I'm guessing his right-hand man. His enforcer. You realize that means he's the one responsible for carrying out any...er...'clean-up' operations. Like, say, the one where your counterpart there" said as he tapped the first photo of the dead dealer "was eliminated."

Solo paused again, allowing time for the information to sink in.

"I'm sure that won't happen to you though, Nick. You'd never do anything that would cause Monte to question your loyalties, would you?"

If it were possible for a human to actually turn green, then that's what Nick did. His knees gave out, and Solo was close enough that he merely had to reach out to catch him under the shoulders to keep him from falling. Napoleon deposited Nick, quite unceremoniously, on the sofa and sat down, himself, on the low coffee table across from him.

"Oh. That's right. You said you had somewhere to be. Well, we shouldn't stop you then. I'm sure we've taken up enough of your valuable time. Shall we go, gentleman?" He rose to join the rest of the men.

"Hey, wait!..." Nick pleaded.

This is going to be easier than I thought. Solo mused. It had been awhile since he'd participated in one of these types of interrogations. Of course, he supposed he couldn't blame the kid for buckling under the pressure so easily. After all, he wasn't a THRUSH operative, or some trained mercenary. He was just a drug-addicted weasel.

"Yes, Nick?" Solo turned to him with the question.

Looking to his brother, hoping to find a more sympathetic ear, Nick began to beg.

"Davey. You gotta' help me, man. I didn't know. I mean, Monte's always been pretty nice to me..."

"He's connected Nick. You knew that much. Mob guys aint 'nice', and you know that too." Starsky's distaste for Nick's lifestyle was palpable. "You throwin' in with him and his kind is a slap in the face of everything our pop lived for...and was killed for."

And, as unlikely as it seemed, it was Hutch who fell into the role of good-cop, in this scene.

"Nick, if you agree to help us, Napoleon and his organization can offer you protection..."

"Like you and Davey offered to Joe Durniak?" Nick's question stung both detectives, but Hutch refused to rise to the bait.

"No." he said ruefully, "Not like that. We were bound by an agreement with the Feds then, and our actions were dictated by them. Our hands were tied. Joey accepted the risk, at the time. He was willing to go along because, in his own way, he was trying to make amends." Hutch, though, had no such illusions about Nick. He knew the kid's only concern right now was saving his own ass. As usual.

Solo started to lay out the terms of what they would be asking from Nick.

"As I said before, we're not the kind of law enforcement you're used to dealing with, Nick." Again, saying the name as though it left a bitter taste in his mouth. "The UNCLE organization operates with a certain...'impunity' when it comes to our decision making. We are not bound by the same conventions as other agencies."

"So, what do you want from me? And, what do I get in return?" Nick failed to sound as tough as he'd hoped.

"Very well. Let's state our terms, then, shall we? It's pretty simple Nick. Just your basic sting, really. You'll be monitored the next time you meet with Monte to arrange for the distribution of those drugs for which you seem to have developed such an affinity..."

"You callin' me a junkie?" Nick challenged.

"He's just callin 'em like he sees 'em, Nick." Starsky said in a disappointed tone.

"I don't need to stay here and be insulted..."

"No." Solo's voice was dead calm. "No, of course you don't Nick. Maybe this was a bad idea. Would you like us to leave? So you can get to your important appointment?" Solo asked "Oh...One more thing, we forgot to mention earlier. How this slipped my mind, I can't imagine. This fellow: Janus? Monte's enforcer?" Solo absently picked up the photo they'd looked at earlier. "It seems he's acquainted with your brother's work in Bay City. Such a small world." Solo shook his head "He hadn't had occasion to meet Detective Starsky personally, you understand. But he is, no doubt, aware that your brother killed his brother. Tell me Nick, is true what they say about revenge killings, in the underworld of the Mafia? Are they still seen as honorable? I've always been intrigued by that..."

"Aww, no Davey! Whaddid ya' do?" Nick howled.

Hutch unloaded on him, then. "What did HE do? What the hell are you whining about you piece of shit!? HE got another piece of scum off the street. HE did his job to protect and serve the public. HE saved my life! He didn't know that you'd end up getting involved with this punk's scum-brother..."

"Wouldn'ta mattered. I'd've done it anyway." Starsky affirmed.

"It doesn't really matter how it happened now, does it Nick? Blood's been spilled. Family blood." Solo paused for emphasis "And YOU made the bad decision to put yourself in Janus' orbit. Make no mistake. You, alone, are responsible for putting yourself in this position. My understanding is there's a certain code, however loose, that says those in the Mafia don't involve family members of their enemies in their vendettas- as long as those family members are innocents. Once you decided to go into...er...'business' with Monte and his associates, you were subject to any and all of the repercussions."

"You expect me to go in there, tryin' to entrap these guys, knowin' Janus knows this about Davey? What am I, stupid?"

Solo tried to suppress his smile.

"I would never offend you by calling you stupid. Now that you know the full story, I suppose you could decide to handle this on your own. How would you do that, I wonder. I guess you could just try to go into hiding. An enchanting fellow such as yourself shouldn't have much trouble finding people willing to risk their lives to help you out..."

"Maybe I could." he bluffed.

Illya spoke for the first time since his partner's negotiations with Nick had begun. "Just so we're clear on one more thing. You will NOT, under any circumstances, try to involve your mother in this. It would put her at great risk. That is unacceptable."

"Who the hell are you to tell me whether I can talk to my own mother?!" Nick fired back at the Russian. He felt safer challenging the Illya, because he'd yet to hear him say much of anything. It was a bad assumption, on his part.

"I am the one who will hunt you down, myself, and see to it that you never bother anyone, again."

And that was clear enough.

"Seems like it's your call, Nick." Hutch said, as if there was any choice in the matter.

"So, let's say I agree to do this. What's in it for me? What are you gonna' do, kill Monte's whole crew?" he asked, rather hopefully.

"Well now, we can't agree to those terms. Our intent would be that Monte, Janus and as many of their associates as possible be brought to justice. Whether there are any casualties remains to be seen. I suppose it would probably depend on their willingness to cooperate." Solo said reasonably.

"Sure. Fine, I get how you work. So how can you guarantee one of Monte's cronies won't come after me and take me out?"

"I'm not going to lie to you Nick. I haven't done that so far, and I won't start now. There are no guaranties here. But, I can assure you we will do everything in our power to see that you are able to live your life without having to look over your shoulder for fear of any of Monte's associates gunning for you. We have extensive intelligence resources available to us, that would enable us to see to your safety. With just a couple of concessions on your part." This would be the crux of the deal.

"Lay it on me." Nick seemed ready to accept anything at this point.

"We will arrange for you to, essentially, disappear from your old life. We'll give you clean slate; provide you with a new identity and the tools to function as a good, productive citizen in whatever community you find yourself living..."

"What's to stop me from contacting people from my old life, or the keep them from finding me?"

"You ask a good question there, Nick. This is where our arrangement differs from the government relocation programs you're probably more familiar with. The reason those programs fail, when they do, is not due to outside forces seeking and finding the individuals that have gone into hiding. Truth be told, by the time they've done whatever damage they're going to do, they have either disabled the forces that may be against them or they lose any value and are not worth the pursuit. No. The reason those programs fail is that the participants don't play by the rules, and they either seek out old contacts or embark on new criminal enterprises."

"I ask again: What makes you think I won't do that?"

"Well, not that I wouldn't like to be able to trust you judgment, Nick. But to ensure success, The UNCLE likes employ what some may see as rather unorthodox insurance practices, in cases such as yours."

"'Unorthodox', how?..." Nick challenged.

Napoleon's assuredness faltered for the first time in the conversation. His partner knew what was coming, but the detectives didn't know about this next bit, and his concern was for Dave's reaction.

"We can give you a chemical compound that, essentially, erases your memory. As I said: A clean slate."

The silence was deafening.

"Would it be dangerous?" Starsky asked, trying to wrap his mind around the idea. He thought about Terry Nash, the poor bastard they'd once helped, who'd undergone brainwashing at the hands of some syndicate operatives. "What about side effects?"

"Davey, you can't be wantin' to go along with this. This is crazy..." Nick protested.

"As I said, it's really for your own protection, Nick. And I can tell you, Dave, it's been used often enough that we have data supporting that it's entirely safe, with no noted side effects. I can understand your concern. Really I can. You probably want some time to discuss this more privately..." he said in all sincerity.

"Are the effects permanent?" Hutch was concerned as well, but more for his partner than Nick.

"They have been in all previous cases." confirmed Illya.

"But I'd be stupid, right? I mean how can it erase all my memories and not make me stupid?"

Hutch would have laughed at the irony of Nick's question, were the situation not so dire.

"It's hard to explain in laymen's terms" Illya tried to reassure him "but the compound has been formulated to target only those areas of the brain having to do with the memory centers that react to various emotional stimuli. It leaves your intellectual functions in tact. In fact you may find you are able to process information more easily once so much of the old emotional component is erased."

"That supposed to make me feel better?" Nick asked.

"Perhaps not. But it's the truth. You should have as much information as possible before you agree to the procedure." Illya said, somewhat sympathetically.

"What all's involved in this 'procedure'?" Starsky asked, still a bit skeptical.

"Nothing invasive, I assure you." Napoleon continued the explanation "It's a simple as swallowing a capsule, and remaining under observation by our medical team for 48 hours to monitor the initial effects of the drug. After that we assign one or two UNCLE personnel to help you assimilate to whatever environment has been pre-selected."

"Pre-selected by who?" Nick wanted to know.

"Well, if you cooperate with us by bringing in Monte and Janus, that's entirely up to you. Within certain parameters, of course. But I believe you'll be more than satisfied with the choices you're given." Solo was happy to be able to introduce one of the more positive aspects of the plan.

"These other cases you mentioned, how closely have you kept track of them. What kind of data do you have on the quality of their lives after they have the procedure?" Hutch was trying to ask the questions he thought his partner might be having. He had also remembered Terry Nash, and felt a little guilty that they hadn't kept in touch with the man. He resolved to try to look him up when they got back to Bay City.

"I don't have the statistical analysis with me, but I can get it for you. I can tell you the anecdotal evidence is such that, almost without exception, the individuals in this program are much the happier for it. They have gone on to live fulfilled lives with friends and family that they've made in their new surroundings." Again, Solo felt good about being able to offer positive information.

"What about Ma?" Nick asked his brother. Though, he no longer seemed entirely averse the idea being proposed.

Illya offered, "As with more conventional government witness relocation programs, she'd be told that you wouldn't be able to contact her. Nor she you."

"Davey, that'll break her heart!"

"No, I don't think it will Nicky. Ma's been worried sick that something really bad was gonna' happen to you, for a long time. She'll be glad you're safe. She'd be willing to let you go for that to happen." And, that was the truth.

"Well, I suppose it's an offer I can't refuse then, isn't it?" Nick said sounding a little defeated.

"Of course, you're entitled to refuse, Nick. We are not the Mafia. You can make a choice here. In fact, you can still be a part of our program, even without agreeing to participate in the memory erase protocol. We'll still offer you a degree of protection that would surpass any offered by the Feds. But, for your own sake..."

"To make sure it really sticks, you think I should go for the whole enchilada." Nick sighed.

"You know what they say...In for a penny: in for a pound." said Illya encouragingly.

"Yeah, I never really got that...But, okay. I'm in. But you're gonna' have my back, goin' in with Monte and Janus, right Davey?"

"I'll have your back, Nick." Starsky confirmed.

"You too, Hutch? I mean, I know you never cared for me much...and I guess I can't blame you. I been pretty much an asshole to you..."

Nick sounded regretful, and Hutch took it to be as close as he was going to come to ever making an apology.

"If you want me, I'm there Nick." Hutch said, with no trace of judgment or animosity in his tone.

"Yeah, that'd make me feel a little better goin' in." he admitted.

"And, I know you have no reason to put the kind of trust in us that you do your brother and his partner, but I can assure you The UNCLE and I, personally, will take full responsibility in seeing that you come out of this unharmed."

"Well, if Davey trusts you..."

"I do, Nick. With my life."

"Then, that's good enough for me. Let's do this thing."

Within a few hours Starsky, Hutch, Illya and Solo were listening, from the back of a mobile monitoring unit, to Nick's activities regarding his latest drug transaction. As it turned out, Monte had planned to show up for this meeting personally. It seemed Nick was due for a bit of a promotion in the organization.

Solo had numerous UNCLE agents strategically placed to be able to assist in bringing in the Crime Kingpin. So they would be able to extract Nick, on short notice, when things got hot.

Nick did his part in letting Monte incriminate himself enough to ensure he could be legally prosecuted. He knew just when to shut up and let Monte do the talking, without saying things, himself, that might be construed as entrapment. Things couldn't have gone more smoothly...

And that, of course, is when things began to fall apart. UNCLE agents on the perimeter of the action noticed a vehicle headed to the warehouse where the transaction was taking place, and alerted Solo. He grabbed a pair of high powered field glasses and took a look.

Illya saw that steely gaze cross his partner's features and knew. It was Janus.

While not entirely unexpected, his showing up at this point in the transaction signaled trouble. It became apparent, from the dialogue between Nick and Monte, that the Crime Boss was not expecting Janus either. Monte, though not terribly concerned, was curious as to the reason for his associate's sudden appearance, and said as much.

"Well, Victor, I heard you decided to give Nick here some additional responsibilities with the organization, and I just wanted to see, for myself, if that was true..."

"This is trouble. We need to get him out of there. Now!" Hutch said decidedly.

"Agreed" Solo replied "All agents, move in. Remember to protect Nick Starsky at all cost. And I want Janus: Alive." he broadcast over the communications band, as he was already following the detectives and Illya to the warehouse.

As rescue and arrest operations went, this one came off fairly well. Monte knew when he was outnumbered, and accepted his defeat without much of a battle. Though, he vowed that he would never be prosecuted. After all, he reasoned, who could they get that would dare offer evidence against him? Apparently, he still hadn't gathered Nick's involvement in the sting.

Janus was happy to provide him damning incrimination against the brother of the man who had killed his brother. Monte seemed genuinely surprised at the thought that Nick had it in him to betray the organization, and him, personally.

To his credit, Nick didn't cower at the revelations. He seemed resigned to hold up his end of the bargain with The UNCLE, and play this through to its conclusion.

There was a brief moment when one of the younger agents restraining Janus got distracted, and Janus' survival school training kicked in as he grabbed the agent's weapon. In a flurry of activity, so fast it was hard to comprehend it all, Starsky and his partner moved, instinctively, in tandem; Hutch going high and Starsky low, to shield Nick. At the same time, Illya and Napoleon were on Janus. Illya disarming him with a well-placed kick to the hand holding the UNCLE special-issue pistol, and Solo, suddenly behind him, restraining his neck in such a way that he could just as easily have killed him.

The tension was thick, and everyone seemed to hold a collective breath. Illya knew that his partner held tremendous enmity for the traitorous former agent. And he also knew Napoleon had the capacity to kill a man. But not without provocation. Not when it wasn't necessary to the good of the mission or to save someone's life.

Still, Solo seemed focused on Janus to the extent that he appeared oblivious to anyone else in the warehouse.

Then, his partner spoke his name, softly. "Napoleon..."

It was enough to break the spell. Illya saw Napoleon come back to himself. And he knew that his partner's moment of crisis had passed.

From where he stood, behind Janus, Napoleon gave his partner a barely perceptible smile of reassurance. Then, in a voice more menacing than the detectives had ever heard him use, Solo, the Chief Enforcer, began to speak.

"Mister Janus." Solo's voice was barely above whisper, and his S's were especially sibilant, heightening his venomous tone. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you here today. The only thing that could make this meeting more satisfying, in my opinion, would be if you were to try to escape or endanger the life of someone here. Because then...then it would not only be within my authority, but it would be my obligation to kill you." Oh, yes. He was every bit the Chief Enforcer now.

Illya hated to admit it but, heaven help him, seeing Napoleon like this caused a small thrill of excitement in him. Seeing the way his partner held everyone in the place spellbound as he spoke...Oh, it was. It was thrilling.

Not surprisingly, Janus did not make any further attempt to escape or exact vengeance.

The UNCLE was able to arrange for Nick to record all his relevant testimony to be used in the prosecution of Vic Monte. Though, as it turned out it, it wasn't necessary. When faced with the prospect of being put on The UNCLE's most-wanted list, Monte decided it was better to accept his fate at the hands of Federal Prosecutors, and he pled guilty. There had long been rumors of how The UNCLE dealt with its enemies, and Monte didn't want to determine their veracity first-hand. He'd seen evidence enough back at the warehouse. Especially of Napoleon Solo's cold calculating efficiency. Besides, Monte figured his time on this earth was just about up, and he was tired. Why not sit the rest out in a 10 by 12 cell. Three hots and a cot, as they used to say.

When it came time for Nick to follow the memory erase protocol, he had made up his mind, and was determined to go through with it, as he had agreed. He decided to take advantage of an extra benefit offered through The UNCLE, wherein he was provided with vast quantities of knowledge in a field determined to make best use of his existing, remaining knowledge base during the first 36 hours after the erasure compound was introduced to his system. It had been determined that, during that time, the mind was particularly receptive to processing new information. This way he would be able to re-enter the world with a skill set that would allow, if not ensure, success.

Napoleon had not overstated the case when he said that Nick would be able to find a location to his liking. And, in his case, that location was on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He'd tried to make a joke of it with his brother, saying that he'd always wanted to see the islands.

Though, not strictly part of the protocol in these cases, Solo saw to it that Nick was given the next afternoon to say goodbye to his family. It was more out of concern for Starsky and Rachel, that he did it. But, he had to admit, bending the rules in this case felt right. And it made him feel a little more human.

For his part, Nick did not use the opportunity to get maudlin, or try to make anyone feel any worse about the situation than they already did. He had finally come to accept his culpability in the way things went down. And, was ultimately grateful for the clean slate he was being given.

He reassured his mother that this would be great opportunity for him, and she could rest easy knowing that he couldn't screw this up, as he said, "...even if I wanted to."

Nick had made a point of including Hutch as part of the family gathering that afternoon, figuring it would be his last opportunity to make amends with his brother's partner. He admitted that, while it had been hard for him to get past years of prejudice and social conditioning, when it came to accepting the partners' relationship, he could see that what they were committed to each other and what they shared was real. And he wanted his brother to be happy.

Dave then drove his brother to UNCLE headquarters, where they were met by Illya and Napoleon. They didn't talk about anything meaningful on the way. They hadn't really had a relationship, to speak of, for years. But they understood and respected the weight of the familial bond.

They said their goodbyes with a quick hug. Starsky giving Nick a smile and telling him, "Be good, Nicky. And be happy too."

"You too, bro. Take care of Ma'..." Then he put on a brave face and left with the team of staff doctors.

And that was that.

Illya found Napoleon sitting on the sofa in his study, in the semi darkness, with a tumbler of scotch. He seemed to be studying the amber liquid intently as he swirled it in the crystal highball glass.

"So that's the end of it..." he said, when he noticed his partner watching him. It was more of a question than a statement.

"Yes, Napoleon. It is." It seemed the safest answer, until Illya could figure out the question behind the question.

"I can't help feeling it's not enough..." he said quietly.

There were times that called for quips and flip remarks. This was not one of them.

"Napoleon, you extended yourself entirely beyond what most people would have for Nick. And you gave him the opportunity to better his life in ways he never could have imagined. In ways, that some would argue, he didn't deserve."

"I didn't do it for him, you know." he confessed.

"Of course not. Why would you? Napoleon. Nick was not a very nice person. He was a drug addicted, low level thug. I know your motives were to help Rachel and Dave. And you have done that. Dave told you back at headquarters how grateful he is, and he meant it. I spoke to Hutch before I came home, and he said Rachel understands about Nick having to go away. She, too, appreciates what you have done for them." Illya sank to his knees on the floor, facing his partner. "Please Napoleon, do not despair about this.

Napoleon's brown eyes looked to be brimming with tears as he met his partner's gaze. What he saw there, as always, was unconditional love and understanding.

"This job...sometimes...sometimes I feel like I'm losing my...humanity." he whispered.

Illya took the glass from his partner's hand, set it aside, and grasped Napoleon's upper arms, demanding his attention.

"That will never happen. I know you better than anyone. Sometimes better than you know yourself. You are the best man—the best human being—I know. Everything you did for the Starskys. All your actions made me so proud of you. I am humbled and honored to be your partner. Personally and professionally. Always."

"Illyusha. It is I who am humbled by you. Every day. You are the bravest, most honorable man I know. If you deem me worthy of your love and respect, then I suppose I can look at myself in the mirror. And thank you for indulging me my insecurities, tovarisch." He gathered Illya into his arms, and Illya allowed himself to be cherished and to cherish his partner in return.

The poignant moment ended abruptly when Illya's stomach growled loudly in protest. He looked down at his own belly and patted it saying, "Well, that was just rude. Imagine, Napoleon, being betrayed by one's own body in such a fashion." And that elicited a smile, the first he'd seen from his partner since entering the study that evening.

"Come. We are meeting Rachel and the guys at Reynaldo's. Dave invited Mark and April as well. Something tells me we're late."

"That 'something' being your stomach, my friend." Napoleon was laughing as they helped each other to their feet.

As soon as Rachel saw the agents enter the restaurant, she rose to go to Napoleon and embrace him. Illya was not surprised that this wise woman would know that his partner would need the reassurance of such an act. To most of the world, Napoleon could appear as cold and emotionless, but the people who really knew him and cared about him, knew he was a complex, thoughtful and sensitive man.

When Rachel finally released Napoleon from her embrace she stepped back and looked up into his eyes with a warm smile.

"I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you, for all you've done for us..." she said in all sincerity.

"I'm just glad you're satisfied with the way things turned out." he said carefully.

"Napoleon. I'm more than satisfied! I'm happy. Truly. I will miss Nick, but feel so much more at peace knowing that he has the chance to turn his life around. I'm certain he never would have been able to that, if he'd kept on living the life he was, here. As his mother, I'm just so grateful..." And she hugged him again.

They were interrupted by the arrival of large platters of food, served family style, to the table. Solo, ever the gentleman, led Rachel to her place and held her chair to seat her next to Dave. He was rewarded for his efforts by Rachel patting the empty seat next to her, inviting him to use it. He allowed himself to be fawned and fussed over by the woman for the entire meal. And he enjoyed every minute of it.

Before they left, Rachel conscripted Mark and April to come by her apartment the next day to take the television, stereo and other various electronics and gifts from Nick, and transport them to a local shelter, as a donation. These things held no value to her, sentimental or otherwise, and she was delighted at the prospect, when Hutch suggested the idea of the donation.

"Ma, Hutch and me could come over and get that stuff tomorrow night, after Illya and Napoleon get home with the car, and take it for you. We could take you to dinner." Starsky offered.

"Well, as nice as it is for you to offer the use of your friends' vehicle..." she began, in a mock scolding of her son.

"It's alright, Rachel. We've told Dave and Hutch that we want them to always feel like what's ours is theirs, when they come to New York. And, I assure you, they are equally generous with us when we visit Bay City." Illya offered supportively.

"Well, that's nice to hear, Illya." she smiled at the Russian, and then at her son, as she gave his arm a squeeze. "But, I have plans tomorrow night, and wouldn't be there to help you."

"Oh? What's going on tomorrow night?" Hutch asked, in all innocence.

"Well, actually, I have a date." she said matter-of-factly.

"A date!?" said Illya and Starsky said in unison.

Rachel nodded.

"With who?!" again, the New York and Russian tinged accents sounded at the same time.

"With that nice Mr. Kutner from 3B. I'm sure I've mentioned him before. He helps me sometimes when the plumbing goes on the fritz, or when something breaks. He's very handy." she said, as if this development was the most reasonable thing in the world. Which it may have been. With anybody else's mother.

Illya and Starsky were not satisfied with her explanation and, to the amusement of their partners, began assaulting her with barrage of questions as to the man's background and vital statistics.

Rachel handled it all with good humor up to a point.

"Boys! Enough!" she said "I am a grown woman capable of making my own choices."

Illya and Starsky both held silent scowls.

"For goodness sake! You don't think I should have a life of my own? Look, you're all very happy. David, you have your Hutch. And Illya, your Napoleon. I'm so happy for you all that you've got each other, really. But, did you ever stop to think that maybe I'd like someone special of my own? Somebody to share in my everyday ups and downs?"

Illya gave her a sheepish look, and asked "So, is that who Mr. Kutner is? Is he your 'someone special'?"

Rachel looked at him sympathetically and said "I don't know. But now that I'm not having to worry so much about you all being hurt in your jobs, and now that I know Nick is going to be safe, I feel like I can start to try to find out. Would that be okay, milok?"

Illya gave a weak smile and conceded "I suppose."

Then she turned to her son "David?"

Starsky let out a sigh and also was forced to admit "Yeah. Of course it's okay Ma. We just want you to be happy too." And Hutch gave his partner's knee a reassuring squeeze.

"What would you think about us inviting this Mr. Kutner to join us all for dinner sometime?" Solo offered as a sort of compromise.

"Yes, yes. I'm sure that can be arranged. But not quite yet. I'd like the chance for us to get to know each other a little better first. And you must promise to not scare him away. You can be a pretty intimidating bunch, you know." she teased.

"Hey, if he's got nothin' to hide..." Starsky began.

"David. I mean it. You will behave." she said firmly.

"Yeah, Ma. I'll behave. Promise."

Rachel motioned for Illya and Starsky to come to her. She gathered both of them in a warm hug and said, "I'm very lucky to have sons who take such good care of me." then released them.

She then looked to Hutch and Napoleon and amended, "I'm very lucky that all my boys take such care of me. I love you all. Now let's see if they have our left-overs boxed up to take home."

Later, lying in the big four-poster in the guestroom of the penthouse, Hutch noticed his partner was staring up into the darkness toward the ceiling.

"Hey." he said softly.

"Hey, yourself." Starsky tried to smile back at him.

"You doin' okay? This has been a pretty rough couple of days."

Starsky turned more and snuggled closer to his partner, resting his head on Hutch's broad chest. His only audible response was a sigh.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. What can I do to make it better, babe?" Hutch said as he lightly trailed his long fingers across his partner's back in a soothing motion.

"Told ya' before. Just your bein' here makes it better. Makes me feel...I dunno...I've heard people use the word 'grounded'. And I think that's what you do for me. All this other stuff. Gettin' older. Our jobs changin'. And then this stuff with Nick. Heck, Ma's even gettin' a boyfriend...I start to feel like nothing I do can make a difference to anybody...like I could just disappear, it wouldn't matter."

"It'd matter, babe. Believe me. You matter. You're my whole world, Starsk." Hutch said, laying his soul bare.

"See? When you say that, I can believe it. You can't ever leave me Blintz, you know that don't you?"

"You're exactly right. I couldn't leave you. Ever. And, you do realize, you have to abide by the same contract?"

"That was my plan." Starsky confirmed.

"Me and Thee" they both exhaled the words, in reverent whisper, at the same time.

The following Monday, Napoleon and Illya took the morning off to drive the detectives to the airport.

The Russian and Starsky took the time to exchange the details they'd gleaned from their background checks on Mr. Kutner. Neither had been able to find anything incriminating, and both seemed to grudgingly accept this change in Rachel's life.

"But, I still expect you to keep an eye on things Illya. I mean it. If something so much as smells off about this guy, I want a phone call."

"Of course." Illya assured him.

Privately, Solo had revealed to Hutch that he had used his extensive resources at The UNCLE to also check into the man's background, only to find that he really was as harmless as he appeared. It gave them peace of mind, just the same.

The agents bid their goodbyes to their friends as the detectives checked their luggage. There was no need to elicit promises to keep in touch, as they all knew they would be doing so at any rate.

As Napoleon and his partner rounded the corner of the West Concourse, Illya nearly stopped in his tracks. Coming towards them was Nick Starsky. Or, rather, the man who used to be Nick Starsky, accompanied by a couple of his UNCLE handlers, who were currently assuming the role of his business associates.

Solo barely flinched at the sight and continued his pace until they passed the man, then, with a hand to the small of his partner's back, he guided him behind a magazine stand to observe ex-Nick's movements.

Within moments they saw David Starsky come face to face with the man who was once his brother. He was, understandably, stunned.

"Wow. This is weird, huh?" Commented the man with Nick's face, good-naturedly.

"Whu-whuddaya' mean?" Starsky bluffed, feeling like he was in the Twilight Zone.

"Us. Look at us." he said, pointing from his own face to Dave's "We could be brothers!" he laughed.

"Yeah. I guess you're right. Weird." Starsky tried to sound nonchalant.

"Hey. Let me introduce myself. I'm Nathaniel Rafferty...Nate." and he chuckled a little. "Sorry, I'm still getting used to that..."

"To what? By the way I'm Ken Hutchinson. Hutch. And this handsome devil is Dave Starsky." he said while extending his hand and nudging his partner's shoulder.

"Hi Hutch, Dave. I just meant I'm still getting used to my own name." He smiled in that open way that Starsky hadn't seen since he was a teenager.

"How's that?" Starsky wasn't sure he should be asking, but it seemed like a natural question.

"It's the damnedest thing...I had...well, the doctors called it an 'episode'. Like an aneurysm or something. Really did on number on me. Didn't know my name, let alone, much else, for a couple of days. But, with the help of some miracle docs, I was able to get most of it back."

"Well, I bet your family must be relieved." Hutch said, encouragingly.

"It might have been easier if I had some family, but it had been just me and my Mom. And she passed this last year. Since then, I've just been focused on my career."

"That sounds a little lonely, if you don't mind me sayin'." Starsky hoped he was wrong about that.

"You'd think so. But I don't feel that way at all. I've been given this amazing opportunity with my company. I'm in the hospitality business." he handed Hutch an embossed business card that read: Unified National Commercial Leisure Enterprises — Nathaniel Rafferty "They've been great about holding my position open for me, since my medical problems, until I can get to it. It's managing a new resort on Maui. In a way it'll be a totally fresh start. I'm really pumped about it!" And his enthusiasm was evident.

With that, his colleagues signaled it was time to head to their gate.

"Well, here goes nothin'! Great talking to you guys. Have a good flight, and if you ever get to the islands, look me up. Remember my name?"

"Sure, Nate. Good luck, and travel safe." Starsky said with a smile. And Hutch saw it was a genuine smile.

As Nate walked away, Starsky watched him with an odd sense of satisfaction.

"Know what, Blintz?

"What, Starsk."

"I think Nate's gonna' do just fine." he seemed to consider something for a minute, then added "And I think this is what they call "closure'." said with just a hint of smugness that, in this case, Hutch found endearing.

Hutch threw his arm around his partner's shoulders and squeezed in agreement.

Napoleon had watched the entire exchange with a slight smile playing on his lips.

Illya, in turn, was watching Napoleon watch the goings-on.

"Napoleon Solo. You knew!" Illya said in an accusatory tone.

"Well, I know a lot of things, tovarisch. It's my job to know things, after all. Perhaps you could be more specific?" He asked.

"You knew that Nick's flight was scheduled to depart at this time. That's why you insisted on arranging Starsky and Hutch's flight back to Bay City yourself."

"Well, I'm not sure who this 'Nick' fellow is. But I was aware of certain UNCLE agents who were tasked with accompanying one Mister Nathaniel Rafferty to his new home in Maui, and yes...now that you mention it, the timing does happen to coincide with our friends' departure. How about that for a coincidence?...Hungry?" Napoleon nonchalantly changed the subject.

"Napoleon Solo you are a big...a big..."

Solo steeled himself for the curse he knew must be coming. He was almost certain it would be delivered in Russian.

"Big Softie!" Illya finally settled on a fitting indictment.

"What did you just call me?" Solo asked in mock indignation.

"You heard me." Illya put on his best Stubborn Russian face.

"I think I heard you. But, to my knowledge, that's the first time you've used particular colloquialism. Where on earth did you pick it up?" he asked in an amused tone.

The Stubborn Russian look disappeared, to be replaced by a rather impish grin.

"I heard Dave call Hutch that once, and it struck me as amusing at the time. I guess it just stuck with me." he explained. "And, yes, by the way."

"Yes, what?"

"How easily you are sidetracked, my friend." Illya sighed as he took his partner's arm and led him out from behind the magazine stand. "Yes. I am hungry. Come. Buy me lunch." then, after a pause, he repeated "Big Softie." as though it were an endearment.

The two agents walked the rest of the concourse, shoulder to shoulder, chuckling and occasionally nudging each other.

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