A friend in need is a friend indeed
"I can't believe that, sir. I can't."
Napoleon Solo clenched his jaws.
"You'll have to, Mr Solo. We'll have to."
Waverly's voice was dull. He stared compassionately at his agent who fixed his eyes on the file, stubbornly.
"I heard him, Mr Solo. He... sort of owned up to having betrayed us. Hearing him, Mr Solo, I couldn't believe it... but, he said..."
Waverly stopped. He wasn't sure that his agent was hearing him... He breathed heavily and went on.
"He said that it would be, at least, the greatest victory of Thrush... that being part of it was... was quite an amazing reward. He was so calm, Mr Solo."
"I still can't believe it."
Napoleon Solo was just able to parrot again and again the same sentence. Waverly shrugged his shoulders.
"We have the film. He shot Mr Slate. He shot him in cold blood. Mr Slate was begging his friend to have mercy on him. He shot him. You have seen the film, Mr Solo."
"Thrush... They have drugs, sir. It has already happened that..."
"No, Mr Solo. No drugs. Not the lightest trace of it. No tricks in the film. And you have to know that he didn't deny... He has killed Mr Slate. On purpose."
For the first time, Solo raised his eyes and looked at the Old Man, unusually unsure.
"What will... What will happen to him, sir?"
"Uncle jailhouse, Mr Solo. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment. The Commission's decision."
Solo bitterly smiled.
"Jailhouse? You said: life imprisonment? Such a crime deserved a sentence of death, sir, you know that. Someone have doubts... You have doubts."
Waverly puffed at his pipe, slowly, before replying.
"He's still a Russian citizen, Mr Solo. It saved his life. You know, by the way, that Uncle jailhouse, for a traitor, is a fate worse than death."
Napoleon Solo felt like dizzy. His eyes were blurred with tears, but he wasn't ashamed of it.
"I would like to see him, sir. I want to talk to him, face to face. I want to hear him. He... he won't lie to me. I need it. I... I still can't believe..."
His voice choked with emotion, but Waverly shook his head.
"No, Mr Solo. It's too late. He is already in solitary confinement. You know the rules. The Commission's decision."
The Old Man had aged ten years. He spoke softly and Napoleon Solo noticed that he was red-eyed. Alexander Waverly went on.
"In a few days, his apartment will be cleared out. All will be destroyed. In a few days, Mr Ku... the traitor won't exist anymore."
Waverly stretched his arm and put his hand on Solo's shoulder. His gaze became penetrating. He repeated, slowly, squeezing slightly the shoulder.
"A few days, Mr Solo. A few days."
The Old Man repeated, insistently.
"Exactly three days, Napoleon."
Napoleon Solo was taken aback. He suddenly came back to life, freed himself from the grasp and rushed out the office. He very nearly collided with someone he didn't even notice.
The visitor caught the door before it slammed, and came in. Waverly was sitting behind his desk. As Solo, ten minutes before, he was staring at the file. The man coughed, and Waverly looked up at him.
"He can't believe it, Jules."
"Mr Solo was his closest friend, Alexander. However, I can't believe it either."
Waverly burst into an ironic laugh. That was great!
"Oh, Jules, please... Have I to remind you of our arguments, five years ago, about having a Russian as an Uncle agent? You... fumed, you howled, you foamed! You prophesied the worse, the death of Uncle, Armageddon. You warned me about him. I should have paid attention to your advice... You were right."
Jules Cutter sat down in front of Waverly.
"I was wrong, Alex. You know, at the Survival School, I pushed this man beyond the limits. I worked hard at him. I wanted him to give up but I failed: I couldn't break him. Then, he has been an asset to us, for five years. I don't want to boast, but I know much about men, my friend. This man isn't a traitor. He can't be. What happened might be a Thrush operation, or... a witch hunt."
The Old Man threw him an exhausted look.
"You don't boast, Jules. You know much about men. So do I. However, he has deluded us. Perhaps from the beginning."
Jules Cutter opened the mouth, but Waverly stopped him.
"I talked to him, Jules. We were alone, face to face. No witness. No bugs. He didn't deny anything."
Jules Cutter bent over the desk, aggravated.
"He didn't deny? Okay. Did he actually confess having done anything?"
Alexander Waverly closed his eyes. He went through agony.
"No, he didn't. In fact, he didn't say anything, except..."
Waverly opened his eyes.
"I asked him about Mark Slate. He answered that... as we had proof that he had killed him, it had to be the truth."
"That's not a confession, Alexander."
"That's an understatement. Mr Ku... he had a gift for that. He shot Mr Slate, Jules. In cold-blood. The poor Mr Slate didn't understand... he was waiting for his friend's help and..."
"I've seen the film, Alex. Are you sure that it isn't a dirty trick?"
"Our technicians looked for that. They didn't find anything. Then he added that it would be, at least, the greatest victory of Thrush, that being a part of it was an amazing reward."
"Still not a confession, Alex."
Alexander Waverly sighed loudly. Taking a deep breath, he replied, amost whispering.
"You haven't seen him, Jules. He didn't explain anything. He was sitting in front of me, with handcuffs. He stayed aloof, almost absent-minded. I've grabbed him, shaken him. Whatever he had done, he must have strong motives. I just wanted him to tell me. All I got was a blank look."
As Cutter was shaking his head, he added sharply
"There is no doubt about his guilt, Jules."
Jules Cutter looked at the Old Man, thoughtfully, and the Old Man felt uncomfortable.
"Although... you look still doubtful, my friend."
"You are wrong. If you will excuse me, Jules, I have to prepare Mr Slate's memorial service."
That was a dismissing. A civil one, but a dismissing. Jules Cutter headed to the door. Before going out, he muttered.
"And I've still a few odds and ends to do."
Alexander Waverly felt uneasy. He was waiting for someone whom he was dreading to see. He took the mission reports and began to read them. He didn't know what he was reading. Things had gone on. Uncle had gone on, for the three last months. Gone on. Gone on with missions. As if nothing had happened. But there were silences. Looks. Those gaps between a question and its answer. The always efficient, so respectful and so cold Napoleon Solo. Those almost accusing stares. Or was he to become completely paranoid ?
The door opened. The visitor hadn't knock; he never did.
Well. By now, Waverly felt quite angry. Cutter had... schemed. It was the appropriate word. Cutter had circumvented Waverly's orders. He had managed to get from the Commission the permission to go to the jailhouse. No. Worse than that. He had managed to get the order to go there. And now, he was in front of him. Waverly couldn't read anything on his face.
Jules Cutter handed him a file. Waverly opened it and couldn't suppress a shiver. A photo. A young man, dishevelled, so pale, so thin. Clenched teeth. Blank face. Absent look. No defiance. No resignation. A complete lack of concern about himself, about what was happening to him. Waverly shook his head. No. No mercy. This man was a traitor. He had deserved that. He'd have deserved worse. There was nothing else than the photo in the file. Waverly repeated.
"So what? A small white cell, with the minimum for a living. No window. Light, night and day. No book. Perpetual humiliations, guards staring at him at every moment. No privacy.. It must give you complete satisfaction, I guess. Your orders..."
"I haven't ordered anyone to do that. The Commission... It's a procedure..."
Jules Cutter rolled his eyes, fuming.
"A hell of a procedure, Alex! Look at this; is that a crowing cock? Is that a bleating coward?"
Alexander Waverly couldn't help averting his gaze from the photo.
"Is that an innocent claiming justice, Jules?"
"Do you know his nicknames? The Ice Prince, the Man of Ice, and so on. He could claim mercy, he could claim justice for someone else. Not for him Never. I talked to him, Alex."
Waverly was amazed; he had to face Solo's faith in his partner. Ex-partner. The traitor. He had to face April Dancer's faith in a man who had obviously shot her partner. An astonishingly long list. What he couldn't have imagined was Jules Cutter's faith in the Russian agent. Ex-agent. The traitor. What he wouln't confess, even in the worst Thrush torture chamber was his own unjustifiable, irrational doubts, but he couldn't fool Cutter. He looked at him and repeated, once again.
No more anger in the voice. Just something like a faintest hope. Jules Cutter replied with a grim face.
"He was tied up to the chair. He didn't tell me anything, Alex. I talked about Uncle, about his partner, about his friends, about you. I told him about my doubts. About our doubts. He didn't react. Except... I was to leave, and I put my hand on his shoulder. Don't ask me why, Alex. For a few seconds, he... he saw me. I saw his eyes. I saw his sadness, his despair. And he shut off."
Waverly gave up. He couldn't conceal his true feelings anylonger.
"What can we do, Jules? He has to talk to us. We are fighting against enormous odds and we can't fight without him. I'll give orders, for him to be decently treated. That's all I can do, under the prevailing circumstances."
"Do that, Alex. Do that, as soon as possible."
Of course, he would.
"If he is innocent, Jules, why does he stay silent ? He could deny... If he had, we could have... He should try to explain. He has friends. I told him that... So did you. Why?"
Jules Cutter took a deep breathe. He had a theory, and Waverly was obviously waiting for it.
"I am not much of a psychologist, Alex. However, I have an idea of what is going on. We saw that film. He saw it, too. He saw himself shooting Mr Slate, his friend, in cold-blood. There is a very logical reason to his silence. He believes what he has seen. I think that... that he doesn't remember anything. As he said, " if we have proof that he has done that, it has to be the truth..." So..."
Waverly frowned. This was a threatening thought, however, he got some comfort in it. But he went on.
"We made assumptions, Jules: he might have been drugged. We didn't find any trace in his blood. The film might be a delusion. The technicians didn't find any tricks. No montage. Neither did Mr Solo nor Miss Dancer... They worked on it. Secretly, of course. Miss Dancer still work on it. She thinks that I am not aware of it... If something was to be found... No, Jules, the trial has been fair. It wasn't a witch hunt."
White cell. White walls. Blank mind. It had to be blank. No days, no nights, no hours no minutes. No time, here. Thinking was a luxuary he couldn't afford. No memories. Memories meant hope. Hope was no use.
Cutter shook his head. He took back the photo and was looking at it. The door opened. April Dancer came in and suddenly stopped. The blush rose to her cheeks.
"Oh, I am sorry, sir. I 'd have..."
Waverly diverted the apologies with the hand.
"I take it, Miss Dancer, that you have a reason to be here ?"
She surreptitiously peeked at Jules Cutter. She had expected the Old Man to be alone. Cutter wasn't really her favourite fellow...
"Miss Dancer ?"
She hesitated, still peeking at Cutter. Waverly drummed his fingers in the desk, motioning her to speak.
"It's about the film, sit. You know, the film..."
Waverley and Cutter nodded in a perfect synchronism.
"I think that... I might have found something. I... would you come with me?"
Cutter raised an eyebrow. April Dancer added.
"And Mr Cutter, too?"
They watched the film. Once more time. And it was always the same ordeal. Waverly knew it. All the details. A silent film. Illya Kuryakyn's back. Mark Slate's astonishment, seeing his friend aiming at him. His lips articulating a few words which anyone could understand: "Illya, no, please...". The shot. And on a mirror, on the left, the reflect of Illya Kuryakyn's face, at this right moment. Despising. Defiant. Self-possessed. And no mercy.
"And now, sir, we are going to watch it again. But before..."
April Dancer pulled a blackboard ; she hid half of the screen.
"I want you to watch the small window, on the right. It lasts three seconds, it's out of focus..."
They watched again. April Dancer slowed the film. And they saw it, as an evidence. However, they knew that the imagination could provide what their eyes couldn't clearly perceive. What their eyes expected. The mirror showed Illya Kuryakyn aiming at his begging partner, and shooting him in cold blood. The blurred reflect on the window... One could catch a faint glimpse of a quite different scene. A hand holding a gun. Illya's Kuryakyn's hand. Aiming, well, aiming at... himself...
April Dancer stopped and whispered. Her enthusiasm was weakening.
"I wanted to see the details of the room. I wanted to find where it had happened. And it's so blurred. It might be an optical illusion..."
Jules Cutter harrumphed.
"A hell of an optical illusion, Miss Dancer ! You smelled a rat, and you caught it. Alex..."
Waverly's communicator beeped. He moved away, and listened. Jules Cutter was to speak, when April pointed her finger at the Old Man. His companions saw him whitening and wincing.
"We are waiting for you, Mr Solo... Good job. Come back, we will discuss this."
Waverly came back and stared at them.
"A hell of an optical illusion, your words, Jules? Let's go back to my office. Quickly."
Alexander Waverly shut the door behind them, and leaned against the wall. He was still pale, but his eyes were glittering.
"As you have heard, Mr Solo has just reported to me. We were observing a clinic. We suspected that our Thrush friends were using it to hide some abducted scientists. Mr Solo and Mr Fraser burst in on them. They found our scientists."
"Well, good job, Alex, but..."
"They found someone else, Jules. Miss Dancer. They found someone... Mr Slate. Alive."
"You have condemned him for treason and there is no treason! No murder, either! So, stop arguing! I want Mr Kuryakyn, my agent, back as soon as possible, and you have to know that I have already sent Mr Cutter and Mr Solo to the jail! Is that clear enough?"
Alexander Waverly hung up. A very long day. Long, exhausting, and satisfying. He leaned back and closed his eyes. The nightmare was ending, because, finally, it had been a nightmare. A dreadful one, but eventually nothing more than a nightmare. No, Waverley quivered. No. Nightmare wasn't the appropriate word. Not for Mark Slate. Not for Illya Kuryakin.
Mark Slate lied in the Uncle Medical Section. Thrush had drugged him, but as soon as the drug would be out of his system, he would awake. The room was almost full to bursting, but the doctor knew better than to object. Alexander Waverly, number one, section one, his CEA, the director of the Survival School, Mr Slate's partner... were waiting.
Alexander Waverly knew that he would remember for his whole like of that moment. The young agent had twisted in the sheets and opened his eyes. He had looked around, as he didn't see them. Then, he had stared at them. A faint smile had appeared, getting brighter as it went along. Suddenly, the smile had faded. A croaky voice.
"Illya ? Where is Illya ?"
Mark Slate was now asleep. The doctor had thrown them out the room. Back in the office, Solo, Cutter and Dancer had gathered around Waverly, and they had discussed what to do. The Old Man had exercised his authority, sending April Dancer keeping vigil at his partner's bedside. He had thought that he would have to use sleep darts to quiet his CEA down, however.
"I leave immediately, sir. I must bring him back now."
"Yes, Mr Solo, you'll go, but I have to report to the Commission, and... Jules, please, I know : a hell of a Commission! Anyway, you'll need its members' backing, to free Mr Kuryakin. I am going to call them, then the jail's director. See to ask Mr Fraser to write a very precise report. Then, both of you..."
Napoleon Solo and Jules Cutter were on their way to the jail. Of course, Alexander Waverly was relieved. Many things were always to be cleared up, but Illya Kuryakin wasn't a traitor. The members of the Commission had acknowledged, more or less convinced, more or less happy. He smiled. He had ruthlessly assumed his responsabilities, as Number One, Section One. Alexander Waverly, as a human being, hadn't agreed with that. He had calmly ignored Solo's and Dancer's secret activities. Worse. He had hoped that they would succeed... And they did!
A very long day, but a very happy one.
So... why had he this uneasy feeling ?
They had dimmed the light. He didn't try to sleep anymore, however. They had left him on his own. It only remained for him to... switch off. Completely. Someone knocked at the door, and time froze. The door usually opened; guards came in, went out. Not a word. Someone knocked again. The door opened, slowly, as if the visitor was afraid to disturb him. It was ridiculous. It was totally preposterous! What was going on? No. No way. That was none of his business. He closed his eyes.
"Sir? Mr Kuryakin?"
The words... a name... his name. The shock could have killed him. He couldn't remember... No, he didn't want to remember when Jules Cut... when someone had talked to him, there, mentionning his name... Was it a new torture ? He had come to believe that he would be able to evade all emotional feelings. All feelings. But he couldn't help opening his eyes, and peeking at the door. A guard stood in front of the cot, looking at him... almost sheepishly.
"Mr Kuryakin? The governor would like to meet you..."
The governor? "would like?" He sat up straight, quickly. Too quickly. He felt dizzy, and winced. A strong hand caught his arm.
"Are you okay, sir?"
"I am fine..."
The guard had called his name. The guard had talked to him. The guard had touched him, to help him. The guard had asked him a question... and he had answered, automatically to this question, almost unconsciously. His voice. His own voice... His lines, too.
"Sir? I... I brought some clothes... If you whish... I'll wait in the corridor. Take as much time as you need."
And he disappeared. He shut the door. But didn't bolt it.
Jules Cutter stared at his neighbour. Napoleon Solo was asleep. A brilliant agent. An efficient CEA. A loyal partner. Very loyal to one partner... He had given them a rough time...Solo because he was damned good. Kuryakin because he was a Russian, a damned good little Russian. And they had given him a rough time, too. He smiled as he remembered that.
He thought back to the man he had seen, some days before, and stopped smiling.
Napoleon Solo wasn't sleeping. He was exhausted: the last three months had been the worst of his life. All the traces of his partner had been wiped off... But memories couldn't be. He wasn't the happiest man when Waverly had partnered him with this blond Russian. Neither had been the said Russian... But Waverly was the Wise Man. And it had worked... perfectly.
Napoleon Solo knew Illya Kuryakin like the back of his hand. He trusted him with dear life; whatever happened, all he had to do was to wait for his partner to break in, and eventually free him. "You would do the same for me." and of course he did. Many Uncle agents were uncomfortable about any demonstration of gratitude. A tap on the shoulder, a genuine "Thanks, my friend.". That was all they needed. A simple look was enough for both.
Whatever happened? No.... This time, he hadn't been there. An undercover mission. All hell had broken loose. Illya Kuryakin had been found guilty of treason and murder. He had been condemned. There were indisputable proofs. The trial had been fair. The Commission had cut short. Waverly had given in, and Napoleon Solo had hated him for that.
"What is this, Mr Solo ?"
Alexander Waverly frowned with disbelief.
"My resignation, sir. I leave the Uncle. I can't work here any longer. I've got no option."
Napoleon Solo stood in front of him, defiantly. Waverly shook his head.
"Oh, fine, Mr Solo, fine. If that's what you want..."
"You walked out on him, sir. You could have informed me..."
"You talk rubbish, Mr Solo. You were on assignement."
But Napoleon Solo knew his partner : he was innocent. The proofs, the evidence didn't matter. He didn't care how long it would take. He had to get him out of the jail. Illya wasn't a traitor. He hadn't shot Mark Slate. It was simply impossible.
"I guess you aren't thinking of attacking Mr Kuryakin's jail, alone, to free him, are you, Mr Solo?"
Waverly's voice was harsh, ironical. He picked up the letter.
"What are you doing, sir ?"
"As you see, I'm tearing this paper."
"It doesn't change anything. I'll leave..."
"No, you won't, Mr Solo. You won't. There are more useful things to do."
And he had searched, investigated, with April Dancer. Alexander Waverly had helped them, one way or another. Astonishingly, Jules Cutter, too.
Napoleon Solo frowned and opened his eyes. Illya would be free in a few hours, now.
Illya Kuryakin was still sitting on the cot. The guard looked at him. He looked at the clothes and sighed.
"Mr Kuryakin, follow me, please."
He obeyed. No handcuffs, no bound ? He bitterly smiled. That was it. A very clever plan. Even the Uncle had hesitated to execute officially a Russian citizen. But unfortunately, the prisoner would have attempted to escape... Perhaps he would have killed an innocent guard. And, unfortunately, he would have been shot... Well... Why not?
They went along the corridor and arrived in front of an elevator. In the small space, Illya Kuryakin took pity on the unfortunate guard. He coulf feel his unease dripping.
"Whatever might happen, you are not to be blamed, you know."
How difficult it was to speak... The sound of his voice was so strange. The other man was taken aback... But the elevator stopped, and the door opened. The guard motioned him to go out. Illya Kuryakyn crossed the threshold and staggered. Everything was swimming around him. He was now in a vast place, so vast. And there were... windows. Huge windows. Beyond, the outside. He felt a helpful hand on his shoulder.
"Come on, sir. We're almost there."
"I would like..."
His voice choked, and he just showed a window. The guard looked at him compassionately, and led him to it.
"I'm sorry sir. It can't be opened, but..."
"Don't worry... I just want to see..."
"Take all the time you need, sir. And, oh... you know, you don't have to whisper, you can speak louder..."
Illya Kuryakyn didn't listen. He was looking through the window. A poor landscape : ground, gravel, a little grass, walls. The sky. The clouds. The sun. The outside. He could feel the air on his cheeks... He turned toward his companion, who stood apart.
"You're welcome, sir. But now, if you please..."
"I told you to give him convenient clothes!"
A harsh voice. The guard winced and saluted the man who had just came in. A clearly annoyed man, with a black suit. Illya Kuryakin softly replied.
"Did I thwart you in your plans? I am sorry. This man isn't guilty. I refused to put on the clothes."
"It doesn't matter anymore, Mr Kuryakin. All that is coming to an end, eventually. So let's try to make things easier."
A nice understatement.
The man rushed through a corridor without looking back, as if he was alone, and Illya Kuryakin just fell into step behind him. They took a brief walk, until they reached what looked like to be a new hall. The Russian noticed that amazingly, there were huge places, and very few people, here. The man opened a door and came in a room. He didn't yet look back. No sign. No words. Illya Kuryakin hesitated, and followed him. It was clearly an office, impersonal, but quite bright, thanks to the window. The man sat behind a desk, and took a file from a drawer. Then, he began to read, to write. He seemed to be in his prime, with an incipient baldness. The prisoner stood. He had nothing else to do. He forced himself to breathe slowly, and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
"You're free, Mr Kuryakin."
The man had spoken without raising his head. Illya heard the ticking of a clock. Or was it his heart ? He heard footsteps in the hall. He heard voices. All that suddenly stopped, for what seemed to be an eternity. He had heard words. The man, behind his desk, had said something.
"Perhaps you'd have better to sit down?"
The words were civil, their meaning almost kind, but the voice was still harsh. The man was still reading, writing. Illya Kuryakin obeyed, hoping that the room would be gentle enough to stop spinning round and round. The other sneered maliciously.
"So, you're free. You are a lucky man, Mr Kuryakin."
The governor still averted his gaze, and went on with an ironical tone.
"And I take it that you must have powerful friends."
Illya Kuryakin was appalled and ideas blew from his mind. The room went on swimming before his eyes. He chose to close them for awhile. He was trying to state the facts. Free ? That was simply impossible Freedom... Freedom wasn't an option, he knew it and he knew why.
"I'll ask you to sign this document. Then, you'll be free to go."
He opened his eyes. Of course. It was a trap. It couldn't be anything else than a trap. A cruel trap. Cruel? Not so cruel. He had been condemned. He had killed an Uncle agent, a close friend, even if he didn't remember it. He was choking and he leaned back in his chair, trying to give himself an opportunity to breathe again. He had to say something...
"You're kidding, sir. You said that we should make things easier... Let's do that, please, and spare me those... pleasanteries. Those unpleasant jokes."
For the first time, the man looked at him, and almost hissed.
"Well, Mr Kuryakin... I can't make it easier. You were my prisoner. Now, you are free. What else? A guard will lead you in a room, where you'll shower, put on clothes. He'll bring you a lunch, if you are hungry. Then, you'll come back here, I'll give you different things, and you'll be free to go."
"Is that clear enough?"
It wasn't a question.
The man pressed a button, and instantaneously, a guard appeared. Another guard. A new face. The guard motioned him to follow. Just before he crossed the threshold, the harsh voice added.
"All is well that ends well, Mr Kuryakin..."
This guard's behaviour was more more familiar to the Russian: mute, cold. As they reached the small flat, with the door closed behind him ( closed, but still not bolted...) he sat on a couch, feeling the tension in his neck, the stiffness in all his joints. Someone knocked at the door. The guard came back.
"Do you want something to eat ?"
Illya Kuryakin shook his head. The door shut. He should have asked for some aspirine...
Memory inhabits its own strange universe.
He was in Uncle Medical. He had been tracked down to a Thrush laboratory. Uncle agents had found him... free, unbound, unconscious, due, probably, to the blast. Then, those inquiring looks. Accusing looks. Disgusted looks.
He had first desperately tried to remember... Remember what? He knew that he hadn't killed Mark. He knew that he wasn't a traitor. But he still had no answer to give. Remember...
Then, a film had been shown to him... A terrible film, because some memories had flashed. It was a silent film, but HE could hear the sounds. Mark's voice, horrified voice. Some begging words. Mark was begging him to do something. Or not to do. He heard the shot. He saw his own face. A killer's face. A despising smile.
And he saw Mark's face, Mark's incredulous face. Mark's horrified face.
And that had been a dreadful vision. Because... because that wasn't in the film. Because... it was a memory.
So, now, he knew. He had done that. He had shot Mark Slate, in cold blood. He hadn't been drugged. He was a murderer. And logically, he was a traitor. It had to be the truth. He had seen Waverly's look, incredulous, too. Horrified, too. He had heard his questions, felt his despair, his anger. But he had nothing to say. "I can't believe it!" Waverly's words... Illya Kuryakyn couldn't believe it, either, but... it was the truth : he was guilty. He deserved his fate.
He couldn't apologize for doing what he had obviously done. For being what he obviously was.
It was far beyond any apology. Far beyond any forgiveness.
At the very beginning, he had missed his partner. Napoleon. Then he had counted his blessings. He couldn't have stand his... friend's look. At this right moment, he had known that he was guilty. Napoleon could forgive him anything. Not treason.
And they had locked him in this white box. White, dazzling box.
And a few days ago, Cutter. Jules Cutter... who had indulged with small talk about Uncle, about Waverly, about... Napoleon. Cutter... small talk? Cutter, who had been almost attentive toward him. No, not almost. He had been quite attentive. Cutter... attentive? attentive toward him... He had thought that he had dreamt that. That he was going insane... Then, however, he had been treated a little more decently... Nonsense!
So... freedom, now was all but preposterous!
He had thought that the best should have been for him to die. The Commission had taken another decision. He had been condemned to life imprisonment. It was... Justice.
What was happening now was probably a trap, part of a plan against Thrush. However, he was going to obey.
"All is well that ends well, Mr Solo..."
Napoleon Solo peeked at Jules Cuuter whose grim face didn't match with the optimistic sentence.
"You look exhausted, Mr Solo."
"You look worried, Mr Cutter."
Jules Cutter sank into his seat; his mind couldn't help but see again the recent events. He sighed.
"We might have to deal with a tricky difficulty... I know that you haven't seen Mr Kuryakin since... what happened. I recently met him. You have to know that obviously, he doesn't seem to remember anything. The Commission considered his silence as defiance. Alexander didn't understand it."
He sat up straight again, and put his hand on Solo's wrist.
"Your partner has no memory of the events, except for what he has been told, except for the film he has seen. I think that he considers himself as guilty. A sort of logical, rational... and false memory, and its as logical, as rational, and as false inference. He won't be able to explain anything, Mr Solo. Perhaps he won't be able to believe us. It won't be easy..."
Solo knew that.
"So, Mr Cutter, Illya was right. What happened... might be Thrush's greatest victory. They hadn't succeed in defeating him, in breaking him. They let the dirty work to Uncle. And we made... a damned good job, didn't we?"
Jules Cutter nodded, obviously puzzled.
"But Mark is alive. The film was a trick. Illya have to know that. As soon as possible."
"Alexander gave orders..."
He felt alive. Reluctantly alive. Showered (a real shower...). Shaved (on his own). Hair combed. He had put on real clothes: underwear, socks, black jeans, shoes, white shirt, a jacket... He looked at his reflection in the mirror, and bitterly realised that it was the first time he could see his reflect since his arrival. It was eventually a familiar face. Pale, as it was to be expected, after three months without daylight, shadows under his eyes. Strained features. Illya Kuryakin's features. No, murderer's features. Traitor's features.
He stepped out the room. No guard; he made his way to the office, knocked at the door. No reply. So, he came in. The man raised his head and stared at him, quite rudely.
"Everything to your taste, Mr Kuryakin ? So here are your identity papers, some money, a watch... In this case, you'll find some clothes, and all you need for the next days. Sign this document, please."
It looked like a release form... Illya Kuryakin took the pen and signed. He was playing a game but what were the rules ? He didn't know. He barely managed to think.
"Follow me, now."
When the man brushed him, Illya Kuryakin grabbed his arm.
"Why ? Tell me why ?"
The man freed himself with an obvious disgust.
"Why? Why Uncle is freeing a traitor? A murderer? Don't ask, Mr Kuryakin. As I said, you must have very powerful friends."
He rushed out of the office. Illya Kuryakin took the case and followed. They had to pass several gate, before they stopped in front of a large steel security door. The man used his identification code. The door clicked and opened. The man put his hand on the wall and turned toward the Russian.
"I am just the governor of this place. I am given orders, and I obey. Whatever I think of it. You'll go to the embankment, below, now. A boat is waiting for you. Due to foggy conditions, you'll cross the channel. It's impossible to fly, today. Our pilot refused to... Don't waste time: there's a storm brewing... So it's a pity that you are seasick... However, have a good trip, and, please, humor me... go to hell!"
And the door opened... The first step outside. In the open air, for the first time since three months. It was a very strange feeling, as if he had to breathe something solid. First, he couldn't move, panting, choking. But he fet drawn by the sunlight. He took some steps forward, raised his hand, and let the sunbeams warm his fingers, his palm. Then, he closed his hand, as a kid with snow flakes.
When he was a little boy, he was used to do that: he caught snowflakes; when he opened his hand again, the snowflakes had disappeared. It was so frustrating... So would the sunbeam... But this was warm, soft, comforting.
The narrow path was sandy; it slopped down to what must be the shore and the embankment, bordered with grey rocks, and various wastes: old cans, broken timbers... Some grass, too.
Illya Kuryakin smiled bitterly. He was a first choice target. A sitting duck. He started his walk along the path, slowly. He remembered similar scenes, when he had been part of some exchanges of prisoners, on a bridge or a catwalk. Extreme strain, step after step. Everybody waiting for a breaking. A shot. But you knew, he thought, you knew that your friends were at the end. They would bring you back. They would save you. They would, at least, take revenge.
This was a one way ticket. He tried to concentrate on the landscape, below. Not so bad.
The sky was of a milky blue, turning milky grey. The water of the lake, quite glassy, was turquoise, and its colour shifted to green. Sea gulls wheeled above him. A gentle breeze caressed his face. Beautiful. Pleasant. He went on and didn't take his eyes off the lake.
A nasty twinge ran from his neck to the small of his back, along his spinal cord.
His mind desperately drank images, feelings.
His body rationally waited for the shock of the bullets.
He wouldn't look back. Neither in the reality of the moment... nor in memory.
One step after one step.
And the twinge getting sharper and sharper.
The odour of the lake. The lapping.
The sloping path was changing direction. In a few seconds, he would be out of range. He closed his eyes and stopped. Just time now, for memories. For familiar faces. One face. He could have asked for paper. He could have written... No.
"Hurry up, boy. No time to sleep! Eh! Need some help?"
He opened his eyes : lower down on the path, an old man stood with arms akimbo. Long grey hairs were escaping from a cap above a smiling tanned wrinkled face. The man was coming closer. Illya Kuryakin stiffened and slowly turned his head toward the jail. The walls were deserted. There were no snipers. No guards. A heavy hand fell on his shoulder while the other grabbed the case.
"Come on, boy. We are wasting time. We'll have a rough crossing!"
The old man dragged him on the path, and they rushed down to the embankment.
"Get on, I cast off!"
Illya Kuryakin obeyed. He could barely think, again, and it was so easy to let himself go...
It was a fishing boat, a simple fishing boat. The old man jumped on board, and started the machine. The boat moved slowly out of the small dock, putting on speed when they reached open water.
"You should get your case down, boy. Just hope you aren't seasick?"
The old man showed him the horizon. The sky was turning yellowish-grey. Illya Kuryakin smiled sheepishly.
"I'm afraid that might happen, sir..."
The man laughed.
"Don't worry ! Oh, I am not a "sir", boy: my name is Mikey. M. I. K. E. Y. I am not a mouse !"
"Illya. Illya Kuryakin."
"Welcome on board, Illya. I'll call you Illya, is that okay with you, boy?"
The Russian nodded. Mikey didn't even raised an eyebrow, hearing an obviously Russian name. He had noted it. Period. No question. No comment.
The lake surface was still. Illya Kuryakin leant out of the planking, beside the cabin. After all, he was alive...
They quietly passed the South End.
"I can't believe it, sir."
Alexander Waverley sighed, and looked at his agent with concern. An appalled Mark Slate was sitting on his bed.
"It's not a nice story, Mr Slate..."
"How could you believe that, sir?"
Alexander Waverly frowned and shrugged his shoulders. The young agent's voice betrayed his anger.
"The odds were against him, Mr Slate. Mr Kuryakyn himself thought that he was guilty, and..."
"But you should have known bett... I beg your pardon, sir."
"No, no, you're right. I probably should have known better."
The younger man shook his head.
"No, sir, you have been trapped. All of us have been trapped : it was a very nasty and very clever plan. You see, I have already been abducted. This time, they have locked me in a room, with toilets and a shower, and they didn't question me. I didn't see anyone, except the guard who get me some food. It was so unusual, so amazing. I stayed there for a few days. At least, just after a lunch, they came and dragged me to another place. And it was quite a relief, because, well, I knew what to expect... But I ended up in a large room and..."
Mark Slate's eyes blurred. Alexander Waverly stayed silent.
"And I saw Illya. He was awfully pale, sir. He held a gun, and he was aiming it at me. Beside him, a Thrush man was talking to him. He told him to shoot me... And Illya struggled, sir. He withstood the pressure. He fought. I could see the sweat on his face, and he looked at me. His eyes in mine. and suddenly , he... smiled, defiantly, and he raised his gun, sir. He raised it to his own face. He was going to do it, sir, I knew that, he was going to save my life, and to give his own... I called his name, I told him... I yelled... and I passed out, hearing a shot, and thinking that Illya was dead."
Mark Slate took a deep breath.
"When I regained consciousness, I was back in the cell, and the Trush man was in front of me. He looked satisfied. He sat down, and he began to... explain."
"I was a bait, sir, just a bait A bait for Illya, for Napoleon, for you, for Uncle. Thrush scientists have set a new drug, a very efficient one. Undetectable. Memories can be manipulated, wiped, changed... Will is controlled. They had given it to Illya. But, well, you know him, sir, he never gives up... He didn't make things easier for them. And he was alive..."
Wawerly was puzzled.
"What did they want?"
Mark Slate smiled bitterly.
"They have nearly achieved it, sir. Uncle was expected to suspect Illya, to seize him. To condemn him, because he was a murderer, because he was a traitor, a Thrush agent. This... man looked so delighted, sir... He told me that if I was lucky, Illya would be condemned to death... In this case, I would be freed after his execution. At least, a life imprisonment, as a traitor, in an Uncle jail, would do as well. I would just have to stay with them longer... They wanted to make our life a hell on earth. And « the icing on the cake » ( his words, sir) : the return of Mark Slate, alive. The living proof that Illya Kuryakin was innocent. That Uncle had executed the most faithful of his agents. Or had destroyed him, after a year or two in its jails. Scandal. Blames. And guilt feelings, sir. Unbearable guilt feelings for Illya's friends. Our destruction."
"Unbearable guilt feelings, Mr Slate. You're right. I've been more than a valuable helper, in that plan, and I'll have to account for it."
"No, sir: April told me. You let Napoleon, you let her investigate. So April pointed the trick. And Napoleon found me, in this clinic."
"Pure luck, Mr Slate."
"Napoleon's luck, sir."
"It was so... unfair. Mr Kuryakin..."
Mark Slate shook his head, smiling sadly.
"Pure chance, sir. You could have assign Illya to this solo mission. They would have abduct Napoleon. They wanted one of them. Solo, Kuryakin, it was all the same, to them. Illya... Illya will be okay. He'll understand. Napoleon will care for it."
"Illya ! Boy, are you "lake" sick ?"
The Russian smiled No. He wasn't. He felt quite drunk with the air, but he wasn't sick. He noticed that the old man was inquiringly watching the sky.
"Well, I hope that no one is waiting for you at the Charon's pass... We won't make it, with this storm."
Illya Kuryakin shook the head. However, he wasn't sure of that. They hadn't killed him on the path... They could eventually be there...
"The local harbor of the Big City ! Funny name, isn't it?"
"Charon smuggled the dead across the Styx, to go to Hades' kingdom..."
"The Inferno... My son's friend told me the story. I guess, a jail is a sort of nice inferno..."
So, Mikey knew. He knew that it was a jail. He logically knew that his passenger was a prisoner. A freed prisoner, but a "criminal"...
"We are going to head for Mousehole... Yes, Mousehole! Don't chuckle, boy! Mikey, from Mousehole ! I live there. If we are lucky, we'll be at home at the beginning of the storm. I have rooms. We'll see about what to do tomorrow morning!"
Illya Kuryakin's blue eyes met the fisherman's green ones.
"Mikey, It's a jail... You know what I mean: I was a prisoner and..."
"None of my business, boy. You were, okay. You aren't any longer. And camping isn't a very good idea, with the storm.
"But you have to know..."
The old man cut him down.
"Illya, my boy, you know Greek mythology perfectly well, but you're quite a dense guy! In this country, we don't stick our nose into the others' business. You are now a free man, and..."
"Mikey, sometimes, they free guilty people... Free doesn't mean innocent, and..."
The fisherman stared at him and chuckled.
"Boy, I am an old man, but although you are very young, I think I could throw you overboard with a single hand..."
The Russian whitened, and smiled sheepishly.
"No, Mikey. No, you couldn't."
The green eyes narrowed. No fear. Just... a gentle understanding. Mikey smiled, too, with a wink.
"No, Illya, I probably couldn't... So, as you are not ( not yet?) seasick, I could do with some help."
Napoleon Solo frowned. He wanted to get his partner out of this place. As soon as possible, but a storm was coming... and they were lucky to be still on their way to the jail. The pilot might have hesitated, he might have suggested they could come back to the city, but Solo's and Cutter's looks had dissuaded him from even talking about it. However, once on the island, they would have to wait till the morning. The jail was now in view. The Uncle agent sighed, unaware of Cutter's gaze.
"Gone ? He is GONE?"
The annoyed man sighed, leaned back and folded his arms, with self-importance. He repeated.
"Yes. He is gone. He was free, so he could go away! We gave him the necessary... and the opportunity to leave the jail. He signed the release form—Here it is, if you want to see—and he went out. Now, gentlemen..."
Solo turned toward Cutter, ignoring the other man, and whispered.
"I knew it, Cutter. I knew it. He doesn't want to see us. We... I have abandoned him. He can't trust me. He can't trust Uncle, anymore."
The annoyed man openly peeked at his watch. A busy, very busy man, who had more important things to do than... Cutter bent forward, putting both his hands on the desk. He wasn't really threatening. Not really.
"Because, of course, sir, you have told Mr Kuryakin that we were going to fetch him?"
The man lowered his eyes. Cutter hit the desk. The governor startled, but remained silent, composing his features: he was now the insulted man. It didn't stump Cutter who asked again, slowly.
"Have you told him...?"
The other pursed his lips, defiantly.
"I told him... the main thing: he was free. Nothing else matters much to a prisoner. I know my job."
Cutter cursed. Napoleon Solo had felt uneasy since the very first moment they had met the governor of this jail. He had been ready for many things. He had half expected his partner to refuse to see him. He had dreaded to cross Illya's hurt look. But he could have done with that.
Illya wasn't here any more. This... had let him go, alone... Alone, and...?
A very unpleasant thought occurred to him. He stood up and went round the desk. He sat on, just above the governor of the jail. He spoke wearily, but despite the tone, his voice was threatening.
"You « acquainted » him with his new situation... Did you tell him... why he was freed ? Did you tell him, by the merest chance, that he was innocent ? That he wasn't a murderer?"
The man didn't answer. Quicker than a snake, Solo's hand clutched his throat. Cutter commented, emotionless.
"You should talk, sir. Mr Solo is a little irritated... And, you, Napoleon, at least, let him speak..."
The governor muttered.
"No... No, I didn't..."
Without a word, Napoleon ruthlessly slammed the man, throwing him down. He rolled and hopefully tried to crawl toward the door. But Cutter was casually leaning against it. The governor got down on all fours. He yelped.
"You... You have no right to do that. I 'll complain to Waverly. I am the governor of this jail and you'll have to..."
Cutter raised his hand.
"Yes, yes, do that. I am really sure that Mr Waverly will appreciate... Stand up, man. You're ridiculous. Sit down. Here. So, now, where is Mr Kuryakin?"
Solo watched the scene, trying to quiet down. He could have killed this... The man hesitated. Cutter repeated, slowly.
"Where is Mr Kuryakin ? What have you told him ?"
The man picked himself up. It wasn't bravery, it was just the absolute heights of his arrogance. His almost pouting lips hissed.
"I told him that he was free, that he could go. Our pilot refused to leave, because of the storm. So Kuryakin boarded on a fishing boat . He must be close to the Charon's pass, now."
Napoleon Solo came back beside Cutter, thrilled with the man's shiver.
"You are the governor of an Uncle jail, you know that ? Mr Waverly gave you orders. Would you please tell me why you didn't obey?"
The man blushed. His eyes blackened. No shame. Anger. Cutter pushed the line.
"All you had to do was to free an innocent! What seems to be the problem?"
The governor exploded.
"An innocent? Peanuts, men! Innocent... I was in Korea. Kuryakin is a Russian. He can't be « innocent ». We don't need Russians, UNCLE... doesn't need those damned commies! They are our enemies !"
Solo clutched again the man's throat. He bent toward him.
"I was in Korea, too. Illya Kuryakin is my partner and he is the most faithful, the most efficient agent I ever worked with in UNCLE. And you... you are a stupid, ignorant fool..."
Beyond all caution, now, the man was now chalky, raging.
"Kuryakin is Waverly's fair-haired boy! Everybody knows that! Is he yours, too?"
Cutter was off the mark at a spring, ready to prevent a blood bath. But Solo released his grip. Calmly. The cool CEA was back. He called the guard, outside, and showed him the foaming governor.
"This man is under arrest, for disobedience and perhaps treason. Lead him in his quarters."
The governor went wild.
He hadn't eaten anything. He couldn't. The deputy head was now the new governor of the jail. Words, explanations, minutes, hours... Later, Waverly had called them back. Mark's story... Napoleon Solo had barely listened the Old Man's comments. He had left all the stuff to Cutter and was pacing up and down, in the corridors, the halls.
The place was impersonal. It didn't really look like a jail. Deserted. Silent. He wished to see his partner's cell but he couldn't see any guard. No. In this hall, there was one. A young man who looked at him curiously. Solo came up to him. The man saluted him.
"I am Napoleon Solo and..."
"I know, sir. May I help you?"
"Well, I would like to see Illya... Mr Kuryakin's cell. But perhaps, you don't..."
The young man was now solemn.
A square room. White. No windows. A poor shower. As... toilets ?... a sort of hole in the ground. A cot. Bounds.
And nothing else. A shy voice went up.
"For nearly three months, they lit the cell, night and day, like that."
Suddenly the white light brightened, dazzling, almost unbearable. Then, it came back to normal. The young man whispered.
"Governor's orders. Just for Mr Kuryakin."
Solo was sick at his stomach.
"How could he survive ? It could have driven him insane..."
Perhaps, it did.
"He was always emotionless, sir. He shut off from all this. I wish I could have done anything, but..."
Napoleon Solo could see his self-contained, self-possessed, self-sufficient partner.
They left the cell and went along the corridor. In the hall, the young guard grabbed Solo's arm.
"I hope he'll be okay, sir..."
"So do I."
Solo's voice was incisive. More than the young guy deserved. He was genuinely concerned. The CEA smiled, and tapped the guard on the shoulder.
"He'll be fine. What's your name?"
"Stellon, you shouldn't stay here."
The young man smiled faintly. Napoleon Solo made his way back to his bedroom. The storm was breaking outside... He barely heard it, due to the huge walls.
His own little storm would be less easy to hush up.
"Look at this lady! She skims over the water! We'll be at home soon, boy!"
The fisherman proudly turned toward his passenger and chuckled at the sight. The wind had got stronger, and the lake surface progressively went to raging surf. The boat was speeding. There was going to be some fun, at least for those who weren't seasick...
But the said passenger was... asleep. He was gracefully wrapped around a heap of ropes and old blankets, the cheek on his wrist, fair locks messing around. And he slept. He wasn't sick, no. He slept like a baby, dead to the world, dead to the storm, and you could even notice a faint smile on this previously so strained face. He looked twelve!
His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. He desperately tried to blank himself to the cell, but it didn't work. The whiteness haunted him.
He pressed his fingers on his eyes, but the light was still there. It slipped through the smallest crack, dazzling.
It killed him, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. It burnt his eyes, his mind.
But it was Justice. He had deserved this fate.
He rolled and lied on his stomach, the head in the thin mattress. Darkness... But the light burnt his back. It blistered him. He didn't see it any more, but he felt it. It was driving him insane.
He had to go. The urge became unbearable. His bladder was close to explode.
But he couldn't do that. This... hole. They were looking at him. He knew it. They were relishing his humiliation. And he would give up, soon. They were just waiting for it. He had to go.
The shower. Every day. One more humiliation: two guards in the cell, and he had to shower in front of before their eyes. They gave him the stated dose of liquid soap. An odorless soap, which didn't lather. Some of the guards were looking at the walls, the cot.
But some of them stared at him, sneering, bawdy...
Then, a man came to shave him. The guards bounded him on a chair, and the man did his job. Efficiently. He never cut him. He « handled » him, with the shaving foam, the rasor. No word.
No word. Never. He was the invisible man, except for the time of the shower. They never talked to him. Never.
Time... What time is it?
He didn't know. They would come for the shower. It would be the morning. Or not. No landmarks. He had tried to ask about time: was it the morning ? The day? The night? He could have asked to the wall.
The meals. Odourless. Tasteless. No knife, no fork. No hunger. And two guards.
The exercise time. A room, larger than his cell. Empty: a floor, a ceiling, four walls. Two guards. The light. He could run, he could do limbering-up exercises... He did, first. Now, he just sat down. A strong, lithe body wasn't much use, any more.
They could have sentenced him to death. They should have.
No. He didn't deserve mercy.
He had betrayed their trust.
He had betrayed his partners' trust.
He had shot Mark Slate.
He was a traitor.
They had abandoned him.
And it was Justice.
And this dazzling light, still burning him. The head in the pillow, he couldn't find darkness.
No one would come and save him, this time.
He was on the verge of tears.
He gave up.
Tears filled his eyes.
They would get their money's worth, this time.
A clap of thunder.
The door exploded. Some one had blasted it. He didn't move. It was a dream... or the end?
A gentle, warm hand stroked his hair, and a soothing voice whispered in his ear.
"I am here, my friend. You must wake up, now."
This voice. His voice. A dream. A nasty joke. He wouldn't look. But he couldn't help...
He raised his head and opened his eyes. A smiling face. His partner's face.
Strong arms around him, rolling him. Helping him to sit up straight. He clung to his friend for dear life, sobbing as a child. Mercy. His partner was here for him. He had forgiven. He would free him.
"Kill me. Please, kill me. Shoot me. Break my neck. Please."
"Easy, my friend, easy. You are making a fool of yourself! All that is a nasty trick, I know it. You are innocent. I am sure of that, whatever they may say. And I want you to be sure of it, too! I'll put you in a safe place, tovarisch, and I'll prove it. You trust me?"
He could feel the move of his partner's lips whispering just in the corner of his own.
Illya was here.
Illya trusted him.
Illya came, blasted the jail, and he was going to bring him out...
He held him tight, panting.
Napoleon Solo awoke, choking. He was holding his pillow tight.
It could have been him.
He couldn't have survived.
He handled deftly the boat in the small harbor, and brought it alonside the quay. The sky was now greyish black, teared by flashes of lightening. The thunder noisely purred. It didn't matter for the sleeper. Mikey chuckled again. Strange guy...
"Boy, wake up now ! It looks like that rain is coming!"
The young man opened his eyes, and was immediatly at it. The fisherman, amazed, noticed that he knew exactly where he was.
Illya Kuryakin smiled at the older man, and stood up. He looked around, feeling a little lightheaded. It wasn't unpleasant, at least. The show was extraordinary. Beautiful : colours, lights, sounds... Mikey threw a rope at him.
"Know something about hitches, boy?"
Illya nodded, and jumped on the quay with the rope. He was ( sometimes...) seasick; although he had been a seaman, in Russia, for a few months... Mikey came beside and gave his approval.
The thunder always purred, but there was now a new noise, a strange whistling in the top of the trees, of the roofs...
The Flood began.
A heavy rain fell in horizontal waves. They were already soaked. The fisherman grabbed Illya's arm, and as he had done on the path, he dragged him to the harbor, without a word. Sheltered from the wind by some mall cabins, they reached what looked like a wooden house. Without stopping, Mikey pushed the door and they came in.
"The door was open?"
"Our doors are always opened, Illya. That's the rule, here, in Mousehole!"
Under the ceiling crisscrossed by log beams, Illya Kuryakin stood beside the stone fireplace, captivated by the flames, their moves, the noise, the smell... A lukewarm towel ended up on his shoulders.
"Come on, Illya! You are going to take a hot shower, and put on dry clothes."
The Russian slapped his forehead.
"The case! It's still in the boat."
"Don't worry! You 'll sleep in my son's room, tonight. We'll find you some clothes."
Mikey stared at him, from head to toe, as a cattle-farmer.
"Well, my Ben is a little larger than you. But his friend... his friend is about your size!"
The Russian startled, and appalled, turned toward the fisherman. What did he say? Mikey was obviously delighted by the young man's look. Quite satisfied, he winked at him.
"Ben is my son, as you understood, and his friend... his boyfriend, Illya, is... Alan. What did you think, boy?"
He felt the hot water run down his body. It was such a pleasure. The last shower... an eternity before, had been pleasant, but it smelled the jail. Here, he was surrounded by a sweet perfume of lavender, with a hint of lemon. He had lived for three months in a white and impersonal universe. No sensations. Since he was out, he was amazingly sensitive, to the faintest noise, sight, smell, contact... Intimacy. He lathered himself, from the head to the toes. He was alone. Nobody was peeping at him. He was getting to know his own body again. Every inch of it. The water swept along the soap and all the bad memories.
"Illya, hope you aren't asleep again? Come on, boy, are you hungry?"
Of course, he was. He couldn't say when he had got his last lunch. Three months ago, probably.
The two men were sitting down at the table. In front of them, bread, a bowl of an unknown thing, and a... pâté. The local pâté. Some beer. And water.
"Try it, Illya. You've never eaten something like that. And that is horseradish cream. From now, you'll never do without it!"
The fisherman peeked at his guest. He could even stare at him: he didn't matter! The young man ate almost religiously. Eyes half closed. A concentrated face. Absolute bliss.
"Better than the food of the jail, isn't it?"
He regretted having spoken, instantaneously. The bliss vanished. The blue eyes opened and looked sadly at him. The young man pushed his plate, sighing.
"It's easy to forget. Too easy. That 's why there are jails, I guess... to remind you of your crimes."
Such bitterness. Such despair in the voice. The fisherman was a man of few words, and he recognised himself in this boy.
In Mousehole, the doors were open: the neighbour could pick up what he needed, he could bring you apples, horseradish, pies... But everybody kept his nose in his own business. At least, they pretended to. However, sometimes...
"Illya... Do you want to tell me? Is there anything I..."
The young man shook his head. Mikey backed down.
"Don't feel you have to. That's your choice. Anyway, let's go on the couch, beside the fireplace."
In the comfortable seat, Illya Kuryakin closed his eyes. One could have believed that he was sleeping. Mikey knew better. He had seen the boy soundly asleep, before.
The breath was quick. The face was strained. He looked one hundred years.
A faint voice.
"I killed a man. I killed a good friend. I shot him. In cold blood. You wanted to know? You know."
Silence. A heavy one. Just, far from the room, outside, the noise of the storm... Mikey helped.
"I killed a man..."
Well. Mikey tried again.
"Were you drunk? Drugged?"
"No, I wasn't. I shot my friend. I can't tell you why. I don't know. I don't remember anything. I killed a man, and I can't even remember it. Funny, isn't it?"
Funny? Not really. The fisherman pursed his lips. He knew men.
"If you don't remember, boy, you can't be sure that you have done it!"
"I did. No doubt. There are proofs, you know."
"Proofs can lie, my friend."
Illya Kuryakin winced. "My friend..."
"I am a murderer, Mikey. Let's face the facts ! You'd have known better than to bring me to your home..."
A murderer. Mikey couldn't believe that.
"How long did you stay in that jail?"
"And they freed you, a murderer, as you said, after only three months? That's quite amazing... and pretty illogical!"
Illya Kuryakin relaxed slightly, and smiled sadly.
"I don't understand why they have freed me, Mikey. You have to know, I thought, at first, that they wanted to get rid of me. An escaped prisoner. A fugitive shot by the guards... And I agreed with that."
Mikey remembered the young man's look, in the path. Of course. The boy was waiting to be shot... But the walls were deserted. Was he insane?
"They... Who are "They"?"
"I work... I worked for an agency, the U.N.C.L.E., who fights the crime. It seems that... no. I have betrayed them, even if I don't remember it. I killed Mark. I said that I worked for the U.N.C.L.E.? Perhaps I was a mole, from the beginning!"
Mikey saw again the mix of sadness and fear in the young man's eyes. He was puzzled. The boy wasn't insane. Not yet.
He leaned back against the couch, staring at the fire. Let's try a little small talk...
"Two years ago, my Ben called me. He wanted to introduce his friend to me. He didn't tell me anything about this friend. Just that I might be surprised. I was quite happy, you know. A girl friend... A daughter-in-law... Grand-children...They came. I saw the car. I saw Ben. And I saw a young man, smaller than my son, with red-hair, green eyes, completely freckled. He looked quite terrified, you can guess. I know men, Illya. The moment that I saw him, that I saw them together, all my prejudices were blown off. I was expecting a little blonde... Alan wasn't exactly that, but he loved Ben, and Ben loved him. They are happy, and they make me happy. You don't understand why I am telling you this story ? As I said, Illya, I know men. You are a very amazing boy, you've done... what you've done. But you are not a murderer. Not that sort of murderer."
"I am, Mikey."
The fisherman shook his head. No. If you were, you would know it. In your guts. I looked at you while you were sleeping, boy. You were peaceful...
"Well, what do you think of a nightcap? Have you noticed that we don't really hear the storm, here? Our ancestors were clever. When they came on this shore, they waited. They watched. They thought, and they chose this place for our Mousehole. Will be a lot of damages, at Charon's pass, and around. Not here. Never. So, nightcap ? Whiskey ? Bourbon ? Or... perhaps... Vodka?"
He threw the pillow at the wall, furiously, and stood up. He wouldn't sleep any more. He put clothes on. He headed to the door, when someone knocked. He had no time to answer, the visitor was already in.
"Everything is okay, Mr. Solo?"
Cutter. He was holding a bottle, and two glasses.
"I saw some light... Mr. Solo?...Napoleon?"
Napoleon Solo nodded, and motioned him to sit on the bed. He caught his breath, and settled on the floor.
"Why, Mr. Cutter?"
"If I call you Napoleon, you can call me Jules, Mr. Solo. Why...?"
"You disagreed with Mr Waverly, about having a Russian in Uncle... You... well, you had been always after him, at the Survival School. And today, you stuck up for him... Why? I believed that you would back up the governor... You share his op..."
Napoleon Solo's voice spoke flatly, and Jules Cutter shook his head.
"I am not the enemy, Mr. Solo. I didn't want any Commie. When I saw him, I mistrusted this little blond Russian and I tried to break him. I was wrong. I failed. I am not a fool, Napoleon. Illya Kuryakin is worth the trouble."
Cutter filled the glasses and handed one to his fellow.
"You'll know better than to tell him about that, of course!"
"I just hope that I'll have the opportunity to tell him... anything. He is gone. We don't know where, and he still believes that he is a traitor, that he killed Mark."
Cutter sat down on the floor, beside Napoleon Solo.
"I talked to a guard... The governor ordered him to find a boat, for Mr Kuryakin. The man knew a fisherman, who delivers fish everyday. He asked him to bring your friend out... I have his name, his address. Tomorrow..."
Napoleon Solo wasn't in an optimistic mood. Getting back his friend was his dearest wish. Of course. To his horror, he realised that he had now a terrible dread of his dearest wish. It would have been easier, more comfortable, at least, to "free" Illya from the jail. He would have been the rescuer. A poor, late, very late rescuer, but a rescuer. He would have now to deal with a free man.
"And? What will happen, then? Can you tell me? I saw his cell, Cutter. I talked with a guard, too."
"I know. I met him, here, do you remember?"
"He would have save me, you know. He wouldn't have abandoned me. He would have stubbornly fought Waverly, the Commission, the whole U.N.C.L.E.. My pig-headed Russian. I... I did... nothing."
Jules Cutter refilled their glasses, keeping a careful silence.
"Vodka... I would like it very much, Mikey, but it would be very wise... You might have to put me in bed..."
"Vodka, it is, boy!"
The older man disappeared and came back in a blink of an eye, with a frozen bottle, a glass, and a beer. Illya Kuryakin felt amazingly soothed.
"Ben is a lucky boy, Mikey. He has a wonderful father. I hope he knows that. And his friend, too."
"Well, yes, they do. And I am a lucky dad... Does your parents live... Oh, sorry, boy, I am a very poor Mousehole citizen. I keep prying..."
"Don't worry. My parents died. I was about six years old."
"I am sorry, Illya..."
The two men drank, the Russian his vodka, the fisherman his beer. Mikey happily noticed the same concentrate look. This time, he knew better than to speak and closed his eyes, enjoying his beer.
The fisherman startled... he was dropping off to sleep...
Mikey stared at his guest; the young man was almost avidly looking at the bookshelf. He smiled.
"Enjoy yourself, Illya... and you'll have plenty more in your room, you know."
The fisherman was soundly asleep. Illya Kuryakin smiled, drawing the blanket on him, and walked towards the door. He peeked at the outside. The storm was weakening. It was time. He would go to the boat to pick up his case, and went away. Where... wasn't a wise question, because he had no answer to it. He had to leave this house, this man. For his safety... For their safety. The young man bent forward to take his shoes.
"What's the hell do you think you are doing, boy?"
Darkness. He groped about for the bedside lamp. Eventually, he got it and lit the room, then, he leaned back in the bed. A real bed. He stretched himself, and peeked at his watch. 4 a.m. The house was silent; the storm had ended. It was time. He would put on clothes, pick up his case in the boat, and go away. Where... wasn't a wise question, because he had no answer to it. He had to leave this house, this man. He had to leave this house and this man. For his safety. The young man pushed the door.
"What's the hell do you think you are doing, boy?"
The fisherman walked along the catwalk and climbed up to upper terrace. He took down the shutters. After a short hesitation, he pushed the windows, and silently entered the room. He held his breath not quite sure of what he would find. Then he smiled. The young blond man was soundly asleep, widely spread on the bed, apparently stark-naked. A sunbeam fell on his face, and he rolled on his stomach, without opening an eye. The fisherman startled, seeing his guest's back. Scares. So many scares. Mikey knew scares. He had been a soldier. Knife. Bullets. Long and thin dashes... Whip? He left the bedroom.
A sweet, delicious smell awoke him. The room bathed in the sunlight. Someone had opened the window and the curtains flied in the breeze. Coffee. Toasted bread. Illya Kuryakin jumped out of the bed, caught his watch and... cursed. It was the morning... 9 a.m. He had slept the whole night... Worse. He felt... fine. Alive. And... happy to be... Not so guilty to be . He put the clothes that Mikey had given him, and went to the french window. It leaded to a small wooden terrace. The sunlight was dazzling. He was stepping back, when a voice gave him a start.
"What's the hell do you think you are doing, boy?"
His arm above his forehead, he looked around for the fisherman.
"Get the catwalk to the lower terrace, on your left, Illya. It's breakfast time! Hurry, toasted bread doesn't wait!"
A table was settled, with coffee pot, milk, sugar, toasted bread, butter, jam, cheese, cereals, and... pâté. Mikey must have asked all Mousehole to the breakfast.
"Sorry, boy. Hope you like coffee. We aren't tea-drinkers, here. Do you want some milk?"
Illya Kuryakin shook his head and sat down. Mikey poured coffee into his mug.
"How are you doing, this morning?"
Illya Kuryakin chuckled. He took some bread and began to butter it.
"As you can see, Mikey, I am fine."
He looked up at the man.
"I shouldn't. But I do."
The fisherman smiled. The boy liked to eat, and he enjoyed himself, but he had no longer this concentrate look. The look of a man who hadn't eaten for a long time and who wasn't sure that he would eat again.
"When I took off the shutters, I thought that you could be gone..."
The Russian swallowed his slice of toast.
"I... I intended to be, Mikey. I wanted to go away during the night, but..."
"But you slept. And you didn't awake. Even when I came in your room... You looked so relaxed. You still look !"
Illya Kuryakin stood up and walked toward the logs that lined the terrace. He stared thoughtfully at the extraordinary landscape. It seemed... washed, brilliant, clean. Deep blue lake, with hints of green, under blue sky, with some white cloud flakes. Deep green trees. A fresh breeze. Freedom.
"I feel fine, Mikey."
"And you aren't convinced anymore that you are a murderer..."
The young man sighed and came back to his chair. He stared at Mikey, blue eyes in green eyes, keeping silent for a few seconds.
"No, no, Mikey. You are right. I am not."
His gaze darkened.
"But... I know that it must be the truth."
"Poppycock! At the very moment you left the jail, Illya, your guilt feeling began to weaken. It made you sick, so much that you felt guilty about not feeling guilty..."
The fisherman looked that serious... Illya Kuryakin couldn't help smiling.
"Oh, don't smile, boy. Perhaps I haven't the right words to explain that, but I would like to tell you something, as if you were my son. Stop punishing yourself! Give yourself a chance. You should taste this jam!"
And again, Illya can't help chuckling. This man had a very efficient strategy. He pulled you about, and suddenly released you. He took the jam... What could have he done?
"I saw the book you chose yesterday. Amazing..."
"One of Ben's books?"
"No. My wife's. She was a teacher. She taught philosophy, you know."
The fisherman fell silent. Illya Kuryakyn knew better than to ask. He saw a sad mist in Mikey's eyes.
"Everyday, she gave a quote to her students. And before leaving the house, every morning, she wrote it for Ben and for me on the blackboard, in the kitchen. Ben was hardly old enough to read... I used to pick out some of them. This... Mount..."
"This as you say has said something that Janice often repeated, and that would be appropriate for you. Wait!"
Mikey disappeared and came back with an old note-book. He leafed through it and victoriously raised his index finger.
"She told me that, when I was complaining about something that had happened, that might happen... Listen : My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened."
Cutter knocked at the door and pushed it. The bedroom was empty. Napoleon Solo was gone, with his case. Cutter looked at the bed: sheets and blankets were exactly as they were the night before, and the pillow was still on the floor. He sighed, and headed to the entrance hall. Solo stood in front of the door.
"How are you doing, Napoleon?"
The CEA turned toward Cutter. Clean-shaven, impeccable suit. Dark shadows under his eyes.
"I tried to call Charon's pass, the lines are out. The helicopter has been commandeered for a rescue mission, but the pilot will drop us there. Then, we'll have to find a boat."
Damages were substantial, everybody was busy, but the two men met an understanding fisherman.
"Yesterday evening? Of course not! We aren't stupid, men! We came back earlier and stayed at home!"
"Well, we know that a boat left the island yesterday evening. It must be here!"
The man ignored Napoleon Solo's harsh tone. He looked at him, shaking his head.
"No, my boy, no. Whose boat?"
"A fisherman called Mikey Gur..."
The man burst into laughter.
"Mikey? This damned Mikey is far too crafty! He is an old fox, he knows the lake inside out. And he is a Mouseholer!"
Napoleon Solo felt his blood boiling. Cutter put a hand on his arm.
"What do you mean, man?
"Mikey lives in Mousehole. It's a sort of "safe harbor", here. Storms seem to avoid this little town. And Mikey is a damned good sailor. If you want to find your boat, you'll have to go to Mousehole!"
Solo turned toward Cutter.
"Let's find a car, Jules."
"Ts ts ts! You can't do that, men."
The two men stopped and stared at the old guy. He was looking at them with a pleased smile, keeping silent, savoring the moment.
"What's that ?"
"You can't drive to Mousehole."
The old man was waiting for the next question. He had a great fun. Cutter frowned, this man was getting on his nerves.
"Would you please, sir, tell us what you mean?"
That was the Cutter's voice and tone, at the Survival School. The old fisherman gave up. "Sir"... It looked serious.
"The road is impassable.... You'll have to sail... There are boats, but nobody can take you to Mousehole, for the moment."
The old fisherman saw the flash in Cutter's eyes.
"And I am too old..."
Solo didn't listen and looked around, considering the boats. He smiled and turned toward Cutter.
"Well, we'll commandeer this one. I have a boat, and I can sail. You, old man, you'll tell the owner that Federal agents needed his boat. He'll get it back later."
Federal agents? The old man was delighted, while he raced to the bar. Federal agents... That was interesting.
"Federal agents, Napoleon?"
Napoleon Solo shrugged his shoulders. "Federal agent" was all purpose...
This side of the shore was untouched, and the landscape was beautiful, but the two Uncle agents didn't take the slightest notice of it.
"Look forward, that's must be Mousehole. We'll berth in a few minutes."
"Montaigne said something, too, that you could tell to Ben and Alan, Mikey."
Mikey was puzzled. This young man was really quite amazing.
"You don't know this book by heart, do you?"
"No, Mikey, no. Just some quotes... Listen, and write on your note-book : If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I. "
"It's a very nice thing, Illya, and I am sure they'll love it. Oh, boy, we have visitors. Look at the quay."
Illya Kuryakin froze.
"It's a beautiful place..."
Napoleon Solo's smile faded. He loved sailing. He had enjoyed the trip. But now they were at Mousehole. He was usually used to act under pressure, but this time, he barely could. Yes, the place was beautiful, peaceful. No damages, just some puddles. And somewhere, Illya. He hoped so. Or not. He felt... scared.
There were a few people in the harbor. Some fishermen and their family. Amazingly, though they had obviously noticed the two visitors, they didn't seem to pay any attention to them. As Solo and Cutter passed them, they just waved or nodded to them. Cutter held Solo back.
"Look! That's the Janice III! At least, our Mikey is here... So, Mr Kuryakin is, too."
Napoleon Solo took a deep breath, clearing his voice.
"Where is his house?"
Cutter read the address on his notebook. Well, an address. Where was it? Solo was looking around when a cheery voice sounded next to him.
"Look for something, men?"
A gracious old lady, with a basketful of vegetables, stared at them.
"We... look for Mikey... This is his boat, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
She was great... Cutter couldn't help smiling: the old lady acted as the old fisherman: one question, its answer. Strictly its answer. And you had to go on... But Napoleon Solo had no sense of humor.
"Is he at home?"
The old lady pointed at the boat.
"Could you please tell us where is his house?
"Yes, I could."
Cutter chuckled. Solo, appalled, turned toward him.
"I don't think that's very funny, you know. We are wasting time, and..."
Cutter tapped his shoulder, and smiled to the old lady. She was obviously delighted.
"Madam, we are looking for Mikey, and a friend of us. We were waiting for them at the Charon's pass, but the storm... well. We have been told that Mikey was probably here."
"Of course, my boy, of course. You don't teach your grand-mother how to suck eggs!"
Napoleon Solo muttered, but Cutter smiled again, encouragingly. The old lady melted.
"Do you see the big wooden house, at the top end of the lane? That's Mikey's house!"
"Thank you very much, Madam."
"You're welcome, boy, you're welcome."
Napoleon Solo looked at Cutter ironically; when he would tell about Cutter using his charms on an old lady... The other looked daggers at him.
"Don't even think of it, Solo! You forgot your lines, I had to make up for it! Let's go, now."
The fisherman came back, so he could peek without being seen. Two men was crossing the harbour, and the little market place. They stopped to talk to... the old Margaret. He turned toward the Russian. The boy had bleached.
"Illya, there are two men. You have to come here. Tell me, do you know them?"
Illya Kuryakin shivered, and took a few steps forward. Mikey grabbed his arm to prevent him from falling down. He helped him to sit . The young man buried his face in his hands, in what looked like a state of total collapse.
"Do you know them? Illya, tell me, are they enemies?"
Oh, no they weren't. Illya Kuryakyn shook his head, and answered, with a suppressed tone.
"No. They are... friends. The youngest is... was my partner. He was my best friend, too."
"So, there is nothing to be afraid of..."
"I don't want to meet them, Mikey. I can't."
The young man was shivering and the fisherman pulled him up.
"Help me with the table. We'll take it in the living. Then you'll go back to your bedroom, and I'll deal with them. Okay?"
Mikey waited for the young man to be back in his room, and he leaned out of the balustrade. The two visitors were coming.
He couldn't stand it. He wouldn't stand it.
He reviewed rationally the possibilities. There were very few of them. Altogether, one.
They had freed him, to get him in another jail. Or in a psychiatric hospital. Perhaps they had eventually decided that he was insane... Illya Kuryakin knew that for sure.
He wouldn't stand it. The white cell. The dazzling light. The loneliness.
And the worse :you have to be cruel to be kind. Napoleon would be the one who would get him there.
The Russian could match his part... his ex-partner. He could match Cutter. He probably could match both of them.
He was able to. Even after three months in that jail.
But... he wouldn't.
If he fought them, Mikey would try to help. Mikey could be harmed.
If he fought them, he might harm them. He might harm Napoleon. He might kill him.
If he fought them, he might be killed. Napoleon might kill him.
He didn't mind dying.
But he knew.
He knew that Napoleon couldn't survive to this. Whatever happened.
So, he was going to give up.
He would turn himself in to them.
In a few minutes.
He looked around the room, memorizing all he could. He caught the book and held it tightly to him, like a baby.
Cutter raised his head. Just above them, a man was looking at them.
"Hello, Mr Gu..."
"Mikey! We use first names, here."
Cutter took a deep breath. Okay, first, the old fisherman, then the old lady. Now, Mikey. You just had to rightly express your wishes.
"Mikey, we are looking for a friend of ours. You brought him out the jail, yesterday, and..."
Mikey took a step back. The two men couldn't see him anymore.
"Please, Mikey! We have to talk. We must..."
Cutter grabbed Solo's arm, and whispered.
"Talk to him. I'll check the boat."
"Mikey, I have to call our boss, but my friend would like to talk with you."
They waited, unsure, but the door opened. The fisherman went out, staring at them through his grey locks. Very piercing green eyes. He nodded, and motioned Solo to follow him. They climbed up to the terrace. Mikey waited. The dark haired man kept silent.
"Solo, Napoleon Solo."
Mikey raised an eyebrow.
"Illya mocked at me about it, when we met. Where is he, Mr Gu.."
"Mikey. He's gone. We couldn't reach the Charon's pass, so we came back home. We ate, we went to sleep. This morning, he was gone. That's all I can tell you, boy."
Solo closed his eyes. Mikey was really puzzled. This man was obviously on the verge of collapsing, as his blond friend. He didn't look like a hunter.
"How is he doing? Did you talk with him?"
Mikey was ready to strike up the old Mousehole song: "In this country, we don't stick our nose into the others' business." But he saw the sadness in the dark eyes. He recognized this sadness.
"He... was fine, I think. And yes, we talked."
Napoleon Solo sighed.
"Did he tell you that he..."
The young man was hopefully looking at the fisherman, who was pursing his lips.
"Yes, boy, he did."
Mikey hesitated, it was a risk, a calculated one, but he knew men.
"He told me that he was a murderer, that he had shot a friend."
Napoleon Solo winced. Illya still believed that he was guilty. Mikey peeped at him, going on. It was interesting...
"He also told me that he didn't remember anything. However, boy, he is a free man, now. You have to get off his back."
Solo chuckled bitterly.
"I can't do that."
The fisherman shrugged his shoulders, exclaiming loudly, feigning anger.
"Bloody leave him alone ! He's gone. All you have to do is to forget him. Or... is there... something...?"
Napoleon Solo sat down on the floor. The fisherman leaned back on the wall, waiting.
"A detail, Mikey. Illya... Illya is innocent. But you are not surprised, are you? You knew that, already, didn't you?"
"I know men... What happened? I don't want to pry, of course..."
"In this country, we don't stick our nose into the others' business."The perfect Mouseholer...
"It's a long story. We worked for U.N.C.L.E., an international agency. Did he tell you about that? We have powerful and malicious enemies. It was a very nasty plot... We have been deluded."
"So, Illya didn't killed his friend..."
"No, he didn't. Oh, and Mark, our friend, is alive. Very alive. Illya has to know that, Mikey. All I want is to tell him, nothing more."
Mikey was hesitating. Suddenly, Jules Cutter rushed in the terrace. He was to speak, but stopped, seeing Solo's and Mikey's faces. He cursed.
"Oh, no. Solo, please, I let my communicator in the boat. Would you get it for me? This slope will kill me..."
The tone was harsh. Cutter would run up this slope several times before he would slightly pant. He had a plan. Solo obeyed, and went out the house. Jules Cutter came up to the fisherman, and leaned against the wall, next to him.
"So, Mikey, where is he?"
Mikey took his breath... indignant. Jules Cutter raised a finger, waving it.
"Ts ts, ts, man. If Mr Kuryakin, Illya, is gone, whose case is it that I found in your boat?"
The fisherman was a good poker player. He just raised an eyebrow with a quite credible amazement. Although, Cutter had no time to waste.
"Don't try and fool me, man. Mr Kuryakin is here, in your house. I want to talk to him."
Mikey smiled pleasantly, but his eyes were still icy. He defiantly waited, compelling Cutter to go on.
"You helped him, rightly. You offered him a refuge. He needed that. But... now, Mikey, you can't do anymore. We can. He believes for sure that he is a murderer, and he isn't. He has to know that. Where is he?"
The fisherman replied simply.
"Sir, it's none of your business."
The smile was brightening, contrasting with the scathing tone. A very clear answer. Concise. Jules Cutter sighed, and tried again.
"Sir? No. My name is Cutter, Jules Cutter. Mikey, Illya Kuryakin has to know."
"He will... Sir."
Cutter could have triumphantly smiled: he had deluded the fisherman, eventually. He knew better. Mikey stayed unflappable. He didn't admit anything. He just underlined an obviousness. However, he condescended to point up.
"Illya is a free man. Leave him alone."
He stared at the U.N.C.L.E. Agent, ironically.
"I'll tell him, and he'll decide whether he wants or not to see you."
Cutter rolled his eyes. This fisherman was stubborn.
"No, Mikey, Illya isn't free. He won't be until he'll know what happened. He won't be until... You can't fix it."
Mikey chuckled ironically.
"I have been told that Mr Solo, Napoleon? was Illya's best friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed..."
Jules Cutter felt amazed. The fisherman's eyes reflected his suspicion. The man wouldn't give up, and Cutter didn't intend to fight him.
"Yes, Mikey. But their friendship... Their friendship had been badly strained. Illya rightly could bear a grudge against his partner for having abandoned him. You talked with Mr Solo. You have probably noticed his feelings of guilt. That's why I sort of get rid of him, for a few time."
Mikey took a deep breath, and his gaze softened.
"Feelings of guilt? I have noticed Illya's, about so many things, Mr Cutter. He is not angry. He is uncertain, unsure. I don't think that he'll blame his friend for anything."
The fisherman shrugged his shoulders.
"You want to see him, to talk to him. But he doesn't want to, Mr Cutter. Give him time, at least."
Suddenly Cutter took some steps on his left, so that he turned now his back to the house. He raised his voice, with a threatening tone.
"That's enough, sir. Where is he ? I give you fair warning!"
The voice was harsh, the Survival School Cutter's voice... but Jules Cutter was smiling, mischievously, his eyes twinkling. Mikey was puzzled. What the hell... ? Cutter barked again.
"Tell me, man, immediately, or..."
"Let him go. I am here."
A calm voice.
Cutter gave Mikey a wink.
"Nice to see you, Mr Kuryakin."
Then, he turned toward the Russian. The fisherman crossed the terrace, and came up to the young man's side, making his position clear.
The last time Cutter had seen Illya Kuryakin, he was a sort of waxwork, all his emotions, all his feelings amputated.
A blank look. Worse. Lifeless. Bleached mop of hair. White face. White clothes.
The young man actually was a sight to see. He wore an old and torn blue-jeans, a striped sweater. Blond hair, longer than usual, flying in the breeze, still pale, though. He stood barefoot. A very young boy...
Then, he turned his glaze to the strained face. There was an obvious sorrow in the Russian's eyes. He clearly wished to be anywhere else. But there was no escape. Cutter had cornered him, and he faced out, calmly, so vulnerable. Apparently. Cutter knew that for sure. He had once undervalued Illya Kuryakin. He wouldn't again. He smiled.
"Mr Kuryakin, we have to talk."
"So we'll talk."
The voice was dull, but the tone, ironical. Cutter took the bull by the horn. He got his communicator out his pocket.
"Alex? Cutter. Yes, he is in front of me. No. Not yet."
He handed the communicator to the young man.
"He would like to speak to you..."
Illya Kuryakin took the communicator, mechanically.
Napoleon Solo knew that he was under observation; all those people, on the marketplace, peeked at him. Discreetly, but they did. Cutter had tried to keep him away from the fisherman's house. And Solo agreed with that. He felt relieved. However, he wouldn't wander around the town , aimlessly, for hours. He set out for the wooden house, halfheartedly, at first. Then, he hastened towards the lane.
Just in front of him, on the terrace, a well-known silhouette. Golden locks flying in the sun.
Napoleon Solo was an honorable man. He couldn't lie himself. He had longed to see his partner again. He had wished that he could get him back, that they could work together again. He had hoped that they could... talk. For weeks. For months. He had tried, harder and harder, to find clues.
Now his tension was increasing: Illya was free. He was just there. And Napoleon Solo was getting into a panic about that.
He straightened his back. He wouldn't run away.
He had to face his partner.
He had to face his reproachful look.
Perhaps his contempt. His despair.
Or worse: his indulgence. His forgiveness. He remembered that dream. Had Napoleon been put in this jail, Illya would have blown it up, kept him safe somewhere. Then he would have tried to find clues. Solo knew that for sure.
As for him, he had been the good, well-mannered, obedient boy. The good CEA carrying out Waverly's orders. Illya might forgive him. Napoleon Solo couldn't forgive himself. Napoleon took a step after another. Slowly. Very slowly. He had to face his partner.
The Russian's pale face even whitened. He was listening, and the two older men could see him quivering. Then he asked, with the faintest voice.
"Are you sure of that?"
He shook his head in disbelief, and handed back the communicator to Cutter. Waverly cursed.
"Jules? Give me five minutes, I call you back."
Cutter gazed at the Russian who looked dizzy.
"Mr Kuryakin? Illya?"
The blue eyes stared at the lake. In the same move, Cutter and the fisherman came closer. Mikey grabbed the other man's arm, and gently pull him back, whispering.
"Let me, please."
Mikey leaned back against the logs, beside the Russian.
"So, boy, do you remember? My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened. Most of them, Illya. What happened... happened, and you'll have to deal with it. You went through hell, through many hells. But now you are truly free, boy. Free, and innocent."
The Russian put a hand on Mikey's shoulder and stared at Cutter.
"What do you expect me to do?"
Cutter felt uneasy. There was no irony. Illya Kuryakin meant it. The older man cleared his throat.
"No, Mr Kuryakin, the good question is: what do you expect us to do?"
The young man smiled bitterly. No, not bitterly. Cutter cursed himself silently. The Russian's smile was just... shy, uncertain.
"Expecting? I... I am not sure that I still know the word, Mr Cutter. And I am not sure that I can believe... all that."
The communicator provided a safety valve. Cutter listened, and handed it again to the Russian who shook his head. Cutter hung on, and the young man gave up.
Suddenly a true, boyish smile lit up his face. Illya Kuryakin raised a hand. He looked... delighted.
"It's... It's Mark, Mr Cutter. Mark..."
Cutter gently squeezed the young man's hand, and nodded. The Russian went away on the other side of the terrace and sat down on the floor. He spoke in a whisper, so they couldn't hear, but everything seemed to be all right. The two men looked each other with relief.
Two things happened nearly at the same time.
Firstly, Napoleon Solo pushed the door and reached the lower terrace.
Secondly, Illya Kuryakin put the communicator on the floor, stood up and climbed to the upper terrace.
Then, the communicator beeped. Cutter rushed to pick it up.
"Yes, Mr Slate. What happened?"
"I don't know. I... told him all the story. He was really happy to hear me... Eventually, I said that I longed to see him, that we all longed to see him back and that we'll met soon at Uncle headquarter...
"And he just said... no."
"I don't know, Mr Slate."
Cutter ended the call, and put the communicator back in his pocket. He realised that Napoleon Solo was beside him, looking at the catwalk, motionless.
In the bedroom, Illya Kuryakyn sat down on the floor, the back against the bed, and concentrated himself on Mark's story. He realised that Waverly had probably told him the same, but he hadn't been able to focus on it. Mark's voice had been a key. He had got out of his depth. Mark's voice had been a charm. It was real. Mark was alive.
Nothing had happened. It had just been a nightmare, a dreadful, terrifying one, but just a nightmare. Everything could get back in its right place.
Everything and every one.
He could imagine the UNCLE Headquarters, all the well-known faces, smiling at him, happy to see him back. Really happy.
He had heard the concern, the guilt in Waverly's voice. He'd have to heal it. Nobody was to be blamed. He could imagine Mark coming to meet him, hugging him, and...
That, he couldn't do. He wouldn't. When Mark Slate had talked about their meeting at the UNCLE headquarter, something had gone click. He had lost touch with this reality. This fairy tale.
He could see everyone. He remembered all of them. He knew who, where, when, why, how... He heard voices, beeps... The Old Man and his pipe, Napoleon in his office. Napoleon in his apartment. Mark, April... But he couldn't see... himself, anymore, in that world.
It was like a jigsaw. Memories were pieces. He had reconstituted the whole picture. But one piece stayed in his hand. The Illya Kuryakin piece. And there was no hole. No place for it in this picture.
The others didn't realize that, yet. But they would.
Napoleon already did.
He had left Cutter to himself.
He had let him handle the situation.
Waverly's guilt feeling, Cutter's compassion were genuine, but soon they would make way to embarrassment.
He wouldn't let it happen.
"And he said : « No. »."
The fisherman was looking at the two men with an obvious amazement. They remained silent. They didn't move. The older stared at the younger. The younger stared at the upper terrace. Suddenly infuriated, Mikey hissed at them.
"You won't do anything, so?"
The older shook his head. The younger winced, and turned towards Mikey, defiantly.
"You are the one who told me that Mr Kuryakin was free, and that we had to leave him alone. Do you remember?"
The green eyes blackened and the answer came, cutting.
"But it didn't suit you, then."
All defiance vanished, and Napoleon Solo replied, powerless.
"I was wrong. I should have... we should have listened to you."
"But you didn't. And perhaps you were right. It doesn't matter. You have to go and talk with him, boy."
Cutter's communicator beeped again. The man went away, listened, objected, obviously, then gave up.
"I have to go to the harbor, Napoleon. Waverly had ordered the local police to provide us a boat. I must see to it that they bring back the other boat at the Charon's pass. It might take long..."
"I'll go with y..."
Mikey's strong hand hit his chest ruthlessly.
"Sure not, boy ! Are you such a coward that you can't do anything else than to run away?"
Cutter motioned his fellow to stay, and left the terrace, not so halfheartedly...
The Russian closed his eyes. He was right. He hadn't shut the window. He hadn't pulled the curtain. Cutter didn't come. No hole. No place for the piece Kuryakin.
Napoleon Solo freed himself from Mikey's grab. He was panting. Breathing in. Breathing out. No way. He couldn't help choking. Someone slipped a glass in his hand. It was hot. Coffee.
"How long have you been without eating, and sleeping? You just look as terrible as your friend when I saw him at the jail. I think that you need a rest. There is a room, here. Go and sleep for a while. I'll talk with Illya."
"It's no use. I won't sleep. I... can't."
"Go, and calm down, at least."
Cutter went down sheltering himself behind a small cabin. He got his communicator.
"Alex? I am on my way to the harbor, but now we can talk..."
Napoleon Solo found himself in a very small bedroom. A child bedroom. A boy bedroom. He lied on the single bed. Restlessly.
Illya had said "no". It wasn't the answer to Mark's words. Napoleon Solo knew that. Illya had seen him. And he had said "no".
Waverly, Cutter could say what they wanted to.
Of course, Illya wasn't spiteful. He wasn't mean.
Yes, he sometimes pouted. Napoleon Solo coudn't help smiling. When they missed the lunchtime. When Napoleon left him with the reports to write. When Napoleon furtively patted the fair locks. When Napoleon pampered him, at the Medical.
He looked daggers at him, rolled his eyes, and they invariably ended bantering, laughing, at Napoleon's, at Illya's home.
Illya Kuryakin wasn't spiteful. He wasn't one to bear a grudge... He never had. Although, he could rightly do that, now.
He hadn't to feel any gratitude towards them.
You can be grateful to someone for helping you, forgiving you.
You haven't to be grateful to someone for giving you your due.
Waverly, Cutter, April, Mark could say what they wanted to.
What he had done wasn't enough. His efforts hadn't been on a level with his partner right expectations. Of course, Illya was indulgent (mostly...). He was helpful.
Yes, he sometimes moaned. When they missed the lunch time. When Napoleon was a little late to rescue him. When Napoleon failed to force some handcuffs open in less than two seconds. When Napoleon tried to speak Russian. When Napoleon surreptitiously patted the golden locks. When Napoleon tried to drink him under the table.
He rolled his eyes, gently chuckled, and they invariably ended bantering, laughing, at Illya's, at Napoleon's home.
Illya Kuryakyn wasn't arrogant. He wasn't scornful. He never was. Although, he could rightly be, now.
He could despise him.
You can't be grateful to someone for doing less than he should have.
You haven't to be grateful to someone for abandoning you.
Illya Kuryakin was sitting cross-legged on the bed, reading a book. He raised the head and smiled at the fisherman. A quite "irrelevant" smile...
However, Mikey smiled in return.
"Good, Mikey. No, that's a book for a fisherman, I think. Moby Dick. Is he gone?"
Mikey noticed the singular, but closed his mouth.
"Yes, he had to go to the harbor. But he'll come back..."
"Well, he doesn't understand, Illya. Neither do I. But both of us are single-minded, I guess..."
The young man sighed, but Mikey didn't intend to let him alone.
"Your friends put themselves out to help you, Illya, do you realise that"
The Russian kept silent for a moment. When he spoke, it wasn't an answer.
"I had been in my cell for a week when the governor came in. He just told me that I didn't exist anymore. All my properties had been destroyed."
Mikey was appalled. The young man was smiling. A strange smile.
Illya Kuryakin explained, with an indifferent tone.
"A traitor doesn't deserve to live. I was condemned to life imprisonment, but I had to die, in a way. UNCLE rules. Traitor's properties are destroyed. Valuables or not. Books, photos, records... Not given. Not sold. They... erase you, physically and... symbolically. So, you see, I have been erased."
The Russian peaceful smile was quite frightful. Mikey sat down on on the bed.
"But you are innocent, you have been cleared ! Everything will return to normal... Things are... only things, Illya. You are alive and you are free. Your friends are waiting for you."
"Free? Of course, I am. But the hole is filled up. There isn't any place for me, whatever they believe. The jigsaw is complete. And I am no longer part of it."
"You have to bring him back home, Jules. As soon as possible."
Alexander Waverly's tone was urging. However, it didn't impress Jules Cutter.
"To bring him back... home?"
"Don't play with words, please."
"He doesn't really give the impression that he wants to..."
"I know, I foresaw it, I... I understand, but, anyway, you can't stay there. Sooner or later, Thrush will react. You are not safe, and you know it."
He knew, but the problem was still there.
"What if Mr Kuryakin still refuses to come back with us? What do you expect us to do?"
"No way, Jules. He had no choice. We have no choice. If... If he really wants to leave... he'll have to be de-conditioned. For his own safety, and ours. He'll forget us, UNCLE have some influence, and he isn't lacking in useful skills... He'll be a perfect scientist, or perhaps a teacher... But I am pretty sure that he'll choose UNCLE. So, Jules, I am sorry... Jules?"
"You didn't answer."
"Does the headmaster of the Survival School need any advice from me, Jules?"
"Well. I can come back to the house, load my gun with sleep darts. I can shoot Mr Kuryakin, I 'll have to shoot our helpful fisherman. And probably Mr Solo, too. And we would for sure lose our Section 2 top team. I won't do that, Alexander."
Waverly harrumphed, but Cutter was already gone.
"I saw kind of emptiness in his eyes."
Illya Kuryakin raised his knees against his chest and wrapped his arms around. He looked amused
"You saw emptiness in Jules Cutter's eyes? I already have trouble in understanding his actual behaviour, his part in all this... Mikey?"
The fisherman caught the abandoned book, leafed through it.
"A book for a fisherman, you said? The captain Achab isn't a fisherman, Illya. He isn't even a hunter. He burns himself running after a white ghost. His true white whale is... his wrath, his vain wrath. He claims for revenge. Eventually, it kills him. It kills everybody around him, except for the young Ishmaël, just because Melville needed a narrator, I think."
The Russian considered the older man with astonishment.
"What do you mean, Mikey?"
"The thought of taking revenge is... sweet, comforting and you rightly could call them to account... I didn't realize how they treated y..."
Illya Kuryakin leaned forward and put a hand on the fisherman's arm.
"Mikey! I don't want... I am perfectly aware that they had no choice. It was the logical procedure. I can't blame them for it."
If the Russian had in mind to reassure his fellow, he had obviously failed. Mikey stared at him, grimly, and drew back.
"So, Illya, why do you run away from your friends?"
"You do. You just did! You can't deny it."
The young man leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes for some seconds. When he opened them again, Mikey was still there, waiting.
"Years ago, I had to leave Russia, I lived in France, in the UK, and eventually I had to go to the US. I had to change my habits. I lost almost all of my past life and I survived. "
The fisherman kept silent.
"Now... now,I have to do it again. I'll change my habits again. I 'll loose again my past life... And I 'll survive. Time that is passed will never come again, Mikey. I knew that since I was a very little kid."
Mikey couldn't help exclaiming. It was stupid.
"You have no reason to do that ! Your friends know that you are innocent, and..."
"And it surely doesn't please all of them. I am aware that some people, in UNCLE, could still believe that there is no smoke without fire. Some of them barely trusted me before... They will think that Mr Waverly wants to fool them. I don't want to be an embarrassment."
The fisherman shook his head. His green eyes were unusually cold. He hissed flatly.
"Achab? No, I told you that I didn't..".
"Yes, you are an Achab! And you know what, Illya? At least, Achab was hunting for revenge. He could rightly think that he had good reasons to do so. You... your white whale is... misfortune."
Illya Kuryakin was totally appalled: Mikey had given him comfort, gentleness. The fisherman's voice was now rough; his glare cold, accusing.
"I... I have never been an optimist, Mikey, just a rational scientist. Imagination isn't my..."
Mikey shook his head in denial.
"To be simply happy, to make the most of life, to relish the slightest luck..."
The older man stood up, and took some steps back to the french window.
"You don't know that, Illya. It doesn't matter to you. At first, there is this job of yours... You and your friends are perhaps the good guys, but you are something like spies, aren't you? Your living or dying isn't the important thing."
Illya Kuryakin commented in a subdued voice.
"Expendable...Yesterday, I told you that I could throw you overboard. You answered that I couldn't. Looking at you, I knew that you were right. Bu you didn't frighten me, and you still don't, but although you look like Janices's students, your eyes, your gaze are a century years old."
The fisherman bitterly smiled.
"I saw your back, this morning, boy. All those scares. All those visible ones. As Achab. And as him, all those that we can't see. Oh, you don't seek for death, you don't look for drama, for tragedy. But eventually, you wallow in it."
The Russian whispered.
"It is... It is unfair, Mikey."
The older man rubbed his chin, and bit his lower lip.
"... Yes, Illya, yes, it is unfair. I think that you had to learn how to avoid missing, caring and being cared. You had to learn unworldliness. You had to learn to ignore your feelings..."
The young man hissed.
"It saved my life... many times. It saved my life in this jail, Mikey."
"Yes, it did. But it might destroy you, too, now. You... you are ready to gamble your life, once more. But you didn't check what you were gambling, this time. Are you sure that you can afford to lose it?"
Illya Kuryakyn was grief-stricken.
-You talked about a jigsaw, boy. You are wrong: there are two pieces left. Not one. Perhaps you'd have better to think about it. Remember, Illya: Achab didn't only kill himself. He dragged everybody with him. I won't be your old Ishmaël, boy.
And the fisherman went out.
He wasn't proud of himself. He had treated the young man quite poorly. He had hurt him. But he had to. He had to wound him. He had said cutting words, unfair words... But he had to. There was time to comfort, time to be harsh. The young man had trusted him, because he wasn't part of his world. He agreed to depend on an unknown man, a stranger, he was, in his innermost being, unable to depend on his friends, especially on his closest friend... The man called Napoleon...
He would choose to isolate himself from them, for what he thought their sake, more than his own. It was a mistake. Mikey knew. He had done it.
A little voice chuckled in his mind... Janice. "Well done, my Mikey."
The fisherman had seen the dark-haired man's look. A look he knew well. Craning forward in the small room, he smiled. The said Napoleon was asleep. He would wait. Coming back to the terrace, Mikey froze.
The older man was right. Illya Kuryakin didn't deny it.
At first, changing life had become easier and easier. As a kid, the lost of his mother, his brother, his sisters, his grand-ma had devastated him. The Survivor Guilt, when you were a boy of eight, was quite an abstraction. He remembered, especially, his fear. He knew that he would have to justify himself to his father. He would have to account for his incompetence, his inability to save his family, although he was in charge of it. Because he was in charge.
"I have to go, Illya. You'll watch over your mum, your sisters and your brother for me. Can I trust you, for that?"
A terrifying responsibility.
The grown-up man had realized that it was just a father's small talk. Things you say to convince your son to be a good boy, to reassure him. At least, he never had to account to anybody about that. Particularly not to his dad. He was dead. The orphan had made up his mind. Whatever happened, he wouldn't account for it to anyone, except... himself.
He had carefully avoided all entanglements. Well. Nearly all. It became easier and easier. No friends, just fellows, "comrades". No girl friends, just occasional lov... no, partn... no. Just occasions. No family. A family? a wife, children are people you have to account to. Easier and easier? He liked kids. He would have liked to have some... No, it had not been so easy. Then, he had joined joined the UNCLE, the New York HQ and things had really begun to work loose. Alexander Waverly. Mark Slate. April Dancer. People who trusted him. Alexander Waverly. The powerful, demanding Number One, Section One; hard but fair. Implacable, but understanding. Mark and April. Indulgent, understanding. Fair.
It was so difficult to keep aloof.
His partner. Napoleon Solo. He had tried, at first, to hate him. To be hated. Easy, they were so different. Almost incompatible."We can't work together..." Solo had pleaded with Waverly to break their partnership. Illya Kuryakin knew that. Incompatibility ! Waverly's answer had been clear :"You complete each other well. Perfectly well."
He was right. They completed each other well. And this time, all hell broke loose. They had become partners. They had learned to trust each other for dear life. They had become friends. Close friends. Closest than brothers. Napoleon... was now a part of himself. And he probably was a part of him. He had been.
The last three months had been an ordeal... but this ordeal had given him a sort of miraculous escape. It had reminded him of his own commitment: no entanglements, no deep feelings, the commitment he had forgotten.
Mikey was right. He couldn't deny it. Achab.
Illya Kuryakin looked at the French windows. The sun played with the curtains flying in the breeze.
Achab? He had still the choice.
A few inches from his forehead, a barrel. A black hole. Behind the gun, a smiling man, a finger on his lips. Behind the man, another man. Beside him, a third one. At his horror, the fisherman saw one heading to the room he had just left. He breathed in to yell, when the barrel embedded itself in his temple. It was clear: if Mikey opened the mouth, the man would kill him. It would be no use.
The other prudently came in the room. The old man straightened, waiting for the shot. He just hoped that the noise would alert the young blond. That it could give him time to escape. Instead oh a shot, he heard a subdued curse. The man came out shaking his head. The barrel pressed again, the man got closer, his lips on his ear. The two others looked around, obviously troubled.
"Where are they?"
Mikey was appalled. Less than one minute ago, the dark-haired man was asleep in the room. He wasn't anymore, apparently. The barrel hit his temple, at every word, as the whispering voice repeated.
"Where are they?"
The fisherman shivered. Those men were the enemies... They were looking for the young Russian and his friend. They knew that they were in his house.
"Where are they?"
Mikey looked the man in his eyes and whispered, defiantly.
"You can piss off, boy!"
Instantaneously, a vicious knee hit his groin, and Mikey rolled in a ball. A red curtain blinded him. When he get his breath back, he found himself along in the terrace. Not for long. Two men rushed from the upper level, with a very angry look. One of them grabbed Mikey's arm and ruthlessly pulled him up.
"Where are they?"
He spoke with a normal voice. Silence wasn't a necessity anymore, apparently. Mikey stared at him, replying in the perfect Mouseholer tone.
"Boy... I don't know where they are. If I knew, I wouldn't tell you. You can go to hell!"
The man was to hit him again, when his fellow held him back. He smiled. A dreadful smile. He spoke loudly.
"Mr Solo ? Mr Kuryakin ? I am sure you would care, if something... unpleasant happened to your friend... wouldn't you?"
A hand closed his mouth.
Silence. Except for the gulls, the breeze, and the distant sound of the harbor. And Cutter? Where was Cutter?
What happened yet... The fisherman couldn't exactly understand, at first.
He heard a shot. The closest man's dreadful smile turned to a stupid one, and the man fell in a heap, dropping his gun.
Secondly... or at the same time... or perhaps before, Mikey felt a hand grab him and pull him away against the wall. The other man cursed. He was rushing towards the catwalk, but his run stopped with a quite ridiculous somersault. No shot, although. Mikey peeked at his savior. Napoleon Solo was looking around, still holding the fisherman's arm.
"They were three, Mr Solo."
"I know. Stay here."
Solo stood up, carefully, and took a step aside. He still looked around. The fisherman flattened himself against the wall, looking around, too. Nothing. Silence. The gulls. The breeze. The distant sound of the harbor.
Napoleon Solo took a new step, forward, this time. Then, another, still looking around, his gun in his hand, heading to the catwalk.
There was a new shot. At the same time, a shadow crossed Mikey's field of vision. The shadow tackled the UNCLE agent. A second shot, and the characteristic sound of a falling body. A body on the wooden floor. Mikey was still flattened against the wall. Solo rolled on himself and stood up lithely, peering at his empty hand. His eyes met Mikey's. Then, both of the men turned toward the shadow, at the other side of the terrace.
A fair-haired shadow, with a striped sweater, wincing. He held a gun and a stain of blood was growing on his right sleeve. He staggered forward, smiling.
"I can't understand how you did manage to survive until I came to watch your back, Napoleon..."
He deftly throw the gun to his friend. Then, still smiling, he gracefully passed out. Not so far below, they heard new shots.
"They noticed that boat, behind the rocks. I called the jail, and they sent some guards. Their patrol boat is fast. We have easily overpowered them. As I can see, you handled things well, here!"
Napoleon Solo rolled his eyes. Illya Kuryakin, lying on his bed, smiled faintly. The fisherman had teared the sleeve. The bullet had gone through the youg man arm, but the bleeding had stopped due to Mikey's cares.
"We have to take Illya to an hospital, as soon as possible."
Cutter shook his head.
"With the storm, the local one is snowed under... But we could take him to the jail Medical."
His smile fading, the Russian yelled at them.
"NO ! And just in case you didn't notice, I am here, stop talking about me as if I wasn't!"
"Please, Mr Kuryakin..."
Illya Kuryakin sat up straight, forgetting his wounded arm. Mikey held him back and gave the two other men a withering look. The young Russian breathed in.
"No way! Under no account! You can't compel me to go there. Don't dare think of it."
"Illya, we can't take you the New York Uncle Medical before tomorrow..."
Illya Kuryakin cut him off, hissing.
"Have I said I wanted to go there?"
Mikey raised a hand.
"We have a doctor, here... He was an army medical officer... and he is a friend of mine. I am going to call him."
The young man's pale face relaxed with relief.
"Oh, do that, Mikey, please."
Mousehole. Its harbor. Its green and turquoise lake. The big wooden house, at the top end of the lane. Its terraces. The blue sky and the sunlight.
A peaceful place. Heaven on earth. Heaven with its angels. So to speak, the UNCLE guards, to keep them safe.
The lower terrace had been cleared, and cleaned. No more traces of what previously happened.
Everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Alexander Waverly had harrumphed, foamed a little, before admitting it.
Jules Cutter sneered for himself.
"He'll be fine. The bullet went through, and he didn't lose so much blood. All he need is rest. However..."
The young dark haired man's voice was sharp.
"However, I think that someone should stay with him, for the following hours. He could be in shock, when he'll come back to consciousness. He could also run a little fever. I 'll give you what you need to handle it. Don't worry, he'll be okay."
Out of the room, on the terrace, the doctor went on.
"If he is thirsty, give him first some ice. This evening, you give him water. If he is hungry..."
Napoleon Solo, leaning against the window, chuckled.
"He is always hungry, doctor... And trying to keep an hungry Illya, although wounded, although dying, far from food is an Herculean task..."
"You'll give him some broth, and if he doesn't bring it up, you can try something more substantial."
"You save my life..."
He felt himself again, and it was amazingly pleasant. Keeping his eyes closed, he tried to guess what was around him. Especially who.
As an UNCLE agent, he was used to do so: if your enemy believes you are still asleep, unconscious, you can always turn the situation at your advantage.
He kept a quiet breath and listened cautiously. He heard at first the breeze, the rustle of the curtains. The distant sound of the gulls. No other breath than his own.
He half opened his eyes, tentatively, and peeked through his eyelashes, without moving the head. The room looked deserted. He rolled on his side, as naturally as possible, waiting for a reaction, but he cringed with a moan. He had forgotten. His right arm gave him a twinge, forcing him to open his eyes.
He carefully sat up straight on the bed, and looked around. The room was deserted. Of course, it was. Illya Kuryakin shook his head, mocking himself: he had expected... what had he expected ?
A few months ago, beside his bed, he would have seen his partner, hiding his worry behind their traditional banter, fussing around, pampering him, fighting to keep him in bed, charming the nurses... A few months ago, and so many times... But that was just memory.
He stood up and steadily headed towards the French windows, wincing a little. He didn't feel so well. He couldn't help staggering, eventually clutching at the bookshelf so that he wouldn't fall down miserably. Rather giddy. Quite giddy. He leaned back against the wall, giving himself time to recover. Trying to. He closed his eyes, concentrating himself. He could hear voices, outside, but he wouldn't call. He would manage to come back to the bed. On his own. That damned bed couldn't be so far.
A warm hand traced circles from his forehead to his temples, soothing his terrible heartache. Another hand stroke his hairs, and gently raised his head, strongly supporting his neck. Then he felt something cold against his lips. He realized how thirsty he was. Someone was rubbing his mouth with ice It was... delicious. He still hadn't strength enough to open his eyes. No. It wasn't strength missing. It was a desperate effort to delude himself. As long as he kept his eyes closed, he wouldn't have to acknowledge Napoleon's absence. Mikey, Cutter, a doctor, whoever, he didn't want to know.
The gentle hand leaned his head back on a fresh pillow. Flaring his nostrils, Illya Kuryakyn recognized the smell of lavender, just before he felt a damp towel cooling his face. The touch was soft, deft. The hand pushed his locks away; his hairs wouldn't be wet.
Then someone... the same person... slipped another pillow under his wounded arm, so that he couldn't roll over and hurt himself again. A smooth sheet was spread over him, and the warm hand, caressing his forehead, stroke his hairs again. Eyes still firmly closed, Illya Kuryakyn weakly whispered, because he had to.
He heard a barely perceptible chuckle. A warm voice, so soft, although, as if his owner had feared to hurt him with a louder tone, whispered in return, lips so close to his ear that he could felt the breathing and the moves.
"You are very welcome, partner mine."
The warm hand slid on his cheeks, and turned his face. The Russian opened incredulous eyes, afraid that it could be a dream. A worried but smiling face. Napoleon...
"I left you one minute, and I found you wandering around the world, stubborn Russian ! Shall I have to restrain yo... Oh, no, sorry, my friend. I..."
Illya Kuryakyn hissed a reassuring « Shhhh... », making sure to wipe the shadow in his friend's face. Then he closed his eyes again, clutching Napoleon's hand and babbling.
He fell asleep. Dead to the world, features relaxed, he didn't feel strong arms sliding around him, pulling away the pillow, and propping him against a comfortable chest.
Napoleon Solo stared at his partner. Soundly asleep, perfectly relaxed, he still clutched at his hand, as if his life depended on it. The smiling face clearly gave proof of trust. The grip... the grip gave proof of uncertainty. His friend had missed him. He hadn't been at the right place, at the right moment. But from now, he would. He carefully propped his cheek on Illya's head, and closed his eyes, listening to the steady breath, slightly rocking the limp body, before falling asleep, too.
Cutter heard a soft hiss, and turned back. The fisherman stood on the cat walk and motioned him to come. Pleasant odors floated in the air. Cutter felt hungry.
"Late lunch time?"
"Shhhh ! Speak lower!"
Jules Cutter pointed at the upper terrace, with an inquiring look. The doctor had left, and Napoleon Solo was keeping vigil... as usual.
Mikey shook his head, with a devilish smile. The dark haired man was not hungry. He held his partner in his arms, both of them being soundly asleep. The blond was clutching at his friends hand. Both of them looked amazingly young.
Mikey couldn't help remembering the efficient fighters he had seen a few hours before.
"They who sleep forget their hunger, Mr Cutter. We are not sleeping..."
He felt himself again, and it was amazingly pleasant, because this time, he felt really. Eyes closed, he let his left hand grope for his friend but didn't find anything The bed was empty and cold. He opened his eyes; the room was deserted. He sat up straight, wincing as he relied on his wounded arm. Some warm sunbeams played with curtains flying in the breeze. A familiar smell floated in the air... Coffee. Morning, breakfast time.
Of course. Napoleon must be already up, and he would tease him, as usual. Illya Kuryakin cautiously stretched like a cat and chuckled, as he realised he was naked. Someone had undressed him... He noticed some fresh clothes on the armchair, and decided it was time for him to catch up with the living. He stood up slowly, waiting. The world around him didn't swim anymore.
He headed for the bathroom; doubtfully looking at the shower, he chose eventually to have a cat lick. He would need some help to shower without damping the dressing. Later, he made his way to the lower terrace.
"Oh, good morning, Illya. You look fine..."
Mikey was staring at him insistantly. He seemed satisfied with the checkup.
"Are you hungry, boy? I could have bring you a tray, you know."
Illya Kuryakin smiled at the fisherman, and looked around, expecting to see the others. Mikey was setting the table, like he had done the day before, but Napoleon and Cutter weren't there.
"Where are they?"
Mikey frowned, put the tray on the table, and stared again at the young man. He looked puzzled, amazed, uneasy. He hesitated, but replied finally.
"They are gone, boy."
"Gone ? But... where?"
They could have had things to do, putting affairs in order... There were logical explanations, but Illya Kuryakin didn't like the fisherman's expression.
"I think that they went back... home."
The blood left his extremities to fill his heart. In spite of the warm morning sun, he shivered.
"Home? UNCLE HQ? There was an... an emergency?"
Mikey looked really worried.
"No, they are gone, boy, that's all."
"But... but yesterday... yesterday evening..."
The fisherman sat down, and motioned the Russian to do so. What he didn't.
"Yesterday, you worried us, Illya. You didn't want to be taken to the hospital. But during the afternoon, you were quite bad. You ran a fever, and..."
Illya Kuryakin was appalled. No, not appalled. He was drawn.
"No! I didn't!"
"Of course yes, you did. Mr Cutter and Mr Solo waited until you looked to be a little better. But then, they... Well, Illya, you had made your position clear. They hadn't anything to do here..."
The young man caught hold of the table, bending forward.
"Clear... about what, Mikey?"
The fisherman clenched his jaws, frowning again.
-Tell me. All that I remember is Napoleon...
He suddenly kept silent. The fisherman rubbed his chin.
"Your friend, Napoleon, was really sorry for you. But I tell you again, boy, you made your position clear. Whatever he thought, he chose to respect your decision. He cares a lot for you..."
He cared a lot for him? And he flew away? Illya Kuryakin took a deep breath gazing down at the sitting man.
"Yesterday... I don't know when, I awoke... I tried to go to the terrace. I heard your voices. But... I think that I fainted. I know... I am sure of that, Mikey. Napoleon came for me. He helped me, he looked after me, as he always do. And I know that he was... that I was... He was with me when I fell asleep again, Mikey. I know that, it's the truth. Don't try and fool me."
He could read compassion on the fisherman's face..., an unbearable compassion.
"You were bad, Illya. You ran a very high fever, and you were on the edge to collapse. But you did thrust your partner away..."
"You fought him off..."
"You yelled at him. So... he left. I stayed with you, Illya. You were damped with sweat, so I had to undress you and keep you under sheets and blankets. Your temperature went down, eventually, and you dropped off. They slipped away."
"You... you lie!"
A poor face. A hopeless voice. The Russian sat down, burying his head in his hands.
"You should eat something, boy. You must be starving. You haven't had a thing to..."
The young man stood up, storming out the terrace towards the outside. The fisherman didn't try and call him back.
There were very few people on the marketplace, but the rare passers-by needed a lot of their energy in hiding their curiosity. In Mousehole, people don't poke their nose ... It wasn't the young man's clothes. It wasn't the fact he was a stranger. It was his distraught look. It was the fact that he didn't see them.
Illya Kuryakin ran into the harbor. He saw Mikey's Janice, but no trace of the motor boat. He sat down on the dry stone wall with a faraway look. Whatever Thrush had injected into his blood, this drug was dreadfully efficient. He had still very precise memories of the past. But none of what happened three months ago. He had very precise memories of the last three months, of all what happened during those three months in the jail... But the last 24 hours were an indescribable mess. Few of the things he remembered had happened. Apparently most of them hadn't. Mikey told him things which he didn't remember at all. He trusted Mikey... Did he?
He hit his wounded arm, viciously; the sharp pain made him wince. At least, that was a reality. He hadn't so many...
"Sir? Sir?... Mr Kuryakin?"
He startled and a bitter thought crossed his mind: what a brilliant agent! Ex-agent. He had lost touch with the world around him, and any Thrush rookie could have caught him.
The tone wasn't threatening. Just inquiring.
He knew that voice, but he didn't want to answer. He felt a shy hand on his left shoulder. He wouldn't pay attention. It might be nothing else than a new delusion. Insane. He was probably getting insane.
He sighed, looked at the tiresome talker. A young man, just a littler younger than he was. The man tilted his head on the left, with an... encouraging look. The look «I-know-you're-not-well-Let-me-help-you.». Illya Kuryakin remembered this face. He knew this look. He recognized him. The mix of compassion, remorse and gentleness. The first voice he had heard after three months of solitude. This young man deserved an effort. The Russian smiled.
"I remember. I know you. I don't think that I thanked you for your kindness... "
"You don't have to to thank me... I should have..."
Illya Kuryakin shrugged his shoulders and winced again with pain.
"Do you need something, sir?"
My partner. My friend. I need my partner. I need to understand. Illya Kuryakin shook his head.
"What are you doing here?"
The name. What was the man's name? He had heard it, the day before. This young man was one of the guards who had came to help them... He couldn't remember his name.
"I am not alone, sir. We are five. Mr Cutter and Mr Solo asked us to provide security cover for you."
Security cover... The Russian sneered.
"Until we get new orders, sir. Mr Kuryakin? You are very pale, sir. I'll help you to the fisherman's house."
"Come with me, sir."
The young man's face became gloomy. He slipped his arm under the Russian's good shoulder and pulled him up.
"I think I can walk on my own."
The guard released his grip reluctantly. Illya Kuryakin heard him muttering.
"Nothing, sir. Let's go."
The slope was steep. More than he thought, and the Russian knew better than to protest when Stellon slipped again his arm to support him.
Illya Kuryakyn had made himself comfortable on a chair, legs stretched on a footstool. The young man had gone back to the harbor. Mikey filled a cup of coffee.
"I... I don't remember what happened yesterday, but I need your help... I... don't want to be an Achab."
Mikey didn't answer. Illya Kuryakyn looked at him. The fisherman was taken aback, as if the Russian had said the most outrageous thing... Mostly, he worried about him.
"What do you mean, Illya? Achab is a character from Moby Dick, isn't he? I didn't read this story since... Ben was at school ! Achab and his white whale! I remember. But, what's the problem with Achab?"
"A failure! A total failure! It came to nothing!"
"I wouldn't say that, sir."
"Are you kidding, man? UNCLE got back Slate; they cleared Kuryakin and freed him... And that's not a total failure? You're such an optimistic!"
"They haven't exactly freed Kuryakin... I believe that the Russian might be an interesting case."
"He is a living case, and he shouldn't! Your men haven't been able to shoot him! Your governor (another failure!) should have got rid of him."
"This man wasn't exactly one of our folks. We just took advantage of his insane hatred. It wouldn't have worked with Solo."
"Oh yes, Solo! Once more failure! Why didn't you trap Solo? A direct hit! The New York UNCLE CEA disgraced..."
"But the Uncle leaders wouldn't have been so easily convinced about his guilt... Illya Kuryakin is a more vulnerable prey."
"Kuryakin? Vulnerable? You are right, vulnerable; we just saw that!"
"UNCLE cleared him, officially. But some of them could share the governor's suspicion about the Russian... You know? There's no smoke without fire... We sowed the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind."
Illya Kuryakin woke to the memory of pain. Not a physical one. His arm was dumb, and if he moved carefully, it didn't really hurt. He was out of his mind, floating in a mess of words, voices, faces, memories... and all of them were sharp jagged blades that tore him into pieces. The compassion on the young guard's face. The worry on the fisherman's. His astonishment. Achab... Some warm sunbeams played with curtains flying in the breeze. A familiar smell floated in the air... Coffee. Morning, breakfast time.
He barely opened his eyes; his vision was at first blurred, and his eyelashes seemed glued. In the half light, he recognized the room. Mikey's house... There were no sunlight, no breeze. The wind was blustering outside, and the windows were shut. At least, it made a change... He wiped his eyes with the sheet and looked around. Of course... he was alone.
Illya Kuryakin mocked at himself bitterly. For years, he had been known among his fellows, in Russia, in France, in England, and then in the New York UNCLE, as a sort of human-like robot. A living computer. The kinder words were... an Ice Prince. People willingly worked with him because of his efficiency. But it never lasted. They had expectations that the Russian couldn't afford. He had deluded himself with Napoleon's friendship. He didn't blame his partner; Napoleon Solo was a friendly fellow agent. But he was no more than that. And he wouldn't be, ever, more than that. Illya Kuryakyn had thawed out, and it was a mistake. Now, he would gather his wits.
He had to clear the situation, to sort out the facts. Perhaps it was still the drug, but he didn't believe it. Someone was enjoying himself at his expense. He tucked his head under his good arm, and waited. He felt himself again. He would let the other play first, this time.
"How is he doing, Jules?"
"He gave us such a fright... It was a close thing, Alex. Those Thrush men are damned bastards. But he is fine, now."
"Are we to get him back?"
"After three months in this jail, without any training, almost no physical exercise, he brought down a Thrush man by throwing a fisher knife at him he tackled Mr Solo and shot another nasty bird with his partner's gun, saving the said partner's life. Well, of course, a bullet went through his right arm... I think I can let him get away with that..."
"I didn't question his ability as an agent. I was talking about his will to come back."
"I talked with our fisherman. A strange guy... He cares a lot for our Russian agent. Mr Kuryakin didn't blame you, he didn't blame UNCLE. And he is sincere, Alexander. Illya Kuryakin trusts you, and he trusts his partner. However, he'll need time to recover all his memories..."
"The... governor has been taken to insane asylum... He worked for Thrush, just because he was convinced that he was helping UNCLE, to get rid of Illya Kuryakin. He still believe that he's a hero... Where is Mr Solo?"
"He has an assignment with his partner."
"An assignment with... oh, I see, Jules. I want you to bring Mr Kuryakin back, as soon as possible, I told you that. We have to foil Thrush's plans, and to kick their... you see what I want to say... Mr Slate's words."
He suddenly felt so sleepy that he could barely keep his eyes open. Sleepy? He couldn't remember a lot but he wasn't lacking in sleep. He tried to sit up but dizziness hit him, and he gave up. A dull hissing filled his ears. He rested his head on the pillow. Some warm sunbeams played with curtains flying in the breeze. No, no breeze, no sunbeams. He could hear the storm, again. But his head was too heavy. Someone had opened the windows... Illya Kuryakin began to shiver. Then he shook. He couldn't help, although it sent sharp twinges of pain through his arm. The hissing had given way to a deep murmur. He was ludicrously short of breath, as if he had run from the harbor to the wooden house...
The warm hand was back, tracing again circles from his forehead to his temples. But it didn't soothe his heartache. This impression of déjà-vu increased the twirling of his thoughts. He felt terribly nauseous. He rolled on his left side, and the strong arm took held of him, preventing him to fall down. The Russian half opened his eyes, just to see a basin. He vomited some bile and leaned back against... a shoulder. Mikey... A damp towel cooled his face, the deft hands settled him on the pillows.
"Make him drink, as much as possible."
A distant voice. Unknown. The nausea had disappeared. He was going to fall deep asleep, feeling really safe, for the first time since...
The warm hand, again, raising his head, supporting his neck, enticing him to awake... The cold feeling of a glass, against his lips, and delicious water.
"You'll have to make with me, my friend..."
Illya Kuryakin startled, and wide opened his eyes. His vision was less blurred. The red and pink light suggested sunset. And...
A worried, tired face, strained features, and a very hopeful smile looked at him. A well known face. Illya Kuryakin struggled against the temptation to pinch himself... He stretched out his hand and brushed a rough cheek... His friend lookes like hell.
"You look like hell, Napoleon."
He had thought it and finally said it, with a faint voice.
Solo burst into laughter, thumping his fist on the bed...
"You are incredible, Illya. We have been close to lose you, my friend. Our Thrush buddies didn't break their nasty habit; they poisoned their bullets... Luckily, our doctor had been an army medical officer, and he was quick to react. Illya? Are you okay?"
The Russian had frowned.
"Hours. We were asleep when you began to be delirious, to toss and turn in bed... Do you remember, yesterday afternoon?"
The Russian grabbed his friend's hand and nodded.
"Yes, I do... Yesterday... are you sure?"
The older agent smiled gently and nodded. Illya Kuryakin stared at him insistantly. Was he real? Was he a dream?
"You look exhausted, Napoleon."
"You won't get rid of me that easily, partner mine. If you feel up to do so, I'll help you to the bathroom, to freshen up. Then..."
The Russian took a tigher hold on his friend's hand. He looked at him straight in the eyes, as to make sure that it wasn't a new delusion. His friend rolled his eyes and sighed.
"What is it, Illya?"
"Nothing, Napoleon. I just wanted to be sure..."
His friend's eyes were twinkling. Illya Kuryakin frowned.
"Boy? That's Mikey's line. Don't dare and use it..."
Napoleon Solo chuckled and this familiar sound warmed the room.
"You are better, no doubts."
Napoleon Solo was prepared for the usual banter. Illya wouldn't let him win so easily... But the Russian smiled, and stood up, supporting himself on his partner's shoulder.
"I missed that... I missed that so much..."
A very soft whisper.
Napoleon settled his friend comfortably in the fresh bed, and gave him another glass of water. His partner was back... His friend was back... As soon as Illya would be asleep, he would shower, too, before resting.
The Russian looked at him thoughtfully. This was real. At least, it looked like to be. But he couldn't help whispering.
"Napoleon, I would like..."
"You'll be there when I'll wake up?"
Of course, he could rightly be doubtful...
"I'll be right here, Illya."
The man was smiling but the tone was amazingly dull.
The older agent shook his head.
"Tell me... What's the matter?"
Napoleon sat down on the bed, next to him.
"I am sorry. I've been a poor partner, and a very poor friend. I deserted you. I should have..."
The Russian raised his eyebrow. He was amazed to find out that his friend felt so uneasy... He didn't really understand.
"You should have... what?"
"If I have been trapped in this jail, you would have..."
The older agent fell silent, but mimed with his hands. The Russian chuckled.
"Blasted the building? Taken you out? The idea might have crossed my mind... As it has crossed yours, Napoleon. But it wouldn't have been wise and we are wise men, aren't we? So, stop eating your heart out with that, my friend. You didn't deserted me."
Napoleon Solo didn't look convinced. Illya Kuryakin smiled devilishly.
"Speaking of eating, Napoleon... I... I am starving... I don't remember when I ate something."
Napoleon Solo opened his mouth, raised his hand and went out, shaking his head. Illya Kuryakin smiled. White lie. Because his partner was probably right. The idea would have crossed his mind. And he wasn't always that wise... He leaned back on the pillows... he felt a little sleepy, but it wasn't unpleasant, this time.
Napoleon Solo craned forward through the French windows. He grinned, and put the mug with broth on the table. Illya Kuryakyn was asleep again, soundly, quietly.
"Illya ! Illya ! Wake up, my friend!"
The Russian was immediately on it, and his right hand slid under the pillow. The inconsiderate move made him twinge. His partner sat down on the bed beside him. Illya Kuryakin knew that look.
"Illya, we have to go. Waverly needs us in New York. No, don't move. I am leaving with Cutter. You stay here."
He saw the blue eyes turning grey, the features strained.
"Illya, at first, you need some more rest. Secondly, the Old Man has trouble with a member of the Commission, and he thinks that staying here is the best thing you can do, at the moment. Tomorrow, I'll..."
The Russian cut in.
"Tomorrow... is another day, Napoleon. You have to go. Mr Waverly is waiting for you. You could have let me sleep, couldn't you?"
A distant voice ended the discussion. Napoleon Solo tried to smile confidently.
"You'll catch up with us soon, Illya. We 'll look forward to seeing you..."
"It didn't please him, Mr Cutter. I don't understand why he couldn't come with us. Mr Waverly..."
"Of course, it didn't! But we have to hurry, Mr Solo. Mr Kuryakin needs rest, he would slow us down. Alexander thinks that we might have troubles with Commissioner Simmons. At least, it's better for your partner to keep out from him."
Illya stood under the shower. He let the stream of water wash him, wash his anger, wash his despair. He didn't try to protect his dressing. He hadn't slept a wink. Sighing, he stepped out the shower, and caught the towel. He dried his hair, putting on the old bath robe.
He felt bereft. Bereft of strength? Bereft of feeling. Bereft of hope. He wasn't valued by any of his fellows. Neither by the man whose authority was the only one he respected.
Suddenly, he shook his head, and violently hit the wall with his left fist. No. He had to fight those wrong feelings. He had seen Napoleon's face. He had seen his concern, his friendship, his guilt. Neither mistrusty nor despise in his eyes. He must overcome his melancholy mood. Then, he looked into the mirror, frowning at the sight. It was no wonder that his partner and Cutter had decided to leave him there. His face was pinched, pale, with bloodshot eyes, and dark shadows under them. He pulled off the right sleeve. The dressing was stained with pink traces of blood. He clenched his right hand, and raised his arm, until he had to stop.
He heard a shy knocking on the bathroom door. It couldn't be Mikey, and he looked around for any potential weapon.
He startled, at the inquiring tone. It reminded him... He opened the door abruptly, pushed the visitor against the wall, and locked him in a deadly embrace. He stared at the choking young man in front of him. What was his name...? He didn't remember, but he knew him.
The Russian released his grip; Even Stellon leaned back, trying to breathe again...
"Yes, I know who you are. Sorry. What are you doing here?"
The young Stellon handed a communicator to the Russian.
"Mr Waverly is going to call you."
Illya Kuryakin, puzzled, took the communicator, which beeped at the right moment.
He heard the Old Man sighing, and could see him frowning. It was so familiar. In a second, three months had been erased.
"Mr Kuryakin, we... we have a problem. For the last two hours, I have been trying to contact Mr Solo and Mr Cutter, in vain. Eventually, a Mr...Stellon answered with the communicator that Mr Solo had left for you. He told me very amazing things. What happens ? Where are they ? Why are you still in Mousehole?"
The Russian replied as precisely as he could, still puzzled.
"They left... about four hours ago, sir."
"They left? Why? Where?"
"You have called them, sir. You have asked them to come back... Napol... Mr Solo told me about and they left the house... I think that they had in mind... that I would slow them..."
"Oh, no, Mr Kuryakin. I didn't ask them to come back, especially not without you. They were there to bring you back with them! What's the hell did they think they were doing?"
Waverly's tone softened.
"I need you here, as soon as possible. Jules Cutter told me about the young Mr Stellon. He could come with you."
"What happens, sir?"
"I think that someone, among our Thrush friends, can't stand failure. They didn't succeed in breaking you, so they changed their plans. "
"Are you suggesting that Napoleon and Jules Cutter have been trapped? We aren't speaking of rookie agents, sir..."
"I am not suggesting anything, Mr Kuryakin. Mr Solo and Mr Cutter... Well, I haven't heard of them for too long."
"Napoleon had no doubts about your call, sir."
Illya Kuryakin had spoken flatly.
"You tell me that you need me as soon as possible, that you haven't call them... Could you explain why I should believe you, now? You declared that Thrush might have trapped Napoleon and Cutter... But you might be as well a Thrush agent trying to trap me..."
Illya Kuryaky heard the familiar sound: the man was harrumphing again, typical Waverly. Next, he would foam...
"I am Alexander Waverly, I can vouch for it, Mr Kuryakin. And...although you are to be commended for your cautiousness, we are wasting time."
"Did Mr Solo give you anything? A key?"
The Russian was puzzled again.
"A key ? No, he didn't..."
The young guard cleared his throat, grabbed Illya Kuryakin's arm, and tapped on his own pocket.
"Wait on a minute, sir..."
Stellon got an envelop out his chest pocket, and handed it to the Russian, who didn't have to open it to guess its content.
"I have... a key, sir."
"Call me as soon as you 'll be there.
"There? Where, sir?"
"You could just look back on the past, Mr Kuryakin. Something that French people call a "retour aux sources"... Of course, in New York... Your American sources. See you later."
No use. Evan Stellon looked a little sheepish. He crossed Illya Kuryakyn's eyes, and whispered.
"Mr Solo wakened me up, this night; he told me that they had to go, that I had to "watch your back". His words, sir. He gave me a bag for you, plus a communicator, plus this envelop."
"Did he say anything about it?"
"No, just that living in a village was such a pleasant thing. Mousehole is a very ni..."
The Russian chuckled, giving the young man a clap on his back. Sneaky Waverly. Sneaky Napoleon.
"I'll show you another village, Mr Stellon. Where is this bag? Oh, thank you. Ask Mikey for some coffee, please."
Illya Kuryakin stared at the clothes, thoughtfully. A black suit, a white shirt, a black tie... Memories. His clothes, the key. So, the jigsaw wasn't complete. There was still place for the element Kuriakin. At first, he had to find his partner, and to rescue him. As usual.
When he came out, the fisherman and Stellon stood face to face; the young guard, although brave, was slowly giving way. Mikey followed the man's relieved glaze and turned towards the Russian.
"Where do you think you are going?"
He looked at him up and down.
"You can have dressed like a spy, with your gun, you don't impress me, Illya. So, you are going to sit down, and eat something."
The men were half running half stumbling in the graveled path. The Charon's pass was deserted. It wasn't amazing, considering the hour. They tried to avoid the various heaps of wreckage, splinters. The last traces of the storm. The little harbor were really deserted. And that was amazing. Napoleon Solo looked at Cutter, a speculative expression on his face.. The older man was as puzzled as his fellow. There had been a note of urgency in Waverly's tone. They should have met some Uncle correspondent, waiting for them, to take them to the next airport. No correspondent. No car. Cutter got his communicator, but gave up. Waverly's orders had been clear. They made their way back to the boat. It was better not to hang around the place...
He savored his triumph. His own triumph. A perfect, complete triumph. He bent forward, running his fingers along the two bodies lying on the deck, and sneered. The others, all the others, had failed, poorly failed. They had failed for years... He had succeeded. And it had been a mere child play. Eventually... not so interesting. Too... easy! He would have to report, but just now, he was the one who had trapped both Napoleon Solo, and Jules Cutter. Sneering again, he properly bounded them, though the drug would last long enough for him to take them to their jail. UNCLE agents... in an UNCLE jail! He hoped that they would appreciate the joke. Just before his final firework. Sometimes, unfortunately, UNCLE agents were cruelly lacking of the sense of humor...
The funniest of all... Alexander Waverly himself would fall under suspicion, his only support being the more or less suspect Russian. His plan was really brilliant.
Evan Stellon had stepped back to the harbor. The Russian was still on the terrace, in the nearly rising sun. He had known better than to resist... he smiled at the fisherman. He owed him a lot. A few days ago—an eternity ago—he was so desperate, so distraught, that he didn't know if he could survive. Why he should survive. Mikey had treated him like a son, and that was extraordinary, for he didn't know him at all. This old ( not so old, probably) fisherman had welcomed him, a stranger, a Russian, a prisoner. He had comforted him, and he had shaken him up. He had been on his side, facing Jules Cutter and Napoleon. And he had been on Napoleon's side, facing him... It was time to join up Stellon.
"I can't tell you anything else, Mikey, and it's... ridiculously inadequate... Thank you for helping me."
"It was just a breakfast, boy."
Illya Kuryakin put a gentle hand on Mikey's.
"You know what I want to say..."
"You're welcome, boy. Anyway, you owe me something... I want you to be careful, Illya."
The Russian smiled, stood up and made his way towards the outside. The fisherman was looking at him thoughtfully, and called him back.
Illya Kuryakyn stopped and smiled again.
"I really hope that you'll get your partner back..."
The Russian felt his cheeks blushing, without any reason.
"He cares a lot for you. You know that, of course. When you'll join him, let him know how much you care for him..."
The young man blushed more and more. He waved his left hand awkwardly, and rushed out.
He sat in a complete darkness. However his sight gained in acuteness and he realized that the darkness wasn't so complete. A barely perceptible ray under what could be... a door? He heard a shallow breath, not far from him, and brushed the air with his hand. On the right, behind, on the left... His fingers met something soft. He pulled a little; then rougher. He pinched and a moan rewarded his efforts.
The moans grew, turning into curses, then into words.
"Where are we?"
The question didn't ask for an answer. Solo checked himself. Obviously, he wasn't hurt. Of course, he had been relieved of his gun, and of all his useful devices. A rustling mixed with a new burst of curses informed him that Jules Cutter was in the same situation.
"Are you hurt, Mr Solo?"
"No. Just a very unpleasant headache... and an as unpleasant feeling of having made ourselves look quite ridiculous..."
Napoleon Solo sneered bitterly, before stopping, as a thought crossed his mind.
He could hear Cutter crawling on hands and knees, looking for a wall. He went on.
"Illya is at their mercy, now..."
"Don't mind him. Mr Kuryakin will have to cope with Thrush, if he needs to. Anyway, don't worry: our enemies could have trapped your partner with us."
Jules Cutter's voice was unusually dull.
-I don't know how, I don't know who... but the man we talked with wasn't Alexander. I have it for sure, now.
Napoleon Solo didn't comment. As an honest man, Cutter added, and his voice came from another place.
"You were right, Mr Solo. I should have been more suspicious. When the man has talked about Simmons, although... We distrusted him, but noone knew that, except for us..."
Napoleon Solo wasn't less honest.
"I wasn't pleased with the idea that we had to leave Illya there, Mr Cutter. I didn't understand Mr Waverly's intents. But I never had any doubts about his identity..."
"Napoleon, I reached the wall. Try to do so. Let's look for a way out..."
The voice had moved again.
Illya Kuryakin strolled across to the young guard. He could see a few people walking, talking. Stellon was gazing back, obviously paying attention to everything, to everyone. The Russian gripped his arm. Stellon succeeded in avoiding startling.
"Oh, sir, I think that we could reach Charon's pass. Then, we'll get a car and.."
Illya Kuryakin put his finger on his lips. Evan Stellon glanced back at him, struggling to conceal his astonishment. He remembered the vulnerable, sad prisoner, with those so blue and so blank eyes. The said eyes were still so blue... but with some almost mischievous twinkles. About vulnerability... the guard wasn't far to pity the Thrush men who would fall into his clutches. However, he didn't clearly understand the Russian's purpose.
Illya Kuryakn took his... well... his almost partner along to the harbor. They sat down on the stone wall.
"We are not going to New York, not yet, Mr Stellon. Oh, I'll call you Evan. And you can call me Illya."
Evan Stellon opened a wide mouth, then closed it, forgetting to breathe for some seconds. Then, nearly choking, he babbled.
"But... Mr Waverly... he gave orders, and..."
"We are at the back of beyond; Napoleon and Jules Cutter had disappeared for...a few hours. I want you to tell me exactly what happened this night."
The young guard scrupulously obeyed. Illya Kuryakin listened with an extreme attention.
"And they left the harbor, it was about 3 a.m. They headed to the Charon's pass."
"How long, from here?"
"Forty minutes, one hour, it depends of the sailor's knowledge."
"Forty minutes. Napoleon is an experienced sailor. You are going to call the harbor master's office, at the Charon's pass. I want to know if their boat is still there."
"But we could have called from the fisherman's..."
"No, Evan. I don't want him to be involved any more in our affairs. I asked your fellows to keep him safe. He isn't an UNCLE agent... Go, now."
Illya Kuryakyn felt amazingly alive. He worried about his friend, but he felt... useful. He knew what he had to do. He could again choose to disobey, and he swore that he would never let anyone drive him to such despair, that he would never turn again in a barely living puppy. Evan Stellon made his way back.
Seeing the amazed face, the Russian guessed the answer. The motorboat wasn't at the Charon's pass... Or it wasn't any more.
"Evan, are there others little harbors which..."
"No, sir. The Charon's pass, Mousehole, and... the island are the only big enough harbors for such a motorboat. The others are just narrow coves for smaller boats. With the storm, many roads are still closed. And the nearest big harbors are far from here. Too far, because we didn' fill up... so..."
Illya Kuryakin rubbed his chin, his eyes turning icy. Evan Stellon felt a cold shiver.
"So, their boat isn't at the Charon's pass. Obviously, it isn't here. Consequently, it's... there."
His fingers pointed at the lake, towards the island, the jail.
Napoleon Solo flattened himself against the wall and began to move forward, reaching the ray he could always discern. He suddenly felt a crack under his fingers, then something like a door handle. He pushed on it, hopeless, and found himself close to fall down when the door gave an easy way. Cutter was already beside him. They were in a corridor, dimly lit by some emergency light. Their "cell" wasn't locked. Jules Cutter put his finger on his lips and stared around, frowning. He pointed out the place to his fellow, with an astonished look on his face. Napoleon Solo nodded. They knew this place. This place... was the UNCLE jail. Both of them had wandered around the white corridors, with their white doors.
Although they hadn't met so much people, the first time, there were some guards, some secretaries, various persons in charge... At the moment, the corridors were deserted. Silent. Solo and Cutter took some steps along the corridor, carefully, silently. The slightest noise sounded out af all proportion, and the two men kept themselves silent. No doubt, it was the UNCLE jail. No doubt, it was deserted. And wide open. All the doors, all the cells. They didn't talk anymore, walking faster and faster, checking every room, every door.
They stopped in front of a large gate, eventually. It was closed. Locked.
Cutter grabbed the bars and shook them, vainly, of course. He hissed a curse. His pragmatic nature was disgusted with such irrational events. Napoleon Solo was looking for some devices.
An ironical chuckle caused them to startle. On the other side of the bars, a silhouette appeared, and approached. Just out of touch. They recognized him instantaneously.
The so worried, so ashamed, so devoted man who had taken over from the governor...
"Such a pleasure, Mr Cutter, Mr Solo... I am so honored with your presence here! I hope you enjoy yourselves? Oh, yes, I know. A prison is always a very depressing place, but a deserted one... a bit frightening, isn't it ? Mr Waverly gave us orders, you see. Quite amazing orders, really. But who would dare to disobey Mr Waverly's orders?"
The man waited, but neither Solo nor Cutter intended to give him satisfaction. So he sighed and went on.
"He asked us to evacuate the whole jail: prisoners, guards... Would you believe that? We were a little astonished, of course. It hadn't been easy, but, as you see, we did it..."
Jules Cutter hissed.
"Waverly would never have ordered that..."
"Of course, he has... as he has ordered you to join him as soon as possible in New York. As he suggested you to leave Mr Kuryakin behind..."
The man was smiling, obviously delighted. Napoleon Solo came up to the gate, grabbing the bars. The other took a step back.
"They won't believe that."
"Tststs, Mr Solo... Apart from me, three very honorable people heard Mr Waverly's call. Unfortunately, by a strange coincidence,some part of the prison will be blasted, burying under wreckage two well known agents. Such a loss, for the New York UNCLE HQ. You see, at worst, Alexander Waverly won't have any option but to resign shamefully. His only support ? A potential traitor, his Russian blue-eyed boy... What a pity you can't see that, really... Oh, it's time to go. My boat is waiting for me. Mr Cutter, Mr Solo, I wish you a good... eternity."
"The jail? Mr Kuryakin, that's impossible. I worked there. It's just a prison. An UNCLE jail..."
The Russian shook his head.
"Too many coincidences. And stop calling me Mr Kuryakin. Thrush conceived a very clever game, Evan. I found myself in this particular jail, with this particular governor. It was just a part of the plan. And it means that our jail might be a sort of Thrush base..."
"But the governor had been arrested, and..."
"Thrush attacked us, in Mikey's home. Very few people knew where we were. Well, you knew..."
Evan Stellon gulped, but the blond man's squeezed his shoulder.
"The new governor knew... There are too many coincidences, and something you can call instinct. We have to go there."
He stopped, sighing.
"We have a visitor."
A familiar voice ironically chuckled.
"Hello, boys. Do you mean to swim towards the Charon's pass?"
Illya Kuryakin sighed. Arguing against Mikey was an Herculean task. After some vain exchanges, some explanations, the two UNCLE men were on board the Janice III and sailed to the island.
There was a new Herculean task waiting for him... Illya Kuryakin had to call Alexander Waverly. He had to report, because Alexander Waverly was the Old Man, because he would give them support. The enemy was a two-heads entity. One worked around the jail, and Mousehole. But someone worked in New York. Someone who had played his part in this. A mole? Perhaps among the Commissioners? Alexander Waverly had to be informed.
The Old Man didn't yell. He listened without cutting out his agent. Eventually, he listed the different arrangements he was to make. He didn't wished them good luck. He never did. An Uncle agent wasn't lucky. He was efficient. However, he cleared his voice.
"And, Mr Kuryakin, I'll send you some help, but... I rely on you to get back Mr Solo, Mr Cutter if they are there. And of course, you'll take care of yourself. You can take that as an order."
"Look on the bright side, Mr Cutter... We won't starve to death in those corridors..."
Jules Cutter rolled his eyes, but didn't comment. Napoleon Solo's look contrasted with his light words. The dark haired agent was concentrating himself on their own situation. His partner was out of the game, safe, for the moment...
"As the frosting on the cake, we don't even know how much time we have..."
"Solo, I don't want to stay here, listening to your hazy jokes. Let's explore. We might find something. Rendez-vous here, in 15 minutes?"
"I am usually the optimistic, Mr Cutter."
They made their way, each of them in a corridor. It was probably an hopeless attempt, but it had to be done. An Uncle agent never gave up.
Napoleon Solo, if someone had asked him, would have answered that he wasn't afraid of dying. It was part of his job. It had been, to be honest. Until he met, a few years before, a young, aloof, stubborn, dour, intractable, cold, cynical, fair haired Russian. Then, he had been told that this irritable. No. Not irritable, irritating young man was to be his partner. Firstly, a partner. Secondly, this partner... When Alexander Waverly gave orders, you knew better than even to think to argue. He had tried. All he had got was a raised eyebrow. He knew that many Uncle agents had pitied him. Napoleon couldn't help chuckling. There had been wild battles of wills. Not physically violent. Though... They had explored all the ways of "How-to-annoy-your-partner". Sometimes a little below the belt... But none of them would have thrown the sponge... Everybody, in the Uncle, waited for the final clash, and the betting ran high. Alexander Waverly had just watched, waited, and grinned as the Cheshire cat when they became a real team, eventually, two partners, two close friends. A deadly efficient team. They lived in each other's pocket. So now, Napoleon Solo wasn't so sure that he wasn't afraid of dying... It wasn't his own death. It was the consequence of his death. He knew how difficult it would be for him to survive his friend. And he knew how difficult it would be for his friend to survive him... Difficult wasn't the right word. Impossible. They couldn't afford failure. Failure might mean death. Failure might mean that he would never have the opportunity to tell his partner...
Illya Kuryakin was leaning back against the cabin, looking straight forward. He felt a little dizzy, and a dull pain reminded him of his wounded arm. He couldn't have explained, justified his belief. He sneered. For a long time he had worked at being emotionless. At least at wiping all outward shows of emotion. And one day, he had found himself in Alexander Waverly's office. He would have to work for the New York UNCLE HQ. He would have to work with a partner. An insuperable challenge for a loner... An open, extrovert, conciliatory (apparently...), optimistic, warm, civil, dark haired American. So irritating. Alexander Waverly had ordered. He had obeyed. He knew that many UNCLE agents had pitied his partner. The sneer became a smile. As soon as they had left the office, they had gone into action. Some wild battles of will. Not physically violent. Though... It had been rather the "How-to-annoy-your-partner" fight. Sometimes a little below the belt. None of them would have thrown the sponge. Everybody, in UNCLE, waited for the final clash and the betting ran high. The Old Man had just waited, watched, and grinned like the Cheshire cat, when they eventually became a real team. Two real partners. And two real friends. Close friends. A deadly efficient team... But their strength could be their weakness, too. Illya Kuryakyn knew that he couldn't afford his partner death. No way. And probably, Napoleon couldn't afford his death. So, they had to succeed. Failure would mean death. Worse. Failure would mean that he would never have the opportunity to tell his partner...
A deafening sound, like a volcanic explosion. A dazzling light. A firework of flames, black smoke.
And the glassy waters of the lake, as an extreme contrast. Now, the familiar noise of a pouring rain, almost a hailstorm. Gravels, splinters, wreckage.
The Russian stood gaping at the sight. What he saw didn't mean anything to him, until Evan Stellon gripped his arm. He didn't want to support him... He was looking for a support that Illya Kuryakin couldn't give him. The fisherman cursed, sped up, and stopped, eventually, looking for a safe way to bring the Janice III alongside. The small wharf was intact, and the surrounding wall of the prison still seemed to overlook the lake...
"Hurry, please, Mikey, hurry."
The fisherman didn't need to peek at the young man. He knew exactly what he felt. He remembered what he had felt when he have seen Janice's car burning. How useless words were. He had no religion, not since Janice's death, but he prayed, he prayed anyone who could hear, anyone who could help for the dark haired man's safety. No, for the two men. Janice in the car... there was no hope. Perhaps, here... He stretched his hand to grab the Russian's and squeezed it. Cold fingers clenched his own.
Jules Cutter painfully moved, one limb after the other. Coughing, panting, blind with tears and smoke, he realized that he was alive. Next questions : where was he ? Where was Napoleon Solo?
He crawled through a cloud of dust and smoke, towards a dim light. He was to give up, unable to breathe anymore, when he found himself outside. He rolled on a rough ground, gravels, rocks, he rolled, and rolled again, and hit a hard obstacle. The sun was dazzling, through the tears, but closing the eyes, with the dust, was even more painful. He had no idea of where he was. He desperately tried to listen, to hear something, Napoleon Solo's voice. He listened for hours. No, just minutes, probably. Voice. Voices. He heard voices. Struggling against pain, against fear, Jules Cutter knelt, stood up, and in spite of his blurred eyes, tried to reach the voices. He thought bitterly that it might be Thrush. Too late.
Mikey took hold of the Russian arm.
"No, boy, you can't go. It is... it is hell... We called for help. You can't do anything. Illya..."
Illya Kuryakin wrenched himself free, and rushed up the path, before stopping. A grey ghost had appeared, at the top end of the path. "Golem" was the name that crossed the Russian's mind. "It" was alive; at least, "it" was moving, staggering, tottering, fumbling. The young agent rushed up again, and was off the mark at a spring. He caught the man as he fell, sat down and supported him on his knees. Jules Cutter saw the fair hair, through a bloody mist, and the blue eyes.
Then, he heard a shaking voice, a begging voice.
"Na... Napoleon... please... tell me..."
Jules Cutter couldn't speak. His throat was as scratched, burning. He just shook his head. The strong arm that held him released his grip, and gently lied him on the ground. Then he heard quick footsteps, and a yell.
"Illya, boy, come back. Come back immediately. Illya!"
Napoleon Solo had been hit by a wild train. He was now flattened against the floor... Or he believed he was. Something was crushing him, something so heavy, that he could barely breathe. Breathe was probably an optimistic word. Solo dribbled, and paid attention to the flowing saliva, as if he had been buried in an avalanche. At least, he was lying on his back... His eyes were blurred with dust, and a sticky substance... probably blood. He couldn't really discern anything. Sharp splinters sent twinge of pain... everywhere. He checked his body, and discovered that his hands hurt, his feet, his arm, his legs... his whole body hurt. Amazingly, he was cold and warm, at the same time as if he had been sitting in front of a fireplace: half of him felt the heat of the flames; half of him felt an icy cold. Every breath was a struggle. He couldn't take deep breathes, because... his lungs had no place to fill. His nose was stuffed up. He couldn't really open his mouth, because the foul air was a mix of dust, smoke, and other things that Napoleon didn't wish to know.
Usually, Illya came to bring him out of hell, whatever the hell. But this time, it was hopeless. The struggle for life was vain. Painful, and vain. Eventually, he would never tell his partner... Napoleon Solo felt burning tears running on his cheeks. He wasn't crying on his own fate. He was crying for regrets, for despair. He mentally apologized to his friend for his cowardice. He was going to breathe, to breathe as deeply as he could. All that dust. All that smoke.
Jules Cutter lied on the deck, and the fisherman was washing the dust and the blood from his face. He had coughed, spitted, vomited, but he eventually succeeded in drinking some water. Unexpectedly, he wasn't seriously hurt: bruises, scratches, irritations...
Evan Stellon paced up and down, railing against fate. He suddenly stopped.
"I must go. I know the place. I can help him... I..."
Jules Cutter sat up straight, motioned the young guard to come closer, and whispered.
"Don't even think of it. You'll stay here, and that's an order, Mr Stellon."
The young man frowned, but sat down. The fisherman softly stroke the damp towel on Cutter's forehead.
"Have they any chances?"
Jules Cutter bit his lips. He spoke hoarsely, jerkily, still panting.
"I am a pragmatic man, Mikey.... The logical answer is: no... No, because it must be hell, there. No, because Napoleon Solo... was at the opposite side of the building, closer... to the bomb. No, because if Napoleon Solo..."
Jules Cutter grabbed the fisherman's wrist.
"But those men have a very particular skill... They are... survivors...They are very efficient agents, of course,...as all their fellows... Well, they are a little more efficient... than the others... But each of them is a survivor... Napoleon Solo... is lucky....I don't mean that he succeeds...by chance, no. But in the worst situation,...he is... lucky. Illya Kuryakin... isn't a lucky man... His skill is his... stubbornness. He never gives up....Never. He often takes advantage...of his partner's luck....Mr Solo often takes advantage...of his partner's stubbornness..."
The fisherman was puzzled. As a sailor, he didn't undervalue luck; as a fisherman, he often made a point of being stubborn. Janice usually said that where there were a will, there were a way. However, to rely on luck and stubbornness sometimes induced people to run unnecessary risks...
Cutter leaned back against the cabin, trying to breathe slowly.
"Have you seen... the helicopter?... a boat living the island before... the blast?"
"The helicopter? No. Boats... Look around: the weather is fine... there are plenty of boats... You know, longboats can berth on the other side of the island..."
Illya Kuryakin stopped and looked at the wall. From the quay, you could think that it was intact, that there were no real damages. In fact, the wall stood alone. You could went through what had been a door... But behind, there was a new wall of dust, black smoke. The Russian didn't see the flames, but he felt the heat, and the smell: burning wood, hot metal, plastic, rubber, oil... He was choking, he couldn't breathe anymore...
He cursed himself, and stepped back, close to the wall. He tore his damp pants, he would use it as a mask. The right hand pressing the tissue on his mouth and his nose, he plunged again into the hell. He had to found his way almost blindly. If he could have kept his eyes wide open, the twirls of dust and smoke would have prevented him to see anything. Anyway, it doesn't matter, for keeping eyes wide open was absolutely impossible: the said smoke made his eyes sting, burnt them, blinded him with acid tears... He couldn't really see where he was going. So he took one step after another, his left hand outstretched. He bumped, he stumbled, and struggled against the ghost of claustrophobia.
Suddenly, he found himself in a sort of eye of the storm: he was surrounded by walls of twirling smoke, but in front of him, the air was clearer. He could discern the ground, and particularly some gaping. He carefully came closer. It was the elevator... It had been... Illya Kuryakin looked around; no elevator without emergency stairs. His vision still blurred, he began to pull, to push, to kick, to clear... and his efforts were amply rewarded: a black gape, the staircase, a flight of steps.
A memory crossed Illya's mind : "Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate." "All hope abandon, you who enter in." The Doors of Hell... Dante Alighieri's Inferno... the Charon's pass... A comforting thought... Some twirls of smoke came out the staircase, of course. Illya Kuryakin breathed deeply, and took his first step down to the Inferno. He descended slowly, keeping up his spirit, and the darkness surrounded him again. At least, here, he could use his flashlight...
Napoleon Solo was to wide open his mouth. His instinct of self-preservation was stronger. His throat was swelling, his whole body aching, but he couldn't give up. He was a lucky man, although he would probably need all the luck of the world to survive...
The heat was increasing, the smoke thickened, but he went on, one hand still on the mask, the other with the flashlight, just above the rail.. Then, he was downstairs. In front of him, he could discern a door recess, and a corridor. He thought that he could call his friend, but knew better. His throat, his nose were already burning... He was on the edge of choking. It would be wiser to avoid wasting his strength.
"Lasciate ogni speranza". He knew that he could run up, come back to the boat, back to his friends. He knew that none of them would blame him. He knew that Napoleon himself would pester him to run away. But he was stubbornly stubborn. No one would blame him. Except for one man. Himself. And he went through the door recess. Next step to hell...
Napoleon Solo knew that no one would blame him for giving up. Except for one man. Illya Kuryakyn would curse him. He would inveigh against him. He would... probably kill him. Napoleon Solo chuckled, choked and froze again it was a hazy joke. Was it?
Illya Kuryakin had lost track of time. Some flames lessened the darkness, but now, he could see the wreckage around him... and he felt totally disheartened. Deadly disheartened. He had to know. He had to know if it was any use to do that. To go on. And he began to call. In his mind, first. Then he whispered. He screamed louder and louder. Eventually, he yelled his friend's name. Every shout tore his throat, his lungs. But he called, ever and ever.
Napoleon Solo was shivering: fever? Cold? Probably both. It wasn't so unpleasant, however. Perhaps he would slip into unconsciousness? A blissful unconsciousness. It was like falling asleep... But an insistent voice was calling him back. A harsh voice. A real nuisance... It brought him back to reality. To the awful reality. It was unfair...
And it wasn't awful. Eventually, he knew this voice. It couldn't be real... But he heard it. Hallucination? Delusion? He had nothing to lose... He could try to answer. All that he could make was a sort of rattle. It wouldn't be enough.
Illya Kuryakyn had sharp ears. His brain was sorting out all the noise, and he isolated one sound. A strange, barely human sound. But anyway... human. Still calling, he headed for his aim.
Napoleon Solo felt suddenly something soft brushing dust from his face, and an as soft voice whispering words he couldn't understand. He tried to open his eyes, but they were still glued. He moaned.
"Shhht, Napoleon, I am here. Take it easy."
Defts fingers softly rubbed his eyes, so that he could half open them. Through his blurred vision, Napoleon Solo knew that it wasn't a delusion: the strange creature, with a smoky, dusty face, with a dusty, soot stained mop that was kneeling beside him was his partner. A very dirty, very exhausted, very alive partner. Not a ghost. Ghosts don't smile gently. Not an angel. Angels are... cleaner. Blue eyes looked at him hopefully.
"Napoleon? Do you hear me?"
The older agent muttered, and the Russian put his ear just above his friend's mouth.
"Seems that... you've overdone...the blasting... my friend..."
Illya Kuryakyn rolled his eyes, with an offended look.
"Napoleon, we have no time to waste in such silly jokes. You're stuck under a steel sheet. Perhaps a door. I'll pull it up, and you'll roll out. Do you understand? Jules Cutter made it. They are all waiting for us."
Napoleon Solo shook his head. He could hear some threatening crackings. Terrifying crackings. He muttered again.
"Get away, Illya. It's going to collapse. Save your life. Do that for me."
The Russian ignored him. He was clearly looking for something, Napoleon Solo couldn't see him anymore, but he heard scraping, scrabbling, panting... Then he saw a rod. Illya was sliding it under the steel sheet. Solo tried again.
"Get away... That's... that's an order. You can't do that with your arm."
Illya didn't give a damn. He had this infuriating "How interesting!" look.
"And anyway, I... won't be able to make it."
The Russian took a deep breath, and knelt again beside him.
"Okay, my friend. You are my superior, Napoleon. I don't want to squabble with you. If you order me no to try to save you... I'll obey. Anyway, I can't really promise you that I could bring you out. So, eventually, you might be right. Too many efforts, too much pain for nothing at all. I'll sit beside you, hold your hand, and we'll wait together until the end. Or..."
The young Russian put a finger on his friend's lips.
"Or you let me do what I want."
He smiled. Or rather... he smirked.
"I have a Ph.D., you remember?... I am a scientist, and that..."
He showed the rod.
"That's something like physic. That's a lever. So, your choice. We quietly let the world fall upon us. Or I move up the said world with my lever. Your choice, Napoleon."
Napoleon muttered again.
"Damned, Illya! Go away!"
Illya Kuryakin ignored him. Stubborn Russian...
"And I would like to remind you of something..."
The steel sheet began to move.
"The world "impossible" isn't in your dictionary!"
Evan Stellon was fiercely talking with a man on the motorboat. On the island, the firemen were analizing the situation, trying to went through the wreck. Around the island, there was a sort of blocking. Cumbersome boats were kept apart. Waverly's arrangements. When Evan Stellon had reported him, the Old Man hadn't expressed the slightest feeling, neither in his words, nor in his tone. Jules Cutter held an oxygen mask. The fisherman stood grimly on the deck with a faraway look. Stellon came back to them, obviously discouraged.
"They say that... they won't try anymore... that it's impossible to survive, there. The basement is going to collapse. It's a matter of minutes."
The fisherman, infuriated, stared at Jules Cutter.
"Survivors? It's a wastefulness, Mr Cutter... I hope that your fight is worth it."
Evan Stellon commented bitterly.
"Mr Waverly would say that agents are expendable... I should have tried to run after Mr Kuryakin... At least, I could have..."
"You could have died, boy."
For a few time, they had been surrounded by various human sounds : talk, calls, shouts, whistles, that they didn't really hear.
Those noises stopped suddenly.
Stellon and the fisherman, appalled, looked around. Jules Cutter just said a word.
As he recognized the boat, the man cursed. Then, he smugly smirked. It didn't matter. It didn't matter at all. They would be late. A hint of regret crossed his mind... Eventually, he could have managed to kill the three of them: Cutter, Solo, Kuryakin... However, Kuryakin would be of more use alive than dead. For the moment. He threaded deftly his way through the other boats. When he heard the blast, he didn't even turn his head and speeded towards the Charon's pass.
A muffled rumble, and the ground quaked. The wall shook, some stones fell, but it held out. Anyway, nobody looked at it. They were all gaping at the two silhouettes walking down the path, one supporting the other. Two moving statues of dust and soot. They staggered, faltered in their steps, each one with an arm around the waist of the other. But they went on. Although they were hardly recognizable, the men, on the Janice III, knew exactly who they were. Cutter threw away his oxygen mask, the fisherman cursed, and they jumped on the quay, followed by Evan Stellon. They rushed towards the two walking statues when the wall collapsed, and a heavy cloud of gravels swallowed all of them
The news hit the New York Uncle headquarter. Everything, every one froze. From the tailor Del Floria to Alexander Waverly's secretary, receptionists, doctors, nurses, cafeteria employees, archivists, Lab technicians, all section agents... Months ago, Mark Slate's death, Illya Kuryakin's imprisonment had come as a terrible shock to all of them. The relief brought by Mark's come back, by Illya's proven innocence had spread out a blissfull veil of optimism. UNCLE, New York, could hold its head up again. A very few malcontents had muttered, of course, but all the UNCLE headquarter, generally speaking, was waiting for their top section II agents, to fete them... And... No.
A very cold, very inscrutable Alexander Waverly had officially informed the whole UNCLE HQ that, by an unfortunate combination of circumstances, Mr Cutter and Mr Solo had been killed in a blast. Mr Kuryakin's death was to be deplored, too; he had been buried under the debris, as he was trying to help them.
The loss was considerable. The Survival School's legendary boss, the CEA, his so brilliant partner...
Many of the UNCLE employees had never met Jules Cutter. But they had heard of him. The ones who knew him... at least respected the professional. He was one of Alexander Waverly's friend. Everyone liked Napoleon Solo, admired him, or at least envied him. Months ago, if one had asked about Illya Kuryakin's guilt, many people would have politely kept silent. Now they would answer that they had always been convinced of his innocence. Most of them were genuine. Genuine in their words. Genuine in their thoughts.
"I can't believe it, Mark. Really, I can't."
Mark Slate squeezed his partner's hand, and pulled her in a comforting hug.
"Neither do I, April, neither do I. But... it happened. And some one will have to pay for it. He will, they will pay the highest price..."
A harsh voice cut him up.
"Revenge is none of UNCLE business, Mr Slate. What happened... happened. We've now to look forward."
"But, sir... it doesn't make sense."
Alexander Waverly stared at the two agents, icily.
"As you know, UNCLE agents are expendable. All of them. However, expendable doesn't mean that they are to be wasted. Mr Cutter, Mr Solo, Mr Kuryakin died. It's... regrettable."
He paused a few seconds.
"But if they had followed orders..."
And the Old Man stormed out, leaving two Section 2 agents taken aback. Mark Slate stood, open-mouthed, fuming.
"Shhht, Mark. Mr Waverly didn't mean it..."
"Of course, he did, April. "A new chapter begins". Period. Remember how easily he let the Commission sentenced Illya!"
April Dancer shook her head. Mark was wrong.
"No, Mark. You weren't there. I was... He fought, Mark. He fought the Commission, really. They might have sentenced Illya to..."
April's voice broke.
"They might have sentenced him to death, Mark. He was supposed to have shot you, and he... didn't deny it. Waverly fought the Commission, and... I know; I know it for sure; he called his Russian friend... The Commission couldn't argue. He saved Illya's life."
Mark Slate pursed his lips.
"He knew that Napoleon was still investigating. That I was studying this film again and again. He let us do. He helped us. He supported us, Mark."
Mark Slate shook his head, doubtful.
"You heard him. They are dead, and he won't do anything."
"Or he'll let us do..."
"I am sorry, Mikey."
Jules Cutter sat down beside the fisherman.
"How are they doing?"
"The young Stellon is writing the report. He is okay. Napoleon has one or two broken ribs, and it's quite painful. He needs a little oxygen, and some rest. But he'll live..."
"I am fine, Mikey."
The young Russian lithely sat in front of the two older men, his right arm in a sting. His wrists and his hands were covered with scratches and burns. His forehead and his left cheekbone were dressed with plasters, his blue eyes were bloodshot. Jules Cutter smiled, stood up and went away, waving his hand. Illya Kuryakyn bent forward, with a concerned look. He spoke in a suppressed tone, slightly panting.
"Are you okay, Mikey? I am sorry..."
The fisherman chuckled.
"Is that a part of an agent's training, Illya? How to express sorrows?"
A pleasant smell made them stop. Jules Cutter put two mugs of coffee on the floor, whispering.
"These guys are well organized..."
He winked at them, and went away again.
"You welcomed me... in your home; you... were here for me, when I needed a friend, although... you didn't know me at all. You probably saved my life... at least, my sanity. And all you got as a reward..."
Mikey rolled his eyes.
"I am alive, Illya! In a few days, more or less, I'll be back home. Your Napoleon will be fine..."
Blue eyes glanced at him. The light, in the plane, was dim, but the fisherman could have bet that the young man had blushed... Mikey grinned devilishly.
"Your two other friends are okay, too. All of us could have died, buried under the stones... But we are all here, alive. So, you don't have to worry about me."
Illya Kuryakin wrapped his fingers around the hot mug and gave a wry smile.
"One minute, Mikey... One minute, I thought... that I would never find him..."
"But you did."
He leaned back against the partition, blinking. He didn't look like to be that fine, the fisherman thought.
"As it's the moment of truth, boy... For some minutes, I thought that we would never see you again. But you have to know that Mr Cutter, undoubtedly, has a real faith in both of you. Of course, I never told you that."
Illya Kuryakin smiled, his eyes closed.
"He taught us... most of what we know, Mikey..."
"Oh, no, boy. He trusted your Napoleon's... Sorry, boy, your friend's luck, and your own stubbornness... His words."
"We'll be there in half an hour. Then we'll be taken to a safe place where we'll meet Alexander. Would you please, Mr Kuryakin, tell me what makes you smirk like this?"
The young Russian vainly tried to keep a straight face. Mikey concentrated himself on the floor. Jules Cutter rolled his eyes.
"Oh, Mr Solo is going to wake up. Perhaps you could go and inform him?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Commissionner Simmons called Mr Waverly to account for what happened... Do you think... Do you think that the Commission could... accuse him of...?"
"I don't think... anything. And you should be careful. You speak too much."
"But you asked me...
"Shhht ! Where is Mr Waverly?"
"In his office... But..."
Illya Kuryakyn looked compassionately at the straight binding up around his partner's waist. Said partner opened his eyes, smiled when he saw his friend, and pulled away his oxygene mask. His smile turned forced, as he caught a glimpse of the dressings, the strained face, the bloodshot eyes.
"Nice, Illya ! Looks like you intend to play the pirat?"
The older agent coughed. The Russian got his arm out of the sting and leaned forward to help his friend..
"Ts, ts, ts, Napoleon... Drink some water..."
Napoleon Solo drank obediently, and gazed at his partner. He sat up straight in the bed, suddenly serious.
"Today, you saved..."
The Russian cut in.
"We have a sort of... bargain, my friend. Do you forget it? We work together. You have saved... my like, I have saved saved yours... and we have never kept the accounts. I don't want to... start it now!"
"But this time..."
"This time... was not different, Napoleon."
Napoleon Solo grabbed his friend's wrist, and stared at him.
"It was. I... I was to give up, Illya. Really. The odds were against me."
"Poppycock! You never... give up, Napoleon ! You are the... optimistic guy!"
Napoleon Solo shook his head, still squeezing the hand he held. He wouldn't let his friend keep on the humorous tone.
"You never give up, Illya. I just rely on you. I trust you..."
Illya Kuryakin overacted the offended man.
"You, you rely on me? You... trust me? How interesting!... Oh, so, who tried to pull... rank on me, in the cave?..... Who ordered me...to go away?"
The dark haired agent went on, eventually answering Illya's attempt at banter.
"And who is the one who refused to obey my orders, as usual? Who is the one who blackmailed me odiously?"
The tone turned serious again.
"Who is the one who... pushed me, pulled me, dragged me to the way out of this hell?"
Illya Kuryakin gently freed his hand.
"We are almost... there, Napoleon. We have to finish... up the job... The Old Man is waiting for us... You should get up.... Need some help?"
Napoleon Solo shook his head. He peeped doubtfully at the casual clothes, beside the cot, bent forward to get them and began to dress himself, aware of the smug look on his partner's face. But it didn't fool him. Had he asked, the Russian would have answered that he was fine. Fine? Napoleon Solo had noticed his bloodshot eyes, his strained features, his uncertain delivery.
"So, eventually, we are dead. Alexander Waverly chose to kill us... You know, I think he might take a malicious pleasure in doing that..."
The Russian looked overwhelmed. As he slipped on the shirt, Napoleon Solo winced.
"You told me a strange thing about a dictionary..."
"Please, Illya? "Impossible..."?
"Oh? "Impossible isn't... in my dictionary." Your words. Well, er...Napoleon's words... You remember? The Napoleon you have... been named from..."
So, they died. All of them. He cursed. Solo and Cutter had been buried by the blast, as planned; but the stupid Russian had been killed in the aftermath of the collapse. Unplanned. Unplanned, but not really unexpected. Perhaps it would complicate things. He didn't actually worry about that, neither mourn for Kuryakin. The icing on the cake: the final collapse had freed him of a care: the two innocent witnesses. One more guilt for Alexander Waverly. Innocents were always a real pain for the UNCLE agents! Eventually, he had succeeded. Even in his failure. He was good. Really good.
"Mr Waverly, when Mr Slate came back, or more precisely, when Mr Solo, by the merest chance, found him, you decided that Mr Kuryakin had to be freed as soon as possible..."
"Mr Kuryakin was innocent."
"You didn't ask Commission's advice, Mr Waverly."
"Mr Simmons, the Commission is a very respectable authority. You waste no time in sentencing... guilty men... you surely wouldn't waste time in freeing innocent ones..."
"Are you sure that Mr Kuryakin was innocent ? Mr Slate's testimony could be a new delusion!"
"However, Mr Kuryakin... Mr Kuryakin is dead. Guilty or innocent, it doesn't really matter..."
"Apart from the fact that we lost Mr Cutter, Mr Solo, and two innocent people, a young guard, and an old fisherman... You could be blamed for that, Mr Waverly."
"Am I to take that you are accusing me, Mr Simmons?"
"No, no, it's just a courteous conversation. But you'll agree with me, some things need to be cleared."
Simmons was... sugary. Slimy was the right word. Alexander Waverly felt an irrepressible need to wash his hands.
April Dancer was puzzled. His faith in Alexander Waverly was unshakable. She admired his determination: he had strong conviction and did everything possible to act from them. She often argued with Illya Kuryakin about the greatest Waverly's achievement: the admission of a Russian as an Uncle agent or the admission af women as section 2 agents? The dispute wasn't settled... And it would never be. Being a woman had an advantage. April Dancer smiled bitterly. Nobody would blame you for crying... She wouldn't cry, although. Not now. She was thinking about leaving the Uncle. If Waverly had to resign, she would leave. And then, she would probably cry.
UNCLE was her life. She had wanted this job. As a woman, she knew that she would have to prove herself. She refused to be a receptionnist, a secretary, a nurse... She didn't despise women who were doing that, but it wasn't her dream. She had fought at the Survival School ( Oh, Jules Cutter...). She had fought against prejudices. But Alexander Waverly had supported her... that's to say... he had been demanding, rough, inflexible... He had partnered her with Mark Slate, but also thrown her into the Section 2 top team's clutches... Sorry, he had encouraged her to work with the Section 2 CEA, and his Russian partner. She liked Napoleon Solo. She admired him. The first time, he had looked at her, his gaze had warmed. But nothing more. She was an agent. He treated her as a fellow-worker. Well... almost.
Many people of the Uncle Headquarter had been surprised. No, more than that. Appalled, when she had stood up for Illya Kuryakin. He had shot her partner, undoubtedly, and she defended him? Firstly, Alexander Waverly trusted the Russian, as he trusted her. Secondly, the self contained, aloof agent had shown towards her an amazing empathy... in various occasions.
"Thanks are not necessary, April."
Mark Slate stood in front of her. His worried look made her shivering.
"Mr Waverly is still with the Commissioner, April."
"April, about what I said... I didnt... I really didn't mean it."
"Yes, Mark?" "You look... absent-minded."
"We have lost Illya, Napoleon and Jules Cutter. Alexander Waverly could have to leave UNCLE... So, yes, I am absent minded, Mark. And I want you to know that... if Waverly have to leave UNCLE, I'll leave, too."
April Dancer rushed out his partner remained silent, the arms dangling.
"Mr Waverly, there is something strange in what is reported here, about the governor of our prison..."
"You read the report. You know what happened. At best, he is... out of his mind. At worst, he might be... a Thrush agent."
"But that's only Mr Solo and Mr Cutter report... We haven't any other..."
"So, you are now accusing the CEA and the Survival School..."
"No, no... They reported to you, Alexander... Directly..."
"Mr Waverly, for you, Mr Simmons. And yes, they reported to me. So I lied? I made up all this story?"
Alexander Waverly brilliantly played the offended man, on the edge of the outburst. He wasn't offended. Just... disgusted. Slimy, yes, this man was slimy.
April Dancer raised her head: the young receptionnist's eyes were inquiring. April forced a smile. The woman looked around, cautiously; she motioned April to come closer, and handed to her an envelop, whispering.
"That's for you. Mr W. told me to give it to you."
The receptionnist raised her eyebrow, frowning, in a quite good imitation of Alexander Waverly, except for her brown eyes... It wasn't Waverly's cutting look. April Dancer took the envelop, nodded a thank to the young woman, and went out. She walked along the street, rounded the corner, and stopped, panting. She glanced around: no one. She had feared... expected... hoped that Mark would follow her. In the envelop, she found an adress. Nothing else than an adress. Oh... yes, something else: eight numbers. It looked like a combination... A door combination. She had no time to waste.
"Mr Waverly... let's talk about the strangest point of those reports: I can't really understand why you ordered the jail to be evacuated."
Alexander Waverly took a deep breath, leaned forward over his desk. He was secretly pleased to notice that Simmons had slightly recoiled.
"I answered to many questions, Mr Simmons, but... now, I would like you to answer one. Are you now the Commission? I mean: a few months ago, when you investigated about Mr Kuryakin... there were five commissioners... So, where are your fellows? Why aren't they here? In short... are you here officially, Simmons?"
Simmons settled down in his chair. He equated the Old Man with a wild animal brought to bay. He could be old, he could be weakened, he could be hurt... he was all the more formidable. Simmons wouldn't mistake. He wouldn't undervalue him... Wild animals needed to be reassured.
"I came alone, as a... scout."
"I want to clear the air, Mr Waverly. What happened raised doubts in many minds. My only purpose was... is to get some explanations. I came here as... a friend, really."
"How kind! That's a relief! But... well, Mr Simmons : you don't like to waste time. Neither do I. Am I to take, although, that I'll have to answer again to the same questions, for the Commission? If that's the case, I suggest that you could call for your fellows to join us..."
Simmons silently cursed. The old fox... Oh, yes, he would call the Commission. Not now. Later.
"Mr Waverly... I don't understand. Evacuating the whole jail... What was the purpose?"
Alexander Waverly sighed.
"I never gave that order, Simmons. Period."
"We have some proofs: the new governor spoke with you. He recognized your voice. And he wasn't alone..."
"A voice can be imitated."
The "safe house" was a small residential building. They could shower, put on more convenient clothes, eat, rest... Napoleon Solo winced a little, sitting down on the couch. From his chair, Illya Kuryakin checked his friend to see if he was all right. The older agent forced a smile.
"Waverly is... a little late, isn't he?"
"Mr Waverly is never late, Napoleon. So..."
The Russian withdrew into silence. Solo noticed that his partner was looking worse. At the moment,he was watching the open bag, on the floor. He stood up and got something out of it. A gun.
"What's the hell do you think you are doing, Mr Kuryakin?"
"Mr Cutter, for the last days... you pestered me to... come back to the UNCLE HQ, didn't you? As you see, you won. We are no use here."
"No way, Mr Kuryakin. Alex asked us to wait here. We'll wait."
"You are a grown up... man, Mr Cutter. So am I. And you... aren't my superior."
"But Mr Solo is your CEA. Mr Solo, please!"
An interesting fight. Napoleon had no doubt that the his partner could easily handle the mob on his own. Cutter was asking for his support... As a competent CEA. But... the said CEA stood up, joined his partner, and chose his own gun. Cutter hissed.
"I see. And what's your plan ? Do you intend to rush the headquarter, shooting everything, everyone? I am not sure that Alex will appreciate that!"
The two young agents spoke at the same time.
"Of course not!"
"More or less..."
They stared at each other.
"What do you mean, Illya "more or less"?"
The Russian sighed.
"We could wait, as Mr Cutter... suggests. One hour? One week?... More? We could burrow our... way underground... towards the headquarter... The Great Escape... reversed out..."
"Illya, you know all the tricks..."
"Yes, I could take... us in the headquarter, secretly... And then ? You'll hug the wall? Play....the Invisible Man? No, I think that we... have to go to the headquarter. As...usual. We'll take our ID...Well, you will... Then, if we have to shoot..."
"We are dead, Mr Kuryakyn. If Mr Solo and you really want to go, now, at least, let's take advantage of that. We don't know what's the situation. There is a mole... at least one. Perhaps more. We have to be careful. We need some informations."
"Surprise is an advantage... Mr Cutter. You taught us that."
Napoleon Solo stepped in.
"Illya, I agree with you: we can't wait here. If Mr Waverly is in trouble, we shouldn't be of any use. But, then, I agree with Mr Cutter: we won't throw ourselves in the lion's mouth. It would be inconsiderate.
-What an understatement, Napoleon ! Are you now... King Solo...mon? You draw the Sword of Justice, and... you compromise?"
The three men stood, looking at each other. Illya Kuryakin felt out of breath, his eyes were burning, but he was right, he knew it. A sharp beep made them react.
The beep was so shrill... It was ear-splitting. Illya Kuryakyn couldn't stand it anymore; he dropped his gun, and put his fingers in his ears. Then, he blanked out.
"Shhhh, easy, Mr Kuryakin, easy..."
A soft voice. Reassuring. As reassuring as possible. But it was not. Not really. Who was this man? His voice wasn't familiar, but he had said "Mr Kuryakin". The beep was now barely noticeable. Perhaps he could withdraw his fingers. He realized that his arms were tied up. He couldn't move. Worse. He couldn't see anything... He couldn't even open his eyes, as if he was blindfolded. He was.
He felt amazingly unconcerned, as if he was just a spectator. Was he a prisoner, again ? Things had happened. He remembered some... and they were reality... He knew that for sure... He saw faces. He saw places. Mikey was real. He must be; if Mikey was real, what happened in his house was real, too. Napoleon Solo had been here. And... the explosion... He saw his partner, under a steel door. He saw Jules Cutter, Mikey and... another man... Breathing had been an ordeal, and it was still so hard. They were running towards them. But...
He couldn't speak, either. When he tried, he felt a shooting pain in his throat.
"Don't try to speak. Not now. Let me remove the tube from your mouth. Please, don't move!"
The soft voice, again. A damp towel cooled his forehead, just above the blindfold... And he got into an irrepressible panic about breathing. Someone was trying to smother him. To suffocate him. The voice whispered words which he didn't understand. He was just choking. He was just dying. He thought that he could try to resist, but eventually gave up. And he realized that he breathed. A shallow, yet erratic breath. But he breathed, on his own. He opened his mouth, he wanted to ask, but felt gentle fingers on it.
"Shhh, no. Not yet. Be patient. Everything is okay. You'll be fine. You swallowed a lot of smoke, and you had to be helped, for awhile."
No. Of course not, nothing was okay... He wasn't fine. He wouldn't be fine, until...
"Mr Kuryakin, keep quiet. If you don't, I'll have to give you some sedative."
The voice was still soft, but clearly determined. It wasn't a threat. Just an evidence. No, no sedative. Illya Kuryakin relaxed, at least apparently. As he couldn't see, he concentrated himself on the other senses. He could hear the steady beep. Distant sounds of voices, footsteps. Closer, he heard some rattlings, rubber-soled shoes. He could smell... disinfectant, and all those sweetish odors that meant... hospital. His throat didn't hurt anymore, but almost all his body did. Just as if he had rolled over in some staircase. He eventually whispered.
"You are in an safe place, Mr Kuryakin. A sort of clinic. Don't worry. Jules Cutter is a good friend of mine. Your eyes suffer irritations, due to smoke and dust, and you need a blindfold. It won't last. Nothing permanent, I swear. I know that it's frightening, and very uncomfortable, but it's necessary. Do you want some painkiller?"
Illya Kuryakin shook his head. Too quickly. His head, his arms, and especially his hands hurted, but it didn't matter.
"If you promise to behave yourself, I could manage to remove those restraints. But you must be careful: your hands suffered various burns, cuts, bruises."
Illya Kuryakyn just nodded. Deft hands freed him and though he couldn't use his arms, he felt a real relief. Freedom. After all, he wasn't a prisoner. He took what wanted to be a deep breath. But he just coughed and panted. Someone helped him to sit straight. Breathing was easier... Something cold brushed his lips. and he greedily drank. The cool liquid, although it was just water, smoothed his throat.
He tried to articulate. His voice was in turns hoarse and squeaky he became aware that he was speaking as if he had mud and gravels in his mouth. However, someone was listening at him.
"Do you remember the blast, Mr Kuryakin? You have been severely burnt, bruised, and almost buried under some wreckage... Mr Kuryakin ! Mr Kuryakin, don't move."
Strong hands pushed him back on the mattress. Careful hands, gentle, but strong.
"Shhhh. It was a terrible explosion. You know, they found you, and you survived. It's like a miracle."
That, he knew. He had survived. But... he struggled, trying to escape the strong grab.
He felt a twinge ; it was too late to react. They had given him an injection, and...
Napoleon Solo leaned forward and banged his fist down on the table. He knew that he had no choice, but it was so unfair. His friend had faced death, a very painful, unpleasant death, to save his life. Once more time, he bitterly thought. Seeing the young Russian, people easily deluded themselves. His enemies, as some of his fellow agents considered him as physically weak. « Poor Napoleon, who has to watch this boy's back... » Illya had often taken advantage of this prejudice...
Napoleon Solo knew that they were wrong. Illya Kuryakyn had pitilessly teased him, challenged him. He had pulled away the steel door. He had dragged him, pushed him, pulled him. Eventually, he had, for all Napoleon Solo could remember, carried him. The older agent had moaned, yelled, tried to force his partner to leave him. The Russian had unflinchingly gone on. And his will had triumphed... over the blast. Over the flames. Over his friend's weakness. Over... his own, probably. As they were almost out of this inferno, the last wall had collapsed. Once more time, Illya's quick reaction had saved their lifes. Well, Solo's life more than his own. It was unfair.
"We left him."
"He'll be fine. You don't have to worry about him."
"I should have seen it. We were talking about Waverly's plan, and he kept silent. When we left the plane, he was staggering, and..."
"He is safe, he isn't alone, Mikey is there and the doctor is friend."
A shrill beep sounded.
The two Uncle agents took hold of their guns. The beep stopped. Whoever was coming, he knew the right combination. It was quite a good news. However, Napoleon Solo flattened himself against the wall, beside the door. Jules Cutter stood in the middle of the room. The visitor knocked, and that was amazing. But when someone knocks at the door, it's civil to open... So Napoleon Solo politely and... abruptly opened the door, bluntly pulled in the newcomer. He instantaneously released his grip as he recognized April Dancer, whose fist stopped just in front of his nose. The young woman's appalled, gaping face was worth the sight...
"Napoleon... Napoleon? But Waverly... He... He told us that... that you were dead, Napoleon! You, and Mr Cutter! Illya...? Where is Illya?"
April's eyes were looking around.
"It's the Old Man's plan, April. The surprise will give us an advantage, and..."
"And... where is Illya ? Napoleon ? Where is he ?"
Jules Cutter tried to cut out.
"Mr Kuryakin is fine, Miss Dancer He is in a safe place."
Napoleon Solo took hold of April Dancer's hand, and Jules Cutter knew better than to go on. He sighed.
"As Waverly told you, April, Illya saved my life. And, well, he had been injured, burnt, intoxicated... But he'll be fine."
April Dancer squeezed his hand.
"All of us, Napoleon, all of us. We thought that you were dead."
"Anyway, we came within a hair's breadth of dying. A... blond hair's breadth."
April Dancer couldn't help smiling and Jules Cutter cleared his throat.
"Mr Kuryakin will survive, Miss Dancer. I don't think that he would like us to waste time... Where is Alexander?"
April Dancer's report puzzled the two other agents. Napoleon Solo tipped his hat to the Old Man. He had given notice of their death, and the enemy had been deluded, apparently. Clever, efficient Waverly. So it was Simmons. The self important Simmons fell into the trap. He was coming to light, and his argument with Waverly must be worth the show... The dark haired agent slightly rubbed his chest. Broken rib was nothing but painful. He had to remember to be a little more careful when he moved.
"What's the hell do you think you're doing, boy?"
Illya Kuryakyn can't help smiling, as he recognized the voice. If this one was here...He answered, still hoarsely.
"Mikey...? I don't know if you realize that, but I am a big boy, and I can act on my own."
As he was speaking, the Russian managed to pulled out the blindfold with his wrists. He carefully screwed up his eyes, and half opened them. It didn't hurt that much. His vision was blurred, but it was getting sharper. He noticed the two white mittens that ended his arms. And Mikey was right here, beside the bed. The fisherman shook his head. Illya Kuryakyn's blue eyes were less red.
"It's nice of you to join me, Illya, but I don't think that your doctor will appreciate that."
The young man's look spoke clearly about what he thought. Suddenly, Illya Kuryakyn stiffened and peeked at the fisherman.
"Where are they?"
His voice was hesitating; the fisherman sat down on the bed and answered the unformulated question.
"We are all right, Illya. You saved him, you remember that? Illya?"
"Yes, I think so."
It was a whisper.
"Is he here ? Can I..."
Mikey shook his head.
"No, Napoleon, Mr Cutter and the young guard are gone. Mr... Waverly ? gave notice that we were dead, all of us. The young Evan went with the people who brought us here. Your two friends were about meet Mr Waverly in a safe house, and, well... Illya? What are you doing, exacty?"
The Russian was rubbing his wrists against the side of the bed.
"Remove those dressings, Mikey. If you don't help me, I'll have to remove them with my teeth."
The fisherman stretched his hand towards the alarm... The Russian would not give up. Blue eyes went through him.
He wasn't begging. He was just... asking. He asked for a friend's help. Not a « father »'s one. Of course a father might have to be reasonable. But this young man didn't need a reasonable help. Mikey knew for sure that if he called the nurse, he would lose Illya's confidence. The Russian would have to wait. But he would try again. So Mikey chose to be... a friend.
"I still don't understand why he didn't tell us... Mr Waverly couldn't believe that we were all traitors!"
Jules Cutter bit his lips.
"No, miss Dancer, of course. But... he suspected that Simmons could be a mole. we met another one in Mousehole... So, Alex had to be careful. And he trusted you, didn't he?"
"But what can we do, now?"
Napoleon Solo cleared his throat.
"Thrush's plan is quite perfectly fulfilled... for all that they know. They got rid of us, Mr Waverley is compromised, implicated... He'll resign or he'll be fired... Just now, they'll learn that they shouldn't believe in fairies..."
"We are going to the Uncle heardquarter, miss Dancer. Mr Solo and I will make our entrance... a sort of... triumphant entrance. You'll disreetly watch our back. Just in case. Simmons will be tracked down, and everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds..."
The argument with the doctor had been close, but eventually he had given up. Illya Kuryakin's determination was unshakeable; one way or another, he would do what he wanted to. Of course, the doctor could chain him up to his bed... but he wasn't sure, firstly, that it would be so easy. Jules Cutter had given very precise instructions: complete discretion was one of them... So he couldn't call for help... Secondly, this young man was an UNCLE agent, known as the n° 2, section 2, the CEA's partner...
"Well, Mr Kuryakin, you win. It's beyond my power to keep you here... and beyond my physical abilities... But, I have instructions, so you'll let me put new dressings on your hands... No, no mitten... Here are some sunglasses. You'll take this bag with you. And... you..."
The doctor pointed his finger at the fisherman.
"Mr Kuryakin will take care of his eyes with the lotion. Is that clear enough?"
He turned back towards the young Russian.
"You'll need a car... I guess... Here are my keys. You have clothes on this chair. Be ready in ten minutes."
Shaking his head, the doctor went out. Mikey caught the keys.
"I'll drive... No ifs and buts, boy. You won't touch the wheel with those hands, that's for sure. You'll just tell me... where you want to go. If you know it, of course."
"Ts ts ts, Alexander... You don't answer... You deny, you beat around the bush... but what ? All in all, I think you are in trouble. In big trouble."
"Am I ? I beg to differ, Mr Simmons."
The Old Man didn't look really worried... except for the "Alexander". Simmons had played cat and mouse with him for hours, but he went down like a lead balloon. Okay, if Waverly wanted him to be clear...
"Mr Waverly, you won't have much option... The Commission will probably order soon official investigation... unless..."
"Unless you choose to retire, on your own."
Alexander Waverly stretched his hand towards a drawer, amused by Simmons's slight start. He opened it and slowly withdrew something. Simmons was clearly ready to jump on his gun... The Old Man put devilishly his pipe and his tobacco on the desk. Simmons breathed out... Then, Waverly calmly began to fill his briar.
"Waverly, don't play me for a fool ! You've had it!"
Alexander Waverly lit his pipe, cautiously, peeping at Simmons who was on the edge to explode... The Old Man took some puffs, delightedly.
"Would you please, Mr Simmons, tell me, exactly, what is the thing that I "have had"?"
Del Floria simply gaped. Then, as a man used to the most amazing situations, he just whispered.
"Well, er... Mr Solo, Mr Cutter... Welcome back home."
The air was heavy. Sadness mixed with worry, anger with trouble. People met without speaking... or burst a blood vessel... for nothing at all. UNCLE wasn't the place for rumours. Well, at least for rumours about important things. Many knew only one: Alexander Waverly was arguing with commissioner Simmons. No one talked about it, although they all smelled the rat...
Amy was the receptionist in charge, and she was bored, lost in thought. Someone cleared his throat. With a sight, she raised his head and just missed breathing... Her mouth was gaping. A hand plunged over the desk, in the box and took two ID.
"Those will work. Thanks, Amy."
When said Amy got her mind back, she was alone. Perhaps... it hadn't happened. She realized that her mouth was still gaping. Although, the ID box was a mess...
As the two men walked along, the usual noises of life fell silent. Napoleon Solo politely greeted people he knew, Jules Cutting rolling his eyes every time he did. Nobody answered: some went on gaping, some froze on the spot. As soon as they left a place, the murmurs grew.
Nobody tried to stop them, either and they were soon in front of Alexander Waverly's office. His secretary, Lisa, wasn't there.
"You are compromised, Waverly. Nobody'll trust you. It would be best that you leave Uncle on your own accord..."
Waverly took a puff.
"Wouldn't you prefer the scandal of legal "proceedings"?"
"If that's what you want... why not ? I would like it very much. Your choice. Either an honorable retirement. Everyone will know why you quit, but «don't ask, don't tell »... Or you, struggling like a mad man, vainly trying to deny your obvious responsibility for Solo's, Cutter's and Kuryakin's deaths..."
A cold voice hissed flatly.
"Exactly... commissioner Simmons... whose deaths?"
The red with anger Simmons turned pallid. White. Alexander Waverly frowned, and shook his pipe with a mischievous twinckle in his eyes.
"Jules, Napoleon... didn't your mothers tell you that it was quite rude to come straight in?"
Simmons gulped, panting.
"You... you're... you are dead!"
"As far as I am concerned, Mr Simmons, I don't think so. Napoleon, are you dead?"
"So, Illya, which way for the Uncle headquarter?"
"No, we aren't going there. Not now. I need.... Well, I am afraid... we'll have to break open a door. Recently, I have been a little absent minded and I forgot a key on the Janice III..."
The fisherman chuckled, slipping a hand in his pocket.
"Is that your key, boy?"
The Russian smiled.
"You know what, Mikey? When you'll be fed up with fishing, I could hire you as guardian angel...You are gifted..."
Mikey looked horrified, and shook his head.
"Guardian angel ? And YOUR guardian angel? Oh, no, Illya, no, boy... I am a little too old for that. So, where are we going, now?"
Illya Kuryakin waved his hands.
"You should let me drive, Mikey. I'll be careful, and we won't waste time."
The fisherman hesitated. Driving in the suburbs of New York had been easier than he thought. Driving in New York... was more frightening... He stopped the car, and Illya Kuryakin took the wheel.
"You didn't tell me, Illya. Where are we going?"
"To the Village, Mikey. This key... is a key of my past. When I came in New York, a few years ago, I lived in an apartment, there. Mr Waverly wished me to go back in this place... He had reasons to..."
The fisherman was tense, and it didn't get any better when he noticed the awkward way the Russian took hold of the wheel. But soon, he relaxed and admired his driver's command. It didn't slipped Illya Kuryakyn's attention.
The small building was still the same. It was deserted, at this time, and they didn't meet anyone. They went up the stairs and stopped at the third floor. Illya Kuryakin took off the sunglasses, looking thoughtfully at the peeled off door. Mikey grabbed the young man's shoulder, but released his grip, as he felt the young man's wince.
"Sorry, boy, I forgot... Bad memories?"
"No, Mikey, just old memories..."
He unlocked the door, took a deep breath and came in. The fisherman trailed behind. The boy needed some intimacy... He heard muttered words, that he didn't understand. Russian? A choking voice. He rushed in the apartment.
Illya Kuryakin stood a few steps forward, the arms dangling. He looked as if he was about to pass out. Mikey looked around. The apartment was untidy, as if someone was moving in. Bookshelves in the middle of the room. Boxes, piled books, piled records... A mess, yes, but nothing else... Although, the Russian was shivering, deathly pale. And the fisheman noticed something... Extraordinary. For the last few days, this young man had gone through painful ordeals. Mikey remembered his face, when he had thought that his friend could be dead... The blue eyes had turned grey, a so pale grey. Now, in this room, the fisherman saw tears in the Russian's eyes... And it was not due to the irritation...
He guessed that the next door could lead to the kitchen... He reached it silently. Illya... Illya could do with some water, and some... privacy, again. The kitchen it was. A small kitchen. On the table, some incomplete dishes... and a box. Mikey lifted up the lid. A gun, a gun with initials. I.K.... The fridge was purring. The fisherman got it open and smiled. A man with foresight had left vodka...
A faint voice hissed.
The fisherman filled two glasses, without a word. He knew better than to ask anything.
"I told you that, Mikey... I was sentenced to life imprisonment, as a traitor... and all my properties had been... destroyed. I thought that I had lost them. All of them."
"But they were not. Those are your books, your records, your... memories, Illya."
"Most of them. The most precious... Those things you can't replace..."
"But your friend Napoleon saved them from the wreckage, for you."
"Yes, he did..."
"And your "Old Man", Mr Waverly... knew that..."
The Russian took his gun, and his ID...
The fisherman stared at him, insistently. Inquiringly. Illya Kuryakyn relaxed and smiled.
"And... you were right, and I was wrong. My friends didn't stop trusting me."
"So, boy, no more white whale for Achab?"
"No... just some Trush birds..."
"Well, let's drink this! Oh, Illya... there is something... the young Stellon wasn't pleased with that... why didn't your two friends take him with them?"
"Evan... is a nice boy...er... man. He'll be, some day, a good agent. Just now, he can't be involved in what will happen. He is what UNCLE call an innocent..."
"And Uncle 's job is to protect the innocents."
"Amongst other things... And that's why, Mikey..."
"That's why I'll have to leave you here."
"No, I am not... Sorry, Mr Simmons. Oh, no... were I you... I wouldn't try it..."
Simmons frowned but relaxed, suddenly. He commented with an annoyed tone, as if it was not interesting.
"So, you survived, both of you."
"Yes, we did. And I want to know, Illya Kuryakin is alive, too. You failed, Simmons. You failed lamentably."
Napoleon Solo had replied flatly. Yes, Simmons had failed. They had succeeded but he felt uneasy. He couldn't have explained why. They were alive. They had got their mole. Simmons was cornered, alone.
Precisely. Simmons was cornered. He was done for. At first, he had clearly been taken aback. At first. At the moment, he was amazingly composed, calm, almost serene. It wasn't resignation, it wasn't the acceptance of the failure. A good player is able to admit a defeat, a failure. It was not that. Simmons wasn't a good player.
He was waiting. Waiting with the absolute certitude that what he was waiting for would happen. Or that the man he was waiting for... would come.
Napoleon Solo frowned when someone knocked at the door. Alexander Waverly and Jules Cutter glanced at it. Solo stared at Simmons. A good poker player...
Napoleon Solo peeped at the commissioner but Waverly's nod and Cutter's smile made him relax.
"Miss Dancer, Mr Slate... Nice to see you..."
Simmons' voice was soft, but ironical. For all that outnumbered he was, the man went on swaggering.
He cursed. He cursed in all the languages he knew. And even in those he didn't. What he had just seen... was impossible. Neither Solo nor Cutter could have survived. The jail had collapsed. Alexander Waverly had officially given notice of their death...
However, he couldn't deny it. Solo and Cutter were alive. They had just passed Del Floria's door. Right now. At least, the Russian wasn't there. That was always something.
He sighed. He had to rely on Simmons. He wouldn't be any use, in there. He wouldn't, and he didn't want to. Simmons would have to manage. If he succeeded, if he defeated Napoleon Solo, Jules Cutter, Waverly, the whole New York UNCLE HQ.... The man sneered. No chance. If he failed, and he would fail, things would be easier.
If Simmons failed, he would die, and that would be great. Everybody knew that: it's always the people who aren't there who get the blame.When you are dead... you can't speak. You can't tell about your fellow's failure. The said fellow can put his finger on your own failures, real or not.
If he succeeded, Simmons would be the hero. The man who would have overcome all the difficulties. And his fellow's incompetence. Especially his fellow's incompetence. No, Simmons had to fail.
The man knew for sure that even if he came in to assist Simmons, he wouldn't get any reward for it. Simmons was an ambitious man. A sort of careerist. He wouldn't miss such an opportunity to shine.
So... he hesitated. It was out of the question for him to assist Simmons. He would wait and cross his fingers. It occured to him that he could force a little the hand of the destiny. He could change sides, but it wasn't a good idea. There were probably some limits to Napoleon Solo's and Jules Cutter's sense of humor. The man knew that he had already gone out of line. No. UNCLE would take care of Simmons for him. All he had to do was to think about a story, for Thrush.
"What do you mean exactly, Illya? Because, if you think that you'll get rid of me..."
Illya Kuryakyn smiled faintly, shaking his head. As he was swaying, apparently on the edge to collapse, the fisherman rushed closer to steady him. The Russian's hand naturally came on Mikey's neck, and the fisherman lost consciousness. Illya Kuryakyn, wincing, held him back although, sat him down on a chair and leaned him forward on the table. Mikey would be mad at him, but here, he would be safe.
Looking at his hands, he waved his fingers doubtfully, one after another. They worked... more or less. He took hold of his gun, and loaded it. His left hand was number than the right, but his right shoulder still hurt. He would have to choose the lesser of two evils.
Napoleon... Napoleon had saved his properties, books, records. Alexander Waverly knew it. In other words... he had agreed with that. Napoleon had needed some help: April? Jules Cutter?... He owed them all a lot.
In the box, apart from his gun, his ID, there was a small key, with its key ring, a sort of metallic token. Illya Kuryakin picked it up, studying the small key for a few seconds. That was interesting. He packed his bag, gently looked at Mikey and reached the car. Yes, that was interesting.
Napoleon Solo himself didn't know anything about the key. It was small, ordinary, and it was absolutely useless. The key was just a key ring. The token opened a door. A very, very special door. A very, very secret one. The Number One, Section One's private door...
A few months after he had joined the New York Uncle headquarter, Alexander Waverly had called the Russian into his office.
Illya Kuryakin drove away smiling as he remembered the scene.
As usual, Alexander Waverly looked like lost in thought, reading a file. For a few minutes, Illya Kuryakin could have believed that it was just a trick. One more trick. How to make fun of the Russian commie... But Lisa wasn't the sort to do that. She was rather kind to him. Now, of course, he knew his chief's ways, but at the moment, he had felt puzzled. Alexander Waverly had begun to speak, to explain. Without looking at him, just motioning him to sit down with his pipe...
Alexander Waverly just wanted him to wreck the UNCLE Security Section's plans, about his private escape route. Waverly's opinion was that if too many people, although trustworthy, knew something, it wasn't a secret anymore. Illya Kuryakin had to prove that the escape route wasn't safe, that it could be broken. He had been amazed, feeling uncertain, but he had succeeded. Then, Waverly had called him again. This time, he had been asked something even more strange, something the young Russian agent had hardly understood: he had to think up a really safe escape route. Something absolutely private. Illya Kuryakin had just said, and it wasn't really a joke...
"I'll... I'll do that, sir... And then, you'll have to kill me."
Alexander Waverly had raised an eyebrow, pursed his lips and replied ironically.
"Well, Mr Kuryakin, I'll think about it. I could first try to entrust this secret to you... couldn't I?"
For the very first time, the young Russian had felt "at home".
This simple token was the key. He knew how he would go in the Uncle headquarter.
April Dancer was smiling. Mark Slate looked a bit puzzled, staring at Simmons. Though, Napoleon Solo's uneasy feeling didn't clear away. The commissioner was even more relaxed. Too relaxed.
"Miss Dancer, Mr Slate, I suggest that... you could take Mr Simmons in a more convenient place?"
April Dancer took a few steps forward, and all hell broke loose. A succession of bangs. April fell down. Napoleon felt a sharp twinge in his neck, and before he could think to get his gun, he was lying down. Conscious, but unable to move. A terrifying scene appeared in his field of vision. An amazingly blankly looking Mark Slate was aiming his gun at Waverly.
The Commissioner Simmons sighed with delight, almost giggling.
"A real marksman, our Mr Slate, isn't he ? Well, er, Mr Solo... Oh, I am sorry, I forgot."
He came up next to Mark Slate and paused, staring at Napoleon Solo.
"Your UNCLE sleeping dart were really no fun. You shoot, the man falls asleep. Pffff... Ours... Ours are really nice. They thwart. Yes. But our victims aren't simply asleep, as you can see... They can enjoy themselves. They are still conscious... as you are. They can... You can see what happens."
Show-off... Napoleon Solo couldn't move, he couldn't speak. He couldn't look daggers at Simmons. The man's smile faded. Now, he looked sorry.
"Unfortunately, Mr Solo, victims eventually died. This drug has, at long, a disastrous effect: it paralyses muscles. All of them. So..."
Simmons turned towards Waverly.
"So, Waverly... Sorry, Mr Waverly... if you agree, we could leave your friends, now, for a little more privacy. I have been told about a discreet escape route... I am sure you'll be happy..."
Alexander Waverly answered harshly.
"You haven't a hope, Simmons. I won't tell you anything about it. So, if you want to leave the HQ..., you'll have to drag me along the corridors... Or to kill me."
With an hollow worried look, Simmons shook his head.
"As you said, a little before, Alexander, I... I beg to differ. Here is..."
He got a box out of his pocket, and showed it.
"Here is the antidote. If you choose to come with us, willingly, by this escape way... I'll leave it there and they'll survive."
Alexander Waverly glanced at Napoleon Solo. Eyes in eyes. An instant gaze. Then, he averted his eyes. He was looking at April, at Jules Cutter. His worried look said it all. Then he stared at Simmons. Icy look. Icy voice. Mark Slate stood still blankly looking, still aiming at the Old Man.
"UNCLE agents...All UNCLE agents, Simmons, are heroes. This young woman, these men are heroes. They are efficient agents, and extraordinary persons. But... they are expendable. All of them. All of us."
Simmons rolled his eyes.
"So, you are going to sacrifice their lives? And yours? Alexander... your choice. I don't mind."
Alexander Waverly raised his hand. Napoleon Solo felt powerless. Useless.
"Simmons, tell me, your plan... What do you want? You failed..."
"No, no, I had a choice: the New York UNCLE headquarter's heroes making themselves look quite ridiculous, and you, my dear Alexander, you... could have been an extraordinary... trophy. This poor guy, Mr Slate, of course sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. What reminds me of our Russian friend. Well, this one will count his blessings and mourn his friends. Your successor will probably send him back to the USSR. The other choice ? Yours, Alexander. Eventually, the most pragmatic: instead of ridiculous heroes, we'll have dead ones. Less fun, more efficiency. I'll leave your office, and go out the HQ, calmly, with Mr Slate. Mr Slate?"
Alexander Waverly had yelled. Mark Slate froze on the spot. Simmons giggled...
"Oh, Alexander, man is a reasoning animal, eventually..."
His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. He desperately tried to blank himself to the frustrating situation. But it didn't work. The whiteness haunted him. The drug would paralize his muscles. All of them. His breath was shallow.
He should have pressed his fingers on his eyes, but he couldn't; the light was still there. It was dazzling.
It killed him, minute after minute. It burnt his eyes, his mind.
But it wasn't Justice. They hadn't deserved this fate. They were dying, and couldn't hope any rescue.
The office was silent. Except for panting breaths.
He tried to concentrate: perhaps he could move, just a little. Perhaps he could roll and roll. Perhaps he could reach the desk. He saw the box, on it. The box with the antidote... But he couldn't. It was driving him insane. Alexander Waverly had given up, in order to save their lives, but Simmons had betrayed him, one more time.
He heard an amazing noise, and nothing. Suddenly, a familiar silhouette crossed his field of vision.
A gentle, warm and dressed hand stroked his hair. A soothing voice was whispering.
Déjà vu. It should have been frightening. It wasn't.
"I am here, my friend. Easy."
No, no, of course, not easy. He couldn't speak. Napoleon Solo moved the only part of his body he could still control: his eyes. He tried to stare at the desk, obviously
Strong arms around him, rolling him. Helping him to sit up straight. It was not an illusion. It couldn't be.
"Take it easy, my friend. Medicals are coming. They'll take care of you."
Napoleon Solo stared at the desk, stubbornly, above his partner's shoulder. Blue eyes, still bloodshot, followed his look.
A chuckle. "No, Napoleon, that's a trick. Don't worry, you'll be fine."
Napoleon rolled his eyes, in all the ways he could. Then, he stared at his partner, insistently. But now people were coming. Illya stroked his hair again, and smiled.
"Mr Waverly is okay, Napoleon."
Napoleon Solo would have grabbed his friend's wrist. He couldn't.
Breathing was easier. Moving was so pleasant... Napoleon Solo rolled on his side with delight. What a comfortable bed... Someone cleared his throat, and without opening his eyes, Solo recognized the smell. Tobacco smell. Waverly's pipe smell. Was the Old Man smoking in the Medical ? No, he wasn't. He just held the briar.
"Ah, Mr Solo, at last, you agree to wake up!"
Napoleon Solo smiled, and tried to sit straight. And he could! He was slightly lightheaded, but he felt fine. He looked around, but the Old Man was alone.
"Miss Dancer and Mr Cutter are doing well. Mr Slate... Mr Slate needs help, but he'll be okay."
Sitting had been easy. Now... speaking.
Well, speaking was easy, too.
"And Illya? What happened? We left him in the clinic..."
Alexander Waverly shrugged his shoulders, his eyes twinkling.
"Mr Kuryakin doesn't like hospitals, Mr Solo. He doesn't like, either, to be left behind... So he did what he is so good at doing... He disobeyed. And he behaved... unexpectedly, as usual."
No, Illya didn't like to be left behind.
"And he saved the world."
Waverly frowned, raising a warning pipe.
"Yes, he did. But you'd know better than to repeat this. Mr Kuryakin doesn't need to be encouraged to do that. Your Russian friend left the clinic with Mr...Mikey's help. And he went straightto the Village. He picked up what he needed, reached the UNCLE HQ, and by mere chance, we met him. Mr Simmons wasn't very pleased."
Napoleon Solo was puzzled.
"Sir, I am not sure... You really said that Illya met you "by chance", in your escape route? By mere chance?"
Alexander Waverly grinned, mischievously.
"Oh, there are things, Mr Solo, that even the CEA doesn't know... Mr Kuryakin set this escape route, for me. And he inserted a device in my ring. This device vibrates if someone uses one of the... keys. So I knew that we would meet Mr Kuryakin, on our way."
"It could have been someone else..."
"Ts ts ts, Mr Solo. It couldn't. That, I had for sure, your partner will tell you about this. Anyway, Mr Simmons was strutting, boasting... He doesn't any more."
"And where is Illya?"
"Mr Kuryakin had some apologies to make... He treated Mikey, in an offhand manner. I told him to take our fisherman here. We owe him some thanks."
The dark haired man was thinking about Waverly's story. So, Illya knew. He knew that all his dearest properties had been kept safe. Napoleon Solo would have liked to be there. He would have seen Illya's face. He lectured himself. When his friend seemed so determined to leave UNCLE, the apartment, in the Village was Solo's last hope. But everything would be okay, now.
Napoleon Solo had showered and dressed. He was to head towards Waverly's office when someone knocked at the door.
Jules Cutter craned forward.
"Are you ready? Alexander is waiting for us."
The Old Man's office was quite crowded: Waverly, of course, Cutter, April, Mikey, two members of the Commission, sheepishly standing in a corner, some of their fellow agents... Two were missing: Mark, of course, and... Illya Kuryakin. Napoleon Solo noticed, but he had to take up his duties, as the CEA. At least, nobody looked worried by the Russian's absence. He went up to the fisherman, put his hand on his shoulder and took his breath to say a few words of thanks. Mikey brushed aside the attempt, and motioned the dark haired agent to follow him. They went out the office, and Mikey stared at Napoleon Solo.
"Where is Illya, Mikey?"
"I didn't knock him, although he deserved it. But I saw it that he knows what I think about that..."
As usual, Mikey's harsh words were inconsistent with the gentle twinkle in his eyes.
"However, I left him in the apartment, Napoleon. He was exhausted, and... he doesn't really care about party like this... Perhaps Mr Waverly won't matter if you..."
They heard someone harrumphing...
"Of course not, I won't matter. Mr Solo, weren't you on assignment, with your partner ? So, what are you doing here?"
"Sir, there is the other agent. The new " governor". He is somewhere, and he is dangerous."
"We'll look for him... But Mr Solo, our Thrush friends never tempt fate. They failed. Period. I am afraid that we'll meet him again, but not now."
The man hesitated. He could shoot Napoleon Solo. Now. There. But he would have to run away for his whole life. A short one... UNCLE would never give up. So, it was better to bend under the weight of the fate. He had now to finalize what he was going to report to his chief. How this damned incompetent Simmons had ruined everything... Perhaps he would "try again" another time.
The door wasn't closed. Napoleon Solo pushed it. Illya Kuryakin was sitting cross-legged, lost in the contemplation of an old cardboard box.
"What you did for me, Napoleon..."
Napoleon Solo sat, cross-legged, beside his friend.
"These are just... things. I should have try to take you out..."
"NO! No, Napoleon. I could survive to the jail. I did. But when they freed me... I realized that... I didn't exist any longer. My books, my records, all those little things of no value that you saved for me, and especially... this box. It's my life, Napoleon."
"Credit what credit's due, Illya. You have to thank the Old Man. He told me that your properties were to be destroyed and he added that I had three days. April and some others helped me."
The Russian grabbed his friends hand.
"I have friends..."
"Of course, Illya. Didn't you know that?"
"I knew some friends: you, Napoleon. April, Mark... And I knew that Mr Waverly valued me. But..."
Napoleon Solo released his hand and put his arm round his partner's shoulders.
"But UNCLE agents stand together, Illya. Some of them could have been distant with you. But most of them supported you. In words, and in actions, as Jules Cutter, your old friend from the Survival School... Oh, you have to know that you have « recruited » the young Evan Stellon..."
"Mikey is more than a friend, to you. He is... family."
The dark haired man added softly.
"He wants us to go back to Mousehole, some day."
"And you, Napoleon, you... are..."
"Your friend, Illya."
And they kept silent.