An alternative "Fifteen Years Later Affair". What if Illya and Napoleon had reunited in a totally different circumstance?
Many thanks to glennagirl for beta reading.
At seven o’clock on a warm, spring Wednesday morning, Illya Kuryakin opened the doors to his workroom at the House of Vanya as he had every single morning since he first founded it, ten years ago. The early start made it possible for him to enjoy peace and quiet for a couple of hours and take care of the administrative part of his job before his employees came in and the rush of activities began. He loved the place when it was empty, letting it remind him of his achievements in this difficult line of business. Apparently it was much easier to dodge bullets than to sell women’s couture fashions.
Chyort! There it was again; UNCLE. Why couldn’t he keep it out of his mind, just for one day? He resigned from the agency ten years ago, and yet that period of his life never really left his thoughts or his heart; the memories insisted in sneaking out of his consciousness at the most unpredictable moments.
As usual, he pushed the thought to the back of his mind and proceeded to light up the place. He was in front of the main electrical board when he heard a muffled sound coming from somewhere near the dressing booths. His right hand instinctively ran to his left armpit, where his holster used to be. His hand came back empty, and he blankly stared at it for a moment, before remembering that a gun was not part of a fashion designer’s ordinary gear. Well, he could hardly face a potential thief with a sewing needle, so he resolved to grab a big, solid-looking wooden tailor’s ruler. If handled knowledgably, even such a seemingly harmless tool could seriously damage a human body.
Illya had already lit all the powerful lights of the premise, so it was a matter of moments before finding the intruder’s hiding place. He cautiously and silently opened all the changing booth doors. Since there were no locks, Illya just pushed the doors open with his ruler, to avoid being hit in case the intruder was armed and determined to shoot his way out of the place.
Kuryakin found what he was looking for in the third booth, but it was far from what he expected.
It was a woman, disheveled and straining against fear. She was also, according to Illya’s practiced scrutiny, injured. She was holding her side, where her white cotton shirt was soaked with what looked like fresh blood. She wasn’t armed, and her condition certainly did not allow Illya to classify her as a threat. When he bent down to check on her wound, she whimpered and tried to move away from his touch.
“Please, don’t hurt me.”
Illya picked a southern accent. He answered in what he hoped sounded like a soft, reassuring voice. “I don’t want to hurt you. If you tell me who you are and what you’re doing in my dressing room, I will do my best to help you. That injury looks serious.”
The woman relaxed slightly, but she still looked quite wary. “It’s a bullet wound, but I cannot go to a hospital. They will find me and finish me off.”
All his previous training abruptly kicked in. “Who will?”
She shook her head. “Never mind that. You’d be better off not knowing anything about this filthy affair. You look like a nice guy, I don’t want to put you into any type of danger.”
Illya smiled to himself. A dangerous affair? It used to be his daily bread. Right, he reminded to himself: used to be.
The former spy replied drily to her attempt at protecting him. “So, do you plan to just hide in my changing booth until you bleed to death?”
The injured woman grimaced against the pain, her pretty face straining to not show any weakness.
She managed to stand with obvious effort. “No, I plan to leave this place as soon as I…”
She couldn’t finish her sentence: her face drained of all color as she collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
‘Bohze moi! Now what am I supposed to do?’ Illya asked himself.
Illya stared at the unconscious woman for a few seconds, but years of training kicked in as he bent down to check her injury. The bullet had entered the most peripheral part of her left abdominal muscle, which sported a neat exit hole on the opposite side. No organs had been hit, and all main arteries had clearly been spared, for the blood was slowly oozing out of the wound. The only variable was the time that the woman had spent bleeding. Judging from the small pool of blood on his changing room floor and the quantity absorbed by her clothes it was minimal. However, the woman was clearly in shock, and the wound needed stitching.
On impulse, Illya decided to help her without warning the authorities and without involving a doctor. She seemed pretty serious when she said that her enemies would chase her even inside a hospital. Grabbing a large piece of muslin from a nearby bin, he made a rough bandage and wrapped it around her sides to help stem the bleeding. Illya located a warm coat from a nearby rack and wrapped it around his latest stray, and gently picked her up.
He carried her to his car, which was parked in his private underground parking lot. Nobody saw him, but for good measure he briefly checked the darkest angles of the parking lot in search of intruders. He realized he was being paranoid, but that intensity of caution had often saved him during his most dangerous years.
Illya drove the thirty minutes to his house by constantly checking the rear-view mirror, but he didn’t spot any pursuing car. He lived in a beautiful house in Long Island, surrounded by a tall stone wall and protected by a state-of-the-art security system. He opened the automatic gate only when he was in front of it, and waited until it was completely locked, to avoid anyone entering his property during the slow closing motion of the large gate’s wings. He didn’t bother to park his car in the garage, and just stopped in front of the main door. He cautiously removed the woman from the back seat and carried her to his nicest guest room on the second floor.
The bed was always made in case of last-minute guests, although he rarely had guests at all. He was not known as an exceedingly social person. His gatherings were strictly of a working nature, and he much preferred to spend his spare time in the quiet seclusion of his beautiful property.
Once he had gathered all the tools he needed to stitch the wound, he spread out a large towel under the woman’s body and proceeded to undress her. He moved very cautiously to avoid hurting her further. He easily removed her large, shapeless trousers, and quickly cut the man’s T-shirt that she was wearing. Her underwear was nothing fancy, but that did little to distract from her shapely figure, something Illya couldn’t help appreciating. After the momentary distraction, he resumed his task, covering her with a thick, soft blanket to keep her warm during his ministrations.
She looked in her forties, but she was quite fit, and her face was very attractive: she had a thick mane of unruly coppery curls, and he remembered that her eyes were an outstanding green color, with golden straws around the pupils. Her lips were full and rosy, although right now they looked quite chapped, probably from dehydration. Her skin was very hot at his touch, indicating a temperature caused by the infection that was undoubtedly spreading from her wound.
Illya could not afford to waste any more time. He proceeded to disinfect the injured tissue and the needle, and set to his difficult task with a sigh. Although he had previously sprayed the area with a liquid analgesic, he knew that the sharp pain caused by the needle would cause her to come around rather painfully, but he had no way of avoiding that.
As expected, as soon as the stitching needle entered her inflamed flesh, the woman woke with a start and a shriek. She grabbed his wrist with a surprisingly strong hold and asked: “What do you think you’re doing?”
Illya showed her the needle and answered, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. “I’m trying to stitch you up. You didn’t want to go to the hospital, and you were bleeding in my changing booth, so I brought you here to my home, and now I’m trying to save your life."
He paused to let her try and absorb the information, then added: “I don’t have any serious analgesic, so I’m afraid you will just have to hang on. Do you think you can stand the pain?”
The woman swallowed, then made a very resolute expression. “I think so. But do you know what you’re doing? I’m not a piece of cloth, you know?”
Illya’s lips creased in a small smile, memories once again flooding his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ve done it many times. On people, I mean, not just on clothes. And I know that you won’t have to stand it for very long.”
“What do you…. ARRGHH! That hurt!”
While she was talking, Illya had inserted the needle again, and now was proceeding as fast as he could, refusing to be moved by the woman’s shouts of pain. As expected, she passed out after a couple of minutes, allowing him to move faster and more efficiently.
After ten minutes he had stitched both sides of the wound, and was happy to notice that the bleeding had subsided. He profusely disinfected the area and skillfully bandaged it. Once he had tucked her body under the covers, he placed a wet cloth on her forehead and gave her two little slaps on her cheeks to revive her.
When she opened her eyes, blinking in confusion, he was quick to explain. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let you rest. I want you to take some antibiotics to fight the infection.’
The blond designer turned field surgeon was emphatic. “Here, swallow these.”
She looked at him with a very suspicious frown, eliciting from him a bemused grin.
“Look, I already had half a dozen different chances of killing you, if that were my intention. I would hardly need to poison you. Don’t you think you can trust me by now?”
He handed her two brightly colored capsules and a glass of water that she drank thankfully. Then she leaned back on the pillows, looking exhausted.
Having accomplished what was necessary to save the woman’s life, Illya thought he deserved some answers from her.
“Do you feel like telling me who you are and what has happened to you?”
The patient opened her eyes and directed a piercing glaze into Illya’s, trying to read him. The Russian knew from years of experience that his earnest face and baby blue eyes inspired confidence in most people, so he just looked back at her with his trademark, innocent expression.
It seemed to work, for the woman's own expression relaxed and she started to talk. “My name is Stephanie Rogers. I work for a government agency and was shot during a mission.”
Illya was disappointed: “Is that all? You’re not going to tell me what agency you work for and who shot you?”
“I told you, I don’t want to involve you. All I can say, I’m with the good guys, so you did the right thing by helping me. But tell me, who do I owe my life to?”
Illya knew a sidetracking strategy when he saw one, but decided to humor her. “My name is Illya Kuryakin. I own the premises you chose for your hiding place, and I…”
He stopped. She was looking at him with wide-open eyes.
She stammered in search of a reply. “I… I thought your name was Vanya.”
He shook his head. “No, that’s just my company’s name. Would you please tell me why you keep staring at me with that flabbergasted look?”
“You’re Illya Kuryakin?”
She was obviously surprised, and questioning him again about his identity seemed to trigger a hint of anger in the normally cool blond. “I think I just told you. Why is my name having such a detrimental effect on your cognitive abilities?”
With some difficulties, she regained her composure, straightened up on the pillows and dropped her bomb. “Mr. Kuryakin, I work for UNCLE.”
Now it was Illya’s turn to stare at her open-eyed. “Is this some kind of joke?”
She shook her head. “I assure you it isn’t, Mr. Kuryakin.”
Illya wasn’t easily convinced, for he did not believe in coincidences. “Then how did you end up hiding in my premises? The premises of a former UNCLE agent?”
She smiled at that comment. “And not an ordinary one at that: you’re one half of the most renowned UNCLE teams in its entire history. I must say, it’s a great honor to meet you, Mr. Kuryakin."
Despite the oddity of the situation, Illya felt embarrassed by her words and by the evident admiration shining in her eyes. “You’re talking about many years ago. It’s all in the past, now. And please, call me Illya.”
“It might be in the past, but we are still studying your missions in our textbooks. You and your partner are quite a legend in the community.”
He asked, giving in to his curiosity. “I heard that Mr. Waverly recently passed away. Who’s in charge of the organization, now?”
“His name is Sir John Raleigh. He’s a Brit, but he’s all right.”
He still had another curiosity to satisfy. “Are there many female agents among the UNCLE ranks, now?”
She smiled proudly. “Oh yes. I would say one third of the active agents are women. And they have raised the maximum age: now agents can remain active for as long as they wish to. I, for example, have been an operative for about fifteen years, and have no intention to quit, although I'm well over forty."
He could not suppress his admiration, and said so. “You must be good, if you have managed to stay alive for fifteen years of active service.”
She smiled, and he realized the rudeness of his own words. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that women are any less than men or that they are doomed to die young. All I wanted to say was…”
She interrupted him, placing a comforting hand on his arm. “I know what you wanted to say, Illya, don’t worry. I’ve read about the ‘old days’ when active service was a prerogative of men. Things are different, now. But you’re right: most agents are doomed to die young, either men or women. That hasn't changed, unfortunately.”
She took his hand and squeezed, adding: “And if it weren’t for you, I would be one of those dead young agents, too. Thank you."
He smiled, captivated by those sparkling green eyes, and returned the squeeze. “You’re very welcome. But I can feel that you’re still quite hot. You need to rest now, and allow your body to work the fever out. You should be quite safe here, so you can afford to sleep for a couple of hours. I will be here when you wake up.”
He then tucked her under the covers, brushed away a stray lock of hair from her forehead and switched the light off.
He moved to the kitchen and prepared to fix a hearty meal. He knew by experience that waking up after being shot always roused a very robust appetite. Well, almost everything did, when he was younger. Now he had to watch the calorie intake, but he proudly sported a still fit body, mainly thanks to the ten miles he ran every morning. He also kept taking ju-jitsu lessons and paid regular visits to the shooting range; old habits die hard.
While he was cooking, he couldn’t help thinking about the ‘old times’, as Stephanie called them. He had conflicting feelings about them. It certainly had been the most eventful and exciting period of his life, but the bitterness that accompanied his leave was still an open wound. He had to admit that he would never have left UNCLE if his friend Napoleon were still at his side. But his friend and partner had left a couple of years before him, creating a gap that was never filled. He realized that Stephanie reminded him of the girl he was assigned to protect during that last, fatal mission. The girl he failed to protect. Gripping the knife he was holding to chop the vegetables, he swore to himself that he would not fail this girl, and would help her in whatever she had to accomplish, thus voiding the oath he took when he left UNCLE.
Less than two hours later, Illya was watching the news, in search of any information that might relate to Stephanie’s mission, but there was just too much going on in the world, and every day looked worse than the previous one. She could be involved in any one of those catastrophic events. While he was mulling over the disastrous situation of the eighties, he heard a faint muffled sound coming from behind him. He darted from the couch, rolled on his back on the floor and aimed the TV's remote at the source of the sound.
It was Stephanie, who raised her hands, and with a very straight face responded to the man and his weapon. “I surrender. Please, don’t turn me off.”
He relaxed and looked at his weapon, embarrassed at his actions. “I’m making myself ridiculous, I know, but I’m not used to having other people moving around in my house.”
She lowered her arms and approached him. “Ridiculous? Are you kidding? I’ve never seen anyone move quite so fast. If that were a gun and not a remote, I would probably be history by now. Now I know I must never approach you stealthy from behind.”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Were you testing me?”
She smiled sheepishly. “Yes. Please don’t be upset. I just wanted to see if you lived up to your legend.”
He frowned at her. “And did I pass the test?”
“With an A.” Then her smile disappeared. “Oh, come on, don’t scowl at me. You would have done the same with a fellow agent.”
Illya decided to drop the issue: it was too hard to glower at that pretty face for long. “I guess you’re right. Are you hungry?”
Her smile reappeared. “I’m starving.”
He returned her smile. “Good. I took the liberty of preparing cold pasta, vegetables and roast chicken. I hope you’re not on a diet. Every woman of the eighties seems to be.”
He helped her gallantly to a chair and she sat down gracefully. “No need to worry, your efforts won’t be wasted. I could eat a buffalo!"
Illya had to admit that she was a worthy opponent: her appetite matched his, and they rapidly gobbled everything up.
After lunch she helped him tidy up the kitchen. He unobtrusively looked at her, moving about bare-footed and dressed in pair of his trousers and one of his shirts. She was the first woman to ever enter his retreat, although he often saw other women, of course; but he never allowed them access to what he considered his haven.
For some reason, his relationships were short-lived, and he still hadn’t found a woman he could trust with his most intimate feelings. Now, in a very strange turn of events, a complete stranger was roaming his house, and yet he didn’t feel violated. All he could feel was an odd sense of trust. He thought that maybe the fact that he once was an UNCLE agent like her made him feel in tune with this particular woman.
He mentally kicked himself when he saw a small spot of red on the side of her shirt. He completely forgot about her wound. She was so lively, she hardly looked injured at all. That woman was pretty tough.
“You’d better sit down and let me look at your wound. You’re bleeding again.”
Surprised, she looked at her side. “Darn! I stained your nice shirt.”
“Don’t worry about the shirt. Here, let me check.”
He made her sit down and gently lifted the shirt. The bandage was slightly red, but nothing terribly worrying. “I need to change your bandage, and check if the stitches are holding.”
She smiled and gave him permission to do what was necessary. “Do proceed, doctor Kuryakin. I know I’m in good hands.”
Witty. Smiling to himself, Illya removed the stained bandage and ensured that the stitches were firmly in place, disinfected the wound again and applied a fresh bandage.
He had just finished buttoning up the shirt, when suddenly the piercing sound of the alarm system made their hearts skip a beat. Both Illya and Stephanie reached for guns automatically but neither was wearing a holster. They sprang to their feet simultaneously, but headed in opposite directions. Illya needed to know where the intruder had entered the house, and the alarm’s central control indicated the window in the laundry room. Before running there, he stopped at his desk, unlocked a combination drawer and rapidly extracted his gun and two packs of ammunition. By the time he reached the laundry someone had already broken in; the door was open and the window’s glass was shattered on the floor.
Illya hastily locked the door to prevent any more intruders from entering before going in search of Stephanie. He needed to find her before the man or men who had violated his retreat reached the wounded agent.
He headed for the guest room first, thinking that Stephanie might have gone to retrieve her shoes for a fast getaway. As he climbed the stairs Illya saw a shadow moving stealthily in his bedroom. It was too tall and big to be Stephanie, and was completely clad in black. He didn’t hesitate; he silently loaded his gun and aimed it at the figure that had crouched down to look under the bed.
Illya addressed the intruder in a low and steady voice. “Drop your gun and raise your hands.”
Then he loudly slid his gun’s carriage, to let the man know that he was armed. But the thug decided to take his chance and turned, firing his gun at the Russian.
Illya expected that desperate move, and had already ducked. He was the second to fire, but he wasn’t the one who missed. The man dropped without a sound, a red stain quickly spreading over his heart. Illya rapidly searched his pockets, but he didn’t really expect to find anything revealing. The only thing he found was a picture of Stephanie, along with her name and code number. He quickly pocketed it and stood, distracted by a sound coming from the door.
It was Stephanie, who was grasping one of his sharpest kitchen knives. He turned and grabbed her hand, aware that she had indeed put on her shoes.
“Let’s get out of here. I’m sure that man wasn’t alone.”
They ran to the garage, which housed Illya’s second car, a big and sturdy four-wheel drive that sported an oversized front bumper. They swiftly took their seats, and Illya pushed a button to open the automated garage door. He turned the ignition and flattened the accelerator pedal. The big car leaped ahead and skidded on the gravel, bombarding the house’s wall with pebbles.
A second button opened the gate, which turned out to be blocked by a car parked sideways in front of it. Illya didn't bother to slow down. He just warned his passenger: "Brace yourself!", then rammed into the sedan, virtually slamming it a few feet away.
As they sped away, Illya cast a glance at his companion. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. “Yes. Do you think that man was after me?”
He handed her the picture he found in the thug’s pocket. “Yes. You were his target. I wonder how he found out where you were hiding. Maybe your clothes were bugged.”
She shook her head. “Impossible. I took the precaution of changing them after I was shot. I stole them from someone’s hanging line.”
He pondered. “Mmmh. Then maybe they bugged my car. Could it be THRUSH?”
She shook her head again. “No. THRUSH was defeated ten years ago, and has never risen from its ashes. I think that thug was sent by the man I have been assigned to stop, Alexandre Renard. He’s a Frenchman, and the boss of a very powerful and very organized gang of drug dealers. He owns a Midtown bar that’s very popular with college students, and uses it as a base to push drugs. I infiltrated his organization, but someone blew my cover. That’s how I ended up in your place of business.”
Illya considered this, disdaining what Stephanie described. “You were right: a very filthy affair. I hate people who sell drugs to kids.”
She put a comforting hand on his arm. “I’m sorry I involved you in all this. I know you didn’t want anything to do with UNCLE anymore.”
Illya was surprised by Stephanie’s statement. “You do? How is that?”
“I read about your last mission, and I think I know how you felt back then. I probably would have done the same. But you still have time. Just drop me somewhere in the city and take a long vacation some place nice and far. You won’t hear from me anymore.”
On impulse Illya pulled over and put the car in park. He covered her hand with his and looked her in the eye.
“Listen to me, Stephanie: I don’t know why this bizarre turn of events has put you in my changing room in the first place, but now that you’re in my life I’m not going to let you slip away as though nothing happened. I took the trouble of saving your life, and I think perhaps you owe me the opportunity to see this through. Please, let me help you."
She smiled at the handsome blond, glad that he wanted to stay by her side. “Far be it from me to spoil your fun, Mr. Kuryakin. Please, do carry on.”
Illya asked: “What’s our next step?”
Stephanie answered: “I guess I should hit base and inform Sir Raleigh that my cover has been blown. I also need some fresh clothes and a new gun.”
Illya said to himself: ‘Well, how’s that? I’m going back to UNCLE after all these years. Quite an eventful day.’
Stephanie cast him a sideways glance and said: “I know how you must feel, but there’s no need to worry: UNCLE is very different now. Even the HQs have changed a lot. You’ll see.”
She directed him away from the route to Del Floria’s, and they headed to a nice tall building near the Central Park area. They parked the car in Stephanie’s own parking spot and Illya noticed a glass door sporting a big sign: “U.N.C.L.E. United Network Command for Law Enforcement.” So much for secrecy, Illya thought.
But before they were able to reach the door, they heard the screeching sound of braking tyres. They both instinctively took cover behind Illya’s car, not wanting to shoot back in the street, for fear of hitting some innocent passers-by. They heard the clanging of bullets hitting the car’s side, but luckily the sturdy vehicle protected them from the lethal cluster of lead. Their enemies didn’t dare stop in front of UNCLE headquarters, and just sped away, without even checking the outcomes of their attack.
Illya and Stephanie jumped back in the car. The Russian quickly checked that the tyres and the engine were undamaged, and turned the car back on. He tried to chase their attackers, but they had already disappeared into the heavy traffic.
He asked his passenger: “Looks like UNCLE HQs are inaccessible grounds. What’s your plan B?”
The woman answered: “I don’t have one.”
He retorted: “That’s very careless. You should always have a plan B.”
Stephanie tried to bite back a snappy remark, knowing that he was right, and asked: “Did you always afford the luxury of a plan B?”
Illya made a small self-conscious smile and said: “No, but when we didn’t have it, we just made one up.”
She said: “Well, make one up now, because we need it badly.”
The Russian’s smile widened. “I think I just did.”, then he focused on driving as fast as he could and didn’t offer any more explanations.
After approximately five minutes of driving in the thick New York traffic, Stephanie couldn’t resist anymore. “Aren’t you going to tell me where we’re heading to?”
“To a Midtown hotel.”
The woman was silent for a couple of minutes, then asked again: “Are we going to stay at a hotel? What for?”
Illya shook his head and answered: “We aren’t going to stay. We’re just going to pay a little visit to an old friend.”
As soon as she realized who that ‘old friend’ was, Stephanie’s mouth opened into a huge smile. “You mean… we’re going to meet the famous Napoleon Solo?”
Illya briefly glanced at her and asked, in a sour tone: “Is the thought of meeting my old partner so appealing to you? That smile is cracking your face.”
The woman immediately controlled her reactions and somewhat managed to tune down the smile to a satisfied grin. “Sorry. It’s just that… well, you know, it’s like meeting a legend.” Not missing his hurt expression, she immediately corrected herself. “Another legend, I mean. And on the same day, too. All my colleagues will envy me, especially the women.”
Illya mumbled, but did not press the subject.
He pulled over in front of a top-class hotel, and threw the car keys to the valet. At the front desk, he asked the uniformed receptionist: “Is Mr. Solo in his suite?”
“Yes. Would you like me to announce you?”
The Russian nodded. “Please. Tell him his uncle needs to see him.”
The man talked briefly into the intercom, then said: “Mr. Solo will see you right away. Upper floor, suite no. 6”.
While the elevator was swiftly carrying them to the last floor, Illya tried to analyze his own feelings about seeing his old partner again after all those years. He was glad, of course, but he was also quite uneasy. For some reason, they hadn't stayed in touch, and the thought of seeing him again brought back both pleasant and unpleasant memories to his mind.
When the elevator's doors opened in front of Solo's suite, Illya froze: his friend was standing in the hallway, his features expressing his surprise at seeing him. As soon as Illya stepped out of the elevator, Napoleon reached him in two long strides and squeezed him in a bear hug. The Russian could almost feel the waves of emotion coming from his old friend, and couldn't help reciprocating them. He closed his eyes and returned the hug, patting Napoleon's back enthusiastically.
"God, Illya, it's so good to see you. After all these years." Then Napoleon noticed his friend's companion, staring at him in awe and smiling gleefully: "And in lovely company, too. Aren't you going to introduce me to your... uhm... friend?"
They broke the amicable hug, and Illya formally introduced the woman: "Napoleon, meet Stephanie Rogers. Stephanie, I guess my old friend doesn't need an introduction."
Napoleon took the woman's hand and gallantly kissed it, boring into her green eyes with his own dark chocolate ones, his famous charm at full power. He murmured, in a warm baritone: "Delighted to meet you, Ms. Rogers."
Illya's eyes rolled to the ceiling for a moment, and he moaned softly: how many times had he seen this scene before? He decided to stop Napoleon's advances before Stephanie melted in a puddle at his friend's feet.
He said: "As much as I wished this were a social call, I'm afraid we are here on a much graver reason, Napoleon."
Solo's curiosity was now piqued, and he managed to let go of the woman's hand, at last. "Oh? Why don't we make ourselves comfortable, then?"
He led his two visitors inside his elegantly appointed suite, and showed them to the couch.
Consistently with his character, Illya skipped the niceties and went straight to the point. "Don't let Stephanie's aspect fool you, Napoleon: she's an UNCLE agent."
Solo's smile widened. "Really? Well, how's that? You show up after fifteen years of complete silence, and you do that in the company of an UNCLE agent, no less. Somehow, I don't think that's a coincidence."
The Russian didn't miss his friend's not too subtle criticism. "I don't recall receiving any calls from you either during those same fifteen years."
Napoleon's smile had now disappeared, replaced by a much sterner expression. "I did try to contact you, but you disappeared into nothingness. Not even Mr. Waverly knew how to reach you."
Illya's gaze dropped to the floor. " He did know. I just asked him not to tell anybody. Not even you."
Napoleon was flabbergasted. "Why, Illya?"
At last the Russian managed to look into his friend's questioning eyes. "Because my last mission was a complete failure, and the woman I was supposed to protect was killed by THRUSH. I didn't feel like explaining the whole situation to anybody. And you had already left. Why bother you?"
Solo's look was hurt when he answered: "Because I wasn't just your ex-partner. I was also your friend."
Illya's gaze dropped once again to the floor, unable to sustain Napoleon's pained look. "I realize that now. I actually realized it quite a few years ago, but it was too late to put things right."
Napoleon's earnest smile reappeared. "It's never too late, you stubborn Russian."
Illya's boyish smile magically erased fifteen years of hurt silence between the two men.
Stephanie discretely coughed to remind them of the problem at hand, then said, in an apologetic tone: "I'm really sorry to interrupt such a moving reconciliation, but we really should get to work, now."
Napoleon asked: "Work? What kind of work is she talking about, Illya?"
Kuryakin explained: "You see, Napoleon, the reason why I came here with Stephanie is that she's trying to eradicate a drug gang, but somebody blew her cover. She was shot, and that's how we met each other. When we tried to reach UNCLE headquarters, they were waiting for us and they tried to kill us. So I decided to look for an outside help, meaning you."
Solo leaned back in the comfy armchair. "And what makes you think that I feel like going back to work, after all these years?"
Illya's smiled knowingly, and said: "The fact that you cannot have changed so much as to refuse your help to a lady in distress."
Solo snorted, but did not deny his former partner's statement. "What exactly do you expect me to do? I'm a little bit out of practice, you know."
Stephanie interjected: "If you're as out of practice as Illya, then no sweat!”
The Russian added: "I'm sure you still have a couple of guns at least, right?"
"Sure, but I must confess that I never kept practicing, so my aim might be a little worse than what it used to be."
Kuryakin commented: "It's never been especially good, anyway, so that is not going to make much of a difference." The twinkle in his blue eyes showed that he was teasing his friend, enjoying the complicity they once again shared.
"We will need a plan, Illya."
"That's why we're here, my friend. Do you think I finally broke fifteen years of silence just to put my hands on your guns? It's your brain I need. And your connections."
Solo looked at him suspiciously. "What connections are you talking about?"
"Come on, Napoleon, do you think I didn't keep an eye on you after you left UNCLE? Discretely, of course."
"I see. So you kept an eye on me, and I couldn't even know where you were and how you were doing?"
Stephanie interrupted the developing argument. "Hey, would you stop fighting like an old married couple? We need to focus now."
Solo decided not to press the subject. "You're right, Stephanie. So, what connections of mine do you need, exactly?"
Kuryakin asked: "Do you still know that crook that used to buy drugs downtown?"
Napoleon looked like he was about to make another sharp comment at the Russian's in-depth knowledge of his acquaintances, but a warning look from Stephanie stopped him in his tracks.
"I haven't seen him in a while, but I know where to find him. He would sell his mother for a hundred bucks."
"I don't want to buy his mother, I just want him to talk around about this new crack supplier in town."
Solo asked: "Meaning?"
"Me, of course," was Kuryakin's blunt answer.
Solo retorted: "Are you out of your Bolshevik mind? Do you expect them to believe that a fashion designer suddenly turned drug dealer?"
At Illya's stunned stare, he commented: "Oops. Maybe I shouldn't have said that."
The blond slowly rose from the couch, with a forbidding look that turned his eyes the color of a stormy ocean. "You knew. You knew all along."
"Yes, I did." Solo admitted, not daring to meet his friend's accusing stare, then added: "You're not the only one who knows how to follow the tracks of someone who doesn't want to be found anymore."
"Then why didn't you try to contact me?"
Solo's voice raised again. "Well, I figured that if you didn't want to have anything to do with me anymore, why should I impose myself on you? You were obviously in your best oyster mood, and there wasn't a thing I could do to change your mind."
Stephanie briefly looked at the ceiling, then she also stood up and yelled: "THAT'S ENOUGH! Would you PLEASE stop bickering? We're wasting precious time."
The two men had the decency of looking contrived, and Kuryakin sat down again in the couch, asking: "All right, enough of this. What do you suggest, Napoleon?"
"I suggest I play the supplier. They certainly wouldn't know a computer dealer, would they?"
Stephanie answered: "Very unlikely. But that sounds like a pretty dangerous plan, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon turned on his charm again, and looked at her with his best flirtatious smile. "Please, call me Napoleon." Then he added, more seriously: "It's probably as dangerous as when you infiltrated that same organization, don't you think?"
Stephanie couldn't resist the spell of those soft brown eyes, and answered: "I guess you're right. After all, you two did break up quite a few similar organizations in the past, didn't you?"
Kuryakin interjected: "We did, but we're talking a long time ago. We don't know how things work now. But I'm counting on you to bring us up to date."
He also smiled at her, and Stephanie found it hard to decide which one was more captivating: Solo's open, warm and easy smile or Kuryakin's more introverted, timid and rare smile?
She decided to postpone her judgment to a more suitable moment, and set her mind to the plan that Napoleon was explaining.