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The Masquerade

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"I can't do this, Napoleon. I'm known here, I did a show two years ago. People do know who I am these days, my friend."

Illya Kuryakin, of the House of Vanya, fashion designer, was attempting to convince his friend of 25 years that being here at Mardi Gras on an UNCLE assignment was not a good idea for him. Why he had agreed to meet Napoleon here was baffling him even now. How many times would he have to say "just one more time", before he meant it?

The years in between active duty as a field agent for the international law enforcement agency and the present had been kind to both men financially. Solo had started a company that pioneered some of the most sought after computer components in the industry. He recently sold that company in order to flee from the mundane existence it provided for him, albeit a profitable existence. Solo luck didn't just pertain to espionage and women, it seemed.

As for Illya, years of living slightly beneath the radar of curious onlookers had insured that no one could have predicted his turn of fortune, or careers. Everyone around him assumed that the sum total of his interests centered around UNCLE, jazz and keeping his guns clean. He had played the game well, and when he left the equally secretive organization that had brought him to America, he parlayed his years in Paris and his unlikely but continuing friendships with several successful designers into a pathway of his own choosing. This time, for once in his life, he was allowed to follow a muse rather than a clue.

Here they sat, savoring the unique chickory blended coffee while the aroma of fresh beignets wafted through the open bakery windows. The two men were in New Orleans, on the cusp of Mardi Gras but not quite in the midst of it. A few strands of beads lay in the streets, glistening against the hot black pavement on an unseasonably warm day.

Kuryakin was in a white cotton shirt, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows and the front open to mid chest. This he wore atop blue jeans and loafers. He wore no socks. Illya was somehow more overtly sexual than his partner remembered, still more European than American in spite of all of his years in New York.

Perhaps being in constant company of models and a glamorous backdrop to his life had slowly saturated the formerly subtle attributes and caused this seeming transformation. Napoleon didn't understand that, and was still having trouble adjusting to the notion that his partner… his friend, the Russian, was a successful fashion designer.

"Tell me again, tovarisch, how it is you landed in the rag business? Regardless of your very slight narration of the events, I still am a bit disbelieving that this is really you. Why is it, again, that you never told me about this secret talent of yours?"

Illya smiled that same twitch of amusement; not quite a smile, but for those who knew him a reward nonetheless. The blond hair was not quite as blond as in their younger days which made the occasional lighter strand even more noticeable. The brilliance of his eyes had not changed. Only a few lines around his eyes betrayed the possibility of Illya's age, and Napoleon had begun to wonder if perhaps a portrait of the younger man was stashed in a closet somewhere.

Napoleon himself looked good, if not his younger self. He was trim and now rather ruggedly handsome; women still demanded his attention. If Illya provoked a more demure type of admiration, Napoleon could command a flurry of activity with just the smile for which he had become famous in their days with the Command.

Sitting here together, at this sidewalk café, the two of them garnered a few looks from the recovering revelers who passed by, some of them wound about with beads that spoke of the previous night's celebrations. The discussion came back to Napoleon's question, and the unlikely scenario that had brought them, once again, to UNCLE's beck and call.

"Napoleon, I didn't hide it from you, and if you remember it was always me who was cast in the role of someone in the trade. The affair with the double who had portrayed the Thrush official… I forget his name now. When we rushed headlong into that dress salon, it was I who played the part of the fashion aficionado. And down in the garment district, with that crazy print we were sent to find, it was again I who went in and played the part of a designer.'

Illya paused a moment to let the memories flood back. It had been so many years ago, and he wondered at having ever been that young.

"Did you not ever wonder at how I knew the language, the fabrics and the general lay of the land? How could you not have been aware of at least some familiarity on my part?"

Napoleon had to admit that Illya's ease with those situations had not merited enough of his attention. Perhaps the need for it had escaped amidst the real dangers and immediacy of the moment.

"I don't know, Illya. Oversight? You were just so good at … everything. Nothing surprised me after a while; you were a master of deception and disguise. I suppose I wonder if that's still your game, if you're not still in disguise even in this new career of yours."

Illya let that wash over him. He supposed there was some truth in it, because in spite of his success, he didn't lovewhat he did. It was simply a matter of being able to do it, and do it well. His aesthetics were vastly different now from what had been required on the frantic, dangerous missions that he and Napoleon survived in those days.

In a moment reminiscent of those earlier days, blue eyes met hazel ones in an attempt to read something beyond the spoken word. In years past they had communicated without needing to speak, their actions and reactions more a result of the subliminal messages that they were able to send one another. What about now?

What was he doing here anyway? How had his vow to never again work for the Command been overlooked so completely that he now found himself waiting for instructions from a voice on the other end of a silver pen?

"Illya, we don't have to do this. But don't you think, somewhere beneath the silks and the glamour, there is something left of the old need to be on the side of right? You don't even need to be someone else this time. You can be Vanya, and it will get you into places that used to be closed to us save the occasional deception. You've given us an edge this time around, and no one will suspect that a fashion designer is really a spy. Think of the possibilities."

Kuryakin did think. He thought he was crazier than he had been in his youth when chasing the enemy and barreling into dangerous situations had been done as a matter of duty, both to the cause and to the man sitting next to him. What would it mean now?

The streets were beginning to liven as the tourists and traveling party goers began to emerge from the various hotels and hostels along the boulevard. People who were renting rooms for the sake of the season were willing to look away in the wake of marginal behavior and manners.

No matter how far he traveled or how much debauchery he witnessed, the Russian never became accustomed to people throwing away their lives, the precious minutes of those lives, in pursuit of nothing. Fun, or what passed for it, was not an excuse for wasting one's potential. Perhaps that is what drove him now, those same contrary views of the world that had made him able to leave his homeland in pursuit of a more just cause.

"It is ironic, is it not, that we are here in the midst of this giant masquerade that has been made of the season designated as a time to selflessly deprive oneself of extraneous pleasures. I find that the idea of masquerading as myself in order to fight greater evils particularly contradictory. I shall be myself in order to fool people into believingexactly that, while being something else entirely."

Napoleon was caught in the glare of blue eyes as they penetrated his own motives. Why did he need to do this? And why drag Illya back into it, risking both their lives and the comforts they had gained when each of them turned their backs on UNCLE, and prospered?

That feral smile emerged, dragging them both back into affairs of the past, innocents and bullies alike falling in its wake. Of course Illya would do it. Beneath the cool blond exterior and behind the icy blue glare lived a man who had thrived on the adrenaline and the danger. The business of eliminating Sepheran was incomplete, but they had successfully stopped the bomb. And then there was Janus.

"All right. Just, please promise me Napoleon that you will try and not get yourself entangled in the lives of defecting ballerinas or spider carrying enemies. Just this once, be a little more like me…"

That last sentence became a chuckle as the men made their mutual peace with whatever might come. The past was gone, no longer an issue in spite of the years of separation. Neither man believed in clinging to past glories, nor did they need to. A new kind of partnership was in the works, untested yet full of promise.

"I'll let our Uncle know we're going to the ball."

Napoleon reached into his pocket to retrieve the communicator he had held onto for fifteen years as Illya's eyes wandered down the street. The sight of women in halter tops and short shorts intercepted ideas for a new sportswear line even as the man in a flowered shirt and mirrored sunglasses stepped out of a storefront that had a curious sign above the door.

"Damn…"

Napoleon paused to look in the direction Illya was staring. He put away the pen as both men rose from their seats. Illya left money on the table, moving smoothly from the wrought iron chair and into a stealthy pose, his fingers twitching involuntarily while he mentally checked the arsenal on his body. No amount of trudging through fabric samples could break him of the habit of arming himself in some way.

"Did you see him?"

Napoleon only nodded. The cut of his suit did not betray the gun beneath his jacket. In spite of the hype given by the lovely woman at UNCLE headquarters, he had retrieved his much loved Walther from the wall safe in his penthouse apartment.

"Now?"

Illya asked, the timing they remembered from before was reasserting itself, the mutual conviction of what was needed now at the forefront.

"Yes. I believe the party is now ready to begin."

And, so it goes.