“Where are we going next?” Gaby looked at Waverly with barely restrained expectation. Their last mission had ended with no hurt on anybody’s part, and the team had been eager to move on to the next.
Waverly cleared his throat. “You and Mr. Solo are going to Hamburg, Miss Teller. We have a lead there we’d like to follow up on.”
Gaby and Solo instantly frowned and looked towards Illya.
With a shrug, Illya took it on. “I am going home,” he said quietly. “Recall was this morning. Have ticket out for this afternoon.” He knew he had to tell them at some point, but had been delaying. They had been so happy over the success of the mission, and watching his teammates when they were bubbling over with good will had become a private enjoyment of his.
Solo’s face turned instantly blank, his training coming to the fore before any emotion escaped. Gaby was not nearly so trained yet, and her frown deepened and she turned to Waverly.
Before she could open her mouth, Waverly shook his head. “There is nothing I can do, Miss Teller.”
Illya didn’t want to hear Waverly try and explain his side of it, and so came in before anything could be said that would be considered treason. “The KGB considered these missions important enough for collaboration, but there are other... issues. Four missions, three months, is long enough away.” He tapped his finger against the table, then stilled it. The tell used to not bother him, but both Solo and Gaby got after him about it. They got after him about his temper too, which was more annoying but he put up with it for the sake of the team.
Solo’s eyes followed his finger back up to meet his gaze. His expression still showed nothing, which was a long time for the chameleon. Normally by now, the thief-spy would have chosen a face and put it on. “You want to go back,” Solo said, his voice flat.
Illya’s temper flared up. It was so like Solo to put it all on him. He had his orders, and he would obey. It didn’t matter what they were doing before – like they really expected a team of Russian, American, and British spies to last for long together? “Yes,” he replied just as flatly, “I do.” To make it the truth as he said it, he thought about how he hadn’t seen his mother in almost a year, having gone straight to Berlin from another job. And Europe was not Russia. He missed his homeland. That was the truth. It was not the truth that Solo would read from his answer, but that was the other’s problem.
They glared at each other for a minute before Solo finally looked away.
Very softly, Illya sighed without letting the sound out. He hadn’t wanted to leave it there, but what choice did he have? If Solo was going to be difficult about it, there wasn’t much he could do. The American could be stubborn as hell on some things. Illya firmly shoved the thread of guilt out of his way where it wouldn’t distract him.
“Illya,” Gaby’s bewildered voice got to him.
Softening, Illya turned to her. She was still mostly an innocent. Spy-in-training, yes, but didn’t have that hardened layer that he and Solo and Waverly all had. They were used to doing unpleasant things and knowing things wouldn’t always go as they wanted. Gaby had encountered unpleasant things and shown a determination to follow through on orders she didn’t like, but she still believed that things would be okay in the end. Because mostly they did. Except for her father getting killed, which, okay, was a big one, but it hadn’t torn her belief apart completely and the last few months of them working together had reinforced it instead as they kept doing impossible things together as a team. She did not always see everything that he and Solo did to make it happen.
“This was always only temporary,” he told her gently. “We were loaned out for specific reason. Not given up.”
Solo’s eyes flickered his way, then coldly removed again.
Come to think of it, Gaby’s problem was probably Solo’s problem as well. The spy-thief was used to working alone, or with support people, not a team. And Illya and Solo worked so well together...
With another inward sigh, Illya got up and walked to the wet-bar in Waverly’s room. He shifted the bottles until he found the whiskey. It was early in the day for it... but about the same time as the last. He poured two shots, paused a moment, then two more. He’d rather be alone with Solo for this, but there were still Waverly and Gaby here. He brought them back to the table and handed them out.
Solo looked up as he took the drink and there was a wavering in the emotionless face, a glimpse of something more before he put it away again. Then he forced his mask into the more normal cheerful one he wore. Behind it, though, his eyes were still flat.
Having given out the drinks, Illya was at a loss as to what to do next. The few thoughts of toasts that went through his head kept spiraling back to the final drink in Rome, before he and Solo would part, before Waverly came back and told them they were together for another mission. But those words, and that toast, was for him and Solo, not Waverly and Gaby.
Waverly said something Illya wasn’t paying much attention to, something about being glad to have had Illya working with them. Then he and Gaby drank and Illya and Solo belatedly followed suit.
Solo’s gaze finally lightened up, and the mask slipped aside again showing a mix of resignation and wistfulness. He tilted his face so Illya was the only one to see behind the mask for that moment, and he raised his glass in a private salute. “Peril,” was the only thing he said, nothing more to the toast.
“Cowboy,” Illya returned, understanding perfectly. He touched the glass gently and drank.
There was no more to be said. Illya got up, looked around one last time at them, then left.
The familiar greeting did more to assure Illya that he was back in Russia than anything. He nodded back to his countryman and returned it. The sounds of the train station and the familiar way the people walked, talked with each other, wore their clothes... oh, the clothes. None of those fancy suits that Solo liked to wear, or the dresses they’d been putting Gaby in. Gaby herself could usually care less about the clothes most of the time, but she said she enjoyed watching them argue over it.
Somebody quickly ducked their head and scurried by, and Illya realized he’d let himself smile while he’d been thinking about his companions. His former companions. He was back in Russia now, and that meant that even without a uniform, he was easily recognizable as KGB. Most of it was because he himself did not have the air of deference that most others had towards anybody in authority. As KGB, most authority answered to him, if he chose to use those rights.
It was the one thing he didn’t particularly like about coming home, made worse by the way he’d gotten used to the easy give and take between himself and his partners, and the way they could all blend into the crowds when they wanted to. Since he had taken up spy work, more of his time had been spent outside the country than in, and he had worked at adapting to the local customs. Coming home always made him remember both.
Glancing around, he started making his way into the city proper. Comrade Oleg Volkov was normally in the field as much as Illya himself was, tracking down his agents in person or checking up on them by phone, but always travelling. This time, though, he’d specifically said for Illya to meet him in the main office in Moscow. Illya suspected it meant that more than just Volkov wanted to see him and see how corrupted he’d been by working so closely for three months with an American and defecting East German turned British spy.
Illya didn’t think he’d been corrupted, but he did have to wonder at the perversity of the universe to give him his closest match and partner that he’d ever had in the form of what should have been his worst enemy and was still his opposite in most things. He’d been regaled on the train trip over with imaginary comments that the American would have made – about the women, the scenery, the security, the easy pickpockets, the lack of fashion... pretty much everything. Napoleon could keep quiet when he wanted to, but it wasn’t that often, particularly when he found that his chatter could drive Illya nuts.
It would take some time for that voice to go away. Illya slipped his hand around his watch, feeling the leather and smooth glass front. Returned by one whose sharp eyes missed nothing, giving another meaning to something he’d always kept close.
If there was time this trip, Illya thought he might try and take a trip out east to Khandyga and walk upon the Road of Bones – the Kolyma Highway. It had taken a fair amount of discreet research to even find out that much about his father’s last work. Too much direct questioning would have had him suspect as well. He didn’t have an actual date, he didn’t have an exact place, he didn’t have a how it happened. He knew nothing about his father’s death except that which all Russians knew about the labor camps and the work projects. It risked his mother’s life to inquire more.
And with that thought, Illya let his hand fall away. He would not visit Khandyga this trip, he would not walk the Kolyma. Not now, not ever. It was better not to even think such things. Sentimentality was not for the survivors.
Too much time among the Westerners, definitely. Illya had best guard himself. Luckily, he was not as inclined to prattle on as Solo was, and so his thoughts normally remained his own.
When he reached the main offices, Illya presented himself and his identification and was passed through.
“Kuryakin,” was the rumbling greeting when he entered, and he saw the familiar figure of his superior.
He nodded silently in acknowledgement, then responded. “Tovarisch,” he greeted Volkov.
“It has been a long time.” Volkov leaned back in his seat and watched Illya carefully. He did not offer Illya one on the other side of the desk. That made it clear what this interview was to be, not that Illya had expected anything less.
Illya had been on longer missions. Three months wasn’t so much time. It was a question to find what his answer would be. “It is good to be home in Russia,” he said, meaning the words sincerely. Having the truth to back up the statements was the key to any answer.
“How did you find working with the American?”
“Exasperating,” Illya said, heart-felt and meaningful. It had also been challenging, exhilarating, and fun, but he wouldn’t put those words into the air.
Volkov chuckled. “And the British agent?”
Illya tilted his head. “Waverly or... Teller?” He’d very nearly slipped and called her Gaby. That wasn’t good, and he noticed Volkov picked up on the slight hesitation. He covered it. “Teller is more German, still, she was a sleeper agent before the Vinciguerra Affair. She might be British agent, but... not trained by them.”
“Trained by who, then?”
Illya let out a slight huff that would not reveal anything. “Solo and myself, mostly. I was careful not to give any specifics, and keep it mission-specific. Solo... was more wide-ranging.”
“Ah. And did you learn anything interesting about the CIA’s techniques?”
He had to shake his head, covering an impulse to grin. “I am afraid that Solo’s background remains stronger than his years in the CIA. I do not believe they trained him either, but rather left it to him to find his own way. I have improved my own skills in safe-cracking and lock-picking from him,” he said wryly.
Volkov laughed heartily. “Ah, it is probably a good thing the thief never came to Russia.”
Privately, Illya suspected that Solo might have some pieces of the Amber Room, or knew where to locate them, from some teasing he’d given Illya a few times. However, he wasn’t about to mention that. It would probably end up in Solo being picked up and interrogated for the knowledge. Solo had no sense of self-preservation, to have teased Illya about that in the first place.
The questioning went on like that for a few hours, pulling apart the various missions he’d been on with the others and poking at Illya’s feelings about them. He kept it strictly neutral, neither hating nor liking his companions too much, admitting they worked well together but not revealing how well, showing what he had learned but not letting it get too dangerous. It was a balancing act, yet one he was well used to. He’d had many years to perfect the trip across the high wire, and he practiced it now as second nature, while still giving it the healthy attention it deserved. There was no net below him if he fell.
He came away from the interview cautiously optimistic. Volkov had sounded pleased with him, and his superior didn’t usually bother to hide it when he wasn’t. He had been questioned about the destruction of the tape, but he stayed with the same answer he’d given back then – that the information on it was not of any value – and he stayed by that assessment still. It was another mental truth that may not be the same truth as another’s, but it was the one he kept to, and they accepted it. If he ever showed the least bit of uneasiness about it, he would be in trouble, so he didn’t and so far, he wasn’t.
That night he stayed in the barracks and that was another form of coming home. Truth be told, all the empty large hotel rooms made him uneasy with all their space and things. Even when he shared quarters with either Solo or Teller or both on their missions, it was still not the same. They had their own opinions on sharing space, and it was not the same. Gaby came closer, with her East German upbringing under the Soviet Union, but... not quite. His comrades in the service all were the same as he, though not all in the same field, and they all knew where was what and what the order for shower usage was and where the bunks were and what the personal space between them was. It was ultimately familiar and reassuring.
He very carefully didn’t think about how he missed the way Solo would sometimes deliberately intrude into his space, touching, patting, holding a hand briefly on his shoulder for a moment or two before carefully backing out again. Solo was very good about knowing where the boundaries were... and very bad at letting them be. Always pushing. During a mission, there was forced intimacy, which every soldier knew about and gave no thought to as it was better than being dead – winters in the far north particularly meant that no one gave a second thought to boundaries pushed close. But Napoleon... Solo, he did it during the down time, when everybody else let them be. Teller did it too, but hers was more... settled. She had pushed through that first night when he had thought her just a mechanic taken out of her depth, not knowing about her orders, and she’d taken as her rights since then. It made Illya uneasy, but she never noticed. Solo noticed, and every now and again he would rescue Illya. Other times, he sat back and silently laughed. Then pushed his own way in with challenge and daring.
With a sigh, Illya rolled over on his bunk, put his arm over his eyes and forced himself to sleep. He was home, and that was where he should be.
The next day, they poked at him some more, deliberately straining his limits and provoking his temper. They did this periodically, checking on his boundaries and his control. When it got to the point where his hands were trembling in the office and Volkov could see it, Illya asked to be excused to the work yard.
Volkov smiled. “We have installed new sandbags especially for you, Kuryakin. How did your partners deal with you?”
At least he could give that one an open answer. “They tried to keep me from it, to ‘control my temper’ – they did not see how useful it could be.”
Volkov nodded thoughtfully and let Illya go.
The sandbags were no match for Illya. He took the chance to practice as many of his deadly techniques as he could, lashing out with feet and hands and whatever came to him. When a gun was within his reach, he used it. When there was a knife, he used that. If there was nothing... he used himself. He moved into that space where there was no pain, no hurt, where he could reach beyond his resources. The sandbags with the blue ties were destroyed, utterly. The sandbags with the red ties, he let be. Thinking was not easy with a rage upon him and in that space, but he’d practiced it enough to be able to manage simple things that would let a mission be completed.
That night, even the soldiers in the barracks gave him a wide berth, aware now as they had not been before of just how deadly a killer was their midst. That too, Illya was used to.
The next day, he filled out paperwork and reports. Never mind that he’d been sending them reports all along, he did it again. The world ran on reports, and Illya had benefited from other agents’ careful accounts in the past, so he did not begrudge the time it took.
After a week of this, they let him take time off, so he could visit his mother. He had nothing material to bring her, nor would he risk them that way, but once in her town he walked in the land beyond and gathered leaves and bark and interesting rocks, and he took them with him. She greeted him with delight and fear, always worried about her son in the KGB, always knowing she was his surety for good behavior. When he was young, she had fought and sacrificed for a chance for him, to keep them both from following his father. When he was older, with what she had obtained for him, he had expanded on and won her a place free of the obligations she’d taken on before. Both of them knew, however, that it was a constant dance and neither were totally free of the past nor the present.
He got a cup of clay from the cabinet, that he had made when he was still a child, and he arranged the twigs and leaves and bark in it, bracing them with the rocks and giving her what gift he could. She smiled as she watched him, and made dinner for him after, and for awhile, they could put the fears away.
Illya told her nothing about his time away. She did not ask. They were used to it, but for the first time in a long time, it hurt not to be able to. He wanted to describe the crazy American who had stolen a mark from him, fought with him, saved him, laughed with him, drank with him. He thought that she would like Napoleon, though he would have to warn Solo not to use so much flattery with his mother. He didn’t say anything – there was no way those worlds would ever meet.
After he returned, they sent him on missions. Simple, basic, easy ones that did not tax his abilities and were no challenge for his training. He didn’t question them, but simply did as they asked. For most, he was paired with various partners, some experienced agents, some up and coming. Illya did not question that either. He preferred working alone, but some missions required more than one person. These did not, but he tolerated it all the same. They were testing again, seeing what he’d brought back from his time with the American, and if he was still loyal to the motherland. He gave them no cause for complaint. His time with Solo had increased his patience and allowed him to work more easily with others than before, and his time with Gaby had made him a teacher and gave him an eye for what others needed to learn. He did not try and hide it but set himself to working with the others and completing the missions they gave him.
In between, he reported to Volkov, and Illya’s feeling of confidence grew with each meeting. They were still testing him, but he did not believe any more that it would lead him to the executioner’s block. He still did not know exactly what it was, but he stuffed his curiosity down and concentrated on his jobs.
If he missed his old partner, the American, he didn’t let it show. Time blunted the harsh comparisons he made with others, all internally, and his thoughts became more wistful than anything. He wondered, though, how Solo was getting along, and if his leash chafed still. It wasn’t something he would ever know, however, and he tried to put it out of his mind. It was unlikely they would ever meet again, and it would be best if he didn’t make any inquiries, even in his own thoughts.
Spring made a pleasant time of the country, at least after the snows had finished melting. Green shoots covered the barren ground and temperatures were finally warm enough to where people could relax. At the least, it was easier to get around, and food started to be more than just winter rations. Winter was a beautiful, lovely, harsh mistress, and Spring a gentler one, if not so dramatic as her sister.
Illya walked into the office relaxed, on alert but not anticipating anything other than a standard report.
“Kuryakin,” Volkov greeted him, sitting behind his desk as always. Illya wondered if the man ever changed. The piles of papers even looked the same from meeting to meeting, though he was fairly sure they were different ones.
“Tovarisch,” he responded easily. His superior gestured at the seat across from him and Illya took it gladly. That meant it wasn’t going to be an interrogation, not like when he’d come back from the collaboration missions in Europe.
Volkov lit a cigar and pushed the box over to him. Illya took one to be polite, lighting it from Volkov’s. He didn’t like smoking – it took days to get the congestion out of his lungs – but he wasn’t about to refuse when offered. They sat in silence for a little while. Illya tried to repress his curiousity and simply be patient. The talk would come, in its own time.
“What do you know about Uncle?” Volkov finally asked. The last was spoken in English and accented if a title instead of a word.
That was not anywhere what he’d been expecting. Illya frowned, rummaging through his mental records. Without a given name attached to the word, and with the emphasis on the English usage of it, he could assume it wasn’t a person. The only thing that he’d come across with that by itself... “It was the code name Commander Waverly gave the collaboration team, after the Vinciguerra Affair.”
Volkov coughed while taking in a puff from his cigar and then he laughed. “Code name. Ah, that Waverly. Code name, indeed. I had not heard that. He is a cagey one, that man, and dreams much.”
Illya frowned slightly, but it was true, he hadn’t mentioned it. He didn’t know why... just that it had never really come up again. Waverly had tossed the name at them, then they had gone on their missions and it had never actually been used.
“It is a bit more than a code name, and not just for the collaboration.” Volkov rested the cigar in a holder on the desk and tapped his fingers on the wood. “What would you think about it, if you spelled it in the Latin script?”
Illya had to consider that for a moment, switching his thinking back into the mindset of the Europeans and not just converting from one language to another. “U. N. C. L. E.,” he said slowly, feeling it out and searching out connections in other Latin forms. He stiffened, the start of that being something rather different and yet similar, being a collaboration group of its own, and with a rather familiar trio of unlikely partners. “U.N. The United Nations...”
“Very good, Kuryakin,” Volkov praised him softly. “Not... officially. When we, the Allies, created the official United Nations in 1945 at the end of World War II from our wartime declaration of 1942, there was not room in the charter for anything covert. The United Nations was to be above board, an official joining of us, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with China later. Continuing what we had wrought with the victory over Hitlerism. However... while Hitler had been defeated, and Germany split between the Allies so it could not start a new rise to power, again, there were still those that thought they could. They had done it once after 1918, after all, who were we to say it would not this time? Germany, Italy, and Hungary had been twice defeated, and yet not completely shamed by this. Officially, the United Nations formed the new powers. Unofficially... we also at the same time created a covert support group that can do what the UN cannot. It is called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.”
“I have never heard of this group,” Illya said after the pause grew long enough for comment.
Volkov nodded. “Very covert. While the United Nations was young, UNCLE stayed hidden and was recruited and worked in secret. However, it has been 15 years, and still German Hitlerism flourishes in circles, with Italian Fascism, and other brands of people wanting to destroy others.” He leaned back in his chair and picked up his cigar again. “Your American friends would put us in that same bucket, if they could, yet that is an oversimplification. We might be cold to each other, but we both agree there will not be another World War, and there are certain things we still agree on in both the UN... and in UNCLE.”
He breathed out a long stream of smoke. Illya watched it rise, taking this all in and evaluating it for what he knew, rearranging some of his previously held images of people and the world.
“Your Commander Waverly is not, in fact, British Intelligence, MI-6, though he was recruited from there and keeps his ties with them. He is one of the UNCLE chiefs, heading up Operations and Enforcement.”
Illya nodded slowly. He could see that. Waverly had always been a bit removed from it all – field operations, most assuredly, and commanding the commanders of the troops that had assisted them in the island raid, but separate from them at the same time. The way Waverly had worked in Turkey, and again in France. And they had been working under him.
“Are you part of UNCLE?” Illya asked suddenly, wondering. The way Volkov spoke...
Volkov shook his head. “I am KGB liaison with the other intelligence agencies, including UNCLE.” He puffed on the cigar. “The Vinciguerra Affair was not an UNCLE episode. Well, not on our part, at least, and not for the CIA. UNCLE would never have condoned either of us getting a copy of that tape.” His dark eyes glinted through the smoke. “How fortunate that it was destroyed during the affair, and that the copy was worthless.”
Illya kept himself from gulping, barely, though he could feel the change in his body temperature and knew that he had given himself away if Volkov was inclined to pursue it. Instead, he nodded, not daring to go either way.
“Yes,” Volkov said sardonically, watching him closely. “Yet what was our loss might be our gain as well.”
Illya couldn’t even begin to guess what that meant, though his heartrate started to settle down as Volkov made no other mention of the tape.
“It is hard to find agents who love the motherland, believe in us, and yet who can still deal with the capitalist countries.” Volkov paused. “Any countries, really. China’s view of communism is not our own, and that is as hard to deal with as the capitalists sometimes.” He cleared his throat. “But back to the point. We have agents within UNCLE, but we have to be very careful as to who we place there. Those who go spend many years away from home, away from comrades, away from our people and in places that do not believe the same as we do, with people who are very different as well. Our failures – and we have had those – either defend us too vigorously and cannot work at all with others, or they succumb to capitalism and the hedonist lifestyles they are forced to live in.”
Illya opened his mouth, then closed it again. His fingers tightened on the cigar in his hand until it broke and he had to bend over to stomp out the lit portion and gather the bits of the rest off of the carpet and throw them away.
The delay didn’t do a thing for his composure. If anything, it gave him time to run the words through his mind not once, but several times and each time coming up with the same hypothesis. His heart was racing more than it had at the mention of the computer disc, and he didn’t know what sort of emotion he was feeling. Finally, he shoved it all out of his mind to stop useless speculation and he straightened up to meet his superior’s gaze.
Volkov watched him for a long several moments more, before his eyes went down to where Illya’s fingers were tapping against the arm of his chair.
If it had been his new companions, those capitalists that Volkov had talked about (and there could be no one more hedonist than Solo) then Illya would have tried to hide that tell, pulling his agitation inside. With his superior, however, Illya didn’t bother. Volkov knew all about who and what Illya was, and he used all parts of him equally, strengths and weaknesses alike.
“Tovarisch,” Volkov gave him the companionship. “This is a choice. The KGB has need of you. So does your country. It is not, however, an easy thing for any comrade to do, so it is your choice. Will you serve us by serving in UNCLE?”
Illya closed his eyes, holding himself very still, not even daring to breathe. He... he didn’t know. There could only be one answer, of course. But he didn’t know. This was more than any mission. He would put his life on the line any time for his country and his people, but this was not just death or duty, it was life and exile. “I will not return, will I?” He asked quietly.
After a moment, he opened his eyes. Volkov slowly shook his head, holding Illya’s gaze. “Unlikely. Your new home will be with UNCLE headquarters.”
“My mother...” Illya knew it was his ultimate weakness, but so did Volkov. If he was never coming home again, he had to ask, even as blatant a display as it was.
The older agent gave him a look that was suspiciously like pity, if such a thing could exist in the KGB. He put his cigar down and pulled out some papers from the piles on his desk. “You will be allowed to write to her. She will be allowed to write back. We will give her an allowance the equivalent of your scripts now. You will not need it – UNCLE will ‘pay’ you in the capitalistic method.” He handed the papers to Illya that outlined the special agreements and permission for outside communication. Illya’s weakness had been anticipated and accounted for.
There had only ever been one answer possible. Illya nodded. “Loyalty to the party,” he said, “Loyalty to motherland.”
Volkov stood and went to the cabinet on the side where he got out glasses and vodka. He poured them each a healthy finger and gave Illya’s glass to him, holding it a moment longer even as Illya gripped it.
“We are giving our very best to UNCLE,” he said with the corner of his mouth turned up. “See that you do not disappoint us. See that you do not disappoint me.”
“I will not,” Illya promised. He could do it. The three months he’d spent with Solo and Gaby and Waverly had been a bare glimpse of what was in front of him. It would be hard, and he would never come home again, but he could do it. He would. “I love Russia,” he said quietly, meaning every word. It was a hard land with harsh winters and living that was on the edge every minute, not much to go around and a people that lived in fear and resignation much of the time, yet it was also a land where winter was the most beautiful of all the seasons, and comrades shared what they could with each other and they worked together for betterment and hope.
“I believe you do,” Volkov agreed. “Loyalty.” He touched his glass to Illya’s and then drank it down.
Illya did the same, feeling the burn and the promise there.
Reseating himself, Volkov pulled out other papers. “Now, as far as the transfer goes, you will be heading directly to another mission. UNCLE has been waiting on us for it, and you will be lead for the job. Your partners will join you in Poland.” His mouth turned up. “Please do not kill the American this time, no matter how irritating. It is a good thing you found another way before.”
Illya’s heart started racing again. He glanced at the mission brief, flipping to the page that showed the other UNCLE agents that would be working with him. Two very familiar faces were in the photographs attached to the paper. “Solo was with the CIA.”
“It can be no surprise that they gave him up when UNCLE asked for him,” Volkov said dryly. “They would have been in a fix four years from now anyhow, and this solved one of their problems.”
True, but... “I am more surprised he accepted.” One leash to another? But Waverly was not Saunders, and UNCLE not the CIA.
“That is UNCLE’s problem,” Volkov shrugged. “Yours too, I expect, if it affects the mission. But you at least can work with him, and with the German girl too.”
Illya nodded. Yes. Yes, he could work with Solo. And Gaby. He let himself remember the American, and he carefully kept his smile inside. Instead, he turned to the rest of the mission papers and business as usual.
Executing the final maneuver with the power boat perfectly, Illya turned the boat back to the dock. He’d out-raced nearly all his competitors this day, putting him in the top ranks for the competition. There were still weeks to go, though, with four more weekends of displays and challenges.
Cheering at the dock showed the audience’s appreciation for his prowess. Illya let his persona smile and raised a hand to acknowledge them. The cover had been carefully tailored to his strengths, though they’d made sure it couldn’t be traced back to him directly.
When he’d tied up the boat and hopped off, most of the crowd had moved on to watch the next competitor go through the paces. There was still a small group though that specifically waited for him, some with brochures of the events and pens in their hands, hoping for his signature.
Waiting there among the small group were two very familiar faces, both of whom were looking rather shell-shocked as he walked up with an easy smile and words for his admirers. It seemed his UNCLE team had finally arrived.
When he’d signed the last paper and most of the others had dissipated, the pair approached him.
“Mr. Novikov,” Gaby gushed, recovering her equilibrium. “It’s so good to meet you. My brother and I are great admirers of the sport, and your handling of the boat... it was amazing!”
Solo was one step behind, quieter, his eyes not leaving Illya for a moment. At Gaby’s elbow in his chest, he let out some air and then added his compliments as well.
Illya let his smile become a bit more genuine. “It is very nice to meet you both. Would you like to come back to my cottage for lunch?”
Of course they accepted, and the three made their way along the waterfront to where the racers had been given separate cottages for the month. They talked about boats, water, weather, and other innocuous topics along the way.
When they got in the door and Illya had done a quick scan to make sure they were alone, then they let loose.
Gaby squealed and jumped up in his arms, hugging him tightly. “Illya!” She kept her voice to a more discreet level with his name.
Laughing, he hugged her back and looked over her shoulder at the American.
Napoleon was grinning helplessly, his shoulders slouched and his hands in his pockets. “My eyes deceive me,” he said.
“They did not tell you who you were meeting?” Illya asked, though the answer was obvious.
“Waverly had the expression of a magician about to pull out a rabbit, but no, he didn’t say,” Solo replied.
“The jerk,” Gaby added, her arms still tight about Illya. “He could have given us some warning.”
“Not his way,” Illya said, thankful for once for Waverly’s sense of humor. He wouldn’t have wanted to miss this.
With a bit of difficulty, he pried Gaby loose and put her to one side. Then he approached Napoleon. The two of them stood for a moment looking each other over, evaluating what the year apart had done to each of them.
Then they stepped forward at the same time and embraced. Manly or not, they each held tight for long moments, ensuring this was real and they were together again.
“Is it just this mission...?” Napoleon asked quietly, holding himself ready to let go if Illya made a move that way.
Illya was not so foolish, nor so inclined. He continued to hold what he had dreamed of for so long, inhaling the smell of Napoleon’s cologne and his underlying scent below it. “For all. I am with UNCLE now. Partner.”
There was a suspicious noise from Napoleon, and his arms tightened again.
When they stepped back at last, Napoleon’s smile had settled into something more firm and longer-lasting. “Peril,” he said. “It’s good to have you back.”
Gaby chimed in beside him.
Illya nodded at her, but his attention was for Napoleon. “Cowboy,” he breathed the name he had not dared to for a year, “It is good to be back.”
It turned out that home could be a person, not just a land.