It had been a fitful night's sleep for Illya Kuryakin. Usually, following a mission, he'd sleep the sleep of the dead. Deep, uninterrupted. Well earned. Usually.
This last affair, however, had been a failure. A failure that had resulted in him spending the night reliving the mission in his head, going over and over it, analysing, dissecting, taking it apart. Wondering if he'd had any other option than to leave his partner behind. The failed mission hadn't lost him a night's sleep; overwhelming guilt had seen to that.
He glanced once more at the clock by his bed. Almost six. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling in the early morning twilight. Robbed of any sense of rest, his sigh sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet of the dawn, as he resigned himself to facing the shame of his actions in the day ahead.
No one would blame him, of course. He'd followed procedure; he was good at that. From early in his life, he'd been taught to obey, and he had, never questioning. To question was to draw unwanted attention to yourself. Back then, though, it had been easy to comply; back then he'd had nobody he'd really cared about. U.N.C.L.E. had changed that, especially his friendship with Napoleon. Some days he resented the emotions his partner coaxed from him. It left him feeling exposed and vulnerable
Like now. The guilt left a knot in his stomach. He'd left his partner behind, while he had walked - no run - away. It still disturbed him, even though Napoleon's own instructions the day before still replayed clearly in his memory: The priority is to get the goods back to headquarters. If anyone gets left behind, they pay the price."
Well, Napoleon had been left behind. But somehow, Illya felt he was the one paying the price.
He flicked the rumpled sheets back and slipped out of bed, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. First stop, the bathroom. A shave and a shower might wash away the cobwebs.
He relieved himself first, then went over to the sink to shave, but the razor paused mid-air as he stared at his reflection. A simple act of hygiene - would the fastidious Napoleon be this lucky this morning? Would his captors allow him the courtesy of this luxury?
"Stop it,"he muttered at his reflection. "You had no choice but to leave him behind." But had his own sense of self preservation caused him to abandon his partner? He knew, deep down, that had he hesitated, had he taken those few moments to attempt to free Napoleon, he and Mark would also have been captured. Logically, he knew he'd done the right thing.
So why did it feel so wrong?
The day before
"Gentleman, this is our mission."
Napoleon Solo slapped a set of blueprints onto the table surface, his attention moving between the two men sitting either side of him.
Illya slipped on his glasses and glanced over the details. "This is Sibyl's. A Ladies Only private club. And that's where our target is."
"Are you sure?"
Illya sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that. The women of this club have something of a reputation." Illya glanced uneasily at Mark. "Infiltration of this facility will be difficult."
"But not impossible," Napoleon insisted.
I don't know," Mark answered, shaking his head. He pulled the cord hat from his head and rubbed his fingers through his blond wavy hair. "Security will be pretty tight. It wouldn't do to underestimate them just because they're women."
"I never underestimate women." Napoleon sat back and smiled, smugly.
Illya rolled his eyes. "The place will be well guarded, especially if they're expecting company."
"But if we strike now, we can take them off guard, before they have a chance to put security in place.
Mark glanced at Illya, who shrugged. Napoleon leaned forward, catching their attention. "I don't have to remind you both, that there's a lot at stake, here."
Illya heard the implied threat. None of them needed reminding, but it did no harm to underscore the risks.
"It's a big place. How do we know where to look?" Mark asked.
Illya pulled off his glasses and fiddled with them. "The main office would seem the obvious choice."
"Which is this room here." Napoleon's finger pressed down on a spot on the plans.
Illya sat back, his fingers drumming against the table top. "First things first. How do we get in?"
Napoleon looked at each man in turn. "Suggestions, gentlemen."
Mark sat back. "Perhaps one of us could go in dressed as a woman? Illya? What do you think?"
"I think you'd look divine in stilettos."
Mark smiled. "Cute. Actually, I thought, maybe, you... you know. You like disguises, and out of the three of us you're…"
"I'm what?" Illya said tightly.
"Well, you're.... you're..." Mark looked to Napoleon for help, who simply returned his stare. Mark suddenly realised he was on dangerous territory. His face flushed at his faux pas. "Never mind," he muttered. "Bad idea."
"If not the front, how about the back door?" Napoleon suggested.
"If they have someone stationed at the front, it seems likely that they'll have someone at the back, too."
"What about the basement. Perhaps we could get in through the adjoining building?"
Illya snorted. "I'd like to see you justify that to Mr. Waverley on the expenses."
Napoleon smiled. "I agree. Not an option. The roof, then."
"How do we get up there?" Mark asked, hoping the answer would somehow involve a helicopter.
Napoleon folded the plans as he spoke. "From the adjoining building. There's a twelve foot wide gap…"
"Twelve foot wide!" Mark exclaimed. "With a bloody forty foot drop!"
Illya suppressed a grin. Mark didn't have a head for heights.
Napoleon stood. "Gentlemen. The roof it is."
Mark slid to his knees and kissed the concrete that he'd just landed on. He'd never had a head for heights. He glanced at Illya, busily coiling the rope that had got them across, and smiled. Illya's comfort with heights was something he envied. Bloody spider monkey.
Napoleon tapped his shoulder, and Mark pushed himself upright as Napoleon walked over to study the stairwell door. He gestured to Mark with a nod, and Mark pushed a small amount of putty-like explosive into the lock. The detonation was small - a puff of smoke accompanied a subdued phhtt sound - and the door swung open with a gentle push. The three men slipped quietly into the dark interior.
At the bottom, Napoleon paused to peek through a small window in the door. He gestured sharply for them to duck as the light tap of heels on the floor approached their position. A dark shadow passed the window.
"Someone's mooching around," he whispered. "We need to be extra vigilant."
They waited till the footsteps faded into another part of the building, and once the corridor was clear, the three men quietly trotted down to the office.
Once inside, they took a moment to look around. It was a large room, its decor old fashioned and busy with flock wall paper and oak panelling. One wall was taken up with an extensive collection of books, while the opposite wall held a collection of shields and trophies housed in a large mahogany display case.
Napoleon nudged Mark. "Why don't you keep a look out."
He waited till Mark had posted himself at the door. "Illya? Any ideas?"
"I think we can assume what we're looking for won't be laying around waiting for us to pick it up. A safe, maybe."
Napoleon nodded his agreement. "Let's find ourselves a safe."
Silently, the two men went around the walls, lifting the corner of each picture, usually the obvious choice for concealing a safe. When that proved fruitless, Napoleon decided to check the furniture while Illya studied the oak panelling that lined the room.
As Napoleon bent to examine the large book case, Illya hissed at him.
"Psst! Over here." Napoleon joined against the far wall, watching curiously as Illya tapped one panel, then the one next to it. The second panel had a distinct hollow sound. Illya's toothy smile seemed to glow in the dark of the room. Without consulting each other, both men set about finding the catch to release the door, and as Napoleon touched an ornate boss he felt it shift under his touch and heard a quiet click. The panel slid silently aside. The two look at each other for a moment. Illya gestured impatiently for Napoleon to check it out and Napoleon crouched down, inspecting the opening with his flashlight.
"Well? What can you see?"
Napoleon sat back on his heels, letting the flashlight dangle from his hand. "A teddy bear."
"A teddy bear. Cute, fluffy toys, named after Theodore…"
"Roosevelt. Yes, I know. What I meant was... a teddy bear? Are you sure that's all?"
"That's all I can see."
Illya joined him on the floor, flashing his own light into the hole. Sure enough, the beady black eyes of a small fuzzy bear stared back at him. "Do you think this is what we're looking for?"
"Can you think of any other reason why a toy bear would be secreted away like this?"
"But why a teddy bear?"
"Why indeed. Let's find out, shall we?"
"Okay. But be careful."
Napoleon smiled as he gently nudged Illya aside. "It's a stuffed bear, Illya, not a grizzly." He reached in and grabbed hold of the bear, feeling some resistance as he started to pull it out. Without warning, something suddenly snapped around his wrist. His heart sank as he realised it was a trap. He tugged, but his hand, and likewise the rest of him, was going nowhere.
"Grrr..eat," he murmured.
Napoleon sighed loudly. "Seems like it was a grizzly, after all." In the gloom, he saw his partner's head turn towards him and knew that a glower would be on his face. "It's a trap. There's some sort of device wrapped around my wrist. I can't pull my hand out."
Illya pushed his partner's head out of the way. "Let me see." He squinted into the space between Napoleon's arm and the wall of the cavity. Light from his flashlight reflected off something metallic.
"Merde, indeed. Any suggestions?"
"Other than dismemberment? Nothing that springs to mind immediately."
At that moment, Mark popped his back into the room. "I can hear someone moving around."
"The bear must have triggered an alarm," Illya muttered, as he continued to study Napoleon's predicament.
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Well, this is embarrassing."
"It's not the first time, and I'm sure it won't be your last." Illya tried reaching his hand in, but there wasn't sufficient room for both their limbs.
"Guys," Mark whispered urgently, as he pulled a heavy teak chair over to the door and wedged it under the door knob. "They're coming."
Moments later someone rattled the door handle.
"We have to go," Illya squeezed an apology to Napoleon's shoulder. He turned to Mark. "Through the window." Mark left his post by the door and rushed over to lever open the window.
Napoleon yanked frantically against the restraint. "Illya, don't leave me here…"
"I have to." Illya moved closer, allowing Napoleon to feel his presence. "I'll come back for you."
There was a thud and the door shook on its hinges. "Hurry!" Mark said, his voice galvanising Illya into action. "They'll be through the door, soon." Illya moved to join Slate at the window.
Napoleon called, "Illya…"
He turned back towards Napoleon. "I'll be back. I promise."
Outside, Mark paused, puzzled. "Where's Napoleon?"
"He's not coming."
"What?" Mark turned back, but Illya grabbed his arm. "Leave him. He knows the rules."
Mark paused, undecided, until Illya urged him forward by grasping his sleeve and pulling.
"Move! Or they'll have all three of us."
They made it back into the street, the peace of the night broken only by the distant sound of traffic.
When they were far enough away, they slowed and turned. No one was following, no one left the building. The only outward sign of occupation was a thin sliver of light filtering through a gap in the curtains of the room where they'd abandoned Napoleon to his fate.
The two men glanced at each other, both silent in their private shame. No one liked failure. Especially Illya Kuryakin. It stuck in his craw like a sour grape. He swallowed it down, squared his shoulders and trotted back to the car.
Illya tried to consign the events of the previous night to the recesses of his mind. It would do no good to dwell on it now. Besides, Mark would be arriving soon. Between them, they could formulate a plan.
As Illya slipped his jacket on, his communicator warbled. He hurried to assemble it, hope dying as he heard, not his partner, but a familiar female voice. "Mr. Kuryakin."
He bit down on a sarcastic retort, aware that it wouldn't help the situation. "Yes," he said, tightly.
"I believe I have something that belongs to you."
"So it would seem. I hope he's in one piece."
"Under the circumstances, he's comfortable."
"Good. Now, if you don't mind, I am rather busy, so is there a point to this conversation?"
"There is if you're willing to listen. I thought you might want your partner back."
There was a moment's silence as Illya considered her statement. "What's the catch?"
"No catch. But there is a price."
Illya sighed. "Of course there is. And what might that be?"
"First, are you willing to pay?"
Illya hesitated, still tired from his guilt-riddled, sleepless night. He had to get Napoleon back, whatever the cost. He would give his soul for his friend. "Name your price," he answered. "Within reason," he added.
He listened to her demands, already mentally counting the personal cost. The ransom was steep, and some substitutions would have to be made. If he was careful, she would be none the wiser.
When he'd memorised her requirements, he asked simply, "When?"
"Tonight. Eight o'clock."
"Where you left him." The abrupt answer added to his feelings of guilt.
"I'll be there." She cut off the communication, leaving him glaring at the silver device.
He left the car down the street from his destination, pulling the paper sack off the passenger seat and cradling it in his arm.
As he neared the building, he swapped the bag to his other arm, leaving his gun hand free. He reached the top step, his half-eaten morning bagel sitting heavy in his stomach, and took a deep breath before he knocked on the door.
They were expecting him, of course. The door opened immediately and a tall female with cropped, platinum blonde hair gestured him in. He waited patiently till she'd closed and locked the door, and turned back to him. "This way, Mr Kuryakin."
He glanced about the interior, noting three other females posted at intervals as they progressed through the hall, mentally calculating the distance to each. He could kill them effortlessly, if he had to. A strangely comforting thought.
The blonde led him into a large hall and into the midst of a group of a dozen or so women. In the centre, to Illya's relief, sat Napoleon, handcuffed to a chair, with a piece of duck tape over his mouth. His relief was short lived as Napoleon turned reproachful eyes towards him. Illya looked away unable to face his friend. Instead, he glanced about the small gathering in the hall and the women returned his gaze silently.
"I kept my end of the bargain," he said, calmly meeting the steady gaze of the women. "Time for you to keep yours."
Suddenly, he heard the tap-tap of stilettos against parquet flooring, as someone new entered the room. He turned towards the sound as the small group parted.
April Dancer walked towards him.
"Well, well, Mr Kuryakin? You're five minutes late." "April," he said, inclining his head in greeting. "I apologise for the delay. It took me a while to get your ransom together."
"Ransom? I prefer to call it payment." She moved closer to him, invading his space and tapping his chin with a well manicured finger. "I love it when you sulk. It's kinda sexy." She grinned as a flush stained his cheeks crimson.
He squared his shoulders and tried, ineffectually, to draw himself up to his full height. "Can we get on with this, please. I'd really like to get back and finish my dinner."
She grinned. "Always thinking of your stomach." She spun on her fashionable high heels and stalked over to Napoleon, ripping off the duck tape without warning.
"Ow! Dammit, April!"
She leaned over, kissing him briefly on the lips. "There, there. Don't you sulk, too, Napoleon." She glanced over at Illya. "After all, guys, a bet is a bet." She straightened, folding her arms and raising her chin. "We won. You lost."
Illya sighed. He knew this had been a bad idea. What had started out as a late night discussion fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol had mutated into a bet between agents, a war of the sexes, each gender wanting to prove they were better than the other. So, a dare had been offered; the men were to attempt to locate and retrieve an unspecified object from the women's club, without being detected. Anyone getting caught would lose the bet and pay the price. And the cost? Two weeks salary, paid to a charity of April's choosing.
The ransom had been April's spur-of-the-moment idea, completing Napoleon's humiliation. Illya had agreed to pay the price just to witness that. Perhaps, in future, Napoleon would learn not to underestimate women. But he seriously doubted it. It was one of Napoleon's failings.
"We didn't lose entirely."
"Well, you were careless."
"One of us was careless." Illya glanced at Napoleon, ignoring his partner's glare. "Two of us escaped."
"Only just. But we did manage to catch one of you in our net. And you must admit, he's a pretty big fish." She rumpled Napoleon's neatly coiffured hair, eliciting a groan of protest. "Is that our payment?" she asked, nodding towards the package in his arms.
"Everything you asked for."
The red-head nodded to one of her companions, who stepped forward to take the sack from Illya. He watched impassively as the women crowded round, pulling the contents from the bag. He winced as one girl squealed excitedly, the high-pitched sound enhanced by the hall's acoustics.
Mandy from Translations came over to him, the fuzzy bear that had been Napoleon's downfall cradled in her arms. She lifted it towards Illya, playfully bending one of its arms in a parody of a wave. "Illya? Meet Illya."
Illya glowered. "You named your bear after me?"
"Sure. He's cute." She cuddled it to her chest. "And he never says much."
Napoleon walked towards him, rubbing his wrists. He wasn't in pain; the action was habit. The ladies had used fluffy, fur-lined cuffs to restrain him. After they'd been removed, he'd managed to slip them into his pocket; he had plans for them later.
"Illya," he said tightly, but not altogether seriously.
"Napoleon." The corners of Illya's mouth twitched, even though he tried to maintain his austere pose.
"Gentlemen." April draped an arm over each man's shoulder, drawing them closer. "Time for you to go. We girls need time alone to celebrate." She glanced over at the table, where the contents of Illya's grocery sack had been emptied. Spread out on the table, there was a small feast of chocolates, nibbles, cakes and wine. Mark was there, happily munching away on a truffle. She leaned over and kissed Napoleon on the cheek. "Time for you to go home and lick your wounds." She turned and kissed Illya, likewise. "Or whatever you two lick behind closed doors."
Over her head, Napoleon grinned at Illya, who tried not to look in his direction.
April strode over to the table, slapping Mark's hands away as he reached for another chocolate. "Excuse me. This is our booty. Go feed yourself at home." She reached up, ruffling his hair affectionately. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay, love. Have fun." He smiled and waved at the rest of the ladies. "Goodbye, girls. Enjoy your ill-gotten gains."
Outside, the three men walked down the street in silence. Mark said his goodbyes at the next block, leaving Napoleon and Illya alone.
They walked on, each man quiet in their introspection. After a while, Napoleon said, "Well, that was humiliating."
"Humiliating? For who?" Illya asked.
Napoleon stopped walking and turned to look at his friend. "Illya, I was captured by a teddy bear."
Illya's head cocked endearingly to one side. "Napoleon, you think that's humiliating? They named the bear Illya." Illya smiled, making Napoleon smile too. The tension seemed to leave Napoleon's countenance.
He stroked a hand down Illya's arm. "C'mon. I have just the thing to relieve our humiliation." He fingered the furry cuffs in his pocket and walked quickly off.
Illya watched him a moment, shaking his head in amusement, before hurrying to catch up.