Brothers and Others Strangers

by nickovetch

Napoleon stood under the pounding spray and tried to relax. His karate workout had done little to alleviate the stress that saturated him like cigarette smoke. Head of Section Two for three months now, he thought back to his days as a mere agent, wondering if this job was worth the extra wear and tear.

Sighing, he turned off the taps and grabbed a towel. He was just tired. He'd feel better after a decent meal and a good night's sleep. If he could just get out of the office before someone else pigeon-holed him...

Solo toweled his hair as he walked to his locker. Pulling clothes out, he dressed quickly, wanting to try and beat the worst of the rush hour traffic. He heard a metallic ping and looked at the end of the row of lockers. A couple guys were just leaving as well, and he waved at them on their way out.

"Hey, Solo, you're putting on some weight, aren't you?" one of them called.

"Only in my head," he said, returning the volley. His co-workers laughed and left the gym.

He laced his shoes and heard the strange noise again. Solo waited for a moment, determining the room was now empty. A muffled thud came next, and Solo pulled his weapon from its holster. The noises were coming from the last row of lockers, and the C.E.A. thought fleetingly that someone was pulling his leg. He looked sheepishly at his Special, but kept it drawn, holding it down at his side.

Directly in front of the locker now, Solo saw it had been secured with a pencil stuck through the holes where the lock would normally go. Strange. He tugged the pencil loose until it fell to the rubber-matted cement floor. Gingerly, he pulled the release up and felt something heavy falling against the opening door. His first instinct was to jump back, but he caught a glimpse of blond hair and he realized it was a body.

Catching the dead weight in his arms, he quickly felt for a pulse. It was there, but thready and fast. Shocky, he reasoned. He pulled the man out of the locker and laid him gently on the floor. He was so badly beaten that Napoleon would not have recognized him if not for the clothes and the yellow triangle with the number two on it.

Solo ran to get some towels and soaked one in cold water. He used his communicator to call for help. "Solo here. I need medical assistance in the men's locker room. Agent down."

Elevating the agent's legs on the bench, Solo placed a soft towel under his head, checking for neck and back injuries carefully. The smaller man had two black eyes, a badly split lower lip, and one cheekbone looked broken. Nose, too. His face was so swollen his features were indistinct, blending together in bruises.

Solo had seen this man occasionally. He was new, recently acquired from London-H.Q. if his memory served. He was Russian, but damned if Napoleon could think of his name. Kury-something.

But this one was Section Three. What was he doing stuffed in a locker like a used towel? Solo gently cleaned the dried blood from the Russian's face, the cold reviving him enough to begin to stir and moan. He tried to lift his head, but Solo restrained him. Several ribs were broken from the looks of it.

"Easy there. Don't move. Help is coming." Napoleon sat on the floor and supported the downed agent's head and shoulders.

The man coughed once and grimaced in pain, trying to see who was talking to him. His eyes were swollen shut, and he couldn't open them. "Where..." Speaking caused his lip to open again and blood trickled down his chin to land on the black turtleneck.

"You're in the men's room. I found you stuffed in a locker."

"Who are..." he stopped and clenched his fists as a wave of pain wracked his body. He tried to bite back the groan.

"All right, hang in there. I'm Napoleon Solo. Head of Section Two." Solo laid the towel across the black eyes to ease the swelling. He imagined how horrible it would be not to see what was going on.

He felt the man's body relax a bit at the mention of his name. "Solo."

"Yes. I'm sorry, I know you came from London, but I can't recall your name."

The blond coughed and said, "Illya Kuryakin." The words were slurred from shock. He tried to lick his parched lips. "Water?"

"Uh-uh. Not until the medics get here. Sorry." He shifted and felt Kuryakin tense. "Do you remember what happened? Who did this to you?"

Illya shook his head and the doors flew open, admitting a medical team and a gurney. They swarmed over him and soon whisked the patient away to the infirmary.

Solo followed, his anger building now that the immediate crisis was over. For this to happen under his nose, to one of their own...well, he pitied the perpetrators once he got a hold of them. He called down to personnel, and requested Kuryakin's file be sent to him at medical. He felt a twinge of guilt for not knowing the man as well as his position demanded.

Solo checked in at the desk and asked to see the doctor in charge of Kuryakin when he was available. He settled in a convenient chair and memorized the file a courier brought him. It wasn't much of a task, since the biography was sketchy at best. Precious little background information existed in the Soviet Union's files, and Napoleon reread the pertinent details from Kuryakin's tenure at U.N.C.L.E.

Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin had been posted to England immediately after Survival School. Once through his studies at Cambridge and the Sorbonne, the Russian had worked in London for nearly a year. He had requested a transfer out of London for unexplained reasons and had been reassigned to New York three months ago, just about the same time Solo was promoted to C.E.A.

There was little in his file to raise any flags or suggest any problems. Solo knew his own command well enough to understand that bigotry and racial strife still existed, despite official policy and close policing of the same. Napoleon had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that this incident was related to Kuryakin's nationality.

A cluster of medicos came out of the exam room, wheeling their patient to x-rays. The small form was still, ice packs covering both eyes and fluids running into his arm. Two nurses accompanied the gurney and one of the white coats came over to shake Solo's hand.

"Mr. Solo? You asked to see me? I'm Dr. Quentin." He had unruly red hair and thick black glasses that did nothing for his face.

"Yes, doctor. I found Mr. Kuryakin and wanted an update on his condition. I'll need to report to Mr. Waverly a.s.a.p."

"Yes, yes, of course." Quentin drove his hands into his deep lab coat pockets and frowned, looking at the floor. "Someone worked him over thoroughly and professionally. Someones, actually. He has finger- shaped bruises on his upper arms where someone held him back."

Solo sighed loudly. "What's the damage?"

"Mr. Kuryakin has a broken nose, cheekbone, two fingers on his left hand, and two ribs. We'll know more after his x-rays. He has a concussion and we'll have to watch for internal bleeding. So far, he seems to be all right in that respect."

"Is he conscious?"

"Not now. I gave him a light sedative to help during the x-rays and the splinting. We can't give him anything more due to the head injury. He'll be closely monitored through the evening."

"How long will he be in x-ray?"

Quentin looked at his watch. "At least a half-hour. I hope you aren't planning on questioning him tonight?"

Solo shook his head. "No, I just want to know when he'll be back in his room. I'll assign a guard until he wakes up and can tell us what happened."

The doctor nodded and asked, "Anything else?"

Solo shook his hand again. "No, Dr., ah, Quentin. Thank you for the help."

The American agent borrowed the phone at the nurse's desk. "Security, please. Carla Drosten."

When the security chief answered he said, "Carla, this is Napoleon. I'm in Medical. I need a rotating guard shift from now until I relieve them." He listened for a moment and replied, "That's right. For one Illya Kuryakin. Section Three, uh-huh. He was beaten badly in the locker room or close by. I found him in a locker. I want him taken care of, Carla. I don't care how much overtime it takes. Thank you."

He hung up the phone, his mouth set in a grim line. He set off for the x-ray department.

While he was waiting for Kuryakin, Solo sent a team down to the locker room to check for evidence. He took this assault very seriously, especially since it occurred on his watch. The warning light above the x-ray room blinked off a moment later, and Kuryakin was wheeled out. He was still unconscious and his left hand was in a cast. His facial swelling was better, but he still looked like a boxing match gone bad. One of the nurses saw Solo and walked over to him.

"We had to cut this off his ring finger. Maybe you would keep it for him?" She was a blonde in danger of falling forward at any minute. Exactly Solo's type. He smiled at her and held out his hand. She placed a wedding ring in his palm and closed his fist over it, keeping contact with him a bit longer than necessary. Deliberately flirting, she swayed as she walked away, knowing Solo was watching.

Napoleon looked at the circle of gold in his hand. It was split and bent but in one piece. Solo frowned: there was no mention of Kuryakin being married in his file. He wrapped the ring in his hanky and placed it in his pocket. Silently, he followed the gurney back to Illya's room.

A guard from Section Six was checking under Kuryakin's bed when Solo entered. He rose from a squat, and nodded at Solo. "Can't be too careful, sir." He moved aside as the orderlies transferred their patient onto the bed and checked the monitors one last time.

As he brushed past Solo, the C.E.A. took his arm and walked out into the hall. "I want this man protected, night and day. Someone or someones in this organization did this to him. We owe him. Trust no one. Understand?"

The agent, Will Stoker, nodded, all seriousness. "Yes, I do, Mr. Solo. No one gets by me, sir."

Solo patted him on the shoulder. "Good man. You'll be relieved in six hours." He went back into the room and checked on his charge. Kuryakin was stirring, the sedative wearing off. Napoleon moved close to the bedrail and watched the slight agent struggle to open his eyes. They were still swollen nearly shut, but the Russian managed to get the right eye open. He tried to focus on Solo and frowned, tensing in the bed.

"It's all right, Mr. Kuryakin. It's Solo again. I'm glad to see you awake."

Kuryakin looked around as much as he could with one eye and raised his left hand, examining the plaster. A look of panic built in his blue eye, and he cast around for Solo. "My ring you know what happened to it?"

His voice was raspy and raw and Solo felt a twinge of pity for him. "They had to cut it off to put on the cast. Relax, I've got it." Solo took out the hanky and carefully unwrapped the ring. He held it out to Kuryakin to see.

Illya coughed once and asked, "Would you put it on my right hand, please?" His voice was shaky.

"Certainly." Solo carefully squeezed the two severed ends together to form a circle again and gently eased it over the knuckle of Illya's ring finger.

The agent sighed in relief and closed his good eye.

Solo cleared his throat. "I didn't know you were married, Mr. Kuryakin. Your file doesn't mention a missus."

"Please call me Illya. I'm not married, Mr. Solo. The ring is the only thing that remains of my childhood. I'm rather sentimental about it, I'm afraid."

Solo poured the man a glass of water and eased his head up to drink. Kuryakin drank eagerly and gratefully.

"Don't apologize. Sometimes as agents all we have is on our backs. Little things can become very important to us."

Kuryakin began to droop, and Solo remembered the doctor's warning. "Get some rest, Illya. I have a guard outside if you need anything. We'll get those responsible for doing this to you. I promise."

The blond head turned away as Solo left the room.

Solo stalked down the hall towards Mr. Waverly's office. He'd informed Lisa Rogers he was on his way to speak to the chief. He checked his watch; nine-fifty. Waverly practically lived at UNCLE-HQ. Solo was sure he'd still be in. The doors hissed open and Lisa smiled in greeting. "He's expecting you, Mr. Solo. Go right in."

"Thank you, Miss Rogers."

Napoleon unconsciously squared his shoulders before breaching the inner sanctum. Bad news was never easy to report. The doors parted to reveal the gray head of his boss bent over something with a micro-fiche reader. The younger man took a seat and waited to be acknowledged.

After a moment, Waverly looked in his direction. "Keeping late hours again, Mr. Solo? Well, I did warn you about this job, you know."

"Ah, yes, sir, you did. The evening is likely to get much longer." Waverly's eyebrows rose and Solo went straight into the account of the assault. His mentor said nothing, merely steepled his fingers and listened. Waverly leaned back in his chair and pierced Solo with a gaze.

"Just what do you plan to do about this? Dreadful business ... one of our own men not safe in his own Command."

Solo squirmed a bit hearing the anger in the usually calm voice. "I know, sir. I have a team checking the scene now, and I'm waiting for Mr. Kuryakin to wake fully before I can question him. Dr. Quentin did not want his patient disturbed this evening."

Waverly nodded. "I'll expect you'll want to interview Mr. Kuryakin's co-workers first thing."

"I'm staying here for the evening, sir. That's at the top of my list of 'Things To Do.'"

"Quite. Check with London also. See if there were any incidents there, and if any of the same operatives are with this office now."

Napoleon didn't like those implications, but said nothing. Waverly noticed the frown.

"As much as it pains us to admit it, Mr. Solo, we do have our own skeletons to bury. I expect this to be a short investigation."

"As do I, sir. I'll report anything significant immediately."

Waverly reached for his cold pipe and dismissed Solo with a wave. "Get some sleep, Mr. Solo. You'll need it tomorrow."

"Yes, sir. Good night."

Solo walked from the office feeling every one of his thirty-four years.

While a team investigated Illya's co-workers, Solo visited his hospital room as soon as Dr. Quentin allowed it. Kuryakin was wolfing down what looked like oatmeal. For a skinny guy he sure can eat, Solo thought. He watched bemusedly while Illya drained the last of his juice and asked the nurse for more. She winked at Solo before leaving.

He watched her disappear down the hall before turning his attention to the agent. "You look much better today. How do you feel?" Indeed, both eyes were much less swollen, though blackened and turning purple and blue.

Illya grinned. "Hungry."

"Is that perpetual with you?" Solo joked.

"Usually. I'm one of those chaps who can eat anything and never gain an ounce." He scraped the last bit of oatmeal from the bowl and licked the spoon.

"I'll try not to hold that against you." Solo pulled a chair closer to the bed and settled in. "Are you up to twenty questions?"

Illya grunted as he adjusted himself in the bed. "Perhaps nineteen."

Solo smiled. At least he has a sense of humor. "Tell me about last night. What do you remember?"

Kuryakin sighed and resigned himself to reliving the beating. "I worked out in the gym and went in for a shower. I remember I was the only one in the shower room. Most of the agents had left already."

"What time?" Solo interrupted.

The blond replied, "Six o'clock. I left my office at five and I usually work out for an hour. I went to my locker and dressed. I was putting on my socks when someone threw a towel over my head and jerked me up. One of them held my arms back and the other ... ."

"How many do you think?" Solo held his breath, hating that there were more than one involved.

Illya closed his eyes for a moment. "Two. One held my arms and the blows came from another assailant. The one holding my arms was much taller than I." He pulled his gown up and let Solo see the bruises. Ribs on both sides were covered in livid flesh, purple surrounding the white bandages. Knuckle prints were distinctly visible. Most of Kuryakin's upper chest was covered in support tape.

"What's that?" Solo asked and looked closely at two of the smaller bruises. "Looks like one of them wore a ring." A strange pattern hid in the bruising. Napoleon shook his head, his anger building. Illya pulled the gown down, embarrassed.

"Did you hear anything? Voices, names?"

Kuryakin shook his head. "I did hear one go, 'Ooof' when I connected with a kick. Felt like it was square in the groin. That's when they hit me on the head with something and things got fuzzy."

"Hmm, well, somebody ought to be walking funny today, then." Privately, Solo hoped the guy couldn't get it up for a week.

"I must have passed out, but I remember coming to when they were dragging me to the lockers. I tried to hang on to the edges but they hit my hands with something hard. Hit my head again and blacked out."

Solo nodded. "We have prints, and the pencil they jammed in the lock. Problem is nearly every male agent here uses the gym. Most of the prints will be unuseable."

Solo got up and walked around to the other side of the bed, hands thrust into his pockets. Moving helped him think. "Anyone you can think of who has it in for you, Illya? I don't care who it is, he'll be punished."

Kuryakin looked embarrassed again, coloring quickly.

Solo noticed and asked, "What kind of incidents have there been?"

Illya looked at him sharply and replied, "Would you like a list? It will be quite a long one."

Napoleon sighed. He could only imagine what the Soviet Russian had endured in his early years, and for the cruelty to continue here in America burned through Solo like a flame.

"I'm sorry," Illya whispered.

"Don't be. What you've been through is unconscionable. For it to have happened here at UNCLE, the very organization dedicated to brotherhood and tolerance, is personally repugnant to me."

Illya's voice was barely there. "It isn't the first time."

Solo turned to the bed, astonished. His mouth dropped open and he stared at Illya.

"It happened in London, too. It's why I requested the transfer."

Napoleon dropped his head, groaning. He looked up into the blue eyes. "When?"

"Five months before I came here. A couple of enforcement agents took exception to a 'Red' being assigned to their section. At first, they just made comments, tried to rattle me."

"But?" Solo prodded.

"I was attacked on my way home one night. Two of them, I'm sure I know who they were. They weren't being very careful. They wanted me to get the message, I suppose."

"Names, Illya. Who were they?" Solo was breathing hard, his anger needing an outlet.

Illya sighed. "It won't do any good, Mr. Solo. I told the office I was mugged and they left it at that. I can't very well change my story after all this time." He hung his head. "Besides ... ."

"Besides, what?"

"I got the distinct impression that the two perpetrators were acting under orders from higher up in the command. They were protected, Mr. Solo."

Solo cursed, a vile word that Illya translated into Russian and agreed with. He paced back and forth, trying to dispel some of the rage he felt for the way this man had been treated, not once, but twice. A man who was quickly becoming a friend.

Illya spoke slowly and quietly. "I thought a transfer would help. Surely in America, I would be treated..." He stopped, the pain and medication making him open up more than he normally would. "It seems I was wrong. It makes no difference where I am. They hate who I am."

Solo closed his eyes, the pain in Illya's voice striking deeply within him. The indecency of the violence and the cover-up of the same sickened Solo. Napoleon spoke quietly, his voice shaking with emotion. "It's not you, Illya. You're just a convenient target. A target for cowards who hide behind laws and organizations. People who don't deserve to work for the Command." He wanted to punch his fist through the wall, throw the empty tray against it. Facing away, he growled, "Son of a bitch."

He took deep breaths before facing Kuryakin again. "What you thought America stood for, what you came here for, it's still here, Illya. What U.N.C.L.E. stands for, what I personally stand for, is still here. Now, I know you don't have any reason to trust me, but I promise, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, I will do everything in my power to make these bastards pay for what they did to you."

Solo's hand was trembling slightly when he held it out to Illya. The Russian took it firmly and shook solemnly. "I believe you, Mr. Solo. I believe you."

Solo let out a deep breath. "Good. Then call me 'Napoleon,' please."

The remainder of the day went by in a hurried blur. Solo read the reports on Illya's contacts and co-workers, and sorted them by perceived threat value. Unfortunately, as Illya suggested, there seemed to be quite a few. The responses varied from a vague unease at having a Soviet in the Command to barely disguised hostility. Napoleon was aghast at the results. His own innate sense of fairness made him incapable of judging a man by mere nationality. He was beginning to wonder if he were a minority, even in such vaunted halls as UNCLE.

That thought spurred him to close the case like no other. He did as Waverly suggested and got a list of agents on the roster from the time Illya was assigned to London. He compared it to his current crop of enforcement agents and discovered that there were two agents whose postings had correlated with the Russian national's. One he knew, Agent Walden. The other, Barrows, had been assigned to Section Three and only recently sent up to Enforcement. Solo wanted to investigate these men personally. He sent memos to his staff and had them continue their own lines of questioning.

Solo went to Personnel instead of waiting for the files he needed. He pulled Walden and Barrows' records and sat at an unused desk, studying the clues they held. Walden was a bit of a hothead, having two reprimands for excessive use of violence in the field. Both incidents were directed at Thrush, however, and Solo knew how things could get out of hand in a hurry in the field. He could find no evidence of a grudge the man might have against Kuryakin. They had not worked together either in London or New York.

Barrows was more of a puzzle. He was a Korean War veteran, wounded at Pork Chop Hill. Recruited immediately out of the service, his career at U.N.C.L.E. had been competent, although unspectacular. He was one of many of the unsung agents who did his job quietly, without drawing attention. Solo knew how a lot of veterans thought, having served in the conflict as well. Most had an intense dislike for Russians, socialists, communists, or any other -ists, it seemed. Still, Solo did not want to paint the two men with the same brush someone had used on Kuryakin.

He dropped the files on the desk and rubbed his temples. This was the sort of work that he despised. It was mentally draining, singularly unlike the physical and adrenaline-charged atmosphere of field work. Blowing up Thrush installations and ferreting out double agents was infinitely more satisfying than confirming his own men's fealty.

Solo's head was beginning to pound in time with his pulse. He sighed, returned the files and decided to call it a night. He'd start the investigation fresh in the morning. Before he left, he had his secretary set up appointments with Barrows and Walden. The passage of time would only compound the investigation's problems. It was days like this that made the C.E.A. glad he stocked aspirin in his office drawer.

It was exactly eight-o-five in the morning. Chief Enforcement Agent Napoleon Solo sat at his desk, waiting for his first appointment of the day. Agent Walden, the late agent Walden, had yet to appear. Solo was actually hoping to use that to his advantage. He wanted Walden on edge, wary, yet not calculating. If he kept at him, he wouldn't have time to think about his answers.

The door to his office slid open. Walden hurried in and gave Solo a lopsided smile. "Sorry I'm late. I had trouble with..."

"I don't want to hear the excuse. The fact is you're late. Nothing else will change that, will it, Agent Walden?"

Walden looked at his shoes. "No, sir."

Solo glared at him. "Sit down."

Walden sat.

"You know that I am investigating a brutal beating that happened right here in HQ. Do you know the victim, Illya Kuryakin?"

Walden fidgeted. "Only by reputation."

The brown eyes flashed in genuine anger. "What is that supposed to mean, Walden?"

Taken off guard, he answered quickly, "Uh, I just meant that I know he was on loan from the Soviets, sir."

Napoleon leaned back in his chair, swiveling slightly, keeping the agent in his direct line of sight at all times. "And how do you feel about that, Agent Walden?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean, sir."

Solo steepled his fingers and leaned over them. "How do you feel about having a Russian working for U.N.C.L.E.? A Communist in our ranks?"

While he was speaking, Solo observed Walden carefully. He was beginning to sweat, his hair darkening with moisture along the plane of his collar. He ran his hands up and down his thighs unconsciously, and swallowed more than was necessary. Solo looked carefully at his hands. He wore no rings, nor were there tell-tale tan lines to show he had worn one previously.

"Well, Mr. Solo, I guess I feel the same way about him as I do the other agents we have from Britain, Germany, South Africa."

"And that is?"

Walden cleared his throat. "We're all agents here, sir. We work for the same organization. I really don't care if Mr. Kuryakin is Communist, Baptist, or a Purple People Eater. As long as he isn't Thrush, sir, we won't have a problem working together."

Solo tried not to smile. Walden was starting to defend himself. Good. He wanted his agents resilient. "For the record, where were you this Tuesday around six p.m.?"

Walden breathed a sigh of relief at the date. "In the cafeteria."

"Any one who can corroborate that?"

Walden looked a bit embarrassed. "Yes. Cindy Richardson from Accounting. She had dinner with me."

Solo ran through his internal files and came up with a face to match the name. Mousy brown hair, thick glasses. An accounting stereotype if he ever saw one. "All right, that's easy enough to verify. Would you place your hands palms down on the desk top for me, please?"

Walden looked puzzled but complied. His fingers and knuckles were normal, no swelling or bruising visible. Solo sighed in relief and sank back down in his chair. "Agent Walden, thank you for your cooperation. You are free to go."

Walden nodded and got up to leave. He was halfway to the door when Solo called after him, "Good luck with Miss Richardson, by the way."

Walden colored and smiled as he went out the door.

Solo matched the smile. At least Walden was clear. Barrows was scheduled in thirty minutes. Napoleon went to the coffee service and fixed a black cup. Halfway through with the unpleasantness of the day. He hoped the other agent was innocent as well. He wanted to find the culprit, but he still hated to think who it might be.

While he waited for Barrows, Solo waded his way through the endless pile of paperwork in his "In" basket. He eyed the "Out" basket's paltry volume with disdain. No matter the mission, there was always the blasted paper trail to slog through. He sighed and corrected a field report, marking it to be sent back to the agent who wrote it.

The doors whooshed open at exactly nine o'clock. At least Barrows was punctual. He stood just inside the closing doors, waiting for Solo to acknowledge him. Solo waved him in and said, "Take a seat, Agent Barrows."

The dark-haired man sat and crossed his legs elegantly and easily. No hint of discomfort, Solo noted. He tried a different tack with Barrows. He was a completely different creature than Walden, and Solo needed to come at him from another angle.

Napoleon asked, "Would you like coffee?"

Barrows replied, "Yes, thank you."

Solo pointed to the coffee service. "Help yourself."

The large man got out of the chair smoothly and walked to the service. He poured a cup with steady hands, added cream, and returned to his chair, clearly allowing Solo to take the lead.

"How are you enjoying Section Two, Mr. Barrows? Settling in?"

Barrows smiled, not allowing the warmth to spread to his eyes. "Settling just fine, sir. Johannsen and I are thinking of making a go at partnering."

"Johannsen? Gustaf? Yes, he's a fine agent. Pity about his partner. I'm sure he's eager to get back into the fray."

"More than eager, sir. He'd love to put a dent in Thrush Central about now."

Solo sighed dramatically. "He wants revenge. It's natural. His new partner will have to be aware of that fact and keep him reined in."

Barrows nodded slowly, agreeing to a certain point. "Sometimes a little revenge can be a useful tool."

Solo looked thoughtful. "As long as the person wielding the tool is very, very careful."

Agent Barrows watched Solo's expression, unsure of where the conversation was headed. "Of course."

Solo stood and walked to the coffee dispenser, his back to Barrows. "How about you, Agent Barrows? Ever want to take a little revenge on your own?"

The question seemed to catch him off guard and he hesitated. Solo turned toward him and continued. "I know you served in Korea. Me, too. A lot of veterans have trouble when they have to work with their former enemies. What do you think about U.N.C.L.E. having a card-carrying Communist on the payroll?"

Barrows shrugged. "You mean Kuryakin? I don't have a problem with that."

Solo returned to his chair. He sat with a sigh. "You were wounded at Pork Chop Hill. Took a bullet in the neck from Communist forces." Looking directly into Barrow's eyes, Solo asked, "Ever want a little revenge for that, Barrows?"

The black-haired agent's eyes widened a bit, his nostrils flaring in anger. "It was wartime, Mr. Solo. Of course I wanted to kill the enemy. Isn't that the point?"

Napoleon nodded. "But what about peacetime, Mr. Barrows? What about now? You were in London when Illya Kuryakin was assigned there. Did you work with him?"

Barrows frowned, thinking of his answer. "I worked one case with him and another agent. It was cut and dried demo. He did his job well. Had a taste for explosives from what I recall."

"Any problems with him personally?"

"No, he stayed to himself. Not really personable."

Solo frowned. "Perhaps he felt unwelcome."

"Perhaps he didn't fit in." Barrows returned Solo's stare unflinchingly.

"Did you fit in, Mr. Barrows?" Napoleon wanted to find a flaw in his argument. The only way to do that was to continue arguing.

"Sure. At least I think so. I made a lot of friends in London."

Napoleon leafed through papers on his desk top. "And yet you requested a transfer to New York after the one year minimum stationing. Why?"

Barrows squirmed in his chair just a bit. He changed legs, crossing them the other way again. "I may work for an international organization, Mr. Solo, but I am an American. I missed the States, my family. I prefer to work here."

"Do you think Mr. Kuryakin prefers to work here?"

"I really don't know, sir. You'd have to ask him."

Solo stood, went over to a console and checked the displays. He pushed a button and then leaned against the cabinet with one hip. "Considering the welcomes he received both in London and here, I doubt he wants to be either place very much."

Barrows shrugged. "He can always resign and go back home if he misses it so much."

Solo glared at his subordinate. "That's where you're wrong, Barrows. Kuryakin was sent here by his government. He had very little say in the decision. If he resigned, his superiors would perceive it as failure, and he would go home in disgrace."

"It's a hard job. It takes hard men," Barrows replied.

Napoleon crossed his ankles. "Yes, yes it does. But you're an American, living in America. You have no idea what Illya and others like him have been through. For him to come to U.N.C.L.E. and then to New York-HQ and be treated this badly is a travesty. It goes against everything we were set up to achieve."

Barrows remained silent, regarding Solo suspiciously now, wondering where the conversation was headed.

Solo walked back to his desk yet did not sit. He leaned on his hands and looked at Barrow's hands. "How did you get those bruises, Agent Barrows?" The knuckles on both hands were dotted with brownish-yellow speckles. Barrow's ring finger on his right hand was bare, but there was an indentation where a callous had formed around a ring.

"I worked out on the bag in the gym a couple days ago. Didn't wrap my hands well enough, I guess." He tried to meet Solo's gaze without looking away. He almost made it. Finally, he dropped his eyes to look at his hands.

"You wear an Army Service ring, don't you, Barrows? Where is it?"

Solo's voice grew deeper, each question dropping the register and timbre to dangerous levels.

"My ring? I took it off after the workout. Didn't want my finger to swell and cut off the circulation."

"I see." Solo's face set in hard lines as he pushed a button under his desk. A few seconds later two men from Section Five flanked the door, blocking the closing mechanism with their bulk.

"These men will escort you to Medical, Agent Barrows. There is a rather personal exam to be administered. You will cooperate, won't you?" Solo's voice dripped with politeness.

Barrows stiffened as only enforcement agents could when confronted with medical tests of any kind. "What kind of exam?" He started to sweat.

"Mr. Kuryakin got a good kick in on one of his attackers. Our doctor will be looking for bruising in the, ah, affected area."

Barrows colored and made no attempt to rise from his seat.

"The exam will be conducted with or without your cooperation, Barrows." Solo waved the security team over. They stood on either side of Barrow's chair, hands near their hips.

The agent sighed, stood and glared at Solo. "Are you going to read me my rights?"

"Do I need to? Are you worried we might find something?"

Barrows held his gaze for a beat, then two. "Not at all, Mr. Solo." The emphasis on the 'mister' came through loud and clear. Barrows carefully slipped his weapon out of the holster and handed it to Solo. The C.E.A. looked at it and back at the agent.

Solo waved the security team away. "Make sure he doesn't get lost on the way, gentlemen."

"Yes, sir," came in bass unison.

Napoleon watched their backs as they left his office. He sighed, sat heavily, and decided he didn't much care for his new position.

Illya was bored. Stiff, sore, yes, but desperate to get out of Medical. He'd cajoled an orderly into allowing him use of a wheelchair, and now was soundly beating said orderly at a game of chess in the dayroom.

Americans are abysmally bad at chess, he thought as he watched Ted touch a piece and then think better of the move. Kuryakin grinned at the indecision. He heard voices coming down the corridor and turned carefully, feeling his ribs pull in protest. Two men from security were flanking another, and he was none-too-pleased by his look. As they passed, the one in the middle glared at Illya, hatred plainly painting his features. Kuryakin blinked, unsure as to the reason. Illya didn't recognize the agent, though he clearly knew the Russian.

As the trio continued down the hall, Illya knew in his gut. This was one of his attackers. Solo wouldn't have sent him down for an exam unless he'd been pretty damned sure of his suspicions. His stomach clenched in reaction and he leaned back in the chair.

Ted saw the look on his face and said, "You all right, Mr. Kuryakin? Are you sick?"

Illya smiled at the genuine concern. "No, Ted, I'm just tired. Perhaps we can finish the game later?"

"Sure thing." He left the pieces in place and put his chair back. "Do you want me to wheel you back to your room?"

"No, I'll be fine here for a while longer." Kuryakin picked up a magazine and pretended to read. The orderly left to check on his other patients.

Illya positioned the wheelchair at an angle so as to better see down the hall. The suspect had been placed in an exam cubicle and the drape pulled for privacy. He heard angry voices and rude language from the man, Barrows, the doctor called him. One of the security detail left with the doctor to use the phone at the nurse's station. The drape was yanked open and Barrows sat on a cot, livid with rage. His guard looked equally angry, his suit a bit mussed.

Barrows had not been cooperative, Illya mused. He felt the heat of the glare from the man across the bay, and wondered how the agent could hate someone he didn't even know. It was something Illya had all too much experience with.

His thoughts were suddenly yanked back to the present by an alarm klaxon. A flurry of activity at the nurse's station drew his attention. Barrow's guard drew his weapon and tensed, alert.

Emergency lights came to life, casting the hospital wing in red, pulsing color. Illya heard one nurse on the phone to security say, "Gas leak...I've got a critical situation on my board. No, I can't tell the exact location...."

She hit a button and spoke over the loudspeaker, the alarm cutting out to allow speech. "Evacuate medical. I repeat, evacuate. All personnel to their stations. Code Red. Code Red...."

The rest of the sentence was obliterated as a blast of heat erupted from the end of the hall opposite the nurse's station. A hail of debris pelted Illya and knocked him and his chair backward. A moment later he realized he was looking at the ceiling tile, blood running into his eyes from a gash on his forehead. He rolled out of the chair and onto his stomach, coughing at the acrid smoke building in the room. He crawled into the hall and took a look around. Alarms were screaming, adding to the chaos.

Emergency bulkheads had closed, shutting him off from the station and the other wing. The stairwell was clear and he made his way to the end of the corridor, close to where the blast originated. At the junction, he cautiously looked around the corner. A gaping hole in the wall showed the gas-line rupture, flames gouting from the splintered metal pipe up into the wall and the room beyond. The heat drove him back, and Illya tripped over something on the floor. The smoke was crippling and Kuryakin staggered.

Eyes tearing and streaming, Illya blinked, recognizing it was a body he'd stumbled upon. One of the guards, obviously dead. His Special was still in his grip. Illya took it automatically, training and instinct kicking in. Over the din of the scene, Illya heard a moan, nearby his current position.

Lungs burning, coughing, Illya gasped at the pain of his broken ribs protesting the sudden activity. A dark shape under the cot moved, struggling for breath. Barrows.

Illya looked at one of the red flashing lights, seeing an oxygen tank hanging on the wall next to it. He tore it free and placed the mask over his mouth, sucking down clean air in huge gulps. Once he could move again, he went to Barrows and rolled him over. Placing the mask over his face, he yelled in his ear, "Breathe in. Breathe."

Barrows clutched his arm in panic, barely conscious. Kuryakin let him take in as much as he could, then had to rip the mask away to take a few quick hits. The smoke was blacker than night, the heat beginning to be deadly.

He placed his face directly in Barrow's, inches apart. "We have to move. Now."

The agent shook his head. "Can't. I think my legs are broken."

Passing the mask between them, Illya tried to gather his strength. He'd have to carry Barrows out, no other choice. He saw the look on Barrow's face as he came to the same conclusion. Why would you? I'd leave you here...

There was stark fear in his eyes as he waited to see what the Russian would do. Illya took one last drag on the tank and secured the strap across Barrow's head. He placed the tank in his hands and said, "Hold on."

Bent double, Illya draped Barrow's bulk across his strong back, trying to ignore the agony in his broken ribs. Barrows cried out at the pain in his legs as they made their slow way down the hall toward the stairs. Illya felt the intense heat at his back suddenly lessen as the gas-line was closed off. His lungs laboring, he plodded toward the red strobe light that marked the emergency exit. He tried not to cough, knowing it would damage him further, but the smoke was overwhelming.

Somehow, Illya managed to turn the doorknob with a hand slippery from sweat and blood, and took two last steps into the blessedly clear air of the stairwell. Closing the door again, he sagged, bent over, Barrows still draped over him. But he could breathe, and he could hear pounding footfalls on the concrete stairs below them.

The cavalry, led by Napoleon Solo, came around the landing and stopped at the sight. Solo bounded up the remaining stairs and carefully slid Barrows to the floor. Two agents took him by the armpits and knees and began descending the stairs. He pulled the respirator from his face and said, "Wait, wait." The agents looked at Solo. He nodded.

"Why?" The American coughed and looked at Kuryakin through bleary eyes.

Illya looked at Solo and then back to Barrows. "Because we're the good guys." His voice was barely a whisper, his throat raw.

Solo waved the men to move, and Barrows shook his head once.

Kuryakin slumped, Solo catching him and easing him to the deck.


Illya shook his head. "The firewall saved most of the section. One of the guards died in the blast." He coughed raggedly, blood splattering the smoke-darkened pajama bottoms. Solo held a handkerchief against his forehead to quell the flow of blood.

"You're a sight." Solo motioned to another agent clamoring up the stairs to help him. "Broken ribs, punctured lung. Go easy." They gently picked Kuryakin up between them and started down.

Despite the pain, Kuryakin had a sudden uplifting thought. "If there's no Medical, they can't keep me, can they?"

Solo laughed at the grin the Russian was wearing. "Don't worry. We have a triage in the cafeteria. Look at it this way: at least you'll be near the food."

Illya wanted to laugh, but thought better of it. He passed out instead.

He woke to the sound of groaning. Opening his eyes, Illya saw another white ceiling, but this one was higher and had tracks where panels could be installed to further compartmentalize. His brow furrowed and he felt the bandage there pucker against his skin.

Illya looked toward the noise that had wakened him, and saw he had a roommate. Barrows. His legs were encased in plaster and he was trying to find a comfortable position from the looks of it. His left leg was supported in a sling, but the right had a short cast just covering the ankle.

"Roll slightly toward the sling. It will take some of the pressure off the hip joint."

Barrows looked over at him incredulously.

"I was in traction once."

Barrows made an effort. "For what?"

"Blew up a lab station. Threw me against the wall. Slipped a disc." Illya shrugged.

"What were you working on?" Barrows moved a bit to his left. The change in position really did help. I'll be darned...

Kuryakin grinned. "Something unsanctioned."

The American agent laughed, and then looked away, remembering.

"Look, Kuryakin..." He stopped, knowing there was nothing he could say to make up for what had happened.

Illya sighed. He turned on his side and faced the other agent. "You feel guilty. Good. You should. I did what any trained agent would do. What any U.N.C.L.E. agent should do."

Barrows shifted, squirming. "Yes, but..."

"But what?"

"It doesn't matter, anyway. I'll be going to prison to pay for what I did."

Illya rolled onto his back, his ribs hurting again. "Not if I don't press charges."

Barrows stared at the Russian, jaw slack. "Why wouldn't you?"

Kuryakin tried to find the words that would make Barrows, an American, understand. "Where I come from, men use their power, their positions, people, anything they can, to get what they want and then to try and keep it. It doesn't matter what happens to their integrity, their honor. It becomes a game to them; a game to win at all costs."

His voice faltered, strained and hoarse. He poured a glass of water and drank slowly.

"Long ago, I decided I would not become like them. I had my own code to live by. When my government gave me the chance to join U.N.C.L.E., I took it gladly. I saw this place as a way to make a change, a difference. Unfortunately, others did not feel the same way about me." He looked pointedly at Barrows, who had the good grace to flush scarlet.

Illya laughed humorlessly. "And I'm not even Russian. I'm Ukrainian by birth."

Barrows spoke in hushed tones. "But you are a Communist."

Kuryakin shook his head. "Yes, I am a good Communist, like everyone else I know. We are forced to join the Party if we want to have any chance at all to have a decent life. I don't care about ideologies, labels, or even flags. I've pledged my trust to this place. To men like Alexander Waverly, Napoleon Solo. They are my nationality."

"And you saved my life. Even after what I did." Barrows allowed himself to wallow in his own misery.

"'The rain falls on the just and the unjust.'" At Barrow's shocked look, Illya chuckled. "Yes, I have read the Bible. We do have a few in the U.S.S.R."

Barrows whispered, "Godless Communists..."

Illya answered, "Another misconception."

"I guess I have a lot of them."

"You don't have to keep them." As he spoke, the isolation wing's door opened and Solo walked in.

He felt the tension between the two agents and gave Illya an appraising look. "Everything all right in here? Or do we need to set up another space?"

Illya looked at Barrows and he nodded in return. "I believe we've worked out a peace treaty."

Solo raised an eyebrow. "'A separate peace?'"

Illya nodded. "Something like that."

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