At a Distance

by Nyssa

Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin was the coldest, toughest son of a bitch I ever knew.

I've been in the game a long time now, and I've run across plenty of disillusioned survivors — lots of them hard and cynical, some of them unable to look at the world except through a comforting film of alcohol, a few of them just plain miserable bastards since the day they were born. But not anyone quite like the Russian.

I was twenty-three years old that spring of '69, just out of Survival School, and like most new field agents, I thought I was hot shit. On the Island, the bullets are real after the first few weeks, and second chances are not the norm. You have to be pretty damn good to graduate, and I'd finished in the top two percent of my class. When I walked in to U.N.C.L.E.'s New York headquarters for the first time, I was ready and willing to take on THRUSH and the world single-handedly. I knew I'd be assigned a partner — all rookie field agents were — but I hadn't given it much thought. I guess I assumed my partner would be a guy I could joke around with, get drunk with, visit the occasional whorehouse with in far-flung locations around the globe. Or it could have been a woman; there were a few female enforcement agents even in those days. Kuryakin, though, was most definitely neither.

I'd heard about him, of course. There's a mandatory three-week orientation period during which all rookies undergo final security clearances, learn the ins and outs of the organization, attend lectures on everything from international relations to finding your way through the labyrinthine corridors of HQ. It's also a great opportunity to hear gossip. What I heard about Kuryakin was that he was aloof, businesslike, cool to the point of rudeness. And dangerous, as any man with a reputation for being U.N.C.L.E.'s most deadly efficient field agent would have to be. And I heard also, in lowered voices accompanied by derisive sneers or pitying smiles or regretful shakes of the head, that he was gay.

The first time I heard it, I paid no attention. It seems ridiculous now, but back then I thought all gay men were hopelessly effeminate swishers who fluttered their hands when they talked. It was inconceivable to me that such a person could be an enforcement agent. But I heard the rumors so often, from practically everyone who talked about Kuryakin, that finally I was forced to give it some credence. Maybe there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy.

It didn't matter anyway, until the day I finally walked into Waverly's office to meet the man who was to be my first partner. The Old Man said, "Mr. Powers, this is your partner, Illya Kuryakin. Mr. Kuryakin, Michael Powers."

I shook his hand, noting that his grip was firm, though not particularly warm. I looked him over curiously. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He was slightly built, but wiry and muscular. He had a shock of bright blond hair with a few lonely silver strands running through it, full lips that gave no hint of a smile, and a strong square jaw. The effect was of an odd combination of toughness and vulnerability. His eyes were blue, and they stared into mine with the blatant searching quality typical of experienced agents. They were hard eyes, and there was a bleakness in them that disturbed me.

Uneasy, I looked away, and immediately he released my hand and took a step back. During the rest of our interview with Waverly he did not meet my eyes.

Afterwards, we left the Old Man's office together and headed for the gym. Waverly had given us a briefing on our first mission, a routine assignment that involved checking on the security status of a NATO airbase in West Germany, but we weren't due to leave for a week yet. He'd suggested we spend the intervening time training together so we'd be familiar with each other's reflexes. It's impossible to become really familiar with your partner except in the field, but it's still a good idea not to go into action completely cold.

Kuryakin was good, of course. He threw me expertly, pinned me to the mat with little effort, dodged away with catlike agility when I attempted to return the favor. I couldn't help feeling a little funny at the close physical contact, just as I had when I shook his hand. But by the end of the session, I'd pretty much decided the rumors weren't true. A man who fought like Kuryakin just couldn't be queer. Throughout that workout, and the others we had every day for the rest of the week, he never betrayed the slightest hint that he was any different from any other guy. He barely spoke to me, which annoyed me a little. He called me Powers, never Mike, and something told me not to call him Illya. And all the time, the somber expression never faded from his eyes.

The night before we left for Germany, I went out with Patty Carlson from the steno pool. She was a cute blonde with big brown eyes and a body I thought would look much better between my sheets than in the purple mini-dress she wore to the restaurant. I was in a hurry to get the date over with and get her back to my apartment, but she was a talker. She talked all through the meal, about everything from the weather to the Rolling Stones to how much she hated Richard M. Nixon. I didn't pay too much attention, just nodded and smiled in what I hoped were the right places, but then she moved on to a subject of more immediate personal interest to me.

"How are you getting along with Illya?"

A little startled, I said, "Fine, I guess." I hadn't even known she knew he was my partner.

"He hasn't made a move on you, has he?" she asked, and casually speared a meatball with her fork.

I tried not to choke on my garlic bread. But she went right on without giving me a chance to answer.

"I don't suppose he would, though," she continued thoughtfully. "I mean, you're certainly cute — " she dimpled at me " — but I don't think you're really his type."

"Uh — "

"You have heard about him and Napoleon Solo, haven't you?"

"I — "

"Oh, that was the talk of HQ about a year ago." She paused. "Kind of sad, really."

I'd certainly heard about Solo. Who wouldn't have? He and Kuryakin had been U.N.C.L.E.'s finest team, almost legendary for their skill, their style, and their luck. Solo had been Chief Enforcement Agent until just over a year ago, when his partnership with Kuryakin had suddenly ended. Then he'd resigned and left the organization. Waverly still hadn't found a permanent replacement for him. That was all I knew about Solo, and Kuryakin hadn't so much as mentioned his name to me. Not that he'd said much of anything that wasn't absolutely necessary.

I cleared my throat. "I really don't know much about that."

Patty lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Well, no one really knows for sure — I mean, we don't have proof or anything — but everyone thinks they were lovers. When Mr. Waverly found out about it, he broke them up and put Illya to work in the lab full time. He was only reinstated in Section Two a couple of months ago. Napoleon resigned last summer. No one's heard from him since, as far as I know."

"Oh," I said.

She took a contemplative sip from her wineglass. "Napoleon was a really nice man. A terrible flirt, but sweet. I always liked him. He was always complimenting me and the other girls on our clothes, our hair, you know. Not like Illya." She sighed. "Ever since Napoleon left Illya's been acting like a damn zombie. He never had much to say to us, but at least he used to smile occasionally. Mostly at Napoleon. I feel sorry for him. I mean, he can't help it if he's that way, can he? You know, psychiatrists say it has to do with a guy's childhood, how his mother treats him and..."

I kind of tuned her out at that point. I wasn't sure I wanted to know any more about it.

That first mission was as unexciting as it had sounded when the Old Man told us about it. The base turned out to be as secure as German intelligence could make it, which is to say, very secure. We poked around all day but found nothing suspicious. Kuryakin impressed me, though, with his quiet efficiency. He must have done this kind of job dozens of times before, but never did he give any indication that he found it dull. Me, I was ready to start pulling hairs out of the backs of my hands by the time we finished, I was so bored.

The boredom continued after hours. That airbase was stuck in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of a little village where it looked like life hadn't changed appreciably in several hundred years. I prowled around it for a while, had a couple of beers in a rustic little tavern, and was disappointed to find that there was no sign of the buxom blond barmaids I'd assumed were standard equipment in all German drinking establishments. Since there didn't seem to be any action afoot, I finally gave up and went back to the inn where we were staying. I hadn't even seen the room yet; Kuryakin and I had gone straight to the base when we arrived, leaving a bellhop to carry our bags up.

When I opened the door, I looked straight down the barrel of his Special. He lowered it immediately, and stepped aside so I could enter. He reached behind me to shut and lock the door, then turned back to me with a disgusted expression on his face and said, "Always remember to give the signal."

I could feel my face reddening. "I'm — I'm sorry," I said lamely. Belatedly, I remembered our discussion on the plane, the pattern of knocks we had agreed to use.

He shook his head and turned away. I noticed suddenly that he was wearing pajamas. Then I noticed that the room contained only one bed. He turned down the covers and crawled into it with a tired sigh.

Hurriedly, I picked up my own pajamas and my overnight bag and headed for the men's room down the hall. When I returned, the room was dark. I put my bag down and laid my gun on the nightstand. Then I hesitated for a long moment. But there was no other place to sleep, so I climbed into bed beside Kuryakin.

I knew he wasn't asleep; he'd been awake when I came in the second time, responding to my signal by sitting up in bed and pointing his gun at me again before replacing it under his pillow. He was lying on his back with his eyes closed, and he didn't move when I stretched out at his side. But I couldn't relax. I was nervous, and the bed wasn't very big. I felt uncomfortably warm, and realized after a moment that I was feeling his body heat through the pajamas. Cautiously, I inched away from him to the very edge of the bed and lay there, trying to let my tense muscles unclench.

I jumped when he spoke, in a voice which reminded me of a freezing wind.

"Despite what you have no doubt heard, I assure you I have no interest in dreary adolescents. Your virtue is quite safe. Good night."

I couldn't think of a thing to say. I felt him shift, and sneaked a glance at him. He had turned over and now lay on his side, his back to me.

I stared up at the ceiling for a long time before I fell asleep.

Not another word passed between us about that little incident. Kuryakin went right on treating me with the same cool detachment as before. I kept treating him as respectfully as I could, and tried not to be too obvious about the fact that the situation made me feel nervous and self-conscious. But gradually, those feelings faded. His manifest lack of interest in me was reassuring, and his calm capability in the field left me with little doubt that he was the best, most reliable partner I could have had. My preconceived notions about homosexuals took a beating during those first few months at Kuryakin's side. He was tough and sharp and strong, and he never hesitated to be lethal, too, when the circumstances called for it. He was also quick-tempered and not particularly patient with my occasional rookie blunders, and I could tell that it galled him to be saddled with someone so young and green. That attitude irritated me, but if I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I was probably not much of a substitute for his former partner. No doubt he would have had the same reaction to anyone who wasn't Napoleon Solo.

I used to wonder about that sometimes. He never talked about my predecessor, and the one time I dared to mention him — when the two of us were comparing scores on the firing range — he just flinched, almost imperceptibly, and then withdrew into frigid silence. I wondered if he was still in love with Solo. I watched him surreptitiously sometimes we were on assignment, and I never once saw him give any indication that he was interested in another man. Or a woman, for that matter, even though he certainly got his share of offers. Sexually, he seemed to live like a monk. I don't think I could have survived some of our more stressful assignments without getting laid afterwards, but Kuryakin acted as it sex didn't exist. I figured Waverly had him on a short leash, that he was under suspicion because of what had happened with Solo (if it had happened; I still had only rumors to go on), and that he didn't dare let himself stumble again. I surprised myself by feeling sorry for him. He was cold and sarcastic and I couldn't say I liked him, exactly, but no man should have to live that way. There's damn little comfort to go around in the world, and being cut off from it, especially when you're in this line of work, is a kind of death. I knew that, because I saw it every day in his eyes.

I'd been partnered with Kuryakin for eight months when the Jeremy Chase affair came up.

Chase was a madman, of course. We didn't deal with eminently rational types very often. He wasn't affiliated with Thrush or any other known organization, preferring to wreak his own individual brand of havoc on the world. He was an engineering genius with a special interest in the field of robotics, and had made quite a name for himself at MIT in the early '60s before developing a thirst for power that couldn't be satisfied in the halls of academia. U.N.C.L.E. had tangled with him once before, when his attempt at developing a miniature robot spy plane had been foiled by none other than the fabled team of Solo and Kuryakin. Chase was now living in southern Utah with a bevy of android servants and big plans for replacing certain heads of state with similar wonders of science. This, of course, would give him control over those states. As I said, a madman.

We raided the ranch and managed to deactivate the androids, but Chase wasn't there. We tracked him to a little ghost town in the desert, a place that looked just like one of those Western movie sets in Hollywood. That was where Kuryakin and I separated, and that was where Chase caught me. I was creeping cautiously through a dust-laden old saloon, gun in hand and trying desperately to hold back a sneezing fit, when from behind me I heard, "Drop your weapon, raise your hands, and turn around slowly."

I did, swearing silently and fervently. He emerged from behind a big pile of barrels in the corner of the room, a tall slender man with a thick white mustache and a mostly bald head. He was holding a .38 on me with both hands.

I barely had time to take this in before the saloon's swinging doors parted and Kuryakin entered, gun drawn, stopping instantly when he saw us. He was to my right and Chase's left, and his eyes flicked from me to my captor, where they settled.

Chase appeared delighted to see him. "Why Mr. Kuryakin! What a surprise! I wasn't aware that you were still with U.N.C.L.E. After that embarrassing business with the photographs last year, I thought you'd have been long gone, like Mr. Solo."

If I hadn't, of necessity, become accustomed to Kuryakin's every facial expression and mannerism over the past eight months, I would have never detected the shock that widened his eyes ever so slightly before vanishing behind the mask he wore like a second skin.

In a perfectly steady voice he said, "Let my partner go, Chase. This place will be surrounded by our backup in a matter of minutes. I have already contacted them."

This was a lie — the nearest help available was at the U.N.C.L.E. regional office in Salt Lake City, two hundred miles away — and Chase ignored it.

"Your partner?" He edged backward and slightly to his right, until his back was to the bar and his gun covered us both. "This young man is your partner? Well, I must say your tastes have changed, Mr. Kuryakin. There was a time, I recall, when you preferred the more mature type." He leered a bit before addressing his next words to me. "You must enjoy your work immensely, young man. Mr. Solo certainly did. I understand that Mr. Kuryakin's partners report extremely high rates of job satisfaction."

I didn't say anything, but I saw Kuryakin's mouth tighten with what I could only assume was suppressed fury.

"I was even privileged to witness the source of that satisfaction on one occasion. Did you know that, Mr. Kuryakin? Shortly after you and Mr. Solo spoiled my plans for my little airplane. I was quite upset about that. But when I'm upset I like to take my mind off my problems by indulging in my favorite hobby, photography. And I must say I got some excellent shots that night. Even the KGB were impressed by their quality." He grinned widely beneath the mustache. "Robot cameras that can be planted and operated by remote control from some distance away are the wave of the future, I believe. Even highly trained U.N.C.L.E. agents remain unaware of their presence. Particularly when said agents are focusing all their attention on, ah, more enjoyable pursuits."

There was a moment's charged silence while Chase smiled gleefully at Kuryakin, who stared back with an absolutely unreadable expression on his face.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. Just behind Chase, on the counter behind the bar, a dusty, cracked whiskey glass lay on its side. As I watched, a mouse skittered across the bar and onto the counter, brushing against the glass with just enough force to start it rolling. It tipped over the edge and smashed to the floor on the other side.

I dived for the gun I'd dropped when Chase caught me. But Chase was good. Startled, his aim nevertheless wavered for only a split second. Before I could close my fingers around my own weapon I heard two shots so close together they were almost indistinguishable from each other. I grabbed my gun and looked up to see Chase sprawled on the floor, dust motes dancing wildly in the air above his body. His head was almost completely gone. I had barely noticed this before I felt warm stickiness on my hands. I glanced down, and retched violently at what I saw. But only once. There wasn't time for weakness; my partner was lying a few feet farther away, with his eyes closed and his mouth open and blood soaking through the front of his tan windbreaker.

I wiped my hands on my pants and ran to him, kneeling on the dirt-strewn floor at his side. I eased him carefully onto his back, unzipped the jacket, and pushed his black turtleneck up around his nipples. There was a hole in his left side just above his belt, and blood was welling from it at an alarming speed.

I looked at his face, saw his eyelids flutter, and felt a surge of relief.

"Can you sit up?" I asked him. "I need to get your jacket off and use it to stop the bleeding."

His tongue emerged slowly from his mouth to moisten his lips. He whispered, "Chase..."

"He's dead. You blew his head off." As carefully as I could, I pulled him upright, biting my lip when he cried out. I maneuvered the windbreaker off his shoulders and pressed it against the wound. There was so much blood I couldn't see the bullet hole. I felt around cautiously, but there was no exit wound. The slug was buried inside him somewhere. I hoped to God it hadn't torn through his intestines. That could set up blood poisoning.

I eased him back down to the floor and said gently, "Don't try to talk."

He ignored me, if he even heard me, and muttered, "He was the one," so faintly I could barely make out the words. "He was the one..." His eyes drooped shut again and he sighed.

I fumbled for my communicator and called U.N.C.L.E./Salt Lake. They were sadly understaffed at the moment, which was why Kuryakin and I had drawn this assignment in the first place, but we had no choice. Kuryakin was beyond first aid; the infirmary at the regional office would have to be our next stop. But there was no way I could drive him there in time. We were miles from the nearest decent road, and he was losing more blood with every heartbeat. An U.N.C.L.E. chopper could get to us in an hour and a half. Which might not be soon enough...

I closed the channel and stuffed the pen back into my pocket. Turning back to him I noticed that his face was dripping with sweat. He had turned a frightening shade of gray, and his breath was coming rapidly through parted lips. I turned the wadded-up windbreaker around, trying to find a clean area to soak up the blood from his side. If you've never seen a gunshot victim up close, you can't imagine the amount of blood. On TV, it always looks nice and neat. Often there's no blood at all, and when there is, it's so tastefully presented. But in real life there's so much you can't believe the victim will survive. It's hot and slick, and it stinks. You try and try to hold it back, to push it back inside the body where it belongs, but it feels like you're trying to catch water with a net.

He was starting to shake. Cursing myself for not thinking of it sooner, I tore my own jacket off and wrapped it around him as best I could. It was cold in the old saloon, a chill December wind pushing arrogantly through the insubstantial swinging doors. I was afraid to move him anywhere, but I had to keep him as warm as possible. I lay down next to him, and, gritting my teeth against the pain I knew I was causing him, pulled him awkwardly into my arms, keeping one hand firmly on the windbreaker pressed to his wound.

He gasped painfully at the movement, but then seemed to relax a bit. The shivering eased, if only slightly, as my body heat helped warm him.

"They're coming from Salt Lake," I told him. "You're going to be all right."

He didn't respond, and we were quiet. I moved my free hand soothingly over his back. His skin was cool and damp. I could feel the raised scars of old injuries beneath my fingers.

After a long while, he whispered, "Polya."

Puzzled, I shifted a little to look at him. His eyes were closed, but his lips, incredibly, were curved in a smile.

He said again, "Polya," and then something else I couldn't understand. I thought it was Russian.

Then he said in English, "We got him, yes? We got him."

He was delirious. I patted him, clumsy with the unfamiliarity of it. "Yes," I said softly. "We got him, Illya."

I felt him sigh and saw that he was still smiling.

I was recalled to New York two days later. Waverly had a new assignment for me, one that didn't require my partner. Kuryakin was mostly out of danger by that time, the doctors told me, and there was nothing I could do for him anyway. I'd spent those two days at the Salt Lake office, visiting the infirmary in between meetings and debriefings. George Bright, the head of their medical section, told me the bullet had missed Kuryakin's large intestine by a fraction of an inch. The surgery to remove it took hours, and he was unconscious or asleep every time I tried to see him afterwards.

Waverly sent me to our London office to help fill the gaps left by several unlucky limey agents were out with injuries. I'd never been to England before, but found that I enjoyed it. In the dead of winter, it wasn't too different from Seattle, where I'd grown up. I was there almost a month, and was sorry to leave.

The day I got back, Waverly called me into his office. I was tired from the flight, but tried not to show it as I sank into a seat across the round table from him. He welcomed me back with his customary preoccupied politeness, then asked without preamble, "Mr. Powers, how would you like to move to London on a more permanent basis?"

Surprised, I stammered, "Uh — I think I'd like that very much, sir. May I ask — "

"Why? Well, to put it bluntly, Mr. Wentworth begged me for you." He chuckled. "He likes you personally, and believes you would make an excellent addition to London HQ. It seems you made quite an impression on him during that business at the Tower."

I felt myself blushing, an irritating reaction I get whenever I'm complimented.

"Of course, we certainly appreciate your abilities on this side of the Atlantic as well, but I do like to help our colleagues when I can. Our newest crop of Survival School graduates includes several promising young people, so we won't be hurting for agents, barring unfortunate accidents of course. And when Mr. Kuryakin returns to work — "

He saw the question in my eyes and explained, "Mr. Kuryakin was discharged from the infirmary at the Salt Lake City office last week. He is at home now, recuperating, but we expect him back in a week or so."

I accepted the London posting, of course. In this business, you go where you're sent, and in this case I was looking forward to it. Waverly gave me a few days to get my affairs in order before leaving. I had plenty to do and not much time to do it in, but still I found myself wondering about my partner. My former partner, I reminded myself.

I decided I should go and see him. I knew almost nothing about his home life, but he hardly seemed the type to have a lot of solicitous friends and neighbors dropping in to check on him. Maybe I should find out if he needed anything.

I knew that he lived in Greenwich Village, though I'd never been to his apartment. He'd moved there from his previous residence near Lincoln Center over a year earlier, just about the time Solo had resigned and left town. I used to visit the Village myself occasionally, mostly to pick up girls; there were a lot of free-spirited hippie types there with names like Willow and Sunshine who weren't very particular who they shared their brown rice and sleeping bags with. The area was also the center of the city's gay community, but Kuryakin was so secretive and so cautious that I doubted that had anything to do with why he had moved there. I figured he was probably more intrigued by the Village's jazz clubs and lively arts scene.

After circling around the area's confusing maze of streets for a while and getting some less than accurate directions from a ragged street musician, I finally located Kuryakin's building. I rang his doorbell and followed up with our private pattern of knocks. I'd never forgotten it again after that first assignment.

There was a pause, and then his muffled voice called, "Just a moment." I heard him turning off alarms and drawing back bolts, and then he stood before me, dressed in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt and looking a little thinner than I remembered. Not that he'd ever been exactly hefty.

I flourished the small bag of groceries I'd bought, on impulse, on the way over. "Thought you might be able to use some food," I told him. "I didn't know how mobile you were."

He blinked at me in surprise and then eyed the bag. Then, belatedly, "Come in, please."

He locked the door behind me and took the bag from my hands. "You needn't have done this. I'm quite able to get to the market; it's only just down the street." His eyes softened a little. "But thank you."

I cleared my throat. "Yeah, any time."

He carried the groceries into the kitchen to unpack them, and I took the opportunity to look around the room. It was small and plainly furnished, with rows of crowded bookshelves lining one wall and an incongruously modern-looking hi-fi set in one corner. The stereo was flanked on both sides by stacks of records. An album cover was perched atop the machine — John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. The record itself was still on the turntable; I wondered if he'd been listening to it when I arrived.

A brightly colored object on one of the bookshelves caught my attention and I wandered over to examine it. It was a Russian nesting doll, one of those hollow toys that contains a smaller doll, which contains a smaller doll, and so on. Next to it reposed a small framed photograph of Kuryakin, younger and shorter-haired than I'd ever seen him, with a man whom I recognized from a picture I'd seen at headquarters. Solo's right hand was resting on Kuryakin's shoulder. They were both smiling, if only slightly, at the camera. I held the picture up and looked closely at it, struck by the unfamiliar lack of guardedness in the Russian's eyes.

I heard a noise behind me and hastily returned the photo to the shelf before turning around. Kuryakin was standing in the kitchen doorway. I was sure he'd seen me looking at the picture, but he made no comment.

To break the tension I said, "You have a nice place here."

He nodded slightly. "May I offer you a drink, or — "

I shook my head. "No, no thanks. I, uh, just came to see how you were doing. I'm going to be leaving in a couple of days."

"Yes, Mr. Waverly informed me that I would soon be partnerless. It seems my scintillating personality is no match for the fleshpots of Soho."

Kuryakin joked with me so rarely that it took me a moment to realize that he hadn't meant it seriously. Then I saw the tiny smile at the corners of his mouth, and laughed.

He sat down on the sofa, gesturing for me to do the same, and picked up a half-empty glass of what I took to be vodka from the coffee table. I took a seat opposite him, in an armchair.

"How are you?" I asked. "The Old Man said you'd be back at work in about a week."

"I hope to be, yes. I've enjoyed having time to read and listen to my records, but..." He trailed off and was silent a moment before continuing. "Having free time also means having time to think. And I find that I am far less enamored of quiet reflection than I once was. I would prefer to keep busy."

There was a pause, and then his eyes met mine. "I never thanked you for what you did that day. The doctors assured me that I would have died without your help. You have my gratitude."

I shrugged uncomfortably. "Part of the job," I said, and then flushed at the offhand way it must have sounded.

He nodded. "Yes, of course. Still, the experience cannot have been a pleasant one. Watching a man die never is."

I had a sudden crazy impulse to say that I'd been watching him die ever since I'd known him, but I reined it in in time. "But you didn't die," I said instead.

"No," he said, and sipped from the glass. "I seem to be cursed with long life."

Silence fell between us and stretched out. He stared down into his glass as though lost in that quiet reflection in which he professed to have lost interest. I watched the light play off the gold ring on his left hand and wondered, not for the first time, who had given it to him. I wanted to ask him about Chase, and the photographs he'd talked about, but I knew I wouldn't.

"Well, " I said at last, "I should be getting back, I guess. I have a lot of packing to do." I fumbled for my coat on the chair arm beside me, and rose.

He set the glass down on the coffee table and followed me to the door. "It was kind of you to bring the food. I appreciate your thoughtfulness."

Embarrassed, I grinned a little and shrugged into my coat. "Must be having an off day. It's not normal for me to be such a nice guy."

He didn't reply at once, but gazed past me at the closed door, as though calling to mind something well known but seldom considered. He said softly, "To be normal is simply to conform to one's nature."

Then he blinked, and brought his eyes back to mine. "I wish you much success, Michael. You will be a fine agent, of that I have no doubt. Das vadanya."

I swallowed, and said quietly, "All the best, Illya. Good-bye."

I went out into the hallway. He closed the door behind me, and I've never seen him since.

The London posting turned out to be permanent indeed. Nine years and one promotion to Chief Enforcement Agent later, I'm still there. It's been great, the best learning experience of my life, apart from those eight months I spent as Illya Kuryakin's partner.

We never crossed paths again after I left New York, but then he didn't stay with U.N.C.L.E. very long after that. Almost two years to the day after the last time I saw him, he was involved in a mission in Yugoslavia that went disastrously wrong. The details were never very clear, but I did hear that he resigned afterward and left the business. That kind of thing happens to a lot of agents eventually. Sooner or later, they get fed up and lose the heart for the game, and if they're lucky, they quit in time to save what's left of their sanity. I hope Kuryakin quit in time.

I have no idea where he is now, or what he might be doing. Maybe away from U.N.C.L.E., he's been able to live a real life, find some kind of happiness. I hope so, for his sake. I don't think I've ever met a man who was more alone, or who deserved it less.

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