THE GAME PIECE AFFAIR

By

G M


"Didn't you pack the suntan lotion?" Napoleon Solo wondered lazily. Without opening his eyes he flicked a bug from his sun-baked cheeks. "Do I have to do everything?"
 

"You don't do everything, Napoleon. It was your turn to bring the iced tea." Illya Kuryakin responded with a matching tone of indolent disregard.
 
 Solo nodded in agreement. "You're right. I forgot the lawn furniture, too."
 
 "Must you two joke constantly?" Emil Sobaneau snapped waspishly.
 
Solo's lip curled with distaste -- his only comment to their French colleague's most recent rebuke. Kuryakin glanced from his study of the valley, which stretched before them, to Solo, to Emil, and back to the valley. His bland expression never changed yet his tone contained a sneer at least the equal of his partner's visible dislike.
 
"There is little else to do while we wait."
 
The three UNCLE agents lay on a cliff just above a derelict building overlooking the Moroccan Mediterranean. Kuryakin's chin rested on folded arms as he watched the target. Next to him Solo was stretched on his back, sunglasses shading his eyes, as he relaxed in the sun. A few feet away Emil Sobaneau studied the building through high-powered binoculars.
 
"Patience is a measurement of control," Emil disdainfully retorted. His clipped, precise words verbal missiles of disapproval. "A wise agent would use this time for contemplation and mental preparation for the mission."
  

The American and Russian had clashed with the hot-tempered Frenchman since they had met in Tangier only hours earlier. The three agents had tracked the case from separate angles, at last meeting in Morocco for the final, joint wrap-up.
 
Reputations on all sides had preceded the agents. An almost instant antagonism sparked between the Frenchman and the team from New York. Resentment had turned to active anger when the agents stubbornly disagreed on the plan of attack on the THRUSH base. Irked by the Frenchman's attitude, Solo had actively spurred the antagonism at every opportunity. Kuryakin's dislike was much more subdued, but just as apparent as his partner's. Unable to agree, Solo had suggested they take three separate assignments inside the complex. Sobaneau, at last, went along with the plan.
 
"I AM in contemplation," Solo coldly insisted. "Can't you tell? I'm contemplating why we were called in at all." His voice filled with an icy contempt. "You're such a model of perfection you could destroy ALL of THRUSH's European bases if only you didn't have us to get in your way."
 
Anger boiled over the eruption point and Emil swung his fist toward Solo's jaw.
 
Kuryakin caught the Frenchman's wrist just inches above his partner's face.
 
"Let's save the fighting for THRUSH," he counseled evenly, yet with a deadly edge to his voice.
 
Emil's hand turned white from the Russian's strangling grip. A tight nod of agreement was Emil's reluctant acceptance of the advice. Kuryakin released the Frenchman, who slid away from Solo. The Russian placed his hand on Solo's shoulder in a firm reminder of restraint. Without looking, he had felt Solo's tension -- recoiled for a fight with Emil. He glanced down and found confirmation of his suspicions in Solo's eyes. Even through the tinted glasses the brown eyes burned with anger.
 
"Deal with him later," the Russian whispered.
 
"I intend to," Solo confirmed quietly.
 
Kuryakin glanced from his troublesome partner, back to the building. A small motor boat had just rounded the cliff and was headed toward the building.
 
"Wake up, Napoleon." Solo turned over and watched the boat pull onto the sand.
 
"It is Konrad," Emil whispered. His binoculars traced the path of a dark-clothed man who had just stepped from the boat
 
"Show time." Solo came to his knees. Now completely businesslike he adjusted the belt pack on his waist and double-checked the scope on his modified Special.

"Let's go," Emil ordered and started down the hill with his colleagues at his heels. 
 

Each agent quickly and efficiently carried out his prearranged assignment once the trio separated and entered the building. A few minutes ahead of schedule, Solo finished planting his explosives in the communications center and fled to the rendezvous point just inside the beach entrance. Since the complex was sparsely staffed Solo had not encountered any THRUSH, nor did he expect to. It was really a very simple assignment -- hardly worth the fuss Emil made over the affair. The trickiest part would be the capture of the high-ranking Konrad -- a task Emil had assigned to himself.
   

The sudden crackle of gunfire startled Solo. Almost immediately an explosion rocked the corridor and he fell against the wall from the impact. His mind raced over the calculations; the heavy explosion from the direction of the carpool, the telltale sound of enemy fire -- it added up to trouble for Illya. The map of the building etched in his memory, Solo raced back toward the center of the structure. He desperately called Illya on the communicator, but there was no response to his urgent entreaties.

The sound of a single set of running footsteps in the next corridor brought Solo to a halt. He relaxed the muscle of his trigger finger only when he saw the target was Emil. The disheveled Frenchman was running so fast that he almost missed the American flattened against the wall
 

"Solo!"
 

Emil was no longer the picture of the perfect agent. His shirt was blackened and torn from an explosion, his cool manner replaced by breathless urgency. His pistol and utility pack were gone. He held only a detonator in his hand.
 

"We must flee, Solo!" he gasped as he grabbed Solo's jacket. "Intelligence was all wrong. THRUSH has hidden an entire strike team here. They are ready to attack our training force at Madrid! We must destroy this entire building! Now!"
 
Only a few seconds ticked by while the impact of the emergency penetrated Solo's mind. New field agents on training exercises in Madrid could be slaughtered by the deadly THRUSH strike force. Innocent civilians would be killed in the vicious battle against the trained assassins. The strike force teams were a new and scary innovation of THRUSH. Working like a well-trained terrorist group, the strike force would hit without mercy or warning. Yet even this emergency had not pushed Solo's initial anxiety from his mind
   

"Call Madrid! Where's Illya?"
   

"There is a jamming blanket over the entire area. We must leave to call HQ."
  

Now he knew why he had not been able to contact his partner. "All right, all right. As soon as Illya gets here --"
  

"He is not coming," Emil interrupted with a snarl. "He is wounded from the explosion! We must leave him -- now!" Emil snapped. "I have set the explosives -- I will detonate as soon as we leave! But they know we are here. We can't fight them all."
 

"You just left Illya?"
 

Solo shouted, his voice hoarse from the tightness in his throat. His mind had snagged on the most critical element of the emergency: Not THRUSH, not assassins, but a wounded partner. Almost by instinct Solo had known something had gone wrong; somehow sensed it. Fear for his friend's life; the seeming hopelessness of the situation, the anger at Emil all swirled within his thoughts.
 

"He's as good as dead, Solo. There is no time to waste on sentiment." 
 

Outrage overwhelmed Solo at that comment. Emil turned to leave and Solo seized the man's shoulders. He savagely slammed the agent against the wall.
 

"Where is he?" Solo demanded as he clutched the man at the throat.
 

"Carpool," Emil gasped. "You can't save him."

"Want to bet?" Solo answered angrily. Impulsively he threw a punch that flew Emil to the floor and skidding several feet down the corridor. "Run then! Blow the damn place! I'm going after Illya."
 

"You'll be killed," Emil assured as he wiped blood from his mouth. He didn't sound like he would mind. "UNCLE lives are depending on us to save them. All you can think about is one man!" The words were spat out in condemnation. "Fool!"
 

"I think I'll live long enough to prove you wrong," Solo flung back over his shoulder.
 

He ran through the complex with the reckless speed of abandoned reason, free of caution or prudence. Sense had been thrown away by a loyalty more primal than his survival instincts. He was too stubborn, or desperate, or both, to turn away while there was still some slender hope of saving his partner. His mind couldn't even comprehend turning his back on his wounded friend and running away.
 

Only obliquely did he wonder at the strange lack of resistance as he raced through the complex. Occasional shadows and snatches of gunfire met his flight. Napoleon returned the fire almost without a pause as he ran toward the heart of the building -- toward his own destruction?
 

He didn't allow himself to dwell on the abandonment of responsibilities. Or the risks he was taking with the lives of dozens of others. What if Emil didn't make it? What if this self-indulgent impulse allowed the strike force to reach Madrid? He would probably be dead anyway, he reasoned fleetingly, then closed his thoughts to anything but the goal of finding his partner.
 
Hoping surprise would be to his advantage he dove through the damaged, explosion-bent carpool doors. He came to his feet ready to fire on masses of THRUSH enemies. Mentally and physically he came to a dead stop at what met him in the room.
 
Solo nearly reeled from the shock when he found no enemies at all. Neither was there, as he had imagined, a desperately wounded Kuryakin lying in his own blood. Instead, there was a rather contrite, pale Kuryakin staring at him from across a large, empty room. Near the Russian, seated in chairs, were calm leaders Alexander Waverly, the #1 Section One from New York, and Thomas Rickston, the #1 Section One from Australia.
 
Solo slowly lowered his weapon. His heart, his thoughts still raced from the adrenaline -- too pumped up to come to an instant halt. He was so confused he could not even sort out an appropriate question. So he snagged on an irrelevant, natural comment which bubbled to the top of his muddled emotions.
 
"Well, looks like I've just crashed a private party." His voice was almost toneless. It was empty of the irony that should have colored the remark. After all, it looked like the joke was on him.
 
Without humor a very sober Waverly shook his head. "No, Mr. Solo. You are an invited guest."
 
"Not a party, Mr. Solo," Rickston corrected sharply. The grey-haired, tanned and wrinkled man in his sixties lithely sprang from the chair and stabbed Solo with a piercing glare of -- satisfaction? "A test. And you have just flunked it, my boy." Rickston turned to glance at Kuryakin, then back to Solo, then beyond to Emil, who had just entered the cavernous room. "Just as I knew you would."
 
Solo was still too stunned to respond. He silently cursed himself for being so slow on the uptake. The acute embarrassment was what locked out most of his other emotions. He had been made a fool in front of two very important member of UNCLE and an agent he was really beginning to hate. Sensing his mind floundering in a morass of confusion, he turned to his usual source of support -- his lifeline -- his partner.
 
This time there was no comforting look of support from his stalwart friend. Illya refused to even glance his way. The Russian paced; his eyes trained on the floor, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched in -- disappointment? In that moment Solo felt the color drain from his face. His sweat-soaked skin plunged to a cold which chilled him deep into his bones. There was an emptiness within his chest that nearly ached with despair. He could take the failure -- whatever he had failed at. He could even handle the embarrassment or lashing cruelty from the loathsome Emil and the arrogant superiority from Rickson. But Kuryakin's silent barricade of rebuke was more stunning than a physical blow; more demoralizing than any other condemnation. Out of habit rather than courage, Napoleon mentally recovered the shattered tatters of his ego. Whatever was ahead he would have to face it; have to see it through. Somehow he would forge past this moment of darkness.
 

Heartlessly, he turned back to Rickston. "Failed?" His throat was dry as dust, but he managed to intone some fortitude in his voice. "What test?"
 

"For my successor, Mr. Solo," Waverly commented tiredly.
   

Without wanting to, Napoleon looked at his Chief. There was a weariness, a disappointment in the face, which made the Old Man seem ancient. That he was the cause of the disappointment and regret was another emotionally disheartening blow which Solo withstood without expression. Perhaps he was experiencing so much emotional damage he was becoming immune to further strikes. Or perhaps he had already hit rock bottom judging from the silent withdrawal by Kuryakin.
   

"I am retiring next year," Waverly revealed, his momentary regret now wiped away with his usual gruffness. "My choice of a successor was you."
   

The slightest hint of rebuke accompanied the comment. Solo was familiar with the tone: A frequent expression of Waverly's disapproval of, or disappointment in him. There was no surprise in the statement. Rumors had long ago pegged Solo as the Chief's successor. Although it was unusual to promote from Section Two #1 to Section One #1, Solo's flamboyant and brilliant career seemed to justify the unique precedence.
   

Napoleon had never thought much about the speculated promotion. As long as he could stay alive in the job he had hoped to stay in Section Two. Since the mandatory retirement age of forty had been rescinded, Napoleon thought his position was secure for some years. He avoided any thoughts of a future growing grey behind a desk. Vainly sensitive about aging anyway, he tried not to think about desk-duty at all.
   

Rickston picked up the explanation with disgusting superiority. "All three of you were candidates."
   

Surprised, Solo glanced at Kuryakin, but his partner still would not look at him. There had always been a quasi-competition between he and the Russian. A subliminal undercurrent of one-upmanship laced through their years together. It had started from the inception of their working relationship and traces of professional rivalry had lingered although they were the closest of friends. Possessed of occasional pettiness, Napoleon searched his feelings for any trace of jealousy that Illya had beat him at this unknown competition. There was no pang of resentment or envy; an ominous sign that he no longer cared about the job. What his feelings were about Kuryakin were still unsorted and confused
 

"You had great leadership potential, Mr. Solo," Waverly commented dryly. "Sentimentality has always been your failing."
   

"Your appointment, Mr. Solo was opposed by the other Number One's," Rickston continued before Waverly's faint flattery could bolster Solo's spirit. "Your youth, energy and talent are not enough, Mr. Solo. We need a Number One in New York who can use his vast experience tempered with prudence."
   

"And prudence is something you possess in a very small degree," Emil smugly pointed out.
   

Solo wished he could counter with some scathing, pithy and cutting remark, but his wit had abandoned him.
 

Waverly explained that as a leading candidate for the position Solo was to be tested on this operation. Rickston explained the cunning, but mythical assignment which sent the agents tracking clues around the world. Then this dilemma was targeted to prove Solo's skill -- leadership abilities, objectivity under pressure, and to gauge his ability to sacrifice for a cause.
 

As anyone in a leadership position knew, making life and death decisions for colleagues -- friends -- were the hardest moments. Solo had known that since his assention to the head of Section Two. Sending associates to their deaths was never easy. However, it was different in the field when you were on the scene and felt there was something you could do to salvage the fatal situation.
 

The five Number One's of UNCLE had studied their subject and concluded Solo's greatest blind spot was his loyalty and commitment to his friend Kuryakin. The merciless test would prey on his deepest fears; the terrible choice of sacrificing Kuryakin in favor of a greater duty. As four out of five (according to Rickston) had predicted, Solo was more than willing to forsake the welfare of others -- his mission, his own life -- to save Illya.
 

'One out of four,' he ruefully thought, striving to salvage some measure of self-esteem. He thought Waverly had been the hopeful vote in his favor. 'Maybe not,' he qualified. Waverly knew his weaknesses almost as well as Illya.
   

"Aside from your failure to attain Number One, this will also effect your present standing as head of Section Two," Rickston chastised with a harshness he seemed to relish. "Alexander has been very lenient with you, Mr. Solo. Your new superior will have to reconsider the leadership standards in New York." He finished with a meaningful glance at Kuryakin.
   

Thinking he had been beyond surprise, Solo once again felt shocked at this new revelation. HE had failed, so they were giving the job to Illya!?! Working beside his friend in the field was much different than Illya succeeding the throne like this! The thoughts raced through his mind with breathless speed: After he had sacrificed everything for foolish sentimentality, could Illya turn around and stab him in the back like this? No wonder Kuryakin could not look at him.
 

Tumultuous emotions tumbled through his mind, but it was hard to select one to voice. Solo finally allowed his bitterness to surge forward and make his comments for him. What did control matter? The upward mobility of his career was destroyed; he had disappointed Waverly, he had lost Illya's respect -- friendship? What did he care what happened next? What could they do, fire him? Right now that prospect seemed inevitable -- even inviting.
 

"I don't especially like to fail," he said in a quiet voice which trembled from the emotions barely kept in check. "I like manipulation even less. Right down there with playing God. If leadership means playing with lives -- playing like this -- then I'm glad I'm not in your class," he told Rickston. Then he glared at Illya, who still did not meet his eyes. "I can live with this failure. I never wanted to be Number One. I guess I'm just not cold-blooded enough. Some things . . . ." his voice cracked. He took a deep breath. "Some things shouldn't be betrayed for power and position."
 

To punctuate his defiant remark he threw his Special to the ground. The scope broke off from the violent force. He noted Illya had snapped around to look at him. Without acknowledging his partner, without looking back, he turned and strode from the room.
 
 

***

 

For the first time in his adult life Napoleon wished he could cry. Years of rigid control and suppression of emotion had locked off the ability for that form of emotional release. A second alternative was to smash his fist against the nearest wall. The humiliation and anger would probably put enough force into the punch to permanently damage his hand. It was a tempting impulse, but he restrained himself from the self inflicted damage. Instead, he closed out the pain and tried to blank out his thoughts as he stalked down the corridor.  
 

The five Section One leaders had been wrong about his personality. The weakest flaw in his nature was not his regard for Illya, but pride. Humiliation was a bitter sting he had avoided since he was old enough to feel the terrible pain of public embarrassment. His proud, sometimes egotistical personality hated failure -- hated underachievement of expectations more than anything else.  
 

Was that why he could not cope with losing Illya? 'A dead partner always looked bad on the record,' he thought with brutal irony.
 

He knew that wasn't his reason for trying to save Illya time and time again. It stemmed from a selfishness to retain such an important person in his life. And the selfless devotion of friendship was one of his few noble traits, which he had always hoped counter-balanced his less savory habits. The willingness to sacrifice had stemmed, for both of them, from a true and deep affection they shared. After all they had been through -- even after this -- Napoleon still felt that emotional commitment to Illya. It would take more than alienation, more than betrayal, more than denunciation or failure to sever their commitment and fidelity to each other. At least on his part. Somehow Waverly and Rickston had found a price high enough for Illya to betray that loyalty. Alternately, they had never found Solo's price. That slender shred of remaining integrity was a small comfort to him. Like being the last one to fall at the Little Big Horn, it offered a strange form of empty comfort.
   

"Napoleon!"
 

Almost flinching at his name called by the familiar -- anxious? -- voice. The footsteps ran up beside him, yet he refused to stop, or to look at his friend. He could not even bring himself to send the Russian away with another cruel censure. Whatever vestige of strength he had found to confront Rickston was now vanquished. There was nothing left inside which he could summon to face Kuryakin.
 

"Napoleon!"
 

A strong hand seized his shoulder and brought him around with such force it jarred his teeth. Sizzling blue eyes glared at him with livid anger. "I didn't deserve your accusation of betrayal!" Affronted that Illya was angry with him, Solo's temper flared. With considerable effort he struggled from the Russian's grip, leaving his shoulder stinging from the bruising grip
 

"You're right. You deserve worse."
 

Without thinking he flung out a blow -- Illya becoming a substitute for the wall he had intended to pummel. The punch could have badly injured the intended victim if the blow had landed. Probably expecting it, Illya ducked as he grabbed Solo's arm and wrestled him into an armlock, then pressed him face first into the wall with the weight of his body. The defensive maneuver had been easy. Solo's attack was spurred by clumsy anger and lacked even instinctive skill. Never in their career together had they struck one another in anger. Their sniping was sometimes petty and hot, but they had never come to blows.
 

Smashed against the wall, Solo had a moment to get a grip on his emotions. Anger cooled, replaced by shame that he was the one to lose his control in such a childish manner. Napoleon's face jammed on the wall, inches away from each other, the two sweaty antagonists glared eye to eye as they caught their breath.
 

"Do you really think I would betray you?" Kuryakin wondered, his voice clearly disclosing his distress.
 

The blue eyes were no longer angry. They were mellowed to a soft expression of receptiveness, even a gentle hint of regret. The familiar and supporting eyes of his friend, Solo swept away all other judgements. He had been wrong -- it certainly wasn't the first time. Illya was here as a comrade and never had he felt in more need of his friend to lean on.
 

"Sorry. I should know better," he breathed unsteadily. "I didn't want to believe . . . ." He shook his head, unable to put the muddled emotions into words. His voice was still shaky, raw from the turbulent emotions he had yet to deal with. "You want to take a crack at me?" he generously, wryly offered.
   

Kuryakin retained the position although he relaxed the tight grip on Solo's wrist. Now he simply held onto his friend's arm and shoulder in support. "I am a fool to relinquish such a golden opportunity, but, no. No, I am the one who should apologize. I had no desire to play along with their disgusting test."
  

An almost painful relief swept through Solo's chest and he felt he could breath again. He had never wanted to believe Illya would turn against him. Typical of his impulsive, rash judgements, he had badly misjudged the situation. Illya had not been condemning him, but had been too embarrassed himself to deal with the situation. One of the few times in their partnership when they could not help the other friend in need. However, he felt he could be excused for his lack in perspicacity -- the extreme circumstances had left him badly off balance. Now that the crisis was over, they each recognized the truth and the problems were easier to deal with.
   

Solo took a few deep breaths. "Well, now what do I do for an encore?" he asked, a measure of his usual wry humor surfacing above the grim depression which had settled over him.
   

A thin smile was Kuryakin's reassuring response. The compassion in his eyes said more than his flippant comment. "Find a new tailor?" he countered, tugging at the tear in Solo's fatigue jacket. "Just once I'd like to see you complete a mission without replacing your wardrobe."
   

"So would the accounting department," Solo responded.
   

He turned around to lean on the wall. Illya released his hold, but stayed only inches away, leaning beside the senior agent. Solo wiped sweat and grime from his face. He noted how dirty, torn and sweat-soaked his clothes were. His mad dash toward the supposedly heroic rescue had been a blind rush through the corridors. Those anxious moments were little more than a blurred memory, yet they had affected forever his future. He stared down at a blurred point on the floor. Overcome by fatigue and weariness of spirit, mind and body, his knees gave way and he slid to the ground.
 

"I've really burned my bridges this time, haven't I?" he quietly wondered. The self-pity and depression surging beyond the thready defenses of his shaken control. "I've pretty much closed my career doors," he sighed drearily.
 

Since the inception of their partnership the tight loyalty of their partnership had been the subject of a continual remonstration lectures from Waverly. Solo's mind drifted to further ramifications of this Machiavellian test. Their actions would effect Illya's future as well. Now the 'weakness' would be a detriment for Illya as the new Number One in New York. To save both of them considerable strain Solo would have to leave New York. Yet where could he go? This little incident would curtail his advance in the organization -- certainly in Section One. After retirement from the field (if he lived that long) there were few places left to go. Section Two was not a place for an agent with a history of misguided heroics and self-indulgent tendencies.
   

He glanced at Kuryakin with a hint of ruefulness in his eyes. "Well, I guess my first request to my new 'boss' will be a transfer."
   

Solo pushed aside any detailed speculation of life without Illya as his partner -- with Illya as his superior! Ego taking the forefront of his emotions, he felt it would be too humiliating to remain in New York as the ousted 'former' head of Section Two. How could he leave and abandon his partner? How could he stay without the respect of the rest of his section -- the rest of HQ. Breathing out a sigh, he didn't have the heart to think of the future anymore.
   

Kuryakin slid down to the floor. At eye level with his friend he shook his head. "Two transfers," he corrected. "That title is about to be given to Emil."
 

Napoleon gasped his surprise. "But -- the test --"
   

"I failed it just as you did, my friend," Illya said without a hint of regret.
   

Now Solo was truly confused. "What --?"
 

"It was my test to lure you in. But I refused to answer your calls, to deceive you. I wouldn't play along with their little chess game and act as a sacrificial pawn. Rickston finally had to order Emil offer you the bait."
   

Despite the gloomy shadow cast over both their careers Solo felt a warm, affectionate wave of thankfulness for his partner. A slow, yet heartfelt grin spread on is his lips. "Forgive me for being delighted at your failure."
   

With a nod Illya said, "You're forgiven."
 
 

Sheepishly, Napoleon admitted, "I have to apologize again. Sorry I doubt--"
 

Kuryakin held up a hand to forestall the apology. "A temporary aberration," he replied without hesitation. "You are too sentimental and foolish to ever really doubt me."
   

Solo's grin returned. He wondered how he had misjudged Kuyrakin's own level of sacrifice. "Well, I guess we're in the soup. Again."
  

Illya returned the grin. "As usual. We sink and swim together."
   

"Misery loves company."
   

"Even in the unemployment line?"
   

"Why not? I never wanted the job, anyway."
   

There was an almost cavalier tone in his voice. He felt almost giddy -- lightheaded with relief. Truly, he had never wanted the job. Deep in his heart he knew he could not live with himself if he was forced to send Illya into dangers he could not share with his friend. There was no regret at the career setback. Despite the prestige and honor of Section One Number One, what was a job compared to friendship? The best kind of job security was dependence on a partner.
   

"I never wanted it either," Illya agreed wryly. "Too much paperwork."
   

"Well, our prospects are great. With my charm and your brains -- our possibilities are almost limitless." Leaning his head back on the wall he allowed the nervous energy to run free, his arms shaking in residual stress. "Maybe we could request Hawaii. Not much happens out there."
   

"You almost make me believe it was worth the manipulation," Kuryakin countered with an acid touch to his voice. "It is the first time something good has come of being a pawn."
   

The comment brought Solo back to a more somber frame of mind. He hated being a game-piece as much as Illya did. "Good? I wouldn't exactly be that optimistic," Napoleon ruefully admitted. "A lack of salary can put a serious crimp in your life."
 

"I think it is better to know where we stand with our superiors. Just as they know where we stand."
   

The jarring and cruel chess game had opened their eyes to some shades of reality they had faced before, but never quite like this. Authority, duty, and death were overshadowed by their mutual commitment to friendship. They had emerged bloody but unbowed. Together, was there anything they couldn't accomplish? Right now he didn't think there was.
   

As if reading his mind, Illya asked, "Do you doubt our survival abilities?"
   

Napoleon shook his head matching his partner's optimism. "Our partnership is probably the only thing I have never --" he hesitated, guilt shading his face with a blush. "-- almost never doubted, tovarich."
 
 

With a gesture Illya swept aside the confession. "I have learned to live with your occasional quirks after all these years," he responded sagely. "I expected the reaction. I knew you would come back to your usual senses eventually."
 

"Hmph," Solo countered skeptically. "I'm not that predictable."
   

Illya slowly nodded. "Yes you are," he returned instantly. "I knew exactly what you would do -- almost down to the minute. I was expecting you all along."
   

The reminder slid Solo back into a depression. It seemed everyone but him had foreseen his inevitable downfall. With a nervous gesture he pushed the thick, dark hair from his eyes, then thrust his hands in his pockets. He stared down the corridor. Kuryakin placed a hand on his shoulder.
   

"You have taken this test many times before, Napoleon -- in real situations -- not one of their games," he advised soberly. "You never failed me -- you never abandoned me -- even when I asked you to," he added with dry irony. "THAT is why I have never doubted our partnership, or you."
   

Solo felt his throat tighten with emotion. "You have never failed either," he countered in a whisper.
   

The comforting consistency of their friendship was the most vital part of their lives. They could find other careers, other places to go -- they could never replace their friendship. He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with their emotional revelations. They were the closest of friends -- obviously willing to sacrifice everything for the other. They would, however, rarely express their most intimate thoughts aloud.
   

"Well, now that we've settled that, what do we do with the rest of the day?" he asked with forced optimism.
 

"We still have time for the beach, if only you had remembered the lotion."
   

Solo laughed. He darted a quick glance down the corridor. "What about them?"  
 

With a wryly evil look in his eyes Illya decided, "Let them sunburn," he airily dismissed. He took his friend by the arm and helped him up, then led the way out of the complex.
 
 

THE END