I glanced down at the sheet of paper in my hand and then back up at the address, verifying again that I had the right place.
I felt the ring in my pocket and that firmed up my resolve. Squaring my shoulders and putting on my best 'man about town' grin, I knocked on the door.
It opened a minute later, the smell of food cooking spilling out to meet me just as eagerly as the large dog.
"Machiavelli, sit." The red long haired dog blissfully ignored her and propped a paw on either of my shoulders and planted an enthusiastic slurp on the cheek. Wonderful when a bed partner does it, not so wonderful when the kisser has a tail. "Down!" the woman commanded and yanked the dog away by his collar. "Sorry, we're trying to train him, but he still has his moments. He's everyone's friend, you see." The dog bounced in place, a big grin on his face, as if in agreement.
"That's okay." It was easy to laugh because it truly was okay. It was my partner that had the problem with dogs, not me. I liked them just fine. "My name is Napoleon Solo."
"Hello, Mr. Solo, you're not selling anything, are you? Money's sort of tight right now."
"Actually, that's why I'm here, Mrs. Sinclair."
She fell back a step and her face changed. A regular person wouldn't have seen it, but we're trained to pick up on even the smallest detail.
"That's not a name I've heard in a long time. I'm Mrs. Lewis now." Instinct made her step aside and gesture me in as opposed to actual desire. "You must be from UNCLE."
"I am." I followed her into the small neat living room. It always amazed me how much living some people packed into such a small area. Hers was decorated with a mish mash of furniture, photographs of children, young kids, her growing family no doubt and way too much stuff. I suppose as a confirmed bachelor, my thoughts on this were colored, but why would anyone surround themselves with so much? My own living room was neat and orderly, just a few items here and there and it was a veritable showcase compared to Illya's. His gave a monk's a run for their money.
Still this suited her personality.
She gestured me to a sofa and disappeared. A cat glared at me until I decided that the chair might be the better choice. Then the dog tried to join me. Who knew Irish setters were lap dogs? I convinced him otherwise and he bounced away in search of his mistress. I sat and looked around, learning as much as I could about this woman, things that our files didn't have as a matter of record.
She reappeared carrying a tray with coffee and a plate of cookies. "So what does UNCLE want with me? It's been nearly six years since I'd last hear that name."
"There's no crime in that. Some people, they find it easier to move on than others and some want to mourn their lives away. Even when we were married, I knew it would be over all too soon." She poured a cup and offered it to me. It was hot and it was fresh, two things I appreciate in coffee. "Still, that's not an answer."
I set the cup and saucer down and reached into my jacket pocket. It took me a minute to find it, and then the familiar shape touched my finger tips. I drew out the ring and placed it on the table.
She picked it up and studied it for a long moment and then she saw the inscription and gasped. "Oh my God, has something happened to Illya?" She grabbed my hand, her knuckles white.
I schooled my face carefully at that point, not letting anything show that I didn't want shown. I patted her hand gently. "Illya's fine. He's my partner now."
She smiled and set the ring back down. "Excuse me, but I still don't understand why you're here."
Truth of the matter was neither did I.
I'd always wondered about the ring Illya wore - a plain gold wedding band. The stories that followed it were no less fascinating. There seemed to be a new one floating around every few days or so. Some of them seemed more likely than others - premature death of a spouse, always a possibility in our line of work. I had one of those myself. Being 'married' to the job, well, not so likely in Illya's case, but he let the stories fly, even added fuel along with way. It had taken some serious pushing on my part to get the real story out of him.
His partner at the time had been killed in front of him and Illya felt responsible. He'd hesitated that split second and watched his partner fall. After all this time, he was still punishing himself for a very human reaction. My fearless Russian had been scared, understandable and forgivable for anyone other than himself.
This was back in the day when agents weren't being actively discouraged from marrying. Section One didn't like it, but they didn't say too much about it. Not like they do now. Waverly actively campaigns against it. Illya had been the one to talk to the widow and she'd given him the ring. She thought as a keepsake, but Illya saw it as a sign of his cowardice. He wore it as a remembrance that everyone else's life in this world took precedence over his.
And I, for one, didn't much care for the attitude.
"Let me see your ring for a minute, Illya." I could see his hesitation in his eyes, but he worked it off his finger and handed it over. It wasn't that I minded him wearing it, but I was watching those huge fingers of his work in a space that would be a challenge for mine. The last thing I wanted was for the bomb to go off because he grounded out against a live circuit. The fact that it took me a day or so to remember to give it back to him was just part of the plan.
My next opportunity came as an obliging THRUSH decided he was going to make Illya talk. He didn't know my partner very well. Illya screamed, but he never talked.
The rain and wind were beating down around us and I shivered as I handed him my handkerchief. The cave provided protection from the storm, but we didn't dare light a fire for fear of drawing attention to our hiding place
"What?" His eyes were dark with pain; his voice tight.
"I need to set those fingers." It could be days before we'd find any decent medical help and by setting them now, it would avoid having to have them re-broken and reset at that time. Dutifully, I watched him stuff the handkerchief into his mouth and nod.
I hated the sick popping noise it made as I set the first one, but it was easier with the second and third, mostly because Illya had passed out by that time. I took the opportunity to work the ring off his swollen finger, taking some skin with it. He'd never notice, not at this stage. I pocketed the ring. This time, I kept it for nearly a week before he noticed.
"Napoleon, you have something of mine that I would very much like returned."
"Which would be?" I teased, already reaching into my pants pocket for the ring. Unsmiling, he awkwardly took it from me with his casted left hand and slipped the ring onto his right ring finger. It was too big for that finger, too small for any other. With any luck, the feel of it would be too distracting and he'd take it off again. I knew how odd my ring felt if I switched hands.
"Didn't wear it for nearly a week and I'm still alive and kicking."
"No comment..." And he was gone.
The next chance I had was very nearly my last. We were stuck in some Podunk no name town with a buck between us and no money for the night.
"Empty out your pockets," I ordered and Illya obligingly dumped stuff out onto the car seat. A few coins, Yuen, no help there, a piece of gum that was also a powerful tranquilizer, a handkerchief, his wallet, that was it.
Mine weren't much better. We'd have money in the morning, but that didn't hold body and soul together now. That when I spotted the pawn shop.
"Let me have your ring... and your medallion." He wanted to protest, but he couldn't, not when I was working my own ring off my finger. For value alone, it was worth more than either of his pieces of jewelry, but I knew mine was sentimentally valueless compared to his. Still, together it was enough for a hot meal and a room in the Hotel Fleabag. Sometimes you dine like a king. Other times you just did the best you could...
The courier delivered our money the next day and I made a mental note to go get our pawned items out of hock, but life has a funny way of kicking you in the teeth at times.
I decided that perhaps it would be better to complete the mission than attend to personal needs and Illya didn't disagree. I wondered if he was getting used to the idea of not wearing that ring. I'd noticed it coming and going as of late, almost as if he was testing the waters. Or else he was simply as tired as he looked. The last couple of months had been bears. You'd think UNCLE had no other teams to send into the field, but I was the head of the section - I knew better. THRUSH was twice, hell three times more active than in previous months and no one could figure out why.
At least not until I found that nuclear warhead in the basement of Podunk no name city's town hall. THRUSH had killed off the local officials, supplanted their own people and were getting ready to start World War III - what the hell is it with these guys?
One minute I'm chatting up this pert little auburn haired beauty and the next thing I know she's waving a cannon in my face and screaming how women will all be in power, we'll be the slaves and then we'd see who was ruining the world.
Everything took on a dream like quality - I couldn't reach her in time, all I could do was watch her finger tighten on the trigger. I waited to see if my life flashed before my eyes. It did and I really couldn't believe I wore my hair like that in high school. Yes, I am being facetious, but I was getting ready to die.
"Hey, sweetheart over here."
She spun, startled and I took that momentary lapse to throw myself away from her. I heard the gun discharge and knew in all likelihood Illya had taken a hit. I rolled, came up, and fired, catching her in the side and she went down, with a shriek and a flurry of arms.
I took the opportunity to unload another shot into her, just to be sure. Then I looked around, searching frantically for Illya. There was blood splatter, but no body. That was good, I hoped.
I stopped, straining to hear anything, a moan, a chuckle anything to give me a hint.
"I'm all right, Napoleon." His answer was a hundred years in coming. He wasn't of course. He knew it and so I did, but it didn't matter at that moment. Just hearing his voice, reassuring and strong gave me the impetus I needed to go and check on our fallen bird.
She was out for the count, a beak full of some of UNCLE's finest, so I left her to check on my partner. He was busy knotting a handkerchief around his arm, using one hand and his teeth to knot it. I knelt down beside him and batted his hand away.
"That was a helluva risk, partner. She could have gone for your head or stomach."
"But she didn't. I was counting on her to be off-balance. I don't have the death wish you seem to think I do. I wasn't about to stand there and let her shoot me." He grunted as I tugged the handkerchief tight. "Unlike you. I don't know what possesses you at times."
I chuckled and helped him to his feet. "Let's call in a cleanup squad and go home."
The next morning I went to the pawn shop and got our stuff back. He'd been to the doctor, gotten stitched and cleaned up. He was still out of it though. He was half awake and half asleep as I let myself into the room.
"Hey," I said softly as his head came up and then plopped back down. "You've got until one and then we need to be on the plane."
"As long as I don't have to fly it," he mumbled, still mealy mouthed from the sedative I'd slipped him around two that morning.
"Here." I passed over the medallion to him. He reached out and I grinned as it took him two tries to catch the swaying chain. "I should take you out onto the firing range now."
"The only way you're going to get a better score than me." He caught the chain and let gravity carry it and his hand back to his chest. After a moment he got enough 'umph' to loop the chain around his neck and sighed.
I took his left hand and slid the ring down to his first knuckle and he gave a faint smile. "Does this mean we're married now?"
"For better or worse, my friend." I studied him for a long time, and then added. "You don't need it though."
"What do you mean?" Well it came out 'whajamen?' but I knew what he meant.
"For years you've been using the ring to beat yourself up, just because you didn't do something you thought you should have. Don't you think it's time to let it go, Illya?"
He shook his head slowly. I was losing him again. "Rule three."
"It cuts both way, partner. It's time for me to shoulder some of that burden, don't you think?"
He sighed and he was out again. I settled back on the bed to read and must have dropped off. When I woke I could hear the tub running. Illya always preferred baths to showers when given the option - a very continental thing.
I reached for my fallen book and happened to glance down at my hand. On my left index finger was Illya's ring - it was far too big for me to wear on either ring finger. I started grinning and wanted to dance around the room. A simple gesture, but it spoke volumes to me.
Then I was sitting in a nicely appointed, if slightly eclectic living room again, a cup of coffee in one hand and facing a complete stranger. She'd put the dog out since it was the only way my coffee cup was safe from being dumped on the floor.
"Excuse me, but I still don't understand why you're here." She set the ring down on the coffee table as if she was afraid it would suddenly come to life.
I smiled, just a small one, but one that had its base in the very essences of my soul. "Illya doesn't need this anymore."
"Doesn't he? It seemed to me that he was pretty much on the same hell bent path as my dead husband."
"No, now he has me." I handed her back the coffee cup and got to my feet. Then I snapped my fingers and reached into the breast pocket of my jacket. "I also have this for you. Back when your husband was killed, you refused the compensation."
"UNCLE had no obligation to me just because they let my husband carry out his death wish." She sighed. "That's what I thought at the time... I was young and idealistic."
I handed her the envelope. "Illya saved it for you. You have a tidy little sum here now. How he learned so much about investing is beyond me."
"He made a promise to watch out for you as long as he wore the ring, I think. It's hard to get stuff out of him at times, but he always keeps a promise." I started to leave, but she caught my arm.
"Would you give him something else for me?" Her voice had sort of a singsong quality to it, like that inane Disney character, the one with the dwarves.
Her lips were soft on my cheek and I smiled, and then cleared my throat. "I suspect I'd be missing a few teeth if I tried to deliver that in kind. I think he'd like it if you delivered it in person."
"Open the front door."
It was teary, but I think Illya knew my lips were sealed. I knew people were going to ask me about the disappearance of the ring. They wouldn't dare approach Illya about it. What they didn't know was that I was as adept at spinning tales as Illya was and I had some pips thought up. After all, keeping each others secrets, just one more thing partners do for each other.