Chapter 1: Prologue
He saw the bullet entering Illya's chest - the left side, he couldn't help noticing; then all he could hear was the echo of the blood running in his brain, and all he could see was distorted. Without thinking, Napoleon immediately ducked and moved towards his partner, using the walls and cars as cover, while THRUSH’s gunfire continued. God, Illya...
It was almost impossible to pass through the hail of bullets, but if there was anything THRUSH should have taught their goons beforehand, that would be “never infuriate UNCLE’s CEA”. The quickest way to enrage Napoleon Solo would be giving Illya a hard time; if you did that, you were as good as dead.
Therefore, in the adrenaline-induced haze, Napoleon didn’t even know how many shots he had made; but THRUSH’s gunfire ceased over time and silence took over. Good. He didn’t pause for a single moment and dashed to his fallen partner as fast as he could.
His partner was on his stomach, his blonde hair stained with dirt, his right hand still gripping his Special tightly, and his left hand...Napoleon bit his lip. Illya’s nails bit into the ground, his whole left hand convulsively tense. Blood was not visible on his black suit jacket in the dim light, but the sweet metallic smell ladened in the air was evident enough. God, Illya...
Napoleon put two trembling fingers onto Illya’s neck to feel his carotid artery, half-expecting his partner to wake up and complain how cold his hand was. He almost smiled at the thought, but no; he couldn’t feel anything, as there was no pulse at all, not even a faint one. Illya’s pulse had stopped. He took half a deep breath (air didn’t seem to get into his lungs, however hard he tried), trying to pull himself together, and turned over Illya’s body.
His eyes were closed; Napoleon didn't know if he should consider himself lucky. If he could see the familiar shade of blue but not the twinkle which always accompanied, his sanity might snap anytime.
No breathing or heartbeat. The metalic smell filled his nostrils when he bent down to check, and the blood smeared onto his face.
And that was what Dancer and Slate saw when they found the pair; their superior kneeling on the ground, calling his partner’s name, again and again.
“Open Channel D, Slate here. Medical team support needed here, extremely urgent. Over.”
While Slate was hailing Medical, Dancer ran towards Napoleon and Illya to check on them. When she got closer, she noticed the heavy scent of blood in the air, and suppressed her reflex to throw up. She saw Illya unmoving, his blood-soaked shirt visible from his opened jacket; and Napoleon wasn't much better either: his suit was torn and bloodstained here and there, but he didn't seem to notice.
“Napoleon?” She tried, but he didn’t answer. “Agent Solo!”
Napoleon raised his eyes to her, but he didn't seem to recognise her or even see her.
“Napoleon? Is Illya...” Dancer kneeled and checked on Illya carefully. Then her movements slowed down, and her eyes were filled with tears.
“Oh my god, Illya...”
Shocked, she wasn't even aware of Slate emerging behind her, until he laid a hand on her shoulder. The noise of siren came from afar and the red-and-blue light flashed onto the walls, turning the elaborated graffitis into monsters clawing from hell. A few rats were clearly startled as they ran in and out of the overturned gabage bins.
Napoleon had no memory of how he was pulled away from Illya and onto the ambulance; his persistent nightmares, however, were haunted by the replay of this fateful night, with the dirty alley, the sickening smell of blood, and Illya’s cold body.
Opening his eyes, he saw Mr. Waverly sitting on the bedside chair.
“It's past time you should wake up, Mr. Solo,” he glanced at his watch, “the doctors asked me to come down here half an hour ago.”
Mr. Waverly didn’t speak for a moment; just the few seconds of silence was enough for Napoleon to recall everything happened on that night. For a moment he was almost hopeful: he must have been wrong, Illya must still be alive...
“I'm sorry, Mr. Solo. The bullet went straight through Mr. Kuryakin’s heart.”
“The memorial service will be held at 2pm tomorrow, and you should be able to get out of the bed by then. Mr. Solo...” Waverly hesitated. Napoleon’s heart sank; Waverly never hesitated to speak, unless he had particularly terrible news to share.
But what else, what else could be worse than the fact that Illya was gone? He still couldn’t accept this; still couldn’t bear to think about it. It still felt as if Illya would appear in his ward anytime now, complaining that Napoleon left him all those paperwork to do, complaining how careless he was, complaining about his flirting with the nurses. And now...now he would give anything just to hear Illya’s voice and see his blue eyes. But never, ever would he have another chance again.
“Illya...” He called out absently; Waverly looked...tense. This couldn’t be good. Waverly? Anxious?
“Mr. Solo, I think you are entitled to know that on our way back to the Headquarters we had lost an ambulance, along with the driver, two medics, and Mr. Kuryakin’s body.”
Napoleon sat up abruptly from the bed and took a deep breath. His wounds were tore open, the tubes and lines on him fell off and tangled into a mess, but he couldn't care less; nor did he care about the blazing alarm, or the doctors who rushed in. He didn't know if the wave of emotion which engulfed him was anger or an unbearable agony; the only thing he knew was that he wanted to snap a few necks in response.
“Why?” He heard himself demanding, his voice so croaky it didn't seem to be his. Why did THRUSH do this? How could UNCLE let this happen?
But there was no answer. Sedative was injected into him, and he started slipping into ultimate darkness; his last scream, however, was so heart-wrenching that it startled a young nurse into running out of his ward in sobs.
About a month later, Napoleon received his results from the Medical. Psychiatric department failed his assessment again, resulting in his application to return to the field getting turned down as well. After Waverly’s overt refusal ("I'm sorry, Mr. Solo, but we cannot waste the manpower to track down a corpse"), his only hope was to get the field clearance. At least Waverly would not refuse his request of searching for his own partner; the old man knew where his bottom line was.
What made him even more anxious was the things happened in the past week. Three groups of UNCLE agents found their targets - documented THRUSH employees - dead in their offices or homes. Even stranger was the way they died. They were drained of blood, all of them, and the investigation team had no clue how. Waverly was disgruntled by this; if they got those people alive, the agents could have obtained some valuable information from them.
The initial assumption was that it was THRUSH’s extermination scheme, but that was soon deemed improbable. Many of the victims were high-leveled members of THRUSH, and stupid as they were, they had no reason to assassinate them directly without having some kind of security plan in place. Then was it some government agency, or a mysterious third party? What did they want from this? Why would they kill these people in such a peculiar way?
Soon the rumor spread in the headquarter like wind: the ancient myths of vampires. And yet the reason why Count Dracula would take revenge of THRUSH remained a mystery difficult to fathom. Others referred to him as Frankenstein; but who was his creator, and for what purpose? That was another dead end.
All these, however, were not Napoleon’s top concern personally. The night Illya died, something in his soul snapped; the sharp pain nearly knock him out, and even after that, the bloody wound would not heal properly, and Napoleon supposed that was the reason he could not pass the psychiatric test. But these days the wound started to itch, almost like it was reaching out to its other half in the void. Illya? He wondered; it was no longer absolute silence in his brain, but some kind of inaudible noise: Illya seemed to be alive, hiding somewhere.
And that was why he felt so anxious. He watched Illya die; even if he was in denial both emotionally and rationally, his agent training persisted, certifying the death of his own partner in an indifferent tone. But now he could feel Illya’s existence again, just as the strange happenings emerged: a case so odd that even UNCLE agents could not find any clues - who else could that be, if not Illya?
But was it really Illya? Even with the same body...
Body? Napoleon shivered. An idea started taking shape slowly in his head; he felt his stomach twisting.
He grabbed his communicator, “Open Channel D, Solo here.”
“What you're saying is that, Mr. Solo, Kuryakin’s corpse was made into a monster?”
Monster. He had been avoiding the word, not wanting it to have anything to do with his partner.
“...something like that, sir.”
“Is that the work of THRUSH? But we’ve already ruled out the possibility.”
“I think Illya was indeed took away and resurrected by Thrush; but his willpower has always been strong, I'm not sure if they can have total control over him.”
“So Mr. Kuryakin is still working for us. But then why hasn't he contacted the headquarters? He didn't even reach out to you, Mr. Solo.”
Napoleon closed his eyes.
“I'm not sure, sir, but Illya must have his reasons.”
“Do you think we can trust him? I wouldn’t doubt that if it was Mr. Kuryakin himself, but how much of him remains in the creature?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Then the safest approach is to put it under control or to exterminate it, Mr. Solo.”
Napoleon winced. “Don't forget that it's Illya we're talking about here, and one with vampiric abilities. Even if we don't take the possible casualties into account...”
“That, Mr. Solo, is why I have approved your returning to the field, under such exceptional circumstances.” Waverly passed him a piece of paper, and Napoleon bit his lips.
He gulped down his whiskey in one go, and smashed the glass on the wall.
What was Waverly thinking, asking him to kill Illya for the second time? It is undeniable that if there was anyone who could do this, it would be Napoleon, and even for him the chance was just 50%. Theoretically. In reality he had zero chance at all; it was simply impossible for him to point the gun at Illya and shoot him, especially after watching him die once. He just couldn't.
Therefore, either he could convince Illya to come back to his side, or he would die in the hands of the monster who wasn’t really Illya.
"It's not like you to drink alone, my friend. I thought you'd be out somewhere.”
Great, now he started hearing things.
“You look awful; or is it too dim here?” The living room light was turned on abruptly. “Napoleon? Are you still awake?”
When his eyes adjusted to the light that he recognised the face in front of him, Napoleon jumped up and pulled Illya into a hug, not even considering the other possibilities. It wasn't an illusion, thank god he wasn’t. His body was warm and trembled in his arms, laughing.
“Hush, it’s alright Napoleon, stop crying...” Illya put an arm around him, the other hand petting his back.
He was even prepared to be shot at the heart, or be drained like all those victims, if that was the reason Illya came to him for.
“I didn’t want to make an appearance so soon, Napoleon. But Waverly’s order today was outrageous, and the idea of you risking your life over THRUSH alone out there doesn’t sit well with me.”
Napoleon tensed. “How did you know?”
“Bugging. Don’t forget that our lab participated in the security work there as well.”
“You bugged the headquarters...Waverly’s office? Oh my.” He found himself bursting into laughter; this is so typically Illya. “Don’t tell me how you did that. But Illya, what’s going on?”
“I died, THRUSH turned me into a vampire, and they failed when they tried to erase my memory and control my mind.”
“So you...escaped and then stole everyone’s job? You don’t need me to tell you how disheartened the kids were...”
“I needed blood, Napoleon; and those were convenient targets.”
Finally he released Illya from his embrace, let him sit on the sofa, and went to the fridge to take out a bottle of vodka; after Illya’s death, Napoleon took all Illya’s belongings to his own apartment. He needed something to hold on to, he thought.
“No wonder I couldn’t find anything when I got back,” the vampire glared at him.
“Can you still drink?”
Illya shrugged, “It’s a waste for me to eat or drink. I need blood and nothing else. But useless doesn’t mean harmful, Napoleon. Yes, I can still drink my vodka, thank god.”
“So it’s not a bad thing to become a vampire, huh?”
Illya said nothing in reply, and simply took the glass for a swig.
“Illya...” Napoleon didn’t want to ruin the familiar and comfortable mood, but there was something he needed to know, “you said THRUSH couldn’t control you, so why didn’t you come back to UNCLE?”
“First of all, UNCLE had no reason to believe that I wasn’t a double agent, or that I wasn’t mind-controlled by THRUSH,” Illya looked away, “and...I don’t want to go back. KGB, GRU, and then UNCLE? I’ve had enough. Why would I want to go back? Now I’m finally free, Napoleon.”
“Those things are not important. There’s only one person who is important, and for him I’m willing to-” he stopped abruptly, and asked, “Napoleon, do you trust me?”
Illya looked into his eyes while speaking, his icy blue eyes burnt agonizingly. Before Napoleon could react, he was already leaning close, almost touching him. His lips were dry, but shining like rubies. There was no breathing.
“I do trust you.”
His intense expression turned into a smirk at once; Illya retreated like a cat who got his fish, and his eyes was filled with mischief. “It’s alright then, Napoleon. I have my arrangements,” his face turned serious, “It is not the end of this; I think there’s still something odd. Be careful.”
He could only nod in response.
“Oh, right. Here’s a little gift for our Uncle Alex.” Illya added, putting a small cassette tape into his hand.
“What is this?”
And before Napoleon could ask the next question, Illya leaned in and his half-cold lips touched Napoleon’s cheek. Next second, he was out of the window and vanished into the night, leaving Napoleon dazed, staring at the darkness outside, wondering if he just had a too-good-to-be-true dream.
Napoleon went through the tape before taking it to the headquarters. Illya was gone too soon, and there remained so many questions yet to be asked. How often would he come back to see him? How was he planning to get more blood? From killing even more THRUSHies? Napoleon frowned, not too keen on the idea. Even if he didn't hate THRUSH any less than Illya, unprompted killings like this was quite unnerving. What was Illya thinking? He knew that his partner had always been a bit bloodthirsty, but never like this.
"I'm free at last," Illya had said so, he thought.
Shaking his head, Napoleon decided it wasn't the time to think about these issues. So he put the tape into the recorder and pressed the “play” button.
"You should know why I am here to see you, right? Mr. Jonason?" It was Illya's voice.
"Indeed, one that was created by your hands. Now tell me, if the research notes aren’t in the laboratory, where are they?"
"I don’t know, Mr. Kuryakin, you see, this is quite a misunderstanding..."
"I do not think it was a misunderstanding for me to be shot here."
“I swear! I wasn’t involved in that research, I know nothing about the quirks of those scientists! Don’t come after me!”
“Those scientists? Surely you must have heard that nobody survived in that little laboratory of yours.” Napoleon shuddered upon hearing this; it was Harper and Johnson's team who was presented at the - aftermath of that THRUSH lab. They managed to find the lab following some leads, and were deeply shaken by the horrifying scene. There were shriveled corpses all over the place. He still remembered the photos taken at the scene. And to think that it was Illya’s doing...he took a deep breath.
"But Dr. Brighton was not there! If you let me go, I can give you his address!" Jonason's voice turned squeaky due to extreme terror, his breath intermittent.
Then a click was heard, and the recording turned silent. Napoleon tried not to think about what happened after that. The silence was not long though, and the next part of the recording soon started.
"Good evening, Dr. Brighton."
"UY-C01." Compared to Jonason, the biologist sounded much calmer, as if he was expecting this visit, "I cannot say I am happy to meet you, but to see the fruit of my success...I am very satisfied."
“Unfortunately you are still one step away."
“Not everyone is a perfectionist like you, doctor. I have completed the mission impossible, and a guinea pig with all self consciousness entailed is even more amazing, is it not?"
“Give me your notes.”
“That would be out of the question, C01. I know you will destroy it once you obtained it. That’s what this poor old man here have been working on his whole life.” Brighton smiled, “Besides, even if I was willing to give it to you, it is not in my hands.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I know that sooner or later you will find me; do you think I would be stupid enough to leave it here?”
The recording was cut off again. When it restarted yet another time, the background was filled with much noises.
"Do you think you'd manage to hide from me by staying here, Jacob?"
"If Brighton was happy to entrust you with his notes, that means you're quite a reliable chap, right? But do not think you can hide it from me. I can simply kill you, and then turn all of your hiding spots upside down," Illya paused, "Just like what I have done to Brighton."
Napoleon reflexively clenched his fists upon hearing a low growl. However, the sounds that followed were unexpected.
"Thanks to your stepfather, now I'm practically invincible." Illya's voice was relaxed, and the choking noise was clearly audible from the man called Jacob.
Then, all of a sudden, three gunshots were heard from the tape. Napoleon jumped from his chair at this.
He heard Illya's laughter, though it was incredibly fake. "You see, even the bullets are useless now. Once you have died, you can not die again..."
"The notes aren’t here with me." Suddenly, Jacob’s voice turned high like a maniac, "UY-C01, 79040, execute!"
A hoarse and hysterical scream - not Jacob’s, but Illya’s. Napoleon stared hopelessly at the rotating tapes, wanting to rush out there to protect his partner, to gun down the bastard - but in the back of his brain he still managed to register that something was off.
It stopped. A loud crash, probably coming from the tape recorder hitting the ground. A sequence of noises, which sounded suspiciously like someone's throat was cut open. Then it all slowly came to an end. A low groan, Illya’s, moved closer, and the tape recorder seemed to be picked up.
“How stupid this bastard was. If he wasn’t so desperate to avenge for Brighton, I would not have known. Alright Napoleon, before letting Waverly listen to this, make sure his office isn't bugged by anyone else, ok? Mine is in area 08, don’t remove that one. And erase this part, good night.”
So the next day, after Napoleon carefully searched the office - paying particular attention to area 08 but did not see any bugs of any kind, he played the recording for Waverly, with the last part erased.
Waverly was silent for a while.
"Mr. Solo, are you certain Mr. Kuryakin is not under THRUSH's control?”
"Very certain, sir."
Waverly raised his eyebrows.
“However,” Napoleon was satisfied to see his boss looking intrigued, but didn't like what he himself was going to say next, "I don't know if he is controlled by anyone else, at least partially. We are 100% sure that Jonathan was from THRUSH, and his rank was high enough to potentially know that there was a code to control Illya. If that was the case, though, he would not have been so panicked. Jacob, on the contrary, was just the adopted son of Brighton and he did not even join THRUSH, but he knew how to torture Illya."
"Perhaps it was written in Brighton's notes."
"I guess the same, but who did Brighton give this part of the experiment to behind THRUSH's back? He certainly didn't leave it to himself, he knew he would die."
Waverly frowned and said nothing.
"To Jacob? I don't think it's possible either. I investigated his background and it seems that Brighton had never let him intervene in THRUSH matters before. He was studying at Columbia University." Napoleon continued, trying not to think about the fact that this young man named Jacob is an innocent to a certain extent. "I presume that Jacob read Brighton’s notes without authorization, in order to avenge his father's death, thus revealing the existence of the code. I reckon the person who put in this code wished that it could remain a secret to us.”
“Sounds reasonable, Mr. Solo,” Waverly nodded, and glanced his chief agent over. “You look like you're in a good place today. I believe that you are fully prepared this time, are you?"
"Well then, I'll leave this to you, Dance and Slater." The three best agents in UNCLE besides Illya, indicating that the matter was not trivial even in Waverly's eyes, "With Mr. Kuryakin himself, figure this out as soon as possible. Go ahead, Mr. Solo."
"Roger that." Napoleon couldn't help but let on a smile - something that hadn't appeared on his face for a whole month. He took the tape and turned to leave.
"Wait," Waverly called out suddenly. Napoleon turned his head and saw a small device in the old man's hand, "Tell Mr. Kuryakin that there is no bug in this office that will not be discovered. I will not let this slip next time ."
After coming out of Waverly's office, Napoleon checked his watch. There was still some time before the all-department meeting at 3pm. He thought about it and decided to go down to the laboratory.
If at UNCLE, Illya trusted anyone besides Napoleon himself with all his heart, it would be Dr. Cleland. Tony Cleland was in his early sixties. Majoring in biochemistry, he had dozens of accomplishments in his field. In Napoleon’s eyes, this man had a very quirky personality, and he was even more enthusiastic about some peculiar research subjects than those mad scientists of THRUSH - fortunately, his enthusiasm only remained on a theoretical level.
The old man had no children. Back when Illya joined the laboratory, he almost took the young man as his own son. Although their majors were not exactly the same, he helped Illya a lot in his career. What happened to Illya hit Cleland hard. Napoleon only saw him a few times this month, and the old man looked more haggard each time. He was a little worried about the scientist's health.
At least he had the right to know that Illya was back, Napoleon thought, and maybe his professional knowledge could even help somehow.
"Dr. Cleland!" At the entrance of the laboratory, Napoleon ran into the person he was looking for. The old man had dark circles around his eyes, looking as if he hadn't slept well for a long time.
"Oh, Mr. Solo. What’s the matter?"
Napoleon looked around. "Dr. Cleland, is there a safer place to talk?"
The doctor straightened his back, and his eyes lit up. "My office, come with me."
After checking that there were no bugs in the office, Napoleon pulled the chair away and sat down opposite to Cleland: "Doctor, I'm here to talk to you about Illya."
"I guessed as much." The old man sighed, still reluctant to bring up the heartbreaking topic, "Illya...we can't even bury him properly. To tell you the truth, I still can't accept that he has truly died...it’s a pity, such a fine young man.”
"As for you, Mr. Solo, you look very different today. Is there any news?"
"Only myself and Mr. Waverly know about this for now, and Dance and Slater will know about it soon. Apart from you. That is as far as this piece of information can spread." Napoleon stared into the doctor's eyes and saw him nodding slowly, showing a seemingly understanding look.
"Illya is back."
"What?" Obviously, even if he was prepared, the scientist was still taken aback, and he looked at the agent dubiously. "But they said...you said Illya is dead. Now he's back again? At the headquarters? Why didn't he come to see me?"
Napoleon made a gesture to calm the old man down, and then proceeded, “This is not easy to explain, Doctor, Illya was indeed dead, but he was resurrected by THRUSH. He needs blood to function, and his mind is not being controlled.”
"Like a vampire." The doctor frowned and thought for a while, then suddenly stood up and walked to the bookshelf to pull out a book and started flipping the pages. "Biological conjectures about vampires are not uncommon, most of which are hypotheses of contagions... This is the first time I have heard about artificial vampires."
"Illya himself doesn't know the specifics, but he is tracing down a notebook with information related to the experiment."
"Ah, so you have seen the lad already?" Collins raised his eyes and smiled, "Do you know where he is? Let him come and see me when he is free."
"I don't know where he is, but he came to see me last night. I will tell him the next time he visits."
"Thank you, Mr. Solo. I'll research on this matter immediately. Is there anything else I can help you with?"
Napoleon nodded. "One more thing. I don't know if it will be useful, but can the laboratory produce some artificial plasma?"
It was half past one when he walked out of the laboratory. After lunch, Napoleon decided to go back to the office to sort out the meeting materials. Because he had not been on site, he needed to memorise more information, plus Illya was not here to help him with the paperwork any more... Napoleon shook his head. When Illya told him that he would not return to UNCLE, Napoleon had to sink his fingernails into his palm to stop himself from protesting.
He needed Illya by his side, wanted Illya by his side, but he did not want to be his chains. Recalling the figure jumping out of the window that night, Napoleon realized almost painfully how Illya was once imprisoned and constrained; how liberated the figure was, like a fairy of death roaming freely in mountains and forests. How could he have the heart to lock him up again? No matter how tempting the idea was.
His mouth felt dry and he shut his eyes, a little irritated.
Then he suddenly flashed his eyes open. His intuition of an agent alarmed him that danger was imminent, but how could any enemy be at the headquarters?
Before he turned around, the person behind him spoke.
"It's been a long time, Mr. Solo."
I know I had said it before, but it’s a privilege to have the author herself to beta for me. Much love <3