The Reality Affair


October 18, 1998

What senses do we lack that we cannot see another world all around us? © 1969 Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

Sapphire & Steel are © P.J. Hammond. The Man From U.N.C.L.E, © whatever. This is a pseudo-Crossover Universe tale. And an evil laugh echoes down the corridor of Time. ("Time is an illusion. Lunch time doubly so!" - Ford Prefect, © Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.)

Part 1: By the pricking of my thumbs...

There was always another Thrush plot to be defeated. Always another power-hungry madman. Always another hapless innocent (almost always a sweet young woman) caught in the middle of something she or he did not understand. So too, there was always Napoleon Solo.

Napoleon at times seemed like the heart of the world. He was a dark-haired man with a deeply cleft chin, who always looked as though he had stepped fresh out of a magazine advertisement for men's stylish suits. Though at a casual glance, it seemed that he and his partner were complete opposites, they shared several traits in common. They both were dedicated, organized, loyal men. Both appreciated beautiful women, good food and adventure. Yet Napoleon was also chaotic in his approach to the world. Unlike his partner he seemed to find rules to be bent, broken when necessary. He drew women to him like bees to nectar. His smile was frequent and daring; always hinting at a nefarious streak.

That was what made Illya Kuryakin feel that his partner Napoleon was the heart of the world. Illya himself was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blond, his face square and a nose that hooked slightly downward. In his casual wear he preferred black, usually cotton. In himself he felt a deep silence; an order and rationality which kept him from railing at the unfairness of the world, though he did feel oftentimes that it WAS unfair. A Russian agent assigned to U.N.C.L.E., he was the stranger in a strange land, and his partner insisted on bridging the gap between government and man to become his friend.

Two houses, both alike in dignity... Illya Kuryakin had thought he was beyond this. He had not felt this way since he was newly assigned to U.N.C.L.E. He felt disconnected, surrounded by inexplicable aliens. It had started shortly after the Pieces of Eight Affair, wherein a Thrush scientist's experiment to create super-geniuses had gone awry. An island of homicidal maniacs had to be bombed out of existence. Illya himself had been briefly under the machine, horrified that his identity would be destroyed, leaving a raving, drooling madman in his place.

The machine had only been on for a few seconds. Surely that was not enough time to affect him, was it? He of all people knew the fallacy of wishful thinking. So it was that he had asked Napoleon to help him. "Look at this pen for four minutes. Do not take your eyes off of it, please."

Napoleon was cooperating, curiosity alternating with boredom now that the four minutes were almost up. Illya forcibly controlled his growing fear. By the end of two minutes, the pen had disappeared from his hand. Sometimes it wavered back into view, only to vanish again. Other times he could see it there in front of him, yet he had the bizarre sense that he was seeing it out of the corner of his eye. At least his hand did not vanish or fade out.

The four minutes were up. Illya let his hand open and drop the pen he could not see or feel to the tabletop. He could not hear it hit. Napoleon's eyes followed the movement, and for a brief instant Illya felt sick. "I must have a medical and psychiatric examination."

Napoleon's eyes snapped to him, like laser beams of concern and a sudden thread of his own fear. "Why?"

"Because the pen does not exist to me, Napoleon."

The silence of the white room, before alive with curious expectation, became that of crowded questions that could find no exit. Several times Napoleon Solo's mouth moved to form one or another of them. He finally gave up and reached out to close his hand around Illya's bicep. The pressure was sane and promised support. I won't leave you alone in this, it said.

Three Days Later

The man on the bed lay still in his hospital gown. He had his fingers fisted in the bed sheets, his eyes clenched tightly shut. Even so, he breathed steadily, though there were times when his body poured with sweat.

Napoleon Solo slammed the report down in front of Waverly, forcing himself to look away from the man he could see through the two-way mirror. "The initial symptoms are a sense of disconnection, followed by the belief that only they exist in the world. As other people persist in existing, the affected individuals begin doing whatever they can to change that."

"How long do we have before Mr. Kuryakin begins to try to kill us, Mr. Solo?"

"The time is variable. But Mr. Waverly, this is not the same thing!"

His superior raised bushy eyebrows and stared at him gravely. "And why do you think that, Mr. Solo?"

"There is nothing, in all these records, about dramatic changes in temperature." Under his superior's impassive, heavy lidded gaze, Napoleon Solo felt exasperated and alone. Illya, I need you at my back. You can beat this!

Mr. Waverly lifted his own handful of reports. He said calmly, "At irregular intervals, Mr. Kuryakin's body temperature drops dramatically. At present the lowest temperature recorded is thirty degrees. Yes, that is different from the others afflicted by that machine. Perhaps it is because he was exposed for a very short time." He lifted his eyes to meet those of the worried Napoleon Solo. "The physicians recommend keeping him in a private room until it is determined that he is not a danger to others. Or to himself, for that matter. If he thinks he is going to become a danger to you or I, he just might attempt suicide."

Napoleon blanched. He had not thought of that. "Yes, that's just the sort of thing he might do."

He sat beside his friend's bed, watching the restless movement of eyes in sleep. The room was getting colder. Temperature gauges recorded the drop as Napoleon pulled his heavy jacket more tightly around his shoulders. After a few days of this, they had shut off the heater in the room. The temperature change emanated from Illya. Napoleon lay his hand on his partner's forehead. The cold knifed intensely through his fingers. "Illya. Illya, wake up, boy." The cold was too much. He took his hand away. His partner stirred and opened his eyes.

"Napoleon?" he asked.

"Yes, it's me. How do you feel?"


Napoleon smiled when Illya looked at him. "You've got a bad case of the chills, my friend."

Illya shot him a dry glance. "Thank you so much for that illuminating statement. Everything is so much clearer than before."

Snickering, they exchanged grins. Shifting his jacket as the chill eased up, Napoleon leaned forward curiously. "What were you dreaming about?"

Illya moved around until he was sitting up. He folded his arms on top of his knees and thought about the question. "My dreams have been very strange. There is always a perilous darkness in them. Eyes gleam with malice. I walk in my dreams with an absolute conviction that something is out of place. That if I don't stop it, it will move other things out of place until the world ends. And there is a woman."

Napoleon was filing Illya's words away to consider later. At the last he looked up alertly, his eyes twinkling. "A woman, eh? What's she like?"

Illya was concentrating and missed the teasing note in his partner's voice. "She is calm and diplomatic. Sometimes she is like stone, unmovable yet merciful. She is kind, merry, and wise. She..." he hesitated, touching his fingertips to his temples as if suffering some small pain. "In some ways she reminds me of you. I trust her absolutely. I rely on her."

Napoleon wondered if this might be some kind of mother-figure for Illya. He would think on the serious aspects of these dreams, later. For now he attempted to cheer his partner up. "Is she beautiful?" Illya dropped his hands and mock-glared in exasperation at his partner, who continued as if he did not notice. "Or does she look like a typical Russian babushka? Little and yet she could stop a tank?"

Illya chuckled. "No, she IS beautiful. She is tall and fair-skinned. Her eyes are blue. She is blonde and has a strong jaw. Her hair is long. She usually wears blue." He wrapped his hands again around his knees. "Sometimes I see her across a room crowded with shadows. She tries to speak to me, but I cannot hear or answer her and she is not moving her lips."

Napoleon filed the physical information away. The thought of a mysterious beauty normally would have delighted him, but not now, with Illya ill. Ha ha, he thought wryly. "How do you know she's trying to speak to you?"

"It is simply a conviction I have." Illya shrugged his shoulders slightly. "There are many... mysterious things moving in the space between us. I try to freeze them in order to go around them but-"

"Freeze them? How do you do that?" Napoleon asked sharply.

Startled, Illya looked at him. "I do not know. It does not seem to work. Why, Napoleon?"

Napoleon patted his shoulder to reassure him. "Your body temperature's been seesawing while you sleep. At least this is a connection."

"A mysterious blonde woman from Mr. Kuryakin's past?" Mr. Waverly frowned under his bushy eyebrows at Napoleon. "There are no such women in the agency's files on him. It is probable that the Russian government has more information than we do. I shall contact my opposite number." The older man's frown deepened. "What are your thoughts concerning the 'perilous darkness'?"

Napoleon sighed heavily. "It seems amorphous. He can't get a focus on it and determine what the enemy really is. The only solid thing for him is the woman."

"Hmm." Mr. Waverly nodded slowly. "Very well, Mr. Solo. I will request information from the Russians. You may go back to Mr. Kuryakin's bedside, if you prefer."

This drew a half-hearted smile from Napoleon. "I'd prefer the bedside of that woman he described. I'm glad you have no assignments to send me on. I don't want to abandon him."

"I quite understand. However, Mr. Solo," and this Mr. Waverly said sternly, so that there would be no doubt. "If you are needed for a mission, you will have to go."

Napoleon looked away, but nodded reluctantly. "Yes, sir. I know."

Outside Mr. Waverly's office, Napoleon leaned heavily against the wall. As with every event out of his control, this one taxed his strength. He had joined U.N.C.L.E. because of a desperate desire to fight the chaos of the world. Illya would have laughed to hear his partner think in those terms, but it was true. There had been so many successes. There were so many more things that needed doing. Thrush isn't gone yet, my friend, he thought. Isn't that reason enough to beat this? To beat them?

Part 2: Everything you know is wrong

Outside Mr. Waverly's office, Napoleon leaned heavily against the wall. He was about to straighten up and force himself to walk jauntily down the hall before anyone could see him, when he heard Mr. Waverly speak. To his surprise, his superior was not speaking Russian, but English. Napoleon might have stepped away, concluding that he would gain no useful information about Illya, but for the words he heard.

"We may not be able to contain the agent for much longer."

Napoleon, his curiosity piqued, waited. What agent?

He heard an unfamiliar male voice speak, deep and oddly distorted. "Can you not eliminate him?"

"We have attempted to. However, he has a strong survival instinct. Therefore we have had to maintain this charade far longer than we had intended. It is, in actuality, quite fascinating. It has grown in complexity and taken on a life of its own."

"Enough about the project. Why did you not weigh the odds to kill him quickly?"

"The odds have been against his survival from the beginning. His death has to occur naturally, or it will attract the attention of the other agents. If they mutiny, our position will be dire indeed."

"I never understood your assertion that he is such a danger. Most of the other agents dislike him intensely. I understand the feeling is mutual."

"Perhaps so. However, his partner is well-loved by all of them. She does not consider him paranoid and where she leads, the others will follow."

Napoleon had been listening to this peculiar conversation with simple curiosity at first. However, at the mention of the female partner, his flesh crawled. He told himself it was not possible. They could not be speaking of Illya. Waverly was not the type to send an agent to his death. He continued to listen.

The strange voice spoke again. "Perhaps if you arranged for his partner's capture and internment as well?"

"That would be wasteful. He is the paranoid member of the team. Without him she, like the rest of them, obeys orders. May I remind you that your last effort to eliminate the pair almost united the agents against us?"

The other voice sounded huffy. "I am aware of my failing. You were only able to remove him as a driving force because he was still weak from escaping imprisonment."

"Yes, therefore it is best to keep them apart and ignorant of each other's whereabouts. Fortunately, his partner in the project has no way to investigate the mysterious blonde woman."

A sound of surprise from the other voice. "You do not control the partner?"

"I cannot. The new partner had to be extremely complex in order to distract him from missing his real partner. To influence him would have damaged the aura of veracity he broadcasts. He had to be pure, from the very beginning."

"Perhaps you should send this partner away."

"For the time being, it is better to keep them together. The partner's presence keep him questioning his instincts rather than his surroundings."

At that moment, a noise from down the hallway alerted Napoleon, and he quickly ducked into the other corridor. He settled into an idle stroll. Those he passed saw his worried frown and all wondered how Illya Kuryakin was doing.

By the time he arrived at Illya's temporary quarters his frown had cleared. He was walking jauntily, whistling a lively tune he was making up.

He breezed into the room and grinned at his partner. Illya was staring at the tray of hospital food on his lap with some doubt. Whether it was brought on by an inability to see it, or by the dubious contents of the tray, Napoleon did not ask. He sat in the chair beside the bed. "You could do with a change of scenery!" he said, cheerfully.

A brief, warm smile lit Illya's face. "Do you intend to bring the Secretarial Pool?" he asked wryly.

Napoleon grinned back at him. "As a matter of fact, they've all offered to come cheer you up. No, I was thinking more of the 4th Street Park. It's a warm day." Napoleon had put on his most lascivious expression. He cheerfully set his communicator on his partner's tray and met Illya's eyes.

Illya raised an eyebrow, then stepped out of bed and gathered his clothes from the closet. Moving into the bathroom he did a quick but thorough search of his clothing. He turned up no bugs and dressed, stepping back into the room with Napoleon. "I would like that. Kindly keep your wolf-whistles to a minimum for my sake, Napoleon."

"I never wolf-whistle. I simply whistle appreciatively."

It was indeed a warm day. The sunlight beamed down, its force broken by the leaves of trees in the park. Illya rolled his eyes whenever Napoleon wheeled around to stare at a lovely, scantily clad young woman. He himself was far more discreet in his ogling. A teasing smile at his partner said, Next to you, anyone is discreet. Napoleon responded with an expression of mock-wounded dignity. He soon found a perfect place for them to talk. It allowed them a view of four bikini-clad young women. Under the guise of staring at the women, he and Illya could talk without attracting attention.

Leaning in as if to comment to his friend, Napoleon asked quietly, "Illya, do you have any blank spots in your memory?"

Illya's eyes widened in surprise. "No, Napoleon. Why?"

Napoleon hunched his shoulders, then forcibly relaxed them. "The trouble is, Illya, that paranoia is one of the symptoms of the disease. Have you been feeling paranoid?"

"Not anymore than might be expected," Illya replied. He was clearly puzzled by Napoleon's approach. "What with people and things seeming to cease to exist as I look at them." He tilted his head, blue eyes wide and curious.

"Perhaps I was the one affected, and I'm only imagining it was you."

Illya lifted his chin in bewilderment. This was not like Napoleon. Something had severely disturbed him and now he was... what did they say? Beating around the bush. Illya glanced around. Napoleon had placed them so that no one could come close enough to eavesdrop without being seen. To most people his body language would seem perfectly normal, but it was not like him to leave his communicator behind. Though his shoulders were angled to indicate to an observer interest in the sunbathing women, they were also hunched in private nervousness. "Napoleon, what happened?"

Napoleon stared towards the girls with a gleam in his eye. In truth, he was not looking at them but through them. The gleam was not one of lust but of alarm. He drew a restless breath. "Illya, don't trust Waverly."

For a moment there was a still silence beside him. "Why?" his partner finally asked.

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Because I think he's been trying to get you killed ever since you joined U.N.C.L.E.."

Illya straightened up, staring intently at Napoleon. The now-familiar sense of disassociation flared up, the park around them fading and then solidifying. Illya drew in a breath, relieved that he could still smell the afternoon breezes. "Perhaps you should explain yourself. And after that, perhaps you should buy me a stiff drink."

Napoleon grinned wickedly back at him. "I'll buy you two."

They sat on the edge of a city reservoir, staring down into the water. Illya said thoughtfully, "It does cast a new light upon things. I have been sent on many missions that should have been impossible for one man to accomplish. You and I together have succeeded at missions in which we, too, should have needed help. Thrush fails so often and its agents seem incompetent."

Napoleon choked on a laugh. "Are you saying you think Thrush was created just to kill you? It existed before you joined U.N.C.L.E.."

Illya smiled back at his partner. "If what you heard is true, and truly about me, so did I. With another partner."

"A beautiful blonde woman, who believes in you even though most of your fellow agents dislike you. You must have been something."

"What now, Napoleon? I have tried, and can remember nothing. For all we know, the woman exists only in my imagination. The conversation you heard may have had nothing to do with us." The two men stared at each other for a time.

Napoleon said finally, "Each time I think of it, I feel increasingly certain it WAS about us." He suddenly grinned. "Which at least means you've always been right to trust ME!"

Illya rolled his eyes and shook his head. He stood up and offered Napoleon a hand. On their feet, they both dusted themselves off. "I can see nothing for it," began Illya, "but to return to the hospital. At least we know they are not going to kill me outright. I still am affected by that machine."

"What if you aren't? What if the machine just woke your latent feelings that something is wrong?"

Again, the two men stared at each other. Neither could think of anything more to say on the subject. With the sun setting and the breezes turning cooler, they decided in an exchange of shrugs to return to U.N.C.L.E..

They walked in a comfortable, companionable silence. Napoleon had his hands deep in his coat pockets, Illya's hung loose at his sides. When Illya suddenly stopped and turned to stare across the street, Napoleon pivoted on his heel and looked across, too. He saw nothing unusual; just a number of office workers walking along.

"That shop," Illya murmured.

"Which one?"

"Hammond's Antiques."

Napoleon took a quick look at the storefront. Nothing seemed unusual about it. Of course, nothing seemed unusual about Del Floria's shop, which hid a secret entrance to U.N.C.L.E. He edged closer to Illya. "Shall we go inside?"

"Yes, let's."

They crossed the street as soon as traffic allowed and ducked into the shop.

It seemed a perfectly normal antique shop. Napoleon looked around at the walls and floor. He took note of doors and closets, wondering if any might by chance lead to a secret agency's doorstep. It would be convenient if one did, but he doubted it. Glancing around at Illya, he found his partner was absorbed in studying the antiques. Illya ran his hand along the chairs and tabletops. He weighed smaller pieces in his hands. Well, so they were not looking for secret passages, but were actually in here to look at antiques. Napoleon was surprised. He saw Illya's expression becoming increasingly thoughtful as he touched an old cuckoo clock. Memories being triggered? Napoleon wondered. He stepped closer.

Illya tilted his head and said softly, "Sapphire would know."

Startled, Napoleon asked, "Who?"

Illya's eyes focused on him. "Who, what?"

Blast, thought Napoleon. He kept his voice low. "You just said, 'Sapphire would know.' Who is Sapphire?"

Illya stared at him blankly. Though his face was composed, his eyes became worried. "I have no idea. I do not remember saying anything."

Napoleon squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Don't worry about it. It'll come back to you."

Drawing a deep breath, Illya said, "We should return to the hospital."

Napoleon nodded his agreement and they left the shop, continuing toward Del Floria's. "We could stop in and give the secretaries a treat. Show them you're looking better." It was true. The color was back in Illya's cheeks, his eyes looked less desperate and more thoughtful, as they normally did.

Illya tilted his head and nodded. After a moment he said, "I think Sapphire must be an expert on antiques."

Napoleon caught his breath and strolled nonchalantly on. "Why?"

"I could not get the thought out of my head, Napoleon."

"What thought was that, partner?"

"Not an item in that shop was real."

Napoleon almost stopped walking. As it was, he stumbled. Restoring his nonchalant stride, he asked, "You couldn't see or feel any of them?"

It was Illya who paused in mid-step this time, glancing in surprise at Napoleon's face before memory lit his eyes. "Oh, no. They were all solid. It is just that they all seemed new. Not antiques, but copies."

"How curious. Perhaps the police should be notified."

Illya nodded agreement, but he looked doubtful. "I do not think they would be able to tell."

They walked into Illya's convalescent room to find Mr. Waverly waiting for them. His bushy brows were drawn down over his long nose in a sternly perturbed expression. "Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin, it is customary to obtain permission before a patient leaves the hospital." He stared at them gravely.

Napoleon took a step forward and interposed himself between his partner and their superior. "Ah, it's my fault, sir. I thought a bit of air might do him good. He is feeling much better. If you have any missions for us, I think you shouldn't hesitate to send us."

Behind him, Illya frowned slightly and turned a puzzled glance on his partner.

Mr. Waverly was also staring in surprise at Napoleon. It took a moment before he spoke, his visage grim. "Mr. Solo, are you suggesting we let loose a man who may at any moment become a homicidal madman?"

"No, sir," Napoleon said firmly. "I'm suggesting that Illya is improving, and that work could help him focus and recover completely. Perhaps he'll start dreaming up new ways to foil Thrush."

Illya blinked at Napoleon in sudden understanding and stepped to his side. Schooling his features to rational calm he met Waverly's thoughtful eyes. The two measured each other. Illya thought logically, You should not even consider it. Not without ordering a battery of psychological tests beforehand. Waverly's eyes dropped away and back to meet Napoleon's.

Illya was stunned to hear him say, "You have a point, Mr. Solo. Mr. Kuryakin may indeed gain some benefit from a focus on work. Thrush never sleeps." For some reason, that phrase made Illya twitch. He kept his confusion off of his face. Waverly walked between them towards the door, saying, "Come to my office at 1400 hours. There is in fact a mission that the two of you are best qualified to attend to."

They stared at the door for a short time after Waverly had left. Finally, Napoleon turned around and smiled at Illya. "Well, back to the wars, eh partner?"

Illya smiled back at him. Like Napoleon's, the smile went no further than his lips. Like Napoleon's, it shunted attention away from the blazing anger in his eyes. "Indeed." In this unsafe atmosphere they could not talk to each other, but both knew what the other would say. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Part 3: A Storm is Brewing

Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo huddled behind the remains of a concrete wall as the constant sound of gunfire filled the air around them. The bizarre Thrush specials with their gigantic range finders were being used overtime. Napoleon spoke loudly over the sound. "You know, I'm beginning to think they aren't happy to see us!"

"Yes, they never are. I cannot imagine why." The two men ducked as dust and chips of concrete came down on them. "There is something rather strange about this."

"And what might that be?"

"They knew we were UNCLE agents."

"So they did, partner. So they did."

Among all that did not need to be spoken lay the thought "As if someone told them we were coming."

In the heat and humidity of southerly Mexico the Thrush agents were like all the others of their kind. These were people whose philosophy lay visible in get-rich-quick schemes. It lay in experimentation without guidelines. It lay in the deaths of failures. Thrush chose the easy way because to obey International rules or respect the needs of others would be to delay their own agenda. In such a mercenary society, agents were liable to turn against their employers to save themselves.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were not in the mood for games with their vice-ridden counterparts. The game they now played with Mr. Waverly took priority. Thus they crawled in opposite directions and flanked the Thrush operatives. The four tall, rangy men's mouths dropped open in astonishment when they found the two UNCLE agents they had believed pinned down calmly holding pistols on them.

Napoleon said cheerfully, "Take us to your leader."

It was that time of day. The rain fell incessantly over a small hut pieced together out of scraps of material including a few hubcaps. Surprisingly, the roof was watertight. Today it provided shelter for three men.

The leader of this Thrush cell was a pasty-faced, slightly overweight Englishman. He sat as far away from Illya and Napoleon as he could in the small hovel. He stared at the two of them in utter bewilderment and more than a little fear. Napoleon Solo was watching his partner with amazement. Illya stood still, his shoulders straight. He seemed implacable. To Napoleon's amazement, as they interrogated their prisoner Illya's accent changed. The soft sound of the Russian accent gave way to harder, clipped tones that reminded Napoleon of the Queen's English, but not quite. There was something almost sinister about Illya. No wonder the other operatives don't like him, thought Napoleon. He's downright unnerving.

"How did you know who we were?" Illya said. He did not sound demanding but his tone was uncompromising.

The Thrush man flinched, drawing back against the wall. "Your files were delivered by special courier. That's all I know!"

"Who sent them?"

"Headquarters!" The man's voice had developed a hysterical edge. "It must have been; who else would?!"

"Who else, indeed," Illya replied coldly. He turned away from the Thrush man and stalked the few steps to stand in front of Napoleon. For a moment the impatient mask slipped to reveal his exhaustion.

"Care to step outside for a little air?" Napoleon asked him with a rueful flicker of his eyes.

Illya glanced out the glassless window at the downpour outside. "It's either that or kill him," he said wryly. There were shadows of his Russian accent in his voice.

They stood in the twilight of the afternoon storm, both men leaning their heads back, eyes closed. The drops drizzled down their faces. So close, this time. So close and they enjoyed the sensations of life while they still had theirs.

Napoleon said after a while, "I never thought I would have to go renegade. What will I do for an expense account?"

"You may have to give up your expensive suits," Illya rejoined. His lifestyle had ever been austere, befitting a Communist in a Capitalist society. He smiled slightly. "I wonder if Sapphire is as much a clotheshorse as you, Napoleon."

"Hey, YOU were the one who was planning to be a fashion designer when you retire." Napoleon opened his eyes, then shut them quickly to the warm raindrops. "April and Mark," he said calmly.

"What about them?"

Napoleon was silent for a long moment, considering his memories thoughtfully. "If there was ever anyone I trusted, it was those two. I think we should contact them."

"Did you not trust Waverly?" Illya said blandly.

Napoleon caught his breath on a silent pain. "Yes, I did. More fool I."

Illya's voice regained it's Russian accent completely and he said softly, "No fool. If he truly wished my death, it would have happened long ago. Perhaps as time passed, he believed I would never remember."

"And let you go on being Illya Kuryakin, harmless to whatever agency you originally came from, and a great asset to UNCLE." Perhaps it was so. Still, it remained that Waverly had made them partners and left Napoleon as a free agent, in order to do exactly what he had just done. Shaken, Napoleon turned to his partner. "Remember, Waverly said I keep you questioning your instincts rather than your surroundings." Napoleon paused, groping for words and found them. "I've had glimpses of the real you, I think, like in the hut with the cell leader."

Illya winced. "Impatient, demanding and cold? Suspicious to the point of paranoia? I rather hope not."

Napoleon grinned. Illya had ever been given to self-depreciation. "Come now! You are mild mannered Illya Kuryakin, whose true identity is faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!"

Illya's rare smile lit his face as Napoleon waved his arms dramatically. "Ah! So I am a man of steel-"

Napoleon caught Illya as he convulsed, then collapsed. The blond man's breath rattled alarmingly in his throat. His complexion was pasty and his eyes rolled upwards in his head. Napoleon jammed his wallet between Illya's teeth, narrowly avoiding having his fingers bitten. He held onto the writhing man and dragged him back into the hut. "Get over here and help me hold him!" he snapped at the startled Thrush agent.

The bewildered man obeyed. Between them they pinned Illya until the convulsions finally stopped. The blond's eyes opened and he stared at them weakly for a moment before spitting Napoleon's wallet out of his mouth. "What happened," he said raggedly.

"What do you remember?" Napoleon asked.

Illya's complexion was returning to its normal, healthy color. He eyed his partner with a twinkle of mischief. "You were comparing me to Superman."

Napoleon grinned half-heartedly. "I think we hit some hypnotic conditioning, triggered by a phrase or a word in a phrase."

"And you are avoiding using the word again."

Napoleon nodded, as the Thrush agent looked from one man to the other in puzzlement. They both looked at the agent and Illya murmured, "What are we going to do with you?"

Napoleon's voice became a whip crack. "We're going to let you go. But I strongly suggest you lay low for a while." After a heartbeat he said, "Great things are afoot."

Illya rolled his eyes at his partner.

If there was one thing a Thrush knew, it was how to set up secondary identities and large bank accounts for a rainy day. Or rather, for the day when his agency decided to get rid of him. The pasty-faced Englishman was no exception. He threw his lot in with the two UNCLE agents, knowing that the way this mission had gone, his life was now worth nothing to other Thrush. He reluctantly parted with half of his money and gave up two of his several alternate identities. Illya and Napoleon cleaned out their expense accounts. The three men smuggled themselves aboard a luxury liner bound for New York where they parted company, vanishing into the docks and underside of the crowded city.

She had come. Her shoulder length, sable hair curled inward to frame a deceptively sweet face. Behind a crystalline perfection that could pass her off as a society debutante lay a quick, brilliant mind. Within that form that could have graced the pages of Playboy beat a courageous, generous heart. Her red beret sat rakishly upon her head, the only thing that indicated her true nature. Most people would look at her and see her only as a young woman.

The man observing her prayed fervently that she would not tire of the wait. He had to be sure no one was following her before he exposed himself. The risk he was taking weighed heavily in his mind for it was not only to himself.

She seemed disposed to wait. She ate her sandwich slowly, drank coffee and read a book. He was amused to see it was a translation of the Iliad. How fitting. At last he decided he had waited long enough. He stepped into the room. Her eyes flicked towards him and crinkled at the edges. He smiled back. "Well you might laugh," he murmured when he was in earshot.

"I've never seen you in such clothes. I didn't think it was possible."

Instead of his usual rakish business suit, Napoleon Solo had opted for something a factory worker might wear. He had strategically mussed his hair. The only thing wrong was his body language. His carriage was too disciplined. To those who knew him it created a sense of a shadowy business suit. To those who did not, it caused a sense of annoyance at an uppity blue-collar worker.

They sat across from each other at the table, the picture of a cross-the-tracks relationship, their hands clasping warmly. Those who felt annoyance at his uppitiness perhaps forgave him because the woman he was with was so clearly high-class.

Under the cover of a tender smile, a lover's tones, April Dancer asked, "Napoleon, what is going on? You and Illya vanished in Mexico. We thought you were dead."

Napoleon's grin slipped rakishly through. "You know what Samuel Clemens said about reports."

She laughed and rolled her eyes. "Yes, I do know. Now answer the question, Napoleon Solo."

"April," he began. He twined his fingers around hers. It was hard to speak to her. What if he was wrong? He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it pleadingly. Her face paled. She squeezed his fingers in return. He drew a breath to bolster his courage. "April, I overheard...." The enormity of the events that had happened overwhelmed him for a moment and he closed his eyes. "Illya is to be terminated."

April's fingers went cold in his. She clearly did not misunderstand him. "Because of the machine?" she asked very quietly.

He shook his head. "No. Because he has started to remember who he really is."

".... what?" April asked uncertainly. "Who is he if not Illya Kuryakin?"

Napoleon opened his mouth to answer when a wave of dizziness swept over him. It passed quickly. The noise of the rest of the cafe became muffled as he concentrated on April. "I don't know. He doesn't know yet, but it's close, April. He was part of another organization and became caught up in some internal power struggle. They decided to get rid of him but could not kill him outright without attracting attention. Mr. Waverly was supposed to arrange his death."

April's mouth dropped open and she shook her head. "That can't be. Mr. Waverly LIKES Illya."

Napoleon nodded wearily. "Yes, perhaps that's why my partner survived this long." He leaned forward and stared intently into her eyes. "Help me, April."

"I... how?"

A heartbeat. Another. Napoleon closed his eyes again and thought a short prayer. "See if you can investigate an organization that gives its agents code names like Steel, or Sapphire."

The silence lasted too long. Napoleon opened his eyes and met April's stunned gaze. "It's too fantastic to believe, Napoleon," she breathed.

"Please...?" he whispered and opened her palm to kiss it.

She smiled tremulously at him. "I will. I just don't know if I can do it without attracting unwanted attention myself." She slid around to join him on the chair, curling her body against his. For a moment he wondered that the two of them had never been involved. April whispered, "Give Illya my love. I'll see what I can find out."

"Thank you very much, April," he whispered back.

Part 4: A Ray of Light Can be Hot Enough to Burn

There are other places than those so well known to intelligent people like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. People speak of other dimensions. They whisper of the legends of Faerie, where everything seen and touched is something other than what it appears. They whisper of Heaven or of Hell as if each place is only what they imagine it to be.

Imagine then a place where everything you see and touch is exactly what it appears to be. The catch being that only those from this place are absolutely sure what that is. To those who live in this place, words like Heaven and Hell have no meaning beyond one being a state of contentment, and the other being quite totally the opposite. They are not a nostalgic people... no, perhaps I should not say that. They are in fact very nostalgic. They REMEMBER everything but keep nothing. This is why a thing may be exactly what it appears to be but people from our neck of the woods might misunderstand.

That painting of the Mona Lisa looks perfect in every way down to the cracks and the aging of the paint. However, it is... hmm. It is a copy and probably no more than twenty years old. Perhaps it is even only a few minutes old. Perhaps it was made just before we arrived, to give us something familiar and comfortable to look at. I do wonder what comfort can be derived from a portrait of a woman with thin, black hair, no eyebrows, and a strangely malicious look on her face. What? Oh, yes. It's just I always wonder what she was thinking to make her smile like that. When I smile like that, I'm never up to any good.

Oh, forget the painting. We are here to study that man over there. No, no. The one sitting next to the observation window. With the ginger hair, looks like maybe he's in his thirties. Yeah, that one.

The times he had ever felt real fear in his existence somehow revolved around Sapphire and Steel. Not one or the other but both of them. Their missions were of the most harrowing sort. Somehow, over time, they had become such a unit that no one truly thought of them as separate agents anymore. For years, he had tried to tell himself that things were more natural now. No one should have a permanent partner. It led to obsessive attachments, relationships outside the pairing lost their importance except as a fond memory. He had tried and failed to convince himself that it was better for Sapphire that Steel was gone. Not that he did not like Steel. The man had a way of growing on you when you were exposed to him for too long. He was just so blasted certain of himself. An immovable object. Arguing with him was like walking into a solid wall.

And Sapphire was an irresistible force. When she spoke or acted, her presence permeated everything surrounding her. From the first moment of speaking with her you instinctively wanted to go along with everything she said. People always made remarks like, "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" Well, what happens when the force and the object combine their natures? Something wonderful, perhaps.

This morning he had looked into Sapphire's eyes that used to be so calm and sure. To many people, they still were. Silver had loved her too long, been too intimate with her, not to see the crippling of her will. There was a hole in her slowly eating it away. One of these days she would go on a mission and become a casualty, as had happened to Steel.

"Go!" Steel shouted at them across the gulf. The floors of the ancient building had fallen apart between them. The walls they had been using as an anchor were stretching and beginning to tear apart. Steel turned away from them before they could respond, but not before they saw his eyes glow as he focused all his power. Even from this distance they could sense the cold he summoned; a cold so deep it could stop time. For that was what he had to do.

*Steel!* Sapphire called to him, for the sound of the time storm had become too great to shout over. *Be careful!*

*Aren't I always?* Steel replied.

Silver had to respond, *Not really, no!*

Steel ignored him as he usually did unless he was forced to do otherwise. *Seal the room. I will meet you on the outside.*

He never did. They had waited for him. They could still sense him but could not pinpoint his location. When they were finally called back they explained the problem desperately to their brethren. They returned to the old building several times. The rupture closed and sealed, there was no longer any sense of danger. Steel's presence was a fading shadow in Silver's mind, but Sapphire insisted that he was still alive, still trapped. Lead, Steel's other regular partner, and Jet who was sometimes his lover, both concurred with her. They could only conclude that Steel was on the other side of the breach, trapped within the corridors of Time.

Even now, if Silver listened very hard in the darkest nights, he sometimes thought he felt Steel. He knew Sapphire still did. It was her inability to reach him that was destroying her. The sudden rise of the noise level behind him drew him from his thoughts. He glanced around to see what had caused that surprised murmur.

He stared in astonishment. Jet had arrived. She crackled with energy; her hair was a black cloud around her face and her eyes shimmered the white-blue of power. Her face was an unreadable mask. She vanished from the entryway to appear next to him. Silver found himself shrinking back as her gaze measured him. Searching for what? he wondered. Why is she functioning at full? She settled regally into the chair across from him.

Silver worked with things he could touch with his hands. He could focus on the molecular structure of an object to determine its age. He could take a structure--a building, a musical instrument--and have it show everything that had been done with it since it was assembled. He did not like to turn his power outward and show it to others. Faced with Jet doing just that, he wondered if this was how a human felt; caught like an insect in amber before a lava flow.

Incongruously she said, "Hello, Silver."

He blinked back at her. "Ah, hello, Jet." They stared at each other while her hair floated around her head as if it were a separate living thing. Silver cleared his throat and asked tentatively, "Can I help you with anything?"

Rather than speak, she tilted her head to regard him steadily and reached out to his mind. *Where is Sapphire?* she asked him.

He stared, stunned, back at her. *I was just thinking about her.*

She waited, implacable. In that way she could be very like Steel. Perhaps that was why her relationship with him had fared better than Silver's with Sapphire.

*She's here somewhere. I don't keep tabs on her, you know.* Without meaning to, he poured a world of hurt into his broadcast. He was rewarded by Jet's softening face. *I'm very worried about her,* he added, cradling his drink in his hands and lowering his eyes in embarrassment.


He shied back again, blinking the sudden wetness from his eyes. He was having a difficult enough time confronting himself on this, and now she was forcing him to talk about it. Resolutely, he met her eyes. *Part of her is lost with Steel.*

No other explanation was required as Jet tipped her chin in understanding. Partnerships that became as intense as Sapphire's with Steel was rumored to have been were legendary. People were both appalled by and envious of them. Silver wondered if Jet had felt the same irritation he had about it. If she had, would she even admit it? There was a sudden surge of intense feeling from her, as of a dawning hope. Silver raised his eyebrows, begging her silently to tell him what she knew.

Her broadcast line became small and secretive, alive with suppressed excitement. *I may have found him!*

Silver's fingers protested suddenly, and he forced himself to set down his glass on which he had a death grip. Pulling himself together, he felt a thrill. He adopted a smirking attitude. "Let's go find Sapphire, shall we?" he said aloud.

She grinned back at him. "Yes, let's."

Unusual clothing, a little bit of dye, a reluctant change of hairstyle. ("YOU are going to cut my hair, Napoleon?!") Illya Kuryakin was almost unrecognizable unless you looked at him in profile. His hair was now dark brown, almost black. A bit of carefully applied makeup gave his skin a darker hue, as if he might be Mexican. His profile was too clearly European, but most people did not pay attention to much more than color.

He was in charge of finances, and had applied his not-inconsiderable talents towards card-sharking. They now had three times the money they had arrived with. He and Napoleon had rented a fair-sized loft, hidden in the seedy side of town and really quite pleasant. It no doubt was usually the dwelling place of gangsters. Beggars can't be choosers, he reminded himself. It was certainly more comfortable than his apartment.

It had always been Illya who had gone undercover on their assignments. Napoleon simply refused to change his character, so he became the stalking goat. The obvious UNCLE agent attracted all the Thrush attention, while Illya snuck in the back and they trapped their enemies between them. Illya had managed, with no little difficulty and a great deal of suppressed laughter, to force Napoleon to be the undercover agent this time.

Napoleon had one of those faces whose character altered drastically with a change of hairstyle or clothes. The difference would be so dramatic, that even those who knew him well would have difficulty believing it. He was the perfect person to contact April Dancer and Mark Slate. Of course, it had turned out that Slate was out of town. Napoleon had returned from that meeting certain that April was on the side of angels.

Illya was amused when he looked at himself and found furious impatience. What little he was beginning to learn about the agent buried within the shell of Illya Kuryakin was both fascinating and frightening. He had said to Napoleon that he felt his real self to be impatient, demanding, cold and suspicious to the point of paranoia. He was beginning to revise that estimate. Not cold at all but burning. At times he felt angry and very alone, missing something. He was certain the missing piece had to be his other partner, Sapphire. Apparently he had not been suspicious enough. He had trusted the wrong person, let down his guard at the wrong moment and because of that, Illya Kuryakin existed where he should be someone else. At that point, his anger always collapsed into despair. The only person he knew he could trust was Napoleon. Whether or not he could trust this Sapphire, he could not know.

At 7:30pm as agreed, came the coded knock on the door. Illya took a quick look at the security screen and then went to let Napoleon in. The dark haired man bounded through the door to stand alertly in the middle of the room. "I contacted April!"

"Yes, I know. What did she say?"

"She said she has some people she wants us to meet, who may be able to put us in contact with the organization you came from." Napoleon began to pace, his eyes wide.

Illya's thoughts seemed to be racing a million miles an hour. "Risky," he said firmly. To meet these people on their terms, not knowing if they were enemies or not, seemed utterly wrong. "If I meet them, I want it to be under my control," he said aloud. Napoleon stopped in mid-step and whirled to grin fondly at him. When the silence had stretched uncomfortably, Illya asked, "What is it?"

"I just love it when you're yourself!" Napoleon said, his smirk defining his entire face.

Illya mock-glared at him. "Somehow I think my self has the same love for going undercover that you've always had." He pulled at a lock of his hair. "I look in the mirror and feel alien. I've never been disturbed by such things before."

"Very well, consider yourself under arrest as an illegal alien. How do you want to meet them?"

By having them wander from pay phone to pay phone around the city. After five trips around the city in a pattern which would have revealed itself on a map to be a pentagram (Illya betraying a bizarre sense of humor), Napoleon instructed them to come to a warehouse near the first pay phone. The two UNCLE agents watched from behind crates they had carefully stacked near an exit.

April Dancer looked very tense, standing with two other people. One a huge bear of a black man, the other.... "Is that her?" Napoleon asked in a ghost of a whisper.

Illya nodded, his throat tight. "At least, it appears to be her." He had so many doubts, some of them impossible to get a grip on.

The man had his arms folded across his chest. He was clean-cut and very striking. His skin was a warm brown. Even from their hiding place they could see that he was amused. His shoulders twitched with suppressed laughter. His eyes danced with a merry light as he looked around.

And the woman. Oh, the woman.... Napoleon caught his breath as he looked at her. This was the kind of woman poets wrote epics about. Could Helen of Troy have been this beautiful? She was fair as the day, her hair flaxen gold. Her eyes seemed deep and blue. She had a small nose, upturned at the end, her lips were generous. A strong face. "Maybe I can join your organization," Napoleon murmured.

Illya ducked his head and smiled.

The three turned and looked towards where the two agents were hiding. The woman took a few steps closer. "Steel?" she said pleadingly.

As Illya jerked and convulsed beside him, Napoleon cursed to himself. I should have thought!! Of course they would call him by name! He slammed his wallet between Illya's teeth, forced to ignore the rapidly approaching footsteps. He clamped his lips on the urge to call his partner 'Illya'. That name was false, and he refused to reinforce it. Am I going to have to start saying 'hey you', partner?

And the woman was beside him, her presence warm and strangely strong. It was as if he could feel her. Her hands reached to touch Illya's--Steel's face and the convulsions stopped. His friend went utterly limp. "Oh, partner," Napoleon whispered in sympathy. He slipped his wallet out from between the now loose lips.

The blonde woman, Sapphire, spoke in a tone of astonished relief. "It is him. He's been so close to us, all this time." She met Napoleon's eyes, her face strangely impassive considering the depths of the relief he had heard in her voice. "What caused these convulsions?"

His throat felt tight. Again there came that impression of dizziness, the world narrowing down to him and those people closest to him. Illya's carefully arranged hair and the makeup darkening his skin had not phased her at all. "His code name. It has to be some conditioning, to prevent him remembering who he is. It only seems to happen when the word is applied to him, though."

She blinked. "Yes, I can see where it would be a problem if it happened every time that word was used."

The big black man chuckled low in his throat. "Steel cars, steel bars, steel-"

"Enough," April interrupted impatiently. "Can we get him out of here?" Napoleon stared at her in surprise, then reminded himself that she, like himself, had every reason to feel edgy.

The woman who had to be Sapphire knelt beside... Steel. She laid her fingers on his cheeks very gently, lightly brushing the bone structure. Without transition, Steel's hair turned blonde and his skin became it's natural color. Napoleon stared in shock, noting too that the hairstyle had changed. It was longer than Illya had been inclined to wear his. More of the early sixties style, like the Beatles had worn theirs. He had no chance to question, as Sapphire spoke.

"Steel, answer me." Her voice held a note of bizarre, soft intensity. A shudder ran through Steel's body.

Napoleon caught his friend's hands quickly. "Come on, partner. You can beat this." Sapphire turned her head and stared at him. He suddenly remembered Il -- Steel's description of her. Like stone, unmovable but merciful. And jealous, perhaps, of this agent used to replace her. He glared at her defiantly and thought he saw her eyes crinkle in amusement.

Then her attention was back on her partner, closing out the rest of them. She bent low and never shifted her hands. Her lips did not move but her eyes glowed eerily. Napoleon felt Steel's hands jerk suddenly in his. The man moved, his body twisting as if to get away from them. A sudden gasp and he opened his eyes. "Napoleon?" he asked weakly.

"Yeah, partner."

Sapphire bent closer, her gaze intense and Illya tried to draw away from it. Her hands held his head firmly. Startlement suddenly flashed through him as the strange non-sound he was hearing became clear, his lips parting. He drew a breath unsteadily and said, "Yes, I hear you. Napoleon, I hear her in my mind!"

"Telepathy? So that's what your dream meant! Could I learn to do that?"

The question startled Sapphire and she turned her head to stare at him. "I am sorry, you have no time. We must leave here quickly, before they realize we have found him."

Illya broke her hold and pulled himself over next to Napoleon. "How do I know I can trust you?" he demanded. He saw a flash of pain on Sapphire's face. Nearby, April Dancer closed her eyes and the big man looked worried. "Who are you?" Illya asked him plaintively.

He smiled like an indulgent older brother. "I'm Lead," he said, as if he were conveying a secret. He held out a huge hand and Illya automatically took it. "And you are Steel."

Illya felt panic and a terrible sliding sensation. Napoleon's hands locked onto his shoulders and voices became an unidentifiable hum in his ears. Just when he thought he would fall and go spinning out of control, he fetched up against a mass of warm strength, affection and stability. As the world steadied around him and his sight cleared, he realized the mass he sensed was Lead. He stared in astonished gratitude at the big man.

Lead nodded and smiled down at him. "You are not alone, Steel."

Bolstered by the sense of the man's presence, he did not fall again but was able to breathe steadily. Sapphire's hand joined Lead's on his and he met her eyes, suddenly sure of her. With Napoleon at his back everything would be all right. Then April caught his eye and he gaped at her, held by sudden realization. "You're one of them."

She smiled wistfully and nodded. "And it never occurred to me that you were anything more than a doppleganger for Steel."

Napoleon exploded. "You, Mr. Waverly, Illya! How many others from your organization are mixed into UNCLE?!" As a brief sunlit smile passed over his partner's face, he realized how childish he sounded.

April's smile vanished. "When HE began this project, he said it was all for fun. I became curious and he invited me to create a character. When I saw Illya Kuryakin the first time, I thought it was a cruel joke." She paused and shrugged expansively. "It was, wasn't it? Hidden in plain sight."

"Jet..." Illya suddenly breathed.

Napoleon looked at him but his attention was focused on Ap -- Jet, a smile of such joy on his face that Napoleon was transfixed. He wondered if Steel was the Solo of his organization; loved by all of the women. He chuckled sheepishly, realizing how egotistical that was.

Jet knelt in front of Steel, who released his hold on Lead and Sapphire to grasp her hands and pull her up close. They both laughed. Napoleon shook his head and jostled Steel's shoulder. "I hate to break this up, but hadn't we better get out of here?" The others looked at him, their faces curiously bland. He clenched his teeth and forced a wry smile. "I doubt I'll have a future in UNCLE, now."

Jet tilted her head down in a slow nod. "Yes, that just might be a problem."

Steel said firmly, "Of course you are coming with us. I already know you are a superb, if unconventional, agent."

Steel seemed unaware of the glances the others exchanged. Napoleon nodded and smiled for his partner, but the look on Jet's face alarmed him and he did not know why. Her words about creating a character in her fellow agent's project again brought him to the unnerving conclusion that UNCLE existed merely to keep Steel hidden and under control. If Waverly vanished, would UNCLE suddenly find itself without backing? Then again the man had said the project had taken on a life of its own. Waverly had supposedly been chosen for his station because of his background. Could I take over UNCLE? Napoleon wondered. I think so. God, but... "Does Thrush really exist?" he asked Jet.

She blinked. "As much as UNCLE does, Napoleon." She smiled slightly, a little of the old twinkle coming back into her eyes, her hands still linked with Steel's.

Sapphire reached out to Lead and they formed a circle, Steel looking uncertain but reaching out a hand to include Napoleon. They closed together, Lead on the other side of him, Steel whispering to him, "I feel we are going to do something, but I cannot tell what."

Lead murmured, "We are going to let go of this place and spring back to our own. Are you ready?"

They both nodded with identical feelings of bewilderment. Sapphire said firmly, "This may be difficult, as Steel does not remember what he is doing." She met her partner's wide eyes intently. "You must help us, Steel."

He nodded with a false calm, but Napoleon could feel him tense.

Then it began. Napoleon closed his eyes tightly and tried to ignore the sensations building within him. Though his eyes were closed, he seemed to still see the warehouse vanish around him. Beyond it a network of streaming, shining silver-blue strands that sang and echoed with power. Napoleon felt drawn out, as though he were one of those strands only being pulled and stretched to the breaking point. He clenched his teeth but could not stop the intensifying pain. He thought he heard someone else cry out in an echo of his pain, then a clatter of voices raised in urgent summons. The voice he had heard cry out, powerful and angry, raised itself in sudden, strong negation. The universe shuddered and Napoleon was flying back at terrible speeds. Back, back... and there was something solid beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and found the warehouse around him, the others next to him looking as terrible as he felt.

"Is it my imagination, or are we where we started?" Napoleon managed to ask. The asking hurt his throat, and he had to breathe slowly so as not to retch.

It was Sapphire who raised her head to stare at her lost partner. "Steel, why didn't you let go?" she asked softly.

Napoleon watched the two agents confront each other. As softly as Sapphire had spoken, she still met her partner's gaze with steady determination. It was the man who looked away, eyes shying around the warehouse. "I don't know."

"You do know, Steel. Tell me."

He pulled away, his shoulders hunching. Napoleon reached out and braced him with a hand on his left shoulder blade. "Steady, partner." A breath in, and Steel nodded wearily. Napoleon glanced up to meet Jet's gaze. He was struck by how sad she looked. He moved his lips to form the silent question; what's wrong? She shook her head slightly.

Sapphire still had Steel pinned under her steady regard. The tension between them could almost be touched. He finally said, almost sullenly. "I like it here."

"LIKE it?" she sounded incredulous. "Nothing that happens here matters; why would YOU like it?"

Steel's head came up, his chin firming. "Everything I do here matters! Thrush can't be allowed to rule the world! I have been able to turn their plots again and again, and I haven't had to sa --" he broke off, his face going white. His hands closed into fists against his sides.

Lead leaned forward and closed one of his great hands on Steel's shoulder. "Haven't had to what, Steel?"

But Sapphire was nodding. "Human beings love a good sacrifice. You don't." Her gaze lost some of its intensity, turning almost inwards. She tilted her head towards Steel. "And you have not had to sacrifice anyone since you came here."

Napoleon interrupted them angrily. "We avoid sacrificing people when we can! We've lost people. Hundreds have died at times before we were able to stop Thrush."

"Hundreds of strangers," Sapphire said calmly.

"Well, yes. We've always..." he stopped, frowning. Something felt terribly wrong. It was as though he had been lurking at the edge of realization for a long time. "We have always managed to save the people we come to know." Suddenly he felt cold and alone. He said thinly, "Our track-record is unusually high, isn't it? No one could be that good."

"More than that," Sapphire added softly. "If your enemy costs you nothing, then why do you fight them? What do they matter?" She set her hands on Steel's, whose fingers curled reflexively around hers. "There is the lure that has kept you here so long, Steel. To win without cost. But this battle does not matter, either in the long run or the short run, because it is not real."

Steel shivered under Napoleon's hand. His eyes were wide and dark when he glanced between the two people who were his partners. Napoleon felt like shivering himself. His rational mind felt tipsy, yet he could not ignore the evidence before him. He asked shakily, "If this is not real then what is it I've lived in, and for how long?"

The other three people exchanged glances. Then it was Jet who spoke. "An electronic dream. A... simulation, if you will. But an extremely complex one."

Steel interrupted, his eyes blazing. "It was not I who held onto this place," he said firmly. "It must have been one of you."

"Steel," Sapphire said very gently. She stepped close to him and he met her gaze, though she was slightly taller than him and he had to angle his head upward. They simply stared at each other, for what seemed like a long time. At last she said, "We cannot take him with us. He is part of the simulation."

Steel staggered a step back. "He's real, Sapphire. He HAS to be real."

"Does he? Simply because you love him?"

Napoleon opened his mouth to dispute this bold statement and was struck dumb by memory. Waverly saying he could not control Napoleon because influencing him would damage the aura of veracity he broadcast. That he was extremely complex and kept Illya questioning his instincts and not his surroundings. That it was better to keep the two of them together.

The two blondes were still arguing, unaware of Napoleon's shock. He dropped his hands from Steel's shoulders and slid them into his pockets to hide their shaking. "Partner," he said, and was relieved his voice did not shake too. "Partner!" more urgently to the fuming man.

Steel turned his head. "You ARE real, Napoleon."

"Well, I certainly feel real," Napoleon managed to reply calmly. He was beginning to feel amused in a sick kind of way. "Illya, do you remember...?"

Steel waited. When the silence stretched too long he softly prompted, "Remember what, Napoleon?"

The sick feeling faded. It was replaced by calm and the feeling of security that came with absolute decision and the firm knowledge that he had made the right choice. He took his hands out of his pockets, for they were no longer shaking. "You were captured by Thrush and held on their island with a young woman. There was a bomb about to go off and you both would have died. I begged Mr. Waverly to let me go and try to get you out of there. He did, wishing me luck. If I had failed, I would have died there with you." He reached out, and they clasped hands reaffirming their alliance. "And if I had died but you had escaped, I would have been happy that you made it. Go without me." He pulled his hands away.

Steel was shaking his head, his face white and eyes dark. Sapphire was gazing at Napoleon no longer with indifference or annoyance, but with surprised admiration. He backed up a step and met April's eyes. Did he see tears? Lead regarded him with calm respect. With a sigh, Napoleon moved forward again and stared deep into Steel's blue-gray eyes. "Get out of here. Go do whatever it was they trapped you here to prevent you from doing. Make them pay for what they did to you." And for what they did to me, he thought. Steel had enough to deal with without clinging to an imaginary, though complex, partner. "You understand, you're worth my life to me." Do I have a life without you? How long will I exist once you are gone?

"Napoleon..." Steel whispered. He searched his partner's eyes for some sign of uncertainty, but could find none. Until he had fallen ill, it had been the other way around. Illya was the one who was certain and sure of himself and what he was doing, while Napoleon was a feather on the wind with only his choice to fight Thrush guiding his life. It was Sapphire--Napoleon? who allowed emotion to sway judgment while he himself did what was necessary. Hands slid into his. Sapphire stood on his left and Jet on his right. The steady presence of Lead behind him was solid and reassuring, while Napoleon in front was withdrawing from--no--pushing him away. Make them pay for what they did to US, several voices seemed to say at once. He recognized three of them and thought that perhaps Napoleon's was in there somewhere, too.

He gazed into Napoleon's eyes and felt something snap. The sensation repeated itself more urgently. Napoleon's lips moved, forming the word "Go." The snapping sensations became less a feeling than a sound as of hail on a car's roof and the world again vanished around them. He could still see Napoleon standing there bravely. Then they were pulling away and he turned his attention reluctantly around. The three most important people in his life were there with him. And if a fourth was not, perhaps he could take out the feeling of loss on his enemies.

Epilogue: The End of the World is Nigh

Napoleon sat at his favorite cafe sipping coffee. He was in his regular clothes, looking incredibly like some rich business-man who had just stepped out of the pages of some magazine. Twenty-four hours ago, Illya had disappeared before his eyes. Not faded, not blurred, just suddenly gone. So had the other three, including April, but they did not matter. How much longer do I have to exist? When can I be free? He supposed he could wander the streets like a madman, holding up a placard with the words, THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH! He chuckled into his coffee cup at the thought.

"Hello, Napoleon," a soft voice came from right behind him.

He choked on his sip of coffee. He was sitting in the corner of a cafe and nothing was behind him but the wall. He tilted his head around to be sure. "Hello April."

She looked the same as always. Beautiful, intelligent and normal. Two out of three ain't bad. He smiled at his inner joke. He supposed that the only reason he knew he was sane was that he still knew why he smiled. She was leaning against the wall and regarding him with that strange, impossible calmness. "How are you?" she asked.

"Just fine. Waiting for the end of the world."

She smiled at that and sat next to him. "Mr. Waverly is, for the time being, not going to be able to end this world, Napoleon. You haven't anything to worry about."

"Then will you end it?"

Her smile flicked off and she gazed at him, her face still and silent. He stared back, feeling almost the same as her expression. She finally asked, "Is that really what you want, or just how you feel right now?"

He laughed. Is that just how I feel right now? There was the question of the decade. Perhaps it was. He took her hands in his and kissed her knuckles. "April -- I'm sorry -- Jet," he began.

"April will do. That is who I am here."

He kissed her knuckles again. "So it is, Miss Dancer, so it is." Folding her fingers between his own, he rested his chin atop their joined hands. "Am I the only one like me here? Is there another character in this imaginary world who could understand and believe what we are?"

"No," she answered gently. "You are unique."

"Without Illya I have no purpose. This whole place has no meaning. I didn't know that before. Until you came today, I felt like Alice."

She tilted her head and gazed at him in puzzlement. "Alice Gershwin of the Secretarial Pool?"

He chuckled. "No, Alice in Wonderland. It's a bizarre children's story. Do you know it?"

She shook her head, a brief smile crossing her face. "No. Sapphire might. She is conversant in the history of the world this simulation is based upon."

"I see."

April tilted her head again and asked curiously, "Why did you feel like... Alice?"

He grinned. Settling back in his seat, still holding her hands, he began to summarize. "Alice chased a rabbit down his hole and discovered a strange world, where animals and inanimate objects were liable to speak to her. At one point she met twin brothers, Teedledum and Tweedledee, and they got to talking about a sleeping king. Tweedledee said that the king was dreaming about Alice. And Tweedledum said that if the king awoke, she'd go out just like a candle. Later he said to her, 'When you're only one of the things in his dream, you know very well you're not real.'" He breathed a slow sigh and leaned forward over their joined hands again. "How is he?"

She was looking deeply thoughtful. She shook herself. "He is fine. Out for blood. But he seems to have learned some diplomacy, here. Before long it won't be only the four of us aligned with him."

"Good." He smiled at her and saw her smile blossom back onto her face. "Let me go, April."

"How sure are you that this is what you want?" she asked.

"Completely. Because now I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit." To her wry, puzzled expression, he squeezed her fingers, grinning. "Another children's story. The Velveteen Rabbit was a little boy's favorite stuffed toy. Among toys it was known that when you were best loved, you became real. One year the boy fell ill. When he recovered, all of the blankets he'd slept on and toys he'd slept with while he was sick had to be burned. But a fairy came and turned the Velveteen Rabbit into a real rabbit, because the boy loved him so much."

Jet's smile had warmed as Napoleon spoke. "I like that tale."

"Yes. I don't remember it very well. April," he drew her close and met her eyes calmly. "It's time to burn the blankets and toys. I don't expect a fairy to come and make me real," amusement made him chuckle, "but I'm willing to find out."

"Napoleon..." she kissed his cheek gently, the pressure of her lips warm against his skin. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the rich scent of her perfume. "Good-bye," she whispered in his ear.

She was gone. The sudden absence of her presence was surprising, but he did not open his eyes. Instead, he bowed his head over his clasped hands. He had never been a praying man, believing in God only casually. Even now no prayer came to mind but a poem by Robert Frost, whom he had not read since his University days, did.

He spoke it quietly to himself.

And then everything ceased.

If you MUST have some sort of happy ending, here is an Optional Ending.