November 1964

Napoleon Solo stepped inside the weapons room and hesitated just inside the door. The object of his search, Illya Kuryakin, was sitting at a table at the farthest corner of the room. The hunched, black-clad shoulders telegraphed an eloquent body language message of isolation. Even from that distance Solo could interpret the warning -- had in fact anticipated such an attitude from the Russian. He knew what Illya would be feeling as soon as he'd heard about the Bulgarian mission Illya had just completed.

Unexpected THRUSH interference had collapsed the mission. Illya had barely escaped with his life. He left behind a dead UNCLE agent and a dead civilian escaping Bulgaria. Illya had taken the failure personally and had even made some threats of resignation when he filed his report to Waverly.

A little over two years had passed since Solo had first met the Russian. In that time he had come to learn the varied moods of Kuryakin. He knew this failure would have plummeted Illya into a self-castigating depression. Most Section Two UNCLE agents were high achievement-oriented personalities and found it difficult coping with a performance that was less than perfect.

Failure on a mission was a legitimate excuse for depression. An excuse Solo himself used on occasion. Napoleon could not abide failure in himself, though he could usually excuse it in others. Part of his job was to help agents after a difficult mission. This time personal motivation was the reason he had searched out his partner.

Not many months before Solo had experienced a crushing failure and slipped into a morbidly black depression. It had been the reclusive and reticent Kuryakin who had overcome his personal reserve and reached out to pull Solo from dejection.

It had been a very restrained ploy -- so effective because of its simplicity: Kuryakin had walked into Solo's office and without a word had left an envelope on the desk then walked out again. Curiosity ever a downfall, Solo opened the envelope and pulled out an index card with a message:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take the rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. -- Theodore Roosevelt

Solo now carried the card in back of his UNCLE ID as a double reminder. A) any venture he undertook should be given his best efforts. And if he failed there should be no shame or guilt attached. (Though he still found it difficult to accept failure). B) as a touching token of a supportive friendship that meant more than he could ever put into words.

It had not been the verse that had sprung Solo from his depression. It had been the comforting knowledge that no matter how badly he failed there was someone who did not blame him; who did not condemn him, did not desert him. The reassurance that he had a friend to stand by him, even when he shunned friendship, was the humbling realization that had lightened the weight of guilt and brightened the darkness of self-pity. The silent visit had given Solo a fresh perspective on the situation, and accomplished more than any pep talk or argument could have achieved.

Despite Solo's best efforts at a sullen depression was replaced by a lingering but fading regret. Bitterness decreased when divided by the mantle of friendship. Self-condemnation was tempered by the comfort of no longer being alone.

Given the right perspective, Solo was slowly learning there was no stigma in failure, only greater understanding and experience. No disgrace in failure unless you failed to learn from the hard-earned lesson.

Of course he had never told any of this to Kuryakin. They were just learning to read each other's emotions now, still testing the limits and boundaries of a close friendship. New territory for two men who were independent and emotionally remote by nature; two men who had never experienced such a deep level of mutual trust. Both of them were discovering emotions they could never verbalize, nor openly acknowledge, but were equally aware existed.

Napoleon wondered how he could now convey his support and understanding to Kuryakin. Illya was not the type to accept any kind of intrusion into his private world of feelings. Solo was not the type to expose his own sensitivity. How could he reach out and help his friend when his friend needed him? Could he reach outside himself enough to do Illya any good?

Honest and personal emotions were something espionage agents were taught to hide, or even extinguish. Illya and he were breaking those unwritten rules -- getting too close to a partner -- too dependent -- yet neither of them wanted to break the bond. If anything, their continually forging friendship was a tremendous strength in their career and their personal lives.

Now Napoleon had an opportunity (obligation) to help his friend. A chance to reciprocate Illya's gesture of faith; a chance to blaze a new level in their relationship. Deep human emotions like commitment, dependence, concern, were feeling he repulsed. Conversely, he had unconsciously accepted all those feelings as part of his friendship/partnership. He knew he couldn't let Illya quit over a failure that wasn't his fault. He didn't want to lose a partner he had grown fond of; had invested in emotionally.

This was certainly one time he could not accept failure.

Solo walked over to his partner.

"I do not want any of your cheerfulness," was the crisply threatening warning. Kuryakin did not turn around. "Go away."

"I didn't come here as the good humor man," Solo responded easily and sat on the edge of the table. "I just dropped in to welcome you back."

The Russian continued to silently work on some miniaturized components.

An excellent judge of his partner, Solo knew better than to try a debate. Patient silence won what argument never would.

After a moment he said, "What about my official reprimand?"

Solo was surprised. "No, of course not." He sighed deeply. "Illya, everyone is entitled to a mistake --"

"Do not go easy on me because of our friendship, Napoleon," he dared. "If I do not receive a reprimand some will think it is because of favoritism --"

"If I thought you deserved a reprimand I'd give you one," Solo interrupted quickly.

"I do not need one of your lectures either, Napoleon."

"Have I said anything?"

"I know why you're here and it won't do any good," Illya defiantly assured.

There was the briefest moment of hesitation for Solo; afraid anything he might say would push Illya to resign, afraid not talking to Illya would precipitate the resignation.

"Illya -- "

"Don't say anything, Napoleon. I am going to request a transfer from Section Two -- perhaps give my resignation. I haven't decided yet. Just don't interfere."

Solo allowed the disappointment he felt to creep into his tone. "I think you at least owe me an explanation."

"You know my reasons," Kuryakin retorted, still refusing to even look at his partner. "'We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.'"

"Don't quote me Kipling," Solo snapped impatiently. "There must be forty million reasons to keep trying, Illya. You can't just give up." Napoleon sighed, sensing he had already lost the fight; already pushed the Russian farther away.

He could think of forty million reasons why he had to save his friend from a terrible mistake -- why he had to save an irreplaceable friendship.

"Please leave, Napoleon," Illya requested coolly.

It was as if an imaginary wall of ice had been erected between them. Napoleon knew no words or logic could melt the barrier. If he argued with his partner it could well turn the coolness into animosity and irretrievably shatter the bonds they had established.

Solo stood and took a few steps, then stopped. He could not turn away and lose something so important to him without some kind of fight. Then he remembered the only ace up his sleeve. From his wallet he withdrew the folded index card, placed it on the table, then silently left the room.

Uncounted minutes passed. Kuryakin picked up the familiar card and turned it over in his hand -- accepting it as the symbolic gauntlet it was meant to be. He did not have to read the words. The verse replayed itself in his mind -- he well remembered the day he had given the card to his friend. He remembered his own feelings then; how he hoped the verse would somehow help his friend, convey a message he felt but could never speak.

Illya placed the folded paper into his wallet. Reading between the lines was becoming a standard form of communication for Solo and him. It was amazing how much they could understand without words.

For the first time in many days he smiled. He hastily stored his work. With quick strides he left the room in search of his partner.