In an upscale restaurant in Vienna, ensconced at a small table in back, Illya watched Napoleon waltz his latest lady across the dance floor.
It was inevitable, of course. It might as well have been a principle of physics: a body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body at motion tends to stay in motion; and Napoleon Solo, given music, a beautiful woman, and an open floor, will dance.
He was good, too, his physical prowess in fighting transferring well to the gentler arts. And he was, as always, obviously enjoying himself. Illya had long suspected that much of Napoleon's charm with the opposite sex had to do with the evident pleasure he took with any female companionship; such kind flattery was alluring even to the most jaded ladies.
Of all his partner's myriad seduction techniques, dancing was a favorite, and Illya understood that, too. The physical contact, the hand on her waist, so casual and yet so intimate; the movement, cooperative synchronicity, falling into one another's rhythm; the structure of the dance, with all the infinite variation allowed within the combination of steps—it suited Napoleon. Napoleon, who valued ethics but rejected rules, who would follow an order he believed in to any end, and would simply ignore one he did not.
That, or he simply liked music, and moving to it, especially if it would also bring a pretty girl closer to his bed.
Illya shook his head and reached for his glass. The wine was quite watered down—they were on the job, after all—but he made sure not to make a face as he drank. As he set down the glass he turned a little in his chair, as if he were only adjusting his seat, settling at an angle to get a good look at the men three tables to his left.
With his improved perspective, Illya could see a telltale bulge at the trouser hem of the man sitting closest: an ankle holster. If the others at the table were similarly armed, then added to the larger pieces ill-concealed under their jackets, the total came to eight guns among four men. Definitely on the near side of suspicious—but then, anyone in this restaurant could have told him that, by the deference with which the waiters were serving them, and the wide berth granted them by the other patrons.
The Fischof brothers (in truth three brothers and one first cousin, maternal) were known criminals; suspected of arms dealing among a host of lesser sins, they had been under Interpol surveillance for some time, but only recently had come to U.N.C.L.E.'s attention. Whether they were smuggling weapons across the Iron Curtain was a matter for regional law enforcement, but there were indications that the brothers had recently begun dealing with THRUSH as well, and that, as Mr. Waverly had said, was a habit to be nipped in the bud, and quickly.
The last two days of observation had proved fruitless, but tonight seemed more promising. The brothers were on edge, spending their dinner carrying on an argument in low-voiced German. Illya was a little too far away to make out the words, but what he could read of their lips through the dimness—would that this restaurant had opted for practical electric illumination, rather than candlelight—was suggestive. Two of the Fischofs were apparently in disagreement with the other two over a recent deal.
"—think of the profit!" the middle brother, Erwin, enthused.
"Too risky!" Gregor, the eldest, repeated, banging his fist on the table.
Then the cousin turned, toward Illya, and Illya casually glanced away before his scrutiny was noticed, looking back to the dance floor. Napoleon had waltzed his lady around, in order to meet Illya's eyes over her shoulder.
Two guns each, Illya signaled to him, resting his hand on his chin with a pair of fingers set along his jaw. Napoleon nodded once, in time with the music, and swept back into the dance.
The waltz ended, and the band started up a faster piece, with a salsa beat. Napoleon bid adieu to his current partner and extended his hand to a new lady, a willowy auburn-haired creature who earlier this evening had been sitting with the Fischofs.
Illya sighed inaudibly. Business before pleasure was Napoleon's rule as much as Illya's own; but Napoleon preferred to undertake both simultaneously, whenever circumstances allowed. And sometimes when they didn't. Illya glanced at the Fischof table, but they were still embroiled in their discussion; none of them noticed, not even the youngest, the square-jawed Prussian giant Julian, who had been paying the lady such passionate attentions earlier.
Not that Napoleon was doing anything untoward; he was playing the gentleman to the hilt, keeping a civil distance between their bodies, his light hand on her hip decorously irreproachable. But close enough to whisper in her ear as they launched into the dance's quick steps—flattery, Illya guessed, by the way she smiled and blushed.
The distance between them didn't matter, however chaste it might appear. Napoleon could seduce without the touch of so much as a finger; this much contact was practically cheating. A couple of jokes, a few sincere compliments, an innocent (or not so innocent, depending) suggestion, and this woman would be thoroughly and inescapably charmed. As they always were.
As you were, Illya reminded himself, with a self-deprecating shake of his head. Even if it wasn't really like that, as Napoleon told him, more than once and quite insistently. "This is different," Napoleon kept saying.
That difference was sharply delineated now, watching Napoleon dance. As clear a distinction as the white bulbs over the dance floor painting light on the polished wooden floorboards, marking its space off from the candlelit privacy of the tables. Napoleon's focus was on the dance, on the woman in his arms, all his attention paid to her and how she moved with him—Napoleon was technically leading, but he was letting the woman choose the steps, anticipating and then reacting, letting her find the arrangement most suited to her. The ultimate key to Napoleon's seduction technique: give them what they want, and want what they have to give.
He'd certainly known what Illya had wanted, six months ago. And the...intensity...with which he had offered it had surprised Illya. For all the years Illya had known his partner, for all the women he'd watched Napoleon seduce, Illya had never expected to experience that ardor personally. And not only one remarkable night, either, but again, and again, and three times that one night in Beirut...
As it presently stood, the odds were better than eight to one that tonight Napoleon would not be taking this girl back to a hotel. He would ask her questions, get what information on the Fischof brothers he could, and merely enjoy the flirtation if she had none to offer. But at the evening's end, Napoleon would probably bid her goodnight and retire to their hotel room, where he would push his bed together with Illya's, or else climb into Illya's if the mattress met his standards for a comfortable width, with an absurd leering grin and perhaps a lewd gesture invented especially for the occasion. (By Illya's estimate, the vocabulary of their non-verbal communication had doubled in the last half year, though most of the signals could not reasonably be given in public.)
But he would not ask Illya to dance with him to the music that would be drifting up from the hall below the hotel. However much he was enjoying himself now with this willing woman in his arms.
Not that Illya much cared for dancing anyways. He'd learned because he had to, because a good agent—Soviet or U.N.C.L.E.—had to be familiar with all basic protocols and etiquette, to be able to move freely in any social circle. But he'd rather fistfight than foxtrot, given the choice. Which Napoleon well knew, having had to instruct him in a few more esoteric steps early in their partnership. He'd praised Illya's technique, then...a genuine evaluation, Illya wondered; or the flirting he'd so often missed or misinterpreted?
Aware he was being more than slightly ridiculous (he opted to blame the wine; German reds had never agreed with him, even not watered down) Illya let his gaze wander from the dance floor to casually sweep over the Fischof table. He was just in time to see the cousin (Hans, or was it Frans?) sit up with a sharp jerk, facing the dance floor—had he noticed Napoleon with his cousin's girlfriend?
No; the man was looking past the floor, staring at the restaurant's foyer with the riveted focus of a burglar caught in the act. He had good reason. The man who had just entered was taller than any of the Fischofs, even Julian, an enormous, broad-shouldered Viking of a man. The shoulder-length blond hair and the hawk-nosed face looked Nordic, though he was actually French, Illya knew—Algernon Montebank, one of THRUSH Europe's rising stars.
And the Fischof cousin's stare confirmed their objective. How deeply the Fischofs were dealing with THRUSH was yet to be determined, but that they were dealing was no longer in doubt. Mission accomplished.
Now the only problem was getting away to report it. Since, after the affair last year in Bordeaux with THRUSH's wine-derived rocket fuel compound, Montebank was going to recognize Illya Kuryakin as quickly as Illya had recognized him.
Sliding his chair back against the wall to put himself even deeper in shadow, Illya caught Napoleon's eye—there was no need to gesture and risk calling attention to himself; Napoleon turned to him unerringly, his eyes seeking Illya through the candlelit dimness. Knowing his expression couldn't be read, Illya cocked his head instead, pointing to Montebank with his chin.
Napoleon, still dancing with the girl, whirled them both about. He glimpsed Montebank in passing, and nodded—to Illya, though not looking at him.
Illya relaxed a fraction. Montebank had not met Napoleon before, only Illya, and while THRUSH provided information on U.N.C.L.E. operatives to its people, few of them regularly kept up with company reports. The THRUSH man paid Napoleon no heed as he stepped on to the dance floor, striding through the dancers with the grace of a rhinoceros plowing through a herd of gazelles.
Good; Napoleon would make it out to get their report to U.N.C.L.E. Illya did not imagine he would be so lucky. The exit to the kitchen was mere feet away, but he dared not stand and call attention to himself. Their mission objective was to observe, not interfere.
But Montebank was heading directly for the Fischofs, and all it would take was a single glance in Illya's direction to confound that mission. Illya did not move. There was no point to running, not if they saw him escape. If Montebank noticed him get away, he would know they'd been observed and would change all their plans. If they captured Illya, however, then THRUSH would probably go ahead with whatever they were up to, and Illya might learn more about it. And at the very least, his capture would buy the time for Napoleon to make a report.
It was a logical plan. Illya stayed seated, watching Montebank, waiting to be noticed, and quite failing to calculate that his partner did not share his respect for logic.
At the dance's finale, Napoleon twirled the girl, flinging her out so that she bumped into Montebank. Her slight mass wasn't enough to make him stumble, but he turned his heavy head to level a glare at her anyway.
"Hey, what are you looking at, buddy?" Napoleon said challengingly, in his broadest Obnoxious American voice, and draped a possessive arm around the woman's bare shoulders. "Say excuse me to the lady!"
Montebank sniffed as if responding verbally was beneath him and turned away, but the damage was already done. The Fischof brothers, watching Montebank approach, had seen him, and the youngest brother jumped to his feet.
"Hey, buddy!" he bellowed, in a reasonable imitation of Napoleon's American dialect, "what are you doing with that woman?"
"I was dancing," Napoleon said, "until this boor got in the way." He aimed a thumb at Montebank as he drew the girl closer to him with the arm around her shoulders. She pushed at him, but with only a token effort, and Napoleon didn't let go.
Montebank looked more bored than offended, but the Fischof brother's face went red. "Get your hands off of her," Julian Fischof growled, his German accent lending extra menace to his baritone. As did his height, as he stomped forward; if shorter than Montebank, he still had a good three inches over Napoleon. The other dancers scattered hastily as the band stopped playing, clearing the floor of all but the four of them.
"Why should I? I don't see any rings on either of your fingers," Napoleon said, looking up at the Fischof brother boldly, but he took a step back, pulling the girl with him, putting Montebank between him and Julian Fischof. "And the fraulein doesn't seem to mind..."
Montebank scowled down at the both of them irritably—he was at just the angle for the light to fall in his eye, not enough to blind him, but Illya would be invisible to him. And the other Fischofs had stood, absorbed in the dance floor drama. Torn between being impressed with his partner's improvisation and annoyed with his reckless audacity, Illya stood and stole to the swinging doors to the kitchen. The waiter standing before them was frozen, like a rabbit staring into a poacher's lantern, and Illya made to duck around him—
Only to be stopped by the man's sharp, shocked intake of breath, an echo of the audible gasp sounding from the rest of the restaurant. Illya looked back, to see the unmistakable glare of light off a steel gun barrel. Julian Fischof had drawn the revolver under his jacket, a huge .44 Magnum, and now took aim at Napoleon's head.
Napoleon raised both hands, backing away. "E-easy, guy," he stammered, "Don't do anything crazy..." His voice carried to Illya clearly in the hush fallen over the frightened restaurant patrons. The tremor in it was assumed, a nice bit of acting; but the wariness with which Napoleon was eying the gun was very real. A point-blank headshot would be a grisly end.
Illya knew he should duck through the door and disappear, let Napoleon handle this hornet's nest he had deliberately poked. But Julian Fischof looked none to predictable, flushed and glaring. And Napoleon wouldn't want to jump him, not in front of Montebank; it would be too suspicious.
"Julian," the girl gasped, tugging at the youngest Fischof's other arm. "Bitte—" Please, she was begging, almost crying; as if she'd seen him like this before, and knew how it would end.
Fischof shrugged her off and shoved her away, so hard that she tripped and staggered, almost fell. He cursed at her, but she reached for him again, and this time he brought around the gun to aim at her instead.
"Hold it," Napoleon said, dropping the nervous act and replacing it with steel. "She didn't do anything wrong; I'm the one who asked her to dance—"
"Stay out of this, American," Julian Fischof growled, but he was still glaring at the woman.
"Julian," she pleaded, frightened almost to tears.
In the shadows, Illya drew his U.N.C.L.E. Special. Behind Fischof, Montebank was looking edgy, one hand slipping under his jacket where he carried his own piece; if he decided to enter the fray...
Julian Fischof ignored him as much as Napoleon, caught up in his own rage. Leveling the pistol as the woman's heart, finger on the trigger, he went on in German, "This is the last time you've crossed me, you—"
Whatever Fischof was going to say or do, he didn't get the chance; Napoleon grabbed his arm with the gun and wrenched it up. As the Fichof brother struggled, the revolver went off, the round discharged at the ceiling, deafening but harmless. Then the gun clattered to the floor as Fischof shrieked—a bizarrely unmanly sound, had Illya not heard the crack of a breaking bone preceding it an instant before.
Julian Fischof dropped to his knees, just as his cry was undercut by two more earsplitting bangs—another pistol, smaller caliber, Illya automatically identified. But Montebank's gun was still holstered.
Illya had cocked his Special before he saw the blood. Then, for an instant, he froze, as useless as a rookie, transfixed by the stain that had appeared on the front of Napoleon's gray jacket, vivid crimson under the bright dance floor lights.
Illya was moving again before he understood what that red spatter meant. By the time his conscious mind had identified the shooter as Gregor Fischof, he had already fired across the restaurant. Three mercy rounds from his Special thumped into the Fischof brothers and cousin; they each got off but a shot at him, and he dodged all three, as the Fischofs collapsed, unconscious, to the floor.
Napoleon, too, had fallen, on his side curled around his wounded middle, and a puddle of blood under him spreading over the polished floorboards. People were screaming—several women, Illya thought, and likely a couple of men as well, their voices strangely muted by the echoing deafness from several close-range pistol shots, as if they were all underwater.
By then, Montebank, following standard THRUSH procedure that discretion was the best part of valor, was almost to the restaurant door.
"Freeze, Montebank!" Illya commanded, aiming his Special as he kicked Fischof's .44 out of the way.
Montebank turned. "Kuryakin," he said with a grimace, speaking loudly over the ringing in their ears. The THRUSH man's eyes flicked to Illya's gun, and he took another step toward the exit. "You think you can take me from this distance with a sleep dart?" he sneered.
It was true, mercy rounds were slower-moving so as to avoid causing injury with impact, and less precise; THRUSH men were practiced at evading them. "No," Illya said, reached over with his left hand and pulled back the lever to switch to regular cartridges. The paperwork would be troublesome, but this mission was not going to be a complete failure.
Montebank stiffened. Then his eyes flicked past Illya, to the floor. "So that is Solo," he said. "Or, should I say, was..."
Illya did not take the THRUSH man's bait, although he could hear Napoleon behind him, ragged and shallow breaths slowing. But as Montebank smirked, Illya heard the click of a gun cocking, and glanced back to see Julian Fischof. The man was kneeling, injured hand cradled against his chest, but in his good left hand he had a small-caliber pistol—from the ankle holster, of course, Illya berated himself; how could he have forgotten?"
"Put down your gun, you son of a bitch," Fischof ordered. "Slowly." His hand was shaking, but at this range he was unlikely to miss.
Illya slowly reached down and placed the Special on the floor. "Your brothers are not dead," he told the man. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed unexpected movement, but steeled himself against glancing at it. Instead he met Julian Fischof's enraged glare, fixing his attention. "We're not here for you," Illya said. "Only Montebank."
"By which he means he'll hand you over to Interpol," Montebank said, approaching. "Kuryakin here is even a lower creature than—"
Just as the THRUSH man was reaching down to claim Illya's special, Napoleon moved, pulling his own special and firing with another deafening crack—no chance for him to switch to mercy rounds, and his aim was dubious; but his bullet took Fischof in the calf, and the man dropped his pistol with a cry.
Illya was ready; he moved the instant Napoleon did, throwing himself to the ground and grabbing his own Special as he rolled. Montebank tried to snatch it from him, but Illya twisted around to pistol-whip him across the back of the skull, and the big man folded to the floor, on top of Illya.
Illya wrestled his way out from under the unconscious THRUSH colossus. Julian Fischof was huddled on the floor, moaning as he clutched at his bleeding leg. Ignoring him, Illya scrambled to his partner's side. Napoleon was lying supine, his face bone-white and his eyes glassy as he panted for breath, one arm wrapped over the holes in his abdomen. He gagged with pain when Illya set his own hands over the wounds, pressing down firmly to staunch the blood.
"Mein Gott," sobbed the auburn-haired woman, Napoleon's former dance partner, standing trembling at the edge of the dance floor. The slick pool of red was almost to her expensive pumps.
"Get help!" Illya snapped at her, then caught himself and repeated it in German. "Please, Fraulein, call the police, the hospital—"
"I-Illya," Napoleon gasped, the syllables rattling in his throat, unvoiced.
"Lie still," Illya ordered him. He changed the set of his hands so he could take out the pen communicator in his jacket pocket. It was difficult to open one-handed with his fingers slippery with blood; Illya resorted to prying up the cap with his teeth, clipped it to his collar and snapped into it tersely, "Channel B, emergency, operative down—Solo is shot."
"This," Napoleon panted, fighting to force the words out through the agony, "is—isn't how..."
"Napoleon," Illya said helplessly, bearing down with as much pressure as he dared. Napoleon's blood was wet and horribly warm, surging up against his hands with every beat of his partner's heart.
"Isn't...how I wanted...to spend my evening," Napoleon gasped; then his eyes rolled back and he lapsed into irresponsible unconsciousness, abandoning his partner to deal with the rest of this terrible night alone.
* * *
The U.N.C.L.E. Vienna office was too small to support the necessary medical facilities, so Napoleon was placed in Vienna's General Hospital, the largest in Europe, and part of the famous Medical University. The AKH had hosted U.N.C.L.E. agents before, from time to time, and adapted quickly; within twenty-four hours the nurses no longer tried to tell Illya to go back to his hotel, and within forty-eight all of them had stopped bringing him coffee or tea, save for one exceptionally persistent old woman who thought he resembled her grandson. In the end he grudgingly accepted the tea, on the condition that the grandmother quit forcing sandwiches on him.
Near the end of the second day, Mr. Waverly appeared in the waiting room. Illya stood to meet him, feeling lightheaded though he was steady on his feet. Perhaps he should have accepted the sandwiches after all. "Good evening, sir," he said, "how was your flight?"
"Well enough," Waverly said. "I have been here since before noon—I've been cleaning up the mess you left us in, Mr. Kuryakin." The words were chastising, but his face was unreadable, faded old eyes examining Illya as keenly as a doctor might. "Interpol isn't happy to be handed the Fischof brothers with so little concrete evidence to prosecute with, and U.N.C.L.E. can only do so much with Montebank."
"I'm sorry, sir," Illya said.
"Well. We'll think of something," Waverly said. "What of Mr. Solo?"
"No real news of yet," Illya said. "He was in surgery most of yesterday, and today as well. They—the doctors are concerned that one of the bullets grazed his spinal cord."
"Do they know how much damage was done?"
"Not until Napoleon wakes up."
"Dashed unfortunate," Waverly said. "And on such a routine assignment, too."
Illya parsed those sentences as well as he could, translated them to Russian in his head and back again, but was unable to determine if they were intended as reprimand or sympathy. Perhaps merely frustration; Waverly did not like losing field agents, whether to death or resignation or medical discharge.
"If you need me, sir, I'm available for an assignment," Illya said.
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said, almost absently. He continued to study Illya with a grave thoughtfulness. "That's all right. For now, I think, you'll serve best here. Inform me immediately when Mr. Solo regains consciousness."
"Yes, sir," Illya said.
* * *
Rather than sleep, Illya paced, prowling the corridors between the Critical Care rooms and the operating theatre. He could have argued that he was keeping watch, though really there was little need; all four of the Fischofs were incarcerated, and THRUSH rarely opted for revenge. The walking was more for Illya himself, affording him the opportunity to think with less interruption. Fewer well-meaning nurses tried to talk to him if he appeared to be busy heading for somewhere important.
The first day Illya had mostly been calculating possibilities in his head—no decisions, simply figuring the chances that Napoleon would wake up, that Napoleon would not wake up; that Napoleon would walk again, that he would not. Now he had reached the point where thinking becomes abstract, the cars of his train of thought only tenuously coupled.
If he had been watching the other Fischof brothers, instead of Montebank...If Napoleon had simply slipped out the restaurant door and let his partner manage the situation as best he could...If Napoleon had not come to the girl's defense...
It made no difference. That Illya himself had chosen poorly, was a cruel fact of timing and lack of awareness; nothing to be done about it save suffer remorse. And that Napoleon had acted as he had...was no more or less than Napoleon being Napoleon. Even if he hadn't danced a step with the girl, even if he hadn't used her to manufacture his distraction, chivalry would have compelled him to intervene on her behalf. To expect him to do otherwise would be like expecting him to breathe carbon dioxide instead of oxygen.
What had become of the girl? Illya should ask Mr. Waverly; U.N.C.L.E. might have taken her into custody, as a witness and for her own protection. Without Napoleon to speak for her, the obligation fell to his partner.
Illya did not know her name, could not remember her face. Only her auburn hair, and the way Napoleon had smiled at her, the way he smiled at any beautiful woman, when he asked her to dance—business and pleasure both, doing his job and entirely enjoying himself as he did.
That Illya might not see his partner smile that way again...
Some time before dawn, at the end of his current round of pacing, he found a night-shift nurse waiting for him, appropriately enough at the waiting room door. "Herr Kuryakin?" she asked. "If you like, you can see your...you can see Herr Solo now."
"No, but he's been moved to a private bed, and the doctor cleared him for visitation tomorrow. And it's almost tomorrow."
Familiar with hospital procedures, Illya dutifully washed his hands and accepted a cotton face mask, then followed the nurse to the room—more of a cubical, really, high partitions and curtains between separating Napoleon's bed from the rest of the ward. Napoleon, lying on white sheets with his torso swathed in white bandages, looked like he had been buried in a blizzard of starched cloth. His complexion, too, had the bluish tinge of frostbite, waxy and translucent.
He did not look dead; Illya was too familiar with death to mistake that appearance. But he did not really look alive, either, with a tangle of tubes up his mouth and nose and needles taped to his arm. The AKH's facilities were state-of-the-art, Illya reminded himself, for all that their equipment looked right out of Frankenstein—the late-night movie, not the superior novel.
"You can touch his hand," the nurse said, as if she were granting him a favor.
Illya reached out and set his hand lightly over Napoleon's, lax at his side. His fingers were cool, as if he were wearing latex gloves. Even though Napoleon's hands were always warmer than Illya's own.
"Cold hands, warm heart, my grandma used to say," Napoleon had said once. "Guess she never knew any Russians..."
Illya withdrew his hand. "Thank you," he told the nurse, who was watching him expectantly.
She didn't allow him to stay within the curtain with Napoleon, but she found him a chair so he might sit right outside. Illya thanked her for that, too, though he did not plan to use it. Once he was seated, however, he felt too heavy to stand again immediately; instead his head drooped, as if invisible weights were pulling it down, and he slept, rousing only now and again, when footsteps walked by which were unfamiliar from the past couple of days.
He came fully awake several hours later, startling back to awareness not from any obvious sound, but some other more obscure signal. A moment later a nurse emerged from the curtains around Napoleon's bed. "Herr Kuryakin," she said, then, "—oh, you're awake! Herr Solo is—"
Illya pushed past her and the curtain, to see Napoleon blinking. His eyes, rolling toward Illya, were vague and confused; Illya wasn't sure he was recognized, but he said, "Napoleon," and was relieved when that filmy gaze rose to him.
Napoleon's pallid lips moved, shaping Illya's name around the tube in his mouth.
"You were shot," Illya explained. "You're in Vienna's General Hospital now."
He wasn't sure if Napoleon understood, between the drugs and his injuries. Napoleon's hand, lying by his side on the bed, moved slightly, fingers twitching; then he raised it a few trembling inches off the mattress.
Illya had not washed his hands again, but sterility would help less than a strengthened spirit, and he knew too well the panic of awaking in a strange bed, sedated and immobilized. In their line of work, such a bed was rarely a safe place. So he didn't hesitate to take Napoleon's hand between his own and press, firmly reassuring. Napoleon's fingers still were too cold, but they moved in his rather than hanging limp like dead cuttlefish tentacles.
"It's all right," Illya said. "You're safe here, and the mission was not...entirely a failure."
Napoleon tried to speak again, mouthing Illya's name again.
"I'm fine," Illya told him. "Don't worry. Just rest, now."
Napoleon's eyes fluttered shut, his lashes dark against his wan gray cheeks. Then the nurse returned, doctor in tow, and pushed Illya aside to minister to their patient.
Illya went outside the Critical Care ward, found a private corner near the washrooms to take out his communicator and contact Mr. Waverly back at U.N.C.L.E. Vienna. He reported the news of Napoleon's awakening, then asked after the girl.
"Miss Werberg is proving a great help," Waverly told him. "She's agreed to testify against the Fischofs; while we might have trouble keeping Montebank, we should have an acceptable case assembled against the brothers and cousin."
Illya, not sure if Waverly considered this thanks to their work or in spite of it, said nothing.
U.N.C.L.E.'s Number One sighed. "Please keep me apprised of Mr. Solo's condition, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Understood, sir," Illya confirmed, and closed his communicator.
* * *
The next morning, Napoleon was closer to lucid—his eyes were still sunken in his too-pale face, but they were bright instead of dull, if unfocused from the painkillers. The doctors took the tube out of his throat, and he managed to stay awake for several minutes of tandem questioning from a pair of surgeons, who mostly wanted to know what hurt and where, and hmmed thoughtfully at his answers. Illya helped clarify these; the doctors' English was shaky, and Napoleon's German, usually quite adequate, was somewhat less than intelligible under the influence of morphine.
By the time the doctors were finished with their interrogation, Napoleon was blinking hard in an effort to stay conscious. "Sleep," Illya told him.
Napoleon shook his head, looking like he wanted to sit up—it was impossible, of course; his legs and torso were securely immobilized. "Illya," he got out, hoarse as a rusty gate, "back at the restaurant—no one got hurt?"
"Julian Fischof suffered a minor leg wound and a broken wrist," Illya said. "And his cousin sustained a bump on the head from the table. Otherwise, no. Other than you."
"And Ernesta's all right?"
Illya made a guess. "Miss Werberg is a guest of U.N.C.L.E. for now. She's not in trouble, merely a material witness."
"Good," Napoleon said, exhaling like he was letting go of a tiger's tail.
"Mr. Waverly might not agree," Illya said wryly.
Napoleon lifted one shoulder half a centimeter, about the best shrug he could manage. "Any mission you can walk away from..."
Illya kept his face still, not so much as a twitch of an eyelid; but perhaps that was a mistake and it was his stillness which Napoleon noticed.
"So," Napoleon said. His smile was blurred and softened by the drugs, but the irony was still visible in it. "What's the verdict? Was that my last dance?"
"They don't know yet," Illya said. "There might have been spinal damage from the bullets ricocheting. Or there might not have been. The doctors should know within the next couple of days."
Napoleon breathed in, breathed out, breathed in again, evenly, like he was practicing.
"Napoleon," Illya said, "I'm—"
"Illya," Napoleon interrupted him. He reached out his hand, as best he could—it was about the most motion he could make, now, and it was still only a matter of inches. Illya met the gap, folded Napoleon's fingers within his. When Napoleon tugged, he willingly let himself be pulled down, bending over Napoleon. His cheek scraped against Napoleon's, unshaven scruff against unshaven scruff, and Napoleon turned his head as much as he could, so their lips brushed. Napoleon's were dry and chapped, and his skin smelled of disinfectants and chemicals, not his usual aftershave.
But his breath was warm, puffing over Illya's cheeks, and Illya closed his eyes, grateful beyond reckoning for this proof of life. That Napoleon, even now, trapped in a hospital bed and not knowing when—if ever—he might be released from it, would yet still understand what Illya needed, and give it to him...
Hearing footsteps behind them, Illya quickly straightened up from the bed. Perhaps not fast enough—the nurse coming through the curtain gave them an odd look.
But then, this was not America, and he was a foreigner regardless. "I am glad you are doing better," Illya said aloud, emphasizing his accent, and bending over again, he kissed Napoleon on the cheeks, three times, right and left and right again.
Napoleon's eyes were closed, but the twist of his lips showed he was fighting a smile. "Crazy Russian," he mumbled, and then he had drifted off asleep—feigned or real, it didn't matter; his light snores were genuine, soon enough.
* * *
Illya went back to their hotel room, shaved and indulged in a real shower rather than just bathing in a washroom sink, and changed suits before heading to U.N.C.L.E. Vienna headquarters. Mr. Waverly had paperwork enough to keep him occupied for the rest of the day. Three different female staffers and one male asked if they might buy him dinner—two of the girls prefaced the offer with, "I heard about Mr. Solo..."; the others, Illya was unsure of their motivations. He turned down all of them, and bought sausages and sauerkraut on the way back to his hotel room.
He slept a solid eight hours and was back at the U.N.C.L.E. office by seven the next morning to finish up the last paperwork, filing his complete mission report by eight thirty. Mr. Waverly accepted it personally, made a desultory flip through the pages and then asked him, "And how is Mr. Solo faring today?"
"I haven't heard from him, sir."
Waverly eyed him inscrutably. "Then perhaps you ought to find out."
At the hospital, Illya discovered Napoleon had already been moved from Critical Care as of that morning—an excellent sign, the nurse assured him. She fetched one of the surgeons at his request, but the man unhelpfully refused to answer any questions. "Now that Herr Solo is conscious, he can determine his own care; any personal details I can only divulge to his family members."
Napoleon had been given a private room—U.N.C.L.E. did afford its agents some few privileges—but Illya heard his partner speaking as he reached the door. He opened it and entered to find Napoleon conversing with the blonde nurse changing his linens.
"Ah, Illya," Napoleon said, turning his head on the pillow towards him. "Tell the lovely fraulein here that I truly was wounded in the line of duty."
His German was clearer today, less slurred. He was still pale, but less sallow, and while he was not yet sitting up, the pillows propped under his head made it easier for him to face visitors. The better to flirt with the nurse, whose apple cheeks were turning redder with every twinkle of his drug-dark eyes.
"The truth is, he's a spy," Illya told her. "A dastardly double agent; you can't trust a word he says."
The nurse did not seem discouraged by this revelation; she was blushing even harder as she exited with mumbled well-wishes.
"Here you are," Napoleon said to Illya, once the door closed behind her. "I was wondering where you'd gotten to."
"I had matters to attend to."
"Indeed." Illya looked him over. Napoleon still looked terribly wan and exhausted, disturbingly depleted; but with the sheets drawn up over his bandages, his artless, heavy sprawl on the pillows might almost pass for laziness. Provided one ignored the IV needle in his arm and the various monitors beside the bed, and how he could not lift his head. "How are you?"
"Bored already," Napoleon confessed. "Though not so that I'm looking forward to getting off the morphine, yet."
"What have the doctors told you?" Illya asked carefully. "About your recovery?"
Napoleon looked away, deliberately, gazing down at the end of the bed, at his legs under the sheets. "Injury in the line of duty is an honorable discharge, at least," he said quietly.
Illya's stomach dropped as if he were standing in his own private elevator. "Napoleon," he said, and then, "Discharge?"
Napoleon shrugged. "I'm only three years from retirement anyway."
"From retirement as a Section Two field agent," Illya said sharply. "But Section One has no age or physical ability requirements."
Napoleon's eyes moved back to him. "I don't think Mr. Waverly's planning to step down, even if I were ready to replace him. Which I'm not."
"I didn't say Number One of Section One," Illya said. "Not yet. But we could be posted at one of the U.N.C.L.E. Northwest divisions—the American West Coast, maybe? Or the Midwest?"
"'We'?" Napoleon repeated.
"In the smaller offices, a Section Two agent partnered with someone from Section One isn't so unusual," Illya replied. Napoleon was looking at him with a strange sort of intensity, and Illya only realized what he was saying after he had said it. He swallowed, added, "That is—if you would want stay with U.N.C.L.E. And would want to stay partnered with me, if so."
Napoleon frowned. "Why wouldn't I want to stay partners with you?" he asked, then frowned deeper. "Illya—you can't—is that why you didn't come back yesterday? But you can't possibly be holding yourself responsible for me getting shot..."
"That I'm not directly responsible," Illya said, "is not to confirm that I am not indirectly responsible."
Napoleon blinked a couple of times. "...I'll leave that to figure out when I'm under the influence of fewer drugs. Illya, it wasn't your fault. I don't blame you."
"I'm glad to hear it," Illya said, sincerely.
"And you shouldn't blame you—especially since there's nothing to be blamed for. Nothing permanent, anyway."
Illya looked at him. "What?"
"The surgeons' initial tests are looking good," Napoleon told him. "It'll take a few months of tough PT, but I should get back most mobility. Enough to pass the Section Two physical, probably."
"But then..." Illya knitted his brow. "Why would you imply otherwise...?"
Napoleon sank his head back into the pillows. He actually looked abashed. It must have been the morphine. "Sorry. I just...was curious."
"I was wondering what you'd say," Napoleon said. His sunken eyes were dark, pupils dilated from the medication to glassy black holes. "Before the doctors told me, I was thinking...the few minutes I could stay awake to do it...I was thinking about what could happen. What I'd do. And what you'd do. What would change. I wanted to know what you'd say."
"You could have simply asked me," Illya said. "It's not as if I weren't considering such possibilities myself."
Illya would have thought he was being teased, but with Napoleon's eyes so dark they looked too wide and solemn, oddly innocent. "What else would I have been thinking about, these last few days?"
"I don't know." Napoleon shook his head, the pillow rustling under it. "I never know, with you."
That of course was far from accurate, Illya could have told him. The truth was, no one had ever followed his thoughts as well as Napoleon did; he was practically a mind-reader. But Napoleon was given to the American habit of hyperbole, and Illya knew from experience how bizarre conclusions could be reached when one did too much thinking under the disorientation of drugs and pain and the fatigue of healing. "I was thinking about it," Illya told him. "Until I realized what such a handicap would ultimately mean."
"Nothing," Illya said. "It would change nothing important. I'm only four years from field agent retirement myself; it would be no great thing to step down early, if Mr. Waverly demanded it. Though I don't think he would; cross-section partnerships are not unprecedented. The nature and arrangements of our missions might be altered, but U.N.C.L.E.'s goals would not be."
How could Napoleon's eyes be so black? They looked like pits, deep enough for Illya to fall into, as Napoleon stared at him. It was strange, that...exposure. Illya had seen his partner drugged and drunk and almost dying, had seen him giddy with triumph and despondent with failure, had seen his face as he climaxed; but he could not recall Napoleon ever looking so vulnerable. "And...nothing else would change?" Napoleon asked him.
"I don't know why it should have," Illya said. There would have been a few minor adjustments to make, but they were both creative problem-solvers; he hadn't been able to think of any issue impossible to surmount somehow, and Napoleon would have been no more stymied. As long as Napoleon had kept the spirit to face them, if he had not been too broken by what he had lost...
For his partner's sake, Illya was grateful that Napoleon did not have to face that trial—not yet, anyway; no one could say what the future would bring, especially in their career. As for himself—gratitude felt selfish. That he and Napoleon should be field agents together for some time yet; that Napoleon could forgive him, could see nothing to forgive...it seemed unfair, that Illya would be so rewarded, for no reason.
"Illya?" Napoleon asked. His voice was faint, fading; he was drifting to sleep again, against his will. Recovery required too damn much of that; Napoleon found it as frustrating as Illya did.
"I'm here," Illya said, and that too felt like more than he should deserve. Mindful of the hospital personnel who could enter at any minute, he didn't bend over to kiss the chapped lips below those open black-hole eyes, however much he wanted to. But he did take Napoleon's hand, and found it a little warmer, reassuringly. Napoleon squeezed his fingers back, his grip not strong, but not as weak as before, and Illya couldn't help but smile a little, as he watched his partner slip into a healing sleep.
* * *
The doctors would not allow Napoleon to move or be moved for at least two weeks after the surgery. With his top field agent cogent, if physically indisposed, Mr. Waverly sent Illya over with piles of extra paperwork to occupy Napoleon's downtime. Illya had trouble finding a place to put the folders, amidst the flowers and cards that had started filling up Napoleon's room—some mailed from various U.N.C.L.E. offices around the world, others brought by the hospital nurses, who kept finding excuses to drop by.
Illya didn't mind so much. With little else to do but lie in bed, Napoleon soon grew cranky, and irritable from the pain when they began cutting back on the drugs, but his mood as always improved with a pretty girl around. And the AKH had quite a few on their staff, all admiring of a genuine wounded hero. When they realized he was bored they started bringing him newspapers and books as well; good practice for Napoleon's German, and a few nurses were thoughtful enough to find English publications.
Illya himself was otherwise occupied, most of the time. THRUSH stops for no man, and Mr. Waverly had plenty of single-person assignments for him. Most of these were in Europe, even after Waverly had returned to New York; Illya would have been surprised by such consideration, had not the old man continued to contact him daily for updates on Mr. Solo's condition. Waverly was impatient to get his number one Section Two man back in the field, and had faith that Illya would not coddle him even if the doctors might.
Truthfully, Napoleon didn't need coddling; he was just as impatient to get back to work, or at least to get out of the hospital. When the doctors gave him the first low-stress physical therapy exercises, he attempted to exhaust himself with them, and it was difficult to convince him that this was counterproductive.
Illya entirely understood Napoleon's feelings, but sided with the doctors anyway. "The sooner you are better," Illya chastised his partner, "the sooner I can get back to real missions. So if you could please follow the rules to heal as quickly as possible, before I forget how to do anything but courier runs?"
Napoleon glared at him for a moment, then lay back on the bed and let his eyelids and voice both drop in an unmistakably lascivious manner. "You know," he said huskily, "there are other incentives you could offer for me getting out of this hospital..."
Illya glowered at him. With doctors and nurses—especially nurses—not to mention occasional agents entering Napoleon's room whenever they liked, they couldn't risk any sort of contact that might be carried on the rumor mill back to U.N.C.L.E. Mr. Waverly's blind eye only turned so far.
Napoleon, at least, could bask in the attentions of all the various females who kept stopping by; any one of them would be willing to alleviate his boredom. Illya did not envy his partner those attentions, but after two weeks his own well of patience was fast running dry.
It took several more days before the surgeons pronounced Napoleon fit for travel, and that was only grudgingly, pressured by both Mr. Waverly and Napoleon himself. U.N.C.L.E. chartered a direct flight to take him back to New York. Illya rode along, and suffered the single—attractive, voluptuous, brunette—flight attendant pressing coffee and peanuts on him for the entire flight, while Napoleon dozed, groggy from the sedative the doctors had insisted he take to counter the stresses of the journey. They quite ignored Illya's advice that Napoleon routinely endured far greater stresses than relaxing in the luxuriously padded cabin of a private jet.
Once back in Manhattan, the medical division of U.N.C.L.E. New York declared Napoleon's progress satisfactory, but flatly refused to sign a discharge order. "What do they mean they're not letting me go?" Napoleon complained.
"The doctor thinks if he allows you to go home, you'll overdo it and end up right back here," Illya told him.
Napoleon reached out and grabbed his wrist. Still not as strong as his usual grip, Illya noted, but much improved. "Get me out of here," Napoleon begged him. "If I could just get a real night's sleep in my own bed..."
Illya studied Napoleon's face, peaked and pale with pain that was still sharp whenever he moved. "I think it might be for the best if you listen to them," he said.
"You're heartless!" Defeated, Napoleon released his wrist and flopped back on the infirmary bed. "What happened to being partners? That nothing would be changed?"
"What's changed?" Illya inquired. "Haven't I always been heartless?"
He did not mention then, as he hadn't before, the image that would occasionally flash across his mind, seared into his memory by a brand hot enough to scar: Napoleon lying on the restaurant's floor, his blood pooling on the polished floorboards he had been dancing on just minutes before.
That memory would never fade, Illya knew; but its mark would heal, as Napoleon's wound was healing, and eventually it wouldn't hurt when he moved or breathed.
Until then, Illya slept easier in his own bed, knowing that Napoleon was safe in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, rather than at his apartment, where he might be in danger, from THRUSH if they decided to break form and take advantage of his infirmity; or from his own too impatient self.
Regrettably the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary, like the rest of the offices, was wired with video cameras and microphones, so they had to be even more circumspect. Illya could visit as much as he liked; it would have been more notable if he hadn't. But, like Napoleon dancing with a woman not his date, they kept a scrupulous distance between them, no contact but what was professionally acceptable. Illya helped him with some of his therapy exercises, but that lead to more frustration than satisfaction, to have his hands on Napoleon's warm thighs but have to refrain from sliding them higher.
Meanwhile the female U.N.C.L.E. personnel had no such compunctions. Over the next week, Illya believed that every single eligible woman on the headquarters staff dropped by the infirmary at least once, and most of them more than that. There was, apparently, something incomprehensibly irresistible about a man with a gunshot wound; or maybe it was the bandages they liked. Or that Napoleon was confined to his bed, the lion tamed and collared.
Whatever the reasons, Illya became used to coming into the medical section to find a female cutting Napoleon an apple, or giving him a massage, or offering him a sponge bath. The girls might blush and pull back when they noticed Illya, but Napoleon never did; more often he would wink and invite Illya to join them. (To Illya's consternation, scarcely a single one of the women protested this suggestion, and more than a few repeated it enthusiastically.)
Regardless, Illya was relieved when finally, a week after their return to New York, the doctor released Napoleon for care at home, with the proviso that Illya room with him for the next week at least. Illya happily signed the papers to confirm his compliance, and brought his partner back to Napoleon's apartment. He drove carefully to avoid larger potholes, with Napoleon making fun of him for it the entire way.
Once there, it took a little maneuvering and the doorman's help to get Napoleon plus wheelchair up his apartment steps and inside to the elevator. Illya found himself half-carrying Napoleon, supporting his partner's heavy, warm weight while Napoleon wrapped his arms around his shoulders. It was the closest they had been for a month, and Illya felt like he could scarcely breathe, his heart beating so hard it was thumping against his lungs.
"And here I thought I'd be the one carrying someone over the threshold," Napoleon remarked in his ear, and Illya exhaled with a snort.
Once inside the apartment, Illya pushed Napoleon's wheelchair into the living room, helped him move onto the couch and offered, "It's chilly, shall I make a fire in the fireplace?"
"Later," Napoleon said, then reached up and grabbed Illya's tie and yanked him down to his level—with more force than he'd used in weeks, and Illya would have questioned the exertion, except that then their lips were sealed together and he didn't care so much after all. If Napoleon were in real pain, he couldn't be so enthusiastic. His lips were still chapped, but his mouth tasted fresh and his tongue was hot and agile, and Illya didn't mind his breath being stopped again.
It was too short; Napoleon far too soon let go of Illya's tie, pulled back. "Um," he said, licking his lips. "That is..."
Napoleon's pupils were blown again, enormous black holes, though he'd been off the morphine for a couple of weeks. Illya did not allow himself to be pulled into them; he shut his eyes and slid his hand around the back of Napoleon's head, drawing him into another kiss. Napoleon's dark hair was smooth and soft; he hadn't had access to his styling creams in the infirmary, and he'd had girls happy to help him wash it daily. Napoleon's arms went around Illya, pulling him down to sit beside him on the couch, his fingers tangling in Illya's own hair, gently tugging in a way that was not at all unpleasant.
When they finally broke apart, Napoleon was breathing hard, sweat beading on his brow; but he looked far from in pain. "So, that answers that," he said, dazed.
"I wasn't sure," Napoleon said, glancing away. "About what you... You haven't seemed terribly interested, these last weeks. I thought you might have...reconsidered our partnership."
"I reconsidered nothing," Illya said. "I did consider that I didn't want our partnership to be terminated. By a bullet, or by U.N.C.L.E.'s rules. The cameras in the infirmary are not merely for show."
Napoleon looked back at him, and grinned. "Lucky it was you," he said. "Cold as Soviet ice. If you'd been the one in bed, I wouldn't have been able to stop myself, and then where would we be?"
"Ice?" Illya said. "More like a snowball—with scarcely a chance in hell. I don't know how I managed it. Please do not make me do so again, Napoleon."
"I'll try to refrain from getting shot," Napoleon said. He draped his arm across the couch back, hand resting on Illya's shoulder, idly ruffling his hair, as if he could not get enough of it between his fingers. "Was it really so bad for you? It didn't show..."
"You hardly had cause to notice," Illya said wryly. "You've not lacked for companionship, these last weeks. Who knew women found bullet wounds so appealing?"
"But they weren't you," Napoleon said, incomprehensibly matter-of-fact. "Not to say that that I didn't appreciate their attention, but it's not a substitute. There isn't one, not for this. Not for you."
"I see," Illya said, though he didn't. But then, Napoleon had said it before, hadn't he, that what was between them was different. "As I'm no substitute for them," he said, understanding. "For the women you can kiss on duty or off, even where there's cameras, and take out to dinner and dancing."
"Yes," Napoleon said. "And no. Because if I couldn't go dancing anymore, I'd miss it, sure, but I'd manage. Even if I couldn't take field missions anymore, I'd survive it. This, though," and without breaking his gaze from Illya's, he groped for and grasped Illya's hand, squeezed his fingers, as Illya had for him in the hospital. "If this changed, if I lost this...I couldn't. That's how it's different."
"Oh," Illya said quietly, and he turned his hand to interlace his fingers with Napoleon's, warm, calloused palms pressed together.
"And I'd take you out dancing, if you were willing to go," Napoleon said. "There's a few places I know down in the Village—but you only dance if the mission demands it, last I checked."
"Yes," Illya said. "Well. Perhaps once, when you're ready, to make sure you're in shape after this. If you'd like to?"
"I'd love to." Napoleon grinned, huge and unreserved. "Oh, that'll help me get through the therapy—I told you, incentives! If you knew how much I've wanted to take you out..."
"I didn't," Illya said, slightly bewildered. "I didn't know."
Napoleon shook his head. "It can get awfully...distracting," he said, dropping his voice, so that Illya had to lean in to hear him, "when I'm dancing with a woman, when she's getting closer, and all I can think about is having you in my arms. It's gotten me in hot water, a few times now."
"Don't be," Napoleon said, and leaned closer, too.
"Napoleon," Illya said, and then because it was difficult to look into his smile, into the warmth in his brown eyes, and not return it, he said, "I would have regretted it. If I'd never had one dance with you."
Napoleon cocked an eyebrow at him. "But you don't like dancing?"
"I don't," Illya said. "But—as you say. This is different."
Napoleon's smile was not his usual boyish charm, but a deeper happiness. "In that case—may I have the next dance, Illya?"
"Yes," Illya agreed. Then he leaned closer, so he could feel Napoleon's breath against his cheeks, and cupped his hand around the back of Napoleon's neck, running his fingernails lightly down the groove of his spine between the tendons, feeling Napoleon shiver. "But, Napoleon..."
"Before that dance, can we please have sex?"
Napoleon grinned. "The doctors did recommend plenty of aerobic exercise," he said, and allowed Illya to push him—gently, for now—down onto the couch.