"You're going to love London, April."
Solo was sitting next to her at the bar, hoping she wouldn't start to cry. How was it he'd never gotten around to talking to her about this before now? Before they were sitting at the airport, waiting for her plane to board?
"I know, Napoleon. I've always wanted to be posted there. But why does U.N.C.L.E. always give with one hand, and take away with the other?"
She was already drinking too much, Napoleon thought, but maybe it was just as well. Maybe she'd pass out on the plane and forget about the goodbye hugs, the "we'll miss you" parties, the downside of this move. In a few days the excitement of change would take over, the new flat, new opportunities. But he could relate to what she was feeling at the moment. She was leaving Mark, leaving her partner.
And Mark's new partner was Illya Kuryakin.
"I'm sorry to be such a cry baby, boss," she moaned. "It's so good of you to bring me to the airport. I'd be a basket case if Mark had brought me."
Solo reached for the hands that were twisting a paper napkin. "It's an honor that one of my last acts as CEA is to be of service to one of my best agents." He gave one hand a consoling squeeze.
She looked at him and her body slumped. "I'm going to miss you, too." Her eyes filled and Solo slipped his arm around her shoulders, allowing her to lean on him.
"You're going to make us proud, sweetheart," he assured her with a kiss to her hair. "And you'll be back for Christmas, won't you?"
She nodded and sat up again, pulling herself together. "You're right," she said with a sniff. "You're always right, Napoleon. U.N.C.L.E. is lucky to have you for our future Chief."
He didn't reply. They sat quietly for a few minutes.
Announcing Pan Am flight 162 to London will be delayed one hour.
"Funny," April sighed, "Mark and I shared so many good experiences, so many successful endings to tough assignments. But the times that stand out in my mind are the miserable nights in some God-forsaken place, the joke he would make to cheer me up." She stared into her glass. "I suppose things can never be quite like that again."
Solo sipped his scotch.
"There was never anything between Mark and me, romantically I mean. But every other way..." Her voice drifted off, and then returned. "He was my rock, you know. My brother. The only one I could depend on to always be there for me." A word would catch in her throat now and then. "I know Jane Watkins will be a good partner and we've been given a real challenge as U.N.C.L.E.'s first female team. It's a huge advancement in my career but... lightning only strikes once."
They sat silently for awhile, the dark barroom allowing them to get lost in their thoughts. Remarkably interchangeable thoughts.
"Napoleon, you're not taking this with you, are you?" Illya said, holding up a little wood chicken the Russian had bought him in New Zealand as a joke. "U.N.C.L.E. Chiefs are supposed to have sculptures of eagles and lions in their offices, not the Little Red Hen."
Solo grabbed it away and put it back into one of the boxes, giving his partner a mock scowl. "You Section Two people shouldn't worry about things that don't concern you."
Kuryakin looked at him blankly, then forced a smile.
Solo realized that the wisecrack had hit too close to home. They were still part of the same universe, but after this week, they would exist on two different planets. Circumstances wouldn't accommodate them anymore. No longer would they be thrown together to fight Thrush, to beat the odds, or to just enjoy each other's company.
Solo looked down at the two cardboard boxes full of artifacts from the last fifteen years of his life, and felt the sense of loss that had been dogging him all week. It was after hours and they were alone in his office, and a good opportunity to say something that needed to be said.
"You know, Illya," he started, "we may not be partners anymore in the eyes of this bureaucracy, but we'll always be partners... here." He reached toward the Russian and tapped Illya's chest twice, and then tapped his own.
The blue eyes held his steadily for a minute, then Illya smiled. "You are so hopelessly sentimental, Napoleon."
Solo raised his chin and peered down at him. "Just to show you that sentiment does not cloud my judgement, the chicken goes." He retrieved the wood figurine from the box and dropped it in a wastebasket.
Illya smiled again and nodded in approval. "Now that's the type of ruthless decision you're going to have to make every day from now on."
"Then I've just decided that it's time to leave these four walls behind, and move to another four walls. Choose a box."
Illya picked up the box closer to him and led the way. Solo stopped in the doorway and looked back at the bare office briefly, then followed Kuryakin down the hall to the executive wing of Section One. The Russian paused before he entered his partner's new office, then stepped back. "I believe you should have the honors," he said to Napoleon.
"Illya, there have been painters and furniture movers in and out of here all day," Solo said, downplaying the necessity of the gesture.
"Yes, but this is official," Kuryakin said.
He beamed a little as he said it, Napoleon noted, as if he was proud of him. Solo shrugged and walked into the room. He let out a low whistle. "Pretty nice, huh?"
They both observed the fresh paint, the walnut desk in front of the big leather chair, the matching leather couch.
"I can't believe Mr. Waverly ordered all this for you," Illya said.
"Neither can I," Solo said as he dropped the box on an end table and stepped behind the desk to test the chair. "What's this tag?" He read the card that hung from the arm of the chair, then chuckled. "It's used, from that law firm across the street that moved out last week."
Illya made himself comfortable on the couch. "Very gently used, however," he noted, running his hand across the tufted leather. "It's too bad Mr. Waverly spends most of the day in the briefing room. You probably won't be able to enjoy this very often."
"It will have to be my hideaway," Solo said, leaning back to put his hands behind his head and his feet on the desk.
Kuryakin looked at his watch. "It's getting late; I think I'll be going."
"I'll stay a while," Solo said as the Russian moved to the door.
"I will see you tomorrow then," Illya said, pausing in the doorway with a farewell smile, and walked out. He strolled back to Section Two, passing a few second shift personnel. There was a janitor's trolley parked just outside his office. The man came out of another office and emptied a wastebasket into his larger receptacle. Illya looked into it. "Did you empty the bin from that office yet?" he asked, his head nodding toward Solo's now vacant room.
"Yes, sir, just now," the man said. "Did you lose somethin'?"
"Yes. Did you see a little wood chicken?" Illya asked, approximating the size with his hand.
The man looked at him strangely, then plunged his hand into the waste papers, sifting through them. "You know, no one is supposed to retrieve any paperwork from these baskets. It goes from my hands into the incinerator."
"I know," Kuryakin said, "and I commend you for being mindful of your responsibilities. But this is just a little, what's the word, knick-knack?"
The man's face revealed that he'd just felt something odd among the papers. He pulled out the little wood hen. "Is this what you're lookin' for?"
Illya smiled. "Yes."
The man held it up to his ear and shook it. "It doesn't have any secret thingamajigs in it, does it?"
Illya grinned. "No, it's just a souvenir."
The janitor handed it to him cautiously. "Well, okay then."
He watched as Kuryakin examined it, turning it over in his hand, then the Russian looked at him and smiled. "Thank you," he said, pocketing it. He walked on down the hall to the elevator.
The janitor went back to his work.
Fiorello's. The bar frequented by Section Two agents for the past twenty years. A place where they could feel ordinary, just one international spy among many.
Solo and Kuryakin had logged a couple hundred hours here. The CEA always arrived with at least one good joke, and he would hold court at the rectangular bar, his partner at his side with a vodka close at hand. A few agents would engage in tall tales of field adventures, attempting to one-up each other. The more exaggerated the better, because the rest could then hoot and catcall. The smell of whiskey and cigars filled the air.
Usually the two senior agents would adjourn to a table after awhile, their heads bent together, huddled over a beer and some problem from earlier in the day.
But tonight Solo walked in alone. The two agents in the foyer who had pulled door security nodded to him. He strolled into the boisterous room and walked toward the bar in the center. The occupants became more subdued as he did so, many eyes discreetly following him, until the atmosphere was uncharacteristically quiet.
He ignored the change and took a stool on one side of the bar. "Hi, Fred."
"What can I get for ya tonight, Napoleon, the usual?"
"Sure, why not?" Conversation in the room began to build again, but the voices stayed low.
"Where's your partner?" asked the bartender, serving up his scotch.
Solo watched the room with his peripheral vision. "He's on assignment. He's, ah, got a new partner."
"Yeah, I heard you got a big promotion. Congratulations," the man said, throwing a towel over his shoulder. "Must be kind of tough, though, making the big change."
Solo smiled at the veteran bartender. "Well, you won't be seeing much of me anymore. I just stopped in for a farewell drink."
"Hey, your money's no good tonight then. It's on the house."
Solo raised his glass to the bartender and took a drink.
The man put his hands on his hips. "I remember when you came in here still wet behind the ears."
Solo chuckled. "You're getting old, Fred."
"Don't I know it, pal, don't I know it," he said, wiping up rings of moisture.
He left to wait on other customers, and Solo studied the scratches in the surface of the bar. He ran his fingers over them. The faint ones were put there accidentally by car keys or Specials, but others were etched there. Initials. Dates. A primitive record of U.N.C.L.E. agents, more poignant and true than personnel files. Some were still active, some retired, some dead and gone.
He fingered a crude SOLO 55. Those few strokes of his knife would have to represent him in this place from now on. He didn't belong here. He was no longer one of them. He got up to leave.
"Only one drink, Napoleon?" the bartender asked. "Why don't you stay and have another?"
Solo smiled. He reached over the bar and shook the man's hand. "Take care of yourself, Fred.".
He strolled back to the exit, looking straight ahead.
A voice from behind called to him, "Napoleon?"
Solo stopped at the door and turned halfway to see one of his senior agents sitting at a table close by. He looked at him questioningly. The man raised his glass.
In just a few seconds, all eyes in the bar were on Solo, and every glass was held high.
Solo swept the room with his gaze, then smiled and gave a little nod.
He turned and walked out the door.
There had been several gatherings in his honor to either say goodbye or welcome him to his new post. Everything from the secretaries surprising him with a cake, to a black tie affair at a local country club. But as he wandered down the street in the dark, the transition his life was making finally hit home. And he wished that a certain Russian was walking at his side.
He became Waverly's right hand, Waverly's shadow, Waverly's pupil of one. The Old Man lectured him, quizzed him, and shared U.N.C.L.E.'s most closely held secrets with him, some of which left him dumbstruck. They ate lunch together, attended official functions together, even rode in to work together, Waverly's driver stopping for Solo in front of his building.
The paperwork was mind numbing. All those reports he'd had to write when he was in Section Two were now reports that he had to read. And digest. And summarize for Waverly. He would then render his stamp of approval, and send them on to languish in a file drawer. Someday, when he did become permanent Chief of U.N.C.L.E. North America, there would definitely be more delegating.
There were rewards, too, however. Brainstorming with the Old Man about action they should take against Thrush and other world despots who needed to be taken down a peg or two was the best of all. Solo now had the power to set events in motion, the many arms of U.N.C.L.E. at his command. It was intimidating, but he had the capability and the confidence, the brains and the balls.
It wasn't hands on, though. He couldn't set the explosives, he couldn't free the hostage, he couldn't draw his Special and shoot his way out of a corner.
And he couldn't watch his partner's back. Someone else was doing that. Solo had bumped into Mark in the elevator just before he and Illya had gone on their first mission together as a permanent team. "Take good care of my partner," he'd said after a pleasantry or two, and squeezed Mark's arm. Maybe a little too hard.
Solo lay in bed at night and wondered what Illya was doing at that minute, calculating the time of day where he was. He'd picture him doing something as mundane as eating lunch, or as job-related as stealing about in the dark, hoisting himself up to a second floor window, dressed all in black. Sometimes he would picture him sleeping. Sleeping next to Mark.
Sharing a bed with someone made you feel you were on intimate terms with that person, even when nothing sexual was involved. You felt the mattress dip when he turned, you listened to him breathe, you observed him while he was totally unaware. Once in awhile you even got an arm thrown across your ribs. Sometimes you threw it back and barked at him. Sometimes you left it where it fell.
Solo had read an article about ESP and wondered if there was any credibility to it, wondered if he would know if Illya was in trouble. Sometimes he'd reach for his communicator and contact Section Four.
"Any reports in the last couple of hours from Section Two or Three agents?" he'd ask. A list of names would be read to him, and he would interrupt occasionally to ask a question, then say "continue" until there were no more names.
No news was good news.
It was Illya's birthday, it was Sunday, and he wasn't on assignment. Solo called him that morning.
"I'd, ah, sing but I doubt you'd appreciate my voice without benefit of a vodka or two."
"It's too early for vodka, Napoleon."
Solo smiled. "Then we'd better go out for dinner. My treat."
"Only if I get requests," Solo said.
"I'm safe then," the Russian replied.
"Pick you up at seven?"
Illya bounced down the stone steps of his building in his predictable black suit and turtleneck. He got into the front passenger seat like he had a thousand times before, and suddenly everything was just as it had been.
He turned to Napoleon. "Where are we going?"
"It's your birthday," Solo said with a wave of his hand. "The city is yours."
"You know what I like. Just head for the nearest place."
Solo headed for Little Italy. Illya looked at him when he realized where they were going. "Not Chinatown?"
"Why didn't you say you wanted Chinese?" Napoleon said with annoyance.
"Why didn't you tell me you were thinking of Italian?" Illya sniped.
Napoleon tsked and steered the car around the block to head in the opposite direction. "You can try the patience of a saint, you know that?"
Illya stared at him. "You must have left your halo at home on your hat rack."
They debated for the next ten minutes about where they would most likely find a parking place.
Solo was happier than he'd been in weeks.
They were finally settled at a satisfactory table in a satisfactory restaurant. Tea and soup were served and they ordered their main dishes.
"So," Napoleon began, "what's up in Section Two?"
Illya searched his mind. "I've been in and out of town so much that I'm behind on any gossip." He sipped a spoonful of soup. "You always kept me informed in that regard anyway. I have to rely on Mark to pass along the juicy tidbits now."
There was an awkward silence. Solo changed the subject. "Refresh my memory, where did you go last week?"
"Oh, that's right." Napoleon knew where he'd been and when he'd returned. And he had read Illya's report as soon as it was submitted. Nothing about the assignment was grist for conversation. There'd been no big surprises or heavy risks. "Did you visit the Space Needle?"
"Not this trip. You and I went up there about two years ago, remember?" Illya said.
Napoleon nodded and smiled. They'd been in a hurry to catch a plane, but Solo had insisted on going up to see the view. "Aren't you glad we did?"
Illya glared at him. "We had to literally run through the airport, if I remember correctly."
"You wouldn't have missed it for the world." Napoleon teased.
Illya nodded absentmindedly and took another spoonful of soup.
Napoleon suddenly had no place to take the conversation.
Illya glanced up at him. "So, do you have any news for me from Section One?"
"I'm busier than I've ever been," Napoleon said.
"You're learning how to hold the reins," the Russian assured him. "The job will get easier."
Napoleon took a sip of tea from the small cup and swallowed. "You wouldn't believe the paperwork, Illya. And I don't have you anymore to take some of the load off my shoulders."
The Russian snorted. "Some?"
"Not 'some' of the paperwork, 'some' of the load," Napoleon clarified. "And right now Waverly wants to reorganize one of the sections, and rewrite policy on—" He stopped.
"On what?" Illya asked.
Napoleon looked down at his soup. "Uh, I guess I can't discuss that."
"I understand," Illya said.
"It's probably not a good idea to talk about classified matters in a crowded restaurant anyway," Solo said, smiling.
Kuryakin nodded. "You wouldn't believe the new listening devices that are being developed every day."
"Really?" Solo asked. "Have you got some reference material?"
"Yes, I have several articles. I'll put them in the inter-office mail for you."
Solo watched him finish the soup. "Why don't you just drop them off at my office?"
"Because tomorrow we have to leave for Oslo."
Napoleon frowned. We have to...? No. He wasn't part of the "we" anymore. He couldn't believe that for a split second he thought... "You're, uh, escorting the new Peace Prize winner home, aren't you?"
"Yes, a pretty cushy job, as my old partner would say." Illya made brief eye contact and smiled. "First class hotel, private plane. But then back to New York in coach."
Napoleon forced a chuckle, then studied the gold dragons on the red doors beyond Illya.
Their dinner arrived. Solo managed to eat it all, but didn't taste a thing. Kuryakin finished his meal in record time. Conversation was sparse.
Napoleon delivered him back to his apartment in the Village. Illya hesitated before he got out. "Thank you for dinner, Napoleon."
"Happy birthday, Illya, and have a good trip."
Kuryakin smiled and nodded, then got out of the car. Solo watched him run up the steps and disappear into the brownstone, the lace curtains on the other side of the window swinging back and forth with the closing of the door.
"We'll have to do it again next year," Solo said under his breath.
Seven p.m. He was actually going to get out of the office before nine that night. Solo stood at the elevator and arched his back, flexing muscles, rolling his head around. He was stiff and sore. Desk jobs were tougher than field jobs.
The doors opened and he got in and reached toward the panel of buttons. His finger hovered over the ground floor button, then wandered to "3" and pushed it instead. Illya had returned from a two-week assignment the day before, and the thought occurred to Solo that he might be in the lab, catching up on lost time.
The doors slid open and he stepped out. The corridor lights were dimmed, but he could see a brighter one under one of the lab doors at the end of the hall. He smiled and walked toward it with a spring in his step. The door opened to the sound of laughter.
"You should have seen his face, mate, when you grabbed him from behind." Mark was sitting on a stool, watching Illya work.
Illya was smiling. "That was thanks to your distraction."
Mark snorted. "Survival School 101."
Illya slipped off his lab coat and turned to see Napoleon standing just inside the door. He and Mark looked at each other, then back at Solo.
"I thought you might be down here," Solo said.
Mark walked over to him. "I feel an assignment coming on. Tell me, guv, where will Illya and I be having breakfast?" The Russian stayed where he was, looking at Solo with mild interest, then moved to a locker to put away his lab coat.
"No, this is just a social call," Solo said. "How have things been going for the two of you?"
Mark looked at Illya, wondering if he wanted to field the question. When Illya seemed occupied, he answered.
"Everything is right as rain. Was there some question about the last mission?" he asked. "Illya wrote the report, so I know all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed."
Solo smiled. "No, no questions. I was just on my way home and saw the light under the door." Illya was taking a very long time changing back into his jacket. Solo made some small talk with Slate for a while but when Kuryakin still didn't join them, Solo decided it was bad timing on his part.
"Well, it's been a long day," he said. "Bye, Mark." He raised his voice and looked over to the lockers. "Goodnight, Illya."
Two weeks later he woke in the middle of the night from a dream. Illya had been complaining to him about something. What was he saying? Napoleon brushed a lock of hair from his forehead and tried to grasp the dream of just moments ago. He could picture Illya's face, annoyed, impatient with him. He could see his mouth moving.
Solo stretched for his communicator, called Section Four, and routinely asked about personnel who had reported in during the last few hours.
"Only a couple of transmissions, sir, but Mark Slate and Illya Kuryakin returned to headquarters at 1:46 a.m. An ambulance brought them into Medical from the airport."
Solo was instantly wide awake. "To Medical, not to the hospital?"
"Yes, sir. There's no report yet on which one required the ambulance or what his condition is."
Solo recapped the device and bolted out of bed. He pulled his pants on over his pajama bottoms and grabbed the top shirt from a drawer. He continued to dress while his mind raced. No life threatening injury would be treated at Medical. No one could be hurt that badly.
He hurried to his front door and called down to the doorman to get a taxi for him. It was waiting by the time he got downstairs. The driver would make good time in the sparse 2 a.m. traffic. Solo pulled out his communicator again and spoke while he rode. "Open Channel D for Medical section."
"Nurse Williamson here."
"This is Napoleon Solo. I was told a team of Section Two agents just came in."
"Yes, sir," she said, "Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Slate."
"What are their injuries?" he asked.
Another nurse or someone interrupted her, asking a question.
She returned. "I apologize for the interruption, sir." Papers shuffled in the background. Solo's frustration surfaced. "Answer me, Nurse Williamson," he said, raising his voice.
"Mr. Kuryakin was treated, but his injuries are not serious," she replied. "Mr. Slate was not injured.
"Read Mr. Kuryakin's chart to me."
She recited the rules to him, "Sir, charts are for medical personnel's eyes only."
"READ HIS CHART TO ME."
He could hear her sigh, but she began to comply, not word for word, but skimming through the notations, picking out the highlights. A litany that indicated a badly battered body. Nothing that wouldn't heal. Just pain and more pain.
"Let me speak to the doctor, please, nurse."
"He was called away, sir, to an on-site emergency in the Bronx. He's seen Mr. Kuryakin and prescribed rest and a minimum dose of morphine, at the patient's request. He'll be back soon."
The taxi arrived at U.N.C.L.E.'s after hours entrance. Solo wasted no time getting to Medical. He walked into the hushed hallway and straight to the nurses' station.
"Mr. Solo..." The nurse whom he assumed was Williamson stood up. "I didn't know you were on your way here."
"Where's my— where's Kuryakin?" he asked.
"He's down the hall on your right, Room 6." She wanted to instruct him not to disturb the patient, but thought better of it.
Solo rushed down the deserted corridor and pushed open the door to number six just enough to slip into the dimly lit room. The curtain around the bed was partly drawn so he couldn't see Illya, but he could see two feet on the floor.
"Do you want some water?" It was Mark's voice.
"Yes," a more familiar one croaked.
Napoleon stood very still. He watched Mark's feet turn as he retrieved the water glass from the nightstand. "There you go. Not too much, the doctor said."
There was a mumble of thanks.
"Can I get you anything else?" Mark asked quietly.
Solo stood and listened to the solicitous voice for another minute, then slipped out the door as quietly as he'd come in. He wandered down the hall, not sure where he was heading. There was a coffee machine at the end and he mechanically reached into his pocket for some change. Nothing. It was lucky he'd remembered to grab a couple of bucks for the taxi. He wasn't in the mood for coffee anyway. A pint of scotch, maybe.
"Napoleon?" A hushed voice called from behind. He turned to see Mark up the hall, and walked toward him, shifting into his executive demeanor.
"Mark, I heard you and Illya ran into some trouble."
Slate looked at him with pain in his eyes. "Yeah, guv, I wasn't even there when those blokes jumped him. I should have been."
Solo put his arm around Slate's shoulders and steered him to a waiting room. "Let's sit down, huh?"
They sat on an orange vinyl couch and Mark leaned forward on his elbows, world weary.
"You're okay, aren't you?" Solo asked.
"Not a scratch," he said. "I managed to chase them off, but not before they did some damage to Illya."
Solo kept one eye out for the doctor and patted Slate's back. "Sometimes our timing is off. It can't be helped."
Slate looked in the direction of Kuryakin's room, then studied the gray tile of the floor. "I think Illya's timing is off, too. He doesn't sleep very well. Tosses and turns in his bed. I know, because I don't sleep very well these days either."
Solo concentrated more on what Slate was saying. "Why not?"
Slate thought about his answer carefully. "Illya and I...when we're together... on the job and off..."
Solo held his breath.
"...we're not quite synchronized. You know what I mean? Not like April and I were."
Solo relaxed and exhaled. "These things take time. You've only been together, what, eight months? You just haven't clicked yet."
Slate shook his head. "I've tried, Napoleon. I mean, Chief..."
"Off the record, Mark."
"Off the record?" He gathered his thoughts. "I've been spoiled working with someone I'm so close to. You wouldn't think April and I would have a lot in common, but we do. She speaks her mind, doesn't hold back. I'm a simple working class guy and I like that. But Illya... I don't like to complain, but he and I don't speak the same language. He always has some droll remark, sometimes in French or Italian or, cripes, Japanese. When he speaks at all. At least once a day he goes silent for hours at a time, and I don't know if he's upset with me, or what the problem is."
It was all Solo could do to stifle his amusement. He could just imagine Mark being stymied by Illya's quiet periods. It had to be quite a change from April's chatter.
"There's something else, Napoleon." Slate's voice was quieter. "I never thought I had feelings for April. Romantic feelings, I mean. But apparently, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Bloody silly, isn't it, after being like a brother and a best friend to someone for years, to suddenly discover you're in love, that you need that other person so much? That other half of you?"
Solo felt a warmth spread through him and a flush come to his face. He was glad Mark was turned away from him, still staring at the floor. He patted Mark's back again in consolation. "Sometimes we need a jolt to make us realize how we feel."
"I don't want to let Illya down. I don't want to let U.N.C.L.E. down either. We're all professionals. We're supposed to be able to accept change, roll with the punches. I just... I just find the days are so long without her. Why can't things that are so good, so perfect, last forever?"
"I know, Mark," Solo said quietly.
Slate sat up and looked at him. "You do know, don't you?"
Solo met his eyes hesitantly. Then he nodded.
"Then you should also know that, as Illya was drifting off to sleep just now, he whispered your name."
The doctor returned and consulted with Solo, assuring him that his former partner would make a full recovery. Mark fell asleep on the vinyl couch, exhausted.
Solo returned to Room 6.
Even though he appeared to be asleep, Kuryakin's face was tense with pain. Solo bent over him, examining the shades of purple and green on his face and arms, the right eye that was swollen shut. He moved to the foot of the bed and lifted the sheet to see more bruises on his calves and thighs.
"Hey," a weak voice said, "what are you looking at?"
Solo smiled at him mischievously. "You caught me." He returned to the head of the bed.
Illya tried to enunciate without aggravating the stitches in his split lip. "You could at least kiss me before you ogle my groin," he teased.
To Illya's surprise, Napoleon bent down and gently kissed the corner of his mouth, then braced his arms on each side of his friend. "I heard you were asking for me," he said in a hushed voice.
Kuryakin frowned. "I was? I must be brain damaged."
Solo chuckled. "No, the doctors say you're fine."
"I don't feel fine," he grumbled.
"You don't look fine, either," Napoleon observed. "Frankly, you're a mess."
The Russian glanced down Solo's chest and saw the open collar and no undershirt. "You, too. You got dressed in a hurry."
Solo looked at him seriously. "Just because you're not my partner anymore doesn't mean I don't care about you."
Illya looked up at him with one good eye. "Don't say I'm not your partner anymore. That's just a story for U.N.C.L.E.'s benefit."
Solo smiled at him with sad affection. "There are days I want to turn the clock back so bad it hurts, tovarisch, but it can't be done."
"Maybe we should turn the clock ahead."
Solo frowned. "Is that a riddle?"
Kuryakin sighed with impatience. "You need an assistant, don't you?"
Napoleon looked at him suspiciously. "Yes."
"So why don't you pull some strings, Mr. All-Powerful Chief-in-Waiting of U.N.C.L.E. North America, and order me out of the field early, and into Section One."
"Illya, you're CEA now, and you'll remain in charge of Section Two even after you retire from the field."
"I don't give a twit about that," the Russian said with exasperation, "All I want is to work next to you."
Solo was beside himself at this revelation, but held his emotions in check. "A twit?"
"That's a Mark Slate word," Illya said in a panicky tone. "I'm being contaminated, Napoleon, you have to move fast."
Solo laughed, but his vision blurred and he blinked. "I'll see what I can do, partner."
The reply was apparently unsatisfactory. "You know, this stoicism we've both been projecting is highly unproductive," the Russian said with effort. "It stifles communication, builds tension, and breeds ulcers." He took a shaky breath. "Mark is a good agent, a good partner. But he's busy pining away for April, and I'm busy pining away for you. The whole situation is ripe for disaster."
Solo nodded in agreement. "I'd say that's a damn good reason for a personnel shift."
"Then shift yourself down here, please," Illya said.
Napoleon bent down and rested his cheek against Illya's, then placed another careful kiss on the corner of his mouth. This time he kept his lips close to Illya's afterwards, hovering over them, breathing on them. He lifted his head and looked at him again, stroking his hair. "When you're all healed..." he frowned at the bruises on Illya's face "...and one uniform color again, we're going to have a long discussion."
Illya started to smile, then moaned. His fingers went to his lip.
"But not now," Napoleon said, and the Russian nodded.
Napoleon began to straighten up but Illya caught his collar and pulled him closer again. His hand slid down a few inches to Napoleon's chest and he tapped it twice, then he let his hand drop and tapped his own.
Napoleon nodded. "Forever."