Steel

New York City, U.N.C.L.E. HQ. October, 1966.

The dollar bills fell like autumn leaves, fluttering down, one by one, collecting in a pile on the commissary table. In her role as guardian of that pile, Sarah Johnson nodded and smiled as each donation was made, while beside her, Wanda from Communications kept a careful record of the contributors — all female — on a scribble notepad. No one asked what the money was for; no one needed to. Although there'd been no official announcement, it was common knowledge around the water coolers, coffee stations, and throughout the various support departments that the appearance of the pool could mean only one thing: Mr. Solo would be in town for the weekend and looking for a date.

"Hey, I solved your problem," a voice called out to Sarah as she gathered the money together, making a neater pile. Sarah looked up to see Emily Watson from Transportation roll up beside the table. Emily had contracted polio as a child and although she could get around with leg braces and crutches, it was easier, faster and safer for her to travel the smooth steel corridors of U.N.C.L.E. in a wheelchair.

"Tell Mr. Coleman, if he can get to San Francisco by tomorrow morning, he can hitch a ride on the Far Eastern supply run, and that will land him in Bangkok with hours to spare."

"That should work," Sarah replied with a grateful nod. She spent most of her own time on the top floor, managing Section II business. At the moment, her chief concern was making sure John Coleman, who would be masquerading as a G.I. on leave, could intercept an informant offering details on a new Thrush-run drug smuggling ring in Thailand.

"Not the most glamorous accommodations," Emily agreed, reading Sarah's mind. That, of course, was an understatement. Because U.N.C.L.E.'s supply run planes were not set up to carry passengers, emergency travel on them was notoriously spartan. "But it'll be quicker than the airlines, and with our current budget guidelines, reserving one of the company jets for a routine mission is out of the question."

"He's not going to be happy."

Emily shrugged. "Field agents are tough. He'll live."

Frowning, Sarah nodded again as she anticipated what her afternoon was going to be like once Johnny got the news. Enforcement agents loathed being treated as cargo and did everything they could to avoid it.

With her official business completed, Emily motioned toward the stack of dollar bills. "Pimping Napoleon again, I see."

Oh, Em—" Sarah groaned, rolling her eyes. Emily was Brooklyn born and bred and sometimes almost too blunt and outspoken for comfort.

"It's not about sex," Wanda cut in sharply. "It's about arranging a date for Mister Solo." Wanda didn't like Emily, and the feeling was mutual.

"Oh, really?" Emily replied sarcastically, obviously unconvinced. "Well, then, if it's only about a date —" She stuffed a hand into her skirt pocket, fishing for a dollar. "Gee, I could use a night out at that."

"Ummm —" Sarah chewed her lip as she watched. How to phrase it diplomatically? "Do you really think that's such a good idea?"

"What do you mean?" Emily looked up, saw the women exchange glances, and noted the awkward hesitancy on their faces. Then she narrowed her eyes, and her voice went flat and cold. "Oh, I see. Your little lottery is only open to girls who can stand on their own two feet — the normal ones."

She emphasized the last words like an obscenity. She hadn't really intended to throw in a dollar. Unlike some of the other women in the lower sections, she didn't find Solo especially attractive, and she certainly had no intention of drooling over him like some teenybopper. But what had been a careless gesture made on a whim was fast becoming a matter of principle, and now Emily was burning with defiance.

How could they?

"No, but —" Sarah began reluctantly, desperate to keep the situation from escalating. Wanda, on the other hand, harbored no such desire.

"Mitzi says he's going dancing."

"Oh, I see," Emily replied coolly. She could feel humiliation warming her cheeks and eating into her gut like bad lunchtime chili, but she 'd be damned if she was going to give anybody the satisfaction of seeing it, especially a strutting tart like Wanda. There weren't many disabled folks working around headquarters. Besides herself, there was only Tim Fisher, a field agent who'd been blinded in a lab explosion and now worked audio surveillance, and Sid Ferris, who was hearing impaired and supervised the preparation of cover IDs. Except when Gabhail Savoy, continental chief for Asia, visited, hers was the only wheelchair tooling along the corridors. "Well, I guess that let's me out, unless he wants to spin me around a few times in my chair."

"Oh, Em—" Sarah said, echoing her early admonishment, only now her embarrassment was directed toward herself.

Emily raised a hand. "Don't," she said softly. "Forget it. Just forget it. I didn't really care about the whole thing in the first place." She turned, preparing to go. "Tell Coleman, if he has any problems with the arrangements, he can complain to me." Then, pointedly ignoring Wanda, she added to Sarah, "I'll see you around," and left.

"Oh, God," Sarah sighed. "That was awful." Beside her, Wanda was only mildly annoyed. "Has Emily ever participated in the lottery?"

Sarah shook her head as she counted out the twenty one-dollar bills, turning the ones that faced the wrong way.

"Well, that's good to hear."

"Oh, c'mon, stop it. That's cruel."

But Wanda just shrugged. "Hey, I know Napoleon. We all know him, and we all know what he's looking for." She sniffed indignantly. "Can you imagine what would happen if she ever won?"

And at the opposite end of the table, Cecily Sobeleski, who'd been listening to the exchange, finished the last bite of her sandwich and decided to investigate the answer to that question on her own.

"Illya?"

"Hmmm?" Kuryakin's attention was focused on the patterns of numbers before him, the key to Thrush's newest tertiary code. "This is very good work," he complimented Cecily as he flipped through the attachment of matrices. "It should prove very useful."

"Thanks."

It was now over an hour after lunch and they were in the Cryptography section, with Illya lounging comfortably in the chair next to Cecily's desk while she sat behind it.

"Has Napoleon ever taken Emily out on a date?"

It took a moment for the change of subject to even register in Illya's consciousness. Cecily waited patiently. They'd been spending a good deal of time together during the last month or so, and she was growing accustomed to how his mind worked.

"Who?" he asked distantly, his eyes still glued to the clutch of pages balanced on his knee.

"Emily. Y'know, Emily Watson. She runs the travel desk in Transportation. She's the one who issues your plane tickets."

"Oh yes," Illya said, nodding, after another long pause. "No. I don't think so. Isn't she married?"

"Divorced. Do you think he hasn't gone out with her because he thinks she's still married?"

"I really couldn't say." Illya swiveled in his seat, and his eyes sought hers as he realized that Cecily's questions were not merely idle ones. "Why are you asking?"

"Well, they were running the lottery again at lunch and —"

The Russian agent grimaced sourly, but Cecily waved away any negative opinions with a swat of her hand before he could express them. She had larger concerns on her mind.

"Yeah, I know how you feel about it. But it's harmless. Really. Mostly. Until today, that is."

"What happened today?"

"When Emily tried to throw a dollar into the pot, Sarah and Wanda discouraged her from doing it."

"Ah." The way the word came out indicated that Illya wasn't surprised.

"So it got me thinking: Emily's nice looking. She's smart and funny. She's even blonde. But I've never seen Napoleon flirt with her, never mind ask her out. And I started wondering why."

"Isn't it obvious?" Illya said, as he gave Cecily's report one last rifle.

"You mean because she's handicapped?" she asked, surprised at Illya's response. He knew Napoleon better than anyone. Surely, he wasn't dismissing his friend's integrity that quickly.

"In part. Don't you think she deserves more of a commitment than a hit and run romance? And to his credit, I would suppose that Napoleon recognizes this. She has enough on her plate so to speak." Illya sighed as he closed the folder containing the report. "She certainly doesn't need to be added to the harem. Sarah and Wanda did her a favor, even if their intentions weren't particularly noble."

As Kuryakin rose to his feet, Cecily frowned, unwilling to let the subject go just yet. "Wanda said Napoleon is only after one thing. Do you think that's true?"

"You know the answer to that better than I," Illya said softly. "You dated him."

"Just once." And spent the night with him too, Cecily added to herself, but she'd never told Illya about that part. He'd never mentioned it, even in jest, and she knew he never would.

"I don't think any of them really understand Napoleon." She looked up at Illya. "And come to think of it, they don't understand you very well, either."

A hint of a smile crossed Kuryakin's face as he put a finger to his lips. "Shhh..." he said, teasing, "it's better that way."

"Oh, sure. Mysterious, distant, lethal weapons, trained killers — nerves of steel, nothing touches you, cold as ice. You guys just love hearing that stuff, don't you?"

Kuryakin didn't answer directly, but his expression turned smugly pleased. No one else was around, so leaning over the edge of the desk, he planted a quick, ridiculously chaste kiss on her cheek as if to make her point. Kuryakin usually avoided public displays of affection, even one so small, but Cecily had learned that his reserve only went so far in more private circumstances. "I'll see you later. Are we still getting together for dinner?"

"Yeah. My place. Six o'clock."

"Unless the world requires saving, I'll be there." As he ambled away, Cecily called out, "So? Do you think he'd go out with her?"

"Why don't you ask him?" Illya replied, his voice trailing off as the door slid shut behind him.

Maybe I will, Cecily thought, making up her mind.

Two hours later, Napoleon Solo appeared at the Travel desk, prepared to argue Johnny Coleman's case.

"The request said to get him there as fast as possible," Emily explained. She even offered him Sarah's memo to prove it.

"Yeah, but the Eastern supply run," Napoleon groaned, pleading for understanding. "The cargo hold is like an icebox, and some of the pilots are so pie-eyed, the trip is more dangerous than the mission."

"They're not supposed to be intoxicated."

"Some of them are. I know. I was on that plane with Illya last spring."

"Well, see?" Emily shot back, sensing victory. "If it's good enough for the Chief of Enforcement, it should be good enough for Mr. Coleman." She paused, her tone shifting. "Really, Napoleon, at this point, it's the only way to get him there on time."

"All right," he conceded. "But we really have to talk about these arrangements. All I've been hearing lately are complaints about traveling steerage —"

"Nobody travels steerage."

"You know what I mean."

Emily shrugged. "The budget guidelines were approved by Section I. You should take it up with Mr. Waverly —"

Napoleon hitched a hip against the corner of her desk, finding a temporary perch. "Actually," he said, his voice dropping smoothly, "I'd prefer to discuss it with you. If we put our heads together, maybe we can arrive at some creative solutions. There must be other flight schedules we can exploit." Casually, he added, "How about over dinner? I should be free on Saturday night."

He'd barely gotten the words out when Emily's chin snapped up in surprise. And then, all at once, she understood.

"Oh no you don't," she said, accusingly. "Now I know what's going on. This isn't about Coleman or any other field agents for that matter. This is about that stupid lottery —"

"Now, Em —"

"Don't 'Em' me, Napoleon. Who told you?"

"What does it matter? I'm asking you for a date."

"Well, you never did before."

"So, I'm shallow. Sue me."

"Oh, this is more than shallow." As Emily maneuvered her wheelchair from behind the desk, Solo slipped off the edge of the desk and retreated. She followed him as she spoke, backing him toward the shiny steel wall. "So, what are you trying to do? Out to earn a merit badge?"

"No."

"Romance the little crippled girl?"

"Now, that's not fair." He glanced around to see if anyone was in earshot. Fortunately, it was after five, and most of support staff that worked in the section were already gone for the day.

"I'll tell you what's fair: I don't do mercy dates." When she had him cornered between two file cabinets with nowhere else to go, she stopped and lowered her voice. Her anger simmering, she added, "What makes you think I'd even want to go out with you?"

"Hey, you threw down the gauntlet first," Napoleon reminded her, mustering up what little indignation he could, although clearly, his heart wasn't in it. "You tossed the dollar in — or tried to."

"It was supposed to be a joke."

"More like a dare. Now, I'm calling you on it."

"They said you were going dancing. I don't dance."

"I'm going to dinner at the Copacabana to hear Peggy Lee sing. You're not deaf and I assume you eat." Changing tack, he met her challenge with another. "What's the matter? Afraid to go out with me?"

"No, not afraid. I just know the damage that your kind can do."

"My kind? Did you say my kind?" Solo canted his head as he slowly reversed direction and advanced. Now, it was Emily's turn to retreat.

"Now, who's thinking in stereotypes? Hmmm... I wonder what exactly is 'my kind'?"

Unwilling to answer, Emily lowered her eyes and looked away. It occurred to her that no matter what rumors she'd heard about Solo, she'd just insulted the head of Section II, and she liked her job too much to risk it further. Besides, until a few moments ago, they'd always gotten along very well, and he'd never been in the least bit disagreeable or difficult to deal with.

Napoleon watched the play of conflicting emotions on her face and immediately regretted the whole situation. "Never mind," he said, holding up his hands in surrender. "You're right. It was a bad idea. I'm sorry. I apologize if I caused you any embarrassment."

Maybe it was the shame she saw in his eyes, the realization that his good, if naive, intentions had led to a horrible mistake. That was an emotion with which she was all too well acquainted. Or maybe it was simply watching his supreme self-confidence melt away, replaced by the vulnerability of defeat, something she'd never witnessed in him before. She could empathize with that as well. Whatever the reason, as Napoleon angled around her wheelchair and past her desk, Emily impulsively called out, "Wait a minute."

The agent halted in his tracks, though it was obviously against his better judgment to do so.

"Okay," she said, tempering her tone. "I'll go out with you. For dinner. But just to talk about the budget."

"All right," he replied, acknowledging their truce.

"And don't even think about wanting to make the earth move."

Solo tipped his chin at the warning. "We're going to the Copa, not a construction site. I'll pick you up at seven."

"Are you sure we're not breaking any rules?" she asked. When he regarded her curiously, she pointed out, "After all, I didn't win."

"And you didn't throw in a dollar either," he said, winking. "That means all bets are off. See you on Saturday evening."

"Yeah. See you," Emily said. It was a full ten minutes before she looked down at her plain black leather shoes and realized she didn't have a thing to wear.

As it turned out, the evening went far better than either one of them had anticipated. After getting past the initial awkwardness, they slowly discovered that they enjoyed each other's company very much. They talked nearly nonstop before dinner and stole as much time as possible between courses, and the subject of the travel budget never once came up. They joked and laughed, and found they shared the same opinions on food and wine, plays and movies, literature and politics. They even had the same taste in music.

He told her about the places he and Illya had visited recently, from the high Himalayas to an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. Since Emily didn't travel as much as she would have liked, she always enjoyed hearing about exotic locales.

"And you ate haggis?" she asked him over coffee. "Isn't that, like, boiled sheep intestines?"

"It is, indeed. Mixed with other ingredients and cooked in the stomach bag." When her face squinched up in response, he chuckled. "It's actually better than it sounds. And I washed it down with plenty of Scotch. I couldn't even tell you what we ate in Yu-Shan. It was unidentifiable."

"What did it taste like?"

Napoleon paused, and then he offered her an impish grin. "Chicken. It tasted like chicken. It always tastes like chicken." And they both laughed.

He talked about other affairs as well, offering the more personal details that weren't available in the official reports, and she enjoyed that, too, because she knew Illya of course, and had heard some of the stories from the office grapevine. And when the show was over and the orchestra segued into instrumentals, despite her initial reluctance, Napoleon managed to coax her onto the dance floor when they began to play a popular ballad.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," she whispered next to his ear as they moved ever so slowly, with Napoleon supporting her discreetly in his arms. She'd never tried dancing in public before, even at her own wedding, and was surprised to discover Napoleon was a lot stronger than he appeared.

"Sometimes, you have to be just a little adventurous," he murmured back, inhaling the scent of her perfume.

By the time Napoleon was driving them back to her West Side apartment, Emily found herself completely relaxed on a date for the first time in a long time.

"You're not what I expected," she observed as Napoleon pulled over to the curb and threw the Dodge Charger out of gear. Miraculously, he'd found a parking space less than half a block from her front door.

"I'll bet people tell you the same thing," he said, smiling. And he was right. They had that in common, too.

Cutting the engine, Napoleon climbed out and circled around the hood to hold the passenger door open for her. He offered her a hand to help her out of the car and she took it, using his strength for leverage. She was wearing her full leg braces tonight and it took a few moments to liberate her crutches from the backseat.

"I make you nervous, sometimes, don't I?" she observed, as she began to move along the sidewalk in a stiff-legged gait. The long evening gown she'd chosen to wear was roomy enough and of a length that wouldn't get in the way of her crutches.

"Sometimes," he admitted, as he shortened his stride beside her. "I have to confess, I'm finding it hard to temper my natural instincts in order to be not too chivalrous."

"Chivalrous is good," Emily said with a smile. "Overprotective is not. My parents were like that, always worried, always hovering, always telling me what I couldn't and shouldn't do. They drove me nuts. Couldn't wait to get away and go off to college." She laughed again, but this time more ruefully. "Of course, then I was dumb enough to marry a guy who thought it was his mission in life to rescue me."

"So you divorced him?" Solo asked lightly, not wanting to get too personal.

"No, he left me." She said it matter-of-factly, but a flourish of bitterness still decorated her words. "After five years, he said he missed doing things he liked to do — walking along the beach. Playing tennis. Bicycling." She looked at Napoleon and frowned. "Apparently, he found someone else to do them with."

"Charming fellow," Napoleon observed flatly.

They'd reached the front of her brownstone. The porch was low and wide but there were still four steps to climb. "Damn stairways," Emily sighed. "The bane of my existence." As Napoleon watched her maneuver the steps, it was all he could do to repress an overwhelming urge to just pick her up and carry her the rest of the way.

Finally, after they reached the top, she passed him the keys, and he unlocked the outer door. Inside the hallway, he asked, "Why didn't you just use your wheelchair tonight like you do at HQ?"

"I wasn't sure how easy it would be to get around in that nightclub." Emily said as they traveled the hallway. "Besides, we wouldn't have been able to dance," she said, remembering their slow waltz. "People always think you're more handicapped if you're in a wheelchair. Once, I was getting out of my chair into a car, and I stood up and walked a little, and this guy, this stranger, who was passing by gave me the most astonished look. So, I just threw up my hands and cried, "Lord, Jesus, I'm healed! Praise God, it's a miracle!"

"Oh, no, you didn't!" Napoleon exclaimed.

"Yup. I did," Emily assured him. "You should have seen that man's face." And they both laughed together until there were almost tears in their eyes.

"We indulge in a lot of black humor in the field as well," Napoleon agreed as their shared merriment subsided. "The worse the situation is, the more we joke. Sometimes, Illya will fire off one of his biting observations, and for a moment or two, I forget how bad things really are."

"I can understand that," Emily agreed, nodding. They'd reached her first floor apartment. "But compared to your life, hearing about mine must seem as boring as hell." Once again, she passed him her keys.

"Not at all," he said, opening the door and standing aside to let her enter ahead of him. "You're talking about survival strategies. I can relate." The only difference is, he thought, for you, every day is like a mission.

"You make it sound a lot more exciting than it is," Emily replied as she switched on the light. The one bedroom apartment was small but cozy, with a living room lined with bookshelves and dominated by a fat, old-fashioned, overstuffed sofa.

"People think my life is more exciting than it is, too," Napoleon said.

"Well, I certainly do. In any case, I find your stories more entertaining than mine." She gestured toward the vest pocket kitchen. "Want some coffee? I think I have a bottle of brandy around, too."

"Yes to both," he said. "Thank you." When he moved to accompany her, she waved him back. "S'okay. I can manage. This is home base, remember?"

"Sure," Napoleon replied with a self-conscious smile, hiding his chagrin. "Do you mind if I take off my jacket?"

Emily shook her head. "No, not at all. Why should I?"

"Some folks get nervous with a gun in plain sight." He slipped off his dinner jacket, revealing the leather shoulder holster and Special he was wearing underneath. "That's why field agents don't usually walk around in shirtsleeves on the lower floors and in the commissary."

"Hmmm..." Emily said as she headed for the kitchen. "I never thought about that, but you're right. You'd think the support staffers would be more prepared, considering that they're working for a security organization."

Napoleon just shrugged. "There's no telling what will make people uncomfortable." He tipped his chin in her direction. "You wear long skirts; I keep my jacket on. It's just easier that way, right?"

"Right," Emily agreed, and that one word between them said it all.

After the coffee was brewed, she called to him for help with the coffee cups and they settled in next to each other on the oversized sofa. "This was my grandmother's couch," Emily told him as she poured a splash of brandy into each of their cups.

"And you like it because the seat is firm and it's easier for you to get up," he added, tipping the cup to his lips.

Emily cocked her head at him in surprise. "Very good. A point for you, Mr. Solo. You're pretty observant."

Napoleon smiled easily. "It's an occupational requirement."

She studied him for a moment as he sipped his coffee, summoning up the courage to ask him a question that had been niggling at her most of the night. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer, but she asked it anyway. "The other day," she said softly, "you said you never asked me out because you were shallow. I don't believe that. What's the real reason?"

Solo sighed as he drained his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer with a small, sharp click. "Truth? I didn't think you would want what I had to offer. I'm always accused of seducing poor, helpless, women."

"I'm not helpless."

"I can see that now, yes. I guess you'll just have to chalk it up to a failure of my imagination." He reached his jacket draped across the sofa arm, and liberated a silver cigarette case and a matching lighter from his inside pocket. "Mind?"

Emily shook her head and watched as he lit a cigarette. "You don't do mercy dates," he reminded her. "I try not to get too attached."

"Ever?" Even though the field agents couldn't marry, a few had steady girlfriends.

"Nope," he said, closing his lighter with a snap and exhaling a long thin trail of smoke. He settled back, crossing his legs at the knee. "Too dangerous for everyone involved. If I start seeing one woman regularly, after a month or so, red flags are going up, and unfriendly eyes are taking an active interest."

"So you keep moving."

"That's right."

"Like the old shell game."

Napoleon nodded.

With your heart as the pea, she thought, but didn't say so aloud. He wasn't the only one who'd been observant that evening.

Emily drew closer to him, tucking in against his shoulder and resting her head there. It felt firm and comfortable, like an extension of her grandmother's sofa. Automatically, his arm circled around her.

"Ever wonder if you're in the wrong business?" she asked.

"Never," he replied with a certainty that surprised her. "Do you?"

"Oh, no. I like working for U.N.C.L.E. I mean, think about it: sliding doors with electric eyes, smooth corridors, no stairways. HQ is a great place to be handicapped. What's not to like?"

She said it with a deceptively casual bravado that made him smile. He planted a light kiss on her forehead, gathering her closer against him, and she was reminded of the way his arms supported her when they were slow dancing. She felt his fingertips slide idly up and down the edge of her shoulder, but his touch was soothing rather than proprietary.

They sat for a long moment in companionable silence while the smoke from Napoleon's cigarette drifted around them. Suddenly, an anniversary clock chimed midnight from the corner table behind them. Napoleon sighed in response, uncurling his arm. "I suppose that's my cue." He stubbed out his cigarette in the remains of the coffee cup. "I should be going."

"So soon?" Emily asked.

"It's late. You must be tired."

He was right; she should have felt tired, but she didn't. "We never talked about the travel budget," she reminded him.

"Did you really want to?"

"No," she admitted, chuckling. "Actually, based on all the gossip around the office, I expected to spend the evening fending you off."

Now, it was Napoleon's turn to laugh. "Reports of my depravity are greatly exaggerated."

"Gee, that's too bad," she kidded him back. "I was sorta looking forward to you making a pass and me turning you down. Or, don't you seduce the handicapped girls?"

Although he was still smiling, Napoleon narrowed his eyes. She was making a joke of course, but there was the sting of an accusation buried within. "You can be exasperating, you know that?"

"It's an occupational requirement."

Napoleon let out a deep breath. If what she wanted most to hear was honesty, so be it. "All right, if you really must know, yeah, the thought of making love to you did cross my mind more than once this evening. You're a smart, attractive woman, I've enjoyed your company, and I find you desirable. But I don't want to take advantage of you, and I certainly don't want to insult you, so I'm not quite sure what to do here."

"Well, you can't take advantage of me," she said, "and I prefer not to be insulted." She looked at him. "Wanda says you never pass up an opportunity."

"Wanda exaggerates, but I suppose she's probably right. After all, I could be dead tomorrow."

"We all could. Do you use that line often?"

"Only with women who know it's true." He leaned closer, his mood shifting. "I might ask you the same thing. Do you pass up opportunities?"

Emily snuffled harshly. "I don't get too many opportunities. There's a lot of that 'failure of imagination' stuff around. I've had guys tell me I have a pretty face, which is like telling someone who's overweight she has a good personality. The last guy I dated had a thing for braces. Not me — just my braces. Fortunately, I figured it out somewhere between dinner and dessert and took a cab home."

Shaking her head, she shrugged helplessly. "God, you know, sometimes, I'd just like someone to care for me not because of my disability, or in spite of it, but simply to care for me because of me and not notice one way or the other."

Napoleon listened quietly. Then he drew her closer again, and as he did, the Special riding his side nudged against her. "Believe it or not, I know exactly what you mean."

"Yeah, I'll bet you do," Emily said, thoughtfully. She motioned to the gun between them. "That's pretty hard to ignore." Napoleon nodded. His eyes traveled her face and locked on hers. "But I'm willing to give it a try if you are."

"Are you seducing me?"

"Yes," he assured her. "Now, I'm seducing you." And then his hand went to her cheek, cupping her chin, guiding her lips to his as he kissed her, long and soft, inhaling her scent once again as he did. Unlike the earlier kiss, this one had an invitation attached.

"You're really serious, aren't you?" she blurted out after the kiss ended. It was an observation more than a question.

"Absolutely." He smiled warmly. "But you can have the pleasure of refusing, and I'll leave right now with no hard feelings." He offered her another kiss, this time, deeper and even slower. "It's up to you — your call."

Emily untangled herself from his embrace, putting some space between them. The kisses felt good — more than just good — and she had to think without the feel of his body and his touch to influence her judgment. She blinked, considering her options. She hadn't expected the evening to take a turn in this direction, and she felt strangely adrift. Taking note of her obvious misgivings, he informed her, teasingly, "I'll do my very best to make it all worthwhile, and I swear I don't have the slightest 'thing' for braces." He held up three fingers and added, "Scouts' honor."

His cheerful confidence made her chuckle. "Oh, Napoleon, I don't know," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't think so — I mean, you and me?"

"Sure. Why not?"

Emily laughed self-consciously to herself. If only the rest of coworkers could see her now: strong, sensible Emily going steadily to mush. If it was still the other day, and this was her office in U.N.C.L.E. HQ, she would have been able to come up with at least a dozen reasons why not. But sitting here next to Solo, like this, none seemed very logical any more. He had a way of insinuating himself, of getting one to talk, drop one's guard, of finding a way past personal defenses in order to draw the other person out. She realized the seduction had begun long before they even made it to the couch. Try as she might, she couldn't quite get his reputation out of her head either, and that made her feel not only a little wary, but intimidated as well. Her fingers knitted and unknitted in her lap.

"What?" he asked, taking one of her hands in his, stilling its motion. His arm slid around along the top of the couch as he drew her back to him. The question was posed gently, but Emily felt like now it was she who was the one trapped between two file cabinets.

"Well," she heard herself saying, "to be honest— "

"Yes?" he whispered encouragingly, and kissed her. And as she talked, he continued to plant a series of light kisses on her lips.

"—it's never — it's never been very good for me — It's not the polio — that has nothing to do with it. It's just that — I don't know—."

"Never?" he asked, abruptly pausing. His expression of concern made her blush.

"Well, never with anyone."

"Ah." He smiled. "Maybe you just haven't been with the right guys."

She laughed, conceding the point. "That could very well be."

"Then, we have something to work with."

She was tempted, there was no doubt about it, but Napoleon could see she was still torn by indecision.

"Why don't we just enjoy ourselves with no expectations, and see what happens?"

"Can you do that?" she asked him. "Have no expectations? Because I don't want you to perform for me. Or try to prove anything. It will just make me nervous."

"All right. But that doesn't mean we can't try a few things together. Remember what I said before: sometimes it pays to be a little adventurous."

"How adventurous?" she asked suspiciously. She pulled back a bit, but he had a good grip on her now and held on. "I don't like taking unnecessary risks," she told him. "My life is complicated enough."

"No unnecessary risks," Napoleon agreed. "You'll be safe with me, I promise. And if we're both honest and caring with each other, I doubt either one of us will be disappointed." He ducked his head to force her gaze to meet his. "All right?"

After a moment of hesitation, she nodded, her head snapping with quick bobs.

"It's not final, you know," he reminded her. "We'll go as far as you want to, and if you don't like what we're doing — for any reason — we'll stop." His hand returned to her cheek. "Trust me?"

"Damn," she muttered aloud. She exhaled a deep breath and tried not to look him in the eye. "I guess I'll have to — for now."

"Good," Napoleon laughed, and in the next moment, he was scooping her up and rising with her body draped across his arms. She wasn't heavy, and even with the braces, she weighed probably less than a hundred and twenty pounds. "And before you protest, you should know that I carry every woman I sleep with into the bedroom. Now, show me which way."

Emily giggled in spite of herself. She knew he was lying, but it didn't matter. "That way," she said pointing, and he headed off in the direction she indicated.

The bedroom was small; the bed was a double. Still in his arms, Emily snapped on the lamp using the wall switch, and Napoleon negotiated the narrow path that ran along the long dresser, depositing her gently on the edge of the bed.

"This might not be everything you're accustomed to," she said as he sat down beside her, but he only smiled, unperturbed. "Now, how would you know what I'm accustomed to?"

"Oh, I can guess. I've heard those stories, too. All those sexy stewardesses and models..."

"You'd be surprised," he told her. "A lot of times, I find that appearances are just that, a façade. Besides —" he tapped his temple with his index finger "— it's all up here, anyway."

He reached for her tentatively, gauging her response, but when she didn't retreat, he kissed her, drawing her into a tight embrace. "I'd prefer to keep the light on if that's all right with you," he said afterward.

She didn't know if it was his usual habit, but she preferred the light on as well.

"And I usually undress the women I go to bed with, too," he added.

"Oh yeah? Well, okay, but if that's the case, you go first." She was grinning. "I haven't seen a good-looking man naked in years."

Her boldness amused him, and as he rose to his feet, tugging open his formal tie, he grinned and said, "Then, you're long overdue."

After the tie, the shoulder holster came next, and she noted with interest how he separated the Special and placed it on the nightstand, keeping it always close and within reach. He took his time with his shirt and trousers, slowly revealing a body that was defined and well muscled, but not too sculptured. When he was down to his boxers, he knelt before her and gently pushed up the long skirt of her dress until it was gathered around her thighs.

"Show me how to take these off," he said, indicating the braces and after she did, he leaned them next to the nightstand as she instructed, where they'd be close at hand and within easy reach.

"How do you feel without them?" Napoleon asked, both of his hands gliding smoothly along the outside of her legs from ankles to thighs.

"Relieved," she admitted, gazing down at him, watching him, fascinated by what she saw in the faint pool of light: a relaxed, lazy sensuality beginning to cloak the undercurrent of alertness that nevertheless continued to reverberate from him like a low hum. "But vulnerable, too." Just like you do, she thought, when you take off your gun.

"They don't feel too heavy," he remarked distantly, his focus elsewhere.

Emily shrugged. "They're not. Each brace is only about four pounds."

"That's about what my Special weighs." Though the remark was made lightly with no further comment, Emily couldn't help but see the comparison, and it made her smile.

"Your feet are cold," Napoleon observed, mildly surprised, since the apartment's ancient steam heat kept the temperature at near tropical.

"My circulation stinks."

"And your muscles are knotted."

"Wearing the braces makes me a little stiff."

His hands cupped her knees and she felt strong fingers kneading the joints.

"Better?" he asked.

She groaned. "Much. That feels good."

She closed her eyes, enjoying the attention. After a moment, she felt him plant a soft kiss on the inside of her thigh. And then another. And then another on the other thigh.

"That feels good, too," she murmured. "Keep going."

"Which? The kisses or the massage?"

"Both," she said.

And he did.

The next morning, when she entered her tiny kitchen, she found Napoleon, skillet and spatula in hand, making breakfast.

"And you cook, too. I'm impressed."

"All part of the weekend package," he said, cracking an egg in his fist one-handed, and dropping it, shelled, into the skillet. "How do you like your eggs?"

"Scrambled," she replied, watching him. He noted her expression. Something was bothering her.

"I hope you don't mind." He indicated the meal preparation in progress.

"No, not at all. I never mind when someone can put my stove to good use. Or my bath towels."

Still fresh from a shower, he was wearing one of the towels knotted around his waist. A lock of uncombed hair fell over his forehead while a cigarette dangled loosely from his lips. "Well, you said last night that you enjoyed the view," he teased her.

"About last night," Emily began, her voice dropping, low and sober. "I hope you weren't disappointed."

Napoleon shrugged as he turned the bacon strips. "Why do you say that? Were you?"

"No. I probably should have been, but I wasn't. It was — " she groped for the right word and only one occurred to her "— comfortable." Which didn't really make sense since he'd coaxed her into achieving her own satisfaction in a way she'd been too self-conscious to try with anyone else before.

"We'll do better the next time," he assured her with an easy smile.

"So, there'll be a next time?"

"I like a challenge," he said, winking. The food was ready, and he took the skillet from the fire and scraped the eggs and the bacon onto two plates.

"Oh?" Her indignation was only partially feigned. "Is that what I am? A challenge?"

"No," Napoleon replied more seriously, carrying the two plates to her small dining room table, "actually, considering how you warned me beforehand, you were a pleasant surprise and now I'm thinking that ex-husband of yours was a real idiot."

He sounded sincere and that was nice. As he held out a chair for her, she sat down at the table and found everything from cutlery to orange juice set out and waiting. That was nice, too.

"Wow," she laughed, surveying the table, "what service." She watched as he poured coffee for both of them. "I could get used to this."

"Ah." Napoleon slid into his seat on the opposite side. The truth was, he could have, as well. Her spiritedness appealed to him, and he identified with her sense of independence. "But then, I'd be breaking my promise to you." He looked at her, frankly. "No risks, remember?"

Emily shrugged, embarrassed that she'd accidentally broached the subject. "Yeah, you're right. And if we started doing this regularly, neither one of us would get any sleep." All through the previous night, whenever she moved with so much as a muscle twitch, he would awaken, instantly alert. More than once, he rose from the bed to check out the source of some muffled or distant sound, rousting her out of her own light sleep.

For the next minute or two, they ate with just the clink of silverware on china until finally, Emily broke the silence. "I know you said you try not to get attached, but have you ever found yourself in something long-term anyway?" She'd heard rumors that Solo had been married once and widowed young.

"A few times," Napoleon said, nodding. "But it never works out, and it never ends well." He had no intention of elaborating on the women he'd loved and lost. The most recent one had been Mara, and the pain and guilt surrounding her farewell were still fresh in his mind. She wouldn't tell him where she was going and made him promise not to come after her. She wouldn't even admit she was pregnant until after he guessed it, and by then, she'd already had her bags packed.

"It's all right," he assured Emily, pushing aside the memories. "It's better this way."

"You mean, having a pile of dollar bills determine your social life?"

Solo shrugged carelessly, undisturbed by her bluntness. "I always have a date for Saturday night."

She finished her own meal and watched him eat for a few moments. "You know, you're very good at that."

"Good at what?" There were several answers to the question, and he preferred not to guess which one she had in mind.

"Knowing what to say and how to say it."

"Well, I do work in espionage," he pointed out between bites.

"My grandmother used to call it dressing up the truth in Sunday clothes to make it more presentable."

"I grew up surrounded by women like your grandmother. I had to learn defensive strategies."

You're telling me, Emily thought to herself. She'd overheard enough lunchtime conversations about Solo that were filled to the brim with innuendo, but none with any real details. Now that they'd spent some private time together, however, she was beginning to understand the attraction. The previous evening, she'd said he was not what she expected, and that was still true. He wasn't what she expected, but all night and into this morning, he'd effortlessly been what she desired. Generous. Attentive. Patient. Supportive. Encouraging. Accommodating.

Comfortable. The word occurred to her again.

The result of serendipity, she wondered, or something else, something more deliberate? There was no way to tell and she wasn't about to ask. She glanced around the table and noticed Solo's Special had also joined them for breakfast, prompting a memory of it nudging against her side, insinuating itself between them. Ironically, that gun — that particular gun — defined him far more than her disability did her, and she was starting to see that it was more than just a weapon. It functioned as emotional armor as well, shielding him against everyday life as well as death.

The thought made her sad, made her feel almost sorry for him, and realizing that, she banished it from her mind. After all, she wouldn't have wanted to have him feel sorry for her.

So they cleared the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen accompanied only by pleasant small talk, and afterward, he went to retrieve his clothes while she retreated to the bathroom to get ready for the day herself. Later, when they were both dressed, she watched him adjust his shoulder holster with the same care that she used with her braces.

As Napoleon prepared to leave, they met at the door, and he kissed her, with the same sweetness, the same beguiling blend of strength and tenderness he'd shown her in bed the night before. But that didn't change anything. Emily knew she wouldn't sleep with him again, and that would be her choice, not his. There was just too much steel between them.

"I'd like to see you again," Napoleon was saying. "That is, if you want to take the risk."

"I might," Emily allowed. There were risks, and then, there were risks. They could be friends, even if they couldn't be lovers. She cocked her head at him. "But next time, how about something a little more ... ummm, adventurous?"

He looked down at her, considering, while her bold grin challenged him. And then, after a moment, he said, "Ever been sailing?"

"No," Emily replied. She smiled broadly. "At least, not yet."