Napoleon awoke on crisp sheets under bright white lights. He raised an arm against the hostile illumination, shielding his tender eyes. He felt numb and empty but couldn't place the cause. It just felt as if everything that mattered had been taken away. He blinked dumbly waiting for some part of him to tell him what to do next.
''Mr Solo?'' asked a voice and he turned to see who was speaking. It was a nurse. He blinked at her, wondering what she wanted and not really caring what the answer was. ''How are you feeling?'' she asked and then he remembered. He was no longer holding Illya. He should have been holding Illya.
He rolled away from her, not wanting an answer for why he wasn't holding Illya. Not wanting to ask the question.
She seemed to hesitate at his side and then disappeared back to wherever she had come from. He briefly wondered if she had been THRUSH. Not that it mattered. Not that he cared.
He shut his eyes hoping sleep would find him again, but it stubbornly refused his invitation. His ears filled with the sound of remembered breathing and he listened to the rhythm of it, heedless of time or environment. His eyes still shut.
Eventually something touched his shoulder. A stick? Who was prodding him with a stick? It distracted his self hypnosis sufficiently for him to pick up the smell of tobacco. Not a cigarette, something more mellow, rounder. ''Mr Solo'' said a voice and something in him remembered that he shouldn't ignore this voice. He opened his eyes and rolled onto his back.
''Sir?'' he acknowledged, his stomach tensing as if in expectation of a punch. Without realising it, he held his breath.
''Mr Solo the medical staff are concerned enough to have requested my presence'' said the voice ''they seem to think you are not giving them your full attention.'' The voice put the pipe back in his mouth, clamping it between his teeth, allowing a curl of aromatic smoke to escape the bowl and drift towards the ceiling.
''Sir?'' repeated Napoleon, suddenly aware of how tense he was. He made a conscious effort to relax, but as soon as he stopped concentrating his body reverted.
''May I sit?'' asked the voice.
Napoleon registered the chair by his bed for the first time. Of course there was a chair, where else would Illya sit? Where was Illya? Perhaps the voice had asked him to leave. Yes the voice had the authority to do that. Illya wouldn't take it from anyone else, but he would obey the voice. That must be it. He wanted to ask where Illya was but something in him told him that this was the one question he couldn't ask. He listened to the something. It was the same something that spoke to him when THRUSH had him drugged and in pain, it told him the thing he must not give them, even when the rest of him had lost the faculty for rational thought. He trusted this part of himself. He would obey this part of himself.
''Mr Solo, may I sit?'' asked the voice again with an affable politeness.
''Yes sir, of course'' said Napoleon.
The voice sat in the chair, somehow continuing to exude effortless authority and reassurance. There was something about it that reminded Napoleon of childhood illnesses. The comforting presence of an adult reassuring him that it would be alright. But he wasn't a child anymore, why was the voice here? This was Illya's place now. Illya watched him when he was injured. Illya was his partner; that's what partners did. It's what he did for Illya. Watching Illya when he was injured, when THRUSH had pumped him full of drugs, when he was sick, when he had a fever, when he was cold...when he was cold? Something stirred in his memory. Illya had been cold. Then he remembered, he was no longer holding Illya. He should have been holding Illya. He shut his eyes and breathed tight little breaths, as if against pain.
''Mr Solo, are you alright?'' asked the voice gravely.
Napoleon brought his breathing under control and opened his eyes. ''Yes sir, I'm sorry sir.''
''The medical staff have raised some concerns'' began the voice casually ''they are concerned about your state of mind'' continued the voice, taking a puff on his pipe. There was no concern evident in the voice, it was just a conversation starter, something to get the ball rolling.
''My mind?'' asked Napoleon. There was nothing wrong with his mind. His mind was working fine, clearly he was in need of some medical treatment, if he wasn't he wouldn't be here. The voice wouldn't be here. The presence of the voice ruled this out as THRUSH, it must be U.N.C.L.E. He wasn't sure why he needed medical treatment, he didn't remember being injured, but then he didn't always. A blow on the head, the right or perhaps more accurately the wrong drugs, an explosion, any number of things could leave you without a memory of exactly how you were injured. Illya would remember though. Illya would know how he was injured. Where was Illya? He wanted to ask the voice, but something kept him from speaking up.
''It seems Mr Solo that you have not fully recovered from the trance state in which you were found'' the voice observed conversationally.
''Trance?'' queried Napoleon. Had he been in a trance? THRUSH drugs could have some pretty bizarre side effects; if the truth were acknowledged some of the intended effects could be pretty bizarre. The organisation was not noted for its rigorous adherence to the rational. So that was the concern then. THRUSH had pumped him full of some noxious chemical and the effects were not fully understood. That all seemed pretty straight forward; it didn't explain why the voice had been called to his bedside though. It was hardly standard procedure. It was not unprecedented for the voice to visit, but it was unusual. Why was the voice here this time?
''You were found holding Mr Kuryakin'' said the voice carefully neutral, taking his pipe from his mouth and studying it absently as if nothing of moment were being discussed.
Then Napoleon remembered. He was no longer holding Illya. He should have been holding Illya. ''Mr Kuryakin?'' he repeated. He began to feel the clamminess of his skin and the nausea filling his stomach. Mr Kuryakin. He swallowed hard as it got worse. He had been holding Mr Kuryakin. He shut his eyes and the endless numbing white filled his brain driving all before it.
''Mr Solo? Mr Solo?'' the voice called him back authoritatively.
Napoleon opened his eyes, something in him remembering that he shouldn't ignore this voice. ''Yes sir?'' he responded.
''You were found holding Mr Kuryakin'' repeated the voice. ''The medical assessment is that you had been holding him for some time, possibly for more than a day.''
''He was cold'' said Napoleon, the numbness was still with him. He couldn't feel anything.
''Yes he was'' confirmed the voice ''very cold. The medical assessment is that he would not have survived for as long as he did, if it hadn't been for your efforts.''
''He was very cold'' echoed Napoleon ''but he said goodbye.''
''Yes. I understand something of the sort occurred'' said the voice. ''Regrettable.''
''Regrettable'' repeated Napoleon. ''Where's Illya?''
''I think you should get some rest now Mr Solo'' said the voice and a nurse appeared from nowhere to gift him with sleep.
When he awoke Mr Waverly was talking quietly to a group of doctors not far from his bed. Despite their relative proximity he couldn't make out anything that was being said, but there appeared to be a serious difference of medical opinion, which the Old Man was refereeing. He watched the mummery with a curious disinterest, idly wondering whose prognosis had engendered such a heated, albeit muted debate.
The Old Man called a halt to proceedings, though it was difficult to tell which side felt they had won the exchange. Napoleon smiled wryly, if it was anything like his dealings with the wily old fox the only winner was one Alexander Waverly.
Said wily old fox looked over at him at this point and dismissed the assembled medical opinion with a wave of a file. A respectful retreat was beaten by all. Mr Waverly crossed the short distance to his bedside. ''Hello Mr Solo, it's nice to see you awake again'' he said.
''Thank you sir'' said Napoleon.
''I've been reviewing your file'' he said waggling the file in his hand.
''Oh?'' said Napoleon warily. This was never good news.
''It details your rescue from your last little run in with THRUSH, interesting reading. Would you care to read it for yourself?'' asked Mr Waverly.
Napoleon eyed him wondering if some kind of trap was being set, the Old Man had already told him his mental faculties were under scrutiny.
''Well I'll just leave it here in case you wish to satisfy your curiosity on any point'' said Mr Waverly amiably. He left the file on the seat beside Napoleon's bed and then he left.
Napoleon stared at the file for some time, deciding whether picking it up or leaving it be was more likely to get him a pass in whatever test he was being set. He thought about waiting until Illya turned up, Illya's instincts for this sort of thing were usually good. It was about time the irascible Russian put in an appearance. He leaned out of the bed and picked up the file, turning it over and over while he pondered upon reading it.
In the end the gaps in his memory put forward the most forcible argument and he opened the cover. The first thing he saw was a small and slightly creased black and white head shot of Illya attached by a paper clip. It wasn't great quality and he wondered who had taken it. It looked like the sort of thing that might have followed the Russian from his previous life. He ran his thumb backwards and forwards over the image, remembering holding Illya. That's why the Russian was not at his bedside. He'd held onto Illya trying to keep the warmth in that failing body. Willing it to breathe. To hold on for escape or rescue, not to give up. To use that infuriating stubbornness to save himself, to pull one more impossible victory from the jaws of death.
Napoleon lay back on his pillows. He wasn't sure he wanted to read what this file must contain. He didn't want to see in black and white that which his memory refused to acknowledge. He shut his eyes and drifted. His mind took him back to the cell, holding Illya, talking to Illya, trying to get Illya to stay with him, hearing Illya say goodbye.
'I'm sorry' was that the last word on their partnership? After everything, was that how it ended?
Sleep took him again for an hour or so. Protecting him from the truth. Protecting him from the inevitable result of his failure to stop the heat leaching from his partner's body. Protecting him from having to move on and live as he had lived before the Russian had made himself known.
When he woke the file was still open and waiting. He pulled himself into a position more conducive to reading and took a deep breath. If his partnership was over, then better face it and deal with what came next. The old Napoleon reasserting itself. He detached the picture of Illya and laid it on his covers, next to the file folder and then he picked up the first page of the report. He made a conscious decision not to skim. This was one report he would read carefully and in full.
The first page outlined their original assignment; the affair with the trawler. It detailed the objective and the result. Success. Another THRUSH plot foiled. Mission accomplished. It told him nothing new. This much he remembered with unwavering clarity.
The second page outlined the disintegration of success. The agonising night swim to shore. U.N.C.L.E. losing them. The evaluations regarding the costs and benefits of mounting a rescue. It was sobering to see the value of their lives brought down to so many factors for and so many factors against. A checklist of whether U.N.C.L.E. should recover them or write off the loss. So many ticks in this column and rescue was on its way; so many ticks in that and they were expendable, an acceptable price to pay. Pages like this were why you had a partner. A man for whom your worth was measured in trust and loyalty and nothing else. A man you would hold until the last warmth ebbed from his body.
The third page began the search, it and the subsequent pages outlined the search parameters, checked off the areas searched, eliminated the possibilities one by one, zeroing in on their location.
The final pages debated the various methods by which rescue might be effected, until a plan was formulated, agreed and signed off. He had put his signature to such documents himself. This one was counter signed by Mr Waverly.
An addendum at the back reported on the actual rescue itself. They'd sent in a tactical assault team. Picked agents who had acquitted themselves professionally. Both he and Illya had been recovered. Medical support had been on hand. The medics had taken things from there. The rest of the report was a debrief of the involved agents and evaluations and recommendations for their personnel files. Napoleon had written reports of his own saying similar things.
Behind the pages of the report, tagged to the file folder was an envelope marked 'medical in confidence'. It was sealed. Napoleon detached it. He turned it over in his hands for a couple of rotations and then tapped the edge of the envelope against his teeth while he wrestled with his convictions. But Alexander Waverly was not given to making mistakes and if this was in the file Alexander Waverly would expect that it would be read.
He broke the seal and shook out two further envelopes, one had his name on it; the other had Illya's. He picked up Illya's and looked at it. Then he put it down next to Illya's photograph and opened his own.
It had one sheet of paper in it. The report filled one side, outlining how he had been found, unresponsive and withdrawn, still holding Illya. Lost in a world to which no one else had access. It reported that they had tried to prise Illya from his grasp, but that he had refused to relinquish the body of his partner. In the end the medics had administered a muscle relaxant in order to take Illya from him.
He had retreated further into isolation and had been totally unresponsive for eleven days. Eleven days had passed and he had not known them. The report concluded that it was possible that he might never recover sufficiently to be passed fit again. That he might never fully emerge into a reality too painful to engage with, that he might retreat into a twilight world of his own devising where only acceptable truths existed.
Napoleon smiled in understanding. Alexander Waverly, the old fox, knew that if anything was likely to propel one Napoleon Solo into engaging with a world of whole and unpalatable truths, it was reading that he might be incapable of doing so. And if that was the case then he was right; this file was a test. For there was a whole and unpalatable truth in Illya's envelope.
He reached for Illya's report, lying beside his photograph. He could do this; but he could not stop his hand from trembling or his stomach from knotting while he did it.
Illya's envelope also had one sheet of paper in it, but it contained only one paragraph of writing. Napoleon began to read. It gave a couple of sentences reprising the fight to get Illya's body from him. The next couple confirmed Illya's condition as critical and the last his transfer to the critical care facilities and cross referenced the report with U.N.C.L.E. medical for a full update.
Napoleon read the last few sentences again. And again. In order to be certain he understood the meaning contained in them. Then, carefully and deliberately, he packed the medical reports back in their envelopes and tagged the envelope back into the file folder. He replaced the pages he had read and refastened Illya's tatty old 'photo and then he got up, taking the file with him.
He marched with an unstoppable determination through the corridors leading to critical, sailing past the duty nurse, ignoring the protestations of the doctors both for his own health and that of their patient. He planted himself in the chair next to the only occupied bed and addressed himself to the mop of blonde hair occupying it.
''This report says you are still alive. If you do anything to contradict this I will make sure you are buried in the resulting paperwork'' he threatened ''however if you can manage to keep breathing I am willing to spring for Cocoa, vodka and a nice warm fire in the grate.''
There was a long pause and then an almost imperceptible whisper retorted ''I still intend to recheck the existing regulations with regard to shooting one's partner.''
''You get better and I will help you look them up'' said Napoleon.
''Deal'' said the whisper.