Napoleon: 'There IS no safe harbour—not here, not anywhere. The only safety lies in agreements between people. Now, I want you to come with me.'
Shark: 'No, my friend. Yours is a world I don't believe in. Only optimists like yourself can go on living in it.'
To more agile brains than mine, this would make sense. To more experienced field agents—to Napoleon Solo, perhaps—the significance would leap forth with startling clarity. But not to me.
Rising from the litter of case notes, newspaper clippings and the half-eaten sandwich strewing my desk, I face the world map pinnned to the flip board, frowning at the smattering of red dots on its surface, while gingerly fingering the lump that's coming up on my forehead.
The steel door of our office swishes open and I turn to see him striding in briskly.
'Good! You're back,' he greets me. He tosses a case file onto his desk and throws himself in his chair, propping his feet on the desk and swiping a hand over his eyes. 'Wait till you hear about the live one Waverly threw me this afternoon.'
He looks over at me. 'What about you—any luck?'
'Mmm, all bad.'
His eyes travel to the darkening bump on my head. My eyes roll up to my forehead and back.
'There's a story to that, I take it?' he says, raising an eyebrow.
'Yes... one I'd rather forget.' I respond glumly.
'Oh... ?' he says, his lips twitching around a smile. 'Sounds like you could do with a drink. Care to join me?' I detect the beginning of one of his restless, playful moods. He doesn't usually squander those on me. Shame to have to miss it.
'There's nothing I'd like better, Napoleon,' I reply. 'But this missing persons affair is at a complete dead end. I'm afraid I won't be leaving the office for a while yet.'
'If it's really a dead end, it won't matter,' he grins. 'Besides... who said anything about leaving the office?' He winks and jumps up, cocking his head at the doorway. 'Come on. I know just the place.'
Curious, I don my jacket and follow him, wondering if he has a secret stash I have yet to discover, in the map room perhaps. I'm puzzled when we seem to be taking a turn that leads towards Waverly's office.
'Ah... Napoleon? Where exactly are we going?'
He turns round, walking backwards for a moment, hands in his pockets, and wiggles his eyebrows at me.
Wait and see.
Sure enough, we arrive at and enter Waverly's office. I've never seen it empty before, this late. The lighting is dimmed and the winking city skyline looks superb from the tall windows. There is a feeling of stolen licence about being here without business to conduct.
I look at him with misgivings. 'Where's Waverly?'
'Locked in with some brass downstairs,' he says, loosening his tie. 'He'll be hours yet. Sit down and relax. Martini okay?'
I shrug, giving in gladly. 'Perfect.'
He sweeps his hand invitingly towards the black leather sofa before heading towards the cocktail tray.
I conjure the possibilities of the sofa and decide it's a little too risky. Instead I take the chair. The relaxed feeling is catching, though, and I loosen my own tie and lean back with a sigh of contentment.
This is nice. Napoleon making me cocktails while I survey his appealing back view in the soft half-light, which burnishes the sheen of his hair beautifully. I wonder what I've done to deserve it. Or what favour he's expecting to coax from me.
'No olives, I'm afraid,' he says, over his shoulder.
'That's fine. More space for alcohol.'
'True.' He brings over two glasses, pre-chilled—how did he manage that?—and hands one to me.
I sip, and shiver in appreciation. Mmm. He does make a good martini.
'Just a touch more salt,' I say, pinching thumb and forefinger.
'Insolent,' he growls.
He sits down, not, as I expect, on the sofa, but on the table beside me. Quite... close. His head is hovering above mine and he's leaning slightly forward, a hand resting on his thigh.
I take a careful sip. 'To what do I owe this pleasure?' I enquire, gesturing with my glass.
He pretends to be aggrieved. 'Do I have to have an ulterior motive for everything?'
I smirk. 'Usually.'
It's not true. He's often spontaneously kind and thoughtful, but I have to have something to hold him off with. Teasing and sarcasm are my weapons of choice. It's safe—his genial nature never takes offence. He parries or pretends to pout, but always with good humor.
Now though, his voice turns silky cool, with that evening timbre in it I've heard him use on the telephone. 'I wanted a drink and I wanted some company. That okay?'
I glance sideways up at him. The top button of his shirt is undone and the smooth, tanned hollow at the base of his throat looks vulnerable and enticing.
'It's fine,' I say, crossing my legs and staring at my shoes. 'So this is where you lurk when you're supposed to be working late?'
'Not often. Waverly's usually here, for a start. And for another, I don't usually drink during office hours.'
I smile. It's a little after 8pm but that's early for us. I lean back my head so I can look at him, cautiously. He really is quite disturbingly handsome, with his strong, elegant features and captivating smile. Probably not as handsome as he thinks he is, but still... far too handsome for his own good. Yet it is something else which draws people, particularly women, to this man. A compelling magnetism that radiates as warm charisma among friends but which I have seen turn swiftly to iron command at need. The hint of sheathed steel is... stimulating.
He sips and sighs in enjoyment. 'You know, this is practically my favourite hour of the day. Just as the evening starts shaping itself into... whatever it's going to become.' His dark eyes glint with past adventures.
I wonder if he even realises his knee is brushing a patch of bare skin between my sock and pants leg. If I move my leg, it will draw attention to the fact that I've noticed.
I clear my throat. 'And for Napoleon Solo that usually involves a heavy date, does it not? Rather than... deliberating with a colleague.'
'Well, I'm a dedicated professional,' he purrs, 'anything in the line of duty.'
He twinkles at me over the rim of his martini glass.
'And for Illya Kuryakin?' he continues, smoothly. 'What does it involve?'
'What? A pleasant evening?' I think for a moment. 'Mmm... dinner at Razelnykov's... followed, perhaps, by tickets to the New York Philarmonic and, say, a programme of Tchaikovsky or Brahms.'
He nods, appreciatively. 'With?'
I blink. 'With... whomever.'
'Whomever, eh?' he teases. 'So discriminating.'
'You are hardly the one to make that criticism.'
'On the contrary, I'm very discriminating. Just... over a wide field.'
'Covering both hemispheres.'
He laughs, shaking his head. 'Sometimes I think you have a very low impression of me, Illya. What can I do to change your mind I wonder?'
'Keep them coming,' I say, raising my glass.
'Hmm, you're easy to bribe.' He sips his drink. 'So did you find out anything further about those disappearing job applicants?'
'Only that the disappearing seems to be spreading like a contagion, with no discernable logic to it. Different nationalities, different occupations... no pattern. And nothing to connect them. All ordinary people, too, so no ransom value. Even stranger—the glazier, from Copenhagen? His mother has also mysteriously vanished. I have Research checking now on the relatives of the others.'
He nods. 'You think you've got problems. Waverly just assigned me to investigate a pirate ship, of all things.'
'A what? That's hardly U.N.C.L.E. territory, is it?'
'It is when the admiralty of six nations get on the phone to Waverly. But get this—our pirate friend is sinking ships left, right and centre but all he seems to loot are the stores. No money, jewels or other valuables, just... asprins and shoelaces. Oh, and people—random kidnappings, apparently. Or perhaps not so random,' he grins. 'On his latest job he asked if any of the passengers could tune a piano. Guess he's a music lover, anyway.'
I stare at him in bewilderment. 'Has everything gone mad, Napoleon? I'm starting to long for an old-fashioned THRUSH world-domination plot. At least I'd understand their motives.'
'You may have a point.'
He reaches out and brushes his middle finger across the burgeoning lump on my forehead.
'Ow!' I pretend it hurts, holding still for him.
'Okay, let's hear it. Man in the white suit?'
I regard him warily. I hate revealing weakness in front of him, sure he'll tease me endlessly. I brace myself, abandoning my dignity.
'I was hit by a door,' I say, stiffly
He goggles. 'WHAT?'
'I was chasing our friend in the white suit through the basement when Mrs Barnman opened a door and—'
'- you ran into it?' he says gleefully, and slaps his thigh, rocking.
I bristle. 'It wasn't fair, Napoleon! I almost had him but—'
'- Sure... sure you did.' He grins hugely. 'Oh boy, Waverly's going to love this.'
'Napoleon! You wouldn't!'
'Oh, isn't it in your report?' he says, mock innocent.
'Of course not!'
'Why not? I'm sure he'd understand. Mrs Barnman's a force to be reckoned with.' He chuckles into the last of his martini.
'You... !' I glare at him, but he's twinkling at me so roguishly that I have to fight to keep a smile from cresting to the surface.
'Please, Napoleon,' I coax, in my best pleading voice. 'It's humiliating enough to have to report that I lost him. Promise you won't mention the door to Waverly?'
'Well alright, but you owe me,' he winks, relenting. 'Hmm, you have had a tough day, friend. I think you deserve another one of these and you can tell me the rest.' He takes my empty glass, brushing my fingers in passing, and heads to the cocktail tray.
I gaze after him, fantasising momentarily about stroking the glossy dark hair above his nape. I have to remind myself sternly that the female co-workers he might have chosen to share this with have probably gone home already.
I refocus. 'Well, needless to say, Mrs Barnman was most apologetic.'
'Mother you, did she?' he says, his back to me.
'You could use a little looking after.'
You have no idea.
Yes... I could so easily get accustomed to this, to having him all to myself like this in a cool, quiet hour, contendedly bathed in his attention. Alarmed, I bite inside my lip, forcing myself rapidly to composure as he returns.
As it turns out, I needn't worry—I do not get to enjoy even one more minute. He has barely retaken his seat—agreeably close, chatting companionably—when Waverly enters abruptly, glaring hard at us. We scrabble to attention, like schoolboys caught in flagrant mischief. Even as I follow suit, I'm entertained to see him jumping up, agitated, straightening his tie. Waverly is the only man who can rattle him like that. Waverly calls him 'Solo', no 'Mr'—always a sign of displeasure—and he winces.
But behind the old man's back, he shoots me an amused, conspiratorial glance of wicked complicity and my pulse throbs hard.
Lying here, curled on the metal cot of this blighted ship's brig, I groan loudly, holding my abdomen tight to quell the bruising pain in my gut.
It's been nearly an hour since they hauled me down here. When we got to the stairs, I heard the first terrible lash stroke descending and thrashed between the guards, receiving another blow to the stomach which crumpled my legs from under me. They dragged me the rest of the way, and threw me in this grey metal cabin. No windows—just a hard cot, a small sink and a bucket in the corner. Splendid.
From the moment Waverly unleashed his brilliant plan of dropping us on a life raft out at sea, I knew this was a cursed mission. I hate the sea. The Navy quickly cures one of romance about it. It is an endless grey, cold, deadly expanse and I've seen enough of it to last a lifetime. To be cast adrift upon it in the mere educated hope that we'd be picked up by the Whippet was madness. Instead, we were fished out straight onto Captain Shark's floating asylum. A pirate ark, created against a phantom holocaust. Then... things really took a turn for the worse.
I suppose he had some objective, drawing Shark out with his measured defiance. My skin crawled when Shark brought out the whip but what frightened me even more was the stony, inhuman look on the man's face. I knew he would regard brutality as a duty, or privilege, of his self-appointed command. Napoleon, of course, showed no fear, just... recognition. They made me watch as they stripped his back and held him down on deck. When Shark raised the whip, I lunged at him, futile though it may be, hoping at least to break his arm. But a guard stepped in with a crushing blow to my stomach, knocking the wind from my body.
I'm glad I didn't have to witness the rest but my imagination supplies the horror of it. I shift on the cot and try to swallow past a painful lump in my throat, sick with humiliation. After all my training, I was useless to him. Perhaps, if he had had another partner on this mission, he might... but I know that guilt is selfish and pity is unworthy of him. I scrunch my eyes against the tears pricking my lids. He will be alright. My brain whispers. He will live. He will LIVE.
I don't know if it's the pain in my belly or the thought of what they've done to him but suddently I'm lurching towards the bucket in the corner and retching uncontrollably, dry wracking heaves that shatter me, inside and out, and the hot tears come flooding now too—and I'm so ashamed I could die. When it stops, I'm still shaking. I stumble blindly to the sink, leaning against it, and run the cold water, gulping, spitting, and scrubbing at my eyes, trying to obliterate the disgrace and the helplessness. They don't tell you about this in Survival School. Then, it's all about adrenalin—heat and action and heroism. They don't tell you about the nausea of cold fear and regret, the anguish of uselessness while a partner suffers.
When I finally stagger back to the cot, I collapse, staring at the roof and wishing us miles away, anywhere, back at HQ, in Waverly's office, where he mixed me drinks and smiled that easy smile and sat so close I could feel his breathing. A surge of hatred for Shark overwhelms me and I know, given any opportunity, I will kill him, painfully, ruthlessly and with cold satisfaction. I have barely begun to think of how I would like to achieve this, when the door of the brig swings open.
'You,' barks a guard. 'you're released, Captain's orders. Come with us.'
I realise in panic that I don't know how to face him. But as they march me through the ship's corridors, all my mind's rehearsals end with me cradling him in my arms.
As I walk into the cabin, the door is slammed shut behind me.
He's here. Sitting on the lower bunk, in shirtsleeves, looking dishevelled and weary. Nevertheless, he smiles warmly at me. 'Welcome back to the party.'
My heart contracts painfully. 'Napoleon.' I take a few steps torward him, and halt. Something in my throat feels stretched taut, like violin strings. It hurts to speak. 'Are you alright?'
He holds my eyes a couple of seconds. 'I'm fine. You?'
I nod dumbly.
He frowns. 'You're white as a sheet.' He gets up, wincing a little, and crosses over to me, touching me on the arm. 'Are you sure you're alright?'
'Yes.' I draw away from the touch. I can't help it. I don't want him showing concern for me when he's the one who's really suffering. I half-turn away from him, fighting the indulgence of guilt. 'I'm... I'm sorry about... what happened, Napoleon.'
He shakes his head. 'Fortunes of war, friend. Besides, I've had a rather interesting talk with our dear Captain. And an even more interesting tour of his ark. I'd better tell you about it as we wash up, though. We're expected at a reception for Mrs Barnman later. Hence the tuxedos.' He gestures towards the suits hanging on the end of the bunk. 'I had to tell them your size. 37, isn't it?'
As he turns, my breath catches at the sight of the drying blood stains making the cloth of his white shirt cling to his back. As he starts to unbutton it, I reach out and take his arm. 'Wait. Here, let me'.
He pauses for a moment, then nods his acceptance. I pull out a chair from the small table in the corner and he sits down facing its back.
Filling the small sink with water, I soak a washcloth and begin to gently press and roll it over the bloodied places on his shirt. He flinches, gasping quietly. I'm relieved he does not rigidly conceal pain in my presence, glad he trusts me that much.
As I work, he details the tour of the ship he received from Shark, including layout, guards and weaponry.
'There's minimal security, even around sensitive areas like communication and munitions. He's so all-fired confident his passengers share his utopian dream. He could even be right. Maybe he even imagines himself beloved by them. He certainly seems to command the loyalty of his crew.'
The dried blood loosens sufficiently to allow me to gently peel away the wet shirt from his back and remove it. The damage is worse than I imagined.
'He has made quite a mess of you, I see,' I remark bitterly, when I can speak.
I can hear his sardonic smile. 'Well, he's a very, uh... thorough man, our Captain.'
'Yes... thoroughly depraved.'
'An interesting psychological case study, though, up close.' He cautiously flexs his shoulders.
I rinse out the bloodied cloth in the small washbasin, staining the water pink. 'I have studied enough tyrants in history. I don't need to meet one face to face to know they should be destroyed.'
'That's all you do meet in this job.' He sounds tired and troubled. 'But this one... this one had a spark of humanity, once, I think. Perhaps even still, underneath it all. I wonder if he might be saved?'
'Saved?' I turn angrily, snarling at his lacerated back. 'He's a sadistic lunatic who enjoys wielding absolute power and he's nurtured his psychosis to justify his... messianic delusions!'
My words practically echo in the ensuing silence. He turns his head and glances mildly back over his shoulder at me, then, with just the faint trace of a smile, faces front without a word.
Feeling nauseous again, I resume bathing the livid cuts on his back as gently as possible. The job elicits several soft moans from him, and I'm relieved when I can finally drape the towel carefully over his abused back, pressing gently to dry him off.
He removes a tube of ointment from his pocket. 'Here, put some of this on, would you? The ship's doc gave it to me. It dulls the pain a little.'
I hate touching the scars, long, raw, swollen weals I know will never disappear completely, but I apply the ointment liberally, as tenderly as I can, before washing my hands.
'We have about an hour to spare,' I tell him quietly. 'Lie down on the bunk. On your front.'
To my surprise, he obeys without question, pillowing his head on his forearms. I unlace his shoes and remove them. Moving to the head of the bunk, I kneel down, placing my hands on the muscles around the base of his neck and begin to slowly knead them with gentle pressure. I gradually work my way along his shoulders and upper arms, and back again, and across his upper back, high above the first angry stripe. I want to ease the stiffness of the muscles wrenched and tortured in that obscene, crucified grip they held him down in. I work slowly, easing the tension from each muscle, drawing small, widening circles, working with greater, more assured pressure as I feel him relaxing into it. When I finally remove my hands, he sighs, a deep contented sigh. He doesn't move and I wonder if he's fallen asleep, despite the pain. I let him rest.
I go to the cabin door and, cautiously, test the handle. The door is unlocked and I slowly open it and peer out into the corridor in both directions. No guards. Evidently they feel they have nothing to fear from us. I draw back inside and close the door, somehow more unnerved that if there had been a couple of armed crewman posted outside.
I change into pants and shirt, then sit in the chair to try to think things through. I prop my head in my hands and, as the minutes pass, my brain ratchets despairingly through the options open to us. Our position is dire, there's no question. We've no communications link to call for backup. If we manage to get to the ship's radio and issue a mayday, Shark will attack or disable the communications of any ship that responds. If we can alert the other passengers to Shark's true nature, then we may have a chance to enlist their aid, but we've had no opportunity to talk to them, much less incite them to revolt. I lose track of the time when suddenly I hear him stirring.
'Oohh!' He's sitting up on the side of the bunk, twisting his head one way then the other. He smiles. 'You should patent those fingers, Illya. That's better than a drug.'
'You didn't fall asleep?' I ask.
'Better. I think I had an out of body experience. At least, everything looks pretty clear now.' He stands up, making fists with his arms outstretched, rolling his shoulders forward and back.
He does look a little more relaxed. And something else. Resolute.
It frightens me. Whatever he's going to do, I don't want him coming into any more confrontations with that maniac. I couldn't stand this, or worse, happening again.
He takes a few steps and I stand up, blocking his way, looking him sternly in the face.
'We have to kill him, Napoleon, to stop this—it's the only way. If we kill him, the crew will be leaderless and we can barricade ourselves in somehow, at the helm, and either negotiate or force them to take us into port.'
'No, Illya.' His tone has a sharp finality I've come to recognise. 'There are other ways. He's not a murderer—at least, not yet. And it's not our job to execute pirates.'
I search his eyes, forcing my words through gritted teeth, feeling the anger boil in my belly.
'Let me kill him for you, Napoleon.'
For a moment, his brows pinch together, in surprise, or shock. Then his expression changes slowly into a grin. He gives my jaw a mock tap with his fist. 'He'll be very lucky if I don't let you at him when the time comes, tiger.'
He side-steps me smoothly and begins dressing, whistling something almost jauntily.
He has a plan. Fearful but resigned, I sit, simmering with restrained impatience until he deigns to tell me about it. To piece together the whole picture, as he always does, while I see only the puzzle.
It is in the rules that we hazard ourselves in the game, but any fool can die heroically. Brilliance belongs to the man left standing, and he is nothing if not brilliant.
I trust his schemes implicitly. But I don't trust him with my beloved. He is much, much too careless.
I'm standing in the last of the lifeboats with twenty or so passengers, yelling to be heard above their complaints and hysteria. Three more boats have already gone, the ship's officers deployed between them. Two of the below-deck crew are on mine, waiting to lower away at my command.
'What's the matter with you, young man!' shouts a thin, hard-faced fellow, angrily. 'If we don't go right now, we'll all drown!' A storm of general agreement breaks out.
'We're waiting for one more!' I snarl, curling my hand round the butt of the pistol I took the precaution of removing from a ship's officer and tucking in my belt.
Suddenly another explosion sends shockwaves through the ship and she lists even further. The passengers scream as the lifeboat jolts sharply then holds, swaying at a precipitous angle.
'That's it, we're going—now!' says the thin man, elbowing the crewman aside and reaching for the pulley himself.
'Touch it and die!' I yell, cocking the pistol and pointing it right at his face. Shrill screaming erupts in the craft as they cower away from me. The man freezes, palms forward, with a look of abject terror.
'Napoleon!!!' I bellow towards the deck, keeping the pistol pointed level at the man. 'NA-PO-LE-ON!!!'
At last, I see him, hauling himself up along the deck by the railings. I curse him in my relief, even while thinking he looks magnificant, damn him, resplendent in his tuxedo, dark hair ruffling in the breeze.
He swings easily down into the lifeboat and we at last lower away, organizing a rowing crew to pull hard, away from the sinking ship and towards the other boats.
Within minutes he has charmed them all, congratulating them on an orderly evacuation—it was chaos—and reassuring them of impending rescue. They're all still terrified of me, though, and regard me warily, like a attack dog on a leash... held by him.
'Why don't you just lead them in song?' I sneer at him under my breath.
'I'm saving that for the desperate hours,' he murmers back.
'Was there no response to the mayday?'
'I don't know. I'm just assuming one went out,' he replies, smiling warmly and leaning forward to pat the hand of an elderly woman.
'Then what were you doing back there?'
'Trying to persuade the Captain to come with us.'
Shocked, I don't even reply. When he turns his head, I just look him cold in the eyes. He makes a face at me.
A little over four hours later, all on our little flotilla are picked up by an American freighter bound for Tokyo.
'I thought you'd fallen overboard,' I greet him sourly.
He's just entered the cabin holding up a bottle of scotch and two glasses. He winks at me. 'Captain's compliments. We need something to ward off a chill.'
The rescued passengers are being bedded down with sleeping bags and blankets in the ship's mess, but once the Captain verified we were with U.N.C.L.E, he insisted on having his crew free a twin cabin for our use. Via the ship's wireless, we have been able to convey to Waverly, pending a full report, that 'the pirate threat is neutralised'. An accurate if understated way to describe bombing someone to the bottom of the ocean.
As he opens the bottle, he glances regretfully at the wreckage of his suit, and tuts. 'You know, I hate being over-dressed for a sea rescue—such a waste.'
He fills our glasses, hands one to me and clinks it with his.
'To the end of all wars,' he says, and drinks deeply.
Lying propped on the lower bunk, I clutch the blanket round me, shivering. 'To the end of all wars... and tyrants.' I gulp a large mouthful of the burning liquor, eager for its warming effect in my cold, empty stomach.
'I think they're rustling up some hot soup for the passengers,' he says, 'We can go down and take a look later.'
He must still be in pain but he doesn't show it. In his creased and water-stained tuxedo, he looks just like the handsome, boyish victim of some prank, a pool-dunking at a college ball. I realise it's just under thirty hours since we were sipping martinis in Waverly's office and I can't believe what's happened since. Flogged and shipwrecked, set adrift twice, yet here he stands making toasts, having done it yet again—having saved us all by one simple, stunning stroke. If only the Command could bottle what makes him who he is, it would be unstoppable.
'Why?' I ask him coldly.
He raises an eyebrow. 'Aren't you hungry?'
'I meant why would you put yourself at risk—put us at risk—by going back for... him? A maniac who flogged you and almost put a bullet in you?'
He brings over a chair and sits facing me.
'Well, when on a ship at sea,' he says, smiling faintly, 'I like to at least try and save all souls, if I can.'
'Even a psychopath?'
'He wasn't quite that. He stopped his fellow Morgan from killing me, at the end, even though I'd murdered his dream.'
'How noble of him!' I sneer furiously, incensed to hear of his further narrow escape.
He sips at his drink. 'Maybe not. But it shows he was, at least, an honorable man.'
'Honor?' I practically spit. 'He had no honor.'
'He stayed with his ship. That may be a misguided sort of honor, but it's honor just the same.'
'He had no choice! He didn't exist any longer outside of that ship—and no one outside the ship existed for him. The conflagration of the entire rest of humanity meant nothing to him. It was the ultimate in selfish isolationism.'
He stares into the depths of his glass, swirling the contents. 'He was only dreaming of a safe harbour, Illya. I guess we'd all like to believe that one exists, somewhere.'
I shake my head. 'He simply wanted to create a world in his own image where he could subjugate others to his will.'
He cocks an eyebrow at me. 'I'm not saying he hadn't lost the plot. I just don't think he was always the man we met, that's all.'
'What makes you so sure?'
He thinks for a moment, frowning. 'Partly the respect I saw given him by other men. Partly his words. And partly something in himself... his vision, I suppose, warped though it was. He was once a real leader of men, that's obvious, and an effective one, too, most likely. Then, something happened along the way...' He tails off, shaking his head and takes another draught of scotch. 'I'd really like to know what drives an otherwise intelligent man over the edge like that.'
I eye him, icily. 'The life of a man like that is not worth risking the life of a man like you.'
This does not shock him as it might another man. We are both soldiers in a dirty war, and he knows as well as I do that not all lives are equal. That some forfeit their right to life by vile inhumanities.
'But he wasn't evil,' he says, patiently, 'just tragically deluded. And I've met enough evil men to know the difference.'
My anger, my frustration with him is waning in the face of his empathy. But something else is troubling me. I sense, with a stab of something akin to jealousy, that he has had an emotional reaction to this man, and I am afraid I know why.
I ask him, very quietly. 'Did he... did he, somehow, remind you of your father? Was that why you tried to save him?'
He looks perplexed, then dismayed. 'No, no, not at all! My father was a patient, gentle man. Why on earth would you think that?'
I'm embarrassed. 'I don't know. Never mind.'
He stares a moment and his eyes narrow. 'Why? Was your -'
The concerned gaze deepens. 'Illya?'
I answered too quickly—he thinks I'm lying, but he's wrong. I shake my head and answer patiently this time, holding his eyes. 'No, really.'
He seems relieved. 'Good.'
I search his face. 'Forgive me if I'm a little confused, Napoleon. Only I've seen you take out villains before without regret. And despite what you've said, the man was a villain—and a pirate.'
He grins. 'Well, I always did like pirate stories. And... I don't know, maybe I have a weakness for dreamers, even the lost ones. Maybe I even envy them, a little.'
'It's seductive, isn't it? The childlike simplicity of it. The idea that there's a happy ending, a perfect world somewhere, just over the horizon. You and I know there is no happy ending, Illya. That our work goes on forever. And when we're not around to carry it out, we trust others will come after, because the world will always need them.' He pauses, looks off wonderingly. 'But he thought he could build utopia. Just pick a random bunch of people and start the world over.' He gives a short, hollow laugh. 'And he called ME an optimist.'
'That's not optimism—it's arrogance, it's escape. Shark feared war but he didn't raise a hand to stop it or even protest. He just shut himself off and dragged others with him.'
'Because, somehow, someway. he'd lost faith utterly in the world we have. He said... only optimists like us could go on living in it.' He shakes his head in disbelief. 'That's certainly not how I'd describe myself. I've never had any utopian dream. Never looked for a world better than this one. I'm a realist, if anything. I only hope somehow to stop the forces of evil from spoiling what we already have, what good people have created and struggle to make better.'
'That's what optimism is, Napoleon. It's not about believing in dreams, it's about believing in realities, and in the best possible future, not impossible fantasies.'
Unlike me. My fantasies are all impossible.
'I guess you're right.' he says, thoughtfully. 'And when all faith in humanity is lost, only fantasy is left. Maybe it could happen to anyone of us, given the right circumstances. Maybe it could happen to me someday.'
'No, it could not happen to you, Napoleon,' I say, decisively.
He looks at me curiously. 'Why not?'
'Because you didn't lose faith in him, that's why.' I say, choking on it. 'Even after what he did to you, you still went back for him.'
He looks at me soberly for a moment, then shakes his head. 'Maybe I was only proving a point to myself. Maybe letting him sacrifice himself without a fight might have felt like revenge -'
'- Maybe you should simply accept the compassion in your nature without rationalizing it.'
That arrests him, staring at me, lips slightly parted in surprise.
I hand him my empty glass. 'Maybe I should, too,' I mutter, grudgingly.
He looks faintly embarrassed, now I've given his feeling a name, and glad of an excuse to turn his face away for a few moments.
It is no good looking for something in Shark to explain his act of mercy. It is, of course, something in him. I tend to treat others as I am treated by them, asking for no quarter and giving none. But he does not return like for like, does not allow his actions to be dictated by ill-treatment. He is true to himself and his own code, bound only by his chosen responsibility to others—instinctively good, even if he doesn't know it, instinctively kind, even in the worst peril. Nearly one hundred people onboard owe their lives to him tonight and not one of them has thanked him, but he hasn't noticed. His thoughts are with the one that wasn't saved.
He sits down, handing me my refilled glass. We both sip gratefully. The scotch is sending welcome fire through my veins and I hope it's starting to take away his pain. It's also loosening my tongue but I don't care.
I frown, worried. 'You do realise I'm not really questioning your actions, Napoleon? Just... trying to understand. You know?'
He nods, his voice quiet. 'I know.'
He sips his drink, waiting patiently for my questions, willing to let me to ride out my frustration and shock by battering him with my protests and queries. It is a pattern with us. But tonight, my frustrations are not easily relinquished.
I think of Shark—fathoms deep by now, his troubles ended, flesh soon to be erased forever by the relentless ocean—and a fresh wave of bitterness floods through me. He has marked my beloved in a way that will never be completely erased, by water or by time.
My beloved, whom I may not even touch with love.
He catches the shadow darkening my face. 'What is it?'
I drag the words from deep in my chest. 'I was just wondering... is it any worse to hate the dead than the living?'
He looks down for a moment then back at my face.
'You don't have to hate him on my account,' he says gently. 'I've been through worse.'
What could be worse? The war perhaps?
'That is an insufficient reason.' I reply gruffly. We drink together in silence for a while as I steal glances at him from the corner of my eye.
If I reached out now, I could take his hand and warm it in mine, palm to palm, and all the intensity of my respect and admiration for him would be in that touch. I wonder anew if I simply have a rampant case of hero worship, but then I know I would feel exactly the same towards him if we were languishing in Shark's brig tonight instead of tasting liberation. It is himself, the qualities that impel him, and not his deeds, that take my breath away. I can't even classify the million things I feel for him but I know where they are all leading me and it scares me worse than any danger.
This is madness, I know it. An appreciation is one thing. Even an attraction, forever hidden and kept within iron bonds. But... love? For a man who can never love me? Does not that make me as deluded a dreamer as Shark? Basing my life on an impossible fantasy, I am quietly sailing my own dream into a hopeless future. With no safe harbour... anywhere.
'Napoleon...' I begin, and stop, confused.
He looks questioningly at me.
'I have to confess to you...' I smirk, ironically, 'this has not been my favourite affair.'
He almost laughs. 'It's been a strange one, I'll grant you. Messy too, unfortunately. Seven, eight ships sunk, numerous lives disrupted and a man dead.'
I take in a long breath and exhale slowly. I could not have endured it if that man had lived. I suddenly realise I was narrowly spared four hours in a lifeboat with him, and shudder. I doubt I could have prevented myself from shooting him.
I remark, coldly, 'Shark's death was his own choice,'
'It doesn't say much for my skills as a negotiator that I couldn't talk him out of it.'
Though I don't share his regret, I try to console him. 'His dream would have died anyway, Napoleon. He would have sailed his ark forever, waiting for the war, or languished in prison as a pirate. This way, he is spared the knowledge that there is no new world. For him, that would have been a slow, far more painful death.'
He looks at me. 'You don't think they could have cured his mind?'
I shake my head. 'His mind was sick, but his soul was already dead.'
He looks genuinely saddened but I'm not about to let him brood despondently when he should be celebrating victory.
I tap his knee. 'Think of all these passengers who are saved, and who knows how many future ships. It is a win, Napoleon. Accept it.'
'You're right,' he says, and smiles, forcing a return to brightness. 'All that and a free trip to Tokyo. Hey, maybe we'll even be allowed a couple of days off when we dock.'
I snort. 'We'll probably be ordered to take the first commercial flight back to New York.'
'Yeah, I guess so.' he concedes. 'Pity.'
I scan his face. 'I will say this for Shark, Napoleon. He was right about you. You are a true optimist. You see evil for what it is, you never hide from it or pretend it doesn't exist. You face it, battle against it every day, and yet... it doesn't blind you to the good that remains. And you still believe in saving that good, no matter what the cost.'
He flushes a little. 'I don't do it alone,' he says.
His words and his look go straight to my heart, but I can't accept them. I look away. 'I was no good at all to you in this,' I say bitterly.
'That's not true,' he protests. 'You allayed the Captain's suspicions, you bought us time for me to plant that bomb and you organized the evacuation.' He pauses. 'And you helped me... personally. I can't tell you how good it felt, to know I... I wasn't alone.'
How generous he is. I look into his warm, expressive eyes and see his kind, indomitable spirit shining out at me—strong, bright and unmarred. Although I deplore his scars, I am fiercely proud of how he bears them, and I find myself consciously letting go my hatred of Shark, because he does not harbour hatred, and I wish to honor him, to be more like him.
I sigh, shaking my head. 'Well, I suppose I did save you from getting your feet wet, at the end.'
'Yes, you did,' he smiles, 'and this suit is dry-clean only.'
He swirls the last of his scotch, drains his glass, and closes his eyes for moment, sighing. Then he looks at me speculatively. 'You know, I think you're the real optimist here, Illya.'
I glare at him. 'I'm the most pessimistic person you've ever known, Napoleon.'
'No... that's just your cover,' he grins. 'Quite effective, too. Fools most people. But inside you're a wide-eyed kid. That's what brought you to U.N.C.L.E. You have so much wonder and enthusiasm for the world, you want to dive right into all of it—arts, humanities, sciences—the works. Luckily, you're such a smart Russian, you practically get away with it.'
I'm already blushing but I can't resist. 'Only practically?'
He ignores me. 'But then what do you do? You look around and you see the world needs fighters, which you also happen to do pretty well, so you sign up.' He pauses. 'I've met a lot of people in our business—some brilliant, some just highly efficient machines. All have their reasons—duty, ambition, glory-seeking... even vengence.' He shakes his head, smiling. 'I've never met anyone who gave up the prospects you did, though. To me... that says you must really believe this world is worth saving.'
Completely abashed, I frown and address my words, scathingly, to my near-empty glass. 'Well, I'd have to be an optimist, wouldn't I? I have a partner who sinks ships out from under me.'
He grins. 'Is that all the thanks I get from saving you from utopia?'
'Count yourself lucky I saved you a space in the lifeboat,' I grimly reply and he laughs.
He retrieves the bottle, and I watch him filling our glasses once more. Suddenly, I'm hot inside, and very drunk, and aching to touch the dark curl that's falling onto his forehead. My heart swells painfully with everything I'd tell him if I could, and against all sense and all reality, I send out a mayday of my own, and it fills the room until there's nothing left to breathe but hope.
I love you, idiot. I love your stupid, arrogant daring that gets us into these things and I love your stupid, arrogant daring that gets us out. I love your reckless courage and your wild invention. I love your weakness for humanity, your compassion and your self-sacrifice. You're everything I need to be and everything I need to be near. I love you—you great, ignorant fool—I love you...
He hands me my glass and raises his to me in salute, then double-takes when he spots the look on my face. 'Trying to make me guess?'
I compose my features into stern disapproval, betrayed by a twiching of my mouth. 'I may be an optimist, Napoleon, but not an insane one.'
'You can be the one to explain to Waverly how we failed to stop them sinking The Whippet.'
'Uh-uh, sorry, can't do it.' he says. 'You still owe me for the door, remember?'
His smile dazzles me and, fighting happiness, I pretend to roll my eyes before looking away.
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