Napoleon had to hand it to the Hong Kong office: they really knew how to set up a safe house. The suite in which he found himself was in one of the newer apartment towers, a tribute to the capitalist ethic that drove this colony. The furniture was expensive, the decor impeccable, the bedrooms luxurious, and the windows gave a spectacular view of the HK harbour, and a skyline that seemed to change every time he was here.
He sat back in an overstuffed wingback chair, his eyelids growing heavier by the moment. The long flight from New York was starting to catch up with him.
He'd just allowed his eyes to completely shut when he heard his partner walk into the room. He opened one eye a slit.
"Well, what do you think." Illya Kuryakin pulled a damp towel off his head to reveal hair darker than Napoleon's own.
He twisted his mouth into a half grin.
"I think you look better as a blonde."
"I happen to agree with you." Illya walked back into the bathroom to deposit the towel. "Unfortunately, I am the one who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin." Returning to the room, he settled himself precisely into a chair across from Napoleon, his feet on the table between them.
"Better you than me." Napoleon shut his eyes again, partly from fatigue, partly because the sight of his partner with black hair was suddenly disturbing to him. "You're sure you can pull this off."
He heard Illya shift in his chair before answering.
"I'm sure. My Mandarin is fluent. I just have to worry about speaking Cantonese with a Beijing accent. And I'm only passing as Eurasian, not Chinese. Hopefully, they will attribute any mistakes I make to my impure blood."
Napoleon could hear the amusement in the voice even without looking. He smiled himself, though his unease remained.
"As long as you know what you're doing, bratik."
"At least your Russian accent is improving." Napoleon was never quite sure how Illya could put both approval and disapproval in the same tone, but he'd managed it again.
"Spasibo. I owe it all to my teacher."
"You're welcome, but I refuse to take the blame for you." He could hear Illya stand up. "I am going to get some sleep. I would suggest you do the same."
"In a minute. I just want to sit here for a bit."
"Just don't fall asleep in that chair. You would not get a proper rest that way."
Napoleon opened his eyes in time to watch Illya leave the room, again seeing dark hair where there should have been a flash of blonde.
He had a bad feeling about this assignment.
Part of it was that this wasn't officially an assignment. Waverly had given it to them, yes, but he'd also made it clear that it was strictly voluntary. Further, they were to have only limited assistance from U.N.C.L.E.. The Command would help from the HK end, but inside China they were on their own. Or rather, Illya was on his own.
And that was the biggest problem of all.
Illya would be by himself, without Napoleon.
They’d worked that way before, of course, and on the surface, the assignment didn’t look that difficult. Just pull a scientist out of China. They'd done more dangerous jobs in the three years they'd been partners. But this time they were pulling the scientist out of a country that seemed to have gone mad in the last 6 months. The Red Guard were carrying out Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution, and anyone who didn't fit their concept of party ideology was to be "re-educated." Worse, foreigners were not looked well upon, and Russians were considered to be the worst enemies, decadent Communists fallen from the true proletariat ideal. All of which made Illya's entry into the country especially dangerous.
Napoleon wouldn't have touched this one with a ten foot pole, if Illya hadn't been determined to do it. And Illya was determined to do it because Illya had been the one that the scientist, Zhao Shih-Ch'eng, had contacted for help. They had done graduate work at Cambridge together. Illya hadn’t said much about the other man, but they’d obviously been close enough that Zhao knew of Illya’s ties to the Command.
The net result was, if Illya was willing to risk his neck on this insane assignment, Napoleon was willing to back him up.
Of course, if he was going to be of any use, he really should go to bed. He got up and stretched, looking one more time at the myriad lights of Hong Kong. Then he walked down to his room.
Illya had left his own door ajar, so Napoleon poked his head in to say goodnight, but he found the other man sound asleep. He shook his head, amazed yet again at Illya’s ability to fall asleep immediately, no matter what the situation. He eased the door shut behind him, and softly walked down the corridor to his room, hoping he could find a rest as deep as his partner's.
Dawn found the two U.N.C.L.E. agents waiting on a dock in the HK harbour. Napoleon stood at the dock’s edge, pulling his trenchcoat closer around him as a breeze began to blow. He carefully checked the harbour for unusual activity, finding none. Satisfied that there were no enemies lurking about, he turned back to his partner. Illya watched as Napoleon inspected him for the fiftieth time that morning.
“What is the matter?” he asked impatiently.
“I’m just impressed by the disguise. If I didn’t know it was you, I don’t think I’d recognize you.”
“That is the idea,” Illya tossed back, but he knew what Napoleon meant. The dark hair hadn’t bothered him much, but now, wearing a threadbare Mao style suit and contact lenses to turn his brilliant blue eyes a dark brown, he was hard-pressed to recognize himself. In spite of his experience with disguises, it had been a dislocating feeling: looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger.
They both turned to face the water, as the sound of an engine began to grow. A battered old fishing trawler was heading toward the dock where they stood. Illya nodded his head towards the disreputable craft.
“I think my ride is approaching.”
“You do travel in style, my friend.” Napoleon had a wry look on his face.
“Yes, well, we can’t all associate with the jet set.”
The two of them helped secure the lines of the boat, and a rickety looking gang plank was extended toward the dock. A young woman emerged from the pilot house of the boat and walked down to the dock. Like Illya, she was dressed in a Maoist suit, her long hair tucked into a cap. She appeared to be in her early twenties, with an open, pretty face, and eyes that danced as she looked over the two men who stood before her.
“Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin.” She bowed to each of them. “I am Lin Yim Fong, one of U.N.C.L.E.’s Chinese operatives.
"Miss Fong." Napoleon returned the bow with more than his usual gallantry.
"That would be Miss Lin, or Lin siuje, would it not." Illya turned to the young woman, his eyes laughing.
"You can both call me Fong. I've spent too long in the West, and my manners have been corrupted horribly." She smiled charmingly at both of them. Illya detected the slightly British accent of one taught English in HK. “They told me to be careful of both of you. I see they were correct.”
“ I think ‘they’ talk entirely too much,” Napoleon replied, without taking any real offense.
“Don’t mind Napoleon. He’s a barbarian.”
“And my partner is just rude.”
Fong laughed, a light airy sound that caught on the wind and hung, suspended, over the docks.
“I think you’re both wonderful.” She looked at Illya. “I have to admit, I was especially intrigued to learn it was a Russian who spoke Chinese.”
“I find all languages interesting.”
“And how many do you speak?”
“Too many,” Napoleon said with a smile.
Illya shot his partner a sour look, and was about to berate him when Fong cut in.
“Mr. Kuryakin, here are your identification papers. You are now a disgraced scholar from Beijing by the name of Sun Wu Kong.
“And whose idea was that name.”
“Mine,” Fong responded, her eyes flashing even more. “I was told to be careful of you, after all.”
“I’m afraid I don’t get the joke.” Napoleon looked confused, a thing that occurred so seldom that Illya took great pleasure in it, even if it meant explaining a joke at his own expense.
“Sun Wu Kong is the Monkey King in Beijing Opera. A trickster figure.” Illya watched as a near beatific smile spread across Napoleon’s face.
“Trickster, huh?” He gave Fong an appraising look. “I’m impressed. People don’t usually see through that charming exterior of his until much later.”
“Unlike your charming exterior, Napoleon?” Illya shot back.
“Gentlemen.” Fong’s voice was suddenly serious. Illya and Napoleon both stopped their respective rants, and looked to her. “If Illya and I are to retrieve Ch'eng in the next 24 hours, we really must leave now.”
“Run along then, kids.” Napoleon shooed the two of them toward the gangplank. “Joigin, pahngyauh.”
“I will see you soon, but your accent is abominable,” Illya said. He got a wicked gleam in his eye as he decided to see just how much Cantonese Napoleon had picked up in his time in Hong Kong. “Du neih, gweilo.” He was rewarded with raised eyebrows from Napoleon, and frown from Fong. She was the first to respond.
“Your accent is perfect, Illya, but your content . . . bozhe moi.”
Napoleon smiled. “I told you he was rude.” He waved to the both of them as they boarded the boat. “Don’t let him bully you, Fong.”
“Oh, I won’t,” she said, with a mischievous grin.
“Just make certain you are at the rendezvous on time,” said Illya giving his partner a stern look, which was met with another infuriating smile.
The gangplank was pulled up behind them, and the boat set off. Illya watched the dock until Napoleon was an indistinguishable speck watching from the dock. Fate willing, they would see him tomorrow morning.
The trip to the mainland passed quickly. Illya spent his time honing his Mandarin with Fong, and matching his Cantonese accent with one of the crew who was from Beijing. Fong drilled into Illya the necessity of speaking only Chinese once they landed. Foreigners were suspected, and Russians were hated past reason. Fong had arranged for his papers to show that his father was a disreputable English businessman, who had long ago disappeared.
When they had exhausted the topics of their mission and Chinese politics, the conversation turned to their backgrounds. Or rather, Fong turned the conversation that way.
“How does a Russian agent end up in U.N.C.L.E.?”
“The same way a Chinese one does, I imagine.” Illya avoided making eye contact.
“Not so quickly. I’m curious. Everyone I’ve talked to knows of you, but no one knows anything about you.”
“Perhaps there is nothing to know.”
“I don’t believe it,” Fong snorted. “The enforcement agent who has intrigued most of the women, and some of the men--and don’t turn red--in the organization must have a suitably mysterious past.”
“Not so mysterious.”
“Oh, very well.” Illya sighed his impatience. “I come from a formerly aristocratic family which managed to survive the revolution and all subsequent purges by becoming ardent Communists, and sublime politicians. I studied physics and languages at university, was pushed into a military career by the family, and was seconded to the KGB soon after. I was sent to the West for graduate studies, during which time I performed various services for my country. When U.N.C.L.E. required an agent, my knowledge of languages and the West was considered useful, and I was put forward. And here I am.” He gave a slight bow. “Nothing terribly interesting, is it?”
“Ah, but there are many intriguing gaps.”
“And how does a Chinese agent end up with U.N.C.L.E.,” Illya said, quickly deflecting the topic from himself. Fong's look told him she knew what he was doing, but she allowed it anyway.
“My family are peasants, from the North. They have supported the Communists, in small ways, since before the revolution. I was encouraged to go to university and study science. I also ended up studying languages, including Russian and English. The army security service took an interest in me. I was sent to Hong Kong to complete my studies, and begin working for them. Like you, I was considered a valuable choice when U.N.C.L.E. requested agents.”
“Do you consider yourself a Communist?”
“That’s a revealing question.”
“Yes.” Fong suddenly became very serious. “My family is much better off now than under any Emperor’s reign. I am the first of my family to get any kind of education. The Communists have done much for China”
“Including the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward.”
Fong paused. Illya could see her thinking carefully before she spoke again.
“I believe this Revolution is a mistake. They are throwing everything away from the traditional ways, including much that is good. I have had to hide the scrolls of Tan dynasty poetry I used to display in my home. And the fact that I speak decadent Western languages has come under criticism. I fear what might happen if this continues much longer.”
“What would happen if they asked you to leave U.N.C.L.E.?”
“But if they did?”
“What would you do, if you were called back to the Soviet Union?”
Illya had been expecting the question, but he still hesitated before asking. He felt the need to be honest with Fong. His closest friend was Napoleon, but there were things about him that the American would never understand. Fong, on the other hand, had some of the same contradictions in her life that he had in his.
“I’m not sure. I love my country, but I am not so ardent a Communist as you, and I have no family I am particularly close to.” He shrugged. “I hope I do not have to make that decision.”
“Well, I do consider myself a Communist, and I am close to my family. But I also hope I never have to make that decision.”
Illya nodded, satisfied that they understood each other.
They spent the rest of the trip to the mainland in a comfortable silence, each lost in their own thoughts of the mission ahead, and other things.
They landed on the mainland at a beach on Deep Bay. The two of them hiked inland for perhaps a mile, before reaching a small road, where associates of Fong’s were waiting with an extremely ramshackle pickup. The truck looked like it was held together with string and hope, but it managed to carry the two of them, Fong’s three friends, and a load of live and cranky ducks. Though it was a relatively short ride, Illya was grateful when they at last arrived at the village where Ch'eng was waiting for them.
Fong led the way through the village, quickly and efficiently. She entered a restaurant with Illya trailing behind her. The building was new, built of cinderblocks and concrete, but the benches and tables in it looked like they dated from the last century, and probably did. Illya bowed his head as they entered, hoping to escape the attention of the few mid-morning customers.
With a glance at the restaurant’s owner, Fong strode to a back door and entered it. Illya followed, closing the door behind him.
He found himself in a cramped storeroom with no windows. A small oil lamp burned in one corner, casting a dim yellow light over everything. At first, all he could see were noodles and rice, dried peppers and fresh vegetables stacked on rough hewn shelves. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he realized there was a cot behind the last of the shelves, and a small figure sat on the cot, staring warily at the two intruders.
“Who are you?” the figure asked. The voice held more exhaustion than fear.
“We have been sent by U.N.C.L.E. to take you to Hong Kong,” Fong answered. My name is Lin Yim Fong.” She stepped aside to allow Illya closer. “This is . . . “
“Illya Kuryakin?” The man stood. “Illya, you came yourself.”
“Yes, old friend.”
Ch'eng stepped forward and took him by the arm.
“My god, what have you done to yourself,” he asked, and started laughing.
“You don’t like the new me?”
“Well, I always thought you must be half Chinese. Now you look the part.” Ch'eng choked out. He collapsed back onto the cot, still laughing. Illya could hear more hysteria than humour in the sound, as he waited for his friend to regain his equilibrium.
After Ch'eng had regained his composure, Illya and Fong set about to inform him of the plan to get him out. It was best if all three of them knew the details. If they became separated, it need not be disastrous. Ch'eng listened attentively, and asked all the right questions when they were done. Illya thought, not for the first time, that Ch'eng would have made a fine agent, had he not been more interested in physics. Then again, Ch'eng had often told him that he could better spend his time as a physicist than as an agent.
They had just finished discussing the plan when the owner of the restaurant, a friend of Fong's, knocked discretely at the door and entered carrying a number of Cantonese dishes. Illya was embarrassed by the offering--he knew none of the people in this area had much of anything to spare--but to refuse would have been a great insult. He looked at Fong and Ch'eng, and with their silent agreement, he insisted that their host, and his family and staff join them for the meal.
After the meal, which was enough to satisfy even Illya's appetite, the owner and his family retired. Ch'eng, Illya and Fong were to remain in the back until sundown, when they would head for the coast, and their rendezvous on the beach where they had landed.
Sitting quietly in the subdued lighting of the lamp, Illya at last had time to examine his friend. Ch'eng had always been thin, but he now had a gauntness born of hardship. His clothes hung loosely from him, and there was a strain behind the dark eyes that Illya had never seen there before. He found himself breaking the companionable silence that had settled among them.
“If I may ask, Ch'eng, I have heard no details of what happened to you in Beijing.”
“It was nothing.” Ch'eng looked down at the floor, his lips pressed together. Fong took this as a cue to leave. Whispering to Illya that she would do a recon of the village, she left the storeroom, closing the door behind her.
“You used to tell me what you were thinking.”
“I’m sorry, my friend. I have gotten out of the habit.” Ch'eng didn’t raise his eyes. “I will try.”
Ch'eng settled himself onto the chair on which he now sat, his hands clasped together. Illya leaned forward to better hear the quiet voice.
“The Red Guard came to my office. They started by criticizing me and my work. They took my books and notes away. I assume they burnt them. They took me back to my house and destroyed everything. I know they burned my books there because I saw them do it. They beat me, a little. Not much. Then they left. As soon as they were gone, I got the food and money they had passed over, and I left.”
“How did you get here?”
“I walked. I took rides when they were offered. The train would have been too dangerous.”
“It was a long way to come. Nearly fifteen hundred miles.”
“I had no choice.”
Illya wasn’t sure what to say.
“I am sorry for what you went through.”
“It was not so bad. They did not arrest me. They did not beat me badly. They did not kill me. I have heard rumours that some of my colleagues were not so fortunate.” He finally looked up and forced a smile. “But I have been lucky, especially to have a friend such as you.”
The two settled down to talk over more pleasant things: Ch'eng’s research, journals to which they both subscribed, Illya’s life in New York. They had nearly forgotten what had brought about their reunion when Fong burst back into the room with alarming news.
“The army have set up a cordon around the village.”
“Do you know why?”
“They might just be looking for smugglers. This village is full of them. It's how we got Ch'eng here when he contacted us. Whether or not they’re looking for us, our credentials will not stand up to scrutiny.”
“Now would be a good time for ideas,” Illya said, wishing his partner was here with some outrageous American brainstorm.
“Well, as a matter of fact . . . “ Fong had an impossibly wide grin as she described her plan.
Napoleon Solo stood at the edge of the dance floor, savoured a fine twenty year old single malt scotch, and watched the cream of Hong Kong’s high society at play. Women wearing the latest fashions from London and Milan danced with men in exquisitely cut tuxedos. Serious flirtation had broken out at the corners of the room, and Napoleon had already noticed several couples drifting out the door of the American Club, where the soiree was being held.
He wasn’t enjoying any of it.
He was here at the invitation of U.N.C.L.E.’s chief of Southeast Asia, James Hark. Hark, knowing Solo’s reputation, thought he’d enjoy an evening of high society before embarking for the mainland to pick up Illya. It wasn’t the first time Napoleon had cursed his reputation. He would much rather be at the office, brooding about Illya’s safety. He hated not knowing what Illya was doing, if he was still safe, or if he’d been captured. Most of all, he hated knowing that he could do absolutely nothing about any of it.
Looking at his watch, he decided he’d spent enough time in chit chat and banter, and he could better spend his time making sure the pickup team was ready for departure. He finished the last of his scotch, and was half way to the door when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Napoleon, darling, I thought that was you.”
He turned to find an elegantly dressed woman standing at his side, her auburn hair arranged in a chignon, her throat decorated with an understated, but no doubt appallingly expensive necklace.
“Victoria, how are you. I haven’t seen you in ages.” He looked around the dance floor. “I didn’t see Howard here.”
“And you won’t. He’s in London.” She gave a small, delicate grimace. “I’m afraid we had a slight disagreement about careers. I thought mine was important, and he thought I shouldn’t have one at all.”
“I’m surprised at him.” Victoria Watling-Howe was one of the few women to make inroads in the very male world of Hong Kong business. Her now ex-husband had been an enforcement agent with U.N.C.L.E.’s HK office.
“So was I. It seems we didn’t know each other very well at all.” She laughed. “But enough of that. We’re here to have fun. And speaking of fun, where is that dour little partner of yours?”
Napoleon felt his expression close down, and saw the change reflected on Victoria’s face.
“Ah, that was one of those questions I wasn’t supposed to ask. No need to explain, Napoleon. You don’t live with an U.N.C.L.E. agent for years without learning that some subjects are not to be talked about. All part of good English breeding, you know.”
Napoleon smiled as he saw the teasing glint in her eye. He had always appreciated Victoria’s innate ability to ease any situation with her quick wit and generally deprecating sense of humour. Howard was the fool he’d always taken him for if he hadn't appreciated her.
“Now, you’ve been talking to me a whole two minutes and haven’t asked me to dance. Don’t tell me the famous Solo charm is failing.”
“No. The famous Solo is late for an appointment. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave without a dance.”
“I’m hurt, Napoleon. But I won’t hold it against you if you promise to make it up to me when you get back from whatever mysterious mission you’re going on.”
“You have my word.” Napoleon took her hand and lightly brushed his lips across her hand before turning to leave with a wave.
He felt slightly less anxious as he left the Club. He was grateful to Victoria for distracting him, if only for a few minutes. Perhaps he would be able to convince Waverly to let him stay a few extra days in HK after this was all over. It would be good to spend time with Victoria again, especially now that she was no longer married . . .
But for now, he had to keep his mind on the job at hand. His partner was depending on him.
He supposed Waverly would say that Mr. Kuryakin would have to rely on his own resources. Then again, it sometimes seemed that the Old Man had an inhuman disregard for the people who worked for him. Napoleon reaffirmed an old promise to himself that he would never become that callous concerning the people who worked with and for him, not even if he some day took over Waverly’s chair. And he certainly couldn’t even pretend to be that callous when the person involved was his partner, and his friend.
He exited the Club and flagged down a cab to take him to the pier where his team awaited him, but his mind had already strayed to the mainland of China with a certain Russian agent
Fong’s plan was simple, but had worked. For a while.
She had gone to see a few of her contacts and convinced them to stage a diversion on the far side of the village. On the spot they had created a new festival to the Taoist patron saint of the village, to be celebrated with fireworks, music, and as much noise as the residents could make. Those soldiers not drawn towards the “festival” would be distracted by the noise.
As soon as they heard the fireworks start, Fong had led Illya and Ch'eng out of the village. As they had hoped, the cordon had been stretched to the limit, and they managed to find a gap that allowed them to get through. Their progress was slowed by the fact that it was a moonless night, and they could not afford to give away their position with light. They had five hours to make the rendezvous, perhaps eight miles away, so none of them were worried.
Illya was never sure what had given away their position.
They had heard several patrols during the night. Any time it happened, they would take cover and remain as quiet as possible until the soldiers passed out of hearing. The strategy seemed to work, until they hit one patrol that they couldn’t seem to shake. They tried moving in unexpected directions, and staying still and quiet until the patrol had passed, but no matter what they did, the soldiers would be back on their trail. Illya began to hate those men.
Finally, time began to run out. Looking at a carefully shielded luminous watch, Illya found they only had twenty minutes until their rendezvous. Twenty minutes, and they still had perhaps a mile to go, and that over rough ground. They could no longer afford to play mouse to the patrol’s cat. They had to proceed directly to the landing point, or risk being left in China.
Whispering, Illya let Fong and Ch'eng know what they had to do. Then, without further word, they began the final push to the coast.
They could hear the soldiers behind them as soon as they started moving. The patrol couldn’t have a night scope, or they would all be dead by now, but they had someone who was very good at tracking in near darkness. At first, the soldiers were casting back and forth, sometimes to the left, at others to the right, trying to pick up the trail. Then, something must have given them away--Illya stepping on a loud branch or Ch'eng stumbling slightly in the dark, who knew--and the patrol was directly behind them.
Illya picked up the pace, pushing Fong and Ch'eng on in front of him. He could hear the soldiers closing in.
“Come on. Hurry up.”
The sound of the ocean began to loom before them, and none too soon. Finally, they reached the top of a rise, and the ocean lay before them, a dimly perceived expanse of glittering black. Breakers roared on the small beach they had chosen as a landing area. Unfortunately, the boat wasn’t here yet.
“Damn you, Napoleon. Where are you?” Illya herded the others down to the water’s edge. He looked up to the rise they had just descended, and saw two soldiers silhouetted against the dim light of the sky.
“Quickly. Into the water.” The ocean was cold, and the current strong, but Illya thought its dangers would be more easily faced than those of the People’s Liberation Army.
Fong helped Ch'eng as the two started swimming out. Illya hoped Napoleon was close by. They wouldn’t last long in this water.
He looked back to where the soldiers had stood, and saw a flash from the discharge of a gun, even as he heard the bullet pass by, uncomfortably close to his head.
“Hurry, Fong. Our friends have become impatient.”
He made for the water himself as another volley was fired. He’d gotten waist deep when he felt an impact in his back, and something warm begin to flow down his abdomen.
He swore softly in Russian, and kept moving in the water. He couldn’t afford this now, he thought, as a cold hit of fear was overwhelmed by a surge of adrenaline. He felt oddly detached from the pain, and hoped he wasn’t going into shock.
“Illya, are you coming?” Fong’s voice whispered.
“Keep going. I’ll follow.” He decided they didn’t need to know. They might decide to be noble and try to help him. Or worse, insist that they surrender. He didn’t fancy his chances in a Chinese jail; he’d rather risk shock, blood loss and curious sharks.
Putting the pain from his mind, he started to swim.
Napoleon Solo sat at the bow of the sampan, straining to make out the mainland coast, and their rendezvous point. The cloudy, moonless night was a mixed blessing. It meant that Illya and company wouldn’t be easily seen by the Chinese authorities, but it would also be equally difficult for him to find them. He was instantly alert as he heard gunfire, off to the starboard side. He directed the captain to slow down, and swing in that direction, doubling his own efforts to penetrate the darkness.
In the end, he heard them before he saw them. Their splashing efforts to stay afloat in the choppy seas were clearly audible.
Fong and Ch'eng were in the lead, and close to exhaustion. With the help of the crew, he pulled them out. They were swiftly wrapped in blankets. He couldn’t yet see Illya.
“Illya, where are you?”
“Here, Napoleon.” The voice came from further starboard. He had the boat move that way.
As Illya came into view, Napoleon could tell his partner was in trouble. The Russian was a strong swimmer--stronger than he himself was--but he was only just keeping his head above the waves. As the sampan approached, a swell caught him and he went under, only to emerge, choking, a few seconds later.
Napoleon didn’t wait for the boat to get closer, but, kicking off his shoes, dove into the water and swam for his partner. When he reached him, he took him in a rescue hold, and towed him back to the boat. The fact that the always proud Russian made no protest confirmed that something was seriously wrong.
They were both hauled up on the deck. As soon as they were aboard, the captain pushed the sampan to top speed--faster than the rickety exterior would have suggested was possible, and more than fast enough to outrun Chinese patrol boats--and headed for Hong Kong.
Napoleon stood beside his partner, still not sure what was wrong. Illya struggled to stand beside him. Napoleon caught his arm as he swayed unsteadily.
“Help me to a cabin, please,” Illya whispered in his ear.
Napoleon assured everyone that things were fine, made certain that Fong and Ch'eng were seen to, and helped Illya down below. As soon as they reached the cabin, and Napoleon lit a lantern, it became clear what was wrong. Illya’s clothes were soaked not just with salt water, but with blood. He stood frozen in shock for a moment, and Illya sank to his knees.
“Jesus, Illya, what happened.” He had the other man on the bed and immediately started stripping wet clothes from him. He gritted his teeth as he exposed the wound in Illya’s pale side.
“I don’t think the People’s Liberation Army is too fond of U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon.”
“You can say that again, tovarisch.” He prodded at the wound. “How does that feel.”
“How do you think it feels, you clumsy oaf.”
“Sorry.” Napoleon bent to get the first aid kit. “If it’s any consolation, I’d say the bullet missed the major organs. Lucky you. The bleeding looks like it’s slowing, as well.” He rolled Illya onto his side, and applied bandages to the entry and exit wounds. He then pulled a hypo from the kit. “I’m going to give you a broad spectrum antibiotic, just to be sure.”
“Just try not to turn me into a pin cushion, would you.”
After the injection, he stripped off the last of Illya’s wet clothing, dried him off, and helped him into the pajamas he had found in the cabin. He got Illya to remove his dark contacts, before settling the other man into the bed, and covered him with a warm quilt.
“Do you want something for the pain?”
“No. No drugs.” Illya slurred his words slightly, the tension, fatigue and injury beginning to catch up with him. He shivered slightly, falling gradually into an uneasy sleep. Napoleon brushed back the still slightly damp bangs from his friend’s forehead. He tucked the quilt further around him, then pulled a chair up to the bedside to keep watch.
“How is he?”
Napoleon started, not having heard Fong come up behind him.
“He was shot. Entry and exit wounds both look clean. I don’t think any organs were hit, but we’ll have to wait for the doctor’s verdict.”
Fong pulled up the cabin’s only other chair to sit beside him.
“He didn’t even tell us he was hit. Just made us go ahead.”
“Sounds like Illya. He’s stubborn when he thinks he knows what’s best.” Napoleon grimaced. “Which is, of course, all the time.”
“I had noticed that.”
“How is Ch'eng.”
“Scared. Relieved. Worried about Illya.”
Recognizing something in her tone, Napoleon looked at Fong. She met his gaze levelly, one eyebrow raised slightly.
“He does have that effect on people, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” Fong repeated.
Having nothing more to say to each other, they settled in to watch over Illya.
One week later, U.N.C.L.E. HK hosted a party in honour of Dr. Zhao Shih-Ch'eng. James Hark had wanted to hold it earlier, but Ch'eng had insisted that any celebration be delayed until Illya was well enough to attend.
Illya had spent the week in U.N.C.L.E.’s hospital facility, alternately terrorizing and charming the nursing staff. Ch'eng had visited frequently, when he wasn’t being courted by research institutions from all over the world. Fong, claiming she had been corrupted by Illya’s decadent values, had delayed telling her Chinese employers that she was no longer needed in HK, and spent much time at the hospital teaching him byzantine variations on mah jong. Victoria had stopped by, briefly. She had pronounced Illya as dour as always, eliciting a wicked half-smile from the man himself, and a stifled laugh from Fong. Napoleon had spent almost as much time at the hospital as Fong, excepting the time he spent squiring Victoria to society gatherings.
Illya had finally been expelled from the hospital the day before, when Napoleon had smuggled in a bottle of frozen Stolichnaya, which had scandalized the nurses, and amused Fong.
Now the Russian stood at the edge of the ballroom of Hark’s official residence, a quite magnificent holdover from the colonial period that had managed to survive the war. His hair had been restored to its usual blonde, and he was wearing a simply cut tux that, though borrowed, managed to look like it had been tailored for him. Fong was at his side, wearing a brilliantly red traditional cheungsam, cut all the way up the leg. They managed to complement each other perfectly, and, though he would never admit it, Illya secretly enjoyed the appreciative looks they both received from the other guests.
Seeing his partner at the bar, Illya waved to attract his attention. Napoleon moved toward him, Victoria at his side.
“Illya, I’m glad you’re here.”
“He nearly didn’t come, but I told him that Ch'eng had especially wanted him here. When that didn’t work, I threatened him.”
“I’ve always found that threats work best with Illya.” Napoleon smiled.
“I begin to suspect a conspiracy between the two of you,” said Illya. He looked suspiciously at Victoria. “Or is it the three of you?”
“Don’t look at me. I leave the conspiracies to the professionals.”
“Face it, bratik, without us you’d be holed up in some dark room reading quantum mechanics journals instead of having fun.”
“Quantum mechanics journals are fun.”
Napoleon looked over at Fong. “I told you he was hopeless. May I rescue you and claim a dance later?” He bestowed his most charming smile on Fong.
“My partner,” said Illya, “is well known as a notorious flirt.”
“And this flirt stays with me, tonight,” Victoria added, grabbing Napoleon’s arm with a mock proprietarial air. “Come on, Napoleon. I still haven’t had that dance you promised me last week.”
Napoleon gave a regretful wave as he was pulled toward the dance floor, but was clearly enjoying himself immensely. Illya and Fong watched as he led Victoria around the dance floor.
“And would you like to dance, Comrade?” Fong asked him.
“I am afraid my movement is still somewhat restricted by the stitches in my side.” Illya grimaced slightly, as much from his dislike of dancing as from the discomfort of his healing wound.
“You are making excuses.” Fong laughed. “But I’ll indulge you, if you will take me to see the conservatory. I hear it’s beautiful.”
They strolled through the house, encountering fewer people as they moved away from the centre of the party. The conservatory, when they reached it, was, as promised, beautiful: all rich wood accents, and stained glass panels, with meticulously cared for plants arranged throughout. They found a bench facing the window overlooking the grounds, and sat down.
They made small talk about what a beautiful night it was, and how dashing Napoleon looked, until Illya could no longer put off asking what was really on his mind.
“When are you going back?”
Fong averted her eyes, even as her grip on his arm tightened.
“Within the week. I won’t be able to put them off any longer.”
“Why put them off at all. You could leave for good.”
“I am Chinese, Illya. I cannot leave my country.”
“You could stay in Hong Kong.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“But . . .”
“No, Illya.” At last she looked up at him. “If you decided not to go back to the U.S.S.R., would they be content to let you?”
Illya smiled, but there was no humour in the expression.
“They would probably have me killed. If they could find me.”
“Exactly. If I leave, I would have to run far enough that the army couldn’t find me.”
“Then go to San Francisco, or London. Or New York City. They all have large Chinatowns. You don’t have to stop being Chinese.”
“Illya, does going to Little Russia make up for not living in Kiev?”
“No,” he said, a little sullenly. “I don’t suppose it does.”
“I can’t leave. Not yet.” She pulled at his arm, forcing him to look at her. “I promise, if it gets worse, I will contact U.N.C.L.E., and get out. Will that satisfy you?”
“I suppose it must.”
She sighed, before speaking again.
“Enough of this serious talk. If you will not dance with me yourself, at least take me to the ballroom to watch the others.”
Illya knew he was being diverted from black thoughts, but he allowed it to happen.
They arrived back at the ballroom as the orchestra launched into a waltz. Light from the glittering chandeliers illuminated the dancers as they whirled round the room. Napoleon came into view, a glowingly content look on his face as he spun Victoria across the floor.
“It’s all so easy for him, isn’t it?” Illya recognized the bitterness in his own voice.
“Everything. He has no doubt. No conflicting loyalties. It all makes sense for him.”
“He is not as innocent of doubt as you would have him, Illya. As his partner, surely you know that.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He suppressed the impulse to sigh. “He is just very good at maintaining the illusion that it is all effortless.”
“Let’s maintain our own illusion tonight.”
“That our lives are as easy as Napoleon’s seems to be. Dance with me, Illya. We’ll pretend we have no conflicts, no cares. We’re simply here to have a good time.”
“You have convinced me. Just try not to open up the stitches again. The tux is borrowed. I would not want to bleed on it.”
“You worry too much,” Fong laughed.
They joined the dance.
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