The man was alone in the car, all senses alert. He was waiting for another car, which he knew could carry a lethal load.
He heard the sound of an engine approaching, and there it was: another vehicle, stopping right in front of him. The driver flashed the lights four times: the agreed signal.
He opened the door and got out, carrying a small suitcase. He was armed, but he knew that his small handgun could do little against the automatic guns the others undoubtedly carried. His only real weapon was their greed: he was counting on it to stay alive.
Two men got out of the other car, but he knew that at least two more were waiting in the back seat, ready to shoot if need be.
They approached each other warily, each trying to look relaxed. When they were one foot apart, the man in front – the boss, no doubt – asked: "Mr. Solo?"
Napoleon nodded, and asked: "Mr. Renard?"
The man also nodded, then said: "I believe you have something to show me, Mr. Solo."
"Indeed I do."
Napoleon lifted the suitcase and placed it on his car's bonnet. He slowly opened it and moved aside to let Renard look at its contents, saying: "Take your time."
The man extracted a sample from one of the many packets of tablets the suitcase carried, then gestured his thug to hand him the examination kit. He filled one test tube with a liquid taken from one of the kit's little bottles, then dropped the tablet into it. The liquid, originally colorless, immediately turned a bright pink color. The man nodded, apparently satisfied, and then repeated the procedure with five more tablets, each taken from a different packet. When his sampling was over, he addressed his new ‘crack supplier’.
"Very well, Mr. Solo, I must say that the product you provide is top-quality, and your references seem solid. This is what I offer in return."
He produced another suitcase, opening it beside Napoleon's. It was full of money, neatly stacked in thick bundles. Each bundle was made of 100 dollar bills, and there were twenty such bundles. Napoleon extracted one of them, and quickly counted the bills with an expert eye, then repeated the process with all the bundles.
Satisfied, he said: "I accept your price, Mr. Renard. I must say, it's a pleasure to do business with you."
Renard closed Solo's suitcase, took it and turned to leave, but stopped in mid stride, adding: "Oh, just one word of caution, Mr. Solo: should you try to sell this same product to other dealers, or to somehow infringe our contract, I will be forced to terminate our deal. Literally."
Napoleon said, with a self-confidence he wasn't really feeling: "I take your word for it."
Then he closed the suitcase full of money, and got in his car. He turned the engine on and left, half expecting the sound of firearms putting a premature end to his new career – and his life.
But he managed to reach his hotel safe and sound.
When he left the car to the valet, he went straight to his suite, unable to suppress the anxiety he was still feeling. Once inside, he poured himself a good shot of fine bourbon, trying to relax his nerves. Awfully out of practice, that's what he was.
When he heard a soft knock at his door, followed by three louder ones, he recognized the signal and opened the door. Illya and Stephanie stepped in; they were both completely clad in black, and they were carrying a bag full of electronic devices.
Putting the bag on the floor, Illya said: "Your old acquaintance has very good connections, and above all was pretty convincing. Not only Renard liked the stuff you sold him, but he also intends to keep you as his supplier, for he hasn't tried to kill you."
Napoleon glared at him: "Thanks. I'm glad you didn't give me this nice reassuring talk before I volunteered as bait."
Then he asked: "Did you manage to record the whole transaction?"
Illya answered, a boyish smile lighting his blue eyes: "Oh yes. Both video and audio. These new devices you gave me are astounding, Napoleon. I wish we had these little babies back then."
Solo smiled, fondly remembering that his friend loved all kinds of electronic gadgets.
He extracted a small videotape from the bag, then disappeared into his office, saying: "Let me transfer this into my computer, so I can make copies of it. It will take a minute. In the meantime, help yourselves at the bar."
Stephanie volunteered to prepare the drinks, and asked Illya: "What are you having?"
The Russian answered rather distractedly: "Vodka, thank you."
The woman poured the drinks, handed the blond his glass, and asked him: "What's the matter, Illya? You have a strange look on your face."
Kuryakin took the glass, shook his head and said: "It's nothing. I was just thinking that this was too easy."
The woman relaxed, also helped by the first sip of her drink, and sat beside him on the couch. "Why should plans always go wrong?"
"Ever heard of Murphy's law?"
Stephanie laughed. "Sure. But it's not a rock-steady law. Sometimes it just doesn't apply."
Illya was skeptical. "Most times it does. Especially when the stakes are high."
Stephanie put a hand on Illya's forearm, squeezing encouragingly. "Come one, Illya. You didn't strike me as the pessimistic type. Why can't things work out as they are supposed to do, just for once?"
Illya put his own hand over hers and absent-mindedly started to gently rub the back with his thumb, appreciating its coolness and softness. He wished he could share her confidence, but he couldn't get rid of that nagging feeling.
But suddenly Stephanie moved on the couch, sitting closer to him. She touched his chin with the tip of two fingers, gently pulled his face to hers, and murmured: "Earth to Illya. Are you still with me?"
He looked deep into her sparkling eyes, once again marveling at how green they were, and smiled. "I'm all yours, Stephanie."
Her face became serious as she said: "Watch your words, Mr. Kuryakin: I might take them literally.”
He also turned grave, and laced her hand with his. "Maybe you should."
They looked at each other for a very long time, neither daring to make the first move, their faces only inches away, when suddenly Napoleon came into the room, breaking the moment. He stopped in mid-stride, but it was too late: Illya and Stephanie repositioned themselves on the couch and sat at a safe distance.
Napoleon's keen eyes didn't miss the woman's quickened breathing and his friend's flushed cheeks, but he decided to behave nonchalantly.
"Say, Stephanie, I just thought of something: don't UNCLE agents work in pairs anymore?"
"Oh yes, we still do."
"Then what happened to your partner?"
The woman's face turned gloomy when she answered:
"Jeffrey. His cover was blown together with mine. He was taken down when I was shot. I don't think he survived. He was shot right in the heart."
Napoleon sat in front of the woman, whose mood he had involuntarily spoiled. "I'm sorry to hear that. But what if he survived? Could he have told them where to find you? You told me that they tracked you down to Illya's home."
Stephanie's reaction was intense. "No way! He wouldn’t blow the whistle on me. Not even if he were wounded."
Napoleon tried to be as tactful as possible. "These people can be very persuasive. I'm sure you realize that."
Stephanie bored into Solo's eyes. "Would you have given Illya away, back then?"
He sighed. "I see your point."
Illya asked her: "Is there a reason why you haven't contacted your Sir Raleigh, yet?"
Her gaze dropped to the floor. "I have. I still have my communicator, it's hidden in my watch. I told him what happened, and I also asked him to describe your features."
The two men were flabbergasted. Illya said: "Why? You didn't believe me?"
"I had no idea what you looked like. There are no pictures of you at UNCLE. I had to make sure. What if you were an impostor?"
Napoleon asked: "You probably did the right thing, but did you tell him everything else? About me and our plan?"
"I had to. He's my boss. He wanted to know how I was going to proceed with my mission. But I didn't tell him where you live."
Illya mumbled: "Thank God for small favors."
She angrily denied the implied accusation: "Are you suggesting I shouldn't trust my own boss?"
Napoleon tried to smooth ruffled feathers. "Of course not, Stephanie. We were just wondering how they managed to follow you to Illya's place and then to UNCLE HQs."
"Illya speculated that maybe they bugged his car."
"Yes, but why take the trouble of bugging his car, when they could simply get rid of you – both of you – while you were still at his premises? You told me you were wounded, and Illya was still unaware of the whole affair. That was their best chance. Why spoil it?"
The woman considered. "Mmmh, you have a good point, there. But suspecting Sir Raleigh? Get serious. It would be like suspecting your late Mr. Waverly. It just doesn't make any sense."
Napoleon said: "Here's what you should do, Stephanie. Call Sir Raleigh, and ask him if he mentioned anything to any other agents. Will you do that for me?"
He flashed his best smile at her, eliciting a nod and a thankful look from those green eyes.
He meaningfully pointed at her watch with an inviting gesture, and then jerked his head towards the door to ask Illya to follow him out of the room, allegedly to give her privacy.
While they were softly closing the living room door, the two former partners exchanged a meaningful look.
The trio of UNCLE agents didn't sleep much that night. Sitting at Napoleon's round dining table, they settled their plan's last details.
They were to meet another UNCLE agent, sent by Sir Raleigh, at a specific address near the downtown bar where Renard pushed his drugs. A special police squad was to meet them at that same address, to quickly look at the evidence on tape on the cutting-edge equipment of their tactical van. The last action was supposed to be a hopefully nice and quick raid inside the bar, once they made sure that Renard was indeed in his lair. The squad was also supposed to bring them three bullet-proof vests, since Stephanie insisted she participate in the raid, and she knew that the two former agents would want to do the same.
The only thing that didn't quite sound right was that Sir Raleigh didn't disclose the name of the agent they were supposed to meet, just mentioning that "it would be a pleasant surprise for her".
Illya grumbled: "I don't like surprises, nice or otherwise. They make me nervous."
Stephanie tried to reassure him. "Oh, come on, Illya. I told you that we can trust Sir Raleigh. It's just his British sense of humor, I'm sure. He's probably sending the agent that mentored me when I started out. I do work with him on occasions, and I haven’t seen him in a while. Over a year, actually."
Illya mumbled something unintelligible, so Stephanie said: "Well, are we all set? The appointment is at 5:00 am, so we can actually afford a couple of hours' rest. I think we shouldn't miss the opportunity."
Napoleon smiled. "Always take all the chances to eat and sleep you can get, right?"
She smiled back: "Right. It's still one of the golden rules."
They all stood, and Solo folded out the couch, which turned out to be an already-made bed. "You can sleep here, Stephanie. Illya and I will share my bed. Luckily it's big enough for two."
Illya commented: "For some reason, I had no doubts about it!"
"You never know who might show up at your door, tovarisch!", he answered.
The two men said goodnight and disappeared into Napoleon's bedroom.
At 4:45 am, Stephanie, Napoleon and Illya were sitting in Napoleon's car one block away from Renard's bar, waiting for the mysterious UNCLE agent to show up. He was supposed to park near their car and reach them on foot.
They were still looking out for any car that might approach them, when suddenly half a dozen men materialized all around their parking spot. Heavily armed men. Renard's men.
They were all aiming their automatic guns at them, so they didn't stand a chance. The men opened the car's doors and silently gestured them out with their weapons.
The three people inside the car had no choice but to obey. They were thoroughly searched and relieved of all their weapons. Even Illya's well hidden knife was found and removed.
Once they were completely helpless, Renard approached them with a self-conscious grin.
"Well well. Look who's here: our brand new crack supplier. Or should I say our old UNCLE agent? Did you really think you could fool me that easily, Mr. Solo?"
Not expecting an answer, he turned to Illya. "And our good samaritan, here, alias the famous fashion designer Vanya, alias the former UNCLE agent Illya Kuryakin. My, you keep yourself busy, don't you?"
Illya glared at him, but Renard was already addressing Stephanie. "And you, my dear; you've been a pain in the back since the first time you set foot in my premises. Your pretty face tricked me quite well, I must admit it. But luckily I had a very good friend who warned me of your real purpose." He gestured toward a rapidly approaching man. Stephanie's shocked gape easily gave his identity away: that was the infamous Jeffrey, her supposedly dead partner, who was looking surprisingly well for a man who had been shot in the heart.
When Jeffrey reached them, Stephanie asked, her voice so sad that Illya felt an irresistible urge to hug and comfort her: "Why, Jeffrey?"
The man smiled smugly and said: "Why? I thought your first question would be how did I survive that shot to the heart."
"I don't care how you survived. You were probably wearing a vest or were shot with blank bullets. I want to know why you had the guts to help these people, betraying your own partner in the process."
"The reason is simple enough, my dear Steph: money. At UNCLE, we risk our lives for a miserable wage. Renard pays me the equivalent of one year's salary for one month's work. Does that satisfy your curiosity?"
Stephanie's face sagged at his answer. "Yes, it does. But I really didn't think you were so rotten."
His face twisted with rage, Jeffrey slapped her violently with the back of his hand, then yelled at the kneeling woman: "How dare you judge me? You're no better than I am!"
Wiping the blood dripping from her mouth, the woman growled: "Maybe not, but I would never have sold you out. You realize that they are going to kill us, don't you?"
A vicious smile on her ex-partner's lips sent chills down her spine. "Oh, no, Steph, you're wrong. They are not going to kill you; I am."
While Stephanie gaped at him disbelievingly, Renard interjected: "You see, my dear, Jeffrey has to prove his loyalty to me. What better way than killing his nosy former partner, along with her new allies? But don't worry for his conscience: he really doesn't mind too much."
Jeffrey looked at her with a contemptuous expression. "He's right, you know? I've never liked to work with you. The perfectionist, the impeccable, the immaculate UNCLE agent, always ready to jump at Sir Raleigh's command. If you really want to know, it will be a great pleasure to kill you and your friends: you make me sick."
While Jeffrey was spitting all his hatred at Stephanie, Napoleon slowly and unobtrusively moved away, taking advantage of all the fuss the traitor was making, attracting everybody's attention. His plan was as simple as it was desperate: to hit the closest armed man and relieve him of his weapon. He knew that Illya didn't miss his slow movements and that he would take the chance he was buying him.
He had almost reached his target, when Jeffrey's trained eye noticed his move and immediately realized his purpose. Without warning, he raised his silenced gun and aimed it at Solo's chest. As soon as Illya understood what he was about to do, he shouted a warning, but it was too late: a muffled 'pop' was immediately followed by a low moan by Napoleon, who slowly started to collapse, holding his chest, a pained expression on his face. Illya ran at his side, with a desperate look in the blue eyes. He held his friend and eased him to the ground, supporting his head. A red stain was rapidly spreading over his heart, soaking his white shirt.
Kuryakin's voice was broken when he softly called his name. "Napoleon?"
With a great effort, Solo opened his eyes and tried to talk, but all that came out of his mouth was a trickle of blood. He closed his eyes again and slowly went limp in his friend's arms.
Illya put two fingers on his neck, looking for a pulse, and found none.
Stephanie tentatively approached them, and asked, in a small voice: "Is he...?"
Kuryakin closed his eyes and said, shakily: "Yes. He's dead." He then turned at Napoleon's murderer and growled: "You took the first chance you got, didn't you?"
Stephanie looked at him quizzically. She knew that his friend's sudden death shocked him, but that was a pretty weird comment to make. Suddenly she realized that Illya was simply trying to send a message to her, telling her to be ready to take the first chance to fight back.
She was ready, all right, but she didn't see any chance at all. Especially now that Solo was dead.
Illya now was plunging at Jeffrey, his handsome features distorted by hatred and desperation. Taken aback, the traitor didn't have the time to aim and shoot, so Illya actually managed to seize him. The impact sent the gun flying.
The two men were struggling crazily, and they were too close for Renard's men to take a chance at shooting, so they just stood there, avidly watching the fight. Illya's despair gave him a strength he didn't know he had, and he punched his younger opponent madly, effectively outmatching him. While Renard's men were enjoying the fight and shouting their disappointment at their new ally, they didn't notice that a certain corpse was actually moving.
Unnoticed in all the fuss, Napoleon slowly got up and moved behind one of the men who were standing farther from the two struggling opponents. Nobody saw him grab the man in a unrelenting hold to the throat, quickly and silently suffocating him. As soon as he disposed of the first man, Solo grabbed his gun, then proceeded to the next one, successfully repeating the procedure.
He managed to take down three of them, before someone noticed his actions. Somebody shouted: "Watch out! Solo is alive!"
Everybody turned, but Napoleon was already firing the automatic guns he was holding in both hands. The three remaining men scattered frantically, desperate to find a hiding spot.
Napoleon threw his spare gun to Stephanie who, thanks to Illya's warning, didn't let the surprise paralyze her, and reacted quickly. She quickly disposed of one man. Those who were still alive were now breaking up and running away, in search of a better firing position. But none of them got to safety: they were both taken down by the deadly barrage fire from the two UNCLE agents.
Only Renard managed to escape, sneaking out of the fight as soon as the first bullets started flying.
Illya and Jeffrey were still struggling, but the latter was clearly losing the fight. Illya's last fist knocked him almost unconscious.
When the deafening sound of firearms finally subsided, a quick check allowed them to make sure that they were actually the only survivors. Stephanie was finally able to express all her surprise at seeing Napoleon safe and sound. She said, smiling: "Don't tell me this was all a set up."
Solo answered, proudly sporting his blood-soaked shirt and wiping the red stains from his chin with a handkerchief: "You bet it was. A good old-fashioned fake blood blister smashed against my vest-protected chest and another one hidden in the mouth. Piece of cake, really. The only variable was Jeffrey's aim; I was counting on him to shoot me in the heart, not in the head. Call it a calculated risk, AKA Solo's luck." Then he added, massaging his chest: "Although I must say that a bullet's impact still hurts like hell, vest or no vest!"
The woman was flabbergasted. "But this means that you knew about Jeffrey all along."
Solo shook his head. "We didn't know for sure. But we had suspicions. Who else could have hunted you down to Illya's place and then to UNCLE HQs? We tended to agree with you that Sir Raleigh was above suspicion, so the only person left was your partner, getting information from your unsuspecting boss. You didn't actually see Jeffrey dying. You just presumed he was dead when you saw him being shot at, but as you just witnessed, looks can be deceptive."
Stephanie remarked: "But Illya's reaction at your death looked so real. He genuinely seemed desperate."
Napoleon smiled. "He's always been quite the actor. You should have seen some of his performances in the old days. He even posed as Lawrence of Arabia's son!"
She said, shaking her head and smiling: "I can almost picture him. And tell me one thing: when exactly did you concoct this complicated plan?"
"A few hours ago, while you were immersed in your peaceful and unsuspecting sleep. We might be old, but when we join forces we can get pretty efficient, don't you think?"
Stephanie was impressed: "Absolutely. And you were afraid of being out of practice? You two outsmarted us all: me, Jeffrey, and Renard. I wish I had seen you during your years of active service! You must have been something. No wonder your team is still in our textbooks."
Napoleon tried to hide his smug expression, and failed miserably. Trying to sound modest, he commented: "All in a day's work. Now let's lend Illya a hand: your ex-partner is waking up and is getting pretty upset."
When they looked at Jeffrey, they could see that he was bleeding from the mouth and from several cuts to the face, but he made a wicked smile at Illya and said, panting: "You haven't won, you Russian son of a bitch. Renard has rigged his whole place with explosives. Soon you will end up with a handful of dust instead of evidence. And the explosion will probably also blow you to pieces."
Illya's wide smile in response to Jeffrey's remark drew blood from his cracked lip. "You know nothing of explosions, greenhorn. I found out the explosives ages ago, and I had ample time to diffuse them before falling in your trap."
His face twisted by rage, Jeffrey swiftly extracted a knife from a sheath hidden on his calf and viciously plunged it into the unsuspecting Russian, skillfully aiming at the only part the vest was letting exposed, and brutally pushing up. He growled, triumphantly: "Diffuse this."
Illya's surprised expression turned into one of pain, while slowly collapsing to the floor, holding the knife that was sending waves of searing pain into his body.
Napoleon didn't hesitate: he fired at Jeffrey, aiming at his head, and not missing his target. Then he ran at Illya's side. Stephanie got there at the same time, a horrified expression on her features, and they both kneeled beside the wounded Russian.
The woman pleaded Solo: "Please, Napoleon, tell me this is another set up."
Solo shook his head sadly. "No, Stephanie, this is for real. That bastard got him right below his vest. Don't remove the knife; it's actually stopping the bleeding."
Then he addressed his friend, who was barely conscious: "Illya, can you hear me? Help is on its way. Do you understand? You'll be in hospital in a flash."
Kuryakin opened his eyes and tried to answer, but he only managed to cough, causing a trickle of frothy blood to ooze from his mouth. The similarity to Napoleon's fake death was staggering, but Stephanie refused to acknowledge the warning signs her brain was sending off, although she immediately realized the danger. "He's been stabbed in the lung. He's got a pneumothorax. Illya, don't try to talk. Please."
But the obstinate blond didn't stop his attempts at talking. After a few more coughs, he finally managed to utter one word to Stephanie, looking at her with glazed, pain-filled eyes. "S... stay?"
Stephanie grabbed his hand and squeezed, trying to fight back the tears she felt stinging in her eyes: "Just try to keep me away, you stubborn Russian." Then she leaned forward to softly stroke his hair and lightly kiss him on his forehead, whispering: "Just hang in there, Illya. Do it for me."
But Kuryaking couldn't hear her anymore, nor could he hear the area filling with the tearing sound of sirens and the blue and red strobe lights of police cars and ambulances.
A persistent beeping sound. A pungent disinfectant smell. The pleasant embrace of clean, crisp sheets. A vague feeling of danger. The overwhelming need to open his eyes. The frustrating realization that he couldn't. He heard somebody moan, and he belatedly realized that it was him.
Then a voice, a pleasant, welcome voice, whispering near his ear, and a cool hand gently stroking his forehead. "Shh, Illya, stop tossing, you will remove the IV. It's all right. You're in hospital, you're being taken care of. You're out of danger, now. Please, try to relax."
He knew that voice, he was sure, but he couldn't remember who it belonged to. Somebody important, he was certain of that, but the name just kept eluding him. No matter, he knew he could trust the voice, so there was no impending danger. He just wished he could clear up his mind long enough to remember what happened to him. But his brain felt foggy, and he couldn't concentrate. He decided to stop fighting and do what the voice said, so he relaxed, and let his mind drift into sleep again.
Napoleon peeped into the room, holding two cups of coffee. Stephanie was standing near Illya's bed, holding his hand. He approached her, asking: "Did he wake up?"
She turned, and he could see from the puffiness of her eyes that she had cried. "Yes, just briefly. He was upset and almost removed the IV. But he's calmer, now. He fell asleep again."
"Then what's wrong?" he asked softly.
The woman left the Russian's side and sat heavily on the chair by the bed. "Oh, Napoleon, I feel so bad. It's all my fault."
He squatted down in front of her and handed her one steaming cup. "Come on, Stephanie, you know better than blaming yourself. You did nothing wrong."
"Yes, I did. I involved him in my mission to begin with, and then I made a terrible mistake when I didn't understand Jeffrey's real nature. Illya is a wonderful person and he almost died because of me."
Solo looked intensely at her, and asked: "Did you stab him?"
"Of course not."
"So you have nothing to blame. Illya's decision to become involved in your mission probably saved your life, and I'm sure he would far prefer to be the one laying in that bed. He would probably kill me if he knew I told you, but I think you have struck a chord with our unperturbed Russian."
She raised her head at his words. "What do you mean?"
Napoleon smiled sweetly. "I think he likes you, and believe me, that's very unusual for him. You must really be special to him. So stop crying for him and start thinking how to make him feel better next time he wakes up."
Stephanie didn't answer, and buried her face in her coffee cup instead, but the redder shade of her pretty cheeks told Napoleon's expert eye that she probably reciprocated whatever his old partner was feeling for her.
His brain was much clearer this time. When he started hearing those irritating beeps again, he immediately realized he was in a hospital. His whole body ached, but breathing was what hurt most. Broken ribs, maybe?, he wondered. No, not quite. The pain was different, it was more... what was the word? Yes, more localized. And much sharper. Sharp... yes, he remembered now: he was stabbed by that treacherous son of a cyka. That probably also explained the annoying tube stuck up his nose. Chyort! He hated having tubes and IVs violating his body.
Well, at least he was alive, so he couldn't complain too much.
But he needed to know what happened to Napoleon and Stephanie. He vaguely remembered hearing their voices the first time he woke up, when his brain refused to cooperate, so they had to be OK. But he had to make sure. Slowly, excruciatingly, he forced his head to turn sideways, and what he saw tugged a small smile at the corners of his mouth: Stephanie was crouched in the chair beside his bed, and despite the uncomfortable position she was sound asleep. Her clothes were tousled and her hair was disheveled, but she looked just beautiful.
A male voice from the other side of the bed said in a quiet voice: "She means a lot to you, doesn't she, chum?"
He started to turn his head, but Napoleon spared him the effort and moved around the bed. He cautiously sat by his side, careful not to touch any IV lines. He grabbed his friend's free hand and squeezed. "You gave us quite a scare, Illya."
The Russian laboriously cleared his throat, and croaked: "Reflexes... not as fast as...used to be."
Napoleon smiled. "Oh, but you've done just great, partner. Next time, though, make sure you wear a more protecting vest. Something in the line of a medieval armor, maybe?"
At Kuryakin's questioning look, he explained: "You seem to attract troubles like honey attracts bears. And somehow you always end up taking the brunt of all those trigger-happy criminals."
Illya swallowed hard, looking like he was trying to fight nausea, and managed to retort: "More like... knife-happy."
Napoleon smiled softly, relieved that his friend was feeling good enough to joke about his predicament. He let go of the Russian's hand and slowly rose. "I'm out of here, tovarisch, but I'm coming back tomorrow to check on you. I leave you in good hands, though", and meaningfully looked at Stephanie's crouched form.
When he got out of the room, he made sure to close the door loudly enough to wake Stephanie. She blinked a few times, moaned from the pain in her neck, and immediately noticed that Illya was awake, and that he was actually looking at her.
She rose and cautiously approached the bed, smiling. "Illya. I'm so glad you're awake. How do you feel?"
She was saddened by the weakness in his voice. "Have... felt... better."
She took Napoleon's place at the side of his bed and she too took his hand, soothingly running her other hand in his silky hair. The feeling was so nice that he closed his eyes.
Stephanie thought that he was in pain, and started to stand to call a nurse, but he refused to let go of her hand and weakly tugged her back at his side. "Don't... go. You promised, remember?"
Stephanie sat down again and couldn't help smiling. "Yes, I remember."
He added, his voice sounding stronger by the minute: "You said that I had to try to keep you away."
She nodded. "Yes, I said that."
He looked into her sparkling green eyes. God, he would never get used to their amazing color. "Well, I don't want to keep you away. I want to keep you by my side."
"Right now your side is in a pretty bad shape, so maybe we should postpone this talk until you are feeling better."
He eyed her suspiciously. "Are you trying to politely get rid of me?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm trying to politely refrain from doing what I would very much like to do right now, but can't because I'm scared of hurting you."
He smiled his typical and irresistible shy smile, and softly asked: "And what would that be?"
Her cheeks were the same color of her coppery hair when she answered, almost whispering: "I want to kiss you, Mr. Kuryakin. So badly it hurts."
He squeezed her hand and said, in a very soft voice: "I couldn't let anything hurt you, so I think you should do it right now."
Careful not to lean on him, she slowly bent forward and grazed his lips with hers. They were so soft she couldn't help lingering a little longer, but when she felt his lips move against hers, she couldn't resist deepening the kiss. Her hand went to his hair of its own volition, and when she heard him moan she felt her whole body respond to him.
She came to her senses when she heard the heart monitor accelerate its beeping sounds to an alarming speed. She immediately broke the kiss, although she didn't stop stroking his soft hair.
At his hurt look, she said: "We don't want to send you into cardiac arrest, do we?"
Illya cast a resentful look at the monitor, and mumbled: "Blasted machines. They take all the privacy away. Not to mention the romance. What kind of heart monitor doesn't let your heart enjoy itself?"
A voice from behind startled them both: “ A wise one. Would you mind getting off his bed, miss? He’s supposed to be a critical patient, you know?”
A nurse had entered the room, clearly warned by the monitor’s frantic beeps, and now was glaring at them, arms crossed.
Smiling sheepishly, Stephanie immediately complied, eliciting a disappointed look from the Russian.
The nurse teased him: “Oh, come now, Mr. Kuryakin, I’m sure I will keep you busy enough so that you won’t miss the young lady.”
He replied, pouting: “Her methods are more effective than yours. And far more enjoyable.”
The nurse retorted: “Be nice with the person who gives you pain killers.”
Stephanie couldn’t catch Illya’s grumble, since she was already leaving the room, pausing just long enough to look at him and convey all her feelings and unspoken promises in one single, meaningful glance.