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Guilt

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A hotel room in Marseille, booked late at night, last minute. It was all they could find; a little room with a double bed and the bathroom down the hall. Zia had found her own lodgings, and Napoleon and Illya, stumbling with tiredness, found the best place they could at that late hour. It was hot, but not as hot as where they had just come from. The desert dust was still under Napoleon’s fingernails and gritty in the creases of his skin. He could still taste it in his mouth. Even a three hour flight couldn’t erase that taste.

‘There are probably bed bugs,’ Illya said, and Napoleon hushed him, putting a hand on his arm.

‘Not here, I’m sure.’

‘It is a port,’ Illya said darkly. ‘There are probably bed bugs.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Napoleon said. ‘We don’t have suitcases. We don’t have changes of clothes. We can buy something new and burn these, if necessary. After all – ’ He laughed a little hysterically, ‘ – I have a sock full of diamonds in my pocket.’

He felt tired, tired beyond what he would normally expect after the last week’s adventures. He sank down on the sagging bed and rubbed his hands over his face, and just sat there for a while, breathing in the scents of the room, the scents of stale cigarettes and pot pourri and fabrics. A night ago those scents had been Middle Eastern cooking, dust, and mint tea. Now it was stale cigarettes and pot pourri. Funny how things changed so fast…

‘We’ll have to do something with that sceptre tomorrow,’ Illya said. ‘And the diamonds.’

‘Yes,’ Napoleon said. ‘Yes, I wonder how they’ll take that...’

‘We did them a favour,’ Illya told him softly. ‘Morgan picked the wrong guy, but there was a coup in the making. We did them a favour.’

Napoleon dragged his hands roughly over his face again, then stood up and stalked to the open window. The air coming in from outside was soft and warm and there was a scent of some blossom he couldn’t place. It seemed so peaceful out there and he wished he could somehow imbibe that peace and make it a part of himself.

Zia had been crushed by Colonel Morgan’s betrayal. Napoleon – Well, Napoleon had kept his feelings inside, pretty much, but he felt crushed too. He felt as if everything inside him had collapsed, like the floors falling one by one in a burnt out building. Everything had become soot and rubble, even if the walls seemed intact.

He found himself wondering if he would ever be able to trust his own character judgement again.

He pushed the curtain all the way aside and gazed out on the night. Lights twinkled in the darkness and reflected on the water of the Mediterranean. Boats were still moving out there. Ports never slept.

‘Napoleon,’ Illya said, coming up behind him and laying a hand on his shoulder. ‘Men change, sometimes beyond recognition. It is a fact. Men change. War changes men most of all.’

Napoleon turned around, and he was sure that his eyes must look haunted. He couldn’t always keep his feelings from his eyes, especially in front of Illya. Sometimes. Sometimes he could, but not at times like this. Not when he was so tired. Not when he had been let down so badly, and had let others down in turn.

‘Will you, Illya?’ he asked. ‘Could you change like that?’

Illya’s own eyes were inscrutable. It wasn’t a fair question to ask of him, because he knew it was true. Men did change, and Illya hated to lie to his friends.

‘Not for you,’ Illya said then. ‘No. Not for you.’

Another layer of something broke within him. He wished it were all right for men to cry. He wished that crying wasn’t drummed out of little boys at their mothers’ knees. He wished that father figures were somehow immune from ever becoming fallible, from ever becoming human.

‘I almost got you killed. You, Illya.’ He rested a hand on Illya’s cheek. ‘How badly did they beat you?’

Illya shrugged. The bruise on his face was quite visible, but he hadn’t shown any other signs of pain except perhaps a slight stiffness in the way he walked. That slight stiffness was enough to make Napoleon worry.

‘The usual,’ Illya said.

Napoleon gently drew Illya’s jacket from his shoulders, and then lifted the dark fabric of his turtleneck shirt. He could see a deep bruise reaching around his flank just below his ribs; a wide, spreading bruise that looked like it was from a fist. He moved around and lifted up the back a little, and saw the marks of flogging.

‘The usual?’ he asked. ‘Is this the usual?’

‘You know it is,’ Illya told him softly. ‘You know how it goes. You get captured. They drag you off to a cell. They want the answers to questions and they want them fast.’

‘And then they beat you?’ Napoleon asked.

He carried on tugging the hem of Illya’s shirt up, easing it off him, wincing on behalf of his friend as it stuck on dried blood. He lifted it up and off over Illya’s arms and head. The state of Illya’s back, the skin bruised and split, made the guilt blossom fourfold. He looked vulnerable and small in the dim light, his hair ruffled like a child just woken up. That was such an illusion. Illya was no child, and no weakling.

‘They knock you around a little,’ Illya said. ‘They withhold food and water. They establish you’re not just going to break. So they take you out and they beat you.’

‘And you still don’t talk,’ Napoleon said, reaching his hands down to loosen the button on Illya’s trousers, and easing the waistband down just a little. The bruises and splits reached right down onto his buttocks.

‘Of course,’ Illya said easily, as if beatings like this were as normal as breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

His own hands took place of Napoleon’s, and he slipped down his trousers and underpants and hung them carefully with the jacket and turtleneck in the cheap, narrow wardrobe.

‘There will be bed bugs,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘But not in the wardrobe.’

He made a golden figure in the meagre light from the bedside lamp. When he bent to push his shoes underneath the chest of drawers Napoleon could see how dark and heavy that bruising was.

‘You should do the same,’ Illya said, straightening up.

Napoleon wished he had liniment or bandages or painkillers; anything that would help ease Illya’s night. But he had nothing, and he doubted there would be anywhere open nearby and at this time of night to supply him with these things. There was no question of visiting a hospital. Illya would refuse. He would rightly refuse, because a hospital visit would lead to questions, and those questions could not be answered.

He stripped off his own clothes and hung them next to Illya’s in the wardrobe. When he turned around, Illya was already under the covers, lying carefully on his side, facing the middle of the bed.

‘I almost got you killed,’ Napoleon said again. ‘Once when I left you behind, and once in the bear pit.’

‘A man has to die a little every day,’ Illya said, and his eyes looked blue-green in the lamplight. He was covered by no more than a sheet.

‘Not like that,’ Napoleon said, slipping into bed beside his partner. The mattress sagged and Illya’s body slumped a little towards his. ‘Not because of a misplaced fifteen year old trust. Not because of stupid decision after stupid decision. Not because of – ’

‘Napoleon.’

Under the sheet, Illya laid a hand on his arm. His fingers felt very warm, and Napoleon wondered why he was so cold in contrast.

‘I shot Colonel Morgan dead,’ Illya said. ‘One bullet. No tranquilliser darts. His memory will become a dream. The dream will become nothing. You saved my life twice. I have done this for you.’

So that was Illya’s little gift. In return for the betrayal of Colonel Morgan and Napoleon’s misplaced trust, he had given Napoleon that man’s death. It felt as though Illya had given Napoleon everything, and Napoleon had nothing to give him in return. They had slipped into that country by night, and slipped out again, and in time all of the names and faces involved in that little incident would become dreams, and then they would slip away to nothing.

‘In the morning,’ Napoleon said, ‘I will go out for something to put on your back.’

‘In the morning,’ Illya said, ‘we will find a way to return the sceptre – together. And then we will go home.’

‘Yes,’ Napoleon said.

The idea of home felt desperately needed. He wanted to be able to bury himself in his own bed and close his eyes, and process all these things.

Illya’s hand was still on his arm, and gently it stroked up and down.

‘Not everything can be cured by sleep,’ he said, ‘but it makes a man better able to face those things that can’t be cured.’

‘Yes,’ Napoleon said again. He was enormously tired. He lay there for a little while, his head so close to Illya’s head on the pillows, their eyes fixed upon one another. There was a world in Illya’s eyes but he felt as though he hadn’t the map to find his way. He would have to rely on Illya to guide him through that world.

‘Sleep,’ Illya said, and Napoleon turned over onto his back and closed his eyes.

After a little while Illya started to sing, very soft and low, and Napoleon lay listening to words that he didn’t understand, words from Illya’s world that were meant to soothe babies and children. Ordinarily he would have smiled and said something acerbic, but he had no sharpness in him tonight; not for Illya. Only for himself. He lay with his eyes closed and the Mediterranean heat around him, and Illya’s voice made memory into a dream, and the dream became nothing.