Negombo, July 1964, and even for them this is two steps closer to death than Illya would ever want. Distantly aware that they are surrounded by the fierce, wet summer heat, and the raucous chatter of bullfrogs hiding in the rushes, Illya cannot think past the fact that Napoleon can barely stand. Napoleon knows this, and Illya knows this, and Napoleon knows Illya knows this, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.
They also both know full well what Napoleon’s strategy would be.
Road’s too far; no chance of anything by air. “Gaby,” Illya says, “go and find a boat.”
It frightens Illya, then, that Napoleon allows his brow to draw tight with pain once Gaby’s cleared from his sight. Both the casual intimacy of it, the rude and jarring trust of it, and that Napoleon’s earlier bravado was thicker than he’d thought.
Illya stares at Napoleon, and Napoleon stares back quite calmly at Illya, and tediously, inevitably, it’s Illya’s resolve which finally cracks. “I will not leave you behind,” he hisses, furious, and Napoleon closes his eyes and smiles. Suit yourself, it means. It also means he’s no longer strong enough to keep them open.
Seven minutes pass. Illya knows this because he’s using every second to count the erratic rush of Napoleon’s pulse. Then Gaby arrives, like a miracle, like a choir of goddamn angels, balanced expertly in a rowboat with an outboard motor, and Illya’s entire world devolves into replacing the two liters of blood Napoleon’s left smeared along the weed-strangled path winding from the General’s palazzo.
Later. Their mission having failed, the six-hour stay Napoleon needs at the hospital they’d commandeered some ten miles down the Sri Lankan coast is almost as wrought with danger and fear as breaking into the General’s hideous faux-Renaissance mansion itself had been. Gaby sits on the roof with binoculars, and Illya sits in a chair by Napoleon’s bed with a gun, and neither sleeps at all.
There’d been a moment, during those hell-wrought seven minutes, where Napoleon had reopened his eyes, and said, softly, Illya. The memory of it still won’t let him be hours later, when finally, finally, enough of a stranger’s blood has been pumped back through Napoleon’s heart that it’s safe to move him again. Time enough is taken to find them proper transport in the form of an ugly brown pocket cruiser, acquired less than legally from the nearest dock; then they turn their prow to the brightening horizon, and drop anchor only when they slip past Sri Lankan borders, tucking their squat little boat into a tangle of islands near the entrance to the Bay of Bengal.
Napoleon’s sleeping in the cabin. It’s taking a considerable amount of Illya’s resolve not to maintain a bedside vigil, but out here the air is clearer and cleaner and doesn’t smell of blood and bleach and vaguely, inexplicably, unmistakably, of turpentine. Here there’s sea air and the faint rasp of cigarette smoke from where Gaby is blowing blue plumes of it up into the lightening air. Not a regular habit; almost as indicative of their disastrous evening as the hole in Napoleon’s chest.
Illya breathes in, breathes out. He has, in the past ten hours, run back the mission in his mind in every detail, and he’s as convinced as he ever was that the error had not been on their part. Their plan was good, and their execution more than flawless.
That left one solution. “They knew we were coming,” Illya says.
Gaby hesitates. Ever the more level-headed. “There was an error in our intelligence,” she concedes. She stubs out the cigarette, flicks it overboard, and lights another. “Sometimes these things cannot be helped.”
Illya stares at his hands. They feel thick, and clumsy, and far away, as if they don’t belong to him at all. “This was not us,” he insists. His voice sounds distant to his ears, too.
Gaby greets this with silence, and her dogged determination to finish the pack of cigarettes. There are only two left by the time she puts the box away and moves to head below, to check on their patient, perhaps, or find her own rest – Illya can’t remember the last time she slept.
Her hand rests lightly on his arm as she leaves, and her face, when he looks at it, is kind. “He won’t blame you for this,” she says.
That isn’t it, he wants to say. But somehow he just can’t find the words.
Their attack on the General had come with a deadline, and with their window of opportunity missed, they decide to take a fortnight to regroup. They settle on Nagapatinnam, in the brightest hotel with the softest bedsheets Gaby could find; all for Napoleon’s benefit, given that he’d unsurprisingly turned out to be a fucking nightmare of a patient once conscious. Not about the pain, of which neither Illya nor Gaby ever heard a word; but day three in their decadent surroundings and he’s climbing the walls with boredom. The lampshades, apparently, are hideous, and he despairs eternally at whatever sham of a designer had thought to pair knockoff Hicks with an Ascher original on the west-facing wall.
There’d been very little internal damage; the bullet had ricocheted off his seventh rib, and clipped the intercostal artery on its way out. The latter had caused a minefield with the blood loss, but a week or so on and Napoleon is lazing around in their pretty little suite with his beslippered feet slung up on tables, chairs, you name it, scuffing everything the management won’t thank them for.
After ten days of Illya ignoring him lounging around in the hotel’s complimentary robe, their call comes through from Waverly. Mission aborted, is what he says; or, more likely, sidelined for a while, since their tail lost his target in South Vietnam.
“Is Solo well enough to travel?” Waverly asks, and Illya looks over to where he’s dangling over the back of the wingback chair, trying to ply Gaby with some Turkish Delight he pickpocketed from the chambermaid, his robe hanging slackly away from his chest. He looks up, catches Illya staring, lets loose his ubiquitous winning smile.
“I’m sure he’ll manage,” Illya dryly replies.
They’re greeted by the full ceremonial guard at JFK. The flight had been unending, Napoleon incessantly flirting with the stewardesses and Gaby beating him unapologetically at poker. The shuffling pack of U.N.C.L.E. operatives, all wearing civilian clothes about as convincingly as their ersatz smiles, leads them to a veritable fleet of sleek black cars squatting inauspiciously in the terminal’s short-term car park, before they’re deposited unceremoniously in a safehouse at the outskirts of the city. It’s all standard protocol on missions turned sour; but something in the air makes Illya’s palms itch. He showers, and changes, and writes his report, and forces himself not to register the time passing by. He can hear the vague murmur of Napoleon shifting around in the room next door, the soft clicks of Gaby cleaning their guns. He knows he should feel settled by the resuming of this routine.
Waverly keeps them waiting until dawn. A kinder man, or perhaps a less world-wary one, would assume this was to allow them to rest, but even after a year in his care Illya still doesn’t trust himself to thoroughly understand the man’s motives. Six a.m. comes and goes; Illya sits at the desk in his tiny three-walled room and listens to the sounds of the city breathing out, the rolling acceptance of the coming day. Inside the house itself comes the familiar echoes of his colleagues’ routines; Gaby, showering. Napoleon, grunting slightly from the effort of his exercise. Still unmistakably favoring his left side. Illya’s fingers furl and unfurl on the empty space of the neat desk.
Doorknock. Finally. They arrange themselves around the garish orange-patterned coffee table in the house’s common room, the four of them on the lumpy, uncomfortable chairs, two more men at the door. Unnecessary but necessary nonetheless. Illya counted three more outside in Waverly’s entourage.
Illya alone has bothered to write his report. Waverly, for once, doesn’t seem to intend to chastise them for it. The cafetière sits in the center of the table, perfectly brewed but entirely untouched.
“Over the past twelve months,” Waverly says, long past the point of the silence becoming stiflingly pronounced, “a total of fourteen of our missions have failed. Six operatives have died. A further three remain missing. And with this has, perhaps unsurprisingly, come a certain number of rumors. Concerning the organization. Concerning,” Waverly finishes quietly, “a mole.”
Beside him, Napoleon goes utterly still.
“There has been an accusation,” Waverly says. “Against Agent Kuryakin.”
A safehouse, of course, does not necessarily reveal who is being kept safe from whom.
Illya has no memory of standing. Luckily for all those present in the room, it’s Napoleon that gets himself between Illya and Waverly, his fingertips splayed out against Illya’s chest. “Co-operate,” he says, and Illya thinks he can hear the soft scrape of fear in Napoleon’s voice through the raucous humming of his heartbeat. “I’ll handle this.”
Across the room, Gaby’s face is white with fear. Napoleon’s eyes are resolute, unflinching, unchanging. Weighted by the absoluteness of his trust.
They put him, unsurprisingly, in a cell. They don’t allow him to keep his clothes, or his shoes, or his watch, but his faith lies entirely in the proficiency of Napoleon to recover them.
The light beige scrubs are thin, but comfortable. The cell itself is underground, and contains nothing but a concrete bench. The lack of both windows and of meals results in him having nothing but his own intuition as to the time sliding past, and through the thick veil of his fear and of his rage, this equips him with very little at all. In a concrete two-by-four there isn’t much on which to take out his nerves save the wall, and this ceases to serve its purpose when his knuckles are too bloodied and sore to find further purchase there.
Eventually, he is released. A tired, exasperated nurse sees to the bandaging of his hands, and he’s led through to a small, windowless room to dress and recollect his possessions. The street beyond the heavy steel door is unremarkable, flanked by brownstones, the city’s skyline vaguely visible in the distance.
Gaby’s waiting for him; she takes him home. Back to his tiny Brooklyn apartment, where the air is so humid it’s almost wet to the touch. He could afford somewhere better, he knows, but he’s run Russian through and through, and the hot guilt that comes with creature comforts is something he still struggles to pass by.
There’s no food in the fridge, or mail by the door. “Enough,” Illya says. “Where is Solo? We need to plan. General Belykh will not hide for long.”
Gaby’s face crumples. “Oh, Illya,” she says.
General Belykh had been reassigned. Illya has never been stood down on a mission before.
Their new mission is unmitigated grunt work; they don’t even leave the city. They’re monitoring an import-export outfit down by the docks, which U.N.C.L.E. thinks might have a hand in human trafficking. Simple, clean, and morally unambiguous; as if Illya didn’t already feel like he has a target painted on his back. But it was Napoleon, not him, who ended up with itchy fingers during recon missions, and Illya’s always been quite contented to settle back and let the evidence mount.
He and Gaby work well together, of course, but their lopsided thinking is pronounced. To Illya, it’s less like missing a limb and more like missing a lung.
They gather treasure; they organize it; they make it known. A week passes, and Gaby smiles again. She takes him out for pizza, and teases him about the new haircut tucked away under his cap. Her world inhales; exhales; moves on.
Illya’s does not. The past week has seen no change in his convictions; he has spent it certain that they are wrong.
The truth of it, when laid before him, seems unbelievably simple. A man whose loyalty can be purchased is merely a timebomb waiting for the greatest bidder.
But we would know, he thinks. Surely.
I would know.
He says nothing of this to Gaby, but she must read it in him nonetheless. At the close of another unending day she goes home with him, buys a bottle of wine from a dive bar in a back alley two blocks from Illya’s apartment. Once there, she sits on the floor, glass in hand; she pronounced the two low wicker chairs torturously uncomfortable on her first visit here, months before. “I miss him too, you know,” she says, but the statement is a paradox; there’s a lightness and a sadness in her voice that tells him that she’s genuine, but an easiness, a closure, that suggests she knows it’s not the same.
She’s watching him, and making no effort to conceal it. He knows she’s waiting for him to speak. “What will they do with him?” he asks, and the look Gaby gives him is not unkind. His stomach turns. “This is not – ”
“ – the Russian way?” she interjects, smiling faintly, but the levity falls flat. She isn’t cruel enough to look at him with pity, but it sits in the corners of her eyes nonetheless.
Illya stands, paces once unthinkingly around the darkening room. “You are wrong,” he says, eventually. She’s been waiting for this, he knows; briefly unchecked, pity flits across her face. “We would know.”
“Waverly seems certain.”
In their short time under his guiding hand, they have not known him to be wrong. But the obviousness of Napoleon’s deception sits uneasily somehow in Illya’s mind. Accepting it should be nothing short of effortless; but he cannot seem to grasp it.
Gaby’s face has turned kind again. She knows all this, of course; she thinks he does not want to. Perhaps she is not wrong, he thinks, and the world seems to lurch underneath his feet, the taste of his mouth turning rank and sour.
“Get some rest,” she says softly as she leaves, her hand resting on his arm. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Illya lies awake, and thinks of seven minutes in Sri Lankan heat, the soft blessing of his name.
Five a.m. Corner of 25th and 9th. The city is peeling awake around him. Illya has three hours before Gaby will notice him missing; more than enough time to get in and out, in theory.
His fingers drum briefly against his thigh. He’s more nervous than he should be, but it’s been over a year since ‘I work better alone’ had evolved into the habit of a unit of three, and the rhythm feels haphazard, unfamiliar without a voice in his ear or a body at his side.
Enough, he thinks. He is more than capable alone. Illya crosses the road, shins up the wall, and slips through the opened window into the fringes of U.N.C.L.E.’s HQ.
At this hour, the soft patter of the men’s club has died down to near silence, a thin murmur clustered at the edge of his hearing. The empty office leads on to an even emptier hallway, and concealed at its end is the true ugliness of the building’s heartbeat; a wall, when applied with the proper leverage, is revealed not to be a wall at all, and in utter silence, Illya slips through it.
A corridor, again, but sleet-gray and unappealing, lacking entirely the tasteful décor of its counterpart. Everything he has ever seen of U.N.C.L.E.’s true heart has been frigid and businesslike. He tries a door at random; unlabeled, locked. Illya scowls at the handle briefly, irritated at its insubordination, before resorting to his lockpicks. His hard work proves for nothing; an empty room greets him stonily, bereft of everything except a few sorry-looking, empty desks. He scowls, exits, relocks the door. Tries again.
Each room he finds along the corridor receives the same treatment, with varying success; but none grants him what he’s after. The hour he had allowed himself slips by faster than a shudder, and he has already squared himself against sour failure upon reaching the penultimate door. The routine, by then, is familiar, the cold press of tile against his knee, the steadiness of his breath in mocking contrast with the soft shuffle of his heartbeat, the knowledge, faint but unrelenting, that Napoleon always far outstripped him in this –
The door opens. Illya pockets the pick, and enters – and feels the hot thrill of victory. Finally. High towering cabinets line the walls at every side, with researchers’ desks thick with files squatting in the centre. He relaxes with his relief. As hard as it might be to reach, even an organization like U.N.C.L.E. has a room full of paperwork stashed somewhere.
Four steps in, and there’s the soft click of a gun. The door closes behind him unbidden.
“Waverly said you’d try something like this,” Gaby says, behind him. “I told him you wouldn’t ever be so stupid.”
He daren’t turn around to face her. Fear and rage roil tightly under his skin; but he is pinned. Outnumbered. Outgunned. Still, it is telling that he finds he does not regret it.
Gaby sighs. “You can lower your hands,” she says, and he does. She walks around him, comes to stand in the lamplight; if anything, her lack of disappointment stings him more.
He regards her evenly. “Am I fired?”
She smiles, ducks her head. “No. He understands,” she adds, and though her tone is serious, the patronizing edge makes his skin crawl. Illya says nothing. “He says you can look, if you want to.”
Illya notices then that there are four files set out on the table before him. The sum of their knowledge concerning the mole; their evidence for Napoleon’s treachery. He flips open the first half-heartedly, finds the names of the six dead agents. The three missing. The report, heavily redacted, of the first failed mission.
The second file is Napoleon’s confession. Until now, it had honestly not occurred to him that there would be one. It is accurate, thorough, and exacting. He can feel the echo of Napoleon even through the thin, flimsy paper, and it crumples slightly under the force of his grip. With that, Illya cannot stomach any more.
“Go home,” Gaby says, kindly. “You have leave, if you need it.”
The fury has fallen out of him, left him with a leaden dread. He shakes his head. “No.”
She nods. “Then I’ll see you at work.”
After a week and a half of recon, they are dispatched by U.N.C.L.E. to apprehend the human traffickers. The operation is swift, clean, and easy; yet another reputable mark to Illya’s good name.
Illya writes out the names of the nine agents, sticks them to his bedroom wall. It is a move Waverly would not thank him for, but he has tasked himself with accepting the truth of Napoleon’s treachery, and the swiftest route to this thankless task is to remind himself of the realities of Napoleon’s actions. That his betrayal, however small or infrequent, has led to the deaths of nine of his fellow agents is a crime for which Illya could never forgive him.
He had not thought him capable of it. Perhaps he had been foolish; to think, in spite of the man’s background, of his character, of his nature, that they would somehow be exempt from it. To think a man like Napoleon Solo could possess any sort of loyalty now felt unutterably naive.
Budapest. A week spent in a hotel off Szadadsag Ter, bodyguarding a Pakistani politician. It is not much more sophisticated than the grunt work they’d been handed in New York, save a touch more mileage. An assassination attempt on the fourth day certainly keeps their unarmed combat in practice; and Kayani flies home, disgruntled but alive.
Illya, body rigid with defiance, still spits the mantra of those nine names under his breath like a prayer, but he cannot ignore how unsettled, haphazard his small little world now seems.
Roanoke, Virginia. A science convention at Hollins, and word in the air of the Cubans making progress on a biological weapon, has Illya undercover as a thin-lipped researcher from Switzerland, while Gaby plays coed and does the rounds. They learn swiftly that the threat is empty, and turn a mole in the Cuban entourage into an informer for good measure.
Marrakesh; London; Seoul; New Jersey; and irritatingly, unceasingly, inescapably, a low sense of unease is prickling at the base of Illya’s spine. It doesn’t originate from the mundanity of his work, which he recognizes and understands as his superiors keeping a careful eye; it is more akin to the twist of fear which begins to steal across his skin when he recognizes the early signs of a job gone wrong.
Ottawa, and it comes to him at last, faster than a lightning flash; Julie Cavanagh. The third name on his mantra-list, and – he’s sure of it – an alias of Svetlana Vodyanova. And once he has it, now he has his handle on that spiraling, nagging thread, he can see it – Mark Cavendish – Irina Bauer – Xue Wei – Maria Iglesia Dominguez; five of the nine, all originally his contemporaries at the KGB –
“So the intention of the mole was to weaken Russia,” Gaby agrees. He’d told her mainly to ensure his theory still had credence when voiced outside of his head; in this, at least, he’s been satisfied. She hesitates, looks at him again with that hideous gentleness in her eyes. “You understand this means they were probably American.”
He does, of course. “Does Waverly know?”
She shrugs. “If he does, he hasn’t told me.” She pauses. “I can pass it on, but – ”
“I understand. It changes nothing.”
Something like relief dawns briefly in her eyes. “Illya – ”
“Yet,” he adds, and his tone is resolute.
Illya has tried, and failed, to acquire access to U.N.C.L.E.’s files already, but this had been before he could guess at the CIA’s involvement; and it’d be a very poor agent indeed who didn’t keep a broad body of informants at his disposal. His friend in the CIA is Yves Magritte, tall, dark-skinned, Haitian by birth. Theirs is not a close relationship, as neither of them can help but rankle at the thought of merely amiably trading their hard-wrought treasure; but it has, in times past, proved insurmountably useful for them to work together. Begrudgingly, they have formed a partnership. After this, Illya will owe Magritte one.
Illya’s redeye touches down in JFK at seven, and an hour later he places a very specific bet in an illicit bookmaker’s in Brooklyn. Their typical rendezvous is a certain bench in Riverside Park, innocuous and facing out towards the Hudson, and on arrival, Magritte as ever sits beside him silently.
“Quelqu’un joue des tours,” says Illya softly. “Apprenez tout ce que vous pouvez.”
“Pas Solo?” asks Magritte, and a lurch of hot embarrassment wrenches through Illya’s gut; he had assumed his ignorance, along with that of his organization. Wrongly, as it seems.
“Pas Solo,” he insists, and with that, Magritte acquiesces.
Conrad McCrory, the intel says. East 28th, The Sunshine Café.
McCrory’s alias for the CIA is Hendricks, and Magritte has also been kind enough to furnish him with his transfer request, his superior’s affidavit, and three pages from Sanders’ diary. Illya sits in a battered Chevrolet parked illegally across from the café for two days, and on the third he gets the final nail; Sanders, McCrory, and files exchanged.
He goes instantly to Waverly. As far as U.N.C.L.E. is aware, he’s on a flight to Budapest, but his reluctance to give them evidence of his brief disobedience is overwhelmed by the rattling fear for Napoleon rising up in his gut.
Illya has no patience for niceties today. “Is Solo alive?”
Waverly hesitates, and for a handful of heartbeats Illya’s world lurches away beneath him. “Yes,” he replies, eventually.
“Read this,” Illya says, when he feels he can breathe again. “Then we go to him.”
The cell is a clone of the one he’d briefly owned. Four grey walls, and no creature comforts. Waverly had telephoned quietly for an ambulance as they’d left his office, and Illya is far too jaded to expect alive to mean the same as unharmed – but still. He doubts anything could have prepared him for the sight of him, of what they’ve done.
They’re in the ambulance before Napoleon wakes, and he’s so quiet and so still that two shaking fingers pressed against the patter of Napoleon’s pulse are all that keeps Illya from tearing through its walls. “Oh, good,” Napoleon says dryly, and Illya, dumbstruck, looks down. “This again.”
“You are safe,” Illya says instantly, and Napoleon shoots him a look of such scathing disbelief that Illya’s heart clenches hot.
“If it is you,” Napoleon murmurs, after a while, “tell me something only you would know.”
Illya frowns. “About Jackson?”
Napoleon snorts. “Everybody knows about Jackson. That one was just you, bein’ slow.” His words are slowing, slurring, an odd lurch in tune with his jackrabbiting pulse, and Illya cannot, will not, believe that they are here again. Napoleon’s life between his fingertips, thrown bleakly at the universe’s mercy.
“You can’t think of a damn thing, can you?” Napoleon murmurs, and Illya looks across at him, his limbs dread-heavy and helpless, to find him smiling.
“We have McCrory,” Waverly says. “I thought that might comfort you.”
They are separated from Napoleon by the window overlooking his hospital room. A private clinic, of course. “You know,” Waverly adds, stifling a yawn, “this whole disaster has thrown back our Russian relations almost half a decade. I’ll be surprised if this programme lasts the week.”
Illya says nothing. He can feel the press of Waverly’s gaze, calculating but not unkind. “If I’d said no,” Waverly asks, carefully light, “earlier, would you still have given me the file?”
Illya nods once. But, he thinks, coldly, quietly, he could not guarantee what then he would have done.
The tapes sit on the desk before him, scattered haphazardly. Illya had thought, somehow, that they might help; know thine enemy, after all.
He plays the first. The room is bare, save for Napoleon, seated in its centre. A man approaches from off-screen, checks the tautness of the straps. He asks Napoleon a question, who smiles, laughs, shakes his head.
The man retreats, returns with something heavy in his hand. Even through the grainy, jumping footage, Illya can see the thrill of fear which runs up Napoleon’s spine.
Then, eyes closed and neck bared, Napoleon starts to sing.
(“ – save those lies
darling don’t explain – ”)
“Give me something,” Illya says. His hands are shaking still. “Anything.”
From across the heavy desk, Waverly regards him in silence. “Yes,” he answers, at last. “Perhaps it would be better,” he agrees, reaching for a file, “not to grow attached.”
(“ – I recall
Central Park in Fall – ”)
Barbados, November 1964. He’s chasing one of Khrushchev’s defectors, his aim – unattainable – of catching up to him before Brezhnev does, when a familiar figure materializes unprompted in the corner of his eye.
Napoleon is balanced elegantly on a stool at the bar. With his hair unslicked, his collar unbuttoned, and his sleeves half-rolled about his elbows, he looks halfway to the bedroom already; going by his audience of fawning brunettes, it’s clearly having its desired effect.
Illya hasn’t seen him in three months. He looks impossible, an angel wrought in human form.
It is not in Illya’s nature to blend in at the best of times, but dressed head to toe in black and standing stock-still on the boardwalk of the crowded beach renders him fairly unmissable. It’s no time at all before Napoleon spots him, and it’s unmistakable when he does; a stillness falls through his frame, a sudden tenseness. It makes Illya’s heart lurch.
“I did not know,” is Illya’s cheerful manner of introduction. The brunettes scatter, scowling at him fitfully for ruining their fun. “I swear – ”
“Nobody knew,” Napoleon replies smoothly. “It’d not be much of a holiday if they did.”
Illya’s fingers furl and unfurl fretfully at his sides. He has no time. “Please, do not go. I must – but please, пожалуйста – ”
“Of course,” Napoleon murmurs, “the mission. Go save the world, Peril,” he says easily, smiling slightly, but there’s no kindness in his eyes.
(“ – though we go
on our separate ways – ”)
That he can track Napoleon down to his overpriced hotel is, in itself, a concession.
They have lived their lives for years in these unhomely, ephemeral rooms, and it is no difficulty at all for Illya to navigate his way past concierge, receptionist, and its bland-walled corridors to find the door to Napoleon’s room. When he reaches it, Illya almost runs again; but somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind he finds the edges of his courage, and knocks, instead.
Napoleon takes instant refuge in the drinks cabinet. Tonight, Illya thinks he might join him. “Mission accomplished?” Napoleon asks, a calculated interest to his voice, and Illya shakes his head. He has yet to banish the sight of Zhigunov’s cooling corpse from his mind, the stark evidence of his fallibility. He says nothing when Napoleon hands him a drink, scotch, neat, and somehow Illya doubts Napoleon is being spiteful with the choice. He takes it gratefully, wearily, sinking down into a tasteless armchair.
There’s no comfort to the silence, and naught but blankness in Napoleon’s manner. It is, in truth, more kindness than he’d expected.
When Napoleon speaks, his words are tired and slow. “Why are you here?” he asks, and Illya glances at him, helpless.
He shakes his head. “Not what. Why.”
“Why?” Napoleon echoes, disbelieving, the first fresh lick of anger emerging in his voice. “Don’t you know?”
Illya’s jaw clenches. He doesn’t, of course, but here it is again – his thickness – his stupidity – his callousness – his cruelty –
He risks a look, finds Napoleon hard-eyed and tense with fury, but it’s better infinitely than the indifference of before. “You actually thought me capable of – ”
“No,” Illya interrupts, his guilt rising with his anger and his shame, “I did not ever – ”
– but it isn’t true, of course. Weeks had passed before Illya had thought to act upon his instincts, to make real his loyalty to the man. And then, of course, four hellish days – after Magritte but before the Sunshine Café – in which Illya had sat dead-eyed in his soulless Brooklyn bedroom, the list still tacked against the wall, and waited with little hope that American might not just mean the friend whom he had abandoned –
“I’m going to bed,” Napoleon says stiffly, and stands. “Get out.” The light behind him casts a halo around his figure, and for the first time, Illya truly looks at him. He’s thin, but no longer skeletal. He looks tired, but no longer fatal. He is alive, Illya thinks to himself as he, too, stands. That is better than he’d imagined, for a time.
“Пожалуйста,” Illya says, softly. “I do not want to leave again.”
Napoleon can no longer meet his eye. “So take the couch,” he says quietly, as he turns away. “But I’m gone in the morning.”
(“ – still the memory stays
my heart says – ”)
Illya had not thought to sleep, and to jolt awake soaked in moonlight and a cold sweat is no comfort at all. Few of his dreams of late have not turned inexorably into Napoleon, thin-voiced, blood-drenched, still – impossibly – singing.
But here, now, for the first time, he isn’t alone; Napoleon is sat beside him, perched on the coffee table and scowling at the air, and that particular blend of exasperation and mild concern is so familiar it almost aches.
Napoleon’s robe falls loosely open either side of his chest, and even in the moonlight he can see the edges of the lacing scars, still fresh across his chest. Illya can’t help but reach out to them, light fingers splayed across his breastbone; Napoleon flinches, but doesn’t move away. “These were meant for me,” Illya quietly says, his voice still rough from sleep; he’s tracing the line of a mark he can only half-see, but knows from memory. He hasn’t forgotten the vivid rawness of the weal, the clean color of the bone.
When he risks a glance at Napoleon, there’s something like understanding dawning in his eyes. “Technically speaking, they were meant for that asshole McCrory,” Napoleon lightly replies. “But when you put it like that, somehow it doesn’t seem worth it.”
Illya sits up wearily, and his hands drop down to hang clumsy across his thighs. He had fled to escape the magnitude of this; that he might work his entire life at Napoleon’s side, save his life a hundred times, and still never feel that he has balanced the enormity of this debt. “I should not have left,” he says, and when Napoleon inclines his head in silent acquiescence it is at least better than a punch.
“You ran because it scared you,” Napoleon says quietly. “I get that now.”
“Does that change anything?” Illya asks carefully, and Napoleon smiles slightly, ducks his head.
“It makes you less of an asshole, that’s for sure,” he says. Something like a grimace flits briefly across his face. “I thought – ”
“What?” Illya asks, but Napoleon won’t answer, his mouth pulled closed in a tight, white line. The thought that his departure must have seemed nothing more than an unmerited betrayal makes his stomach turn. “I should not have left,” he says again, resolute, his fingers curling on his thighs.
“You just did your job,” Napoleon says, evenly. “Same as me.” Napoleon shrugs, smiles, attempts to revive some sense of idle carelessness between them. “And besides – you got me out, in the end.”
In the end, Illya thinks, his mouth hot and sour with his guilt. In the end, he had eventually deigned to reward Napoleon’s unfailing loyalty with some kindness of his own. And if he hadn’t –
“Illya,” Napoleon says quietly, joltingly, a hand resting on his forearm. “Enough, alright?”
“Да,” he says, finally. “Enough.”
They’re both still awake to see the dawn, and it’s bright and fresh and beautiful in a way that only a Caribbean sunrise can be. They admire it from the balcony – a glorified rail, set a meter away from the room itself on a strip of moldy concrete – and finish the last of the whiskey, passing the bottle between them.
“Waverly said you watched the tapes,” Napoleon says. Illya glances at him, surprised, but doesn’t answer. “Had you heard it before?”
Illya frowns. “What?”
“The song,” Napoleon explains, and assumes the stance. “Save your lies, darling, don’t explain – ”
A shock of nausea ripples through Illya’s gut, and his fingers spasm helplessly against the rail. “Don’t,” he says, thickly – begs – and Napoleon, silenced, stops at once. “No,” he adds, eventually. “I had not.”
“Well, we should try that sometime,” Napoleon replies, tone light but eyes careful. “Too bad I already know your stance on dancing. Which is – ?”
“Unchanged,” Illya says, dryly. “I assure you.”
“Too bad,” Napoleon repeats easily, stifling a yawn. “When’s your extraction?”
“Tomorrow. Oistins. Then – ”
“Home?” Napoleon interrupts, and Illya shrugs; in part, at least, because that’s still not a word he readily associates with Brooklyn. “Well, I won’t enjoy the solitude,” Napoleon continues, mouth slanted into a smile. “God knows I’ve had enough of that already.”
There’s no malice meant in it, but Illya flinches nonetheless. Napoleon catches the look on his face, and there’s a brief sadness in his eyes, akin to what he’d seen in Gaby’s, weeks ago, when he’d doggedly insisted on Napoleon’s innocence, when he’d barely begun to imagine the alternative to his guilt –
Illya frowns. “You did not answer,” he says, and confusion momentarily clouds Napoleon’s expression. “Before. When I asked why.”
Napoleon’s face darkens. “Don’t push it, Peril. I think I’ve been damn nice enough.” At this distance, Illya can see the way his jaw snaps tight, his shoulders round – but he thinks, after all this time, he knows what Napoleon’s anger looks like, and this isn’t it. He’s nervous.
“What should I know?” he presses, hopeful and relentless, and this time he’s certain when Napoleon shifts, swears underneath his breath, it isn’t only fury. Friendship, or guilt, or loyalty wouldn’t have prompted such an answer, which means – and the thought behind it sends him reeling, this edging semblance of suspicion –
When Napoleon says his name, they’re standing close enough for Illya to catch the shaking cadence of his breath. Illya leans in, helpless, and kisses him.
There’s nothing for half a heartbeat, save a lurching nausea in Illya’s gut that he’s got this monumentally, catastrophically wrong – then Napoleon makes a noise, raw and somehow hungry, and the meaning of it leaves him dizzy, warmth spreading through his chest. It barely lasts a minute, until Napoleon is pushing him away and glancing around them, nervous – but they are for once unmonitored, unobserved. With his mouth still slack and color high up on his cheeks, Illya can’t help but think of him on the boardwalk the night before, cool and entirely unrumpled. Something like possessiveness twists right through him.
“Jesus, don’t look at me like that,” Napoleon murmurs, smiling slightly. “It’s indecent.”
“Inside,” Illya coarsely replies, and a flare of want claws through him as Napoleon’s eyes turn dark.
“You do realize,” Napoleon says, lazily, blowing blue-black smoke up into the air, “this is probably the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.”
He passes back the cigarette, and Illya takes a drag. “Me, maybe,” Illya answers idly. “You were war profiteer.”
Napoleon snorts. “Nice to see you found your sense of humor, Peril.”
“I never lost it,” Illya replies blandly. “I just do not find you funny.”
Napoleon’s face becomes a spasm of mock-distress, and Illya rolls his eyes. They still lie sprawled and sated on the bed, and with the hush slipping in through the open window and fresh light creeping up the wall, it seems as though they’ll never need to move.
It was stupid, Illya silently agrees; but when he glances over at Napoleon there’s no semblance of regret, and that, at least, is something. And besides, as far as he’s concerned, there’s no greater danger to his efficiency or independence as an operative than before; the past three months have been nothing if not a demonstration of how poorly he copes when the two of them are forced apart.
“I hope we get Bucharest,” Napoleon says absently, confiscating the cigarette and tapping off the ash; Illya looks at him, confused. “When I get back,” he adds, by way of explanation. “I’ve never been.”
Illya cannot help but grin. “You have not quit, then?”
“Not yet,” Napoleon replies wryly, and smiles. “I just felt I was due a vacation, is all.”