“When you were dreaming about growing up to be a KGB agent in your starry-eyed youth, I bet you didn’t think it’d be half as glamorous as this,” is what Napoleon says when they slosh out, half-drowned, in the dead of night from the Seine where it laps against the arches of the Pont Neuf.
He doesn’t mean much by it, only that he wants to lie down somewhere, preferably warm, preferably soft, and forget that he’s ruined three suits in as many weeks – all for the greater good they keep telling him.
But when he’s met with a grunt and nothing else, no withering look, no long-suffering remark dry as tinder, he pauses in the middle of wringing out his tie.
Illya’s half-turned, cloaked in shadow, but Napoleon knows his moods by now, the full, furious spectrum of him running from somber to bright.
Napoleon takes one look and says faintly, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Can I guess? I’ll hazard a guess,” he says when they’re making their way through the Arabian desert towards Riyadh, figuring it’s as opportune a time as any, what with the scenery being swaths of sand against the backdrop of – wait for it – more sand, and Illya’s remarkable aptitude for sitting in silence. “You wanted to be a ballet dancer.”
Illya’s hand twitches around the steering wheel. Napoleon presses his lips together to keep from grinning, fairly to mostly sure Illya wouldn’t do anything so rash as throw him out of a vehicle pushing 90 over unforgiving terrain. What can he say, he could never resist prodding the fine line between self-preservation and getting his kicks where he can.
“You had visions of sugar plum fairies and pas de deux. Svelte women leaping into your strong but gentle arms,” he elaborates while sneaking peeks at Illya, eyes hidden behind his aviators, perfectly and infuriatingly stoic.
In truth, Napoleon’s given this serious thought. He has an instinct for spinning stories, which is how he survived the trenches, the lulls that felt bleaker than the combat. And in this story, Illya dances, not for fame, not for fortune, but for something primal like survival only far more beautiful. Illya plays the part of prince, lover, hero, and never ironically, or dutifully, even – just exceedingly well.
“I did not give you permission to guess,” Illya says, evenly, and then after a beat, “Also, I would never be caught dead in tights.”
The next time, they’re stuck for three hours in the cargo hold of a plane bound for Zurich.
“Carpenter, then.” Napoleon reasons it’s bound to be less offensive to Illya’s Soviet sensibilities.
Illya responds by closing his eyes and dragging his hands down his face, tipping his head back like he’s beseeching some higher power.
Then he says blandly, “this must be test. If I snap your neck, means I am weak, surrender too easily to temptation. This is the mark of terrible agent.”
Napoleon nudges Illya’s calf with his foot. “So does that mean I guessed right?”
He’d prefer something more adventurous, but it’s not a hardship, imagining those long dexterous fingers tasked with beauty instead of death. He watched them fold a piece of newspaper into a crane, once – deft and methodic the way they field strip a PM – fastidious with its edges, the symmetry of its wings, then cradle it protectively before sweeping it into the trash.
“Lucky you are more useful to me alive than dead,” Illya mutters darkly.
“That’s sweet of you, Peril.” Napoleon reaches over to pat Illya’s hand, thumb sweeping over Illya’s knuckles to say, I see right through you.
“I am getting distinct feeling you have unconscious death wish, Cowboy,” Illya growls – ineffectively because they’re crammed into a shipping crate and being as quiet as possible in a last ditch attempt to slip out of the warehouse with their covers intact.
Napoleon is flush against Illya’s back, hand splayed across his waist, mouth an inch from his nape, inhaling the scent of him – sharp, minimal, bittersweet – and trying not to groan.
“Your nose buried in Pushkin, Proust, your fingertips stained with ink,” Napoleon murmurs, a little light-headed from the fantasy and the forced proximity, “molding bright young minds, making them fall half in love with you.”
He brushes his mouth along the edge of Illya’s collar, bottom lip catching skin, and feels Illya shudder.
“Your deluded attempts to infect me with your Western romanticism will never work,” Illya says, steadfast, to which Napoleon could respond with any number of insights he’s quietly accumulated over the last 10 months. That Illya’s principles aren’t as cut and dried as he leads everyone to believe, himself included. That for all his loyalty to his government, it's his people he would never betray. That there’s something pure at the heart of him, still, that’s been achingly resilient to all those long dark winters, the howling rage.
Instead, Napoleon settles for coping a feel and saying, “You give me entirely too much credit.”
They’re stretched out side-by-side in the back of a flatbed truck rattling towards Krasnoyarsk-26 in the company of two metric tons of plutonium oxide, Siberian air hovering just above frigid, Siberian wilderness about as hospitable, towering like alien monoliths in the dark.
Illya is silent as the grave, eyes closed, fingers twitching, body so taut it must be costing him, and Napoleon deals with it the only way he knows how. He laughs.
“Doctor? Don’t tell me you wanted to be a doctor.”
For a while there’s no response, and Napoleon waits, staring at the stars – dense, incalculable, and their one reward for trekking to latitudes that were never meant for civilization.
Finally, Illya says, without moving a muscle, “Why are you laughing? It is perfectly respectable profession.”
“I’ve been on the receiving end of your doctoring, Peril. Your bedside manner is, frankly, deranged.” It’s an explanation suffused with affection, a reflex as much as it is a choice, and Napoleon can feel Illya softening by degrees, for all he must be making a point of frowning.
“Only because you are worst patient I have ever seen. What is it you Americans say – I fight fire with fire.”
It’s true, Napoleon can’t cope with being bed-ridden, being still, which is why he tries to avoid getting shot in the stomach. Illya had been tight-lipped, white as a sheet, manhandling and bullying Napoleon into recovery because he’s always worn fury more comfortably than fear.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten that you haven’t answered my question.”
Illya falls silent again and this time Napoleon finds his hand, grips it with three fingers pressed into his palm to subdue the tremors, because he’s learned that Illya, for all he’s inured to loneliness, craves to be touched. Illya, who runs headlong into danger, prefers to feel safe, given a choice.
“Kosmonavt,” Illya says, suddenly, and Napoleon turns to him, blinking. “I was – obsessed with stars, with the sky. With how much space there was and how little we knew about it. I wanted to travel that distance and be first – to discover something, more beautiful than anything we had on Earth, maybe to hold in my hands and bring back with me.”
He swallows, eyes fluttering shut then opening again, like for a second the dream had carried him away, the same way it had all those years ago, and he could follow a straight road from the man he is now to the boy he was then.
“Child’s overactive imagination,” he says, sounding a little embarrassed now. “I grew out of it long time ago. Don’t even think about spreading rumors to ruin my reputation, Cowboy.”
“Actually,” Napoleon says as he grips Illya’s hand tighter, tight enough to bruise, then drags it up until it’s lying knuckle-down against his heart. “I was thinking it’s the perfect night for studying the stars.”