“Always a first time,” Napoleon said mercilessly, pulling on a charcoal Tom Ford blazer over his loose gray knit. “Mrs Siegfried invited us weeks ago, Artyom, don’t be a baby. You’ve had quite a while to gird your loins. We’re going to a party, not some sort of trench warfare. Smile.”
Artyom scowled, which was admittedly normally an adorable look even for a tall, blonde Russian giant of a man. “I do not like Mrs Siegfried,” Artyom declared, clearly intent on being as recalcitrant as possible.
“Oh, come on. She’s harmless. And I’ve asked her to stop making Putin jokes in your presence, if that was what was upsetting you.” Napoleon crossed the room to where Artyom was looming over his side of the wardrobe, and adjusted the collar of his black turtleneck. “It’s only going to be an hour.”
“That is one hour of our lives that we are never going to get back,” Artyom pointed out, though he curled his big hands under Napoleon’s blazer, to the small of his back. “Many more things can be done in an hour. Instead of attending little girl’s party.” Long fingers squeezed Napoleon’s ass suggestively, kneading flesh, and tugging Napoleon an inch closer. Artyom had never quite been one for the subtle approach.
“Tempting,” Napoleon said, draping his arms over Artyom’s broad shoulders, “But then you leave me in the unwelcome situation of having to break my word to a twelve-year-old girl.”
“She’ll survive the disappointment.”
“Brutal, Artyom, so brutal.” Napoleon sighed theatrically. “And no, you’re not getting away with this. I was going to have to introduce you to the neighbours sooner or later anyway, they'll all be attending, and my word is gold. Particularly to women. So. Chin up. Think of it this way. You’re probably going to ruin the lives of all those little girls at the party. That should be fun.”
“They are never going to meet anyone as good looking as you are, handsome,” Napoleon drawled, and archly batted his eyelashes. Artyom snorted, but obligingly bent for a kiss, duly baited, a gentle brush of the lips, almost chaste.
Napoleon, as always, swallowed a sigh. For all that Artyom had a stubborn streak, and could be playful, he was also skittish and shy, often sweet, even, wary of his natural strength. It made sex terribly vanilla. It made kissing vanilla. If the man wasn’t so devastatingly handsome, Napoleon would have long decided to rethink this whole Domestic Arrangement experiment.
But the sad(?) fact was, Artyom was every shade of devastatingly handsome, and as such, Napoleon kissed Artyom back, just as gently, and waited. “One hour,” Artyom conceded, and pressed a kiss to Napoleon’s neck, his voice dropping, going warm and husky. “And then you make it up to me.”
“Oh?” Napoleon curled his fingers into Artyom’s silky, golden hair, threading the fine strands under his hand. “What do you have in mind?” All right. Sometimes, vanilla sex wasn’t too bad. And this seemed promising-
“You watch Leviathan with me. By Andrey Zvyagintsev,” Artyom elaborated, when Napoleon blinked in confusion. “I have copy in laptop.”
Napoleon swallowed a sigh of disappointment. Not kinky sex, then. He should’ve known. “Wasn’t that Russia’s Oscar entry for this year?”
“Yes. Should have won.”
“So it’s an arthouse film.”
“Foreign language arthouse film.”
“I don’t understand Russian, remember?” Napoleon lied smoothly. “Sadly, I don’t have the attention span for subtitles. I’m like a goldfish.”
Artyom leaned back to frown at Napoleon, which was, sadly, just as adorable at it shouldn’t be, especially when the pout reappeared. “These are terms. Take it or leave it.”
“Fine,” Napoleon capitulated, because they were going to be late, and being late to a twelve-year-old girl’s birthday party would be a new low, even for a forcibly retired thief-turned-spy pretending to be a banker, and Artyom smiled at him, triumphant, and gave him another shy, brushing kiss.
Mrs Siegfried was a magnificently robust, freckled woman in her mid-forties, a career housewife with an eternally harassed-looking surgeon for a husband. Mr. Siegfried had already clearly retreated to the kitchen now that the party was in full swing, the house decorated in wide swaths of pink and purple bunting and fluffy yellow stars. In Napoleon’s peripheral vision, he could see Artyom belatedly hiding a pained grimace, his architect’s sensibilities no doubt already agonisingly offended.
“James!” Mrs Siegfried greeted Napoleon with a broad grin. “And you’ve brought Artyom. Welcome, welcome. Annie will be so happy that you’ve come. Artyom, I’m so glad to see you again. We should catch up more often.”
“What are neighbours for?” Napoleon put on his best smile, even as Artyom muttered something inaudible, and Napoleon knelt down as a little girl in a pink frock burst out from the living room, speeding over to give him a hug, then looking up - and up - at Artyom with a child’s unrestrained curiosity.
“Happy birthday, Annie,” Napoleon said, and offered Annie a wrapped box, a little trifle of an antique unicorn figurine that he’d pocketed en route out of a drug baron’s estate in Juarez, three weeks ago. “That’s from the two of us. Annie, meet Artyom. Artyom, Annie.”
Annie clutched the box close to her chest, still studying Artyom, even as Mrs Siegfried cleared her throat. “Annie, what do you say to James for your present?”
“Thank-you,” Annie said, all practiced rote, without actually looking at Napoleon. “This is your boyfriend?”
“Fiancé, actually,” Napoleon corrected.
“Wow,” Annie decided, sounding impressed. “He is real hot.”
Artyom, to Napoleon’s amusement, actually blushed. Grinning, Napoleon drawled, “Artyom, what do you say to Annie for the compliment?”
The glare promised some sort of revenge at a later date, but thankfully Annie extracted Napoleon from the situation by saying brightly, “Artie, I’m going to introduce you to all my friends!” and grabbed Artyom by his hand, pulling. Reluctantly, Artyom allowed himself to be led out to the garden, and Napoleon smirked, even as Mrs Siegfried chuckled.
“I did say she was excited.”
“I’m thinking of this as an invaluable character-building exercise.”
“So,” Mrs Siegfried said, as they headed more slowly towards the living room, “Fiancé, eh? When was that?”
“Two months ago?” Napoleon had just come back from a decidedly convoluted and painful mission in Kazakhstan, and Artyom had met him at the airport, all nervous and out of sorts. And then he had driven them to dinner at Eleven Madison Park, and proposed over dessert, and Napoleon had been far too surprised and too tired to extract himself diplomatically. “It was a surprise.”
“I suppose so,” Napoleon said, with feigned disinterest, and was therefore mercilessly questioned until he confessed everything.
Mrs Siegfried sighed, quite likely reminiscing on an older and far less romantic proposal from the hard-drinking and dour Mr Siegfried. “And you met him… a year ago, was it? In Bogotá.”
“That’s right. At the hotel bar. We hit it off immediately.” Which had been lucky. The Colombian kingpin that Napoleon had thoroughly irritated had sent thugs whom were looking for a man travelling alone, and not two men clearly at ease and flirting overtly.
“Meeting a Russian architect on holiday in Bogotá. What are the chances.” Mrs Siegfried smiled wistfully. “It had to be fate. And to think we thought you would never settle down. What with all those girls at all hours. I never thought you actually played on the other side of the fence.”
Napoleon laughed. “Mrs Siegfried,” he said playfully, “I play all sides of the fence. Left, right, up, bottom, anywhere.”
Mrs Siegfried smacked him on the arm, almost hard enough to hurt, even as she let out a gulp of laughter. “Now there’s the James I remember. How terrible! You’ve somehow managed to ensnare such a nice boy.”
She gestured at Artyom, who was starting to look panicky and harried in the garden, having been dragged to sit at the low birthday table with Annie’s friends, all of whom were around her age and all of whom were staring at Artyom in awe. The killer package of blonde, blue eyes, nervousness and that accent. The little girls never had a chance.
“I know,” Napoleon said, and smirked. “Believe me, sometimes I wake up and I still wonder how the hell it all happened. Somehow, a nice boy fell prey to all my awful wiles.”
“Handsome, too,” Mrs Siegfried shook her head, “You’re a banker. One of the Wolves of Wall Street. Maybe he’s just too innocent to know your sort.” She winked.
“Don’t believe everything you see in the movies, Mrs Siegfried.” Reality was often far, far stranger, in Napoleon’s experience.
At the foot of the bed, from the faint light of the street lamps and his alarm, Illya could see the reflective gleam of two reproachful eyes at the foot of the bed. Their rescue Birman mix, Mister Darcy, stretched, displaced, and followed Illya into the bathroom, occasionally yowling softly in rebuke. He ignored the cat, which was James’, anyway, and washed up mechanically, brushing his teeth, shaving, then he took a quick shower and padded out to the bedroom.
James was awake, if clearly reluctantly so, but curled on the warm spot on the bed, watching Illya get dressed sleepily. “It’s Sunday,” James protested. “Come back to bed.”
It was tempting. Even disheveled by sleep - or perhaps because of it - James Smith was a handsome specimen of a man, with powerfully built shoulders, catlike natural grace, and long, long legs, his dark eyes forever dancing with mischief.
James was one of the kings of capitalism in the country of unrestrained capitalism, of course, wealthy enough to afford this beautiful brownstone Brooklyn townhouse and refit it entirely according to Illya’s whims, but the best cover was an unexpected one. Who would expect a male SVR agent to be living with a male Wall Street banker? It helped that James was easy on the eyes.
“Work emergency,” Illya said apologetically. “Sorry to have woken you.”
James yawned, and frowned at the clock again, as though personally offended. “Do you have time for breakfast? I could whip up something quick.”
Despite the hurry, Illya smiled. Cover it might be, but sometimes there was something… pleasant, to living in a ‘normal’ domestic relationship. The American dream, updated for the new century. “No, I will pick something up on the way. Go back to sleep.” He did, however, head over to kiss James on the forehead, and James made a grouchy sound, trying to pull Illya back to the bed.
Again, Illya was tempted, though he quickly braced himself on the sheets. James was good with his mouth and very willing, but Illya had to be mindful not to break cover, and as such, was always extremely careful with his strength - and appetites. To James, Illya had to be the overworked, socially awkward architect boyfriend, and so it was, no matter how tempting it was sometimes to slip a little.
“Go back to sleep,” Illya repeated, and kissed James on the edge of his mouth, backing away out of reach before James could make another grab for him.
The annoying little cat demon followed Illya, still yowling reproachfully, all the way down the darkened stairs to the ground floor, where their high-ceilinged living room with its great glass panels overlooked their manicured Japanese garden, the mezzanine floor only serving as a study, allowing the living room to stretch up two lofty levels. A black steel ladder leaned against the two-storey bookshelf, the books mostly Illya’s. Illya adjusted his tie, picked some fur off his sleeve - an ultimately futile exercise - and headed to the garage, where he got into his unremarkable black Toyota Camry, parked next to James’ considerably flashier red Tesla Model S, and drove out into the relatively empty Sunday streets.
Illya parked in the reserved parking of an ‘office’ building on 91st Street, and got into the lifts. He looked directly into what would appear to anyone else to be merely a decorative black panel over the information plate, waited for his retina to be scanned, then turned around as the back of the lift opened, revealing a dark corridor that lit up once he stepped into it.
Sensors registered Illya’s gait, height and bone structure, a thorough unbreakable key, and by the time he reached the end of the long tunnel, authorisation had auto-unlocked the door, sliding the concrete wall aside. Illya instinctively straightened up, and took a breath, tugging briefly at the lapels of his bomber jacket before stepping forward and onto Russian soil.
The Russian Consulate was quiet. On the outside, it was a five-storey Renaissance-style limestone townhouse, a prominent, palazzo-like building that was open to the public: at least, above ground. Underground, it was completely different, a far more clinical set of chambers accessible only through the long corridor or through a double-safe door hidden in the Consulate. As Illya passed the guard post and headed into the cell-like briefing rooms, all stark, empty white space with a bolted-down table and bolted chairs, he noted that he was the last to arrive.
Oleg was already there, Illya’s grim-faced, stockily built handler, as dourly dressed today as ever in a black suit and a shirt creased to razor edges at his throat. Beside him was Sergey Novikov, the Russian Ambassador to the USA, a rapidly balding old man with heavy jowls that reminded Illya unkindly of a bulldog, liver spots dotting the pale scuffs of white hair that curled over his long ears. Hard eyes darted from Illya to Oleg and back, and Sergey straightened at his chair as Oleg waved Illya to a seat.
“This is your best agent?” Sergey asked instantly, in Russian.
“Illya Kuryakin. Currently undercover in New York.” Oleg said smoothly in kind. “Illya is very talented. Youngest to ever join the SVR.”
“This is a very delicate matter.”
“Good! That is our specialty. Now. What is the problem?”
“What I’m about to say should not leave this room,” Sergey said tensely. “We’ve only discovered the breach as of two hours ago. That’s why I had to call you in so abruptly, Oleg. Once we realized what was stolen.”
“Someone robbed the Consulate?” Illya inquired, already starting to lose patience for this nervous, fluttery man.
“If only! No. Someone hacked the Consultate. Stole cables, information, everything. They - whoever they were - are very good. They beat the best security to come out of Russia.”
“Aren’t the important computers on a private cloud?” Oleg frowned, leaning forward, elbows on the table.
“They are. But a staffer was tethering her phone, which was connected to the WiFi. We think that’s how the breach occurred. More importantly,” Sergey said sharply, “We need the information recovered.”
Oleg shrugged. “Diplomatic cables. Pft. That is old news. They will publish it and will be like Wikileaks and no one of importance will actually read it but the CIA, who likely already knew about the cables anyway.”
“They probably also stole the personal details of every Russian citizen registered with the Consulate,” Illya pointed out.
“Not a big problem. People have their details leaked all the time in the modern world.” Oleg said, still indifferent.
“It is a problem,” Sergey noted stiffly, “When the details also include those of all SVR agents who travelled to or from New York in the last five years. Their tasks. Their cover identities. Their destinations. Including yours, I presume, Mister Kuryakin.”
Illya stiffened, even as Oleg let out a low whistle. “The Consulate had…? That would be encrypted data. Special key. Near impossible to crack.”
“But not impossible.” Sergey pointed out. “So. You see the problem.”
“How many people know of this data?”
“Other than the hacker? No one. I’m the only person who knows that it’s gone missing. The hacker stole it and wiped the copy we had on our server. I’ve told no one else. The rest, even my secretary, all they know is that we have been hacked.”
“Good. Illya. Kill him.”
Illya raised an eyebrow, but at Oleg’s nod, he got to his feet. Sergey jumped up from the table, openmouthed and red faced. “Oleg, this isn’t funny. Oleg!” Sergey yelped, as Illya prowled closer. “I’m the Ambassador, Oleg! I have friends! You can’t just-“ The rest of his words were silenced, as Illya grabbed him, and used momentum to haul Sergey around and off-balance, and efficiently slammed his skull against the edge of the bolted table with their combined weight.
“Now it is just us,” Oleg said, shaking his head slowly. “Ah. What a mess.”
“Sir.” Illya let Sergey’s limp body carefully to the ground, then stepped fastidiously away from the pooling blood and sat back down in his chair, hands back in his pockets.
“I will have our contacts check the Dark Web,” Oleg continued. “Maybe this hacker is a pest who will dump the data for everyone to see, maybe not. But if not, he might try to sell it on the darknet markets. Go upstairs. Talk to the secretary and the other staff. Hopefully it is not an inside job.”
Illya nodded, though he rather doubted it. In today’s brave new world, where cybersecurity waged a constant and often losing war against hackers, the thief could be anywhere. “What are my parameters?”
“Obviously we do not want a no holds barred war to break out in America,” Oleg said dryly. “So try to restrain yourself. And you should not break your cover. It is useful. Difficult as it might be to maintain.”
Illya nodded again, and kept his expression carefully neutral. “Understood.”
“And at all costs, the CIA must not get their hands on this list.” Oleg pushed himself wearily up from the table. “Now I must make a few phone calls to explain this fuck-up. It is my dearest wish that we can resolve all of this quickly, before a large fuck-up becomes a monumental one. Yes?”
“Understood.” It was going to be a long day.
Note: About consent in Mr & Mrs Smith AUs and why this fic does not have the noncon tag
A general note on consent and mistaken identity: Rape by fraud is rape (i.e. cases like where someone pretends to be the victim’s SO in the dark etc to have sex or fakes him/her into thinking it’s a medical procedure etc). In this case, both Napoleon AND Illya are not what they seem, but is it rape?
1. Courts haven’t been keen to broaden rape by fraud (i.e. a bigamist who conceals marriage from ‘2nd’ wife is not guilty of rape) save in extraordinary circumstances
2. In Papadimitropoulos the HCA quashed conviction of rape for a man who had sex with a woman after telling her fraudulently that they were married - fraud as to their marital status was a collateral matter. “…once the consent is comprehending and actual the inducing causes cannot destroy its reality…”
3. In Clarence, a man sleeping with a woman who consented because she did not know he had an STD = not rape.
So in a Mr & Mrs Smith AU, is secretly being an enemy agent
like having an STDa collateral matter? IMO yes - if Napoleon and Illya correctly understand the nature of the act (i.e. they don’t think it’s For Science or something) and know the identity of the person (i.e. it’s not a matter of being in the dark and thinking it’s someone else altogether, like Michael Fassbender) deceiving each other regarding their real job is a collateral matter and therefore is irrelevant. It is not, for example, a rape offence (in Australia) to gain consent by pretending that you are rich. But laws are different in different countries, so it might be - elsewhere.
TLDR: I don’t believe that a Mr & Mrs Smith AU warrants the dubcon/noncon tag.
It had been a year, but old habits died hard - Napoleon reached instantly for the hidden compartment in the armrest of the couch, but thankfully Artyom announced himself quickly with a surprised, “Ah, you are not asleep.”
Napoleon checked the wall clock, even as he subtly relaxed his grip on the latch and slipped his hand back up to the couch. It was five past midnight, and he hadn’t actually noticed. Sunday was usually spent - assuming neither of them were away on business - with a slow and luxurious round of morning sex before maybe heading out for a lazy brunch, then they often caught a film or a play or went to a museum, or something else terribly domestic.
Today Artyom’s precipitous exit in the morning had left Napoleon decidedly out of sorts: a little disoriented, even. Napoleon had gone for the lazy brunch, but hadn’t felt particularly like he had enjoyed it, and then he had exercised and cleaned the few pieces he had hidden around the house, made himself dinner and then seemed to have gravitated to the couch, bored. Something was clearly wrong with Napoleon’s sanity.
“Bad day?” Napoleon asked instead, sitting up, which meant displacing Mister Darcy off his belly. The cat shook itself, offended, then made itself scarce as Artyom blinked a little owlishly at Napoleon. Artyom looked visibly tired, even a little pale, but then he seemed to refocus, and walked over to the couch, leaning his elbows on the back of it and pressing a soft kiss to Napoleon’s temple.
“Getting better,” Artyom said, with that gorgeous shy smile, and despite everything, Napoleon’s cock twitched, a clear sign of his utter innate moral corruption. It wasn’t often that Artyom could be persuaded to spread his legs, and it usually wasn’t really worth the effort, but right now-
Still, Napoleon was meant to be the Conscientious Boyfriend in this scenario, or, at least, make a credible attempt to pass as some sort of normal human being, so what he really did was say, “I made dinner. There are leftovers if you’re hungry.”
“Sounds good,” Artyom said, and pressed a kiss to Napoleon’s mouth, then wandered off towards the kitchen. Napoleon watched him go, admiring Artyom’s ass all the way, then he swallowed a sigh and dragged himself upstairs to bed. He brushed his teeth slowly, listening to Artyom pottering around downstairs in the kitchen, found the cat stretched across their bed, and nudged it aside just enough to crawl under the sheets and doze off.
Napoleon stirred when Artyom got into bed, all hot water scents and soap and toothpaste, and he got a kiss that nudged against his jaw, then up against his mouth as he turned, always greedy, even when half-asleep. “Dinner was good,” Artyom whispered into his ear.
“You don’t have to say that every time, sweetheart,” Napoleon said dryly, opening his eyes. “I know I’m good.”
Artyom laughed, and he had one of the strangest laughs Napoleon had ever seen still: it rumbled through him, almost inaudible, as though mirth was something to be battened down and boxed away. Solemn. The Russian Composure, or something like that. Napoleon uncurled for a better kiss, rolling to press Artyom to the bed and squirm on top of him, chasing the final tremors of amusement as they shook through Artyom’s shoulders, as though cored away under his skin. Artyom twisted his face to the side when Napoleon tried to slip his tongue into Artyom’s mouth, though he let out a gasp as, undeterred, Napoleon grazed teeth against the stubble that the day had grown on Artyom’s jaw.
“Don’t you have work tomorrow?” Artyom asked, breathy, uncertain, and this was forever the oddest thing about sex with Artyom, odder than the stubborn gentleness, the shyness even after a year’s worth of a healthy sex life. Artyom still touched Napoleon as though he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there, like walking in a dream: it was weird, at first, then Napoleon had decided that it was cute. Besides, it was good for the ego, and Napoleon did like to take care of his ego.
“I was just about to offer to suck your cock,” Napoleon said blandly, and grinned wickedly as Artyom flushed a little. A year and the man still got flustered by bluntness. “Of course, if you’re not interested…”
“I want,” Artyom began, and bit down on his lower lip; it was criminal how sexy that looked. Napoleon felt himself started to get a little lightheaded, probably from the blood pulsing down to his cock, and he rubbed himself pointedly against Artyom’s hip, felt the press of Artyom’s own arousal against his thigh. Big hands squeezed over Napoleon’s shoulder then pressed down, to his hips, feather-light. “Or... let me... instead.”
That was new. Artyom usually preferred to top, though he wasn’t averse to switching if Napoleon was feeling persuasive, but he had never offered to suck cock and Napoleon had never pressed the matter. “You’re sure?”
“It’s been a year and we are going to be married,” Artyom reminded him, with his adorable little pout.
“I’m easy either way,” Napoleon said, and his sanity was definitely going, he felt, now a little depressed. He had just tried to talk someone out of giving him a blowjob. Domestic Arrangements were clearly cancers of the mind.
“I want to,” Artyom said, his stubbornness having set in, thank Christ, and Napoleon was rolled onto his back, his knees nudged apart as Artyom shifted down, rucking up Napoleon’s shirt and kissing the old scar above his navel. Napoleon had told Artyom about his ill-fated and utterly true youthful foray into the American Army, though not the real story of why he had left said Army, and Artyom liked Napoleon’s scars, liked to kiss them and trace them with his fingers until Napoleon was torn between impatience and lust.
“Artyom,” Napoleon breathed urgently, for today he definitely had no patience for Artyom’s fascination with scars, and Artyom kissed lower, with another one of his weird, near silent laughs, just over the hem of Napoleon’s boxers, then he drew Napoleon’s cock out, spitting onto his palm and squeezing lightly at the root, shy again.
Napoleon swallowed a sigh. He had, quite possibly, just let himself into a world of torture. “Have you, ah, done this before?”
“Not often,” Artyom’s breath was hot on Napoleon’s cock, and Napoleon squirmed, spreading his legs wider, hopefully, but Artyom didn’t start to get to the point. “I think maybe I will not be very good,” he said, sounding flustered and shy again.
Napoleon tried to get his heart rate under control. “Just watch the teeth and you’ll do fine,” he suggested, which was quite possibly the wrong thing to say, because Artyom nodded so very seriously and started to lick his cock instead of getting down to business, all slow, careful laps that hung Napoleon in the agonised space between pleasure and nowhere-fucking-near-enough-fucking, and he sank against the pillows with a groan.
“Use your hand,” Napoleon grit out, because dying of pure sexual frustration wasn’t how he wanted to go, and Artyom obliged, but it was still carefully gentle, and Napoleon remembered belatedly that Artyom was one of those few special snowflakes who did somehow manage to be absolutely terrible at hand jobs despite months of coaching. Just as Napoleon was contemplating reaching down to take care of himself, however, Artyom’s tongue flicked accidentally under his foreskin and- “Shit!”
Artyom jerked back like a startled cat. “Sorry! Sorry.”
“No, no, that was good, don’t stop,” Napoleon groaned. He was going to die after all. Artyom shot him a narrow-eyed, suspicious look, as though unsure whether Napoleon was lying or not, but he bent back to it, this time thankfully-by-God getting his mouth over the thickened cap and sucking lightly; it would’ve been torture if watching Artyom’s mouth spread slick and red around Napoleon’s cock wasn’t such a sudden rush. Napoleon clenched one hand in the sheets, swallowed the whine building in his throat and curled his free hand over Artyom’s, clenching tight and tugging up and letting out a keening moan as he did so, hoping that it’ll drive the point through.
Artyom obligingly sucked a little harder as Napoleon started to stroke himself off, frowning in concentration, as though facing a chess set, all that pale blonde hair starting to go awry over his forehead. He tried to fit an inch further into his mouth and seemed to choke a little before he adjusted, and it took all the self-control Napoleon had not to buck up into Artyom’s throat and just fuck that pretty face dazed and hoarse; Napoleon dug the nails of the hand he had clenched in the sheets hard enough into the fabric to hurt.
"Jesus," Napoleon begged, "C'mon, I'm so close, careful-" and then Artyom curled his tongue under the foreskin, this time, slow and deliberate and that was enough, somehow, for Napoleon to jerk under their combined grip and spill, messy and thick. Artyom pulled away, startled and coughing, but it took a long, panting moment for Napoleon to recover enough brain matter to offer a hoarse apology.
"It is not so bad," Artyom said, obviously a lie, because he pressed that pink tongue of his against one of his fingers, licking it clean and then immediately pulling a face, and although this quite possibly ranked as one of the worst blowjobs Napoleon had ever gotten, in this moment Napoleon could not quite seem to care.
Definitely. Going insane.
Artyom yelped as Napoleon dragged him down and rolled over, mess and all, relaxing as they kissed, Napoleon chasing his taste in the warm yield of Artyom's mouth as he swiped fingers through the mess to slick up, then shoved his hand down Artyom's boxers to grasp him. For a moment they seemed to fit perfectly together, like this, in the push-pull of wrestling and kissing, thighs intertwined, and then Artyom spent himself thickly over Napoleon's fingers with a muffled, shocked sob of pleasure and the moment faded, just as quickly.
Napoleon curled over Artyom anyway, because he was equal parts lazy, stubborn and affectionate after sex, and felt the fingers of Artyom's clean hand skitter up over his neck, then splay down his back, patting him over his ass. Napoleon made a contented sound, and closed his eyes, cheek pressed on Artyom's shoulder.
"Please let us get cleaned up," Artyom said, into his hair. "Or will have to wash sheets."
Napoleon sighed. "The romance is gone," he declared archly, though he kissed Artyom between the eyes when he saw Artyom start to frown.
The number just read 'Work', and Illya used the phone to prod James in the arm until he woke up, yawning and clearly reluctant.
"Ah fuck," James muttered, once he cracked an eye open and looked at the phone, then he pulled it out of Illya's hand and picked up, rolling away and onto his back. "Hello." He listened for a minute, then he hung up, and rolled again, groaning into a pillow, face down.
"Work emergency?" Illya asked sympathetically. James tended to have those now and then.
"You've seen the news," James said, muffled from the pillow. "The markets are currently like a flock of cats in a dog park. Thank you, China."
"Go and save someone else's money," Illya patted James on the arm with mock sympathy.
"Yeah, yeah," James said grumpily, never particularly at his best in the morning, and crawled out of bed still yawning and flicking through his phone. Once cleaned up and dressed in one of his sharp, Savile Row suits, James looked somewhat more willing to face the day's financial markets, and he offered Illya a characteristically cheeky grin before a goodbye kiss. "My turn to be an asshole."
"I was going to get up soon anyway," Illya disagreed, and kissed James back, propping himself up on his elbows. As James headed on out, the cat hopped off the bed with a yowl and followed its master, wailing all the way to the ground floor until a faint tinkling told Illya that the monster had been fed and briefly appeased. Illya lay in bed, listening, until he heard the automatic garage door rattle, then he got out of bed, scratching at his jaw.
The coffee machine produced a decent cup of coffee after some manhandling, and Illya had toast while Mister Darcy sat on the kitchen table, glowering reproachfully at Illya from across the stone top. "Don't look at me," Illya told it in Russian. "Your master was summoned."
It hissed at him, as though it understood the sentiment. The damn cat and Illya had been living in a mutual state of uneasy hostilities that only called a ceasefire when James was around: quite possibly, it was not only smart enough to know that Illya disliked it intensely but also canny enough to sense a far greater predator in its immediate vicinity. Illya feigned a grab at it, and it darted off the table, speeding up a few rungs of the steel ladder before turning around and letting out a yowl. Illya tucked his thumb between his index and middle finger, and the little demon yowled again, as though it understood the gesture and the sentiment. The damn monster was going to shed all over Illya's books again. Illya could never understand why James bothered to buy expensive clothes when he owned a white fur machine.
Illya was still picking fur off his own clothes when he arrived later back at the Consulate. Sergey's body had long been removed and disposed of, and Illya headed past the cell-like rooms, deeper into the underground complex. He had an office on the floor below, in a row of other offices that sometimes housed other agents, now and then, but at present stood empty. The busy part of SVR's New York bureau was further in, past the offices, to the open-plan floor full of bisected cubicles where Oleg's 'contacts' worked in an efficient, tight-knit team, managing and connecting all SVR assets in this side of the world.
He ignored them, going into his office and sitting down in front of the screen. A panel at the top of the screen scanned his retina, then Illya was logged in, to find sets of reports already left on the desktop. He flicked through them briskly, then called Oleg.
Oleg was all business when he picked up. "No headway in the dark web as yet. I am told that it is not yet being announced anywhere, on any forum, though the search is still underway on the usual forums. Also no one has yet been approached to handle a dump. At least, none of the major papers."
Illya nodded to himself. "Maybe the hacker did not know what he had."
"The only file he erased was the list of names."
"Some of such files auto-erase when a copy is made." Illya had spent many futile hours yesterday trying to figure that part of the mystery out, and had been none the wiser at the end.
Oleg grunted. "True. But it is never good to hope for the best. More importantly, our mole in Langley tells me that there was some unusual excitement yesterday, late in the night. I am waiting for more details."
Illya shrugged. "Probably ISIS."
"The CIA has recalled some agents home. Pulled them off ongoing missions abroad. Something is not right and the timing does not look good."
"Only Sergey, you and I know of the hack." Illya began, then he hesitated. "Sergey's body was properly disposed of?"
"Then I do not see how the events could be related. Unless they were the thieves."
"Yes. That is an unfortunate possibility," Oleg said grimly. "One that I am hoping does not eventuate. Or you will have to think of a way to break into Langley and retrieve our property."
"Difficult but not impossible. The mole needs to work harder."
"We are also monitoring the cables." Oleg said impatiently, "But we need to know more. There is a CIA bureau in New York. I need you to install a virus into one of the computers. The USB is next to your keyboard."
Illya looked. There was a little black box, which did contain a small silver USB, as well as a scrap of paper with an address. "Understood."
"Don't get caught," Oleg warned. "If I have to burn you, I will. This list needs to be found. If it compromises the identities of our agents on missions abroad, many will die."
"I won't be seen." Illya paused. "But I will need time."
"You have two days."
Napoleon poured himself into a visitor's chair, and Sanders turned away from where he had been standing out of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, overlooking Wall Street and the rest of New York, hands clasped behind his back. He looked grim, and tired, as though he hadn't slept, his jaw tight as he looked sourly over at Napoleon.
"This mission's gonna be a bit unusual," Sanders began briskly. "For one, it's gonna take place right here on home soil."
Napoleon raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that FBI territory?"
"Only technically." Sanders marched over and sank into his chair, rubbing a palm over his face. "'Bout half a day ago, I got an email from a sock puppet account with an interesting offer."
"Something about a Nigerian bank account and royalty?" Napoleon suggested facetiously.
"Very funny. No. It was a notice from someone called 'The Mechanic'. He, or she, claimed to have hacked the Russian Consulate. Attached to the email was a link to an upload containing a whole bunch of diplomatic cables from the last five years. I've been told that they're legitimate."
Napoleon shrugged. "Going to the CIA instead of to Wikileaks or the papers? That's new. But I don't see what this has to do with me."
"I haven't got to the offer. Pay attention, Solo. This 'Mechanic' wants to meet up. With one of our agents. Somewhere public. He – let's face it, these kinds of people tend to be boys who sleep with their computers in their mother's basement – wants to 'trade', but only wants to state the nature of the trade in person."
"… I'm still not sure what this has to do with me."
"The Mechanic claims that there's a highly placed SVR mole in the CIA. In Langley, at that. Now, it's not the fucking Cold War anymore, but sometimes I'm none too sure if our friends in Russia ever got that memo. If there's a mole in Langley, I wanna know who, and where, and fucking how."
"There's a mention in one of the cables that's very suggestive. And that's where you come in," Sanders said flatly. "You're the only agent I know who definitely could not be working for the goddamned SVR."
"Thank you, I guess...?"
"You've got a Russian boyfriend, sure," Sanders ignored him, "But you're the only agent I've got who's working for me under... special circumstances, and not someone who volunteered or whom we handpicked. You've never trained at Langley and thanks to all the beef we dug up on you I know every place you've been in the last ten years. So. You're gonna be meeting the Mechanic at the Madison Square Park Shake Shack at thirteen hundred hours."
"Peak lunch hour." Shake Shack? Really? Sanders had to be right. The Mechanic was going to turn out to be some eighteen-year-old nerd kid, bright enough to break into the Russian Consulate but not bright enough to realize that talking to the CIA was possibly not the best way to handle the consequences of his theft.
"Exactly. So I don't want this becoming some sort of fucking crapshoot. You are going to go to Shake Shack. You are probably going to have lunch. You are, I do hope to God, going to be nice to this hacker kid, find out what he wants, and who the mole is. You are also," Sanders said dryly, "Going to stroke his ego, and impress upon him the importance of public service, because by God a kid who can hack Russian security is definitely a kid we want on our payroll and not anyone else's. Understand?"
"You're going to send a thief to talk to a thief," Napoleon summarised, and grinned.
"You are also," Sanders ignored him again, "Going to make sure, without freaking out said kid too much, that you find out where he lives, particularly if it's with his parents, because the Russians are not going to take very kindly to this hack, and although it's not the Cold War anymore and they're now supposedly civilised, we don't want any Americans dying suspiciously of polonium sushi poisoning on American soil. It's fucking embarrassing for everyone involved. Got it?"
"Particularly for the person actually poisoned with polonium, I presume." Napoleon sighed. "You didn't have to call me in at this hour in the morning if the meeting's only at lunch."
"Our lab rats tell us the sock puppet email isn't traceable, but I know you've got friends beyond those that I've got. You're going to try very hard to see if you can trace anything about this Mechanic, whether it's through email or the dark web or whatever, and if we can resolve this without you having to play-act a farce in the middle of Madison Square, all the better. The dumb kid probably didn't think through what he did, and I don't want the SVR getting to him or his family first. They've already had a head start."
"Nothing like being raided by a SWAT team in the morning, for encouraging someone to join the CIA payroll."
Sanders glowered at Napoleon, but chased him out of the office, and Napoleon spent a few hours putting lines out into his various contacts before deciding that he was coffee deprived. He took the lifts down, joining the late morning caffeine rush, and strolled out from the lifts and through the heavy security at the checkpoints, nodding to the guards as he swiped out his ID. The bureau might only occupy three full floors in this office block, but most of the rest of the building was occupied by the actual Wolves of Wall Street, and since the Lehman Brothers crash, they'd beefed up security, just in case.
Napoleon was strolling out towards the strip of overpriced cafes when he came to a surprised stop in the middle of the gleaming, glass-and-steel foyer. Sitting on one of the uncomfortable but stylish black divans, by the weird bronze sculpture that Napoleon was fairly sure was some sort of LSD-inspired impression of a bull, was a very familiar, too-tall Russian architect. Artyom was dressed in one of his work suits, the sleek charcoal pinstripe, with a pale lavender tie, and he was checking his phone, frowning in concentration.
Grinning, Napoleon headed right over, and Artyom looked up sharply when he was a few feet away, blinking in surprise as he got to his feet, slipping his phone into a pocket. "What are you doing here?" Napoleon asked, amused.
"I... uh... I was doing um, a field study. Of foyer." Artyom was a terrible liar.
Napoleon couldn't quite remember if he had told Artyom precisely where he 'worked', but he probably had. That was another thing that the actually legitimate financial services firm was good for. "You know," he said dryly, "If you wanted to have breakfast with me or something to make up for yesterday, you could have told me that you were here. How long did you wait?"
Artyom stared at Napoleon for a moment, then he hurriedly ducked his gaze. "I... did not know if you would be too busy, and... I was on the way back to office from client meeting, so..." Artyom trailed off, helplessly, and Napoleon decided to take pity on him.
"Come on," Napoleon pressed a palm to the small of Artyom's back. "There's a good café down the street."
Artyom glanced over his shoulder, back at the security. "What happened to work emergency?"
"All the fires have been beaten out by now, but we're still circling the wagons, and I need coffee to circle the wagons."
Outside, Artyom still kept peeking back at the building they had walked out of. "Have not seen your office before," he said, as Napoleon shot him a questioning glance.
"Nothing to see. Terribly boring, no perks, not like Google or whatever you're thinking of. No indoor pool, no golf room, nothing."
"But you have own office?"
"Not really at the corner office stage of my life, but close." Why was Artyom suddenly so curious? He'd never been particularly interested before. Not many people were, in Napoleon's experience, at least once he told them that the job was nothing like the Leonardo diCaprio film. "It's not soundproof, but the walls aren't transparent," Napoleon added suggestively, and Artyom blinked at him, wide-eyed, ears reddening. Ha. So that was it after all. "Good Lord, Artyom," Napoleon teased, "Did you come to visit me for a coffee or for something completely different?"
Artyom said nothing for a long moment, as they threaded through morning traffic and the occasional gawking tourist, and just as Napoleon was going to change the subject, Artyom said, "Something... very different from coffee," deep and husky, and Napoleon nearly tripped over himself.
Long fingers caught his elbow and righted him quickly, but it was Napoleon's turn to blink at Artyom. "Just so that we're on the same page," he said quietly, with a growing smirk, "Did you just offer to christen my office?"
"You said it was not soundproof."
"Maybe you could be very quiet," Napoleon drawled, and winked.
"What happened to needing coffee to circle wagons?" Artyom, however, had curled an arm around Napoleon's waist. This being New York, no one gave them a second glance.
"I think I've just heard a better offer," Napoleon purred, "And I can never resist a better offer."
Thankfully, James, as usual, seemed to have sex on the brain, and it hadn't taken much maneuvering to get him to think that 'Artyom' had happened to be at Wall Street for something else altogether. As though Illya would have ever done that. It felt disrespectful. And even now, even though this was technically just a cover and allowing James to get him a guest pass to get through security meant that Illya wasn't going to have to expend a great deal of effort finding a way to break in – Illya still felt rather uncomfortable about it all, once they were alone in a lift.
"Second thoughts?" James asked, grinning, though he squeezed Illya's hand. If Illya agreed, he knew that James would just laugh at him, show him around his office and then go back to work. It was the efficient way. The logical next step.
"No," Illya said instead, and crowded James against the ribbed steel and glass flank of the lift to kiss him, loosening his usual iron grip on his self-control just a fraction, enough to put some hunger into it, some bite. James stiffened in surprise and crept his hands up Illya's shoulders, pulling him eagerly closer instead of startling away, and although Illya wasn't surprised in the least, he tried to keep a hold on himself as James enthusiastically kissed him back. It was tempting to do this properly, to get to James' office, hold James down against his desk and fuck him so hard that it would be impossible for either of them to be quiet. Tempting to mark him, to make James scream himself hoarse-
But... no. A banker who lived in a beautiful townhouse in Brooklyn, who felt guilty about being late to the parties of little girls, who shamelessly pampered a useless fluffy white cat, who liked contemporary art, high fashion, fine wines and who spent his free time bustling around the kitchen, baking – this was not a man who could touch the ugly side of Illya's soul and come away unscathed. So Illya gentled the kiss and ignored the disappointed sound James pressed against his mouth, and was careful to look shy and nervous when James pulled him out of the lift, just like how a lover getting smuggled somewhere indiscreet should look.
They hadn't used the main lifts – James had taken him around the side to a cargo lift, used by couriers, apparently, and it had opened out to a sleek white corridor that looked rather more utilitarian than flashy: no framed pieces of art, not even a plush carpet: the ground was just a dark, easily vacuumed carpet. "Side entrance," James said, before Illya could ask. "All the bells and whistles and gilt are in the front, but then the receptionists would probably spread it all over the office vine."
"I could have been a client." Illya pointed out, amused.
"All our clients tend to be old, balding men who vaguely resemble depressed bulldogs. Reception would never believe you were a client for a second. Besides, I didn't pre-book a conference room."
They were two floors below where Illya needed to be. That was lucky too. "You take many people up this way before?"
"Maybe. Not since I met you," James added hastily, and Illya found to his surprise that he didn't have to pretend to be reassured. A spark of jealousy had crept in, all unnoticed, when he had asked that question offhand, and now he relaxed again, as James declared, "Here we are," and pulled Illya into a bathroom.
"I hope this is not your office," Illya said dryly, even as James locked the door behind them.
"Sadly due to management paranoia practices the office is most thoroughly blanketed with CCTV. But not this bathroom," James said, with a wicked grin. "It's usually just used by the admin staff."
"The capitalist kings have marble and gold version elsewhere?" Illya allowed himself to be pushed back against a wall, between the hand dryer and the sinks, and James laughed.
"Yeah, and we wash our hands in milk and wipe our asses with old dollar bills." James drawled, and went down on his knees, always a gorgeous sight, clearly not caring about the possible damage to a suit that likely cost half a year's pay of any of 'the admin staff'.
Illya relaxed, curling his hands into the perfectly gelled waves of James' hair, stiff under his fingers, James chuckling and hungry as he impatiently navigated belt buckle and zipper and drew Illya's cock out, squeezing only once before feeding himself hardening flesh with a greedy little moan. God. James was far too good at this, and he knew it, humming for effect as he swallowed Illya to the root and then choked and gagged for it as Illya thickened all the way. Illya could feel his cock press against the back of James' throat, and it was all he could do not to hold James still and just take, to rut into his mouth and just use him, scrape his voice raw.
Fingers clenched over Illya's hips and tugged, but Illya didn't move, pretending not to realize; the sheer madness of doing something like this just floors away from a CIA bureau was crawling under his skin, a titillation that was fraying his control away at the edges. If Illya gave in he wasn't going to stop, and he didn't want to - couldn't hurt James, not like this. Illya was a predator pretending to be one of the sheep, and this one was his; he swallowed the urge with a desperate moan that broke into a sob as James purred, the vibration maddening, then began to bob up and down anyway, using a hand on the rest, tongue stroking up against the vein, chasing Illya's pulse. James always sucked cock like there was absolutely nothing that he would rather be doing in the world and Illya wanted to shove in all the way, stretch that tight, wet throat, or pull back and stroke himself off and spend himself all over that playful smirk. Distantly, Illya could hear the savage strangled gasps he was making, and he bit down on the back of his wrist to stifle them, blood hot in his cheeks, molten under his skin, and despite his control his hips snapped forward, shallowly. James begged for it, a moan muffled by his fully stuffed mouth, and that was enough. Gratefully, desperately, Illya let himself come, nerves gouged raw in one exhilarating, visceral rush of ecstasy.
James got to his feet, grinning, having swallowed all of it, somehow, and he laughed as Illya growled and grabbed him and manhandled him into the nearest cubicle, their shoulders banging against the flimsy wall and making an alarming creaking sound. "Careful," James said, his voice rusty, but he laughed again, hoarsely, as Illya pulled impatiently at his belt, at his zipper and catch and finally had James' cock out, thickened, already close. Illya spat on his palm and stroked, mouth buried against the sharp, starched collar of James' shirt, breathing in, musk and sweat and cologne, holding James still against him until James arched with a groan and spilled into the bowl.
"So," James said, as they cleaned up hurriedly after, washing his hands, "Still want the tour?" He winked.
Illya made a show of checking his watch and looking embarrassed. "Maybe next time. I should go back to work. No need to follow me down. I will hand guest pass back to security."
"Sure," James said, though he still followed Illya out, towards the lift. Illya opened the door to the fire escape instead, and James shook his head. "Taking the stairs instead of the lift? Brooklyn's getting to you, sweetheart. Soon you'll be doing pilates and yoga."
"Nothing wrong with exercise," Illya said, and kissed James goodbye.
Alone in the stairwell, Illya took several deep breaths to compose himself, then he waited, until the sound of James' footsteps had faded, until he could hear a door opening and closing further down the corridor. Then he glanced carefully around the stairwell, and headed briskly upwards.
Studying the crowds from under the shade of a tree, all the while pretending to occasionally check his phone, as though waiting for a friend to show up, Napoleon had decided on five likely candidates by the time it was one o’ clock. There were two kids of likely age in the line, one pale spotty kid and one gangly, hunched Asian boy. But after watching them curiously for a while Napoleon discarded them as suspects. Neither of them were scanning the crowd, save out of boredom.
In the end, he decided on the kid at the far table, sitting by himself and playing a Gameboy while slowly going through a burger, chips and and a shake. The skinny kid was probably eighteen or so years old, and had skin that was more freckle than skin, with russet, short spiky hair that crept up like untamed grass over his high, domed head. Despite ostensibly playing a game, the kid occasionally glanced around himself, quick, darting looks that always quickly dropped back to his console. His eyes were set close together, and framed by large, black-rimmed glasses, and he was wearing a black hoodie printed with Fairey’s ‘OBEY’.
Subtle, very subtle. Napoleon fought the urge to roll his eyes. He scanned the crowd one more time, then strolled over to sit down opposite the kid, slouching into the chair. “The Mechanic, I presume.”
The kid looked sharply up at him, silent and surprised. Napoleon smiled at him, all lazy amusement, and they sat in silence for a long moment.
Finally, the kid said, slowly, “Look, dude. Whatever you think I’m selling, I’m not selling.” He hastily gathered up his food in his arms and hustled away, occasionally shooting suspicious glances back at Napoleon over his shoulder until he was out of sight.
Clearly, Napoleon was incredibly out of practice where field work on home ground was concerned.
On the other hand, Napoleon now had a table to himself. He went back to studying the crowd, more carefully this time, and was thinking between approaching the Asian kid or the stocky kid with the crew cut midway down the line when he noted someone approaching the table from his peripheral vision.
It was a slender, pretty young woman, walnut-brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail, eyes hidden behind black-rimmed sunglasses. She was dressed in a colourful flower-print red and white pleated dress, the sleeves loose over her elbows, the hem brushing the cuffs of knee-high brown suede boots. Her mouth was bright with orange lipstick and her fingernails were painted sky blue, and she smiled at Napoleon with a playful sort of promise that he would’ve welcomed had he been off the clock and single.
Napoleon smiled back, but raised his eyebrows as she sat at the table with him and set her tray down. It held two shakes, two serves of chips and two burgers. “Sorry,” he told her regretfully. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“So I see,” said the woman, German-accented consonants turning her voice exotically sultry. Before Napoleon could think of a way to politely chase her off, the woman extended one fine-boned hand across the table. “I am the Mechanic.”
“You?” Napoleon blinked, then he laughed, and reached over to shake her hand. “I think our profiling needs a lot of work.”
The Mechanic lifted a shoulder into a light shrug. “Has happened before, Mister Agent.”
“Do you have a name for me, or are we going to have to resort to clandestine titles?”
“Haven’t decided. Eat.” The Mechanic pushed the tray a fraction of an inch in Napoleon’s direction. “It’s not poisoned,” she said dryly, when he hesitated.
“You never know out in the wilds of New York,” Napoleon said facetiously, though he selected a chip, mindful of Sanders’ instructions. There was, however, no real way to eat a burger neatly and with dignity, and as such he didn’t touch it, even as the Mechanic showed no qualms about smudging her lipstick over hers.
“You think I am a front,” the Mechanic said, in between bites.
“The thought did cross my mind.” Not because the Mechanic was a woman - the CIA was a fairly equal opportunity employer, all the way up to its field agents. But Napoleon was an old hand at two card montes and the old bait and switch, and this smelled like a trap.
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not, if you have what I want. But maybe we should talk about what you want,” Napoleon suggested, with as charming a smile as he could manage.
The Mechanic sniffed, clearly unimpressed. “Eat first. Then we talk,” she decided, which was why Napoleon worked through the chips and then sat and watched as his lunch companion demolished her burger, chips and shake with the healthy appetite of the young. Finally, she dabbed at her mouth, leaving the last of the lipstick on the paper napkin, then settled her hands down on her lap.
“Are you really an agent?” the Mechanic began by asking, skeptically.
Napoleon sighed theatrically. “I ask myself that every day. It’s a terribly existential question.”
“It’s just that…” the Mechanic made a helpless little, moving-along gesture, “I always thought an agent would be more… well-“
“Like James Bond? Or Ethan Hunt?”
“You look too much like ‘movie’ spy, actually,” the Mechanic corrected, and grinned. Napoleon mentally placed her age in the low twenties.
“I know. It’s the perfect disguise.”
“That people will think you look too much like James Bond, and so cannot be James Bond?”
“There you go. The logic is sound.”
“Okay, Mister Bond,” the Mechanic said dryly. “So I think that maybe we can help each other. But first. You stole my bracelet when you shook my hand, and I want it back. Are you really a spy? Or just a petty thief?”
“I resent both of those questions,” Napoleon told her with a grin, though he obligingly returned the silver bracelet. Habits were so difficult to break, and New York was a little like walking around in a candy store. “If you really want to know, I was a thief, and then I was strong-armed into becoming a spy, on pain of disappearing into Guantanamo without trial, and now I’m here, talking to a beautiful young lady whom my boss thought would be a ‘spotty kid living in his parents’ basement’.”
“Oh, certainly. Though don’t get me wrong, you’re in a great deal of trouble. And your parents too, if you happen to be living with them.”
“I live alone. And my parents - one of them, anyway - is why I am here. My father is Doctor Udo Teller.”
“The… artificial intelligence expert?” Napoleon vaguely remembered hearing something or other about it. “Went missing two years ago?”
The Mechanic nodded grimly. “Went missing in Boston while visiting the USA. On his way to a conference in San Francisco. I’ve been trying to find him since.”
“And you think that doing what you did helps… why?”
“I think that maybe the CIA will be willing to find my father for me in exchange for information about the mole in its ranks.”
“And I think my boss is a suspicious and grumpy old man who will need considerable evidence that you do have that kind of information.”
“Tell him that among everything that I took from the private cloud there was a burn list. Triple encrypted. It is the only copy. The one in the cloud, I deleted. If the CIA cannot help me then I will sell to another bidder. MI6, maybe. Or Mossad.” The Mechanic mimed answering a phone. “Maybe you should ask.”
Cheeky little… Napoleon sighed, and obligingly made a call.
“Solo. What’ve you got?”
“I’m talking to our mutual friend, who is a ‘she’, by the way. Daughter of Udo Teller. Apparently, she wants our help locating Doctor Teller in exchange for a ‘burn list’.”
There was a long, long silence, accompanied by some faint typing sounds, then Sanders exhaled. “Keep an eye on her. Stay close, make sure nobody so much as even breaks one of her fingernails. I’m still arranging a safehouse and until then, you’re the babysitter.”
“No buts. Maybe Miss Teller is full of shit. But given who her father is, until I can check things up on this end without alerting the mole, you’re going to be running this full time. Tell her we accept.”
Napoleon hung up. “It’s a deal,” he said.
“You don’t look happy.”
“Apparently I’m going to have to accompany you everywhere until a safehouse is arranged. Unless you think that certain people are going to treat a theft in their premises lightly.”
Teller frowned at him, pursing her lips. “I can take care of myself.”
“Orders are orders. Congratulations.”
Napoleon grinned impishly. “My company, of course. Consider us now the best of friends, at least until a safehouse is arranged.”
Teller considered this for a long moment, then she shook her head. “No. No no no.”
To his surprise, not only was James home, but he had a guest - a young woman, growing into the bloom of her youth, probably in her early twenties, sleek and stunningly beautiful, in a casual flower print dress that bared slender arms from the elbows, her dark hair in thick waves over her shoulder. She looked at him with surprise from where she was curled on the couch with Mister Darcy beside her and a laptop on her knees, and James glanced up from where he was busy chopping onions at the kitchen bench, wiping his hands on his apron, white sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
“Artyom,” James greeted him, with a blink, rounding the kitchen island. “You’re home early.”
“Worked on Sunday. Early day in lieu.” Illya stared at the woman with open suspicion, unable to help himself. “I did not know we were having a guest.”
“Oh, ah, this is Gaby. Gaby, this is my fiancé, Artyom. Gaby’s a… cousin of mine. She’s on a surprise visit, just flew in from Berlin. Unfortunately, she got pickpocketed in the airport, so she’s stranded for now while she’s sorting things out, and I thought maybe she could have the couch for a few days. I was just about to give you a call as a heads up.”
James had most certainly not looked as though he was ‘just about’ to use a phone anytime soon. Illya took in a slow breath, trying to get a grip on his rising temper, on the edge of a surprisingly intense, jealous irritation, and looked away. “Sure,” he said shortly, and went upstairs before he could say another word. He’d get a cold shower, calm down, then maybe go for a walk-
“Artyom.” James had followed him upstairs, and Illya had been too distracted by his growing irrational rage to notice. “Hey. I’m sorry to spring this on you all of a sudden. I kinda didn’t expect you to be home so early.”
Illya knew that he had to get away, get somewhere alone. He was losing control quickly. Blindly, however, he rounded on James, hissing, “Is she really your cousin?”
James stared at Illya with surprise. “Artyom,” he began again, then he started to grin. “Oh man. You’re jealous. This is weird. I’ve never seen you get angry.”
Illya’s hands were starting to shake, and he knew what that meant. Coming upstairs had been a mistake. He should have turned around and left the house to calm down. He should’ve- “You think this is funny? I come home early and you have a woman in the house!”
“Yes, and instead of you finding us in some sort of compromising position she’s on the couch, checking her emails, while I’m making pasta,” James said, very dryly. “You don’t normally seduce women by giving them your wifi password and then going off to chop onions.”
“Depends on the woman,” Illya muttered, though embarrassment was starting to take the edge of his temper, thankfully, and although he stiffened when James stepped all the way close, to hug him and rest his cheek on Illya’s shoulder, Illya didn’t jerk back. “You smell of onions.”
“See my point?”
“Mrs Siegfried used to tell me that before, you bring women home all the time. Beautiful women.”
“Is that why you didn’t like her? Also, the key word there is ‘before’.” James nudged up for a kiss on the edge of Illya’s mouth. “Besides, you’re far prettier than any of them ever were.” Another kiss, this time on the other side of Illya’s mouth. To Illya’s dull surprise, he could feel the ugly knotted rage within him ebbing, the ringing roar of blood in his ears fading, until finally he grudgingly wrapped his own arms around James’ waist and held him close.
“I think maybe in a month we should go to Paris,” Illya murmured.
“Mm. Any reason?”
“Supposedly it is romantic,” Illya said dryly. “Besides, there are museums. And good restaurants. There is the Louvre.”
“Great idea.” James leaned back, and he wasn’t smiling, looking soberly up at Illya. “So… we’re good?”
The last of Illya’s anger was gone. The black beast slept, restless. He let out a breath. “We’re good. Sorry.”
“No, no. My fault. I should’ve just skyped you from the start.” James kissed him on the mouth again, and this time, Illya kissed him back, gentle and careful, then he let James go and went to take a shower.
James was working on bringing the sauce to boil when Illya made his way back downstairs. Gaby studied Illya warily, as he walked over to the armchair and sat down, picking up his book from the side table. “Sorry about before,” Illya told her politely.
“It’s OK. I think everyone was a bit in the wrong together,” Gaby said generously. She had a German accent, and, in Illya’s opinion, looked nothing like James - at least until she grinned impishly at him. “I don’t know why you were worried,” she added playfully. “If I looked like you did, I think my partner should’ve been worried about me.”
“Now, now, Gaby, hands off my boyfriend,” James said mildly from the kitchen.
“I know. You already have - what is it you say in America? Already put a ring on it?” Gaby’s mischievous grin widened.
“All the rings.” James drawled, and Gaby giggled. Against her, the cat demon rubbed its cheek against her thigh affectionately, then started to purr when Gaby petted it. Illya stared at it, briefly astonished. Usually, Mister Darcy hated everyone who wasn’t James. Maybe it now sensed a kindred James spirit.
“The two of you are obviously related,” Illya decided firmly, and pointedly opened Kasparov’s Child of Change on his lap, rubbing his temple to try and stave off an incipient headache.
“How was your day?” James asked.
“Slow. No more emergencies.”
“Same here - everything was more or less over after lunch. So it was a bit of good timing.”
“Sorry to hear about the theft,” Illya added belatedly, with a glance at Gaby. She shot him a startled look, then nodded.
“Oh. Yes, it is getting sorted.”
“Spoke to the embassy?”
“Yes. And, sorting out cancelling cards and expenses and such.” Gaby raised her laptop briefly in explanation. “Sorry. I’m kinda preoccupied. But thanks for having me over.”
“No problem,” Illya said, even though he felt himself start to grow a little irritated again. He didn’t want to have this stranger in his house - granted, it was James’ house, but this was also Illya’s home. Gaby’s presence felt like an intrusion. He wasn’t even sure if he liked her joining them for dinner, a jarring third presence at their dining table, and he ate in silence, offering only the occasional monotone response.
“I like this table,” Gaby was undeterred to Illya’s reactions to her overtures. She patted the top: it was a fiberglass block, balanced on arched steel feet, within it a preserved piece of gnarled steel, once part of the hull of a Soviet-era fighter jet.
“Artyom had it made,” James explained. “I liked the idea. He’s an architect. He redid most of this old place.”
“I really like it,” Gaby said admiringly, and Illya nodded slowly. The refitting had been the result of some sort of random and trivial argument, the first of very few, between himself and James, and James had ultimately offered to just let Illya redesign the house.
Since Illya was not in fact any shade of interior designer, he had actually just done a considerable amount of research, and then explained what he wanted to an actual interior designer contracted to the Consulate, and James’ money had greased the wheels. The mezzanine level overlooked the entrance, with tempered glass flanks, making it good defensible high ground, the bedroom had a balcony that was an easy jump away from the neighbour's, and the arrangement of the couches and armchairs were all good positional cover. He also had a hidden section behind the lower two bookshelves with the standard SVR kit, but James didn’t need to know about that.
“It was nothing,” Illya muttered instead, though later he helped James with the dishes and with carrying down some extra bedding for the couch. It felt unsettling finally lying down on the bed with James, with a stranger sleeping on the ground floor, and he was tense even as James wormed close and curled against him.
“Hey,” James said softly, in the dark. “We still good?”
“I liked this morning,” James added, mischief in his voice, even if Illya couldn’t see his eyes. “We should do it again sometime.”
That would be extremely ill-advised, especially since the CIA were going to notice the intrusion in their systems, sooner or later, but what Illya ended up saying was a curt, “Maybe.”
“Maybe what?” James pressed, and chuckled as Illya twitched away from a kiss. “You can’t still be mad at me over Gaby.”
“I don’t like surprises.”
“Yeah, I got that.” James said soberly. “Don’t worry. She’ll be out of your hair soon. Then no more surprises. And in a month, sure, let’s go to Paris.” This time, Illya didn’t jerk away from the kiss; he twisted around, instead, and pressed James to the bed.
“Sorry,” Gaby told Napoleon. “But I told you I could take care of myself.”
“Orders are orders.” At least Mister Darcy seemed enamoured of their guest. He sat at her elbow, occasionally washing a paw.
“Must be hard,” Gaby said sympathetically. “Always pretending.”
“Not really. I’d never have been one of those people looking to get joined at the hip with someone else,” Napoleon said blandly. “Besides, we’ve had guests before and it was fine. He just doesn’t like surprises.”
“I think you should tell him. Someday. About what you do.”
“Hm, slippery slope there,” Napoleon said dryly. “You open that can of worms and it becomes questions like ‘Does the CIA really pay for this house?’ and ‘Have you ever had to sleep with someone else on a mission’ and finally ‘How many people have you killed?’ all of which would, frankly, bother most civilians quite a great deal. Besides, in five years or so I’ll be free of the CIA, or so I hope.”
“And then you will what, get a normal job?” Gaby said dryly. “Flip burgers?”
“Oh, I think I have enough money put away here and there to be comfortable. I’ll call it ‘going into consulting’ and go freelance.” That was Plan A, anyway. Napoleon personally wasn’t so sure if Sanders would be kind enough to just let him go scot free after his ‘sentence’ was over. “Not to press the point, but you really should be worried about yourself.”
Gaby glowered at him. There was a great deal of steel in her and it showed, but she was also reckless, which was not the best of traits for a hacker, however talented. “I will be fine. Now this.” Gaby had placed her Macbook on the kitchen table, and turned its screen to face Napoleon. Sanders had helpfully sent her Udo Teller’s file, it seemed, unearthed from the bowels of Langley. “I’ve seen this before.”
“Practiced on us first?” Napoleon asked, amused.
“I tried,” Gaby said, unrepentant. “Not CIA. FBI. My father’s disappearance was international news for months. FBI was involved. I know because they flew a woman to talk to me in Berlin. One day I got tired and thought they were hiding things from me and so I took a look in their database. Quietly. This file tells me nothing I did not already know.”
“May I?” Gaby pushed over the laptop, and Napoleon scanned the file thoughtfully. “Presumably went missing from his hotel… Alarm wasn’t raised by the hotel because his luggage was also packed and gone… Alarm was raised by the university when he didn’t show up for his lecture… last person who talked to him was the concierge… No disturbance recorded, CCTV tapes missing. Hm.”
“The tapes missing was why FBI got involved. At first they suspected the anti-AI people. There was a group of them called ‘Humanity Always’, that was picketing the AI conference. But their leaders all had solid alibis.”
“And the FBI came to see you because…” Napoleon scanned through. “They thought that your father may have had some enemies or a secret project that might have warranted attention.”
Gaby let out a sharp laugh. “He had no enemies. None except those like ‘Humanity Always’. And he never would have talked to me about his secret projects, if there were any. He spent most of his time lecturing around the world or at Humboldt-Universität de Berlin. He had a lab at the University. I did not live with him, our lives were quite separate.”
Napoleon nodded. Doctor Teller had separated from his wife through mutual agreement when Gaby had been two years of age, and judging from the report, hadn’t been quite that interested in parenting. Mrs Teller had passed away three years ago. Gaby, according to the report, worked for a startup company specialising in app design as a software engineer.
“I suppose the big question is,” Napoleon said gently, “Why now? Your father’s been missing for years. Not even the press is that interested any longer. You don’t seem to have been close to him from the look of this report. You could’ve got on with your life.”
“I may not have loved my father,” Gaby said shortly, “But I am an engineer. And if you know anything about engineers then you know that nothing drives us as hard as a problem that we cannot solve. Since the FBI flew out to meet me in Berlin I have been working on a way to find him.”
“And this was your plan? Hack the Consulate, piss off the SVR and then negotiate with the CIA?”
“First I tried the dark web. Put out a reward, engaged some ‘freelancers’. But they got nowhere. There is something to be said for being part of a national foreign intelligence agency, I suppose.” Gaby noted dryly. “And like I said. If not CIA, then MI6.”
“But why pick the Russians to tangle with? I can tell you straight off that they most certainly will never forgive or forget.”
Gaby stared at her cooling coffee for a long moment, playing with the handle of the cup. It was a Noritake, all minimal white with just a line of gold at the lip, something that Artyom and Napoleon had picked out together as a compromise - Artyom had wanted Lomonosov, Napoleon had preferred Villeroy & Boch. A Rembrandt sketch that Napoleon had kept in storage had paid for the refitting of their kitchen and the replacement of all their plateware and cutlery. Art for art.
“I think the agent who made my father disappear was from the SVR,” Gaby said finally. “That much I managed to learn from the dark web. The burn list has the travel details of every SVR agent coming through New York in the last five years.”
“Your father disappeared in Boston.”
“It is still something. Especially if Boston is listed anywhere in the itinerary of any of those agents when my father disappeared.”
“You don’t actually need us to help you find your father,” Napoleon guessed. “You just wanted a babysitter while you cracked that burn list yourself. Someone to keep the SVR off your back.”
“Well,” Gaby lifted a shoulder into a light, graceful shrug, “After I crack the burn list, I will still need someone to fetch him from wherever he is.” She smiled.
“What if the SVR weren’t involved?”
“Then I still have a promise from the CIA.” Gaby finally sipped her coffee. “So far, it seems to be working out all right.”
‘All right’ indeed. It was an audacious plan. “How long do you need to crack the burn list?”
“I don’t know.” Gaby said evasively. “I haven’t really had the chance to sit down and work at it.”
“Right.” Napoleon checked his phone as it buzzed. It was a message from Sanders. New York’s bureau was clean. “Then we’re going to where I work.”
“What’s wrong with staying here?”
“You want to get me into further trouble with Artyom, do you?”
“Surely he’s not going to make another surprise home visit to check on us,” Gaby said, though she sounded amused. “Has this ever happened before?”
“No, which is why I’m not sure what to expect,” Napoleon admitted. “And if it’s in any way possible, I don’t really want you to be here for too long either. No offence. Artyom’s a civilian and he still has family in Russia.”
“None taken.” Gaby, for the first time, looked a little uncomfortable. “Thanks. For having me here overnight.”
“Not a problem.” Hopefully, it also would no longer be his problem soon. As Gaby wandered off to use the bathroom, Napoleon called Sanders with an update.
“That’s interesting,” Sanders said, when Napoleon finished.
“Tried talking to the FBI?”
“Of course. That file’s all they got. No whiff of the SVR anywhere, not that they smelled it, anyway.” Sanders grunted. “This is a mess. The Director ain’t gonna be happy.”
“We don’t actually want to return to a Cold War footing,” Sanders said dryly. “Like it or not, everyone’s meant to be at peace nowadays, us so-called world powers. We don’t wanna piss Putin off. Not on something like this anyway. It’s not worth it for any of us and we’re about to head into an election cycle.”
“So what do we do? You’re no longer interested in the mole?”
“‘Course I’m goddamned interested. But this ain’t the movies.” Sanders sighed. “I think I’m gonna try to negotiate.”
“With the SVR?” Napoleon frowned. “You’re going to trade?”
“Gaby Teller’s a German citizen, we can’t do that. And like I said, I’d much rather she was working for us. No. I’m gonna talk. If they do have Udo Teller, for whatever reason, maybe they’ll cough him up in return for the burn list. ‘Sides, it’s 2015. Nobody’s fuckin’ meant to kidnap and squirrel away foreign nationals. If we leak this to the press, it’ll look bad for them. The international press loves this kind of shit. They’ll talk about it for months.”
“So am I still meant to be babysitting?”
“Yeah. Sit tight, keep an eye on her.”
“She wants to crack the burn list.”
“Let her if she wants to try it.” Sanders decided. “It’ll take her time, and if the Russians don’t wanna play ball, maybe we’ll think of it as a Plan B.”
It had been that or punch him, and for a moment the violent urge had welled up faster than his lust, and it had only been the mischief in James’ eyes that had stopped him, that playful maddening wildness that had been what had attracted Illya to James in the first place. He had kissed James but had felt the anger in his belly melt into a cold and ugly weight, sickened that he had even thought of striking James. Illya had felt ashamed, and he was not used to feeling ashamed, so he had fled to go to ‘work’ and was now staring at his desktop, trying to calm down.
Illya had let his cover get under his skin. This couldn’t continue, not like this. First the incident at James’ office, then now. Illya would have to mention something to Oleg. Tell him that he needed to change his cover. He was getting attached.
But thinking of that, of the inevitable hurt in James’ eyes, something Illya had never seen in all of this year - it worsened the ugly knot in his belly, made Illya feel slightly nauseated. He buried his face in his hands and took a breath from gritted teeth. Months ago, when James had flown off for a consultation, Oleg had reminded Illya bluntly to be careful. To remember that he was working, always working, in New York. Not to get… soft, just because he was fucking an American. Illya had completed his mission only barely, having spent it seething, and when James had come back Illya had decided defiantly to propose. Oleg, thankfully, had said nothing about it.
Now Illya wished that Oleg had. Forced him to see the start of his mistake, at the least. But it was not the SVR’s way. Where their best and brightest were concerned, they preferred the deep end approach of allowing young agents to make abrupt and painful mistakes. It taught the young not to question their handlers again, at the very least, and those who broke didn’t deserve to be in the SVR anyway.
The dark web had come back with nothing. Whoever it was clearly wasn’t planning on dumping the data, at least not now, and hadn’t tried to sell it anywhere either. So the SVR were at an impasse. The trace on the hack through the phone had routed nowhere, bouncing through different IP addresses around the world. This wasn’t Illya’s specialty, besides, and Oleg knew it. With an invisible target, Illya could do nothing but wait.
He went for a slow walk, restlessness still scratching away under his skin, and for one wild moment Illya considered heading over to James’ office, to ask James out for a coffee, an actual one, this time. But he knew that James would probably just start teasing him again, and Illya didn’t want to deal with that. As to going home, Gaby was probably still there. So he was at a loss.
Illya wasn’t sure how long he had been walking around when Oleg finally called him and summoned him back to 91st street. Illya went reluctantly. The walk hadn’t done much for his mood and Oleg would see it, because Oleg was an old hand at managing young agents and always seemed to know everything, even when he was on the other end of a phone line half a world away. Illya was in no mood for another lecture about ‘fucking an American’.
Oleg, however, wore a strangely frozen expression, something like sympathy, something like resignation. Illya sat down at the desk in the cell-like room warily, without slouching. “Yes?”
Wrinkled fingers picked briefly at the edge of one of the two manila folders before Oleg, then he exhaled irritably and spoke in Russian. “Two hours ago, the CIA called me. They had an interesting story to tell.”
Illya raised an eyebrow, but he wasn’t surprised. Technically, Russia and the United States were currently allies, or, at least, at a state of something close to being friends. Acquaintances. “They have the burn list?”
“They do have the burn list. And in exchange for it, they want to know what we have done to Doctor Udo Teller.”
Illya thought back. He didn’t often follow the news, particularly American news, which tended to be hackneyed and, of late, focused with an alarming degree on the circus-like situation of what passed as politics in the free world. “And what did we do to him?”
“Nothing,” Oleg said sourly. “I have checked with the Kremlin. We have not had any operations to do with a Doctor Teller. Doctor Teller was an AI expert who went missing in Boston two years ago. He was not working on any projects that the SVR were remotely interested in, and he was a German citizen.”
“So it was… a misunderstanding?” Sometimes diplomacy worked, even between rival agencies with a long and bloody history.
“If only,” Oleg let out a sharp, harsh bark. “I was curious. So I looked further. We have a copy of that burn list in the Kremlin, the only other copy. Before Doctor Teller went missing, one of our husband-and-wife teams visited Boston. An abrupt holiday. From Boston they disappeared, went off grid. Not unusual at the time, since they were on holiday. They reappeared in New York a month later to report in for another mission.”
“So call them in,” Illya narrowed his eyes. “Have them explain themselves.”
“I did, through their handler. We did not specify why. They should have reported in an hour ago. I have sent an operative to check their house. They have packed quickly and fled.”
Oleg slid the first folder across to Illya. Within it were two thick dossiers and two photographs, one of a woman with pale blonde hair and a confident smile, the other of a dark-haired, handsome man with a thick moustache. Victoria Vinciguerra and Alexander Vinciguerra. They were sleeper agents, and were US citizens. Victoria worked in the CIA, and Alexander in the NSA.
“Is Victoria our Langley mole?”
“Yes.” Oleg said flatly.
“What would they have wanted with Doctor Teller?”
“I do not know,” Oleg noted tersely. “And that is not actually the biggest question that I have right now.”
“You told the CIA about the problem?” Illya said, surprised.
“It is no longer the Cold War,” Oleg shot back. “Besides, imagine what would happen if the CIA were to leak this to the press. 'Rogue SVR agents, linked to the disappearance of a prominent German AI scientist'. Reuters would have a field day. Currently the political situation in Russia is… delicate. We do not want a big scandal.”
Illya grimaced. That was true. “And so?”
“They have proposed a truce.” Uncharacteristically, Oleg actually hesitated. “Illya, there is no easy way for me to say this.”
“You want me to work with a CIA agent?” Illya shrugged. “Sure.”
“Not just any CIA agent.” Oleg actually hesitated again, then he sighed. “I want you to agree that you will not kill him. At least, not until the mission is resolved and we have the Vinciguerras.”
“And in the meantime,” Oleg said, his tone growing curt, “I know that this will be a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it you must. You are an SVR agent. Your work must come first.”
Puzzled now, Illya nodded, and Oleg stared at him, narrow-eyed, for a long moment, then pushed the other folder over. “This is the American agent you will be working with.”
Illya pulled the folder close and opened it. It held only one thing, a photograph, an A5 image. Printed neatly under the photo was the name ‘Napoleon Solo’.
From the photograph, James smiled out at him, dressed in one of his favourite Savile Row pinstripe suits, that familiar, gorgeous mischief caught perfectly through the camera’s lens.
Decided to take pity on everyone and release this chapter earlier than scheduled. Aha. Happy weekend!
He wanted to force a laugh and ask, This is a joke, right? Very funny, sir. But he didn’t. Sanders didn’t have a sense of humour. And the way he looked, like he was sorry about it-
The silence made Sanders uncomfortable enough to add, “We exchanged photos. I think the pin dropped at the same time. So. There are terms.”
“What terms?” Napoleon’s voice sounded tinny and distant even to his own ears.
“Well, uh.” Sanders cleared his throat. “Okay. There’s really no way to say this. But you’re gonna have to roll with the punches. Okay? Agent Kuryakin’s going to be told to work with you. So you’re going to work with him. And afterwards, when we’ve delivered the Vinciguerras and rescued Doctor Teller, then uh. Feel free to sort things out if you need to. I’ll turn a blind eye.”
Illya. Somehow, that name fit ‘Artyom’ far better. Illya Kuryakin. Under the table, Napoleon curled his fingers tightly into his thighs, enough to hurt. “‘Sort things out’.”
“The way we figured it, neither of you knew who the other one really was. Kinda just sheer goddamned fuckin’ awful coincidence. Both your cover identities were good enough to scam the other agency’s background check. So.” Sander’s mouth curled into a horrible grimace. “Pretty sure this SVR agent isn’t going to take that lying down.”
“What a delightful turn of phrase,” Napoleon said, still very distantly.
“Sorry.” Sanders actually squirmed, and stared at the table. “We know that this Victoria Vinciguerra is the mole, sure. But the whole thing’s given me trust issues a mile wide, I don’t want to switch in another agent right now if I can help it. And. I think you’re probably involved now whether you like it or not. Still. If you’re not up to handling the rest of the mission…”
Sanders trailed off, and Napoleon risked another glance at the photo. The dizziness, at least, had passed, and his hands relaxed over his thighs. The photograph was a little blurry, and within it, Illya was looking straight on at the camera, dressed in the Russian Special Forces uniform. He was unsmiling, his eyes hard, and it all looked jarringly unfamiliar.
Surely not, Napoleon thought dimly. This was not the same man who had pouted and whined and tried to wriggle out of attending a little girl’s birthday party, just days before. The same man who had proposed in Eleven Madison Park, going on one knee in public, ignoring the cheers that went up from the other tables close by, his brilliant blue eyes fixed only on Napoleon’s startled ones, as though Napoleon was the only person in the world who had and would ever matter. It was getting hard to breathe-
“Solo,” Sanders cut sharply in. “Hey. Solo.”
“I’m sorry,” Gaby said uncertainly then, nervously, and for a moment, Napoleon nearly hated her. For if she had not done what she had done then this would never have happened and - and something would have happened anyway, he knew that much, grimly. The strange uncertain circuit that Illya and Napoleon made around each other, weighed down by mutual lies; sooner or later it would have derailed, and everything would have broken anyway.
He forced a smile. “Not your fault.” It was uneven and insincere, but Gaby offered him a wan and brittle smile in response. To Sanders, Napoleon said, “I’m up for the rest of the mission.”
Sanders looked relieved. “Good. Uh. What with the sudden intergovernmental spirit of friendship and all… well…”
“I know, I know. Vinciguerras and Doctor Teller first, World War Three after.”
Sanders let out a deep sigh. “Look, Solo. You’re a piece of work and you’ve been a pain in my ass for a decade. But I really am sorry about this, all right? I’m not a total asshole.”
“Glad to hear that you’re not, sir.”
Sanders winced. “Yeah. Well. Keep me posted.”
Napoleon closed his eyes briefly, took in a breath. If anything actually surprised him most of this sudden insane turn of affairs it was how hurt he actually felt about it. Napoleon was utterly disoriented. Betrayal was nothing new to him: it had been betrayal that had put Napoleon where he was today, an agent and no longer a thief, but this cut far too close to the bone.
Perhaps he should have known. There was always something oddly, perfectly poised about ‘Artyom’, so carefully considered, as though life itself existed to be meticulously calibrated. Napoleon had been helplessly attracted to that forbidding composure, his thieving nature obsessed over a safe that could not be cracked. But that composure had slipped, yesterday, when Napoleon had first seen Illya truly angry. Something else had looked out at Napoleon from those brilliant blue eyes, all teeth and fury for a moment before it had faded away, but Napoleon hadn’t thought more about it.
More fool him.
“I will. Sir.” Napoleon said shortly, and closed the file, getting up from the table. Sanders nodded at him, and Gaby started to rise. “Gaby, I think you should stay here for the day. Unless the safehouse arrangement is still in progress?”
“Uh, should be done by today, otherwise, I think the wife won’t mind if we have a surprise guest,” Sanders said, a little awkwardly. Napoleon was already far too off-balance to feel any more astonishment at Sander’s uncharacteristic offer to pitch in. Life already felt entirely surreal, as he stumbled out of the office and leaned against a wall, taking in a slow, gulped breath. Then Napoleon rubbed a palm over his face, and headed for his empty office.
He slouched into his chair, propping his feet up on the desk, and set his phone on the table. Then Napoleon closed his eyes and folded his hands on his belly and waited.
The wait wasn’t long. Napoleon had given it about ten minutes when the phone started to ring. He let it ring, breathing in, out, then he sighed and reached over to pick up the call.
“James.” Illya’s voice was neutral.
“I think we both know better than that now, don’t we?”
There was no answer, for a while, only the faint sound of heavy, stuttered breathing, then, Illya said tightly, “I think we should talk. At home.”
Napoleon quietly slid out the top drawer of his desk, wedging his phone between his cheek and his shoulder, as he pulled out the Heckler & Koch P7 that he always kept there. It was a gunfighter’s gun, with a squeeze cocker and a near-perpendicular heel release for the magazine, beautifully engineered, and it had an intricate, Swiss-watch-esque internal structure that made it a nightmare for any layman to detail strip. Napoleon loved it, for all that firearms were usually his last choice of answer to a problem.
“No weapons,” Illya said softly, and Napoleon smiled to himself. With the mask off, Illya was a bad liar. Noiselessly, Napoleon took the silencer from the drawer, and placed it on the table.
“See you at home.” Napoleon said, as he took out the spare magazine he had in his drawer, and Illya hung up.
Gaby peeked into his office as Napoleon was philosophically buttoning up his shirt over a kevlar vest, and she stared, wide-eyed, as he threaded on his shoulder holster. “I thought this was going to… not involve death.”
“They told Sanders he wouldn’t kill me, but didn't say anything about making me suffer.”
Gaby continued to stare unhappily as Napoleon holstered the Heckler & Koch and pulled his suit jacket on, fitting the silencer and spare magazine into his inner pockets. “Sorry,” Gaby said again, blinking. “Maybe I could go with you. I could um. Explain. Tell him I didn’t mean this to happen. All I wanted was to find my father.”
That made Napoleon feel slightly kinder towards Gaby, and his smile was somewhat more genuine. “A promise was extracted about my hide but not yours, Miss Teller. Remember what I said about the SVR.”
“That they don’t forgive and don’t forget?” Gaby’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “What about the CIA?”
“I’ll see you later,” Napoleon said, ignoring the question, and brushed past her, heading to the lifts. He drove home slowly, and today, nothing about driving a machine as gorgeous as his Tesla gave him pleasure. Napoleon had thought himself long inured to the ugliness that life in the CIA routinely exposed him to. Now he knew that he had been naive. There was nothing quite so ugly as when it was personal.
He parked the car a block away from home and checked his phone. The security app that linked to the home security camera opened to a black screen, which told Napoleon that Illya had not only gotten home before him but had already done a sweep. Swallowing a sigh, Napoleon walked quietly behind their block, to the narrow alley between the back garden walls and the next block of townhouses behind them, and climbed into the neighbour’s garden.
Thankfully, Mr and Mrs Emerson were away on holiday, their little yappy pekingese sent away to a dogsitter, and so Napoleon jogged over to the empty kennel and used it as a step to clamber up on a fence, then he hauled himself onto the mezzanine window sill. Frowning with effort, Napoleon managed to then climb up to the upper balcony, from which it was a short jump from the Emersons' balcony to Napoleon’s. He took off his shoes, so he could land quietly, and left those on the balcony, drawing his pistol and quietly attaching the silencer.
Then Napoleon sucked in a soft breath, and for the first time in his life, offered a silent prayer to anything out there that might feel kindly towards reformed-thieves-turned-spies, and silently tugged open the sliding glass, padding into his house to face the music.
‘James’ was going to be here any moment.
For a moment, Illya could not begin to care. He was past the hot rush of anger now, into the bloodless plateau of white rage, and even the urge to destroy all the beautiful furnishings in the house was gone. He had come home distinctly prepared to do murder, Hell take the consequences, and now Illya wasn’t too sure. He wanted to hurt Napoleon first, break at least some of those elegant fingers, that smirking mouth. Put out that gorgeous mischief.
Nausea churned afresh in his gut and Illya swallowed hard, doing breathing exercises until it eased. Then he clenched his teeth tightly, until his jaw ached, and got up from the bed, heading back down to the ground floor, turning off the security camera on the way. Tactically, Illya knew that he should wait on high ground, but he found again that he could not begin to care. He headed over to the bookshelves, and took the Grach pistol as well as the silencer from the hidden compartment. Illya loaded it, attached the silencer, cocked the gun, closed the compartment and sat down on the armchair to wait.
He didn’t have long. There was a faint little scrape from the top floor, five minutes in. Of course. No thief would enter through the front door, reformed or otherwise. Illya smiled a thin and brittle smile and got up quietly from the couch, backing away to the steel ladder that leaned against the bookshelves. He had designed this house. And every component had a function.
Illya climbed noiselessly up half the ladder and settled in to wait. Sure enough, Napoleon soon stepped quietly into view. Thanks to the large glass frontage facing the garden, there was nowhere in shadow to hide, and Illya had a clear shot. Oleg, after all, hadn’t said anything about hurting Napoleon. And Napoleon himself was holding a gun, a P7, by the look of it. A gunfighter’s gun.
Napoleon had come armed to fight, and the last of Illya’s reservations left him, in the cold, grim light of the reality of his mistakes.
Illya leaned his weight against the ladder and braced his wrists and aimed for Napoleon’s arm, but then Napoleon turned, glancing out over the ground floor, then up sharply at him, and yelped and ducked. The shot was loud indoors, even with the silencer, the spent shell tinkling away, and Illya knew he had missed: he hopped off the ladder and took cover behind the armchair under the mezzanine level.
Napoleon was going to have to head over to the stairs for a better shot, and at the stairs he would be vulnerable. Had it been Illya on the mezzanine level, he would have taken and tossed the tear gas canister from under one of the floorboards, but Napoleon would not have known about that little modification either.
“Weren’t we going to talk?” Napoleon called from the mezzanine floor, still behind the tempered glass flank.
“This is talking,” Illya grit out.
“I’m fairly sure we’re not meant to kill each other yet-”
“Wasn’t going to kill you,” Illya snarled, “But I think I want to hurt you.”
“It was a mutual misunderstanding, all right? I thought you were an architect, for God’s sake.”
“I trusted you!”
“I trusted you!”
“That woman wasn’t your cousin after all, was she?”
Napoleon let out an incredulous laugh from above. “We’re going to bring that up again?”
“It was not funny!”
“Look, shouldn’t I really be the injured party here?” Napoleon demanded. “I wasn’t the one who needed some poor schmuck to use as a cover!”
Illya grit his teeth. The fact was, Napoleon was right - technically. Illya had come into this relationship intending to use him. His fury now had little to do with rationality, however, and everything to do with heartbreak, messy and raw and agonising.
He was silent for too long. “Illya?” Napoleon asked, from upstairs, his voice softer. Illya narrowed his eyes, waiting, and saw Napoleon creeping cautiously down the stairs. He lined up a shot and fired, but his hand shook, and the shot went wild, shattering the glass in the framed painting to Napoleon’s left instead.
“Jesus!” Napoleon bolted back up the stairs. “That’s a genuine Monet!”
“You want to talk,” Illya said tightly, “Then you stay upstairs.”
“One of the neighbours has probably called the cops by now.”
“Good for them!”
“Can we do this without guns?” Napoleon asked plaintively.
Illya considered this briefly. “No.” He had placed his gun on the ground and taken off his shoes quietly. Under the mezzanine floor were two long rungs, ostensibly for decor, but now he reached up for the closest, a stretch made easy with his height, and hauled himself up, gritting his teeth, reaching for the hand rail.
“Please,” Napoleon said tiredly, and then there was a distinctive little ‘clack’, as though someone had dry fired a hammer-fired pistol.
That told Illya two things - that Napoleon was still at the top of the stairs down, and that he had just decocked his gun: the distinctive sound was, in Illya’s opinion, the P7’s biggest design flaw. Illya pulled himself noiselessly up and into a crouch on the mezzanine floor. It was an open plan study, with Napoleon’s iMac and desk to Illya’s far left, along with low shelves of messy books and files, and Illya’s to the right, militantly neater, everything boxed away, leather-backed chair pushed in.
Napoleon was braced against the wall at the top of the stairs, peering down, and Illya took a step closer before lunging. Napoleon let out a yelp as Illya tackled him, grabbing his wrist and slamming it against the wall. The P7 went clattering down the stairs, and Napoleon twisted away, coming up swinging, and the black beast in Illya took over, sambo training be damned; he snarled and grabbed Napoleon and tried to roll him down the stairs, but Napoleon wriggled free and scythed out his legs, knocking Illya’s back painfully against the edge of the tempered glass cover.
Illya grabbed Napoleon’s ankle as he tried to scramble to his feet and hauled, dragging Napoleon off balance as well, a flailing hand knocking Illya’s chair onto its side with a crash. Illya shook off a knee in the ribs and an attempt to jab him in the neck, rolling on top and getting his hands around Napoleon’s neck, teeth bared, squeezing. Napoleon gasped and writhed under him, one hand clawing blindly at Illya’s wrist, then his jaw, then his hand dropped away, the other one coming into view, palm up. It held a small, very sharp knife, the edge gleaming against the engagement ring on Napoleon’s finger. Napoleon stared into Illya’s eyes, grimly, even as he pointedly tossed the knife away, and waited.
Napoleon could have sunk that knife into Illya’s gut the moment he had been pinned if he had wanted to. And now he was willing to die.
Illya’s hands shook again, and relaxed, and then Napoleon’s fingers were curling tentatively up to his shoulders, stroking, even as Napoleon’s handsome face blurred briefly out of focus. Illya made a strangled, grating sound, all wounded rage and grief, and braced his elbows on the floorboards, leaning down to take Napoleon’s mouth. Fingers squeezed his shoulders, then stroked down over his spine as Napoleon arched into the kiss with a hungry growl of his own, and this was just as blinding as Illya’s fury had been, this uncontrollable insane lust. Illya kissed Napoleon roughly, as though trying to devour him, teeth cutting Napoleon’s lower lip and squeezing blood between them, shed for the first time, copper-bright and maddening. It was Napoleon’s turn to moan, breathless, desperate and pleading, and Illya felt Napoleon’s arousal ride up against his belly, knees scraping against Illya’s hips.
This was the truth of it after all, and Illya found that despite all the hurt and anger he was savagely glad, deep down, that all this had been ruined, that the play-house he had built for himself had been torn down and trampled. Under Napoleon’s genteel and playful mischief was a hunter just like Illya, and they were tangling now like two predators mating, rubbing blindly against each other, pressing breathless growls against each other’s lips. Illya bit Napoleon hard over the lobe of his ear and then again over his neck, hard enough to bleed him, to stain the bright edge of his tailored shirt, and he licked the stain down, smearing the evidence over Napoleon’s impeccably constructed costume. Dapper clothes had hidden a smiling killer. Illya felt Napoleon swallow, against his cheek, and he reached between them, squeezing Napoleon roughly through his trousers, bearing down, until he knew that it hurt, and Napoleon let out a yowl, scratching at Illya’s shoulders, heels digging into the floor, soiling his beautiful clothes.
Illya smiled, all bloodied teeth, and Napoleon hissed, shoving at him until Illya was on his back, Napoleon’s fingers frantic on Illya’s belt buckle and zipper. Napoleon sucked him with none of his usual finesse or playfulness, only raw hunger, enough for the both of them to choke on it, and Illya was too close anyway to savour it. When he came, this time, Illya forced Napoleon’s head down.
Recovery was Napoleon breathing open-mouthed, slumped against the wall, legs stretched obscenely apart, while Illya tucked himself away and leaned up onto his elbows, the both of them breathing hard.
“I’m sorry,” Napoleon said first, finally. “I never told you because I didn’t want to lose you, all right? I’m sorry.”
Illya nodded, slowly. It was a start, but words salved no wounds, even if only hollowness now remained where his anger had been. “I loved you,” he admitted bitterly instead, viciously, and it was divine irony, for Illya to realize this only now. Illya waited savagely for Napoleon’s flinch, then he got to his feet and toed the small knife back over. “Go and get changed,” Illya decided, casting his tone back to neutral.
“Illya,” Napoleon began softly, but Illya ignored him, heading down the stairs to pick up the P7, then the discarded Grach, and finally put on his shoes. He could hear Napoleon getting up, and Illya waited, for a long moment, until he could hear the bathroom door opening. Then he squeezed his hand tight over the Grach’s grip, until his knuckles ached, and breathed out in a rush, raw and harsh. Setting both pistols down on the kitchen counter, Illya went to fix himself a drink.
Many people probably already know this, but a suppressed gun (silencer) actually does not make the soft plikplik that you get in a film. There’s no way to make a gun silent in an enclosed space. What it does, and why Napoleon and Illya both used a silencer, is to make sure that you can fire a gun indoors without effectively destroying your hearing for the near future. Here’s a IRL video for those really curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2GchQ3orB0 So yes, the neighbors would probably call the cops in the sort of area where Napoleon lives.
Further note: I’m actually massively pro gun control, all the way to the left on that issue actually (I grew up in an effectively no gun society with very low crime, and then moved to another effectively no gun society). I do, however, get compulsive about research XD;;
Also, I think this is the first fic where I’ve actually had to take off my usual ‘Fic is actually mostly T-Rated!’ disclaimer. /cough. Usually I don’t feel like writing much smut.
He had cleaned up and was getting changed in the bathroom when his phone rang. It was Sanders. “Solo,” Sanders said uncomfortably. “Got some 911 calls from your neighbours.”
“Call off the dogs, sir.”
“Everything all right?”
“No one’s dead, if that’s what you mean.”
“Okay.” Sanders hesitated. “Good. Just FYI, we’re moving Miss Teller to a safehouse. And uh. Tell Agent Kuryakin that we’ve just returned the burn list to his boss. Gesture of goodwill.”
“Yes sir.” Napoleon hung up, got dressed, and put his phone back in his pockets.
The pistols were lined up on the kitchen counter, and Illya was sitting on the couch, drinking a glass of vodka. He wordlessly poured Napoleon a glass as well, as Napoleon gingerly walked over and sat at arm’s length, and they drank in silence, until half the bottle was gone and Napoleon was starting to feel comfortably tipsy thanks to his empty stomach.
“We just gave your people back the burn list,” Napoleon told him then.
“I know.” Illya didn’t look at him. “You can tell your boss that SVR has no plans on taking revenge on hacker. In a way, he or she did us a favour.”
“Good to hear.”
The silence stretched, awkwardly, the way it never had between them both, then abruptly, Illya said, “Have you-“ just as Napoleon asked, “Why were you-“ and they both stopped.
“You first,” Illya said curtly.
“Why were you in Bogotá?”
“Mission,” Illya said, and just as Napoleon thought that he wasn’t going to continue, he added, “Was there to secure weapons deal with Colombian kingpin. Unfortunately some asshole assassinated his son and stole bank codes, so he was in bad mood.” Illya shot Napoleon a pointed look.
Napoleon offered Illya a sharp grin of his own. “I was there to sabotage an incipient arms deal. Unfortunately, some asshole advised said Colombian kingpin of the best way to work a dragnet, thoroughly screwing up my escape route.”
Illya nodded absently. “He was not grateful for advice. Also barely escaped. Lucky there was American tourist at the hotel bar.” He eyed Napoleon again, his stare as hard as the one Napoleon had seen in the blurred photograph.
“My evac had to be rescheduled by twenty-four hours. Lucky there was a Russian tourist with a room,” Napoleon shot back, and poured them both another measure of vodka.
“‘Lucky’,” Illya repeated bitterly, and set his glass down on the coffee table.
“Your turn,” Napoleon drank his anyway, what the hell.
Illya shook his head. “Is stupid question.”
“From you? I don’t think so.”
“Have you fucked anyone else this year?” Illya asked coldly. “Even for mission?”
“Actually, no,” Napoleon admitted. Usually, he wasn’t above using sex as a fun and easy way to get where he wanted. This past year, however, he’d simply put slightly more effort into forward planning, all unconsciously. He would still have done it if he had no other options, and quite willingly, but somehow he’d managed to avoid it.
Illya nodded, and Napoleon wasn’t sure if he had been believed. “Neither have I. At the start I just needed a cover. SVR agents with only green card either pair up with US-born sleeper agents or with civilians. My handler asked me to choose. I think it was test.” Illya shrugged. “I probably failed.”
“Surely it would’ve been easier to let them assign you a partner.”
“I do not like working with partners.”
“And you chose a, hm, male banker because?”
“I liked your smile,” Illya replied shortly, and picked up his glass, though he didn’t drink.
Napoleon sighed. “Illya…”
“Don’t. All this?” Illya waved his glass at the books, the paintings, the kitchen. “Only a dream. The people we knew did not exist. And after this, the SVR will probably call me back to Russia to be investigated.” Illya seemed uncomfortably blasé about it all. “Artyom and James are no more. But it was a good dream while it lasted,” Illya added, reflectively. “So I think… Thank you. For that much.”
Napoleon set his glass down, then reached over to take Illya’s, placing it on the table as well. Illya watched him, narrow-eyed, as Napoleon climbed a little clumsily onto Illya’s lap, the alcohol warm in his blood and making him reckless. Illya’s hands curled over Napoleon’s hips but didn’t push him away, and so Napoleon kissed him, like they used to, softly, gently, then when they broke for breath, Napoleon kissed Illya like they were meant to, rougher, with no secrets between them, hands fisted in Illya’s jacket, Illya’s hands jerking Napoleon’s shirt out of his trousers, then splaying hot over his spine.
They kissed until their lips were reddened and bruised and Napoleon felt intoxicated by it all, and still they kissed, slower now, lingering, mourning a dream, the last remnants of all that they had been to each other. Then Illya pushed lightly at Napoleon’s shoulders, and he leaned back, breathing hard. Outside, the sky was noticeably dimmer.
“I should go,” Illya said, though his hands had dropped back down, to Napoleon’s hips, expressionless. “We are looking at all of the Vinciguerras' past missions and going through their house and records. When there is a lead I will let you know.”
“Where are you going?”
“You want to get rid of my things, feel free,” Illya continued unemotionally. “As I said, after this, I will probably be called home.”
Hearing Illya refer to someplace else as home felt oddly jarring. Napoleon took in a slow breath. “You can stay over for the night if you want.”
“I don’t think so.” Illya poked Napoleon in the shoulder. “This is another test. And I am tired of failing tests.”
“By your measure, you’re already in trouble anyway. Besides, I think I need help finishing that bottle. I didn’t even know that we had vodka in the house.”
“Was secret stash. For emergencies.”
“Pretty sure this counts as an emergency.” When Illya said nothing, Napoleon added, “At least stay for dinner.”
“You are too drunk to cook.”
“We could order in something. Like pizza.”
“You don’t like pizza.”
“That’s true,” Napoleon allowed, “But there’s that Thai place a few blocks down that’s passable.”
“You always complain that it is not sufficiently authentic,” Illya began, then bit his lip, clearly just realizing that they had, all unconsciously, slipped into one of their comfortable arguments, the way all seasoned couples did. “Fine,” Illya said abruptly then. “Dinner.”
Napoleon started to get up, but Illya held him down, studying him, expressionless again. Finally, he said, “Wounds don’t heal if you keep picking at them.”
“You’re a fan of the cauterising approach, I see.” Napoleon touched his fingertips to the bite wound on his neck, which was just starting to scab, and Illya’s eyes followed, his brow furrowing slightly, then he looked away, past Napoleon’s shoulder, and his hands dropped away, going flat on the couch. Defiantly, Napoleon leaned over for a kiss on Illya’s forehead, and felt Illya tense up under him. Then he clambered off, pulling out his phone to bring up the contact.
“Pad thai,” Illya told him, even though Napoleon already knew what Illya would order, but he said nothing and ordered anyway, even as Illya got a little shakily to his feet and ambled away to the kitchen, to get them both a glass of water. When Napoleon finished ordering, Illya was standing by the bookshelf in the living room, looking at the titles, glass of water in hand, Napoleon’s on the coffee table.
“I could ship your books-“ Napoleon began, but Illya shook his head.
“Compartment here,” Illya said curtly. “Watch. This is catch.” He pressed something behind the second book, and two shelves swivelled away, revealing a neat little kit beyond, an empty bracket where the Grach pistol had probably been. “On mezzanine floor, under my desk there is trick floorboard with tear gas canister. In bedroom, behind sliding wall in my wardrobe there is a safe.” Illya’s lip curled. “You can probably crack it yourself. I hear you are good thief. Inside there are passports and money.”
“The usual CIA kit’s in here,” Napoleon confessed, patting the hidden latch on the armchair. “And there’s another room in the garage with the rest of my gear.”
Illya nodded slowly. “Did not see that.”
“Probably not. The trick door’s usually under my car. Nice trick with the rungs and getting up to the mezzanine, by the way. I thought they were decorative.”
“Also, glass flanks are bulletproof.”
“Christ.” Napoleon laughed, despite himself. “Life in Moscow must be more exciting than I thought.”
“It is just question of being careful. Especially since you seemed to have so much money.”
“I do actually have a lot of money,” Napoleon corrected. “They didn’t manage to find everything.” Particularly the art vaults.
“CIA must be quite lax.”
“I think they’re more pragmatic than lax. I happen to have a fairly good success rate. Missions get done and nobody tries to trace Swiss accounts, everyone’s happy.”
“‘Fairly good’?” Illya frowned at him. “I hear you are top CIA agent.”
Napoleon shrugged. “Sanders said that you were a SVR rising star.” He’d received a short preview before Sanders had handed over the folder. “Actually,” he ventured impulsively, “Speaking of having a lot of money. If you wanted to retire, I could probably-“
“Don’t insult me.”
Napoleon held up his hands in mock surrender. “All right. Just saying.”
Illya narrowed his eyes, coldly silent for a long moment, then he looked away, over to the kitchen. “Why do you use P7?” he asked abruptly. “Is not standard CIA issue. Also overheats easily. Should use P7M8. Has synthetic heat shield.”
“I like the classics. Why are you using a Grach? It’s possibly the ugliest pistol I’ve ever seen.”
“P7 is cowboy gun,” Illya frowned at Napoleon. “Grach has good balance. Hard to break. Detail strip, not like fixing watch. Unlike P7. Also. Gun is not made to be pretty. Gun is made to kill.”
“Don’t worry, Red Peril. I’ve got the standard SIG in here if I wanted to use it,” Napoleon patted the armchair, and Illya’s frown deepened, clearly about to launch into a critique of the standard-issue SIG, and this was what a truce felt like, of sorts. It was the start of another dream, a shorter, waking one, a dream that would lead nowhere good. But Napoleon had ever been a greedy soul, and he would always take what he could get.
Well. Whatever game Napoleon was playing, Illya wasn’t interested. He got up from the bed and went to use the bathroom, slowly, brushed his teeth over the sink for what would be the last time in this house, and then went to use the shower. When the water turned hot, Napoleon sauntered into the bathroom, very naked, holding a small tube that Illya recognised. Illya scowled as Napoleon blithely slipped into the shower - it was large enough for two, but Napoleon merely grinned as Illya growled and tried ineffectively to shove him out.
“This is my house,” Napoleon pointed out, and Illya reflected that getting angry and arguing was perfectly ridiculous when both parties were naked, which was probably what Napoleon was angling for.
“I’m not going to fuck you,” Illya said flatly, deciding to just get to the root of the issue.
Napoleon sighed. “You’ve stayed overnight. Your handler probably knows it. My handler knows it. They’ll both have assumed that we’ve either fucked each other or killed each other after all. So what’s the harm?”
“What’s the harm?” Illya repeated, incredulous. “Get out.”
Napoleon leaned a shoulder against the tiles, grinning. “Nope. My house. How about I suck you off?”
“This is not under negotiation.” Illya could feel his blood starting to stir, however, then he growled, “What are you doing,” when Napoleon shrugged and grasped his own cock.
“Well, if this is going to be the last time that I get to see you naked, I kinda want to enjoy it,” Napoleon said, with one of his annoying little smirks, and Illya felt the last of his fraying chains on the beast within him snap. He shoved Napoleon up against the tiles with a snarl, thrusting his tongue into Napoleon’s mouth and growling as Napoleon merely purred, wanton and eager, and rubbed against the thigh that Illya pushed between his legs.
Illya let Napoleon ride his thigh until he could feel him getting fully hard, his cock pressing a wet stain against Illya’s leg, then Illya reached casually behind him and turned the water cold. Napoleon jerked away with a shocked gasp at the sudden deluge of icy water, then he spat, “God, you can be such an asshole,” as Illya laughed, only to find himself spun against the tile and slammed against the wall, hard enough to kick the breath out of his lungs. Napoleon shot him a briefly furious stare before lunging up to bite him, giving Illya a matching stinging mark on his neck, and they ended up sliding into a heap on the floor, legs everywhere.
“Ow,” Illya conceded, having whacked his head on the tile on the way down, and Napoleon glowered at him as he reared back to turn the water hot again.
“Serves you right,” Napoleon muttered, and Illya allowed a kiss that mellowed out Napoleon’s irritation, made him handsy again.
“We’re wasting water.”
“Then we should clean me up quickly, shouldn’t we?”
Illya grit his teeth, even as his cock pressed against Napoleon’s hip, suddenly interested. “I said I wasn’t going to fuck you.”
“I think you owe me,” Napoleon growled, “Seeing as you shot a hole in my Monet.”
“I didn’t know it was genuine.” Illya paused. “Also, it was an accident.”
“Oh yes,” Napoleon rolled his eyes, “How could I forget, seeing as you were actually trying to kill me at the time?”
“As if you weren’t trying to do the same!”
“Illya,” Napoleon said dryly, “Did I actually shoot back at any time?”
Illya narrowed his eyes. “Only because you didn’t have line of fire,” Illya said mulishly, but then there was that small knife, Napoleon’s capitulation, the calm acceptance as he had waited for Illya to kill him. “Why did you bring gun?”
“Why did you bring a gun?”
“If you were unarmed I would have put it away.” Illya hesitated. “Probably.”
“If you were unarmed, I would definitely have holstered mine,” Napoleon shot back. “Definitely.”
As with most arguments Illya had ever had with Napoleon to date, it was starting to get depressingly circular. “Always with the moral high ground.”
Instead of smirking, Napoleon sobered up. “Illya. I really do need… you want me to beg you?” he asked, when Illya stared at him, his voice growing ragged and edged. “I can beg.”
“Don’t do that,” Illya said softly, and pulled Napoleon over to kiss him, gently this time, shifting up under the spray, and Napoleon arched eagerly under Illya’s hands as Illya got him cleaned up, careful at first, then impatient, then finally Illya groped for the tube even as Napoleon turned the water off. The first finger always slipped in easily, Napoleon groaning and burying his mouth in Illya’s neck, shivering with pleasure. Illya wondered if Napoleon was trying to pretend, one last time, that it was ‘Artyom’ with him, touching him. He slowed, the way Artyom would, gentle and careful, and then jerked as Napoleon bit him hard on the neck.
“Stop fucking around,” Napoleon whispered, and it felt somehow obscene to hear the expletive from elegant, graceful Napoleon, of all people. “We aren’t pretending any more.”
“How did you know I was pretending before?” Illya asked, though he obliged, working the second finger in far more roughly, scissoring, gasping as he felt Napoleon grind himself down on the digits.
“Always… felt like you were holding back,” Napoleon grit out, growing breathless. “Thought you were afraid of your own strength, like a lot of really big people are… ahGod, little harder - but I think you were really just… afraid of slipping.”
“I don’t want to hurt you anymore,” Illya admitted, the confession wrung from him, and again this was true. The heartbreak was still there, but the anger was gone. Napoleon reared back, studying him, then he smiled, that beautiful wild mischief returning to his eyes, and Illya felt his heart rate start to pick up.
“You can’t hurt me,” Napoleon promised, predator to predator, and closed his hand around Illya’s cock, making a tight fist around the root and pulling up. “Now come on. We’re on a schedule here.”
“Pushy,” Illya told him, but obliged, working in three fingers until Napoleon started to squirm again with impatience, then he used the last of the lube on his cock and backed up against the wall, and let Napoleon do the work, watching as he made a show of it, chin tilted back, groaning as he ground himself down on Illya’s cock.
Napoleon made an impatient noise when Illya held him still, but Illya had meant what he had said about hurt, all of it, and eventually Napoleon stopped squirming, waiting, stuffed full and trembling as Illya rubbed his palms up those long legs, to the powerful arch of Napoleon’s back, the broad sloping weight of his shoulders. Lust felt inconsequential. As though Napoleon heard this sentiment, he bent to kiss Illya, demandingly, then he rolled his hips and Illya let him, rocking up against him, groaning as Napoleon clenched tight and gasped his pleasure against Illya’s mouth. This uncertain tenderness felt new and raw, as though they were both relearning the steps, falling back into circuit, tangling out of rhythm then righting themselves, again and again, until Napoleon’s groans and Illya’s echo were all they could hear, water and sweat drying on their skin, the world and the sum of their mistakes forgotten.
Illya slipped his hand between them but Napoleon tugged his hand up, instead, sucking fingers into his mouth, rocking harder, whimpering now, as Illya braced his heels the best he could on the slippery tiles and drove up into him, panting raggedly, fingers clawed tight over Napoleon’s hips, the black beast asleep for the first time in a long while, as he cried out and chased his pleasure and tried to memorize all of this, the flush to Napoleon’s skin, the tight, wet fit of his body, the scent of sex and their sweat.
Now Illya understood why Napoleon had been desperate enough to beg. Napoleon was trying to show him. For the first time in a year they made love as they were, with no masks and no lies and it was ruinously overwhelming like this, when it was simple. Illya kissed Napoleon fiercely to tell him that he knew, that he understood, fingers clenched in Napoleon’s hair, and felt Napoleon jerk against him, spurting hotly against Illya’s belly.
Napoleon made a puzzled noise as Illya quickly held him still, riding the edge of lust, close to the edge but not quite, drawing it out. Thankfully, Napoleon was silent, waiting, as Illya closed his eyes and breathed it all in, this memory of hurt and lust and tenderness and regret. Of things that once were. Then Illya curled one hand back up, to the nape of Napoleon’s neck, and Napoleon bent, to graze his lips against Illya’s ear and growl, “I loved you too, you bastard,” in perfect Russian, and Illya was coming, desperately, helplessly.
They cleaned up and dressed in silence, and when Illya checked his phone there were five missed calls from Oleg. Napoleon held his up - six from ‘Work’.
“We probably should let them know that we’re still alive,” Napoleon suggested, almost with his usual dry humour. Illya looked away. It was all too familiar. “Illya,” Napoleon added, more soberly.
“Make the call. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Hello Ella. Any problems?”
“Nope. Been a quiet night. Give me a heads up when you’re done, if you need me to run pickup.” Ella loaded Gaby’s small suitcase into the back of the car, then waved from the sidewalk as Gaby got excitedly into the back seat. Today, Gaby was dressed in a bright blue and white striped blouse, very French, loose over skinny black jeans, no sunglasses, hauling a laptop with her, flushed with excitement.
The reason behind Gaby’s delight was immediately apparent. “You have a Model S! Is this the latest? With the ‘Insane Mode’? I’ve never seen one! When did you get it? How much was it? Is it fun to drive? Can I try it?”
“What is she doing here?” Illya growled in Russian, from the front passenger seat.
“Yes, it’s the latest,” Napoleon patted the steering wheel affectionately as he slid noiselessly into traffic. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Also,” Napoleon added, glancing at Illya. “Let’s not be impolite here, all right? And remember what you said about the SVR not taking revenge any longer on the hacker.”
Illya twisted around in his seat to stare at Gaby in surprise, studying her with open suspicion, then he glanced at her laptop bag, sniffed, and slouched back into his seat, looking out of the window without a further word.
“Sorry,” Napoleon told Gaby in German. “He’s had a rough couple of days.”
“I understand German,” Illya told Napoleon, without looking over.
“Good to hear,” Napoleon said, with increasingly brittle cheer, and they drove in silence, the traffic snarled up and slow even in the early afternoon.
They had been driving in silence for about ten minutes when Gaby abruptly clapped her hands, startling Illya into flinching. “So, this is nice, isn’t it?” she asked archly. “Can we play some music?”
“No,” Illya said curtly, but Napoleon obligingly turned the car stereo on. It synched to the playlist on his phone, and shuffled to Édith Piaf, the first rich strains of Non, je ne regrette rien purring out from the nested speakers. Illya sighed loudly.
“… Fitting,” Gaby said dubiously. “I guess. So. This is weird.”
“Coincidence. Don’t mind him, he doesn’t like jazz.”
“Isn’t this the Inception song?” Gaby added suddenly, as if a thought had just struck. “I really liked that movie. It is the Inception song. When they need to break out of a dream, right? You like OSTs?”
It was Napoleon’s turn to sigh. Illya smirked. “Don’t mind him,” Illya said dryly. “He doesn’t like movies.”
“No movies at all?” Gaby asked, incredulous. “What about Mad Max: Fury Road?”
“He fell asleep,” Illya said accusingly.
“It was a two hour car chase movie,” Napoleon said defensively. “Besides, I prefer the theatre. Plays.”
“Normal people don’t sleep during car chase.” Illya muttered.
“I felt positively exhausted after the first fifteen minutes of that film. Besides, it was rather profoundly depressing.”
“How would you know that it was depressing? You were asleep!”
Gaby started to giggle, trying to stifle it behind a palm at first, but then she gave up, the giggle bubbling into a full-throated laugh. “You two,” she gasped, then started to laugh again. “I was actually worried. Last night I thought maybe you would kill each other.”
“Came pretty close,” Napoleon admitted. He was wearing a scarf today, to hide the faint bruises and the wound on his neck. Illya stayed furiously silent, glaring at the street.
“So you made up, huh?” Gaby asked mildly.
“But you’re both still wearing your rings.”
Napoleon forced a smile. He’d actually forgotten, and now, the platinum band gleamed accusingly at him against the black suede of the wheel. “Force of habit.” Illya hadn’t taken his ring off either, Napoleon noted, even when so rudely reminded of its presence. His spirits lifted fractionally.
“So… where are we going?” Gaby asked.
“To the airport. We’re flying to Rome.”
“The CIA’s sources coughed up some phone records and matched it against the SVR’s audit. It seems the Vinciguerras have been grifting off the side, running a side business with contacts they found through their work. They’ve been operating a trafficking outfit disguised as a shipping company in Rome called Uccello.”
“A… I know that name,” Gaby blinked. “I’ve heard it from somewhere.”
“That’s not surprising. Your uncle Rudi works there as the CEO.”
Gaby opened her mouth, closed it, then set her lips into a thin line. “I knew it,” she said flatly. “He’d never bothered trying to talk to me at all after my parents divorced. But after my father disappeared? He was nice. He kept calling on me, asking if I needed anything, whether the FBI were bothering me too much… It was Rudi?”
“Well, not to jump to conclusions, but circumstantially, it does seem like your uncle was involved somewhere along the line.” Napoleon said gently. “That’s where you come in. Sorry.”
“And to think I thought I was going to get a tour of New York,” Gaby rolled her eyes. “Of course I thought you wanted my help somewhere. What do you want me to do?”
“Once we’re in Rome, I’ll need you to call your uncle. Tell him that you’ve just arrived in Rome. Say you have fresh leads about your father because you hacked the Consulate and you need to talk to him.”
“You will be bait,” Illya said curtly. “When you hunt tiger, you string out a goat.”
“Yes, I understood that much,” Gaby said caustically. “Thank you so much for the mental image.”
“You are welcome.”
“You’re also going to make it a social visit,” Napoleon added, with amusement. “Take it as an opportunity to introduce your uncle to one of us as your boyfriend. That way one of us can stay close by to you in case anything happens while the other one cases the company. Take your pick.”
“… Just checking,” Gaby said slowly, “Whomever I pick, will the other one start plotting to murder me and hide the body?”
“Probably not,” Illya muttered.
“… Can we go back and pick up Agent Ella? Maybe I could introduce a girlfriend.”
“No,” Napoleon said apologetically. “Sorry. The fewer people know about this mess the better.”
“Okay… then… don’t take this the wrong way, Agent uh, Kuryakin,” Gaby said doubtfully, “But I um, think it’s probably more believable if I go with Napoleon.”
“Believable why?” Illya demanded sharply.
“Because,” Gaby said, with a straight face, “I’m really sorry to say this. But. I am absolutely… in love… with this car.” She started giggling again as Illya shot her a furious glare, and Napoleon couldn’t hold down the laugh that welled up within him even if he had tried.
“Do what you like,” Illya said coldly, and folded his arms.
“I’m going to get stabbed, aren’t I,” Gaby told Napoleon with mock sadness.
There was a fey nature to Gaby that Napoleon recognised, a sort of kindred spirit, one that could never resist pulling the tiger’s tail just to see what would happen next. He smiled tiredly at her through the rear view mirror, and she patted his arm comfortingly behind Illya’s back. Napoleon appreciated the sentiment - and the apology, but said nothing. This morning had felt far too much like a chapter closing in Napoleon’s life, as inexorable as the tides, and Napoleon was not in the best of moods.
The plane was one of the CIA’s refitted Gulfstreams, and Illya strapped in with no comment even as Gaby walked excitedly up and down the private jet, openly gawking. Napoleon was tempted for a moment to sit down opposite Illya, but even as he hesitated, Illya turned his face away, towards the window, and Napoleon swallowed a sigh and sat down on the seat in the next row.
“So… how are we explaining away this private jet?” Gaby asked, as she plopped down in the seat across the aisle from Napoleon.
Napoleon did his best Trump imitation. “I’m really rich,” he said gruffly, and grinned as Gaby laughed.
This felt better. Before, making ‘Artyom’ laugh - or at least smile - had been fairly easy. The Domestic Arrangement had perhaps been somewhat of a performance piece at the best of times, but Napoleon had enjoyed their comfortable push-pull, the close-fitting match of Napoleon’s playful temperament against Artyom’s dry, sardonic humour. He missed it. Illya’s icy silence was disorienting.
“Do we need a cover story?” Gaby asked cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to the tension in the air.
“That’s customary.” Normally, Napoleon would have found Gaby’s excitement amusing. Today, however, it was starting to wear on his nerves, with Illya so close but so locked tight.
“Maybe we met through Tinder in Berlin?”
“What is Tinder?”
Gaby squinted at him. “You’re not that old.”
From Illya’s chair, there was a sound that was suspiciously like a laugh, then there was a drawled, “He is an old man in a younger man’s body. He only uses phone to text, take calls, and read his email.”
Gaby stared at Napoleon, aghast. “You don’t even use Snapchat?”
“He probably does not know what that is either,” Illya supplied.
“I’m starting to get a headache,” Napoleon told her mildly, even as the plane’s engines turned the low background humming sound into a hollow, muffled constant roar, the plane starting to taxi onto the runway.
“Wait… How old are you again?” Gaby asked suspiciously.
“Is this really relevant? Thirty-two.”
Gaby wrinkled her nose. “You’re that old? Maybe I should have picked Illya.”
“Oh come on,” Napoleon said, incredulous, and then paused, as Illya actually chuckled. Across the aisle, Gaby winked at Napoleon as he froze in surprise, then she reached across to the back of the seat in front of her to select a magazine.
Napoleon and Gaby were not in the least convincing as newlyweds in love, Illya thought sourly, as he watched them quietly from a dark alcove in the courtyard. They looked like what couples became, fresh out of the flush of love and into an iron friendship built on affection and tempered by time, laughing at some joke with the bellboy as they followed him up to their suite, already fast friends with all the staff thanks to Napoleon’s charm and heavy tipping. Angrily, Illya looked away. He was becoming far too familiar with jealousy of late.
He took a long walk around a few blocks until he was calm, then he returned to the hotel and checked in, booking a room for the day before for the privilege of doing so, just as Napoleon and Gaby had. It was a far more efficient process, probably because despite his best efforts Illya was still exuding his ugly mood, and he ignored the bellboy’s attempts to take his bag, heading to the lift himself.
Illya had chosen one of the smaller suites, close to the stairs, and as he dropped his bag on the floor and sat on his bed, he felt the festering weight of his seething anger come up close beneath his skin again, choking him. He was tempted to break something, one of the elegant furnishings, smash the large glass mirror, but instead he lay on the bed, clenching and unclenching his fists. He knew that he should rest. Tomorrow he would have to scope out the Uccello offices, and he would need to be alert.
Instead, he found himself heading out of his room, and checking the tracker app on his phone, linked to the seeded devices he had left on Napoleon’s jacket and Gaby’s bag. Napoleon and Gaby were a floor up, their suite also close to the stairs, and Illya went up, slowly at first, then taking the steps two at a time as his temper hooked him fast and leached rationality away. At the top of the stairs, Illya hesitated. He could hear muffled music, with some heavy, regular beat, and laughter - Napoleon’s, and Gaby’s. Shuffling sounds, and steps. They were dancing. Illya clenched his jaw tight, almost reaching for the SVR’s universal key in his jacket, but then he turned around sharply, and went all the way to the ground floor, and this time he walked until he was lost and the dawn began to crest in purple and orange streaks over the clouds.
Thankfully, Google Maps helped Illya get back to the hotel. He had made another mistake. Now he was tired and was going to have to rest, and scoping out Uccello was going to have to wait until he was ready. Illya headed quietly back up the stairs, avoiding hotel staff, and to his dull and irritated surprise he found himself back outside Napoleon’s room.
The music was off, now, accusingly so, and Illya exhaled, trembling, and gave in to his seething, shaky rage, using the universal key to let himself in. He knew with a sick feeling in his gut that Napoleon had probably gone to bed with Gaby, beautiful, mischievous Gaby who seemed to be just like a female version of Napoleon, if younger and unrefined and more reckless, and with no ugly secrets. But Illya wanted to see it for himself. He needed to cauterise his wounds.
There was an empty bottle of scotch and a nearly empty bottle of vodka on the coffee table, dirty glasses lined up, Gaby’s phone sitting quietly in the stereo dock. Napoleon was curled on the carpet, fully dressed still, shoes and all, asleep and snoring gently, one of the couch cushions pulled under his head. Across the room, Gaby was draped facedown on an armchair, legs trailing over the carpet, also asleep without having bothered to even remove her shoes.
Illya let out a deep sigh, then had to bite down on the inside of his mouth, as his jealousy and rage seemed to flush out of him, leaving only a slightly hysterical sort of mirth. He should have known. When chaos fed on chaos, clearly maturity was the first to flee the scene, even for two people who were technically adults.
He stepped carefully over Napoleon’s body and went to pick Gaby up, carrying her to the large bed further in the suite and pouring her onto the quilt. She didn’t even stir as she was moved, limp on the sheets like a rag doll, deeply and drunkenly dead to the world. After a moment, Illya sighed again, and took her sneakers off, lining them at the foot of the bed, and then he brusquely tucked her in under the sheets as an afterthought. Then he headed out of the bedroom and prodded Napoleon with his foot until Napoleon rolled onto his back, blinking blearily up at Illya, then he groaned and curled up again.
“What time is it?”
“Probably time for you to go to bed. Why are you on floor?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Napoleon said, without opening his eyes. “I hate falling over and hitting my head on things. Happened… happened before in a place like this.”
“You were drinking.”
“Gaby challenged me to shots. We moved from um… scotch to something or other. Tell me it wasn’t vodka.”
“Was vodka,” Illya said dryly and mercilessly. “Bottle almost finished.”
“Hmmm. That explains why I feel like I’ve been run over by a train.”
“It was the principle of the thing. How was I to know that she could drink like a fish? She’s tiny. Where does it all go?”
Illya had to swallow another involuntary smile. His teeth ached. “Did you win?”
“I don’t remember. Can I go back to sleep now?” Napoleon asked drowsily, and grumbled as Illya dragged him to his feet, hauling one of Napoleon’s arms over Illya’s own shoulder. Napoleon dug in his heels when Illya tried to walk him over to the bed, though. “Mm. No. Couch is that way. The other way.”
“The bed’s big enough and you don’t kick.”
“I don’t think you trust me that much,” Napoleon yawned sleepily, leaning heavily against Illya. He stank of scotch and vodka, and if Illya wasn’t holding him up he probably would’ve sunk back down to the carpet. “By the way, I think I hate it when you get pissed off. Can you stop being angry now? It makes me jumpy.”
“We’re not…” Illya hesitated. “It doesn’t matter anymore, remember?”
“What’re you doing in here, then?” Napoleon slurred, and to that Illya had no immediate answer.
Instead, he moved Napoleon over to the couch, settling him down with a cushion under his head and getting his jacket, holster and shoes off. Napoleon had long fallen asleep again, by the time Illya set the shoes on the ground. Illya sat on the carpet, folding his legs beneath him. Napoleon hadn’t bothered to gel his hair this morning, and so it was now soft and rumpled, feathering over the cushions. It was tempting to touch it, run the strands through his fingers, but Illya clenched his hands in his lap. He was tired. So tired.
Illya listened to Napoleon’s steady breathing until he could barely keep his eyes open any longer, then he got up and left the suite, locking up behind him, and headed slowly back to his room, dressing for bed. Then Illya lay on the bed again, this time with his hands folded on his chest, and for the first time he wished, irrationally, that they could reset time by a week. Just a week. Maybe the lies would have been enough.
But that too was a lie, and this time it was to himself. ‘Artyom’ was no more a true part of Illya than the Grach. It had been a role that he had played and fleshed with some of himself, but not all of himself, just as ‘James’ had been only a trimmed down version of Napoleon. They had loved only shadows. Even if Illya could turn back the clock, lies always turned into bigger and bigger lies until they smothered everything else. It would have been a slow bleed rather than a clean break. So it was better this way. The infection was lanced. They could get on with their lives.
Illya raised a hand. With the dawn breaking, the weak morning sun caught the light off the edge of Illya’s engagement ring, as he jerked it off his finger.
Napoleon was in a better mood by the time he was pulling on his jacket over his holster, but Gaby was draped over the armchair, still looking fragile.
“Can we get room service?” she asked plaintively.
“A walk outside and some fresh air will do you good.”
“You are very cruel person,” Gaby decided sadly. “But thanks for carrying me to bed.”
Napoleon raised an eyebrow. “I don’t remember doing that.”
“Really? Good thing we’re both alive, then. We could have fallen off the balcony.”
“Actually, I was just about to thank you for getting me to the couch,” Napoleon said dryly, though he started to grin, involuntarily. If it wasn’t Gaby…
Gaby considered this for a long time, head tilted up at the ceiling. “Your fiancé… broke into the room and… carried me to bed and tucked me in and then… moved you to the couch? I’m not sure whether I’m feeling grateful or disturbed. Is this normal?”
“Both emotions are equally valid at this point,” Napoleon said, thoughtfully. Why had Illya- “And he has admittedly shown a tendency to try to rearrange the world to his satisfaction.” Illya’s desk was a study in compulsive behaviour. “Also, he’s no longer my… It’s complicated.”
Gaby shot him a skeptical look, then she abruptly pushed herself up from the chair. “Uncle Rudi said he’ll meet us for lunch.”
“Oh yes.” Napoleon rummaged in his suitcase, and took out the small bagged set of matching silver rings. He tossed one to Gaby, who fumbled it, cursing, into the thick pelt of the carpet, and as she bent to look for it, Napoleon started to take off his engagement ring - and hesitated. Something felt patently wrong about the gesture. But he took it off anyway, slowly, replacing it with the silver band that contained a neat little tracker, and as an afterthought, put the engagement ring back on, but on the other hand.
“This is the least romantic way anyone has ever given me a ring,” Gaby told him, as she found the band and put it on her own finger.
“It’s even less romantic than you think. The ring contains a tracker. In case we get separated, I’ll be able to find you. And if you need to find me for whatever reason, your ring should sync to Bluetooth and Google maps on your phone.” Napoleon playfully offered her his arm. “So. Fresh air?”
Illya was nowhere to be seen - not that Napoleon had expected anything else. They were, after all, running parallel missions. He let Gaby lead - she had never been to Rome before, and the excitement of being someplace new had restored her good spirits, despite her hangover. They ended up having strong cups of coffee and a late, light breakfast at a street cafe, people watching, overlooking the Tiber.
“I told Uncle Rudi that you were my boyfriend, by the way, not my husband.” Gaby pointed at the silver ring on her finger.
Napoleon shrugged. “Promise ring?”
Gaby frowned at him. “That is so lame.”
“Well, if you don’t want to wear it on your finger, just make sure that you don’t lose it.”
“We met through Tinder in Berlin and we have a long distance relationship,” Gaby decided. “That should be easiest. Right?”
“The best stories always have some sort of truth in them,” Napoleon pointed out.
“We met randomly at Shake Shack and hit it off,” Gaby said dryly, “And since you seem to have a lot of money and time you decided to take a Roman holiday because your new ‘girlfriend’ landed herself in really serious trouble.”
“What sort of story do you think your uncle would prefer to hear?” Napoleon was careful to watch his surroundings. No one seemed to be listening in, and the cafe was mostly empty.
“I don’t know. Like I said, the last I spoke to him was two years ago.”
“What did he sound like on the phone?”
“Anxious. Curious. Not particularly that interested in meeting you.”
“Well then, any story would work.”
“Shake Shack story it is.” Gaby decided. “I mean, it’s going to be the least crazy story that I tell him anyway. What if he checks the hotel and finds we’re not registered under our real names?”
“Obviously we’re worried about Russian retribution and all that. Play up the paranoia.”
“Okay. I can do that.” Gaby said, frowning. “Also. I kinda. Want to hack Uccello. Take a look in their database.”
“Sure. What do you need?”
“I once wrote an app that’ll let me pair my phone to any phone with Bluetooth left on and install a specific virus. We’ll stay paired through the internet even if we go out of range. Hopefully that’ll work with Uncle Rudi’s phone. And if I could get access to a computer - especially if it’s his - for twenty minutes that would be great.”
“The phone’s easy. The rest… hm, let me think about it.” Without more data about how difficult Uccello’s premises were to break into, Napoleon couldn’t promise anything. Hopefully, Illya was doing his research. “In the meantime, I’m going to teach you a few cues.”
Lunch turned out to be at a tiny little six table bistrot tucked down a side street, close to the Pantheon. ‘Uncle Rudi’ was already there when they arrived, and he rose from his table to hug Gaby and kiss her on either cheek. Rudi turned out to be a sober looking old man, his face a mass of seamed wrinkles, and two hard eyes stared out at Napoleon with open suspicion behind plastic-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in a tweed suit with a sweater vest, and he looked older than his ears, even as he offered Napoleon a limp handshake.
“My darling niece,” Rudi said. “It is so good to see you again. And your, ah, friend.”
“Boyfriend, Uncle,” Gaby said with a bright smile. “This is James. James, this is my Uncle Rudi.”
“Pleased,” Napoleon said urbanely, as they took their seats. “Gaby’s told me a lot about you.”
“Unfortunately she hasn’t quite told me anything about you,” Rudi raised his eyebrows. “So I’m at a bit of a disadvantage.”
“Well, what would you like to know?” Napoleon said cheerfully. “I’ll be glad to tell you.”
“He knows everything,” Gaby told Rudi. “We don’t have secrets.”
“Well,” Rudi blinked. “That’s… not very advisable. Gaby, you’re… maybe you don’t really understand this because of your youth, but you are in a great deal of serious trouble.”
“That’s what I told her,” Napoleon said, with a sigh. “But what’s been done is done. So I called in some favours for us to fly here on the quiet and we’ve checked in under different names. We’re good.”
Rudi frowned at Napoleon, who made sure to wear an innocently earnest expression. “That’s… thorough.”
“Can’t be too careful, right?”
“You do seem quite… familiar with going under the radar.”
“I watch a lot of spy movies,” Napoleon said cheerfully, which was a complete and bald-faced lie.
Gaby started coughing and had to have a glass of water, and as they got the menus, Napoleon noticed her swiping at her phone under the table. The dark screen read a red ring, and she nudged Napoleon’s foot as Rudi bent to read his menu. No Bluetooth.
“It’s a good thing that you’re here quietly, my dear,” Rudi said, once they had ordered. “But this probably isn’t a good place to talk about what you’ve found. We should go back to my office, after this. Somewhere more secure. James can come as well.”
Gaby sipped her water, and Napoleon touched his fingers to his cufflinks, a sign for Gaby to disagree. As she set the cup back down, Gaby said, “I don’t think that’s really necessary yet. I’ve already told you the gist of it on the phone, and I don’t want to get you into more trouble.”
“My dear girl,” Rudi said earnestly. “Please, don’t worry about that at all. I was your father’s only sibling. You are his only child. I may not have been part of much of your life until his sudden… disappearance. But let me make up for that now. I’m lucky enough to have become a wealthy and powerful man. If I don’t use that to help my only niece, what kind of person would I be?”
It was convincingly said, and Gaby blinked, wavering. When Napoleon touched his cuffs again, though, she said, “I’ve got two names that I need… looking up. Maybe you could help me there.”
“Of course. I have friends who will be able to get us the information that we need.”
“It’s two people. From what I could see in the Consulate’s data, I think they’re involved.” Gaby lowered her voice. “Victoria Vinciguerra and Alexander Vinciguerra.”
Napoleon watched Rudi’s face very closely, but the old man looked blank - perhaps too carefully blank. “Never heard of them.”
“I’ll have been surprised if you had. I think they were SVR agents.”
“Oh, my dear,” Rudi sighed. “You can’t go up against the SVR. Not even if we used all my money. They may no longer be called the KGB, but they are still the same. Your father and I lived through the Cold War in Berlin. We remember what that was like. You were spared that.”
“I don’t care. I want my father back.”
Rudi was relaxing subtly, probably glad that Gaby had seemingly fixated on the wrong path. “I’ll see what I can do. I have contacts in Moscow. But if they have your father, then he’s quite likely in Siberia, if he’s still alive.”
“Then we’ll fly there and get him.”
Napoleon cleared his throat. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” he said, with a civilian’s mild alarm, and Rudi nodded at him, clearly dismissing him as harmless. They ate, discussing inconsequential things, mostly about Gaby’s life in Berlin and Napoleon’s business in New York, and as they headed out of the restaurant, promising to keep in touch, Napoleon pretended to stumble against Rudi.
“Oops. Clumsy of me.”
Taking her cue, Gaby drew Rudi’s attention away by walking over and clasping his hand, thanking him for seeing them on such short notice, even as Napoleon swiped up on Rudi’s iPhone, activated Bluetooth on the lock screen menu that came up, and slipped the phone back into Rudi’s trouser pocket. As they said their goodbyes, then walked away, Gaby pulled out her phone and reloaded the app. This time, the circle was green.
“You would make a decent thief,” Napoleon told her in a low murmur, as they turned a corner, and she grinned at him.
“I already am a great thief. That’s why we’re here, remember?”
“What are the two of you doing here?” Illya growled, then hesitated. Maybe they were in hiding. “Is something wrong?”
“Nope. Oh, you mean Napoleon? He said that he likes to sleep when he’s bored. And we were waiting for you to get back.”
“He does that,” Illya said sourly, because Napoleon was very much like a cat at the worst of times, lazy and mercurial when not immediately occupied with something to do. “New ring? That is not part of ruse.” He looked over at Napoleon, and swallowed a burst of temper as he noticed that Napoleon was also wearing a matching new silver ring. “Promise rings? Really?”
“I told him that it was lame. But apparently it’s really a paired tracker or whatever.”
“Surprisingly low tech,” Illya grit out.
Gaby shrugged. “Don’t look at me. He moved your ring to the other hand.”
Ah. That was true. Illya looked away, as though going to hang up his jacket, and as he left it on a hanger in the closet and turned back, Napoleon was awake, cross-legged in his socks on the bed and yawning. “You’re back.” He glanced up at Illya, sleepy-eyed for a moment before he tensed up, and Illya instinctively checked over his own clothes. Had Napoleon noticed something that shouldn’t be there?
Then it struck him. His ringless hands. Illya looked back up at Napoleon, his jaw set, ready for an argument, but Napoleon was already slipping off the bed, heading to the bathroom. Over at the couch, Gaby raised both her eyebrows, but at Illya’s glower, she raised her hands up in mock surrender and turned back to her laptop. Guilt settled uneasily for a moment, chokingly thick, but as always his temper took over, boiling his self-reproach into annoyance. Illya was in the right, and there was nothing to be ashamed about.
Napoleon took a while in the bathroom, which meant that Illya stood in an uncomfortable silence for some time before he walked over to the balcony, stepping outside to get some air. Gaby pointedly ignored him: as far as he could see, her laptop was all small black terminal windows with lines of code. Eventually, Napoleon emerged, impeccable again, and wandered over to settle into the chair at the wall desk. He smiled at Illya when Illya glanced at him, and Illya blinked, briefly unsettled. Napoleon’s smile had all of its usual easy charm, but for the first time that Illya could remember, its warm humour did not touch Napoleon’s eyes.
“All here now?” Gaby asked distractedly, still typing. “While you were sleeping, Rudi sent out some messages.”
Napoleon picked up Gaby’s phone from the table. It was running some sort of messaging app that Illya didn’t recognise. “She paired her phone to Rudi’s,” Napoleon explained. “Hm. He texted a number, no name. ‘She knows’.”
“The Vinciguerras,” Illya surmised. “Or close enough.
“The response, ‘Fix your own problems’. Promising. Sent… half an hour ago.”
“I checked up that number. It’s a burner phone, I think. Rudi is the only number it texts, and it’s never made a call. It’s registered to a shell company.”
“Standard procedure,” Illya said gruffly. “For SVR.”
“I also tried to hack the Uccello servers. Managed to get into the website backend but there’s nothing there. The rest is tricky. It’s another private cloud. Rudi’s phone hooked to the wifi but that’s just a network for internet and printer sharing. I think the rest of their database is separate. So.” Gaby shrugged. “You’re going to have to get me in.”
Napoleon pulled a face. “I was kinda hoping it wouldn’t come to that.”
“Get where?” Illya cut in.
“I need some alone time with a Uccello computer.” Gaby said, without looking up. “Although… maybe it’s just a matter of getting Rudi to invite us over.”
“Or installing virus on a computer?” Illya asked dryly. He tossed a USB over from his pockets to the couch. “SVR custom made. Once virus installed, will link to program in that USB. Remote desktop.”
“Well, that makes life easier,” Napoleon said dubiously. “I could get into the building tonight and plug that into Rudi’s computer.”
“I already plugged it into security computer,” Illya said, and when they stared at him, he frowned at them. “What did you think I was doing all day?”
Gaby picked up the USB, then she hesitated. “Just to be sure, this is not going to install malware on my computer, is it? Because, I swear to God-“
“No malware. Although,” Illya added reflectively, “Speaking of malware, I also installed virus in CIA computer system this week.”
“When did you…” Napoleon trailed off as Illya curled his lip, then he sighed. “Oh. Right.” He sent off a quick text, even as Gaby reluctantly plugged the USB into her computer. A remote desktop screen opened, and she hummed to herself, opening another terminal window.
“Okay. This is good. We’ve got access to the security systems. The CCTV and old footage. I’ll run a program cross-referencing the digitised footage with the photos of the Vinciguerras and my father. It’s a long shot, but you never know.”
“Interesting program to have on hand.” Illya said neutrally.
“Thanks. I coded it after my father went missing. It was an idea I had, about maybe trying to find him through constantly running the program through image searches. Didn’t turn out to be useful then, but I never got around to wiping it,” Gaby said distractedly. “While that’s running, I’ll try and get into the main server. Maybe we should head back up,” she told Napoleon. “Everyone’s already back in the loop and I left my charger in my bag.”
“Right. Of course.” Again with that carefully faked smile. “How about you head up first,” Napoleon suggested. “I’ll catch up.”
Gaby glanced between them, then she gathered up her laptop and slipped on her shoes. “Play nice, boys,” she told them dryly, and left the room.
“What?” Illya demanded, once Gaby had closed the door.
“I do know that I can be a selfish asshole,” Napoleon said dryly.
“… Not arguing with that, but what brought that on?”
“And I also know that we’re in the middle of a mission,” Napoleon continued, “And that you almost killed me a couple of days back, not to mention damaging one of my favourite paintings, and we got into this whole business on false pretences.”
“Is there a point to this?”
“The point is,” Napoleon said, his tone growing edged, as he got up from the chair, “I thought that I’d proved something two nights ago, but it seems that I haven’t.” He circled around the coffee table, and Illya straightened up, narrowing his eyes, tensing as Napoleon stalked right up and into his personal space, though they didn’t touch. Illya carefully clenched his hands at his sides.
“Proved what?” Illya asked gruffly. Napoleon was in a dangerous mood, and it was something new, this deliberate, prowling aggression. It was making Illya a little breathless, a little belligerent. By nature Illya had always been competitive.
“That we’re good for each other.” Napoleon said quietly, his hands pressing lightly onto Illya’s arms, stroking down.
“We lied to each other,” Illya shot back, batting Napoleon’s hands away. “As you said. It was all false pretences.”
Napoleon’s lip curled into a silent snarl, then Illya was shoved back against the wall, jarring the glass sliding door on its rails and making the television set wobble on its cabinet. Napoleon kissed Illya hard on the mouth, but Illya clamped his teeth shut and forced himself to stay still, to wait it out, however tempting it was to give an inch to the sudden sweet, heady pulse of lust in his blood, partly learned, partly new. Predator to predator. He knew Napoleon, and yet he did not. Napoleon’s solidly warm frame bracketed Illya to the wall, provocative and inviting, and he pressed close even when he pulled up for air, flushed, sober.
“You still take my breath away,” Napoleon whispered.
“This…” Illya began, in a hitching gasp before he steadied himself. “Don’t. It won’t end well.”
“That’s not set in stone.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to see it. After the mission-”
“Mission’s not over yet. Give me a chance.”
Illya sucked in a slow breath. This was why Napoleon Solo had been such a successful thief, and then such a successful spy, in turn. The greed in Napoleon’s soul was a ferocious greed, and an obstinate one, tenacious and ruthless. It cared little about consequences.
“Don’t. It won’t work out.”
“I’m not giving up on you,” Napoleon said stubbornly, and held up Illya’s ring - he had pickpocketed Illya for it, quite likely, all without Illya sensing it. “So.” Napoleon grabbed Illya’s left hand, and pointedly slipped the ring back on, “Don’t give up on me just yet.”
This was only going to make it worse in the end, Illya felt, but before he could say it, Napoleon kissed him again, just as hard. This time, Illya sighed and pulled him closer.
“Don’t do that,” Gaby murmured, between courses, though she smirked.
“Do what?” Napoleon asked innocently.
“Most people are looking at the view,” Gaby pointed out, for to Napoleon’s left was a sprawling bird’s eye view of Rome. “You’ve been staring at that painting for fifteen minutes.”
“I am looking at the view,” Napoleon said, and grinned at her as she rolled her eyes. “I love art.”
“You love art, or you love stealing it?”
“Both,” Napoleon conceded. “You don’t actually tend to appreciate something until you have to make an effort to get it.”
And that had been the problem with living with ‘Artyom’ before, or so Napoleon had belatedly realized earlier today, after he had first noticed that Illya wasn’t wearing his ring. Napoleon had always taken Illya for granted. It had been Illya who had first asked him out again, after Bogotá, Illya who had suggested that they move in together, Illya who had proposed. Napoleon had coasted through the year with minimal effort.
Gaby stared at Napoleon soberly. “So what are you going to do?”
“I’m not seriously considering any re-acquisitions at this point in time. Really, Gaby, I never mix business and pleasure.” Napoleon grinned at her, but she didn’t smile.
“I mean. With… you know.” Gaby gestured absently. “Mister tall, blue-eyed and angry?”
Napoleon bit down on a sigh. La Pergola was having a quiet weeknight, and only four other tables were occupied, all at different corners of the sumptuous room. Still, he lowered his voice. “That’s not relevant to the mission.”
“It is if the two of you fight like cats whenever you’re in the same room.”
“We don’t ‘fight like cats’,” Napoleon corrected.
“Prowling around each other, hissing, claws out, fluffing up…”
“That’s not like it at all,” Napoleon said, though he smiled, a little wearily. “And like I said. Not relevant. Let’s concentrate on finding your father.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t normally plan so far ahead,” Napoleon lied.
He had been thinking about it, actually, discarding one plan after another. He had even briefly - very briefly - considered defecting to the Russians. Napoleon was not at all a patriotic soul: he preferred to serve his own interests. The SVR would probably have welcomed him: Napoleon’s résumé where spy work was concerned was fairly complete, and he was quite sure that if he slipped Sanders’ hold, the Russians could probably insulate him from the consequences. But that wouldn’t have solved anything. He would have only changed his leash and worse: he would have given the SVR leverage over himself and Illya forever.
“Maybe you could both retire,” Gaby said doubtfully. “Can you do that from this kind of thing?”
“Not an option for me right now.” But in five years… maybe. Napoleon did not intend to work for the CIA forever. If he was allowed to leave the CIA, the problem of Illya might be easier to resolve.
“Or… what’s wrong with just… moving on as you are?” Gaby frowned. “I mean. You’re both working together right now. Everything’s more or less okay.”
“His cover’s blown.” Napoleon had also thought of that, but he very much doubted that Sanders’ ‘blind eye’ would also extend to allowing a SVR agent to remain at large in New York. Illya had also seemed quite convinced that he would have to return to Russia.
“Maybe he could defect?”
Napoleon let out a startled laugh that he swallowed into a cough. “Somehow, I don’t think so.” Gaby looked glum. “This isn’t something that you can fix,” Napoleon told her, more gently. “Engineer or not. And it’s the least of your problems right now.”
“I’m,” Gaby began, then her phone pinged her quietly. She checked it, frowned, then handed it over. It was a still capture of Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra, in the security footage of what looked like a warehouse. “Two days ago.”
“That’s promising.” Napoleon handed the phone back. “But not particularly helpful. They could be anywhere by now. Did your program review the latest footage first?”
“Yeah,” Gaby said, sounding disappointed.
“That means they haven’t been in Uccello for two days. Doesn’t mean that they aren’t in Rome,” Napoleon said, though it was an optimistic thought. No doubt the Vinciguerras just checked in on the way elsewhere. He did, however, send Illya a quick text.
The answer was immediate, and curt: Rome probably waste of time.
Suggestions? Napoleon texted back.
Ask Rudi. Less politely. Illya replied, after a moment.
“How attached are you to your uncle?” Napoleon asked idly.
“Our mutual friend is getting impatient.”
“If he’s behind the disappearance of my father? Not very. But I’d kinda rather we didn’t break out the thumbscrews,” Gaby said pointedly. “I mean. That kind of thing is so last century, isn’t it?”
“You’re talking to people whose countries have prison camps and Guantanamo.”
Gaby scowled. “Well, I think that we’re better than that. After dinner I’ll take another look in their servers. Maybe we can figure out where the Vinciguerras went. No thumbscrews.”
G wants to try another way, Napoleon replied, and Illya didn’t respond.
The cod arrived, tender and zesty, and Gaby prodded the salt cod ‘snow’ curiously before trying it with open suspicion. “You’re meant to eat it together with the fish,” Napoleon pointed out, amused.
“I have never eaten fish ice cream before.”
“It’s more like a fish gelato.”
“… Not helping!” Gaby narrowed her eyes, though she tried it again, this time with the cod, and blinked.
“Still weird,” Gaby decided, after a few more mouthfuls. “But it’s pretty good. You’ve been here before?”
“Two years ago, yes.”
“Wow. The James Bond life.” Gaby grinned, and Napoleon let out an affected sigh. “Your pasta was pretty good though.”
“Never seen anyone make the sauce from scratch before. Other than, you know, using a jar.”
“You’re giving me a headache again, young lady,” Napoleon told her with mock horror. “Using premade sauce? Perish the thought. How dare you speak heresy in Rome.”
Gaby snickered at him. “Pretty sure Rome has-“ Gaby’s phone started to vibrate. “It’s Uncle Rudi.”
Gaby headed out of the restaurant proper to answer the call. Napoleon finished the cod dish by himself and checked his phone. Still nothing from Illya. Mildly worried now, Napoleon sent, By the way, that means no kidnapping.
This time the answer was nearly instant. I know.
Gaby returned, finishing her fish and waiting for the dishes to be cleared before saying quietly, “Rudi wanted to see us for lunch tomorrow. I said yes. We’ll pick the location this time.”
“No harm in that.”
“He was a lot nicer to me,” Gaby noted. “Asked me how I was finding Rome so far, whether we’d done the tourist stuff, and when I said we were having dinner here he sounded pretty impressed.”
“He should be.” Napoleon said absently, still glancing at his phone. Illya had gone silent again.
“D’you think he’ll try something tomorrow? He was told to sort us out.”
“The fact that he’s letting us pick the location? I doubt it. But just in case, we should head for lunch somewhere crowded.” Maybe somewhere appropriately touristy.
Gaby pulled a face. “You don’t want to, well, bait him into doing something? My father’s life might be at stake here.”
“Your father’s been missing for two years. A few days more won’t hurt, if he’s still alive, and if he’s been held for this long, I very much doubt that he’s just cooling his heels. A lot of all this is really a waiting game,” Napoleon assured her. Caution was usually the best way forward.
“This is nothing like a James Bond film,” Gaby said, with a sigh.
“I know. Disappointing, isn’t it?”
At dessert, Gaby was duly delighted by the extravagant silver tower that was brought to the table, with drawers of bite-sized confectionery and treats. There was even champagne - compliments of the house. They toasted each other and drank, and Gaby seemed determined to try one of everything. Napoleon had a tart, and as he finished his champagne, he noted the waiters quietly ushering out the few other guests, some in the middle of their courses.
“Gaby,” Napoleon began, then blinked owlishly - his voice was slurring, and he was starting to feel dizzy. The champagne. Gaby was already slumped forward on the table, head in her arms, unmoving. Alarmed, Napoleon tried to stand, but stumbled heavily instead, sprawling on the carpet, and he fumbled at his phone with fingers that felt increasingly thick as the world spun dark.
Quietly, Illya took a few items from his suitcase, loading and tucking his Grach into his back holster and a tranquiliser pistol into his shoulder holster. He padded out of the door, locking it softly behind him, and headed briskly up the fire escape. Then he snuck over to the adjoining suite and used his universal key to open it, drawing his tranquiliser pistol.
It was empty, thankfully - unoccupied. Illya opened the large windows to the narrow balcony, listening to the sounds of Napoleon’s room being searched. Four people for certain. Two in the bedroom, two in the living room. Which meant no one standing guard. They didn’t expect to be interrupted. That meant that they knew that Napoleon and Gaby weren’t there.
A faint ping of worry made Illya breathe in and out, teeth gritted, then he climbed carefully over the black varnished steel rail and, with some effort, managed to quietly reach over and pull himself onto the next balcony. From where he was, he had a good view of the two men in the living room. He quietly cocked the tranquiliser pistol and fired through the glass, a dart catching one man in the neck and the other on his chest.
They yelped, the first man even managing to pull the dart out before he collapsed, falling heavily against the armchair, the other man smashing the glass table on his way down. Illya waited calmly as the other two men rushed over to investigate, and shot them as well, one in the back of his head, the other in the arm. The last man had drawn a Ruger, enterprisingly, but the pistol clattered away as he fell into a heap over the couch, the fast-acting tranquiliser coursing through his blood.
Amateur hour. Illya rolled his eyes and headed in. He put a call through to Napoleon and left the phone on speaker as he went through the pockets of the sleeping men. All were armed, and they all looked like they were Italian. Local thugs, perhaps? Three of them sported the usual complement of gang-sign tattoos and gaudy gold rings.
The phone clicked, and ran into Napoleon’s voicemail. “Hello. Sorry I’m not at the phone right now. Leave a message, call me back.”
Illya frowned, and redialed. Again the phone rang out. Worried, he tried Gaby’s phone, which also reached voicemail, and he hung up, forcing himself to take slow, even breaths against the rising panic. These run-of-the-mill thugs had been sent to search the rooms. They had been preparing to take Gaby’s laptop - it had been unplugged and left to one side, closed - and had been going through Gaby’s suitcase in the bedroom. Thankfully, they hadn’t started on Napoleon’s: that would have held several surprises that weren’t exactly normal for the average rich American millionaire.
Taking back the darts, he hauled the bodies out to the corridor for staff or unsuspecting guests to find. Then he took Gaby’s laptop and Napoleon’s bag, and headed briskly down to his room, leaving them just inside. As he closed the door, he tried Napoleon’s phone again.
Grimly, Illya forced his anxiety and his rising anger away, striving for the cold discipline that had been taught to him in Special Forces. It was a struggle, more than usual, as he stalked out of the hotel and found an unattended motorcycle in a side lane, hotwiring it. He set his phone in the phone mount on the bike and activated the tracking app.
Both Napoleon and Gaby seemed to be moving in the same direction, the blips overlapping. They were heading away from the Rome Cavalieri, going south. Illya grit his teeth and sped the motorcycle over the Tiber, calculating an intercepting route, ignoring the chaos he caused as he wove wildly around cars, eventually hooking into Viale Giulio Cesare and narrowly avoiding a Toyota. Its owner jerked his head out of the driver’s window and shouted imprecations at Illya’s back as he darted into traffic.
He caught up with the blips at the Piazza Giovenale. The playground was empty at this time of night, ringed by tall, spreading trees and cars, hemmed in from opposite blocks by low rise, rust-coloured flats, some windows dark, some pale sheets of yellow light, the street-level shops all shuttered closed, chairs packed in. Illya parked quietly and got off his bike, drawing the Grach and attaching the silencer.
On his phone, the blips turned a corner, and a black van drove into view. It wasn’t speeding - this was a slightly more professional job than the search team that had gone to the Hotel de Russie - and Illya stepped into the shadows behind a car, aimed, and fired two brisk shots, blowing the tyres.
The van slewed, slamming into a parked car, and sirens started to blare, ear-splittingly loud in the night. More and more dark windows were lightening up into pale yellow, and Illya pocketed his phone, then darted across the street, under the narrow roof above a closed frutteria. Two men were stumbling out of the van, groggy from the accident, and calmly, Illya shot them as well, two sets of double-taps, downing them in the street. It was messy and it was crude but he was now far past caring, jogging towards the van, aiming with one hand while jacking the lock with the SVR-issue laser cutter.
Napoleon lay on the ground, utterly still, and a cold wave of fear tore even Illya’s anger away. No, no - he climbed into the van, and turned Napoleon onto his back, and - thank God, a steady pulse, a slow breath. Illya let out a hoarse and brittle sound, a strangled breath born of joyously shattering relief. Napoleon was just drugged. No Gaby - though her bag was in a corner of the van. She had been taken elsewhere.
Illya hotwired the closest car, a silver Nissan, and hauled Napoleon into the back seat, tossing Gaby’s bag onto the floor after him. Then, still shaky with relief, he pulled away and out of the piazza, even as he heard the distant sound of incoming sirens.
Several streets away, Illya’s phone started to ring. It was Oleg.
“Illya,” Oleg said gruffly. “Status.”
“Rudi Teller is involved with the Vinciguerras. They were in Rome two days ago.”
“What about Solo?”
“I believe she’s been kidnapped. Probably by her uncle. He must have drugged them while they were at the restaurant, somehow.” To his surprise, Illya actually felt another pang of worry. Although Gaby had been irritating at the best of times, she was young and far out of her depth. “The Americans have a tracker on her. I’m about to trace her.”
Oleg grunted. “This business is becoming a circus.”
Illya said nothing, though he personally had to agree. Napoleon should not have let his guard down, even if they were at a pricy restaurant, not after having seen that text exchange between Rudi and the Vinciguerras.
“Just a few minutes ago,” Oleg added, “I received a call from MI6.”
That hadn’t been what Illya had expected to hear. “MI6? Why?”
“They’ll like to ‘touch base’.”
“We’re busy right now,” Illya grit out. He’d have to hope that Napoleon’s ‘promise ring’ tracker could sync to Illya’s phone. Otherwise, he was going to have to find a way to wake Napoleon up without wasting time-
“Apparently,” Oleg added, with a sigh, “We’ve ‘misplaced’ one of ‘their’ agents and they would like to talk about it.”
Illya was so surprised that he nearly drove into a turning car, and hit the brakes barely in time. “Gaby is from MI6? And how did they know-”
“It seems we are now all one big happy family,” Oleg interrupted sourly. “Her handler would like to meet you. I will send you the location. Go and talk to him. I would like to know whether he has the burn list - whether this whole business of Miss Teller trading with the CIA was just smoke and mirrors. I would also like to know, in particular, what the fuck is going on.”
Illya winced. “Understood.”
“Good! I am fast becoming very tired of everyone getting involved in what should have been a simple matter,” Oleg growled. “I am very tempted to give you leave to abort the mission and return home.”
An unwelcome reluctance choked away the answer in Illya’s throat, and he had to force himself to steady his voice before answering, “I would also like to know what MI6 is interested in.”
Returning home. Surely not - not yet. Illya wasn’t ready after all, for even this waking dream to end. Not yet.
“Make sure you find out,” Oleg said, and hung up. Illya pulled up against the sidewalk, and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. Napoleon’s greed had been infectious after all.
Napoleon relaxed, even as Illya briskly checked his eyes, then his pulse, his touch gentle if firm. “Seems dosage no unusual side effects. Sleep it off,” Illya told him.
“I know. It is in progress.”
Belatedly, Napoleon realized to his dazed surprise that they were parked in some sort of empty warehouse, lit only overhead. Skylights indicated that it was still the dead of night. A harsh fluorescent bar suspended overhead illuminated a rickety steel table close by with three fold up chairs. Manila folders were spread over the table, and seated genteelly, straight-backed, was a distinguished-looking older man, graying at the temples, neatly dressed in a navy blue suit and yellow tie. Military, by the look of it, judging from the keen stare that the man shot their way, the professionally assessing glance.
“Who’s that?” Napoleon slurred.
Illya pulled a face. “It doesn’t matter. Go to sleep.”
The man in the suit sighed. “Actually it does matter rather a great deal, Agent Kuryakin. If we could move Agent Solo over here so we could catch him up on the matter?”
Illya rounded on the man, visibly bristling. “You can explain rest of matter to me and I will talk to Solo later.”
Napoleon managed to grab Illya’s wrist. “What’s this about?”
Illya wavered for a moment, then he sighed. “Gaby is MI6. This asshole here is her handler. Name of Waverly.”
“MI6…?” Napoleon rubbed a hand slowly over his face. “You’d better help me over to that table.”
Grumbling, Illya obeyed, though he was solicitous and gentle, supporting Napoleon’s weight with an arm pulled over his own shoulder, then settling Napoleon into a chair, carefully making sure that he was balanced. Napoleon tried to pull one of the papers on the table to himself, but found himself getting dizzy again, so he sat back instead and waited. Illya had pulled back the other chair and sat down, close enough that their knees touched under the table.
Napoleon shot him a puzzled stare, blinking slowly. Illya was scowling at Waverly, openly irritated - protective, even. Something recently had given Illya a shock to the system, enough to unsettle him to this extent. Napoleon’s and Gaby’s kidnapping, perhaps? Curious. “We were drugged in the restaurant,” Napoleon began, his tongue feeling thick in his throat, his voice sounding a tad nasal. “Clearly nothing’s sacred anymore.”
“Should have been more careful,” Illya muttered.
“La Pergola has three Michelin stars-“
“So?” Illya interrupted. “Should have been careful.”
“Careful or not,” Waverly said pointedly, “The fact remains that my agent is still missing.”
“Because you want her to be missing,” Illya growled. “We have tracker on her and could have gone to intercept her instead of sitting here talking and talking. Now ring has led to dead end outside Rome. Ex-SVR agents would have known to search her for tracker.”
“True,” Waverly allowed, unruffled. “I suppose I should start from the beginning, for Solo’s benefit. Some time ago our agents on the dark web came across a curious proposal from Miss Gaby Teller concerning information about her father. She was, of course, using an anonymous pseudonym. Her offer was to trade. She claimed to be a talented hacker and was willing to trade information for the identity of her father’s kidnapper.”
Napoleon nodded slowly. “She mentioned the trade offer.”
“Out of curiosity, we accepted. We had, after all, some information about the kidnapping - mostly rumours, mind you, quite unsubstantiated. And we had a personal interest in the kidnapping as well.”
“Personal how?” Napoleon asked.
“Doctor Udo Teller was actually one of our contractors - though he didn’t know the true identity of his employer, of course. We wanted to know whether a program: a very restricted AI - could be trained to crack codes. Any code, in any system, faster than any existing program or a human. Effectively, we were looking to create the digital version of the universal key, an item which I presume is quite familiar to the both of you.”
“Was he successful?” Napoleon inquired.
“We weren’t sure. He indicated through the usual channels that he was close to a breakthrough. We arranged to meet him in San Francisco. But then he disappeared. We sent agents to quietly comb the grounds, look over the evidence, but Doctor Teller had vanished without a trace. So we were muddling around, until we eventually saw the offer on the dark web, and then we got in touch with Miss Teller. We offered to give her information about her father if she could hack our servers. It was just a bit of fun,” Waverly said wryly. “We were planning on helping her anyway.”
“Let me guess,” Illya said dryly, “She turned out to be very good.”
“Oh, she was brilliant,” Waverly admitted cheerfully. “She broke into our systems and stole every bit of data that we had generated over the last year. That told us that Gaby was indeed very serious about helping her father, and more importantly, that she could be quite useful.”
“So you had her hack New York Russian Consulate,” Illya said sourly.
“Well, with help, of course. Don’t feel too badly about that staffer’s phone leak. It was a cloned phone. Quite complicated, that bit of work. In any regard, yes, we were now in possession of the burn list.”
“Why bother trading with the CIA? Why not just crack the burn list yourselves?”
“And do what?” Waverly shot back. “The burn list is not particularly helpful without appropriate context. It just gives us a range of possible suspects. We were hoping to find mission data of some sort in the Consulate, or something in the cables, but there was nothing useful. So we moved to Plan B. We decided to see if the CIA knew anything about it. Home ground and all that. But the lot of you turned out to be equally useless - at least, up until you people surprisingly decided to talk to the SVR.”
“And then SVR did your work for you anyway,” Illya cut in.
“Yes, that was unfortunate. You see, I was rather hoping that kidnapping Doctor Teller had been an SVR exercise. You can negotiate with the SVR, after all. But rogue SVR agents from some sort of shadowy trafficking criminal organisation?” Waverly shrugged. “Different ball game.”
“So you got Gaby to come with us to Rome… and… she told her uncle where we were having dinner,” Napoleon recalled slowly.
“Yes, I’ve told her to be very open with ‘Uncle Rudi’ about her location. To try and press him into acting.”
“She suggested that too.” Napoleon rubbed a hand over his face again. God. His instincts were slipping badly.
“You see, we’re quite sure that Doctor Teller is still alive,” Waverly said blithely. “Finding and getting to him, however, was likely going to require some sort of Trojan Horse manoeuvre.”
“Except that logical response for Rudi would be to keep niece and dispose of ‘boyfriend’,” Illya said flatly.
“That was one logical response. The other would’ve been for the famous Napoleon Solo to wake up wherever they were keeping Doctor Teller, at which point I’ve heard all manner of fantastical stories of Solo’s ability to break out of impossible places.” Waverly smiled. “So we gambled and lost a hand. But it all still worked out, didn’t it?”
“You’re an asshole,” Napoleon muttered, even as Illya audibly ground his teeth.
“Gaby still missing.” Illya told Waverly. “Things have not ‘all worked out’. She could be dead. Worse-“
“Wait,” Napoleon said suddenly. “Her phone. Is it in her bag?”
Illya got up and headed back to the car, rummaging in the back seat. Eventually, he returned, holding up Gaby’s phone. The battery was nearly dead, but the phone was still paired to Rudi’s. There were two texts, both from Rudi to the burner cell: ‘Packages acquired’, and ‘G en route. Disposed of J.’
“Pity,” Illya said. “Could have used phone GPS to find her.”
“I think,” Napoleon began, slowly and thoughtfully, “Your original suggestion this evening-“
“Less polite chat with Rudi?” Illya smirked.
“No need for that kind of unpleasantness,” Waverly said briskly. “I’ve had agents on the ground all day. The one watching Gaby lost her, unfortunately, but I’ve had another agent tailing Rudi who’s been having more luck. He’s been milling about his office for most of it, but I’ve just heard that he’s heading out to the port. We’ll take a chopper and follow him.”
“Because that is so subtle,” Illya muttered. “Following someone in chopper.”
“Only if you don’t know what you’re doing. So. Shall we?”
“I don’t see why this is now any of our business,” Illya retorted. “Gaby is your agent. You can fix your own problem. Seems Doctor Teller is also your problem.”
Waverly raised his eyebrows. “The Vinciguerras still happen to be rogue SVR agents. But feel free to check the mission over with your handler if you need to.”
Napoleon expected Illya to glare at Waverly and defiantly do just that, but instead, Illya merely sighed. “Fine. Maybe I do you a favour.”
Napoleon had recovered enough to walk, if a little unsteadily, but it still felt good to lean against Illya as Illya supported him out of the warehouse, with an arm around his waist. “You should rest here,” Illya said doubtfully, softly. “Catch up later.”
“I’ll be fine.” Napoleon, swallowed a sudden burp of laughter, but not the second, and Illya stared at him as he started to chuckle ruefully. “Christ. This week has been so… first you, then Gaby-“
“Ah,” Illya said neutrally. “Quite.”
“I’m going to need therapy after this,” Napoleon said, glancing on ahead, where Waverly had already briskly wandered out of the warehouse door, out of sight. Straightening up onto his toes, Napoleon kissed Illya playfully on the cheek. “Thanks for coming to get me.”
“Is no problem,” Illya said stiffly.
“My knight in shining armour.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Illya, however, kissed him back when Napoleon brushed his lips down to Illya’s mouth.
“Stealth chopper?” Napoleon asked, having to raise his voice still to make himself heard over the rotors. “The airframe’s unusual.”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Waverly was sitting opposite them, leaning comfortably against the hull. “Subtle enough for you, Kuryakin?”
Illya sniffed, and didn’t bother to dignify the query with an answer. The pilot was good, keeping his distance from Rudi’s car, which was being discreetly followed by a field agent. So far, MI6 seemed to be running a fairly comprehensive operation. “I do not see why you need us. You have agents on the ground and up here.”
“I hate wasting talents,” Waverly said blandly. “Since I seem to have at my current disposal the supposed best of the SVR and the CIA, I don’t see why I shouldn’t field the both of you, as it were.”
“You mean we’re disposable,” Napoleon said dryly.
Illya sneered. “I do not answer to MI6.”
“Of course. You’re just here for the moral support, then.”
Illya grit his teeth, and then nearly flinched as Napoleon patted his thigh. “Deception or not, I’ve grown rather fond of Gaby and I’ll like to see her come out of all this in one piece,” Napoleon said mildly. “Seeing as it does look to me as though MI6 really just took advantage of an impressionable young lady to further its own interests.”
“… Maybe she will have learned lesson after this,” Illya conceded. “Not to work for snakes.”
“You know,” Waverly noted, with open amusement, “A year ago, when I was feeling sentimental about the world-“
“We are here to work together, not to be friends,” Illya interrupted. “I do not want to know your life story.”
“-I was thinking how grand it might be to start up some sort of international spy agency,” Waverly ignored Illya. “Working for the UN, perhaps, or NATO, made up of agents from various countries. I even came up with a rather snazzy acronym, if I do say so myself.”
“But you came to your senses?” Napoleon asked dryly.
“Well yes. It was a pipe dream. Just the thought of where the budget would come from is the stuff of bureaucratic nightmares. Then the matter of how missions would be decided on and instructed, the tendency of powerful nations to buy the votes of less powerful nations-“
“Also corruption, inefficiency, and infighting,” Illya noted.
“That and for a global police force, who’s to decide what’s right and what’s wrong? Do we impose a Western standard? Or a populist standard? Who would we answer to? The ICJ, with its glacial processes? And, more importantly,” Waverly added, “The leading cause of death in the world is heart disease. For human causes, you’re far more likely to die in a car accident than to a terrorist. And the biggest problem faced by the world is climate change. So this would’ve been ultimately a vanity project.”
“Your point?” Illya asked curtly.
Waverly smiled at him with mock pity. “There’s no real point to what I just said, Kuryakin. Lighten up. I was just thinking how it’s nice that three agencies are working together. It made me nostalgic, that’s all.”
“MI6 and CIA are technically allies.” Illya muttered.
“Very technically, yes.” Waverly agreed. “In the sense that our agents wouldn’t generally try to kill each other on sight, I suppose. But things are positively friendly nowadays, even with Moscow. Even if we do happen to catch an SVR spy, usually we’ll just charge him or her in court and then it ends with a prisoner swap. It’s all very civilised.”
Illya said nothing. Remaining in the USA was definitely going to end in a court case and a prisoner swap. With a pang, Illya realized that he was definitely never going to see the townhouse again, with his books, the neat garden, its functional grace. Never go with Napoleon to catch a play again, or have dinner at the little French bistro on the corner street, or have a drink at the jazz bar ten minutes' drive from the house.
Home was a country that Illya had never stayed in for longer than a month at a stretch since he had turned eighteen, an orphan with a bellyful of rage and nowhere but the Army to turn to, a country that had destroyed his parents before it had killed them in separate and bloodless ways, a world that would’ve condemned the last year he had spent living with a man. He hated politics and hated his country’s politics in particular and yet - deep down, Illya was still a patriot, in a way. He loved his country with a fierce and hungry love, and with a stubborn sort of pride. There was much that was good in Russia, particularly in its people, and much that was broken. Illya used to like to think that he worked for the gray space in between, the balance.
They flew in silence, following the car southwest, towards the coast. The pilot had pulled back further, just in case - they were just following the tracker on the MI6 field agent now. Soon they were out of Rome proper, roughly en-route to Ostia. Beside Illya, Napoleon had gone to sleep, a combination of boredom and the remaining drugs in his system, curled heavily against Illya, cheek pressed over Illya’s shoulder. His headphones rubbed awkwardly against Illya, but Illya didn’t move to push him away. If Waverly hadn’t been sitting right across them, Illya would’ve put an arm around Napoleon’s back. Now, however, he pretended to be absorbed in field-cleaning and reloading his Grach, listening to the gentle cadence of Napoleon’s breathing. It was calming.
At Ostia, the ground agent called Waverly. They spoke quietly for a moment, then Waverly sighed and crabbed over to the cockpit to talk to the pilot. When he returned, the helicopter began to swing to the northwest. “Rudi’s boarded a small yacht,” Waverly explained, as he sat back down. “We’re going to follow it with radar.”
“Why the hell is he sailing at night?” Illya shook his head.
“Desperation? He’s going slowly. So it’s not entirely suicidal.” Waverly said crisply, though he did glance dubiously out of the chopper.
The yacht didn’t have that far to go. It headed northwest over the dark waters, as they followed from a safe distance, and eventually, after an hour, stopped at a small, arc-shaped island. They were still within sight of the coast, a murky smudge to Illya’s right, dotted with lights. Waverly was checking something on his phone, probably sending off the coordinates to MI6, and after a while, he nodded.
“Private island. Owned by a shell company.”
“Promising.” Napoleon had woken up, yawning, and was looking more alert as he glanced keenly out of the helicopter and down at the dark expanse of the sea beneath. “Now what?”
“We have a jetski in the back and more appropriate clothing for a night-time excursion. You may also have your pick of our onboard armoury. Good luck, gentlemen.”
“And what will you be doing?” Illya asked Waverly acidly.
“Rounding up the cavalry, I hope. We’ve got some Navy kicking about somewhere around hereabouts. But surely the best of the CIA and the SVR can figure out how to extract two people safely and quietly. I’ve no real wish to have to negotiate some sort of armed exercise on what’s still technically Italian soil: it requires rather too much delicate diplomacy nowadays.” Waverly paused. “So try to take it easy on the death and destruction, all right?”
“No promises,” Illya muttered.
“Somehow I suddenly feel like all my thieving through the years has been very small time,” Napoleon said, over the sound of the engine and the waves.
Illya grunted, but said nothing. They had wrapped their weapons in oilskin and sandwiched the lot between them, and Napoleon could feel one of the rifle stocks digging uncomfortably against his ribs. The island base didn’t seem militarised from here, perhaps to avoid suspicion from the coast guard, which was a good sign. It looked as though they were just approaching some billionaire’s retreat. A great part of the island was thickly overgrown, with the angular shadow of a villa at the gentle peak in the centre. There was a jetty to one side of the island, facing Rome, which Illya was avoiding. The rest of the island seemed to be an unbroken curve of white beach.
They made landing on the part of the beach closest to the forest and hauled the jetski up to the tree line, piling fallen branches on it to hide it, just in case they had to come back for it. Hopefully they wouldn’t - the jetski wouldn’t hold four - but it never hurt to be careful. Then Napoleon went back down over the beach and used a branch to sweep over their tracks and the groove that the jetski had made.
He made it back into the tree line just as the first patrol passed, torchlights sweeping back and fro from the trees to the sea. The guards were alert, but they had clearly done this hundreds of times: they were chatting to each other in low voices, and walked right past where Napoleon and Illya were hidden behind the trees without noticing.
Illya rolled his eyes. Napoleon grinned at him, and Illya shook his head, handing over an M4 carbine and one of the SIGs. It hadn’t surprised Napoleon in the least that the ‘onboard armoury’ of the Black Hawk had all been standard SAS ordinance - he had been surprised, however, when Illya hadn’t spoken a word of complaint.
Noticing Illya sticking a strangely shaped pistol with a weirdly long, cylindrical ported barrel into his belt, Napoleon whispered, “What is that?”
Illya actually shot Napoleon an oddly guilty look. “Welrod pistol. Bolt action. Called the ‘Assassin’s Pistol’. Made in World War Two.”
“Better than your Grach?”
“So…” Napoleon said dryly, “You took it because…?”
“Only two thousand eight hundred ever made.” Illya was starting to look distinctly uncomfortable. “I was surprised to see it in armoury. But Waverly said we could have our pick. Is collector’s item,” Illya added defensively, when Napoleon started to grin.
“You’re full of surprises, sweetheart,” Napoleon said, amused, and Illya looked away sharply, slinging another M4’s strap over his shoulder.
“We should be going,” Illya said gruffly.
They trudged up through the undergrowth in silence. It was a cloudy night, but Napoleon had decent night vision, stumbling only a couple of times as he followed Illya upwards. The borrowed pair of storm boots from the Black Hawk’s gear pinched Napoleon’s feet - not that he could’ve gone trudging through the forest in his Lanvins - though the kevlar combat vest and black tactical gear had been welcome.
“Don’t stay so close,” Illya muttered suddenly. “Spread out. Weren’t you in Army?”
“A long, long time ago,” Napoleon said dryly. “And I was in the regular Army. Did just one tour in Afghanistan before I decided that I had enough. It wasn’t like this over there.”
Illya frowned at him. “Why did you even join army?”
“I was in New York on September 11.”
“‘Course,” Napoleon added, as he started to drift off, peering into the shadows, “It took only one tour for me to burn off any residual patriotism.”
Illya shook his head. “Nineteen people kill two thousand nine hundred seventy-seven people. So your people invade. Now by this date over two hundred and ten thousand Iraqi and Afghan civilians are dead because of war.” He let out a dry, harsh laugh. “The American way.”
“Like I said. I’m no longer particularly patriotic. So what do you want me to do, Special Forces? Stand over there?”
Illya sighed. “Never mind. Just stay close and do not shoot self in foot.”
“High expectations indeed.”
Thankfully, they managed to skirt another patrol on the way up, hiding in the trees as a range rover went past on a narrow road. From where Napoleon lay on the undergrowth, he could see that they were near the walled villa. It looked like a rather unlikely place to house kidnapped victims: the mansion was stately and multi-tiered, lit softly by cunningly hidden lamps behind lush ivy.
Napoleon felt a little like a common thief as they scaled the stone wall and slipped into the edge of a large, manicured garden, all trimmed hedges, even a small stone bird bath, the edge of the grounds cutting off into an Olympic-length infinity pool that was cut off sharply before the next tier down. The villa’s windows were lit, and he could see the far-off backlit silhouettes of more guards making their rounds, against the other side of the garden. There was even a tennis court, dimly lit, further down a tier from the pool.
“Something… not quite right,” Illya muttered.
“You don’t say. I feel like I’ve just broken into the grounds of a house right out of the OC,” Napoleon whispered back.
“Maybe we split up. I will keep checking grounds. You break into house.”
“Sounds good.” Napoleon started to head towards the closest window, but Illya gripped his wrist, pulling him back a step. “Illya?”
Illya stared at him for a long moment, his jaw set, then he hissed, “Be careful,” and kissed Napoleon hard on the mouth. Before Napoleon could react, however, Illya was pulling away, and heading briskly off along the shadow of the wall.
Grinning perhaps a little foolishly to himself, Napoleon drew the SIG, attaching the suppressor, then he used a knife to jimmy open the closest window, climbing in. The house had been amply furnished with heavy rosewood antiques, which made for good cover as Napoleon quietly avoided the patrol on the ground floor, pistol in one hand, knife in the other. The house was an old one, old enough to have a servant’s section and a narrow set of stairs up, which looked disused, thick with dust. Wary of tripwires, Napoleon headed up the stairs, keeping to the very edges to prevent any creaking from giving his presence away.
The stairs opened out to a straight corridor illuminated by a wide balcony on one side. Napoleon stayed in the shadow of the stairs, peering out, and grinned to himself as he saw Rudi leaning against the stone balustrade, staring out into the night. Holstering his pistol, Napoleon stole closer, prowling up noiselessly behind Rudi, then abruptly stepping right up behind him, twisting an arm around Rudi’s neck and holding the knife to his throat.
“Make a sound, I dare you,” Napoleon murmured, as Rudi sucked in a tight gasp of alarm.
“You!” Rudi whispered.
“With… with her father, underground in the bunker on the east side, I can show you where she is! I can tell you anything and everything that you want. About the Vinciguerras, about my brother-“
Napoleon heard a faint creak behind him, and he bodily spun them around, pivoting on his heel. There was a quick double crack of gunfire, and Rudi convulsed against Napoleon, then started twitching, gurgling - dying. Over Rudi’s shoulder, Napoleon saw a tall, grim blonde woman. Victoria Vinciguerra.
Bracing his weight, Napoleon shoved the dying man with all his strength, and Victoria hissed as Rudi tumbled against her, flailing and grabbing blindly at her arms, bloodying her white dress as arterial blood bubbled from his mouth. As she stumbled Napoleon had already drawn, cocked and fired the SIG, the shots catching Victoria high on the chest, and as the impact spun her back against the wall, he shot her once more in the head.
Below, there was a shout of alarm, and the sound of people rushing up the stairs. Napoleon decocked his gun, stuck it into his belt and backed off onto the balcony, using the stone bannister and the ledge to haul himself up onto the slate roof. Briskly, he headed over to the opposite side of the roof, peering down. The patrol from the garden was nowhere to be seen. Hauling off the M4, Napoleon tossed it down into the closest hedge, followed by his SIG and his phone, then he made a running jump and dived off the roof, cutting as silently as he could into the infinity pool.
Napoleon swam to the edge and hauled himself up, making his way back to the hedge to collect his gear, listening to the sounds of shouting on the second floor of the villa. Then he pushed his wet fringe out of his eyes, and set off quietly for the eastern side of the grounds.
He waited for them to pass, then he headed from behind the hedge over to a tree, and finally up to the garage door. It was locked tight, with a keypad lock, and Illya grumbled to himself, pulling out the SVR kit from under his jacket and setting the electrodes to the keypad. He was still calibrating the settings when, behind him, Napoleon drawled, “Let me try?”
Illya turned sharply. He hadn’t heard Napoleon sneak up on him. Napoleon looked as though he had taken a dive in the pool, but otherwise looked unharmed, though he smelled of gunpowder. “Trouble?” Illya asked, though he stepped aside.
“I found ‘Uncle Rudi’. Unfortunately, while we were having a chat, Victoria Vinciguerra tried to kill me.” Napoleon sighed. “I was hoping to actually take prisoners.”
Illya shrugged. “She was SVR. Impossible. Would have fought to last if given option.” Victoria would have known the consequences of being brought back to Russia alive.
“Damned waste, that’s what it was.” Napoleon had, however, turned to the keypad, studying it, then the garage.
“Can you do this or not?” Napoleon wouldn’t have brought his usual kit to dinner - or would he?
“The thing about keypads like this,” Napoleon said conversationally, as though they weren’t standing in broad view in front of a door in enemy territory, “Is that the passcodes are often cycled every two minutes, the randomised code sent to an authenticator device that the guards are likely holding. And look at that,” Napoleon pointed at the touchpad above the keys. “Needs prints.”
“So we go and catch one of the guards?”
“How invested are we in raising the alarm?”
Illya rolled his eyes. “It is too late to be having this conversation. You have already raised alarm, Cowboy.”
“Point taken.” Napoleon swept his hands against the white-painted drywall to either side of the door, then he abruptly used his knife to stab through the drywall to the right of the door. He sawed a fist-sized gap through the wall, then sheathed his knife and reached through, rummaging around inside. After a moment, the door clicked open. Napoleon grinned. “After you.”
Illya obliged. The main floor of the garage contained a couple of Range Rovers on one side and a bright yellow Ferrari Spyder on the other, sleek and defiantly out of place. Napoleon openly admired it as Illya studied the walls, then the floor - the garage had no apparent other exits. A hidden door, perhaps.
“Rudi mentioned a bunker.” Napoleon said. He was tapping on the ground with his heel, and Illya followed suit. Finally, a space between the Range Rovers and the Ferrari, close to the wall, returned with a hollow, booming sound. Illya felt around the ground for a seam, even as Napoleon glanced behind the line of narrow storage lockers against the wall, then opened one and reached inside. There was a faint click, then Illya backed off as a floor panel between them slid open, revealing a steep downward flight of steel steps, heading into a dim room.
“You seem to have a lot of experience with hidden doors,” Illya said dryly, as they headed briskly down the steps.
“You’d be surprised where the rich and powerful like to squirrel away their art vaults.”
The underground complex was larger than Illya had expected. They got lost quickly, and soon it became impossible to avoid patrols in the warren-like tunnels. Illya’s ears were ringing dully even with their silenced pistols, and they’d given up using the M4s. It was a bloody slog, past storage rooms and service rooms and the occasional strange empty chamber, and ugly as it was, to mete this kind of wetwork, Illya found that he was starting to fall back into the habit of it. The black beast inside him loved death, and now it was hunting in a pair, beside a predator just as dangerous. The air stank of cordite and blood and offal and Illya’s blood was singing: before this last year, to Illya, killing had been the sweetest thing there was.
Now he was not so sure. The vicious joy he often felt in the tidal thrill of violent bloodletting was at a low and humming ebb, a barely noticeable simmer in his blood. His pulse was steady and he felt nothing, as they rounded a corner and Illya shot the two surprised guards who came upon them briskly, hot spent shells bouncing off against the wall, the floor. The corridor was opening out, growing wider, the doors to either side no longer frequent. They were coming to a large chamber. A laboratory, perhaps. Living quarters.
They were heading towards a set of steel double doors when the doors opened, and Alexander Vinciguerra emerged, hauling a snarling, struggling Gaby with him, a pistol pointed to her head. Gaby’s eyes widened as she saw them freeze, and Alexander called over in accented English. “Drop your weapons, or she dies.”
Illya hesitated a fraction, but Napoleon didn’t - he put down his SIG, then the M4. Reluctantly, Illya did the same. No cover to be seen, but if he dived, and picked up one of the pistols on the way-
“Kick the guns over.”
So much for that. The Grach skidded to a foot next to Alexander, though the heavier M4s, the Welrod and Napoleon’s SIG didn’t make it that far. Alexander smiled, murder in his eyes, and aimed his pistol at them, and at that moment Gaby yelled something in German and twisted wildly in his grip, struggling for the pistol, shoving a finger between the trigger and the guard. From behind the double doors there was another wordless shout, and a wrinkled, bald man in a lab coat lunged over, also grappling for the pistol.
All three tumbled over in a heap, even as Illya sprinted over, not even bothering to scoop up a pistol, grabbing Alexander’s wrist as he tore the gun free from Gaby and slamming it on the concrete floor, breaking his fingers. The gun went off, the bullet ricocheting down the corridor but now Gaby had pulled it free from Alexander’s nerveless grip, tossing it away, and Illya had the struggling man’s head in his grip, bracing his knees against the concrete. With a swift, hard jerk, Illya snapped Alexander’s neck.
The bald man scrabbled away, his back hitting the wall, wide-eyed in shock, even as Gaby hugged him tightly, with a choked gasp. Doctor Teller, Illya decided, even as he checked Alexander’s pulse, then got to his feet. Napoleon was on one knee, his voice gentle, reassuring. “Gaby, are you all right? You haven’t been hurt?”
Gaby shuddered. “No. No.”
“And Doctor Teller, I presume.” Napoleon added. “Let’s get you both out of here.”
“I need to get my research.” Doctor Teller hugged Gaby back for a moment, then Napoleon helped them both up, and he disappeared into the lab. Gaby curled her arms around Napoleon for comfort, pressing her cheek against his shoulder as he patted her arms soothingly, then she seemed to remember that Illya was there, and smiled wanly at him.
“Special circumstances,” Illya decided generously, picking up their weapons. “Also, your boss is an asshole.”
“God, I know,” Gaby said, though she sounded rueful rather than annoyed. “They brought me here on a trimaran. It’s probably still at the dock. But I also saw a helicopter pad on the way up here. There's probably a chopper around here somewhere.”
“Can you fly a chopper?” Napoleon asked Illya.
“Flying is fine. Landing, maybe rough.”
“… Okay, so we should take the trimaran.”
“I said rough, I didn’t say crash,” Illya said, irritated. “Chopper is better. Also,” Illya added, frowning at Gaby, “I think this is enough hugging even for special circumstances, no?”
“All right, all right. Hands off,” Gaby stepped away, hands up, though she grinned cheekily at Illya. Clearly, kidnapping and incarceration had done little to give Gaby a heightened survivor’s instinct.
The way out was easier, if only because Waverly seemed to have either already negotiated the go-ahead for a Naval attack or had decided that he couldn’t be bothered with the diplomatic exercise. Marines ignored them as they headed down to the docks, swarming around the island and securing the grounds, and they met Waverly and the Black Hawk where the helipad was.
“Ah, Doctor Teller,” Waverly said, as they approached. “Safe and sound.”
Teller blinked rapidly at Waverly. “You’re… Waverly, aren’t you? The buyer?”
“In the flesh, as it were. Sorry that rescue took this long. We couldn’t have done it without your daughter.”
Gaby shrugged. She was holding her father’s hand, tightly, even as he clutched a laptop bag to himself. “I had help.” She nodded at Napoleon and Illya, and grinned when Napoleon executed a playful, courtly bow.
“We’ll take it from here,” Waverly decided. “Solo, want a lift to the mainland?”
Napoleon raised his eyebrows. “What, are we no longer friends with the Russians?” he asked facetiously, even as Illya noted movement in his peripheral vision, and half-turned. At the docks, a small, sleek yacht had docked, and an all-too-familiar, stocky figure was getting out of it, with soldiers in black combat gear and fatigues behind him.
Napoleon must have noticed at the same time - he gripped Illya’s elbow tightly. “Illya.”
It would be easy now to leave. Oleg was pragmatic - he wouldn’t initiate some sort of retaliation while the island was swarming with British naval forces. Illya could leave with Waverly in the Black Hawk and disappear with Napoleon in Rome, head back to New York, perhaps, offer to defect. They might not be able to go back to the brownstone townhouse, but they could live elsewhere, somewhere equally beautiful. He could go with Napoleon to French bistros on corners, to plays on the weekends.
But he would have to spend the rest of his life hiding from the world, and worse - Illya would be hiding from himself. ‘Artyom’ was no more, and Illya had to accept that. So Illya pulled his arm out of Napoleon’s grip, curtly.
“Proshai,” Illya said softly, and Napoleon stiffened. “Lyubov moya.”
“Do svidaniya,” Napoleon corrected, though he didn’t reach for Illya again. He didn’t need to. The pain was all in his eyes. Days ago, Illya had wanted to break the mischief in them, shatter it. Now he had done so and he felt only a consuming, bitter weariness. It was done. “Five years and I will be free,” Napoleon added. “So-“
“So be free,” Illya said, quietly, but harshly, and stepped away, heading briskly down towards the dock.
Apparently in Russian there are at least four(!?) ways of saying goodbye:
1. Proshai - which has finality
2. Do svidaniya - until we meet again*
3. Poka - an informal goodbye (the most widespread, between friends)
4. Do skoroy vstrechi - see you soon
More here: http://www.learnrussianlanguage.ru/how-to-say-goodbye-in-russian
Not sure how accurate this is, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for Napoleon to reply with either #2 or #3 in this situation so eh. (Happy to be corrected!)
EDIT It seems #2 is the correct response in this situation. Thx guys.
One more chapter~~~~ Click on~~
“Bet you’re happy that I came back alone,” Napoleon told it, and the cat rubbed its face against Napoleon’s jaw, its purring ratcheting up a notch, as though it understood.
Napoleon deposited it on the couch, and looked around the house, letting out a long, slow breath. The shattered glass from the painting was still scattered on the floor - he’d have to sweep that up, it was a wonder that Mister Darcy hadn’t cut itself - and probably arrange to get the Monet fixed on the quiet. Napoleon’s hand clenched tight, briefly, on the back of the couch. Then he sighed, and headed back over to pick up his suitcase, climbing up the stairs, the cat at his heels.
He took a long, hot shower, then unpacked, having to occasionally shove the cat out of his bag, then Napoleon went back downstairs and swept up the glass and was thinking between having a liquid dinner or ordering in takeout when his phone rang.
“Solo.” It was Sanders. “Got a note from MI6 and the SVR. Seems everything’s been wrapped up.”
“Yeah.” Napoleon leaned a hip against the kitchen counter, and rubbed a hand over his face. “The Vinciguerras are dead, Gaby and Udo Teller are alive.”
“Any idea why the hell the Doctor was kidnapped in the first place?”
“Seems he was working on some digital version of the universal key,” Napoleon said absently.
“What. Did he make it?”
“I don’t know.” The trip back had been made in a dazed sort of silence. Udo had been clearly confused and uncomfortable, Waverly had been puzzled, and Gaby had been sympathetic, which was probably the worst of all. “Ask MI6.”
Instead of chewing him out, there was instead a long pause, and then Sanders said, uncomfortable. “Look, er. If you wanna, well, take a bit of time off, or something.”
Napoleon let out a startled laugh. He couldn’t help it. “Sympathy from you, sir? I’m shocked.”
“Yeah, well. You’re a damned good agent and it’ll be a fucking waste if you end up eating your gun or something.”
Now that was more like the Sanders Napoleon was familiar with. Brutally candid and unsentimental. “Don’t worry about that, sir.” Napoleon reached across the kitchen counter and scratched behind Mister Darcy’s ears. “Who’ll take care of my cat?” he added archly, when Sanders kept silent for a long moment more.
“I said you could sort things out if you wanted to.”
“I already have,” Napoleon said shortly.
“… Okay then,” Sanders noted carefully. “Report in tomorrow. Usual time.”
“Did you mean it,” Napoleon added suddenly, “When you said that I just owe you five more years?”
There was a long pause, then Sanders sighed. “Well yeah. Sadly, it’s 2015,” he said dryly, “And we don’t shoot quitters anymore. Not that we ever did. Where d’you think you are, huh? Lots of CIA agents quit and go private. It’s a job that burns people up and it doesn’t pay half as well as it should. As long as you behave yourself and stop stealing other people’s shit I don’t see why we’ll be wasting time fucking your life up when we’re done with each other.”
“All right. Good to know.”
“‘Sides, you’re a goddamned troublemaker and a half. But if you wanted to stay on after five years, eh. Can’t say we’d mind. But either way, I’m close to my retirement. Gonna head off to a nice farm somewhere. Can’t see why I’ll be giving a flying fuck by then whether you’re still in the Agency or not, and you’d be getting a bit long in the tooth for field work at that point.”
That was true. “See you tomorrow, sir.”
“Yeah.” Sanders waited a beat, as though thinking of something else to say, but then he hung up instead. Carefully, Napoleon set the phone back on the table, staring at the blank lock screen. Maybe Illya would call next.
The thought lasted for as long as it took for Napoleon to find a bottle of scotch, then he ended up trying to call Illya instead. Unsurprisingly, however, Illya’s phone was already disconnected.
Liquid dinner then. Napoleon scooped up the cat and moved over to the couch. For the first time in a year, the house felt empty.
Behind him, Oleg ambled out over to his side, looking grimly satisfied. “That went better than I expected,” Oleg said sourly, and Illya nodded. One month on and it was no longer vaguely jarring to live somewhere where everyone just spoke Russian.
“You don’t seem to appreciate how lucky you were,” Oleg added, when Illya said nothing, and Illya looked away, grimacing. ‘Lucky’. He hated that word. “You are still young. This inquiry could have destroyed your career or worse. Sent us both to the camps.”
“I appreciate it,” Illya said unemotionally. “And your testimony.”
Oleg grunted. “If they had found fault in the agent they would also have found fault in the handler. I was the one who cleared your cover. Pity we did not acquire the universal key - if it even exists. But the rogue agents are dead and there is no scandal and that is what counted.”
Illya nodded again. The Vinciguerras had been surprisingly successful at their criminal enterprises: they hadn’t only been developing the universal key but also taking part in dark web arms trading of the missile variety. The sweep of the Vinciguerra base had been an interesting awkward dance between the British Navy and Russian Special Forces, both parties trying to pretend that the other wasn’t there, and trying to clean up before the Italians realized that they were all there.
“So you are cleared for duty,” Oleg added, when the silence stretched.
“Good to hear.”
Oleg frowned at him. “Careful. The fact that you immediately tried to kill the American agent was taken in your favour, even though you were technically disobeying orders by trying. But your position in the SVR is still delicate.”
“I know that.” Illya said flatly. He felt restless. He wanted to run - run over to the track, race with the cadets, run back to a year when getting selected by the SVR to become a full agent was all that had mattered. It had been, or so he felt at the time, a great honour, one that would have pleased neither of his late parents, and therefore it was an honour that he had wanted.
Oleg still seemed to be waiting for something, so Illya added, “I am ready for another mission.”
He nodded. “I will have something for you tomorrow. We need something fixed in Ukraine. It will not be too difficult and you will be working with ground agents.”
Illya nodded, this time more slowly. The punishment had started. His leash had just been shortened. “Understood.”
He borrowed one of the nondescript Lada cars from headquarters and drove carefully back to Moscow, distracted, and realized that he was driving to Khovanskoye Cemetery. His mother had been buried there, and Illya parked outside the vast grounds and made his way in, passing by a funeral in progress, keeping his head down. Anna Kuryakin was buried in a small plot, close to a copse of trees that had already gone skeletal for the increasingly icy weather. Illya stared down at the small, neatly carved headstone, hands in his pockets. His father was not buried here, or anywhere like this. His had been a death of pain and indignity, somewhere further away, colder, harder. Illya had not been here for years. Not since he had been accepted into the SVR.
I met someone, Illya wanted to say, but he swallowed the words. Life in the SVR had cored away a great deal of unnecessary sentiment. Illya felt tired again, instead, as though he was running, running, but forever still frozen in the same spot. He had been too tired even to get angry during the excruciatingly long inquiry, as his life had been skewered to the panel bench and clinically disemboweled. In a way, it had been a good feeling, to be emptied out and judged. A month ago, as he had watched the Black Hawk rise into the sky, Illya had been briefly and utterly convinced that he had just made a mistake by staying. Now, he was not so sure. Life was not a matter of easy choices.
Illya stayed in the cemetery until it started to get dark, then he walked back to his car. The funeral was over, the black-clad mourners trudging away, some still dabbing their eyes, solemn. White flowers had been left on the fresh grave, which would freeze overnight to their own deaths. Briefly, Illya wondered where Napoleon was. Whether he was still living in his townhouse, with the little monster; whether Napoleon had already found someone else. It would be just like him - catlike, adaptable.
A welcome spark of anger pressed warmth into his blood, and Illya craded it close for a moment, then he exhaled, irritated, and let it go, watching the breath of steam dissipate in the dulling sky. It was going to snow tonight.
“I’m now effectively the real life equivalent of Q and I can do what I want,” Gaby informed him, then added, “I didn’t realize that you actually watched the Bond films. I thought you didn’t like movies.”
“Well no,” Napoleon said dryly, “But I’ve seen it once on the telly.” ‘Artyom’ had been watching it, while Napoleon was cooking, and he had spent the whole film smirking, strangely amused. To think that it had taken Napoleon months just to find out why. “Congratulations on the promotion.”
“Eh,” Gaby shrugged. “Waverly put in a good word, and my father’s work helped.”
“Yes, about that,” Napoleon added, even more dryly. “We’ll like to have the key, please.”
“… No. I thought we were over this, after you tried to steal it the last time.”
“Just joking.” Sanders had hemmed and hawed and grumbled but it seemed that MI6 had struck a deal, instead, after Napoleon’s very nearly successful attempt to steal Doctor Teller’s digital key. He had been foiled, perhaps embarrassingly, by Gaby and a corgi, in an incident that Napoleon would prefer to consign to the annals of awkward history.
“So. Now that we’re friends again,” Gaby said meaningfully. “Maybe we should get to the point.”
“Why are you still working for him anyway?” Napoleon asked curiously. “You do realize that he strung you out to dry the last time.”
“That was a year ago,” Gaby said loftily.
“And you’re not even British.”
“I could switch citizenships if I wanted to. But I’m not really technically on the staff anyway,” Gaby added. “I’m a contractor.”
“Anyway,” Gaby passed over a box. “Here. Out of the spirit of intergovernmental friendship. Waverly wanted you to have that before you head south.”
“This is not going to be a modified pistol and a radio, is it?”
“No,” Gaby said, though she seemed amused. “But it was pretty tempting to hand something like that over,” she admitted. “It’s what your handler asked for. Information.”
“All right.” Napoleon tucked the little box away. “I’m glad to see you,” he added. “Are you doing well?”
“Can’t complain.” Gaby grinned cheekily at him. She was in a lovely yellow sun dress, tanned and glowing with the flush of youth. Gaby Teller was in her element. For a moment, Napoleon very nearly envied her.
“Patched things up with your father?”
“Not really.” Gaby’s lip quirked up. “A brief moment of solidarity during a kidnapping doesn’t make up for years of neglect. But it helped a little. We’re on speaking terms now, anyway.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“What about you? Patched things up with-“
“No,” Napoleon cut in, “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Gaby grimaced. “All right. No need to bite my head off. Sorry.”
They sat in silence for a while, then Napoleon said thoughtfully, “This actually is a very nice painting.”
Gaby grabbed his wrist. “Don’t even think about it.”
Napoleon stayed in Mombasa for a while, gambling, exploring, listening to the raw heartbeat of sheer human mass, tainted at the edges by an equally sheer poverty. It appealed to the thief in Napoleon’s soul. He was pickpocketed once - not that the thief got anything more than a wrenched wrist - and held up for money once, though when Napoleon had started laughing the young man with a knife had gotten unnerved and had run for it. In the end, Napoleon took the hint that the city was trying to give him and bought an old Land Rover that coughed alarmingly whenever it started up, and took it northwest to Nairobi.
He spent a month in Istanbul, wandering, then veered east to Tehran, which was slowly reopening to the world as sanctions lifted, flush with tourism, a quiet but seismic effect from the soft diplomacy of the nuclear deal, struck half a decade ago. Napoleon stayed in Bekradi’s Historic House in Isfahan, feeling as though he had stepped back four hundred years, doing little but eating, sleeping and wandering, then he made his way to Mumbai, where Napoleon finally noticed that he was being followed.
It wasn’t too obvious at first, not until Napoleon realized it, and then he saw it everywhere. Traces had been placed on some of his favourite accounts, and Napoleon felt a prickling feeling when he had been wandering around Colaba Causeway, trying to dodge persistent map sellers. The CIA, perhaps. Napoleon had always been convinced, deep down, that the Agency was never going to let him go so easily. Still, losing a tail in a city as dense as Mumbai was easy, and when Napoleon hopped from Mumbai to Chennai he was fairly sure that he was alone again. Wary now, Napoleon stopped dressing up in his favourite suits and went for less visible fare, but in Bangladesh he had the feeling of being tracked once more, followed by strangers in the street, and he didn’t like it.
This was annoying. Napoleon had always intended to hop back to New York sooner or later, at least after looping through Asia, if only because it was probably unfair to Mister Darcy for Napoleon to abandon it in its twilight years. This was going to make things more tricky. His house and Mrs Siegfried’s would be watched. He made his way quietly to Hanoi, a city whose traffic always seemed to consist of a strangely balletic chaos, then to the gridlocked concrete jungle of Hong Kong, brushing up on his Cantonese. Napoleon switched from hotels to AirBnB, and started to use only cash or bitcoins for all transactions. The flat he had chosen was tiny, but it had a view of Victoria Harbour and was in Kowloon, which Napoleon preferred.
Napoleon spent a day walking around Mongkok, then he had a coffee by the harbour - gray as it was with the thick industrial breath of a city with over seven million people, sitting at the cafe until it closed. Late in the evening, after a quick dinner in a noodle house on a side street, Napoleon made his way back. He had a long shower and then looked at himself in the mirror, scratching at the day’s old stubble on his jaw. He looked tired. Older, tired, and off-balance. The muscle tone that Napoleon had liked to keep out of vanity had turned rangy, and he was certainly thinner than he had been before, when he had been heading into his thirties and was slightly less jaded. He brushed his teeth, and had just rinsed his mouth and spat in the sink when he heard the main door open.
Quietly, Napoleon wiped his mouth, narrowing his eyes. He was trapped. He did have a gun, a Ruger that he had bought from an old contact in Mongkok, but it was on the bedside table - an oversight. Napoleon was getting rusty. He looked around the bathroom, edging quietly away from the bathroom door, even as whoever it was wandered around in the living room. It didn’t sound like the CIA. When the Agency raided an apartment, they preferred to kick the doors down. Not a raid, perhaps. A ‘friendly chat’? Napoleon hated those, too.
The bathroom window was small, but with some squirming, Napoleon could probably fit out of it. He was just about to try when he heard Illya say, very dryly, “If you climb outside you will most probably fall off side of building.”
“Illya?” Napoleon nearly stumbled in his haste to get out of the bathroom.
Illya was standing by the kitchenette, back against the fridge, arms folded, and he smiled, sharply amused, as Napoleon stared at him with open disbelief. Five years hadn’t changed Illya very much. Even the clothes seemed the same, the black turtleneck, the crisp charcoal trousers, the same watch. And the years had been more than kind. Illya was still every shade of devastatingly handsome.
“I don’t have much time,” Illya began, then stiffened up as Napoleon crossed over to shove him against the fridge and kiss him, still disbelieving, hungry, as though if he could breathe Illya in and consume him this would feel a touch more real.
Long fingers curled around Napoleon’s hip and then swept over his spine, and the rumbling moan that shook against Napoleon could’ve come from either of them as Illya started to kiss him back. It was easier without words. Napoleon couldn’t have put this blind and desperate yearning into words anyway. It felt as though time had rewound, as though they had walked the clock back by five years, when casual intimacy was easy and tenderness was easier. Napoleon had spent these past few years feeling rootless, and hadn’t understood why, not entirely, not until now, as Illya caught Napoleon’s lower lip with a graze of sharp teeth and pulled, as hands dragged Napoleon closer yet, arousal a palpable shock to the senses.
“I don’t have much time,” Illya repeated, if unsteadily. “You are difficult to pin down.”
Napoleon choked out an incredulous laugh. “You were the one following me? I thought it was the CIA.”
Illya frowned at him. “You said you would be free after five years. No?”
“I thought… never mind what I thought. Why didn’t you just get in touch? I wouldn’t have run half across the world if I knew that it was you.”
“Tried. Was using third parties, very tricky to keep secret from SVR. Had to be subtle.” Illya rubbed a hand wonderingly up Napoleon’s spine, breathing hard, and checked his watch. “Have to meet my extraction in next hour.”
Illya scowled, and it was so familiar that Napoleon felt his chest ache. “Can’t tell you that.”
“How long does that give me?” Napoleon amended.
“Twenty minutes. Need to talk.”
“I don’t want to talk,” Napoleon said fiercely, which was why they ended up on the bed, with Illya sprawled against the headboard and his cock down Napoleon’s throat.
Illya was choking down his cries with a palm pressed over his mouth, knees tightly pressed against Napoleon’s shoulders, but Napoleon barely registered all that, out of practice and gagging on the flesh he was trying to fit down his throat, tears in his eyes, Illya’s free hand tight in his hair, Illya all that Napoleon could breathe, could taste, could feel.
It was an insane sort of intoxication, just as ruinous as Napoleon remembered; he was struggling with his own belt as he sucked, desperately needing to get some relief, groaning as he got his hand around his own cock. Illya bucked, tentatively at first, but when Napoleon merely made a strangled noise and moaned he pushed his hips up again, harder, until he was fucking Napoleon’s throat with vicious shallow jerks, as though trying to force himself all the way in, leave a permanent imprint. Napoleon fought his gag reflex and whimpered and heard Illya gasp something that he couldn’t quite make out, hoarsely, like the prayer of a dying man, then Illya was coming, messy and far too much all at once, hand curled with just the faintest hint of iron pressure on the back of Napoleon’s neck.
Napoleon probably finished himself off somewhere in between choking down what he could and lapping up the rest, nosing wet curls as he drank and felt Illya shake against him and pull weakly at his shoulders. His hands were sticky and wet and Napoleon was dazed as Illya finally got impatient and dragged him up, rolling him onto his back on the narrow bed and licking into his mouth. They kissed until Illya’s phone beeped him, and Napoleon grumbled as Illya twisted away.
“Five minutes now,” Illya said, though his voice was ragged and he looked utterly disheveled, pure sex. Napoleon felt hunger pull hot again in his blood.
“Make it short then.” Napoleon said, and he couldn’t help the hurt in his tone, the disappointment. Illya was leaving again. The wound that time had scabbed over was being scraped raw anew.
“I have made deal,” Illya said quietly. “Field agents have earlier retirement age. Not mandatory. But I can resign. After. Complete break.”
“They’ll grind you down before then if you make that kind of deal.” Napoleon blinked. Surely Illya would know. “It’s going to be hellish.”
“I know.” Illya said seriously.
“It is my turn to say ‘five years’,” Illya curled his hand around Napoleon’s cheek. “Five years and I will be free.”
“Can I help?”
“Nyet. I think Oleg knows why I asked for the deal. But the Directorate…” Illya shrugged. “Best that this is quiet.”
“I thought you could just resign. Putin resigned from the KGB.”
“Not so easy for me.” Napoleon waited, but Illya seemed unwilling to elaborate. Instead, Illya said, hesitantly, “I will understand if you do not want to wait-“
Napoleon kissed him instead, because this too was something he had no words for, and they kissed until Illya’s phone beeped him again and he sighed, regret pressed warm between them both. When Illya finally left, Napoleon lay on the bed for a long time, until he could no longer stand the tacky feeling of his soiled trousers. Then he got up to get changed, and booked a flight back to New York.
He found his quarry in one of the side galleries, his back to Illya, studying a small painting of a summer-drenched field, daubed with red blotted flowers. To Illya, it looked like a battleground, the grass freshly tainted by the dying, while the ghosts of people from another time watched on, blurred and helpless. Illya stepped noiselessly closer, into knifing distance, then he curled an arm around Napoleon’s lower back, against the tapered cut of his suit, and pressed his mouth briefly against Napoleon’s neck, breathing deeply.
Napoleon chuckled - he had probably sensed Illya’s approach, even with the noise of the crowds around them. Silver now flecked Napoleon’s temples, and laugh lines were etched into the corners of his eyes, but that lovely maddening mischief was still there, as Napoleon leant into Illya’s touch, his breath hot against Illya’s jaw, tickling up to his ear.
“What do you think,” Napoleon murmured. “Could this fit somewhere in the bedroom?”
Illya sighed. “Really?”
“Just a thought,” Napoleon said innocently.
“I don’t like it.”
Incredulous, Napoleon actually twisted around in Illya’s arms, frowning up at him. “How can you not like it? It’s a masterpiece. It’s a Monet. Coquelicots is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Look at the colours.”
Illya shrugged. “I am looking,” he said, with exaggerated indifference, and Napoleon pretended to scowl at him, even though the corners of his mouth were turning up. The last that Illya had seen Napoleon had been two months ago, when Napoleon had somehow managed to track him down in Shanghai. Napoleon had been unsmiling and impatient and tense, a cat at the end of a far-too-long hunt.
Now Illya could read none of that, with every line of Napoleon’s frame poised tight with joy, and Illya kissed him, lightly on the mouth, shaky with reverence. Illya hadn’t been entirely sure what he would have felt, meeting Napoleon like this, as he had flown out of Moscow for the last time. Joyous, perhaps. Relieved. But all he felt now was a meditative stillness, the lightheaded flush of balance restored, the world fitting finally back into place.
Illya pulled Napoleon firmly against him, resting their foreheads together; Napoleon’s eyes were closed, as though he was listening to something Illya could not make out, lips slightly parted. The moment felt frozen around them, time curling still, more beautiful and more perfect to Illya than any of the priceless works he had passed by on his way here. His world had ended and begun again.
And at the beginning, it was Napoleon who smiled, that same playful and secretive smile that had first caught Illya’s eye in Bogotá, a world and more away. The circle had closed. Napoleon leaned up, pressing a kiss to the edge of Illya’s mouth. “Let’s go home.”