Aksinya settled when Illya was thirteen, neither early nor late, and this is the only reason he was allowed into Special Forces and not abandoned to the winter, or worse.
A desert cat dæmon is unusual in Western Siberia, but Illya and Aksinya are clever and faithful and strong enough that no one says anything to their faces. The psychologists who vet them after every few missions argue that perhaps it is understandable; Illya's childhood was so disturbed, they say, that of course his dæmon chose an unusual shape; the country did not do enough to reassure a young Illya Kuryakin that as long as he was diligent and useful to his superiors, he would always have a place among them. Aksinya's shape is not an early indication of a traitorous heart, merely a weak one.
Her form proves useful, anyway. The men of the USSR are the descendants of the fierce Tartars and the cunning Muscovites; their dæmons are wolves and snarling dogs, tigers and bears, hunting eagles and thick-furred wild cats. Aksinya's shape lets Illya move in the Western world without the scrutiny of his fellow agents.
By the time Illya and Aksinya are grown, they're mostly able to handle the whispers, too. They're no worse than bullets; they can be dodged, and with enough skill, they are not fatal. Illya and Aksinya are loyal. Their work proves that, even if Illya's parentage and temper and Aksinya's shape don't.
The Teller mission is given to them because Illya's closest and because it is about Rusakov particles (Oleg believes.) He's the best, and he knows the consequences, should he fail.
"Is that the Denmarkian?" Aksinya says, crouched on a short stack of wall, whiskers brushing Illya's elbow. "He certainly doesn't look like much."
The Denmarkian, Solo, is a dark-haired man with a bird-formed dæmon. The KGB is unsure what her true shape is--Solo dresses her in dyes and fake feathers. At the moment she is a brilliant red, her feathers gaudy and her wings shining like they've been polished with wax. She sits tamely on Solo's shoulder.
While Illya watches and the Denmarkian lets his case be checked--and bugged--his dæmon turns her head and looks Illya straight in the eye.
He looks away reflexively, jaw working. Embarrassment--in the USSR they don't look each other's dæmons in the eye, it's not done, and he knows New Denmark is a strange and perverted place, but he wasn't prepared--flares in his belly and dies.
When he looks back, pushing down his discomfort, Solo and his dæmon are stepping into a cab. The dæmon's feathers flash.
"Do not underestimate him," Illya says roughly. Aksinya flattens her ears against her skull.
Illya doesn't need to tell her what will happen to them should they fail, should the Denmarkian and the CIA get their hands on Udo Teller's work. They have been to Zimbabwe and to the northern reaches of Kamchatka and Nova Zembla; they know what becomes of the zombi and the victims of the Tartars' knives.
The Denmarkian hasn't noticed the tracker slipped into his briefcase--sloppy, and characteristic of the hubris Illya has come to expect of the CIA--so he and Aksinya can follow at a safe distance, gathering a few local hands, and prepare to flush Solo out.
They know where Solo's going. Illya checks his gun and Aksinya sharpens her claws against the cobblestone streets.
They're ready, and neither of them are afraid.
Berend decides, ten minutes into their acquaintance with the Denmarkian and his obnoxiously bright dæmon, that he likes them.
Gaby, ten minutes into their acquaintance with the Denmarkian and his obnoxiously bright dæmon, is in the middle of a car chase and trying not to crash, and the whole situation is the Denmarkian's fault anyway, so she's not feeling particularly charitable towards him.
"Left!" Berend yells, digging his talons into Gaby's shoulder. The Denmarkian doesn't bother to correct him, so they're at least going the right way. Their attacker's car--KGB, the Denmarkian had said, with the light and unbothered air of someone who's never had to live under KGB control--slams into Gaby's with a crash, but she shakes him off and dives down the next street, pulse thundering in her throat.
She pulls into an empty parking space neatly and turns to glare at the Denmarkian. "Who are you?"
"Never mind that," says the Denmarkian, tucking his map into his breast pocket. His dæmon, a songbird with scarlet feathers and black wings, says something to her man in French, or possibly Spanish, neither of which Gaby speaks, and flutters out the open window.
"Drive around the block," the Denmarkian says, "then come back here and get me. I'll see if I can't shake our friend the Red Peril." He follows his dæmon out the door.
"I like him," Berend says, scanning the streets for the KGB agent's car. Shrikes have horrible night vision, but it is an extra set of eyes and if Gaby's caught she'll be killed--no one defies the KGB, no one--or worse. She's heard the stories. Her Brytish handler, Waverly, assured her that the Muscovites or the Soviets or whatever the hell they call themselves these days no longer practice intercision, but it's Berend on the line, not Waverly's snow goose, so Gaby would rather not risk it.
Gaby would really, really rather not risk it. "Of course you do," she mutters, hanging a sharp left to avoid being caught in the Soviet's headlights. Berend has always had a fondness for things that can get them killed. He should have settled as an eagle. He has the personality for it, and if he was larger than Gaby's closed fist maybe then he could actually get them out of half the situations he got them into.
Berend, of course, doesn't care about intercision, or at the very least doesn't worry about it. This is all very exciting for him, and when the Soviet's car crashes, rear window shattered, he whoops and flies in a few tight, excited circles around Gaby's head.
"Be still," she scolds. "We're working."
Berend ignores her.
The Soviet, who is apparently half-armored bear, is not dead, and takes off after them on foot with a vengeance. His dæmon is sand-colored and some kind of mid-sized feline. Gaby can't get a good look at her because she's moving incredibly fast and the Denmarkian's head is in the way.
The Denmarkian's bird says something else in French. He agrees.
"What now?" Gaby snaps, and the Denmarkian says, not looking away from the Soviet bearing down on them with the back of their car still in his hand, "Turn right, then immediately left," and runs them into a wall.
The ensuing scramble to get up to the rooftop of whatever apartment building they crashed into cements Gaby's belief that all Denmarkians are batshit insane and cements Berend's hero worship of the Denmarkian and his dæmon. He swoops to the very edge of Gaby's range, tugging unpleasantly at whatever anchors them together, and starts shouting insults down at the Soviet, clattering his beak.
"Could you grab him, please?" says the Denmarkian, peering over the edge of the roof. Gaby's tempted to ask him if his tiny dæmon is going to carry them over the minefield, but then the bird leaps off her man's shoulder and, in a couple of strong wing beats, is across the minefield and the walls and fluttering above a canvas-covered truck.
Gaby gapes. There's easily fifty meters of space between the Denmarkian and his dæmon, and he doesn't seem bothered by it at all. A cable comes flying out of the dark and anchors itself on the chimneys rising out of the rooftop. The Denmarkian pulls on the wire, testing its strength, and looks pointedly at Gaby.
"Grab him," the Denmarkian repeats. Anbaric lights flood the rooftop. The police are down below and the Soviet, if the noise is anything to go by, is coming.
Gaby does, plucking Berend out of the air--he was in the middle of shrieking, "And your father would fuck a cliff-ghast," and nips at Gaby's fingers sullenly--and holding him tight to her chest.
"Hug me," says the Denmarkian, and Gaby does. He's strong, wrapping one arm around Gaby and holding on to the line with the other, and his dæmon calls to him from across the gap. Her feathers shine in the light.
Gaby, despite having a bird dæmon, is not a fan of being airborne. She holds on tightly, Berend's heart beating against her breast, and sighs when they're firmly back on the ground.
The Denmarkian drops the Soviet into the middle of the minefield, turns to Gaby, and grins. His dæmon returns to his shoulder like nothing's happened. "So," he says, "hotel?"
"I don't even know your name," Gaby says.
"My apologies." The Denmarkian sticks out his hand. "I'm Solo. Shall we?"
Oleg tells Illya and Aksinya they will be working with the Denmarkian. Illya beats Solo into the ground. He feels much better with Aksinya's teeth around Solo's dæmon, black dye burning her tongue. The bird, inky dark from her beak to her claws today, beats her wings twice and then holds very still.
"Don't kill your partner on the first day," Oleg scolds. His husky dæmon looks down her nose at Illya.
"What does that mean?" Solo says, looking from his own dæmon to Oleg to his handler.
Illya only glares.
They settle into an awkward sort of truce after they spend a few hours baring their teeth and posturing at each other. (Well, Illya postures. Aksinya is his weak heart, after all, so she stays behind his legs and keeps an eye on Solo's dæmon, who fluffs up to twice her size and hisses a litany of unpleasant-sounding things in French.)
The Denmarkian has terrible taste in women's fashion and his dæmon seems to speak only in French--which is annoying, because Illya has always been terrible at French--but is largely harmless, Illya decides, and largely irrelevant to his own mission. He will let the thief thieve and focus on Gabrielle Teller, only daughter of Udo Teller, and her uncle Rudi.
Napoleon Solo is, despite his posturing, easy to dismiss. He says something to his dæmon ad she flutters up onto his shoulder, whispering in his ear, and they depart.
Gaby is not so easy.
She's beautiful, of course, but Illya has met many beautiful women and none of them have been like Gaby. Her dæmon, for one thing, is a bold creature, unflinching, and sharp with his tongue and his talons. She reminds Illya of his father's stories of the scientist Lyra Silvertongue, the Bear-Speaker; he can see Gaby and her dæmon, who introduces himself stiffly as Berend, facing down a panserbjørn.
On the zeppelin flight to Rome, Berend remains on Gaby's shoulder and stares at Illya fiercely, daring him to get too close.
Aksinya likes them. She is not supposed to--attachments are ruinous to people like them, people living, as Oleg likes to say, on borrowed time--but she does. It settles in Illya's stomach like a stone. She blinks slowly at the girl and her dæmon to show that the means no harm, and spends the majority of the trip curled up in Illya's lap. He does not touch her.
In Rome, Gaby scolds his lack of architectural knowledge and makes Aksinya laugh. She calls him "Illyusha," just to see him tighten his jaw, and makes him give up his father's battered old watch. She plants an elbow into his solar plexus and tackles him to the ground, Berend diving for Aksinya's head with a war cry.
I am, Illya thinks, as his traitorous hands slide down Gaby's back to cradle her hips, in trouble.
Berend drops from the air and Aksinya catches him gently, holding him in her teeth like she used to hold Illya's brother's dæmon whenever he was kitten-shaped and fragile. The shrike is smaller than Solo's dæmon, but, in Illya's opinion, better-formed; he is sleek and compact and dangerous. Shrikes are good dæmons; vicious, uncompromising birds. There's nothing soft about them.
Illya carries Gaby to the bed and lays her down gently. Aksinya leaps up and arranges Berend with her huge, soft paws, tucking him into the hollow of his human's throat, and looks at Illya. He knows she can feel his heart hammering in his chest.
Both of them can imagine Oleg's face, see the gleam of a silver knife out of the corner of their eyes.
"Is this your weakness," he asks, bitter, "or is it mine?"
The sun warms Gaby up and banishes the last of her hangover. Berend, flush with the success of emotionally manipulating Illya, doesn't stay on her shoulder for longer than a minute at a time, swooping around them or dropping down to perch on Aksinya's head, like he loves her.
(For all that this is a lie, it does not feel strange to walk arm and arm with Illya, to have Berend perch on the caracal dæmon's head and whisper in her ear, to know what she sounds like when she purrs, amused.
Gaby's not sure if that means she's a good spy or not.)
They both see Solo across the party. His dæmon, whose name Gaby doesn't know, is black and blue today, modeling some kind of jay. They studiously don't look at each other. She catches sight of Waverly and his snow goose Ireneaus too, and doesn't look at him.
Uncle Rudi looks much like Gaby remembers. His dæmon Ortrun, a shiny beetle, flicks her wings at Berend in greeting.
At Illya's feet, Aksinya goes stiff. Illya doesn't seem to notice, but Berend does, and stays where he is on her head.
"I've never met a Muscovite with a desert dæmon," says Rudi, eyeing Illya. Aksinya's ears go flat against her head and she hunches, just a little. It's strange, but Gaby's never actually seen Aksinya look anything but apologetic and nervous. Illya himself is tall and fierce--he could have killed those two men last night, easily--but his dæmon slinks at his heels and keeps her head down.
He doesn't really touch her, either. Must be a KGB thing, Gaby thinks. Berend pointedly stays where he is.
"I am West Siberian," Illya says, smiling blandly. "We are not as close-minded as the Muscovites."
"How does a West Siberian architect meet an East German mechanic?"
Gaby, because she feels something like pity for the way Aksinya seems to hug the ground, jumps in with their story, covering for Illya. She doesn't like the way that Rudi looks at him, like he's taking Illya apart behind his glasses.
Rudi says something rude enough for Aksinya to finally stand up straight, shoulders twitching hard enough to dislodge Berend. Her fur rises and her claws slide out; for a moment, she looks quite ugly and vicious.
"Uncle Rudi," Gaby scolds, "that wasn't very nice." Illya, who's temper is something of a problem, apparently, for all his dæmon is mild-mannered and nervous, stalks off. His hands are shaking.
They're upset, Berend whispers in between Gaby's ears. I wish we were witches. Then I could follow them and make sure they don't do anything stupid.
"Sorry, my love," says Rudi, not sorry at all. His dæmon flicks one antenna.
Gaby sighs and her dæmon returns to her shoulder, ruffling his wings. He glares at the beetle and clacks his beak. Behave. "There's a way you can make it up to me."
Illya goes to the Vinciguerras' factory because he has something to prove to himself. Aksinya follows without complaint, subdued. The more time passes, the closer they get to failure. The sooner he completes his mission, the sooner he can leave Gaby and Berend behind and put them out of his head and his heart.
The KGB has no room for this sort of thing. They're not emotionless monsters, of course--there are good people there who Illya and Aksinya are proud to call comrades. There are agents who have husbands and wives, who have children.
But they are not the sons of traitors. Their dæmons are wolves and dogs and tigers and bears and eagles. Illya has a caracal dæmon and a temper. He doesn't get the same indulgences that everyone else does.
So he goes to the factory, kills the power, and finds the Denmarkian and his bird dæmon watching them, heads tilted to the side in unison.
Illya sighs. "What."
"Oh, nothing," says Solo. "I won't tell Ms. Teller if you won't."
Illya debates. "Fine," he says. "We have ten minutes until the lights come back on."
As it turns out, Solo is good for something. He has an impressive range with his dæmon; Illya and Aksinya can be three meters apart from each other without pain, but any more than four and their vision goes dark around the edges and she has to rush back to him and leap into his arms. Solo's dæmon swoops five or six meters ahead and scouts for them. Solo's hands are quick, too. Doors don't seem to slow him down. On this kind of job he's mostly quiet and professional, so Illya puts his personal distaste for the man aside and does whatever he can to help.
Then he thinks he sees his father's watch on another man's wrist, glimmering gold in the light, and Aksinya darts out after him before Solo can stop her.
It's watching Solo and his dæmon crack open the safe that makes Illya recognize the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he looks at Aksinya and hisses, in West Siberian, "Don't you dare."
She blinks up at him tiredly. "It's not something I can help, you know."
They have to run soon after, so Illya doesn't get the chance to examine the feeling of camaraderie--weakness--that's starting to grow inside his dæmon's heart, in his own bones, and then they're in a boat on the water and Solo is gone, and then--
Aksinya cannot swim, and Illya can't be apart from her; they sink like stones. Water floods their mouths. The last thing Illya remembers seeing, as they sink, is a shape swimming down in a beam of light.
Where, Illya thinks dimly, is his dæmon? He feels a hand wrapped around the scruff of Aksinya's neck, not painful like it should be, and then nothing.
Gaby is a mess of nerves and guilt. She has to physically hold Berend in her hands to keep him from diving off to Aksinya and confessing their whole terrible plan. She doesn't want to betray Illya. She doesn’t even want to betray Solo. They're good men, she thinks. Irritating and not especially bright, but good men. Illya looks out for her. Solo treats her like a colleague.
He leaves her with Illya and Illya's hands are on her thigh, cold, and she wants--
Berend squawks indignantly and she loosens her grip.
"You're nervous," says Illya, frowning.
"I'm scared," Gaby corrects. Berend twitches in her hands. Aksinya winds between Illya's legs, and his expression is painfully sincere as he says, "We won't let anything happen to you, you know."
That's not what I'm worried about.
She doesn't know when winning Illya's trust and affection became genuine affection in her own heart. Last night, perhaps, when Illya grouched about Alexander Vinciguerra and his overly-friendly capuchin dæmon, or maybe when he pressed the new ring into her hands, smiling at her indulgently.
Gaby doesn't want to hurt him.
Waverly said that Illya's good enough to be fine. Solo, too, is no stranger to getting himself out of sticky situations.
"Why don't you ever touch your dæmon?" Gaby asks, because if she doesn't say that she's going to tell him what she's about to do.
Illya snatches his hands away like he's been burned. "I--what?"
"Gaby," Berend hisses, alarmed.
Gaby takes a deep breath. "She's your dæmon," she says firmly. "And I've never seen you pet her, or hold her, or calm her down."
Illya struggles with himself for a moment. His teeth are bared. Aksinya is pressed up against his leg, fur fluffed up anxiously, and he doesn't reach down to soothe her. "It is not her who needs calming down," he finally says, like Gaby pulled the words out of him. "It is me, I'm the one who--"
It's just as well that the Denmarkian returns. His dæmon, who Victoria Vinciguerra introduced to Rudi and Gaby as Eulalie, is on his shoulder, dye reapplied so that she's freshly blue.
Berend sags in Gaby's hands. Aksinya stays pressed against her man's shin. Illya looks away. The moment is broken.
"Well?" says Solo. His dæmon mutters something in French--she does speak English, Gaby's learned, she just refuses to around people who aren't Napoleon, for some strange Denmarkian reason--and ruffles her wings. "All turned on?"
Gaby glares. "Ready," she says, and hopes Waverly's right about the two of them.
Gaby betrays them. It makes Illya's heart kick in his chest and anger swarm up from the center of his belly. As they run from the guards and their dog dæmons, Aksinya yowls and tears at the ground. They're in pain, and Illya does something he almost never does; he bends down and grabs Aksinya by the back of her neck, pulls her into his arms, and holds her there.
It is a weakness, where he comes from, to need the comfort of your dæmon. Illya's heart is flawed enough already; he can't afford to be any weaker than he is, but Aksinya is wailing in distress and Illya's own heart is--broken, he thinks the Denmarkians call it.
They trusted Gaby. A good KGB agent would not have, and wouldn't be this--this wounded at a betrayal. But they are not good KGB agents, are they, Illya and his dæmon? Traitor's get, insane, not good for anything, and now they will be разорваны, intercised--
Aksinya bites into the meat of his wrist, and stiffens in his grip. "Stop that," she snaps.
"You think it will not happen?" Illya climbs into the truck and his hands are shaking. He feels unmoored, despite the fact that he is literally holding his heart outside of his chest, pressed into his coat, his ribs.
The KGB, when they took him in, had been very, very explicit. Illya was a liability. His dæmon's foreign form marked him as a potential traitor. So, if he failed them, if he tried to run, if he tried to do anything but what he was told, he'd be cut apart.
Aksinya swipes a paw across his face. Pain blossoms; blood drips down his nose. Illya presses his hand to the wound, startled. "Aksinya," he starts, but she bites his wrist again, thrashes out of his grip, hisses, and spits.
Illya is the one who loses control, most days, and Aksinya the one who drags him back. She's mild-mannered, his dæmon. She's meek and polite and well-behaved, and has been since he was a boy. This is her nature. He can't change it.
She's never bitten him before.
"They won't if you don't let them!" she growls. "If you--"
"What, run?" Where is Illya going to go? The USSR is his home. The KGB his only family. What will he do? Join another side? Kill his comrades, become a thief like Solo?
"Solo," Aksinya breathes, and Illya's pulled out of his spiral.
"Solo," Aksinya insists, "he doesn't know about Gaby, he and his dæmon went to meet Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby gave him up--"
Illya's blood runs cold. "I don't think we have to worry about the dæmon," he says, and points. In the distance, getting ever closer, is a bird, her feathers black and fading blue, and she's flying unsteadily towards them.
Aksinya looks at her human. "This is not over," she warns, "but for now, we have to help him."
Illya doesn't know when Solo began to matter so much--when he pulled Aksinya out of the water, of course, when he touched Illya's dæmon without causing pain--but he nods. "Dæmon," he says, rolling down the window for her. "Are you alright?"
Solo's dæmon flutters into the truck and lands clumsily, feathers in disarray. "You have to come," she says, in perfect English--she's been able to speak it the entire time--"you have to come, they're hurting us--"
"Did Solo find tracker in his shoes?"
The bird dæmon twitches like she's been shocked, making a pitched sound of pain. "No," she gasps. Illya looks at Aksinya, who leaps off his lap to curl around the bird dæmon and lick her feathers flat. The bird doesn't pull away, leaning against Aksinya, shuddering. It's intimate. Illya looks away.
"I will find him," he promises, and throws the truck in drive.
The Vinciguerra affair, as Napoleon has taken to calling it, is overall a confusing blur of pain and betrayal and reunion. Étienne, bless her, manages to find Peril and bring him to Napoleon before creepy Uncle Rudi brings out the Tartish knives, they meet the man with the snow goose dæmon who assures them that Gaby is still on their side, and they go to get her.
Napoleon finds Peril's watch on a man with a skinny coyote dæmon. It's the strangest watch he's ever seen, heavy gold and ancient-looking, with no numbers around its face but rather dozens of small, hand-painted symbols.
"Keep it for later," Étienne tells him, darting on ahead. "I feel like we're going to need it. Peril and his dæmon, they have problems, and we don't want to have to kill them."
No we don't, Napoleon thinks, surprised. He's not entirely sure when he became so fond of Peril and Gaby--he usually isn't that fond of anyone but Étienne--but he doesn't want this mission to end like the CIA will want it to end.
The watch is heavy in his pocket when he shoots Alexander Vinciguerra in the back of the head. The man's dæmon goes up in a cloud of golden dust. He's lucky Gaby's alive--Napoleon hadn't been sure, not at first, he hadn't seen the little shrike dæmon anywhere--and so gets a quick death, not the drawn-out affair Illya and the caracal would have inflicted on him otherwise. The disk containing Udo Teller's parallel world research goes into Napoleon’s turtleneck. He lets Étienne swoop around and fuss over the other two dæmons--not that she speaks to them in a language they understand, or names herself, but then she never does--and waits patiently for Waverly.
Then it turns out that they haven't saved the world just yet, and they go running off to destroy Victoria Vinciguerra and Udo Teller's device, and then he returns to his hotel room and sleeps off the worst of electricity sickness, with some help from his mother's limonberry tea, and makes his plans.
He doesn't want to kill Peril. He doesn't like killing anyone, really--he's a thief, not a spy, and not an assassin--so he decides that he won't, Sanders be damned.
When Illya comes, bone-white, with his dæmon behind his legs, ears pressed against her skull in misery, Napoleon tosses him the funny watch and says, "My mother is a witch."
Napoleon doesn't feel much like offering anything else. He and Étienne don't share with other people as a general rule. The last time they did, it shackled them to the CIA. But Napoleon knows a thing or two about having a strange dæmon, about living on the border between two worlds--his and theirs--and about the awful weight of duty.
If he fails, he's going to spend the rest of his life in a prison cell. He doesn't think the CIA would go so far as to intercise him--a practice he is going to tell his mother about, and see if she wants to rally any of the Nova Zembla witches on a hunt for silver knives--but locking him and Étienne in a box until they starved for sunlight would do almost the same thing.
Not that he's ever going to tell Peril that. Saying it out loud would be too cliché. Étienne huffs a laugh and swats the back of his head. She's wearing her own feathers today, and she's beautiful. A concession to Peril, Napoleon thinks, though he wouldn't dream of outing her intentions to him.
Illya looks confused, but his dæmon--Aksinya, Étienne supplies--is nodding. "What are you going to do with that disk?"
Napoleon looks at the thing on the chair. "Well," he says, "I have a box of matches. Drink, Peril?"
And Illya, with a huff of laughter, comes to join him on the balcony.