There's a marked disadvantage to having to go about the business of espionage with a fox daemon by your side. People don't readily trust a man whose soul manifests as a creature known for guile and cunning. Any sensible person would think twice about buying a used car from a man like Napoleon, never mind leaving him unsupervised in the same room as the safe. A fox may mark the ideal temperament for espionage, but that's the problem: everyone you meet knows that.
Nowadays, the architects of international intelligence would much rather hire men accompanied by deft-fingered monkeys or swift-footed mice – creatures that can scale a wall or slip in the crack of a window and rifle through someone's documents undetected. Agents are recruited not as individuals but ready-made teams. Few surveillance tools can match the sight of a sharp-eyed raptor, while an owl will put even the latest night-vision goggles to shame, and bugs of many very literal varieties were creeping into private rooms to listen in on conversations long before technology caught up to the job. Long gone are the days when anyone in MI5 or the CIA worried much about the propriety of exploiting one's daemon for manual work. Any man or woman so precious about the subject would never make it far in the business to begin with – and if you can't manage at least an even 50-yard separation by the end of your training, you may soon find yourself reassigned to desk work.
Napoleon himself was by no means hired for the utility of his daemon, and he is (rightly) proud of that.
But the fox has connotations other than cunning, and so Napoleon hides in plain sight by cultivating a persona that other men would be more reluctant to leave alone with their daughters than with their documents. It's certainly no trial to Napoleon. His Josie is no dirty secret, skulking between the table legs, hunting for lost change or loose conversation, but an essential part of his introductions – "and my charming companion here…" (and you can be sure that a man who introduces his daemon to a lady is a man eager for the two of you to get to know one another better, perhaps intimately, and soon). With her immaculate red fur and black-socked feet, neat as opera gloves, Josie never looks out of place at society parties. At the least excuse, she'll arrive dolled up in a golden collar (perhaps stuffed with microfilm) and diamond earrings (usually concealing both a bug and a transceiver). There's little she loves more than a good party, and in that they are united.
True undercover work is trickier. Napoleon's reputation is such that THRUSH will always be on the lookout for a man with a red fox at his side. But a fox, conveniently, is not so different in shape from a small dog, and few would look twice at a man with a dog daemon. That a man whose soul takes the form of a dog is fit only for servitude is largely a myth, and a tired one at that – UNCLE themselves have more than a few dog-daemons in their own ranks nowadays (Heather McNabb, from the UNCLE's own intelligence division, has a dachshund daemon – and it probably seems a very sweet and innocent little thing to anyone who's never seen a dachshund dive down a tunnel after a rat or a weasel. There are a great many men with rat or weasel daemons in THRUSH). But the myth persists, and as long as it does, Josie and Napoleon have one more trick up their sleeve.
So, by the same magic that once transformed Agent Westcott's face into THRUSH commander Stryker's, and Westcott's pine martin into Stryker's polecat, UNCLE have found ways to hide Josie's striking red coat. Covered in a suit of long hair (her 'collection of fur coats,' as she likes to call them), with the distinctive fluff of her tail flattened away, she becomes a bearded collie or a Shetland Sheepdog. Few of her disguises would fool an expert up close, but they don't need to – fewer still pay her any attention. And why would they? Everyone knows a dog daemon marks a man who can be dismissed with a glance. Most of THRUSH's rank-and-file wouldn't be hired without one.
Of course, UNCLE itself strives to be a more open-minded sort of employer – and has to be, with so many member nations bringing their own individual approaches to the profession. But if the standard playbook applies only selectively to Napoleon, well, then there's his partner, who is (and who arrived accompanied by) a creature all his own.
The matter of his nationality was always going to raise a few eyebrows, even before Mr. Kuryakin's particular quirks were factored into the picture, and not simply for the usual reasons of politics. In Russia (so the story goes), a daemon may be viewed less as an asset than a liability. A man who has withstood long hours of torture without uttering a sound may still falter when his interrogator turns a hand to his daemon's fragile bones. Everyone in the business knows this much by necessity, though few have the stomach to exploit it (even in THRUSH, many satraps balk at such methods). But in Napoleon's generation, almost everyone has also heard at least one tale of a Soviet agent who, hog-tied and made to watch as his captors flayed his daemon's skin from her flesh, endured every moment without so much as a sound – who (in the more colourful versions) never even stopped smiling the same mad grin, in all the time they spent taking her apart.
Even those who (like Napoleon) opt to take such tales with a liberal helping of salt usually have at least one anecdote of their own about some particular spy of their acquaintance from east of Berlin, whose ability to separate from his daemon or disassociate from her pain was extraordinary. There is undeniably something ever so slightly off about the way some of their Soviet counterparts seem to relate to their daemons. Even within the professional community, the results are spoken of in hushed tones.
Some go so far as to suggest that Russian agents practice some form of partial intercision (a truly barbaric operation, still used on psychiatric patients in some parts of the world to this day). Even putting aside all questions of morality, Napoleon personally finds that rather lacking as an explanation. Given what even a 'successful' intercision does to a person, it would be hard to picture any of the Soviet agents of his acquaintance – or, indeed, any remotely effective spy – having survived such a procedure. Certainly, no reasonable person could ever imagine Illya had ever been the recipient of a spiritual lobotomy – he has far too much will and wit to his name.
Then again, even as someone who's met his share of other foreign agents in his time, Napoleon would have to admit that his partner's own daemon is something unique.
When Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin transferred to UNCLE New York, his paperwork listed his daemon as a house-cat, short-haired and of average size. There's nothing remarkable about a house-cat daemon. After dogs, they represent perhaps the most common form in which daemons are known to settle, being traditionally associated with individuals of an independent nature, perhaps somewhat aloof in temperament (in Illya's case, they also seem to mark a natural distrust of large dogs, and the ability to go up a tree like a squirrel). All this would inarguably to suit Mr. Kuryakin to a T.
Except that Illya's Murka doesn't behave like a daemon. She behaves like, well, a cat.
"You know," Napoleon had said to his partner once, "when I was growing up, there used to be an old woman who lived down the road – Mrs. Ivanova."
"A friend of that paranoid grandmother of yours from Iowa?" Illya had replied, without looking up. "Or one of your many and various grandfathers, perhaps?"
"She had a sparrow daemon, you know," Napoleon went on, undeterred. "But she also had a pet cat. Called 'Murka'."
"Ah. This is my cue to comment on this most astounding coincidence," Illya had replied, dryly.
"That is, I always assumed its name was Murka. But when I grew a little older, I realised that Mrs. Ivanova called every cat she met 'Murka'. It turned out that 'Murka' wasn't the cat's name at all, but rather a sort of Russian word for 'puss'."
"Well, that's hardly correct," said Illya, if without obvious investment in the topic. "To begin with, 'Murka' is feminine. If the cat is male…"
"So while it made a perfectly serviceable name for a cat," Napoleon had cut in, "it would be a rather odd name for a person. Or for a daemon."
"Is it? Well, I'm glad you brought that to my attention. I suppose one might also point out that, even having determined upon saddling one's son with the name of 'Napoleon', that most would still think twice about compounding the injustice by naming his daemon 'Josephine '." Only here, at last, had Illya bothered to look up from his desk. "And yet here we are."
"Touché," Josie had put in, amused. Napoleon had let the matter drop.
Murka dogs Illya's footsteps and answers to her name as diligently as any other daemon in the building. But where Josie would wait patiently by Napoleon's side, Murka surges past into new spaces, prowls into every corner, bats at doors she wishes to be let through, pounces on dust motes, and weaves her way underfoot. Of Illya she takes little notice. Indeed, days have gone by where Napoleon would swear he's never seen Illya grant her more than a single sideways glance. Independence is one thing, but Illya and Murka are something else.
Stranger still is that Murka doesn't talk – at least, not in the presence of anyone so unimportant as Napoleon, and if she speaks to Illya, never once has Napoleon caught her. Not in English, or in Russian, or in any other language Napoleon might recognise. Not so much as a single word.
From anyone else, that might not be remarkable – there are surely other daemons around the office Napoleon has never spoken to, like Wanda's chameleon or Sarah's secretary bird. He's not sure he's ever heard Waverly's orang utan daemon speak in all his years of service – mostly, she just hands Waverly important documents and gives Napoleon reproachful looks. Schoolboys of Napoleon's generation were still being taught that one's daemon (much like one's children), should be seen and not heard. No well-brought-up daemon would supersede her master by speaking before he, and only narcissists or inverts would be seen speaking at any length with their own daemon in public.
Spies, moreover, are trained to communicate in silence, whether with their daemon or their partners, so Murka's silence certainly isn't enough to suggest she and Illya don't communicate. No, the really odd thing is that Murka isn't silent. She mews when she wants attention, purrs when happy, and yowls when startled. Murka, in summation, doesn't act at all like a daemon. And Napoleon isn't the only person who isn't sure what to make of that, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Most people, if asked if they could tell a daemon from an ordinary animal at a glance, wouldn't hesitate to reply in the affirmative. Of course they could tell a man's soul from a beast – anything less would be blasphemous. Who would dare suggest man were indistinguishable from ape?
Even today, only a fraction of society is familiar with the research that demonstrates the opposite – that if you instruct a daemon to act like an animal and train an animal to behave like a daemon, very few people will correctly identify which is which. Agents like Napoleon are, of course, expected to keep up to date with such research. Illya's own countrymen are no different – many of those studies are their own. Within the business, it's common knowledge that the preferred type of daemon for the aspiring KGB agent nowadays isn't a fox like Napoleon's, suggesting the temperament of a spy – or even a second pair of hands like Waverly's orang utan – but something more discrete, like a bug or a mouse or a flea. Something small enough to hide in a man's pocket, while a well-trained dog trots along at his heels, diverting suspicion, and convincing all and sundry that his master has the temperament of a servant and may be dismissed as no threat.
Little mystery how that legendary agent who watched with a smile as his captors flayed off "his daemon's" skin really achieved his trick.
The trouble, of course, is that word eventually gets around. Nowadays, everyone knows the Russians use decoy daemons, and have been using them successfully for a generation or longer. Russian tactics, naturally, have evolved in pace.
Napoleon has been waiting in his dark alcove long enough to have just begun to wonder, when Josie whispers in his ear, "Movement up top – it's them!"
Though he hasn't her night vision, Napoleon is presently able to make out the silhouette of a deeper patch of shadow, moving against the sky, as his partner shimmies down the drainpipe. Illya lands in front of him at the base – not quite catlike in silence, but with no more than the faint pat of toes reaching earth.
"All clear?" Napoleon asks him.
"There was a guard on patrol on the way back," Illya reports. Murka mews softly in warning, then jumps neatly from the floor above to land on his shoulders, and from there to the ground. "But that was no worse than a slight delay; he went past us in the dark. The signal checked out?"
"Loud and clear," says Napoleon, holding up the receiver. The guard can't have passed very close to the new bugs, if Napoleon hadn't heard anyone moving around. But then, he'd never questioned that he hadn't heard Illya moving either – and he'd heard nothing at all after the gently-accented voice whispering, "Set," to test each device as it was placed. "Well, if there's no further business…"
"Freeze!" hollers a voice, out of the darkness over Illya's shoulder. Someone points a flashlight directly into Napoleon's eyes – after the gloom, it's blinding as a floodlight.
Obediently, he freezes on the spot. So does Illya, and so does Josie. Murka, however, yowls loudly, and goes tearing off into the shadows.
From the space behind the flashlight, someone barks, "What the…?!" There's a gunshot, and the torch dips briefly (Napoleon thinks, two men, and holds that thought).
One of the men steps forward, gun raised. "You, call her back!" he orders. "Call her back now, or so help me…"
Illya raises an eyebrow. "I can try, but I think you've scared her off."
"That's not his daemon, you stupid git," says another voice. "It's a cat." This, he spits. "I'll bet he has his real daemon up his sleeve somewhere."
"But, Sarge…" says the first man – but whatever argument he might have been about to make is lost, as this is when Murka, having scaled the side of the house unseen, hits him full in the face with a wail, claws unsheathed.
Getting past the second man and away is child's play after that.
"Do you think they'll realise they only caught us on the way out?" Napoleon wonders in the car, later, eyeing the transceiver in his hands uncertainly. Gratifying as that escape had been, he rather hopes they haven't just wasted a night's work.
"Not likely," says Illya, "In fact, I would give decent odds they may be too embarrassed to report the incident at all."
On the back seat, Murka washes herself with a self-satisfied air.
This is, of course, what Murka does best: she makes people wonder. They wonder how she could really be anyone's daemon, when she so stubbornly refuses to act like one. Then they wonder how she could possibly not be Illya's daemon, when any reasonable decoy would, at very the least, surely be much more subtle. Most will then go on to wonder if that's precisely what they're supposed to think – whether perhaps this is all reverse psychology meant to convince them she must be real, when she's exactly the fake she seems. Some will even wonder whether there's some obscure cultural thing at work – is this perhaps how all Russian daemons behave in public? The time they spend wondering all this they spend distracted, giving Napoleon and Illya the early edge in many an introduction. What Murka is, real or not, is a work of genius.
If all this hasn't sufficiently unsettled them, Murka is entirely prepared to escalate. Disinterestedly washing herself in front of people who think themselves rather more important than they deserve is one favourite tactic. Napoleon can recount having seen her, in full view of some dignitary, lift her leg and put her tongue to her nether regions, apparently without a care in the world. When Murka is ignoring you, she'll make sure you know.
On other occasions she takes to the floor underfoot, where she becomes both a tripping hazard and a test to the last fibre of the greatest of social taboos. No civilised man or woman would dream of touching another man's daemon. Murka, prowling around, perhaps even headbutting your ankles like a pet seeking affection, is the sort of distraction that would see a lesser man than Illya quickly banned from venues across the world. But while people are focused on at Murka, they're not looking at Illya, or whatever items he may be palming off their desk – and they're certainly not looking at Napoleon, or whatever device he might have just planted by their phone, and they've absolutely forgotten all about Josie, who may be just about anywhere in the building by now.
Illya, like any good spy, knows exactly how and when to create a scene.
That much said, the job is no prerequisite for Murka's worst behaviour – as Napoleon (who knows Illya's wicked streak as well as anyone) can well attest. Where some men proclaim they can size another man up solely by the strength of his handshake, Illya, it seems, prefers to judge people by what they make of his companion. Superiors of Mr. Waverly's class are, of course, exempt – though the number of people who still outrank Illya has shrunk considerably as of his last few promotions. Even Napoleon evidently does not count, for Murka has been treating him to quite flagrant shows of affection since he and Illya were first partnered.
("Illya?" he'd asked, on one of those first occasions, back when their partnership had still prickled with newness, and the battle of one-upmanship between them had yet to settle into comfortable familiarity of later years, "Your daemon is rubbing herself on my leg."
"Oh?" replied Illya, as if he hadn't noticed. "Yes, she does that."
"I'll take it as a compliment, shall I?" Napoleon had replied – puzzled and thrown, but refusing to be silenced into the polite fiction that none of this was happening.
"If you like," Illya had agreed, and gone back to pretending to pay no attention. Murka had mewed at him one final time, then left him alone.)
It had seemed rather less of a compliment once he began to see Murka subject others to the same treatment, but by then, he'd been starting to understand.
Nowadays, of course, having been there to witness more such incidents than he can count, Napoleon likes to think he's earned the right to feel he's in on the joke. So when Murka tries the same trick on him, he's taken to playing along with her flagrant demands for affection in his own way.
(Truthfully, this isn't the only reason. The first time he'd bent to give her a rub behind the ears had been little more than a whim – a stubborn impulse not to be out-bluffed. He can still remember the look Illya had turned on him afterwards, sharp and bright. He remembers his own glow of satisfaction, in knowing that just for once, he'd managed to surprise his new partner (one tempered only ever so slightly by the faintest prickle of fear, that just maybe he'd gone too far). But Illya hadn't said anything, and Murka, her fur soft and warm under his fingers, certainly hadn't seemed to mind.)
It's become obvious since that neither man nor daemon mind (that, or both are determined to out-bluff Napoleon by hook or by crook). Murka never has stopped her habit of twining herself around Napoleon's legs, so Napoleon has blithely gone on answering her requests for his affection, just as he would any other lady seeking it. If anything, it only seems to encourage her – under his hands, he's had her purring up a storm time and again. There's something quite gratifying about it, even – that notwithstanding Illya's untouchable nature, Murka is so willing to reach out. It's certainly no trial to Napoleon.
There've been times – hours at length, sometimes – when Napoleon has managed to convince himself he's proven Murka false. If she's not real, then by touching her, he's broken no taboo. Besides, she's done enough for them both that she surely deserves a little gratitude, especially when Illya himself seems so reluctant to show it to her.
But the idea never will quite settle to his own satisfaction for long. He isn't sure he likes what it says about him, that so much of Napoleon wants Murka to be Illya's walking soul. It's an uneasy thought, that Illya might have some other daemon – some other part of himself, that Napoleon knows nothing of, even after all these years.
He isn't sure what it says about him that he's so willing to put his hands on Illya's soul either.
But having failed to trap Illya into admitting anything, they've been at this stalemate for long enough that Napoleon rarely thinks on the matter anymore. Easier to comfort himself with the thought that he's helping Murka's cover, maintaining the convenient fiction that she's no more than a decoy, in the eyes of anyone spying on them while he and Illya are alone. After all, they are… what they are. No-one gets far in this job without being willing to accept the occasional broken taboo in the name of the cause.
Besides, it's not as though Illya has never returned the favour. Only last year, there'd been that job where they'd been just a little too slow, and Napoleon had woken in the rubble of a half-fallen building, feeling shell-shocked and punch-drunk, dimly aware that the voice calling his name from the far side of the impenetrable wall of debris that had come done between them was his partner's. He'd meant to call to Illya, to tell him he was alive, but there didn't seem to be any air in his lungs.
By the time Illya found him, Napoleon had been quite unable unable to focus on the shape of his partner leaning over his body, calling his name as if from far away. There'd been blood on his brow and cracks in his ribs, but what pinned him prone and gasping had not been his own pain. Illya had understood.
(When he lets himself, Napoleon still sometimes remembers the irrational fear he'd felt then, not that he was going to die, but that she was dying, and that he – unable to see or touch her in her final moments – would somehow be left behind.)
The weight on his chest must have abated when Illya had found Josie and dug her out of the rubble, but what Napoleon remembers most vividly is the rush of comfort that had come after – the overwhelming sense of warmth and safety that came over him when Illya had gathered Josie into his arms. It didn't matter then how much longer it might take Illya to get back to his side, before he could bury his own hands in Josie's fur again. She was safe, and Napoleon was safe, and that was all that mattered.
He doesn't remember much after that, but he does remember waking once in the ambulance, finding Illya and Josie with his eyes, and finally waking again in hospital with Josie curled at his side. Illya had been gone by then, but had left more than enough impression to tide the both of them over.
Napoleon had been much better by the morning, and feeling sharp enough to pinpoint the very moment Illya stepped onto their floor by the pricking of Josie's ears, as she wagged her tail and all but dropped into a play bow right there in her excitement.
"You're going to embarrass both of us," Napoleon had warned her out of the corner of his mouth, amused.
"What?" replied Josie, apparently oblivious to her own behaviour. "Am I? Oh, but I can't help it! He was just so…" she wriggled in enthusiasm. But she'd calmed down enough by the time Murka came surging in through the door with Illya in her wake that it could probably be written off as ordinary gratitude. Napoleon had quite intended to mock her for it later (One big, strong man carries out of a building you in his arms, and you take to it like a romantic heroine?), but he'd never quite got around to it.
Napoleon can well imagine that among the stricter, more old-fashioned schoolmasters of his youth, there would be those who'd rather die than suffer the indignity of another's hands upon their daemon, but Napoleon cannot imagine objecting. He can't imagine objecting to even a complete stranger's hands on Josie, had it saved her life – but there's a rightness to it having been Illya, his partner. A rightness only reinforced when Murka had hopped up on the bed beside him and shoved her head under his hand until he'd consented to giving her the rub behind the ears she so obviously craved.
"You spoil her terribly," Illya had complained, but there'd been a smile on the edge of his lips.
How Josie had felt in Illya's arms is more than Napoleon is ever likely to forget. If it's anything like that for Illya to have Napoleon's hands on Murka, well, who would deny him? Sometimes, it seems only natural that it should fall so between them. The bond between a man and his daemon is everything a good partnership of spies should seek to emulate – their minds known to one another, communication passing between them unspoken, with no more than a look or a nod to confirm it. Indeed, Napoleon has sometimes imagined that in another life, Illya might well have been born as his own daemon, or Napoleon as his. The bond between them runs nigh as deep.
Murka is… Murka. To quibble over further details, when they already share so much, feels blasphemous.
Still, it occasionally bothers Napoleon, in that faint, nagging way of matters that will never settle to one's own satisfaction, that he and Illya should be as close as they are, and yet never once has he heard Illya's daemon speak. How much closer could he and Illya ever hope to be?
If Murka declines to speak to him, it's certainly not for lack of openings. Napoleon has often shared his thoughts with her in this past, for all that this practicably amounts to thinking aloud. It's obviously not that Illya's people disapprove of speaking to one another's daemons (regardless of the strict factuality of his anecdote about Mrs. I., Napoleon has met other civilians of that nationality), or even that Illya disapproves of the practice for whatever obscure personal reason. After all, he talks to Josie without self-consciousness of any kind. (Napoleon has, in fact, more than once accused them of conspiring against him).
"Has she ever said anything to you?" he'd asked Josie once, on a whim.
"Really, Napoleon," she'd scolded him, "you wouldn't expect me to give away another lady's secrets, would you?"
"Perish the thought," Napoleon had replied, disappointed, but less by her secrecy than by the firm impression that the answer would have been 'no'.
And it's hardly as though he's the only one wondering. On all three of the occasions when Napoleon has had opportunity to read one of THRUSH's official dossiers on himself and his partner (once at his leisure at UNCLE HQ, once hurriedly by torchlight, and once at a formal presentation he'd attended in an itchy false moustache under the assumed name of 'Miles Underhill'), he's had the satisfaction of noting that in fooling his friends, Illya has most certainly succeeded in fooling his enemies. The debate over whether or not Murka represents the true and authentic form of Illya Kuryakin's daemon has clearly been raging at THRUSH's own intelligence division for the better part of his and Illya's partnership. Every lost moment of resources spent on the question is a true credit to Murka's name.
Other interest comes from closer to home. Napoleon is modest enough to admit that a few of his dinner dates from among UNCLE's secretarial pool might never have happened, had the chance to fish for information about his partner over dessert not beckoned. Attempts have ranged from the subtle ("What's he like to work with, really?") to the direct ("So what kind of animal is his real daemon? Everyone you talk to has a different theory.") When the obvious deflections don't succeed, Napoleon typically provides some variation on the obvious answer ("Now, now, you can't expect me to give away all of Mr. Kuryakin's secrets, least of all on a first date.") Those who persist in asking on subsequent dates soon find they stop being invited on dates at all.
It stings, though, just a little. Not to be used that way (that's all part of the business, turn and turn alike), but to be reminded that no matter how many times he tells himself that it doesn't matter whether Murka is real or false, everyone at UNCLE assumes he must know. How could he not? Someone must know – UNCLE's medical staff, if no-one else, because misidentification of the daemon of a man going into surgery can be catastrophic. Teams as close as Napoleon and Illya couldn't possibly function in the field without knowing that much about one another at the least.
He only wishes what everyone assumed were actually true.
There are depths of depravity to which even THRUSH would hesitate to sink, but UNCLE well knows there is plenty that may be done to a man's daemon that falls within their purview. Twice in his career, Napoleon has visited facilities functioning under the cover of schools, where scores of children were indoctrinated into obedience, some no older than eight or nine. The children themselves were secondary; what THRUSH truly sought was their daemons, too young to have settled. Creatures who could slip under the crack of a locked door in the shape of a fly, then burst free in the shape of a rhino – the possibilities were endless. THRUSH aren't the first to put the young to such uses – not by at least a thousand years, and the child who can long stand such use without settling prematurely is rare indeed. But there will always be someone twisted enough to try, and who will find THRUSH a welcomingly open-minded employer.
Other schemes are much newer inventions. For many years, the accepted wisdom was that daemons were immune to hypnotic suggestion, or were susceptible only through their human companions. What means THRUSH might have found to subvert that rule, their enemies can only speculate. All UNCLE knows for sure is that Agent Stravinsky and his daemon were certified for duty by every medical or psychological test in the book after his rescue from captivity – and that for two long months, no-one had any reason to doubt them. And so it stayed, until the day when a courier arrived at New York HQ with a package containing the single largest haul of captured THRUSH documents Napoleon had ever seen in one place – whereupon Stravinsky's daemon swiftly locked herself in the main control room, and locked down the entire building.
The lab has yet to positively identify the gas she fed into the air-conditioning system. It wasn't toxic, thank god – the effect merely sedative, but it must have been heavy, because the first to be affected were those daemons of Josie's height, who were always afoot in the halls. (Josie had been lucky – she and Napoleon had been on the top floor when people began dropping, trying to make sense of why the building had just locked Illya and Murka outside on the roof. At least communications had still been up at that point, or Illya might have spent the whole fiasco with no idea what was going inside at all.)
Napoleon won't soon forget the experience of strapping a miniature gas-mask onto Josie's face and feeding her into the overhead crawlspace of the air-vents. The space in those vents was too tight for human proportions, but it was the only way into the control room left. He'll remember the small infinity of the wait after she disappeared, not knowing whether that might be the last of her he ever saw. He'll certainly remember the desperation in Stravinsky's voice as he hammered on the door from without – helpless, unknowing, impossibly betrayed by his own soul. Napoleon will remember watching Stravinsky go limp and slump unconscious to the floor. But most of all, he'll remember when the door slid open and Josie came prancing proudly out to him, mask hanging loose under her neck, the shape of an unconscious, golden-haired monkey clutched victoriously in her jaws.
For all the horror of the day, by sundown, the skeleton crew still staffing headquarters stand flushed with victory. No-one died this day; even Stravinsky and his daemon are expected to make a full recovery. UNCLE will move heaven and earth to find a way to de-program her – not just for him, but to make sure the same trick can never happen again. THRUSH had played their trump card too soon and lost – and in doing so, they've proven the value of UNCLE's present hand beyond a shadow of doubt.
Mr. Waverly duly congratulates them all on a job well done, then wastes no time in gathering every man or women of sufficient clearance whom medical can be convinced to release, and presses them back to work processing that hard-won package of documents. Whatever THRUSH was so desperate to hide must be acted upon before it is too late. By the time the sun rises tomorrow, the information must be on its way to a dozen other branch offices around the world.
The office has gone largely quiet again by the time Napoleon returns from escorting the last of the couriers to the airfield. It's past 11, but a light in the main computer lab leads him to where his partner is still hard at work.
"I thought you were finishing up when I left," he says to Illya.
His partner turns around, eyes masked behind the tinted lenses of his glasses, and shrugs back at him. "So did I, but I must have made an input error somewhere in the last series. I will have to find it and run this again. New Delhi are still waiting on my answer. It should only take another hour or so."
On top of a filing cabinet, Murka sits with her tail curled around her feet. The gas was all supposed to have been flushed out of the air conditioning system hours ago, but it's not for nothing that Josie has been semi-consciously playing hopscotch over the furniture in the office all evening.
"It could wait until tomorrow morning, surely," says Napoleon, who thinks he remembers enough about the job Illya was doing when he left to be sure.
"It could," Illya agrees, "but it will take me less time now, while it's fresh in my mind. Anyway, one more hour is probably no more than I owe after my extended lunch break on the roof today." The smile he gives Napoleon is rueful.
"Would another set of hands help?" Napoleon offers.
"Thankyou, but I suspect I will finish this faster working without distraction. You don't have to wait up."
Inwardly, Napoleon shivers. The memory of how it had felt to push Josie up into the overhead duct is still fresh in his mind. She'd never been more than a wall away; just as Illya had been, up on the roof when communications had cut out between them, but Napoleon may never have felt the width of a few walls so keenly.
He and Illya have both been too busy to say much to one another since Josie had taken back the control room. He wonders, in the whim of the moment, whether Illya would have fainted like the others, had Murka been underfoot when the gas rolled in. Perhaps he'll never know.
Napoleon doesn't go home right away that night. He gives Illya some excuse about having paperwork to finish up (which is never wholly untrue), and retreats to his office down the hall.
He couldn't have easily explained what he thought he might achieve by staying when he settled back at his desk, beyond some vague idea about moral support. But it's no surprise when Murka pads into his office barely ten minutes later, hopping up onto his desk with a plaintive miaow that he knows only too well. Napoleon scratches her idly behind the ears with one hand, his eyes still on his page. Murka rolls onto her side under his hand, and it isn't long before she's purring up a storm, arching herself this way and that to direct him, her short fur soft beneath his fingers.
Normally, he wouldn't linger over this, but there's little risk of their being disturbed at this hour, and for once Napoleon legitimately has nothing more important to do than indulge her – certainly nothing he needs both hands for. Besides, it's rather nice to have the company, while Josie doses lightly on his desk (the knack of sleeping while your daemon watches, or watching while your daemon sleeps, is another old speciality of the business – staying awake while your daemon is gassed into unconsciousness unexpectedly, unfortunately, is a much more challenging trick).
If he's honest with himself (and at this hour, he's almost too tired not to be), then one of the reasons Napoleon so badly wants her to be Illya's true daemon is that it's comforting to think her behaviour represents Illya's way of seeking the companionship and affection he would never ask for openly. He supposes that by the same reasoning, this is his own way of offering Illya that – and perhaps it's time he admitted that the day he finally learns Murka's secret will be the day they lose this silent avenue of companionship. And perhaps because the day has been long, and Napoleon is too tired to wholly stifle his own sentimental streak, he supposes that he's content to live with the mystery as long as he has this much – has Illya for his partner, and Murka's lithe body vibrating with contentment under his fingers.
He's startled back into the present some interminable time later by the pricking of Josie's ears; her quiet gasp of, "Napoleon!" the only warning before the moment Illya appears in the office doorway. Instantly, Napoleon knows something is wrong. Illya looks flushed and unsteady in a way that an hour's work at a computer terminal cannot hope to account for. But it's the way his gaze falls on Murka – on Napoleon's hand on Murka – that is Napoleon's first warning of just how far he's overstepped.
"Napoleon," Illya breathes, "do you have any idea what you're doing to me?"
Napoleon jerks his hand away from Murka as if stung, the magnitude of his error settling like lead in his gut. That's Illya's soul he's been pawing – and even if Illya could overlook the overtures of affection Napoleon has made towards Murka in the past, this time he's gone far too far. Tongue-tied by the impossible task of finding the words to apologise, Napoleon makes to stand – but Illya, advancing through the space separating them like a man on a mission, is faster. He shoves Napoleon back into his seat by the shoulder, twisting the chair away from the desk on its base, and before Napoleon can make sense of what he's doing, Illya is sliding into Napoleon's lap like he was born to fit there, and then…
Kissing Illya – being kissed by Illya – is a revelation; the answer to a question Napoleon had never known to ask. The rightness of him in Napoleon's arms, in his mouth, bracketing Napoleon's thighs with his own, is overwhelming. Napoleon feels the greatest fool in all of world – how could he have not known?
"You," Illya tells him, at length, "are by far the greatest tease I have ever had the misfortune to know. And if you do not let me take you home now, I will not be answerable for my actions."
"Then, the job…?" Napoleon asked stupidly.
"Is finished, no thanks to you," Illya growls, and by god, Napoleon can picture it – Illya's steely determination not to be distracted by his partner's incomprehensible choice of this moment to escalate whatever the hell he thinks they've been doing all this time – not until he's damn well finished the job he started.
"We can take my car," says Napoleon, quickly. Ten minutes ago, the thought of taking Illya home would never have occurred to him. Now, there's nothing he could imagine wanting more. "I'll drive."
"Good," says Illya, sliding to his feet. Cryptically, he adds, "We can see how you like it." He picks Murka up from her boneless sprawl on Napoleon's desk by the scruff of her neck, giving her a look that suggests the two of them will have words later, and drapes her over his shoulder as he makes for the door.
Napoleon rises shakily to his feet. He makes eye-contact briefly with Josie, finding her just as wide-eyed and stunned as he feels. Her claws scrabble against his desk as she finds her own feet and jumps off the desk to follow Illya. That leaves only Napoleon, who hasn't a hope of putting his shattered world back together again in the time it will take Illya to reach the parking garage. He swallows quickly and follows them out.
Napoleon has many years of experience at keeping his head in times of panic and horror, and that is the only reason he has any confidence in his ability to drive in his current state. Illya is sitting in the seat beside him, almost close enough to taste. Napoleon has tasted him, and now he's starving for more. He wants to pull over, push Illya's seat back, and do things to him he's never contemplated doing to another man before. If he wakes up tomorrow to find this is all a drug-induced fever dream, he won't question it. He feels like he's stepped into someone else's life; like he's stepped out during the intermission and come back to find the cinema playing a different film altogether. He isn't sure what will be left of his own self-image tomorrow morning. He's even less sure he’ll care.
They're pulling out of the parking garage when Illya reaches back to pluck Josie from the foot well behind and drags her into his lap. Josie gives a little startled, "Oh!" but she settles into his arms against his shoulder with a look of bliss, as Illya buries his fingers in her fur. How it had felt when Illya pulled her out of the rubble that day in the ruins is not something Napoleon will ever forget – that feeling comes rushing back, but this is different again. It's like having Illya in his arms again – like having Illya under his skin, making himself at home with the most intimate parts of Napoleon. There aren't words in Napoleon's vocabulary to do it justice.
Napoleon gasps and stares for as long as he dares. The sly smile on Illya's face promises that he knows exactly what he's doing to Napoleon. That he means perfectly well to continue doing this until Napoleon either gets them home, or gets them killed. This, Illya's eyes promise, is payback.
Was this what it must have been like for Illya, ever time Napoleon reached down to let Murka rub herself over his knuckles? No wonder Illya accused him of being a tease – what else could he have thought Napoleon was doing? Thoroughly chastised, it's all Napoleon can do to keep his eyes on the road.
He swears then that he'll make it up to Illya. He'll make it up a thousand times over.
By some miracle they make it home alive to stumble in through the door. Illya is barely over the doorstep before he's turning back to Napoleon, and Napoleon walks right into him and keeps going, until he has Illya pressed up bodily back against the wall, his mouth on Illya's, while Illya's hands flatten themselves back against the plaster, as they fall shaking against his shoulders, on his shirt, tugging it out of his pants and scrabbling at the buttons. At their feet, Josie and Murka are woven so tightly together Napoleon isn't sure whose fur is whose – Murka still purring like a motor; she hasn't stopped all night.
Somehow they make it to the bedroom without tripping, not until Illya shoves him back against the sheets, straddling his hips on the bed. Napoleon lands beneath him, intimately aware that the most dangerous man he knows has him exactly where he wants him – perhaps where he's been trying to lead him since the day they met – and there's nowhere in the world Napoleon would rather be.
Napoleon wakes to a warm weight on his chest which resolves into Murka, curled into a little circle of fur with her tail wrapped around her body. As he blinks into wakefulness, a hand sneaks in from his peripheral vision to pet her between the ears.
"She took to you before I did, originally," Illya confesses, as Murka leans into his hand and begins to purr. "But I think we all have a saying or two about the sort of man who long ignores the instincts of his own daemon. It must be the only subject on which both my mother and Dr. Freud might ever be in agreement." Between them, Josie is sprawled comfortably, looking much as Napoleon feels.
Napoleon looks over at his partner, sleep-ruffled and still strangely beautiful in the early morning light spilling in through the window, and feels his heart catch in his throat. How on earth had he not known?
"I must say, Napoleon, you do know how to keep a man guessing," Illya continues, "I would never have supposed you the sort to make such a game of a courtship, had I not the experience to prove it. For months, I've been waiting for you to make your move. And yet I get nothing for my patience but this constant flirting."
"Ah," says Napoleon, feeling suddenly very sober. He watches Murka blink sleepily at him from his chest. This probably isn't the best time he could have chosen to make the admission he has coming, but he'll only make it worse for himself by waiting. "Actually... I might have a confession to make on that front. The truth is, I never really realised I was doing it until last night."
Illya's eyebrows reach for his hairline. "You? Unaware? How?"
Napoleon takes a breath and chooses his words with some care. "Well, you see – the first time I touched her, I hadn't known you long, and I hardly knew what to make of her yet. Back then, I was fairly convinced I was only calling your bluff. Afterwards, it seemed wrong to stop, when she so obviously enjoyed the attention. Neither of you seemed to mind, so I suppose I stopped thinking about it." He turns to Illya properly, wanting to sit up, but reluctant to dislodge Murka just yet. "Illya, you have to realise, I've never been with another man before."
There's more he could add – that it scares him a little, to discover that anyone's hands could feel so right on Josie's fur as Illya's do. That Illya takes his breath away. But the time isn't right for such confessions, when he can see Illya still making sense of the first. "Never?" he breathes.
"Never. If I'd realised what I was doing to you to begin with, I… probably wouldn't have. It never occurred to me she was trying to bring us together."
"Hmph," says Illya, prodding Murka in the neck. "You give her too much credit. She's enjoyed having you all to herself this long," He gives Napoleon a dangerous smile, then sweeps Murka unceremoniously off his chest. "But it's my turn now," he declares, levering himself over Napoleon with naked intent. "It seems I have much still to show you of just how this can be with another man."
Later, Napoleon will feel that that particular confession had gone down rather well, all considered.
It's rather later in the morning by the time Illya finally prods him out of bed to go and make them some coffee. On route to the kitchen, he finds both Murka and Josie spooned together on the couch, Murka grooming the back of Josie's neck with her tongue, Josie herself looking as content as Napoleon has ever seen her. Clearly they've taken being banished from the bedroom in their stride.
"Comfortable?" he asks as he passes.
Josie cracks open an eye. "Napoleon," she tells him, seriously, "I have had a revelation. All of that silly boys-and-girls nonsense they filled your head with back in school – so unnecessarily limiting. As the literal manifestation of your better judgement, I have let you down."
"I don't know that…" Napoleon starts – though it's comforting in its way, that the both of them are in this together, feeling just as foolishly blind as one another.
"High time we made up for it. I – mmm," this break in her spiel comes with a satisfied wriggle as Murka evidently gets a particularly good spot, "I say we begin immediately."
Napoleon raises his eyes to Murka, who looks terribly pleased with herself, and runs his knuckles through her fur. "I think your friend here has been guilty of starting without us."
Murka pauses in her ministrations to purr, "Murr-welcome," before returning her attention to her new conquest. Her accent is much stronger than Illya's, her voice rough and feline, and quite the most beautiful thing Napoleon has ever heard.
He makes it to the kitchen with his head spinning, startled by a reflection in the kitchen window of a man grinning like Napoleon hasn't grinned in years.