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Counting Magpies

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One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told

 

Napoleon meets Illya’s eyes, and the decision more or less makes itself. Gaby’s in no position to help. He glances over to where she leans against the control panel, one bloody hand pressed to her side while the other hovers over the final key.

The gun to Illya’s head immobilizes all of them, but Napoleon does not need to move.

When he focuses, he feels the familiar cool whisper, like just barely dipping one’s fingers into a stream. He gathers it, twists, and lets it fly away from him. He feels it when it wraps around the security guard’s hand. Two of the bones in the man’s palm snap audibly as the gun forcibly comes around to point into his face.

Illya starts moving as soon as he feels the barrel move off of the back of his skull. By the time he finishes turning, the guard lies crumpled on the floor, a spray of red and grey mist on the wall behind where his head was previously.

To their credit, neither Gaby nor Illya pause long. She finishes clearing away the data they've been trying to keep from THRUSH's hands. He checks the hall to see if they will encounter anyone else on the way out.

They do not.

 

"You." Illya grits out, too loud despite his control. "You will explain."

Napoleon raises an eyebrow at him as he finishes scrubbing Gaby's blood from his hands. "Will you even be able to hear it?"

" Сука ." His hands, Napoleon notices, are shaking. "This was— Колдовство́ ."

The word for witchcraft is rarely positive in any language, and from the way that Illya spits the word, it doesn’t seem that he means it kindly. Still, Napoleon must admit that it’s a fair assessment. He did just shoot someone without raising a hand.

Gaby takes Napoleon’s silence as her cue to speak. “When were you going to tell us?”

“When it became necessary.”

Illya makes a disgusted sound and lurches to his feet, but she reaches out and closes her hand around his wrist. “We should hear his explanation.”

There is no mistaking the challenge in her voice.

Napoleon draws a very slow breath and then lets it out in a long sight. “Fine. It’s a long story. You’ll want to make yourselves comfortable.”

Illya remains standing.

“Alright then…” He dries his hands, gets a glass of water each for himself and for Gaby, and then settles into a wingback chair. “How much do you know about magic?”

“Some,” Gaby replies.

Illya only shrugs.

His head hurts. Moving that guard’s hand had taken comparatively little magic so it could have been worse, but it wasn’t ideal. He draws a deep breath and explains.


 

He was three the first time he used magic. He wanted light. Thirty years later, he cannot even remember why, but he recalls what it felt like to reach out to the magic with nothing more than fear and intent to guide him. He did not know that was what he was doing. He wanted, he searched for a way to do it, and his mind caught onto something that felt like rushing water. He—scooped at it, inexpert, and it slipped through his grasp. So he tried again.

This time, he caught some of it. It drew on him, too.

Either the sudden flash of blue-white light or his cry of shock had woken his parents. In a moment, his mother was by his side, wrapping her arms around him.

A stór …”

She held him too tight. He remembered that much very clearly. He clung to her anyway because he was very young and he did not understand what had just happened. Then she took his chin in one callused hand and stared him straight in the eyes. Even in the dark, he was able to see that, or maybe he just thought he could. His mother had green eyes, green as glass, and kind.

“You’re never, ever to do that without talking to me first, do you understand?”

Had he been older, that only would have made him determined to try again. But in the dark, afraid, he listened. It was his sudden exhaustion that let him fall back to sleep at all.

The next morning, she sat him down and told him all about the magic, and how important it was that he be very, very careful with it. Every piece of it they borrowed they had to pay for, and the cost could get very high indeed. It was, she reminded him over and over as the years went on, impossible to steal magic.

He had taken that as something of a challenge.


 

After he finishes telling them what he knows—most of it, anyway—Illya and Gaby only look at him for a moment. The safe house is very quiet for a few moments afterward.

Then Illya’s shoulders slump. “I—understand. Why you did not say before. We do not encourage magic in Russia. It is for government, or not at all.”

Gaby’s lips press into a tight line. They all know about how Russia has drained Berlin. The damn wall went up as much to stop magicians from leaving East Berlin as it did to stop the Brain Drain. She’s very lucky she’s not magical in the slightest.

There are places, the USA for example, where magicians can make themselves a fortune without ever putting themselves at any real risk.

None of those magicians had been blackmailed into joining the CIA.

Napoleon looks at them—the set of Illya’s shoulders and the way Gaby drains her glass too quickly—and decides that this is the best he can hope for under the circumstances.

It’s not like they don’t know he lies. And yet.

And yet it still surprises him when Gaby takes him by the hand, and Illya with her other, and leads them both to the same room. Illya wraps an arm around his waist. The shower is too small by far to share, so they let Gaby have it first, and then Napoleon, and then Illya because he swears that it does not bother him if they’re a little low on hot water.

They content themselves with warming him by sharing body heat, in deference to Gaby’s injury and his own need for rest. Illya lies between them, wrapped protectively around Gaby, Napoleon at his back.

In the morning, Napoleon takes the jar of salve off of the windowsill where it had been drinking in the moonlight to wake its magic. He coats the cut in Gaby’s side with it while her nose wrinkles at its sharp smell. By the time the moon rises again, they can remove her stitches and tuck her into bed after a hearty meal.

Illya looks at him across Gaby’s sleeping form, his brow furrowed. “You are sure this is normal, Koschei?”

He manages not to blink at the new nickname. “She’ll be fine in the morning. It’s tiring to heal so quickly.”

“I trust you.” He says, and Napoleon’s head snaps up. Illya raises a brow. “If I did not, you would not be using magic on Gaby.”

It seems remarkably simple when Illya puts it that way. Napoleon keeps his questions to himself and begins unbuttoning his shirt.

“If you tell Waverly, we will keep you safe.”

He lets out a little huff of breath and then realizes that Illya is entirely serious. “Appreciated, Peril.”

 

Protection spells done the slow way, the way his mother had taught him, feel like trying to redirect a river through solid granite. He carves patterns over and over, coaxing power into them before locking it under thin sheets of gold leaf. His mother had burned hers into wood and treated them with scented oils. His father had worn one along with his dog tags. These were leather and gilt.

“Magic,” he explains to Gaby, “Likes organic material.”

“People.”

“Yes. The more life, the better.” He digs in another line and feels his back teeth buzz in his jaw. Napoleon takes a breath, sharpens his focus, and continues working. “So, leather to power the spell, metal to hold it down. Pass me the awl?”

Gaby hands it over. “What is this costing you?”

“Very little.” He pushes the tool through the leather and begins sewing a loop so that Illya can hang his from a chain. “My job is to link magic to the spell.”

He can feel Gaby’s eyes on him. She’s a very clever woman, and he can feel sweat prickling on his forehead.

“It’s about willpower, isn’t it. That’s why you don’t see more charms.”

In a sense. “Yes.” He lets out a short huff of laughter. “I’m not sure if it’s lucky or not that you and Peril can’t use magic.”

Gaby passes him a cloth so he can wipe away the sweat on his face, and then tilts her head thoughtfully. “I think it’d be best if I wore mine on a garter.”

The smile he directs her way at that makes her smack his arm, but she does it fondly.