Chapter 1: Napoleon
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.”
“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.
Chapter 2: Gaby
His mother kept a book on the top shelf in the kitchen. It was as large as her book of recipes, with a cracked, leather binding and loose sheets of paper sticking out of it at odd intervals. In two years of lessons, she had never brought it down for him.
He saw her leafing through it a few times, late at night, her brow furrowed, her fingers skimming over the over the spells inscribed within it. In his mind, they were the stuff of fairytales—how to enchant mirrors and potions in which one could soak a spindle to make someone sleep for a hundred years. More importantly, though, it was off-limits.
So, he waited.
One day, his mother was out, his two oldest sisters were at school, and his twin was asleep. So was the neighbor who was supposed to be keeping an eye on them.
He pushed a chair all the way over to the bookcase, climbed up onto it, and then stretched up onto his toes. He still could not quite touch it, so he reached out and found the lake of power that flowed around the edges of the world. He only needed a few drops to tip the book over the edge and into his hands.
He caught it, swayed, and then hopped down from the chair.
When he opened the book, he found lines of faded writing on old sheets of paper. He could only read a few of the words, but it offered a taste of what magic could do beyond the shallows.
Gaby marches down to Waverly’s office bright and early, her new protection charm cool against one thigh, under her dress. The secretary does not stop try to stop her. Waverly does not seem to be surprised when she comes in, either.
“Good morning, Miss Teller.”
“Good morning.” She pulls out a chair, sits. “Napoleon’s a magician.”
Waverly’s teacup stops halfway to his mouth. Slowly, he lowers it to its saucer. Then he leans back in his chair and begins cleaning his spectacles. “I… see.”
She wishes idly that she had her sunglasses on. At her height, it is easier to make it clear she is looking down her nose when she has props.
“Well. That certainly changes things.” He gestures with the cloth. “I do have to wonder whether Agent Solo knows you’re here telling me this.”
“Of course.” Gaby smiles a little too sweetly. “Is this going to be a problem?”
Their handler waits another moment before sighing, re-settling his glasses on his nose, and waving him toward the door. “No, I don’t see why it should be. That will be all for now, thank you.”
She does not linger.
Half a week later, the three of them get called to Waverly’s office. Napoleon, for all his careful poise, always looks like he’s been called to the principal’s office for a scolding. He takes the chair that will allow him to make the quickest exit, Illya the one that makes it hardest for people to sneak up on him, and Gaby perches herself directly on Waverly’s desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees both of her boys stifling smiles.
“What do you have for us this time?” She asks with a tip of her chin.
Waverly flips the file open. “There’s a group operating out of Burgos studying how magic works. Now ordinarily, this would all be very exciting, since wizards are notoriously tight-lipped about that sort of thing.” Here, he pointedly does not look at Napoleon, “And unless, of course, we’re talking about the sort of command over magic that could make nuclear weapons irrelevant, knowledge rarely hurts people… However . THRUSH has been in contact with them, and so it is vital that we eliminate the threat that the group and its research pose before they pass on anything potentially world-ending.”
A rustle of expensive wool and silk tells her Napoleon has shifted in his seat. “At least I don’t have to ask why you’re sending us.”
There’s an edge to his voice that makes Gaby turn. Outwardly, of course, he appears perfectly composed. Illya, on the other hand, has a deep furrow etched between his brows.
Behind her, Waverly sighs. “Very true, Mr. Solo. But that’s not all. Mr. Kuryakin, we’ve had word that a few former… colleagues of yours are working with this group. Specifically with a company run by Mr. Estevan Terrazas. Mainly KGB deserters, but a few researchers who booked it out of the USSR. We’ll need you to make a few introductions. The rest of the details are in the file.”
She watches Illya stiffen, his eyes go wide, and her heart clenches. He’s not half the liar their partner is, and as much as she loves that, most of the time, it’s moments like these she wants to pull him aside and give him a few lessons.
“This may not go well.” He hedges.
Gaby can hear Waverly’s eyebrows go up.
“Well,” he says, in that unfailingly proper accent of his, “I’m sure you can think of some way to make it work. Your plane leaves this evening. I suggest you all pack.”
Gaby has not made up her mind about Burgos. Spain is supposed to be warm, but it’s winter, and they are high enough in mountains that the air has a bite to it. According to Napoleon, and the guidebooks her tourist cover demands she read, the fields around Burgos will be full of wheat in another few months. For now, they remain empty and muddy. Illya seems similarly unimpressed, if more comfortable with the winter cold.
At least the buildings are beautiful. She looks around as they walk, her hand on Napoleon’s arm while Illya walks a few steps behind them. The boys exchange a smile over her head, and she lets them believe she did not catch them.
Once in the hotel room, Napoleon starts to pull his cover together. He chooses a suit, something flashy that still suggests old money. The cufflinks, good quality but clearly older than his suit, add to the effect, especially since they bear the same Janus sigil as his ring. Gaby watches him from the large bed, clad in underwear and cream stockings, absently kicking one foot.
“The way you boys keep passing me back and forth on these missions, I’m starting to feel like a party favor.”
He smirks at her in the mirror and adjusts the knot on his tie. “You’re entirely too precious for that.”
It would be a lot easier to stare him down if he weren’t so tall. And he’s cocky enough that it’s actually harder to do to him than to Illya. It still works.
“And we would never make the mistake of thinking we own you.”
Gaby beckons, a smile curving her lips, and then pulls him down by his tie when he comes close enough. “You two are mine .”
The look in those slightly mismatched eyes makes her press her thighs together.
Illya pokes his head around the door of the adjoining room. “I thought plan was to see city and be noticed.”
“We’re making him jealous,” Gaby whispers.
“You are not even dressed yet!” Illya observes, only half incredulous. “Gaby, I will help you.”
She gets to her feet. “You’re welcome to watch, Solo.”
It seems only fair since Illya is the one, this time, who will have to pretend not to be in love with her when they are in public. He has never lost his particularity about what she wears, so her dress, her tights, and the pearl jewelry she wears all coordinate perfectly. She casts a longing look toward her lightweight plastic earrings, but she cannot complain about the pale grey, fur-trimmed coat she pulls on, or the similarly fluffy hat. She brushes a hand over it before she slips her gloves on.
Napoleon drapes a sapphire blue scarf around his neck, fixes his gloves, and straightens his hat. She watches as he pulls Mr. Kane around himself. She knows there’s no magic in the transformation, but it’s marvelous to watch nonetheless.
“Shall we, dear?” He offers Gaby his arm.
She sniffs. Her transformation takes more effort, but it serves her just as well.
Illya chuckles, and they are off.
Out of all of them, Illya has the most trouble staying in character. That doesn’t mean he’s bad at it. Just that she’s better. Napoleon’s acting automatically, his hand clasping hers on the café table, his speech pitched just so. She flutters to the best of her ability, pointing out the sights visible through the window to her new husband. Anyone watching them will see a couple and a friend, or a couple and a guard. Not a trio of spies. Certainly, they won’t notice their magician shifting through the currents of magic running through this city.
Some of the other café patrons do notice when Napoleon chokes on his wine and starts coughing into his napkin. It comes away stained a red too purple to be blood.
Gaby flutters dutifully while Illya sees to his employer’s health.
“What is it?” He asks, low and urgent.
Very gently, she steps on Illya’s foot under the table. This is not the time or the place.
“We’ll finish scouting. Darling, you’re alright?” She says this last part loudly enough that others can hear.
Napoleon gives her a smile and touches the tip of her nose. “I’m fine, sweetheart.”
Illya glances around, every inch the concerned body guard, and speaks with his voice pitched low. “We should wait. If we leave, we make scene worse.”
They nod in agreement. Napoleon drinks the rest of his wine. Gaby completes her sweep of the square. Illya’s attention remains fixed on Napoleon, and she does not have the heart to make him look away. Her stomach twists, protesting the pastry she had given it.
Napoleon’s thumb rubs between her brows, and she glances quickly over at him. The smile he gives her is just a little too bright.
“I’m fine.” He repeats.
It does very little to lessen the furrow between her brows.
A short while later, they rise and make their way back into the city. They cannot explore all of it in one night.
Gaby starts shedding layers as soon as they enter the suite, first the fur hat, and then the coat. She sweeps the room with them, glancing periodically at Napoleon. As soon as they’re done, she drops the scanner and faces him, hands on her hips.
“What the hell happened back there, dear?” She demands.
Napoleon takes a very slow breath. “There’s something wrong with the magic here.” He answers.
Gaby pauses, hands raised to one earring, her eyes narrowed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“What I said.” He slides the antenna on the scanner back down, catches Gaby’s expectant look, and sighs. “It feels...off. Too much too close to the surface.”
She frowns and sits on the couch. When neither of her boys follow suit, she gives the cushion beside her a firm pat. Illya, of course, responds first, taking the seat beside her. Napoleon settles in an armchair, all studied nonchalance, tugging his shoes off before he puts his feet up on the ottoman. Gaby resists the impulse to roll her eyes.
Illya’s hands are large, cool, and dry. He envelopes one of hers in both of his. She leans her head against his shoulder for a moment as she thinks.
“Can you still use it?”
From Napoleon’s hesitation, she can see she was right to ask.
“In case of emergencies, yes.”
She nods. There’s no point changing any of their plans until they have more information. They had not planned to rely on magic, anyway. They have the protection amulets against their skin and enough ammunition for a small army. So she kisses Illya, because there will be precious few opportunities for that, and then reluctantly lets him return to his room. It is, after all, getting late. The hotel staff may wonder if they check and find the three of them in their suite.
Napoleon offers to let Illya bug their bedroom, so he doesn’t feel left out, Illya swears at him, and Gaby goes to finish pulling off all her myriad layers. Her dress goes back on its hanger, her stockings, and underwear in a laundry bag. She scrubs the makeup from her face and lets her hair down, replacing the pins in their box. Napoleon joins her about then, a robe tied at his waist. She raises a brow at him in the mirror. He’s no more modest than she is, but he seems to have something against wandering naked. It makes her itch to hook her fingers under whatever mask he has left and pull . She settles for pulling him into the shower with her so she can scrub the Brylcreem out of his hair.
They’re both too tired for sex, although they kiss for long, lazy minutes once in the suite’s large, soft bed.
“Think he’s listening?” Napoleon asks, and Gaby gives him a kick to the shin that’s closer to a tap with her toe.
He falls asleep first. She plays with his drying curls, smoothing them out of that angel’s face of his. Her mind won’t quiet. If she knew more about magic, she could help him to find the source of the problem. She might know the history of this area, or what could cause magic to behave oddly. Gaby sits up, and Napoleon stirs. He’s not as light a sleeper as Illya. She should have—but of course. The way he draws her against his chest is far too conscious. She considers commenting, but he’s warm and solid, and the scent of him calms her. When he moves one of the pillows so she can lean against it, Gaby cannot help but smile. It is not the same as having her boys on either side of her, but it’s as good as it will get. She’ll ask Illya if she can borrow one of his sweaters.
God knows they need her rested for this.
Chapter 3: Illya
Again, thanks to damoselmaledisant and vamppeach for beta-reading <3
When he was seven, three older boys cornered him on his way back from school. He was supposed to have walked with one of his older sisters, but they were busy, and he was done with school for the day. He held his lunch box closer to his body, aware of its value and how much smaller he was than them. He was aware, too, of the magic that whispered around the edges of his awareness, louder now as his heart pounded in his ears.
One of the boys split his lip before he managed to gather any power. The next one to try and strike him recoiled with a scream, the front of his shirt on fire.
“What in the hell ?!” One of the boys shouted—not the one screaming and trying to put himself out. “Kid’s a witch !”
He was a magician, but that wasn’t the point right then. The boys were not running yet. What kind of a genius didn’t run from a kid who could set you on fire?
He was shivering a little, his lunchbox still clutched tight to his chest. Maybe if he made a break for it, they would not stop him.
But then the third boy picked up a brick and said a few choice things about the Irish, so he let them have it. They would have a hard time chasing him while they were trying to smother their burning clothes.
When he got home, his teeth were chattering, and there was a handprint warped into the metal of his lunchbox.
The restaurant has two exits—the front door, and the back through the kitchen. Illya shifts in his seat, counting the bodies that stand between them and escape. If Napoleon and Gaby help, they should be able to make it out either door or through the large windows. He is the only one of them currently carrying a gun, but he has seen Napoleon with knives and Gaby has a heavy bottle at her right hand.
Around them, the other patrons continue with their meals and their inane chatter.
Napoleon orders more wine in smooth Spanish and does not even smile flirtatiously at the waitress. He reserves that for his “wife.” Anita Kane dotes on her beautiful husband in return. Illya thinks, privately, that Gaby holds Napoleon’s hand partly so that she will not drink her wine too quickly. This is as new to her as it is to him. The mission makes for a good excuse not to think about why that is, for now.
If Napoleon asks whether the menu and the fancy clothes make him uncomfortable, he will say no. It could be worse, after all. There could be snails.
He rolls his shoulders as subtly as he can and glances around again. Two men stationed by a corner table have started staring very specifically at him. Their stance is KGB, which means either Russia has sent their own agents here, or these are the deserters working for their target. The thought that it could be both makes his spine prickle.
Under the table, he taps Napoleon’s foot with his.
“You’re scuffing my shoes, Kuryakin.” He whispers through his teeth, apparently smiling at something Anita is saying to him. “I suppose this means you’ve spotted them?”
“I will make contact.”
Gaby’s eyes flick his way for perhaps a second. “Go. If there’s trouble, make it loud, and I’ll provide a distraction.”
He walks to the restroom because it seems kinder than sneaking into the kitchen and putting the cooks at risk. They have a job to do and do not deserve to get caught up in his.
Illya does not have to wait long before one of the men he spotted earlier joins him. He wanders across the room, too casual. He’s not as tall as Illya, but he is barrel-chested, with thick limbs. When he reaches to turn on the faucet, the lapel of his jacket bunches. There is no gun where Illya expected one to be.
<I have to ask myself, what is a KGB agent doing out here with a pair like that?>
<Maybe I’m more like you than you think.> He might not have had Napoleon’s facility with lies, but that did not mean he could not tell them. It is only a small lie. <We have both left the motherland. I make a living where I can. The Kanes are good people.>
<Clearly…> The man drawls, shaking his hands dry.
Slowly, Illya turns, his shoulders tense. This is not the direction the conversation is supposed to be going. They are supposed to discuss their employers’ businesses, Illya is supposed to let slip just a little too much so this man can bring it back to his people. Then Napoleon and Gaby will create a reason for Mr. Terrazas to approach them.
<Nothing? Do you only speak when they tell you, like the lapdog you are?>
Illya bristles all over, and his hands curl into tight fists. If the man wants to be punched, he should just say so. There is no red haze, no pounding of blood in his head. Not yet, anyway. He thinks about going back to the faucet to run cold water over his wrists. He thinks about abandoning this part of the mission to return to his partners. He is no one’s dog, and he will not run back to the people this bastard thinks are his masters .
The man shifts. Illya sees brown leather around one wrist, engraved in patterns similar to the charms he, Gaby, and Napoleon all wear. Illya shifts his weight, readying himself to move. Only when the man deliberately pulls his jacket off and rolls his sleeves up does he make the connection between the charm, the snaking tattoos on the man’s forearms, and the lack of a gun. The Terrazas employ a wizard as a bodyguard, and this is a test.
The leather charm against Illya’s chest feels woefully inadequate.
<I think I’ll go now.>
He makes it three steps before the man calls after him. <Which of them is fucking you?>
Later, he will congratulate himself on not turning around and punching the man right then and there.
Just as he goes to open the door back to the restaurant, a ball of flame explodes across his back. Illya smells the wool of his suit burning and pulls his jacket off. He tears a half-charred seam in the process. When he turns, the man is gathering more flame. Illya sets his shoulders and then rams the man’s head into the mirror. Even dazed, the wizard manages to yank Illya’s feet out from under him. They break the sink on the way down.
The patrons could have missed the flash of light from the fire. They do not miss the crash of porcelain. They start screaming after another moment. Illya takes advantage of his disorientation to strike him again. Bone crunches under his knuckles with the first punch and cracks with the second. He’s aware of the man making some gesture, but whatever it is washes over him. Outside, though, the screaming has not stopped.
More importantly, he smells smoke.
Swearing, he pushes himself back to his feet.
Out in the restaurant, Gaby is playing her very best damsel, clinging to Napoleon’s arm and screaming her heart out. Their table is on fire. A waiter dumps water on it, but that seems to have no effect. Illya’s eyes snap to Napoleon. To everyone around them, he appears in command, worried about his wife, but more or less calm. He waves the waiter back with his free hand and pulls something out of his pocket. It’s a pale, milky blue. Illya has no time to note any other details before it disappears into the flames. They go out in a puff of grey smoke, leaving the table covered in ash and ice.
Napoleon begins to shiver.
Illya approaches them. “Are you both alright? I’m sorry I was…” he glances back to where the wizard is leaving the restroom, “occupied.”
“We’re alright now,” Anita replies, Gaby peeking out from under her lashes in a silent question.
He nods. His jacket is in ruins, and blood stains his shirt at the collar. His knuckles are bruised. The thought of her fussing over them—which, for Gaby, means fond reprimands and the sting of alcohol on his split skin—quiets something in him. There had been no red haze, but he had needed—
His gaze snaps up as a dark-haired couple approaches them. Illya’s look makes Napoleon turn. All of them recognize the pair from the file Waverly had shown them. They’re more attractive in person, but there is something snake-like about him that raises Illya’s hackles further. Mr. Terrazas tells them, in only faintly accented English, that his name is Estevan, and his wife insists they call her Cecilia.
Illya listens to their conversation—idle chatter about the charm and the city, and how Charles and Anita are liking it. It turns to magic after the couple invites the three of them to join their large corner table. If Illya had liked the Terrazas before, the two of them taking up a table more than large enough for five would have been enough to change his mind.
Napoleon, however, is still shivering. They have only moments before someone notices. Illya and Gaby look at one another. She gives him a tiny nod, shudders theatrically, and then executes a picture perfect swoon. Both Illya and Napoleon move to catch her, but it’s Napoleon’s arms that close around her lithe frame.
She is a remarkable dancer. It is a pity she does not get to perform more often.
“Another time, maybe.” He replies with a flash of a smile.
Napoleon sets Gaby back on her feet as she insists that she is fine. Her performance was enough. Illya goes to get them a cab while Napoleon settles the bill and gives his card to their mark.
Back at the hotel, Gaby bullies Napoleon into bed while Illya rings for tea and soup to be brought up. He should be more irritated by their partner’s unwillingness to take their advice and look after himself. Illya does not want to think about what it would have meant if Napoleon had gone without complaint. At least the man provides distraction quickly, yanking Illya’s awareness back to the hotel room.
“Really, Peril? Did you absolutely have to punch him?” He calls.
He has hold of the remains of Illya’s jacket, retrieved from the restaurant restroom. With a shake of his head, he tosses it into the corner by the bathroom. Even Illya cannot complain about throwing it out since most of the jacket’s back had been consumed by the wizard’s fire.
“Да. He would have thought it was strange if I had not fought him.” He pauses in his pacing to look at Napoleon again. “You still do not understand Russian men, Cowboy.”
All he gets is a snort.
“Besides.” Illya soldiers ahead. “He insulted Gaby.”
“Ah.” Immediately, Napoleon’s posture shifts. “That changes things.”
“ Really? ” Gaby seems as though she might throw the spare cushion at one of them if only she could pick which. “Why is that what convinces you? Not the fireball he threw at Illya’s back?”
“Yes… and about that.” He beckons, and Illya goes to him, his jaw set. “Are you wearing your charm? The fire shouldn’t have been able to touch your clothes, if you were.”
Illya pulls the leather charm on its cord out from under his shirt. “Perhaps your work is not so good.”
Napoleon’s eyes narrow. “My work is flawless. No…” He reaches out and takes the charm between his thumb and forefinger.
Gaby pauses, her gaze traveling from the charm to Napoleon’s face. He offers her a slow nod.
“This is something else.”
Chapter 4: Gaby
I'm a day late! Sorry!
Okay, this chapter does have some warnings for emetophobia, bad things happening to people along the lines of Eleven in Stranger things, and honestly just... general creeping dread.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After the death of his father, his mother did little spells to bring in a few extra dollars. He stirred the laundry while his mother consulted with a housewife. Sometimes it was just some woman hoping to have her cards read. Most of the time, his mother told them it couldn’t be done.
He wondered sometimes, and once aloud, why his mother did not just let them believe.
She had tugged gently at his ear. “Because that’d be theft and fraud, Leo, and we have enough trouble without adding to it. Someone would find out eventually.”
It did not make sense to him at the time, but he stopped asking, and he never offered to read anyone’s fortune through cards, runes, tea leaves, or any other possible method.
There were other requests, too, though. They asked her to help them to have a child, or not to have one. To protect a child, a sister, a husband. To bring luck in finding a job. His hands were too small, too clumsy, too weak to carve the patterns, but his mother passed him a crayon and a piece of newspaper and had him draw the same patterns she did over and over and over…
He wore the crayons down to nubs and saw the designs in his dreams.
Around them, he felt that lake of power pushing at their boundaries, twisting like a pinned snake as his mother forced pieces of it to hold within wood and leather. He thought he could hear it hissing.
Gaby is quietly plotting the murder of the person who designed these shoes.
The facility lies outside the city, on the other end of a long drive down a narrow mountain road. Their new friends had met them at the gate and taken them in their car while the one in which they had arrived was taken to a garage somewhere. She had not been able to ask where the garage was. Even if she had, there was no guarantee that the car was actually going there. They would have to sweep it for bugs once they got it back.
The gravel of the drive crunches under the wheels.
“Sorry about the incident last night,” Mr. Terrazas excuses himself smoothly, even as one of his workers takes Illya’s firearm, “we’d heard rumors that your bodyguard is un brujo .”
Each language has a few different words that mean ‘someone who uses magic.’ English has witch, wizard, sorcerer, enchanter, mage, and Napoleon’s favorite, magician. German has Zauberer, Genie, Hexenmeister, Magier, Zauberkünstler … and more besides, each with their own unique shade of meaning. She does not know Spanish well—that is, at all—and so has no idea whether or not Illya just got insulted.
Then come stairs and hallways. None of them can take pictures with their escort hanging around them. Gaby will be needed when and if they encounter machinery. Illya has the excuse of being the bodyguard to look around. Napoleon is posing as a prospective business partner. She looks around, marks anything she can see of the security, and glances from time to time at Napoleon.
Her feet hurt, but his heart took a beating when her uncle strapped him to an electric chair. She sees no sweat on his brow or of shortness of breath. Not yet, at least. Gaby does the sensible thing, since she doubts that Napoleon will, and makes up her mind to ask for a rest at the first sign of his needing one.
The facility itself has one large outer building that digs into the mountains around them. This space, Mr. Terrazas tells them, is for analysis, construction, and the kinds of projects where it will not matter if something gets out of hand. He chuckles, and she and Napoleon join in even as a chill races up her spine. She remembers watching Napoleon make a man blow his own face into red mist. Magic should not have a chance to get out of hand.
She starts hunting for wards, although she knows that is Napoleon’s job. He’s preoccupied spinning lies for their mark, telling him about his fictitious business contacts and dangling information just out of his reach. It’s another kind of magic, she thinks, one that they can both use. Right now, though, she would hurt their mission if she tried to chime in. She adds everything that keeps her silent to the list of things she needs to curse. If she could manipulate Terrazas and Napoleon could keep an eye out for magic, this would all be so much easier .
Gaby sees nothing and tries to convince herself that this only means they’ve had the sense to tuck the wards away where they cannot be damaged. As she crosses the next threshold, she feels the slightest of tugs on her hairpins and the ring on her finger. It almost makes her sigh aloud. It’s likely one meant to relieve people of their weapons. Still, with how badly magic takes to metal, she has to wonder whether they’re worth the expense and bother in the first place. Gaby and Napoleon exchange a brief look.
She feels the weight of the mountain as they pass into the facility’s next section. Beside her, behind her, Illya and Napoleon both tense, although Napoleon’s expression does not so much as flicker. She cannot quite stop herself from shuddering. It feels like the wall: horrible absence and crushing presence all at once, strengthened by the lives lost to its stranglehold.
The night she had met both of them, Napoleon had carried them over the gap. The air had tasted like iron. Had he used magic, then? There had been boasts about materials that could increase or stop its flow. Nothing had ever been proven.
The guards in this place look like Stasi, or maybe like the Vinciguerra’s lackeys. They stand at intervals, ghoulish under cold, electric light.
Gaby’s fingers press creases into the immaculate sleeve of Napoleon’s suit.
Illya steps a little closer to her.
She feels the hum of the machines through her heels before she hears them, the rhythmic whir and clang of wheels and pistons. Engines, maybe, or generators. Of the three of them, only Illya is unaffected, now. But when she squeezes Napoleon’s arm, he just gestures ahead.
“Lead on, please.”
He looks a little green, but if Mr. Terrazas notices, he says nothing.
They don’t go into the engine room, but they are allowed a look through a bank of windows. It’s pistons and wheels, just as she expected. But there are pieces of carved wood and crystals, too. From the way Napoleon braces his hands on the rail, she can guess what it is those things are meant to mine.
She pictures it for a moment, like a blanket being bunched and twisted, drawing tighter and tighter at this one point. Are they using enough to bleed off the excess? And if not, what will happen? Gaby lets herself imagine what would happen if those machines broke. The sudden release of tension, magic pouring unchecked—
She does not know much about how magic works, and she thinks that might make it more frightening. Then again, from the look on Napoleon’s face, she cannot be sure.
Gaby catches him shake his head, as if trying to dislodge water from his ear.
“When do we get to see real magic?” She asks, trying to sound as empty-headed as will be believed. “I’ve seen factories before. I want to know what makes this one so special.”
“This way, please.”
Mr. Terrazas leads them further down the main corridor, past more doors and flickering fluorescent lights. The air around them grows heavier, musty. How far beneath the mountain are they? Have they traveled a quarter mile, or further than that already? What if it has only been a hundred yards or so?
Gaby’s fingers iron wrinkles into Napoleon’s sleeve. His hand covers hers and squeezes softly. He can say nothing. Illya can do nothing. This gesture is from both of them, and it is the only thing available to any of them. Slowly and carefully, she takes the quietest breath that she can manage.
There. Her lungs are full, and so long as she keeps her wits, none of these guards would stop them from leaving. This team, her team, needs her focused.
She rejects stepping onto the viewing platform immediately. They look into a concrete room that would have been right at home among the brutalist structures that had started popping up in West Berlin. Ugly things. She hated them then for how they mocked the way her people were— are— forced to live. She hates this room for what she immediately knows it to be. Steel tables are bolted into the floor, along with one chair in the center of everything on which a woman sits. Her hair is cropped very short to accommodate the cap of electrodes strapped to her head. Gaby glances from that to the bank of monitors, almost like the ones she had seen on board the boat when they were tracking Victoria, and their white-coated attendants at the far end of the viewing platform. She catches only a glimpse before a guard steps in to block her view.
Gaby redirects her attention to the woman. Die Zauberin .
Napoleon had told them about the cost of doing magic. More than that—Gaby had seen some of it for herself in the Zauberinnenwho had not managed to slip past the wall. More still in the ones the Soviets had brought in to replace the ones that had. They had the same look about them as this woman, somehow skeletal and too alive all at once.
As they watch, the woman raises thin arms. Frost spreads across one of the steel tables. She holds the heat at bay for another breath. Then sparks leap from her fingers to scatter harmlessly across the stone floor.
Mr. Terrazas sighs and gives a signal to one of the technicians. The man hesitates for only a moment before pressing an orange button beside a microphone and saying something in Spanish. Below them, the woman’s shoulders slump.
“We hired this woman away from a dressmaker’s. She was wasting her talents. Here, she helps us learn so much about the way magic works.”
“And what's the business side of that look like?” Napoleon asks.
Through the pounding in her ears, Gaby just manages to find his control impressive. She keeps her hands out of sight and tries to dig her nails out of her palms.
“That is for partners only, mi compañero .” He replies with a chuckle.
Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Illya, stone-faced, his hands clasped behind his back. She knows that set to his jaw. They need to get out of here, or one of them is going to blow this op.
Below them, the woman’s hair lifts in a sudden wind. Napoleon sucks in a breath.
“That's very impressive.” Gaby prays she does not sound as strained to this Schweinhund as she does to her own ears. “Unfortunately, I don't have any head for heights. Illya, walk me out. We’ll leave the boring details to these two.”
Immediately, he is at her side, his hand under her elbow. Propriety keeps his other hand from her waist, but this is enough to steady her, if only for a moment.
“I think Mrs. Kane needs—powder room.” He plays up both his worry and his accent for the guards’ benefit.
Gaby could kiss him.
After she’s sick.
They make it to a bathroom obviously meant for men, and meant for scientists. Illya stands guard while Gaby loses her lunch as quietly as possible. Then she picks herself back up next goes to the sink to wash her mouth out. Illya passes her a paper towel. She dampens it under the faucet and dabs carefully at her forehead and mouth. Her dress was spared, luckily. She digs out a compact and begins to fix her powder, her chin set.
“We should get back to Charles.”
Illya blinks. A moment later, she sees him remember the name of Napoleon’s cover. He gives her a short nod.
"ты в порядке?”
“да. I’m fine. Let’s go.”
She gives him the briefest of smiles. With the chance of surveillance, they could not risk anything that made them look like something other than employee and employer. There had been enough risk already.
It was time for them to leave.
"ты в порядке?”- "Are you alright?"
Here was a truth few people would own: however much they feared magic, people craved it even more. It was one thing to admit that a little charm made life easier, that you slept better with an amulet keeping fires under control in your kitchen. Everyone wanted something to ward off muggers or bring good health or better dreams. People looked for spells to help them conceive and to keep the same from happening. That was fine. That was like getting a coat in winter- the kind of thing you wanted and needed and therefore never questioned.
But people wanted magic the way they wanted to flight, or a glass of champagne, or a torrid affair. It was a childish fantasy, unnecessary, maybe a little shameful. That wasn’t to say that anyone actually looked down on the people who wielded it. Quite the opposite. They just didn’t admit it.
Still, he had always been observant.
At fifteen, all limbs and curly hair, Ireland’s green fields tinting his vowels alongside New York’s grey streets, he needed something to set him apart. So when Rose caught his eye, and she only glanced back, he conjured a flower. A rose, of course, in a pretty pink. It was only an illusion, but her eyes went wide as she stared back at him.
“Come to Coney Island with me, and I’ll get you a real one?” He offered, tucking his hands into his pockets.
The trouble with magic is that once someone gets used to having it around, they don’t want to let it go.
His mother caught him coming home one night, shaking and sweating like an addict, spots floating in front of his vision.
She clutched him the way she had the first time, when he was three, and made him swear over and over that he would be careful. That he would stop pushing himself for the sake of this girl.
It was a promise he kept, although not how his mother had hoped. He enlisted before Rose had a chance to ask for more magic.
Outside, Estevan takes Napoleon’s hand in a firm, dry shake. “I’m sorry your wife is not feeling well.”
Napoleon gives an apologetic shrug. “Anita’s been a little tired lately. It could just be the travel…”
He lets himself trail off and watches as Estevan comes to the inevitable conclusion. Apparently, if a couple is happy, reasonably young, and married, then they are either trying to conceive, or have a child tucked away somewhere. Since it’s unlikely that a happy couple would leave a child behind, it has to be the former with them. And if Gaby—that is, Anita—appears unwell, it must be because they have finally succeeded.
Sometimes his job is just too easy.
Estevan gives his hand another shake, grinning. “I’ll see you again the day after tomorrow to discuss details. Let your wife rest, enjoy the city. Then you and I can talk about the future.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Napoleon replies.
There’s a specific smile for moments like these, and he brings it up effortlessly. Bright, but not movie-star. Confident, excited, but not as though he had just gotten one over on anyone. It is the kind of smile that makes a person feel like they are in on a victory or a joke. Napoleon has practiced it in a mirror enough times that it can bring a matching one up on his mark’s face without fail.
“A last thing, Mr. Kane. My partners and I will want to see one or two of the pieces you bring to the table. If you need time to collect more, we can delay the meeting, of course—”
“It won’t be a problem.”
If Estevan had asked for more and a couple of charms, it would have been. But this test was about quality rather than time. If Napoleon asks for more time, he would be giving the man reason to doubt his story. Regardless, he will likely have them watched to make sure they do not try to procure any bits and ends of magic. They will just have to be careful about ordering room service and letting the maid in.
“I’ll bring you something interesting,” Napoleon promises.
“Darling!” Gaby calls out from the car. “Should we turn the car back off?”
“Wife’s calling.” Napoleon offers another practiced smile, this one a touch apologetic and a little amused. “I’m looking forward to our meeting.”
“So am I.”
Once inside the car, Napoleon lets Gaby tuck herself in against his side. For once, she does not grumble about not being the one to drive.
Back at the hotel, Napoleon clears the table and takes his kit out of his bag. Gaby disappears into the bathroom to brush her teeth and shower. He waves a hand at Illya, who vanishes after her. Napoleon watches the door for a few moments before setting to his work. Or trying, really. Away from the pressure and out from under Mr. Kane’s mask, his hands shake. Napoleon flexes them, curls them into tight fists.
The woman in that room will not live long. He wouldn’t be surprised if Terrazas had burned that woman out on purpose for that little demonstration.
He clears his throat, shakes out both hands, and picks up his tools. The magic bucks under his hands as he works to pin it. He is still cutting into the first piece of leather when Gaby and Illya come back out.
“And? How’s it going?” Gaby asks.
She is wrapped in a bathrobe, and her hair hangs wet down her back. Napoleon does a double take.
“How long have I been working?” He sets the tool down and flexes his hand. It’s cramped, but it stings more than it aches.
“Maybe fifteen minutes—Napoleon, your hand!”
He looks down. There are streaks of red on his hand. He turns it over and finds blood staining the whole of his palm. He fishes a cloth from his kit to wipe the blood away and notices nothing, at first. Then he looks a little closer. Little marks like pinpricks cover it from heel to fingertips.
She keeps staring at his hand. “Yes?”
“Could you find me that healing salve for when I’m done?”
“I’ll get it now.”
Napoleon finds gloves. They make the work harder, his motor control less fine, but they keep his blood off of the charms. He has to switch to a new one halfway through the work. He peels it away and carefully does not look at his palm as he tugs on the fresh glove. His head pounds in a steady rhythm, and sweat has soaked into the collar of his shirt. Napoleon pushes the finished charms aside with his left hand.
Illya comes to him with scissors and bandages. Carefully, he guides the glove off.
“Put that in the trash with the other one,” Napoleon interjects.
Illya does. “Why?”
“Because I’d like to burn them.”
“Huh…” Illya huffs and begins to dab at Napoleon’s palm. He’s very matter-of-fact about it, ignoring his wincing and muttered admonitions.
Gaby has the jar of salve. She bats Napoleon’s left hand aside when he reaches for it, and then carefully smooths a thin coat of its contents across his palm.
“I suppose you are feeling very pampered, Cowboy,” Illya mutters.
Napoleon shrugs. “I’ll take what I can get—ow! Really, Gaby?”
She gives him a sharp smile and a sharper look. “This didn’t happen last time.”
He sighs. With his uninjured hand, he cups her cheek, thumb brushing across her skin. Her gaze is sharp as always, although the exhaustion is plain around her eyes.
“How are you holding up?”
“Answer the question, Napoleon.” She squeezes his hand again, and he grimaces. “But I’m better. We need to plan. I’d like to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible.”
Napoleon glances over. Illya had gathered all the bloody bits and dropped them into the trash. He is in the process of splashing some clear liquor over the top of it. His hands are white-knuckled on the bin and bottle.
“I’m alright. I’ll be patched up in no time.” He wiggles his fingers. “I told you magic’s been feeling odd. I’ll have it together in—” Napoleon flicks his fingers toward the bin Illya holds, “a moment.”
It was supposed to be a laser pointer beam, a spark to get it going so they would not have to struggle with matches. It comes out in a wash. The gloves ignite, but so does Illya. Or, rather, his shirt does. Illya swears and slaps at it until it goes out.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Napoleon mutters.
He takes the bin with its burning, bloody gloves and set it aside. Illya appears unharmed, but there is a very visible burn on his shirt. Without preamble, Napoleon hooks the charm out from under Illya’s shirt. It hums faintly when he rubs his thumb over it, and when he flicks a bead of light directly at it, it fizzles and dies without making contact.
“Hmm. Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”
Illya takes the charm out of his hand. “Should you really be doing magic right now?”
“I’m fine. Peril, when you touch that, do you feel anything?”
“…No. Should I?”
Gaby stood. “Nothing? Mine tingles when I let it touch my skin.”
“Really?” Illya rubbed his thumb across the charm. “Нет, ничего.”*
“Excuse me.” She barely waits for Napoleon to shift before stepping up to take hold of Illya’s charm. “ I feel it. Napoleon, could you give us a small flame? Like a candle?”
For a moment, the three of them only look at each other. Then Napoleon raises a hand and snaps. A blue flame leaps up over his thumb. It’s perfectly steady, perfectly shaped. Gaby brushes a finger through it, and then sticks that finger in her mouth. She sucks on it for a moment, brow furrowed. Then she beckons to Illya.
Slowly, very slowly, he lifts his hand. He brushes his finger through the little tongue of flame. Then he frowns and does it again. Then a third time, much more slowly. The fourth time, he leaves his finger inside the flame. Napoleon releases it, and the flame winks out.
“...No.” Illya turns his hand back and forth. A muscle ticks in his jaw. “What is happening, Cowboy?”
“Ah… Well. I’ve heard a few stories. Gaby, do you have any input?”
“Are there people who are immune to magic?”
“Very few. Those are the ones I was talking about.”
“Someone tell me what is going on.” Illya’s hand begins to shake.
Gaby, too, looks a little pale, but her gaze is keen. “Illya, Liebling. Napoleon and I think you may be immune to magic. Which would be why your clothes keep catching on fire, but you don’t. Did you feel anything walking through the compound?”
“Well, we both did. I think Napoleon most of all.”
“Immune,” Illya repeats. He sighs, and then shakes his head. “This is—absurd.”
“So we test it.” Gaby answers. “Can we do that, Napoleon?”
He considers his hand, still bleeding sluggishly, and the burning mess in the bin. Then he considers the compound, and the magicians inside it. He inclines his head.
“Just let me bandage this, first. And Peril, throw that shirt away. I’ll replace it for you.”
Illya touches his charred shirt, grimaces, and then starts on the buttons. “Only because you set it on fire. And I will pick replacement. Your taste is still terrible.”
Napoleon lets out a soft huff of a laugh.
And yet, his shoulders remain stiff, his jaw clenched hard enough that his teeth hurt. He understands, logically, that nothing has changed. Illya is exactly as protected from magic as he was before they discovered that it does not affect him. And yet everything has changed. The jar of salve on the table would be of no help to him whatsoever. There are no shields Napoleon can cast on him, no safety net, nothing. Illya’s mysterious immunity won’t save him from jacketed lead.
There is a susurrus at the edges of his awareness. It slips beneath the door and over the window ledge. It lingers at the corners of Napoleon’s eye as he turns. The flicker and rush of it are too familiar, now, and far more present than it should be. It leaps to his fingers when he reaches for it. Napoleon grips it, commands it to turn cold. At a gesture, it leaps toward Illya. The frost does not touch him, and yet.
The whisper remains.
Chapter 6: Illya
Sorry about the delay. Finals were uglier than anticipated. But we're back! Thanks, as usual, to vamppeach for beta-reading
His mother ordered him to be careful about how he used his magic. She sat him down and told him stories about the fair folk and Nuada Airgetlám and old gods. It was years before he grasped what all of that really meant beyond the price his spells demanded.
Before he enlisted, he found a library with a decent collection, sat down, and spent a solid day reading through everything he could find. Most of the theory was obvious bullshit. More of the same about fairies and magic wands and star charts. There were people, too, who swore all of it was no different than the fakery and misdirection that stage conjurers used in their acts. The ramblings, he thought, of people too jealous to see reason. He set those books aside and moved on.
The volumes he spent longest on were ones that talked about physics. Energy in constant flux, changing from one form to another without being consumed. Energy created out of the world around them. Magic, the book suggested, could not be entirely exempt from the rules of energy and matter. Since wizards could not conceivably provide all the energy needed in their spells, they had to be drawing on something else. The book wandered after that, musing on what that source might be and arriving at no real conclusion.
At the end of the day, he returned the books and tugged his hat down. Then he tucked his hands into his pockets and started the walk home through the bustling New York streets. That day, he took a more circuitous route than usual.
The idea of an exchange was an intriguing one. It seemed to promise more than the author of that book had realized. Or maybe just more than he had cared to share in those pages. What the author wanted him to take away didn’t seem to matter so much. He’d come up with a few ideas of his own. Who said, after all, that the rates were set?
The next day, Napoleon stole away in the afternoon to an empty lot where a building had been due to go up before the money dried up and the war started. He had no luck. Everything that he attempted cost as much as it always had. But there was a change in the current that whispered around the edges of things. He steadied his shaking limbs and settled down to think. There was something to the theory, then. He could find a way to get more for what he offered.
It was with that thought in mind that he turned his steps toward an enlistment office.
Illya spends most of the next day jumping at shadows. It is a familiar experience. His alertness has saved his life on more than one occasion, and it will save Gaby’s if someone makes a move against them while they are out doing whatever it is that they are doing. She’s not really shopping, although she makes a show of ducking into boutiques and feigning interest in shoes. Illya does his best to steer her, subtly, in the direction of clothes a woman like Anita might actually like.
Gaby keeps muttering comments about high heels under her breath in German, and it’s getting harder to keep himself from laughing aloud. He should be better at staying focused than this.
It’s not until she points at an odd little painting of a bulbous frog and tells him it reminds her of Oleg that he catches on.
“Mrs. Kane.” He admonishes, even as a smile threatens to break both his composure and their cover, “you do not need to worry about me.”
“Let me anyway.” She commands.
Illya ducks his head and hopes the gesture passes for a respectful nod.
They duck into a shop for hot chocolate and little fluffy pastries that threaten to cover their clothes in powdered sugar. Illya carries the box on the walk back to the hotel with Gaby. She has her gloves hands jammed into her pocket and her face tucked into the collar of her coat. All that he can see of her face between her coat and her round, fur hat are her eyes and the frustrated furrow between her brows.
“It’s Spain .” She grumbles. “I was promised warmth.”
“This is not so bad.” Illya starts. Then he catches the look Gaby shoots his way and decides not to continue.
She is German, though. This little bit of cold should not be a problem for either of them.
They make it back to the hotel without incident—two slightly inept security guards trying to follow them does not count as an incident—and ride the elevator up to Gaby and Napoleon’s suite. Illya prefers the stairs, personally, but running up all four flights would attract too much attention. He lets Gaby go ahead of him and checks the hall a final time before following her through the door. Napoleon sits at the desk, chatting amiably with someone on the phone. He holds up a finger to them. Gaby rolls her eyes and then drops into a nearby chair. Illya simply nods, sets the box of pastries on the table, sits at attention on the couch.
When he finishes the phone call, Napoleon gets to his feet and, with great ceremony, shuts the curtains. Immediately, Gaby shifts in her chair, swinging her legs over one arm. Illya lets his elbows rest on his knees.
“Well.” Napoleon stretches. When he relaxes again, his robe falls open at the neck. “I’ve talked to enough people to convince anyone watching us that we’ve actually been seeing to business.”
“Illya and I had a look around,” Gaby offers. “We had a tail for the first hour, but he got bored.”
Illya huffs. “Unprofessional.”
“Would you rather spend your whole day getting followed?”
He does not even have to look up to know that Napoleon has a brow arched practically to his hairline.
Gaby snorts and flaps a hand toward the box. “Well, take one of those before we finish them all.”
“You mean before you do,” Illya mutters, swatting Napoleon’s hand away from the pastries so he can take one. “I have not had any.”
Napoleon takes a pastry, as well. The powdered sugar gets all over his fingers and dusts the lapel of his bathrobe. Illya considers gloating, but the flakes of pastry on his sweater dissuade him.
“I think we should go out later,” Gaby suggests. “Find a restaurant, eat dinner, be tourists. We have appearances to keep up. And unless you arranged to have someone drop off a package, you need to pretend to get those charms.”
“And other than that?” Napoleon asks. He dusts off his hands and then settles onto the couch beside Illya.
“A day in, maybe. I’ve done what I’d like to. Mostly.”
She has that tone, and a moment later, Illya feels Napoleon’s mouth at his throat. His eyes flutter shut. He tilts his head and digs his fingers into his knees. Clever lips tease at the underside of his jaw, and then down to the collar of his sweater. Napoleon tugs it down, kisses him again, bites lightly.
“What stories did you hear growing up?” He asks, grasping for anything that could serve as a distraction.
Napoleon stops, and the lets out a long sigh. “Not Snegurochka , if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Your accent is terrible.”
“Be polite, Illya,” Gaby admonishes
“About that, actually.” Napoleon bites again, a little harder. “I’m not sure I like the nickname Koschei. Wasn’t he a monstrous, elderly giant?”
“Ah—yes.” Gaby has joined them, and her hands are wandering. It is very distracting. “I was angry. What should I call you, then?”
“You can think of something.”
“Not with you two—” He shifts, and immediately both of them pull back.
Gaby snuggles in on one side, and Napoleon leans against his other, his arm draped around Illya’s shoulders. It continues to be remarkable how they listen to his gestures, his barely spoken thoughts. He says none of this. He’s known them long enough to understand that if he did, they would chase down everyone from his life before them and tear them to pieces. The thought makes his skin prickle and his head whirr horribly. He would be sick. So, he says nothing. He takes a breath and their hands. His finger rubs back and forth over the band of Napoleon’s signet ring.
“There are other wizards in that story who help Prince Ivan. His—” he fumbles for a moment, the word lost to the feeling of Gaby’s fingers in his hair, “brothers in law. Lords of birds. I think the Lord of Magpies.”
“That is word, yes? Сорока . Little black and white bird that chatters and steals. Very pretty. Little pest.”
Napoleon nips again at Illya’s neck.
Gaby lets out a peal of laughter. “That sounds right.”
Illya does his best to appear innocent. “This is word, yes?”
“For you, maybe.”
Napoleon kisses him. He teases at his mouth, nips his lower lip and leaves it and Illya’s whole body tingling as he pulls away. His unbandaged left hand joins Gaby’s in Illya’s hair before slipping down to cradle the back of his neck. Illya looks from him to Gaby and back and feels his face blaze with the warmth that pours from them.
None of them are good at these words. Napoleon has his masks, Gaby her fight. He has his shame. The shame that still makes him think he should not be allowed this. He kisses them both. Then he leans his forehead against Gaby’s and closes his eyes. His breath comes too quickly, but the pounding of his pulse does not fill his ears, his hands remain steady, his body feels warm.
They take him to their bed and press him down on it. They have to be quiet, so he bites the pillow until the case tears. It’s a risk to do this, to have this, mid-mission, but these two are a terrible influence. They undo him. And after, they lie tangled together. Gaby kisses his back, and he holds Napoleon’s hands in his.
That night, they go out for dinner to a different place, and Gaby does her best to tease him into ordering something that sounds like it will scorch his mouth. He pretends not to notice until she has to give it up or risk alerting anyone observing them. They are being watched; of that, there is no question. Illya takes advantage of his cover to watch the room in return. Most people here shrink from his gaze, and Gaby has to tap his foot under the table to remind him to glare a little less forcefully. He eats mechanically. Outside their hotel room, the threat feels closer. He has his gun tucked against his side, and Napoleon is armed even when he is empty-handed.
It’s foolish to worry about Gaby, but—
His hands shake until he must set down his knife.
Beneath the table, her leg presses against his. Napoleon catches his eyes and gives him a smile that has nothing to do with Charles Kane and his bodyguard. It’s a dangerous indulgence, but it helps. The red mist recedes. His breathing and his heartbeat steady, as do his hands.
It’s then that Illya notices them—two men. Neither of them is the man who tried to set him on fire in the bathroom. But he thinks they may be guards from the facility they visited the day before. He nudges first Gaby and then Napoleon under the table. But they have to stay. They finish their dinners and order both coffee and dessert, although Illya abstains from both. What he has eaten already sits like lead in his stomach. They pay, they leave.
It comes as no surprise when someone attempts to mug them on the way back to the hotel.
It feels good to break a few heads.
Napoleon keeps his grip on the briefcase he had used to create the illusion of picking up a delivery and focuses on standing between the assailants and an irate Gaby. When Illya is finished and flexing his bloodied knuckles, she steps up alongside him.
“Is everything alright?”
It’s an innocuous enough question. Illya nods, pats down his jacket, and turns. Napoleon is rifling through the pockets of one of the men.
“You shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Who’s going to tell?” Napoleon asks, “Not him. He’ll be lucky if he wakes up before hypothermia sets in.” Then he scoffs and shows them the wallet he found, complete with identification. “Look, they sent amateurs.”
Gaby sighs. “Let’s not hang around waiting for their backup.”
Chapter 7: Gaby
I'm posting today and tomorrow because we've had a gap and because of the holidays.
Blood filled Napoleon’s nostrils, and mud made from blood and bile as much as rain filled his boots. The gun in his hand was nearly empty. Knowing that it could be worse did nothing to ease the panic clawing through his blood. He pressed flat on his belly in the mud, scanning left and right for the next man to come into sight. The rushing of the river and rushing in his head could not drown out the crack of gunfire and the screams of the men around him. In all that noise, it was no shock that he did not hear the man who jumped at him, a combat knife in one hand.
He rolled onto his back, firing point-blank. The gun jammed. The knife drove into the ground beside his head, its wielder landing on top of him. He scrabbled at his attacker, fingers slick with blood and mud. The river in his mind rose up to meet him.
The man barely had time to scream. He dropped, skin frozen, lips blue, the blood vessels in his staring eyes broken. The young man rolled to the side. He snapped out a hand, and the heat he gathered poured off of him. It ignited the uniforms of two more soldiers. Then he forced himself back to his feet, reclaiming his gun. He waited for the shakes to set in, the chills or the sweating, but nothing changed.
The river in his mind started to mutter. Pleased. Hungry.
He picked up the dead man’s knife and charged toward the next soldier.
“You know they’re never going to let you into that meeting.”
Gaby looks up half way through rolling a stocking up her leg and glares at him. “True. But I can at least see his associates’ faces and poke around a little while I’m waiting.”
She’s not particularly fond of stockings. Garters are not what she’d call comfortable, and neither is the girdle she has to slide over them. Playing the proper woman, the proper wife, chafes at her. At least her dresses are warm, even if her shoes are horribly impractical. She glares at the navy pumps as if that could make them turn into her favorite pair of boots, and then goes for her dress. It, at least, does not impede her movement, and Illya’s gift for finding her clothes means that it manages not to be as prim as Anita’s wardrobe might otherwise have to be. She slips into it and then reaches for the zipper. Napoleon beats her to it, and the callus on his trigger finger skims deliberately up her back. She shivers.
“I won’t be left behind, Napoleon.”
“No…” He leans down and kisses the side of her neck. “You’re far too important for that. And someone needs to keep Illya out of trouble.”
“You’re not as subtle as you think you are.” She turns and stares up at him.
He gives her a smile that’s probably supposed to be boyish and endearing and might have been if it had reached his eyes. “I’m not trying to be subtle. Don’t tell me you weren’t going to ask me to be careful. Really, Gaby, I’m hurt.”
She touches his shoulders and then tugs his tie straight. “I’m going to check on Illya. He can lecture you for both of us.”
Gaby puts on the stupid shoes and then leaves to knock on Illya’s door.
She’s going to do all the driving when they get home after this, at least for the next two weeks. Gaby promises herself this as she sits in the back seat of the car, trying not to fist her hands in her skirt and wrinkle it. She has never enjoyed being a passenger, but ever since Rome—the car hits a patch of ice and, for a moment, Gaby flashes back to the jeep rolling down the hill and the feeling of handcuffs biting into her wrists. Then Illya gets them back under control. It’s a second at most, but she’s too tense already. Napoleon reaches over to take her hand.
They’re not meeting at the facility, but rather in the private home of Mr. and Mrs. Terrazas . It’s only slightly less awful than if they were meeting at the facility again, but at least Gaby will have a good chance to snoop. The house is a sprawling thing with red tile roofs and a semicircular drive into which Illya pulls. They have to hand off the car to the valet. She can see Illya trying not to grimace as he passes the keys over. Whether it's at the security risk or the extravagance, she cannot tell. She’d bet on both.
Gaby makes herself wait as Illya opens Napoleon’s door first and lets him out and then waits for Napoleon’s hand to come into view at her door. Then she takes it and draws herself out of the car. He’d implied Anita was pregnant as well as ladylike, after all. She would play along.
Estevan and Cecilia come out to greet them, him a neatly-pressed black suit and tie, and her in a houndstooth dress in grey and blue. Her hair is immaculately done. Gaby’s scalp aches in sympathy.
“The last of our guests should be arriving, soon,” Cecilia assures them. “Anita, why don’t you and I go to the parlor?”
What is Cecelia’s role in all this , Gaby wonders, following her through the well-appointed house and into a room made more for show than comfort. Is she oblivious? It seems unlikely, and if she is, it’s likely due to willfully ignoring the signs. Gaby has seen more than enough of that kind of behavior. Whether she knows or not, she’s as complicit in everything they know her husband has done. If she’s ignorant, Gaby would bet it’s willfully. She tries not to glare at the artwork that they pass as she follows Cecelia to the parlor. Gaby, who grew up in apartments in a city that had first been bombed and then divided and given to communists, probably could not define “parlor” specifically if pressed. It appears to be yet another word for a room where you sit, drink tea, and make small talk.
Gaby does not like small talk.
She has mixed feelings about tea, as well, even when she trusts the person offering it to her, and this is no Earl Grey. She thanks Cecelia, takes it, and pretends to drink.
As they talk and Gaby does not drink her tea, she listens for the sound of more wheels in the driveway. She pours her drink by increments into the potted plant beside her chair. She waits for another wealthy socialite wife to walk through the door.
“More tea?” Cecelia asks.
“Thank you,” Gaby replies, holding out her cup and saucer. “Were we early? I’m sorry—”
Gaby shifts in her chair, getting her impractical shoes under her.
Cecelia pours more tea into the cup. It spills across the carpet as Gaby turns at the sound of the door opening. Two men in livery walk in and Gaby gets quickly to her feet.
“Cecelia, I’m so sorry. Sir, would you get a towel—”
They take her firmly by the arms. Cecelia says something that Gaby does not understand, and the two men start to drag her from the room. Gaby digs her heels in, thrashes, and tries to knock them off balance. If she can get herself free, she can break out through the window, get to a car—
They cannot hurt her while she wears the charm, but they can grab her. One of the men lifts her off of her feet and tosses her over his shoulder, pinning her legs with his other arm. She kicks, screams, tries to pummel her captor’s kidneys. Her flailing reveals the charm bound against her thigh. The other man rips it away, tearing her stocking in the process.
Gaby does not stop cursing them until someone claps a stinking-sweet cloth over her mouth. It takes a full five minutes for the chemical to knock her unconscious. The last thing she sees is Illya sprawled in the back of the van, bruises blossoming on his face.
Chapter 8: Illya
Warnings on this for experimentation and dissociation
The morning after the battle, he spent a very long time being sick, bent over and heaving until nothing came up but air and his stomach had cramped and knotted. And, despite that, there was energy humming in his bones. He accepted the cigarette a sympathetic older soldier offered him, and when he tried to light it, he reduced the whole thing to ash.
He brushed it from his hands. There was still blood in under his nails, so he grabbed his bar of harsh soap and scrubbed.
The whispering faded, slowly, as the blood dissolved in the washbasin. The energy followed.
That night, he got drunk, he found a pretty face, and he took its owner to bed, losing himself in a body that never had something else crooning inside its skull. The sex took the last of the taste of the magic out of his mouth.
The next morning, he felt scraped out, his muscles sore in ways that could not be explained by a day of fighting and a night of debauchery. When he summoned light to shave by, it was no more than he had expected or called for.
The whispering quieted, but it hung around the edges of everything.
Illya jolts awake, his head pounding and the taste of copper in his mouth. He is in a cell of some kind, concrete walls, bars on the small window in the door, and not enough space. They have taken his clothes and replaced them with thin and scratchy pants and shirt. Gaby lies limp in the corner, curled in on herself. Nausea swells as he forces himself to his feet. He swallows convulsively. Then he stumbles over to her. It’s a journey of only two or three feet. Then he drops to his knees again and bends close to her. He sees the rise and fall of her chest, and her breath tickles his shaking hand when he holds it above her mouth.
His vision goes a little hazy around the edges in a way that has nothing to do with the effect of the chloroform.
He hears the sound of hinges, and then a scrape. When he looks up, a tray sits just inside the door, holding two cups. The tray is plastic, as are the cups.
“You have two minutes to drink the water; then you must return the tray and cups.”
Illya does not move. If he touches the tray, he will throw it. It wastes valuable seconds.
Then he stands, collects the cups, leaves the tray, and returns to Gaby’s side. He takes a small sip from one cup. Then he sets it aside. He turns to her and gently flicks a little more of the water into her face. She stirs slowly, groans, and he steadies her as she tries to sit up.
He presses a finger to her lips.
There is no way to tell if the water is drugged with only two minutes, and they need to drink sometimes. If these people wanted them dead, they probably would be. He gives her one of the cups and steadies it for her while he drinks from the other.
Both of them flinch as someone bangs on the door.
“Return the cups to the tray and stand away from the door.”
Illya bites back a snarl.
Gaby takes the cups and leans over until she can just barely set them on the tray. She leans against the wall, rubbing her head.
“Where are we?” she asks, loudly enough that Illya knows she is not speaking only to him.
“Where is my husband?”
There is a heavy pause. Even through the headache, they both realize what that means. Gaby’s eyes spark. Illya sits up a little straighter. Napoleon escaped, then. He can tell Waverly what has happened and get them out. From the stagnant air and the light, Illya guesses that they are at the facility they had visited. Unless there is a second one of these places, they will be easy to find. But getting in will be a problem, as will getting out.
Illya tests his limbs. He went down fighting, and he can feel a number of minor strains. He has fought with much worse. When he sees Gaby looking at him, he nods.
When she speaks again, she has a quiver in her voice. “Please—where’s my husband? I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding.”
The guard slams his baton against the door. “I said no questions.”
He walks away then and leaves them alone in the cell. Gaby sinks back to the floor, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. Her forehead comes to rest on her knees. It’s Anita’s posture, not Gaby’s. Still, he wants to go to her and make sure she’s alright.
“Check for microphones,” Gaby reminds him.
Illya does as asked. He’s pretending to be security, ex KGB, so it’s normal for him to search. He combs over every inch of the bare concrete, feeling for cracks, seams, fissures, pockets, for any place these people could have hidden a bug. At least he cannot see any cameras. He can’t find microphones, either, even though he stretches up to feel the pitted concrete of the ceiling.
He wants to throw himself at the walls, to beat his fIsts against them until they give way. There is a whole base between them and freedom. Even if they could escape this cell—
Someone bangs on the door again. “Stand clear!”
Gaby startles to her feet. It is a different voice than last time, but still obviously one of the Terrazas’ employees. She lets Illya put her half behind his body, but he can feel her tensed and waiting. He does not take his eyes from the guards standing in the doorway.
“Step away from her and kneel on the floor with your hands on your head.”
“Why?” Illya demands.
Because if you don’t, we will hurt her.”
Red swims before his eyes again. “Try, and I will hurt you.”
On one of the guards draws a gun. Illya goes still. In this tiny space, the bullet could ricochet if the guard were to miss. Maybe he could get to the gun before it went off, but he still feels sick from the chloroform and if he were to fail, Gaby would be hurt.
Slowly, Illya goes to both knees. He raises his hands and laces his fingers together behind his head. A second guard approaches with a pair of handcuffs which he ratchets tight around Illya’s wrists.
“Where are you taking him?” Gaby demands.
They ignore her. “On your feet.”
Illya rises. He wants to headbutt the guard in front of him. With his hands bound, he has even less of a chance than he did before.
He glances back at Gaby. “I’ll be alright.”
Then he lets them take him from the cell.
“In case you get any ideas,” one says as they march him down the hall, “For every time you hit one of us, we’ll hit her.”
Illya’s hands shake. His tongue feels thick. Desperately, he claws their lie together. “She’s pregnant.”
“Then make sure we don’t have to hit her.”
They bring him to a room with white walls and bright lights and a heavy, metal table at its center. A man in a doctor’s coat orders him stripped and blasted with freezing water. They take his blood, his pulse, a sample of his skin. Then they strap him to the table and bring in another man. He is gaunt and shaky, one hand shriveled to little more than bone.
Illya loses touch with his body at some point in all of it. Fire washes over him, and then ice. The table beneath him heats and cools, but he barely feels it. The magician crumples and guards carry him away. At the doctor’s orders, more blood is taken, and he is examined. They return his clothes. Then they send him back to the cell.
Gaby pulls his head into her lap and strokes his hair until his shuddering stops. She touches the bruises that ringed his wrists. They must have been from fighting his restraints.
“Did they hurt you?
“They tried. They know I am immune to magic. They did not find one like me here and they are… testing.”
People like him were rare, apparently. He had to wonder if it was because others kept cutting them up.
Her hand goes white-knuckled on his. “I’ll kill them.”
“I believe you, Gaby.”
She sighs, tipping her head back against the wall. “At least we know they aren’t going to kill us just yet. We should plan.”
“Yes,” he sits up, “we should.”
Napoleon stops running about a mile outside of the Terrazas estate. He had struck Mr. Terrazas over the head with a statuette as soon as he heard Illya’s first shout outside.
Honestly, by then he had been suspicious. None of Mr. Terrazas’ partners had been in the well-appointed office when they arrived. None had entered afterward. He should have known sooner. As it was, he had only barely managed to dodge the Terrazas’ security. He had seen the van driving up the road into the mountains as he tore out the side door and across the lawn. A show of pyrotechnics had been enough to let him lose his pursuers—barely.
Napoleon draws a deep breath and tries to focus. He is alone out here. No Waverly, no UNCLE, no team, no backup, and no time to wait for any of the above. They are blown, their mission rendered null in the face of their capture and his mad dash. If he tries to go in alone, he’s a dead man. No one will get Illya or Gaby out of that bunker.
The magic has been running too close to the surface, lying within easy reach.
He’s a dead man if he goes in like this, unarmed and alone. Napoleon brushes a few last shards of glass from his suit. Then he closes his eyes and lets the river flood in.
It’s a terrible metaphor. Magic is a river in only one sense—if you wade too far in, it will drag you under and drown you. Perhaps if the river were also a serpent.
He is not sure if he stands in its coils or its mouth.
“I want to make a deal.”
This place has no form, no shape or color or light. Nothing about it gives him a foothold or a point of reference. But the magic is perfectly at home, of course. The weight of it makes breathing a struggle. He can feel his lungs laboring, the hammer of his heartbeat loud in his ears. Napoleon takes a deep breath, holds it, and tries again.
“You and I have made a deal like this before.”
“Yes, that one. My—” it’s much harder to dissemble inside his own mind, if that’s even where he is, “ people were captured.”
The coils shift. Napoleon’s breath rattles in his chest. He wants to recoil from this place, this thing . He wants to curl up and be sick. Neither is an option.
“They’ve been taken to a base—” he grits out, and reaches for his memories of it—the location, the experiments, the engines.
Recognition. Rage. Possession.
“I need it destroyed.”
His nose is bleeding. He can feel the blood dripping thickly down to his mouth and over his lips. He can taste the iron of it. So can the magic. Its fangs scrape at his throat. Its tongue curls out and flicks within an inch of his face.
Hunger. Hunger. Hunger .
“There are scientists. Guards,” he draws himself together. “Help me get my friends out, and I will give you everyone inside that place.”
Napoleon feels a surge. The coils tighten. Power floods him, lighting up his bones and his nerves, making his heart pound. For a moment, he feels elation. Then he realizes that the emotion is not his. The rush does not stop. The magic floods into him, burning through his veins.
No, he tries to protest, not—
His hand lifts and wipes the blood from his mouth. The magic considers for only a moment. Then it licks its fingers clean.
It turns slowly toward the mountain road. The sun hangs low in the sky. It is cold now and will become colder. That is no cause for concern. But it has waited long enough. It takes to the air, charging toward the base.
Napoleon, you fucking dumbass...
Chapter 10: Gaby
Thanks, as usual, to vamppeach for beta-reading
Gaby wakes to the sounds of chaos. People scream, and the crackle of lightning echoes in the hall. The air stinks of smoke. It filters in through the tiny window in their cell door. Illya is awake at well, crouched low as he tries to lever up the small slot at the bottom through which the guards had pushed water and food. He spits a curse, one he has not taught her, and strikes it with the flat of his hand.
It occurs to her that she can no longer feel the hum of the magic engine.
A moment later, what little light made it into their cell dies. Then a green-white flash streaks past. Lightning crackles over the door. Through all the shouting, Gaby thinks she hears the clunk of the lock. It’s worth checking, at least. She crawls forward. There is no handle on this side of the door.
Both of them set their hands against it and shove. The door jerks, but does not open. Illya stands. She moves aside. Then he checks his balance and delivers a sharp kick to the lock. This time, it gives. The door swings open.
“Do you think…?” she asks, as quietly as she can and still be heard.
“I do not know.”
It is the only option that they have. Together, they creep out into the hallway. The air is thick with grey smoke and the stink of burned meat. Overhead, the few lights that still work flicker unevenly.
Another flash of light and a guard’s body crashes to the floor. It skids to a stop another five feet away.
Gaby slams herself back against the wall, breathing hard. Her lungs burn. She lowers herself to the floor. Illya crawls on his stomach over to the guard. From where she crouches, Gaby can see the unnatural angle of the man’s neck and the smoking hole in his chest. Illya returns with a guard’s pistol and baton. He checks the gun and grimaces.
“Three shots left,” he says, handing it to Gaby.
The safety is off. Gaby leaves it that way and points the pistol at the floor.
Something like thunder echoes at the far end of the hall. Dust falls from the walls, and the smoke thickens.
“Whatever that is, we have to pass it,” Illya observes.
Gaby grimaces. This base definitely has at least one more exit. But the corridor slants upwards in the direction that the smoke seems to be coming from and it seems like too much of a risk to venture into the mountain.
“Stay behind me,” Illya instructs, raising the baton.
“…you’re immune to magic, not bullets,” she reminds him, but she falls in behind him, holding onto his waist with her free hand.
She keeps the gun ready in her other hand.
The smoke and shouting get worse as they move farther up the hall. Bodies lay broken on the floor, some guards and some prisoners. Lightning flashes through the smoke above them. Gaby pulls up the neck of her dress to filter the air as much as possible. It stings her nose and throat. The tears in her eyes blur her vision. She can only just make out a figure at the end of the hall. Gaby blinks her eyes clear.
It is Napoleon.
It is, and it is not. His suit is scorched, tattered, and riddled with bullet holes. She cannot see any blood on him. As she watches, a fresh spray of bullets ricochets off of his skin. He turns toward the group of guards. The way he moves is wrong, too. Predatory, his shoulders drawn tight, his head held low. As he turns, she gets a glimpse of his eyes. They are a sickly, glowing green, as are most of the veins in his face. It is the same color as the lightning in the air around him. It looks almost like a giant, fanged mouth.
Then Napoleon moves again, reaching his hand toward the guards. Green jumps between them.
“Don’t—!” Gaby shouts.
The guards crumple to the ground, shriveled and dried out. All of them have traces of green around their mouths.
Illya curses. Gaby looks down at the gun in her hand. It won’t help here. Something has taken Napoleon’s body and is using it like a puppet. Whatever it is, she would bet that it’s trying to claw its way out. Every second they wait gives it more energy and a better foothold.
“Illya…” Her hands shake, but her voice does not.
Chapter 11: Illya
Illya does not understand magic. He does not know, either, what Gaby has grasped so that she can pick apart how it works. He only knows that for some reason, it cannot hurt him. He runs forward, crouched low. The thing that is not Napoleon throws lightning, but it runs off of him without impact. The floor turns to ice and Illya goes to his knees. He pushes himself to his feet again. There are lightning and smoke all around them, but Napoleon does not seem to feel any of it.
He does not understand magic. But he knows what it is to be pushed from your own body.
So Illya does what he had always used to do when the red mist came, and he needed a way to let it out: he balls his hand into a fist and swings.
His knuckles collide with Napoleon’s jaw. It snaps his head back and to one side. Before the creature even brings Napoleon’s head back up, it strikes at Illya’s ribs. The balance is off. Illya knocks the blow aside and then makes a grapple. He feels the thing buck against his hold, but he knows Napoleon’s center of gravity better than it does. He bears it to the ground and locks him down with both legs, one arm wedged up under Napoleon’s jaw and shoved against his throat.
Napoleon ignites. The thing inside him howls in a language that makes Illya’s teeth hurt. But the fire washes over him without doing more than scorching his clothes.
Gaby appears in front of them, the gun gripped in both hands. The air crackles. Illya rolls hard, getting on top of Napoleon’s body so that the bolt of lighting has to pass through him. It disperses. The crack of thunder leaves Illya’s ears ringing. He thinks he hears Gaby calling to him, her voice hoarse from the smoke. Then his ears clear and he can make out her words.
“I think it needs a living body!”
The thing hears her, too. It fights harder against Illya’s grip. But it leans away from the pressure against Napoleon’s throat as though it cares about being able to breathe. Illya takes a chance and shifts his grip. He gets one hand on Napoleon's jaw, the other still pinning him in place.
“Get out of him,” he snarls, “or I will break his neck.”
The thing lets out a horrible, hissing laugh. “You wouldn’t.”
“Better dead than helping you,” Gaby retorts. “If you don’t believe us, ask him yourself.”
The thing goes still, snarls, thrashes against the grip Illya still has on it. The green light flares. Around them, the smoke thickens. Illya’s throat burns.
He is going to have to do it. It does not surprise him. He had gotten out of killing Napoleon when they finished their first mission together, but he supposes he expected to finish the job eventually.
<I’m sorry,> he whispers.
Napoleon’s jaw drops open. A torrent of green flame races out of his mouth. It reaches to the ceiling where it mingles with the smoke and pours down the corridors. As it fades, he goes limp. Then he begins to shudder violently, his eyes rolling up in his head. Illya rolls him onto his side and braces him, holding his head still as gently as he can. It only lasts a few seconds, but those seconds seem to echo in the dark, smoke-filled hall. When it stops, Napoleon hauls in a deep breath, starts coughing, chokes, and then throws up onto the concrete floor.
He scrubs at his mouth. “...Ow.”
Illya pulls him as gently as possible into a fireman’s carry. Then he gets to his feet. Crouching low to avoid the worst of the smoke, he starts up the hall. “We’ll get you help. Gaby—”
“Already on it,” she holds up a second gun and then gives a third to Napoleon.
Illya leaves the baton on the ground.
“The office. We need evidence. And there should be surveillance and a map—” she pauses to cough, “so we can find the exit.”
Napoleon points and they start running. Illya can hear him wince with every step, but he does not slow. The hallway is too empty, but he will take whatever little gifts they can get. The office is locked, of course. Illya kicks it in, as well, and then sets Napoleon in the desk chair. There is no smoke here yet, and they all take deep, heavy breaths while they tear through the cabinets. They find Illya’s clothes and his watch, which he puts on, and a stack of papers that appear to detail the experiments and name at least some of the people who had helped create this place. Gaby clutches those against her chest.
Outside, they find a car, and Gaby hotwires it, cursing in German until the engine turns over. Illya sits in the back with Napoleon’s head in his lap, watching the rise and fall of his chest and listening to the general sounds of coughing.
“You look like shit,” he comments quietly.
“Better than I feel,” he sighs. “I liked this suit.”
They lapse into silence for a little. The road is quiet. The air is cold and clear and eases at least some of the burning in their lungs.
“What now?” He asks.
“Now we find a phone and stay low until we can get an extraction and a medical team.” Gaby looks at them in the rear-view mirror. “After that, I don’t know.”
Behind them, the base burns. They cannot see it anymore, but when they had left, smoke had been billowing out of the door behind them. They had not been able to get anyone out. That was what they had concluded. They had not tried to count how many that thing had killed before it had left Napoleon’s body. Illya has questions, but only one needs to be answered immediately.
“Is it gone?”
Napoleon clears his throat. He inhales, coughs, and then clears it again. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?” Gaby presses.
“As sure as I can be. It wouldn’t have let us go if it could still reach us.”
Napoleon lets out a dry laugh that breaks into a hacking cough, “I suppose it is. Still, I don’t want to be the one to explain it to Waverly.”
Gaby squares her shoulders. “Leave it to me.”
Two Weeks Later
Napoleon’s mother’s apartment looks just as he remembers—not from his childhood, of course, but from when he had come home one year and presented her with the keys to a new place with a view, hardwood floors, and a high ceiling. He still almost walks into a line of washing when he steps out of Illya’s way.
He holds out a bouquet of brilliant orange tulips, wrapped in white ribbon, with an expression that would appear serious only if you did not know him. “Illya Kuryakin. It is good to meet you, Mrs. Quinn. Napoleon has been telling us all about you in the last few weeks.”
“In the last weeks ?” She echoes, eyebrows shooting upwards. “Leo, how long have you known these people?”
Gaby muffles a laugh.
Napoleon sighs and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Unless I say ‘less than a month’, you’re going to be disappointed.”
“You’re right, I am. But nevermind that. Come here.”
He bends—his mother is Gaby’s height—and hugs her tight. The smell of her is familiar. Kitchen spices and soap. It threatens to bring tears to his eyes, but he blinks them back. He smiles, straightens, and then extends a hand. His smile is back in place, bright and fixed.
“This is Gaby. She’s the best of us.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Quinn,” Gaby shakes his mother’s hand.
“You’re in charge, then? Oh, don’t worry, he hasn’t told me what you all do, Illya. I know it’s top secret.” She reaches out to take Gaby’s hand in her free one and beckons Illya along with a nod. “Sit down and make yourselves at home, please. Leo, come with me to the kitchen. I’m finishing up dinner.”
“Are you sure you do not want our help, Mrs. Quinn?” Illya asks.
“No, that’s alright. Take your coat off and stay a while. And thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.”
“I told him tulips were your favorite,” Napoleon comments.
Illya and Gaby take places side by side on a low, comfortable couch. There’s a plate of gingersnaps on the table. As he and his mother leave, Napoleon sees Illya reach for one.
The kitchen, too, is just as it was the last time that he visited. The cabinets are the same cheery blue. The dishcloths are in the same place. On the stove, a pot bubbles, likely full of potatoes and lamb and chicken stock from the smell. There are jars of herbs steeping in oils, ready to be stirred into lotions and salves. The magic in them feels like the hum of bees.
Napoleon suppresses a shiver.
His mother takes the kettle from the stove, brings it to the sink, and fills it. She sets it back on the burner, lights it, and then turns to face him.
“So… what happened?” she asks very softly. She reaches out and brushes her fingers through the streak of silver that now runs through his hair from his left temple. “You haven’t been away for quite that long.”
So he tells her. As quickly as he can. They have until the kettle boils before Illya and Gaby start to wonder what’s happening in the kitchen if they haven’t guessed already. His mother watches him the whole time, a furrow deepening between her brows with every word. He spares nothing. She has always known when he tried to lie to her, so he stopped trying years ago.
She slaps his shoulder so gently he barely feels it. Then she turns away, swiping at her eyes with the back of one hand. “Stupid.”
“In hindsight, yes.”
“Didn’t I teach you better than that?”
He sighs. “It was necessary. Illya and Gaby could have had minutes, and I—”
“You love them. Well, that’s good, at least.”
The kettle starts to shriek, then, and Napoleon grabs a potholder before bringing it over to the teapot. His mother supervises as he starts mixing their tea. There are still tears in her eyes, but as long as she ignores them, he will, too, to the best of his ability.
“What about your magic?”
Napoleon goes still for a moment. Then he turns and sets the kettle back on the stove. “I… can’t. I can still feel it. But when I tried last, it slipped away.”
She sets her hand on his shoulder and says nothing. He can imagine anything she might offer: you don’t know it’s gone, or maybe it’s better this way. Something like that. If she knew how to fix it, she would tell him.
Napoleon summons up a smile and faces her again. “Let me carry the tray.”
“Good to know you haven’t forgotten your manners.”
He kisses her on the cheek and then collects the tea. “After you taught me? Never.”
They rejoin Gaby and Illya in the front room. Only one of the gingersnaps appears to be missing, but he still looks like they’ve caught him with his hand in the jar. His mother does not comment, of course. She takes her favorite armchair, the one with the lace throw draped over its top. Napoleon sets the tray on the table. He touches Gaby’s hand and leans toward Illya.
“And you call me a thief.”
He sits, then, suppressing laughter at the look on his face.
“You call him a thief?” Illya starts to sputter, but her smile stops him short, “I always called him my magpie.”
Gaby laughs, “We have, too, occasionally. You look more like one, now.”
Napoleon touches the silver streak, grimaces, and then reaches out to take his cup of tea. He had tried dying it immediately after their return from Spain, but it had not taken. He’ll find something, eventually, he supposes.
Illya’s expression, however, is thoughtful. He considers Napoleon for a moment longer, takes a second cookie, and then offers the plate to him. “Remember when I told you about Koschei? And Lord of Eagles?”
“If you start calling him the ‘lord’ of anything seriously, he’s never going to let it rest,” Gaby comments.
It’s an odd feeling, to go from Koschei to this. He’ll take it, though. He takes the plate of cookies from Illya, keeps one, and then passes them to his mother. Illya gives him a look.
Gaby leans forward, her elbows on her knees. “Mrs. Quinn, what was Napoleon like when he was young?”
He bites back a groan, but doesn’t protest, even as his mother launches into a story. It isn’t about magic or whispers at the corners of the world. Afterward, they have a normal dinner and Illya tries to wheedle the stew recipe from his mother.
“Come back for it,” she says.
Illya nods solemnly. “I will.”
Out in the cold winter air, Napoleon offers Gaby his arm and they bunch to one side of the sidewalk with Illya following close behind. The air smells of exhaust and street vendors’ carts and the bustle of people. Cars and taxis rumble past. And around the edges of everything, there is magic, whispering and waiting and just out of his reach.
“Did you get the answers you wanted?” Illya asks, just loudly enough to be heard.
“Yes, and no,” Napoleon sighs, “there doesn’t seem to be a way to reverse it, but…”
“But you went back on your deal.”
“Only very technically.”
Everyone inside that base . Those had been his words. It had been a stupid oversight. The power he had summoned had expected to get him, as well. To eat him whole and use him to get out of wherever it lived. They hadn’t let it.
Napoleon looks back to Illya and offers a small smile. “Have I said thank you?”
“Yes. You are… welcome. It is not something I want to do again.” Illya shoves his hands deep into his pockets, shoulders hunching inside his coat.
Gaby stares at him, too, her gaze steady and intent. Her nails dig into his arm.
“I won’t make you. I promise. Even if it means I never use magic again.”
He means it. The realization startles him and he holds a little tighter to Gaby’s hand for a moment. Then Napoleon draws his mind in, away from the edge of the world, and lets the whispers go. It leaves the steady roar of traffic in its place. Illya’s warmth at his back, and Gaby’s by his side. There is no hollow where he had expected one, no aching loss. Perhaps it’s only because he knows he could try to reach out again, but he won’t.
The truth about magic is what no one wants to say: It takes and takes everything you love until all you have is power. Its rules tempt you to push as much as they restrict. And when you find another way, it drinks down everything you offer before consuming you, as well; and by then it’s a mercy. Magic runs a masterful long con and the more you think you have the upper hand, the worse it is.
He’s a con, and one of the best, if he says so himself. He won’t be taken in again.
And here we are at the end.
Once again, a sincere thank you to vamppeach and to damoselmaledisant for their work beta-reading this fic. Couldn't have done it without you <3
And thank you to everyone who has been reading, and especially to everyone who has commented. I've enjoyed every single one.
As always, I'm at ask-ladyofrosefire on Tumblr.
Until next time!