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the body electric

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The Côte d'Azur in September isn’t as crowded as Illya had feared, though it’s still early enough in the month that Cassis is still bustling with foreign tourists, all of them drinking rosé, and all of them in this hotel bar just off the beach — sand, sun, a sea that whispers appeal rather than hypothermia — and being loud, directly at Illya. Not to impugn the hotel, which is well-positioned and reasonably secure, and not to impugn the sea, though certainly to impugn the tourists: what is buzzing at the back of Illya’s head is neither the passable blanc, heavy on the Marsanne, nor the clouds that promise rain later, gathering in the sky, fading through orange, but Napoleon, sitting at the other end of the bar, drinking an entirely inappropriate kir royal, draped deliberately on a stool and idly watching the ebb-flow of people and conversation.

“You know,” Gaby says, and Illya doesn’t twitch, just tightens his fingers on the stem of his glass, but it’s close. The earpieces she prototyped to send and receive were small to begin with, almost undetectable, and this is their first field test with the first finished product; learned instincts mean that he’s caught between a reflexive response and a complete lack of acknowledgement. So far, Gaby’s kept most of her background commentary to herself and keeping the line clear, but all good things. “You look like you’re going to burst a blood vessel, or maybe tackle the bartender.”

“It’s fine,” Illya mutters into his glass, because he is going to do neither, though both would be a welcome excuse to leave the premises. This is one of the simplest missions he’s ever been given. He has put up with far worse for the sake of an objective.

“It doesn’t look fine,” Gaby says, and he hears, faintly, the shifting of fabric — sheets? — and then her footfalls, the tick of machinery, and knows that she’s adjusting the lens. “Actually, it looks like you’re going to kick a hole in the wall, like — remember Rio? anyway — Rio.”

Illya looks along the curve of the beach, up the cliffs to the house they’re staying in, to catch Gaby’s eye, as much as he can. He remembers Rio. In Rio, Napoleon had looked the same way that he does now — lazily speculative — and it had been almost oppressive, coming out of the rainy season; Illya hadn’t been able to look away from his open collar, his hair curling in the humidity, the chessboard between them as Gaby did a week-old crossword from London on the bed. “Mate in six,” Napoleon had said, and leaned back, and Illya watched him for tells, for anything other than easy confidence, and saw nothing but expansive satisfaction.

“Check,” he had said instead, queen to b5.

“You have me there,” Napoleon had said, “but still: mate in five,” and Illya had seen the entire problem, how to prolong it, how to force a draw, how — if he was good, and Napoleon careless — he could still win, and then Illya had taken his king’s crown between, frowned at the board, and flung the king directly out the open balcony doors.

“Creative,” Napoleon had said, raising an eyebrow. “Am I to consider that a forfeit, or a postponement?”

Illya had raised a finger and opened his mouth to respond, and then thought better of it, and stalked past him to the ensuite: he had run cold, or at least stale, water over his wrists, and splashed some on his face. When he had looked up into the mirror, Napoleon had been there too, solicitous, or maybe curious, though the two seemed to overlap, and Illya had been angry, at himself, at Napoleon, at the rustle of newsprint and the muggy stillness of the air, like the moments before a downpour, but dragged out beyond all reason. When Napoleon had laid a hand on his shoulder, then, Illya had twisted past him, ducked for leverage, and thrown him so hard that the table had rattled, the remaining pieces on the board tipping and tumbling.

“Boys,” Gaby had said, putting down her pencil and setting her drink on the bedside table, and then she’d sighed. “At least make it worthwhile.”

They were evenly matched, and had been from the start, Illya’s advantage in his method and Napoleon’s in his unorthodoxy, and Illya had finally caught him against the cratered wall by the balcony doors, plaster dust in his hair and shirt falling off one shoulder. “That’s a good look on you,” Napoleon had managed, out of breath and pinned at the shoulders. “Pity about the room.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” Illya had said — a refrain, at that point — and, in lieu of waiting for a denial, for that same simple certainty, had leaned in to bite at Napoleon’s mouth, too violent to be called a kiss (Manhattan, in April; hyacinths and the river) and yet otherwise indescribable.

“Worthwhile,” Gaby had said, when Napoleon turned it back on him, left him dizzy and drowning, and all he could focus on was the curl of Napoleon’s smile and Gaby’s outstretched hand, beckoning.

Anyway, perhaps it is the wine after all: Marsanne is rich and dark and, half a glass in, Illya finds his anger flaring a little less, banked and burning. Napoleon runs an idle finger around the rim of his flute, and looks at the door, the kind of look that cuts through a crowd and, somehow, is impossible to ignore, and the crowd parts — the Bolshoi couldn’t have choreographed it better — and reveals their target.

Those are the terms in which Illya thinks of her, anyway; Sylvie Dubuisson, twenty-four, fond of gin and les mods anglais; he can hear the appreciative noise Gaby makes at her shift dress over the chatter that follows her entrance. “Tailored,” Gaby says. “Style over statement, always.” Illya isn’t paying much attention, though. It’s a setup they’ve used before, with the addition of the earpieces and Gaby’s insight from afar. Napoleon, at the bar, a neutral party; Illya, in the shadows, waiting for his cue; human nature and stress responses will take care of the rest, and they’re home free.

She’s noticed Napoleon, Sylvie has; she’s breathing and has an eye for beautiful things, so of course she has, and she winds around tables, greeting friends and brushing past strangers, deliberately casual and all the while getting closer. “Make her come to you,” Gaby says, consideringly. “She looks like she knows what she wants.”

It isn’t as if Napoleon doesn’t know what he’s doing — a face and a smile like his, missions go sideways more often than not, or at least expand beyond their given parameters — but it calms Illya, a little, to know that they aren’t relying on his judgment. He expects Napoleon to roll his eyes, tap his ear to send a burst of static through the signal as admonishment, but instead Napoleon looks down at his drink and turns, slightly, away from the crowd. It’s a curious conflict of body language. He makes no attempt to shrink, or to fade into the background (“Good,” Gaby says), but when Sylvie slides onto the stool next to him, Napoleon looks up at her, almost shy, and then back down.

“Half-smile,” Gaby says, and Napoleon does, and Illya’s seen all of this before (February in Istanbul, though he doesn’t remember much else), but it’s new every single time. The same smile and the same lie — that he’s hers and only hers; that she’s the only woman in the world who could make him smile like that, and he’s the only man in the world who can satisfy her — and the same Napoleon, for all intents and purposes, but still: two faces shift into a vase. He’s an optical illusion, and even Illya, at the intersection of the lines, has a hard time spotting the seams.

“When she touches you, make it significant,” Gaby says. “I know that’s a stretch of the imagination, but—” and there Sylvie is, fingers just barely touching Napoleon’s shoulder; she’s young and she’s brave and she’s good at getting what she wants, and Napoleon lets the moment hang in the air, heavy, before he leans into it and turns to face her, the movement reflected through his entire body. 

Gaby’s good, Illya will give her that. Napoleon has something like a ninety percent success rate, but anyone who didn’t look like him would be looking at fifty at best; he’s handsome and easy and instinctive, and most of the time, being eager to please is good enough. Now, though, Napoleon holds whiskey on his tongue, and listens to Sylvie laugh; he tilts his head as if he’s telling her a secret, and lets her have the verbal upper hand. “Lean over the bar,” Gaby says, and Napoleon does, and Sylvie watches the pull of his jacket over his shoulders, and Illya watches both of them.

Just for a moment, Napoleon catches his eye in the bar mirror, behind the rows of bottles, and nothing changes in his expression, but Illya feels, suddenly, off-guard. Is it Napoleon looking at him, or Robert, tonight, who does something for the government — “paperwork, filing, all that red tape” — and believes, with every ounce of his being, that the world can be taken at surface value, and does it matter? Either way, Illya can tell that he’s enjoying it, a little, this sudden attention.

“Time to go,” Gaby says. The clouds are massing in the sky, faded from orange to purple now, but no less luminous, and Napoleon makes his excuses — an early morning, a train to catch; a good excuse to be impulsive — and Sylvie, presumptuous and unapologetic, invites him to her suite on the top floor, with the balcony view and a drink for the road. “Put your hand on her back,” Gaby says, and without needing more, Napoleon settles a hand on the small of her back, a little low for propriety, and lets her lead him out without a second glance back.

“Wait by the bar for ten minutes,” Gaby tells Illya, and there’s the scratch of pen on paper. “How’s that Marsanne?”

“Inadequate,” Illya says under his breath. He should be listening for chatter, maybe talking to the cleaning staff, finding out whether Sylvie has anything in the hotel safe, or whether she’s left special instructions. She’s the daughter of an architect working on post-war housing, apartment blocks which don’t quite measure up — floors that aren’t listed on the blueprints, materials that never appeared in the finished structures — and they have reason to believe that she knows something, young enough to have been a confidante during the building process and old enough, now, to be carrying the documentation that would prove it.

Instead, Illya listens to the clink of ice, a cut-crystal decanter and the click of a lighter. Hers, not his, but he can extrapolate from the catch of Napoleon’s breath: she’s leaning on the balcony, silhouetted against the sky, probably, and when Sylvie inhales, Napoleon is so close to her that Illya can hear it, the hiss of sparks when she taps her cigarette on the balcony. “Are you going to kiss me, then,” Sylvie says, more a statement than a question.

“How could I turn an invitation like that down,” Napoleon says.

“Not on the mouth,” Gaby says, and Illya can picture that, too, because he’s seen it enough times: Napoleon cupping Sylvie’s face in one big hand, tilting her head to the side and pressing a kiss just below her ear, following the line of her jaw, and she gasps. Illya knows the moment that she sinks a hand into Napoleon’s hair and pulls, because he’s heard the sound that Napoleon makes, from his throat, and entirely involuntary, enough times. “You can kiss her now,” Gaby says, and Illya sits, and seethes, and wishes that he’d ordered something stronger than wine, maybe that same smoky single-malt to mull over.

He can’t afford distraction, on the mission or otherwise, but sometimes the mission is the distraction. Napoleon hasn’t said anything since Sylvie stepped out on the balcony to smoke, or not in so many words; Illya knows, though, what it means when he pauses for a moment to gasp into her throat, though. “Ask her,” Gaby says. “Say please.”

“Please,” Napoleon says, and Illya doesn’t know what Gaby is seeing, or what Napoleon is asking for, but it doesn’t matter when he says it like that. “Indulge me,” he adds, and she laughs, delighted.

“Go on, then,” she says, and there’s the whisper of a zipper and then fabric falling, and Napoleon sighs appreciatively.

“Position, Illya,” Gaby says, finally, thank God, and he leaves a generous tip folded on the bar. There’s an empty room on the third floor, down the hall from Sylvie’s bodyguards, and Illya picks the lock and closes the door behind him. It doesn’t have as good a view as Sylvie’s suite, one floor up, but it does have a balcony, and the balcony has a clear path to the roof, if he braces himself on the door like so — and uses a drainpipe as leverage, like so — and it isn’t elegant, but it’s a straightforward climb to the next balcony, and from there to the roof, all terra cotta tiling and beautiful view and, below him, Sylvie backing Napoleon into the wall, like Rio. Like Rio and Berlin and London.

“Turn,” Gaby says, and Napoleon twists to press her to the wall, probably, if her gasp of surprise is anything to go by. “Kneel.”

Napoleon kneels, or Illya guesses that he does, because Napoleon has never disobeyed that particular instruction. He looks good on his knees, bowed head and broad shoulders, and has never been shy about it, and Sylvie gets her hands in his hair again. “You know what she wants,” Gaby says. “I don’t have to tell you.”

“Please,” Napoleon says, so quiet and breathy that at first Illya isn’t sure that he’s heard correctly. “Please,” Napoleon says, again, and Illya realizes that it isn’t to Sylvie, but to Gaby, or maybe to both.

“You do look good like that,” Gaby says, and Napoleon sighs in contentment and presses a kiss to Sylvie’s hip, probably, to the crease of her thigh, and then Illya hears the whisper of friction on silk, and Napoleon makes a sound as if he’s drowning and has just broken the surface. “Through the fabric, first,” Gaby says, and Illya considers, briefly, throwing himself off the roof, blowing the entire con of it, damn subtlety and damn property damage. Damn the collateral. He would take out this entire town if he needed to, and his knuckles are tight on the edge of the roof, and Gaby snaps, in his ear, “Down, Illya. Stop.”

He doesn’t want to. He wants to snarl at her. Instead, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, uncurls his fingers and lets the tension in his shoulders dissipate. “Good,” Gaby says, though she doesn’t specify who, and Illya sits back, feels like an unexploded bomb, inert and deadly. “Show her how much you want it,” she adds, to Napoleon, and Illya can’t guess what’s happening, but it doesn’t matter. Sylvie swears and yanks Napoleon’s hair, and Illya can hear all of it, and he wants the way wolves do, uncomplicated and uncompromising and vicious.

“Hands,” Gaby says. “They aren’t just for decoration.” Napoleon doesn’t quite laugh, but it’s there, a rumble of amusement from his chest, and then Sylvie’s head thumps back against the wall, and Illya — doesn’t stop listening, because: this is a mission, and this is his mission, and he doesn’t matter right now, but — remembers Napoleon looking up at him like that, through his lashes, just a little too smug to be satisfying, and remembers the noise he’d made when Illya had tipped his head back too far to be comfortable and set his thumb over Napoleon’s windpipe, pressed until Napoleon had closed his eyes.

“Oh,” Sylvie says, “oh,” and Gaby hums in satisfaction when Sylvie cries out. Illya wishes that he could see it, and didn’t have to stare at the cloud-dark sky extrapolating instead. He’ll have to settle for making Napoleon tell him later, perhaps, with Illya’s hands on his wrists, how much he liked it. For now, though, they’re still on the clock, and he waits for his cue, and tries not to extrapolate too much beyond their mission parameters.

“Illya,” Gaby says, and he straightens up, goes still. “Go.”

This is the second half of the con: one man to gain confidence, and another to introduce stress, and Illya is much better at the latter. He kicks a tile off the roof, and it clatters, even through the strange evening quiet, the humidity about to break, and smashes on Sylvie’s balcony. “Now,” Gaby says, and he follows it, landing in a crouch, so much more comfortable in motion than he was while waiting.

“What was that?” Napoleon says, and when he peers around the corner Illya hits him so hard that the force of the blow twists his entire body, and he lands at Sylvie’s feet. “Go,” Napoleon shouts, “go, I’ll take care of this,” but Sylvie hesitates, eyes twitching to the painting by the door. It’s standard hotel fare, some local artist’s rendering of the region fifty years ago, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she stopped, and looked; what would someone carry out of a burning building? Their secrets, first and foremost, the things which matter more to them than life or property; the things that nobody wants to be found in the ashes. “Go,” Napoleon says, again, back on his feet, and Illya has his gun up now, and Napoleon charges at him, and Sylvie flees, robe open, just before Napoleon drives his shoulder into Illya’s diaphragm and they both tumble to the floor. Illya has his gun pressed to the underside of Napoleon’s jaw.

“The painting, by the door,” Illya says.

Napoleon doesn’t move, and Illya shifts the barrel of the gun, traces down the curve of his hyoid bone. “Later,” Gaby says, and Napoleon sighs and picks himself up. His jacket is draped over the back of the chaise, and his shirt is open, and his mouth is swollen-pink and still wet.

“Later?” he says. “Really? And we were having such a good time.”

“You,” Illya says, raising a finger without looking at him. “You can wait.”

“Promises,” Napoleon says, and Illya crosses the room to pick at the painting’s frame. There’s an envelope tucked into the back of it, and something that feels like a key inside; outside, in the hallway, there are heavy footsteps that promise imminent firepower.

“Priorities,” Illya counters, and tucks the envelope into his pocket. “Do you want that jacket? Now would be a good time.”

“But I look so good without it,” Napoleon says, spreading his arms, and the footsteps are right outside the door, and Gaby laughs.

“Boys,” she says, “you have company,” and Illya spares Napoleon a single glance — this hotel, this town, what does it matter? This is what they do, and they’re the best, and later, Gaby will fuss over the bruise darkening on Napoleon’s cheekbone, where Illya hit him; later, Napoleon will let Gaby push him to his knees, when she asks him to tell Illya everything; and later, probably, they will have to leave town quietly and at an unholy hour of the morning, but Illya would give up much more than the Riviera for this, and if that is what makes a monster, then a monster he is — but right now, the doors burst open, and Illya smiles, because this is what he does, and why he is, and the first drops of rain splatter on the balcony. Après nous and so on, and Illya grins, wild and free, and finally lets himself go, and the sky opens.