They’re in Italy again; THRUSH is very good at playing on the inclinations of aristocratic fascists who long for a return of their former influence. For instance, the woman Illya guards is Contessa Regina Acerbi, as imperious and callous as her name implies. She’s frivolous, vain, and avaricious, too, with few moral virtues and even fewer loyalties.
Not to mention the many objections Illya has to her wardrobe. Not that it isn’t of a quality appropriate to her station, oh no. It’s simply… too purple. And much too old for her, long diaphanous gowns with layers of crepe that she’ll have trouble running in (it may be his job to ensure that the situation won’t come to that, but the other part of his job is to make sure that all possible eventualities are covered) and not nearly as flattering to her figure as he’d prefer.
Still, it suits her current needs and makes her slight figure look taller, as if her bearing and manner didn’t already command enough attention.
The company she keeps doesn’t hurt, either. Because not only does she have Illya at her back, sharp-eyed and frowning, but she also has her… adoring pet.
Antonino Schiavo makes Illya’s lip curl. His clothes are too flashy, his pants too tight, his manner too breezy, and his entire existence is so insubstantial beyond his well-built frame that he might as well be a sunbeam, bright and fleeting and unreliable. But Regina adores him, inasmuch as she can value another person’s existence. She dotes upon Antonino, and he her, and they’re nauseating to watch together, but that’s Illya’s job, so he does, suffering their endearments and affections until he’s dismissed.
Antonino has the top button of his shirt undone today, no tie or jacket but pale blue linen stretched across his broad shoulders and the glint of Regina’s collar at the base of his throat. There’s a matching leash somewhere, too, flat gold links and soft leather handle, probably coiled absent-mindedly on one of the occasional tables in their suite as if they don’t care that anyone could see it.
As if they want visitors to see it.
Illya is not sure he likes this mission. But it’s essential, or so he’s been told: the only way they currently have to infiltrate THRUSH at the highest level, and they can’t wait for another opportunity because they’ve heard rumor of a major operation in the works. Some new nerve agent, easy to transport as separate innocuous components that then combine when dissolved in water - like, say, a public reservoir.
All THRUSH needs is the funding to develop a suitable quantity of it. That’s where Regina comes in with her impressive fortune, very little of it inherited through respectable means.
(Such a shame what happened to her elder brother, they say. And to her first husband. So tragic that the two were lost in a skiing accident not even a year before her already-ailing father passed away, too. And then her second husband ran off with all that money and the maid. She’s suffered so much loss, it’s no wonder she’s become guarded and… eccentric over the years.)
When Gaby had read the Contessa’s biography, she’d laughed. “Unbelievable,” she’d said.
“Oh, she’s very real,” Waverly had assured them in the briefing. “And very dangerous. You’ll need to be at the top of your game for this one, all of you.”
“I think we can handle it,” Napoleon said, looking far too delighted at the prospect.
Illya had had no objections at the time; he hadn’t realized yet the true extent of his role. ‘Bodyguard’ he could do in his sleep. ‘Unwitting and stoic voyeur,’ however, is testing his patience.
Now, for instance, they are playing croquet, Antonino’s arms around Regina as he helps her practice her swing. He murmurs something in her ear that makes her laugh, and she reaches up to pat his cheek indulgently before tangling her fingers with his around the handle of her mallet.
Illya’s gaze falters, glances away, and he catches the eye of Signora Catarina Fierro, their hostess. She’s watching Illya, not the pair on the lawn, a small, sharp smile on her face.
“They make a lovely couple,” Catarina - or rather Kitty, a foolish name she insists upon - comments airily.
Illya inclines his head in something like a nod, but doesn’t answer aloud. He couldn’t trust his voice, and besides, it’s the nature of his role to speak to her (and her other guests) as little as possible.
Still, Kitty keeps on, coiled in her lounge chair like a serpent. “How long have you worked for them?”
“I work for the Contessa, since before she met Antonino,” he says, and sees a spark kindle in her eyes. There. Napoleon is not the only one who can play on people’s assumptions. Illya does not smile, but there is a glow of satisfaction in his chest, now, to counter the slow roil in his stomach.
“Gregorio!” Regina calls, and he snaps to attention. “Be a dear and roll that back, will you?” He blinks, and Antonino gives an impatient gesture towards the ground. Illya looks down and, sure enough, there’s a striped yellow ball at his feet.
“Come on now, we haven’t got all day,” Antonino adds, and Illya suppresses the sudden desire to dislocate the man’s jaw and feed the wayward ball to him. Instead, he kicks it back, with precision and just enough speed that it knocks into Antonino’s ankle with stinging force.
Beside him, Kitty’s smile widens.
After lunch, they retire to their rooms for a riposo, scanning the room for bugs and turning on the miniature signal jammer in Regina’s compact for good measure. “I’m going to have a bruise,” Napoleon says, lifting up the cuff of his trouser leg to look at his ankle. “What was that even for?”
Gaby rolls her eyes. “He was feeling left out, of course. It must be awfully dull, standing there all the time.” She strips off the heavy gold jewelry she’s worn all morning, bangles and rings and necklace and earrings. It’s probably doubled her weight, but you wouldn’t have known it to watch her in character. “Poor Illya.” She shoots him a sympathetic look.
“No,” Illya counters, “I was having a nice talk with our hostess. She now believes that Gregorio is secretly in love with Regina. It gives her weakness she can exploit.”
“...or try to,” Napoleon says, looking impressed. If only he didn’t look surprised, too. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Peril.”
“I could have broken your ankle,” Illya responds in the tone of an offer, not a statement of fact.
“But you didn’t,” Gaby says with finality. “Now we can compare notes on the rest of the guests. And the castle.”
It is a castle, too. A modest one, to be sure, but it rises above the trees on its hillside like the white prow of a ship, overlooking the vineyards of Val d’Orcia and the sloping bulk of Monte Amiata, all that remains of a dormant volcano.
Among its other amenities, it boasts two tennis courts, a croquet court, and a swimming pool. Also, UNCLE suspects, a chemical weapons laboratory built into the wine caves within the hill beneath the castle. So far, they have been unable to find the entrance to the caves, but then, it’s only been a few days.
It feels like it’s been weeks.
Unlike Solo (and to a lesser extent, Gaby), Illya has never been able to be completely at ease anywhere; perhaps it’s his upbringing, perhaps it’s his training. And yet, being undercover here, in the heart of the viper’s den, has rubbed his nerves raw in an entirely new way.
He will be glad when this is all over. They might even be given some time away from one another.
Right now, that sounds like bliss.
Dinner at Castello di Fierro is a more formal affair, though still lively and social. It is only after dinner that business is discussed, sometimes well into the evening. So far, they haven’t learned too much beyond the innocuous hobbies, legitimate business interests, and superficial political alignments of the various guests, and the UNCLE team all agree that the key THRUSH leaders present are being justifiably cautious about courting Regina and feeling out her possible inclinations.
Besides the UNCLE team and Kitty, there are six others at the castle, not counting the servants: Severino, Kitty’s husband; Fellippo, their son; Marco Aita, an old friend of Severino’s and likely a top THRUSH strategist; Otto and Joli Fleischer, the latter of whom attended boarding school with Kitty; and Cajsa Hässli, a young heiress from Switzerland who may also be here for unwitting recruitment. And it does appear to be unwitting; she’s pleasant and charming and pretty and very attached to Fellippo, but she’s retired early from prior after-dinner discussions, excusing herself with a light self-deprecating joke about not really being able to follow along.
Fellippo usually exits next after a calculated duration, disinterested in either rebelling against or actively participating in his parents’ despicable affiliations so long as his life remains comfortable, and he’s obviously got his eye on keeping Cajsa around. His parents don’t seem to object to the union so long as their future daughter-in-law brings her fortune.
And then there is the castle staff: a few timid and largely interchangeable maids that stay out of sight as much as possible, a taciturn and intimidatingly efficient butler, and two cooks, one for mornings and lunch and one for the evenings. According to what Illya and Napoleon have been able to ascertain, these servants all seem to be local villagers ignorant of any suspicious goings on at the castle beyond the usual social scandals common to Italian aristocracy.
The guards are a different story. There are - at minimum - a dozen on the grounds, within the castle and without, and they are all wary and taciturn. Illya has only gotten a few words from any one of them at a time, and very few are willing to share their names, so he can’t even get a thorough count that way. He knows their type, though, former soldiers turned mercenaries, thugs with no loyalty and more than a little fascination with brutal means towards whatever ends they’re paid to pursue. They are the ones that give him the most difficulty, watching him closely, accurately recognizing his presence as the greatest current threat on the premises.
To be honest, Illya’s looking forward to breaking all of their noses systematically on his way out. Possibly a few necks, depending on how many let their eyes linger too long on Regina.
But bozhe moi, he’s tired of dodging their erratic patrols merely to do a preliminary search of the castle.
“It might be a two-person job,” Napoleon comments when Illya brings up the guard issue before dinner. Napoleon frowns into the mirror at his uncooperative tie, undoing it and starting over.
Illya glowers. “You think I can’t do it?”
“We both know you can,” Gaby says from the loveseat by the window, already dressed and ready to go, “but just to speed things up.”
“Exactly,” Napoleon says, shooting a triumphant grin through the mirror at Illya and losing track of the knot in the process.
“Fine.” Illya nudges Napoleon and swats his hands away from the tie. “You’re crushing the silk,” he explains, pre-empting any protest, and faintly surprised when he gets none. Napoleon simply stands there, taking the opportunity to put on his cufflinks while he bares his neck.
“See?” Gaby says, strolling over as they’re finishing up, swinging her pearl-encrusted purse by its wrist strap, “Much easier when you have help.”
When asked later, Illya won't be able to give a good account of the conversation at dinner. Most of it is pointless frivolities anyhow, and there are the other two agents present for the discussion to recall it if needed.
Meanwhile, Illya is being driven slowly mad.
From his vantage point behind Regina’s chair, he can see all the guests seated at the table, the two guards in the room dressed as serving-men, the door to the kitchen, one guard through the window in the door to the main hallway, and a good portion of the driveway through the window at his elbow.
He can also see straight down Gaby’s bodice; at a level, it’s a stiffly-embroidered v-neck affair with a glittering geometric accent pattern of pale violet sequins, a high waist, and a long sweep of multi-layered lavender chiffon draped to her feet. From above, the rigidity of the fabric keeps it from molding to her figure, meaning that he can see both the small gun she has hidden away in there and the fact that she’s not wearing a brassiere.
He does his best to not look, but she’s wearing a necklace of passable paste diamonds that drapes down into her décolletage and catches the light every time she moves.
Regina moves constantly. Reaching for food, for wine, for water, toying with her silverware, laughing at jokes, leaning in to exchange asides with Cajsa… As the two women closest in age, Regina and Cajsa have been getting along famously; Illya gathers that Gaby’s keeping the other girl close as a protective measure, in case things get messy. Even closer, on Regina’s other side, sits Antonino.
Or rather, he kneels. No one had said a word to the contrary that first night, when Antonino had pulled up a low stool, the better to lounge against his mistress’ knee; Cajsa might have muffled a slight giggle, and Marco might have raised an eyebrow for a fleeting moment, but Kitty and Joli had merely spared an admiring glance while continuing their conversation as if nothing had occurred.
If it had been Napoleon’s intention to provoke responses meant to get an initial read on the character of their company, he had succeeded. But then he had continued the practice, switching from stool to a graceful kneel to a cushion on the grass beside Regina’s lawn chair as needed, always in a distinct position of submission and always within arm’s reach of her.
Tonight, he kneels, resting against the arm of her chair, his dusky-blue silk trousers pulled tight over his broad thighs. Regina absently strokes his hair, pats his shoulder, passes him food from her plate. He leans into every touch, and as is customary for him at dinner, does not engage with the conversation, his presence purely ornamental. Illya suspects that they have worked out a system, delineating Antonino’s behavior in formal situations from more casual ones, when he is freer to act.
Illya would really prefer not to imagine that conversation.
The meal continues.
When the assembled party retires to the drawing room for drinks and discussion, Regina dismisses both Antonino and Gregorio. “I’m tired of you hovering,” she says disdainfully. “I’ll be fine.”
That explains the gun in her bodice.
Not coincidentally, this frees up Napoleon and Illya to search the east wing, as most of the servants are gone for the evening or busy washing up in the kitchen, and the guards are concentrated around the drawing room and outside, with only a handful doing rounds in the areas of the building presently unused.
It helps that Illya found a narrow, cobwebby servants’ hall that connects all the private rooms through a stairwell to the laundry. Many of the doors are blocked, hinges rusted with disuse, but he’s been able to shoulder his way into one or two places without too much fuss or leaving any trace.
They stop by Regina’s rooms first, so that Napoleon can change from his peacock costume and into something more sensible, and Illya can get an extra roll of microfilm for the camera disguised as a lighter in his jacket pocket.
“All right, Peril,” Napoleon says, clapping his hands and rubbing them together in undisguised anticipation. “Where to first?” It occurs to Illya that Napoleon might have been chafing at the limitations of his role, too.
Well, if he wants to stretch back into some real spycraft for a change, who is Illya to deny him?
“Library,” he decides. “I haven’t been able to get the library and the study near the master suite. A lookout will help.” Napoleon seems nearly mutinous at the word lookout. “Don’t worry, Cowboy,” Illya promises. “If I find a safe or a lockbox, it’s all yours.”
“Now you’re talking,” Napoleon says, gesturing expansively. “Lead on, Macduff!”
“It’s ‘lay on,’ you uneducated swine,” Illya retorts, but he’s having a hard time suppressing his own smile, already moving towards the door to the servants’ passageway.
The library is warm, unexpectedly so, but the stone floor must soak up sunshine all day via the bank of south-facing windows, heat radiating back and trapped by the heavy curtains when they’re closed for the evening. Immediately upon arrival, Napoleon drops down into an overstuffed chair by the door, swinging his legs up over the arm and lazing indolently.
Illya rolls his eyes. “What?” Napoleon says. “I can watch the door just fine from here. Besides, it’s been days since I got to sit in a proper chair. It’s been hell on the line of my slacks.”
“You’re a soft man,” Illya mutters, refraining from any comment about the line of Napoleon’s slacks.
“Ah, you’re finally acknowledging my manhood, that’s progress.”
“Shut up and let me look, Solo,” Illya retorts. Napoleon mimes locking his mouth shut and relaxes back into the plush cushions of his seat.
Illya doesn’t trust Napoleon to not pick any lock within arm’s reach, let alone an imaginary one of his own making, but the next half-hour is spent in relative silence while Illya methodically hunts through the room. The KGB had taught him four ways to search a room: fast or slow, messy or neat. Fast and messy was a step above petty burglary; slow and messy was usually used to intimidate the target as much as to find useful items; fast and neat was best for planting things like surveillance devices. Here, he doesn’t dare leave a trace and can’t afford to miss anything, so slow and neat it is.
“Ah,” he says, lifting a paperweight and noticing that the swatch of felt on its base is worn on one corner, its backing losing some of its stick. He picks at it with a fingernail and finds an ornate brass key taped to the inside. He holds it up to Napoleon’s questioning glance, and when Napoleon makes a wordless gesture, tosses it over.
Napoleon inspects it. “Interesting,” he says.
“Will you need to duplicate it?”
Napoleon tosses it back and Illya pulls it from the air one-handed. “No,” Napoleon says. “I can pick a lock like that with my eyes closed and nothing but a toothpick. What’s interesting is that I haven’t seen a lock that matches it anywhere in the castle. It’s for an old, old padlock, like what you put on gate chains.”
Illya wipes down the key, memorizing its size and the luster of its metal so that he can watch for its match, and puts it back, replacing both tape and felt carefully, aligning it just so on the desk. “Locked drawer,” he tells Napoleon, whose eyes light up.
They move to trade places, and Napoleon claps Illya on the shoulder as they pass each other, something like gratitude in his smile. It’s a simple desk lock, nothing beyond Illya’s abilities, but it’s a job better suited to a thief and he will (privately) admit that Napoleon’s larcenous skillset has more subtlety than his own.
There are footsteps in the hallway.
“Quick,” Napoleon says, and pushes Illya against the window, half-hidden by the curtain. “Now hold still,” he instructs, and steps in close, head tilting.
Illya pushes him back, reflexively. “What are you doing?” he hisses.
“Kissing you, of course,” Napoleon says in an entirely too-reasonable tone, drawing near again, voice dropping to a low murmur. “Now hold still or I’ll have to get on my knees.” The mental image of that - half memory, half something else - makes Illya freeze long enough for Napoleon to suit actions to words.
The kiss is- the kiss is- The kiss is beyond Illya’s powers of comprehension. The windowpanes behind him burn cool against his palms but Napoleon’s mouth is like a flame, hot and flickering and threatening to consume Illya whole if he’s not careful.
After the initial shock passes, Illya decides that he’ll be damned if Solo will upstage him. With hands fisted in Napoleon’s lapels, Illya pivots them both, slamming Napoleon’s back against the sash, jolting them apart.
Napoleon looks a little dazed, mouth flushed and slick. Illya can’t stop staring at it, even when Napoleon starts speaking, in a tone pitched slightly louder than is ideal. “I know,” he says, in Antonino’s inflections, “and you know I feel the same way, but we can’t. Not yet. We have to wait until I find her vault, and then we will have enough to begin a new life, one where she’ll never find us.”
It takes a moment for Illya to catch up, as close as they are together, Napoleon’s arms around him and their bodies flush from chest to thigh.
Ah. Yes. “Nino,” Gregory says, voice rough. “I am tired of waiting. I am tired of watching you with her.” It doesn’t even feel like a lie. “Please.”
There’s an approving smile in Napoleon’s gaze, alongside the pleading, enamored expression he’s affected for their audience. “Not much longer,” he says, then kisses Illya again, lingering and almost sweet. “I promise.”
There’s the scrape of a shoe and the click of a latch, as if someone has ducked back out the door. Napoleon glances over Illya’s shoulder, and the tension in his forehead eases.
“Are we clear?” Illya breathes.
“...yes,” Napoleon replies.
“Then I should probably-” Illya shifts back, incrementally.
“If you like,” Napoleon says. He makes it sound like a joke, which is all Illya needs to wrench himself from Napoleon’s embrace, turning his back, face stinging as badly as when Gaby had slapped him with his own hands.
Vot derʹmó, he thinks, Gaby.
As if Napoleon is a mind-reader, he says, “We should probably go back to our dear Contessa, hey?” Illya looks at him, alarmed, and Napoleon shrugs easily, still leaning against the window frame, looking unperturbed and only slightly mussed. “After all, we’ve just changed the underlying narrative for our little soap opera; she’ll need to be updated. Each of our covers now have weaknesses to exploit, so the other two will need to be on their toes to take advantage of any ensuing distractions.”
“Da,” Illya says, looking away again, dread forming a cold pit in his stomach. “Let us go, talk to Gaby.”
Gaby laughs when she hears it, chokes on a giggle halfway through and it deteriorates from there. Napoleon gives the report in a matter-of-fact tone, glancing to Illya for confirmation every now and then. Illya gives him curt nods from across the room, occasionally a word or two, his arms crossed over his chest, back to the wall furthest from them both.
“Mein Gott,” she says, breathless and flushed, eyes dancing, “I wish I’d been there to see that!”
“We could arrange for an encore,” Napoleon offers, smirking at Illya.
“I am not your circus bear,” Illya says. “I will not dance for your amusement.” He spies Gaby’s arched eyebrow and indrawn breath, as if she’s about to reply, and interrupts whatever she was going to say by repeating firmly, “I will not.”
He goes back outside to stand guard in the hall.
Gossip moves more quickly than expected; Illya catches a couple of knowing glances from the other guests at the breakfast table. Gaby and Napol- The Contessa and Nino seem to be blissfully unaware, the latter feeding the former fresh fruit from her plate without a care in the world.
“I think I’ll go riding this morning,” Fellippo announces. “Would you care to join me, Cajsa?”
Regina straightens in her seat; Gaby’s been meaning to get Fellippo away from his parents for some subtly-directed conversational fishing. “Oh, that sounds marvellous! Do say yes?”
Cajsa looks relieved to have a chaperone whose company she enjoys. “Why not? It’s a beautiful day for it.”
“Excellent!” Regina replies. “Antonino, dearest, ready a horse for me?” She twirls the end of a lock of hair around her forefinger, looking coquettish. “You know how I love seeing you play stable boy.”
It’s as good an excuse for Napoleon to search the stables as any, though Illya would bet that ‘playing stable boy’ is not high on his own list of favorite activities. He’s very good at maintaining his cover, though: even knowing him as he does, Illya can’t detect a shred of falsehood when Napo- Antonino takes Regina’s hand with a brilliant smile and says, “Anything for you, my darling,” before brushing his lips across her knuckles.
There is the faintest tinge of color, high on Gab- Regina’s cheeks as she sends Antonino away, and Illya feels the same echo of that heat in his own face as he watches the scene.
When he looks away, he sees Frau Fleischer eyeing him sidelong with interest, as if he’s broken his cover. Ah, he thinks, remembering the farce from last night, and schools his expression into vigilant neutrality - just as Gregorio would if he’d been caught.
“You seemed upset at breakfast,” Gaby says through the door to her bedroom, which stands partially ajar as she changes.
“I have a hard time believing that any man would so happily yield to a woman the way Antonino does for Regina, that’s all,” Illya says, knowing that it’s a lie.
Gaby knows it, too, from the way her laugh sings out from the other room. “Oh, Illya, plenty of men do. Not always so… ostentatiously, but they do.” She comes out to give him a fond look, her head tipped to one side as she smiles. “But I think you knew that.”
She is dressed perfectly appropriately for riding, so there’s no reason why he should find himself speechless, and yet here he is, mind totally blank of any coherent response. It can’t be the jacket; it’s a deep plum velvet so dark it’s almost black - more of that blasted purple, like the large gold filigree and amethyst brooch pinning her cravat. She wears a crisp white shirt with a high-collar that sets off the angle of her jaw but looks missish compared to the neckline of the dress she wore last night.
What might be throwing him are the trousers, slim-fitting jodhpurs in pale lemon yellow that highlight the sleek lines of her legs. It could also be the calf-high black leather boots, or, quite possibly-- “...who let you have riding crop?” he asks warily, his accent thick in his throat.
“Oh this?” she asks, toying with it absently. “Napoleon got me a kit, you know, of things to strategically leave about the suite, shock the maids, enhance my reputation without actually having to do anything.” She flashes a mischievous smile. “Where he got them, I have no idea, but they’re all in the box at the bottom of my trunk, if you want to see what else he found.”
Even with permission, the idea of pawing through her personal effects is… alarming. “No,” Illya says stiffly. “I don’t want to know.”
“Suit yourself,” she says, going into a closet and lifting down her riding hat from a hook. “I’ll just have to keep surprising you, then.” She tucks helmet and crop under her arm and tips Illya a wink before heading out the door, leaving him speechless before he scrambles to follow as he ought.
Later, Illya will curse himself soundly for not seeing it sooner. While Regina and the pair of young lovers are out riding, the others decide to bathe in the pool and in the sun. It seems like the perfect time to continue the search of the castle.
“Will you join us?” Joli asks, giving Antonino an unsubtle once-over, looking forward to the opportunity to see him in even more revealing attire than his usual.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to decline,” Antonino says, Solo’s thoughts clearly running parallel to Illya’s. To be sure, having Napoleon on watch did help Illya’s focus while he was searching, but his presence is unlikely to do the same again after last night. “Between dealing with the horse this morning and a…” Antonino pauses delicately before continuing, “rather late evening last night, I think I’ll steal a bit of shut-eye before the Contessa comes back. You’ll wake me, won’t you, Gregorio?” He casts Illya a heated glance like the poorly-shielded glare of the sun.
Illya - Gregorio - nods faux-grudgingly. Antonino gives them all an elaborate courtly bow and exits, passing the chief guard on his way.
The chief - whose name is Waller, Illya has gathered from judicious eavesdropping - makes his way over to Kitty and whispers in her ear. She waves him off, looking unperturbed.
“What about you, Gregario?” Joli asks. “You don’t seem to have enjoyed yourself for a moment.”
“It is not my place,” Gregorio answers, calculating elapsed time in his head. “But I thank you for the offer. I think I will get out of this sun myself; it’s too hot for my taste today. Please, excuse me.”
Kitty, Joli, and Marco don’t even wait for him to get out of earshot before he hears their incredulous laughter ring out behind him. The sham continues, and Illya dreads being alone with Napoleon now for entirely different reasons.
“We should talk,” Napoleon says as he’s cracking the safe in Severino’s private study.
“No we shouldn’t,” Illya says from his position at the door. “You should listen to that.” He points to the safe.
Napoleon lifts his palm from the faceplate, waggling his fingers. “I have sensitive hands,” he informs Illya archly. “I can feel the vibrations through the metal, with an old clunker like this one.” He strokes the dial affectionately, and Illya looks away. “Seriously, Illya, I’m trying to apologize here. It’s hard enough without you being all… frosty about it.” His face lights up with delight and he swings the safe door open with a flourish. “Camera?” Illya tosses it to him. “Now, as I was saying, I’d like to apologize if I… made things uncomfortable. I know your affections are fixed on Gaby, and I have no wish to ruin your prospects there.”
“Please,” Illya says, closing his eyes and barely, barely keeping himself from throwing something or banging his head against the nearest hard surface. “Please, do not speak.”
As if he hadn’t heard him, Napoleon keeps talking. “And don’t worry,” he says. “My reports on this mission will be circumspect. I’ll take your secret to my grave.”
That won’t be very long, Illya thinks darkly, but says, “Wait, what secret?”
“That you’re… well, I personally prefer the term ‘slightly crooked’ as a modifier of ‘bent,’ but that’s just me. I don’t know what they call it in Russian; I rarely stuck around long enough to get the finer points of that particular lingo…” The infuriating American is rambling, sounding almost nostalgic as he efficiently photographs the stack of documents from the safe, now neatly laid out on the carpet.
“What are you talking about?” Illya says, his whisper more like an angry hiss.
Napoleon pauses, blinking up at him with furrowed brow. “Illya,” he says slowly. “Are you honestly trying to pretend that you didn’t… react to what happened last night?”
The world gets hazy around the edges. “It is your specialty to get reactions, da?” he spits, heedless of volume. “Perhaps you can afford to be cavalier about these things, but some of us cannot. And as you pointed out, I have options much more appealing than an unreliable blyad.”
The look Napoleon gives at this is almost as satisfying as a physical impact. “That was uncalled-for,” he says, looking back down at the pages arrayed around his knees. “And here I thought we’d gotten past judging each other based on such trivialities.”
“That’s the difference between us,” Illya says, the rage curdling in his gut. “You think these things are trivial.”
Napoleon swallows once and starts gathering up the documents, filing them back into the safe. “...we’re all done here,” he says.
“Good,” Illya says, and doesn’t wait for Napoleon as he makes his way towards the servants’ hall. Illya hears him following, though, some part of him still attuned to working with the American, maintaining a situational awareness of his partner in a way that’s distinct from - but, he is beginning to understand, no less acute than - his constant awareness of Gaby.
It’s certainly a hell of a time to realize it.
-- TBC --