“Always a first time,” Napoleon said mercilessly, pulling on a charcoal Tom Ford blazer over his loose gray knit. “Mrs Siegfried invited us weeks ago, Artyom, don’t be a baby. You’ve had quite a while to gird your loins. We’re going to a party, not some sort of trench warfare. Smile.”
Artyom scowled, which was admittedly normally an adorable look even for a tall, blonde Russian giant of a man. “I do not like Mrs Siegfried,” Artyom declared, clearly intent on being as recalcitrant as possible.
“Oh, come on. She’s harmless. And I’ve asked her to stop making Putin jokes in your presence, if that was what was upsetting you.” Napoleon crossed the room to where Artyom was looming over his side of the wardrobe, and adjusted the collar of his black turtleneck. “It’s only going to be an hour.”
“That is one hour of our lives that we are never going to get back,” Artyom pointed out, though he curled his big hands under Napoleon’s blazer, to the small of his back. “Many more things can be done in an hour. Instead of attending little girl’s party.” Long fingers squeezed Napoleon’s ass suggestively, kneading flesh, and tugging Napoleon an inch closer. Artyom had never quite been one for the subtle approach.
“Tempting,” Napoleon said, draping his arms over Artyom’s broad shoulders, “But then you leave me in the unwelcome situation of having to break my word to a twelve-year-old girl.”
“She’ll survive the disappointment.”
“Brutal, Artyom, so brutal.” Napoleon sighed theatrically. “And no, you’re not getting away with this. I was going to have to introduce you to the neighbours sooner or later anyway, they'll all be attending, and my word is gold. Particularly to women. So. Chin up. Think of it this way. You’re probably going to ruin the lives of all those little girls at the party. That should be fun.”
“They are never going to meet anyone as good looking as you are, handsome,” Napoleon drawled, and archly batted his eyelashes. Artyom snorted, but obligingly bent for a kiss, duly baited, a gentle brush of the lips, almost chaste.
Napoleon, as always, swallowed a sigh. For all that Artyom had a stubborn streak, and could be playful, he was also skittish and shy, often sweet, even, wary of his natural strength. It made sex terribly vanilla. It made kissing vanilla. If the man wasn’t so devastatingly handsome, Napoleon would have long decided to rethink this whole Domestic Arrangement experiment.
But the sad(?) fact was, Artyom was every shade of devastatingly handsome, and as such, Napoleon kissed Artyom back, just as gently, and waited. “One hour,” Artyom conceded, and pressed a kiss to Napoleon’s neck, his voice dropping, going warm and husky. “And then you make it up to me.”
“Oh?” Napoleon curled his fingers into Artyom’s silky, golden hair, threading the fine strands under his hand. “What do you have in mind?” All right. Sometimes, vanilla sex wasn’t too bad. And this seemed promising-
“You watch Leviathan with me. By Andrey Zvyagintsev,” Artyom elaborated, when Napoleon blinked in confusion. “I have copy in laptop.”
Napoleon swallowed a sigh of disappointment. Not kinky sex, then. He should’ve known. “Wasn’t that Russia’s Oscar entry for this year?”
“Yes. Should have won.”
“So it’s an arthouse film.”
“Foreign language arthouse film.”
“I don’t understand Russian, remember?” Napoleon lied smoothly. “Sadly, I don’t have the attention span for subtitles. I’m like a goldfish.”
Artyom leaned back to frown at Napoleon, which was, sadly, just as adorable at it shouldn’t be, especially when the pout reappeared. “These are terms. Take it or leave it.”
“Fine,” Napoleon capitulated, because they were going to be late, and being late to a twelve-year-old girl’s birthday party would be a new low, even for a forcibly retired thief-turned-spy pretending to be a banker, and Artyom smiled at him, triumphant, and gave him another shy, brushing kiss.
Mrs Siegfried was a magnificently robust, freckled woman in her mid-forties, a career housewife with an eternally harassed-looking surgeon for a husband. Mr. Siegfried had already clearly retreated to the kitchen now that the party was in full swing, the house decorated in wide swaths of pink and purple bunting and fluffy yellow stars. In Napoleon’s peripheral vision, he could see Artyom belatedly hiding a pained grimace, his architect’s sensibilities no doubt already agonisingly offended.
“James!” Mrs Siegfried greeted Napoleon with a broad grin. “And you’ve brought Artyom. Welcome, welcome. Annie will be so happy that you’ve come. Artyom, I’m so glad to see you again. We should catch up more often.”
“What are neighbours for?” Napoleon put on his best smile, even as Artyom muttered something inaudible, and Napoleon knelt down as a little girl in a pink frock burst out from the living room, speeding over to give him a hug, then looking up - and up - at Artyom with a child’s unrestrained curiosity.
“Happy birthday, Annie,” Napoleon said, and offered Annie a wrapped box, a little trifle of an antique unicorn figurine that he’d pocketed en route out of a drug baron’s estate in Juarez, three weeks ago. “That’s from the two of us. Annie, meet Artyom. Artyom, Annie.”
Annie clutched the box close to her chest, still studying Artyom, even as Mrs Siegfried cleared her throat. “Annie, what do you say to James for your present?”
“Thank-you,” Annie said, all practiced rote, without actually looking at Napoleon. “This is your boyfriend?”
“Fiancé, actually,” Napoleon corrected.
“Wow,” Annie decided, sounding impressed. “He is real hot.”
Artyom, to Napoleon’s amusement, actually blushed. Grinning, Napoleon drawled, “Artyom, what do you say to Annie for the compliment?”
The glare promised some sort of revenge at a later date, but thankfully Annie extracted Napoleon from the situation by saying brightly, “Artie, I’m going to introduce you to all my friends!” and grabbed Artyom by his hand, pulling. Reluctantly, Artyom allowed himself to be led out to the garden, and Napoleon smirked, even as Mrs Siegfried chuckled.
“I did say she was excited.”
“I’m thinking of this as an invaluable character-building exercise.”
“So,” Mrs Siegfried said, as they headed more slowly towards the living room, “Fiancé, eh? When was that?”
“Two months ago?” Napoleon had just come back from a decidedly convoluted and painful mission in Kazakhstan, and Artyom had met him at the airport, all nervous and out of sorts. And then he had driven them to dinner at Eleven Madison Park, and proposed over dessert, and Napoleon had been far too surprised and too tired to extract himself diplomatically. “It was a surprise.”
“I suppose so,” Napoleon said, with feigned disinterest, and was therefore mercilessly questioned until he confessed everything.
Mrs Siegfried sighed, quite likely reminiscing on an older and far less romantic proposal from the hard-drinking and dour Mr Siegfried. “And you met him… a year ago, was it? In Bogotá.”
“That’s right. At the hotel bar. We hit it off immediately.” Which had been lucky. The Colombian kingpin that Napoleon had thoroughly irritated had sent thugs whom were looking for a man travelling alone, and not two men clearly at ease and flirting overtly.
“Meeting a Russian architect on holiday in Bogotá. What are the chances.” Mrs Siegfried smiled wistfully. “It had to be fate. And to think we thought you would never settle down. What with all those girls at all hours. I never thought you actually played on the other side of the fence.”
Napoleon laughed. “Mrs Siegfried,” he said playfully, “I play all sides of the fence. Left, right, up, bottom, anywhere.”
Mrs Siegfried smacked him on the arm, almost hard enough to hurt, even as she let out a gulp of laughter. “Now there’s the James I remember. How terrible! You’ve somehow managed to ensnare such a nice boy.”
She gestured at Artyom, who was starting to look panicky and harried in the garden, having been dragged to sit at the low birthday table with Annie’s friends, all of whom were around her age and all of whom were staring at Artyom in awe. The killer package of blonde, blue eyes, nervousness and that accent. The little girls never had a chance.
“I know,” Napoleon said, and smirked. “Believe me, sometimes I wake up and I still wonder how the hell it all happened. Somehow, a nice boy fell prey to all my awful wiles.”
“Handsome, too,” Mrs Siegfried shook her head, “You’re a banker. One of the Wolves of Wall Street. Maybe he’s just too innocent to know your sort.” She winked.
“Don’t believe everything you see in the movies, Mrs Siegfried.” Reality was often far, far stranger, in Napoleon’s experience.
At the foot of the bed, from the faint light of the street lamps and his alarm, Illya could see the reflective gleam of two reproachful eyes at the foot of the bed. Their rescue Birman mix, Mister Darcy, stretched, displaced, and followed Illya into the bathroom, occasionally yowling softly in rebuke. He ignored the cat, which was James’, anyway, and washed up mechanically, brushing his teeth, shaving, then he took a quick shower and padded out to the bedroom.
James was awake, if clearly reluctantly so, but curled on the warm spot on the bed, watching Illya get dressed sleepily. “It’s Sunday,” James protested. “Come back to bed.”
It was tempting. Even disheveled by sleep - or perhaps because of it - James Smith was a handsome specimen of a man, with powerfully built shoulders, catlike natural grace, and long, long legs, his dark eyes forever dancing with mischief.
James was one of the kings of capitalism in the country of unrestrained capitalism, of course, wealthy enough to afford this beautiful brownstone Brooklyn townhouse and refit it entirely according to Illya’s whims, but the best cover was an unexpected one. Who would expect a male SVR agent to be living with a male Wall Street banker? It helped that James was easy on the eyes.
“Work emergency,” Illya said apologetically. “Sorry to have woken you.”
James yawned, and frowned at the clock again, as though personally offended. “Do you have time for breakfast? I could whip up something quick.”
Despite the hurry, Illya smiled. Cover it might be, but sometimes there was something… pleasant, to living in a ‘normal’ domestic relationship. The American dream, updated for the new century. “No, I will pick something up on the way. Go back to sleep.” He did, however, head over to kiss James on the forehead, and James made a grouchy sound, trying to pull Illya back to the bed.
Again, Illya was tempted, though he quickly braced himself on the sheets. James was good with his mouth and very willing, but Illya had to be mindful not to break cover, and as such, was always extremely careful with his strength - and appetites. To James, Illya had to be the overworked, socially awkward architect boyfriend, and so it was, no matter how tempting it was sometimes to slip a little.
“Go back to sleep,” Illya repeated, and kissed James on the edge of his mouth, backing away out of reach before James could make another grab for him.
The annoying little cat demon followed Illya, still yowling reproachfully, all the way down the darkened stairs to the ground floor, where their high-ceilinged living room with its great glass panels overlooked their manicured Japanese garden, the mezzanine floor only serving as a study, allowing the living room to stretch up two lofty levels. A black steel ladder leaned against the two-storey bookshelf, the books mostly Illya’s. Illya adjusted his tie, picked some fur off his sleeve - an ultimately futile exercise - and headed to the garage, where he got into his unremarkable black Toyota Camry, parked next to James’ considerably flashier red Tesla Model S, and drove out into the relatively empty Sunday streets.
Illya parked in the reserved parking of an ‘office’ building on 91st Street, and got into the lifts. He looked directly into what would appear to anyone else to be merely a decorative black panel over the information plate, waited for his retina to be scanned, then turned around as the back of the lift opened, revealing a dark corridor that lit up once he stepped into it.
Sensors registered Illya’s gait, height and bone structure, a thorough unbreakable key, and by the time he reached the end of the long tunnel, authorisation had auto-unlocked the door, sliding the concrete wall aside. Illya instinctively straightened up, and took a breath, tugging briefly at the lapels of his bomber jacket before stepping forward and onto Russian soil.
The Russian Consulate was quiet. On the outside, it was a five-storey Renaissance-style limestone townhouse, a prominent, palazzo-like building that was open to the public: at least, above ground. Underground, it was completely different, a far more clinical set of chambers accessible only through the long corridor or through a double-safe door hidden in the Consulate. As Illya passed the guard post and headed into the cell-like briefing rooms, all stark, empty white space with a bolted-down table and bolted chairs, he noted that he was the last to arrive.
Oleg was already there, Illya’s grim-faced, stockily built handler, as dourly dressed today as ever in a black suit and a shirt creased to razor edges at his throat. Beside him was Sergey Novikov, the Russian Ambassador to the USA, a rapidly balding old man with heavy jowls that reminded Illya unkindly of a bulldog, liver spots dotting the pale scuffs of white hair that curled over his long ears. Hard eyes darted from Illya to Oleg and back, and Sergey straightened at his chair as Oleg waved Illya to a seat.
“This is your best agent?” Sergey asked instantly, in Russian.
“Illya Kuryakin. Currently undercover in New York.” Oleg said smoothly in kind. “Illya is very talented. Youngest to ever join the SVR.”
“This is a very delicate matter.”
“Good! That is our specialty. Now. What is the problem?”
“What I’m about to say should not leave this room,” Sergey said tensely. “We’ve only discovered the breach as of two hours ago. That’s why I had to call you in so abruptly, Oleg. Once we realized what was stolen.”
“Someone robbed the Consulate?” Illya inquired, already starting to lose patience for this nervous, fluttery man.
“If only! No. Someone hacked the Consultate. Stole cables, information, everything. They - whoever they were - are very good. They beat the best security to come out of Russia.”
“Aren’t the important computers on a private cloud?” Oleg frowned, leaning forward, elbows on the table.
“They are. But a staffer was tethering her phone, which was connected to the WiFi. We think that’s how the breach occurred. More importantly,” Sergey said sharply, “We need the information recovered.”
Oleg shrugged. “Diplomatic cables. Pft. That is old news. They will publish it and will be like Wikileaks and no one of importance will actually read it but the CIA, who likely already knew about the cables anyway.”
“They probably also stole the personal details of every Russian citizen registered with the Consulate,” Illya pointed out.
“Not a big problem. People have their details leaked all the time in the modern world.” Oleg said, still indifferent.
“It is a problem,” Sergey noted stiffly, “When the details also include those of all SVR agents who travelled to or from New York in the last five years. Their tasks. Their cover identities. Their destinations. Including yours, I presume, Mister Kuryakin.”
Illya stiffened, even as Oleg let out a low whistle. “The Consulate had…? That would be encrypted data. Special key. Near impossible to crack.”
“But not impossible.” Sergey pointed out. “So. You see the problem.”
“How many people know of this data?”
“Other than the hacker? No one. I’m the only person who knows that it’s gone missing. The hacker stole it and wiped the copy we had on our server. I’ve told no one else. The rest, even my secretary, all they know is that we have been hacked.”
“Good. Illya. Kill him.”
Illya raised an eyebrow, but at Oleg’s nod, he got to his feet. Sergey jumped up from the table, openmouthed and red faced. “Oleg, this isn’t funny. Oleg!” Sergey yelped, as Illya prowled closer. “I’m the Ambassador, Oleg! I have friends! You can’t just-“ The rest of his words were silenced, as Illya grabbed him, and used momentum to haul Sergey around and off-balance, and efficiently slammed his skull against the edge of the bolted table with their combined weight.
“Now it is just us,” Oleg said, shaking his head slowly. “Ah. What a mess.”
“Sir.” Illya let Sergey’s limp body carefully to the ground, then stepped fastidiously away from the pooling blood and sat back down in his chair, hands back in his pockets.
“I will have our contacts check the Dark Web,” Oleg continued. “Maybe this hacker is a pest who will dump the data for everyone to see, maybe not. But if not, he might try to sell it on the darknet markets. Go upstairs. Talk to the secretary and the other staff. Hopefully it is not an inside job.”
Illya nodded, though he rather doubted it. In today’s brave new world, where cybersecurity waged a constant and often losing war against hackers, the thief could be anywhere. “What are my parameters?”
“Obviously we do not want a no holds barred war to break out in America,” Oleg said dryly. “So try to restrain yourself. And you should not break your cover. It is useful. Difficult as it might be to maintain.”
Illya nodded again, and kept his expression carefully neutral. “Understood.”
“And at all costs, the CIA must not get their hands on this list.” Oleg pushed himself wearily up from the table. “Now I must make a few phone calls to explain this fuck-up. It is my dearest wish that we can resolve all of this quickly, before a large fuck-up becomes a monumental one. Yes?”
“Understood.” It was going to be a long day.