“You know,” Napoleon offered, “that first night you chased us in East Berlin - we weren't sure that you were human. Not then.” He paused, hesitated. The morning was quiet about them, the Roman sun shading the hotel balcony with hues of buttery yellow. It seemed a shame to shatter the strange, fragile peace that lay between them, but – “You didn't have a daemon with you.”
Illya’s lips quirked. “It has its uses,” he said as he raised his glass. Katja, Illya's wolverine daemon, looked up from her sprawl at Illya's feet and huffed.
Both seemed amused, Napoleon reflected sourly.
“Yes, I can see how it might have,” he snorted instead, and wondered if he should say more, certainly thought of it: of Allegra's lithe fox body shifting uneasily against his in the back of Gabby's car, each of them swallowing their fright as they trained their gaze on the man who was drawing unerringly closer, no daemon in sight even as they moved further and further from the downed car, perhaps not a man after all; of the piercing chitters and shrieks of Gaby's squirrel monkey daemon, Ralf, when the daemon-less not-man caught onto the trunk of their car, while Gaby's grip on the steering wheel remained white-knuckled tight as she floored the accelerator; of the numbing relief when the not-man was introduced the next day with a wolverine by his side, really just a man after all.
How, was what Napoleon really wanted to ask, the word perched precariously on the tip his tongue.
But Waverly and Gaby were making their way towards the balcony, so Napoleon settled instead for drizzling more scotch on the burning disk, and watched the flames sputter while Waverly spoke of sending them to Istanbul.
“We'll watch them," Allegra murmured, later, as he folded the last of his shirts into his suitcase. Napoleon hummed his agreement, straightening up to curl his fingers in her plush red fur.
Istanbul in summer was balmy, even indoors, at night, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Napoleon could feel the light sheen of sweat on his nape as he prowled the length of their suite.
Allegra lashed her tail. “They suspect us," she grimaced, and Napoleon could hear his impatience in her voice. “God knows what Waverly's sources have been telling him, but they are definitely aware of us. We picked up three separate tails, one after the other, all of them definitely trained. Losing them took all day.”
“Don't forget the guards at the building, when we finally got there,” he added. “At least seventeen that we could count, all of them with wolf daemons. We could have counted more, but our first tail approached the guard house, and we decided that it would be safer for our cover if we left just then.”
Gaby was frowning. “Unless we manage a closer look at the building, we can’t know enough to say for certain that the plans are inside. Perhaps if I were to go with you tomorrow instead. They may not find you so threatening if your “sister” is seen walking beside you.”
“Too dangerous.” Napoleon pinched the bridge of his nose. “It may even jeopardize our covers. You're supposed to be seeing the sights with your tall and blond fiancé, who happens to be sitting over there playing chess by himself. And if they do more than tail –”
“No, it is good idea.” Illya had looked up from the chessboard. His bottom lip was chapped, cherry red from having been bitten on absently while Illya studied the chess pieces – apparently an old habit, for all that Napoleon had only just picked up on it on their first evening in Istanbul. For the moment, Napoleon wanted nothing more than to reach out, to perhaps swipe his thumb across the ripe swell of Illya’s mouth.
He did not let himself finish the thought.
“So good of you to join the discussion, Peril," he snapped instead. He regretted, fiercely, that the suite had not come with a liquor cabinet.
Illya shrugged. "What I am saying, Cowboy, is that people do not suspect a woman." His lips curled into a slight, rueful smile. "You, Mr Jack Davenport, American businessman, shall take your sister, Miss Tracy Davenport, out with you tomorrow, because you know that you will miss her after she marries. I, her German fiancé, shall see city by myself with my camera, because I am a student of architecture. And if I wander near building to take photographs, it is also because I am a student of architecture, no?" Illya looked thoughtful as he picked up the black rook and rolled the piece between his forefinger and thumb. “I suggest that you take Gaby to Grand Bazaar. It is easier to look harmless when you are shopping. It is also harder for people to tail you in large crowd.”
The idea had merit, but Napoleon found himself oddly reluctant to throw in the towel just yet. “And what happens to your cover if you are caught with your camera?”
“Then I do as you said in Rome, and ‘take it like a pussy’.” He paused, then sighed gustily. “Even though that is not the Russian way.”
Gaby started to laugh. From the corner of his eye, Napoleon watched as Allegra took a mock-swipe at Katja, who hissed.
Napoleon suddenly felt very tired. He bent to scoop Allegra up into his arms, holding her gently against his chest. “We’re going to bed,” he announced into the room. Illya had returned his attentions to his game of one-man chess, but Napoleon remained keenly aware of Katja’s gaze as she watched them leave the sitting room.
The next day, Napoleon felt oddly out of sorts. An inexplicable restlessness hung awkwardly about his shoulders, like an ill-fitting jacket which he simply could not shrug off. Everything about the market felt just a bit too much: its air stifling, its crowd cacophonous, its scents and odours suffocating. Allegra remained firmly by his heel, her body tense where she brushed against his leg.
“Are we being followed?” Gabby had asked – whispered, really, as she leaned her weight against him on the pretext of adjusting her shoe – the fourth time she caught him staring too hard at nothing at all.
“No. No, we’re not.”
“You look tense.” On her shoulder, Ralf had begun to peering this way and that.
Napoleon had shrugged. “It’s nothing. Keep smiling, my dear. You’re doing great.”
“You may wish to take your own advice too,” she had suggested with a light smile as she drew back, the perfectly unconcerned tourist, for all that Ralf was still his craning his neck.
And Napoleon had laughed.
In the end, Napoleon’s restlessness carried only into the evening, when Illya emerged from his makeshift darkroom with fresh photographs and clever plans. They broke into the building that night, dropped the stolen plans off before the next morning.
Kowloon followed Istanbul, an infiltration and extraction that obliged them to operate separately for the most part. Napoleon settled into his latest cover as a visiting antiquarian, ate his weight in meat-filled buns and, by the middle of the second week, ceased to startle every night when Katja, alone, would slip into his cramped rooms with the day’s intelligence.
Another week passed before they received their instructions to convene.
Illya was already waiting for them when they arrived. Napoleon let his steps slow as he approached, watched as Illya turned to face them.
“Where’s Katja?” Napoleon asked, when they drew within easy speaking distance. At Napoleon’s heel, Allegra chirped, once, before darting on forward.
“Looking ahead,” Illya shrugged. Up close, his face looked stark, its angles and planes thrown into sharp relief beneath the fluorescent spill of the street lamps, its hollows smudged shadows. “She will be back soon.”
Ahead of them, Allegra yipped as soon as Katja came into view from around a corner, then touched her nose with hers.
Napoleon’s breath stuttered.
“It was part of our training,” said Illya beside him, his voice dry, and Napoleon regarded him curiously.
“Katja and me,” Illya huffed. “I see you looking at her all the time”.
“I do not,” retorted Napoleon, mortified.
Illya shrugged. He began to walk in the direction Katja had just returned from, pausing only briefly to ascertain that Napoleon followed. Napoleon rather suspected that Illya had rolled his eyes. They trudged on in silence for another two blocks, before Illya spoke again.
“We were good at it even before we settled,” was what he said. He sounded pensive. “When we joined the KGB, our trainers noticed that we were good, too, so they kept us apart for months until we finally stopped hurting.” He laughed shortly. “Mystery is solved.”
“Oh,” said Napoleon stupidly, and tried to ignore the way his stomach clenched. Allegra whined as she licked his fingers. He stroked her muzzle gratefully.
Illya and Katja were watching them silently when Napoleon finally looked up. Eventually, Illya shrugged again. Katja turned away, and ambled towards the chain-link fence before them where she sat, waiting.
“It was a long time ago,” Illya offered. The right corner of his mouth quirked as he began to cut the fence. “Now that mystery is solved, you can stop staring at her and help me break in instead. I am tired of this mission. I do not like working on a boat.”
Napoleon’s world held few absolutes, but this was one of them: Napoleon was Allegra, Allegra was Napoleon, and that was that. Once, someone had tried to suggest to Napoleon that Allegra was perhaps unsuitable for Napoleon’s line of work, her russet fur too bright for thieving in the dark, and would Napoleon mind terribly if he left her out of the heist? In the end, Napoleon had declined the job. Napoleon was Allegra’s as much as Allegra was Napoleon’s, and Napoleon would not be having her in any other way.
Illya, who had fleshed his role of Gaby’s fiancé in Rome as a man whose lizard daemon hid in his pocket, confounded Napoleon.
There was wisdom in it, Napoleon knew: a wolverine was a fighter’s daemon, too savage and too fierce for the architect they had wanted Gaby to introduce to her Uncle Rudi. On the other hand, a man whose daemon was small enough to fit into his pocket could be perceived as less of a threat, be easily overlooked.
Still, Illya had seemed wholly unbothered by it.
Kowloon concluded with swift instructions for Paris. In their shared apartment in Montmarte, Napoleon stared avidly as Illya stood in the middle of the sitting room, a pair of wireframe glasses on his nose and his shoulders hunched as though to seem smaller, a Russian student looking to defect. Illya’s right hand fiddled awkwardly with the strap of his satchel, while his left slipped two fingers into the pocket of his coat.
“What do you think?” asked Illya, and even his voice sounded shy.
Napoleon blinked. “A mouse daemon?” he guessed.
A slight smile tugged at Illya’s lips, unexpectedly boyish and devastatingly vulnerable. Napoleon’s mouth felt very dry.
“Out by the Seine,” said Illya softly. His gaze dropped to his feet, and he chewed his bottom lip nervously. “She will be back this evening.”
“Don’t get caught, Peril.”
“Speak for yourself, Cowboy,” came Illya’s gentle rebuke as he let himself out.
Napoleon closed his eyes and, for a while, just breathed.
(Later, much later, after Napoleon had cooked dinner for all of them, after Illya had shed his timid guise and Katja had reported on the possibility of approaching their mark’s home via the Seine, Napoleon watched as Katja climbed into Illya’s lap and licked his chin, as Illya ran his fingers through her rich coat and kissed praises and endearments on the soft fur between her ears.
Ah, he thought, before he looked away from the intimacy of it all. Beside him, Allegra hummed.)
The problem with watching Illya was that, now that Napoleon had started, he found that he could not quite stop.
He learned that Illya had a sweet tooth, for all that Illya preferred his tea brewed black and bitter as sin. Napoleon took to buying Illya sweets: baklava heavy with pistachios and honey in Istanbul, egg custard tarts with crisp pastry shells and silken fillings in Kowloon, airy éclairs fat with chocolate cream and raspberries in Paris. He presented each offering with a flourish, laughed at the way Illya would scowl for all of three seconds at the latest paper box or bag in Napoleon’s hand before reaching out to snatch at the gift, Illya’s fingertips brushing against the inside of Napoleon’s wrist.
He learned that Illya had struggled with the grammatical concept of articles in the beginning, that Illya still forgot his English articles sometimes. This tended to happen more frequently when they were out in the open, when they were under fire, when Illya was upset; but also in the quiet cusp of dawn, when Illya’s eyes were still heavy-lidded from half-remembered dreams and his hands still clumsy with sleep as they pushed the bedcovers back, what are you doing in here, Cowboy, you get out of bedroom now. Napoleon would laugh, would suggest a morning run, breakfast, maybe sparring, would leave after securing Illya’s agreement to all three, and would break into Illya’s bedroom the next morning, again.
He learned on their last day in Paris that Illya could be coaxed to dance, despite protestations to the contrary, when plied with enough wine. He learned on their first day in London that Illya sang, too, absent-minded snatches of Russian folk songs in a deep baritone, when Illya thought that he was alone. (He was not.)
Napoleon filed each detail in his memory carefully, gently, and continued to watch.
Napoleon noticed other things about Illya, too.
In Istanbul, he noticed that Illya smiled when Gaby spoke, that each smile grew broader with a soft affection when Gaby laughed.
In Kowloon, he looked on as Illya cupped a broad hand under Gabby’s elbow to guide her down a potholed street.
In Paris, he watched while Gaby stumbled on uneven cobblestone, while Illya caught her against his chest before setting her lightly down on her feet again.
Now, in London, Napoleon wished he could glance away as Illya entered his hotel suite with Gaby tucked into the crook of his arm. Instead, he declined their invitation of dinner, of three celebratory courses with a bottle of wine to mark their successful foiling of an arms smuggler, and closed his eyes against the sight of Gaby standing up on tiptoe to whisper into Illya’s ear.
A handful of hours and half a bottle of scotch later, Napoleon felt pleasantly drunk. Allegra had been rolling around languidly on the thick carpet, but she looked up now, and padded towards him to rest her beautiful head in his lap. She sighed sleepily as he began to stroke her between her ears.
“At least we know for certain, now.” Her words were soft and slurred in the dimly-lit room.
Napoleon eyed his empty glass regretfully, before reaching over for the bottle once more. Scotch sloshed on his hand. “Shouldn’t be too hard to forget them, don’t you think?”
Allegra whimpered. “But we don’t want to forget them.” Then, “Maybe watching them was a bad idea, after all.” She sounded miserable. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t – don’t apologise. Never apologise.” His voice sounded hoarse to his ears as he set the scotch aside to pull her up into a hug, wrapping his arms tightly around her warm, lithe body. He buried his face into the soft fur of her neck, breathed deeply, gradually allowed himself to pass out.
Napoleon dreamt of Illya, of calloused hands removing his shoes briskly before rolling him onto his side, don’t want to choke on your vomit, Cowboy.
What about Gaby, he had tried to ask, but the question gagged stubbornly at his throat. A blanket had been tucked around him, and fingers were carding through his hair, and Napoleon had wanted to make mention of both these observations, but Allegra was still sound asleep beside him, and so, Napoleon felt himself drift deeper into sleep once again.
Napoleon woke in the morning to a blanket tucked around Allegra and him, to his shoes placed neatly at the foot of the sofa which they fallen asleep on, and to no memory of how both observations had come to pass.
The next night, Napoleon allowed himself the company and comfort of a tall, blonde woman.
The same night, he also learned that the mousy arms smuggler they had been assigned to foil, just two days ago, was really only working for a tall, blonde woman.
Illya had been right in Istanbul, Napoleon reflected ruefully as he grit his teeth against the rough bite of rope bound too tight about his wrists: People did not suspect a woman. It was funny what you remembered just as the edges of your vision began to splinter.
Napoleon struggled, until he could not.
A cold tongue was licking his hand. Napoleon reached out sluggishly, his wrist straining against the leather strap that bound it to the rough armrest of a wooden chair. His fingers touch fur. It was not Allegra’s smooth coat.
With that, Napoleon jolted awake.
Katja whined at him when he looked down at her. She licked his hand again, a quick rasp, then surged to her hind legs and rubbed her soft head against his jaw.
Napoleon’s breath caught. His pulse began to race, a wild thing pounding between his ears, so at odds with whatever drugs they had given him to weigh his limbs down.
Then, dimly, beneath the sound of his frantic heartbeat, he heard the sound of gunfire, coming more frequently now, and louder, louder. A man screamed. Katja, still looking at him, blinked once, before bounding towards the entrance of the room. The door was open, Napoleon realised, just as Illya strode through it.
Illya’s hands shook as they undid Napoleon’s restraints, before moving on to the latch of Allegra’s cage. Allegra was out like a shot, streaking towards him, and Napoleon’s hands shook as gathered her close, heedless of his injuries. They both whimpered when a fresh wave of pain washed through him, and she licked his jaw worriedly as he let himself slump back into the chair, groaning.
Illya was looking at him now, Katja scooped in the crook of his arm. His eyes were wide and unfocussed as he approached Napoleon once more, and Napoleon, for a moment, found himself at a loss. He glanced away as Illya stepped closer, and tried for levity instead.
“So glad to see you again, Peril.”
Illya snorted. “You look terrible, Cowboy.”
There were more people streaming into the room, their people. Illya’s fingers were carding through his hair, soft and gentle. Napoleon took a deep breath, and gave himself over to the light prick of the field nurse’s needle.
The next time Napoleon woke, his whole body hurt. He glanced down, and slowly tried to push aside the starched, white blanket. (He was in a hospital, he guessed.) A large hand stopped him.
“You are awake,” said Illya, unnecessarily.
Napoleon tried to grin. The corners of his lips cracked as they stretched. The grin – more a rictus, he suspected – lasted for less than a second before dissolving into a hacking cough. A glass of water was brought to his mouth. Gaby’s hands were shaking, but she held the glass still enough for him to drink. She looked as though she might have been crying.
“Hey,” he rasped at her. His second attempt at a smile was marginally more successful than his first. Her mascara had run, making her look even younger than she was, and her hiccough sounded more like sob than a laugh, but her manner was brisk and business-like as she helped him to sit up.
“The doctor said you shouldn’t move around too much,” she commented as she arranged his pillows behind him. “You have fifteen knife cuts, most of which needed stitches. Bruising around your ribs. The last two fingers of your left hand were broken and had to be set. Your right ankle’s sprained.” Her voice wavered. “We were worried.”
“How long – ?”
“You have been unconscious for almost two days. The doctor thought it would be better for you to rest.”
On the other side of the Napoleon’s bed, Illya had stood up. “I’ll inform the nurse,” he offered before he left the room.
Napoleon watched him go, until the line of Illya’s back disappeared around the corner of the door. Absently, he allowed Gaby to coax him back against the pillows, while his hands slowly trailed over his arms, torso and legs, assessing the damage. The bandages felt scratchy beneath his fingertips, and his broken fingers itched in their splint. Napoleon felt exhausted.
“I think I might take a nap,” he mumbled as he let his eyelids drift shut. He could just make out Allegra at the foot of his bed, curled up and fast asleep, her slim head pillowed by the curve of Katja’s body. Napoleon fell asleep to the phantom feel of plush fur against his check.
They put him up in a safehouse in the Mayfair neighbourhood. To Napoleon’s surprise, Illya moved in with him, too.
Illya’s presence helped, at first. There were chores which needed doing that Napoleon could not possibly do, errands which needed to be run, bandages which needed to be changed and antiseptic which needed to be applied to Napoleon’s stitches. Illya performed them all without complaint. He even cooked most nights, hearty stews and moreish dumplings that, while not the sort of comfort food Napoleon had grown up with as a child, were comforting all the same. It took almost two weeks before Napoleon realised that that Illya was avoiding him.
By then, their days had settled into a slow and lazy pattern. Illya would wake Napoleon at seven in the morning, assist Napoleon to the bathroom where he would leave Napoleon, undisturbed, for a blissful half an hour, before returning to clean Napoleon’s wounds and do up his bandages. Then, breakfast, in the kitchen, which Napoleon would hobble slowly to, stubborn in his pride, while Illya hovered silently half a step behind. Gaby would join them most days for breakfast, on her way to the U.N.C.L.E. London office, bringing with her news and gossip as she nibbled on toast at their kitchen counter. Napoleon would be at his most charming and flirtatious during those times, while Illya would duck his smirk behind the rim of his mug of tea. The sun slanting through the window would burnish Illya’s hair a tawny gold, and Napoleon would busy his hands with his cutlery to avoid reaching out to touch.
Those mornings were the highlight of Napoleon’s days.
Their afternoons and evenings would be considerably quieter, greyer. Illya would walk Napoleon to back to Napoleon’s room, or the sitting room, before darting out again to busy himself in another part of their shared flat with chores, with one of the many files which Gaby would bring over sometimes for their views, with another game of one-man chess, while Napoleon contented himself with books and light exercises and overcast English skies. Lunch and dinner would be relatively silent affairs, the conversation awkward and perfunctory, and after the latter, Illya would trail Napoleon back to Napoleon’s room once more, a too-tall shadow. He would check and re-do Napoleon’s dressings while Napoleon got ready for bed, before slipping out again.
(Napoleon had asked Illya to stay with him in the afternoon, once. Illya had indulged him, but their voices were hushed and their sentences were stilted. Illya had awkwardly excused himself after seven minutes, on the pretext of making tea. Napoleon did not repeat the mistake.)
In the end, Napoleon took comfort instead from the fact that their daemons, at least, were inseparable. He grew accustomed to Allegra and Katja falling asleep each night at the foot of his mattress, to waking up to find them the same way.
(Illya had blushed, the first morning they discovered Katja asleep on Napoleon’s bed. Napoleon had felt oddly triumphant, hiding his grin in the pillows.)
Katja did not touch him again, however, and Napoleon did not think to try.
In the third week, when his hobble had improved to a tolerable limp, Napoleon allowed himself a deep breath before he swung his legs over the edge of his bed. He paused to ease his dressing gown over his shoulders, then picked his way to Illya’s room carefully, his right hand on the wall for balance.
“We should talk,” he announced to Illya’s startled expression as he flung Illya’s door open.
By the look of it, Illya had been hunched over his chessboard. He made to stand as Napoleon limped further into his room. “Cowboy? What are you doing here? You should be in bed, your ankle –”
Napoleon dodged Illya’s hands as he made his way to Illya’s bed and sat down heavily. Illya was right – his ankle was starting to hurt again. But, “No. Sit.” He patted the mattress next to him, and was pleasantly surprised when Illya immediately sat.
“Good. We should talk,” he repeated, then hesitated. Illya looked baffled, which Napoleon took to be an encouraging sign as he continued. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
“I have not been avoiding you.”
“Illya, you have.”
“I have not,” Illya shot back, before glancing away.
Napoleon sighed. “Why did you agree to move in with me?” He watched with fascination as Illya’s jaw visibly clenched. Silence stretched between, a heavy thing, fraught with the unspoken.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. “You know that Katja had touched me.”
Illya jerked, closed his eyes. His voice was hoarse. “I know. We are sorry. We would not let it happen again.”
“What about Gaby?”
Illya opened his eyes. He looked uncertain as he reluctantly turned his head to regard Napoleon again. “What about Chopshop Girl?
“Do you like her?” Napoleon raised his eyebrows suggestively.
The furrow between Illya’s brows deepened. He looked genuinely confused. “Chopshop Girl will be a good spy with more practice. I like working with her.” Illya paused. Gradually, his forehead smoothed. The corners of his mouth quirked as he added, “But I do not plan on making her my woman.”
Napoleon let out a breath which he had not been aware that he was holding. Something in him unfurled, and he leaned across the bedcovers they were sitting on, reached out slowly to brush his thumb against the ripe, red curve of Illya’s mouth. Illya’s lips were soft to touch, catching lightly on the pad of Napoleon’s thumb where the skin was dry and chapped.
“What is it you want to say, Cowboy?”
Illya’s cheeks were pink as Napoleon pulled back. Napoleon grinned.
“I’m saying, Peril, that I’ve been wanting to do this since Istanbul.”
Illya’s lips parted in a soft oh of breath as Napoleon leaned in again.
Later, much later, after bare palms had learnt the cartography of skin and muscle and scars, after their bodies had re-learnt the feeling of coming undone, Napoleon rolled onto his side and allowed his gaze to drift absently towards the foot of Illya’s bed, where their daemons now slept curled against each other.
“I think they look good together,” he remarked idly. “Don’t you?”
Illya’s smile curved promises against Napoleon’s spine.