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Illya kills an American spy in Zurich.

He first notices the enemy agent in a small sandwich shop in Schwabing, consulting with a scrawny informant wearing round glasses. The American’s jewel-bright eyes and beguiling smirk invites attention like blood splashed against snow, and Illya has never seen a man half as beautiful or half as ill-fitted for spy work. He leaves before he is seen, wondering what the man’s handlers were thinking, releasing him into a world inhabited by tigers and wolves. Illya feels no compulsion to be witness or executioner. Yet it is only a matter of time before a creature as sleek and eye-catching as his opponent will be caught and skinned alive by predators.

It’s not for the first time his country and America are after the same objective, and Illya had been prepared to let the man escape with his life.

But in a small apartment on the edge of the river, the American gets in his way.

They come face to face in front of the safe, and Illya resolves the issue in the most pragmatic way available. It’s not personal, it’s never personal, not when Illya doesn’t even know whose life he is ending. But he is good at doing things that must be done, and he kills with a methodical skill honed by a lifetime of violence. To the American’s credit, he puts up a valiant effort against him. But Illya is stronger, faster, a better agent, and he snaps the man’s neck within two minutes.

The corpse crumples to the ground.

After, Illya cleans up with practiced efficiency, and sinks the weighted body to the bottom of the Limmat. He returns to his assignment and chases up stolen leads. When, if, the body is discovered, Illya will be long gone, and the mission another success marked on his record.

He puts the death at the back of his mind, beside every other sacrifice he does not need to remember.

 

-

 

Three days later, he’s staring into the face of a dead man standing in his hotel room.

The lights inside are dim, but there is no mistaking that absurd jawline, or the lines of those broad shoulders. The first thing that hits Illya is surprise, and in the next second, instinct drives him toward self-defense. In one swift motion he draws his gun and aims, pointing the barrel at head of the man he knows he killed two countries ago.

Thunder growls in the distance, and the oppressive darkness outside promises the arrival of a ferocious storm.

Illya thinks ghost, yet the man, the American agent, looks solid, and completely real, dressed in the same navy suit he wore when he died with not so much as a single hair out of place. Startled blue eyes reflect Illya’s bewilderment right back at him.

“How are you here?” Illya growls in English, his finger tightening on the trigger, ready to shoot if the man so much as twitches wrong. I killed you, is what he doesn’t say, and the question hangs heavy between them in the silence.

The man’s gaze turns warily toward Illya’s gun, and then back to Illya, the confusion on his face deepening. Then, he talks half a step back, and stares at the hotel room around them.

“That’s… that’s a good question,” he says, his voice a smooth baritone that sends a disturbing shiver straight down Illya’s spine.

“You have five seconds.”

The American levels a look at him that is one step from an eye-roll. “Well, I remember fighting you,” he says, frowning. “And… losing.”

The last words are said with enough awkward reluctance to be endearing in a different situation. But the unreality of a dead man standing in front of Illya destroys any feeling inside him that isn’t uneasiness and confusion. He swallows, taking measured breaths as he wills his speeding heart back under control. Illya knows how to handle attacks, interrogations, attempted kidnappings and assassinations, but this, this is something else entirely, and he doesn’t know how to survive.

“How. Are. You. Here.” Steadily, his terror climbs.

“I don’t know.”

Illya pulls the trigger.

The crack of the gunshot echoes through the room and dissipates into thin air. The man, who should by now be dead twice over, stares at Illya with widening blue eyes. Then, he turns around, and directly behind him is the hole from a bullet that should have gone straight through his head.

It had, Illya realizes, his arm lowering with a sudden weakness, but there had been nothing for it to hit.

 

-

 

The thing, the ghost, the dead man, doesn’t go away.

Illya escapes the hotel, because there is no hiding the fact of the gunshot or the hole in the wall. From a nearby parking lot he steals a vehicle and proceeds to speed down the nearest highway. It takes him two hours before he reaches somewhere he feels comfortable stopping. At first, he thinks he’s left it behind, but by the time he settles in the local safehouse, it’s there again, standing in the kitchen and staring at him with blank eyes. Illya’s hand twitches for his gun before he remembers it’s useless.

“What do you want?” Illya says, stiff with resentment. He doesn’t know how to fight an apparition, and his helplessness burns harshly inside of him, turning every thought sour.

The American’s eyes are empty, and he huffs a mirthless laugh. “Nothing that I can have, it would seem.”

“Then you need to leave me alone.”

“I can’t,” the American snaps, and it’s only then that Illya recognizes the hint of panic behind the man’s carefully controlled expression. Illya blinks, fresh anxiety pulling at his composure.

“What do you mean?”

“I tried. I didn’t want to come. But whenever you get too far there’s…” His hand spasms with an aborted gesture. “Something pulls me toward you. It’s like a…” His words choke off, and he takes a ragged breath. “It’s like a damn leash.”

If that’s true, then it means he’s stuck. It means Illya is stuck with the thing.

“We’re tied together somehow,” the American finishes, slumping into a chair by the table.

The man’s body tense, coiled with something Illya almost wants to call grief. He still doesn’t understand what is happening, or why. Perhaps all of it is just a vivid dream, or a hallucination born of stress and misplaced guilt. If it is a vision, then he doesn’t know what it means.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” the man murmurs.

Illya doesn’t say yes, but neither does he deny it. For a long time, the American doesn’t move from his chair.

His mind a mess of jumbled thoughts, Illya stares at him until dawn.

 

-

 

Illya doesn’t quite know what to make of the situation.

Like a switch has been flipped, on the second day, the American starts testing the limits of his condition. When Illya enters the kitchen to fetch himself a drink of water, he finds the thing struggling with a mug, trying to lift it from the counter and scowling when it doesn’t react. The thing stands there, blocking the way to the tap, and Illya watches in morbid curiosity as he pulls at it, muscles straining as though the mug is some impossible weight. Then, he shifts, and puts the entire force of his body-weight into trying to push it over. Nothing happens.

Until the man’s hand goes straight through the mug, and he falls into the counter with a startled yelp. Illya twitches, the instinct to help fading in a hot flash, and his insides roil at the gruesome sight of legs poking out from the closed cupboard.

The man scrambles to his feet, his body passing through layers of wood and plastic, and then he just stands there, visibly in shock.

His mind still reeling from the impossible sight he just witnessed, Illya gives up on waiting for it to move, and goes for the bathroom tap instead.

 

-

 

If Illya were religious, or even the slightest bit superstitious, maybe he’d call it some form of divine judgment, or more likely, punishment. Perhaps there’s something higher tying their lives together, enforcing some sort of connection that was created or manifested in the moment of death. But Illya deals with fact, with the observable and the discernible, and he entertains those thoughts as no more than fleeting fancies.

And he doesn’t understand why, out of the countless people he has murdered, that it’s this one irritating, beautiful man who now haunts his every waking moment.

Illya finds that physical barriers can have an effect on the thing, even if it’s just for a short while until he concentrates enough to step through it. On the second evening, Illya’s frustration reaches its peak, and he locks the thing inside the house and tries to escape. He steals another car and drives for an hour in a single direction only to find the American glaring at him from the passenger seat moments after he stops. Days pass, and every time he thinks he’s left the thing behind, he turns a corner or pauses to read a sign just to see it suddenly right there next to him.

There is a moment, walking from a car park toward the grocery store, when Illya seriously considers visiting a psychologist, just to make sure his mind hasn’t come up with a new way to make his life difficult. But admitting to hallucinations might very well mark the end of his field career and condemn him to a psychiatric facility for the rest of his existence. Before he makes it through the door, he decides to keep quiet.

Exorcisms, the single indulgence he allows himself after careful planning, are also fruitless, proven after he visits three separate local ‘mediums’ who don’t even notice the American but won’t hesitate to take his money to get rid of ‘evil spirits’. Said American goes from looking concerned at the first meeting to hiding laughter by the time they leave the third.

Illya can’t escape its presence, so he gives it a wide berth, hoping it will keep to itself. To his relief, the American seems happy to ignore him in turn, spending most of his time alternating among states of scowling, brooding, and sulking. Dying itself must be unpleasant, and to be stuck around someone you hate in the aftermath with no hope of escape, that is something else altogether. If he weren’t so confused, Illya might almost feel sorry for the man.

Eventually, he is forced to accept facts. Physical distance does nothing. No one else but him can see it.

Fact: Illya is stuck with the ghost of an American spy he doesn’t know how to be rid of.

He sees no immediate solution, so Illya does what he does best with undesirable facts of life. He lives with it.

 

-

 

The first mission after does not go well.

As hard as Illya tries to carry on with his life as normal, the man is always at the edge of his vision, standing there whenever Illya turns around. He blocks his line of sight and distracts his attention from his goal, and every private conversation he enters into is uncomfortable with an enemy spy lingering in the background that no one will acknowledge.

In San Marino, Illya tracks a drug smuggler to a local hotel. He sneaks inside just after midnight, intent on disabling his target for transport. The man is asleep in bed, oblivious to his imminent capture, and Illya moves silently toward him in the dark, chloroform-soaked rag in hand. A laundry cart waits outside, ready to move the body.

He draws closer, and the American walks out of nowhere directly into Illya. With a start, Illya stumbles backward, trips on a cord, and crashes to the ground.

The man startles awake and bolts for the door.

Illya curses, pulling at the electrical cord to try and untangle himself enough to give chase. The amount of time it takes for him to succeed is absurd, and the man makes it out onto the street before he finally catches up. By the time Illya finally knocks the man out with a well angled punch and throws him over his shoulder, there are police sirens sounding in the distance, and terrified shouting coming from above.

Illya grits his teeth and flees the scene, pretending he doesn’t see the smug American standing at the end of an alleyway, silently laughing.

 

-

 

Illya can’t sleep.

He knows when someone is watching him. It’s instinct, it’s survival, it tells him which person in a crowd finds him appealing, something that Illya can use to his advantage, and it alerts him which people will approach him later with ill-intent, helping him survive.

Illya lays in his bed, his eyes shut tight, and he knows the thing is watching him.

The American is petty, and he wears his grudge against him openly, sabotaging him at every opportunity, even if it means standing in a bedroom just to watch Illya struggle with sleep.

Once, he had opened his eyes, and found the thing staring at him from the shadows like a creature straight out of his childhood nightmares.

But Illya is strong. He can ignore it.

He can’t sleep.

 

-

 

The second mission is worse.

 

-

 

The thing follows him everywhere.

Hot water pounds down from the showerhead, washing away days of dirt and grime, and soothing Illya’s sore muscles. He focuses on the moment, the heat of the water, the slippery sensation of the soap, and doesn’t think about the farce his life has become.

When Illya’s done, he twists the knob to shut off the water, and pulls open the shower curtain.

The man is standing there in the bathroom, and his grin turns into a laugh as he eyes Illya’s naked body.

Shock makes his world flare with red, and embarrassment has blood rushing to his face. Illya rips the curtain from the bar to wrap it around himself, flailing a little.

“How did you get that scar on your inner thigh?” the Thing says.

Illya grits his teeth and storms out of the room, wishing he knew of a way to kill something already dead.

 

-

 

The third mission is a disaster.

 

-

 

Back in Moscow, his handlers chew him out for his string of poor performances, and Oleg, who has never had any problem with reminding Illya of his father’s failures, threatens him with Siberia. The presence of the unimpressed American beside him, idly watching the scene unfold, compounds Illya’s humiliation.

“What happened to your father?” it asks, when Illya is striding down the corridors and making a direct line for the gym.

“That is none of your business.” Illya forces the words through his teeth. He’s trembling, the world growing distant and distorted as his rage surges forward, steady and certain. It’s all he can do to keep himself from lashing out at something, at anything, in the middle of the hallway.

The American notices, and eyes him with open apprehension. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Illya swallows back his anger, pushing through the doors of the gym. Inside, other agents are training and sparring, and some spare him a glance as he enters. Illya ignores them all, zeroing in on a lonely punching bag.

He kicks off his shoes, pulls off his jacket, and proceeds to prove himself a liar.

Twenty-five minutes later, he’s standing beside the battered punching bag, his head hanging as he tries to catch his breath. He swipes a bottle of water from a stand nearby and escapes to the balcony, gulping down half its contents before dumping the rest over his head, letting out a breath as the cool water trickles down his burning face and neck.

Illya hears a strange sound, and turns to find the American staring at him from the doorway. Their eyes meet, and the American tears his gaze away.

Illya crushes the bottle in one hand.

This is entirely the American’s fault, he thinks. If he wasn’t such an annoying distraction in the field, if he didn’t hinder Illya’s every move, Illya would not be teetering on the edge of banishment yet again.

Illya stays in the gym, and works himself past the point of exhaustion. The ghost of the American agent remains, judging his every move with unreadable eyes.

When he goes to bed that evening in his quarters, the other man is nowhere to be seen.

Somehow, it makes Illya feel worse.

 

-

 

He’s thrown out a second floor window in Kathmandu in rain of glass, and lands hard atop a dumpster. Sharp shards dig into his back, and Illya bites back a groan, maneuvering to get himself back onto the ground.

An irritating, inescapable voice sounds from behind him.

“I don’t know what you think you have to prove, but you’re being way too reckless.”

Illya turns with a glare, and finds the American standing casually in the alleyway, staring at him again with those condescending eyes. Illya’s anger flares.

“I’m doing my job.”

“Yes, and you’re terrible at it.”

“I managed to kill you, did I not?” Illya growls, stepping forward, daring the man to challenge him a second time. The man’s gaze drops, and Illya feels the sharp, sweet taste of vindication. “Just shut up and watch me work.”

The American rolls his eyes, but Illya is already running out into the city.

 

-

 

Eventually, Illya’s guilt at not visiting his mother finally wins out over his reluctance at letting the American see her.

He makes his way to her apartment late on a Friday afternoon when he knows she will be alone. On his way, he trades in spare ration cards and carries the groceries, along with the Vogue magazines and the beautiful crystal brooch he picked up in Paris almost a month ago. They may have avoided the gulags by the skin of their teeth, they may be shunned by their neighbors, but his mother has sacrificed so much to make sure Illya lives the most comfortable life they can afford, and she deserves the best rewards.

The American trails behind him, clearly curious, and Illya does his best to mask his irritation.

The stairwells of the apartment complex are dark and musty, and the outer windows grey with years of unwashed grime. Illya makes his way up two flights of stairs, squinting to see the steps properly, and announces himself with three heavy knocks to his mother's front door.

Not even his series of misfortunes can stop Illya’s smile when he sees her for the first time after a two-month absence. His mother, as always, is stunning in a beautiful dress, with her hair tied in an elegant bun, and makeup applied with perfect taste and technique. She murmurs endearments, happy to see him, and presses affectionate kisses to his cheek Illya can’t imagine disallowing. Then she ushers him inside, and presses him into a kitchen chair.

“Oh, my boy, my Illyusha,” she coos. “It is so good to have you back. What have you brought your mother today?”

Illya gives her the food, knowing she must be short. The new dress she’s wearing alone must have cost her a fair chunk of her income. His mother shows little interest in the groceries, but then Illya produces the brooch with a smile, and her eyes light up in delight.

“You always spoil your mother.” She smiles, and Illya can’t help smiling also. Together, they flip through the magazines Illya had smuggled in, and Illya translates the language as his mother scrutinizes every new European design. She cooks him his favorite dish, and tells him all about her life in the past few weeks over dinner.

The American watches from a corner of the room, and is so quiet that Illya forgets he’s there until he sees him again while kissing his mother goodbye.

It doesn’t dampen his good mood. Illya feels happy with himself for the first time in weeks, and there’s nothing the American can do to steal that away.

 

-

 

On his way out of a compound in the Finnish countryside, Illya turns a corner, and walks straight into a pair of guards. He takes both men out with brutal strikes before their shock had worn off enough to allow a reaction.

“Behind you.” A short, sharp warning, and a smooth American accent. Illya has no time to think as he twists, drops, and barely dodges the swing of a baton. A third man had emerged from an open doorway behind him, and then there is shouting, and the wail of an alarm.

Illya runs, and somehow there is a voice, murmuring instructions into his ear. Stop. Wait. Illya steps back into the shadows and guards run past in front of him, oblivious to his presence. Left. Illya follows, confusion churning in his gut as it becomes increasingly clear who the voice belongs to. In the chaos, there is no time to interrogate its meaning or intent, and he can only trust.

Illya breaks out into the night with no one seeing him, and then he’s avoiding the sweep of spotlights and scaling the fence, slipping away into the dark.

It’s not until he’s twenty minutes away from the compound that he calms enough to search for the familiar figure. The American is right there behind him, still in that same impeccable suit, watching him with uncertain eyes. His face is shadowed by the moonlight, sharpening the angles of his handsome profile.

The faint sound of a rumbling car engine breaks the moment, and Illya ducks for cover.

It’s another hour before he feels safe enough rest. There’s another three kilometers until the prescribed extraction point, and he has more than enough time to get there. He doesn’t understand what just happened, why the man had chosen to save him when he has every right to enjoy watching him die.

Standing in a tundra under the dark of a crescent moon, Illya hears his own confusion when he speaks.

“Thank you.”

The man regards him a moment, before he offers a quiet reply. “You’re welcome.”

Illya goes back to walking, hiding just how disturbed he feels.

 

-

 

The American saves him again in Algiers with three simple words, as Illya is about to walk into a meeting with his local contact.

“It’s a trap.”

The night is warm, the sweltering daytime heat of the Mediterranean finally dissipating to a more tolerable state in the hours between dusk and dawn. Standing across the street, staring at the doorway he is barely seconds from entering, Illya falters. The American may well be lying, but something, perhaps lingering instinct, perhaps the memory of the Finnish compound, compels Illya to heed the words whispered in his ear. He has been taught it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

Illya backtracks the way he came, and slips into the building from a side entrance, ambushing the men waiting to kill him. When the dust settles, he has the traitor at gunpoint, and the man whimpers and begs, swearing he had been coerced, as though it would do anything to change his fate.

Once Illya gets the information he needs, he executes him for his betrayal.

The commotion and gunfire will have local authorities converging before long, and Illya dashes from the building, finding a lonely motorcycle sitting in the alleyway outside, its owner likely already dead at Ilya’s hand. Just as the vehicle comes to life under Illya’s hands, the American runs forward two silent steps and joins him on the small seat. There is no disturbance in the air, and the motorcycle doesn’t so much as dip with the added passenger. Illya tears his attention from the phantom presence at his back, and focuses on getting out of the situation.

On an empty road distant from the bodies left behind, the nervous energy that has simmered in Illya for weeks finally pulls him to a stop. They’re near the port area of the city, surrounded by a slew of warehouses and shipping yards built by French colonialists, and are as safe as possible from households and unsuspecting spectators.

One moment Illya is moving swiftly through the streets, and in the next, he can’t bring himself to move another meter. Illya fidgets atop the rumbling vehicle, his eyes casting about in the dark, looking for threats and finding none. Questions, begging for answers, bounce around in his head. How did you know it was a trap? Why are you still here? And the most important one – why did you save me?

When Illya opens his mouth, it’s a different question that comes out.

“What’s your name?”

It has been over a month since the spirit appeared, and after surviving an ambush he could never have predicted alone, Illya finds himself forced to confront the reality of his uncanny situation.

The smell of salt is heavy in the air, and a distant sea breeze sweeps around them, blowing Illya’s hair into his eyes. The silence goes on for long enough to almost convince Illya that the ghost won’t reply. Then, that rich, smooth voice sounds again.

“Napoleon Solo.”

The name is so strange that for a brief second Illya is almost convinced it’s made up. He had been prepared for something normal, something American, like John or James or Jacob. Instead, confusion layers with the crushing relief that flows through him, stealing his breath. His ghost now has a name, and Illya can no longer keep pretending that he isn’t real, that this isn’t the current state of his life.

Illya nods, turning the name over in his head. It’s the same name as that French conqueror, he thinks, and the question almost makes it past his lips.

“Illya,” he says instead. He blinks, and the American, who had stepped off the motorcycle at some stage, is stepping into his line of sight. “Illya Kuryakin.”

By now, there is no way the man doesn’t already know, but it’s the first time Illya has properly introduced himself. He thinks there’s meaning there, whatever it may be worth to the man he killed.

The American – Napoleon – studies him intently in the dark, and then, his expression softens, and the corner of his lips quirk with the tiniest hint of a smile.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Napoleon says, and Illya feels his own lips threatening to mirror Napoleon’s smile. “Should we get out of here?”

Napoleon steps back, and joins him again on the bike. Illya guns the engine and drives into the night, feeling lighter than he has in what seems to be years.

Only later, does he realize it’s the first time he’s seen Napoleon genuinely smile.

 

-

 

“You’re making me cry.”

“Shut up.”

After Algiers, things between Illya and his ghost – Napoleon – get a little better. During missions, the American will sometimes give out warnings. A guard around the corner Illya hasn’t spotted, or a trap waiting for Illya in the next room. For some reason, Napoleon seems genuinely invested in keeping Illya mostly alive. And sometimes, they even manage a few exchanges that are almost like conversations. 

The downside to their improving relationship, however, is that the American also now finds it appropriate to remark on whatever obstacle Illya is dealing with at any given time, be it combat or cooking. Illya is a good agent, one of the KGB’s best, but he is not perfect, and Napoleon insists on reminding Illya of the fact.

In Tehran, Illya struggles (slightly) with an unfamiliar lock mechanism blocking his entry to the office of the country’s Minister for Commerce. Another ten seconds pass, and he fiddles carefully with the picks, still no closer to opening the door than he was before.

“You’d think the KGB would bother to teach its agents basic lock-picking,” Napoleon muses coolly.

“I know how to pick a lock,” Illya hisses. He has three minutes before the guards return to this hallway, which should be enough time, which has to be enough time.

“Is that what you’re calling it?”

All at once, Illya becomes painfully aware that he is in fact just poking inelegantly at the keyhole with his tools. He has no idea why the tumblers aren’t clicking into place. Illya stills, and can’t help the sigh that escapes him.

A beat, then, Napoleon speaks again. “Want some help?”

Illya looks up from the lock and finds the American watching him, a picture of innocence.

“How exactly can you help?” He needs the files inside the office, and it’s not something Napoleon can solve through passive observation.

“Well,” Napoleon says, placing a hand on the cool metal of the handle-plate. “As fancy as the lock seems to be, it’s not much use if one of the windows is still open.”

Illya stares at Napoleon for a second, then packs up his tools and makes for the exit. They’re on the third floor, and an adjoining hallway opens out to a balcony overlooking the inner courtyard. Once he’s outside, Illya hops the railings, climbs around the outer wall, and wiggles through the open window.

All the while, Napoleon drifts along behind him, watching with barely hidden amusement.

Illya is out within five minutes. But it’s two days before he can bring himself to mutter thanks.

 

-

 

Napoleon is patting a cat when Illya finds him in Ipswich.

He doesn’t mean to go looking, but the American had disappeared as Illya had sat in a café, performing reconnaissance, and curiosity had gotten better of him.

The cat has glossy black fur and amber eyes, a witch’s familiar, if the tales are to be believed. It’s sunning itself atop a thick brick fence post.

“Can you feel that?” Illya asks. A woman side-eyes him as she walks past.

Napoleon glances at him, impassive. “Not really. It’s just resistance.”

“How is that different from feeling?”

“The same way a granite statue is different from naked flesh,” Napoleon says, slipping his hand back into his pocket.

Illya frowns at the confusing and slightly lurid metaphor, but Napoleon is already walking away.

 

-

 

Illya’s legs almost give out from under him the moment he stumbles through the back door of the safehouse on the outskirts of Sofia. Just as his vision darkens, he reaches out wildly, and barely manages to find the surface of a table to hold himself upright. He closes his eyes, breathing carefully through his nose. After being kicked from a speeding vehicle and sent crashing into concrete, there isn’t a part of him that doesn’t hurt. It’s a little hard to breathe through the pain in his ribs, though experience tells him nothing is broken. His right side is burning with pain, and bleeding heavily from where an enemy’s bullet had clipped him.

“How’re you feeling?” Napoleon’s voice sounds from beside him, for once devoid of mockery or condescension.

It takes him a second, but he’s able to get his bearings again. Illya opens his eyes slowly. The American is almost, for lack of a better word, hovering, standing just a little too close as his gaze runs down Illya, assessing the extent of his injuries.

“Great.” Illya returns, his voice barely more than a hoarse scratch. He coughs once, and winces as it jostles his ribs.

At least the mission is a success, Illya thinks absently as limps toward the tiny bathroom and the hope of medical supplies. The leader of the insurgents is dead, and another base of agitators neutralized.

Long live the world socialist revolution.

Napoleon is already in the bathroom by the time Illya gets there, standing in the shower, of all places. Illya pulls the medical bag from a shelf, and gingerly sits himself down on top of the closed toilet. He goes first for the bottle of unnamed analgesics, and downs two white tablets dry. Then, he carefully strips off his tattered shirt, and gets to work cleaning himself up and stitching himself back together.

It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, but this is the first time he has ever had an audience. Things feel strange with Napoleon there, watching him with dark, unreadable eyes. Perhaps the other man is disturbed by this reminder of Illya’s own mortality, or perhaps he’s disappointed that he survived. There’s nothing Napoleon can do if Illya does die in the middle of nowhere. And perhaps he’d be free, then, to wander the Earth and do whatever it is dead American spies want to do with their ghostly afterlife.

Would anyone else be able to see him? Or is this a one-time deal, whatever their connection is? Despite all their travels, not a single soul has acknowledged the presence at Illya’s side.

“Do you genuinely have nowhere better to be?” Illya murmurs, half way through his stitches.

Napoleon’s looks at him, and then walks through the wall into the next room.

Illya silences a sigh, and gets back to fixing himself alone.

 

-

 

In Lyon, Illya gets dressed up in a tailored suit, a cobalt blue ensemble made of finest European silks. The Italian cut tapers toward the waistline, and he shifts uncomfortably in front of the mirror, feeling restricted in his surprisingly tight clothing.

This time, he is an Ukrainian art dealer, seeking out fine pieces in France to decorate the offices of Soviet leadership. The suit is said to fit his required image, and while it’s not the first time Illya’s ever worn something so luxurious, he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it.

Illya turns around, and Napoleon is draped across a chair, openly staring at him with a strangely conflicted expression on his face. Illya bristles instantly under the scrutiny, and awkwardly undoes the button of the suit jacket, letting it hang more loosely from his shoulders. The vest still feels tight around his waist. He turns back to the mirror, and glares at his costume.

“What’s the occasion?” Napoleon says, his voice oddly controlled.

The American seems to prefer surprises, and rarely stays up to date on Illya’s mission parameters unless one of his handlers briefs him personally. When Illya read the dossiers in his quarters, Napoleon had sat rapt in front of the television, watching as a trio of puppets taught children the importance of kindness.

“There’s a party in two hours,” Illya says, putting on his father’s watch back on as the finishing touch. “The Merciers have been doing business with someone picking at our stockpiles. I need to get the details of their accounts so we can find out who it is.”

“Shouldn’t you be drawing attention away from yourself if you’re trying to steal something?”

“No.” Illya frowns at himself in the mirror. “My target is Adeline Mercier, the widow.”

Silence, and then a muffled: “Are you…”

“They say I’m her type,” Illya murmurs. He feels like a fool, dressed up in a fancy outfit. What if he has to dance? He barely remembers the steps, and has had no time to revise.

Napoleon huffs. “You know that watch doesn’t work with the outfit, right?”

Illya’s mood shifts rapidly to anger. “I don’t care.”

“That’s very unprofessional of you.”

“I’m not changing the watch.”

Napoleon raises an eyebrow. “Sentimental value?”

“It was my father’s.”

The American’s expression falls into something almost like pity. “Oh.”

Illya flees into another room.

 

-

 

Twenty minutes into the party, Illya is hiding in the men’s bathroom, silently cursing whichever superior it was who had decided he is the best fit for this mission. He’s never excelled in these roles. They want to see him crash and burn, there’s no other reason for it.

But Illya’s pride tells that him he can do this; all he has to do is to go out there and try again, and somehow attract Mercier’s attention away from that charming, American man who has commandeered her attention since the moment he arrived. Despite gaining her interest quickly with his appearance, Illya had offered stilted conversation at best, and the woman’s attention had slipped from his hands in the face of competition. He doesn’t need some sort of jetsetter Casanova screwing everything up.

“Is that what they teach you in the KGB? Tense smiles and awkward compliments?”

Illya glares at Napoleon’s reflection through the bathroom mirror. He still doesn’t know or care about why he can see a ghost’s reflection. But in this moment, it’s a useful outlet for his simmering frustration.

“Of all the people who could’ve killed me,” Napoleon murmurs, shaking his head. Illya focuses on his breathing and pretends he doesn’t hear a thing.

There’s a drawn out silence, and Illya can feel the weight of Napoleon’s gaze on him. The American, like always, is enjoying Illya’s misery. Illya needs to go back out and somehow win Mercier’s affection again. What had they said in the academy? Fake interest, eye contact, smile at the right moments.

“Want some advice?”

“No.”

“I mean, you’re not terrible,” Napoleon powers on, completely disregarding Illya’s opinion. “You have the appearance part down, you just need to work on presentation.”

Illya waits, and Napoleon does not continue. He bites back a sigh, and regards Napoleon, whose gaze is surprisingly gentle. “Go on.”

The American smirks, and motions for him to turn around. Reluctantly, Illya stands so he’s facing him.

“First, you’re too stiff. You look like you’re walking into battle, not enjoying yourself among good company.”

As though to demonstrate, Napoleon’s posture visibly changes in front of him. His back straightens, and his shoulders seem to widen, and there is a curious, confident tilt to his head that transforms him from an anonymous bystander to someone princely. Illya frowns, staring at Napoleon. Then, he looks down, concentrates, and forces himself to relax his muscles and mimic him. His shoulders slump slightly. Napoleon’s smirk grows wider.

“Second, you need to lighten up your tone. You sound too formal and serious by far.”

Chagrined, Illya’s eyes narrow, “What does that mean?”

“It means, Agent Kuryaklin,” Napoleon’s voice suddenly drops a pitch lower, turning serious and somber. “You sound about as interesting and engaged as this.” Then, his voice returns to something not quite normal, but teasing, and flirtatious. “You’re trying to seduce a woman, not reprimand her for daring to show interest.”

Illya presses his lips together, and considers Napoleon’s words.

“Third, you need to weaponize your good-looks.”

Illya’s brows rise. “Weaponize my looks,” he deadpans. Something inside him flutters weakly at being called ‘good-looking’ by someone as handsome as Napoleon, and he beats that part of himself into stillness.

Napoleon steps closer, and ducks his head. A coy, dangerous smile lights his face as he catches Illya’s gaze. Napoleon’s eyes are as deep and bottomless as the ocean, and Illya’s mouth goes dry, something dangerously like want stabbing through his chest with each beat of his suddenly racing heart.

“How about we get out of here?” Napoleon murmurs, in a low, pleasant tone that makes Illya’s spine tingle. “I’d love to get to know you a little more intimately.”

Has the American always been this… skilled in seduction?

Napoleon’s grin turns mischievous, and his demeanor drops back into something friendly yet distant. “See?”

Illya can only stare at Napoleon, and it’s too long before he finds his words again.

“I see.”

 

-

 

Growing increasingly desperate, Illya tries the tricks Napoleon had tried to teach him.

It works surprisingly well.

 

-

 

The First Secretary of Belarus’ Central Committee refuses to follow the secret directives of the State Council. His defiance makes him undesirable, yet the man has enough political pull and influence to ensure that his enemies will pressure for a thorough humiliation instead of merely a forced resignation.

Illya arrives in Minsk with false papers and account records that will mark the man a traitor to his people.

The mission goes smoothly, and he enters the man’s office with no trouble. Napoleon, oddly more helpful than usual, even provides him with two unnecessary warnings. Illya places the documents out in the open, and the next morning, before the man even has time to arrive in his office, his secretary will have discovered the evidence and alerted the relevant authorities.

His exit is just as smooth, and everything, from the mission itself to the absurd ease of destroying a man’s life, leaves Illya on edge. He works through the tremor in his hands, and the twisting guilt in his chest, trying not to imagine the life that will befall the innocent children and wife.

Illya has orders, and he must follow them, no matter what.

He thinks he hides his distress well, but when he dares to glance at Napoleon, there is a knowing look in the American’s eyes that is somehow reassuring instead of infuriating.

After, Illya drives away from the office, and Napoleon is settled in the passenger seat. They wind their way through the city toward the airfield.

“What’s wrong?” Napoleon asks quietly.

“Nothing.”

“I know you better than that,” Napoleon says. “Something’s bothering you.”

Illya wants to deny on principle, wants to lash out at the American for thinking he knows anything about Illya at all. He grits his teeth and stays silent.

Napoleon watches him for a moment, then turns to stare out the window.

 

-

 

That night, Illya curls up against the bedroom wall, staring out at the stars glittering outside his window. He must make a pathetic sight, because Napoleon walks up to him barely ten minutes later, and sits down next to him with his long legs stretched out.

Pale moonlight spills across the floor, not quite reaching either of them. The darkness paints an illusion of safety, as though tranquility can never be broken by truth.

“My father was on the Politburo,” Illya says. “They took him away when I was ten.”

There’s more, how every single one of their friends and relatives turned against them. How the book he had bought for his friend’s birthday sits on a shelf in the apartment even now because he was no longer allowed to see her. How his mother had refused to accept their new, harsh reality, and offered herself to her husband’s old friends for luxuries they were no longer entitled to. How she had gifted him a new coat on his eleventh birthday he had forced himself to wear, knowing what she had had to do for it. How the government had taken him by the time he was thirteen, and then all he knew after was cold and competition, being trained to fight and lie for the privilege of food and shelter.

How the boy he had thought of as his best friend almost killed him with a rock as Illya was on the verge of winning their fight, and was rewarded for his ingenuity that left Illya with a permanent scar on his temple. How two years later, Illya had accidentally killed that same boy during live firearms training, and was commended for his excellent aim.

“I’m sorry,” Napoleon murmurs.

“They said he was embezzling money,” is the only thing Illya says in the end.

Illya falls asleep, tucked in the corner of the room, atop the hard, unforgiving floor that reminds him of bygone years.

When he wakes, Napoleon is still there beside him, staring out at the dawning sun. The first rays of the morning light cast him in gold. He looks real, as though his skin would be warm beneath Illya’s fingers if only he has the courage to touch. In that moment, Illya remembers the tight muscle and the heat of the body that had struggled in his arms so long ago, desperate to cling onto life.

There’s something liberating about telling someone willingly, of handing that kind of destructive power to another and trusting them to deliver judgement. At home he walks with the assumption that every person he meets already knows of his shame, as they always seem to do. For his father’s fall had been public and brutal, his exile a warning and an example of the fate of those who sacrifice the interest of the people for personal greed. But the American hadn’t known, not of the details behind what Illya’s superiors have remarked on only in passing, and he has said nothing. No scathing comment, no insults to his integrity, just accepted this part of Illya with a murmured I’m sorry.

He could have let Napoleon live, Illya thinks. Yet he had waited for that sickening crack, felt relief in the moment the body had gone limp before him, lost himself in the reassuring thrill of survival.

He’s stared too long, and Napoleon notices. The American shifts, turning toward him with a quirk of his lips. How are you real? Ilya thinks absently. How are you here?

You’re beautiful.

“Good morning, Red Peril.”

Illya feels some part of him slowly come undone.

 

-

 

Something changes between them after that night. Nothing so obvious that Illya notices immediately, but then, he hears affection in the way Napoleon speaks to him. Napoleon stands a little closer now, and his shoulders are relaxed, the contempt disappeared from his eyes.

The moment Illya realizes that the thread of scorn and cold tension that had characterized their interactions seems to have disappeared, he has to fight against the urge to smile.

He does a poor job of it, because Napoleon asks him what he’s so happy about.

 

-

 

“Wake up.”

There’s the sound of a voice, and Illya flounders in the darkness. He remembers flashes of violence, shouting, something striking him on the head.

“Illya, Illya wake up.”

That voice, again, familiar, Napoleon.

Illya’s eyes fly open.

The American is bent over him, face pale with worry, and he sags in relief as Illya wakes. Blinking up at the stone ceiling, Illya mentally takes stock of sensation. His head hurts, but a check of his limbs and torso reports that everything else appears functional. He’s lying on something cold and unforgiving, concrete, and the humidity and rusting metal bars along one wall speaks of a dungeon underground.

“You had me worried there for a moment,” the American says, settling back on his haunches.

“I have a hard head,” Illya grumbles, pushing himself into a sitting position. He looks through the bars at the corridor beyond, but there is only darkness and stone. “What’s the situation?”

“You’ve been captured.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

That earns Illya a wry smile. “Volkov’s men have only showed up once, about half an hour ago. When they saw you were still unconscious they turned and left, so I imagine you have a while before they pay you another visit.”

The early morning sun filters through a small barred window at the top of the wall, he’s been unconscious for five hours at least, which gives him another three hours at most before the bombs planted across Leningrad metro stations are set to explode during the morning rush. It’s plenty of time – that is, if he can get himself to a telephone in time to alert the authorities.

He’d been sent to investigate an illegal smuggling ring, not a terrorist attack plotted by dissidents.

“We need to get out of here,” Illya says, this time climbing to his feet. He starts to dig through his usual hiding spots, in the hope that his captors haven’t searched him closely enough to find every hidden knife and lockpick.

Napoleon doesn’t respond, and Illya glances at the American to find him staring at him with a small look of surprise. Then, Napoleon’s stare turns into a bright smile, and something twists hard in Illya’s chest.

“Well, I’m sure we can come up with something.”

Illya ends up pulling the metal door off its rusty hinges in front of an impressed Napoleon, who then proceeds to tease him mercilessly about his inhuman strength for the rest of the mission. He makes contact with headquarters before the hour is up, and the bombs are rapidly found and dismantled. The terrorists never make it out of the city.

It’s not until that evening, when he’s stretched out on his assigned bed in the local dormitories, Napoleon perched by the window, staring out into the night, that Illya recognizes what he had said.

We.

When had he stopped thinking of himself as alone?

 

-

 

The mission takes them back to Switzerland, but this time to Bern instead of Zurich. Illya tries hard not to think about the body he had sunk to the bottom of the river so many months ago, and if anyone ever found it. For his part, Napoleon doesn’t seem concerned at all, and follows him through the streets of the city in what seems to be good humor.

“I have a safe here,” Napoleon says out of the blue, with a surprising amount of wistfulness in his tone.

They’re standing atop the Nydeggbrücke Bridge, staring down at the serene river flowing distantly below. Illya looks over at him, curious.

“I used to be a thief,” Napoleon continues.

Illya blinks, then mentally unwinds. Thief. “What?”

Even as he speaks aloud his doubt, Illya realizes that it makes sense. Napoleon has an uncanny understanding of locks and safes, and almost always slows in front of jewelry stores and art galleries. Every time, he’ll advise the covert approach – pickpocketing, breaking-and-entering, even when there is no need for stealth. Illya had thought it had just been one of Napoleon’s quirks, but in reality, those professional traits are just as perfectly suited to a practiced thief.

“I was one of the best, uncatchable. That is… until they caught me,” Napoleon says with a shrug, staring out onto the horizon. “The CIA offered me a choice: spend my time in prison, or go to work for them.”

Illya mulls over the revelation, and a tiny speck of an aircraft floats through the sky in the distance. It is clear what Napoleon chose, and Illya feels a distinct lack of surprise. He can’t imagine someone like Napoleon caged in a tiny cell, with no freedom to explore and no opportunities to exploit. Men like Napoleon are made to roam, to astound, and to leave behind them a trail of broken hearts. Illya could tell as much from the moment he first saw him.

It must have made him furious, Illya realizes with a sudden certainty, to wake up dead, and worst of all, tethered to the man who had killed him, with no hope of liberty.

“I had a fifteen year sentence, and I survived nine of it.” Napoleon mumbles.

Illya likes to think that Napoleon has made peace with the fact of his death. Still, a small seed of guilt grows inside that he doesn’t dare to acknowledge.

“Do you regret it?” Illya says softly. It’s strange to imagine being offered a choice, even if it had been between a jail cell and forced labor. Illya’s own life feels pre-written even as he lives it, eternally out of his control. From his father to his years under the KGB’s patronage, in the military, to even this moment right now atop a bridge in a country that he will never think of as home, his entire life has been one of decisions made for him. He is less human than object, a weapon that his handlers only need to point and shoot at whatever they wish to destroy. Perhaps he isn’t much freer than Napoleon, even if he is still breathing.

Does Illya regret? No, that would mean there had been an opportunity to choose.

“Honestly?” Napoleon frowns, and a thoughtful expression crosses his face. “I think… it’s what I always wanted.”

“Adventure?”

“A little of that,” Napoleon turns to him, his lips quirking with a smile. “I needed a challenge, something exciting, some sort of prize to win, or a war to fight. Anything but a menial, everyday existence where you wake up one day to discover you’ve wasted your life away for nothing.”

There’s a passion to Napoleon’s words that speak of something personal. Family, perhaps, or someone, something, just as important. Illya opens his mouth to ask.

Beneath the bridge, a boat drifts into view, and sets off downstream.

“Time to move,” Illya murmurs, his gaze following the small vessel.

“Right behind you.” Napoleon’s voice sounds, reassuring.

 

-

 

By some miracle, in Beirut, Illya gets a day off.

The weather is overcast and less than ideal, but the temperature is pleasantly cool. His belongings fit into a single backpack, and he pulls the bag onto his shoulder as Napoleon makes a final round through their little hotel room.

“What do you want to do?” Illya asks.

Napoleon glances at him, and then does a double take when he realizes Illya’s interest is real.

“Are you seriously asking me?”

Illya nods seriously. “I’ve never been here before.”

“I was only here for a few hours in ’59,” Napoleon says, his eyes lighting up slowly with excitement. Illya watches, nursing a now familiar fondness, something light and fluffy that sticks in his chest like cotton candy.

Under Napoleon’s instructions, Illya squeezes onto a packed bus heading toward Saint George Bay. They walk together along the promenade as waves lap at the sand, and stare out into the endless blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Illya catches himself mentally comparing the view to Napoleon’s eyes, and forces himself to switch gears and think about ocean survival instead.

They follow the coast and cut across the city until they’re wandering through the bustling Beirut Souks, filled with stores and stalls selling an assortment of wares. Napoleon crowds up to one stall after the next, and Illya buys an apple from a fruit stall, struggling not to lose Napoleon in the crowd while he munches.

In a store selling small pieces of artwork, Illya sees a small set of hand painted playing cards, each one emblazoned with the motif of a different chess piece. It’s a wonderful thing, because you can play an entire game of chess using cards if you wanted. It would take up much less space in his luggage than a travel set.

“You should buy it.”

“I don’t need it,” Illya replies, but he stares at the cards some more.

“Doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to something nice once in a while.”

Napoleon has a point, but Illya already has a chess set in his bag. Still, it might be nice to have something as a back-up, even just to keep around in his quarters. He fights with himself for a moment, before he decides against it and walks off.

He makes it past three stores before he changes his mind and turns around. He buys the cards from the little old lady tending the shop, and Napoleon grins at him as Illya puts the package into his backpack.

Then, they find themselves at the Saint George Maronite Cathedral, and Illya stares up at the stained glass windows, listening as Napoleon laughingly tells a story of his childhood. Apparently, Communion wafers taste so terrible that a seven-year-old Napoleon had chosen to hold them in his mouth and spit it out later instead of just eating it like he’s supposed to. His family had been irredeemably Catholic, Napoleon says, while he was, well, not.

“If the priest had been right, I would be in hell,” Napoleon muses as Illya sits in one of the pews, feeling completely out of place. ”So maybe this is some sort of Divine Providence.”

Illya, a practicing atheist, can’t fathom why ‘God’ would want to keep the spirit of an American spy around to specifically bother him.

Soon, before they knew it, the day is nearing its end. Illya pales when he finally remembers to check the time, and then they are dashing out of the city in order to make it to the extraction point in time.

“We never got to see the museum,” Napoleon murmurs that night, on the plane back to Moscow. His face is shadowed in the darkened cabin. Illya knows his hand will pass right through him, yet his hand itches, wanting to reach out.

“Another time, perhaps,” Illya says, watching him.

Napoleon’s grin is bright when he turns to him. Illya doesn’t think he will ever grow sick of seeing Napoleon smile.

“Another time.” Napoleon echoes.

 

-

 

In a Tibetan military base, Illya doesn’t see the child until it’s too late.

It’s meant to be a stealth assassination of a troublesome military official, and Illya is deep inside a facility where he doesn’t belong. He’s nearing the residential wing, making his way down a dark and empty corridor. Outdated floor plans mean it takes him much longer than planned to get in and find the rooms he’s looking for, and the patrolling guards will be back any moment now. He has nowhere to hide.

The sound of scuffling emerges from behind him. Reflectively, Illya turns and shoots. Napoleon’s muffled “No!” doesn’t reach him until after he pulls the trigger.

She is no more than twelve, tall and gangly for her age, and her head comes to where a grown man’s heart would be. She gapes at him, blank-eyed, and then collapses onto the floor.

Illya lowers his gun, staring at the body, cold creeping through his veins and stealing his breath. Napoleon steps toward her, dwarfing the small body with his size. Illya’s vision is misting with red, his blood pounding in his ears.

When Napoleon turns back to Illya, the horror in his eyes shifts into alarm.

“Illya-”

Illya stumbles away, his hand shaking, tight around his gun, and doesn’t hear a single thing Napoleon says.

 

-

 

He follows his orders and the man dies. Not at the end of a gun, because Illya finds he can’t aim properly. Instead, he tackles the official down and breaks his neck. When Illya flees the facility, it is with the sound of alarms screaming in the background.

In the Moscow office, Illya stands at attention after he makes his report. Oleg dresses him down thoroughly for the amount of attention he attracted.

The murdered child is not mentioned even once, marked as acceptable (if unfortunate) collateral damage. Illya’s mind drifts, wondering who she was, and what she was doing there. A daughter of one of the soldiers, perhaps? Or a refugee child, taken in out of compassion? His thoughts spiral endlessly, and the image of the girl’s face never fades from his mind.

Napoleon stands behind Oleg, staring intently at Illya. And when Illya dares to meet his eyes, he finds that he can’t look away. There is reassurance behind Napoleon’s steady gaze, compassion and support Illya doesn’t deserve, yet he can’t help himself from clinging desperately to it all.

The carrot comes with the stick, and before he leaves, Oleg tells him that he did a poor job, but his actions were important for the people’s interest.

Illya isn’t sure how killing an innocent child helps anybody, but he doesn’t find it in him to voice the thought.

 

-

 

They don’t talk about it, and if Illya breaks down into sobs inside his room later that night, they don’t talk about that either. The way Illya had tried to grab at Napoleon as the American had sat close beside him, murmuring nonsense, is not something that can ever be discussed.

They give him three days to spend in the capital, and the vacation is a thinly veiled excuse to have him examined by psychiatrists. They ask Illya how he is feeling, about the trauma of killing an innocent, about how he is managing his anger and his episodes. They also ask if he’s had any strange experiences he’d like to discuss, and only then does Illya understand that word has spread of the distracted spy who always seems to be talking to himself.

The doctors toss around terms like dissociation and maladaptive behavior, and Illya formulates his responses carefully, determined not to give anyone further ammunition to use against him. He explains away his distraction, insisting that talking to himself is merely a process he finds useful for reasoning.

After Illya is freed from the sessions, Napoleon is unusually animated, talking about his experience with CIA psychologists, and how they had never bothered to look behind the surface before slapping control disorders on him. He seems to be trying to cheer Illya up, and Illya appreciates the effort, though he stays silent for the sake of salvaging whatever remains of his image as a sane man.

Even if they think his mental health is deteriorating, his success rate is too high for the KGB to truly consider benching him, Napoleon says. It’s a small consolation Illya elects to hold onto.

“Are there any other ghosts?” Illya says, on the third evening of his vacation. The news plays on the television, announcing the latest achievements of the great Union.

Napoleon glances toward him from the screen, his expression suddenly unreadable. “Not that I’ve met.”

“Then what if you really are a figment of my imagination?”

“I’m too clever to be something you can come up with.” This time, Napoleon doesn’t even bother to look in Illya’s direction.

Illya huffs, and he remembers all the times he survived because Napoleon told him something Illya couldn’t possibly have known by himself. He has a sudden strange craving for sweet things. “Is there any zefir left?”

“Stop reminding me I can’t eat.”

 

-

 

Their next mission is to stop an American agent from taking a young woman over the Berlin wall.

Oleg briefs them in advance, and Napoleon laughs softly beside him as the life history of their opponent flashes across the screen. It’s nothing particularly remarkable – middle-class background, military service – the man, Jones, is a cookie cutter American spy among a dozen. Napoleon has no comment besides ‘boring’, ‘preference for blondes’, and ‘competent’ in a tone with a noticeable question mark on the end.

“You don’t have to help me with this, you know,” Illya says later, when they’re waiting at Checkpoint Charlie for the American to show up.

Napoleon glances at him, miffed. “This may surprise you, but I’m not actually that big of a patriot.”

“They’re still your people.”

Were my people. Any debt I owed the CIA was most definitely paid in full the second I died for them.”

Illya has nothing to say to that, even though counterarguments are still lined up in his mind. You fought for your country. Your family still lives in New York. Yet even though he has no right to feel this way, the knowledge that Napoleon is happy to choose Illya over his country makes his chest warm with a pleasant heat.

 

-

 

The girl turns out to be a surprisingly skilled driver, and Jones a better shot than anticipated. They chase the man and the girl across half of East Berlin. Napoleon runs ahead while Illya is being accosted by the local police. And when Illya tries to follow the pair into a top floor apartment, Napoleon is there, shooing him across the hall with a warning that the way is blocked.

He makes it to the roof just as the man is flashing some sort of code at a truck across the road, and he takes the man out after a fight that nearly ends with them both smeared across the asphalt below.

They manage to keep the girl within their territory. The next day, Oleg takes him to a park on the other side of the wall, and tells him they’re cooperating with the Americans.

 

-

 

The girl they saved – Gaby – is given an undercover identity as Illya’s fiancée. And for the first time Illya ever remembers, he’s forced to share his hotel room with a woman. At the revelation, Napoleon hmms and aaahs, and Illya warns him off spying on the habits of the young lady like he always does whenever Illya is partnered with another agent.

The mission seems to go well, right until the moment Illya loses his father’s watch, and Napoleon has to talk him down from his rage. In the hotel, Napoleon tentatively tries to cheer him up by suggesting a game of chess. So Illya determinedly ignores Gaby as she first tries to give him liquor, and then puts on a record and starts to dance in some sort of mocking celebration of his humiliation. Illya focuses on the board, on Napoleon’s grim yet stupidly handsome face as he steadily loses more of his pieces, and the music becomes a little less grating to his ears.

“Knight to… E4,” Napoleon says carefully, after at least a full three minutes of deliberation, and Illya moves his piece accordingly.

Then, Illya moves his bishop across the board, and Napoleon’s frown deepens as he loses his second rook.

By the time he checkmates Napoleon for the third time, Gaby is sound asleep, and Illya is feeling just a little bit better.

 

-

 

In the Vinciguerra Aerospace factory, all the American agent does is stand and watch as Illya first disables the alarm, and then cracks open the safe according to Napoleon’s instructions.

They don’t find anything but a part from a centrifuge, and are out again before the guards are any wiser.

"Useless," Illya mutters, once they're back in their hotel room.

Napoleon actually nods and agrees, looking disappointed in his countryman's performance.

 

-

 

Then, Gaby betrays them to the Vinciguerras, Illya saves the useless American from her uncle’s clutches, and it’s a very long day that ends with the three of them being taken to some sort of giant ship called an ‘aircraft carrier’. When Illya finally makes it to the island, he’s relieved to finally have something to shoot at.

In one of the underground passages in the Vinciguerra facility, Illya takes out an enemy guard, and is already halfway down the next passage when Napoleon’s shouting draws him back.

“Look,” the American says with a wild grin, pointing down at the guard Illya had just taken down. The man is pressed against the wall and staring at Illya, frozen in fear.

“What?” Illya rumbles, looking from Napoleon to the guard, who frowns in confusion.

“His wrist, Illya.”

Illya catches sight of the watch, and his world abruptly stops. In that moment, his joy is so vivid and so overwhelming Illya is certain he wants to kiss Napoleon. He doesn’t act on it. It’s impossible to act on it. When they run back through the base, the guard is bleeding and out cold. Illya’s father’s watch is back on his wrist.

The thought of kissing Napoleon, strangely enough, lingers at the back of his mind, and reaffirms itself every time Illya looks at him.

 

-

 

When Illya’s bike is forced off the road, he thinks he hears Napoleon scream.

 

-

 

In their moment of need, Napoleon, and by extension, Illya, recalls the first letters of the name of the Vinciguerras’ fishing boat – Dia. And Jones offers up the remainder – dema.

Waverly offers an impressive spiel to keep Victoria Vinciguerra talking, and the Diadema, along with the research, goes down in a fiery explosion.

 

-

 

“You’re a better partner than he was,” Illya says on their way back to the hotel. Since the mission’s end, he’s been mentally comparing Jones and Napoleon. The man had failed to get Gaby over the wall, and he was easily defeated in that bathroom, he’d been useless in the factory, and then went and got himself captured. If it had been someone he trusted at his side, someone who knows Illya and who Illya knows in turn, like Napoleon, this mission would never have taken such brutal turns.

“Is that what we are?” There’s amusement in Napoleon’s eyes, and something else too, soft and almost tender.

“Why not?” Illya says, impulsive. There’s no one who knows him better.

 

-

 

It’s a mission well done, and Illya is saying goodbye to Gaby – a British agent who he had been smart not to trust – in the hotel room when the phone call arrives. With a few words, Illya’s world comes crashing down.

When he puts down the receiver, his hands are shaking again. Illya can’t make it stop.

“You knew,” Illya growls an accusation, and he hates the pain he can’t seem to keep out.

“Knew what?” Napoleon’s voice is unsteady, and Illya can’t look at him, can’t bring himself to see the mask of confusion in his face. He can’t believe he ever thought Napoleon would really choose Illya over his own country. He’s heard Oleg’s words. Whoever holds the disc can control the world, and there is no way Napoleon would have allowed the Socialist Union to pull ahead in the arms race and stand superior over America, the country Napoleon had fought for, where his family still reside.

“You knew he had the disc.”

“What?”

Illya swipes the vases from the desk, it’s not enough, and he topples the desk as well, and then goes for the television. Within moments, the room is coming apart. Napoleon stands back in silence, flinching as splinters fly straight through him. He doesn’t speak, which means he doesn’t get the chance to lie.

Then, Illya pulls out his gun, loads it, and makes for Jones’ hotel room.

“Illya,” Napoleon chases him through the hallway and up the stairs. Illya has no way to escape. He can’t shoot him, he’s tried that before, and it hadn’t worked. “Illya, I didn’t know, I swear.”

“Do not lie to me.”

“I am not lying, I never saw him take it.”

“You always pay attention.”

“Not always,” Napoleon says, desperation edging his voice. “I was distracted, alright?”

Illya knocks on Jones’ door. “And what was distracting you?”

“You were.”

Illya freezes, and then the door is opening before him.

 

-

 

In the end, Waverly appears before the confrontation can devolve into a bloody shootout, and tells both Illya and Jones they are now on loan from their respective agencies and under his command.

“You’re a good agent, Kuryakin,” his new superior tells him, much later, as Illya stands awkwardly in the wreckage of his own hotel room. Napoleon is by the window, staring out onto the street and pretending not to be listening. Illya needs to ask him what he meant, and silently wishes the British agent would leave them alone even just for a while.

Waverly, eyeing the destruction, seems more amused than disturbed. “But you don’t play very well with others. It’s like you’re always off in your own world.”

That makes Napoleon turn around. Illya glances at him once, not knowing what to say.

“Were you really going to kill Agent Jones to get your hands on the tape?”

“Those were my orders.”

The other man hums, a distinctly unimpressed sound that rubs Illya the wrong way. “Well, if this is going to work out, you’re going to have to start thinking for yourself. We’re fighting for the good of the world, after all. It’s no longer just about petty power struggles between nations.”

Illya frowns, not understanding the request. Does he want his agents to question his command, and disobey directions? Beside him, Napoleon’s brows rise.

“There’s something that needs to be taken care of in Mumbai, it’s a one man job I'm sure you'd enjoy. You’ll be a good sport, won’t you?”

Illya nods cautiously, and his superior disappears moments later, leaving him in the room to mull over this strange turn of events. He stares at the closed door, knowing he should immediately contact Oleg, but-

“I like him,” says Napoleon.

“What did you mean, I was distracting you?” Illya says..

There’s a brief, surprised silence, and Illya braces himself for Napoleon’s excuses.

“You were hurt, Illya.”

Illya’s eyes snap toward the other man. The American is watching him warily, and his gaze flits away the moment Illya meets it. Napoleon’s jaw is tight, and there is a tension in him that Illya has learned means he is fighting to urge to talk even more.

This isn’t what Napoleon was meant to say. The crash had only knocked Illya out briefly, and he has nothing worse than bruises. Illya is an agent, he is a weapon, he is not something precious, something to be coddled, to be protected. He’s not someone worth abandoning the mission for. Illya wants to be angry at Napoleon for failing him in a critical moment. But their positions have never been equal, and Napoleon has never owed him anything, not his companionship, not his loyalty, not even his trust. The bite of hypocrisy is harsh, and every remaining thread of Illya’s anger slips away.

“I’ll pay attention next time,” Napoleon says quietly.

I killed you, Illya thinks, a little frantic. But I killed you.

 

-

 

Oleg confirms the loan. The tape disappears.

 

-

 

During a few hours free in Vienna, Illya takes Napoleon to the Museumsquartier.

Since Napoleon has no choice but to follow wherever Illya goes, taking is perhaps the wrong word to use, even if they're going because Illya knows of Napoleon's love of art and history. He even manages to keep it a surprise (“Recon, Cowboy.”) right up until the moment they step off the tram in front of the Burggarten. He can pinpoint the exact moment Napoleon realizes the trip is not for business at all, when his eyes narrow in a thoughtful appraisal of their surroundings.

Illya takes him all the way to the center of the Maria-Theresien Plaza, and they come to a stop together under the giant statue of the square’s namesake. It is a beautiful space, full of greenery, and the city's most famous museums stand around them in beautiful displays of baroque architecture.

Illya stares up at the tall statue of the empress. There’s a tiny smile he can’t repress, and he tries not to look too pleased with himself.

“Where would you like to go?” he says softly.

Napoleon, eyes wide as he studies the buildings, stares at him for one speechless moment. Then, he shakes his head, and points directly at the Kunsthistorisches Museum – the Museum of Art History.

They set off across the square, and it’s Illya’s breath that is taken away the moment they step foot inside.

The building itself is a work of art, with tall pillars inside made of black marble, stones Illya cannot name pattern the walls, and there are pale statues of angels, cherubs, lions, and varying classical motifs sitting in every corner.

He stares up at the mural in the entry hall, and then at the beautifully patterned dome in the main atrium. Beams of sunlight shine down from above, lighting up the space below with yellow light. When finally Illya comes back to himself and remembers to look for Napoleon again, he finds him staring at him with laughter in his eyes. Illya feels himself warm, but Napoleon makes no comment, and instead takes off for the nearest gallery.

They wander through the museum, Napoleon telling stories of each painter, and often the paintings themselves. Illya learns that Monet’s father wanted him to be a grocer, and that Dali believed he was his dead brother’s reincarnation. Degas apparently drew over 1500 works featuring dancers, while Aubudon painted at least 400 watercolors of birds.

He learns more about art history in one day than he has his entire life.

In front of a Caravaggio, Napoleon stops, his expression falling, and says: “They gave it back.”

The card sitting by the painting proclaims it the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and indeed, there is a collection of robed men standing reverently around a woman cradling a newborn child. There’s even a child-sized angel, descending from heaven. The artwork’s contrast of light and dark stands out harshly. What had Napoleon called it? Chiaroscuro?

“You’re not claiming you stole this, are you?” Illya says. The thing is enormous.

“I’m not claiming anything.” There’s a defensive note in Napoleon’s voice. “I did steal it.”

Illya’s brows rise. “From this museum?”

Napoleon’s eyes light up.

“Well,” he begins, with an emphasis that marks the beginning of a significant revelation, “The last curator here, one of those academic, self-superior sorts who never adjusted to living with less money than he was born with, had a bit of a gambling problem…”

Before now, every tale had been volunteered, and came with what Illya now recognizes was reserve. Napoleon’s stories, Illya learns, can in fact be stories, complete with character development, a thematic arc, and narrative climax. Yet despite the drama, intrigue, and heavy dose of suspense, its most beautiful part is somehow the man telling it. Illya can’t recall anymore, what it is that had made him so reluctant to permit sharing parts of themselves. The memories inject some sort of magic into Napoleon, and Illya makes a mental note to ask more, a lot more, if this is what Napoleon looks like remembering.

“I’m not sure I believe all that,” Illya says, frowning, as the tale comes to an end.

“Believe what you will.” Napoleon doesn't even look at him, and studies the painting one more time.

“Next you’ll be saying you broke into a bank and stole a Rembrandt.”

“Well actually…”

Illya glares, and Napoleon grins.

“I had my own private collection,” Napoleon says, “Though I suppose the CIA has returned all the pieces to their rightful owners by now.”

“What was in it?” Illya asks, curious. The works must be spectacular if Napoleon would be reluctant to part with them. “And where did you even hide it?”

Napoleon turns to him then, the affection in his eyes so strong Illya feels compelled to look away. But he doesn’t falter, and ends up falling into a bottomless sea of blue.

“I’ll show you, someday,” Napoleon murmurs, and the warmth that washes over Illya makes it feel like he’s staring into the sun.

 

-

 

The downpour starts when Illya is two kilometers out from the beach.

Monsoon season in the eastern side of the Malaysian peninsula comes with incessant rain and unbearable humidity. For the majority of his mission, Illya had been lucky enough to avoid becoming a victim of the angry grey clouds lurking in the distant sky. Yet, just as he is trekking through the tropical jungle toward the extraction point, almost on the boat home, the sky lets out an angry growl and opens right above him.

Within minutes, Illya is soaked through.

Napoleon, who has never hesitated to show off his immunity to the elements, has the gall to laugh at him.

Illya grumbles an imprecation, frowning as the ground beneath him becomes increasingly muddy and slippery with each step. The falling rain turns the jungle around him a muted green, and the air is rife with bird calls. Illya clothes are stuck uncomfortably to his skin. His equipment is starting to chafe.

Eventually, the chuckling tapers off. Illya stops for a brief rest, and finds the other man staring. Five minutes later, he pulls his boot out from a small pit of mud, and when he glances at Napoleon, the other man is still staring.

“Just say it.”

Napoleon blinks, and his gaze snaps up to Illya’s eyes. “What?”

“You’re staring.”

“Oh,” Napoleon murmurs. “Just appreciating the view.”

Illya’s stomach lurches, and he turns his discomfort into a glare.

“You’re quite cute, you know, especially when your hair is plastered to your head like that.”

Illya angrily reaches up one hand and rakes it through his hair, returning some volume to it.

“Now your face is red.”

“I have heatstroke,” Illya says drily. “I’m about to die.”

“Now that’s just distasteful.”

The ground in front of him evens out a little, and the way becomes a bit easier. “What are you going to do? Hit me?”

Napoleon scowls at him.

Illya smirks, and then his foot catches on a root, and he trips right into the mud in a mess of flailing limbs. He swallows a curse as he clambers to his knees, and then to his feet. The rain steadily attacks the mud that is now smeared across his clothes and his hands.

Napoleon is shaking, his laughter a deep, ringing sound that somehow makes Illya feel even warmer on the inside. He can’t stop the tiny smile that stubbornly settles on his face. Then, he's laughing too.

“Karma,” Napoleon announces.

“Bad luck,” Illya grumbles. “Shut up, Cowboy.”

 

-

 

In New York, the target they’re tailing – a wealthy British businessman suspected of arms dealing – decides to visit the Empire State Building.

Illya and Napoleon squeeze into the elevator carriage behind their target, and are carried up to the observation decks, one hundred and two levels above the city. When they arrive, Napoleon wanders off to look at the New York skyline, and Illya settles in to mingle with the tourists, keeping an eye on their target who is leisurely enjoying the view. The external balconies are closed off for the day due to high winds, and Illya ends up pressing himself to the window, staring down at the city below.

New York is the crown jewel of capitalist excess, Illya knows as much, but he can’t deny there is a certain grandness in the achievements of industry and luxury. Manhattan Island stretches out beneath him in ordered blocks of steel and concrete, and Illya can see Upper Bay lurking in the distance. This is the city that Napoleon had grown up in, and Illya absently wonders if a younger Napoleon had stood right where he is, looking out over a younger cityscape, plotting his first adventure.

What would Napoleon be doing now, if he had never died that day in Zurich?

Then, two hands silently slam against the window, and a face presses into view. Illya jumps and takes a step back, hand moving for his gun before he recognizes Napoleon, balanced on the ledge outside, grinning at him through the glass.

Illya scowls, and Napoleon only smiles harder.

He’s not sure what pushes him to do it, his old, childish, stubbornness, or maybe something else, a need to touch, to chase that smug expression from Napoleon’s face. Illya steps forward, and presses one hand to the glass against Napoleon’s. Then, his other hand joins the first, and Illya is also leaning against the glass, nose to nose with the American.

His partner’s eyes widen, but he doesn’t move away. Illya stares openly, and studies the familiar blue in those eyes, and the stubborn angle of Napoleon’s jaw. The urge to kiss Napoleon returns again, stronger than ever before, and Illya almost tries to press his lips against the glass before he recognizes the ridiculousness of the urge.

Gradually, Napoleon’s gaze melts from alarm into something else, looking almost a little lost. The moment stretches infinitely around them, never-ending, and the world shrinks down to only the two of them, separated by something fragile and transparent.

Illya’s heart lurches when Napoleon leans back, and his gaze drops to their matched hands. Something Illya can’t describe crosses Napoleon’s expression.

“Our target is leaving,” Napoleon says, his gaze flickering to something behind Illya’s shoulder.

Illya turns, and catches sight of the man they’re following lining up at the elevator. He steps away and heads for the queue. Napoleon walks through the glass, trailing after him.

Illya feels strange for the rest of the day, and finds that he can’t stop thinking about Napoleon’s lips, the curve of his neck, and the blue in his eyes.

 

-

 

Napoleon’s words against his recklessness come true on a tiny island off the Portuguese coastline. An alarm begins sounding when he’s too deep inside and too far away from his objective. The enemy comes too fast, and too many. Bad luck compounds in a series of ill-fated events. He runs out of bullets before he’s made it anywhere near an exit. And despite Napoleon’s warnings, a bullet tears through Illya’s leg, and he topples forward to the ground. He has no time to dodge when hands are grabbing at his shoulders, and the stock of an assault rifle slams across his face. His world is thrown into darkness.

He wakes up freezing, not knowing where he is, and Napoleon is there, telling him he’ll be okay despite the revealing panic in his eyes. Illya wakes again tied to a chair, his captors demanding information with needles and with knives, and Napoleon tells him UNCLE will find him, that they’ll get him out of here. When Illya is screaming as they prick needles into his veins, or carve new lines into his flesh, Napoleon is there also, whispering that he will be okay. UNCLE is almost here. Waverly is almost here. Napoleon will never leave him alone.

He loses track of time, but Napoleon never goes away, forever repeating those same words, first begging him to stay awake, and then telling him to rest. He tells stories, and makes new promises, each one more wild than the one before, as it becomes harder and harder to hold onto consciousness, to keep breathing.

Sometime, in between silence and the sound of someone screaming, between demands and pleas for mercy, he thinks he hears a whispered I love you, imagines Napoleon’s stricken face, glimpses a shadow of him curled against a far wall, his shoulders shaking.

Someone begs him to hold on, someone important. Illya tries, but the hurt is too much.

 

-

 

He gets rescued in a storm of blood and violence he will later only remember in fragments. The few things that stay with him are the stench of burning flesh, the deafening whir of spinning helicopter blades, Napoleon’s face lit by firelight, and strange men, dragging him through concrete corridors.

Illya wakes up in a sterile hospital, and the terror that chokes him like a reflex is only soothed when Napoleon steps into his line of sight. The American’s suit is a rumpled and askew, and his hair is sticking up in odd directions, like he’s carded his fingers through it too many times. Illya doesn’t know what to do with the relief he sees in Napoleon’s eyes, and another emotion too much like fear.

“You look terrible,” Illya rumbles, and then coughs, wincing.

“You should see yourself.” Napoleon smiles weakly.

There’s no one else in the room. Illya feels like he’s floating on clouds, and moving requires a herculean effort that has him writing it off as not really worth it. Napoleon offers him a lopsided grin, and Illya aims for reassurance when he tries to smile back. It seems to break something in Napoleon.

His heart sinks, and he wants to speak again. But in the next breath, Illya falls back into the dark.

 

-

 

A week later, Illya wakes in the morning to find Napoleon having all but draped himself across him. The American's arms hang over Illya’s legs in a strange kind of hug, and despite Napoleon's bulk, he is completely weightless. The dissonance leaves Illya struggling with discomfort.

Napoleon sees Illya frowning, and smiles up at him. “So, upside of being a ghost. They can’t kick me out of the room.”

“You’re never leaving me alone, are you?” Illya says quietly. He means for the words to be a joke, but the matching levity never makes it into his voice. He sounds too serious. He sounds almost desperate, that isn’t right.

“No,” Napoleon murmurs, staring at Illya’s hand as he reaches out. Then, in front of Illya’s eyes, Napoleon gingerly rests his hand atop Illya’s. “You’re stuck with me.”

There is no warmth. There is no weight. Illya’s hand registers no sensation at all, yet his heart leaps to his throat.

If he could, he would-

He would what?

 

-

 

They tell him he was gone for thirty-eight days.

In his dreams, Illya sees bloodied knives, the single, naked bulb that is only lit when pain is due to arrive, he sees the twisted faces of his torturers, their grins distorted into impossible shapes.

 

-

 

He gets a month off to recover, and he spends all of it in a Naples safehouse right by the sea. Waverly, out of pity, and perhaps guilt, gives him a place that is far too fancy for Illya to feel comfortable in, but is perfect for Napoleon’s taste. The bedroom has a giant double bed, which they spread out comfortably across, and every night, Napoleon is there to chase away his screams and his nightmares. On some mornings, Illya wakes up the two of them overlapping in a weird mash of limbs. On others, he wakes to find Napoleon unashamedly watching him.

They read, play chess, and take long walks along the beach and through the streets of the city. Gaby visits him once, and brings donuts, before disappearing the next day. Illya makes cheesy jokes connecting Napoleon’s name with the city, and Napoleon teases him about his terrible cooking, then starts trying to teach him the craft. When one book ends they fight over the next book they will read, and Napoleon lets Illya win almost every single time. Illya can’t bring himself to feel bad about it.

As the days trickle by, the darkness haunting his unconscious hours is replaced piece-by-piece with color and light. It takes three weeks before it clicks that the warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies him to sleep and wraps around him upon waking is called: safety.

 

-

 

Another mission brings another inane party. This time, he is mingling with a bohemian crowd, artists, poets, and intellectuals of varying classes and success united by a common anti-establishment ideal. Dressed in an ill-fitting blazer with his hair brushed messily into his eyes, Illya’s current guise has ensured his freedom from most kinds of interest. He only has to mingle, and wait for the chance to approach their target with a ‘business opportunity’.

“I know that man.”

Napoleon had been drifting through the crowd all evening, eavesdropping on conversations and feeding tidbits back to Illya at inopportune times, trying to make him act out in front of others. Now, he appears at Illya’s side, and nods at a man who has just entered the party. The stranger has an average height and build, as well as brown hair and eyes. Illya observes him for a moment, and finds his most memorable characteristic to be the round purple glasses perched on his nose, the garishness of it seemingly trying to make up for every other unremarkable trait.

Then, he casts an inquiring look Napoleon’s way.

“What? No. Not like that.” Napoleon recoils, looking revolted by a thought Illya wasn’t even trying to suggest. “He’s a forger. I used him for a job once.”

“Only once?” Illya murmurs, covering up his words with a sip of his drink.

“Once. I took a contract to steal a painting without its owners noticing, and a contact mentioned his skills to me. He took my deposit, and then started telling half the city he was forging a Daumier.”

Illya huffs in soft laughter, and Napoleon’s glare turns to him.

“Don’t,” he says, in a tone that would be much more threatening if he isn’t hiding a pout. “I was young. I learned.”

They watch for a while longer as the man tries to woo a young woman who looks more uncomfortable by the second.

“Want to go make his night miserable?” Illya says.

A grin crosses Napoleon’s face like he’s been waiting for Illya to say those exact words. “What do you have in mind?”

“I still have some of that ‘debilitating agent’ on me from the last mission.”

‘Debilitating agent’ as in laxatives, mixed into the dinner of the man they had needed out of the way in order to take his place at a meeting.

Napoleon’s grin turns feral. “I knew there’s a reason I liked you.”

To add insult to injury, Illya first ‘trips’ and spills the remainder of his drink on the man’s clothes. To Napoleon’s immense glee, he lifts both the man’s wallet and his watch. Then, with flustered insistence, Illya guides their victim to the bar and buys him a drink as an apology.

The man turns pale before half the glass is empty, and dashes from the bar stool. Napoleon is bent over the bar, trembling with laughter, and Illya has to fight the urge to laugh himself.

They locate their target, and later, even as they’re running away from bullets in the early morning light, Napoleon doesn’t stop grinning.

It makes being shot at surprisingly bearable.

 

-

 

On a mission in São Paulo, Illya gets stuck.

His expected leads have all turned up nothing, and he is running out of time to stop the trade deal before it happens in less than 48 hours. If the intel they’re after changes hands, every UNCLE agent currently undercover in Asia will be compromised.

In their tiny apartment safehouse, Illya glares at the wall, thinking over his options. He can go pay another visit to that useless informant, but by now he’s almost sure he’ll be returning to an empty store. Or he can go back to that office where he found absolutely nothing the first time. Napoleon has been watching him for the last twenty minutes, with an expression that has gone from amusement to mild concern.

“I know someone who might be able to help.”

“What?”

Napoleon shrugs lightly. “I have… had, a contact in this city. He owes me a favor.”

Illya has no other options, so he follows Napoleon’s instructions to a bookstore in the outer suburbs. The store is on the second floor of an old building, and Illya pushes through the street entrance and climbs up the flight of stairs.

A small sign outside the door simply proclaims: Livros. Inside, the shop is filled with overflowing bookshelves, and light filters through the windows, casting patterns along the wall. The counter is unattended, and Illya presses the desk bell sitting on the wooden surface. At the loud ring there’s the sound of scuffling from the back, and a curtain lifts, revealing the proprietor.

From Napoleon’s fond descriptions, Illya is expecting a man in his late sixties, some kind of retired mentor. Yet the man who emerges is at least three decades too young and strikingly handsome, with brown hair and hazel eyes carrying the same sharpness that Illya is used to seeing in Napoleon. The stranger’s gaze passes over Illya, and Illya gains the distinct impression he’s already come to several conclusions about who he is.

“Can I help you?” the man says in flawless Portuguese.

“We have a mutual friend,” Illya says, opting for English. “Napoleon Solo.”

“It looks like he’s doing well,” Napoleon murmurs.

Something flickers in the man’s expression, but when he speaks again, it is in English with a distinct American accent. “I’m not sure I know who you’re talking about, Mr…?”

“Ivanov,” Illya replies without missing a beat. “I find your words strange, because he mentioned that you owe him a favor, and he has transferred that debt onto me.”

The man laughs softly. “Even assuming I know this man, what reason do I have to believe you?”

Beside him, Napoleon hums. “Say that if he has doubts, I told you to mention the curry from Japan.”

Illya barely hides his confusion in time. “He told me to mention the curry from Japan.”

Whatever those words mean, they do the trick. The man’s expression shifts, and Illya can feel trust snapping into place like it is a physical force. “That bastard,” he mutters, but there’s a fondness in his eyes he doesn’t try to hide. “Fine. What do you need?”

Illya tells him.

 

-

 

“Japanese curry?” Illya says, once they’re back out on the street.

Napoleon laughs softly. “It was the first dish I ever cooked him.”

Everything clicks together in Illya’s mind. The way Napoleon clearly cares about the man’s wellbeing, the wistfulness in their voices, the man’s willingness to help a complete stranger to whom his only connection is through Napoleon Solo.

Illya fails to properly school his features in time, and Napoleon’s eyes turn blank. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Illya says, and he means it. He’s seen and done enough in his life to know about things beyond someone’s control. Images of Napoleon, tangled in bed with another, fills his mind, and he hurriedly turns his thoughts away.

“Oh.” Napoleon says, looking strangely disappointed by his lack of reaction, and his smile turns mischievous. “Then are you perchance jealous, Illya?”

“I’m not going to be jealous when you two are separated by the barrier of life and death.”

“Barrier of…” Napoleon mumbles something, his brow crinkling. Reminders of his current condition has stopped eliciting a reaction long ago, and he looks torn between being offended or impressed. “I never marked you for a poet, Peril.”

“Hm. You should see my journal of poetry.”

There is a suspiciously long silence. “Really?”

“No, Cowboy. Not really.”

Napoleon makes a moue. “Now you have me excited over nothing.”

They don’t bring up Napoleon’s romantic history again. With the man's assistance, they stop the deal before it can happen.

 

-

 

A blizzard in the French Alps drives them to bunker down in a cabin. The thin wooden walls do little to ward off the cold, and Illya builds a fire as Napoleon stands outside, braving a storm he can’t feel for the sheer novelty of the experience. When the fire settles into a proper flame, Illya wraps himself in blankets and stretches out on the couch.

Oddly enough, despite the excess of bookshelves in the building, all of them sit empty. The only reading material in the entire cabin is a tattered world travel guide, seemingly forgotten on the ledge of the bathroom window. Illya pulls open the book, and absently wonders if some unfortunate lodger before him had ran out of firewood and started burning knowledge for warmth.

It doesn’t take long before Napoleon reemerges inside the cabin without so much as a single snowflake on the cloth of his suit.

“Lovely weather outside,” Napoleon remarks. “You can’t see a thing.”

The wind is howling outside the house, and Illya mumbles a sound of acknowledgement, distracted by the author’s speculation over Tutankhamun’s curse. Napoleon, like a cat displeased with his human’s inattention, curls up next to him, and pokes him with a ghostly finger. At first, the action had been creepy and disturbing, now Illya just ignores it.

It’s strange how the ghost thing works, Napoleon touches, but cannot feel. Illya gets neither.

Illya finishes reading about the Egyptian Pyramids and flips the page. The book has glossy photographs beneath each heading, and Illya’s eyes widen at a picture of a woman seemingly standing on a giant mirror of the sky.

“Look at this,” he says, showing the book to Napoleon. “Salar de Uyuni.”

Napoleon raises a curious eyebrow at the photo, and then squints at the description. “Bolivia?”

“It’s the largest salt plains in the world, in the wet season it turns into a giant mirror.”

Illya turns another page, and a photo of a valley built with beautiful, rainbow layers of rock fills his vision. Awed, Illya also shows it to Napoleon.

“Zhangye Danxia.”

“Huh. How does it look like that? Different rock layers?”

“Different mineral deposits in sandstone, it says.”

Together, they flip through more pages of the book. Greek villages built on giant pillars of rock, lakes of turquoise deep within Siberia, Mexican caves where giant crystals shoot from every surface, Illya never knew there were so many incredible places in the world.

“Let’s go there someday,” Napoleon says. They’re sprawled across the shag carpet, elbow to elbow, staring at a photo of a waterfall so wide it fills the horizon. The Iguazu, sitting on the border of Brazil and Argentina.

Illya imagines it, standing side by side with Napoleon as the red sandstone walls of the Antelope canyon curl away before them into the distance. The two of them balanced precariously on plank footholds as they navigate the cliffs of Huashan, the world falling away from them on one side. The thought is wonderful, too wonderful, and for a moment he forgets his duty, his shame, and his mother’s empty smile. For a moment, his life is his own.

The photos are too beautiful, and Illya’s fingers slowly trace the line of the waterfall.

“If we ever get the chance,” he says, hoping.

 

-

 

Then, UNCLE moves its headquarters from London to New York, and Illya finds himself allocated his own apartment.

He buys a mattress first, so both he and Napoleon will have somewhere to sleep.

The first morning, Illya wakes stretched out on his back with his arms thrown across the bed. Napoleon is stretched out beside him, one hand hovering, pressing against Illya’s, and then lifting, and pressing back down again. His expression is so intently serious, something twists viciously in Illya’s heart. He stares at the point where their hands should be joined. His senses tell him there is nothing there but air, but he can see it, Napoleon’s hand, so close Illya thinks he can grip it if he just curls his fingers.

At the thought, his finger twitches, and Napoleon’s darts his hand away. He turns to Illya with a nonchalant smile that is a bit too tight to be genuine.

“Morning.”

Illya doesn’t immediately reply, because in Napoleon’s eyes he sees distress, and despair that is usually so carefully hidden away they can pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

“Morning,” he whispers back.

Illya pushes himself up into a sitting position, and reaches out a hand toward Napoleon, palm facing upward.

Napoleon stares at him, and his gaze flits to Illya’s hand and back again. Little by little, the guardedness breaks down into something miserable. He slowly raises his hand, stares it a moment, before he reaches out.

Carefully, Napoleon lays his hand on top of Illya’s, just enough so it doesn’t pass through him. Illya stares a moment, then, impulse strikes him, and he leans down, and presses a kiss to Napoleon’s hand.

There is no sensation, no physical memory to mark what has just occurred.

Illya looks up, and Napoleon’s eyes have crinkled, and there’s a tiny smile tugging at his lips. He’s never seen him look so heartbroken, and he’s never seen him look so happy.

 

-

 

“Do you want to see your family?” They live here now, and for the first time since UNCLE’s move they have two days off, so Illya asks the question.

Napoleon freezes, and crumbles. “Yes.”

Together, they walk the streets of Manhattan, and Napoleon leads him to a corner of Hell’s Kitchen, where Illya can hear the accents around him starting to tinge with a foreign tone he can’t place. Beneath a crumbling red-brick apartment, Napoleon slowly comes to a stop.

“I sent her money, I told her she doesn’t have to stay here,” Napoleon murmurs. “She didn’t want to leave.”

They climb two flights of stairs, and Napoleon stands stiffly to one side as they come to a stop in front of a yellow door with peeling paint. Illya looks at Napoleon, and knocks on the door, waiting until a woman with greying hair pulls it open. She eyes him warily, and instantly, Illya can see where Napoleon got his eyes, as well his dark curls.

“Can I help you?” She says, and Illya suddenly feels too imposing, too tall, and too Russian.

Napoleon’s eyes are wide.

He uses the first alias he can remember, and hides a wince as her eyes narrow at the sound of his accent. Illya claims to be Napoleon’s friend, coming to visit for his sake, and manages to be convincing enough that she lets him into the apartment.

“I never saw you at the funeral,” she says.

Illya scrambles to make an excuse about distance and work.

It’s a struggle to not feel like an intruder, but with every detail he pulls out about Napoleon’s life and his quirks, she warms toward him a little more.

She tells him about Napoleon’s childhood, how he had been a chubby little boy who was incessantly teased until puberty struck and he transformed into a handsome young man who made all the girls blush. She tells him of Napoleon’s restlessness, his dreams of becoming more, of becoming anything but ordinary.

Napoleon barely reacts at the embarrassing childhood stories she shares, and only stares, his face disturbingly vulnerable in the presence of his mother. Illya doesn’t know if it’s something Napoleon wants him to see, and he only dares to look once.

At Napoleon's mother's insistence, Illya is made to stay for lunch, and afterward, he meets an entire family through photographs and memories. Napoleon’s two older sisters, married now to lovely husbands, she says as she shows him pictures of two beautiful women with the same dark curls. Then, she shows him a picture of his father, a tall, serious faced man, who had died four years ago of cancer. It’s only her now, and Illya can tell, it must be lonely.

He remembers his own mother, and thinks about visiting her again, thinks he should never have waited so long to come here.

Napoleon sits in an empty chair, looking terrifyingly small in the tiny living room. He stares at everything with hunger, with loss, and most of all, he watches the weary woman sitting across from Illya, who wears a soft, almost familiar smile as she reminisces. Illya catches hints of an acerbic wit, and keen intelligence behind bright blue eyes, and wonders if Napoleon didn’t pick up his best traits from his mother after all.

 

-

 

The next morning, when Illya wakes up, Napoleon is gone.

He doesn’t panic.

Illya doesn’t panic, because some small part of him has always expected this. Ghosts linger for a reason, because of guilt, because of rage, because of something they’d never been able to fulfill in life. Illya’s thought about it, in the small dark hours of the night, and the only thing that really makes sense to him is family. Napoleon’s family in New York, who he rarely ever discusses, who he had barely seen in the later half of his life, has to be the reason.

And with that dream fulfilled, Illya is alone again.

His hands shake, and his eyes are wet, but Illya pretends that none of it matters. There’s another day left until he’s due to report, and the hours stretch endlessly. He stares at the TV, then stares at a book, and all he can think about is Napoleon’s lost expression as he had sat in his childhood home, a specter no one else could see. Napoleon’s devilish grin, his never-ending curiosity, his...

Day inches toward night, and Illya finds himself fiddling with the deck of cards from Beirut, moving the cards around the coffee table in something that isn’t chess and isn’t solitaire.

“What game is that?”

A voice, Napoleon’s voice, sounds in the silence. Illya freezes, disbelieving.

“Illya?”

Illya forces his gaze to lift, and then, he meets familiar blue eyes, and it takes every ounce of his self control to not let his weakness show.

“Everything okay?” Napoleon says, looking at him curiously.

“You came back.” Illya’s voice is stiff, uncertain.

Napoleon blinks, and then realization dawns on him. “Wait, you didn’t think-“

Relief, powerful and sudden, swells within Illya, and he looks back down at the cards so he doesn't have to watch Napoleon's reaction.

In front of him, Napoleon huffs. Illya chances a look and finds Napoleon staring at him with a look of fond frustration. “Of course I came back. I never left. I just… needed some time to think.”

And it's only then that Illya remembers. The length of their connection stretches much further than the width of his apartment. Napoleon used to disappear all the time, when he couldn’t stand to be stuck in the same room as him. He knew this. He is an idiot. Napoleon hadn’t disappeared, and Illya recognizes with a terrifying certainty that he doesn’t want him to disappear. He’s stopped wanting it years ago, perhaps since that first time Napoleon smiled at him in Algiers. With him at his side, Illya could stop feeling alone.

There is too much they’ve never discussed, too much Illya has never thought to ask for, as he has never thought of himself as deserving. Of every death he’s caused – the boy he’d called a best friend, the young girl in Tibet – faces he’ll never forget among countless more he’ll never remember, there is somehow one stubborn American spy he cannot to escape.

“Why are you still here?”

The moment the words leave his mouth, Illya he realizes he sounds like he is pushing for Napoleon to leave. A tiny bead of terror settles in him then, and he stares hard at Napoleon, watching for a sign of hurt, or anger. He finds nothing but stillness.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Napoleon says, his expression soft. “It’s because of you.”

“I killed you.” Illya remembers Napoleon’s affection, his compassion, his support, and he doesn’t know how he deserves any of it. He’s a murderer, a killer, who will blindly follow orders because it’s the easier than fighting, than choosing for himself.

“You did.” Napoleon’s tone is careful. “But I don’t regret saving you, or helping you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Illya’s jaw works. He doesn’t understand why.

“Being dead isn’t quite so bad,” Napoleon says quietly, moving forward and settling down on a seat next to him. “You can eavesdrop on anybody, you can trespass by walking through walls, and you never get tired.”

“You should hate me,” Illya says, stubborn.

“I did hate you, at first.” Napoleon smirks. “Though if I’m being honest, I probably hated myself more for slipping up and giving you the chance to kill me.”

“Then why?” Why any of this? Why the warnings and the stares and the jokes and the touching and why would Napoleon love him?

“Well, you’re not a bad piece of eye candy…”

Illya looks away, his frustration surging. Napoleon changes tracks.

“If you want the serious answer,” Napoleon murmurs, “Then it’s because I choose to.”

Illya darts a glance at Napoleon.

"You know, I’d spent my entire life fighting to control my own destiny.” Napoleon continues. “And after the army, I only had about three years of freedom before I was caught and collared by the CIA. So when I died and found out I was tied to some sort of Red Peril spy, I was genuinely quite annoyed with the situation.”

As you should’ve been, Illya thinks, though he doesn’t say it.

“But then, I get to know this man a little better, and I find that he has a weakness for sweets, a curious knowledge of fashion, and an absurdly strategic mind that makes him impossible to beat at chess. But most remarkably, despite the terrible tragedies he’s faced, he’s somehow… far more human than any other person I’ve met.”

Illya’s mind blanks.

“And then, well, you start getting used to it, being dead. You miss some things, but enjoy others. And through it all, you watch this smart, stubborn, gorgeous man fight through terrible odds, and you can’t help wanting to see him succeed.”

Illya listens, and his heart somersaults wildly with each new sentence Napoleon speaks.

“So if you want my answer,” Napoleon says, “That’s it.”

Napoleon means to be reassuring. Yet the tension inside Illya, guilt, confusion, anger, loss, and even more things he can’t identify, tangled together into incomprehensible knots, none of it eases. Napoleon can’t do this. Illya doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve Napoleon. He never has.

“You killed me, Illya.”

Illya’s heart skips a beat, his throat tightening. There it is.

“And I forgive you.” Napoleon says, too softly, too quietly, as though the fact is not news to him. “You need to start forgiving yourself.”

Thunder rumbles through the sky, sending shockwaves through everything it touches. The glasses clink in the cupboards, and the walls shudder. Illya takes a ragged breath.

Outside, it begins to rain.

 

-

 

“Put that one on.”

In Chicago, they land in a high-end hotel, complete with a stocked bar and a record collection. At Napoleon’s behest, Illya leafs through the offerings until he comes across the face of a smiling Dean Martin.

The record is purple, and Illya takes it out of its cover, sets it atop the player, drops the stylus, and flicks the switch. Immediately, his ears are assaulted with loud staccato notes, underlined by a delicate guitar melody.

When marimba rhythms start to play

Dance with me, make me sway…

Napoleon is dancing.

Illya stands frozen, watching as Napoleon sings lightly along to the song, his hips swaying with the beat. He moves in smooth, sensual motions, and those startling blue eyes are on Illya as he steps around Illya in a partner-less tango. Napoleon’s smile is teasing, but its effects are dangerously seductive.

Napoleon tries to bring Illya into the dance, and Illya scowls at him. Dejected, Napoleon serenades him with the lyrics.

Stay with me, sway with me…

Slowly, reluctantly, Illya takes a few tentative steps, freezing immediately when Napoleon’s face lights up in delight. Chuckling, Napoleon motions for him to join in again, looking slightly frustrated he can’t just grab Illya and pull him into the dance, but he doesn’t stop moving for a second.

Eventually, Illya joins in, a smile stuck on his face that refuses to go away. Napoleon’s eyes warm at the sight of his hesitant, awkward movements, and he guides him with small motions and nudges. They fall into a natural rhythm, and though Illya feels nothing solid when Napoleon’s hand fall on his shoulders, and wrap around his waist, it is thrilling, it is enough.

Napoleon makes him repeat the song again, and again, until they finally figure out the perfect steps.

 

-

 

On Illya’s birthday they’re in Brussels, and Napoleon insists on making him dinner.

They’re sitting in the safehouse, Illya’s voice dying down as they reach the end of the latest chapter in their current book, when Napoleon suggests the idea in a low voice. Normally it would be impossible for that kind of indulgence, yet they’re technically waiting for instructions not expected until the next morning. Despite his surprise, Illya finds himself unable to say no when Napoleon looks at him with so much eager hope.

He pulls on his jacket and heads out to the nearest supermarket. Ultimately, Napoleon cooking involves Illya shopping and then cooking for himself, all the while with the American hovering around him telling him what to do. Under Napoleon’s earnest instruction, Illya purchases beef, onion, mushrooms, and a variety of bottled condiments he’s not sure they’ll end up using any more than half a teaspoon of. Illya thinks he should complain about wasting UNCLE funds on groceries, and about how Napoleon is enjoying ordering him around just a little too much. But then, he sees Napoleon’s nose wrinkling in concentration as he considers the merit of two (identical) potatoes, and all his chagrin fades into helpless fondness.

“That one,” Napoleon says, pointing to the potato in Illya’s left hand, and Illya obligingly puts it into his shopping basket.

That soft, tender feeling even manages to last as Napoleon makes Illya visit three different specialty food stores across the city to find a frozen bag of ‘Estouffade’ cubes. As far as Illya can tell, it seems to be stock or sauce of some sort, and he doesn’t ask. He refuses to think of the day as fun, no matter how light his heart feels after a day of disturbingly domestic activity they hadn’t had a chance for since Naples.

That evening in the safehouse, he recognizes the dish they’re making as he’s slicing beef into thin strips.

“Is this beef stroganoff?”

Napoleon, who had been observing his knife-work over his shoulder, glances at Illya. “Have you heard of a stroganoff recipe using estouffade?” he returns glibly.

Illya thinks for a moment. “No.”

As the food cooks, they fall into a discussion about their book – a mystery pulp novel with a crime Illya is certain he has already solved. In his eyes, the murderer was clearly the son, who had his eyes on his father’s hefty inheritance. Napoleon, however, insists that it was the business rival. They argue over theories until Napoleon starts gesturing at the stove, proclaiming the food is ready, and then, Illya has to carefully plate and present his own meal.

Which admittedly smells very good.

When they’re both seated at the table, a single plate on the table between them, Illya considers his dinner, and scowls.

“This is beef stroganoff.”

Napoleon murmurs in agreement, looking too pleased with himself. “Beef stroganoff with estouffade.”

Tentatively, Illya pokes a fork into the food, and then sticks it into his mouth.

“Do you like it?”

It’s delicious. A perfect mix of rich and savory flavors. He remembers the taste of the stroganoff his mother used to make, and though the taste is decidedly different, it’s no less incredible. Illya stares at the plate, and then at Napoleon.

His expression must give him away, because Napoleon is beaming.

“Happy birthday, Peril.” The American’s gaze is soft. Illya, for the first time, can no longer pretend not to recognize what he sees in Napoleon’s eyes, and he helplessly thinks that yes, yes he feels the same.

Unable to help himself, Illya smiles back.

 

-

 

In Düsseldorf, they finally finish the novel. The murderer turns out to be the butler, and they both agree that it is a horrible book.

 

-

 

Two months after Illya wakes up for the first time in his New York apartment, UNCLE sends him to the West Bank. Tension between Israel and its neighboring states is reaching a dangerous level, and a Palestinian insurgency may very well be the spark that ignites the powder keg. Their mission is to delay the inevitable, through eliminating the most vocal voice among local guerrilla leaders who is threatening to unify loose alliances into a single, dangerous force.

They’re saving lives, or at the very least, giving people a few more years of relative peace before their lives are torn asunder. That still might count for something.

Despite his superior’s promise that they’ve risen beyond petty power struggles among nations, reality is far from what he described. International politics, and the conflict between the two Cold War superpowers, mandates that there will always be one side that benefits over another. And not every piece of threatening technology or research can be safely repurposed or vanished without someone raising questions about UNCLE’s competence, and more dangerously, their modus operandi.

Illya is operating as some sort of neutral third-party overseer, working alongside Mossad agents. He isn’t sure about the wisdom of assigning a Russian agent to work with Israel, considering his country’s staunch political opposition to the very movement the fledgling state was formed under. But orders are orders, and by now, he has a degree of trust in Waverly to know what he’s doing.

Their target is holed up in a repurposed office building on the outskirts of Jericho, and Illya breaks in under the cover of night. The place is so heavily guarded it’s impossible to attempt stealth. So, with a team of Israeli specialists standing witness, Illya and Napoleon go through their usual repertoire.

“Stairwell,” Napoleon announces. Illya turns, fires, and a body collapses to the floor with a muffled thump. He frowns at the undertone he hears.

“Is this boring to you?” The first floor is as clear as he has time for it to be. Illya steps into the empty stairwell, and points his gun upwards, readying himself.

“What? No.” Napoleon says. “Do you think we’ll make it back in time to catch the last showing of Goldfinger?”

Illya sighs, and raises a foot to the first step. “You hate James Bond.”

“But it’s getting such great reviews,” Napoleon dashes forward, and disappears up the stairway.

“It has a character named Pussy Galore.”

“Two men waiting around the corner.”

Illya pulls out a smoke grenade.

They make their way methodically through the building, taking out any and all opposition that comes his way. He doesn’t see their target, and can only trust that the other agents have been able to block the man from making an escape. Illya is in a third floor storage room, his eye on the exit, when Napoleon makes a curious sound from the window.

“That’s interesting.”

“What is?” Illya says, pausing.

“It would appear our Israeli friends haven’t been entirely honest about their objectives.”

Illya moves toward the window, and sees what had grabbed Napoleon’s attention. It’s too dark and too far for Illya to see anything beyond moving silhouettes, but there are the distinct figures of three heavily armed Mossad agents herding a man from the building.

A kidnapping? Questions swirl in Illya’s head, taking shape into possibilities he has no way of proving. The man may be their target, or, even more likely, he is someone else Mossad had been interested in interrogating. Did they ever want the guerrilla leader dead? Or is this just an elaborate show to prove to the international community that they’ve made an effort?

Illya steps away from the window, unsure if their target had ever taken refuge in the building. Napoleon looks at him and shrugs. There are forces at work neither of them are equipped to take on, or even to question. At best, Illya can raise his suspicions to Waverly when he reports back.

He steps back into the hallway, gun raised, and his radio crackles. They have failed, the agent says in accented Russian, the target escaped. Illya finds it hard to believe, but the mission is done, and this is no place to start raising doubts.

On his way down, Illya meets a Mossad agent on the stairs, and he nods back politely as the man greets him and motions for him to pass. Napoleon is saying something speculative about spy films as a genre, and Illya is fighting that urge to crowd him against the wall again, and study him up close like he wants to, maybe steal a kiss that feels almost as fulfilling as a real one. The first time he’d tried it, Napoleon’s concentration had lapsed, and he’d ended up falling straight through the wall instead of staying appropriately pressed against it.

There’s a soft rustle, a deafening crack, and something slams into Illya’s back. Another crack, and Illya steps forward, trying to regain his balance. Pain erupts from the points of contact, searing through his veins.

He’s choking.

Illya stares blankly as Napoleon’s expression twists with shock, then horror, and the world is tilting on its axis. The ground rushes forward, and the pain of the collision makes breathing impossible. He tastes blood at the back of his throat, and distantly, he hears the sound of heavy boots stepping around him, a dark shadow passing by in the periphery. It’s done, someone says in Arabic.

“Illya.” Then Napoleon is there, bent over him, panic written in his features. “Illya no, no no no no…”

Illya opens his mouth, and tries to reassure him. But air refuses to enter his lungs, and every word he wants to say is caught in his throat, emerging as choked syllables.

“Please,” Napoleon’s eyes are reddening, his voice frantic. “Please, Illya. Illya, stay with me.”

Hands, which Illya recognises with faint alarm is Napoleon’s, grab at him, cupping his face. Illya stares up into stormy blue eyes, and between the suffocating pain and the encroaching darkness, it faintly registers that Napoleon is touching him. He’s touching him.

“Dammit Illya. Don’t you dare die on me.”

I’m sorry. Illya wants to say. I love you. But the words slip away, as does sight, and then sound.

Illya dies with the warmth of Napoleon’s hand against his cheek.

 

-

 

There’s an old folktale Illya heard as a child, about a soldier with a magical sack and a deck of cards. He tricked the devil and played against God, until there was no place left for him in heaven or hell.

Illya never quite understood the moral of the story, but the ending stayed with him as a sad one, for the soldier was forced to walk the earth for eternity. It had seemed such a terrible, lonely fate, to be alone as the world withered and renewed in turns, every moment fleeting, and every loss eternal.

But such stories were not real, and so Illya didn’t try to remember.

 

-

 

Illya opens his eyes, and the skies are blue.

He’s lying on something hard, yet soft at the same time, and takes him a moment to recognize that the rough texture pressing against him is grass. Slowly, he sits up, and before him are rows upon rows of freshly packed dirt, each in long and neat rectangles. Unmarked graves, he realises, though the emotion that comes with it is fleeting, distant. There’s the scent of jasmine on the wind, and the world is bright with lush hues of green and blue.

He turns around, and finds a painfully familiar figure sitting curled atop a patch of dirt, head buried in his arms. Illya’s mind skips like a broken record, as understanding falls into place.

He’s still here.

Illya remembers dying, remembers the blood filling his lungs, the mission, their apartment, and everything that comes before. Yet every memory feels distant, less real than the current, where Napoleon is right in front of him, in that same navy suit, his black curls a tangled mess.

Illya reaches out, and hovers his hand above Napoleon’s shoulder, hesitant, almost certain there will be no sensation just like every time before. But that will be okay, he thinks, it will only be a continuation of before. It will be fine.

His hand touches something warm and solid, and Illya’s heart lurches violently with shock and relief. Napoleon stiffens beneath him.

A soft nudge, and Napoleon is turning toward him, eyes red, wide, unbelieving. When he sees Illya, his mouth falls slightly open, and his eyes rake down Illya’s body, as though confirming that he’s real. Illya’s looks down. His body is complete and whole, and he is dressed in the same black combat fatigues he had died in.

“How…”

Napoleon’s hands are trembling as they reach up, doubt and confusion coloring his features. His fingers touch Illya’s cheek, and Napoleon stutters out a laugh, his eyes brightening in incredulous delight. Awed, he cups his hands against Illya’s cheek, and Illya’s face warms. Then, he presses them against Illya’s chest, against his shoulders, and Illya revels in each new sensation. The delicate pressure, the warmth, it doesn’t feel real, yet it is happening. Tactility he had only ever dreamed of now more than mere possibility. Napoleon is solid, he’s tangible, and there is nothing keeping them away from each other.

Napoleon, bright-eyed, reaches for Illya’s chest again, and Illya reaches up and catches his hand with his own. He pulls it up slowly, delighting in the feeling of Napoleon’s skin, and in the delicate bone structure beneath he’s never had a chance to discover. He presses a reverent kiss against Napoleon’s fingers, thrilled because he can, because it’s possible. Napoleon’s breath hitches at the contact, and want shoots through him like lightning.

Illya’s eyes drift toward Napoleon’s face, and he finds him staring at him in wonderment. Then, it’s impossible not to pull him close, to feel the heat of that body pressed against his, and to finally lean in, and learn the taste of those lips.

Their first kiss is sweet, perfect, better than Illya ever could have dreamed. It is mingling breath, it is the taste of cinnamon, it is warmth, and softness, and when Napoleon’s tongue brushes at Illya’s lower lip, it lights a fire. He parts his mouth, a tiny sound escaping his throat as Napoleon’s fingers find their way way into his hair. Illya is open, aching, and the world dissolves in sparks and sensation.

Napoleon, Illya learns, has mastered kissing down to an art.

“So, what now?” Napoleon mumbles, after, when inappropriate laughter forces them to break apart. His eyes are soft, and his face is stuck with a smile.

“Didn’t you promise to show me your private art collection?” Illya is grinning too, and he eyes Napoleon’s lips, itching to kiss him again.

“And we have to go back to the Beirut Museum.”

“And visit the Salar de Uyuni.”

“And the Cueva de los Cristales.”

Napoleon stares up at him, eyes bright, and then he is beaming, laughing, and pulling Illya in for another kiss.

Their second kiss is full of promise, as vivid as the sunsets on the Mediterranean, as thrilling the markets of Istanbul, and as intoxicating as a vision of an eternity to be spent together.

 

-

 

“I forgot to mention,” Illya says one day, as they’re sitting together atop a mountain, waiting for the sunrise.

“What is it?”

“I love you too.”

Napoleon laughs, a clear, ringing sound that sends Illya’s heart soaring. “Took you long enough.”

“Now you say it.”

“Say what?”

Illya frowns. “You know what.”

“Do I?”

He’s not going to say it, Illya thinks, glancing at Napoleon, whose face is pale in the twilight. Napoleon notices the attention, and his eyes shift toward Illya. The American smirks.

Illya goes back to looking at the view.

“And I love you.”

Illya nods, a smile pulling at his lips. “Good.”

Together, they watch as sun peeks over the horizon, slowly flooding the world with shades of orange and gold.