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songs the equations sing

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“Watch his eyes,” Oleg had said to Illya, before Illya flew to Berlin. His cigarette had hung like a crooked fang from his mouth, the smoke of it cloying in the briefing room, making strange tremulous shadows in the light of the projector. On the screen across from them, the arresting image of a man in an immaculate double-breasted suit, half in shadow, had flickered. “It’s only hearsay at this point, but we know this much: it’ll be almost impossible to tell, but if you watch the eyes, you’ll know it isn’t a he at all.”

Illya had stored that information away, just as he was expected to.

He knows far before he ever gets a glimpse of Napoleon Solo’s eyes, however, that what he is up against—what has beaten him across the Berlin Wall with prize physicist and roboticist Udo Teller’s daughter in tow—isn’t human.

Not at all.

***

The next time he sees it, in a dilapidated public toilet in West Berlin, he does notice the eyes—the way the light hits at just the right angle such that blue and brown suddenly give way, in a startling moment of refraction, to translucent, mirror-like gold.

It freezes him for half a second, struck by the unexpected, restive beauty of it, but then—

Illya has been afraid of a lot of things in his life, but this thing isn’t going to be one of them.

He’s half a second from lunging when Oleg clucks his tongue from the doorway. “Not a good idea, Agent,” he says, “You’ll break your hand, if the rumours are true.”

“Among other things,” the American handler says from his other side, with a curl of his lip. “And they are.”

Illya looks back at Solo, who smiles blandly at him, and raises his hand in a mocking, fingers-only wave. Beneath the delicacy of the gesture, Illya thinks he can just barely hear the whir of servos, the whisper of well-oiled steel.

Illya stays his hand. But only because he was ordered to.

***

The Vinciguerras are building bots, that much is certain.

“They want their master race, when it ascends, to be indestructible and everlasting,” Sanders says, in an outdoor cafe nearby. He has a cup of coffee by his hand, but it's untouched. The same goes for Oleg's cup of tea. Neither Solo nor Illya have anything in front of them. “Thousand Year Reich and all that. Obviously, neither the US nor Russia much want that to happen.”

Teller’s father, it seems, is the key to such indestructibility.

“We’re going in with Teller, then?” Solo asks, eyes blank, face unreadable.

“Yes. You’ll get in contact with her uncle, Rudi. He works for the Vinciguerras--if they have Teller, he’ll know.”

“What do they need him for?” Illya asks.

“The power source,” Oleg says, flipping through the dossier and handing it to Illya. “According to our American friends, Teller has been coming close to miniaturizing a tokamak. If he succeeds, it could power a bot for several lifetimes without a charge.”

“And don’t get any ideas about that, Solo,” Sanders growls.

Illya flicks a glance at the android, and then has to look again. Its face remains an impassive mask, but its hand…

There’s a small dent in the metal table they’re all ranged around. Two of them, actually. Could have already been there, except for how they perfectly sit beneath Solo’s first and third fingers.

Solo meets his eyes for a split second, and then turns to Sanders. “What ideas?” it says blandly.

Sanders grunts. They continue with the debrief, and then Oleg stands to leave. Sanders does the same.

“We’ll leave you two get acquainted,” he says, with a last warning look at Solo. “Your flight is the day after tomorrow, so you have about thirty-six hours to prepare Miss Teller.”

“Take care,” Oleg murmurs to Illya, in the way that always means do not fail, and then he is gone. So are the other cafe-goers.

Solo leans back in its seat to regard Illya. Illya lifts his chin. After a tense silence in which Solo continues to wait him out, he breaks and says, “So. They think that you’re a good spy for human society? Even when you came out of a box?”

Solo blinks slowly, and then replies, “I was impressed with the way you chased after Miss Teller and I, you know. Almost good enough to be like me. Are you sure you weren’t grown in a lab, too, Kuryakin?”

Illya overturns the table and leaves without looking back.

***

Solo is the best the Americans have, Illya had been told. “A pure learning machine,” Oleg had said, with no small amount of irony. “Or so they claim.”

Illya interprets that to mean that the Americans are in bad shape, to have resorted to this appliance.

The appliance in question, however, is admittedly charming, given the latitude for it. Admittedly...impressive, insofar as American engineering can be. All flash, very little substance beneath. 

Gaby Teller treats it like a human, though. Illya doesn’t quite know what to do with that.

In the boutique where they agreed to meet the next day, Illya finds it sifting through racks of women’s clothing with apparent interest, though not, in Illya’s opinion, with sound judgement.

“Kuryakin,” it greets, a picture of neutrality.

“Solo.” Illya tries hard to match its tone. He doesn’t quite succeed.

They end up arguing over a Rabanne, and it ripostes with easy persistence, but there’s a quality of genuine ennui to its manner that Illya sees no practical use for. He chalks it up to a quirk in programming, but he admits that he doesn't quite see the point of an android that presents predominantly as bored.

Teller emerges from the dressing room resplendent in orange, and looks to Solo first for an opinion. Solo smiles at her, saying nothing, but she nods anyway, like somehow, it is capable of feeling and expressing approval. Then she notices Illya, freezes, and looks back at Solo. “What is he doing here?”

“I am to be your fiancé,” Illya replies.

“What.”

“Your cover,” Solo supplies.

Teller’s eyes narrow, and she looks back at Solo. “Are you serious?” she hisses, pointing at Illya. 

“We’re trying teamwork for this operation,” Solo says smoothly. “All part of the plan.”

“The plan is to get the K—” She stops, noticing the saleswomen in the corner of the shop. Amends, “ Them involved? To get him involved?”

“He has strict orders not to kill us this time, right Kuryakin?” Solo casts a glance at him. Illya bristles, but stands his ground.

“Our agencies are in agreement that this is an important matter,” he says stiffly. “I am here to help.”

Teller walks up to him, looking down her nose from the height of the boutique’s small walkway. Something about the way she holds herself, about the sharp jut of her chin and the steadiness of her gaze, makes Illya want to look at the floor, but he doesn’t. “I don’t trust you,” she says.

He swallows inadvertently.

“You don’t have to,” Solo cuts in, looking between them intently. “Just cooperate with him. Us. We know what we’re doing.”

Teller looks back over to it. Solo meets her gaze steadily, eyes crinkling at the corners, a masterwork of friendliness.

It seems to have the desired effect—Teller works her jaw once, and then says, “Fine.” She turns away, and pastes on a smile for the saleswomen. “These as well, please. And the Dior sandals from earlier.” She turns the smile back on Illya, but it’s sour at the edges. “Thank you, dear.”

“Of course,” Illya says, through gritted teeth.

“I guess I’ll leave you two to it,” Solo says, bone-dry. “I’ll be in the car.”

When it turns away, Illya is left with the matter of the shopping bags until Teller reemerges from the changing room. When she comes to join him by the door, he asks, “You trust that with your clothes?” jerking his chin in the direction of where it stands outside.

“I’m not wearing what he picked out, am I?” she shoots back, but there’s something more than just a personal challenge in the tilt of her chin—something he is almost tempted to read as chastisement.

He doesn’t know what for.

He wonders what she and Solo talked about in the chop shop where she'd been hiding, before his pursuit made them flee for the wall. What could have made her so amenable to its presence, its assurances.

***

They head to Rome, cover stories and IDs in place. Solo sits at complete ease on the plane, the clean angles and slopes of it a study in boredom. Illya watches it until it blinks at him, slowly, like a lion in the afternoon sun.

“What exactly are you looking for, Peril?” it asks, in a clean, manufactured drawl. “Because if you want answers, you’re going to have to ask the right questions first.”

Peril. Illya doesn’t know what to do with that, either. “How old are you?” he asks, mostly because it’s the first thing that comes into his head.

Solo quirks a smile at him. “I was activated ten years ago,” it answers readily. “Though if you’re to convert the number of developmental stages I’ve gone through into an approximation of human ones over time, then I’m roughly eighty-seven.”

Illya narrows his eyes. “So you are an old man.”

Solo tilts its head, the gesture birdlike—not natural. “Depends on how you think about it,” it says, slowly, like it’s thinking about it for the first time, which clearly isn’t the case. “In terms of processing power, yes, I’ve comprehended the equivalent of eighty-seven years of experience. But time hasn’t moved that fast, events haven’t moved that fast. An eighty-seven-year-old human has experienced eighty-seven years of events, things changing, people coming and going. I have a far narrower band of experience to work with, albeit a richer one.” It smiles, close-lipped, attractive and perfunctory, the way stewardesses do when delivering drinks. “It’s no better or worse. Just different.”

It’s the neutrality that sets Illya off, causes him to blurt, “If you really worked the way the Americans wanted you to, there would be hundreds of you.”

Solo loses its smile.

“You’re not wrong,” it says, and then looks away, out the window. It’s such a natural, expressive gesture that Illya is rendered silent.

Gaby, from the other side of the plane, glares at him, and doesn’t speak to him for the rest of the flight.

***

When they arrive they immediately begin playing at their cover stories—Illya and Teller, the happy engaged couple, Solo the...well. It is unclear precisely the role it plays, only that Solo appears as familiar to it as breathing.

Illya watches Solo—he can’t help it. People don’t seem to notice that he’s anything other than ordinary (well, as ordinary as something that...aesthetically well-constructed can be). Solo moves smoothly, a parody of a man, its footfalls perfectly even, the swing of one arm modulated while the other is stilled by its hand resting in its trouser pocket. Its head, alert and upright, moves only slightly with its gait. It catches the eyes of several women, and when it notices, it smiles, as if appreciative of the attention.

Its chest rises and falls, as if it has lungs.

“It’s a cooling mechanism, actually,” Teller says, when Illya makes a passing comment, as they walk by the Spanish Steps. “All that machinery generates heat. Circulation of air helps keep him at a safe temperature.” She flicks a glance at him, and smirks. Her hand at his elbow feels a bit like talons. “He’s very warm anyway. Going across the wall was like hugging a very hard hot water bottle.”

“‘Him’,” Illya repeats, because he is not going to rise to the bait of that last statement.

“Yes,” Gaby says, a little testily. “He walks like a man, he talks and thinks like a man. So.”

“Thinks like a man?” Illya says, incredulous. “He— it’s —a computer. Ones and zeroes.”

“And we’re just a collection of nerve endings, what’s the difference?” Gaby replies, her jaw jutting out. “If you’d just talk to him like a normal person, you’d understand.” She looks him up and down. “Or are you afraid you might find out that he’s better at being a person than you are, darling?”

Illya grits his teeth through the flare of anger that bursts like an ink bottle inside him, painting his stomach black. He reins it back, swallows it down, too aware of her delicate grip on his elbow, how easily he could knock her down. They walk several more paces.

He says, when he can manage it, “You know a lot about it. How it works.”

“My father had been working on artificial intelligence even before the war,” Gaby replies, pursing her lips. “Always trying to apply his theories in the real world. I remember when I was younger, he would alternate between designing punch cards and tokamaks. Sometimes he would get them mixed up, and end up with a complete mess of binary and physics equations.” Her lips curl on one side, a rueful half-smile. “He’d leave the scraps for me to play with. He’d hoped to make something that could help us be better people.”

Illya exhales, and nods. The moment of peace is broken, however, when Solo drives up on its ridiculous vespa with warnings of oncoming robbers with agendas. It makes Illya snappish, which Solo immediately seems to pick up on and, perversely, react to by needling him further.

“They’re looking for a spy. Thankfully, you’re not a spy right now. But since you aren’t a spy right now...take it like a pussy,” it advises, all teasing, smug condescension, and Illya wants to knock it off the scooter right up until—

“I think you should do as he says,” Gaby says, arms crossed. “It makes sense, does it not?”

Illya wants her to be wrong.

She isn’t, and neither is Solo.

After his father’s watch is in the pocket of some Vinciguerra thug and his ego is thoroughly bruised, they stand among the ruins of the Forum and Solo looks at him with something like understanding, something like sympathy, which Illya finds far worse than his condescension. Gaby is looking up at him in consternation, her hands hard and warm around his wrist, against his chest.

His blood is pounding in his ears. He needs air. He needs to not be here.

He takes care to extract himself gently from Gaby’s grip, and she allows it even as she watches him, clearly waiting for him to make a break for the thugs who’ve disappeared into the dark. He won’t, he knows he’s been proven wrong here, he just.

Breathing is like straining against a metal band around his chest.

He goes on a walk after dropping Gaby off at the hotel, hoping to clear his head. When he returns, it’s to find her gone, and he has an idea of where she might be.

He pulls his suitcase out from beneath his bed and retrieves the receiver from it. Bugging Solo’s room had been more a gesture of habit than anything else—he hadn’t expected Solo to do or say much when it wasn’t working.

For the second time that night, he finds himself mistaken.

“—spoke of you, when I was younger. The idea, at least.”

“They got past ideas pretty quickly, all told.”

“So I see.”

Slowly, Illya lowers himself onto his bed, receiver cradled in his hands. There is a sound of shifting fabric, making the speaker crackle, and then—

“Do you really have eighty-seven years...?”

Solo snorts. “Not stored. I haven’t the space. And even if I did...well.”

“They monitor you.” Teller’s voice is matter-of-fact, but there’s a point of tension somewhere in the way she says it, clipped and flat, that puts Illya on edge.

“I don’t keep things I don’t want other people seeing,” Solo says, calm and a little wry.

“But you’re still you.”

“Miss Tel—Gaby.”

It’s the first time anyone has addressed Teller by her first name. That it should be Solo is...Illya doesn’t know what it is.

(It sounds like a correction, too—like Teller had asked him to call her Gaby.)

“Let it alone,” Solo advises.

“How can I trust you if I do?” Teller counters. “Not everything’s just for you, you know. I want to know I’m not just going to be snatched up and handed over to the CIA when all of this is over. I want to live.”

“I wouldn’t—” Solo stops. There’s a moment of silence, and then, “I see.”

“It seems we have something in common,” Teller says, almost too soft for Illya to hear under the static.

“But in you, it’s natural,” Solo says, and his voice is so strange. “In me, it’s a mistake.”

“It’s what makes me believe you’re real,” Teller says, firm and steady.

Illya switches off the receiver.

He can’t hear this.

***

Three hours after he's turned the receiver off, however, and halfway through his walkthrough of Petrov's Immortal game, there's a knock at the hotel room door. When he goes to answer, it's to find Solo standing in the doorway, Teller curled half-asleep in its arms.

"I believe I have something of yours," Solo says with a smile.

Illya scowls. "She's not a thing."

Solo's expression flattens a bit. "Not what I...never mind," it says. "Look, it wouldn't look good for her to come out of my room in the morning, would it?"

"'Mfine," Teller mumbles, her face buried in Solo's shoulder. Then she wrinkles her nose. "You're too hard ."

Solo looks at the ceiling. "Apologies," it says dryly, before looking back at Illya. "You'd better take her. I'd hardly call you soft, but I'd imagine you're an improvement."

Wordlessly, Illya does, as gently as he can, and she transfers the loop of her arms onto his shoulders without much protest. She positively reeks of vodka.

"What did you do ?" Illya asks, a little bewildered.

"Danced, mostly," Solo replies, shrugging. "Solomon Burke first, then we moved on to The Beatles."

Illya blinks. "You dance?"

"Rather well, if I do say so myself," Solo smiles. It looks down at Gaby and its whole face changes. “She, on the other hand, dances like there’s no one in the room with her. It’s…charming.”

Even with the hall light turning its pupils iridescent gold, it’s never looked so human.

“Did you...want to come in?” Illya asks, unsure of why he’s doing so. Manners, perhaps, instilled in him by his mother far before he was given training elsewhere.

Solo’s eyebrows go up; it glances first at Illya’s face and then at the room behind him, eyes finally landing on the abandoned chess game. “I play,” it offers.

“Of course you do,” Illya grunts, and steps aside. Gaby snuffles against his chest, her breathing slowly evening out. She’s so light in his arms, he feels as if he’s handling glass. When he tips his head down, her cheek is flush-warm against his chin.

Solo steps in around him, movements whisper-quiet.

“Going to try your luck against a machine?” it asks, dry and curious, eyes fixed on the way Gaby is tucked in against Illya’s chest.

“I guess we’ll see,” Illya replies.

***

What follows is the most bizarre chess match Illya has ever played in his life. It isn’t that Solo is bad at chess—in fact, it is as proficient as anyone who can consider every possible sequence of moves in a fraction of a second can be, which is to say extremely. But the way in which Solo plays is, for lack of a better word, capricious.

“Why would you do that,” Illya says at one point, flat, staring at the knight Solo has just moved to E10. His voice is low only for the sake of Gaby, who is passed out in her bed, deposited by Illya and tucked solicitously in by Napoleon.

“Honestly? I just wondered what you would do.”

“It’s not to your advantage.”

“Could be.”

“No.”

“Might be.”

“No.”

“Still interested,” Solo says, chin propped on its hand.

“You’re not playing to win,” Illya complains.

“No,” Solo agrees. “I’m playing to learn.”

Illya exhales. Remembers Oleg’s words. “Ah.”

Solo flicks a glance up at him. “Gonna hold that against me, Peril?”

“Why do you call me that?” Illya asks.

Solo shrugs. “I like it. Has a ring to it.”

“So you wouldn’t mind if I called you something absurd. Like ‘Cowboy’.”

“Not particularly. Call me what you like.”

Illya studies it. “Who named you?”

Solo stills. “My maker.”

“Your maker is the US government.”

“No,” Solo says sharply. “My maker was a programmer. The physical part of me, that’s been developed by committee, but the person who made me, he was a man, and he…” It pauses. Then more quietly, “He was a person.” A small smile, full of humor, but small, secretive. “He decided on what to call me. Said it was within the parameters of other famous spy names. Giacomo Casanova. James Bond. Napoleon Solo. Icon and concept. It fit.”

“James Bond is a fictional character,” Illya points out. He ignores the pounding of his heart in his chest, heavy and cold.

“And I’m a fictional person,” Solo responds easily. Its gaze is empty, though, when it tips it in Illya’s direction. “Isn’t that right?”

Illya swallows. Doesn’t say anything. After a moment, he moves his rook.

“Ah,” Solo says. “An interesting gambit.”

They play the rest of the game in silence. Illya wins.

It feels like a hollow victory.

***

They go to the race track the next day to meet Rudi, but not before Solo knocks on Illya’s door again and proceeds to throw his set of listening devices at him. “I was having a perfectly pleasant morning until I found these,” it remarks, aiming the last at Illya’s head.

Illya catches it, makes no sign of having overheard anything last night. He retreats to his room for a brief moment, and then reemerges to toss Solo’s CIA-issue bugs right back at it.

They stand in stasis for a moment, out in the hallway, and then Illya says, abruptly, “You're a learning machine. That’s why you play chess...irrationally.”

"That's right," Solo replies, after a pause. There's a note of caution in its voice. “I’m obviously capable of playing to win, it’s just more informative not to, sometimes.”

"Do you do anything else?"

Solo watches him. It feels like being dissected. "Once you've learned something, what do you do?" it asks, after a pause.

"Use it," Illya replies. And then, without meaning to, adds, “What good is learning if you aren’t going to use it to make something of yourself?”

Solo sucks in a breath. "What indeed," it says. It tilts his head at Illya, as if it sees him differently now than it did before. “And what sort of ‘something’, I wonder,” it murmurs, almost to itself, even as it continues to stare.

Illya can't meet its eyes. Those hadn't been his words. He hadn't meant...though really, he had. He believes them now. Or believes that he does.

"I suppose you have your answer then," Solo says, straightening.

Illya doesn't know if he does, but he nods all the same.

Solo exhales, or at least makes a show of doing so. “That tie doesn’t go with that suit,” it comments, turning away, and Illya finds his hand jerking up towards the knot at his throat before he forcibly puts it back at his side.

He changes the tie before he leaves the hotel. Androids, he rationalises, are likely programmed to have conventional taste protocols.

***

The racetrack is too warm and the people in it too rich, and Illya dislikes it intensely. It doesn’t help that Gaby, despite having lived the last seven years of her life under the hoods of leaky Trabi, looks utterly at home, small and beautiful and charming in a solemn sort of way that make the single men look at Illya with ill-concealed jealousy and consternation. Illya does not like being looked at, being noticed.

“Where is Solo?” he says, in an undertone, while he and Gaby are making the rounds, looking for dear Uncle Rudi.

“Making contact with Victoria Vinciguerra, I’m sure,” Gaby replies, not looking at him. “He seems to prefer the direct approach. Has a flair for it, even.”

Illya takes a deep breath. “I see.”

Gaby finally turns to him and looks over the tops of her enormous sunglasses. “How long do you intend to sulk about him?” she says. “Because it’s getting tiresome.”

“I’m not—,” He stops. Gathers himself. “I am not sulking.”

“Uh huh. Of course not. Ah, Tag, Onkel, wie geht’s? Es ist zu lange hat.” She kisses Uncle Rudi’s cheeks, as he looks fondly at her, and then dubiously at Illya.

“Tag, Tag, delighted to see you at long last, my dear. And is this your…?”

“My fiancé, Illya. Finally settling down, Uncle, aren’t you proud?”

Illya smiles tightly through the interaction, and tries to hide behind his camera as much as he possibly can. He can’t help but have the thought that Solo—charming, smoothly accommodating Solo—would have been better suited to the role of doting husband-to-be.

He tries not to think of it any further. He can feel Rudi's skepticism like radiation, receives his barbs like so many small puncture wounds, and tries to smile. It turns his back tight, pulling his shoulders up. He can feel old drills fighting against it, which makes it worse; old words from distant officers barking, You turn to stone when you lie, Kuryakin, are you a statue or a man?

He can't think of this, not now. He does his job, getting as much surveillance footage as he can.

After an uncomfortable lull in the conversation that not even Gaby can recover from, he excuses himself, and his last smile feels wooden, slapped on with plaster paste and masking tape.

Breaking the three irritating men in the washroom is a welcome distraction, albeit one he eventually regrets.

***

"Peril was...productive," Solo comments, afterwards, loud enough that Illya can hear him through the bathroom door.

"'Productive' is one way of putting it, I suppose," Gaby says testily, rustling her newspaper for emphasis. Her disappointment grates on Illya, and he tries not to resent how her opinion is slowly beginning to matter to him. She is proving to be far more than simply a passive asset, and he doesn't quite know how to reconcile her acquired delicacy, the way she's slipped so easily into the role of ingenue, with the sharp-eyed impatience with which she's now more than once cut him open.

It isn’t safe to think of. He busies himself beneath the red light of the makeshift darkroom, even as he listens carefully to the conversation beyond the door.

"I have a business meeting with Victoria tomorrow afternoon," Solo is saying. "She seems adequately interested in what I can offer."

"Offer?" Gaby echoes.

"Indeed."

A pointed silence, whose meaning Illya suspects but can't verify.

"I have Alexander covered, then," Gaby says.

That's a step too far. "He's a Nazi!" Illya calls through the door, even as he continues to count off the seconds of development time on his current print.

"True," Gaby calls back, infuriatingly calm. "He's also filthy rich and wants to take me for rides in very expensive cars."

"Still a Nazi!"

"So principled, our Peril," Solo laments, and Illya wonders where it learned to sound so tired. Where it learned to find principles tiresome.

While Gaby and Solo continue to murmur unintelligibly on the other side of the door, Illya finishes developing the photographs. When they’re dry and their intelligence definitive, Illya is almost regretful he can't stay in the darkness, separate, any longer. When he slips into the room, however, it’s to see both Solo and Gaby by the door to the hallway.

“Now? But the things we—“

“If I’m going to last the night, it’s now or not at all,” Solo replies quietly. “And you’ll remember.”

Gaby makes a noise in her throat. “Of course I will. You’ll be able to…?”

It smiles at her crookedly. “I’ve been doing it for years, you know.”

Illya clears his throat, inexplicably embarrassed at having to do so. "It's stellarators," he says, and then huffs. Tries again. “That is, the Vinciguerras. Intel posited that they were using tokamaks to power the bots, but this is pointing to them using stellarators to contain the fusion based generators for their new android chassis. Experimentation with such things is dangerous—plasma radiation that escapes from the magnetic fields of the stellarators will cause burns beneath the skin if you are not careful." He holds up one photograph. "Alexander has most certainly been in contact with a stellarator recently."

Solo steps forward to study the prints. “Nicely done,” it says. It flicks a glance up at Illya. “Specially treated film?”

Illya nods. “Formulated it myself.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Solo murmurs. “And these marks, they’re subdermal burns?”

“It only happens with specific types of radiation,” Illya nods. “We can be nearly certain.”

“Fusion-based cyborgs, so they can kill everyone except for each other," Solo says with apparent distaste. "Charming."

"Nazis," Illya reminds, with a pointed look at Gaby, who rolls her eyes.

“You think they've really managed to miniaturize a stellarator?" Solo asks, a strange note in his voice. "They'd have to have done, if they want anything smaller than a house-sized chassis."

"If they have, then it is definitely my father's work," Gaby says. They turn to look at her. She bites her lip. "He worked on tokamaks for a long time, but they were unstable, needed regular maintenance. In the end, I remember, what he wanted to avoid most was...well." She looks at Solo, which opens its mouth, as if to speak, and then snaps it tightly shut. It nods at her in a quick, small jerk of its head.

After a moment, it glances back at Illya, purses its lips, and hands the photos back. "I guess we'd best sleep on this," it says, with a strange irony in his voice that causes Gaby to snort, her eyes serious. "Good evening to you both."

It heads back towards the door, and after a deliberate pause in which Illya can almost see the gears turning in its head, leans down and presses a very gentle, very chaste kiss to the crest of Gaby's cheek.

Gaby closes her eyes when it touches her.

Then it slips out the door, closing it silently.

Illya swallows, trying to blink the image away. He looks at the space Solo had vacated. "Does it actually sleep?" He asks, almost rhetorically.

Gaby exhales noisily. "That would be kinder," she says.

Illya frowns at her. "What do you mean?"

"He needs energy," Gaby says. "He only runs a few days at a time without a charge. It's why he only ever works cities."

"So it plugs into a wall," Illya shrugs. It only makes sense. There is a reason everyone is so alarmed about the Vinciguerra bots. "I suspected as much."

Gaby blinks at him, a slow and catlike open and shut.

"He also reports in during that time," she says.

"To his handler?"

"To everyone," Gaby corrects. There are barbs just under the surface of her tone. "The minute he begins a charge, it triggers a broadcast protocol directly to the Pentagon. He's the only model of his exact type ever made. Everything he thinks is dissected for later research."

"Our interactions?" Illya asks, immediately alarmed. That could be very bad, from a security perspective.

"Yes," Gaby nods, "If he wasn't already taking measures to edit those memories as much as possible."

Illya stops. Crosses his arms. "Why would he...how would he do that?"

"With difficulty, and he's not doing it for us," Gaby says. She smiles, a quick and then gone pull of her lips, humorless. "Would you want your entire government to know your every thought?"

"No," Illya draws out, "But—"

"And when has Napoleon ever," Gaby interrupts, sharp and deliberate, "Seemed like he enjoyed being here, on this mission? Or better yet, seemed to even be neutral about it?"

When he's with you, Illya doesn't say. That is a grave he doesn't quite feel ready to dig for himself yet.

"It seems neutral about most things," he says, even though he doesn't really think so. Looking back, more than anything else Solo just seems tired. And Illya supposes, really, that that is not exactly neutral.

Gaby looks at him like she can read his thoughts as easily as Solo's are downloaded. "You're government property, too," she says eventually. "I'd have thought you'd have some sympathy."

"It's different," Illya says.

"Yes," Gaby says. "You had a choice in the matter. He didn’t."

Illya looks away. "That might have been easier," he says, very quietly.

Gaby cocks her head, and then steps up to him, close enough for him to smell her hair, a vague impression of vanilla and freesias that is, for a moment, all he can concentrate on.

He's unprepared for the slap. He's less surprised that she has an arm on her.

The crack of it still ringing in his ears, he turns back and glares at her.

"That is not—“

"I am trying very hard to like you, Kuryakin," she hisses, cutting him off. "But you are making it very, very difficult."

It stings, more than he'd like. "You don't need to like me," he says, throat tight, "In order for me to do my job."

She lets out a breath, her shoulders dropping. "See?" she murmurs. "Then you just...I don't understand you."

"There's nothing to understand," Illya says.

She shakes her head. "You really believe that, don't you." She raises her hand again, and he can't help it—he flinches just slightly. She notices, and it makes her mouth go soft for a moment.

She doesn't hit him again; just lays her palm on his cheek, where it's still hot from impact.

He looks down at her, caught and flushed, hands nerveless at his sides.

“I know he played chess with you the other night,” Gaby says, studying his face. “I remember seeing that before I fell asleep.”

Illya waits.

“What do you see in him that makes you so angry?”

Illya doesn’t even know how to begin to answer that. He is angry about so many larger things than Solo. Solo is just a vessel, a cipher, he is nothing at all to do with Illya, he is nothing, period

“He’s what I was supposed to be.”

He hears himself say it as if from a great distance. Blood roars in his ears, and he’s not sure of the cause—shame, perhaps.

Gaby is looking at him in frowning confusion. “What do you—” she starts.

He brushes past her. “I’m going for a walk.”

He doesn’t wait for her answer.