Chapter 1: London - Istanbul
London (fall 1965)
Napoleon couldn’t believe he had agreed to go out in public like this. It was ridiculous. It was more than ridiculous, it was damn near a crime.
“You look fine,” Illya told him, not even bothering to look away from the street as he waved down a taxi. He kept his other hand on Napoleon's shoulder, partly to keep him upright and and partly, Napoleon suspected, just because he could.
“You put me in a Cardin suit with a Balenciaga tie,” Napoleon told him. “Let’s be honest, Peril, the only thing keeping this outfit from being a complete disaster is the fact that I’m the one wearing it and not you."
“Should have gotten up earlier. Then you would have had time to pick something else out. You sleep, you don’t get to complain about my choices."
“You don’t pull that argument on Gaby when she doesn’t like what you pick,” Napoleon muttered, still a little put out. And suspicious. Was Illya secretly mad at him? Usually when Napoleon let the other man near his own wardrobe, Illya made a point not to take Napoleon too far out of his comfort zone.
“Gaby does not sleep until noon given half the chance.” Illya replied. His words were mild, but two years with him had taught Napoleon how to find the hidden underlying fondness.
A taxi answered Illya’s hail before Napoleon could rehash his complaints.
“We are getting you coffee,” Illya told him as he opened the taxi door. The hand on his shoulder became a guiding pressure. “Stop whining.”
Napoleon grumbled, but climbed into the backseat all the same. As the car rumbled under him, he couldn’t help but lean back and rest against the padded seat. Once upon a time he would have never stepped foot outside-or inside for that matter-unless he was completely aware and ready for anything. Now, he was hard pressed to think of anyone getting the better of him with Illya at his side, no matter how inattentive Napoleon was.
With a tantalizing week of no plans stretched out in front of him, Napoleon had to admit a lack of proficiency in being inattentive. Even as he yearned for a piping hot cup of coffee, his mind ticked away inside the car. Carlocks on the door hadn't been tampered with. The window crank was sticky, but attached. The posted taxi driver credentials didn’t look like a forgery, and nothing about the accent seemed so overly exaggerated that it couldn’t pass for local.
Illya was on carbomb duty when Gaby was away, and Napoleon had caught the tilt back as the taxi pulled up that meant Illya had glanced at the undercarriage for any obvious signs. Now Illya was keeping an eye out the windows.
They were horrible at downtime, but it was nice to have someone to share the burden with.
He’d never had much in the way of leave between missions before, but U.N.C.L.E. mandated recovery time after any mission lasting longer than a month. He and Illya had shared an equally wide-eyed look of helplessness as they were sent away from Waverly’s office sans any kind of dosier and plus an in-tow Gaby, who bullied them into admitting that the last time either of them had a week of leave was far away and a long time ago. Napoleon couldn’t count their stop-off in Minnesota, which hadn’t so much been leave as a week of hell on earth.
He thought they would spend their week off in much the same way they spent nearly all their off time these days; however, Illya seemed to have different ideas.
And the morning had started so well.
With three bodies in one bed, it was almost a guarantee that their sleep patterns would rub off on each other. Napoleon couldn't drift off without hearing the beginnings of Peril’s soft snores, or feeling the sharp snag of Gaby’s fingernails dragging across his skin as she clung close in her sleep. Their combined heat could almost make Napoleon forget what it felt like to sleep in a cold bed.
He was so greedy for them he sometimes stayed awake for hours, trying to savor every small, insignificant detail: the way Gaby’s hair endlessly tangled and tumbled, no matter how well she tied it back. How Illya had started sleeping on his back but now slept on his side, curled towards them and quite a sight first thing in the morning.
He also learned pretty damn quickly how to sleep through their alarms. Napoleon never claimed to be a morning person. Sleeping in was a luxury he wasn't often granted between his time in the army then being at the beck and call of the CIA. So, with no mission pressing down on him and no demand to be up at the crack of dawn, Napoleon opted to stay asleep when he clocked Illya leaving their bed a 06:05 to go running, and again when Gaby tumbled out at 08:12 to start her own day. In return, they both had the decency to escape the covers with minimal effort, leaving Napoleon to slowly stretch himself out across their obscenely large mattress.
Their sheets smelled like Gaby’s engine oil and Illya’s cologne and sex. Napoleon burrowed deep into that odd mix as he drifted, warm and secure and most importantly not wanting to move.
Sometime later, a large hand folded around his shoulder, shaking him awake with surprising gentleness. Resigned, he cracked one eye open to see Illya towering over him.
"Time to rise."
"I can't find it within me to believe you."
Illya was never one for casual laughter, but even half asleep Napoleon could see a soft smirk fighting over his face. It did magnificent things for his eyes, and Napoleon wanted to count how many times he could make them light up today. His current best record was seven.
Illya was in a good mood. Instead of dragging Napoleon out of bed, he leaned down and pressed a kiss into his wayward curls. Napoleon hadn’t even run a comb through his hair yet, and he needed a shave, and the world was fuzzy around the edges without his first cup of coffee—but Illya and Gaby had no sense of decorum, always rampaging right through his defenses.
He didn’t articulate his thoughts more than that, but Illya understood anyway.
“She is out on her own shopping trip. You would know that if you woke up at decent hour.”
Napoleon should have seen that coming. Gaby had put her foot down on doing her own shopping nearly a year ago. Sometimes she was content, and even enjoyed, letting them dress her to their tastes; other times she told them in no uncertain terms that she would be the only one picking her clothes out. It seemed it was one of those days.
Napoleon supposed he and Illya couldn’t really complain. The last time Gaby shopped for her own clothes, she had brought back a little blue number they all enjoyed far too much.
“Or,” Napoleon countered, the words sharp in his mouth even as his brain struggled with wakefulness. “You could all stay put until a decent hour. You know, try to enjoy your vacation the way regular people do.”
Illya was in a very good mood, bestowing a kiss on Napoleon’s forehead instead of scolding him. Or maybe it was leftover good will from Madrid. Napoleon couldn't say that he minded .
Stumbling through his morning routine, Napoleon was able to make himself decent and presentable. He only questioned his willingness to put on the clothes left out for him after he looked in the mirror, the fantastic sharp lines at his shoulders and lepals tied down at the neck with a wavy, blue tragedy. A disaster.
But Illya caught him before he could enter the kitchen and demand why.
It was one suspicion of many. As entertaining as both Gaby and Illya found his morning behavior, they very rarely stood in his way to correct it, and that was definitely Illya's bus-like shoulders blocking his morning routine.
“Get dressed. There is a new cafe I think we should try."
“It’s too early for this nonsense."
“It’s almost noon and I am hungry. Clothes, now."
Which was how Napoleon found himself bundled into the back of a taxi, fiddling with his collar and distracted about the absolute indecency of pairing one of his most conservative suits with a tie that could casually be labeled as 'experimental'. He toyed with the idea of buying a replacement while they were out, but it never went past an idle thought. Illya had picked it out and, clashing or not, Napoleon knew he'd wear it all day.
The cáfe they visited was pleasant. Resting on the edge of Hyde Park, it was cozy and the tables spaced out enough from their neighbors that Napoleon and Illya could enjoy their own moment within the dim bustle around them. Their orders came quickly, so Napoleon enjoyed his first espresso with Illya's quiet company.
Illya kept glancing at him over the rim of his own cup, as if judging Napoleon's state of awareness. Part of his brain responded to Illya's full attention on him like a flower towards a sun, but the part of him that never completely managed to turn off (the one that kept an eye out for men in black suits and what kind of security a building posted) kicked him hard.
"What?" Napoleon prodded. He was more coherent now, and with that brought a new wave of suspicion. Illya was far too quiet, even for his usual taciturn standards. He hadn't even teased Napoleon about the hastily recovered stumble he took out of the taxi when they arrived. And now that Napoleon was looking closer, he saw the telltale intensity around Illya's eyes that spoke to his thoughts going a mile a minute.
"Quite. We should come back with Gaby tomorrow." The front case displayed a tower of lemon bars he knew she would love. He expected the mention of Gaby to garner some positive response out of Illya but the other man did nothing more than smile and shrug.
Napoleon finished his food feeling more than a little on edge. Illya dropped some cash onto the table and rose to his feet.
"Let's walk. You still need to wake up, Cowboy."
Napoleon disagreed. He now felt wide awake. Part of him wanted to start running now, but he reminded himself that this was Illya, one of the only two people Napoleon still cared about and listened to.
Napoleon still wasn't quite sure what happened next: one minute they were walking down the street debating the merits of the latest Smith and Wesson line, and the next he was holding the open for Illya as he crossed the threshold of Graff Diamonds.
He blamed his suit for the inattention. And the coffee. And Illya having an endgame that relied on Napoleon staying distracted.
"This is unexpected," he said for lack of anything better. “What are we doing here?”
“May I help you, sir?” The attendant behind the counter asked.
“Engagement rings,” Illya told her shortly. He was always mindful that his accent often put people on the defensive in this part of the world.
Napoleon chose to focus on that rather than the warning sirens ringing in his head.
The attendant’s eyes were bright as her smile became sharp, like a shark who could taste blood in the water.
“Of course. Does the lady favor a particular style?”
Illya described a few styles. Napoleon barely heard him, other than to note that he disagreed with half.
As the attendant fluttered away to pull a selection, Napoleon leaned in as closely as polite society dictated he could in public. He metered his voice, refusing to acknowledge his rising panic out loud.
“What are you doing?”
“I have been thinking,” Illya said. “It may be time to…offer something more."
“Illya. What is this? Gaby would—would hate that you, you-,”
“How about this one?”
“No. That’s horrible, put it back. You know-,” Napoleon was cut off again by the return of the attendant. That was alright; it gave him time to disengage, stuff down his adrenaline. Come up with a plan.
He wasn't so distracted that he didn't amend his earlier opinion: he hated all of Illya's ring choices.
"No," he huffed, plucking the princess cut ring from Illya's fingers and putting it back in its setting. "Just, no. She'll hate that. It's way too big for her, and she hates wearing yellow gold with this season's fashions anyway."
"I have done this before, Cowboy."
"And she has miraculously lost every ring you've put a tracker in. See a pattern there, Peril?"
Napoleon didn't point out that he also switched out his shoes with untraceable replacements whenever the opportunity arose. He was sure that Gaby shared his appreciation for Illya's concern regarding their safety, but that didn't stop them from making it a challenge.
Was Illya trying to separate out their relationships? Marry Gaby and partner with Napoleon? It was smart. An unpleasant prospect, but smart.
"Are you being obtuse on purpose?" Napoleon asked when Illya's hand strayed toward the Chanel. "I know you have better taste than that."
What they had was—well it wasn't conventional but it was working. Why was Illya deciding to change the rules? Hadn't Vienna prove how far they had come towards being a compatible team? Hadn't Madrid?
Napoleon leaned in closer, spectators be damned, and hissed: “This is revenge for Madrid, isn’t it?”
“I do not know what you are talking about,” Illya replied. Napoleon could've clocked him.
"Madrid only happened because of what you did in Vienna."
"You mean my job?"
“Only if your job was to drive us insane."
“Takes one to know one, Cowboy. What about this one?”
Napoleon looked down at the offered ring, a silver number with a setting folded up like a bow, and felt his sanity slipping down.
Istanbul (fall 1963)
"You sure this isn't suspicious?” Gaby asked, even as she smiled for Illya's camera. Beside her, the sun shone off Napoleon’s sunglasses as he looked out over the Sea of Marmara.
"Istanbul couldn't care less about what three American tourists get up to at the beach on a sunny day," he commented. “As long as we buy some souvenirs, take lots of pictures, and talk loudly about nothing no one will pay us a second thought.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard for you, Cowboy.” Half of Illya’s face was hidden by his camera, but Gaby could see the faint twist of his lips behind his hands. She was happier than she thought she would be to see it.
Instead of responding, Napoleon sent him an exaggerated smirk. Illya’s camera gave a soft click. She supposed he had a point. They'd been walking across the beach for a half hour, and no one seemed interested in the three of them.
Gaby experimented with a few forays into the shallow waves, spinning and dancing through them as they lapsed onto the rocky shore. Her body remembered the old routines and techniques, even after nearly five years. Her antics barely drew anything more than a quick glance, but it eased her nerves. Her knowledge of America was limited to anti-capitalist propaganda, the magazines her classmates used to sneak in during breaks, and Napoleon Solo. She didn't know the first thing about holding up their cover.
Napoleon and Illya weren't as concerned as she was. Assuming that no one would bother them here, Gaby figured, was a strategy that would work right up until the moment it didn't.
But the beach was nice. When they first arrived, Gaby had given into temptation and removed her shoes, thinking she could carry them while she got her feet wet. After the second time she nearly lost them to the sea, Napoleon had snagged them from her.
“That’s no way to treat a pair of Viviers,” he said. Gaby smiled and tossed him her purse as well. Now he kept pace with her, though he stayed on dryer land with her things in one hand and his jacket slung over his shoulder as the only concession to the Turkish summer heat. Illya trailed behind them, the occasional click the only sound he made. When Gaby glanced back, she spotted her zigzag footprints slowly washing away in the waves, and Napoleon’s own line of designer shoe prints, but Illya left no trace of himself in the sand.
“How are you doing that?” she wondered. She had to weigh half of what Illya did, and her footprints were evident all around her.
“Balance.” was his short answer. Gaby shot him an unamused look. There was another click.
"He's cheating," Napoleon told her with a conspiratorial look over his sunglasses. "There's a trick to it, and it’s the reason he won't come play in the water with you. It only works where the sand is firm enough to hold him but soft enough to give and absorb his tracks."
“It is not cheating. It is skill."
“With a side of showmanship.”
Gaby let them bicker. They were still settling in with each other, and there was only so much she wanted to interfere with that process. They had a mission to keep in mind, after all.
In the decades since WWII, Istanbul had undergone a curious flux of minorities emigrating to escape political pressure; and a boom of industrialization boasting immigration, for both work and for play. It was the perfect mix of chaos between rushing exits and entrances where human trafficking rings thrived. Rings the size of the one infecting Istanbul were hard to squash; foot soldiers were easily recruited and just as easily discarded, while masterminds were harder to identify than shadows in a dark alley. Victims were almost impossible to find once taken.
U.N.C.L.E. was concerned. With each passing month the ring stretched its influence further and further, and the list of their targets grew across countries. They needed to be dismantled, and for that they needed information. So far, U.N.C.L.E. had scarce little of that.
Theirs was a much needed reconnaissance mission, though Gaby suspected Waverly of wading them into the proverbial shallow end of the pool while the three of them learned to function as a unit rather than two opposing agents and a withholding asset. Her skills in espionage rested mostly in the practical application of bluffing and stall games, while Napoleon thrived on contacts and confidence schemes to gain information, but surveillance was Illya's bread and butter.
For all his identifiable traits—his height, his looks, the stiff accent—people ignored him when he melted into the background. It left Gaby endlessly impressed, and more than a little baffled. She couldn't lose sight of either Napoleon or Illya if her life depended on it. Napoleon was easier to explain on that front - the man shone like a beacon that even the most wayward of ships could sail toward. But Illya was a lodestone, solid and irresistible, with a pull that she couldn’t help but turn to time and time again.
"Tell me about the harbor," she asked when there was a pause behind her. They suspected the traffickers of using connections in the Istanbul harbor to ship out at night, and she wanted to find out just how much research Illya and Napoleon had put towards the theory.
“The Bosphorus is located on the Golden Horn, locally known as Haliç, and has stood as a testament to the diversity and cultural contribution of Istanbul, formally Constantinople, since the 7th century. Straddling Europe and Asia, it is the narrowest strait in the world. It functions both as Istanbul’s largest economic establishment and an important military stronghold. Exports include crude oil, minerals, and spices," Napoleon rattled off. He turned to gloat, but startled as Illya snapped another picture, aiming his camera so that the harbor docks would be caught in the frame.
Gaby rolled her eyes, and waving him off: Napoleon’s answer matched their intel dossier verbatim, and they both knew it.
In front of them, the sun set with slow grace, painting the sky red and purple. Across the harbor, the suspected hideout of their traffickers began to sink into shadow. They wouldn't get any more information on the beach today, though she pondered the possibility of sneaking into the harbor after dark.
Illya spent the time back to the hotel showing her how to roll her feet to distribute her weight, how to pick places in the sand that were packed enough to hold her without leaving much of a mark, and how to keep light and in motion so that her feet never settled into the sand. She couldn't completely hide her trail, but the story of their footprints shifted to show a pair of designer shoes walking with two ghostly companions.
They stopped at the edge of the shore so Gaby could slip her shoes back on, one hand on Napoleon’s arm for balance.
“Let’s talk about football,” she suggested. Napoleon raised an eyebrow.
“Good heavens, why?"
“It’s what Americans talk about, isn’t it?”
“Some of them, yes."
“We should. We are Americans, after all."
“Hopefully not that kind of American,” Illya muttered. Gaby ignored him.
She would admit that her lack of knowledge bothered her. Playing a group of Americans had seemed like the simplest idea, once Napoleon and Illya had been persuaded to reveal a few of their more flushed out covers to each other. With over a dozen passports from most major countries in the northern hemisphere scattered across the table, she was again reminded just how long Napoleon and Illya’s respective careers stretched.
In the end, Illya had produced a US passport that Napoleon then poured over before turning suspicious eyes up to him.
"Did the US government actually print this for you?"
"What do you think, Cowboy?"
Napoleon's face crumpled around the edges with petulance. Gaby suspected it was because he couldn’t boast his own USSR-made passport.
“Nice to see the spirit of cooperation is holding firm,” Waverly greeted them at the briefing. He had with him a new passport still hot from the press. When he handed it to Gaby, she discovered her new name was “Sarah Campbell”. Illya reached out and plucked it from her hand to scrutinize it himself.
“This is horrible picture," he decided, scratching at the surface of the photograph. “I will make you one better.”
“It doesn’t have to be good,” Waverly told them, shoeing them all out the door. “It has to be realistic."
Those were the words he used when he recruited her two years ago. Be realistic. Gaby had carved it into her body for how much she ruminated on them. If she was realistic, she was believable; and if she was believable, she stayed safe. Details were what kept her safe, so she collected them like a greedy crow with trinkets.
Details that included American football—only Napoleon wasn’t a well of information on that front.
“We can pick up a newspaper if you’re that determined about it.”
“Why would I need a newspaper?”
“To check the scores from last night. Just treat it like you would European football. It’s not that different."
“Untrue,” Illya countered as they made their way through the busy streets. “I have never been to football match that required helmets.”
“They wear helmets?” Gaby asked, her nerves kicked up and past rationalizing. Why had no one told--how was that not an important thing to know?
Napoleon spent the rest of their trip reassuring her that no one was going to ask them about American football, but by the time Illya unlocked their hotel door she was almost convinced that her cover could be blown the moment someone asked her how many yards were rushed during the weekend game.
Their rooms were tucked in the corner of the Istanbul Hilton, two bedrooms connected with a shared living room. Gaby had not volunteered as anyone’s finance, nor had she argued when Illya and Napoleon ended up bunked together. If they were going to be a team they needed to be comfortable around each other, and Gaby had no desire to mediate between their egos.
She dusted the lingering sand off her feet and legs before she stepped inside, but Napoleon didn’t bother to follow her example. He headed straight for the small bar in corner. Gaby caught the look of annoyance that crossed Illya’s face at the thin trail of sand Napoleon left in his wake.
She considered heading off the argument brewing in the air like a bad storm, but decided against it. They'd never be an effective team if she had to tackle Illya and Napoleon’s opposing natures every time they grated against each other.
“I’m going to check in with Waverly,” she said, turning to retreat from their suite. She was fairly sure their handler was somewhere in the building.
Napoleon raised his glass to her in farewell, just before Illya threw a coaster at him.
The fourth time Gaby tried to resituate herself under the covers, she gave up any attempt at sleep. She had been trying to drift for hours now, but every time she closed her eyes tension built in her chest. It became harder to breath. She kept seeing overturned jeeps and orange-tinted water that tasted like clay.
She crawled out of bed, annoyed at her limbs' sluggish reactions. She needed sleep, but it was exhausting her to try.
She wasn't alone. As Gaby searched out the bar in the living room, she was only slightly surprised to find Illya, still and quiet as a gargoyle perched in an overstuff chair, hovering over the table. His chess set lay spread across the glassy surface, and while Gaby couldn't tell which set was winning, more white pieces lined the side of the board than black ones. When his eyes snapped towards her, she saw all her own frustration mirrored back in his face.
She had to cross the room, and Illya's presence, to get to the small mini-bar, where she mixed together a Sidecar and dug out Napoleon's copy of yesterday's paper. But on her way to the couch, impulse overtook her- she reached out to brush her fingers across the exposed skin of Illya's neck. Ever since they arrived in Istanbul, Illya had worked to keep distance between them, to stay polite and attentive, avoiding any accidental contact. She hadn't minded at first; it would take time to rebuild an understanding between them. But as the week went on she missed the closeness they had shared in Rome, as duplicitous as it was.
Illya, who had been toying with a captured pawn while she got her drink, set it down with a firm tap against the table. He went still after that, though Gaby could feel the tension running through him tighter than a serpentine belt through one of her engines. She ran her fingernails in a gentle tease through his hairline and felt twin thrills of satisfaction and guilt when he shuddered under her. But he didn't turn around.
Gaby released him from her touch, like cutting an anchor off a boat, and sat on the couch with little grace. She was too tired for conversation.
She flipped open the paper, trying to concentrate on the words in front of her rather than what Illya was doing. It was maddeningly slow going. As she struggled with the newspaper being in English, beside her Illya resumed pushing his game pieces methodically across the checkered squares.
Eventually, she gave up, set the paper aside, and leaned over until she was stretched across the couch with a decorative pillow hugged to her chest.
Illya was resetting the game. She wondered which side had won.
"You're still mad at me," Gaby wasn't sure where the courage to say it came from—probably the fact that she hadn't slept a full night since Rome.
"I am not," Illya replied immediately. A simmering bubble of relief popped in her chest when he glanced at her again. Illya wasn't like Napoleon, who could hide his thoughts behind a saucy smile and an all-too-knowing look. When Illya spoke, he spoke with his eyes, and his mouth, and every muscle in his body. He couldn’t lie like he breathed.
After a moment, his attention turned back to the game, but he did reach over to pick up the remains of her newspaper. He carefully refolded it into a neat rectangle, which he set on the other side of the table.
"Then why won't you talk to me?"
"I did not know you wished to talk,” he told the chess set. “What do you want to talk about?”
She stuck her foot out to poke at his arm. She thought Illya would bat her away with a gentle, giant hand, but instead he simply grasped her ankle. If he tugged with just a portion of his strength, he’d easily pull her off the couch. With a care that still startled her, he set her back to rights.
“Italian architects?” she offered.
“Not as good as Russian ones.”
“Cowboy not enough for you?”
“He is. How about we talk about you?”
“You know me.”
Gaby scoffed. She knew about Illya’s parents, and his career at the KGB. She knew about his control issues. She didn’t know what food he liked. Which colors he favored if given a choice. Which cities he liked to be in. Which dress in her closet he liked best.
She wanted to know all of those things, and so much more. But Illya looked nervous and suspicious and hopeful and curious all at once and she worried the wrong thing would chase him back down his bolthole.
“Tell me how you play chess,” she said instead.
Gaby got enough sleep to function. She celebrated that and the fact that she got Illya to sleep before dawn, after they had worked their way through two rounds of chess. He won both times, but beating him hadn’t been the point. She wanted to understand why he loved to play as much as he did. What pieces he favored and what strategies he liked to use. She couldn’t say she got all those answers last night, but it was a start.
She was pulled from her thoughts when a handful of tiny surveillance bugs landed next to the cup of coffee she had called up for twenty minutes ago. The round plastic pins rolled every which way across the table. Napoleon, looking more irritated she had ever seen him, settled into the chair next to her.
“Good morning,” he greeted with false cheer. “I hope you ordered enough for all of us.”
“You’re up early.” He also looked ready for the day, despite the hour. His suit was perfectly pressed, and not a strand of hair was out of place. His brilliant blue eyes were sharp as shredded steel.
“Only because I have to be if I want to stop Peril from planting a bug in everything I own. This,” his fingers ran through the pile of trackers. "Needs to stop."
"He's only concerned," she muttered as she picked one up. They were remarkably light. "And they helped in Rome, if I recall."
"They did. One I could swallow." Gaby doubted that. Napoleon looked like even that concession grated him. "Not one in every piece of clothing I own. I keep debugging myself in the morning only to find more in the evening. I don't need someone knowing every step I take. The CIA wasn't even this bad."
"They just let you run wild, didn't they?” She supposed there was a certain expectation to be had with agents whom had no problems running cars into buildings to achieve their mission goals. They could never hope to control Napoleon Solo any more than he wanted to be controlled.
"You know that's not true," he said, though his eyes were already tracing the room. Tension was building across his tailored shoulders.
"Let's go out for breakfast," he suggested. "Peril can fend for himself for the morning. Feel free to leave your ring on the bureau."
They found a small café around the corner from their hotel. Gaby didn't have much of an opinion on Turkish food one way or another, but Napoleon seemed to love it and was verbose in sharing his opinions. She couldn’t even pronounce what he ordered, and declined a taste of it by virtue of wanting to keep her own breakfast in her stomach.
After, Napoleon offered her his arm and they wandered aimlessly through the market. She suspected he didn't want Illya overhearing their conversation.
"There's something else," Gaby decided to confront the problem head on.
"We've been in the hotel room for a week and it looks like we just arrived yesterday."
Gaby suppressed a wince at the tension in his voice. She aimed for neutral. "Illya likes to keep things tidy. I can't say I mind."
"Tidy isn't a problem. Obsessive control, however, tends to set my teeth on edge. You're supposed to be able to relax at home base, not stress over a little mess."
"Are you complaining because Illya cleans too much?"
"I'm pointing out that functioning on constant alert isn’t my idea of a productive mission."
“Have you brought it up to Illya?” she knew the answer, but enjoyed the twisted look on Napoleon’s face when she asked.
“I’m not—I usually work alone."
“So does Illya. So do I, actually.” Two whole years on her own, constantly on alert to any of her father’s old connections approaching her.
Part of it, she figured, was them adapting to Waverly’s style of handling. She was used to it; light touches and subtle prompting at the best of times, and complete silence at the worst. Her handler was not one to get in the way of what a field agent thought best. He provided her with the tools to function without him and checked in only at intervals he deemed safe. He trusted her judgment past that.
Gaby thrived under his management. Illya and Napoleon, on the other hand, were acting like dogs just let off their leashes. Without an omnipresent hand on his neck, Illya was becoming more and more frustrated with his perceived lack of direction. She had the impression the KGB did not allow him much room for deviation when they let him out on missions. She didn’t mention it to Napoleon, but she suspected much of their current tension stemmed from Illya’s growing apprehension over it.
Reversely, Napoleon was slinking around the edges of everything. As if he had just realized how much freedom he had and was afraid to point it out. If he made too much noise about it, someone may try to put his collar back on him.
Honestly, Gaby just wished they would both realize she would never allow them to go back to what they were like before. She planned to keep them close. They wouldn't be leashed again.
Gaby took a breath to speak, and ended up swallowing it when a pair of hands reached out from the alley. One snagged the collar of her dress, and the other slapped itself over her mouth before the scream got past her throat. Napoleon’s hand reached for her arm with bruising strength, and she tried to cling to him as she was dragged backwards. But whoever had a grip on her wasn’t alone, and two burly figures descended on Napoleon from behind.
She didn’t want to release Napoleon, but it freed up her hands to claw her fingernails up her assailant’s arms. She felt a moment a triumph when she felt blood under her fingers but another man popped up in front of her and grabbed her wrists. A gag was pressed against her teeth, and fingers pried her jaw open to shove it further into her mouth. It tasted like smokey cotton and sweat. Her vision was narrowing down to the shadows and the sky, but she could feel scratchy rope wrapping around her wrists.
“Careful!” she heard one of them hiss in her ear. “We won’t get a penny for you if you’re covered in bruises, now will we?”
She didn’t particularly care about that, though a far off part of her wondered why they spoke English. That, though, was for a time when they weren’t trussing her up like a prized hog and dragging her to the open car trunk further down the alley. She caught one of them in the eye with her elbow and tried to make a run for it as he yelped and flinched away from her, but the second one caught her around her waist and plucked her off her feet. A thick arm encircled her neck, making it harder to breath.
“Mind you, a pair of good-looking Americans will fetch a good price in our market, no matter how beat up you are,” he snarled. Gaby struggled to escape, but her small frame worked against her when he hefted her up and dropped her into the trunk. She twisted to climb back out and was pushed deeper into the rough upholstery for her efforts.
The thug grinned down at her, most of his face covered by a dark patterned scarf. Gaby devoted herself to hating him in that moment.
The thug glanced over his shoulder, and that was all the opening Gaby needed. She let her temper and adrenaline carry her though her fear, because she refused to go down without a fight. She couldn’t see where the thug's nose was, but the heel of her foot swung close enough that she could see blood starting to soak into the dark material around his face. As he reared away, Gaby rolled and pushed herself over the lip of the trunk. There was a ripping sound she was fairly sure was her dress, but if she had to sacrifice it to get away she would. Once she was on her feet, another kick to his groin put the smarmy thug down, letting her address the next problem.
The ropes were bound tightly around her wrists, but they were tied in front and the knot was sloppy, so Gaby took a deep breath against the pain and twisted until she had enough slack to rip them off. The gag was next and she spat it out with relief, though the taste stayed in her mouth as a rough and raspy reminder that she wasn’t out of danger yet.
The three remaining thugs were manhandling Napoleon,. Bound as she had been, they had an easy time hauling him away from the mouth of the alley—and the gun, which she saw sitting shiny and useless far out of reach past them. They pushed him up against the wall and held him there, the three of them enough to overcome his struggles. She realized they wanted to tire him out, so he would be easier to subdue, but they seemed as reluctant to brutalize him as they had been with her. Gaby wasn’t playing by those rules.
There was a tire iron in the trunk. She used it to drop the one closest to her, aiming for his knees and then his face once he dropped low enough for her to put most of her weight into the swing. Napoleon, wrestling free in the opening she created for him, rushed her the moment she straightened.
She had never been thrown before, but Napoleon tried his damn best to rectify that as his shoulder hit her gut.
“Don’t you dare!” she barely had time to snarl, and in the next moment she flew.
Spotted sunlight and summer air rushed by in flashes before her body met the cobblestones. Pain flared across her knees and her still healing shoulder, and the warm, sticky sensation of blood spilt down her legs.
Someone hovered over her. For a brief moment, she thought it was Napoleon, and made to grab his hand and run, only to realize it was a man she didn’t recognize. She flinched away when he stretched his hand out to her, though he made no move to grab her. His face wasn’t hidden with a scarf but she could see herself in the reflection of his brassy sunglasses. After a moment, the stranger's hand still patiently outstretched, she took the offered hand. The man pulled her to her feet. She tilted her head down, clenching her teeth, and head-butted him like Illya had taught her to do.
“Napoleon!” she called out, rushing past the cursing man in sunglasses to find her partner. If she was going to be kidnapped, she was determined to make them work for it.
“Gaby!” Napoleon answered, and she followed his voice until she found him walking on his own power and battling against his bonds. He shouldered his way to her, relief evident on his face. No one stopped him.
“Stop,” she ordered when she saw his mangled wrists. Whichever one of the thugs who bound him knew more than the one who handled Gaby. The knot had only tightened around his wrists as he fought to get out of them. She didn’t bemoan the nails she broke working the knot out, concerned with how quickly Napoleon’s wrists were bruising and how thin trails of blood trickled down his forearms. Would that hinder them from escaping?
That was when Gaby realized the noise had stopped, or at least died down. There were still masked men in the alley behind them, but their attention was focused on the sudden apparition of many disgruntled men in dark suits around them. They looked much less sure of themselves than they had when taunting her. No one seemed to be paying much attention to either of them, but more importantly no one was making a move to grab them.
“Are you alright?” Napoleon asked as if he wasn’t a complete mess: along with his wrists, the seam of his jacket shoulder was ripped, his tie was gone, and he was bleeding from a nasty cut across his temple. His eyes seemed a little unfocused. Did he have a concussion? Was he hurt anywhere else? She expected him to hide it, if he was. She’d have to figure out a way to get his jacket off to be sure. She’d get Illya to help her if Napoleon put up a fuss about it.
“I’m fine,” she said. He didn’t believe her, if the way his hands were tracking over her was any indication.
“Well, when I tasked you with weeding out a contact in the smuggling ring, I didn’t expect you to achieve your objective by being abducted by it,” scolded a familiar voice, and Waverly appeared beside them as if summoned by the wind. He was light and airy in a linen summer suit, as if he had just run into them during a pleasant garden party.
Gaby looked down, and a pair of curl-toed shoes stared back up at her from Waverly’s feet. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised.
“How did you get here?” Now that she had Napoleon back at her side, her focus was returning. And the burning embarrassment at almost being kidnapped by the same human trafficking ring they were surveilling. It would take forever for them to live this down.
“Your surveillance team alerted me to your, ah, sudden indisposition,” Waverly explained with aplomb. "I must commend you on your skills, Ms. Teller. I do believe you broke Mr. Ryan’s nose with that headbutt.”
Gaby didn’t feel too bad about that. He had been between her and Napoleon; she had needed him to move.
“Our surveillance—you’re having us followed?” Napoleon sounded miffed, impressed, and disgruntled all at the same time.
"It’s your first official mission with U.N.C.L.E. as a team,” Waverly replied. “S.O.P. requires that all probationary teams are monitored in case extraction becomes a concern. I must point out, Mr. Solo, you’d know that if you’d read any of the paperwork I had you sign when we arrived.”
“I knew I forgot to do something,” Napoleon said. Gaby leaned into his side to soothe his injured tone.
“Are you taking them in for question—,” she started to ask, only for Waverly’s eyes alight on something behind them.
“Ah. Hello, Mr. Kuriyakin!”
Gaby’s stomach dropped like a stone. She wondered if she and Napoleon could make it down the street before Illya had a chance to catch them. It was a vain hope—she knew Illya was faster than either of them could ever hope to be—but anything would be better than turning around and admitting to Illya that they’d almost been kidnapped when they had snuck away from him.
“Good to see you, Peril,” Napoleon said cheerfully, unable to resist poking the bear. Gaby gave in to temptation and buried her face into the wrinkled fabric of his shirt.
She felt Illya loom in behind her, closer than expected. A shadow blocked out the heat of the dappled sun only to be replaced by the simmering furnace that was Illya. One hand landed on her bare shoulder where her dress ripped and fluttered down her back. Glancing up, she saw Illya’s other hand on the side of Napoleon’s face, tilting it up so he could see the bleeding cut there.
Illya’s face was neutral. It worried her more than the menacing of their would-be captors.
“We will be leaving now, Mr. Waverly,” Illya told the man over his shoulder. “This will not be problem?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, dear boy. Go right ahead. I know where to find you when I need you.”
Gaby’s dress was a disaster. Napoleon wasn’t sure how she had managed to rip a hole in the bright fabric from collar to hip, but decency had him shrugging off his jacket and dropping it around her shoulders for the walk back to the hotel. She snapped out of her quiet contemplation long enough to tell him to stop straining his wrists.
He tried to ignore Illya, an impossible task when the other man never let Gaby or Napoleon slip more than a few feet away from him. If either of them strayed too far ahead, a freakishly long arm immediately grabbed them and dragged them back into Illya’s space. Napoleon had never been on so short a tether, not even during his first outings with the CIA.
Thankfully they made it back to the hotel with little incident. Who knows what would happen if anything got in Peril’s way right now. But his partner was staying calm; Napoleon supposed that counted for something.
As soon as they got back to their rooms, Napoleon poured himself a finger of scotch and tossed it back without tasting it. It was early even by his standards, but what a day it had been already. Almost a victim of a human trafficking ring, and he hadn’t even noticed until the attackers were upon them. Waverly was having them followed. Gaby had nearly paid for his mistakes because his attention slipped.
He kept stuttering over that last part.
Istanbul had been one big game, and Napoleon took issue with not knowing what rules he was playing by. Harder to ignore was the building tension in one Illya Kuriyakin, Red Peril of the USSR.
"How did you let this happen?” was Illya’s opening salvo. Napoleon, cringing against the embarrassment flooding through him, refilled his glass.
“It was an unpredictable twist, Illya,” Gaby commented from the couch. She had kicked off her shoes the moment they crossed the threshold, but hadn’t changed out of her torn dress, opting to curl up on the couch with Napoleon’s jacket wrapped around her. Napoleon passed his drink over to her, and poured another one for himself. “We couldn’t expect that they’d try to kidnap us.”
“Agents should expect anything,” Illya snapped. “You did not even have tracker.”
“Yes, let’s talk about the trackers,” Napoleon had to fight to keep from baring his teeth. He never enjoyed being chewed out.
How could he admit that he had been distracted? That he was more focused with Gaby on his arm and Illya on his mind? How puzzling was it that he was so wound up by a KGB agent when he was able to shrug off any annoyance the CIA saddled him with? How Gaby listened to his complaints but didn't back down from them?
Napoleon set his drink down as he circled the room. He thought better when he was moving.
“We’ll come back to that later,” Gaby cut in before Illya could respond. “Why don’t we concentrate on what we learned?”
“Why bother? Waverly will just sweat the ones we caught for information.”
“Amuse me,” Gaby replied sardonically, taking a slow sip from her drink before settling it down on a nearby coaster. Napoleon suspected she wanted them focused on anything that wasn’t tearing each other apart.
But it wasn’t Illya who Napoleon wanted to tear apart, it was himself: part of him wanting to explain that he would never deliberately put Gaby in danger, or be so sloppy as to assume he needed Illya to pull him from the fire. Another part of him wanted to defend his actions and save what little regard Illya still had for him. Neither side won out; all Napoleon could do was keep moving.
“They spoke English,” he pointed out. “That means the ring leaders are outsourcing their dirty work.”
“Or that the ring is centered further west than we originally thought,” Gaby countered. Napoleon reached for his drink, only to find empty air where he had left it on the table. It had taken up residence on a coaster a few feet further down the table. He made a noise of frustration and grabbed for it.
“Or that there’s something else going on,” he said after he took a long swallow. He abandoned his drink on the bar counter as his legs took him around the room again. “Who grabs their targets in the middle of broad daylight? They couldn’t have been following us for long."
“Do you remember anything else about them?” Illya prompted. “Accent? Distinctive piece of clothing?”
“They didn’t sound American,” Gaby said.
“No, but they’re more than common thugs. They found my shoulder harness and my back-up piece fast—points for potential military training."
Napoleon’s drink had moved again. This time back to the table, again on a coaster. Napoleon picked it up and took another sip. He dropped it back on the table with a clunk as he collapsed onto the couch beside Gaby. He winced as his wrists throbbed, his sleeve sliding up against raw bruises. He should get those bandaged.
“Doesn’t mean that they—,”
His instincts may have failed him an hour ago, but they were kind enough to warn him now. His glass was too far away to rescue, but he saved Gaby’s as Illya’s hands wrapped around the table and, with what seemed to be only the slightest amount of effort, flipped the table away from them.
Gaby rocked back into the couch cushions, bloodied and bruised legs drawn up to avoid the mess of glass and wood that went flying. Her face was closed off, but there was no fear or surprise on it. She had seen Illya’s reaction coming just as Napoleon had.
Napoleon rose to his feet as Illya stormed across the room, mouth twisted in a half suppressed snarl and hands twitching.
“We’ve really got to work on your coping skills, Peril.”
“This is not—KGB agents do not run around half-cocked!” Illya pushed out. “You both just vanished. It, it is not Russian way.” Illya fell silent as he struggled to articulate his thoughts.
“We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, Illya, but it wasn’t something we planned when we left for breakfast this morning," Gaby tried again. Napoleon’s concern grew when her words flew right past Illya without stopping to calm him down. Soft-boned Italians and Roman hotel rooms were enough to show the kind of damage Peril could do during an episode.
The night he escaped from East Berlin, Napoleon had spent far too long elbow-deep in the KGB identification records. Once he had a name to go along with Illya’s face, he had read everything he could find on the man. It had evolved into a hateful, sleepless night but the benefits outweighed the inconvenience.
Illya despised feeling powerless. Napoleon knew it when he deliberately pushed his buttons in a West Berlin cafe, Napoleon knew it when he caught Illya staring at him across the hotel room with regretful murder in his eyes, and Napoleon knew it now. He could see the faint tremor starting in Illya’s fingers, and the way his eyes kept shifting to the available exits in the room.
It made sense. The CIA micromanaged Napoleon to a fault when they wanted to, but once he was in the field he was usually left alone to work off his instincts with outside support at his discretion. He was willing to bet the KGB had never been so liberal with Illya. He likely had no idea how to handle being left alone in the field with the only order being to make do.
All of this passed very quickly through Napoleon’s mind as he scrambled for a way to keep Illya in control—anything for him to focus on that wasn’t his building rage and helplessness. Handing Gaby back her glass to free up his hands, he approached Illya.
Napoleon knew there was no way he could go toe-to-toe physically with the Russian and stand a chance of winning. But there were still options, because as long as Napoleon’s mouth wasn’t duct taped shut he could manage a lot.
“Really, Peril, and here I thought you had moved past property destruction to express yourself."
Illya didn’t respond. He didn’t even glance towards Napoleon. That wouldn’t do at all.
“Are you upset that we found your trackers? It’s not like you’re making it difficult for us anymore. It only took ten minutes to dig them all out, and most of that was spent on the one you got into the lining of my jacket.”
Still nothing. Illya paced back and forth, and the only acknowledgment was a deep, soft growl that sent Napoleon’s flight instincts on edge. He dug for something he figured would at least get a reaction.
“I was going to keep the watch,” he said in a rush. In retrospect, he thought, it was not the best way to contain Peril's rage. But it had the desired effect of redirecting Illya's cold gaze onto him. Out of the corner of his eye, Napoleon saw Gaby’s face turn pale in shock.
“Your father’s watch. I was going to keep it."
“…Why?” Illya sounded—well, he sounded hurt. Almost. There was still a lot of anger there, but he didn’t sound like murder dragged along a gravel road anymore, so Napoleon counted it as a win.
“I thought it would go well with my suits.”
Napoleon honestly expected a pair of hands around his neck for that, but Illya surprised him. Again. That was becoming a bad habit. Instead of his neck, those strong, scary, large hands dug into the material of his rumpled shirt as Illya dragged him closer.
"Stop lying. Why?"
Napoleon told him the truth because sometimes—not often, but sometimes—it was the better option. And he hoped it would take away at least a little of the haunted look in Illya’s eyes.
"Because I thought I was never going to see you again."
Illya blinked at him. Napoleon's mouth kept running without much input from his brain. His survival instinct was screaming that this was one of those times he needed to talk about something substantial rather than distract and run.
"I was trying for Gaby's Gucci glasses, too," he continued, ignoring her sound of protest. "She never wanted to let them go after you picked them out. She loves them. I thought, you'd disappear back behind the Iron Curtain, and Gaby was—well I had no idea what Waverly had planned for her. I just thought..." that he was still a thief at heart. That he wanted mementos from people who he actually managed to work with and not completely infuriate or run off. People who could keep up with him, but weren’t like him. People that held his attention for longer than a day.
Illya’s stare seared into him. "We spent week together. Not much to go on, Cowboy."
Maybe Illya didn't see it. The man was surprisingly blind to a few things for how perceptive he was about others. "You came back for me. You didn't have to."
"And you did not leave me to drown. You do not leave your team behind,” Illya said, even as he sent them both a strong look.
“The CIA would have,” Napoleon said, ignoring the bait. It was something he had known from the beginning about his employers. He was expendable, and they would drop him in a heartbeat if it meant keeping their hands even a little cleaner. It was why he had striven to be the best because maybe, when it counted, they would decide the benefit of saving their finest would outweigh their effort to come get him.
“The CIA would have left you in that man’s hands?”
“What, are you saying the KGB would have come back for you?"
“Waverly came back for me,” Gaby piped in.
“Yes, Gaby. We’re well aware of that,” Napoleon tossed over his shoulder without looking her way. Illya’s hands were still on his shoulders, but the rigid tension was gone from his grip. He looked more in control now; the twitching was minuscule at best and he met Napoleon’s eyes instead of avoiding them.
Napoleon hoped that baring a part of himself he didn’t like to examine was about to pay because he couldn't believe he had actually admitted to planning to keep the watch. After Rome, he figured he’d take that to his grave. Nice to know he’d lasted a week and a half on that.
“Well,” Gaby said, saving them both from the awkwardness of continuing their conversation. “I guess it’s my turn, isn’t it?”
“For what?” Illya moved his hands down Napoleon’s arms to his wrists, encircling his forearms to closer inspect their damage. With a faint ‘tsk’ sound, he shoved Napoleon toward the couch and sidestepped into his room. Gaby tipped back the rest of her glass in one go, then tilted her empty glass toward Napoleon. He took it with a flourish and refilled the glass with scotch, not paying particular attention to how many fingers he poured.
“To share a secret.” Gaby explained.
Illya reappeared, medical kit in hand. He dropped it on the couch next to her, but she waved him off in favor of taking the glass back from Napoleon.
“Is that what we’re doing?”
“Yes. Trade with me,” she ordered, making grabby motions with her other hand. Napoleon took the hint and helped her to her feet. He even let her shove him down into the couch in her place. Illya immediately tucked his fingers under Napoleon’s chin, pulled him closer, and stuck an antiseptic patch on the cut across his temple. Another was used to scrub at the trail of dried blood down his cheek and chin. He knew he shouldn’t have gone near the couch.
Napoleon thought Gaby would toss back the glass again (he was learning how well she held her liquor), but instead she circled the couch, placed her empty hand on the low back of it, and rose her other arm in a graceful arch above her head. With absent care, she settled the half full glass onto her tangled mass of hair. Napoleon’s jacket billowed around her, but she paid it no mind as she straightened her spine. She pointed a slender finger downward and Napoleon craned his neck over the back of the couch to spy her bare toes in the plush carpet.
“First position,” she muttered, setting her feet in opposite directions. “Second,” as she eased them apart. “Third,” she drew them back together to touch heel to arch. “Fourth,” while she slid one forward. “Fifth,” as she twisted her ankle in a way Napoleon couldn’t find completely natural. “Sixth,” when she brought them both pointing forward again. “And seventh.” She rose up to the balls of her feet, tension running easy through her body as she kept her head forward and level. The half full glass of scotch barely moved.
“Adagio,” she explained. She returned her heels to the carpet, only to twist her torso and raise her leg behind her in a graceful arch while her spine curved and carried her chest and shoulders forward.
“Barre,” she started, shifting her leg to the side, only to quickly regroup and snatch the glass off her head before she stumbled forward a bit. She winced and took another sip as she returned to the couch, dropping down next to Napoleon. "I'm a little out of practice."
“You have training,” Illya muttered as he began unbuttoning Napoleon’s sleeve. Napoleon was struck speechless enough to let him roll it up to his elbow.
“First soloist with the Berlin Ballet,” Gaby told them, looking into her glass rather than meeting either of their gazes.
“Prestigious position,” Illya praised. Gaby snorted as she drew her feet up. One of Napoleon’s hands was at the mercy of Illya’s iodine, but he used the other to pull her ankles until her legs were draped over his lap. If nothing else, it would make it easier for Illya to get at her battered knees.
“It was a rut. Two weeks after I was promoted I knew I’d never become a principle dancer. Too much was wrong with me.”
“I find it hard to believe anyone could find fault with you,” Napoleon said. Gaby rolled her eyes and wriggled her toes at him.
“Too short,” she explained. “My leg to torso ratio is all wrong. My chest was too big. My arms were too short. I can’t hold my face still when I dance. There was more, but I forget exactly what. It’s been nearly five years since I left.”
Illya finished wrapping one of his wrists, so Napoleon took his hand back and skated his fingers in a gentle tease over the skin above Gaby’s knee. His gambit worked when she smiled and kicked at him in return. Illya ignored their scuffle and reached across Napoleon to snag his other wrist.
“Is that why you left?” he asked. The flicker in Illya’s eyes told him the Russian was just as curious, even if he didn’t voice it.
“Part of it,” Gaby admitted. She didn’t complain when Napoleon stole the glass back and took his own sip. It strained at the bandages around his wrist, but he could admit they did feel better. He only winced when Illya prodded a bruise too deeply. “Anton's health was starting to fail even back then. The other shop hands were idiots, so I spent more of my time in the garage after he lost his bookkeeper. No one else could keep the ledgers straight. He never thought a career in ballet would support me anyways. He only let me continue because I started when…well, before he became my foster father. He wanted to teach me how to fix things so that I’d have a real skill.”
She dragged Napoleon’s hand over to her by the cuff of his folded up sleeve, and took another swallow of scotch directly out of his hand.
“He told me he just wanted me prepared. That he didn’t want to die not knowing I’d be alright.”
“He loved you,” Illya muttered, tying off the last bandage. The envy in his voice was undeniable. As was the smile, however small it was, when he leaned forward and ran his fingers up her calf. Napoleon let the moment pass without comment.
“He did,” Gaby agreed, releasing Napoleon so he could take another drink, a little bigger than it needed to be. In a show in solidarity, he offered the glass to Illya as well. Once again, the Russian surprised him by taking the offer, stealing his own sip with only a slightly disgruntled look.
“Vodka, next time,” he ordered as he reached out and rummaged around in the medical kit at his feet. The damp cloth he found went to wiping the blood and grime off Gaby’s knees.
They sat in companionable silence while he disinfected and bandaged Gaby up, though Napoleon could help but encourage her when she danced her toes up the inside of Illya’s elbow. The awkward face he made was just too much to resist, as was the mischievous smile across Gaby’s face when she stole the scotch glass back.
None of them said it, but they all knew it. It was Illya’s turn next. He could stall all he wanted, but there were only so many bandages that could fit around Gaby’s knees, and only so long before Napoleon started testing his boundaries.
Finally, Illya was out of things to bandage. They both looked at him in expectation. Untangling himself, Illya rose to his feet and walked back to his room. When he returned, he did not retake his old seat, instead reaching down to righten the overturned coffee table. He dusted off the imaginary debris from its surface and took a seat on it so he sat across from them both. In his hands were two envelopes, one of which tossed into Gaby’s lap.
"What are these?” she asked as she passed the glass back to Napoleon to better unwrap the envelope. Inside was a stack of photographs, only they didn't look very much like the harbor they had been covertly eyeing during their walk. The first few were a little blurred, but then she got to a handful that made Napoleon’s eyebrows reach his hairline.
The first photograph showed Gaby crouched down beside a gentle wave caught in the action of rolling onto shore. Her arm reached out for it while the wind kicked up her ponytail and the hem of her dress, revealing the bend of her knee and a generous portion of her thigh. In another photo, taken further away, she played among the shallow waves on a sand beach. The water was captured in the act of licking her legs, headless of the expensive dress she wore. The wind tossed her artful curls and pins into the air in complete disarray, as if strong, burly fingers had been racked through it. Her smile was evident even from the distance. And that was just the start of the stack. In each and every one she looked lovely and ethereal and open, all taken through the lens of Illya’s camera. Not a single one of them showed the dock they were supposed to be surveilling.
“Illya…” Gaby trailed off, slowly going through them. She raised her head to stare at him, before her eyes landed on the second envelope. “That’s not all, is it?” Illya hesitated, and Napoleon could see he was starting to back out.
He tossed the mostly empty tumbler at Illya, using the distraction to snatch the envelope from his giant hands and grinning at the resulting look of exasperation.
“You said you wanted vodka,” Napoleon pointed out. "I think I saw some at the bar.” Illya glared, but tossed back the remainder of the scotch and rose to his feet. Napoleon considered his strategic retreat while he worked the other envelope open. Gaby leaned in to peer over his shoulder.
The first one took his breath away. The sunset stretched from edge to edge, with the rocky shore dancing along the bottom in piles and pulls. A silhouette that could only belong to Napoleon stood in the foreground, effortlessly striking with the outline of his pressed shirt and waistcoat snug against the lines of his body and his head down as if in prayer to the sun. Another had him smiling head on to the camera, the sun, the beach, and the horizon mirrored back into the camera by the reflection of his sunglasses. He looked suave and mysterious in a way he often felt but his mug shots failed to capture. He flipped through photo after photo, more than a little touched that someone found him that deserving of attention.
Illya slinked back to the coffee table, deliberately avoiding their eyes as he resumed his spot and set a very full glass of vodka and ice down beside him. Napoleon kicked his feet up to rest on his other side—the only way he would be able to escape would be over Napoleon or by Gaby. Illya didn’t complain as he winnowed down his vodka.
Quite a few pictures were of Gaby and him together, though a particular one caught his attention. It portrayed Gaby, who during their walk had gotten annoyed and tried to tackle Napoleon in the spirit of American football, wrapped clinging around his shoulders. He had been prepared for her and managed to catch her by her waist and plant his feet firm enough to keep them both upright. He had slipped for just a moment, and a true smile snuck out, stretching his face a little too wide behind his sunglasses. Illya stole their image in a perfect moment, catching that smile and Gaby’s exuberance within the frame. Napoleon set that one aside, planning to sneak it into his own things later.
“I didn’t realize you took this many of us,” Gaby admitted. She had reached the end of her own stack, so she plucked Napoleon’s out of his hands and traded them for hers. They were a treasure he never knew existed, and he paged through them with undisguised glee.
“I did not either until I developed them,” Illya admitted. “Then, I did not…I thought I would get rid of them when we left."
“Here’s to your horrible plan not succeeding,” Napoleon stole the glass from his hand and toasted, only to remember why he and vodka almost never agreed. Gaby stole the tumbler from him, too.
“I think we need a few of Illya,” she suggested with a wicked smile that curled around the rim of the glass with little trouble. Illya made a disgruntled face that Napoleon wished he could capture on film. Then, another picture caught his eye.
“This one,” Napoleon decided, poking at a picture of an unamused Gaby glowering into the camera.
“That one what?”
“That’s the one for your new passport.”
Napoleon barely held back a laugh when Illya’s face finally transformed from self-conscious and cloudy to thoughtful and intrigued. Mission success.
Illya’s photographs ended up splayed across the floor. Gaby and Napoleon traded and bartered from their respective stacks like seasoned hagglers while Illya sat between and worked his way through the vodka. Somewhere along the line, the tumbler transformed into a bottle. The face Napoleon made every time he took a swig made Gaby laugh, though the vodka may have contributed to it.
“Making a new one would take me an hour,” Napoleon told her. “All I'd need is a heat lamp and a laminator."
“It would take you an hour, Cowboy?” Now that it was clear Napoleon and Gaby embraced his photographs with open arms, Illya was much calmer.
“There is no way you can forge a passport in under an hour,” Napoleon accused. Somewhere along the line he had moved to the floor, back braced against the couch and his long legs stretched out before him. If Gaby reached out, she could run her fingers through his hair.
“Poland, two years ago,” Illya boasted. He looked looser than Gaby could ever remember him being. “I created new papers in twenty-three minutes."
“Because I had twenty-five minutes to get out of country.”
Napoleon grilled him for more information, but a knock at the door distracted Gaby. She stumbled to her feet before she realizing that she still hadn’t changed out of her ripped dress, or given Napoleon back his jacket, the sleeves now rolled back to free up her hands.
She checked the peephole, and a flood of chagrin course through her. Opening the door, she smiled tightly at Waverly’s unassuming face.
“Hello, my dear,” he greeted. “Time to see me?”
“Of course, Mr. Waverly,” she said, louder than she needed to. Behind her, she heard rapid shuffling and by the time she turned back to the living area all the pictures were gone.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Waverly smiled brightly. “Here I was expecting to find the furniture in complete disrepair. Good to see all that suffered was a bit of glass.”
Illya’s face closed off again, and Gaby stifled a frown. That little comment better not have sent them backtracking.
“Waverly,” Napoleon said, bright with enthusiasm as he rose to his feet. His voice drew attention away from Illya. “So good to see you and not your shady shadows.”
“Oh, Mr. Solo, you’re not still sore about that, are you? It all turned out for the best."
“Well, I got exactly what I wanted. A toe-hold in a major human trafficking ring and a newly graduated team for U.N.C.L.E. A very successful mission, all told.”
“Such a prestigious title,” Napoleon said. He was pacing now, and Gaby settled back down on the couch to stay out of his way. “May I ask how many we share that honor with?"
“Why, you’re one of the first.”
“Well, there is a lovely pair of ladies in Paris who recently cleared my tests. And a five-man band down in Peru. Then you three,” Waverly told him with a sunny look. Gaby felt the tension rising and immediately wished for the vodka bottle back, but it seemed to have disappeared along with the photographs.
"You are creating an international spy web," Illya accused softly. Waverly didn't seem dejected by his harsh tone, nodding with the air of one confronted with a pesky crossword clue instead of an internationally denounced idea.
"Why, yes, I rather suppose that is the idea. The world's become a much larger place since the war ended, and like good neighbors, we do enjoy to be in each others business."
"What you want already exists," Napoleon pointed out. "It's called Interpol."
"Good point, Mr. Solo. However, please tell me: how effective were they at catching you?"
"Please don't stroke his ego," Gaby asked with a stern glare at Napoleon.
"Dissidents against world order move fast and small. Interpol handles liaisons well, but they can't react quickly to a threat the way the world needs right now."
"I don't pretend to have a law degree," Napoleon drawled. "But I'm fairly sure what you're talking about is illegal in more than a few countries."
"All the more reason not to get caught, isn't it?” Waverly told them as he dropped a dossier onto the table. Gaby leaned forward and flipped through it, pushing the information over to the others when they didn’t move.
“Dublin,” Waverly explained. "A gun runner who's getting his hands on weapons far easier than he should be. Not just toys, either. At the rate he's going, the IRA could take over most of Europe with little opposition."
"Good for them," Illya replied promptly. Gaby pressed her eyes closed to keep her reactions in check; had Waverly really expected Illya to not sympathize with one of the strongest communist resistance fighters west of the Iron Curtain?
This wouldn’t end well.
Chapter 2: Dublin - Madrid
There's a gunrunner in Dublin who's graduated to chemical warfare, and Napoleon beats everyone to the kiss.
Dublin (fall 1963)
Some days, Alexander regretted past decisions in his life that had dragged him into the harsh daylight of sobriety. Days when the desire for hazy floating was so much sweeter than the agonizing drag of a timeclock. Days when he just wanted to wash the world away in a flood of bright colors and interesting sounds.
Then there were days when he couldn’t remember the feel of the pipe, because there was nothing quite like the rush of staring down one of the KGB's finest. Opium couldn't hold a candle.
"It's not a far-fetched idea," Solo mused. He circled the room as he made meticulous work of correcting his sleeves. Always with the need to present the perfect picture. "What with the IRA's socialist ties, Peril here probably has more contacts in Dublin than the western world does."
"Contacts you seem to have no problem utilizing," Kuryakin muttered with a cold stare at Alexander.
Well, best let the poor lad realize in his own time that any contacts established through the KGB would sour once it became clear that he wasn’t serving USSR interests anymore.
Alexander never liked to give things up; it drove his nannies to tears once upon a time. These days, he found more sport in making intelligence agencies wring their hands as he snapped up their best and brightest. Teller understood that—she would clue the boys in eventually.
"It is ah, rather convenient, isn't it? But really our concern isn't so much the IRA as it is the people selling the IRA chemical weapons. I think we can all agree they are not the type of organization to use them responsibly."
Looking at their faces, he understood their disbelief. What was chemical warfare when they grew up under the shadow of the bomb? They were too young to remember the Great War (and didn't that make him feel old) but Alexander couldn't forget the sight of his men drowning in the sludge of their own liquefying lungs. Those thoughts did tend put one off things like mustard gas.
“This has nothing to do with fact that your government would see them crushed beneath heel of imperialism?" Kuryakin demanded, like a terrier on a juicy bone.
Alexander smiled, self-deprecation dripping from his pores. He liked to spar, he just hoped Kuryakin worked out his impulse controls issues on the table and not on Waverly himself.
“Mr. Kuryakin, if the IRA were true communists, I’m sure we could come to terms with them in time. But they’re far too devout, and all too liberal with civilian lives. U.N.C.L.E. has no specific government oversight to answer to; merely lives to save.”
Kuryakin let that go as best he could, Alexander supposed. The battlefields of Ireland were salted with enough blood already; chemical weapons would only cause the Emerald Isle to run redder.
"And how do you suppose an American, a Russian, and a German are going to be able to infiltrate one of the most militant and ideological orders of this century?" Solo asked in the tone of one who already had four or five ways to make it happen. Waverly decided not to dig in too deeply; he'd probably have to reject a few of them on principle alone.
“I’m sure between the three of you there will be ideas abound. Now, best do pack. Our plane leaves this evening."
Their stay-over in London lasted nearly a week, and Illya utilized every moment of his time. Gaby’s UK-issued passport was a tragedy he itched to correct, and no matter what he told Napoleon, he preferred to have ample time to work on his papers. Warsaw had proven that he could do credentials fast, but they had also only bought him about ten minutes to escape before raising red flags.
He supposed he hadn’t needed to forge their papers himself. Waverly had assured them that U.N.C.L.E.’s contacts could supply anything they needed during their mission prep, but Illya needed to see to the passports himself. If they were done by his hand, he knew they would have no mistakes, accidental or intentional.
He would have had plenty of time for the credentials if Gaby hadn’t discovered the IRA’s profiency towards homemade bombs. She took to her new, self-appointed lessons with a combination of curiosity and intrigue that steeped into him in turn. He empathized with her excitement. Most IRA bomb makers were self-taught amateurs; they managed to combine efficiency and deadliness in ways that stirred the imagination.
Illya's previous superiors frowned on his fondness for explosives. Too loud and unsubtle, they drew too much attention to a KGB agent that already had to work hard to be missed in a crowd. Illya couldn’t help his fascination toward the blend of skill and inherent risk needed—he had a series of long-healed burns down his side and hip from an experiment gone wrong at the start of his career—but if anything that added to the thrill.
So when Gaby realized that explosives of the non-nuclear kind weren’t all that different from engines, Illya couldn’t resist sharing his knowledge. And he had always been one for practical demonstrations.
"What happens if I do this?" Gaby asked, miming connecting two wires in the guts of the primitive explosive that lay cracked opened across the lab table.
"You'll blow us up,” Illya explained between bites of food. The sandwich had been sitting on the edge of the table for a half hour now, left by Napoleon, and since he hadn’t claimed it since, Illya figured he would do him the favor of eating it. He pushed the pieces of fruit on the plate towards Gaby as her eyes traced the wires.
"Ah. What about this?"
"You'll blow us up, only quicker."
Gaby didn't look disheartened by that but Napoleon, focused on his own gear across the room, shifted uncomfortably as their experimentation progressed. At one point he scooched towards the door after Gaby accidentally activated the countdown timer on the device. Illya caught it before the timer even hit ten seconds, and Napoleon sauntered back to his tools, snagging the now-empty plate from their workbench.
Illya wouldn’t admit to it out loud, but he liked sharing his passions with Gaby. Her appetite for information and excitement eased the self-consciousness he felt at his own curious enjoyment.
And while he only contributed with the occasional comment, Napoleon was always underfoot. He seemed to always occupy the same room with them, even if he left them to their own devices.
Napoleon also watched. Illya was beginning to understand that Napoleon noticed quite a lot, and not only what Illya expected him to monitor.
Over the course of a week, Illya found Gaby as much literature on explosives as he could. It didn't rival his collection back in Moscow, but he obtained some of the more respected names and materials for her. Most of the texts were in German or English by necessity, but there were a few works in Russian and even Chinese that Illya thought vital to her working knowledge, even without documented translation. His week disappeared in diagrams and practical demonstrations, with passport ink stained on his fingers.
While packing, he had to stop Gaby from taking all her notes and texts onto the plan to Dublin. She spent the first half of the flight making a face much like a child when told they needed to leave their new puppy at home.
"Experts still have notes," she argued. She had taken the window seat next to Illya for the short hop from London to Dublin. "I remember my father kept texts from the prominent nuclear physicists he consulted with during his work. It would have added expertise to my cover."
"It's not so much a question of expertise as it is how much luggage do we want to haul around behind us," Napoleon pointed out from across the aisle. “I for one can’t say I’d look forward to carrying five extra bags.”
“We will pick up again once we return,” Illya assured her.
Gaby glanced at him in surprise.
“I didn’t expect you to be planning that far ahead,” she said.
“Distracting yourself from the mission at hand can be dangerous,” Illya admitted. “But planning for later helps to fight off…” He didn’t quite know how to phrase the end of his thought. It was a morbid one, for sure.
“They teach that it keeps agents from becoming suicidal half-way through a mission, especially if the plan goes South,” Napoleon clarified for Illya. “Unless they need you to self-destruct; that’s an entirely different mind game.”
The way he spoke made Illya wonder about the strategies of the CIA, and concern followed quickly on its heels. Risking an asset like that would be foolish: Oleg knew what buttons to push in Illya to make him perform in the manner required, but at least they were reluctant to push towards those extremes. Trust the West to neglect their agents.
“What’s this?” Napoleon asked when Illya tossed him his new passport.
“Yours wasn’t any better than hers. I fixed it."
Napoleon opened it and his face scrunched in on itself. How rude of him; Illya worked hard on that.
"William?" Napoleon asked, holding the passport as if it were something toxic.
"It is not a bad forgery, is it?" Illya reached out to double-check his work. He was sure it was adequate, but perhaps Cowboy's standards were so subpar he didn't recognize good work when he saw it.
Napoleon drew back, stuffing the booklet into his jacket pocket. "No, it's a fine enough forgery." He patted the fabric over it reassuringly. "I just don't care for the name."
"It's a king's name," Gaby placated, glancing up from the single notebook of notes they agreed on. “And a common enough one to get you around the Emerald Isle."
“It’s fine,” Napoleon said, his smile settled in place as if it had never vanished.
Before Illya could probe further, Napoleon waved the stewardess down for coffee. Turbulence hit, while she was handing over their orders, and Illya reached out to steady their cups. His hands easily wrapped around all three, and he sent her on her way with a nod.
To Gaby, he doctored it with plenty of cream; to Napoleon, two sugars. He passed them both their cups, and when Illya looked up again, it was to Napoleon’s unimpressed stare.
“Why did you put sugar in this?"
“Because that is how you drink it.”
Napoleon was still staring as if Illya had lobbed a grenade at him, pin pulled and ready to detonate, and Napoleon couldn’t believe his audacity. Illya was not a good enough people-reader to understand better what was happening behind his prefect, smiling mask.
Morbid fascination overtook Illya when he realized he was witnessing Napoleon crack; something significant behind his eyes changed.
“Thanks, Peril, but I take it black,” he explained as he again waved down the flight attendant, and handed the coffee cup back to her.
Napoleon had not once taken his coffee black in Istanbul or Rome. Illya tried to fight off his rising irritation with rationality—perhaps Turkish coffee had been too bitter for him? Illya made a mulish note to track this trend moving forward, alongside looking out for any information Gaby needed for her new career choice.
Which she was taking to with enthusiasm, he was delighted to see.
Gaby eyes were getting a little too wide and thoughtful and her hands were beginning to shake from the endless mental exertion, so Illya called a halt to their studies. Better to rest up while they could.
When they disembarked, Illya couldn’t help but notice that Cowboy hadn’t finished his coffee.
“So what’s special about a stout?” Gaby asked, eyeing the Guinness sign in the window across the street.
“It’s brewed with a mix of roasted and unmalted barley,” Napoleon told her, happy to show off. “It keeps longer, it’s brewed in aluminum kegs.”
Had Illya been less preoccupied with staying alert for signs of his contact’s arrival, he would have rolled his eyes. Of course this was the type of information Napoleon retained.
“Why the hell would you brew beer in an aluminum keg?”
“Careful, darling. Your German roots are showing.”
“Just getting into character,” Gaby winked his way. “Really, there’s only so much I can do with a cover that consists of ‘disgruntled East German bomb-maker’.”
“Broader is better,” Illya said, shoulders drawn up and tense. “Less to remember.”
His contact had sounded amenable when he had reached out earlier, but Rafferty defined the idea of changeable. If he decided against the meet, or alerted his superiors to their arrival, Illya was ready. His top three escape routes were mapped out, and there were two cars within sprinting distance that looked both easy to hijack and big enough to fit all three of them should their own vehicle became unusable.
But he hadn’t had time between airport and prep time to reinforce their chassis or test the transmission. He didn’t know what their getaway time would be, something that wouldn’t have bothered him if he were running solo, and Illya realized he was more on edge than usual.
When he met with any contact, he preferred to keep the upper hand, making sure he had back up stationed at a long range vantage point. Instead Rafferty had insisted they meet in a tight alley with limited escape options. Illya understood the rationale, but he hated it.
“That reminds me,” Napoleon interrupted Illya’s train of thought to say, “We should explore some stout-based recipes while we’re here. If anyone would know how to cook them, it’d be the Irish.”
“Please go easy on my stomach,” said Gaby. “There’s only so much it can handle.”
“Quiet would be appreciated now,” Illya hissed as headlights appeared down the street. He shifted to feel the press of his weapons against him. The Makarov PM tucked into his shoulder holster with an extra clip, the NR-40 combat knife around his ankle. There was even a prototype HK MP5 (taken from the shiny new U.N.C.L.E. London headquarters) tucked into the back seat of their car.
Time to go to work.
Rafferty hadn’t aged well. In the four years since Illya established him as a contact, he’d added a decade's worth of lines to his face, and his dark brown beard and hair were littered with more than just a liberal amount of gray.
The sharp, detached look in his eyes was still there, though. He would gut them at the slightest provocation. Two more men exited the car with Rafferty, both young and baring the look of disinterested, dull muscle.
They were a complication, but not a completely unexpected one. Illya recalculated his escape plan to take into account the new weapons he could spot on the security detail. He would figure out the quickest way to dispose of Rafferty's body if he went for the Browning stashed inside his coat.
“What do ya' want?” Rafferty’s face was a melted brick: disgruntled and crumbled, but heavy enough to promise injury.
“Hello to you, too, tovarisch.” This was a bad idea. Illya didn’t have the terror of his superiors behind him to reinforce Rafferty's fear and cooperation. Conversational intel gathering wasn't his strong suit, but in the end, all he needed was a name. It would just be up to Rafferty how much blood he lost before Illya got what they came for.
“Don’t start with me, Kuryakin. I came when I got your call, but don’t think for a minute that I forgot th' crap you pulled in Dunkirk.”
Napoleon raised an eyebrow at him. Illya resisted the urge to growl.
“It was bad mission,” he admitted through clenched teeth.
“Ya' left me for the bastard Brits to pick up!"
“You survived fine,” Illya pointed out. Rafferty flushed satisfyingly red with anger. The man had no idea how to run a military operation, and Illya hadn't felt guilty about abandoning him once it had became clear that Rafferty's incompetence wouldn't spare Illya's life.
“Look you commie bastard-,"
"Is the FBI starting to cause you folks problems?" Napoleon smoothly slid into place beside Illya. Already reaching for his weapon, Illya froze at the unplanned intrusion. Rafferty, by his poleaxed expression, felt similarly.
"Don't know what'cha care to mean."
"Come now, gentlemen,” Tar wouldn’t stick to Napoleon's photo-perfect countenance. He made no attempt to hide his natural accent. "I know my government. They've got a taste for taking down organized crime, and now that the National Crime Syndicate been shredded beyond recognition, they’re looking for new targets. No matter what your side says, the guns and supplies George Harrison has been running across the Atlantic stink of just the right kind crime to get the FBI salivating. How many shipments has Hoover already seized from you?"
Rafferty didn't budge, but his nose flared enough to see that Napoleon had landed a direct hit.
“I thought so,” Napoleon stepped in front of Illya, directly in Rafferty’s line of fire. “But never fear, I come baring good tidings. I represent a group of investors looking for new opportunities."
What was this?
Illya didn’t want to throw whatever play Napoleon was weaving, but just having Napoleon standing angled in front of him would close off some of Illya's escape routes. Mentally, he began tracing out a new back up plan, but when he glanced back at Gaby for support, he could barely hide his sigh of exasperation at the entertained light in her eyes.
Napoleon didn’t even turn around.
"You're not one of us,” Rafferty spat, clearly ignorant of any silent disagreement on their team. “What does someone like you know about fighting for a cause?”
“You’re right, that’s not my cup of tea, or whatever you folks say around here. However, George Harrison has a pent house in Manhattan and a pair of country homes in upstate New York, and he's considered frugal. My people can smell money when it's waiting to be made."
Napoleon never once lost his slimy smile as he spoke, oil and grease in every word. Even Illya could believe him a greedy American looking for a quick payout and a good dose of havoc on the side. Rafferty clearly agreed, a disdainful grimace on his face as he shifted.
Then his eyes flickered to Gaby.
“And is the KGB now in the habit of escorting capitalist pigs and their bits on the side?” he tossed out. Illya's temper flared, but Napoleon beat him to the punch.
“The KGB is just as interested in seeing the UK destabilized as we are, even if it’s for different reasons. Enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. Please allow me to introduce Fraulein Schmidt, my weapons expert from lovely East Berlin. She’s here to help me evaluate your potential needs."
“Expert, are ya?” Casually, Rafferty pulled out his Browning. Illya reached out to break the man’s wrist, but Napoleon grasped his arm before he could follow through. His warning look was the first crack in his smile.
Rafferty didn’t notice, too busy popping the magazine out and clearing the chamber of the gun. Illya marginally relaxed, but he knew the two bodyguards still posed a liability. Rafferty turned and disassembled the gun over the hood of his car. Stepping back, he glared at Gaby.
“Let’s see then about your expertise."
Tension ran through Illya like electricity. This was one wrong word away from falling apart, and Napoleon was still in a dumb, open position. Their only back-up was the hope that Illya was faster than the hired guns behind Rafferty.
Gaby, looking equal parts disdainful and bored, stepped into the smokey light. In quick, economical movements, she reassembled the gun, pausing only to sigh when she chipped her nail polish.
“I liked this color,” she complained, flicking her fingers as if to encourage the lacquer coat to slide and cover the chip. Illya knew for a fact that was a lie—Napoleon had spent half a day back in London convincing her to give it a try.
Illya began to breathe easier once she finished, but then, just as easily, she slipped a hand into her oversized purse, pulled out the extra magazine for a Walther (Illya had spent a few days familiarizing her with his arsenal), and slammed it into the empty Browning. Cocking the gun, she pointed the muzzle down and let loose a shot.
For a long moment, the only sound was the wheezing of air escaping the punctured tire of Rafferty’s car.
“I love Brownings,” Gaby said conversationally, filling the silence. “Did you know they take almost any German-made cartridge?” She discharged her own magazine, tossed the gun back on the car, and returned to their side with more swishing than Illya thought was necessary. Pride swelled within him, even as it was matched with swiftly rising apprehension. Beside him, Napoleon laughed.
“As I said,” he explained with exaggerated flare. “My weapons expert. Now, I can imagine you fine men don’t like the idea of being beholden to anyone, but I assure you the companies my employers want ruined would make it onto your target lists anyway. They're British staples that the Tory government is relying on more and more, since their colonial exports out of Africa started coming up dry. Pretty soon all those pesky export companies along the Thames are going to be the backbone of the British economy."
“And when they’re gone, your lot steps in?"
Napoleon grinned in approval. "All of us benefit from a war, my dear fellow. My 'lot' are willing to bankroll that war. Their only caveat is that they like to know who they're in business with."
"Ain't nobody else. Just me."
Napoleon sauntered into Rafferty’s space. Casual as a summer day, he reached out and put a hand on the other man’s shoulder. Illya wondered if Napoleon realized how much he engaged with his targets to get what he wanted. The man had been much the same around Vinciguerra.
“The IRA is floundering without the public support you had forty years ago, yet you managed to pull off a raid on the folks up north using weapons that wouldn’t be out of place in the US army. There’s someone else behind you.”
He started to draw back, only for Rafferty to reach up and grab his wrist, his face cross.
In the American’s hand was a battered, aged wallet, which Illya knew with horrible certainty didn't belong to him. Illya could have reached out and punched Napoleon, who was staring at Rafferty's hand around his wrist as if completely stunned they had reached this point. Behind them, the two nameless bodyguards tensed.
Illya wondered if he could fit all three of their bodies in the trunk of their car without raising suspicion.
Like the crack of a whip, Gaby's snorted laughter broke through the tension. Strolling forward, she snatched the wallet out of Napoleon's hand and tossed it back to Rafferty.
"Shows you what kind of man Americans like to hire. It took me almost a week to figure out where all my good jewelry kept disappearing to," she smacked Napoleon's arm, like one would discipline a disobedient puppy.
Illya was prepared to kill every Irishman in the alley and call the mission a wash, but Gaby and Napoleon had maneuvered themselves between him and Rafferty. He wasn’t sure how he had allowed either of them to do so.
Rafferty let out a bark-like laugh.
"Eh, what's a little pick-pocketing between associates,” Rafferty's tone only managing to not sound like a double-edged sword because of the relaxed drooping of his shoulders. "Can't say I would've have passed up the chance myself."
“Apologies,” Napoleon said as he withdrew, his smirk back. “Old habits die hard and all that.”
“Course,” Rafferty stepped back and scrubbed a hand over his bristled beard. “There’s a pub, the Gold Crown. Meet me there tomorrow, we’ll see about your offer.”
Rafferty's car wasn't fit to drive after Gaby's practical demonstration, but if he was bothered, the Irishman didn't show it. He disappeared into the shadows of the street with his muscle trailing behind like phantoms.
When they were again alone, Illya turned to give Napoleon a disapproving look.
“Smooth going, Cowboy.”
“I don’t want to hear it from the man who thought shooting his way through this meeting was going to get us anywhere.”
“It was handled.”
“I thought we were here to catch a gun runner who’s graduated to chemical warfare,” Napoleon hissed. “Not pick a fight with the locals. Especially if they’re locals who like bombs and guerrilla warfare. Now we have another meeting, and maybe this time with people who actually know something.”
“They were prepared to kill us."
“Yes, and when everyone brings a gun to a knife fight suddenly we’re all playing a very different game."
Illya ground his teeth. “Do you think this is a game?”
“Of course it is. If it’s a game, then it’s something I can win."
Illya turned to Gaby, fiddling with her gun magazine as she leaned against the alley wall and watched them. She smiled when she noticed him, her eyes still bright with excitement.
“Well, I had fun,” she reported. “I’ve never gone so off the cuff before."
“Isn’t it a rush?” Napoleon egged her on, and Illya glared at him.
“Quite. Now, who’s George Harrison?"
“An Irish national who lives stateside. His operation's one of the main suppliers of weapons to the IRA. Can’t imagine he’d be too fond of us butting in, but by the time word gets to him we should be gone.”
Illya wondered if all of Dublin had squeezed themselves into the Gold Crown. The seats were packed shoulder to shoulder and he couldn’t differentiate between dock worker or potential IRA combatant. The oppressive push of the crowd played havoc with potential exit strategies.
“We should not stay long,” he told the others. It would be too easy to split them up and pick them off if Rafferty chose to. Gaby glanced his way but Napoleon’s attention was fixed elsewhere.
“End of the bar,” Napoleon leaned against Illya's arm, nudging it in the direction he needed to look. Illya took his cue and glanced over, found Rafferty huddled into his pint. Amidst all the revelry and cheer, the man was a silent cord of shiftness and jittery feet. The moment he was sure of their attention, he chugged the rest of his pint and stood, disappearing into a back room.
Napoleon caught Gaby and Illya by their elbows when they made to follow him in.
“No, let him simmer,” he recommended. “He keeps calling the shots and we need some control back. Think of it as a dance."
Napoleon tugged them towards the bar and waved down the bartender, announcing, "My friend here is interested in your vodka selection."
Illya shot him a look of exasperation he didn't have to hide this time.
“We only serve whiskey here,” the bartender sneered. A bit rich of him since Illya could see more than one gin bottle hidden behind the bar in the reflection of the security mirrors.
“Such a shame, I’m more of a scotch man myself,” Napoleon offered with a barely concealed taunt that sent the barman’s face twitching. “But when in Rome, as they say. We’ll take a round.”
Gaby hopped up onto the bar stool, her legs swinging comedically along the long line of the struts.
“Bring me a Guinness,” she ordered with the expression of one facing the firing squad. The crowd cheered around her. Illya grabbed the whiskey that appeared in front of him; he had a feeling he’d need every last drop before the night was over.
The bar allowed him a better vantage point, as well as a view for the reason behind the busy press of bodies. Across the room, a roped-off section of chairs had been turned into a makeshift fighting ring, where two brawlers were circling each other mid-match. Both had shed shirts and shoes, and every smack of bare-knuckled fists came with a matching snarl on their lips.
Illya felt a pang of interest as he watched them. He couldn’t remember the last time he boxed...
He only regretted his momentary distraction when he turned around to find Napoleon gone. So much for not splitting up.
He turned to Gaby, who was sniffing at her newly arrived Guinness as if she thought she'd find a bomb in it.
“He followed Rafferty,” Gaby said, shooting him an unreadable look through her eyelashes. “I’d say give it ten minutes before following him down. Did you know the barman has two shot guns under the counter? I think I saw them in his belt buckle, but I couldn’t see the model.”
“Good to know,” he replied. Since Gaby seemed in no hurry, Illya leaned over to borrow her Guinness, putting a therapeutic dent in it. “See the exits?” he asked, pitching his voice below the din of the crowd.
“Closest is behind the bar, probably through the kitchens. If you come out hot, I’ll have you covered,” she told him with a smile on her lips that eased his worry. Illya still hated the idea of splitting up but at least he could trust Gaby to keep their parameter.
“Besides,” she continued, reaching up to flick his nose with that chipped fingernail when he ducked in for another sip of her Guinness. “I’m a pretty girl alone at the bar. Something tells me a lot of people are going to start talking to me soon. I’ll keep an ear open for anything interesting.”
Illya placed a hand on her back to show his thanks, and pushed away from the bar. Two lazy circles around the room and a quick stop by the boxing match wasted the time, and on his third lap he ducked into the back room Rafferty had disappeared into earlier.
He found Napoleon at a poker table. The dealer wore his best blank face but Illya noted discomfort lingering around his edges like a bad smell. Across the table from Napoleon sat a tall man so still Illya initially almost couldn't parse him out from the decor. He was neat, from his manicured nails to his perfectly pressed clothes with not a strand of hair out place. Napoleon looked nearly disheveled in his tailored YSL suit by comparison.
The man’s eyes found Illya the moment he walked in, though no other part of his face moved.
“Your KGB, I assume.” Illya opened his mouth before he realized the comment was directed to Napoleon, who glanced over his shoulder in equal part apprehension and exasperation.
“That’s him,” he dismissed, his American character back in full force. “I told him to wait outside, but you know how hard it is to find security that’ll listen. Don’t you, Deputy Cassidy?”
Cassidy barely twitched, though Illya mentally applauded Napoleon for getting even that much of a reaction. The man was unsettling in his statuesque mien. There had to be a reason for it; no one exerted that much control over themselves unless there were consequences for its loss. Illya caught his eyes darting to the empty corners of the room. Probably listening posts behind false walls—the Kermlin was full of them, and Illya knew the signs of a room that was too small for its floor plan.
“Yes, I quite agree.” Cassidy nodded to the dealer to start the next round. The other two players at the table shied away from Illya as he approached; not to escape his notice, but to hide their faces. He recognized one of them anyway. Martin Holland was one of the most wanted men in the UK, with deep connections to the IRA. Terry Cassidy, however, was one of the staunchest opponents of the IRA to hold a seat in Dáil Éireann, the lower Irish Parliament.
The next time Napoleon poked fun at his insistence on reading any local newspaper he could get his hands on, Illya planned to remind him of this moment. He wondered if Napoleon had suspected an inside man when he changed up the plan on Rafferty the night before. It took a snake in the grass to recognize the signs of another, he supposed.
It rattled Illya that Napoleon had decided to run a brand new gambit for their gun runner while discarding their mission prep as all but useless. The last time Napoleon started running with his own idea, he and Gaby were nearly kidnapped with Illya left in the dark until it was nearly too late to do anything. He had let his temper get the better of him for that, and what was worst he let his team know he had been affected. If he listened closely, he could still hear the crack of the table colliding against the floor.
But Illya was here and aware this time. He could watch Napoleon’s back, because Cowboy was a horrible spy, but Illya was beginning to understand that he was a hedonistic magpie as well as an excellent opportunist. It made him amazing at sighting down what he wanted and running for it, even if running forward meant leaving everything else behind without much thought.
Illya made the split-second decision and fell it line with it, because Napoleon had been right. If there was a Teachta Dála involved, there was more going on than any muscle with a cracked skull could tell him. He just needed to make sure Napoleon stayed above water until they found out more.
He reassured himself that Gaby was well-positioned to drag them both out if Napoleon pulled them under. She was smart, she'd know what to do if everything went to hell. He took up position behind Napoleon's chair and kept his mouth shut.
It took a few hands for Illya to realize that Napoleon was struggling. The game was a good distraction, but Cassidy shut down every attempt Napoleon made to open up a conversation. The man barely reacted, no matter if his hand won or lost. Only his eyes moved, occasionally flickering upward. Illya first thought it was a tell, but it was too infrequent and inconsistent. He never spoke more than he had to to continue the game.
Adding to Illya's ever-growing pile of annoyances, Napoleon was holding something back. Illya would not have recognized it in Rome, the way Napoleon's clear eyes glinted with the gratification of his own cleverness, but it was tamped down with some measure of unsuridness. He had an idea, but wasn't acting on it. He was intrigued by Cassidy’s reticence towards conversation, but was hesitating from making the killing blow that would break the ice.
Illya was at a loss for why Napoleon would not just act, as their showy Cowboy always did.
Not sure what else to do, Illya reached down to rest his hand against Napoleon’s neck, covering the small strip of skin between his pressed white collar and the neat cut of his hair. He was tall enough and Napoleon was broad enough to hide the move from the rest of the table. His memories pushed the sensation of Gaby’s own touch in the hotel in Istanbul at him. There had been a comfort and an electricity to that touch, and Illya tried his best to push that into Napoleon as if it could convey how willing Illya was to support whatever this was that he was doing. Anything to get Napoleon to make his move, because he was clearly getting results on this mission.
Illy thought it showed just how well Napoleon’s skill set utilized flirting, but that was fine. Whatever Napoleon had in mind, Illya would help him see it through. Because it was working and magnificent to see when it wasn't aimed at Illya himself.
Napoleon didn’t still or acknowledge the touch, lest Cassidy see it, but the slight roll back of his shoulders was sign enough. He lost the next hand. Illya held his breath as he won the one after. And the one after that. He watched as Napoleon projected recklessness and boredom—not in the skin-peeling, twitchy, shifty boredom of Istanbul or the blind, head-strong, recklessness of Rome, but facades of those things for the benefit of his audience.
“This is getting rather tedious,” Napoleon threw down his cards. He was setting his window and diving straight for it. “Surely you have better ways to keep yourself entertained.”
“Patience does not seem to be one of your virtues,” Cassidy chided. His eyes barely rose from the table. Did the man even breath? Illya couldn’t be sure.
“Neither is the ability to be ignored. I notice you seem more interested in the fight upstairs than anything about to happen down here,” Napoleon commented. “Care to move the action up there?"
“I didn’t think such a nicely dressed American like yourself would want to spoil the fight. It would just be taking your money, after a point."
Napoleon grinned, his whole face lighting up as he saw his opening.
“Why play for money?” he opted, dangling the thread. “I’d rather play for an accord. Rafferty must have told you why I’m here.”
“It’d be like leading a lamb to the slaughter,” Cassidy lashed out, engaged for the first time since Illya walked through the door. “The fights happen every end-week. Same fighters, same tricks. I could tell you how each and every one would end before they began.”
“What a bold claim for someone who can't peel their ears from the fight. And here I thought you served Lady Luck more faithfully than that,” Napoleon replied. “But I wasn’t thinking Irish on Irish. I was picturing more... Red on Green.”
Illya fought to keep the grin off his face. Finally, something to do.
Cassidy ran his eyes over Illya from his feet to his chest to his face in newly devoted attention. Took in his height, his baring, his stance. Illya met his inspection with his best impression of a stone wall.
“What’d you say, Russian. Want to break another man apart for your master?”
Illya liked to think Napoleon professional enough to keep his feelings off his face, especially at this stage of the game, but in another world Illya could picture the way his eyes would slowly close and he would let out a slow groan. But Illya felt fine. Napoleon slithered their way in when Illya would have hammered, and he baited their hook. Now it was Illya’s turn, and he could have an outlet for all the tumultuous emotions that had flooded him since Rome.
If every IRA combatant walked away tonight with nightmares of him, he would consider the night a successful opening salvo.
"да," he agreed simply, offering no other explanation. If he spoke too much, his enthusiasm may show.
Napoleon pulled him aside before they got to the ring.
“You can punch me out later,” he rushed to offer him as Illya rolled his shoulders and loosened his muscles. “It was the only thing he reacted to. Every time he heard the round bell he’d glance upstairs.”
“It is fine,” Illya replied, ignoring the first part for both their sake. He hadn’t sparred in ages. Gaby could maybe scrap with him for a bit, but he would never be able to turn his full strength on her without a great deal of preparation. Napoleon would be tossed out of the ring in less than five moves.
Speaking of Gaby. Illya turned toward the bar and jerked his head to indicate that their third needed to pull in. He was sure Rafferty had informed Cassidy of her presence, and he'd feel more comfortable in the ring if the two of them stuck together.
“What are you doing?” Napoleon demanded. Illya raised an eyebrow as he tossed the man his jacket. “Are you actually excited? What the hell is wrong with you?”
He gave Napoleon a gentle shove toward Gaby, trusting her to keep him in line.
“Keep wall to your backs,” he ordered. “And keep Cassidy in sight. He is dangerous man.”
“Not something you need to tell me,” Napoleon seemed snippy about the whole affair.
“Glad we’re on same page, Cowboy.”
Gaby wasn’t sure how they had gotten to the point where Illya was climbing between the ropes of the makeshift ring and Napoleon wasn’t stopping him, but Gaby was warm, almost uncomfortably so in the tightly packed bar, and had the flavor of Guinness still strong in her mouth, making every thought she had creamy and dark.
She might have underestimated that stout.
Across the ring the latest victor bounced on the balls of his bare feet, keeping limber. Even at a distance Illya towered over the man, and the thought sent a shiver down Gaby’s spine. She remembered how his hands felt trailing down her thigh, and could have smacked herself for drinking to excess on the job if this was the headspace it left her in.
Beside her, Napoleon stood like the ridiculous statue he was, aware of all eyes on in the bar on him, yet so unconscious of the affect he had.
Or maybe he was. Gaby wouldn’t put it past him. She reached out to grasp at his jacket and stood on her tip-toes on reach his ear.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
“Peril’s doing what he does best,” Napoleon replied, looking decidedly frazzled under his perfectly coiffed hair. “Which is to say, he’s causing my hair to turn grey far sooner than it should.” Gaby reset the line of his jacket down his torso and raised an eyebrow at him.
“I doubt it would make you look horrible,” she told him, trying to imagine his dark, luscious hair threaded with gray. She couldn’t say she minded the idea.
“Enjoy the beer?” Napoleon gave her a playful look, but it fell flat compared to the ones he gave her in Rome. The tension around his eyes ruined the effect, but she appreciated his willingness to dance around her lapse in judgment.
“More than I believed I would,” she admitted, not bothering to hide the fact that the world had became a little fuzzy around the edges. She hadn’t expected her drink to be that strong, or to drink it as quickly as she had. Every anxious sip a way to count down the time until their return.
Gaby couldn’t recall having ever gotten tipsy from a single beer. This was ridiculous. She shook her head to clear the fluff out of her thoughts.
“You gonna be alright?” Napoleon pulled her into the crook of his arm.
“Are you?” Gaby asked in return. “I won’t lie if you won’t.”
“I’m fine,” he lied immediately. Gaby didn’t bother holding back her scoff.
“Then I am fine, too,” she replied, shimmying to get comfortable against Napoleon. He was far too tense for her liking.
The fighter across the ring was flashy. He was good, she decided, but horribly, horribly flashy. He was aware that he had an audience and he pandered to them. He was their reigning hero, and they were letting him know it with each scream and cheer.
Gaby dimly realized that only two pairs of eyes in the audience appreciated the real show going on. Illya was in no rush as he crouched and stripped off his shoes. Then his belt. Then his shirt. Each item was set aside into a neat pile outside the ring. Then he stood up.
He didn’t bounce, and he didn’t pander. He didn’t have to. After a moment, he removed his father’s watch, leaned back across the ropes, and held it out to Gaby.
“Please?” he didn’t need to explain further. Gaby took it and latched it around her own wrist to make sure she wouldn’t lose it.
She needed to bite her lip in an effort to keep her composure, but the uncomfortable warmth within her turned into a deep, simmering heat. Her senses stumbled over the brilliant display that was Illya focused and devastating and half-naked. She tried her hardest to keep her eyes to herself but damn it was a trial she wasn't up to.
It wasn't just his skin, she realized after a moment, though it was nice to look at too. It was also all the memories she saw in each muscle and newly healed scar. In every flex of his shoulders, she remembered the jolt of her car beneath her when he ripped the door off its hinges. In the curve of his spine she recalled the feel of his waist in her arms when she tackled him into the carpet. In the tilt of his chin she heard every cocky comment and raging argument traded with Napoleon.
The first bell sounded, and Gaby felt as though the breath had been punched out of her lungs. Illya didn’t put him down immediately, moving in a rhythmic combination of weaves, ducks, and jabs. He took a hit to his face, but didn’t seem to notice the resulting bloodied nose. By the time the bell cried out the end of the round, the crowd was a wild frenzy of shouting and cursing, bets being called out for both sides and money practically flying through the air. The other fighter was limping and panting, but Illya had only started to break a sweat.
If Gaby thought that would decrease her interest, she was very much mistaken.
“Do you think he knows what he’s doing to everyone in this room?” Napoleon whispered just low enough to send an icy, exhilarating spark through the all-encompassing warmth. The bar reeked of stale sweat and beer, but Napoleon smelled like a heady mix of mahogany and smoke and mint. She moved in before she could tell herself not to go through with it.
Gaby hauled Napoleon down to her level by the silk of his tie and slammed her mouth into his, a dramatic attempt to keep herself under control. She felt him go still above her, but she tugged at his tie again. He laughed against her lips and gave as good as he got.
She was panting when she finally let him go. Her lipstick was done for, and Napoleon's hair was a downright mess from her fingers. Amazingly, her world felt clearer, more sharply defined than it had been a few moments ago. Colors seemed brighter. Especially the vivid blue of Illya’s eyes as he watched them from his corner, where he stood waiting for the next bell.
The next round is so one-sidedly brutal the noise of the crowd shook the building across the street.
When Napoleon was able to breath again, he felt an unfamiliar panic slamming him face-first into the wall of reality. He had kissed Gaby. Illya had watched him do it. Really, the levels of self-destruction Napoleon subjected himself to were astounding.
The wave of guilt that followed his panic he felt was enough to curl his stomach, and together they formed a cluster headache that had him pinching the bridge of his nose and groaning.
Napoleon had only meant to hover long enough to test his theory about Cassidy; how they'd gotten to this point was beyond him. He'd told himself back in Rome that he wouldn’t disturb whatever was growing between Gaby and Illya. Well, disturb too much.
Once again, he had set a limit for himself and completely blown past it the first chance he got.
Maybe he’d go find a pit to swallow him after this mission was completed. That sounded lovely, but self-pity would keep for later. Shoving everything down, Napoleon focused on the parts of the mission that were still under his control.
Napoleon could feel Cassidy’s eyes on him. The opportunistic part of him, always on the look out for the one tell or tick that could win him the game, cackled with glee. It was almost too perfect. Cassidy was so devoutly Catholic he screamed repressed and irresistibly curious. A competent enough politician to be a complete control freak, and so terrified of the flames that he’d never bring himself to touch, preferring to sate his desires with watching.
He’d seek out Napoleon again. To relive the thrill of control over Illya, so obviously proud and unbreakable. To feed his desire for beautiful things. To be seen as desirable and enviable and alluring in return—all things he couldn’t fulfill himself.
At least, Napoleon hoped he was right. Part of him acknowledged that he could be very, very wrong. Dublin had been a waking nightmare from the get-go. First Illya’s frankly amazing forgery of his new passport, and Napoleon's admiration of the work only just overriding his envy and burning desire to rip it up. And then that thing with Rafferty—for Pete’s sake, the last time he'd been caught pick-pocketing he was barely twenty.
Lord, he'd just kissed Gaby. Illya had seen; Napoleon couldn’t think of any other reason why he tore his opponent apart like shredded meat in round two, after the first round had more resembled a game of bored cat and hyperactive mouse. With the opening bell it was a wild cat, all grace and power and absolute deadliness.
Beside him, Gaby made a strangled noise. At a loss for how else he could possibly make this worse, Napoleon dug out his handkerchief and handed it over. She was still scrubbing at the remnants of her lipstick when Illya put the Irish boxer down. The fighter didn’t get up.
Leaving the ring, Illya first grabbed Gaby’s hand and methodically undid the latch of his watch from around her wrist. When he released her, she swooped down to collect the rest of his things while he refastened the timepiece on his own wrist. Napoleon didn’t move, in case Illya noticed and dragged him into the ring next.
Even with his life and livelihood on the line, he couldn’t resist seeing if his plan worked though. Napoleon glanced over Illya’s shoulder to find Cassidy and was shocked to find the man's gaze already on him, his expression bare and open for the first time all night. From across the room, Napoleon saw plainly the itch of jealously and desire screaming, much louder than the quiet glimmers he'd teased out during their poker game.
He wouldn't tell Illya and Gaby that he hadn’t been ready to make his stake in his gamble against Cassidy. He had jumped in without looking, spurred by Illya’s fingers against his neck and Gaby’s willingness to let him take the lead.
He had never approached a mission feeling so scrambled and undone, and he was already eager to jump in and do it again.
All he could hope for now was that he could keep his feet just far enough under him that he wouldn't end up falling on his face. That was if Illya didn’t kill him the moment they left the bar.
They got the call to abort their mission barely two hours later. No explanation, no warning.
"Be at the airport for extraction in thirty minutes,” their hotel phone told Illya before the line went dead. He didn’t bother with surprise, mind falling to worst-case scenarios. Their cover blown, the enemy on their way; it could be anything and there was no time to panic if they wanted to get out with their heads on their shoulders.
He got them moving in record time, though he felt bad for dragging an irascibly groggy Gaby out of bed. It was the first full night's sleep she'd managed since landing in Dublin, but he preferred her tired and grumpy to dead in a gutter. Napoleon's face radiated annoyance when he wasn't able to properly put himself together in the two minutes Illya allowed him for clothes, but Illya was more than willing to deal with him in a snit.
“At least give me time for a quick shower,” Napoleon complained. “My hair is a mess.”
“Pack, or I will toss you over my shoulder on our way out the door and your things will be left behind,” Illya told him. He didn't ask questions when an abort order came down; that he had to push the issue was absurd.
"We have thirty minutes," Napoleon whined, and Illya felt the tension he'd beat away during his match returning. With tax.
Illya started to climb into the driver’s seat but Gaby, her eyes still only half open and yawning every few minutes, yanked at his arm until he acquiesced the wheel to her. She may have been fatigued, but she got them to the airport in record time.
Illya, who was sure to keep hidden his traitorous watch with its extra time, unloaded the car under the heavy weight of Napoleon's discontentment.
After giving their credentials, Illya was surprised to be ushered onto an unmarked, military transport rig. There was no British flag to be seen, but he’d eat his traitor watch if Waverly’s fingerprints weren’t all over this.
They were greeted by a redheaded woman in a tailored suit, with sharp brown eyes and a tight expression. She held her clipboard in front of her like a shield.
“What happened?” was Illya’s first question as Gaby slumped down into a chair. Napoleon collapsed onto the entire row opposite of her.
“You’ll be briefed when you return to London, Mr. Kuryakin,” the redhead deflected, not in the least put out by Illya’s glare. “I’m only here to debrief you of your progress for the next team.”
“We’re being bumped from the mission?” Gaby spoke up, irate and more awake than she'd been all morning, even when driving. “Again?”
“It was unavoidable,” the redhead explained with cool tones. Illya had met walls with more expression.
With two equally uncooperative partners sulking into their chairs, Illya took it upon himself to outline their progress, pausing every so often as the redhead scribbled. Only after a while she stopped taking notes and simply stared at him.
“You were able to make contact with Terry Cassidy?” she reiterated in disbelief.
“Correct,” Illya told her. "We were on our way to arranging second meeting when abort came down."
“…How?” she exclaimed after a moment.
“We’ve been trying to get someone close to Cassidy for years. He always weeds them out before they can build a cover.”
Illya pointed to Napoleon, who smiled at half-volume and gave a jaunty wave.
“Gamblers always take the risk,” he explained. Illya remembered a note from his file, and didn't know if Napoleon referred to himself or Cassidy.
The redhead disembarked shortly after that, scribbling furiously across her clipboard, and they were off with little fuss. Gaby sprawled out across two empty seats and was sound asleep by the time the motors of the plane rumbled awake.
To keep from disrupting her, Illya took the vacant seat next to Napoleon.
Who stayed eerily silent though the first half of the flight. Illya suspected for awhile that he had passed out like Gaby, and so kept himself still so as to not disturb his fellow agent.
Before long, he realized that the odd jerk and the nervous twitching of fingers were not in fact the signs of a distressed slumber, but of a post-mission comedown.
Illya thought he would appreciate the reprieve from his teammate's immense personality, but not like this. This did not sit well with him; Napoleon was meant to be vibrant and enduring.
Illya stayed quiet while Napoleon's fingers traced the arm rest, the crease down his trousers, the seal around the window. He wasn’t looking at Illya, but his boredom read clear on his face and his mind was further away than they were from the retreating ground below.
Once stable in the air, Illya rose to rummage for food. They hadn’t had much time to eat between leaving the bar and pulling out, barely enough time to debrief and sketch out a plan before hitting the sack. In the bulkhead, he found rations and instant coffee, and a threadbare blue blanket that he laid over Gaby.
He added two sugars to the coffee and dug through the rations kits for anything with peanut butter before he finally returned to his seat. Dropping half the supplies in Napoleon's lap, he waited to see if the other man would bristle at being looked after.
Napoleon gave a quiet 'thanks', and said nothing as he drank the coffee and inhaled the ration bars.
Illya wasn’t going to be the first one to break the silence, so he settled back into his chair to eat his own ration bar (not peanut butter, Cowboy would need that more). He closed his eyes knowing he wouldn't get much sleep with how on edge he was, but a light doze wouldn’t go amiss.
"I’m sorry I kissed her first," Napoleon said out of no where, and Illya almost missed it. Tilting his head to the side, he listened closely but nothing else came after it.
Illya pursed his lips; he had been reluctant to examine his feelings after he saw Gaby and Napoleon embrace. He thought perhaps the burning, rushing feeling through him had been jealously, but there was no direction for it.
Jealously at Napoleon? Gaby wasn’t his to exert any claim over, and she’d never forgive him for trying. She held a part of him he thought was long ago dead and frozen, but she could also be trusted to hold it. She didn't shrink away from what she found there, because she already knew it existed. The hardest conversations had already happened, and Gaby still looked at him like he was still human. Like he mattered.
Jealousy at Gaby?
Napoleon’s allure was undeniable; he was a spy, and every spy Illya ever met knew how to be alluring. But Illya was also beginning to suspect Napoleon was hiding a good heart, buried deep beneath the cynicism and cavalier smile. He met Illya full force, never holding back for fear of his temper. More oddly, he showed concern for Illya. No one since his mother had showed concern.
They were his comrades. More than that, Illya could possibly bring himself to say that he considered them his friends. He couldn’t hold their passions against them—he only hoped it didn’t cause them to drift away. He wanted them happy; he'd prefer they be a part of his life.
They had also ignited something in him that hadn't left him since the fight. The first round had been a fun warm up, Illya having learned long ago to hold himself back unless he was aiming to kill. He needed control, but their kiss had shattered in its wake his grip on himself. The force had rung through him louder than the starting bell, demolishing his opponent in the breathless rush.
There was a spark beginning to burn in him, and he didn’t want that spark to die because of misplaced guilt and an inability to communicate.
“First? Where you planning on kissing me first? I feel that's something you should have told me, Cowboy."
Napoleon’s eyes snapped toward him, big, blue, and startled, before the spy came back grinning.
"You’re not suppose to have a sense of humor, Peril.”
“KGB agents don’t have humor.”
They landed in London to another agent who wasn’t as composed as the redhead in Dublin. He wore in ill-fitting suit and sweated profusely from the moment he saw them. Nevertheless, he seemed determined to get them into a taxi without delay.
“We have luggage we need to collect,” Illya told him as he held out Gaby’s jacket for her to slide her arms into. The London air in late November was close to frigid.
“They’ll be collected for you,” The agent said, barely getting the words out without stuttering.
Alarm bells went off within Illya. London should be a safe haven for them; nothing should be threatening enough to make the newly formed U.N.C.L.E. wary on their home turf. He could tell from Napoleon and Gaby's faces they had found the same conclusion, but the agent barely gave them time to breathe as he ushered them through the airport lobby.
In the end, Gaby stalled them with a quick apology as she dove for the bathroom.
"Women's troubles," she muttered. Illya and Napoleon both hesitated, having nothing to add to her obvious gambit. But the agent didn't bother questioning her. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he checked his watch again, picking at his hands after confirming the time.
“What happened?” Illya asked. He phrased it like a question, but his tone said otherwise.
“Mr. Waverly will explain.”
“Why wait?” Looming always worked well for Illya, and this time was no exception. The agent quivered under his shadow.
“Orders, sir,” the agent stammered. Illya’s teeth made an unpleasant noise when they ground together.
“Do you know how many of my missions were aborted while I was with KGB?”
Mention of his work history caused the agent to shrink, his skin turned a distinct shade of pale green.
"Please sir, this is far above my paygrade—," he whispered.
With an annoyed sigh, he turned to Napoleon for assistance, only find himself alone with the nervous agent. Illya would have to invest in a leash. Where had the American gone off to this time?
Illya cast his eye around for his wayward partner, and found his unmistakable figure leaning against the airport bar a few meters down from them. Rolling his eyes, he left the trembling agent behind and stalked over.
Napoleon wasn't drinking when Illya came to stand next to him. Instead, shadows cast a sharp look over his features as he tilted his ear toward the small radio tucked into the bar's corner.
"--ceiving reports now from Dallas General. President Kennedy has been reported dead by local authorities. I repeat, the president has been reported dead by a gunshot to the head. Officials believe they have a suspect apprehended. Stay tuned for more information as this story develops."
"Well," Napoleon said in a soft, distant voice. “Isn’t this awkward?"
Madrid (summer 1965)
Illya liked Madrid more than he'd anticipated. It was a breath of fresh air after the oppressive, overwhelming vice that Vienna had been, and their simple, scouting mission of a suspected sleeper cell not yet called to action hung heavy with potential for excitement without being overly difficult to dismantle. Whoever had trained them couldn’t have prepared them for a surveillance team from an organization once described by the English Prime Minister as ‘risk-addicted, chaotic, and as suicidal as a dive-bomer’. The sleeper cell was easy, if slow-going, pickings.
Still, that did leave Illya with plenty of time to sort though the jumble of thoughts bouncing around his skull. For all they'd discovered about each other in Vienna, Madrid was a bright, startling revelation.
Napoleon kissed him before leaving the hotel room that morning. Unlike their first few kisses, there was nothing malicious or desperate behind it. Instead, he braced his palms against Illya’s neck, thumbs behind each ear, and dragged him down the few spare inches required for their breath to intermingle.
“Good morning,” he murmured before bestowing an easy, gentle kiss upon Illya. He tasted like coffee and mint, and Illya wanted to explore more. Only before he could, Napoleon pulled back and out of Illya’s reach. The smirk on his face told Illya he knew exactly was he was doing.
“I have work to do,” he said, walking backward towards the door even as he continued to devour the sight of Illya. “Unlike some lazy souls around here.” He crossed by the tiny kitchenette, and Gaby, busy rinsing out her coffee cup and breakfast plate, reached out, grabbed his neat lapel, and dragged him down for her own goodbye kiss. She didn’t let him squirm out of it like Illya had, and by the time they broke apart they were both panting and lightly flushed.
Illya swallowed, and very quietly, deep inside himself where not even his handlers could hear, admitted that he liked watching them together. It eased him. He could now describe, in great detail, what happiness felt like.
“Don’t get caught, Cowboy,” he ordered as Napoleon slipped out the door. The man winked at him, and vanished with only the soft sound of the door to herald his departure.
Gaby snorted and quickly scrubbed at her remaining dishes. Her hair was pulled back in a gaudy, bright headscarf and she wore one of Napoleon’s dress shirts, a light blue-and-white striped number with silver lining around the cuffs and collar. Every inch of it was covered in sleep wrinkles, and it fell from her chin to her knees.
Illya knew there was nothing under it, and couldn’t stop imagining slipping his hands underneath as she sauntered towards him. With wet hands and an unapologetic expression, she grabbed at Illya’s neat linen button down shirt and dragged him close. He wondered how he managed to find himself tied to tiny people who thought they could push him around.
“We need to go,” he protested without force. “Our target won’t tail himself.” He had been the first of the three of them to rise and embrace the day, but after their years together he had learned to enjoy the fact that Gaby and Napoleon were both slow risers. It gave him a quiet hour to center himself each day as he watched over them as they slept.
Gaby rolled her eyes but released him all the same. “Do we really need to tail Aznar during his errand runs? Can’t Napoleon just wait until he leaves his shop and sneak in?”
“You want us to leave Napoleon to his own devices? What happens if mark comes back early?” U.N.C.L.E. hadn’t been able to tell them what Aznar was hiding, only that the man had started making contact with extremest groups with the tantalizing prospect of immense returns. Perhaps he was the funding behind their sleeper cell. If they could cut the purse strings, they would be easier to track in their scramble for cash flow. Napoleon may need to tear Aznar's office apart for hours before finding anything, and none of that could be done with the proprietor breathing down his neck.
Thus, Gaby and Illya, a happy couple out for their honeymoon and so high on each other’s company no one would bother considering them a threat, would tail the man and keep their nimble thief apprised of their target’s movements.
Illya said as much. Gaby groaned, but nodded all the same. “I guess I’ll put on real clothes.”
“I did not say that,” Illya grumbled good-naturedly. Gaby gave him a quick grin and pinched at his ribs as she headed for the bedroom.
“Any requests?” she called out as she pulled Napoleon’s button-up over her head.
“The blue!” Illya replied back without thinking. It matched Napoleon’s eyes and made Illya’s stomach do somersaults.
Gaby reappeared with her hair curled under a new, bright white headband. Turning, she presented Illya with her bare back, the loose zipper of her dress dangling at the base of her spine. It was a beautiful Persian blue number; the silk light and summery, with triangular cut outs down the back and the skirt layered with lace. Illya struggled to breathe as he eased the zipper carefully up her back. Gaby turned and reached up, cupping her hand around his cheek and stroking down the side of his face with her thumb nail. Then, rather deliberately, she trailed her fingertips down his neck to his shirt, and let her fingers undo the top two buttons.
“Is that necessary?” he asked, though he didn’t move to correct her. Gaby smiled deviously at him.
“Of course. It’s suppose to be a vacation, darling.”
Illya suspected she had picked up too much of Napoleon’s flirtations. He squared his shoulders for the challenge in front of him, and ushered Gaby out the door.
Summer in Madrid was gorgeous. Sunny, colorful, and warm in way that Illya loved. Part of him wanted to do nothing but sprawl out on the hotel patio and absorb the heat. Maybe help Gaby with her French. Or find out just how dexterous Napoleon’s fingers were.
Two years ago, he wouldn’t have considered fantasizing about any of that.
Illya was very aware of how much damage he could cause with only the barest amount of effort. He towered over his fellow countryman from age fifteen onward, and everyone he encountered outside his motherland just seemed so small in comparison. He felt it, every time he touched Gaby with anything more then a glance; every time he caught Napoleon’s surprisingly nimble fingers when they danced over whatever Illya had stashed in his pockets that day; every time they worked together to take him apart piece by piece.
Gaby, however, worried about none of this. Which was why she slammed into him with everything she had, sending them both stumbling into the shaded enclave of a nearby building.
“What-,” he gasped out, only for Gaby to seal her mouth over his in an obscene kiss. Distantly, he heard someone making 'tutting' noises at them. Another catcalled. Illya was powerless to answer them under Gaby's demanding touch.
She pulled back, looking only a little smug. “I thought Aznar spotted us.”
Illya stared at her, letting his disbelief show across his face.
“What?” she asked innocently. “He looked this way.”
“Of course he did,” Illya grumbled, trying to get his heart rate back under control.
Napoleon was a horrible influence on her.
Chapter 3: Madrid - Amsterdam
Illya becomes uncomfortable, then has an idea.
Amsterdam causes a lot of stress for everyone, but they manage to come out of it all stronger.
Madrid (summer 1965)
Napoleon was flirting again. His mark giggled and flipped her hair back, giving her smooth smile a chance to shine, and Illya figured she must know the rules of the game just as well as Napoleon, since nothing Cowboy had to say could possibly be that funny that fast. Besides, not ten minutes ago she had caught Illya in a lie a minute into their conversation; she wasn’t lacking in awareness.
Napoleon once told him half the fun of flirting was getting to act in a way that wasn’t typically acceptable. Sometimes it wasn’t so much the seduction as it was giving someone an excuse to act out. Illya wasn't sure that was the optimal way to utilize assets on a mission, but when Napoleon strode back to him with a gleam in his eye and a cocktail pick between his teeth, it was hard to argue with his success.
Illya, hiding under an awning across the street, crossed his arms and gave him a disapproving look anyways. Effective, yes, but it often left Illya to whither on the sidelines.
“You sunburn like day-old dairy, don’t you?” Napoleon asked when he returned to Illya's side. In emphasis, he poked at Illya’s bared forearms, where the skin was much redder than it had been earlier in the day. His face felt overly hot, a sign the Spanish sun had already done its damage.
Illya swatted away his silly American’s pesky fingers.
“Stop,” he ordered bluntly.
“You stop,” Napoleon, the soul of maturity, responded. “Come on, the hostess said she heard Aznar mention errands on the west side of town. Probably where he headed when he slipped us.”
Illya fell into step with his partner. Privately, he was still annoyed that he and Napoleon had managed to lose Aznar in the afternoon crowd. The man was a slippery eel, and Illya was starting to suspect their mark had spotted his tail earlier in the week.
Not that it had caused the man’s patterns to vary. If anything, he became even more mundane with each passing day. A sure sign Aznar was onto them.
“I keep telling you, he hasn’t made us,” Napoleon told him, reading his inner stress as if Illya had painted it on a billboard for all to see. “Ten pounds says the man has a mistress somewhere in the city. Maybe even a few; he is meticulous."
“I hardly see the connection,” Illya grumbled with stiff grace.
“Oh please,” Napoleon dismissed. “I know men like Aznar—always grasping for a better bauble. Remember that mark we had in Dublin?"
“Same thing. Can’t help but want everything. Aznar’s just more liberated in his tastes.”
Illya recognized the signs of Napoleon sharing something more from personal experience than from professional opinion, but he let it lie. With his team, it was best to let the truth come to him in its own time. For them, he could wait.
Gaby, half a city away and researching Aznar’s paper trail, buzzed them through the new communications device Waverly had them field testing. Illya pulled the disguised pen from his pocket. While Napoleon hit up a horde of taxi drivers for hints of Aznar’s latest sighting, he answered into the pen, as discreetly as he could manage.
“How is it going?” she asked, her voice as clear as if she were right beside him. Illya had to say he was fascinated by the technology.
“Napoleon is being Napoleon,” he replied, letting it barely brush his lips as if he could chew it while he thought. “We think we may be closing back in on him.”
“That’s nice, but not what I meant,” she teased. Illya let a grin slip onto his face; he could clearly imagine her at her desk, elbows propped up on its surface while she twirled the stick-like comms device between her fingers. She hadn’t bothered to do anything with her hair that morning, so it was probably sloppily pulled back in a low bun or covered by one of her gaudy scarves.
It gave him something to think about other than his burning skin or Napoleon’s closer than necessary proximity to the handsome young driver.
“Can we not just throw Aznar in local prison for tax evasion and call it day?” he whined. He had no other excuse, it was a whine. He was hot and distracted, and he could be spending his day in much better ways than this.
Gaby laughed light and free over the connection.
“Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind,” she confided. “He’s terribly good at hiding his trail.”
“But you are better."
“But I am better,” she confirmed with grace. Illya let his grin settle into an indulgent smile. What had these people done to him?
Napoleon broke away from the drivers and waved him down. He had the trail again.
“We are moving,” he told Gaby. “We will check in soon.”
She hummed and the connection was cut. Illya felt a pang of missing her, but shunted it aside. The sooner they caught back up with Aznar the sooner they could go back to her.
The neighborhood the drivers had reported seeing Aznar go down was shadier than Illya had expected from an upscale businessman. Illya spotted two gambling houses and what smelled like an opium den before walking even fifty meters into it.
“What does man like Aznar need in place like this?” he muttered, ducking by a man who reeked of booze. Maybe the man was hiding some seedier vices? Illya supposed it was possible, though he felt certain Gaby would have noticed that in his finances.
“Oh, I think I know,” Napoleon stopped before a store front the boasted a display window covered in feather boas, tastefully scanty leather pieces, and some very colorful…instruments.
Illya paled. Napoleon grinned, quick and vicious.
“Mistress,” he reiterated, laughter in his voice while Illya stared in horror at the sex shop. “Called it from the beginning, didn’t I?”
Illya wanted to turn back for the hotel the moment Napoleon stepped into the store. The only thing that stopped him was the damn American, watching him with a slightly raised eyebrow and a truly obscene smirk.
“Alright there, Peril?"
“Shut it, Cowboy.”
“Better wait here,” Napoleon kept up, unholy glee bleeding off him in spades. “Wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.”
Illya decided against arguing. There was no way he was going inside. Instead, he slunk into the alley and steadily avoided eye-contact with everyone who came within a five meter radius of him.
Napoleon reappeared a few minutes later, waving a receipt Illya can only assume he stole from the register.
“Aznar’s purchase,” he said. “And might I say the man’s got exquisite taste. I couldn’t have picked better myself.”
Illya growled, trying to keep his racing heart under control. It was not helping his control at all to think of Napoleon in that place. The damn man looked good in anything, leather wouldn’t be the exception.
“That’s important why?”
“Because he had it sent it to an address I don’t recognize from any of our files,” Napoleon replied with triumph. Oh good, the entire afternoon hadn’t been a complete waste then.
Illya said as much and quickly dragged them back towards the decent, not-scandous part of town.
“Wait,” Napoleon exclaimed with a sinful grin. "I got you a present."
“No,” Illya instantly vetoed.
"Aww, don't even want to see what it is? I think you'll love it."
Napoleon had the good grace not to laugh out loud at Illya’s discomfort but it didn’t stop him from shamefully reveling in it. He couldn't touch Illya in public the way he wanted to, not even in a place like this, and so he drew the awkwardness out for as long as he could manage. He forced Illya’s attention solely on him, and played piano with his breath and heartbeat. Illya knew this was Napoleon’s way of engaging when physical contact was denied to him.
It worked on him every time. He could no longer tell if the heat on his face was from Napoleon or the sun. This was wholly unfair.
Illya ignored him the rest of the way home. At least, he tried his best; ignoring Napoleon was a very hard thing to do.
Gaby was much like he pictured her, elbows deep in paperwork when they slipped back into the hotel. Napoleon used the excuse to lean in close and ghost his fingers down Illya’s spine. There was a light pull at the fabric of his pants pocket, and a new weight settled in next to his leg, but Illya didn’t have a chance to do anything but bat Napoleon’s hand away before Gaby finished what she was doing and turned her attention to them.
“How’d it go?”
“Peril had some qualms about our next stack-out point,” Napoleon taunted as he undid his cuff links and tossed them aside.
Gaby's hair tied up in a scarf. Illya concentrated on that while her eyes dancing. “Oh?"
“I do not have problem,” Illya snapped. “I simply find it shining example of capitalism and hedonism. Who would pay for something like that?”
“Aznar, for one.” Napoleon chimed in, shaking off his shoes, his watch, his belt. Illya focused on Gaby, but that wasn’t helping. The colors of her scarf reminded him of the bright feathers in the display window.
“Do I need to come with you next time?” Gaby asked.
“No!” Illya responded almost too quickly. The only thing he could think of that was worse than Napoleon loose in that store was Gaby, eager and curious, right beside him.
Gaby’s eyes turned towards a dangerous mixture of sly and innocent, and Illya felt his resolve crumbling like cheap paper.
“But Illya,” she drawled, sharing a coy smile with Napoleon.
Illya sighed. They both were going to be the death of him.
They found Aznar’s mistress two days later. Napoleon didn’t even wait for her to finish her lunch before sliding into the seat next to her.
Illya pressed his lips closed and let Gaby glance her fingernails over his reddened skin. Unlike him, she only browned in the sun, and she wore a low-cut, pink number that accentuated all of her desirous features to take advantage of that fact.
“Does it really bother you so much?” she asked after a few minutes of watching Napoleon dazzle a very important man's woman. It was as easy to him as giving the waiter his drink order.
Illya shrugged, careful not to dislodge Gaby’s fingers. If anything, he was astounded by how frequently Napoleon could and would fall back on seduction to achieve his goals.
“It’s not the same, you know.” Gaby told him while he watched Napoleon slink up to their latest suspected connection. “He means it when he’s with us.”
“How can you tell?”
Gaby tilted her head up to him, her hair tumbling temptingly down the edge of her throat.
“Same way I can tell you mean it."
Even flustered and itching from the heat, Illya was rational enough to see what Gaby meant.
Napoleon never liked to look less then completely put together in front of other people. Even when he spent the night with them. His clothes, his manner, his grooming were all armor he kept in place to make sure the rest of the world understood that while they could look all they'd like, they should keep their distance.
Only around them did he start to let little pieces of it slip. Hair not perfectly pomaded and combed, but instead left curling in odd patterns. Ties slipped loose of their careful knots and shirts unbuttoned without thought to how he looked. And every once in a while, when he truly felt comfortable and at ease around them, small things would crop up. A baggy beige sweater that was thick and lumpy and nothing attractive to look at, but so warm it fought off even the worst of the cold. Careless stubble not addressed during a weekend when they never bothered to leave their rooms.
Gaby stood next to him as they watched Napoleon, and Illya was grateful for that too. Watching Napoleon had become another shared pastime between them: playing chess, driving motorcycles, and voyeuristic spying. If Napoleon was their tugboat into troubled waters, Gaby was his co-captain on their submerged submarine. It was nice to have company with whom Illya could enjoy his silence.
Napoleon came back to them half an hour later. He always came back.
The next day, Illya remembered Napoleon’s crafty fingers, and went digging into his pockets. He blushed deep red even as he laughed; the cheap pair of handcuffs, so feeble that even Gaby's limited core and upper body strength could break them in half, gleamed bright in his palms.
Illya stared at the circles, one in each of his hands, and began to formulate a plan.
Amsterdam (winter 1963)
Isaac typically disliked talking to the support staff, but Gustav had stormed out in a huff earlier that morning, and Emilio despised everything about Amsterdam, so it fell to him to be the bearer of bad news.
The garage loomed before him. Late in the afternoon as it was, the sun had already started to set behind the lumbering building, and the soft orange light shown out onto the frost-covered ground. As he stepped inside the front door, the heat instantly began to bite away at the cold around his face and hands.
Otto, leaning against the high desk with account books scattered in front of him, glanced up as the door chimed. His frigid eyes sharpened behind his dark, horn-rimmed glasses as he saw Issac. His features were softened by the fur of his lined, ear-flopped hat, but he didn’t believe for one moment that it meant the man couldn’t break him like a twig.
To Issac, the other man was so obviously KGB that he couldn’t believe U.N.C.L.E. had sent him in undercover.
“Were you followed?” Otto asked as he rounded the desk. Good heavens, the man was tall.
“No,” Isaac assured him. He knew how to do his job, despite what Gustav liked to think. “But it won’t matter anyway."
Otto moved to lock the door but didn’t flip down the blinds. The posted garage hours listing them open for another thirty minutes.
Isaac debated how much he should say and which secrets he could keep mum on. U.N.C.L.E. may not function like MI6, but he didn’t doubt that Waverly wouldn’t tolerate petty emotions getting in the way of the mission. Even so, it was a struggle for Issac to persuade himself to be open with his support staff.
He didn’t like them, not one bit.
On the top of his complaints, Isaac still wasn’t sure why Waverly had assigned his support staff to work out of a mechanic’s garage, which didn't even have the advantage of being close to their target. Aside from the sanitary conditions of the industrial neighborhood, in his opinion the agents didn’t blend in the way a proper Englishman could. Otto, the large Russian who served as their main point of contact in the front office, was somehow the least noticeable of the three.
Sofia seemed nice enough and was about as threatening as a kitten, but since she was their official liaison and outranked everyone from both teams, he avoided her as much as possible. An easy enough task since from what Isaac could tell, Sofia was the person handling all of the actual mechanical work, with little help from the other two. It said something about the others that they would leave her with so much of the grunt work, and in a location she was so unsuited for. That wasn’t very safe at all, was it?
And Dietrich. As far as Issac was concerned, the other man couldn’t be bothered to stick around long enough to be useful or provide back up. He was often in and out, his too handsome face always smiling as his eyes tried to pick apart Isaac down to his bones. Rude, but at least he was rude in the Western way—who could expect any better from Americans.
No, Otto was the only decent agent of the bunch. He kept out of their way and acquired anything they requested, with nary a demand for explanation.
But how could Isaac explain to him that he wanted to dump Gustav in the Amstel whenever the Swede opened his mouth? His teammate couldn’t keep any thought or feeling to himself, and took deep enjoyment in tearing down any idea that wasn’t his own until nothing else remained. ‘Dramatic’ couldn’t begin to the row they’d had when Isaac tried to point that out.
Emilio was no help, almost as uselessly dramatic as Dietrich. He had withdrawn more and more to the point of reclusiveness, to the point they might as well downgrade him down to the 'additional support if needed’ rung of the command ladder. He hardly dared to go outside most days.
Some small part of Isaac couldn’t blame him—Amsterdam wasn’t the most friendly place for a Mexican-born law enforcement officer more skilled in counterintelligence than covert affairs. Mostly he just wanted to tell the man to grow up and get over it. Emilio needed to separate his life from his work if he wanted to get anywhere in espionage.
Isaac felt exhausted and frustrated, a professional amongst amateurs, but at least he could see the end in sight. His cringed at having to mark a defeat on his experience record, but he couldn’t say he wasn’t grateful.
“We believe that we’ve received as much intelligence as possible,” he reported to Otto. “We need to pull out now."
Otto slipped his glasses off, slipped them into a crest-pocket that looked comically small against the mass plane of his chest, and leaned back against the door jam. His eyes were unreadable.
“We tracked down Šiljak’s accounts to De Nederlandsche bank, but we don’t believe we can infiltrate any further."
“De Nederlansche has been his suspected hiding spot for quite some time,” Otto pointed out, slipping into his Russian accent when no one else was around. Bad form, that. “It is why Gustav positioned himself on bank’s security team, is it not?”
“Yes, but my teammates and I believe the mission is a bust,” Isaac explained, trying not to flush under Otto’s scrutiny. “There’s no way in. The bank’s safe is unbreakable.”
“Unbreakable. And you believe that is your only way to Šiljak's information?"
“Yes. Black market spy hunters don’t usually leave their most valuable intel in the back of a sock drawer. We’ve confirmed that he’s working out of Amsterdam and where he stores his information. Waverly will have to be happy with that.”
Otto examined him for a moment more before turning away. His dismissal was clear, and it burned Isaac more than he thought possible.
“Now wait a minute,” he started, only to be interrupted by a quick rap on the glass of the door. Otto glanced out the window behind him, moving to flick the lock and stepping back to let Dietrich slip by, his arms laden down with brown paper bags. He dropped them onto the counter, dug into his pockets, and deposited a crumpled pile of receipts across Otto’s account books.
“Did you buy anything useful, Cowboy?”
Dietrich laughed with the kind of perfect inflection designed to put people at ease. Issac didn’t trust it for a second, but Otto stood still as Dietrich reached out to ruffle the fur of Otto’s hat.
“You’ll just have to wait to find out, Peril. Hello, Isaac—anything new to report?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Otto told him, batting Dietrich away from his desk.
“Suit yourself,” Dietrich said, not repentant in the slightest. He turned his too bright eyes back to Isaac to ask, “How’s Emilio?”
“Fine.” If fine meant that he hadn’t left his room in the last twenty-four hours.
“Good, I was a little worried, since we haven’t seen him in a while,” Dietrich explained. Isaac held back a groan; he always overlooked that Dietrich could be just as terrifyingly perceptive as Otto, a great quality in an agent if he'd only put it to use. "I wanted to let him know about a new Mediterranean restaurant downtown that I thought he’d like.”
“I’ll let him know.”
“Please do.” It sounded more like an order than a request, but Dietrich’s attention was back on Otto before Isaac could correct him. "Tell Sofia dinner will be ready in an hour and she’s not to ruin everything she touches with car grease this time.”
With that he swept up his bags and swaggered upstairs. Otto let out a scoff that was more affectionate than scornful as he dug his glasses back out. Isaac would know the difference, he’d heard enough scorn from Gustav in the last few weeks. Envy bit harsh and quick, as it did every time it did when he came here. It irritated him that his support staff lacked a degree of professionalism, but despite that they seemed to function better than he and his teammates. Work wasn’t suppose to be that easy.
“Do you have any intel on the bank?” Otto asked, his tone abruptly distant. He flipped through receipts rather than look at Isaac, though the glance he received over the dark rim of his glasses told Isaac the answer had better be 'yes'.
Wordlessly, Isaac slapped his satchel down next to Otto. He dug out the roll of blueprints and security schedules, annoyed at the indignity of it all. What did he think they had been doing for the last few weeks?
Besides not cooperating with his teammates, he'd held up this mission on his own. Isaac definitely wouldn't acknowledge what that would mean for his team when they returned back to London.
“Come back tomorrow,” Otto told him, already back to his books. Isaac didn’t bother saying goodbye.
Illya watched as the other agent took his leave with a sense of disenchantment. He wondered if Isaac realized how easily his emotions projected on his face. Waverly surely had better picks than him for a mission head; people who could unite a team and make its potential shine rather than stepping back and giving up at the first sign of waves on troubled waters.
But he didn’t have time to consider it too much when the sound of an engine rattled through the garage door.
A sleek, baby blue car that Illya thought was a 1500 New Class BMW pulled into the driveway, emitting an odd clunking noise as the engine was cut. The driver stumbled out in a rush; Illya eyed his off-the-rack clothes, clumsy hands, and lack of concealed weapons and determined he had no covert affiliation. Checking the clock, Illya figured it would happen that a customer would show up ten minutes before he was set to close.
“Guten abend,” he greeted. The man paused an shot him a suspicious look. Illya ballparked his age around the mid-sixties, which made him old enough to remember the war. That did hurt their cover as a group of Germans fleeing the upheaval of their home country, but the world couldn’t afford to stay mad at Germany forever. Especially when they manufactured some of the most widely utilized cars in Europe. “May vee help you?”
“The dials have been going crazy all afternoon. Can you have a look?”
“Sofia! Kunde!” Illya called out. Gaby’s muffled response from the back of the shop could barely be heard above the muffling of the radio she kept back there.
They had originally decided on 'Wilhelmina' for her cover name, but Napoleon killed that idea by pointedly calling her 'Willie' two minutes later.
“I’d prefer it if you look at it,” the customer dithered, shifting impatiently from foot to foot. “I’m not sure she’d be able to…” he trailed off, unsure how to continue under Illya’s stony stare.
“You haf nice German car,” Illya told him, enjoying the fact that Otto was allowed to be more blunt than Illya himself could often afford to be. “You vill haf it fixed by nice German lady. Vait.”
He made sure his accent was just thick enough to discourage the customer from arguing with him. When he finally shuffled back to his car, Illya let a small smile filter through his face and turned back to the accounting books. He was determined to find out if Napoleon had blown their budget with his grocery run. Again.
Gaby appeared a few moments later, a colorful scarf around her hair and a grease stained rag between her hands. Illya handed the customer over with some relief when she nodded along with what the old man told her. She slid into the driver's seat and popped open the gearbox compartment while Illya closed down the front office for the night.
Their cover in Amsterdam was a straightforward one: a mechanic shop could expect all types of people at different and varied times of the day. With Gaby running the helm with her two ‘cousins', it posed as a simple family business that was easy to overlook in the bustle of a busy, changing city. It gave them an excuse to be under the same roof with minimal questions from their neighbors, and the roomy garage excellently explained away some of the more unique pieces of equipment they acquired. It was a steady, streamline cover.
Only Amsterdam was boring. Illya didn’t often act as support staff, mainly because his handlers had disliked his tendency to disregard the oft-inefficient mission heads and take control of the objective himself. This time had been no different, and his impulsive need to act was not helped by the mission team's lack of cohesion. Disunity would only lead to potential threat or injury to them all, and Illya found that unacceptable.
However Amsterdam was also far, far away from American politics, which was in a complete state of chaos after the assassination of their leader. Waverly had explained as much the night they landed in London.
“But it says here they’ve already caught the killer,” Gaby pointed out, her elbows braced on the conference table as she and Napoleon vied for room in front of the outspread newspaper.
“Yes,” Waverly agreed. “A killer with suspected communist ties and the potential of a conspiracy. It’s a veritable circus across the Pond right now, and the Americans are pulling out every resource they can."
"You think they would come for Napoleon?” Illya asked as he dug through the supplies U.N.C.L.E. had on hand in their newly designated headquarters. Most of their luggage was still in Dublin, so they needed to restock on wardrobes, tools, and credentials from what they could find in the building. Gaby had tried to swat him away from her own pile, but Illya persevered in the face of her wrath. If it were up to her, she'd be wearing grease stained jump suits and gaudy head scarves every time they let her out of the house.
"We're just being cautious," Waverly explained. "You know how, ah, trigger happy, the Americans can be."
Napoleon let out a derisive snorted, the first opinion he'd expressed aloud since they'd discovered what had caused their aborted mission. But he didn’t expound, and Illya was too concerned with the limited prep time available before Waverly dispatched them onto another flight. Whatever thoughts about the situation were flying through his head, Illya would have to figure them out later.
“The CIA’s charter doesn’t allow them to operate within the states,” Napoleon explained to Gaby as if he were quoting something interesting he'd read on a pamplet. “But the moment this goes international, and it will if this Oswald actually defected to the USSR, they’ll be all over it."
“And you are their best,” Illya finished, suddenly concerned despite himself. It was entirely feasible for the CIA to demand their best back. And here Illya had thought he would be the first to be recalled. Napoleon flashed him a quick smile.
“Wouldn’t the KGB say the same about you, Peril?”
They would, but this wasn’t something worth pulling Illya back for. He occasionally dipped into wetwork in pursuit of a mission, but his handlers were judicious in limiting his exposure to the worst of it. He suspected that was out of fear for what it would do to his already unstable mental state.
But this was nothing for him to worry about; the parts of the Kremlin that Illya answered to would only be gloating and amused at the assassination of a US president at the hands of one of its very own citizens.
“We’re putting every US-born agent we have to ground,” Waverly picked up, ignoring the resulting look of suspicion from Napoleon. “And what luck, I have a trial team in Amsterdam who needs support."
Illya hefted up a familiar army green and gray bag and asked, "Is this KGB-issued?"
“It would appear so,” Waverly confirmed, handing over the mission dossier and plane tickets to Gaby. He didn’t elaborate, as unusually closed-lipped as Napoleon.
Illya let it lie as he unzipped the kit and pulled out the emergency set of clothes. Tossing the more nondescript pieces into his pile, and the underwear into Napoleon’s because, given his teammate's state of mind, he couldn't be sure Napoleon would remember those little details.
He started on the weapons next. The ushanka, black and lined in grey fur, fell out onto the table while he dug for the knife he knew would be tucked into the bag’s depths.
Napoleon, who by all rights was ten steps ahead into their mission and the upheaval of the Western world, chose that moment to drop back into the here and now. He popped forward in his seat and before Illya could stop him the American had snatched the hat, leaned over the table, and tugged it down over Illya’s forehead and ears.
“Oh my,” Gaby commented, her eyes wide. Napoleon’s face split wide in a grin, professional on his mouth but laughing with mirth in his eyes. Illya growled and ripped it off, intent on shoving it back in the kit or into Napoleon's face. The decision was taken from him when Napoleon nimbly plucked it out of his fingers and tossed it to Gaby, who immediately shoved it into his new suitcase.
“No,” Illya ordered, but Gaby cut him off.
“I saw you sneak those ridiculous boots into my bag earlier, the least you could do is utilize proper headgear for me,” she told him.
“I’d hardly call a pair of Mary Quants ridiculous,” Napoleon said. “But she has a point, Peril. I don’t think your trusty flat cap made it out of Dublin, anyway.”
Illya rolled his eyes but let the whole matter go since their plane left in less than two hours. He still needed to make sure their papers would clear customs and that they had a decent medical kit. His knuckles were bruised from his boxing match, the occasional twinge through his forearm a reminder that he'd stretched his swing too far right out of the gates.
The ushanka was comfortable though, and Amsterdam’s winter was bitter enough that he appreciated its warmth. He also noticed that Gaby and Napoleon never failed to smile when they saw him wearing it. Even if they were the smiles of bullies.
His hands full of shop account books and stolen bank plans, Illya climbed the stairs to their shared apartment above the garage. The smell of dinner, whatever it was, hit him strong before he even opened the door.
Napoleon stood at the stove, humming softly as he worked. Illya didn’t recognize the song, but Napoleon seemed loose and at-ease with his enjoyment of it. His jacket was gone and his shirt sleeves rolled up, an apron printed with small windmills and lighthouses protecting his torso.
Illya wasn’t sure what had caused his weird moods in Dublin, but whatever it was had lessened during their time in the Netherlands. Illya found himself smiling every once in a while when he caught Napoleon like this, relaxed and himself again.
Illya dropped his papers on the tiny kitchen table and took a seat, mindful of the creaking chair. Napoleon would enjoy watching him tumble head over heels far too much; Illya would not give him the satisfaction.
"You're too chipper for a man who claimed to be going to insane just the other day,” he accused, cracking the ledger open. Gaby had full reign of the shop but after Illya saw their measly budget from U.N.C.L.E., he had commandeered bookkeeping. Between Gaby’s more creative projects in the garage and Napoleon’s determination to cook every recipe in ’The Joy of Cooking’, they would have gone bankrupt in a week without him.
Occasionally, the bitter head of reason would rise from the embers of Illya's ire and remind him that Napoleon was, at his core, a sneak thief; and Gaby, a highly skilled and self-trained undercover operative who had likely not been given any budget when she'd started. For very different reasons, such constraints were likely both new and not seen as a worrisome problem.
But it could very well become a problem if they were not careful. Being stranded in a foreign country with an unsteady mission team and little cash flow with a spy hunter on the loose was a combination of disaster. Illya would take care that it wouldn’t explode.
“It’s not my fault this mission is boring," Napoleon told him, waving the wooden spoon around like a baton. “But I've finally figured out a puzzle I've been working on, so I’m in a mood to celebrate.”
“And what have you figured out?"
“What we're going to do when this team crashes and burns."
Well maybe Illya wasn't going to have to do that much convincing after all. He felt loads lighter. Guilt sat heavy in him, that he had failed to keep his control in check long enough to trust another team to finish the mission. But Napoleon’s blasé announcement of his doubts solidified his instincts.
Napoleon's judgment and subsequent effectiveness had impressed him in Dublin, and Illya found himself leaning forward, attention again captured as Napoleon began to scheme.
Napoleon's returning gaze was sharp and waiting, as if he expected a reaction out of Illya before he went any further. He wasn’t sure what reaction the American wanted.
"Tell me more,” he offered, and Napoleon’s intelligent eyes crinkled pleasantly around the edges.
“The way I figure it, if Šiljak is as good at tracking spies as we're being led to believe, perhaps we can use their fiery destruction to our advantage."
"That's possibility. Also dangerous," Illya replied noncommitally. He'd had older comrades who owned cats, and they all swore the key to raising them was to let them believe they ran the household. He suspected the same strategy would work on Napoleon.
"Not as dangerous as letting Issac, Gustav, and Emilio all tear each other apart from the inside out,” Napoleon countered, more alive than Illya remembered seeing him since they landed in Amsterdam.
“Tsk-tsk. Now, Cowboy," Illya said, unrolling the plans across the table. “Let’s not talk poorly of the fools who gave us the bank safe plans.” The wooden spoon splattered across the oven when it was dropped. Napoleon appeared against the table side, breath sucked in deep and his face open and alive.
“How?” he questioned in a low breath, his fingers tracing the blueprints with near reverence.
Illya summarized Isaac's report, not sure if he was distracting Napoleon his teammate studied their gift, jumping from line to line across the thin pages.
Would U.N.C.L.E. allow them this? Would they believe their agents in the field knew a situation better than the admins in HQ? He was learning that their new superiors had a freer hand then his previous handlers with the KGB, but he couldn't shake the belief that they'd eventually find a limit to Waverly's tolerance.
He guessed they were about to find out.
"Is our food suppose to be smoking?" Illya asked. Napoleon glanced back to the oven and cursed as he darted back toward it.
Gaby missed working with her hands. She had no complaints about the turns her life took or the new skills she was learning, but in a small garage in Amsterdam, playing the long con and waiting, she found herself firmly in a zone of her own making and thriving.
Illya and Napoleon understood espionage in terms of speed, efficiency, and taking all they could get their hands on under the clock without stopping for questions. In contrast, Gaby’s life had been one of constant waiting and vigilance since recruitment; patience and even-paced planning were second nature to her.
Her last minute customer petered around behind her while she worked, but she ignored him. His problem was a simple one, common to the New Class's gear box. Any mechanic familiar with BMW’s layout would have been able to solve it. He tried to ask her a few questions but Sofia, she had decided, was much like her cousin Otto, speaking only in short, clipped sentences. They left any amicability to Dietrich, who seemed to make friends wherever he landed.
She wrote out a quick invoice and took the man's money with little fuss. U.N.C.L.E. funding only stretched so far, and it was good to have a stock-pile of money tucked away from their bosses.
Understanding how a house, responsibilities, and routine blended together to form a life took practice, and she suspected Illya and Napoleon of having lived further away from that practice than either would admit. Domesticity did not coming easy to either of them.
The fireplace had been the first point of contention.
“They take forever to heat anything,” Napoleon complained, flipping the latch of the wood-burning stove door back and forth.
“But it'll keep us safe,” Gaby pointed out. “What if we end up with classified information and need a way to dispose of it? Burning it is better.” Before sending her on her way, Waverly made sure she understood the basics of spy hunting. The quickest, and surest, way to find a spy was to dig through their trash — only people with information to hide shredded their paper waste. “Besides, it will help us blend in. Houses with people in them light fires. We are people, in a house.”
“It’s not that cold,” Illya complained.
“Said the Russian,” Napoleon replied, testing the gas at the cook-top. “Try to remember that it's not common for people to live in snow-laden tundras. It would be a shame if Fräulein Mechaniker lost her hands to frost bite—how else will we be able to afford these luxurious accomodations?”
Gaby thought that would be the worst of it. She should have known better. The next round came when grocery shopping.
“Did you check them?” she ask as Illya came back with the carton of eggs. He blinked at her.
“Why would I need to check them? They are not bombs.”
Napoleon handled the groceries after that, as well as anything to do with rent or utilities. His German accent was convincing enough to a nation of people who tried to avoid contact with her homeland as much as possible. They didn't know to listen for the subtleties that pointed to an American origin (or a Russian one, for that matter). Gaby took over the practical work experience in the garage, and Illya took over the front office along with the less official jobs of pestering Napoleon and hovering over Gaby's shoulder.
Truth be told, Gaby enjoyed having him close while she worked. After all the things he taught her about explosives, she reveled in being able to share her own skills in return. Illya’s hands were a too large for the fine-tuning work her engines required, but when her jack had broken a week ago, she got the first-hand experience of watching him lift the car onto the blocks with only the slightest evidence of strain. No matter how often she it, his strength always took her breath away.
With their late night customer ushered away, Gaby began to close up shop. She turned up the radio as she cleaned, and soon a singer Napoleon told her was named Elvis was crooning back at her. Uncensored radio was a hard thing to find in East Berlin after the wall, and in all the tension and distraction she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the bouncing, peppy melodies. Her ballet background had filled her childhood with classical instrumental pieces, but there was something addicting about modern music that held fast her attention.
"You’re the devil in disguise, oh yes you are, devil in disguise,” she sang along as she checked and double-checked all the locks and bolts. Switching off the blinking open sign in their window, she lingered and swayed as long as she could before finally turning the radio off and heading upstairs.
She found Illya and Napoleon with their heads bowed over a set of blueprints; she wasn't shocked. The only surprise was that the had waited two weeks before trying anything.
“What’s this?” she asked, more for their benefit than hers. While they exchanged a look, she busied herself with re-tying her headscarf, and considered her options. In the end her priority was their well-being, and Amsterdam had been good for them. The pace of the mission had given Illya the time to center himself without outside stresses weighing him down, and Napoleon had bounced back in leaps and bounds from whatever had torn into him in Dublin.
But now they were settled and getting antsy. It wasn’t in their nature to let things lie.
“Heaven help me, I didn’t see, the devil in your eyes,” Napoleon sang along, and Gaby realized her humming had followed her though her thoughts. He winked at her as he stood up, circling around the couch and back to the oven with a tuneful whistle.
“Isaac brought in blueprints for safe in De Nederlandsche. They think Šiljak has information stored in them.”
“But I believe the term ‘unbreakable’ came into the conversation at that point. Didn’t it, Peril?” Napoleon asked, pulling out plates. A cover went over the pot, and he leaned over to select a wine from the few bottles across the counter. Gaby had never seen someone uncork wine as quickly and as neatly as Napoleon always managed to do.
“Something along those lines," Illya agreed.
“And I, for one, have never been a fan of that kind of defeatist attitude,” Napoleon said, presenting the wineglass to her with a flourish. “So Peril and I decided to see what we could do about it.”
“You want to take their mission from them,” she clarified.
“Yes,” Illya said without guilt. Gaby resisted the sigh that bubbled in her chest.
“Do Isaac and his team bother you so much?"
“They lack cohesion. They will get themselves killed, and it will be that much harder for next team to take their place."
“I don’t think cohesion is a word Waverly would use to describe us,” she pointed out, heading for the stove to help Napoleon serve.
“No, but well-suited is,” Napoleon replied as he stacked the dishes into her arms.
They ate dinner over the blueprints, Napoleon tracing the white lines across the pages with his fork between bites.
“A Molser 16700,” he explained. “They just hit the market two years ago." He made a noise in the back of his throat that Gaby had only ever heard from a child given something cute and fluffy.
“Should we give you a moment?”
"Bad?” Illya prodded.
"I can see why they thought it was impossible," Napoleon said in an approximation of humility. Excitement was written clear across his face.
Across the table, Illya watched him intently.
"Is it really that much of a challenge?"
Napoleon reached out to trace the maker's logo in the corner. "A handful of their older models were installed in the Mitsu Bank in Hiroshima. The bomb hit; the bank was obliterated. The safe, however, and everything inside, made it out practically unscathed. This vault makes the one the Vincigurra's had look like a piggy bank."
"And aside from alarm, you got into that one no problem. How about this one?" Illya pointed out.
Napoleon took a long swig from his wine glass, considering.
"Give me a bit," he finally determined.
Gaby saw the red line fast approaching and decided to hit the brakes. Putting her hand over the logo, she waited for Napoleon’s eyes to stop searching and turn to her.
“This is an interesting experiment,” she complimented, watching them both closely. She loved back up plans—loved knowing she had more than one exit open. But that didn’t mean she could let this slide. "But this isn’t what we’re here for."
Gaby understood why it was so hard for Illya and Napoleon to take a step back and take in the larger picture. Both were, until very recently, company men whose companies used them as pawns and attack dogs. Their training actively discouraged bigger picture thinking. And that was why Gaby was there with them, watching out for them when their focus became too narrow.
U.N.C.L.E. needed new teams, and it needed to know it could rely on those teams. If Isaac, Gustav, and Emilio couldn’t think their way out of a tight situation, how could they be trusted to adapt to the type of missions Waverly would inevitably stick them in? Napoleon and Illya could see it. She knew they could see it. There was no need to manipulate them, or lead them to the point by their noses. They were both just too brilliant for their own good, and couldn’t let their desire to improve and succeed in the face of mediocrity go without a fight.
“They’re going to fail miserably,” Napoleon said for both of them.
“They probably are,” Gaby agreed. “But taking that away wouldn’t help them. If nothing else, this is a learning experience and an opportunity for growth for all of them. Maybe Isaac will start communicating with his team. Maybe Gustav will set his ego aside. Maybe Emilio will come out of his shell."
Illya scoffed, and Gaby ignored him.
"But salvaging their mission for them will not help any of that,” she continued, giving both of them a serious look. She could tell they were unhappy, but they couldn’t argue with it.
They had a lead on Šiljak, and if nothing else this mission would provide the opportunity to track him down when he surfaced again. A glimmer of hope hung dimly in the back of her mind, whispering at the possibility of Issac and his team pulling through in the face of mounting pressure.
It had been exactly what her team had done. She would allow the other team the same opportunity.
The rest of the evening passed in relative silence, and Gaby retired for the evening hoping they would move past it. But when she passed the tiny living room on her way to the kitchen the next morning, she found Napoleon still studying the blueprints.
They had moved, now tacked onto the wall while Napoleon, toying with a near-empty glass of wine, lounged against the couch. He wore the same clothes from the night before, apron and all, but his cheeks were dusted with a faint layer of scruff. The circles under his eyes weren’t immediately apparent, but when she looked closer she could see the swelling around his lids, the red that tainted their beautiful blue.
He didn't seem to realize that Gaby was even there. Eventually, after the coffee maker finished percolating, she poured a cup for him, dropped two sugars into it, and traded it out for the stemware in his lax hands. Napoleon barely blinked, nodding softly his thanks as he sipped on his mug.
Unwilling to let him stay like this, and curious despite herself, Gaby gave into temptation and passed the back of her fingers across his cheek, enjoying the feeling of rough stubble against her skin. There was an unexpected delay before he could jerk out of his reverie, turning to her with a slightly startled expression.
“Good morning,” she greeted, dropping her hand to pat at the cup wrapped up in his fingers. He took her prodding demurely, working the coffee past his lips and down his throat.
“Can you not let it go?” she asked. She joined him on the couch, her own mug balanced in her lap as she looked up with him at the blueprints.
“I could do it," he muttered, almost to himself. Almost desperately.
“I do not doubt that you could, not even for a second,” she told him.
Behind them, the squeak of floorboards announced Illya’s arrival to their morning. A glance back saw her giant slipping into the room, not an ounce of surprise on his face to find them again in front of the blueprints. He came to stand behind them, and rested his elbows on the back of the couch, his forearm brushing against Napoleon’s shoulder if one of them shifted just right.
“Not our mission,” he intoned.
“Not our mission,” Napoleon repeated, completely unlike his usual convincing drawl.
A shrill ringing cut through the air, and Gaby sprung towards the phone in their kitchen before she realized she was moving. She interrupted it during the second ring, ripping it off the hook and resting it against her ear.
She listened. Then she set the phone back down, turning with her mouth set in a firm, unhappy line.
“That was Isaac,” she said. “They think Šiljak pinged on Emilio. They’re on his radar now.”
The noise Illya made did nothing to hide his scorn.
"It is hard to find worst spies than Cowboy.”
“And yet somehow they managed it," she replied as Napoleon shot Illya a half-hearted glare. But the Russian wasn't paying attention, instead looking at Gaby with excitement bubbling around the edges of his stern face.
"And does this mean...?" Illya asked, trailing off as if he didn't know the answer.
Gaby should have known she'd lose this fight eventually. "It means we go in."
Emilio may not make it out of Amsterdam alive if they didn't. She fought to remember that as she watched two seasoned spies rejoice in their living room, springing into action like children at pay.
Harder to find worse spies, indeed.
Napoleon wished he were as disappointed at the news of the lead team's collapse as he could pretend to be.
He liked Emilio, saw the potential in him. When functioning, he was energetic and inventive, always excellent traits to work with. Isaac, while distant, was a professional and probably a solid agent in his own territory. Even Gustav, who was a bit of a lost cause as a field agent, could be invaluable as a knowledgeable pair of hands, no matter how obnoxious the mouth attached. In other circumstances, Napoleon would be glad to work with any of them.
Emilio’s skin was sickly pale and he shook like a leaf when they picked him up. He didn't argue when they smuggled him into a safehouse across town from their garage. It wouldn't hold up as a long term hideout, but it would keep him safe until they could get to Šiljak.
“I don’t…I’m not sure what—what happened,” he stuttered out as Illya and Napoleon swept the tiny apartment. "I just went out for a bit. I just wanted to see..."
“It’s fine, Perez,” Napoleon reassured. The poor man looked about ready to burst with all the tension and guilt he felt.
Gaby covered his hands with her own, a soothing use of the blanketing effect as Napoleon ever had seen.
“Just stay inside, and keep your head down. We'll handle everything else," Gaby promised.
The Mexican national looked put out by the suggestion, but some of the tension did leave his body and he reluctantly nodded all the same. He truly did seem miserable. As Napoleon moved over to double-check the hanging light for bugs, he made sure to grip Emilio's shoulder as he passed, a show of companionship.
Emilio tilted back to grant Napoleon a thankful smile. Behind him, Peril shut the drawer of the dresser he was checking so hard that it shook against the wall. It was a little unfair of Gaby to not even turn to warn Illya not to break the place when Emilio startled under her hands.
As hard as Napoleon tried to sympathize with Emilio, a familiar rush of steel and adrenaline was returning. His skin itched after amusing himself on the sidelines for too long, and the lingering anticipation of what came next was too addicting. He couldn’t say that he regretted what brought them to this point.
The safe hummed under his touch. Napoleon couldn't fight the burning, driving excitement that swelled in his chest as he worked.
“How are you doing?” Gaby asked, standing above him with her eyes sharp and hands steady. Reliable at the drop of a hat, that was his Gaby. From his crouch over the combination dial, he couldn’t help but smile. This was his heaven.
“Living the dream,” he replied softly, most of his attention on the puzzle before them. “You?"
“This is more tense than I thought it would be,” she confided. He let out a small laugh, but left her to her work. He’d hate for her hands to slip now.
With Emilio’s potential exposure, getting Šiljak’s lists and information had transformed from a theoretical debate of techniques to a mission imperative. If Šiljak managed to confirm his suspicions about the existence of U.N.C.L.E., their fledgling operation would be sunk before it even managed to sail. There was no telling to whom the man might sell their information.
Napoleon didn’t want that. Didn’t want to go back to a life at the beck and call of the CIA with no grumpy Russian or know-it-all German with him. So the thoughts and plans buzzing around head needed to solidify into something that could actually work.
And without the possibility of electrocution.
“Problem?” Gaby had asked when he dug into the blueprints with fresh gusto in their tiny living room.
“In a way,” Napoleon hesitated with his hands over the schematics. He pointed out the underlying power boxes, which troubled him when he first saw them and hadn’t stopped since.
Gaby blinked down at the schematics. “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”
Napoleon ran his fingers through his hair, and his frustration notched just that bit higher to feel his curls breaking loose from their customary style. Not that the all-nighter had left him fresh and pristine. He must look a right mess, but that wouldn’t matter if he could condense his theories into an actionable reality.
“Molser got smart.” He pointed to a large, blank square just offset from the key mechanism. “This is most likely a lead or titanium block, which would make it more resistant to automatic tumbler crackers. I'll have to crack it by hand to get through the access panel.”
Professional curiosity made him wish he knew who prompted the security upgrades at Molser. He always considered this brand a challenge but this was a new level of protection. People didn't add this kind of security without paranoia or death threats driving them.
“Why is that problem?" Illya asked when Napoleon didn't pick his train of thought back up.
“Hmm? Oh, these,” Napoleon pointed to the four smaller boxes that closer inspection had revealed to be electrical charges. “The second layer of security. Anyone who’s going to stick their fingers in the guts of this thing has about fifteen seconds before it electrocutes them."
“And how long will it take for you to crack safe by hand?”
“Anywhere from two minutes to two hours. Depends if I get lucky.”
“Can we disarm the electrical?”
“Not without tampering with the entire alarm system, and suddenly we're dealing with a lot more variables to do it that way. It's not impossible, but they'll know we were there. It may run the risk of them noticing us before we're gone. Šiljak strikes me as the type of man who'd demand to know if something went wrong at his bank. And that's before taking into consideration that De Nederlandsche wouldn't have installed something this advanced without also having auxiliary power for the defenses.”
“So what is your plan?”
“We keep it busy.” Napoleon finally took a drink from the sweet coffee Gaby handed him. “I’d really prefer not to be electrocuted again. Once was more than enough.”
Gustav’s cover as a security guard with the bank had not yet been blown, so as night set and the rest of Amsterdam slept, Napoleon got to work.
The past months had seen his tools scattered between New York, London, and Dublin. After putting together a minimal list of equipment he'd need, Gaby had ran it down, plus extra goodies, in record time through U.N.C.LE.'s rudimentary connections. New and shiny, they were. And horrible bad luck.
Napoleon tried to scrape them up, tossed them in his bag and battered them around. Packed and repacked his bags as he tried to familiarize himself with the shapes. It was just old gambler's superstitions. Gaby wouldn't bring him sub-par equipment anymore than Illya would accept their covers without careful vetting, apparently. He ought to beat down the sense that he was tempting fate to try something this big with untested tools.
He'd been young and untested, once, he told himself unconvincingly. Where was the fun without the risk?
The anti-chamber of the bank's vault was tiny, Napoleon and Gaby shuffling and crawling over each other to get in there at the same time. Once the equipment was passed in, the room was an Escher painting of a tight fit, and both were cautiously aware of keeping to their own space.
Illya stayed stationed with one foot inside and the other in the hallway, pistol drawn alert. He had one eye on the entrance and the other on them while they worked. His towering frame was covered in the dark, close-fitting clothes Napoleon suspected came from the KGB field kit Illya stripped down in London, and a soft knit cap hid his bright hair from the light. If Napoleon let his focus narrow enough, Illya would slide completely into the shadows around the edges of his vision.
On the other end of the scale, Gaby exemplified precise, continuous movement; first on a stepping stool to reach the furthest left corner, then crouched down to the lower right. Around her coiled spiraling live wires, humming with electricity that she diverted up the halls through the heavier wires connected to a large generator.
Napoleon centered himself with their familiarity. He pressed his body against the cool steel of the safe. He barely moved, tried his hardest not to breath. The tumbler was delicate, and he needed to find the right touch to wake it up.
Maybe he was being too sensitive, but he could have sworn with his own tools that the metal wasn't so slick. He knew only a shoddy workman blamed his tools, but there were entire countries with Interpol records shorter than his. He was a consummate professional; it wasn't him.
The noise wasn’t helping. The faint buzz that followed Gaby’s fingers distracted him as he tried to open up his ears to the lightest click. When Illya shifted his weight, the creak of his new boots made Napoleon’s breath catch. Back in the lobby, Gustav—dressed in his security uniform—paced methodically back and forth.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, thunk.
Too far. Napoleon bit down a huff of frustration, leaned back, scrambled the dial back to the first notch, and started again. Gaby paused in her work to look at him.
“They used a lightweight metal in the locking mechanism,” he explained, voice hushed. “Makes it hard to do this by touch."
“Never, my dear,” he said with a smirk.
“Can we speed this up?” Gustav slunk in from his patrol, his hands twitching and his eyes shifty. Napoleon could smell the cloud of sweat and cheap cologne wafting off him, too much sensory input, and the distraction was enough to send his fingers overcompensating. He spun the dial back to zero again.
“We are doing our jobs,” Illya answered. He did not waver from his task to look at their intruder. “Go back and do yours."
“No one’s coming,” Gustav snapped. “No one ever comes. Want to know why? Because no one is so stupid as to try this shit.”
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
“What are you doing, anyway?” Gustav asked, much closer than he was a moment ago as he leaned over Gaby’s shoulder.
Gustav’s foot caught on a stray cord as he crowded in. A small screech of metal on metal, and the alligator clip snapped out from the guts of the safe.
Napoleon was aware of the static raising the hair on his arms in the split second before gray spots strobed across his eyes, everything too fast to stop but too slow to not comprehend.
Napoleon wasn’t in the safe’s anti-chamber anymore; he was bound tight and reclined under a dizzying lightbulb. He could hear Gaby mirrored under her uncle’s weak voice, as false yet tangible as the stench of sweat and cologne overwriting what he knew were leather and heat and fear. Bile rose in his stomach as his muscles contracted, and he wondered how he'd know if he were breathing.
Where was the dial again?
Napoleon didn’t have breath to gasp when a strong, solid arm wrapped around his waist jerked him back as easy as a rag doll, and his back collided with a powerful chest while he was dragged across the anti-chamber. He didn’t have time to complain, didn’t even have time to scream, as his hands were ripped from their place on the safe's dial.
Illya hit the back wall with a heavy thud and Napoleon flopped in his grip like an empty sack. The Russian curled his giant frame around him, protecting him as best he could from the awkward stop as well as the panic rising over Napoleon's poorly constructed floodgates.
From across the room he could hear the faint hum of electricity as the safe’s circuit reconnected.
"It is fine,” Illya whispered, so quiet Napoleon strained to hear it. Maybe that’s what Illya intended, because it pushed his focus outward, onto the breathing and heat against neck, rather than the shocking pain skittering under his skin. "You're fine."
Gaby rounded on Gustav, cold fury written across her face. She spoke too softly for Napoleon to hear, and for a wild moment he was afraid he had gone deaf before remembering they were in the middle of a break in and needed to be quiet.
"Let me up,” he hissed at Illya. He tapped his fingers against the man’s vice-hold, but it either didn’t register or the crazy Russian was ignoring him. Napoleon struggled to find that irritating instead of reassuring, but it lapped over the lingering fear and nasty surprise. He could feel Illya’s strength as clearly as he could feel his own rapid heartbeat, and his fingers wouldn’t unwind from their grip on Illya’s arm.
"Stay here,” Illya ordered.
Napoleon wanted to say he wasn’t planning on going anywhere just then, but his tongue felt clumsy and the words struggled to form around his chattering teeth.
"Go wait in the lobby," Gaby told Gustav, loud and clear enough to ring across the room, and the thief in Napoleon winced at what a botched job this was becoming. Gaby’s voice was calm, but even in Napoleon’s addled state he could see the danger threatening through the lines around her eyes and the white edges of her mouth.
“But-," Gustav was stupid enough to argue.
“Now,” Illya growled. Napoleon couldn’t see the accompanying face, but if it matched Gaby’s, Gustav shouldn’t disobey him. And he didn’t, fleeing back to his security post quicker than he’d managed to botch up everything.
Gaby reconnected the wires as efficiently as she’d attached them. Once the humming stopped, she came to kneel by them. She carded her fingers through Napoleon's hair, and drew him down to press her forehead into his.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. Napoleon hated the guilt that raked her voice. He let go of Illya to pull Gaby in, tangling all three of them together in the tiny anti-chamber corner.
"Not your fault," he said against her tangled hair.
"Not your fault," Illya repeated, squeezing both of them hard as if he could physically drag them all back into the present. Which worked for Napoleon.
It was a chore to unsnarl their entwined circle. His heart hadn’t even slowed down, and a lesser man wouldn’t have spurred himself back to action. But Napoleon could hammer down the shaking, which could only ruin his hands, and steady his breath. They didn’t have time for this.
Gaby made a disapproving noise when he eased her away, and shackles were easier to escape than Illya’s grip.
“Everything’s fine,” he told them once he was free and on his own two feet alone. Neither of them looked particularly convinced by his words. Insulting, as Napoleon thought he’d said them adequately well this time.
They had a job to finish. Napoleon pushed down the sick feeling in his stomach, and got back to work.
Tap, tap, thunk.
Napoleon sighed, spinning the dial back. It was going to be a long night.
Gaby bit hard into her lip as Napoleon worked his way through the guts of the safe. She did not monitor her wires and clips so much as she willed them into behaving, each cord and attachment checked in triplicate every five minutes.
Shen the safe door finally slipped open, she held her breath as Napoleon ransacked the revealed deposit boxes with methodical precision. Eventually a file, thick with yellow paper and faded photographs, appeared in his hands. Gaby darted forward to see.
“Lay them out,” she ordered, snapping pictures of each page with the mini-camera Illya had supplied for their reconnaissance. Napoleon stayed silent as they worked, his pallor still not quite right, which annoyed Gaby on a personal level that didn’t belong in missions. But Napoleon had been enjoying himself, and seeing him happy made her happy. Now he was hurting, and she was angry.
She scanned the papers as she worked, just in case there were complications to their exit strategy, but they had overstayed even their longest time estimation by twenty minutes, and there would be no time to review the documents here. They would have time enough for more thorough investigating when they returned to home base.
The journey back to Emilio’s safe house was thankfully uneventful. With Gaby behind the wheel they passed through traffic with ease. In the passenger seat, Gustav quietly fumed, Illya having taken the honor of tell him that his options were to shut his mouth or lose his teeth.
Every few minutes, she glanced into the rear-view mirror, tilted not for traffic but to see into the backseat where her boys sat. Napoleon’s eyes had a glazed, distant quality, and his fingers continuously twisted a small gold ring on his pinky. Posing as the world’s grumpiest statue, Illya openly watched him in intervals between keeping a scouting eye out the windows.
Gaby couldn’t help the old pang of guilt that soured inside her. She knew Napoleon didn't hold his time at her uncle's mercy against her, but she remembered the sight of him, after their return from Vinciguerra's island. He had spent the night hooked up to an EKG machine surrounded by doctors. Illya hadn't fared much better, what with having been thrown head-first from his motorcycle.
Not that that had stopped either of them from being more cautious about the cuts and bruises she’d collected along the way. They showed more mulishness at being prodded than concern about their own injuries. Gaby had fretted that she would need to coerce them into behaving; she hated playing mother.
She hadn’t needed to, as it turned out. As much as they both grumbled, neither tried to escape until their wounds were dressed. They never expected Gaby to clean up after them. Napoleon made sure they ate, even if Gaby had opinions about the food he prepared. Illya kept a tight hand on their household supplies and medical kits as well as their budget. With those minute tasks freed up, Gaby was able to make sure they kept their eyes on the long-term, and sometimes far off, targets. They divided the footwork across the team, and Gaby collected their results and ushered them up the ladder to Waverly.
Isaac opened the door before she had a chance to knock, likely having spied their approach from the well-concealed bird’s nest on the upper level of the apartment. The circles under Emilio's eyes hadn't improved, but he looked more in control and aware since last time.
Gaby couldn’t not roll her eyes when Emilio perked up as Napoleon landed on the couch beside him, and Illya met her gaze in shared exasperation. Still, Napoleon kept a respectable distance between them, and any annoyance Gaby felt on the matter vanished when he brought his hands up to rest his face in them.
Gaby could almost see the walls going up around him, but before she could decide what to do about it Illya took over, settling into the limited room of the coach like a large dog, unconcerned that there technically wasn't enough room for him. He bumped hips and shoulders with Napoleon, for all intents and purposes trying to annoy the other man into looking at him.
“You can’t even try to be professional, can you?” Gustav snapped.
Uncalled for, Gaby thought ruthlessly. A simmering of rage and nerves, and concern, had boiled low in her stomach since the bank, and now sprang to life presented with a clear target.
“I beg your pardon?” she asked. Well, demanded. Illya and Napoleon's faces came up in warning, but Gaby was rolling forward with no intention of stopping.
Gustav plowed forward as well, “All of you! I know Waverly turns a blind eye to what you’re getting up to, but you could at least pretend so we’re not having to put up with it.”
Her control felt like a band physically snapping in her chest, but her anger rarely ran hot and fiery through her. Instead, a cool, tumbling avalanche began to cascade under her skin, with Gustav pinned firmly at the bottom of the mountain.
“I will not be spoken to like that by a man who cannot even follow simple orders,” she snapped, her tone sending Gustav back a step. “Nor will I be disrespected to compensate for your own lack of skills."
“Lack of skills!?"
"What part of 'stay outside and stand guard’ confused you, Agent Thomasson? Your actions put my team at risk, and that is something I will not abide."
“Oh, they are your ‘team,’ now? I am sure you would be equally upset if they were not warming your bed,” Gustav snarled, his face wild. Gaby’s blood ran cold. She could feel her nostrils flare, and her mouth flattened with the effort of not screaming. Illya rose to his feet, but Gaby didn’t look his way—his eyes would be enough to stop the accelerating situation, and she didn't want it stopped before Gustav had enough rope to hang himself.
“ I don’t know what you’re referring to."
“Don’t play coy. Worthington sees it, too, don't you Worth?" he called out to Isaac, who sunk even further back into the shadows of the room. Emilio stared at Gustav like he had grown a second head. "You’re all shit at hiding it. What, do you wave it in front of them to get them to behave.”
"You are out of line."
"And you are compromised! I won't be taking orders from an inferior agent who doesn't understand what it is like in the field!"
And that was it; that was all she needed.
“Give me your wallet,” she ordered. Gustav raised a disbelieving eyebrow at her.
"Come and get it, sweetheart."
She dismissed him with an exasperated ‘tsk' and turned to Illya, who had murder in his eyes. Gaby suspected only his unwillingness to leave Napoleon alone on the coach stopped him.
“Illya,” she started, keeping her voice as civil as possible. Any report back to Waverly needed to be clear that she had remained calm and rational; anything less, Gustav might wriggle free. “Could you get me his wallet, please?”
She eased back until she was at the wall beside the couch, so that Illya wouldn’t have to choose between staying at Napoleon's side or doing as she asked. Even seated Napoleon's head came up to her chest and his eyes, so hollow and unfocused until now, sparked with interest at the unfolding antics. Gaby felt a twinge of amusement at his unfiltered desire for drama.
With them out of the way, there was nothing stopping Illya from pouncing.
Gustav didn’t stand a chance. Illya laid hands on him in a heartbeat, and he was down for the count. Illya riffled through his pockets and tossed a shiny leather wallet to her. Flipping it open, Gaby quickly plucked any U.N.C.L.E. identification out of it.
"Gustav Tomasson, I hereby suspend you from active duty within the U.N.C.L.E. organization on charges of insubordination,” she explained to the dazed agent. "Your orders are to return to London HQ and await disciplinary action." She ignored his sputtering and rounded on Emilio and Isaac, both watching her with wide eyes.
"Agent Worthington," she snapped, and Isaac's spine straightened. "Your new orders are to escort Agent Perez safely out of Amsterdam and to London. Agent Perez," Emilio, finally seeing some guidance and purpose, lit up when she turn to him. "Your first priority is to secure Agent Tomasson. It will be your responsibility to deliver him to London for his disciplinary hearings. Am I understood?"
"Yes ma'am," they both answered immediately.
That should keep them all in line and too focused on each other to cause more problems. She refused to let Gustav impact the mission, but she dreaded the idea of leaving him alone and disgruntled when there was a spy hunter on the loose.
“Pack your bags,” she ordered. “You have fifteen minutes, then we leave for the airport.”
Emilio was moving before she finished speaking. Isaac wavered in his spot before swooping down to pluck Gustav off the floor. Gaby gave him credit for thinking to get his team mate out of her sight.
With the other team gone, a wave of exhaustion rolled over her. Even as she picked up the house phone to call in the extraction, she had no idea how she would explain tonight’s incompetencies in her report.
Illya wasn’t pleased when Gaby tossed him the keys, but he didn’t argue.
“I’ll get them to the airport,” she told him, her eyes still fiery and bright. “Head back to the garage, and I’ll meet you there."
Get Napoleon out of here, he heard underneath her orders. He couldn’t blame her—Napoleon hadn’t said a word when Thomasson ran his mouth off. The fidgeting had stopped, but Illya could tell the man was still far, far away. Part of it, he suspected, came from his head not being on right since the bank. The other part was probably in awe of Gaby. Illya knew he was. There had been no hesitation in her attack, only patience in the mercy killing of a doomed team.
Napoleon didn’t fight when Illya hooked a hand under his elbow, though some of his old amusement sparked in his eyes.
There was a liquor store just down the street from their tiny apartment. Illya stopped in to grab a bottle of vodka and, in a moment of pity, the first bottle of scotch he found.
Normally, Illya was not the sort of agent who celebrated after missions. Relaxation led to complacency, which led to hubris and mistakes. He had seen others fall victim to the assumption that post-mission somehow meant that things were safe. The only way to stay sharp was to never stop. After missions, he ate, and he slept. When he woke back up, he’d be handed his next mission.
Once they returned to their little apartment, Illya secured the door, pulled out two glasses, and poured. He knew better, but he did not know how else to fix Napoleon.
“And what are we drinking to?” Napoleon asked. His jacket disappeared, and he was slowly, methodically, rolling back his sleeves to his elbows. A small collection of odds and ends—bolts, lock picks, small wires— emerged from his pockets.
Illya shrugged, “A successful mission?"
“A little gauche, don’t you think? It’s pretty safe to say they failed their initiation,” Napoleon commented. He could pretend to be less amused if he wanted Illya to take him seriously.
“Our first successful mission though. Why turn up our nose at being allowed to finish a job?”
“Rome doesn’t count?”
Rome didn’t count. Illya spent most of Rome baffled, nervous, angry, or all three.
“Rome was audition,” he explained, handing over a glass of scotch. Napoleon’s thrilled expression lightened Illya’s own mood. “Rome also didn’t go as planned.”
“I’m fine,” Napoleon told him needlessly.
“I did not say you weren’t."
“No, but you are tiptoeing around me. It’s just…just memories. Can you tell me memories don’t keep you up at night sometimes?”
Sometimes they did. Sometimes there were specific moments that haunted Illya: the day of his father’s arrest, his first bungled mission. Or fresher, whatever triggered his latest episode. Other times, it was less defined, dark and terrifying figures that loomed, and ominous feelings that threatened to envelope him.
It came with the job. Sleep sometimes worked, but not often. The only advantage he had above his past comrades was that his hobbies, small activities that did not aid in his job as an agent, were more worthwhile than falling into a bottle. And if those failed, then he could pull out the vodka out, and hope the memories went away before he finished the bottle.
He never talked about it with anyone, never trusted anyone enough to try. But, watching Napoleon struggle to do the exact same thing, Illya realized he didn’t want that for him.
Stay here. Don't let this drag you back into that chair, he wanted to say. I got you out then, I can keep you out now. Stay with me. All of that was too hard to push past his lips, but Illya could dodge bullets. He knew his reflexes stood at their absolute prime. He wouldn’t let Napoleon fall.
“How many bugs did I plant on you this morning?” he asked, and the look Napoleon shot him over his glass sent a rewarding thrill down his spine.
“Until you asked that I would have said none,” he replied. “Am I allowed to grab my detector?”
“What do you think, Cowboy?”
Napoleon made a face, but his old amusement was back as he started patting himself down. He found the one Illya had worked into the back of his collar, and another in the lining of his zipper. Standing up, he checked his belt, the lines of his trousers, and his shoes. He huffed as he dropped two more down on the table.
Illya shook his head as he took another drink. He felt warm, and more than a little amused. Dare he say playful?
Which was why Napoleon was stripping off his shirt when Gaby walked in the door.
“How’d it go?” Napoleon asked, ashamed of nothing. Gaby stared at him for a long moment.
“Tomasson tried to stick his foot in his mouth a few more times, but Emilio proved surprisingly effective,” she responded after a heartbeat. “I think I am going to recommend making him liaison in Mexico City."
“Probably for the best,” Illya replied. “He is too attached to his homeland to be effective field agent.”
He rose to his feet to fix a glass for Gaby, handing it to her while a triumphant caw came from the living room. Napoleon threw down the tracker Illya had threaded into his back belt loop, and he downed the rest of his scotch to celebrate. Illya toasted his success and followed suit.
“I see I missed all the excitement,” Gaby commented, kicking off her shoes. She settled onto the chair across from the coach as Napoleon shrugged his shirt back on, though he didn’t rebutton it.
“Merely pointing out how unobservant Cowboy can be,” Illya said. He took the other side of the couch and kicked his feet up onto the coffee table next to his bugs. The new U.N.C.L.E.-issued ones were smaller even than the KGB’s, which just added to the amount of places he could hide them. He didn't plan to tell Napoleon that there were two he hadn’t found.
Gaby smiled, but she downed her glass without comment. Napoleon circled the room to grab both bottles and refilled Gaby’s glass, this time from the scotch, before retaking his seat next to Illya.
“Still letting Thomasson get to you?”
“His comments don’t bother you?”
Napoleon shrugged, and even Illya shook his head.
“He won’t be last,” he explained. "Many countries don’t utilize teams that put male and female agents in close proximity, not for extended periods of time. They believe it invites complications, which makes it hard for some of agents to adapt. But, to your credit, you handled their accusations well.”
Gaby’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I’ve never had to pull rank like that,” she admitted. “You two never… never push, in that way.” Illya raised an eyebrow.
“I’m glad you did. Who else would you want as CED? Cowboy?”
“Talk like that hurts my feelings, Peril.”
Gaby still was unsettled, and Illya bit his lip as he considered what to do. Napoleon needed distraction and engagement to pull through his thoughts. Gaby, reclining in her chair in self-imposed isolation as she stared into her drink, invited to her none of the same comraderie. She looked content to sip at her scotch all night, not saying a word.
She had liked Istanbul, though. Not the attempted kidnapping part (Illya still panicked over at sometimes, at night when he needed to check on them both and hear their breathing before his heart stopped pounding) but the hotel room afterward. The talking, and the secrets.
Illya pressed the glass to his temple and felt the phantom pain of the healed over scar.
“I was youngest KGB agent ever qualified,” he said before he could think twice. "My comrades...were not pleasant about it.”
Gaby straightened in her seat, looking at him with concern but also curiosity. Napoleon side-eyed him, all judgement hidden from his face.
Illya pulled the glass away from his face. “They called it tradition,” he explained. “To see how long new recruits could last against so many of them.”
“Well, that doesn't seem fair; I can’t imagine they’d hold their own against you.”
“One of them had a knife. Afterward said that it could always happen in the field. I didn’t find out until after that… Well, my father.” Illya felt his throat clamp down, but he pushed through. His team needed this from him. His friends. “My father made enemies when he rose to power. His fall didn’t…didn’t quell that animosity."
Oleg had been annoyed that the medical staff restricted him from active duty for nearly two weeks after the incident. Illya took comfort in the fact that his sparing partners had been out of commission for far, far longer.
He didn’t think he could give anymore, but Gaby gave him a small, commiserating smile and Napoleon leaned over to bump shoulders, and everything was worth it. He refilled his glass and settled back, oddly proud of himself for revealing even that much.
Gaby kicked at Napoleon’s feet, propped up on the rim of the table. “Your turn."
“Is it?” Napoleon stalled.
“Rules of game, Cowboy,” Illya groused which earned him a more disgruntled bump of shoulders. But he remembered Dublin: Napoleon respected the rules of a game.
Napoleon swirled his glass of scotch, eyes towards the play of amber liquid rather then their waiting gaze.
“Where am I from?” he asked. Illya sympathized with Gaby as her face dropped into annoyance.
“Not point of this,” Illya scolded.
“Where does my file say I’m from?” Napoleon asked with a large sigh; slower this time, like he did when he thought Illya was being particularly obtuse.
Napoleon let out a soft snort and took a long swallow from his glass. “I’m from Minnesota."
“Exactly,” was Napoleon’s sardonic reply. He killed the rest of his drink in one go. “Imagine endless prairies and lakes and silence, and you have my childhood in a nutshell. The week I spent in New York before my unit shipped out for the war was like waking up from the longest nap I’d ever taken. On that note, when's my birthday?"
“March, 1929,” Illya replied after a moment, stretching his memory back to his initial briefing about Napoleon.
“And my service record starts in ’45. I encourage you to do the math.”
“You enlisted at sixteen,” Gaby put together after a moment. Illya wondered how he missed that detail. Probably because it hadn't stuck out so much to him; he had started his own career younger than that.
“I did,” Napoleon confirmed. “Because it was that, or stay in Minnesota. Which wasn’t much a choice, as it was—well, the word 'escape' comes to mind.”
Illya wanted to know more. The only thing that held his tongue was the knowledge that neither of them pushed him for more to satisfy their own curiosity. He couldn’t break that mutual trust, and Napoleon's face said clearly that he was done. So he took what Napoleon offered and tapped their shoes together in thanks.
Gaby smiled at Napoleon as well, her eyes relaxed and calmer than before. Illya took it as a good sign when she curled up in the chair. She took a moment to compile her thoughts, setting her glass down and tugging the tie out of her hair. Running her fingers through her tangles, she took a deep breath.
“When I was sixteen, I was engaged,” she told them. Ilya coughed up a mouth full of liquor.
“Is that legal? That young, I mean,” Napoleon asked, because Cowboy could never walk away from his curiosity.
“There was an understanding that the ceremony wouldn’t happen until I was eighteen, but my family would have been happy to give consent for an early marriage,” she explained to them. Neither spoke, and she waved her hand in permission for them to keep asking.
“Who was he?"
“His name was Leonard. He was an investor in the ballet, and he financed many of the performances. He was young, and handsome, and from a good family. My parents were thrilled when he first asked for their permission. It was expected of me to marry well. My real father was already gone, and my mother had recently passed. Everyone, well they saw it as a new beginning for me.”
“May we ask what happened?” Illya said he wouldn’t push, but he wanted to know. Why would Gaby walk away from something that sounded so picturesque?
Gaby smiled again, but this one was full of melancholy and remembrance.
“I love that you cook,” she said, turning to Napoleon. “I’m horrible at it. I don’t enjoy it. And,” she glanced at Illya. “You always handle the supplies. Our clothes, the medical kits, keeping everything organized. Neither of you ever expected me to do it. I would have,” she hastily added, looking frantic for a moment. “I don’t want you to think that I wouldn’t help. But…you both are so self-sufficient. Leonard wasn’t. He, everyone, had so many expectations. That I would stop dancing. That I would be a good, quiet housewife, who would make dinner every night and keep the house clean and never want to do anything else.”
“That is not you,” Illya finished. That could never be Gaby. Gaby had tackled him without hesitation, and had engine grease under her manicured fingernails. She had sharp eyes and a blunt tongue.
“It’s not,” she agreed. “Leonard didn’t like it when I told him that, though. We broke off the engagement just before I turned eighteen. He put on a good face, never pulled his support from the ballet, but I never danced for any of his shows after that. Two years later, I left to work in the garage. You know the rest.”
“Good riddance,” Napoleon said. He refilled all their glasses, even though Illya’s didn’t have much of a dent in it. “The real world sounds boring, anyway. You’re much better suited here.”
“In a tiny flat with two grown men I've been accused of sleeping with?”
“Who cook you dinner and find you nice clothes. Let’s not forget the important things.”
Playlist for Amsterdam
Chapter 4: Madrid - Moscow
Illya realizes the frustration isn't going away any time soon.
Napoleon and Gaby find some things out.
Madrid (summer 1965)
Contrary to what his team liked to believe, Illya came to them with some sexual experience under his belt. A widow in Leningard. A comrade in Moscow. An officer who thought him handsome. A mission who was a little too liberal in their affections.
He knew sex, and he had never believed himself to be much affected by it. But they seemed determined to proved him wrong.
He wouldn't bother asking what the two of them were doing. All he had wanted was a shower and a nap after tailing Aznar. What he got instead was a kind of aching frustration that settled in under the sweat and heat.
The furniture had been pushed to the furthest corners of the room. Gaby wore one of Illya’s sleep shirts that easily brushed her knees. Napoleon, truly comfortable for the first time since New York and that particular teeth-pulling incident, was in the shirt's matching pants and nothing else, the few spare inches of fabric gathered around his bare feet. They were dancing.
It was not the type of dancing Gaby had tried to woo Illya with in Rome.
Spanish music with a dramatic tempo, but turned down to a softer volume and it slid out of the speakers slick as oil. Gaby laughed when Napoleon talked her through a twisted turn.
“Tell me you’ve tangoed, Peril,” Napoleon taunted with a wink in his direction. He turned them again and dipped Gaby low, his body moving perpendicular to hers, though his eyes never left Illya. Gaby laughed as her hair brushed the floor. She wrapped one calf around Napoleon’s knee and let herself hang free. Her trust in Napoleon’s grip was absolute.
Illya was envious. It was a beautiful sight. Napoleon’s bare skin shimmering through a ripple of muscle as he controlled their descent. Gaby’s body made one smooth line from her bright grin down her back to the tip of her toes where they were tangled around Napoleon’s ankle. She dropped one hand to brush at the carpet below them, and Illya felt something in him drop.
They were truly a cruel, cruel pair.
Moscow (spring 1964)
On paper, their mission portrayed itself as a quick in and out, no fuss type of situation. U.N.C.L.E. wanted their hands on a Ukranian counterfeiter who handled everything from traveling credentials to fabricated state secrets. He was suspected of working out of his hometown.
Only the man keyed onto them and fled, and Napoleon spent a week blaming it on the fact that Peril had issues forgetting how to not look like a KGB agent as they tracked him over the Russian boarder. They finally uncovered him hiding out in a basement in Tula, with a timeliness that only stemmed from Gaby who, once confronted with endless frozen tundra, forgot about things speed limits.
Thank God Waverly had a pick-up team ready for their counterfeiter at Station M. Napoleon felt no thrill at the idea of trying to navigate Vnukovo International Airport handcuffed to anyone.
It wasn’t until they were boarding their own flight that everything went off the rails.
"What do you mean, delayed?” Gaby demanded, glaring up at the departure boards, which hung so far above her that she had to hold one hand to her hat so it wouldn't slip off her hair.
“That’s what it says,” Napoleon replied, pointing to their British Overseas Airway Corp flight listed on the far left. “Delayed indefinitely, no explanation."
"Are you sure you are reading the right flight? I thought it was the one further down."
“That one says departing for Libya."
“Are you sure?”
“You do know that I’ve been fluent in Russian for over a decade, right? You've only been studying it for six months."
“Illya is a good teacher," Gaby shot back. "Where did he go, anyway?"
Napoleon was wondering something similar. Since the intercom had announced their delay, their giant was nowhere to be seen. Napoleon trusted that Illya’s disappearing act was probably benign—the man was too respectable an agent to drop the team now—but he was irked to be left as the designated luggage carrier. How many bags did three spies actually need to take on the breakdown flight home?
“Can you see him?” Gaby asked. She didn’t wait for his answer, but instead scrambled up onto a nearby bench. Even with the added height, she had to boost herself onto her tiptoes to see over the crowd. Napoleon waited patiently for a status report as she planted one hand on his shoulder to keep herself balanced.
“Where’d he go, where’d he go,” she muttered. Mostly, Napoleon assumed, to herself since he couldn’t give her an answer. She’d been on edge, even manic, since they’d crossed the border, and he didn’t want to get in the way of her keeping an eye on their Russian pal. “There he is!”
She waved her arm above her head, and Napoleon spotted the blond head of their companion edging his way through the crowd with mindful precision. Something...wasn’t right. Illya after handing their counterfeiter over had been relaxed, even amused. His shoulders had been an easy slope under his jacket and his eyes had been mellow. He hadn’t uttered a word against Gaby’s maneuvering through traffic on the insanity that was Moscow’s streets.
Assuming that Napoleon had as good or better a read on him now than then, he’d describe him as just as tense and on edge as he’d been in Rome. He didn’t meet their eyes as he came to stand by Gaby’s bench.
"Flights are down until tomorrow," Illya explained to the ground. "Routine maintenance."
Napoleon suspected he’d wipe the floor with Illya if they ever sat down at a poker table together. The man didn't have the skills to bluff.His face went too still, and his posture became even impossibly straighter. However, a sharpness around his face told Napoleon not to say anything.
“Well,” Gaby said dubiously, eying the folks around them who already looked like they were settling into the uncomfortable waiting chairs for the night. “I guess we could bunk down for the night on the floor.”
“No,” Napoleon vetoed; there were certain things civilized people didn't do if a war wasn't going on. “Moscow has hotels, right Peril?"
“With what money? By the time we requisition HQ to wire us a stipend, it'll be time to board the plane," Gaby pointed out.
Illya offered his hand for Gaby to step down before pushing at Napoleon's shoulder, turning him around. He herded them toward the exit.
“We couldn’t have blown through all our emergency cash,” Napoleon countered.
“There is this thing called budget,” Illya said under his breath. “I suspect you’re unaware of it considering how fast you blow through it.”
“But you do have to admit,” Gaby helped defend as they filtered through the revolving doors to the bitter cold outside. “The extra money for a faster car helped in the end.”
“I’ll explain that to the nightmares of Russian country roads I have tonight," Napoleon grumbled. Gaby smiled winningly at him.
“I think I’ll sleep like a baby tonight.”
Illya flagged down a taxi, his stance on constant alert as he stayed close. Napoleon’s curiosity got the better of him, and he took a small step back to remove himself from Illya’s peripheral vision. Immediately, the other man reached out, snagged his jacket, and pulled him back in.
“Stop,” he ordered bluntly.
“I didn’t do anything,” Napoleon protested as Gaby snickered. Illya gave him an exasperated glare as the taxi stopped in front of them. Popping open the door, he let Gaby in first, then gave Napoleon a sharp look to follow her. Once they were safely inside, Illya shut the door behind them, dropped their luggage in the trunk, and claimed the front passenger seat. Without glancing back, he pulled a small billfold from his jacket pocket and showed it the driver.
The cabbie, moments before disinterested and slumped in his seat, grew wide-eyed and pale, shying away from Illya to press almost flush against the side of his door. Napoleon craned his neck, and saw the KGB logo on an official-looking badge on the face of the billfold. What an interesting turn of events.
Still, Napoleon huffed in his seat. Of course Illya would always have the right I.D. when he needed one.
Illya rattled off an address, his Russian almost too quick for Napoleon to catch. “Take us there directly. Do not run up meter. Do not detour. Understand?”
“Ye-yes,” the man stuttered. His eyes flickered tellingly, but he wasn’t brazen enough to turn to get a better look at the people in the backseat. Illya nodded, reached into his jacket pocket again—the poor cabbie flinched—and dropped an alarming amount of rubles onto the dash. The cabbie’s brow furrowed in question, but his hands stayed white-knuckled on the steering wheel.
“Drive,” Illya told him.
They were on their way with little fuss. Napoleon wasn’t sure if that was worth the hollow expression on Illya’s face.
“Illya?” Gaby started to ask, only to quell when he aimed a sharp frown at her as well. Napoleon couldn’t remember her being at the receiving end of that kind of look from Illya. Himself, certainly; never Gaby.
Silence prevailed until they arrived at a dull, block-like building some half an hour later. As suspected, the rubles on the dash far exceeded the readout on the meter. Their cabbie shook in his seat, but Napoleon’s focus was the guilty expression on Illya’s face. Their Russian comrade added to the stack of currency a hefty bundle of what Napoleon recognized as food rations.
“You never saw us,” he explained. The driver nodded without question.
“Many thanks, tovarish.” Illya had to wait a few moments before the driver returned the sentiment, stuttering over a few of the syllables. With that, Illya nodded in satisfaction and gestured towards the backseat for them to get out. Once their luggage was unloaded, the taxi sped away fast enough to make even Gaby envious.
“So where are we?” Napoleon said, jumping in to break the ice. Illya didn’t answer, but Gaby stared up at the building with thoughtful eyes.
“This is your home, isn’t it Illya?” she concluded. Illya didn’t flinch from her words, but it was a near thing. Napoleon examined the depressing building with new eyes, and after a long search saw signs of life within its depths. He couldn’t help but compare it to the New York apartments he associated with urban living. What it lacked in color and personality, it made up for by being cleaner than he was expecting. New York wore smoke and grease and trash like a second layer of skin.
Before he could comment on the differences, Illya was sheparding them inside. The interior wasn’t any more cheerful than the building’s facing: all peeling, dingy taupe covering cinderblock and sparse yellow lighting. The outside was passable but inside was in clear need of repair.
They marched up a set of stairs so narrow Napoleon's shoulders brushed each wall simultaneously, down an equally depressing hall, and with the unreassuring rattle of a shoddily cut set of keys Illya unlocked his front door. He stood back to let them enter, seeming…not terrified, but resigned, and more than a little nervous.
Napoleon couldn’t be more excited. Not the excitement of a locked down safe, or the racing focus of a mission—closer to the spark of seeing someone beautiful across a crowded room, an experience he didn’t know he wanted until it stared him in the face. This kind of excited left him nervous and a little unsure of himself, and he could swear he felt his hands shake.
Gaby had no such hesitation; she took Illya’s unspoken invitation and strode through the door. Only as Illya turned to watch her did Napoleon follow behind.
Napoleon concluded quickly that he had come across larger shoe boxes. Standing in the small living room, he could see over the threadbare couch into the bedroom and the tiny window on the far wall. If he reached out with his left hand, his fingertips would brush on the line of bookshelves crammed against that wall. To his right was the kitchen, split from the room by an old, wooden table. The bathroom tucked into the far right corner past the kitchen, rounding out the tiny space.
Gaby, being nosy, was in the kitchen opening each cabinet to study its contents.
If Napoleon already felt damn near claustrophobic; how was Illya supposed to feel when this was his home? Aside from the books on the shelves, he couldn’t spot any personal affects, though he suspected a few weapons caches were stashed around the oddly under-utilized spaces in the living room and bedroom. Everything was neatly kept and covered in a fine layer of dust, much like he suspected of his apartment back in New York. He hadn’t been back since before Rome, after all.
Gaby shut the last cabinet door and turned to announce the results of her investigation: “There’s no food.”
“Stay here,” Illya said, dropping their luggage behind Napoleon. “I will get food.”
“No arguing, Cowboy. Keep door locked. Do not leave. Do not open door for anyone.”
Illya’s accent sounded stronger. Napoleon wondered if he noticed. Any and all looseness and calm from before had disappeared from his frame, leaving only a brick wall in the form of a human.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid, Peril?"
“No such thing.”
“We’ll keep it locked, Illya,” Gaby assured from the kitchen. Their giant Russian eyed them both with open suspicion, which Napoleon felt slightly offended by. It wasn’t like they got into trouble the moment Illya turned his back—not since that tiny incident in Warsaw.
Napoleon nodded his agreement all the same and Illya left looking mildly less murderous.
He knew patience. He didn’t move until the door was closed and the sound of the deadbolt sliding into place echoed through the tiny living room. Safely alone, he twirled around to Gaby.
The hysterical grin on her face probably matched the one overtaking his own mouth.
“Grab everything we can?” was his suggestion.
“We have to be careful,” was her admonishment, even as she darted for the bookshelves. “Nothing obvious or he’ll notice."
“He’s going to notice anyway,” Napoleon pointed out as he bounced towards the bedroom. “Best to take what you can while you can—you never have the time you think.”
“Did the CIA teach you that?"
“Yes they did.”
“Typical Americans, always in a hurry to finish,” Gaby smirked at him, sending a small wink his way at his disbelieving look.
“Give me an hour and and I’ll show you just how much I enjoy taking my time,” he replied, his grin just the right shades of saucy and loose. He liked flirting, and for all he tried not to engage in it too much around his team, sometimes he couldn’t help himself.
Only after he heard the words leaving his mouth he remembered Dublin, dark bars with boxing matches, and the taste of Guinness on Gaby’s lips.
Before he could backpedal, Gaby picked up a threadbare pillow from the couch and threw it at him. The pillow flew wide over his head but it moved them past his awkward moment, for which he was supremely grateful. Coming over to the bedroom, she picked up the pillow from its landing point on the bed, then eyed the covers speculatively.
“Under the bed?” she wondered aloud.
“Always the best hiding place,” Napoleon agreed, already dropping to his stomach. Sure enough, after some digging, he let out a caw of success as he dragged a small chest out from the depths. The sides and top were a nice, dark stained wood, with iron fittings and a hefty padlock keeping its contents locked away. He fingered the padlock and sent Gaby a questioning glance. His own morals floundered in the face of his curiosity, and he didn’t know which way he wanted them to fall.
Gaby’s face showed a similar struggle: Invade Illya’s established privacy for the potential of learning a little more about their taciturn Russian, who was determined to keep everything so close for fear of losing it, or respect it and walk away.
“It would take me half a minute, if that,” Napoleon said, but he didn’t move to grab his lock picks. Gaby let out a loud sigh and rubbed her hands over her face.
“Put it back," she finally decided, looking torn. "He put the lock on for a reason.”
Napoleon knew she was right. Illya’s security mattered more than his curiosity. But that didn't lessen the burn as he slid the chest back under the bed.
Investigating the apartment lost some of its appeal after that, though Napoleon cracked a smile at the amount of weapons he unearthed in the rest of the tiny flat. It was as if Peril thought he’d need to fend off an entire army at his door.
Napoleon dropped what he found on the dining table, though he appropriated the nice Makarov pistol from under the kitchen sink. After Tula, their ammo supply was at a disconcerting low.
Gaby's interest had returned to the bookshelf. When he checked on her after investigating the bathroom (how did Illya fit under such a tiny shower?), she was settled on the couch with a stack of books to thumb through. Her shoes were tucked under the couch, and she had absconded with one of the blankets on Illya’s bed to lay over her lap. Napoleon figured she wouldn’t be moving any time soon.
Along with the weapons, their search had uncovered more than a few bugs. Napoleon wasn't sure what intentions they were serving in a KGB officer's apartment, but since they were here on U.N.C.L.E. time he was comfortable confiscating them, deactivating them, and giving them a pile all their own. He couldn’t decide if the idea of Illya bugging his own apartment or the KGB spying on their own disturbed him more.
The smooth slide of the deadbolt announced Illya’s return, his arms laden down with parcels which he scattered across the kitchen counter. Before they went any further, Napoleon waved his hand over the piles of bugs. If they were still being listened in on, it could make for a strained evening.
“You didn’t find them all,” was Illya’s response. Napoleon raised an eyebrow, because seriously, that was Peril’s reaction?
The light fixtures were just out of Napoleon’s reach, but if Illya stood on tiptoe he was able to run his fingers around their edges. He dropped three more into Napoleon’s pile, then pulled one out of the mounted telephone (Napoleon had found the one stuffed in the mouthpiece, he hadn't realized you could remove the base from the wall). Shifting Gaby across the couch, he also pulled a few out of the cushions.
“Are they yours?” Napoleon asked when Illya signalled the all-clear.
“Some,” Illya acknowledged. “Others belong to Oleg and other handlers. I know they are there, they know I only turn them off when I need privacy. Many KGB agents do the same with no repercussions as long as it does not become habit.” Napoleon let his indignation twist his mouth at Illya's bemusement.
“You mean CIA does not bug your residence?” Illya asked.
“My government has better manners than that.” Napoleon decided not to share that Sanders actually had tried to establish surveillance on him at the beginning of their working relationship. He politely returned the bugs the first few times, but once he realized it wouldn't be stopping, he started playing dirty. Convicted felon he may be, but even he had limits.
Natalie, the gorgeous redheaded receptionist from the salon down the street from his apartment, enjoyed arguing with him over the merits of port wine, dancing to the crooners of the 30’s, and being unrestrained in bed. At volume. Napoleon felt put through his paces trying to match her.
Some hours later, with Natalie content and fast asleep, Napoleon slipped out of bed, made a pot of coffee, and delivered it down to the surveillance van across the street.
“Could you knock it off?” One of the agents snapped when he knocked on their window. “You know we have to listen to the whole thing, right?" They still took the coffee when he offered.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t appreciate the performance, gentleman,” Napoleon replied, gleeful at their red-faced awkwardness. "Because we have quite a few encores planned." He didn’t have to point out how conspicuously the van stank of sexual frustration.
The bugs trailed off after that.
Hopefully Natalie was doing alright. She had met a charming young electrician a few months before Napoleon left for Rome. Last they'd spoken, she was elbows deep in wedding plans and asking for a recommendation on a tailor for her groom’s suit. He thought he remembered sending flowers.
“Explains why you are so bad at finding bugs, Cowboy,” Illya muttered as he picked through the uncovered weapons strewn across the table. “I’ll have to make you practice more.”
“We can practice any time you’d like, Peril.” Gaby knew how to shrug him off, but Illya’s fair skin worked against him. The flush that rose over his neck and face whenever Napoleon turned even slightly lascivious never failed to make his day.
At least he had a better understanding of why Illya became disgruntled when Napoleon or Gaby 'lost' their trackers. Istanbul had only been the beginning of that issue, but the most recent round had been when Gaby lost her ring somewhere along the Ukrainian boarder when she stopped to tinker with their car's ignition. Illya had harped on that all the way to Tula.
Shouldering Illya out of the tiny kitchen, Napoleon took stock of their grocery cache. It was an odd collection, to say the least.
“Where did all this come from?” he asked, shifting through a half-eaten black bread, a suspiciously homemade container of chicken broth, the odd medley of vegetables, and a small section of sausage links. Not the ingredients he would have picked himself, but he was up for a challenge.
“My neighbors are aware of who I am,” Illya explained in clipped tones. “They curry my favor to further their own careers.”
“Tell me you at least compensated them,” Gaby scolded from behind her book.
“Compensation is not the communist way,” Illya rebuked, some of his old humor showing through. “It is also not the first time I have returned from mission to no food. If I did not ask, they would come to visit with it."
“They know when you come home?"
“Most of the building is aware that I have returned,” Illya told her. “Word travels fast when I come home."
“That would be far too many people invested in personal life,” Napoleon commented. As he rummaged through the kitchen, he was frankly dismayed at what he found. “Why do you have no pots?"
Illya shrugged. “I usually eat at public canteen.”
“But not this time?”
“No,” Illya responded a little too quickly. He reached past Napoleon’s hip, pulled out a cleaning kit, and sat down in front of the stockpile of weapons on his table. “You can use pan, correct?”
“No, actually, I can't." So much for soup. "I suppose an apron is too much to ask for?”
“You suppose right.”
Napoleon looked down at the suit he was wearing; it was a point of pride that he could stay well-put together even after the worst mess of their missions. He didn't relish the idea of food stains on his slightly-wrinkled shirt, but at least it would be easy to replace.
He stripped off his tie and vest, and tossed them over the couch by Gaby's shoulders. Rolling up his sleeves, he reminded himself that he thrived on a challenge.
While he worked to make something edible from the unfamiliar ingredients, his mind turned over their current predicament in the context of their Russian comrade, The idea of leaving them alone and unprotected had proved anathema to Illya in the past, but Napoleon had assumed it stemmed from a professional standpoint. And Waverley had displayed a particularly nasty streak when it came to teammates abandoning each other, as they had witnessed in the aftermath of Amsterdam, so Napoleon had chalked up Illya's particular idiosyncrasies to a good agent's intuition for towing the company line. Sure, Napoleon himself didn't display the same gun-ho adherence to inter-team defenses, but he figured he made up for it with panache and impeccable competence.
Now he wondered if Illya's watchdog attitude was rooted in something more personal.
The Moscow skyline should have put Illya more at ease, what with knowing the lay of the land; he had home field advantage over Gaby and him. Instead, his protective instincts ratcheted up higher and higher with each passing hour. As if he suspected dark figures lurked around every corner ready to reach out and grab them. Did his own home terrify him so much?
Maybe it stemmed from Napoleon’s connections with the CIA. If a known KGB agent appeared on US soil, more than a few agencies would sit up and take notice. But the USSR was cooperating with U.N.C.L.E., and it would be out of line to abduct him, a short payout at the cost of a much larger agreement.
Or it could be as simple as Illya had enemies. Napoleon liked to believe he didn’t fall for every piece of gossip that passed over the Iron Curtain, but Illya’s behavior made him think the rumored interdepartmental feuding within the KGB could actually have some merit.
There were certainly people within the CIA he preferred Illya and Gaby never meet. People who held grudges and had little compulsion against killing.
Well, it wasn't an issue that needed digging into.Their new flight out was in less than twenty hours. They just needed to keep their heads down until then.
Shouldn’t be too hard, Napoleon decided as he lifted up the link of dark, purple sausages. They dangled in front of him more menacingly. It was entirely possible that Napoleon might kill them with dinner before any shady government agency had a chance.
Gaby wasn’t sure how, but a few minutes after Napoleon stripped down to his crisp shirt and rifled through their supplies, the kitchen smelled delicious. She might be jealous of his skills if she wasn’t close to reaping their benefits. In the meantime, she tried to focus on her book. However the Cyrillic characters kept blurring across her vision, and it took too much of her concentration to translate.
Her attention had other distractions. Napoleon hummed under his breath as he worked, his face intent on his task. His shirt was near translucent without the added layer of his suit vest. It let her trace a line up from his wrist to the folded sleeves at his elbows, then further on to his broad shoulders before the white strip of his A-shirt interrupted it. Her eyes couldn’t help trailing downward, surprised that a men’s shirt could cling like that to his torso. The suits she remembered both of her fathers and Leonard wearing had sat looser, she was sure of it.
Napoleon’s pleasant bustle sang in counteraction with the methodical click of the gun Illya sat cleaning. Fascinated, Gaby watched as he disassembled, polished, shined, and reassembled each piece with practiced ease. His motions were organic and fluid; but unlike the precise mechanics of her automobiles, they had an ebb and flow that bordered on artistic. She didn't want to take her eyes away. His wide, nimble hands brought an unbidden image of the grand piano from the corner of her dance studio. She wondered if he had ever considered playing; she bet he’d be brilliant at it.
“Dinner’s up,” Napoleon’s call broke the companionable silence between them. He gave a glance to the dining table, littered as it was with gun innards and cleaning rods and oiled cloths, and instead brought the plates to the low coffee table in front of the sofa.
“Thank you,” Gaby said, reaching for her plate. She was amazed Napoleon had somehow put together an edible-looking sandwich from the supplies Illya brought back. How come he couldn’t make normal food when he had a well-stocked kitchen?
Illya waved for Napoleon to sit on the other side of the couch, then claimed the spot on the floor in front of them. It almost put him at eye-level with her.
“I see you helped yourself to my books,” Illya commented, elbowing the stack on the floor beside her feet.
“Do you mind?"
“It is fine,” Illya reassured her. “There are some good ones on explosives I think you will benefit from reading.”
“We can have them shipped to London, if you’d like. Or anything else you’d like to have.”
“Like the chest under my bed?”
Gaby envied Napoleon’s poker face, because she knew her grimace gave her away louder than any confession. Neither of them said anything for a long moment under Illya’s brilliant stare.
“We didn’t open it,” she tried.
“Not that we didn’t think about it," Napoleon ruined. "Really Peril, if you want to keep something private, you can do better than a padlock. I could crack that blindfolded. Who hides things under the bed anyway? It's the first place you always look.”
“I do not usually have world-class thief and curious chop-shop girl in my home.”
“Can we ask what’s in it?"
“It is personal," Illya told her. His tone wasn't sharp, just cautious and tentative. Something he was willing to give, but only if he wasn't left hanging onto that branch by himself. That was fine. Gaby knew bartering was the basis of any stable trade. Alcohol probably would have helped (it had in the past) but she could make due.
She had considered what else she wanted them to know about her. More than once over the last few months, she caught herself fantasizing about revealing different pieces of information, of sharing herself more and more. The ballet and Leonard had felt like big chunks of her past, but they were just things that happened to her. Perhaps it was time for something that defined her, rather than her life.
“One of my earliest memories is of visiting Paris with my father," she decided on a good memory, the kind of good Illya might appreciate right now. "My real father. I wasn’t that old, but I remember how bright the city looked. Everything was so much…so much more than it was in Berlin. And the people…I couldn’t stop staring at the people. They had on such interesting clothes. It left quite an impression on me; I can’t imagine explaining to my younger self how that particular fantasy eventually came true.”
“Glad we could help,” Napoleon tacked on, grinning when she kicked at his thigh for the interruption.
“We visited a few friends of my father. One of them had a pair of dogs; a blue great dane and a snowy white poodle,” she continued, lost in the memory. “The great dane’s name was Amé, and I remember thinking she was so sweet. She would give me rides on her back around the house. I don’t recall the poodle’s name but I was annoyed that she stole all my toys. It took forever to realize she wanted to play hide-and-seek with me.
"I cried when it was time to leave because it meant not being able to play with my new friends anymore. My father had to carry me out of the house. I know pets aren’t an option with the life I lead, and I wouldn’t give up anything for what I have now, but sometimes I imagine owning a pair of dogs like those two.”
“We could go to Paris,” Illya offered after a moment, and it was cute to watch him blush. “It wouldn’t be hard."
“I would want to learn French first, I think,” she said, if only to downplay his embarassment. Though if the opportunity to return to Paris arose, especially if it was to explore and not to work, she didn’t want to be hindered by a language barrier like she sometimes was during missions. Illya’s tutorials in Russian made taking on yet another language seem not only plausible, but exciting.
“Maybe Cowboy can teach you,” Illya offered.
“No,” Napoleon butted in. “I don’t speak French.”
In her surprise, it took a moment to realize that he was using their conversation to pay in his own dues towards sharing secrets. Gaby could have kicked him, he must have thought the same because he rested his hand on her ankle and brushed his fingers across the delicate bones there in an odd peace-offering. She understood Napoleon had trouble revealing parts of himself like she did, and he could be infuriating even when he tried to match the unspoken rules of their trade. But she was glad he tried to give as much as he did.
“You taught yourself five languages,” Illya demanded, looking at him in disbelief. "How do you not know French? It is practically requirement for art thief.”
“I know enough to order at a French restaurant,” Napoleon defended. “But after the war France didn't have much to steal. Not a lot of an incentive to learn.”
"I can pretend to speak French, if that makes you feel better. Portuguese, too. And Polish, if I don't have to keep it up for too long. I'm afraid to say I'm hopeless at Arfasian and Persian languages."
“What languages do you know?" Gaby asked, poking at Napoleon with her toe when his hand stopped moving across her ankle. He started up again and she relished the feel of goosebumps on her skin.
"German," Napoleon winked in her direction. "Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Russian."
“All enemy languages,” Illya pointed out, and it clicked for Gaby that Napoleon would be the sort of man who would often need to talk himself out of awkward situations. “Except Spanish. Anomaly in pattern?"
“My first station was on the Franco-Spanish boarder. Most of the Resistance fighters we worked with were Spanish Republicans in exile who joined the French Resistance. They had interesting stories and good food, so I figured the least I could do was learn their language.” Napoleon tapped his fingertips across Gaby's ankle bone for a moment. “Worked for my benefit in the end. The only time I ever went to Paris was with them. They wanted to persuade Picasso to speak out against the Spanish government."
“You met Pablo Picasso?” Illya reiterated, awe-struck for the first time in Gaby’s memory. Napoleon let out a slight laugh.
“Yes, briefly. He…he was an education. Absurdly talented, with a wicked sharp mind. I learned a lot about what I wanted after talking with him.” Napoleon’s eyes flicked to Illya was a hint of mischievousness. “His politics are for crap, though.”
“The Communist Party recognizes talent and dedication of one of our own,” Illya shot back with a straight face.
"Until he created something you didn't like. Or would you like me to believe Stalin hung Picasso's portrait of him on the Kermlin walls after he told him it wasn't realistic enough?"
Gaby didn’t know much of anything about this Picasso, whoever he was, but it didn’t matter. She enjoyed watching Illya's shoulder untense under Napoleon's relentless smarm. So long as they hadn’t left Illya hanging from his own pain, that was all she cared about.
Sensing his time had come, Illya rose to his feet and disappeared behind them. The shuffling she heard confirmed that he planned to fulfill his side of their promise.
Illya set the chest down on the table. Gaby tried not to get too excited. He dug through his pocket until he found his keys, only to pause with them in hand. He shot Napoleon a speculative look. Then, he gripped the side of the chest and dragged it around to face the other man.
“Be my guest,” he offered sardonically. “I am sure you are dying to show off.”
Napoleon smiled fast and vivid as he shot up from his slump on the couch. The apartment was small enough that he needed only to lean over the sofa arm to reach their bags, and his lock picks appeared in hand moments later. He leaned in, but before he could start Gaby made a noise of protest.
“Illya,” she recalled. “Did he not he claim something about being able to perform blindfolded?”
“I believe he did,” replied Illya, who reached over and slid his hand over Napoleon’s eyes. “No peeking.”
Napoleon huffed, but didn’t complain. His fingers quested over the the edges of the chest until he found the padlock. Illya kept his eyes covered while he worked, and Gaby couldn’t decide what was more intriguing: Napoleon’s fingers exploring and reworking the padlock with his picks, or the way the curls of his loosened hair fell over Illya’s hand in its perch across his forehead.
She only had twenty seconds to enjoy it. She found herself wishing Napoleon had taken his time, but perhaps he had.
He held out his hand, the open lock cradled in his palm and a satisfied smirk on his full lips, all the more noticeable for Illya’s hand spanning half his face.
Gaby snagged the lock from his fingers, looping the cool steel around with her own. Her brazen theft shocked the men into movement, and Napoleon drew back, unmasking his bright eyes. They had a challenge in them, and Illya propelled himself toward the chest before Napoleon's greedy paws could beat him to it.
Chest in hand, Illya took a moment to run his fingers reverently across its surface before flipping it open.
The first thing that caught Gaby’s attention was the photographs, torn and faded. Her fingers itched to touch, but given their age she wasn't sure how comfortable Illya would be if she did. She wanted a closer look at the tall, slender woman with familiar eyes and the hard-looking man with the jawline she could trace on Illya’s own face. She wanted to inspect every little detail down to the wedding dress she wore and the way their hands interlaced.
“Nothing sensitive,” Illya muttered, pulling the bundle of photograph out and laying them aside. His nod was all it took for Gaby to dart forward and investigate with a closer eye. “We have real safes in Russia, contrary to what Cowboy wants to believe. Just…things that are mine.”
He continued to pull out more: a watch repair kit and spare bands, one of which was cracked and faded beyond use. A folded paper target riddled with a cluster of bullet holes around the silhouette’s chest and face, and a date scrolled across the bottom that would put Illya's age at fourteen. Documents written in Russian, too technical for her to follow, and handwritten notes inked along the margins. A pair of tiny wooden chess markers, the queen carved in a pale wood and a knight in a dark stain. Both were rudimentary, and worn smooth with age, but he laid them down as if they were precious glass. Some letters that Illya didn’t pull out of their envelopes, so Gaby didn’t touch.
He hesitated over the last item, a tell that Napoleon missed as he poured over the technical papers, but Gaby noticed and stilled.
The jewelry box Illya pulled out next was tiny; and his face, blank, as he popped open the delicate lid.
Both rings inside were well-cared for. The woman's was set with diamonds that raised up in a prominent setting on a classical gold band. The men’s was a simple gold band, with a few discrete, abstract engravings along the side. If she squinted at the faded wedding photos, Gaby could just see them around the fingers of their owners.
Setting the papers aside, Napoleon wordlessly held out a hand. Illya passed them over, and their thief plucked up the diamond-mounted one first. The light shift through the gems.
“These are Antwerp-cut diamonds,” he announced. “No offense, Peril, but no Soviet work could match that.” He handed them back with a slight smile. “Gorgeous.”
“My father wasn’t allowed to leave us much, but he asked my mother to hide the ring before he was arrested. My mother, she didn’t feel comfortable wearing it, after...I could have sold them but--”
“It didn’t feel right,” Napoleon finished. Illya nodded, but didn’t look up further than their feet.
Gaby tied the photos back up in the plain twine and paper they came from. With infinite care, she set them back in the chest. One by one, she reloaded all the precious, silly little things Illya had collect through his life, even as his world expected him to rise above it all. The papers Napoleon had perused went in last, then she closed the lid and relocked it.
She set the chest aside with the rest of their luggage. U.N.C.L.E. could be sent to collect anything else Illya wanted from the apartment, but she was determined that the chest was coming with them tomorrow. She refused to leave behind something so precious to sit in the dark under a cold bed.
Having safely hidden it amongst their bags, she padded back to the couch. Her blanket had fallen to the floor, and as she scooped down to retrieved it, she let her other hand snake out to wrap around Illay’s wrist.
She would never be able to muscle Illya into doing anything without his approval, so when she tugged him toward the couch, she knew he only followed because he wanted to.
She tucked him into the small space between her and Napoleon. It wasn’t nearly enough room for Illya’s looming frame, so Gaby created a bit more room by tossing her legs over Illya’s lap along with the blanket. It put her her ankles and toes back in Napoleon's reach, but she would have to deal with it. She hadn’t released Illya’s hand, and drew their combined hands to rest on her lap.
Across the couch, Napoleon propped his heels up on the coffee table. When he reached out, Gaby had to muffle her protest as his fingers skipped over her willing feet to loop around Illya's shoulder instead.
“We don’t-,” Illya startled under his touch.
“Stop talking,” Napoleon ordered. He poked at Illya until he quieted down, then didn’t complain when his nagging prodding encouraged Illya to drop his head onto Napoleon’s broad shoulder.
Then his free hand returned to Gaby’s ankle under the blanket, which she was fine with. His light touch woke up the sensitivity in her skin in a way she really couldn't complain about. Resting her head on the thin cushions of the couch’s backing, she let herself enjoy the the heat and comfort built between them.
“Tell me more about Picasso,” she heard Illya mutter. Napoleon chuckled, and launched into a wild description of painting techniques and the different philosophies of perspective. Illya seemed captivated but it was enough to put Gaby to sleep. She didn’t fight her heavy eyelids, and allowed herself to sink down into a heavy sleep.
“You got her?”
“It is fine. Not first time she has fallen asleep on me.”
“…please, tell me more.”
“And deprive your imagination the chance to go into overload? Never, Cowboy.”
Gaby didn’t really wake up. She drifted in the fuzzy darkness of sleep, but she couldn’t feel the couch under her anymore; only strong arms and a body-warm blanket.
“You two take the bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“You will be in traction for month if you do that. Get in the bed."
“I'll be fine, Peril.”
“We are leaving in nine hours and it is long flight. We can survive sharing.”
She heard a heavy sigh, the sound of fabric shuffling, and a squeaking mattress. Then she was stretched out across cool sheets, and it felt divine. Gaby snuggled into the stiff mattress.
“Is the bed going to be able to hold us all?"
“We will be fine.”
“Only, if we are going to break the bed, I’d hope it’d be in pursuit of a more entertaining activity than sleep.”
There was an abrupt lurch as someone heavy and big-headed got shoved down onto the other side of the mattress.
“Close your mouth and go to sleep. No snoring.”
Gentle hands rolled her away from the edge of the bed until she was pressed close to a soft shirt and a broad chest. A furnace settled in at her back. She let herself fall back to sleep.
Gaby woke to the sensation of knuckles brushing against her cheek. Cracking her eyes open to see stark white sheets and her own hand curled close, she tried to reorient herself. A soft chuckle rumbled above her, and a hand brushed back her tangled hair.
“Good morning,” Illya whispered.
“What time is it?” she asked, rubbing her eyes to bring the world into clarity.
“Six-thirty,” Illya replied, keeping his voice low. “We need to leave by eight."
Gaby nodded, wincing as she felt the grit and grim from the day before embedded in her skin. She needed a shower, a change of clothes, and a fight with a hairbrush.
Only when she tried to move, she was stuck. Glancing down, she found Napoleon’s arm draped over her waist. She plucked it off and let his arm drop dead onto the bed.
Napoleon barely peaked, only slim slivers of bright blue investigating through his eyelids. He glanced quickly to her, and up to Illya, and his face scrunched up with a rough growl.
She couldn’t help it—she giggled.
His eyes sealed shut again and with a huge heave he rolled over. She listened closely, and sure enough his breath evened out as he fell back asleep in record time.
“I will make sure he gets up,” Illya told her, offering a hand to help her off the bed. She groaned but accepted.
She tried to stifle her yawn as she slipped past him. He smelled clean, and his damp hair was brushed back from his face, making small trickles of water run down his neck. He was far too awake for the her tastes, but she appreciated the results. She patted him on the stomach in thanks--for his help, that was--rather than trying to form words as she headed for the bathroom.
The shower woke her up, mainly because it was only a hair’s breadth away from being unbearably cold. She scrambled out as quickly as she could, and wrapped the waiting towel around her shivering body.
…She had forgotten to grab fresh clothes. Gaby hated mornings.
Since her other option was putting her old clothes back on (which was not an option after traversing so many borders and an international airport), she held her chin up high and opened the bathroom door.
The rest of the apartment was almost as cold as her shower. She hadn’t realized it when surrounded by two men who gave off heat like a fire, but wet and naked except for a towel, she noticed. She didn’t give thought to anything else as she darted for her bags.
“Sorry,” she hissed at Illya as she flew past him. “I forgot clothes.”
He made a strangled noise that Gaby did her best to ignore. He dropped the weapons he had been packing up, gripped her shoulders, and turned her back the way she came.
“I noticed,” he said in a rush. “Look down."
Gaby did; a neat pile of clothes sat stacked in front of the bathroom door.
“Oh. Thank you,” she muttered, though she barely had time to scoop up her pile before Illya all but shoved her back into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.
One last rub down, and she tossed the towel aside. Using a hair tie to hold her hair back for later, she shimmied into her underwear and finally looked to see what Illya picked out for her.
The green structured skirt gripped high on the waist, and she figured Illya had planned for the ivory button up shirt to be tucked in, the better to show off the row of black buttons up the side of the skirt. Black lace decorated the shirt’s collar and sleeves, pairing with a delicate black belt that she debated discarding. It was an extraneous accessory that would do nothing to keep her clothes in place.
She decided against the belt. Sometimes less was more, no matter what kind of opinions Illya and Napoleon had to the contrary. She couldn’t deny she enjoyed Illya’s exasperation when he she walked out of the bathroom. Nonetheless, he reached out to straighten her collar.
“Is it good?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied honestly. She would hold veto powers over her clothes in the end; but she had to admit there was something pleasurable in having a pair of fashionable men who were wild to dress her.
And perhaps all this talking of her past had addled her mind, but she imagined for a moment trying to explain as much to her younger self, back when she was engaged to Leonard. She nearly knocked herself over with how hard she snorted at the thought.
Illya, gracefully, didn't comment, his head bent towards a gun he was cleaning.
At her luggage, Gaby traded out the belt for a hair brush. It was with a heavy sigh that she set about trying to tame her hair. Illya left her to her own devices for all of about two minutes before he plucked the brush from her fingers.
“You are going to rip it out one day,” he spoke in a low voice. Gaby glanced toward the bed, where Napoleon still hadn’t budged from the covers.
“Don’t tempt me,” she murmured back. “It’s always been unmanageable.”
“Because you have no patience for it,” Illya admonished, working the bristled through her tangles with more care than she usually bothered to give.
“I’ll trade with you.”
Illya let out a quiet, amused huff. “In another life, maybe I would not mind. It is becoming fashionable in America after all, men with long hair.”
Gaby tried to imagine Illya with long hair. It made her smile, more than a little giddy at the picture. He did have such nice blond hair, and if it grew in with the same slight wave that his mother sported in her photos, Gaby would be hard-pressed to disapprove.
She was so caught up with her fantasizing that the next few, quiet minutes passed by quickly. Only when Illya handed back her brush did she realize she hadn’t felt any of the usual tugs and pulls she associated with taming her hair.
“I’m going to have to make you do that more often,” she marveled, running her fingers through and admiring the smooth, damp strands.
“Any time you’d like,” Illya offered, so innocuously he surely didn't intend for Gaby's thoughts to turn to Illya’s fingers in her hair in all sorts of other contexts.
It was time to wake Napoleon up before she did something she’d regret later.
Napoleon, inconvenient as ever, didn’t want to be woken up.
“Go'way,” he groused as Gaby shook his shoulder. She tried again, and all she got was a warning growl more reminiscent of a discontented puppy.
“You may have to take it from here,” she told Illya. He shrugged, grabbed Napoleon’s ankle, and dragged him down the bed. Once he entered arm's reach, Illya switched his grip to his rumpled shirt and hauled Napoleon to his feet. The other man made wordless protests the whole way, slower to react and softer around the edges than she expected, but when Illya tilted him up, he stayed upright under hand.
Gaby couldn’t remember ever seeing Napoleon look so disheveled. Not even in Dublin, when Illya had dragged them out the door in the dead of night. A healthy layer of stubble dusted his strong jaw and cheeks, and the dark locks that were usually tamed by the powers of pomade now curled wild around his head. His trousers and shirt were wrinkled beyond salvaging and his bare feet on the threadbare carpet seemed thin and bony compared to the perfect bulk of his chest.
“Time to wake up, Cowboy,” Illya informed him. The black look Napoleon gave in response was deathly serious and would terrify a lesser men.
“You can let go now,” he snapped. Illya did so, and Napoleon promptly closed his eyes and dove towards the bed.
Illya rolled his eyes and dragged him back.
“It can’t possibly be time to get up,” Napoleon complained. “I just closed my eyes. This is cruel and you know it, Illya.”
“It’s past seven,” Gaby said, and Napoleon blinked at them both, trying to determine if they were lying to him.
“Is there coffee?” he finally asked.
“There can be coffee on the plane,” she offered. It didn’t seem to help much. Napoleon slowly closed his eyes as if asking for strength from God himself to face the morning.
Illya shoved at his shoulder when they didn’t reopen after a moment.
“I’m going, I’m going,” he grumbled, swatting Illya’s hands away. Gaby watched in fascination as he stumbled over to his bags and pulled out his toiletries and clothes. Part of her was disappointed he didn’t make her mistake.
Thirty minutes later, Napoleon looked as sharp as she expected: clean-shaven, neat in a suit of dark gray and navy plaid, and so alert it was if he'd flipped a switch.
“Better?” Gaby asked. The sullen look he awarded her said 'no'. She patted at his elbow in solidarity.
Gaby realized she had never seen Napoleon first thing out of bed. In their previous missions, he blocked himself off in his own room, beat them awake each morning, or was jolted awake for the mission so quickly she couldn't sneak a glance. It was hard to pin down a time he didn't look like he was striding off the pages of a magazine. In a way, allowing them to see him at anything less seemed just as intimate as exploring Illya’s home.
She could work with that. Neither of her teammates were good with sharing secrets, they struggled more than her at exposing her own, but they did try in other ways.
On their way out the door, Gaby collected Illya’s chest and held it close, determined to protect it on their way back to London.
“Come on,” Illya prodded, as he herded them out. A quick count revealed more bags on him then when they arrived last night. He swung one over his shoulder, and the clink of steel was unmistakable.
“I don’t think they’re going to let all the weapons onto the plane, Illya,” said Gaby. Illya gave her a wounded look.
“We are in Russia, and I am KGB. I will explain what their alternatives are,” he replied. Gaby resigned herself to a morning of managing the horde of people Illya (and their own, personal American) were likely to offend between here and take off.
They arrived at the airport only to discover their flight had been delayed again.
Gaby wasn’t sure what was happening, however if Napoleon’s exasperated smirk and Illya’s carefully blank expression were any indication, any explanation would only end in an argument. She tried to head off the worst of it before it started.
“Is that a café?” she asked, pointing to the small bar. “I’m sure they have coffee.”
Napoleon was more manageable after a few shots of espresso, entertaining them with commentary on their fellow travelers and a colorful story about the time he snuck a Rembrandt through airport security with a lacrosse carrier.
Five hours later, their flight was finally announced. After a brief discussion with security about Illya's weapon stash, which ended much like the conversation with the taxi driver, their flight finally boarded.
Only then did Gaby relinquish her watch on Illya’s chest so Napoleon could stow it away above their seats.
She tried to sleep on the flight, but Napoleon was fidgety and Illya sat straight in his seat, eyes on constant alert. He didn’t unwind until they hit the Heathrow tarmac. Then, it was as if someone cut the cables holding him up. All the tension and and strain he bore for the last twenty-four hours flooded away, leaving a large, exhausted marionette of a man.
“Let’s go home,” she suggested, gently looping her arm through his. She felt Napoleon close rank on his other side. “I doubt Waverly would mind if we report in tomorrow.”
Neither disagreed. Home sounded fantastic right now.
Hope ya'll enjoyed Illya's home :)
Here's the playlist for Moscow
Chapter 5: Madrid - Minnesota - London
Gaby loves to drive.
Napoleon goes home.
Madrid (summer 1965)
Napoleon’s illicitly obtained lead pointed them toward the vast rolling vineyards. The Spanish countryside was almost as beautiful as the frothy green and white lace dress Gaby (and undoubtedly Napoleon) chose that morning. Sunlight and cotton ball clouds drifted over meadows covered in vibrant flowers stained in reds and yellows. The road was nearly empty, allowing them to trek along at a comfortable speed.
Illya felt comfort settle into his bones. For the first time in memory, tension didn’t build in his body. No itch in his fingers. Nothing to send his heart racing. He could almost convinced himself to relax; who would hurt him here?
How wrong he was.
Gaby started on him only ten minutes outside the city. She had refrained from touching him since they left the hotel. Illya hadn’t thought much of it; Napoleon was the one who dismissed common public decency.
Perhaps it was the car that was making her quite frisky.
“Feel free to stop anytime,” he snapped when Gaby’s hand strayed towards the gearshift.
“Stop what?” Her fingers delicately curled around the the stick shaft. Her nail polish was a delicate sky blue that complimented her skin tone and made Illya’s stomach flip.
“Cowboy thinks you are funny. I do not.”
Gaby’s delicate smirk was only matched by the gentle picking of her polished nails against the leather sheath covering the shaft’s head. Illya felt his heart speed up, his skin flush. Gaby shifted gears and sped the cruiser up.
Wind rattled the windows, and the rush of speed played havoc with Illya’s senses. The pleasant heat of the cabin dulled his edge. Gaby's hand drifted down again to wrap loosely around the long shaft of the gearstick, and he let out a long breath. He felt dissembled from himself, relaxed and focused in equal measure.
When Gaby’s hand strayed past the gear shift onto his knee, he did nothing to stop her. Her nails registered as a delicate pressure through his pressed slacks as they traced light patterns against the sensitive skin of his knee.
She’d be disappointed if he moved, he told himself. So instead, he groaned and let his head fall against the head rest.
“You are horrible.”
“You love it,” said Gaby.
At least Cowboy had the decency to be sleazy when he acted like this, giving Illya an easy out if he needed one. Gaby just smiled to herself, perfectly at ease with the world. Illya shuddered and took a deep breath, resigned to enduring Gaby’s teasing for the rest of the trip.
Los Angeles (winter 1964)
"I can’t smell the ocean," Illya complained. He knew the sea was less than a mile away, he should be able to smell it. Or even hear it. But standing outside the local post office he couldn’t even tell which direction was south. It bothered him more than he thought possible.
“It’s LA,” Napoleon said, fiddling with a ring of keys as he pulled the doors open. “Be amazed you see blue in the sky.”
Illya had to acknowledge that point. The US alarmed him in that matter, among others. Cars here were as large as boats, which Illya thought ridiculous, but he did have to admit that it was nice to stretch out without hitting a steering wheel or dashboard. Gaby made a face the first few times she hit a curb, but adapted well enough after that. Glancing back at the car, he saw her tapping her fingers against the steering wheel as she waited for them. She had declined following them in favor of watching the variety of cars on the roads.
Inside, Napoleon popped open the door to one of the tiny mail windows, letting a soft huff out when envelopes spilled out of the overstuffed space.
"How popular you are,” Illya remarked sarcastically as he ducked down to retrieve the letters at his feet.
"I haven't checked it in a year," said Napoleon. He dug his fingers into the box, prying even more out--letters, magazines, fliers... "I'm sure most of it's junk."
"Why have it?"
"Establishes residency in California." Napoleon twisted the lock shut with a sharp click. "Which can be handy for all sorts of reasons. Are you sure I can't talk you into that Jackson Pollick exhibit? There's no telling how much longer it'll be in town."
"He is not as interesting as you think he is."
Napoleon didn’t press further, but his smile told Illya he’d be fending off that particular idea until they were in the air and half way back to London. Not that Illya minded so much. He would never possess anything close to the American's encyclopedic knowledge of art, but he could hold his own in a conversation. A part of himself he regretted sharing, for now Napoleon seized on any opportunity to drag him kicking and complaining to the closest exhibit.
Illya tugged the front of Napoleon’s jacket open to tuck the envelopes he'd collected inside the lining’s inner pocket.
“Do you have everything?”
“Unfortunately,” Napoleon replied, already shuffling through the papers spilling out of his coat. “Let’s not keep Gaby waiting.”
Before they could even get their seatbelts on, Gaby punched away from the curb, kicking the car back into gear. Illya scrambled to latch himself into the backseat as she tore down the street.
“Are all American roads so horribly thought out?” she snapped, cutting off a bulky Chevrolet. Illya went tumbling against the side of the car, but in the front seat, Napoleon simply shifted his weight with the sharp turn without much conscious thought. He stayed quiet and distant as he worked his way through his mail. Many he discarded onto the floorboard without a second glance, some were ripped in half, some he opened and read before he carefully tucked them back into their envelopes. Quite a few were odd, colorful fliers, written in a sloppy, stylized English that prevented Illya from translating as he tried to read over Napoleon’s shoulder. A few others had the clean, typed lettering and numbers of generic bills. Illya could not tell if the amounts totaled a high cost for American living, or if it were simply frivolous spending on Cowboy's part.
A scant few letters bore looping, personal handwriting that was difficult to decipher at a distance. Those Napoleon slipped open like landmines, read quickly, then disappeared inside his jacket.
Illya’s curiosity peaked against his better judgement. He sensed an opportunity, perhaps a chance to stretch his tracking skills.
Their last mission had a comfortable simplicity: find a drug supplier specializing in toxins who preferred to blackmail immigrants into cooperation to move her products across international boarders. Two terrified employees, a hefty sum of bribe money that Illya suspected Napoleon hadn’t bothered to count, and a little patience had yielded her location within a week. Even her apprehension hadn’t led to a struggle, not after Illya demonstrated how useless her henchman were.
"You're looking good, Emilio," Napoleon had greeted their fellow agent as they handed over their drug dealer on the Mexican boarder. Illya had to agree. The last time they saw Emilio had been in London during debriefing for the disaster that was Amsterdam. The poor man had been ready to jump out of the closest window. Returned to his home territory in Mexico and surrounded with familiar folk, Emilio looked alive and attentive, the way an agent should be. He even smiled a few times at people who weren't Napoleon.
"It is good to be back. Thank you for your assistance," Emilio nodded to the drug dealer, handcuffed and fuming in the back of their car. "She has been a terror along the boarder for the last two years. El Presidente will be thrilled to know she is no longer in operation."
“Anything we can do to help," Napoleon told him with a dazzling smile. Illya marveled that Napoleon didn’t wear even a hint of a grudge for the way Amsterdam had turned out. He knew he was still a little sore about it.
They left the rest of the case in Emilio's hands, more than happy to hand over the administrative work to someone else. Illya had been ready to sleep until their flight out the next day, but this was Gaby's first time in the US, and Los Angeles was calling to her. When Napoleon mentioning stopping by the post office, they didn't think twice about the detour.
“Last chance on that Pollick exhibit,” Gaby mentioned, pointing to one of the exhibit's promotional posters plastered across a nearby bus stop. “You know he won’t shut up about it if we don’t go, Illya.”
“Our flight is in ten hours,” Illya reminded them.
“We could go to the art show,” Napoleon offered suddenly, his face gleaming in a way Illya wasn't entirely comfortable with. “Or, we could drive to Las Vegas.”
“…why would we do that?” Gaby asked after a moment of surprised silence.
“Well, for one it’s a gorgeous drive. Secondly, Waverly did mention some reservations about area 51 during our last check-in. I don’t see why we can’t poke around and see what we can find. Pro-activeness is never a bad thing. They probably won't get another team out here for months if we don't."
Illya rolled his eyes, but didn't say anything. He suspected that Napoleon often decided to work extra hard in hopes of getting extra time to play. Illya also believed the CIA allowed it with the assumption that it was the only way to get results out of Napoleon.
Gaby hesitated behind the wheel, looking torn. Napoleon leaned in and flashed her a dangerous smile.
"Los Angeles has Jackson Pollick," he said, "But Las Vegas has the Rat Pack.”
Gaby turned east without any further encouragement. Since Napoleon had introduced her to Frank Sinatra a few months ago, she had fallen shamelessly head over heels in love with the man's silky songs. Illya grumbled but decided the argument wasn’t worth having if it was two against one. Besides, he had never seen Las Vegas either.
Illya had thought they fled Dublin in a hurry, but it was nothing compared to the speed with which they floored it out of Las Vegas.
“I thought you said you knew what you were doing!” Gaby yelled at Napoleon over the scream of air, their newly acquired topless car racing into the desert night.
“I did!” Napoleon shouted back, gripping their hastily gathered supplies and luggage against his chest as he braced himself against the dashboard. “Keep driving! Head east!”
Illya gritted his teeth, put more pressure on his shoulder, and hoped he didn’t bleed out in the back seat. Gunshot wounds were so inconvenient.
Gaby struggled to accept the sheer size of the US. She had seen the whole country on a map, and theoretically understood its size, but it was nothing compared to witnessing it firsthand. After leaving Las Vegas, they tore through Utah (which she pretty much summed up as plains, salt, more plains, and a few dreary cloud-covered mountains), and into the winding slopes of the Colorado mountains. When she asked, Napoleon mentioned that they were still another long day at least before they got to wherever they were going. From desert to mountains to plains, and all she could think was 'big'.
Illya, grumpy about the gunshot wound in his shoulder and more strongly drugged than recommended from their emergency supplies, stretched out in the back seat of their stolen boat-car from outside their casino on the Strip. With his arm thrown over his face she couldn’t tell if he was sleeping. If so, he wasn't bothered by the small bumps in the road. Napoleon had taken residence of the passenger seat, having stowed their items in the coffin-like tail of the car. His long legs folded up humorously high against the dash, but his head still needed to lean down to read the map.
“Do we need a hospital?” Gaby checked, well inside of Colorado and far enough from Nevada to escape attention from the local law enforcements.
“No,” Illya vetoed immediately, stubborn as a mule. “I am fine. Flesh wound.”
“Peril knows his limits,” said Napoleon, most of his attention on the map. Gaby smacked his arm, and he added, “We can stop in Denver if we need to."
“It is fine,” Illya repeated louder.
“Sit up,” Gaby challenged, shooting him a sharp look over her shoulder. Illya lifted his arm off his eyes and glowered at her. Nonetheless, he reached out with his good hand, snagged the opposite side door handle, and levered himself up.
“Better?” he demanded. Gaby rolled her eyes at his petulant tone.
“I don’t know,” she replied tartly. “Are you going to die on us anytime soon?”
“Are you sure?”
“Alright. You can go back to sleep,” she dismissed with a flick of her fingers. Illya slumped back down with a huff. The boat-car had enough room for him to comfortably stretch out, his heels propped on the window and Napoleon’s jacket under his head for a pillow.
Napoleon finally glanced up from the map, and for a moment Gaby saw something flash behind his deep blue eyes. But between needing to keep her sights on the road and Napoleon’s skill at shuffling his emotions off his face, she didn't have time to tell what it was before he turned away. Reaching over, he picked at the laces of Illya’s shoes, swatting his calves when Illya tried to kick him, and pulled his shoes off.
“May as well get comfortable,” he said. “We’ve still got a ways to go."
“Where are we going?" Gaby asked.
“Chicago’s the closest major city with an international airport,” Napoleon explained. Gaby decided not to hammer at his deflection; while she didn't believe Chicago was the closest place to get a flight to London, she didn't know enough to refute him on it.
Their trip was a pleasant one, considering the endless roads and their obstinate partner bleeding in the backseat. Driving in the US proved to be a learning experience. Less then an hour outside Las Vegas, she had pulled over, ignoring Napoleon's baffled look, and collected the scraps of medical tape that hadn't been attached to Illya. She stuck them around the dial of the speedometer, and proceeded to write out kilometers in grease pen around the mile markers. Easier to calculate the ratios now so she could understand her driving without conversions later. She could only put up with that for so long. In cities, she could gauge her speed by the drivers around her, but in this vast stretch of road and corn fields all she had were her dials, which she preferred to read without getting a headache.
Staying alert proved to be the more challenging problem. Glancing at the rear view mirror showed Illya fast asleep again, and Napoleon, disappointly, barely glanced up from the mass of maps and papers long enough to be his usual captivating and entertaining self. He shuffled through his papers and glanced out the window. Both proved less than stimulating conversationalists.
“I’m bored,” she complained.
“You can count license plates,” he suggested, making a note in one of the pages. In Vegas, he had picked up a pamphlet with a long, medical title she couldn’t quite decipher without crashing the car, though the words ‘Surgeon’ and ‘General’ appeared in bold letters across the front as he flipped through its pages.
“Why would I want to do that?” she asked. What an absurd suggestion. She wished Illya was awake so they could gang up on him; Illya was always surprisingly amicable to the idea.
“Fair point.” He reached out to flick the radio on. Gaby had avoided it—she loved the popular music that radios played nonstop, but Napoleon preferred operas and ballets, while Illya leaned toward jazz. If they were going to make it to Chicago without killing each other, some concessions needed to be made.
Sure enough, Napoleon winced a bit at the pop music that filled through the speakers, but it gave Gaby new life. She bounced in her seat along with the upbeat song.
She quickly picked up the chorus, trying to keep her voice smooth and pleasant and she warbled with th song, “Was the son of a preacher man —Who is this?”
“No idea,” Napoleon replied, already back to his pamphlet. Gaby shrugged it off and kept driving.
Denver passed in a haze of even more mountains, and Gaby’s attention slipped more than once while watching the clouds break across their peaks. It was lovely to see, the calm, inevitable movement bringing a sort of peace to her rattled nerves.
The towering slopes gradually bled into flat, grassy plains, and a sign proudly advertised that they were entering Nebraska.
Afternoon bled into evening, and Napoleon said, “We should find a hotel for the night.”
Gaby nodded. The road and the music had lulled her into an odd, distant headspace. She tried to shake out of her funk, cracking her neck and taking in their surroundings, only for her breath to catch in her throat.
Illya jerked awake with a shout as Gaby wrenched the steering wheel to pull their car off to the side of the road. Napoleon barely had time to brace against the dashboard while they ground to a halt.
“What?” he snapped, alarmed and gun in hand. Gaby kicked the door open. Stepping out into the empty road, her body swayed, lurching on her feet after traveling for so long at high speed. Her legs were stiff from sitting all day. She ignored all of it as the deep sunset spread through the horizon.
More than an hour ago the sun was a blinding light in the rearview mirror, and as it sank it drowned the heavens in a deep, lush red the reached as high as the stars and still didn't end. A faint purple bruised the sky overhead, bright stars freckling across the open sky. No buildings, no people, no farms; just stray wisps of dark clouds, a vivid half moon rising in the distance, and a the brilliant canvas of waning light across the night sky.
“Does it always look like this?” she asked when she felt Napoleon stand beside her. He held her jacket in his hands, urging her arms into it as she realized how much colder it had gotten outside with the loss of the sun.
“Sometimes. In parts like this,” he said. She couldn’t help the breathless laugh that escaped while she fumbled with the large buttons on her coat. How did something like this happen everyday and yet there was no one here to notice but them?
“It is nice,” Illya spoke quietly from her other side. He had crafted a sling for his arm out of a handful of her headscarves, and he shrugged his own jacket on across his shoulders over top. Despite his attempts to appear blasé, his rough gaze was like a sheet pulled to cover the softer landscape of his quiet thoughtfulness. He looked nearly awestruck.
They stayed on the side of the road until darkness fell around them, perched together on the hood of the car as they watched the sun fade from view. The moon offered the only light in the sky, half-full and traveling back the way they'd come. Nothing else in sight to break the comfortable settling of the night hour.
“The stars…” she murmured. With the sun gone, she couldn’t even begin to count them. Illya leaned back and lifted a hand to poke at the velvet sky.
“Draco,” he said, pointing out a cluster of stars just above the horizon. “Gemini. Perseus. Andromeda. Outside of Moscow you can see stars like this but I…they look different. I have not watched them much, in my travels."
“Can’t say I did either, Peril," Napoleon said into the dark, and though the he surely would not be able to make out their faces, Gaby wished he would turn towards them, even if he could not see.
He had settled, the tension bleeding away under the weight of the sunset. For the first time since they begun driving, Gaby could feel his presence at her side. Even if he awkwardly avoided their gazes, he had for now come back to them.
They spent their lives running and fighting and searching. Taking a moment to enjoy a view like this wasn’t something they'd ever think they had time for. However the road stretched out in front of them, and nothing else was in sight. All they had was time.
“How far until the next city?” she asked.
“Lincoln,” Napoleon said. “Probably about three hours or so.”
“Three more hours? It’s been over four since we left Denver.” She could have traveled across most of Germany by now.
Big, she reminded herself. That’s all this place is. That’s all Russia is. Big, to have produced her two giants.
“Welcome to America,” Napoleon said, and how reassuring it was to know his sardonic smile could be provided in audio. “We love the myth of the road trip. Spiritual quests to find yourself, Route 66, beatniks. It’s all one big place to get lost and forget about things.”
“There are too many straight lines to get lost,” said Gaby. Napoleon’s laugh sounded more like a bark.
“Very true. Did you know there’s a myth that the highway is supposed to straighten out every five miles in case the army needs to land planes on it?”
“That is just a myth?” said Illya, curious.
Gaby felt Napoleon finally turn towards them. Surprise colored his voice, “You thought it wasn’t?”
“My KGB teacher was certain. It was explained as part of your nationalization efforts and capitalist hypocrisy.”
“Two words for you, Peril: privatized airstrips.”
It was good to hear him teasing Illya again, but when they returned to the car, Gaby switched on their headlights and tried to read his face in the ambient light. Something hovered there, just out of reach, and she was sure it was that same look darkening his blue irises the further east they traveled rather than the dreary weather they drove towards.
The next day Illya bought a map in Omaha. While Napoleon was in the restroom, he unfolded it across the car, pulling Gaby around to point at one particular section that he circled.
“Denver,” he said, pointing to the city nestled in the mountains from yesterday. “Chicago,” he tapped on a larger city settled on the boarder of a lake, what looked to be a few states away. “And Dallas,” he concluded, directing her to a city southward. While not nearby, it was visibly closer to Denver.
“Closest city with an international airport,” explained Illya, though realization had already dawned on Gaby.
“…then why are we going to Chicago?”
Illya frowned. “I could not say.”
Gaby pursed her lips together. They stood together in perturbed silience.
“Do we confront him, or do we let him keep going?” she laid out their options. Illya bit his lip, absentmindedly rolling his shoulder, testing how it was healing.
“I think…if we confront him, we will wake up tomorrow and he will be gone,” Illya finally said. Gaby agreed. Napoleon wasn't the kind to play his cards close to his chest; he preferred his cards to never even made it to the table, because then people would know he had cards to begin with.
“We keep going,” Gaby said. She paused on her way back to the driver’s seat and turned back to Illya. “You didn't use up all of your ammo in Las Vegas, did you?”
Illya gave her an easy smirk instead of an answer. That was good at least. If Napoleon was preparing to dive too deep into whatever this was, the two of them could pull him out.
Halfway through Iowa, and Gaby began seeing the bigger picture. Under Napoleon's direction, she took a sharp left in Des Moines, turning them north. Gaby hadn’t studied Ollya's map for long but she from what details she recalled, Chicago was no longer in their path.
An innocuous green sign flashing by gave her the final clue. "We're going to Minnesota?"
Napoleon twisted up from his reading, and Gaby wanted to understand why his gorgeous, stupid face was filled with guilt.
"Just for an hour or two."
“I’d rather you didn’t ask.”
“Cowboy,” Illya rumbled from the back seat, the corner of his face sharp in the rearview mirror.
Napoleon sighed, “Let it go, Illya. Please, just let it go.”
Gaby had never heard their willful Napoleon sound so defeated. That corner of Illya frowned, and he reached between the seats to press his knuckles against the back of Napoleon’s neck. The distance between his body and Gaby’s did nothing to hide the shudder that ran through her passenger, and Illya's grip tightened in support.
Napoleon said nothing more He ducked his head back into his Surgeon General booklet, and tried to tuck himself further into his seat.
Napoleon instructed Gaby to pull into car dealership in a small city called Deer River. There he traded out their spacious car for a smaller, well-used pick-up truck. Unwilling to let his throbbing shoulder get the better of him, Illya hefted their baggage into the truck bed, pausing only to dig out coats and boots. They hadn’t needed heavy clothes in Los Angels or Las Vegas, and he worried how Gaby and Napoleon would fair in their basic overcoats, only good for the cold of bleak desert nights.
But in Deer Creek, the snow was already piled ankle-high, and any jacket would be better than no jacket. Still, Illya would keep an eye on them.
“I liked this car,” Gaby grumbled, reluctantly handing over the keys to Napoleon.
“Trust me,” said Napoleon as a pale facsimile of his winning smile tried to charm them. “It’ll be better in the long run, and the less for anyone to complain about, the better."
“They would complain about a car?”
“That would just be the start of it. Do you mind sitting center? It's best if I take over driving.”
Illya turned with one boot half on and his own hardy winter jacket hanging from his teeth. Gaby always drove; they didn't question it.
Gaby agreed, her bafflement and concern jumping up from mouth to eyebrows.
“I know where we’re going,” Napoleon explained. “I don’t mean to upset the status quo, but roads turn into a luxury a few miles out of town, and it’s not easy terrain to maneuver if you’ve never been here.”
Neither was Russia.
Gaby didn’t look impressed with his logic, but tactfully didn't question it. Napoleon's shoulders hunched closer to his ears the longer they traveled; if he receded into himself any further, Illya was going to pick him up and shake him.
After a moment Gaby handed over the keys and climbed into the old pick up. Illya probably would have fit in the passenger seat beside her, but the weather made him nostalgic. With his own bulky coat buttoned up to his chin, he dug out the ushenka—a part of his wardrobe since Amsterdam—and pulled it over his ears. Properly clothed, he pulled himself into the truck bed, using their bags as a cushion as he rested his back against the cabin’s rear window.
Napoleon swung himself into the driver's side. He popped open the small dividing window to peak at Illya. “Your shoulder gonna be okay?”
Illya nodded, tucking in his arm across his chest to brace it. Honestly their concern was too much. The wound had barely grazed deep, and already it was a clean, scabbing red. In another week or two he’d be back to rights.
And he enjoyed the cold; the crisp smell of froze and the crackle of ice under the tires’ weight. It reminded him of home, only here he didn’t have to be constantly on the lookout for danger and intrigue. He could observe without fear.
As they drove through the quiet town, his first impression was that of familiarity. An odd thing to experience on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain. If Illya let his mind become unfocused, then the slow-passing town was a duplicate of a dozen different Russian villages he had traveled through. Some buildings sported different architecture and were better maintained, but many weren’t. The people wore different clothes, and flew different flags from lamp posts and spires, but the air of suspicion and watchfulness were the same. They recognized outsiders, and he could feel that their vehicle was being monitored closely because of it.
The town gradually dispersed into farmland peppered liberally with grain silos and old trees. Every once in a while, Illya spotted a barn or house in the distance. Rows upon rows of corn crops, dormant in the winter snow, passed in an indistinct blur as the little mile marker signs ticked on endlessly.
Illya occupied their trip trying to spot and identify the different types of fields: potatoes, soybeans, hay. Horses with thick, draping plaid blankets picked at the ground, and a herd of cattle ambling around the edges of a wood and barbwire fence. The truck slowed as it navigated a series of winding corners, and he heard the rambunctious cawing of chickens in the distance.
As the road bent along a bank that dipped away from the road, the ground flattening wide across the distance, and Illya realized they were passing a lake, frozen and still under its winter coat. It glimmered in the overcast light, and something too relaxing to be homesickness warmed Illya's chest.
It was lovely.
The truck decelerated as a house came into sight. In respectably good condition, it stood two stories high and sported a new whitewashed paint job with a dark stained trimming, and an open wrap-around porch. A collection of trucks similar to theirs were stationed in the wide driveway. Napoleon didn't pull in beside them, instead parking near a cluster of trees.
He didn’t shut the engine off as he pushed open the door and hopped out of the truck.
“Napoleon,” Gaby scolded, grabbing at his sleeve before he could move to far. Illya watched them through the open divider window, her hand bundled and covered in the over-sized Ossie Clark coat where it gripped into the clean lines of Napoleon's overcoat. Both their faces were obscured behind the headrests, but their tensely joined hands spoke loudly to the battle of wills happening in the front seat. Illya couldn't help but think they looked like a handsome couple from a Hollywood drama.
“Just give me a minute,” Napoleon pleaded. Always, lately, instead of just talking to them. And yet it hurt more to hear their unreserved Cowboy brought low.
“As long as you need,” Illya replied, hoping Gaby would play along. He figured he knew whose house they stood before.
Gaby's hand clenched tighter in his coat sleeve, probably infuriated, but slowly she withdrew.
Napoleon took a deep breath. Then another. In the middle of the third, he reached back in, cut the engine, and tossed the keys to Gaby—a kindly symbolic gesture if Illya ever saw one.
“Stay here,” he tried to order, his voice not as sure as his posture as he pulled himself together.
“Is that what you want?” Illya asked, leaning over the edge of the truck to look Napoleon in the eyes. “Or what you think they want?"
Napoleon’s mask, already bland and accommodating, didn’t crack. But having been teammates for over a year, Illya wasn't buying it. He was too still, absently stuck in the motion of closing the door, and he barely blinked as he struggled to hold Illya's gaze. The humorless, dead slack to his mouth aged his handsome face, and Illya wondered who inside was responsible for this Cowboy cutout.
Gaby bolted out the driver's door. She slipped on the snowy gravel while trying to duck under Napoleon's outstretched arm, and ended up grabbing his arm to stay upright.
Napoleon blinked down at Gaby as she clung tightly to him. “You don’t have to-,”
“Do you want us there with you?” Gaby demanded. He twisted away from her small, determined face only to find himself stuck with Illya's equally unwavering attention.
Napoleon gave a small nod.
“Then we’re coming with you,” said Gaby, matter of factly. Illya hummed in agreement. He jumped over the side of the truck before Napoleon could change his mind. Landing in the snow with a heavy thud, he found enjoyment in the cracking of ice under the soles of his boots.
“Illya,” Gaby snapped, at the same time Napoleon sighed out a quiet “Shoulder, Peril.” They both worried too much. The jump only sent a pang through his arm after he landed. Perfectly acceptable. To prove that, he offered that arm to Gaby, opposite her firm grip on Napoleon.
“Only because I’m going to fall if I don’t,” Gaby muttered. She shuffled forward with such delicate care, it would be sundown by the time they met the door. Illya met Napoleon's gaze over her head; they could carry her between them much quicker.
Happy to have an excuse to drag this out, Napoleon just shrugged. "I'll back the truck up to the porch when we leave."
Once they got to the porch, Napoleon slowed down even further than Gaby.
“Alright?” Gaby asked, squeezing his arm around their linked elbows.
Napoleon patted her hand. “Yeah, just. I’m sorry.”
“Because I don’t think this is gonna be fun for either of you.” The mask cracked, just for a moment. Gaby hugged his arm tighter, leaning her whole body into his side. Illya wanted to reach around her, to offer the same. The door opened.
“Bill? Is that you?”
Napoleon’s flinch could be felt all the way through Gaby, the distance between them breaking so quickly Illya was surprised to find her pressed against his own side before the door finished swinging. Napoleon may as well have been a statue, a stony hostess gift Illya and Gaby had brought for a social visit.
Napoleon stepped into the low light of the doorway.
“It’s nice to see you again, Catherine."
“Good Lord, that is you,” the door opened wider, and a woman with a stylish bob and familiar blue eyes stepped out. She dressed in sensible flannel and denim, and her heavy boots caused the porch boards to creak as she stepped forward.
“Wow. I—Look at you,” she said, face twisting in a mix of disbelief, sorrow, and delight.
Nothing was genuine in Napoleon's smile, but it wasn’t the smile he gave his marks. It was simple and hesitant and uncomfortable and Illya instantly disliked it.
“I came to see Dad,” said Napoleon. “How is he?"
Catherine didn't move aside. “Better than he was a month ago.”
"I just got your letters," he said. "I've been working."
"Ah yes, working." She smiled, and Illya saw Napoleon’s conflicted stoicism in her. "Always working, aren't you?"
“I came as quickly as I could.”
“I know I just…Whatever. We can deal with it later. Mom!” Catherine called back into the house. “Mom! I think Santa brought you an early present!”
Catherine stepped back from the door as an older woman appeared, squeaking when she laid eyes on Napoleon.
“Oh, Bill,” she threw her arms around him with abandon. Napoleon hugged her back, and some of the stress of the past few days bled away from his shoulders. As uncomfortable as he still seemed, he was as relaxed as Illya suspected he would be while they were here.
Napoleon didn’t share his looks with his mother. Her hair hung in straight, wispy light brown locks in contrast to his dark curls. Her dark, dreamy eyes were damp and swollen around the edges. She dressed similarly to Catherine, practical denim and wool that would hold up well against the chilly landscape. Illya approved of her sensibilities; how had she managed to product such a peacock for a son?
His mother stepped back, only for her hands to fly up and pet Napoleon’s hair back from his face. She smiled a gleeful, if brittle, smile.
“I’m so glad you came home.”
“Only for a bit,” Napoleon told her hastily. He seemed determined everyone understand that. Mrs. Solo waved him off. “I-I got your letters. About Dad.”
“He’ll be thrilled to see you,” said Mrs. Solo, determined. Napoleon clearly didn't believe her but he nodded all the same.
Catherine broke up the moment to ask, “And you brought…friends?”
Everyone turned to look at Gaby and Illya, still arm-in-arm on the porch. Unsure of what angle to play up—agent? Fellow soldier? Antiques dealer?—Illya settled on the most neutrally pleasant expression that he could manage while hiding his curiosity and worry.
“Yes. Mom, meet Gaby and Illya.” Real first names, no last names, and a pointed expression that said to keep it that way. “And my sister, Catherine.”
“Caty-Beth,” Catherine said, reaching forward to shake Gaby's hand. “I can’t remember the last person who called me Catherine.”
“Madam,” Illya greeted. Mrs. Solo’s eyes narrowed speculatively.
“Hello. Where are you from?”
“They’re friends from New York,” Napoleon told her before Illya could reply. “It was a long trip, and they kept me company.”
“New York?" his mother worried. "But we’ve been sending all our letters to LA. Did we get that wrong?”
“No, I just got called away on business," Napoleon squeezed his mother's hand in reassurance. "I’m sorry, I should have had them forward my mail. I didn’t expect to be gone that long.”
Illya gripped onto his pleasant persona for all he was worth. Again with the apologies. Horribly, he wished that Napoleon would just use his con man's voice on his mother. Better the familiar devil than this weaker, washed out version.
His mother scoffed, and even that was more recognizable than whatever act this was.
“I wish you’d get a phone installed," she admonished. "Georgie help us get one installed, you know. I love it; I chat with your grandparents every weekend.”
“How is Georgie?” asked Napoleon as he looked to Catherine.
Catherine, or Caty-Beth, crossed her arms. She didn't look impressed.
“Fine,” she reported. “At work right now. He’s gonna pick up the boys after school. Jimmy has football practice later today. You can see them later, if you stick around."
Illya winced. The words hung in the air, and Gaby tried to deflate the tension by cutting in with her politest voice, "Oh, we wouldn't want to impose."
"Oh, it's no imposition at all," Caty-Bath met her tat-for-tat. "Let’s get inside, Mom. It’s freezing out here, and I’m sure Bill and his friends want to get out of the cold.”
As soon as they were ushered inside Caty-Beth disappeared down the hallway, and Illya heard the distant rattle of someone walking up a staircase.
"Make yourselves at home," said Mrs. Solo.
The inside of the house was just as homey as the outside, opening into a spacious entranceway that narrowed into a long hallway. Illya spied a kitchen through a door. There was a sturdy wooden table, pots hanging from hooks on the walls, and a roaring fire in a brick-work fireplace. Mrs. Solo waved them towards a sitting area. Newly upholstered, old chairs. An old quilt, so weathered Illya would be afraid to touch it, laid across the back of the couch. The shelves and cabinets, unusually sparse with books but crowded with tchotchkes and framed pictures, lined the room but crowded into the space. Lamps were placed to make up for how the extra furniture darkened the area. It was nice; quaint. Comfortable, in a normal kind of way.
None of which described Napoleon, standing in the foyer in striking contrast to everything around him. Usually Napoleon charmed the very air around him, making everyone in the room pay attention to him through his smile, his body, his speech. The room became his by virtue of him standing in it. Now he circled the furniture, bottled up in his coat, not touching anything. He looked like he wished for the room swallow him.
Illya wondered wildly if they should have picked up plaid clothing for him, if that would make him fit in with his family more. He immediately banished the thought, skin crawling. Scratch that—Napoleon would still look like Napoleon, just in ugly cloths.
Illya helped Gaby out of her jacket—her nice, nice jacket—hanging it and his own on the wooden pegs embedded in the flower-patterned wallpaper. He held a hand out for Napoleon’s, waiting patiently as his partner stalled, undoing his buttons with slow carefulness.
“Did you drive the whole way here, Bill? It’s such a drive, I’m sure you’re all starving...” Mrs. Solo’s voice trailed off as Napoleon finally handed Illya his heavy jacket. Shock clouded her amicable face as she took in her son's attire.
Illya had opinions on that gray Burberry suit but he had long ago come to accept that it was one of Napoleon’s favorite. By Illya's standards, it wasn’t the most flattering suit he owned, but it was hardly worth the look of disbelief and concern that covered her face.
“That’s…nice,” his mother struggled to say, reaching out to smooth a hand down the front panels of the jacket. “Very well fit.” Napoleon glanced down, suddenly sheepish, and Illya again felt the impulse to touch him. Ease down those lapels himself, and remind the man that he was Napoleon Solo. Words never worked, they just weren't Illya's gift, but Napoleon always responded to touch.
“Work clothes,” Napoleon muttered to the floor. "I didn’t have much time to change.”
Footsteps stomped down the staircase, and Mrs. Solo backed away with the third strained, familial smile of the night.
"I'll be right back," she said, and she slipped out of the room.
If no one huffed a sigh of relief as she left then it was only because they were professionals.
Napoleon fiddled with his cuffs, a nervous tick Illya had never seen him display before. Gaby reached out to interlace their fingers and stop him. Pulling his hand down and away from his fidgeting, she hipchecked him in the side and gave him a pointed look. Napoleon raised a brow at her, and she lifted her chin at him. She nudged him in his side, and with a put-upon sigh, Napoleon forced himself to remember how to stand without slouching.
Illya was baffled by how much he seemed to shrink the moment his sister and mother returned.
“Dad’s in bed right now,” Caty-Beth said. She sized them up as if wondering how much like wolves they were to her flock of sheep. “He’s been up for a while though. I”m sure he’d love to see you.”
“Yeah. Thanks. You’re both fine here?” he asked. It took a moment for Illya to realize he was speaking to them, not his family.
“We’ll be fine, Napoleon,” Gaby reassured.
“'Napoleon!'” Mrs. Solo smiled, the first uninhibited smile Illya had seen from her. The air in the room shifted as she beamed at her son. “I never thought you’d still go by that name.”
“It fits.” Napoleon’s response was short and he very much did not look at either of his teammates while he said it.
“You can’t blame him, Mom,” Caty-Beth said. She leaned against the wall separating the living room from the rest of the house “Napoleon sounds so much more daring than Billy.”
“Catherine,” Napoleon smiled, reminding Illya of the café in West Germany. Napoleon had smiled at him like that too, right before he started talking and made Illya see red. “I remember what I did the last time you called me Billy. Do you?”
“He dumped me in the lake,” Caty-Beth mock whispered to Gaby with a roll of her eyes. Gaby, unsure of why she was on the receiving end of Caty-Beth’s commentary, nodded in commiseration. Then shot Illya a questioning look. Illya shrugged.
“My precocious children surely live up to their names,” Mrs. Solo stated, fluttering around like she couldn’t decide what to do with herself with so many people in her home.
Caty-Beth snorted, and for another moment Illya saw Napoleon in her, sharp and amused. “Mom loves history's great rulers. William Napoleon, Catherine Elizabeth."
"Conquerors and queens,” Illya commented with a glance at Napoleon. Surprisingly, he met Illya’s eyes, though the fear in them hurt Illya’s heart. He hid so much of himself away, their Napoleon. Illya would have preferred them getting to something this momentous on their own, but he tried to convey as much as he could that it was alright. That Napoleon needn’t fret about every little thing they learned about him here as if they were bullets in a gun slowly being loaded and aimed at him once the opportunity arose.
"Something like that,” Caty-Beth said, and Illya quickly broke his gaze from Napoleon's before he could do something he'd regret.
“Mom,” Napoleon caught his mother before she could make another lap around the room. “We didn’t get a chance to eat on our way here. Why don’t you feed Gaby and Illya while I go talk to Dad?”
His mother had to tilt her head back to look up at him. "Of course, honey. Go easy on him."
Seeming relieved to have a task to accomplish, Mrs. Solo headed for the kitchen. Caty-Beth followed on her heels, but stopped to pat Napoleon on the shoulder.
“Want me to go with you?” she asked. “Head off the arguments?”
“There aren’t going to be any arguments.”
“You said that last time,” she said gently.
"It's fine, Catherine. It'll be fine."
The downward twist of her mouth spoke louder than anything she said, but she turned away from him nonetheless. “Gaby, dear. Would you like to help us in the kitchen?”
Gaby startled, and Illya once again got a baffled look from her. Nervous, Illya looked to Napoleon, who blinked like a deer in the headlights.
“Mom, when was the last time you got the tractor up and running,” Napoleon shouted towards the kitchen.
His mother peaked her head out, halfway through tying on an apron. “Oh, you know your father. Every time it breaks down he insists on fixing it himself rather than paying a mechanic. It gave out again a few months ago, but—Well, it’s on the list."
“Gaby can take a look at it for you. She’s a mechanic.”
“Oh.” Napoleon’s mother looked at her with new eyes. “I never would have guessed. Please, feel free, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Gaby shot him a thankful look. Illya followed her out the door without prompting, because it sounded much better than waiting in the kitchen with two women who made Napoleon second-guess himself.
Into the snow and cold they went. Illya took a deep breath to clear his head.
“Agreed,” Gaby muttered, stamping her feet to warm them. Her boots were more designer than practical, so rather than lead her back to the truck, Illya gathered what supplies they had. Ice and grease were not in the original plan when packing—they could still be in California right now, after all—but he could make it work. He pulled out one of the thicker shirts he stocked in case of emergencies, and a jacket he didn’t mind ruining. Adding to that a pair of Napoleon’s gloves that would be far, far too big for Gaby but could be cut down if she needed fine motor skills, and a pair of woolen socks that one of them must have smuggled out of Amsterdam, and he had enough to keep Gaby warm as she worked.
When he turned from his rummaging, Gaby had abandoned the porch. Following the narrow trail of her plodding steps, he found her tucked beside the house under a large overhang. She stood on tip-toes to peek into the tractor’s guts. Illya shifted the clothes into the crook of his elbow and grabbed a wooden crate from near the porch steps.
“Don’t freeze,” he commanded, handing her the fruit of his labors. He nudged her aside to drop the crate at her feet. She shucked her nicer jacket without protest to pull on the warmer layers, shooting him a grateful smile. Once she was done, Illya reached into his pocket for a few of the headscarves he'd used for his makeshift sling. She positively beamed as he helped her pull her hair back, tying it for while she fumbled with Napoleon's large gloves.
Bundled up like a present, Gaby eyed his own sparse outfit critically. “You’ll be fine?”
"This is nothing compared to Russia,” he reassured her. Gaby snorted and, grabbing his shoulder for support, heaved herself up onto the crate. She folded her arms over the edge and peered in.
“Go start it,” she ordered. She inspected it part by part, calling instructions to Illya, while he revved the engine. Harsh squealing noises and the black smoke billowing through the exhaust pipe probably were not a good sign. When she waved her hand again, Illya cut the engine and climbed back down.
“Wow,” Gaby said. “This is old.”
“I’m sure it predates Napoleon,” Gaby replied, slipping off the gloves. She held them out to Illya, but once he took them she worked off the ring on her finger.
“I don’t think that is necessary,” Illya protested when she dropped it on top of the gloves.
“It’s going to get caught in the engine if I don’t take it off,” Gaby replied innocently. Illya grumbled, sticking both ring and gloves in the pocket of her borrowed jacket.
“Just try not to lose it this time.”
“Whatever you say, dearest.”
“You’re married?” Caty-Beth asked behind them and Illya only just managed not to jump out of his skin. How had she managed to sneak up on them?
“Engaged,” Gaby lied.
“Oh that’s wonderful,” Caty-Beth exclaimed, with the first hint of sincerity Illya sensed since being introduced. “How long?"
“A year,” Gaby offered, using the tried and true method of blending truth and fiction. Illya was proud of her, even in his disbelief. It was the easiest way to keep a lie. Especially since it was clear Napoleon didn’t want his family to know what he did for a living.
Caty-Beth smiled knowingly. “When’s the big day?”
“When we get back to New York,” Gaby offered, hesitating just long enough over New York that Illya figured she almost slipped and said London. Assuming, of course, that London was still their end game. Who knew what curve ball Napoleon would throw at them next. “Napoleon’s going to be Illya’s best man.” Illya would have to fill Napoleon in on all of this before he could be questioned.
Caty-Beth’s eyes flickered at the sound of her brother's middle name, but she offered a tight smile.
“Best wishes to you both."
“Thank you,” Gaby said pleasantly. Her attention returned to the tractor engine, Illya saw that something was off. Some instinct he'd grown in the year he'd known Napoleon hummed in warning.
“You don’t believe us,” he guessed. Gaby’s head popped back up from the engine. Caty-Beth gave them a small, sad smile and shook her head.
“Why not?” Gaby asked, sounding more interested than annoyed. Caty-Beth flashed her own hand. Gloveless, she was able to show off the modest diamond and gold band on her finger.
“Twelve years this December. I know the look. Besides, you’ve both been around Bill long enough to pick up his tells when you lie,” she explained. “And I had to put up with him when he was young and not yet good at it."
That was part of it, Illya considered, but not all of it. Caty-Beth had the look of many he met in the outer rings of the KGB—clever enough to know when they’re being lied to, and baring enough common scene to know they don’t want to dig into why. In another life she'd probably have made just a good a spy as her brother.
“Sorry,” Caty-Beth continued. “I didn’t come out here to grill you. I just wanted to ask your shoe size, honey. Those boots sure are nice, but I’m sure Bill forgot to give you a heads up about the weather.”
Gaby glanced down at her combination of woolen socks and designer boots.
“Size six,” Illya said, after doing the conversions in his head. Caty-Beth nodded.
“I think I can find something. There’s tools in the barn, if you need them.”
“Thank you, Ms. Solo.” Illya would feel better if Gaby had shoes that wouldn't wilt in a snow drift.
“Mrs. Caffrey. Though Caty-Beth is fine, really it is. Bill’s the only one who still calls me Catherine.”
She was off again, as quiet as she arrived. Illya found that very disconcerting.
“Go see what you can find in the barn, if you please,” Gaby requested, already back at work. She didn’t seem rattled by Caty-Beth, and Illya tried to emulate her.
There were no animals in the empty stalls of the barn, but the smell told him the horses in the fields resided here at night. A few tool boxes littered the corner. He collected as many of them as he could and trekked back. When he dropped them next to the box Gaby stood on, he saw that her designer boots had been traded out with a pair of sturdy, well-worn brown boots. They clashed horribly with her outfit, but they would keep her safe and relatively warm.
“Show me what you’re doing,” he asked. Illya could use a little normalcy after the past few days.
Gaby rewarded him with a smile. She talked aloud as she worked her way through the engine, and Illya found a comforting rhythm in watching her burrow into the machine. His KGB training never branched out into practical skills like car repair and maintenance, but just as he imbued Gaby with knowledge of his own skills to keep her safe and aware, she in turn showed him how people survived from day to day.
He was helping her disassemble the timing belt when he heard the loud bang of a door thrown open. Illya straightened, screwdriver in hand and on alert.
“Napoleon,” he called as the man flew down the stairs. Their teammate stopped in his tracks and stared at them with undisguised terror. Trepidation stuttered through Illya.
He’s going to run, a small voice within said. Illya took a step forward, but Napoleon turned on his heels and fled.
“Napoleon!” Gaby shouted, but Illya was already on the move. Napoleon was fast but he was faster, even across ice, and he snagged the American around his waist before he cleared the side of the driveway.
“No running,” he ordered, and spluttered as he got a mouthful of silky hair for his efforts. “None. Stop."
Napoleon pulled against his grip, and Illya shifted his weight to plant his feet in the snowy gravel. They both knew Napoleon didn’t stand a chance.
Not that it stopped him from bucking against Illya, swinging his legs up as he tried to push them backwards, all the while cursing, “I swear to God, Peril, let me go or-,”
“Or what?" Illya asked. "You’ll hurt me? Don’t be stupid. Now promise, no running.”
Gaby, slower in the snow and in unfamiliar boots, clodded to a stop next to them. She circled in front of Napoleon, wrapping her hands into his coat lapels as she stepped between his kicking legs, which jerked to a halt.
Illya loved her deviousness. Napoleon may feel destructive enough to struggle his way out of Illya’s grasp, but he wouldn’t risk hurting her outside of a mission. She knew it, he knew it, and sure enough, Napoleon went slack in his arms, the fight draining out of him.
“No running,” he agreed, voice soft and so unlike him. Illya squeezed him tight before releasing his grip. He held onto his shoulders until Cowboy got his unsteady feet under him.
“Am I allowed to walk?” Napoleon demanded with a hint of waspishness. Gaby moved to his side and linked their arms together.
“Of course,” she replied. “Just no running.” She snagged Illya with her other arm, linking all of them together again. “Where would you like to walk to?”
“Away from here,” he muttered under his breath.
Napoleon guided them down the road. The snow made it difficult to maneuver as they trekked through path their truck tires had dug, but their boots weren’t soaked and sloshy by the time they met the edge of the frozen lake Illya had admired on their way in.
“How lovely,” said Gaby, tucking loose strands of hair under her headscarf as the wind bristled across the clearing.
“I think it’s strong enough to hold us,” Illya mused, tapping the edge of the lake with the toe of his boot. It certainly looked thick enough.
“They think he has lung cancer,” Napoleon told the lake, the words rushing out of him. Illya turned to him and found all that pain and fear had returned to paint his eyes. “He got bad a few months ago. That’s when they wrote me. They thought he was dying, that he wouldn’t last the summer. But a few surgeries later and...he’s better now. Remission, or something.”
The cold air carried his words as they echoed off the lake out around them. Gaby's hands were curled to fists, and her grip tightened around their linked arms. Napoleon swallowed, his eyes bright and glassy, as his emotions sieved out of his control. Illya hated seeing them like this. They didn’t deserve this.
“That is good news though, yes?” he asked tentatively. Napoleon shrugged.
“I…I think. The doctors tell him that his health isn’t going to be what it used to be, but of course he doesn’t believe them. Why would he, they’re all quacks and frauds. Says he’s gonna be up and about in no time, don’t you worry about me, Billy.” Napoleon looked ready to fall apart, his face pale and his mouth torn downwards in a worried frown.
They were far away enough from the house, from anyone, and so Illya didn’t bother with trying to censor himself. Unhooking himself from Gaby, he circled in front of Napoleon and wait for the man to make eye contact. And when he looked up at Illya, his bright eyes incredibly blue when they were rimmed with red, Illya closed their distance.
He curled his arms around Napoleon, pulling him close.
Napoleon always responded to touch. Melting against Illya’s chest, Napoleon buried his face into his collarbone, and his breath turned erratic. Gaby pressed up next to them, and Illya could feel her as she gently smoothed her fingers through Napoleon’s hair.
“It’s alright,” she shushed, and the rough hoarseness of her voice only made Illya love her more. “It’s alright.”
Without raising his head, Napoleon dug through his pockets, uncoordinated and jumpy. The booklet Illya remember him reading and rereading on their drive appeared in hand and he shoved it into Illya's chest, from where Gaby's questing fingers sneaked it away.
“The Surgeon General says smoking can do it. I mean, everyone thought so, but—but it’s fact now. Studies and everything. ‘A correlation between people who smoke tobacco and contracting lung cancer’. Simple as that.”
There was a horrible, wet smacking sound that Illya would never forget as Napoleon tried and failed to articulate more words, but Gaby flung her arms around him. Squashed between the two of them, Napoleon quieted. He shook under their touch, taking in sharp, deep breaths between his teeth as he puffed against Illya's jacket.
“He took me fishing when I was a kid,” Napoleon started again, once Illya could feel the cold biting into his toes. "Always had a cigar between his teeth while we were out. Told me it was for good luck. If you didn’t catch anything that time, it was alright, because the cigar stored all your luck until the next trip. Only the first cigar never lasted long. Neither did the second. If I was lucky, he’d give up on fishing before he finished his third.”
Gaby snickered, high and abrupt, into Napoleon's arm. “Not a fan of fishing?”
“It’s so boring. I don’t understand how anyone finds it interesting."
“It’s calming,” Illya defended, more to carry the humor than any real attachment to the sport. He was rewarded when Napoleon gave a quiet chuckling laugh.
A twinge of a smile tickled his neck, “Of course you’d think that, Peril.”
Spirits lifting, Illya teased, “Dare I even ask about Bill?”
He wanted to take the words back as soon as he uttered them; the way Napoleon seized in their arms reminding Illya unpleasantly of electrocution.
“Oh God, please don’t," Napoleon bit out his pleas sourly. "I can’t. I hate my name so much. I know it’s the name they gave me but-,”
“Napoleon,” Gaby interrupted, and his words grounded to a halt.
“Napoleon,” Illya agreed. The noise that shook from their partner wasn’t quite a sob, but it was close. Illya ran his hands soothingly up and down the back of his wool coat.
Napoleon could never stand still for long. He wasn’t meant to. He lasted long enough for the cold to numb Illya’s nose an the tips of his ears, but he had the benefits of Russian blood, and his circulation had kicked in to keep his hands and toes warm. Napoleon's twitchiness started soon after that.
“You said the ice could hold us?” he asked. Illya glanced at the lake.
“Wait for a moment,” he muttered, releasing Napoleon to Gaby. He crouched down to the edge, skimming his fingers over the surface. The color was clear and snowy, and he couldn’t see any cracks. It was a smaller lake, and the snow pile-up told him it had been frozen over for a while now.
“Stay around the edges,” he said, just to be safe. The center would have thinner ice, and Illya couldn’t tell how deep the water beneath it ran.
Napoleon, shaky and resolved, stepped out onto it first. He held out his hand for them to follow. Gaby bounded after him, and Illya needed to skate across the first few icy feet to catch her before she slid out too far.
“What did I just say?” he snapped. Children, both of them. Catching her around the waist, he dragged her back towards Napoleon, a job made easier since he could simply pick her up and tuck her under his arm. If only she and Napoleon where this easy to wrangle while on missions; so much simpler his life would be.
Gaby laughed and kicked her feet out while he hefted her along, but didn’t go sliding off again when he set her down by Napoleon.
“I promise we were capable of looking after ourselves long before you came along, Peril,” he said, reaching to grab Gaby’s hand when she wobbled. “It would help my point if you didn’t immediately fall over,” he told her.
“It’s so slippery!” Gaby enthused. She experimented with shuffling her feet back and forth, and one leg flew out to catch her balance as she nearly fell backwards.
“It is easier if I do it,” Illya replied to Napoleon. Turning to Gaby, he held gently to her elbow as he explained, “Dig your toes in. If you focus your weight on the ball of your foot, there will less surface area to slip."
Napoleon shot him a smile, and his eyes shone with a bit of his typical mischievousness. Reaching out, he entwined his fingers with Illya’s own, completing the link between them. The leather and wool of his gloves chilled his fingers, but Illya didn’t mind.
“We will stay sane,” Gaby announced, swinging her arms and causing them all to sway. “We will keep our heads up. We will remember that we saved the known world. More than once, in fact. And we will not let our memories define us. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Illya echoed.
“Agreed,” Napoleon muttered, though in the silence of the lake he may as well shouted it.
“Good. Now, I aim to make it to the other side of the lake. Who’s with me?” Gaby decided.
“Let’s go,” said Napoleon.
Illya frowned. "But we go around the edge of lake, yes?"
Illya let them drag him forward; he could only imagine the trouble they could get into if he left them alone.
Mary Compton grew up on her father’s farm, and she read history books like they were romance novels. She dreamed of adventures, of travel, of love. Of queens and conquerors who changed the world. More than once, she pictured herself in their place. As she grew up, she found love in her husband, and became Mary Solo. But the rest of her daydreams faded away under responsibilities, and growing concerns over crop yields and family obligations, and wars. Her heart wondered, but her brain kept her feet firmly grounded.
Catherine had gotten her brain; her sensibility. Her little girl tried so hard to keep the family on track, to be responsible for all of them. She was a good girl, and Mary loved her. But part of her was so happy that William had taken her heart, combined it with his father’s ambition, and ran with it without looking back.
(Napoleon, his friends kept calling him. She always thought she had done him a favor, giving him such a common first name. That he would be able to blend in. But her son didn’t know the meaning of the word.)
Mary didn’t understand him. She didn’t understand why the farm and the stability scared him so much, but she didn’t need to understand. He wasn’t her little boy, coming home with scraped knees and bruises from bullies and lies on his tongue about where they came from. He had outgrown their neat little nest. He hadn't looked back.
Caty-Beth had wanted to chase after him when he stormed out of the house, but Mary turned her daughter aside. She wasn’t surprised; her Robert was a stern man when the mood struck, and his illness hadn’t dulled his forcefulness in the slightest. Her little Napoleon, so self-reliant, had always shied away from conflict within the family, regrouping at a distance and returning with his composure fitted like a glove. No, she was never surprised when he ran. Even when running away from them meant running towards a war.
If she was surprised, it was only at the swell of gratefulness she felt when the large one caught up to her son at the end of the drive. William’s friends seemed to have most of it in hand, and Mary felt safe returning to putter around in the kitchen.
Caty-Beth had volunteered to chop new firewood when really Mary knew she was keeping an eye out for Napoleon and his friends. Mary thought that was silly, but Catherine liked to know things. She also suspected her daughter of wanting to get one-up on her brother, since she had dragged the block and the ax around the house, staking out a position near the overhang. She'd be in perfect view of Napoleon if he tried to sneak back into the house through the fields. Or if he tried to take off in his truck.
Mary sighed; her children had such wild imaginations.
She put together a light meal because Robert needed to eat to keep his strength up. She couldn't handle seeing him as weak and frail as he'd been in the summer. Her towering husband wasn’t meant to fall so low.
Surprise did kick her, when she spied her wayward son creeping up the driveway, his two odd friends in tow. They hugged the trail, nearly into the tall grass, and as Napoleon twisted his head side-to-side, Mary realized he was on the lookout for his sister.
Oh, her clever boy. She loved him dearly, but she couldn't resist creeping around the kitchen window before he could spot her. Gently, she slid the window open, letting the heat of her oven billow out into the cold air as she waited for her son near the porch.
“-good farmland. Better to let commune utilize it.”
"Peril, you're in the the epitome of middle America. Let's keep the communism talk down. If anyone asks, you're from Norway."
"I don't sound Norwegian."
"No one's going to be able to tell the difference out here, I promise."
Mary stifled a giggle. They probably wouldn’t. Her William never had much regard for his peers. She remembered him coming home from the old school house, incensed at the ramshackle education their community offered. They still had Mary's book collection back then, and her boy reread the old volumes as he sulked. So upset that he was expected to slow down for his classmates. She tried explaining to him that the rest of the children had other responsibilities on farms doing more poorly than theirs, but it made little difference. If William could push through his chores at a breakneck speed so he would have time to learn, why couldn't they? William wouldn’t be held back by anyone.
She understood that at least. The school house was a formality, a dilapidated little building that no one bothered to update, run by Mrs. Milton now that she had extra time on her hands with her own children grown and married. No one thought to put more effort into it when all their children would get the real education they needed at home and on the farms. Caty-Beth had thrived in that atmosphere.
William didn’t. Now he wore odd suits, had houses in LA and in New York, and looked terrified at the things that brought his sister cheer. Mary's heart, Robert's ambition...
“Caty-Beth!” she called out, and heard her youngest crack open the back door.
“Your brother’s in the driveway. Go tell him food'll be ready in ten minutes. I expect the table to be set by the time I’m done!”
Caty-Beth swore, probably thinking her mother too far away to hear it, and was off like a shot around the house. So obedient, her baby girl.
Mary almost laughed when William appeared, looking so much like one of the farm dogs coming home with his tail between his legs because he knew he shouldn’t be in the kitchen.
“Need a hand with anything?” he asked, just like she trained her children to do when they finished with chores. Emotion welled up in her; she'd always loved having William at her side in the kitchen, although as he got older Robert had some words to say. But he enjoyed helping her, more than Caty-Beth did. Mary fought down the urge to lie, insist that she had burned their food and now he had to help her make it all from scratch.
But her son looked tired, worn out and not as happy as he'd sounded with his friends through the window. As much as it hurt, it wasn't Mary's job anymore to keep him safe at her side.
“Just make sure the table’s set, dear,” she said, letting him off the hook. She was almost done anyway. "I hope your friends like chowder."
They ate in the dining room, since there were too many of them for the kitchen table. The tall one—The Soviet. He was a Soviet. She’d need to make sure Robert didn’t find out, he'd have a heart attack knowing his son brought home a commie—had exquisite manners. Back straight, politely engaged in the conversation, eyes never drifting away. Their female companion—Gaby. Good, cute name. Must be short for Gabriel. Could be Catholic, not that there was anything wrong with that. Their late president, God rest his soul, bore that burden gracefully enough—seemed more bemused than anything.
More than once, Mary suspected her of playing footsie under the table with William. Caty-Beth watched them, suspicious of their relationship and of Illya's casual easiness with Gaby. Mary couldn't help but notice he extended the same courtesies and attention to William, waiting until he was served before reaching for his own portion. refilling his glass and pushing it pointedly back in front of him. He pressed William back down in his seat when Mary began to clear the table, volunteering his own service in place. William, her willful boy, actually stayed in his seat, rolling his eyes and sharing a conspiratorial look with Gaby.
There was no hiding the loud rattle of the table and her boy's poorly hid wince. Gaby waggled her eyebrows at him, and at the end of the table her daughter giggled. Mary was kind enough to walk away in time for Caty-Beth to get a kick in. Her son's squawk of indignation followed her into the kitchen like a balm.
If the people in his life got her little Napoleon to smile like that, she could overlook some things. They were the first people he ever deigned to bring home, after all. Not even his junior prom date could boast that.
Which was what prompted her to pull out the photo albums. Caty-Beth went to give Robert his tray—no moving around yet, the doctor told Mary. He needed rest, and she’d be damn sure that happened.
William, she sent out to get the newly cut firewood.
“Gaby, dear,” she called when William’s friends made to follow him like a herd of ducklings. “Could I steal a moment of your time?”
The beautiful girl looked baffled at her request, but came over anyway. Curious, just like her son. Mary cracked open the album, taking care to flip through the early family ones she’d never part with.
“I made sure to keep these,” she said. “Because I wanted the people my children chose to be with to know where they came from.”
The one of William at fifteen on the bicycle was her personal favorite, but Gaby’s fingers traced his freshman class photo instead. Mary had precious few (fought with Robert tooth-and-nail to get a camera; Yes they were expensive and frivolous, but that was the price of cherishing memories) but there were almost two full pages of William's childhood she would be willing to part with. She eased them out of the album and passed them to Gaby.
“Mrs. Solo,” she protested, but Mary wasn’t going to hear it. There was no telling how long William would stick around this time. He looked ready to claw his skin off already, and he had barely been home four hours.
At least he came home. At least he saw his father. After the screaming match they'd had when Robert found out William had signed up for the army (illegally; always far too smart for his own good) Mary thought he would never come home again. She wrote letters with nothing but a hope and a prayer to God that he’d answer one day.
“William is my child,” she told Gaby “I can accept a lot because of that. But I won’t ask for details. I think there are some things in this world a mother doesn’t really need to know about her children. Nor do I think I want to know.”
Gaby took the pages of the photo album and held them to her chest.
“Yes ma’am,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, then went to the desk in the corner. Taking a pen, she scrawled a number across the little notepad by their new phone.
“If you need to reach him,” she explained when she handed Mary a phone number. “He won’t pick up, but tell the operator who you are and that you’re trying to reach Napoleon Solo. They’ll get a message to him for you."
“Is this an overseas number?”
Wow. Her little Napoleon was living quite a life after all. Her heart, Robert’s ambition, and all the intelligence in the world.
Napoleon wasn’t sleeping. Mrs. Solo had given them enough bedding to make Napoleon’s old room habitable for three, and Gaby could hear every breath and shift.
Gaby understood. She wasn't sure if Illya was struggling with the idea, but she got it. Sometimes, family was just too much. She lost count of the number of times she'd wished for hers to be far, far away. Not just her biological family, but her foster one as well. Too many expectations. Never listening, or trying to understand what she wanted. Guilt disguised as love. Responsibility she never wanted or given the chance to accept or reject.
It hurt. And she hated to admit it, but she preferred her life without them.
“We can just cut and run,” she reassured. Napoleon’s eyes were haunted as they peeked out at her behind the bedding.
“I know I’m a horrible son,” he whispered, the guilt clawing at him. She couldn’t accept that.
“Napoleon,” she reached out and cupped his face in her hands. “It’s okay. We can cut and run,” she emphasized, gently shaking him with each word. He closed his eyes, and she decidedly didn’t comment on the dampness collecting around his eyelashes.
“Did you at least say goodbye?”
Napoleon bit back a growl, annoyed that he didn’t have a better defense past 'I didn't want to'. Gaby claimed the driver’s seat, and gripping tightly to the will as if daring Napoleon to pry it from her. After she flat out refused to move with Illya in the bed of the truck, Illya shoved him into the middle seat, crushing Napoleon between his hulking warmth and Gaby's sharp elbow.
He could feel Peril's gaze boring into the side of his face, waiting on an answer.
“Can’t say I did,” he admitted.
“Napoleon,” he snapped, and the indignation grated against Napoleon's better sense. Couldn’t Illya just let it go? He used to work for the KGB, surely this level of intense disapproval wasn't warranted for something as mundane as family issues. Couldn't he understand that Napoleon would rather peel his own skin off than deal with another ‘I’m leaving’ conversation with his family? The last one had been horrific enough.
Illya didn't know that, of course, but Napoleon wasn't in the mood to be charitable. Instead, he cast his eyes around for something to distract Illya. He noticed Gaby with no small amount of glee.
“Gaby, dear,” he drawled pleasantly. “You seem to be missing something.”
Gaby made a questioning noise, but Illya picked up on his meaning quick enough. Leaning over Napoleon, he peeled Gaby’s left hand off the wheel. His nostrils flared when he found that her ring had once again vanished.
“Oh,” Gaby's mouth formed a surprised 'o' as she patted at her jacket. “I must have left it in my pocket.”
She performed a quick search through her jacket, the pocket of the oversized shirt she must have stolen from Illya, her hat, her shoes, the linings of her socks, and finally her jacket again. On the second time through, she found her gloves, but the ring was nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, Illya and Napoleon sat patiently in wait in the cold, quiet truck. Illya glared at nothing and everything, and Napoleon silently cheered at being released from his scrutiny.
“I didn’t lose it,” she finally snapped, starting the truck up. “I just can’t find it right now.”
“Which means it’s lost,” said Illya, in the voice of a man who put up with hell on a regular basis. Surely he'd forgive Napoleon for deciding to leave; Peril just needed some time.
“Does not,” said Gaby.
“Does too," whined Illya.
Napoleon would have interjected with something about children and playgrounds, but the purpose had been to get Illya’s attention off of him.
Gaby huffed, and their truck rattled off down the road.
“So are we going to Chicago next?” she asked.
“No,” said Napoleon, pulling out the map as Gaby drove them down the gravel road, picking up speed. Illya grumbled as Napoleon spread the map over his lap too. “New York.”
London (fall 1965)
They landed in Heathrow at precisely 20:34. Illya kept meticulous track of the time during their trip, attempting to give his mind something to do that wasn’t openly ogling either of his partners. The cut-outs of Gaby’s dress revealed tantalizing squares of skin down her back that Illya wanted to trace and explore. Napoleon’s ash grey suit clung to his shoulders, chest, and down his waist, inviting Illya’s eyes to linger more often than he was comfortable admitting.
Damn, but even other people were noticing. Civilians shouldn't notice people in their profession, but neither of them could walk more than a few meters without eliciting a handful of stares—from men and women alike. Illya wasn't ready to dissect the bundle of emotions that caused. Every time he tried, it seemed more complex and complicated by the second. Some were decidedly uncalled for: frustrated lust, possessiveness at every new pair of eyes, a desire to wrap an arm around either of them, pulling Gaby and Napoleon so close that no one would mistake them for anything other than his, that they'd never want to leave.
Illya left that knot tangled up deep inside himself—he knew better than to fall into any mindset that reminded him of Oleg and KGB.
There were other things wrapped up around Illya’s heart he was more interested in smoothing out. Amusement, aimed at their dedication towards making his blood to heat. Affection, he supposed, that they worked so hard together with him as their goal. Care that they were enjoying themselves.
Love. After two years he was willing to admit what all those threads wove into, and he wasn't too terrified to accept it. There was no other way.
He was also fairly sure he was the first of them to figure it out.
“So, who’s hungry?” Napoleon asked, twisting around so that he faced them while walking backward. Both showing off and confident that they’d make sure he didn’t collide with anything.
“Waverly’s going to want a report soon,” said Gaby. Illya bent his arm toward her and, as always, melted a fraction when she tucked herself into his side, her hand tucked at his elbow. She rested her head against his bicep, and Illya let himself smile at her weight against him.
“Mark had multiple mistresses,” Napoleon summarized. “Wife and mistresses discovered each other. Group of very vindictive women hijack his bank account and funneled the money into a hit squad. A single member of said hit squad had previous connections to an expired sleeper cell, hence alerting every covert agency in the northern hemisphere to their plans. We spend nearly a month back-tracking it all, utterly convinced something sinister has happening, and all we have to show for it are the illicit yet tasteful photographs the wife tried to use to bribe Illya. There, I finished.”
Illya flicked the tip of Napoleon’s nose with his free hand as if he were a particularly disobedient puppy. “It’s not as if we’re in public, Cowboy.”
Napoleon let out an exaggerated sigh as he waved Illya away, his bright eyes cheerfully irreverent. How dare he be reminded of basic covert protocol. Illya wanted to drag him in by his too perfect tie and wreck him.
“That sounds like a terribly fascinating book, old chum,” he announced with a sarcastic roll of his eyes. “Why don’t you lend it to me sometime.”
“Smooth, Solo,” Gaby congratulated.
“Thank you, dear. I’m glad you appreciate my efforts.” They were coming up on baggage check cart, and Illya snagged Napoleon by the lapel before he could fall on his ass like he deserved.
“About face,” he ordered, gently steering Napoleon around to face forward. Gaby smoothed the line of his jacket straight after Illya released him.
“Thank you, Peril,” offered Napoleon, smooth as a cat pretending he hadn't been ungraceful. “So, new plan. I was thinking Indian for dinner. I know a place that does a fantastic tandoori chicken.”
“A what?” Gaby asked, incredulous. Illya thought she knew better than to ask.
Illya left them at a string of seats by the luggage carousel while he went to collect their baggage. They stayed within earshot as he waited. Napoleon launched into a one-sided conversation on the merits of Indian cuisine, and Gaby, ever committed to seeing how outrageous Napoleon’s descriptions could become, absorbed it all with a look of bemusement.
When Illya turned, baggage in hand, Napoleon's arm lay across the seat rest, palm up. Gaby, feet drawn up with her legs tucked under her, had rolled down the cuff of his sleeve and was dragging her fingers around the delicate skin of his wrist. Illya watched, mesmerized, as she unbuckled the band of his watch, pulling the leather from the catch, and slipping it off with her thumb. She curling the time piece around the palm of her free hand and tucked it into her lap. Her other hand went back to work, her nails trailed back up Napoleon’s wrist and sleeve. His steel square cuff links glinted wickedly in his hand as he let her play.
Illya hadn’t realized he had stopped breathing. That he was staring.
Napoleon’s eyes flickered towards him, bright and burning with challenge. Gaby had a better control and didn’t let herself look his way, but the tilt of her body was so deliberately placed that Illya knew better. They weren’t done playing with him.
Illya would have laughed if he had the breath for it. He thought they’d had their fun in Madrid, but they had brought their teasing back to London. Fine then.
He hadn’t minded this test of endurance in Madrid. In a way, he was flattered. They wanted him enough to put forth the effort, and they enjoyed pulling him to pieces as much as he enjoyed letting them. There was, however, a limit to what he would stand for.
His thoughts churned, swirling between his musings of late and his more recent acceptance of their importance in his life, culminating under the fact that Illya was never one to back down from a challenge. He would just have to put his own game into action. He knew patience, and he knew how to plan. And most of all, he was Russian. He would show them a thing or two about revenge.
They had earned what was coming to them.
I couldn't resist the White Collar reference :) Though, to be honest, there wasn’t much effort put up to stop the temptation.
Here's the Minnesota playlist!
Chapter 6: New York - London
Angst, and the mother of all secret times.
New York (winter 1964)
Napoleon braced himself against the dash as Gaby slammed on the brakes again.
“It’s ten at night,” she snarled, sending a rude gesture to the car that cut her off. "How are so many people still on the road? Shouldn’t they be in bed? Don’t they have work in the morning?”
“Most of them are probably already at work,” Napoleon pointed out, trying to ease his grip on the handle on the ceiling of the car. He would offer to take over, but after the stunt he pulled in Deer River, the suggestion wouldn’t be well-taken.
At least their new ride proved more responsive than the truck they'd picked up in Minnesota. He knew it was a piece of junk, but he had hoped to levy some anonymity as they rolled out of town. Napoleon now realized that had been a fantasy at best. He and Gaby swapped the beat-up Chevy truck for a Ford Thunderbird in Milwaukee, partly to give her more horsepower and a better suspension to work with, and partly to get Napoleon off Illya’s lap. A truck cabin was not designed with three bodies in mind.
Illya didn't complain about the switch. Even their Russian's looming frame could fit comfortably inside the large back seat of an American car, with plenty of room to stretch out. Glancing over his shoulder, Napoleon could see him taking advantage, sprawled across the seats despite Gaby's rapid stop-and-starts through New York evening traffic.
“This is ridiculous.”
“Manhattan is ridiculous place,” Illya sniped, righteous anger radiating into every corner of the car. Napoleon was tempted to spring from the car and risk crossing traffic on foot. After two days on the road, Illya's stubborn grasp on his annoyance with Napoleon was enough to make Napoleon’s head throb. To his dying day he'd be haunted by the cold, awkward hours of being pressed between: Gaby, introspective and unaware; Illya, disappointed and huffing like an overworked steam engine against Napoleon's ear while Napoleon tried to stare straight ahead and ignore his knee strung over the irate man's thigh. He wasn't sure if Illya had meant to dig his fingers into the skin of Napoleon's side so hard it left bruises—ugly and purple in the rest stop bathroom; thanks, Peril—or if he just hadn't wanted Napoleon spillling into Gaby while she broke them over the state line faster even than Napoleon had managed when he left home at sixteen.
The fresh air when Napoleon was finally released from the cab was exhilarating. The silence when they climbed into the Thunderbird, stretched apart and tucked into their own corners of the car, nauseating. As much as they were pretending, it hadn't stopped since.
Napoleon tried to cobble up his composure. He felt Illya's eyes boring into his neck. “Left up here."
“U.N.C.L.E. has an office here, don’t they?” Gaby asked.
“Probably,” Napoleon acknowledged. “Though I can’t imagine they have much in the way of amenities.”
“My concern is not so much the amenities as it is the need to check in with the people who keep us employed,” Gaby pointed out.
“We’re not going to U.N.C.L.E. facility, are we?” Illya observed. Napoleon glanced into the rearview mirror rather than turn around. He wouldn’t give Illya the satisfaction of watching the discomfort play across his face. But he owed them for thrusting them into Deer River without warning.
“Oh.” Realization dawned on Gaby. Napoleon was surprised it had taken that long. He blamed the mind-numbing, grueling travel of the last few days.
Whether it was that stubbornness or pure exhaustion, neither Gaby nor Illya complained while he guided them through Manhattan. His apartment building stood right where he left it, the most dazzling and overstated architecture on the block.
Napoleon didn’t recognize the new doorman, which staggered his headache. Tom had always known better than to question the odd, erratic schedule Napoleon kept. He had been gone so long the staff had forgotten his face. Before, the longest he'd been gone was three and a half months—the longest the CIA ever felt comfortable utilizing his skills abroad, when their leash on him was thinnest.
With U.N.C.L.E., he had been gone for a year and a half.
The new doorman was wary of him, but it didn’t stop Napoleon from ushering Gaby and Illya into the elevator while he charmed the man to calm. Yes, yes, been off traveling, the company’s needed him, feel free to check his ID against his records, no they didn’t need a hand with their luggage. Inwardly, his mind cataloged the new surroundings: fresh coat of paint in the entryway, new rug in the foyer. The chandelier hadn't changed, but new sconces hung along the hallway. Someone had touched up the grouting in front of the elevator, and new paneling inside was offset by the bronze railing.
He felt worn to exhaustion and overexposed by the time the elevator doors closed. He punched the button for his floor, and leaned against the door to take some of the weight off his feet. Gaby slumped similarly against the wall, coming down from the constant alertness and awareness needed for unfamiliar New York traffic. Her coat flooded her figure, cutting it into an abstract shape of fatigue and curling hair. Napoleon wanted to freeze the moment, hang it in a gallery: him and Gaby side-by-side, suspended and tired together in an elevator.
But Illya was awake, and the indignation had not died from his eyes, and it would be a horrible portrait without a ready and willing photographer.
Napoleon ignored him, turning his head into the coolness of the elevator door. He wasn’t in the mood to be dressed down for his decisions.
The apartment was just as he left it, not even a layer of dust to mark the passage of time. He paid well for a cleaning staff to attend to the space each week. Not even the food in the refrigerator and pantry had been left to rot into mold-ridden heaps. Only nonperishables were left in the kitchen, and a quick check affirmed that it would be enough that Napoleon wouldn’t need to brave the real world for food.
“This is…nice,” Gaby remarked. She picked her way between the ornate furniture without touching it. From the walls bedecked with tastefully bright, wide canvases to the clean lines of shelving weighed down with endlessly accumulating souvenirs, Napoleon was proud of his holdings. He was nothing if not a collector; he had a natural talent for taking things that didn't belong to him.
The stark difference between his mother's well-kept hominess and his own grandiose taste stuck out like a bitter taste in his mouth. He hated, still, that he wouldn't change a thing.
“Make yourselves at home,” he offered, tossing his keys onto the counter just shy of the key bowl and dropping his bags across the living room floor. His hands moved to unknot his tie and only hit skin and scruff. A self-conscious flush of annoyance scratched under the surface, and he looked around for something else to focus on.
He wasn’t sure how it was possible, but Illya’s silence grew even more frigid. While the shallow part of him nagged at how good Illya and Gaby looked against the white backdrop of the walls, it was impossible to miss how the mood of the room drained away with Illya's every step into the room, his black work boots crushing into the high pile carpet as their owner took in the pride and joy of Napoleon's life's work with disdain. Napoleon abruptly had no energy to bait him, or try to chip away at some of the ice forming around him. Let the Russian sulk.
He guided them down the hallway, opening doors as he went. Hoping to move fast enough to out run the fretting pain in his chest that said he was making a huge mistake.
“Bathroom,” he explained, cracking it open enough to be easy to locate. “Illya, I’d suggest this bedroom for you. It faces east, and I can’t think of a more horrendous way to wake up than with the sun. So of course I’d expect you to love it.”
Illya glared at him, but tucked his luggage into the room anyway. Napoleon opened the second bedroom across the hall for Gaby.
“Need anything?” he asked, sparing her the last bit of polish he could muster. She was solid as a rock. He needed that. Only one team mate mad at him at a time. Gaby stared up at him for a long moment.
“No,” she finally said. Reaching out, she tugged the lapel of his jacket until he bent down to her level. She dropped a kiss onto his cheek. “Good night, Napoleon.”
“Good night,” he replied. Or, he thought he did. Sense fled under the pressure of her lips.
He left her and Illya in the hall before he could make things any worse.
The bed he'd left behind was large, fluffy, freezing, and stale with disuse. Too late he realized he'd left his pajamas buried in his suitcase, far away in the living room. At that point, it felt like no less than he deserved. He stripped down, left his clothes in an undignified heap, and crawled between the chilly sheets.
Sleep didn’t come easy. Napoleon found himself studying all the ways in which his room, the room he used to adore and enjoy in exquisite detail, was now cluttered and undefinable, made up of quiet air and dust. The antiques he'd purloined and once displayed proudly, they now stood anonymously in the corners of his room He could hear Manhattan happening outside, and the city lights filtered into his blinds like he remembered, but it didn’t make him smile like it did a year and a half ago.
If he strained, he could hear bed springs squeaking as Illya shifted on the mattress a room over; could hear the water running as Gaby brushed her teeth. They were in his home. A place even the CIA hadn’t managed to invade. How had he allowed this? They were never supposed to get this close, but he'd invited them into his home. They'd met his mother.
Panic flooded him, and exhaustion turned it into avoidance. Better if he didn’t think about it. Nothing to be done now. Napoleon rolled over, closed his eyes, and willed himself to sleep.
Gaby tried to rest, but it slipped her grasp more piteously than it had since Istanbul. Although her body felt the exhaustion of a week of hard traveling, and her heart carried the weight of emotions Napoleon thought better to run from. Her mind rocked back and forth over everything she learned, refusing to churn out any useful revelations for her efforts. It ran staccato over things she needed to do, her stupid teammates, and while it did, it hummed a little tune she'd heard back in Nebraska.
She gave up after two hours. She knew she held out that long because she couldn’t stop staring at the clock as each minute ticked by. Finally, she shuffled out of bed, shrugged on a button down she had stolen from Illya’s suitcase back in Los Angeles, and padded into the living room.
Napoleon’s apartment was…well, it matched him better than the farmhouse had: gaudy, mesmerizing, and distracting with its allure of beauty. Fantastically curated. If Illya wasn't so adversely preoccupied, Gaby would take him by the hand and draw his attention outwards by asking him to explain the towering statues, the artwork, the ornate furniture. There was a dialogue happening across pieces that Gaby didn't have the vocabulary for, but that for Illya they would be another stone in debating Napoleon on the merits of modern art. But that's not where Illya's heart was today. Take away the stunning decor, and all that was left could be summed up as barren white walls and stale air. It was a lovely museum—no one would call it a home.
That was probably why the room without him and Illya in it felt big and alone.
Gaby huffed against the chill that ran down her back and hustled quickly to tug a neatly folded fur throw off the couch. The scruff of it was coarser than expected, but she held it tightly about herself as she wondered why one person would need this much room. By her count, besides the kitchen and the expansive living room (which had a fire place, she gaped), there were also the three bedrooms as well as an office. Wasn’t Manhattan suppose to be crowded?
The office was just as sparse of identity as the living room, though Napoleon had a book collection that could rival Illya’s. The only difference was that while Illya’s books showed the wear and love of constant use, Napoleon’s stood nearly untouched. She ran a finger along the new, uncracked spines. More show.
There was a phone on the desk, which Gaby checked for bugs. She remembered Napoleon’s offense at finding Illya’s own home under surveillance, but she would relax to know for sure.
After finding no evidence of tampering, Gary slouched back in his office chair, high-backed and towering. She kicked her feet onto his desk and pulled the fur around her. She suspected Napoleon took very hard stances against handlers who tried to listen in on every aspect of his life, but his oversight on the matter left her bored.
Gaby dialed the switchboard without much thought, mind more preoccupied with studying Napoleon’s spotless bookshelves. If she squinted, she could see the top end of bookmarks poking up from a few suspect hardbacks. Who was Robert Heinlein?
"Open Channel D," she told the dead air on the other end of the phone line.
“Operator,” a droll voice answered after a pause.
“Agent Teller, checking in for mission alpha-00156."
“One moment please.” Gaby tapped her fingers against the desk top, trying not to get impatient while the switchboard worked.
“Line is secure,” the voice came on again. “Please hold for Mr. Waverly.”
Gaby straightened, the desk's chair groaning in protect at the sudden shift of her weight. When she did standard mission debriefing, she was usually passed over to to the Records department. Waverly didn’t have time to hear every debrief report.
“Ah, Agent Teller,” Waverly picked up. “So good of you to let us know you’re alive and well. I trust the same could be said for the rest of your wayward comrades?”
Ah. She figured they’d hear it for not checking in sooner, but she had at least hoped they would make it back to London before it happened. Then she could have hid behind Illya while they got dressed down. No such luck, apparently.
“Apologies, sir,” she replied. “We were detained, but the situation’s since been resolved.” Sort of. Illya still looked at Napoleon like he didn’t quite understand what was happening in the other agent’s head. He'd stayed quiet their whole trip back.
“Some issues in Las Vegas, sir.”
“Las Veg-Agent Teller, you’re mission perimeter was Los Angeles. What are you doing in Las Vegas?"
“We’re actually in New York, sir,” Gaby decided to break the news on that development all at once.
“New York,” Waverly clarified after a long moment. “As in, East Coast, across the country, horribly crowded New York?”
“Yes sir.” Gaby tried not to cringe. She could only imagine what the AMR would look like on this mission. What would it even be designated as? The Deer River Affair? The Solo Family Affair? The Highway Affair?
She actually quite liked that last one.
“Well. Not quite what I was expecting. But I suppose I could make this work,” Waverly muttered. Gaby's eyebrows crawled up her forehead in surprise.
“Well, to be frank, Agent Teller, the CIA’s been an absolute nightmare, what with their complaints about budgets and continued maintenance.”
“I’m afraid I’m not following, sir.”
“My dear, I apologize for my indelicate approach, but the CIA have been flooding my office with complaints about their continued payments of your father’s mortgage. They keep pushing to put the property up for sale or to transfer it to you."
“I didn’t wish to burden you with it, my dear. But with you so close right now, perhaps you could pop over, see if it appeals?”
“It would be mine?”
“That’s all up to you, Ms. Teller.”
Gaby hadn’t handled Napoleon and Illya for over a year without understanding the need for contingencies. She was all for the fun U.N.C.L.E. provided, but with more and more of the boys’ back up plans revealed, she was starting to realize she had nothing in the way of safety nets for herself. Maybe this could be one.
“…What’s the address?” She asked, grabbing a pen out of the desk drawer.
Illya had been lost from the moment he stepped foot in Napoleon's apartment.
He didn’t know what to think. Sleep didn’t help; the bed was too soft, the pillows too plush, the sheets too new. The art on the walls loomed over him, empty and gorgeous, but he couldn't escape the feeling that he was in a hotel room. He felt too high up, disconnected from the ground in a way that soured his disposition.
His body rested for a few hours before dawn broke and his internal clock woke him up. But he couldn't move at first. In his line of sight was a sleek, expensive side table he'd rolled his eyes at the night before. On the side table was small, framed portrait, the figures brushy and softly-lit. Suspiciously French; Neo-classical.
Illya pushed the portrait faced-down. Some men kept pictures of their family; Napoleon kept stolen art at his bedside table.
Napoleon had a family. One that seemed to love him, even if they struggled to understand him. And instead of treasuring that for all that Illya knew it to be worth, the other agent would rather run like the devil was on his heels. And to what—this? A cold, barren place that held not one ounce of the love he left in Minnesota? No warmth, no shelter?
Illya thought he understood Napoleon. Now all he could was sit in this impassive caricature of a home. Napoleon had so much. Why did he seem so miserable?
Illya wasn’t normally a man for coffee, but the long week had left him exhausted and longing for something warm to wrap his hands around. The kitchen hadn't been spared from the wave of hideously ornate decorations, but the tide abated some when it came to the kitchen equipment. The fanciful french press was a thing of beauty, if not as well-used as he would have expected.
As Illya waited for his coffee to brew, he rested his elbows on the slick countertop and squinted out into the dawn light. No other city ever quite mimicked Manhattan in the morning. The last time was in the city, he had been on a month long recon mission and found an odd appreciation for the skyscrapers and industrial flavor in the air. No one at the Kremlin would appreciate his thoughts, but to Illya the island skyline brought him a breath of calming air, soothing his frazzled disposition for just a moment.
It was a comment on how well his teammates had sunk into his awareness that Illya didn’t immediately notice Gaby. Until she appeared in the living room, dressed for the day and jacket thrown over her arm, he didn't realize she was even awake at all.
Gaby didn’t fidget, but her eyes widened as she saw him. Illya was proud of her newfound ability to hide her tells, but he cursed the added difficulty in telling her mood. Had she been sneaking out without them noticing? She had to know that would be damn near impossible between his and Napoleon’s skills.
"We need to stop meeting like this," he said after a few moments of silence, a small smile on his lips to show her he was in a mood to laugh. She sent him her own in return but shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. Illya waited; the professional in him knowing the best chance at information was to let her fill the silence.
“I’ll be back in a little while,” she said. “I just…Waverly asked me to look into something."
“No!” Gaby rejected in a rush, wincing when Illya raised an eyebrow. “No,” she continued in a gentler tone. “It’s nothing, just routine spot checks on some other sub-stations. I am the ranking U.N.C.L.E. agent here, after all.”
Illya decided not to call her out, but he could see the hole a mile away. It wasn’t possible that Gaby was the highest ranking U.N.C.L.E. agent in a city like New York. The city was too important to be unmonitored like that. He would like there to be no secrets between them, but he was reasonable enough to recognize that it was never going to happen. Gaby was far more independent within U.N.C.L.E. than he and Napoleon had originally assumed.
Besides, Gaby had opted for a nice Robonia jacket to complete her outfit; he picked it out for her back in London, complete with a bug sown into the collar. He didn’t often bug Gaby’s clothes since the lack of extra fabric made it harder to hide them, but there were a few pieces he had tagged alongside Napoleon's. Gaby had yet to look for them, more focused on the rings he gave her.
Illya knew his desire to be constantly abreast of their locations sometimes grated on his comrades, but he couldn’t yet put into words what they meant to him. Especially these days, when he was sure that if they disappeared, it could only be because something happened to them. Illya needed to know where they were so he could protect them.
“Be safe,” he told her. She was probably expecting a more protracted fight, but Illya didn’t have it in him right now. The coffee and daylight had taken away the worst of his simmering temper.
Gaby didn’t push. She dropped a quick kiss on his cheek, gave his ribs a squeeze he barely felt, and quietly slipped out the door.
Left alone again, Illya realized that part of his churlish disposition stemmed from disappointment. There was no fun to be had in exploring—with or without Gaby. Napoleon’s apartment wouldn’t reveal anything new about the man. He was sure the other agent had thought over every nook and cranny before he brought them here, cataloging every little thing and deciding if it was worth exposing. He had done much the same in Moscow.
Coffee done, Illya peered out the front door. As suspected, the morning paper was waiting for him. Retreating back into the apartment with it, he settled in to catch up on current events--better to focus at the world at large than the world within.
The apartment was silent until just after eleven, when Napoleon finally joined the living. Illya pressed his mouth shut to keep his opinions about his behavior to himself as the door opened, Napoleon shuffling into view.
Napoleon looked…well, he looked a downright mess. His hair cast a dark, wild halo around him, and scruff laid thick and dense over his cheeks and chin. Illya would have assumed Napoleon to be as slick and clean as his apartment by now, having safely retreated onto his home turf. But Napoleon hadn't even tried. His blue and white striped robe wrapped tightly about himself in a protective huddle, and his eyes when they found Illya's were just as bland and guarded.
“Morning,” he muttered.
“Nice to see you up.” Illya flipped up the paper. “We have a lot to get done. Waverly is expecting report.”
“Feel free to start that whenever you’d like,” said Napoleon, shooting him a mutinous look that dared Illya to start a fight.
“We have work to do,” Illya tried again. Surely Napoleon hadn’t lost all sense of professionalism in the face of the creature comforts of his own territory.
“I’m not up to being anyone’s dog right now,” Napoleon replied carelessly. “But feel free to answer their commands yourself. Nothing’s stopping you.”
Illya clenched his fists as Napoleon lounged gracelessly into a low backed, boxy chair by the windows.
“We don’t have time for this.”
“Paperwork’s not really my style, after all. Never really got the hang of it: Check the right box, write down the right nouns, don’t call a bomb a bomb, don’t admit you killed someone without the correct authorization. All seems frankly moronic if you ask me.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“If you’re still angry at me, just go ahead and say it,” Napoleon snapped. The lounging didn’t look so natural now.
“I’m not angry with you,” Illya said, his mouth speaking before his mind could follow the shift in conversation.
“And here I thought you'd stopped lying to yourself.”
“They are your family. Your decisions to make."
“But you don’t agree with my decisions.”
“No,” Illya growled, giving up all pretense of a civilized conversation in the face of Napoleon’s wildly swinging mood. “I don’t believe abandoning your family after less than day is wise decision.”
“So you are upset.”
“Yes,” Illya admitted. If that was what Napoleon wanted to hear, fine. “Yes, I am upset. You take advantage of your family."
"Maybe not all of us want a family,” Napoleon said, rising to his feet to loom over Illya.
Illya snapped to his feet, crowding the other with his height; Napoleon met his roiling anger like a wall against the sea.
“You dishonor their love for you with talk like that. Many people have far less."
“You mean you. You have far less. You’d never abandon you’re family, so why would anyone else? Only, what do you call leaving your mother for KGB training and never looking back?”
Illya’s temper was no longer simmering. It raged, familiar and painful. Napoleon smirked. His eyes glittered vicious with triumphant.
“How dare you-,”
“How dare I speak the truth to your face? She is alive, isn’t she? So why didn't you see her in Moscow? You couldn't give us the slip, spare her a call? Admit it, you don’t want to be attached any more than I do.”
Illya braced for the blinding rage to take hold, for his sense to melt away and the edges of his vision to go white…
It didn't come.
After a handful of heartbeats he realized it wasn’t happening. He was standing on the precipice, hands shaking, but the black out wouldn't come.
Napoleon wanted anger. Napoleon was needling him to rage and wreck everything around them, hoping to goad Illya because he was hurting, and angry himself. It was tempting; he could break every stupid, still, mocking painting from the walls. Every statue crushed underfoot. The glib Rococo in the bedroom torn to pieces.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it with his own hands.
Napoleon waited, his eyes piercing and sad; as captivating as he'd been in the streetlights of West Berlin. Resolve settled upon Illya like armor, protecting his anger and Napoleon from each other.
“I am not going to be your weapon."
Napoleon growled like a volcano venting out all its pressure and unwanted heat. Illya’s sadness at his frustration didn't silence his enjoyment at seeing Napoleon alive and animated again.
Illya didn’t recognize the look on the other man’s face until it was too late.
Napoleon’s fingers sunk into Illya’s hair and dragged him down to even out their heights. Before Illya could protest, Napoleon pressed their lips together in wordless demand.
It wasn’t anything like the kiss Illya saw him give Gaby. That kiss was a passionate, improvised, messy affair that neither of them seemed to control. Napoleon was no more in control now, but there was anger driving him, with lust and panic and desire wrapping up his common sense and dropping it out the window. He bit at Illya’s mouth, trying to draw out the same rage from Illya.
Illya wavered. How could he not? Napoleon was undoubtably beautiful enough to make anyone pause, and he wanted Illya. It would be so easy to let himself surrender and grab Napoleon, shove him against the wall and give him everything he demanded. To stop the tentative dancing and etch himself into Napoleon’s skin as a constant reminder of the man’s effect on him. Of what it felt to watch him with Gaby.
Napoleon let out a noise that landed somewhere between a growl and a sob, and Illya’s brain, trained to notice the tells and the emotions of those around him, forced him to screech to a halt. Napoleon didn’t want to indulge; he was still looking for a fight.
No, Illya decided. He beat back the rush of wanting flooding him, using every bit of self-control he could muster. He wouldn’t be the weapon Napoleon used to destroy himself. Illya didn’t believe in a lot, but he believed he was better than that. Better than a bomb used to annihilate everything to avoid guilt and fear. And Napoleon deserved more than another burned bridge.
Carefully, he untangled himself from Napoleon, taking the man’s shaking hands into his own between their bodies.
“Is this what you want?” he asked, pressing his thumb into Napoleon’s wrist to keep track of his pulse as it fluttered against the delicate skin there. Napoleon tugged, trying to get free, but his efforts were half-hearted at best.
“Get out,” he vented the words into the shared air trapped between them.
“If that’s what you want,” Illya replied.
“I don’t want-,” Napoleon hissed, only to cut himself off. Indecision and fury were written clear across his face. Napoleon was never this open, but Illya couldn’t revel in it. He wanted Napoleon to open up on his own terms, not because he felt pushed into a corner.
Illya leaned forward, and kissed Napoleon. It was a simple brush of lips and breathe. No lust, no unbridled rage. He wanted to do more, wanted to show Napoleon that he wanted even this version of him, pettiness and fear and all. He wanted to stop the guessing and the 'almost' of every action; push Napoleon down to the floor and explore him with the attention he deserved. But he couldn’t let Napoleon think it was just another provoked reaction.
So Illya did nothing. He let Napoleon go. The warm shade of him stuck to the front of his shirt as he gathered his jacket, his shoes. His wallet, his gun. He picked up Napoleon’s keys from their haphazard place near the tiny ceramic dish next to the door.
“Don’t leave,” he ordered, no room for emotion in his voice. “Gaby won’t be able to get back in if you do.”
And he left Napoleon, gorgeous and wrecked, angry and hurting and denying all of it to himself, standing in the middle of his glittering living room.
Tom hadn’t expected he'd be able to keep Schnitzel.
Lucy had decided early on that pets were a complication they couldn’t afford. Charlie came along so quickly they barely had time to enjoy their honeymoon, and Erika arrived two years later, and with all the chaos pets just seemed like adding oil to fire. Tom agreed, because he adored his wife and she was the one who kept them afloat. There were days he thought he still hadn’t progressed past the flailing, silly idiot who couldn’t string two words together in the face of his wife’s newly announced pregnancy.
He envied his neighbor though. Every once in a while, kind old Mr. Johnson asked the kids to watch Schnitzel while he went away on business trips. He paid them over four times what they earned in allowance for it, and Tom couldn’t say no to their enthusiastic little faces. Charlie and Erika (now seven and five respectively; God, when did that happen?) worked hard to walk him and feed him on time and take him out in the middle of the night. They were learning responsibility, Lucy's ground rules on weekly baths and no grubby paws were being followed, and Tom enjoyed having a dog to pet while he read the paper in the morning.
Then they didn’t hear from Mr. Johnson. Weeks rolled into months, and eventually a year had passed and Mr. Johnson never came back. Lucy fretted, checking the windows every time people (shady, with their black suits and sunglasses) came and went from his house. Tom tried to comfort his wife, but the solemn faces on the suited men spoke volumes. The property never went up for sale. It just sat there, waiting.
After two years, Schnitzel was an official member of the family. He slept in the kids’ beds each night, went with Tom to get the paper at the end of the driveway each morning, and kept Lucy company during her walks.
So he was more than a little concerned when a gorgeous '61 Ford Thunderbird rolled into the neighborhood and threatened to take his dog away.
The house stood in a quiet neighborhood. It wouldn’t look out of place on a propaganda poster on the streets of East Berlin in the days and months after the wall went up. A perfect picket-fenced picture framed by tall fluttering trees and a carport.
Gaby sat listless in her car and stared. Waverly told her there was a key under the mat, and a voice in her head that sounded remarkably like Illya cataloged all the reasons that was a horrible security risk. Fifteen items later on that list, and she still hadn't opened the car door. Her fingers tapped against the stirring wheel as she tried to calm down.
Gaby never dwelt on her father. He'd vanished two months after her seventh birthday, and she'd spent a year wishing he'd come back, and then one day her uncle took her aside and explained in very sweet, very blunt terms that her daddy was never coming back, now stop crying and be a big girl. Her mother died less than three weeks later, and everything she remembered from a life of relative pamperedness disappeared.
She'd always thought Uncle Rudi meant her father had died. Now she knew he had left them all behind like day-old garbage and ran. She'd read about Operation Paperclip—Napoleon pulling packets of information on it when she asked last year. They didn’t just evacuate the scientist, but their families too. It hadn’t even been a secret, the information easily found in the numerous newspaper articles saved within the file.
Why hadn’t he taken her with him? Brought her to America and raised her like a proper parent. For a long moment, all Gaby could think of was the lost potential of memories in this house. What her room could have looked like. Playing hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of the fence. There was a tire swing hanging from the tree across the street, maybe she could have talked her father into putting one up for her.
God, she was making herself sick. Gaby wrenched the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the car. As promised, a small brass key was revealed under the flowery welcome mat, and she stepped into the foyer.
Gaby knew immediately that there was no chance her father had been in charge of the decor. After Napoleon’s apartment, she was beginning to suspect this was typical American styling. Everything looked as picture perfect as the exterior, with dark wood furniture, beautifully upholstered in colors that coordinated in the modern wall paper. Pictures of expansive landscapes and scenic seasides hung from the walls, and the polished wooden frames were stained in the same shade as the hardwood floors under her feet. Even through a thick layer of dust, it was an elegant home.
Had her father been living with someone else? Someone with taste?
Gaby went back to the car, grabbed a spare duffle from the trunk, and proceeded to ransack everything.
Of the two guest rooms, she discovered one to be completely barren without a scrap of furniture or personality to it. The other contained a bed with a flowery set of sheets and a set of dressers full of musty, folded linens. Disappointed, she hauled her empty bag to the master bedroom.
The closet wasn't filled with incriminating evidence, just suits in her father’s size and a collection of frantically dull ties. Three pairs of dress shoes and a pair of boots lined the floor. Gaby picked up the boots as she continued to explore. She could never say no to a good pair of boots, even if they were a few sizes too big. They were a sign that her father maybe had other thoughts than work—what kind of rocket scientist needed workman’s boots, after all?
She sat down on the end of the bed, taking in the gauzy curtains, pristine furniture, and plush carpet. Reaching out, she slid open the nightstand drawer, and shifted through the scattered offering of tissue boxes and allergy medicine. So she had inherited her hatred of spring pollen from him, then. Feeling petty, she bagged the medication for herself.
The lamp fizzled when she turned it on sound it, the bulb dying with a loud spark. She had a moment's glimpse of the dresser, and her stomach dropped.
Placed across the top of his dresser sat three framed pictures, each showing a smiling, dark-haired little girl Gaby barely remembered. Two years old, and perched precariously on a beribboned rocking horse. Five years old after her first ballet performance. Her sixth birthday party, blowing out the candles of a cake nearly as tall as her.
She ran half way down the hall before she stopped, a twinge of guilt sparking through her. She knew she pushed Napoleon and Illya to embrace their past. To collect the small trinkets that reminded them of their childhood experiences. How could she walk away from her own?
She took the photo of her ballet recital and tucked it between the folds of the boots in her bag. Trailing back down the stairs, she stood at the edge of the living room.
The record player crowded the center of the room like an idol. The shelves drilled into the far wall were lined with endless vinyl records. Some were pulled out, some were strewn across the low coffee table, and a few even rested on top of their sleeves rather than in them. There was a record on the gramophone player, probably the last one her father selected before the Vinciguirras came for him. In a house without a single odd or eclectic feature, this was clearly the room he lived in.
Gaby flipped through the records on the wall, surprised at the wide selection. Some things she expected: Mozart, Schubert, Zumsteeg. She had danced to most of these composers at some point during her tenure at the ballet. But her father must have sorted his collection by genre, because she next discovered The Beatles and The Animals. Robert Johnson and Joan Beaz. Otis Redding and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Marvin Gaye, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams. Each cover different and vibrant and unexpected.
And on the record set to play, she saw a familiar name.
“Hello, Elvis,” she muttered, switching the record player on. Priming the needle, she set it along the rim, and smiled at the familiar scratching noise. A bluesy intro started up. Humming a few notes, Gaby drifted toward the liquor cabinet. Bourbon. She popped the cap off a bottle and poured herself a glass. She didn’t have anywhere to be.
Gaby whirled, screaming at herself for leaving her purse (and her gun) in the car.
A middle aged, non-threatening man stuck his head inside the door. Gaby blinked at him. Slowly, she unwrapped her fingers from the liquor cabinet's ice pick.
“Hello,” she greeted cautiously, keeping her voice toneless and uninviting. Reaching over, she flicked the record player’s power off, and the sudden silence sliced through the living room.
“Oh, I thought you might have been Mr. Johnson,” the man said. He eyed her with sudden suspiciousness, staring her down as if she were the intruder.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“Then…should you be here?”
Gaby stared back at him. “Should you?” she asked, taking a sip of her drink. The man’s face went red as his glare became harsher.
“I’m Mr. Johnson’s neighbor."
“And I’m his daughter,” Gaby interjected before the man could puff up too much. Propping her hip against the liquor cabinet, she continued to stare the man down. He didn’t hold a candle to the intensity Illya infused into a look.
“Oh. You’re Gaby?” Her hand froze on its journey to deliver more alcohol to her stomach.
“I am,” she confirmed. The man smiled, sunny and not at all the watchdog he had been a moment ago. Stepping inside, he reached a hand out to her, palm open.
“Tom. Tom Bryant. Mr. Johnson talked a lot about you.”
Gaby shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“How is Switzerland?”
“Your father,” Tom started, the suspicion sneaking back into his voice. “He said you were studying in Switzerland.”
Really? That’s the excuse her father cooked up? And she didn’t even sound Swiss. Could Americans really not tell the accents apart?
“It’s snowy,” she rolled with the lie rather than fight it. “And quiet. I won’t be staying long. I’m just here to,” she trailed off and motioned to the room in general with her glass.
Tom’s face turned stricken.
“Is Eugene alright?”
Eugene Johnson? How…unnoticeable. Her father must have had about as much say in his new name as he had in his house decor.
“Oh,” she muttered, falling into the role of grieving daughter with too much ease. “You haven’t heard. He passed away.”
“Oh, no! What happened?"
A melodramatic fascist put a bullet in his head. “He fell ill. It took him last winter.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tom muttered, looking contrite. “I guess you’re here to clear the house out.”
“Yes, a bit. The estate still needs to be settled.”
She supposed she was laying on the drama a little thick, but morbidly she was enjoying this play. There had never been time to grieve for her father, and it felt good to let it show. This stranger didn't care, not really. She was free to express as much or little as she wanted.
However, it didn’t stop her from noticing something cross Tom’s face: a mix of sudden opportunity, fear, and concern. His brow wrinkled in a way that no spy would ever allow.
“Do you, ah. Want the dog back?”
Gaby felt a memory tug at her, and she saw Napoleon in her mind’s eye, leaning back in the rickety chair of her foster father’s ancient desk, fiddling with a tiny bug and grinning at her.
“A nice car, a house, and a little dog named Schnitzel.”
“Schnitzel,” she breathed. “I had forgotten about him.”
Turning away from Tom, Gaby scanned the room with fresh eyes. Sure enough, she saw small scratch marks scored into the legs of the furniture, and a few well chewed toys pushed into the corners. If she craned her head far enough, she could see a small padded bed nestled against the fireplace.
“Yeah, I ah. We. Well,” Tom shifted on his feet, bringing her attention back to him. “The kids just fell in love with him. You wouldn’t be wanting him back, would you?"
Would she want a loud, demanding living thing that tied her down, needed constant supervision, and dominated her affections? She already had her hands full with two commitments like that. Why would she want a third?
“No." Gaby she offered a small smile. “It’s fine. You can keep him. I, I travel, for work. A lot. I’m sure he’s happier with you.”
Tom sighed the relief of a parent saved from the horrible fate of disappointing their child.
“Well, that’s good to hear. Not about your father, obviously,” Tom rambled. “But he’s already part of the family.”
“It’s not a problem,” Gaby reaffirmed, glancing around the room again. “Do you want any of his things? I won’t have use for them.”
Tom eagerly took the toys and the bedding from the living room, gave his condolences again, and turned to leave. He paused at the door.
“You don’t look like you have any boxes,” he pointed out.
“I came under-prepared,” Gaby admitted. “It was a last minute thing."
“I think we still have the left over Christmas boxes, if you want them. They’re just taking up space in the garage right now.”
Gaby glanced at the shelves of records again. “Thank you,” she accepted. “I think that would be very helpful."
Napoleon was bored. Normally the constant vibrancy of New York called to him, urged him out and about when he had downtime. However after he had rolled out of bed, ruined his relationship with Illya, and made a cup of coffee, he could only find the energy to slump back on his couch.
He wished he could erase the last week and a half from his life. It was a stupid, unobtainable wish; he'd outgrown thinking in ‘what if's. That didn’t stop him from daydreaming, though. Another world, where he hadn’t asked to check his LA post box. Hadn’t dragged his team across the county to keep him steady while he confronted something he'd avoided for two decades. Hadn’t brought them into his sanctuary and last refuge, only for them to realize how unattached he felt about it all. Hadn’t run Illya off because he didn’t want to answer questions. Hadn’t kissed him. That was the stupidest decision of it all. It would only lead to more hurt in the long run, and he was so tired of hurting.
Couldn’t take back any of it now. All he could do was lay in the bed he made. He supposed if Illya decided to end their partnership (and if he pushed long enough, Illya would), Gaby would go with him. They made a good pair; Napoleon only functioned within their team as their third. Maybe Waverly could find another pair to take him on when he left. They wouldn’t have his confidence like Illya and Gaby did, but that was for the best. Confidence led to trust, and trust was leading him to become too involved and indebted.
Napoleon’s coffee was cold. His body was stiff and uncooperative when he stumbled to his feet, and the clock on the wall said he hadn’t moved in six hours. Ugh.
There wasn’t much to work with in his kitchen, but he managed to throw something together that his stomach didn’t want to immediately hurl back up. He tinkered with the coffee maker for about five seconds before realizing he wanted something stronger. Decided, he opened up the closest scotch bottle and returned to the couch.
He'd found a book in his office. Bookmarked years ago, he couldn’t for the life of him remember where he he'd been in the story. Flipping open to a page at random, he tried to keep his eyes occupied while time ticked by. Only the words weren’t making sense and Napoleon kept reading the same sentences six or seven times without comprehension.
He didn’t look up when the front door opened two hours later. The footfalls told him it was Illya. He took a sip from his scotch, turned the page, and continued pretending to read rather than be interested in the bags that hung from Illya’s arms. Or Illya’s face. Or anything about the towering Russian. He was more surprised than anything that the man had come back. Napoleon hadn’t pulled his punches earlier.
Napoleon very firmly did not raise his eyes higher than the top line of his book as Illya pattered around behind him. Even when he felt a presence directly behind him.
“Do you-,” Illya started, only for the buzzer to sound through the apartment. They both froze, awkwardness fizzling to silent understanding as their eyes met, Illya's hand going to the hidden holster in his jacket.
It was probably Gaby, but Napoleon crouched to grab his sidearm from his splayed luggage by the couch. He waited, ready, as Illya pressed the intercom.
“Can you come downstairs and give me a hand?” Napoleon heard Gaby through the tiny speaker. His curiosity sparked without his permission. What had she gotten up to?
“Coming,” Illya replied before cutting the buzzer off. He nudged Napoleon hard in the shoulder. “Get up.”
Illya didn’t bother asking again. Large hands grab his shoulder over the back of the couch and he was hauled to his feet easily despite the odd angle.
“Move,” Illya ordered, shoving at him.
“Is the manhandling necessary?” he snapped, but he rounded the couch anyway and let Illya herd him towards the door.
“When you’re like this, yes.”
What the hell was that suppose to mean? Napoleon squinted at Illya, trying to scrutinize the man through a cloud of exhaustion and forced apathy.
“Why did you come back?” he asked, unable to stop himself. Illya’s stony face suddenly shifted into something else Napoleon didn’t quite recognize.
“Why wouldn’t I have?”
Napoleon didn’t have an answer for that. Instead, he let Illya hustle him downstairs in nothing but his slippers and dressing robe. Gaby stood at the elevator bay on the ground floor, an odd collection of boxes at her feet.
“What did you do?” Illya asked when he saw them all.
Gaby shrugged and toed one of the larger boxes toward them. Napoleon peeked into it and saw that despite the advertisement for Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robot Ring, it actually contained a stack of vinyl records. A copy of Jazz at Preservation Hall 4: The George Lewis Band of New Orleans peeked up at him. He looked curiously at Gaby, who avoided his gaze.
“I want to bring these upstairs,” she said.
“Alright,” Napoleon conceded. If this could potentially be one of their last days together, there wasn’t much he could deny her. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have the room, after all.
Waving off the bellhop’s stumbled attempts to help, the three of them dragged Gaby’s boxes into the elevator, down the hall, and into Napoleon’s apartment. Once inside, Gaby arranged them against the living room wall and flipped open the closest one. She sorted them out across the floor in a system Napoleon couldn’t find a method in.
He returned back to his drink and his book with thoughts of using them as a shield to combat the distracting presence of his teammates. Only as he brought the book up to hide in it, Illya plucked it out of his hand.
“Really, Peril?” Napoleon asked, glaring up at the giant.
“Are you happy here?” Illya demanded.
“This,” Illya waved his hand to take in the room in general. Napoleon waited for his heckles to rise at his tone, but all he felt was bitter fatigue. “All of this. This makes you happy? Things that clutter your mind and distract from…"
“From?” Napoleon prodded. He was going to make Illya pull teeth if this conversation was happening here, in front of Gaby.
“From how little is really here.”
Gaby watched them over her shoulder, not pretending to sort through her father’s collection anymore. Sitting back on her knees, her hands trailed along the glossy album covers, but she didn’t interrupt. Napoleon wouldn’t find shelter there.
“Not all of us hate our homes, Peril.”
“I do not hate my home,” Illya snapped. “My home does not lie to me.”
“Because of course capitalist decadence means it’s not sincere,” Napoleon snapped, but his fire was gone. Besides, he liked his stuff, why did Illya keep insisting it couldn't be true?
He was trying to be as unbearable as he could—why wouldn’t he leave? Why hadn't both of them? Hadn’t they seen enough of his mistakes? Napoleon knew how insubstantial he really was, surely their combined intellect should have cottoned on by now.
“It lies because you believe yourself content here,” Illya lectured, his arms crossed and tight. “But it is clear you are not. You should not be in place that makes you miserable.”
“We can go somewhere else,” Gaby suggested, picking at her nails in a telltale sign of nerves. “My father’s house is nearby. We could stay there instead. It’s—well, it’s quiet."
At her suggestion, Napoleon’s entire mindset changed on a dime.
It was one thing to admit he was forcing them out, with his decisions and his anger. That was for the best. But if he was wrong, if they were contemplating leaving...That set terror screaming through him. They had the option to just—leave. And not look back. Now that the moment had actually arrived his mouth was dry and his legs were shaking.
Napoleon didn’t want them to leave, he realized bitterly. This was his territory, familiar and safe even with their intrusion. He knew what his couch would feel like, how his stove would heat his pans, how much noise from the outside world he should be able to hear. But he wanted them there, too. To remind him that there was more, even as he screamed that there wasn’t.
Illya looked so troubled and intent. Gaby had other options. Napoleon didn’t think he could talk his way out of this. Well, maybe he could, but not in a way that would leave him whole and on his own. He didn’t want to let himself slip that far, but a voice that sounded remarkably like his mother pointed out that maybe his whole wasn’t a whole at all. Maybe he was just so damn used to being half-hearted, he thought it might be whole.
The memory Illya’s hands on him burned. Gaby’s lips and breath and gaze haunted his thoughts. He didn’t want to lose them.
Napoleon pulled himself together and rose to his feet. He knew what he could do. It wasn’t difficult. Gaby and Illya both opened themselves up time and time again in grand gestures and tiny touches. He could to, no matter how much it made him quiver and curl into himself.
He tossed his dirty glass into the kitchen sink and grabbed the bottle. Ripping off the cap, he took a pull straight from the source. He hadn’t disrespected a good bottle of scotch like this since he was young and stupid in the middle of a war zone, but it stilled his nerves. He tipped the neck away from him while he swallowed, eyes squeezed closed as he embraced the burn. When it diminished, he took another shot. Than another.
Returning to reality, Napoleon took a deep breath as the room spun around the edges. He could do this. He set his goal out in front of his mind’s eye, braced himself, and turned around. Illya and Gaby hadn’t miraculously disappeared. Damn. Napoleon plowed ahead before he thought better of it.
“My name is William,” he announced. A year they would have scoffed at him, but now, they both stood quiet. Waiting. For him. The thought made the the room spin harder than the scotch.
“Only my mother called me Napoleon,” he continued after a moment. “And even then, not always. At first it was Billy. When I was ten, my dad thought I’d grown out of that. Then, I was Bill."
He could feel his lips turning into a snarl. God, why was this so hard? They both made it look so easy when they did it. But he pushed on anyway, letting memories he often tried to forget bubble forth.
“I went by Will, when I first joined up. I thought it would be better. That it was a new beginning. Then Catherine sent me a letter at boot camp. Do you know what they do, when you get mail in boot camp? They call out the names along with the morning mess. And Catherine, she was only nine or ten when I left. I couldn’t fault her for putting Billy. But I got called Billy for the next two years because of it. That's when I opened the post office box down in LA. I gave my family that address, told them I had a desk job with the Army base there. And I ignored them. It was so much easier to just ignore them.”
“They are your family,” Illya reprimanded. Napoleon let out a helpless laugh as he stumbled back to the couch. He needed to sit down. Only instead of the cushions he ended up on the floor with his back braced against it.
“Contrary to what you seem to think, Peril, that makes it more complicated, not less. Family rarely means understanding or acceptance. It’s unconditional, unquestioning, unearned devotion. That’s not in me to give, and they never thought it was something they needed to work for.”
Napoleon took another drink, mostly to shut himself up. He wasn’t trying to be elegant, or moderated about it, pulling in too scotch much too quickly and swallowing it without appreciation. The world started to blurred around the edges, and Napoleon blamed it on loss of reason and sobriety. His mind raced impulsively, making it easier for secrets to spill out when he’d rather keep them safely behind his teeth.
Setting the bottle down precariously on the carpet, Napoleon’s gaze skittered over Illya to smile at Gaby. If he saw disappointment in the other man’s face, now, he'd... he'd hate himself. Thank God, Gaby smiled back, just her subtle little quirk of lips, and rose onto her knees. She shuffled forward, twisted herself into the space against him, and captured the bottle from his suddenly empty hands. She swallowed her own pull.
“This isn’t bad,” she commented, turning the bottle to look at the label. “Why don’t we drink this more?”
“Because it costs more than we make in a month,” Napoleon told her. “I won it off a drug lord in a card game.”
Gaby hummed and took another pull, swishing it in her mouth before she swallowed.
“You’re lying,” she decided.
“I am,” Napoleon admitted. "I swiped it from the CIA evidence room after a raid on the guy’s place. Didn’t want it to go to waste.”
Gaby nudged his shoulder and he smiled.
“These records belong to my father,” she offered softly. “Waverly gave me his address, some nice little house in the suburbs. Asked me if I wanted it for myself.”
“Do you?” Illya asked. Peril hovered over them. Guarding them against their nightmares, a whimsical part of Napoleon believed. He felt Gaby shrug beside him.
“I want answers more, I think,” she said. “Why he left, but didn’t take us. Did he try to contact us, or was he scared? Did he think we wouldn’t thrive in America? Did my mother not want to leave Germany? She was like that, you know. I don’t remember much of her, but I remember how scared she was of the world changing. But now they’re both dead and I’ll never get those answers.”
She fiddled with the bottle’s label, peeling the thick paper and glue off the glass.
“I…I don’t know if I want the house, to be honest. It’s not his. These,” she waved a hand at the vinyls. “These are all he cared about. And some pictures. Oh!” she sat up suddenly. “Did you grab my boots?”
“What boots?” Napoleon asked as Illya moved back to the door. Gaby craned her neck to watch him, and cheered when he dug out a pair of battered men’s boots from the door. He returned them to her, and she dug a hand into one and produced a framed picture.
“Is that you?” Napoleon demanded, plucking it out of her hands. Well, he tried. It took a few attempts before he succeeded. He could see Gaby's face in the little girl in the picture, with her fluffy tutu and big grin.
“Yes,” said Gaby, unlacing the boots and tugging them on over her stocking feet.
“Those are too big for you,” said Illya, nudging his own boots against hers.
“Yeah. I wanted them anyway.”
Illya let out a quiet laugh. He leaned down and took the bottle from her. Napoleon was surprised to see how much of it was already gone. Had he done most of that? The world felt stuffy and warm, but he'd been hoping so hard that it was from the alcohol that he'd convinced himself it wasn't.
Illya squeezed Gaby’s knee with his free hand, then reached out and brushed Napoleon’s hair away from his forehead. An acknowledgment that he heard them and what they offered. Taking his own healthy pull from the mouth of the bottle, he disappeared into the guest room. All Napoleon heard was some odd shuffling.
He shot Gaby a questioning look. She huffed and extended her hand to him, using the leverage he offered to pull herself back up to her knees. Dragging back the closest stack of records, she settled back next to him and pulled them into her lap. Gaby held up a copy of Buddy Holly’s solo album.
“Is he any good?”
“I want you to know there are people in this world who think that’s akin to asking if Michelangelo was a good sculptor.”
Gaby made an interested noise, and surveyed the back of the vinyl with interest.
“Do you have a stereo?”
Napoleon waved a hand at the system in the corner. Before she could clear her lap to start poking at it, Illya returned. Napoleon boggled at the expensive guitar in his hands, before remembering he owned one, bought on a whim and never used.
“When did you have time to find that?” he asked. Illya shot him a disapproving look.
“When I unpacked my suitcase last night." He shot a dirty look at Napoleon's haphazardly open suitcase, still lounging across the living room floor. “As one does who has manners.”
Napoleon made a show of rolling his eyes.
“You play?” Gaby prodded. Illya smirked and settled down cross-legged with the instrument on his lap. He fiddled with the tuning pegs, strumming his fingers across the strings. Then he played.
Napoleon, aware that the world around him was spinning faster and faster, leaned forward and watched. There was something mystical with how easily his fingers danced up and down the neck. Each note produced by precise melody that wove through his apartment. It felt calm and easy, soothing away all the anxiety from the last few days. Illya’s face held none of its usual tension as he hummed along wordlessly.
Napoleon lost himself in the song; the alcohol made him skin overly warm and sleepy, and his mind embraced Illya’s music with surprise and a no small amount of joy.
“Full of surprises, aren’t you, Peril?” he whispered when Illya finished. The Russian gave him a subtle wink as Gaby reached forward to play her fingers against the strings.
“What song is that?” she asked. Illya shrugged.
“Old Russian folk song.”
“It’s really pretty,” she told him, drawing her hand back. Napoleon nodded in agreement, not quite trusting his voice. “Play another?”
Illya smiled another soft smile and complied. This time, he sang along in Russian, weaving a quiet tale of lost love and brave soldiers. His voice a was steady, mellow baritone that Napoleon found endlessly comforting. He closed his eyes and dropped his head back against the couch cushions, letting the music slip over him. Gaby settled into his side and for the first time all week, Napoleon felt something besides guilt.
One song ended and another began. And another. This was much better than whatever Napoleon had hoped for when he bought that stupid thing. And maybe later Gaby would play some of her father's records—though Napoleon didn't have the heart to tell her he'd never hooked the damn thing up. Behind the giant speakers sat a bundle of useless wires, but if anyone could untangle them, she could.
Soon, Napoleon struggled to tell where his face ended and Gaby's shoulder began. He fought to stay awake. Couldn’t say he was entirely successful as he felt sleep drifting over him, easier than it'd been in days. Eventually, Illya's music died down and Gaby clapped quietly beside him.
“That’s lovely. Thank you for showing us,” she whispered courteously. Her fingers played at the edge of his sleeve, and only then did Napoleon remember he'd never taken off his robe. She fiddled with his cuff, her light fingers sliding against his skin, and it was all Napoleon could do to not groan in happiness. Had he ever been so comfortable?
Napoleon heard Illya shift as he laid the guitar aside.
“There is one more thing." Illya's voice was low and quiet like a breeze across a pillow. Had Napoleon been more aware, he might have tensed at the fraught tone, but he was sinking fast into warm nothingness.
“What is it?” Gaby asked.
Napoleon’s body was too sluggish to respond when warm, gentle fingers carded his unruly hair out of his face again. “He kissed me this morning,” Illya admitted. “I kissed him back. He didn’t mean it to lead anywhere; I did.”
Alarm bells blared distantly in Napoleon’s mind as he held tight to his feint of sleep. But all he could muster was surprise that Illya was telling Gaby. He had figured they'd brush the whole matter under the rug and never speak of it again. He didn’t stir himself to action. It was probably better for Gaby to know. Secrets never worked well between them.
“Oh,” she breathed out. Napoleon felt her weight shift closer into him. “How’d he take it?”
Clothing rustled, probably Illya shrugging his massive shoulders. “About as well as when he kissed you. He panicked.”
I did not, Napoleon thought.
“So, wait,” Gaby's shoulder straightened a bit under his cheek. “He’s kissed us both before we’ve kissed each other? How’d that happen?”
Napoleon stiffened. He doubted Gaby or Illya noticed, because Illya's voice sounded wrecked when he finally choked out, “I don’t know."
“Well come here, damnit. We need to fix this.”
“Do we re—ah.”
That got Napoleon’s eyes to crack open. It was everything he imagined, while somehow being nothing of the sort. Gaby's hand fisted in Illya’s collar, not letting him escape as she tipped her mouth up high to reach his. Their giant Russian had his hands planted firmly on the carpet, clearly clueless and trying to keep them still. But he leaned into her, over her, kissing with the same gentleness that he'd offered Napoleon that morning. It was breathtaking to watch.
Gaby broke away when she heard Napoleon gasp. Her tongue darting out across her lips, and Napoleon was astonished that she settled back into his side. Illya, dazed, rocked backwards, taking in the picture they made together.
“There,” Gaby announced to the room at large, only a little too loudly. “Now everyone’s kissed. Think it’s out of our system?”
“I hope so,” Napoleon lied. His gaze flickered to her flushed shoulders, to Illya's wild-eyed yet soothing face. His heart skipped a beat. At this point, it was just ridiculous. “Maybe now we can get back to doing our job.”
London (fall 1965)
While Napoleon and Illya had spent the morning speculating engagement rings, Gaby had gone shopping. Napoelon felt robbed that he wasn't in the right mindset to enjoy the fruits of her labors. His mind was too busy spiraling.
Gaby sensed it too, after spending five minutes showing off her new Biba dress. The influences of Art Deco through the pattern should have drawn in Napoleon, let alone the flattering way it circled her body. As it was, he could barely work up the enthusiasm to compliment her excellent taste.
“What is it?” Gaby finally demanded. Napoleon sensed she was more miffed than anything, what with him ruining her opportunity to rile him up.
Bleakly, he wondered if her days of teasing him were drawing to an end. How had this gone so wrong?
Illya hadn’t decided on a selection this morning. There were noises made about exploring different shops; it wasn’t like jewelry stores were scarce to come by in London. They drove by three in their neighborhood on the taxi ride back.
Once they got home, Napoleon had ditched Illya, hopped into a long, hot shower, and spent the next hour trying to figure out his next move.
Illya had to be playing out some sort of revenge for Madrid. This clearly meant war; and for a war, Napoleon needed allies.
So he told Gaby.
“He what?” Gaby hissed. She dropped down onto the couch and stared at him as if he had grown a third head. Then, as the implications dawned on her, her face turned to horror.
“He can’t be serious,” she whispered.
Good, Napoleon hadn’t misjudged her stance on this particular arrangement. And if he hadn't missed his cues, Illya shouldn't have either. It had to be a game. For his sake and sanity, he was hoping so.
“Engagement rings, Gaby. For nearly four hours,” he reiterated, impressing upon her how intolerable the experience had been. His heart still hadn't stopped pounding.
Gaby gapped, her mouth opening and closing as words failed her. Her hands flicked back and forth, and Napoleon suspected she was imagining the bomb she had just been thrust in front of to defuse.
When she straightened, her expression was determined. She reached out to twine her hand with his. “I’ll handle this.”
Napoleon didn’t think he could feel more grateful than he did in that moment.
Chapter 7: London - Vienna
Chapter by chapstickaddict
They're suppose to be U.N.C.L.E.'s heavy-hitters. They don't get played.
Or so Gaby tells herself.
London (fall 1965)
Gaby cornered Illya in the living room the next morning.
“No,” she told him instantly. Illya glanced up from his chess board to look at her, standing with her hand on her hips and her eyes hard.
“What?” he asked, innocence in every letter.
“Don’t play that game with me,” she demanded. "Napoleon nearly sent himself into hysterics yesterday telling me about the rings. Knock it off."
Illya arched an eyebrow and rose to his feet, towering obnoxiously high above her. Gaby tried to bore a hole through his back as he reached for his briefcase—sleek, something he had been eying for a while. Retrieving an envelope, he tapped it against his fingertips, hesitant. An unexpected wave of worry washed over Gaby—what cause would Illya have to worry?
Gaby watched Illya set down the envelope on the table between them. “What is that?”
Illya shrugged. He moved one of his pieces—a white knight, pulled almost too early. He reached across the board, meaning to play the other side, but Gaby stilled his hand. She plucked the black pawn two spaces, well away from the gambit of Illya’s knight. She would sacrifice a couple of pawns should he use the knight to smash through, and he'd promptly end up a casualty of her rock or bishop if he tried. A pawn or two wasn’t worth the loss of a knight so early in the game.
Illya’s lips quirked, but he didn’t dispute her advance. He moved a pawn to meet her own. They traded pieces across the board, but Gaby’s eyes strayed towards the bound folder.
“I looked into options,” Illya explained. “U.N.C.L.E. enforces mandatory retirement from Section II at age 40. I…I never thought I could get there but…but with you.”
“Stop,” Gaby told him frantically. Retirement!?
Illya watched her carefully. His eyes shone sincerely, and Gaby swallowed her tongue, trying not to scowl at the unfairness. Her mind scrambled. Napoleon would be first on that particular chopping block, but even he was still far from considering retirement. Surely that wasn't something Waverly would force on them.
Illya smiled. He moved his bishop, and Gaby clanked her knight down to block him. She'd need to think of a plan to get them out of this.
Later, she searched Illya’s wallet, hoping to find some clue that could help decipher whatever it was Illya was planning. What she found was a carefully develop miniature of that photograph from Istanbul.
Shite, she thought. They may be in over their heads.
Vienna (spring 1965)
Vienna was the first breath of air after too long under water.
Gaby, bedecked in a splendid gown of pale silk charmeuse that flowed down her body, admitted she was having fun playing dress up. At her wrists and ears she wore jewels worth more than the entirety of her garage back in Berlin. The diamond clip holding back her curls was worth three times that. The champagne glass in her hand was rimmed with gold and tasted exquisite. She imagined this was what a modern-day princesses felt like.
Keep your wits about, she reminded herself. She was on a mission, after all.
“Viktoria!” Gaby glanced up to the second story, and spotted Lillian. Her host, her new best friend, and her target, beckoned towards her.
“Viktoria, darling! Up here!”
Gaby waved back. She had to lift the hem of her dress to maneuver the steps of the grand staircase, and jealous gazes followed her ascent as the pearls on the buckles of her shoes shone under the light.
A gift from Lillian.
Her new friend had set up court amongst a collection of decadent chaises and piles of fur pillows. Lillian curled across a gold clawed lounge, situated close enough to the balcony that she could observe her kingdom. As Gaby approached, Lillian smiled sweetly to the dull-looking man sat across from her. She held up a delicate finger wrapped in an alarming amount of jewels and he immediately followed her unspoken order for silence. Her collection of people stirred, clearing out of Gaby's way as she bypassed them. One of the guards stationed at Lillian’s side held out his hand for Gaby as she settled down on the chaise. Her elbow grazed Lillian's as she was handed another glass of champagne, and Lillian gave a playful pluck at Gaby's delicate ruby bracelet in gentle reprimand.
“Frederick, dear, I don’t believe you’ve had the opportunity to meet my newest driver. Viktoria, this is my banker, Frederick Von Brunner. He makes sure I can keep you in all those lovely speedsters you win me money in."
“A pleasure, fraulein,” Von Brunner greeted. Gaby could see sweat collecting across his temples and forehead, and his eyes shifted nervously towards the exits every few seconds. He must have heard what had happened to the last banker Lillian employed, then. The man hadn’t been able to keep up with Lillian’s constant investment shifts and grey schemes, and his tenure over her finances ended with his body in the Danube River.
“Herr Von Brunner,” greeted Gaby, nodding to him when he did not extend his hand. Lillian despised shaking hands; those in her employment learned fast to mimic her habits.
“You can leave now, Frederick.” Lillian's pearlescent smile never dropped from her lips. Her eyes remained sharp and frozen as Von Brunner quickly fled without another word, stumbling at a careful pace back down to the party below.
“Such a tedious man,” Lillian whispered into Gaby’s ear as if they were girls gossiping during lessons. “Should we fix that for him?”
“Bankers are always a bland sort,” Gaby replied. Lillian scoffed lightly and waved down another young woman from the crowd beyond her throne.
“Alana, go keep dear Frederick company. I’d hate for him to get lonely at a time like this.”
The young woman’s eyes hardened at the order for just a moment before easing away into pleasant banality.
“At once, Madam,” she said before following the banker. If Gaby’s understanding of Lillian’s operation was correct, Alana possibly played any role from prostitute to confidante to assassin, depending on her maestro's mood. For now she was Lillian's first choice, but Gaby suspected she herself was being groomed to fill a similar role in the entourage.
“Enjoying yourself, dear?”
“Greatly, Madam. It’s a beautiful party.”
“It’ll do." Lillian clinked her glass down on the table beside them and leaned toward Gaby. “I adore that color on you, Viktoria. What shade is it?”
Gaby's eyes flicked down to her dress, not quite understanding the question. Without further prompting Lillian reached out and pressed her thumb against the rim of Gaby's lips, the set of her ring scratching against her chin. After a second, she pulled back. A smudge of Gaby’s dark red lipstick stained her skin--a color Illya had picked.
“Beautiful," Lillian flattered.
Gaby kept her smile in place—Napoleon had warned her, showed her how to set her defense. Lillian's flirtations were meant to push Gaby’s boundaries, looking for a breaking point more than a sincere expression of interest. Napoleon used the same tactic when he wanted to make someone uncomfortable. Just that morning he pulled a similar act to make Illya share his strudel. Gaby tried to mirror his technique now, leaning gently into the touch enough to flatter. She kept her own smile though, as Napoleon and Illya had agreed it would suit her task in appearing elusive and charming.
Lillian’s expression turned wicked.
“I have a confession, dear Viktoria,” she spoke in a throaty drawl that was far from unpleasant, and Gaby let the warmth pull her close, as if tugged in by her earring. “I recently became bored with my own selection. Would you mind terribly if I borrowed one of yours? You do have impeccable taste, after all, and it’s not as if you can entertain both at once.”
Gaby paused, thrown. "I'm sorry?"
Lillian's gaze heated knowingly as she tisked, shaking her head. Gaby fought from picking nervously at her nails.
"Come now, let's not play coy. Do you really want your pretty gambler to find out about your piece of rough on the side?"
The itch in Gaby's hand shifted to a sudden urge to reach out and slap her face. Luckily, Lillian took her surprise the wrong way.
"I'm more than happy to take either one off your hands,” she continued. “They’re both outstanding specimens.”
Gambler— that had to be Napoleon. Which meant she thought Gaby’s piece of rough was Illya. Despite the new danger, she felt a bubble of excitement welling forth, and she kicked it down viciously. She was going to enjoy the satisfaction of hanging it over Illya and Napoleon's head that her disguises for them had worked better than their own.
“Lillian Duvall,” Waverly began as Gaby creaked the dossier open. “Daughter of a French military officer and an Italian heiress. She’s set up shop in Vienna, and has been organizing quite a thriving blackmail network. Until recently, she’s worked on a low enough level to ensure no one of note took notice of her."
Waverly flipped through a few slides, both of reconnaissance images and glamorous social events, all revealing a beautiful, sly-looking woman. Timestamps showed the most recent of the recon pictures having been taken last week. Ms. Duvall walked in the lead of a group of statesmen trailing behind her into a restaurant.
“With Austria’s independence granted ten years ago, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact states have enforced a strict neutrality on the county. It has helped rebuild their economy and restabilize the region, and kept it from being turned into another divided Germany. It seems, however, that Ms. Duvall is intent on pushing the country into the arms of the Warsaw Pact."
“Is that such a bad thing?” Gaby asked, trying to cut between Waverly and the receiving end of Illya’s sharp look. He could be sensitive to any apparent bias on U.N.C.L.E.’s part towards the western perspective of international affairs.
“It is if NATO decides to respond aggressively and throw all of Europe once more into the brink,” Waverly explained. “A divided Germany plus a divided Austria would wreak havoc on the balance of power right now.”
Napoleon impudently waggled his fingers in the air until he had Waverly's attention. “It says here you already have this mission assigned to a team,” he pointed out. Waverly’s mouth twisted.
“You’d be correct, Mr. Solo. Unfortunately, that ground team is floundering. Agent Aziz was made as an agent by Ms. Duvall as soon as she was introduced; Agent Cullen is in over his head and close to blowing his cover as a mechanic; and Agent Yun, usually the most level-headed of that lot, somehow managed to find herself both seduced and discarded by Ms. Duvall within a twenty-four hour period. To say the least, they are feeling more than a bit disadvantaged."
Napoleon put his chin on his hand. “If you're sending us in to clean up someone else’s mess, does that make us your heavyweight team?”
Gaby kicked him under the table. Despite the loud thunk it did nothing to diminish Napoleon’s smile.
Illya bit his lip to keep his face straight. “We will need to be independent of them,” he determined once his face was under control. “No overlap—hotels, flights, suppliers, they must all be different.”
“Of course,” Waverly approved. “Take the evening to put together your requirements. You leave in the morning.”
“How badly off are the ground team? Is extraction going to be a problem for them if they've been made?” Gaby asked.
“Well, it won’t be a cake walk. They have almost nothing in the way of an access point into Ms. Duvall’s network.”
“Says here she’s an avid motorist,” Gaby said, pointing to a line item on her dossier.
"Yes, with a veritable harem of four-wheeled collectibles," Waverly sniffed. "Yet there sits Agent Cullen on his hands all day while two-bit party boys and girls shuffle out with the Fiats and back in with scraps of metal so worn out it's cheaper to ship them out and buy a new one."
“She's a gambler with a taste for danger," Gaby read aloud. The horrible combination of Napoleon's vices tangoing with her own--the same heady combination that had ended their short-lived trip to Las Vegas--danced through her minded, connecting dots until it all fell into place. "Would you know that Vienna has a thriving street racing community?"
Illya, clearly remembering Vegas himself, put together the puzzle fast once he had the pieces. He looked at her with such undeserved suspicion that Gaby felt a bit proud of herself.
"Mostly point-to-point rules, but they’ll branch out into the countryside if there’s enough activity going on. I think it’s safe to assume she’s involved."
“How do you know that?” Napoleon asked with naked interest.
“Most of their damaged cars came up to Berlin for repair. Where do you think that car you borrowed from me was going back to?”
"Oh, did I steal some aristocrat's toy?"
“And already you’re making progress,” Waverly praised, standing from the table before Gaby could get into it with Napoleon. “I’m sure you’ll all prove more than capable in repairing this mission. Now run along, I have other things to attend to.”
The wheels in Gaby’s head turned. Illya and Napoleon worked around her framework, creating and discarding ideas in the span of seconds while the nitty gritty came together. She listened to them work out the simple particulars while the more interesting aspects of what could be done with their cover played out in her head. She debated the pros and cons all the way down to requisitions. As Illya jotted down their list of necessary supplies, she decided to voice her plan.
“I thought I’d handle our covers this time,” she said. Illya stopped writing and Napoleon paused in dictating his own personal list of necessities ("Non-scented pomade, Peril; I'll notice if you skimp on the cheap stuff--") and glanced towards her curiously.
“What did you have in mind?” he asked. Gaby smiled benevolently.
“I hate this,” Napoleon growled, raking his fingers through his newly grown beard. Gaby had been impressed and pleased with how quickly it came in, but even her quick play of hands skimming through his new accoutrements didn't pacify him. He knocked her hands away. Only a week and his jawline had nearly disappeared under the thick scruff. Nearly, he consoled himself. He had quite the jawline.
“But you wear it well,” Gaby openly shared a cheeky smile with Illya. Illya too now sported his own scruff and he did so with much more comfort. He looked downright chuffed in his rough clothes that did nothing to hide his terrible size.
Napoleon fought down the urge to mess up his hair in retribution. He settled for glaring.
They were enjoying this, this... dragging him out of his comfort zone and prodding him until he cracked. It was Dublin all over again. It was nearly worse than Minnesota. It was hanging out with that scene in his sky-rise apartment in Manhattan, sipping on martinis. But oh, this time, he'd make sure to be prepared.
Vienna’s underground world was a bustling mess of black market goods, gambling dens, dance halls, distillery bars, and the racing of everything from dogs to cars. Their first objective had been to get Gaby embedded in amongst the racers. The previous team had been judicious with their bribes and sparse with their information. Agent Cullen's role as a mechanic had been deemed more dangerous than useful out of the sheer incompetency. Napoleon could sympathize with Waverly's frustration; the only reason the man hadn't been made was that the other mechanics had seen his bribes as the actions of a shameless sycophant trying to cover his complete lack of knowledge of all things automotive.
So their petty cash was nonexistent and their only inside agent had been ostracized. The stipend from HQ was laughable at best. What little they had scrapped together went to bribes for Gaby’s cover. Any other expense and they were on their own. Budget concerns at the end of the quarter, Waverly told them.
Napoleon worked at a place that had a fiscal year. What had his life come to?
The race track was more of a collection of abandoned city blocks, complete with sharp turns and tiny alleys that reminded Napoleon strongly of East Berlin. Gaby won the first race easily. The scrap car she had spent the last week and most of their budget repairing blew the rest of the competition out of the water. It was all over her as she stepped out of the driver’s seat, that she was the best thing to ever grace their competition, and her fellow racers naturally swooned towards her. Frankly, the sheer levels of confidence exuding from her had even Napoleon’s pulse racing.
God, she would own this mission.
She'd earned her once over from their mark, as predicted, and a word of congratulations to boot. It was the best they had hoped for, and Napoleon felt almost relaxed as the revel moved into a nearby gambling hall now that the outdoor activities were concluded.
He bumped shoulders with Illya as they waited for Gaby, leaning against the railing of an ornate balcony. While Peril's attention was focused below them on--surprise--another makeshift boxing ring, Napoleon sought to address more important matters:
“Tell her I look horrible like this."
Illya shrugged, “Not the worst look of yours I’ve seen." Napoleon didn’t hide the roll of his eyes. Cheers went up and glasses clinked below as some poor shirtless bastard hit the floor. Dublin, his mind whispered, and his hands clenched uncomfortably on the balcony.
“When do you get your winnings?” Illya asked Gaby as she skirted upstairs to discreetly check-in. She'd doffed her mechanic's jacket and undershirt for the party, trading in the more interesting sartorial choice of a sheer, cream dressed pulled low over her racing leathers. Aside from the near indecency of the material, it made her scuffed, practical knee-high boots seem downright kinky in a way he couldn't afford to appreciate at the moment. But their mark hadn't missed it either. Why, Ms. Duvall had been practically devouring their Gaby as her eyes traced her movements through the room.
Illya actively avoided looking Gaby in the eyes as she stole a quick sip of his beer. Her nose scrunched cutely as she chased the taste on her lips. “Transferred to my account tomorrow.”
“So we are still out of pocket tonight,” Illya muttered, unhappy.
"Not necessarily," Napoleon said, his hands fiddling with the roll of his sleeves on their own accord. He cracked his knuckles for good measure. The balcony was killing him. There was sweat beading at his beard and the room felt loud with activity, heady with inspiration; and Napoleon hummed with the motivation to take care of all their worries tonight.
Following Gaby's lead, he stole a longer sip of Illya's drink for fortification. “Let’s see if our dear Gaby has robbed me of all my tricks.”
Napoleon gave them a saucy look he figured he could get away with as his whiskers kept it from being obscene, a parting gift as their glares followed him. He trailed away, roaming down the stairs as his mind shuttered out all outside irrelevancies, scanning for a mark.
Normally Napoleon would scout his targets in advanced before moving in, but in the past two hours he'd witnessed more pickpocketing than he could easily count. This was the kind of place that encouraged men to lose their edge along with their sobriety.
A good mark wasn’t hard to find. Drink in hand and three sheets to the wind, he roared as the fighters in the ring circled one another, trading jabs. The man barely spared a glance when Napoleon slid in to the seat next to him.
“Got money on one?” Napoleon asked. That got the man to send him a hard look sidewise, and Napoleon silently cursed Gaby again. It was easier to get close to a mark when they trusted the face they saw and the damn beard wasn’t helping.
But he was a man of assets, who'd played harder games. He let his shoulders turn to liquid, slumping down towards his chest, and smoothly palmed a mostly empty glass from the table behind them. This he put on the table near his chest. He wrapped both hands forlornly around it. His eyes he kept steady and free from beguilement as he let the mark size him up.
After a moment the mark relaxed, barely. “Yes,” he said cautiously, voice rising with forced easiness. “One in the red shorts.”
Napoleon glanced out into the ring, nodding along understandably.
“Your fighter's doing well,” he enthused politely.
“He is!” the man cawed, happy to brag about his success to someone. Combined with the loose tongue the alcohol had given him, Napoleon shouldn't have been surprised when the man handed him his next line with aplomb. “He’s going to made me a fortune, he is.”
“What are his odds?”
“Five to one. No one knows ”
“That’s amazing,” Napoleon praised. The mark raised his beer and they clinked glasses a few times through the next round. The man proudly, if amateurishly, extolled the virtues of each fighter on the roster while Napoleon slipped his fingers into the man’s jacket and nodded attentively.
He tossed the wallet to Gaby when he eventually returned with a free beer in hand.
Gaby rifled through the wallet. “Really, Napoleon?”
“It’s not for me,” he protested. He sent a wink at Illya. “Feel like working out some more, Peril?”
Illya’s grin lit up his face and Napoleon tried to tap down his own jealousy at how good Illya looked, even with half his face obscured. He hardly noticed Gaby pursing her lips as she pulled a thick collection of colorful Austrian Shillings out between her fingers.
“Lillian knows you’re a good racer,” explained Napoleon, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “Now go show her you know how to bet. There's not a soul in here putting money down on a risk, that’s what she’s looking for.” And if Gaby wasn't running point, he would have done it himself. Gamblers were social creatures who craved attention; the draw for Lillian would be inescapable.
Before Gaby could protest Illya bolted for the sign up counter.
Gaby huffed. Tucking the shillings away, she slipped the wallet back into Napoleon's pocket and leaned against his shoulder. He looked down in surprise as she took a deep breath, seeming content not to move.
“You need to go bet on him,” Napoleon reminded her. “And be flashy about it.”
“How can you be flashy about a bet? I’m not the main pull, he is.” She seemed miles away, eyes focused on a plan that hadn't come into play yet.
“Remember Dublin?” Napoleon offered before he thought better of it. Gaby looked up at him through her lashes.
“Yes, I remember Dublin," she said quite deliberately.
“Not that part,” Napoleon hastily corrected. The last thing they needed was a repeat of their kiss. Or the derailment it wrecked on Napoleon’s ability to think. “The other part. The off-the cuff part.”
“You mean the kiss wasn’t off-the-cuff?”
Napoleon couldn’t think of a snappy answer, and he was more than a little embarrassed to feel his skin heating up. Gaby grinned and hooked her elbow into his, sashaying them both towards the high roller table. Napoleon went willingly on autopilot, remembering only after a few steps that he was suppose to be playing menacing, not suave. He tried to straighten his spine and steady his pace, just this side of too loose for parade march. He had deep mixed feelings about what Gaby was doing to him on this job.
“Should I bet the whole amount?”
“No—give him some time to warm up. It’d be embarrassing if we’re out before we even started."
“It’s Illya. He’s not going to lose.”
“You say that and yet I hesitate. I’d say half: you’re confident he’ll win but you’re looking to bank big when he’s up against a serious opponent.”
Gaby nodded, and Napoleon let her go to make her grand entrance solo. Every eye was on her as she strode confidently up and laid down her bet, Lillian’s included. He was caught by surprise when Gaby sent Lillian a sly wink while sauntering away. He bit back a grin: they'd be eating out of the palm of her hand by the end of the night.
“I figured it’d be what you would do,” she replied, following him into the spectator's area.
Neither spoke as Illya climbed into the ring. Just like in Dublin, he was stripped down to his trousers and barefoot, and just like in Dublin, he slipped off his watch, leaned over the arena’s guard posts, and handed it to Gaby for safe keeping. His body was looser than in Dublin though. More comfortable. Not so much needing this as much as enjoying it for the thrill.
Illya’s opponent looked more than a little put out to suddenly be expected to go toe to toe with a giant. Napoleon tried not to laugh too hard when the opponent was face down on the arena floor before the three minute mark. Gaby cheered Illya on, bouncing up onto the balls of her feet as the referee announced Illya’s victory.
“Go,” Napoleon urged her when she swayed between the two of them. “Show him off. Just let him know we’re gonna need him to make the matches last a little longer if we really want to make an impression.”
“Put on a show, yeah?”
“All the way down.”
Illya either took their comments to heart or was starting to pace himself. When he went in for his next match, he actually took a few hits before retaliating. He still finished off his opponent faster than Napoleon would have liked, but part of that was his own disappointment at how little of Illya’s aggression he got to watch. Illya moved in fluid, graceful arcs, covering his more obvious KGB training with more traditional boxing techniques and the occasional dirty trick that Napoleon hadn’t realized he knew. It set his nerves on edge. A less dedicated agent would have given in to the jittering energy to move, but Napoleon settled for digging his thumbs into his thighs and hoping that his beard hid how hard he was biting his lips.
If the soft noises coming from beside him were any indication, Gaby was having the same problem. Good. She deserved payback for making Napoleon wear this frankly ridiculous persona.
It wasn’t until Illya's third round, the semi-finals of the night, that Napoleon started to regret his plan. It wasn’t the show Illya was finally putting on, taking hits and coming out swinging like an angry war god pushed too far. It was the memories he saw, the emotions that floored him.
That strong, broad line of Illya's shoulders had easily born Napoleon's weight when he was drugged to the gills and bleeding out during an information exchange gone wrong in Naples. Illya had carried him nearly a mile to get him to safety. There was the patch of scars where he had taken a bullet meant to go through Gaby in Oslo. His trim waist that Gaby could only just manage to get her arms around when she hugged him. The spot at the base of his neck that could make their surly KGB agent go stone quiet when touched. His too-clear eyes that never let Napoleon escape.
Napoleon leaned in close to Gaby, tucked into his side. “Think he knows what he’s doing?"
Gaby made an obscene noise in the back of her throat. Napoleon figured his revenge was complete, though he hadn’t planned on sinking himself in the process. Oversight. It really was Dublin all over again.
Gaby stomped through the competition in five more races before they began to see results. She had almost forgotten what it was like to feel the engine reeve up beneath her, or how her focus zoomed in on the road. For all the waiting, she was enjoying herself. It had been ages since she drove for the thrill of it.
By the time she got out of the car, her hands shook from the adrenaline. She felt like she could take down Illya in a fight and win. Like she could out-bet Napoleon. Like she could grab--
“Dear,” Lillian purred into her ear. “That was a sight to behold. However did you learn to drive like that?” With Napoleon on her mind, Gaby saw his face in Lillian's. She watched Gaby like he watched art; determined and possessive and expecting to own it in the near future.
“A misbegotten, unmonitored childhood,” Gaby parried, earning one of those rich, infectious laughs that made her persona easy to hold. Lillian pulled her followers in; she made it a challenge and rush to please her. Gaby wasn’t entirely immune to that. She giggled, brushing near Lillian and letting the other woman reel her in by the waist. They stayed linked arm in arm all the way back to the inconspicuous casino set-up near their finish line.
“I do hope there’s more to that story. Maybe you could tell me about your first ride,” Lillian flashed a sliver of a smile so quick it disarmed Gaby into reciprocating before the innuendo could even land. Dangerous. "And you must join me tonight. With this winning streak of yours, I feel you’ll only bring me more luck.”
Perfect. "I'd love to."
Still linked together, Lillian steered Gaby through a bar and past the raucous tables toward a smaller corner of the room with a small, intimately arranged game tables. Lillian had her fingers in all sorts of gambling, and as she led them to a table with a patterned board, Gaby swore vehemently within the confines of her thoughts.
Backgammon. Why did it have to be backgammon?
Lillian never set up for the same game twice in a month. Gaby had prepared for most of the likely candidates, discarding them one by one as Napoleon reported back on his reconnaissance. She had it narrowed down to classic poker or roulette. Oh, but it was just par for the course that when she finally got an invite into Lillian's inner circle, backgammon reared its ugly head.
Gaby could already imagine Napoleon’s eyes glazing over at the prospect. His file had made it clear that the two should not be acquainted in polite company, and Gaby had deferred to its suggestion of avoidance by only skimming the game's rulebook, because who on earth risked money on the gamble of chance that was backgammon?
She needed to stall.
“Oh, but you must allow me to change at least,” Gaby protested with a feigned, girlish flutter towards her hair. She let her eyes flick down to her overalls, with her brightly patterned headscarf stuffed hastily into her breastpocket, and was struck speechless when Lillian's gaze followed in hot pursuit.
Gaby gestured helplessly one more time, from herself to the room, until finally Lillian glanced around at the finery and back to Gaby.
Lillian scowled at a plan on the rocks. Her foot tapped impatiently as she nodded towards the bar.
“Fine. Tell Rollo to make two Aviatons and that you'll be back in twenty minutes. I’ll be waiting, darling,” Lillian warned. “And I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
The heat of her attention followed Gaby to the bar, where she smoothly relayed the drinks order to bartender, asked him for the time, checked his answer against her own watch, and sprinted into the crowd like a bat out of hell.
Her boys lingered around the edges of the crowd, their disguises as rough body guards unquestioned by the drunken guests. Illya saw her coming but had to nudge Napoleon a few times until the other man tore his gaze away from the craps tables.
“She wants me to gamble with her,” Gaby explained in a rush, scrambling for the zipper of the duffel Illya held with the propriety of a briefcase.
“That’s good thing,” Illya reminded her. His keen eyes took note as she pulled out one of her emergency kits—the one with the loopier earrings. “Progress.”
“Not when I don’t know how to play,” she muttered, unfastening the studs she wore. She stuffed them in Napoleon's pocket as his shock forced his attention back to her from the hall’s vices.
“Hard as it is to believe, backgammon is not one of my many talents.”
Napoleon looked contemplative for a split second—a bit like a professor with that elusive, full beard of his, Gaby thought—before the agent in him kicked into action.
“We can fix that. Give me five minutes,” he said. He disappeared into the crowd.
“I don’t like this,” Illya voiced. “We fly blind too often.”
“We do,” Gaby agreed, unraveling her braid-up to shake out her hair. “But we’re good at it. And no one else could.”
The look on his face told Gaby he still wasn’t happy, but he held out his hand for her headscarf all the same. Waverly called them in because conventional and passive weren’t going to complete this mission.
Napoleon spent far longer gone than Gaby thought he would. She ushered Illya closer to the wall and made him hold her mirror as she quickly tried to touch up her make up, checking her watch anxiously as she did. Nine minutes gone, and she hadn't told him of her time constraint. She could have kicked herself, and she only realized he'd returned when he was less than ten feet away.
Gone were the rough clothes she had originally picked out for him. Napoleon stood before them in all his gaudy glory: clean-shaven, and in the suit of a high roller. Illya gawked and touched his own still-present beard in awe.
“—did you manage that so quickly?” Gaby cut in. Had he hidden the suit in her car?
Napoleon ignored her. "Here’s the plan—,”
“My word, you have a plan? Is the world ending?”
“Keep talking like that, Peril, and I’ll embarrass you more than I already plan to. We’ll play across from you,” he said, turning to Gaby. “Illya will play Lillian’s moves. After you roll, watch me and respond the same way I do.”
“My, how I appreciate you telling us of the plan after you’ve already prepared for it,” Gaby snipped. Her eyes followed his hand as he rubbed self-consciously at his bare chin. He must have been far deeper out of his comfort zone than she anticipated to play his own scheme so quickly over hers, and keep it so closely to his chest. But there was no way to refuse him now that he had started the dice rolling.
Napoleon shot her an easy grin, unashamed of being caught. Gaby sighed; now was not the time.
Instead of arguing she grabbed Illya’s shoulder, planted her foot onto a low decoration, and hoisted herself up. Illya grunted, shifting his weight to better support her. Head and shoulders above the crowd, she scanned about until she found what she needed, nodding towards a tall, broad-shouldered real estate mogul.
“His suit should fit you,” she told him. It was a nice navy blue, the material shiny and eye catching. Illya’s lips didn’t take on Napoleon’s cheeky grin, but they twitched just enough to remind Gaby of her teammates' knack for last minute wrenches in plans. Illya let her down easily, passed the duffel to Napoleon, and bled into the crowd towards his new mark.
“Feel like showing off a bit more?” she asked.
“For you, darling, anything.” Well, someone knew he was in trouble for kicking up her plan. The pet name sounded so much better out of his mouth than it did from Lillian's.
Fourteen minutes down; six left.
“His tie,” she ordered, pointing out his targets. “His cuff links,” she picked out another. She spotted two men, both judges with expensive taste far beyond their station, and tittered between their outfits—a nice brown leather belt with an ornate silver working in the design or a jet black belt studded with gold and onyx at the buckle?—before deciding to send Napoleon after the brown one.
“That shouldn’t be a problem, should it?” she asked innocently, relieving him of the duffel bag. Napoleon cackled and went to work.
Their retrieval missions gave Gaby time to rush to the bathroom, casting off her own overalls for the gold chiffon number she had packed. It plunged in both the front and back lines, leaving little around her shoulders, neck, and chest to the imagination. Well worth an hour's wait, let alone twenty minutes. The view would distract Lillian if nothing else. One more check of her hair and make-up and she was back out on the floor within two minutes.
Napoleon returned before Illya, depositing his winnings into her hands with delight.
“We should do this more often."
“Illya would have a heart attack if we did this more often.”
“We’ll find him someone to punch. It’ll be fine.”
Illya reappeared with a bundle of fabric under his arm and a sour expression. Napoleon turned him right back around towards the bathroom with a small shaving kit he made appear from his inside pocket. Two minutes left.
“Don’t even try arguing,” Napoleon cut him off. “You know you can’t get a seat at that table with a carpet on your face.”
“Go,” Napoleon ordered, shoving him towards the restroom with the shaving kit and the treasure trove from Gaby’s hands. Once he was gone Napoleon grinned and linked arms with her, drawing her close to whisper his conspiracy.
“Give us five minutes to start things off. I’ll signal you when it’s safe to come in. Think you can keep Lillian occupied until than?”
“Yes,” Gaby hesitated. Napoleon’s eyes sharpened, because nothing slipped by him, and Gaby was about to announce her imminently needed departure when Illya reappeared before she could even open her mouth.
“How did you—,”
“Efficiency appears to be solely Russian trait.”
Napoleon rolled of his eyes. "Let’s go, Peril.” He gave Gaby another sharp look and disappeared into the crowd with Illya at his heels.
Gaby skidded up to the bar with a few seconds to spare. She caught her breath, gathered her bearings with her drinks, and strutted back to Lillian. She found the other woman in the shadows, muttering impassively into the ear of a familiar looking man in a suit. Gaby stepped a little harder as she approached, letting the sound of her heels be her announcement, and Lillian’s face flickered to life. She dismissed the suited man with a wave of her fingers, and Gaby tried to place where she had seen him.
“You look stunning, my dear,” Lillian praised. Gaby let a timid smile touch her lips, and then felt it go playful as she remembered the row this particular dress had caused between Napoleon and Illya; one thinking it was too gaudy, one thinking it wasn’t eye-catching enough. Neither opinion coming from the man she would expect. About the only thing they agreed on was that it looked stunning on her. Good enough to keep any mark on a reel.
The backgammon games bustled nervously as Lillian passed. Their small, intimate table remained unclaimed, and the looming presence of more men in suits told Gaby it had been reserved. After Gaby took her seat Lillian waved away the guards, and there was an audible shift in the room as the subdued players relaxed again.
Out of the corner of her eye, Gaby caught a glimpse of Napoleon as he sidled towards the set-up at their diagonal. Illya followed close behind, and as they sat down they reached for the table in tandem and scooted it across the floor a half-foot. It was a sly, synchronized move which put Napoleon's chair level with Lillian's but facing the other way. Gaby had a perfect view around his shoulder to see his board.
He sent her a casual wink and flicked a piece across the board in an opening move. She copied on her own board with feigned casualness and took a sip of her gin-laden cocktail, settling in for a good night of spywork. And the other team made it seem so hard.
The night went on.
Gaby appreciated the guidance and comfort of having her boys by her side, but it wasn’t until later that she realized letting Napoleon and Illya so close lowered her guard.
She hadn’t expected Lillian to catch her attention straying. A delicate line appeared on her brow as she sneaked side-glances at Napoleon. Appreciative glances; but then, was Napoleon not sort of man to be appreciated?
Illya tensed, hands curling into a loose fist. She leaned back to glance under the table in time to see Illya prod Napoleon’s leg with his toes.
Napoleon’s attention came up off the board, followed the tension from Illya to Gaby to Lillian, and it took him only a second react. Smiling in the way that Gaby knew was fake and disingenuous, he leaned back in his chair and openly eyed Lillian in a way that could never be considered innocent.
“Why, hello,” he greeted with an American accent so egregiously emphasized he sounded like Elvis. Gaby fought as hysterical laughter threatened to break through her lips.
For the first time in their short acquaintance, Lillian seemed caught off guard. Her interest clearly wobbled as she weighed that voice against the pretty picture Napoleon cut, before finally siding to the side of the sighted.
“Hello. And you are?” she asked, raising one perfectly sharp eyebrow. Napoleon held out his arm as if to shake hands but stopped at the last minute, palm up in offering. Pleased, Lillian ran the back of her many rings against his hand, up his wrist and over her shirtsleeve. They must have snagged him through the fabric, but Napoleon did not flinch. There was nothing soft in her eyes. Gaby ruthlessly suppressed the desire to rip her hand off him.
“DeAngelo Bonaire,” Napoleon pulled the name out of thin air. Gaby could feel Illya’s annoyance from her seat.
Lillian gaze flicked to Gaby, a humoring 'do you see this?’ look passing between them, but she turned back towards Napoleon and smiled.
“You’re a new face around here,” she purred, leaning in close. A predator. Despite her better judgment Gaby felt her face tighten.
Napoleon proceeded to spin an unbelievable backstory for his equally unbelieving cover, and Gaby frantically tracked over his every detail searching for a weak spot. But between his smile and his unabashed charisma, the longer it went on the more realistic it all sounded. Of course he was the care-free son of a minerals-and-ore tycoon. Of course he found himself in high-end casinos all the time. Of course he had his own private yacht. Lillian seemed enraptured. At one point Illya didn’t bother hiding his eye-roll and, except Gaby, no one noticed.
Easy flirting didn't stop Napoleon from playing one hell of a game. With an eye on Illya and his whole body flushed towards Lillian, he rolled through two games of backgammon without losing stride. It took so little effort to follow his lead that Gaby upped the ante, doing her diligence as Lillian's arm candy and companion to keep her entertained. So she flirted alongside her target, playing coy and jealous and dismissive as Lillian played the most sophisticated game of hard to get that Gaby had ever witnessed.
Later she would think Illya had been quiet, even for his taciturn nature.
For Gaby the night ended with another invitation from Lillian and a more than friendly kiss. Napoleon left with more than a few interesting offers from Lillian’s contacts and a handful of lifted rings and bracelets. Illya, impressively, left with his temper in tact.
"So, dearest, what do you think? And which one would you recommend? Surely you know my tastes by now.” Lillian’s gaze could have put a viper’s to shame.
Gaby became aware of so much in that moment. The dull conversation behind their chairs. The taste of champagne more expensive than her dress sitting heavy on her tongue. Illya’s stare from the corner of the room, hovering just outside the perimeter of the party. Ready to abort the mission and get her out if she gave the signal.
Below them, Napoleon was pulling in the room, keeping everyone's attention focused on his obnoxious party boy appearance while upstairs Gaby considered trading him off.
There was no room for panic. She ordered herself, Keep the game going.
“Of course, Madam. I'm sure either of them would suit your needs. Were you leaning towards one in particular?”
Lillian’s face shuttered for the briefest second; Gaby hadn’t answered the way Lillian wanted. With a detachment that surprised her, Gaby watched Lillian constructed a new strategy before her eyes, every lip twitch and flared nostril a discarding of ideas to fast to catch. The woman shifted gears cleaner than Gaby’s Porsche.
“Well, what kind of woman would I be if I didn’t take them both out for a test drive?”
Gaby's instincts screamed, Abort!
But as she opened her mouth to reject the request out of hand and habit, Gaby hesitated. Lillian found weak points. The first team had tanked and their verdict had been incompetency, but if Gaby turned her away now, would that not be as good as a confession?
No, Gaby would hold on to her play.
“Of course.” If Lillian hurt either of them, Gaby would kill her.
Lillian demanded Napoleon the very next day, and Gaby hated the sight of his jacket fluttering behind him as he left.
She had expected (and selfishly hoped) at least one her teammate's would protest Lillian’s unsubtle request. Neither pushed back. Napoleon shamelessly grinned and applauded Gaby's ingenuity while he styled his hair with expensive product. The humor didn’t touch his eyes or hide the concern that flashed over his face. He rubbed at his jaw self-consciously when he thought Gaby wasn't looking. Gaby's gut twisted.
Illya was little better. He kept his responses concise as Gaby picked out a suit for him. She laid out his tie and his father's watch and the little bugs that would be secreted into the buckle of his belt and in the lining of his wallet. Two items a man could be expected to touch in the course of a lucky evening.
She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected she was seeing older versions of them, men who answered to menacing governmental suits with no concern for their own safely, only their efficiency.
“We don’t have to do this,” she suggested one more time, desperate to see any glimpse of her friends. The ones that loved to feed her and dress her up and spoiler her rotten with secrets.
Napoleon, dressed to the nines in a sharp black suit and a blue striped tie that brought out his eyes, gave her a reassuring smirk. His fingers slipped around the back of her neck, and with gentle care he pulled her forward and pressed a kiss to her forehead, a blessing and forgiveness and lingering apology.
“I’m not scared of her,” he insisted. “Are you, Peril?”
Illya grunted, lounging on the couch, the very picture of disinterest. Gaby wasn’t fooled; they had his full attention. They couldn’t move an inch without blue eyes on them.
“Be careful anyway,” she warned. He gave a cheeky grin and flicked her nose with a fingernail. “And no bullshit about not needing to hear it.”
Napoleon left with another kiss, this time to the back of her hand, and as well as one on Illya’s cheek, which only landed because he was quicker than Illya’s half-hearted attempt to fend him off.
“I thought we got this out of our system already,” he grumbled.
“Not when you make it too much fun for me,” Napoleon responded as he bounded out the door.
He didn’t return until dawn. They waited for him, working their way down to the bottom of a bottle of vodka. Gaby was hard pressed to think of another time words had flowed so awkwardly between her and Illya. By sun up, she had been thoroughly trounced in chess three times over and Illya's leg shook like a car with a flat tire.
But none of that mattered when Napoleon walked back through the door, exhausted and not bothering to hide it.
“Are you hurt?” Illya reached out to steady the other man has he swayed. Fear, strong and thick, leaped high in Gaby's throat as she feared the worst.
Napoleon shook his head, waving them off. He eyed the last remains of the vodka and swiped the bottle for himself. His eyes were distant and foggy.
“We went gambling. She talked. I laughed. We kissed. Nothing else.”
“Then why do you look exhausted?”
“Just. I just am,” said Napoleon. It sounded painfully close to an admission, with him looking so worn down around the edges. “She’s…a damn terrier. The whole conversation was a sparring match. Only I was boxing and she was fencing.”
“What did she want to know?”
“Who I was. What I knew. I think,” Napoleon racked his hand over his face. “I can’t tell if she’s in my head or if I’m legitimately concerned we’ve been compromised. I couldn’t tell you what she was looking for, but she racked me over the coals until she found it.”
Gaby didn’t like the sound of that. Illya cupped his hand against the curve of Napoleon's shoulder as he leaned his head back to swallow the last of the bottle of vodka. There was no complaint about the taste.
For all his exhaustion, it took hours before they could convince him to lay down. He was jittery and fidgeted whenever he sat down, and when he stood he would pace in circles, losing track during the debriefing whenever Gaby let him take his time to answer.
Finally, Illya grabbed him by the elbow and pushed him down onto the couch. Before Napoleon could get a word in Illya sat down, crowding him against the edge of the couch. He dragged a throw blanket over both their laps and pinned his arm around Napoleon's shoulders, over the back of the couch.
Napoleon blinked at Illya's hand, inches from his face. The throw blanket, which was ugly, went virtually unnoticed except that his fists slowly clenched against the fabric, releasing in little puffs only to clench again.
Gaby settled on the armrest next to him. She looped her arm over the press of Illya's and tucked herself against his shoulder. Finally, Napoleon relaxed, and they waited quietly until his shoulders dropped and his breath evened out.
Illya shot Gaby a look over his head. Resigned. Waiting for orders.
“Treat her like a hostile if she moves to harm you,” Gaby ordered. Napoleon looked as if he'd been tossed out of an interrogation room after a week of intense torture. She wouldn’t stand it if Lillian did the same to Illya.
Illya was taken out the next day. Gaby, sitting at their ornate dining table, tried to ignore the raging pit of instinctual worry and gnawing fear as he dressed. Napoleon sat beside her—not touching, but reassuring nonetheless. He hadn’t slept well the night before. Gaby ached to ease the dark circles under his eyes.
Together, they watched Illya shrug on his jacket.
Before he left he dropped kisses on Gaby’s cheek, on Napoleon’s temple. I’ll be fine went unspoken, and Gaby appreciated not being lied to. Then he was out the door; no fuss, no goodbye. She suspected he was already entirely focused on the mission ahead of him.
Left behind, she sat in silence with Napoleon for maybe ten minutes before he had reached out and laid a hand on her knee.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested.
"By walk, do you mean mean ‘let's tail Illya’?”
“I’m so glad we're on the same page.”
They tracked Illya to another underground party. It took only the sound of pained grunts and trailing slaps of fists on skin for Gaby to tense up. When Napoleon held the door open for her, the smell of sweat, heat, and blood rush out.
Illya was in the boxing ring. She felt a familiar thrill in watching him, before she realized she was witnessing something new: Illya losing.
When Gaby spied Lillian in the crowd, she was already looking back. She had known.
She suspected, Gaby firmly wrenched her hasty thoughts away from paranoia. Losing the upper hand did not mean she should admit to losing the war. Lillian had suspected that Gaby would arrive for the show. It was only a good move if Gaby took the bait. If she hadn’t, Lillian would have simply sent him back like she had Napoleon. And since Gaby had arrived, she would get to watch Lillian ring Illya out like a dish rag, but she would make it count. Until a gun was pressed to her head and the trigger pulled, Gaby would treat each action as if her team still relied on her to be a good agent.
She needed to make the call. The madness had gone far enough. Gaby shoved her way into the crowd until she reached the ring’s sunken edge.
“Illya!” she had to call thrice before she caught his attention, so intense was his focus on his work. She wanted to slam her hands against the ringside, for all the good it would do. She would probably only succeed in breaking her fingers.
When Illya finally flinched in recognition, he seemed stunned to turn and see her there. She beckoned him over.
“Stop letting him win!” she ordered (pleaded).
His voice was quiet, almost solemn, in the din of the ring. He had to spit the blood out of his mouth before he could speak clearly: “What of mission?”
“I don’t care. Don’t let another blow land. I won’t have her thinking she can get away with this.” Anyways, Gaby understood that Lillian had already found what she wanted to know.
Gaby was willing to break protocol and cover to protect her team. She couldn’t care less about the consequences in the face of Napoleon’s terror and Illya’s pain. They would have pushed through, gone down in flames fighting every step of the way, and never known better to take a step back. But she wouldn’t allow herself to let them.
Illya went back to his fight, and true to her word, he didn’t lose. Gaby’s mood did not improve.
"Why did you let him land a hit like that!" Napoleon shouted at Illya, altogether unconcerned with the Russian’s freely bleeding nose or swelling lip. The sluggish bleeding from the cuts along his cheekbones. They had the locker room to themselves. Gaby slumped against the wall and let Napoleon handle the fussing. “Even I saw it coming a mile away."
Illya blinked his one good eye at Napoleon and said, “She wanted it that way."
“Lillian?” Gaby asked needlessly. She stood off to the side, arms crossed protectively over her chest, nearly shading her eyes from sight. The fight had been horrible. She had never expected Illya to take a beating like that. It frightened her, to think that Illya could ever be put in that position.
Her giant nodded, and Gaby’s lips twisted. She knew she should have pulled the plug on their mission after Napoleon threw their subtler, unnoticed covers out the window.
“You’re a new face around here."
Or when she became so engrossed with Lillian, with Lillian flirting over the backgammon table that she missed the mark announcing that she'd caught on. But that meant that she had noticed them before, from the night of the first race. They'd been played. They'd been played the whole time.
"...And Agent Yun, usually the most level-headed of that lot, somehow managed to find herself both seduced and discarded by Ms. Duvall within a twenty-four hour period."
At least Gaby had stretched the mission longer than a day. Maybe she should buy Agent Yun a drink when they got back.
Or maybe she should just go back time and let Illya pick that fight with Waverly about the Warsaw Pact.
There was a small whine from Illya as Napoleon felt along the sides of his chest. “It’s nothing. Tender ribs, but I’ve had worse.”
Gaby shot him an unimpressed look. Napoleon actually growled. He pressed their foreheads together in a close proximity of affection.
"You're an idiot, Peril."
“How many men did she pit you against in the first round?” Gaby asked. Her brain still churned, demanding information in pieces as she processed everything that she'd missed.
“Christ. She didn’t want you to walk about of that ring,” murmured Napoleon. Gaby agreed.
“I got to work off some steam,” Illya said hollowly. “Not all bad."
“Really? Stand up. Go on, I’ll wait.”
And he did wait, in horrible silence, as Illya's face screwed up. For a moment, Gaby was afraid he would try. For a more hysterical moment, Gaby wondered what she'd do if he cried.
He did neither. Illya sat, strained and unmoving, and didn't speak. Eventually, Napoleon blew out a harsh breath. Nodding to himself, he put his hands on Illya's shoulders, both a brace and a restraint. They stayed like that for a long time.
It wasn’t in Gaby’s nature to admit defeat.
If a plan wasn’t working, she just needed to tinker with it. Change a few parts out.
Gaby didn’t bother turning the lights on in her room. She dodged around the dark checkers of the furniture’s sharp corners and shadows and grabbed for the phone. She had had enough of this woman.
“Open channel D,” she all but snarled into the line. “Get me Waverly.” The operator on the other end must have decided it wasn’t worth asking, because she was transferred quickly and without question.
Waverly answered his line on the third ring.
“What is it, Agent Teller?”
“I see why your other team got chewed up and spit out. She almost has us dancing to the same tune.”
“That’s unfortunate to hear,” Waverly commented. “I do hope, Agent Teller, that you didn’t ring just to complain about the difficulty of your mission.”
Gaby opened her mouth to say something truly regrettable, but clamped down on her throat before the words got past her teeth. This wasn’t the time for hot-headed recklessness. She breathed out through her nose and when she was sure her tongue wouldn’t run off from her again, she started from the top.
“We’re not going to be able to take her out of the game, sir,” she explained. “We came in too late. Even if we had the means to be successful, her operations are too deeply embedded. Her power and reach extend too far; it would take longer that we have to infiltrate on an effective level. Even so, if we tear her out now, we risk taking out most of Vienna’s infrastructure with her. I have seen the men she surrounds herself with. They are the same statesmen and judiciaries and bankers that hold the country together, and they work for her. To remove her now, it would take them decades to rebuild.
"What’s more, every agent you send after her she’s going to dismantle like a cheap radio. She knows how to spot threats too well.”
“Are you saying you’ve failed?"
“No sir,” Gaby replied. “We simply need to change the play. She may be unmovable but I don’t think she’s unchangeable.”
“What did you have in mind?” Waverly sounded bored, but that was Waverly for 'intrigued.'
Gaby laid out her plan.
“Are you sure about this, Agent Teller?”
“Sir, I know it sounds like a stretch, but I don’t believe our original strategy will work here. No other strategy may work here.This may be our only solution if you don’t want Austria torn in two."
Waverly sighed the sigh of the much put-upon. “Well then, dear girl, set up the meeting.”
Waverly arrived early the next morning. Gaby left Illya and Napoleon recuperating at the hotel to meet him and shared a taxi across town to Lillian’s gallery.
She was not surprised to see them.
Lillian paced the length of her office, her fingertips tracing the furniture in a way that made Gaby flinch to see now.
“I guess you were too good to be true,” she finally said. Gaby grimaced.
“Ms. Duvall,” redirecting her attention, Waverly smiled. He had his hands in his pockets and he rocked back and forth on his heels like a little kid. “I regret to say your meddling has drawn a target on your back. Many of my colleagues are pushing to have you killed. My agent tells me this would be a waste.”
“I can’t stay I’ve ever heard of U.N.C.L.E.,” Lillian commented. Her fingers dug into the soft, navy lining of the reclining couch in front of her, even as her smile remained unchanged. A perfect mask that hid her teeth and claws.
“And we prefer to keep it that way,” Waverly explained. “Because we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Austria.”
Lillian slipped around the couch and reclined across from Waverly, knuckles against her cheek as she watched him.
“You love this city, don’t you?” Waverly asked. Lillian quirked an eyebrow. “My agents tell me you enjoy it in every way there is to be had. No stone left unturned; or uninvested, if you will. Very admirable. You work hard to defend it.”
Lillian graced him with same dull smile reserved for every man in a suit. “I do. It protected me when I was young and stupid and too native to know any better. Now I'm returning the favor. Even from greedy organizations that would see it fall.”
“The balance of power works with Austria staying neutral.”
“The balance of power works to keep this city a poor relation.” Lillian's mask cracked. Just a hair. Her smile, a snarl. "Austria has no power on the international stage. We’re treated like a ball to be batted back and forth between NATO and the nations of the Warsaw Pact.”
Gaby turned to leave.
Lillian’s gave a loud noise of distress, like thunder through a tea pot.
“You’re leaving?” she demanded.
Gaby made a vague noise of disagreement. She was tired to a level so bone deep, not even the greatest curiosity of what Lillian would say could keep her here. Just as so, as the only place she needed to be was a taxi drive away and three floors up.
"You meddle," Lillian bit the words out, indignation wrapped around her like a bristled mink coat. "You engage in my affairs. You give me your little games and your petty thievery—,"
Oh, Napoleon, I hope you stole all her rings.
“—And you have your rough beat up my best fighters—,"
Should I get ice? I'll get Illya more ice, when I get back to the hotel.
“—I welcomed you into my city. I gave you treasures. I treat you like a princess, and in return? You bring me this little man who wants to destroy my country?"
Waverly sniffed, casual upper-class offense rolling off his shoulders in waves.
"Mr. Waverly will work with you to establish where your interests intersect with U.N.C.L.E.'s," Gaby intoned. "Certain illegal activities will be overlooked in entering this agreement--to your benefit. You will be given a certain amount of dedicated authority over growth areas that your operation currently oversees--which, again, is more to your benefit than anyone else's. You'll have all the power you ever dreamed of, Lillian. What more do you want?"
Gaby reached for the doorknob.
Lillian stopped the door from opening. If Napoleon had stolen any rings, Gaby couldn't tell. Jewels and gold glimmered around in what seemed like a hundred circles, around and around the fingertips that were currently holding the door shut.
Lillian's eyes burned bright and all-consuming. "Will you not even stay to see what I can do?"
Gaby, struck dumb—this whole time—struck so dumb by Lillian, finally had her end answer, her last piece of her puzzle. But she had no desire to stay and admire the completed picture.
“I have other people who need me.”
“I need you,” Lillian lured.
“No, you don’t.”
Illya was fast asleep where she left him. Napoleon wasn't in the hotel room. Gaby cursed herself a fool the whole elevator ride down.
Illya heard her coming and going. Calm, sore and grateful, he went back to sleep.
Napoleon loved the rush of gambling.
After paying off the bar tab and hotel and sticking the receipts to the expense reports (shoot him), he had converted most of the money that Illya won in the ring into casino tokens, with the exception of the top bill, which he kept tucked away in his jacket. When Illya had taken the money from the bookie, his hands must have been bleeding through the wraps on his knuckles. His blood had stained the top bill.
Napoleon could feel the familiar bite of desire within him, and it wasn't the kind he found in a boxing ring. It was the itch the made him want to play more recklessly, bet higher with meaner people. That wanted to show off to every pair of eyes in the room. That wanted to take everything he could and leave nothing on the table. He wanted to—
—not think. Of Illya’s blood on the bill tucked in his jacket. He wanted to stop. He wanted to cash out his winnings. Every so often a waiter would come by with a new drink or another light and each time Napoleon would finger the dollar bill in his jacket and, guiltily, lower his next few bets.
Then they'd go back up again.
Gaby found him eventually.
She looked stunning in that low-cut gold affair, but Napoleon had been long since willing to admit that Gaby always looked stunning. Even with circles around her eyes and fatigue across her face.
“It’s time to go home,” she said, watching his hands move across the board.
Napoleon fingered the bill through the lining of his jacket. “I’m almost done.”
“Cowboy,” she said, gently taking his hands in hers. Napoleon froze. “Peril’s waiting for us. It’s time to go home.”
Try as he might, Napoleon could hear no judgement or condescension in her tone. She held his hand in waiting, rubbing small circles into his knuckles. If he told her 'no', she'd let him go.
It felt like all his limbs were under water, but slowly, deliberately, he started cashing out of the game. His opponent looked disgruntled, but Gaby was warm and real beside him. The heady rush felt so cheap next to her. There was too much space behind him where a looming giant should be.
They didn’t speak until they were back on the elevator, Gaby’s hand tucked into the crock of his elbow and her head resting on his shoulder. He leaned back and let the mirrored wall take their weight while she snuck her hand down against his palm.
“You know Illya’s messing with us.”
Napoleon’s foggy mind couldn't tell which of them had said it. He glanced down at Gaby in time to catch the look she gave him through her eyelashes, the same way she had done a hundred times by now.
She and Illya both been messing with Napoleon's head since Dublin. Hell, since Rome. He didn’t know what to do about it. Or if he did, he hadn’t yet gained the courage to look it head-on.
"Doesn't really sound like Peril," he lied. Call it what it is, Solo.
"He shows off every time he knows we're watching his matches,” Gaby muttered.
"Probably. He knows it pushes our buttons. I'm just surprised he doesn't try it more often."
“I think it’s time for a little revenge,” Gaby grinned at him. A spark, bright and wicked, fluttered back into her eyes.
The bill burned through his jacket; Napoleon touched it one more time for good luck. "What do you have in mind?"
Almost there! Thank you so much for reading, and we hope you enjoyed this last chapter :)