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[personal profile] drworm
Title: Aching Like Birds
Rating: PG-13
Summary: This is what happens when two people have an experience together, but only one is able to say “Hey, do you remember the time when we…?” Napoleon and Illya suffer some setbacks in a Thrush compound in India.

headaches and heartaches and lost loves and that time in bombay when (oh never mind) no no when we met the--

The doctor was French, spoke liltingly accented English, and could not feel pain. He was there with them, in the holding cell, when Illya began to seize. Napoleon had cried out and the man had appeared at his side, too calm, his voice too quiet. "The drugs," he'd said. "Those amateurs, the drugs."

He had knelt beside Illya and placed a hand on his forehead, exerting gentle pressure to keep his skull firm against the cold stone floor while he convulsed. Then the doctor's other hand had alighted on one stiffened arm, before fluttering over Illya's lips. Bony fingers had prised open his jaw and wriggled around inside. Napoleon winced when Illya bit down.

But he stared when the doctor did not try to pull his hand away.

"The airway must stay clear," the doctor explained, as if he had misunderstood Napoleon's interest. "The tongue, it can slip back, stop his breathing entirely." Blood collected at the corners of Illya's lips, spilling over, skittering over the ring the man wore. As Napoleon watched, the ring itself seemed to vibrate; after a confused moment, he realized that he was seeing Illya’s shaking transferred to the man’s entire hand. "And the jaw, of course. He is grinding his teeth. You can see, he is capable of exerting a tremendous amount of pressure." He'd paused and smiled down at Illya. "Yes, he will probably bite through to bone." When Napoleon jerked his head toward this stranger’s face, he'd seen naked admiration in the man's eyes. "Ah, ah, you see, he is calming." Illya's body twitched rather than convulsed. "Good, you will help me now. We must roll him to his side." Napoleon did not move immediately and the man snapped at him. "You will help me or he will not breathe! Now!"

Together they had to shift Illya, to force him to lie on his left side. To Napoleon, it felt like every muscle in his partner's body was struggling against them. The man's hand moved to Illya's temple, keeping him steady. Bloody saliva poured from Illya's mouth as the man extracted his mangled fingers. Napoleon grimaced. "He is not swallowing," the man told him. "So he drools." Illya interrupted him with a gasp for air and it was so loud and harsh that Napoleon twitched. "Yes." The man stood. "You hold him now. Keep him on his side." There was blood on the shoulder of Illya's suit where the man had rested his injured hand.

Illya's eyes had been open but unfocused. His jaw moved continuously as he ground his teeth. The sound was sickening. Napoleon closed his eyes as he threw his weight against Illya, trying to stop him from moving. It was not any easier that way. He blinked and saw Illya's hands scrambling over stone and wished it would just end. In that moment, he had known that he would have done anything to keep from seeing Illya like this any longer, even if it meant putting a bullet in his brain to stop the seizing. He moved his hand to Illya's forehead, pushing back hair that was soaked with sweat, and held him steady against the floor. It would have been so easy to push a little harder, to slam his head down again and again until everything was still and quiet.

you don’t remember it (i wish i did) and i wish i could forget (i feel left out not knowing what you saw)

When Illya relaxed beneath him, the shock was so great that Napoleon made a small noise, a “huh!” in the back of his throat. The doctor knelt beside him again, blood-spotted white handkerchief wrapped tight around his bitten fingers. He felt for Illya’s pulse at the base of his throat. “He will sleep now.” Napoleon did not move from where he had draped himself over Illya’s body. He rested his chin on Illya’s shoulder. Exhaustion was creeping in from behind his eyes, and he found he was clenching his fists to keep his hands from trembling. The entire event had taken less than five minutes.

The man put his good hand over Napoleon’s and patted lightly. Napoleon rolled his eyes down and saw that the back of the man’s hand and forearm were gnarled with scar tissue. “How--” he began, but stopped to swallow. “How long will he be asleep?”

“Hours. The drugs contain a sedative.”

“Damn.” Napoleon breathed in and out and then repeated himself. “Damn.” He said it without emotion. “Damn, damn, damn.” When he looked up to the man’s face, he found that he was being watched. “That makes things a lot harder.”

The man seemed to consider him, as if searching to find whether he was being serious or not. “This is not news, sir.”

“Call me Napoleon,” he murmured as he sat up and gave Illya’s shoulder a squeeze. “What do I call you?”

“My name is Boucher. Dr. Laurents Boucher.” He sat and leaned against Illya’s thighs as if they formed a piece of comfortable furniture.

Napoleon felt a flash of irritation, but then realized that he was doing similarly as he propped himself up against Illya’s back. He decided to rationalize this as knowing that Illya would want to make himself useful however he could; it was a blatant lie, but it wasn’t as if Illya could argue anyway. “Why are you here, doctor? Did Thrush get tired of being prodded with the cold side of your stethoscope?”

“Ah, well, that is a thought—”

you have to admire his dedication in a way (i do not) yes but imagine you had no other options (there are always options beyond working for the corrupt and evil-minded) for you maybe sitting in your ivory tower (no i

will not play ivory towers with you nor

with any scientist who is unwilling to think about ethics)

“If he were awake, I’m telling you, getting out of here wouldn’t exactly be a chore.” Napoleon chewed his lower lip and stared past the doctor, past the bars of the cell, and out into the bland industrial hallway. “And I’m not just bragging. I mean—”

“No,” Boucher agreed. “This is not an efficient enterprise.”

“So why work for them?” Napoleon blurted out without giving a thought to being tactful. They were, he felt, beyond tact; he trusted this man, and not only because they happened to be prisoners in the same cell. “Is it about the money?”

The reply came slow and thoughtful. “Yes, the money. In part, in part.” He pursed his lips as he considered this.

“But surely you could find something legitimate?”

“Here? No. I have looked, but my sort of work is scarce.” He shook his head. “The money—you see, I by myself could live on very little.” The doctor’s eyes met Napoleon’s and held his gaze. “I’m a researcher, not a physician.”

When he failed to continue and explicate this thought, Napoleon leaned forward. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“They give me freedom to work.” Boucher gestured over Illya’s horizontal form. “For instance, I developed the drugs that laid your friend low.”

Napoleon’s narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Of course, the state he is in now is not the desired result. They administered them in the incorrect manner. I did say that the management of these people was not efficient.”

“So you did.” Napoleon licked his lips, for once without any licentious intent. “But I suppose I should thank them, at least, for throwing us all into the same cell. Except—”

Boucher raised his injured hand, anticipating what Napoleon was going to object to. “Had I not developed those drugs, someone else would have. And who knows? Perhaps the reaction to an over-dosage would have been death instead. Who can say?” He tugged at the edge of his bloodstained handkerchief and adjusted the knot, pulling it lower so that he could comfortably interlace his wounded fingers with those of his opposite hand. “What if you had not come and disturbed them? True, your friend would be awake at the moment, but they would have marched me out against the fence and shot me an hour ago.” He lifted his shoulders and let out a sigh. “So you see how very relative it is?”

“Relative,” Napoleon repeated mechanically. His eyes would not leave the blotch of red that was expanding over the bandage as Boucher’s fingers flexed and clenched together, a rhythmic spider with ten legs. He realized that the sight was making him nauseated. The fingers of his own hand throbbed in sympathy to the time of his own pulse, which echoed in his temples. “No, absolutely—”

(relative i suppose like his own morals?) no not like morals. that would be too easy don’t you think?

“I have an idea,” the doctor said. He still leaned against the motionless curve of Illya’s thighs, though Napoleon had long since stood and begun to pace the cell and test the bars for easy outs. “That is, if you care to hear it?”

“Please,” Napoleon answered as he crouched in front of the lock and found, for the dozenth time, that he would not be able to pick or break the damn thing without something explosive. Since the guards had lifted all his fireworks from him with their greedy hands, he knew that there was no hope for that plan. Still, he checked. “Enlighten me.”

“Can you get out of here?” Boucher asked. “You alone, I mean.”

Napoleon blinked. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “But I’m not leaving without—”

Boucher smiled and gave Illya’s flank a pat. The gesture made Napoleon uneasy in a way that he would not have been able to articulate. “Please believe me, I would not ask you to.”

it’s relative like speaking a language

“Tell me, Mr. Solo, how is your French?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Or your Hindi? Even Marathi would do in a pinch.”

Napoleon shook his head. “No. Not at all, not Hindi or—” He waved his hand, rolling his wrist in a dismissive gesture. “And my French is weak, but not terrible.”

Boucher nodded. “That is something, at least.” He paused to pick at the dried blood under his nails. “What I am thinking is this: you will leave. My home is not far from here; I’ll give you directions. You’ll find my son at home. From him, you will request supplies. You will return, I will wake your partner, and the three of us will leave together.” He gave Napoleon a baleful look. “I know it will not be easy for you—”

Napoleon shook his head and began to pace in front of the barred door. “And I’ll need French for all this?”

“Ah, no. Only for speaking to my son.” The doctor smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid we have been less than trusting of white men speaking English of late.” Napoleon closed his eyes. “If you were to come to him speaking English, he may shoot you without a hesitation.”


“Because that is what I told him to do.”

relative like life and death and politics and pain

Boucher had helped him to pry the grate of the air vent from the wall, each of them using stray coins found deep in trouser pockets to hammer at the screws, each of them plucking with his nails at the very end until the concrete was smudged with bloody fingerprints. Napoleon kept one incredulous eye on the doctor’s bandaged hand, which moved as if it were not injured at all.

While they worked the doctor gave him his directions: a relatively simple route to his home and a short lesson on how to ask for smelling salts and an adrenaline shot in French.

“What about explosives?” Napoleon asked. Boucher frowned at him. “I mean, not dynamite,” Napoleon clarified. “Gunpowder would be enough.”

“Guns we have. But gunpowder?” Boucher shook his head. “I think not.”

Napoleon tried again. “How about the ingredients for gunpowder?” Boucher shrugged, bewildered. “Do you have a chemistry set at your house or just a pharmacy?”

“You will have to ask my son,” the doctor said with a sigh as he wiped his hands on the front of his trousers. “I’m afraid that they haven’t allowed me to leave the building in weeks.”

“You’ve been in here that long?”

“At first I was confined to my laboratory.” Boucher’s voice was soft and even, but Napoleon could sense the tremors of outrage and fatigue that laced the edges of his composure. “Then, after they confiscated my notes and destroyed my laboratory, I was moved here.” He smiled wanly. “What an adventure we are having, hmm?”

The sound of footsteps at the end of the hallway caused both men to jump. The guard passed by their cell, slowing and peering inside but not bothering to come to a complete stop. Neither of them relaxed until the sound of boots against concrete had faded completely.

“You will have less than an hour’s time before he returns,” Boucher whispered as Napoleon lifted the grate off of the vent. “Are you certain you can—?”

“Not at all,” Napoleon said as he knelt to set down the iron grate, avoiding any loud or sudden noises. “But I don’t see what we can do except try.” He watched as Boucher wrung his anxious hands together. “There is just one thing I wanted to ask you, though.”


Napoleon smiled up at Boucher from his crouch. “Could you teach me your technique?” Boucher looked puzzled, so Napoleon held up his hand and wriggled his fingers. “For this, I mean. It seems like you can’t even feel it.”

“Ah.” Boucher’s expression became rueful. “My friend, had I anything to teach you, I would.” He held out his own injured hand, and again Napoleon’s attention was drawn to the scars that tangled their way up his forearm. The white, shiny skin caught the light in an abnormal way, becoming iridescent rather than translucent. “However, I’m afraid that I have been this way all of my life.”

“What way is that?”

“Unable to feel pain.” The man grinned, and from Napoleon’s vantage point near the floor it looked like the grin of a madman. “It is a kind of damage in the brain. What, you are thinking I wrestled crocodiles for the fun of it?” Napoleon shrugged, embarrassed. “No, I am sorry.” Boucher’s face turned solemn. “But I cannot tell you how to avoid something I’ve never even experienced for myself.”

(relative like time) well, you would be the one to say that

Napoleon had not hurried, despite the ticking clock; trying to rush through any task was only inviting mistakes, and Napoleon knew that he could not afford any wrong turns or slips of the hand. Still, he allowed himself the risk of attempting the completion of their initial assignment. His slithering crawl through the vents had led him fortuitously to a storage room, where he had secured a guard’s uniform. He’d stopped momentarily in the empty office outside of the holding cells and retrieved his and Illya’s identification. Both their wallets had been relieved of the few bank notes they had carried from the hotel; that was not a surprise. But he was pleased to discover that they hadn’t disposed of any of the incendiary devices they had confiscated from him, and so Napoleon helped himself. The more precise and reliable metal lock picks, however, had likely gone into the pocket of a guard who knew an opportunity when he saw one.

So Napoleon had moved on. He’d stopped in the room that had been—according to the maps he had memorized fifteen hours earlier on the cross-continental flight—the base’s laboratory. Dr. Boucher had not been exaggerating. Beyond the safety shower and the drains in the floor, there was little to suggest that the space had ever been anything more than another storage room, and a particularly neglected one at that. Napoleon knelt beside one of the least waterlogged boxes close to the door and opened it. It was full of carbon copied paperwork, internal memos and packing orders, and one or two stray documents in cipher. Napoleon had clucked his tongue and smiled. All of them were signed, dated, and meticulously coded. They might not be able to return with information on any current endeavors, but a handful of these documents would provide enough data for the research department to begin anticipating the schemes of next season. He selected five different forms and tucked them into the suit jacket he’d kept on beneath the guard’s jumpsuit.

He met no one on his way from the laboratory to the back exit of the base. Chalking it up to good luck, he stripped off the pilfered uniform, balled it up, and used it to prop open the door after he had slipped out into the alley. His entire body became a study in nonchalance as he stepped out onto the main street and tried not to let the more ominous reality take hold of his thoughts—he’d met no one because the base was being deserted, the birds were flying South, and that chic bit of prime real estate had no future. As he squeezed through the throngs of women doing their shopping alongside white-collar Indian businessmen on their lunch breaks, Napoleon wondered why he and Illya and Dr. Boucher hadn’t been disposed of any earlier. Had they been overlooked? No, there was still a guard keeping watch, so someone must have remembered them. The smart thing to do would have been to execute them right away, but so many people had more ambition than brains and holding a medical researcher and two high-level enemy agents captive was such a tempting prospect. So why leave them in a building that was in the final stages of being abandoned?

Napoleon didn’t like it, but if he thought it over any longer he knew that the distraction would become a liability. He cleared his head and focused all of his concentration on the heat and the noise and the smells of the congested city of Bombay. It had been good luck, and nothing more.

He was one block away from Boucher’s address when he felt a tug on his arm.

but it’s love that is the most relative (beauty you mean) ah, as in

the eye of the beholder? so is love (and lust)

At first he thought she was a little girl, dressed for some ceremony of which he couldn’t have been aware. But then he saw the length of her face, the fullness of her lips, and the small breasts that she pushed forward at him. She was perhaps twelve or thirteen, just entering puberty; still a little girl, of course, but not so little as Napoleon had first estimated. “Namaste!” She greeted him with a smile.

Napoleon sighed. He’d failed to notice that the atmosphere had changed; Boucher’s apartment was located in Kamathipura, one of the seediest pockets of Bombay that nudged up against the realm of higher-class and higher income. With a gentle smile, he pulled away from the girl and tried to continue on his way. But she was quicker, slipping in front of him in a flash of gold and red. Her clothes were quite colorful and covered most of her slight body. Napoleon thought, wryly, that he would have seen more skin in Times Square. The comparison to the city he lived in felt a little too apt, however, and made him uncomfortable. The girl was most certainly a prostitute, as he’d learned from his previous visits to India, and an enterprising one at that. She had seen an opportunity in the well-dressed white man walking by and had decided to take a chance.

Napoleon looked her over again, taking in the frayed edges of her sari and its ill-fit on her skinny frame. She wore red beads around her neck, but the paint was chipped and the style didn’t suit her. They had clearly been bought second-hand or, more likely, had been handed down to her by an older girl. He felt a stab of pity and guilt. No, not enterprising; she was merely poor. And she had done what he had done, judging him at a glance. She had seen the suit and not the bloodstains or the creases it had suffered from being worn for nearly twenty-four straight hours. “Aap ka naam kya hai?” She asked him.

Napoleon shook his head, not understanding and not caring. He glanced down at his watch. “I can’t stay, I really can’t.” A small brown hand caught his wrist, and she twisted his hand as she brought it down to her eye level. She checked the time and then smiled, not a seductive smile but a toothy grin. Napoleon thought that, in that moment, she could easily have been on a playground somewhere, awaiting her turn on the swingset or preparing to jump in between the Double Dutch ropes.

He shoved his free hand deep into his pocket. The few coins he still had rubbed against one another as he caught a ridged edge beneath his nail. It stung. He scooped them out and counted them. There were several one rupee coins, a two rupee coin, and an American quarter. Desperate, Napoleon tried his back pockets and was pleased to find a ten rupee note left over from the last meal he and Illya had shared. He held the note and the coins together in a sweaty, crumpled handful.

As soon as she saw the banknote, the girl began to tug at his wrist, trying to pull him toward the brothel that was set back from the road. Napoleon dug in his heels and shook his head. The girl stamped her foot and gave him an impatient look, and he had to press his lips together in a thin, straight line to hold back a chuckle. When the girl held out her hand to beckon him, he forced the money into her palm. As she looked down in surprise, he took a great, skipping step backward. She looked up again, confused, and he tossed off a jaunty wave and a wink. He felt a little sick inside, as if he’d just stepped off a roller coaster. The feeling didn’t lessen as he turned away from her.

Napoleon had learned a long time ago that it was impossible to save everyone. He knew that there were more people who needed saving than there was time or energy to save them.

and innocence (and virgins and whores as well) let’s not forget the heroes and the villains and the victims

i mean as long as we’re at it (as long as we’re at it, everyone is a villain at one time or another)

Je m'appelle Napoleon.” The boy gave him a suspicious look. “Napoleon Solo.” He fumbled with his wallet and pulled out his U.N.C.L.E. identification card. When he held it out for inspection, he heard the sound of a pump-action shotgun. Napoleon swallowed hard. “J'ai rencontré votre père.”

Mon père?” The boy lowered the gun. “Where?”

“What?” Napoleon was startled out of his French. “I mean, uh—”

“American, yes?”

“That’s right, but—”

“Your accent.” The boy tutted at him. “Very bad.”

“So I’ve been told,” Napoleon muttered.

“Where is my father?”

“Well… in prison.” Napoleon found himself staring back down the double barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. “Wait, wait—listen! I didn’t put him there.” The gun was lowered, but only slightly. “In fact, that’s where I was until about twenty minutes ago. So if we could possibly—” He paused and used one finger to push the gun down and to the side, so that its aim was a much less threatening one. “I would really appreciate it.”

“You escaped? So why do you come here?” The boy asked skeptically.

“He told me you would be able to help us.” Napoleon peered over the boy’s shoulder. “I don’t suppose you could invite me in?”

The boy stood aside, but his eyes darted back and forth as Napoleon slipped by him. The apartment was cramped, cluttered, dark, and stifling at three floors above ground level. He waited as the boy closed the door and turned to face him. “What did he say?”

Napoleon fixed him with a long, serious look. “What’s your name?”

“Sanjivan.” The boy mumbled. Napoleon studied him, in the dim light: he couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and his hair, skin, and eyes were all much darker than his father’s. He had the beginnings of a moustache and his arms and legs were spindly, gawkish, and adolescent.

“Where’s your mother, Sanjivan?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” Napoleon felt like an idiot for asking, since it wasn’t important to him and would only waste time with awkward pauses and his own cheap attempts at conciliation. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

The boy shrugged. “Please don’t be. I barely remember her.” His eyes flicked up to meet Napoleon’s, then darted away. “But… my father?”

“He’s currently in a cell with my unconscious partner.” Sanjivan looked back at him, curious. “He told me to ask you for, ah, sels volatils and adrénaline.”

“Wait,” Sanjivan commanded and disappeared into one of the shadowy rooms that opened off of the main hallway. Napoleon decided it would be in his best interest to obey and not overstep his welcome; the boy had taken his finger off the trigger and he’d rested the remainder of the barrel against his shoulder, but it would take him less than a second to snap into a ready stance. The boy didn’t hold his gun like an amateur, and with his time rapidly dwindling, Napoleon wasn’t about to risk it all with disobedience.

When the boy returned, he held a tiny vial with a removable cap, a finger-sized bottle full of clear liquid, and a sterile syringe. Napoleon pocketed the three items with a nod of thanks and asked, “Now, I don’t suppose you have a spare handgun lying around? Something I could borrow for a couple of hours?”

don’t be cryptic

name one time you or i was a villain (oh napoleon

hundreds of times it’s just

we never really knew or cared)

Dr. Boucher rolled Illya onto his back. “Lift his head, hold his shoulders up,” he instructed Napoleon. “What is his name?”

“Illya.” Napoleon sat back on his heels, cradling Illya’s head in his lap as he tried to coax the other man’s shoulders up higher, to force him to recline like he was on a couch at a feast in ancient Rome.

“Eeeeeelleeeyah,” Boucher drawled, testing the unfamiliar name in his mouth. “Fine. We will try the salts first and hope they work, yes?”

“Why?” Napoleon formed an ‘o’ with his index finger and thumb and then flicked Illya’s ear from behind. There was no response, from either Illya or Boucher. “Is there something wrong with the shot?”

Boucher did not meet Napoleon’s eye as he fiddled with the top on the smelling salts. “It is a more, ah, drastic action. Unpleasant. So I hope, for his sake, that the salts work.” With that, he uncorked the vial and held it directly beneath Illya’s nose.

Napoleon held his breath as they waited, as Boucher shifted his hand from side to side to coax the vapors up into Illya’s nose. For nearly thirty seconds there was no response; then, Napoleon realized that Illya’s lips were ever-so-slightly parted and that he was breathing through his mouth and not his nose. He reached around and cupped Illya’s jaw, fitting his palm over Illya’s lips and forming as tight a seal as he dared to without blocking the nostrils. Boucher pulled the salts away and then brought them back at an angle, resting the tiny vial against the edge of Napoleon’s index finger. Together they watched as Illya sucked in breath, slow and deep at first, then in shorter bursts.

They were both taken by surprise when Illya bucked against Napoleon’s hold with a keening whine. One arm flailed, hitting Boucher’s hand and forcing him draw back to avoid spilling the salts. Napoleon was left grappling with Illya on his own.

His partner writhed against him, tearing Napoleon’s hands away from his face and gasping for air. Napoleon instinctively tried to hold him, with one arm around Illya’s chest and the other around his waist. Illya was trying to move to the side, away from Napoleon, but after that first burst of energy he had become slow and sluggish, kicking clumsily and prying at Napoleon’s fingers one by one. When Napoleon failed to let go, Illya stretched his neck down to gnaw on the knuckles of the hand closest to his mouth.

Napoleon yelped and let go, although Illya’s teeth had not broken the skin. Illya began crawling away, trying with little success to stand. In the meantime, Boucher had managed to place the cork back on the vial, and as Illya came close he grabbed him by the upper arm and, without restraining his movement, held him steady. “Illya,” he said, his voice stern and commanding, but with none of the urgency that Napoleon had heard during Illya’s seizure. “Illya, stop and look here.” He caught Illya’s other shoulder in his free hand, forcing him to stop. Illya’s head fell back, and he regarded Boucher through heavily-lidded eyes. “Illya, my name is Dr. Boucher. We have not met before now. You and I and your friend—” At this, Illya tried to turn his head to look at Napoleon, but Boucher caught his chin and held it to keep his attention from being diverted. “—we are in a prison cell. Do you recall what country you are in?”

“India,” Illya answered, drawing out the vowel sounds.

“Good. Can you tell me your full name?”

Napoleon snorted. “This could take all night.” He nursed the red indentations in the skin around the knuckle of his middle finger. Boucher glanced his way and shook his head once as a warning. Napoleon shrugged and looked away, but listened intently as Illya struggled to speak.

“Illya… Nick—um, Nick—Nick… um, Kuryakin.” He was slurring his words terribly and, when Boucher released him, he had great difficulty keeping his head up; his chin was nearly touching his chest as he mumbled answers to simple questions until the doctor was satisfied.

Boucher gestured that Napoleon should come closer. “It will be difficult. He’s still very disoriented, I’m afraid.”

“We don’t have a lot of choice,” Napoleon said. “So we’ll just have to work around it as best as we can.” Illya leaned his head on Napoleon’s shoulder. Napoleon hesitated. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the building,” he told Boucher, trying to keep his tone of voice positive.

The look Boucher gave him in return was sharp. “Are you certain of this?”

“No,” Napoleon admitted. “But I didn’t see anyone on my way out or back in.” He put his arm around Illya’s shoulders without thinking. “Really, an empty building is in our favor.”

“I don’t like it.” Boucher pursed his lips. “I hadn’t heard any mention of them changing locations.”

“Neither had we.” Napoleon gave Illya a shake, trying to keep him from becoming too relaxed. Illya groaned, swayed a little, and then became absorbed in plucking the edge of the Thrush insignia patch on the shoulder of the jumpsuit Napoleon wore. “But they may have figured it was time to pack up their bags and move house, now that U.N.C.L.E. knows about this installation.”

Boucher stood and went to the cell’s door. “I hear nothing,” he said. He leaned against the bars and peered as far as he could in one direction, then the other. “I see no one.”

“I’m not surprised,” Napoleon answered. He reached up to his shoulder, where Illya’s picking had become quite insistent. “Could you quit that?” He hissed, more sharply than he’d intended. But Illya was shaking his head at him, and that irritated Napoleon. “’No?’ No what?”

“Can’t stop,” Illya murmured. “You’re Napoleon.”

“What? What does that mean?”

For a brief moment, Illya’s fingers rested. “You’re Napoleon?”

Napoleon let out a short laugh when he realized that Illya’s question was absolutely serious. “Yes, I’m Napoleon. Of course I am.”

Illya went back to his task. Napoleon realized that he was actually trying to remove the damn thing, trying to cut the threads with the ragged edges of his fingernails. “Can’t wear this if you’re Napoleon.” Illya’s explanation was almost unintelligible, and Napoleon had to hold his breath in order to hear him. “Can’t let you be the bad guy. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Christ.” Napoleon laughed again, feeling as if he’d been put on the spot. He glanced over at Boucher and felt a flush tingling up his neck at the older man’s curious stare. “Look, it’s been swell and all, but I think I’m ready to blow this pop stand.”

Boucher nodded. “Shall I prepare for an explosion? Or were you intending that to be more metaphorical?”

Napoleon smirked. “Which would you prefer?” Without waiting for Boucher’s answer, he removed the revolver that Sanjivan had lent him from where he had tucked it into the jumpsuit. “Here, take this. And be ready for anything.”

‘o villainy! treachery! seek it out!’ (hah, no, you are not prince hamlet, nor

were you meant to be)

Boucher had just placed his hand on the door that led to the street outside when Napoleon heard the ‘click’ of a safety catch being thumbed off, behind him and to the left. “Hello there, Mr. Solo.”

Napoleon smiled, but did not turn his head. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, ma’am,” he said. “You seem to know me, but I don’t think—” At this he shoved Illya forward into Boucher’s arms and spun on his heel to face their captor. “—that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting you.”

The woman was older than him, though not by much. There was no grey in her hair. She was tiny, and her face was very stern even when the corners of her lips quirked up. She reminded Napoleon of a high school English teacher who had taught him a lifetime ago. “I’m nobody, Mr. Solo.” Her voice was as small and tight as the rest of her, jarring but still somehow cheerful, like the bell on a cat’s collar that keeps it from sneaking up on birds. “And don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.”

“I don’t think it’s my pretty little head that any of us should be worried about,” Napoleon replied sweetly. “But it’s nice of you to think of me.”

“Oh dear. They did tell me to watch out for you.” She waved the pistol at him, casually admonishing his impertinence. “Think yourself a charming viper, do you?”

“I don’t know if I would call myself—”

“Do keep your mouth shut, there’s a good boy.” Her heels clicked on the tile floor as she took several steps closer. “I apologize for keeping you all waiting, but honestly, didn’t your mothers teach you anything about patience?”

There was something brittle in her voice, as if her sanity were an old rubber band that would snap when you tried to slip it around your wrist. It made Napoleon nervous, and he could feel Illya’s fingers gripping and twisting the back of the jumpsuit he wore. He hoped that Illya would let go when the time came.

“I apologize for keeping you gentlemen waiting,” the woman continued. “But I was forced to request a prisoner transfer, and in the midst of our cleaning house, well, I’m afraid you became rather low priority.”

Napoleon felt Illya’s hand fall away, replaced immediately by the butt of a firearm being pressed against his spine. His breath caught in his throat for an instant before he realized it was Boucher, trying to find a way to give back the gun Napoleon had handed to him less than five minutes earlier. “If we’re such low priority,” Napoleon said, trying to keep the woman occupied and irritated so that she wouldn’t see his left hand inching behind his back, “why not let us leave? After all, catching us during an escape attempt is only going to cause more paperwork in the long run.” He relaxed his expression and willed himself to give her a calm, reassuring smile that was free of any hint of seduction or coercion. “Tell them you just missed us on our way out. That way it works for all of us.”

For a moment she appeared to be considering the idea. Her eyes darted away from them for an instant, and at the same time Napoleon felt the weight of the handgun in his palm. He kept his hand behind his back, not wanting to startle her with any sudden movements.

“No,” she said with a quick shake of her head. A lock of hair fell loose from her bun, sweeping across one side of her forehead. “I’m afraid that would not be satisfactory.”

“Well, then I suppose we’ll have to disagree on that point.” Napoleon whipped his hand out from behind his back; he immediately wished that he hadn’t. Spooked by the quick, jerky motion and the sight of the gun, she fired. The shot went wide and she stumbled with the recoil. Still, he was paralyzed momentarily as he took a mental inventory and tried to figure out whether he’d been hit or not.

At the same time, he heard Boucher gasp and Illya cry out behind him. This propelled him into action. He waved his right arm behind him until he came into contact with Illya’s shoulder. He pushed, hard, and Illya fell against Boucher, who fell against the door and knocked it open. “Go!” Napoleon shouted. The woman fired a second time, hitting the door frame. “Don’t wait for me, just go!” He shoved again, listened to the clatter of footsteps, but did not turn his head. He heard the door slam shut.

The woman was breathing hard, staring at him and clenching her fist around the grip. Her eyes glittered in a way that he might have found very pretty, had she not just taken a shot at him. “Who are you?” Napoleon asked.

She faltered, apparently bewildered by the question. “It’s not important.”

“It is to me,” Napoleon said. “I like to know who’s shooting at me, whenever I get the chance.”

The woman didn’t smile. “No, you really don’t. How very patronizing, Mr. Solo.” Napoleon didn’t respond. “It was noble of you to save your friends, of course. But from what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t have expected anything less.”

Napoleon dipped his head in a brief bow of thanks. “And where were you planning to go from here? It seems to me that we have something of a stalemate.”

“Are you ambidextrous, Mr. Solo? I was given to understand that you favor your right hand.”

“What good would I be, really, if I couldn’t fire with both hands?” Napoleon raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. “But I think you’re stalling.” The woman’s index finger stroked ominously over the trigger of the gun she held. “Am I right?” She didn’t answer him. “You know, I once heard a little rumor that Thrush is very specific about their checkout times.” Her left eye twitched. “That, once it was decided that a compound was to be vacated, anyone not out by the given time would be subject to one of the more poisonous gases in their possession. Is that true?” She stood very still, unnaturally stiff in the hope that it would not give her away. Napoleon couldn’t control the rising anger in his voice. “So, you’d planned to just leave us in the cell to be gassed to death?”

“It would have been so much more convenient.”

“Not for me, thanks all the same.” He squinted as he aimed the revolver. “It’s been fun, sweetheart, however—”

They fired together, the sounds of their shots overlapping. Napoleon had deliberately aimed low, and as he ducked down, he saw the woman’s shin fragmented into a mosaic of flesh and shades of red. Her shot hit somewhere behind him, but he didn’t know or care. He watched as she collapsed in a silent heap, her mouth open wide. She touched the wound and immediately pulled her hand back as if it were hot enough to blister. Her hand hovered in the air, fingers spread wide apart and tipped with her blood. Then came the scream.

The sound was inhuman. Napoleon staggered back, thinking only of getting away from the pervasive noise. He hit the door, grasped the handle, and surged against it, tripping out into the alley and running into the wall on the other side. The door shut on its pneumatic hinges, enclosing the scream that had begun to hitch with the woman’s sobs. Napoleon rested his head against the brick in front of him. He breathed deeply, trying to smell it, but the only thing that registered was garbage, sweetly rotting.

He lifted his head and saw Boucher at the end of the alley, supporting Illya with both arms and watching him closely. “I thought I said to get out of here,” Napoleon called.

Boucher limped forward, coaxing Illya into walking. Illya’s head bobbed like a pigeon’s as he concentrated on moving with Boucher. “I apologize. Your friend thought it would be a poor idea.”

Napoleon laughed. “Then he must be stoned out of his gourd.” He grabbed Illya’s upper arm and pulled him close. He was shaking and his grip was too tight when he went to hug his partner. Illya cried out in indignation. “Sorry.”

i don’t know if i should be offended (well if you are

you know i won’t apologize for it)

“Go home,” Illya said as he drooled on Napoleon’s collar.

“I know.” Napoleon gave him another, gentler, squeeze. “But home is kind of far away at the moment. Will you settle for the hotel?” Illya nodded unsteadily. Napoleon sighed and looked up at Boucher. “The thing is, I’m not sure how we’re going to get you there.”

“No money for a taxi?” Boucher asked.

Napoleon shook his head as he unzipped the Thrush jumpsuit and began trying to wriggle out of it. “Nope. I was liberated of all my cash.” He winced, deciding not to mention the girl he had met on the way to Boucher’s home. “Illya too.”

“I as well, aside from a few coins.” Boucher took hold of Illya’s upper arm, steadying him while Napoleon let go long enough to shed the jumpsuit like he was stepping out of a layer of skin. “Of course, my home is not far. And the walk would probably do him some good.”

“Someone could follow us.”

“I have you to protect me.”

“Hah.” Napoleon took Illya’s arm and placed it over his own shoulders. On Illya’s other side, Boucher did the same. “And who watches the watchers?”

“I had assumed that you watched one another.”

Napoleon laughed and it felt good. “Then I’m at a disadvantage today, wouldn’t you say?”

They began to move toward the mouth of the alley. The traffic had thinned somewhat since Napoleon had been out on the street. Still, it was crowded, and walking with Illya hanging from their necks would be a chore. “It will be all right. No one will follow.”

“You can never be too sure,” Napoleon muttered. To his surprise, Illya nodded and repeated the word “never” three times in his ear before trailing off.

“You said they had left. They had moved on. They don’t care about us any longer.” Boucher met Napoleon’s eye, solemn with exhaustion. “It’s over. I want to move on.” He hitched his shoulders, shifting Illya’s weight so it was more comfortably draped across him. “Now come,” he said, looking out at the street full of normal people and taking a step forward, “because I would like to see my son again sometime before I fall down and die from my weariness.”

Napoleon was unable to argue with that.

(i do remember walking) you mean you remember us carrying you (yes and the heat and your sweat and a boy with a shotgun and a taxicab that smelled of someone’s terrible perfume)

yes it was eau de chanel number five as mixed with patchouli (and made all the more fragrant by the humidity)

As soon as they were back at the hostel and inside their room, Illya was stripping off his turtleneck. He let it fall to the floor as he moved toward the cheap hostel’s single bed. His belt and trousers followed, and he collapsed on the mattress in just his briefs.

“All right?” Napoleon asked as he eased the door shut.

“Hot,” Illya murmured. After a moment’s thought, he added: “Tired.”

“Go to sleep, then,” Napoleon said, and stooped to collect Illya’s clothes into a pile which he dumped upon his partner’s closed suitcase.

“Are you going to go out?”

Napoleon’s head snapped up. The question had caught him off guard, though it was a natural one. He thought of the girl with the red beads around her neck, young and fresh and pubescent, dressed in clothes that weren’t meant for her and going to bed with her customers for little more than pennies at a time. He thought of her stumbling forward in time, approaching other men, and reappearing at the end of a tunnel of five years as a tired young woman who looked almost a decade older. A shiver crept over his shoulder blades. “Where would I go?” Illya shrugged, his eyes closed and his face expressionless. “No, I’ll be here.” He waited for Illya’s reaction. “I’m sorry you won’t get to go out to any of your clubs. I know you were looking forward to it.” He had been surprised to learn from Illya that Bombay had a particularly swinging jazz scene.

“It happens,” Illya replied with resignation. “There will be other times.”

“Yes.” Napoleon said.

Illya let out a soft sigh and drew his knees up to his chest. Napoleon closed one eye and traced the curve of Illya’s spine in the air with his finger. It was almost a C, but not quite. Hunching his shoulders, self-aware even though no one was watching, he let his hand drop back to his side. Illya had mashed his face into the pillow and every breath fluttered against fabric. Napoleon smiled as he toed off his shoes and slipped out of his jacket, grabbing his communicator out of the front pocket as he did so. He loosened his tie, lifted it off over his head, and draped it and the jacket over the back of the room’s only chair. With a glance down at his watch, he placed a check-in call to headquarters that was several hours overdue. Then he paused, considering what to do next.

There was nowhere else for him to set up a bed, no couch or extra cot. He thought about trying to sleep in the chair, but its back was hard and the seat cushion was thin. Besides, he wasn’t tired the way Illya was tired. His arms and legs moved sluggishly, as if through mud, and felt the tingling shock of a thousand tiny pins; the place behind his eyes ached slow and steady; and the edges of his vision blurred. He wasn’t tired. He was exhausted, and exhaustion had pushed him beyond sleep into the nightmarish state of limbo where the world feels too intense and too vibrant and too vast to ever allow sleep again. The future loomed, and Napoleon knew he wasn’t going to sleep that night.

So he went to his bag and took out the duty-free liquor that he’d bought the day before at the airport.

we’ll go back you know (just so i can hear some music?) sure

why not?

Several hours, one-third of a bottle of Courvoisier, and four tiny complementary bottles of airline Amaretto later, Napoleon was brought to attention by a prolonged groan behind him. Illya was awake.

Napoleon turned and watched with interest as Illya switched on the bedside lamp and began to make the slow transition from horizontal to vertical. He clung to the wall and said, “Water” in a voice that sounded as if he’d been stranded in the desert rather than asleep. Napoleon tossed him the room’s second glass, and didn’t blink when Illya caught it easily. His partner’s reflexes, if not his consciousness, had always been peculiarly resistant to the lingering effects of alcohol, illicit and pharmaceutical drugs, and the period of regret that followed the use of any mind-altering substance.

As Illya shuffled out of the room to the communal bath, Napoleon debated calling him back to at least pull on a pair of pants. Then he decided that it was past four in the morning and no one would give a damn if Illya were wandering around the streets in his shorts, much less going down the hall to the bathroom and back. Through the thin walls he could hear water rushing through the taps, then the sound of enthusiastic gargling and spitting. More water in the pipes. Quiet. The flush of the toilet. More water in the pipes. Illya’s dragging footsteps coming closer. For a moment Napoleon was sure that he would look up to the door and see Boris Karloff coming for him, wrapped in white linen bandages with his arms outstretched.

But it was just Illya, walking with painful slowness and a full glass of water in his hands.

“Better?” Napoleon asked, and Illya nodded as he set his water down on the nightstand. Then he sat on the edge of the bed, rested his elbows on his knees, and held his forehead against the flats of his palms. Napoleon stayed seated and said nothing.

“In my luggage,” Illya began after several moments. He stopped, cleared his throat, and began again. “The course of antibiotics they gave to us is in the front pocket on my suitcase. Could you—?” Napoleon fetched the pills for Illya without a word, and stood in front of him as he shook one out of the canister and swallowed it with a gulp of water. “Heaven could only help me if I wound up sick from the water, on top of everything else.”

“You’re more articulate, at least.” Napoleon stepped to one side as Illya fell backward onto the bed with a prolonged groan.

“I feel like I’m in Hell and trying to hold on to a handful of ice chips.”

Napoleon clucked his tongue. “From Heaven to Hell in less than ten seconds. I guess you are feeling better.”

Illya let out a moan worthy of a ghost that had been practicing the routine of his haunt for hundreds of years. But it was rooted in exasperation rather than pain, and so Napoleon did nothing except wait while Illya got it out of his system.

However, he turned away when Illya began wriggling out of his underwear. “Can I ask what you’re doing? Or don’t I want to know.”

“Still hot.” Illya’s voice had taken on a whining edge. “And they’re dirty anyway.” The y-fronts flashed in Napoleon’s peripheral vision on their flight to Illya’s suitcase. “Does it bother you?”

“No,” Napoleon said quickly. “Do you want another pair?”


“All right.” Napoleon tried to hold back his pained expression. “Are you going to go back to sleep like that?”

Illya reached out and hooked one of Napoleon’s belt loops, snapping it in the crook of his finger. “Yes.” Napoleon turned and pushed his hand away, and Illya twisted himself so that he lay with his head on the pillow again. “It does bother you.”

Napoleon shook his head. “No. Not really. Why would it?”

There was no reply, but Illya held his gaze for several beats longer than was comfortable. “Have you slept at all?”

“Me? No.”

“You should lie down, at least.” Illya reached out again, his index finger already curling to catch Napoleon’s belt loop a second time. Napoleon caught his wrist and held him at bay, which made Illya’s lips quirk upward into something that was not quite a smile. “Or you’ll be cranky at the airport.”

“Are you volunteering to give up the bed?”

“Don’t be silly. Which of us is the invalid, here?”

Napoleon scowled. “Invalids don’t talk so much.”

Illya tugged at Napoleon’s sleeve. “Listen to me. I don’t want to spend an entire day traveling with you if you’ve spent an entire night drinking instead of resting.” He tapped his fingernail against one of the buttons on the cuff and Napoleon could feel the vibration against his wrist. “It’s going to be a bad enough flight as it is. I’d rather not have to deal with your misery on top of everything else.” Napoleon said nothing. Finally, Illya added, “It’s also nerve-wracking, having you awake and sitting up and just staring out the window.”

“How would you know?” Napoleon was becoming irritated with Illya’s aggressive reasonableness. He jerked his arm sharply and Illya’s fingers were left in midair, holding on to nothing.

“I woke up once or twice,” Illya said. He retracted his arm and rolled onto his side, hugging his chest and closing his eyes.

Napoleon waited for Illya to say more. He shifted from one foot to the other, feeling awkward and not knowing what to think about Illya having watched him while he drifted in his own thoughts for hours. In a country that was foreign to both of them, in a room that was unfamiliar, one man watching the oblivious other became seedy and voyeuristic. He thought about how he had watched Illya settle into sleep. Napoleon rubbed the back of his neck, then rocked back on his heels. He stuffed his hand into his pocket and tried to fidget with the contents before recalling that they were empty. “If it would make you feel better—” he began.

“It would,” Illya said without opening his eyes.

“Fine.” Napoleon knew Illya well enough to know that he wasn’t about to start compromising once he’d gotten his way. He went to the foot of the bed and crawled into the narrow space that Illya had left for him, between his own body and the wall that seemed to grow out of the far edge of the bed. It took a great deal of willpower not to give Illya a good, solid push as he squirmed and struggled around to lie flat on his back. “Better?”

“Much. Thank you.” Then Illya reached out and switched off the light and the world was dark again.

(well anyway i’m tired now and relativity is a lie) ooh don’t let einstein hear you say that (you know what i meant and besides i’m sick half to my death of

having every event distilled into patchwork ‘yours and mine’ versions)

They laid together on the bed, respecting the gulf that fell between them. If Napoleon kept his eyes shut and tried very hard, he could pretend that he was across the room or even alone, in a better hotel room, on another planet. But then he would take a breath and the self-delusion would fade and he would become aware of Illya’s body beside him making the cheap mattress quiver with every shift and sigh. Then the feeling of his shirt and trousers and underwear and socks against his skin would take over and leaving him feeling tight, imprisoned, and jealous of Illya, who had not even hesitated to make himself comfortable, who hadn’t felt limited by fear or false modesty. And then, finally, the smell would come: the smell of the cheap room and his alcohol underscored by the chemically-soured smell of Illya’s sweat. It was all unpleasant, the world around him, and yet he didn’t feel annoyed or repulsed. He tried not to feel much of anything.

A moment of clarity struck, and he realized that he was glad for his clothes and for the sweat that came from both of them; it sapped him of energy he might have tried to put to other uses, made unappealing something that might otherwise have been very attractive. He knew his partner well, but not well enough to strip off his own clothing and press their bodies together, to allow bodily fluids to mingle. He might consider the possibility from time to time—and he was more than free to do so, as U.N.C.L.E. had yet to devise a reliable way of keeping tabs on the thoughts of the agents in their employ—but never anything more. He told himself that it simply didn’t fit, not for either of them, not with their careers or their preferences. Even worse, Napoleon feared that if he were to roll onto his side, to put his hand on Illya’s bare hip and kiss the back of the other man’s neck, that the sex that resulted would be tired and lazy and bad. What was the point of engaging in illicit sex if you knew beforehand that it wouldn’t be worth it? No, the idea of him and Illya together was a joke, and a bad one at that.

He congratulated himself on this epiphany. Life might have become so much more complicated without it.

(just once i would like to see it all put together and to have all of the jigsaw puzzles in place

just once i’d like to be able to read my life like a mystery novel and have the luxury of turning to the last page whenever i want to know what happens at the end)

“Do you remember, a couple of weeks ago, when you were drugged?”

Napoleon flinched at the sound of Illya’s voice. He had thought that Illya had gone back to sleep, had been so intent on his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed when Illya’s breath had failed to settle into a comfortable rhythm. “Yes,” he answered, and he did remember—not the event itself, but the half an hour at the party that led up to it and the sickly hours that had followed his return to functional consciousness. “I mean, no, I guess I really don’t.”

“No.” Illya’s head shifted as he rubbed his cheek against the pillow. “That’s why I’m going to tell you.” Napoleon’s stomach clenched as he waited for Illya to continue. He fought the urge to count off the seconds as he watched for the back of Illya’s head to shift ever-so-slightly as he began to speak. “You wanted to dance.”

Napoleon blinked. “I did?”

“Mmm,” Illya hummed in agreement. Napoleon heard him hesitate, then take a short breath. “With me,” he added, his voice shifted into neutral.

“With you?” Napoleon felt a reflexive laugh rising in his throat and choked it down. “I, ah—”

“Don’t worry; you did nothing untoward in front of everyone,” Illya snapped.

“I see.”

“You waited until I’d gotten you into the stairwell.”

“How cozy.” Napoleon cringed and chewed on a fingernail, mentally berating himself for his little mistake of setting down his glass during a reception crawling with people who were looking for a chance to put a knife in his back. Or, in this case, put him out of commission by slipping him a mickey. “But then, I guess you were the only girl available at that point.”

Illya glanced over his shoulder and gave Napoleon a pointed look. “You let me lead.”


“And you made me do a different step on every landing.” Illya turned back away from Napoleon and sank into his pillow. It was clear that it was easier for him to tell the story when they weren’t face-to-face. “It’s lucky that we were on the fourth floor and not any higher, otherwise I might have run out of dances and had to disappoint you.”

Napoleon cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m sure that would have been a shame,” he murmured.

“Then again, by the end of it you had gotten very clumsy. Perhaps you wouldn’t have noticed.”

“Perhaps not.” The sweetish scent of something cooking had begun to invade their room, and Napoleon breathed deeply, allowing it to distract him. He propped himself up onto his elbows in order to get a look at the traveler’s clock he’d set on the nightstand that morning when they’d arrived. Someone had started cooking breakfast for the guests. Soon there would be sunlight filtering through the flimsy curtains.

Illya lifted his head. “You don’t usually agree with me so much.”

“Well, I can’t remember,” Napoleon said as he stretched, stiffening the entire length of his body and enjoying the shivering, momentary paralysis. In fact, he had been searching his mind, trying to grasp something from the haze of that evening. He felt that he needed something to hold on to and even the briefest moment would keep him from powerlessness.

When it came, it was only a flash of fast movement, the sensation of a short controlled fall. Napoleon’s arm jerked as if an unseen puppeteer had twitched the corresponding string. “You dipped me,” Napoleon said, his voice accusatory. Illya said nothing. “Hey.” Napoleon elbowed his partner between the shoulder blades. “You dipped me,” he whined, knowing full well how ridiculous he sounded.

“I thought you couldn’t remember.”

Napoleon thought for a moment. “No, I think that’s it, that’s all I’ve got.” He smiled to himself. “So, you really did dip me?”

“Yes.” Illya tried to retaliate and catch Napoleon in the ribs with his own elbow, but missed. He wasn’t trying very hard. “You laughed. It was—”

“The world’s worst ballroom dancing act,” Napoleon supplied.

“Well, it wasn’t the greatest.” Illya sighed. To Napoleon, it sounded almost wistful—though he reminded himself that everyone’s early morning sighs had a wistful quality, as if all people were somehow missing a part of themselves between the hours of three and six a.m. “And then—”

When Illya hesitated, Napoleon reached over and flicked his ear. He thought of how, only hours before, he had done the same thing and there had been no twitch, no irritated swipe of Illya’s hand against his before he could pull away. “And then?”

“It’s really not important.”

“Indulge my vanity.”

Illya snorted. “It doesn’t need any more indulgence.” Napoleon grinned to himself and waited. He stared up at the ceiling, letting his eyes travel between the cracks, his mind drifting like a branch in a stream with a mild current, waiting for a thought to catch him as he went by. “All right.” Illya gave in, though by that point Napoleon was only half-listening. “You said we made a good pair—”

“We do,” Napoleon affirmed automatically.

“Well.” Illya shifted, hunching his shoulder up as if he were trying to touch it to his ear. “I suppose I made some sort of agreement. And you said—” His hand clenched and released the soft cotton flesh of the pillow beneath his head. “You said that if I had been a girl, you would have married me.”

The thought that snagged Napoleon, then, was of Boucher’s fingers in Illya’s mouth and blood trickling over white teeth while flesh separated from bone. “I might have done,” he murmured. “But would you have accepted? That’s the real question.”

Illya made a noncommittal noise. “I would have to wait until I saw the ring before I could give you an answer.”

Napoleon thought of Boucher’s ring, of the way the blood had coalesced into perfect droplets on the polished surface of the metal. “It would be silver,” he said. “With ruby insets.”

“Silver is cheap,” Illya said after a moment’s thought.

“Of course, I’d throw some diamonds on there too.”

“Well, then.” Illya beat at the pillow with his fingertips, tapping out some rhythm that only he could hear. “I suppose I would have to consider it.”

Napoleon snorted and closed his eyes. He felt Illya relax beside him. They lay together, sharing a comfortable silence for several lazy minutes.

Then, Napoleon’s distinctive snigger intruded. “Because we’re… goin’ to the chapel and we’re… gonna get maa-aaa-aaaried!” Illya flung his hand back behind him to try to stop Napoleon’s singing. He pushed his palm against Napoleon’s chin as Napoleon shook his head back and forth to try to dislodge him. “Goin’ to the chapel of love!” He sang through Illya’s fingers and his own laughter, ending the last dramatic note off-key and snorting. At this, Illya’s silence broke as he could no longer hold back his own giggling.

“No more top 40 radio for you,” Illya said, and then cried out when Napoleon tried to muscle him off the edge of the bed. He hooked his ankles around Napoleon’s to keep from falling. Neither had been able to stop laughing and neither tried.

They laughed together, for longer than was appropriate or natural, allowing it to cleanse away the awkward tension that Illya’s recollection had caused between them. They laughed until the laughter itself became uncomfortable. Napoleon began to feel as though Illya was watching him, but when he turned his head he saw that Illya’s attention was actually on the clock on the nightstand. “We’ll have to be up soon if we want to make our flight.”

“Mm.” Napoleon could feel his heart squirming in his chest, against the pulses of pain in his neck, shoulders, and back. The stress of the past day was making him feel his age, and that scared him more than he wanted to admit. He reached out and brushed his fingers against the soft skin between Illya’s shoulder blades. Illya stiffened at the touch. “Five more minutes?”

“All right.” Illya shrugged Napoleon’s hand away and flipped onto his back. His arm rested over Napoleon’s, his elbow digging into Napoleon’s midsection. With his eyes closed and his hair lying limply on the pillow, he looked as if he’d never awoken that night.

The urge to touch Illya’s cheek, to skim his fingers over his exposed throat, was strong enough to prompt Napoleon to look away. Instead, he stared up at the ceiling and felt like a fool and a coward.

“What are you thinking about?” Illya asked.

Napoleon was thinking about the woman from Thrush; he wanted to ask Illya whether he thought she’d made it out of the building before the gas had gone off. He was thinking about the girl and her red beads; he wanted to tell Illya about her, but he couldn’t be sure that Illya would understand. Illya sometimes didn’t understand, or he answered Napoleon with a blunt kind of honesty that distanced them rather than bringing them closer together. He thought about Dr. Boucher’s blood on his silver ring and the press of Illya’s elbow. He thought about their own unsteady heartbeats that would never be synchronized and the way that they both were aching like birds that had flown in the wrong open window and gotten their wings clipped, but still they were so close to finding the freedom that they could not even remember having. He wondered if they could find that freedom if they would just touch each other like they wanted it, not elbow-to-elbow but navel-to-navel and legs intertwined. He thought that they just might, but he wanted to know for sure before he tried it.

When he answered Illya, all he said was: “Not very much.”

[First posted here, with notes, in September of 2008.]
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