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Title: The Match and Bullet Trick
Rating: PG
Summary: Napoleon is so clever he just might burn himself.

Waiting was hell. Napoleon rocked back on his heels and locked his knees. He waited until he felt the stretch of muscles in his thighs become painful, and then shifted his weight forward so he stood on tiptoe. Illya sighed beside him, and Napoleon felt the peculiar brief sting of embarrassment. It wasn’t the first time his partner had been critical of his tendency to succumb to fidgeting.

Napoleon fingered the pack of cigarettes he’d slipped into the pocket of his pea coat, scratching his nails over the cellophane and tracing the outline of the matchbox he’d slipped between the wrapper and the carton.

Du calme,” Illya murmured. His eyes were fixed on the building across the street. When Napoleon glanced over he saw the pinpoint reflection of a distant streetlamp break momentarily as Illya blinked, but little else.

The night was too still and it made Napoleon want to move and yell and fire his gun just to dispel the soul-numbing boredom. He recalled New Years’ celebrations from his childhood, when everyone in the neighborhood would turn out at midnight and bang wooden spoons on cast-iron pans to drive away the spectre of winter and make a new start. Preoccupied, he slid the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.

“Don’t you dare,” Illya said mildly.

“Hmm?” One cigarette had made its way into his mouth without him being entirely aware. He decided to help things along and let his fingers pinch their way to selecting a match to go with it.

“Do you have a death wish?”

Napoleon shifted the cigarette to the corner of his mouth. “Are there any German snipers around?” His eyes roamed to the left, where Illya was a darker patch of black against the layered shadows.

“There’s a man on the roof with a gun.” Illya’s voice registered only the interest of a helpful bystander.

“Long distance?” Napoleon squinted, trying to catch that faintest glint of metal or movement that might betray a gunman. It was futile; Illya’s night-vision had always been better than his own.

“Oh, yes.”

“Well then.” As he thought, Napoleon bared his teeth and held the cigarette between his teeth like a cowboy. He felt a surge of intoxicating bravado. Their rooftop sniper was no more real to him, then, than any evil spirit he’d ever chased out of the gutters with percussive crockery. “You want to see a trick?”

“Do you think this is really a good time for magic tricks?”

Napoleon’s laugh came out like a cough in the still dust of the abandoned storefront, dying among the spider webs and buckling wood supports. “This will be better than a magic trick.” He took a stealthy, shuffling step to the right, aligning himself in front of the glassless display window while staying within the boundary of the deepest cast shadow.

“You’re not—”

“Shh.” Napoleon grinned as he stretched his arm far out to the side. His fingers jerked as he struck the match on the inside of his thumbnail. Illya smelled sulfur and saw the flame, bright enough after hours of darkness to leave green ghosts on the insides of his eyelids. “Watch the match,” Napoleon instructed. There was a moment of perfect, disconcerting calm.

A bullet whistled through the empty air above Napoleon’s extended hand. The flame went from vertical to horizontal. Napoleon sucked in a breath that hissed between his pursed lips, and the bullet buried itself in the floorboards with a heavy, rotten sound. Illya blinked and the bright bulb of the fire had dimmed; several seconds passed before he realized that Napoleon had cupped his free hand over it. It took several more seconds for Illya to realize that Napoleon was actually lighting his cigarette. “Are you mad?” he hissed, but not without a certain amount of admiration.

Napoleon exhaled and the smoke looked like breath condensed on a cold night. “Not at all,” he said cheerfully, holding his cigarette in the loose curl of his fist, the lit end aimed at his sternum.

Outside, the stillness had been transformed by the shot, and for the first time the movements of the enemy were clear. Napoleon grinned the wide, skull-cracking grin of men who live to find evil in the flesh and punch it in the jaw. “And now it looks like I’m not going to be bored either.”

[First posted here in April of 2008.]


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