Illya wakes to sunlight and the soft sound of snoring. The mattress beneath him is soft, the sheets smooth on his bare skin. There’s the unfamiliar radiant warmth of another body beside him in the bed. With the thumb of his right hand, he rubs over the inside of his third finger, feels metal, a smooth band that’s warm to his skin. A ring. He opens his eyes.
To his right, Napoleon is fast asleep, curled around his pillow like a child. His hair is wildly curly without pomade to tame it, his lips softly parted. The blanket rides low on his bare hip and his left hand, resting on the mattress, bears a plain gold wedding band that matches the one on Illya’s hand.
As Illya watches, his nose wrinkles. His eyes squeeze shut, then blink open. In the warm morning sunlight, they seem luminous, a shade of blue that he could drown in. Napoleon just gazes at him sleepily for several moments before the corners of his mouth tilt up.
“Morning,” he says, and closes the distance between them to kiss Illya. It’s a sweetly familiar sort of kiss, lazy and unhurried and all the more intoxicating for that. Illya closes his eyes and tilts into it, opening his mouth to Napoleon’s, leaning into the curl of his fingers and allowing him to swallow the ragged noise from his throat.
Napoleon rolls him onto his back, his sturdy body bare against Illya’s, the line of his cock hardening against his thigh. Illya can feel his own body start to respond.
At the back of his mind is a question: How did I get here?
Napoleon’s body feels familiar beneath his hands, his warm skin, the sweet sharp edges of his teeth as he sucks a mark below Illya’s jaw. Familiar and beloved, and he remembers pulling Napoleon out of a chair with straps on the arms and hauling him up when he fell and pressing his hands down on bullet wounds and stabilizing broken bones, but this—
He does not remember this. Outside of dreams, he doesn’t remember this.
A dream, then. It must be.
“Am I boring you, Peril?” Napoleon asks in his ear, an edge of laughter in his voice, and Illya lifts his hand, trails it down Napoleon’s back, the dip and curve of muscle and smooth warm skin.
He sets his mouth to Napoleon’s ear, tugs at the lobe with his teeth, and says, “I’m not bored.”
Napoleon sounds gratifyingly breathless when he says, “Glad to hear it.”
He nudges at Illya’s jaw, kisses his cheek, the bridge of his nose—playful, affectionate, just the way Illya always imagined this might be, on the rare occasions that he allowed himself to imagine it—before capturing his lips again.
Illya allows himself to be pushed back against the mattress. It’s a dream, he thinks. A beautiful dream, and nothing more, for all it feels so real.
It’s some dazed and dizzy time later when Napoleon presses him down, mouth to his neck and the quick stutter of his breath, and Illya breathes out hard against the pillowcase, rocking his hips fruitlessly against the bed. He feels drunk on the sensation: skin-drunk and overwhelmed as Napoleon pushes into him, slick and slow, his hands flexing on Illya's hips and his voice murmuring rough endearments against the shell of his ear until Illya turns his head just enough to kiss him hard. It's all so much, almost too much even though he knows (he must know) that it's not the first time they've done this.
It's just that right now it all feels so new.
Afterward, when Napoleon is collapsed half-laughing on the mattress beside him, sweat still sheened on his skin, Illya reaches for his hand. His left hand, with the wedding ring that matches Illya's. Napoleon watches him with soft, curious eyes as Illya presses a kiss to his palm, then to his knuckles. His throat feels strangely tight, as though the endearment he wants to make can't quite make it out.
It's fine, of course. Neither of them is the sentimental type, and of course by now Napoleon must have heard every endearment Illya holds for him, in Russian and English and any other language he could muster to express them. There is no reason for him to feel so desperate to express in that moment how… how very glad he is to be here. To have Napoleon here with him.
(How did I get here? he thinks again, but with Napoleon smiling in his arms, it’s not a question that seems to carry much weight.)
“Plans for the day?” Napoleon asks, depositing a cup of coffee in front of him and padding back to the other side of the kitchen, where something that smells pleasant is cooking on the stove. He’s tousle-headed and barefoot in silk boxers with a robe draped over his shoulders; the whole effect is unconsciously alluring, though the grin he tosses over his shoulder when Illya fails to answer right away indicates that he knows exactly what sort of picture he makes.
Illya spins the ring around his finger. “I don’t… did we have a mission?”
“Did we?” Napoleon asks carelessly. “I’m sure Waverly will send over the files sooner or later. Sunny side up or over easy?”
“Your eggs. How do you like them?”
There’s a sense of dislocation for a moment (shouldn’t he know?) that fades just as quickly. “I’m not picky.”
“Such a good Soviet boy,” Napoleon says, and flips two eggs neatly onto a plate that already holds a stack of toast. He deposits it in front of Illya, along with a fork. “There you are.”
“Of course.” Napoleon drops a kiss on his lips and goes back to the stove. The griddle sizzles as he flips two more eggs with deft competence. Napoleon has always enjoyed cooking. Gaby and Illya are frequently the beneficiaries of that hobby, particularly when they find themselves holed up in safehouses for days on end. He doesn’t remember Napoleon ever cooking breakfast for him before—
A strange ache passes through his skull. Illya shakes his head and picks up his fork as Napoleon sits down opposite him. He picks up the newspaper stacked carelessly in the center of the table, then sets it down again. Illya glances at it. It’s in English, or at least he thinks so, but the printed words seem to blur and shift in a way that makes his eyes hurt before he turns them away. The picture on the front page is black and white, grainy, a tall concrete building surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
For a moment, he feels cold. His wrists ache, and his skull aches, and his ears are full of the sound of grinding gears and creaking machinery, a voice overhead snapping, “Increase the dosage, he’s starting to come out of—”
Pain slides through him. He squeezes his eyes shut, and when he opens them, he is at the table in a small, sun-soaked kitchen that looks like it belongs in the house in Kyiv where he lived as a child. By the stove, Napoleon is staring at him. He’s barefoot in silk boxers, a robe draped over his shoulders, open to show his toned stomach and strong chest. A ring glints on his finger. Illya looks down and sees its mate on his hand.
“Peril? You okay?”
Illya shakes his head, disoriented, then says, “Of course.”
“Plans for the day?” Napoleon asks, setting a cup of coffee down in front of him. Illya wraps his fingers around it, feels heat bleed into his palms, soothing the lingering ache from—
“No,” he says, and brings the cup to his lips. “No plans.”
“Me neither.” Napoleon sets a plate down in front of him, then settles onto the other chair with his own plate and gives him a sharp, teasing smile. “I suppose we’ll have to find some way to entertain ourselves until we hear back from Waverly.”
There’s another prickle of disorientation, but it fades quickly. Illya shakes his head and says, dryly, “I’m sure you have many ideas.”
“I have an extensive imagination.”
“Eat,” Napoleon says, grinning. “You’ll need to keep your strength up.”
While Napoleon showers, he wanders through the townhouse. It has a sense of dreamlike unfamiliarity to it that vanishes when he tries to focus on it. Of course he knows this place. It’s his home, isn’t it? The books on the shelves are a mix of Russian and English, a few slim volumes in French that look like they might be poetry and must belong to Napoleon. Illya can’t read them.
(He can’t seem to make out the English titles either, or the peeling gilt Cyrillic text on the spine of a book he recognizes as Prestupléniye i nakazániye because he knows the dignified leather-bound heft of it from his father’s study rather than because he can read the words.
Something is wrong, he thinks, but that, too, vanishes almost as soon as he thinks it. What could possibly be wrong? He is in his home, safe and comfortable, with Napoleon, who is his husband. Who loves him. It’s everything he’s ever wanted. Nothing is wrong.)
The sound of the shower fades, then stops. The air seems suddenly muffled, as though a bag has been shoved over his head. Illya gasps, feeling something cold and sharp pass through his lungs, like breathing in ice water or broken glass. He spins in place and almost staggers. It feels, for a moment, like the floor isn’t where it’s supposed to be, like he’s standing on the deck of a ship pitching and rolling in rough seas. He gets his footing and stumbles into the bathroom.
It’s empty. The bathtub is dry, as is the towel hanging in the rack. There’s no sign of Napoleon. There’s no sign that Napoleon was ever here at all.
Illya checks behind the door, and then, absurdly, under the sink, like he might find Napoleon crouching there amid the pipes and cleaning supplies. The floor seems more uneven still as he stands and stumbles into the bedroom.
The bed is empty, the sheets and blankets smooth and tucked in at military angles. The pillows are fluffed against the headboard.
Illya spins, his heart pounding, and goes back out into the hallway. He moves from empty room to empty room, beset by the growing understanding that something is terribly wrong.
It doesn’t help that the house itself seems subtly changed. The volumes of French poetry in the sitting room are gone. The kitchen is different as well; the expensive copper pans have vanished from the hanging rack, and instead of the sleekly modern stove, there is an old model that Illya remembers from his childhood home. The lettering on the books has all shifted to Cyrillic, but he still can’t read them.
It is not a large house; it shouldn’t take him long to search it from top to bottom, but he finds himself moving as if through mud, his thoughts slow, separating like curdled milk.
He moves from the kitchen to the sitting room, and through the door opposite that should lead to the bedroom, and finds himself back in the kitchen again. The warm yellow sunlight seems to have faded, turning harsh and pale, obscuring more than it illuminates. Noise echoes in his ear, tinny and discordant, as if there’s an ill-tuned radio placed just out of his hearing.
“—the catheter out...is he still breathing?”
“He’s alive. BP is 80 over 50. Anyone know what’s in that IV?”
"Agent Kuryakin, can you hear me?"
A tingling wave rushes over him, leaving him dizzy and lightheaded. He staggers, darkness gathering at the corners of his vision, his childhood kitchen fading around him, blurring, the lines of the furniture becoming warped and strange—
He comes awake gasping and agonized, a scream curdling in his throat as though it’s been stuck there for days. His whole body seizes, needling slides of pain from his arms and his throat as IVs are removed, and he’s about to start struggling in earnest against the straps holding him down before Gaby leans into his field of view and says, sternly, “Stop that. We’re helping you.”
Her warm hands squeeze his shoulders briefly, and it’s only then that he realizes how chilled he is. Her face seems to be cut in sharp edges, washed out and faded in the white overhead lights. Everything seems sharp, too loud; he can hear the clatter of footsteps, metal on metal, indistinct voices so harsh and jarring that he would slap his hands over his ears if he could move them.
He breathes in a lungful of air that tastes like chemicals and mildew, and unclenches his trembling hands. “Gaby.”
“It was not easy finding you. Alexander had to call in a good many favors.” She sounds annoyed, but her hands are gentle as she loosens the straps around his wrists and ankles, and the broad one over his chest pinning him down to the cot. His extremities prickle uncomfortably as blood rushes to them, and there’s a low spreading ache through his shoulders and spine. His head is pounding. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to orient himself, then opens them again.
“Napoleon,” he rasps finally. “Is he—”
“Oh, he’ll be just fine,” interjects Waverly’s voice from a distance. “Don’t fret yourself, Kuryakin.”
“I’m here, Peril.” Napoleon’s voice sounds thin and strained. Illya manages to roll his head to one side in time to see him helped into a sitting position by Waverly and a pair of unfamiliar suit-clad agents. He’s shirtless and wan, bruised and pale, and it’s disorienting in the worst way to compare the reality of him to the memory Illya has of him laughing, warm and naked, in a bedroom and a bed that was conjured out of whole cloth from his own imaginings. Napoleon’s hand is gripping the edge of the cot, white-knuckled. His ring finger is bare, of course. “I’m here.”
“Good,” Illya mumbles, and then he tilts off the cot—he’s tilting, and Gaby’s small hands are catching at him as she calls out for someone to help. In the distance, Napoleon says his name in a sharp, startled tone, and then he knows no more.
“Terribly sorry to do it like this,” Waverly says as Illya drops his aching body into a hard metal folding chair in the hospital break room, which has been cleared of nurses and stuffed with scowling intelligence officers. Most of them are MI6, although Illya can pick out the Americans by the way Napoleon avoids their eyes. He won’t look at Illya either, and his bright attention toward Waverly has a brittleness to it that Waverly seems to be ignoring. “We’ll make it as quick as we can, and then you can both be off to your quarters for a well-deserved nap.”
“After all this,” Napoleon says with a sort of offended weariness, dropping into his seat, “you really intend to put us up in army cots?”
“I’d be delighted to,” Waverly retorts. “Fortunately for you, Gaby was in charge of handling your accommodations, so there’s a pair of hotel rooms with hot baths and comfortable beds waiting for you as soon as we’re done.”
“Ah, well, then,” Napoleon says, sounding mollified. “Very well. Peril?”
“I’ll sleep on base,” Illya says shortly. There’s a pen on top of the file folder in front of him. He spins it between his hands, trying very hard not to think of—well. Anything. He keeps having to stop himself from rubbing his thumb over the third finger of his right hand and expecting to find a ring there.
“You know, I’m sure the USSR won’t collapse if you allow yourself to sleep in a comfortable bed for a change,” Napoleon says, and holds up a hand when Illya starts to open his mouth. “But I won’t fight you on it.”
“Good,” Illya says shortly. Then, to Waverly, “What of the device? Were you able to retrieve it?”
Waverly looks back and forth between them with his eyebrows raised and a look of mild incredulity that Illya can’t quite understand. When he speaks, though, his voice is briskly professional. “Ah. Well, yes, but I’m afraid it may not be usable anymore.”
“Bullet holes, Kuryakin.”
Napoleon lets out a strangled snort. “You shot it?”
“Not me. Gaby did, once it became clear that neither of you were going to come out of it on your own. Fortunately I was able to prevent her from shooting the THRUSH scientists, and so far they’ve proven quite cooperative. She’s with them now.” He leans back in his chair, surveying them thoughtfully. “From what I understand, you’re quite lucky.”
“Lucky?” Illya repeats.
“Quite. You’re not the first pair that they’ve tested that device on. Apparently, nearly every other test subject either died or went mad within a day or two. According to Dr. Dietrich, the mismatch in psyches rendered the shared dreamworlds unstable. Even dangerous. So I suppose it’s a good thing that the two of you were so… well-matched.”
Illya’s hand slips, sending the pen skittering over the edge of the table to land on the floor with a clatter that seems louder than it should. Cheeks burning, he reaches down to retrieve it as Napoleon says, slowly, “What exactly are you saying?”
“Merely that Agent Kuryakin and yourself seem to have been able to create a collaborative reality that… well, at the very least, that didn’t drive either of you mad. Other surviving subjects report attempting to kill one another inside the dream, on those rare occasions that the world itself didn’t simply destabilize. I was hoping to get a report of your experiences to compare them to.”
“Ah.” Illya rubs the thumb of his right hand over his finger where the ring sat in the dream world, and looks up in time to see Napoleon follow the gesture. His expression is unreadable, but a moment later it clears and he turns back toward Waverly with a brightly insincere smile. “Well, I’d help if I could, but I’m afraid I don’t remember anything at all after we were ambushed at the factory.”
“Is that so.”
“It is. Perhaps because the machine was damaged while we were still under?”
“I suppose it’s possible,” Waverly says skeptically. “Kuryakin?”
“What,” Illya says flatly.
“Do you remember anything about your shared dream with Agent Solo?”
Napoleon, pushing him down against the mattress and breathing shakily into his ear—
He shakes his head. “No. We were ambushed and drugged, and then I woke up. I remember nothing more. Is there anything else? I would like to shower, and to sleep.”
His hands are shaking. He tucks them into his pockets where no one can see them. Waverly surveys him with a deeply exasperated expression, then turns the same look on Napoleon. Finally, he sighs, “Fine. I suppose you may as well. Gaby is waiting outside with your ride; I don’t think either one of you is in a condition to drive. Kuryakin, you’ll simply have to put up with the hotel room for now; I’m not asking her to make a second trip. We’ll come back to this tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t wait,” Napoleon says with bright insincerity as he pushes back his chair to stand. Illya doesn’t miss the way he grips the edge of the table hard, as if to steady himself, the way he sways on his feet once he’s standing. It’s barely a moment of weakness, quickly hidden. In other circumstances, Illya might have reached out to steady him, but he’s not feeling especially steady on his feet either. And he’s not sure that he can bear to touch Napoleon right now.
Napoleon seems to have his feet under him, in any case. He’s making his slow, cautious way across the room to the door, and Illya tears his eyes away from him to look at Waverly, who is watching him with an exhausted look.
“Get out of my conference room, Kuryakin,” he says. “Go get some sleep.”
Back at the hotel, he showers mechanically, with a feeling like his body isn’t quite attached to him. There are bands of bruises on his wrists and ankles and another, wider one across his ribs. His skin is dingy with dried sweat, his hair lank. He soaps and rinses and soaps again, ignoring the sting where the incompetently placed IVs left bruises and raw flesh, the ache in his ribs. Nothing is broken. He’s tired and bruised, but nothing worse than that. He shuts the water off, dries his hair and body, brushes his teeth. Doesn’t look at his reflection in the mirror. Doesn’t consider the love bites that Napoleon left on him in the dream, marks whose placement he can remember despite the fact that they were never really there at all.
Napoleon said he remembers none of it. That means little. Napoleon is an excellent liar. Still, Illya is left with two options: either Napoleon really doesn’t remember any of what happened between them in the shared dreamspace—
Or he does, and his lie is a way of letting Illya down gently. If that’s the case, it’s neatly done. Illya can almost convince himself that he prefers it to a direct rejection.
His bags are here, which was probably Gaby’s doing. He pulls on boxers and an undershirt, then pads out into the room. He’s so exhausted that his vision is wavering, but there’s a buzzing discomfort under his skin that makes him suspect that he won’t be sleeping anytime soon. Aftereffects of the drugs, perhaps. Or just the fact that his body is aware that he’s spent the last two days lying still on a bed, even if his mind isn’t. Either way, he’s almost tempted by the bottle of whiskey on the sideboard. He wishes he had his chess set, but it’s at the safehouse back in Minsk. They hadn’t expected to be away for long.
Before he can make up his mind to pour himself a drink or lie down in the bed to try and sleep after all, there’s a knock at the door.
Gaby, perhaps. Or Waverly. Possibly even room service. Illya hasn’t ordered it; he doesn’t like strangers in his space. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Gaby has. She always tries to look after him. After both of them.
Somehow, it’s a surprise when he peers through the peephole to see Napoleon on the other side.
Illya gives some consideration to the idea of retreating back into the bedroom and pretending to be asleep, but Napoleon has certainly heard his footsteps, and it’s probably best to get this over with sooner rather than later. He takes a deep breath, clenches his hands before they can start to tremble, and unlocks the door.
“Wasn’t sure if you’d let me in,” Napoleon says, with a thin, strained imitation of his usual charming smile that sags slightly when Illya doesn’t move. “You...are letting me in, aren’t you?”
Illya nods stiffly and forces his feet to move, standing aside to let Napoleon pass. He’s showered as well, smelling of the same hotel soap that Illya used and wearing silk pajamas; Illya finds himself suddenly self-conscious of his state of undress. “Cowboy. Something you want?”
Napoleon lets out a laugh, sharp and ragged in a way that sounds unintentional. “Well, that is the question, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are we really doing this now?” Napoleon asks. There’s something plaintive in his voice.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You were there at the debrief, same as me. You heard what Waverly said about that—about the machine. That we were both sharing the same dream. Building it together out of our shared subconscious.”
Illya nods jerkily. “You said you didn’t remember.”
“I lied,” Napoleon says matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” His hands are starting to tremble. He curls his fingers into fists. “So did I.”
“Yeah, I figured as much.”
“It was just a dream.”
“Was it?” Napoleon takes a step closer. “We both built it. Are you telling me that it didn’t matter?”
“It can’t matter,” Illya says harshly. “We can’t—”
“Can’t what?” Napoleon asks. “Can’t have that for real?”
Illya sets his jaw and steps back. “We can’t. And you don’t want it. Not that.”
“You don’t think I want you?”
“In your bed, maybe.” It’s a risk, to say even that much. To state it baldly, even though they both know what they’re talking about. Even though Napoleon must remember that sun-soaked marriage bed as well as Illya does.
“Oh.” It’s a little puff of breath, an exhale. Napoleon takes a deliberate step forward, and then, just as deliberately, reaches for Illya’s right hand. Illya twitches at the contact, and Napoleon’s grip firms. Illya could still pull away if he wanted to. He doesn’t. Napoleon’s hand is warm, unexpectedly callused. His thumb rubs over the third finger of Illya’s hand. “You know, I read somewhere that the wedding ring goes on the right hand in Russia. Don’t remember where. Could have been a mission briefing. It’s from the Romans, isn’t it? The left hand is the sinister hand, and all that?”
Illya feels his fingers twitch in Napoleon’s. He doesn’t pull away. “I don’t know. It’s just—custom. What we do.”
His mother’s hands, which were work-roughened near the end, the garish red paint on her fingernails. The wedding band that she slipped on every night after she’d taken leave of the day’s admirers. He doesn’t know if his father kept his ring in the Gulag. Probably not.
He doesn’t even know, really, why he’s so fixated on that when he knows (has always known) that he would never have a wedding and a ring and a life in a quiet townhouse, with someone to wake him with lazy kisses and cook him breakfast, and tease him and touch him like he is a man who could be loved and not a machine of war.
Folly. Sentimental folly. He starts to pull his hand back, and Napoleon holds on.
“Illya,” he says. “You know I’d marry you if I could, don’t you?”
“Don’t say that,” Illya says. His throat feels constricted, thick. “Don’t.”
“I would,” Napoleon says mercilessly. “In a heartbeat. I’d make Gaby and Waverly and Sanders and every last one of them stand up with us. I’d make Waverly give us a week off for our honeymoon and steal an U.N.C.L.E. chopper to take you to some gorgeous Caribbean island, and—”
“Stop,” Illya says through gritted teeth, and reels him in to kiss him hard on the mouth.
It’s an awkward clash of lips and teeth, bruising and rough and nothing like the soft sensuous dreamlike lovemaking that he imagined (that they both imagined) earlier. This is brutally real. Napoleon’s mouth is burning hot beneath his, and his stubble scrapes Illya’s upper lip. Illya’s hand is twisted awkwardly between them until Napoleon releases it to grab for his face, his hair, the nape of his neck—clumsy and grasping, dragging him closer.
When they finally break apart to breathe together, hot and close, Napoleon’s hand remains on Illya’s nape. His fingers flex, digging in, and Illya closes his eyes, rests his forehead against Napoleon’s and says, into the quiet space between them, “I don’t want to talk about this now.”
“Okay,” Napoleon replies, on the breath of a sigh, a weary resignation in his tone. He starts to pull back, and Illya catches him.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he repeats pointedly. “Not now. Just stay. Please. Later we can talk.”
Napoleon stills, looking up at Illya. The look in his eyes makes Illya suddenly very aware that he’s dressed only in an undershirt and boxers; he feels heat rise to his face, but doesn’t look away. Finally, Napoleon starts to smile.
“Very well,” he says. “I’ll stay.”