Hung Series - Talking

by AconitumNapellus

‘So, Mr Kuryakin.’

Illya shifts uneasily in his chair. It’s no secret that he hates counselling. No matter how many times he goes through it and how well it works, he hates it. And now he feels a hundred times more vulnerable than usual, with his burning shoulders and aching arms strapped to his torso by slings. He feels naked because his thoughts are tattered by painkillers and because he’s sleeping so badly and because when he does sleep he dreams twisted dreams about hanging and being in screaming pain, about raving thirst and being left to die.

‘Mr Kuryakin,’ the psychiatrist says again. ‘Illya.’

‘Sorry,’ Illya says. ‘It’s a little hard to focus. The painkillers.’

‘Yes, you’re on some pretty strong painkillers, aren’t you?’ Dr Reynolds says, picking up a piece of paper and scanning his eyes down it.

‘I’m in some pretty strong pain,’ Illya says darkly. ‘I’m not addicted, if that’s what you’re worrying about. Not yet.’

And the doctor smiles. ‘No, I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the psychological effects of what happened to you. The damage, the neglect.’

There’s an itch on the side of Illya’s nose. He wants to scratch it so badly. If he were on his own he would find something in the room, a book sticking out of the bookshelf, perhaps, and rub his nose on it until the itch was gone. But he can’t, so he sits and tries to think the itch away.

‘It’s not like I haven’t suffered before.’

‘I know, and we’ve talked about it before, and it’s helped you before. Do you deny that counselling has helped you in the past?’

Illya shifts uncomfortably. The movement makes his shoulders sear, and he hisses in pain.

‘No, I don’t deny it,’ he says when he’s recovered.

Dr Reynolds leans forward in his chair and smiles. ‘But you hate counselling, yes? It’s an invasion of your privacy, it exposes things you’d rather were left covered. It strikes me, Illya, that even after all this time I know very little about your past. You almost never give anything of yourself in these sessions beyond that which is essential to the process.’

‘I’m not sure I’m required to give anything beyond what is essential to the process,’ Illya comments. He doesn’t want to be here, he really doesn’t. He has physiotherapy scheduled after this, and he’s dreading it. All he really wants is to go home and sit and drift in and out of pain while Napoleon chatters and potters about the apartment and looks after him. He’s never really craved being looked after before, but it’s just nice. These quiet times in Napoleon’s apartment, with nothing else to do, are nice.

‘How long were you a captive of the Peeters gang?’ the doctor asks, looking at his fingernails as if it’s the most casual question in the world.

‘Four days,’ Illya says.

And he closes his eyes, and remembers. It had been ridiculously simple, laughably so. He blames himself. He had been sitting at a pavement café sipping at an espresso. In retrospect he would have been better drinking something with more fluid and less caffeine, but then he hadn’t expected to be taken. He hadn’t expected it at all, and that was where he was to blame.

‘I didn’t have my guard well enough up,’ he says.

‘What makes you say that?’

Illya sighs. Any tiny crack, any volunteered information, and the doctor will pounce, but now he has he might as well keep on talking.

‘It was warm and sunny and it seemed so easy,’ he says, thinking of the heat of the sun on his head and on his blessedly undamaged shoulders, thinking of the ease of lifting the cup to his lips with no pain at all. ‘All I had to do was watch the hotel opposite, because I knew the gang would be coming out soon. Then I just needed to follow them.’

‘And how did it go wrong?’

He would shrug, if he could, but god, his shoulders hurt. It sets his teeth on edge and makes him hold his jaw tight. He turns a little and lowers his head to the glass of water on the table beside him, sipping a small amount through the straw. It’s considerate of Dr Reynolds to do this for him, to make sure he has water with a straw, and at just the right height. The water soaks into his mouth. That’s better. There had been a time when he was hanging that he had thought that espresso was the last thing he would ever drink. He worries he’s getting a little obsessive about making sure he has water to hand, but then perhaps it’s natural. He can’t turn on a tap or pick up a glass, not without severe pain, so perhaps it’s natural that he always makes sure there’s enough waiting for him.

‘I know you’re in pain, Illya,’ Dr Reynolds says. ‘I’m sorry. But tell me how it went wrong.’

He leans his head back against the leather of the chair, and grimaces.

‘There was another man. I didn’t know about him, never seen him before. There was a hole in my intelligence. He sat down very close to me, and then there was a gun in my ribs and he was telling me to stay quiet and get up, and then the rest of the gang came out of the hotel and they took me to a car just down the street and I got in.’

‘Just like that?’ the doctor asks. ‘You didn’t struggle, you didn’t cry out, you didn’t try to reach your communicator?’

Illya looks steadily at the doctor. ‘Have you ever had anyone hold a gun at your ribs, doctor?’

And he shakes his head, very subtly. No. The worst this man has faced has probably been an angry patient.

‘At that angle it would have broken one of my vertebrochondral ribs on the way in, passed through the lower lobe of my right lung, and gone straight into my heart. It might have taken in the upper portion of my left lung and broken more ribs on the way out, but I wouldn’t have cared because I would have been dead or as near as dammit before I had the chance to shout help. No, I did not struggle, I did not cry out, I did not try to reach my communicator. It wouldn’t have taken more than a stumble or a suspicious look for them to shoot me, and there was a silencer on the gun. It could have been covered with a cough.’

‘A terrifying situation, then.’

Illya grimaces. ‘Not exactly terrifying. It’s happened so often. You learn how to react. But you become very aware of your own anatomy. Of the vulnerability of your own anatomy. A bullet has no thought, doctor, no consciousness, no mercy. It simply travels from A to B with the force given to it by a small explosion in a gun, and the only thing that slows it down in that case is the holes it tears through the tissues of your body.’

Is that a small shudder on the doctor’s part? But he recovers himself quickly.

‘So. A gun in your ribs. Your body the only thing that would slow the bullet down. And then?’

Illya’s eyes widen. ‘What do you mean, and then? Then they would have walked me to their car as I died between them, driven me away, and thrown my body in the nearest river.’

The man’s lips part in a little silent acknowledgement. ‘So in not acting, you in fact acted to save your own life?’

It is immensely frustrating not being able to shrug. ‘I acted as I have been trained to act. I assessed the risks and acted accordingly.’

‘But you blame yourself for being taken so easily?’

‘I blame myself for not noticing the threat of the first man in time to counter it. After that, I only did what I had to do.’

‘And then they drove you to the château?’

‘And then they drove me to the château,’ Illya says.

It had been hot in the car. The roads were dusty. It was the end of a long spell of dry weather. And he had sat between the men in the back with the gun pushed hard against his ribs, and he had not moved, not spoken. He remembers a little boy watching him walk to the car. He remembers an old woman selling fruit at the side of the road. He remembers overtaking a horse and cart, and other cars going the other way. He remembers a row of poplar trees, and then the château appearing, a relic of a faded time of glory, weeds choking the garden and some kind of glass house falling apart. The crick of grasshoppers in the grass and birds singing. The sun had still been hot on his head and shoulders, and they had walked him in through a door that was almost fallen apart with rot, and he had waited for them to shoot him. It was such a beautiful day.

‘What did you think they were going to do?’ Dr Reynolds asks.

‘I thought they were going to kill me,’ Illya says. ‘Quickly, I mean. I thought they were going to take me to a box room or a cellar and shoot me.’

‘But they didn’t.’

‘No,’ Illya says. It still revolves in his mind, whether that was a blessing or a curse that they thought themselves above just shooting a prisoner in the head. Of course if they had he wouldn’t be here now – but then he wouldn’t have suffered such terrible, terrible pain, either, or have been left alone in his suffering for so long.

Something must have passed in his face, because the doctor asks, ‘Illya, tell me about it. What are you thinking?’

He hates that, hates it so much. His thoughts are his own. He has schooled himself not to give away his thoughts. Even before he chose his current occupation he had always jealously guarded his own thoughts and feelings.

‘Illya,’ the doctor prompts him.

So he decides to be honest, and he says acerbically, ‘I was trying to decide, doctor, whether I would have rather they had simply shot me straight out.’

‘You wouldn’t be here today if they had,’ Reynolds reminds him.

‘No,’ Illya says. And he knows deep down that he’s glad they didn’t do that. He will always grab on to that last, desperate hope. He will always side with life.

‘So?’ Reynolds asks. ‘What did they do?’

Illya gives a little smile, half a grimace. ‘They decided to beat me up a little,’ he says.

‘They were questioning you?’

‘Not seriously. They didn’t really need to. I think they were doing it for form’s sake. What was my name, who did I work for, how much did I know? But they already knew all that. They knew too much. So they just slammed me around one of the rooms for a little while. I think it was a library. A big space, lots of empty shelves. It must have been very impressive once.’

‘That must have hurt?’

That makes Illya smile. He’s so used to punches. Yes, of course they hurt. You can’t really get used to pain. You just get used to how it feels, your mind works around it.

It’s funny how you can stand there waiting for the next punch but simultaneously be feeling a wonder about where all the books have gone from this beautiful room, a wonder about the finely dressed people who must have used it. And then the fist hits and it’s like any other visceral thing, like orgasm or vomiting, when suddenly everything is centred on that one sensation, as if for a moment the higher brain has become an animal mind.

‘Yes, it hurt,’ he says. His ribs still ache almost a week after the fact.

‘Did you fight back?’

Illya takes another sip of water. ‘I took a swing at one of them. That’s when they knocked me out.’


Illya sighs. ‘And when I started to come around they were dragging me by my arms through the house. They’d put a blindfold on me. And they put chains around my wrists and then there was a lot of fuss and swearing and they manhandled me for a bit, and at the end of it I was strung up from the ceiling.’

‘And what did you think of that?’

Chyort,’ Illya mutters. He’s too hot. He wants to wipe a hand over his forehead, anything to briefly block that penetrating gaze opposite him. He wants to rant at the man. What do you think I thought of that? What in hell do you think runs through a man’s mind? He gets so weary of them doing that to him. Let’s string him up by his wrists. They all think it’s so original, like it’s never been done before. And he hates it. He hates it. The pain, the helplessness, the indignity. They can do anything to him when he’s like that and he can’t do a thing to defend himself.

He swallows, and suddenly the warmth of the room feels cold instead.

‘Illya,’ Dr Reynolds nudges him. ‘What did you think of that?’

What does this man want? Does he want him to break down, to cry or scream? Does he want to strip him like a piece of fruit until the only thing left is the soft and useless core?

‘I do not like being hung from my wrists,’ he says eventually.

‘No, I shouldn’t think you would.’

‘Somehow it never happens to Napoleon,’ Illya says contemplatively. ‘Only to me. It must be something about me.’

‘Do you really think that?’ the doctor asks curiously. ‘That you invite such treatment?’

Again he wants to shrug. God, his shoulders hurt, and his wrist hurts too under its itching, cloying cast. There’s a tight band of pain across his forehead. He’s too tired for this, too sore.

‘I don’t know,’ he says tiredly. ‘I wonder sometimes. I’m smaller than average. Maybe they think they can get away with things they wouldn’t risk with a larger man.’

‘I’ve heard a few women in the organisation describe you as cute,’ Reynolds comments, and Illya shifts uncomfortably.

‘Sometimes I allow myself to imagine an U.N.C.L.E. headquarters where gossip wasn’t a way of life,’ he says darkly.

‘You don’t like that, do you? Your blond hair, your blue eyes, your admittedly good looks, your stature. You think that makes you a target?’

‘I know it does,’ Illya says grimly. ‘I’ve been told exactly that by a number of enemy operatives. I don’t dislike my looks, and I’m not unduly proud of them either. I don’t really think about it. But I dislike anything that makes me vulnerable.’

‘Ah, yes. Well, I suppose in your line of work that’s understandable. But I’d think that you might also gain a measure of benefit from your looks in that enemies may underestimate you.’

Illya knows that his smile is shark-like. ‘Oh, yes, I do.’

He remembers a hundred times when he had counted on just that, when they hadn’t expected the small, blond, blue-eyed man to be able to take them down with a single punch.

‘Well. They hung you up. And then?’

Illya’s smile becomes thinner. ‘Well, at that point, doctor, my options became quite limited. That’s the point of the exercise. I was immobilised until Mr Solo found me.’

Reynolds smiles back at him. ‘Illya, if you’re expecting me to just accept that the period between your being hung up and Mr Solo getting you down was an unremarkable blank, I think you need to spend more time in my company. Now. What happened?’

And Illya sighs. The doctor has an uncomfortable way of getting at the truth. That time between coming to full consciousness in the chains and Napoleon rescuing him haunts him every time he lets his mind drift. It’s not just the pain, although the pain was terrible in the end. It’s that feeling of being left there to die, to die in such a terrible, quiet, subtle way.

‘Illya,’ the doctor says.

He closes his eyes and lets himself feel the pain throbbing through his shoulders and his wrist. Every heart beat resonates in his joints. In the quiet of the room he can hear the clock ticking. He can hear the creak of pipes expanding or contracting. This is a strange little sanctuary in the middle of U.N.C.L.E.’s chrome and gunmetal sterility. They have put panelling on the walls as if the room were somewhere deep in a country house. The light is dim, and there is thick carpet on the floor. It feels like a slap in the face to walk out of here into the bright, harsh corridor outside.

‘I really am so tired,’ he says. ‘I’m not sleeping well.’

‘Because of the pain or because of the nightmares?’ the doctor asks perspicaciously.

Illya purses his lips. ‘Both,’ he admits.

‘You’re staying with your partner, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I need someone to help me with – ’ He laughs a little. ‘Well, with pretty much everything.’

‘It’s good of Mr Solo to do that for you.’

‘He’s my partner,’ Illya says, although he agrees without reservation. It is so good that Napoleon puts up with the demands of looking after a man with no ability to use his arms. He could easily have said it was too much. And yet here he is, living in Napoleon’s apartment, sleeping in his bed because it’s a good, big bed and more comfortable than the spare which Napoleon is using instead. Napoleon cooks or buys take out every night and somehow he puts up with feeding Illya and washing him and shaving him and helping him with the toilet, dressing and undressing him, fetching and carrying for him, always making sure there’s a glass of water handy and leaving out food Illya can pick up with his mouth if he’s going to be out of the apartment for a little while. He drives him to appointments and wakes up every few hours through the night to give him his painkillers, and puts up with Illya’s frustration and anger, and yes, it really is good of Napoleon to do all of that. He can’t imagine another person in the world who would do that.

‘You’d do that for him?’

‘Of course,’ Illya says without hesitation. He would do it in a heartbeat. Has done, in fact, not in exactly the same way, but in similar ways. He has stayed with Napoleon and helped him when he’s needed it. Although, never quite like this. Napoleon has never been quite so incapacitated.

‘So, Illya. After you were hung up?’

Illya smiles thinly. ‘I hung there.’

‘From your wrists?’

‘Yes, from my wrists.’ Oh, the cutting, pressing pain of the chain links digging into the bones and flesh of his wrists and bottom of his hands... His entire body’s weight hanging from those two points. ‘From a couple of steel chains looped around my wrists. Maybe they were padlocked. I don’t know.’

‘You couldn’t see?’

‘I was blindfolded, like I said. They must have found the most foul stinking piece of cloth they could, and they’d knotted it around my eyes.’

‘That must have been hard.’

‘Huh,’ Illya says, half a laugh, half a snort. Of course it was hard. Isn’t it always?

‘And were they still there?’

‘At first,’ Illya says.

He remembers them there. He remembers the very fact of hanging, the pain in his wrists, pulling him out of semi-consciousness. He remembers how his head throbbed and how that thick, sweaty scent pushed in to his nose where the blindfold hung over it. He remembers feeling the grip of the chains around the delicate bones of his wrists and hands, and his whole weight hanging from them, and his bruised rib cage stretched out and aching, and one of the men giving him a casual push that set him swinging, before moving away.

‘I think they came and went through most of that first morning,’ he said. ‘Maybe into the afternoon. They didn’t talk much, but sometimes they came into the room and just stood there, like they were looking at me. Then they’d leave again.’

‘You were expecting them to do something? To let you down or interrogate you, or – ’

‘Or taunt me or throw things at me or – any number of things.’ He has been used as a dart board before, as a pinata, spat at and used as a punch bag, and –

‘Any number?’ the doctor asks, and Illya hates him for always picking on those vague statements and knowing there’s more beneath. ‘Illya, have you ever been abused sexually when you were held captive like that?’

He remembers Miss Diketon. He remembers Mother Fear. He had seen another psychiatrist on those occasions, maybe because of the specific nature of the trauma.

‘Yes,’ he says tersely, ‘but no, they didn’t do anything like that.’

‘Did you fear it?’

‘No, I didn’t really expect them to do anything like that. They weren’t the type. They weren’t really sadistic, not as such. It was just practical. Hanging me up was practical. It got me out of the way, ensured they didn’t have to worry about me getting free, and it spared them the ugly necessity of putting a bullet in my skull.’

‘So they came and went over the first morning,’ the doctor says, leading him. ‘And you must have wondered...’

‘Of course,’ Illya says. Hanging there, his wrists in agony, his shoulders starting to burn, a discomfort building up in his bladder because, of course, it’s always at times like this that one’s bladder decides to be troublesome. And waiting. The waiting is always the worst. The uncertainty, not knowing.

‘I was waiting to see what they were going to do,’ he says. ‘Every time they came in I was waiting for them to do something. And then they didn’t come back in. I’d heard a car; their car, I’d thought when I heard it, but I still expected them, some of them, one of them, to come back...’

‘And no one came,’ Dr Reynolds says.

Suddenly Illya’s throat feels very thick, as if there is something hard and painful around his Adam’s apple. He doesn’t know what to say. He looks around the room desperately and feels a prickling in his eyes, and he’s so angry at himself. If he could he would throw something, smash something to pieces.

‘That’s enough,’ he snaps suddenly, his voice becoming very rough. ‘I’m tired. Please...’ And suddenly his voice is breaking, exhausted. ‘Please, just let me have a break. My arms hurt so much.’

And the doctor looks at the clock and then at the notepad on his desk, and finally he nods.

‘All right, Illya. We can call it a day – for today. I’ll expect to see you again on Wednesday, eleven o’clock.’

So Illya takes a final long draw from the glass of water and stands up, and is disconcerted to realise that he is shaking, and that he has to wait for Dr Reynolds to get up and open the door for him. It’s not exactly like he is locked in here, but he certainly can’t leave easily on his own.

He nods his leave taking to the doctor because he doesn’t trust himself to speak, and then he stands in the bright light of the corridor wishing he could put on his tinted glasses, because it’s so bright out here and it was so dim inside. And he’s tired, so tired, and his jaw is clenched with pain, and all he really wants to do is sink down and cry. He saw by the clock in the doctor’s office that he’s half an hour early for the physiotherapy, and he wonders if there’s any chance he can beg off that particular torture today, because he’s just so tired. He hadn’t expected the counselling to be so physically exhausting.

He walks, almost tottering, through the corridors, thanking the efficiency of U.N.C.L.E for the fact there are so many automatic doors, and takes himself off to one of the small rooms where weary agents can take their rest. And there he stops, because those doors aren’t automatic, and he just stands there with his forehead resting against the cool panel, trying to muster up the resolve to use his stiff fingers and incredibly painful joints to turn the handle. He isn’t even sure if he can form the requisite grip. He is a hair’s breadth away from just crying like a child here in the corridor, all because he can’t open a door.

And then a soft female voice says, ‘Do you need some help, Mr Kuryakin?’ and he straightens up so fast that his shoulders sear, and that really does bring tears into his eyes.

He wants to yell at her, but he controls his impulse.

‘Can you open the door for me, please, Jeanne?’ he asks in his nicest voice.

And she smiles at him and reaches around and opens the door, and then comes in uninvited and plumps the pillow on the bed for him and reaches out to fold back the blanket.

‘No, it’s all right,’ Illya says, aware that his voice is slurred with exhaustion and pain. ‘I just want to lie down a little while.’

‘Can I bring you coffee? Put the television on for you?’ She is all softness and smiles, eager to help, but his head is spinning and he just wants silence and solitude.

‘No,’ he says. ‘No, thank you.’

‘Get you some aspirin?’

He smiles tightly. Aspirin wouldn’t even touch the edges of what he’s feeling. But he is overdue for his painkillers, he realises, and he goes through the conundrum in his mind. He can’t manage the pill bottle on his own, and he will rest better with the drugs in his system, but really he just wants to be alone.

He decides. ‘Listen. There’s a bottle in my left trouser pocket,’ he says. ‘I need two tablets, and some water. Can you do that for me, Jeanne?’

‘Oh, sure!’

She seems delighted to be able to help, and she disappears to get a glass of water and then gets his pills and pops them into his mouth and he tries not to be too obvious about trying not to touch her fingers with his lips, and then he swallows them down with the water from the glass she holds to his mouth.

‘Thank you, Jeanne,’ he says sincerely. Then he lies down on the bed, lowering himself with great care, and closes his eyes. After a few moments she takes the hint, and leaves.

So he lies there, eyes closed, wishing he had asked her to dim the light. It’s too bright, and he can’t fling an arm over his eyes or even pull a corner of the blanket over his face. His head aches and god his shoulders hurt, and it’s so quiet in here, and suddenly the silence reminds him of the silence of hanging in that room, where the only near sounds were sounds he made himself. The slight rasp of the chains if he moved, the in and out of his breathing, the rustle of his shirt sleeves where his upraised arms brushed against his ears.

Damn that psychiatrist. Why did they have to do that? Why did they have to peel everything back until something you thought was under control was a raw wound again? He feels the fear creeping over him again, the fear of being left, the fear of dying slowly, hanging there, and never hearing a human voice again. And now he’s in total privacy he lets the tears come, and they seep out and down his cheeks, and he bites his lip into his mouth and tries to control it all.

And then someone is in the room with him, and he’s waking from sleep, his eyes gummed and scratchy, and Napoleon is saying, ‘Hey, sleeping beauty. Jeanne said I’d find you here. Physio has been scouring the building for you.’

‘Oh.’ Illya blinks, and Napoleon gets out his handkerchief and carefully dabs the gunk away from the corners of his eyes, yet one more of the little daily tasks that Napoleon performs without question or comment. He must be able to see that the residue is the result of tears, but he doesn’t say anything, just wipes lightly at Illya’s cheeks, then folds the handkerchief away and smiles.

‘Jeanne told them you were here too, and she said you looked exhausted. I guess she was right, huh? How did the first counselling session go?’

And Illya growls a little in his throat and says, ‘What I really need, is coffee, not psychoanalysis.’

‘That good, huh?’ Napoleon asks, looking at him critically, up and down the length of his body.

‘It strikes me as an extremely expensive way to have an over long conversation.’

‘Well, I think physio would appreciate it if you rearranged your appointment, but maybe you should make it on a different day to counselling, yes?’

‘Maybe I should,’ Illya says grimly, and as he starts to try to sit up Napoleon’s hand touches the centre of his back and he gives him that support without being asked. Then Napoleon presses the right buttons on the intercom by the bed and lets Illya deal apologetically with physio. When his new appointment is arranged Napoleon writes it down on a slip of paper and tucks it into his pocket, then lays his palm back on the centre of Illya’s back and says, ‘Coffee, in the commissary, my treat. And I’ll even make sure you have a straw.’ He regards Illya appraisingly. ‘And maybe a pastry too, huh?’

Illya is none too keen on the idea of Napoleon hand feeding him in public, but on the other hand it’s past lunch and he knows his blood sugars have plummeted, and without the food he will be a miserable liability all the way home. So he smiles and chooses the lesser of two evils, and lets Napoleon buy him the coffee and two pastries, and to pull him out of his preoccupied funk with chatter and smiles.


‘So, Illya...’

He is in the panelled room again, a glass of iced water beside him again, the lights are dim again, and Dr Reynolds sits opposite him with his fingers steepled before him and his head a little on one side.

‘I’ve curtailed the length of our appointments in deference to your pain,’ the doctor says. ‘I understand that your stamina is limited.’

The doctor is right, and Illya is grateful in a way, but another part of him would like to just make these appointments as long as possible, to just get through it, so he never has to come back and sit in this darkened room and talk about himself again. Of course, he will, the next time he goes through an experience that’s deemed to be deserving of counselling. It’s never his choice. It’s what he needs to do to be certified fit for duty, and he will do anything to be certified fit for duty.

‘You remember where we left off last time,’ the doctor says.

Illya half closes his eyes. ‘I don’t know,’ he says guardedly. ‘I was very tired. I don’t really remember.’

Dr Reynolds taps his finger on his pad. ‘Luckily, I do. I was just starting to get an idea of your fear of abandonment, your fear of being left to die. You were chained and hanging from the ceiling, and your captors had driven away. And so there you were, alone, and helpless.’

‘And now for the next exciting instalment of...’

Illya takes in a deep breath, lets the oxygen fill his lungs. It was hard to take a deep breath when he was hanging. He reminds himself that he is here, he is alive, he is safe. His arms may be bound by slings but he’s not tied, not in that way. He came through it, and he is alive.

‘So little happened in that time, doctor,’ he says, trying, although he knows it is hopeless, to deflect him.

‘No, Illya,’ the doctor says patiently. ‘You were there from – what? – roughly mid morning on the Saturday until about four o’clock on the Tuesday afternoon. So perhaps not a full four days, but certainly more than three, and quite long enough, I would imagine.’

‘Quite long enough,’ Illya repeats dryly.

He would say the first hours were the worst, but they weren’t. They weren’t the longest, although as they passed they felt like the longest hours he had ever spent. He hadn’t imagined anything could feel longer. Hanging there, just hanging, waiting for a sound, the opening and closing of a door, a car, a voice. Anything. Sometimes a fly buzzed, sometimes it landed on him, but he couldn’t do anything. He just hung, and his hands grew numb and his wrists seared, and he didn’t know how much time was passing, because without sight or clocks or interruptions time loses all meaning.

‘I tried to get myself free,’ he says, becoming aware that he has just sat there in silence for too long.

‘And how did you do that?’

‘I had some things in my shoes.’

And the doctor looks him up and down. ‘Hanging from your wrists? I suppose the rumours that you’re good in the gym are more than rumours.’

Illya smiles thinly. ‘I do my best to keep in shape.’ He hates being grist in the rumour mill. ‘I managed to get at the heels of my shoes.’ Curling his body up, using the strength of his abdominal muscles, getting one foot to the half-numb fingers of one hand, fumbling the heel open and trying to pluck out what was inside. ‘I had a little file, but that was no use.’ And anyway, he had fumbled and dropped it. He couldn’t have used it, but hearing it hit the floor eroded another layer of his hope. And then the other shoe, getting that to the other hand, praying to a god he didn’t believe in that this time he wouldn’t fumble. ‘I had some explosive in the other shoe. I tried to get that to blow the chains but I couldn’t manage it.’

‘You couldn’t manage it?’

Illya shakes his head minutely. Any larger movement hurts too much. ‘I couldn’t see. I was doing it all by touch. It must have fallen out of the links. It just didn’t work.’

He had waited to hear the hiss and see the sudden flare through the blindfold after he pulled out the detonator, but it came from somewhere below him, with a soft sound as it landed on the floor. And he had felt that slow rise of dread, of realisation that he had lost his last, best hope.

‘You’re annoyed at yourself?’

‘I was frustrated that it didn’t work, but these things don’t always work.’

‘But that not working might have meant your death.’

Illya huffs quietly. Yes, his fingers were numb and clumsy and barely up to doing anything by touch alone. Yes, he mangled his attempt to get the explosive onto the chains. And yes, by failing he had condemned himself to death. And yes, that dwells in him.

‘Agents are special, but they’re not superhuman, Illya. You may have had concussion, you were blindfolded, and you’d been hanging from your wrists for some hours. The fact you managed to liberate any devices from your shoes at all is astonishing.’

‘There is such a thin line between life and death,’ Illya says, almost hisses. ‘And any incompetency erodes it further.’

Reynolds’ eyebrows raise. ‘You really think you were incompetent?’

Illya opens his mouth, closes it again. No. He doesn’t truly think that. He is frustrated at himself for being captured, for being unable to fight free, for muffing his attempts to blow the chains. But he can’t honestly think what else he could have done.

‘No,’ he says after a while. ‘But I’m frustrated at myself.’

‘In the end, you survived,’ the doctor says.

‘Not through my actions.’

‘No. That’s why every agent has a partner. Because sometimes you can’t do it alone. It’s hard sometimes to put your life in someone else’s hands, but you know that Napoleon would work as hard to save you as you would to save yourself.’

Illya sighs tiredly. ‘I know he would.’ And he does know. That is one thing that helps to keep the fear at bay. He knows Napoleon would walk through fire to save him. Napoleon found him and everything Napoleon is doing for him now proves how strong their partnership is.

‘So, you did your best with the gadgets in your shoes, but your attempts failed. And this is one of the ways you occupied yourself in the early hours.’

‘Yes, that, and I tried to get the blindfold off by pulling myself up to get my head near my hands, but I slipped and – ’ He laughs. ‘I wrenched my shoulder. I thought that was painful... And for the first few hours I could relieve some of the strain on my wrists by grabbing the chains with my hands, but after a while they got too numb and I couldn’t grip them at all. Once I’d used the resources in my shoes I kicked them off and got my socks off, because I thought I might be able to use my feet somehow, but I didn’t really know how. But dropping them – I heard them hit the floor, so I knew how high I was at least; six, seven, eight feet, above a wooden floor. Little things like that, they passed a little time, even if they didn’t really help me materially.’

‘So, that was the first day?’

Illya smiles. It sounds so simple. The first day and the night that followed are the most distinct time periods in his mind. The creeping increase of the pain in his joints, the growing fear that no one was coming back for him. He hung there, and after a while he became so aware of the weight of his own head. He let it drop backwards, he let it drop forwards onto his chest. But his neck ached so much. When he had his head back his neck felt terribly exposed, although there was nothing to touch him there, no risk of attack. And he couldn’t swallow like that, so he would have to lift his head every time. Ridiculous little things caused him pain and trouble. And his bladder was so full, the pressure insistent, so much it actually hurt, and he remembered the story of someone, he forgot who, but someone who died because their bladder ruptured, because they were hanging on in the face of some great leader or dignitary. How stupid that would be, to die from a refusal to use the toilet. As stupid as dying from being left hanging in an old château by a group of Belgian criminals.

So, in the end, he had let it go. He had had to force himself at first, and then the relief was wonderful, so good it almost made him forget about everything else as that hot stream soaked into his trousers and ran down his leg and dripped from the toes of his left foot. For a little while that entertained him. The heat was nice, and he listened to the slow drip, drip, drip, until the liquid started to feel cold and the drips slowed and stopped, and he was just a man hanging in urine soaked trousers, waiting. Waiting…

‘Yes,’ Illya says. ‘That was the first day. For a little while I tried to get free, as I described. Then I just hung, and listened, and waited.’ Hunger gnawing in his stomach, thirst prickling at his throat, his arms burning, his legs aching, his trousers clammy against his skin, and the scent of that blindfold running into his nose at every breath. ‘I was – hungry,’ he has the presence of mind to say, knowing that the doctor will want more from him than just the claim that he waited. ‘And thirsty. And tired. It’s a funny kind of pain, that hanging pain. It comes and goes in waves, but it’s always there at some level. And bits of you that should have nothing to do with it hurt. Your legs hurt because they’ve got nothing to do. Your ankles hurt. My ribs and abdomen hurt. God, my neck hurt.’

‘And how did you cope with the pain?’

Illya almost laughs. What choice did he have? ‘Sometimes I hummed a little to try to distract myself. Or I ran through things in my mind. Scientific problems from my university days, things I’d read. I have very good recall.’

‘Perhaps that poses a problem now, after the fact?’ Reynolds suggests.

‘Because I can remember those four days too well? Perhaps. But then, at least, I could remember things. I recited poetry in my mind. Masefield, Yeats, Stephen Spender. It’s amazing how a poem like that can take you away for a little while. I recited some out loud and just listened to myself.’ He laughs. ‘It was a big, echoing room. A good auditorium. And after a long, long time it started to get dark. There was enough light through the blindfold that I could tell the difference between light and dark. So it got darker and of course it got cooler, and after a while I was quite cold.’

Shivering there, hanging, still so helpless, the wet of his trousers now more than a joke, more than a slight discomfort. It was wicking the heat from his body, and he was so hungry and so tired. And the dark seemed so big. All the little daytime noises that had kept him company were gone. The house was making strange creaks and clicks as it cooled. There were no flies any more, no bird song from outside, and while he hadn’t really been aware of hearing cars before, now he was definite that there were none. There was the knowledge that if the chance of someone discovering him by day had been slim, by night it was nil.

After a while the silence was so absolute. Even the house had given up on its ghostly noises. And he started, incredibly, to drift into sleep, his head hanging limply on his chest. And then a clatter, which drew him awake instantly, gasping, his heart pounding, and he called out, ‘Napoleon? Someone? Who’s there?’ And then a little desperately, a little brokenly, he called, ‘Help? M’aidez? S’il vous plaît?’

But it must have been an animal, because there was never any reply, and he felt how cold he was again, felt the numb pain in his hands and wrists and the burning in his shoulders, and he was so, so alone that tears fell. And then after a while his heart subsided and the tears stopped and he let his head drop again, and fell back into broken sleep.

‘It was a hard night,’ he says. Those are little words to describe that long, aching, lonely time. ‘I thought the day was long, but that night… Even though I slept a little, it felt so long.’

‘It must have been very hard,’ Reynolds says sympathetically, and Illya lets himself focus on the man’s face, trying to judge if his sympathy is real. Psychiatrists are strange. They’re like a reflective surface. It’s so hard to tell what is real in their responses, and when you feel naked from having spoken for so long and so candidly, you want to feel their responses are real.

‘It was very hard,’ Illya confirms, unable to keep the hollowness from his voice. ‘I was – You know how it is, I’m sure. It is night when all one’s fears come to keep one company.’

‘And your fears were?’

Illya scoffs. Surely that is obvious? But of course, the doctor wants him to verbalise it. ‘I was afraid that no one would come for me, ever. I was afraid that I would die very slowly, of thirst, I suppose. Lack of water would have got me first. I was afraid that I would just have to hang there, utterly helpless, while my body dried out, and all the while I would be in pain and I would be hungry and so thirsty and I would be forced to soil myself in my clothes, and I would be utterly alone. And then after death, what a pathetic thing I would be.’

Reynolds just regards him, and Illya wants to scream, What do you want from me? Perhaps he wants him to break down, and in another moment he will get his wish, because Illya is so, so close to breaking down.

‘Illya,’ the doctor says simply, but his voice is so gentle and so understanding that it happens, that the wall crumbles, and tears are spilling down Illya’s face, his chest is heaving, and he sits there with his arms bound over his chest and can’t even hide his face in his hands. And the doctor stands and walks quietly across the room and stands behind him, so Illya’s face is hidden now, and he puts a hand very lightly on the back of his head. It is such a small, simple touch, but such an incredible affirmation of human contact, of not being alone, that his sobs increase. Oh, this is too much. It is just too much.

‘All right,’ the doctor says after a while, when Illya is still, with his head bowed down. ‘That’s enough for today, Illya. I can see you’re very tired and I’m pleased with how far we’ve gotten.’

Illya closes his eyes hard, opens them again, tries to make himself look composed.

‘Thank you,’ he manages.

And he stands and Dr Reynolds opens the door for him, and there in the bright light outside is Napoleon, lolling against the opposite wall, arms folded across his chest and a smile on his face.

Tovarisch, I’ve come to sweep you off your feet.’

So Illya smiles, but Napoleon must be able to see he has been crying, because he nods towards the bathroom just down the corridor and says, ‘Come on, in here.’

So in the bathroom Napoleon wets a clean handkerchief and tenderly wipes Illya’s eyes and cheeks, and Illya smiles in gratitude.

‘Tough session, huh?’

‘I would rather be tortured by Thrush,’ he says grimly.

Napoleon looks as if he’s going to hug Illya, and then he thinks better of it and instead he just leans his forehead against Illya’s and although it’s a strange species of hug it is wonderful. Napoleon’s forehead is broad and solid against his, his skull is firm, he feels so very real and alive. Illya closes his eyes and listens to Napoleon’s breathing and feels how lucky he is that he has this one person who is so very special, who is alive and here. He had been so afraid of dying in utter aloneness.

‘You want some coffee, IK?’ Napoleon asks, straightening up, taking the warm comfort of his forehead away.

‘I want to go home,’ Illya says. ‘I could fall down, I’m so tired.’

Napoleon nods. No arguments. ‘Then home. I’ve got all my work ready to take back with me, and if you can put up with it I’ll pop into the deli on the way home and get us something wonderful for lunch. There’s no reason a man can’t sweep his best friend off his feet at home instead of in the heady heights of the U.N.C.L.E. commissary.’


‘You’re having nightmares, aren’t you, Illya?’

Today he’s tired. He’s always tired, but he’s more tired today. He’s lying, like a cliché, on the psychiatrist’s couch with his eyes closed, because he’s just so tired. Even on a good night he wakes every few hours for his painkillers, which of course means Napoleon has to wake too to help him with them, so on a good morning they’re both dark eyed and yawning. But on a bad night he is woken so often by the pain that he doesn’t feel like he’s slept at all, or when he does sleep the nightmares are so stark and vivid that he wakes trying to scream, often with Napoleon hovering over him, trying to bring him back.

‘Sometimes they’re very straightforward,’ Illya says. ‘I’m just hanging there. It’s almost a direct transposition of what actually happened. But dreamlike, of course. I can see things even though I’m blindfolded, things aren’t quite the same. But I’m alone and I’m in pain and I know that I’m going to die.’

‘And that makes you feel – ?’

‘Just like I did in reality,’ Illya says, flexing his stiff fingers, wishing he could clench his fists. ‘Helpless, afraid. More afraid, really, because in dreams you allow yourself a true terror.’

‘And the others?’ The doctor’s voice comes from the darkness beyond Illya’s eyelids. ‘The less straightforward dreams?’

He purses his lips. ‘There are so many variations,’ he says. They come from every angle, taking little bits of other horrifying experiences, borrowing them, meshing them together. He is hung, and the place is on fire, or Napoleon is there being murdered and he can’t get free to help, or an earthquake is shaking the building down. So many things. He doesn’t want to let them out into this room.

‘I don’t know,’ he says finally. ‘The experience varies but the emotions are the same.’

‘You’re out of control, you’re alone, you’re afraid, you’re in fear of dying.’

Illya shifts uncomfortably. It’s not exactly like the man is reading his mind, not at all, but he doesn’t like it when he puts his finger on it so exactly.

‘Those four little things,’ he says darkly.

‘Do you fear dying alone?’

He thinks. It’s not that, exactly. ‘It’s the combination, the being unable to do a thing to save myself. There was nothing wrong with me. I hadn’t been shot or beaten, not badly. There was nothing wrong with me, except – ’

‘So, death by neglect, helplessness.’

‘If someone had come, they could have helped me.’

‘And if one of the bad guys had been there?’

That’s a whole other thing. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. He finds it hard to believe they would have let him die like that in plain sight, but then maybe they would have. Maybe they were just that callous. Perhaps dying in their sight would be more horrifying still.

‘I thought Napoleon would come,’ he says suddenly, brokenly, and catches his breath. Where did that come from? He hadn’t intended to say that at all.

‘Napoleon did come,’ the doctor reminds him.

Oh, that moment. That moment when he had realised that he wasn’t alone any more, and that it was Napoleon who had come. He had known so suddenly that everything would be all right, that he could let go. He had wanted to cry and laugh and he hadn’t known what to do, but none of it had mattered because Napoleon had carried him, laid him down, looked after him. He had finally been able to let go.

‘But it took so long,’ he whispers.

‘Napoleon was looking for you all that time. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I know that. Of course I know that.’

His tone is impatient, almost, almost. He had never meant to imply that Napoleon had let him down, but it had taken so long. Those days had been so long. And the nights. Saturday night, Sunday night, Monday night. Three long nights of hanging there like that. It had been so hard. He had started to go mad.

‘I don’t know, doctor, that anyone can know quite how long seventy five hours or so feels when you spend it all hanging from your wrists from the ceiling in an abandoned building. I don’t know how to convey that to you. I wish I did. It is longer than a lifetime.’

‘I understand,’ the doctor says, then quickly qualifies, ‘I don’t mean to imply I understand how that feels, but I understand how it must have been terrible to you. I understand that you must feel very alone in your experience.’

‘I was forced to open my bowels there,’ Illya says, almost whispers, and he doesn’t know why he feels compelled to confess to that shameful fact. ‘I was so tired, so thirsty, in so much pain. And then that. One of the last vestiges of what makes one civilised. I felt as if I had given up on being human.’

‘It is something all men must do, Illya,’ the doctor says softly. ‘You had no choice.’

‘I think, perhaps, it represented a giving up of all hope. If I’d thought someone was going to come I would have hung on. I tried to hang on. But it just happened. My body gave up on me. I wasn’t even aware I’d done it because I was – I don’t know.’ He is so tired he feels a dull sickness in the pit of his stomach, and he fumbles for his English. ‘Is swooning an acceptable word outside of Victorian romance novels? I was swooning. And I came back to myself and realised that my bowels had let go, and that felt like the end. Like the way the bowels let go after death.’

‘But it wasn’t,’ Reynolds reminds him. ‘You weren’t dead, and Napoleon came.’

He remembers lying on the floor in so much pain, and the stench so rich rising all around him, mixing with the stale urine, overpowering the dust of the room. He remembers Napoleon being so gentle with him, so matter of fact but so kind.

‘Poor Napoleon, he had to clean that up...’

‘He is your partner. You would do it for him.’

Illya opens his eyes after what feels like a very long time of having them closed and stares up at the ceiling. It’s featureless, blank, and the sight soothes his mind. He feels the cushioning arm of the couch beneath the back of his head and feels the pulsing ache of his shoulders and the stiff ache in his arms and fingers, and the soreness in his wrist, in both wrists, since his left is just as badly bruised as the right from the chains that wrapped around them. His right itches insistently, and he grits his teeth.

‘Are you thirsty, Illya?’ the doctor asks, and he blinks and says, ‘A little.’

So the doctor lifts the glass of water with its straw to his lips, and he takes a few sips without having to move his position on the couch.

‘Thank you,’ Illya says.

And then he is silent, and the doctor is silent.

‘The first day, half day, I suppose, felt like forever,’ Illya says eventually. ‘I spent all that time waiting for them to come back, and they didn’t. And then night came and I gave up on them at least until morning. And time was glacial. I could have counted every second. Sometimes during the night I swore I could hear my watch ticking, it was so quiet. The funny thing is, I didn’t realise, but they’d taken my watch off me when they put the chains on my wrists. So I must have been hallucinating. I didn’t realise it then. Didn’t realise it had started so early. But the mind plays strange tricks on you.

‘I slept and woke and slept and woke and that night was terrible. The pain in my wrists was beyond enduring, but I didn’t have a choice. The pain and the aching all through my body. I would sleep and the pain would wake me up. And then once when I woke I realised it was light again, and the night had passed, and I was so relieved at the daylight that I cried, because I thought surely someone would come then. I’d got through the worst. Someone would come.

‘And then the hours… I’m not sure when dawn was. Six a.m. perhaps? So those long hours, with nothing, nothing at all. Just hanging. Not a human voice. I could hear birds sometimes. Sometimes a car. I tried shouting a bit and of course no one came. I’d thought the first day was long, I thought the first night was long, but that day – I started to lose it. Everything was so mixed up. I woke and slept and every time I slept that was a little time passed, but then I’d wake again, and I was still hanging there, and there was no one there, and I thought I was going mad. I told myself stories and I brought back memories and I tried to sing songs but I could hardly get my voice to work, and I was so tired. And all the time I was waiting for someone to come, because they couldn’t have just left me like that. Who would leave someone like that?’

‘The fear was growing?’

‘The fear was always there. It got stronger and it faded away again. When I was too tired or in too much pain the fear wasn’t as strong. It was as if there wasn’t enough room in my brain for all those things. But then for a bit I would be wide awake or for a bit the intensity of the pain wasn’t so much, and it would come rushing over me, like a douse of water. They weren’t coming, no one was coming, and I was going to hang there until I died.’

‘What about the dislocations, Illya?’ the doctor asks. ‘When did that happen?’

He doesn’t want to think about it. It happened, but he doesn’t want to think about it.

‘I lost track of time,’ he says. ‘I don’t even know if it was day or night when it happened. I don’t know. Everything had started to blend together, and then the fear really hit me again, I don’t know why, but suddenly I was so scared of dying there like that. So I thought – I don’t know what I thought. I thought maybe if I could get my feet onto the chains I could do something. What’s the expression? Clutching at straws. Well, that was my straw. I thought if nothing else I could wind my legs around the chains and take some of the weight off my arms. But I thought maybe I’d be able to work my feet to the top, find out what I was hanging from, do something – I don’t know what – to work the chains free.’

‘What were you hanging from, Illya?’ the doctor asks with naked curiosity.

He huffs out a kind of laugh. ‘I found out afterwards I was in the ballroom. There was a fitting in the centre of the ceiling, it must have taken a chandelier in the past. There was a hook, and the chains were hooked onto that, at least, so Napoleon says. So perhaps I could have worked them off the hook. Perhaps.’

‘With all your weight hanging from them?’

‘Perhaps,’ Illya says. ‘If I’d worked my way up and hung onto the hook with my fingers.’

‘Those fingers that were too numb to grip onto the chains any more? Illya, you must not blame yourself for your failure to escape. You were in a terrible position.’

‘I was,’ Illya says, but his mind still churns on the possibilities.

‘So, you performed another feat of gymnastics, yes? Something that would be beyond most men.’

‘I tried,’ Illya says grimly. ‘I managed to get almost entirely upside down, and then – ’ I failed again, his mind tells him. Another thing went wrong. ‘I fell,’ he says simply, ‘and in the force of falling my shoulders were dislocated.’

The doctor winces visibly. Illya remembers that moment so vividly that bile surges into his mouth.

‘A drink,’ he says a little desperately, and the doctor leans forward and holds out the glass. The ice has melted but the water is cold and clear and perfect. He sips and sips again through the straw and lets the clarity of the water ground him.

‘I have never experienced such pain,’ he says after a while. ‘My entire weight hanging from those shoulders...’

‘For how long?’

‘I don’t know. Too long. Any amount of time would be too long. I lost consciousness for a bit, off and on. And I – ’ He smiles thinly. ‘It’s hard to find words. What do you say? I shit myself. That sounds very medieval, doesn’t it? But that was when that happened. I wasn’t even conscious of it happening, so it must have been the pain or – I don’t know. I – ’ His mind is reeling as he tries to think of words, as he tries to condense the stark agony of that time into something the doctor will understand. ‘I don’t know how long,’ he says after a while. ‘Twenty four hours, perhaps? But I really lost it at that point. I lost my sanity, I think. I faded in and out and I tried to distract myself sometimes and sometimes my mind wandered off of its own accord and then I would come back and feel the pain and try not to be sick with it, because I still had that much survival instinct and I knew I needed to keep what was in my stomach.’

His eyes are closed again, and although his shoulders hurt now the pain is dull and hot and sore, and it is nothing to the fresh and screaming pain that had consumed him then. Even the memory makes him feel sick.

‘You were very controlled.’

‘Huh,’ Illya says. ‘No, not very. I cried and I screamed at first but every sound and every movement made it worse. So I just hung again. Apparently my wrist was broken too when I fell, but honestly I hardly noticed that. And maybe – ’

‘Maybe?’ the doctor prompts him after he is silent for a while.

‘Maybe that extra pain helped,’ Illya says. ‘In a strange way, although I felt I was losing my mind, I didn’t think so much about the abandonment. I didn’t care in the same way. Dying would have been an end to the pain. I didn’t want to die but it would have ended it. But I didn’t want to be found like that, dead and falling apart, hanging from the ceiling...’

And the tears are coming again. The emotion feels like the welling of a river as all the spring rains rush from the mountain, cleansing away the dirt and soil of the year. He keeps his eyes closed, and the crying is a soft thing, a kind of letting go. Perhaps letting go is the hardest thing. It is easy to cling on to the pain and the fear, because those things mean one is alive.

‘Napoleon came,’ the doctor says after letting Illya cry for a long, quiet time.

‘Napoleon came,’ Illya says. He remembers hanging, singing. He was trying to sing the national anthem, for a reason he can’t quite remember. He was trying to remember the words. And then Napoleon had come, he had always been coming, it had just taken him time. And he had done what Illya couldn’t do, he had broken the chains, and Illya’s arms had fallen and he had sobbed with pain as Napoleon held him and carried him down and laid him on the floor. Napoleon had elevated his feet and brought him water to drink and water to clean that shameful mess from his body. Napoleon had touched him after so long of being alone and had bound his arms and had carried him to safety. Napoleon always came.

‘Illya, I think we’ve had enough for today,’ the doctor says.

‘Yes,’ Illya says. ‘I think we have.’

He feels empty, voided in a good way, as if he has been cleansed. He remembers lying on the bed in the hotel after Napoleon had taken him back there, the morphine working in his system, and Napoleon gently and carefully cleaning every inch of his body with warm, scented water, and then drying him with the warm breath of a hair dryer. All the sweat and filth and the trickles of dried urine were cleansed from his body, and although he had still hurt, it had been so good to be clean. It had been so good to finally feel safe and loved.

‘I’ll see you again in two days time,’ the doctor says, and Illya sits using his stomach muscles to lever himself up, and gets himself to his feet. He is warm and calm, and finally he feels this counselling might actually be working, that coming back in two days time will be something to anticipate, not dread. So the doctor opens the door and Illya walks out into the corridor just as Napoleon comes around the corner, with perfect timing, and his partner’s smile is so bright and hopeful that he feels as though he has come home.

‘Hey, tovarisch,’ Napoleon says. He has two paper cups of coffee, and in one is a straw. And Illya is tired and he is sore, but the sight of Napoleon makes his heart glad. ‘Coffee date, our office, right now,’ Napoleon says, then adds, ‘I have cookies.’

And Illya smiles. It is a good thing to have a partner you can rely on. Such a good thing. Especially one who brings cookies.

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