Author's Notes: A thousand times thanks to the wonderful beta that is azdak. Without her help I'd never have been able to get through.
It was one of his first memories.
There was a vendor, selling toys in the streets of Kiev. It must have been winter, with so much snow. Close to New Year, perhaps. There were only very few people in the streets.
Among the man's goods were glass marbles. He particularly liked a red one.
It wasn't brown-red or orange-red, like the ones he owned. It was almost garnet-like, in the winter twilight.
He refused to move. His parents decided to buy it for him. Good.
Then some men in uniforms came. Which uniforms? He didn't remember. How old was he? Four? Five? Six? He didn't remember that either.
What had the man done? He didn't know. But they were already beginning to hit him.
The man was bleeding, and squinting at him, or at his parents, but didn't dare to say anything.
They led the vendor away in handcuffs.
He did remember being glad that he didn't have to pay.
He didn't keep the red marble for very long, although he would have liked to. Because then came the War. And other sorts of... wars. After all those atrocities seen, and, occasionally, done by him, why did he still remember this little scene? It didn't make sense.
Maybe it was because this was where his life really started.
Now he was overstating.
Still, one's life begins where one's memory does.
The history of the world is like the history of the heart. In the end what matters isn't the truth about every affair, it's how you see them, and how you remember them.
Truth is overrated anyway.
(Does such a thing as truth exist? There are bigger lies, smaller lies, stronger lies believed by more people, weaker lies, but no truth. What we call "truth" is only lies in a relatively smaller dose.)
The day blood and chaos broke out in Budapest, his leftist French classmates got really disappointed with him. They seemed to think it was his fault. After all, Russia was far while he was near; Their desillusion was so strong that he could almost smell it in the air. Something like the scent of bitter almonds.
"I suppose some people are born innocent, and some people aren't."
He hoped his voice sounded ironic enough. But he only felt childish. Emotional. Unworthy.
Why did people like him exist? Because countries are like unhappy families. They're all unhappy in their own ways. And a neighbour's misery not only provides consolation, but can also be very useful.
He didn't exactly trust the West, because the West didnt trust him. It had to be mutual trust or mutual mistrust, no third option.
For better or worse, one always knows what one's family members are capable of. Not so much at your neighbour's.
Still, by the time he retired from UNCLE at 40, he'd have spent more years on this side of the Iron Curtain than on the other.
He was becoming some kind of a stepson. Is a stepmother obliged to love a stepson? Perhaps not.
Perhaps no parents are obliged to love their children. One can't choose his parents. Parents can't choose their children, either.
Maybe this wasn't between mothers and stepmothers. More like parents and teachers. You couldn't raise your hand against your parents or your teacher, could you?
He was becoming something in between, one foot in heaven, the other in hell; and he knew too much not to be alone.
He knew all the tricks, both eastern and western, capitalist and communist. There's the real horror, and then there's the propaganda. A bit hard to tell which is which, right? Even if one has experience of both.
So he didn't blame the Americans.
Well, almost didn't.
There had been a fellow agent, Luke Simons, who had almost been his first partner. Almost. If Simons hadn't decided that he couldn't afford to put his life into hands of someone who had no problems with dictators. "This kind of person must be weak."
Maybe he wasn't so much angry at what the man said, as angry that the man might not be entirely wrong.
They were spies. Shouldn't they know better?
It was all about national interests after all.
Or was it?
The voice in his head sounded a lot like Napoleon's, although the American had never actually said anything like that.
Napoleon made him believe.
Sometimes he was even grateful that Napoleon was an unrepentant skirt chaser, a shameless manipulator, a...he really should stop making the list. If Napoleon was a better man, it might be a little too much to take. In this business, "someone you believe" is already a larger-than-life concept.
Well, maybe he didn't believe Napoleon after all. But Napoleon made him believe, which was a whole other matter.
The latter was a good thing, in this business. It helped you last longer. Let alcoholism kick in a few years later.
That time with the missiles full of mildew, he had been really angry, too.
Even Napoleon hadn't believed him at first. His partner was not that different after all.
We're dying like flies, so the Americans think we're nothing but flies. Nobody cares any more, not even ourselves.
Don't worry. If we let this happen, then perhaps we really don't deserve to live, Napoleon is saying.
Don't we? We're born to live. We have nations, because we want a better chance at surviving. Until those flying saucers of yours come to this planet, nothing will change.
Be careful talking about flying saucers. Maybe next month Thrush will catch one. Napoleon grins.
When nothing happened in the end, the world turned blank around him for a second. As if life had suddenly become utterly simple and he didn't know how to deal with it any more.
He realized he wanted to do something incredibly stupid. Like bursting into tears. Or kissing Napoleon.
Tomorrow was another day. Not simple at all.
Still, he was always proud to be the first and only Russian at New York Headquarters. He was just not prepared to let anyone know.
(Not even Napoleon. But then, perhaps his partner already knew.)
No one could quite see the world like he did. It was like being on top of Mount Everest, and he had climbed up there from both sides.
Or it was like more trivial things, like that evening on top of the Empire State building, many years ago, when Napoleon had first brought him there.
People say an empire never lasts; yet here it was, in lights and stars. War and peace, unification and secession, forever in a circle. A circle not to be broken, not by Kant and not by flying saucers.
He wondered how many Midwest innocents Napoleon had brought there. Innocent. Which was a thing he never was, never had been, and never would be. He was almost proud of this, too.
Oh no, I'm not buying into that American "different is special, special is good" attitude, he thought desperately.
"Why do you wear that maroon sports jacket? It looks terrible on you. No offence, it would probably look terrible on its own." Napoleon looks down on him with a delicate disgust, tinged with just enough amusement.
"Maroon? It looks red to me."
"I heard there weren't as many great painters as, say, musicians in Russia. I wonder why."
"Too much snow?" he suggests, raising an eyebrow.