“Kuryakin?” Mr. Waverly said, when he heard Napoleon’s choice for his new partner. “Good choice. But there is something you should know before making a final decision.”
“I’m already aware he’s Russian, sir,” Napoleon said. A number of the other American agents took issue with Illya’s nationality, suggesting that, at best, he could only be trusted as long as UNCLE’s interests weren’t in open conflict with the Soviets’. Napoleon sometimes wondered why they assumed that, if the Cold War heated up, UNCLE would automatically side with the US. It was an international organization, after all. Any of them could face divided loyalties. “And he’s still on good terms with them, so he must at least technically be a Communist.”
Waverly brushed that aside. “All of the Russian agents are. Kuryakin, however, is also an admitted homosexual.”
For a moment, Napoleon thought he must be hearing wrong. Illya, a queer? Sure, he didn’t like pushy women, but…. He shook his head. If Waverly said it, it must be true—he wasn’t given to practical jokes of any kind, and he certainly wouldn’t start with one as potentially damaging as that. And he’d said “admitted” homosexual, not “suspected homosexual” or even “known homosexual.” “Admitted” meant that Illya had, well, admitted it. God only knew why. “Isn’t that a security risk?” he asked instead.
“Not at all,” Waverly answered. “A secret homosexual would be a security risk, certainly, but Mr. Kuryakin can hardly be blackmailed with something we already know.”
“I suppose not, sir,” Napoleon admitted. He hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made a certain amount of sense.
“It goes without saying that this information is confidential,” Waverly added.
“Of course.” If Illya had trouble fitting in now, it would be a hundred times worse if something like that got out. To say nothing of the impact on UNCLE’s reputation…and his own, if he was tainted by association.
“Beyond the obvious reasons, it may someday be useful to present the appearance that Mr. Kuryakin has been compromised.”
Napoleon had been too shocked by the disclosure to think of that angle, but it, too, made sense. A compromising secret that wasn’t a secret at all could pave the way for any number of counter-espionage scenarios. Illya could easily pretend to have been successfully blackmailed, since a THRUSH agent—or any other enemy—would never suspect that UNCLE could already know.
For an elite organization like UNCLE to hire a known homosexual was unthinkable. Napoleon couldn’t imagine why they had. He started to ask just that. “But why--” He stopped short as he realized that to ask the question would imply both that his boss had made a bad personnel decision, and that Illya was unqualified to be an agent. The former was clearly a bad idea; the latter….
As shocking as the news was, before hearing about his…proclivities…Napoleon had considered Illya among the most capable agents UNCLE had. Nothing about his skills had changed. Illya may have been a homosexual, but he wasn’t a pansy. There wasn’t even a trace of limpness about his wrists.
Waverly answered anyway, and seemed not to take offense. “Once I realized it need not be a security risk, I realized Mr. Kuryakin’s….” He paused to search for a polite word, just as Napoleon had in his thoughts, and settled on, “…preferences could even be an asset. You know how useful seduction techniques can be. Against a homosexual target, a genuine homosexual is more effective than a man playing a role. They can usually tell.”
Napoleon fought against a sense of instinctive distaste at the idea of his friend being asked to seduce another man in the line of duty. If Illya really was…that way….then it was no different from any of the dozens of times he’d seduced a female to gain access or information.
“And that’s in addition to his more conventional qualifications,” Waverly said, with a note of finality in his voice. “If you’d rather not have him as your partner, a falling-out can be arranged, but you will be expected to continue working with him as a fellow Agent, and—as I stated earlier—to keep this information to yourself.”
Waverly’s words—“a falling out”—reminded him of something Illya had said as they prepped for the first case they worked together. As they left some place or another—the briefing room, maybe, or the lab where they’d picked up some new equipment—they had nearly bumped into Illya’s usual partner, Agent Darbonne. Darbonne and Illya had looked at each other for a moment, and Darbonne had given Illya a cold, Gallic nod. Illya had responded with a cold, Slavic one of his own, and had walked away quickly enough that Napoleon had a hard time keeping up, even with his longer stride. He’d asked what happened, and Illya had said, “We had a falling-out,” in a tone that forestalled any follow-up questions.
Napoleon hadn’t thought much of it—at the time he’d been working one-off assignments with a lot of different agents, and there hadn’t been time to get to know any of them particularly well. By the time the duty roster and mission requirements had brought him and Illya back together again—this time for a few missions in a row, enough for him to realize they made a good team—he had forgotten all about it. Forgotten all about Darbonne, too. He hadn’t been around lately—some sort of long-term mission in the Yukon, Napoleon thought, or maybe the Sahara.
Now, though, it was fairly obvious what had happened. Waverly had told Darbonne the same thing he had just told Napoleon—and Darbonne had taken it badly. Maybe he’d even argued to Waverly that Illya ought to be fired. And Waverly had just told him, Napoleon, all the reasons that Illya would be staying. “I understand, sir.”
Still, it had to have been a nasty shock for Darbonne. Napoleon hadn’t known either man well at the time, but he had a vague recollection that he and Illya had been thick as thieves for a few weeks there. Not just going on missions together, but having lunch together, visiting each other’s offices, even leaving work together, bound for a restaurant or club.
It must have been an uncomfortable feeling for Darbonne, realizing that he’d been spending all that time with a pervert. At the time, a lot of people had been keeping a pretty close eye on Illya, both because he was new, and because he was Russian—and, for the office girls, because of what Napoleon had heard described as his “dreamy blue eyes.” The friendship had been noticed—hell, Napoleon had noticed it, even though he hadn’t been paying attention—and if it had come out that Illya was queer, Darbonne would have been suspect, too.
“Will you be changing your decision?” Waverly asked.
Napoleon almost said yes. But Waverly was backing Illya in pretty strong terms; saying no, never mind, he didn’t want to work with him after all would be an admission of…what? An admission that he didn’t like homosexuals? Who did? Still, it seemed somehow weak and womanish to kick up a fuss when Waverly was being so matter-of-fact.
“I stand by what I said before,” Waverly added. “He’s a fine choice, if you think you can still manage working closely with him.”
“Let me think about it, sir.” Maybe he ought to sleep on it. Except that before coming to this meeting with Waverly, he’d told Illya to go ahead and move his stuff into their office. He was probably unpacking right now. What was he supposed to do, go back and pretend nothing was wrong, when he knew he might kick Illya out tomorrow? Illya would know exactly why he’d changed his mind, and that seemed like a rotten thing to do to a friend.
Was Illya his friend? Napoleon had thought so—Illya was pretty reserved, but they’d started spending a lot of time together. They usually had lunch together, and even without officially moving in, Illya seemed to be in Napoleon’s office more often than he was in his own. One evening last week they’d gone to a supper club, met a few girls—
It was no surprise he could imagine how Darbonne had felt; Napoleon was in pretty much the same position. Somehow, the realization made Napoleon consider that Illya had been rejected and ostracized not just by his partner, but by his friend. Probably the first friend he’d managed to make, in a new country where many people mistrusted him because of his nationality. If he’d been the gregarious type, Napoleon was sure that their coworkers would have gotten past his nationality easily enough, once they got to know him. Or if he’d been the same taciturn man he was, but from anywhere other than the Soviet Union, his American colleagues—the majority at the New York headquarters—would have made an effort to draw him out when he first arrived. But as it was, Napoleon wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Illya have so much as a friendly conversation with anyone since Darbonne.
If Darbonne had been there in Waverly’s office, Napoleon would have punched him right in his stupid mouth.
He wouldn’t have felt that rush of fierce protectiveness for anyone who wasn’t a friend. And he’d already established that Illya was just as qualified an agent as he had been before Napoleon knew about his…thing. “I’ve reconsidered, sir,” he announced. “I’d be glad to have Illya as my partner.”
“Good.” Waverly looked at him for a long moment, while Napoleon wondered what he else he was going to say. But when he did speak, it was to say, “Is there anything else?”
He turned back to his switchboard in obvious dismissal.
Napoleon had to admit, he’d been expecting a little more of a reaction to his noble gesture.
Illya sat on the edge of the empty desk in Napoleon’s office, next to the box full of his things from his old office. Packing the box in the first place, but leaving it packed here, seemed the perfect balance between cynicism and hope.
Either that, or he wanted to be ready to make a speedy getaway once Napoleon finished his meeting with Mr. Waverly. Illya wasn’t sure.
He knew exactly what Waverly would be telling his erstwhile partner, but he couldn’t realistically imagine how Napoleon might react. Foolishly, the last time this had happened—when Edouard Darbonne suggested they regularize their partnership—Illya had had no serious worries. Despite thinking of himself as a hardened cynic, particularly where Party propaganda was concerned, he had believed that here, in the spiritual center of the degenerate West, his nature would not be an insurmountable obstacle to partnership. To friendship. The Americans, it was said, were too debauched to blink at any imaginable perversion. And, for their part, the Americans claimed to champion individual choice and freedom. One or the other, he’d imagined, had to be true, and either way, it should be all right.
Stupid of him, really. Naïve, at best. He had been very new to America then, and the ready availability of homosexual pornography had perhaps given an impression of greater tolerance than really existed.
No, he wouldn’t stoop to making excuses for himself. It had been pure stupidity, a choice to be blind to what he did not want to see. The shock and hurt of Darbonne’s reaction had been the price of his stupidity.
This time, he would not be surprised. Napoleon might come in and say, “Sorry, Kuryakin, I’ve changed my mind.” Or “I hope you didn’t think we were dating, you filthy pervert,” or possibly even, if he was lucky, “We are still going to work together, but I don’t have to like you.” But Illya would not be hurt.
Perhaps he could affect to be just a little bit surprised at Napoleon’s lack of sophistication. “I had no idea,” he could say, cool and amused, “that you were so parochial.” Or perhaps make some reference to a blushing virgin, implying that Napoleon feared for his virtue in the company of such a one as Illya.
Napoleon would be stung by such a suggestion, perhaps even enough to forget that his reaction was normal, and that Illya was the peculiar one. Yes, that was what he would do. Satisfied, he crossed his legs knee-over-knee and folded his hands around his top knee, a posture that was casual and just a hair too effeminate for him to usually indulge in.
He stayed sitting like that for a few seconds after Napoleon came into the room, then stood, turning to face Napoleon. Napoleon was studying him, as if trying to identify clues that he had missed. He said nothing, and Illya was not inclined to be the first to speak, but eventually raised his eyebrows in a wordless question when it became evident that Napoleon was not going to speak.
“Waverly told me about….” Napoleon swallowed hard and trailed off.
“Yes,” Illya said. “There is the possibility of a compromising situation, if you did not know.”
“Yes,” Napoleon echoed. “I understand that.” But he kept looking at Illya.
Finally, Illya decided he had to move the scene along, before he lost his resolve. “Is there a problem? You are staring.”
Napoleon looked away. “Sorry. I just—you don’t look like a….”
He wasn’t following the script, but Illya managed to improvise. “A sissy?” he said, scathingly. “I am not one.”
“No, you aren’t. But you are…?”
“A homosexual. Yes.” He folded his arms across his chest and raised his chin slightly. Which retort had he chosen, “parochial” or “blushing virgin”? He couldn’t remember. Perhaps the choice would depend on exactly what Napoleon said.
“I was surprised, that’s all,” Napoleon said, with a slight smile.
“Haven’t you ever met one before?” Illya asked defiantly.
“Not that I know of. But who knows? I’d never have guessed about you.”
“I try to be discreet.”
“Yes, that’s…Waverly said.” Napoleon turned and went briskly to his desk. “Do you have the results from that chemical analysis yet?”
That was definitely not his line, and it took Illya a moment to orient himself to the change of subject. “The technician might be done setting up by now,” he said. “I will go and see.”
“Good,” Napoleon said. “You can finish unpacking when you get back.”
So he was not dismissed as Napoleon’s partner. Not yet, anyway. With a nod, Illya left the room to go to the lab.
After that one conversation, when Napoleon had the distinct impression that Illya had been throwing a challenge at his feet, Illya made no further mention of his tendencies, but Napoleon could sense that he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He never initiated conversation on any non-work-related subject—not that he had been particularly chatty before—and when they were alone and not driven by the urgent demands of a case, he kept a wary eye on Napoleon, as though he might explode at any moment. And there was always a brief, but noticeable, flicker of surprise in his expression when Napoleon suggested they have lunch together, or otherwise spent time with him that he didn’t have to.
But Napoleon kept at it, determined not to be as lousy a friend as Darbonne had been. One evening after working late, they went to a Chinese restaurant for a late supper. Illya was characteristically quiet as they got started on the wine while waiting for their meals, listening to some of Napoleon’s better stories, smiling politely when he recognized a part that was supposed to be funny.
After hearing about a fiery redhead Napoleon had met during a recent case, Illya said dryly, “I am in awe of your prowess with the fairer sex.”
What was that supposed to mean? At first, Napoleon had considered avoiding the subject of women when talking with Illya, but since they were one of his top subjects of conversation, he’d decided that talking about them would be less awkward than not doing so.
Before he could answer, a dark-haired beauty a few tables over craned her neck to look at them, then smiled widely and approached. “Illya Nickovetch, as I live and breathe!”
Illya looked up, and an expression of pleased surprise crossed over his face, though it was quickly replaced by his usual grave expression. “Polya!” He stood and put his hands on her shoulders, briskly kissing her first on one cheek, then the other. Stepping back, he kept his hands on her shoulders.
“What an astonishing coincidence,” she said.
“Yes.” Illya tore his eyes away from her and turned to half-face their table, keeping one hand on her shoulder. “Polina, this is my partner, Napoleon Solo. Napoleon, Polina Federova. We were at Cambridge together, but it has been years since we’ve seen one another. And even longer since we have spoken.”
Napoleon knew that the enigmatic Illya was unlikely to elaborate on that cryptic remark, but his countrywoman was not so reserved. She explained to Napoleon, “I defected in the middle of our course of studies. It would have been politically awkward for the other students from Soviet Union to continue associating with me, after.” she explained. “I understood completely, of course. But Illya, you should have looked me up when you left.”
Now Illya took his hand off the woman’s shoulder and stuffed both hands in his pockets, looking down at the floor. “I never left.”
Polina, Polya, whatever her name was, looked theatrically at their surroundings.
“Yes, yes, I live here now. Representing Soviet Union in an organization called U.N.C.L.E.”
“Oh,” the woman said softly. Now she made a less obtrusive scan of the room, looking worried. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t--”
Illya shook his head. “I am not being watched.”
Polina relaxed. “Good. I wish—well, if I had run into you sooner….” She trailed off uncertainly. “But I’m catching a flight back to England first thing in the morning, I’m afraid.”
So they couldn’t get together later, Napoleon supposed she meant. “Join us,” he suggested. She had been sitting alone before; as they were seated, he had noticed the tragedy of such a beautiful woman dining unaccompanied. The woman looked hesitant. “If you like,” he added, realizing he might have sounded too pushy.
But it turned out that wasn’t her concern. “Illya? Would that be all right?”
Illya regarded the toes of his shoes glumly for a moment. “Yes,” he agreed, raising a finger in admonishment. “But only so that I may be appalled by how you have been corrupted by Western decadence.”
Before Napoleon could form an apology for his friend’s rudeness, Polina laughed. “I’ve missed you, Illyushenka.”
Illya scowled. “Illyusha, please, if you must.” To Napoleon, he added, “Illyushenka is nickname for little boy.”
Polina laughed again, and patted his head. Illya fended her off, smiling. Once his habitual deadpan expression was back in place, he gestured to the seat he’d recently vacated. “Sit. I will ask the waiter for another chair.”
The woman sat. As Illya marched off in search of the waiter, he offered, “I could ask for another table, if the two of you would rather catch up on your own.” He didn’t really want to—as both a beautiful woman and an old friend of his partner’s, Polina was someone he wanted to get to know better—but he knew it would be rude to intrude on their reunion when they had so little time.
He was glad when she shook her head. “No, I am interested to meet new friend of Illyusha’s,” she said frankly. “A very rare species, at least in the old times. But perhaps he has changed?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Napoleon admitted. “He keeps himself to himself, our mutual friend.”
Illya returned, trailed by one waiter carrying a chair, and another with a new place setting. Napoleon and Polina fell silent as the waiters arranged these to their satisfaction. “Your meals will be soon, gentlemen and lady,” one of the waiters said, bowing.
“Thank you,” Napoleon and Polina said at the same time. Illya just nodded.
Once the waiters had gone, Illya said, “You are still living in England?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’m on faculty of one of the smaller universities. I was visiting the States to do some archival research.”
“What about you?” she prompted.
“Have you been in the States long?”
“Only a little over a year.”
“Not long enough to be corrupted by Western decadence, then?” she teased.
“Little bit,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. “I have purchased high-fidelity record player.” They were speaking English, but the presence of his countrywoman seemed to have thickened Illya’s accent.
Polina laughed. “Now it’s all revealed! If I ever see Pyotr Petrovich again, I will tell him of your shame.”
“Is there a story there?” Napoleon asked, feeling left out.
“No,” said Illya.
But he didn’t protest when Polina answered. “When we first arrived at Cambridge, Pyotr shocked poor Illya by announcing his intention to buy a secondhand record player. As I recall, he had to mollify this insufferable prig--” she poked Illya’s shoulder “--by agreeing that it would be owned collectively by the four or five boys living in the residence. He pretended to be motivated by pure Socialist morals, but now we know he simply wanted to be part-owner of record player.”
“Not at all,” Illya said. “If he had bought it on his own, all term he would not have been able to afford his own food and liquor. By combining our resources, we were able to have food, and liquor, and record player. It is little Socialist parable,” he concluded loftily.
Illya’s tone gave no hint as to whether he intended to be funny or not, but when Polina laughed, he ducked his head and grinned.
Over the course of the meal, the pair of them talked mostly about old times and old friends, with Polina providing enough explanations to keep Napoleon included in the conversation. Illya talked more than Napoleon had ever seen him do, even in formal briefings. Nearly everything he said sounded either insulting or arrogant, but Polina always laughed it off, often responding in kind. There was very little in his manner to suggest that he was joking, but Polina’s reactions convinced Napoleon that he must be.
She certainly seemed to be enjoying, and not merely tolerating, his company. When the waiter collected their empty plates and asked if there would be anything else, Polina smiled impishly at Illya and said, “There are three of us.”
“Your flight?” Illya said uncertainly.
“I’ll sleep on the airplane.”
Illya looked up at the waiter. “Vodka, please. Leave the bottle. We may be some time.”
To Napoleon, Polina explained, “Three is the perfect number to share a bottle of vodka. Four, and you may not become drunk enough, only two and you may become too drunk.”
With the arrival of the vodka, the pair turned to politics, with Illya defending socialism, and Polina Western capitalism, both in very heated terms. It was only when they suddenly, without warning, switched sides that Napoleon realized the argument was not in dead earnest.
The mood changed when, after Illya quoted Adam Smith on the invisible hand of the market, Polina shook her head gravely and said, “If they could hear you back in Moscow, Illyushenka. Straight to the gulag.”
It seemed much milder than the outrageous insults they had been tossing back and forth before, but Illya suddenly became very interested in the label on the vodka bottle.
“Why do you stay?” she asked, her voice low and gentle.
Illya just shook his head. “I haven’t been home in years, Polya. It is very easy to be Communist when one does not have to live under state Socialism.” He poured himself another glass of vodka and slammed it down in one gulp. “‘The workers control the means of production.’ ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ All countries tell such lovely stories about themselves, of course—‘all men are created equal’ springs to mind,” he added, with a look over at Napoleon. “But I have a certain sentimental attachment to ours. And since none of them are true, what difference does it make?”
Polina squeezed his free hand, then pried the vodka bottle out of the other. “Only you could prove yourself a romantic and a cynic in the same breath, Illyushenka. And only after you’ve had more than your share of a bottle of vodka.” She tipped the bottle first over Napoleon’s glass and then her own, saying, “We had better finish this; he’s had enough.”
“Ha,” Illya said, regaining control of the bottle and emptying it into his own glass.
The next morning, Illya was…slightly indisposed. He had not been drinking with one of his countrymen for some time—and Polya had made a point, back in the old days, of holding her liquor just as well as any man. In the UNCLE commissary, he looked at the breakfast offerings with distaste, and chose only a cup of black coffee.
He looked around blearily for an empty table, but instead found Napoleon, who was sitting with a gaggle of switchboard girls, but waved him over anyway. Illya would have preferred to sit alone, but he didn’t see an empty place, and he had waited too long to pretend he hadn’t seen Napoleon, so he went.
As he was sitting down, one of the girls giggled shrilly at something Napoleon said. Illya winced involuntarily. Napoleon took in the wince and Illya’s lack of breakfast, and drew the obvious conclusion. “A little under the weather from last night?”
“Mm,” Illya said.
“We ran into an old friend of his,” Napoleon explained to the girls. “I’ve never seen a pretty girl drink vodka like that. It was all we could do to keep up.”
That wasn’t exactly how Illya remembered it, but he decided not to argue.
“An old girlfriend?” the giggler asked.
“You could say that,” Illya answered. They had said so, at Cambridge, and had even experimented once or twice, Polya claiming that she wanted to be certain she was lesbianka. “But we are all older and wiser now. Except Napoleon. He is no wiser.” Illya realized his mistake as soon as he said it. It was Polya’s influence, and the aftereffects of vodka. If Polya were here, he would have said, “Except for Polya. She is no wiser,” and she would have replied to the effect that he seemed to be no older, either, still looking like he was about twelve, and it would have been very funny. But Napoleon would only be insulted.
All of the girls looked at him as if he had just drowned a sack of puppies, but Napoleon just said, “You didn’t know me then. Believe me, this is an improvement.”
“What was she like?” Janie asked, as she opened a file drawer in search of the documents Napoleon had requested. “Illya’s old friend?”
More direct than some, she was the fifth or sixth girl to try to pump Napoleon for details about Illya’s supposed old flame. Napoleon was pleased, though not surprised, to see that his plan was working. There was a fair bit of speculation about why Illya never dated, and treated flirtatious overtures as an annoyance, when he acknowledged them at all. One of the more popular theories—particularly among the Dreamy Blue Eyes Brigade, as he privately thought of Illya’s fan club—was a tragic love affair that had left him wary of risking his heart again. At breakfast, he had realized that injecting a version of last night’s events into the gossip mill would encourage that interpretation.
“Brunette,” he answered. “Very beautiful.” He was careful to reveal little, both out of respect for his partner’s privacy, and because the truth—that Illya and Polina had spent most of their reunion bickering like brother and sister—would not have helped matters.
Janie, who was blonde and a paid-up member of the Brigade, pouted at that.
After a few days of receiving such unsatisfactory answers from him, another of the Brigade girls dared to go straight to the horse’s mouth. Lacey, a brunette from the typing pool, came by their office on the pretext of asking Napoleon to clarify an illegible word in a report he had recently written up.
“‘Pursuit,’” Napoleon said. It was a pretty flimsy excuse; the ‘u’ and the ‘i’ were, admittedly, not very distinct, but in context, what else could it have been?
“Oh, of course, I see it now.” With that disposed of, Lacey strolled over to Illya’s desk. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Illya.”
“Thank you,” Illya said, without looking up from the photographs he was examining.
Lacey perched one shapely hip on the edge of his desk. “It must have been nice, seeing your old friend.”
Illya reached for the drawer that was blocked by Lacey’s thigh. “Pardon me.”
She shifted out of the way by sliding further onto the desk and swinging her legs to the side. Illya opened the drawer and took out a magnifying glass.
“Were you very close?”
“You and Pauline.”
“Polina,” he corrected, peering at the photograph through the glass. “There was talk of marriage,” he said distantly, still examining the photo. “If you will excuse me, I’m very busy.”
Recognizing, if not defeat, at least a temporary setback, Lacey hopped off the desk—taking the opportunity to brush against Illya’s shoulder as she did so—and left the office.
After she had gone, Napoleon said, “Talk of marriage? Really?”
“I didn’t say we were the ones talking about it.” Illya’s tone was forbidding, but Napoleon thought he saw the traces of a smile.
He had figured out what was happening, and was playing along, Napoleon realized. Illya’s next remark confirmed it.
“As disinformation campaigns go, I have seen better.”
“You’re welcome,” Napoleon said, and was rewarded with another smile. Yes, he was learning to speak Illya.
Closing the door behind himself, Illya leaned against it, his hand on the knob, listening for signs of pursuit from the other side. He held his breath and went still, like a small prey animal trying to make itself invisible to predators.
But he was not successful. He cringed as the door was assaulted from the other side.
Well, if evasion hadn’t worked, there was nothing to do but face the enemy like a man. Releasing the doorknob for a moment, he straightened his cuffs, then opened the door.
“There you are!” said Dotty, from the translation department. “Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“I had something on my mind. I don’t believe I’ve sent any documents to be translated recently,” he added, glancing over at Napoleon. “Have you?”
Napoleon shook his head, looking entirely too amused. Illya glared at him for a second. Either Napoleon had miscalculated, or Illya had misunderstood the nature of his plan. Perhaps he suffered under the misapprehension that Illya needed only to meet the right girl.
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that,” Dotty said. “You see, I was going to go to the symphony with my grandmother on Friday, but she had to leave town unexpectedly, so she suggested I give her ticket to a friend. It’s Shostakovich,” she added, stumbling over the name.
“Shostakovich,” Illya said. “On Friday.”
“Yes.” Dotty nodded eagerly.
“In that case, you should ask Lydia in Accounts. Only a few hours ago she informed me that she wished to attend that very performance, believe it or not.” Illya certainly didn’t. Believe it, that is.
“Oh,” said Dotty. “I suppose that might be nice.”
Illya nodded. “Is that all?”
“Um. Yes. Thank you. I’ll ask Lydia if she wants the ticket.” She ran off, heels clattering against the tile of the hallway floor.
Closing the door again, Illya turned to face Napoleon. “I am astonished,” he said, “by the number of girls who have, through no fault of their own, obtained pairs of tickets to musical and theatrical performances this week, as well as by the number who have suddenly developed a keen interest in Russian culture.”
Napoleon winced. “I should have thought of that,” he admitted. “I overlooked it, because I never use the old ‘mend my broken heart’ gambit myself. It tends to create unrealistic expectations.”
A miscalculation, then. Illya was relieved—Napoleon attempting to change his nature was not the worst reaction he could imagine, but it would be an annoyance. “I’m starting to run out of excuses. Perhaps you can help.” Since it was entirely his fault that Illya was in this situation.
Napoleon shook his head. “I don’t usually wait for the girls to chase me, and if they do, I generally let myself be caught.”
“Ah, but you pursue enough of them that, even accounting for an above-average success rate, you must have heard every excuse in the book. There must be some that I can adapt.”
“Hm.” Napoleon leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “You probably want to stay away from ‘I’m not that kind of girl.’ Might hit a little too close to the mark.”
It surprised Illya to hear Napoleon referring so casually, if obliquely, to the nature of the difficulty. “Yes.”
“And washing your hair might be a little transparent. Do you have a blind grandmother to read to, or a dog you need to get home to walk?”
“Maybe you should get one.”
“This might sting a little,” Louise said as she started dabbing antiseptic onto Napoleon’s arm.
“I can handle it,” he said with his best smile. He had been trying to get the beautiful redheaded nurse to give him the time of day for weeks. He considered it a good sign that she had opted to tend to his wounds, leaving Illya to the brunette Maggie. They were both a little worse for wear, but fortunately not seriously injured, after diving headfirst through a plate-glass window.
“That’s nice,” Louise said, and resumed trying to convince Maggie to visit Louise’s new astrologer as she briskly moved from one wound to another.
“I didn’t realize you were interested in the mysteries of the stars,” Napoleon said. “So am I.”
“Is that so?” she asked, sounding unconvinced.
“I think that one is clean now,” Illya said sharply. Napoleon glanced over to see Maggie moving on from a wound on his chest to one on his shoulder.
Recapturing his train of thought, Napoleon continued. “Yes. Just had my chart done, as a matter of fact. It showed me, you, champagne, a rotating dance floor….”
“That’s not how astrology works,” Louise said.
“It isn’t? Maybe I need the name of your astrologer—it sounds like mine has been cheating me all this time.”
Maggie and Louise exchanged significant looks across their two patients. Maggie leaned forward, raising her eyebrows with a determined expression.
Louise sighed. “If that’s your way of inviting me to the Rainbow Room for an evening of dinner and dancing, I accept.”
“Really?” Napoleon said before he thought about it. At this point, he hadn’t figure he had much of a chance with Louise. “I mean, excellent.”
“On one condition,” Louise continued.
Illya winced. Maybe the wound Maggie was cleaning now was a particularly deep one.
“Anything you like,” Napoleon said gallantly.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll make it a double date with Maggie and Illya.”
How had he not seen that one coming? Illya apparently had, and he was a homosexual. “Ah, that sounds lovely,” he said, trying to think of a way to talk Illya into agreeing. “Doesn’t it, Illya?”
“I expect I’ll be busy.”
“You fellas can choose the night,” Maggie said.
“I am very busy man,” Illya said.
“All finished,” Louise told Napoleon. He started to put his shirt back on. Illya reached for his own, too.
“I’m not finished,” Maggie protested.
“I can reach the rest myself. We have to go report to Mr. Waverly.”
He was off the examining table and heading for the door, leaving Napoleon with little choice but to follow him. “We’ll get back to you, about a night for the Rainbow Room,” he said to the girls, on his way out.
It was late evening, and the hallways were quiet. Once they were far enough away that the girls couldn’t possibly overhear, Illya said, “I’m not interested in going on a double date with Maggie and—whatever her name is.” There was a little bit of a growl in his voice. “I thought you understood that.”
“I do,” Napoleon said, making his own check for eavesdroppers. “But this is the best chance I’ve had with Louise. Can’t you--” He gestured impatiently. “Suffer through it?”
“Lie back and think of UNCLE?” Illya asked dryly. “I’m sure I would survive, but it would only encourage the others.”
He had a point. With a flash of inspiration, Napoleon said, “Not if you make sure she has a terrible time. Just make sure you’re the most boring date ever. I’ll coach you.”
“You’re sure this is not another miscalculation?”
What? Oh, like his tragic romantic past. “No. But you can’t be all brooding and enigmatic like you usually are—that’s what they like about you. We’ll have to come up with something else….”
“Illya, are you all right? Illya!”
Groggily, Illya tried to raise his hand to his aching head, only to be stopped short by ropes securing his wrists to the arms of the chair he was sitting in. Looking down, he saw more ropes encircling his chest, and an experimental flexing of his legs proved that his ankles were bound as well. There was a warm, solid weight against his back, and that was where Napoleon’s voice was coming from. So. They were bound back-to-back in—he took in his surroundings with a quick glance—a storeroom. There was no one in the half of the room he could see, and Napoleon could presumably see the other half, so they were alone. With that quick assessment of their circumstances completed, he answered, “Yes, just a headache. You?”
“Do you have any idea how long we were out?” Illya’s memory started getting hazy shortly after their arrival outside the suspected THRUSH safe house, so they had probably been captured and given matching blows to the head as soon as they gained entry, or even a little before.
“I can see part of my watch—it looks like it’s almost seven.”
Nearly two hours, then.
“We’re supposed to be picking up Louise and Maggie right about now,” Napoleon added.
“How lucky for us,” Illya said. For him, at least; he supposed Napoleon was genuinely disappointed. For himself, Illya had hoped something might come up to interfere with their double-date—for more than one reason. He was not certain that he would be able to convincingly carry out Napoleon’s plan, or that it would work as expected even if he did. While he told himself that he had agreed as a kindness to Napoleon—throwing himself on an unexploded brunette to save his friend, so to speak—he suspected that he was lying to himself. If he allowed himself to fantasize about what it might be like to be the object of Napoleon’s romantic attentions, the experience would provide rich source material.
And having that material at hand—so to speak—would make it harder to resist that dangerous temptation. But he had to resist it, because desiring his partner was simply not acceptable. That was the most vicious of the accusations Darbonne had flung at him in the course of the real falling-out that preceded their orchestrated one: that Illya’s hesitantly-tendered overtures of friendship had actually been attempts at seduction. It had been completely untrue, in that case—he was sure that his feelings for Darbonne had been those of ordinary friendship.
“One advantage of dating UNCLE girls,” Napoleon said, breaking into his thoughts. “When we don’t show up, they’ll assume we got—heh—tied up, and notify HQ.”
“True,” Illya said. So there was an advantage to Maggie’s infatuation, after all. “All the same, I’d rather not wait. Any ideas, my friend?” And yes, that was what Napoleon was. His friend. Nothing more, and nothing less. More than he had a right to expect, in fact.
“Not at the moment. I managed to get a little slack in the ropes by tightening the knots, but not enough to get my hands free.”
“Ah,” Illya said, trying the same thing. The knots were a little looser than they could be…of course, pulling them tighter, while it did give them a little slack, also meant that any plan that involved untying them later would be a non-starter. “Fortunately, I have a razor blade concealed in my belt buckle.” He grunted with the effort as he pulled steadily at the ropes binding his right arm. “In case I had to defend my virtue from Maggie’s roving hands,” he added. He didn’t find the constant pursuit of amorous females as amusing as Napoleon seemed to, but Napoleon seemed genuinely sympathetic, despite seeing the humor in the situation, so he tried to return the favor.
Napoleon laughed, as Illya had hoped he would. “I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you if you can’t reach it,” he pointed out.
“That is the crux of the problem,” Illya agreed. There, the ropes were as loose as they were going to get. He tried to pull his hand through, just on the off chance that it might work.
He’d evidently used up his quota of luck for the evening. Time for the next step in the plan. He clenched his teeth, but couldn’t quite manage to hold in a yelp and a couple of swear words.
“Illya? What happened?”
The warm concern in his voice was a welcome distraction from the pain. “Dislocated my thumb,” he answered, breathing heavily. Now he could just manage to pull his right hand free of the ropes.
“That’s not the bad part,” Illya said, using his first two fingers to pry open the hidden compartment in his belt buckle. The opposable thumb was an advantage not fully appreciated until it was gone.
“What is the bad part?”
“I have no way to put it back in until I get my other hand free.”
Thanks to Illya’s belt buckle, they managed to get out of the THRUSH safe house without incident, as long as one didn’t count running into their own rescue team on the way out as an “incident.” They were able to meet Louise and Maggie not much later than their 8 o’clock reservation time. Both girls were in Medical when they got there, wearing lab coats over their cocktail dresses—Louise’s dress was a rather severe black, and Maggie’s an eye-catching electric blue number.
Napoleon was cleared through medical very quickly, with just a quick check for signs of concussion, but the night-duty doctor hesitated over Illya. “I’d like to get an x-ray of your right hand. It looks a little swollen; there may be a fracture.”
“No fracture,” Illya said, moving to slide off the table. “My thumb was dislocated. It’s fine now.”
“Anyway,” Napoleon added, “we’re in a hurry. We can’t leave these two ladies all dressed up with no place to go, can we?” He wasn’t sure that Louise would give him another chance if he botched this one.
“Our reservation was fifteen minutes ago,” Illya objected. “We’ve missed it.”
“We could go somewhere else,” Maggie suggested. “That is, if you’re sure your hand’s all right, Illya. A bistro or something—I don’t care where we go.”
“Nonsense,” Napoleon said. “I’ll call the restaurant and have a word with the headwaiter; I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
“I’m sure I have no business dining and dancing.” Illya looked to the doctor for support. “My thumb was just dislocated.”
“You said it was fine,” the doctor pointed out. “But I can take an x-ray, if you want to be sure.”
“Well, Illya?” Napoleon asked pointedly. “Would you rather have an x-ray, or dinner with a pretty girl?”
Illya shot him a murderous glare before saying, “Of course, what was I thinking?”
Louise added dryly, “I’m sure Maggie would be happy to cut your meat for you, if you have any trouble.”
Maggie nodded brightly.
“Just give us a few minutes to freshen up,” Napoleon said, steering Illya out of medical. “We’ll meet you in Reception.”
Once in their office, Napoleon took out the packed suitcase he kept ready for emergency missions and opened it. What he had on looked perfectly adequate to Illya—he wasn’t the one who had nicked himself with the razor blade and bled all over his shirt.
“I’m not ready for this,” Illya complained, picking up his own duffle bag.
“You don’t need a dinner jacket, just a tie,” Napoleon said. “And it doesn’t matter what you wear, since you don’t want to impress her, remember?”
“It’s not that.” It was a good thing he didn’t want to impress anyone, since the shirt in his duffle was badly wrinkled. “I haven’t finished memorizing the Encyclopedia of Newts.” Napoleon had convinced him that he couldn’t put Louise off by acting as he usually did, since, he claimed, the source of Illya’s allure for the fairer sex was his air of mystery. We have to convince her that she’s seeing the real you, Napoleon had explained. And that he’s a complete drip.
One distinguishing characteristic of the complete drip, Napoleon assured him, was that he talked endlessly about boring subjects, oblivious to his date’s disinterest. After giving the matter some thought, Illya had decided to become obsessed with newts. “If I know everything about newts up to the letter R, and nothing after, it’s bound to look suspicious,” he explained, setting aside his bloodstained shirt.
“Can’t you spend two hours talking about one of the things you already know everything about?” Napoleon asked, selecting a pair of non-exploding cufflinks. “You talked to that guy in the record store for about six hours. Use that,” he suggested, taking off his shirt.
Illya, seeing no reason to torture himself, faced the other direction. “Jazz isn’t boring.”
He didn’t have to look at Napoleon to know he was making a face. “Right, what was I thinking? How about explosives?”
“They’re not boring, either.”
“They are to girls.”
Illya couldn’t quite imagine how that was possible. “I once heard two of the girls in Files having an hour-long conversation about handbags. How can explosives possibly be less interesting than handbags?”
“The female sex is a mystery to all of us,” Napoleon answered, knotting his tie.
Hastily tying his own, Illya presented himself for Napoleon’s inspection. “Well?”
“You look just barely respectable enough to get in the front door,” Napoleon said, reaching out to straighten Illya’s tie, which was askew.
“I did that on purpose,” he said, dodging.
“Don’t, unless you want her to fix it for you.”
“I bow to your superior expertise,” Illya said, and let Napoleon fix his tie, telling himself that if Napoleon’s fingers brushed his chest while he did so, it was doubtless entirely accidental.
“So, ah, how are you finding New York?” Napoleon asked.
“About the same as it’s been since I was born,” Louise answered.
Napoleon winced inwardly. He had thought that Louise moved to the City recently. He probably had her mixed up with another girl. And—even though he was careful not to say so in his apology—he had a feeling Louise knew it.
The trouble was, Napoleon had spent so much time coaching Illya on how to bore Maggie that he hadn’t had a chance to work out how to make a good impression on Louise. When the girl was less susceptible than average to his charms, a little groundwork could make all the difference. A few casual conversations with her particular friends on the staff, maybe a quick perusal of the personnel file, a recon of other UNCLE men she’d dated, and he’d be able to prepare a few conversational openers that were sure to be a hit.
Instead of doing that, however, he’d been busy making sure that Maggie didn’t care about newts, and working out which of Illya’s many shabby and ill-fitting outfits would show him to his worst advantage. And all that was wasted effort anyway, since they’d had to change the plan to explosives and the spare shirt Illya kept in the office.
At least it wasn’t the blue one that brought out his eyes; that would have been a disaster. And Maggie’s eyes had glazed before Illya had scratched the surface of the topic of detonators, so that part of the plan was going all right.
Dragging his attention back to the matter at hand, Napoleon asked Louise if she had any pets.
“No,” she said. “Our building doesn’t allow them.”
Maggie seized the opportunity to talk about something that didn’t go bang. “It’s a shame, because I’d love to have a dog,” she said. “But I suppose, with the hours we work, it wouldn’t be fair to a dog anyway.”
“I suppose not,” Napoleon agreed. “Even if you don’t have to fly off to all the corners of the Earth at a moment’s notice like we do, UNCLE must keep you fairly busy.”
Louise started to reply, but subsided when Maggie said, “Speaking of flying off, weren’t you fellows in China recently? That must have been interesting.”
“Yes, very,” Illya said. “Incidentally, it was the Chinese who first developed gunpowder, in the 9th century AD. It is popularly believed in the West that they used it only for fireworks and not for offensive weapons, but this is untrue….”
Napoleon hid a smile behind his wine glass.
“Gosh, Illya, that’s so interesting. I had no idea there were so many ways of blowing things up.” Maggie leaned in closer to him, putting her hand on his arm. “But let’s talk about something else for a while.”
Illya attempted to look slightly confused about the existence any subjects of conversation other than explosives. “Of course. What do you suggest?” He glanced over at Napoleon. Oddly, his conversation with Louise seemed to be limping along just as badly as Illya’s with Maggie—and Napoleon, presumably, was making an effort.
“Why don’t you tell me something about you?” The toe of Maggie’s dancing shoe brushed against his calf as she rearranged her legs under the table.
Illya would really rather not, but he supposed that if he refused, it would enhance the damnable “air of mystery” that Napoleon assured him was like catnip to the female sex. “Very well.” He tried to think of something innocuous enough to describe, and drew a blank.
“What do you like to do for fun?” Magggie asked.
Answering Blow things up might be taking the role a little far, Illya decided. “Go on missions. Work in the lab.”
“What about, um, outside of work?”
He couldn’t say anything about going to jazz clubs; Maggie might try to work her way around to an invitation. And if word got out, the office girls might start trying to ply him with tickets to performances he actually wanted to attend.
“Illya spends most of his time working,” Napoleon chimed in. “It’s all I can do to drag him out of HQ once in a while.”
He nodded gratefully, and added, “Sometimes I read,” which was true enough.
“Oh? Have you read anything interesting lately?”
Mentioning the novel that currently occupied his bedside table might be a mistake—it was on the Times bestseller list, which suggested a statistical likelihood that any given person, such as Maggie, might have also read it, and the last thing he wanted to imply was a common interest of any kind. He mentioned a scientific journal instead.
“What’s that about?”
“Oh.” He could tell from Maggie’s expression that she had no idea what that was, and he could also see her deciding not to ask, in case the answer had anything to do with explosions. “What did you do before joining UNCLE?”
“Studied quantum mechanics.” Deciding that Maggie deserved at least one break, he added, “Before that, I was in the Navy.” That information was in his personnel file, anyway.
“The Navy?” Maggie sounded surprised. “But how could you be, if you aren’t even an American?”
“The Red Navy, you dope,” Louise said. “Not ours.”
Maggie showed no particular rancor at being called a dope. “Of course, how silly of me. What made you decide to do that?”
“I didn’t. My country has compulsory military service for all able-bodied men.”
“Oh. Did you like it?”
“Not particularly.” Maggie appeared to be waiting for him to elaborate. Not to do so would probably come across as mysterious. “I patrolled the Baltic Sea in a submarine. It was very dull. The vessel did have some interesting experimental armaments, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you about them—as far as I know, they’re still classified. And we never got to use them, anyway.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m sorry about that!” Maggie said.
Since if they had used them, it probably would have been against the US, Illya could see her point. World War Three would have been a steep price to pay for livening up Lieutenant Kuryakin’s existence. “I suppose not.” The polite thing to do, he knew, would be to ask Maggie what she had done before joining UNCLE. But while he genuinely would have preferred hearing the answer to answering more questions himself, or to finding another of the less interesting aspects of the topic of explosives to drone on about, to ask would not be the behavior of a complete drip. Instead, he applied himself to finishing his dinner. Squab, very tasty. He could have eaten another one.
“Well, shall we take a spin on the dance floor before considering dessert?” Napoleon suggested. He and Louise had both finished their dinners, and there was no point lingering over conversation—on that score, Illya’s date seemed to be, somehow, going better than his. Maggie was at least pretending to be interested in Illya’s monologue.
“Why not,” Louise agreed.
To his surprise, she turned out to be a fairly good dancer, light in his arms and with a good sense of timing.
As the next song started, he saw Maggie dragging Illya onto the dance floor. Napoleon noted with approval that he held her right hand in an awkward, crushing grip—the compromise they’d reached over Illya’s unwillingness to tread on her feet. Apparently, while he had no objection to being dull, he drew the line at clumsy.
Just as well, Napoleon supposed. It wouldn’t have been a believable performance to anyone who had seen him fight.
Despite the cheap suit and the wrinkled shirt, Illya looked nice on a dance floor—so sleek and graceful. Maybe enough that Maggie would consider it worth suffering through his conversation.
“Why don’t you try dancing with Napoleon, Maggie?” Louise suggested as they met near the middle of the dance floor. “I’m sure he can help you improve your fox-trot.”
After three and a half syrupy numbers, Illya was almost ready to kiss Louise for the suggestion. “Yes, why don’t you?” he said. “Napoleon is a much better dancer than I am.”
“I couldn’t possibly desert Illya,” Maggie protested.
“Nonsense,” Louise said. “I’ll dance with him. May I cut in, sir?” she added to him, with a curtsey.
Damn. The kiss was definitely rescinded. Were both of them interested in him?
Napoleon frowned a little, but accepted the switch, so Illya supposed he didn’t have a lot of choice.
Louise was at least a better dancer than Maggie. And there was something about the brisk, no-nonsense way she corrected his deliberately bad grip, without even apologizing for it, that reminded him a bit of Polina.
She was also very good at leading while dancing backwards. Within a dozen bars of the music, they were on the opposite side of the dance floor from Napoleon and Maggie. “I think we may have a mutual friend,” she said, her tone soft and confidential, but not particularly flirtatious.
“I doubt it. Unless you mean Napoleon.”
“Mm.” She shook her head fractionally. “Dorothy?”
Oh. Oh. Well, that explained her invulnerability to Napoleon’s charms. If she meant what he thought she did. “You don’t mean Dottie in Translation, do you?” he asked, just to make sure.
“Perhaps we do, then.” He wondered why she was telling him. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “Gay radar, I guess. Don’t worry; your secret’s safe with me.”
That much was already implied by the mention of a mutual friend, he thought. “And yours with me.”
She shrugged. “It’s not a terribly big deal to me, though I suppose Maggie would rather not have it spread around that she shares an apartment with the office lesbian. But I’ve heard that sort of thing is a lot more dangerous where you come from.”
“Yes.” The KGB, in fact, already knew, and had given him to UNCLE for that very reason. They needed to send a loyal Communist who possessed sufficient technical skills not to embarrass the Soviet Union before the other member countries, but who was both expendable and controllable. UNCLE agents could not be recalled or dismissed by their home countries, only by UNCLE itself, and they could only be tried in an international court—it was part of the charter, to ensure that the organization was truly independent—so the usual methods of controlling Soviet citizens living abroad were unavailable. An individual with a highly illegal secret, one that would be considered compromising in any UNCLE member nation, must have seemed the perfect solution.
Their mistake, Illya always thought, had been sending an explosives expert. He knew how to defuse anything. They hadn’t forbidden him to tell UNCLE his secret, likely for the simple reason that it never occurred to them that he might.
True, it had been a gamble—if UNCLE had found him unacceptable, he’d have been sent back to the USSR more expendable than ever. But he’d waited to make that gamble until he’d established his usefulness to UNCLE, and gotten a fair idea of Mr. Waverly’s character. The risk of ending up in a gulag or a psychiatric hospital was minimal.
“I’m sorry,” Louise said. “I’ve upset you; I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“No, it’s all right.” It was, really. If he had to be under someone’s thumb—and he did; everyone did—UNCLE’s was better than the KGB’s. “I’d offer to help get Napoleon off your trail, but I’m not sure how. Assuming you’d rather I didn’t tell him.”
“You assume right. It’s okay—I don’t think he’s had a particularly good time tonight. Any more than Maggie has,” she added with a knowing smile. She hesitated. “Does Napoleon know about you, then?”
“I wondered why he wasn’t trying to stop you from boring Maggie to tears.” She glanced over at Napoleon, assessingly. “I have to say, he wouldn’t have been my first guess, to be so accepting. Skirt-chasers like that usually aren’t.”
Illya lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug; he’d been surprised, too. “It does leave more girls for him.”
“Well, that was a bust,” Napoleon grumbled as they returned to the car after seeing the girls to their apartment-house door. The double-date had ended with patent insincerity on all sides, the girls saying that they’d had a lovely time, Napoleon and Illya that they ought to do it again sometime.
“Maybe for you,” Illya said.
Napoleon nodded. “I don’t think Maggie will be bothering you anymore.”
“No. And the squab was good, and the chocolate mousse, excellent.”
He had to smile at that. Trust Illya to find the bright spot in any situation—provided food was involved. “I don’t think Louise was ever really interested,” he noted, starting up the car.
“No,” Illya agreed. “I believe she agreed to the evening to give Maggie her chance.”
“Much as you did,” Napoleon said, with a quick, assessing glance at Illya.
Illya returned a suspicious glance of his own. “Surely you aren’t so arrogant that you think any woman who isn’t interested in you must be Sapphically inclined.”
“No, of course not.”