(The story takes place a few days after Solo/The Vulcan Affair)
Napoleon was feeling uncommonly cheerful as he strolled down the long corridor to his apartment, his jacket slung jauntily over one shoulder. He and Illya had been granted an unprecedented three days off, their reward for thwarting a plot to destabilize the newly independent African nation of Western Natumba. Three days -- in a row! It was an unheard of luxury, the more remarkable because Waverly had actually offered it. To celebrate, he'd bought Chinese takeout from Panda Palace, including double portions of the Kung Pao Chicken he loved. The spicy aroma of chile powder and peanut oil wafted up from the paper bag he carried; his mouth watered in anticipation of the feast.
He hoped Illya was celebrating his own brief liberty as well. The former Soviet naval officer was an interesting addition to UNCLE New York -- a skilled operative, brilliant by any standard, but a bit stiff, and almost compulsively solitary. Around HQ, his fellow agents called him “The Ice Prince” for his standoffishness, but privately, Napoleon wondered if it wasn't just shyness that kept the young man so aloof. Illya's idea of free time undoubtedly involved spending the weekend with his journals, or reading banned Russian literature.
Ah, well, to each this own. Personally, Napoleon preferred a more physical form of recreation. He'd already consulted his Little Black Book, and arranged to meet Trudy, a Pan Am stewardess, for drinks once her flight landed later that evening.
He turned the key in the lock, and opened the door.
And tripped in spectacular fashion over a very large, very angry cat.
As the paper bag containing his dinner flew across the room, Napoleon had time to notice two things: A) someone had disarmed the apartment's alarm system and B) Illya was sleeping on his couch.
“What the -- !” The senior agent landed with a thud, bruising portions of his anatomy still sore from his recent brush with death in the bowels of Andrew Vulcan's factory. Cardboard cartons of chicken and fried rice lay strewn about him, their contents oozing onto the white shag carpet. His shirt was soaked in hoisin sauce. A broken fortune cookie by his foot promised that “better days were ahead.”
Across the room, Illya lowered the UNCLE Special he'd been aiming at Napoleon's heart. “Oh, good, you are home,” he declared with annoying aplomb. “And you brought supper. Is that Kung Pao Chicken I smell?”
“It was.” Napoleon gazed longingly at his dinner, now splattered across his carpet like a Jackson Pollack painting gone horribly awry. Fortunately, the bulk of the sauce had missed the sectional sofa, but his favorite club chair was another story. He sighed. The carpet would need to be professionally cleaned as well.
He climbed to his feet, rubbing his bruised hip, and glanced down at the object of his disaffection. The beast -- for there was no other word to describe the miserable feline -- yowled up at him in fury, bared its teeth, and attacked. Yellow fangs sank deep into Napoleon's shin, and its claws strafed his ankles with a vengeance, leaving traces of blood and tufts of white fur on the cuffs of his trousers.
Jellyroll. Dear God.
Jellyroll was the half-starved stray Illya had picked up several months ago outside his Greenwich Village brownstone. Personally, Napoleon thought that Ivan the Terrible would have been a better name for the ill-tempered beast, but nobody had bothered to ask him. Since his rescue, the scruffy Persian had made up for lost time by eating everything that wasn't nailed down, and a few things that were. In between meals, the creature was a veritable whirlwind of destructive power, eviscerating any object, living or dead, that happened to cross its path. Napoleon glanced about the apartment, looking for signs of damage.
Satisfied that he had their attention, Jellyroll abandoned Napoleon's trouser cuffs and set his sights on a loftier goal -- the agent's silver belt buckle. He launched himself skyward, claws extended, howling like a kamikaze pilot on a suicide run. Napoleon seized the beast scant inches from the “family jewels,” and passed it, hissing and snarling, to the Russian. “Illya,” he inquired with what he considered admirable restraint, “what the hell is your cat doing in my apartment? For that matter, what are you doing in my apartment?”
Illya holstered his weapon, and stepped gingerly around a puddle of brown sauce. “You invited me,” he sighed. “Don't you remember? UNCLE is installing the new security system in my brownstone this weekend, and Mr. Waverly suggested that I stay with you until they are finished. You gave me the spare key, and told me to let myself in.” He hesitated. “Of course, if you have made other plans --”
“No,” Napoleon reassured his colleague quickly. “No other plans. You're welcome to stay.”
“I know you have a busy social life. I have no wish to intrude --”
“You're not intruding, Illya. Relax, it's settled.” He turned to reset the complex alarm system.
“I hope it was alright to bring Jellyroll? I would have left him home, but my landlady is visiting her daughter in Boston this weekend, and there would have been no one there to feed him.” Illya set the beast down with a gentle pat. “I am certain he will be no trouble.”
No trouble, my Aunt Fanny! Napoleon thought. He glanced down at his ruined pants, and reminded himself to shut the bedroom door, lest his silk duvet meet a similar fate.
Jellyroll padded toward the living room, drawn by the delicious aromas emanating from the upended containers of Chinese food. He chose a spot on the carpet, and began to scarf down stray morsels of chicken.
“You should probably clean that sauce up before it stains,” Illya remarked helpfully.
They spent the next half hour picking water chestnuts out of the carpet, and scrubbing a series of oily brown stains that proved to be surprisingly stubborn. Napoleon thought the result not much improved, and resolved to call the carpet cleaners first thing in the morning.
Illya wiped his hands in satisfaction. “We have done all we can,” he declared. “Perhaps we should see to dinner.”
"Dinner. Oh, right. Just let me grab a shower first. I smell like hoisin sauce.”
Resigned to doing his bit for US-Soviet relations, Napoleon made a quick detour to the bedroom, where he left a phone message canceling his date with the luscious Trudy. Given the late notice, he was reasonably certain he wouldn't be hearing from her again. The things I do for world peace, he thought ruefully.
He tossed his soiled clothing into the hamper and stepped into the shower, sighing at the sensation of warmth that suffused his skin. He stood for a long time under the spray, allowing the hot water to penetrate his pores, sluicing away the accumulated aches and pains of the past few days. When he emerged at last, he felt thoroughly rejuvenated, and considerably more human.
He daubed Mercurochrome on the scratches, and placed a Band Aid to cover the bite mark on his shin. He turned toward the closet, and was barely in time to catch Jellyroll climbing headfirst into the hamper, drawn by the irresistible aroma of Kung Pao Chicken.
“Oh no you don't! Out!”
Jellyroll leaped to the ground, hissing and growling, tail flicking in protest. He slunk away with a howl of rage, his fierce backward glance promising retribution for the grievous insult.
Same to you, buster!
lllya had set the table in his absence, and was busy pan-frying a pair of minute steaks. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Starving.” Napoleon added a two more steaks to the pan in deference to Illya's already-legendary appetite, and slid a generous portion of french fries into the oven to crisp. While he waited for the fries to be done, he threw together a salad of fresh greens. As an afterthought, he uncorked a Cabernet he'd been saving for a special occasion.
They took their plates to the table, and set upon their steaks with enthusiasm. Illya went back for a second helping of everything, and then a third. Napoleon refilled their glasses, and watched with fascination as the Russian attacked their simple repast. The sheer volume of food disappearing into his slender frame was something to behold.
Illya sat back with a groan of satisfaction, and pushed away his empty plate. “Thank you,” he acknowledged politely. “The food was good.”
“Good? It was ambrosia. And for a change, nobody was trying to shoot us while we ate it.”
The corners of Illya's mouth twitched. “Foolhardy is the THRUSH who comes between an UNCLE agent and his supper,” he remarked drily.
They cleared away the dirty dishes, and moved the conversation to the sectional sofa. Napoleon opened a second bottle of wine, and they sat, feet up on the coffee table, sipping the rich Cabernet. At some point, Jellyroll climbed onto Illya's lap and fell asleep.
Not exactly the evening I envisioned, Napoleon thought, feeling just the tiniest bit sorry for himself. He wondered if Trudy had managed to find a date for the evening.
Napoleon's mind drifted back to his meeting with Waverly, earlier in the day. Once again, The Old Man had pressed him to consider partnering with Illya on a permanent basis. “Given that you two worked so well together on your last assignment, I'm convinced it would be a good match for both of you.”
Napoleon had bristled at the suggestion, insisted that he didn't need a partner, would be content to work alone. Preferred to, in fact. Yes, he liked Illya and respected his abilities, but didn't partners need to trust one another too, because frankly, Illya seemed to hold everyone he met at arm's length. “I've worked with him on three separate assignments now, read his dossier over until I'm cross-eyed, and I still don't know the first thing about the guy. He never lets his guard down.”
Waverly wasn't buying any of it.
“Don't be ridiculous! The man grew up under Stalin, for heaven's sake! He's bound to be cautious! If you want Mr. Kuryakin to trust you, you must give him a reason to do so.”
“But Sir --”
Waverly leaned forward, hands clasped before him, a posture that seemed almost prayerlike to Napoleon. “I'll be blunt, Mr. Solo. It's been three months since your partner's murder. Robert Gianelli died a hero's death, but he is dead all the same, and there is no going back from that. His death was ugly, in a way that makes my blood boil. He died far too young, and that is a tragedy worthy of Euripides. But it irks me to see you compound the loss by trying to follow him to an early grave.”
“I assure you, Sir, I have no intention of --”
Waverly held up his hand, and Napoleon fell silent. “We both know that an agent alone in the field does not survive for long. To insist on trying is to invite death. You need backup, and I daresay Mr. Kuryakin would fulfill that function admirably, were you to consent to it. As to his rather guarded nature --” Waverly sighed. “Bridges are worth building, Mr. Solo. I can speak from experience, having built my share of them.”
“It's impossible, I tell you. The man barely speaks, except to say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'what's for dinner.'”
“If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, Mr. Solo, you must find a way to bring the mountain to Mohammed.”
Napoleon knew he was out of line, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. “How can I build a partnership out of thin air?” he demanded angrily.
Waverly scowled. “You're creative. I'm sure you'll think of something.” He rose, signaling the end of the interview. “Think about it over the weekend. You can give me your decision when you report in on Monday.”
Napoleon stormed out of Waverly's office, and spent the rest of the day trying to push the conversation from his mind. He realized now that he'd failed miserably; he remembered every word.
Napoleon liked Illya just fine, as far as it went. The Russian had impressed him on a number of occasions, embracing UNCLE's philosophy with a dedication and tenacity that rivaled his own. The man was flat-out brilliant, honest to the core, and willing to do just about anything asked of him in the service of his new employer. Illya would make an excellent partner.
For someone else.
The Russian was a fortress, inscrutable, inviolable. He hid his opinions behind a wall of silence, and his feelings -- if he had any -- beneath an artful smattering of social courtesies. He gave nothing away. Yet Waverly was convinced that a partnership between the two of them would work; had been sure that here was a bridge worth building.
Napoleon sighed. Might as well get it over with. He poured another glass of wine. “So, Illya, you've been here in New York for -- what --?”
“Is it that long already?”
Illya cracked an eye open. “Six months and seventeen days.”
And counting, apparently. “Well, then. Tell me, how are you adjusting to American life?”
“It is not much different from London, when I was there. Sunnier, I suppose. Warmer than Berlin.”
Weather, the quintessential fallback conversation. It was shapng up to be a long night. “What about the people you've met? How do you like your colleagues here in New York?”
“Mr. Waverly's agents are well-trained, and exceptionally proficient at what they do.”
“So, no problems then?”
“None to speak of.”
“Would you tell me if there were?”
Illya considered the question. “It would depend.”
“The nature of the problem.”
Talk about getting nowhere fast. The man was infernally frustrating, a Grand Master of evasion. If he didn't want to discuss something, he would simply dodge the subject ad infinitum, until the other person wearied of the chase. It was a skill that had served him well during THRUSH interrogations, but it made for exhausting after-dinner conversation. Napoleon sighed. Round One to Illya. It was time for a more direct approach.
“May I be frank?”
Illya noted the change in tone, and sat up a bit straighter. “I wondered when you would get around to it.”
“Around to --?”
“You have been moody all evening. It is obvious that you have something you wish to discuss.”
"I've been moody??"
"I believe I said that."
Napoleon had no choice now but to forge on. He took a deep breath. “I've read your dossier a dozen times. I know that you hold degrees in Quantum Mechanics from the Sorbonne and Cambridge, and that you were a lieutenant in the Soviet Navy before you came to us. I know that you speak a number of languages fluently, and that you were once a gifted gymnast. I know that your blood type is B positive, you hold a black belt in karate, and that Jules Cutter was impressed enough with your ability to have you teach a course in explosives at Survival School.”
Illya cocked his head. “You seem to know a great deal about me.”
“On the contrary; I know almost nothing about you. The stuff in your file is just facts. Dry, impersonal data. There's no mention of your likes and dislikes, no indication of the impulses that drive you.”
“That should come as no surprise," Illya replied firmly. "Surely you must realize that my superiors in Moscow would remove anything of a personal nature from my file before delivering it to UNCLE.”
“And that's a problem. You see, Mr. Waverly has asked me to consider partnering with you --”
“-- and you find yourself hesitating.”
“Because I am a Soviet?”
“Absolutely not. My reservations have nothing whatsoever to do with politics.”
Napoleon chose his next words carefully. “I want to know who I'm working with. Not just their skill set, but what makes them tick, in here.” He tapped his chest. “Fieldwork is challenging enough without having to second-guess my partner's responses in a crisis, where seconds can mean the difference between life and death.”
“Naturally, I don't wish to pry into your personal life, but --”
“-- such is the nature of our business, is it not?” Illya folded his hands upon his lap. “Very well Napoleon. What would you like to know?”
He realized that he didn't know where to start. “Why don't you tell me something about yourself.”
Illya seemed amused by the question. “That is a rather broad canvas. Can you be more specific?”
“You know, your likes and dislikes.”
“Ah.” Illya thought for a moment. “I like food.”
“Yeah, I'd noticed that.”
“Especially hot dogs. And pizza with anchovies. And those little bags of roasted nuts you can buy from the street vendor.”
“Good&Plenty candy. Salted pretzels. Fried chicken. Strawberry rhubarb pie from that Greek diner on Flatbush Avenue. Chinese take-out.”
“Okay, okay,” Napoleon laughed. “You love food. I get it.”
“Is there anything else you wish to know?”
Well --” Napoleon twirled his wine glass pensively. “You read a lot. Do you have a favorite book?”
“Cervantes, huh? I would have thought James Joyce more your style. Something suitably obscure and indecipherable.”
Illya shrugged. “Joyce is a pleasant enough diversion, but he is dry and rather sterile. Cervantes writes with a Spaniard's soul.” His eyes blazed with scholarly enthusiasm. “The character of Don Alonzo Quijano is unique in literature. He is an idealist, chivalrous to a fault, delusional to the point of insanity. He is ridiculed for his optimism, and for the hope he expresses for mankind -- a hope he retains in the face of inexpressible human cruelty and overwhelming odds. If that is not the definition of an UNCLE agent,” he remarked gently, “I do not know what is.”
“So we tilt at windmills? Rescue fair maidens? Battle giants?” The thought was unexpectedly moving.
Illya nodded. “And thank our masters for the opportunity to do so.”
Not merely brilliant, but deep, Napoleon thought in growing fascination. What other surprises lay beneath that enigmatic Russian shell? He was determined to find out. “What about music? Is there any particular style --”
“Jazz.” Illya's face glowed with pleasure.
Another surprise. “Really? I would have pegged you for the classics. You know, Tchaikovsky and Borodin. Steppes of Central Asia and all that.”
“I was trained in the classics,” Illya acknowledged. “But jazz is so --” He searched for the word. “-- liberating. Especially West Coast style. There are few rules; the musicians are free to explore tonality and rhythm without regard for the boundaries of taste or convention. It is -- limitless.”
“I don't know much about jazz,” Napoleon admitted, "West Coast or otherwise. My sisters and I were raised on opera.”
Illya hesitated. “I play bass at a little club in the East Village on the weekends. The Five-Spot. I could take you there sometime, if you are interested.”
Illya, playing at a jazz club? The man was chock full of surprises! “I'd like that very much,” he replied, and meant it.
Jellyroll stirred just then. He rose and stretched, meowing plaintively. Illya gathered the cat into his arms, rubbing his ears and murmuring softly in Russian. “Zaznut,” he soothed. “Zaznut.” Jellyroll settled his head against Illya's chest with a sigh of contentment. He continued to stroke the beast's soft belly until it fell asleep once more.
“You're very good with him,” Napoleon observed quietly.
Illya shrugged, as though the compliment were nothing. “He trusts me,” he said.
They sat beside one another, the silence a bit more comfortable now, both aware that something had changed between them. Napoleon closed his eyes, feeling strangely peaceful, an easing of the heart that had eluded him since the night Robert died. Waverly was right; it was time to move on.
“Tell me, something, Illya,” he asked softly.
“In your -- he smiled -- 'six months and seventeen days' at UNCLE New York, I've never seen you let down your guard for anyone. You've hidden your thoughts, concealed your opinions. You never once gave your true feelings away. So why the sudden change? Why me? Why now?”
“Oh, Napoleon.” Illya smiled, and his face lit like the sun. “Don't you know? Trusting you was always the easy part. The hard part was waiting for you to trust me back.”
Disclaimer: I don't own The Man From Uncle or its characters, and no money changes hands. I applaud the creators of Solo and Kuryakin, and am content to borrow them occasionally for my stories. Any original characters are, of course, my own.