Illya had known for a long time that he was different. All his life he had known. Standing on the sidelines as the other boys lined up for team games, always seeming to misread or mishear, or upset people with his literalness, or stand staring at them like aliens when they didn’t understand his sarcasm or deadpan humour or his unique angle on the world. He had made up his mind very early. Either they were aliens or he was.
He knew intellectually – because intellect had never been a problem for him, never – that they were composed of just the same flesh and blood as he, but in his mind he was different. They were strange or he was strange, and it was probably him, because there were so many of them and so few of him. Sometimes he saw people that he knew were the same, and it was like a fleeting glimpse of home. You are like me too, and we don’t need to speak, we don’t need to observe the social niceties. We just briefly acknowledge that we are the same, and move on. Underneath perhaps they were all wearing Superman outfits, all his types. Perhaps they were. That fantasy made him smile.
He spent every day passing, and it was exhausting. He couldn’t wait to get home, to get out of the constricting clothes, to drop the blinds and turn up his music. Now there was one obsession; jazz of 1956 to around 1963. He could have answered any question on it. At home he could sit and tap out his anxiety with his fingers on the arm of his chair while he listened to the precise musical constructions on his LPs. Bach, J. S. was another obsession. He knew a lot about Bach. And physics, quantum mechanics in particular. The journals and books that filled his shelves attested to that.
Sometimes if he were really wound up he sat in his desk chair, and spun until his brain seemed disconnected from his head. Sometimes he did it in work. Once Napoleon had caught him. He had laughed, yes, but then he had sat down in his own chair and done it too. ‘I’ve not done this since college,’ he had said, laughing and giddy, his head lolling to one side after a particularly vicious spin. ‘Fun, isn’t it?’
Napoleon was one of the first and few people he had felt able to relax in front of, to not worry about passing in front of. When he sat in the commissary and carefully separated his peas from his fries and made sure there were no green spheres hidden beneath his steak, Napoleon neither laughed not commented. When they had changed the menus above the counter and removed his favourite meal too, and Illya had slammed his tray back into the rack and stormed out, Napoleon hadn’t laughed then either. He had followed Illya and listened to him rail about why people found it necessary to change things all the time, and then later had managed to get the favourite meal back on the menu, just for him. He hadn’t made them change the menus back, hadn’t even tried, but he had brought back a table menu and hadn’t even quirked a corner of his mouth as Illya frowned at it and committed it to memory so that next time he went back be wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the new choices.
He had asked, only once, ‘Isn’t it a problem for you on missions?’ and Illya had shaken his head.
‘It’s not so bad when I’m on the move because there are no reliable factors that might change without notice,’ he tried to explain. ‘I do what I can. Study maps, timetables, floor plans. But it’s not like when something changes that I’m already familiar with. It’s often exhausting. It makes me hungry. But I manage.’
He didn’t think Napoleon really understood, but that was the good thing about Napoleon. He didn’t confuse understanding something with accepting it, and he accepted almost all of Illya’s foibles without question. He didn’t get upset when sometimes Illya didn’t recognise him when they ran into each other somewhere unexpected, or when Illya insisted on the same routine for their getting together on their off days, or when Illya interrupted him at the wrong time because he was too caught up with what he wanted to say to notice the correct time to break in.
‘You know there’s a name for all of this,’ Napoleon said very casually one day. ‘Autism. It’s a – ’
‘Yes, I know there’s a name for it,’ Illya interrupted him impatiently. Then he grinned. ‘It’s a superpower,’ he said, absolutely deadpan. ‘After all, who else at U.N.C.L.E. is better at their job than I am?’
Napoleon straightened his tie ostentatiously, and grinned so there was no mistaking his humour. ‘Me,’ he said.
Illya grinned back. ‘Well, maybe you’re autistic too. Congratulations.’