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Art Lessons

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Art Lessons

They sat on a bench in the museum and regarded the art on the walls. Napoleon reflected they probably made a pretty picture themselves – him with his dark, vibrant looks and impeccable suit, and next to him a golden god with the blue eyes to go with his hair, the physic of a greek statue, and, well, okay, the clothes were nothing special, though decent enough with the beige suede jacket over the dark turtleneck. It did set off Kuryakin’s physical qualities well enough, and if Napoleon looked all the better for the contrast, well, he wasn’t complaining.

“So what do you think of these?” Napoleon asked his partner.

There was a not so complimentary huff from beside him. “Annoying.”

“Annoying?” Napoleon blinked. That wasn’t an adjective he was used to hearing in regards to artwork.

Kuryakin shrugged. “Am not fond of representative art, nor abstract. Okay for them, but not for others.”

Napoleon tucked that niblet of information away in the folder he was collecting in his mind. “Representational artwork is often more complex than realism. First the artist has to know the subject, completely know it, and then distill it down to its essence, and finally repackage it out with something that is the artist himself, or herself, bringing uniqueness to that which was once common. You see one bowl of fruit, you see a dozen. You paint one portrait, there’s a hundred more just like it. But when it’s unique... there are no others.”

There was a grunt from his companion, not impressed. “Uniqueness comes from the subject – it is the artist who must find it. Not all apples are same, nor are people.”

“Ah, but you can’t deny the influence that Picasso has had upon art, and how much people will pay for his paintings.”

Another grunt was the only reply he got. Napoleon warmed to his subject and started waxing enthusiastic, completely forgetting about his original plan.

After a few minutes, a motion drew his attention and he noticed the finger tapping on a large thigh beside him. He stopped talking and reviewed what he’d been saying.

With a wince, he apologized, knowing he was at fault. Instead of a discussion, he’d gone into the lecture mode – and not a lecture from docent to tourists, but rather the lecture of a snooty grade school teacher to the lowest of her students. “I’m sorry, really.”

The finger didn’t quite stop, but it slowed.

“In all fairness, though,” Napoleon said as he stretched, “you encourage it.”

There was a low chuckle and the finger stilled. “I do. Does not mean you have to fall for it.”

Kuryakin stood up and walked out of the room. Napoleon quickly caught up without giving the appearance of rushing.

In the next room, with landscapes on the walls, the tall Russian turned to face him, making Napoleon dig in his heels to stop before running into him.

“But what is this ‘art’ that you speak of?” Kuryakin said guilelessly, with a widening around his eyes and an open expression on his face.

It really was a darn good act and one that still caught Napoleon periodically, even with him knowing the sharp mind and agile thinker behind the image. He sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said again, meaning it. Illya hadn’t even been trying earlier – he just hadn’t met Napoleon in the conversation and Napoleon had escalated. Or devolved, depending on how you looked at it.

With a snort, Illya sat down on another bench. “What were you trying for?”

Napoleon weighed his options. He could stay silent, and the surprise would still be a surprise later... but it would cost him now. Possibly more than the surprise would be worth. With a shrug, he gave part of his plans up. Not all of them... but part of them. “I was trying to figure out what you’d like for a gift.”

Illya blinked at him. Then his eyes widened in a different way and he looked around the museum worriedly.

“No, not these,” Napoleon said with irritation.

“Then what?” Kuryakin asked suspiciously.

Napoleon threw up his hands. “There’s an artists’ fair out by the wharf today and tomorrow. I was taking you through the museum to get an idea of what sort of art you liked, then I was going to buy something tomorrow.” He emphasized the word ‘buy’ in the sentence.

“Why would you do that?” Illya looked just as adorably baffled as he sounded.

“Because your walls are still bare!” Napoleon was the one to stand up this time and he paced around. “Look, it’s been three months since—” he glanced around, and even though there was nobody else in this room, he reflexively spoke cautiously in public, “since our dear uncle gave us those flats in Switzerland so we could have a place to stay between assignments, and as of last week, yours was still completely empty except for your bed and a lamp. That’s just not right.”

He returned to stand next to Kuryakin. “I get that you may not want to buy anything for yourself, what with all this capitalism and such, but it doesn’t mean Gaby and I can’t get you a few gifts.”

Kuryakin tilted his head back and looked through narrowed eyes at Napoleon standing above him. His face had gone completely inscrutable, no emotions showing through at all. His hand was flat against his thigh. Though even as Napoleon waited, Kuryakin brought his hand up to rest lightly against the watch face on his other wrist.

Finally, without a word, Kuryakin stood again and headed to a different exit. They walked for awhile through different rooms, and finally ended up in the masters’ collection. All the finest pieces in one room where the museum could concentrate its security.

Piddling security it was too, Napoleon couldn’t help designing the optimum routes in and out, noting the security in personnel and mechanical.

“I think you misunderstand,” Kuryakin finally said, standing before a Raphael. He paused for a while longer, and when he next resumed, it was in more fluent Russian. “Do you remember that day at the café, after they had left?”

The sentence didn’t need any more explanation than that, Napoleon remembered it well. “Yes.” Generally, Napoleon wasn’t one for regret over his actions, but he did still wince a little. “Sorry for what I said about your mother.”

“But not the rest,” Illya murmured quietly, a grin tugging at his mouth before it gave up the attempt. “I have heard worse. Much worse. But what you said about my life... It was true.

“My father was indeed a good friend of... that person.” Even speaking a language many countries removed from where they were, they both stayed cautious. “A very good friend. My brother and sister and I ran tame in the high official homes, when we could get away from our nanny. Our home had more paintings like these then are in this museum. Treasures of the people, loaned to friends. My father had no need to embezzle, not with the luxuries that friendship brings. I was as spoiled and conceited as any child would be, growing up like that. And then it was gone.”

Illya walked to the next section, Napoleon following quietly at his heels. Napoleon had seen the statistics in black and white, and hadn’t ever thought of what it meant.

“The next phase of my life was poverty and harshness and beatings for being who I was, who my father was, and for my attitude and defiance. There was some respite, but we lived at the lowest levels, and we were not alone there.”

There were no more stops for paintings, and instead they walked out of the museum and down the sidewalks.

“I have lived in great wealth, and I have lived with nothing.” Illya was still speaking in Russian, though in a low voice designed not to carry further than Napoleon’s ears. “The thing is... there were many, many more of us who lived with nothing, than there were of us who lived in wealth. The political ideal is... not so well executed as it might be, perhaps, but the idea is valid.” Illya clenched his fist tight, a motion that drew Napoleon’s eyes. “I will never allow myself to live in such a way that others would go hungry for my indulgence.”

And here Napoleon had always thought that Illya was his father’s son, what with the watch obsession and all. But one can love their parents and not always agree with them. Napoleon wondered if Illya’s parents were even still alive. Or his siblings. The file hadn’t mentioned siblings.

Summarized like that, Napoleon could see Illya’s point. He tried to feel guilty for his own tendency for excess... but he couldn’t. It was his way, and he always reached for what he could get, and he liked the finer things in life. It was true there were others less fortunate... but he wasn’t going to be one of them if he could help it. With a sigh, he gave up his idea for brightening his partner’s life a little.

Then he noticed where they’d been walking to all this time. “Illya?” he questioned as he looked at the wharf where the artists and vendors were set up along the sidewalks and buyers and admirers bustling along between them.

A smile turned the corners of Illya’s mouth up. “However... there is place between opulence and poverty. You are right, Cowboy.” Illya had switched back to English again, his preferred language when talking to Napoleon most of the time.

“I am?” Hadn’t Illya just been telling him he’d been wrong?

“Never have made a place of my own. Don’t know how,” Illya admitted easily.

“Never?” Napoleon couldn’t quite wrap his brain around the idea.

Illya shook his head. “Training, lived in school. Military, barracks. Missi— Assignments, as it required. Myself? Time I had to myself, I visited others, or in allotted apartment share. Never on my own outside assignments.”

It made sense, Napoleon still couldn’t grasp it. Never.

“So...” Illya paused to look over a set of landscape paintings of the mountains and forests surrounding them. Then he moved to some of the sea, ocean waves crashing on shores. “Since I don’t know, you can help. You and Chop Shop. Tell me what is needed, and I will do it. Within my lines.”

Not too wealthy, not too expensive. Something that could be a home, that Illya would pick out for something that he wanted, not just because it would match the persona for a mission target, or fit in with the safehouse. No wonder Illya broke things so easily, if none of it had ever been his own.

Napoleon tilted his head, considering. “I can still buy the painting?”

Illya’s smile stretched across most of his face, a rare sight and as pretty as any picture. “You can buy the painting,” he agreed, emphasizing the ‘buy’ in the sentence.

Rubbing his hands together, Napoleon considered everything that he’d learned at the museum, and on their walk here. “Right then. Let’s go.”

“After you, Cowboy.”

Napoleon grabbed his wrist and tugged his friend next to him. “Together, Peril. Not after, but together.”