Chapter 1: The Autism Affair
Inspired by Tumblr (of course), a headcanon where Illya is autistic. Yes, it could work.
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.’
Chapter 2: The Marshmallows Affair
After the end of a mission Napoleon and Illya indulge in some fun with marshmallows. (Thank you to my six year old for inventing the game by suggesting I should try saying 'Illya Kuryakin' with a mouthful of marshmallows.)
The man on the desk had booked them in under the name of Hillier Curry Aiken. Illya’s look was one of mingled disbelief and revulsion when he turned the receipt to Napoleon and showed him.
‘One day,’ he said threateningly at Napoleon’s hearty laugh, ‘One day I will take you to the Ukraine and see what they do with your name.’
‘Well, I can’t claim they’re always perfect with mine, either, comrade,’ Napoleon reminded him. ‘I’m not exactly a John Smith, you know.’
Illya leant back against the padded headboard and grinned. ‘The worst I remember was when someone put me down as Ill Something. Literally that, as if I were an unidentified animal carrying a disease. What’s the worst you’ve ever had?’
Napoleon closed his eyes and considered. ‘Well, I’ve had someone in Manchester, England, call me Nappy, and you know what that means in England.’
Illya rolled his eyes. ‘Of course I do. I did most of my English language learning in Cambridge. But that’s hardly a mispronunciation. That was deliberate. You need to try harder.’
Napoleon frowned. ‘Well, gee, Illya, Napoleon’s an unusual name in these parts but it’s one everyone’s heard. I guess I get all the jokes and bad puns more than mispronunciations.’ He turned on his elbow to regard his partner. ‘Here’s a game for you – less highbrow than Botticelli, I’m sure, but it’s fun when you’ve got some liquor in you – ’
‘We have no liquor,’ Illya reminded him, ‘unless you want to take out a small mortgage for the mini bar.’
‘Well, we had enough wine at dinner, and brandy afterwards, and – Ah, wait.’ Napoleon held up one finger and then patted for his wallet. ‘Hold that thought. There’s a mini mart round the corner. I’ll be back in five minutes.’
Illya held that thought. He rested his head back and closed his eyes and his mind drifted to the mission just finished. They had one night and half a day before the next scheduled flight home and since Waverly wouldn’t spring to a private plane he had told them to book into a hotel and think of the time as a paid vacation. He and Napoleon had both withheld their opinions on that, but Napoleon had come over magnanimous and decided to pay out the extra for something better than the hostel that Waverly was authorising, getting them this twin bed room in one of the best hotels in town. Dinner had been eaten and showers had been taken, and since the local Thrush threat had been totally neutralised and they could come off their guard, now there was nothing but the long evening ahead. Illya had half expected Napoleon to disappear into the night in search of a comely lady with a warm bed, but Napoleon had told him frankly that he was too tired and too bruised to even think of that. So here they were, spending the long hours between dinner and sleep together in this well appointed room.
There was a clattering and knocking outside the door and Illya jerked awake, going for his gun instantly. He hadn’t realised he’d fallen asleep.
‘Hey, Illya, it’s me,’ came Napoleon’s voice from outside, slightly muffled, and Illya relaxed a degree. ‘Can you give me a hand?’
He was still cautious when he opened the door, gun in hand, but it was just Napoleon. Just Napoleon and two wine bottles in one hand, his arm wrapped around a brown paper bag, and his other arm clutching tightly at a reused box that looked heavy.
‘Here, let me – ’ And Illya took the box, peeking inside to see a clinking assortment of bottles. He pulled out vodka, bourbon, whiskey and –
‘Slivovitz?’ Illya asked incredulously. ‘You’re telling me that tiny shop sells slivovitz?’
‘Only the best for my Russian friend,’ Napoleon grinned.
Illya lined up the bottles on the night stand. ‘ You know, we’re only going to be here the one night,’ he pointed out.
‘Well, I didn’t know what you might want,’ Napoleon shrugged.
Illya eyed the two bottles of wine, reading the labels closely. ‘You’re setting us up for a murderous hangover. One should never mix one’s drinks.’
Napoleon snorted. ‘Hangovers are just the remains of a fun evening.’
Illya rolled his eyes. ‘Whatever you say. What is your game, Napoleon? What’s in the bag?’
Napoleon looked around the room. ‘Now, let’s make this more cosy,’ he said, picking up the night stand that stood between the two beds and moving around to the other side.
‘Napoleon, what are you doing?’ Illya asked tartly. ‘No, no, let me!’ he interrupted himself as his partner started to try to push the beds together. He had checked Napoleon’s ribs after the final blast in that Thrush warehouse and was pretty sure there were no breaks, but he didn’t think he should be shoving beds together. ‘And what is this in aid of?’ he continued once the beds were together.
Napoleon grinned. ‘Nothing but friendly relations between two opposing countries,’ he said innocently.
Illya frowned. ‘I am not one of your female conquests.’
‘My dear prickly Russian, I would never dream of trying to conquer you,’ Napoleon assured him.
Illya wondered if Napoleon’s pain medication was combining with the alcohol he had already drunk that evening; or maybe it was just the relief of a mission over and being alive.
‘If we are going to get good and drunk – and we are,’ Napoleon said stoutly, ‘I think the less space between the beds the better. Now. What’s your poison?’
Illya eyed the array of alcohol that Napoleon had lined up on the relocated night stand again. He toyed with starting with wine, but he felt more like spirits.
‘I’ll take the brandy,’ he said.
‘Ah, sensible Russian,’ Napoleon smiled, unscrewing the lid of the bottle and pouring two glasses before settling himself on his bed and waiting for Illya to follow suite. ‘Get that inside you.’ He lifted his glass. ‘За здоровье!’
Illya echoed the sentiment with a wry grin, and then downed the brandy. Napoleon poured more.
‘What is your game, Napoleon?’ he asked.
Napoleon pulled the brown paper bag towards him and upended it. Packets of marshmallows tumbled out, and Illya’s eyes widened. Napoleon ripped one of the bags open and large white and pink marshmallows tumbled out over the bedspread.
‘Here, take a handful of these,’ he said, holding them out to Illya. Doubtfully, Illya took them.
‘What am I supposed to do with them?’ he asked.
‘Okay, okay, just shove them into your mouth. Don’t chew. Fill your mouth. And now say your name.’
Illya quirked an eyebrow doubtfully, but he did as he was told, shoving the light and spongy marshmallows into his mouth and then trying to say, ‘Illya Nikolayevich Kuryakin.’
The marshmallows turned the words into an unintelligible mumble, and Napoleon snorted. He pushed his own handful of marshmallows into his mouth and said something equally unintelligible, which Illya assumed was an attempt at his own name. Before Illya could chew and swallow his own mouthful Napoleon had poked another marshmallow into his mouth. Illya’s cheeks bulged, Napoleon laughed, and Illya forced himself to swallow the sweet mass, washing it down with more brandy.
‘Napoleon, is this really – ’ Illya began, bewildered.
But Napoleon was tearing open another packet, and this time fingertip sized marshmallows spilled out.
‘Go on,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘Try again. I want to see if different sizes affect it.’
Illya looked askance at Napoleon, but he stuffed his mouth full and tried to recite his name again. This time the smaller marshmallows spluttered out over the bed, and Napoleon began to wheeze. Looking at him made Illya start laughing too.
‘Napoleon, where did you learn this game?’ he asked incredulously.
Napoleon wiped his streaming eyes and downed another glass of brandy.
‘Er – it was – it was – Marian, I think, in Accounting. She told me her six year old made it up.’
‘Her six year old made up a drinking game?’
‘Ah, well, I don’t think there was liquor involved,’ Napoleon confessed, ‘but you know all children are naturally tiny drunkards. Being adults we just need a little help.’
Illya grabbed another handful of marshmallows but this time he suddenly launched himself at Napoleon, holding him down and pushing them into the American’s mouth.
‘Now you say my name,’ he said, poking Napoleon in the chest. ‘Your name’s easier with a full mouth.’
Napoleon tried to say ow around the marshmallows, and failed. Then he tried to say Illya’s name and Illya was peppered with the sticky sweets. Both of them found that incredibly funny, and Illya fell back onto the bed, raking marshmallows out of his hair with sticky fingers.
‘Oh, brother...’ he wheezed.
Napoleon handed him the vodka and another bag of marshmallows. ‘Go on, try something different. Recite some poetry to me.’
Illya looked at him sideways. ‘You are an incorrigible romantic.’
But he filled his mouth all the same and started trying to say, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,’ but what he actually said came out more like how Napoleon had sounded the day before yesterday when he’d been trying to work a gag out of his mouth. He tried some Pushkin and that sounded worse, but by that time he was laughing so hard he almost choked on the marshmallows.
‘Now try it with slivovitz!’ he challenged Napoleon as soon as his mouth was clear, and his partner twisted the lid off that bottle and filled their glasses again. Napoleon took one mouthful and beat his fist hard on the night stand.
‘Good god, Illya, do you really drink this stuff? Are you sure you don’t strip paint with it?’
Illya took that as a challenge. He filled his glass brim full, downed it, then stuffed his mouth with the larger marshmallows and recited the entire of Pushkin’s ‘I Loved You’ in the original Russian.
Napoleon was staring at him with glassy eyes, propped up on one elbow with his mouth half open.
‘I don’t know what the hell that was you just said but I think I’m falling in love you with,’ he said, his words coming out as a fast stream, as if he were afraid if he stopped he’d lose the ability to speak. Then he fell forwards onto the bed and carried on speaking with his face buried in the bedspread.
‘Hey, I can’t hear you.’ Illya grabbed his shoulder and shook him. ‘N’poleon, I can’t hear you with – with the bed in your mouth.’
That struck him as unbearably funny, and he fell back against the pillows almost screaming with laughter, his stomach muscles aching and tears running down his face. There seemed to be marshmallows everywhere now, and Napoleon was propping himself up again with a very red face.
‘No, g’on, say more of that,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘You say that again without the shmum – the mshum – the – ’
‘They are called m-arsh m-al-lows,’ Illya enunciated very clearly, pouring himself more brandy, then changing his mind and switching to slivovitz half way through. ‘Ugh, no, that’s terrible,’ he said, tasting it, but he drank it all. ‘Pol’yon, aren’t we going to drink that wine?’
‘You say that thing again,’ Napoleon urged him like a petulant child. ‘Talk dirty to me Il’ya. No, I mean – talk Russian to me.’
Illya pointed his finger very seriously at his partner. ‘You wait a moment...’
He opened one of the bottles of wine and poured Napoleon a glass, then poured himself some, then sprinkled marshmallows in the top for good measure. Then he very slowly and carefully recited the poem again, hand pressed against his chest and tears starting in his eyes as he thought about how much he missed home and missed his language and missed his people. Then Napoleon wrapped his arms around him and gave him a long, swaying hug and held him as he rambled in Ukrainian about the countryside outside Kiev and the scent of wheat fields just ready for harvest.
They remembered very little the next morning about the night before, but they knew four things for certain. They had drunk a lot. They had woken up wrapped in each other’s arms, still fully dressed and on top of the bedclothes. Marshmallows stuck like the devil when they’d been slept on. And the hangover was, indeed, murderous.
Chapter 3: The Ballet Shoes Affair
Why does Illya have a pair of ballet shoes? Inspired by a picture prompt on the Section VII MFU livejournal site, but can I get my head around livejournal? No, I can not.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon said, eyeing the delicately pink pair of satin shoes in his partner’s hand. ‘Don’t tell me that ballet is one of your hitherto unknown talents?’
Illya was sitting at his desk behind a sheaf of paperwork, but he looked up long enough to give him a withering look through the green tint of his reading glasses. ‘Napoleon, these are pointe shoes. Men don’t go en pointe.’
Napoleon took the shoes and examined them. Up close they were far from delicate. They were smudged, dirty, the pink darning on the hard block toes scuffed and worn, and the ribbons frayed. Inside they held the faint scent of foot sweat, and he could see the imprints of the owner’s toes in the end. The impression here was one of strength and animal physicality, a far cry from the ethereal vision ballerinas presented on stage.
‘They don’t, huh?’ he asked.
Illya shook his head. ‘They don’t. They can’t. Or at least, they say they can’t; I’ve always wondered.’ He looked up, his gaze suddenly piercing. ‘Haven’t you ever read Noel Streatfeild?’ At Napoleon’s blank look he said, ‘No, neither have I. I am not a little English girl.’
‘Then how do you – ’
‘One of my professors at Cambridge had a little English girl. Noel Streatfeild was her god.’
‘So your knowledge of ballet doesn’t come from Noel Streatfeild. Where does it come from?’
Illya favoured him with an ironic smile. ‘Napoleon, I am Russian, after all.’
‘You’re from the Ukraine. Are you telling me you hoofed it up to Moscow and stalked a member of the Bolshoi?’
Illya shrugged. ‘The Bolshoi is not the only Russian ballet company.’
Napoleon had to restrain a growl. His secretive partner drove him to the wall almost every day with these kind of ambiguities and unanswered questions.
‘You know, I think keeping things close to your chest has gotten to be more than a habit,’ he complained. ‘It’s an obsession. You like to carefully craft that air of mystique. Either that, or you’re just a very suspicious little man.’
Illya dropped the shoes back into the duffel bag on the floor, and smiled. ‘Napoleon, I once dated a dancer. Not for very long, because – ’
‘Because?’ Napoleon nudged him. He picked up the duffel and looked into it to see other shoes, and what might have been a pair of high denier pink tights.
‘Don’t ever date a dancer,’ Illya warned him. ‘Narcissistic. Obsessed. Driven. They spend all their money on new shoes and new tights and darning thread. And they don’t just try to control what they eat. They try to control what you eat too.’
Napoleon snorted at the idea of anyone, anyone at all, trying to control what Illya put in his mouth. Feeding Illya was a full time job.
‘There was no time for anything but sex and workouts and barre,’ Illya concluded rather ruefully.
If Napoleon had dared to tell him that his pout was adorable, Illya would have knocked him on his butt. He knew that, and that’s why he said nothing. But he didn’t know why any dancer would ignore the obvious benefits of being with Illya in favour of workouts and barre. Sex with Illya would be good. Sex with Illya would be exquisite, he was sure, because certainly Illya would apply himself to sex with the intense dedication he used in every other part of his life. But other parts of being with Illya were priceless too. Walking with Illya, eating with Illya and letting him steal the food off your plate, watching the way Illya’s hair lit up in morning sunlight and evening sunsets, talking with Illya about every subject from Nietzsche to how they got the stripes into toothpaste, and everything between and around. Unless Illya had meant…
‘Did she make you do workouts and barre with her?’
Illya just gave him a look, and he knew he would never find out the answer. But he thought he saw the faintest trace of a blush in his fair complexion, and that made him wonder all the more, because Illya was such that the idea of being caught at a barre doing ballet would not embarrass him in the slightest.
‘Illya, why do you have a duffel bag full of pointe shoes in our office?’ he asked finally. It seemed that a straight question would be the only way he might have a chance at a straight answer.
‘Because it is my only clue to who shot Brian Langford last night,’ Illya said without a hint of emotion, turning over some papers on his desk.
Napoleon sat down hard, only realising as he hit the seat off centre that he hadn’t even made sure it was there first.
‘Brian – Brian Langford?’
Illya looked up then, pulling off his tinted reading glasses and laying them soundlessly on the desk.
‘I’m sorry, Napoleon. I thought you knew,’ he said, and now there was real warmth and contrition in his voice. ‘They found him outside the stage door to the Hershey Theatre at six a.m., and this was in his hand. I guess the person who shot him didn’t think it was important, but he obviously did.’
‘So we’re on the trail of a homicidal ballerina?’ Napoleon asked, letting the shock of Brian’s death churn over deep inside. Brian hadn’t been with U.N.C.L.E. very long; he wasn’t a close friend. But it was always a shock to hear of a fellow agent’s death.
‘No, we are not. A homicidal ballerina would not have left a bag of incriminating ballet shoes at the scene of the crime.’ Illya picked up his glasses, but instead of putting them on he inserted the end of one of the arms into his mouth and tongued it delicately in a way that sent shivers down Napoleon’s spine. ‘No, we are on the trail of something entirely different...’
Chapter 4: The Black Jeans Affair
Between their failed practice at cracking the vault in Uncle HQ and their plane trip to Emerald Island, Illya works out his frustration. PWP. Takes places during The Fiddlesticks Affair.
‘Napoleon, why don’t you wear jeans more often?’ Illya asked.
Napoleon was bent over, engaged in stripping off those very jeans as his partner spoke, revealing rather sedate white boxers which showed just a pleasing curve of muscle beneath as he bent.
‘Oh, I don’t know, perhaps because I’m not a beatnik,’ Napoleon said casually, his smile broad and easy. He flicked his head round as Illya started to strip off his own jeans, then did a double take, and stared. ‘Why, Illya, I didn’t know you cared!’
Under his own more form-fitting black briefs Illya showed a distinct ridge of arousal.
‘Of course I care. I always care,’ the Russian growled, throwing his own jeans aside into the pile of dark clothing. He was angry. The dress rehearsal had been disappointing, they’d both been killed, in theory, and Illya hated failure. They had precisely forty-five minutes to clean off the dark camouflage paint, change, grab their gear, and get to the airport in time for their plane. Not long enough. It couldn’t be long enough.
‘Napoleon, I love you in suits,’ Illya continued, a slight hint of neediness in his voice, ‘but in those jeans – god, you send me over the edge...’
Napoleon was rubbing cold cream onto his face and scrubbing at the dark paint with a cloth. He looked over his shoulder and asked, ‘Really?’
‘Really,’ Illya said in a voice Russian and dark-edged with need. It was a dangerous voice, a voice that presaged fighting, killing, or other equally visceral actions. Napoleon picked up his discarded jeans and held them for a moment against his body, as if considering the thought of wearing them for other pastimes than trying to crack into vaults in the dead of night. Then he dropped them again, and very deliberately slipped his boxers off onto the pile on the floor.
With a growl he was pushed against the wall of the communal showers by a hundred and forty pounds of slim, muscled Russian. Illya reminded him of a panther at times, and no more than at this time. Lips were pressed against his, hard and urgent, and Illya’s broad hands ran up his back, touching every muscle, tracing his spine, pulling him close. He was hardening too now, but he tried to move his head away from Illya’s, muttering, ‘Illya, we don’t have time !’
But his partner had the pot of cold cream in his hand, he was reaching behind Napoleon, and he gasped aloud as those slick, chill fingers touched him between the cheeks, seeking his hot entrance. There was no preparation, no slow stretching; just the quick plunge of a finger loaded with cream, the urgent brush against the prostate that made him weak at the knees.
And then Illya grabbed him, one hand still slick with cream, turned him to the wall, kicked his legs apart. He had no doubt that Illya now was laving his own stiff cock with the cream and he tried to look over his shoulder, desperate for that sight. But Illya’s arm was hitching around his waist, pulling his hips backwards so he stood bent, parting his cheeks with the other hand, and then driving in, the full length of him, until his pelvis was pushed hard against Napoleon’s ass, his chest against his back. Napoleon gasped, moaned, and then ever so carefully slipped down onto his knees. Illya never came out of him, just travelled down with him, hooked his arm under his belly again, pulling him close as Napoleon tilted himself up like a common whore, so close and tight that he could feel Illya’s balls against the broad flat space below his, brushing against them so softly the sensation made him dizzy. The air smelt of cold cream and grease paint. His eyes flicked to the unlocked door of the locker room, but then Illya moved inside him, and he couldn’t think at all.
Any coherent thought dissolved into oh god oh god oh god ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod as Illya withdrew, making him sob; drove home, making him gasp aloud, making him bite his own lip as he tried to keep a lid on the sounds he needed to make. Illya’s hand, slick with cream, came around to catch hold of his own burning cock, a poultice of ice, and he all but cried out aloud. Illya thrust and pumped, thrust and pumped, and then Napoleon was coming in hot spurts over Illya’s hand and Illya was jetting inside him, the cry of his orgasm muted to a desperate animal grunt as he fell slack over Napoleon’s body.
And then he pulled out, before he was even soft again, was turning on the showers above them, and when Agent Burrows came in Illya was innocently turning his face up to the steaming water and Napoleon was diligently scrubbing his own chest with soapy hands.
‘Better get a move on,’ Burrows called over his shoulder as he went to the lockers. ‘Plane’s in thirty minutes.’
Napoleon raised a grateful hand, cut off the shower, and grabbed a towel.
‘You have a smudge of greasepaint, right here,’ he told Illya, wiping it from his nose.
Illya’s eyes burned with fire and ice as he towelled himself off and pulled on his shirt and tie and suit. He looked ready to take on the world. Napoleon ached as he dressed, but he had never felt so sated. Thirty minutes later they sat on the Boeing 707 and enjoyed glasses of scotch as they went over their plans for cracking Anton Korbel’s vault. And as Napoleon had known it would be, Illya’s mind had been set alight with that quick, rough, very necessary sex. They would make their plan in the four hours flight time. They would get to the casino. And they would come home triumphant.
Chapter 5: Cheekbones to Die For
Some of the girls at Uncle find an old photo of Illya. (This is what comes of watching twenty-something McCallum in things.)
The group of U.N.C.L.E. women were definitely giggling. What was worse, they were giggling at him. He could tell it as soon as he walked into the room.
He stood there for a moment just looking at them suspiciously. Then he saw Betsy Wilkinson slipping something behind her back. He was across the room in an instant, hand out.
‘All right. Give it to me,’ he said.
Her eyes widened in feigned innocence, but she also flushed red.
‘Give – er – give what?’
‘The photograph,’ he said in a steely voice. ‘Give it to me.’
Her eyes widened even further then. ‘Why, Mr Kuryakin, how did you know?’
‘I’m a spy. It’s my job,’ he said darkly. ‘Give it to me.’
She handed him the little black and white photograph and Illya took it. Its edges were tattered and creased but the faces in the picture were unblemished. He looked at it for a moment before slipping it into his jacket pocket.
‘It’s only that – well – It’s only that we had no idea you were such a good looking boy,’ Sandy Lopez chimed in. ‘I mean, those cheekbones…’
‘To die for,’ Ellen Holmes said dreamily.
Illya raised an eyebrow, trying to look chilly rather than flushing. ‘Really?’ he asked.
‘Oh, we don’t mean you’re not good looking now, Illya,’ Sandy said in a rush. ‘I mean, you’re – Well – ’
The temperature in the room seemed to be going up degrees in seconds. Illya wondered briefly if a surge of oestrogen could actually raise body temperature. He reverted to his persona of enigmatic Russian. He gave a little bow, clicked his heels together, and whipped out of the room.
In his office he drew the photograph out of his pocket and dropped it onto his desk. He sat there, just gazing at it. He had been very young in that picture. He was in his very early twenties, and he was sitting on the side of the Dnieper with Boris. Boris from Moscow, Boris who had been such a good friend in his final year of his degree. But he didn’t look at Boris. He looked at himself, at the wave of blond hair across his forehead, at, yes, the sharpness of his cheekbones, at the pale clarity of his eyes that, in the photo, made him look blind or dreaming or far away.
Napoleon came over, curious as always.
‘What’s this? A trip down memory lane?’
Illya jerked the photograph away just before Napoleon could pick it up, and slid it back into the Russian language novel where previous it had sat between the pages. It must have fallen out when he was walking and reading. He was glad he had got it back.
‘Just a picture,’ he said in a non-committal way, shutting the book and smoothing his hand over the cover.
‘Cheekbones to die for, indeed,’ Napoleon murmured.
Illya’s head shot up, and he stared at Napoleon. Napoleon grinned at his unspoken question.
‘After all, I’m a spy too, Illya,’ he said.
Chapter 6: Drabble - Sleep
When he sleeps, he dreams of dogs. He dreams of winter snow and crumbled buildings and black ash. He wakes with the cry of a ten year old in his mouth, a cry of real fear; but bites it in as soon as he registers the bed around him.
When his partner wakes, he knows it’s that dream again, because he knows him too well. He’s shared enough beds thanks to their parsimonious boss. His own dreams are usually of girls, but sometimes of falling, sometimes of guns. He reaches out a hand in the dark and strokes his partner’s arm, and both fall back to sleep.
Chapter 7: Steam Room
In the Turkish bath during the Off Broadway Affair, a little talking and introspection goes on.
The steam is high. Thick. Penetrating. That’s what it’s supposed to do, of course. It opens up pores, steams out the cold and dank of an unexpected plunge in a Central Park pond. Is taking a Turkish bath on work time acceptable agent behaviour? It’s seems to be, going by Alexander Waverly’s reaction when he speaks to them via communicator. A miraculous bit of technology, those, bothered no more by the steam in here than by an eight foot plunge to the bottom of a dirty pond. The voice coming through the speaker doesn’t even sound distorted.
It will take more than an hour’s steam to get rid of the dark, muddy scent of the bottom of that pool. It will take more than a shower to rinse off every last remnant of silty mud from under fingernails and through hair. I don’t approve much of your choice of swimming pools, Illya had said. Well, it wouldn’t have been Napoleon’s first choice either. He much prefers a ripple of sun and water over blue tiles and a handful of sun loungers containing a handful of beautiful bodies in form fitting fabric or less. He prefers that to swallowing far too much dirty water and thinking that would be his end, down there in a peculiar kind of Hades.
‘Of course I’d get you out,’ Illya says, shrugging under his towel like some species of blonde mystic. All is foretold. A partner will never let his partner down. ‘You know I wouldn’t let you drown.’
Of course he knows that now. The moment he had felt strong arms around his chest he had known he was going to see light and breathe air again. He had known it was Illya. Of course it would be Illya. Such a compact, strong little swimmer. But there had been a moment just before that when he had known no such thing. There is nothing more lonely than the deaf and blind darkness of deep water, your intimate relationship with mud and cold, and the promise that you’re going to die. Then Illya’s arms around his chest, the strong certainty of life within reach, the certainty that there will be light and air and warmth again. In the press of Illya’s body against his, holding his head above water at the side of the pool, he had known that Illya would never let him drown.
‘I hear you’re pretty good with the English horn,’ Napoleon says, and Illya arches an eyebrow, and asks more archly still, ‘Do you even know what a cor anglais is, Napoleon?’
He’s a towelling wrapped mystic no longer. He’s Illya, nettled that Napoleon has inextricably bound him into something he desperately doesn’t want to do. This in response to his act of heroism in the pond.
‘It’s – er – some kind of big oboe, isn’t it?’ Napoleon asks. He likes to cultivate an act of the American cultural bore against Illya’s European sophistication. He makes his tone flirtatious. ‘Gee, I’d love to see you play.’
Illya gives a low growl deep in his throat. Napoleon never has seen him play anything beyond an occasional desultory but incredibly accomplished few bars on a guitar. Illya keeps his musical genius to himself. He keeps most of his signs of genius to himself. He’s like a flower that blooms only at night. Napoleon really does want to see him play.
‘I suppose we should rejoin reality,’ Illya says, shuffling on the seat and twitching at the edge of the towel that drapes over his head.
‘If you can call what we do reality,’ Napoleon counters.
Their future holds such bizarre wonders as are rarely committed to paper or film. But it is reality, just as real as the heat in this room and the wreathing steam and the presence of Illya at his side. The cold air that will hit them when they walk out of here will reaffirm that nothing in life is a dream.
Chapter 8: A Moment in the Indian Jungle
Just a short little piece while Illya is tied up on the jungle floor in The Tigers Are Coming Affair.
What was striking was the depth of scent in the Indian soil. There had been rain recently, perhaps, because the earth scent was warm and dark and strong. The earth was warm and moist under his shoulder, his hip, the side of his head. He rolled his head back and forth over the crushed grass and tried to scrape the blindfold or the gag from his head, but the knots had been tied very well. His wrists had been tied so well that his fingers were numb, and his ankles ached with the ropes around them.
Sometimes you just had to lie back and accept a situation. When you couldn’t shout and you couldn’t move and you’d tried to get the ropes off until your skin was bleeding and nothing worked, then it was easier to relax. So he lay there and smelt the scents of the Indian soil, and the rich greenery around him. He listened to the terrified bleating of the tethered goats, and swore in his mind that he wouldn’t make a sound like that if a tiger came upon him.
Somewhere above him there were human beings sitting, people who could help him. Some of them knew that he was down here, tethered like the goats. Most of them would be horrified, because they were just people, after all, trying to experience the knife edge between life and death from the safety of a platform. His own death was so close that his shirt was wet with sweat and his mouth was dry. But he couldn’t make a sound that they would hear. He had tried to make them hear him, but perhaps they thought he was just another jungle creature making an inarticulate sound. So he lay there, silent and still, waiting.
Chapter 9: The Fabergé Affair
A vignette written for Easter to the prompts 'New. Good. Hop.' Napoleon and Illya are on the trail of some stolen Fabergé eggs.
‘I told you, you shouldn’t have worn them.’
Napoleon’s face bore a sharp resemblance to a man chewing on a wasp. He was walking like a man standing on a nest of wasps, Illya thought; or maybe a man attempting fire-walking without the courage to just run across the coals.
‘These are hundred dollar shoes, Illya,’ Napoleon said, and Illya very carefully hid any hint of a smirk, because Napoleon sounded like a man chewing on a wasp, too. It didn’t seem fair to needle him and laugh at him.
‘All the more reason for not wearing them on a hike,’ Illya said reasonably. ‘Besides, I should think anyone who spends a hundred dollars on a pair of new shoes might deserve a little – just a little – purgatory.’
‘They’re good shoes. They’re not hiking shoes. I didn’t expect the car to break down,’ Napoleon muttered.
‘I did mention that noise under the hood and suggest putting it into the garage last week,’ Illya pointed out innocently. ‘And I don’t tend to file makes your feet feel as if your toes are being sliced off under good. ’
Napoleon made a grumbling noise deep in his throat, but at that point Illya caught sight of something up ahead, and momentarily forgot his friend’s predicament.
‘Look, Napoleon! Only a sage man will strike gold. There it is!’ he said, and he jogged ahead along the dusty road.
Napoleon was hopping from foot to foot by the time he joined Illya, who was crouching down to extract the glittering egg from beneath a sagebrush. Illya had eyes only for the egg.
‘Боже, Napoleon,’ he murmured. ‘It’s another one. The nerve of these people...’
He held the beautiful, dusty bauble in his hands as if it were delicate as a thrush egg. The sky blue enamel seemed to glow with an inner light, reflected by the threads of gold that encased it like a net. He cracked the thing open on delicate hinges to reveal a perfect scale model of the Winter Palace; and a piece of paper, that fluttered to the ground.
‘Here is everything beautiful about my country, and everything that was wrong it it, all contained in a single egg,’ Illya murmured, then added more prosaically, ‘Wrap it up and put it in my rucksack.’
‘What does the clue say?’ Napoleon asked as he took the egg, handling it with a little less reverence than Illya. Still, he was careful as he wrapped it in soft cloth and nested it in with the others. ‘Written in Russian again?’
‘Written in Russian,’ Illya nodded. ‘ Look up, look east, and let Christ guide you ,’ he read.
‘Look up, look east, and let Christ guide you?’ Napoleon sounded less than impressed with the vagueness of the clue.
Illya shrugged, standing up. He was moving more carefully still now that he had four of the eggs in his bag.
‘There must be a church,’ he said.
‘Maybe there’s a church,’ Napoleon acknowledged. ‘But what in hell are they getting at?’
Illya shrugged again. ‘I don’t pretend to understand the workings of the Thrush mind,’ he said. ‘Why commit the audacious theft of the most complete collection of Fabergé eggs to ever come to this continent, and then leave them littered as clues through a pitiless desert?’
‘Because they’re laughing at us,’ Napoleon grumbled. ‘They’re watching us, and they’re laughing at us.’
‘That maybe so,’ Illya agreed, ‘but after all, it is Easter, and this is a rather spectacular egg hunt, isn’t it? Maybe a Thrushie has gone rogue and is giving them back in a particularly perverse manner. Added together, the clues suggest that we’re going to find the First Hen as the dénouement of all of this madness.’
Napoleon pulled off the worst offending one of the pair of shoes and shoved it in Illya’s rucksack on top of the eggs.
‘Remind me about the First Hen,’ he said.
It was as easy for Illya to draw the museum catalogue into his mind as if he had taken the physical copy out of his bag and opened it to the right page.
‘The First Hen was Fabergé’s first egg, made as an Easter surprise for the wife of Tsar Alexander III. Beautiful in its simplicity, it is a pure gold egg coated in white enamel, containing a spherical gold yolk inside, which opens in turn to reveal a golden hen, which itself contained a miniature replica of the imperial crown, and a ruby pendant. Those trinkets are now missing; but of course, so is the rest of the egg, for now.’
‘An Easter surprise… No wonder there was a revolution,’ Napoleon murmured.
‘No wonder, while peasants were treated as slaves,’ Illya agreed darkly. ‘But these things are beautiful, all the same. They show a pinnacle of craftsmanship that hasn’t been equalled since. If we do recover all of the eggs I’m sure the museum hosting the display will be very, very grateful.’
Napoleon sighed. ‘Grateful enough to buy me new shoes?’ he asked, planting one hand on Illya’s shoulder and beginning to hop again as Illya turned towards the east and a landscape of rock and dust and shrubs.
‘I thought they were good shoes,’ Illya said archly. ‘I would expect to be able to walk for miles in hundred dollar shoes.’
‘They are good dress shoes,’ Napoleon correctly him tartly, hopping around a dusty rock and wincing as he did.
‘I’m not sure I want you to have new shoes,’ Illya replied in a very innocent tone. ‘I’ve never been on an Easter egg hunt with the Easter Bunny himself.’
‘Illya, I will give you a hundred dollars for your shoes,’ Napoleon offered.
‘Then you’d be two hundred dollars out on footwear. Besides, my shoes would be too big for you.’
‘Your feet would have to be the only big thing about you,’ Napoleon grumbled.
‘Not the only big thing,’ Illya replied. He waited just a beat, then said, ‘My hands are quite large for my size.’
Napoleon only growled. Illya stopped and grinned at him. He swung the rucksack to the ground and rummaged inside for a moment before drawing out a pair of Napoleon’s well worn, comfortable clogs.
Napoleon stared at him.
‘I don’t know whether to kiss you or kill you,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you had them an hour ago? Why did you bring them in the first place? Illya, did you sabotage the car just to teach me a lesson about capitalism, or vanity?’
‘I was using them to hold the eggs,’ Illya said placidly. ‘No, Napoleon, I did not sabotage the car but I did anticipate a certain amount of walking, and I knew you’d be wearing those ridiculous shoes. You’ve been singing their praises since you saw them in the store.’
It was a measure of how glad Napoleon was to see the clogs that he didn’t rise to the insult. He just grabbed the clogs and slipped them on, while Illya used the discarded hundred dollar shoes to cradle the many-thousand dollar eggs.
‘I think the church will be over that hill,’ Illya said, nodding towards a rise of ground bronzed by the early evening sun. ‘It’s going to start getting dark soon. We’d better hop to it.’