The boot descended again, and Illya grunted in pain. Curled around himself to protect ribs and stomach from the blows, there was not much he could do in retaliation. His hands were clasped over his head, and as a boot caught his wrist he was grateful that it had not made contact with his skull. The blow had been hard enough to break bone.
'Commie bastard! Red!'
He had lost track of which of the high school jocks were hurling which supposed insult, but the insults were the least of his worries. Illya had no shame about being Russian. He had no shame about being brought up under Communism, much as he was perfectly happy to indulge in Western capitalism now he was living in America. He had no suppressed resentment against his motherland and no more than the usual amount of pride. But all he had done was draw up in his car to ask the whereabouts of the local gas station. It was getting late and he didn't want to run out of fuel on his way to the small Iowa town which was his destination. He had done nothing to offend this group of seventeen year old would-be heroes but speak with his habitual Russian accent. When they had asked him his name he had obliged; and they had seen red, in more than one of its metaphorical meanings.
The boys didn't know it, but they were lucky. Illya had taken on more men than this, and won. But the first blow had knocked him half unconscious, and then he had been dragged out of the car onto the ground, dazed and reeling. Illya was quite capable of killing, but he killed killers, not teenagers fuelled with their daily dose of indoctrination into the American way. Instead of fighting back, afraid that if he did he would almost certainly end one of their young lives, he succumbed, curling into a foetal position and hoping that they would decide that enough was enough. As yet they hadn't reached that point.
An engine purred and headlights flashed across the scene. The boys scattered, leaving Illya huddled on the ground. Silently he prayed for the car to stop, but it didn't. He was hidden on the ground behind his own car, which was pulled neatly off the road. No doubt to the driver's eyes there had been nothing more than a handful of teenagers engaged in a scuffle near a parked car. The car rumbled on into the night.
Illya lay there, taking shallow, painful breaths. The pain lancing through his body told him just to lie still, but there was something else, a real fear that did not come across him when fighting Thrush and other formidable opponents. He was afraid of a gang of six teenagers, because they had had no purpose in attacking him, no information to extract, but had simply hated him because of where he was born. He had to get away, because perhaps they would come back.
Painfully, he hauled himself up against the side of the car. He jerked the door open and staggered up onto the seat, sliding across to the driver's side. There he stopped for a moment, resting his forehead against the steering wheel. He was dizzy, and he wasn't sure how capable he was of driving, but he had to get away. The keys were still in the ignition, and he thanked god for automatics, because he was pretty sure his wrist was broken. He laid the throbbing arm across his lap and started the car. It moved off jerkily, but at least he was managing to make it move. Just as he pulled out into the road he heard the rough, low jeering sounds of the gang returning, and mud splattered into the open-top car.
Reflexively he put his foot down, and sped off along the empty road.
It was some time before he realised that he was just driving, and he didn't know where he was going to. The road was dark, with a minimum of traffic. He had passed signs but had not read them. He had no idea where he was.
He lifted his knees to steady the steering wheel and used his left hand to feel in his jacket pocket for his U.N.C.L.E. communicator. It wasn't there. It must have dropped out during the attack.
'Damn,' he murmured, taking the wheel again with his left hand. 'Damn,' he said again, rather more deliberately, trying to hear what was evident in his accent, how Russian he actually sounded.
He had gone through a shaky time in '62, when Khrushchev had been trying to put those missiles on Cuba, when the entire of the US population seemed to have forgotten America's own missile bases in Turkey. More than once he had been shunned in stores, given the cold shoulder by some members of U.N.C.L.E., and even spat at in the street. It had never come to this, though.
Another road sign swooped by and disappeared into the darkness before he could read what it said. His head was throbbing in a tight ache in time with his heart. His chest hurt every time he took in a breath. The dizziness was growing rather than subsiding.
He caught lights up ahead, and with great relief realised it was a gas station. All thoughts of refilling the car had been forgotten, but these places usually had phones. He pulled in, pulled up as close to the payphone as he could manage, and got painfully out of the car. Slipping a few coins into the slot, he asked the operator to connect him with Napoleon in New York.
The phone seemed to ring for an interminable amount of time, and then finally the familiar voice replied, 'Solo here.'
Illya was so relieved he almost forgot to speak. Head resting against the glass of the call box, he stood there with the receiver against his ear until the voice asked, 'Hello? Hello?'
'Oh, Napoleon...' he finally replied.
Solo's voice sharpened. 'Illya? Why aren't you on your communicator? Aren't you in Iowa?'
It felt very hard to talk. It had been easy enough sitting in the car to say, damn, and damn again, but stringing together sentences felt beyond him. He had suffered concussion before. It was an unpleasant but all too familiar feeling.
'In a gas station. Gas station...' He peered blearily out through the door at the neon sign. 'Johnny's Gas and Store,' he read, 'just – just out of Apple Creek.'
'Illya, are you all right?' Napoleon's voice was sharper still. 'Illya?'
'I – I think I could do with help,' Illya said, but his knees gave way, and he found himself sitting on the damp concrete floor, huddled in the call box, the receiver swinging from its metal cord as Napoleon's voice asked tinnily, 'Illya? Illya?'
He could smell antiseptic. There were noises of footsteps on hard floors that made his head throb. A moment of panic bloomed inside him before he remembered. There had been no Thrush attack, no deadly mission. He hadn't got that far. It had just been a group of kids with too much time and not enough education.
'Oh,' he murmured as he moved his head and a wave of sickness passed through him. He opened his eyes slowly to see brown ones looking down at him.
'Welcome back,' Napoleon said in an unusually gentle tone.
'W-welcome – ?'
He looked around, taking in a white curtain around a white bed, strip lights on the ceiling, and the noises of people not far away. This was no U.N.C.L.E. infirmary.
'Where am I?' he asked.
'Hospital,' Napoleon said rather unnecessarily. 'No, take it easy,' he said as Illya started trying to sit up. 'Did you know you interrupted my date?'
Illya blinked. 'I phoned you at home...'
'Yeah, it was a very good date,' Napoleon grinned. 'But apparently having a suitor drop everything, leave you behind in his apartment, and bolt to JFK to jump on an U.N.C.L.E. lear jet to help a friend is cute, in her words. It was Marcia from filing. She understands.'
'Oh...' Illya said. He looked down at himself. He could feel the constriction of a cast around his wrist. 'What's the damage? Do I want to know?'
'Broken wrist, a couple of broken ribs, bruising, and concussion,' Napoleon told him succinctly. 'What happened, Illya? Did you make it to the rendezvous? Were they waiting for you?'
Illya snorted a humourless laugh. He lifted his heavily plastered wrist and regarded it.
'This?' he asked. 'No. This was a bunch of school kids when I stopped to ask directions.'
Napoleon did a double take. 'I – I beg your pardon?'
'School kids, Napoleon. Children. Eighteen years old at most, I'm sure. I bet they've been taught by mummy and daddy every day of their lives that Russians are the enemy – and here we are. I couldn't exactly shoot them.'
'You could have put every one of them in hospital,' Napoleon said grimly. His hands were tight on the arms of his chair as if he were itching to get up and do just that.
'Yes,' Illya nodded, 'and that's why I didn't.'
He closed his eyes and leant back against the pillow, his mind drifting back over those few minutes that seemed to have changed his life. He had been on the receiving end of beatings far too many times, but in very few of those times had he felt that he couldn't fight back. He was used to being able to exact very controlled revenge on those who hurt him. Usually they were Thrush or their ilk, and he felt no compunction about hurting them. Few people in life were trained killers, but he and Napoleon could count among their number, and they had to be careful what they did. They had to be careful not to enter situations where everything could go horribly wrong.
'What are you thinking, tovarisch?' Napoleon asked.
'Don't call me that,' Illya snapped reflexively, and Napoleon lifted his hands as if in surrender.
Illya subsided, head throbbing. He had never really minded Napoleon using the jovial term before, no matter how inappropriate it was. He wasn't ashamed to be Russian. He never had been. So why was he suddenly going off like a lit fuse at the reminder?
'Those kids attacked you just because you're Russian,' Napoleon said perceptively.
'They took exception to my accent,' Illya said grimly. 'It's all right, Napoleon,' he said in response to Napoleon's look of disgust. 'It's not exactly new to me.'
Still, Napoleon looked shocked. 'You've never been put in hospital before,' he pointed out quietly.
Illya lay in silence, knowing that his partner was watching him in quiet concern. He was running through what had happened in his mind, recalling his innocent words to the six boys in football jumpers. He had been polite. He had been clear. He had been Russian… He had, in fact, been talking to himself in Russian just before he stopped. He often did. Perhaps that had affected his accent, made it stronger and so more offensive to the boys.
'Maybe it's time for a change,' Napoleon said after a while.
'Hmm?' Illya asked, opening his eyes. He felt very tired and very sore, and half of him wanted to just be left alone.
'Time for a change,' Napoleon repeated. 'They attacked you because you're obviously Russian. If it weren't so obvious...'
He trailed off, leaving Illya to infer the suggestion himself.
'Gee, you think I should talk like y'all?' Illya asked in an exaggerated Southern accent, cocking a single eyebrow.
Napoleon stifled a laugh behind his hand. 'No,' he said honestly. 'No, on that example I really don't think you should try to talk like – us all.'
'Well then,' Illya murmured. He felt disgusted at the whole idea. He had never found it necessary to bury himself to become more palatable to others.
'Well then. You spent – how long in Cambridge doing your PhD?' Napoleon asked him.
Illya looked at him, a kind of realisation dawning. Americans thought he sounded Russian. Englishmen thought he sounded Russian. But sometimes, since the majority of his English language learning had taken place in Cambridge, Russians told him he sounded English. People didn't generally get beat up over here for sounding English.
'You say to-mah-to and I say to-may-to,' Napoleon continued suggestively.
'I am not ashamed to be Russian,' Illya said firmly.
'I would never, ever, expect you to be,' Napoleon told him, all hints of humour leaving his face. 'But it might help you – ah – blend in?'
Illya looked down at his casted wrist again. His ribs still hurt every time he took a breath. His face was stiff with bruising. And the memory of lying on the ground being kicked by teenagers was still fresh in his mind. Just for sounding Russian. They had done it because he sounded Russian…
'I say to-mah-to,' he murmured. He had gained a taste for a lot of British things during that time in England. Sometimes he missed the chance for a proper beer in a proper pub, almost more than he missed the hot Ukrainian summers he had experienced during his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia.
'Can it hurt to try?' Napoleon asked him.
Illya looked back to his wrist and touched his hand tenderly to the bruising on his face.
'It might hurt a lot less than this,' he admitted. He sighed heavily. 'Yes, I will try,' he said.
Perhaps he would gain something from the attempt, but he felt like he was losing another part of himself, another thread that connected him to the place where he was born. He would try, and he had no doubt that he would succeed, but he would also try harder to think in Russian, to speak in Russian when he could, and to remember the rippling grain fields and the summer sun of home.