Napoleon Solo sat back, his eyes half closed as he listened to his partner playing a beautiful piece of classical music on his cello. The music filled the room, transporting Napoleon somewhere far away from the realities of his harsh life here in New York. The Illya who was playing this remarkable instrument had his eyes closed, his fingers darting over the fingerboard, his bow ceaselessly coaxing such wonderful sounds. If only the staff at headquarters could see Illya here like this.
This was the first-time Napoleon had ever seen his partner truly relaxed and happy. His playing was exquisite, and he knew the intricacies of his instrument and his music perfectly. If Illya wanted to leave UNCLE, he could play for a living. Any orchestra on earth would want him. Up until now, Napoleon had always considered the cello as the poor relation to the violin, deep and ponderous; but the rich, wonderful sounds issuing from that slightly scratched and battered cello of Illya's made the sound of the loveliest violin seem screechy by comparison.
At headquarters, in the six weeks Illya had been stationed there, he had grown to be regarded as some kind of machine. Illya so carefully kept his thoughts and emotions carefully masked behind an unbreakable imperturbable screen, that it became common knowledge that he must simply be an automaton. An ice-man, without any human emotion. When they knew Illya must have been in pain from some injury, because he showed little or no outward signs of it, it was clear evidence that they were correct about him. He had no feelings. You cannot hurt an automaton after all. It bothered the hell out of Napoleon. Illya, however, when Napoleon told him of their attitude, had raised an eyebrow, then changed the subject. Even Napoleon seldom saw past that unbreakable mask…
He recalled the first time, so far, the only time the young Russian had allowed his mask to slip a little, was when Napoleon had fallen into a lake after being knocked unconscious by a THRUSH goon. After an indeterminate period of blackness, he had opened his eyes to find Illya staring down at him, dripping wet, tears on his cheeks.
"You scared me!" the Russian had exclaimed, a break in his voice. "Do not do that to me again! I thought I had lost you!"
The only emotion, if that was the word, that everyone seemed to agree upon was chill. The feeling they had when the Russian turned those cold blue eyes on them, a chill would run up and down their spine, and they would pity the poor creature that ever earned the Russian's ire.
All too soon the music ended and Illya carefully replaced the instrument in its case. He gave a shy half-smile when Napoleon praised him warmly.
"You are really talented at that. That was exquisite. Tell me, what is this one?"
Napoleon pointed to an oddly shaped case, almost triangular, with a slightly elongated narrow top. Illya reached for it and lovingly opened the buckles.
"This is my balalaika. The only thing I have that belonged to my father. He inherited it from his father. When I was very young, I remember being with my grandparents. Evenings, they would all sit around the campfires playing and singing. Dedushka was very clever with this. He started teaching me until…"
Illya broke off with a slight shake of his head. Napoleon nodded, his mind a whirl. Campfires?
"A gypsy encampment?"
Illya met his partner's gaze almost defiantly.
"I am half gypsy."
"Would you play something for me? Anything you like?"
Illya nodded and began to pluck at the strings, tuning it, and then began to play. It was a beautiful, slightly haunting melody that seemed to Napoleon to lift him up and carry him far away somewhere, a forest at night, huge campfires, huddled figures silhouetted against the flames, a canopy of stars overhead. Suddenly the music ended and Napoleon was back home, tears in his eyes. Illya seemed amused at his reaction.
"I am glad you enjoyed it." He said softly, as he began to wipe the instrument down lovingly with a soft cloth and pack it carefully away once more in its case.
"Thank you for sharing that with me. That was wonderful."
"Do you play anything?"
"My gran taught me to play the harmonica…but mostly American folk songs, No classical in our house."
Illya raised his eyebrows, and after a pause, Napoleon relented and fetched his harmonica. He played a variety of songs from his limited repertoire and earned an enthusiastic round of applause from Illya. He put it back carefully, and when he turned, he found Illya's eyes boring into him intently.
"You are not what I expected, Napoleon Solo."
"Your reputation led me to expect a man with a one-track mind, concerned only with success and promotion. You know the sort, eats tacks and nails for supper every night."
"But you are not the quite what Jules Cutter led me to believe. You are efficient, but you are much more than that. You care about people, Napoleon. You enjoy poetry, literature, and opera. You might almost be Russian."
"You know the reputation you are developing for yourself don't you my friend?"
Illya looked down at his hands, and nodded.
"Is it deliberate? You come across as cold and efficient, impervious to any kind of pain or emotion, but I know that there is a lot more to you than cold efficiency. The staff tend to be split into two camps. Either they are terrified of you or…"
Napoleon gave a rueful smile.
"There are quite a few of the women at headquarters who fancy the pants off you."
Despite himself, Illya gave a shout of mirth.
"Really. But you have either not seen or chosen not to see. But I can tell you that many of the women vie for a smile from you, or a word or greeting. Even a Kuryakin nod is regarded as a great privilege."
Kuryakin smiled and Napoleon regarded him thoughtfully.
"You are not what you lead others to believe, Illya. I happen to know that Russians are generally a very passionate people."
"That is true."
"So, you are good at wearing masks. The question is, why hide yourself?"
"That is perhaps the tragedy, Napoleon. I am not hiding or playing a part. If my life had not been so…I mean, I might once have been the friendly, outgoing, gregarious person you appear to want me to be, but all of that was beaten out of me while I was still very young. The man you see at headquarters I am afraid is the real me. The Illya Kuryakin who plays music and enjoys opera is the person I once was. That person only emerges when I am extremely relaxed and contented…" He looked down and gave a shy smile. "Um…well, now you know."
Napoleon was taken aback. He was truly the only person with whom Illya felt truly at home and comfortable with? Even he saw the Russian's softer side very seldom. It had been a privilege to watch him playing his music with such abandon.
"Illya…are you happy here in New York? I mean, you could have been sent anywhere, even back to Moscow, but…"
Illya leaned forward and picked up his glass of vodka from the table and swallowed half of the liquid down before he looked up.
"I expected to be sent to Moscow. I had no expectation of being well received anywhere else to be honest with you. But now that I am here…I would not like to be transferred elsewhere."
"So, that means you are happy here?"
Illya cocked an eyebrow.
"Does it matter to you? Napoleon, I am uncomfortable talking about myself, but I will tell you this. My memories of being happy ended when the Nazis raided our camp when I was a child. That was…a long time ago. They shot dead ten men and women, and then sent out pack-dogs to hunt down those who fled. I was possibly the only one to escape that night. After that, happiness became irrelevant. If I survived each day, that was my measure of contentment."
He paused and finished his drink and sat, fingering the glass moodily.
"If I had ever had my choice of what to do with my life, would I still be here, is hard to say, but my life is still largely a case of surviving from one day to the next. One mission to the next. I can honestly tell you that I do not believe I would be happier anywhere else, but I do not know how to be happy in the way you mean."
Napoleon didn't know what to say. Illya handed him the half empty bottle of vodka.
"Here, you look like you could use some of the good stuff."
Napoleon poured himself a generous measure and drank the whole glass straight down.
"One thing my Aunt Amy always impressed upon me when I was a child, was `be happy'. She taught me how to notice things, how to appreciate my blessings."
Illya gave a lop-sided smile.
"I can tell she did a good job. You seem to be a man who lives life to the full. At home, it is looked down upon. I admit everything is still a little…"
"Strange? I guess it is. So, I was wrong. The ice man is not a mask, is it?"
Illya shook his head.
"No, I am afraid not. I wear no masks, Napoleon. Metaphorical or otherwise."
"Well, you've only been here six weeks or so. By the time you have been here six years, you will be the house comedian."
Illya rolled his eyes.
"This time it is you who are the comedian. I have to leave now. I have not finished my report on my R and D project, and I have some preparations to make tomorrow for my first class."
"Class? Oh, you mean the explosives refresher course? Waverly has asked you to go along has he? He asked me to go along too. He said even CEAs need to keep up with new developments. I guess he is right at that."
Illya raised his eyebrows, and shook his head.
"No, my friend. I am not going because I need a refresher course."
Illya shook his head, and was unable to prevent a wicked grin from spreading across his face.
"No. I'm the teacher!"