Title: The Minstrel's Eve
Story Prompts: Snowbound, Guitars, Intercepted Message
Author Notes: I was very happy to see the prompts, and can only hope that how they tell the story is pleasing to the reader.
The Minstrel's Eve
"Napoleon…" The baritone voice signals serious business when the Russian is speaking. It always amazes me how he can modulate his voice that way; sort of like a clarinet in the hands of Artie Shaw.
"Yes, Illya". I have no doubt that what he is about to say to me is important…to him. Whether or not it will impact me in the same manner remains to be seen. I'm still getting used to this man from the Soviet Union. Even though we've been partnered for a few months, it's not as though we're really ready to close the deal yet.
"What do you think this means?" I look over to his desk and see the box that has been plundered. From out of the crackling tissue paper, Illya is holding up a red turtleneck sweater. His face has a strange quality to it; almost a blush in the pale complexion.
"It looks like a red turtleneck, Illya. Did someone give it to you?" His eyes have gone from their normally vibrant blue hue to a grey that resembles a cloudy day…an approaching storm.
"I found it…here on my desk…' He stammers almost imperceptibly, perhaps trying to translate what has started out in Russian but must now be told to me in English.
"It's red". Well, there is finality to that, and I suddenly get the implication.
"Illya, it's also Christmas. I'm sure that someone just wanted to see you in a color representative of the season. You know, red and green…" His eyebrows shoot up into a signature expression that I've come to recognize as questioning, as though something unbelievable and formidable is approaching.
"Really? So, it isn't a…not because I am…Soviet?" There, a kind of relief passes over his face now, and the tone of his voice has risen slightly.
"Yes, I believe that it is simply a Christmas present, probably from an admirer here at headquarters". Now there is a blush in his cheeks as he considers the possibilities. I have to wonder about the sensitivities that lie beneath the veneer of this man's icy exterior. For his initial reaction to have been that the red sweater was a slur or insult before it occurred to him that it might be a gift, tells me volumes about what he still battles here in his new environment. I suppose I need to find out who sent it, and what it really means. And, I need to do it without his knowledge.
"Hi Napoleon". Ah, sweet Jessica is so willing to share the office gossip. I'm glad she likes me enough…
"So, lovely Jessica'…she practically purrs when I speak to her like this.
"What do you know about a red turtleneck that has found its way into my partner's hands?" I'm smiling, and her eyebrows have formed into something almost cartoonish. So, there is something going on with that sweater.
"A…a red turtleneck? Gee Napoleon, I'm not sure…" Oh, the girl knows something.
"Jessica, sweetheart, you have secrets, don't you". I'm going to will her to tell me…my eyes are boring into hers unmercifully.
"Ummm…well, you see…' She bites nervously at her bottom lip, trying to decide how and what she's going to divulge to me now.
"You see…it's a secret message. Was there…was there a note with it?" I slowly shake my head, something that produces a little pout.
"But, if all he received was the sweater, then something is missing". Uh oh…
"What kind of secret message? Illya thought that perhaps it was a message for him to go back to the USSR. I hope that's not the case". Now I could work up a little anger if my blond partner was correct in his initial assumption.
"No, no…it's not like that. We, some of us…oh gosh. Heather McNabb told us that Illya plays the guitar, and we were hoping that he would help us out at the Christmas party. There was supposed to be a note with the sweater inviting him to play. The red turtleneck was just…well, he wears them all of the time, and we kind of thought he would look good in something…you know, not black. And since it is Christmas, the red just seemed like the right color for him to wear". She looks as though she might cry. Their little scheme has come up short, and now there is a note circulating somewhere else requesting a performance on guitar.
"I'll have to go and talk to Heather. She's the one who put the package together. Will you please ask Illya if he'll play for us?" Pleading green eyes are riveted on mine, and I understand how tentative the entire episode is. Illya is not the most social man in the building, and it must have taken the girls a lot of nerve to consider approaching him with this idea. And now, it has perhaps gone to someone else.
"I'll tell him, don't worry. He'll be flattered, I'm sure". With that I head back to my office, relieved that Illya is not the object of a hateful prank, but unsure of his response to the request to entertain at a Christmas party. I could be wrong…he might do it. Then again…
Alexander Waverly sits at his enormous round desk, its mission in life devoted to serving up pertinent information, files, and dossiers to his agents as they sit, waiting for his command. As his hands search the surface nearest to him, they fall upon the much desired pipe, the stuff of legends among his section two men. Deftly the fingers begin to tamp down his Isles of Dog #22 tobacco, then reach for the always illusive match. When he strikes it, finally, the puffing goes uninterrupted until it appears: the fine spiral that ascends to the ceiling, announcing the end of the ritual and the beginning of business.
Mr. Waverly, like most men, has a history. Most of it is unknown to his people at UNCLE headquarters. Only the rarest of comrades in arms claims to know his complete biography, and even those will recognize gaps in their knowledge of the irascible head of the organization. Few, for instance, are aware that the man had a brief encounter with the stage in his younger, youngest days. Were it not for the Great War and the call of adventure, he might have made his career among the bright lights of London, if not the great salons of the very wealthy.
Now, sitting at his desk and puffing on the much loved pipe, he opens an envelope that transports him back to those days of frivolous and carefree enterprise. He allows a slim little smile to crack the stern features as he remembers…
The snowfall is record breaking. What was planned as a company party has turned into a snowbound refuge for the employees at New York's UNCLE headquarters. For those who didn't make it out in time, the evening is now ordained officially as an all night affair. No one will be traveling the streets in this blizzard, and the evening that has been planned as a celebration of the season is underway for all, regardless of their earlier intentions.
The red turtleneck is still in its box on Illya Kuryakin's desk. As I walk in and look around, I spot him on the bench against the wall, sound asleep. What I have learned about my new partner is that he can sleep at the drop of a hat, anyplace and under all circumstances, imaginable or not.
He has never given me an answer about playing guitar tonight. As it is, he has no means of escaping the party; well, not unless he really wants to piss off everyone. It will be unconscionably rude for him to ignore the event.
"Illya…wake up". I feel as though I owe it to him and the girls to make sure he attends. He can feign shyness about playing, but damned if I'll let him ignore that red turtleneck.
"I am awake. What do you want, Napoleon?" I've also learned that he wakes up, instantly alert, at the drop of that same hat.
"It's time for the party. Do you have your guitar?" He sits straight up and looks at me while he cocks his head to one side.
"With me? Well, yes actually. But…I don't usually sing Christmas carols, Napoleon. This is a little outside of my…usual repertoire. However, I am flattered to have been invited". I'm thinking there must be a "but" in here somewhere…
"Do I really need to wear the red turtleneck? It's so…red". Now I can relax. He's actually going to go in there, in the midst of the Christmas celebrants who are waiting out a blizzard, and play his guitar.
"Yes, Illya, I definitely think you should wear the sweater. It fits the occasion, and it will make the girls who bought it for you very happy". He ducks his head slightly and his lips twitch into that funny little half smile that he dons too infrequently. This little blond Russian is about to have his very first American Christmas, and I am privileged to witness…no, to be a part of it.
"Thank you Napoleon…for guiding me through all of this". Now I think I'm blushing. Damn Russian.
The party is underway as we enter the canteen. I can see Heather and Jessica, along with several other UNCLE ladies, over by what is serving as the bar. When they see Illya walk in, dressed in the red turtleneck and carrying his guitar, I notice the very obvious delight they have in what has been accomplished. He's no longer the cool and aloof Soviet; he has been transformed into one of 'us' in their eyes. All of the walls have crumbled and the man who was the subject of much speculation and a certain amount of suspicion is the centerpiece of the evening's entertainment. I am proud of all of them; of Illya for being gracious enough to accept the invitation, and for the ladies who engineered this nearly miraculous moment.
Illya approaches the girls and is greeted by an exuberant exchange of gratitude and unmasked admiration. I begin to wonder if I shouldn't have skipped the grey wool suit and worn a red cashmere sweater that I know is inside one of the many presents beneath my own tree. Illya is wearing what is, most probably, the only gift he will receive this Christmas, and I suddenly realize that I never even considered buying my partner something. It causes a slight pang of discomfort to think of all that awaits me at home while I look at this man in the red turtleneck sweater. He has this one gift in exchange for something he can offer to the gift givers; he has brought his music in return.
As I contemplate this lapse in my otherwise generous nature (I believe this is so), the canteen doors open and, to my own and many others' surprise, Mr. Waverly enters. He is carrying a guitar case. I can't imagine why, and when I look at Heather and our eyes meet, we both realize where that missing note ended up. Heather must have mistakenly stuffed it into a pile of Waverly's memos instead of Illya's box. Speaking of whom, I realize now that Illya is watching the old man, and looks down at his own guitar, a genuinely puzzled expression on his face.
"Dear me, I hope I haven't kept everyone waiting. I must admit that my guitar playing days are mostly behind me, but I have been looking forward to this". Everyone is speechless as Mr. Waverly announces his intentions to play for us. He looks at Illya, and taking him by the elbow begins to lead him towards what is serving as the stage area. The old man must have heard something…he knew!
"Mr. uh…Kuryakin and I, it seems, have been engaged for the entertainment portion of your…program. I must say, it pleases me immensely". He is smiling while he removes the guitar from its case. It is a beautiful rosewood Martin Dreadnaught, and as he begins to tune, he looks to Illya who is still speechless and not making a similar move. His Russian guitar is a unique instrument with seven strings rather than the standard western number of six. I can only assume that they know how to make it all sound right.
"I believe, Mr. Kuryakin, that we will need to tune together". And with that, both he and the Russian begin to go through the tuning process, working their way towards an actual musical debut. Heather, Jessica and all of the other women are transfixed by the sight, and the other UNCLE employees are beginning to chatter now, the improbability of the scene like an exploration of a political zeitgeist. They see the head of UNCLE Northwest alongside his Russian recruit, readying their guitars for Christmas carols. If there is such a thing as a collective dropped jaw, then this is what I'm seeing.
Between the two men is a great deal of discussion, all of it regarding the how and what of their musical enterprise. I, who play nothing musical, but manage the games of espionage and love pretty well, wonder how these two can coordinate their skills and musical knowledge on such short notice, and still come up with something…well, good. I have no idea of the talents of either, and certainly can't imagine that life really is like a musical, where the participants just magically conjure up the perfect score for the scene they're playing at. The mood is cheerful and animated now, as each individual in the room anticipates what is sure to be entertaining on some level. For each of us, the sight of our leader with a guitar in his hands is, to say the least, riveting.
After what seems a relatively short amount of time, Mr. Waverly signals Illya with a nod of his head and they begin to play.
For someone who hasn't grown up hearing Christmas carols, my partner certainly has a way with one. The strains of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear begin to fill the room as the melody weaves its way in and out of the counter melody that Mr. Waverly plays. I can almost see snow flitting through the darkness, and starlight glinting on the flakes as they dance through the sky towards the earthbound audience. I am truly transfixed by how beautiful the music is, how skillful each man is as the strings of his instrument begin to paint pictures with the sounds we're hearing. How they have managed to create this without ever practicing together…well, it just goes to show you how much I don't know about music. These two men are talented and knowledgeable, and the intertwining of two guitars that belong to such different people, has won over this audience.
I look again to see Heather's reaction, and notice her eyes are glistening as she neglects to hold back tears. No one is talking, and all eyes are glued to the old man and the young blond. The enigmatic head of UNCLE is engrossed in his playing, perhaps reliving events that are decades in the past. And Illya…I'm strangely proud of him as I stand here. This is my partner, the man I've accepted as a partner. Now that I think about it, perhaps it's the other way around. He has accepted me, no questions asked. I wonder, more than ever before, just who he is.
By the end of the evening, the performance of the two men from UNCLE are a happy memory to the people spending their night here at headquarters. The snow is still falling, public transportation is at a standstill and all of us have settled into a comforting, if not entirely comfortable, position. We have this family here at UNCLE, not a normal group of people, but still…we understand what we do and how important it all is. And we accept one another.
That's what happened here tonight. The old man sat down beside his Russian disciple and they played for over an hour, delighting all of us, surprising most of us and, perhaps most importantly, showing us what it is we're about. Two entirely different backgrounds, cultures, and political perspectives found a voice that was blended perfectly in the music they played. Hands that once might have held instruments of death in opposition to one another, created a moment for each of us that held only beauty and harmony.
That is the best present I can think of. Tonight, for those of us here at headquarters, it was our own brand of peace on earth.