"You want me to do what, sir? I must have misunderstood…"
Alexander Waverly stared down the length of his unlit pipe before raising his eyes beneath nearly stationery brows to glare at the young man before him. He couldn't remember Mr. Kuryakin ever raising a question about his assignments previously. Probably an indication of the years ahead, he mused silently.
"You heard me, Mr. Kuryakin. And you as well, Mr. Solo. I want … it is necessary for you, Mr. Kuryakin, to lose weight for your next assignment."
The old man heaved a sigh that made the other two men in the room feel suddenly ill at ease. Why should Illya, of all people, need to lose weight?
Waverly finally handed over the two file folders he had been fingering during this preamble to business. It seemed as though the young Russian had endured quite a lot since coming to UNCLE, not that any agent was immune to peril. Still, he seemed to attract trouble that others slid past effortlessly. Sometimes Alexander wondered if there really were such a thing as bad luck. Bad business should Solo have to find out along with his partner.
"Here gentlemen, in front of you, is the background on this assignment. I suggest you study it and be prepared to meet here again in…'
Waverly looked at his watch, a mental image of the morning's activities in front of him as he calculated each appointment and how long they would take.
"… three hours. Directly after lunch. Oh, except for you, Mr. Kuryakin. Please report to Medical for a revised meal plan. You will be undergoing daily checks to ensure that you remain healthy during this process. That is all."
Neither agent was prepared to leave, yet the meeting was definitely over. Illya rose from his seat, his face slightly less expressive than usual if that was possible. Napoleon looked from the blond and back to his superior, unable to find any kind of mission that would require weight loss.
Then, all of a sudden, Napoleon turned back to Mr. Waverly, a type of indignant rage surging up from an unknown depth.
"Sir, you're not sending Illya into some kind of… camp, or…?"
Waverly looked up, stunned at the intrusion on his perusal of the next order before him.
"What? Mr. Solo, I… '
It dawned on him then, as he looked from Solo to Kuryakin, the latter a paler shade than normal as Napoleon's suggestion gained understanding.
"I assure you both, there are not any camps or experiments…' he sighed again.
"Sit down, the both of you."
Illya sucked in a breath he had held unknowingly at the thought of being subjected to… well, he couldn't or wouldn't imagine what. Napoleon felt a little sheepish now, after the fact, at having sputtered out his concerns.
"Mr. Kuryakin, let me put your mind at ease. I suppose I should apologize for not just coming to the point of this affair at the onset. You, because of your stature and … hmmm… well, you are a slightly built man compared to many here at UNCLE. You are, in fact, challenging the most minimum requirements for a field agent, something that we have accommodated because of your, shall we say, unique circumstances."
Napoleon shot a glance at his Russian partner, wondering how all of this sounded to him. They'd only been partnered for about eighteen months now, and yet their success rate had garnered quite a lot of attention around the Command. If the number of times the two of them had been shot at, tortured or generally harassed by the agents of THRUSH, then it was possible they were rather well known by some in that organization as well.
Illya held his gaze in a direct response to what Mr. Waverly was saying. He knew he was smaller than most of the men, shorter by a head than several of them. His size had never stopped him before, and apparently now it was going to be used to UNCLE's advantage.
"Sir, if I may and without reading this file just yet, what is it I am to do that will require that I weigh … even less than I currently do?"
Play Peter Pan. Napoleon caught himself thinking it, was grateful that he hadn't actually said anything. His partner looked like a teenager sitting here, and if he lost any more weight…
"You are a horseman, Mr. Kuryakin. Along with gymnastics, you also have equestrian skills that are rather advanced. Although this time, it won't be dressage that you will need, but hard-boned skill and strength to handle an animal large enough to kill you should control be lost.'
He had their attention. Kuryakin's blue eyes widened imperceptibly, something that Napoleon noted with a little satisfaction; he kept count of the times that his partner actually registered a response.
"Racing horses, Mr. Kuryakin. Thoroughbreds, to be specific about it. You and Mr. Solo are going to the races."
Napoleon slowly turned his head towards Waverly, then back again to see Illya's reaction to that last. The plot emerged suddenly.
"A jockey? You want Illya to go in as a jockey?"
Waverly grinned, that feral expression that marked him as a man of intrigue and cunning. It was an acquired expression, born of many experiences and survival of many perils.
"Yes, exactly that. Mr. Kuryakin will need to lose… oh, I'd say about fifteen pounds. Isn't that right, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya was calculating, remembering what he might have ever known about thoroughbred racing. Mainly what he visualized were the small stature men who populated the sport both in the United States and in Europe. He wasn't tall himself, but by most standards he would tower over the typical jockey. Still, he supposed that the only real factor was the weight.
"I would be at the top of the racing weights, sir. Twenty pounds would give me a better chance of gaining a mount, if that is indeed the object of this assignment."
Waverly was pleased. He expected nothing less from his Russian recruit than to look past the minimum requirement and make it his goal to go beyond them, to be the best.
"Yes, quite right, Mr. Kuryakin. If you were at one hundred and fifteen pounds, it would probably make you more competitive."
Napoleon was completely flabbergasted by all of this talk of Illya losing twenty pounds. What kind of lunatic could think that Illya Kuryakin capable of skipping meals?
"Sir, not to be … um… well, obtuse, but … why? I mean, what is it we're after here?"
Waverly looked at his watch again. No time for this, he needed to attend to his day.
"For that, Mr. Solo, I suggest you read the report as I had originally intended. I still expect to see you back here at… one o'clock. Have a nice lunch, gentlemen."
At this last goodbye the two agents departed. Illya was going through a list of ways in which he might lose weight and still maintain his muscle. Twenty pounds…
"Illya, how on earth… I mean… you eat more than I do and still weigh thirty pounds less. Well, around that anyway."
Illya smiled, his calculations continuing as they now included figuring out how much Napoleon weighed. Neither of them were big men, and yet they still managed to best most of the bad guys who came after them. It wasn't all about brawn, after all.
"There is nothing to be done about it, my friend. I am to lose weight, and I suppose that starts with my check-in down at Medical. Shall I meet you back here at one?"
"You're going to skip lunch? I'll go with you, tovarisch. We might as well get on the same program, at least … well, I'll check it out. I guess I could lose a couple of pounds, just to keep you company."
Illya appreciated the gesture, even as he dreaded the prospect of going without food. He had spent many years of his youth without the food necessary for proper nutrition. It had, no doubt, been a factor in his own lack of growth. This time, however, it would be by choice, more or less.
"You are a good friend, Napoleon. It isn't necessary, but I thank you for the offer of support.'
Illya stopped at the elevator, the realization now that as soon as he hit that button to the Medical floor, his life would change once again.