Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
The frigid air was a perfect conveyance for the sounds coming from the little church. Voices blended in unison to sing the old hymn as candles burned, providing the only illumination within.
Illya Kuryakin shivered, not from the cold but rather an icy memory brought on by the German lyrics.
"You okay, tovarisch?"
Napoleon's query was illustrated by a puff of air, barely visible in the dim light of their room's only lamp. The two agents from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement were newly partnered, and this foray into the Austrian Alps on Christmas Eve was another reason to never make plans for the holidays. Napoleon Solo was learning the hard way with a string of disappointed young women who mourned his absence during this festive season.
The other man, the Russian, had always known to avoid thinking about the future. That is not to say he always obeyed that knowledge, human nature being what it is. There was no denying, however, that his plans rarely emerged unscathed by the interference of others, whether those in authority or enemies bent on his destruction.
"What? Oh, yes, I am fine. And you?"
Napoleon chuckled. This guy was polite under all circumstances.
"I'm just… great, thanks. It's just that … I don't know, you seem sort of … melancholy.'
The blond head canted slightly, the blue eyes betrayed nothing of the emotional turmoil behind them.
"I just thought maybe being here on Christmas, away from home …"
Now Illya smiled, just a little.
"I have no home, Napoleon, so being here is as good as being anyplace else on earth."
The inflection of his voice gave nothing away, but Napoleon saw, for just a fraction of a second, something in Illya's eyes.
It's always in the eyes, he mused to himself. He had learned that early on, and knowing it always gave him an edge.
Something in the American's expression gave away his recognition of the other man's emotion, and Illya immediately locked down any further disclosures that might come from an unguarded moment. It would do no good to revisit the past.
"So, tell me Napoleon, where do you go for Christmas? That is when not on assignment … If you do not mind my asking."
Shifting the conversation away from himself was a ploy learned early by the Russian, back in those first years away from his family. Now, it seemed, the same type of subterfuge would still be a necessary tool in order for him to remain, as he had heard it said, under the radar.
Napoleon recognized the subtle maneuvering, but decided to oblige. Obviously Illya wasn't anxious to talk about himself, not an altogether disagreeable attribute in a partner.
"Hmmm… well, my family is a little scattered. My grandparents on both sides have had to contend with absence; one grandfather in the military and the other a diplomat …'
Illya raised an eyebrow at that. He hadn't known this about Napoleon.
"…Yeah. So, anyway … I don't guess many of us go into this line of work because we're accustomed to a normal life that we're hoping to preserve. I generally don't go home for the holidays, even if I'm not on assignment. I guess we all sort of take care of each other, so, you see…"
Napoleon was surprised to hear a defensive tone in the blond's voice.
"You naturally assume that my life in the Soviet Union is an unhappy one, that my family is …'
Illya caught himself, but it was too late to avoid the look of amusement on Napoleon's face.
"Why are you smiling?"
"What are you hiding?"
"I am not hiding anything. I merely meant to say … It is irrelevant about my life before now. Who I was, who my family was to me … none of that exists any longer.'
Illya looked out the window at something well beyond his line of vision.
"You cannot possibly understand."
Napoleon felt a flush in his face as he realized the truth of what Illya was saying. No, he couldn't understand what it must be like to constantly start over in a new country, among people to whom you had no sense of attachment or familiarity.
Soldiers might go off to war on foreign soil, but they did it hoping to return to their homes and families. Illya seemed destined to never return to Russia based on what Napoleon had been allowed to read of his partner's file. The arrangement was a permanent one, the decision thrust upon the young man as a point of duty to which there was no refusal.
"I'm sorry. I forget sometimes … '
Again, the sideways look, full of challenge.
" … that your life was different before. You've had more accomplishments than most people will ever have.'
Napoleon paused, swallowing back his doubts about this little speech.
"But, I can see where it might be … would be difficult to leave everything and everyone behind, even for such an adventurous life."
Napoleon made it sound as though Illya was the center of a travelogue or documentary. He was smooth, always proving why Alexander Waverly put so much confidence in the young American's future. Illya recognized it too, and appreciated the emphasis on the good things that he had experienced. The past wasn't all bad, he supposed. It was that hymn, the memories of German soldiers singing Christmas carols in the dead of winter while Illya's family hid in the darkened recesses of ruined buildings as the punishing cold took its toll.
"My mother …'
Should he talk about it? He suddenly wanted to, although if he really considered it, Illya would realize he had wanted to talk about these things for a very long time.
"My mother was very beautiful, with long dark hair and blue eyes. My father was blond, as I am, and a musician by profession. He had been a member of the State Symphony prior to the War, before things became … difficult.'
The singing from the church had ceased, and now parishioners could be seen coming out into the night, their farewells interlaced with wishes for a happy Christmas as they headed towards home. Illya watched for a moment before resuming his narrative.
"When war broke out my father was recruited, as were most of the men in the country. My mother was Ukranian, so we went back to live with her parents just outside of Kiev. That is where I learned a little of their faith, something I had not known previously. I found it compelling, although … well, it held my attention."
When he turned back from looking out into that snow covered landscape, Illya saw genuine interest in Napoleon's expression. It served to fuel something, a flicker of friendship that the Russian knew was genuine.
"We were caught between political factions, and Kiev was ravaged by the Germans and then the Soviet forces looking for partisans...'
Napoleon raised a questioning brow.
"Many Ukrainians looked to the Germans as liberators for a time, because of the treatment they had received under Stalin's regime. There was no right side. Ultimately our family had to live in an old building that had been abandoned. With only the women and children, and my aging grandfather, it was a daily challenge to stay warm and … "
Another pause in the story told Napoleon that it was perhaps more than his partner had bargained for.
"It's all right, Illya. You don't need to …"
"Yes, yes I think that I do. I am not ashamed of those years, of how we had to live. We were fighting for our lives, and we were surviving. So many others did not."
Napoleon thought he saw the blue eyes look more liquid, more blue somehow. Tears?
"We made it through the war, and my father returned with some minor damage to his left leg. He planned to return to the orchestra, but then there was the purge, Zhdanovshchina, and papa was caught up in that because of his previous associations."
Napoleon stopped Illya there.
"Zhdanovshchina. The purging of the Soviet creative community? I've heard of that. So … what happened after that?"
Illya took a breath so deep that Napoleon thought it sounded like a man searching for more than air.
"There was no after. The State began searching for youths who would be good candidates for educating in the new Soviet system, in the arts and sciences, for industrialization … I was sent away to a state school and …"
Napoleon was captivated; never before had Illya shared so much of his past. He had to remind himself that there was still the business of surveillance that had brought them here. Within seconds of that thought, Illya pointed to the man they sought as he emerged from the little church across the street.
"There he is. Alexander Annikov."
"That's our cue. Are you ready?"
Illya blinked, almost as though by doing so he could conjure up the character he would portray.
"Da. Now I am ready."