The Marshmallows Affair
The man on the desk had booked them in under the name of Hillier Curry Aiken. Illya’s look was one of mingled disbelief and revulsion when he turned the receipt to Napoleon and showed him.
‘One day,’ he said threateningly at Napoleon’s hearty laugh, ‘One day I will take you to the Ukraine and see what they do with your name.’
‘Well, I can’t claim they’re always perfect with mine, either, comrade,’ Napoleon reminded him. ‘I’m not exactly a John Smith, you know.’
Illya leant back against the padded headboard and grinned. ‘The worst I remember was when someone put me down as Ill Something. Literally that, as if I were an unidentified animal carrying a disease. What’s the worst you’ve ever had?’
Napoleon closed his eyes and considered. ‘Well, I’ve had someone in Manchester, England, call me Nappy, and you know what that means in England.’
Illya rolled his eyes. ‘Of course I do. I did most of my English language learning in Cambridge. But that’s hardly a mispronunciation. That was deliberate. You need to try harder.’
Napoleon frowned. ‘Well, gee, Illya, Napoleon’s an unusual name in these parts but it’s one everyone’s heard. I guess I get all the jokes and bad puns more than mispronunciations.’ He turned on his elbow to regard his partner. ‘Here’s a game for you – less highbrow than Botticelli, I’m sure, but it’s fun when you’ve got some liquor in you – ’
‘We have no liquor,’ Illya reminded him, ‘unless you want to take out a small mortgage for the mini bar.’
‘Well, we had enough wine at dinner, and brandy afterwards, and – Ah, wait.’ Napoleon held up one finger and then patted for his wallet. ‘Hold that thought. There’s a mini mart round the corner. I’ll be back in five minutes.’
Illya held that thought. He rested his head back and closed his eyes and his mind drifted to the mission just finished. They had one night and half a day before the next scheduled flight home and since Waverly wouldn’t spring to a private plane he had told them to book into a hotel and think of the time as a paid vacation. He and Napoleon had both withheld their opinions on that, but Napoleon had come over magnanimous and decided to pay out the extra for something better than the hostel that Waverly was authorising, getting them this twin bed room in one of the best hotels in town. Dinner had been eaten and showers had been taken, and since the local Thrush threat had been totally neutralised and they could come off their guard, now there was nothing but the long evening ahead. Illya had half expected Napoleon to disappear into the night in search of a comely lady with a warm bed, but Napoleon had told him frankly that he was too tired and too bruised to even think of that. So here they were, spending the long hours between dinner and sleep together in this well appointed room.
There was a clattering and knocking outside the door and Illya jerked awake, going for his gun instantly. He hadn’t realised he’d fallen asleep.
‘Hey, Illya, it’s me,’ came Napoleon’s voice from outside, slightly muffled, and Illya relaxed a degree. ‘Can you give me a hand?’
He was still cautious when he opened the door, gun in hand, but it was just Napoleon. Just Napoleon and two wine bottles in one hand, his arm wrapped around a brown paper bag, and his other arm clutching tightly at a reused box that looked heavy.
‘Here, let me – ’ And Illya took the box, peeking inside to see a clinking assortment of bottles. He pulled out vodka, bourbon, whiskey and –
‘Slivovitz?’ Illya asked incredulously. ‘You’re telling me that tiny shop sells slivovitz?’
‘Only the best for my Russian friend,’ Napoleon grinned.
Illya lined up the bottles on the night stand. ‘You know, we’re only going to be here the one night,’ he pointed out.
‘Well, I didn’t know what you might want,’ Napoleon shrugged.
Illya eyed the two bottles of wine, reading the labels closely. ‘You’re setting us up for a murderous hangover. One should never mix one’s drinks.’
Napoleon snorted. ‘Hangovers are just the remains of a fun evening.’
Illya rolled his eyes. ‘Whatever you say. What is your game, Napoleon? What’s in the bag?’
Napoleon looked around the room. ‘Now, let’s make this more cosy,’ he said, picking up the night stand that stood between the two beds and moving around to the other side.
‘Napoleon, what are you doing?’ Illya asked tartly. ‘No, no, let me!’ he interrupted himself as his partner started to try to push the beds together. He had checked Napoleon’s ribs after the final blast in that Thrush warehouse and was pretty sure there were no breaks, but he didn’t think he should be shoving beds together. ‘And what is this in aid of?’ he continued once the beds were together.
Napoleon grinned. ‘Nothing but friendly relations between two opposing countries,’ he said innocently.
Illya frowned. ‘I am not one of your female conquests.’
‘My dear prickly Russian, I would never dream of trying to conquer you,’ Napoleon assured him.
Illya wondered if Napoleon’s pain medication was combining with the alcohol he had already drunk that evening; or maybe it was just the relief of a mission over and being alive.
‘If we are going to get good and drunk – and we are,’ Napoleon said stoutly, ‘I think the less space between the beds the better. Now. What’s your poison?’
Illya eyed the array of alcohol that Napoleon had lined up on the relocated night stand again. He toyed with starting with wine, but he felt more like spirits.
‘I’ll take the brandy,’ he said.
‘Ah, sensible Russian,’ Napoleon smiled, unscrewing the lid of the bottle and pouring two glasses before settling himself on his bed and waiting for Illya to follow suite. ‘Get that inside you.’ He lifted his glass. ‘За здоровье!’
Illya echoed the sentiment with a wry grin, and then downed the brandy. Napoleon poured more.
‘What is your game, Napoleon?’ he asked.
Napoleon pulled the brown paper bag towards him and upended it. Packets of marshmallows tumbled out, and Illya’s eyes widened. Napoleon ripped one of the bags open and large white and pink marshmallows tumbled out over the bedspread.
‘Here, take a handful of these,’ he said, holding them out to Illya. Doubtfully, Illya took them.
‘What am I supposed to do with them?’ he asked.
‘Okay, okay, just shove them into your mouth. Don’t chew. Fill your mouth. And now say your name.’
Illya quirked an eyebrow doubtfully, but he did as he was told, shoving the light and spongy marshmallows into his mouth and then trying to say, ‘Illya Nikolayevich Kuryakin.’
The marshmallows turned the words into an unintelligible mumble, and Napoleon snorted. He pushed his own handful of marshmallows into his mouth and said something equally unintelligible, which Illya assumed was an attempt at his own name. Before Illya could chew and swallow his own mouthful Napoleon had poked another marshmallow into his mouth. Illya’s cheeks bulged, Napoleon laughed, and Illya forced himself to swallow the sweet mass, washing it down with more brandy.
‘Napoleon, is this really – ’ Illya began, bewildered.
But Napoleon was tearing open another packet, and this time fingertip sized marshmallows spilled out.
‘Go on,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘Try again. I want to see if different sizes affect it.’
Illya looked askance at Napoleon, but he stuffed his mouth full and tried to recite his name again. This time the smaller marshmallows spluttered out over the bed, and Napoleon began to wheeze. Looking at him made Illya start laughing too.
‘Napoleon, where did you learn this game?’ he asked incredulously.
Napoleon wiped his streaming eyes and downed another glass of brandy.
‘Er – it was – it was – Marian, I think, in Accounting. She told me her six year old made it up.’
‘Her six year old made up a drinking game?’
‘Ah, well, I don’t think there was liquor involved,’ Napoleon confessed, ‘but you know all children are naturally tiny drunkards. Being adults we just need a little help.’
Illya grabbed another handful of marshmallows but this time he suddenly launched himself at Napoleon, holding him down and pushing them into the American’s mouth.
‘Now you say my name,’ he said, poking Napoleon in the chest. ‘Your name’s easier with a full mouth.’
Napoleon tried to say ow around the marshmallows, and failed. Then he tried to say Illya’s name and Illya was peppered with the sticky sweets. Both of them found that incredibly funny, and Illya fell back onto the bed, raking marshmallows out of his hair with sticky fingers.
‘Oh, brother...’ he wheezed.
Napoleon handed him the vodka and another bag of marshmallows. ‘Go on, try something different. Recite some poetry to me.’
Illya looked at him sideways. ‘You are an incorrigible romantic.’
But he filled his mouth all the same and started trying to say, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,’ but what he actually said came out more like how Napoleon had sounded the day before yesterday when he’d been trying to work a gag out of his mouth. He tried some Pushkin and that sounded worse, but by that time he was laughing so hard he almost choked on the marshmallows.
‘Now try it with slivovitz!’ he challenged Napoleon as soon as his mouth was clear, and his partner twisted the lid off that bottle and filled their glasses again. Napoleon took one mouthful and beat his fist hard on the night stand.
‘Good god, Illya, do you really drink this stuff? Are you sure you don’t strip paint with it?’
Illya took that as a challenge. He filled his glass brim full, downed it, then stuffed his mouth with the larger marshmallows and recited the entire of Pushkin’s ‘I Loved You’ in the original Russian.
Napoleon was staring at him with glassy eyes, propped up on one elbow with his mouth half open.
‘I don’t know what the hell that was you just said but I think I’m falling in love you with,’ he said, his words coming out as a fast stream, as if he were afraid if he stopped he’d lose the ability to speak. Then he fell forwards onto the bed and carried on speaking with his face buried in the bedspread.
‘Hey, I can’t hear you.’ Illya grabbed his shoulder and shook him. ‘N’poleon, I can’t hear you with – with the bed in your mouth.’
That struck him as unbearably funny, and he fell back against the pillows almost screaming with laughter, his stomach muscles aching and tears running down his face. There seemed to be marshmallows everywhere now, and Napoleon was propping himself up again with a very red face.
‘No, g’on, say more of that,’ Napoleon urged him. ‘You say that again without the shmum – the mshum – the – ’
‘They are called m-arsh m-al-lows,’ Illya enunciated very clearly, pouring himself more brandy, then changing his mind and switching to slivovitz half way through. ‘Ugh, no, that’s terrible,’ he said, tasting it, but he drank it all. ‘Pol’yon, aren’t we going to drink that wine?’
‘You say that thing again,’ Napoleon urged him like a petulant child. ‘Talk dirty to me Il’ya. No, I mean – talk Russian to me.’
Illya pointed his finger very seriously at his partner. ‘You wait a moment...’
He opened one of the bottles of wine and poured Napoleon a glass, then poured himself some, then sprinkled marshmallows in the top for good measure. Then he very slowly and carefully recited the poem again, hand pressed against his chest and tears starting in his eyes as he thought about how much he missed home and missed his language and missed his people. Then Napoleon wrapped his arms around him and gave him a long, swaying hug and held him as he rambled in Ukrainian about the countryside outside Kiev and the scent of wheat fields just ready for harvest.
They remembered very little the next morning about the night before, but they knew four things for certain. They had drunk a lot. They had woken up wrapped in each other’s arms, still fully dressed and on top of the bedclothes. Marshmallows stuck like the devil when they’d been slept on. And the hangover was, indeed, murderous.