'Overseas relay, to Illya Kuryakin!'
I haven't even stripped off my wet clothes yet, but this is one call I've been dying to make—I've got to be the one to tell him. After a few seconds, the receiver crackles.
'It's done, comrade!' I'm grinning helplessly, feeling almost childish with glee. 'No moonshot tonight!'
'You can tell the Orbesk troops to stand down. The missile launch is destroyed. And the undersea lab, along with all their nasty little cans of wheat fungus. I've just told Waverly'.
'Napoleon! That's... that's incredible! How did you...?'
'Never mind that now, friend. Just you tell the folks that their harvest is safe.'
'I... I can't believe... you don't know what this means!'
'I've got an idea. How soon will you be home?'
'I'm not sure... a couple of days... but... but how can I ever repay...'
I laugh. This is better than I'd hoped.
'All in a night's work. Oh, and Dr Lavimore is willing to co-operate on developing a wheat strain that's resistant to his fungus.'
'What you have done is a wonderful gift, Napoleon! I am everlastingly grateful to you.'
I'm surprised. 'Hey, my pleasure.' I mean it.
'My... my nation thanks you, Napoleon.'
Such formality! I laugh. 'Well, your nation can buy me a drink when it gets back. Speak to you tomorrow.'
I switch off grinning, unplugging the communicator from the boat's electrical supply, and sneeze violently. I've got to change out of these wet things before pneumonia sets in.
I spot him as he enters the Mask Club and order up two glasses of Stolychnaya, his usual, ice cold. He looks particularly Slavic tonight, pale and stiffly correct, an air of his recent sojourn clinging to him, perhaps. Or maybe it's just me.
His face lights up as he sees me, animating the thin features with excitement, and I can't help grinning at the difference between his public and private manner. I wave in greeting and he threads his way towards me at the bar.
We shake warmly, and I hand him a glass and take up mine. 'To the harvest.'
'To the harvest,' he repeats solemnly and we both raise our glasses to one another and sip down the fiery liquid.
He called into my debriefing with Waverly two days ago and he's read my report, so we don't have to talk shop tonight. Besides, I want to hear about his trip, and how it made him feel to 'go home'. I've rarely been in the Soviet Union and I'm filled with the same curiosity and fascination for it as I have for any place that's strange to me. And though I know, from the little we've discussed it, that he's ambivalent towards many aspects, and repulsed by others, still, it's his land, these are his people, and ties of blood and culture are always strong.
We sit down at a quiet table in the corner.
'So, how was Mother Russia?'
'Very relieved at present.'
'I'll bet. Had you ever been to Orbesk before?'
'No. It was very beautiful, Napoleon. I wish you could have seen it. There are so many places in the Soviet Union I would like to show you. And many I myself have never seen. One day, perhaps, we will visit, not on duty, and we can see them together.'
'I certainly hope so, Illya. I'll drink to that.'
We sip for a moment in silence. He fascinates me too, this quiet Russian. We circled a little cautiously around one another at first, taking each other's measure. But I liked him almost immediately. He met my casual overtures of friendliness with shy, eager acceptance and, somehow, when I wasn't watching, managed to become my best friend, in so far as I have such a thing. He's everything I find it possible to admire—brilliant, dedicated, idealistic, courageous—but that doesn't always add up to a likeable soul. It's the other things—his wit and compassion, his generosity and relish for life, his delight in discovery—that make him such a good companion. But part of him remains an enigma. Maybe it always will be. Maybe I like that.
He seems a little preoccupied tonight. I try to draw him out.
'Did it feel strange donning the naval uniform again? It's been quite a while, hasn't it?'
'Mmm. A little disconcerting. Like slipping back into a previous life. It's not simply the command structure, it's all of the million little rules of behaviour and habits of speech'. He shrugs. 'Perhaps I have simply become too American.'
I have to struggle to keep my smile from turning into a laugh at that one. Why, a child can spot his Slavic heritage from across the street—unless he's in disguise. That he may have some image of himself as blending in is hilarious. Touching, too, somehow.
I recover myself. 'Did you manage to see your family?'
'No, no leave this trip. Strictly official capacity. They understand.'
I nod, sympathetically. He seems to be bracing himself for something.
'Actually, Napoleon. I have something official to take care of right now.'
Ah, that explains his preoccupation. He's here on business.
'Oh? Anything I can help out with?'
He looks embarrassed. 'Not really. You are the something official.'
He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and draws out a black leather hinged case and slides it towards me across the table. It's just about the last thing I would have expected.
'But it's not my birthday,' I smile.
'Please, open it.'
I do and there, lying on a bed of black satin, is a gold medal, in the shape of a star, attached to a gold bar with a red ribbon.
He takes a deep breath. 'On behalf of the Peoples of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it is my honour and privilege to present to you the Gold Star Medal of Hero of the Soviet Union.'
Correction. This was the last thing I would ever have expected.
For a moment, I'm more than speechless, my larynx is paralysed. I look up at his flushed, expectant face, down at the medal, and back at him, dumbfounded.
His excited words spill out now, triumphant. 'You will also receive the Order of Lenin, at the Soviet Embassy. But I wanted to present this to you myself. By special permission of General Kravcek!'
He's scanning my face, hungry for a reaction. I try to make sounds.
'Illya, I...' Nothing comes.
He breaks forth exultantly. 'You are a People's Hero, Napoleon!'
'But all I did was... was my job!'
He flushes. 'I know. I mean, I know you risk your life regularly in the service of U.N.C.L.E. And I know you don't expect medals for it. But in this case, what you did was of such great benefit to the Soviet Union, it was felt appropriate to demonstrate the country's gratitude in some tangible way. You averted a disaster of national proportions and quite possibly prevented an actual war. I am sure, in the history of this honour, such an action is more than deserving.'
I can see he's moved and it's moving me.
'I really don't know what to say, Illya. Except that it's a truly remarkable honour, one I'm pleased and proud to accept.'
His eyes are glowing, ice fire, his heavily-accented words earnest and heartfelt.
'My country gives out many medals, Napoleon, for many kinds of achievement, it is true. But this really does mean something very special, I assure you. It is the highest civilian honour that can be bestowed. Only for actions of outstanding personal courage. It was authorised by the Chairman of the Central Committee himself.'
He breaks off, runs a hand distractedly through his hair. 'Oh, I know such things mean nothing to you, Napoleon. I know it's not why you do what you do. But please believe me—this...this really does carry the respect of a grateful nation.'
His nation, or him? I realise that he has come to embody his nation to me, that my interest, understanding and empathy with it have grown as I've known him. This passionate, accomplished, sensitive, very modern young man is, to me, if not the current face of the Soviet Union, then at least it's future. And however skewed that impression may be, I hope it is at least partly true.
I wonder now, with some slight misgiving, if I embody America—whatever that may mean—to him, and if so, how I'm doing. Right now I seem to be batting a thousand and that's fine by me.
I try to invest the only words I can find with all the genuine emotion I feel.
He relaxes visibly, mission accomplished. A small smile appears at last.
'You are pleased?'
A suspicion occurs to me. I raise an eyebrow at him.
'Did you have anything to do with this?'
He holds up his hand in protest. 'I swear Napoleon, I did not. This came from above. If you understood the position of a lowly naval officer, you would realise I could not influence such important matters.'
I laugh. 'Okay. Well, I don't know what my aunt's going to say.'
He laughs too, suddenly the old Illya again.
'The obligations attached to the Order of Lenin have, of course, been waived. You are not obliged to assist hereafter in the construction of Socialism.'
'Mr Waverly will be relieved. As am I.'
We finish our drinks and order two more. I tap the medal box.
'Can't we share this? You know, if it hadn't been for your research and deductions, I would never have been in the right spot. That's teamwork, Illya.'
He waves away my compliment. 'I did not know even how to begin. You made an incredible series of deductions to locate the site and were ingenious in destroying it. It was brilliant work, Napoleon.'
'Luck, my friend, that's most of it. Would that they all turned out so well.'
He tells me of Orbesk, of the huge military operation that was mounted in preparation to sweep the coastline for the missiles, of the immense relief among the naval command and the hierarchy when the 'stand down' came through. He leans forward, aglow with fervour. 'Do you truly appreciate what you have done, Napoleon? Because of you, an entire region's economy is saved from collapse. There will not be mass migrations, rioting, uprisings, famine and disease. Farmers will not have to slaughter their oxen, burn their barns to keep warm. Because of you, millions of children will not starve to death this winter.'
I'm suddenly ashamed to realize, only now, that I didn't know, not actually, not fully. It was a miasma, a plague, a theoretical evil to be avoided—the potential for political and military escalation alone providing enough motivation to destroy it. Did I really see the individual human cost of failure? The empty bowls, the empty bellies... the empty cots? I see it now, through his eyes, a continent groaning in the agony of starvation through an iron winter, a suffering needless and infinitely cruel.
I nod slowly, letting it sink in. 'Then if I never accomplish anything else in my time at U.N.C.L.E, I know it has been worthwhile.'
He leans back, regarding me, wide-eyed. 'You have saved my nation, Napoleon. This is something I will never forget.'
I'm humbled and elated at one and the same time. I suddenly can't bear the look of puppyish admiration in his eyes and at the same time I'm sure nothing else will ever make me feel quite so dizzyingly proud.
He's in love with the fact that we make a difference and I can hardly blame him. It's a seduction I succumbed to long ago. But the one thing I never bargained for was the difference it would make to me. Beyond the satisfaction of duty done, I've received some of the most incredible experiences and enriching relationships of my life. Like now. Like him.
I've always believed that man reaps as he sows. I look at us now—born opposite sides of the world, utterly different yet intrinsically the same, working for the greater good in perfect co-operation and sympathy—and I know the harvest will be a good one. That is, if, with luck and cunning, we can continue to destroy the evils madmen let loose upon the tide.
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