All the Right Notes
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise is mine. The witch is. But then I don't suppose anybody else would want to lay claim to her. Illya and Napoleon remain resolutely unpossessed by me. Which is a shame, but there you go...
Illya could hear the voices in the corridor long before he identified the speakers. As the voices came closer, he allowed a slight smile to appear, quickly quashed before the door opened.
'Pavel Nicolaievitch!' he cried happily, ignoring the puzzled look that danced briefly on the face of the man who was pushed into his cell, 'Are you not happy to see your old friend, Yuri?'
'Uh...' said the man Illya had addressed as Pavel.
'No, no, Pasha, you must not think of speaking Russian. Our hosts here don't like it. But it is good to see you.' Illya rushed in, not giving the other man a second to interrupt.
'Get on with it,' snapped one of the guards. 'Quit the chatter you two. You have two days to get up to scratch, so quit wasting time.'
'All right!' Illya's accent was thick and almost incomprehensible, 'How do you think we can work under such circumstances? The great duo of Levovitch and Galany do not practise under observation. You will leave us alone, or we will not practise and then, oh such beautiful music you will be missing out on. Artists such as ourselves are not to be pushed, Even our great Soviet masters leave us in peace to practise. They understand what it is to work to produce such art.'
'I was under the impression that your government had banned your kind of music. I thought they wouldn't let you play. That's why you're here, isn't it?'
'Our government is none of your concern. We are here at your master's request. This is all I understand. Now leave us...and before you go,' he said as the guard turned to leave, 'You will remove ridiculous camera I see up there, and also microphone hidden in piano. This is not for people such as you to listen to. Until we are ready, no-one listens to what we do.'
'I'm not removing anything.'
'Then we do not play, and is your fault. The worst they can do to us is kill us. I wonder what is worst they can do to you?'
They guard looked extremely uncomfortable and left the cell abruptly. Illya watched him leave anxiously, shaking his head slightly when his companion made to speak. In a minute or two, the guard returned, looking sullen. He went to the camera and disconnected it, then to the microphone. He turned to leave again. Illya coughed,
'And?' The guard turned and shrugged. Illya beetled his brows at him. The guard sighed and went to the other corner, sliding back a grating and removing the little device hidden there. Illya smiled a very false smile and nodded,
'You speak English or you lose this privilege,' said the guard.
'Da,' replied Illya with a flash of wicked eyes. The guard harrumphed and left.
Illya waited for a minute or two, then relaxed.
'Okay?' he asked, his accent lightening a little.
'Ach, I needed something I could remember easily.'
'So I end up with your patronymic? I'm honoured. But Pavel?
'Well, it's got the same diminutive I...would use for you, so if I slip up it's easy.'
'Ah...Yuri, you never slip up.' Illya looked back at him steadily.
'This one isn't so easy Napoleon.'
'Yes, yes,' Illya said with a wave of his hand. 'There's no surveillance left in here. I know. I did a sweep earlier. I just wasn't sure where that third one was. We're fairly safe, but we do have to do as they asked.'
'Yes, I was, ah, going to ask you about that. What were you talking about, practise?'
'The piano, Napoleon. You are now one half of the talented duo of Russian pianists, Levovitch and Galany.'
'Who I sincerely hope don't actually exist.'
'No. I have no wish to be hunted down by outraged fans. These little birds have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to music, which is just as well. My piano playing is distinctly rusty, I don't know about yours?'
'Mine...?' Napoleon spluttered, 'Illy-uri, I have never played the piano in my life.'
'Well, in that case, you have a very intensive couple of days coming up.'
'I said you could play. That was all. Tomorrow night, we are to perform as the entertainment at a top-level dinner. It's the only way I could find to get into the dining room and stay there throughout the meal. Since you were so eager to join me, I had to make it a duet. I rather got the idea that any agent I attempted to introduce into the situation would either be kicked straight back out, or disposed of in some other way, which would not be good for your health. So now... now they've decided our duetting is a condition of our remaining here in relative comfort.'
'Comfort?' Napoleon laughed humourlessly, gesturing around at the stone walls and bare wooden bunks. Illya gave a facial shrug.
'I did say relative. Oh, come on Pavel, we've both been treated to far worse than this. I was quite enjoying it. Life's been rather hectic lately, what with chasing those wretched gun-runners across the mountains, and your stint in the sewers... I thought this was rather civilized.' He grinned and Napoleon's face lit up in an answering smile. His smile soon faded, however, as he remembered what Illya had promised their captors.
'Illya, my piano playing is limited to eight bars of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and two variants of 'Chopsticks', each as annoying as the other. What do you expect me to do? Charm them with the next two pages of 'A Tune a Day'? Because that's all we've got time for.'
'I told them you were a little rusty and persuaded them to let us practise.
'Illya, they'll never believe that I am some sort of international concert pianist.'
'They don't need to. I didn't promote us as material fit for the Bolshoi. We are touring players with a great belief in our own ability. All you need to play is the left hand part. It will be easy and repetitive. I can even whisper the notes at you as we go along. There is no choice, Pavel.'
'Okay, I hear you.'
'Oh, and you've been living in the States recently, which is why you've lost your accent. It is also why we have been apart for a long time and therefore require a lot of practising time together, which we are wasting. Come on.' He pointed to the piano. Napoleon rolled his eyes and Illya frowned.
'Pasha, if you do not do this as well as I know you can, you will be leaving in a bag. Don't forget it.' Napoleon nodded and made his way to the piano. He sat on the long stool. Illya came up to him and gestured,
'Move along, you're playing bass notes. Here, start with scales, get your fingers used to moving properly. He looked at Napoleon. 'For goodness' sakes Pasha, sit up straight and move forward on the stool, it's not an armchair. You should be perching, it gives you more freedom of movement.'
'Okay, okay. If you're going to fuss, this is going to be hell, Yuri. Uh, why Yuri?'
'An uncle of mine.'
'Oh. Nice man?'
'I hated him. He's memorable. But I've got to fuss. You've got to look like you can play. The rest of it is easy.'
'Huh!' said Napoleon, disbelievingly.
'No, really. Put your thumb on C. That's the one before the two black notes together. No, not middle C, you're too far across. I'll take everything from there up. You get the bass notes. I'm going to teach you about six different things to do with your hands that should see us through the evening.'
Napoleon shot a sideways glance at him.
'Okay. Go ahead. You're onto a loser, but I'll do my best.'
'Yes, you will,' replied Illya menacingly. Napoleon put his right thumb on the 'C' in front of him. Illya nodded.
'Now, your second finger on D, that's the next white note along, third on E, fourth on...'
'I get it!' said Napoleon, placing his fingers as instructed. Illya raised an eyebrow.
'Peg fingers!' he teased.
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'It means you've got wooden fingers. They bend in the middle you know?'
'Right. Am I going to have to put up with this level of sarcasm for the entire two days?'
Illya sighed slightly ruefully and shook his head. 'No. Come on. Just relax a bit. Curve your fingers. Look.' He showed Napoleon the curve of his own fingers. Napoleon copied him, the tips of his fingers resting on the five keys he had been shown. 'Now play those notes in turn, one two three four five.' He watched Napoleon depress the keys, as instructed, and noticed the slight change in posture, a shift in attitude that told him Napoleon had switched on his training brain. Hopefully, thought Illya, the facility for speedy learning that Napoleon shared with most other field agents would be evident here. Otherwise it was going to be a very long two days.
'How was that?' Napoleon asked, no longer railing against Illya's nitpicking, but ready and anxious to learn.
'Not bad. No feeling though.'
'Five notes, Yuri. How can you get feeling into five notes?' Illya dragged his hair back off his forehead and placed his own right hand on the keys. He took a moment to think. It had been a long time since he had last had the chance to just sit at a piano and play. The last time he had dared to step up to the piano in a dark jazz club where nobody would ask questions was a misty memory. Even without that though, the teaching methods of Yekaterina Ivanovna were not easily forgotten. He could still hear her words, screeching in his ears as his young fingers struggled to cover the distances she demanded on the keys, to make the fine distinctions of tone, to achieve the reckless speeds necessary to fit the fastest trills, the most complicated ornamentation, into the time signature. He had never been good enough. Not for her, not for the schools that might have altered his destiny. Had he only been better.
Not that he would give this up for all the world, he thought as he played the five notes in turn, glancing to the side as his fifth finger slowly depressed the last key, seeing Napoleon's head cocked to one side, listening, nodding slightly in understanding that yes, five notes could be played with depth and meaning.
'You see?' he asked unnecessarily.
'I see. How d'you do that?' Illya played his version again. Napoleon watched and copied, but his notes sounded staccato and childish after the ringing, quivering tones of Illya's playing. Illya considered it and played the phrase softly to himself again. What was it that made the notes sound so good? His memory provided an image. Himself on the floor, rolling under the piano stool to hide from his teacher's quick hand. 'Foolish boy! Dolt! Is there for you only up or down? Where is the inbetween? Where is the nuance? You think these strings only know how to play when they are struck like any lazy ass? Find the place where first you can hear their sound. Learn to listen. Learn to feel. Idiot.'
'It's... you need to feel when the note starts to play. They don't just play when you hit them hard like that. They play when you hardly do anything at all. It's all about how hard you play and how fast you strike the notes. Try just playing one note, so softly you don't think it will play at all.' Napoleon nodded and tried. Not a sound left the instrument. He frowned and tried again. Still nothing. He hit it harder. The piano gave out a blunt, shapeless note. He sighed.
'I don't know how.' Illya hitched an encouraging little half-smile onto his face and nodded at the piano.
'Well, this isn't the greatest instrument. It lacks sensitivity. If you had done that on a Steinway, you would have got something. All pianos have their own limits. Here. Let me try with you. May I?' He got up to stand behind Napoleon, hovering his hand over the back of Napoleon's, hardly daring to believe that Napoleon would let him coddle him like this. Napoleon nodded and Illya brought his own fingers down to lie on top of the corresponding fingers of Napoleon's hand. He felt the ghostly touch of ancient, bony fingers pressing down on his own, scratching his young skin with broken splinters of fingernail when, together, they put light pressure on the note, then grinding his fingers hard against grubby ivory as the key bottomed out. A lesson against being so hopeless next time. His nostrils seemed to fill with the scent of unwashed old woman and the effects of gallons of shchi. He leaned forward to replace the phantom scent with the more pleasant, familiar smell of Napoleon. To be honest, even that was a little tainted today; the four days they had been on this job had not been good for either of their personal hygiene routines, but it was familiar nonetheless, from countless previous missions, and Illya inhaled deeply as he pushed down slowly with his thumb, waiting to feel the key's resistance transmitted through the flesh and bone beneath his own.
A soft note drifted out from under the piano's raised lid and Napoleon turned his head to grin at Illya, who grinned back, letting that smile warm the icy places inside him. He continued to press down, sustaining the note without the pedal, hearing it die away.
'So, you see? We'll try the next one a little harder, notice the difference.' Napoleon turned back to watch their fingers. Illya rested his left hand on Napoleon's back, improving his balance so that he could play more effectively. This time he knew when the moment should come, and he pushed on past it, feeling the note bloom, that little bit louder, enough to echo slightly off the nearest wall.
'Understand?' He did not wait for an answer, but brought their third fingers down on E, feeling the vibration of the louder note race minutely up his arm.
On the fourth note, he could feel Napoleon's little twitch of recognition at the moment the key took, and the slight pulling away that suggested his pupil was trying to go a tiny bit faster than his teacher. 'No! You do as I say. No faster, no slower. Just this speed. You think your orchestra conductor will think you know better than him how fast you should go? Slower. Each note is a thing of cut diamond. One tiny flaw and it is worthless.' He felt the stinging blow across his ear and struggled not to jerk his head to the side.
'Now the last note, but we are playing this the loudest, so you must be careful not to let it sound rushed. Just push further at first, then hold it, not all the way down, just... Ah, I don't know. You learn with practice, you can feel it. It's hard when you're just beginning.' He pressed down on the nail of Napoleon's smallest finger and felt the sweep through the first fractions of a note. Then the resounding swell of the G rolled around the cell and died away, leaving them pressed together at shoulder and fingertips, staring at their hands.
They waited in the silence, Illya trying to work out how to proceed, when Napoleon spoke,
'Shall I try it on my own now?' Illya pushed away from him and swung his legs back over the stool to sit next to him. He nodded.
'Yes. Try it. Try it in a different order though. See if you can make the quieter notes in between the louder ones.'
He watched as Napoleon repositioned his fingers on the keys, and pressed his thumb down.
The note was still a little rough, still a little uncertain, but the improvement was impressive. Illya nodded, not daring to speak in case he broke Napoleon's concentration.
The second note was softer, more rounded, and Illya smiled. The third note was a failure. No sound whatsoever came from the still strings. Napoleon shuffled on the seat and tutted. He tried again. This time a faint note, a sigh of broken song, danced across their ears, and Napoleon gave a curt nod of satisfaction.
The fourth note was louder again, but better than the first. Illya heard it grow, bloom and die in the few seconds of its existence. He clenched his fists in his lap, willing Napoleon to succeed with the final note.
The fifth note was a kiss. A soft, sweet note that obviously delighted the learner. He took his fingers off the keys and looked to Illya.
'Much,' replied Illya, shaking himself. They had too much to do to allow themselves to get carried away by a simple, single note. 'What about your left hand?'
'My left hand?' He tried it. The results were not quite as good, but passable, nevertheless. He repeated the exercise a few times, learning different ways to play the notes, new ways of holding back, ways of rolling his fingers that created a slightly different sound. Illya listened and waited until he was sure Napoleon was comfortable before continuing.
'That's enough. We must move on. As I said, scales.'
'Why? I'm not going to sit there and entertain the world's most evil men with a load of grade-exercises.'
Illya pointed an accusatory finger at him,
'Pavel Nikolaievitch! You will never learn to move your fingers correctly if you do not play your scales.'
'Illya Nikolaievitch! You will never learn to move your fingers correctly if you do not play your scales. Now play! Starting on D. One two three, one two three four, one two three, one two three four five. And back down. Play! Poor! Now starting on F. Up and...How is it that your right-hand little finger has ended up on F? Have you learned nothing? Always, in F, and F alone, your fourth finger finishes it. Again! Again! Again!' For hour, after hour, after hour...
Napoleon broke into Illya's train of thought.
'Hang on, I'm meant to be your partner here and I don't even know your patronymic. That's not going to look good. What is it?' He raised a questioning eyebrow and Illya hesitated before revealing what he had given their captors as the centre-piece of his full name.
'Aleksandrovitch,' he said.
'After the old man?' asked Napoleon. Illya nodded, faintly embarrassed to have been caught in what might be taken as mild hero-worship. 'Good choice,' said Napoleon softly. Illya coughed to cover his discomfiture.
'Scales,' he repeated.
'Scales,' agreed Napoleon.
'Right hand first. Thumb on C. Two octaves; one's not worth the effort. Or the time.' Napoleon did as he was told, placing his thumb on C. Illya rubbed at his nose and muttered, 'I think I can get away with us playing most things in C. If we vary the tempo and the style enough.' He put his on thumb on middle C. 'Copy me. There are rules for how you do this.' He played the sequence slowly, waiting for Napoleon to copy him. The first three notes were fine, but as he brought his thumb under his other fingers to play the fourth note, he watched Napoleon's playing descend into chaos. He stopped.
'It's called ''turning the thumb under'', Napoleon. It's not that difficult. You just swing your thumb across your palm, like this.' He demonstrated, holding his hand up in front of Napoleon's face, waving his thumb back and forth like a windscreen wiper on high speed. Napoleon looked slightly bemused, but brought his own hand up to copy. Illya threw up his hands in pleasure,
'You see? Easy!'
'So easy! A child half your age could do it better. Are you deformed? Does your thumb not move as it should? No? So move it! See, like this'"' Grabbing his thumb, digging her stick-like fingers into the fleshy pad at its base, twisting the joint until he thought the digit would break off. Replacing his hands on the keys and watching him turn the thumb under to the second key along, then the third, then the fourth, then all the way past his little finger, leaving his whole hand aching and swollen with the unaccustomed actions and the bruising from her prodding and manipulating.
'Now try it on the keys.'
Napoleon played the first three, then his face screwed up in concentration as he carefully turned his thumb under to play the fourth note.
'Don't twist your hand so much. It should be level. You're meant to be able to balance coins on the back of your hand, play a scale and not have them fall off.' 'That's twenty kopeks resting on your hand. That's more than this miserable job of teaching you will bring me today. You drop that into the keyboard where I cannot get it and you will regret it. Now play.' 'Sorry, I don't have any coins with me, but you understand what I mean?'
'I think so.' Napoleon tried again, making an effort to keep his palm horizontal, only moving his fingers. Illya nodded,
'Yes, like that, but don't let it make you stiffen up.' Napoleon shot him a glance, but Illya merely pointed to his own hand and demonstrated the rest of the scale.
A couple more demonstrations, and Napoleon was ready to add his left hand. He watched as Illya showed him the fingering sequence and screwed up his face in disbelief.
'How the hell do you do that?'
'You're doing two completely different things with your hands!' Illya looked at his hands, puzzled. 'No. They're both going in the same direction.' He frowned. Napoleon grasped at the air, trying to articulate the problem,
'But your fingers are doing...' He gave up. 'Okay. Show me again.' Illya showed him, realising as he did so that actually, turning the thumb under on one hand while the other hand was still merrily continuing with simple finger progression, and then bringing the fingers of the left hand over the thumb instead of vice versa this many times in succession with alternate hands was not as simple as it seemed to him now.
'And why is your left hand moving there? Have you lost your first and second fingers on that hand? No. Imbecile. You play up to your thumb, then bring across your third finger. Ignore your right hand. It should know what it is doing by now, unless you are more stupid even than I thought. Again. Play!'
'You might be able to ignore your right hand, Pasha.' He felt a little jolt of pleasure at the freedom to speak the friendly diminutive he so often longed to use. 'It's amazing how quickly it learns the sequence and it sort of does it by itself. Try it. Concentrate on your left hand and see whether your right hand does the correct thing.' Napoleon looked doubtful, but he tried and on the way up the scale, his right hand did indeed look after itself. Illya blessed U.N.C.L.E.'s programme of continuous training, which seemed to work in keeping their brains receptive to new ideas and skills as they got older.
Napoleon flexed his fingers and Illya grimaced as they clicked slightly.
'Cold?' he asked.
'My fingers are,' replied Napoleon ruefully.
'Try the scale faster. It'll warm them up,' said Illya, huffing on his own fingers, which had started to cool down as well. He watched Napoleon practising the scale until it was nearly perfect. Then he stopped him.
'Um...broken chords?' He demonstrated, fingers flicking up and down lightly over the keys. Napoleon groaned,
'Slow down.' Illya rested his hands on the keys and took a breath.
'They improve your sense of where the notes are under your fingers and get your hands to move more smoothly over greater distances. They're important.'
'I'm sure, but can we do them more slowly?' Illya nodded, trying not to smile too much. The temptation to grin like an idiot at the whole situation was making it hard to focus.
'Of course.' He waggled his head from side to side. 'At first,' he added. 'They also improve your stretch, so slow is good to start with. Thumb on-'
'C, I know,' Napoleon interrupted. Illya let it go.
'Second finger on E, third on G...actually, how is your span?'
'With your thumb pressed down on C, what's the highest note you can reach with your little finger? Can you reach the next C?' Napoleon's large hands made the octave easy. He stretched his little finger further and covered three notes over the octave. Illya grinned,
'Well, at least we don't have to worry about that, Span-length is clearly not a problem for you. Although...'
'If you had had my teacher, she would have said it was not enough.'
It was never enough. 'What is this? An octave? What good is that to you when you are trying to play complex pieces? Stretch your fingers. You are not trying. You are not making any effort.' Tears tumbling down his cheeks as she yanked at his little finger, dragging it away from his other fingers until the tiny web of skin at the base of the finger, dried out by the cold of the Soviet winter, split and started to ooze blood. His thumb clawing at the side of the note next to the one it held down, willing it not to slip, because that would infuriate her. Crying, not for the physical pain, which he was able to endure well enough, but for the accusation of laziness, because he was trying, trying so hard to get it right, to stretch to that extra note, but his six year-old fingers were simply too small to reach.
'Illya?' He jerked back to the present, rubbing unconsciously at the knuckles of his fourth and fifth fingers.
'Yuri,' he corrected, wondering why Napoleon had forgotten. It was unlike him to drop out of an identity.
'I called you that. You didn't respond.' Illya swallowed, letting the memory recede. Suddenly feeling very daring, he reached across and took hold of Napoleon's little finger between his thumb and second and third fingers. He pulled it across, pushing it gently down on the G.
'Ow!' said Napoleon softly, but he was smiling.
'Baby,' Illya retorted, 'You could have stretched to that yourself.'
'Did I need to?' asked Napoleon. Illya shrugged. Napoleon nodded slowly. 'You just...' he shook his head and played the notes, C and G. G and C. He tried the arpeggio. Illya nodded, frowning slightly at the unfinished sentence.
'Faster! What point is there in playing at this speed? Agility! Speed! Accuracy! Any fool can be accurate playing largo. I shall clap, one, two; see? Now fit into that time your arpeggio, up and down. One, two. Play!'
'It's to improve your accuracy. You have to try it faster or there's little point in doing it at all.'
Napoleon took a deep breath and let it out again between close lips. He tried it faster, missing the C as he tried to hop to the next octave.
'Again! Cretin! What is so difficult?Here, here is where your thumb goes. You do not practise enough. If you practised you would not fail.' Biting his cheek to stop from crying as she slammed his thumb down on the key, because he did practise, every day, an hour on the out-of-tune piano, left over in the shared apartment by the amateur pianist who had lived alone in those five rooms in more decadent days. An hour a day with Vladimir Alekseivich banging on the wall of his room, yelling at him to shut up, an hour of Olga Pyotrevna sitting in the corner with her sewing, swaying back and forth to his hesitant playing, waiting at the apex of every sway until he was ready to start the next bar. An hour of his mother hovering between overseeing him, checking he was doing everything he should, and trying to cook on the temperamental stove, promising a little food if only he kept playing for the full hour.
'Don't worry about it, you'll get it eventually. Then I'll show you the first phrase to learn.'
Napoleon's shoulders relaxed slightly, releasing his own irritation at not getting it first time. He tried again. Illya watched, holding his breath without realising. Releasing it as Napoleon's thumb hit C, dead centre. He watched as he tried with his left hand, struggled to play both hands together, stopped when it went wrong, tried again, played over and over, faster and faster, until it was perfect.
'Show off,' muttered Illya softly. Napoleon raised an eyebrow at him.
'So, can I learn something we can actually use now?'
'Yes, but I don't want to rush too much. You've been going for two and a half hours. If you were anybody else I'd be amazed at how much you've achieved.'
'Oh, so you're not impressed?' Napoleon grinned. Illya recognised the tease for what it was, and repaid it in kind.
'Not in the slightest. You should be thankful I'm not teaching you at headquarters, or I'd have expected you to take your grade one at this point after a comment like that.' Napoleon reached out a hand and squeezed Illya's knee.
'You're a good teacher, Yuri Aleksandrovich.'
'I'm what, Illya Nicolaievich? How dare you presume to say such a thing? How can you know whether I am good or bad at your age? Of course I am good. What? Do you think I might have doubts of my own ability, that you should try to appease me like this? I suppose your mother told you to say that did she?' Nodding miserably, not knowing what was wrong with what he had said, not wanting to get his mother into trouble. 'Bah! It would take more than a good teacher to turn you into a good pianist. Now I want silence from you. Play for me the first twelve bars of your exercise, and you will play it well or I will leave and your chance will be gone.' She never did go, of course, and he was never sure whether to be grateful for this or not.
'And you are a master crawler. Get your hand off my leg and back on the keys where it belongs.' He took a sharp breath, not entirely certain that was something he had wanted to say out loud. Napoleon's eyes narrowed slightly and his lips twitched, making the dimple in his chin dance with shadows. He returned his hand to the keyboard and waited.
Illya thought for a moment, considering the first piece he wanted to play. The guard had been right. Back home he could never have considered playing this kind of music in public, nor even in his own home. Who knew what the others in the apartment would pass on? His mother heard him once, the slightest syncopation in his playing, a chord fleshed out with tensions that gave it that certain sound. 'No! Illyusha, you must not. They will come and take you away from me. Only play what Yekaterina Ivanovna teaches you. Please Illyusha.' 'Yes Mami, whatever you say. I will be obedient.'
He swallowed. 'This is...simple, but it sounds complicated. They won't know the difference.' He put his little finger on C, his second on G and his thumb on A. 'Like this.' He played the notes. The blues rhythm started his left foot tapping and he pressed his heel down, stopping himself. He chewed on the inside of his lip, feeling the old desire just to keep playing, to follow the simple chord progressions, making them more and more complex until he was lost in the midst of a rainstorm of loosely associated notes, the banned notes, the rhythms that could literally make you disappear.
He turned to Napoleon, to show him. Napoleon was watching him shrewdly.
'I thought you weren't allowed to play that sort of stuff back home?'
'No,' agreed Illya. Napoleon nodded, then placed his little finger on C, his second on G and his thumb on A. Illya nodded, 'Do it with both hands.'
'Use you right hand as well. Thumb on C, fourth on G, fifth on A. Do exactly the same with both hands. It's boring, but I don't think even our combined...even we can get you playing full blues phrases with both hands in just two days.'
Napoleon tried the notes as Illya had played them. C, G, A, G; C, G, A, G... Illya shook his head,
My teacher would have been proud of you.
Not of me. 'Illya Nicolaievich, where are these lost half-beats coming from? Play on the beat. On the beat, always on the beat. Dah, dah, dah, dah. I can...oh yes, little Illka, I can tell someone that you try to play this way, that you play this music when you think I am not listening, and they will come and take you away.' Eyes wide with terror. No, no, Yekaterina Ivanovna, I will play just the way you tell me. I will not let this rhythm that flows through me like the blood in my veins rise to the surface. I will crush it. Whatever I am doing wrong, I will not do any more.
'What do you mean?'
'It was excellent. If you were playing a Mozart Sonata.'
'Listen to me again.' He played the notes, playing the second note before his foot tapped out the second count of the bar, syncopating the phrase, fighting the desire to add in a few notes with his right hand. 'Do you hear? The notes should be off the beat.'
Napoleon still looked confused, but nodded and tried again. Illya shook his head,
'Pasha, if your sense of rhythm is as bad as this in the bedroom, I don't know how you got your reputation.' Napoleon's eyes widened and Illya returned his gaze steadily. 'Syncopate. Feel the beat and listen to what you're playing. I will clap it for you.' He did so, but Napoleon's notes still fell in the wrong places, sounding flat and uninteresting. Illya started to look concerned,
'Pasha, stop it. I know you can do this.' Napoleon suddenly looked very tired. Illya looked at the clock, high up on the wall. Three hours. Three hours of intensive playing. No wonder Napoleon was starting to flag, the concentration required...
'Three hours, that is all. If you ever shock me and make it into the school, they will make you play eight hours at a time. What will you think then of your stupid hour-long lessons? Three hours today so that you are ready when you go to be examined tomorrow. You will not be ready. You will not get in, no matter what, but I will try to see that you do not disgrace me. You will though. So now we practise for another hour. Stop snivelling and play.' But I am so tired. My fingers ache and my brain hurts and is full of dust and wind. Please. If I could rest, or eat something. I am so hungry. We had no food this morning and Anna Ilinichna stole my soup at lunchtime, but I cannot tell Mami, because she told me I would get into trouble. 'Stop your drivel. It has nothing to do with the piano. Play.'
'Let's stop for a while. You're getting tired.' Illya started to get up, but Napoleon grabbed his wrist, stopping him.
He felt her strong fingers close around his arm, digging in; the queasy feel of her paper-skin on the rose-petal softness of his own wrist. She dragged him back down onto the stool. 'I said you will stay for another hour. Sit still and play, ungrateful brat.' He cried out with tiredness.
'Yuri?' Illya inhaled sharply, shocked at the faint cry that had escaped his own mouth.
'Sorry. Cramp in my leg,' he lied. Napoleon's grip was gentle and undemanding, and his fingertips brushed softly across the smooth skin on the inside of Illya's wrist a couple of times before he let go, putting his hands back on the keys, ready to play.
'I need to get this, then we can stop for a while. We don't have long.'
'There's no point pushing it. It doesn't work.' 'This is no better than the last time. What's the matter with you, idiot? You play to get better, not to stay at the same level. Again!'
'I'm okay. Teach me how to do this. Once I've got it, I'll be fine. I can hear it, I just can't get my fingers to do it yet.'
Illya leant his elbow on the sharp corner of the hard wood in front of the keys, chin on his hand and looked at Napoleon. Then he sighed, sat up and nodded.
'Okay. Try it again. Listen and just...just let your fingers relax. You're making a meal of it, don't force them down, just let them play naturally.'
Napoleon tried again. The notes no longer fell right on the beat, but the timing was wrong and Illya cringed. Napoleon felt the movement and suddenly Illya felt an arm snake around his shoulders, imparting a brief squeeze before retreating again.
'Sorry. I know it's bad. I will get it.'
Illya sat very still. Napoleon had put an arm around him. He was teaching him to play the piano, and out of nowhere, he had given him that unmistakable sign of friendship and tolerance.
'They will not tolerate this sloppiness at the school. You will fail tomorrow. You will enter that room and they will hear you and they will tell you you are not good enough.'
'Perhaps if you play with me, like you did for those first notes?' Napoleon threw a questioning glance in Illya's direction. Illya's mind started to wander again, but he nodded and shuffled closer to Napoleon.
He laid his fingers over the back of Napoleon's hand, shifting his fingers until they fitted comfortably, joints overlying joints so that their knuckles could move in unison. His hands looked terribly pale against the darker hue of Napoleon's skin, and he rocked them slightly, wondering why he had never been so captivated by the difference before, and noticing that despite their differing physiques, their hands were roughly the same size. He rested the pads of his fingers on Napoleon's beautifully manicured nails, feeling only one that had suffered during this mission '" a chip out of the tip of the nail on his middle finger. He ran his own finger lightly over it and Napoleon grimaced,
'Don't fiddle with it, you'll only make it worse. Somehow I neglected to bring any nail clippers with me. You don't happen to have any stashed in here do you?' Illya shook his head,
'Concentrate,' he said, trying to ignore the fact that his own concentration had gone out of the non-existent window. He glanced at the clock: midnight. They really ought to get some sleep, but Napoleon was right, they needed to get something under their belts before they went to bed, or they wouldn't have time the next day.
'You will fail tomorrow. You will enter that room and they will hear you and they will tell you you are not good enough.'
'One, two, three, four,' he counted them in, then began to play, pushing down on Napoleon's fingers, feeling the slight give of the skin, repeating over and over, the same phrase, drumming it into his partner until it could not have failed to sink in.
Gradually he reduced the pressure of his fingers, letting Napoleon do the work, until he was doing nothing but rest his fingers lightly on the back of Napoleon's. He allowed himself to enjoy the sensation now that he no longer needed to focus his attention on the notes. Placing his right hand on Napoleon's had brought him so close to him that much of his weight was resting on Napoleon's side, their arms brushing together from elbow to fingertips, warm and friendly, and making him tingle head to foot with pleasure. He wondered idly whether the sensation was the same for Napoleon, or whether, for him, it was more the way it had once been for Illya.
That smell, the smell that would haunt him forever: shchi and the faint tang of urine. The smell of the stairwells, intensified in the old woman pushed hard against his side and back, watching him, prodding his fingers into place, pinching his side when he got it wrong. Yanking his hair, his beautiful, soft, little boy's hair when she thought he was not concentrating. 'You are so vain with this hair, but it will pass. You will become a man and this hair will turn dull brown and coarse. If you were so vain about your playing, you might stand a chance at least of keeping that.' Illya felt Napoleon's gaze on him, his eyes flicking up to look at Illya's hair. He always watched his hair like that. Whatever Napoleon's feelings about him, Illya knew he loved his hair. At least he was right to be vain about it in that respect: it gave pleasure to at least one person. Her bony elbows digging into his as she positioned his fingers; her sharp ribs jabbing into his back, bruising the muscles between his ribs; her soft, formless breasts, bags of heavy flour swinging in their loose casing of rough cotton fabric, resting on his shoulder, pendulous against his neck. Knowing by rote that it was wicked to think about them, but not knowing why anyone would want to think about anything so unpleasant. Her harsh voice battering his eardrums. 'Play! Again! Again!'
Illya pushed away from Napoleon to sit up properly. He rubbed his knuckles in one of his tired eyes. It made him feel like a little boy. He opened his eyes to see Napoleon looking at him with an expression that was half amusement, half concern.
'Yuri, you, my friend, are too tired. Let's call it a day. I've got that now. I guess that will make it easier tomorrow.' Illya nodded and rose to his feet, yawning.
'I'm just going to see if we can get a bit more heat. Care to join me in a little anarchy?'
'Never let it be said I failed to cause anarchy within a Thrush building. What sort of anarchy were you considering?'
'Oh, nothing very interesting. Just enough noise to get the guards back here. You have to yell like crazy to get them to pay attention.'
Napoleon's expression changed to a satisfied grin and he stood up, brushing down his travel-soiled trousers and stretching, flexing his aching fingers. Together they walked to the door, then, on the signal of Illya's raised eyebrow, they began to shout and bang on the door for all they were worth.
It took a good five minutes before the guards obviously became bored of the unceasing noise and they heard the sound of heavy boots clumping down the corridor. The flap over the window in the door was pulled back and they were facing with a grim looking thug of the usual Thrush type, a different man to the one who had shown Napoleon in earlier.
'What do you want?' he asked nastily. Illya's accent returned full strength as he replied,
'Want? Deserve, need, merit, you mean. Is freezing in here. How do you expect us to play in such cold?'
'Huh! From what I heard, you can't play for toffee. I heard rubbish. You'd better be better than that tomorrow or you'll be strung up.'
Illya appeared to fly into a rage. Red and spluttering he answered between shallow, angry breaths, 'I have for that two answers. First, you clearly do not know how great music is made, how it is built. Second, you cannot...no, you...ach, how is it said? Pavel? Vi ne dolzhni slushat...'
Napoleon's eyes widened and Illya wondered just how much of his basic diplomatic Russian Napoleon could recall.
'He says you should not be listening,' translated Napoleon, allowing the faintest of Russian accents to colour his speech.
'Yes, that's it.' Illya jabbed his finger through the bars at the guard. 'You have locked us up when we are guests who deserve a proper room, and I have told you not to listen to what we do, is not for your ears, but you do, and also we are left cold and hungry. What way is this to treat great musicians?'
The guard rolled his eyes and slammed the flap down. Illya and Napoleon at once started up their banging and shouting again.
The guard was gone for about ten minutes. When he returned, he opened the door, waving a gun at them as he did so, barking at them to step to the far side of the room and not think of escaping.
'Well, that's put any ideas of escape out of my head,' Napoleon whispered in Illya's ear. Illya had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He still had some anger to vent.
'And the cold? Is enough to make our fingers drop to the floor.'
'The heating plant runs in the morning only. You'll get heat then, just like everyone else. You've got blankets. Use them.' The guard put down a tray of food, then left, slamming the door behind him. They waited until he was well out of the way before they started to speak again, keeping their voices lower, just in case.
'Why the drop into Russian?' asked Napoleon.
'The angrier I get, the harder it is to remember English,' replied Illya. Napoleon snorted in disbelief.
'What rubbish. You forget your English? I'm more likely to...'
'There are some constructions I had problems with when I was younger. It helps to remind them that I'm not word-perfect in English. They might let something slip, you never know.'
'Smart Russian,' muttered Napoleon. 'What's the food like here?'
'I don't know. They were extremely unresponsive yesterday. I think they were more concerned about getting you in here.' Napoleon looked at Illya with mock-shock,
'You must be starving to death,' he gasped. Illya swatted his arm lightly.
'Don't joke Napoleon, I'm too hungry to play that game.' He pulled the cover off the tray and sniffed. 'Smells okay. Here.' He passed a plate to Napoleon and took the other for himself, grabbing a piece of bread and stuffing it into his mouth, before helping himself to the unidentifiable stew in the bowl next to the bread. Napoleon waited for him to finish dishing up before he took the spoon and started to fill his own plate.
Contrary to expectations, there was plenty of food, although that didn't stop Illya from finishing the lot. They returned the plates and the cover to the tray and Illya glanced at the piano. Napoleon shook his head.
'I'm too tired, and you certainly are. Which bunk do you want?'
'I wouldn't recommend either of them.' Napoleon raised an eyebrow.
'I tried them both last night, and halfway through, I decided the floor would be much more comfortable, and I was right.' Napoleon walked over to the nearest bunk and lay down on top of the blanket, looking contemplative. He nodded slowly,
'Yup. I think you might be right. Feels like Thrush is making its mattresses from nuts and bolts this year.' Illya grinned and grabbed the blanket and pillow from the other bunk.
'Come and keep me warm,' he said. Napoleon swung his legs off the bunk and pulled the bedding after him.
'Uh uh. You can keep me warm. You're built for the cold.' He squatted down next to Illya, laying the blanket on the floor and his pillow at the top of it. They lay down next to each other on it, and Illya spread the second blanket over them. They automatically wriggled closer, tucking the blanket around themselves to keep out the draught. Napoleon blew a few strands of Illya's hair out of his way.
'Night, Teach,' he muttered, rolling his head down into the pillow, out of the way of the persistent tickle of Illya's hair. Illya laughed softly, wishing it were as simple as Napoleon made it sound. And tomorrow they would have to do it again.
'Again! Again! He groaned as the voice repeated in his head. Napoleon tutted and threw an arm over him in the old signal he often used: ''Tell me what's wrong, or shut up so I can sleep.'' Illya concentrated on the arm pinning him to the hard floor, and wondered what it would be like never to have to get out from under that familiar weight. Deciding it would be a welcome relief, he allowed himself to slide into sleep.
Illya woke to find the lights blazing as brightly as ever, and he shielded his sleep-sensitive eyes. Napoleon was already up, pacing about, which must have been what had woken him. His internal alarm had not yet gone off, and he squinted at the clock. 'Whassa time?' he asked croakily.
'Five-thirty, comrade,' said Napoleon warningly. Illya frowned and rubbed at his eyes. Napoleon hurried over to him and crouched next to him. He gestured for him to sit up and took hold of his face between his hands, pulling him close and pretending to kiss him heartily on both cheeks while whispering rapidly in his ears.
'They've been in while we slept. The bugs are back.' Illya nodded fractionally.
'What's for uh, ..what's the word? For, oh, zavtr- for breakfast?' he asked loudly. Napoleon winked at him, keeping his head bowed so that his actions would not be picked up by any camera.
'Don't know. Shall we ask?' He held out a hand and hauled Illya to his feet. They went to the door and recommenced their yelling and banging.
This time it took almost half an hour to rouse the guard. He threw back the shutter on the door and growled at them,
'What the hell do you want?'
'Breakfast, if you please,' said Napoleon cheerfully. 'We want to get on,' he continued, trying to lay on the Russian accent a little thicker, 'and you can't play good music on an empty stomach'
'Don't you people need to sleep?' asked the guard nastily. Napoleon shrugged and Illya thrust his hand through the bars, grabbing at the guard's uniform. He stepped back angrily. Illya shook his fist at him.
'Is important to have time for practising. I am hungry. Bring me food, or we do not play tonight.'
The guard left, grumbling to himself. Illya ran his hands through his hair, smoothing it back into place. Bits of it still stuck up at odd angles '" it really needed a good wash. Napoleon raised his eyes to his own hair and sighed. Even without a mirror he knew it was not going to look its usual, well-groomed self.
'You think they'll let us have a wash before our big debut?'
'They will if they don't want our smell interfering with their dinner,' replied Illya, directing his remark at the new camera he had just spotted in the corner. 'I presume they are also going to give us fresh clothes. They are also going to remove these seven new devices they have planted in here. I have stated so many times, this practising time is not for just anyone to hear. They will be taken away or we will not play tonight. It is idiocy to think we would not notice such obvious interference.' Napoleon raised his eyebrows and Illya twitched a grin at him, nodding slightly towards the secret pouch inside his waistband, which had vibrated against his hip as he made a circuit of the cell, the bug-detector concealed inside going off each time he passed one of the hidden cameras and microphones.
The guard returned with another tray of food, placed it on the floor and stumped around the cell removing the devices with an ill-natured reluctance. Illya counted them out, and followed the guard around the cell, checking for any he had missed. After seven, the room was clear and Illya waved at the guard's back as he left. He turned back to the food.
'So what is for breakfast?'
'Well, my dear Yuri Aleksandrovich, this morning, you have a choice between...' Napoleon jerked his head out of the way as he lifted the lid on a dish that puffed out a cloud of steam, 'Ah...I think it's supposed to be porridge, though I'm not convinced a real Scotsman would agree with them on that. Or...weird brown lumps with milk. What takes your fancy?' Illya pulled the porridge towards him and eyed it closely. He prodded it with a spoon. The spoon bounced.
'I need to be able to speak later, you can have this bowl of cement. I'll try the brown lumps, thank-you.'
'You're a braver man than I am...' said Napoleon cheerfully as he swapped bowls with his partner.
'Not really,' said Illya, 'My mother used to make something that looked remarkably similar to this.'
He picked up some of the lumps on his spoon and popped them in his mouth. He chewed for a moment, then swallowed and wrinkled his nose.
'Yes. Just like mother used to make.'
'What is it?'
'I haven't the faintest idea.' He took another mouthful. 'You do know how appaling your Russian accent is, don't you?'
'Well, that's what comes of defecting to the States, my friend. Don't knock it, I learnt everything I know from you.'
'At least I never tried to teach you a word of Russian. I can't be held responsible. But if you're suggesting that your strange Italo-Scandinavian bore any resemblance to the accents of the good Soviet peoples...'
'Scandinavian, that's it!' Napoleon snapped his fingers as he figured it out. 'I knew I sounded a bit off-target.'
'You knew nothing of the sort. You speak too far forward in your mouth. You need to raise your soft palate and bring your tongue tip back a little. Your dental consonants are pure American.'
'Uh huh,' replied Napoleon, no longer really listening. Illya huffed at his partner's lack of interest and returned his attention to his food.
Breakfast out of the way, they pushed the tray over to the door and returned to the piano. Napoleon flexed his fingers and laid them on the keys.
'Back to work. What shall I start with?' He looked seriously at Illya, who felt his heart sink as the memories trawled up yesterday rushed to the surface once more.
'What do you start with? What else is there to start with? Scales. Always your scales. If you do not loosen up your fingers, how do you expect to play anything? Foolish young boy. And today of all days when you are to sit your examination. All your scales. Now. Begin.' Hesitating over where to start: middle C or lower? Too long, a mere second's pause and he felt her fingers close about his wrist once more, dragging his arm down an octave, jamming his right thumb onto the lower C. 'Ow!'
'Yuri? Cramp again?' Illya nodded. 'Pathetic boy, they will do far worse if you magically get into the music school. Stop your whining. Now play!'
'Best to start with scales again. It will help to remind you of what we did yesterday and it will limber your fingers up.' Napoleon nodded and started to play. The first time was messy and Napoleon tutted to himself and muttered,
'Sorry, I'll get it in a moment.'
'Sorry? Sorry? What good is sorry in front of an audience of thousands? You think they will let you start again just because you are sorry? Never let me hear that again. When you start, you start properly. There will be no errors. Again.'
This time the clout around the ear sent Illya flying to the left. He collided with Napoleon's shoulder. Shocked, he pulled away and made his flustered excuses,
'I am sorry, Pasha. I lost my balance.' Napoleon frowned at him.
'No you didn't. No-one loses their balance that violently on a nice flat piano stool. Particularly not my good friend Yuri Aleksandrovich, who I happen to know could sit perfectly safely on top of a flagpole. What happened?'
Illya considered telling him, but Yekaterina Ivanovna was not an aspect of his past he was particularly keen to talk about, and he didn't want to see that look of sympathy in Napoleon's eyes. Not that he minded the idea that Napoleon would actually care. More that he knew it would bother Napoleon more than it really did him, and somehow he didn't want to do that to Napoleon.
'Nothing. Forget it.' He rubbed the side of his head where it had struck Napoleon's shoulder. His ear was sore. He shook himself. 'Go on. Ignore me. I haven't quite woken up yet.' Napoleon eyed him narrowly, but didn't say anything more. He replaced his hands on the keys and tried again.
The second time was better. The third was almost perfect, and Napoleon grinned. Illya nodded and said,
'Sleeping on it has obviously done you good. That was...pretty good.'
'Yekaterina Ivanovna, was that good?' Trembling head to foot at having dared to ask such a thing. But it had been good. Very good. Even his inexperienced ears could tell that. It was a small thing, but perhaps the first thing he had ever really felt certain of having done well.
'Good? No, it was not good. It was passable. Listen to me'"' grabbing him by his bruised ear, twisting it up towards her thin, dried-out lips to hiss directly into it, 'I will tell you when it is good. If it ever is. You will never ask again. They will not say it is good when you go to be examined. They will tell you how bad you really are, then perhaps you will believe it, for you never believe me, though I have told you enough times. But I will not even take you if you do not play now. Play!'
'Yes, it was very good. Try the arpeggio, see if that's stuck.' Napoleon nodded, stopped halfway, then went back and tried again. A couple more tries and the fluidity of the day before had returned. He raised an eyebrow at Illya, who nodded again.
'Good. Now see how you go on that phrase I taught you.'
Napoleon got it first time, repeated it, keeping time to the beat of Illya's heel on the stone floor. He stared at Illya, grinning foolishly and Illya couldn't help smiling back. He tentatively reached out a hand and laid it on Napoleon's upper arm.
'That's excellent,' he said. He squeezed the arm and let go. He put his own hands on the keys, ran through a few scales of his own, realised that the guard had been right, the heating was on. At least now his fingers could move without the restrictive numbness of the cold that had afflicted them the night before. 'So now I'll show you what we're going to do. I'll have to teach you a few more phrases, but they're all basically the same, just different notes. First, just play that one, as you were doing now. Keep on playing it until I tell you to stop.'
Napoleon started to play. Illya kept time with his foot and began to add in his own notes. The rhythm started to carry him away as he chose a simple sequence of notes that allowed him to play around, augmenting the chord played over and over by Napoleon, never altering the root, just changing the sound, skipping up and down the keys, a trill here, a glissando there, here a pair of triplets overlaid on the steady four-four beat. His eyes closed and he swayed slightly with the drowning jog-trot of basic blues. 'No! Illyusha, you must not. They will come and take you away from me. Only play what Yekaterina Ivanovna teaches you. Please Illyusha.' 'Yes Mami, whatever you say. I will be obedient.' His eyes shot open, 'No, I want-'
Napoleon stopped playing abruptly. His hands left the keys and he grabbed Illya's shoulders, turning him towards him, staring into his eyes.
'What? What did you say? What do you want?' He let go.
Illya's eyes were unfocused. He stammered,
'I w-want to play.' 'You can't play now. You've had your chance. Come on, brat, we have to be at the Institute in half an hour.' She grabbed him by the wrist, dragging him to the door, pushing his coat at him. 'Is Mami coming?' 'What would they do with your mother? Hurry up.' His little fingers fumbled with the buttons and she slapped them out of the way, yanking it tightly about him, fastening it fiercely about him, pointing to his moth-eaten fur cap and the woolen mittens in his sleeves as she tied a headscarf over her severe, scraped-back hair and shrugged on her fur coat, barrier against the intense cold outside. 'Are we going to the school?' 'No. idiot, the school is in Moscow. If you get in, you will go to Moscow, and good riddance.' 'What about Mami? Will she come to Moscow?' 'Why would she want to go to Moscow? Besides, the school is in the Arbat, she would never find an apartment to live in that close to the centre.' Shocked into silence, he followed her down the stairs, across the courtyard, out of the main entrance to the apartment block and down the road.
'So play,' said Napoleon softly, his hands back on Illya's shoulders. Illya blinked and felt the warmth radiating from Napoleon's hands. He shivered, embarrassed at his helplessness in the grip of his memories.
'Sorry. I was...I was...'
'Never mind. I don't need to know. That was incredible—what you were playing. How do you do it?' Illya shrugged, as Napoleon let go of him again.
'I don't know. It just...happens. I've always been able to do it. It's the classical stuff I'm hopeless at.' Walking towards the front doors of the Institute, Yekaterina Ivanovna pulling his hat off outside in the freezing air, so that his head started to ache with the cold as she smoothed his hair roughly into place, ignoring the aching look in his too-blue eyes and the persistent drip at the end of his reddened button-nose. No! Illya fought against the memory, forcing himself to focus on the solid mass of Napoleon at his side.
'All right. I'll teach you a few more of those. You do exactly the same, only your fingers are on different notes. First, this one, starting on D.' He took hold of Napoleon's right hand and placed it. He could have just told him the notes—Napoleon was a quick study and would not have forgotten information that basic '" but he needed the contact, needed the reality of Napoleon's body, a talisman against the ghost of his former teacher. He shuffled closer, letting his leg rest alongside Napoleon's. Napoleon played. The notes sounded rushed and Illya frowned.
'Pavel Nikolaievich, what is the difference? It is exactly the same as the other one. Don't let your mind fool you, you're doing the same. No difference. Try to get the same feeling into this one.' Napoleon coughed and smiled apologetically,
'Not that I mind your being there, but I can't move my arm very easily with you crunched up so close to me.' Illya jumped and moved away.
'Sorry.' Napoleon shook his head.
'Exactly the same?' he checked. Illya nodded. 'Exactly the same. No difference. They will ask you to play, and you will play exactly as you do for me. Do not try to do anything different and do not be nervous. They are exactly the same as me, but they will not comment when you go wrong. They will simply tell you it is enough and ask you to leave. So you must not go wrong. Do you understand?' 'Yes, Yekaterina Ivanovna, I understand. I will do my best.' She pushed him roughly into the small waiting area, leaving him alone in the little brown corridor, his single book clutched under his arm, in case they wanted to see him play from that music, rather than from his head.
'Exactly the same.'
Napoleon played. This time it sounded right. Illya stopped him.
'The first one we will call C. This one you just learnt, we will call D. I am not going to attempt to teach you the correct names, there is no point. Now for E. This has a black note in, but do not be afraid of it. It is just a note like any other.' He showed him. Napoleon tried. Illya shook his head,
'Do not move your hand. You don't need to play that far back on the keys. From where your hand was to play white notes, here is where you must play black notes. What is point of moving hand so far back on keys? Only making it awkward for you when you are playing fast. Keep your hands always at front of...' He trailed off. Napoleon was looking at him very strangely and Illya could feel his face reddening.
'Now where did that little lapse of good English come from? Getting stuck in character? Or... is there something else?'
'No. No, there's nothing else. I just... really I should stay in character in case the guard comes by, but it makes me feel bad. I didn't spend all that time learning to use articles just to drop them when there's only you to hear.'
'Yuri!' said Illya furiously, ashamed that his lapse of concentration had caused Napoleon to break with his usual professionalism.
'Yes. You.' Napoleon was getting angry, Illya could see it in his face, but he was fairly sure it wasn't due to his nit-picking over names. 'Is there something about doing this that, ah, bothers you?'
'Bothers me?' Illya queried, trying to sound innocently quizzical.
'Yes. You've been drifting off into a dream every time either of us plays, and it's getting worse. Now you... you look like something's getting to you. What is it? Can I do anything to help?'
'It's nothing. I'm tired and playing the piano has always made me a bit, I don't know, vague, I suppose.' Napoleon jabbed a finger into his chest and twisted it there, keeping Illya's attention focused on him.
'I know you too well to believe you, but I also know you won't tell if you don't want to. But I need you here with me, not drifting off into whatever hazy nether-world it is you're visiting. We have a mission to complete here, and I need to be good at this in, what? Under twelve hours. Take out half an hour persuading them to get us some lunch, another half for an early dinner, and another hour to convince them to let us wash and change and to actually do so. That leaves us ten hours to teach me what the hell I'm supposed to be doing, because being able to play these things individually is all very well, but doing it for an hour or two, changing it all the time, is something I need to practise.' He removed his finger from Illya's chest and turned back to the keys, glancing back to see what sort of impression he'd made. Illya rubbed absently at the spot on his sternum and swallowed hard.
'Yes. Of course, you are right. It is...difficult to remember that I am on a mission in this case.'
'That's quite an admission,' said Napoleon quietly, without looking around. Illya stared at him, trying to work out if he had just heard a threat from his CEA, but it didn't seem like it. The intensity with which Napoleon was studying the keys was belied by a little movement as he edged closer to Illya, letting their thighs rest against each other again.
'Try E again. Just let your fingers stretch up naturally to the black notes. Don't move your hand, just let your fingers play in a more extended position.'
'If I see your hand creep up the keys just once more, I will tie it to your body, then you see how far you can move it, useless boy. Again!'
Napoleon played again and this time his fingers reached up to the black notes from where they were. He nodded in satisfaction,
'Good.' Illya let him play it a few more times, memorising the sequence. Then he held up a hand.
'That's enough. How about F?' He showed him. F was easy, no black notes. Together they went through the whole sequence, G, A, B. Napoleon took the time to learn each one thoroughly, Illya congratulated himself on keeping his thoughts focused on the present. It was easier, with the heat of Napoleon's leg pressed against his own. After a while, he started to feel a subdued motion, as Napoleon's foot began to tap in time with the music.
'Infectious, isn't it?' said Illya, smiling. Napoleon jumped slightly, looked vaguely embarrassed for a moment, then nodded, relaxing.
'Very. All right, I think I've got those now. So what do we do with them?'
'You remember their names?' Napoleon nodded. 'I will whisper the names to you halfway through the one before. If I do not whisper anything, you play the same again. You always finish the phrase, always stick to the beat. There is...there is one other thing we can do. If I say ''chord'' before the name, you play all the notes together and hold them down for the same count.'
'Like this.' He played, demonstrating the chord, holding down the notes, counting aloud for Napoleon's benefit. 'You can hear it's the same length, listen: dah da-dah dah.' He gestured to Napoleon to try it. He played the chord, but the notes fell at different times, sounding messy and uncoordinated. He groaned and rubbed his face with his hands. Illya pulled them gently away.
'What is this? A chord or an arpeggio? Not even that. It is a mess. What rubbish you have just played. Why did you play like that? Stupid fool. If you cannot play them all together, do not bother to play them at all. Are your fingers not all on the same hand? Can your brain not direct more than one at once? I imagine you cannot even tie your shoelaces yet, your fingers are so stupid. Can you play this now? Or do I give up and go to teach someone with half a brain?' 'No, Yekaterina Ivanovna, I can do it, I promise, I will try harder.' A ruler, hard and sharp across the backs of his fingers, pressing down so that all his fingers descended at once. The corner cutting into his soft young skin.
'Don't worry. It's easy. Just like the other things you've learnt. You'll get it, then it will seem so simple.'
It took two hours for Napoleon to feel comfortable with the chords. The ones that fell solely on the white notes soon became easier, but the black notes seemed to stand out, his fingers hitting them before he meant to, unable to control each finger separately without great concentration. The frustration of repeated failure started to tell and he fidgeted and frowned, transmitting his nerviness to Illya until they were both on edge and irritable. Finally he sat back and stretched, looking much happier. He looked at Illya, grimacing at his slightly vacant, hooded look.
'So, you whisper the names to me and I play them like I did earlier, but if you say ''chord'', I play them like this?'
'Yes. Ready?' Napoleon put his hands back on the keys and nodded. Illya tapped his foot for four beats, whispering 'C'. Napoleon listened for the new bar and started on C. Illya's fingers doodled around, fashioning a playful tune. Then he whispered 'G'. Napoleon tried the shift, missed G, and lost the beat. He stopped, dragged his hands through his hair and readjusted his position on the stool.
'Okay. Let's try again.' They started once more. Napoleon managed the change to G, but the subsequent shift to F scuppered his hopes. He huffed in annoyance and started on C again, without saying a word. Illya followed him and began to call the pattern again.
By midday, Napoleon could follow whatever shift Illya made. A couple of hours of deep frustration were behind him, but had left him very hungry.
'Shall we give our waiter a call?' he asked. Illya nodded, looking desultorily at the piano. That scratchy voice was ringing in his ears again, at every adjustment he could hear his teacher screaming at him. Nothing he did was good enough. Nothing he and Napoleon did would be good enough.
Napoleon pulled him to his feet,
'What are you worrying about? We're nearly there. You just show me that thing with the chords all in one go, and we're ready.'
'It won't be enough.'
'I beg your pardon? Is that my partner speaking? You can bluff your way through anything. I know you can. And you've done wonders with me. I couldn't '" couldn't have dreamed of playing like this in just barely a day, really. You are a great teacher.'
'Don't say that, please, it only makes it worse.'
'Makes what worse?'
'The... If we fail.'
'Why should we? I think we sound pretty good.'
'Yes, well, you've never been noted for your musical ear,' said Illya acidly. Napoleon grinned at that,
'Hey! That's more like my Illya.' He patted him on the back and nodded at the door,
They yelled for their lunch and it arrived after a short hiatus. Dry bread and thin soup with chunks of dubious looking meat on the side. Illya tucked in with relish. Napoleon watched him eat for a minute before he tried nibbling at a piece. It was edible, if stringy, and they polished off the lot.
Before they had quite finished, the guard returned and stood drumming his fingers on his gun, waiting for them to finish. When they had done so, he snatched the tray and snapped,
'You have two hours, then you will wash and change. Then you will go and wait in a room upstairs, so that the guests do not need to see you before you go in to play.'
'Much obliged,' replied Napoleon, cocking a jaunty salute at him. The guard scowled and left. Napoleon clapped his hands together and wandered back to the piano. Illya followed him and sat down, resigning himself to another two hours stuck with his old teacher.
Napoleon had clearly decided that what Illya needed was to be jollied along.
'Righty righty!' he said chirpily, cracking his knuckles. 'Off we go. Ready?' Illya nodded, set Napoleon off and began to play. He let the rhythm take him away, but even as he did so, could hear the chiding tongue of Yekaterina Ivanovna continuing in his head, just as he had in that little brown room, pacing backwards and forwards, trying to find something to distract him from where he was and why. All he could hear, filling his head in the assaulting silence, was her voice. His fingers twitched patterns in the air, practising his exercises, knowing that they were tending towards the jazzy, pulling away from the strict beat of his classical pieces. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it only made her voice louder. 'Stop that! Play as I have taught you. Each composer, they place the notes just so, for you to play exactly where they tell you. NOT for you to decide you like them a little more to the left or right on the page. Just what do you know that they do not? Play what is written or leave now.'
'Uh, Yuri?' Illya snapped his eyes open and looked around guiltily.
'Well, I, ah, wouldn't complain, but I have been playing the same chord for the last five minutes. I know you can somehow make that sound good, but I thought we were practising the changeovers here? Come on my little friend, stay with me.' Napoleon sighed with relief at the disgruntled look Illya gave him at the nomenclature.
'Again,' said Illya, hearing the harshness in his voice and managing not to care.
'Okay,' said Napoleon levelly.
They played again and Illya focused furiously on his hands, watching them flick across the notes, rolling back and forth on some of them in a way he'd never noticed he did before. He concentrated on the present, forcing himself to keep watching the movement of his fingers, not to let himself dissolve into the beat, not to let Napoleon's steady bass carry him away. He pushed his leg harder against Napoleon's and felt him move an inch or two to return the pressure. He glanced to his left and caught Napoleon's gaze falling on him just as the bass rhythm went to pieces.
'Concentrate,' he urged, his voice softer this time.
'Says who, sorry? Mr Concentration next to me here? C'mon we've got barely an hour and a half and I'm not ready.'
The hour and a half rocketed by. By dint of watching each other like hawks, they managed to remain alert and focused on the task in hand. Illya could see that Napoleon was almost beginning to enjoy himself, listening for the whispered commands from his right, feeling the beat, listening to Illya's ornamentation without letting it distract him from what he was doing. His fingers would be sore and even the muscles in Illya's forearms were screaming from the long-unfamiliar, repetitive actions, so Napoleon's must be knotted up and cramping, but they'd both experienced far worse in the field.
The door slammed open and two guards entered. Napoleon and Illya stopped playing immediately.
'Okay, you two, get moving, you'll come with us where you can get washed up.'
They rose obediently and followed one guard down a series of stone corridors, the other guard following behind, gun in hand.
'You know, this security you're subjecting us to really is not necessary,' said Illya as they turned yet another corner and the rear guard prodded him with his gun to make him move faster. 'What do you think a couple of pianists are going to do?'
'There's important stuff in this place. We know what you commies are like, the moment you get someplace with some valuables, all those high-and-mighty ideas go out the window and suddenly you're all very light-fingered. We're under instructions to see that don't happen. Right?'
'Oh. What's 'oelight-fingered'?'
'Thieving little bums,' clarified the guard and Illya nodded amenably. Napoleon grinned to himself, enjoying Illya's little charade, even as he mentally mapped the turns, clocking the general direction and trying to relate it to the way he had been brought in.
The guards stopped outside another metal door. The leading man took out his keys and opened it. They shoved Illya and Napoleon roughly inside and re-locked the door.
'You got half an hour. Clothes are in the lockers, dress smart. There's shaving kit on the side, other stuff's in the cubicles. You come out when we get you, dressed or not. Got it?'
'Ah, yes. Thank-you,' said Napoleon graciously.
Illya strode across to a bench by the wall and unhesitatingly stripped off, sighing with relief as his filthy clothes hit the floor. He strode to the nearest shower cubicle and slammed his palm on the control knob, stepping under the flow of water without waiting to check the temperature. He gasped, water running down his face, slicking his hair over his forehead. Napoleon, in the middle of removing his shirt, looked him up and down,
'A bit cold, is it?' he smirked. Illya nodded and pushed the hair back off his forehead, then started to rub vigorously at his upper body with the bar of coal tar soap he'd found on a little shelf. 'Mm, well it's doing nothing for your credentials,' added Napoleon, nodding at Illya's groin. Illya shook his head irritably and swooshed soap across his prudently retreated genitalia.
Napoleon placed his grubby clothes in a neat pile on the bench and headed for the cubicle next to Illya's. Obviously deciding that Illya had a point, given the time constraints, he braced himself, stood directly under the shower-head and hit the button. Illya laughed as he heard his stifled gasp,
'Bet you've lost a little prominence too?' he asked sweetly. Napoleon grunted at him, then there was silence as they both got themselves as clean as they could in the icy water.
They stepped out shivering and grabbed the rough towels laid out for them. The chafing material actually felt good and the friction warmed them up.
Towels round their waists, they stood in front of the mirrors to shave. Illya smiled as he noticed the way they dipped their razors in the water in unison, whisked them about in it the same number of times, shaved in exactly the same order, and finished almost in a dead-heat.
'We need to stop shaving together so often,' he said as they patted their faces dry, 'It's becoming embarrassing.' Napoleon just raised an eyebrow and went to the lockers to fetch their new clothes. He returned with two garment bags, labeled with paper tags.
'Galany and Levovich. Which is which?' he asked. Illya looked suddenly panicked, gesturing frantically with his eyebrows. Napoleon caught on immediately, an apologetic look appearing on his face. 'Seems so long since I last said that, my friend,' he improvised. 'Do you remember how people used to joke that we spent so much time together it was a miracle we could remember which of us was which?'
'Yes, I remember that,' Illya replied with great relief. 'Give me mine then, Yuri Aleksandrovich Galany.'
'All yours, Pavel Nicolaievich Levovich.' He grinned and handed Illya the bag marked ''Galany''. They got dressed in front of the mirrors, Illya fighting his black bow tie as usual, shooting envious glances at Napoleon who always seemed to only have to touch the thing for it to leap instantly into a neat bow. Eventually he caught Napoleon watching him tug the two ends back and forth, pulling the knot tight with the loops, only to see the ends threaten to pull through again. Napoleon opened his mouth to speak, one hand raised, and Illya spoke before he could utter a word,
'You dare to offer to help me and you will be playing the piano with broken fingers.' He pulled angrily at one of the ends, tore the tie out of its knot, and started again. He felt Napoleon's hands fall on his head, started to turn in anger, then heard his low murmur,
'We're almost out of time and you look like a scarecrow.' Illya regarded him in the mirror, then nodded, letting Napoleon comb out his hair while he finally got his bow tie to behave itself. Napoleon's hair was already immaculate. In fact, he was immaculate top to toe. Whoever had pulled the clothes for them had either guessed well at their sizes, or had measured them without waking them, or had...pulled a file on them from somewhere. Illya tugged at his cuff. It sat at just the right length on his arm. He looked down to where the hem of his trousers brushed perfectly over the well-fitting shoes. He gave Napoleon a questioning look, tilting his head slightly to indicate the clothes. Napoleon nodded, gave a facial shrug and shared his misgivings with Illya through a stare which served as perfectly clear communication with his close friend: keep your eyes peeled.
Illya deftly transferred the contents of his waistband pouch into the pockets of his new suit, under cover of folding up his clothes.
'Got the transmitter?' asked Napoleon under his breath, adjusting his perfect tie once more. Illya nodded and stood up.
Then the guards returned and their attention was occupied with remembering the route, up two levels to the grander dcor and large rooms of a palatial mansion. They were led into a drawing room with high ceilings and paneled walls.
'These doors are guarded, we are watching you. Stay here until you are sent for.' They guards left and Napoleon and Illya flopped down onto an unforgivingly upholstered settee, with wood in all the wrong places and springs everywhere else.
'Ow!' said Illya. Napoleon's lips twitched in a smile at his exclamation '" if Illya was grumbling, there couldn't be much wrong with him.
The door opened and he thought he would be taken into the examining room, but instead, a woman beckoned to him. 'Illya Nicolaievich Kuryakie?' she asked. 'Kuryakin,' he corrected nervously. She squinted at her handwritten notes, then smiled, 'Oh, yes, this handwriting. Can't tell the 'n's from the 'ee's.' He liked her. She was young and friendly. 'Do I have to go in now?' he asked. She shook her head. 'Not quite yet, little boy. They are seeing somebody else. I will take you to a place where you can be called easily. Follow me.' He followed her. She brought him to a lobby with a single chair in it. 'They will call you in a minute or two. When they do, go in and they will tell you what to do. When you are told to go, leave by the other door, it will bring you back to the place you were waiting before.' She left him and he sat on the chair, his legs swinging back and forth, feet nowhere near touching the floor. He stared at the wall, feeling his stomach leaping, his heartbeat jumping. His gaze slowly transferred to the door, at once both wishing that it would open, and that it would remain closed.
'...then we begin. Is that right?' Napoleon asked. Illya stared at him, then blinked.
'Sorry, Pasha, I wasn't listening.' Napoleon's eyes were understanding.
'You like calling me that, don't you?'
'It's friendlier. Besides, the longer I spend out of Russia, the more cumbersome it seems to call you more formally. What were you asking?'
'How we start our performance tonight.'
'Same as usual, up to the stool, take a small bow together, step around the stool and sit. Then wait for me to count you in.'
'And what are we starting with?'
'The improvisation in C,' said Illya.
Important details covered, they sat side by side, staring at the door, both wishing for it to open, and half hoping it would not.
At seven-thirty on the dot, a further guard, disguised as a waiter, entered and barked instructions at them.
'Get up and go in there. You will entertain our guests while they eat. You will not stop playing for any reason. You will finish when we tell you, then you will come back in here until our guests have all gone. You will not attempt to talk to any of the guests.'
'Keen for us not to overhear anything we shouldn't, aren't they?' muttered Napoleon under his breath. 'Makes you wonder why it wasn't just easier to have one of their indoctrinated minions play for them instead.'
'We're better. They don't cultivate great artists. Only people who think they're great,' Illya whispered back, tugging on the lower hem of his jacket to straighten it and following the guard.
The room they entered was large and brightly lit. Candelabra on every table, gilded architrave and mouldings, fine linen, crystal and porcelain tableware... Altogether, a standard, over-the-top Thrush show-off event.
The piano was a monstrous black Steinway, perched on a moss-green dais. Illya gasped when he saw it, his eyes lighting up with a species of greed Napoleon had never seen before. He whispered,
'You will notice a difference,' Illya replied hoarsely.
They stepped up to the stool and, as agreed, took their bow before shuffling around the stool to sit down.
'Illya Nicolaievich Kuryakin?' Illya nodding, terror robbing him of the power of speech. The man gesturing him into the next room, him slipping off the chair, barely any taller standing than he had been sitting down. Following the man inside and hearing the door close behind him.
Standing on the margin of a huge room '" the main reception room of the Institute '" with a long table at one end and a piano in the centre. 'Sit down.' Sitting, careful to put his music book where he could reach it. There were five of them, three men and two women, all smartly dressed and serious-faced. He felt his hands begin to shake with fear, and hoped they would let him begin before he lost the ability to play. 'Start with your scales. All the scales you have been taught. Quickly now.' Pulling off his mittens, tugging at the wool with his little front teeth. Feeling their eyes on him as he took the time to get ready, remembering Yekaterina Ivanovna's instructions '" 'Do not begin until you are ready, then you will make no errors.'
Illya dug his hand into his pocket and activated the listening device he had hidden in there, hoping that it would work as well as it should. It would not be easy to eavesdrop. Napoleon would be concentrating so hard on what he was playing, and he, Illya, was going to be hard-pressed to hear from the dais, even if he could prevent his mind wandering. All they could hope was that their back-up outside the grounds would pick up something of use from the little bug. He thought vaguely that it would have been everso much easier if the gentleman whose happy duty it had been to arrange this little party had not been known to be quite so thorough in his checking of rooms for bugs before and during his events. Or if his waiters were not hand-picked and personally known to him or... Illya sighed slightly. This was a stupid idea. There had to be better ways to eavesdrop on these people. However, nobody had thought of one in time, so here they were, and if they wanted to survive, they had better start playing.
He counted them in and Napoleon began. Illya waited for a count of sixteen before he started to play. The scales coming easily, his fingers flying up and down the octaves, not making a single error, not faltering. He began to relax. Having played all his scales,they were silent, making him fidget nervously with his coat, still wrapped about his thin body.
'Now, you have some pieces to play?' Nodding in response, still voiceless. 'Continue.'
Starting to play the first piece, knowing that this was his only chance. He clung to his teacher's words, 'Do exactly the same. They are the same as me. They want to hear the same things.' His knees shaking, but managing to concentrate on the music.
The first piece played through without a hitch. Turning at the end to see what they would say. Still absolute silence but for the scratching of a single pen. So starting on the second piece. This too, played as he had been taught, willing his fingers to obey him, although they yearned to add notes, to let the music run away with him.
The music ran away with him, and he forgot to try and listen to the diners, forgot to do anything but follow the beat, create the melody, surprise himself with his own choice of note and timing. His whispered instructions to Napoleon had become second-nature after hours of practising, and he no longer thought about it, just played and played until the natural end of one piece jogged him back to the present and he glanced at Napoleon to see him looking concerned, but comfortable enough with what they were doing.
'Chord G,' he murmured, and Napoleon played, Illya drawing out a slow, haunting piece; light shining through slatted shutters onto still, dark waters. Napoleon took advantage of the slowness of the changes to watch his partner; saw him slip off, back into some far-away place where he could no longer be reached. But the music continued and the instructions kept coming, and Napoleon listened to the conversation taking place with loud indiscretion on the nearest table. He filed away the interesting information in his head and bit his lip as Illya swayed softly against him.
The man sitting at the centre of the long table holding up his hand, beckoning him across. 'What have you in that book?' Slipping off the stool and walking shakily towards them to hand it over, terrified of their stern expressions, their obvious power. 'This piece here, tell me, have you played it before?' 'Only once,' his voice small and uneven, 'My teacher would not let me practise things from the book.' 'Good. Play it now.'
Stumbling back to the piano, heart racing. They had not yet told him to leave.
Placing his book on the stand, his little hands on the keys. Checking the time signature, the key of the piece, beginning to play. His sight-reading was good, as good as his book-reading. He had started so young, it was only natural. The newness of the melody intoxicating after months of playing the same four pieces over and over. Letting the notes flow out of his fingers, knowing that some of them were creeping off the beat, falling into the patterns of the forbidden music. He strained to hold them back, but there was always something of them left. Not too much though. No-one would notice.
They played for nearly two hours, Varying the style slightly every time, trying to disguise Napoleon's lack of material with the deft chameleonic trebles supplied by Illya. The bug felt like a magnet in Illya's pocket, drawing all eyes towards him, and Napoleon was exhausted from too much playing, too soon, and the strain of watching his partner and listening to both the music and the conversation without losing his own time.
As the dinner finished, another fake waiter approached them and hissed,
'End it now.'
Illya jerked slightly and altered his planned chord sequence to bring the piece quickly to a close.
They stopped him before he reached the end. 'That will do. Here. Give this to your teacher as you leave.' Not knowing whether this was good or bad. Grabbing his music, clutching it to his chest, crossing the suddenly immense distance to the table to take the piece of paper, then almost running to the exit, no sound but his own tiny, hard-soled shoes slap-slapping on the wooden floor.
Napoleon was still listening intently as they were hustled out of the room, without being allowed to take a bow. As they went through the doors, he heard a low whisper, carried by chance across an open stretch of air,
'...spies. They have served their purpose. Kill them once the guests have...' The guard shoved them into the room and slammed the door. Napoleon's hands fell onto Illya's shoulders, twitching as his arm muscles spasmed in protest at their treatment over the course of the day. He pulled him into a rough hug, so that he could whisper in his ear,
'Our host appears to have caught on, he's planning an early bath for us. We'd better get out of here.' He got no response from Illya.
Out through the corridor where he had first waited, and on to the entrance, where Yekaterina Ivanovna was waiting for him. Handing her the piece of paper and waiting, trembling, his mittens dangling from his sleeves on the coat he had never even taken off.
Watching her read, seeing her face fall. An unreadable look. 'You failed. You did not get in. How could you not get in? You are plenty good enough. What did you do?' Screaming at him suddenly, shaking him by his bony little shoulders, 'What did you do?'
It blazed brightly in Illya's memory because, with the exception of a couple of episodes under the influence of enemy drugs, it was the last time he had really cried. Ever.
'I did nothing wrong. Truly, I just played. Please, Yekaterina Ivanovna, I did nothing wrong, I swear it.' And he hadn't, not really. The minute deviations from the timing in the book could not have been enough to betray him. But now she was angry, not just angry, scared maybe.
Standing still as she jammed his hat back onto his head. Waiting for her to leave him there.
'Sorry, Napoleon, what were you saying?'
'We've got to get out of here. Now.'
'Back the way we came, through the banqueting hall. C'mon.' Napoleon headed for the door at top speed. There was no point in delay, with the room bugged, their best chance was to make a break for it while there were still plenty of guests around to get in the way and cause confusion. They stood by the door for a second and Illya raised an eyebrow,
They burst through the door. The single guard behind it was easily dispatched and in the noise and bustle of the slowly emptying room, it seemed that nobody noticed. Illya straightened his jacket again and walked down into the midst of the guests, mingling with them, disguising himself amongst the uniformity of a couple of hundred dinner suits. He could sense Napoleon behind him, following him casually, trying not to look as if he and Illya were together. As they reached the doors at the far end, a shout sounded behind them. Without increasing their speed, they slipped through and into the empty corridor beyond.
'Know the route?' asked Napoleon.
'Not well. I got confused, sorry.'
'Never mind,' said Napoleon, grabbing his wrist and running down the corridor with Illya in tow.
Waiting for her to leave him there, instead feeling the grip of her hand on his wrist as she dragged him down the street and back to the entrance of his apartment block. Where she took a long look at him, ran a single, frozen finger softly down the side of his peach-soft cheek, and turned away from him, marching away down the street, never looking back.
Starting the long trudge up the stairs, thinking about what she had said. She had thought he was good enough. She had been shocked that he was not. She had really thought that he was good enough.
They heard more shouts behind them, their escape had been noted and followed. Napoleon charged round the corners, back down into the basements, as if he had been running in them all his life. Illya let him lead, for once he hadn't a clue where they were. He felt Napoleon's fingers digging in, and clung to the reality of Napoleon's strength and warmth.
'Illyushka? Is that you?' 'Yes Mami, it is me.' 'Where is Yekaterina Ivanovna?' 'I don't know Mami, she left.' 'She left? Oh, little Illyusha, were you not accepted for the music school?' Refusing to cry again as he ran into her arms, 'No Mami, I failed. And Yekaterina Ivanovna left.' 'We cannot afford her any longer my little one.' 'Will I not be able to play again, Mami?' 'You may play the piano here, but you must only play what Yekaterina Ivanovna taught you to play.' 'Yes Mami.'
They slipped into a side tunnel, running to a place where Napoleon had spotted a service ladder leading up.
'I'm pretty sure this leads to the plant room,' he said, pushing Illya ahead of him and glancing back down the corridor where the sounds of pursuit echoed menacingly ahead of the running guards.
Had he obeyed his mother? While he was living at home and she was alive, of course he had. The threats were enough. Vladimir Alekseivich, who had always hated his playing, was eventually saved from ever having to hear it again when they came to take him away one night. Illya sat in his mother's lap and buried his head as the old man yelled his innocence on every step of the staircase. 'That is what they will do if you play wrongly, Illyusha.'
Napoleon's hunch proved to be correct and they emerged into a hot, cramped room, full of foul-smelling air vents, whirring machinery and a dangerous-sounding electrical hum. Clanging boots on the ladder they had just ascended made stopping impossible, and they crashed against the outer door, slipping back the bolt, dashing into the gardens and staggering across marshy lawn to the cover of the bushes round the periphery. Napoleon put his finger to his lips and cocked his head at a dark path running alongside the wall. They followed it, hearing the guards shouting to each other to fan out, the distant barking of dogs being released.
Reaching the time when he had to decide what to do with his life, a time when all the might-have-beens flooded his mind, making him gasp with the realisation of how much that one day had changed his life. Had he gone to the music school, he would have learnt to play to perfection, hours and hours of piano lessons, shouting teachers, merciless and determined. Then maybe a career on the circuit of the great concert halls, or perhaps failing to achieve that and ending up playing in the seedier clubs, or giving way to the need for simpler things, playing pieces well below his standard for auditioning singers and cheap dinners. Or perhaps the forbidden music would have forced its way out again and he would simply have disappeared. No. It would have been a glorious life. Hard, demanding, but the opportunity for fame, for greatness...
He sighed and Napoleon shot him a silencing look as he led him to a little stream where they stepped into the water and splashed back towards the wall, hiding their scent from the baying dogs sniffing their way across the grounds. Stopping at the mouth of a culvert, prevented from entering by a rusty grille.
'Illya, what's in your pocket for this?'
'Um,' He only hesitated for a second, but Napoleon shook his head and dug his own hand into Illya's pocket. He drew out the tiny explosives. Cough sweets as far as appearance went. He tore off the wrappers, turned them inside out and re-wrapped them, jamming them quickly behind the bolted sections of grille. He dragged Illya away and they waited for the muffled 'phut!' of the charges going off. The grill splashed into the water and Napoleon tossed it into the middle of the bushes, pulling Illya into the low tunnel, dragging him down to his hands and knees so that he didn't bang his head. Together they crawled through the water, soaked to the skin all over when the floor suddenly dipped down and the water deepened.
He was placed in the Navy. It hadn't been his intention, he had gone to university, achieved his degree, hoped for a job in academia, but he was short and they wanted more short men for the submarines.
They came out in a ditch at the side of the road, Napoleon crawling out behind him, spitting water, grabbing his slippery hand, pulling him to his feet, sprinting down the road to the cover of some trees, where a pair of cars waited.
'Did you get anything?'
'It was muffled. The equipment he's got in that room is as sophisticated as we feared. I got snatches of conversation, should be able to use some of it. What about you?' asked the man sitting in the car, a set of bulky headphones round his neck.
'I got plenty, I'm going to hotfoot it back to HQ, I'll call in what I can on the way, just in case. I'd get out of here if I were you, they'll figure out that we're out of the grounds in a minute or two.'
'Right. The other car's ready to go.' The man started the engine in his own car and screeched away. Illya threw himself into the driver's seat, but Napoleon opened the door and manhandled him across to ride shotgun.
'I'm not risking my life on your driving, the way you've been tonight,' he said, but not unkindly. Illya grunted and pulled his trailing leg across to the passenger side of the car, hanging onto the door-frame as Napoleon put his foot down, swinging them too fast around the first bend and skidding away down the road, traveling in a bubble of light, only as big as the beam of their headlights.
He hated the confinement of the boats, the motion of the sea that made him feel perpetually ill. Hated being stuck in close-quarters with so many other men, to whom he found it difficult to talk. However, he never deserted, never asked to leave. He could take orders. The officers liked him because he took orders well, not sucking up, not grumbling, just getting on with it, reserved and efficient. That was probably why the KGB had got wind of him and suggested that he might like to come and work for them. And since he was well aware that it was definitely not a suggestion, he did as he was told. Perhaps the forbidden music had always showed in him though. Perhaps, despite his efficiency, his obedience, it had been obvious that there was something not quite right, something that did not quite conform, that made him dangerous. Even so, they did not dispose of him in any of their more callous ways. Instead, they sent him abroad, allowed him to leave, gave him to the evil West, set him on the path which had led to this moment, sitting frozen and sopping wet, in a car going too fast down dark, dangerous roads, next to his partner. The only place in the world he wanted to be.
'Is your communicator in here?' Napoleon asked, taking his eyes off the road for a second to check Illya was really with him.
'I don't know.' Illya fumbled in the glove compartment and found the two pens. He handed one to Napoleon, but he shook his head, his hands white-knuckle gripping the wheel. Illya opened his own.
'Open Channel D.'
He held the communicator under Napoleon's chin while he delivered his information. Every detail he had heard transferred back to base, verified and noted so that Intelligence could get to work on it. Only then did Napoleon reduce their speed a little, slowing to a more sensible pace as Illya re-capped the pen and slipped it into his wet pocket.
Napoleon looked across at him,
'So, ah, do I get to hear about what it is that turned you from my usual, top-of-the-range partner into a kinda vague hanger-on tonight?'
Illya sighed and ran a hand through his dripping hair.
'Not really Napoleon. I can't explain.'
'Oh, but I think you can. Look, Illya, I've got to submit my report to Mr Waverly, tomorrow in all probability, and I don't want to have to tell him that you were worse than useless for no good reason for the important part of our mission.' His voice was friendly, but the threat was real. Illya swallowed and tried protesting,
'I was not useless, Napoleon. I played, did I not?'
'Okay. What did you overhear?'
Illya fell silent. Napoleon glanced in the rear-view mirror, stared out of the side window, slowed and pulled off the road, driving between trees until the car was hidden from any passing vehicles. He stopped the engine and grabbed the torch from under his seat, shining it just shy of directly into Illya's eyes.
'Hey!' said Illya irritably, shielding them with his arm and batting at Napoleon's hand. Napoleon dropped the beam so that only its reflected glare lit their faces.
'What did you overhear?' repeated Napoleon.
'Nothing,' muttered Illya grumpily.
'Uh huh,' said Napoleon, his inflection suggesting he expected Illya to carry on.
'I couldn't. I was concentrating on the music.'
'And...Napoleon, will you promise not to put this in your report?'
'Napoleon!' Illya's voice reflected his hurt feelings, that his friend would not do this little thing for him, but Napoleon's eyes were kind behind the hard mask he wore when he was also wearing his CEA hat.
'But I will classify it for Mr Waverly's eyes only, if that will help.' Illya supposed that was the best he was going to get.
'Teaching you brought back memories.'
'Of my own piano teacher.'
'She thought I was good enough to get into a prestigious music school in Moscow. She worked me hard, but when I auditioned, I failed to get in.'
'But you're brilliant...' spluttered Napoleon. Illya gave him a condescending look,
'Napoleon, you have no ear. I have not played properly for years, I am no longer as good as I was when I was young.'
'But why didn't you get in?'
'I think they could tell that my heart was not in it.'
'Not...? But you get lost in it, I saw you...'
'I get lost in the kind of music we played today. They were only happy with purely classical pieces, nothing with the slightest hint of modernity, no syncopation, nothing dangerous.'
'You cannot understand, Napoleon. It is alien to you.'
'All right. I'll accept that for now. But I still don't understand why it took you away from me.' Illya looked at him, surprised by his choice of words.
'I have not allowed memories of that time to surface before now. It always hurt, Napoleon. If I had been accepted, I might have led a glamorous life, playing at all the great halls, meeting the people who counted, doing what I loved, even if it was the wrong kind of music, it would have been something. I hated the fact that my teacher was wrong. I hated the fact that she ran away from me when she had been lying to me for so long.'
'She always said I was useless, that I would not get into the school. Yet all the time she truly believed that I would. She made my life hell with false degradations. I suppose it was her way of getting me to try harder, but there are better ways to do that. And she was wrong. She thought wrong. What she had drilled into me about myself was right, though not quite in the way she meant. I did not have the control to bluff my way into a better life.'
'I'm glad of it,' said Napoleon softly. Illya considered for a moment, staring away from the torch-light, into the darkness. He turned back, re-entering the little pool of light that marked the current limits of their world.
'I thought for years that my failure was the worst thing that happened to me. That was the problem, while we were playing, everything connected to that experience was negative, although I have played since then, teaching you made it all seem so fresh and I felt like I was losing my chance for the second time.'
'That's how it feels?' Napoleon looked deeply distressed and Illya reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
'I thought so. But then it occurred to me, as we were driving along just now; if I had gone to the school, I would not have ended up here, in this car, with you. That makes a difference.'
'It does?' Illya squeezed his shoulder and let go.
'Yes. It does. You were the only thing stopping me from going completely potty back there.'
'You remember how I...how I made sure our legs were touching?'
'Hardly going to forget, am I?' Illya frowned slightly.
'It was because I could feel you there. I felt safe next to you. It made the memories seem less real.'
'What was this? Some kind of hallucination?' Napoleon looked horrified.
'Not quite...more a dream I couldn't shake. You know when you're falling asleep and you know you mustn't, but you can't help it?'
'Like that. Only, now, I've finally figured out that, in fact, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.'
'Napoleon, do you honestly think I would even want to consider a life without you niggling away at me nearly every day?'
'Well I wouldn't. I can't think of anything I'd hate more.' Napoleon stared at him for a second.
'Get out of the car,' he said suddenly. Illya's eyes opened wide and he jumped, startled.
'Napoleon? Why? It's pitch black out there!' Napoleon huffed, turned on the car's lights and flicked off the torch.
'Out of the car,' he repeated. Illya hesitated, then opened the door and got out.
He thought for a moment that Napoleon was going to drive away, the same way that he had feared to be left on the Institute steps by Yekaterina Ivanovna. He felt the same little-boy fear, but then Napoleon's door opened and he came around to stand in the headlights' beam. He beckoned to Illya.
Illya approached him cautiously, and Napoleon tapped his foot impatiently.
'Get over here, stop shuffling your feet. I've dragged you around enough tonight, I don't want to do it any more.'
Illya reached him, stopped in front of him, felt himself wrapped up in warm, comfortable arms as Napoleon hugged him and muttered into his ear.
'Next time, tell me what's bothering you. I could have changed your mind for you a hell of a lot earlier if you'd asked.' He started to let go, but Illya held on, resting his cheek against Napoleon's and feeling his partner squeeze him tightly, running a hand down his back and up again to rest in the damp hair on his neck. 'C'mon, get back in the car, before we freeze to death,' came the voice in his ear once more. Illya nodded, unwilling to break the contact, but knowing that Napoleon was right. He bowed his head as he slowly pulled away, and felt a long moment of pressure, the size and shape of Napoleon's lips, pressing through his dirty, wet hair, to blaze, hot, and blindingly important, on his scalp.
Yekaterina Ivanovna took a long look at him, ran a single, frozen finger softly down the side of his peach-soft cheek, and turned away from him, marching away down the street, never looking back.