A Taste of Life in the Trenches
Illya finished rinsing the pot and hefted it up onto the drying rack. This time he remembered to wipe his hand off before running it over his face. His face was slick with sweat and his hair hung in wet clumps. Who would think that washing dishes could be this hard?
He looked around the kitchen, dark and silent now, and welcomed the peace it brought. During class, this was a hot bed of insanity with orders being shouted left and right. Illya would hit the door running and not stop, at times for hours. Then there would be a slap on his shoulder, a mumbled "Take five" and he would stumble into the common room. First semester would look fearfully at him and Illya barely refrained by urging them to run now while they still had the chance.
Illya smiled tiredly and reached for the driest of the wet towels in an attempt to mop the moisture from his clothes and body. He'd learned the hard way that it paid to dry off as much as possible before walking out into the chilled San Francisco night.
"You all through in here, Mr. Kuryakin?" The head instructor came in and looked around. "I swear the place is cleaner than when we started this morning. You do good work."
"Thank you, Chef." Illya pulled his shirt on over his still damp tee shirt and buttoned it. His shoulders felt as if they were on fire and his back was a stiff as a ramrod. All he wanted was to get home and soak in a hot tub.
"Thank you, Mr. Kuryakin." Illya started to leave. "Mr. Kuryakin?"
"If I told you I needed you to put an apron on and help me prep for tomorrow, what would you do?"
"I'd say, yes, Chef, and reach for my knife bag."
"You're going to make a fine chef, Mr. Kuryakin."
"I'm certainly going to try, Chef." Honestly, Illya didn't agree with him. He was more knowledgeable than a year ago, but he still had so much to learn.
"I'm serious, Illya, you have a commitment to a work ethic and you aren't afraid to get dirty. Where's your partner?"
Napoleon's face flashed before his eyes and Illya frowned for a moment. Napoleon wasn't his partner anymore. The chef was speaking of Matt.
"At my urging, Mr. Tovay went out with some of his contemporaries for the evening."
"And this is why you will always be the lead in your partnership. You think about others first." The chef nodded, as if to himself, and then smiled. "Good evening, Mr. Kuryakin."
Illya pulled a jacket on and hurried out of the building. It was going to be a cold walk to the bus stop tonight. The fog had rolled in from the bay and every surface glistened in the lights. He zipped the jacket closed and walked quickly.
The culinary school wasn't exactly in a bad part of town, but Illya was still an agent deep down. He wasn't so long out of UNCLE that he wasn't still on alert whenever a stranger approached him too quick or too closely. He'd left the protection of UNCLE and it wasn't unthinkable that THRUSH was on the look out to even some old scores.
He hunched his shoulders up and headed toward the nearest bus stop. It was close to the bar where Matt and some of their fellow classmates were drinking. Part of him ached to head there instead of home and lose himself in a haze of alcohol and meaningless chatter. The rest of him just ached.
Illya was passing an alley when he heard a noise. Instantly he froze and that's when he heard the voice, soft and threatening.
"Shut up, faggot, or we'll give you something to cry about."
There was a soft whimper and Illya's eye narrowed. Four against one, those weren't bad odds and he could certainly use a bit of fisticuffs to blow the cobwebs off his fighting skills. And he couldn't very well let one of his own get beaten.
He rocked his head from side to side and rolled his shoulders as he walked casually down the alley.
"Can I help you, gentlemen?"
"Help me." The voice sounded very much like Matt's and the little flame in Illya's gut flared.
"Matthew?" As Illya's eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, he saw a heap on the ground.
"You know this little faggot?" Another man shoved the prone man with the toe of his boot.
"I know him very well and I resent your use of that term."
"And why's that? Or are you bent like him?"
Illya's fist lashed out and the man slammed back against the cement wall. "That's an ugly term. You see, limbs can be bent—"
One of the other men leapt in front of him. Illya's foot caught him in mid flight and dropped him into a crumbled heap beside Matt.
The third guy got lucky and managed to slip a right cross in as Illya turned, but he rolled with the punch, sustaining very little damage save a split lip. The thrower of that punch didn't fare as well.
The last guy took off, running, and Illya let him go. He returned to the first man and hefted him up. "As I was saying, limbs can be bent... in fact, so can fingers. Have you ever had a broken thumb? They never heal quite right after that."
"Get off me, man."
"Did Matt plead for the same thing? Did you listen?" Illya spun the man, shoving him roughly against the wall. "Perhaps you should remember that not all of us are without teeth."
A noise made Illya jump. One of the attackers had pulled a knife and quite probably would have driven it into Illya's back. Instead, he crumpled to the ground and Matt stood there, blood dribbling down his temple. In his hand he held a wine bottle.
"Damn straight, Cara." Matt looked down at his stained shirt and moaned, dropping to his knees.
Illya blew out a breath and tossed the man he held aside. "Run... now!" Illya took a step and the guy raced off. Illya went to Matt and helped him up. "Let's get you home, Matt, before they come back with friends."
"They better not mess with my friend," Matt muttered.
Illya sat on the edge of the bathtub and carefully dabbed Matt's temple with a cotton ball. "You want to tell me what happened?"
"I stepped out for a breath of fresh air and heard something. They'd cornered a cat and they were going to kill it." Matt's voice trembled at the memory.
"So instead you offered yourself as a target." Illya tossed the soiled ball away and checked the wound. "You've stopped bleeding. It'll hurt tomorrow, but I don't think you need stitches."
"Well, that wasn't precisely my plan." Matt winced as Illya applied a band-aid to his bruised temple. "Are you okay?"
"I wouldn't be if you hadn't thought fast on your feet and knocked that guy out. Thank you from the bottom of my unperforated kidneys."
"We take care of our own." Matt stiffly reached for his pajama top and Illya helped him slip it on.
"This isn't a first for you."
"No, back home, one night... it was very bad. Now I have no stomach for violence or blood as a result."
"That's where all those scars are from?"
"Most of them, si. A few are from other encounters. We are always seen as easy targets, Cara, even here."
"After you've had a rest, I'll teach you few easy ways to put the odds back into your favor."
"This is part of the mysterious past you refuse to speak of."
Matt nodded and stood slowly. "It was not quite the night I had envisioned."
Illya slipped an arm around his waist and helped Matt to his bed. "They never are. You get some rest. I'll be just down the hall if you need me."
"Cara?" Matt's voice stopped him at the door.
"Would you mind? Just until I fall asleep?"
A touch of desperation in Matt's voice made Illya walk back to the bed. There was no space for a chair in the cramped room, so Illya settled on the bed beside his roommate.
"Not a problem." Illya's back protested, but Illya shoved the discomfort aside as he plumped up a pillow. "And would you like me to tell you a bedtime story as well?"
"Yes, please." Matt grinned mischievously at him.
"I was joking."
"You shouldn't joke about such serious matters, Illya." Matt shifted carefully around as if trying to find a comfortable spot. "Now, my story, Cara."
The alarm was going off and Illya couldn't find it to shut it off. He didn't want to wake up, Napoleon was cuddled up against him, his body warm and comforting. Then Illya remembered Napoleon wasn't here. Illya opened his eyes and winced, a hand going reflexively to his mouth. It took him a moment to remember last night, the fight. He didn't remember going to sleep in Matt's bed, but that's where he was and it wasn't the alarm, but the phone.
Who would be calling them on a day off? Illya could think of only one person and it took every bit of effort he had to answer the phone.
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, I feared you might be out."
Illya squinted at the clock. It was seven a.m. "No, Chef, I am here."
"And Mr. Tovay?"
"I understood there was some trouble last night."
Illya didn't have a clue as to how the man found out, but apparently he had. He must share blood with Waverly. "Yes, Chef."
"You are both all right?"
"We will both heal."
"Speak for yourself," Matt grumbled from beneath the covers.
"On Monday I want to see you both in my office before class."
"May I ask the purpose, Chef? Are we being disciplined? I assure you we were the victims."
"I'm well aware of that, Mr. Kuryakin. Am I correct in assuming that neither you nor Mr. Tovay have secured an internship for the summer?"
Illya blanked and nudged Matt. "Were we supposed to be looking for an internship this summer?"
"Not us." Matt sounded as mystified as Illya. "Internships are for the second year students, not us."
"No, sir, neither of us were aware that such a condition existed."
"Excellent. When you arrive on Monday I have a proposal for you and Mr. Tovay to consider."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, Chef." Illya cradled the phone and laid back down.
"What is wrong, Cara?" Matt pushed the blankets from his face and grimaced. "Do I look as bad as you?"
"Probably." Illya rescued his share of the sheet and blankets. "I may be wrong, but I think Chef is going to offer us internships."
"What?" Matt sat bolt upright at that. "You must have misheard, Illya. He never offers internships except to people he feels will make exceptional chefs."
Illya yawned and closed his eyes. "Well, then he must think we have what it takes. Now I don't know about you, but I'm going back to sleep." His eyes popped opened a moment later when an arm slipped over his stomach and Matt settled down beside him, his head on Illya's shoulder. After a few seconds, Illya curled his arm about Matt and the redhead smiled and cuddled closer. It felt so good and so right to be this close to someone and something stirred softly in Illya's heart. Perhaps there was life after Napoleon, after all.