The Face of Bravery
Lightning made the living room an eerie blue-white and a peal of thunder shuddered through the building.
"It's really coming down out there," Napoleon said, peering out into the storm. Rain was hammering against the window pane, sheeting down the glass. Another round of lightning and he caught Illya's anxious expression reflected against the night. "How are you holding up, partner?"
Illya shrugged, feeling just a little silly. It seemed stupid, a strong courageous UNCLE agent, afraid of a little thunder and lightning, until the next peal made the room shake. "I'm fine."
"Which is why you go white as a sheet every time it thunders. It really can't hurt you, you know."
"I know, it brings back bad memories though."
"It was not a good time. And there was the time I got hit by lightning."
"I didn't know that."
"I was with a woman at the time..."
"Not funny, then the troop plan I was in was hit by lightning. When I bailed out, well you know what happened after that. Lightning and I have never been good friends." Illya smiled in half remembered thought. "Still, there were some moments made special because of it."
Illya blinked himself awake and tried to focus on something, anything. It was so quiet, too quiet. He couldn't figure out why they'd come to a full stop. The Barracuda was never this silent and no one on the boat called him Illyusha, not if they wanted to keep their teeth. That's when he remembered he wasn't on the sub.
He was home, a month of leave following a too-long deployment. No three-minute cold showers, no sleeping two to a cot that was very nearly too narrow for one, no barking captains, first mates, or the like. He could sleep as late as he'd like, eat as much as he'd like and not have to salute anything. Life was decidedly good at the moment.
"Illyusha?" The voice was softer this time and Illya sleepily recognized the voice of his sister, Taisia. She was the closest to him in age, just four years younger. He rolled over and turned on the small light by his bed.
He was about to ask her what the trouble was when distant thunder rumbled. Illya knew and understood. Wordless, he held up his sheet and a moment later his sister was cuddled up beside him, wrapping her long thin arms around him in a fierce bear hug. "You really are too old to be crawling into bed with me," he teased her, but kissed her temple anyway.
"Uh huh." And she nestled closer as the small attic room Illya slept in lit up from the lightning. For a long moment, not a word was said as they each counted seconds until the thunder shouted. "Doesn't it still scare you?"
He could have scoffed and played the fearless Soviet sailor, afraid of nothing, but this was his little sister, the flower of his heart. "Yes, a little, but it's better with you here."
Still, he couldn't help but remember crouching in the basement, the stink of dirt, human suffering, and war all around them. He tried not to cry, he tried to be brave, just as Mama asked him to be. It was hard, but feeling the trembling of his baby sister made him feel just a little braver then.
"Me, too, Illyusha?" Illya's brother, Vyetka, stood in the doorway, looking a little ridiculous in Papa's old pajamas. Vyetka had been conceived on one of Papa's rare trips to the tiny little shack they lived in. It was out in the middle of nowhere, as safe as any place could be in a country torn apart with war. They had a hidden room where they could huddle if the war got too close. They had arms to hold each other and love to share as they struggled to survive.
There were awful storms that first summer and the thunder would roll through, rattling the windows. Illya would stare at the skies, trying to see the planes that carried such terrible sounding devices. He would frantically tug at his Mama's hand pulling her towards the basement and she would just smile and caress his cheek. She would take him to a chair and hand him a book, one of the few that they owned.
"It's thunder, little one, don't fear. Be brave for them." She would point to his little sister and the baby. Try as he might, the fear still transferred itself to Taisia and eventually Vyetka and they would seek solace in his arms. It made him feel grown up and strong, but he was still scared.
And even though he no longer lived at home, his younger siblings still acquiesced to him the moment he stepped over the threshold. He was their big brother and their protector when the skies grew loud.
Vyetka didn't wait for an invitation, but roughly shoved his sister aside and climbed in between the sheets.
"Your feet are freezing," Taisia complained, vainly trying to put Illya between her and the boy by crawling over her older brother.
"Ow, stop or I'll toss you both out," Illya ordered as someone's elbow found his groin. "Enough!"
"Illyusha?" The voice was very small and very scared.
Illya sighed... "Yes, Misha?"
Mykyta, his youngest brother, appeared in the doorway, holding Svitlana's hand and carrying his baby sister, Larysa. "Room for us too?"
Illya sighed and gestured. "Of course."
The bedsprings groaned a complaint as the last of the Kuryakin siblings joined the others. There were a few moments of jockeying for position, with long pauses as the lightning and thunder drew closer. Breath was held and shoulders hunched down until the last bit of thunder had died out.
"That one was near," Taisia whispered.
"No nearer than the other." Illya grimaced as one of his sisters dug an elbow into his back, "Svitlana, move, you're worse than Yuri."
"My bunk mate. Like you, he takes up more than his share of bed." Illya managed to rescue a corner of a pillow for his own by jabbing a stiff forefinger into his very ticklish brother's ribs. Mykyta shrieked and tried to escape, but Illya wrapped his leg around him and held him in place. He relented after another second for it was never his intention to torture his brother, just reaffirm the pecking order.
"You sleep with a boy?" Vyetka was scandalized.
"I'm sleeping with you," Illya argued gently. "In the Navy, you do as you are told and if they tell you to sleep with a boy, then you sleep with a boy. They didn't need to know if was by choice in his case. There were some things he didn't share with his siblings.
"That's different," Taisia said. "You keep us safe from the thunder. This is your only function when you are home."
"Papa would argue that." Illya grunted as someone's knee caught his ribs. "This is as bad as before I left for university."
Illya had returned some months earlier to discover that his parents had carved out a small room for him in the attic, away from his always present siblings. The official story was that he was now a man and needed his own space. The real fact was that he had been wounded and his leg was still healing. His siblings didn't understand why he was escorted through the house and locked into the attic for several days. He could hear them at the closed door, talking to him through it. The truth be known, he'd missed them bitterly. Illya didn't like sleeping alone. Once he was well enough, the door opened and stayed that way.
"Tell us a story, Illya Nichovetch." His big brother was far too old for nicknames to Mytyka's way of thinking.
"What sort of story?"
"What's it like to swim beneath the waves for days? Is it exciting?"
"It's cramped, smelly, and very boring most of the time." Illya stroked Larysa's hair gently to settle her. The younger children hadn't lived through the horror of The War, but since their older brothers and sister didn't like thunder and lightning, neither did they. "But I am serving our country and that is what is important; we must all do our share and disregard unpleasantness."
"Do you see monsters and beautiful mermaids?" Svitlana's voice was wistful in the dark.
"Don't be stupid, there are no sea monsters." Vyetka's voice was harsh.
"Just because you can't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist, little brother." Illya stretched, or tried to. His legs were efficiently pinned by someone. "It is very dark at the depths which we are and it is hard to see. There are more hidden things in the world than we can ever know or will ever see, but that does not mean they do not exist."
"That is not what Comrade Stalin says." Mykyta struggled for a bit of pillow for himself.
"Remember that Comrade Stalin is only a man, a brilliant and courageous man, but still of flesh and blood, Misha. He's just like us."
The heavens roared at that moment and the house shuddered as the rain began to pelt the tin roof above their heads.
"How do you know it's just thunder, Illysha? What if it's the Americans?" Svitlana stared over at the narrow window, her knuckles white as she gripped the blanket.
"Americans? What is this talk?" Illya grunted as he lifted Larysa to his stomach. The toddler finally settled down, twisting one hand around his dog tags, the other hand clutching his tee shirt... and his chest hair. He winced as he donated a couple to the cause.
"We are at war with them, Illyusha," Vyekta's voice took on an edge of annoyance.
"I know we are at war with them. I'm in the Navy."
"And they shoot at you!"
"Yes, that's true, which is why I should fear them. But why are you fearing them? Have you heard reports of them invading Moscow? Sailing up the Kamchatka?"
"No, but..." Vyetka started, but Illya cut him off.
"Do you doubt the might of the Soviet military?"
"You're not going to send me to Siberia?" The boy's voice fell to a whisper.
"I should, but no." Illya then grinned at the boy. "But why do you fear the Americans, Vasha?"
"I hear they do terrible things to us. And they talk funny and they smell bad."
Illya chuckled and looked around. "I met one, you know, an American," he half whispered.
The effect was immediate and very nearly made him explode with laughter. He'd guessed that his parents had not told them.
The children all began talking at once, their voiced overlapping and competing for his attention.
"Do they really have three legs?"
"What color are they—really?"
"Why don't they speak Russian?"
"Do they smell funny?"
The last was from a sleepy Larysa and it clutched at Illya's heart in a way that made it ache. Illya kissed her head. "I was, but he helped me. He saved my life in fact and I never even learned his name." Illya stroked her blond hair gently. "He was a good man. He was hurt too and I helped him." He thought about the dark-haired American who'd dressed the bullet wound in his leg, probably the only reason he didn't lose it to infection. He also kept Illya from being taken prisoner, making sure he was reunited with a Soviet unit before going to search for one of his own. "Listen to me, little ones, and listen well, not all Americans are evil, some of them are good."
"As good as us?" Mykyta gasped, his dark eyes wide. It was very hard to fathom this, but it was coming from his brother. It must be true.
"Every bit as good and kind and gentle as us. Not all of them, of course, but some of them are even good enough to be Russian." He smiled at the gasps and adjusted the sheets a little. "Now you have had your story. Lie down and sleep or I shall toss you out to Baba Yaga. The storm is moving out and we are again safe."
Illya rolled his head, pillowed on Napoleon's arm. "I never thought I would see you again, but even then I knew you were special. I learned that there were good men everywhere."
"Good enough to be a Russian?"
"Well, with an adjustment here and there." Illya smiled, even as a hand was snaking down to his ribs, tickling them lightly. Truth of the matter, he was just as ticklish as Vyetka, but with him it depended upon who was doing the tickling. "I think even Mykyta would agree to that at this point."
"And the fact that you sleep with me?"
"Well, that certainly elevates you in my eyes."
"Elevates? Oh, Illya..." Napoleon groaned at the pun and pulled his partner closer. "Who would have thought from the first chance meeting, but I guess what they say is true."
"Into each life, a little Russian must fall." Illya's response was unprintable.