Istanbul – August 1963
In Istanbul, between stakeouts in the wee hours of the morning and clandestine meetings in the hot summer evenings, Napoleon Solo took advantage of the bustling local markets and stocked the kitchen of their rented lodgings with free-handed application of Alexander Waverly’s money on their third day in the city. When he returned to his new teammates—unselfconsciously hefting a few sacks of supplies himself and generously tipping the young man hefting the rest of his purchases before waving him off—the other three were a study in confusion. Illya frowned as if the grocery parcels had personally offended his mother, Gaby arched an eyebrow silently over her sunglasses and knocked back another glass of raki from her perch on a brightly-patterned couch, and Waverly himself murmured something vague and non-committal before determining discretion to be the better part of valor and pointedly taking his tea out on the balcony. Napoleon only smiled winningly in their direction, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and set about filing away paper envelopes of spices and seasonings, sacks of vegetables, and cuts of meat.
“We are not here to open a restaurant, Cowboy,” Illya grumbled. Still, he strode into the kitchen and appropriated the packages of coffee to appraise the grind with a gimlet eye and a reluctantly approving hum.
“Certainly not,” Napoleon agreed. “But if we’re going to be here a while, we will need to eat. And while I’m not opposed to the odd bit of street food between our fine dining engagements, we do have the resources at our disposal to cook for ourselves.” He waved a hand carelessly around the modern, well-appointed kitchen. Waverly’s money was, if not limitless, certainly substantial enough to secure them the sort of lodgings that their wealthy covers would have enjoyed on a holiday that served as the thinnest of excuses for illicit weapons trading.
“And, then, of course, you have me, and it would be a shame not to enjoy the fruits of my culinary labor,” Napoleon continued, gracefully indicating himself with a wave of a hand before stashing packets of dried fruit in a likely cupboard.
Gaby’s snort had Illya looking up, surprised, giving Napoleon the perfect cover to pluck the coffee from his hands and smoothly find a place for it next to the fruit. Grimacing, his fingers flexing with the warring impulses to snatch the parcel back and punch Napoleon’s face, Illya settled for frowning more deeply than before.
“You cook?” Napoleon huffed, offended, but Gaby interjected before he could reply.
“He cooks.” Gaby stood from the plush couch, wobbling slightly as she hefted the bottle of raki in one hand and her glass in the other to stalk into the kitchen herself. She set both bottle and glass on the counter with a clatter, pursing her lips doubtfully.
“If you can call stinky rice cooking,” she added. Napoleon sighed.
“It was truffled risotto. And it was quite good, if you’d bothered to try it,” he said, while Illya looked between them, baffled by the exchange.
“I’d managed to locate truffles, parmesan, and a stunning bottle of Nebbiolo that you swilled like water that lovely evening,” he continued, affecting a mournful tone. Meanwhile, he rummaged in half-emptied containers for a jar of olives and a wax paper parcel of heavily-seasoned chickpeas, pouring out some of each onto a plate and pointedly sliding it across the counter to Gaby.
“The wine was okay,” she allowed, briefly wrinkling her nose before dubiously poking a chickpea with her fingertip.
“Dinner will take some time, so snack a bit. Like the locals do.” Napoleon pointedly caught Illya’s eye, tilted his head toward the rapidly emptying raki bottle, and arched his eyebrows. With a reluctant scowl, Illya dipped his chin in a nod and reached across the table for an olive, eating it mechanically before visibly relaxing, chewing with a thoughtful expression and taking another.
“They’re good,” he said, a grudging sort of pleasure in his tone. Napoleon smiled, generously pouring Gaby a refill of raki, and smoothly disappearing the bottle below the countertop while she frowned in turn at both Illya and the plate.
“Local, and very, yes,” he agreed, eating one himself before turning to start preparing dinner. Gaby remained dubious, but ate a chickpea anyway, grimacing slightly before making a show of eating a second.
“Well, if you’re going to cook, I expect dinner without fungus, Solo,” she huffed, snatching the plate from the counter and returning to the couch with it and her glass. Napoleon grinned, unwillingly charmed and challenged in turn by the demand.
“Fungus-free dinner, coming up.”
Athens – October 1963
The rich, golden Mediterranean sunshine was starting to wear on Illya’s nerves. Rome had been swift and confusing, but all over—and his life turned upside down by an extremely unlikely pair of terrible fellow spies—in the space of a few days. In Istanbul, by contrast, they had worked in close quarters for weeks to discover the source of illicit arms making their way to the very fascists who had pursued the Vinciguerra’s nuclear warhead. Illya had played the hired muscle to Solo's ethically-challenged financier and Gaby's Nazi-connected trophy wife, and so they'd not needed to pretend (badly) to be strangers to one another, as before. In time, Solo's barbed comments and aloof demeanor had eased, though not disappeared entirely. In contrast, Gaby's standoffishness interspersed with moments of charged emotion had vanished into an attempt at restrained professionalism. There had been no near-misses of the sort that had plagued their interactions in Rome.
Constantly just slightly too warm for comfort, Illya wasn’t entirely certain that his feelings about that development were the relief that they should have been.
Here in Athens he and Gaby had been left largely to their own devices for several days. Waverly had sent Solo off as soon as they’d arrived to make contact with some of his fellow agents traveling in the American First Lady’s entourage as she visited with the Greek royal family on a tour of the region. Whatever intelligence their new handler had available, something was pressing enough for him to have dispensed with the usual planning to move quickly. Waverly wasted no time inviting himself onto the yacht of the shipping magnate playing host to the president’s wife with only a hastily-outlined directive to Illya and Gaby: play tourists, keep a low profile, and wait for further contact.
For the first time in months, since that afternoon in a hotel room in Rome, he’d found himself alone with Gaby, now in a different, no-less palatial hotel room of sea-blue, white, and gold furnishings, their bags neatly stowed at the foot of the bed.
The singular bed. Illya sighed and eyed the sitting room’s couch surreptitiously. It would be far too small, but it would have to do. He tugged briefly at his collar before looking to Gaby, who stood in the center of the room, apparently lost in thought.
“I want to see the city,” Gaby declared, cutting him off. “If we’re to play tourists, let’s be tourists properly, yes?” Illya hesitated, letting out a breath in a huff.
“I suppose. Yes. We could do that,” he replied slowly. Gaby looked out the hotel window briefly, and then back to him, suddenly pensive.
“We never got the chance in Rome. Not really,” she said.
“No, we didn’t,” he agreed after a pause that regretably bordered on the uncomfortable. He thought of Rome often—he was sure she did, too, and Solo—but they didn’t speak of it.
“Then let’s go,” Gaby said briskly, grabbing her hat and handbag and heading for the door. With nothing else to do for it, Illya followed in her wake. He made a token noise of protest when Gaby purchased a guidebook—naturally wildly overpriced—from the first likely shop front, but he fell silent at her withering glare. Unperturbed by the passerby who swerved around her, Gaby planted her feet on a street corner and paged through the book as if studying for an exam while Illya stood nearby and glared at anyone who might have chastised her for being in the way. After several long minutes of this arrangement and nothing but stony silence interspersed with little huffs of annoyance from Gaby, Illya ventured to speak again, considering what he knew of tourism in the city.
“The Acropolis-” She cut him off with an abrupt gesture.
“I don’t want to see any ruins. I’ve seen enough ruined buildings to last a lifetime, even if the ones here are so terribly old and important,” Gaby snapped. He was suddenly reminded of her brittle anger in the evening shadows of the Colisseum in Rome. Not all of it, apparently, had been due to their run-in with the Vingiguerra’s ill-mannered lackeys. Illya hesitated. There was an art museum, and churches with rich architecture and elegant glass, but perhaps…
“We could go down by the sea,” he offered. “Walk by the water, see the boats come in.” Gaby fell silent, toying with her sunglasses. He thought, fleetingly, of a photo he had kept against all good sense, snapped in secret. Solo, smiling, swinging a laughing Gaby in his arms on the Turkish beach. They had been playing at husband and wife, but Gaby’s pleasure had seemed unfeigned.
Illya’s own feelings about the photo were more complicated and less certain, but it remained tucked away in his luggage nonetheless.
“Alright,” Gaby agreed. She snapped the tourbook shut and tucked it into her handbag, slipping her sunglasses back onto her face. “Let’s do that.”
“Yes. OK.” He glanced up and down the street, frowning slightly, trying to get his bearings.
“This won’t be like the steps, will it? You do actually know where we’re going?” Gaby asked, a hint of doubt in her voice. Illya groaned softly.
“A tourist I can be, I think. An architect…” he trailed off, waving his hand with a grimace. She laughed, and took his hand, then tucked her own in the crook of his arm as they stepped into the ebb and flow of foot traffic. Gaby teasingly suggested various possible covers for his profession that might be easier to manage--”a tailor, the way you know couture, hmm?”--as they wandered toward the sea.
When they reached the harbor, bustling with fishing boats and ferries, yachts and sleek sailboats, Gaby's pleased smile and the quick squeeze of his arm convinced Illya that he'd made the right choice. They walked along the waterfront, Illya offering occasional comments about the quality of and care paid to the boats they passed, to Gaby's amusement, prompting another round of suggestions for more plausible covers for Illya.
"A ship's captain, maybe. Though I don't know enough to be sure you're not making up nonsense this time, either.”
“No, it is the truth. I trained on a variety of watercraft, though mostly on lakes, not the ocean,” he admitted. As Gaby paused and crouched down to scratch the ears of a skinny harbor cat, he straightened slightly, chin lifting. “Speedboat racing champion, two years running, also,” he added, glancing sidelong to see Gaby’s reaction. Laughing, she shook her head, while the cat startled and scampered away.
“I swear it,” he insisted.
“Fine, fine, I believe you. A ship’s captain who tailors his own uniform, then,” she chuckled, pulling him further along the waterfront. As the shadows lengthened, Illya coaxed Gaby into stopping in a small restaurant, where he ordered them a bottle of sharp local wine and grilled fish and vegetables cooked with herbs. He’d managed several hearty bites and a pleased mutter at the quality of the fish before he noticed Gaby picking listlessly at a piece of pita bread between sips of wine.
“You don’t like it,” he said, frowning, setting down his fork.
“It’s not bad,” she said, defensively. “Just...different than I’m used to, is all.” He could imagine it easily. In East Berlin she’d likely not faced serious privation--though as a child just after the war, it might have been a different matter--but from his own experiences he was sure her diet had been...unvaried, without connections to the West that her foster family had certainly not enjoyed.
“I don’t think about food much,” she continued, spearing a piece of fish and toying with it on her plate. “It’s just...not important. Not really.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes not,” Illya prevaricated, hesitating, but his training and the desire to share with his colleague won out over the opportunity to exercise discretion. “I do not think Cowboy’s taste for fancy things is always wise, gets him in trouble more often than not, but food can tell you about a place. The people. What they prefer, what they avoid.”
“Whose tastes are important, and whose are not,” she muttered, a challenging look in her expression as she eyed him across the table, clutching her wine glass. He nodded shortly.
“Yes.” In East Berlin, his own familiar cuisine had largely taken the place of traditional German food, at least when it came to eating out. Restaurants catered to the tastes of Soviet soldiers and administrators with money to spend, after all. And what was available on store shelves was similarly bound less by preference and more by state regulation.
The silence hung between them for a long moment before Illya picked up his fork once more and took a bite of the food, chewing thoughtfully.
“There are similarities here to the food we had in Istanbul, of course. Regional similarities. Shared history of culture, and what is availble to grow, to fish. And shared histories of conquest. All these things and more. But also different, yes? The way the fish is prepared, the vegetables chosen to go with it. It is specific to not just the country, but this locality. It would be different just down the coast. These things are not so easily erased,” he offered. After a moment Gaby nodded, and picked up her own fork.
“Not easily at all,” she agreed, and took a bite of her fish.
Stockholm - December 1963
Sore, tired, and propped in a chair with cushions that had seen better days a decade past, Illya feigned sleep. Actual sleep might have been preferable, but the quiet noises across the small house in the kitchen were just loud enough on top of the dull throb of his injuries to keep him from nodding off. He might have called out and grumbled at Solo to stop whatever fussing he was up to, but by now he had learned that allowing his American partner to labor in the kitchen would yield benefits in the end worth a bit of inconvenience.
And the chance to listen to his partners whisper at one another, too.
"Soup?" Gaby's voice sounded exasperated even hissed softly.
"Supplies are rather limited, we're not getting extracted until tomorrow at the earliest, and Peril will have to eat something when he wakes up and takes another round of drugs. Got any better ideas?" Solo's rumbled reply was equally quiet but firm. Gaby's grunt was an eloquent answer in and of itself.
"It's…fussy. There's cans, we can just heat them on the stove, we don't need to mix this and that." Silence followed, broken only by the sawing of a can opener and the noise of its contents being emptied in a pot.
"Not necessary. But nice. With some potatoes from the pantry it'll stretch what we have into something a bit more pleasant and filling than lukewarm beans and tinned peas."
"Fine, I'll just go check-"
"Let him be," Solo cautioned her. "He needs to sleep." Gaby huffed.
"He's fine." Gaby's silence fairly bristled.
"We got to him in time," Solo continued patiently.
"I know that! I just…" she trailed off, and Illya heard a thump of something hitting the countertop sharply.
"You want to help with these potatoes?" Solo offered quietly.
Illya dozed off, strangely content, to the rhythmic sound of chopping.
London – January 1964
“The funding’s not been the thing so much as settling exactly where we fit in the hierarchy and seeing about a headquarters, but things are well underway now. I expect we can have you three established in permanent lodgings now that we’re in the new year, and we’ll have a proper set up for offices, intelligence, and R and D within a few more months,” Waverly told them cheerfully in his hotel suite, entirely out of the blue.
“Offices?” Napoleon had echoed, surprised.
“Research and development?” Illya spoke at the same time, perking up considerably.
“What kind of permanent lodging?” Gaby asked, hard on their heels. Waverly tutted and dismissed their concerns with a wave of his hand.
“I’ll have some information about a few likely properties to let in appropriate neighborhoods for you both,” he said nodding to Gaby and Illya in turn, before turning a slightly wary eye on Napoleon.
“I expect, being more familiar with London than Mr. Kuryakin and Miss Teller, you’ll want to make your own arrangements, Mr. Solo.”
However genial, rich, and influential Waverly was—and however deep this international criminal enterprise the Vinciguerras had been courting seemed to go—Napoleon had no illusions about the permanency of this arrangement. Sanders could haul him back to the CIA’s grasping clutches at any time, and he expected the same was true of Illya’s gravel-voiced handler. As for Gaby, well, there was probably a civil servant’s sort of position in the intelligence service under Waverly if she was lucky and this U.N.C.L.E thing didn’t continue on, but Napoleon wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that the Brits wouldn’t turn her out at loose ends with a genial ‘thank you’ and a fresh passport and not much besides, depending on how the wind blew.
Still, he only smiled and inclined his head in agreement with Waverly.
“Very well, I’ll have the financials made available, and the appropriate paperwork to have all the payments run through official channels once you’ve made your choices.” He paused, leaning back slightly from the table, glancing between Napoleon and Illya.
“I hope this makes clear, gentlemen, that while certainty is a fool’s game in this business, that I have communicated to your superiors that this project will be continuing for some time, and they have agreed with my assessment and your so-far exemplary results. So let’s keep on looking forward rather than back, shall we? Very good,” he said, not bothering to wait for any sort of confirmation and ignoring the surprise writ across their three faces before he stood, smoothing the front of his jacket with a practiced air. “Now if you would excuse me, I have a large number of arrangements to make on your behalf.”
Without fanfare, Napoleon, Illya and Gaby found themselves turned out into the hotel hallway and to their own devices.
"So, as it happens, I already have a place in the city," Napoleon offered. Gaby and Illya turned matching curious looks in his direction as Napoleon sighed internally at the thought of bringing these two colleagues—friends? more?—into his trust enough to visit one of the few boltholes he'd preserved even past his arrest years ago.
"Lunch on me. By me," he continued. "I think we have a lot to talk about."