Word count 3349
My thanks to whoever gave me this headworm - gevr, I think, and to my beta. You guys are the best!
Ilya Kuryakin stood on the raised dais, tilted his head back and sighed. “This is a waste of time, Napoleon.”
“Fashion is never a waste of time, my friend.” Napoleon was busy re-knotting his tie. He’d already been measured for his new suit. Their last mission had be very hard on their suits, especially when they were divested of them entirely. They had escaped by the skin of their teeth and avoided freezing by stealing clothes from a line. Now they were back in Reykjavik and recovering from their hardships. The appropriated clothes had since been laundered and returned, with a note of thanks from UNCLE.
“Please, sir, if you could stand up straight. And stop moving. I’ve had to take your inside leg three times already.” The tailor was notably annoyed with Illya, probably as much as Illya was with him.
“If your tape measure was warmer, I’d not have moved the first two times,” Illya muttered, but followed his orders.
Napoleon hid his smile. “The faster you do what he says, the quicker we can be on our way. Just think, there’s some Hákar and Súrir hrútspungar just waiting for you back at the hotel.”
The tailor smacked his lips at the thought of such delicacies. “You are in for a treat, sir. Those are not every day dishes.”
Illya winced. “As partial as I am to rotted shark and fermented ram’s testacies, I think I will pass. I’m still having a few gastric issues from the last hotel we stayed at.” Between the barely edible slop they’d been fed and THRUSH’s usual drug cocktails, he wasn’t sure he could hold down anything more than weak tea and toast.
Napoleon had to agree with his partner. THRUSH’s last batch of drug has left him slight queasy, too. They both spent the first night back running in and out of the bathroom. Even now, the thought of anything but the blandest food held no appeal to him. He knew that it was temporary, but he also knew it was better not to tempt fate.
Even though he knew the answer, duty still forced him to ask the question. “Are you sure you don’t need to be checked out, partner?”
“No, I just need a bit of time to recover.” Illya made a face, but stood stock still now. Apparently he’d taken the tailor’s request to heart.
“There always Brennivín to take your mind off it,” the tailor suggested as he jotted down a number, then stiffly stood. “If you could come off the dais, now, sir?”
“Why do we need new suits anyway?” Illya climbed down and watched as the tailor measured his arm.
“Don’t complain. This is as close to a Christmas bonus as we are likely to get this year. Besides, you don’t want to tempt the Yule Cat, would you?”
“The Yule what?” Illya asked.
Napoleon gasped and the tailor looked away from his tape measure to him. “You mean there’s a folk tale my partner hasn’t heard of?” Napoleon clutched his chest in mock pain. “What are young people coming to these days?” he asked the tailor. He doesn’t know about the Yule Cat.” Napoleon shook his head sadly.
“You’re only ten months older than me, Napoleon.” Illya’s expression was sour now and not because he was having his chest measured.
“In years, perhaps, but in wisdom…” Napoleon sighed as if he was bearing the weight of the world solely upon his shoulders.
“There, that does it.” The tailor draped his tape measure around his neck and Napoleon smiled. It seemed all tailors did that. “Your suits should be ready by tomorrow at noon.”
“We will be by in the afternoon. Thank you so much for your service.” Napoleon watched as Illya hurriedly dressed. He could see the weariness in Illya’s face and knew it was reflected in his. What they both needed now more than anything was a quiet night in and ten hours of solid sleep. Or as solid as either of them would be likely to get. It would be a night of sleep interrupted by nightmares and imagined sounds. It was always better when they were together, though. Some things shouldn’t be faced alone.
The agents walked out of the store and made their way up Reykjavik’s Laugavegur Street. Above snowflakes fluttered down to join its brethren in piles and people, anonymous in their heavy coats and scarves, hurried past.
Most acted as if they were in a great rush to get somewhere else, everyone except them. Two visitors, but not tourists, they were neither in a rush to get home nor to shop. They didn’t care for the sights and the exotic sense of the city. To them, it was just another city on another day in a long line of cities and days. Napoleon suspected that if it wasn’t for the holiday trimmings, neither of them would have even been aware that it would soon be Christmas.
They walked, pausing whenever their eyes were caught, and they were. “Something odd,” Illya murmured. “Those men.”
“You see them, too?” They had been strolling along at the same pace as the UNCLE agents, stopping when they stopped and moving when they moved. “Didn’t we get them all at that satrap or during the clean up?”
“Not sure, but I suggest we duck in some place and see if we can lose them.”
They waited for a great surge of people and stepped quickly through an open door. They wove their way to the back of the bar to wait and see the results. Sitting at a table partially obscured by shadows, they stripped off the outer wear and hid behind bar menus.
Sure enough, within a few minutes, the two men appeared in the doorway of the bar, scanned the crowd and then left.
A waitress approached and set down two coasters and then a bottle of Brennivín and two iced shot glasses before them.
Napoleon smiled at her. “Ah, I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. We haven’t ordered anything yet.”
“The men at the end of the bar did.” She smiled as she indicated their direction and then hurriedly left to serve other customers. Illya stiffened slightly and let his hand drift towards the butt of his P-38. Napoleon reached out and touched Illya’s forearm and shook his head.
He flipped the coaster so Illya could see the crudely drawing image of a man in front of a globe. “They are ours?” Illya asked, frowning. “But how?”
“Apparently. At any rate, we will know in a moment, they are coming our way.”
Napoleon smiled at the leader. “It’s warm for this time of year in Iceland.”
“The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco,” he murmured back as he sat. “Welcome to Reykjavik, Mr. Solo.”
“Thanks. This is my partner, Illya Kuryakin.”
“Ah, the Russian we keep hearing about. I am Adrian Grímsson.” The leader held out his hand. “Any more at home like you? We’ve been quite impressed.”
Illya smiled. “A few hundred thousand, I suspect. How did you know to find us here?”
“We didn’t. Your Mr. Waverly told us what hotel you were staying at and we stopped by, but you were out. We decided to wait and see if you showed up. Then, happily, you found us instead. You had a tail?”
Napoleon nodded. “We did, but we seem to have shaken it for the moment.”
“Just be careful, Mr. Solo. There are dangers lurking in the shadows here.”
“The Yule Cat, you mean?” Illya asked, smiling as he sipped the caraway-flavored liquor.
The men laughed amongst themselves and then Grimsson spoke up, “Surely, you don’t believe that old wives tale, do you, Mr. Kuryakin? I saw you as a man of the world.”
“It pays to not make light of local legend. Everything has a basis in truth.”
“Ah, but this one was started as a threat used by farmers as an incentive to their workers. They wanted the fall wool processed before Christmas. The workers who met those expectations were give new clothes as gifts while the others weren’t. Those workers ran the risk, the farmers warned, of being eaten by a large and particularly ferocious cat, the Yule Cat.”
“It must have made an impact if the legend is still around today.”
“It sells clothes. Americans aren’t the only capitalists in the world. Besides, we love our legends.” Grimsson nodded to his compatriots and the men headed out. “They will make sure the coast is clear and you won’t be hassled on your way to the hotel.”
“I think I like the greetings here better than other places. I’ve never had a housekeeping staff take care of things before this.”
“You gentlemen will be flying out tomorrow?”
“A couple of days after,” Napoleon answered. “We thought we could use a bit of a break and maybe get a little Christmas shopping done in the meantime.”
Grimsson nodded and stood. “Pick up mine, too, while you are at it. I hope that you will have a good evening.” With that he disappeared into the encroaching night.
“Who was that Masked Man?” Napoleon watched Grimsson leave.
Illya seemed to be more intent upon his glass. “No idea, but I’ll make a couple of calls when we get back to the room. Now, drink your drink.”
The next day was spent relaxing and catching up on muchly needed rest and pointless paperwork. Napoleon had learned from experience that it was far better to get at least a sketch of their mission. It also gave them something to focus upon besides their captivity. Otherwise, it was all too easy to fixate.
At first, it was nice to be able to walk around barefoot and stretch out on the bed when the details of their mission grew foggy, but finally, Napoleon stood up and tossed Illya his jacket. “I need to get out of here. Twelve waking hours in a room is as much as I can take.”
“You are usually held twice as long as this, even three times.” Illya bent over to pull on his shoes. He laced them up quickly, but his mind was elsewhere.
“But in those cases, I couldn’t leave. Here, I can. Did you hear back from New York?”
“The Northern Lights are hell to pay on our satellites. I checked in with the local office and they did say they did assign Adrian Grímsson to meet us. They were satisfied and so am I… mostly.”
“What’s bothering you?”
“I don’t know… something.” Illya shrugged his shoulders. “You know what it’s like after a mission. You see things in every shadow.” Napoleon checked his hair in a mirror and Illya handed him a hat. “You lose most of your body heat through your head. A proper cap would be warmer.” He pulled his knitted cap down over his blond hair.
“A cold head is a small price to pay for good grooming.” Still, Napoleon settled the hat with a slightly rakish angle. “Now it’s time to pick up our new suits. We’ll be stepping out in style.”
“I’ll be happier after Del Florias has had his way with them. Even fully clothed, I feel strangely naked without his special touch.” It would only take UNCLE tailor and his helpers a few hours to load the suits up with explosive buttons, lock picks, tracking bugs, and the rest. “A well-dressed UNCLE agent wouldn’t leave home without it.”
“Once we return to New York, we will let him at it. But tonight, tonight is Christmas Eve and I have reservations for us at Kol’s. Since we both have our appetites back, I thought it only right. From what I understand, the food there is very good and not Icelandic at all.”
“Really? I could use a break from Harðfisku and Svið.” Illya pulled on his jacket and grabbed his gloves. “Then let’s go.” With a laugh, Napoleon followed. Having a few down days with his partner was a Christmas gift worth getting.
They walked out of the tailor shop, boxes holding their old suits under their arms. “How is yours fitting?” Napoleon asked as Illya shifted and wiggled inside his new one. “Enough room under the arms?”
“It is fitting surprisingly well for a new suit. Just getting used to the feeling of it. What about yours?” There was no answer and Illya turned to look at Napoleon, but there was a flash, a shot of pain and then nothing.
It was dark when he came to, although his internal clock argued with him. It had been just after one when they left the tailor shop. Even given the extreme northern location of the country, sunset wouldn’t be until nearly 3:30. Then Illya realized he was blindfolded, bound and on his side. He could smell something grassy and scratchy and decided it must be hay.
“Illya?” Napoleon’s voice was soft and inches away. A hand found his. “Are you awake?”
“Here, Napoleon.” They were tied back to back, a boon for them. Illya worked the feeling back into his fingers. “I am going to have to add proficient at being unconscious to my resume.” He started exploring the knots to Napoleon’s bindings.
“Help me sit up.” It took a bit of a struggle, but they eventually got into an upright position.
“You are finally awake.” It was a familiar voice. “I was afraid we’d hit you too hard. That would have been very awkward to explain to my bosses.”
Both men stilled.
“Almost as awkward as having to explain to them how you met up with us in a bar, eh, Mr. Grimsson?” Napoleon asked quietly.
“Well, I left that part out. I have a reputation for luck and it didn’t let me down. I understand that there’s a promotion waiting for me upon delivery of UNCLE’s two top agents. I’m just a little embarrassed that it wasn’t harder.” There was a laugh. “Of course, things have always been easy for me.”
“You must tell me how you knew our pass phrase,” Illya said. “Now that you have us at your mercy.”
“Not all UNCLE agents have your fortitude. I’m afraid the real Grimsson broke rather easily.”
Illya nodded. “That’s it. I should have realized it sooner when you said that Mr. Waverly told you where we were. He never would have done that, especially since we hadn’t yet told him. We couldn’t get through to New York, so how would you have managed such a trick?”
“Brennivín has a way of loosening tongues and numbing minds.” Grimsson’s voice was a few feet away now. “So does the winter. Here we like to let Nature do much of the work for us.”
A blast of cold air caught Napoleon and he gasped involuntarily. “It’s very refreshing.”
“We’ll see what you think come daybreak. If you are still conscious, of course. Let’s go.”
There was the sound of footsteps on a wooden floor retreating, but the UNCLE agents stayed quiet for several minutes, ears straining for a hint of movement or noise before moving.
“Go, Illya,” Napoleon whispered. Illya set to work on the ropes, his fingers clumsy in the frigid air. “At least they didn’t strip us.”
“They didn’t need to. They knew the suits were brand new without any of our usual additions. Damn. These knots are tight.”
“It’s okay. Take your time,” Napoleon encouraged. “I guess they didn’t want us to freeze to death too quickly. It’ll take a couple of hours for that.”
A few minutes passed and Napoleon could feel the rope binding his hands growing looser. “You’re almost there, Illya.” Then a noise made them both freeze in place. It was distant, but growing louder. Suddenly the sound of nearby gunfire made them both jump and there was a flurry of footsteps around them.
“Did you get it?” It was Grimsson, his voice edged with fear. “What the hell was it?”
“Four times. It’s dead. I think it was a wolf.”
“It was a big cat, like a Siberian Tiger.”
There was a very different noise, a combination of a growl and a wail. ““No, it’s not. Where the hell is it?”
“Give it the UNCLE agents!” another voice shouted. “We can get away while it’s eating.”
Abruptly, Napoleon felt hands grabbing him, pulling him away from Illya. He struggled to get his hands free of the ropes binding them, then there was a scream and he was dropped unceremoniously to the ground. He couldn’t tell who made it, though. He fell back to the floor with a grunt. Around him, he could hear the sound of a battle. There were shouts, more gunfire, and more screaming. Something warm splattered against his face and then abruptly the noise stopped. The resulting silence was deafening.
“Napoleon, lie quietly,” Illya ordered. “Play dead.”
While Napoleon was the leader of their partnership, he knew better than to argue the point when Illya used that tone. There was the sound of heavy tread on the floor, so heavy the wood trembled upon impact.
There was a whine, low and longing, then fetid breath against his face. Every fiber of his being screamed to him to move, retreat, but instead he fought instinct and stayed rock still. He concentrated upon keeping his breathing shallow and slow. Eventually the footsteps retreated and nothing but the sound of his beating heart and the howling wind filled his ears.
“Illya?” he asked. “You okay? Can I move?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Illya managed to work the last knot free. “There!”
With relief, Napoleon shook his hand clear of the rope and pulled off his blindfold. “Oh, my god.”
“What?” Illya turned his head in the direction of Napoleon’s voice and he realized his partner was still blind and bound. The cloth was suddenly removed and Illya blinked painfully as Napoleon started to untie his own feet.
“Hang on.” Now completely free, he set to work on Illya’s bindings while the Russian did nothing more than stare at the carnage. It looked as if each man had been bitten in half and then shaken violently.
The rope dropped away and Illya got awkwardly to his feet, groaning as the circulation returned to his lower body. “What the hell happened?” He looked around. “It was a blood bath.” He glanced down at his red-stained suit. “Literally.”
“I don’t know, but I’m all for making tracks. Whatever attacked them might come back for more if it gets hungry again. Let’s go. We need to alert the authorities.”
“And tell them what, Napoleon?” There was a strange pitch to Illya’s voice and Napoleon glanced over at him and then down to where Illya was pointing. On the plank flooring, a large paw print stood out, red against the wood. “You don’t think…”
“That’s the nice part about this job, Illya. We get paid not to think. Let’s get out of here, partner.”
Hákarl (Fermented Shark)
Brennivín ("Black Death").
Harðfiskur (Dried fish)
Svið (Sheep's head)
The Yule Cat (Icelandic: Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur) is a monster from Icelandic folklore, a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. The Yule Cat has become associated with other figures from Icelandic folklore as the house pet of the giantess Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and thus would be preyed upon by the monstrous cat. The cat has alternatively been interpreted as merely eating away the food of ones without new clothes during Christmas feasts. The perception of the Yule Cat as a man-eating beast was partly popularized by the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn.