The young man looked slightly different from the other recruits at Survival School, the island training center for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. His light blond hair was not cut in the typical barber clipped, clean nape style that most men wore. His was ragged looking by comparison; a fringe of bang hung just slightly onto his wide forehead, the back at least an inch longer than would have been acceptable in most circles.
He also looked much younger than the other men; what would be a gift in years to come now posed a problem by making him look more like a teenager than the 22 year old man that he was. Large blue eyes, deep set beneath strong blond eyebrows had been disciplined by the young Russian to not betray whatever emotions lay beneath the seemingly cool exterior. If he appeared to be aloof and unconcerned about the others, it was an act perfected by years of practice among bigger and, sometimes aggressive men he had encountered in the military and other environments. To look weak and vulnerable was sometimes an invitation to the most unwelcome overtures and predictable bullies. He was strong, his small frame belying the muscle and determination that fueled his actions.
"Kuryakin, Illya...' A murmer went through the line of recruits, whispers about the Russian...the commie.
"Kuryakin, get over here". Jules Cutter was a military man, with a crew cut and hardass attitude to match. He didn't like puny guys who thought they could cut it at his school, and he didn't like communists. He had lost too many buddies in Korea to want to coddle some Russian pet that Alexander Waverly was sending his way. If the kid passed Survival School it would be a minor miracle, because nothing was going to be easy for him. Nothing.
"What are you doing here? This is UNCLE, not some Soviet spy school...not Katyn". That last he spit out, disgusted with what the young man represented; all of the deceit of Stalin, the massacre in Poland that had been blamed on the Nazis. They were all the same as far as Jules Cutter was concerned. He only wished the Russians and the Germans had destroyed each other during the war.
"Let me warn you right now, Kuryakin...any sign of betrayal, any outgoing messages to your countrymen...anything that I don't like'...
he had his nose nearly touching Illya's, his eyes demanding a reciprocating glare...
"you'll be on your way back to Alexander Waverly in a body bag. Do you understand me?"
Illya rose up to his full height of five feet eight inches, daring Cutter to consider him less than he was.
"I understand perfectly, Mr. Cutter. Is that all?"
He felt like throwing up, the emotions roiling so vehemently within him that his instinct to flee from this assembly nearly overpowered his will to survive this ordeal...to conquer it and everyone within hearing of this humiliation.
"Good. Now, go and find your bunk and dress out for drills. You'll be first up on the range".
With that he turned to the next man in line, dismissing the blond with his backside, recognizing the chill he'd put in the group with this challenge to the small Russian. Survival School would be hell for Kuryakin; he'd make sure of it.
The firing range had been an easy victory for Illya Kuryakin. His skills were well beyond those of the men in this class of recruits. In spite of Cutter's attempts to distract him, harrass him and generally sabotage all of his efforts to shoot with perfect aim, the hated Russian had exceeded even his own expectations. It seemed that the challenge was in place, and it afforded him an advantage over the others; his life had been a perpetual challenge, and look where he was now. He instinctively responded with a heightened set of skills and natural ability. Cutter was nearly incensed at the marksmanship, grudgingly admitting that the first round had gone to the Russian. So what, he would get him in the next phase: the obstacle course.
Cutter's pride and joy was his obstacle course challenge. Here was where his new recruits were separated from mere men, and where the first round of cuts usually occured. Kuryakin was small, and he wouldn't be likely to get any help from the others, something that sometimes happened on this course. It was not a group or team effort, but there was nothing to keep the men from helping to guide others through the dangerous maze that Cutter had constructed. He didn't anticipate anyone wanting to help the commie recruit, though; he would be on his own, and possibly at risk of being misled or betrayed. He was certain that the rest of the men felt as he did, and cared little for the life of Illya Kuryakin.
The first man in was Steven Riley, a Texas cowboy who had earned a master's degree in sociology and been recruited to UNCLE upon graduation. He entered the maze, gun in hand and a knife in his belt. As he neared the first turn, he spotted a glint through the leaves, diving past it and hitting the ground hard just in time to avoid being tagged by a sleep dart. Illya was able to see that first move, and being the second man to go in, he was at least going to avoid that little trap. He had no illusions about this being easy, but considering his own training in the USSR, he also felt fairly confident that his chances were better than the others.
As the blond entered the maze, Cutter's words were pushing at him and causing a hardening to overtake his mind; he would not go home in humiliation from this place. Mr. Waverly had put his faith in him, a Russian, to be the first in UNCLE to cross over the boundaries of the Cold War. It wasn't his war, but he would not back down to these people and their prejudices against his nationality. If Cutter wanted a war here, on this island, Illya would give it to him. He followed Riley in, avoiding the dart as the Texan had done, and then continued on through the maze. Several men would fall prey to the hidden traps, some of them suffering physical wounds from the various dangers that were hidden in Cutter's 'obstacle course'. It was more like a house of horrors with real weapons that could inflict very real damage. Illya was among the few who got through it without any instance of harm, while two of the men met the end of their UNCLE careers within its walls. This was how Jules Cutter eliminated the chaff from the wheat. Only the best could graduate and go on to work as enforcement agents for UNCLE. He cursed at the results when Kuryakin's name was among the survivors; not only had he made it, he had come through completely unscathed. Two down...just wait and see what's next, ruskie.
At the mess hall, the men began to divide up into groups as they ascertained who best suited particular social needs. Some of the men were from similar parts of the world, and more than half of the assembled prospects were American. None of them were from Eastern Europe, however, nor did they seem to want to get to know the one lone representative from there. If any of them had any inclination to befriend the Russian, peer pressure or intimidation had quelled the good intention. Illya found himself seated alone, his back to the wall as he looked out on the twenty-four other men who remained in the class of '55. Finally, and without fanfare, someone did approach him and sit down.
Yancy Durhum was a member of Cutter's staff, a former agent who had left the field in order to come and help with the Survival School. He didn't particularly like Jules Cutter, but things like that didn't matter here. You did what you were told to do and with whom that order directed. For now though, he took pity on the young man who looked so completely out of place among the less than friendly crowd of recruits
"Hello...Illya, isn't it?"
He was sitting down as he asked, knowing full well what the man's name was. He was met with the clearest blue eyes he'd ever seen, set into a face that seemed more suited to a high school yearbook than a training school for spies and assassins.
"Hello...yes. And you are Mr. Durham. Please, yes join me".
Illya was flattered to have been sought out by a member of the staff, although his natural pessimism caused him to wonder if it could be a trap of some sort; a manuever on Cutter's part to find a weakness.
"So, how do you like it so far?"
Yancy's smile warmed the place up a bit, causing Illya to relax and just accept the man for what he appeared to be, and what he so needed right now: a friend.
"It is...oh, I suppose challenging is the right word. I do not have any misconceptions about how I am viewed, at least".
He decided to be honest, since it was obvious in the manner in which he had been treated this first day. No one would deny that Cutter had made his intentions clear regarding the Russian recruit.
"Yes, well...Jules can be ascerbic...well, rude and obnoxious as well. Illya, you wouldn't be here if Waverly didn't have confidence in you. Just keep that in mind, will you...you belong here".
Illya let out a sigh so deep that he wasn't sure he'd even been breathing. This kindness, so unexpected...
"Thank you Mr..."
"It's Yancy. I think you're going to need someone in your corner, so we might as well be on a first name basis, ok".
His smile was genuine, and he could see why Waverly had alerted him to this young man's possible plight here on the island.
"Yes, thank you...Yancy. I am indebted to your kindness. I do not know what I was expecting, but it was not this".
He gestured around the room, landing on Jules Cutter as he entered the large dining hall. At the same moment, the man saw Kuryakin and Yancy Durhum sitting together and headed in their direction.
"So, Yancy has found a new friend, has he. Well, I suppose you are Waverly's man here on the island, aren't you Mr. Durham. That's fine...'
He looked hard at Illya, the challenge still in place from the morning's barage...
"Keep an eye on him, Yancy. He's a dead on shot, and slippery too, judging from the obstacle course. I wouldn't let him out of your sight..."
With that he turned on his heel and headed for a table of big recruits who were staring down the two men he'd just left .
"Don't let him get to you, Illya. He's mostly talk. Just keep your head about you at all times, and don't cave in to the taunts and insults. That's what he's counting on, it's what gives him the edge. You must stay cool...above reproach. Do you understand?"
Illya nodded, his stomach in a knot, the food in front of him no longer appealing.
"Thank you again, Yancy. I have experienced this type of bullying before. It...it sort of comes with the territory, I'm told".
Yancy thought that was a funny statement, and prodded the young man for an explanation, first with a raised eyebrow and then by asking him point blank what he meant.
"I have been told that I look...young, and...'
he blushed slightly at the words a female friend had once said to him, remembering how her kisses had become more fervent as she relayed the embarrasing truth to the young seaman.
"A friend, a girl that is...emmm...she said that I am...pretty. That perhaps it makes me a target".
Illya held his head down, not wanting to look his new friend in the eyes as he admitted this disclosure; still needing a friend but not entirely certain that this type of information would help.
"Ah...yes, I can see that. My wife would certainly agree, and definitely my little sister. I'm sure you'll grow out of it, you're still young. Just don't let them see it...those guys. You have a very icy stare when you want to, so use it to your advantage. Sometimes the look is intimidation enough".
Illya looked up at that, then across at the table of boistrous men at Cutter's table. When one of them glanced over at him and Yancy, he was met with that icy stare. It unnerved him enough that he lost track of the conversation for just a minute, then shook himself loose from that effect of what would become Kuryakin's trademark glare. Illya's lip curled into a hint of a smile as the other man turned from him, the realization of the power he had in just the expression on his face.
"See what I mean?"
Yancy had seen it, and it pleased him that his new young friend could realize something as subtle as this to be a weapon in its own right.
The weeks turned into months and finally Survival School came to an end. Of the original class of twenty-six, only fourteen remained. Illya had endured Cutter's every attempt to thwart him, sometimes putting him at risk for the sake of defeating this young foe. Regardless of the relentless opposition, the Russian never wavered in his pursuit of the top scores, finishing first in nearly every category. He would later learn that only one other man had done better; a man he would soon find an integral part of his life at UNCLE. Now, at the end of this harrowing experience called Survival School, Cutter looked at the results and winced in a mixture of defeat and admiration. At the top of the class and slated to remain and teach explosives to the incoming class, was Illya Kuryakin. Cutter's initial reaction and repulsion had turned into a grudging respect for the young man. His expertise in nearly every category had been an alarming wake-up call to the surly commandant. Even though he would never completely absolve him of being a Soviet, Illya had at least tempered the man's dislike for him personally by his diligence and dedication to UNCLE objectives and philosophy. When he received the phone call from Alexander Waverly concerning the Russian, Cutter had no alternative to the truth. In spite of where he came from and Cutter's still enduring hatred for all things Soviet, this man would be beneficial to the Command in every respect.
Illya Nikovitch Kuryakin was an UNCLE agent