Illya Kuryakin moved slowly, so slowly that he wanted to
scream in frustration. Not that it would
make any difference. Scream or not,
right now he had but one speed.
It was a fairly clear December afternoon and he was at the
park with his two oldest grandchildren.
Alex and two of his friends were busy chasing each other around the
playground equipment while Irina and Fran had already found a bench in the weak
winter sun and were tending to their dolls.
It constantly amazed him at how different these two children
were. Alex was a living example of
Newton's First Law of Motion. He was
either asleep or running. Irina was just
the opposite. She was content to sit and
play quietly. Alex liked to be together,
as Napoleon put it. Unlike most boys his
age, he didn't leave the house unless his hair was combed, his shirt was tucked
in and his buttons buttoned. Not that it
lasted for long; within minutes, he'd be a mess. Irina, as long as what she was wearing was
pink, was happy.
Illya eased down onto a bench and sighed, rubbing his hip though
the thick fabric of his coat. Vic said
he was healing incredibly well and shouldn't have any trouble returning to work
after the first of the year. Illya was
glad, but dubious. While the break from
work was at first welcome, he'd grown tired of watching TV and reading. He enjoyed his grandchildren, but he found
himself more and more yearning for adults and for a real purpose again.
He scratched his cheeks and neck. His beard was almost an inch long, but almost
past the itching stage. Not bad for a couple of weeks of not shaving
he decided, although it had been a shock to see white mixed in with the gold
hair. Apparently, his beard wasn't able
to camouflage it as well his head.
He stretched out his sore leg and watched Alex charge up a
slide wrong way round. He was going to
be an UNCLE agent, Illya had no doubts about
that. He had Napoleon's spirit and
Illya's stubbornness. Irina, she had a
gift of mimicry that bordered on the awe inspiring. He wasn't sure if she was destined for UNCLE,
but her little sister certainly was.
Inessa's love of explosions was almost frightening. Peter was anyone's guess, but Illya thought
he might end up becoming a chef. The
little boy's appetite was incredible. He smiled as he contemplated their lives
"Poppy?" He broke
from his thoughts and looked to where Irina stood beside him. How'd she gotten from the bench to his side
so quickly was a mystery. Children seemed to move as fast as the wind.
She held up two doll dresses; one was butter yellow and the
other cotton candy pink. "Which one do you like better - the lovely pink one or the yucky, icky,
poopy yellow one?"
"Irina, this is what is referred to as a loaded question." He brushed the dark hair from her face, then he smiled. "The pink one, of course."
"You have inspeckible taste."
"Impeccable," Illya corrected automatically.
"What does it mean, Poppy?"
"How many times have we had the discussion about using a
word that you don't know the meaning to?"
"That's close. Impeccable
means without error or fault. Where did
you hear it?"
"Grampy said he has impeccable taste in partners, but I'm
not sure what he was talking about."
"I am and he's right.
He does." He watched her run back
to the bench and sit down. He kept his
attention moving, watching the people who walked past. While it was not likely that anyone would try
to snatch the children, he wasn't about to take the chance. He couldn't move as fast as he used to and that
made him twice as diligent.
His head turned automatically and he frowned at the woman rapidly
approaching him. She looked familiar,
but he wasn't sure. His hand drifted
towards his holster just on the off chance she was an old enemy, but then she
came closer and he blinked and then smiled in recognition.
"In the flesh!" She got closer and she leaned down to give him
a hug. "Still packing, I take it?" she
said as she felt his weapon beneath his jacket. Then she saw the cane. "With the same results?"
"Some things remain constant." He gestured to the bench. "How have you been? You left UNCLE thirteen years ago now?"
"Almost, can you believe it?" She settled on the bench, tucking her coat
close around her legs to shield them from the cold.
"No, the time goes faster than you can imagine these
days. You look well, just the same."
She laughed and waved a hand at him and then over her hair. "You are kidding. I look every year of it, but you... what secret
do you have? You don't look a day over
forty." Then she stopped and looked
around. "Is Napoleon here?"
"No, he is at work." There was a cry and his head turned as
Alex got up from the ground, limping and holding his elbow. Illya shot a glance to Nellie. "Pardon
me." He held his arms open and the boy
tumbled into them, sobbing. "What
"Stupid slide, stupid dirt..."
"A little more articulation, please?" He peeled the boy's grubby hand away and
examined the scrape through the torn fabric of the wool sweater. "You skinned your elbow?"
"Then why are you limping?"
"For dramatic effect. " He sniffed and wiped his face with his
"It doesn't work."
Illya started to ease the arm from the sleeve and Alex shied away.
"It hurts, Poppy."
Alex rubbed at his eyes with his other fist.
"I know." Illya got
the arm free and blew gently on the scrape and then dug his handkerchief out. He folded it into thirds, then wrapped it
around Alex's elbow and tied it. "There
you go. Field dressed, just like an
"Just like Mr. Alex's!
Wow... I'm official!" He stared at
the handkerchief for a moment, then ran off. "Roger,
Tony, look at this!"
Illya smiled, glanced over to check on Irina and then looked
back at Nellie. "They grow up so fast. I don't know where he gets the energy except
possibly siphoning off all of mine."
"Your... son? That's not possible, is it? I mean, I thought you... couldn't..."
"Believe it or not, my oldest grandson." He nodded to Irina as she tutted at her
doll's dress. "And that is my
"Long story, short version. My daughter from an incidental liaison back
when I 'could' married Napoleon's son from a similar situation back when he 'could'
and Leon is very much his father's son.
There are five in all."
Nellie sat for a moment and then started to laugh. "That could only happen to you two, I
swear. Napoleon is well? You're still together?"
"He is and we are. He
took over the reins from Waverly about ten years ago."
"And you, Illya, how are you? Really?" She took his hand and Illya dropped a hand to
"I am... currently between assignments, pending my recovery
from this last round of surgery."
There was a moment of awkward silence and Illya returned to
watching his grandchildren.
"Did you or Napoleon ever take the plunge?"
"Either one of you find a woman to call your own?"
He shook his head slowly.
"As I said before, some things never change." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pam and
Stephanie approaching, coming to collect Fran.
"It is three o'clock already?" He
glanced up at the cloud-riddled sky and sighed at the twinge that ran down his
leg. "And there is more snow coming."
"Really?" Nellie glanced skyward as well. "The forecasters said nothing about snow."
Illya rubbed his hip and thigh. "Believe me. I have a barometer that would
make most meteorologists envious." He
got to his feet with the help of his cane just as Irina was running up to him.
"Poppy, Miss Pam said that Frannie's
mommies invited me home for a pillow party.
Can I go?"
"May I go?"
"Poppy," she scolded with a giggle. "You're silly - it's for girls!"
"No, the correct term is 'May I,' not 'Can I'."
"Yes, Poppy, so can I?"
He glanced over at Pam who gave him a nod and a smile.
"All right, I suppose that will be fine. I will tell your mother and she can send over
Irina wrapped her arms around his bad leg and hugged him
hard. "Thank you. I adore you, Poppy."
"I love you, too," he whispered through gritted teeth. She let go and looked as if she was about to
cry. "It's all right, Irina, you just
forgot. You go and have a good time. Don't
forget we are decorating cookies tomorrow afternoon. You don't want to miss that."
"I will, Poppy, I won't. Bye, bye, Poppy's friend." She ran off back to Fran and threw her arms
Illya chuckled and glanced over at the slide. Lifting a thumb and forefinger to his mouth,
he whistled. Alex looked and Illya
gestured to him. The little boy stomped
over to him.
"Lose the attitude, Alexander," Illya advised.
"Poppy, I'm almost eight.
Attitude is all I have..." At
Illya's frown, he sighed. "Yes, sir."
"Look at you," Nellie said and Illya glanced at her,
suddenly startled. He'd forgotten she
"You are a real honest-to-God grandfather."
He stroked Alex's tousled blond hair affectionately. "Yes, thankfully I am. Nellie, you should come to dinner. You and your husband. Napoleon would love to see you."
"I'm not married..."
"I thought you left UNCLE to..."
"Smoke screen. I was just tired of all the drama, the blood,
the agony. I work for a private practice
now. No more putting you guys back
together with bits of string and glue."
At Alex's mortified look, Illya chuckled. "She is speaking metaphorically, Alex. Do you remember what that means?"
"Sort of... I think."
He sighed at Illya's look. "Oh
great, more homework..."
Illya shook his head sadly at him. "I wait in dread for your teenage
years." To Nellie: "You should still come to dinner." Illya dug
a card out of his jacket pocket and scribbled down a number. "Call me and we'll arrange something over the
"I'd like that." But
her smile was sad as she wistfully kissed his cheek and walked away. Illya doubted he'd see her again.
"Pinkles!" Peter pounded his hands on the table and
giggled as the small bottles danced.
"You might still be a little young for this," Lisle said,
placing a tray of unfrosted cookies down onto the table. Immediately Irina picked one up and began to
cover it with pink frosting.
"A pink Santa? That should turn Mrs. Claus on her
ear." Leon said as he walked up to his
wife. "I will be late tonight."
"Not to worry, my darling.
We Solos are a tough breed. Those
file cabinets will never know what hit them."
Illya looked up from the cookie he was carefully
frosting. "I'm sorry?"
"The new Number One wants to reorganize the office."
"Ah." Illya returned
to his task and tried not to show disapproval.
The office was designed to run with the greatest of efficiency, but it
was natural for Franz to want to take possession of it, mark his territory as
it were. It didn't mean Illya had to
like it. Part of him still wanted
Napoleon to admit it was a mistake, reinstate him as the section head, beg him
to come back and get things back on their feet.
He knew that wouldn't happen; it couldn't happen, not the way he was now,
not the way he was going to be.
"It's okay, Dad." He started as Lisle kissed his cheek. "Feeling sad and angry is part of letting
"I'm not sad and I'm not angry," Illya protested.
"Which is why you just frosted a star black..." She frowned.
"How did we get black frosting for Christmas cookies?"
"Santa's boots, Mommy," Alex answered, holding his Santa up
as an example and then he set it aside to return to his bright blue Christmas
tree. "It's for realism."
"Realism? A blue Christmas tree?"
"It's a blue spruce..."
The tip of Alex's tongue appeared as he concentrated on getting the
frosting right to the edges without going over.
"And mine is a black hole..." Illya muttered, scraping the
icing off to start again.
"What's a black hole?"
Alex was carefully sticking little silver balls onto his Christmas tree
"It's a star that has died.
It collapses in on itself, creating an enormous gravitational pull. It sucks in itself and anything that gets too
close, even light."
Alex looked over to where Peter was licking the palm of his
hand and pressing it against the scattered sprinkles on the table top, then
transferring thecandy to his mouth. "Oh, you mean like Peter."
Illya smiled, "Yes, exactly like Peter. Nothing food-like is safe from his
gravitational pull." He pushed a frosted
angel cookie towards the boy. "Peter, like this."
He carefully shook the red sugar crystals over the yellow surface. "See?"
"Cookieee." Peter did a fair impression of the Cookie
monster as he eyed the treat.
Illya sighed and handed it to him, then hefted him out of
his booster seat and onto the floor. "I
think that one is just too fixated for this task. Go find Inessa. Go blow something up."
"Okie," Peter mumbled around his mouthful of cookie.
"I would love to know where he gets that appetite." Lisle's
voice trailed off, chuckling as Illya helped himself to a bit of broken
reindeer cookie. "Never mind; I think I just answered my own question."
Irina held up a pink tree that was decorated with cinnamon
hearts. "Do you think Grampy will like
this one? I made it special for him."
"I think he'll find that one especially delightful," Genève
said, wiping a bit of icing from Irina's cheek.
Irina slid out of the chair and walked over to the counter
to put the cookie up out of Peter's reach.
She came back and stopped to lean against Illya, resting her head on his
"Is there something wrong, little one?" Illya asked.
He pushed his glasses back into place with the back of his hand.
"Poppy, are you my Christmas wish?"
"What do you mean, Irina?"
Illya set aside the cookie he was working on.
"I asked Santa for a special friend to be with me forever and
here you are." She sighed. "I was talking about a puppy, but I guess I
wasn't 'pecific enough. It's okay though, 'cuz
you're nice too."
Illya smiled slightly.
"Thank you, I think you're pretty nice too."
There was a wail from the other room and Irina smiled. "Ginny's awake. I'll go get her, Mommy!" She raced out before Lisle could say anything
and Genève stood.
"I'll go help her," she said. "I'll check on the other two as well and make
sure neither of them is blowing up anything of great importance."
"She is going to make a fine mother some day," Illya said as
the young woman hurried from the room. "And Irina as well."
"I don't know where she gets it." Lisle stood and started to
walk to the kitchen door. Illya caught
her hand and squeezed it.
"I do. You're a
wonderful mother, Lisle. Why would you
She smiled and he pulled her down onto his lap. "Aren't I a little old for this?" She sat
carefully, keeping most of her weight balanced onto his good side.
"Making up for lost time. Unless you are indeed too
old for this."
"Never." She slid her arms
around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. "You must be my special Christmas wish as
"Why do you say that?
I feel more like the perennial freeloader."
"What? Leon and I
would never be able to make it without you, Napoleon and Genève." She kissed his whiskered cheek. "I don't think there's a day that goes by I
don't thank whatever gods might be listening that you
are all here for us."
"I'm getting a little nauseous over here," Alex muttered and
Illya shot him a look.
"I hear there's a remedy for that - extra math homework." He rested his head against Lisle's.
"How come, if we're home schooled, I still get
homework? Wouldn't everything I do be
"Yes, and I could find a lot more of it if you'd like," Lisle
There was a sound and the shouting of his siblings. "Grampy's home, cool!" He slid from the table and took off at a run.
Illya looked down at the table and then at his
daughter. "So tell me, why is it that
this is all the children could talk about for the past three days and now they
are all gone... deserting the ship, as it were?
We the few?"
Genève carried in a whimpering Ginny. "I think someone's hungry. Do you want me to warm up a bottle?"
"More a case of you the only, I'm afraid, at least for the
time being." Lisle carefully got off
Illya's lap and reached for her daughter.
"Are you hungry, sweetheart? Let's go take care of that."
Genève passed the baby to her and resumed her chair at the
table. "It's okay, Poppy, I'll decorate
cookies with you."
Illya sighed and reached for a reindeer. "These hands used to be licensed weapons in
five countries, now reduced to this..."
He spread the frosting onto the cookie and heard a soft
voice in his ear. "Oh, I'd say they're
still pretty lethal, partner, given the right circumstances." Napoleon squeezed his shoulders and Illya
"Yes, another five minutes and I shall have the Pillsbury
Doughboy quaking in fear." Illya shook
some chocolate jimmies on the cookie and passed it to him.
"My hero." Napoleon took a bite and smiled.
"That as well." Napoleon's communicator chirped and he shook
his head. "All day long..." He grinned over at the young girl. "Good evening, Genève, you are looking very
comely with that frosting on your nose."
"I have frosting on my nose?" Her hand went up, touching the tip of it and
smearing the frosting from her finger onto it.
"You do now."
Napoleon winked as she giggled and wiped it off with a dish towel. "Excuse me, duty calls."
Illya watched him leave, even more depressed. He missed being the one dragged from one task
to another, placing the demands and the needs of others above his own. His hip twinged and he sighed. Used up and tossed away like a piece of
Two slender arms encircled his neck and he turned his head slightly
to look back at Genève. "What's wrong?"
"You just really looked like you could use a hug, that's
"You are right, thank you.
What would we do without you?"
"I hope you never ever find out - I don't want to leave
here, ever. As long as Lisle and Leon
will let me stay here, I will." She
released him and went back to her chair.
"After being tossed around like baggage, I know when I've got it good."
"Don't you ever wish for something more?"
"I've spent my whole life just wishing one person would
accept me as I am, not as some freak of nature.
Now I have an entire household of people who don't see me as Ghost the
Albino, they see me as just plain Genève.
If I could lose the red eyes, no one would even look at me weird
"Have you thought about contact lenses?"
She laughed and reached for another cookie. "Money and I are pretty much strangers to
each other, Poppy. I have a warm house,
food, a loving family and a reason to get up in the morning. What would I do with money?"
"I have a proposition for you." Illya set down his knife. "Every year, Napoleon, as the leader of UNCLE,
attends a formal Christmas party given for various heads of state. This year, Leon will attend as his bodyguard
and will take Lisle with him."
"Oh, that's okay, I'll babysit. I don't mind."
"That's not what I had in mind. I would like it very much if you could go as
Napoleon's escort. A beautifully exotic
woman on his arm would be just the thing."
"But aren't you and Grampy..."
"Yes, but there is a time and a place and a formal dinner
with various closed minded officials is not it.
And, quite frankly, I don't think I could physically handle it. There is a cocktail party, then a formal
dinner with dancing. Too much standing,
followed by too much sitting, I'd either be in serious discomfort or drugged up
to my eyebrows, not an attractive situation in either event."
"You said it was a proposition."
"That means we both get something we want."
Tomorrow when Pam and Stephanie are here teaching, you and I will go out
for a little while. Do you trust me?"
"Of course; you're Poppy, slayer of
the Pillsbury Doughboy." She laughed and
Illya joined in.
Napoleon walked back into the room and looked from one to
the other. "What's the joke?"
"No joke, just a secret."
"It's the season for them."
Napoleon walked to the stove. "I
feel like cooking tonight. What's on the
"It's Wednesday, so it's chicken," Alex said, running back in
and climbing up into his chair. "I won!"
he shouted loudly as Irina followed him in.
"You only say that when you lose."
"That's because it's the only time you cheat! Otherwise I win."
"Santa's watching and taking notes, you two," Genève said,
winking at Illya. Napoleon looked over
from his task of crushing cornflakes and nodded.
"Genève is right; he sees you when you're sleeping and knows
when you're awake."
"Does Santa watch us always, like God?" Irina's brow furrowed and she looked concerned.
"Yes, but he tends to grade on the curve, fortunately for
some." Napoleon winked at her as he dug
a package of chicken legs out of the refrigerator.
"I'm going to start wearing my underwear when I take a bath
then," she announced, crossing her arms protectively over her chest. "I don't want anyone seeing me naked. That isn't nice."
"Who'd want to, Ugly?" Alex stuck his tongue out and Irina burst
Illya stood and pointed.
"That was totally uncalled for, Alexander! To your room now, before
I'm tempted to do something drastic."
Head down, Alex stomped from the room, passing Leon on his
way out, a giggling toddler clinging to either leg. They shrieked every time he took a step.
"More! More!" Inessa
ordered and Peter joined in with, "Uppie, uppie!"
"Who needs the gym after you two? Dare I ask what's going on here?" Leon watched Alex leave as he picked up his
daughter and tickled her stomach until the tears gave way to laughter. Illya
had seated himself again and returned to the task at hand.
"Creative differences," Napoleon said, dusting the chicken
in flour. He dipped each one into an egg
wash and then rolled them in the cornflake crumbles. "What are you doing home? I thought you were
"That got scuttled. I
only got halfway in when Franz got wind of something going on and grabbed
Phillips to go check it out. Told me to come home and babysit you."
Peter immediately abandoned his father and headed for his
grandfather, his eyes wide and very interested.
"Notice how perfect his diction is when he's talking about
food," Leon said, setting Irina down.
"Where's my charming bride?"
"Nursing your youngest." Illya pointed with his knife. Leon grabbed a cookie and headed out.
"I don't know why we're bothering, Genève. They seem to be eating them as fast as we
decorate them. At this rate, there will
be none left for Santa."
He felt rather than saw Peter's approach. "Poppy?"
Peter handed him a mushy handful of cookie. "For Tanta."
"I'm certain Santa will appreciate your generosity, Peter,
thank you." Illya clamped his teeth
together at the sopping mess. "Irina,
why don't you take your brother and sister and go wash up for dinner?"
"Okay, Poppy." She
held out a hand to each of them. "Let's
sing, guys! Jingle bells, jingle bells,
jingle all the way."
"Jingle, jingle," Inessa shouted and hopped. "Horsie sleigh..."
"Make sure that soap and water are actually used in the
process," Illya called after them.
Once they were out of the room, Illya limped to the sink and
rinsed off his hand. "That has to count
as one of the less desirable things I've had handed to me." He flexed his hand and then dried it on his
shirt, coming to stand by Napoleon's side.
"Do we have a great bunch of kids or what?" Napoleon began to pan fry the chicken legs,
smiling as Illya stole a fast kiss.
"Speaking of such, I should go up to the tower and release
the young prince."
"Think he's cooled down?"
"Our grandson, are you crazy?" Illya unhooked his cane from the back of his
chair. "The most we can hope for is
reticent agreement to not further engage his sister at dinner. Did you fight this much with your sister?"
Napoleon looked up from his task of searching for a pair of
tongs. "Sadly, I did."
"It must be universal... I teased my young siblings so much, I
was sure that's why my parents sent me to state school. It didn't stop me, just made me a bit
"But you get along now?" Genève asked quietly.
"As long as I remain here and they remain in the USSR—"
"Russia, my friend, they are now calling it Russia; there is
no more USSR."
"The habit of a lifetime, I fear." Illya limped to the door and paused at the
foot of the stairs. Setting his jaw, he
began to climb. By the time he'd
accomplished the twelfth stair, he was ready to lie down on the floor and take
a nap. The pain and the limitations he accepted
as unavoidable, but the tiredness left him feeling as weak as a baby. It seemed to take so much out of him to just
get from Point A to Point B these days.
Sighing, he tapped on Alex's door. "Alexander?"
"Try again." Illya
kept his voice even. The boy was such a
handful these days.
The boy was lying on his bed, arms crossed, glaring at the
wall. Toys were scattered around the
room, obviously the victims of his temper tantrum.
Illya winced and bent down to pick up a remote control car,
one of its wheels missing. Illya
skipped the lecture about taking care of things. He knew that Alex was not in the mood to
listen to him.
He eased himself down onto the edge of the bed and studied
the toy in his hands. When he was growing
up, he never had a store-bought toy, hadn't even known they existed until he
mistakenly happened into a shop near his secondary school. After that, he was a frequent visitor, not
to buy, but just to look at such wonders as wooden soldiers, dolls and artfully
crafted tin creations of all manners and imagine. Illya also remembered his first purchase with
money he'd earned tutoring. Dolls for
his little sisters, toy soldiers for his brothers, a hair ribbon for his mother
and a tie tack for his father. It had
taken every ruble he had, but it had been worth it to see his siblings' delight
and watch Mama tie back her hair. Papa had proudly worn that tie tack for years
afterwards and announced that it had been a gift from his son to anyone who
cared to listen and even some who weren't.
It seemed like yesterday; it seemed like a million years ago. He'd been so strong, so able and now he
couldn't even get in or out of the bathtub by himself.
"Why do you insist
upon tormenting your sister?" He kept
his voice soft as he rubbed Alex's back in slow circles.
"Because it's easy and she deserves it." He tried to shrug
Illya's hand off.
"Why does she deserve it?
Don't you love her?"
"You and Grampy fight... I hear you."
"What does that have to do with you and your sister?"
"Sometimes love is scrambling someone a couple of eggs and
other times it's pulling their hair. You
don't do it to be mean; you just do it 'cause you have
to. Life, liberty, and the right to pick
on your kid sister, it says so in the Constitution."
"Not the version I read."
Illya placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, rolling him over. "You need to apologize to her. You are lucky to have a sister."
"You want her, you can have her."
"I've got three of my own, thanks all the same."
"Then you should understand, Poppy."
"What I understand is that you need to go downstairs and
tell Irina that you are sorry you hurt her feelings. It's the right thing to do and you know it."
"Even if I ain't?"
"I never have any fun."
"Welcome to my world."
Still the boy slid from the bed and walked out. Illya watched him and sighed.
Slowly he got back up onto his feet and started the shuffle towards
the stairs. Down meant another plunge
into the madness of the family, where he would be arbitrator, referee, the calm
voice of reason, or whatever else they needed him to be. Upstairs meant peace and quiet for a few
minutes... and his pain medication. He
checked his watch and smiled grimly. He'd
managed to go almost an hour past the drug's limit. Better than yesterday when he'd managed just
half an hour, but still not long enough.
He'd started weaning himself off the pain medication the first part of
Illya looked down and then up. The sound of a fresh flight erupted below and
he went up.
Illya had lain down
for a few minutes, just to give the medicine a chance to kick in and his hip a
rest. Now he woke, confused and feeling
woolly headed. There was a blanket over
him and his shoes and pants were gone. He
must have been seriously asleep for that to happen. Usually the lightest touch woke him.
"Napoleon?" he asked quietly.
"I'm here." The voice
seemed a long way off, but he must have been close at hand. "You're finally awake. I was starting to get worried."
"You came up at about four, it's
now past ten. I've never seen pain meds
knock you out like that before and I became concerned that you'd taken too much. I was about to call Vic."
"I'm okay." Illya
started to sit up, but a wave of dizziness washed over him and he fell back
down. "Or not."
Instantly Napoleon was there, helping him sit up. "Easy there, partner. You should know better than to take that
stuff on an empty stomach."
"It wasn't... I didn't think..."
"You're going to have to trust me on this one." Napoleon stuck a pillow behind his back. "I'll go get you something."
"I'm not hungry."
"A moot point right now. You have to eat something. You lose any more weight and you won't pass
the minimum weight requirement for field work."
"I don't want anything, really, Napoleon. And I'm never going to be field qualified,
not at my age, not with this." He rubbed
his leg, his eyes shut.
voice had taken on a strange fuzzy edge to it and Illya frowned.
"What?" Why Napoleon
chose to ignore him, Illya didn't know and he didn't very much care. He closed his eyes again and let himself
drift back to sleep. Let's be real, no one would miss me
anyhow. I could just sleep for the rest
of my life and no one would care. The fact that Napoleon said nothing else to
him only strengthened that sense of uselessness. Asleep, he could run, leap, fall, roll and be
back on his feet before he even knew it.
He chased down a couple of bad guys, let them have five of his finest
and went back for more. Then he was in
the gym, taking on some of Section Two's best and showing them just how much of
a handful he could be.
An explosion, and in that instant, his
life changed. It would have been
so much easier if Napoleon had just left him there, let him bleed out, let him
be done with it. Or if they'd just
amputated the leg to begin with and removed any glimmer of normalcy. It would have to have been easier than this.
Then a small bundle was placed in his arms and he looked
into the face of his grandson, his granddaughter, the twins, little Ginny, only
to have them snatched away and placed out of his reach.
He struggled to get his eyes open - it was too hard, so he
kept them shut. "Irina?"
"Why is Grampy crying?"
Illya's eyes flew open and he sat up. He was on the couch and Napoleon glanced over
"Hey, you're finally awake."
Napoleon set a hand on Illya's arm.
"Are you okay?"
"How long have I been asleep?"
"Not that long. You did miss some incredible chicken
though." He squeezed Illya's
forearm. "But I managed to save you a
couple of pieces. It got ugly for a few
minutes, but I beat Peter out of it fair and square."
"I can just see you taking on a two year old for that." Illya managed a smile. "I'm sorry I slept through it."
"Just takes a while to get the energy level back up." Napoleon stood and went into the small
kitchen to warm up the meal he'd saved.
"We both know that. The older we
get, the longer it takes. "
"I'm never going back, am I, Napoleon?"
"What?" He handed
Illya a plate. "What makes you say that,
"A gut feeling. UNCLE is changing, hell, the whole world is
changing and I'm falling behind. I can't keep up and I'm not even sure I want
"Now you are just talking crazy and I know it's the drugs. Eat something and get some more sleep. You'll feel differently in the morning."
"And if I don't?"
"Then we'll deal with that when it comes - together, just as
we have everything else in our lives."
He poured some milk in a glass and set it down beside the plate. "Drink that and you'll get dessert."
"I'll hazard a guess that it's cookies?" Illya picked up a drumstick and bit into it.
"See? You're not as
out of the loop as you think."
"Just me and Poppin'
"Oh." Napoleon was
quiet for a moment. "I... um... had a
surprise call while you were sleeping. Nellie."
"I ran into her at the park." Illya took a swig of milk. "Invited her over for
dinner one evening."
"Next Thursday, if hell doesn't freeze over and the crick don't rise."
"An old saying."
"I see." He didn't,
but it didn't really matter.
"Illya, do you ever wish things had turned out differently?"
"What do you mean?"
"You were prepared to marry her."
"She was carrying my child, Napoleon. It was only right."
"If you had, you would have come out of the field
early." Napoleon pointed to his
partner's leg. "That never would have
"I don't waste time engaged in 'what ifs,' Napoleon. Things happened the way they were meant
to. I might not like them, but at the
same time, what would I give up? My grandchildren? Lisle?" He caught
Napoleon's hand. "You?" He shook his head. "None of those options are acceptable to
me. I made my choice long ago and I
don't regret it for a moment."
"That sounds more like the man I know and love." Napoleon stood and offered him a hand. "Let's get you to bed."
"You are blessed with a singularly one-tracked mind."
"Only when you're around, partner."
Illya rocked a wailing Ginny and rubbed her back. The baby rarely cried except when she was
hungry or needed a diaper change. Both
of these had been tended to and still she cried.
The older children were in bed, fast asleep. It was just Ginny and him at the moment. "Ginny, what is wrong? Not that you can tell me, of course." He patted her back and she cried that much harder. "You don't have a fever and you're not hungry
or wet. Are you in pain or is this just
some diabolic plot to push me over the edge?"
She paused at that, sniffled, then started in anew. Illya switched arms, cradling her in one arm
as he angled his cane and got to his feet.
He carried her to a sideboard and laid her down. He'd already stripped her to make sure
nothing was rubbing or poking her. Now,
seeing her in just her diaper, he was struck by her deformity. Her left arm was half as big as her right,
the limb ending with just three fingers below her elbow.
"The beginning and end of the line, kiddo. We are a matched pair, except you'll never
know any different.
You'll grow up and adapt. I'll
just grow older and more resentful." He
wrapped her tightly in a blanket, swaddling her as he remembered his mother
doing to his younger siblings, and, he assumed, himself.
Ginny stopped crying and sleepily blinked her eyes. Within another minute, she was sleeping and
Illya was shaking his head.
There was a knock to the door and Illya scooped Ginny up and
set her in her carrier, then hobbled to the door.
He glanced out and saw Nellie illuminated by the Christmas
lights ... and someone else, someone he didn't know... that was odd. He hobbled as quickly as he could to the gun
safe and removed his P.38. Checking the
clip, he put on the safety and went back to Ginny, sleeping in her carrier. Shutting his eyes in a silent prayer, he
tucked the gun behind her and then limped back as the knocking sounded again.
"Alexander, Irina," he shouted as loudly as he dared. After a moment, Irina appeared at the top of
the stairs, rubbing her eyes.
"Poppy, is it morning already?"
"Get Alex and the twins into our apartment."
"No arguments. Now!"
The knocking was taking on an edge of desperation as he
managed his way back to the door. He
could hear movement above his head. He
counted to ten and then murmured a slurred, "Yes?" He hoped it made him sound half asleep.
"Illya, please, it's me, Nellie. I've got an emergency."
It was against his better judgment, but he knew he had to
open the door. Still, he pulled out his
communicator and twisted it on. "I have
a situation at the Solo residence. I
need backup," he murmured quietly into the instrument and then, without turning
it off he tucked it into his shirt pocket, hidden in plain view.
"Yes, Nellie, what's wrong?"
He pushed open the door and suddenly had an armful of the former UNCLE nurse. The impetus
took him to the floor and the resulting pain nearly caused him to black out.
"What did I tell you?
A piece of cake." One man, vaguely familiar, spoke to a second.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Nellie whispered again and again as
she rolled off him. "They came to my
house, forced their way in, they killed my cats... my
poor TomTom and said they'd do the same to me if I
"It's okay, Nellie. THRUSH, I'm assuming?" Illya gritted his teeth and got slowly to his
"Ah, you remember me, no?"
"I remember you not at all, but these days our enemies
manage a bit more polish and finesse.
This exhibits a certain brutality that I attribute to that dying
organization." That earned him a blow to
his hip and even though the resulting pain was white hot, he kept his face set.
"We are not dying! We
are mighty and we will soar again. Not
like you, old man." He touched the tip
of his pistol to Illya's beard. "Too
crippled to be of any use to anyone - even Solo won't let you out in public anymore. All you're good for is to babysit." The man gestured towards the upstairs. "So how much do you think Solo is willing to
give for the safe release of his grandchildren?"
Illya shook his head slowly.
"You will have to come through me first."
"You, old man? One good solid kick
to your hip and you'd be out of commission.
We've been watching you for a while now.
You're useless in a fight."
"Not all fights are physical, but again, I forget, you are
THRUSH. Mental engagement is not your forte."
The man leveled a gun to his chest and Illya looked at it calmly. "I do not fear death, not anymore and not for
a long time."
"What about hers?"
The gun swung in Nellie's direction and Illya hunched his shoulders.
"She is little more than a stranger to me now." Illya looked at her coolly and then
back. "Do what you will with her."
"You heartless bastard," the second THRUSH choked out. "He could be one of us."
"Not heartless, just tired."
Illya began to hobble back to the living room, his limp greatly
exaggerated. He was just marking time now,
waiting, hoping that reinforcements were on their
way. He had no real way of knowing how
long it would take. Since he wasn't in
charge any more, he didn't know how the structure might have changed. He'd always kept one man on watch, just to be
sure. Who knew what the policy was now?
"Well, then why don't we all sit down and wait for the boss
man?" The head man checked his watch as
Illya slowly lowered himself down onto the rocking chair. Nellie opted for an overstuffed chair,
festooned with various stuffed toys. She
picked up a teddy and hugged it to her chest.
"Ricky, why don't you go up and
get the other kids and bring them down here?
That way we can use them as leverage if Solo decides to play hardball."
"I don't know, man - kids?
I'm rotten with kids."
"We got their glorified babysitter here. He can take care of them - he ain't much good
for much else."
A few minutes later, the yell came. "They ain't here."
"They ain't here."
"Nope, but there's some locked door at the
head of some stairs."
The pistol swung back to Illya. "Locked door?"
"Attic. It's dangerous for the kids to be up there,
so it's kept locked."
"Where's the key?"
The head man walked to Illya and lifted his foot, settling it down onto
Illya's throbbing leg. He leaned forward
and Illya grimaced. Thankfully the
nature of the chair prevented him from suffering too much, but it was still
uncomfortable. He just let the THRUSH
think it was worse than it was,
"On Leon's belt, I imagine.
It's not like I live here."
"Where are the kids, old man?" The man applied more pressure to Illya's hip
and black dots swam in the Russian's vision.
He blinked and held on to consciousness by sheer
stubbornness. "At friends' houses," he
gasped out. "As you said, I'm not much good for anything
and one child is all I can handle at a time."
Ginny began to fuss and Illya looked over at her. "May I or would my holding a child upset your
delicate balance of revenge and bloodlust?"
After a moment, the man gestured. "Go, just shut her the hell up or I'll do it for you."
"It's okay, Ginny, there's nothing
to worry about." Illya grunted to his
feet and hobbled to the carrier.
Slipping a hand behind Ginny as if to lift her, he pulled the P.38 free
and fired, all in one motion. He dropped
the man with a bullet between the eyes.
Even with the silencer attached, it made too much noise. Ginny started to wail, a sound to wake the
dead. "Shh, it's okay, Ginny. He's not going to hurt you."
"What the hell is going...?"
Illya took Ricky down as he entered the room. Ginny's eyes grew larger at the noise and she
started to hiccup as she cried.
"Are there anymore?"
Illya turned to Nellie. She was
rocking back and forth, shaking her head.
He was more than familiar with the signs of trauma. "Nurse, report!" he barked the command and Ginny
Nellie looked at him in confusion. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
"Yes, you've already sung that song to me. Are there more THRUSH?"
"Two keeping watch outside."
"Take Ginny. Go
upstairs to the attic door. Knock twice,
then once, then twice again. Tell Alex I
sent you to him. Do you understand?"
"Two, one, two.
"Go!" He handed her
the crying child and gave her an encouraging push.
"But what about you?"
"I'm going to work."
There were three doors out of the Solo residence, the main
door, one to the back yard and another to the side yard through the
garage. It was the darkest and Illya took
the chance that it would be the one unguarded.
Pulling a black cap over his head, he wound a dark scarf
around his face and slipped out into the narrow passage. He held his breath, but there was no gun report,
no shouts for him to stop. They had seriously
underestimated him, it would appear and not for the first time.
He limped first towards the street, keeping to the shadows
as much as possible. It took him a
moment to spot the gunman, partially concealed in a clump of bushes. A dark lump told him the UNCLE agent assigned
was down, either unconscious or dead. If
Napoleon were to arrive, he would be walking right into it.
Illya hobbled to the other end of the narrow alleyway and
cracked open the gate. The man stationed
there was less stealthy. He had one hip
propped up on a small plastic slide, his attention focused on the living room
curtains. Illya assumed he'd been told
to watch and make sure no one exited that way.
That could cut both ways.
A loud car full of holiday revelers went by and Illya took
that moment to fire, hoping that the noise of the gun would just be attributed
to a car's backfire. The THRUSH crumpled
and fell to the ground, unconscious as opposed to the two inside the
house. Those Illya hadn't taken any
He quickly hobbled to the man and propped him back up on the
slide, just in case Nellie was wrong and there were more than just the
two. The ruse had bought him time in the
past, hopefully; it would again.
He winced as he crouched down behind the hedge and thought
about his next move. If he came around
the house, the lone gunman would see him.
If he came through the gate on the other side of the house, the movement
would again attract attention. He needed
to be able to sneak up on the THRUSH.
He was so lost in thought that it took him nearly a full
five seconds to register the warm breath on the side on his face. He jumped instinctively and was rewarded by a
"Waldo," he hissed.
"What are you doing here?" The
dog whined and nuzzled his beard.
The gunman flinched as the dog bounced up to him and barked,
"Go away, dog," he whispered, gesturing with his hand. Waldo bounced, thinking a game was in
order. "Get lost!" Waldo ran a couple of steps away, and dropped
to the ground, woofing happily. "Stupid dog." He
raised his gun and aimed.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
The man turned and Illya gave him a fist in the mouth. In his heyday, that would have been enough to
have dropped a potential enemy, but now it appeared to just make him mad. It had been over five years since Illya had
had any serious hand-to-hand combat and it showed. Still he knew he couldn't lose this. Napoleon, Leon, his daughter, their
grandchildren, all those lives hung in the balance
now. If he lost, he was determined that
it would be only after the fight of his life.
He caught a fist in the mouth and tasted blood, the first
time in so long, he'd nearly forgotten the taste, coppery on his tongue. He reciprocated with an elbow to the man's
midsection and a simultaneous knee to his chin.
Illya's hip screamed its displeasure, but the adrenaline had taken
over. He felt nothing now save the need
to win, heard nothing but the sound of flesh meeting
flesh and the responding grunts.
It took nearly a minute for those words to get through to
Illya's brain. He caught the THRUSH by
the collar and looked into the man's face.
"Remember, no matter what, this family is protected." He swayed for a moment and then dropped to his
knees, not even aware of the gravel biting into the skin through his
jeans. Immediately, Waldo was there,
slobbering over an ear. Illya draped an
arm over the hairy back and sighed.
A moment later, they were surrounded, first by police and
then his own agents. Some of them he
hadn't seen in weeks and yet it was of no difference to them. Instantly they responded to him as their
leader and waited for his instructions.
Unaided, Illya got to his feet and he gestured to
Waldo. "He lives three doors down that
way. Blue house with
the red lights. Let them know
their dog was a hero tonight."
"What about you, boss?"
Hawkins, an up and coming Section Three agent, asked anxiously.
"I suspect I have some grandchildren to calm down."
Ignoring the help standing by, Illya limped into the house
and up the two flights of stairs. Once
he got the children calmed down and Nellie on her way, he hobbled into the
bathroom to inspect the damage.
He had a black eye coming up and a split lip caked with
dried blood. One cheek was scraped and
his back and hip throbbed in time with his heart. Illya smiled, splitting his lip again. It was the first time in a long time he'd
felt so alive and he reached for his razor.
Illya yawned and tried to keep his eyes open long enough to
drink his coffee. It wasn't bad enough
that unwrapping of Christmas gifts started just after the crack of dawn, but he,
Napoleon, and Leon had been up until just before the crack of dawn trying to
get some of the toys assembled. When a
set of instructions buffaloed both he and his partner, it was time to turn in
his shingle and last night had very nearly been it.
"Look, look, look." Peter held up a new truck, grinning. "Room!" Immediately he began running it over the
carpet, ramming it into Inessa's new blocks.
There was a shriek and crying.
Irina was twirling in her pink tutu and waving her wand in a
large arc. Alex was transfixed by the
latest additions to his train set, a fully staffed town and station. Lisle had been up late for the last three
nights, getting all the people painted and detailed.
Even Genève had entered into the spirit of the day,
surprised and then delighted that there were gifts under the tree for her as
well. She'd taken scraps of fabric and
sewn together dolls for the twins, a pink 'princess' blanket for Irina and a
stuffed train for Alex.
"So did you get everything you wanted?" Napoleon asked his
granddaughter as she sat down at his feet to dig into her stocking.
"No, but that's okay."
She pulled out a bottle of faux perfume and sighed happily as she dabbed
the scent beneath her ears. "Why can't
it be Christmas every day?"
"Adults need the sleep," Leon muttered from his slouch on
"What did you want that Santa didn't bring you,
sweetheart?" Napoleon stroked her dark
"A puppy, I asked really nice and Genève even helped me
write a really nice letter. I used ink
Leon stood and walked quietly out of the room. Illya dropped his head to the back of the
couch and sighed. A moment later a
little beagle puppy bounded into the room, then started to retreat at the
squeals. Leon scooped him up and carried
him to the middle of the room. "Get used
to it, my fine lad," he advised the puppy.
The children crowded around him, trying to pet the wiggling whiny pet.
With a grin, Leon plopped the puppy down on Illya's stomach
and the man lifted his head to glare at Leon.
"Just because you're younger than me, that doesn't mean I can't
still take you down." Illya grimaced and
shifted up slightly, catching the puppy's ears one in each hand. "He's all ears."
"I don't doubt that for a minute, Illya." Leon said, kneeling to catch the twins before
they could crawl up onto their grandfather.
Illya sat up to lift the puppy to the floor. It wiggled and suddenly Illya became aware of
growing warmth on the front of his tee shirt.
Inessa squealed and pointed.
Lisle giggled and picked up her daughter. "And guess who's going to be cleaning up the
puppy pee? Not I said the Little Red Hen. She set the little girl down and drew the
excited Alex and Irina to her. "Having a
dog is a lot of hard work. He has to be
fed and walked, groomed and taken care of. You both will need to play with him and love
him even after he's not a puppy. We want
to take good care of him so he'll be with us a long time."
"And we'll keep him at our house, not like the irresponsible
Waldo," Irina said, giggling as she got a sloppy kiss.
"I don't think Waldo is the irresponsible party in that
relationship. Some people should have
"But we should. Can
we get a kitten now?" Irina looked
hopefully from her mother to her grandfathers.
Lisle and Napoleon started laughing as Illya glared at them
and then the puppy, shaking him gently.
"Я не люблю
собак (I don't like
dogs)!" The puppy yapped and licked his
nose. Illya set him on the floor and the
children gathered around. "Well, at
least I've got a brand new replacement...somewhere amid the wrapping
. If you'll excuse me, I think
I'll go change."
"What should we call him?"
Genève asked. "What would be
Napoleon stood and offered Illya a hand up. After a second, Illya accepted it and picked
his way carefully through the wrapping paper.
He was still sore and stiff from the fight, but he didn't begrudge the
pain the way he had before. Now he
welcomed it as an old friend.
"We could still put
that elevator in, you know."
"Thanks, but I'll pass for right now. Those are for old men."
"You're hardly that." Napoleon said, following behind
him. "I am glad you shaved, though. At least it's only a small dog," he offered,
not bothering to shut the door. "Do you
think they'll miss us?"
"They have a new puppy, what you do think? Napoleon, we have joined the ranks of last
year's toys, at least until they want something from us."
"I was talking about our kids, not the grandkids." He looked toward the bedroom door. "Bed's pretty damn appealing at the moment."
"So was I. Lisle said
something about caroling later this afternoon."
"Leaves me out, I can't sing."
"You do all right," Illya said with a small smile. He disappeared into the bedroom and Napoleon
heard the shower running. He grinned and
walked into his room. There buried deep
in one of the drawers was a carefully wrapped gift. It had taken a near miracle to get it in
through the eagle eyes of their grandchildren.
It was sitting on the coffee table as Illya walked back in,
dressed in a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt.
Illya picked it up and gave it a gentle shake. "What is it?"
"Open it and find out."
Illya slid off the ribbon and carefully removed the
paper. It was a jewelry box and he
flipped open the top of it. Inside was a
familiar yellow badge with a Number Two on it.
"I don't understand."
Illya took the badge out and turned it over. "Is this some sort of American gesture, like
retiring a football jersey?"
"Not retired, reinstated.
You've been made active again... with provisions."
"I don't... why?"
"We decided we couldn't do it without you. You'll be attached to Section Two and Three
in an advisory capacity. Not exactly in
charge, but they won't move without your okay."
"You can't tell me Franz is fine with this."
"Franz was the one who suggested it. Said he was fine with the field work, but
that administration left him dazed and confused... I'm almost certain that was
the phrase he used."
"Does it matter?"
"No, not really." He returned the badge to its box. "Thank you.
It's good to be wanted."
"You still have a long life ahead of you, Illya. I, for one, see no reason for you to not be
doing a job you've spent your whole life preparing for." Napoleon stood and stretched. "Now, I am going to try and grab a little
more sleep before anyone notices we're missing."
"That sounds like a good plan." Illya ran a finger over the badge and closed
"Now, there's just one more thing."
Illya glanced over at Napoleon. There was an odd tone in his voice. "What..."
The world suddenly tipped to one side as he turned and
With the hopes that
your Christmas dreams come true as well...