Illya Kuryakin turned the corner into his office and stopped. There, sitting on the file cabinet he shared with Napoleon was a vase. In it was a small tree branch, its skeletal twigs reaching for the ceiling. Dangling from one of the branches was a bullet with a bow on it.
"Napoleon, I almost hesitate to ask." He looked over at his partner, who was wearing a most satisfied grin. "What is that?"
"Oh, I thought the place could use a bit of festive holiday cheer."
"A bullet hanging from a branch is hardly festive, except in a twisted Freudian way."
"A matter of perspective, that's all. You see a bullet hanging from a tree branch." Napoleon stood and walked over to the vase and turned it slightly. "I see a cartridge in a bare tree."
"A cartridge... oh, Napoleon." Illya sank down into his desk chair, clutching his chest in mock pain. "Please shoot me now! No more of your puns!"
Napoleon chuckled and scooped up an armful of files. "You think this is bad, wait until tomorrow."
Cautiously, Illya flicked on the office light and glanced over at the branch. Immediately he spotted the newest addition, a pair of small mittens with turtles embroidered on the backs. He was still looking at them when Clare, their secretary, entered.
"Do you have any dictation for me this morning, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Clare, what do you make of that?" Illya pointed to the tree and she frowned.
"I'd say someone broke the bank with that Christmas tree." She puched her glasses back onto her nose. "Cheap, cheap, cheap..."
"Why doesn't that surprise me? He does keep one on his or her toes."
"It's a joke." Illya pointed. "See, that's a cartridge in a bare tree. How does the song go next?"
"Two turtle doves...mittens... not mittens, gloves, see they have fingers."
"Two turtle gloves..." Illya shook his head. "Impossible. The man is impossible."
The next morning was spent on a stake out, which ended poorly with a dead victim and fewer answers than when they started. Illya walked into the small office and sank into his chair, frustrated and angry. When would these new agents learn to watch first and shoot only as a last resort? What was Cutter teaching them these days? He pulled off his jacket and unholstered his Walther. Dropping the clip, he started to reach for the gun oil when his eye caught the tree. Hanging from a lower branch, was a new 'ornament'. This one was of three men, all wearing long coats, with their arms around each other's shoulders. Little thought bubbles over their heads said, mon ami.
Illya wracked his brain for the next day in the song. Three chickens... or something. He had never liked the song to begin with and this wasn't helping it any.
Napoleon came in and Illya gestured to it. "I'm lost. What about three chickens?"
"Not chickens, Illya, French hens." Napoleon spared him a slight smile. The lecture from Waverly had not been a pleasant one and he obviously needed the distraction. "What are they wearing?"
"Any particular kind?"
" Over coats." Napoleon shook his head and Illya tried again. "Trench coats? Mon ami, oh, mon Dieu. You don't mean three trenched friends...? Napoleon, that's low, even for you..." But Illya was smiling and Napoleon's grin had grown.
"Glad you approve. Hey, do you have a pen I can steal?"
"You don't need to steal it; I will gladly give you one... "
"Hey, I'm a spy, I steal things, indulge me."
Illya tossed him the pen and chuckled. "Yours is indeed a gifted, yet twisted mind, Mr. Solo. Fine, steal my pen."
"From you I take that as high praise. You want to go grab some lunch?"
Wednesday was probably the worst day in the week for either agent when business didn't take them out of HQ. It was a day of meetings, discussions and lost time. Still, Illya found his footsteps quickening as he approached their office that afternoon. He'd been slightly disappointed to find nothing new on the tree when he'd arrived in the morning.
True to form, there was an addition to the tree. He had to pull out his glasses to see the four bits of paper with words printed in Napoleon's less-than-careful handwriting: stumble, decline, dwindle, cheapen. This time, he was ready and he dug a scrap of paper out of his pants pocket. He'd paid a visit to the library last night and done a little research. Today's versed should be four calling birds.
As Napoleon, whistling, entered the office, his partner turned to him. "Four falling verbs, Napoleon?"
"Ah, you're starting to think like me."
"That's a frightening thought indeed."
"Do you have a paper clip I could steal?"
"Help yourself." Illya gestured to a pile of them.
Now, every morning, Illya found himself more and more anxious to get to the office and check out the tree. There was usually a steady line of onlookers when he arrived, but Napoleon insisted that no one elsesaw the tree before Illya or had the chance to figure out the clues before the Russian could try to decipher them.
Thursday was looking towards the end of a less-than-inspiring week. In fact, with the exception of Napoleon's rather avant garde Christmas tree, it would have been a total wash-out in Illya's opinion. Eagerly he hurried through his usual morning routine before heading to their shared office to see what today would bring.
Hanging off a branch was his pen and the paperclip, obviously the one Napoleon had borrowed, no correct that, stolen from him, along with a plastic spoon from the canteen, a book of matches from a bar and a cigarette Napoleon had taken from the lab the night before.
Illya had taped the traditional "Twelve Days of Christmas" to the wall beside the branch and was studying it when he heard the door open. It was Justin from the labs.
"Is Napoleon here?" He paused, looked and then looked again. "What on earth?"
"Napoleon's version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Today is supposed to be five golden rings, but he's replaced it with these five items."
"Yeah, there's the smoke he stole from me last night."
"And my pen and paperclip - all stolen... five stolen things. Do you happen to have any cyanide capsules on you? I am feeling a distinct need for one..."
The weekend seemed to go on forever and Illya had to struggle to stay away from HQ. Instead, he begrudgingly allowed himself to be trapped into a shopping trip with April and a Christmas party with Mark, and still there were moments when he sat and thought about the silly little branch sitting in their office.
Day six brought six donkeys hee hawing and it wasn't until the middle of the afternoon that the light came on and Illya was able to make the switch from six geese a'laying to six beasts a'braying. The next day it was a chess piece proudly proclaiming checkmate, seven pawns a winning. Day eight had everyone confused as they studied the jack of hearts playing card. Napoleon finally had to announce that he'd done too good a job with his eight knaves a'bilking. It was still good for more than a few laughs.
Thursday saw a knight carrying a lance, but his thought bubble revealed that he was terrified of the thought of going into battle and Janice from Communications finally figured out it was nine 'fraidies lancing as oppose to ladies dancing.
Day Ten and Illya entered, still shaking snow from his hair. Just two days before Christmas and Mother Nature had decided to unload on the city. Traffic was practically at a standstill and Illya reasoned that the best place to wait out such a storm would be at HQ, where he would at least be guaranteed heat and running water, a prospect that wasn't as certain at his flat.
He hadn't expected anything new to be added to the tree, the weather being what it was, but there was a photo of a Mustang with the words 10 mph on it. He smiled ruefully, secretly pleased at how easy that one was to decipher after some of the more challenging ones. Ten Fords a creeping was a gimme.
Napoleon stumbled in about midmorning, looking more like a snowman than an enforcement agent. Like his partner, he'd decided that UNCLE HQ afforded the best protection from the storm outside.
"Still snowing?" Illya glanced up from the typewriter. The lights flickered and then came back on.
"It looks like the city is about to shut down out there. I hope you don't have any place else to be. Waverly has sent all non-essential staff home hours ago."
"My landlord is not the most reliable when it comes to necessities. I will sit out the storm here."
"Sort of my thoughts as well." Napoleon slid into his desk chair and dialed a number. He waited for a moment and then spoke. "Nellie, it's Napoleon. What is the situation like down there? Any free beds?" He listened for a moment and chuckled. "That's it, huh? Save it for us, will you? My love, you have my heart... and everything else."
He cradled the phone and grinned. "At least we have a bed for tonight, unless you'd rather sleep the couch in here as opposed to sharing with me."
"No, but it will be odd to be well and in Medical."
"We can go down to the gym and I can try to break something for you before tonight." He nodded to the tree. "Did you figure it out yet?"
"Ten Fords a creeping," Illya said proudly.
"You're starting to enter into the spirit of the game."
"It is silly, but I have to begrudgingly admit I'm enjoying the challenge."
The night and following day passed slowly, but the staff at UNCLE HQ made the best of things, starting an impromptu party around three o'clock Christmas Eve.
Illya stuck his head into their office, still wearing his lab coat. "Napoleon, are you about ready to head over to the canteen? I hear the party is just starting to gather a head of steam."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Napoleon pointed to the tree and Illya came to stand before it. There were so many items on it now that it was hard to spot the newest addition. It was a cutout of a bush with a pair of eyes and a number 11 printed upon it.
"Hmm, today is pipers piping, so this would be...?" He studied it and shook his head. "I don't understand."
"Well, is there someone in the bush?"
"Assuming that the eyes belong to a person and not the bush itself, then yes."
"And what are the eyes doing?"
"Looking out? Piping...Peeking?"
"You are driving me to drink, Solo."
"Well, walking with you to it at any rate. Let's go show them how Section Two parties."
"Wait." Illya snatched up the tree and held it close to his body. "We can't have a proper Christmas party without a Christmas tree." Napoleon slapped him on the back and followed him out.
It was late, very late, but that didn't seem to matter to anyone. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, the UNCLE staff worked hard at bringing in the holiday with as much enthusiasm as they could muster. It wasn't the traditional holiday fare, at least, the food was plentiful. There was also plenty of alcohol and Sarah, from Communications, had put together a killer eggnog.
Illya found a battered guitar in storage and had been obligingly plucking out song after song.
"Wait, I know!" Clare was a little wobbly and she held onto a chair to steady herself. "We need to sing about Napoleon's Christmas tree."
It took Illya a moment to find the proper chording, but they were soon singing along, everyone in his or her own key.
They had just finished the eleventh day and Illya abruptly stopped playing. "Napoleon, you need to do the last day so we can finish the song properly."
"Ah, just a minute..." Napoleon patted his pockets. "I must have..." He glanced around and held up a finger. "Hang on a minute." He wobbled from the room on none-too-steady legs and a moment later came back carrying a large, brightly wrapped gift. "Here, partner."
"I don't understand."
"This is the twelfth day. That's the clue."
"Open it, Illya." Nellie nudged his elbow and he smiled over at the nurse. "All right." He tore open the paper and opened the box. "I don't understand." He pulled out a guitar.
"I figured you needed one of your own. I wasn't sure what type to get you, since I've seen you play just about every kind. If you want to exchange it for another, I won't be hurt. I think the dealer called it an Airline Bass."
"It's beautiful, Napoleon, but it's too much. I can't accept this." He held it back towards Napoleon.
"Yes you can, and you will do it graciously," Nellie reprimanded him firmly. "Now finished the stupid song. I've got to pee and I want to know how this ends."
Illya ran his fingers over the strings, adjusted the 'e' string and tried again. "For Day Twelve, it was drummers drumming."
"And you, my friend, are a strummer strumming."
"Oh, Napoleon, do you have no sense of propriety?"
"Not when it comes to Christmas." Napoleon climbed to the top of a table and held up his hands. "Now, from the top!"
And for anyone who really cares:
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my spy gave to me:
Twelve Strummers strumming
Eleven Peepers peeping
Ten Fords a'creeping
Nine Fraidies lancing
Eight Knaves a'bilking
Seven Pawns a'winning
Six Beasts a'braying
Five Stolen Things
Four Falling Verbs
Three Trenched Friends
Two Turtle Gloves
And a Cartridge in a Bare Tree
And a Merry Christmas to one and all! From Uncle Charlie aka Spikesgirl