Napoleon Solo tried to keep from over balancing as he navigated the obstacle course set up by other people's blankets and lawn chairs at the public pool. It wouldn't be half as hard if he wasn't carrying a picnic basket, a partially inflated pool toy, and a squirming two year old.
"Down, down, down," Ginny cried with each wiggle, reaching out for the swimming pool as if it was some fantastic prize. It was a task akin to holding Jell-o in your hand.
"All in good time, sweetheart. Believe me when I say I'm as anxious for down as you are." Napoleon stopped and looked around. The spot he'd picked had some shade, some sun, and it was far enough from the restrooms that there wouldn't be a problem with the smell, yet close enough to the snack bar so it would be. That would keep his partner and at least one grandchild busy most of the afternoon. He grinned and set the basket down. "How about here?"
Lisle, his daughter-in-law, sounded ready to concede. "This looks cracker, Dad, and just in time. I think the troops were about to revolt."
"Finally!" Alex dropped his armful and began to peel off his shirt. "Gosh, you're peculiar, Grampy."
"Particular, Alex, I am very particular, at least with everything that counts."
"I think that means you're off the hook again for picking out the Christmas tree this year, Dad." Leon grunted as he set down the beach chairs he was hauling. He looked around and waved to his two daughters and son-in-law. A moment later, the towel-laden Irina appeared with Genève and her husband, Alexander, in tow and both with their own armfuls.
"I distinctly remember raiding an outpost in Istanbul with fewer supplies," Napoleon said, surveying the items as the pile grew higher and higher.
"With five young kids, it's a miracle we actually even got here today while the sun was still up." Leon frowned and did a fast count. "We're missing three—what happened to Illya and the twins?"
"Peter saw the snack bar." The elder Alex plopped down his end of the ice chest a split second after his wife did. "That little guy has a one-track mind."
"Takes after his grandfather, that one." Napoleon spread out a blanket, making sure he didn't hit anyone around them.
Lisle laughed and knelt to smooth it out. "You have no idea, Alexander. I saw a class about teaching young kids to cook and I'm thinking of signing him up for it out of self defense. Ah, there they are." She waved to them as she'd done to the others. She glanced over to where Genève and Alexander were sharing a kiss. "Blimey, talk about a one-track mind."
Napoleon glanced over as he set Ginny on her feet, but he wisely kept one hand tangled in the straps of her sun dress.
"Sim, Geepee, sim..." She struggled in his grip as the missing three joined them.
"Why don't we see this enthusiasm at bath time?" Illya asked as Inessa and Peter skipped ahead of him each eating a brightly colored Popsicle. Alex frowned, then grinned as Illya tossed him a still wrapped ice cream treat. Irina intercepted it mid toss and raced off with her brother hot on her heels.
Suddenly Ginny squirmed loose and took off on a chubby-legged run towards the wading pool.
"Ginny, no!" Napoleon yelled, just as Illya, one armed, scooped her up and into the air.
"What is it about children that makes them willfully ignore, refuse, and be deaf to the wishes of their parents when it is for their own well being? Birds, animals, insects, they all pay attention to their parents, but you? You I should hog tie and stuff into a picnic basket." The toddler merely giggled and squirmed.
"Down, Pop, down."
Inessa regarded him as seriously as only a six year old could. "Poppy, that would be wrong... even Oscar wouldn't do that."
"Oscar?" Illya flicked a look over at his son-in-law. "You know Oscar Chaloux out of Section Five?"
"Garbage pail, Sesame Street." Leon took his youngest from the Russian. "Ginny, settle down now." His tone conveyed the seriousness of the command and the girl quieted. He rarely used that voice and when he did, the children tended to listen.
"Of course." Illya dropped the large bag he'd been carrying. "It's much clearer now." He looked around as Genève settled onto the blanket in the deepest part of the shade. An albino, she had to take extra precautions on an outing like this. She wore a long sleeved loose blouse over her swim suit and a big floppy hat to protect her from the sun. Unlike the others, she wouldn't be sunbathing or even swimming. Her skin was far too fair for that. She would stay in the shade, her new husband never far from her.
Alex came back, smug and eating his ice cream bar, his face and shirt smeared with the rapidly melting chocolate. Irina looked annoyed, but content that she'd made her brother work for it. She looked expectantly at her maternal grandfather who at first gave her a wide eyed look of confusion. As her face clouded, Illya produced her ice cream cone from out of the cooler and offered it to her.
"You're an awful tease, Poppy, but I sure love you."
"So I've been told."
"Sunscreen before the pool." Lisle didn't need to look to know her oldest was getting ready to jump into the pool. "I'm not dealing with sunburns tonight."
Alex grumbled as she began rubbing the lotion onto his torso. "How am I supposed to impress everyone with my physique if I'm all white?"
"It doesn't seem to bother Genève at all," Lisle uncapped the bottle and made a spinning motion with her finger.
"But she's a girl, she's supposed to be all white and fragile."
"I beg your pardon?" The last thing Lisle is was white and fragile. "Would you like to arm wrestle me?"
"You're not a girl; you're a Mommy, that's different. Sunscreen ain't macho, Mama."
"Good thing I don't know that," Napoleon murmured as he tossed a tube to his partner and began to unbutton his shirt. "Illya, would you mind doing my back?" He dropped the shirt onto his towel and shivered as the breeze hit the sweat that had collected on his skin.
"I live in wild anticipation of it." Illya squeezed some of the lotion into his hand and smoothed onto Napoleon's back, grinning at the resulting hiss.
"That's life." He made fast work of rubbing the cream into Napoleon's back and shoulders. Then he looked around. "Who's next?"
"Me, Poppy." Irina presented herself, resplendent in her bright pink polka dotted swim suit. "I'm not stupid. I'm going to be protected. It prevents unwanted pregnancies."
Illya flashed a look at his daughter and mouthed, What is she watching?
"I have no idea, but I don't think you need to worry about that for awhile, pet." Lisle finished with Alex and swatted his butt.
"I know. I'm practicing. Are you going to come swimming with us, Poppy?"
"Then I'll do your back, shall I? You have light skin and you mustn't burn. " Her seriousness made Illya smile.
"Thank you, Irina. That would be nice." He tugged his polo shirt over his head and slowly knelt so she could reach his shoulders.
She moved her hands over his skin, paying extra attention to this spot and that. "You have very soft skin, Poppy, like Ginny's bottom."
Don't say a word! Illya's eyes ordered a smirking Napoleon.
"Irina, you have a gift for understatement," Napoleon said as he adjusted the waistband of his trunks.
"And you, my friend..."
"Dad," Lisle interrupted smoothly, well used to putting an end to their verbal horseplay. "If you can watch the older two, I'll take the three young ones to the wading pool." Lisle wiped her hands on a towel and took a fast head count. "Maybe you'd like to help me, Grampy?"
"It will be my honor." Napoleon walked to them and bent over to pick up a towel.
"Wading pool, so macho." Illya muttered as he stood and stretched. The trunks clutched desperately to his hips and Napoleon suddenly sent a sucker punch into his partner's stomach. Illya reacted and then glared.
"I can swim in the big pool," Peter announced, dropping his stick onto the grass.
"Pick that up and no, you can't."
"What would you like us to do?" Alex was slowly smoothing lotion into his wife's shoulders and occasionally depositing a kiss on her neck.
"You two play amongst yourselves and watch the fort," Leon said, grabbing a pair of swim goggles. "I'm sure you'll find something to do to keep busy."
"Poppy, what does Daddy mean by that?" Irina took her grandfather's hand and began to lead him towards the pool. It both mesmerized, and yet terrified her at the same time.
"It means, it's time to swim."
"You first." Irina hesitated on the pool's lip, looking into the deep blue water with concern.
"All right." Illya checked to see where everyone was, then dove neatly into the water, coming up halfway to the other side. He swam back to her and treaded water, holding his arms out to her. "Your turn."
"I don't know. Is it cold?" Then, with a squeal, she was airborne and sailing towards her grandfather. Leon was right behind her. She coughed and sputtered as Illya caught her, keeping her from going too deeply into the water. "Daddy, that wasn't nice," she said the moment the opportunity presented itself.
"Sometimes nice is over- rated." He made a grab for her and she took refuge behind her grandfather's back.
"Save me from the sea monster, Poppy!"
"And his cunning and good looking sidekick, Aqua Man." Alex dunked her and the battle was on.
The afternoon was starting to wane, the sun had pushed well past its zenith and was heading towards the western horizon. They'd been in and out of the pool a dozen times as well as to the snack bar—this, in spite of the sandwiches, fried chicken, and salad Lisle had packed. The adults enjoyed these while the kids pushed the food around on their paper plates and looked longingly at the ice cream and candy paradise just out of reach.
The heat was starting to take its effect not on just the Solo clan, but on others as well, the crowd had lessened, the younger children either gone or sleeping and many of the older kids banned from the water for an hour after eating. It gave the adults time to have the pool almost entirely to themselves.
Ginny and the twins were snoozing in the shade with Genève. Alex and Irina were playing on the nearby playground equipment while Lisle sat on a swing, watching them. Alex pushed his mother on the swings and Irina pumped her legs, anxious to match her mother's arc.
Alexander had finally left his wife's side and was with Leon horsing around in the pool, taking turns diving off the higher diving board, in an attempt to impress all the ladies. Napoleon watched and grinned at their antics. Not that long ago, it would have been him and his partner up there, hot dogging for the world to see. Now they were both taking a slower route. He sat, propped up in a low beach chair, reading and just enjoying the sounds of life—kids laughing and shouting, the birds trying to out-yell them, parents doing what parents did best.
Beside him, Illya was stretched out on a blanket, the sun falling warm across his hips and lower back. He was more asleep than awake when they heard the noise. The rapid succession of pops was fairly insignificant by itself and if it had been July 4th, neither man would have paid them any attention at all. Napoleon's gasp of "Leon!" brought Illya instantly aware and to his feet, even before his hip had a chance to lodge a complaint.
They charged toward the pool, both at a dead run and Illya was in the water and swimming before anyone else could react. He reached the person and instantly recognized Leon, a slow stream of red snaking from his body. Illya flipped him and started dragging him back to the edge. People were gathered as a white-faced Napoleon and an equally-shaken Alexander hefted Leon out of the water and onto the concrete.
"Call for an ambulance," Napoleon ordered and a life guard took off at a dead run, presumably to do as ordered. There were shouts and cries of fear and confusion.
Illya hoisted himself up and out of the pool even as Leon was being helped to sit up and clear his lungs from the water he had swallowed. Genève was standing and vainly trying to see over the crowd, even as the three children in her care slept on, oblivious to the injury done to their father.
Illya stood and looked over at the playground where likewise the children remained playing with the others there. Lisle, however, was on her feet and was slowly walking, towards them, as if in a dream. Illya could hear distant sirens and decided there were enough people attending to Leon.
He moved quickly to meet her, desperate to block the sight of her husband, lying pale and bleeding, on the concrete.
"Dad? What happened? Someone whack his head?" She began, then saw Leon and started to move towards him, but Illya caught her as two men carrying medical kits ran up.
Illya clamped a hand over her mouth and dragged her away from the crowd, using his body to block her from view from the playground.
Lisle threw off his hand, her blue eyes blazing. "Let me go! Leon!"
"Lisle, you will calm down and you will listen to me."
".. .is being helped. Your responsibility now is to that of your children. If they see you panicked and upset, they will feed off of that. Right now, the best thing you can do to help your husband is to remain calm and in control. Do you understand me?" He shook her slightly and she glared at him. "Do you hear me? Stay here, Lisle, let them do their job."
She pulled free of his grasp and turned, but didn't advance, breathing deeply.
All around them conversations buzzed and raged as Alex broke loose from the crowd and moved to them.
She spared Illya one last look. "Go to hell." And she ran to her husband as Alexander approached Illya slowly, his hands stained from the attempt to stem Leon's wound.
"Mr. Phillips, what happened?" Illya kept his tone firm, no nonsense, a trick to help a rattled agent refocus. Perhaps it would work on Sections Threes as it most certainly hadn't on his daughter.
"Ah, Leon was getting ready to dive into a pool and I heard something. I thought it was a car backfiring, then I saw Leon falling to the water. He'd been shot... sir." Alexander made the switch from family to working relationship.
"Call HQ and get a team out here. We need to know if he was being targeted or if it was a random shooting."
"At a public pool? But how would THRUSH even know we were here? And why take a shot at Leon?"
"If you can't target the king, you target the prince." Illya hated the cool edge that his words had taken. "Report and get UNCLE out here. I don't want this to be grabbed by some local enforcement agency and pushed under the carpet because it's an election year. We need to know what has happened, Mr. Phillips." He looked over at the anguished face of Genève. "After they have arrived, take your wife and the children home. It is imperative that they not be told of what has transpired."
"If they ask...?"
"What about Leon?" They watched as Leon was being hoisted up onto a gurney in preparation to being wheeled away.
"Lisle and Napoleon will go with him."
"But then I have to go... my job.... I need to protect..."
"I will be with Napoleon." He smiled slightly. "I've been watching his back for years. Another afternoon is no burden. After the team arrives and debriefs you, go with your wife. I imagine she'll need you more than ever before." He hesitated and settled a hand on the man's forearm. "Protect our children."
"With my life, sir."
Napoleon sat quietly in the waiting room, his ignored coffee long gone cold. Lisle sat across from him, rocking in place, seeing nothing. Shock, he imagined, and the thought of raising their family alone.
He'd read the reports about Lisle long before the connection between her and Illya was made. She'd been a thorn in UNCLE's side for a few years and it didn't surprise him to find out just why she seemed to be so competent at her job—it was in her blood.
It was hard to think Lisle had once been a THRUSH agent, capable of killing a man just as easily and efficiently as her father. Napoleon knew her only as the mother of his grandchildren, patient, diligent, and resourceful—traits she'd gotten from her father. Firm and manipulative had been her mother's contributions to the mix. Where Lisle had developed such a love of life and the ability to find humor in everything—Napoleon had no idea who she'd picked that up from.
It had taken a bit, but they convinced the ambulance to deliver Leon to UNCLE's medical unit as opposed to a local hospital. UNCLE had extensive experience with this sort of trauma and Napoleon wanted his son to be with the best he could offer.
Napoleon smiled sadly, remembering back years earlier, sitting here, staring at the same walls, wondering if his partner would even live through surgery, much less ever walk again. He remembered the pain, the terror, and the helplessness he felt waiting for the prognosis, knowing that whatever faced Illya, they would tackle it together, partners to the end.
His eyes prickled with tears and he sighed, stamping down the memory. Illya defied the odds, as always, and so would Leon. Said partner walked into the room and Lisle looked up sharply at him, momentarily mistaking him for the surgeon. Illya shook his head briefly and settled down beside her, pulling her into an embrace.
"I'm sorry I was so awful before..." It was the fortieth time Napoleon had heard her apologize. She held a damp and rumpled handkerchief, Napoleon's, to an eye.
"You don't need to worry so, Lisle. I'm given to moments of temper myself. However, you have to keep reminding yourself that Leon's young and strong. He's got a thousand reasons to live and if he's anything like his father, he will be making your life miserable in just a few days."
"Miserable?" She sat back and rubbed an eye with her fingertips.
"Solos are terrible patients." He pulled her back into his arms and kissed her head. "This I know from experience. The things your father-in-law has put me through. Once, also while recovering from a gunshot wound, I found him hiding in a broom closet. It was a vain attempt to escape a sponge bath by an over-enthusiastic member of the nursing staff. "
"Kuryakins aren't much better," Napoleon muttered, remembering all too well his partner's delight in finding him and turning him back over to the nurses. "Once he threatened to walk out of a hospital naked."
Lisle managed a weak laugh. "That's sounds like you, Dad. A handful."
"But so worth the effort." Illya kept his tone light and Lisle rested her head against his shoulder. "Both Napoleon and I have been shot and we survived; so will Leon."
"I hope so..." An approaching figure made her trail off and she stood, as did both men, at the sight of the man in stained surgical greens entering the area. Illya kept an arm around her waist, protective, supportive, there in either event.
"Mrs. Solo?" He looked at the other two men in the room and dismissed them.
"Your husband came through the surgery just fine. The bullet nicked his spleen, but we managed to save it. He'll need some bed rest and then to take it easy for awhile, but he should fully recover."
"Oh, thank God..." Lisle held onto her father's neck as if she was afraid her legs wouldn't support her.
"He's in recovery and should be waking up soon. Would you like me to take you to him?"
"Please?" She looked back beseechingly at the men, desperate to be with her husband, but still not ready to be alone.
"Napoleon, why don't you go with her? I've got some stuff upstairs to finish with and then I will go home and relieve Mr. Phillips and Genève of their charges."
"Illya..." Napoleon was obviously as torn as Lisle was.
"Go be with your son. That's your place now."
Illya let himself into the house they shared with their children and looked around. Chewy ran up to him, his ears flapping. He ran to the door and whined, then looked back up at Illya, his question as plain as if he'd suddenly developed human speech.
"You need to go out, do you? This way then as I'm not chasing you all over the neighborhood tonight." Illya limped towards the kitchen. The day had taken a toll on him and now, within the confines of his own home, he could dispense with all pretenses. Chewy preceded him with that odd loping gait of his and skidded to a stop at the kitchen door a second before smashing into it.
Illya opened the door and the dog raced out, barely clearing the porch before squatting. Obviously, it had been a near thing. Illya noted the position for clean up the next morning. If nothing else, it would give Alex something to complain about.
He rummaged around in the refrigerator and found some leftover meatloaf and a bottle of beer. Grabbing some bread, he made a quick sandwich and then sat to eat it. He concentrated upon the taste of the food, the texture, the sweetness of the catsup Napoleon insisted upon using, the bitterness of the beer, anything to keep from remembering Leon's bleeding body or his daughter's helpless face.
Chewy scratched softly and 'whuffed' a request to be let back in just as Illya was rinsing his dish off and putting it in the dishwasher. Illya obliged and then went looking for the children, surprised that his meal hadn't been interrupted. Usually they knew the moment he set foot in the house.
The living room and family room were empty as he suspected and he headed to their parent's bedroom, but it stood empty, a jumble of clothes and items scattered in their hurry to leave that morning.
The second floor was equally empty and Illya felt a twinge in his stomach, an odd tightening. THRUSH knew they lived here; they'd attacked here twice before. What if...?
He headed resolutely for the third floor and the apartment that he shared with Napoleon. Opening the front door, he sighed in relief at the muffled voices coming from his bedroom.
Figures, he thought as he kicked his shoes off. When the going gets tough, the tough always seem, for one reason or another, to head for his bed...
He pushed open the door slowly and looked in. Genève had two children to either side of her and was reading from a fairy tale book. Alexander sat in a nearby rocking chair, holding a sleeping Ginny and staring out the window, his mind obviously elsewhere.
"Room for me at this party?" Illya asked softly and there was a second of complete silence before the children leapt from the bed towards him. He steeled himself for impact and kept from groaning as Alex connected with his bad hip.
All four of the older children were talking at once and Ginny woke, fussing. Alexander stood and carried her past Illya towards the small living room. He paused and Illya nodded. Alexander moved on with a smile and a "Thank God."
"One at a time," Illya ordered and all the children quieted at least for a few seconds before starting again.
"Is Daddy okay?" Inessa asked, clutching on to Illya's pants. He glanced over at Genève who was trying to muster a smile.
"I had to tell them something. Alex saw..."
"They took Daddy away on a stretcher! I saw him and he was bleeding!" He increased his grip on Illya's waist and Illya smiled, in spite of the discomfort. He forgot at times just how young the boy still was.
"Yes, they did, but he's doing all right. They operated on him and your mother and grandfather are with him now."
"He's not dead?"
"Of course not. Takes more than that to stop a Solo—you should know that. He's going to have to stay in Medical for awhile, then he'll come home to recuperate."
"Medical?" Alex said it as if the word tasted bad.
"Is that the place that makes you smells funny?" Irina's voice was muffled as she buried her face into Illya's stomach.
"'Member? You went away and you came home smelling funny... is Daddy going to smell funny too?"
"Possibly. Why don't you go and change into your pajamas and come back here? I'll try to answer all your questions then."
They filed out and Genève replaced them at Illya's side. "I'm sorry I told them, but Alex was hysterical."
"I was afraid of that. You got him calmed down?"
"He remembered Alex getting shot and insisted he show everyone his scar. Thankfully he healed well and that seemed to really reassure them."
"Good. Now why don't you go home and get some rest?"
"Dad's going to be okay?"
"I think so." He kissed her head and smiled. "We can think good thoughts and take comfort in them. Now go."
Napoleon glanced over at his sleeping daughter-in -law, impossibly wedged in a chair. He thought about waking her up, but then decided against it. Better she sleep now while she could.
There was a rustle in the bed and a groan. "What hit me?"
Napoleon let out a deep sigh of relief and stood up to lean over his son. "Hey, mister, what have I told you about getting shot off the job?"
"Uh, don't? Ouch..." Leon tried to shift and Napoleon reached for the controller, pressing the up button until the man was almost sitting upright. "Water?"
Napoleon grabbed the pitcher and poured out some water. He angled the straw and Leon took a half hearted sip, then coughed. "That's the anesthesia making you cough," Napoleon explained as Leon spotted Lisle.
"She's gonna get a crick in her neck she won't love."
"Hang on." Napoleon squeezed Leon's shoulder and walked to the woman, brushing a lock of hair from her face. "Rise and shine, pretty lady. There's someone who wants to talk to you."
She looked confused and winced as she moved, then saw Leon watching her through blurry eyes and she struggled to her feet and to his bedside. Napoleon let himself out of the room and shut the door behind him, giving them the privacy he used to crave when Illya woke.
He walked to the bathroom, stretching as he moved. It had been a long time since he'd held a vigil at a bedside. He hoped it would be twice as long before he did it again.
Napoleon bent to the sink and splashed cool water on his face. He stared at his expression and sighed, touched the wrinkles on his forehead. He couldn't remember getting this old; it just sort of happened. It didn't seem as bad when he was with Illya.
He wiped the moisture from his face and hands with a paper towel and tossed it into the trash. Coming out of the restroom, Napoleon glanced around, pausing to take in his surroundings as was his habit.
He was about halfway back to Leon's room when he passed a partially closed door.
"You know, this is a lousy way to get out of going to that new Thai place, Philly boy. If you didn't want to go, you just should have said so... come on, Phil, wake up."
He didn't want to intrude, but he could remember the strength he gained whenever he was sitting in that bedside chair, trying to coax his unconscious partner back to wakefulness, and looked up and saw Waverly there. His role now, and he entered the room quietly, respectfully.
The man in the bed was impossibly young, even younger looking than Leon, with tubes running in and out of him; a heart monitor beeping steadily and the whoosh of a ventilator sang a familiar background score.
The agent, Hannigan, Napoleon decided that was his name, looked up, apparently startled to see his Section One, Number One there. He started to stand. Napoleon stopped him with a gesture.
"He can hear you, you know, everything you say. Just you being here makes all the difference in the world right now."
Hannigan looked from his boss back to the bed. "I dunno, sir, he should be awake by now." He shook his head slowly. "Me and him, we're supposed to grow old together, retire from Section Two and go raise turkeys or something... he's not supposed to die on me." Hannigan angrily wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.
Napoleon smiled and patted the younger man's shoulder. "Then you shall have to convince him not to. I've been in your spot many times and it's amazing the power you weld from that chair. It can mean the very real difference between life and death. Just let him know you are here ."
"Where else would I be?"
Napoleon patted the shoulder again. "Good man, spoken like a true partner." He started to leave, pausing as Hannigan said softly,
"I'm sorry about Leon, sir. He's a good agent."
"You all are, son, very good agents."
Two doctors were coming out of a room, shaking their heads in a way that shot terror into Napoleon's heart, at least until he realized Leon's room was across the hall.
Napoleon moved quickly to the first room and watched as a nurse was pulling a sheet over a body as a doctor announced. "Time of death—1:43." He looked over at Napoleon and smiled sadly. "Poor guy never had a chance."
"Who is he, Doc?"
"Carthway, Section Three. Strange thing was, he wasn't hurt all that badly. He should have survived."
"Where's his partner?" Napoleon glanced around, hoping to give the agent a word of comfort and guidance
"We don't know. He dumped him here and left." The nurse sounded bitter. "Said he had something to attend to."
"I shall inform Mr. Kuryakin," Napoleon said, not wanting to think about the situation. One more agent lost to the cause... that part just never got any easier.
He withdrew quietly and returned to Leon's room. Lisle was holding his hand and not saying much of anything.
"If it's all the same with you pair, I think I'm going to head home. I'm guessing Illya has either put them all to bed or they have tied him up and stuffed him into the closet."
"Or Irina is giving him a pedicure again," Leon murmured, more asleep than awake.
Napoleon smiled and walked to Lisle's side. He hugged her and then whispered into her ear. "It doesn't look like it, but those beds hold two. Have a good night."
Illya woke slowly, sensing that something was off, but he couldn't really tell what. His sheets smelled different and then he remembered. The grandchildren had taken over his bed, so he'd climbed into Napoleon's last night—a last ditch effort to grabbing some sleep before work.
There was a gentle hand patting his leg and Illya managed to crank one eye open and squint at the child.
"What's wrong, Peter? Go back to bed."
"But, Poppy, I'm hungry, Ginny's stinky, and Alex locked Reenie in your closet..."
"Do you want me to go?" Napoleon's muffled voice came from Illya's left and he rolled his head in that direction.
"No, you had less sleep than I did. I'll do it." He flung the sheet back with a groan. "All right, Peter, I am awake."
"Alex said to make sure you were sitting up before I trusted you."
"I'm going to have to have a long talk with that young man." Illya got his feet untangled from the sheet and over the edge of the mattress, grunting with the effort. He pulled his tee shirt down from around his chest and scratched his stomach through the material. "Enough?"
"Uh, huh!" Peter ran from the room, shouting, "He's up! You're in trouble now!"
"The world is now warned," Napoleon murmured and readjusted his pillow.
"Leon is doing okay?"
"He was last night." A huge yawn. "You lost an agent..."
"Carthway." Napoleon propped himself up on an elbow and reached for a glass of water. "Illya, he died alone." Napoleon's voice grew very soft and sad. "No one to watch over him."
"Not surprised. Simpson's too cold hearted for his own good. He's got a 'better him than me' attitude that I can't get through." Illya got to his feet and stretched. "How are you doing today?"
"I'd be happier if my son wasn't in Medical, but he was awake and alert last night... this morning..." He set the glass back down. "I really don't want to go into work today."
"So don't. You're the boss, after all."
"Leon's there... and if I see him, I might as well be working. What about you?"
"Monthly department meeting, weekly staff meeting and I need to make arrangements for Carthway. He may have died alone, but he won't be buried that way."
"There was another agent, Illya..."
"Phil Gleason." Illya nodded solemnly. "They brought him in just after Leon. They really did a number on him..."
"His partner looked like hell." Napoleon drew his knees up and draped an arm over his eyes. "Brought back some bad memories. Too many close calls."
Illya smiled and walked around to Napoleon's side of the bed. "The only bad close call is the one you don't walk away from."
"I just looked down... and I thought... God, Illya, what would have happened if Leon had died?" Napoleon pushed his hair back and sighed.
"We would move on, together, as a family. It's all that we can do, Napoleon. It's the nature of the beast."
"I kept looking at Gleason and seeing you... remembering..." His voice cracked and finally the façade broke and tears started trickling down his whiskered cheeks. Without hesitation, Illya moved to embrace his partner, feeling the still strong shoulders shake beneath his arms.
"Remembering is good, Napoleon," he murmured, shaking his head as Peter wandered back into the room. "Remembering is what makes us cautious and reminds us that we are human. It hopefully keeps us from making the same mistakes and from taking foolish chances."
"I have a good teacher." Illya pushed him away and smiled tenderly. "And a better partner." Then he sighed as Inessa patted his bad knee. "Yes, Inessa?"
"Poppy? Ginny's really stinky and I think she just flushed your communicator down the toilet. Petey's making breakfast and Reenie's tying Alex to a chair..."
"What?" He stood and glanced over at the girl, then back to Napoleon. "Are you okay, Napoleon?"
"Go, go! Salvage what you can."
Illya stumbled out of Napoleon's bedroom and came to a halt before he even had cleared the door. Chewy looked up from his excavation of the one plant neither Illya nor Napoleon had managed to kill. The study rubber plant was halfway across the living room, looking very forlorn about its fate. Chewy woofed happily and ran up to Illya, tail wagging and ready to play. Illya, on the other hand, wasn't wagging anything. He was staring at the dirt that decorated the rug and the furniture.
The tiny kitchen he shared with his partner was covered in flour and every pot, pan, and dish they owned. Peter had a chair pulled up to a countertop and was humming as he dropped eggs, shells and all, into a bowl. There was a resulting splash that sent fluid splattering all over the boy and the countertop.
At the groan, he looked up and waved a spoon, further spreading the mess from the bowl. "Hi, Poppy."
"Peter, what are you doing?"
"Correction, you are making a huge mess. Who told you that you could use my kitchen?'
"Hey, Poppy, watch this!" Inessa had built a huge tower from some of Illya's books and was about to set a vase with a small bunch of dandelions, about the only flower they could get to survive in the garden downstairs and a gift from Irina, on the top of it.
"I'm gonna kill you!" Alex , his feet tied together with one of Illya's best ties, came hopping out of the bedroom after his sister. Irina shrieked and ran into the stacked books, sending them everywhere. The vase hit the floor, bounced once, then shattered on the second impact.
A book, The Theory of Gravity, ironically enough, dropped and conked Irina. She started crying and taking her anger out on the books.
Alex started to laugh, then grew solemn as the carpet in the hallway grew dark. "Holy cats, Poppy, there's water running everywhere!"
Alex started to hop around, but then tripped. He managed to avoid hitting his head, but one of his feet caught an end table, which sent a lamp crashing to the floor.
Assured that the boy wasn't hurt, Illya made a run for the bathroom, groaning as the water cascaded over the sides of the toilet bowl.
"Ginny play inna water, Pop Pop!" Ginny sat on the tile and splashed happily. Part of Illya's wallet floated over the side and he moaned as he recognized a mush of paper that had been his most recent paycheck.
Illya felt as if he'd been hit with a very large hammer; he was too stunned to move or even shout... he could do nothing more than stare at the catastrophe that had been their neat and tidy apartment just hours earlier.
At the feeling of the hand on his shoulder, he glanced backwards to Napoleon and sighed.
Napoleon nodded slowly. "Let's get this cleaned up. I think it's time we have a talk, just the two of us."
Napoleon watched Leon wince as he eased himself out of the car. It had been two months and Leon was still recovering. He was still moving slowly, but gaining more ground every day. Napoleon remembered getting all of a week to get back on his feet from a bullet wound. Perhaps Illya was right in that he didn't push the agents as hard as Waverly had pushed them.
Even worse, Leon hadn't been wounded in the line of duty. It had been a stray bullet from a nearby gang fire fight. Police and emergency services had been dispatched and that was why the ambulance was so close. Whether it had been a gang member's bullet or one of the many rounds that the police fired that day, they would never really know. The irony wasn't lost on Napoleon. It seemed to him that it was getting more and more dangerous just trying to survive, UNCLE agent or not.
Lisle ran around to help Leon stand and then she stopped, looking at the field stretched out before them. "Wow, it's so quiet out here it almost hurts your ear." She slipped an arm around her husband's waist and smiled as a soft breeze caressed her face. "It's nice."
There was the sound of a car approaching and Illya pulled the sedan in behind them, parking neatly just off the road. He barely got the car stopped before Alex , the twins, and Chewy barreled out of the car and started racing through the grass. The little beagle didn't seem to know quite what to do with so much room, but he took his cue from the kids and chased after them.
"Out, out," Ginny shouted, waving her arms frantically and Lisle laughed as she unstrapped Ginny from her car seat. She placed the toddler down and Ginny giggled, squatting to slap at some goldenrod. A grasshopper jumped away and her eyes got huge.
"Pop pop!" She looked frantically at Illya, who bent to capture the insect in his hands. He carried it to her and opened his hands carefully. The child gasped as the bug looked at her, wiggled its antenna and leapt away. She squealed loudly and started running after it.
"Kids, don't go too far..." Leon yelled a warning. Since the accident, he'd gotten wary of his surroundings, even something as innocent as an open field.
"They can't hurt anything out here, unless they trip of course." Illya watched Inessa go down with a flurry of arms and legs. She popped back up, laughed, and started running again. "Let them work off some of that energy they always seem to have."
Another car arrived and Genève, Irina, and Alexander climbed out.
"Boy, talk about God's country." Alexander took a deep breath. "Smell that air. It doesn't stink of smoke."
"Closest town is about ten miles in that direction." Napoleon pointed.
"This is a lovely spot for a picnic." Genève took the keys from Alexander, went around the car, and popped open the trunk. "Irina, can you carry a blanket?"
"I can and I will. I'm a good helper!" It was obvious though that she longed to be chasing after her siblings.
"Why don't I help and you go try to catch a butterfly instead? Or pick some flowers for a centerpiece." Illya asked and the girl nodded and dashed off. "That should keep her busy for the next hour."
"Wait up, you guys! Let me catch up!" Irina shouted as she ran. Inessa stopped and waved to her as Alex held out his hand. Irina grabbed her brothers and off they went.
It took just minutes to toss the blankets over the grass, the weight of the material flattening the grass beneath it. The shade from a large tree made the day temperate. Baskets were emptied, food was set out, a jug of juice and a variety of adult beverages were placed in a nearby stream to stay cool.
Lisle sat back and glanced across the field where he children were running and cavorting in the long grass. "This is really lovely. I don't think they've ever had this much space. If they had this much room at home, they'd run down a lot faster."
"Do you honestly think so?" Napoleon looked up from his task of setting up a makeshift grill.
"I do, it's so peaceful and quiet, I think I could stay here forever." She laughed and plopped back on the blanket, looking up at the blue sky. "I would just stretch out and find shapes in the clouds and I bet a garden would grow out here... away from all the city stuff."
"We were hoping you'd say that." Illya looked over at Napoleon and smiled uncertainly. Instantly, Lisle sat up and studied him.
"What are you two scheming up now?"
"This place, it's yours... well, ours really. We bought it last week."
Leon glanced sharply at them. "What? What do you mean, this place?"
"Twelve acres, from the road to the tree line to the east..." Napoleon pointed. "...to the fence line to the west, it's all ours."
Leon shook his head. "I'm hearing things. Ours?"
"Illya and I, we're... tired of living in the city and I'm tired of being a target." Napoleon stopped working on his task and joined them on the blanket. "So, we liquidated some assets and bought this property. We were thinking you could build over there. We'll build on the other side. Together, but with a bit more room for all of us to breathe as the kids get older. There's... ah... even enough room if you two would care to join us." He looked over at Genève and Alexander.
"Moving won't stop it, sir." Alexander said quietly. "No matter where you go, THRUSH is going to come looking for you. As long as you are head of UNCLE, you will be a target."
"Which is why I'm retiring."
"What? Wait, you can't!" Alexander just stood and stared at the man. "You're head of UNCLE...sir."
"And I am not going down with the ship, Alexander, not like Mr. Waverly did. I will start the arrangements upon my return. I have a replacement and while it will take about a year to bring him up to speed, I think it's time. Besides, it's going to take at least that long for the houses to be built."
Alexander slowly shook his head and walked away. After a moment, Genève grabbed a big floppy hat, got to her feet, and ran after him.
"Poppy, look at this!" Inessa had carried a handful of mud to him. Inside was a squirming shape.
"That's a tadpole, Inessa. We need to go put him back before he dies."
"I don't want him to die."
"Then let's get him back with his brothers and sisters." Illya hefted up the child up onto his shoudlers. "Oof, you're getting heavy. Where's the stream?"
Leon watched Illya walking away, wading through the long grass as Inessa gave directions. "But, Dad, why?"
"I'm tired, Leon. I've been doing this since I was a very young man, much younger than you were when you started. I've seen it all, done most of it or had it done to me. I don't want to play anymore." Napoleon glanced over at Illya, who was accepting the flowers that Irina was offering him. Napoleon lowered his voice. "And Illya won't leave until I do. I'd rather go out on a high note than standing at his graveside wishing I'd gotten us both out sooner."
"But... the logistics..."
"The town I was talking about earlier has a good school, you could put the kids back into public school if you wanted, and everything else you need. The freeway is just beyond that. Forty more minutes and you'd be back in Manhattan."
"We drove longer than forty minutes." Leon was still unconvinced.
"I took the scenic route."
"It would be longer with the commute."
"It might, but I was thinking that this might be a good spot for a field office, some place low key to tuck things we don't want to come to a higher profile." Napoleon took a deep breath. "I wouldn't ask for any of you to leave UNCLE, you're just starting out. If you want to stay in the city, that's entirely your choice, but we, Illya and I, we've made our decision."
"We don't have to decide right now anyhow," Lisle said suddenly and patted her husband's arm. "Let's just enjoy the day and think about it. Even if we decide against it, it might be a nice place to escape to now and again, holidays and the like. I'll bet this place is beautiful in the snow." She jumped to her feet and held out her hand. "Come on Leon, let's go take a look! I bet we can find a tree that would be perfect for a tree house!"
Groaning, Leon got to his feet and let her pull him along. "Your daughter," he grumbled as he passed Illya. Illya dumped his armful of flowers just to the side of the blankets and sneezed.
Napoleon laughed and held out a handkerchief to him. Illya shook his head, found his own, still dyed a faint pink, and blew his nose. "It went over?"
"About as well as we'd hoped." Napoleon watched the two couples join up. The kids saw them and started running up to them and then dashing away on another adventure. "Leon isn't convinced."
"Then Leon can stay in the city. I think they would benefit from selling that house, but it's their choice in the end."
"That it is, just as this is our choice."
Illya grinned and flopped back on the blanket, unknowingly mimicking his daughter's earlier actions. "That it is." For a long moment, they were quiet, listening to the children's laughter, Chewy's barking, the birds singing. "That it is indeed," Illya repeated.