It had been just one of those days when everything in his world was perfectly balanced. Work had been challenging, but not insane. He'd accomplished everything he'd set out to. He hadn't annoyed his boss... too much... well, no more than usual... he chuckled to himself. And now he had two whole days off to let the world go by without needing to do anything except enjoy his family.
The weather was perfect too. He was busy entertaining thoughts of a cook out, frolicking on the grass with his kids, maybe even getting his dad to toss him a few passes with the football. To be honest, Illya was better at it, but he had all those 'this is not proper football' issues. Yup, Leon Solo was in a top-of-the-world mood and that should have been a wake-up call for him. When things go this right, chaos is lurking just around the corner.
He pulled the car up in front of the private school his two oldest children attended and climbed out. As was his habit, he scanned the immediate area, just to make sure there were no threats. As his dad liked to put it, 'A cautious UNCLE agent is one more likely to live to be an older UNCLE agent.'
His first clue to the possibility of problems was the sight of his son. Alex had inherited his grandfather's genes. He liked to be put together. When most boys his age didn't care if their clothes were in inside out or on backwards, Alex was a bit more attentive. He wasn't overly fussy about his appearance, not like his little sister. He just liked to have his shirt buttoned properly, his shoes tied and his hair combed. Leon smirked - Alex certainly didn't get it from him. If it wasn't for Lisle, Leon would wear mismatched socks most of the time.
So when Alex came storming down the sidewalk, his shirt tail out, his pants ripped and his face dirty, Leon knew there was a problem.
The blond head snapped in his father's direction. "No one messes with my sister!" He climbed into the car and crossed his arms, his face set in marble.
"Okay..." Leon scanned the crowd of children and eventually spotted Irina. She was usually hand-in-hand with Fran, her bestest friend ever, according to what Leon was told. Today, she was walking alone and rubbing her eyes with the knuckles of one hand.
Leon knelt and held his arms out to her and the moment Irina saw him, she ran to him and fell into his embrace, sobbing.
"Irina, sweetheart, what happened?" He carried her to the car and settled her on the seat.
"The stupid teacher happened," Alex muttered, burying his face in his arms. That was, again, odd as Alex tended to get along with his teacher just fine.
"Daddy, was I made wrong?" Irina managed to get out between gulping sobs.
"What? Of course not! You're a perfect example of everything a little girl should be. Why would you even ask that?"
"Mrs. Buckley said I was made wrong and I'm going to Hell for it and I don't want to..."
"Okay, I need you both to take a deep breath and tell me what happened today."
Lisle heard the front door open and flicked a look at the clock. "Your daddy is right on time." She announced to the two young children. They giggled and each one grabbed a leg as Lisle started walking. "Okay, you two take the bloody cake when it comes to being loony." She waded forward with them each clutching a leg and squealing. "On the upside, this is a good work out."
"I'm coming... eventually." She got to the hallway and once the twins saw their father they detached... Just like bombs from a bay, Lisle thought as they toddled towards Leon, then she saw Alex. "What happened to you?"
Leon cupped his son's head and made a face. "This really takes the cake. Is Dad home? And Illya?"
"In the back. Your dad is barbecuing and mine is kibitzing... and drinking beer and supposedly safeguarding the salads for dinner... if they survive that long."
"Good, I need their advice." He knelt beside Irina and stroked her cheek, then tapped her nose. "Alex, why don't you go and get cleaned up? Take your sister with you."
Alex slid an arm around his sister's shoulders. "Come on, Reenie, it'll be okay."
"Alex and Irina cooperating? That's scary." Lisle watched the two tromp up the stairs as Leon scooped up the twins, one over each shoulder. Both squealed and he clenched his eyes shut at the stereophonic assault on his ears.
"It's nothing compared to what I've got to tell you. Let's go out back."
Napoleon glanced up at the pair as they exited the house, their way cleared by Inessa and Peter. True to form, Peter made a bee line for Illya, for obviously wherever Illya was, food was also likely to be present. Napoleon flipped the steaks and put the hot dogs off to the side.
"How do you want your steak, my boy?"
"Through the heart of a narrow-minded teacher." Leon did a credible imitation of his older son. Illya glanced over even as he was hefting his grandson to his lap and handing him a dill pickle. Peter stuck it in his mouth and then looked at his grandfather as if he'd been betrayed.
"Ah, you thought that was something else, didn't you?" Illya said, laughing at the boy's grimace. Illya took one and bit into it. "Mmmm." Peter wasn't convinced.
Leon sat at the picnic table and propped up his chin with a hand. "Apparently, Miss Pam and Miss Stephanie are on vacation."
"In the middle of a semester?" Lisle brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes and Napoleon grinned. He'd seen Illya do exactly the same thing a million times or more. It was always surprising how much she emulated her father without even consciously trying.
"A new substitute teacher started this week and she's been saying some pretty interesting things."
"Oh, such as?"
"Apparently Irina is going to Hell because of her friendship with Fran."
"Excuse me?" Lisle snatched up Inessa just before she threw a handful of dirt into the barbeque pit. "And why is that?"
"Because Fran has two mothers instead of the more traditional family, she is doomed, as is Irina because of their friendship. She was told she was contaminated... or at least I'm guessing that's the word Alex was looking for. He can be pretty creative with his word usage at times." Leon paused and reached for a beer. He pulled off the tab and took a drink. "And you know Irina; she can hold her own in a fight, so she protested. Then she mentioned us," Leon gestured to Lisle and himself. "And her teacher told her she was made wrong."
"I thought you two took a fairly common path in conception." Napoleon slid one of the steaks to the side, knowing that carry over would take the steak to the medium rare his partner preferred.
"But you two didn't when you had us out of wedlock. We're both bastards because of that."
"Cut us a bit of slack here. I didn't even know I had a daughter until about eight years ago," Illya protested, moving his beer can away from Peter's reach. "Eat your pickle." He offered the saliva-covered pickle to the boy again and Peter grabbed it to wave it around as if it was a sword.
"Some fun!" he announced, then bit it and made a face. Illya chuckled.
Lisle set Inessa down in the sandbox and went to hug her father's neck. "And you've adapted beautifully." She kissed his cheek as he grinned back at her. "Still, what right does the teacher have to make judgment calls like that? And why did Alex look like he'd been dragged behind a car?"
"One of the boys in Alex's class agreed with the teacher and Alex took him down for it. He then got reprimanded for defending his sister and you know how he hates to be disciplined." Leon glanced at his wife and smiled grimly. "I'm going to meet with the principal on Monday. She'd already left for the day when I got there."
A very subdued Irina and Alex returned. He was holding her hand and watching her closely. She kept her gaze lowered, only raising it occasionally to get her bearings and keep from tripping over obstacles.
Napoleon set the tongs aside and walked over to her, picking her up with a grunt. "You're getting heavy, Irina."
"That's because my soul is laden with sin." Her voice was soft and wavering, as if she was on the verge of tears again.
"Okay, this ends now." Illya set Peter on the ground and stood up. "And who better to do it than a Godless Communist? Alex, what is the name of the teacher causing all the trouble?"
"Thank you." Illya reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his communicator. "That's all I need." With an ease borne of much practice, he twisted, tugged and manipulated the slender device. "Open Channel R please, Kuryakin, Section Three, Number One." He glanced at the children and took a few steps away to the relative privacy of a hedge.
Napoleon put Irina down and then knelt to be on her level. "Sweetheart, have I ever lied to you?"
"No, Grampy... except at Christmas time and that's an okay time to have secrets."
"Then listen to me and know that I'm telling the truth. You were not made wrong, your soul is not heavy with sin. You are a little girl, nothing more, nothing less... and a Solo." He shifted his eyes over to where his partner was busily talking into his communicator. "With just enough Kuryakin in the mix to make life interesting..."
"I don't want my life to be interesting..." she protested loudly. "I just want to play with Frannie."
Lisle was suddenly at their side. "Irina, why don't you call Fran and see if she'd like to come over for dinner... or a slumber party."
"Oh, Jez," Alex muttered. "I knew that was going to end badly for someone."
"Fran would like that; she says our house in interesting..." Irina leaned in close to her grandfather and confided, "But I think she means weird."
"Just how I always wanted to be described," Napoleon murmured. "You better call her fast before she makes other plans."
Illya was putting the communicator away as Irina left with Lisle. "Trouble?"
"I think we're being set up for the Mother of all Slumber Parties." Napoleon returned to his steaks. "So did you get through?" Illya smiled, a smile that meant sublime trouble being rained down upon someone, a smile that meant someone's life was suddenly going to become very complicated... a smile that Napoleon loved seeing. "Now you're talking my language."
"But I don't want to go to school today." Irina buried herself further in bed. "I'm sick."
"Sick?" Lisle touched her daughter's cool forehead. "What's wrong?"
"I have dance fever."
"Oh, that's a relief. Doctors have a shot for that now, although I understand it's very painful."
"I'm going to school," Irina announced quickly, climbing out of bed.
"A remarkable recovery," Lisle joked, but inwardly she was troubled. Irina normally loved school, couldn't wait for the weekend to be over. She watched her daughter walk off towards the bathroom her little shoulders stooped in resignation, and sighed.
Out in the hallway, she could hear the distant battle Leon was waging with his younger son.
"I said, cereal!"
"Pickle, pickle, pickle!"
Lisle laughed softly, knowing all too well who would win. Leon was not the disciplinarian of the family. She turned as a hand caught her arm.
"Penny for your thoughts," Illya murmured, kissing her temple.
"You'd be grossly over paying. You look well rested today."
"Spent most of yesterday in bed," Illya admitted.
"I wonder what all those grunts and groans were about..."
Illya cut her off. "Lisle, there was no grunting or groaning."
"Seriously, Dad ,you wankers should hear the two of you getting out of chairs.. lots of grunts and groans."
"You get tossed from a half dozen cars or thrown off a mountain top and then we'll talk groaning..." He trailed off as Alex tromped out of the bathroom, a frown on his face, clutching a towel to his body.
"A fella asks for a little privacy and all he gets is a pesky little sister," he announced as he passed the pair, his backside exposed to the world.
Illya smirked and Lisle sighed. "He's growing up so fast..."
"And yet, he would argue, not quickly enough." Irina walked from the bathroom, her chin jutted out, a ribbon trailing from her hand. "She is not happy."
"She told me she had dance fever..."
"We can only hope she's inherited her grandfather's sense of rhythm then." Illya gave her shoulder a squeeze and followed after his granddaughter. He tapped on her partially opened door, hoping that it might send a message that knocking first might avoid an incident. "Irina?"
He entered and frowned at the disarray that was her room. "It looks like a toy store vomited in here."
"I'm glad you like it. It's taken me a week to get it like this. I just get it perfect and then Mommy cleans it."
"She just doesn't understand the creative mind." He sat on her bed and patted his lap. Without hesitation, she climbed up and nestled against him as he wrapped his arms around her. "Your mother tells me you are reluctant to go to school."
"I'm afraid of Mrs. Buckley. She's mean, Poppy, I miss my old teachers."
"They'll be back soon, but your grandfather and I will see what we can do about getting you a new substitute. Would you like that?"
"You won't hurt her?"
"No, just relocate her to somewhere that she won't be able to spew her venom."
"I don't know exactly what that means, but I think I like it."
He kissed her head and hugged her tightly. "Of course, you do. You have Kuryakin blood in your veins. Go get me your brush."
She climbed down and returned a moment later and turned her back to him. Thankful for that crash course he'd had in hair care years before, Illya began to brush out her hair.
"No one can take your self-worth from you, Irina. You must surrender it voluntarily."
"I don't want to."
"Good girl." Napoleon's voice came from the door. He was standing there holding two cups of coffee. "So, is Mr. Illya doing that just right?" He set one cup down on the nearby night stand.
"He pulls a little."
"Sorry, I'm out of practice," Illya apologized, keeping his strokes gentle and even.
"You wouldn't be if you'd let your hair grow..." Irina sighed. "And I could brush it and braid it and put beautiful ribbons in it."
"You'd be quite the hit at the next staff meeting, partner." Napoleon murmured, sipping his coffee. He paused at Illya's glare. "So, Irina, you are going to face that teacher today and not take any guff from her, am I right?"
"That's what your brother gives you," Illya murmured. "And what you give him in return."
"Can I punch her?"
"No." Napoleon shook his head.
"Stick my tongue out?"
"Also not a good choice." Illya set the brush down and caught up the long brown hair with the ribbon.
"Pull her hair and call her names? That sometimes works."
"Definitely not." Illya adjusted the ribbon. "Too tight?"
"No, that's fine, sweetheart." Irina reached up to move the ribbon slightly. "Well, I'm outta ideas then."
"How about turning the other cheek?" Napoleon suggested as Illya tied the ribbon into a neat bow.
"You want me to show her my rear end, Grampy? She might spank it."
Illya make a noise akin to the sound a ripe melon makes when hitting the pavement. "I'll let you wing this one. I'm late as it is."
"Absolutely." He stood, grabbed his coffee, and headed for the door. "I will see you at the office."
Napoleon sighed longingly to himself and set his glasses aside, wishing for just the moment that he was one of the pair on the other side of the desk. The two men facing him were just children, yet he'd been younger than they when he and Illya were partnered. That was only... almost thirty years earlier. How was that even possible?
"You have your assignment, gentlemen. Report in as usual and good luck."
They stood and started to leave, bumping each other with their elbows, some private joke being shared between them. As the door opened and Illya entered, both sobered and nodded as they passed him.
Illya watched after them for a moment and shook his head.
"When did we get this old, partner?" Napoleon leaned back in his chair, wincing at a tug in his back. "If you could...?"
"What? Be shot, stabbed, drugged, knocked unconscious again? In a heartbeat... I fear the only thing THRUSH has to fear from me now is my razor sharp wit and still boyish good looks and charm."
"There goes the free world as we know it. What do you have for me that's put you in such a good mood?"
"We have successfully plugged a leak in the Berlin office and left them a few tidbits that should keep everyone entertained for the next few days. The recruitment figures are holding steady, and we've not lost an agent in nearly a month."
"On a more personal note..." Illya passed over a file folder. "It would seem that our Mrs. Buckley has left a bit of a reputation behind her."
Napoleon picked up the top sheet. "Wait, she's been banned from teaching?"
"In public schools, yes, but not in the private sector." Illya shuffled through the paper and withdrew one. "Unless she was forthcoming, none of this would have been seen by the interviewer."
"So you don't think the principal...?"
"Has a clue. If she does, then Leon and Lisle will have to decide what they want to do about it."
"This will be brought to the principal's attention?"
"I have given the information to Leon and he can do with it as he will. He is your son; he'll make a good decision."
Napoleon continued to read for a moment. "Thanks, Illya."
"They are my grandchildren as well." He broke off to chuckle. "Does that ever stop sounding strange?"
"Hell, I'm still stuck on the 'Dad' part. How hard did you have to dig to get this?"
"Not very, but our people are extremely skilled at such things." Illya walked to the only window in the UNCLE building and stared out at the cityscape. "The school should have done a better job at screening its candidates."
Napoleon's private line rang and he snatched it up. "Solo here."
"You told Irina to moon the teacher?" Leon's voice was dead-pan.
"No, I told her to turn the other cheek and explained what it meant."
"She apparently chose to ignore you and is now in the principal's office. Requesting permission to leave the premises for the rest of the day, sir."
"Go, go," Napoleon said and then cradled the phone.
"What?" Illya glanced back from the window.
"From now on, I'm going to leave the pep talks to you. Irina decided upon her own interpretation of turning the other cheek."
"You always forget Napoleon; she's got Kuryakin blood in her. Add that to your occasional disregard for authority..."
"I'm being kind since it's Monday. She is in trouble?"
"Leon's going to bail her out."
"Consider what I've armed him with, it should be nothing short of glorious."
Leon sat quietly in the chair, reminding himself that he wasn't the one in trouble here. Beside him, Irina sat very quietly, staring at her pink sneakers and sighing at regular intervals.
The door opened and the principal stuck her head out. "Mr. Solo, won't you come in?" Irina started to slide from her chair and the woman continued. "I need to speak with only your father, Irina."
Leon knelt and tied one of her shoes. "I'll be right back, Princess. You sit tight."
Leon followed the principal into her office and sat down in the chair opposite her, waiting for the woman to talk. The principal sat as if a ramrod has been shoved up her... Leon stopped the thought process at that point. Things hadn't been to his liking with Nightingale ever since the last principal retired, but up to now, it hadn't affected his children. Now it was personal.
"We are becoming increasing concerned with Irina's flagrant disregard for authority."
"I wasn't aware that it was a problem before today, ma'am."
"Pamela and Stephanie had a way with children. They were able to connect with her and keep her under control, but she has not been able to accept the new teacher."
"I was under the impression that Mrs. Buckley was a substitute and that Pam and Stephanie were returning."
"Pending a further investigation into the incident regarding the two women."
"They were reported being seen together." The woman made air quotes around the last word.
"They're co workers, what's so odd about that?"
"In a bar."
"I go out to bars with my coworkers."
"A special kind of bar... one that caters to certain types of people. I mean, they live together..."
"I see." Warning bells were going off in Leon's head and he suppressed a chill. "You mean certain types like my father."
"Of course not, Mr. Solo, I've met your father. He's a wonderful man, so charming and debonair - a man's man and a woman's dream."
"And he's lived with another man for the last twenty or so years."
The principal paused and then smiled. "There's nothing wrong with two men living together unless they..."
"Live together?" Leon made air quotes back at her. "The noise you hear is the sound of your moral compass crashing." Leon stood and smiled at her, a pitying smile. "Tell me, does it ever get cramped in that sparsely furnished mind of yours?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You should, but you don't have to worry. I'm taking Irina and Alex with me. I think they've been exposed to more harm than good here. And I think I'll mention this in passing to my lawyer. He loves to take on cases like this."
"There's no real need for that, Mr. Solo." The principal's voice was rising in pitch.
"Oh, that's where you are so wrong and I'm going to venture that several other parents are going to agree with me. See, that's where you made a mistake. You should never mess with a Solo... you'll never win."
Leon sat back, sipping a beer and watching Fran and Irina chase each other over the grass, forgetting the world, the burden of life, and just celebrating being children. That along had made the past week worth dealing with. "How is home schooling working out for you?"
Jess looked up from stirring her ice tea. "Can you believe that Fran is already working fractions? I never knew how good she was at math. How about your two?"
"Incredible. Alex has inherited Dad's love of history and Irina... well, we're not exactly sure what she inherited from whom, but it's been interesting."
"Pam comes in and works with her a few hours a week. And Stephanie tells me that she's picked up another two former Nightingale students," Martha added, looking up from her task of selecting the perfect potato chip and offering it to Peter.
He giggled and happily stuffed it into his mouth. "Mo?"
Pam laughed as she approached. "You didn't hear the big news? Nightingale is closing its doors. Apparently it's being hit with a class action law suit and an EEO suit. Some big organization started digging and found some really interesting skeletons. Not to mention what they did to us." She sat and beamed at Leon. "I wonder who spearheaded that?"
"Really?" Napoleon sipped his wine, then offered it to Illya as he approached. He took a swallow and made a face as he passed it back. "Well at least, now we know where Peter gets it."
"Get it, get it!" Peter latched onto Illya's leg and the Russian flailed his arms to keep his balance. Napoleon grabbed, but too late and Illya toppled to the ground, turning at the last minute to scoop up the toddler and roll with him. "Fall down and BOOM!"
"Boom!" Inessa threw herself on top of Illya and Irina stopped to regard the mass of arms and legs.
She ran up to her father, her brown curls bouncing. "Daddy, can't you tell Poppy that he shouldn't wrestle like that with the little ones? Someone is going to get hurt. He's very irresponsible."
Stephanie smiled. "Irina, can you spell that for me - irresponsible?"
Leon watched his little daughter work her way through the word, his father work at grilling up a mass of hotdogs and hamburgers, his wife work at playing catch with Alex, and Illya work at trying to hold his own against two giggling toddlers. Yup, life didn't get much better than this. This was the perfect day...