Snow plowed from the sky and Napoleon Solo watched it from the shelter of his apartment with an air of detachment. It had started falling three days ago and showed no intention of allowing the city to dig out from beneath it. It didn't worry Napoleon. He had Illya to depend on for transportation and if anyone knew how to drive in snow, it was the Russian or at least that's what he kept insisting. Napoleon let the curtain fall and headed back into his bedroom to finish packing.
As soon as Melissa showed up for her gift, he'd be ready to join Illya for the trip back up north and home.
Home, Napoleon rolled the word around in his mouth. What was home to Napoleon Solo? Was it back in the small farming community of Chelsea, Vermont? Was it his well-designed, purposefully seductive apartment? Or was it actually hidden in the cold, steel-grey walls of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters? He pondered this as, he went through the series of practiced moves of packing. He snapped a shirt into a neat bundle and tucked it away in his suitcase. He wondered what Christmas would be like after all this time away as he patted down the top sweater and closed the lid.
There was a sharp knock at the door and Napoleon's lips curled up into a warm smile. With a stretch, he reached over the bed and to the nightstand to depress the 'off' button to the intra-apartment alarm system.
"Come in. It's unlocked," he shouted. He heard the door open and shut without an accompanying greeting.
"Ah, that's my Melissa. Short on words, but long on action," Napoleon murmured to his reflection as he inspected his neat brown hair. Louder, he said, "Your present is on the table. Go ahead and open it." He slipped on a tan jacket to the tearing of paper, straightened out a lapel and patted on some of Melissa's favorite aftershave lotion, all the while waiting for the squeal of delight. Instead, he was startled at the soft, Russian-accented voice from the bedroom doorway behind him.
"It's very nice, Napoleon, but what exactly am I to do with it?"
Solo spun and grimaced at the man who leaned against the door jam, a rare grin gracing his usually somber Slavic face. From his finger he dangled a sheer red Dior negligee. His face flushed, Napoleon snatched the nightgown from his fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent and walked back into the living room to repack the present.
"Honestly, Illya, I should have known better."
"Yes, you should have. Red is not my color." The Russian sobered as he watched his partner. "I could have been a THRUSH assassin and picked you off by now." Illya straightened to follow Napoleon out. "You've become very lax in your security measures as of late."
"But you weren't."
"But I could have been. Mr. Waverly has warned you before about being careless. Besides, you should have gotten all of that," He gestured to the lingerie, "taken care of last night." Illya tossed his hat and gloves down onto the coffee table.
"I had planned to, but Maxim stayed late to thank me." He smiled at the memory, even while his hands deftly rewrapped the box.
"Maxim? She's the waitress from the Playboy Club, 5'4", red hair, ah." He made appropriate gestures with his hands, then resumed. "The gift tag said Melissa. How many more do you have on a string?"
"There's safety in numbers, my boy, and I can recall nothing good ever being said about chastity."
"Au contraire, my dear Napoleon," Illya said, sweeping a handful of hair back into place. "There were several great men who died virgins, Sir Isaac Newton, for one." The hair slid back down his forehead. "And there's no greatness in dying from a venereal disease"
"It also made him an insomniac as I recall. I don't know what you're worried about anyway. You've been an UNCLE agent for too long to join the ranks of the virtuous." Napoleon flipped the package around to check for problems.
Illya snorted and walked to the balcony, flicking a casual eye to check on the status of the surveillance device. He pushed the curtain aside and regarded the building across the street.
"Napoleon, I'm beginning to have serious misgivings about this whole trip. Are you sure everything will be all right? With your parents, I mean?"
"Illya, are you backing down from a challenge? I am surprised. Mom and Dad are just typical, average, all-American run-of-the-mill parents."
"But I'm hardly your typical all-American, Napoleon," Illya protested, letting the curtain fall back into place. "Do they know I'm Russian?"
"Yes, I told them, but it's not important. They know you're a friend and that's all that matters to them."
"It wasn't all that mattered to you when I was assigned as your partner, Napoleon. We had some very unsettling moments at first."
"That had nothing to do with the fact that you were Russian. You were green; I didn't know if I could trust you. You soon proved otherwise. Listen, I promised you an old-fashioned Christmas and that's just what you're going to get." Napoleon turned to face him. "Be grateful. This will probably be the first and last Christmas we'll have free in a long time. For some reason, THRUSH is always more active at this time of year.."
"It must be the Christmas spirit."
"If you're getting cold feet, go put on another pair of socks and help me with this stuff." Napoleon returned to the bedroom and his voice continued faintly. "You're early, you know."
"No, you're late. You forgot to wind your watch again. I wish you'd pay it half as much consideration as your numerous girlfriends." The Russian hefted up a pair of skis and ski boots. "Head," he read off the name brand. "What sort of company calls their skis Head?"
"Head of the class. You know, top of the line."Napoleon reappeared with two suitcases. "You did bring skis, didn't you?"
"Of course. Don't you ever go for anything but the best, my friend?"
"I work with you, don't I?" Napoleon's tone was light, almost bantering. He was glad to have Illya back in full working order again. "How's the mouth, by the way?"
"Still a little stiff and tender in spots, but the doctors say that's normal. At least it works again. How about you? Are you feeling better?"
Their last affair had been a bad one—the worst so far and they had come back almost on their shields instead of behind them. It had left Napoleon bandaged up like a mummy and despising the smell of white surgical tape and Illya, among other things, with his mouth wired shut with a broken jaw and several surgically re-implanted teeth.
"Fine, just fine now, but I would have argued that point a couple of weeks ago, but I'm feeling just about back to normal now. The pain meds help, of course." Napoleon gently rubbed the healing ribs and made a final inspection of his apartment, checking all the alarms to assure himself of their readiness. "Would you mind me dropping this off before we head out of town?"
"It won't be a problem." Kuryakin scowled at the suitcases. "We are only staying for a week or do you know something you've failed to mention to me?"
"No, I just like to be prepared for all occasions. I was a terrific Boy Scout." Napoleon tossed the hat and gloves to Illya and watched him pull them on. "Oh, you do have chains, don't you? Just in case the weather gets worse and we need some extra traction?"
"Napoleon, I told you before, there's nothing to worry about. I learned to drive in Moscow when I was ten and could barely reach the foot pedals. I took my driving test in Siberia two years later. I can drive in the snow."
"I didn't know Russia required driver's tests."
"That's moot, at this point, don't you think? Never fear, I can get you anywhere you want, in any weather you choose, in any vehicle you so desire."
"I don't recall that clause being in the original contract." A faint smile followed the admission and Napoleon chuckled.
By the time they hit the outskirts of Chelsea, blizzard-like conditions had dropped visibility to near zero, but that didn't hinder the Russian's driving. He pushed the battered, primer gray Mustang along at a speed that Napoleon didn't even want to think about, apparently unaware of the tattoo Napoleon's foot played against the floorboard.
An old pickup suddenly pulled out in front of them and Illya clamped down on the brakes, easily maneuvering out of the skid while blessing the driver with a blistering round of colorful French curses. Napoleon sank lower in his bucket seat, his knuckles white from grasping the seat cushion.
"Do you want to drive, Napoleon?" Illya's voice returned to its normal level. "You keep this up and you'll put a hole in my floorboard. I really do have the car under control."
"No, you drive, but, please, for my own peace of mind and well-being, could you please slow down a bit. It's not like THRUSH is chasing us."
Obligingly, the car's speed dropped and Illya gave the small town a looking over as he drove down the darkened Main Street. At the town square, the numerous fir trees were festooned with colorful lights, but it was eerily quiet.
"This is sure a swinging place, Napoleon. I've seen more excitement in Kirkwall on a Monday night."
"I seem to recall that you were the excitement on Monday nights in Kirkwall."
"Exactly my point. What do you do for entertainment around here? Go down and watch the mechanics switch tires?" Though his tone was light, Illya kept his attention firmly upon the road before him.
"Rotate tires, Illya. This is a farming community, partner of mine." Napoleon wiped his hand over the steamy window to peer out. "At this time of night, everyone is either in the barns milking or their houses getting dinner ready. Take the left fork here." Napoleon pointed to a branch off the main road.
"I would never have guessed you came from such humble surroundings."
"We all have to start some place. Not all of us descend from the tsars, you know." The truth be known, Napoleon felt a strange combination of excitement and nervousness coursing through him. He was glad to have Illya along for the ride and he stole a sidelong glance at his partner.
He'd received the invitation from his folks, just as he did every year. However, this had been the first time since leaving Vermont that he'd been able to accept, being medically barred from active duty until well after the first of the New Year. The doctors agreed that the change would do him good. It was at that point that the idea of bringing Illya along had started—first as a joke, but quickly gathering seriousness. Napoleon, himself, was a social creature and the mere idea of Illya spending Christmas in his one room apartment, drinking vodka and reading, was too much for the sentimental American.
Illya, as Napoleon had expected, politely but firmly refused at first, understanding this to be the most special of holidays and not wanting to intrude. He'd only weakened after Napoleon had preyed insistently on one of his few weak spots—his passion for food—and expounded upon how his mother was the best cook on the Eastern seaboard.
Everything seemed so strangely familiar and yet alien at the same time. Napoleon found himself wondering what he'd find. It had been nearly 15 years since he'd been home. The last time, however, was with Joyce, just before she had been killed... Napoleon jolted himself out of the thought. The doctors had warned him of depression as a side effect of the pain medication he was forced to take and he refused to be in a blue funk for his parents. They'd only blame it on the city life and begin hammering him again about moving home.
The road dipped familiarly and a large barn came into view, its sheer size and proximity to the road making it visible, despite the blowing snow. The surrounding buildings were hidden, their windows mere pinpoints of light. Through the narrow crack in his window, Napoleon caught the blare of the barn's generator that ran the milking pumps.
Memory upon memory cascaded back for Napoleon as Illya slowed the car. The Russian didn't need to ask if this was the place -Napoleon's attitude told him it was more clearly than words ever could. Two beagles leaped against the side of their kennel, baying at the unfamiliar vehicle momentarily, as it pulled past before ducking into their heated doghouse to escape the snow.
"It's a sharp left here," Napoleon said, pointing to a long driveway, set back off the main road. Obligingly, Illya turned and let the car's momentum take it up the slight embankment and they slid to a stop in a driveway beside a two-story farmhouse glowing with inner warmth and bright with holiday trappings.
"In one piece, just as I promised." Illya cut the motor and sat, frowning up at the rickety wooden porch. He worked his hands against the steering wheel, obviously still harboring misgivings about being there.
"You're probably going to need new seat covers after that ride though. That would be the only thing in this car that would be new ,too."Napoleon worked on the elusive catch on the door. "Let's go. If I know Mom, she'll have fixed nothing short of a feast worthy of Caesar for us. Could you get this?" Napoleon indicated the door.
Kuryakin smiled and leaned across his partner's lap to jerk the handle. "It's all in the wrist, Napoleon." He sat back to watch the man climb out, still not inclined to move from his spot.
"Someday you're going to get a car that isn't an accident looking to happen." Napoleon said, stumbling out onto the recently plowed driveway. He enjoyed ribbing his partner about his vehicle. True, it did have a rather extensive coat of primer, its share of dents and it was missing much of its back seat along with the passenger's arm rest. But it also carried a bulletproof, reserve gas tank, one of the largest motors available and more than its share of gadgets, some with, some without U.N.C.L.E.'s knowledge. Then again, Illya did have something of a dark past to uphold and he thought about it as Napoleon drew closer to the porch before sighing and following his partner.
Napoleon got to the stairs just as the screen door swung back and a woman stepped out. She was short and stocky, but looked powerful from years of physical labor. Her grey streaked hair was pulled up into a bun and the sleeves of her bulky sweater were shoved up past her elbows. Her face, while lined with age, still held much of her younger beauty and her mouth and eyes broke into a smile that Illya would have recognized anywhere -- that warm, sincere trademark of Napoleon's—sometimes the only thing that gave Illya courage and confidence in a bad spot.
Solo dashed up the steps and scooped the woman into a loving embrace, lifting her off the porch before his ribs reminded him succinctly that that was a bad idea. He set her down and gave her a resounding kiss.
"Napoleon Solo, you put me down. Honestly!" Her crisp Vermont twang caught Napoleon's ear with a loving familiarity. "I'm not one of your little fluffs. You could hurt yourself picking me up like that!"
"Mom, you're just as beautiful as ever." Napoleon planted another affectionate kiss on each cheek and then let her inspect him.
"And your tongue is as silvered as ever." The hazel eyes regarded the man fondly as she caressed his face. "You look so tired, my sweet. It's that city living for you. Don't worry—we'll have you back to rights in no time."
She glanced past her son's arm to the silent, flaxen-haired man who studied his surroundings, biding his time until introductions.
"Your partner?" she asked quietly. At Napoleon's nod, she said louder, "You must be Illya. Welcome to theNapoleon spread." She paused, as if mentally preparing herself, and then spoke firmly and evenly. "Vesjli Rozdestvo."
Illya's eyes widened slightly at her. "Vejli Rozdestv. Ponumayly lu vi po Rusku?" His puzzlement was obvious—surely Napoleon wouldn't have left out something like this.
"Oh heavens, no or yes, depending upon whatever you said. I looked that up in the encyclopedia when Napoleon said you were coming. I wanted to greet you in your own language." She held a hand out to him. "I thought it would make you feel a little more comfortable."
Illya bowed to the hand, brushing it lightly against his lips, and then straightened, a rare smile playing across his face. "You are very gracious. Thank you."
Her own smile grew and she looked back at her son. "You're sweet. I like the friends you bring home, Napoleon, but look at him. He's nothing, but skin and bones. Well, I'll get that fixed up in no time." She returned to Kuryakin. "I'm Katherine. I hope you'll feel comfortable enough to call me that."
"Mom, if you feed him, Illya will call you anything, I guarantee it. Can we go in now? I'm freezing." He wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders, squeezing gently and propelling her towards the door.
"New York has made you soft, Son." She swung back to the screen door and pushed open the inner door. "Boots on the paper, please." She indicated the newspaper nearby before moving into the kitchen.
"We like to say that this is what travel brochures mean when they use the phrase 'rustic'," Napoleon said to his partner as he sat to remove his galoshes. "And note the interesting piquant aroma. You can run from the barn, but the smell follows you everywhere. You'll not notice it after a while."
"It's called scent acclimation," Illya said, automatically. True, there was an odor that seemed to permeate everything, but Illya was far too gracious to have ever mentioned it. He slipped off his own boots, glad that his socks were hole free. He had a feeling that Katherine Solo would have had a thing or two to say about that.
If his mother heard the soft conversation, she ignored it as she threaded her way through the heaps of coats, boots, chairs, plants and an incredible assortment of everything else imaginable that had gathered at either side of the door. The kitchen was spacious enough, but every surface was again crowded with items. She bent and pulled a loaf of bread from the oven of a cast iron, wood stove to cool. At the ensuing aroma, Illya decided that perhaps he'd simply mail in his gun with his ID card back to UNCLE and stay here.
"Napoleon, Father will be up from the barn in a few minutes. I hope the two of you are hungry." She tipped back a pot lid and stirred the thick sauce inside.
"Mom, you'll be sorry you said that." Napoleon slung his coat on an available nail, wincing at what it was going to do to the raw taffeta lining. "We've pretty much decided that Illya was responsible for the potato famine in Ireland."
"Napoleon," Illya protested as he added his leather jacket to an already heaping pile rather than risk damage. "I refuse to take sole credit. My sister helped."
"I'll bet she did. I've seen her eat. If either of your metabolisms ever catches up with you, you are going to be in a world of hurt."
"My grandfather weighed ninety pounds when he died. I remain aloof to your petty threat." He crossed his arms as Katherine glanced at the two, shaking her head and smiling. It had been a long time since she'd seen her son so relaxed and content.
"Napoleon, why don't you show Illya the house and by the time you've finished Father should be up from the barn. I put you two boys in your old room, Napoleon. I hope you don't mind sharing, but we'll have a houseful soon. It just seemed easier than moving everything around again tomorrow."
"It'll be fine, Mom. Illya doesn't snore...too loudly."
"And the kettle sniffs its own hole first."
"What on earth does that mean?" Katherine's spoon dipped as she replayed the phrase in her head. "That makes no sense whatsoever."
"Illya has an interesting way with colloquialisms, Mom. You'll get used to it. A fox smells his own hole first, Illya."
Napoleon led the way through a living room that overflowed with furniture, magazines, pictures, and plants into an old-fashioned parlor. Like the other, it held a similar array of mismatched furniture as well as a piano and a huge Scotch pine tree decorated with the trappings of the season.
Illya stared at it, the lights casting a rainbow hue across his face and Napoleon reflected. Here was a man capable of killing a man with his bare hands and yet he stood completely awed by the simplicity of a decorated Christmas tree.
"How incredibly goyish," Illya finally whispered.
Goyish? Napoleon was puzzled—that was Yiddish. He studied the young Russian, who was still captivated by the tree. It was certainly possible that Illya was Jewish. Napoleon had never inquired, just assumed that he wasn't. There was only one way to find out.
"You never told me you were Jewish, Illya."
"You never asked me, Napoleon." Illya said, moving away from the tree to a nearby fireplace. "Actually, I'm not, but I have several friends who are." He stopped there, pausing to warm his hands and cranked his head sideways to read the title of one of the numerous magazines stacked nearby. "Jersey News Update? I didn't realize dairy farming was so organized."
"You think this is bad, wait until you see the stack of magazines in the downstairs bathroom. My father has one of the best and largest milk-producing Jersey herds in the country." Napoleon proudly, gestured to the photographs of cows that covered the walls. "You wouldn't think it to look at the place, but he's won all sorts of awards and accolades."
"Pardon me for this leap in topics, my friend, but what happens when he passes, Napoleon? I somehow can't see you settling down on a farm to raise a bunch of cows."
"Herd," Napoleon corrected out of habit.
"Heard?" Illya frowned deliberately playing naive. "Heard of what?"
"Herd of cows."
"Of course, I've heard of cows. We have cows in Russia." He waited for Napoleon's groan before continuing and then grinned. "Anyhow, I can't see you as a farmer; I can't see me as a farmer. That's why I left."
"I have it on good authority—yours—that you left because you didn't want to be a teacher or a bureaucrat or a KGB agent or a dancer or a fishmonger or a puppet maker or about a million other things. You really do need to get your stories straight one of these days, old friend." He didn't wait for the non-answer he knew he'd receive. "To answer your question, my sister and I have it all figured out. She has the family for this place, so she'll get the farm when it's time. Besides, let's be realistic, the chances of me outliving my father are pretty much next to impossible, given our chosen career."
"Agreed. You have a sister as well?"
"Oh, Napoleon, surely you jest." Illya cracked open a nut from a convenient Lazy Susan and dropped the shells into the provided bowl. "Your parents don't strike me as the vindictive type." He popped the nuts into his mouth and chewed carefully, as if still worried about his teeth falling out.
"Deadly serious I'm afraid." Napoleon joined him. "You may not have been able to tell this, but Mom has a Masters in World History and Dad, a PhD. That's how they met, in a European Civilizations Class in college. Guess that's why we're named the way we are."
"A Doctorate in History and he's a farmer. I'll never understand Americans."
"He inherited the farm when my grandfather, Hannibal, passed on."
"Hannibal? I shall have to write my mother and thank her for my own moniker." Illya chewed the nut for a moment and then continued. "So why didn't he take agriculture courses or ones that he'd need for his life as a farmer?"
"Just the way things worked out. Dad has two brothers and no one knew who would be the one to take over. Dad was the middle son and, with a name like Julius, I guess he figured Destiny called him into history long before the farm did."
"Destiny? I thought your mother's name was Katherine?"
"No, my mother was Necessity. Dad needed someone to help out here. My, but we are in a jovial mood tonight, aren't we? Take a nip from the flask before heading out?"
"Why not? I find it much easier to drive in New York when one is half drunk. Do you realize that this is the first real vacation we've had in over a year?"
"Nonsense, you were out just two months ago."
"Medical leave isn't the same, Napoleon, and you know it." He looked over his shoulder at Napoleon. "We both deserve a chance to heal before the next onslaught."
He followed his partner out and into a small hallway. A steep staircase dominated much of the path and Napoleon walked up the well worn treads carefully. He was still cautious with regards to his ankle. True, it had only been a greenstick fracture and it was long healed, but the last thing he wanted now was to ruin his vacation before it even got a chance to start. That he was saving for the ski slopes. At the top of the stairs, he bore right out of habit and lead the way into a large bedroom. He clicked on the overhead light and Illya stopped dead in his tracks.
"This is your bedroom? My entire family lived in less space in Kiev. In fact, I think this is larger than my entire apartment."
"I used to have the smaller room, but I beat my sister out of it fair and square...if you don't count using loaded dice."
"There are three bedrooms up here? It doesn't look that large from the road."
"Again, grandparent's house with three sons. They slept downstairs and the brothers slept up here. When Dad took over, he and Mom went down. For a while the hired man slept in here and sort of used this as his apartment. When Dad built the little house for him, he moved there and it left this one up for grabs."
The muffled bang of the front door informed the pair that someone else had arrived.
"Ah, Dad's made it up from the barn. Let's go introduce you, my short Slav. Otherwise, he might think we've been invaded by the Ruskies."
"Smile when you say that, Napoleon."
"I always do, old friend."
Julius Solo, as Illya guessed, looked nothing like Napoleon. Though older, he was still a large and well muscled man. After a bone crunching handshake and a careful manipulation of his hand to check its well-being, Illya made just such a comment to Napoleon as they sat down to dinner. True to his word, Napoleon's mother had laid out a spread fit for a king.
"My sister looks like Dad. Everyone said I was a looker, like Mom."
"Honestly, Napoleon," chastised Katherine. "You obviously didn't inherit your mother's humbleness."
"C'est a dire," Illya mumbled as he placed his napkin into his lap. Napoleon glared at him.
"Parlez-vous Francais?" Katherine asked, smiling in delight at the Russian. "I haven't had anyone to talk French with for years."
"No, Mom, don't get him started. You'd be overwhelmed." Napoleon followed suit with his own napkin. "How many languages do you speak, Illya? Eighteen, twenty at last count?"
"It really depends upon whether or not you include dialects." Illya was modest. "I lose track."
"Must be old age setting in." Napoleon still intended to get his partner for his earlier jibe. "So, tell me, Illya, who do you look like?"
"The town butcher," Illya replied, deadpan. "It was rumored that it was the reason why we always had meat on the table. My mother was nothing, if not practical. And my middle name is Nickovetch, not Ivanovetch."
Solo stared at Illya and shook his head. "Then he must have made two deliveries because your oldest sister looks just like you. You two could be twins."
"Napoleon Solo, the things that come out of your mouth! I don't understand the middle name part, I'm afraid," Katherine said, passing a bowl of mashed potatoes to her son.
"In Russia," Julius picked up, reaching for a drumstick before passing the plate on, "the children take their father's first name as part of their middle name, with the appropriate ending tacked on. For example, when Illya has a son or daughter, their name would be 'something Illyavetch or vich, depending upon the sex, Kuryakin."
"Yes, I remember now. Wasn't it started by one of the tsars?" Katherine asked, accepting a bowl of vegetables from the Russian.
"It could have been Fedor. A man's whose sole pleasure in life is ringing bells is capable of almost anything. He had to be one of the craziest tsars," Julius said, glancing up as he cut his meat. It was apparent that he was testing the waters to see just how far he could venture.
"Except for the one tsarina who made pink illegal so no one else could wear it," Illya suggested. If they wanted to debate Russian history, it was fine with him. "Of course, she was my mother's great cousin on her father's side, I think, so pink was very much a preferred color in our house, much to the chagrin of my father, who thought a pink bathroom unmanly."
"Well, relative or not and excuse me for saying this, Illya, she was a nutcase," Julius stated. "But then so many women dictators are. That's why there are so few of them."
"Father, you're showing your colors now," Katherine interrupted him. "I can think of plenty of men dictators who had plenty missing upstairs. Caligula, for example, was like Whistler's mother standing up—completely off her rocker."
Julius poured more gravy onto his mashed potatoes and stirred them. "He was a misunderstood victim of his surroundings. He just liked horses, that's all. A man who likes animals can't be all bad."
"As I recall, he really liked animals," Napoleon said, determined to not be left by the wayside. "And some of his more notable traits included sodomy, bestiality, incest and animal worship. Let's be realistic, he married and raped his own sister. What sort of depraved man does that? By many accounts, he was one of the most infamous dictators Rome ever saw and was, in many ways, blamed for the start of its decline."
"My word, Napoleon Solo, did that come out of you?" His mother passed him the bread. "The last time you were home, you didn't know the difference between Rome and Crete, much less dictators. Worse, you didn't care."
"Illya's rubbed off on me. That's what happens when you start hanging around with smart Russians." Napoleon's eyes twinkled at Kuryakin, who merely shrugged.
"It's not difficult when you have so vast and barren an area to work with," Illya said, reaching for his wine glass.
Julius's chuckle robbed Napoleon of a comeback and rewarded him with his father's hand slamming hard into his back.
"And just when I was getting used to you the other way. This is a nice change. So, how are you on American history, fruit of my loins?" Napoleon's face colored slightly and Illya chuckled softly as he took another bite of dinner.
Napoleon sipped his scotch and leaned against the piano as Illya's fingers roamed over the keyboard, playing bits and pieces from various tunes he'd heard lately.
"I had piano lessons every day until my junior year in high school," Napoleon said. "I played the best Beethoven of anyone on the entire track team. I was technically a good pianist, but I just never had my heart in it."
"The piano was the only thing that saved me from being a ballet dancer." Accordingly, Illya pulled a bit of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty from his memory. "Someone had to play so my sister could dance. This was before the phonograph, of course. When that thing arrived, I found myself out of a job and in the Navy." He smiled up at Napoleon. "Better a lieutenant on a submarine than a member of the corps de ballet."
"Given your propensity for sea sickness, I'm not so sure. I can't see you in a pair of tights, though, old man."
"I don't know why not; you've seen me in everything else." Illya's quip was softly made, lest it be overheard by Napoleon's parents.
"You play beautifully, Illya. What are you boys going to do tomorrow?" Katherine settled back into a comfortable rocking chair and picked up her knitting.
"I think we'll go either to Stowe or Barre to try out the slopes. Probably the latter since it's closer," Napoleon answered for them. "With the snow tonight, the powder should be nothing short of incredible."
"If you do decide on Barre, let me know. I'd like to ride along for some last minute shopping. You could just leave me off at Agnes's and pick me up when you're finished."
"Don't see why not. You wouldn't mind, would you, old man?"
Illya looked up from his noodling on the piano. "No, of course not, as long as, unlike her son, she doesn't mind my driving. You can sit in the back seat, Napoleon, since you seem to like driving from there."
"You don't have a backseat, per se."Napoleon pointed out.
"Then you can ride in the trunk, per se." The challenge was made evenly.
"That all rather sounds like an adventure to me." Her fingers flew as she worked the needles and yarn.
"It is, Mom, believe me. Maybe we should take your car instead. At least it has seat belts."
Julius stretched his long legs out towards the fire and, yawning, dropped his newspaper. "Well, if you youngsters will excuse me, 4:30 comes awfully early."
"That's a good idea," Napoleon agreed. "I could use a good night's sleep myself."
"Coming, Mother?" Julius asked from the doorway. Napoleon offered his hand to the woman to help her rise from the chair as Illya came to his feet.
"Will you look at the jim-dandy gentlman we raised, Father?" She waved his hand away. "I've been getting up too long under my own means to change now. Goodnight, boys. Sleep well." She tucked her knitting into a side pouch attached to the rocker and joined her husband. Hand in hand, they walked slowly from the room.
"You must be joking, Napoleon." Illya lowered the keyboard cover. "It's only 9:00. If you go to bed now, you'll turn into a pumpkin."
"Nonsense, it'll do us both a world of good. We're still supposed to take it easy, you know. You're still recovering from that head injury after all and I'm responsible for your delicate health."
"My delicate health? As I recall, I carried you out of that burning building."
"Drooling and spilling grey matter all the way."
"My jaw was broken and half of my teeth were missing. What do you want from me?"
"I guess we can both thank our lucky stars. Otherwise, we'd be stuck in Athens or Singapore or someplace equally as enchanting. Come on, Illya, I'll even tell you a bedtime story about the good little UNCLE agent and the nasty old THRUSH, just in case you need help falling asleep. I also brought along a bottle of very old, very dignified brandy that's just begging to be tried."
"Why didn't you say so first time around? It will have to be as entertaining as reading one of your reports."
He followed his partner upstairs and into the bedroom. "So which side of the bed do you want?"
"Which one is yours?"
"That one," Napoleon said, pointing to the right of the bed, closest to the door.
"Then common sense would dictate that I take the other one. Now, if you would be good enough to provide a ladder by which I can climb up onto it." It was true that the bed nearly came up to the Russian's chest.
"You think going up is bad—it's one bed you don't want to fall out of. I did and broke my arm." Napoleon opened his suitcase and saw his gun resting on top of his clothes. "By the way, partner, please remember to lock your suitcase. Day after tomorrow, my sister will arrive with her brood and I'd hate for anyone to find a gun and think it's an early Christmas gift."
Napoleon Solo relaxed as much as he could in the hard metal folding chair and tried to ignore the muscles that were protesting from a whole day of skiing after a month of near inactivity. On the stage a small girl of barely seven years reeled off a short verse at machine gun speed and darted back into the security of the wings.
Solo applauded enthusiastically; he remembered all too clearly when he'd been forced into the torture called a Christmas school program. Or at least until the third grade when he began to realize that not only did he enjoy the attention, he enjoyed the challenge of memorization and delivery. It was a tool that he still employed.
A group of 30 children marched out onto the stage and struck up a semi recognizable rendition of We Wish You a Merry Christmas—each in their own key.
Solo shut his eyes on a couple off notes and glanced over at his parents. It had been at their urging that he and Illya had even bothered to attend. Personally, he'd have preferred to retreat to a long hot bath and a game of chess with Illya tonight and he knew his partner had similar thoughts, but was too polite to argue with the older Solos. For Napoleon, it was also a way to check out the local offering of lovely ladies. He did have a reputation to uphold and the thought of getting warm and familiar with a young lady made his heart beat just a bit quicker.
A low moan from beside him brought his thoughts over to Kuryakin and Napoleon smiled affectionately at his partner's vocal protest. Many of his fellow agents didn't know that the Russian had a very passable singing voice and was professionally trained. Apparently, his finely-tuned ear was suffering from the onslaught. The children finished, hurried off the stage and the house lights rose, signaling the end of the program.
"Well, Illya, what did you think?" Katherine shrugged into her well-worn coat and began to knot a kerchief about her hair.
"I think you can't start musical training soon enough." He tugged on a pair of gloves and his mouth hinted at a smile. "But, it's nice to see the children given such unconditional community support."
A woman's scream, throaty and loud, cut above the noise of the hall and both Napoleon and Illya reacted instinctively, pushing people from their path to get to the sound.
The scream originated from a woman near Katherine's age and she had collapsed back in her seat, weakly clutching her throat and whimpering. Beside her slumped a man, looking to all the world as if he were asleep, but by the way he'd slipped to the floor, that was obviously not the case. It was to him that Napoleon and Illya elbowed their way.
"He won't wake up, I can't wake him up," the woman kept whimpering again and again,
Illya dropped to a knee and pulled off his gloves. Swiftly, he probed the neck for a pulse. He shook his head at Napoleon just as they were joined by a third man.
"Helen, what's wrong?" His presence was at once both comforting and commanding, making the woman throw herself at him, sobbing into his shoulder.
"I can't wake him up, Doctor. He won't wake up." At the word, doctor, Illya sat back on his heels and allowed the man room.
The doctor made a quick, precise examination and shook his head. "It looks like his heart, Helen. I'm sorry. It looks like he's been dead for several minutes."
"He drifted off during the show. I just thought he was tired. He's been so tired lately. He's been working so much, you know." The woman turned to Illya and clutched his hands. "Thank you for trying to help."
"That's it?" Illya asked Napoleon as he accepted the man's hand up. "No paramedics, no attempt at revival?"
"It's forth-five minutes to Barre from here, one way. You have to remember how remote things are here. Even you couldn't perform CPR for that long."
"But to just surrender without a fight...I don't understand, Napoleon."
"It's a different world than ours, old friend."
The doctor had led the sobbing woman away as another man, near Napoleon's age, and wearing a sheriff's uniform, joined the somber group.
"Jeez, not another one. This is getting out of hand now." The sheriff ran a hand through his thick bronze-colored hair and sighed. "Folks about here are starting to drop like flies."
"Randy, Randy Collins," Napoleon said abruptly. "I knew I recognized you. I'm..."
"Napoleon Solo," Collins yelled and grabbed his hand. "How could I possibly forget the man who introduced me to the wilds of girl chasing and stole my best girl from me? How have you been doing, you old son of a gun?" He punched Napoleon in the arm. "Last I heard you were working for some high-class joint in New York."
"You heard right, still am. What have you been up to?"
"Napoleon, that man's dead," Illya interrupted. "This is hardly Old Home week. Have a little respect for the deceased."
"Randy, this ray of sunshine is my partner, Illya Kuryakin." The agent ignored Collins' outstretched hand and, knelt instead, covering the body with its topcoat, protecting it from the curious stares of onlookers.
"You mean, partner or...partner?" The second reiteration had extra emphasis upon it and Napoleon shook his head. No matter where they went, that particular rumor would dog them. He could sleep with every woman from here to California and people would still waggle their tongues over the pair of them.
"Randy, what did you mean by another one?" Napoleon placed a hand on Collins' shoulder.
"Ever since mid November, we've seem to have been struck with a rash of heart failures—six in all. Well, seven now. I've heard about TB outbreaks and the flu, of course, but never a heart attack epidemic. It's just crazy."
"Illya, ever heard of such a thing?" At the man's headshake, Napoleon continued. "Have you done investigations, research, or conducted autopsies? You may be looking at something other than natural causes."
Collins laughed and slapped Napoleon on the arm. "That's big city talk, Napoleon. Autopsies, murder, those are just words here. This is Chelsea. Nothing ever happens here." He looked around at the crowd. "Listen, I have to disperse these people or I'll be here until midnight locking up. Why don't you drop by and see me tomorrow? We can rehash old times."
"Until tomorrow then." Napoleon watched the hulking man thread his way through the crowd, only to have his presence replaced by Illya's.
"Unfortunate." Napoleon indicated the covered body.
"I overheard what Collins said about murder just being a word. I think he'd better add it to his vocabulary." Illya held up a long, needle thin dart. "This man was killed."
"Just exactly how many laws are we breaking, Napoleon?" Illya Kuryakin eased himself around a corner, molded his lean frame as tightly to the wall as possible and flicked a wary eye back to Napoleon. "In my country, this would be enough to convict us of crimes against the state and earn us a firing squad."
"Not the worst way to go, I would imagine. I'd rather a firing squad than slow-acting poison."
"Yes, I forget you have had some experience with that." Illya kept his flashlight aimed at the floor, lest it attract any untoward attention. It wasn't that they really needed all this stealth. After dropping his parents off, they had, under the pretense of looking for some fun, quickly taken their leave only to wind up threading their way cautiously through the halls of the Chelsea High School.
"To answer your original question, offhand, I'd say five or six that I can think of immediately and maybe a few more I'm unaware of, but not to worry. I know the law in this town."
"Somehow that doesn't fill me with unbounded confidence." Illya kneeled before the lab door and worked at the lock with a pick. In the hands of an expert, it sprung open easily to reveal a moderately well stocked room.
"Ask and you'll receive a pleasant surprise." Napoleon gestured him inward. "How long will this take?"
"Depends on how quickly I can isolate the chemical compound of the poison or whether I can at all." Illya moved to a cabinet, peering in at the bottles. "I've worked under much worse conditions."
"You don't know that it is a poison," Napoleon pointed out, holding a flashlight for him.
"Men usually don't walk around with a dart sticking out of them, Napoleon. I'm guessing that whatever is coating this dart must be a type of fast acting drug."
"How can you tell?"
"He didn't pull it out. I certainly would if I had one of those in my neck. Maybe it's some kind of alkaloid." Illya, after searching two additional cabinets, found the required equipment. "Listen, if you want to leave, I can look after myself."
"Are you crazy? I leave you alone in a lab and you'll isolate the elixir to eternal youth. I want to be here when you do."
"That's it then." The Russian sat back, his lower back muscles voicing their protest about having bent over test tubes for too long. Napoleon slid from the lab bench where he'd been keeping a fairly steady light on the working Kuryakin.
"What is it?" He made no pretense of understanding the manipulations he'd watched the man perform; he'd been lucky to stay awake.
"I'm not 100% sure, of course, but I think D Turbocurine, or curare, as it's better known."
"Curare?" Napoleon punished his memory. "It seems to me that we covered that in a poisons seminar. It's some kind of muscle relaxant."
"That's like saying Hitler didn't much care for Jews. Correct, but a massive understatement. Curare paralyzes muscles at the neural junctions. I'll spare you the lengthy chemical descriptions."
"It starts by affecting the smaller muscles of the face and outer extremities, gradually working its way to the diaphragm, paralyzing it." Illya restored bottles to their racks. "It works extremely efficiently and quickly."
"And eventually, suffocation."
"There are several interesting points of information pertaining to curare. First off, it has to be administered intravenously; orally, it's ineffective."
"Nice. You can use it for hunting and eat the animals without worrying about being poisoned yourself."
"So the South American Amazon tribes discovered. You also need a very small amount to be effective, point one milligram is enough, but it's only temporary. Three quarters of an hour at the outside. You can save a person's life by simple artificial respiration, providing complications don't set in. Last, if not least, the drug doesn't affect the heart or brain of its victim."
"In other words, the victim remains fully conscious until he blacks out from lack of oxygen." Napoleon shuddered at the mental picture. "Now there's a nasty way to die."
"In essence, yes. The victim is unable to alert anyone to his condition, being that his vocal cords are paralyzed as well." Illya put out a Bunsen burner flame he'd been using as extra light.
"Illya, how is it that you know so much about this one particular poison? It's relatively obscure."
"It...ah...was employed for a time, with limited success, back home. Small amounts were good for quieting disgruntled prisoners. I, unfortunately, had my own experience in the lab one day. Thankfully, my assistant knew what to do or we would not be having this discussion." Illya swung the beam of the flashlight towards the door. "Can we go now? I'd hate to overstay our welcome."
It was quiet in the farmhouse as Napoleon and Illya walked into the heat-belching kitchen late the next morning. Katherine had been listening to the creaks of the floorboards and running water for over half an hour and now looked up as they entered; a smile on her lips, a cup of coffee in each hand. Napoleon was his polished self, while the Russian still carried damp hair from his shower. If either man was surprised by her preparedness, neither mentioned it as they sat.
"We thought we'd lost you two for good. I looked in on you about seven and you were both dead to the world." If she'd found Napoleon's arm causally flung over the Russian's waist strange, she wasn't letting on. "I can't understand what you found to do in Chelsea at night."
"Resourceful, Mom, we are very resourceful."
"So I've read on the bathroom walls at school." It was the first time either man realized it wasn't just Katherine in the kitchen. Seated at the far end of the table was a brunette, clad in a red knit sweater and black knit pants. Even to the casual observer, you could see the similarities between her and Napoleon. He immediately went to her as she rose to hug him. "And the wayward son finally returns," she said after depositing a kiss on his cheek. She ruffled his hair and immediately Napoleon's hand flew to flatten it back into place. "You look tired, Napoleon."
"People keep telling me that. You, on the other hand, Josie girl, look terrific. Letting yourself go a bit, eh?" He patted her stomach affectionately. "It looks good on you. You were always too thin in my eyes."
"Four months pregnant is not letting myself go, brother."
"Another one? Haven't you figured out what you're doing wrong yet?"
"Or right to our way of thinking. Who's your cutie friend?"
Illya had slid into a chair, still bleary-eyed from the night before, and was accepting a mug and a warm cinnamon roll from Katherine. If he heard Josie's comment, he kept a comeback to himself. He sipped the steaming liquid gratefully, smiling as it warmed its way down his throat.
"Did you two have a big night, last night, Illya?" Katherine asked with a smile.
"Your son dragged me to some bar in...Turnblad?" The Russian lied easily.
"Tunbridge," Napoleon corrected, taking the cup his mother handed him. Like his partner, he was ready for a caffeine infusion and wondered if they tested his blood, just how much coffee they'd find in it.
"Your American whiskey should be against the law. The bar only had some cheap Czech vodka. Not even my worst enemy should have to drink that. And don't even ask me about Southern Comfort, which was neither southern nor comforting from where I'm sitting."
"You're just mad because you have a hangover and I don't."Napoleon picked up the man's lie easily. "Of course, you also drank three times more than I did."
"Anything worth doing is worth doing in excess or so my grandfather used to tell me."
"Now I am beginning to see why Napoleon likes you so much," Katherine said, pouring more coffee into Kuryakin's cup. "You're both cut from the same bit of fabric."
"Yes, that and I, unlike your son, always seem to have money when the bill comes. You still owe me for that last round of darts." He was referring to a long ago game played in a pub in Dublin.
"And how you can shoot darts better drunk out of your head than I can stone cold sober will forever be a mystery," Napoleon said, grinning. "By the way, Illya, this is my sister, Josephine." He paused as Illya nodded politely to her. "Josie, Illya Kuryakin. Where's Doug?"
"He couldn't get away from the business right now. He'll be joining us just before Christmas day." She reseated herself and picked up her cup. "Kuryakin, isn't that Russian?"
"You're from Georgia? You don't sound Southern...but you don't sound Russian either."
"Georgia, Russia, it's by the western border. I learne English in England."
"And French in France," Napoleon quipped, switching his focus back to the blond. "And I suppose you learned Japanese in that geisha house you took me to."
"You weren't complaining at the time."
"Napoleon, you've been in a real geisha house? Is it true what they say about those girls?"
"Unfortunately, yes. They served us tea and played music for us."
"They can also converse on a wide range of topics," Illya said, finishing his coffee. "But that only applies to those who understand the language."
"All I'm saying is the next time we do a tour of a country, I'm making the arrangements."
"Napoleon, speaking of such, is there any chance of me getting a tour of the area? I've never been to this part of New England. From what I've seen, it reminds me a bit of Vladivostok."
"Everything reminds you of Vladivostok, Illya." Napoleon chuckled. "I'll be glad to show you around. Things can't have changed too much. If that's all right with you, Mom. I mean, you don't have any plans for us, do you? Maybe we could look up some old friends, too."
"I've met some of your old friends, Napoleon," Illya chided softly, accepting Katherine's offer of more coffee. "Perhaps that would be a pursuit better left until later in the day."
"After you've found the top of your head, you mean?" Napoleon sipped his coffee and chuckled. "Maybe we could look up Randy. He did invite us down last night."
"Oh, you ran into Sheriff Collins?" Katherine sat down for her morning coffee.
"Last night at the town hall," Illya responded. "After the unfortunate demise of that gentleman..."
"You mean, Hank Redding? Unfortunate, my foot! The man was a rabble-rouser. All that bluster about the coalition to keep out-of-staters away—he deserves what he got. A heart attack was too good for the likes of him!"
"Josephine Marie Napoleon, you watch your mouth, young lady. You never speak ill of the dead." Katherine used her harshest tone on her youngest child.
Her "Yes, Mom" sounded less than convincing.
"I wouldn't think that would do the economy any good." Napoleon's eyes widened slightly as Illya hitched up a blond eyebrow at him. "Why would you want to keep tourists out of Vermont?"
"You don't understand, Napoleon. You've been away too long," Josie answered. "And it's not the tourists. We need their money to survive. It's all the folks who want to move here. It wouldn't be so bad if they'd leave all their urban crap behind, but they want to enjoy nature, just as long as they don't have to give up their technology. So they drag it here, along with their chain stores and radio towers, ripping down whatever stands in their way. The coalition was trying to do something about it."
"We had something like that in the Ukraine," Illya volunteered before draining his cup. "It was the People's Unification Movement. They attempted to bring democracy to the country." He paused to chew. "As one might guess, it didn't go over very well with my superiors."
"What happened?" Josie set her cup down, entranced.
"The movement was doomed to fail from the start. Its supporters were either executed for treason or sent to slave camps in Siberia. The few who managed to escape the KGB's net, reorganized outside of Russia's sphere of influence to continue the battle."
"Good, then you understand their cause, Mr...?"
"Illya, please. I understand, but I don't support it. The government that currently resides in the Soviet Union is the most efficient for that country."
"Come off it, Illya," Napoleon interrupted him. "You've been here long enough to know that's not the case. Beside, this is America. Even you can say what you want, not what your government wants you to." He snorted as he stood, intent on getting more coffee. "There's no country that could benefit from communism."
"You are misconstruing my words again, old friend." Illya kept his voice calm. "I said efficient, not beneficial."
"Then what's the use of having it?"
"What's the use of having more than a quarter million varieties of beetles," Illya argued back as Napoleon poured him yet more coffee. "Each is the most efficient for its lifestyle and each fulfills a necessary niche. Whether we understand or even acknowledge that function, it does not distract from the reality. Communism isn't perfect, but it certainly is more efficient and beneficial to the country than being governed by a reigning tsar."
What was promising to be the start of a good argument was waylaid by the banging open of the front door and the in rush of three snow-covered children, followed by a taller girl carrying yet another child.
"Out!" Josie rose and pointed to the door. "You clean off on the porch and don't cart that snow in here!"
"It's all right, Josephine." Grandmother was on her feet and ushering the children out, broom in hand and the promise of a reward when the task was complete in her smile and on her lips.
"Mother!" Josie sat with a thump. "Ooo, it infuriates me when she does that."
"Take it easy, Josie," Napoleon soothed, kicking his charm into action. "It's her job. She's just being a good grandmother."
"You keep out of this! I don't see you making any efforts at furthering the bloodline."
"I don't know," Illya interrupted. "Napoleon's very broad-minded. In fact, I happen to know he rarely thinks of anything else these days." Illya stopped and clamped his mouth shut at Napoleon's glare. Apparently deciding that discretion was the easier out, he smoothly changed the subject. "What can you tell me about this Coalition you were referring to?"
"There's not much else, really." Josie curled a leg up and stared out the window at her brood. "It's mostly just rumors. The Coalition wants out-of-staters to stay out and they're willing to use anything in their power to stop them, including violence. The State has, or rather had, been trying to lay a murder rap on Old Man Redding for two years now, but the courts keep throwing it out due to lack of evidence. He was supposed to have blown up a car along with its occupant. That's really nice, huh? The death left behind a wife and three kids with no means of supporting themselves."
"Lovely," Napoleon muttered. "I thought things like that didn't happen in places like Chelsea. At least that's according to what Randy was saying."
"Dream on, brother. I thought he was guilty, everyone did. I mean, as strange as he was, I certainly wouldn't have put it past him."
"Strange how?" Napoleon plied his questions without effort.
"First off, any man who grew tropical plants in this climate is a little off. He also practiced yoga, at his age. Imagine that. In between times, he blew up cars. He wins my prize for all-out weirdo."
"Any idea who's in the group?" Something like murder seemed impossible in this bright, sunny kitchen, so alive with the smells and sounds of life. Yet, Napoleon knew that even the most charming of places could be capable of some pretty ugly things.
"Nope, none whatsoever." She drew her legs up into a changed position. "It operates, as I understand it, in groups of three. Then, if you get picked up, you can only betray the other two, but never more than that."
"The cell method," Illya volunteered. "It's efficient and protects the majority of the group."
"Absolutely." Napoleon finished the coffee and was idly toying with the cup. "What about the group meetings?"
"From what I understand, everyone is hooded, like the KKK." She stopped as the children, now stripped down to house clothes, tromped into the kitchen. "Or so we've been led to believe. I haven't been to one myself. It's men only."
"Hey, are you really a commie," a boy of ten shouted. Illya winced, but Napoleon couldn't say if it was from the question or the volume at which it was asked.
"Lower the voice, please, Winston, thank you." Josie scooped up a blondel into her lap and rearranged her curls.
"I am Russian. There is a difference," Illya stated, shifting uneasily, his eyes pleading with Napoleon for escape.
"Hello, Uncle Napoleon." A girl of sixteen battered her eyes at Napoleon, who winked and smiled.
"Well, hello, Helena. Is that really you? Let me look." He reached out and placed a hand on each shoulder. He shook his head. "Just like your namesake—an undeniable beauty."
"Napoleon, please," Josie snapped. "She gets enough of that at school."
"A beautiful woman is always a joy to behold and should be told that, Josie. That's why I look forward to seeing you each time. You're a balm for weary eyes."
Illya rolled his eyes and sighed quietly as Josie patted her hair unconsciously, murmuring, "Honestly, Napoleon, you and your tongue." She turned her attention to Illya. "Illya, this is my oldest, Helena. Winston, you've also met. This pair," she indicated two seven-year olds who hovered close to her, curious about the stranger, yet still too shy to approach. "Nicholas and Alexandria and finally, this is little Marie."
Blue eyes passed a questioning look to Napoleon's hazel ones.
"Nicholas and Alexandria are no worse than Napoleon and Josephine. I still remember the day we hit that chapter in school."
"Do you have Christmas in Russia?" Nicholas, asked, hesitantly, one hand on his mother's knee for security.
"We don't celebrate Christmas, although there is a large fir tree that our president lights in the Red Square every December." Illya leaned down on his elbows to the boy's level. "You see, after the Revolution, all that was left in the country were some factions of the old religion, Jews and communists. The factions were terrified of dying and so they celebrated in secret. The Jews have Hanukkah and all good communists are atheists."
"What's an atheist?" Winston asked, helping himself to another cinnamon roll.
"Someone who doesn't believe in God," Josie answered. "Now, you should stop bothering Mr. Illya with questions."
"Well then, what's the use of having company if ya can't ask them questions, Ma? You said that was being hostile." He paused to stuff most of the cinnamon roll into his mouth.
"Hospitable, Winston, and only polite questions are allowed, not personal ones. Now mind your manners. Mr. Illya doesn't want to have to answer questions all day."
"Mommy, would it be okay for Mr. Illya to read the Sear's catalog to us?" Nicholas apparently chose to ignore his mother's request.
"He might if you asked him nicely."
Illya, puzzled by the request, looked at the boy, even as a small hand wrapped around two of the Russian's fingers, urging him to his feet. Reluctant, but curious, Illya permitted himself to be led from the room, closely followed by Alexandria.
"Oh, thank the heavens, someone else has gotten stuck with that," muttered Helena, obviously eager to stay in the company of adults as opposed to that of her siblings. "I'm so tired of looking at that stupid catalog, I could cry."
"I seem to recall you being pretty fond of it when you were that age," Napoleon said, neatly cutting his roll into small pieces. "Especially the Barbie pages."
"Well, Uncle Napoleon, as you yourself remarked, I am growing up."
"Yes, you are sixteen going on seventeen and I imagine your father is beginning to think about locking you in your bedroom for the next few years."
"He wouldn't would he, Mother?"
"If someone was to put the thought in his head, he might consider it."
Napoleon Solo stuck his head around the door frame and tapped on the glass window.
"Randy, are you in the mood for some company?"
The sheriff looked up, a burnt finger stuffed into his mouth. With a free hand, he gestured them in. "Sure, sure, get in here and stop letting the cold in," he mumbled around the finger. "Someday, I'll get the hang of this damn fool stove." He gave the potbellied stove a disapproving kick, nearly upsetting it.
"I should think you'd get enough practice year round to keep from singeing yourself," Napoleon said as he entered with Illya close behind. "Why not put in central heating and be done with it?"
"Yeah, and that money would come from which budget? After all these years, I haven't yet gotten the hang of it. Still, it wouldn't be winter if I didn't burn myself at least once. Go on, sit down. So how are you boys doing? Enjoying the hustle and bustle of the season?"
"It's very quiet here," Illya said, as he pulled off his gloves and stuffed them into the pocket of his jacket. "It's quite a change from the blare of New York."
"It's always quiet around here. If I want any business, I have to go and drum it up myself. Did have some excitement last night though, but I suspect you two slept through it. Someone jimmied a lock and got into the lab at the high school. Didn't take anything, just rearranged a few things and left the lab cleaner than before—can you figure that one out? On top of everything else around here, I got a neatness freak for a burglar. Man, people are strange. Hey, would you like some coffee?" He waited for their consenting nods before pouring coffee into mugs and passing them over. "Well, gents, what's your pleasure?"
"Sheriff Collins," Illya began without preamble, "has there been any investigation into the death of Hank Redding?"
"I was mostly asking if you wanted milk and sugar, but if you want to jump right into it, okay. No one around here, not even his widow seems to care one way or the other. You have to understand that Hank wasn't a well-liked man. He was as mean and hostile as the day is long. He'd spit at you as soon as look at you. Nothing you say will make me think different."
"Not even that we believe he was murdered?" Illya asked and Napoleon crossed his legs, watching as the sheriff tried not to drop the cups. Poor Randy had obviously not been prepared for Illya's flat, matter-of-fact statement.
"Now, look, you two." Collins plopped the cups down and shoved cream and sugar within their reach. "We are just a small farming community and we don't need anyone or ones to come in here and stir up a hornet's nest just because you're bored. We like things quiet, especially this time of year. Do you understand me?"
"Doesn't a man's death mean anything to you, Sheriff? Even where I come from, the KGB still considers murder a crime." Illya's voice dropped a notch and he let his Russian accent surface as he scanned the wind burned, leathered face of Chelsea's law.
"Of course it does! But since when is heart failure murder?"
"Who said it was heart failure?"
"The doctor, for one, and his wife, for another. Hank had heart troubles from way back. Course it helps that those two have been having an affair for three years now. I'm sure Dr. Dente is helping her deal with her considerable grief."
"Did he perform an autopsy?"
"We've already been through that. Autopsies aren't routine here. It just occurred to me that we're going about this all wrong. You prove to me he was murdered and then I might listen." The sheriff plopped down at his desk and planted his feet firmly upon the blotter.
Kuryakin glanced over at his partner and Napoleon shrugged. Neither agent was ready to tip his hand just yet, but the gauntlet had been thrown down.
"Challenge taken," Illya said, bowing his head towards the sheriff. "I shall keep you apprised of my actions."
"That would be helpful. There are several folks here that have already voiced some concern about you two running roughshod all over the place. Napoleon is an easy leader, Mr. Whatever-you-said-your-name was. Believe me he got me into more trouble than I'd like to think about. Remember when you left me high and dry with Melissa in that hay loft?"
"Vividly," Napoleon admitted. "And I do apologize for that. Whatever happened to her anyway?"
"Married her, for better or worse, at least I knew she was going to stay put." Randy adjusted his pants and sighed. "At least her daddy made it worth my while. What about you? Ever get married again?"
"Once was more than enough for me," Napoleon said softly. His partner glanced over at him, his brow furrowed. He had heard through the grapevine that Napoleon had been married briefly a long time ago, but the details were sketchy and Illya had no desire to press. If Napoleon wanted to tell him, he would. In the meantime, he would wait.
The two men bantered back and forth as the Russian let his attention wander to the interior of the small office. It wasn't much, but from the lack of noise coming from the radio, it was more than adequate for the needs of the small town. It seemed to him that it was almost purposefully kept small to enhance any preconceived notions of life in rural Vermont. Suddenly, he heard his name mentioned and his focus swung back onto his partner.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon, you asked me something?"
"Randy did actually. Wanted to know what brought you to America."
"It was a sincere desire to escape life as a miner in Siberia. Thankfully, I have some small talent that makes me attractive to the U.S."
"What was that? You one of those girly dancers or something?" It was apparent that either Collins lacked common courtesy or else he was trying to get a rise out of the Russian.
"I have a Ph.D in quantum mechanics and another in nuclear engineering. They seemed to feel safer with me here rather than there." Illya choose to ignore the inference. "Napoleon, if it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to take a look around."
"Sure, I'll catch up with you." He waited until the blond slid out the door and was gone. "That was pretty ballsy of you, Randy. The last man who talked to Illya like that is still in intensive care. He may not look it, but he's a force to be reckoned with."
"That little shrimp—I could take him out with one hand behind my back. Take my advice, Napoleon, you want to start hanging out with more manly men or else folks will talk."
Napoleon stood and pulled on his gloves. "Then let them talk. Excuse me."
Katherine and Julius Solo sat on a log close to the bonfire with about a dozen or so other people. Bundled up in a warm blanket, they sipped cider and watched the skaters glide by. Gone were the days that they would be out on the ice showing the youngsters up. Now the risk of a broken hip was more than enough to keep them sidelined.
Napoleon, while a gifted skier and graceful dancer, had never been able to completely grasp the fundamentals of skating. He now leaned heavily upon a lithe and beautiful woman, doing his best to stay upright and scowl at Kuryakin as the Russian slid by. Illya was as much at home on the ice as he was on a karate mat or a lab bench. It really served Napoleon right for having given him such problems on the slopes the day prior. That was all forgotten now as the dark-haired man struggled to keep control of his wayward feet and held onto his would-be savior.
Illya, using the fire as a backdrop, shot off a roll of supersensitive film he'd decided to test out for the lab boys, without their knowledge, of course. Flipping the compact little camera to zoom mode, he caught Napoleon's parents staring into the fire, an old man, asleep from apparently too much spiked cider, and Napoleon, in various stages of struggling to maintain his balance. Those would be great to post on the cafeteria bulletin board the next time the CEA gave him a bad time.
Finally, it grew too much for him to ignore and he tucked the camera away into a pocket while skating over to Napoleon. "C'mon, Napoleon, you can do better than that," Illya urged. Sighing, he reached between Napoleon and the girl. "May I? I think he would benefit more from a male instructor."
"Not a problem." With a smile, she relinquished her control of the wobbly man and skated back to the fire and her over-anxious boyfriend.
Illya skated backwards, holding ontoNapoleon's arms, while Napoleon clutched the Russian's forearms, feeling the corded strength in them. His fingers dug into the muscles as he struggled to stay upright.
"Now, Illya," Napoleon cautioned. "Don't...ah...do...anything...ah...crazy...or anything."
"I've never seen you like this, Mr. Solo. You're all arms and legs."
"Sort of like you on the dance floor," Napoleon quipped, instantly regretting the remark as the Russian's fingers threatened to relinquish their hold. "Illya, it wouldn't look good on your record to have done in your superior on ice skates. Mr. Waverly would never approve and you're up for a review."
"Steady, old boy, I shan't let you go." Illya reassured the man, his eyes sweeping over the area restlessly. "But now does seem to be the time to ask about a raise."
Then, like a shot, Winston plowed between them, bent and putting all his worth into beating his sister, Helena, who followed close behind. The commotion didn't bother Illya, but certainly raised havoc with Napoleon's delicately centered balance. He tried to flail his arms, forgetting to let go of Kuryakin, who was attempting to compensate, but it was too little too late.
"At least we went down together," Napoleon offered as compensation as they crashed to the ice. There was some satisfaction in that, at least on Napoleon's part as he landed upon his Russian partner.
"Ow, Napoleon, your elbow..." The Russian trailed off, swearing softly in his mother tongue. "You weigh a ton."
"Oh, might that be your groin?"
"Bastard," Illya grunted as Napoleon attempted to sit, managing to exert a bit more pressure upon a very sensitive bit of Illya's anatomy.
"I'm sorry, did you say more pressure?"
Illya abruptly bucked him off and neatly captured Napoleon's hand, spinning it behind his back. "Who wants more pressure, old son?" He increased his grip slightly and Napoleon stiffened. "Say it." Kuryakin ordered as he applied upward tension. "Say it, Napoleon," he murmured into his partner's ear. "You know you want to."
"To you? Never! You'll have to break my arm first!" Napoleon bucked his hips, but Illya anticipated the move.
"You telegraph, old man. That could be deadly in a fight."
"Old man?" Napoleon slammed back into Illya, knocking him to the ground. Suddenly they were a tangle of arms and legs as each wrestled for control over the other.
Josie watched the two for a moment before heading towards her parents. "Mom, do you think we should stop them?"
"Do you want to get between them? Besides, it seems to me that they've done this a time or two before."
Napoleon's earlier skating instructor watched the pair roughhouse and then skated over to the old man sleeping.
"Daddy, it's time to get you home. You've had too much cider." She shook a limp shoulder and then screamed as her father's body toppled forward.
Illya, who had managed to climb to his feet, turned at the sound, bringing Napoleon down to another crash landing. The Russian started off, hesitating at Napoleon's throat clearing.
"Don't leave me like this, Mr. Kuryakin."
Kuryakin caught the passing Helena's hand and swung her around to face him. "Here, help your poor old uncle up. That's a good girl." He caressed the side of her face and was off.
"But, Illya," Napoleon roared after the retreating figure of his partner.
"Isn't he wonderful, Uncle Napoleon?" Helena asked, staring dreamy eyed after the Russian. Her hand followed the path Kuryakin's had taken.
"Wonderful wasn't exactly the word I had in mind."
By the time Napoleon made it to the fringes of the crowd, the man had been examined, pronounced dead and covered.
Randy Collins, barely distinguishable in the light of the crackling fire, sighed and ran a hand through his grey streaked hair before reseating his hat.
Solo came up to him and Collins passed an acknowledging glance at him.
"Heart failure? "Napoleon asked.
"That's what I'm being told."
"Still maintaining that all is well in your small hamlet, Sheriff?" Illya reappeared at his partner's side and handed Napoleon his boots.
"All right, I'll see if I can get a permission release from Miss Malcolm here, but it's a hell of a thing to have to get just a couple of days before Christmas. Did you find anything out yet?"
"No." Illya sat to remove his skates. "But it's early in the game. I am hopeful still."
"Whatever." Collins pulled up his sagging pants and moved back into the crowd.
Napoleon brushed snow off the seat of his trousers as he stood. "No chance of a flashlight on you is there?"
"Sadly, no, I am ill equipped at the moment to carry out anything other than a cursory exam. And I am on vacation, Napoleon. You didn't mention murder in the invitation, after all." A crowd was starting to gather and Illya gestured to his partner with a jerk of his head. "We should probably get your family out of here."
The next morning, Napoleon tugged on his shirt cuffs as he entered the kitchen, which swarmed with people. This close to Christmas meant his mom went into overdrive with the cooking. He could already see piles of Christmas treats stacked upon the counters awaiting delivery. He sat down gingerly at the table, mindful of his protesting muscles.
"Was that guy really dead last night, Uncle Napoleon?" Winston was by his side in an instant. "Did you really get to see him? Was he all gory and gross?"
"And a good morning to you, too, Winston. Yes, I'm afraid that Mr..."
"Dubois," supplied his father, glancing up from his task of pulling on his work boots.
"Dubois had a heart attack last night and passed away. And, no, he wasn't gory or gross"
"Wow, I've never seen a dead guy before. That would be neat. Can we go out, Mom?"
"Attention span of a gnat, I swear. Go up and get your clothes on and don't wake up Mr. Illya."
"He's been awake since the crack of dawn," Napoleon said, kissing his mother's cheek as she brought him a plate laden with eggs and bacon.
"Good morning, dear. Where's Illya? Will he be down in a moment? Does he like his eggs hard or soft?"
"Locked in the upstairs bathroom, I'm afraid."
"Not sick, is he, Son?" Julius stood and reached for his wool jacket. "Sometimes, farm cooking can get you mighty ill if you're not used to it."
"Dad, I don't think there's a dish around that would dare to disagree with him. No, he's developing film. I knew he had a camera on him somewhere last night. We imported a new camera that is about the size of a charge card and he wanted to test it out." Napoleon grinned ruefully. "Only heaven knows what kind of trouble he's planning with those shots."
"Do you think he's having a good time?" Katherine set down a cup and plate for Napoleon and then smoothed her apron before reseating herself.
"I don't know about him, but I certainly am. This is the most relaxed I've been in a longer time than I'd like to think about." Napoleon toyed with his spoon. Even this business with the curare was nothing compared to what he was used to. And as his partner pointed out on the ride home last night, it wasn't really their problem to worry about.
"He's so quiet. I'm afraid that I've done something to offend him. The only time he seems to come to life is when he's around you."
"That's just Illya, Mom." Another week of home cooking and he'd be lucky to get his pants zipped. "It bothered me at first, too, until I figured out that it's just the way he is. He sizes up people, biding his time until he feels comfortable around them before letting down any of his shields. He's a pretty low-keyed character most of the time. However, if you'd offended him, you'd know it. He'd make sure of that." All of a sudden, Napoleon heard his name called, or rather bellowed, from upstairs. "I never knew he had such volume."
"He'd be good at calling cows. This is just a guess, but I think he wants you, Son," his father ventured as he buttoned his coat and prepared to leave for the barn. "If he wants the job, let me know."
"So much for being low-keyed" Napoleon, said, smiling as he set his utensils down. "Excuse me, I'll be right back."
Solo took the stairs two at a time and stopped before the locked bathroom door. He tapped on it briskly. "You bellowed, Illya?"
"Oh good, you heard me. Just a minute." The door was unlocked and a scant few inches were spared for Napoleon to squeeze through.
"Every moose up in Canada heard you." He stood for a moment to accustom his eyes to the dark, listening to Illya rustle about. "You had my mother concerned."
"She was afraid that her cooking was disagreeing with you."
"It wouldn't dare."
"I told her as much."
Solo followed the voice to the sink and bumped into the Russian. "Now that you've found me," Illya's voice continued, "I want you take a look at this."Napoleon's hands were grasped and something forced into them.
"It's an infrared viewer, Napoleon and it's oriented for you. Just depress the button on the side."
The still reversed film showed black on red and Napoleon frowned. "Isn't that the old man from last night?"
"Sure is. I can't be sure, but if we could enlarge this frame, we might be able to tell whether or not he was killed in a similar fashion and then the dart was simply lost in the ensuing panic."
"Can you do it?"
"Yes, normally, but I don't have the necessary equipment with me. Is there anywhere around here we can get instant developing?"
"Probably down in Barre, you can. There are a couple of camera shops as I remember and I'm sure they can be properly...motivated."
"Perfect. Give me five more minutes and I'll be finished here. I'll meet you downstairs."
"Anything else you want to show me?" Napoleon regarded the other strips of negatives drying.
"I can say with all honesty and assuredness that there is nothing here I want you to see."
"That's what I was afraid of."
Napoleon Solo, once again, leaned back in a hard metal folding chair and watched the stage. This time it held adults and they were taking their parts very seriously. Napoleon, even while unconsciously mouthing the familiar lines from A Christmas Carol, reflected back upon their day in Barre.
The day, largely spent hauling his young nieces and nephews around Barre, was fairly uneventful. His sister had insisted that they take her station wagon, since it could fit all the kids, but that also meant they were at her mercy.
Illya had stolen away to the camera shop while Napoleon distracted the family in a nearby department store. It wasn't until lunchtime at a crowded diner that Napoleon was able to grab a moment of privacy with his partner.
The enlargement showed something that could have been a dart, but the texture of the film was too grainy at that size to be certain. They set their lack of success aside to slip into the festivities of the small town Christmas. Illya was in a bit of a situation when the twins pondered the age-old question of why are there so many Santa Clauses. Napoleon did lose a $20 bet to Kuryakin for not sitting on Santa's lap, but he knew if he did, the Russian would, somehow, manage to capture the event on film. Better money than what was left of his dignity after the skating photos.
Later, while on the way back from the barn with the children, Illya took time to demonstrate to Winston the aerodynamics of a snowball and then proceeded to plant one in the square of Napoleon's head to demonstrate the most successful course of launch. The episode ended in a tremendous, no holds barred snowball fight with each man and child for himself. Napoleon proved to be a formidable opponent and largely trounced his partner until the Russian looked a bit like a snowman and both men were completely exhausted.
Napoleon shook his head at the memory and glanced over at his partner, whose lap now housed the sleeping twins. As blond as he, they could easily have been his children. It had surprised him how at ease his partner was with children, even though Illya never indicated anything in his nature to prove otherwise. They took to how he treated each gravelly-asked question with the same amount of seriousness. Perhaps it was because he didn't treat them as children that drew them to him. It certainly was playing havoc with his eldest niece. She'd given up any sort of pretense and now hovered around the Russian at every given moment like a moth drawn to a flame. At least Napoleon knew he could trust his partner to handle her crush gently.
On the stage the mayor's son "God bless us everyone'd" the audience and the consequential applause woke Marie, who whimpered until the familiarity of her mother's arms calmed her back to sleep. Likewise, the twins stirred and looked sleepily around at the cause of the noise.
"So that's that," Katherine Napoleon muttered. "By the turn out, you'd think that attendance today was mandatory. Where was this sort of support this spring when we were trying to save the opera house?"
"Now, Mother," Julius said, offering her a hand up. "They tried their best."
"Napoleon could have shown them a thing or two. They couldn't act their way out of a paper sack."
While her son agreed silently with her, he kept his attention upon the task of pulling his heavy topcoat on.
Illya waited for each child to be removed from his lap and then rose, making a face at the pins and needles in his legs. He placed a hand on Napoleon's shoulder. "There's no need for them to walk through that storm outside just yet. Let me have the keys and I'll go start up the cars and clean them off. Give me about five minutes."
"Can I go, too?" Winston's voice was hopeful. Instead, Illya squatted down in front of the boy.
"I need you to do some recon for me, Winston. There are all sorts of cookies and things over there." Illya pointed towards several long tables set up against the far wall. "Would you get me something you think I'd like? That way I won't miss out on all the good stuff. Your sister can help you" He received a beaming smile form Helena.
"Sure, I can do that!" He grabbed Helena's hand and he was off at a dead run to beat the crowd. Illya smiled and, at Napoleon's nod, he quietly slipped away from the group.
"Where's Illya off to, Son?" Julius watched the man weave his way through the crowd. "He's headed the wrong way. The refreshments are over there by the Christmas tree and the toilets are downstairs."
"He's going to get the cars started and cleaned off."
"That's a mighty considerate thing for him to do, taking into account that storm out there." Katherine started gathering clothes together. With young children, there always seemed to be a ponderous amount of them.
"Mom, honestly, I think he is just looking for a little quiet time to himself. Illya is normally a very solitary creature and he's not used to quite so much together time."
"I thought I recognized the look this afternoon," Katherine said, knotting her scarf around her head. "He chopped and stacked an entire cord of wood in the back shed today all by himself."
"I asked if I could help, but he was pretty adamant about being left alone," Napoleon said, adjusting her coat's collar. "It took me a while to figure out when he was just being polite and when he really meant it. This afternoon, he really meant it. He just wanted his own space for a little while." Napoleon also decided that it was also a real need for physical activity. Both men were used to being so active that even a short amount of downtime weighed upon them. Napoleon himself had even taken to helping out a bit in the barn, stacking hay earlier that evening. It gave him some time alone with his father, always a plus, and gave his muscles the workout they cried out for. Now if he could just carve out a niche for a good long run, he'd really be content.
Due to the weather, folks seemed reluctant to leave and instead congregated in the entrance way. Illya twisted his way through the milling people and nodded to a snow-covered Collins as he passed the sheriff. He pulled up the collar of his coat against the wind and pushed outside. The snow was still falling heavily and Illya had to kick a path through the accumulated snow in front of him as he walked through the parking lot. Away from the grange hall, he stopped to look up at the dark sky, letting the flakes fall on his face and sighed, thinking too many thoughts of his homeland. In New York, one couldn't even see the night sky any longer; it was a perpetual gray from the city lights. Here, the snow fell from blackness and it gave a magical quality to the flakes. It was times like this that he missed Russia, the familiarity of daily life at home and the closeness of his own, sorely-missed family.
Illya shook his head, as if to chase the thoughts away and resumed his walk to the grey Mustang. It was almost indistinguishable in the dark from the snowdrift beside it. He'd allowed the rest of the family to take the last remaining parking space within the lot and had parked out on the street, well away from the grange hall. It wouldn't take the car long to heat up, but the engine was sluggish in the colder weather. Getting it to turn over at all would be the trick.
At least the Mustang still had the path around it from their earlier departure, he thought to himself as he climbed into the bucket seat. He pushed aside a sense of uneasiness, as well as a feeling that he should have registered something differently as he slid the key into the ignition. Twisting the key, it suddenly occurred to him that with the snowfall outside, after two and a half hours of Christmas cheer, there shouldn't be any path left around the car and he hurtled himself out of the car just seconds ahead of the blast.
The tall windows of the grange hall lit up with the explosion and the room rocked with the noise from the blast.
"Illya!" Napoleon shouted and he fled towards the door before anyone else could even react. He ran into the now brilliantly lit parking lot and out onto the street to stare at the flaming hulk of metal. His senses went into overdrive and he could smell the harsh stink of gasoline, hear the crackling of the flames.
"Illya!" he shouted again, afraid at the lack of an answer. Was it his imagination or was he also smelling burnt flesh?
"You needn't yell, Napoleon. You're practically standing on my hand." The voice was very close and Napoleon spun until he located the man, who was struggling face down in the snow, still dazed from the proximity of the blast. "Why do they always wait until after I finish the new installs? I hate that." He looked at his partner as Napoleon knelt beside him and hefted him up onto his lap. "That certainly makes one's ears ring, doesn't it," Illya mumbled, leaning back against his partner in a rare display of fragility. Blood was running down the man's face and Napoleon immediately pulled off his scarf to hold it against the gash and grimaced. It wasn't the fact that the scarf was raw silk, that it was hand painted or even that it was a gift from a much favored conquest, but rather the scarf's inability to absorb the amount of blood pouring from his partner's forehead that caused his concern.
"You're in shock, Illya. You're babbling. Are you all right? What happened?" Napoleon helped him to sit up as they were joined by several people. "Can you stand?"
"Not just yet, please. My shoulder hurts and my knee, I think, but it's nothing compared to my head. It feels like two small furry animals are having a range war in it. Or sex, I'm not sure. Something hit me." Illya murmured, staring at the roaring blaze that had been his car. He swallowed several times and took a deep breath to fight down the rising waves of nausea. "Napoleon, you need to get those people back. It hasn't hit the reserve tank yet. When that goes, we're going to wake up the dead...even in Turnblad."
"Tunbridge, Illya. Here, hold that in place. Dad, can you give me a hand here?" He placed his partner's hand over the cloth and then turned him over to his just arriving father. Julius helped the man to up on his wobbly legs while Napoleon issued brisk, decisive commands.
"Oh what a party," Illya muttered, trying to force his legs into compliance. They had other ideas and kept trying to collapse underneath him, causing the farmer to forcibly hoist him back up again and again.
"My God, Illya, are you okay? I'm so sorry." Julius Napoleon hefted the Russian up again, who winced at his voice. "Oh, Lord, you're bleeding fit to be tied." He removed Napoleon's sopping scarf, dropping it to the ground, and replaced it with his handkerchief. Katherine joined them and picked her son's scarf up with a mixed expression of panic and revulsion.
A second explosion rocked the immediate area as the fire burned through to the bulletproof tank. The fireball rose into the air as if it were some improvised bonfire. "Now it's safe." Illya smiled at the man and suddenly went completely limp, the action taking both him and Julius back to the ground.
"Illya? Illya?!" Julius shook the man and turned a wild expression to the returning Napoleon. "Wake up, Son!"
"It's okay, Dad. The danger is over; he's let himself pass out. It'll be easier to move him now." He said it all before he had a chance to catch himself. If his father thought his comment was strange, he chose not to mention it.
The excitement died down finally, the children panicky because of the accident, his sister overly concerned that it could have happened with them in the car. Illya came to at the doctor's office and was more shaken up than he'd admit to anyone, except possibly Napoleon. Those were all normal reactions. It was his parents that confused Napoleon. They were apologetic, too much so, taking blame that wasn't theirs. Still, Napoleon shuddered to think of how many cars he'd had blown up on or around him. Maybe it was all getting to him.
He carefully balanced the tray of assorted medicinal wonders his mother had seen fit to bring earlier as he moved down the stairs. Illya had been indeed fortunate to have escaped without more serious injuries. He bruised his knee, twisted his shoulder and burned his neck. It had taken six stitches to close the cut on his forehead and various muscles would be tight and stiff tomorrow, but none of that was a new experience for the Russian. A standard THRUSH beating would have been much worse.
Solo carried the tray to the downstairs bathroom and stopped at the sound of his parents' voices. The light was still on in their bedroom and he found himself listening without meaning to, his acute hearing straining to hear the words.
"You should have told them," his mother said. "They needed to know it was Napoleon in town."
"It's that radical again. He's doing this. Everyone else knows Napoleon and they'd never hurt him. He must have just seen the New York plates and gone crazy. No sane man would have done that—not in a parking lot full of other cars. We were just lucky that Illya parked away from everyone else or there'd be even more blood on that maniac's hands."
"You need to get out before someone else gets hurt or killed. What if Napoleon had been in that car? You were just lucky Illya wasn't killed. Even you have to see how close the two of them are. That kind of friendship doesn't come along but once in a lifetime. Think of how devastated Napoleon would have been..."
"Katherine, I can't leave. I'm in too deep. I know too much, too many members. He'd never let me get out alive and I refuse to endanger you."
"So, you'll risk the life of the only friend your son has had since his wife died instead. That's hardly an equitable trade off, Julius."
Solo started at her statement; this obviously wasn't ordinary pillow talk. He wasn't sure if it was the blatant comment about his lack of friends or the reference to Joyce that surprised him more. Quickly and silently, he set the tray down and retraced his steps to the hallway. He re-entered then, stumbling into an armchair as he started across the living room, letting go with a colorful expletive as he did.
"Language, Napoleon, I didn't raise you to use that kind of talk. There are children around," cautioned his mother. Napoleon moved to the curtained doorway of their bedroom and peeked in. The room was just off the kitchen and in the winter, it was probably the warmest room in the entire house. The bed itself took up nearly the entire room, save for two small nightstands and a bureau. His parents sat in the middle of the bed, two forms masquerading as one.
"Sorry. I didn't wake you, did I?" He stepped into the small room and smiled wearily at his parents. "No matter how you cut it, today has been a long day."
"No, of course not, we're still trying to calm down. Sit down, Son. How's Illya?"
"The painkillers the doctor gave him have him sleeping like a log. A very nervous log, mind you, but sleeping. He was pretty shaken up and he'll be sore tomorrow, but when I think of the other possible outcomes, he was extremely lucky, even if he doesn't necessarily think so at the moment."Napoleon sat on the corner of the bed.
"I'm so sorry, Napoleon. I feel just awful about this. You bring a friend home for Christmas and his car blows up- some joyous noel!" Julius stirred, haloed by the light from the bedside lamp.
"I'm sure Illya's not blaming anyone, Dad. It was probably one of his jury rigging's gone astray," Napoleon lied easily. "It's a wonder that car didn't go up years ago. I've told him time and time again that he shouldn't tinker, but he loved to putter with that car. It was the first thing he bought when he immigrated to America and it was pretty special to him."
"But still, he's our guest. I'd never have absolved myself if something had happened."
"Nothing did, Dad, so put it out of your mind." Napoleon felt himself tensing, knowing that he wasn't going to get answers as he'd hoped. He rose, patting his mother's hand and bent to give her a kiss. "Goodnight."
He returned to his room, wanting to discuss what he'd just heard with the Russian, but the pain medication Napoleon had forced upon Illya had done its job too well. His partner was definitely out for the count and even if Napoleon did manage to somehow wake the Russian up now, he'd only talk nonsense. He'd have to wait until tomorrow to get meaningful conversation out of the man.
He watched Illya toss in his sleep for a moment before making a decision. Going to his suitcase, he dug beneath a neat stack of his shirts and pulled out a concealed Walther P-38. He let his fingers caress the white embedded 'S' for a moment before moving to Illya's suitcase. It was locked, but it took Napoleon just moments to spring it. Lodged in a secure corner sat a duplicate of his own gun with the exception for the 'K' engraved into the butt. Taking it out, he slipped it under the Russian's pillow before doing the same with his. He knew that he would sleep better knowing it was there.
Napoleon Solo wearily grappled his way from the tangle of blankets and sheets, blinking in the daylight. Sleeping had been nearly impossible last night. Despite the knowledge that Illya was beside him, he had tossed and turned, unable to find a comfortable position. His body ached from the unaccustomed activities he'd forced it through and his parents' conversation kept racing through his head. He'd finally drifted off to sleep only to be chased by Scrooge bearing a blowpipe and throwing dynamite at him every few feet.
Illya was sitting at the desk, his weapon dismantled before him, obviously in the process of cleaning the gun. The blond head turned as the American stirred and sat up in bed. The curtains were open and sunlight streamed cheerfully, deceptively, into the room.
"Not really. How's the shoulder?"
"Hurts like hell, but what else is new? I think the doctor got a little overzealous last night with his bandaging. He has my shoulder and neck wrapped to the point of my feeling like a trussed pig. I could barely get a shirt on this morning." Illya held up the barrel of the gun and peered down it. "Thanks for this. I woke up about two and was surprised to find it under my pillow. Is it wrong to admit that I slept better knowing it was there?" He blew down the barrel and looked again. "I fear it is some sad Freudian statement of what I've become."
"I'm sure Freud would have something to say about it—probably a father complex of some sort." Napoleon sat up and stretched, feeling joints pop at the motion. "You want some coffee? I can bring something up for you."
"I'm not incapacitated, Napoleon—far from it in fact. After Manila, this is a stroll in the park."
"I've got something to talk to you about, but I need coffee first. As far as I'm concerned, our room is off-limits right now. Okay with you?"
"That's fine with me." Illya never looked up from reassembling his weapon as his partner exited the room.
Solo headed downstairs and through the narrow hall that paralleled the parlor on the other side of the staircase. A neat row of stockings had been hung there and it didn't surprise Napoleon to see that both he and his partner had one hanging there along with the others. He opened the glass door that divided the hallway from the living room and caught the blast of hot air full in the face. The upstairs never seemed cold to him until he walked into this room. Papers scattered around the foot of his father's recliner told him that he'd gone, come back, had breakfast, and headed back out again.
"Mom?" Napoleon walked into the strangely quiet kitchen. A moment later, his mother's voice answered him.
"In the back, Napoleon."
He pushed his way through a coat-laden door into the backroom, where the washer and dryer were stored. His mother was hunched over a deep sink, but looked over her shoulder at him as he approached.
"Good morning, Mom. Where is everyone?"
"They've all gone to pick up their father at the airport in Burlington. I...they needed to get away from here for a while. Napoleon, I tried to get the blood out of your scarf, but I'm afraid it's ruined...I can't...I can't..." Suddenly, the woman sat down on a stool and started to sob.
"That's okay, Mom, that isn't important." He gathered her into his arms and murmured softly into her hair. "Shh, it's fine. Everything's all right, sweetheart. Shh, now, I can always buy another one." He rocked her back and forth, similar to the way she'd done when, as a child, he'd fled, sobbing, into her arms.
"It's not that...it's Illya's blood...."
"Illya's fine, Mom. It takes more than an exploding car to slow him down." He helped her to her feet and steered her out of the cold backroom and into the kitchen. "Look, I'll prove it."
"Illya!" he shouted and a moment later, the Russian appeared, looking concerned first at the still crying woman, then at his partner and then back. 'Trouble?' his eyes asked.
"My mother is worried about you," Napoleon explained.
The Russian smiled gently and took the woman's hand. "As you can see, I am fine."
She hugged him hard and Illya winced as pain shot through his shoulder and neck. Still ,he didn't pull free from her embrace, sensing the woman needed it more than he needed relief from a momentary discomfort.
"You're not fine—I just spent the last half hour trying to wash your blood out of his scarf. Nothing is fine. All because of Julius and that..."she paused looking for just the right word. "Stupid group, that stupid, awful god-forsaken group."
"What group, Mom? Is there something you want to tell me?"
"I can't...I promised."
"Okay, I think it's time to clear the air, don't you?" Napoleon slapped his hands together and went over to the phone. From memory, he dialed the milk house number and after a few long rings, his father's voice came on the line.
"Dad," Napoleon began without preamble, "I think you need to join us up at the farmhouse for a few minutes. It's important."
"I'm on my way," he said and the phone went dead in Napoleon's hand.
"And I think we need to move this to the parlor where we can be a little more comfortable. Illya, would you mind taking Mom there?"
By the time Julius made it up from the barn, his wife was sitting by the fire in her favorite chair, holding a cup of tea.
"What's wrong, Son?" Julius asked as Napoleon gestured him to a chair. "I'm sort of busy."
"Sit down, Dad. We need to talk. In fact, we are long overdue for this talk. The question is which one of us should go first. I have a feeling that there have been a lot of secrets being kept in the family for a long while and it's time to clear the air. You first or me?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Son." Julius looked over at his wife and back to his first born. "I sincerely don't."
"Okay, then I'll go first. You remember back a few years ago, just after it happened, how I suddenly up and decided to move to New York? You never asked me why."
"We just figured it was because of the accident and that you needed to get away from here and all the memories."
"Partially yes, but largely it was because I had been recruited by an international organization."
"What?" His mother looked even more confused, if that was possible.
"The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. We take care of things that generally fall outside the regular boundaries of the law."
"Are you telling me that you're a spy?" Julius was dumbfounded
"Why do they always say that?" Illya asked and Napoleon merely shook his head.
"Gut reaction, I guess, or maybe it's the romance."
"I'm not feeling the love, Napoleon." Illya turned his attention back to his coffee.
"We're not exactly spies, although espionage does factor into it at times. Illya and I are enforcement agents more than anything else. They send us in when other avenues have failed."
"Then you're not an immigrant?" Katherine looked at the Russian who shook his head.
"No, I am a lieutenant in the Russian Navy, specially assigned to UNCLE. My specialties are weapons, languages and general subterfuge."
"You make a good bomb, too," Napoleon said, smiling slightly. "And you're great in a fight."
"Thanks, you, too."
"The point is, Dad, I didn't tell you and Mom because up until now, it's been safer that you didn't know. That point has passed. Someone tried to kill my partner last night and that just upped the ante to a full scale war. Now, the way I see it, you have a choice. You tell me what's going on or I call my boss and he finds out what's going on. Chances are the first is the more pleasant of the two options here."
"Are you threatening me, Son?"
"No, sir, that is the farthest thing from my mind, but I will have answers and I will have them now." Napoleon's voice dropped to the no-nonsense tone that many THRUSH agents had come to fear. It meant fun and games were over and the day of reckoning was at hand.
"It's too dangerous."
"My car blew up last night. I refuse to believe it can get much more dangerous than that," Illya said softly, keeping his own voice neutral.
"It was an accident. You said so yourself." A muscle in Julius's jaw twitched. "Maybe it just blew up on its own."
"Not possible. I had kill-safe switches on anything that could have caused an explosion like that. I am not an amateur. Please, I don't mind someone trying to kill me, I am, sadly, quite used to it, but I will know my enemy."
"It's the Green Mountain Coalition, isn't it?" At the startled and guilty look upon his father's face, Napoleon knew he'd guessed right. "Decided to escalate things a bit?"
"About two years ago, someone new joined the group. Up to that point, we'd been content to make our voices heard in various non-violent ways, but he insisted that violence would make people sit up and take notice. And he was right. After we started to employ limited warfare tactics, we noticed fewer out-of-staters moving here. But then it wasn't enough to keep folks from moving here long range. Then he wanted us to concentrate upon making the new folks move back." Julius sat and stared at his work worn hands. "It just got so easy to follow, so easy to listen and get swept up into the excitement. I wouldn't expect either of you to understand."
"How many revolutions, uprisings, and government upheavals I have seen for exactly that same reasoning and how many good decent men I've watched die at their hands." Illya said quietly, staring out the window. "All that's required for the triumph of evil is for a good man to stand by and do nothing."
"You see, Dad, that's where you're wrong. We both understand very well. I've made a career out of putting exactly that type of man out of business. This is America, Dad. No matter what or how you think, every state belongs to every American. It can't be your choice, or anyone else's, who chooses to live here. That's their right."
"We just wanted to protect what was ours and keep it safe."
"That time has passed." Napoleon stood up and gestured to the door. "Illya, we've got some work to do."
"Yes, sir." The Russian stopped just short of saluting and moved quietly from the room. Napoleon watched after him and kept from smiling. He'd poured it on a bit thick, but it would be better in the long run for his parents that way.
"I'm going to put this man out of commission, Dad, and then you are going to call a meeting and disband your group. One way or the other, this stops here and this stops now."
"You just don't understand. It isn't that easy."
"Taking the first step against something wrong never is. You taught me that. It's why I joined UNCLE—to make a difference. To make sure that we never lose the rights we have to organizations that would try to rule the world."
Illya suddenly reappeared in the doorway, Napoleon's jacket in hand. "Ready?"
Without another word, Napoleon stood and walked from the room. Quietly, they headed out of the house, pulling on the necessary outerwear as they moved. Once clear of the house, Napoleon released the breath he didn't even know he was holding. "That went about as well as it could have possibly gone." He headed towards one of the many spare cars that always cluttered the driveway. "I'll drive."
"Where are we going?"
"Randy. If he doesn't know about this, then he needs to, but I'm guessing he's as thick into it as my dad is. Maybe he'll be easier to intimidate."
"Was it safe to tell them, Napoleon? I am worried for their wellbeing. If THRUSH were to find out..."
"I'd have preferred not to, but it couldn't be helped. This has gotten way out of hand. I just never thought our kind of work would follow us here."
The car engine turned over and Napoleon saw a brief spark of fear flush his partner's face. He knew the feeling well. It coughed and sputtered, but eventually settled into a steady drone. "At least while we're driving this, we're fairly innocuous."
"We'll see how long that lasts," Illya said, studying the landscape. Both sides of the road were piled high with snow and that made him uncomfortable. Napoleon took the right fork and slowed as they approached the small town. This close to Christmas, even Chelsea was bustling with activity. He slowed as they passed the grange hall, the blackened snow the only remembrance of the events from the night before.
"Looks like what's left of your car got impounded. That's what you get for parking in a 'no blast' zone."
"Not amusing, Napoleon. There might still remain pieces that would best not to brought to light."
"Let's swing by Randy's office and we'll get some information." He hesitated as the Russian slowly worked a hand over his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Something is bothering me very much, but it is not my shoulder." Napoleon pulled the car to a stop and put it into park. "I cannot, however, put my finger on it. Something I saw last night, but my memory is hazy."
"The doctor seemed to be very quick to pronounce Mr. Redding, didn't you think?"
"You yourself said he had no pulse."
"Have you seen anything in the local paper about a burial?"
"Ground's frozen solid right now. The usual thing to do is to wait until the spring and have some sort of ceremony then."
"Then what is done with the body?"
"It's stored some place, I guess. I never really thought about it to be honest. Why?"
"The only man who professed to having the ability, the tools at hand and the history was our Mr. Redding, correct?"
"And the radical that Dad was going on about last night. You were too far gone when I got back to mention it to you. Dad seemed pretty worried about retribution from him. I get the distinct feeling that even Dad doesn't know his identity."
"If he's indeed the man blowing up vehicles and employing curare, then your father has reason to be concerned."
Napoleon put the car back into drive and eased it back onto the main road through town. Two more turns and they were at the deputy's office. Just as they were climbing from the car, the office door opened and two men hurried out, their heads bent down into the collars of their wool plaid jackets.
As they entered, Collins was coming from the backroom, his face tired. "I'm glad to see you two. Mr. Kur...kurar..."
"Kuryakin," Illya finished, hobbling to a nearby chair. Napoleon noticed, but said nothing. "Yes, I thought you would want to see me this morning."
"You caused quite a lot of excitement last night. Any idea what happened?"
"Someone blew up my car. I would think that much would be apparent even to you, Deputy. At the moment, I am at a loss to understand it, however."
"Don't get all cocky with me, mister. I could have you for a dozen violations, like that double gas tank."
"That's not illegal."
"Maybe not down in New York, but it is here."
The phone rang and he stared at the Russian for a long moment before snatching up the receiver. "Collins here, it's your dime. What? That's impossible, I'll be right there." Randy was on his feet and reaching for his hat before the receiver got to the cradle. "Some other time, boys. I've got trouble."
"Someone is out, shooting up the old Redding place. Probably one of the kid's with a toot full. Still, I need to go and make sure no one gets hurt." The man walked into the backroom, shouting to someone unseen about watching the front.
Solo leaned closer to Illya, "Ask and you shall receive. Would you mind heading back to the farm and keeping an eye on my folks? If you're right, I'd feel better knowing you were there."
"Not a problem. And you?"
"He doesn't know it yet, but I'm going to hitch a ride with the sheriff. If there's something going on at the old Redding place that warrants a closer look, I'm the man to do it. Do you have your communicator?"
"Of course. I'll be on Channel F." Illya stood and glanced back at his partner. "Be careful, Napoleon. You don't know what's waiting out there."
The Russian left and Napoleon sat quietly until the deputy came back into the small office. "What happened to your friend?"
"He needed to see someone about an insurance claim. He left me high and dry. I hate to ask, Randy, but do you think you could give me a ride back to the farm?"
"Well, the farm is in the opposite direction that I'm traveling, but if you don't mind tagging along, I'm sure I can do it afterwards."
"That will be fine, Randy, and I do want to apologize for Illya's sour mood this morning."
"Hell, from where I'm standing, he's got plenty to be sour about. Let's roll."
Illya climbed carefully up the porch steps, keeping one hand firmly upon the iron pipe railing. The sun had melted last night's snow just enough to form a slick coating of ice on the wood. It was all he could do to keep from falling. His first thought was to get inside and check on Napoleon's parents and then take a moment to remove the fourteen miles of gauze from his neck and shoulder. The fabric was starting to strangle him and it was certainly restricting his movements.
He walked into the kitchen and glanced about the immediate area. Seeing no one, he walked from there into the living room. He caught sight of Katherine, still sitting in her chair, her back to him. Julius was also sitting in his chair, staring at the wall.
"Mrs. Solo, I just wanted to let you know I'd returned." There was frantic movement from both people and then Illya felt the cold tip of a gun pressed against his temple.
"You weren't the one he wanted, but you'll certainly do." The whisper was close to his ear. "We missed you last night and I'm not going to take any chances a second time." A trigger was clicked back and Illya, although seeming outwardly calm, was thinking frantically.
"If you are going to shoot me in the head, may I respectfully ask that it be done outside? Consider it a dying man's last request. I would hate for the children to come back and find my brains splattered all over the Christmas tree."
"I think we can arrange that. If you move even a hair, Julius, I'll drop him now. I'm not afraid to use this."
"Please, Mr. Solo, I beg of you. Stay put, please, for the sake of my uncle," Illya said, hoping the man would pick up on his double meaning.
Illya placed his hands, fingers interlaced and palms up, on top of his head and started a slow limp to the door. The gunman, still unseen, kept the gun muzzle firmly against the base of his skull, just behind his ear. They got to the porch and the Russian waited patiently for the man to pull open the door.
"How about the driveway—that far enough away for you?" The gunman's voice was harsh as he took a step down onto the stairs.
"I think here would be fine." Illya twisted backwards and both men slipped. However, Illya was expecting it and went limp, rolling with the motion while the gunman flounced and fought to keep his feet. Illya's gun was out, aimed and discharged before the man even had a moment to register what was happening.
The gunman looked at him for a moment before collapsing into an unconscious heap. Almost immediately, Julius appeared at the door, his wife closely behind him as Illya was getting to his feet and brushing his pants off.
"Illya, are you okay?" he asked before looking down at the fallen man. "Scott Ferguson, I'll be damned. Is he...is he...um?"
"Dead? No, not yet, but he may well wish he was when he regains consciousness." Illya holstered his weapon and knelt beside his captive. "Do you have any rope that I might borrow?"
"Baling twine okay?" Julius turned back towards the house.
"What are you going to do with him, Illya?"
"Hopefully, get some answers to a few long-standing questions." He lifted the man up to his feet and dragged him towards the stairs. Julius reappeared, cord in hand.
"Let me, Son." He hefted the man up onto the porch, with an ease borne of years of wrestling heavy items around for a living. "Where would you like him?"
"The kitchen, I think, would be adequate for our use." Illya followed, working his shoulder. He was glad for the extra padding now. At least he hadn't hurt himself any worse in the fall. He nodded at a kitchen chair. "That should work for our purposes."
The man was deposited and Illya quickly tied his hands, arms and legs tightly to various parts of the chair, making very sure that there was no way the man would be able to wiggle loose from his bonds. That accomplished, he pulled off his jacket and tossed it upon the ever-present pile of coats. "Mrs. Solo, could you bring me the poker from your fireplace, please?" As the woman scurried off, Illya opened the front door of the wood-burning stove.
"Just exactly what are you planning to do, Son?" Julius' voice held a quaver in it that said he really didn't want an answer to that particular question and the Russian regarded him seriously.
"Whatever I need to do to end this." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his captive's head jerk slightly and knew the man was regaining consciousness. "You and your wife may well want to leave the house now, sir."
"Why would we want to do that?" Katherine returned with the poker and Illya used it to stoke the fire, leaving it embedded in the glowing embers as he glanced over his shoulder, his Russian accent thick.
"Because things might well get extremely unpleasant from here on out." He looked from one to the other and surreptitiously winked at them. "He will talk or he will scream. Either way, I will have answers." He cracked his knuckles for effect. "I am KGB trained, after all. They are brutal, but effective." Kuryakin turned back to the gunman, who was struggling ineffectively against his bonds. "You should leave...now," he spoke to the couple as he knelt beside the man. "You picked the wrong person to attempt to murder. I've had some of the very best assassins in the world try to kill me. Why do you think you would succeed where they have failed?"
At the silence Illya smiled coldly and stood, taking a step away from him. The gunman watched warily as did Napoleon's parents. "Did you know that there are seven spots on a man that, if correctly manipulated, will cause instant death," Illya asked them, conversationally. "Would you like me to demonstrate that for you later?" He spun back to the man and approached him again, like a tiger circling its prey. "Do you know what it feels like to have your thumb broken? I do. It's one of the worst pains you could ever imagine—it sears all the way down to your groin." He snapped his fingers and reached for the poker. "That reminds me...now where should I use this first?" he asked, withdrawing it, glowing red from the stove.
Napoleon Solo watched the landscape go by, looking like a man who didn't have a care in the world. Inside his gut was churning and his mind was racing, but not a hint of either condition appeared in his calm gaze.
"I didn't realize the Redding place was out so far."
"Yeah, it's funny how things sort of shift around after you've been gone for a while. How long has it been now, Napoleon?"
"Fifteen years, give or take a month or two."
"Ever thought about moving back?"
"Not for a moment. I'm afraid that I am a city boy now."
"There's always Burlington or Chittenden."
"Randy, those places aren't proper cities They're wannabes. Vermont is a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here."
"Wish more folks felt that way, Napoleon." Randy slowed the car and turned off onto a narrow single lane road. A slip either way would put them into a snow bank and he kept his attention focused upon the road ahead of him. "Lots of people are moving here now. Lots of people who don't, can't, or won't appreciate the beauty around them."
Alarm bells were going off in Napoleon's head, but he smiled genially. "I don't see much beauty, Randy, just a lot of snow." He leaned back into his seat, feeling the pressure of the shoulder holster against his body. "Still, as long as someone else is shoveling it, it's fine by me."
Abruptly the path opened up into a large parking area with a house and several out buildings surrounding it. "Here we are. Now why don't you sit tight and I'll go see what's happening." The man climbed from the car and walked in the direction of the house. "I'll be right back."
Napoleon watched the man walk casually towards the farmhouse and it struck him as extremely odd. Most trained police he'd worked with would never so flagrantly disregard their own personal safety in this type of situation. He hadn't even drawn his weapon.
The on/off blat of his communicator brought him back from his reverie. "Yes, Illya?"
"Are you okay?"
"At the moment, I'm fine. Randy just went into the old Redding place to check for his shooter. Why do you ask?"
"There was a welcoming committee waiting for me when I got back to your parents' place."
"What? Are they all right?" Napoleon was suddenly filled with dread at those words.
"They are fine. However, I think I made your mother sick."
"I don't understand."
"My would-be assassin didn't fall for my bluffs, so I had to escalate. I did what I needed to do, but it's doubtful that she will ever be able to look at me in the same light again. Napoleon, you need to get out of there. It's a trap. Collins is behind it..."
"What?" As if on cue, Napoleon's acute hearing picked something up and instinctively he ducked down just as the windshield in front of him spider-webbed. The bullet passed just inches above his head. Napoleon cursed softly and pulled out his gun. "Copy that. I'm being shot at."
Illya Kuryakin held the communicator closer to his mouth. "Sit tight. I'm on the way." Oblivious of the bleeding and unconscious man before him, he swiftly capped the communicator and turned to Julius. "The old Redding place, how do I get there? I've got to go now." He stored the communicator and grabbed his jacket all in one move.
"I'm going with you."
"I can't let you do that. I need you to stay here and make sure that this scum doesn't go anywhere."
"Mother is quite capable with a gun, aren't you?" Katherine hefted the deer rifle and settled into a chair. "Do you want me to shoot him anywhere in particular if he wakes up and tries to escape?"
"If anything happens to my partner, I will shoot him myself and it will take a very long time for him to die," Illya said. "Be careful, please."
"Bring my son home safely to me."
Solo tucked himself behind the shelter provided by the car door and wondered just how all of this had gotten out of hand so quickly. He only had two clips in his jacket, along with the one in his gun, so he wasn't inclined to waste ammunition until he had a solid target to shoot at.
"It's over, Randy. I know all about your little scheme." A bullet chuffed into the ground near him and Napoleon smiled grimly.
"It's not over until I say it's over," the man shouted back. A second bullet, this one from another direction made Napoleon readjust his position. He needed to get away from the car before the second gunman, no doubt one of the two men they'd seen in Randy's office, got a bearing on his position. The car could protect from one direction, but not in a crossfire. There was no telling how long it would take Illya to find him. There was an outbuilding not far from the other side of the car and Napoleon made a snap decision. He fired off a round towards the second gunman and crawled across the backseat of the car to the driver's side.
Counting to five, he eased the door open just slightly and then slammed it open before he ran an erratic path towards the building. He heard gunfire, but felt nothing as he reached the safety of the building and dove through an open window. Gone was the carefree bachelor, replaced by a highly-trained UNCLE agent. If Randy wanted a fight, it was certainly what he was going to receive.
The steering wheel jerked in Illya's hand and his shoulder sang out a protest in response. Had he been alone, he would have allowed himself the luxury of groaning out loud. Instead, he kept his mask firmly in place and pressed harder upon the gas. The car dovetailed and then straightened out. For his part, Julius Napoleon was doing his best to hold on for dear life. An inner sense told him that anything he might say, aside from giving directions, would not be appreciated or necessarily wanted at this point.
"About 100 feet up, you're going to want to take a right."
"That takes me to the Old Redding place?"
"It's about 300 yards in. The farmhouse will be dead ahead. There's a potting shed and greenhouse on the east side of the drive and a storage shed across from it."
"Excellent." Illya slammed the car into a skidding stop and pulled out his communicator. "Open Channel D, please."
"Channel D open, Illya is that you? I thought you were on vacation."
"I was until someone decided they wanted me dead. Stella, listen to me. Triangulate on this signal and send help. I don't care in what form it takes, but Napoleon may be down. This is a code red."
"Understood." The lightness of the woman's voice was gone and replaced by a chilling efficiency. "Code red is acknowledged. Help is on the way."
Illya took the communicator and handed it to Julius. "I need you to listen to me very carefully now and please do not argue with me. Your son's life may well hang in the balance. I need for you to wait here for reinforcements. Bring them to me when they arrive."
Before the man could protest, Illya was out of the car and jogging down the narrow, snow-banked path. The cold air made his lungs ache, but he remembered a particular instructor at the Survival School, whose favorite saying was, "If you feel pain, you're still alive." Many times it was exactly that pain that kept the Russian moving.
Buildings appeared in the distance and he slowed his pace to consider a course of action. It was snowing again, so a lack of visibility would be in his favor. He had no idea how the place was set up, one point for his opponent. Illya was fairly certain though that Collins was not alone, another point for him. However, it was fair to assume he thought Illya was now either dead or at least incapacitated and wasn't expecting him- Illya's point. Also, Collins had no idea that he was facing two of UNCLE's finest—another point for the Russian and he wasn't about to lose that upper hand. He hunkered down behind a snow bank and watched the buildings for a moment. Suddenly a blur of motion moved from the parked car towards a building and Illya immediately recognized it as Napoleon. At least his partner was still alive and relatively uninjured. It also meant that all attention would be focused upon him.
Using that, however brief, interruption, Illya moved quickly to the fringes of the opening and planned his next move. There were partially snow-covered pieces of farm equipment left to rust in the elements and they afforded him considerable protection as he made his way closer to the farmhouse. He only hoped that whatever Stella could arrange moved more quickly than he was able to.
Napoleon slipped behind a stack of moldy hay bales and checked his surroundings. There was only one side of the building with openings, so he didn't have to worry about someone sneaking in the back, but it also meant the front door was only other way to leave—not the best of choices. He settled by the window and stared out into the driveway. Randy, in all likelihood, would be in the farmhouse and his co-conspirator would probably be in the other shack. A slight movement caught his attention and he aimed in that direction. A familiarity with the movement suddenly held his fire. How the Russian had managed to get there so quickly was beyond him, but he knew enough to never cease to be amazed by his partner. Now the odds were at least balanced.
Wood abruptly exploded by his face and Napoleon ducked back down. He held up a hand and it came away smeared with blood. Wonderful, just what he needed for New Year's Eve, a face full of splinters. He sent off a round towards the gunman, and then a second round at the farmhouse, more to alert the blond as to the men's positions rather than an attempt to hit either target.
The distinct cough of the Walther caught and held Illya's attention. Napoleon wasn't just shooting at the house, but at a nearby shed as well. Hmm, that was interesting and the Russian crept in that direction. Sure enough, the door was cracked open enough to allow a rifle barrel to peek out. Certainly he had surprise in his favor, but no matter what he ended up doing, he would reveal himself and he had to weigh the odds. Going through the front meant totally exposing himself to whatever other dangers might be lurking in the farmhouse. Instead, he moved around to the back of the shed. There was a gaping hole that had once held a window. That would work very well Illya decided. He waited until the man let go with another gun blast to heft himself up and through the small opening. He landed quietly and held his position until he could decide whether or not the man had heard him.
"Do you see anything?" The man's walkie-talkie crackled to life.
"He's in the potting shed and I think I hit him," the man spoke into the instrument.
"Think or know? I thought we'd agreed that I'd be the one to put a bullet through his brain. You were only supposed to provide the distraction."
"Perhaps I can do that instead," Illya offered, coming up behind the man. He spun and the Russian caught him under the chin with a powerhouse. The man staggered back two steps and raised his rifle. Illya's Walther P-38 was aimed steadily at him. "I would suggest that you are perhaps out-gunned in this situation." He took a step forward and felt his foot start to slip. The ice which had once been his ally turned into his worst enemy. The gunman saw his opportunity and slammed his rifle butt into Illya's stomach and then down into his much abused shoulder, sending the slender agent to the floor, wheezing. The gunman stepped back to admire his handiwork, confident that he'd taken the agent out.
And possibly a lesser man would have surrendered at that point, but Kuryakin wasn't that man. He came off the floor as if he'd been rocket launched and caught the man by surprise. Two quick punches, then he grabbed the man's head and twisted. There was a gurgle and the man collapsed. Illya seriously doubted the man would ever get up again.
"I repeat, did you hit that bastard or didn't you?"
"Not, I should think," Illya said, more to himself than anyone else. The pain from his shoulder had red-tinged his world. He didn't need a doctor to tell him he'd done some serious damage to it. "Huh, I must still be alive then," he muttered and staggered towards the door to consider his next move.
Napoleon knelt by the door and wondered how his partner had made out. It seemed like hours since he'd taken shelter in the shed, but he knew better than most how time could bend in situations like this. His Oxford-clad feet weren't registering the cold yet, so it meant that just moments had passed. There seemed to be some sort of commotion in the shed across the driveway, but he couldn't really tell.
Then he saw movement from the farmhouse, olive green against a snowy world. Apparently Randy had decided to move. Napoleon kept his position, but trained his weapon upon the man. Randy darted to the car and reached inside for something. More ammo, mostly likely, Napoleon decided. Randy started to cross to the shed and when a gunshot didn't ring out, Napoleon feared the worst. Collins reached for the door and it exploded outward, sending him staggering back several steps.
The rifle came up, but even before Napoleon could get off a round, the deputy had an armful of Russian. Still there was something about how his partner was carrying himself that told Napoleon he was hurt. Immediately Napoleon rushed from the shed and came to a screeching halt. In that brief second, Collins had gotten the upper hand. Collins held something against Kuryakin's neck, his free hand twisting Illya's left arm up behind his back at a painful angle.
"Stop right there, hot shot," Randy ordered. "If you don't or can't see what I'm holding,
there's a very sharp dart placed against your partner's jugular. One move from you and it's lights out for him. Now, throw your weapon down.
"Don't do it, Napoleon," Illya ordered, his voice husky, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain Collins was exerting upon his shoulder. "Shoot him."
"It's your choice, Napoleon. He dies or you die. I don't care very much either way."
Solo set his weapon down carefully upon the frozen ground and held up his hands in surrender. "Why, Randy? You're a man of the law."
"What sort of law would prevent a man from protecting his own? If my bosses found out about my involvement in the coalition, do you think they'd give me a medal? No, they'd strip everything from me and throw me in jail, just because I did what they couldn't do. Gutless wonders, just like you." Randy grinned and exerted even more pressure on Illya's arm. The man's lips pulled back in a grimace and he hissed.
Collins laughed at the sound and continued. "You were always big with the talk, but short on the action. You thought you were such a big deal, Napoleon, but you're nothing, just a bug. No matter what I had, you had to take it away from me—starting quarterback, class president, everything. Joyce deserved better."
At the sound of his dead wife's name, Napoleon felt a burning in his heart, a burning emptiness that all his one-night trysts would never fill. "What's Joyce got to do with this? This is between you and me. Let Illya go now and let's settle this, man to man."
"Man to worm, you mean, Napoleon. You don't have the guts to fight fair. You never did. She was mine and you took her from me, not because you wanted her, but just because you could. You could have had any girl in the class, but you had to take her."
"It was her choice, Randy, not mine and not yours. Joyce always knew what she wanted."
"No, you conned her! You made her think you were something you weren't. Now you can know what it feels like to have something taken away from you." With an abrupt jab, he thrust the dart into Illya's neck and pushed him away. Illya's first reaction was to clutch at his shoulder, and then his hand flew up to his neck and pulled the dart out. He started to stagger to his feet as he looked over at his partner, shaking his head slightly. He took another few steps toward Napoleon, then dropped to his knees, chest heaving.
"Sorry, Napoleon," he wheezed, collapsing upon his stomach.
Solo took a step, but stopped as the gun aimed at his chest. "Now you can watch him die, Napoleon. It's really not that horrible. At least you can still recognize him and not have to pull some blackened corpse out of a car. That's why I torched his car, you know. It should have been you, Napoleon, payback time. I thought it was your car, but I should have known. You'd never have driven a wreck like that."
"Yes, you're right, Randy. It should have been me, but Joyce insisted upon driving that night."
Illya sprawled frighteningly quiet upon the snow-covered ground and Napoleon ached to reach him, to administer the CPR that would save him until help arrived.
"I know what you're thinking, Napoleon, and you're not moving, not for another four minutes. He'll be dead by then, too late to be revived."
"When did you become such a cold-blooded murderer, Randy?"
"The night you killed my Joyce." Randy drew closer until he was in front of Napoleon. "Now, let's talk about you. Should I shoot you some place lethal or would you rather bleed to death beside your partner?" Illya suddenly appeared over the man's shoulder and Napoleon did his best to not register, but Randy saw something in his eyes and started to spin. He stopped as Illya's P-38 rested against his ear.
"How about a third alternative instead? You can stand there quietly and I won't shoot you," Illya said, calmly. Randy's elbow went back and the rifle butt caught the Russian's midsection. Illya staggered and Collins lashed out at Napoleon with the rifle. It connected right across recently healed ribs and Napoleon could feel them snap. It was akin to someone knifing him and he gasped, falling back. Landing, he tasted blood and swore silently to himself. Just what he needed right now was a punctured lung. He spat out the blood and re-launched himself at Collins, but Kuryakin had recovered at that point and let go with a blow strong enough to make an audible crunch as knuckles connected with nose.
Collins screamed and fell. Illya immediately was upon him, twisting and placing his foot upon the back of the man's neck, pinning him very effectively to the ground. It was only then that either man became conscious of the sound of sirens.
"What do you want me to do, Napoleon? One twist is all it will take to end this forever." The question surprised Napoleon for he knew the Russian had as keen a sense of justice as he did. To kill for the sake of killing was never an option for either of them, only when it was the last choice left to them. At that moment, he saw the glint in Kuryakin's eyes and realized what the man was doing.
"I don't know. Let's see if he wants to tell us anything first." Napoleon knelt and spat out another mouthful of blood into a nearby snow bank. "So, how about it, Randy, you feel like talking? It sounds like the cavalry is just around the corner. Any deathbed confessions?"
"I have nothing to say," Collins managed to cough out.
"Good enough then. Say good night Gracie." He stood up and nodded to his partner. Illya applied just enough pressure to make the man black out and released him with a groan. He fell to his knees, joined there by his partner
"You okay?" Illya cradled his shoulder now, letting his tough image slip in front of his partner.
"Not necessarily." Illya watched the approaching vehicles and hoped they would stop before hitting any of them. "Don't take this personally, Napoleon, but I don't think I want to take any more vacations with you."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Napoleon wheezed and leaned against Kuryakin, who leaned back against him. "I thought you were dead. How did you avoid the curare?"
"Remember how I was complaining about the doctor wrapping me up like a Christmas present? I think I need to send him flowers. The dart didn't even scratched me. If Collins had been paying proper attention, he would have realized that I went down much too fast. You kept him nicely preoccupied until things turned ugly."
"I shall never underestimate you again, sneaky Russian." People were piling out of the cars and running towards them, guns at the ready. "Looks like company's here."
"You stay down, I'll get the door."
Napoleon Solo swirled his glass and watched the firelight reflect off the ice inside it. The sense of contentment filled him until it threatened to bubble over and wash the room with it. He glanced over at his partner. Illya sprawled beside him on the sofa, his feet stretched out towards the crackling fire. With his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, his book forgotten, his head bobbed as he dozed. They'd both been very lucky.
Napoleon had managed to reinjure three of his four previously broken ribs, but only to the point of cracking them. The blood was from his bitten tongue, an injury not even realized in the heat of battle. He was now taped up again, but the pressure felt surprisingly familiar and reassuring. The Russian had torn his shoulder muscle to the point that his entire left shoulder and arm were immobilized now, but it could have been so much worse. At least it was nothing that would require surgery, just time to heal.
It had been a very eventful day for both the agents. It had started well before light with an explosion of noise as his nieces and nephews thundered downstairs to see if Santa had indeed found them. The confusion continued through breakfast and the present unwrapping. Napoleon himself marveled at the sheer size of the mountain of wrapping paper left behind. He delighted in Illya's gift of a battery operated watch and replacement scarf. Although how the Russian pulled it off was beyond him. His partner was equally delighted with the theater tickets and money clip.
Before the usual Christmas dinner, Napoleon had found a quiet moment to grab his partner and steal away to a small peaceful cemetery. There, he introduced the Russian to his wife of too few years. He laughed, reminisced and even cried, knowing that Illya would see it as neither a weakness nor a flaw.
Upon arriving back at the farmhouse, a strange car sat blocking the driveway and with great fanfare, his father announced that it was Illya's, a replacement for the one he'd lost. It was obvious that Kuryakin was deeply touched by the gift and worked hard to hide the emotions, but with little success as the keys were passed to him. In a choked voice, Illya admitted that his greatest regret would be that he wouldn't be able to drive it immediately.
A soft whisper of a noise brought Napoleon back to the present moment and he felt his mother's hand on his cheek. He leaned into its familiar caress and pitied the man who didn't have such a close relationship with his parents. He had feared that knowing his profession would drive them away, but instead it seemed to have brought them closer to him.
"How are you two feeling, dear?" she whispered, obviously not wanting to wake the Russian. Napoleon grinned, knowing Illya was well aware of everything around him.
"It's okay, Mom, he's not asleep and we're fine. You don't have to check up on us every five minutes. It isn't like the first time this has happened and it certainly won't be the last."
"Hallelujah to that," Illya said, sitting up slowly. The painkillers made him just a bit lightheaded and he moved in accordance. "I really do think I deserve that raise now, Napoleon."
"I let you have a vacation. What more do you want? Besides, for raises you have to talk to the Old Man. He's the one holding the purse strings, not me."
"Thanks, but I'll pass. My head's still ringing from the 'you're costing UNCLE money with these injuries' speech...some sympathetic boss..."
"You, too, then?"
"Me, too, and I was summarily informed that I'm off for retraining after this. Apparently, Mr. Waverly thinks I'm getting sloppy and could do with a refresher."
"Egads, McKay and his two fists of death—you have my sympathy."
"Bangkok is starting to look better all the time." Illya pulled off his glasses and set them down upon his book. "You up for some chess?"
"With you up to your eyeballs in pain meds? Sure, I might even have a chance to win this time."
The Russian stood stiffly and stretched, then started a slow march towards the living room for the chess board.
"I know what you told me, Napoleon," his mother said, softly, fingers toying with his hair. "But will you be all right?"
And Napoleon merely smiled lovingly at her, knowing that for the first time in a very long while, he was going to be just fine.