"'Twas the night before Christmas—"
"'Twas? That's a weird word. Shouldn't it be it was?" From his spot sprawled out on the floor in front of the fireplace, Alex looked up and dragged a hand through his sandy hair. It immediately fell back into his eyes and he peered at his maternal grandfather through his bangs.
"Twas isn't weird, you are, pumpkin face!" His sister, Irina, paused in brushing her doll's hair. She was carefully dividing it into three strands to braid it. "You are too weird for weird! You're uber-weird!"
"Pumpkin face?" Illya looked over at his long time partner.
"Major insult," Napoleon Solo confirmed, rocking slowly in the chair. Ginny was fast asleep in his arms, the victim of a busy two year old's day. He kissed the dark brown ringlets tenderly.
"Would you two mind keeping it down?" Illya directed the comment to the two oldest grandchildren. "I am reading to your siblings. If you don't want to listen, go do something else."
"Can we watch TV?" Alex immediately sat up hopefully. His mother had declared the TV off limits to him and his sister because of excess roughhousing earlier in the day.
"Except that. You can read something or amuse yourselves quietly," Napoleon headed him off at the pass.
The sigh that greeted him was exaggerated. "Ah, but, Grandpops, she just said we couldn't watch it at home, not at your place."
"You might have a loophole there, my boy, except our TV doesn't work." Napoleon had to give the boy credit. Alex was always looking for an angle, a way to beat a seemingly unbeatable situation. In short, he was a typical Solo, with a dash of Kuryakin tenacity.
"Hey, Alex, do us a favor and shut up." Peter was the succinct one.
"You shut up." Alex shot back, getting to his knees, his jaw juttingout.
"Perhaps it's time for everyone to get dressed and head home instead," Illya said. "It sounds as if you are all in need of a good night's sleep. I know I am and you want to be rested for tomorrow."
"I was listening quietly, just so the people who keep track of that sort of thing know that I'm being good," Inessa protested even as she was sliding off his grandfather's lap. Unlike her siblings, she knew when to pick her battles, especially at this time of the year. After all, she had no idea how far Santa's network stretched.
"You were doing a good job of listening, Inessa, and it is duly noted," Napoleon said as Illya took Ginny from his lap. "At least one of you is mindful of the whole naughty or nice concept."
"Oh, Gramp, that's just silly... he doesn't really..." A stern glare from her grandfather strangled the words in Alex's throat even as he was pulling on his jacket. "Care, Santa grades on a curve. My teacher said so," he finished.
"Good news for us all." Napoleon got to his feet wincing at the pins and needles. "Come on, the lot of you." He pulled on his boots and jacket and held out his arms for the still sleeping Ginny. Illya passed her over.
"Will you be okay out there?"
"It's only a few hundred feet and the driveway is plowed." Napoleon took stock of the grandchildren. "We are all stalwart and true!"
It had been an interesting year to say the least. Napoleon and Illya had moved here in the early spring, then retired from UNCLE. Their family joined them out in the country mid-July and the children settled into their new school. Lisle took the opportunity to start redoing the house as she wanted. Illya had thought she'd want to go back to work, but his daughter seemed content to putter around the house, helping Genève with her preparation for the baby, painting, planting shrubs and the like. More and more frequently, the children were off, doing things with friends or afterschool activities.
Now as Christmas approached, their world seemed all that much busier. Illya and Napoleon went for days without seeing their grandchildren except at a distance. Ginny was still at home and a frequent visitor, but it wasn't the same.
Having some time with the kids had been the reason for Napoleon even bringing the subject up. It was after dinner. Illya had cooked that evening, so it was Napoleon's responsibility to clean up. Still Illya remained in the kitchen, drying as Napoleon washed.
"I have an idea." Napoleon handed his partner a plate.
"I thought I heard a grinding sound." Illya rubbed the towel over the plate's surface and, satisfied with the polish, returned it to the stack in the cupboard.
"If you're going to be insulting, I'll keep my thoughts to myself." Napoleon made a face as he lowered the lasagna pan into the sudsy water. "This might have to soak for a bit."
"Okay, so what is this great idea of yours?"
"How long has it been since we've gone into the City?"
"A couple of months, we had to sign those forms back in June... then Mark retired, so we went in for that—"
"April looked so tired." Napoleon remembered seeing his former colleague from a distance and being shocked at how old she'd gotten. "I was surprised that she didn't follow Mark out, though."
"Guess she's happy in spite of appearances." Illya started putting the glasses into their spot. "I think that was the last time I was in New York. You went in with Leon a couple of times."
"So basically a couple of months and not since the holiday season started. We should take the kids shopping."
"It would give us some time to catch up with them."
Illya hung up the towel and smiled affectionately at the man. He gestured towards the living room and picked up his still full wine glass. "You miss them."
"I just thought with them living a few yards away we'd see more of them." Napoleon's voice grew wistful as he followed Illya to the couch. "When they weren't living here, it was different. Do you know that Peter lost a front tooth?"
"Lisle told me."
"Exactly, she told you. In the old days, we would have probably been the first to know."
"Are you not happy that we moved here?" Illya set his glass down and went to adjust a log in the fireplace.
"I am, but there were just some aspects of it that I hadn't counted on. The privacy is nice, but..."
"It takes some getting used to. You have worked hard all your life, Napoleon, now you are snow bound and don't know what to do with yourself." Illya settled down beside him and studied the flames.
"It isn't too bad when I can work outside," Napoleon said quietly. "I just wish..."
"Why don't we go into the village tomorrow and buy a tree and decorations. You can invite the children over to trim it—I'm sure they would jump at the opportunity."
"And bake cookies?" Napoleon moved a bit closer.
"And listen to Christmas music?" This was just a whisper in Illya's ear.
"You are stretching my good cheer, Napoleon," Illya warned, turning his head to stare nose-to-nose at his partner. Napoleon grinned and abruptly kissed Illya on the tip of his nose. "Do you mind?" Illya wiped his nose off.
"Nope, not at all." Nor did he mind the rest of the night either.
Napoleon led the charge down the narrow corridor of the train while Illya brought up the read. In between were sandwiched five chattering and excited children. They climbed off the train and Irina stared around at the decorations that bedecked the station lobby.
"Oh, my... this is like a winter wonderland!" She spun, a whirl of pink and white fake fur. A nearby couple grinned at her and she ran up to Napoleon. "Oh, Grampy! This is exquisite!"
"And points for using the word properly." Illya jiggled Ginny In his embrace. She buried her face in his neck, suddenly shy as only a two year old could be. "Ginny, look at the reindeer. северный олень." He repeated the word in Russian softly to her. Like the other children, he was determined she would be conversant in as many languages as he could teach her.
"Like Rudolf?" she asked, pulling away to look."
"Да, как Рудольф."
"Rudolph isn't Russian, is he, Poppy?" Irina asked, taking her maternal grandfather's free hand.
"Napoleon, do you want to field this one?"
Napoleon was crouched with the twins as they checked out a small animated display "Nope, he's a good old USA commercial icon." He straightened and both children automatically took a hand. Only Alex was permitted to walk free. Even so, he stayed very close to his grandfathers.
"Icon?" Alex frowned. "They made him up to sell something?"
"So the story goes. Montgomery Ward had some stuffed toys they wanted to sell and one of their employees came up with a little verse about someone who went on to overcome a physical aberration and become a cherished bit of Christmas magic."
"You mean like us loving Ginny even though she's got a bad arm?" Peter had spotted a hot dog vendor, always more interesting than a display, Christmas or otherwise.
They exited the station and parked to one side was a long white limo. The driver was holding a sign that had 'Solo' on it.
"Grampy, that man's sign is the same as our name." Irina tugged on her grandfather's coat.
"That's because he's our driver for today. That way we don't have to worry about carrying all the packages we are going to have or be late to the Radio City Music Hall."
"We're not seeing The Nutcracker?" Irina's voice was a little sad. "All those lovely ballerinas..."
Napoleon smiled as the twins followed Alex into the car. "With your siblings in tow, it's something left until when we can come just the two of us," he whispered into her ear.
"Cross my heart."
"What are you two talking about?" Alex demanded.
"Secrets." Napoleon winked at him.
"Keeping secrets ain't nice."
"At Christmas, there is a special dispensation for them." Illya waited for Napoleon to get in and handed Ginny to him. He started to move away.
"Illya, where are you going?"
"To sit up front with the driver." It was Illya's habit to ride shotgun. That way he'd be ready in case of an ambush. "Just like I always..." Illya trailed off as he remembered he wasn't an active agent any longer
"Good idea. It is probably easier on your hip than trying to climb into the back," Napoleon said, smiling. He settled down and took a fast headcount. "Okay, so here's the plan. We'll pay Santa little visit, then some shopping, lunch and on to Radio City Music Hall. How does that sound?"
"Boring," Alex muttered. "Couldn't we just go skating instead?" It was his new passion.
"Why don't we see how everyone is holding up after the show? I did promise we'd have you back before Christmas though and once we get you on the ice, it's hard to get you off it."
"Grampy, do you think Mom and Dad would let me play hockey?"
"Instead of basketball?" Irina arranged her dress carefully and crossed her ankles.
"Good, since you stink at basketball."
"You shut up!"
"Why don't we all try to remember that this is the season of goodwill and not fight?" Napoleon's voice carried an edge to it that made both children immediately quiet.
"How did he do that?" Illya turned back around and looked at the driver. "I've got two," the man continued. "And I've threatened to do everything but hang them from the roof."
"He doesn't threaten; he speaks and then carries it out. They know this."
"I'll have to remember that. Where to first?"
"I believe Macy's."
Inessa stood in line and shifted from one foot to the other. "I have to go to the bathroom, Poppy!"
Illya sighed. He knew this was going to happen. She'd refused when everyone else had gone and now that they were minutes away from seeing Santa, it had become an issue.
"I don't see your Grandfather anywhere," Illya looked around. Napoleon had wandered off twenty minutes ago, leaving Illya with all five grandchildren. They'd done their best, but the wait had been a burden on them all.
"I'll take her, Poppy," Irina said. "I know where it is."
"I'm not sure..."
The woman behind them in line tapped Illya on the shoulder. "I'll cut you a deal. If you'll watch Robbie, I'll escort them to the ladies room."
Instantly Illya became uneasy, not because he didn't trust the woman. Just the opposite, she looked as if she'd do anything to get away from the young boy who struggled in her grip. Still, there were priorities to be met.
The woman knelt and shook a finger in her son's face. "Behave yourself!" The boy made a face and the woman straightened. "Good luck."
Illya's stomach sank and the boy watched his mother hurry off. "I don't like you," he told Illya.
"Misbehave and you'll like me even less."
"He's not kidding," Alex said, sizing the boy up. He turned back to his study of the train that raced around the 'North Pole.'
Peter was swinging hands with Ginny. The little girl laughed and started singing,
Динь-динь-дон, (Jingle Bells)
Динь-динь-дон, (Jingle Bells)
Льется чудный звон, (Jingle all the way)
Слышен смех со всех сторон, (Oh what fun is it to ride)
Сани мчатся под уклон. (In a one-horse open sleigh)
Her pronunciation wasn't perfect, but Illya was pleased. She was picking up languages even faster than Peter did.
"Is she stupid or something?" Robbie asked at the top of his voice. "Can't she speak English? Is she a retard? She looks like one." A hush fell and Ginny looked fearfully from the boy to Illya.
"She speaks three languages, how many do you speak?" Alex asked quietly, sliding his arm around Ginny's shoulders. "Just because someone doesn't look or speak like you doesn't mean they are stupid, just different." He squared his shoulders. "Now apologize to my baby sister, please."
"Why should I?"
"Because I asked nicely and I have better manners than you."
"And no one messes with our sister," Peter said. "That's our job."
"Sorry," Robbie muttered.
"'Kay, love you," Ginny said throwing open her arms.
"Eww, cooties." Robbie shrank back.
"And she's not afraid to spread them. Keep that in mind," Illya said, proud that the whole incident had passed without a major blow-up or him getting involved.
"Miss me?" Napoleon asked, walking up. His hands were filled with shopping bags.
"What's in there, Grampy? Food? I'm pretty hungry." Peter tried to look into the nearest one and Napoleon lifted it up.
"No peeking and you are always hungry... where are the girls?"
"Potty break." Illya nodded. "Here they come." Irina was holding hands with Inessa and they were happily skipping towards them.
"They have nice bathrooms here," Inessa announced. "They have walls and everything."
A chuckle ran through the immediate crowd and Napoleon joined in. "And just in time, it looks like Santa has a lap free. Who's first?"
Illya snuck a fast glance to make sure no one was paying him any attention and quickly approached the cashier. She looked at him with a weary and bored expression.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes." Illya looked around again. "In a few minutes, three young girls are going to come up and pay for their purchases. The youngest one is going to hand you a leaf."
"She thinks it's money. It's a long story." Illya took out his wallet and handed her some bills. "This should cover everything."
Irina suddenly looked in Illya's direction and he admired a tie. Once an agent...
"Poppy, do you think Mommy will really like this?" Inessa held up a necklace and matching earrings. "Or just like it because it's her job?"
He smiled and examined the necklace, daring a look at the price tag. "I think she'll like it very much."
"Dis?" Ginny thrust something at him. It was a brooch and he held it up beside the necklace.
"What do you think?"
"Pink would be better," Irina said, then hastily added, "but that color is nice too."
"Let's go pay for these then. We have to meet your grandfather and brothers in ten minutes."
"I do," Ginny announced and walked up to the cashier. She tilted her head back and then looked at her sister. "Uppie?"
Irina hefted the girl up and said, "We'd like to purchase these please. They're for our Mommy."
The cashier looked over at Illya, who nodded. "She's very lucky to be getting such lovely jewelry." She rang them up. "That will be $27 with tax."
"I do," Ginny repeated and carefully opened her little purse. She took out a red maple leaf and offered it to the cashier. "Enough?"
"Ginny, you can't pay for things with leaves, you need money and we don't have enough." Irina started to put her down. "We'll have to put something back."
"No, Ma'am, this will cover it nicely," the cashier said, taking the leaf and putting it on the lip of the cash register. She took Illya's bills and added them to the till. She removed the change and set it aside. "And you even have some change coming." She offered a dried poinsettia leaf to Ginny who took it somberly.
"Poppy, I don't understand..." Irina looked from her sister to Illya and back. "Leaves aren't money."
"Must be the magic of Christmas. Don't forget your packages." He handed them the bags and they started off.
"Sir, your change?" the cashier called in a stage whisper.
"Keep it and thank you."
Alex sat quietly in his seat as the rest of the audience applauded and cheered. His grandfather looked at him, a question in his hazel eyes.
"Alex, what's wrong? Didn't you enjoy the show?"
"Yes, but I kinda feel funny." His eyes dropped down to his lap and back up to Napoleon's face. "Down here," he whispered.
"Ah..." Napoleon kept from making light of it. He remembered how uncomfortable he was with his first experience with an erection. "That's just a very natural reaction to the lovely ladies on the stage." Illya had gotten the other children dressed and ushered out into the aisle. He looked back at his partner.
"Nothing, we'll meet you in the lobby." Illya nodded and shifted Ginny from one arm to the other.
"I'm not sick or anything, am I, Grampy?" Addressing Napoleon as this told him just how anxious his grandson was.
"No, I'd say you are one hundred percent normal." Napoleon turned slightly and held the boy's coat out to him. "It will go away in a few minutes. Think of something else."
"But I don't want to, Grampy." He looked back at the stage. "They were really pretty."
"Yes, they were. You still feel like skating?"
"Sure!" Alex was instantly on his feet and pulling his jacket on, his mind on other things.
"I'm not sure if Illya is up to it, but he can stay on the sidelines with Ginny."
"Great, let's go."
They were nearly to the lobby when Napoleon asked. "Are you feeling better now?"
Alex paused and grinned. "Thanks, Granddad. From now on when that happens, I'll think about skating."
"All right then." Napoleon stopped, looked for Illya, and waved. They joined him a moment later.
"Alex just took a step into the world of being a Solo." Napoleon glanced down at Illya's crotch and a moment later Illya took a breath and grinned.
"Understood. So, home now?"
"I sort of promised Alex he could do some skating... to take his mind off other things."
"Aren't you exhausted?"
"About five hours ago. It's a good thing we don't have to get up in the morning."
Illya blinked wearily at the whirl of chaos around him. Even Ginny seemed to be getting into the act this Christmas, although she seemed more focused upon the wrapping paper and boxes than the actual gifts. There were squeals and shouts of happiness all around him.
He looked over to where Napoleon and Leon sat on the floor putting together a train set.
"Poppy?" Peter, a candy cane in his mouth, tugged on the sleeve of Illya's newly knitted blue cardigan.
"Are you sure Santa meant that for them?" The little boy's brow was puckered. "It's a toy and they're not kids."
"In their hearts they are." Illya smiled as his daughter hugged him.
"You certainly are right about that." She kissed his cheek. "I love the dishwasher."
"We figured you were due," Illya said, slipping an arm around her.
"Even better though is the photo of the two of you on Santa's lap. What did you ask Santa for, Dad?"
"Patience," he muttered as Ginny set an empty cardboard box on his head. "Who turned out the lights?" He reached out, grabbed Ginny and began to tickle her.
Genève laughed at their antics as she unwrapped the stroller. "Thank you! This is exactly what we wanted."
"Sorry that everything is sort of baby based this time," Leon said, getting up off the floor. Immediately Peter took his place.
"Believe me when I say it's okay by me." Alexander held up a hand painted tie. "This is lovely, you guys, thanks!"
"Mommy bought us the kit." Inessa explained. "Alex did the lettering and Reenie made the swirls. The smiley faces are mine and Peter did the snowman." She sighed and said softly. "The popsicle stick was Ginny's idea... and the glitter."
"It will certainly be the most unique tie to wear on New Year's Eve. I love it!"
Genève rubbed her swollen stomach and made a face. "Someone in here thinks it's pretty great too."
"You want to go lie down?" Alexander was immediately at her side.
"I'm fine, stop fussing." She laughed and held up some bibs. "These are darling. Thank you, Poppy."
Illya grinned and nodded at Napoleon, who was explaining the intricacies of railroad trains to both Peter and Alex.
"I think it's probably time for a little lunch, what do you all think?" Lisle slapped her hands together, but none of the three on the floor paid her the least bit of attention. "I'm going to have to mark down this date on the calendar. Today Peter found something he was more interested in than eating." She started to walk from the living room. "Dad, could you give me a hand?"
Illya shrugged his shoulders and followed her out into the kitchen. Out here, it was almost peaceful compared to the insanity of the other room and the scent of turkey made it heavenly smelling. He inhaled deeply and grinned at the thought of the meal to come. "What can I do to help?"
"I just thought I'd make a few sandwiches to tide people over until dinner. That way I won't be tripping over the boys later on. Could you get the bread for me?"
"Bread box is bare." Illya peeked inside.
"Again? Could you grab a couple of loaves? They are in the freezer out in the garage."
Illya stepped into the darkened room and snapped on the light. He walked to the freezer and pulled out the bread. He was nearly to the door when he realized something was out of place. The van was gone and parked in its place was a motorcycle. He walked over to it, running his hand over the seat.
"It's a 1962 Ducati Elite." Illya turned at Napoleon's voice. "I know you've wanted one for years, but other things kept coming up and getting in the way."
"The money could have been better spent. They are rare, Napoleon, and very expensive."
"Then we won't have to worry about you leaving it out in the rain, will we?" Leon appeared at his father's side. "You are always so quick to put everyone else's wants before your own, we thought it was time."
"Holy cats! A motorcycle!" Alex was out the door, the train forgotten. "Can we go for a ride?"
"I think maybe a bit later, once the roads are clear and you aren't wearing pajamas," Illya said, still running his hand over the chrome. "How did you...?"
"Tut, tut, one never looks a gift horse in the mouth or betrays a confidence shared with Santa." Napoleon walked up to his partner and handed him a helmet. "Merry Christmas, old friend."
"So what did Poppy get you for Christmas, Grampy?"
Napoleon thought back to the gold bracelet he'd had his eye on in Tiffany's , the bottle of hundred year old Napoleon brandy and a few things that made his lips curl even more.
"Oh, we took care of those a little earlier in the day. Let's go in. It's freezing out here." As they started to walk back into the house, Alex caught his grandfather's hand and pulled him back in to the garage.
"Alex, what's wrong?"
"Me, nothing, but I think you better think about ice skating, Grampy."