Patricia Jean Foley
All my stories have alternate endings now...
Napoleon Solo was a man who loved Christmas. Indeed, Napoleon Solo was a man who loved life, who risked its embrace with the best of them, and took its joys and pitfalls with philosophical grace and lost, when he was forced to, with almost as good a grace as he won.
He rarely entered a church, though raised a Catholic, but he gave generously, if infrequently, to the church he seldom visited. He dropped quarters in the cauldrons of Salvation Army workers. When he had it, he loaned money to co-workers less fortunate than himself. He donated to the widows and orphans fund for those colleagues lost through the hazards of his profession.
Even more important, he was generous of spirit. Though his responsibilities were heavy, and his tasks often onerous, it was rare that he didn't have a ready smile or a considerate word for his associates. He was well-liked, not only by his friends, not only by his colleagues and superiors, but even by many of his enemies.
It was therefore particularly ironic that he should be partnered with a man who was the antithesis of generosity. Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin was parsimonious by nature, solitary as a clam, and content to be so, cynical of mind, singular of word, and stingy of purse.
"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth," Solo said, looking with satisfaction at the gap he had created in the Thrush goon he had just felled.
"What?" Kuryakin asked, looking up from the snowbank where he was securing the wrists and ankles of his own goon.
"Never mind," Solo said, binding his man with the Thrush's own tie and belt. "Let's not be all day at this. I've got a date tonight." He tugged at the bonds on his man, gave a perfunctory test to those Kuryakin was securing on his own man, and clapped Illya on the arm. "Come on. This girl is as beautiful as a Christmas angel and just waiting for the stroke of midnight to be unwrapped under the tree."
"What else is new?" Kuryakin muttered gloomily as he trailed his partner.
Back at their hotel, Solo engaged in a frantic rushing to get ready for his date. "Illya, I don't suppose you happen to have any money on you?" he asked, looking through his wallet. "I didn't have time to get to the bank. Being Christmas Eve, they all closed early."
"Christmas," Kuryakin echoed with some disgust. "I'm sick of hearing every fool babble about Merry Christmas. What is it but another reason to spend money and, in your case especially, get deeper in debt? You know these holidays are just dreamed up by the big department stores."
"I don't think there were any two thousand years ago," Solo commented, amused. "Don't be such a Scrooge," he demurred. "It's just a loan."
"You owe me two hundred dollars from your last date," the Soviet agent dourly pointed out, making no effort to reach for his billfold.
"And when have we had time for me to even cash a paycheck?" Solo asked heatedly. "If you ever used money yourself you'd have the same problem. I swear, Illya, moths must come out of your wallet when you open it."
"Just because I don't spend every spare moment pursuing women and squandering money, that hardly makes me a miser," Kuryakin retorted, reluctantly reaching into his suit-coat.
"It doesn't make you the life of the party, either," Solo responded, taking the bills Kuryakin had laboriously counted out.
"Kindly remember that I'm Soviet," Kuryakin said, watching his money disappear into Solo's billfold. "And that this is a loan. I don't celebrate Christmas, and I can't afford to finance other people's Christmases."
"You'll have it by New Years," Solo said, grinning cheerfully as Kuryakin opened his mouth in protest and then closed it, giving Solo a dark look instead.
"Why don't you come with us?" Solo said, disappearing into the room's bath. "I can see if she can find a friend for you. Girls always know at least one friend that's free."
"As pretty as an angel and all ready to be unwrapped?" Kuryakin queried skeptically.
"Probably not, but at least you won't have to dine alone," Solo chuckled, coming back out again. "Even a blind date is better than none on Christmas Eve."
"I'll pass, thanks," Kuryakin said. "I've got some things to do."
"Suit yourself," Solo called back, and giving himself one last look in the mirror, picked up the phone. His look of anticipatory pleasure soon faded. Kuryakin unashamedly evesdropped on the one-sided conversation.
"No, darling, of course I understand," The Chief Enforcement Agent repeated again, his soothing tones warring with his disappointment. "I wouldn't want you to be sitting home alone on Christmas Eve. Solo turned away from Kuryakin's look of pure mischief. "Naturally, when I didn't call you when we'd planned, you had every right to make other arrangements." Solo sat down on the bed and one-handedly tugged slightly at his tie, looking more aggrieved now than disappointed. "Yes, we'll make other plans soon. Merry Christmas to you, too." Solo put the phone down.
"Cheer up," Kuryakin said, after Solo showed every sign of sitting there, silent and unmoving for the rest of the evening. "There are plenty of fish in the sea, as you would say."
"Huh?" Solo came out of his reverie. "Oh, sure. But it won't be easy, finding another date this late on Christmas Eve."
"Don't bother, then," Kuryakin answered. "Turn in early, get some sleep. We've got a early morning flight tomorrow anyway."
"Stay here, in this sorry hotel room on Christmas Eve?" Solo looked around the Spartan room with an expression of distaste. "No thanks." He brightened. "Why not join me? We can get a drink and a decent meal at least, and hope that, as we've been such very good boys this year, Santa will bring us even more charming companions."
Kuryakin looked unmoved. "No thanks, Napoleon. I really just want something simple and an early bed."
Solo looked disappointed again, but shrugged. "All right then. I'll see you later."
"Have a pleasant evening," Kuryakin said.
"Right." Solo hesitated. "Merry Christmas, Illya."
"What? Oh, sure. Same to you, Napoleon.
Solo sighed, shrugged and then smiled. "Don't forget to put in a good word for me when Santa comes," he added, before closing the door behind him.
Kuryakin sat alone in the bare-bones hotel room. He cleaned his gun; dirty work that, but an agent had to stay prepared, even on Christmas Eve. Especially on Christmas Eve. He wouldn't put it past Thrush to use the holiday as an opportunity to try and take him unawares. He took care that his spare gun was always at the ready until his favored gun was back in service.. He refilled the clips, exactly ten rounds in each, five clips filled. The bullets slid through his fingers as he counted them out, smooth and slightly oily, each clinking dully as he settled it in place. When he was done he had filled two clips with sleep darts and three with regular ammo. He slipped the shoulder holster back on, and the gun back in the holster. It felt good to have the familiar weight back in place, the clips all lined up and ready for another day's work.
He was putting the clips away, some in his pants pockets, some in his suit coat pockets, when a spot on the barrel of his Walther caught his eye. He frowned at it, and reaching for the gun, took it out and rubbed it away with his polishing cloth. The spot faded, then stubbornly reappeared, for the moment looking amazingly like a face. He rubbed harder and the dull gunmetal gleam of the gun reappeared. Grunting in satisfaction, he put his cleaning supplies away, and placed his room service order.
The right cross a Thrushman had given him earlier had left him with a sore jaw, so he held back on his usual extravagance in food (though since it went on his expense account it wasn't really extravagance) and just ordered some soup and tea. It took some talking to convince the room service manager that he didn't want the seven course Christmas Eve special, but only soup and tea, and he hung up the phone in answer to the cheery Merry Christmas with which the man closed the call.
He heard the noise first when he was turning on the shower, thinking to take a quick one before the food came. He'd also discovered that nothing brought the room service order to your door like climbing into the shower and soaping up. Sometimes it was the only way to get the ordered food.
He cocked his head quizzically at the sound. A clinking, like the faint tinkle of sleet on the frozen windshield of a car. He thought it was just noise in the plumbing, but when he turned off the water, it didn't go away. He turned the water on again, remembering sometimes it took a few minutes for air caught in a water line to clear. The noise strengthened to a clanking and jingling. Now it definitely didn't sound like noisy pipes. He waited, half expecting to hear the prancing and pawing of reindeer hooves "on the roof" and then see Napoleon waiting outside the door, tape recorder in hand, grinning with amusement at impersonating "Santa Claus". But when he looked out the spyhole of the hotel room door nothing was there, and the sound of the faint jingling moved away, as if down the hall. He opened the door, throwing caution to the wind, and it seemed as if he heard the jingling, tinkling noise clearly, but it faded just as fast, a faint miasma whispering down the hallway. Standing in the corridor, he turned around, trying to place the noise, then ran a hand through his hair in puzzlement and went back into his room. He closed the locks again firmly, wondering what he could have been thinking. Practical jokes weren't Napoleon's style. It must have been the television from another room. A Christmas special.
Kuryakin was disgusted with himself. Surely he couldn't be that desperate to see a friendly face, or have been affected so much by the myth of Christmas Eve, that he'd imagine situations that couldn't occur rather than spend a quiet evening in his own company. Usually he enjoyed his own company. And it was only one night, no different than any other, he told himself firmly.
Shaking the cobwebs from his mind, he turned away from the door, and gaped to see the shape of a man forming from the mist of the shower steam still hanging in the room. It flowed into the center of the room, while he pulled away until he felt the wall in back of him. He edged around the wall until he reached the bathroom door, and dashing in, turned off the water. He breathed in the steam for a moment, hoping to clear his head, wondering if Thrush had used some new sort of psychedelic gas on him, or perhaps he'd been hit in the jaw hard enough to affect his head. He walked back into the main room, stopping dead at the sight of a figure of a man he knew well as being more than a continent away, a man whom he knew had been dead for years.
A holograph, he thought dazedly, watching how the figure became transparent and then solidified. Sometimes it seemed as real as life, sometimes it faded to a ghostly haze, showing the furnishings behind it as through a veil. The clanking was back, and as Kuryakin watched the figure became nearly solid in places, "as large as life and twice as natural", looking real enough to touch in head and chest, while the body, especially the feet seemed still insubstantial. Not to be daunted, Kuryakin grabbed for the gun nestled in his shoulder holster and aimed it at the too familiar head. Whether the apparition was real or not, he felt better with the weapon in his hand.
A knocking at the door startled him, and he whirled toward the new sound, gun at hand. A cautious check through the peephole showed it to be the room service waiter. He turned back in alarm to check on his ghostly visitor, but now there was nothing in the room but a wisp of steam dissipating from the turned-off shower. He stared at it, scratching his head a bit, then shrugged and opened the door to take in the food.
Ever practical, he ate. He spooned up the soup, grimacing as his sore jaw made itself known. Still, the food grounded him. He always felt better with something in his stomach, and the thought of ghostly apparitions created out of shower steam only made him smile cynically. He must be tired to have imagined that.
He took his shower and prepared for bed, dressed in the pale blue flannel pajamas that he took on assignment. At home, of course, he just wore old t-shirts and sweatpants that were too frayed for the gym. No sense wearing out good pajamas at home when anything would do.
Then he heard the noise again. A faint jingling, then a steady clanking. He looked at the bathroom door, but he'd turned off the water long ago, the pipes were silent and dead. He paced the room, wondering at the sound that seem to come from everywhere and yet nowhere.
"Could it be rats?" He asked out loud. Then he turned swiftly at a loud noise at the door. As he watched in shock, the door locks twirled backward, and the door opened. Kuryakin drew his gun on the being that flowed into the room. It took a long time, and Kuryakin could see what all the clanking had been about. The creature, for it was not really a man, was recognizable but insubstantial. Kuryakin could see the wall behind him through the creature's body. He didn't think his gun was going to be very effective against it, but he kept it at ready anyway. Finally the creature was in the room, and Kuryakin stepped forward to confront it.
"Who are you?"
"Come now, Illya Nickovetch. It has been some years, I grant, but surely you recognize me."
"I recognize who you appear to be," the Soviet agent said suspiciously.
"And you are correct. In life, I was once your superior, Peter Ivanovich Ivashutin ."
"Ivashutin has been dead for four years," Kuryakin said flatly. "Who are you?"
"I said, in life, Illya Nickovetch."
"Are you telling me you represent some evidence of an afterlife?" Kuryakin said scornfully. "As a good Soviet, you know as well as I do that such talk is treason. There is no heavenly paradise. Except for the Party goal to create such on earth," he added, with the barest trace of irony.
"I told them you would hold onto your beliefs," Ivashutin said musingly. "And so you have, longer than most of our people do in the bourgeois West. You were a good choice for U.N.C.L.E. Perhaps too good," he added, his mood turning grim.
"Then if this little test is over --" Kuryakin said coolly.
"As to evidence of heaven, I have no personal report," Ivashutin interrupted mockingly. "My experience is entirely with another type of afterlife."
"I don't believe in ghosts," Kuryakin said dismissively. "Or in you."
"Do you doubt the evidence of your senses?" Ivashutin asked, floating over the floor to hover over the Soviet agent. He grasped an end of his chain in each hand and swung it together, banging the items on it together.
"Constantly," Kuryakin said, backing away from the racket. He found himself staring at the chain winding its way around the apparition's body. It was composed of regular metal links, keys of various sizes and types, silver and gold coins from various countries, interspersed with handcuffs, small listening devices, metal strongboxes of secret documents, knives and other tools of the trade. He winced as two of the strongboxes banged together with an especially loud clang.
Ivashutin noticed his wince and reaching for the nearest loop, curled his fingers around it, and the set of handcuffs adorning that part, and gave it a rattle. The rattle echoed hugely in the tiny room, starting as just a jingle, but building to a ear-shattering roar. "Do you believe me or not?"
"You're nothing more than a holograph with sound," Kuryakin said. "Or a leftover illusion from some drug I was fed today. Or even some practical joke from my colleagues. There's more of smoke and mirrors than ether about you," the Soviet agent stated. "It's a nice parlor trick, but hardly worth giving up a lifetime of beliefs."
The Spirit looked disgusted and stopped rattling. "This sort of thing was easier when Russians were ignorant peasants."
"No doubt," Kuryakin agreed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a shower to take, and then bed. I have an early flight tomorrow. A real flight," he added. "In a plane."
"Never-the-less," the Specter said, "I have a mission to accomplish, and a message to deliver, and I'm sure you understand that it is better for both of us if it is done."
Kuryakin sighed. "All right," he said. "Deliver it. Why are you here? You used to send me messages," he added skeptically, "but through other intermediaries. And," he added, "while you're explaining, what is that chain you're wearing? No, let me guess. You're like Santa Claus, dropping off little spy devices to all the good spies. Only he has a red sack, and you wear them on a chain?
"I wear the chain I forged in life," Ivashutin intoned solemnly. "I forged it, link by link and yard by yard."
"Don't you mean meter by meter?" The Russian inquired nastily.
"I don't write the script," the Specter said haughtily. "However you measure it, it's a terrible ponderous chain," he intoned solemnly letting it stretch out around him. "And yours, I may add, is no necklace either," he added cattily.
"Mine?" Kuryakin asked in surprise.
"It's not quite as long as this, but then you're young. Keep on as you do, yours will far surpass it." Ivashutin said.
"Just wait a minute," Kuryakin said, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "I haven't done anything any Soviet agent hasn't done. Further, I do work for U.N.C.L.E. 'Peace on Earth, good will toward men', and all that sort of thing. No one who works in our business can be called a saint, but surely for someone 'in the business', I don't do so badly."
"Business!" Exclaimed the Specter. "Mankind should be our business. But how seldom we attend to it!"
"I attend to it every day," Kuryakin said. "All in the U.N.C.L.E. charter."
"But do you believe in it, Illya Nickovetch? Do you follow it in your personal life?" The Spirit said intensely. "I think not."
"I'm an U.N.C.L.E. agent," the Russian said sulkily. "We're not allowed a personal life. That's in the charter too."
"Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" The Spirit groaned in pain, bashing his chains together.
"Would you cut that out?" Kuryakin said, backing away and trying to hold his hands over his ears and still keep the gun pointed on the apparition.
"You shall see!" He swept towards the hotel room windows which parted as he reached them. He snatched at Kuryakin as he did so, grabbing the Soviet agent by the hand.
They flew through the window, into the atmosphere. By the time Kuryakin had caught his breath, he could see the sky around them was filled with specters, some in what appeared to be various states of decay, all weighted down by heavy chains. He whipped his head around at a ghost passing them, realizing he recognized a Thrush chief he and Napoleon had taken out last year. The man had seen better days.
"Do you see the phantoms filling the sky around you?" The Spirit asked.
"I don't know what I see." Kuryakin shook his head at the noise that also filled the air. "Why are they all moaning?"
"They long to help others, but have lost the ability forever." The Spirit looked at him sharply. "If you don't beware, this fate will be yours!"
"Beware of what?" Kuryakin asked. He was standing back in his hotel room, opposite the creature. Or holograph. Whatever it was. He peered at the windows they'd just apparently flown through, but they were still locked and in place, even a little dusty.
"Do you believe in me or not?" Ivashutin asked again.
"I don't believe that I'm standing here," Kuryakin said with his typical skepticism. Seeing the apparition gather himself for another chain-rattling moan, he added hastily, "But if saying so will make you go away, then I'll believe in you. Satisfied?"
Ivashutin fixed him with a ponderous stare. "I suppose that must do for the present. You will be visited by three ghosts."
"One was more than sufficient for my lifetime," Kuryakin said. "But thanks anyway."
"The first will appear tonight when the bell tolls one," the Ghost stated.
The Spirit looked around and noticed the small electric travel alarm Kuryakin had set up. "Well, when that clock strikes one."
"It doesn't strike--"
"When it buzzes," the Spirit said, and tore a little at his insubstantial hair in frustration. The second when the bell— the clock — strikes two." He forestalled Kuryakin when the Soviet agent drew breath. "And the third when the clock buzzes three." The Spirit looked drained. "I must go now. I am doomed to wander the world in everlasting repentence." He approached the door, whose locks instantly opened. "Farewell, Illya Nickovetch.." The chain slithered out the door after the Spirit, catching a little on the doorknob. Then it pulled free and was gone.
Kuryakin instantly pounced on the door, looking up and down the hallway.
"Huh," he said, skeptically. "Neat trick."
He prepared for bed, going through all the usual security checks and routines, but at the last minute, he pulled the plug out of the electric clock. "Better safe than sorry," he chuckled softly. "Thanks anyway, Peter Ivanovich."
He tucked his gun under his pillow and went to sleep. No sooner had his head joined the gun by his pillow then the clock buzzed insistently. "What?" he said, peering at it. "How did it get to be eleven o'clock?" He stared at the clock, whose cord was back in the wall outlet. He pulled it out and put his head back down on the pillow. "I know I unplugged that," he murmured, closing his eyes. The clock buzzed again. "Damn it!" he shouted and pulled the clock toward him. "Midnight?" He stared at the clock in disbelief, then yanked the cord out of the wall again, pulled it out of the clock itself and threw both clock and wire into the middle of the room. "Try buzzing now," he said darkly, and put his head down again, pulling the pillow over his head. On the bed-table, his watch suddenly began to buzz. He sat up in the bed, pillows flying and grabbed the watch, which now showed one o'clock. At the same time a knocking came at the hotel room door. As Kuryakin watched, the door opened and a figure entered.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Kuryakin pointed his gun at the figure, which moved unafraid to stand at the foot of his bed. Kuryakin could see it had the form of a child, and abashed at aiming at weapon at any child he almost withdrew it, but he couldn't quite do that. And now that he looked harder, the creature seemed a very old man, with flowing white hair. But the face was young.
"Another Thrush construct," he thought, but not so thorough as Ivashutin. "Who the hell are you?" he asked coldly.
"I am the Spirit whose coming was foretold to you."
"You don't look like a ghost. Do you have a name?"
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"You want my partner," Kuryakin informed him. "He celebrates Christmas. I don't have a Christmas past. Or do you mean some other past?"
"No. Your past."
"What business do you want with me?"
Kuryakin snorted. "To be surprised by a ghost in my bed is hardly conducive to my well-being."
"Your redemption then."
"I don't believe in that, either."
The Spirit came around the edge of the bed, not daunted as Kuryakin shrunk back. "No doubt that's partially why I am here." It raised a fragile arm. "Rise and walk with me."
"You did agree to be haunted?" The Spirit said, taken aback.
The Ghost tiched in disapproval. "Very wrong of you."
"Spies do it all the time," Kuryakin defended himself.
The Spirit reached for Kuryakin and somehow he found his hand enfolded in the creature's hand. His body rose from the bed, sliding from the covers and he floated beside it. "Where are we going?" He asked, finding himself incorporeal. His grab for the headboard was ineffectual, as his hand went right through it. Ever practical he yielded to the inevitable.
"We are going to examine your childhood."
"No, thank--" Kuryakin said, but suddenly he was standing in a snowbank, beside a hedgerow that surrounded and bordered a house. Hidden in the hedgerow was a child, staring at the house that was being systematically ransacked by a group of men. Kuryakin flinched when he saw the uniforms and instinctively ducked.
"They cannot see you," the Spirit answered. "These are but shadows of things that have been."
Kuryakin straightened, torn between staring at the house and the child. The boy flinched as the soldiers threw a chair through the windows, showering shards of glass that sparkled in the moonlight, as bright as the snow as they flew through the air. There was more laughter, and then Kuryakin could hear the crackling of fire and smelled the acrid tang of smoke. As the flames overtook the house, lighting the surrounding area, the boy drew further back in the hedges.
"Get me out of here," Kuryakin said coldly.
"Not yet," the Spirit said.
The soldiers left, climbing into a truck and heading off. The boy crept forward a little on his belly in the snow, watching the house burn.
Time passed oddly in this Spirit world. The house burned and blackened and the torchlight of its glow darkened. It wasn't until the moon set, and the true darkness that preceded dawn held sway over the scene that the boy stirred his cramped limbs and crawled out of his hiding place.
"I want to go," Kuryakin growled.
"What are you afraid of?" The Spirit asked. "That you'll feel something you've been denying for years?"
Kuryakin stared straight ahead, refusing to answer.
The boy walked to the front of what had been the house. Lying in the snow, her once elegant neck broken, lay a woman, her long blond hair flaring out around her like an angel's wings. She'd been raped before she'd been murdered. Wiping a tear from his face the boy dropped to his knees beside her. With a gentle hand, he closed her eyes that had been staring at the stars as if she were questioning of them what had happened to her on this once-peaceful Christmas night. Only then did he tug her skirt down to the tops of her short boots. Pausing to wipe his face again, he slid his hand through the tangle of her hair, under the collar of her shirt. When he withdrew it, he was holding a golden chain from which a golden pendent dangled. He put the chain around his own neck, kissed the pendent and tucked it under his own shirt. Then he kissed his mother's forehead. He rose slowly to his feet, staring at the blackened shell of his former home. Then he turned and walked off, into the dark of the woods. He didn't look back.
Kuryakin made a sound deep in his throat. When the Spirit turned to look at him, he saw the Soviet agent's face was wet with tears. But his voice was harsh when he said. "Are you done? Can we go now?"
"Not yet. Let us find a Christmas that you really did enjoy."
The commissary had been decorated in honor of the holiday. A rather stunted but brave evergreen stood guard in a corner of the room, bearing the weight of representing the holiday season with its fragile branches. Red and green crepe paper hung from the ceiling tiles and on the glass shield before the steam tables. For a change the smell in the room was appetizing, the stainless steel dishes held a flock of turkeys, their skins bronzed and glistening, just waiting to be carved. For once Waverly hadn't economized on food.
The room was filling up with U.N.C.L.E. personnel from every section. There was even a rumor the old man would make a brief appearance. People were pushing the tables and chairs back against the walls to clear a small space for dancing.
"What a miserable excuse for a tree," April Dancer commented, giving the poor thing a look of sympathy.
"What do you expect for New York City?" Mark Slate asked. He held a sheaf of sheet music in his hand and he was moving towards a shabby upright piano that had been moved to a corner by the tree. He tested it hopefully and then sighed. "Out of tune."
"I thought Internal Services had that done?"
"Poor thing is so old it can't stay in tune for more than ten minutes after the tuner leaves." He ran his fingers lightly over the keys. "Oh, well, no one will mind much."
"They'll soon be too drunk to sing much less notice if the piano is in tune," April said, though she knew that the field agents at least would stay reasonably sober.
"Is that mistletoe?" Slate asked looking up.
"Umn. Napoleon put it up there," Dancer observed wryly.
Slate chuckled. "Well suppose we try it out?" He kissed his partner on the cheek in a brotherly fashion.
"Mark, it's Christmas," Dancer abjured. "The least you can do is give a girl a decent kiss." Smiling wickedly, she kissed him full on the mouth and very deeply. Slate sputtered and then went with it, the sheet music falling through his hands.
"Hey, no fair," Solo said, passing nearby. "I haven't had a chance to try it out yet."
"You'll get your turn," Dancer promised.
"Fickle, fickle," Slate said, letting go of his partner, a flush of embarrassment coloring his cheeks.
Solo put down the case of various beverages he'd brought in. Slate put down the music he had gathered and came over to inspect the stash, holding up a bottle appreciatively. "Where'd you get all this?"
"The old man." Solo grinned slightly. "Well, he did say we could have anything we wanted for the party, as long as we had it in stock. I took this from the executive conference suite."
"I thought that cabinet was kept locked?" April asked innocently and then blushed as the two male agents laughed. "Oh. Right."
Solo looked with satisfaction at the utilitarian room. With a few decorations, some food, drink and people, it was beginning to look almost homey. "It's going to be a good party. A good Christmas."
"Too bad Illya is in the infirmary and can't come," April commented.
"He never comes anyway," said Slate.
"Well, he's coming this year," Solo said. "Finally, he can't disappear on me. Being stuck in the infirmary for once works out. He's coming to the Christmas party whether he wants to or not."
"But Napoleon," Dancer protested. "Is he well enough?"
"I got Martinson's approval," Solo said. "In fact, he said a little Christmas cheer might brighten Illya up a bit. I'm going to get him now."
"At least he warned the rest of us in time to take cover," Slate said.
"Does Illya have something against Christmas?" April said, sampling the hors d'oeuvre. "These aren't bad," she commented in surprise.
"I wouldn't say he's opposed," Slate said. "But I've never known him to celebrate it."
"Doesn't join in any of the reindeer games, huh?" asked Dancer. "Could it be...?"
"The 'red' nose?" Slate laughed, not unkindly. "Maybe we can get him to play some this evening."
"No, Napoleon," Kuryakin was saying firmly, figuratively digging his heels into his infirmary bed. "Thank you very much for the kind offer, but no."
"You'll have fun," Solo coaxed. "Music, song and dance, good food --"
"I can't dance."
"The good fellowship of your fellow men," Solo continued.
"Did I mention food?"
"I'm not hungry."
"You're always hungry," Solo denied. "You'll enjoy yourself."
"I'm actually rather tired, Napoleon," Kuryakin demurred. "So if you'll just excuse me--"
"No," Solo said. He pushed a wheelchair up to the side of the bed and threw Kuryakin's covers back.
"I'm not going anywhere in that thing," Kuryakin said, giving the wheelchair a disdainful look.
"Then I'll carry you up there," Solo said crossly, and followed the threat by hooking an arm under his partner knees and scooping him up.
"Put me down!"
"Just as you say," Solo said, settling him in the wheelchair.
"Oh, all right," Kuryakin said, yielding to the inevitable as Solo handed him his robe and grabbed a blanket to settle around him. "I only had pneumonia, Napoleon. You don't have to bundle me up like a mummy."
"Just want to make sure you're comfy," Solo said, wheeling him out of the infirmary room.
"I'd be comfier in a Thrush cell," Kuryakin hissed as Solo pushed him into the commissary.
"Now, now, remember your company manners," Solo hissed back.
The crowd in the room exclaimed as Solo pushed the reclusive Russian agent into the room.
"Illya, what a surprise!"
"How are you feeling, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Bout time you made it to one of these."
Pink with embarrassment, Kuryakin fielded good wishes until he finally looked up at Solo with 'Get me out of here' eyes.
Solo laughed. "Sorry, everyone. I think Mr. Kuryakin needs something to keep up his strength. Is there any turkey left? Say three or four good-sized birds?"
"Napoleon!" Kuryakin snapped, going from pink to red.
"I'll get Mr. Kuryakin a plate," Wanda said.
Solo pushed the wheelchair over to where Slate was busy at the piano singing Christmas carols. Someone had taken some of the red and gold streamers and created a mock fire in a cardboard fireplace made out of a packing carton. Several Section Three agents sat before it, burning marshmallows over a small sterno fire set just in front of the crepe paper one. One of them noticed Solo and Kuryakin and brought the Soviet agent a marshmallow. He sat there, Solo by his side, with a plate of turkey in one hand and a marshmallow in the other, candycanes hung on the rails of the wheelchair, too short of breath to sing, but listening to the music. Solo went off to dance with Heather and they came back together, winding their way through the crowded tables. The group around the piano began to sing the music Slate had brought, a parody of Christmas carols for U.N.C.L.E. agents. Choked with laughter, they launched into a tentative version of "God Rest Ye Sorry Thrushmen". The place had gotten short of chairs and Heather sat on Solo's lap and kissed him. Others were also making ample use of the mistletoe. The group around the piano launched into "Solo and Kuryakin are Coming on Down"
"You better watch out"
"You better not fight"
"You better not kill"
"We're telling you why"
"Solo and Kuryakin are coming to town...
To Take Your Satrap Down."
"They're making a list"
"Checking it twice--"
"Wait a minute," Solo said, coming up from the kiss. "This isn't fair." He went over to the sprig hanging from the ceiling tiles and carefully pulled off a section. "My partner needs a chance at the mistletoe, too."
"Is it edible?" Kuryakin asked, giving the white berries a jaundiced look.
"Just the opposite. Very poisonous," Solo assured him.
"Then what--?" Kuryakin was cut off as Heather leaned down and kissed the Soviet agent.
Kuryakin turned bright red as she drew back. He tried to cover it up with a faked cough and then it turned real and he seemed to have trouble catching his breath.
Solo laughed and patted him on the back.
"They see you when you're evil"
"They know when you spread hate"
"They know if you plot to destroy the world"
"So be good or you'll tempt fate"
"Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen," Waverly said , appearing in the doorway.
"Good evening, sir," Solo said, rising in respect when Waverly had made his way around to their group. Kuryakin managed to stifle his coughing and said a breathless approximation of the same. Solo handed his partner a drink to clear his throat.
"Mr. Kuryakin, good to see you up and around," Waverly said.
"Thank you, sir." Kuryakin said breathlessly.
Waverly looked around the room. "Very nice gathering. We're delighted that you can attend for a change, Mr. Kuryakin." The Section One Chief fixed Solo with a sharp look. "But we wouldn't want you to overdue it. You're needed back in the field as soon as possible. Thrush doesn't let up just because you're under the weather."
"I'll keep an eye on him, sir," Solo said.
"Yes, I know you will, Mr. Solo," Waverly said. "Well, I must be off to my own family."
"Good night, sir," Solo said. He looked down at his partner.
"Have you noticed Waverly is using that royal 'we' more and more lately?" April asked wickedly. "Or maybe it's bigger than royalty. After all, he's everywhere. Like god."
"He hears everything too, April," Solo noted.
"Oh, god," April said, looking up at the ceiling, then caught herself and laughed. "I must be a little tipsy. How are you doing, Illya?" She sat down beside the top enforcement team. "I think your looking a little worse for wear."
Do you want to go back to the infirmary, Illya?"
Kuryakin's face, for once, mirrored his indecision. He looked around the room and Solo could almost see him compare the warmth of this place to the chill bare little infirmary room, thinking of the party swirling around upstairs. On the other hand, Kuryakin had gone from pink to pale, and his breathing had become labored.
"I'll go with you," Solo said. He snagged two more drinks and put them into Kuryakin's hands. "Mind those till we get downstairs. Don't gulp them down while I'm busy driving." He steered Kuryakin out around the revelers to a chorus of goodbyes.
"Easy," Solo said, as he parked the wheelchair by Kuryakin's bed. "I'll get you."
"You don't have to," Kuryakin rasped, struggling to get out of the chair. Solo took the drinks out of his hand, then picked him up and settled him in the bed.
"You'll strain your back."
"You're not exactly a heavy weight," Solo said, drawing up the covers. "Here." he handed Kuryakin his drink. "Comfy?"
"I'm fine." Kuryakin settled his head back on the pillows and sipped his drink. Some of the color came back into his face.
"I think I did overtire you," Solo said, sitting on the foot of the bed.
"No. I enjoyed myself," Kuryakin said, sounding surprised.
"Maybe you'll come next year," Solo said.
Kuryakin smiled faintly. "Maybe." He turned serious. "You don't have to stay, Napoleon. I'm sure Heather is waiting."
"She'll understand," Solo said. "I'm not in any hurry." He took another sip of his drink. "Thanks for coming to the party," he added.
Kuryakin looked at him.
"We're family, Illya," Solo said quietly. "Family should spend the holidays together."
Kuryakin looked down, his face coloring. He finished his drink. Solo took the empty glass and set it on the bed table. The Russian slid down in bed, sighing softly. "I really am tired, Napoleon."
"I'll just sit here and finish my drink until you fall asleep," Solo said.
"You don't have to."
"Maybe I want to," Solo said. "I can't let my partner sit alone in an infirmary room on Christmas Eve."
"It's already Christmas Day," Kuryakin said slowly.
"Well, you'll have to wait till morning to get your present."
Kuryakin perked up. "I get a present?"
Solo laughed then glowered, "You mean you didn't get me one?" Kuryakin looked uncomfortable and Solo laughed again. "Don't worry about it, partner."
"I meant to," Kuryakin said drowsily. "But then--"
"Just get better quick," Solo said.
"Mmnnn." The Russian agent sighed again, and then his eyes closed. Solo finished his drink and set his glass down. He arranged the blanket again around his sleeping partner, and brushed the hair from his forehead. "Merry Christmas, Illya" Solo said softly. He collected the two glasses and left.
"So, why didn't you continue to spend Christmases with your partner?" The Spirit asked.
"He only did it because I was ill," Kuryakin said.
"You know better than that," the Specter replied.
Kuryakin looked stubborn.
"My time grows short," the Spirit said. "It's time to go."
Kuryakin looked down at his former self in the infirmary bed and then quietly took the Spirit's hand.
He sat up in his bed, knocking the pillow to the floor. He picked up the clock and stared at it, then set it carefully down, his face a mass of indecision.
"It was a dream," Kuryakin said to the empty room. "Just a dream."
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Kuryakin woke instantly when the clock buzzed two. He sat up in bed, looking for a ghost, but he found it hard to see anyone in the room, around the assortment of items that now filled it.
Candles, turkeys, haunches of beef turning on spits, wine in bottles, bowls of vegetables, gleaming baskets of fruits, cakes and pastries glittering and sparkling with sugar glazes. Sitting on a throne surrounded by all this splendor was a slender blond man in a tweed coat, a disreputable corduroy hat on his head, topped with a holly sprig. He had a guitar in his hand and was strumming it in a spritely Christmas melody. Kuryakin blinked at him, rubbing his eyes in the reflected glare of the room.
"Mark?" Kuryakin ventured. "Slate is that you?"
The Specter rose and spread out his hands, the guitar dangling from one of them. "I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. You have never seen the like of me before!"
"I see the like of you in the office constantly," Kuryakin said darkly. "Whose idea was this joke anyway, yours or Napoleons?"
"My brothers told me you were a curmudgeonly man," the Specter said, "but you are even worse than I expected."
"You don't have any brothers!"
"I have 1967 brothers!" The Specter exclaimed. "And if you had ever made a practice of meeting with any of them, you might recognize me now."
"And I suppose you intend to also forcibly abduct me from this room, and conduct me on a tour of my negligent past?" Kuryakin asked.
"I have come to show you what you are missing in this Christmas. Touch my robe!"
Kuryakin sighed and reached out to latch on to a corner of the tweed. The room swirled around them and then disappeared, to be replaced with the U.N.C.L.E. commissary. The party had come and largely gone, the serving dishes ravaged, the bar a forest of emptied bottles. At a table in the corner, Slate and Dancer sat idly over a pair of drinks. Kuryakin turned to the Specter, as if to comment on the resemblance and then he saw the difference. The Specter was Slate as he would look in a few years, with a trifle more gray in his hair, and a few crow's feet around his blue eyes.
"This party wasn't the same without Napoleon here," April was saying. "What a shame he had to miss it."
"Well he has Illya with him," Slate said mischievously, pouring himself another drink.
Dancer laughed. "That would be like having Christmas with Scrooge. Illya doesn't celebrate Christmas. No, hopefully Napoleon has found himself a pretty Christmas angel to spend the holidays with."
"He came to the party once," Slate observed.
"Only because Napoleon dragged him here. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with a partner that standoffish. You can never tell what he's thinking, and I have doubts that he even feels anything." She looked fondly on her own effervescent partner.
"Well, Napoleon doesn't seem to mind it," Slate said. "It takes a while to get under Illya's skin, that's all."
"Mmmn. Well, he makes it such an effort, I wonder why anyone would bother to try. But you're right about Napoleon. Thank goodness for him, or who knows who Illya could work with?"
"I've worked with him," Slate commented mildly.
"But you're another angel, Mark. You can work with anyone. Why do you think Waverly partnered you with me?"
Slate grinned. "Just lucky, I guess."
"Oh," April sighed. "I know we should go. I've got a party at my cousin's I'm suppose to go to, and I am so late."
"Why didn't you say so?" Slate asked. "You didn't have to come here."
"I'd rather party with my real cousins," Dancer said, picking up her bag, and wrap. "Do you think I'd leave you alone on Christmas Eve? Particularly since you and Merrilee broke up?"
Slate shrugged, "Ancient history. Anyway, it was time she dumped me; the old man was making noises about the dangers of commitments outside the office. And I'm not ready to settle down."
"Except with me," Dancer said. "You know I'll always love you, Mark."
Slate laughed. "Like a cousin."
"Like a brother," she kissed his cheek gently. "Come with me to the party? I could use some family with me — protect me from those ravening beasts?"
"Sure, why not?" Slate tossed down his drink and stood, gathering his disreputable hat.
Dancer eyed it askance. "But could you do me one favor? Leave the hat."
"Never," Slate said firmly. "Love me; love my hat."
"You're pushing it, partner," Dancer laughed. "But all right," she gave the hat a sideways glance and shivered. "It's a deal." She took her partner's arm and they walked off together into the night.
"Why are you showing me this?" Kuryakin demanded irritably. "This has nothing to do with me. And I don't need or want to spy on my colleague's personal lives. I have to do that enough professionally."
"Let us go to another scene," The Specter said, shaking his head in disgust.
Smiling and urbane, Solo walked into the club. The place had a healthy crowd, but it was a paired one. Singles generally didn't circulate on Christmas Eve. After accepting the drink and scanning the room for several minutes, Solo sighed and resignedly turned to enjoying the entertainment. The singer had a sultry voice, making even old chestnuts sound good. Solo watched her idly as he drank, a distant smile on his face. She smiled back and her next song seemed sung directly to him.
When her set was over she came over to his table. Solo rose politely. "I've enjoyed your act very much, Miss?"
"Ross," she said, "Janine Ross. And I've enjoyed singing to you," she replied. "On this night, all most people have eyes for is eachother."
Solo laughed. "Napoleon Solo," he introduced hiimself. "Would you care to join me in a drink, Miss Ross?" he asked politely.
"So polite," she laughed in turn. "I think I like that. Yes, thank you."
"Let's join them," said the Specter, seating himself at the table and gesturing to Kuryakin.
"We can't do that!" Kuryakin said, scandalized.
"They can't see or hear us," pointed out the Ghost. "But it is Christmas, and I don't like to drink alone. He yanked Kuryakin down into a chair and took out a small silver flask. He offered it hospitably to Kuryakin, but the Soviet agent waved it irritably away.
Meanwhile, the couple had seated themselves, and Solo had ordered. "So what is a handsome, polite man like yourself doing alone tonight?" she asked, accepting a cigarette from Solo.
The Chief Enforcement Agent shrugged. "Business."
The singer glanced at his left hand. "No wife? No steady girl friend?"
"I'm not quite ready to settle down yet," Solo admitted. "I travel a little too much for that."
"So do I," Janine said. "But I enjoy congenial company when I can find it," she added suggestively.
Solo smiled. "And have you found some now?"
"I think so," the woman laughed. "And here I thought I was going to be alone tonight. I guess Santa looks out for good little girls after all."
"And good little boys," Solo added smugly. He looked around the club. "When do you get off?"
"That was my last set." She idly toyed with the room key Solo had left on the table. "I see you're staying in the hotel."
"Yes, but I'll have to take another room," Solo said, taking the key and slipping it into his pocket. "I'm traveling with a business associate."
She eyed him speculatively. "Is he as cute as you?"
"He wouldn't like the adjective," Solo smiled, "but yes, probably. Blond, blue-eyed." He grinned a trifle. "A little short."
"Short!" Kuryakin sputtered. "Napoleon!"
"Be quiet!" the Spirit adjured. "I'm trying to listen!"
Kuryakin threw himself back in his seat and crossed his arms across his chest as if that could distance himself from the scene.
"Perhaps you don't have to take another room after all," she suggested. "We might all hit it off."
"I'm afraid I do. Illya is quite a stickler about such things. Very proper."
"He sounds dull. What a shame a man like you has to work with him."
"Don't even go there, Napoleon," Kuryakin muttered.
"Would you please be quiet?" the Spirit asked.
"I wouldn't call him dull," Solo demurred, "but he can be difficult at times." Solo sipped his drink, his eyes a little melancholy. "But he's an old friend."
"And old friend? And he leaves his friend alone on Christmas Eve? What kind of a friend does that?"
Kuryakin shifted uncomfortably and opened his mouth. The Spirit shook his finger in his face and he subsided, glaring.
"We're working on that," Solo said, twirling his coaster between his hands. "I did get him to celebrate Christmas once. But in general, he's a solitary sort. It makes me wonder sometimes--" he caught himself and shrugged, laughing softly. "Never mind."
"I think you're very sweet," the singer said. "But you don't have to be alone tonight, now, do you?" She covered his hands with hers.
"No," Solo smiled a little ruefully, and then he smiled again, a practiced smile, and kissed the woman softly. A practiced kiss.
"I guess Santa did come through after all," she said dazedly when it was over.
"Would you like to unwrap the rest of the present?" Solo asked, nuzzling her neck.
"I'll get us a room," Solo slid smoothly to his feet.
"I'll go with you," she said, and took his arm possessively.
"There you see," Kuryakin remarked to the Specter, watching them walk away. "He did find someone to spend the evening with. I knew he would. Naturally he'd want to spend the evening with a woman rather than with me."
"Do you think that? That he'd choose to spend Christmas with a complete stranger rather than his closest friend?"
"When the stranger is a woman, yes." Kuryakin retorted. "I know Napoleon better than you do in this regard."
"Do you really? Do you think him that shallow and callous? Yes, he'd rather be with a woman than alone, but he asked you to spend the evening with him first. As he asks every year. You're the one who forces him to make alternate arrangements."
Kuryakin opened his mouth to deny it and then closed it, settling for glaring at the Spirit.
The Ghost opened his arms in resignation. "I cannot help you further. My time grows short. Among other things," he added, "I have to take April to her cousins' Christmas party."
"I knew you were Slate," Kuryakin muttered.
"Just remember this," the Spirit warned, "The life that stretches out before you is unresolved so far. Like the story 'The Lady and the Tiger', your future is rife with alternate endings. You're going to be the one to choose."
"Thanks for the obvious advice," Kuryakin stood. "Now that I've had my Christmas Eve sermon, can we go now? As you said, it is getting late."
"Later than you think."
Kuryakin opened his mouth to reply, but the Spirit suddenly seemed far away from him. He fell in slow motion, the way you do in dreams, and as in dreams jerked awake just before he hit the ground. Every muscle jumped and he sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and glaring at the clock. "God what a dream." Then he turned over and went back to sleep.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The clock struck three, pulling Kuryakin out of a bleary-eyed sleep. He turned over when the alarm sounded, caught himself in the tangled bed-clothes, and unexpectedly fell straight onto the floor. He reached for the bedside to haul himself up again and found his fingers scrabbling for a purchase on the smooth laisy-daisy conference table in New York's HQ. The bedding he was tangled in had turned into his own suit jacket, more than a little wrinkled from the experience. At a faint familiar harrumph from behind him, he unwrapped it from his ankles and scrambled to his feet, shrugging hastily into the jacket and running a hand through his sleep-mussed hair. He turned to face is superior and found himself looking into the black hood of another Specter. Kuryakin looked around but except for the Specter the room was empty, console lights flickering in the gloom. The clock ticked off one minute past three. He suddenly remembered where he was and why he was there.
"You are the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?" Kuryakin asked. "I suppose it's pointless to inquire how you got through security and into this office?"
The Specter said nothing.
Kuryakin snorted and folded his arms defensively. "This is a waste of time. I happen to be Soviet — both a skeptic and a pessimist."
The Ghost beckoned.
Kuryakin held his ground. "It's pointless to haunt someone who already expects the worst."
The Ghost glided forward. Kuryakin stood resolute, refusing to be cowed as the dark-cowled Specter approached, one ebony sleeve reaching out. Then he caught the faintest, the briefest hint scent. Pipe tobacco. Isle of Dogs number 22, wasn't it? He reeled back as if struck, and exclaimed, "You! How can you haunt me? You cynical old man, you brought me here. It's a little late to decide you want Mary Poppins instead of the GRU!"
The Specter didn't pause, and Kuryakin felt the lightness encompass him as the sleeve brushed him and his feet left the ground.
"All right," he said with his characteristic lack of graciousness. "But I want you to know none of this makes the slightest bit of difference to me. I go where I'm sent and I do what I'm told, and I don't feel anything about it at all. And that's the way I'm supposed to be, both in Soviet service and in U.N.C.L.E. And you know as well as I do that you want exactly that."
The Specter said nothing, leading them to the windows that overlooked the East River. Kuryakin shut his eyes involuntarily as they flew at them, still unconvinced the too solid bullet-proof glass would let them pass. But it melted before them like ice under flame, and then they were out in the cold, flying toward the river, over the United Nations. Kuryakin could see through the plate glass windows the huge oval table around which the security council sat in session. The chairman raised his gavel, the polished metal winking in the lights of the conference room, glinting like a spark. Then the spark roared into an explosion, then a conflagration. He ducked and rolled instinctively, putting out the fire on his own clothes, catching himself on the Specter's long robes, also on fire. He covered and rolled them both, feeling the sharp bite of the flames die underneath him, the sand underfoot, sharp and gritty, invading his eyes and mouth, and inhaled with his breath. He paused a moment, disoriented, only sure at the moment that the flames were out.
Napoleon tugged at him impatiently, scrambling up from the sand. "Okay, okay. Let's go, before we catch the tail end of another firebomb. Come on, Illya!"
He looked up at his partner, all dressed in black camouflage, like him, only the gleam of his eyes and the barrel of his gun standing out against the flames and the darkness of the night. "Napoleon?"
"Now, Illya! Come on!" Solo grabbed at him impatiently, hauling him to his feet, urging him, half dragging him along.
Kuryakin remembered the Specter, and looked up to see it standing across from them, and was suddenly sure that where ever they were going, it was not a healthy place. Then a fireball seemed to explode at his feet and the world shattered into a million sparkling pieces.
He came to in the cafeteria line at the U.N.C.L.E. commissary. Steam rose from the various entrees, but oddly enough he didn't feel too hungry. He didn't feel much of anything, but he put that down to shock, or perhaps one of the new U.N.C.L.E. drugs. He pushed his tray along, raising a hand up to forestall the server behind the steam table, but she didn't seem to see him anyway. He concentrated on listening to the conversation of several people ahead of him in line. Section three agents, they were, people who he'd had occasion to pass in the hallway. Normally he wouldn't have paid them any attention, but the first sentence riveted his attention.
"How did he die?"
"Who knows? It's all hush-hush as usual." The man gave a short laugh. "Maybe the KGB really got him this time."
"Are you going to go to the service?" Asked a third.
The first man sniffed. "I don't mind going if refreshments are provided. But Waverly'd better lay in the booze. It'll take more than one round for us to give that cold fish any kind of a send-off."
"Who do you think Solo'll pick for a partner now?" the second wondered aloud. "He'll certainly have his choice."
"He'll be glad enough to get shed of the Ice Prince," commented the third. "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't knock the bastard off himself, just to get shed of him ." The others laughed uproariously, and walked past Kuryakin who stood frozen, staring at the Specter.
"Where is Napoleon?" Kuryakin said. "If I am dead, where is he?"
He half expected to materialize in the boudoir of some gorgeous woman, but instead the scene shifted to a chapel, the spartan, non-denominational chapel common to all U.N.C.L.E. installations, where some agents said a brief prayer before heading off on a mission, or as invocation for a colleague's recovery. Mostly it was used for memorial services, Security having concluded that gravesite services left the congregated U.N.C.L.E. personnel too vulnerable to Thrush attack.
But there was no congregation now. Napoleon Solo faced Alexander Waverly across the barren chapel. The agent's left arm was in a sling, and his face was bruised and burned, but it seemed his raised temper accounted for most of his ruddy glow.
"This is it?" Solo asked. "Just you and me?"
"Mr. Kuryakin was not a popular member of this organization," Waverly noted dispassionately.
"The memo must not have gone out," Solo stated, striding for the door, as if to go forth and collect a congregation by main force.
"The memo went out, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, stopping the Chief Enforcement Agent in his tracks. Solo turned reluctantly.
"It went out," Waverly repeated, more gently. "I regret that your affection for Mr. Kuryakin wasn't shared by the majority of his colleagues."
"Slate and Dancer?"
"Had to fly to New Delhi this morning."
"Well," Waverly harrumphed uncomfortably, "Mr. Kuryakin was rather critical of him in his last security review."
"Tillotson from the labs?"
"Mr. Kuryakin disapproved Section Two funding for his last research proposal." Waverly forestalled Solo as he drew breath for another suggestion. "Mr. Solo, considering Mr. Kuryakin's acerbic manner and singular ways, he has been fortunate to have two mourners at his funeral. More would require him to have been another type of person entirely."
"Enough," Kuryakin said curtly to the Spirit. "I get the point."
The Spirit pointed back to the empty chapel.
Kuryakin shook his head. "I'm an U.N.C.L.E. agent," he said cooly. "We don't make a lot of ties to people. I'd never expect --" his throat closed and he stared at the Specter unconvinced. "No one is going to show a lot of emotion for the death of an U.N.C.L.E. agent. We're all singular. All of us," he denied hotly. "Show me one who isn't!"
The scene shifted abruptly to a huge auditorium. Kuryakin recognized it as one of the larger ones in the United Nations building. He and Solo had been here before, protecting various important people, or investigating some individual. But now the hall was filled with solemn, black clad people, many of them U.N.C.L.E. personnel. Security was heavy, and Kuryakin understood why when he saw the five continental chiefs at the forefront of the auditorium. Waverly stood at the head of a podium, looking unaccountably gloomy and dressed entirely in his best funereal black. Kuryakin wove his way over to where several Section Two personnel were congregated unabashedly listening in to their conversation. This spy work was certainly easier when you were an invisible man, he thought.
"Who would have thought Napoleon Solo could die?" someone muttered.
"U.N.C.L.E. will never be the same."
"They say Waverly is postponing retirement. He doesn't have a clue who is going to succeed him now."
"Napoleon's dead? How did he die?" Kuryakin asked the group impatiently. He turned back to the Specter. "Can't you make someone say how he died?"
"Who would have thought he would have died so young?"
"He was always such a lucky bastard."
"He took a lot of risks."
"But he always had the luck to get out of any scrape."
"Looks like he finally used his luck up."
"Yeah, who would have though it. He didn't survive Kuryakin by even half a year."
"It was the partner that did him in."
"Don't speak ill of the dead."
"At least he went quick and clean. Not like Solo. That's the stuff of nightmares."
"I don't want to talk about it," an agent said, and barreled off through the crowd.
Kuryakin worked his way through it too, the weeping secretaries, the grim-faced agents, the somber technicians and security personnel. Even Angelique was there, dressed in black widow's weeds and flanked by wary U.N.C.L.E. security. And then there were the dignitaries from the many nations Solo had helped, paying respects, each saying a brief eulogy and moving on to offer words of condolence to Waverly.
Kuryakin turned back to the Specter. "How did he die? Why did he die? Damn it, you're supposed to have all the answers. Napoleon is supposed to succeed Waverly, not die before him. What happened!" He approached the looming Specter, than halted. "Was it my fault?"
The Specter said nothing.
"Won't you speak to me?" Kuryakin cried out in frustration.
The Specter said nothing.
"All right," The Soviet agent calmed down, thinking, plotting. "Slate said, that is the Spirit of Christmas Present," he glanced at the Specter, but it didn't seem taken aback by the reference, "said I had many alternate endings. Show me another!"
He was bound, hand and foot to a crude wooden platform. He could feel the splinters of the raw wood poking into his arms where they were bound with coarse sisal rope. His ankles were bound as well, and there was a thick rope around his neck, holding his head down on the platform, half choking him. He leaned up as far as the neck rope let him, to gape at the Specter who stood beside the platform. A long metal track wound up from the platform toward the open doors of an incinerator. Around them were boxes and stacks of paper, classified documents scheduled for burning. But they were going to execute someone first. This was how the GRU dealt with traitors or those who grew apart from their standards. Kuryakin had suspected it was his fate since the first time he had stood on the grounds of the Aquarium, with the other new recruits and been shown the fate of disfavored officers, the oily smoke wafting into the air above the incinerator.
But he had still hoped for an alternate ending.
Apparently his intuition had been right after all.
Behind him, the fires of the furnace roared, belching flames and heat as its crew opened the dampers and fed it more oxygen in preparation for its next task. Kuryakin could feel his skin almost crackle in the dry heat. His lungs seared for want of moisture with each breath he took of the hot air, and he gasped for oxygen as the flames robbed it from the air.
The Specter motioned with his staff. The executioner threw the switch starting the machinery and the platform started to move ever so slowly, carrying him upward toward the burning flames. He struggled frantically against the bonds that held him. Words tumbled out of his mouth, but he couldn't hear them over the steady roar of the furnace, the crackling and snapping of the documents behind him that began to ignite, and the whoosh of documents that reached the critical 451 degrees Fahrenheit and burst into a mass of flame.
He called louder, his voice a dry husk, his breath gone. But he still called, struggling to be heard over the furnace's roar, struggling to free himself. The moisture seared from his eyes, his hair smoldered and burned, his eyebrows and eyelashes withered as the temperature rose. His view of the Specter faded as he slid further into the furnace and began to move upward on the track, through the metal doors.
The Specter raised his staff in salute. Or was it farewell. Kuryakin could barely see him through the heat shimmer. He wavered from a ghostly black to a haze of black and white, as steam from his own body obscured his vision. The moisture in his breath and his sweat turned to vapor, his eyes were dry in their sockets. He was growing faint from lack of oxygen, and he hoped he would die that way first, rather than being roasted alive in the heat of the flames.
The steam swirled from his body as he inched along the track, white against the blackened sides of the furnace, black against white. His struggles against the unyeilding bonds loosened, his strength failed. He called again, one last time, a litany, a prayer, an invocation to the one person who had never failed him in a crisis, screaming the name aloud with the last of his strength.
The Specter shook with laughter, he could see him in his minds eye, mocking him with his indifference to his fate, smoke swirling out of the black cowl as the Specter puffed on his pipe, coaxing his own small flame to burn. Kuryakin thought he had no tears left, but his eyes managed some, even though they dried instantly into salty tracks on his cheeks, fossils of tears.
His vision was going now, only swirling columns of black and white, dizziness over took him, and he spiraled down into it, into the swirling columns, columns that solidified into the black and white of a freshly pressed tux, its shirt starched to a crackling whiteness.
"Easy," Solo said, kneeling down beside the bed where he'd slid, half on and half off, tangled in the winding sheets. "How did you get yourself caught up like this," he asked bemusedly.
Kuryakin gaped at him. Through a vent just above the bed, a heating unit kicked in, sending a rush of hot dry air into the room with a muted roar. He struggled harder against the bonds of the sheet, making them tighter in the process. Napoleon pushed him back down. "Will you hold still?" Solo complained. "You only making this harder."
"Napoleon." Kuryakin stared at his friend. Solo hadn't been wearing a tux that evening. And he didn't recognize the room he was in. A small room, not his apartment, and not a hotel room. A room with a twin bed, and boxes stacked in the corners. Kuryakin shuddered when he looked at the boxes, remembering the incinerator room. Then he saw the Specter standing in the corner and gasped.
"Easy," Solo said. "Did you actually do this to yourself?"
"I think — I think I did."
"You must have. Security reports there was no one else in here." Solo finished unwinding the last sheet. "There. All done."
"Napoleon." Kuryakin glanced at the Specter as he rose to his feet. "Are you all right?" he asked in a low tone.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Solo answered. He looked very much alive, if a bit older than Kuryakin remembered him. He longed to ask the Specter if this was before or after the previous glimpse at Solo's funeral, but he knew the Ghost wouldn't speak. Then he saw the calender on the wall. 1970. He looked around the room, realizing that it was his own. At least it had some of his things in it.
"Illya, are you all right?" Solo asked.
"I don't know," Kuryakin ran a hand through his tangled hair. "How can you hear me?"
Solo's expression changed, his eyes flashing in alarm. "Good lord, you're not all right, are you? Here," he caught his arm, urging him, "sit down on the bed. You don't even have a chair in this room," he complained.
"Why don't I?" he asked shakily, trying to get his boundaries.
"I've asked you that myself," Solo said. He pushed aside Kuryakin's fringe of bangs and felt his forehead. "No fever," he said skeptically.
"I had such a strange dream," Kuryakin said. "In fact, I'm not sure I've woken up."
"It's all right," Solo said comfortingly. "You can sleep in tomorrow. Christmas Day, and all. I put Morton on call for Section Two. Even Continental Chiefs deserve one day off."
Continental Chief? Kuryakin gaped at Solo, remembering the previous scenario, Waverly at his Chief Enforcement Agent's funeral. If Solo was Continental Chief then Waverly was dead and ... Morton? was in charge of Section Two. Morton? Then what was he?
"And so do their Security Chiefs," Solo added, putting an end to that question. "So sleep as late as you want. I'm not going anywhere. We'll open presents when you get up."
"Presents?" Kuryakin asked weakly.
"You mean you didn't get me one?" Solo complained. "I don't know why I put up with you, Illya." He chuckled at his partner's stricken look. "Don't worry about it. Get some sleep, this time without the winding sheet."
"Napoleon," Kuryakin grabbed at his arm. "Napoleon, please. Wait a minute."
Solo paused, and at Kuryakin's tug, sank down on the bed. "What, Illya? What?"
Kuryakin paused, looking at the Specter standing in the corner. "You're all right," he said instead, closing both hands on Solo's forearms, crushing the black tux. "You're really all right."
"I never heard Christmas parties were fatal," Solo said. "In spite of your aversion toward them. And I had to make an appearance, Illya. People expect it."
"I'm sorry I didn't go," Kuryakin said, surprising himself.
Solo raised his eyebrows in astonishment, but he didn't argue. "Well, there's always next year."
"There is, isn't there?" Kuryakin said with relief. "I mean, there will be."
"I plan on it," Solo said. He smiled. "Part of my New Year's resolutions, to plan to make it to the next Christmas."
"Oh, Napoleon," Kuryakin said, remembering the funeral. One look at the Specter told him he had better not mention it, and he bit his lips hard. "So do I."
"Good," Solo said, looking puzzled, but pleased. He hesitated, then said, "Would you like to have a drink, then? To celebrate the season?"
"Yes. Yes, I would," Kuryakin said. "It's not a bad season. Santas, reindeers and all."
Solo laughed. "First time I've heard you admit that," he rose. "Well, are you coming?" Solo looked down at the Soviet agent. "The bar is in the living room."
Kuryakin slid off the bed and shrugged into his robe. He didn't recognize it, though it wasn't new. "You lead the way," he suggested.
Solo turned and called over his shoulder. "I assume you want vodka--"
Kuryakin started after him and tripped on the sheet. It wound around his ankle like a snake and pulled him down. "Nooooo!" he howled, wanting to stay in this future, where Napoleon lived to see the culmination of his career, where he was safe, where they both were together, not in separate graves continents apart.
"Easy!" Solo said. "How did you get yourself tangled up like this?"
"Napoleon!" Kuryakin gasped. He looked around the hotel room. "I'm here."
"Of course you are." Solo finished unwinding the sheet from around his neck. "How did you end up on the floor?"
"I'm really here. And it's still Christmas, isn't it?"
"Of course it is," Solo said. "Illya, are you all right?"
"And the clock!" Kuryakin snatched the clock off the beside table. "It's all right! It isn't broken! I didn't pull the cord out!"
"Did you have a dream or something?" Solo asked.
"It's a beautiful clock," Kuryakin said fervently.
Solo glanced at it, a cracked Westclock, its plastic face scratched from too many journeys crowded in a suitcase with hangers, belt buckles and so on. "It's functional," he allowed. "Illya, are you--"
"What happened to--" Kuryakin bit his tongue over the singer's name. "Didn't you find a date?"
Solo shrugged. "I did, but she turned out to want a menage-a-trois. She was a bit kinkier than I expected, that's all. I just decided I wanted a quiet night instead."
"If you want to go out, I'll go with you," Kuryakin offered.
"Illya, it's three in the morning. On Christmas morning. There won't be a place open."
"It is, isn't it?" Kuryakin said, looking at the clock. "The Spirits did it all in one night," he muttered.
"Nothing," Kuryakin said. He looked at Solo, very much alive and real, a slight bruise on his temple from the fight this afternoon, but otherwise unharmed. He ran his hands up his own arms, examined the wrists that had been tied so tightly to the incinerator trestle. Not a scratch now. They were both all right. With a myriad of futures ahead of them. The trick was choosing the right one.
"We'll go out for breakfast instead," he offered. "A Christmas breakfast. With all the trimmings."
"If you like," Solo said, with a skeptical smile. "Are you okay, Illya?"
"Yes. I'm really okay, Napoleon. When we get back to New York, we should go to the Christmas luncheon for Section Two agents on duty, don't you think?" Kuryakin shook the tangled sheets out over his bed, tucked them in and slid between them.
"If we get back in time," Solo said from the bathroom. "It will be a close race to make it."
"We will," Kuryakin said. "It will be fun."
Solo came back into the room, looking bemused. "You never used to like such things, Illya."
"Nonsense," Illya said. "You must be thinking of someone else."
"I'm thinking my partner never ceases to surprise me," Solo said, sliding between his own sheets.
"But you don't mind, do you, Napoleon?" Kuryakin asked.
Solo punched his pillow into a comfortable mound and slid his gun underneath it. "Wouldn't have it any other way."
Kuryakin settled back against his own pillow. In the distance he could hear, very faintly, a faint jingling as of sleighbells. "Napoleon? Napoleon, did you ever read a story called "The Lady and the Tiger?"
But Solo was asleep.
Kuryakin sighed and resolved that from now on, he'd make sure the alternate endings they chose were the right ones. "Thank you, Peter Ivanovich," he sighed, and went to sleep. Far above their heads, the star that had risen in the east, the Christmas star, twinkled its light over the world. And, in particular, over two U.N.C.L.E. agents that had so often saved it.
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