Napoleon Solo sat stiffly in the chair, staring down at his overnight bag and absently massaging his leg. Even with the stitches out, it was tightly bandaged and it ached, but not enough to keep him in the hospital. Even confinement to his apartment was leaps ahead of this place. He tapped his fingers anxiously and again checked his watch. It seemed like hours had passed since he'd called his partner for a possible ride home.
A noise jerked his head up and he grinned at the sight of his blond haired partner in the doorway. "There you are – finally!"
"I see you wasted no time in getting ready to leave," Illya Kuryakin said, gesturing to the already packed suitcase.
"I've been ready for an hour. What kept you?" At Illya's slight flush, Napoleon smiled knowingly. "Not a what, but a who. Sorry, old friend, I didn't know you were...busy when I called. I would have waited had I known"
"It is fine, Napoleon. An opportunity presented itself and I was not about to laugh at opportunity in the face." He glanced around the cold sterile room at the UNCLE medical clinic and then down at the suitcase. "Is this everything?"
Solo rose stiffly and reached for the nearby crutches. "They should be bringing by a bag with everything else in a minute. I'll race to the lobby. I'm faster on these than that damned walker."
"You sit," a voice commanded from the doorway behind Kuryakin. "If that leg starts to even hint at bleeding, I swear to the heavens about that you'll stay here for another week. Releasing you this soon is completely against doctor's recommendations." The nurse glared at Illya as if he might be the party responsible for this breach of common sense. Nurse Thompson or Nurse Nellie, as they teasingly referred to her, was not a stranger to either man. She kept the UNCLE medical ward humming at the top of efficiency and she was the one responsible for putting the agents back to right after missions gone wrong. She could be gentle and compassionate shoulder to cry upon or, like now, a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Illya brought a hand to his chest, as if stabbed through the heart. "Don't look at me like that, Nellie. I was just as startled by the news of his early release as you. I know you won't believe me, but I did have other plans for tonight." The blue eyes regarded her seriously until she shook her head and laughed softly. She took a tissue from her pocket and rubbed something off his neck. Holding the tissue up, she revealed a smudge of lipstick.
"So I see. I was going to say that you agents always push yourselves too hard, but I see you find some time to play as well. I just don't understand, can't understand what either of you have against the healing process. Sit in the chair, Mr. Solo." She pushed the wheelchair closer so that Napoleon could ease himself into it. She stepped aside for a moment to get his crutches and in that brief moment of her inattention, Illya was behind the wheelchair and pushing it out into the hallway at breakneck speed.
"C'mon, Napoleon, I'll take you on a tour of the nurse's lounge on the way out. Maybe the evening won't be a complete loss."
"MR. KURYAKIN!" froze Illya in his tracks and he reluctantly relinquished command of the driver's seat.
"Busted," Napoleon said softly, laughing for what seemed like the first time in months. Illya held up his hands in mock surrender as Nellie waved a finger at him.
"Might I remind you that you are no stranger to my ward and things might go easier for you the next time around if you practiced some restraint now? I'm sure I could arrange some additional tests, painful, humiliating tests."
"I recall such tests…I was merely working the play angle you suggested." Illya took the suitcase that was thrust at him and hunched his shoulders. "Napoleon, what about all those flowers?"
Solo looked back at the flowers that festooned nearly every available surface, each one of his conquests determined to out-do the other until the hospital room resembled a florist's shop or, worse, the visitation hall of a funeral parlor. That was a cheerful thought. "Nellie, would you take care of them for me?" He spoke over his shoulder to her as she navigated the austere hospital corridors. "I'm sure that there are people in here that aren't as fortunate to have as many caring friends as me, and they'll only suffer from my neglect at home."
"Of course, I'd be glad to. Brighton could use a little boost and I'm sure that Walton won't mind…once he comes out of his coma, that is."
"He's in here again?" Illya shifted the suitcase and reached for the elevator button. "You'd think after five trips here this year, he'd learn to exercise a bit of restraint."
"Afraid he's going to top your record, old friend?" Solo winced as the wheels bounced over the threshold of the elevator. The gesture, however fleeting, was not missed by either agent or nurse.
"I'm serious, Napoleon, he's throwing caution to the wind. It's almost as if he's developed a death wish or worse a Napoleonic complex. I think perhaps a refresher course at Survival School would be in order or a reassignment to HQ for few months. He keeps going along this path and it's going to be cut horrifically short. He's going to cost his partner, or himself, his life."
"You're acting CEA, Illya. Do what you feel is best. You have my blessings, but be ready to hear about it when he comes to. He is used to having his way."
After a struggle, they got Napoleon situated into a halfway-comfortable position on the back seat of the UNCLE-issued sedan. Solo's discomfort during the transfer from chair to back seat was painfully apparent and the Russian was duly concerned by both that and his friend's obvious weight loss. It seemed to him that his partner weighted nothing at all as he help lift him into position., certainly not the dead weight he'd been two weeks earlier when Illya had carried from that basement cell.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Napoleon? There's no need for you to leave so soon," he murmured softly to the senior agent, lest Nellie overhear him. "I can easily handle anything that comes up."
"Except for my sanity, of course," Solo said, readjusting his leg carefully. "I'm sure you can remember what it was like when you were in a few months ago."
"For me it wasn't sanity, it was the Jell-o…for every meal. I can't even look at a box of it now without twitching. I just wanted to make sure that this was indeed what you want and that it's in your best interest." Illya straightened and pulled his jacket closed against the chilly October wind. Winter was on its way.
"Illya?" The Russian turned back. "Thanks."
"It's what partners do. I will try not to hit ever pot hole on the way home."." He dropped a hand to Solo's shoulder and squeezed reassuringly before turning to the task of loading the suitcase.
The nurse handed him a large non-descript paper bag. "His meds are in there, just follow the prescribed dosages. You know to be careful with the pain killers and what to watch for as side effects. Make sure the bandages gets changed at least twice and day and let us know immediately if there's any sign of sepsis. The one on his inner thigh of the most concern, it has the look of potentially turning ugly. "
"Within reason. There are some PT exercises to start with. Don't manhandle him, no matter what he says. He might be able to take it, but his leg can't."
"He can now that we've pulled most of his stitches, but no baths for at least not for another week. You can bring him back here or pull the rest of the stitches yourself in four days, providing everything is infection free. He's going to need help at first getting in and out of the tub and we've sent someone over to his apartment to get everything set up for him." She hesitated, resting a hand on his forearm. "Are you sure it wise taking him back there, Illya? That's where everything started to go bad."
"I discussed it at length with Mr. Waverly and Dr. Boudin. The doctor felt that it was something akin to getting back up on a horse that had thrown you. He'll need to face down that demon before the Old Man will let him return to duty. No time like the present."
"If he starts to show signs of regression, you will let us know immediately? You know about the difficulty he's been have with eating."
"Yes, I read the medical reports."
"Just try to get him to eat as much as he can stand. He's still seriously underweight, and, Illya, there's something else…it wasn't in the reports." Nellie hesitated and Illya regarded her curiously. For a moment, she studied the interior of the trunk as if trying to find the right words before continuing. "He's been having nightmares…really violent ones. We had to restraint him at first, but that made them worse."
"Yes, it would. He was kept restrained for much of his captivity."
"When he's been asked about them, he just blows us off, says he can't remember. Whether that's the truth or not, I don't know. Maybe you'll have more luck. Get him to talk, but don't analyze. He's still caught between what did and really didn't happen to him and he can't go back like this."
The Russian grew somber and he nodded. THRUSH had taken their pound of flesh from his partner this time and, though Illya had been made them pay the ultimate price for their actions, Solo was still carrying the effects of their attention. "I understand."
"I know." She smiled and felt the easy strength in his arm as she squeezed. Releasing him, she then moved around to the back seat of the sedan. Napoleon knew the two had been talking about him; that was inevitable. If he was being released to the Russian's care, Illya would be the one responsible for his well-being. Any sense of guilt or burden he might have felt was easily pushed aside. Playing nursemaid was hardly a new task for either of them. Solo glanced up at her and grinned, "I'm going to miss you, Nellie, especially all those long, lingering sponge baths."
Her voice grew gentle. "I'm sorry I've had to be such a bear with you, Napoleon. But I knew if I wasn't, you'd never get out of here. I just wish it wasn't quite so soon. I never get to see you boys when you're healthy." She offered her hand. "Friends?"
"As always, Nellie," Solo said, taking her hand in a gently grasp and bringing it to his lips, kissing it softly. "I know you were only looking out for my welfare." He winced as Illya dropped the trunk lid. "Thank you for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again." She stroked his face affectionately and then placed a gentle finger upon is lips.
"I wish you life, Napoleon. Grow strong again." Illya rounded the driver's side of the car and cleared his throat. Nellie straightened and patted at her hair absentmindedly. "And take care of your crazy blond partner. Good bye, Napoleon. I hope I don't see you for a long time." She looked over at Illya. "And that goes double for you." Illya winked at her and she smiled as she shut the car door. "Be safe, you two."
Illya waited until he had pulled out onto the busy New York street before glancing back at his friend in the rearview mirror. Solo's face was dark and brooding, his expression guarded as if any minute the car would be under attack. He needed to say something, anything that would refocus Solo's attention.
"She's an incredible woman."
"Nellie? She sure it and she sure has it bad for you, old friend. Say the right would and she'd be yours for the taking."
"That might prove…uncomfortable the next time I was regulated to her care." Illya kept his gaze bouncing from his partner to his surroundings with a practiced air, more concerned about the reckless rush hour traffic and bicyclists that wove in and out of traffic than a THRUSH attack. "You had dinner yet?" He kept his tone light and causal as if they were just heading back home after another day at the office.
"They gave me a choice, so naturally, I declined. Why is it that food always tastes the same, no matter what facility you're stuck in? I was sort of hoping we could pick something up on the way home." Solo made a mock attempt at actually being interested in eating.
"Of course, what would you like? There's Italian, Mexican, Chinese, you pick it."
"Anything is fine, I'm not really that hungry," the words slipped out before he could catch himself and he cursed silently. His lack of appetite had kept him confined to that hospital room longer than he liked.
"You heard what Nellie said, Napoleon. You need to start eating."
"Just pick something, Illya, it'll be fine."
"Okay, Zabar's on the way home. Deli food sound good?"
"As much as anything else does, I suppose."
Napoleon Solo toyed idly with the bowl of chicken soup before him. He knew from experience that this was very good chicken soup, some of the best in the city, and he knew that he should eat, had to eat, but everything had lost its flavor, turning to ash the moment he put it in his mouth. And it was always the first bite that was the hardest for him, the most difficult to force into his mouth. He'd thought that it was just being confined had been the cause of his lack of appetite and that all would be well once he got home. Now that he was here, he wasn't so sure
Certainly it was good to be away from the antiseptic smell and the white walls of the clinic, but there was a sense of security within its walls, a sense of being protected. The apartment was proving familiar and comforting, but frightening at the same time. He saw danger in corners where he'd only seen shadows before and wondered what Freud would say about his new compulsion to have to sleep with every light on.
"What's wrong, Napoleon?"
He looked up at Illya's softly posed question. The Russian accent was peeking out from its more polish English training, a sure sign that the agent was concerned.
"Just hot, that's all," Napoleon answered quickly and lifted a spoonful to put it in his mouth. The liquid warmed his throat and for the first time in nearly a month, he actually detected something akin to flavor. Encouraged, he tried a second spoonful and then a third.
His partner watched him without appearing to; attacking his pastrami on rye with a voraciousness that belied the fact that he'd recently eaten lunch. Of course, that hadn't been a proper lunch either - just a few mouthfuls before he'd gotten distracted something more interesting to nibble upon. The ensuing bedroom acrobatics had burned through those calories quickly and left him ravenous. Illya didn't usually engage in quickie sex, as Solo often referred to it, but this latest affair with Solo had left him wound tighter than a watch spring. Exercise hadn't helped, yoga hadn't helped and he was desperate for release. There was only one thing left for him to try and even that had been interrupted mid-way through by Solo's phone call.
Napoleon reached for the bottle of vodka, but Illya's voice stopped his hand in mid gesture.
"You know better, Napoleon," Illya said He took the bottle and filled his own glass before moving it well out of Solo's reach.. You're still on medication. Drink your tea."
"I seemed to remember having been more tolerant the last time you got hurt and I had to baby sit you." Napoleon redirected his hand and picked up his mug. The Russian had already prepared it just as he liked, but again it was that first sip that made him stumble.
"Then the meds have fogged your memory. You poured out every bottle of vodka I had in the place down the drain, which was unnecessary since I was essentially bedridden. Or had you forgotten that little detail?" Illya swallowed a mouthful of vodka and let the alcohol burn a path down his throat and into his stomach, pleading for the liquor to make this past month all a bad dream. Instead, when he opened his eyes, his partner was still sitting there, pale, gaunt and in pain, jumping at shadows and cowering at noises.
"No, but I thought maybe you had." Napoleon tried for a smile, but his head was quickly gathering weight and his neck was more and more unwilling to support it. He set the mug down, untested. "I really think I'm ready to hit the hay."
Illya frowned, but remained quiet. His partner had eaten less than a half a cup of soup and that just wasn't going to cut it. On the other hand, he knew what Solo was going through. The pain medication changed the taste of everything, making even favor foods taste funny. Since Solo had been force fed drugged food, then starved, there was also the psychological aspect to overcome.
"Okay, Napoleon, bed, it is then." He moved the dishes and food away from the table to Solo's tidy kitchen, determined to finish his own meal later. He didn't interfere as the man struggled to manipulate his less-than-cooperative body through the apartment on the crutches he was still mastering. As much as he wanted to, Illya stayed frozen to the spot until he heard Solo's begrudging request.
"I could use a little help here, Illya."
Instantly, the Russian was at his side, helping him navigate through the bedroom, kicking a throw rug out of the way, lending a supporting arm. He knew his partner well enough to know just how much that request had cost him.
The short distance from the table to the bed felt like a mile and left Solo exhausted. He'd changed into pajamas and a robe upon his arrival, so it took him just a moment to shrug off the robe and he stretched gratefully out upon the bed.
"You are going to be okay on the couch?" Solo tugged at the sheets and blankets, dozing already.
"It had to be more comfortable than the cave I was sleeping in last week," Illya said, watching the man settle in and helped him get the covers in place. "If you need anything, just give me a yell." But Solo was already asleep.
Drowning, he was drowning. He gasped and sputtered for any kind of breath, but that only increased the pain. Hands tore at him, cutting, digging, tearing his flesh from his bones. Fabric was forced into his mouth as he struggled to breathe, to scream. Blinding light exploded around him and he lashed out, happy when he connected with something flesh and blood. Then hands were upon him again, struggling with him and he fought until he was spent. Then, at last, he heard the words, firm, reassuring, as familiar as the arms around him.
"Napoleon, it's me, calm down. I have you, you're safe."
Solo struggled and finally got his eyes opened. He was in his bedroom, not a THRUSH holding cell, and he nearly cried with relief at the sight of his rumpled partner. "You're bleeding." He sat up and pulled free from the man's arms.
Illya wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yes, well, even in your current weakened state, you still have a formidable right cross, my friend. You want to tell me what that was all about?"
Napoleon settled back into his bed and attempted to brush his question off. "Well, you did say to yell if I needed anything."
"Napoleon, I'm serious. There is a time for joking, but that's now long passed. Talk to me, old friend. You know you're safe with me."
The doctors and nurse had asked a similar question and Solo had ignored them. With his partner he felt more at ease, less worried about being judged, even though, one word from Illya and Solo would be back in professional care or, worse, retired from the field. Perhaps it was time to face those demons. "I was…um...being...tortured… water boarded, I think. The details are gone almost as soon as I wake up. I just remember being restrained and choking…be cut or stabbed, I don't know which."
"Water boarding - always one of my favorite tortures," Illya said purposefully keeping his tone causal. "It ranks right up there with rape. At least you avoided that this time."
"This time." Napoleon glanced over at the bedside clock and felt a shock. "Is that right?"
"Yes, you've been asleep for over 14 hours." Illya didn't feel the need to mention that this was just the last of many such nightmares the agent had suffered that night. Apparently, he didn't remember the previous ones and that suited the Russian just fine. He couldn't hide his bloodshot and tired eyes as easily.
"Did I give you a bad night?" Solo reached out and took Illya's jaw, lifting the man's face to examine the bruising there, bruising that he himself has inflicted
"That's a mild way of putting it." Illya gently pushed the hand away. "How do you feel?"
Solo cautiously wiggled his toes and smiled tightly. "Better actually, and, believe it or not, I'm a little hungry."
"Why don't you take a shower and I'll put something together for you."
"Sounds like a plan." His bathtub had been equipped with a seat, so he wouldn't put undue stress upon his healing body and Napoleon was quietly thankfully for it. He wasn't quite ready to stand on his own for more than a few seconds at a time and he certainly wasn't about to ask his partner to shower with him. He knew the Russian would do it without question or reserve, but Solo preferred to try himself first. He needed to start proving that he could take care of himself again
As soon as he had Solo safely situated, Illya walked back into the living room, purposefully drawing the bathroom door nearly closed. He rolled his shoulders and yawned hugely as he walked over to where his jacket was hanging on a chair. He pulled his communicator out of the breast pocket, uncapping it with a practiced move. "Open Channel D, please." He massaged his left eye where a headache was starting and yawned again as he sunk down onto the couch.
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin, how is our patient?" Waverly's gravelly voice answered him immediately and the Russian straightened, in spite of himself as if his superior could see him through his communicator.
"It is about as we expected. There have been some episodes of flashbacks, but he's finally talking, so that's an encouraging sign. He's also starting to show an increase in appetite, but still nothing near what he should be displaying in my opinion."
'Do you recommend we check him back into the hospital?"
"No, sir, but perhaps a change of scene might be beneficial. Sadly, he's not reacting well to his apartment. It may be time to move him to something place new. There is an out-of-town event that might well suit that purpose."
"Is this a sanctioned event, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Not exactly, but I would be glad to accompany him in whatever capacity might be required." The, another thought flashed into Kuryakin's mind. "Sir, I'd also like to recommend reassignment for Agent Walton."
"And what has led you to this conclusion, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Neglect to self, needless endangerment of his partner, possible death wish, all is applicable. I feel we need to take him out of the field before it's too late and determine whether it's a lack of training or something more sinister at fault."
"Do what you see fit, for both situations, Mr. Kuryakin. Waverly out."
Illya replaced the communicator and then pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and regarded it for long a moment. He reached across the sofa for the phone, dialing the number from memory and waited as the instrument rang. On the third ring, a familiar voice answered,
"Mrs. Solo, Katherine, this is Illya." Memories of this incredible woman flooded back to the Russian - of her wit, her strength and, most importantly, her cooking. If she couldn't get her son to eat, nothing would.
"Illya dear, it's wonderful to hear your voice. How are you?"
"I'm fine, ma'am, but I'm afraid all is not well with your son."
Above the rush of the water, Napoleon could hear his partner talking, but couldn't make out the words. He knew what was happening. Illya was making his daily report, a necessary evil in this situation. He didn't want to go back to the hospital, but at the same time, he wasn't sure he wanted to be in his apartment either. He'd been taken from here, beaten with his own gun and now everything seemed to have a threatening sense to it. Perhaps he should go back to Psych and let them take him apart. He certainly couldn't go back to his job like this. Maybe he should suggest they move to Illya's place. True it was smaller than Solo's, but it represented neutral territory and Illya might be more comfortable.
Illya's conversation with HQ was also giving Solo his first real opportunity to log the latest THRUSH-inflicted injuries. The cuts on his leg were angry red and one in particular seared every time he moved the leg. The skin grafts seemed much too tight and the stitches pulled relentlessly. A sudden rap to the door made him reach for his gun, which, of course, was locked away for his own safety and that of his partner.
"You nearly finished, Napoleon?"
"I think so, yes." He made one more pass with the hand spray and shut the water off. He knew better than try to stand without help and he waited for the Russian's support from the tub. Within a minute, he was wrapped in a bath sheet and back on his bed with Illya efficiently bandaging his leg.
"Everything's draining well, Napoleon. Looks like you got off lucky this time."
"Yes, I'm feeling quite lucky right now." His tone was bitter, in spite of physically feeling better than he had the night before. "Maybe I'll go play the lottery next. Maybe I can win a gunshot to go with everything else."
"It is what all the best dressed agents are currently wearing." Illya rubbed his shoulder at the memory of his own recently inflicted gunshot wound. "I have your breakfast on the table."
"I'd rather just have coffee."
"That's not an option - sorry. I'll strike a deal with you – finished what's on your plate and then we'll see." He passed the agent to his crutches and followed him out.
"You're starting to sound just like my mother." The dark haired agent sat down carefully at the table and propped his leg up upon a chair.
Illya placed a plate in front of his and then reached into a breast pocket and withdrew an envelope.
"This came for you a few weeks ago. It's an invitation to your niece's wedding."
"Oh?" Napoleon raised his eyebrows in mock suspicion, acknowledging that the envelope was still sealed. "Working on your glue-steaming badge this month?"
"Funny, Napoleon, I received one as well. I supposed she figured that, after all the hot, steamy love letters she wrote me, I should at least be there to see her off, as it were."
Napoleon shook his head at the memory. "I'd forgotten all about those." He took a bite of scrambled eggs, chewed and swallowed before opening in the invitation. Whatever could be said about Illya's cooking abilities, the agent made a mean scrambled eggs. "She had it bad for you, old friend. Do you still have those letters?" Another bite.
"I feel that they will be a comfort to me in my old age, providing I live that long." Illya reached for the coffee and filled two mugs. "I still can't believe some of the things that came out of that young lady."
"Solo blood runs fast in her veins, there's no doubt about that. There were certainly things that a young lady shouldn't be mentioning to a gentleman." Solo set the fork down and took a piece of toast, slathered with strawberry jelly. "I still would love to know where she got some of that information about orgasms. There were things even I didn't know about."
"She's fortunate that I am a gentleman or I might be your nephew-in-law…or worse, a complete scoundrel."
"Oh, Josie and Doug would have loved that. Nothing personal, partner, but I'm glad she found someone more her own age bracket. It's nice when things happen the way they're supposed to." Napoleon lowered the engraved invitation. "I wish I could go."
Illya looked at him from behind his mug. "You can. I took the liberty of mentioning it to Mr. Waverly. He thought it would be an excellent change of pace for you and keep you out of trouble at the same time."
"Oh, he does, does he? And have you forgotten the nice, quiet time we had there the last visit? I nearly lost you to an exploding car, a poisoned dart and my amorous niece. And that business with Randy…and Mary…" He sat back, startled as Kuryakin handed him a cup of coffee.
"Your plate's empty." Illya offered by way of explanation. He needed to switch topics before Solo could grow maudlin again.
"So it is. I always said you were an influence upon my appetite. Guess the proof is in the pudding. And how is Mr. Waverly so sure I'll stay out of trouble? There's just as many way of getting into it there as any other place. Or does he intend to send my Russian conscience along with me?"
"Well, I do have a considerable amount of free time that Administration is after me to take and, after all, I was invited."
"So you were. There's not much time between now and then. It would be tight."
"I've already called your family. They're expecting you."
"And what about you, my sly Russian – coming or staying?"
"What good is one's conscience if it stays behind?" Illya grinned, an unguarded smile that few people, beside his partner, ever saw.
Napoleon Solo lounged in the back of the Moskvich and sighed. Only Illya would think to bring such a tank to a wedding. True, the car was roomy and this one seemed to have more power than the one he'd ridden in when he was last in Russia. Still, it was big, black and ominous, something akin to a Sherman tank and he felt the car was a bit of overkill.
"Illya, I thought you told me these cars were all sluggish and underpowered. This one seems to respond really well. How did you manage to find one in New York?
"The Russian UN Ambassador presented it to Waverly after that grain episode. Since no one at headquarters seemed inclined to use it, I took it upon myself to do a little work under the hood...among other things."
"Are you sure you're not tired of driving? We can switch if you'd like"
"You Americans don't know how to drive Russian cars. Besides, you'd need a sledgehammer to work the clutch, even with a good left leg, which you are currently lacking."
"Thanks." Solo leaned back against the propped up pillow and made a face.
"Sorry, Napoleon, but no driving for you..."
"Doctor's orders," he chimed in with the last two words. "I know."
"Why is your niece getting married in Chelsea? From what I understand from talking to your mother yesterday, she lives elsewhere now."
"Tunbridge - you've been there. Remember, just before New Year's Eve?"
"The bar with the Czech vodka and that redhead I remember now…although I'm not sure that's a good thing."
"I guessing it's because her great grandmother, her grandmother and her mother were all married in the same church. Maybe Helena sees it as a family tradition. Or maybe the guy's from Chelsea. Josie didn't even mention a love interest in her last letter."
"Maybe she had to get married."
"I beg your pardon? Just what are you insinuating, partner of mine? No Solo has ever been born out of wedlock."
"Not like that, Napoleon." The Russian's tone was dry and he pushed a handful of blond hair off his forehead. "You know how kids are these days. Sometimes, they just have to do something."
"Oh...you mean like, 'or else I'll kill myself'." Solo caught sight of a familiar road mark and chuckled. "Speaking of such, up that road is the city dump. Not far away from it lives these two crazy little old sisters."
"Pardon me for not seeing the connection."
"It was just something we had to do as kids. The Delia sisters would go down to the dump and collect all the plastic flowers that are taken off the graves and bring them home with them, along with the choicest bits of garbage. Their whole house resembles a lived in junk heap. Plus they were having trouble with people stealing their goats, so they started keeping them inside the house with them. When I was a kid, we used to think they had made a pact with the devil. Bravest thing a growing boy could do was to knock on their door on Halloween and run like mad."
"Halloween is only a few nights away. Perhaps you can impress me with your nerve and manliness."
"In my condition? Hobbling doesn't cut it. I'd never be able to out-run them now."
Illya hit the outskirts of Chelsea and dropped the needle of the speedometer down to something closer to the speed limit, lest he come up too quickly behind a tractor or other piece of farm equipment.
As they drove by the crowded town square, Napoleon leaned forward and peered out the window. The square was decorated with little booths draped in colorful fabrics. It was a peaceful happy display against the brilliant fall colors of the surrounding maple trees and the setting sun.
"Looks like they've got something going on here and I'll wager Mom and Dad to be among the crowd."
"Should we stop?"
"No, I don't feel up to trying to maneuver in grass. Besides it will be hard enough explaining things to Mom and Dad, much less the whole town. Why don't we go up to the house instead?"
"You sure your parents won't mind?"
"Nah, I know how they think. Drive on, James."
A few more turns and they were pulling into the long empty driveway and Illya cut the engine. "Looks like the campsite is deserted, Kemosabe," Illya said, making sure the parking brake was set. He pulled off his sunglasses and regarded the farmhouse. It hadn't changed much since their last visit here a few years earlier. The clothes line was still missing most of its rope; the porch still looked as if it would collapse the moment anyone set weight upon it, the wood stack by it still titled perilously to one side. Children's homemade Halloween decorations hung in the windows and carved pumpkins festooned the porch's lip.
"Of course, Tonto, that's just what they want us to think" My keen scouting sense tells me they are just lying in wait for us, ready to pounce at a moment's notice." Napoleon straightened up and slowly swung his leg down, grimacing.
"Here, I'll come around." Illya scrambled from the car despite his friend's protest. "You don't have to put on a brave act with me, Napoleon." He offered his partner an arm as he struggled from the backseat. "Hold on to the car for a second." The Russian instructed as he pulled the crutches out and passed them over.
"I hate these things. I know, doctor's orders," he interrupted the inevitable words. He took the crutches and grudgingly stuck one under each arm. "I'm not a cripple, you know."
"I know, Napoleon, I also brought your cane."
"Good. I refuse to use these at the wedding they clash with my tuxedo."
"Whatever you say, Hop-along." Illya shut the doors and went around to the trunk for their luggage. He hefted the suitcases out and set them onto the browning grass. "There's just one more thing." He knelt to open up his suitcase.
Illya took out a set of Vermont license plates and held them up for Solo's inspection. "No one blows up my car twice for the same reason."
"Illya, the Coalition is out of business. I really don't..." He trailed off and shivered in the brisk autumn air, suddenly chilled. It usually didn't bother him, but with his recent weight loss, he had no protection against the cold. "I think I'll go inside."
"Okay, I'll be right along. I want to take a walk first to stretch my legs; I'm a little stiff from driving."
Napoleon carefully negotiated the worn wooden stairs and the cracked splintered boards of the porch. It seemed like just yesterday that he and Dad had replaced those, but then and again, the bamboo plant was just a bush then. Now, it flourished, filling its corner spot and encroaching on the nearby area. How many times had he played with plastic soldiers in that thing? He wondered if he looked whether he still find one or two of them wedged in there.
He smiled at the thought and reached for the door, holding his breath for a brief second until the latch gave way and he pushed his way in. It was still true, nobody locked doors in Chelsea. How different it was from New York, where people hid behind bolted and barred doors in a vain attempt to feel safe.
A barrage of smells and sensations hit him, instantly taking him back to his childhood. Nothing seemed to change, from the piles of stacked coats on nearby chairs, to the tangled mass of footwear beneath them, to the thick smell of barn that permeated the whole lot and a haphazard collection of everything else imaginable piles every where else. He and his sister used to play a game - "What couldn't be found in their kitchen"? It wasn't often that they would actually come up with something that was actually not represented in one form or another. There was the addition of a dishwasher, a recent gift from him and his sister and another surface to stack things upon.
He leaned the crutches up against the wall and hopped over to the table. Propped up against a bouquet of long dead flowers was a brief note. It was the bouquet he'd sent to his mother for Mother's Day. He read the note which explained their absences and that dinner was waiting for them upon the stove. The electric range stood empty and he looked around for a moment before settling upon the cast iron cooking stove. The welcoming heat was coming off of it in waves, just what he needed to warm himself with.
He calculated the distance and reached for his crutches. He had no intention of blundering against a hot stove his first minute here. True to the note, Katherine had left dinner simmering for them, along with fresh homemade rolls and a pie. Abruptly, Solo's stomach grumbled and gurgled at the thought of food and he smiled. That hadn't happened for a long time. . He felt calm here, not as jumpy or nervous. Perhaps the Russian was smarter than even Solo suspected
Napoleon had managed to get the stew pot to the table and had gotten dishes down before Illya ventured in, wrestling the suitcases through the narrow door.
"Good walk?" Napoleon knew full and well that the Russian had been checking in with HQ
"Yes, thank you."
"Mom left us some dinner. Apparently a mother's intuition doesn't die just because her kids leave home. Why don't you store those things later and we'll have something to eat?"
"Music to my ears. I'm starving." Napoleon's stomach suddenly gurgled again and Illya grinned. "Correction, that is music to my ears. I knew all you needed was a change of scenery to set you right."
Napoleon and Illya made great headway with the stew and Illya purposefully kept the conversation light and non-work related. Solo had watched him, contentedly, from the table as Illya rinsed and loaded their dirty dishes in to the dishwasher. Then they retired, pie and coffee in hand, to the living room.
"Interesting shades of flesh tones you have here. Recent jaundice outbreak?" Illya sipped his coffee and nodded towards the television. It was tuned, sound off, to the local news and the talking head was a brilliant orange with green hair.
"Strange thing about that – if you adjust the flesh tones properly, their teeth turn purple, but their hair stays green."
"Technicolor in its infancy. You should buy them a new one"
"I've tried, but Mom insists that there's nothing wrong with this one."
The TV exchanged the orange faced anchorman for a blue tinged shot of a granite quarry.
"I used to swim in something like that when I was a kid," Napoleon remarked, nodding to the screen. "They make for great swimming holes as long as you look out for the boulders. Had a friend of mine paralyzed after he dove into one."
Just then, the kitchen door slammed open and Napoleon started at the noise, looking ruefully over at his partner. He was better, but still not right.
"Napoleon? Illya," came Katherine's familiar voice. "Is that you or should I be worried?"
"No one here but us chickens, Mom." Napoleon set his plate down and stood, carefully balancing his weight on his good leg for the onslaught of affection he knew was coming.
Katherine Solo, bent and stocky from years of farm work, pulled off her kerchief and stuffed it into the pocket of a dark brown cardigan. She paused in the process of unbuttoning the sweater, to smile fondly at her son and went to him with outstretched arms.
"Napoleon Solo, it's so good to have you home. I've missed you so much." She pulled back slightly to study him. "Look at you! You're nothing but skin and bones." It was apparent from her expression that she was shocked at the condition of her son, but seemed determined to make light of it, just as Illya had requested.
"I've missed you too, Mom." Solo murmured softly, feeling his ribs crack beneath her embrace. He kissed her and leaned his forehead against hers. "It's good to be here."
"I'm glad you're here, my sweet. Poor Helena about dropped her teeth when she found out the two of you were going to make it. She's always had a sweet spot for you, Napoleon. "And Illya, how can we forget the trials she put you through?" She released Napoleon and turned her attention to the grinning blond. The Russian could not evade the embrace nor, from Solo's perspective, did he even try.
She gathered him up in her arms and held him for a long moment before taking his face in her hands and studied it. "And you too, I can feel all your bones, but that's normal for you, isn't it? How are you?"
"A little tired, but otherwise fine, Mrs..." he broke off at the shake of her head, "Katherine. And yourself?" He didn't try to struggle in her embrace too much, but turned slightly in her arms as Julius Solo entered. Two years her senior and he still loomed tall over both younger men, his movements strong and sure.
"I have my granddaughter getting married, and my son home; what more could a mother ask for?" She released him slightly and turned to watch her husband shake hands firmly with Napoleon and pat his hand. "Such displays of affection, Father? What will the town say?" Katherine's hazel eyes twinkled fondly at the pair.
Suddenly the kitchen door swung open with a bang and Solo jumped at the sound again. He shook his head at if disgusted with himself. Not a word was spoken of it, however.
"GRANDMA!" A tall, dark haired boy ran in and slid to a stop at the sight of additional people in the living room. It took him a moment and then he recognized them. "Oh hello, Uncle Napoleon, hey, Illya. Grandma, where is the extra sleeping bag? Mom says she's needs two more."
Solo turned to the boy and stared for a long moment before venturing, "Winston?" He waited for the grin and then continued. "You've grown so much I hardly recognize you! You're taller than Illya."
"That's no tremendous feat, old friend," Illya said, ruefully. Nearly everyone in the room was taller than he was. "But I will echo your uncle's sentiments. You are growing up."
"Grandpa says I can help him on the farm next summer – for real money. Isn't that great! The girls are gonna kill for my tan. I'm gonna be so buff!"
"Obviously a Solo," Illya said, shifting uncomfortably in Katherine's embrace and she suddenly seemed to realize that she was still holding onto the man and released him. "Oh, I'm sorry, Illya, I didn't mean to smother you." She turned her attention to the boy. "Look in the garage just to the left by the garden tools." The boy darted from the room. "Honestly, that child has two speeds, fast and faster. Have you two had enough to eat?"
"We practically emptied out the stewpot," Napoleon proclaimed, turning to sit. His leg protested the movement and he half stumbled before Julius caught him.
"How's the leg, son?" His calm voice posed the question as casually as if he were asking Solo about the weather. Illya was at his side, helping Solo down into a straight back chair. He slowly lower himself carefully into the chair and massaged his leg. Before either man could respond to the elder Solo's question, Winston bolted back into the room and held up the sleeping bags.
"Got 'em, Grandma!" He immediately assessed the situation and asked, "How'd you hurt your leg, Uncle Napoleon?"
"Your uncle should learn to work as hard as he plays," Illya answered before Solo had the chance. "He should also remember that he's not as young as he used to be
"Thanks a lot...friend." Solo's tone was dry, but his expression bespoke thanks for explaining his injury so easily. "It's just a sprain," he lied to his nephew. "Doctor told me to keep off it for a week. Hope it doesn't distract from the rest of the wedding party. How is Helena doing, by the way?"
"Is there more pie left, Grandma?" He fled to the kitchen and returned almost immediately with pie plate and fork in hand. "She's freaking out big time." Winston answered, laughing. "She's making us kids spent the night in a tent instead of the house with her because she's worried we'll 'ruin her karma. She's turned into this raging hormone – screaming one minute, crying the next. I am never going to get married."
"Winston, your sister is just nervous," Katherine said, picking up the empty dessert plates.
"Good thing Mom and Dad spent so much money already or her and Cameron or..."
"She, Winston," corrected his grandmother with all the patience that the position afforded.
"Right, or she and Cameron might have eloped. They wanted to take a cruise and have the captain marry them, but Mom said she'd never speak to them again if they did, but Dad said it was fine with him as long as he didn't have to go. Then Mom and Dad got into a big fight and Dad had to sleep on the couch for almost a week, then they got into another fight and we had to eat TV dinners that night. But now Mom's complaining about how much this is costing and says she wished they'd just run off together in the first place. I'll never understand adults, much less girls." He bolted out the kitchen door.
"I can't wait to reiterate this conversation with him in a few more years," Napoleon said, laughing. "By the way…bad karma?"
"I explained to Josie that you'd been hurt in a car accident and needed some quiet time, so they are staying next door in the little house this week. And I'm afraid that Winston's assessment of his sister is fairly close to the mark. She's melting down completely." Katherine finished unbuttoning her sweater.
"Remind me not to say anything in front of him," Solo murmured to Illya. Then, aloud, "Best argument I've ever heard against the subject of marriage in a long time."
"It's not as if you'd ever slow down long enough to try it again," Katherine said.
"Illya's not married either," Solo was quick to point out, but Illya just shook his head.
"Both my father and grandfather married in their late thirties. I am merely upholding an old family tradition."
"Honestly, how that boy loves to talk. He gets that from his father." Katherine pulled off the cardigan and leaned through a curtained doorway just off the living room to throw it upon her bed.
Julius Solo sat to remove his work shoes, the fingers deftly working the knots despite his missing digits, lost from various accidents around the farm. "What were you two watching when we came in?"
"The local news. Something about a granite pit, I guess. We didn't have the volume up."
"Probably talking about the closing of Rock of the Ages plant again." Julius spoke more to his wife than his son. "Granite quarrying has fallen on hard times and there have been a couple of suicides up at their main pit in Graniteville. Guess they couldn't bear the thought of losing everything they'd worked for." This last was directed more towards the two agents.
"Coward's way out." Napoleon murmured, shaking his head in pity. "Sometimes it takes more courage to live than die."
"Not always. It's just that some people's idea of courage varies from others." Katherine came to sit beside him and rest a hand on his good leg. "Perhaps they felt it was the only way to provide for their families."
"What do you mean?" Illya frowned and brush his hair back off his forehead.
"Well, they were killed, as it were, on the job. In that way, the company has to make good on their insurance policies." Julius shook his head. "Tragic way to die al the same. Back up against the wall, nowhere to turn."
Better than having electricity shot through your genitals, Solo thought, twisting uncomfortably at the memory but aloud he said, "But you said it was suicide. Sure they wouldn't pay out for suicide."
"They fell from scaffolding they'd worked on every day of their careers. A man with 20 year's experience doesn't make a mistake like that. Plus, both had been given a 30 day notice of termination," Katherine explained. "You decide for yourself whether it was suicide or not."
"Well, I've decided," spoke up her husband as he got up from the recliner. "And I think I'm going to bed. 4:30 comes early enough without a late night on its heels. Good night, boys, Mother."
"Night, Dad." Napoleon shifted uncomfortably as his mother bent to pick up her knitting.
"That is an excellent idea," Illya agreed, also standing and reaching for their suitcases. "That drive left me exhausted. I think I will turn in also."
"Good night, Illya. We'll try to keep it low down here. Oh, I made up the guest room downstairs for you two, since you mentioned that Napoleon was on crutches. I hope you don't mind sharing a bed."
"Not at all." Illya stood and stretched out his back, before walking to the pair and bowing politely to the woman. "Nothing short of a twenty piece marching band would have a chance at waking me." He picked up the suitcases and followed her point.
However, he'd no sooner crawled in between the sheets than insomnia settled in beside him. Try as he might, he couldn't get comfortable despite the soft mattress and goose down pillows, the cool breeze blowing through the window and the near total absences of sound. The conversation with Napoleon's parents ate at him. Why would any person commit suicide, family or not? Then again, perhaps that's what he and Napoleon were trying to do; they just approached it in a different way.
And then there was his partner. While it was true Solo was progressing, his nervousness still bothered Illya. If the agent couldn't get a handle on that, there would be no way he'd be declared fit for duty. He'd hoping that by bringing Solo home, he'd relax a little, but Solo seemed as keyed up as before.
Finally, deciding that sleep was merely an exercise in futility, Illya got up, pulled on an old but comfortable blue robe over his pajama bottoms and prowled the room for some reading material. He pulled a book from a shelf and settled down upon a settee. He was still awake and thumbing through a Chelsea High School yearbook when Napoleon eventually came in an hour later.
"Illya, what's wrong?" Napoleon set his crutches aside and hobbled to the man's side, sitting to join him.
"Tension, insomnia, nerves, call it what you will." Solo didn't need to know it was his nightmares that were keeping the Russian from sleeping.
"I thought you looked tired. You need something? Warm milk? Sleeping pill? Another right cross?"
"No thanks, I'll manage. You know, you have changed very little since your high school days." Illya closed the year book and watched his partner.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Solo smiled and patted his stomach. "I used to be really thin in those days." He rose and began to awkwardly undress. Still slightly self conscious of his current physical condition, he turned from his partner to disrobe. He pulled on his pajamas before turning back to his partner.
"As opposed to now, you mean? Look at you, Napoleon. If you turn sideways, you wouldn't even get wet in the shower. On me it looks good, but you can't carry it off. No, I meant with your womanizing ways. Listen to this one, 'Nappy, I shall never forget the hayride and the way you'...hmm, the word is scribbled out. We shall have to guess at its meaning. It's signed, 'Snoogie'."
Napoleon grinned and sat carefully down upon a blanket chest. "Ah, good times. It's hard to remember being that young."
"You were quite the teenage Romeo." Illya pulled off his reading glasses. "Weren't you afraid of their fathers? I always was."
"That's only because one sent you to Siberia when he found out."
"It did permit time to develop other talents."
"Like finding enough to eat to stay alive, you mean?"
"Among other things." Illya flipped another page. "Did you have a relationship with every girl in your school?"
"His senior year, he decided to make it with every girl in the senior class," came a voice from the doorway and they both turned to see Katherine standing there. "Your father never by figure out why you were so tired that year. He thought it was an iron deficiency."
Napoleon ducked his head a little sheepishly. "I didn't know you knew."
"Never underestimate the power of a mother, Napoleon. We know all, we see all." Illya hastily closed his robe. "Do you boys need anything else tonight?"
Napoleon looked over at Illya, who shook his head. "Nope, we're all fine on this end. Have a good sleep, Mom."
"You too, sweetie and don't let the bed bugs bite. Good night, Illya."
"When are you going to stop being so formal with her?" Solo asked after she had left.
Illya stretched, pulling his arms to their limit. "It's my nature. You know that. Why don't you hop up and I'll change you dressings?" He help the agent make the climb up onto the tall mattress.
Napoleon, with a quick glance towards the now closed door, cautiously removed his bottoms. No matter how carefully Illya removed the tape, it still brought tears to his eyes, but he kept his jam clenched tight.
"Almost finished," Illya said, by way of encouragement and he pulled off the last bit of tape. With gentle fingers, he examined each wound. "For what it's worth, you're healing really nicely. I don't even think that long cut on your calf is going to scar much."
"As if now is the time in my career to start worrying about scarring…ouch." He winced as Illya started to apply the ointment. "If you're going to handle me like a side of beef, I'll change my own dressings, thank you very much."
"Always the critic," Illya mumbled as he covered each cut with gauze and taped it loosely in place. "You're finished." Kuryakin picked up the old dressings and carried them to a nearby trash can. While the Russian was doing that, Napoleon settled beneath the covers.
"Good night, Illya, and thanks."
"Good night, Nappy." Illya shut the light off, but not soon enough to keep his partner from lobbing a pillow at him.
The scream ripped through the house and Katherine Solo sat straight up in bed. "What in the name of all that holy…" she started. "That's Napoleon!"
She reached for her robe, but her husband caught in his arms. "Kathy, remember what Illya said about the dreams. We can't interfere."
"But that couldn't be…could it? H sounded so…so anguished." There was distant noise, the sound of a struggle, thumping and scraping, then silence. A few minutes of nothingness passed and then she could hear a soft footfall.
"Napoleon?" But instead a blond head ducked through the curtain.
"I'm sorry we woke you." His voice was gravely, his nose was bleeding and one of his eyes looked red.
"What happened?" Julius offered his a handkerchief from the night stand.
There was a long pause as Illya held the cloth to his nose. Finally, reluctantly, he admitted, "Work happened. Now you know why I asked what I did. The fewer people we have to explain this to, the better it is for Napoleon."
"I think it's time to tell us the whole story, dear." Katherine patted the bed beside and Illya sighed, weary beyond words. "What have you two gotten into?" She held out a hand to him and he took it, feeling strength in the work-worn fingers.
"You do deserve an explanation." So Illya sat and told them, from the initial break in, the kidnapping, the attempted brainwashing, ending with Solo's eventual rescue, leaving out any details he deemed too gruesome or sensitive to mention.
By the end, both parents were somber and then Katherine sniffed, dabbing at her nose with a tissue. "That's so sad, what you two go through and no one even knows."
"It is as is must be." Illya worked his nose gently. It had stopped bleeding and didn't appear broken. "He's much better now than he was even a just two nights ago. He's strong, he's resilient. He'll get through this."
"He's a Solo," Julius said simply. He was not a man to waste words.
"Yes, now if you will excuse me, I'm going to try to catch a little bit of sleep now before the next one."
"And if you don't mind me saying so, he's lucky to have you as a partner…and a friend."
"Thank you. Good night."
The rumble of thunder shook Napoleon from sleep and he woke dazed and confused. Almost immediately, details flooded back to him and he relaxed. A flash of lightning lit the room for a mere second. The day was dawning gray and wet, not unexpected weather for fall in Vermont.
Beside him, Illya mumbled something in his sleep and pushed further into his pillow. Instinctively, Napoleon knew his partner had had another rough night, which didn't seem fair. Solo was feeling so much better. He shifted his leg, delighted at the lack of real pain the movement caused.
He'd learned early in his girl chasing days that to try and ease out of bed would most certainly wake his bed partner. No, it was when you clamored out, as if alone, that kept her or him in this case, asleep.
Napoleon slipped out of the bed and just barely managed to catch himself from crumpling completely to the floor. He kept his hiss of pain silent and hefted himself back up. Two days ago, he wouldn't have been able to do even that. Yes, he was progressing nicely.
Napoleon gathered up his robe, belting it firming around his waist and his cane, and started walking carefully through the room. He glanced over his shoulder back at the bed just once, but his partner remained unmoving. Maybe the Russian would now get some serious rest.
He made his way through the parlor, the living room and into the kitchen. In the farmhouse, this is where life happened. Everything centered in the kitchen, especially as the weather got colder. His mother looked up from the paper and was beside him before he could take his next breath, hugging him tightly.
"Good morning, Napoleon. How are you today?"
"I'm…I'm fine." He kissed her forehead before settling into a chair. "But it looks like the camp out was a wash out instead."
"I understand she let come back as far as the porch. I think we'll all be happy when the ceremony is over tomorrow, but all for different reasons." She handed him a mug of coffee. "Is Illya, poor thing, still sleeping?"
"I'm gathering I gave him a rough evening?" Just mere fragments shifted back to him, he remembered shouting, fighting, crying, but didn't know which was real and which were only dreams.
Katherine shut the paper and reached for her own cup, holding it in her hands. "He told us what happened, Napoleon. Or at least parts of it – I have the feeling that he left a lot, the worse of it, out."
"I thought he might. That proves just how much he trusts you two. He'd go to his grave before mentioning it to anyone else."
Another clap of thunder, a blaze of lightning and the lights flickered ominously. "It's good that Father has that back up generator for the barn. I'd hate to have to finish milking by hand." She thought about the words she had to say next, balancing their weight. "Napoleon, why do you do it?"
"Because I can and because I want to. I would rather die tomorrow doing my job than as an old man doing anything else." And it was true, down to his very soul.
"I should have called you Quixote instead of Napoleon."
"Guess that would make Illya, Shancho." His mother's eyes flicked to something over his shoulder and a moment later he felt a hand upon his shoulders. He neither flinched nor responded to it, except to say, "Speak of the devil, good morning, Mr. Kuryakin." A moment last, the Russian had collapsed into a chair beside him, obviously pleased with Solo's non-reaction to the hand. As opposed to Solo, he was dressed in a gray sweat pants and shirt and carrying a pair of running shoes. His nose looked slightly swollen and his bottom lip was crusted with a fresh scab. "Or maybe not so good."
Kuryakin merely nodded, taking the mug of coffee Katherine held out to him. He gingerly touched it to his lips, wincing at the heat momentarily and then took a deep swallow. Within a moment, he'd drained it. "Three of four more of these might just do the trick." He pushed the mug away and bent to tie his shoes that he'd already heeled into. Standing up, he announced, "I'm going for a run."
The Solos exchanged a glance and Katherine pointed out the obvious, "Illya, dear, it's raining out."
"Just adds a bit more interest. I'll be back." And the Russian was out the door before another word could pass.
Solo's mother looked at him plaintively asking, "Did I say something wrong, Napoleon?"
"No, it's the first time in nearly a week, he's felt comfortable enough let me out of his sight and I suspect he just needs a little head space. He's pretty much a self-contained unit, Mom."
"I just hope he's careful. He'll catch his death of cold running in the rain like that…or get hit by lightning or have a car not see him."
"He's a big boy, Mom. He's been taking care of himself for a long time."
She had moved to the electric stove and started puttering. "Are bacon and eggs good for you, dear? Still over easy?"
"That's fine, Mom." He rose slowly to his feet, reaching for the cane. "Let me get cleaned up first though or at least shave."
"Do you need help?"
"No, I honestly think I can manage just fine." It was a struggle and slow going, but he did it. He got entirely put together and even dressed his own leg before the study door opened and a sopping, bedraggled Russian stumbled through it. His blue eyes flicked over the scene before him and he nodded seemingly to himself.
"Better?" Napoleon set the last bit of tape in place. Tomorrow he'd try to sweet talk the Russian into pulling the rest of the stitches.
"Considerably, thank you." Illya pulled the sopping sweatshirt over his head and dropped it upon Solo's discarded towel as he toed out of his shoes. He used a towel that he'd laid out earlier to dry his hair and battle-scarred torso. Unlike Solo, who carried most of his THRUSH souvenirs below the belt, Illya carried the majority of his above. He pulled on a tee shirt and over that the ubiquitous black turtleneck. Then he peeled off the jog pants and they joined the shirt in a soggy heap. Another fast swipe with the towel and he slipped a pair of black jeans on. "Your mother is holding breakfast for us. She had to go down to the…milk house?" He picked up his clothes and shoes, disappearing in the direction of the bathroom to hang things up to dry, Napoleon supposed.
"She makes sure everything is set up for milking this afternoon," he shouted. "Everything fine at home?"
"As close to it as we are likely to know. Sudanese officials are lodging a formal complaint against our last action, the UN is asking for intervention in Guinea, talks have broken down in Pusan and Walton is out of his coma and complaining to anyone who will listen to him that I am biased and prejudicial towards him because he's German. He wants a hearing once he's out of the hospital."
"And to think all you want to do is keep him alive, you shameless Commie."
"That's me, the evil Russian bear." He offered Solo a hand up, but Napoleon waved it away, reaching instead for his cane. "You're getting along much better this morning."
The lightning lit the room and the lights dimmed. "We might be losing our power soon."
"Then we'd better eat now." He followed his partner back to the kitchen. "I don't know about you, but last night's dinner is just a fond memory."
They had just started eating when the front door blew open and admitted an umbrella-carrying clump of clothes. It fell to reveal Napoleon's sister, Josephine. She proceeded to remove a pound and a half of rain gear before she even realized that she wasn't alone.
"Napoleon!" She ran to him and embraced him warmly, burying her face into his neck. "Thank god you're alright. When Mom said you'd been in a car accident, I nearly came apart."
"Josie, I'm fine, sweetness, really." He patted her dark brunette hair with a strong comforting hand. "I have Illya to thank for that." He released her and settled back into his chair.
Josie pulled away from her brother, turning her back to him as she blew her nose on a tissue. "I was just so worried…I thought…never mind what I thought." She blew her nose again. "I didn't tell the kids about your accident – they'd have only worried about you and heaven knows we all have enough on our plates at the moment."
She turned to the Russian, who had kept most of his attention focused upon his plate in order to give the siblings as much privacy as the small kitchen would afford. As she took a step in his direction, he looked up and she caught his face, giving him a fierce kiss, full on the lips. Surprise lit his eyes as she pulled away. "That's for taking care of my crazy brother. What would he do without you?" She hugged him hard and Illya telegraphed a frantic message to his partner.
"I, for one, don't want to find out," Napoleon admitted his own hazel eyes dancing about happily. Illya could just get out of this mess himself. For the third time that morning, the lights dipped, but this time didn't come back up. "Okay, now, as the older brother, I must insist that at least a foot remains between each of you at all times and no inappropriate touching."
Josie laughed. "Yes, Mrs. Nelson." She left Illya to snatch a cup from the sink counter. "How that woman ever got a husband was beyond me. What a prude!" She poured cup for herself and carried the pot to the table. "You'd think that a girl could get pregnant by just looking at a boy. You can't, by the way."
"Thank the stars above for that." Napoleon knew both of them were saying silent prayers of thanks. "I'd be broke from child support. How's Helena holding up?"
"Meltdown, part deux, this morning when she discovered her curling iron didn't work. And the rain isn't helping. It's supposed to let up for tomorrow, but she envisioning the second flood."
"One shouldn't borrow trouble." Illya helped himself to another piece of toast and pushed the plate towards Solo. Napoleon shook his head and the plate moved a fraction closer to him, its meaning obvious. Sighing, he took the last slice and began to load it with homemade rhubarb jam. It was the only one he hadn't tried from the cornucopia of homemade jams set out on the table. He felt like he would explode if he took another mouthful, but he did anyways, chewed and swallowed. He closed his eyes, brow furrowed, as a sudden vision accosted him. The mouthful caught in his throat, twisting and he choked. He clenched his hands as his throat clamp shut. Suddenly, he heard Illya's calm voice settle about him like a blanket. "Breathe, Napoleon.
Josie stared as her brother's face went sheet white and he trembled to the point of where he looked like he was having a seizure. Illya caught him by his forearms, keeping him upright in the chair. "Josephine, could you please fetch me a washcloth from the bathroom." As if she as searching for any reason to bolt from the room, the woman was gone and Illya was amazed at just how quickly she could move. The results of seven children, he supposed, and the need to tend them.
"Napoleon, we're in your mother's kitchen, just you and me." He worked his hands over Solo's arms. "Do you remember?"
Faintly, "Yes." He took a deep shuddering breath and let his head dip forward. "I'm okay."
"What happened?" Illya sat back satisfied that the event was over.
"Rhubarb jam tasted like one of the drugs they fed me." He sat back. "It caught me by surprise."
Josie reappeared and Napoleon accepted the cloth from her without a word. She watched him with wide troubled eyes as he wiped his face and then handed it back to her. Standing, he said, "I think I'm going to lay down for a bit."
"I'll be right here if you need me."
Josie waited as her brother limped from the room to collapse into chair.
"I'm sorry he frightened you," Illya said, beside her, fingers interlaced before him. "He was in the ditch for a long time before they found him. There have been some psychological issues to work through during his recovery."
"I don't want you to think me petty, Illya, because, really, I'm not, but is that likely to happen tomorrow during the wedding." At Illya's cool, blue eyed stare, she continued. "Napoleon is a proud man and there will be many people there who would just love to find a chink in his armor. Small towns run on gossip and I couldn't bear to have him be grist for the mill. I'd rather call off the wedding than see him humiliated in any way."
Any hostility Illya felt towards the woman's initial statement waned and he shook his head. "I will stay close at hand in case, but every day shows marked improvement. If there is any sign, I will deal with it."
"Thank you." Her eyes drifted down to his hands. Right now she desperately needed to change the topic and she reached out to touch the plain gold band that he wore on his left ring finger. "Why do you wear a wedding ring, Illya? I've always meant to ask you about that. I know you're not married…now? Were you once?"
He couldn't very well tell her it's real purpose, that it held a garrote and when necessary, he used it to kill, so he settled for another truth. "In Russia, it's the customary for men to wear a ring on this finger to announce their availability. When we marry, we present it to our bride. It, in turn, is given to the first born son to wear until he takes a bride. This ring has seen 9 generations of Kuryakins."
"That kinda sweet…" she was interrupted as the front door opened and a young woman rushed in, in an obvious state of panic. "Mama, there's no power! How am I going to curl my hair for the rehearsal dinner if there's no pow…" Her eyes settled upon the Russian and she stopped dead in her speech, cheeks flaming crimson red. "Oh," she gasped as the man fastened a blue-eyed gaze upon her. She'd filled out quite nicely in the few years since he'd seen her last, unless you count that 'special' picture she'd sent him. "Hi…Illya."
"Helena," Illya stood and offered her his seat. Still staring, she sat as the flush moved from her cheeks to her ears. "I think perhaps it would behoove me to check upon your uncle. Excuse me." He could feel her eyes upon him as he walked away.
"Oh, mama…have I made a mistake marrying Cameron when I still feel like this?"
Illya chose not to hear the answer to that question. Had he been ten years younger and in a career that didn't threaten to end his life every other week, he might have given Cameron a run for his money. But as Napoleon pointed out many times, he wasn't the marrying kind. He checked his drying clothes in the bathroom and then let himself into the guest room. Napoleon was lying upon the bed, head propped up, reading.
"Did you get Josie calmed down?"
"You scared her, that's all. Hell, you scared me." He stretched skyward as far as he could and then flexed his shoulders first one direction, then the other. "Rainy weather always stiffens me up," he explained to the American's bemused expression.
"Run wasn't enough?" At the head shake, he continued, "You know I heard that they put in one of those fitness centers in town. Mom could probably scare up a visitor's pass for us. I could stand a bit of activity as well and it would get us out of this hotbed of estrogen for awhile. We stay too long and Mom will have us wrapped up Jordan Almonds"
"That wouldn't be such a bad thing, but I think your niece is having a hard time with me here."
"I heard the door slam. That was her, was it?" A nod. "It's her own fault. I know for a fact that you did nothing to encourage her…did you?"
"Napoleon, I am hurt that you would even have to ask such a thing. It was only one kiss after all."
"Only one? Lips?"
"Yes, but very chaste." Illya used his best wide-eyed innocent look on his partner and then a smiled curled just the corners of his mouth. "Her mother is a much better kisser."
"If I could catch you, I would beat you to within an inch of your life."
"And if you could catch me, we would not be here, but instead festering in some swamp or hotbed of hostility and this conversation would be moot."
The rest of the day was spent keeping out of the way. The gym provided a welcomed respite from the blur of activity that had settled upon the farmhouse as well as a near proper work out. Napoleon couldn't do much more than work with the free weights, but it felt wonderful to flex with the dumbbells until the muscles in his arms, shoulders and back sang in protest. He'd just finished racking the 15 pounds weights he been using and was mopping his face with a generic white gym towel when a man a few years his junior settled onto the bench beside him and nodded to the blond. Illya had already max out on several of the weigh machines and still needed more. He'd been pounding on the boxing bag for half and hour and showing no signs of slowing.
"I saw you two come in. It looks like your friend there is working out some aggression," commented the man, watching the Russian dance around the bag, weaving punching, kicking.
"You have no idea."
"New in town?"
"Old, actually, I'm just here for my niece's wedding. Napoleon Solo." He offered his hand in a carefully neutral shake.
"I thought that chin looked familiar. Kenny Spooner, my sister was in your class. Remember Linda?"
"Very well." Napoleon smiled fondly at the memory of Snoogie. "How is she?"
"Great. She's living down in Calais now with her loser husband and four rug rats. She will die when she finds out you were here and she didn't get to see you. So, Helena's your niece then? Her wedding is the talk of the town. "
"Yes," Napoleon grimaced as he worked a kink out of his neck. He'd better sweet talk Illya into taking out the rest of his stitches tonight so he could soak in a hot bath or he wouldn't be able to move tomorrow.
"And he is?" A nod to Kuryakin.
"Just a friend of the family."
"Well, you better tell your friend of the family that if he breaks that bag, he'll have to pay for it. It's not used to that kind of workout."
"Not to worry, he's running down." The Russian's blows were coming slower, more deliberately. "I think the bag will live to fight another day."
Sure enough, Illya suddenly stopped bobbing and grabbed the bag to still it. Walking to Solo, he flexed and stretched his shoulders. He cocked an eyebrow at the stranger sitting beside his partner, but said nothing as he sunk to a nearby pile of gym mats to pull the gloves from his taped hands. He tore an end of the tape free with his teeth and started to pull it from his hands.
"Illya, this is Kenny. Kenny, my partner, Illya." Kuryakin nodded to him, still intent upon his task.
"You're the guy whose car blew up!" Kenny sat back, laughing. "You do not know how many times I've wanted to meet you. You driving that big black tank thing outside?"
"No, wait; it has Vermont plates on it."
"Once bitten, twice shy." Illya wadded the tape up into a loose ball and tossed it towards a garbage can. "Napoleon, I'm going to hit the showers."
"Wow," Kenny murmured as the man moved away, gym bag in hand. "I can't believe I got to meet that guy. I thought he'd be taller though."
"Now, you're sure you're okay with this?" Katherine had taken her coat off a half dozen times. "I'm sorry we couldn't squeeze you in. The Wayside will be bulging at the seams as it is."
"Mom, we're grown men, we can look after ourselves for dinner." Because of their late acceptance, neither man had been invited to the rehearsal dinner, a fact that suited both just fine.
"There's steak in the ice box, potatoes and I made you a nice salad."
"Yes, Mom, you're going to be late." As if on cue, his father honked the car horn again. "Go, we're fine." She kissed him and reluctantly left, moving swiftly once she hit the driveway. Her car door was barely closed before the vehicle pulled away. He shook his head affectionately and limped back into the parlor. Illya was stretched out on the couch, reading, but obligingly swung his legs off at his partner's approach.
"Mom's worried that we're going to starve." Solo carefully sat down beside him.
"Haven't yet, although there have been some close calls." Illya tugged off his glasses.
"I sweet-talked a pair of manicure scissors out of Mom, will that work?" He passed the small shears to Illya, who nodded and placed them upon the arm of the couch.
"Let me finish this chapter and I'll take care of it." He returned his attention to the book, watching his partner out of the corner of one eye. Napoleon had glanced away and was absent-mindedly kneading a bicep. "And how are the shoulders?"
"Sore and a bit tired. Where is Nellie now with her magic fingers? She was a hard nose, but her fingers could be considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world."
Illya sighed and made a clockwork motion with one finger. "Turn," Illya ordered and slid his hands onto the American's shoulders, agile fingers finding and working out the knots. Napoleon gave voice to his pleasure/pain as the man squeezed and manipulated muscles. His eyes were half closed and he jumped at his father's voice. To his credit, so did his partner.
"I was almost afraid to look in here and see what all that noise was about." Julius admitted, crossing to a nearby table and picking up a packet of papers. "Glad to see you two are still both fully clothed. Last time I heard noise like that was on my wedding night.
"Dad!" Napoleon could hear Illya chuckling softly over his shoulder as he continued to massage.
"I'm just saying." He held up the envelope. "Gotta run."
"At least now I know where you get it from. Good thing he didn't show up a few minutes later and find me in your pants." Illya continued to knead, alternating the pressure as he worked. "What do you want to do for dinner?"
"Mom said she left stuff in the refrigerator – steak, potatoes and a salad. Otherwise, our take out choices are limited pretty much to pizza, pizza and pizza. Chelsea is not known for its varied and cultured palate."
"You pick it."
"Pizza, it is then."
They had managed to polish off all the first pizza and most of the second before finally running out of steam. Napoleon clicked the remote control on the TV restlessly. Even with a satellite dish, there was still precious little to watch that interested him. He finally settled upon a documentary about the Korean War. Illya had his nose reburied in his book and only surfaced to lob barbs or corrections at the TV and help himself to another can of beer. Then Napoleon became aware that it had gotten very quiet from the other side of the room. Sure enough, his partner was sound asleep, sprawled as if boneless in the recliner, his book and glasses forgotten.
The sound of the front door open brought Solo to his feet and he limped out to the kitchen as quickly as he could.
"Napo…," his mother stopped in mid-shout at her son's hushing motions. Curious, she looked into the living room and smiled. "So he's finally out of steam. I was beginning to wonder if he ever slept." His mother moved toward the Russian, her hand outstretched to remove the book from his lap, but Napoleon caught her.
"Don't touch him, Mom. You never touch a sleeping agent." At her hurt expression, he smiled lovingly at her, explaining, "We're trained to react first. He's an assassin, Mom. He could really hurt you, without even meaning to, without being aware of it. It's a case of survival."
"I see." Although her tone indicated that she didn't really. Her eyes drifted down to the pizza boxes and the numerous bottles of beer. "Please tell me you at least ate the salad."
"We had the rest of the apple pie for dessert – does that count as a fruit?"
"Honestly! I know we're supposed to be fattening you up, but you can't turn your back on nutrition."
"Yes, Ma'am." She smacked him fondly on his backside as his father entered.
"That brings back memories," he admitted. "You were quite the handful, son. What do we do with him?" Julius looked past them to the sleeping agent.
"He'll either spend the night there or make into bed under his own power. He's spent many nights in many less comfortable spots, so I'm sure a recliner won't be much of a hurtle for him. He spent 34 hours in a dumb waiter once. It was a week before he got the kinks out of his back."
Napoleon's eye flew open, but the first time in he didn't know how long, the panic and terror he haunted him was gone, replaced instead with a sense of instant awareness and composure. He knew his surroundings immediately and said a silent prayer to himself. Napoleon Solo was finally coming back.
The room was half lit by the nearly full moon shining just outside the window and Napoleon could see that Illya had made it to bed finally, although when he couldn't say. The man slept, back towards Napoleon, one hand beneath his pillow. Normally it would be either on or near his gun, but Illya had insist that they remained locked in their suitcases.
He glanced over at the clock and it read just 5 a.m. It didn't seem possible that he'd slept straight through, but he knew he had. There were no memories, his throat didn't ache from forgotten screams and his head wasn't pounding. Even his leg felt a hundred times better.
He slipped out of the bed and limped to the kitchen, knotting his robe as he moved. It felt wonderful to be functioning again. He wasn't a hundred percent yet, but now it would be just a matter of time. By the time he made it to the kitchen, his arms and shoulders are whining, protesting their work-out from the day before, cataloguing all the abuse they'd been handed. If he felt like this, he could only guess at the shape his partner was going to be in.
"Hi, Mom," Napoleon greeted her before she had a chance to even look up.
"Up already? How did you sleep?"
"Straight through, surprisingly enough considering what's upon my plate for today. You seemed more at peace this morning."
"I am." He helped himself to coffee and a fresh cinnamon roll. "I'd never tell him this, but Illya was right. I did just need to get away from the city for awhile."
"Will you be leaving soon? I was hoping we could spend some time together after the craziness of the wedding. We're going to have a bonfire and corn roast on Saturday, could you see your way clear to that?"
"A corn roast – I haven't been to one of those in 20 years." He smiled at the memory the last one conjured up. Food, beer and a host of lovely ladies – that had been the night he discovered what double dipping meant. Even better, he discovered he was very good at it. He sat back as his mother smacked his arm.
"I know that look, Napoleon Solo. You just behave yourself!"
"I was just thinking."
"I know what you were doing. You and your father, you're cut from the same cloth."
"Remind me to thank him for that." He cut the roll into small bites and lifted the first one to his mouth. His fork caught for a second, but only that as he slipped it into his mouth and chewed, smiling at the explosion of tastes. "If nothing else, at least I have a new appreciation for eating." He speared a second piece and shifted his attention back to his mother. "I'll have to check with Illya, but I imagine he's no more anxious to get back to his desk than I am to mine. Oh wait, all my stuff's on his desk – he's doing my job. I'm clear."
"All of this AND he's doing your job as well. That young man does deserve a raise." Katherine stood and shuffled over to the ever present pile of coats and jackets that were piled upon the corner chair. Napoleon had to think back for a minute to even remember what the chair actually looked like or if there was even a chair in there anymore. "I need to take your father some coffee. He should be ready for a little break about now." She shouldered into a plaid hunting jacket and pulled a kerchief from an apron pocket. Although the rain had let up for the most part, it was still misty out. She'd had her hair done for the wedding and needed to protect it before it made an escape attempt from the firm grip the hairspray held the sculptured curls to her head.
"You need a hand?"
"I'm fine, son. You sit and eat." She picked up a basket. "Father and I are due at the church at 9. You won't need to come along until noon or so. The ceremony isn't until 1. Maybe it will have cleared by then."
"At least everything's inside should it still be raining..."
"And don't be late - I know how you are."
"I have my Russian conscience with me – we'll be there."
He'd gotten the front section of the Times Argus scanned, and even managed a couple of attempts at his mother half-finished crossword puzzle before his acute hearing picked up the signs of life from the other room.
A few minutes later, his partner shuffled into the room and collapsed into the chair beside him. Seeing that they were alone he rested his forearms upon the table and his head upon those. Napoleon grinned at the picture of the hardened UNCLE agent in such a state.
"Hey, Illya what a nine-letter word for German for agreeable or friendly?"
"That's two letters short."
"No, I mean I need aspirin."
"Kinda picked up on that." Napoleon filled a cup and pushed it towards him. "Mom keeps a bottle in the medicine cabinet, second shelf to the right, if memory serves me correctly. Feeling the effects of the beer last night?"
"More like the afternoon instead." He sat up with a grimace.
"You were going pretty hard at that bag yesterday. Anyone we know."
"Not alive." He gave his partner a crooked grin, "At least not anymore." He drank the coffee straight without a pause between swallows. Napoleon could never figure out how he managed to tolerate gulping hot liquids like that. "When is this wedding today?"
"You've got six hours to pull yourself together. Maybe less if Mom sees you like this." He refilled the Russian's cup as the man pushed himself back to his feet. "There's plenty of hot water now."
"Remind me to tell you later what I think about American beer." He took a step and then paused. "Gemutlich."
"Funny – the word you're looking for. It's gemutlich." He spelt it rapidly and then shuffled from the room.
"So it is," Napoleon muttered, filling in the appropriate squares.
Napoleon leaned back in the aluminum chair and watched the couples pass before him. The one regret he had for this evening was that his leg just wasn't up for dancing. He'd managed a few stiff go-rounds with his mother, sister and of course, the bride, but for the most part, he'd been sidelined. His partner, on the other hand, well, Belle of the Ball wasn't exactly the most appropriate description for the Russian, but he hadn't been allowed to sit out many dances. Of course, that hadn't stopped the near endless parade of lovely and not-so-lovely young ladies to the table he shared with his partner. Napoleon was still garnering much from a reputation laid down many years hence and consequently embellish upon in the years to come.
Now that he was off the painkiller, he was able to partake of alcohol with a clear conscience, but he was still taking it easy. He sipped at the champagne and contented himself by watching Illya maneuver his dance partner easily around the dance floor. Most people wouldn't think of espionage agents being particular gifted at the finer arts, but Napoleon knew it was as important to be adept upon the dance floor or the bedroom as it was on site at an ammunition plant or enemy stronghold. Secrets were much more likely to spill in the arms of someone soft and comely as opposed to the fist of an opponent. He wondered what his mother would have thoughts of those particular lessons.
A movement attracted his attention and he glanced over as his sister sat down wearily by his side. "How are you doing, big brother?"
"Just fine and how is the mother of the bride holding up?"
"Tell me it gets easier the next time around." She took off her shoes and flexed her toes. Napoleon patted his good leg and she slowly placed her feet up. He took one foot and began to massage it gently. "Oh my god, Napoleon, I love you."
"Thought you might." He worked the arch carefully. "Why women do this to themselves is beyond me."
"High heels. You ladies tend to spend way to much time concentrating upon shoes and hair when in reality men tend to be only interested in what's in between." He slid a strong hand up to her ankle and rubbed.
"It's not like we can just throw a tux on and look fabulously, which you do by the way."
"It's one of the great injustices in the world. Every man looks good in a tux, but women don't have that one piece that we all look good in." She watched the crowd as they passed by.
"This must have set you two back quite a pretty penny."
"Doug's been working a lot of overtime and I've been babysitting a lot. It makes the homeschooling a bit tough, but now that it's all said and done, it was worth it. I've never seen Helena happier."
"Or lovelier. Of course, I think it's impossible to have an ugly bride. There's something about the happiness of the moment that transcends and makes the plainest woman beautiful." He switched feet, his eyes alternating from her to his partner and back, a habit borne of many years of watching each other's back. Josie followed his gaze.
"He seems to be having a good time."
"Illya will make the most of any situation." Truthfully, he knew his partner would have been happier sunk into a chair with a glass of vodka and a book or hunched over a lab experiment and that this was just part of the mask each wore.
"I have a favor to ask of you, Napoleon." Josie's voice filter back through to him and he studied her face, a smile upon his lips.
"And what might be, sister of mine."
"Well, I can't exactly leave the reception and the kids are ready to drop. If I give you the car keys, could you run them home? Winston can get everyone to bed, but driving is still a big no-no." She lifted her feet down from his lap and smiled ruefully. "I wouldn't ask normally but since you're just sitting here…please?? I'll make it up to you. Anything…I'll do your laundry, cook you dinner, just please, please."
"Josie, it's fine. Truth of the matter is I've been ready to leave for an hour. This is just the excuse I was hoping for. You go round up the kids and I'll find Illya."
She kissed his cheek and hurried away lest he change his mind. The music ended and a moment later, Illya appeared at the table he was sharing with Solo.
"How are you holding up, my friend?" He poured a glassful of champagne and took a swallow, frowning at the taste.
"I'm about to blow this place. I told Josie I'd take the kids home." He held up a hand to cut off the man's protest. "She has an automatic, so it won't be a problem. You should stay. Hell, you've danced with every woman here tonight."
"All, except one." Solo followed his stare. The bride stood suddenly abandoned as the band started up again, some old Rogers and Hammerstein piece. It took Solo a moment to recognize it as the waltz from "Cinderella". "Just promise me that you'll be careful."
"I will, just try not to wake me up tonight when you come in." The Russian suddenly looked sheepish and very young and Napoleon found himself smiling. "What?"
"I…ah…might not be home tonight. I've gotten a very nice offer."
"I bet you have…and more than one. Enjoy, tovarish, you deserve it." And, with a grin, the Russian was gone, stopping before the bride and bowing slightly, he offered her hand and they were off into a milieu of fellow dancers.
He wasn't sure what woke him, but Napoleon became instantly aware that something was amiss. You were an agent very long before you honed that skill or you died. Not the most attractive of options.
There was a thump, a muffled curse and then silence again. Napoleon kept his breathing slow and measured, never giving a hint that he wasn't still asleep. He let his eye open the smallest of slits and studied the room. The light from a harvest moon bathed the room in a soft blue and Napoleon could see figures moving. It was his worse fear come back to rest. THRUSH! In his apartment…no, wait, not his apartment, his parent's house. He could tell without moving that he was alone, not just in bed, but completely alone.
His parents were staying in town tonight, a well-earned respite from the previous week's trials. His father had even turned the morning milking over to the hired hands – a rare event. They would join the rest of the family in a big breakfast before heading to Burlington to see the happy couple off on their honeymoon. That mean he was alone…just like before. Illya, god only knew where he was, his folks still at the reception…just him and whomever.
"Will you watch it," came a whispered demand. "Uncle Randy said this guy is dangerous."
Uncle Randy? Solo thought. Will no one rid me of this meddlesome sheriff, he thought, hoping that Shakespeare would forgive him his paraphrasing.
"I'm just glad that blond guy isn't here. He was scary in the gym today." The response was also whispered and Solo pinpointed their location to by the bookcase. Too close to his suitcase for Solo to get easily to his weapon with two good legs and that still wasn't the case. His leg was better, but not perfect. It was obviously going to come down to upper body contact sports – his favorite.
He slipped from the bed and came up behind the pair before they even had the chance to register his movements. A minute later, both lay, unconscious, upon the floor. Napoleon checked his watch. "Three minutes, my timing is way off," he complained to himself. He limped from the room and into the backroom where several bits of baling twine laid scattered about.
Tying them up took just a few more minutes. He wasn't fancy, just hauled them into straight back chairs and relying upon tried and true knots to hold his prisoners. That accomplished, he moved to his suitcase and pulled out his gun. It was amazing how that hunk of cold metal seemed to leap to life in his hands. While he preferred to rely upon his wits instead of traditional weapons, even he had to admit a certain sense of calm enveloped him when he had a gun in his hand.
He rapidly changed clothes, rejoicing in the simple fact that it only took moments now instead of the long plodding of just days before. That accomplished, he bent over the nearest figure and slapped a flaccid cheek.
"Hello, party, can you hear me, party?" A single curse word followed his polite request. "No, that won't do. We're civilized people here. Let's try again -what do you want?" This time a physical impossibility was suggested. "Normally, I am a patient man, but you happen to catch me on a bad night." He lifted the man's chin with the tip of his gun barrel. "And think very carefully before answering this time, what do you want here?"
The ground suddenly heaved with the force of the explosion. Even though town was miles away, the sheer force of the blast rocked the air and land around it, bathing the room in a sudden blast of light.
"Looks like your friend got our little gift. Uncle Randy sends his regards."
Illya Kuryakin poked his head from beneath the covers and looked up at the woman. "What in the gods name was that?"
"I don't know, some kind of an explosion, I guess. Like to go see?"
Illya already had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach that he knew the answer to his question. "Not really," he admitted, his mouth beginning to retrace an earlier path.
"I would, but what's five minutes one way or the other?"
"Five minutes? Madame, you wound me to the quick."
"Illya, didn't your mother teach you to not talk with your mouth full?" She sighed and surrendered from her curiosity
Napoleon hobbled through the crowd, desperately searching faces. What he'd left behind in the chairs was a testament to his anguish and anger. In front of him, the Moskvich still burned, in spite the local fire department's best efforts. Napoleon throat swelled at the sight of a charred body, covered with a blanket just a short distance from the wreckage, one blackened hand sticking out from beneath the cloth, as if beckoning to him.
Off to one side, he saw his parents, standing mesmerized by the sheer horror of what had happened. He moved to them as quickly as his leg would get him there. Seeing him, Katherine gathered him into her arms and sobbed against his neck. Even Julius's eyes glistened with tears. They had all become quite fond of the Russian. Josie and Cameron were doing their best to calm a hysterical Helena. Napoleon felt an odd sense of detachment from his own emotions. He would need to function now and fall apart later.
"Poor Illya," Katherine's voice hiccupped in his throat. "He didn't even have a chance this time."
"What I want to know," came the soft Russian-accented voice. "Is why they always chose to blow my car up?" Illya looked grimly from one surprised face to another, his hair still damp from an early morning shower. "What?" His hands moved automatically to his clothes, wondering if in his haste to dress, he'd forgotten an item.
The group spun and the agent was suddenly enveloped in an entire mass of Solos. He fought the urge to fight free of their arms. It was slowly beginning to dawn upon him that they thought he was in the car when it went up. His eyes flicked to the body and back.
"You're alive," Katherine trumpeted in his ear.
"Yes, but I think the next time we visit, I'm using a rental car." He managed to extract himself from Solo's mother, only to have Helena replaced her. "Surely you didn't think I was under that blanket?" He nodded to the body.
Realization began to claw its way into Solo's hyper-stimulated mind. "Once bitten, you said it yourself. You rigged the car yourself, you sly Russian."
"I prefer to think of it as the ultimate anti-burglary device. You yourself told me, Napoleon, that these small towns have long memories and I knew it was entirely possible that someone might have taken offense at the results of our previous visit. It pays to be on the safe side. The car was completely harmless unless you tried to tamper with it." He caressed the young girl's face and sent her back to her husband's arms.
"Remind me to not leave you alone with my tractor." Julius said, still shaking his head. "One thing that I can say for you boys, it's never boring when you're here."
Napoleon pulled his partner away from the rest of the family.
"Where were you?"
"I told you I had plans."
Napoleon smiled slightly and nodded. "I'd forgotten. Anyone I know."
"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," Illya said, haughtily, but Napoleon reached over and turned the man's face away from him.
"And a lady doesn't leave marks." He pulled the Russian's collar up to conceal the bruising. Illya smirked and began to button his shirt neck. "And I seem to recognize the pattern. It would have to be either Hillary or Samantha. Next time I see you shirtless, I can tell you which one." There was a long pause as they watched the fireman extinguish the last bit of fire from the car. "I thought you were dead, old friend."
"Napoleon, you should know more than anyone else that it takes more than an exploding car to kill me, although it did put a damper upon an evening that was promising great things to come. Why did someone blow up my car…again?"
"I got two unconscious bodies back at the house. You could 'chat' with them."
"Sounds like a party. Lead on, my dear Alphonse."
Napoleon Solo sat in the fire pit, doing his best to seriously damage the piece of cake before him. In between bites, he listened to his mother and sister gossip about various people, places and things. Mostly, he was just content in remembering all the times he'd spent in exactly the same spot, eating the same cake and listening to the same conversation.
They gotten back to the house and had a brief discussion with the two young men before turning them over to the local authorities. After taking the sheriff aside for a brief introduction and explanation, they were led away to face their fate at the hands of Vermont law enforcement.
"The things I'm hearing around the general store are pretty unbelievable. From what I understand, they plan to auction them off to the highest bidder," Josie was saying to her mother. Napoleon had sort of been tuning the conversation in and out, but that last comment wasn't making any sense at all when he played it back.
"What are they auctioning off," he asked as the fire suddenly popped. A week before the gunshot-like sound would have sent him to the ground. Now he just watched the embers dance up into the sky.
Josie paused for effect, secretly pleased that her brother was listening. "Apparently, your partner's underwear." The reaction she was hoping for never came.
"Impossible." Napoleon took a big bite of cake to prolong the moment. "I happen to know, Illya doesn't wear any." At the dumbfounded look on his sister's face, he added, "Says he finds them…encumbering."
"Oh my…word…" Josie tried to process this last bit of information. "I'll be right back." She rose to stumbling off into the night.
"Napoleon Randolph Solo, you're incorrigible. Your sister's going to vapor lock."
"Only speaking the truth, Mom, well, except for that last part."
"And where has he gotten off to, by the way, that partner of yours?"
"Last I knew he was championing a round of "Kick the Can" game out back."
"He's really wonderful with the kids. He'd make a good father. Do you think he'll ever marry?"
"Illya? Probably not, it would take a very special lady to slow him down." He took his mother's hand and caressed the back of it with his thumb.
"We've missed you being part of the family, Napoleon."
Napoleon glanced over at his and nodded. "Me too. Work keeps us pretty busy. It seems like we're gone more than we're home and when we're home, well, sometimes it's not always under the best of circumstances."
"Like now. You really have to leave tomorrow?"
"Yes, Mr. Waverly's been generous to us, especially with Illya. He should be on active duty, not here. And I still have a battery of tests to conquer before I'm allowed to become active again."
"And this hasn't changed your mind? Made you think that perhaps your job is a bit too dangerous?"
Napoleon chuckled, softly. He couldn't tell her the truth. Instead, "Mom, life is dangerous. You could be struck down at any moment. I'd rather die knowing that I'm leaving the world, hopefully, a better place for my being in it, but that doesn't mean that this place and all of you aren't in my heart always."
She stroked his cheek. "You really do have a silvered tongue, Mr. Solo."
"I was taught by the best, Mom."
"Well, I put the Kibosh on that little story, thank you, dear brother." Josie announced as she rejoined them at the fire.
"Don't mention it and I mean that. Whatever you do, don't mention it, especially to Illya."
Winston's voice cut him off. "MOM, GRANDMA, PHONE! It's Helena calling from Los Angeles Do you know it's only five o'clock there?" He held the instrument out the window for a moment and then left it dangling over the sill before disappearing from view
"Honestly, that boy." Josie hurried along after her mother, eager to chat with her bride. "What is he doing in the house?"
Napoleon stared after them for a moment and turned back to the fire, debating whether to abandon it for the small group of men folk clustered beneath a tree not far away. Somehow, he'd just about had his full of the weather forecast, haying conditions and what young Widow Nelson was up to these days. Somehow it was just not the type of water-cooler chat he was used to. He became aware of a tug on his sleeve and he smiled down at one of his nephews.
"Yes, Nicholas, what's wrong?"
"Uncle Napoleon," the boy queried, climbing into his lap. "Could you come and talk to Mr. Illya?"
"Why should I talk to Mr...?To Illya?" Solo readjusted the boy's weight off his still-healing leg.
"Well, you know that there are lots of sick people in the world." The boy's seriousness made it nearly impossible for Napoleon to maintain a straight face.
"And there are people who put awful things in candy bars and homemade stuff."
"Unfortunately, that's true, but I..."
"Mr. Illya has been screening our Halloween candy for us to make sure it's all safe."
"That's very commendable of him."
"Uncle Napoleon, so far he's saved us from three popcorn balls, two candied apples and seven pieces of fudge."