Alexander Waverly rubbed his forehead in an effort to forestall an oncoming headache. Christmas was not his favorite time of year, never had been and now it was worse with the passing on of his wife. He missed his wife deeply, although he never let on to his daughter, his friends or coworkers. It was a hurt he hid from everyone, taking it out when he was safe, alone and able to nurse it without the fear of explanation or weakness.
The door to his office opened and closed. In that brief moment, Waverly could hear the Christmas music.
"What is it, Miss Hyrum?" He didn't mean for his tone to be quite so harsh, but, after all he was tired and had a lot on his mind.
Miss Hyrum, a long standing employee for Waverly, didn't flinch outwardly, although she was obviously saddened to see her boss so unhappy. "You asked to see the on duty roster for Christmas, Mr. Waverly." She held the clipboard out to the man and it was taken after a moment.
"You...ah...think it wrong for me to have anyone work tomorrow, Miss Hyrum?"
"Well, it is Christmas Day and it does come only once a year."
"As does the 4th of July and Memorial Day and yet I don't see you wax great sadness over the men and women who have to work those holidays."
"It's just that Christmas is, well, kinda special."
"Not to me. It's just another day, no different, no better than all the other days."
"I thought you might be spending it with your daughter and her family."
Waverly pretended not to hear. Poor Mildred had been after him to join them, but he didn't want anything that might disturb his brooding. Instead, he asked, "Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, they will both be on duty?"
"Yes, sir, but they weren't very happy about it."
"I don't care about their happiness, Miss Hyrum. If they want another job, they know where the door is. And tell Kuryakin that I want him handling that exchange personally. He's gotten a bit too sure of himself lately and needs to be taken down a peg."
"Sir, he's not authorized for field duty yet. Medical says it'll be another week at least."
"Nonsense. He's gotten soft, that's all. We've become molly coddlers to be honest, Miss Hyrum."
Waverly flipped through the list, then set it down, apparently satisfied with it. He picked up his pipe and tucked it into the corner of his mouth. He reached into an inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a tobacco pouch. It was empty, he realized after a moment. Of course, the stores would be closed by now, it being Christmas Eve. Damnation and bother. He took the pipe from his mouth and slammed it onto the desk in frustration.
"May I go, sir?" Miss Hyrum's request was barely audible.
"Yes, you may leave."
"Thank you, sir, and Merry Christmas to you."
"No, thank you. I've had as much of this holiday as I want."
Miss Hyrum hurried from the room, escaping Waverly and the gloom he pulled around himself like a woolen blanket. Somewhere, the office party was going on, people, his people, were drinking, being merry and enjoying the season. His temper smoldered at the thought. He could quickly end the party with just a well placed message, but decided against it. He had to maintain what little good relations he still had with them.
He knew what they said about him. Poor Mr. Waverly, he's getting senile, the old tightwad and just because he'd refused to hand out Christmas bonuses this year. It wasn't his fault the budget didn't allow it. If the money wasn't there, it wasn't there. What did he care?
As he stepped out onto the streets, the newly falling snow was rapidly covering the mud streaked slush from the day, quieting the city to a soft hush.
The taxi he called, obviously delayed by the bad weather, never showed and finally Alexander Waverly was forced to strike out on foot towards home. Had the situation been different, he could have called upon one of his men to brave the weather. Solo certainly wouldn't be daunted by the ice and slick driving conditions, neither would Kuryakin. However, a gradual distance had grown even between him and these two trusted men. Once he would have turned to them for anything, but not now. No, Waverly would walk.
He was chilled to the bone by the time he arrived at home. The place was really too big for him now, but sentiment kept him from selling it. He felt safe within these timeworn walls and floors. Within, he could be alone with his memories and the past.
Because of the rising cost of fuel, he'd shut down most of the house, choosing to live in just a few rooms on the first floor, using the fireplace for heat. Rarely did he venture upstairs any longer. It didn't seem necessary and it was really too cold anyway.
It took only a few moments for him to climb out of his usual tweed suit and into a more comfortable sweater and trousers. After that, he wandered into the kitchen and put some soup on the burner. While the soup heated, he rummaged through the cabinet until he found some crackers and some stale tobacco. Until day after tomorrow that would have to do. He scooped up his finds and retired back to his downstairs bedroom and its beckoning fire.
The fire was crackling as Waverly sunk back into the worn, ratty looking, but comfortable chair and began to slowly sip the soup.
A rattle at his bedroom door brought him to sharp attention. He put down the bowl and slid his hand down between the chair cushions, pulling out a small, but lethal gun. Just holding it made him feel braver and he rose to stand beside the door.
"Alexander..." answered back a nearly forgotten voice. It sounded just like his cousin, Lester Baldwin, but Lester had been dead for years and years.
"I have a gun," Waverly warned. "I know how to use it."
"Alexander..." The voice was closer than before and quietly Waverly moved to slip the deadbolt.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"I want you, Alexander. Your destiny is at stake."
That was quite enough. Waverly aimed and fired into the door, his hand steady and the aim sure. That would be suitable to scare away whoever was lurking beyond the oak door.
With widening eyes, he watched as the deadbolt slipped back and the knob turned to reveal his cousin, Lester. Waverly fell back a step, shock erasing any other emotion on his face.
"But you're dead," Waverly managed finally. "You were torn apart by your dog."
"I quite remember my demise, thank you." Lester halfway walked, half floated by the still slack-jawed Waverly and moved closer to the fire. "I have come to help you, Alexander."
"Help me? How? By scaring an old man to death?" It didn't take Waverly long to recover from the initial fright.
"What has happened to you, Alexander? You used to be a kind, loving man who watched over his people like a father watches over his son."
"You know perfectly well what happened. I'm sure Martha can give you a full account of the incident." Waverly paused, still not believing, but not disbelieving either. "Or are you in that other place?"
"What difference does it make, Alexander?" Lester turned to face him. "I am dead, Martha is dead. And sadly, you want to be as well. "
Waverly had to concede that point to him. "Yes, I wish I were. How can I wish for anything else when men continue to kill one another over things like imaginary boundaries, shipping lanes, or even religion?"
"That's not your concern, Alex. It's too big for a single man to handle. There are people right here who love and miss the man you were."
"Bah," Waverly grumbled. He resisted the urge to say humbug after it. He went back to his chair and settled into it. "You are probably just a bad dream brought on by too much work, and too little sleep."
That amused Lester and he smiled. "Perhaps I am. Debating the point would be useless. You are going to be visited by three spirits."
"Oh, please, that is far too Dickensian even for you, Lester. No, thank you. I've had quite enough excitement for one night."
"What are you afraid of, Alexander? That you'll change or that you'll end up just like me? Sentenced to roam the Earth for the rest of Eternity, searching for a peace I'll never know." Lester stood and started to walk from the room and Waverly suddenly realized that, despite his fear, he was strangely comforted by his cousin. He rose and strode to the figure, grabbing at an arm. His hand passed through the sleeve and the arm and he stood back in shock.
Lester turned back to smile at his cousin. "Listen to them, Alexander. Listen and change."
With a jump, Waverly woke. He was sitting in his chair before the fire, the soup bowl tipping precariously in his grip. He set the bowl aside and stood, looking around the room.
"It was a dream, you crazy old fool," Waverly said to himself, while trying to slow his pounding heart. "Just a dream..." He trailed off as his gaze fell upon the door and the bullet holes now decorating its surface. He swallowed and looked around carefully. No, he was alone, but, somehow, that thought no longer comforted him.
Alexander Waverly crawled into bed and pulled the bedclothes up around him. He'd finally managed to convince himself that Lester had been just a dream, even managed to explain away the bullet holes. Now, he was only intent on a good night's sleep. He'd need it if he were going to tackle the Anderini Files tomorrow.
He couldn't really tell how long he'd slept or even what woke him. He sat up to reach for the clock and jumped in surprise. Standing beside his bed was April Dancer, dressed in a shimmering white dress and a sprig of holly decorating her hair.
"Miss Dancer!" Waverly was shocked and he pulled the sheets up to hide his pajamas. "What are you doing here?'
"I am one of the spirits whose coming was foretold to you. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
Waverly shook his head in disbelief. "Miss Dancer, this is hardly the time for a joke. I demand you leave this instant."
April waved her hands and the bedclothes fell away. "Come with me, sir, I have a lot to show you."
"In the middle of the night? No, you need to make an appointment with my secretary, just like everyone else."
April smiled and approached him, her hand outstretched to him. In spite of his best efforts to resist, Waverly took the hand and a sudden chill came over him.
"Come and walk with me."
They were standing in a muddy, freezing trench, or at least that's how he remembered it. Now, he couldn't feel the cold or smell the stink of horrors of the war that surrounded them.
"Don't worry. We can't be hurt or even seen. Do you remember this place?"
"Of course. How could I forget? The Germans were starting a new attack and we were trying to hold the line. We..." Waverly trailed off. Before him stood a younger, leaner, stronger version of himself – my god, had he ever been that young? Gun against his shoulder, mud up to his knees, young Waverly peered out into the dark.
"Hey, Alex!" A voice behind them made Waverly turn, just as his younger self did.
"Benjamin Townsend," Waverly said in genuine surprise and warmth. "I haven't thought about him in years. We were very close."
"Here." Benjamin held out a cup of steaming coffee and young Alex took it gratefully. "I thought you could use this."
"Thanks, Ben. Hw did you read my mind?"
"Not hard in freezing weather. Hey, why don't you go in and warm up a little? The captain has a fire going and I even hear that one of the lads got some plum pudding."
"Can't. Have to keep an eye open tonight. The Germans are supposed to be moving."
"On Christmas Eve? Go on. I'll stand watch for you until you get back. I could use a little fresh air anyhow."
"Are you sure? After all, you're just a medic. You don't have any combat experience."
"They taught me how to shoot in Basic. Go on and get warm. I'll be fine." He waved the young Waverly off and put the gun up to his shoulder.
"No, don't," Waverly said in terror at his retreating self.
"You never saw him after that, did you?" April's voice was kind, but firm. "The Germans went over the top right after this and Benjamin was killed. In spite of his bravado, he didn't even know how to cock the rifle."
"I never forgave myself for that."
"It was his choice."
"He was my friend and I knew I shouldn't go, but I was selfish and weak." Waverly wiped furiously at the tears forming in his eyes, holding his hands over them to block out the view. "Miss Dancer, April, please take me away from here."
The sounds of war faded from him and he let down his hands. They were standing in a living room now, a living room decorated with boughs of pine and holly. A huge tree commanded an entire corner of the room and a roaring fire made everything seem warm and friendly.
"My word," Waverly said in awe. "I know this place."
"It's the home of your employer. A much happier time for you, I think. UNCLE was young, as were you. You did know how to keep Christmas at one time in your life, didn't you, Mr. Waverly?"
"Yes, there were happy times here." He watched as Mrs. Allison came from the kitchen carrying a huge turkey laden platter. Behind her, several people walked, carrying various bowls and pots. One girl caught his eye in particular.
"Martha," he exclaimed happily. "But she can't see us, can she?"
"Tonight, her eyes are for only one man."
The door opened, bringing in a breath of snow and wind. Staggering against it came a spry, grinning John Allison and an equally happy Alexander Waverly, their arms full of firewood.
"Just put it down over there, Alex," Allison instructed. The wood was roughly piled and he tugged off his coat, pausing before the fire to warm his hands. "How is the feast coming, my dear?" he called to his wife.
"Just waiting for a couple more of your men to show up and we'll be ready."
Waverly chuckled and turned to April. "Every year Mr. Allison would throw a party. All of us were invited; it made no difference our race, color or creed. He loved us all like sons."
"And you in particular, Mr. Waverly. But he had good reason, didn't he?"
The blonde woman skipped over to where Waverly was stacking the firewood, her face flushed with an inner heat. She stopped and held a sprig of mistletoe above her head.
"Oh, Alexander," she said sweetly, pointing up. Waverly glanced at her, then at the mistletoe and then over at his superior.
"Go on and kiss her, Alex," Allison instructed as he put an arm around his wife. "We'll have no peace until you do."
That seemed all the encouragement the man needed and the resulting kiss brought a round of applause from the people in the room.
"You proposed to Martha that night didn't you?" April asked.
Waverly merely nodded, overtaken by the warmth of affection he felt for not only this girl, but for the man, whose job he would one day assume.
"I'm sorry," April interrupted his thought. "My time is growing to an end and I must return you to your proper place."
"Do we really have to go? Can't I stay?"
"We cannot live in the past, Mr. Waverly. These are merely memories to comfort us and help us to face to future. They make us kinder, stronger, better human beings."
"But I don't want to leave yet. Please, let's stay just for a moment more. Please."
Waverly sat up in his bed, tears now streaming down his cheeks. He took a deep breath, swung his legs free from the restricting bedclothes and looked around the room. April was gone, so was the past. It did nothing but make him more bitter about the present. It wasn't fair.
"Life seldom is though," A very familiar voice said and Waverly turned. Standing on the other side of the bed, a spot vacant but a moment before was Napoleon Solo, handsomely bedecked in a tux, with a smile on his lips. "Good evening, Mr. Waverly."
"Not you, too, Mr. Solo."
"Afraid so. I'm going to show you just how much there is to Christmas that you're missing."
"If it's anything like what I just went through, no thank you. I'll stay here."
"I guess I could bring everything here, but space might be a problem. It would be better if you follow me."
Napoleon smiled and put an arm around the man's neck. Before he could blink or even sputter about the familiarity, they were walking down a cold grey corridor and pausing before a door. It opened and they walked in.
Illya Kuryakin, his shirt sleeves rolled back, his jacket discarded, looked up and scowled. "It's about time," he scolded. "What is this?" He held out a scrap of paper.
From behind them came a voice. "I think it's a receipt for that shot the doctor gave me." Napoleon Solo stepped between them and walked into the room.
"Penicillin, no doubt. I wish you'd be a little more careful with your romancing. I seriously doubt I can slide that one by Accounting."
"You're just annoyed because you're stuck on desk duty."
"Not anymore. I've got a courier run in two hours."
"Since when? I hadn't heard anything about it and besides, Medical…"
"Apparently has to bow to Waverly the same as the rest of us. He assigned me personally. Not what I had in mind tonight."
"Forget about it. Have a bit of Christmas cheer." Napoleon held out one of two cups. "Section Four has this incredible party going on. I hear that later Ms. Claus is getting to do a strip tease."
Illya took one of the proffered cups. "Sounds kinky."
"Uh huh," Napoleon agreed and he held the cup up for a toast. "To kink...and friendship."
Illya paused before sipping the eggnog. "That's a strange combination."
"So are we, old friend." He sank down onto a paper-laden straight back chair and patted first one jacket pocket, then another until he found what he was looking for. He pulled out a small neatly wrapped package. "Merry Christmas, Illya."
"I thought we agreed not to do anything." Kuryakin's tone was chastising, but he smiled and pointed. "Yours is in the bottom right-hand drawer."
Mr. Waverly watched the two men unwrap their gifts, a watch for Illya, a bottle of brandy for Solo, but he was more touched by the companionship the two obviously felt with each other. How long had it been since he'd had such a friendship? Had he ever had such a friendship?
"You know, working Christmas isn't too bad, not when you have the people you hold the dearest close at hand." Napoleon murmured as he held up the brandy. "What say we finish up this report and go check out Section Four's party?"
"Sounds like an admirable pursuit of decadence to me." The Russian stood and reached for his jacket. "I should have just enough time to check out the admirable Miss Wilkins before I have to head out for that courier run."
"I should send someone else."
"Waverly insisted I handle it personally. I think he uses courier runs to keep us humble and to remember our place in the giant scheme of things." He pulled on his jacket and grinned. 'Not to worry, I'll be back before you can unwrap the delightful Hilda."
"Don't you make book on that, old friend." Solo draped an arm around Kuryakin's shoulders and the two, laughing, exited from the room.
A beep drew Waverly's attention and the ghost Solo tapped his watch. "Time to be moving on, Mr. Waverly."
Alexander Waverly didn't immediately recognize the house as they approached it. It had been years since he visited his daughter and never in the winter. When Martha was alive, the children always came home for the holidays. After she passed away, Waverly didn't care to be bothered with all the holiday fuss. Mildred, his daughter, seemed to sense that and stayed home, starting new traditions with her own family.
A red-haired boy was busy putting one last ornament on the tree and stealing a candy cane in the process as a girl, younger than the boy, rummaged through the brightly colored packages that crowded the space beneath the tree.
"Mommy?" She suddenly turned from her task as a woman entered the room. For the first time in his life, Waverly realized how much of her mother was visible in his daughter's face. "Will Granddaddy be coming for Christmas this year? He said he would."
"No, he didn't," protested the boy as he unwrapped the candy cane. "He never comes. I don't think Granddaddy likes us very much. He's an old grump."
"Michael! How dare you talk that way about your grandfather! He's a sweet, loving man. Christmas is just a hard time for him. Grandmamma went to heaven at Christmas and Granddaddy misses her."
"He's right, you know," interrupted a tall, balding man, who was busy lighting candles. "Your father has become a cantankerous old man."
"He never realized how much he relied on Mom, that's all." Mildred left her task and walked over to her husband.
"We all needed her, but we got over it. So should he. Instead, he's making himself miserable. I'd hate to be one of his employees. Still," Frank paused and then smiled, "I miss the old boy. I wish he would come back to us."
"Maybe someday he will, Frank. Until then, we'll just have to love him for the man he once was."
"No more." Waverly turned and walked from the house.
"Running away doesn't fix the problem, sir. How many times have you told me that?" Napoleon followed at the old man's heels. "Do you know what it would mean for you to visit them or even just call them?"
"They don't need me; they have each other, their own family."
"You are their family, sir."
"I'm tired, Mr. Solo. Take me home."
Waverly found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at a book-lined wall. Behind him, the fire had nearly gone out, the dying embers throwing grotesquely deformed shadows against the walls. Then, one of the shadows stepped away and approached him. Waverly spun and then relaxed as he saw who was standing there.
Illya Kuryakin was dressed in black from head to toe, but that wasn't that unusual. He dressed like that often, even wore the same dark glasses that hid his eyes now. Yet, there was something odd about him, something that filled Waverly with a fear that ran to the marrow of his bones. In the half light offered by the fire, the normal pallor of his skin was accentuated.
"I suppose you are going to show me the future now?" The question was unanswered as Kuryakin merely pointed towards the door. "Can't you at least answer me?" In response, Illya pointed again to the door and Waverly noticed that he was wearing black gloves as well. With hesitation, Waverly reached out and touched the figure.
Abruptly, they were back in the same cold grey corridor that Waverly had just left with Solo moments before. The door slid back and Napoleon glanced over, his face drawn and tired looking as he packed up a desk.
"Thought you might like some coffee," Miss Hyrum walked past the two visitors and approached Solo. "If you don't mind my saying so, sir, you should try and get some rest. You can't help him now by running yourself into the ground."
"I know." Napoleon closed up a box that he was filling. "I guess the worst part is that I turn around to say something to him and he's not there."
"His death was fast and painless. You can't ask for more than that. Not in your line of work, at least," Miss Hyrum laid a sympathetic hand on Solo's shoulder.
"I just miss him, that's all," Napoleon paused, turning the object he held in his hand around and around. "I can't help but be bitter. It was a trap. We all knew that and Waverly sent him in anyhow. What right does he have to play God like that?"
"He's your boss. Sometimes that's all he needs. Come on and leave that. Section Four is having their annual blowout and I think you could use the distraction."
Waverly turned to the black clad Kuryakin and asked, "You? Are you dead?" Things weren't making sense anymore. Kuryakin had been as alive and well as he had been this morning. True, he'd sent the Russian on a courier job, but it was a routine job...wasn't it? Had there been some small fact that he'd overlooked while nursing his holiday despondency?
Kuryakin turned to walk away and Waverly grabbed a shoulder. He spun the figure and spoke again. "Did I kill you? Answer me, Mr. Kuryakin!" All Waverly could see was his own reflection played back in the sunglasses. What drove him to do it, he couldn't tell, but impulsively he reached up and yanked the sunglasses off Kuryakin's face.
There were no eyes, just a gaping wound that stretched from one temple to the other. Horrified, but fascinated, Waverly stared. He stumbled and instinctively grabbed for Kuryakin's hand to stabilize himself, but it came away in his grip. The arm ended simply in a blackened stump. It would have taken an explosive to do that sort of damage and Kuryakin was the demolitions expert.
"No." Waverly backed away in horror from the specter before him just as Kuryakin advanced. "No!" Waverly cried again. He turned and tried to run, but the walls were closing in, suffocating him, just as if he were being enclosed in an airtight box... or, dear God, a coffin. "No," he screamed once more.
And sat up in bed. The cold grey light of dawn was trickling around the edges of the curtains. For a long moment, Waverly contemplated the light as he tried to quiet his pounding heart and queasy stomach. It was another dream, that was all, just a bad dream. But what if it wasn't? With resolution, Waverly rose and dressed.
Both Kuryakin and Solo looked up as Waverly entered the office they shared. With a guilty start, Napoleon slid the half empty plate of goodies into a drawer and Illya dropped his feet from the desk top.
"It's all right, Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin. I take it that Section Four has been busy again."
Both men exchanged glances. "Yes, sir," Solo managed.
"I have a task for you and I expect it to be carried out with all your usual efficiency and aplomb," Waverly said as he approached them.
The men were up and on their feet almost immediately. Waverly studied them for a long moment, finally stopping at Kuryakin's face. He stared at the Russian for a long moment, then offered, "Your eyes are blue, Mr. Kuryakin."
Illya looked over at Solo, confused. "Yes, sir, they are."
"Let's keep them that way."
"I'll try, Mr. Waverly."
"You said you had a task for us, sir?" Solo interrupted gently.
"Yes, Mr. Solo. It is something that needs great finesse and delicacy of touch." He paused for effect. "I want you to find out what Miss Hyrum wants for Christmas and then purchase it for me. I have been neglectful in my obligations to many of you." He handed them each a handwritten envelope. "Merry Christmas."
"Thank you, sir. The same to you." At Solo's nod, Illya went to his desk and pulled out a neatly wrapped package. "A little something from us to you."
"Merry Christmas, sir," Illya said, smiling.
Even without unwrapping it, Waverly could smell the aromatic tobacco he was so fond of. His hands shook slightly as he accepted the gift. Even thought he'd treated them poorly, they still thought enough of him to give him something. "I don't know what to say, gentlemen, but thank you."
"You're welcome, sir." Solo gestured to the door. "Illya, shall we?"
"One more thing, gentlemen." Waverly's voice stopped them in their tracks. He pulled a small slip of paper from a pocket. "On your way past Communications, would you ask Mr. Sanders to call this number? I'd like to let my daughter know that I'll be there for Christmas dinner tonight."
"I will be both honored and pleased to," Napoleon said with a smile. "This is the best present you could ever give her."
"I suddenly realize that. A few friends of mine and I had a long visit last night..."
Illya Kuryakin shifted his knee beneath the child and sat up slightly. "And so with a little help, Mr. Waverly once again realized that the true spirit of Christmas is not materialistic or commercial. It's something that comes from within the heart."
"That was a good story, Mr. Illya." Winston Solo looked up from where he laid on the floor.
"I think your brother and sister might disagree," Illya said, noting that the twins he held, Nicholas and Alexandria, were both sound asleep.
"I think it's time for them and a few other little kids around here to be in bed." Josie Solo clapped her hands softly. "Up to bed, the lot of you. Santa can't come if you're still up and I thought I heard sleigh bells just a few minutes ago."
"Oh no!" Winston was up and running for the stairs before his mother could stand.
"You certainly know the magic words," Illya acknowledged as first one and then the other child was lifted from his lap.
"So do you. It was a wonderful story." She smiled at the Russian and then followed her husband from the room.
"What an imagination, Illya," Napoleon scolded from his spot by the fire. "Has Mr. Waverly heard this version?"
"Somehow, I am dubious of that and I imagine that Charles Dickens is spinning in his grave," Napoleon's mother, Katherine, chuckled from her vantage point by the door. "Would you two boys like to play some mahjongg until it's time for midnight mass?"
"Yes," Solo said, rising. "That was some story, Illya." Then he paused, as if considering something. "It was just a story, wasn't it, Illya?" He caught his partner's chin and stared into his face for a long moment. The Old Man's right about one thing , though, your eyes are very blue."
Illya winked at him and simply smiled.