"Can you believe the luck of us all being in New York at the same time?"
Napoleon Solo smiled, giving the impression that somehow it was on account of his luck that the day would be celebrated thusly.
"Well, my dear April, we take the good with the bad. This year it seems that we must have been very good, and Santa…"
"You mean Mr. Waverly."
Illya Kuryakin chimed in on the conversation with that typically pragmatic observation. Napoleon smirked, then continued on with his version.
"As I was saying, Santa apparently did not find reason to put any of us on the Naughty List this year."
He punctuated that with a wink in April's direction, then turned to look at his partner and tilted his chin upwards in a sort of challenge to the Russian for him to prove otherwise.
"Well, I don't care who's on the list or whose list I'm on, s'long as we don't hear any jingle bells coming from a communicator."
Mark Slate, the resident Brit, added his thoughts as he plunked down four ales onto the marred wooden table where his friends were all seated. This little reunion would suffice for a Christmas party tonight, before they each headed off in different directions, in Mark's case to catch a plane in the morning back home to England.
"What did you decide on, Illya? Did Napoleon talk you into a double date with Rhonda and her friend Darlene?"
How was it that other people knew of these things? Illya shook his head before tossing back the oversized mug and downing half of his drink. Whether he was thirsty or unwilling to share his plans remained to be seen.
"Who told you about that, April? And no, I am not going out with them on a double date. I have plans. Other plans."
Napoleon hadn't heard the details yet and wondered if his friend was merely trying to avoid Christmas. Illya always deferred comments by saying Russians celebrated New Years more heartily than Christmas, but the American also knew that was only because the religious observance had been banned by the Bolsheviks, not entirely removed from the people's hearts.
"Are you going to share with us what those plans might be, tovarsich? I'm going out with Rhonda, Mark is flying into Heathrow and April…"
"I'm having dinner with my folks. They're coming in for the week and we'll just stay in and do the family thing."
April looked a little wistful as she thought back on what her family had always meant to her, how much she was looking forward to being with her parents for a few days.
Napoleon patted her hand, wondering whether he'd ever do another 'family thing' or just continue to wine and dine beautiful women. Some days that was fine. Somehow, now … the idea wasn't all that appealing.
The blond knew he'd have to finally tell them his plans.
"I'm playing at the Jazzmin tonight, sort of a Christmas set. It's a regular ensemble, and for once the English Horn will fit in."
"Oy, mate, I'd like to hear that. What time do you start?"
Mark was sincere. He played guitar and sang, and knew how important it was to not let those creative streams dry up. It was good that Illya performed periodically.
"You play, Mark. Why don't you join us. No one is doing an acoustic guitar yet. This really is going to be rather a large group, improvisational if you think you can handle it."
Napoleon was gaining interest in this, and he wondered if Rhonda would consider a change in their dinner plans. April wasn't expecting her parents until the morning, and had intended on spending the evening making preparations. The opportunity to see Mark and Illya on stage was now of much more interest.
"You should do it, Mark darling. You're really good, and I'd love to see this. What a charming Christmas Eve this will be."
Napoleon had gotten up to go to the pay phone by the front door. He called Rhonda who wasn't keen on a group outing and decided she'd just accept another offer that had come in. No hard feelings were involved, and Napoleon was surprisingly relieved when she said no. As he looked out of the window there was another welcome surprise. He walked back to the table with a big grin on his face.
"Guess what, gang. It's snowing…'
Napoleon enjoyed the effect as the trio responded to the announcement.
"Merry Christmas everyone."
All four agents raised their glasses and toasted the evening. It was settled then, and after another round of drinks the four agreed to each go home and then meet up at the club. Illya needed to retrieve his horn and change clothes; Mark would get his guitar. April and Napoleon decided to indulge in some last minute shopping before the stores all closed up. The set would begin at nine, and with three hours to go they would all just make it.
When Illya reached his apartment, the first thing he sought out was a scarf that was kept safely tucked away in the bottom of a box reserved for important items. Treasured items, such as this scarf.
It was all that was left of what had once been his mother's beautiful shawl, a prized Pavlovo Posad. She had worn it on evenings that she was able to go and hear Illya's father play in the Soviet Symphony. After she died the shawl had suffered much abuse, but Illya had managed to salvage some of it, and a talented seamstress in Paris had mended it for him, restoring it in the form of a scarf. He wore it sparingly, but tonight he thought it seemed appropriate.
"Of course Napoleon will wonder why I wear a woman's scarf…"
He mused to himself, not really concerned but aware that it might appear incongruous with his stoic image.
"I am Russian. On me, it works!"
He had to laugh at himself and how that sounded. Still, on some level, he knew it was true. After changing into black corduroy jeans and a black turtleneck, Illya donned the scarf, wrapping it around his neck twice before looping it together so that the fringe hung in the front. It was beautiful, and for a moment Illya could see his mother, in her best dress with the shawl draped around the slender shoulders, long dark hair pulled back in an ornate barrette.
Illya's throat thickened with emotion at the long ago image his mind had conjured.
"Schastlivogo Rozhdestva mama."
Napoleon and April decided to brave the crowds at Macy's, hoping to find gifts for their respective partners. Napoleon hadn't intended to give Illya a gift, but something about this evening was making him… more sentimental. He was a sentimental kind of guy, but this particular evening was bringing out something in each of them, perhaps. This camaraderie they experienced was unique. Different nationalities, different life experiences and even varied political ideologies marked the relationships they shared. And yet, here they were, chasing over New York and heading for a Christmas Eve jazz performance featuring a Russian and an Englishman.
"April, what are you getting for Mark? I can't seem to put my finger on what Illya might like. Maybe another black turtleneck?"
They both laughed at that. Illya didn't always wear black turtlenecks, but it had become sort of a trademark. It was appropriate that he was playing in a jazz club, no doubt wearing black. Napoleon figured he was really a beatnik at heart instead of a Bolshevik.
"Something to remind him of home, maybe. Hmmm, I don't see an AK-47 anywhere."
April said that with a straight face, but they both knew he'd probably like to have one.
"Macy's is supposed to cater to everyone's tastes; I may have to complain."
April had discovered a display of colorful scarves, and was running her fingers over the soft fabric.
''Oooo…. Cashmere. Napoleon, these are lovely and sooo soft. Perhaps Illya would like something like this."
Napoleon looked, but then shook his head.
"No, I don't think so. He's not really a scarf kind of guy. I think the AK-47 was closer to what he'd like to find beneath his tree, if he had one that is."
April turned around, her face slightly pouty.
"Illya doesn't have a Christmas tree? Napoleon, that's what we should get for him.'
Napoleon looked confused, then amused.
"No, really. I mean yes really. We should buy him a tree and all the trimmings. How could he possibly have gotten this far among us and not have a tree? Let's go see what they have upstairs."
And with that the two headed to the tree trimming department, one of them determined to furnish their Russian friend with a holiday milestone.
Mark Slate enjoyed living in America, especially New York City. He was a world traveler and a very good UNCLE agent. Being teamed with the Command's first female Section II agent had been a bit of a challenge in the beginning, but the two had hit it off and fallen into that much admired synchronized mindset that helped keep partners alive. Mark adored April, and wondered sometimes if he would have been happier to meet her outside of the job, and where that might have led. But, things were what they were and Mark wasn't the type of man to try and change the status quo. He liked his professional choices and the people who filled his life.
Going back to England for a visit with family was something he looked forward to, and this trip would be no exception. He was very happy, however, to be given this opportunity to sit in with the jazz ensemble that would be gathering at the Jazzmin Club. Illya was a fine musician and the invitation had been spontaneous and heartfelt.
"Now, extra strings are in the case…"
Mark mumbled as he checked the guitar, decided to not put new strings on just before a performance. The sound and feel was just right. After changing clothes (he opted for something black, figuring it would fit in with the other musicians) Mark took note of the time. He had an hour to get down to the club, but instinctively knew that Illya would be there early, allowing for some rehearsal time.
At eight-thirty, two taxis pulled up in front of the Jazzmin Club. The streets were beginning to show tire tracks in the snow, and as Mark got out of the first one, guitar in hand, he wondered if his plane would be flying tonight. He took a deep breath and questioned his decision to play. Did he really want to put himself on the line like this, take a chance on being able to keep up with these other musicians?
When the door of the second taxi opened, Illya crawled out of the backseat with an instrument case in his left hand. Seeing Mark he extended his right hand for the ritual shake and then motioned him inside, greeting the doorman as they passed by.
"Say, this is a nice club. You come here a lot, do you?"
Illya looked around, nodding as he did so.
"Yes, whenever I can. After a mission it's nice to have a place that … it relaxes me. Playing transports me. You understand, yes."
Mark did understand. Music did what nothing else could, at least for a musician. Even though he didn't consider himself anywhere near professional, a love of music and the ability to play was sometimes the closest he felt to anything divine. Music was an indescribable high.
"Indeed I do, Illya. Now, do we get to rehearse a little, or…?"
The Russian laughed at that.
"Yes, we are improvising tonight, but with a rough idea of where we'll be going. I like to use a lead sheet sometimes, just for reference. Several of the other players do as well. Jeremy, the piano player, is the leader, for lack of a better term. He usually has a lead sheet already made up for us."
Mark was nodding now, and feeling better about it with the additional information.
"So he takes into consideration that we're just a bunch of amateurs then? That's a relief, I must say."
Illya was glad to have Mark here to share in this musical night. April and Napoleon being here would make it a truly happy Christmas for him, something he hadn't experienced in years.
It was nearing nine o'clock when Napoleon and April finally arrived. Laden down with several packages and sporting snowflakes on their hair and clothing, the two looked more like advertisements for the department store they had just left than a couple coming in to enjoy some jazz music in the Village.
The two non-musician agents found a booth big enough to sit in and stash their goodies. They also knew that Mark and Illya would join them at some point, if only for a drink.
"Oh, I definitely want this. Napoleon, finally a martini I think I'll like."
"And what is it, my dear? Oh, here's the waitress…"
A slender brunette dressed in black stood ready to take their orders. She was smiling, and tucked into her hair was a little bunch of holly, complete with shiny red berries.
"Merry Christmas, and welcome to Jazzmin. Would you like something to drink?"
April was first, and her enthusiasm made Napoleon smile. He did enjoy being with the vivacious redhead, especially tonight.
"I want the gingerbread martini. That sounds so delicious, I think it will be perfect for this evening."
The waitress, whose nametag said Devon, smiled in agreement.
"It is delicious. It's made with vodka, Irish cream, Kahlua and gingerbread infused simple syrup. If you like I can have the bartender add some ice cream, which makes it really creamy and thick, like a milkshake."
Napoleon made a face. Why did people want to mess with perfection?
"Mmmm… yes, add the ice cream. It's Christmas, after all. What are you having Napoleon?"
Devon caught the name and gave him a quizzical look.
"Yes, you heard it right … Napoleon. And I'll have a Gibson with a twist of lemon, please.'
He turned to look at the stage, wondering how long until the main event.
"Umm… Devon, when does the show start? We have some friends who are playing tonight."
The smile on Devon's face lit up the corner in which they sat.
"You're Illya's friends, aren't you. He said you'd be here. I met Mark, too. It's great that you're going to hear them play.'
She leaned in a little, a hint of conspiracy in her posture.
"I'm glad Illya has some friends, I was beginning to wonder about him, always alone and so … "
Devon laughed at that, recalling how dour she'd thought Illya to be when they first met.
"Yes, I suppose so. He really is, isn't he. Oh, but tonight he looks downright festive. The scarf he's wearing is so gorgeous, and I'm sure there's a story attached to it, but he won't tell probably.,, Let me get those drinks for you; I think the band is about ready to come out and play."
As Devon turned to go the band was indeed filling the stage area. April spotted Mark and then Illya.
"Napoleon, she's right. Look at Illya, and that scarf around his neck. Where did that come from, I wonder?"
Napoleon was surprised to see his partner wearing the decorative scarf. It looked like something a woman might wear, but he had to admit on the black sweater, and with that blond hair shining above it, Illya looked the picture of European chic. He would probably never be able to figure out the man completely.
The men on the stage were busy finding their places, tuning and laughing among themselves. It seemed they were all very comfortable up there, and the audience emitted a tangible sense of anticipation. As Devon returned with the drinks, the lights went down even lower and the spots went on the stage, illuminating the ensemble of musicians.
Illya was on the cor anglais, another man had a similar looking instrument that Napoleon recognized as an oboe. Base guitar, electric guitar and Mark on acoustic guitar were three more. Piano, saxophone and drums made eight and then, last up on the stage was a woman with a violin. What an interesting group, and if Napoleon remembered correctly, it would be largely improvisational. He looked at April who was savoring her gingerbread martini, smiled at the simplicity of this evening's pleasures.
As the group struck up the first notes, the audience was transported as one into a winding and melodious musical adventure that topped snow covered peaks and then splashed down into what must have been mugs of steaming cocoa. It was exhilarating and smooth, and not one person in the room lacked a visceral image of something loved or desired.
Illya took a turn with a solo spot on Bring A Torch Jeanette, Isabella, that turned itself into a smooth glissando on the keyboard, sliding into the violin's rendition of Greensleeves. This wasn't like any jazz that Napoleon had ever heard, and when the final notes were played April had tears in her eyes. Each of their friends, in fact all of the musicians, had played so well and with such intensity that she hated for it to end. The room was wild with applause, and each member took a bow after being introduced by the pianist.
When Mark and Illya had made their way to the booth shared by their partners they were met with smiles and words of congratulation. Devon had vodka waiting for Illya and a Guinness for Mark.
"Boy, she's good at her job. How did she know…?"
Mark seemed to blush slightly, while Illya replied.
"We chatted before you arrived. I know Devon from being here periodically. I think she rather fancies Mark; must be the accent."
Napoleon had a question, but wondered about the response he'd receive.
"Illya, that scarf… where did it come from?"
The blue eyes twinkled in the dim light, and a smile came over his face that held both satisfaction and a little sadness as well.
"It used to be a large shawl that belonged to my mother.'
He paused, the image again appearing of his mother wrapped in the beautiful shawl.
"It was damaged, and a friend was able to mend it and make a scarf for me. I like to wear it sometimes, to remember how it was… Well, it is Christmas after all."
Illya raised his glass and the other responded in kind.
"To friendship, and living long … to Christmas."
"Cheers" from all of them and the clinking of glasses.
"I'd better get going. I have a plane to catch in a few hours. Illya, thanks for the invitation, this was fantastic. I haven't enjoyed playing like this in … too long."
April pulled a package from one of her bags, and motioned for Mark to sit just a few minutes longer.
"Mark darling, this is for you. I know we said we weren't going to do this… "
As if on cue, Mark opened his guitar case and took out a small envelope with a shiny red bow on it.
"And this is for you April luv. I know you've been wanting to see this show."
April opened the envelope with typical enthusiasm.
"Oh, I Do, I Do! Thank you, Mark. I will, I will go see it. Now, open yours."
The angular young man carefully pried open the box April handed him, finally taking out one of the cashmere scarves she had admired in the department store.
"Oh, this is lovely and … mmmmm… very soft. I'll make good use of it in London. And speaking of Merry Olde England…"
Mark gave April a kiss on the cheek, shook hands with Napoleon and Illya and then he was off. The other three watched him wend his way through the crowd, disappear out the door and into the night.
"Well, I suppose it is getting late. Illya, this was a rare treat. Thank you for inviting us to join you.'
April was grinning, and gave Napoleon a wink before he continued on.
"Oh, and uh … well, I hope you don't mind but I left something for you at your apartment. I let myself in, just in case it was too late to drop it off… Anyway, I hope … we hope … that you like it."
April was so excited, she hated to miss seeing Illya's response to the gift she and Napoleon had gotten for him. Illya was slightly embarrassed since he hadn't gotten anything for either of them.
"I don't know what to say. I did not know we were to exchange gifts…''
Napoleon was shaking his head.
"No. No, we didn't plan on it. This just sort of happened, and April and I wanted you to have this. The performance … that was a gift like none other, my friend. I will treasure this, truly."
April slid out of the booth, her martini a pleasant memory and visions of sugarplums competing with a sudden desire to crawl into bed.
"Illya, darling, you are so talented and I loved, loved this evening. More than you can possibly imagine. Shall we all share a cab?"
The two men agreed, but once on the street Illya realized that he was already close to home and decided to walk.
"I will see you both … well, when we see each other. Thank you for coming tonight, and for whatever is waiting for me at home, I thank you. Schastlivogo Rozhdestva …Happy Christmas."
From inside the cab April and Napoleon returned the greeting, hopeful that their Russian friend would welcome and appreciate their gift on this Christmas Eve.
"Merry Christmas Illya. Good night"
The walk home was invigorating for Illya, adding to the good feeling he was experiencing. It had been a good day and an even better evening. The performance would remain a glowing moment; the exhilaration of playing was unlike anything else in his life, the legacy of his musician father. Even at this hour and with snow still falling in feathery soft flakes, there were people on both sides of the street, walking arm in arm with another or alone, as he was. Odd, but Illya didn't feel alone tonight. He felt a part of this place, and the people in it.
Reaching the imposing brownstone, Illya looked up to his window. Something was creating a colorful glow; perhaps it was a reflection of something across the street…
Even this late and after a very long day, the Russian sprinted up the stairs to the sixth floor on which he lived, down the hall to his unadorned front door. As he began the process of opening the door of his apartment, the various locks and alarms were disengaged to allow entry. The short hall led to the modest living room where, to Illya's amazement, stood a decorated and very well lit fir tree.
"Oh, my friends, what have you done?"
The room, although sparsely furnished by some standards, was comfortable and tasteful. Illya saw no need for extravagance, but he liked order and the satisfaction of his own standards. The tree was gaudy by any measurement.
And it was beautiful. A myriad of colorful glass ornaments were intermingled with large colorful bulbs and, to his amazement, some of the lights had bubbles that made the tree seem as though it was playing host to something living. This tree was an astounding testament to his friends' convictions that nothing said Christmas like a tree filled to the brim.
At just the right moment his phone rang.
"Happy Christmas, ho ho ho!"
Napoleon started laughing, and April in the background was asking why.
"Yes Napoleon. Thank you, the tree is … spectacular. I suppose you and April are waiting downstairs."
A hesitation on the other end contradicted that.
"Oh, no we're… well, no. Do you want us to come over?"
Illya smiled to himself. Did he?
"My mistake, I am trying to keep up with the two of you. It is late, my friend, and I am ready to sit for a while and simply enjoy this wonder in my living room.'
Illya sat down on the arm of his sofa, eyes still glued to the spectacle that was his Christmas tree.
"You and April have outdone yourselves, and I thank you."
April's voice came on the line; she wanted to hear for herself that the gift was just right.
"Do you love it, darling? I so wanted you to have a tree this year."
"Da, eto krasivo."
"He says it's beautiful, Napoleon. I knew it… I knew you'd like it, darling."
"Illya. Okay, we're both heading home. Our own homes…'
Napoleon could see Illya's smile just about now.
"So… merry Christmas, Illya. I'll check in with you tomorrow. Good night."
"Good night Napoleon. Kiss April for me. Spacibo."
Illya laid the receiver back in the phone's cradle, turned out the lights in the room and sat down to watch his tree.
Sometime during the early morning hours, a blanket was placed over the sleeping Russian. The lights flickered momentarily as an invisible hand swept back the blond hair from his broad forehead.
In Illya's dreams his mother sang to him while his father played a violin, and the little blond boy wrapped himself in the beautiful, fringed shawl.