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The Flowers Along The Way

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"Any plans this Christmas season?"

Illya hesitates. From anyone else, this would have been an innocuous question, but there's nothing innocuous about Napoleon Solo. "Should I have?"

"Well, even for the truly non-denominational among us, at least a trip home would be traditional." Perched on the edge of his desk, Napoleon's casual posture belies the fact that he is plainly building to something. Or fishing for it, maybe.

Illya considers whether he is in the mood to be caught. "Well, call me non-traditional, but I can think of better places to spend the season than navigating holiday airport congestion in the dead of Russian winter. Such as with my feet up at home, with a good book."


"Not this year." Though now the idea has been put to Illya, it might not have been a bad plan—a chance to clear his head, to get some distance and perspective on a life he has begun to worry he has been too wrapped up in to see clearly, of late. Not that it matters now—the time to make arrangements has long passed.

But Napoleon has reached his purpose, or at least filled his need for small talk. "Well, in that case, what would you say to spending Christmas in someone else's home? You'd be welcome to join me for the Solo family Christmas dinner."

"Your family would not object to finding a strange, godless, foreign communist in their midst?"

Napoleon smiles. "Not at all. I think they'd be only too glad to extend a little Christmas spirit to a stranger, so far from home. They're not as closed-minded as you seem to think."

Illya puts down his pen. "I don't need you to feel sorry for me, Napoleon. I have had enough travel in the last year that a few days' peace and quiet in a warm apartment with a well-stocked refrigerator sounds heavenly."

"I know. And I don't." Napoleon sounds uncharacteristically sincere, but there's a teasing note to his voice as he adds, "But after all the interest you showed in the subject of my family after that Green Opal Affair, I thought I might at least extend the invitation to assuage some of your curiosity."

"Which side of the family was this? The admiral or the ambassador?" Napoleon is going to make it difficult for him to say no without seeming rude, and Illya can't honestly say that he isn't curious. But spending Christmas with Napoleon would be the opposite of that distance he is beginning to need. The two of them are already too close for their own good—or at least, too close for Illya's, and with meeting Napoleon's family comes with the risk of letting himself believe something that he should not encourage.

"Well, both, seeing as we'd be staying in my parents' house," Napoleon replies. "But the house comes from the ambassadorial side of the family, if you must know."

"And your... uncle?" Illya asks, because he rather has to. "The country town lawyer?"

Napoleon's smile widens. "Well, I can't promise he'll be able to make it this year..."

"Of course," Illya returns, dryly. "He is such a busy man." And had he never existed at all (and Illya is well aware that he most likely doesn't), Napoleon would have had to invent him, all for the sake of that lovely parable he'd shared with Mrs. Brinel in her moment of weakness.

But he accepts Napoleon's invitation, of course. What else could he do?

"I take it back," says Illya, on his first sight of the house, rising in multi-storied glory over the curve of the hill, "you clearly rate with Dun and Bradstreet. I don't know how I ever missed it." Though there's a homeliness to the architecture, with its white-painted walls, steep, cross-gabled rooves and wide veranda, the scale of the building tells another story.

"It's my secret shame," says Napoleon, sounding not at all ashamed, as they pull up outside.

In the foyer, a middle-aged woman in an emerald wool dress and pearl earrings greets Napoleon with a warm smile and open arms. "Napoleon!" she beams, "Oh, it's been too long." Her face has aged perhaps five or ten years from the photographs Illya has seen tucked into drawers around Napoleon's apartment, smiling into the camera alongside various younger Napoleons whom Illya had never known.

Napoleon kisses her cheek, then turns back to Illya. "Mama, may I present: Illya Nicovetch Kuryakin."

"Ah, yes," she says, taking Illya's hand. "The atheist communist agent, wasn't it? Napoleon, you've sold him short."

That phrasing rings a little too similar to Illya's own initial objection to be coincidence. "I see my reputation precedes me," he says, embarrassed.

"Haven't you heard?" says Mrs. Solo, with a twinkle in her eye that is almost too familiar for Illya to bear. "There are spies everywhere." While Illya is still reeling from the discovery of exactly where Napoleon got his charm, she's turned on her heel to lead them up the stairs. "We have the two of you sharing a room; I hope you don't mind."

Illya flicks another look at Napoleon. "After two years of hotel rooms in all parts, I'm sure we'll manage."

"He snores terribly," Napoleon tells her, conspiratorially. "But once you've resisted smothering him with a pillow for the first few months, you eventually get used to it."

"Well, if you can hold yourself back for a few nights more, we'll thank you for it," says Mrs. Solo, leading them to an airy bedroom containing two single beds—a fair sight nicer than many hotel rooms Illya has lived in over the past year. "I'd have had Maude prepare another room, but she works herself into such a state accommodating your Aunt Elizabeth's family each year, we thought it best not to add to the strain. Oh, speaking of whom, there've been some new developments since we spoke on the phone. Did you want the good news or the bad first?"

"Start with the bad." Napoleon lowers his bag to the floor.

"You Aunt Justine won't be joining us, I'm afraid. The usual excuses."

"Ah," Napoleon replies, without obvious disappointment. "Perhaps next year. And the good news?"

"Your grandparents will be. Arrived this morning. The doctor gave your grandfather the all-clear to travel just in time."

"Ahh." This nugget of news seems to give Napoleon a good deal more pleasure. "And there you had me thinking the good and bad news weren't connected."

"Behave, Napoleon," she scolds him, mildly. "It is Christmas. Bring your friend down to meet them, once you've both settled in. Ordinarily, I'd tell you to call for Maude if you need anything, but between you and me, I wouldn't disturb her unless you absolutely have to."

"A maid?" Illya mouths at Napoleon, as Mrs. Solo turns to go.

Napoleon looks suitably insulted. "Our housekeeper," he mouths back. Illya wonders how much difference there is. Still, if the Solos live in that much fear of disturbing her schedule, perhaps she's earned the title.

More apparent, even on such brief association, is that Mrs. Solo is a woman with fewer illusions about Napoleon and his work than Illya might have supposed. If the same is true of all the family, perhaps they might pass this visit without finding themselves awash in questions about Napoleon's romantic prospects, and veiled suggestions about his retiring from the field and finding some nice young lady to settle down with—perhaps interspersed with similar inquiries about Illya's own personal life, that Napoleon would know better than to ask. But the intelligence is hardly definitive; it is too soon to relax .

Unpacked and refreshed, Illya follows Napoleon down to the lounge, where a Christmas tree (of such proportions that the decorating must have involved a ladder) holds court beside the fireplace. The room is cosy despite its size, and softly lit. On the sofa nearest the fire, two old men are resting their weight.

Ambassador Joseph Solo strikes Illya as a man who probably stood considerably taller in his youth than Napoleon does today. Age has compressed him at every joint, but not bowed him; his back is straight as he rises to his feet to meet his grandson's partner.

"I hope he didn't tell you I speak Russian," he tells Illya jovially, shaking his hand. "I was passable once upon a time, but that's one muscle I haven't used in more than twenty years." The hair at his temples is pure white and thinning. If he bore much resemblance to his grandson in his younger years, age has weathered it away.

"I'd count that closer to fifty years," his companion puts in. He hasn't bothered to stand. He looks somewhere between ten and twenty years Ambassador Solo's junior, though he might otherwise pass for a slightly stouter impression from the same mould. Illya had guessed at first that he might be Napoleon's father—but he's seen photos of the elder Mr. Solo, and on closer inspection, this man is not him.

"Will," retorts the ambassador, "you barely knew me fifty years ago,"

"That's not how I remember it."

"You've taken to remembering things for me now too, in my old age?" This the ambassador delivers with the familiar amusement of a man who has had this argument before, and surely will again.

"Someone has to, my dear."

Noting Illya's confusion, Napoleon steps in, "Illya, may I also introduce: my Grandpa Will."

"You'll have to excuse me if I don't get up," offers Grandpa Will. "Bad leg; doctor's orders to keep off it as much as possible."

"Your...?" echoes Illya.

"You remember, we were discussing him just the other day," Napoleon tells him. "My grandfather, the country town lawyer?"

Illya, who has been expecting... something since Napoleon's reaction to the news his 'grandparents' had arrived, is forced to admit that this is one possibility which had not occurred to him.

"Good gracious, Napoleon, just what did you tell him about me?" says Grandpa Will. "Boy looks almost like he's seen a ghost."

More than a little embarrassed (professionally as well as personally), Illya recovers, mostly on automatic. "You'll have to excuse me, sir—you see, Napoleon had allowed me to believe that he'd invented you."

"Invented me?" Will exclaims, looking to Napoleon and back again. "What on earth for?"

"To make some point to a lady, I believe," says Illya, looking Napoleon right in the eye. An uneducated observer would describe Napoleon's expression as innocent, but Illya is not so easily fooled.

"A lady?" barks Will. "Well, that sounds like the Napoleon we all know."

Napoleon coughs politely. "A married lady, Grandpa."

"A married lady?" echoes the ambassador. "Napoleon, I never thought you had that in you."

"More specifically," Napoleon adds smoothly, "a lady I was attempting to convince of the wisdom of giving her husband a second chance."

Though the ambassador appears to be deciding whether he buys this excuse, Will lets out a guffaw. "You know, I've been called a good many things in my time, but an example to the cause of matrimony? That's very new."

"As if you weren't just extolling your many years of faithfulness a moment ago," the ambassador reminds him.

"Come now, Joe, it's hardly the same thing."

There is more to the conversation, which holds the various Solos' attention for some minutes more. But Illya is no longer listening—too busy looking from one man to the other, as suspicion blooms into understanding of just what he's been invited here to see.

Christmas in upstate New York is no time of year for a man to find himself in need of some air, but Illya has always found the cold clears his mind like little else, and his mind is buzzing after his afternoon in the Solos' lounge. Besides, the same has left him warmed to the core. It's a warmth having very little to do with his one glass of brandy; a rare sense of welcome that radiates from somewhere much deeper.

It is sobering to think just how badly he has underestimated his friend, when Napoleon trusted his reactions today in a way Illya has failed to return. Now, he can only wonder that he'd ever wondered at all.

When Napoleon steps out onto the balcony behind him, Illya can feel his partner's self-satisfied smirk without turning. He supposes Napoleon has earned it.

"So," Illya says, "After all that, there was another grandfather."

Napoleon's footsteps crunch to a stop beside him. "We all have to have a few secrets that don't make it into the file."

Illya looks at him sideways. "You could have told me."

"And miss that grand reveal?" says Napoleon, in false-wounded tones. "Why, Illya, where's your Christmas spirit?"

It is hard to muster any real indignation. This might be the most charming prank Napoleon has ever played on him. Instead, he asks, "How long have they...?"

"Been together? As long as I can remember. Much longer than I've been alive. I understand Will was a great comfort to Grandpa Joe after my grandmother's death." Napoleon scuffs the ground slightly with a foot. "Or perhaps since somewhat before; I never did find the right moment to ask about the chronology on that one."

"Really," says Illya.

"My father used to say that without him, Grandpa Joe would have worked himself into an early grave. It would take a much colder family than mine not to welcome a man who'd done it that kind of favour."

There is surely more to that story, but Illya will have to pry it from him one piece at a time. "So how does an ambassador end up with a country town lawyer?" He turns to lean his elbows on the railing behind him.

"Well, uh, that came later. Old Grandpa William was still working for the State Department when they met. Somewhere down the line, I gather their relationship began raising awkward questions, and they decided life was going to be much simpler out of the public eye. That was when they left the house to my parents and moved into a comfortable cottage in the country. It's not that far from here."

Illya raises an eyebrow. "Because small country towns are so known for their open minds and accepting natures?"

Napoleon shrugs back. "After that many years of international politics, I think even small town attitudes would be relaxing. A couple of respectable middle-aged men who greet their neighbours and don't cause trouble don't raise that many questions. Especially when one of them is in the habit of trading professional legal advice for farm produce. Saved on paperwork, he used to say."

How idyllic he makes it sound. "Still, that doesn't seem like quite the version you told Mrs. Brinel."

Napoleon looks wistful. "Well, I suppose by the time I came along, they'd had their time to make peace with the situation, but neither of them ever framed it like any great sacrifice—not to me. Grandpas Will and Joe had made their impression on me long before I was old enough to understand that they might not have had much choice in the matter, you realise—it was years before I understood why sometimes my 'Grandpa Will' turned into my 'Uncle Will' when my parents were talking to other people. But Grandpa Joe was nearing retirement age anyway, when he left the service, and Grandpa Will used to call it the best decision he'd ever made. He still got the odd job offer from the city, when I was growing up—he'd laugh at them and tuck them into the bottom of his in-box. He never used that in-box, mind—it was just there to hold mail he didn't want to deal with."

"Not much a man for the Puritan work ethic?" says Illya, amused—though somewhere inside, privately floored by how much of his life Napoleon has chosen to share with him today.

Beside him, Napoleon smiles off into the distance. "You know, most of the boys I grew up with went into politics or business. Some of them names you'd recognise in the papers nowadays. But I don't think it ever did me any harm to have someone around to remind me there were other pleasures in life besides fame and fortune."

There are a number of things Illya might say to that admission. What comes out is, "You knew they'd be here, didn't you? Even before you asked me to come, you knew."

Napoleon's smile broadens, and turns mischievous. "I may have made a few discreet calls. Who'd question the motives of a grandson inquiring after his grandfather's health?"

"Of course. A true spy never leaves anything to chance." Illya shakes his head, but he's smiling, and not trying to hide it. "And your aunt? Justine, wasn't it?"

Here, Napoleon hesitates. "Well, she was the oldest, and I'm told she was always the closest to my grandmother when she was alive. I don't think she ever wholly forgave him for moving on. They did reconcile, nearly ten years ago now, but it's never been quite the same."

"Then, the rest of your family...?

Napoleon smiles. "What do you think?"

"I think... you were right. I had underestimated the open-mindedness of the men and women who raised you." Illya is surprised at how little the admission costs him. The next will not come so cheap, but if he wastes this moment, it may not come again. "And to think I have spent so long questioning the wisdom of admitting to you that... I have had relations with other men myself."

When Napoleon does not immediately respond, Illya turns to face him. "You do not seem surprised."

"I admit I'd... suspected something of the sort," Napoleon says, not unkindly. "I think we've established that sort of thing isn't so far outside my experience."

Later, Illya will wonder if he's underestimated the depths of his partner's scheme—if Napoleon had brought him here in attempt to elicit this very confession. "I would say there are a great many more men in this world with such inclinations than most people realise," he offers, smiling.

"Oh, that there are." Napoleon bumps a shoulder companionably against Illya's.

In a rush of inspiration, Illya hears himself say, "If you are about to admit you have done likewise, I will feel properly ridiculous for having so long doubted your reaction," knowing it's foolish to hope—but more foolish still to not to ask, and forevermore condemn himself to wonder.

He expects an easy denial—safer that than to let himself imagine how Napoleon, the inveterate flirt, might go about admitting to a past Illya could hardly hope for. Instead, Illya watches Napoleon hesitate, and senses to his surprise that he has found one corner of Napoleon's script for which he has no snappy answer prepared.

"Well, it's not something I've ever done, no," Napoleon confesses, in a voice that does not quite stutter. "But I have to admit I've... wondered, occasionally, what it might be like."

"Wondered," says Illya, "...or wanted?"

Sheepish, Napoleon admits, "Both, I suppose."

Illya lets his eyes drift closed as he takes a moment to wonder just what he's done this year to deserve such a reward. If this goes no further, the fates have already been more than generous. But it would not do for Napoleon to see him beaming.

Eyes open, he steps deliberately into Napoleon's space to offer his ultimatum. "Well, if your curiosity ever gets the better of you," he says, straightening an invisible crease in Napoleon's lapel, "do let me know. I would be only too happy to... satisfy that curiosity of yours." And as Napoleon's expression drops another notch towards 'gobsmacked', Illya steps politely past, leaving him to put his sensibilities back together.

But Illya has evidently underestimated Napoleon's generosity (not to mention the man's equilibrium), for hardly has he gone a handful of paces when Napoleon's voice finds him from behind.

"Why, Mr. Kuryakin, that's a most generous offer. I think I might take you up on that one of these days," Napoleon purrs, in a voice that does terrible things to Illya's spine. In three quick paces, he has all but caught up, "Now, should we head inside? I think they'll be calling us for dinner."

The spell broken with the change in subject, Illya glances at him sideways, and takes refuge in sarcasm. "I was headed that way already."

"I know." Napoleon smiles. "You don't mind if I join you, do you?"

Illya looks up at the sky, and wonders how many days he has to wait before Napoleon takes that next step. Merry Christmas, Illya, he thinks.