The Turkey That Became a Soufflé Affair
"Napoleon, give me one good reason why I should be pleased about this change."
Illya waved the duty rota schedule in front of Napoleon's nose. A sprig of mistletoe hanging from the light fitting of Napoleon's office trembled in the draught the document produced.
Napoleon shrugged, deflated but unsurprised by his partner's lack of enthusiasm. "Well," he began, "you'll be free on Christmas Day to enjoy the peace, goodwill to all men . . . and me."
He had dared to hope Illya would be pleased. Napoleon had plans for the two of them to enjoy a little relaxation together, and perhaps something a little more intimate, but the stumbling block seemed to be Christmas. His irascible partner would need some serious coaxing.
The irascible partner was becoming more irascible by the moment. "You know I detest everything about Christmas."
"That's because you never give it a chance. This year you can enjoy it properly. We can enjoy it together." Although this repartee had become part of their ritual, sometimes Illya took more persuasion than a brace of virgins.
Illya gave a dismissive wave of his hand and glared at the document in front of him. "I see you've put Mark Slate in my place."
"It's time he took his turn. Besides—you've done the Christmas shift for the last four years."
"And why do you think that is?" Illya snarled.
Napoleon frowned. This was going to be even harder than he had expected. Illya seemed genuinely aggrieved. "Illya—look, it's not really up to me. Mr Waverly requested that I vary the rotas so that some of the younger agents . . ."
Illya cut him off again. "Mark has family—"
"In England. He can call them at U.N.C.L.E.'s expense." Napoleon smiled encouragingly. How to convince his partner that having Christmas Day off for once was not an indulgence?
Illya was not to be swayed. "I like the Christmas Day shift. It's the only time I get any peace and quiet around here."
An outright untruth. "I—er—seem to remember last year wasn't exactly peaceful." That was an understatement.
"The panic was caused by a power-failure. Nothing to do with Thrush. I expect they were all too busy singing ridiculously sentimental songs round a scabby little fir tree, no doubt purloined from somebody's backyard . . ."
"See—even Thrush takes Christmas off most years," Napoleon needled. "Mark and the rest will cope. They don't need you sitting there scowling and muttering 'bah humbug' into your party leftovers. They'll have a blast. And so will we." He waggled his eyebrows. Surely he rated above party leftovers in his partner's estimation.
Illya snorted. "Next you'll be asking me to play Santa Claus at the annual farce of the Christmas party! The leftovers are small compensation for playing childish games. Not to mention trying to look grateful for the usual bottle of disagreeable aftershave that has my name on it."
"Now Illya, you know it's pot luck. I'd be interested to know what you donated for Santa's bag last year. I seem to recall Lisa being less than thrilled with her present. A bottle of gun-oil indeed."
"An extremely practical gift now that all the girls are wearing guns," Illya grumped.
"Aha—so it was you!" The way it was so tastefully wrapped in a brown envelope bearing the U.N.C.L.E logo had also been something of a giveaway. Napoleon poked Illya playfully on the chest. "Come on Illya—it's a chance for us to have some fun together."
Illya continued to look mulish. "I just find the whole Christmas palaver banal and—" He waved his hand again, "unnecessary. Anyhow," he concluded, triumphantly, "I don't celebrate this holiday. Go and find someone else to keep you company."
Napoleon decided that the only thing for it was to play his trump card. "We'll do better than leftovers. I want you to stay at my place for Christmas dinner as well. I'll cook—turkey with all the trimmings."
Was that a glimmer of interest in the blue eyes? But Illya's voice remained dour. "I thought you had dinner with your aunt every year."
"Ah—not this time." Aunt Amy had suddenly announced she was spending Christmas in Europe. Napoleon suspected she had found another ageing millionaire to add to her growing list of playboys.
"Then ask one of your lady friends. Surely your little black book can come up with somebody unattached."
Napoleon sighed. Make that three virgins. "What is it exactly that you don't like about Christmas? I'm not asking you to believe in Santa Claus. I just want us to have a nice day together." He winked and smiled encouragingly. He could not have put it more plainly if he'd come right out with it and said he intended to fuck his partner's brains out. That would set the wires humming at HQ!
"It's for families . . . " Illya shrugged and turned away.
Sometimes Illya seemed to go too far to assert his independence. Talk about playing hard to get. Napoleon moved round in front of him so he was looking his partner straight in the eyes "And friends. Do you really think I enjoy listening to Aunt Amy's latest exploits with her plastic surgeon and pretending I'm an insurance salesman to my cousins?"
Illya frowned at him. Napoleon was sure now that he was tempted despite the way he glared from under his lashes. "Do you really . . . "
"Illya—why can't you try being gracious, just for once? I don't want anyone else. I would really like to spend Christmas with you, although Heaven knows why. We can have champagne for breakfast, spend the morning doing anything you like . . ."
"Anything?" Illya raised an eyebrow and quirked his lips. A good sign—at this rate he'd be fluttering his eyelashes in no time.
Napoleon lowered his voice. "Well, anything within reason, bearing in mind I'm not quite as limber as you are . . . " He winked and went on quickly, backing up his offer with the bait he knew his partner would find irresistible, "and then I'll cook dinner—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, glazed carrots—all that stuff. It may not be your holiday, but it is mine and I'd like to enjoy it with you."
That was definitely less than a 'bah humbug'. Napoleon sensed imminent capitulation. He continued, upping the ante a little, "And I already have a frozen turkey. You don't expect me to eat it all myself do you?"
Illya's glare softened fractionally. Another little quirk of the lips. "What about all the trimmings—the glazed carrots and stuffing?" Oh yes—he'd taken the bait.
Reeling him in, Napoleon suppressed a triumphant grin. "I'll order them today—everything."
"Oh well all right then," Illya conceded, ungraciously, "but I am NOT singing carols or wearing a Santa hat,"
Napoleon had to grin this time. A picture of Illya wearing nothing but a Santa hat slid unbidden into his mind. He straightened his partner's tie. "Absolutely not. We shall be too busy stuffing the—ah—turkey and licking the cream off the cookies."
But Thrush threatened to ruin the best-laid plans. Christmas Eve found Napoleon in the infirmary. Only a timely rescue by his partner had prevented him from spending Christmas in the walk-in freezer of a butcher's shop in Trenton, New Jersey—a new Thrush satrapy that had sprung up during the seasonal rush to buy turkeys.
Napoleon and Illya had managed to foil a plot to poison the population of Trenton by contaminating their Christmas dinners, but in the process, Napoleon was locked in amongst the plucked carcasses of assorted fowl. Now he was recovering from a nasty case of hypothermia and any Christmas spirit he had felt earlier had evaporated into gloom as he waited impatiently for Illya to come and take him home
"I've brought your present from Santa." The familiar voice sounded uncharacteristically cheery.
Napoleon opened his eyes to see Illya grinning lopsidedly at him. His partner's blue eyes had that unfocused look that Napoleon saw only when Illya was drugged or had drunk enough to put most people under the table. He was brandishing a small parcel wrapped in green and red paper. Napoleon heaved himself into a sitting position as Illya plopped down heavily on the hospital bed. A party smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol assailed Napoleon's nostrils, along with something sharp and acidic.
He wrinkled his nose. "What's that smell?"
Illya fumbled in the pocket of his suit coat and produced a small bottle with a gilt top. "My present—I told you it would be aftershave. Or at least I think that's what it is." He unscrewed the top and sniffed—made a face and thrust the bottle under Napoleon's nose. "Maybe I should have drunk it. The wine didn't taste much better."
Napoleon managed to avoid another evil-smelling lungful by pushing the bottle away. "But it would appear you've drunk enough to float a battleship anyway. Get rid of that."
Illya had difficulty screwing the top back on, but lobbed the offending bottle with surprising accuracy into the wastebasket. "Aren't you going to open your present?" He went to pick up the brightly wrapped parcel but knocked it onto the floor. There was an ominous smash. The present dripped as he picked it up and he dropped it again. A pungent aroma arose from it.
"I—ah—believe it may have been the same as yours." Napoleon was beginning to regret his invitation. Illya was going to have a huge hangover tomorrow to add to his antipathy towards Christmas. Napoleon's hypothermia-induced gloom deepened. Any plans he'd entertained of a cosy Christmas Day of sex and companionship with Illya began to retreat. He started to get out of bed, avoiding the damp remains of his present with his bare feet. "Just get me out of here."
Napoleon's spirits lowered still further as he and Illya entered his apartment. It felt no warmer than outside. The furnace must have broken down again. Great. He was recovering from hypothermia only to be frozen once more in his own home. He had a small electric heater in the closet and that was all. So far, Christmas was not going well.
Indeed, after the bright lights and bustle of the city preparing for Christmas, the apartment not only felt cold, but looked very dismal. There were no decorations, no Christmas tree. Napoleon had some champagne—he always kept a couple of bottles chilled—and the turkey, but had failed to order 'all the trimmings.' He had meant to, but Thrush had interfered with his plans, as so often happened. Such was the life of a Section Two agent. He supposed Illya would understand—when he sobered up.
He had considered stopping on the way home to buy stuff, but Illya had fallen asleep in the taxi as it threaded its way through the still busy, brightly lit streets and it seemed like too much trouble—Napoleon was still lethargic after the hypothermia. As his partner's head had fallen sideways onto his shoulder, he had enjoyed the solid warmth and allowed his imagination to wander pleasantly towards the bedroom.
Napoleon pulled the inadequate heater out of the closet in the hall and plugged it in. Maybe this setback could be turned to advantage. Snuggling up to Illya tonight would be doubly desirable. Illya went hunting for supper and found an unopened packet of cookies, which he plundered happily. The sleep in the taxi seemed to have revived him.
Once the edge was taken off the cold in the apartment and Napoleon felt able to remove his coat, he headed to the bathroom to start the shower, thinking it would heat them and perhaps sober Illya up a little, enough for a small pre-Christmas celebration when they got into bed. But the water was barely lukewarm. The heating must have been off for a while. Damn. Nothing was going right. He looked at his watch. The landlord would not be happy with a phonecall at this time of night. Still dressed and still chilly, he decided to call him anyway.
In the hall he met Illya standing munching on a cookie. Illya had not mentioned the cold. Indeed, he had removed his suit jacket and loosened his tie. "When shall we start the party?" His eyes were wide, very blue, and very unfocused. He blinked. "I found the champagne." Waving his hand vaguely in the direction of the kitchen and scattering crumbs onto the carpet, he staggered and grinned.
Napoleon caught him. "I think the party should wait until tomorrow. You might want to sleep off the last one first." He turned him and gave him a gentle push towards the bedroom, patting his behind. "Warm the bed for me."
Illya wandered into the bedroom, muttering. Napoleon stood in front of the heater, warming his behind and waiting for the landlord to answer the phone. When he saw Illya emerge from the bedroom butt-naked and enter the bathroom, his spirits rose slightly and he even felt himself harden a little in anticipation. A few moments later, Napoleon heard his partner call out, "There's no hot water!"
The harassed landlord assured Napoleon everything possible was being done to restore heat, but didn't he know it was Christmas? Napoleon sighed and wished him a merry Christmas. He wondered how merry his own Christmas was going to be.
But Illya seemed unaccountably genial, considering his original antipathy towards the holiday. Was he too drunk to play games tonight? Perhaps a quick fuck before they fell asleep would warm them both and begin the holiday as they meant it to go on. Napoleon's cock twitched in anticipation.
But by the time Napoleon had washed in the cool water and shivered into his cold pyjamas, Illya was already asleep. Napoleon climbed into the bed beside him and snuggled into the heat that exuded from his warm-blooded partner. Illya was still naked. How come he wasn't cold too? Napoleon pushed his hopeful cock against his partner's bony hip, and was rewarded with a sigh and a grunt. Illya turned onto his back, his eyes still closed but his mouth curved into a sweetly beatific smile that Napoleon rarely saw when he was awake. Napoleon decided it would be a pity to waken him. He would be content to have his Russian wolf keeping him warm tonight.
Napoleon awoke to the sound of whistling, clattering crockery and clinking glasses. There was an aroma of coffee wafting from the kitchen and he could hear the percolator plopping. He glanced at the clock. It was late and there was an empty space beside him. Illya's side of the bed looked immaculate—almost as if nobody had lain there. Illya had slept immovably on his back all night like a gently snoring angel, long hair spilling onto the pillow in a golden halo. Napoleon, watching him fondly for a few minutes before settling down to sleep, had wondered again if inviting his self-confessed Scrooge of a partner round for Christmas was a mistake. Despite his benign mood of yesterday, Illya was bound to be grouchy and hung-over after the excesses of the party. He probably needed the coffee to sober up this morning.
But Illya had often told Napoleon that Russian children were weaned onto vodka straight from their mother's breast. Napoleon didn't believe that for a moment, although the sounds coming from the kitchen were encouraging. He closed his eyes again, wondering when he should mention to Illya that there was no real Christmas dinner. At least he had the turkey—although actually, after what Napoleon just been through, he wouldn't mind if he never saw another plucked turkey in his life . . .
Oh no! Napoleon's eyes snapped open. The turkey was still in the freezer.
Illya appeared in the doorway. Absurdly, he was wearing Napoleon's stripy chef's apron over . . . not very much. He carried two champagne flutes—one half empty—rather unsteadily. It appeared he had already begun the morning's celebrations. Or perhaps it was hair of the dog.
Napoleon narrowed his eyes as it also became apparent that Illya was, in fact, naked beneath the apron. He sat up to get a better view and shivered. The air was frigid. The heat was still off then. He pulled the bedclothes up around himself and wondered how Illya could possibly walk around like that. He wasn't complaining though—it was a heart-warming sight to wake up to.
"I—ah—see you've made yourself at home. Aren't you a little cold?"
"My clothes stink. I can't wear them. I'm perfectly warm, thank you. Coffee's in the percolator."
Illya liked to make free with Napoleon's domestic appliances when he visited. He seemed fascinated by the various gadgets, although he had had no aspirations to own such things himself. Indeed, he even took a perverse delight in making do with what he had. He sat on the bed and handed Napoleon the full glass of champagne. "Nasdarovya!"
"Er—merry Christmas." Napoleon took a large swallow of the champagne and shivered again. The temperature in the apartment was still Baltic. He might as well still be in that freezer. He remembered the turkey that was. "Illya—the turkey. It's—ah—still in the freezer. It's not going to be defrosted in time."
"Oh. So no turkey and all the trimmings for lunch?" Illya didn't look too upset by the news. In fact he seemed rather mellow.
"Not even dinner, I'm afraid. It takes a couple of days. I should have started it defrosting just as Thrush was attempting to make a frozen turkey out of me."
His partner looked sympathetic. "Something tells me, Napoleon, that turkey is not high on your list of favourites right now."
Napoleon gave another involuntary shudder. Suddenly the champagne felt too cold and he put it down. He could see his breath for Heaven's sake! How could Illya walk around naked? "I feel like the damn turkey." He blew on his hands to warm them.
Illya sat on the bed beside Napoleon. "I really don't mind about the turkey. You know I dislike Christmas." He fixed Napoleon with a blue gaze through long eyelashes. His face was pink and he had a vigorous growth of blond whiskers. A few wisps of chest hair strayed over the top of the apron.
Napoleon's heart turned over. Illya looked both absurd in that apron and sexy as hell. "You seemed to be enjoying it enough yesterday."
He hooked his finger over the top of the apron and pulled his partner towards him, kissing him lightly on the lips. He tasted champagne on Illya's breath and the sharp tang of salty sweat on the bristly curve above his lip. Illya was warm enough to sweat? Beneath the bedclothes, Napoleon's erection rose to attention, despite his goose-bumps. Champagne spilled onto the bed and Illya pulled away.
"Careful, Napoleon." Illya mopped at the spillage with the hem of the apron. "What shall we do instead?" He blinked and opened his eyes wide.
Napoleon knew what he wanted to do, but he still felt bad that he'd promised Illya a feast. "Perhaps we could go out somewhere."
Illya shrugged. "Will anywhere be open?" He drained his glass. "We can just have champagne." He regarded his empty glass. "That's the last of the bottle. Never mind—there's another one." He stood and headed towards the door.
Napoleon had opened his mouth to suggest a venue for dinner, but was silenced by the alluring sight of his partner's departing backside. He reached for his glass and took a sip, his lips curving around the rim in a smile. Maybe Christmas could be salvaged after all.
"Illya—get back here right now!"
Obediently, Illya returned and stood by the bed. He really was being unusually co-operative. Napoleon reached out and ran his hands up the back of the warm, well-muscled thighs.
"Ow, ow! Napoleon—your hands are cold!"
"So warm me up." Napoleon yanked his partner towards him. "Come on—you don't want me to get hypothermia again do you?"
All in all, it was after midday when Illya emerged from the bathroom, rubbing his hair dry and frowning. "Water's still cold."
Napoleon, conserving the warmth they had generated between them, was still under the blankets. There must be a special factor in Russian blood that made them impervious to winter.
But now Illya seemed to have lost a little of his earlier joie de vivre and scowled at his reflection in the mirror. "What did the landlord say?" He took Napoleon's comb from the dresser and combed the tugs out of his hair, fingering it into place.
Looking at his naked partner combing his hair in the mirror, Napoleon became aware that he needed Illya to put some clothes on or they would never get out of the bedroom and Napoleon needed some hot coffee.
"He said he'll try to fix it but he's not making promises on Christmas Day."
Illya snorted. "Christmas—everything stops for Christmas."
Napoleon reluctantly got out of bed and went to the wardrobe to find something Illya could borrow until they could run his own clothes through the laundry in the basement. Unearthing a pair of slacks and a navy sweater that he rarely wore because it wasn't his colour, Napoleon threw them towards Illya. "Not everything stops. Here—these should fit. You'll find underwear in the top drawer."
Illya caught them. "I know where you keep your underwear, Napoleon." He selected some paisley patterned silk boxers and put them on. "So what shall we do then?"
Napoleon was aware that Illya's cheerful mood of earlier was ebbing. Champagne did that to you—lifted you up then let you down with a resounding crash if you didn't follow it up with food.
Napoleon was anxious to salvage some Christmas spirit. "We'll open the second bottle of champagne. I'll light a fire to warm us up and make the place look cheerful, then we can send out for carry-out. There are a few places that will be open."
Illya pulled the navy jersey over his head. The colour contrasted with the light silk of his hair. He fingered his hair back into place again, regarding himself grumpily in the glass. "You promised home cooking. I could be enjoying the party food."
Napoleon shrugged. "I have steaks in the freezer too. They won't take so long to defrost."
"I'm hungry now." Illya snatched up the apron and the champagne glasses and set off purposefully towards the kitchen.
Napoleon braved the freezing water for a chilly wash and dressed quickly, putting on two sweaters. He collected some logs from the small stash of firewood he kept for romantic evenings. At least that would lend some festive warmth to the atmosphere. Then he would look out the decorations. He could hear Illya opening and shutting cupboard doors, then the pop of a cork. A few moments later there came a shout from the kitchen.
"I'm going to make a soufflé!"
Napoleon left the fireplace and hurried to the kitchen, frowning. "Soufflé? Not the Transylvanian one that requires you to catch two chickens?"
"Of course," Illya grinned, quite cheerful once more. He was brandishing a box of eggs. "But fortunately the chickens have already been caught by someone else and what is more, have been persuaded to part with their eggs."
"Do you actually know how to make a soufflé?" Napoleon doubted Illya's cooking abilities. He seemed to live on commissary food and vodka.
"Of course—and you have everything I need for a Transylvanian soufflé right here in your kitchen. I'll have to shave the green bits off the cheese . . ."
"What cheese? I don't remember any cheese." The last time he'd bought cheese was weeks ago—a nice piece of Gruyere from Switzerland when he and Illya had been there on a mission. He didn't realise he had any left. But a square of somewhat mouldy cheese sat on the small counter beside the butter and a selection of bowls and pots. Napoleon poured himself a cup of the now rather old coffee from the long neglected percolator, still plopping plaintively. He was sure the reason he felt so cold was partly to do with the lingering effects of the encounter with the freezer. Caffeine should help.
"Go and light your fire and leave the cooking to me." Illya was peering into cupboards once more, taking out a bag of flour, some mustard and a can of dried milk that Napoleon kept for emergencies. "I promised you a soufflé once before. Now I shall keep that promise. Also, it does not take long and I'm very, very hungry." He picked up his glass and slurped from it.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing? Why don't we just have an omelette?" Napoleon poured some of the rapidly dwindling second bottle of champagne as well before his partner finished it.
"Napoleon, you trust me with your life—now trust me with your kitchen. Go!" Illya pointed at the door. "Light the fire."
Napoleon went back into the living room carrying his coffee and champagne. He sighed and started to look round for a newspaper to start the fire. Once Illya had his teeth into something, so to speak, there was no stopping him. And if the turkey was still a rock, then it made no difference that Illya's soufflé was probably the hard place. He took a swig of disagreeably strong but hot coffee and followed it up with some champagne. If they were both drunk enough it wouldn't matter.
"Go ahead then, if you really want to," he shouted through the door.
"I really want to." A sound of whirring—Napoleon's electric mixer—emanated from the kitchen and precluded any further conversation.
He may as well humour him, Napoleon thought. They could always go out later and get a proper meal. This wasn't quite what he'd had in mind, but as agents, they were both used to making do with what there was. Secretly, the way he felt, he was quite glad not to have to cook.
The fire took some coaxing. He had to use a lot of newspaper to get it going but he hadn't been a Boy Scout for nothing and at last, Napoleon produced a small but promising blaze. The room already looked and felt friendlier. He went through to the closet in the hall to hunt for his box of decorations. The door to the kitchen was open and on his way back he glanced through it. Illya stood at the stove, engrossed in stirring something in a pot. He was surrounded by bowls, plates, eggshells, a cloud of flour and most of Napoleon's kitchen appliances. The champagne bottle was almost empty. As Napoleon watched, he dipped his finger into the pot, scooped out a cream coloured blob of sauce and licked it.
Illya must have sensed Napoleon staring at him, because he looked round, his finger still in his mouth. Meeting and holding Napoleon's gaze, he sucked the finger, then pulled it slowly from between his lips and licked carefully up the length to remove the last traces of the sauce. "A good cook always tastes."
Fascinated by this display and drawn irresistibly by a tug of lust, Napoleon set down the box of decorations on the floor and sidled up to stand behind his partner, clasping him around the waist and resting his chin on Illya's shoulder. "And does the cook taste good?"
Illya dipped in his pinky and offered it over his shoulder to Napoleon to taste. "Try it for yourself, Napoleon," he purred.
Napoleon sucked on the finger. The sauce was good. "Mmmmm. Maybe just a little more salt." Reaching round, he picked up the salt-shaker and added a little to the mixture. "There. How does that taste?" He dipped in his own finger and offered it to Illya. His hands were warmer at last. The temperature in the apartment was going up.
Illya's tongue delicately scooped the sauce from Napoleon's finger, darting out again to lick the final traces from it. Then he took the whole finger into his mouth and sucked on it. Sliding the finger back out at last, he put his head to one side, closed his eyes and his face became blissful as he savoured the taste. "Delicious."
Napoleon was about to take another scoop when Illya abruptly opened his eyes. "I have to put in the cheese now." He elbowed Napoleon out of the way and removed the pot from the flame. "Pass me that piece of cheese please."
Napoleon silently passed him the lump of cheese, now shaved of its mould.
"And the grater, please."
With splendid efficiency, considering the amount of champagne he had on board, Illya grated the cheese into the saucepan. Napoleon watched with amusement. Illya loved gadgets and managed Napoleon's little rotary cheese grater he'd bought in France with a dexterity Napoleon himself had never mastered. He passed the empty grater to Napoleon, who added it to the growing pile of dishes and cutlery on the draining board.
"And now we should prepare the soufflé dish. I thought this one—don't you agree?" From a selection he had put out on the counter, Illya picked up a round, deep, straight-sided ovenproof dish that Napoleon rarely used. "I have the butter warming."
Napoleon came and stood behind him once more. He ran his hands up and down the front of the apron, pressing his growing erection against his friend's buttocks.
Illya stopped a moment and pressed back. "Mmmm."
" I know how I'd like to use it . . ." Napoleon made thrusting movements.
Illya took the butter from the back of the stove where it had warmed to a softly rounded mound. "It is most important to prepare correctly."
Napoleon followed, keeping the body contact from behind and looked over his friend's shoulder as Illya used his fingers to scoop up a soft blob of butter and smear it lovingly around the sides of the dish. He scooped up a little more. "Now the bottom. There—nice and slippery." He turned round and handed the dish to Napoleon while he carefully licked his fingers again, one by one, before washing his hands in the sink. "Almost ready." He sighed and licked his lips, shiny with butter. "I'm starving."
Napoleon watched, transfixed, as his partner lifted the now cooled pot over to the table and took the bowl of beaten egg-whites from the food mixer. "I have to do this part very quickly, Napoleon. Please stand aside."
Napoleon moved, reluctantly. His blood was racing round his body now and he considered removing one of the sweaters. The kitchen was almost hot.
"Pass me a metal spoon." Illya's eyes shone and his lips pursed with concentration.
Napoleon took a spoon from the cutlery drawer and handed it silently to Illya, who used it to combine the sauce with the stiffly standing egg-whites. He watched, in a daze of lust, as Illya gently and carefully swirled the sauce around the stiff peaks of the egg-whites until the two were combined lovingly together in one glorious, foamy mixture.
"Quickly, Napoleon—I need to put it in now."
Napoleon started from his reverie. "Er—um—put it in what?"
Illya's blue eyes looked heavenwards. "The dish—put it there and hold it still."
It was an entrancing sight watching the creamy, foamy soufflé mixture filling the dish as Illya poured it in, scraping the bowl with the spoon, then every last drop with his finger. Only when it was all in the dish did he lick his finger once again, his pink tongue swirling around the finger to scoop the final traces into his mouth.
Napoleon opened the oven door and Illya reverently lifted the dish of quivering soufflé mixture and placed it on the centre shelf. "There." He straightened up and wiped his hands on the apron, an expression of achievement on his face, "We have three quarters of an hour before lunch."
Napoleon looked at his watch and grinned. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, my smug friend." He reached to gather Illya into his arms. He'd eat him up while they waited.
But Illya's eyes lit on the box of decorations. "What is that?"
Napoleon reined in his libido with difficulty. His original aim had been to make this a memorable Christmas for Illya and he wanted to get the atmosphere just right. He lifted the box. "Come and see. I was just on my way to the living room with it before I was . . . um . . . distracted."
Napoleon always enjoyed decorating his apartment for Christmas, even if it was just for himself. It was like meeting old friends when he opened the box and took out the eclectic mixture of baubles and tinsel and other bits and pieces, each item bringing with it a memory. Setting the box on the floor in front of the now warmly blazing fire, he took off the lid.
What would his cynical partner make of this particular collection of sentimental nostalgia?
Much to his surprise, Illya seemed intrigued by the contents of the box and entered into the spirit of things, even arranging the little set of home made figurines and toy farm animals that Napoleon had made for his mother when he was eight years old into a rather oddly grouped crche on the mantelpiece. He stroked the red velvet of one of the Three Kings' cloaks.
"It's made from a piece of my mother's cocktail dress." Napoleon smiled to himself as he remembered making the figure, searching through the bag of remnants for just the right piece of fabric. He also recalled quite clearly his mother wearing the dress—the red showing off her dark, shiny hair. Pictured her going out with his father, that remote, half-remembered figure. She wore a fox-fur stole over the dress and his father had his arm around her waist.
"He's lost his crown." Illya, down on his knees, scrabbled in the box, looking for it.
"He shouldn't really be there yet." Napoleon picked up one of the other kings—dressed in a piece of the dining room curtains from his grandparents' house in Kansas. "When I was little I used to put them on the other side of the room and move them closer each day." He grinned at the memory and hummed a few bars of 'We Three Kings'.
"No crown." Illya frowned. "A king should have a crown." He took a broken piece of glass ball from the box and tried it on the king's head, then rejected it and looked in the box again for inspiration. At last he took out a spare Christmas tree light holder. "This will do." He turned it upside down on the king's head. It looked absurd. "There—he's Russian now!" Illya's face turned wistful momentarily. "It's a box of memories." He placed the Russian king with his two companions at the end of the mantelpiece.
Napoleon looked at the ridiculous crown—it actually looked quite Russian. The Kings were supposed to be from the East—why not Russia? "And you've just added another memory. I shall remember this Christmas every time I wonder why Balthazar is wearing a light on his head."
"I think it was customary in my country to celebrate the coming of the Three Kings on January 19th."
Napoleon was surprised by this piece of information. "I thought you said you didn't celebrate Christmas."
"I didn't say I celebrated it. I just said it used to be customary. The babushkas—the old women—they used to tell stories. Christmas in Ukraine was later too. The 7th of January . . ."
"Then Balthazar and his friends must wait even longer."
Illya turned and gave a short laugh. The wistful expression was quite gone. He wagged his finger at Napoleon. "We are in danger of becoming sentimental, my friend. If you continue to go back on your promises I shall be forced to leave."
Napoleon held up his hands. "Sentimental moment over. Surely you can allow me one lapse."
Illya snorted. "One lapse! What about the turkey and all the trimmings you promised?"
"We can be Russian and have the turkey in January. You got champagne for breakfast; you got to make a soufflé at last . . ."
A savoury aroma filled the apartment. Napoleon sniffed appreciatively and looked at his watch. Thirty-five minutes had passed. "Speaking of which, shall we go and look at it? It smells wonderful." He started towards the kitchen.
Illya caught his arm. "No, no. You must not open the oven door before it is ready."
Napoleon sniffed again. "It smells ready. Come on—let's take a peek. I'm hungry now too." The aroma was making his mouth water and he remembered he had not eaten much in the last couple of days, thanks to Thrush. He pulled away and made towards the door.
Illya darted nimbly in front of him and barred the way. "Napoleon, please. A soufflé is very temperamental. It has to be coaxed, then treated with patience and gentleness." He pushed Napoleon backwards into the living room once more. "Look, the fire needs more wood."
"I only want to see how it's doing." Napoleon persisted.
But Illya stood his ground. "You must have complete trust. Give it time and the right treatment and all will be well." Only once the table was laid, the fire tended and exactly forty-five minutes had elapsed since he had placed the soufflé in the oven, would Illya allow the oven door to be opened.
There, tumescent and quivering, sat the soufflé in all its glory. Reverently, Illya knelt and lifted it out carefully. Napoleon could feel the saliva gathering in his mouth at the delicious smell. How could so light and airy and perfect a thing be created from such unpromising ingredients—half a dozen eggs and a piece of superannuated cheese? His friend had, indeed, performed a miracle.
"Are you going to stand gaping all day, or shall I just get the plates myself?" snapped the miracle-worker, testily.
"Sorry—I think the hypothermia and the champagne has left me a bit woozy. " Napoleon took the plates from the top of the stove where they had been warming and took them through to the living room. Illya followed with the soufflé, depositing it gently on the cork mat Napoleon had hastily placed on his polished cherry-wood coffee table. Illya sat himself cross-legged on the floor beside the table and Napoleon fetched cutlery, then sat on the sofa, holding the serving spoon, hesitating.
"It almost seems a shame to spoil it."
'Get on with it, Napoleon, it must be eaten hot." Illya held up his plate impatiently.
It was like eating a cloud. A savoury, delicious cloud that left you satisfied, despite the lightness and delicacy of the texture. Napoleon could almost feel himself purring as he plundered its sensuous depths once again for a second helping. Illya, who had already had seconds, took the dish and the serving spoon and scraped the last brown scraps from the sides, licking his lips and fingers until there wasn't a morsel to be seen. Napoleon sighed and leaned back on the sofa.
"I hate to say it, but that was the best meal I've tasted since . . ."
"Last Christmas?" Illya raised his eyebrows.
"Better than Aunt Amy's turkey. Much. In fact turkey pales into insignificance beside . . ."
"Better than all the trimmings?" Illya stood and stacked the plates and soufflé dish, then carried them to the kitchen.
"Who taught you to make a soufflé like that, you sneaky Russian?" Napoleon called through the door.
Illya returned. "Nobody taught me. You saw me read it in a recipe book when we had to live on that estate with the mind-altering lights. It's simple chemistry." He moved close to Napoleon, fixing him with that intent blue gaze that pretended to be innocent and was anything but.
"Napoleon, you haven't opened your present yet." His face was flushed from the heat of the fire that was cheerfully burning in the hearth. The reflection of the flames warmed his hair to dark gold.
Napoleon remembered the dripping parcel on the floor of the infirmary. "I—ah—believe it met with an accident."
Illya gave a little snort. "Oh, not that one. I meant your present from me."
Napoleon felt momentarily dismayed. "I'm afraid I don't have anything for you."
"Oh, but I think you do." Smirking, Illya moved over to sit on Napoleon's lap. "Now—how about you unwrap your present?" He kissed him on the nose, then wriggled suggestively and lifted the hem of his borrowed jersey just a little.
Napoleon caught on. "Ah . . ."
Perhaps the spirit of Christmas Present had managed to overcome the obstacles set before it after all. Napoleon pulled his partner into his embrace and kissed him on the mouth. He didn't need anything more. He was warm, he had a full belly and best of all, he had Illya—a content and willing Illya . . . his Illya . . . His hands found warm skin . . .
Much later, Illya lay sprawled, wearing Napoleon's silk dressing gown, on the large, comfortable sofa, reading a magazine. Napoleon lay on his back on the hearth-rug, his bathrobe tied loosely, a glow of contentment and satisfaction warming him as the fire in the hearth began to wane. The landlord was as good as his word and the furnace must have been repaired; the radiators had clanked into life while they were making love, slowly and languorously, beside the fire.
It was turning out to be a strange Christmas, Napoleon reflected. Nothing like he had expected. Oh the ingredients had all been there—the champagne, the decorations, the good intentions. But events had conspired against them and it had taken the warmth, the friendship and trust they had for each other—no, the love they had for each other—to overcome the inauspicious beginnings and create Christmas in a new mould, one that was uniquely theirs.
Outside the window, the light was fading already and a few snowflakes swirled against the indigo blue of the darkening sky like cherry blossom falling from the trees.
Illya looked up from the magazine he was perusing. "I'm glad I've never bothered with traditional American celebrations. It looks as if you had a narrow escape, Napoleon."
"That's the story of my life. It's lucky I have my trusty partner to rescue me in the nick of time."
"No," Illya stabbed a finger at the article he was looking at, "I mean from the turkey. Look at this—'Oestrogen used by unscrupulous farmers to fatten turkeys in time for holidays.'"
Napoleon raised his eyebrows. "So? They're always coming up with something. If I worried about every chemical that went into meat I'd be a vegetarian."
"Ah—but oestrogen! It says here that significant amounts of the hormone can remain in the carcass. I believe studies show that if men receive an overdose of oestrogen they begin to develop female—er—characteristics."
Napoleon laughed, scornfully. "What do you mean—I could turn into a woman?"
"You think I'm joking? Read the article if you don't believe me."
"That's ridiculous. There's no way . . . That's more like something Thrush would think up." Napoleon mentally struck turkey from his diet for the foreseeable future. "Surely someone would notice if half the population of America started changing sex." He frowned. U.N.C.L.E. had encountered stranger things.
Illya raised a blond eyebrow. "Well, perhaps not as far as actually changing sex, but it says here men could begin to develop breasts." He smiled, wickedly. "It might just suit you. You could change your name to Josephine."
Napoleon looked down and regarded his chest appraisingly—maybe he had put on a little weight since Thanksgiving. He glanced up again to see Illya trying in vain to suppress a grin. Napoleon realised, belatedly, that his chain was being well and truly yanked.
"Illya!" He reached for the poker and brandished it at his partner, threateningly. "Did I ever tell you about how I was javelin-throwing champion at high school?"
Illya put down the magazine and sat up, crossing his legs. He fluttered his eyelashes, and smoothed his hair into place. Then he scooted along the sofa and patted the seat beside him. "You promised to, once, but I don't believe you ever did . . ."