A Taste of the Season
"Hold your end up higher," Napoleon Solo ordered, twisting his head to spit out a bit of cedar.
"This is as high as I'm going to go without dislocating both my shoulders." Illya Kuryakin, his lover and newly-wedded mate of a mere three months, stretched up as far he could. "If this thing drops needles in my food, Napoleon, I'll have your guts for garters."
"This is cedar, it doesn't have needles, per se, Illya." Napoleon glanced over his shoulder and saw a familiar shape walking by. "Matt, grab Illya's end."
Matt grinned and reached, planting his hands firmly upon his business partner's butt and squeezing ever so slightly. "Your wish is my command, cara. Got his end well in hand."
"He meant the garland, Matthew." Illya lowered his hands and shifted out of reach. Matt merely laughed.
"Oh, I knew that, but un'opportunit un'opportunit."
"Opportunity, my ass," Illya grumbled.
"Yes, yes, it is." Illya let the tall redhead take the garland from him and stepped back a bit. The dining room of Taste was slowly starting to come alive with the holiday spirit. He'd never been into the decorating end of it, preferring to leave it in Roxanne's capable hands, but Napoleon was a celebrator of the season. Following so close on the heels of the death of his mother, Illya didn't have the heart to refuse Napoleon. His involvement was making his lover happy and that was enough. Still, he wouldn't have his food compromised in any way. The last thing he needed before the announcement of Taste's fifth Michelin star was to be closed down by the health inspector.
He glanced over at the pair, laughing, as Matt instructed, "No, cara, you need to hold your end up higher." Rocky entered from the kitchen, wearing just a white tee shirt and his dress slacks. At the top of his lungs he was, as always, singing.
"Over in the corner I could see this other guy.
He was kinda flirty, he was giving me the eye
So I took advantage of the fact that I'm a star,
shook my hair and took a casual stroll up to the bar.
And, as sure as hell, this guy was coming up to me.
He said, 'Who am I and who are you and who are we?
What's our situation, do we have some time for us?'
I said I was not exactly waiting for the bus."
"Don't you ever give ABBA a break, Rocky?" Matt shouted, his voice strangely muffled by the greenery.
"It's beginning to look... "
"Don't make me hurt you for finishing that sentence, Rocky." Illya locked eyes with the waiter and gestured to him. Unobserved by either of their partners, Illya led him back to the relative seclusion of the bar. "I need you to do me a favor," he said softly.
"Sure, Chef, name it." Rocky instinctively matched his tone.
"I need to get Napoleon out of here for a few hours. Do you think you could get him out of town next Monday?"
"Sure I have some shopping to do in Sacramento and I'd love to have the company. Christmas mischief, Chef?"
"If I'm lucky."
"Illya, how's this?" The two men looked over at the garland over the bay window and Illya grinned first at Rocky and then Napoleon. "I never thought I'd live to say this, but your end is drooping, Napoleon."
Napoleon sat at the bar, enjoying the flurry of activity around him. Thanksgiving was just last week and the anticipation of the holidays was fully upon him. Even with the loss of his mom, and pretty much the rest of his family due to his lifestyle choice, Napoleon was still bursting with holiday cheer. He had an inkling that it had something to do with a certain blond, who was currently wandering through the dining room, chatting with his diners.
He was with Illya and, for the first time in a long time, he wanted to sing and dance and celebrate every aspect of the holiday. If only he hadn't married the Russian version of Ebenezer Scrooge, it would be a little easier to achieve. Illya refused to do more than give the holiday a passing nod. Granted Illya was flat out with the restaurant and its various holiday functions, but it wouldn't have hurt to have brought a small Christmas tree in to their house. Illya had flatly refused. Napoleon had asked nicely, then demanded, and finally even threatened, but Illya held firm. He gave no explanation, no reason behind his decision; it was just the way it was.
Napoleon hadn't had to deal with that aspect of his partner for quite some time. Usually he could convince the Russian one way or the other, but not this time. Short of a visit from three spirits on Christmas Eve, Napoleon had a feeling Illya wouldn't be moved.
Rocky approached him and passed over his drink order to Celeste, one of the twins who manned the bar. "Hey, Mr. S, I was wondering if you could do me a favor." He rested a heel up on the rail and leaned back against the bar for a moment.
"Of course, name it."
Rocky looked left and right, as if checking out the immediate area for eavesdroppers and then he leaned closer. "I want to get Mattie a ring for Christmas and I was wondering if I could drag you along with me for advice. I thought Sacramento would be my best choice for selection and to avoid any 'leaks.' You know how small towns are."
Napoleon nodded. After growing up in a town not much larger than Jackson, he knew small towns very well. "It's not a problem, but wouldn't Illya be a better choice?"
"After the ring you put on his finger? I don't think so. You have much better tastes in these matters."
"Oh, that sort of ring... "
"I plan to propose on Christmas Eve after the party."
"What party?" Rocky moved his hand in a circular motion as he glanced back into the dining room and assessed his tables. "Ours. Chef closes the restaurant down from the day before Christmas Eve to the day before New Year's Eve—a week of paid vacation just when we need it the most. And he always has a party for us Christmas Eve—a knock-your-socks-off, no-holds-barred, get-it-all-out-of your-system party. God knows where he finds the time to organize it."
"He's good that way."
"Anyhow, Matt always gets toasty, so I thought I'd drop it in his champagne and see the reaction, providing he's not so blasted, he swallows it."
"Considering the hoops and barrels I put you two through for our wedding, I would be a poor friend indeed to refuse. I would be honored to be part of your little scheme." Napoleon shook Rocky's hand, mindful that they were in a room full of people.
"Will Chef be a problem?"
"The Blond Grinch? No, he'll be happy to be rid of me and my Christmas cheer for a few hours. It will give him a chance to drive stakes of holly through the hearts of revelers."
"He does seem out of sorts this year. He's never been good with the holidays, but he's not usually this bad. I think the fifth star has him spooked." The bartender approached and Rocky offered his tray to receive the drinks. "Thanks, Celeste." He turned back to Napoleon. "He's got a lot of extra pressure riding on him right now and, as usual, he's taking it all on himself."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"Keep him from self combusting, if you know what I mean." Rocky winked headed back out into the dining room. "I'll pick up you around eleven Monday morning. We can have lunch in Placerville."
Napoleon leaned back in the car seat and let the waves of happiness roll over him. Not only did he help Rocky pick out the perfect ring for Matt, they'd had a very enjoyable afternoon of Christmas shopping. The more he knew about the waiter, the more fun he had with him. They'd laughed, talked, and sung carols nearly all the way home, occasionally making up lyrics as they went along. As much as he loved Illya, the man couldn't exactly be described as jovial even in the best of times. He could joke and he had a wicked sense of humor hidden away, but it didn't frequently see the light of day. Napoleon relished the opportunity to just enjoy himself, be a little silly and not worry about appearances.
"I have a bottle of chardonnay that would just be wasted on Illya. Do you want to come in for a drink?" Napoleon asked as they pulled into Taste's parking lot. The fact that there were cars in it didn't surprise him. On the nights that the restaurant was closed, people frequently took advantage of the parking lot, especially with the surrounding shops opened extra hours for the holidays.
"Sure, that sounds great. I'll give Matt a call and let him know I'm back. Maybe he can join us and we can do an impromptu dinner, just the four of us."
"That would be fun." They walked in through the main door to the living room and Napoleon slammed to a stop, causing Rocky to plow into his back. Gone was the cluttered, but sterile room that he'd left a few hours earlier. Now it was trimmed with pine boughs, garlands, wreaths, candles, ribbons and other trappings of the season.
In the corner a large pine tree, decorated with lights and ornaments, filled most of the space. A fire crackled in the fire place, giving the room a rich glow. The transformation was incredible. It was warm, welcoming, and it screamed 'home'—all that Napoleon yearned for during this time of the year. Napoleon just stood and stared, his mouth agape at the sight, unable to speak, unable to do anything but just look.
"Merry Christmas, Napoleon." He spun at the sound and Illya stood there, a stained apron over his customary white tee shirt and jeans. He chuckled at Napoleon's expression. "I take it you're surprised..."
"When did you...?"
"This afternoon, we all did." The rest of Taste's staff filtered in from the kitchen. "Rocky was our diversion, but I still needed a little help."
"Illya, I don't know what to say..."
"You don't have to say anything."
"You knew... ?" Napoleon asked the waiter who nodded, grinning.
"We all knew, Napoleon. Merry Christmas."
"If you don't kiss him, you unromantic dog, I will," Matt shouted from his spot, sitting on the arm of a chair. He slid his arms around Rocky and pulled him down to rest upon his knee.
Napoleon didn't need any more encouragement than that. The kiss was heartfelt and full of as much love as Napoleon could possible convey with a roomful of people present. "I am going to take you every night under this tree," he whispered into Illya's ear and the man nodded.
"I'll hold you to that. For now, come and help us get dinner on the table."
"I can't work my staff all afternoon for free and not feed them."
"You did all of this and you cooked as well?" Napoleon gestured to the room. "Do you ever stop?"
"I will when I'm dead. Rocky, you want to give us a hand?"
"Sure, Chef." He beamed at Napoleon and punched him lightly in the arm.
"Gotcha, Mr. S."
Napoleon couldn't stop beaming as he surveyed the room. Matt walked up to him and kissed him. He started for a moment and Matt pointed upward. "Mistletoe, cara, the room is lousy with it. Buon Natale."
Napoleon propped himself up on an elbow to stare into his lover's face. Still flush from his climax, Illya's breath was coming in panting gulps and beneath his hand, he could feel the Russian's heart pounding. He moved the hand to brush sweat-lank hair from Illya's forehead. "Good?"
"I don't know what I did to deserve that, but tell me and I'll do it every day from now on." Illya muttered, his voice still husky. "That was... incredible, but I fear your mother's quilt has taken the brunt of our love making."
"Glad I could deliver, literally." Napoleon adjusted the quilt. "As for this, it is machine washable."
"I'm waiting in nervous anticipation for your follow up."
"That wasn't enough?"
"For now, but you said every night..."
"So I did." Napoleon pressed forward to kiss the swollen lips. "And a Solo always delivers on his promises."
In the firelight and the multitude of colors the Christmas tree lights provided, Illya was painted a myriad of reds, blues, golds, and greens. He smiled, sated, sleepy, and obviously very contented. It was going to take a wheelbarrow to get him up into the bedroom tonight. Napoleon decided this was as good a time as any.
"So what do you want for Christmas, Amante?" He let his fingers linger on Illya's face, tracing nonsense patterns on a whisker-stubbled cheek. In the firelight, it looked as if his face had been sprinkled with mica flakes.
"Want?" Illya moved slightly, stretching his legs towards the fire. "I want for nothing, Napoleon. I have everything I want here." He cupped Napoleon's cheek and smiled . "Illya, surely there must be something that would make you happy."
"If I were any happier, Napoleon, they would commit me and lock me away." He ran his fingers through Napoleon's hair. "I will never understand why such a significant religious holiday to you must be celebrated by shameless commercialism."
"Says the restaurant owner as he frantically books holiday parties." Napoleon added, chuckling. "It's the American way of life, Illya."
"But I'm not an American."
"For all intents and purposes, you are, and you are avoiding the question. What do you want to find under the tree Christmas morning?"
"Exactly the same thing I found tonight."
"You're not going to answer me, are you?"
"And finally the obvious becomes apparent." Illya yawned and glanced over at the mantle. "We have a choice—move now or spend the night here. I, for one, speculate that my back would applaud the effort it is going to take to go upstairs."
Napoleon sat up and stretched. "Always the voice of reason."
"It's why you married me."
"One of the reasons, let's not overlook some of the more obvious one."
In the darkness, Napoleon stirred, a strange languidness slowing his limbs. He didn't even remember climbing into bed last night, yet the familiarity of the pillows, blankets, and the softly-snoring lump beside him assured him at some point he had.
And Illya snoring either meant they'd had some earth-shattering sex, a fact his morning erection argued against, or Taste's chef had tied one on last night. It wasn't often that Illya let go, but within the relative seclusion and privacy of the restaurant, he had apparently done just that.
Napoleon just wished he could remember more. His head hurt, but that could be as much from a lack of caffeine as anything else. He could remember the revelry, Matt's shriek of delight when he discovered the ring in his glass, the singing, the incredible food... but exact details, especially towards the end of the night eluded him. Damned eggnog...
He slid out of bed, shivering in the coolness of the bedroom. Donning his favorite ratty blue robe, he went to the window and looked out. At some point last night, it had snowed and a blanket of white dusted all available surfaces. It would be gone the moment the sun came out, but it was still nice to see a token effort.
Napoleon dropped his hand to his lower back and massaged. He had no idea why that spot seemed so tender this morning. Perhaps it was due to some rug burn from their extremely enthusiastic bout under the tree the night before. God knows when they'd found time to slip away from the party, but Illya had been insistent.
Holding Napoleon to his word, Illya had presented himself, no matter how obviously exhausted he was, every night for the past four weeks, ready for whatever Napoleon could dish out under their Christmas tree. It had surprised him how much he could dish out, night after night. Whoever thought sex after forty was nonexistent had no idea what they were talking about. Still, Napoleon was beginning to anticipate the feeling of a mattress beneath his knees instead of a hardwood floor.
Napoleon left the curtains open, allowing gray daylight to fill the small room. A fast trip to the bathroom and he headed downstairs. Both Beurre Noir and Moutard greeted him with raucous meows, winding their way around his ankles until he filled their bowls with food and replaced their water. He put the coffee on and rummaged through the refrigerator until he found the scones Illya had made the morning before.
He put them on a pan and slid them into the oven to heat and turned his attention to building a fire in the living room's fire place. That accomplished, he gathered up a tray of coffee and warmed scones and head back upstairs.
The lump that would be his partner hadn't moved. In the light of the room, Napoleon could see the angry red spot on his arm that heralded the formal announcement of their fifth star to the world. Last night, a tattoo artist had been among the guests at the party and each of them had taken it in turn to have their count updated, as it were. He set the tray down and opened his robe to check his out. As with Illya's, it was bright red against pale skin, but it didn't hurt... much. More of an annoyance, like his back.
Napoleon dropped the robe and climbed back into bed sliding over to cuddle up against the Russian's back.
"Do you mind? You're freezing!" a voice protested from the cocoon of blankets.
"I thought you liked the cold." Napoleon slipped a hand around Illya's waist, but avoided clamping that hand somewhere more sensitive until it had warmed. He'd only made that mistake once and although Illya had vowed non-delivered revenge, Napoleon took care not to push his luck.
"Not inside my bed." Still, Illya snuggled back into his embrace. "Good morning...such as it is."
"Merry Christmas," Napoleon kissed the back of Illya's head, burrowing his nose into the blond hair. "I brought you some coffee and scones."
"My hero." Illya rolled onto his back and rubbed his fingertips together and frowned. The tips were blistered from his guitar playing the night before. No matter what calluses were built up from cooking, they apparently didn't extend to guitar strumming Illya stared at his hands for a minute and stretched, but didn't seem inclined to do anything else.
That was fine with Napoleon. He could wait to start the frivolities of the day. He had to admit raging curiosity about the packages addressed to him beneath their tree. He'd tried to pry clues out of his partner, but to no avail. Considering the gifts he'd already given his staff and friends, Napoleon was certain there were some gems there. Still, that could wait. He pulled Illya's arm around his shoulder and settled back against it.
"So tell me, just exactly how much did I have to drink last night?"
"Considering my head, a little bit less than me, I suspect. I did warn you about the eggnog."
"So you did." Napoleon sat up a little so that he could sip and not wear his coffee. "I don't feel too bad though." He offered the cup to Illya, who took it and drank deeply, nearly draining the cup.
"Iron constitution. That's what comes from eating your own cooking."
Napoleon looked into the cup and made a face. "Gee, thanks."
Illya smiled and rolled slightly. "I can thank you in other ways." His morning erection prodded Napoleon's hip.
"You constantly amaze me. I would think you'd be ready for a break."
"And after a month of being a passenger, I feel the overwhelming desire to do a bit of driving."
"Always ready to turn the wheel over to a gifted driver." Napoleon pulled him down, then winced at the pressure against his back.
"Problem?" Illya's attention was immediately refocused.
"Back's a little tender this morning. I have no idea why."
"Then perhaps we should retire to the shower and dance a little first, loosen up those stiff muscles." He dropped his hand to Napoleon's erection, massaging it.
It wasn't until Napoleon was drying off that he spotted the reason his back hurt. "What the hell...?" Across his lower back was an angry red splotch, but it wasn't so red that he couldn't make out the lettering—I, N, K.
"About time." Illya chuckled from the bedroom. "And just for the record, you submitted to that willingly and you were very drunk last night."
"You had your initials tattooed on my ass?!"
"The next time you decide to surprise me in bed, you will be wise to consider the consequences of your actions and the form that my retribution might take. It's just a reminder for you to remember who owns your ass now." Illya pulled on a tee shirt as he appeared in the doorway, tucking the hem into his jeans. "I'm going over to see if there's anything left standing of my restaurant."
Napoleon continued to start over his shoulder at his reflection. "That sneaky little Russian bastard."
"I heard that and I assure you, my parents were married long before I was born."
He couldn't help himself, Napoleon started to chuckle and shake his head. Illya had warned him to expect something when he least expected it. Of course, that didn't mean he was out of surprises himself. There was a small, unassuming package under the tree, a package which held the keys to a new truck, parked in Rocky and Matt's garage for safe keeping. The Russian would learn to speak up when asked what he wanted or take what he got.
Napoleon's hand dropped to his back, his fingers tracing lightly over the letters. At least it was only Illya's initials and not something more cryptic or work related, like, 'deliveries in the rear.' And immediately his mind started working, rolling various forms of retribution around in his mind. Like his partner, he would wait before seeking his pound of flesh.
And whistling, he pulled on his shirt and buttoning it, went downstairs to meet the day head on.