Love Isn't Easy (but it sure is Hard Enough)
There are a few moments when the Sierra foothills are in their prime. Early spring when the mountains are free of the fog that chokes the Central Valley and in the fall when the cool weather makes the trees explode with color for a few weeks. In the winter, the snow occasionally dusts everything like confectionary sugar, a taste of winter without the hassle... and now.
Illya Kuryakin leaned back, comfortably supported by his obliging lover, and stared out across the grassy expanse. The weather was hot and dry, but in the shade beneath this oak tree, the temperature was perfect. He watched his staff engage in a lively softball game—made even more interesting by the fact that none of them really knew the rules which governed the game. They were just hitting, running and shouting. Roxanne had turned out to be a hellishly-talented pitcher and was giving rise to great wails of despair as she struck out one batter after the other.
This was one of the perks of having Monday off—the park, quite literally, was theirs. A few mothers and kids sat around the playground, but the usual weekend crowds were gone. He'd already spent a couple of hours in the pool, doing laps and just enjoying the sensation of the water slicking by his body.
Napoleon's fingers carded through his still damp hair and Illya smiled. This was good, very good, which meant he had about another thirty seconds to enjoy it before something happened. Napoleon would have called it borrowing trouble, but Illya preferred to think of it as the inevitability of life.
He and Napoleon had settled into a comfortable routine; Napoleon had Vinea to occupy his daytime hours and the local theater for the nights. Illya was doing more administrative work with Taste and less actual time in the kitchen. With both Matt and Winston in there now full time, Taste needed a third chef like Illya needed another head. The menu was still his and he was still responsible for training new staff and creating new dishes. His cookbook was selling well and the publisher had been dropping hints that a second one would be met with enthusiasm.
His business was solid, his relationship was perfect, he'd even finally succumbed and become a US citizen. It was going to feel very odd to go to the polls this fall and actually vote for a president. Everything in the world seemed good, the Berlin wall had come down, Gorbachev had taken the Communist Party out of control, the economy was recovering... and Illya Kuryakin was bored out of his mind.
The crack of the bat interrupted his thoughts and he watched Winston lope his way in the general direction of first base. Vic waited until he was almost there before taking off for his own base.
"Does he think he has to hold his place or something?" Napoleon murmured. "Whatever happened to a bunch of guys getting together with a stick and a rock and playing ball?"
"You do realize that nearly every guy out there is either gay, from another country that doesn't have baseball, or both, don't you?" Illya craned his neck backwards.
"Well, I will admit there's a learning curve..."
"They are having fun," Illya said, grunting as he sat forward. "And I need to check on dinner." He got to his feet and stretched. His shoulders felt tender under his tee shirt and he decided that he probably had a sunburned back to go with his sunburned nose. It didn't seem like it took any time to get burned these days and he'd used sunscreen.
"I thought it was just supposed to cook now..." Napoleon joined him on his feet.
"In theory, yes. In practicality, I don't trust anything."
"Hmm, I thought we drummed that out of you."
"Not even close." Illya walked to the fire pit to check on the ribs and chicken that he had slowly grilling. He adjusted the height of the spit, the level of the charcoal and gave each piece of meat a fresh coat of sauce.
In the partial seclusion that the barbecue pavilion provided, Napoleon slid up behind him and nuzzled his neck. "You smell good enough to eat."
Illya sniffed his forearm and smirked. "I smell like chlorine."
"Not from where I'm standing. You smell like coconut and that reminds me of that time in Raiatea when we got plastered on those pina coladas and went skinny dipping..."
"All I remember is trying to vomit my toes up the next morning."
"That's my little romantic." Napoleon turned Illya, obviously bent on kissing him, only to be interrupted by his nephew's voice.
"Uncle Napoleon, come on. We need you!" Winston ran up to them.
"We need a pinch hitter and you're designated."
"And since you're already up." Illya dropped his gaze to Napoleon's crotch, resisting the urge to drop his hand and cup it. "Better have someone do your running or you could cripple yourself."
He watched Napoleon begrudgingly walk away and wondered what was going on. Napoleon had been coming on to him and Illya was not interested. That was... disturbing. There used to be a time when just Napoleon laying a finger on him caused an immediate reaction. In the early days, before they had become intimate, it had always been a bit of an embarrassment for Illya. Napoleon was so tactile that he was forever touching Illya, on the arm, on his shoulder, the back and then Illya had to deal with the consequences. He never really knew whether Napoleon did it on purpose or if it was by accident.
That was then; this was the uncomfortable now. The familiarity of his touch, the frequency of their love making, Illya didn't know, but it was getting more and more difficult to feign interest. An unfortunate part about being a man was that you couldn't immediately hide your disinterest. It just hung there, like a sack of moldy potatoes.
Illya started to laugh then and shook his head.
"What's going on, Chef?" Rocky trotted up beside him as he wiped his sweaty face on his tee shirt.
"Were we supposed to be keeping score?" Rocky asked with mock terror in his voice and then grinned, reaching into an ice chest for a beer. "When are we expecting everyone else?"
While the evening's picnic included family, the day's proceedings hadn't. It had been just for the staff of Taste and Vinea. They'd started with prosciutto and parmesan cheese with fig jam, and then moved onto vichyssoise glace, Amish Onion cake, Welsh Lamb pie, and blini, followed by brandy snaps and chocolate whiskey cake—a menu that reflected the diversity of their staff. Napoleon supplied the wine and Taste the rest. They'd dined like royalty.
And tonight, they'd eat like peasants on barbecued chicken and ribs, three kinds of potato salad, corn on the cob, grilled vegetables, and watermelon all washed down by more wine and beer, soda and water for the ones who preferred that. They'd all be rubbish tomorrow, but tonight, they were family.
Rocky popped the top off the beer and took a long swig. "This is fun. It reminds me of the old days, Sunday mornings around the table."
"Seems like a long time ago."
"That's what makes them the good old days." He offered the can to Illya, who shook his head. "You okay? You look a little preoccupied."
"Am I that easy to read?"
"No, you have three looks, the 'leave me alone or I will hurt you,' the 'I'm approachable,' and the infamous 'I'm so going to mess with you' look. The last one's my favorite. Matt sees it and wants to crawl under the table."
"And which one am I wearing now?"
"None of them and that's why I ask. It's none of my business..."
"You and Mr. S, you seem on different paths right now." Rocky sat on the corner of a picnic table and stared out of the pavilion towards the playground.
"Contrary to popular belief, we are not joined at the hip."
"You used to be."
"And it took me a long time to rectify that."
Rocky paused and sipped at his beer. "Where were the last three places you made love?"
Illya had to think for a minute. "And I should share with you because?"
"No reason, but I'll bet a month's wages it was the bed, the bed and the bed and I can remember a time when we'd take bets where we would find the two of you going at it."
"We were much younger then."
"You're not old now, Chef. Hell, you're practically in your prime. You can still out work anyone in the kitchen and I'm guessing other places as well."
"Mattie talks in his sleep."
"Still? One night I got him to recite the entire Krebs cycle." Illya grinned at the memory. This time he accepted the can and took a deep swig of beer. "That's not bad." He glanced at the label. "For a malt."
"All I'm saying is that maybe it's time for a little shake up."
"A shake up?"
"Change of location. We go driving, pull over and do what comes naturally... to us, at any rate."
"What about getting caught?"
"Part of the thrill."
"And the actual getting caught?"
"Not quite as thrilling, but well worth it." Rocky drained the can and tossed it towards the garbage pail. "I'm just saying that perhaps it's time to shake things up a bit. I'm not suggesting that you take Napoleon in the middle of Main Street at noon, but something more discreet, who knows?"
Jesus poked his head around the corner of the pavilion and shook his head. "You were supposed to be bringing Chef to us."
"The volleyball game, I forgot." Rocky grinned, grabbed another beer and clapped a hand to Illya's shoulder. "Come on, Old Man. Let's see what you have in you."
Napoleon stretched out on the blanket, staring up at the sky, eyes searching. Illya plopped down beside him and similarly looked up.
"What are you looking for?"
"The first star."
"So I can make a wish." He reached up and pulled an unresisting Illya down to him. "So I can wish for a thousand more days just like today."
"You eat like you did a thousand more times and you won't be able to move."
"Couldn't help myself. I know what I like." His hand began to play with strands of Illya's hair. "And what I like to eat."
Illya sighed and shook his head ruefully. "You, Mr Solo, are a lost cause." He rested his chin on Napoleon's chest and watched him. "And the way I see it, we have a choice."
"We stay here and get roped into the campfire and the inevitable singing and toasting of marshmallows."
"I have a wicked thought."
"Wicked is good."
"You'd trust me, just like that?"
"Have for years, just like that."
Illya sat up and stood, reaching a hand down to his lover. "Come with me."
It took Illya just a few moments to pick the pool gate's lock. Napoleon cast an uneasy look over his shoulder.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Security guard comes by every hour on the hour. He just left a few minutes ago." Illya closed the gate and left the lock false latched. As he walked across the tile, he pulled off his shirt, sighing at the cool air against his skin.
"What are you thinking, partner mine?"
Illya glanced over his shoulder and smiled, slyly. "Ever make love in a swimming pool?"
"What? Are you out of your mind?" Napoleon asked, still looking around. The campfire was painting the area with soft reds and yellow. Someone was singing and there was a lot of laughing. Then Napoleon glanced over as Illya skinned out of his jeans and slid into the water and he started to grin.
Napoleon walked wearily into Vinea and raised a hand in greeting to his staff. Although it was early afternoon, the tasting bar was crowded and there were a fair number of people milling about. He stopped to chat with a couple before making good his escape to his office.
Wearily, he sank to his desk and shut his eyes, only to slowly open them at the knock.
"Hey, Mr. S, I brought over the new wine list. Thought you'd like to give it a once over before we send it to the printers." Rocky set the pages down and started to leave. "Hey, Mr. S, are you feeling okay? You look exhausted."
Napoleon dry washed his face and sighed. "If a word of this gets out, Rocky, I will know the source."
"Illya's killing me."
"I'm sorry?" Rocky was all attention now. "Why would Chef want to kill you, Mr. S?"
"It's not that—okay, I'll admit that lately the blush had gone off of the rose, the last few months, things have slowed downed. I mean, we probably have a more active sex life than most men our age..."
"You're not that old, Mr. S."
"You couldn't prove it by me. I feel about seven hundred today..." He rubbed at his lower back and sighed. "I just don't know what's gotten into him."
"Meaning?" Rocky clamped a hand down on Napoleon's forearm. "He's lost interest in you?"
"I wish the hell he would. Rocky, I feel like the only bar of soap in the locker room after a forced forty mile hike."
"But that's good," Rocky said with a nod that degenerated into a head shake. "That's not good?"
"Yes... I mean, it's not that I mind the sex, but it's the locations. The pool at the park was bad enough, but the backseat of the car? The store room? The middle of the woods in the middle of the night? I still have mosquito bites in places a man was never meant to have mosquito bites... the higher the chance of us getting caught, the more it excites him."
"Ah... I see the problem." Rocky stood and put a few feet between them. "And I feel responsible."
"Chef mentioned that things were getting a little routine in the bedroom and I suggested that he try a new location. But I didn't mean..."
"If I had the strength... if I had the strength and the energy... if I had the strength, the energy, and I could feel anything from my waist down, I'd kill you. You never make suggestions like that to a compulsive over-achiever, Rocky."
"I didn't know..."
"He has a five star restaurant in the back hills of the Sierra Foothills—when he applies that sort of concentration on sex..."
"I'll go get you an ice pack."
"Thanks... and if you see Illya, don't tell him where I am."
The man scurried from the room and Napoleon took a moment to grin widely. He was so going to burn for that. He reached for the wine listing and winced at the pull in his back. A moment later, the office door opened again. For a second, Napoleon thought Rocky had made good his offer, but instead he looked over at his frowning partner.
"I just had a very odd exchange with Rocky." Illya settled into the guest chair and shook his head. "Very odd..."
"Well, I might have had something to do with that."
"Why doesn't that surprise me? Why are you tormenting my head waiter?"
"Not tormenting exactly. It was more of a casual manipulating of his thought process."
"Is that what they are calling it these days? Everything is so PC." Illya reached for one of the sheets Napoleon was studying. "Giving these a final proofing?"
"I think you are going to like the Gnarly Head and you really can't go wrong with Sobon." Napoleon winced as he shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
"You should have eased into that new exercise routine, Napoleon. You haven't been working out for awhile and your muscles aren't used to it." Illya slid the sheet back towards him. "Does it bother you as much as it used to, Napoleon?"
"Getting older? Everything being just a little harder... or not as interesting..."
"Interesting, that's an unusual word choice." Napoleon was now all attention. "What's on your mind, partner?"
"Does it seem to you that...?" Illya took a deep breath. "Rocky said it's as if we are on two different paths now. I don't want that, Napoleon. I don't want to wake up one morning and wish I was somewhere else with someone else."
"Is this what that swimming pool incident was all about?"
"When we were young, Illya, we would wake up in the morning and never know if we'd still be alive by lunch time. It made us greedy, anxious, and immediate. We took what we could and when we could because we never knew if there'd be another opportunity." Napoleon settled a hand over Illya's. "It took me a long time to see that. That was then; now I know there's going to be a tomorrow and I know that tomorrow will have you in it. I don't worry about growing older, Illya, mostly because I know you'll be there beside me." He squeezed the hand. "Or rather, I hope you will be. As for the other, if you want to make love holding onto the eaves of the roof, you've but to ask. You know I can refuse you nothing."
Illya's head bowed for a moment and a smile grew on his lips. "Nice to know. And I have an idea."
"Why don't I make a couple of calls and book us a room at Bambridge? A change of pace, maybe some theatre, someone else's cooking for a change?"
"Sex?" Napoleon's thumb stroked the back of the hand beneath his
"Goes without saying."
"Then I have but one question," Napoleon said, his face somber.
"And that would be?"
"Why are you still here?" Illya grinned, brought Napoleon's hand to his mouth and kissed the fingers gently. Standing, he'd nearly made it to the door when Napoleon's voice stopped him. "And if you see Rocky..."
Illya tapped his forehead with a finger in a salute and winked. Napoleon did a quick scan of the wine list, just to make sure there were no typos in either the vintners or wines themselves, but his mind began to wander... to the huge tub that he knew the room would come with, to being stretched out beneath a star filled sky watching an enthusiastic if amateurish production of some Shakespeare play, to the sensation of Illya against him, moving, groaning... and he sighed. It was going to be a wonderful time.
He happened to glance out his window then and saw Rocky and Illya in the courtyard. He couldn't open the window without attracting attention, but from the waiter's wild gesticulations, Napoleon couldn't help but grin. And he knew growing old with Illya wasn't just an opportunity, it was a gift. He didn't know what he did to deserve it, but he was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was good to be the king...