Illya Kuryakin paused in his task of stacking crates of asparagus and pulled off his gloves to wipe the sweat from his face. It was hard to believe that this pile represented just three days worth of produce for the restaurant. Come April and all people wanted was asparagus. Thankfully, at this time of the year, Stockton provided a steady supply of it. He contracted directly with one of the farms there and got the spears within hours of their harvest. All he had to do was steam it and serve it with a dipping sauce and people claimed he was a genius.
He was reaching for his water bottle when a blur of movement drew his eye. Something small, gray, and furry... not a good combination and he moved quickly, trapping whatever it was in a corner.
He'd thought a rat had somehow managed to breach all their precautions and then it hissed at him.
Rats don't hiss, he thought, but cats do. He grabbed a flashlight and aimed the beam over into the corner. The cat crouched down and hissed again.
"Hello, cat what are you doing here?" He didn't try to approach it, rather now he backed off. If there was a cat in their store room, it meant it was mouse free. This one was thin as a rail and Illya sighed. How they all found him, he'd never know.
He backed out of the room, leaving the door to the outside ajar so the cat could escape. The day was still deciding what it was going to be. This time of the year, the fog still hung heavy over the valleys, the grass was a brilliant, eye aching green, thanks to the rain and moisture in the air. Another two months and the green would turn brittle yellow and brown, but for now, the Foothills were at their finest.
He glanced back over at the house and sighed. There was still no movement from within and he knew he should probably go back in and apologize. He and Napoleon had had a knock down drag out this morning. It was hardly their first, but that didn't make it settle any better in Illya's stomach.
Napoleon had started cutting back, finding other things to occupy his time , while for Illya it was still full steam ahead. He knew the difference between the hold the place had once had on him and now. Before he was terrified to let go, Taste was his sense of being in a world that had been made insane by a lunatic. Without it, he was convinced he was no more. Without Taste, he would lose Napoleon and without Napoleon there was nothing. Until even that was taken away from him without a moment's notice.
Illya looked down at the palm of his right hand, at the scar that splashed across it. It worked well enough to suit his purposes; he had enough feeling in it to sense the softness of Napoleon's skin beneath his fingertips, to judge the doneness of meat, to pick up a bit of paper, but it was still ugly.
Now Illya knew he existed outside the restaurant, was much more than just Chef. He just wasn't ready to not be a part of it anymore. Napoleon didn't understand, couldn't really. Vinea opened and closed with or without his being there. Taste opened and closed because of Illya. He loved being part of it, of the people, of the daily grind.
And because of that, they fought.
Illya tucked the work gloves into his back hip pocket and walked into the restaurant. He stopped for a moment, just enjoying the sense of peace the restaurant brought him. This was his world, his everything. They were closed today, but there was still plenty of work to be done. Somehow, no matter how many people he hired, no matter how hard he worked, there always seemed to be more things to do than he had time for.
The dining room was dark, except for the area just around the front entrance. There were only a couple of windows in the restaurant and Illya liked it that way. It permitted him to control the environment. When his guests were here, he controlled their world, their entire experience.
There was someone in the back room and Illya paused.
"Napoleon?" He shook his fists, just in case he'd stumbled upon a daring daytime burglar.
"Me, Cara" And Illya felt the coil in his stomach loosen.
"Matt, what are you doing in here? It's your day off."
"You, too." The voice was soft.
"Yeah, but I live here..." Illya joked and then stopped as he drew closer. Matt was keeping to the shadows and that was not right. "Matt, are you all right?"
"Rocky's left me..."
Illya felt sucker punched. He put a hand out to brace himself against the wall. "What? I don't believe it." Then he heard the gut-wrenching sobbing and he moved. He didn't stop to question the validity of the situation. Nothing he could say would change anything.
Instead, he went to the redhead and gathered him into his arms as Matt cried. He didn't speak, he didn't move, he just stood there and let Matt cry himself out. Part of Illya wanted to cry as well. Rocky and Matt, they were forever, just like Napoleon and he were. If they could break up, then... Another part of him wanted to argue sense to the man. Matt often over-reacted to something that was said or implied, but there was no masking the sorrow the man was experiencing.
After a few minutes, the sobs became quieter, Matt's breathing more even.
"Talk to me, Mattie, what happened?" Illya released him to arm's length.
"I can't... not just yet..." He sniffed loudly and looked around as if aware of his surroundings for the first time.
"Okay. Let's go into the house."
He let the man precede him, his shoulders sagging in defeat. The sun was a distinct white ball in the sky. Another hour and the fog would give way to blue skies. Not that it would be of any help one way or the other.
They walked into the living room and Illya automatically looked around. The place was empty.
"Make yourself at home, Mattie."
The man sat, as if in a daze, and Illya walked into the kitchen. Through the open back door, he saw Napoleon. The man was wearing an old flannel shirt and he was digging.
Illya went to the door and Napoleon glanced up at him. "We have a problem Napoleon."
"Do we?" Napoleon's voice was noncommittal.
"Yes, and I need your help."
"You know what I think." Napoleon continued to dig.
"It's not about that, Napoleon. Apparently Rocky has left Matthew."
"What?" Napoleon stopped and pushed his salt and pepper colored hair out of his eyes. "I can't believe..."
"Nor can I. I suspect Matt has gotten the wrong end of the stick, but I don't know why. He doesn't want to talk about it and you're better with this sort of thing."
"You mean listening? As opposed to shouting at the top of my lungs?"
"You're still angry, I understand that and I'm sorry, but I don't want to leave him alone just now..."
"I know." Napoleon slammed the shovel down into the soft earth and brushed off his hands. "Go."
I'm used to cleaning up your messes, Illya thought. He could still see the anger in Napoleon's eyes and around his mouth. All Napoleon had asked him to do was cut back one day a week... just take Sunday off... that was all... A slow day to begin with, no reason for him to make an issue of it, but Illya had.
He walked back into the house, not bothering to see if Napoleon was following or not. They'd have to settle this later, but right now, he had other things to think about.
"Matt, let me have your house keys?"
Sniffling, he dug them from his jeans pocket and threw them over. "Take them, I have not the use for them now."
Illya looked over as Napoleon entered and he watched the man's face soften with compassion. He envied Napoleon his ability to feel, his compassion and in it his strength. Illya looked at the floor and then headed for the door.
He went to the garage and selected the closest bike to the door, a Harley he was rebuilding... well, that he was trying to rebuild if he could ever find the time. He kicked up the kickstand and wheeled it into the parking lot. He grabbed the helmet from the back of the seat and settled onto the bike. Sometimes, he just wanted to climb on one of these and ride until he ran out of road, away from the restaurant, away from his life, away from everything. Some days, he was just so tired. He left the drive with a spray of gravel and pulled on the main road.
Then he gasped. There was a gray lump in the middle of the road.
Just what I needed to see right now. He climbed off the bike and went to the cat with the hope that it might still be alive. It wasn't and he carefully lifted it from the road and carried it to the side. When he got back, he'd bury it with Moutard and Buerre Noir. He was sure they wouldn't mind the company.
The ride took him just a few minutes, in spite of the urge to make it longer. Illya pulled up and parked the motorcycle. He pulled off the helmet and immediately heard Chiquitita barking. That was odd. Rocky adored the dog. He'd never leave her behind.
Illya walked up to the front door and unlocked it. Instantly the old dog was snuffling around his ankles and whining. She headed for the back door and looked plaintively at him. It didn't take a dog person to know what was being asked of him.
Illya opened the door and the dog hurried out just a few feet before squatting. Illya turned his attention back inside the house.
He wasn't so familiar that he knew exactly what was missing, but there was only one razor in the bathroom, only one toothbrush in the holder. Much of everything else seemed in place, but there was a suitcase missing, judging from the gaping hole between two other cases.
Yet, at the same time, Rocky's jewelry was there, except for his wedding ring. That was gone.
There was a ruff and he looked over at the beagle. There was an expectant look in her eyes and after a moment he clued in. No one had bothered to feed her. Matt he could understand, but not Rocky. The longer he looked, the more confused he got. He went out to the kitchen, found her food and took care of that task as well.
He was walking back into the room and that's when he saw the paperwork on the table and the note which had tumbled a throw rug on the floor.
"Oh, Matthew," he murmured and then laughed. "Il mio amico confuse (my confused friend)."
Chiquitita wandered back into the room and collapsed down onto the rug. She must have been sleeping on the note and that was why Matt never saw it.
The sun was starting to creep into the room and Illya smiled at the dog's contentment. Gathering up the paperwork, he closed and locked the back door, did the same with the front, and headed back home.
Illya walked into the living room and paused to listen for voices. Out back. Napoleon was obviously determined to get that ground ready. He'd done nothing but talk about putting in some flowering this or that. Illya never paid much attention when Napoleon started talking about plants. Unless they were edible, they were all the same to him.
He walked out on the porch and both men looked at him. Matt's face was blotchy and red, both from exertion and from his earlier crying jag. Napoleon's face was sweaty and carefully neutral. He wasn't giving Illya anything.
"Matt, what makes you think that Rocky left you?"
"He was gone this morning. We... disagreed last night."
"I disagreed with Napoleon this morning and I'm still here. If I had left the first time we argued over something, we would have gone our separate ways long ago. If nothing else, I've learned there are some things that are worth sticking around for."
"But there was a suitcase gone and his razor..."
"But Chiquitita is there. He'd not leave her behind. Nor would he leave his jewelry, but take his wedding ring."
"I didn't... it was just that he was... and he always has been..." Matt stopped and swallowed. "Since we have been... together... never ever... woken..."
Illya handed him the note. "I am guessing when he shut the door, this got blown to the floor and Chiquitita found it."
Matt took the paper and scanned it, then again, finally stammering, "A philosophy... workshop?"
"I'm guessing you listen as well as I do on occasion, Azzuro." He glanced over at Napoleon. "May I borrow your shovel please?"
"Of course, what's going on?"
"We had a poor unfortunate who didn't make it across the street. I was going to bury it with Moutard and Beurre." He shouldered the shovel and walked away.
Illya knelt down beside the cat's body and began to wrap it in an old towel from the kitchen. Poor old tom, he wished now he'd set out a meal for it. Perhaps it would have been what saved it. Then he stopped and moaned softly. Not an old tom cat, a female... with kittens.
Quickly, he buried the cat and headed back to the storeroom, moving as quietly as only an old ex-spy could. He sat down in the sun and waited, listening. At first there was nothing, just the sound of an occasional car driving by or the call of a bird.
Then he heard it, soft and plaintive. He followed, pausing every few feet. Down by the foundation of the restaurant, in a pile of discarded crates, he found them. Three kittens, their eyes just open, wandered in tight circles mewing - scared, hungry, and confused.
"Hello, little ones." He picked up the closest one, a little blond long haired kitten. It struggled in his grip and he settled it back down. Glancing around, he found a crate that wasn't in too of abad shape and pulled off his shirt. That accomplished, he transferred the kittens to the box one by one. "Looks like this is your lucky day."
"And mine." Napoleon's voice surprised him. "I wondered where you'd gotten off to."
"Matt went home?" Illya rubbed the head of one of the kittens, his finger nearly the entire breadth of it.
"A little sheepishly."
"I know how he feels, Napoleon. I'm sorry about this morning." Illya continued to look into the box at the tiny creatures.
"We are what we are, Illya. Despite the fact that I love you, we are still two headstrong men. We argued before we became lovers, I suppose it shouldn't be all that different now." Napoleon looked into the box. "What are we going to do with those?"
"Call the vet I suppose and see what he suggests. I feel rather responsible. If I hadn't surprised the mother this morning —"
"It probably wouldn't have made a difference. If we hadn't argued, you wouldn't have been out in the stockroom working. Our whole life is a 'if only' Illya."
"So, let's go make it right by these little guys and see if the world will follow suit."
Napoleon squatted down and brushed a handful of hair off Illya's forehead. "So how goes the feeding, Mom?" Blue eyes flicked up and the mouth compressed into a thin line. Napoleon grinned and dipped in to kiss the tip of Illya's nose.
"I can see the attraction of weaning them." Illya settled the tan kitten down beside the other two. "I finish with the last one and the first one is ready to eat again..."
"Now you know how your mother must have felt breast feeding you." Napoleon leaned back against the wall and watched the kittens move about the enclosed space on shaky legs. "I can't believe they are already box trained. It's taken the guys five years to convince Chiquitita to move it outside."
"Yet another reason why I prefer cats over dogs." Illya brushed his hands off with a towel and dropped it inside.
"Are we keeping them?"
"Would you mind?"
"No, I sort of hate to admit it, but the place hasn't been the same since Moutard hasn't been around to reign supreme." He reached out and took Illya's forearm, tugging slightly.
After a moment, Illya followed and settled beside him, tipping his head back against the wall. "Helluva day..."
"Helluva life, but I wouldn't trade it." Napoleon got an arm around Illya's shoulders. "Not if it meant doing without you." They were quiet for a minute and then Napoleon said softly. "I knew how Matt felt this morning..."
"Let me say this, you're working on your listening skills, remember. I envied you when you left."
"Envied? I threw away everything that was good in my life in a split second."
"You left, I stayed. That first week, the questions from Waverly, April... everyone, I thought it couldn't be worse. Then the questions stopped and it was worse. No one asked, no one cared, my heart was gone and life went on as before. I'd sit at my desk and see a stranger sitting at yours. I'd go home at night and everything would be right where I'd left it... where you'd left it." He stopped and sighed.
"I'm not leaving, Napoleon, not again."
"You say that, but then I saw Matt today and it was like losing you all over again. I knew his panic and his desperation. He was so scared... just like I'd been. I kept thinking what if this never gets better."
"Eventually, when I walked through the door of Taste."
Illya settled two fingers on Napoleon's mouth. "I think we've talked enough about the restaurant today. Perhaps it's time that we stopped talking."
"And do what?" Napoleon asked, kissing the scarred fingertips.
"Remind ourselves why we are here to begin with." Illya's mouth followed his fingers, nuzzling Napoleon's lips until they opened for him. He shifted slightly so that he was straddling Napoleon's lap and slid his arms around his lover's body.
Napoleon's hands travelled up and down Illya's back, pressing him closer and all the while they kissed.
"You want to go to bed?" Napoleon whispered in an ear.
"Didn't think you'd want to have sex in front of the kids."
"They have to learn some time." Illya leaned back, dragging Napoleon to the floor, spreading his legs so that the man lay between them, then he hooked his heels over the back of Napoleon's ankles and pressed up.
"Is there something you are trying to tell me?" Napoleon's eyes drifted closed to mere slits.
"If I'm not getting through to you, perhaps we need to work on those listening skills a bit more." He rocked up, smiling as groin met groin. Then there was a knock on the door.
Illya dropped his head back with a thunk and uncurled his legs. Napoleon got up onto his hands and knees, but paused to cup the bulge in Illya's pants and squeeze it lovingly.
"Keep that warm for me." He got to his feet and walked from the kitchen. Illya sat up and wiggled for a moment until he managed to get his penis in a semi comfortable position.
"What are we going to call you?' he asked the kittens, now all curled in one tight sleeping ball of fluff. A moment later the kitchen door opened and Matt walked in.
He surveyed the scene and then sat down on the floor beside Illya and stared at his hands for a moment before speaking. "Cara... I feel cattivo about this morning. I don't know why... Era stupid."
"No more stupid than the fight I had with Napoleon." Illya picked up one of the kittens and held it to his neck, "We're in love, it makes you do stupid, crazy things." He held the kitten up to study it. "We're terrified when we're in love that something will happen to make us fall out of love and in a panic break free." The kitten began to mew frantically and he replaced it with its littermates. "When we're not in love, we're desperate to get into a relationship, without stopping for a moment to think about the health of said relationship. Love is a strange, strange thing, Azzuro, and neither of us is immune to the insanity."
"Cara, are you ever scared?"
"Every time I wake up and Napoleon isn't in bed with me. Every time he says he'll meet me some place and he's a minute or two late. Granted, it wasn't as bad before Velon. It's taken me a long time to get over that. Napoleon is here because he wishes to be, not because I am keeping him from leaving."
Illya looked up as Napoleon came through the door with a bottle of wine and three glasses and smiled. "A long time ago, before we were partners, I watched women wander in and out of Napoleon's life. The ones he stayed with the longest were the ones who gave him the most freedom and spent the least amount of time trying to change his habits. I swore if he ever looked at me in that light, I would not try to change him."
Napoleon uncorked the bottle and handed Illya a glass. "Which is now why we live in California and you own a restaurant and I run a wine shop." He poured a small measure into the glass and waited while Illya tasted it.
"It is a long and twisted road we've traveled." Illya held the glass back out. "You'll like this one, Matt. You did change, as have I, but I never asked you to do it for me as a condition of our relationship."
"No, that you didn't." Napoleon poured and held his glass out. "Our future."
"Here, here." Illya touched his with the other two, drank and then stopped. "So, you simply came by to apologize for this morning?"
"Ah... no, Cara, not really."
"I thought not." Illya set the glass aside and retrieved another kitten. "You want to spend the night, don't you?"
"How did you...?"
"He's an ex-spy, Matthew." Napoleon got to his feet with a grunt. "And I am far too old to be sitting on the floor."
"It's just the house, she is so quiet."
"What about Chiquitita?"
"She's very quiet..."
"She has one accident on our hardwood floors and both of you will be sleeping in the garage." Illya muttered, smiling as the kitten patted his face with a tentative paw.
"Grazie," Matt said, standing effortlessly. "I'll go home and get some stuff."
"Matt," Illya said softly, making him pause.
"Take your time..."
The redhead grinned and nodded. "An hour?"
"Make it two, just to be on the safe side," Napoleon said, holding his hand down to Illya.
"I don't know what you feed him, Cara, but perhaps later we should talk."
"Later." Illya stood and brushed off the seat of his jeans. "Much later, Matt."
But it didn't take two hours, it barely took fifteen minutes before Illya was rocketing to a climax, oblivious as Napoleon cried out, arching into his own ejaculation. Usually that was enough to drop Illya to the mattress, panting and ready for sleep, but not this time.
He held firm, waiting for Napoleon to make the first move, to disengage. In the end, their bodies did it for them, a draw.
"Even after all this time, it's still a competition, isn't it?" Napoleon pulled up the sheet over them and doubled up a pillow for his head. He studied Illya until he reached for a water glass and drank. "And all this time, I thought it was something more ethereal, less definable."
Illya shrugged and rolled over to stare up at the ceiling. "Does it matter what it's called, as long as we know it for what it is?" He reached out and took Napoleon's hand. "Do we need to define and categorize it? Can't it just be?"
"After all these years, I suppose it can." Napoleon sighed and then said softly. "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably. Shakespeare wrote that in Much Ado About Nothing."
"You think he knew us then?" Illya moved onto his side so that he could drag the fingers on one hand over Napoleon's chest and then back. "And is that what you want, for us to woo peaceably?" His eyes flicked up to study Napoleon through his blond bangs.
"Not on your life. Or mine." Napoleon reached out, pulled him close, and the dance began again.
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