My Mama Said
Illya Kuryakin was fighting to keep his eyes from crossing when the joyful words, "We're closed" came from the front of the house. There are two days that all restaurants both dread and anticipate. The first is Valentine's Day. And the other is Mother's Day. Always a popular time for a brunch and when your restaurant was the only five star one in this part of the state, the traffic can be unbelievable. Taste had been booked solid for weeks, with a waiting list that The Four Season would have envied.
They had been winding down for an hour now as the last service shifted into their dessert course. Granted none of them were moving very quickly, but the mess had shifted from the cooking areas to the dishwashing stations. Counters were cleaned, pans put in to soak, clean cookware stowed away for the next time. It was just the last few usual closing night chores that remained.
Matt, sous chef for the day, threw his arms up in the air and then turned to embrace Illya briefly. They were both too hot and tired to keep it up for more than a few seconds. It was just enough for this to be over.
"I'd cheer if I had any energy left my body." Henry, their entremetier, the man in charge of appetizers and soups, dropped his towel. It was only the condition of the floor that kept him from sinking to it. No matter how neat they tried to keep the kitchen, when they were at full throttle, it was every man for himself and the floor was in need of a good mopping. "I think I single-handedly prepared more apps today than I have the rest of the year."
Rand, their fish chef, a poissonnie extraordinairer, slumped onto a metal table top, pressing his cheek against the cool metal. "Sand dabs, what possessed us to put sand dabs on the menu today?"
"I seem to recall it was your choice, not mine." Illya pulled off his soiled chef's jacket and peeled the fabric of the thin tee shirt free from his skin.
"Amico, you shouldn't present so." Matt propped himself up beside Rand, eyeing him. "To offer yourself in such a flagrant manner, Chef and I, we are only human and weak to boot."
"That's not what Uncle Napoleon says." Winston had pulled the saucier role for the day. In spite of his youth, even he was exhausted. It showed around his eyes and bowed shoulders.
"Your uncle is known for exaggeration." Illya chuckled and reached up over his head, rolling his shoulders and grimacing. "I don't want to even know how depleted our stocks are at the moment. Is there even anything left for us? I really don't want to think about having to make anything from scratch at the moment." He settled for a nearby half empty bottle of water instead.
"I have crackers," Rocky, their head waiter, offered as he trudged into the kitchen. Even his boundless energy had waned about an hour earlier. "I want to go to bed and sleep for a week."
"Just sleep, Cara?" Matt teased and Rocky chuckled, patting his partner on the arm.
"Okay, maybe something else, but not before I get a few hours of sleep first. I'm too tired to even think about singing..."
"¡Gracias, Dios!" Jesus, their baker, muttered. "It's small things like that that make surviving worth it." The twinkle in his eye belied his comment. The truth was, frequently it was Rocky's seemingly never-ending revue of Broadway classics and ABBA that kept them going.
Rocky laughed and punched Jesus in the shoulder. "Your napoleons were over the top tonight. Miss Alma, all of ninety pounds, ate three of them! I swear I could see them in her tummy when she left. And those tiny sugar roses, I don't know how many mothers I overheard saying they were saving theirs as a keepsake of the meal."
"They were happy?"
"Then the extra work and blistered fingers were worth it." Jesus was indeed a content man.
"Let's finish cleaning up before I fall in my tracks," Matt said, pushing himself off the table with a grunt. "I am ready to tumble into bed with the waiter of my choice..."
All of them turned at the sound of a champagne bottle being loudly opened and Napoleon grinned holding the bottle away from him. Somehow, Napoleon's tux looked as crisp and fresh as when he'd donned it seven hours earlier.
"Very dramatic, Napoleon," Illya muttered. "I am assuming you have something for us?"
"Of course, but you all have to join us in the front for it." He glanced over at the clean-up crew, still rinsing off dishes and piling them into the dish machine. "Everyone."
"The kitchen is still a mess, Cara," Matt protested, but that didn't keep him from looking hopefully over at Illya, who merely gestured them on.
"I think we've all earned a break this time." Illya let the others precede him out and caught Napoleon's hand, holding him back. "How are you?"
"Exhausted, and I am not sure there's an entire bottle of wine left either here or over at Vinea. I came very close to having to dip into my own personal stock."
"Heaven forbid," Illya murmured and drew Napoleon's fingers to his mouth to kiss them. Napoleon turned them to stoke Illya's face, smiling at the stubble there as they settled into each other's arms for a brief embrace.
"You, on the other hand, look like—"
"Yes, I know exactly what I look like." Illya cut him off. "Let's join the others before I collapse."
The dining room looked as exhausted as Illya felt and it was just this side of heaven to drop into a chair and kick off his shoes, flexing his toes happily.
"Chef has his shoes off, we're in trouble now." Roxanne leaned over and kissed his temple, brushing the sweat damp hair from his forehead. "We kicked serious ass tonight. You guys were something else."
"You mean you did." Illya was quick to acknowledge her. "I don't know how you manage everything out here. We just cook the stuff, but you have to deal with all the personalities, the quirks, and the complaints." He caught her hand and, as he'd done with Napoleon, he lifted her hand to his lips. "You are Taste's greatest asset. We couldn't do this half as well without you."
She very nearly blushed. "Thank you, Chef. Should I be asking for a raise sometime soon?"
"You can always ask, Cheri amour." Matt lowered himself carefully into a chair, sighing as he came to a rest. "Now, Napoleon, you had something for us?"
Napoleon bowed low to them, then straightened and clapped his hands. Stella and Celeste, Taste's twin bartenders, carried over trays of pre-poured champagne. "And because I had an idea as to what this day was going to be like..." He gestured two of the younger waiters forward and they carried over platters of appetizers, vegetables, cheese, pate, and crackers. He caught Illya's eyes. "This isn't as good as yours, Amante, but I have a feeling at this point that it doesn't very much matter."
"My hero," Illya said and helped himself to a handful of the cheese. He chewed the first piece slowly, savoring its taste. "I was about to start gnawing on my arm back there."
"That's a scary visual, Cara," Matt headed for the pate instead. Once they were served, the others flocked in and started helping themselves. Once Napoleon was satisfied that everyone had had a chance to get something to eat and had a glass of champagne, he took a position in front of them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a toast. To the one person without whose cooperation, none of us would be here. To Mom!"
"Hear, hear!" Henry shouted. He drank and dipped a cracker into the pate. "So tell me, Napoleon, what was your mother like? Is she as crazy as her son?"
Napoleon looked over at Winston and grinned. "Incredible, wouldn't you say, Winston?"
"Grandma sure was great. I mean, she'd blister your ass if you crossed her though." He grinned and tipped his head back to drop some grapes into his mouth. "Mom, too," he mumbled and then grew quiet. Things were still not right between mother and son.
Napoleon settled into a chair beside his partner and touched the rim of his glass to Illya's.
"I remember the first time I met her." Illya's eyelids drooped in thought. "She learned how to say, 'good day' and 'how are you' in Russian, just so that I would be put at ease. Incredible is hardly enough to describe her, but then considering her son, nothing she did surprised me."
"She sure liked you, Chef," Winston said. "She said you had two hollow legs and for a long time, I thought she meant your legs weren't real... kids are funny."
"Yes they are." Illya smiling, thinking back to the many nights he had spent with Winston and his siblings, reading, playing, telling them tall tales from Mother Russia.
"What about your mother, Chef?" Rocky had taken a seat and pulled Matt closer to him. The redhead didn't attempt to struggle away from the close contact. "What was she like?"
"She, almost single-handedly, raised six children at a time when the mortality rate for children was nearly eighty percent. Somehow, at a time when families and homes were being ripped apart, she held us together. How she never killed me, I will not understand."
"Were you a handful, Chef?" Winston had seated himself up on a table and was happily swinging his legs.
"Were? Still is, you mean," Napoleon interrupted. "Yuliya was an exceptional woman. She had to be to put up with your father. And your choice of careers."
"And my choice of life partners, although she was very sweet on you. I guess it runs in the family." Illya chuckled at that and went hunting for more cheese.
Napoleon selected a slice of a pale cheese and offered it to him. "This is called Red Dragon. It has mustard seed and cracked pepper in it. So Matthew, what about your mother? Did she approve of your choice of career? Of moving to America?"
"Shh, she still thinks I'm in Parigi."
"Why would she think you were in Paris," Rocky asked, entangling his fingers in the tight red curls, massaging the back of Matt's head.
"It's easier than telling her I am here—nessun dramma."
"But you call her and send her letters... doesn't she... catch on?"
"Mama, she believes as she believes."
"And what does she believe?" Henry had started prowling the room for more champagne. He found two bottles and carried them back to the cluster of chairs. Immediately, Stella procured one and started to open it.
"That I am working in a small bistro in Paris." He had closed his eyes in contentment at Rocky's gentle massage.
"She approves of you being a chef?" Rocky's question was soft.
"She gave birth to me on the floor of a restaurant kitchen, she expected no less from me."
"She what?" Winston was suddenly all attention, even as his glass was being refilled with more champagne.
"Si, she was getting ready for work and come farla dice in inglese? She... ah...faticoso."
"Went into labor?" Illya translated as Napoleon began to follow Rocky's example and rubbed Illya's neck.
"Yes, but it was a holiday and they were short handed, so she said nothing until her shift was over. Then it was too late and suddenly I was there."
"What a story, Matthew." Illya grinned, then his eyes closed in pain/pleasure as Napoleon worked a knuckle into a tight muscle. "Ow, enough, Napoleon." He shrugged Napoleon's hand off.
"No story, Cara, the truth." He looked over his shoulder back at the kitchen and grinned. "I am thinking, perhaps, their floor was cleaner than ours."
"You can eat off the floor—" protested one of the younger waiters, looking hurt at such a comment.
"Early in the evening," Matt finished. "We are a working kitchen. If it was spotless at the end of a night like this one, we would not be doing our jobs."
"Jesus, what about your mother?" Winston asked. "Is she still with us?"
"No, she is singing now with the angels." Jesus' eyes grew misty. "She loved to sing, my mamacita. All day long, she sang as she cleaned, baked, everything. Then one day, the solders came..." He sighed deeply. "She hid us in a small closet and she never told the soldiers where we were, not even after they killed Papa and raped her... she kept us safe, but she never sang again..."
"Oh, Jesus," Roxanne murmured and threw her arms around his neck, pulling him close, sniffling. "I'm so sorry."
"Let's go get cleaned up," Illya said quietly and rose. Matt, Henry and the others followed quietly, even as Jesus sat quietly with Roxanne.
"Uncle Napoleon, I didn't mean..." Winston began.
"We know, son." Napoleon affectionately ruffled his hair as they walked into the kitchen. "We are just reminded that some of us had our childhoods a bit easier than others." He slapped his hands together. "What can I do to help?"
"We have this down to a fine art," Illya said, reaching for a mop. Then he lowered his voice. "Why don't you get a bath ready? The floor isn't the only thing that could use a good soaking tonight."
Napoleon turned his head as the bathroom door opened and Illya trudged in.
"Room in there for me?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way." He watched Illya undress, not so much with passionate eyes, but watching for any catch, any hint that something might be hurting a bit more than usual.
Napoleon leaned forward and pulled the plug, letting the cooling water escape. Then he turned the hot water tap on and waited for Illya to climb in. The water was just this side of scalding when Illya turned it off and relaxed back against Napoleon.
"Long day?" Napoleon settled his arms comfortably around Illya's waist and ignored the heat.
"Longer night. I'm glad this only happens a couple of times a year. Next year we will go back to a preset. Giving them a choice of seven entrees was insane." He was quiet for a minute, then Illya added. "Thank you for arranging that little event for us. It was just what we needed."
"I'm not sure Jesus would agree with you. Winston felt like crap."
"Jesus reassured him that it was fine. His mother was a strong woman and she made her decision, just as our mothers did. You do what you have to in order to protect your children. Our mothers would have done the same."
"Do you ever wish you had had kids?" Napoleon felt Illya's shoulder shrug and nuzzled the blond hair.
"Not really an option, at least not for me. What about you?"
"I had planned to have a whole houseful, like Josie did. Then I fell in love with you."
"Sorry for messing up your plans."
"Why? I'm not. Illya, there's not a day that goes by that I don't thank God for having you in my arms."
"The Church might take exception."
"Let them. From what I remember from my bible study classes, love, no matter the form it takes, is never wrong and I don't believe we would be given this capacity to love if we weren't meant to share it with someone." Napoleon tightened his embrace. "How can this be wrong?"
"Wrong person to ask. Now if the question was, are you ready for bed? That I have an answer to."
"And are you ready for bed?" The head resting against his cheek nodded. "Then up you go." When Illya didn't move, Napoleon tried again. "I can't move until you do, Amante."
With a groan, Illya hefted himself out of the tub. The combination of the lateness of the hour and the coolness of the room sent both men scurrying beneath the covers without even taking time to dry off.
Happily wrapped within their cotton and flannel cocoon, Napoleon settled down, Illya spooned up against him. "Did I ever tell your mother how infinitely happy I am that she had you for a son?"
Illya reached to turn off the lights. "And I, for the record, am delighted with your mother's contribution to the world's head count. This bed would very lonely without you in it."
"You'll never have to worry about that." Napoleon kissed Illya's shoulder and grunted as Moutard jumped up on the bed and plopped down against his legs. "That cat has to lose some weight. Every time he gets up here, I fear for the bedsprings."
"Uh huh." Illya's response was soft and Napoleon grinned in the dark.
The even breath on his arm told Napoleon that Illya was already happily asleep in his embrace. An enthusiastic purr told him that Berra Noire had arrived and she was busy settling down in her favorite spot, next to Napoleon's head on his pillow. Outside the rain started yet again and Napoleon suddenly found himself awash in contentment.
He thought of his mother, so willing to love and accept his choices, so able to defend and protect those she loved. He missed her, but he knew that she would never be gone, not really. She'd live as long as he remembered her and her lessons. "Thanks, Mom," he murmured and hurried along to join his partner in sleep. After all, it had been a busy day.