Aunt Amy to the Rescue
I find myself in complete agreement with the song, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Back home, this was a time of intense socializing. There were cookie making parties, tree decorating parties, and good old-fashioned party parties. Down in Barre, the town square was decorated up to resemble a fairyland. The pine trees were festively dressed, each with a color of their own, with lights. There were huge ornaments strung across Main Street. All the merchants' windows glowed with displays and temptations. It was so beautiful.
When I followed my nephew to New York, I didn't see how it could compare to a back-home Christmas. Then Napoleon took me to the Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. Then it was on to Rockefeller Center for the lighting of the tree there. I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Christmas in New York.
Please, don't misunderstand me. I also celebrate the other message of the season, but in New York, it is something more closely held to your bosom and cherished. Back home, midnight mass was a celebration of faith and love for your fellow man. In the big city, it's a more personal moment.
Napoleon took me to the midnight mass at St. Paul's on Christmas Eve and again, that sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the season in New York washed over me.
Of course, Napoleon's agenda became a bit clearer as the years passed for us. One night, he brought me a beautiful poinsettia. It dressed up the entry hall with its gaiety and magnificence. Even then, I had a feeling Napoleon was up to something. He was being too charming and far too attentive to his aunt.
"So, how are you keeping this holiday season, Amy?" He usually called me by my first name. I think he thought of me more as an older sister than his much older aunt.
"I'm doing well, the usual swirl of parties and the like." I sipped my Tom and Jerry carefully. That rascal was always a little heavy-handed when it came to alcohol.
"And how's the shopping coming?" His eyes were twinkling and that's when I knew he was definitely up to something.
"Napoleon Solo, if you have something to say, just say it!" I tried to make my scolding less harsh and more good-natured. He knew I could rarely refuse him anything.
"I just have a little problem..." He patted his jacket and finally found what he was looking for in his breast pocket. He pulled out a slip of paper that had been folded into a neat square. "I haven't even had time to start mine and Mr. Waverly is sending us—"
"Illya and me, out of the country. I don't know when we will be back and I would hate to disappoint anyone on my list." He dropped his gaze and then looked up through those long lashes of his. "I was sort of hoping..."
"Give it here, silly boy." I held out my hand. "I would be happy to do your shopping."
Of course, I should have waited to look at the list first. It was extensive and there were abbreviations after each one, like Mandy—bl,bl.
"Napoleon, what does this mean?"
"Hmm, oh, blonde, blue eyes. Br means brown. Bt is brunette and so forth." His tone was casual, but still a bit cautious.
"Honest to Pete, Napoleon, there must be a dozen women on this list."
"Yes, there are."
"Yet, I notice one name that is missing?"
"What are you getting Illya? He does celebrate Christmas, doesn't he?"
"Well, not enthusiastically and I think merely because I sort of cram it down his throat." He hugged me at that point and kissed my temple. "Never you worry about Illya. I like to take care of his gift personally." He winked and I laughed.
"What about Christmas dinner? Will you be here?"
"I will do my best."
"And bring that skinny partner with you. It does my heart good to watch him eat."
Christmas Eve came cold and blustery. The storm, which had been predicted for days, finally arrived just after midnight mass. As I was climbing from my taxi with Mrs. Brumeyster, the wind snatched her hat away. The taxi driver dashed after it, but what he returned was hardly fit for wearing again. It was covered in slush and, I think, the droppings of Mr. Fergeson's Chester.
The morning, when it finally arrived, was with heavy snow and terrible winds. The power faltered a few times, but I was fortunate to not lose mine. Many others were not as lucky. Even the airport was closed and my hopes for a joyful celebration with my nephew were dashed. I'd spoken with Napoleon just two days earlier, reassuring him that all his gifts had been delivered. And he promised me that he'd be home for Christmas.
Even Napoleon couldn't control the weather and as I listened to my favorite Christmas music on the stereo, a gift from Napoleon last year, and sipped my hot toddy, I still didn't find solace in that thought.
Without Napoleon, I felt alone and forgotten, even though I just needed to look at my tree and my mantle to know that I had dozens of friends with whom I could share the day. I didn't want them, I wanted...
There was a knock on the door and I held my breath. Somehow Napoleon had managed the impossible! I raced to the door and pulled it open.
"Merry Christmas..." My voice trailed off at the sight of a messenger, covered with snow and looking chilled to the bone. He was holding a huge basket of treats from my favorite deli, Zabar's, a gift from a friend who knew me too well.
"Merry Christmas, ma'am. Could you sign here?"
He left an hour later, warmed to the core with food and drink and a generous tip. Even if Napoleon couldn't be with me, one young person left much happier than when he arrived.
Night was starting to draw in, even though it was barely just three in the afternoon. The lights made the snow look pink and glisteny. Or perhaps it was the three or four hot toddies I'd had.
I'd given my housekeeper the day off and so I set about deciding what I was going to do with all the food she'd prepared and left for us. Perhaps that nice soup kitchen on 32rd could use it.
When the thud came at the door, I ignored it. I could hear Chester's bark faintly through the air duct. The thing about a dog, he needs to be let out at least a few times a day to do what he needs to do. In the winter especially Mr. Ferguson would rap on my door to let me know he was going out and he'd rap again when he came in; it was our system of keeping tabs on each other, since we both lived alone and I think he was rather sweet on me.
When the thump came again, I decided that he thought I needed to respond in some way. Shaking my head at the silliness of an old man, I opened the door and then laughed. Napoleon was standing there, his arms full of brightly wrapped, if slightly worse for the wear, packages.
"Hello, sweetheart, how's tricks? I was beginning to think you'd gone out for dinner." His voice was muffled and I hurriedly took a few of the presents and stepped aside. "Sorry we're late."
"We?" Napoleon shuffled around and then I saw Illya behind him. He, too, was laden with gifts and, like them, he looked a little tattered around the edges. Yet his smile was warm and genuine.
"Well, don't just stand there. Come in you two, and warm yourselves by the fire." Suddenly my dreary mood was gone and the whole world could go hang itself—I had Napoleon home safe and sound.
That's when I realized there was a very unhappy taxi driver standing behind them, holding suitcases.
"Oh, here, let me take care of this!" Hurriedly, I got my purse and sent the man off with his fare and a good tip to boot.
I turned back to my two boys and only then did I realized something was very wrong. Both of them looked... is wooden the word? It was as if they were stiff, shut down, and doing all that they could to hold it together, like me at my dear Albert's funeral.
"Napoleon?" I took a step towards him and he swayed slightly as he set down the gifts.
"Long day in a long week of a long trip, sweetheart."
He did look a bit bleary-eyed and I had just the thing. "How about a nice hot shower?"
Both men perked up at that and Napoleon took off his outer jacket. His shirt was torn and spattered with blood. The room began to sway a little and I gasped. I was not the sort of woman to faint at the sight of blood, but on Napoleon?
"Amy." Illya was at my side, even as the world was righting itself. "Do you happen to have any of those very excellent rugelachs in your kitchen?"
"What? Yes, of course." They are a staple and Illya knew it.
"We haven't had much to eat since the day before yesterday. I could really use one of those."
"Oh, my manners!"
"And some coffee?" His voice was hopeful, even as he looked back at Napoleon, who was nodding enthusiastically.
I hurried off to the kitchen, looking a bit like a fluttering bird, but I wasn't a fool. It was plain they needed some time to themselves.
I puttered around the kitchen, grinding fresh beans for the coffee, making sure the cream was cold and sweet. The pastry I heated gently and put some strawberry jelly into a small pot, one of the first gifts my nephew had given me—he'd been all of five when he presented me with that jelly pot. Napoleon loved jelly with his rugelachs.
In short, I took my time, finding some small measure of comfort in the familiar canisters that line one's counter and the aroma of the coffee. Dawdling is not something I do well, but when I finally carried the tray back into the living room, Napoleon was wearing a fresh shirt and his hair was all fluffed up, not his usual pristine and put together self.
Illya was putting another log in the fire and he, too, had showered and changed. How they'd both managed such a feat in such a short time amazed me. It was as if they'd showered toget... no, and I laughed at that mental image.
"That coffee smells great." Napoleon's voice was artificially cheerful and his eyes searched my face. I didn't know what he was looking for, but apparently he found it.
"It's okay, Napoleon, you don't need to put on a front." I handed him a mug and his hand shook a little as he took it. "You're home; you don't need to act."
"Sorry," he apologized even as he sat down on the sofa and studied the tree. "It's good to be here."
"My home is yours, you two know that."
They exchanged a look and that's when I saw something on Illya's neck that looked surprisingly like a hickey and a recent one to boot. I'm old, I'm not stupid... I never thought Illya liked... I mean, he just seemed... That's when I realized, I didn't really know him that well.
There was an envelope on the table with my name scribbled on the back of it. I recognized the handwriting. "What is this?"
"The money I owe you for all the shopping you did for me." Napoleon held out his empty cup. I couldn't believe he'd already emptied it. I'd barely sipped mine.
"Nonsense, my sweet! It was my pleasure and I daresay it gave me something to look forward to."
"You owe me," Napoleon said to his partner as I filled his cup and checked Illya's.
"I don't believe this." Illya was helping himself to a rugelach and I noticed his knuckles were all skinned.
"Illya, what happened to your hand?"
He looked down and offered me a sheepish smile. "Hand ball, I played a little too close to the wall."
Napoleon choked on his coffee and I laughed as Illya pounded his back, all the while, grinning like a madman. I laughed heartily, but I also noticed that Illya's touch, well, it sort became a caress towards the end. My mind these days... I shook my head to clear the thought.
"Well, we should get all of these lovely gifts under the tree. I think perhaps some dinner and then unwrapping?"
"That would be great." Whenever food was mentioned, Illya was all attention. "Can we give you a hand?"
"No, my cook put everything together for me, I just need to heat things up. Why don't you two have a bit of a lie down and I'll let you know when everything is ready?"
"Amy, your words are water to a man dying of thirst." Napoleon stood and hugged me. I was certain I felt a bandage or two and touched one, looking at him questioningly.
"The wall's partner," he admitted softly and kissed me, his lips brushing just over the surface of my skin.
I put the finishing touches on the relish platter and surveyed the kitchen. All the counters were covered with platters of food. Now all I needed were my guests.
Taking off the apron, I brushed my hands off and walked to the guest bedroom. I tapped softly on the door and opened it. The curtains weren't drawn and while the room was dim, it wasn't completely dark. With the heavy snow outside, the city's lights turned the sky an eerie pink.
The two boys, well, men, were on the bed, snuggled up to each other closer than two spoons in a drawer. Napoleon looked so protective and both of them so comfortable I didn't have the heart to wake them. I wanted to kiss Napoleon's head as I used to when he was a child, but he's warned me to not touch him when he is sleeping, but rather call his name until he wakes up. I suppose it gives him a shock or something. I didn't argue; if Napoleon asked, I acquiesced. Dinner would just have to wait until tomorrow. I pulled the curtains and quietly left the room.
At some point in the night, I had an odd dream. Albert and I were being rather daring and intimate on a beach. It was just like that movie as the surf pounded in around us. I could see Albert, so handsome and love struck, could hear him moaning as we took things to the next level.
"Shh, my love, she mustn't hear," Albert whispered.
I didn't ask who she was, thinking he meant my mother. The fact that we were in the middle of a beach and could be seen wasn't a worry as long as Mom didn't hear. You know how odd dreams can be at times.
I woke very happy and contented—and they say women can't have wet dreams. I beg their pardons, but they don't know what they are talking about!
There was a familiar smell in the air and I inhaled it deeply, smiling contentedly to myself. Albert had made coffee... then reality slapped me in the face. For a moment, I felt very sorry for myself, but that's one thing about being a Solo; we are never down for long.
I rose and wrapped a housecoat around myself, checked my appearance in a mirror, there was no sense in scaring them off this early in the morning, and walked out to greet the day.
The living room was glittering with the lights from the tree and the candles. The fireplace was crackling happily away and both men were sitting on the sofa reading the paper. They looked as much at home there as, well, I did.
"Good morning, you two." I greeted them even as I was moving across the thick carpet. If I could help it, I never wore shoes. I liked the feel of the ground beneath my bare feet.
"Amy, you're awake," Napoleon said, getting to his feet and hugging me good morning. "We didn't wake you?"
"No, not at all." I glanced at the clock and my eyes widened in surprise. I never slept past eight and here it was nearly ten. "My word, I am a lay about."
Illya got up and offered me his seat by the fire. It was all warm and cozy. "I can't remember when I had the luxury of fourteen hours of uninterrupted sleep. Thank you."
"Do you not sleep well normally, dear?"
His eyes twinkled at me and he smiled. "I have very loud neighbors."
I giggled; Illya does that to me. "So do I. I can hear Mr. Ferguson's dog every time it barks."
"He can hear his next door neighbor every time he breathes," Napoleon said, handing me a cup of coffee. "We're sorry we sort of scuttled your Christmas plans."
"You two were sleeping so soundly last night, I didn't have the heart to wake you." They exchanged a rather guilty look, but I simply smiled. "What would you like for breakfast? You do have time for breakfast?" I tried not to look disappointed about our lovely day being over without even the unwrapping of a single package.
"Yes, in view of the fact that we had to travel on Christmas Day, our employer was magnanimous enough to give us the next couple of days off. Today, we are yours." Napoleon gestured to the tree.
"Happy Boxing Day."
And it was—the day couldn't have been better. While the rest of New York dug itself out, we stayed in, nice and cozy. We listened to Christmas music, unwrapped gifts, and had a lovely dinner. I watched, happy and contented, as Napoleon beat the pants off Illya in chess and then Illya turned around and beat the pants off both of us at Gin Rummy.
They were getting themselves put together and Illya left to get their suitcases.
"Napoleon?" I asked, watching him put his topcoat back on.
"You never gave Illya his gift. You didn't forget about him?"
"I gave it to him earlier... in private. He's sort of sensitive like that."
"I understand." I didn't, but Illya had returned.
"Are we ready?" he asked, setting the suitcases down. I pretended to not notice how shabby his was next to Napoleon's. At least I knew what I could get him next year.
I garnered a hug and a kiss from both of them and sent them on their way.
From the window I watched them walking down the street, heads close together talking about something. Those two shared a closer bond than I'd ever seen Napoleon have before. He hadn't even been that close to his wife, the poor thing.
That's when I realized that no matter what you chose to call it, they were in a world of their own making and choosing.
And that perhaps was the best gift of all.