Thank you for the Music

by Spikesgirl58

The knock to the door was heavy and measured. Inside the warm and festive living room, Rocky glanced up from the tiny tree he'd been decorating. The knock came again and Rocky sighed. His lover would never hear it in the back of the house, so it was up to him to answer.

Brushing the glitter from his hands, Rocky stood, turned down the stereo and opened the door. He laughed at the bundled-up person on the doorstep. Only a pair of vivid blue eyes told Rocky who was standing there. He spread his arms wide and said, "Chef, Merr...mph!" He was cut off as a hand was clamped down over his mouth.

"Say it and face my wrath." Illya Kuryakin's voice was muffled with the heavy wool scarf he had wrapped around his face, but there was enough heat in his eyes to assure Rocky the threat was not an idle one.

Rocky pulled away. "Okay, no seasonal greetings. Are you okay, Chef? You look a little, well, crazed."

The blond had a strained look about him. "If I have to listen to the Carpenter's Christmas album one more time, I'm not going to be responsible for my actions."

Rocky laughed. "You'd best go on through to the kitchen then. I think it's the next one on the turntable. Or it might be the Chipmunks."

"They sing?" Illya gave the stereo a wild-eyed look and stamped the snow off his work boots while peeling off the muffler, hat, and gloves. He pulled his cable knit sweater off, taking a moment to finger comb his long blond bangs back into place.

Rocky took the clothes and arranged them over the back of the rocking chair, making sure the sweater was hanging properly. He liked everything just right. That's when he saw the letter and stepped quickly over to it and flipped it face down so Illya wouldn't see.

He did notice, of course, because that's what Chef did, but then he was further distracted.

"What on earth is that?"

Rocky followed Illya's gaze and smiled proudly. "It is my Christmas Village. Usually I don't have room enough to display it, but since we put the couch in the spare room, I thought I'd set it all up. I work on it all year."

The village was exact down to the smallest detail and nothing had been overlooked. If the set didn't come with something, Rocky hunted for a substitute. It was what kept him sane when the world around him was losing its sanity.

"Never let Napoleon see that," Illya whispered as he took in the tiny town with its tiny people and even tinier Christmas decorations. "It would make him wild."

"Too late." Rocky pointed to a gift that rest at the base of their tree. "I got him the starter kit."

"Rocky... please, take it back. I beg you... I'll give you a raise, just don't... don't ever... please?"

"Sorry, Chef, he's already seen it and he already knows..."

"That's why he wanted to put the tree in the corner of the room instead of in front of the widow as usual and why he's been looking for a low table. Conspiracy all around me. I swear, it's a conspiracy."

Rocky chuckled as Illya hurried off, heading for the sanctuary of the kitchen.

Illya opened the door and stepped inside with a moan of relief. One of the lovely things about old houses, they had really good soundproofing even from one room to the next. Back in the ktichen, there wasn't even a hint of Christmas music, just the inviting smell of marinara bubbling on the stove.

His business partner hunched down over a table, the fingers of one hand tangled in his bright red afro. The other hand drummed a pencil upon a sheet of paper. They had started as fellow students, then friends, lovers, then back to friends and business partners. Illya didn't regret a moment of the journey.

Matt Tovay glanced up and grinned. "Cara, come lei è?"

"Far from fine, amante." Illya leaned close to see what Matt was working on and Matt took the opportunity to kiss him. Illya didn't need to look up to know there was mistletoe over the table. In Matt's and Rocky's house, as with his and Napoleon's, the parasite was everywhere and Napoleon took advantage of it frequently. Okay, this part of the holiday he didn't hate that much. "Planning your New Year's Eve menu already?"

Matt flipped the piece of paper he'd been writing on over and pulled a second scribbled-upon sheet over it. He ran a finger down the list and shook his head slowly. "New Year's is just around the corner and I need a...come farla dice spazio?"

"A buffer?

"Si, si, that's it. If I can't get something, I need time to find something else. You are giving me a great opportunity and I do not want to fail." Matt put down the pencil as Illya flopped into a nearby chair. "Perhaps it can become a..."

"Tradition is the word you are looking for. Matt, you are incapable of failure; that's what makes us such a good pair- the driven and the driver." He looked around the kitchen. Like his place, the kitchen was a combination of necessity and practicality. They cooked too much to be satisfied with regular appliances and burnished chrome glinted back at Illya. The granite countertops were covered with cookies and other treats. Matt was more of a baker than Illya and the Italian loved putting a new spin on old home recipes. Illya didn't hate it, either.

"But you aren't here on your day off to discuss my menu. You have your reservations in the City?"

"Suite at the Palace and reservations for the New Year's Eve celebration at The Fifth Floor. Dinner, dancing, celebrating, Napoleon will be in Seventh Heaven."

"I think more he will be happy to have the time with you. It isn't easy for him. He's not one of us."

Illya knew Matt meant part of the culinary industry. It had taken Napoleon some time to figure out just where he did belong. Now that Vinea, Napoleon's wine shop, was established and he had a sense of purpose, Napoleon was much more settled. However, it had opened a new can of worms for them. Napoleon worked days; Illya worked nights. A long weekend in the City was Illya's gift to Napoleon. It had also given him the opportunity to give Matt a chance to try something he'd been wanting to do for some time—a special plated evening at Taste.

Illya looked over at the stack of Christmas cards. At least all Napoleon made him do was sign the damned things. He'd learned long ago it was safer than Illya him to actually write something. Illya remembered the first, and last, time Napoleon had done that. They'd sent out cards with 'something' written in Illya's tight, precise handwriting and an apology from Napoleon for his partner's sad sense of humor.

"How did two Scrooges like us get hitched up to two poster boys for Christmas cheer?" Illya crossed his arms and leaned back, allowing himself to mope just a little.

"Opposites attract and in between, I hide." Matt stood and took a mug from the cupboard. "You'd like hot chocolate?"

"I love hot chocolate and you know that."

"I have a treat for you. Read over my menu while I prepare the Nectar of the Gods for you."

Illya pulled out his glasses from his shirt pocket and put them on, not missing Matt's smirk. Normally he'd be wearing his contact lenses, but he'd gotten a bit of cat hair under one and scratched his cornea. Doctor's orders, glasses for the next few days and he had to put up with Matt's teasing about getting old. For once, the redhead passed on commenting as he worked on his task.

"Elk AND venison?"

"You think one or the other?"

"I would have just one game course, yes. Too much and you tend to put the beef and potato crowd off. One course they'll skip, but two and they start thinking about the cost. It's your call, however." Matt put a mug down in front of him and Illya grinned at the tower of whipped cream that was dripping over the sides. "What is this?"

"Rocky calls it a Hot Chocolate Snuggle. It is hot chocolate, cherry chocolate brandy, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream." He slid back into his recently vacated chair and pushed the mug closer to Illya.

Illya sipped and smacked his lips. "You should call it paradise. We have got to put this on the drinks menu for the season."

"I thought you'd agree with me about that, but go slowly. It's like that old poem, and too many you end up under the host..."

"Hmm, that's a thought." Illya finished the drink and sighed, then burped and sighed again. "Another couple of those and I would be asleep on your floor."

"Which is why I warned you. The floor is Chiquitita's domain. She will overwhelm you with il cane bacia (dog kisses)."

"Thanks for the warning." Hearing her name mentioned, Chiquitita got out of her basket with a grunt, waddled over to Illya and sat, leaning heavily against Illya's leg, propping herself up.

"Chiquitita, look at you! You have to go on a diet even more than Napoleon. You are fat."

"Cara, speak softly to her." Matt laughed. "She is in the family way."

"What?" Illya was surprised. The little beagle was seldom out of the house and never the yard.

"One night of passion, eh, my little dog?" Matt bent down to fondle an ear. "Rocky and I were in love's grip and we didn't fasten the gate properly. She didn't leave, but she had a visitor. Now she is an unwed mother with a reputation, but we love her still." The dog's tail thumped happily at the change in his voice and she sighed. "We think the father was one of your kind..."

"My kind?" Illya glanced at him sharply.

"Si, his name is Igor Badenov and he lives two houses down. He is a Russian wolfhound."

"There's a rather large discrepancy in size if I'm remembering the breed correctly."

"L'amore troverà una maniera (Love will find a way)," Matt said. "So you are ready for the big day?"

"Just let me get through the next three weeks without alienating our clientele or Napoleon and I will be happy. Perhaps after that he will even let me answer the phone and look at the mail again."

"Cara, it's the season for secrets. I was speaking of the open house this weekend."

"Oh, that... I suppose so. Jesus has been baking like a man possessed. Napoleon is going to set up something in between and handle both Vinea and Taste."

"Is he dressing?"

Illya avoided the usual crack about frostbite and certain tender areas if he didn't and just nodded, watching as Chiquitita waddled away. As she pushed the door open, he could hear Rocky singing along with Burl Ives' Holly Jolly Christmas.

"He is borrowing a suit from the playhouse... as is nearly everyone else in town. You should see him, he looks quite..."


"More than that..."


"Let's just say, I got him out of it in record time.... maybe dashing."

"Besides Jesus's treats, what else is he serving?"

"Mulled wine for the adults and hot cider for the kids. I've had pots steeping on my stove for the past eight hours."

"Your kitchen must smell heavenly."

"Only for the first couple hours. Now it merely smells like an overly seasoned locker room."

"Cara, you really are in a mood."

Illya sighed and dropped his gaze to his hands. "It's the time of year and the way they just shove it down your throat, you know? I'm not Christian, or anything else for that matter. And while I admit that I, too, take part in the gluttony of commercialism, I just... there's something I'm not seeing."

"Well, you need to just relax, or as much as you can, and be thankful for what you have."

"I thought that was Thanksgiving."

"Now, too, I think. You have Napoleon and your family who loves you when you aren't screaming at us. You have a business —"

"We have a business," Illya interrupted.

"Si, Cara, I know this." Matt smiled at Illya and patted his forearm, tracing the Taste tattoo there. "You have your health, enough to eat and drink and there is one more reason we should be thankful." He poured some of his hot chocolate into Illya's mug and raised his in a toast.

"Which is?" Illya followed suit and lifted his mug to Matt's.

"ABBA hasn't put out a Christmas album." He clunked his mug to Illya's. "To small victories, eh?"

"And great relief!"

"Sweetheart, have you seen the garland?" Rocky poked his head into the kitchen, a string of lights around his neck. Chiquitita waddled back in, looking quite uncomfortable.

"You've put it all up, Cara, and then you bought more and put that up as well. We are... garland festooned."

"The special garland... you know?"

"Ah..." Matt trailed off and Illya hid his smile behind the cup. He could tell the redhead was lost. "No, I admit that it's a confusion."

Rocky laughed and walked quickly to Matt's side. With a devilish grin, he leaned down and whispered something. A flush came up in Matt's cheeks and he pointed.

"Oh, that garland, si, si, it is in the bureau in the bedroom." Then Matt's eyes grew wide. "Cara, you aren't decorating with... that?"

Rocky glanced over at Illya and smiled slyly. "Only in one spot, for later."

"I think that is my exit cue, as Napoleon would say," Illya said as there was a knock on the exterior kitchen door. Chiquitita woofed and made for the door as fast as her state allowed. Rocky beat her there and laughed as the beagle glared at him. Have you no pity for a pregnant working mother? The beagle's expression seemed to say.

"Next time I swear, little mother." Rocky opened the door and ushered a snowflake-covered Napoleon in.

"No chance that's dandruff?" Illya asked, standing.

"Bite your tongue... or better yet, let me bite it for you." Napoleon dropped his muffler and squatted to pat the dog. "Hello, sweetheart. It looks like bad times have befallen you."

"A case of 'love 'em and leave 'em. You remember how that goes, Napoleon." Illya looked at his mate as Rocky trotted from the room.

"I beg your pardon? I never left a woman in that state." He straightened and looked Illya in the eye. "I was always an enthusiastic but cautious lover. I came to see if I could take you to dinner."


"Why must there be an 'and' attached to it?"

"Because I know you, Solo."

"Okay and then we can go watch the parade of lights."

"It's cold out." Illya knew it was pointless to argue, but it was expected of him.

"I'll keep you warm. Besides, with your Russian blood, it's far from cold outside. You two want to come?"

"Ah, no, we have Chiquitita to keep an eye on." Matt leaned down and patted the dog as she moved back to her basket. "The vet says anytime now. That is why she is so restless now. Rocky and me, we will soon be grandparents. Cara, you wouldn't want...?"

"A world of no," Illya snapped before Napoleon could get a word out. "And there's the mystery garland to deal with." Illya took the sweater , tugging it on before taking the hat, gloves, and muffler Rocky had returned with. He grinned as Matt's face flushed again. "Let's go before Matt bursts into flames."

Hugs and kisses were exchanged and they were off.

"You arrived in the nick of time." Illya pulled his sweater on before leaving the back porch. The sky was growing dark and the snowflakes just seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

"You know how it is with us ex-agents. It's all in the timing." Napoleon patted Illya's hair lovingly in place and offered him his watch cap.

"At least it was for you. I was a bit more hit and miss." He got the cap on, then the muffler. "So where do you want to go for dinner, as if I didn't know?"

"It's corned beef and cabbage night." Napoleon managed to make it sound wistful as he whispered into Illya's ear, kissed it, then pulled the edge of the cap over it protectively. "Eddy's holding a table for us."

The Hole in the Wall had been an institution even before Illya started taking cooking lessons. It was tiny, just eight tables and ten stools. The owner/chef managed the whole thing by himself with the help of one waitress who had been with him from the start. There was a lamppost out front and every night the special would be posted on it. The fare was simple, but satisfying, and Illya appreciated Eddy's no nonsense approach to food.

"Then let's not keep him waiting."

A stomach full of corned beef and cabbage, topped off with a couple of beers, some homemade pie and coffee and Illya was nearly ready to face the parade. When it came to holidays in the Foothills, the towns went all out. The conservancy league gathered up boughs for the towns and large ribbon and pinecone-decorated branches hung from every lamp post, parking meter and sign possible. There were huge strands of garland and lights decorating the front porches and balconies of the businesses that lined Main Street. Even though Taste was set slightly off the beaten path, it too was decorated to the hilt, although that was more Roxanne's and Napoleon's doing. Illya and Matt never seemed to get around to doing it themselves.

They stood in front of the Twice Removed antique store, mostly to annoy the owner. He was one of the few folks in Jackson who was outspoken against gays, so Illya went out of his way to antagonize the man. There was a big sign on the front window, decrying the sin of homosexuality and refusing to serve 'their' kind. The sidewalk, however, was public property. Napoleon and Illya took advantage of that and discretely held hands. The owner wasn't happy and that suited Illya just fine.

Jackson's mayor rode by in a wagon festooned with lights and decorations, waving to everyone.

"This really makes the season start out right, doesn't it?" Napoleon waved to a young girl and grinned as she waved back. She ran over to hug Napoleon's legs and then raced back to her spot in the parade.

"There's something about seeing Travis's goats all decked out in lights that really says Christmas to me."

"Why are you being so cynical this year? This is bad case even for you."

Illya didn't have an answer. It was as if he'd woken up the morning after Thanksgiving in a grumpy mood and hadn't been able to shake it. "Sorry," he muttered.

Napoleon slid an arm around his shoulders, partially to pull him close, partially to annoy Cecil. "Don't be sorry, just don't be so crotchety. It's not all that bad."

Illya smiled and nodded. "I'll try."

"So what are you going to do tomorrow?"

"What's tomorrow?"

"I have to drive over to the Debolt winery. You want to come?"

"No, I should probably try and get something done without the usual distractions."

"I'd make it worth your while."

"You always do, hence the distractions. There are some things..." He was lying and he knew Napoleon knew it. It was one of the hazards of having been together for so long.

"Okay, as long as you are sure."

"I am." I would kill for some time by myself—anything to be free of the damn Christmas spirit.

Illya luxuriated in the fact that he was alone in Taste's kitchen. There was no bantering, no annoying chatter, just him, the stove and blessed quiet. No Christmas music filtered back through the swinging doors, no raucous singing, no anyone. He rarely had these moments anymore and Illya was enjoying it thoroughly. He'd even taken the phone off the hook, determined to keep the moment for as long as he could.

He'd woken before Napoleon for a change and they'd proceeded to make love in Illya's favorite way, slow and relaxed. They were just getting to the stage in their relationship where the frantic need they both had seemed to be waning. The sex was still incredible, but there wasn't the urgency they'd both felt at first.

That made Napoleon a bit late starting for the winery. During this time of the year, he liked to leave earlier in the morning to avoid the road at night. While they were mostly clear, patches of ice could crop up at the worst moment.

Illya puttered around the house for a bit and then headed to Taste, purposefully ignoring the stack of cards Napoleon left for him to sign. He was more interested in perfecting a pumpkin sauce, one that was spicy and just sweet enough to compliment the goose he wanted to serve it with than signing a bunch of cards to people he didn't really care about. He also had a red pepper jus that needed a bit more something. He hadn't decided quite what that was and now he had the time and quiet to work on it.

When the backdoor to the kitchen banged open, Illya was only half surprised. He could never hide for long.

"Cara!" Matt was breathless and Rocky came stumbling in on his heels. Both men were gasping and looking a bit wild. Illya started to smile, then something stopped him. There was a frantic look in their eyes.

"Matthew, what's wrong?"

"There's been an accident... Napoleon..."

Then Illya's world shifted its priorities very quickly and the next thing he knew he was sitting the front seat of Rocky's truck, negotiating the twists and turns to the county hospital as fast as the truck could churn along.

"What happened?" It was the first thing he'd said since getting in the vehicle.

"Dunno. Napoleon called from the hospital looking for you."

"You spoke with him?"

"Just for a second. Then a doctor came on and said he'd been involved in an accident and did I know how to reach you? Afraid we sort of tore your place up looking for you. Moutard will never be the same. Then Matt noticed Taste's windows were steamy."

"Yes, I was trying out some new recipes... a little 'me' time..." Illya let his voice trail off. If only he'd gone with Napoleon, the chances are the accident wouldn't have happened. If only he hadn't insisted upon making love that morning, thus delaying Napoleon, he'd not have forced his mate to drive as it got dark. Napoleon's night vision wasn't what it used to be. If only...

Illya walked into the Emergency waiting room and up to the front desk.

"I'm looking for Napoleon Solo. Is he checked in here?" The woman there looked up and started to answer.

"He's sitting behind you," a familiar voice answered and Illya spun. Napoleon was being pushed up to him in a wheelchair, a cane across his lap. One hand was bandaged as was his head.

"Слава Богу." He bent to hug his mate, taking care not to use too much pressure.

"You don't believe in God, Illya," Napoleon muttered into his ear.

"With you, I do. What happened?"

"I was coming around a corner and a deer jumped out in front of me, a huge buck. Completly destroyed the Town car."

"I don't imagine it did him much good either." Illya turned Napoleon's face, examining it.

"No, they had to put the poor thing down." Napoleon sighed. "Santa's down one reindeer."

Illya frowned at the comment, as did a young boy sitting not too far away.

"He's joking, sweetheart," his mother said, glaring at the pair.

"Napoleon," Illya scolded.

"Mr. Solo is now flying under the influence of some pain medication." Illya looked up at the speaker, who was standing to the right of the wheelchair. He offered his hand. "Dr. Meroi at your service. You are his partner?"

"Illya Kuryakin." Illya shook the hand and returned to Napoleon, who was humming along with the canned Christmas music. "How is he?"

"Remarkably good, considering they had to cut him out of the car. He's got a bruised knee, a sprained wrist and a bang to his head. We took x-rays, but didn't see any damage. He's going to feel like hell for the next couple of days though."

"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow," Napoleon sang out and the other people in the waiting room looked over.

"I think some bed rest and he'll be good as new in a week." The doctor handed Illya a paper sack. "These are his prescriptions and if you'll just fill out some paperwork for me..."

Rocky arrived and looked around until he spotted his employer.

"Hey, Mr. S, how you doing?"

"Rocky, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, had a very shiny..." Napoleon started to sing, but then trailed off. "What do you have that shines, Rocky?"

"My personality," Rocky said with a chuckle. "Should I take him out to the truck?"

"I think that would be best for the sake of all the music lovers here," Illya said softly. "I've got some papers to sign and then I'll be along."

Napoleon's groan woke Illya and he was immediately alert from his doze in the chair. "Napoleon, what's wrong?"

"Did you get the number of the tank that hit me?" Illya clicked on the bedside light and Napoleon moaned again. "Does that light have to be so bright?"

"Sorry." Illya adjusted the shade. "I'd ask how you are feeling, but I already anticipated your answer. I'll get you some medication." He stood and stretched before walking gingerly across the cold floor to the guest bathroom. He got the prescribed dose and some water.

"I don't want anything; I just want to lie here... quietly... and die."

"Tell you what, this time, take the meds and then decide about the whole living dying thing next time around." Illya held out the medication and after a moment, Napoleon took the pills with his good hand and put them in his mouth. He drained the glass, handed it back to Illya and then returned to his pillow to stare up at the ceiling.

Illya took that as a good sign and headed to the kitchen to make coffee and then start a fire. The minute his hand hit the kitchen door, the meows started. Both cats serenaded him to remind him that they had not yet been attended to that morning.

Illya turned on the coffee maker and opened a can of wet food for the cats. Instantly their attention shifted from him to their plates.

Illya sat down at the table and made a face at the stack of Christmas cards sitting there. Napoleon's scrawled note of 'please sign?' was stuck to the top one and Illya suddenly felt his eyes tearing up. It had been so close. The car was demolished and the cop told him that if Napoleon had been going even one mile faster, he would probably not be around to tell the tale. So, so very close in a lifetime of close calls. Life kept trying to take Napoleon from him... why...? Probably because he did nothing to deserve him.

The tears tracked down his face and Illya did nothing to stop them, giving in to the frustration, sorrow, and desperation that pounded down upon him. Then he felt a hand, warm and reassuring on his back.

"It's okay, Illya. I'm okay..."

"I thought I was supposed to be comforting you." Illya sniffed and rubbed a sleeve across his eyes. "And you are supposed to be in bed taking it easy."

"Never underestimate the power of really good drugs." Napoleon eased himself down into a kitchen chair. "What brought all this on?"

"The accident was my fault. I should have gone with you."

"We'd probably be dead, considering the way you drive."

"I'm being serious."

"So am I. If you'd gone, we'd have taken the truck. That would have meant all those cases of wine would have been in the bed and not the trunk. We would have been crushed."

"I just...I've been such a misery lately."

"No, you've been Illya." Napoleon grimaced as he adjusted his position. "You're stressed, over-worked, tired and angry."

"Yes." With a sigh, Illya rose to pour two mugs of coffee and carry them back to the table.

"You've never liked the holidays, even when you were younger, and that's okay, Illya." Napoleon watched as one mug was set in front of him. "I'm just asking for a bit of tolerance and for you to let me enjoy them."

"A détente?"

"And properly sealed." Napoleon tapped his lips and Illya smiled. He leaned forward and kissed Napoleon soundly yet carefully.

The phone rang and Illya snatched up the receiver. "Kuryakin."

There was a long pause. "Napoleon Solo?"

"Just a moment." That had been just one of several calls he'd gotten in the past week. If he said Napoleon was unavailable, the caller hung up without a message. If Napoleon was there, a conversation, usually brief and hushed followed. It was no different this time. Napoleon's eyes pleaded privacy, so Illya went out to check the fire and fix the bedclothes on the guest bed.

He heard a noise and Napoleon was standing behind him, looking a bit sheepish."Sorry."

"I'm getting used to it.

"And now, with your help, I'd like to go to our bed and get some rest. The mattress here is lumpy."

"It's merely because the lumps haven't been properly pounded out of it yet."

"We shall have to take care of that another day, I think, Amante. As Matt would say, the engine, she is idling at the moment."

As Illya helped Napoleon limp up the stairs and to their room, he thought back about what Matt had said, that it was a time to be thankful of what he had. While it was true he'd never take his place among the great lovers of Christmas, but from here on in, he swore to himself that he'd do the best he could.

He was just getting Napoleon settled into bed when the phone rang.

"Kuryakin." And he waited for the obligatory, "Napoleon Solo?" Instead he was surprised to hear Matt's voice.

"Cara, you have to come!" His fellow chef's voice was breathless.

"Matt?" Illya was instantly on the alert. "What's wrong?"

"The puppies! They... they -"

Illya could hear the man begin to cry. "Matthew!" Napoleon sat up in bed, his brow furrowed with concern. There was some noise on the other end of the phone.

"It's okay, Chef." Rocky's voice came on. "He's just a little overcome at the moment, being a brand new grandfather and all."

"Is Chiquitita all right?"

"She is fine and the mother to three fat little puppies." Illya made an 'okay' gesture with his fingers and Napoleon relaxed. "They sure are cute... you don't think you'd...?"

"A world of no, Rocky."

"Well, you should still come and see them."

"Perhaps later when Napoleon feels up to it." Illya darted a look at the bedside clock. "Right now, I've got to get ready for tonight. We all do..."

"See you at three, boss."

Illya hung up the phone and shook his head slowly. "Such the drama queen. You should take him to the theatre with you, Napoleon." He walked to the closet and pulled out a chef's coat. "Will you be all right by yourself? I'll check on you on my break."

"All tucked in here and asleep, I will be fine." Napoleon readjusted the blankets around him. Illya studied him briefly and then headed to the shower.

When he came out, Napoleon was snoring away and Illya sighed, pausing to run his hand through the salt and pepper hair, taking care to avoid the bandage. So very close.

Ladling up a glass of punch, Illya passed the glass over to one of his junior waiters with a smile. Once a year, he waited on them. It only seemed right. Matt was carving the prime rib and Napoleon was handling the Yorkshire pudding. Henry and Rand were making the rounds with platters of salad and vegetables. The air inside Taste was buzzing with conversation and laughter. Illya had to confess that it was nice, this feeling of being part of a family.

"So you have decided that perhaps Christmas is not so terribile, Cara?"

"Well, it's not as bad as it could be, especially now that we have a week to breathe." Illya took a sip from his glass and gasped. "Who made this stuff?"

"Jesus said it was from an old family recipe. He said it would take your breath away."

"Any stronger and it would take my pulse as well."

"You aren't the drinker you used to be." Matt sipped from his own cup and coughed. "Me sia, penso."

Illya laughed and pounded him on the back. "At least I'm among friends. So did you give Rocky your gift already?"

"Si, before we came to work. He now has the very romantic gift of a rebuilt engine in that monster of his." Matt shrugged his shoulders and sipped again, more carefully. "It was what he wanted and makes him happy."

"And the rest of Jackson will probably send you flowers to keep from hearing that thing cough and choke its way through the streets."

"True, but at least I always knew where he was from the trail of smoke he left."

"And what about you? What did he give you?"

Matt's lips curled into a warm smile. "My pick of the puppies."

Illya sighed and set down his glass. "Remind me not to visit you for another few months, at least not until after it is housebroken!"

"And you gave Napoleon his gift?"

"Later. His doctor cleared him. It's been a long, dry two weeks."

"Si, but it's more fun if he can play, too."

"Agreed." Illya studied the crowd. "It looks like things are quieting down. Why don't you go get something to eat?"

The noise level swelled as Matt walked into the group of people and Illya smiled. He was lucky their employees loved Matt so much. It certainly made motivating them a bit easier. He stifled a yawn and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It had been a long night before they closed the restaurant. Soon someone would 'find' a guitar and it would mysteriously find its way into Illya's hands. He felt a familiar touch on his neck and leaned back into it.

"You look as if you are about to fall asleep standing up, Amante," Napoleon murmured.

"Just need to catch my second wind."

"I've saved a spot for you and some food. Leave this. People can serve themselves, those who are brave enough to try a second glass of this."

It didn't take much to let Napoleon's hand propel him away from the bar and towards a small table in the corner. Matt and Rocky were already sitting there, both engrossed in their meal.

In the center of a gold plate was a neatly wrapped gift. Illya looked from it to Napoleon and back. "I thought we agreed to wait."

"This was a little special and I thought the time was perfect."

Illya made a face and eased himself into the chair, sighing at the pleasure of being off his feet.

"Open it, Cara."

Illya turned it over in his hand and then slid the ribbon from the box. He opened it up and frowned. Inside was a gold pin made up of the initials ACF. He looked at Matt and then at Napoleon.

"Congratulations, my love, you've received the American Cooking Federation lifetime achievement award for culinary excellence," Napoleon said softly. "That's what all those phone calls have been about?"

"And the mail?"

"We gave them Matt's and Rocky's address, but a couple of things went to me at the house. I was terrified that you'd open one, thinking it was misaddressed."

"The ceremony will be this spring in New York."

"Napoleon, this is highly irregular. The chefs who win this usually are in the business for decades; it's their life's work. I just stumbled into it."

"That's make this much more telling. Believe me, they didn't give this to you lightly. You earned it."

The room had grown very quiet. "Did everyone know?"

"Not everyone," Roxanne muttered. "This is news to me." She hugged Illya. "It is certainly well deserved."

"But nothing I do is alone; it is a joint effort by all of us."

"Which is why doing it here tonight was more appropriate than tomorrow by ourselves." He pinned the letters on the collar of Illya's chef jacket. "Perfect, like it belongs there."

Illya remembered very little after that. He woke up in bed and smiled at the snore that greeted him. Napoleon always snored when he had a bit more than usual to drink. The curtains were open and Illya crawled from his warm cocoon to shut them. For a change, there was no reason to rush out of bed and greet the morning.

The moon was full and the snow glistened blue. Illya smiled and sighed as he felt Napoleon come up behind him.

"This is really beautiful."

"Glad you are finally starting to see it my way. It's a bit late, but better that than never."

"What you did tonight, Napoleon."

"We, it was a joint effort."

"Thank you. I thought... all those calls... the mail."

"You thought I was stepping out on you?" Illya nodded ashamedly. "Like you leave me with the energy for that."

"I just..."

"Am perfect as far as I'm concerned. " Napoleon kissed the nape of his neck. "Now come to bed so I can give you your Christmas gift." He prodded Illya's back with his erection.

"Just one?" Illya half turned his head.

"Well, more depending upon what the traffic will allow."

Illya smiled and looked back out the window. A deer bounded lightly from the tree line across the meadow and disappeared around a building. Illya's heart felt just as light as he returned to bed and the arms of his partner, his lover, his world.

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