Illya looked up from his task of making gnocchi. Usually this would fall to a junior member of his kitchen staff, but he wanted to make sure the taste, texture, and balance was right. Until then, he wouldn't put it on the menu and, until he did that, he wouldn't shuffle the task to anyone else.
A young woman stood by the door leading to the dining room. The fact that they didn't open for another four hours told Illya that she was not merely a lost diner.
"It's been a long time since anyone has called me that." He wiped his hands on the towel that hung from his apron tie as he approached her. "I'm Illya Kuryakin."
"Hello, I'm Sarah Nelson." She thrust out her hand at him and he took it, engulfing it with his much larger hand. "I'm with the Make-a-Wish foundation." She withdrew her hand slowly as if afraid he'd protest.
"I'm pleased to meet you."
"Are you familiar with our organization?"
"Sadly, unless it's culinary, I am woefully ignorant." Illya gestured toward the back of the kitchen. "Would you like to sit down?"
She paused in her study of the kitchen and nodded. "That would be lovely. This is the first professional kitchen that I've ever been in. Is this size and layout typical?"
"Well, all kitchens vary depending upon the size of the restaurant, but, yes, most kitchens are like this."
"It's so small."
"You wouldn't think so after being in here for a few hours. The steps add up quickly." Illya opened the door to the office and winced. The place was a hurricane of stacked recipe books, invoices, boxes, dishware, and just about everything else. "Sorry. I know there's a chair in here somewhere... I think."
She laughed. "I knew you were the right choice."
Illya moved the stack of magazines off a straight-back chair and plopped them down on top of an empty tomato crate. "I'm sorry?"
"I represent an organization that attempts to fulfill the wishes of children with life-threatening diseases — cancer, mostly."
"I'm listening." Illya settled into his office chair and focused his attention on her.
"We have a fourteen-year-old boy, Brian Metcalf, who is dying from leukemia. His wish is to provide his parents with a gourmet meal to thank them for all that they have given up for him and his treatments."
"And you want me to prepare it?"
"We want you to help him prepare it. It's his wish that he select and make the dishes. You would work with him, probably doing the lion's share of the actual work, but permitting him hands-on experience. The foundation would provide all of the food. However, we would appreciate it if you would donate your time."
"My partner would never let me live it down if I said no, but why me?"
"My husband and I dined here several weeks ago. When I spoke with your staff, I was struck by how loyal they were to you. They were proud to work for you and took your dreams on as their own. I knew that sort of loyalty isn't given to a man who was uncaring or unreasonable."
"They might argue that last point, especially around bonus time." Illya reached for a calendar. "How are you thinking of going about this?"
"We'd like to bring the family to town. They know something is up but not exactly what. We will take them wine tasting, providing we can find an escort, and we'll leave Brian with you."
"How long has he been in remission?"
"Don't worry. There will be one of our medical staff members with him all the time, just in case. He's been good for about five months now, his longest remission ever. We were hoping for a weekend. "
"That would be hard. I'd have to close the restaurant... no, wait." Illya picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"Vinea. Napoleon Solo speaking."
"Napoleon, may I speak with you for a moment?"
"Not on the phone. I'm in the office."
"Give me five."
"You, too." Illya cradled the phone and smiled. Sarah had been quiet during the exchange, but Illya could tell that her curiosity was piqued. "Napoleon is my partner and runs Vinea next door. He would be the perfect person for you to take on your wine tasting. He knows everyone up here and can provide you with an excellent experience."
"When you say partner, do you mean, business partner or..."
"Life partner." Illya's face grew solemn. "Is that a problem?"
Sarah dissolved into a fit of giggles and patted her chest. "No, it's absolutely perfect. Brian has two moms."
"Well, many children come from broken homes and have step... that's not what you meant, is it?"
"Not at all. This could not be more perfect."
There was the sound of a door opening and a moment later Napoleon, whistling, came into the office. "Yes, my lo.... liege."
Illya grinned as Napoleon attempt to cover. "It's all right, Napoleon. This is Sarah Nelson from Make-A-Wish."
"I've heard of you people. You do good work. What can we do for you?"
"Sarah needs our help to make a wish come true."
Brian sat quietly at the table, swinging his feet back and forth. He was small for his age and looked so incredibly serious that Illya had to keep reminding himself that he wasn't looking at himself.
"So what are your parents' favorite foods?"
"Anything that's on sale," he answered triumphantly.
"No, I mean, what do they like to eat?"
"Mostly Hamburger Helper, but we eat a lot of macaroni and cheese, too."
"Hmm, I suspect we will be avoiding both of those dishes this evening."
"Cara, may I?" Matt asked. Illya nodded and Matt trotted from the room. A few minutes later he returned and handed Illya a sheet of paper.
"Their favorite foods." Matt returned to the stock he was preparing. "I thought perhaps this might be a question so last night I asked them."
"What? It was supposed to be a surprise!" Brian's voice quavered slightly.
"Calmati per favore, Little Prince. I called them in their hotel room and told them I was taking a survey and promised them a gift certificate to Taste in exchange for answering a few questions."
"You did, did you?" Illya murmured, trying to sound very stern, but failing.
"I thought perhaps having all of their preferred tastes would be worthy of such a premio."
"It's a prize, all right, but for us." Illya scanned the list and smiled at the boy. "Are you ready to rock and roll?"
Brian slid off the chair and put on the white apron purchased for him for the occasion. "Let's cook!"
Illya watched the young boy concentrate upon stirring the sauce. It didn't require constant stirring, but Illya was hesitant to take the task from him. Brian had tried so very hard to participate in every aspect of the meal being prepared, but his exhaustion was showing. Still he continued on and Illya admired his determination and fortitude.
"What do we do after this, Chef?" Brian was nearly invisible in his chef's jacket and apron, a tower of white with a thatch of dark brown hair.
"We let it cool and then we will mirror the plates with it just before serving." Illya was quickly chopping a handful of parsley into a fine paste.
"That means we put down a little of the sauce to just barely cover the serving portion of the dish, doesn't it?"
"You got it in one, Piccolo," Matt said from his position at the stove. He was making a court bouillon in which to poach the scallops. "We need to hold onto this one, Chef."
"Sadly, there is such a thing as child labor laws," Henry joked as he turned a potato. "Where did you learn all of this?" he asked Brian. The boy wiped his face with a towel and continued to stir.
"I read a lot. I can't do much else when I'm stuck in bed. I read everything else and the only thing left in the house was cookbooks. So, I read them." He stepped back as Illya bent over the sauce and nodded to him. "The more I read, the more I knew I wanted to do this for a living."
"Once you have a few more years on you, come back to us." Matt covered the steaming pot and turned the temperature down. "I think we will have a place for you by then."
"What are you doing, Chef?" Brian was watching Illya carefully spoon the parsley into a piece of cheesecloth which covered a small bowl.
"I'm making a parsley sauce." He twisted the cheesecloth and a brilliant green liquid streamed out. He twisted and squeezed until nary a drop of liquid was left behind. He tossed the cheesecloth into a nearby food waste bin and regarded the bowl. "A few drops of this will accent the sauce you are making, both with taste and color."
"Wow, that's neat!" Brian took a deep breath. "Now what?"
"Now we check the list and see what else needs to be done. Appetizer—caramelized onion and bacon tart with port onions?"
"The port sauce has reduced and the onions are in. I've..." Brian looked over at Jose and smiled. "We blind-baked the tart shells and deep-fried the leeks. All that is left is to assemble it and bake it until the egg sets."
"Excellent." Illya made a check mark by the dish. "The double beef consommé with oriental dumpling and alfalfa sprouts?"
"The consommé is done and the dumplings are made and ready to be poached. Matt showed me how to make the edible chopstick and they are ready to be deep fried at the last minute."
Illya made another check. "The Chateaubriand with a bouquettiere of classic garnishes?"
Brian looked down at the sauce and grinned. "The Béarnaise is ready and the tomato... tomato..."
"Clamart," Illya said.
"Yeah, that's ready. And Henry is doing the Celery ala Crème. Chef, how come we serve this with three different kinds of potatoes?"
"It's traditional to serve Chateaubriand with Duchesse, Chateau, and Dauphinoise potatoes."
"Seems like a lot of potatoes..."
"True, but you don't need to eat all three kinds, just the one or ones you prefer."
"Like serving this with the two different kinds of asparagus?"
"Exactly. It's all about giving your guest a dining option."
"My moms are going to flip out when they see all of this."
"Will they have room for dessert?"
"Chocolate Grand Marnier cake? You bet they will!"
"And how are you holding up?" Illya made a few notes on the paper and glanced over at his charge.
"I'm pretty tired, but it's a good tired. Usually, I just sit and watch the world go by. Thank you for letting me do this."
"Believe me, it was my pleasure." Illya ran the back of his hand across his forehead. "It's not often that we have a guest cooking with us."
"You should do this more often! I bet people would spend lots of money to cook with you."
"And just think how much they'd spend on therapy when it was over," Matt murmured and Rand snickered. Illya tossed a hand towel at him and shook his head. Matt laughed and turned his hood fan on as he began crisping the bacon.
"Take this to heart, young Brian. You can't get good help these days."
The door leading to the restaurant opened and Napoleon walked in, a grin on his face.
"Welcome back!" Matt shouted about the noise of the fan. "How did it go?"
"Let's just say if they aren't in a good mood after that, nothing could put them in one. I also picked up some wine to go with dinner tonight."
"How could you do that?" Brian peeled off his chef's jacket and shivered at the blast of cooled air.
"I am going to guess your entrée is beef?" Napoleon peered over Illya's shoulder
"But how did you know...?" Brian looked over at Illya, a scowl on his brow. "How could he...?"
"I learned a long time ago to never question how Napoleon does something, just to appreciate that he can." Illya looked at his lover with affectionate eyes. "I left you dinner in the refrigerator..."
"Leftovers? After all this arduous work, I get leftovers?"
"Or you can join us at Vinea. We need to finish up here so that we can get ready for the dinner service." Illya flinched as Napoleon poked him in the side. "Do you think you could entice our guests into your private tasting room?"
Napoleon bowed deeply. "Leave it to me."
"He's funny," Brian said as Napoleon left.
Illya merely shook his head. "You mean mental."
Illya settled back against his partner and sighed.
"Tired, my love?" Napoleon brushed the blond hair from a temple and kissed it.
"I am, but it was worth it. Did you see their faces?"
"I saw Brian's and that was enough." Napoleon rubbed his cheek against the temple and kissed it again. "You did a good thing today."
"We did a good thing," Illya corrected with a contented smile. "I couldn't have pulled this off without you and I wouldn't have wanted to try. Things like this are always better with a group effort."
"So why don't you roll over and I'll show you something else that better with someone's participation."
"Hmm, I was hoping you were going to make me an offer I couldn't refuse." Then Illya paused. "What do you think will happen with Brian?"
"I don't know, Illya. He has cancer and that's some pretty nasty stuff, but he's also young. Guess they play it by ear." Napoleon nuzzled Illya's ear, tickling it with his breath. "Now, let's pretend there's no one else in the world except us."
"Mmm, I can do that." Illya ran his hands up Napoleon's back and arched against him.
Five years later
Illya carried a handful of mail through Taste and into the back. Already, there were people there, prepping items for the evening's offering. Time had been very good to Taste. They had grown in popularity enough to offer a luncheon service on Saturdays and Sundays. They had begun to offer wine and cooking classes that continued to remain popular among locals and visitors alike.
Illya had hired more help and was cutting back on his own participation in an attempt to allow Matt more opportunity to lead. He still deferred to Illya when Illya was around, but seemed to be settling into his role as head chef nicely.
Illya dropped the mail on his desk and took a seat. Usually, he'd scan through his phone messages first, but today there was a mystery envelope and he was keen to see what it was.
The name seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. Picking up a letter opener, he neatly slit the envelope and pulled out several sheets of paper.
You probably don't remember me, but once, many years ago, you opened your heart and your kitchen to me and permitted me to say thank you to my moms in the most perfect way possible. . Cooking with you that day convinced me more than ever that I had a place in this world. It wasn't easy, but I have beaten my cancer and I was proud to receive my cooking credentials from the CIA.
You also said that once I had a few more years on me, I should check back with you. My resume is enclosed...
Illya's eyes blurred at that point and he dropped the letter...
Matt chose that moment to enter the office. "Chef, we need to call... Cara, what is it? Bad news?"
"No, Matt, for a change, it's the best news in the world." Illya offered him the letter. "And we have a new chef to make room for."