Napoleon Solo dropped the sack of wood chips at the base of the planter and slowly straightened his back. Roxanne glanced up, brushing her graying hair from her face with the back of one hand as he dusted off his gloves.
"That it then?"
"Last one." Napoleon looked beyond her to the beddings she'd been planting. It was hard to find something that could take the cooler fall weather in the foothills, but having color outside a business was almost a religion up here. "Do you still want that last flat of primroses?"
"I think I can squeeze them in." She looked around. Between the two of them, they'd managed to replant all the beds that surrounded Taste's parking lot. "It looks really good. Thanks for all your help."
"Not a problem. This reminds me a bit of my days back on the farm. We had a huge vegetable garden. It used to take days to plant it. And weeding—that went on all summer. Ask Illya about that some time. You'll be surprised at how fast he'll start to twitch." Napoleon had to admit that the soil was harder to till than he'd thought, but it was good to do some physical labor for a change. He loved looking after the restaurant, but there were time he really missed the more physical aspects of his former work. "Believe me, it was my pleasure and it was either this or cleaning out grease traps. From the looks of things, this was the lesser of two evils." Napoleon pulled his gloves off and tucked them into the back pocket of his jeans. He had to admit, albeit grudgingly, that he didn't mind jeans as much as he used to, now that he had a pair properly broken in. They were fabulous for this type of work, but he still couldn't see the attraction of wearing them on a daily basis.
"Well, sadly, this job is coming to an end and I suspect the grease traps are still waiting." She brushed the dirt from her hands and squinted up at the sky. "Just about time too. It seems like it takes longer every time I do this. It's starting to get late."
Napoleon looked for a moment and found his bottle of water. "So, why the sudden buzz of activity, Roxie?" He took a deep drink and recapped it. "I don't even recognize half the people here."
"Chef decreed a work day. He has this uncanny ability to be able to predict just when an inspector is going to show up. We used to give him a bad time about it, but now we just take his word for it. Plus, it really was time to give the place a shake down for winter. I'm ready for those primroses now."
Napoleon made yet another trip across the parking lot to grab the last flat of flowers and haul them back to her. He'd been startled to discover the forty flats of various flowers on their front porch this morning, but now that they were all planted, he admitted they added visual appeal to the restaurant.
Setting the flowers down where Roxanne could have easily access, he headed back towards the kitchen of Taste, gathering up his work shirt on the way. He'd already learned that going through the restaurant he ran the risk of being grabbed for a dozen little jobs.
Jesus was hosing off a grease screen, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. "Hey, Napoleon, que paso, amigo?"
"Nothing worth reporting. So you got nailed on the grease traps, huh?"
"Could be worse."
Jesus gestured towards the open door. "Chef's working on the dish machine. I'll say this for him—he always keeps the nastiest job for himself."
"That and the fact that he's the smallest of us and best suited for inside work." Napoleon took a deep breath. "Something sure smells good though. What's he cooking?"
"Not a clue, but after today, I can eat a horse, which I wouldn't necessarily put past him." Jesus grinned widely, displaying a gold tooth.
Smiling back at him, Napoleon slipped his shirt on over his tee shirt and stepped into the small kitchen of the restaurant. Through the propped open double door leading to the dining room, he could hear music and voices as they cleaned. He walked towards the back of the kitchen and stopped, grinning at the sight of his lover's backside wiggling so tempting before him.
Napoleon didn't know much about it except that the dish machine was a large stainless steel contraption that operated in a similar fashion to a residential dish washer, but on a much larger scale. As of late, this one had been making an unnerving sort of groan during part of its cycle and Illya had thought the noise indicated a bearing problem. He was buried up to his waist inside the machine, one leg supporting his weight, while the other was propped up on the conveyor belt that carried the dirty dishes into the machine.
Unable to resist, Napoleon walked up to that machine and planted a firm hand on that ass, squeezing affectionately. The result was immediate.
Within the machine, there was a 'thunk' and "Shit!" Napoleon decided a whanged head would have elicited a 'shit' out of him as well, as Illya continued. "That had better be Napoleon's hand I'm feeling. Otherwise, you have three seconds to move it or go the rest of your life one-handed."
Napoleon squeezed again and Illya wiggled out of the machine, rubbing the back of his head.
"Sorry about that, but I'm only human. When I saw that sight, well, had I been mere mortal, I'd be blind now," Napoleon said, grinning.
"I suppose I should be glad that it was merely your hand," Illya said, rubbing his nose against his forearm, lest he smear more grease over his face.
"Here, let me." Napoleon used the tail of his shirt to rub at a spot of grease smeared across one cheek.
"Thank you for sparing me the humiliation of you're having spit on it first." Illya looked down at his hands. "It's going to take me three days to get all this grease off." Illya wiped his hands on a rag and tossed it back on the conveyor belt. "How's it going out there?"
"We are done planting. Had two bags of wood chips left over, so I stored them in the garage. Figured we could use them next spring."
Illya glanced up at a nearby clock. "Is that the correct time?" He reached for Napoleon's wrist and squinted at the watch there.
"You got plans?" Napoleon tried to ignore the grease mark Illya left behind on his skin.
"If we're going to eat tonight, yes." He moved to a sink and began to scrub his hands in earnest. "Would you take the roasts out of the oven?"
"Is that what I smell?" Napoleon walked over to one of Taste's ovens and pulled open the door.
"I thought I'd make chimichurras for tonight..." Illya half grinned. "You were asleep, weren't you?"
"We had a discussion about this in bed last night. I thought you looked pretty glassy eyed." Illya shook the water from his hands, regarded his fingernails, reached for a nail brush and began the process again.
"We're having dinner in the restaurant tonight. Everyone is bringing something."
"Everyone? Including me?"
"As I recall, you mumbled something about sangria, since we were going for a Spanish theme."
Napoleon frowned in thought. He half remembered them discussing something, but after that blow job, he was far too relaxed to recall anything but the vaguest details. "Um, okay, I can do that."
"It includes everyone's family members, just so you know." Obviously, Illya's hands now passed his own inspection and he dried them on a paper towel. "Anyone who pitches in is welcomed."
"I thought there were a lot of people around here that I didn't recognize." Napoleon pulled out the pans of meat using an available dish towel as a pot holder. "I gather this is mutual suffering? Spreading the pain around?"
"It didn't start that way, but the more hands, the faster the work goes and the earlier the party starts. You haven't been through one of these before. Believe me, it's an event." He walked to a rack to pull off a sheet pan. "It's also a good way to blow off some steam before the holiday season. That's when things get really crazy around here."
'See that girl, watch that scene. Diggin the Dancing Queen. Friday night and the lights are low. Looking out for a place to go, where they play the right music, getting in the swing, you come In to look for a king.' Napoleon could hear them singing loudly from the restaurant. "And I take it this party will include Rocky's favorite group?"
"Is there ever any doubt when he's around?" Illya grabbed a knife and started to rough chop some cilantro. Napoleon grinned as Illya started to nod and move gently to the music, but he had to agree, it was hard not to.
"Well, if I'm supposed to make sangria, I should get started." Napoleon slapped his hands together. "What the hell is in sangria?"
"Not a clue," Illya said, a smile erupting on his face and suddenly Napoleon didn't care. The moment Illya's hands stilled for a second, Napoleon cupped his lover's face and kissed him soundly, his tongue dipping between his lips to tease its way in. Illya's response was immediately and enthused.
"Okay, I'm just going for a bucket of water now." Matt's voice broke into Napoleon's pleasant little bubble of passion. "Get a hotel room, you sex maniacs."
"Give me a break, Matt. He started it and I'm only human," Illya murmured, pulling away, and then dipping back in for one more lingering kiss.
"Then all that stuff I read on the bathroom walls is wrong, Cara." Matt laughed as Napoleon's slightly chagrined expression. "They swear you aren't. So, Napoleon, what are you bringing to this little soiree tonight?"
Napoleon pointed, "Him...and sangria...once I figure out what it is."
"Look in the office—there's a couple of books in there that might help."
"Why didn't you tell me that?" Napoleon asked Illya, who shrugged his shoulders.
"I was raised not to talk with my mouth full." Illya returned to chopping the cilantro. "Matt, are you in here to give me a bad time?"
"I think it would be very unhealthy for me if I were to give you a good time, Cara."
Napoleon left the two bantering back and forth. The office, one only in the basic sense of the word, was a catchall for just about everything. Stuffed on a shelf, Napoleon found a book of drinks. To his great relief, sangria seemed to have a fairly simple recipe and he had the perfect wine for it back in the house. It was really too sweet to drink straight, but punched up with fruit and ice, it would be perfect.
Illya let himself in the back door of the house and glanced around the kitchen. True to form, Napoleon managed to dirty every cutting board, several knives and a few bowls. He imagined if he looked hard enough, he'd even find a few drops of blood from where Napoleon nicked a finger or two. As adept as Napoleon was with other tools of their former trade, he had a problems when dealing with Illya's work knives.
Still, clean up was just part of the job and Illya quickly dispensed with the mess and wandered into the living room. With no sight of his lover there, Illya climbed the stairs and glanced into their bedroom. The bathroom door stood open and Illya could hear Napoleon in the bathtub. Illya leaned against the door frame as he looked in at his partner, lounging in the claw-foot tub. After a moment, Napoleon's head raised and he opened his eyes.
"Just admiring the view," Illya said, smiling slightly.
"Well, you're in luck. I even managed to save you a spot down front." Napoleon sat up and gestured to the tub. Illya's grin migrated from his mouth to his eyes. Within moments, he'd stripped off and was lowering himself into the water. It was hot, but not as hot as he'd like. He leaned back against the muscular chest and tipped his head back happily, his eyes closed.
"How long do we have?" Napoleon murmured into Illya's ear before nuzzling it, his tongue tracing it delicately.
"Long enough for whatever you're planning," Illya murmured back, twisting his head to capture that mouth with his own.
"I was just planning a long soak...but one or two...things might come up." Napoleon's lips curled into a smile.
"I should hope so. I'm tired, but I'm not dead."
Illya lounged back onto the window seats and watched the mass of dancing bodies. It didn't surprise him that Napoleon was in the thick of it. The man loved to dance and while there was a slight learning curve between dancing with a woman and another man, it didn't take Napoleon long to adapt. Now he was dancing with anyone who asked, male or female, and with the same obvious enthusiasm.
He sensed a presence by his elbow and a hand carded through his bangs. "A penny for your thoughts, Cara." Matt settled down beside him and slid an arm around his shoulders.
"It's going to take me an hour to get Napoleon out of bed tomorrow morning."
"And why would you want to do that? Spend the day in bed with him." Matt took a deep drink of his sangria and offered his glass to Illya. "That's what I plan to do, providing Rocky has stopped 'ruotare' by then."
"We really picked a pair, didn't we?" Illya drank and handed the glass back, then offered Matt his hand. "Dance with me, Azzuro."
"Thought you'd never ask, Cara." Matt, grinning, set the glass aside and pulled Illya to his feet.
When they first started dating, he and Matt had gone out dancing many times. It was a safe way to let off some excessive steam along with assuring them of some badly needed physical contact. Once they made it to the bedroom stage, the dancing became less and less frequent. Illya still enjoyed feeling the familiarity of Matt's hands as they moved easily to the music. He wasn't familiar with the song, so he let Matt set the tempo at first until he had a sense of its rhythm.
Then abruptly the tempo of the music shifted to something faster, more hard hitting and Illya had just enough time to glance accusingly over at the stereo until where Napoleon and Rocky stood, both grinned like maniacs. Illya recognized Voulez Vous. It was a bit fast for his taste, but he never backed down from a challenge , which was most certainly what this was. So he pushed the thought of the observing crowd out of his mind and he danced, letting the music dictate his movements. Halfway through the song, Illya heard the phone ring, not so odd considered that there were parents here who'd left children at home with sitters. The restaurant was fitting with a work bell—it rang loudly enough to be heard over anything or anywhere in or outside the restaurant. Illya didn't pay it much attention until the song ended amid appreciative applause and he walked quickly back to the sidelines, lest he get roped into the next wild mass of gyrations as Dancing Queen started.
Illya caught Rocky's arm as they passed. "Where's Napoleon?"
"Oh, the phone call was for him."
That struck Illya as odd. Everyone who knew Napoleon was here in the restaurant. He walked back towards the kitchen and the phone, but his partner was nowhere to be seen.
Roxanne was helping herself to some sangria and gestured to Illya. "If you're looking for Napoleon, he went out back. Said he needed some air."
Immediately, Illya walked through the kitchen and out into the small courtyard behind Taste. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness and then he spotted Napoleon, his back to him, sitting on a one of the boulders that surrounded the parking lot, staring up at the night sky.
Even before he was halfway to his partner, Illya knew Napoleon was aware of his presence. It was something they shared, a sense of when the other was close at hand. It had been a great comfort to him as an agent and was something he cherished even more now.
He walked up behind Napoleon and slid his arms around the dark-haired ma, pulling him tight against his body, feeling the heat from the other's body. There was a thrum of tension running though Napoleon's body, something very contrary to the man an few minutes earlier.
"What's wrong, Napoleon? Who was on the phone?"
"My sister. It's my mom...they just called in a priest for last rites." The voice was slow, measured, hurting.
"Napoleon, I am sorry," Illya whispered and rested his forehead against the back of Napoleon's head. "I'm so very sorry."
Napoleon abruptly turned and wrapped his arms about him and Illya just held on, neither speaking nor moving, letting Napoleon have his moment. He stood quietly and kept his breathing calm in an attempt to convey it back to his lover.
Napoleon pulled away and touched foreheads with Illya. "I need to go back."
"I understand. Go and make reservations," Illya said as he released him. As Napoleon began to walk away, Illya added, "Make them for two, Napoleon."
"But what about the restaurant?" Napoleon asked, hesitation coloring his voice.
"It can survive a bit without me, I think. Your mother is an incredible woman. What sort of lowlife would I be to put you through that alone...again? Matt can handle it and if he can't, he'll shut it down."
"But the loss of revenue..."
"...is inconsequential in the big picture, my friend. Now go."
Napoleon sat quietly, listening to the drone of the small plane's engines. It had been awhile since he'd flown and it had felt strange to fly into New York, just to leave it again. In the past New York had always represented home to him, a stopping point. Now the city seemed overly bright and glitteringly false, hiding its dirt behind a mass of humanity and architecture.
In the darkness of the cabin, he slid his hand over across the seat, touching Illya's. Immediately, those strong capable fingers tightened around his and Illya smiled shyly at him.
"So tell me, how far is this airport away from Chelsea?"
"About 40 minutes. It's just outside Barre. You remember where that is?"
"Yes." Illya returned his gaze back out the window, but Napoleon knew it was far too dark to actually see anything. Obviously, Illya was working something out. "Do they know? Your family?"
"About what? About us? No, not really." Napoleon kept his voice down, although there were only a few other passengers and they were seated well away from them, but years of caution could not be casually tossed aside. "I'm still getting used to the idea of us being together myself. I meant to tell them, but the moment just never seemed right. It certainly won't come as a surprise though. They've suspected it for years."
Illya turned in the seat to face him, the darkness hiding most of his features. "I want to say something, Napoleon, and I want you to listen very carefully to what I'm saying."
"Suspecting and being confronted by it are two different things. I know you don't necessarily see yourself as one of us, and that's fine with me, but from the viewpoint of a majority of society, you are part of a pretty exclusive club and the membership fees can be very high."
"I don't understand, not really; are you saying that my family, the people who love me, are going to have a problem with this...with us?"
"You can almost make book on it, as Del used to say." Illya smiled sadly, Napoleon detecting just a faint hint of it. "They are going to be shocked and a little saddened that you didn't trust them enough to tell them the truth. Perhaps even angry and you must let them have that anger, that sorrow."
"The truth as they see it or as I see it?"
"Either. I may be wrong and I most sincerely hope that I am, but it's something that you should be prepared for."
Napoleon nodded, still not really concerned. He sat there, hand still held, thinking quietly. Finally, "Is that how your family reacted? Badly?"
"It...took them awhile to adjust to the news. My father was the worse, me being the first born and all. He made me give back the family ring, passed it to Vyetka instead. I think he thought that would make a difference to me, change my point of view. If it were only that easy...it's very hard for some to accept that we are as we are, that's all there is to it. It's not a switch that we can turn on and off. I am as I am and eventually they acknowledged that. Papa was never happy about it though, although with both him and my mother gone, it's gotten a little easier."
"Whatever happens, it won't change what is between us. I won't let it."
"Hold on to that thought then."
A change in the turbines told Napoleon they were approached the small airport and within a few minutes they were taxiing up to the tiny building that made up the whole of the Berlin airport. There were few cars in the parking lot and shapes loomed half hidden in shadows cast by the vapor lights.
Napoleon descended the gangway easily. Behind him, he heard Illya say, "Go ahead and I'll collect the luggage."
Thus assured, Napoleon walked towards the terminal; halfway there a figure pulled from the shadows and walked hurriedly to him. Even though he was no longer bothered by THRUSH on a regular basis, he felt a band of tension tighten at the back of his head until he recognized his sister and relaxed.
She was in his arms before he'd even reached the gate. "Big Brother, thank God you're here."
"Stable, surprisingly enough. She wanted to come home and so we moved her this morning. The doctors seem to think she's holding on to see you....to say good bye." Josie glanced around. "Don't you have any luggage?"
"Illya's getting it."
"Illya?" Josie's voice jumped excitedly. "You found him? Napoleon, you found him? Why didn't you say something?"
"It's not like we've talked that much during the past year...or so."
"And whose fault is that?"
"Mine, I know, but never underestimate the persistence of a Solo," Napoleon said with a smile. "This time, I'm not letting go."
"Good for you, Big Brother." She hugged him again. "Friends like that are worth the work."
"More than friends, Josie." Bulls by the horns, he decided and held up his hand, letting the light catch on the gold band on his left ring finger. "Partners in the true sense of the word." He didn't know what to expect after Illya's warning on the plane. He knew Josie had grown more conservative over the years, but he wasn't going to try and hide his relationship from her or anyone else in the family, not even Doug.
"About frigging time," Josie muttered, scanning the crowd.
"You're not surprised?"
"Surprised? No, not since I saw your eyes light up when he walked in to that kitchen that first morning. A little hurt that you didn't think to mention it to me? Yeah, I am, but I'll live. Mom will be happy, but you'd have had trouble with Dad if it had been anyone other than Illya." She waved. "There he is. Walking a little slow, isn't he?"
"Probably trying to give us some time," Napoleon answered, noticing that Illya was moving reluctantly towards them. "Shift it, Kuryakin," he shouted and Illya's step quickened. "I'm freezing out here."
"Did you have to pack rocks?" Illya muttered as he joined. "You over pack more than anyone I've ever known." He eyed the woman warily.
"You never change, do you? You're still giving him a bad time." Josie asked, laughing and throwing her arms around him. "Welcome back, Illya." She kissed his cheek and then wiped lipstick off with her thumb. "We missed you."
Napoleon just grinned at him and Illya shook his head. "Incredible," he muttered and followed them to the nearby car.
Illya stretched out on the bed, surprised at how familiar it felt. It had been years since he'd visited here, yet everything was practically undisturbed. The kitchen remained a hodgepodge of just about everything known to modern man. The same coats, the same boots, nothing had moved, he'd practically be willing to bet his restaurant on it. The living room was the same assortment of mismatched bits of furniture he'd always known. True to form, whenever something new was brought in, the old bits were shoved aside. It was going to take a month to clear just the living room out. He didn't envy Napoleon the task.
When they'd arrived, he'd immediately headed upstairs, determined to give Napoleon some private time with his mother and sister. He instinctively headed for Napoleon's bedroom. They had always bunked together on previous visits and Illya was disinclined to stop that practice, especially now they were a couple. Still, it felt odd to be in the room and not have Napoleon there with him.
He rolled off the bed to walk over to a window and stare out into the dark. He loved this view, day or night. He knew from memory that there was a small brook that ran behind the house, a narrow footbridge spanning it from this side to the next lot where Josie and her family lived. Reeds and long grasses would clog the steam in the summer; now in the fall, everything was brown and dried up, ready to go into hiding from the long New England winter.
It was hard to remember that so much time had passed since that very first visit, Napoleon practically dragging him here for Christmas, thrusting him upon his parents, who, in turn, welcomed him into their bosom without reservation. It was a comfort to know he at least had Napoleon's family to fall back on when his own wavered and deserted him. Trust Napoleon to come up smelling of roses and be immediately accepted without question or reservation. The man really did have all the luck. At the sound of the bedroom door opening, Illya glanced over and regretted his last thought. Illya's parents passed without great remorse from him; he was sure his passing would have met with an equal reaction. Napoleon, on the other hand, was a well loved son who cherished his parents and was preparing to say good bye to his favorite. Illya didn't envy him the days ahead and he was determined to offer his lover as much comfort as he could.
Wordless, Napoleon simply moved to him and Illya held him, continuing to stare out into the darkness, waiting for Napoleon to make a sign. At the half-suppressed sigh, Illya kissed his temple and ventured, "You know, it's no sign of weakness to cry."
"I know, but you cry at Kodak commercials."
"I do not," Illya muttered, running a hand through the dark hair in a comforting caress. "How is she?"
"Lucid, happy I'm here...tired."
"Sounds a fair description of you." Illya released him. "You're exhausted. Let's go to bed."
They slipped in between the sheets and Napoleon again reached for him, obviously needing to feel Illya beside him. "Never thought I'd take my lover in my own bed with my mother downstairs."
"What makes you think you're going to now?"
"Would you mind? I need the distraction."
"I've heard it called many things before, but not that." Illya said, his fingertips lightly caressing Napoleon's skin, raising goose bumps in their wake. "Of course, I don't mind. Making love to you is my favorite pastime, but are you sure this is right for you?"
Napoleon kissed him, slipping his tongue past unresisting lips, holding the man as close to him as he physically could. He pulled his mouth a fraction away to plead. "Please just give me something else to think about...just for a little while."
Illya smiled slightly and reached for the lube he'd laid on his nightstand. "I was sort of hoping you'd feel that way." He returned the kiss with fervor, plundering Napoleon's mouth with a vengeance.
Limbs entwined as both men grappled for position. It was a familiar dance for them, each one seeking dominance over the other, neither prepared to relinquish it easily. Then, eventually one of them would pull back, break just slightly and relinquish control; this time it was Illya. He knew Napoleon wanted this and was desperate for control this time. He couldn't stop his mother from dying, but he could bend Illya to his will, and more importantly, needed to.
Illya moaned, softly, mindful that they weren't in their own bedroom, worried that their voices, his voice might carry. He thrashed his head, gasping as Napoleon's mouth found his penis, as Napoleon slid slick fingers into him, probing him with a vengeance. He groaned a protest when those fingers left him and sighed as Napoleon's penis replaced them.
He knew that Napoleon needed both physical and audible reassurances of what his touch meant to Illya and he easily gave voice to his passion, but was mindful to keep it private, just between the two of them.
With Napoleon pounding into him, Illya claimed his climax with a sense of accomplished relief. He felt his lover shudder, fingers gripping his hips with a viselike sense of desperation. Napoleon buried his face against Illya's neck and moaned into his ear, even as Napoleon's mouth was abusing his throat. Then, spent, Napoleon fell back across him, listening as Illya's heart pounded out a staccato in praise of his lover's techniques.
"Thank you," Napoleon murmured, his mouth now loving where moment ago it had been bruising and aggressive. He was working on controlling his own breathing. "You're going to look like I took a baseball bat to you tomorrow...sorry. I got a little carried away"
"It's hardly the first time we've gotten carried away, Napoleon and it's not as if I will break. You should know that by now." Illya wiped a hand across his semen-stained stomach. "But I do need to clean up."
"Let me." For a moment, Illya held his breath, unsure of what Napoleon meant, but then the man slipped from the bed, obviously intent on the bathroom, and Illya relaxed. He really was too tired for a repeat performance.
Despite the mind-blowing sex, Napoleon was awake again two hours later, restless. The curtains at the window didn't block the light of the full moon from streaming in and it bathed the room in an eerie bluish glow.
Illya murmured in his sleep and rolled over, boneless. It always amazed Napoleon how much space someone as compact as Illya could take up in bed.
Napoleon slid from the bed and padded softly to the window, the wooden floor cold beneath his feet. He'd spent 18 years looking out over the achingly familiar landscape and over 30 trying to escape its memory. His last visit home had been devastating. Illya had just disappeared without a trace, he'd lost his field certification, then Aunt Amy passed and there was all that heartache and the legalities to deal with. He'd been left sole heir to his aunt's estate, something that hadn't gone down well with her side of the family. There had been lawyers, crank calls and the obligatory sycophants to deal with. Then had come the surprise call from his sobbing mother saying that his dad was gone—a victim of a fatal blood clot.
By the time Napoleon made it back home, he was nearly out of his mind with a mixture of regret, pain, and sorrow. The days that followed proved no better. The only thing that kept him sane through the long days of well meaning relatives and insipid condolences was that, thanks to Aunt Amy, he would have the financial freedom to return to New York and begin an earnest hunt for his partner. All that kept him going was the thought of finding Illya. Granted it had taken him longer than he expected, but that was all right too.
And now his mom would soon be gone. She'd been a rock for him during that time, pushing aside even her own sorrow and loss to comfort her son when he'd finally admitted the truth to her. The thought of never having that opportunity again make his throat clutch and his heart pound and yet he knew that she'd had a full and happy, if hard life. And at least he had the satisfaction of knowing she wouldn't be standing over his grave crying. It had been a fear of his for so many years. Once his father had taken him aside and prefaced his talk with "It's a sad, sad thing for a man to have to bury his children." Now, at least, that wouldn't be a problem.
Napoleon shivered in the coolness of the room. Since they were the only ones upstairs, the furnace hadn't been started and the nights were getting cold. Reluctantly he moved back to the bed and as he approached, Illya held the covers up for him. Napoleon took his place, smiling as Illya hissed at the cold hands on his body. Still, he drew Napoleon closer and stroked his back with a warm, loving hand.
It feels good to be so unconditionally loved, Napoleon decided as he wearily closed his eyes and drifted off.
Illya stirred, wincing at the pain in his back. It took him a moment and then he remembered. Flying cross country, a day of enforced inactivity, and then sleeping on an overly soft mattress coupled with some very enthusiastic lovemaking had taken a toll.
Not bothering to worry about whether or not he'd wake Napoleon, Illya grappled his way clear of the sheets and headed for the bathroom. A hot shower and some aspirin took care of the lingering stiffness in his joints and helped to wake him up more. Now if he could rustle up some coffee, he'd feel almost human.
He threw on some jeans, socks, and a loose black shirt before heading downstairs. It was eerie for the farmhouse to be so quiet. It was past nine, still early in his book and sunlight steamed through the widows, illuminating dust motes as they danced in his passing.
The last time he'd been here, it had been an insane asylum of noise and confusion. Now it was like it was a museum display, observed, but moved around as opposed to through. Illya stopped, remembering the times he'd stretched out on that floor, playing board games with Napoleon's nieces and nephews, even wrestling with his partner a time or two before Katherine stepped in armed with a wooden spoon and deadly aim. Of eating pizza and drinking beer as Napoleon explained the nuances of televised baseball to him—something even more boring than the actual thing, if such a thing was possible.
He glanced at the curtained doorway that led to Katherine's bedroom and shook his head. No, he needed coffee before taking that step. He'd never really looked at the kitchen before, not as a chef, but years of quiet observation gave him most of what he needed. Within minutes, he'd found the coffee pot and coffee and started it brewing. A quick check of the refrigerator told him he could make breakfast, but would need to shop before dinner, unless they wanted to have scrambled eggs...again.
A head poked out of the bedroom's curtained entrance and dark eyes studied him. "And you might be?"
"Illya Kuryakin. And you?"
"The night nurse. You're Napoleon's partner?"
"Yes." He held up a cup. "Would you like some coffee?"
"I'd kill for some. Mrs. Solo talked about you a lot last night. I thought she was delusional, but now I'm not so sure. Did you really have a car blow up on you?"
Illya poured a cup of coffee and handed it to her before holding up two fingers. "Twice. You Vermonters have long memories."
She sipped the liquid gratefully and abruptly held out a hand. "I'm sorry. Annie Welch.
"Ms. Welch, would you like me to sit with her for awhile?"
"Would you mind? I'd love a shower."
"Not a problem."
Topping off his cup, Illya pushed the curtain aside and walked into the bedroom. It was dim due to the heavy maple trees outside the windows, but the low watt bulb in the nightstand lamp made the room navigable. He set down his cup and picked up a framed photo, holding it close to the light to see it. It was of a young couple, both looking a little uneasy and unsure in their finery. Even then, Illya could see Napoleon's eyes, his smile, and his love in their faces.
"Father was such a handsome man." Illya glanced over at the speaker. The woman held out a hand, twisted and bent with arthritis. "Of course, he wasn't a father then, not quite yet." Illya handed her the photo and she smiled at him. "Welcome home, Illya."
He leaned down to embrace her, compassionately and gently, mindful of arthritic bones. "It's good to be home," he said after a moment. He released her and settled down in a chair beside the bed. Katherine set the photo aside and took his left hand, her fingers touching the ring there.
"Napoleon told me he made an honest man out of you finally. I'm glad."
"As am I," Illya said, smiling. "You're not surprised?"
"I knew he had his eye on you the moment he introduced you to me. I think even before he did. And one thing you can say about the man, he usually get what he wants." She released his hand and shifted slightly. Immediately, Illya was there to help her adjust her position. "It's nice to know he'll have someone to look after him when I'm gone."
"For years you safeguarded his life, it's nice to know that now you'll be safeguarding his heart."
"Amen to that." Illya half turned his head as a familiar pair of arms wrapped themselves around his neck and even more familiar lips sought out his temple. He smiled happily. "What were you talking about?" Napoleon asked.
"Your favorite topic—you," Illya said, He brought up a hand to rest on Napoleon's forearm, squeezing it.
"Always an excellent choice, amante."
"I thought you would approve." He sat back as Napoleon released him. "Are you ready for breakfast?"
"I'm ready to do you," Napoleon whispered into Illya's ear as he straightened. Illya grinned and shook his head.
"I think not." He nodded to Katherine. "Excuse me."
"Napoleon, does he need help?" He heard Katherine ask amid the rustle of bedclothes. Trust the woman, on death's door to try to get out of bed and wait on them.
"He's fine, Mom. There's not a kitchen he can't bend to his will."
Napoleon held his mother's hand, listening as her breath evened out, telling him that she'd drifted back to sleep. Picking up Illya's now empty coffee cup, he stood gingerly and walked from the bedroom, purposefully blocking as many memories from his mind as he could. He was plagued with memories here, every square inch made him think of something else. He slipped into the kitchen and immediately his mind switched gears at the sight of his partner, standing at the stove, prepping their meal. It made him think of home, but not here, his real home, their home. It made him realize that he was going to get through this. Napoleon walked quickly across the kitchen and caught Illya, spinning him and kissing him before the man could protest otherwise. Napoleon felt so adrift and Illya represented his only solid bit of ground. He had no intention of losing sight of that.
The sound of the door opening made Napoleon reluctantly release Illya. He poured himself some coffee and turned to greet the visitor.
"Good God, you're both already up and working," Josie muttered as she entered, pulling off a stretched-out cardigan sweater and tossing it onto a pile. Napoleon couldn't help but wonder what would happen if the chair rumored to be beneath that pile ever let go. She patted her gray-streaked hair in a movement Napoleon had seen his mother make a million times. It really was a daughter's destiny to take after her mother. "I thought you two would still be out for the count."
"Then who would make breakfast?" Napoleon asked.
"That's what I was fixing to do, but I see you've got it under control." She walked over to Illya and stared into the pan. "I didn't know you could cook. What is it?"
"A simple frittata." Illya had returned his attention back to the pan, but he spoke to Napoleon. "I'd like to finish it in the oven, but I don't think this is ovenproof."
"Risk it if you'd like. We can always toss the pan after flooding the kitchen with noxious fumes. For the record, somewhere there's a set of cast iron skillets in here—although you'll probably need to hire sherpas to find them." Napoleon led his sister to the table. In this kitchen, the table was always set, always ready to serve a meal. "You are looking at a four-star master chef, my dear sister. We even have our own restaurant." Napoleon was relieved that Illya didn't amend the statement.
"We?" Josie turned on him. "Napoleon Solo, I know for a fact that you can't even burn toast!"
"He's become quite accomplished at it, really," Illya said, carrying the pot of coffee to the table. "The toaster runs in fear of him every time he walks into the kitchen."
"Funny guy," Napoleon muttered. "I'm getting better."
"Yes, indeed you are." Illya kissed his head and could see Josie frowning at him as he did. "You can burn toast in half the time it used to take you."
"So tell me about this restaurant you have," Josie interrupted her eyes down on the table as she set her cup aside and leaned closer, chin on upturned palm. "I want details."
Napoleon held up a finger and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a wallet. It had taken him years to make the switch from a money clip to a billfold. He flipped it open and pulled out a snapshot. "That was taken the day we got married. The redhead is Matt. He's the co-owner and the other chef of the place. That's Rocky beside him. The restaurant is behind us."
"Has Mama seen this?" Josie studied the photo for a long time, a strange look on her face. "You two look so happy."
"We are," Illya said simply, returning to the stove. He plated the frittata and carried it to the table, taking a seat to Napoleon's left. "Listen, I just wanted to let you know...um...Doug wasn't exactly overwhelmed by my news about you two last night."
"And you thought he would be for what particular reason?" Illya asked, cutting into the frittata with a practiced eye. "Douglas has never carried the same level of acceptance for me that the rest of you have. It would be unlikely for him to change in light of the news."
"He had a bad experience in the Korean War with your people."
"Not half as bad as I had with yours," Illya muttered, handing her a plate. "We were soldiers; we did what we were told to do."
"He doesn't see it that way. The fact that you're...both...the way you are... doesn't help."
"You can use the word, Josie, it doesn't bother me. Being gay is merely one facet of who I am, but it does seem to be a sticking point for many these days." That was a big admission for Napoleon and it made Illya glance sharply at him. Never once had Napoleon referred to himself as gay, just the opposite, but here and now, he was content to accept a label that he refused otherwise.
"Napoleon, you chased every skirt from here to Lebanon, New Hampshire, what changed?"
Napoleon smiled at her and reached out to caress her cheek. "The love of a good man." Illya had the wherewithal not to choke on his coffee even as Josie pulled away to elude her brother's touch. "Josie, what's wrong?"
"Nothing." She looked down at her untouched plate and then back to Illya. "This is really good."
"Impressive, since you haven't tasted it yet. Most of my customers are a bit harder to please."
They ate in awkward silence for a few minutes and then Illya stood and carried his plate to the sink. "If you'll excuse me?" He walked quickly from the room.
Napoleon watched Illya leave and he could see the tension in his stride. The air had taken on a definite chill from the kitchen's usual sense of well being and warmth. Napoleon could only guess the cause.
"Is he okay?" Josie, instead, seemed almost relieved that Illya was gone. She brightened immediately.
Napoleon sipped his coffee and thought for a moment, trying to find the right words. "He said that it would be rough and I said it would be fine. Guess he was right. You haven't come to terms with this, have you? I thought you were okay with it last night."
"You blindsided me last night. What was I supposed to say? You can't just spring something like this on a person and expect everything to be the same. You're my big brother; I've worshipped you for years and I'm trying, I really am, but I just can't help but wonder. If you lied to me about this, what else have you lied about?"
"Nothing that ever matter, Josie, I swear to you." Napoleon pushed his half-empty plate away and concentrated upon his coffee. "This is still new for me too. I'm still finding my way."
"But why do it at all? Why can't you just be the old Napoleon I've always known? Why can't you just put this down to some silly fluke, some poor choice of judgment and move on?"
"Listen to me. I love Illya." His voice rose slightly and he took a calming breath. "I always have, it just took me awhile to realize it and then, once I did, I blew it...rather spectacularly. It's taken me years to get this and him back and nothing, nothing is going to come between us again."
"Even family?" Josie's voice took on a brittle edge to it.
"Especially family. What you don't understand, Josie, is that I chose him, not the other way around. He never approached me in any sense other than to offer friendship and honest bonhomie. I was the one who pursued him. If you have a problem with this, then blame me, not him."
"But it's wrong , Napoleon; it's a crime against God. It's wrong!"
"How can love, any love, be wrong, Josephine? Tell me that, how is love wrong? Are you saying that if Illya was a woman, this would be all sunshine and roses?"
"Of course, it would be and with our blessings, but not between two men. It's an abomination! Can't you see that?"
"I think maybe it's time you take off your rosary-colored glasses and see the world as it is and not as you and Doug think it should be." Napoleon stood. "Excuse me, I got some place else I'd rather be."
It didn't surprise him to see Illya in his usual spot, in front of the window, looking out. His head turned as Napoleon approached and spoke quietly. "It looks so peaceful and calm, doesn't it? So tranquil, as if ugliness could never taint it and yet..." He slid his arms around his lover's waist and held him tightly. "It's everywhere, isn't it?"
"Welcome to the world of being a second class citizen, my love," Illya said, softly. "We have no rights, we have no voice and we're allowed precious little dignity, just because we love differently than they do." He leaned his head back against Napoleon's shoulder. "All because we love our fellow man in the truest sense of the word, but you're not really gay, though, are you?"
He nuzzled Illya's ear, whispering , "I'm sorry about that..."
"Why are you apologizing, Napoleon? You've done nothing wrong."
"I'm sorry you were right about things."
"I am curious as to why you decide to come out to her when you've denied the possibility of being gay for so long."
"It was easier than saying I was bi and then trying to explain how you were the only man I ever wanted."
"Possibly, but being gay is not news that people tend to welcome with open arms. Your sister needs time to adjust. She's...you both have a lot of emotional baggage to deal with right now. Give her some time. If my father came around, she will. Just don't say anything that will leave permanent scars, Napoleon. She is your sister, after all."
"For what it's worth, Mom's happy for us."
"Your mother is an incredible woman, but then and again, how could she not be? She raised an incredible man."
"I love you more. Hold onto that and let it give you the strength you need." Illya slipped from his arms and moved to his suitcase. He flipped it open to pull out a cloth-wrapped parcel. He tugged off the cloth, revealing a Walther and set it on the bed. "And let this talk for you when people choose not to hear your voice."
"You really think I have to arm myself? Among my own family?"
"Especially among your own family." Illya removed a second similarly-wrapped weapon. "When I came out, my brothers gave me a beating I barely survived."
"I remember—I thought THRUSH did that to you." Two shoulder holsters followed the guns and Illya tossed one to Napoleon before strapping his own on.
"I wish they had. It would have hurt less. Don't misunderstand me, Napoleon, I love my brothers, but they are not rocket scientists." Illya aimed one of the guns at the floor and pulled the bolt back to check the barrel. "When they heard Papa say that someone needed to beat some sense into me, they took it to mean to literally beat me. So they did, apologizing all the time they were doing it." He offered the gun butt first to Napoleon. "It taught me to be careful, even amongst friends and family."
"You did get all the brains, didn't you?"
"So it would appear." He started to check the second weapon, sliding it into the holster at the sound of a knock on their bedroom door and grabbed a light jacket to pull on, hiding the hostler.
"Napoleon, can I come in?" Josie's voice filtered through the wood. Likewise, Napoleon pulled on a jacket to hide his holster and opened the door after his partner's nod. "Yes, Josie, what can I do for you?" He kept his voice neutral.
Hesitantly she entered the room, shifting her gaze uneasily from one man to the other. "I just want to say I'm sorry."
"For what happened downstairs?"
"For what I'm about to ask of you." She half turned back towards the door, as if checking it in case of a need to escape. "Doug won't let the kids come into the house while you two are here, Napoleon." She dropped her gaze to the floor and drew a deep breath. "I'd like the kids to be able to say good bye to their grandmother..."
Illya nodded towards the door. "Come on, Napoleon, I haven't had a chance to pay my respects to your father and I would like very much to do that."
Napoleon stared at his sister until she started shifting uneasily from side to side beneath his glare and then followed after his partner. As he passed, he held up two fingers. "Two hours."
Wordless, he followed Illya down the stairs and just as they entered the kitchen the phone rang. Without thinking, Napoleon grabbed the receiver. "Solo residence."
Napoleon started grinning and held up a hand, stopping Illya. "Matthew, how did you get this number?"
"Chef gave it to me before you left." The phone made Matt's voice tinny, but didn't diminish its affection. "We just want to let you know that we're all thinking about you and how sorry we are."
"Thanks, Matt. I appreciate that, probably more than you know."
"How is your mother, cara?"
"Resting comfortable, thank you. You just caught us on our way out," Napoleon said, as Josie entered the kitchen, still looking chagrined, but obviously interested as to who was on the phone. "Do you need Chef, Mattie?"
"Like I need a pain in my ass, cara. Is he there? Napoleon, wait!" He started to hand the phone over pausing at Matt's voice shouting his name.
"We miss you and we're all there with you."
"Thanks, Matt, that means the world to me. Here's Illya."
Illya took the receiver and locking eyes with Josie, spoke, "S, Matt, lei degenerata a ha il sesso sulle tavole ancora?" Napoleon smiled at the question. Having sex on the tables was not something he'd put past the passionate Italian at all. If Matt was confused by Illya switching to Italian, he didn't let on.
"No, ma il pensiero accaduto a noi. Ci domandavamo dove la polizza d'assicurazione era".
Napoleon ears pricked up with that and he leaned closer to the receiver to respond. "The insurance policy is in the top left hand drawer of my desk. Why do you want the insurance policy?"
"Pensavamo di Diane di Bistecca di tableside di offerta e siamo domandati stasera se ha coperto il danno di fuoco," Matt explained, but Illya started shaking his head halfway through the sentence.
"No open flame in the dining room, Matt. If you're going to flamb the Diane, it has to be in the kitchen. We've discussed that before. There's too much untreated wood up front. And don't use the flaming rum or you'll never get it put out."
"All right, Chef, you're the ultima. Miss you."
"Miss you more, Azzuro. Give my best to everyone and we'll see you in a few days."
He cradled the receiver and Napoleon sighed deeply. "I'd do anything to see Rocky coming through that door right now, belting out Mama Mia or anything else for that matter. Hell, I'd even settle for something from South Pacific..."
"I know, Napoleon. He is an acquired, but desirable taste." He reached for a set of car keys and opened the kitchen door. "Let's go see what trouble we can get into." He glanced over at Josie. "With any luck, maybe a car will blow up on me and my time here will be complete."
Napoleon was lining up a shot on the pool table when he happened to glance up at Illya and see a flash of something on his partner's face. It was nothing more than a furrowing of his brow, slight narrowing of his eyes and Napoleon knew something was about to happen. Illya set his bottle of beer aside, freeing his hands.
When Napoleon felt the sudden heat of a body behind him, hands on his waist, the filthy suggestion whispered in his ear, he reacted just as he would have as an agent. Before the person behind him would even draw a breath, he was pinned down against the pool table with the cue across his throat. "Why don't you play through, partner?" Napoleon said, applying pressure to the stick. "I'm going to sit this one out."
Illya shrugged and began to circle the table. Two of the man's friends started towards them and he shook his head slowly and he let his jacket gap open to reveal his shoulder holster. "I wouldn't if I were you." Illya bent to line up his shot. "Six ball in the corner pocket."
"Now do you want to tell me what you're playing at?" Napoleon asked his captive as Illya sank his ball.
"Nothin' we just heard you were in town and thought we'd have some fun."
"We were quietly playing a game of pool and minding our own business." Napoleon applied just a whisper more pressure to the cue. "What would possess you to bother us?" The man gurgled something and Napoleon leaned closer. "Excuse me?"
"He needs to be able to breathe to answer you, Napoleon," Illya suggested. He sent another ball into a pocket and paused to take a swig of beer.
"Oh, you're right, sorry." Napoleon released the man, who straightened with no little difficulty and rubbed his throat. "Now, why are you bothering us?"
"Doug said a couple fairies were in town and he'd make it worth our while to keep you 'entertained'."
"He'd make it worth your while. Imagine, my own brother-in-law saying such things, partner." One of Friendly's friends hazarded a step closer. "Some people have a death wish. I'm just amazed he has the ability to articulate full sentences with his head as far up his ass as it is." Illya took another shot, scooping up a ball and suddenly throwing it. It bounced sharply against the wall next to the mobile friend and flew back to Illya. He caught it one handed. "You know where this is going next." The man hastily sat down.
"I think that you need to go have a little chat with Dougie." Napoleon adjusted the man's jacket, brushing wrinkles out of his lapels. "I think he needs to know how unimpressed I am with his little attempt at amusement." Napoleon slammed the pool cue against the edge of the table, splintering it and held it up to the man's face. "And I think you need to know just immensely unhappy I am with your little demonstration of poor judgment."
"I wouldn't, Napoleon." Illya said, dropping the last ball into a corner pocket.
"Why's that, partner?"
"It's always better to take the high road in such cases and I hear a police siren approaching." He straightened and set the cue aside. "You hit him and he has just cause to have you arrested. Now you can have him for assault. Or even better, solicitation, as he approached you and you have witnesses to prove it."
"Smart Russian." Napoleon tossed his stick onto the table and pushed the man away from him.
"Experienced bar room brawler," Illya amended, as a state trooper entered and approached them.
He paused and stared hard at Illya and then over at Napoleon before breaking into a grin and holding out his hand. "Napoleon Solo, you son of a gun, how the hell are you? Harvey Blackstone, I was two years behind you in school. Sorry to hear about your mom."
"Hey, Harvey, how's it going? You were the best tight end the football team ever had." Napoleon acknowledged him with ease borne from many such experiences in life. "Looks like my brother-in- law is up to some tricks again."
"He contacted us saying you stole your mother's car."
"And told his friends I was looking for a little male-on-male action."
"You, the skirt chaser of Orange County? I don't think so. Sorry to say this, but your brother-in-law is one sad jacked up bastard," Harry said, his attention drifting back to Illya. Suddenly he snapped his fingers and Napoleon checked himself reaching for his gun. "Now I know where I've seen you before. You were on the cover of Newsweek. You're that chef fellow....um...Kuryakin."
"Yes, that's correct." Illya managed to smile and not roll his eyes. Napoleon remembered that interview and how uncomfortable his partner had been with the photographer and interviewer dogging his steps in Taste's kitchen that day
"I think my sister-in-law memorized that article. That fruit soup wasn't too bad."
"Try it with cream sherry next time." Illya reached for his bottle of beer and drained it. "It'll cut back on the sweetness."
The trooper looked around and took a step closer to him. He dropped his voice so that no one could overhear him, not that anyone else in the bar was paying him any attention. "Listen, do you think I could get your autograph? It would make my sister-in-law's day, hell, her year."
"What's her name?" Illya reached in to his wallet and pulled out his business card. He took the trooper's pen and scribbled something on the back of it.
"What? Oh, it's Meredith."
"All right, Trooper Blackstone, give this to her and tell her to give me a call if she's in the area. She'll be my guest at the restaurant."
"Thank you so much! She will be so happy. Hell, she'll start planning the trip." He glanced over at the three men. "Are these men bothering you?"
"Nothing that my bodyguard can't handle," Illya said, nodding to Napoleon.
Blackstone nodded sagely. "I heard you went into the private sector, Napoleon; didn't know it was high profile protection."
Napoleon shrugged his shoulders. "It pays the bills and I like the benefits."
"Would either of you like to press charges?" Blackstone looked from one to the other.
"I, for one, would just like to leave," Illya said, reaching for his wallet. "Napoleon, why don't you pay the bartender for his efforts?"
"Absolutely, Chef, it'll be my pleasure."
"And find out where the nearest well stocked grocery store is. I suddenly feel the need to cook."
Napoleon preceded him into the farmhouse, eyes sparking with anger, and slammed to a stop at the sight of his sister and niece sitting at the table drinking coffee, as if it was just an ordinary day. Napoleon pointed to his sister and then to the door.
"We need to talk," he ground out. "Now!"
Helena smiled hesitantly and immediately stood. "I'll just be going now," she mumbled quickly. She glanced over at Illya as he entered carrying two grocery bags, but instantly refocused her eyes onto the floor and hurried out.
"We can't leave Mama alone. The day nurse just went to the hospital on a call."
"Illya's here. He's a fully trained medic, among other things." Napoleon took his sister's elbow with no little force and propelled her to the door.
Illya set the bags on the counter and began to unload them. He wasn't going to get in between the siblings. He'd had a lifetime of that already. Instead, he concentrated upon the food in his hands, feeling the familiar shapes and textures, his mind beginning to contemplate the best way to serve them. He suspected it would just be the two of them for dinner this evening.
Illya was doing a rough cut on some celery when he heard a soft noise from the bedroom. He dumped the celery into the pot and covered it, then turned down the heat. Wiping his hands on a towel, he pushed the curtain aside.
"Katherine, are you all right?"
The old woman nodded briefly and coughed a bit. Illya helped her to sit up and offered her a glass of water, keeping his hand on it to stabilize it. "Something smells good."
"Just a vegetable soup, nothing fancy." He put the glass back on the nightstand. "If you feel up to it, it will be ready soon."
"I've been listening. Napoleon's very angry with his sister," she said without preamble. "And she's very dismayed with your relationship. I thought it would be what she wanted—to have Napoleon happy, but she'd rather keep to her narrow-minded path than accept the world as it is. That's Douglas's doing. I've watched him change her over the years."
"This is still new to Napoleon. " Illya sat down and took up her hand, holding it loosely in his. "When he found me, I was already established within the community, so he had an immediately accepting social group. There are some in Jackson who disapprove, but for the most part, it's an accommodating little town. He's never had to deal with any resistance, especially from someone close to him."
"Doug is a good man, despite his rather rigid view of the world. He's not easy, but he's worked this farm as if it was his own." She rested her head back. "He deserves it."
"I'm sure Napoleon understands that. I was always under the impression that the farm would go to Josie and her family."
"At Napoleon's discretion. He's our executor, it's all up to him who gets what. Father was rather old fashioned that way. Illya, Napoleon might not know this, but the will is in the roll top desk. There's a little latch towards the back of the top right shelf. It opens to reveal a small hidden cubbyhole. The will is in there. Our lawyer also has a copy. His card is by the phone."
As are a hundred other business cards, but Illya left that unsaid. Instead he nodded. "I understand."
"Help him make the right decisions, dear. He respects you and trusts you. He'll listen to your counsel."
"I promise." Illya kissed her cheek and smiled. He glanced around the room seeing it for the first time in the sunlight, his eye catching on a guitar. It was propped up in a corner, surrounded by a lifetime of other items. Katherine followed his gaze and sighed.
"Father used to serenade me all the time when we were young. People think Napoleon gets his musical talent from me, but it's really his father."
Illya stood and retrieved the instrument. He ran his fingers over the strings and frowned. "It's badly out of tune." He reseated himself and began to adjust the strings.
"Well, it's been a few years since I was young, my sweet, or serenaded," Katherine said, smiling sadly. "Could you play something for me?"
"Certainly, have you any requests?"
"Something that would make Napoleon smile again."
Illya continued to pluck the strings for a moment and thought. After a moment, he began to strum and sing softly,
Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning Waving goodbye with an absent-minded smile I watch her go with a surge of that well-known sadness And I have to sit down for a while The feeling that I'm losing her forever And without really entering her world I'm glad whenever I can share her laughter That funny little girl
Slipping through my fingers all the time I try to capture every minute The feeling in it Slipping through my fingers all the time Do I really see what's in her mind Each time I think I'm close to knowing She keeps on growing Slipping through my fingers all the time
Walking quickly, Napoleon led the way down the porch, through the wood shed and out into the back pasture, ducking beneath the single rail designed to keep the cows from wandering through and out onto the porch. He could still remember the day one of the cows strolled into the kitchen by mistake.
Josie had to nearly run to keep up with him. Finally he stopped in a spot sheltered from the house by hedges, their spot, the place they would come as children to talk, confide in each other or just take a moment to reflect upon their day. Their parents knew about it, but never sought to interfere or eavesdrop. It was a bit of confidence they demonstrated in their children, permitting them to have their secrets.
"Why what, Napoleon?"
"It isn't bad enough that your husband had to get together a few of his friends to try to roll us in a bar. That's a very bad idea, by the way, considering Illya is armed and isn't feeling very amused at the moment. Then he called the state troopers and tells them I've stolen Mom's car. What's the point, Josephine? What is your husband trying to prove?"
"He wants you to leave."
"Then he doesn't know me very well, does he? I will leave when my business is finished and not before. It's my mother in there too, not just yours." He took a step away from her, his eyes cold and hard. "And believe me when I am finished, I won't be back. Not here, not again."
"This is your home Napoleon. It's not his."
"My home is wherever Illya is and since, in your and your husband's esteemed opinion, he's obviously not good enough to be here, then neither am I." Napoleon took a step away from her, watching the sun start to dip behind a vibrantly green hill. "So, so many times we have laid our lives down for people just like you. So many times I held him, not knowing if his next breath would be his last, feeling his blood trickle through my fingers, just so pompous asses like you and Doug could make declarations of who is and isn't worthy in your eyes." He stopped and shook his head. "Do you know why you never see me without a shirt?"
If the change in topic threw the woman, she covered it well. "I just figured you were..um..I guess, modest."
"I look like Frankenstein's monster. I've been shot, knifed, bull whipped, beaten, all in the name of keeping the world safe for people like you. And for every one of my scars, Illya has three. Why? Because people underestimate him, think he's weak. He never breaks, he never falters and he never stops. Mom and Dad knew that. That's why he's always been welcomed here."
"Napoleon, I'm trying! You can't just dump something like this on me and expect everything to be okay. It's not fair."
"That's a funny word, coming from you, sister mine."
"You go from chasing everything in a skirt to having carnal relations with a man. I need time."
"You used to badger me constantly about our relationship. It was okay when you thought it was all fun and games, but when it became real, you couldn't deal with it." He started to walk away and then turned back. "You tell Doug to back off or the next time, Illya will kill him and worse, I'll let him."
He headed back to the farmhouse, rejection and an overall depression dogging at his heels. He opened the door and paused, smiling as he heard the song Illya was singing. "Slipping through my fingers," he murmured. "Truer words have never been spoken."
Napoleon closed and locked the door behind him, probably the first time the tumblers had been turned in years. Taking off his jacket, he entered the bedroom and smiled at his mother, trying to rid himself of painful memories. He moved to Illya and kissed his head. "What? I'm gone for five minutes and you're already serenading a new love."
"No, just an old one," Illya said, stilling his fingers. "Napoleon," his mother scolded weakly. "You interrupted."
"Sorry." He came around the bed to kiss her.
Illya caught his hand as he passed, squeezing it firmly. "Are you okay?"
Napoleon squeezed back. "I am now." He sat on the edge of the bed. "So, good looking, you going to play something and just sit there holding that guitar?"
"Why don't you take over and I'll finish working on dinner." Illya stood and held up a finger. "The A string is soft."
Napoleon strummed a couple of chords and nodded. "Yes it is. Thanks for the warning."
Illya moved quietly from the bedroom as Napoleon started strumming something, Bach's, Boure in E minor, it sounded like. There was a tap on the door and Illya glanced over. Helena was standing there, gesturing. He crossed the kitchen quickly and then realized her predicament; the door was locked.
"Sorry, I think that was your uncle," he said, opening it for her. She walked in quickly, closely followed by Cameron, her husband, who was carrying a young child, Winston and an unfamiliar young man. "Can I help you with something?" He wasn't sure how he stood with these young people, but suddenly he found his arms full of Helena.
"I just wanted to say I'm so happy you're here Illya. It wasn't the same without you." She hugged him hard and then pulled away, self consciously. "And I wanted you to know we don't share Mom and Dad's opinion of you and Uncle Napoleon. We're happy for you both."
Cameron shifted the child and held out a hand. "More than happy. And if Doug can't see what good men you are, then it's his loss, not yours. Welcome to the family."
"Thank you, it means a lot to us. Who is this then?" He held a hand out to the child.
"This is Cecelia, our youngest daughter," Helena said as the girl turned her face and buried it in her father's shoulder, suddenly shy.
"She's lovely, Helena. You must be very proud." Then Illya turned his attention to Winston. The young man towered over him and his formerly dark brown hair was dyed a shocking near white. "And I'm guessing your parents just love your rebellious nature, Winston."
"You don't know the half of it," Winston said, pulling forward the young man. "This is my boyfriend, Keith." Leaning closer to the young man, he whispered, "Didn't I tell you he had incredible hair?"
"And you just answered a multitude of questions about why your parents reacted the way they did to our news." Illya glanced over his shoulder towards the bedroom as the music stopped and Napoleon appeared, still holding the guitar. "Winston! How tall are you now?"
"Six, four, last time I checked." He moved forward and hugged his uncle. Napoleon was obviously surprised, but recovered quickly. "The hair is different, but it looks good on you."
"I was trying to match Illya's but I guess I'd remembered wrong." He pulled out a chair and gestured to it. Keith moved to it, still looking self conscious and uncomfortable.
"No, it's gotten darker as he's aged. The rest of us go gray, he goes brunet."
"I've always gone brunet," Illya murmured, returning to the stove and both Napoleon and Winston laughed.
They sat and talked until dinner was ready and then they ate in the bedroom, surrounding the matriarch of the family. Little Cecelia was obviously delighted to cuddle up to her great grandmother and Napoleon could see his mother's happiness in their just being there. At least here, in this room, the ugliness didn't touch them.
A soft creak brought Illya to instant attention and he lay, unmoving in the bed. His senses kicked into high gear as he cracked open one eye, the one closest to his pillow and peered out of it. There was a figure steadily approaching the bed and his hand snaked to his gun.
Napoleon was still draped over him, like a living down comforter, his breath soft against Illya's neck. There would be no real way to alert the man subtly. The figure came to stand by the bed and Illya recognized it as Josie in the moonlight . She was just standing there, staring at them and for a moment Illya wasn't entirely sure if she was sleepwalking or not. Then there was a quiet sound, a half sob and he reached out for the night stand and its light. The light flooded the room and Illya blinked painfully for a moment before his eyes adjusted. Napoleon murmured and rolled over, burying his face into a pillow, his back now towards them.
"Josie, what's wrong?"
"Mama said I should never touch either of you if I ever had to wake you." She just kept staring at them.
"That's correct, yes."
"But I need Napoleon." There was something very wrong with the woman, Illya could see that and he leaned over, drawing a hand down Napoleon's back.
"Napoleon, wake up."
"Jesus, Illya, you're like a rabbit. I'm tired," Napoleon protested and Illya smirked. He had ridden his partner very hard after they had retired for the evening, drawing out their love making well past its usual boundaries, bringing Napoleon to the verge of climax again and again, only to push him back until desperation grabbed them both and took over. They both now wore the signs of their loving and Illya wondered if it was those marks that captivated Josie.
"So many scars," Josie murmured and Illya frowned, glancing over at Napoleon. In the lamp light, the whip marks left by Shark glistened as long thin white lines in the moonlight. It had been so long ago he no longer saw their scars. He dropped a hand self consciously to cover one of his own and Josie tracked the movement. "What made that?"
She pointed. "And that one?"
She reached out a finger and tentatively traced a line of scar tissue on his shoulder. "This one?"
"Knife." He watched her face for a moment and then leaned close to Napoleon's ear. "Napoleon, I need you." That was all Illya had to say; Napoleon was awake and sitting up.
"What?" He took one look at his sister and ventured, "She's gone, isn't she?" There was a sharp nod from Josie and Napoleon opened his arms. Josie was in them and sobbing a heartbeat later. Napoleon rocked her as Illya slid out of the bed and pulled on a pair of jeans. He grabbed a shirt and moved from the room quietly, permitting the two their moment of grief.
Barefoot, he walked quickly downstairs. The night nurse, Annie, glanced over at him and shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thank you. Will you make the necessary calls?"
"Already taken care of. Your...Napoleon's mother had prearranged everything. She was unusually efficient and practical about it all."
"She always was." Illya moved past her and to the bed. The body on it no more resembled the woman he knew as Katherine Solo anymore than had the body of his own mother. All that made up Katherine was gone; where was open for debate by people other than himself. All that was left behind was a shell.
He took her hand, cool and paper like, and recited barely remembered words in his native tongue.
"That was beautiful. What did it mean?" Annie asked from her position at the door.
"'O Thou Who with wisdom profound order all things with love, and Who gives to all what is needful, O only Creator, give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy servants, for on Thee they have set their hope, our Maker and Builder, and our God. We have thee as a wall and refuge and an intercessor pleasing to God, whom thou didst bear.' It was a prayer my grandmother taught me a long time ago. It seems appropriate." He placed her hand across her chest and kissed her forehead one last time. "Godspeed, Katherine, to wherever your path leads you." He let the tears trickle down his cheeks without shame and walked from the room.
Napoleon sat quietly, staring into his stained coffee cup. All the calls had been made, all the gears set in motion. His mother's body had been retrieved and the house was momentarily silent. Josie had returned to her own home about an hour earlier, leaving just the two of them. Even now, it felt more like just a structure, no longer a home to him. "Your mother wanted me to tell you that the will is in the roll top desk in a secret compartment," Illya said, pouring more hot liquid into both his and Napoleon's cups. "She said that Doug deserved the farm."
Illya recognized the tone. "But?"
"I'm not feeling very charitable at the moment, I guess." The front door slammed opened and Doug stood there, his features dark and angry. "Case in point."
"Get out of my house!" Doug shouted, pointing towards the driveway.
"Excuse me?" Napoleon stood slowly. "When did this become your house, Douglas?"
"The minute the old lady kicked the bucket."
"That was my mother." Napoleon kept his voice tight and Illya took his place at Napoleon's side.
"Perverts like you ain't born, you're made!"
"Yes, because the humiliation, the beatings, the subjugation makes it all such an attractive package," Illya snapped, his hands working. "When are you people going to learn—this isn't a choice, it's simply the way it is."
If Doug was going to try and take them on, it was going to end badly for him. Napoleon could see the anger starting to build in his partner, spurred on by his own burden of grief. "I think that if you check the conditions of the will, you'll see that I'm executor and sole heir." Napoleon settled a hand on Illya's arm.
"Dad was old-fashioned and he believed that property was should be passed through the male heirs." He hazarded a glance at Illya. "Go get the will, would you, amante?"
"Are you sure?"
"If I need you, I'll yell." He focused his full attention on the man who was more a stranger than a relative now. "I don't know what happened, Doug, but somewhere along the way, things shifted between us. It would be advisable for you to think carefully and choose your words with even more care now."
"It happened the day you took that...that..."
"I would advise you, again, to consider your words carefully. That person for whom you are struggling to find a label for is a trained assassin who would like nothing more than for me to step aside and let him do the job for which he was trained."
That was spreading it on a little think, but Doug didn't know that. Doug gestured and turned from Napoleon, his hands working at his sides.
A moment later, Illya returned and handed Napoleon a sealed packet. He returned to his original position beside Napoleon, his eyes never leaving the farmer. Doug began to squirm beneath the gaze as Napoleon broke the seal and pulled several sheets of paper out.
"Looks like Dad kept his promise. I'm sole heir—now, I wonder if I'll keep my promise to him...guess we'll let the lawyers fight that one out. Now, I suggest you leave and contemplate your fate for the next few hours while I make up my mind."
For a moment, Napoleon thought Doug might actually take a swing at him, but finally the man turned tail and left.
"That is not a happy man," Illya observed taking and releasing a deep breath. He sat back down at the table. "I'd give your car a thorough going over before starting it next time."
"He doesn't know half of it."
"What do you mean?"
"I was lying." Napoleon offered the papers for Illya to read, but he declined. "Mom and Dad split the property three ways."
"Then Doug is inheriting."
"Not Doug. Me, Josie...and you."
"What? Me? You're reading it wrong." Illya snatched the will from him and scanned it. "What would they do that for?"
"Guess they really did see you as a son."
"Amazing." He shook his head. "Amazing, but wrong, Napoleon."
"Are you going to take it up with them?"
"Not directly for a few more years, I hope." Illya handed the will back. "I will, of course, turn over my share of the property to you. It has been in your family for many years and here it deserves to stay. It's not like either of us are going to produce an heir to pass it on to."
"Well according to those gossip rags my sister is so fond on, where there's a will..."
"Don't even joke about that." He checked his watch. "It's after nine, ready to call the lawyer?"
"If it's what stands between us and home, give me the phone."
Illya slid the gears into park and dropped his head back onto the headrest. It was so good to be home, back among familiar surroundings where things were, more or less, normal or at least as normal as things were likely to get in Jackson. He reached over and took Napoleon's hand, kissing the back of it.
"Wake up, Prince Charming, your pumpkin has arrived."
Napoleon stirred and sat up stiffly, rubbing his neck. "Home, sweet home." He glanced from the house to the restaurant and back. It was early, but the parking lot was over half full and there was a steady stream of foot traffic passing through the front door. "The flowers look great. Was that only a few weeks ago? It seems like a year."
"That it does. You want to head up to bed?' Illya rubbed the side of his face and scratched the day's worth of whisker growth.
"Without letting people know we're back? We'd never hear the end of it." Illya climbed from the car and a yellow cat swaggered over to him, rubbing up against his ankles. "Hello, Moutard, did you miss me?" He bent to scratch behind an ear and the cat meowed loudly and walked away in the direction of the house.
"He missed you not feeding him," Napoleon said, grabbing bags from the backseat.
In step, they walked to the back door of the restaurant's kitchen, Napoleon grabbing the knob and let Illya precede him in.
Illya winked at him and shouted, "What the hell have you done to my kitchen? It's a mess in here!"
The shout drew immediate attention and both men were surrounded by staff. Matt nearly tripped in his excitement to hug first one and then the other. Rocky happened in at that point, and laughed, joining into the fray, shouting, "It's about time you slackers made it home!"
Illya watched as their friends, no, their family, massed around them, all chattering excitedly to Napoleon, casting eager glances at first Illya and then Matt. He caught Matt's eye and the redhead moved smoothly to his side, kissing him soundly.
"Cara, I have missed you too much." Matt said, softly. "It's no fun without you here to abuse us."
"It is so good to be back." Illya slipped an arm around Matt's waist, hugging him close while watching Napoleon as he began to disperse the gifts they'd purchased back East. He rested his head against Matt's shoulder and sighed. "Everything is good?"
"It is now that you two are back." Matt kissed the blond hair. "Was Napoleon able to reconcile his family?"
"Not entirely, but I think it'll happen. His sister is taking baby steps, his brother-in-law will have to make a decision soon. Napoleon's nephew just came out, so I'm sure his father is doubting the existence of a kind and benevolent God right now."
"But God does have a sense of humor; you have to give Him that. How else would you explain platypuses?"
Napoleon appeared in front of them and handed Matt a small box. He released Illya and took it.
"What's this, Cara?" He opened it and pulled out a handmade pewter tie tack. "Napoleon, it's lovely."
"It's Danforth pewter, it reminded me that you were complaining a bit ago about Rocky always stealing your tie tacks. I also have a gallon of maple syrup coming."
"Along with a moving van of the most eclectic items imaginable," Illya added. "Cleaning out the farmhouse proved quite the adventure. It took nearly a week to just to clear out his old closet—my God, the love letters I found...All this time and they are still steaming!"
"It's one adventure I'm glad we're back from." Napoleon looked around the kitchen at the people milling there, comparing and displaying their gifts. "It feels so good to be home again." He smiled. "And to be back among family...love is where the heart is."
"And my heart is here with you."
And he kissed Illya as their world moved around them, strong, content, complete.