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A Very Victoria Christmas

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"Moldova was cool! We're on our way back home. We'll be there in time for Christmas, then we're going to go to the beach."

Victoria wondered where Sarah considered her home to be now. Sarah's apartment, at least, was still intact. Frank's house lay in a heap. In this context, home probably meant the States. Sarah's voice on the phone sounded giddy. With fatigue or exhilaration, it was difficult to tell. Probably both.

"It's Christmas Eve. What are you and Ivan going to do to celebrate?"

"Is it really?" Victoria hadn't realized, hadn't tracked time very well in Ivan's apartment. "I'm not sure. It's not like we're together, Sarah, and I don't think Christmas is an important holiday for him. He's just letting me stay until Cooper sends word. Did you hear the announcement yesterday? The vice president has resigned, due to health issues."

"No. But good. Frank says I have to learn to shoot a gun, and that you're the best teacher there is. Will you teach me to shoot guns?"

"Have you been drinking?"

"Not much." Sarah's bubbling laugh faded into the distance.

"Hey." Frank's voice. "Merry Christmas. How are you?"

"I'm well. I'm only waiting for the go ahead from Cooper, then it's back to Eagle's Nest. After today's announcement of Stanton's resignation that should be soon. Things went smoothly for you?"

"Well. It's the outcome that matters."

She heard the smile in Frank's quiet voice. "Wish them both a Happy Christmas for me. Don't let Marvin shoot any strolling Santas."

"The Santas are safe. I make no promises about elves. I've already wished Ivan a Merry Christmas. You take care, Victoria."

Victoria tucked the phone into her sweater pocket. Christmas Eve. And she hadn't baked a single cookie or made eggnog. Hadn't even felt the need to do those things.

At home her days would have been filled, from rising to retiring. The house required cleaning and dusting. Cooking and baking, changing the flower arrangements, watering plants, shopping . . . If there were guests there would be more cooking and baking. Before Frank showed up at her door with a bullet in his shoulder, a party of six from California had reserved rooms for Christmas week. Victoria had sent an e-mail cancellation, her sincere regrets, etc., just before leaving for Chicago.

Just in case.

And just in case had nearly happened.

Christmas Eve would be the eighth night she slept in the Embassy of the Russian Federation.

Victoria left the armchair and went to stand by the windows. It was dark and clear, a black and white world decorated with a million lights. Ivan would return to his apartment soon, with something from the embassy kitchen for dinner. It was a self-contained world, this building, a bit of Russia on American soil. Kitchen, exercise facilities, even a shooting range in the basement. A physician on staff. Victoria always got the impression Ekaterina would have been happy to talk to her about more than her physical recovery. If the rapid, lengthy conversations in Russian she had with Ivan were any indication, she wasn't a naturally reticent woman. But Victoria hadn't wanted conversation, and the small, kind Russian doctor had been firm about those things which lay within her scope while giving Victoria her own mental and emotional space.

For the first few days in the apartment she slept, ate the light, nutritious meals delivered from the kitchen, sat in the armchair in front of the gas fireplace and read magazines on Ivan's iPad. As her wound healed and her energy level climbed, she exercised cautiously under Ekaterina's guidance, did her laundry, vacuumed and dusted in the apartment.

It had puzzled her at first, to find there were no books or bookshelves in the living space of the apartment. Remembering Ivan's prodigious appetite for books, Victoria found it hard to believe that this habit had changed. His bedroom was still a mystery to her; she thought, at first, that he kept his books in there. And perhaps he did. But on the second day, when she was alert enough to begin to be bored, he'd given her his iPad, along with passcode, user name and password to his Amazon account. Ivan's virtual bookshelf had been overwhelming.

Her reading over the years had concentrated on nonfiction, although now and then she enjoyed a popular novel. She mostly read magazines, when there was time to read. Victoria soon found more interesting reading in the notes Ivan had left on his e-novels, and what passages he had chosen to highlight. It made her feel a little voyeuristic, like reading another person's diary. It also highlighted aspects of his intellect that made her feel as if she knew nothing about him -- until she discovered he had a weakness for spy thrillers. She spent hours reading his notes on these, laughing aloud.

Benjamin, her first and only husband, had been a reader. Classics, mostly. His study at the Eagle's Nest was still lined with leather bound volumes from a previous century. It was a lot to dust. Victoria had often wondered, after forty-five minutes of cleaning surfaces in the study, what would eventually happen to the contents of Eagle's Nest. Her will, updated after Benjamin had passed, left all her worldly possessions to one of Dulcinea's daughters, a girl she hadn't seen for over ten years. Victoria smiled, wondering what Regina Victoria would make of the weapons.

Dulcinea. Her best friend in the world, now that Joe was gone.

Victoria took the phone out of her pocket, dialed a number from memory.

"Victoria." Dulcinea didn't sound at all tired, although it was nearly midnight in Grand Fenwick. "I was just thinking about you."

"Happy Christmas. I'm sorry it's been so long." Over five months since they'd last talked, Victoria wasn't sure why, although during the quiet hours in Ivan's apartment she had begun to look back at her life during the years just previous to retiring from Six and onward, and fit pieces into the jigsaw that was Victoria Winslow. Dulcinea's husband, Alexander Hero, had passed only two months after Benjamin. Mutual calls of support and sorrow had been heartfelt, but brief. Victoria felt Dulcinea's grief, so very much greater than her own, with an atypical empathy that drove her to Benjamin's study, where she would clean and organize before moving into the kitchen for a marathon of baking.

"That's not all on you. I'm capable of picking up the phone." There was a loud noise in the background, laughter. "As you can hear, all of the girls are home right now. They're torturing each other."

"And been into the Pinot Grand Fenwick?" Victoria shut her eyes and smiled. She could picture the scene in Dulcinea's great room, the suits of armor decked with greenery and colored lights. "I won't keep you. I just wanted to hear your voice, and wish you happy holidays." It suddenly occurred to her that the two major pieces of news she had to share with Dulcinea might not be the best topic of conversation to follow her Christmas greeting.

"Don't be silly. It's early for you there. Do you have a house full of guests, paying for a Very Victoria Christmas?"

"No. That is, I'm not at home. I'm in Washington. I'll tell you all about it after the holidays."

Background noise disappeared. "Victoria. You will do no such thing. Why are you in Washington?" Dulcinea's best autocratic voice, honed over years of acting as Grand Fenwick's Prime Minister, slid like a blade between Victoria's defenses.

"I was helping a friend with a job. I caught a little something, nothing too bad. But Joe --" she took a deep breath, "Joe's gone."

"I'm so sorry. I wish I were there, Victoria. You're not hurt badly?"

"I'm fine. We'll get together soon. I need to do some traveling, get out more." She knew she was babbling, but couldn't stop herself. "I'm in the Russian Embassy, Dulcy. Staying with a friend."

There was a long silence.

"Dulcinea?"

"Bugger. You're going to have to tell me. I refuse to guess. If I say his name, and it's wrong, I won't be able to take it back."

"I'm in Ivan's apartment, in the embassy."

More silence. "International headlines are speculating about Vice President Stanton's sudden resignation. What have you been doing?" Dulcinea muttered. "I know. Not over the phone, and later. How is he?"

"For a man I last saw 37 years ago, bleeding from three gunshot wounds, he seems very well. We haven't spoken at length," Victoria said carefully. "He appears to be very much king of the castle here."

"Well." Dulcinea's voice turned brisk. "You will bring him for a visit in January. Sandro left some books for him. He never gave us an address in Moscow, so I wasn't sure where to send them. He can sort through them in person, take what he wants."

Victoria had been accustomed to never seeing the full picture, but this was too much. "Joe never told me, but after he was gone I found out he'd been in contact with Ivan, steadily over the years. When's the last time you and Hero saw him?"

"Umm." A bit of discomfort there. "Six months before Sandro died. He dropped in two years after we were married, spent a lot of time talking to Sandro. After that, maybe twice a year."

"Was there some kind of conspiracy of silence going on? You can be my friend all these years, and never mention Ivan was a regular visitor in your home?" Even Frank knew Ivan from past encounters in the field. He seemed to have been everywhere she wasn't for the past 37 years.

"Because I was your friend. And his. Dammit, Victoria -- I'd rather tell you this in person," Dulcinea said, the sound of discomfort clear in her voice. "He asked us not to mention him to you. You would only visit us once every two years or so," Dulcinea said. "I was afraid the girls would drop the bomb. They loved him. We called him Uncle Bear."

That's a beautiful wooden horse, Regina.

Uncle Bear gave it to me for my birthday. He gave me a book about a black horse, too. It made me cry; you should read it Aunt Vee. I'm going to grow up and kill people who hurt animals.

Regina was the bloodthirsty one of the four girls. She grew up to be a large and small animal veterinarian, and had been known to physically intervene with animal abusers.

"I just don't know what to say. I'll let you know when I can come over. I'm starting to think about selling the house." It was a shock to hear herself say the words. As far as Victoria knew, she hadn't been thinking about selling the house. "Do you have a cottage available in Grand Fenwick?"

"For a day or a lifetime." Several sniffs could be heard from halfway across the world. "If you don't call in a week with the date you're coming, I'll keep calling."

"One of the things I've always loved about you, Dulcy: your patience. I'll call soon. Wish the girls Happy Christmas for me."

She heard the sound of the front door opening as she slipped the phone back into her pocket.

"Hello."

It was Ivan, bags strung onto both arms, followed by the young man who usually delivered her lunch when Ivan was working, similarly laden. Piotr looked like a teenage heartthrob, golden hair, blue eyes, and an adorable sweet meekness that in no way made him seem effeminate. Indeed, she'd caught him staring at her breasts several times with an appreciation that argued for more age and experience than his exterior suggested.

"I forgot it was Christmas eve." She began to help him unload the contents of the bags in the kitchen. "Thank you, Piotr. Something smells wonderful. Happy Christmas!"

"Happy Christmas." He grinned and ducked his chin, avoiding her eyes.

"You can go to your Irina now." Ivan nodded at the young man. "Thank you for your help."

Victoria waited until she heard the door close, then asked, "He has a girlfriend?"

"He has a wife." Ivan grinned. "She is head cook in kitchen. He also has malyshka -- baby girl."

"But he's just a baby himself!" Victoria watched as Ivan's bags continued to disgorge containers. She went to the cupboard to find serving dishes.

"He is twenty-two years of age, and can barely aim and shoot a gun, although he is very good with electronics. He is the same age you were when we first met. Two years younger than I was then -- and I had already spent seven years learning my craft."

There was nothing she could say to that. Victoria busied herself transfering food from styrofoam containers to glass. Ivan set the table in the small formal dining area adjacent to the living room. After a minute the music changed from the Spanish guitar she'd had playing very quietly for background noise to a solo female blues singer.

"She sent enough for six people." Victoria surveyed the dishes: chicken Kiev, boiled redskin potatoes, tomatoes and sour cream, crusty twists of homemade rolls, blanched green beans and a green salad short on iceberg lettuce and long on mixed field greens, spinach and dried cherries. She filled a pitcher with water and ice cubes without asking. She'd come to find that was all he drank during their recent meals together.

"There will be enough for tomorrow. Kitchen is closed on Christmas day. It is not a holiday we celebrate so much at home, but when in America . . . " Ivan pulled out a chair for her. "Is starting to snow again."

They ate, watching the wind drive snow against the tall windows.

"Sarah called. You must have spoken with Frank?"

"Yes. They did well. I believe they are going to Mexico the day after tomorrow."

She watched the movements of his hands, his face. "I called Dulcinea."

"Oh?" He put down his fork. "Oh. She is well? And the girls are with her?"

"Yes, Uncle Bear."

He grimaced. "I was going to tell you myself. We have managed not to talk about ourselves for the last few days. Perhaps it is time."

"I met Ekaterina's husband this morning. He took me down to your range. He's a good shot. I enjoyed myself, even though his English is limited."

"Don't let Josef fool you." Ivan snorted. "His English is as good as his shooting. And do not attempt to change the subject."

"Yes, it's time. Let's clean this up first."

Benjamin had never helped in the kitchen, simply told her how good the meal was then wandered away to his study. There had been one lover, who'd lasted longer than most, back in the late 90s, who enjoyed cooking for her but always left the dishes. The truth was, Victoria preferred to be alone in the kitchen. Offers of help from guests, even casual friends, were always politely discouraged. With Ivan it was comfortable, automatic, effortless. Somehow, without discussion, each one contributed to the overall task without getting in the other's way.

"The kitchen didn't send dessert. Did you and Piotr eat it on the way up?" The kitchen had always sent something sweet with lunch and dinner, even if it was a cup of custard with fresh fruit, or a couple of biscuits.

"I told them I would provide dessert." Ivan opened the refrigerator, rummaged in the back, and brought out a bottle of vodka. He took two glasses, two plates from the cupboard, and from one of the bags still unopened on the counter took out a huge navel orange. "Dessert."

Victoria found her mouth suddenly so dry it was difficult to swallow. She followed him into the living room, helped him move the coffee table between the two armchairs, then waited while he repositioned the chairs so they would face each other. She hadn't turned the overhead lighting on before he returned, and the only immediate light came from the fireplace. The glow from the candelabra over the dining table reached softly into the space around them, but it wouldn't have been enough to read by.

Ivan peeled the orange, lay the segments on one plate, the peel on the other. He opened the vodka and filled the glasses. "Na sdarovie."

"Cheers." Ice and fire, the feeling in her chest brought back so many memories: the most recent that of a lodge in the woods, standing in the cold air and drinking to Joe. "Another."

She took a piece of orange before her third glass, sucked the juice out then chewed and swallowed the rest. She knew he watched her in the firelight, as closely as she watched him. "Where do you want to start? Apparently you know everything about my life, while I know nothing of yours."

"I know a few facts about your life, that is all." Ivan took a piece of orange, looked at it critically. "We start with this: you did what you had to do -- and that is the only reason I can sit here with you today, talking about the past. If you had refused to do what they ordered, I would have died over 37 years ago."

"Joe told me, a year afterward, that you'd survived the shots. He said they'd taken you back to Moscow." A feeling of intense warmth, only partially due to the vodka, filled her stomach.

"It was a lateral career move." He grinned, wicked shadows dancing over his eyes from the gas flames. "Eventually I got back into the field, but I spent quite a bit of time at Moscow Centre, wearing a uniform, sitting in an office. Listening to Uncle Vladimir's diatribes on the north, south, east and west. I made good contacts with men in our goverment, men who lived and worked quietly while others died spectacular, flaming deaths. I owe this position to that time spent behind a desk."

"You make it sound -- painless." Victoria took a deep, involuntary breath.

Ivan reached toward his pocket, stopped himself and shot her a look of chagrin. "I drink less because I do not smoke, now. Why is it -- things that are supposedly good for you are so unfulfilling? As events could have unfolded, believe me when I say being shot three times in the chest was best outcome of situation. Too many people knew about us. In time, they would have instructed me to make use of our relationship. I would have died, rather than do that. But I was incapable of walking away from you. I tried. The year between Durant Castle and the Mousehole . . . there are many things we never had the chance to speak of. I have always loved the company of women, and over the years have seldom been without women moving into and out of my life."

"I didn't sleep with anyone else that year," she said, almost absently. "No one suited me. No one was you."

"Between New York and Durant Castle there was no one else. It was a busy time, many small missions; there was little opportunity, and no great desire, for finding sex. After Durant Castle, I slept with many women. Natasha pointed out, much too late for the observation to be useful, that I slept with many blonde women." Ivan shrugged. "No one was you; and while sex alone might clear the mind, it does not feed the soul."

Of the myriad small things she had determinedly refused to miss over the years after Switzerland, the poetical expressions of Ivan Simanov probably occupied one of the top three spots. Other memories stirred at his words, long buried and never examined. "Your behavior probably made our liaison look less meaningful. By the time they received Grise's candid photo of us, they had significantly added to the information in your dossier. If my personnel file had read promiscuous instead of low sex drive, my debriefing probably would have gone easier. They spent two nights, and three days badgering me when I got home. I suppose your people had to wait before they could rake you over the coals."

"I believe Uncle Vladimir made the decision I had suffered enough for my choices. He took my statement, much later, pronounced a reprimand that consisted of counseling me that penicillin was less invasive than bullets; with that in mind, I should find recreation in more traditional places." He picked up his vodka glass, rolled it between his fingers, frowning. "Was it very bad? If they were seriously disturbed by your behavior, I would have expected examination to go on longer than three days."

"I didn't enjoy it, mostly because of the expression in our Chief of Staff's eyes. He made it clear he thought I had let the side down, that I was just another ditzy woman whose hormones would always override her professionalism. I wanted to kill all of them, but I knew my continued career depended on my conduct, my answers, my self-control."

They had asked her, over and over: why Ivan Simanov? She had other opportunities, other choices available to her. This question had angered her the most, with the ever present memory of Lamb's don't fuck Russians in the background.

"Then you got back into the field often enough to visit Grand Fenwick twice a year." It would be a while before she was going to let that go. "How do you think I feel, knowing my own family deliberately hid something from me for that long?" Because Dulcinea and Hero were family. Joe was family. Frank and Marvin were almost family, although they were more like unbalanced step-family . . .

"There was no reason you should know, and many why you should not. They were my friends, too. I ran into Joe, passing through Jerusalem in the early 80s. We kept in touch afterwards. He said Six gave you a rough time, but you made them sit on shards of the glass ceiling whenever you could."

Victoria snorted with laughter. She could hear Joe making the comment, see the ghost of his dimple and slow smile. "I am a very goal-oriented person. I wanted to make them sit on something sharp and pointed much of the time." Whirling clouds of snow outside the windows gave Victoria the momentary fantasy she was sitting inside a snow globe, and someone had just given her a shake. "Still, when I look back at everything, there's more sense of accomplishment than frustration."

"I spent some time here in embassy in the late 90s. Joe was trying to be retired, although they kept calling him back. He helped me find the lodge, came often to fish with me, cared for property when I returned to Moscow for a few years. Then they gave me post of ambassador 2001, December."

"I had just retired." Victoria felt gears slipping, trying to click into synch. "I packed up and came over here in December. Things were tense between me and HQ, and I'd seen an advertisement in one of my magazines, "Enjoy a traditional New England Christmas." The concept of a "New England" fit my mood. When I wrote, and a man named Benjamin Winslow answered, it seemed like someone was trying to tell me something."

"So?" Ivan poured himself more vodka. Victoria held her hand over her glass and took another piece of orange. "You never went back to London."

"I stayed a week, then a month, then Benjamin proposed." At the time, it had seemed so natural for the tall, courtly-mannered man to kiss her with more affection than passion, and ask her to become his wife. "Before I answered him, I told him I cared for him a great deal, but it was his house, his life that I had fallen in love with."

"He accepted that."

"Oh, yes. He'd been married to his first wife for over 40 years. He was accustomed to the companionship of a woman, and missed it." Victoria stared into the blue gas flame. "Ben was 70 when we married. We had five comfortable, happy years together before he died. Since then I've been running the business." She didn't mention her field trips, when the perpetual peace and quiet got to be depressing.

"The world has changed very much. Who is one's friend, enemy or ally has changed; what our governments' goals are, these have changed -- to varying degrees."

"And how they achieve their goals; they have been very careful to make it look as if this has changed as well," Victoria said.

Necessary sacrifice my arse. You lot abandon people with no more thought than it takes to put out the rubbish. A bad moment in M's office sometime before Victoria's final mission. The woman's eyes had been as frosty as her predecessor's. A change in gender had not brought about much change in sensibility to the position.

"There was an incident, a year before I retired, during which I made observations about the effectiveness and philosophy of HQ that were not well received. A few weeks later Frank, Marvin, Joe and I, along with another operative from Six, were in the same place, at the same time, after nearly the same thing. Their mission had best outcome; ours got a few leftover bits. I was furious with them, furious with myself because I knew better, and let friendship slow me down. When we got back, HQ offered me tea and scones, then sent me for another physical and mental evaluation. I passed, but suggestions were made that it might be time to enjoy my reward, for years of service to my country. In a word, retire. My companion agent got assigned to a basement shredder. So -- some things remain the same. "

"And that is the reason you stopped speaking with Joe?"

"It was the reason I used." Victoria rubbed her forehead. "I knew I needed to retire, to change my life. I just didn't know how I was going to do that. And then -- America. I only phoned Joe to let him know I was getting married. He told me to be happy, but he couldn't imagine what I was choosing would be anything but a temporary vacation. I hung up on him. After I married Benjamin we didn't talk. I never knew he had cancer, never knew he had moved to a home. He could have come to Eagle's Nest."

"Ask yourself why that was not his choice." Ivan sighed, refilled their glasses. "He loved you as much as I. Although he maintained his relationship with you was always one of friend, never lover. I envied him that friendship over the years. In Chicago I asked you to tell me you loved me. I have never doubted the past tense of that statement. In a few minutes we have laid the frame of events that transpired over the course of 37 years. If the rest of the structure is to be built and finished, it will take more time."

"Ivan . . ."

He held up his hand. "We are no longer young people. Time has changed our bodies, enriched our knowledge and experience. I would like to spend the rest of my life getting to know you again. Before you comment, I would warn you that my Uncle Vladimir is still alive: he is 95, still drinks vodka and smokes three cigarettes a day. He fathered a son when he was 74. My family has good longevity genetics."

"If you want to father a child when you are 74, you'll need another woman." Once the decision to move was made, it was easy for her to leave the armchair, to take the vodka glass from his hand, to curl onto his lap. He clicked the recliner back so the footrest came up. His arms went around her, carefully.

"You are too thin. Ekaterina said you have lost weight in the last week. I can feel every one of your ribs poking me."

"Then it's a good thing you've added extra padding." Her cheek was against his shoulder, her fingers touched his jaw, the line of his beard, then rested on his chest. Her body adjusted to the shape of his. When the tension in her muscles relaxed into the warmth of his body, she closed her eyes. "I loved Joe. We did get to work together again; that was worth a lot. He was right about Eagle's Nest. It doesn't always work out, long term, when one turns a hobby into a way of life. Having just admitted that, when I tell you I think I would like to spend the rest of my life getting to know you, I'm concerned . . ."

"That you do not know yourself well enough right now to be in a relationship?" Ivan snorted. "You had more self-confidence at 22. My present life need not define you in any way. Would you consider making new choices with me, making a new life?"

"I don't want you to make the mistake I did. If don't want you to change your life --"

"It has been existence, more than life. Our little mission with Frank and Marvin, this is the most alive I have felt in a very long time. It has made me appreciate the importance of not wasting time merely existing." His hand moved, lightly stroking the curve of her wounded hip. "Between us there is a treasure trove of knowledge, experience and aptitude for our trade. What do we do with that aptitude -- bake biscuits and sign paperwork? Pah."

"We are also viewed as too old to be allowed to exercise our aptitudes," Victoria said. "What rocket scientist was it that decided Frank Moses was no longer useful to his country?"

"The most significant aspect of that situation is the reality: there is no one left to manage an agent like Moses. He is a sharp and deadly weapon. Most of his superiors are dull tools."

There was a short silence between them. Victoria felt his face moving against her hair.

"Agent Cooper has been to the Embassy twice. Ostensibly because I was an official guest at the Stanton fundraiser, and he wished to have my statement about what I observed. There have been a few changes in the personnel of some of your institutions. There were people who were not unaware of Stanton's affiliations, and Dunning's ultimate goal of owning an American president. There are people who would like to throw a parade for Frank Moses. However, as agent Cooper says, they are not the vocal majority in Washington."

"Ivan." Victoria's mind skipped ahead of his words. "Are you trying to seduce me, or recruit me for something?"

"I remember saying once that you were the best of us." His chest shook with laughter. "I remember being tied up, naked at the time. Is good memory."

"Answer the question."

"Agent Cooper may have a proposition to make to us, Frank and Marvin included. If we are interested, the question of what we might do with our lives together would have one answer. He will let me know after the New Year, after all the dominoes have fallen from the Stanton resignation."

"That answered the bit about recruiting. The question of seduction is still open." It was the vodka, but more than that it was the sound of his voice, the way her body felt at home inside his arms.

His fingers lifted her cheek from his chest. He rubbed his thumb across her bottom lip, then bent his head to kiss her, the softest grazing of lips against lips.

It was a sensation she hadn't felt in years, the immediate, involuntary reaction to a man's touch that ignited a slow burn through her body, all erogenous zones lighting up like the first moment after the switch is flipped on the Christmas tree at the National Mall. Her eyes opened wide. Watching the intensity of expression in his half-lidded eyes, Victoria shivered. Benjamin had been more interested in sleeping next to a woman than making love, although he had been willing to make the effort for her, even suggesting he try the little blue pills. Somehow he never had, and it wasn't until the second year into their marriage Victoria admitted to herself that while companionship was wonderful, she still needed more.

Ivan's eyes widened, then crinkled. "So. Your body has not changed, so much."

"I still enjoy sex." His eyes were so blue, so familiar. "Ivan -- the last time we were together. I have never let myself think too much about us, then. But I wasted that last night. I was so focused on the sex I lost sight of you. I have regretted that."

"Zaychik moy." He laughed, and the motion of his chest sent her bouncing on his lap. "No. Don't get up. I wish to hold you. That night is a very precious memory."

"Do you . . . can you . . . As you said, time has changed our bodies," she said in a rush, staring at his chin. "Does sex have a place in this relationship you are proposing?"

"I am still a man; you have much the same effect on me now, as you had then," Ivan said, and all the laughter was gone from his voice. "I see you, I want you. This body will be unfamiliar to you, but I am at ease in it. So, yes. I very much hope we will have sex, the rest of our lives."

"Okay then." Victoria heard the echo of Sarah's words in her own. She smiled, laying her cheek back on his shoulder. "Dulcinea would like us to visit her in January. Would that be possible for you?"

"Yes." His hand moved from her hip to stroke her thigh. "Then, perhaps, on to Moscow? Natasha has a new grandchild. I will not let her kill you."

Victoria slapped him lightly. "I won't let her kill me. Although she probably has every right to try."

"Past is past. And after Moscow?"

"We'll wait and see if Agent Cooper has something of value to offer. Then we can talk about it. I have to decide what to do with Eagle's Nest." Victoria rubbed a finger over her eyes quickly. "It's been 37 years, Ivan. How can you know . . ."

"What does your heart say?" Ivan's fingers found the spot on her chest that might have been over her heart, but was definitely over one breast.

"I love you." Victoria tangled her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck, pulled his head towards hers and kissed him. She heard the low rumble of sound in his throat when she finally backed off to catch her breath.

"Ekaterina says you are not to have strenuous sexual activity yet. The tissue needs more time to heal."

"You asked her?" Victoria laughed. "Of course you asked her."

Ivan rolled his eyes toward the ceiling in an attempt at innocent nonchalance. "Simply covering all eventualities. When I inquired what non-strenuous sexual activities were permitted, the length of her reply surprised me. But there is no rush."

"Maybe not for you." She slipped her legs past the footrest and stood, offering him her hand. "I've wanted to see your bedroom since I got here. Is that where all the books are?"

"Reassure me. You do not wish to see my bedroom to borrow a novel." Ivan took her hand as he kicked the footrest back into place. He pressed his lips to her palm.

"No. I'd like to get you naked, then see if we can work our way through Ekaterina's list of permitted activities. Any objections to that plan?" Her heart lifted into her throat when she heard the raw hunger in his quick, indrawn breath and saw desire in the widening of his eyes.

Dulcinea had always teased her about the amount of work she put into preparations for Christmas, especially after her first e-mailed pictures of what Eagle's Nest looked like on Christmas Eve. Marzipan gone berserk was the way Dulcy put it, A very Victoria Christmas. Now she stood in an undecorated apartment, no garland, no lights, no tree; no sugar cookies, eggnog, or marzipan. Yet the sense of hearth and home, plenty and peace she had always pursued with her elaborate preparations, but never quite captured, was more imminent, more real and effortless than she had ever imagined it could be.

"No objections." Ivan collected the vodka bottle, the glasses, the remaining orange and followed her to his bedroom.

She came without boxes, ribbons and bows. After 13,505 days (the space between one kiss and the next), Victoria, then Ivan, came, all the same. Christmas morning, December 25, 2009.