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I Will Wait

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Gaby likes being tall.

It’s subtle. At first Illya barely notices it.

It’s the clothes she wears: the short skirts and dresses, that make her legs seem longer; the high heels and platform shoes. Even her hair likes volume, the beehives and chignons deceptively extending her slender frame.

It’s the way she maneuvers all three of them, so she’s always the one standing on highest ground, be it a fountain ledge, a street curb, the first few steps of a staircase, or better yet – an escalator. She gravitates towards high bar stools she can gingerly jump up on, while Illya and Napoleon are somehow left standing beside her. She hovers next to low coffee tables, as if the very fact that she’s standing next to them is enough to make her taller, without her having to actually climb up on them. Which she also has a tendency to do, though rarely outside the comfort of their own hotel room.

When she’s out in public, she’s almost regal - her back stiff and straight like a board, her head held high, steady gaze calmly overseeing the peasants below, even when she’s simply sitting on the subway.

When they’re alone, down for the night, the regalness melts away – with them she doesn’t have to pretend, at least not anymore. Her movements are less controlled, more fluid, occasionally punctuated by jaunty outbursts, for instance when she’s having a heated discussion with Cowboy over what kind of cheese goes better with the wine he’d picked out. But even then, she still sits the same - her head high, almost pulling at her spine, tautening it, till Illya can almost hear it hum like a strummed baseline. She even sits on her legs sometimes, folding them under, giving herself those few extra inches.

It’s fairly inconspicuous at first, but after a while, Illya notices. He’s been trained to see patterns and as soon as one emerges, he’s drawn to it, however unconsciously. In this case, however, it is conscious. Nowadays, anything concerning Gaby seems to be the focal point of Illya’s attention.

He’s schooled his mind into making room for Gaby, into constantly taking notice of the little chop-shop girl. He’s carved out a space for her amid hand-to-hand combat, lock-picking, high-speed pursuits, and doing all the other things a spy is required to do for a living, including pretending to be someone he’s not.

He’s always known how to compartmentalize – even if his violent outbursts prove time and time again that the lid he keeps on things could use being a little tighter – but this is different. His work for U.N.C.L.E., his spy training, they’re not separate from Gaby. They can’t be, not with them working together. Therefore, Gaby and spying aren’t separate boxes in Illya’s brain. Gaby is more like a photographic slide, one of those his mother used to show him: hand-painted storybook characters overtaking their apartment wall, turning it into a magical fairyland, even though you could still see the peeling paint peaking from beneath the colors.

That’s how Gaby is in his mind - colorful and vibrant, but transparent; not eclipsing everything he thinks and does, but overlaying it, blanketing it.

It doesn’t interfere with his work. Mostly because he doesn’t let it. On the contrary - sometimes, Gaby’s ever-presence in his mind can bring certain things into focus; things he wouldn’t notice otherwise. She’s not a hindrance - she’s an aid. She doesn’t take away from his life and his work - she adds to it. She’s a bonus; a much needed spice to vary the surprisingly bland, often repetitive palate of spy-work minutia. She’s a necessary detail, one Illya didn’t even realize he was missing until it was there, right in front of his face - obscuring everything else at first, then slowly bringing it all back into focus.

Honestly, sometimes it scares him. The thought of losing Gaby, of losing that focus… of feeling pain, precisely because, having once experienced that focus, its lack would be that much more noticeable… It’s unthinkable. So he tries not to think about it. That he does compartmentalize.

He can’t really tell if it was his choice to give her that space in his consciousness, or if she slowly made it for herself, like a cat pawing gently but stubbornly at a pillow, until it fit just right. Nevertheless, she’s there, always – in his thoughts, in his plans, in his field of vision. And being that aware of her means that sooner or later he had to notice her penchant for being tall.

There is another reason, why it takes him so long to realize what’s going on: Gaby is the only person Illya knows, who can stare you down, while looking up at you. Napoleon has a similar way of eyeing people, but with him it’s more of an exasperated sneer – he’s not so much staring you down, as mocking you, challenging you to rise (or sometimes stoop) to his level. When Gaby does it, there’s no humor in it. She’s the epitome of calm, collected, compacted fury. You did something wrong, therefore you will get stared down. No discussion, no compassion, no excuses.

The problem is, Gaby uses that stare too often. She’s not humorless – that’s not the problem. Sometimes she’s simply… too impatient with people. The irony of that is not lost on Illya. His angry stares, along with his propensity for violence, have gotten him into their own fair share of troubles over the years. But with Gaby it’s different.

It’s not that a lady should be lenient and forgiving. First off, Illya prefers a no-bullshit approach and if he’s done something wrong, he’d rather hear about it immediately, than be placated by It’s-fine’s and You-didn’t-mean-to’s. It’s a matter of respecting the other person’s intelligence, as well as their time. God knows, how many hours and days can be wasted by tiptoeing around each other, trying to walk on eggshells, skirting around a sore topic, instead of dealing with it head-on.

Thankfully, that’s something all three of them have in common – a tendency, no, a need, to not beat around the bush, to get right to the point, at least when it comes to important issues. Of course Napoleon, the rotten bastard that he is, revels in innuendos and half-spoken truths, but it’s something Illya has gotten used to. It’s a game, and the more time they spend together, the more adept he gets at it – at bouncing the proverbial ball back into Solo’s court – and the more he enjoys it. But that’s just mindless, playful banter, something to distract them from the gravity and the seriousness of what they do, day-to-day. When it comes to crucial things, like dealing with the mission at hand, Cowboy is as frank as they come.

Second of all, Illya would never presume what a woman should or shouldn’t do. He may have his own personal preferences, and he may often express them, but ultimately, he’s adamant on letting people be who they want to be.

Maybe it stems from being forced to fit the imposed mold of a cold-blooded Russian spy, a no-questions-asked killing machine, designed and controlled by the KGB.

Maybe it’s the echo of his mother’s voice, warm, yet strong, her independent character shining through every word: “Prislushivaysya k svoyemu serdtsu”.

And Illya tries. He tries to listen to his heart and do what it tells him to do, even though the years spent in the Special Forces and the KGB taught him to ignore that particular organ, to disconnect from it.

Gaby’s temper is not a matter of un-ladylike behavior. So much so, that it has nothing to do with her being a woman. though all things considered, Illya very much appreciates how Gaby looks when she’s angry – her eyes get darker, her cheeks are slightly flushed, and she tends to jut her chin out slightly, as if challenging you to prove her wrong. She’s the vision of sternness, a small, compact goddess of fury; for some reason that stirs something deep within Illya. Perhaps, if he were more inclined towards soul-searching, he might wonder, why that is.

But navel-gazing is not the Russian way, and so he never questions it.

The reason Gaby’s quickness to anger concerns him is, in a way, a reflection of his own shortcomings. Even though they react to unnerving stimuli differently – he with physical aggression, she by withdrawing from the world, scowling, silently drinking the night away, or doing anything else, that Gaby’s prone to do when she’s upset – Illya theorizes their reactions have a common source. He doesn’t consciously pick apart his reasoning as to why their feelings might be comparable, but it’s something he’s convinced of, nonetheless. It’s something to do with being controlled, being under someone’s thumb; being under the influence and ever-watchful eye of your country’s government. It’s about having to live with constant humiliation and judgement; of never being anything more or anything less than what everyone else is thinking of you.

The odd thing is it’s something all three of them have in common, even if Gaby is the one he gravitates to more.

They all share that anger:

The smart-mouthed German tomboy with scraped knees, greased palms and a dream of a better place, somewhere beyond the confines of the Iron Curtain.

The heartbroken, battle-hardened Russian giant, eyes cold and piercing like daggers, full of betrayal and hurt, and unbridled anger at the country that uses him to do its dirty work; the country that hasn’t felt like home in years.

The disenchanted American bon vivant turned soldier, turned conman and gentleman-thief, resenting his own country not only for keeping him on a leash, but for making him a part of a war he never wanted or intended to fight.

All of them resent where they come from and where they’re being forced to go; they all don’t have a place to call home. Is it then so strange that after they’ve found each other - by luck, fate or simple happenstance - the German tomboy, the Russian giant and the American soldier gravitate to one another? That in their own broken sort of way, they make each other their home?

...Illya doesn't think so. He acknowledges and accepts that anger they have in common. They just deal with it differently.

He deals with anger by withdrawing into himself and playing chess; either that or he explodes and starts punching people in the face or obliterating hotel furniture. Solo can’t take anything seriously, charming women like it’s an Olympic sport, schmoozing through life without making attachments to places or people, only to pretty things. And Gaby…

Well, Gaby has a million and one ways of dealing with her anger. But Illya feels that while his and Cowboy’s methods of dealing – or not dealing – with their issues aren’t healthiest, they seem to be working. They’re able to let go of their anger bit by bit, gradually weeding it out. With Gaby, the anger never thins out, never fully disappears.

Napoleon quips sometimes – usually when it’s just the two of them, sitting on a stake-out or on the hotel room balcony, recovering from Gaby’s grating stares, their egos rubbed raw - that it has to do with their height.

“With you and me, Peril, it spreads out evenly,” the American says, his grin self-assured, even though he’s really not. “The anger. It has more space to spread out. Gaby’s small, so her anger has nowhere to go. She stews in it.”

Illya would very much like to dismiss that remark, but even the smug Cowboy is occasionally right; this just might be one of those occasions. And even though it’s not an immediate correlation, Illya subconsciously knows that Gaby’s need for being tall, for being able to stare someone down, stems explicitly from that anger.

Though it’s taken him a while to notice this, it also explains other patterns in Gaby’s behavior – the ones Illya’s already managed to glean during their time together.

Gaby doesn’t like being talked down to or coddled. If she wants human interaction – someone to talk to, someone to drink with, even someone to hug, however rare an occurrence that may be – she’ll ask for it; demand it, even. But pity on anyone who tries to invade her personal space without her consent. Not because she can break your arm, which is true nevertheless, but because Gaby turning a cold shoulder can hurt more than any broken arm. Her face shutting down, demeanor turning frigid… it’s like a force of nature – swift, devastating and not something to be trifled with.

Perhaps, Illya is the only one who feels this way. But if Napoleon’s thinly-veiled reverence towards the little chop-shop girl is any indication, they both prefer to be on her good side.

Truth be told in the time they’ve know each other, there has only been a handful of times, when Illya had felt that touching Gaby was permitted. That time after their fight in Rome didn't count - he couldn't hold Gaby accountable for what she did while she was barely conscious, already half-asleep. As for later, after the Vinciguerra mission, when he pulled her out of the overturned car - that was the only time he truly felt she let him touch her. She gave into the embrace not only because she was injured and barely in control of her faculties, but because she needed Illya.

Later, when they waited for Waverly, the situation had already shifted – even though she was in his arms just moments ago, now she was withdrawn again, acknowledging the hand he gently placed on her shoulder, but not turning into him for comfort or support, as he would’ve thought she would. Later still, when they devised their plan to take down Victoria, Illya resigned himself to following in Gaby’s wake, shadowing her footsteps. That seemed to satisfy them both – he felt he was there for her, if she needed him, and she felt the comfort of knowing he was there, without him crowding her cherished personal space.

It took a while for them to find their rhythm. So many times before, Illya had placed a hand at the small of her back, showing her the way, not realizing that she tensed up not because he intimidated her, but because she hated being manhandled. So many times he’d caressed her hand or leaned in for a kiss, only to realize that even though she responded to his hesitant advances, there was always some reservedness. For weeks he didn’t understand why this was.

He later realized, it was never about the touch itself. After all they constantly came into contact with each other on missions and that had never been an issue. But that was acting, pretending to be something they weren’t: a newlywed couple, business partners, cousins backpacking together through Europe... He does however figure it out, eventually: it's the intent behind the touch that Gaby reacts to, not the touch itself.

Having been brought up in a rough environment, Illya’s not one to show affection that often. Still, there is an ember of warmth in him - cultivated by his parents first, then harshly stamped out during his training, then reignited again by a change meeting with an American soldier and a German chop-shop girl - two of the most unlikely people on earth Illya could've found a mutual connection with. And yet they've become more important to him than anything in this world. And so that ember is precious to him. He feels the need to fan it, to not let it die again.

But it’s not easy. Affection with Napoleon comes down to calling each other Cowboy and Peril, snarky banter and the steadfast knowledge that they’d sacrifice their lives for each other. With Gaby… it’s a constant push-pull of what Illya wants and what Gaby is graciously willing to give. Truth be told, Illya savors it, relishing in the fact that he has to fight for it, because nothing in his life ever came easy, and so he knows nothing but struggle.

And yet… there are those times when he wishes he could just hug her or trace her cheekbone with his fingers and know she would melt into his touch; give him some indication that she wants this as much as he does.

But to Gaby softness or tenderness... those seem like signs of weakness. Not in others, but in her, particularly. She can’t allow herself to be soft, because she’s already small. She can’t let herself be tender, because then she can’t be angry. And anger, as Illya has finally figured out, is her shield.

It explains why she wants to be tall, why she wants to stare people down; why she wants to dominate the world around her, including Illya – whether it’s by trying to make him dance when he doesn’t feel like it, or by wrestling him to the ground, even though he could put her over his knee and snap her like a twig. The fact that he could do it is precisely the reason why she does it – to prove that she can stand her ground, she can fight her own battles, and she doesn’t need anyone’s protection or consideration.

Her independence is vicious. And Illya can’t help but respect that.

But the main reason it takes so long to notice Gaby’s affinity towards being tall and all the psychological baggage this entails is because Gaby, above all else, is unpredictable. She has certain character traits that guide her decisions, certain likes and dislikes that govern her moods. But when it comes to her behavior and the inner-workings of her brain, one can never be sure of anything. To Illya’s mind, trained in seeing patterns, she’s a constant challenge – a puzzle he can’t help but want to solve.

So it’s her unpredictability that makes it hard for him to notice certain things. But when he finally does, he never forgets them - they are important precisely because Gaby is so irregular and in-flux. So when Illya pinpoints something repetitive in Gaby’s behavior, no matter how small it may be, he makes a note of it. And he acts accordingly, even if he does it seemingly on instinct.

It starts off small, with Illya calmly withstanding her deathly stares. He no longer retreats, flustered and ashamed, like a chastised schoolboy; he stays put, unwavering - a fixed point for Gaby to focus her anger on.

Napoleon has learnt to stay out of their way, promptly ignoring Gaby and Illya whenever they’re locked in a stare-off, her dark eyes barely containing her disapproval and frustration, his baby-blues staring back at her calmly, almost serenely.

To Illya’s surprise, Cowboy tries that once - he stares back at Gaby in what is, in his mind, a calm, collected manner. The two men quickly find out that according to Gaby, Napoleon is incapable of looking at people with anything but mockery, however affectionate or good-natured it may be. And Gaby?... Gaby does not react well to mockery, good-natured or otherwise.

Weeks later, when Napoleon asks him if becoming an anchor for Gaby’s anger was a conscious choice, Illya shrugs, once again proving to be a man of few words. At that, the American huffs in annoyance. Whether he’s taking offense in not being deemed a worthy confidant or whether the offense is in Illya’s usual glibness is anyone’s guess. Napoleon, with his sharp tongue and even sharper wit, likes to hone his oratory talents, so Illya’s noncommittal shrugs really grate on him. It’s one of the reasons Napoleon likes to rile him up – he prefers his Russian comrade chatty, however condescending or scathing his words may be.

Truth be told, Illya wouldn’t have been able to answer him, even if he wanted to.

It’s true – he’s become more immune to Gaby’s various outbursts. But it’s not like he planned it. He’s still not entirely sure if it was a choice, a subconscious defense mechanism or just a habit he developed over time. On the surface, he simply thinks that not reacting to her glares and icy behavior is easier than turning it into a big deal every time it happens.

However, there might be some truth to the idea that the change in Illya’s behavior isn’t entirely subconscious. Be that as it may, calmly confronting Gaby’s many-faceted anger isn’t meant to wear her down or wear her out. It’s also not meant to unnerve her, although the longer they continue their work for U.N.C.L.E., the more that seems to be her reaction. After all, she’s used to getting a response out of people - pushing their buttons until they react, be it verbally or physically. Illya has already experienced the latter in Rome and the outcome was… definitely interesting. As for the former… well, Napoleon may have the sharpest tongue of them all, but Gaby’s cuts deeper.

It’s not that she revels in hurting and confusing people with her behavior. But when Gaby elicits any sort of reaction out of them, it proves to her that they’re not as perfect as they’d like to seem; she gets to retreat behind her shield of anger, having established once more that the world is a cruel place, filled with hurt and disappointment.

It’s no surprise that with all that complexity, it takes a while for Illya to see Gaby’s pattern. But when he does, he knows what to do, and so he becomes the most patient man on earth.

But stoicism isn’t the only way in which Illya begins to slowly chip away at Gaby’s defenses. With time, patience and a bit of practice, the Russian perfects what Napoleon calls “the unobtrusive hover”: whenever they go out together, Illya is always acutely aware of Gaby’s movements. He doesn’t shadow her steps, like on the aircraft carrier – too many times did Gaby turn around unexpectedly, only to walk straight into Illya’s tall, immovable frame. It’s more the little things: knowing the difference between being polite and offering a helpful hand while she’s getting out of the car, and brusquely lifting her onto the back of a horse, because she’s taking too long climbing onto it on her own and the perpetrator is getting away; it’s Illya semi-consciously adjusting his long, lanky strides to fit more in-step with Gaby, whenever they’re walking side by side; it’s the way he always lets her take the high ground, both figuratively and literally – letting her stand those two-three steps higher on the escalator, never closing that distance. Calmly staring back, when she looks down on him, an indescribable glint in her eyes.

Illya wants to show her – and possibly himself as well – that strength doesn’t have to come from anger; that there is strength in quiet tenderness.

Contrary to what Cowboy mockingly suggests on more than one occasion, it’s not about being Gaby’s punching bag (although he does enjoy their sporadic sparring sessions). It’s also not about turning the other cheek - he’d already tried to learn that lesson and for obvious reasons it didn’t stick.

To Illya, it’s about realizing what the other person needs, even when they don’t realize it themselves.

It takes him a while, but he finally figures it out.

The little chop-shop girl's angry glares and aloofness and curt words aren't pushing him away. Not really.

In her own weird, broken sort of way she’s giving him space; allowing him to make his own decision on whether he wants to be with her, or simply leave her be. Or maybe even leave her altogether.

And the reason she’s angry, the reason her quiet anger seems to grow every day, the reason it seems to concentrate on Ilya?... she’s afraid he will leave.

So instead, he stays by her. Always. Quiet, unthreatening, ever-present.

Instead, Illya is simply there.

He’s patient. He can wait.

******


It’s fairly inconspicuous at first, but after a while, Gaby notices. She may not be as observant as Napoleon or Illya, but she’s training to be a spy; she's schooling her mind in seeing patterns where one wouldn’t think to see them.

She notices it, as so many other things about the men in her life, through contrast. Illya and Napoleon gel well together and have more in common than both of them care to realize, but to Gaby they are like night and day.

Even though he’s the shorter of the two, Napoleon is the one who’s kind of overwhelming, like shadows creeping in after the sun has set. He’s dark and heady and rich, like a humid, summery evening. He’s not oppressive – he’s warm and balmy, soothing even, his quips and jokes sparkling occasionally like a flash of a shooting star.

Gaby likes Napoleon. They respect each other, even if they do butt heads sometimes.

Illya, on the other hand, with his straw-blond hair and sky-blue eyes, is like a crisp winter day - seemingly cold and distant, but breathtakingly beautiful. What's more, there’s a hint of something lurking beneath that surface, of inner-workings hidden from the world under the cover of snow, so eye-piercingly white, it forces you to look away. And yet Gaby can sense everything that’s happening beneath that cold facade – the heart that beats strong and fast in his chest, the hot blood that courses through him, the thoughts and feelings that govern him. She can sense the dormant seeds of something more, buried within his heart, waiting for a ray of warmth to bud; to bloom.

She knows she is the source of that warmth. She can feel it in the way he follows her with his eyes, like a sunflower following the sun.

And she wants to give him that warmth. But she’s scared. And that makes her feel weak. And that, in turn, makes her feel angry.

So she lashes out. She glares, taunts and pushes, trying to prepare herself for the inevitable disappointment.

Only that never comes. Instead, Illya’s simply there.

However, he’s not there the same way as Napoleon.

Since they've started working together, they’ve learned to rely on one another, and Gaby knows both men would take a bullet for her. She knows she has their constant, although sometimes begrudging support; and that in itself means more to her than she could ever be able to express.

The contrast between their presence in her life is how she finally notices Illya’s pattern.

Even though the Russian has a sway over her heart, it’s Napoleon who is, in a way, her kin spirit. He too likes pushing people’s buttons, experiencing firsthand what makes them tick. It's doesn't matter to Napoleon, what gets thrown back in his face - a witty comeback or an offended right-hook. He likes knowing people; he likes solving them.

And even though he knows how much Gaby hates it, sometimes he likes to push her buttons as well. It’s never malicious, but her patience still tends to wear thin, and so she’s always aware of Napoleon – his movements, his words, their hidden meaning… It’s the same way that cat owners are, somehow, always aware of their pets: they can tell just by their walk or look, what kind of mood they’re in; they can sense by the noise they make whether they’re innocently playing with a roll of toilet paper, or tearing a silk scarf to shreds.

Another thing that likens Napoleon to a cat is that he doesn’t come when you want him to.

True, the American is light-spirited and fairly easy to please – even with his fancy taste in cuisine and expensive wines - and he’s always down for some fun. Therefore, when Napoleon Solo wishes to dance the night away or go skinny-dipping in the turquoise waters of the French Riviera, the world must bend to his whim, and Illya and Gaby with it.

Truth be told, Gaby does it gladly, having found Napoleon’s antics to be a splendid source of entertainment. Obviously, Illya isn’t as enthusiastic about their exotic excursions, but Gaby’s seen him hide a smile on more than one occasion, so she knows he’s secretly enjoying himself. It never hurts to have the tall, angry Russian loosen up a bit more.

And so, when the mood strikes him, Napoleon is a delight to be around. But woe on anyone who wants to force him to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Gaby knows he’s had enough of being under someone’s shoe, same as she and Illya. Fortunately, with the work Waverly gives them, all three of them have quite the free range – as long as the mission is accomplished and nothing explodes in the process, they can very much do as they please. Truth be told, sometimes things do explode and Waverly still waves it off. Gaby sometimes wonders, if perhaps their boss made a deal with the Devil. How else does he manage to explain and excuse their various missteps and near-misses?

The fact is, Napoleon has had enough people exerting control over him, and now that he has some freedom, he’s not quick to give it up. Therefore, in true cat-like manner, he simply ignores any request that isn’t to his liking. Either that or he does it very begrudgingly, complaining the entire time. Naturally, Gaby’s developed a habit of teasing him mercilessly whenever this happens. Judging by Illya’s barely contained smirks, he too enjoys these moments immensely.

All things considered, Gaby truly likes Napoleon, even with all his faults.

But if the American is like a cat, then Illya - to use the same boring analogy, which Gaby wholeheartedly despises, even though it fits like a glove… Illya is like a dog.

Loyal, almost to a fault. Steadfast. And acutely in-tune with his master’s wishes.

This, unfortunately, presents a problem, because Gaby hates the idea of being someone’s master; of being in control of someone, even unconsciously. And so she pushes him away, trying to give him space, so he can make up his own mind.

However, with time, she learns to notice Illya’s new pattern of behavior. What’s more: she learns to rely on it.

Unconsciously, she starts assuming Illya will be by her side, whenever she needs him; that all she has to do is turn around, and he’ll be there. Not because she’s making him, or forcing him to, but because he wants to, of his own accord. And when she turns around, ten times out of ten, he’s there.

She notices it, because in contrast to Illya’s constant awareness of her, Napoleon pays her no mind. He doesn’t ignore her, per se, but they learned to stay out of each other’s way pretty early on. She may not like the way Napoleon manhandles her sometimes or subtly enforces his dominance, but she’s learned to accept it. Mostly because it’s never ill-intended. No matter what anyone might think, Napoleon Solo doesn’t have a vicious bone in his body.

It's subtle, but Gaby’s learning to see Illya’s pattern, to notice the little things he does.

What’s more, she’s learning to need them.

That makes her angry. And anger makes her impatient.

Soon, she won’t be able to wait.

******


It’s tenuous at first, but after a while, Napoleon notices.

The fact is, he might be the first one, who does. Not because he’s particularly good with patterns, but because in the matters of the heart, he’s a bit more experienced than his European friends.

Over countless months, he watches Illya and Gaby’s strange courtship with a sort of morbid fascination. As if, instead of it being an age-old struggle of two people, who don’t know how to confront their feelings, it were a dangerous, life-threatening circus trick, that at any moment might end in tragedy.

…after a thought, that last part could still be true.

But he doesn’t interfere, though sometimes he wants to. Badly. Because at times, it’s like watching a trainwreck in slow-motion; other times, it’s like accidentally biting into a pepper grain when enjoying a delicious meal. To be fair, all in all, he can’t complain – their working relationship functions like a well-oiled machine. It’s the rest of their time together that can be a hassle. Truthfully, Napoleon is baffled by how two people can work so well together in the field, and be so thick-skulled when it comes to their personal lives.

But he doesn’t breathe a word about it. At least none that aren’t mocking, meant to be easily ignored by all; just one of Cowboy’s many off-the-cuff, light-hearted, meaningless quips.

It’s not obvious, because Napoleon has a habit of turning everything into a joke, but he’s enjoyed watching how the relationship between the three of them has developed over the weeks and months they’ve been working together.

At first their friendship was tenuous, a bit strained; not forced or uncomfortable, just… requiring constant effort, on all parts. But as time went on, it became easier, soon turning habitual, instinctual even.

He recalls the moment when things changed between him and Peril; the moment he tossed the watch Illya so treasured, it having belonged to his grandfather. That was the moment their relationship went from actually butting heads to simply battling tongues. Obviously, they’d bantered before, but now it had become their “thing” - a way to show affection without having to say the actual words. It was the moment they went from coworkers to friends.

It isn’t as easy with Gaby. She quickly believes in Illya’s forgiveness for the ruse she played on them. But for some reason, it takes her much longer to trust in the fact that Napoleon doesn’t begrudge her either.

“It only proves how good you are at what you do,” Napoleon points out, gently placing his hand on her slim shoulder. He’s noticed she doesn’t always like to be touched, so his gesture is slow, controlled, giving her enough time to back away, if she so wishes. But Gaby doesn’t move, eyes trained on his. “It’s okay. Honest,” he adds, expression turning serious to accentuate his words.

At this Gaby, who had remained composed thus far, cracks a smirk. It’s small, but it’s there. “I didn’t think you were capable of honesty,” she quips.

Naturally, it takes more than a small moment like that to break the ice between them. But it’s a step in the right direction and soon, Napoleon falls into a habit of verbally sparing with Gaby as well as with Illya.

It’s more sharp with her, more poignant - with Peril, it’s about affection and delicately poking fun at each other’s various quirks. With Gaby, there’s a seriousness behind it, a real need to get to the bottom of things, to uncover the truth. Considering that humor is one of Napoleon’s defense mechanisms, Gaby’s tendency to hit the nail on the head, even when joking, presents an interesting challenge; it’s up to Napoleon to banter with her in a way that’s satisfying for the both of them, but doesn’t reveal too much about him in the process. It’s exhilarating and Napoleon enjoys every moment of it.

Matter of fact, he enjoys all their talks, not just the witty banter. Gaby is a fascinating creature – intelligent and observant, with an inquisitive mind and a sarcastic sense of humor. She can be a bit snappy at times, but it’s nothing Napoleon can’t handle; after all, she has her reasons to be a bit high-strung.

And then there’s Illya, who even when he doesn’t speak much, speaks volumes. What’s more, with time Napoleon finds out that Peril’s sense of humor rivals both Gaby’s and his own; it’s dry and succinct, yet always leagues above anything Napoleon himself could come up with. Maybe it’s the delivery that makes it funnier. Or the thick Russian accent. Either way, when push comes to shove, Illya is the one who cracks them up the most.

Considering all this, if anyone ever asked: “What’s the best part of your job?”, Napoleon would answer in a heartbeat. But he’s never had to answer that question. Probably because there are only two people, who would even think to ask it – and they don’t need to, because they already know the answer.

Nevertheless there are those moments, when even with all their mutual understanding, some things just get lost in translation: a misinterpreted word, a strange glance, an ill-intended joke… Sometimes, no matter how hard they try for the picture to be clear, there’s static.

Napoleon wishes he had a better way of dealing with it; of cutting through that fuzz and saying what he really means, even if what he means is a simple “I’m sorry”. But it’s never easy. Partly because Gaby and Illya aren’t necessarily the easiest people to be around. But mostly it’s because he can’t change who he is – it’s a bit too late for that. And who he is… well, he’s sort of an asshole sometimes. A lovable one, but still an asshole.

Hence there are those moments, when someone says or does something, and Napoleon goes and makes it worse by turning it into a joke.

“If all you do is in jest, how are we to know when you are being honest?” Illya asks him one night over the sound of a slamming door. They both wince in the direction of Gaby’s bedroom.

All it takes is a bit too much alcohol, one snarky remark too many, and Napoleon receives one of her patent “how dare you?” stares. She rises from the couch, slow and deliberate, and calmly walks to her room. The slam of the door is the only sign of how furious she is. The fact that Napoleon shouted his usual quip after her - “Don’t be so serious!” – probably didn’t help.

That night, he’s too drunk to explain to Illya, that 75% of what people say when they’re joking is actually truth, thinly veiled in humor to lessen the sting of honesty.

He knows both Illya and Gaby will see that pattern. Eventually. So for now, he doesn’t explain.

He simply watches. And waits.

*****


It happens on a random day, insignificant like any other.

They’re riding the escalator from the platform of Rustaveli station, slowly emerging from the depths of the Tbilisi subway system. As usual, Gaby climbs the escalator first, standing two steps above Illya, with Napoleon bringing up the rear, leaning a bit sideways, his elbow propped up on the handrail. His eyes are trailing the second escalator, moving parallel to theirs; there are definitely some flirty glances exchanged with the petite redhead that stands a few steps below his position.

The redhead is why Napoleon doesn’t even notice when The Wait – their collective, nerve-racking wait – is over. Then again, it’s not his fault. It’s just a day, insignificant like any other. And only two people notice how much has changed.

When Gaby turns around to look down on him, Illya steels himself to withstand her glare. He has no idea what he might have done this time to deserve it, but honestly, he doesn’t really care. With Gaby, it might not be related at all to anything he did or didn’t do. That’s just how she is - anger is her outlet. He understands and accepts that, so he allows her to let it out. Calmly looking into her eyes, he’s simply there for her, radiating forbearance.

When Gaby smiles the smallest of smiles and steps down a step, Illya forgets to breathe. Their heads are level now, and Illya can’t help but blink in surprise, because Gaby’s no longer trying to be tall; her eyes aren’t clouded by anger or reproach. They’re… warm.

It’s like looking into the sun.

*****


“You waited,” Gaby says, that ghost of a smile still tugging at her lips.

It isn’t a question, but Illya feels the need to answer it anyway.

Da.

“… thank you.”

*****


This time, when Illya traces her cheekbone with his fingers, Gaby melts into his touch.

*****


They kiss in front of the entrance to Rustaveli station, the winter sun shining down on them, the smell of early spring in the air. It’s not their first kiss, not by a longshot. But in hindsight it’s the one that matters most.

Napoleon watches them with a pleased grin, self-satisfied like a cat that drank an entire bowl of cream. In his mind, he had a hand in this day.

“Finally!” He exclaims, his voice dripping with humor. This time, Illya and Gaby know he’s being honest. And they grin back at him, both beaming like the sun.

They don’t wait for a taxi. They slowly saunter through the icy, golden streets of Tbilisi, Napoleon and Illya walking side by side, exchanging knowing glances. Gaby, for once not trying to be tall and regal, is gently nestled under Illya’s arm, his lanky legs keeping in-stride with her small steps, Napoleon instinctively adjusting his pace to fit theirs.

They’re not in any hurry, at least not right now. They have all the time in the world.

And the world can wait.