She is given a fox mask, black velvet and lace that pinches the bridge of her nose and veils the fragile skin and bones of her temples. It ties above the line of her elaborate chignon with a black ribbon, and Gaby lets the loose ends fall across her shoulders. Her field of vision contracted, she has to tilt her head to look directly at the porter who scrutinises her invitation, a gilded waste of fine paper, forged expertly by Solo’s deft hand. Even years of grease and motor oil, even an adoptive family, could not make her forget the grace of her mother’s ramrod-straight back when she entertained guests at dinner parties, or her father’s quiet dignity, before everything. Race horses, Rudi called their bloodline. Take the girl out of the breeding pool, but you can’t take the breeding out of the girl. The mannerisms of privilege cling, Gaby thinks, in the same way that excrement does. She tilts her head to look at the porter directly. She smiles, coy but just the right degree of arrogant.
Up until that moment, the moment she received a velvet and lace mask in the shape of a stylised fox’s head, Gaby had not known what kind of party this would be. Private, yes. Exclusive, yes. Rich in gilt and baroque artifice: apparently, also, yes.
‘Good evening, Mrs Fitzgerald,’ says the porter, finally, having deemed her invitation authentic — or simply just shiny — enough. ‘Your husband has already arrived. Shall I take you to him?’
‘That won’t be necessary. I’m sure he can look after himself.’
There is a soft huff of breath, almost a laugh, that only Gaby can hear. She smiles, again, and makes no move to adjust the small microphone set in her right ear, concealed by the fall of her hair. She is wired in the most literal sense, each gesture either recorded or impeded. The tracking gear’s bulk is small, inconspicuous, but Gaby is made constantly aware of its presence if only by Illya’s intimately quiet voice in her ear. She smiles past the porter, walking with her chin held high but not too high, corners of her lips lifted as if held on strings. One day, she might not need to fake dignity. Until then, she will settle for being a good liar.
The ballroom is cavernous, frescoed ceiling illuminated only by borrowed second-hand light. Four chandeliers are hung low enough that they halfway reach the people milling on the floor. Were they to fall, Gaby imagines no one would make it out of here alive. Everything — decor to guests to the delicate drink trays — is drenched in varying shades of black and gold. Diamonds catch and reflect pearls and sequins. For the first time since she left the hotel Gaby does not feel overdressed, like a china doll to be put on display, voiceless.
Everyone, including the unobtrusive waiting staff, has a mask. Not all are monochrome and sleek, like hers. There is quite a lot of gilt, too, some distinctly Venetian colours and textures.
Gaby slides into the wave of faceless bodies, immediately set adrift among laughter, the clink of champagne and whisky glasses, wandering hands and hot breath. But she is not here to get lost; she is not here to suffer strange hands and sticky breath. It would be too much to expect the crowd to part for her. Gaby doesn’t command that kind of attention, neither by nature nor nurture, and is glad for it. She moves among the guests with an unassuming ease of someone who belongs, a woman who is noticed and seen but leaves little by way of an impression.
She does not have that kind of predatory charisma, cannot make the world tilt on its axis, avid and supplicant on eager knees. She does not need to. She has someone to do it for her, after all.
Solo commands attention in the same way a forest fire might. He could be the ragged edge of the Nike of Samothrace’s bloodless, mutilated neck. It takes bare minutes for Gaby to find him in the crowd; the room seems to curve, fisheye, to accommodate his presence and all of its demands. The people, too, seem bent at all the wrong angles to catch his voice when he speaks. In their masks of black and gold, gilt and satin, they look like nothing but a nightmarish Greek choir. Solo’s mask does not detract from his conspicuousness, and Gaby would know him by the slope of his back and the too-still fold of his arms across his chest.
His mask catches all the light in the room, reflecting it thrice over. It’s a cat, with mocking slanted eyes, though the shape is too laden with artifice for Gaby to tell whether it is meant to be simply a cat or something large and striped and languorously deadly.
He turns when Gaby drifts over, lips curling.
‘And here she is.’ He reaches for Gaby’s hand and pulls her closer, touch as intimate as Illya’s voice over the comms. Gaby lets herself lean against his side, soak in the performance of warmth and affection. She smiles at Solo’s newly met friends as he says, ‘Allow me to introduce Florence, my wife.’
Gaby inclines her head so that it rests in the vulnerable hollow between Solo’s collarbone and shoulder. ‘Darling,’ she says, smoothing her hand down the front of his tuxedo, ‘I have missed you.’
Someone titters, lace fan disturbing the thick perfumed air. Gaby lets her expression turn to one of cloying adoration. Florence Fitzgerald is desperately in love with her husband of two years; she still believes that he is faithful, of course, as any sheltered heiress would.
‘Oh, Mr Fitzgerald —’ one of the women in Solo’s company starts, a bird mask awash in long black feathers to match her long black hair.
‘Walter. You said your wife is beautiful —’ the raven gives Gaby a theatrical once-over, heavy-lidded eyes lingering on Gaby’s waist, higher ‘— but you didn’t say that she is a vision.’
Solo takes Gaby’s hand once more, and leans in slightly to kiss the tips of her fingers. It is not so much distracting as it is the blandest of lies, and Gaby wants to step on his foot, but instead only presses closer. He says, ‘Surely it would just spoil the effect, and give her no real justice regardless.’
‘My husband is a flatterer,’ says Gaby, in Florence Fitzgerald’s sweetly indulgent tone. ‘And so are you, it seems, Mrs…?’
‘Bloom. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you.’
‘Likewise, I’m sure. Now.’ Gaby stands on her tiptoes to place a kiss on the side of Solo’s neck, and refuses to stand back when he fixes her with the cat mask’s vacant stare. ‘Dance with me, before I find someone else to keep me entertained.’
They step away from Solo’s circle of admirers and move closer to the string quintet currently playing Dvořák. They, too, wear masks. Simple domino. This time the crowd parts for Gaby, held at bay by Solo’s hand where it rests across her lower back, the touch feather-light and electric at once, even through the fabric of her dress. She turns in his arms and waits for him to lead.
It is a challenge to look Solo directly in the eye, Gaby has always found. Sentiment has nothing to do with it. Rather, it is the unalleviated trepidation that comes with looking through clear glass and seeing nothing but reflected light underneath. Napoleon Solo is a perfect mirror, amplifying imperfection, and Gaby could never see anything but the worst of herself echoed in the depthless flatness of his eyes. She might be a chameleon, like water effortlessly assuming the shape of any space she occupies, but Solo is the water that fills to the brim at the cost of oxygen.
Then again, she has never had it in her to let a fear, justified or irrational, go unchallenged. She drunkenly wrestled a killer to the floor, just to see what he would do. She is not fearless, in the particular way that Illya has no regard for his own safety or well-being when on a hunt. She is something else: she wrestles her fears to the ground to see what they are made of. She looks Solo in the eye and, beneath the mask, finds only her own curious tenacity.
‘You know, Mrs Bloom might not have been particularly subtle,’ says Solo, rigid yet fluid as he leads them to have a clearer view of the ballroom in its entirety, reflected in tall antique mirrors, ‘but I have to agree with her assessment. Dare I ask who picked this dress?’
‘I picked it.’
‘I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.’
Gaby tips her head back, presenting the exposed line of her throat, when Solo trails two fingers down her clavicle, along the lace collar. The proprietary intimacy of the touch is, somehow, far less jarring than his earlier sweetened affection. ‘Good,’ she says, ‘I was going for dazed confusion.’
‘Mm. Next time, try a touch of diamonds.’
‘Next time, you play the show dog heir. Have all the diamonds you want.’
Solo smiles. It is a Walter Fitzgerald smile, save for the eyes, which remain full of dark promises and threats. ‘With genuine pleasure.’
Gaby only huffs, unimpressed but fond. In many ways, Solo is wholly predictable. In many ways, it is a comfort, the concession he is willing to offer to appear tameable. She keeps watching out for the missing Mr Bloom, as unnoticeable as she can, in the mirror that covers an entire wall of the ballroom.
As if summoned — as if he caught her gaze in the mirror, a frankly terrifying prospect, the stripping of privacy at the altar of surveillance — their comm links crackle to life, and Illya says, ‘Henry Bloom exited the ballroom with Kristofferson and Zheng.’
Solo sighs, but does not let his hold on Gaby waver. She, in turn, keeps smiling like a lovestruck spaniel. ‘Which exit?’
‘Northeast stairwell. Unarmed.’
‘Shall we split up?’
‘No splitting up,’ Illya grits out, having rehashed this particular argument time after time: he does not trust Gaby and Solo to split up unless he can keep them both, somehow, in the sights of his sniper rifle. Whether it is more his unwanted attachment — a morbid kind of investment in their continued state of being alive — or simply a damning appraisal of their survival skills doesn’t matter. They all know Solo only asked to hear the edge of irritated concern in Illya’s voice, in any case. Predictable, indeed.
‘No,’ says Gaby, tightening her hold on the smooth fabric of Solo’s tuxedo jacket, ‘I think this calls for a different approach.’
‘You’d miss me, you mean.’
‘If they shoot at us,’ she says, and kisses his cheek before pulling him along to the northeast stairwell, making sure to project a hot, purposeful anticipation in her movements, ‘I’m using you as a human shield.’
The dark, baroque hall outside is as gilt-laden as the ballroom, though the chandeliers are far smaller. There is far more mahogany and marble. Light sinks into every fixture, every crevice, to an overbearing effect of flecks of sunlight among thick, heavy gloom. A spattering of shallow alcoves lines one wall and, at the far end of the hall, cast in corpselike chiaroscuro, Gaby catches Henry Bloom — or Kristofferson, or Zheng, the secondary marks suspected of colluding with Bloom, himself suspected of selling classified military intelligence to the highest bidder — rounding the corner and vanishing down another hall.
Gaby slips out of her shoes and follows Solo barefoot, trying and failing not to shiver at the icy touch of stone against the soles of her feet. She moves soundlessly, however, and that is worth the discomfort.
Solo’s mask is, now, doubly fitting: the flex of his shoulderblades as he crosses the hallway with single-minded purpose is oddly, morbidly, reminiscent of the kind of animal that could never be brought to heel.
They slow as they approach the corner, coming to a complete halt at the sound of voices: indistinct, far enough to be unintelligible as the words bounce and echo. Useless at this distance, but when Gaby moves to try tiptoeing closer, Solo catches her by the wrist and pulls her back, not ungentle but insistent. Gaby breathes out, nostrils flaring, as she bites her tongue before she can voice her protest. She does not appreciate being handled; she appreciates it even less to be held, or held back.
Before she can speak, Solo presses two fingers to her mouth. With this barest pressure, only the suggestion of physicality, he pushes her back, back until her shoulders meet cold white plaster and she is pinned to the wall with Solo’s fingertips on her lips and her fists clenched at her sides.
‘Darling, please,’ he says. It is barely above an exhalation of breath, but Gaby knows it for a warning. She holds herself very still as Solo leans forward, as if to kiss her neck. His breath is warm on her skin. She wonders, the thought decidedly unwelcome, if Illya has any way of seeing this, since he had a fair view of the ballroom. If she would like him to see it. She shuts her eyes, throat exposed, and once again only breathes out when Solo brushes his lips against the rigid line of tendon and muscle where her heart is pounding fast but not humiliatingly so. He slips one of Gaby’s earrings off with none of the fanfare that usually accompanies his legerdemain.
He tosses the earring — no diamonds, and Gaby would like to think he might be slightly more considerate, were diamonds involved — down the hall where Bloom had disappeared.
‘Optoacoustic laser microphone.’
‘I didn’t know I had that on me.’
Solo smiles. It is not comforting. ‘You weren’t supposed to.’
Gaby considers talking back, even though it is still a new and hard-won instinct to actually consider before acting; think, for a second, before throwing herself off the proverbial and sometimes quite literal cliff. Before she can make a decision, the voices down the hall grow louder, soon to be joined by the particular distinct click of expensive designer footwear on cold stone floor.
Solo only raises an eyebrow above the edge of his mask, for all purposes languid and perfectly content.
‘Distraction?’ he offers, and Gaby thinks: oh. Predictable, again. Her shoes fall to the floor with a stark, echoing click.
The realisation that Solo offers slivers of predictability hoping for unpredictable results is one that comes to her followed closely by mild disappointment; she should have known, seen it, earlier. He leans in, her scrutiny sliding off the planes of his face like water sliding off something oiled and polished. He leans in to kiss her — an old trick, one they have used before — and Gaby waits only long enough to listen for the approaching footsteps, gauging distance.
Then, she puts both hands on Solo’s shoulders. She pushes, lightly, a mere application of the heels of her palms, the animal masks staring at one another with hollow eye sockets, and after a heartbeat that Gaby feels most in the pads of her fingers Solo gracefully folds to his knees. He might be smiling, but then, it might just be chiaroscuro.
‘Moan,’ he orders, hiking up the hem of her dress. It looks like a monk’s habit as it pools around his shoulders; it looks liquid, and it looks like it belongs there. There is no time for Gaby to appreciate the visual aesthetics of Napoleon Solo kneeling between her spread thighs, face blessedly hidden and warm hands their single point of contact. She feels the tips of his fingers as if each were its own electric cattle prod, its own spinal needle.
She lets her head fall back until it hits the wall. The marks round the corner, three pairs of feet slowing momentarily before picking up pace again. She lets the performance wash over her, holds her head under the surface of the acutely private act — still an act, layered with smaller performances, carved in falsehoods — and tastes in her mouth a hoarse, half unwilling noise. It claws its way from deep within her throat, curling around her vocal cords. She sounds raw. She is surprised that her tongue does not slice itself down the middle.
When the echo dies down and Gaby opens her eyes again, the hall is silent, and Bloom, Kristofferson and Zheng have gone.
‘Nicely done,’ says Solo. He presses a soft and obliquely chaste kiss to the inside of her knee, then stands, dusts off the knees of his trousers. He fixes his mask where it has become skewed, slightly, and ducks behind the corner to retrieve the microphone.
‘Did we get them?’ Gaby asks the empty air in front of her.
A subtle hitch is audible in Illya’s voice when he says, ‘Yes,’ as if he was not expecting Gaby to remember, or to acknowledge, his continued presence at the edges of her and Solo’s awareness. As if, perhaps, he was hoping — Gaby swallows.
Solo chooses that moment to reappear, poise and nonchalance unnerving enough that Gaby feels her skin grow warm. ‘Rendezvous back at the hotel?’
‘Understood.’ There is a muted shuffling, across the comms, an uncoordinated burst of static: Illya taking off his headphones. Nothing but an illusion of privacy, an offering, unasked for and perfectly unnecessary where Gaby is concerned. If the exasperated amusement lurking in the twitch of the corner of Solo’s mouth is anything by which to judge, he thinks so, too.
‘Quite the performance,’ he says, leaning against the wall next to Gaby, so that they are face to face. Mask to mask, really, but the layered removal of identity grants a peculiar kind of freedom.
Gaby says, ‘I learn from the adequate and improve upon it. Got any other tricks I could borrow?’
Undisguised pleasure steals over the visible lower half of his face, lips twisting into an altogether different kind of warning. Gaby thinks again of lazy striped predators crouched in tall grass, poised to rend and tear, but her own mask is one of a predator as well. Girls like her have no place in the world unless they carve it for themselves, with bare hands and bare claws, with the curious tenacity she sees when she looks Solo in the eye. Girls like her have teeth, and they learn to use them or they die.
It is not Florence Fitzgerald who stumbles into the honeymoon suite of a nameless hotel in a nameless city in a nameless part of the world. Luxury is the same wherever it surfaces, not as uncommon as both the self-made and hereditary bourgeoisie would like to think. It is not Florence Fitzgerald who laughs at awful puns about cats and beckoning and coming, and it is not Florence Fitzgerald’s husband who watches her laugh with warm-eyed indulgence.
No masks, then, save for those they always wear like second and third and fourth skins, unto infinity. No masks save for the smooth, effortless performance of Solo’s entire being. Oiled and polished until it only reflects.
Perhaps it is not his own indulgence, or his own warm eyes. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between them, suspended, puppet-like.
The bed is enormous, could easily fit another couple with room to spare, and Gaby throws herself on it with a gleeful bounce. She lost her shoes on crossing the distance from the door to the bedroom, plush carpets a welcome change after cold marble. Solo’s own shoes join hers, and he shrugs out of his tuxedo jacket with practiced ease, throws it over the back of a chair without looking. It felt good to let Florence Fitzgerald take temporary shelter in her own body, but it feels better to have Solo’s full and focussed attention on herself: her own self, unembellished.
It felt good, Gaby thinks, to act. It must feel good to Solo, too, since he does it all the time, stopping only long enough to replace one mask with another, peel off his skin and let fresh layers form over sores and wounds and invisible scar tissue.
There is still an aching, acute rawness to the sight of Solo on his knees, in front of the bed; a decadence to the impression of bones and muscle moving in his shoulders and back under the immaculate white of his dress shirt. Sleeves rolled back, hands still warm, but this time when he cups Gaby’s knees it is to spread them, eyebrows rising as Gaby lets her legs fall so wide open her thighs touch the bedspread on both sides.
‘Ballet academy,’ she says, by way of explanation, mirroring Solo’s delighted grin. ‘It comes in handy, doesn’t it?’
He says, ‘I sincerely hope you never cease to surprise me, Gaby,’ the use of her name a warm thread wrapped around her neck. Thread, or possibly rope, and in the end — meaningless. She drops her head, eyes shut. She could twist her hands into the sheets, she could cover her face to protect anything that might show, but it seems more pressing to touch, to hold, so she reaches blindly downwards until her fingers meet Solo’s perfectly styled hair and Gaby knows, by his pleased hum, that she made the right choice. She clenches her fingers tightly enough to make him feel it, eliciting a growl. It reverberates through her body, through her insides. She does not feel pinned so much as she feels laid bare, and it is both heady and too personal, too close.
Too close to holding something fierce and hollow in the palms of her hands. A forest fire, contained. Nike of Samothrace, armless, decapitated. Gaby’s hands tighten in Solo’s hair and she moans, spine a rigid curve on the edge of snapping.
And again, as if summoned, as if answering the unvoiced plea, a key moves in the door. It opens with a creak, and Gaby knows, without turning her head, who it is.
Solo doesn’t stop for another moment, until the silence in the doorway becomes a palpable presence and Gaby thinks she can hear Illya’s heart as it must be trying to hammer its way out of his chest. She feels it in her own pulse, in her wrists and thighs and then just in the one artery that Solo is touching through seemingly too-thin skin when he lifts his head from between her spread legs and rests it against the warm, sweat-damp inside of her thigh.
‘Took you long enough, peril,’ he says.
‘I’m,’ says Illya, eyes darting from Solo’s expectant expression, the colour high in his cheeks and bruised, wet mouth, eyes so dark Gaby has to look away lest she starts screaming, his tousled hair — her hands still there, almost possessive — from him to Gaby, and she has never seen her own face during something like this, only after. She would rather never know what she looks like, stripped of defences. ‘I’m sorry. I will leave.’
He makes no move to step away from the doorway, however, standing there frozen solid, a pillar of salt, having seen too much.
If Gaby were to choose a mask for him it would be a wolf, for his canine desperation for a pack dynamic, for his ache to be touched. He might as well be yelling it, even with his jaw clenched so tight it makes the angles of his face stand out too starkly, when nothing about him is stark save for the self-inflicted roughened edges that he sandpapered into the fabric of his being.
She is no more in charge of Illya and Solo than they are in charge of her, and they are an effective team only because they are each square pegs uncompromising in their independence. But sometimes, oh, sometimes both Solo and Illya want or need to be removed from responsibility, to be taken charge of only to be able to say, later, ‘See? This is not my fault.’
She has the least to lose, by compromising herself in this. Their power is illusory, and she has never had much need for illusions when she could grip the real thing.
So it is Gaby who uncurls her hand from Solo’s hair and reaches out, now, fingers loose and the inside of her palm facing upwards as if offering treats to a stray.
Illya is already on the verge of moving. It only takes for Gaby to say, ‘Please,’ and to shape her next breath into his name. Then he puts intent into action, takes the few steps that separate him from the bed, pulled in a straight trajectory to the extended line of Gaby’s hand and arm and body splayed like a baited trap.
This is what comes as a surprise, enough of one that Gaby almost loses what tenuous purchase on coherency she has: Solo turning his face to kiss her thigh, warm lips on warmer skin, and murmur, ‘Oh, clever girl.’
Gaby jerks her leg sideways, so that it gently knocks him over the head. He only laughs, a breath of pure amusement, and wraps one arm around her thigh to stroke idly and watch the spectacle of Illya’s need unstringing him. He is coming apart at the seams by the last step, when his shins hit the edge of the bed. His hands are trembling, but Gaby thinks it will be okay, if only he lets her and Solo take him over the precipice, so that the plunge will not have to be his fault.
He bends low to kiss the inside of her palm, leaning into Gaby’s touch as she strokes his face, his hair.
‘No splitting up,’ she murmurs, and says nothing else, because Illya kisses her. She almost bites her tongue, or his. Somehow, for whatever reason, she was not expecting that she would be kissing anyone. She did not think it would be that kind of night. But she lets Illya touch her, and keeps herself carefully open and still. No other masks than those he would expect, those whose absence would spook him more surely than any lie.
And then he moves away, lower, cold hands smoothing down the tangled remnants of her dress. He slides off the bed and to the floor, moving close to Solo. Gaby thinks it will be a measure for measure, kiss for a kiss, but her second real surprise comes when Illya simply folds down to all fours and in the suddenly quiet bedroom the only sound is Solo’s zipper being pulled down.
Gaby has no true intention of watching him perform, unwilling to intrude even in the space of their three shared breaths and heartbeats. She focusses her gaze, instead, on Solo’s slow intake of breath. The hand he has on her leg clenches, fingers digging into the meat of her thigh. It is quiet, and personal, and Solo turns his face into Gaby’s skin to hide his expression. What Gaby glimpses is enough to give her a fair idea that Illya must be as good with his mouth as he is with his hands on a gun. Solo’s eyes fall shut and his lips part, slightly, unconsciously, as if he meant to make a sound only to find himself voiceless.
In the span of four heartbeats he is collected again and applies himself, and Gaby has no strength of will to focus on anything but the scalding, melted steel in her own veins. She is the only one in a position to speak, so when she moans she does it for all three of them, and when Solo places a palm flat on her abdomen she clenches her muscles in the same way she imagines Solo must be clenching his.
The hair at her temples is damp with sweat by the time she finishes, both hands pressed tightly over her mouth for all the good that does her, which is none. The roar and pound of blood in her ears subsides so only the warm ache in the pit of her stomach and the feeling of her bones turned liquid remain. She lifts herself on her elbows and reaches for Solo’s hand, does not wince when he grips hers too tightly. His climax is noiseless, which is the only indication that he is not immersed fully in endless layers and masks, mouth open and full of damp bedcovers to muffle any sound that might still escape.
In the silence that follows, Illya rises to his knees. He swallows, wipes his mouth, and in any other context Gaby would call it obscene, except that she is lying helpless and spread open with her dress bunched around her waist, and Illya’s breathless flush must be no more indecent than however Gaby must look like. It is definitely less indecent than Solo, made more languid than Gaby thought possible.
‘Commendable teamwork,’ she says, before she can bite her tongue. Illya ducks his head, mildly horrified, and Solo only laughs.
He climbs onto the bed and pulls Illya with him. It seems that for all Illya can apply himself with ruthless competence, the actual mechanics of moving and undressing are a territory foreign enough to him that he needs to be led.
Having already compromised herself by mediating the first act, Gaby decides she owes neither Solo nor Illya her nudity. She keeps the dress on, clinging as it does to her skin where it is soaked with her sweat. She does help Solo remove Illya’s trousers, and empty shoulder holster, and turtleneck, and then she leads Illya to lean back against her, naked back to her chest, spread open as she was. He is a gratifying sight, even wound tight enough to break at a single misaimed touch.
‘Quid pro quo?’ Solo asks. He strokes Illya’s thighs, nudging them slowly open, with the same leisurely indulgence he touched Gaby. It’s gratifying, too.
‘Illya,’ says Gaby, wrapping her arms around his torso, ‘is that what you want?’
He shakes his head imperceptibly. It is difficult to distinguish from the overwhelming feeling that he might shake apart at any moment. Gaby strokes the flat, tense plane of his abdomen, pressing ever so slightly with the heel of her palm to anchor him in the physicality of the gesture. It does not seem to matter that he has made Solo speechless with his mouth alone. Fight or flight instinct still wars within him, and there is only so much Gaby’s soothing hands can accomplish. No one ever taught her to tame wolves.
Solo, though; Solo has the touch. He moves towards Illya and Gaby with smooth, leisurely purpose, predatory anticipation laid bare and clear to read, and through its visibility made — not harmless, never even approaching safe, where Solo is concerned. Predictable.
He does not kiss Illya, or Gaby. The closeness is far worse. He places one hand next to Gaby’s hip on the bed as he lets the other sink between Illya’s thighs. Legerdemain, she thinks, watching him wrap his fingers around Illya, and gently kisses the vulnerable skin below Illya’s right ear. Solo puts his mouth over Illya’s collarbone, then neck. He chooses not to talk, and there is meaning in it, too. In everything, a concession.
With the two of them, Gaby and Solo, deft hand and soothing touch, it takes minutes before Illya’s head falls lifelessly against Gaby’s shoulder as if his neck has been snapped. His breath heaves, catches, and dies halfway out of his lungs before he spills over Solo’s hand and his own stomach.
‘Good boy,’ says Solo, and all remaining fight drains out of Illya’s body. He slumps against Gaby, helpless, all of his size and strength rendered suddenly null.
Gaby takes a handful of Solo’s hair and pulls him towards her. He still tastes of her, and opens his mouth with evident pleasure. They are all sticky with cooling sweat and the bedsheets are damp, as is their breathing. Illya is the only one fully naked, but remains unbothered. It is not nudity, Gaby has already gathered, that bothers him. It’s intimacy.
She kisses the side of his neck one final time. ‘I’m going to break into the minibar,’ she says, and slips off the bed. The third thing to surprise her, in the course of tonight, is that her legs are still shaky: it takes a second for her to align herself to a proper ninety degrees in relation to the floor, as if Solo had dislodged her centre of balance.
She knows both Solo and Illya must be watching her, seeing her struggle to compose a facsimile of dignity. She loses nothing by letting them see it. She only stands to gain.
She shuts the bedroom door. The last thing she sees inside is Solo reclining on the bed like a large cat with its muzzle and whiskers still freshly stained with the cooling blood of his kill, and Illya, still boneless yet still poised to run. What he would run towards, Gaby cannot begin to fathom.
The minibar doesn’t require breaking into: Gaby has the key. She wonders, very briefly, if it would be too soon to only take what she knows Solo and Illya would choose to drink for themselves. It is soon, it seems, to openly acknowledge how thoroughly she knows them in some ways. Knowing, seeing — it is the only power that, in their line of work, people gain over one another. Being known and seen is an offer of vulnerability, a throat exposed and trust that a stranger’s hand will not hold a knife.
Gaby picks a bottle of cognac, her own drink of choice, and three glasses.
The carpet is soft under her feet and, padding back to the bedroom and the lions’ mouths, she lets herself bare her teeth in a smile.