His name, when she meets him, is false. She makes no effort to remember it, knowing that fear alone will settle it in the back of her mind, the force of a lifetime of habit.
There is nothing wrong with his car. Anyone who didn't want her to know she was being tested would have at least found something to break, so he is not here for the labour. He is watching her.
Gaby already knows how to be watched.
He doesn’t fit into her meticulously small sphere of clients, acquaintances and occasional drinking partners. This alone would be enough to set her on edge, but a man with such crisp German is not from this side of the wall. He is not German at all. He does not seem to have noticed her wariness, but that means nothing. No matter where he is from -- and Gaby has one or two uncharitable guesses -- he’s here for a reason, and it isn’t his car.
She doesn’t take the same roads home after she fixes his car, after she listens to him talk and lets his eyes settle warmly on her face. She drives by a different route, and looks in the mirrors.
The next day he is not at the garage. Of course, anyone very good would not be, but there is a note for her. There is a time and a place, a bar Gaby does not precisely frequent, but one she has been known to go to.
He might be Stasi. He wouldn’t be the first or the last. What would a refusal cost? Greater scrutiny, or the ill favour of someone in a position to make life more difficult for her. A risk of larger dimensions than hiding in a garage and listening to the gossip of her neighbours, making note of who talks to who and when.
Gabrielle Teller is many things. Contrary to popular opinion, her name and her history do not describe or define her. So far, she has worked hard to be nobody, a car mechanic in the East Side who has a knack for getting the best out of a two-stroke engine. But. If anyone cared to make a point of her father’s blood, Berlin would become walls on all sides, peppered with eyes, instead of what she has now. It is not much: a mind barely occupied by the mundane quirks of poorly manufactured cars, turned quietly in darker hours to planning, to reading, to other things of a nature her neighbours might take issue with.
Her father-- well. He’s not common knowledge, but he’s common enough that Gaby is no stranger to shadows in the dark. This particular shadow, however, is new. New, and, though she suspects she will never quite be able to understand why, interesting.
The note says: Care for a drink?
She goes. It does not turn out the way she expects.
His German is perfect, of course.
Gaby lets him buy her a drink, but doesn’t touch it.
He raises an eyebrow. “You did such a good job on my car, I wanted to thank you.”
“There was nothing wrong with your car,” Gaby says, unable to muster a smile, glass sweating between her palms. “But you paid me anyway. No thanks necessary.”
He leans back in his chair. Middle aged, he’s spare if not quite youthful in figure, black hair heading to grey with bright blue eyes behind nondescript glasses. He looks indeterminately unhealthy in a way Gaby is at pains to identify, but really, none of that is what matters. What matters is the way he’s looking at her, a slight smirk to his lips. “Miss… Schmidt, is it?”
Gaby’s smile tightens. “Yes,” she says, spinning her glass on the scarred corner table, tips of her fingers clammy from the cold.
“I see.” He doesn’t move, but something in his posture puts her on edge, compounded suddenly by the way he glances over her shoulder before he makes eye contact again, nails clacking once against the table’s cracking lacquer. “Would you like to take me home with you, Miss Schmidt?”
Gaby doesn’t follow his eyes. This is not her neighbourhood, so she doesn’t know who talks to who, but there is always one certainty in Berlin. People talk.
She has no reason to do anything for him. She has no obligation to take him anywhere.
He holds his own glass up, examines it, and finally takes a sip. His regard does not waver from her as he drinks it, throat working above the collar of his well-cut suit. “If not, I must be going--”
“Yes,” Gaby says, something in her gut prickling upward, a vestigial sense that this man, whoever he is, isn’t out to hurt her. Maybe he is out to hurt something, but then, so is she. She just hides it better. “My car is parked outside.”
His smirk doesn’t falter. “Allow me,” he says, offering his elbow.
Gaby doesn’t look over her shoulder to see who might be following. There will undoubtedly be consequences. The best she can do is simply smile and lean into him, hoping it looks as it should.
He’s not unattractive, though Gaby is under no illusions that it would matter, if he really was offering her something for the night.
They drive in silence, streets nearly deserted despite the relative earliness of the hour.
“Terribly sorry about that,” he says, once Gaby has locked her door and pulled her blinds. “How’s your English, Miss Teller?”
Gaby doesn’t flinch, but it’s a close thing. “Rusty,” she replies, trailing her hand along the threadbare curtains as she heads towards the kitchen. There, at least, she has knives. Stupid, really, not to have one closer to hand, but she had not planned on inviting dangerous men into her home, when furnishing her kitchen.
He watches her, smirk gone. In its place is something shrewd, alert, not in any way relaxed. “I’m no threat to you,” the Englishman states. “At least, not to your person directly, though in the spirit of my offer, I suspect you’ll have a few wagging tongues.”
Gaby doesn’t stop, instead positioning herself behind the counter, linoleum digging into her elbows as she leans over it, close to the drawer she wants. “Your German is stiff,” she tells him. “Not local. Try not to talk too much on your way out.”
He laughs at that, just inside her door with his weight balanced on his feet, scanning and scanning again, a ceaseless sweep of eyes before he appears satisfied he has almost every inch of her tiny flat in his field of vision. “How much do you know about your father?” He looks at her, holding himself at an ease that suggests Gaby would be a fool to make any sudden moves.
“My father is also a mechanic.” It is not always better to be safe, but in the absence of certainty as to what answer he’s looking for, there is no call for the truer test: He went to work for the Reich and left us behind for the final solution. It even tastes bitter unspoken.
He narrows his eyes. “I don’t think you really believe that, Miss Teller,” he says. “I have a fair suspicion,” he continues, “that several other parties may come asking in the near future. You may want to have rather a better answer for his former colleagues.”
Gaby stretches, reaching down for the handle of the drawer.
“You mistake me,” he says, quietly. “My name is Waverly. I was, until recently, with British intelligence.”
Gaby stills, hand closing around the handle of a knife. She won’t have time to get around the counter before he gets a shot off, but he’ll have a hell of a time getting out of this block of flats quickly, after that kind of noise, even if Gaby is dead in his wake. “And now?”
Waverly takes a step forward, hands in his pockets. “A rather more… international concern.” He stops in the middle of the room, seemingly in no hurry to make himself less of a target, giving her plenty of time before he approaches the counter. “Pour me a drink and we’ll talk about it.”
Gaby leans in, watching as the skin around his eyes tightens. “Why should I believe you?”
Waverly doesn’t move. “You’ve no reason to. You’ve done well, you know. You’re not a very easy person to find.”
Gaby doesn’t rise. If he was KGB she’d already have been removed. That, at least, she can be sure of. It doesn’t make her any more sure of what he is, but there’s a certain latitude in knowing what he isn’t. He isn’t safe, but he’s in almost as much danger as she is, if he really is an Englishman behind the Wall. Which begs a question. “What do you want from me?”
“As of right now? Perhaps nothing.” He smiles. It goes no further than his teeth. “But then,” he says, one forearm laid across the peeling linoleum of her cheap countertop, “I think you’ve been trying to find out what your father did during the war for a while. With some success, I suspect.”
Gaby doesn’t flinch. “He was a Nazi.”
“And that has made life difficult for you.” Waverly holds her gaze, and everything in Gaby that has kept her safe and quiet so far bristles before Waverly continues. “What if I told you I want to find him?”
“I would ask what you think I could possibly do to help you.” Gaby’s voice doesn’t tremble. Her hands don’t shake. If he was going to do anything to her, it would never have been this drawn out, this choreographed. Gaby has a feeling, a sense, that Waverly is testing her, in some indefinable way. Probing her for cracks. He will not find them. They are hers, and he is a stranger, someone she could raise the alarm for and turn in in a heartbeat. She holds her breath, knuckles gripping white.
Waverly just smiles. “Miss Teller. I was hoping you would say that.”
As it turns out, the near future is a rather more nebulous concept in espionage than she had anticipated.
It takes eighteen months for them to come, and in the end, it is the Americans, a variable Waverly hadn’t warned her about. Gaby has lived all her life under the consequences of war. She can improvise.
It has never taken her long to recognise a pattern: a dance step, a car’s engine, a dead drop, a puzzle, the cadence of footsteps dogging her movements.
She may not have ever fired a gun, but she can assemble one. Napoleon Solo, cold cadence to his warm voice and a suit too expensive for East Berlin, does not need to know that, yet. Her instructions are clear.
He takes her over the wall, as he is meant to. If it had been the KGB first, she cannot be sure, even years later, that she wouldn't have failed herself then and there, so she will always owe Napoleon, for that. She will never tell him, but she will always know. A single variable, a coin tossed in the air. A trip to Rome, instead of Moscow, or the bottom of the Spree.
Perhaps it is because she is anticipating terror that the events in Rome seem somehow at a lower pitch than they truly are. This is not to say Gaby is devoid of fear. Rather, it is a sense of displacement which plagues her.
The complications are different. Illya is a complication.
“I would have done the same thing, in your position,” he says.
Gaby’s position is not what he thinks it is, and it is never more obvious then when he gives her back the ring. In case they don’t see each other.
His cold fingers brush her palm, a last brief touch before he pulls back. He is going to have a drink with Napoleon, stand in the light and toast to something not quite done.
It would tip the balance well in his favour, were she to tell him what Napoleon has. She knows what she has to do, and it does not sit well, or lightly, knowing her position is still at one degree of removal.
She goes upstairs to see Waverly.
“Miss Teller. Sit down.”
Gaby arranges herself on the chair in the corner of Waverly’s room, 304, still in what she thinks is plain sight, two floors above where she and Illya had listened to each other lying, and lying awake. “So what now?” she asks, watching him.
Waverly props himself up against the footboard of the narrow bed, one hip hitched over the side as though he’s perched on a balcony, looking out the window. “What do you think they’re doing?” he asks her, in return.
Gaby is hard pressed not to laugh. Her two marks, so unlikely to have worked well together. Not for the first time, she wonders what Waverly can see that she can’t, and what he’s not telling her. She is green if not untried, but she is young, and she is in a precarious position. Does he still need her, now that her father is dead? Does she still have the option given to her two years ago, to leave Berlin and all its whispers behind? Gaby reflects on what she’s already said out loud. She is not going back. Whether it is at Waverly’s discretion remains to be seen. “I think they’re doing something stupid,” she says, because it’s the truth. Individually, neither of them is going to allow the other to leave the score uneven.
“Why don’t you go make sure,” Waverly suggests, smiling. “Do you have a lighter?”
The smell of burning plastic drifts up from the balcony. “Solo does,” Gaby informs him.
“Quite.” Waverly’s smile deepens. “Best not keep them waiting. Go have a drink. I won’t be a moment.”
Gaby goes. Walking outside, two floors below, feels honest enough that she could almost laugh at the looks on their faces, half guilt and half defiance.
“Scotch?” Napoleon offers her his glass, held out in the very tips of his fingers.
Gaby doesn’t reach for it, instead looking at Illya, still overlarge and somehow out of place in the sun, relaxed posture at odds with his untouched drink and the puckered tension pulling at the scar beside his eye. “Make me another,” Gaby says, before Waverly arrives.
Napoleon doesn’t have time, but that was the idea.
As Waverly collects them with a few words, somehow explaining as little as possible, she risks another look back at them, finding Napoleon watching her, irregular splash of brown in his left eye hidden by the heaviness of his eyelids. “When were you planning on telling us?” he asks her, clinking the ice in his drink against the fine glass with a flick of his wrist.
Illya says nothing, propped in the corner of the railing, faint glisten of sweat lining the hollow of his upper lip.
“Would you ever have asked?” Gaby takes a step closer, reaches out and takes Napoleon’s drink, enjoying the burn of good liquor on her tongue.
Napoleon grins. “No,” he admits, as though it costs him nothing. “But now I’m curious.”
If Istanbul is a test, they fail.
Too many moving parts, as a teacher she once had would have said. The trouble is, when something relies on choreography, everyone involved needs to know the steps.
She would have thought Napoleon would be the one most likely to spin out on his own.
She would have been wrong. Even in German there are idioms about hindsight.
“What is this?” Illya asks, stepping out of the car, unfolding his long legs into the sun again, still out of place in heavy browns, hat low over his eyes. His broken arm is held close to his chest, strapped down as tightly as he’ll allow. The cast lends bulk to his silhouette he seems at pains to disguise, but it remains an incongruence.
Napoleon grins. “Borgo Maggiore,” he says from the driver’s seat, sunglasses glinting black as he turns his face up. “Perfect. Your idea?”
Gaby hasn’t chosen it, but she can’t deny it’s probably the right place for them to be right now. If there’s anything they need, it’s blank space, but in place of that, somewhere with a history more immovable than the present and utterly indifferent to the politics of their nations can’t be a bad substitute. “Waverly’s.”
“Inspired,” Illya says, a hint of sarcasm colouring his voice.
He’s been quiet, since--
Gaby throws her bag at Napoleon, enjoying watching him having to almost leap out of the driver’s seat to catch it.
The house is small, narrow, up a tiny cobbled street. It is nothing like Berlin.
“I suppose I’m parking the car?”
Gaby waves at him before taking Illya’s uninjured elbow. “Good luck,” she calls back over her shoulder, gauging the tension beneath her hand.
There are so many bad habits to unravel here. So many steps to learn again and again. They don’t trust her.
She hasn’t the faintest idea how to go about fixing that. She wouldn’t trust her, either.
“They don’t trust me,” she tells Waverly, stirring her coffee. It is excellent, a thick, black brew so strong it makes her teeth itch. The view isn’t bad, either, the narrow terrace in the shadow of Mount Titano peppered with tourists and locals alike. She and Waverly don’t stick out in San Marino, nor does Napoleon. Illya, his height and his reserve and his deep woundedness over her subterfuge, however, are another matter. He would stick out anywhere, perhaps even Moscow, a city she imagines only as dark spires and the gloom of trudged-over snow. It is probably the influence of her own fear, rather than anything else, but Illya stands out against the conjured backdrop nonetheless, a pale and brittle thing, shaped in angles. Even in her conjured image, he is holding a broken arm close.
“Do you trust me?” Waverly stirs a measured spoon of sugar into his espresso, something Gaby thinks may be a habit rather than a preference.
Gaby looks at him, deciding whether to be flattering or honest. “Not entirely, no.”
Waverly slides his glasses down his short nose, lined eyes creased with amusement. “Good answer.”
“Do they know you’re here?” Gaby’s coffee disappears with a last pleasurable slide. Waverly gestures for the waiter, hand languid in the air. In the bright sunlight, he is even more given to showing his age. She can see where he would have been someone eye-catching once. She wonders what his mandate is, what he gets from them and their efforts. How long he’s been working towards a goal Gaby can’t see yet.
Waverly orders more coffee in his fluid Italian, waiting until the waiter departs to answer. “Not yet, no. This is rather more your shout, Miss Teller.”
“I don’t know what to do. Istanbul was a disaster.”
“It was.” Waverly accepts the prompt return of the waiter with their drinks with a word of thanks, the picture of a gentleman in no hurry. Gaby is struck with the urge to punch him. “I’m tempted to assign it to growing pains, frankly.”
“It was a test!” Gaby forcibly calms herself down, watching the curl of Waverly’s lips. “I failed.”
Waverly scans the terrace, one ankle crossed over his knee. “I promised you something, did I not?”
Gaby blows a breath out through her nose, uncomfortably aware of the sweat beginning to build beneath the brim of her sunhat. “We already cleared his name where it matters,” she says, hoping her voice sounds better to him than it does to her.
“Just so,” Waverly says, eyes still somewhere behind them. “And in the process, what did you do?”
“We stopped a dangerous advantage.” Gaby can’t-- won’t-- dismiss the combined efforts that led to it, the destruction of the most valuable intelligence possibly in the world. It would be disingenuous to claim that as her work when Napoleon lit the fire and Illya watched it burn.
“Do you perhaps think,” Waverly says, “that the people who did that possess a certain skill that can’t be taught?”
Gaby throws back her coffee, letting it scald her throat just for the burn. “If you’re going to send me back to Berlin to be--”
“I am not.” Waverly looks at her, full weight of his often-divided attention landing on her. “In fact, I am here to ask you something in the way of a favour.”
Gaby, speechless with frustration, can only wait.
Waverly reaches into his inside pocket, emerging with an elegant cigarette case.
“Be careful near Solo with that,” she mutters, unable to stop herself.
Waverly laughs soundlessly. “A bit uncharitable.” He opens it, extracts a thin card, and slides it across the table to her. “I suspect you know I will not be there when you read this, so I leave it in your hands. Yours and your team’s.”
Team. They’re hardly that. At best, they’re three agents in the wind. At worst, they’re something like a bad joke. An American, a Russian and a German walk into a small European republic. The punchline has yet to hove into view. “My team?”
Waverly taps the card before he lifts his fingers. “Take your time with this one, Agent Teller. U.N.C.L.E. has often been in a rush, of late, but this is something of a longer game, if my instincts are right. The method is yours.”
“And your superiors?”
Waverly smiles and doesn’t answer, instead calling for the bill.
The scrap has the location of her newest dead drop on it. She memorises it, rips it, rips it again, and lets it dissolve in the dregs of her coffee, stirring it back into pulp before the waiter comes to clear their table.
The sound of something shattering is the best approximation of a greeting she gets on her return.
Napoleon is cooking, or was, before what appears to have recently been a vase was launched across the room.
Gaby walks into a tableau she wishes was less familiar: Napoleon standing with an eyebrow raised, Illya breathing hard in the corner, knuckles white in a clenched fist.
“What are we doing?” Gaby asks, stepping over the debris, placing herself in the middle.
Napoleon shrugs. “Our young friend doesn’t like the decor.”
It is exactly the wrong thing to say. Gaby closes her eyes, fighting the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose as Illya draws himself to his full, improbable height, and brushes past her, down the narrow stair and out the door.
“What did you say?” Gaby asks Napoleon, standing exactly where she is, too tired to move away.
Napoleon sighs. As with everything he’s done lately, it’s theatrical, just a hair off genuine. Not enough for anyone who wasn’t looking to notice, but where Illya winds himself tighter, Napoleon chooses instead to play at relaxation, the picture of a man taking his ease wherever he finds it. Gaby is not fooled, but she doesn’t know where to pry, how to find the crack that will allow her to pull off his skin. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to find me a broom?”
She goes to the nearest cupboard, not expecting much in the way of luck, but against the odds there is a stack of utilitarian implements. She extracts a broom without much fuss, avoiding the shards to hand it to Napoleon. Whatever he’s cooking has gone off the boil, set to one side for later. He doesn’t appear to care much, which is enough indication that it was a distraction, rather than a desire to eat, which set him to the process.
She watches him sweep without comment. Napoleon never seems anything less than… collected, for lack of a better word, as though he knows exactly which parts of himself go where at any given moment. She doesn’t know him, truthfully. In confidence, she knows him less than Illya, whose cold hands tried to reassure her before she betrayed him in service of a higher objective. Whose heartbeat she felt beneath hers, chest to chest. She just knows what Napoleon has and hasn’t done. It’s not the same thing.
“Are you going after him?” Napoleon asks, meticulously seeking out errant slivers of porcelain.
Gaby doesn’t know the right answer. “No,” she hazards, watching the line of his shoulders beneath his shirt. Napoleon hums. A response, but not a reply. Damn him. “How did you convince him not to kill you?” She asks him, because there might be a better time, but she’s done waiting for it. “You took the disk, and then you managed to get him to let you burn it. How?”
Napoleon looks up at her, crouched from peering beneath the coffee table. His hands are perfectly steady, his breathing even as he balances on the balls of his feet, and Gaby has no doubt he is evaluating the loss and gain of telling her, uncompromised by the position.
“You’ll have to ask him,” Napoleon says. “All I did was give him back his watch.”
Gaby looks down at him, searching for the jagged edge of the lie, but she can’t see it.
They landed in Istanbul in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
Gaby hadn’t quite lost her view of travel as a novelty, something only for those few who had favour in their pockets. Napoleon spoke awful Arabic and Illya slightly better Turkish; Gaby-- limited to English and German--had listened, unable to discern the direction of the conversation but able enough to see the smile the woman at the customs desk had offered Napoleon along with his entry stamp.
They were travelling on assumed documents, something Gaby had meticulously checked over, smoke from Napoleon’s cigarette across the aisle wreathing them in a hazy blue.
So much of her memory of those two weeks is overlaid by smoke, both Napoleon’s and from other sources, a thin curtain separating her from the detail, but what remains is edged in terror, their location compromised by Teşkilatı who took unkindly to their presence. What spools out from there is Illya refusing to listen to her orders to fall back together, to find another place to hide and wait for their contact.
Gaby, wisely or unwisely, had stuck close to Napoleon purely from a deep, unnerving fear of being alone in a place where her lack of language would kill her as quickly as a knife in the dark. It had been Illya who slipped away, all of him gone in the blink of an eye and missing for days.
Only Napoleon, and Napoleon’s awful Arabic, had heard a rumour from an old contact of a foreigner held in a military clinic on the outskirts of the city.
Gaby has good aim, if pressed, she has learned. She has also learned that Napoleon can carry greater weight than one might think, looking at the cut of his suits.
They all got out alive, if no richer in the information they had ostensibly been seeking, but the fact of the matter is that Gaby failed where she should have succeeded, and the fruits of her naivete were injury and mistrust.
She is surprised Napoleon is still here. It would be easy enough for him to disappear out from under the CIA’s eye. Illya, she thinks, has a less flexible adherence to duty, though even she is hard pressed to find the anchor of it.
Borgo Maggiore may be the second largest settlement in San Marino, tucked away from the citadel which draws the eye and the bulk of visitors both, but it is still small, still a place where foot traffic moves slowly, and where people above six feet tall stand out.
Illya isn’t difficult to find. Gaby sees him across the square, examining a plaque set into the sand-coloured stone of the church. He doesn’t appear to notice her, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t.
She edges up behind him. It’s a mistake, but Gaby has been making a lot of those lately. As he snarls, his hand closing around her arm, she adds it to the tally. In Rome, she would have jerked out of his grip, or at least made a protest. Here, she just looks up at him, consumed by guilt for the hurt she has inflicted, however much the shape of it remains out of sight.
It takes him a long moment to step back. His right hand is curled too tight, close to his ribs. He unfurls his fingers as she watches, mouth pressed closed. He would never admit to showing pain on his face, she thinks, but it is obvious anyway, even as his left, open and empty, drops to his side instead of cradling the break.
There is a part of her, despite the knowledge of how personally he’s been injured, that regrets the distance he places between them. It’s not a rational thought, given the width and weight of his hand, and the fragility of her bones beneath it, but Gaby has longed to catch a glimpse of the man who was so unguarded around her that she could tackle him to the ground. This person, here in front of her now, is holding himself at arm’s length, and not just because one of them is broken.
“You have come to get me,” he says, as though it’s not a question.
“Only if you want me to.” Gaby knows it’s the wrong thing to say as soon a she says it, and wishes for once her instincts would kick in just a moment sooner.
Illya snorts. “Yes or no, Gaby. You are the handler now.”
It strikes her unexpectedly, that Illya, of all of them, would chafe at her position. “I don’t think it works like that.”
“Then how does it work?” He looks down at her, fingertips of his left hand flicking out towards the plaque he’s been staring at. “You tell me to come back to the safehouse, I will come back. If not, I will wait.”
Gaby wants desperately to ask him how to do this, to open to her in the way he had, briefly, in Rome. She is the same person now as she was then, but then, she isn’t, from where he’s standing.
She is the one who played them, the one who gave them up to the Vinciguerras, who got Napoleon tortured, who choked in Istanbul.
“Napoleon is making gnocchi, I think,” she says, instead of anything else.
“I have eaten enough potatoes,” Illya mutters, so Gaby leaves him be, something deflating in her chest. There is so much she should tell them, but there is a bottleneck. It’s her, of course. She’s the one who can’t make promises on a promise.
Gaby finds the spike in a flowerpot on the other side of town, marked with a streak of chalk.
It’s a good location, enough foot traffic that she won’t be out of place returning to it. She’ll have to find a new one soon, and the cycle will continue. If they’re to be here a while, and she has no idea how long that might be, she can’t afford to get complacent. Not after Istanbul had opened her eyes to how precarious their position is.
She takes the tube, slips it in her purse in passing, and heads back up the hill to their little flat.
The scent of food and wine greets her, a sharp contrast to the lingering press of dirt beneath her nails, and the ghostly impression of Illya’s hand on her skin.
“No sign of our comrade?” Napoleon asks, alert to her presence as always. There are three plates set out on the counter and he is sprawled in the armchair, a newspaper spread over his thighs, a glass of wine breathing in his left hand. He looks louche as only he can, the whole bulk of him smoothed by his demeanour as much as the thin linen of his matched clothes.
Gaby has seen him deadlift an unconscious man, and is under no impression he isn’t always doing his level best to appear far lazier than he actually is. “Illya is--”
“I know how Illya is,” Napoleon interrupts, shaking the newspaper over a page with one hand, “I want to know what you’re going to do about it.”
He isn’t looking at her. She doesn’t for a moment think that means he’s not paying attention. Even before, in Rome, when her contact with him was through the filter of Illya, she was aware of his scrutiny, and he missed all the signs of her being anything other than what he thought she was. Gaby has made her own mistakes. If she were Napoleon, she wouldn’t want to miss anything else about her either. “We’re not in a rush,” Gaby says, hands on her hips, watching as he turns the next page.
“It’ll get cold.” Napoleon takes a sip of his wine, seemingly content to wait her out.
Gaby is losing patience for this game, a long con if ever there was one. Napoleon has the air of a man waiting out a sentence in as much comfort as he can muster, and one who won’t be budged without some leverage. She could tell him about Waverly, about the drop and their conversation and how little she knows about what she’s meant to be doing here, but to lay herself bare in the face of his many, many masks would leave her vulnerable in a way she has never been easy with. No. She will have to find the crack.
“I’m eating without him.” Gaby does just that, spooning a little of the unfamiliar concoction onto a plate, tearing into the good bread Napoleon has materialised beside the pot. She throws herself down on the couch, eschewing the manners of eating at the table. It’s past the point at which anyone would insist.
“I’ve put you in the smaller bedroom,” Napoleon says, apropos of nothing, still reading his paper. His wine hasn’t descended in the glass. Sloppy of him, unless he wants her to know he’s more focused on her than whatever thrilling news has hit San Marino today. “I hope you don’t mind. Size constraints being what they are, I’m not sure we could have arranged limbs to fit in it together.”
Gaby swallows her mouthful, and doesn’t tell him it’s delicious. He knows it is, and would tell her so. “I don’t mind taking the couch.”
Napoleon looks up from the paper, glancing at her sidelong. “I’m sure. But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather he didn’t re-enact the parting of the red sea with the furniture. Of course, the bill isn’t a concern, but the mess? I do hate splinters.”
It’s such an elaborate way of telling her he thinks Illya needs watching that Gaby is half convinced he’s doing it just to make her think he’s saying something else. “If you don’t mind,” she says in the end, relieved she’ll be able to put a door between herself and the world.
Napoleon shakes the newspaper. “Why would I?”
Gaby looks at him. He is as put-together as he was the day they met. Gaby doesn’t quite feel she’s met him yet. “I was being polite,” she says, after the pause has stretched long enough.
“Ah.” Napoleon smiles. “No need for that at this stage, surely?”
“And what stage is that?” She doesn’t think Napoleon would be one to turn down any options open to him. Gaby isn’t certain whether he sees her as one, and it’s unsettling. Men, usually, can be relied on to at least look, but with Napoleon, so much of what he says means something else, or is a fragment, an incomplete half-truth, that she can’t be sure he hasn’t already looked, judged, and placed her somewhere she doesn’t want to be.
Napoleon looks back down at the paper Gaby is now absolutely sure he is using as a prop, and turns another page, sipping his wine. “This is the part where you insist.”
She thinks of Waverly, his eyes wandering in a way she knows is the ingrained habit of years of paranoia and nothing else, and wonders why Napoleon’s don’t.
It is difficult not to compare Illya and his brittleness. The night she decided to crack him still stands out an orange streak across Rome, music thick in the air and alcohol only part of the storm brewing between them. How dare he threaten me, she’d thought, not realising yet that Illya’s own carefully built supports had been rocked before she ever met him face to face instead of on the run.
Illya likes his women strong. That doesn’t mean anything, outside of its context as a rote avowal, but she had tackled him down and he’d smiled at her in the morning. Gaby has no idea what Napoleon likes. She doesn’t think Victoria Vinciguerra was anything other than pure, animal self-defense. She would have done the same thing in his position. It’s something to think about.
“I don’t,” she says, handing him her plate before she goes to find her bedroom.
Gaby unrolls the documents from the drop across her narrow bed. Nearly microscopic, they are in Waverly’s familiar idiosyncratic code, the one she has learned through trial and error. Perhaps it will become an U.N.C.L.E. standard, their own particular mishmash of influences creating something unique to them. It would mark them, if they were intercepted, very likely.
That being said, for a covert agency, they are, all three of them, remarkably indiscreet.
Gaby doesn’t know how to turn it to advantage yet, if there is even a way to do it. For one thing, Illya will have to come back; she and Napoleon, together, are too much like cats circling each other without him in the middle, though how much of that is a wilful distraction remains to be seen.
The maps are marked in a pattern Gaby can’t decipher but that looks familiar somehow, a shape lost to the back of her mind.
She’ll have to ask. How, is the question.
It’s not a dossier; this is for her alone, a primer and a gift all at once. The shape of South America is distinct against the film, the words not easily deciphered but familiar enough to Gaby, who has been speaking to Waverly like this for months. Years, now.
Dossiers when you need them the last slip says.
Gaby rolls up the maps and the message and places them back inside their container. She’ll memorise them before she disposes of the hard copy, but for now she wants to keep them close, on her person, until she knows what it is she wants to do.
The word stands out, even if the pattern hasn’t coalesced yet. Odessa, a city, a concept, a myth.
Gaby is not naive enough to think it refers to the city, no matter how disputed. She stares at the wall, thinking. She could bring this straight out to the table, ask Napoleon for his help and hope it will be enough to get his agreement.
Waverly’s calm extortion to move at her own pace resurfaces.
Gaby stares at the wall, tracking a crack in the white plaster, eyes following the branching lines of it, assigning possibilities to every fork and turn: she tells Napoleon and he leaves without a trace; she tells Illya and he responds by reporting immediately to Moscow; she tells them together and they decide it’s not worth pursuing.
Take your time.
Gaby flicks the tube over in her fingers, slips it back into her purse.
Illya comes back before midnight. Gaby hears the murmur of voices from behind her door, low and lower, Napoleon’s clipped, precise cadence underscoring Illya’s softened consonants.
She presses her ear to the door, of course, but the echo of their small, vaulted living room bounces the words back into themselves, so all she hears is the open and shut of a door and the following silence.
Cowardice has never suited her, so why, of all the times it could have chosen to make itself known, is she labouring against it now? Gaby opens the door, revealing Napoleon leaning at the kitchen counter, an empty bottle of wine next to his elbow, plate balanced on his palm. His hair is beginning to fall from its rigid placement, starting to curl.
Gaby watches him eat for a moment, wondering if she’s ever seen him leave food wasted. She doesn’t think she has, and wonders at it, in someone from a country where privation was not necessarily a constant.
“Illya didn’t want any?” she asks.
Napoleon shrugs, massive shoulders moving too smoothly to be anything but a perfectly calibrated gesture. “You communists don’t have the most adventurous palate.”
Gaby steps closer, watching for tension, but finding none. Napoleon just watches her approach, fork poised halfway to his mouth. “I’m not a communist,” she tells him, making sure he hears it.
Napoleon raises his eyebrows, lips pulling just slightly to the side. “Of course not.” He hands her the fork, warn from his fingers. “Care to join me?”
Gaby isn’t hungry, but she does anyway, arranging herself in arm’s reach next to him, sitting on the wooden countertop with her feet dangling, kicking the cabinets. Napoleon doesn’t tell her to stop, both of them eating in silence.
Napoleon cleans when they’re done. He doesn’t ask her to help. If she were to look at it later, Gaby would be unable to pinpoint why she slips her hand into his hair, fingers parting the mass of it from the neck, curling over the back of his skull, but she does it anyway, perhaps wanting to ruffle him a little, peer under the costume.
Napoleon glances at her, dries a plate, places it in the rack.
Gaby tightens her hand.
Napoleon makes a noise low in his throat, more vibration than sound, hands going still above the sink.
Gaby wonders what he’d do, if she pulled at him, twisted her fingers in further.
Instead she lets go, watching his face.
Napoleon reaches for the last plate, hair in disarray. “You’re making a mess,” he says, placid where she wants him--
“God forbid,” Gaby says, thinking of jungles, of uncharted territory waiting just out of sight.
“Let’s not bring him into this,” Napoleon says. “Not his purview, as I understand it.”
Gaby laughs. “That’s not what I meant.”
Napoleon shifts, placing himself subtly out of reach, still looking at her sideways. He tucks his chin, drying one hand to smooth it through his hair, righting what she’s displaced. “The mess is not the problem,” he says, finally drying the plate, placing it on the rack, the clink of it hitting the others suddenly loud.
Gaby thinks of him bloodied, dazed, still alert enough to complete his own mission as he understood it, and begins to think that there is something deep in Napoleon Solo that abhors disarray, something less a magpie and more a completist, someone who can’t bear to leave things half-done. “How did they catch you?” She blurts it out, and can’t even blame it on wine, or the late hour. She is not drunk, though he might be, and it is not very late.
Napoleon smirks at her. “Surely Waverly has given you all the relevant information by now?”
He hasn’t. She could ask, but it hadn’t seemed imperative, in all her talking with him. Napoleon is a thief: it’s not past-tense, he is now simply under an aegis of direction. Interpol chased him and caught him, but the detail, the minutiae, she wants to hear from him. “No.”
“Then I won’t step on his toes,” Napoleon says. “Care for a drink? I’m curious as to what excitements San Marino can offer wayward travellers on a Tuesday night.”
It’s an easy deflection, long-practiced. Gaby accepts anyway.
Napoleon leaves a note for Illya, a neatly penned missive reading Not as many nooks and crannies as Berlin. Come find us. Gaby watches him slip it under the door, curious, constantly, as to why he refrains from knocking, why instead of pressing and needling and generally making himself a burr in Illya’s shoe as he had with such glee in Rome, he’s pulled back now, treating Illya as though he might be scared away by sharper contact.
Perhaps it’s the broken arm, the deep circles beneath his eyes, or simply an instinct to avoid poking ticking bombs. Gaby has enough of that herself, but she also has a roll of maps, a word and a mission waiting, when they’re ready to take it. She isn’t sure how long she can possibly wait, but it has more to do with knowing, without any proof except her own certainty, that if she leaves it too long she will be on her own.
“Why don’t we just see if he wants to come?” Gaby asks, watching Napoleon straighten.
Napoleon pauses on the balls of his feet before he settles back on his heels, straightening his shirt cuffs. “Have you seen him drink?”
Gaby thinks back -- the balcony, and Illya holding the short tumbler of whiskey in his huge hand, ice slowly melting away as it warms. Istanbul, and the hotel bar, the long soda water and the short of rakı untouched next to it, eventually swept up by Napoleon. The hotel room in Rome when Gaby--
“Barely.” She feels ignorant in retrospect, having it pointed out.
Napoleon looks at her, something indecipherable on his face. “Not much of a one for losing his control, our Russian.”
Gaby heads for the door, small room beginning to feel close, despite the high ceiling. It’s a relief to be in the night air, when Napoleon pulls the door shut behind them.
She doesn’t wonder at the wording until they’re almost to the square. His control. Like so much Napoleon says, there’s something in it she’s missing.
Illya appears in the square when Napoleon has acquired a bottle of Cantastorie and they’ve settled on a low wall, passing it between them. Gaby has had more of it than Napoleon, rich red going to her stomach rather than her head. She’s enjoying it, allowing herself a moment of unravelling, pressed against Napoleon’s side.
“You are drunk again,” Illya says, stopping short under an orange soda lamp.
“Only a little.” Napoleon holds the bottle out, shifting Gaby’s balance as he moves. “Care to join us?”
Illya stands there, looking down at them. The light paints shadows under his eyes that Gaby knows are deep enough in daylight, left arm rigid at his side.
The right, of course, is held in plaster, immobile.
He wouldn’t say what happened, wouldn’t talk until they were clear of the compound, until after Napoleon had pried the cuff off his wrist and Gaby had learned that the repeated kick from a stolen AO-37 was irregular, and would leave a bruise deep in her shoulder.
Illya had sat in the clinic in London and let the doctor re-set his arm, had stared at them both, and simply pronounced that as there was no exit plan in place he thought it best to make them a more direct route.
Gaby could have slapped him, if she was less aghast at the grey pallor of his skin, or the sound he’d made when the doctor was finished. He’d refused painkillers.
Gaby looks up at him in the streetlight in San Marino and finally sees a crack. “Do you think the KGB will take you back if you ask?”
Illya recoils, lips thinning as he presses them together, everything about him held up by sheer will. Gaby, flush and warm with wine, frustrated and just on the very edge of good judgment, narrows her eyes, taking it in. “You might as well sit with us,” she says, “they wouldn’t extract you in Istanbul, would they?”
Illya turns on his heel and disappears, brown jacket fading into the sepia night as she takes another drink.
“Nicely done,” Napoleon murmurs.
Gaby shoves the bottle back at him, last of it almost sloshing onto Solo’s cream waistcoat. “Shut up.” To her surprise, he does.
Napoleon stands after a brief silence, extending a hand down for her, smirk pulling at his lips. He mimes the turn of a key in front of his mouth, neck of the bottle barely held by his fist. Gaby grabs it instead of his hand, swigs the dregs, alcohol turning acid in her mouth.
Napoleon watches, nothing on his face for just long enough that Gaby sees it before he realises, recurls his lips, blinks, raises an eyebrow. “I know I’ve been given an order,” he says, “but--”
Gaby hurls herself upright, fast enough that she thinks even if he weren’t a bottle deep already she might have had a chance of taking him by surprise. A slim one, but still, she claps a hand over his mouth, unwilling to hear him say a single thing again tonight.
Napoleon doesn’t react, eyes reflective and heavy-lidded, and stripped of his voice, Gaby thinks she may be seeing something-- the word comes back, animal, carefully and meticulously camouflaged.
“Shut up,” she repeats, watching his eyes focus. He doesn’t bite her. Instead, he smiles, lips curling beneath her palm, a warm, faint brush against her work-rough skin.
Gaby peels her hand away, slips it around the back of his neck, slowly sliding up the curve of his skull until she has enough hair to make a fist in, tugging until his chin lifts, pale stretch of his throat bare to her.
Napoleon makes a pleased noise in the back of his throat, hands braced on the wall as Gaby pulls him taut.
She looks up at him for a long time, or it feels like it, seconds slowly dilating as she searches for resistance and finds none. Gaby pulls him down, presses her lips to his, close-mouthed, feeling out the difference. It is Napoleon who parts beneath her, eyes slowly closing.
Gaby hadn’t realised they were open.
She pulls him away, twisting him with her grip on his hair, yet Napoleon remains plaint. With his eyes closed he looks almost peaceful.
“Mm,” he murmurs, hum still very deep in his chest, “that was refreshing, though I wonder--” He opens his eyes and Gaby finds herself abruptly pinned, something about the shine of the lamps turning his regard catlike. “What will our friends say?”
The inflection lands the way he means it to. Gaby stares him down, taking what she hopes is at least part of the measure of him, instead of some elaborate layering of charm and circumstance. “I don’t know. Tell me what you meant about Illya. Earlier. About his control.”
Napoleon stays still in her grip, neither testing the give nor pulling away. “How much direction have you given him lately?”
Napoleon’s smile, when she lets go, reminds her of nothing so much as Till Eulenspiegel, waiting for the prank to come full circle for his own amusement. In a moment it is gone, but Gaby is left thinking of misdirections, and of Illya’s brittle drifting as they walk home in suspended silence.
In Istanbul, Gaby realised just how big the task she’d taken on was going to be.
In San Marino, she decides to share the burden.
When they get home, Illya is sitting in the living room with the lights on, contemplating a tumbler of whiskey. He appears to have sipped it, but the bottle is still full, and the ice has almost fully melted.
The remains of the cast are in a loose mass by his feet, swept off his lap, judging from the streaks of plaster left on his clothes. His right arm, paler even than the rest of him, grips the armrest of the chair as they enter, knuckles white against the dark wood.
“Drinking alone, darling?” Napoleon says, declining to mention the obvious. He is made louche by the amber glow of the lamp, by the faint swell of his lips and the mess of his hair. Gaby feels put-together in comparison, and discovers the sensation to be surprisingly pleasurable, before reality crashes back in.
“When in Rome,” Illya mutters, setting his glass aside, moving to lever himself out of the chair, movements made no less coiled and ready by the asymmetry of his hands. Even plasterless the mass lost from the muscle is startling, bones standing high under the skin.
Gaby holds up a finger. “Not yet, if you don’t mind? What happened? Are you--”
Illya sits back down, sprawled this time, as though acquiescing to her request is the last thing required to break his composure. He doesn’t answer, hand settling unconscious across his lap.
Gaby looks between them: Napoleon half undone and Illya coming apart slowly, cracking rather than bending, and decides there will be no better time to tell them.
She slips into her room, emerging with the microfilm, the other little pieces of the collection she’s amassed. “We don’t-- this isn’t a mission, yet. But I would like it to be. If you will agree to do it with me.”
She kneels, spreading what she has on the coffee table, small film reader unceremoniously set up on top of a book of photographs and a stack of magazines. “You know my father wasn’t a Nazi,” she says, “but Rudi was.”
Napoleon folds himself down next to her, pressing himself cross-legged into her side as he peers in to look. It’s not much, yet, just aerial photos, a trail not yet cold only because it is still being used. “He would have told us anything we wanted to know,” he mutters, almost to himself, reaching for the film. “Where is this?”
“Argentina,” Gaby says, looking at Illya, gone white at the lips. “Illya?”
“I have heard--” He cuts himself off, looking at the small window; at this time of night, all he’ll see is his own reflection, lights from inside turning the glass opaque. “Let me see,” he finishes, slipping onto the floor with them. Seated, Napoleon is the tallest of them, proportions distributed for strength, solid in the middle. Illya, by contrast, is built for reach, bones long in hands and arms and legs. She wonders, suddenly, what it would have been like for him, to be growing without a reprieve, if what Waverly has told her is true. He has been the KGB’s nearly all his life. It is no wonder he is adrift now.
Gaby begins to fit the pieces. She makes space for him at Napoleon’s side, leaving the warmth of proximity for Illya’s vacated chair.
She watches as Napoleon passes Illya the reader, the way they move around each other newly cautious, to her eye. Napoleon speaks to him as though nothing has changed, but the precision of his movements betrays his awareness of injury.
If there is one thing Gaby learned in Berlin, it is how to watch. She has, perhaps, not been using it so well, of late.
She claims Illya’s discarded drink, unbothered by its dilution, ice just chips in the glass. She drinks the whole thing slowly, watching them read, before she busies herself, picking up the pieces of plaster left on the floor.
“So you told them,” Waverly says, over a different cup of coffee. The day is overcast, so they have gone inside, sitting in a corner by an old stone wall. The crowd is thinner, people beginning to leave San Marino with the onset of the working week.
Gaby always used to take the Saturday work, when she could get it. It was quiet, and she could spend as much time as she liked on her own car. It has taken an adjustment in increments to accept her new role as official.
“I did.” Gaby searches him for a reaction, but as ever he wears a light smile and reflective glasses, and she can glean very little. “I think I’ll need the rest of the files.”
Waverly dips his chin, “Did our young Russian have any insight?”
There is a particular cadence when Waverly speaks about Illya, Gaby thinks. It’s very possible she is projecting it, opaque as Waverly is, but there is a deliberate lightness, as though what she says will be the thing to add weight. “He thinks Mossad have been working in Buenos Aires recently.”
Waverly sips his coffee. “And how do they seem to you? Remember, I did say there was no need to act in haste. Let’s avoid another Istanbul, if we can. Dreadfully expensive.”
“They wouldn’t extract him, would they?” Gaby asks over the rim of her mug, pitching her voice for romance for listening ears as she leans closer, eyelashes lowered. “He’s in the wind if this doesn’t work out.”
“Or at the bottom of the Bosphorous,” Waverly says, placing an elbow on the table and his chin on the very edge of his knuckles. “Frightfully territorial, I’m afraid. They don’t like to share.”
Gaby swallows, keeping her smile. “And the Americans?”
Waverly places his other hand palm-up on the table, inviting Gaby to place hers on top. “Willing to be flexible, providing we don’t lose track of certain assets. So it’s rather more a case of a continuing incentive, wouldn’t you say?”
When Gaby places her fingers in his, he slips her a card. Waverly settles the bill, unconcerned with the waiter’s scrutiny.
When he is gone, she reads it. It’s just an address.
She will have to ask Napoleon where he parked the car.
The trip to Faetano takes longer than she had thought possible in a country this size, but its scale is belied by twisting roads, mountains funnelling into valleys at their own geographical pace.
They find themselves in is an entirely nondescript pre-war building, repurposed as an office. It seems to her neither in a strategic town nor of any particular architectural merit. Why Waverly would have a grip on it defies logic, on the surface, though there is a strong probability that’s the point.
Napoleon seems barely interested, examining the building with a sweep of heavy-lidded eyes.
Illya is the one to give voice to the way they are gathering breadcrumbs. “Why not just give us the files instead of leaving them somewhere like this,” he mutters, staring at the door. “I know you have a drop but--” he cuts himself off, lowering his half-raised right hand before he subsides. “Never mind.”
Gaby, for all that she is the youngest and the least trained of them, is familiar with this process. This was Berlin, the drop spikes and the careful movements and the information passed piecemeal. She had photographed things she personally considered inconsequential, moved small things which seemed utterly unimportant. Never at any point did it feel safe, but this kind of craft she knows from years of intimacy.
If Illya doesn’t, that is another mystery to solve. Gaby abruptly remembers his abysmal cover in Rome and is forced to stifle a smile, though the thought quickly dies. There is something here that has a shape in her mind but no hole to fill; it will have to wait, as with so many other things.
“Shall we?” Napoleon offers her an elbow. Gaby takes it, enjoying the weave of his linen suit beneath her fingers. He is such a creature of texture that Gaby forgets, sometimes, how frictionless he can be.
The file is inside a desk on the top floor, the office clean and furnished. Illya checks the corners and Napoleon the stairs. Gaby throws her feet up on the desk to read. It takes her an hour to leaf through everything, eventually co-opting a lamp and another desk pushed up against the first.
By then, Napoleon and Illya have pressed into her sides, hands moving where she tells them to as she spreads the information.
“Are you going to call Mossad, or shall I?” Napoleon asks, fine-boned fingertips resting on the Codename ODESSA dossier, for all the world as though he is asking about a dinner reservation, not a request for intervention.
Gaby has no contacts anywhere but here; Waverly is her only port of call. “Illya?”
Illya says nothing, reading a medical report, gone white around the mouth in the way she has come to realise is a bad sign for any nearby furniture.
“I know just the person.” Napoleon picks up the phone on the desk, listening for the dial tone. “Is this secure?”
Gaby shrugs. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Napoleon grins as he dials. “Rachel,” he says, “It’s Napoleon. Don’t hang up.”
The drive back is silent, Napoleon conceding the wheel to Gaby as always, when she elbows him out of the driver’s seat. He is relegated to the back in mercy for Illya’s long limbs, though Napoleon, as ever, doesn’t seem to mind. He spreads himself over the back with his elbow out the window, content to let the breeze ruffle his hair.
Gaby wonders whether he has arranged himself to be as attractive as possible, then discards the question. Of course he has. He could no more prevent himself from doing it than he could from breathing. On some level, there is performance to even the smallest gesture. Gaby is forced, instead, to wonder whether what is beneath it has ever seen the light of day.
Illya, by contrast, remains as he has since their arrival, silent next to her, evening light painting a gold line across the bridge of his long nose, catching in his pale eyelashes. She wonders what he would have been like, had he not given himself over to something quite so brutal.
She had set out to bend him, in Rome. In a way, she had succeeded, but only in the sense that to bend something brittle is to leave damage behind. Truthfully, she doesn’t think Illya would have done the same in her position. She thinks he would never have been allowed to end up in her position in the first place.
Illya’s reaction to the piecemeal graft of their work, his pursuit of them in Berlin, his stiffness in Rome, all of it is beginning, by the increment, to make more sense.
Gaby reaches across the gulf between them, and slowly, firmly, rests her right hand on the back of his neck, curve of her thumb brushing the collar of his shirt, skin warm and smooth beneath her fingers.
He doesn’t shrug her off. Instead, he turns his head, staring not out the window this time, but at her, eyes made transparent where the light catches before a bend in the road changes their direction. Under her palm, he softens, just slightly. Just enough.
She wonders if he has always been so difficult to touch, then banishes the thought. It is a dangerous road, and she needs both hands to drive.
They spread the papers out on the floor, furniture pushed aside to make room. This time, all three of them end up on the carpet, Napoleon uncorking a bottle of wine he passes to Gaby as a given as soon as he folds himself cross-legged.
Illya has stiff hips, Gaby thinks, watching him arrange himself. He’s so tall that for him to sit on the floor seems comical almost, knees up high enough to rest his elbow on, but he doesn’t complain, instead reaching again for the medical files. “They took Russians for this, too,” he says, low voice quiet. “This is madness.”
“It is.” Gaby agrees.
Napoleon takes the file from him, neglecting to leaf through it. “When is it not?” He reclaims the wine, produces a pen and begins to mark the dossier, proceeding methodically, making a note of what happened when.
After a moment, Illya begins to compare notes, correcting Napoleon’s intelligence with what he has stored away from the KGB, histories intersecting over atrocity.
Gaby can never forget that the Soviet forces fought the war in opposition to the Germans; she is from East Berlin and has lived under the consequence all her life. But this, right now, she has a chance to rectify. She cannot and will not deny it’s personal. Rudi, at the end, was a monster, and she shares a part of his blood. Her mother’s and his. That he turned his genius to experiments, to the taking apart of others for pleasure she cannot help but be disgusted by, but the shame is what sticks, already half-turned to anger. How dare he soil her like this. How dare he ruin what her father died to protect.
If watching Napoleon work is an exercise in method for Gaby, listening to Illya is one in experience. He is the one who opens up like a torn envelope. Once he is set to filling in the colours, intelligence gathered in pieces for years gains context.
“No, in 1953 we were not in Colombia,” Illya corrects, taking the pen left-handed, still ably ambidextrous despite his new lack of restriction. “There was a station in Uruguay.” He marks it, then immediately passes the pen back.
Napoleon’s fingers brush his on the return. “Thank you,” he says, low and quiet, just the barest curl to his lips, and Gaby watches as Illya looks away, tendons in his long neck standing out, and is reminded of nothing so much as a wary stray, still working towards trust.
It’s an unfortunate comparison. Gaby turns her attention to the mission instead, brought up short only by Napoleon, toasting her with the bottle before he places it down between them, glance skipping over Illya before he gets back to task.
The message itself is clear enough. Do something about that.
The question is merely how, at this point. Gaby has some idea, but as always, when there are moving parts, it helps to have a plan.
The night cools quickly, in a country as high as San Marino.
With the windows shut, Napoleon lights the stove, and sets himself to cooking. Whatever he’s making is of less interest to her than his movements while he does it, back carelessly turned to them, knife flying with easy precision across a carrot, an aubergine, something green she has no name for or interest in. Whatever he makes, she’ll eat.
Illya packs the file, and Gaby goes to sit with him as he does it. “Thank you,” she says, watching him duck her eyes.
“Where did you get this?” Illya asks, one long hand resting on top of it, knuckles standing high above his fingers, crossed with faint, white scars.
Gaby searches his face, debating a half-truth. “Waverly,” she says, but there is more to it, really. “I think-- a lot of it, the medical-- Rudi was a doctor. Waverly must have collected his things.” It isn’t much more than a theory, but she can see how it fits, and how well Waverly does his job. She wonders how many favours he has discharged to get the rest of this, the auxiliary, the detail aside from just Rudi’s in-depth consultancy correspondence. The quest for the perfect man, the perfect race, the perfect place to hide. It is all so clinically disgusting that Gaby isn’t surprised any longer how eager he was to work for Victoria and Alexander, and how needlessly cruel he was to Illya. She regrets it, in an abstract way, no matter how favourably she emerged from the exchange.
She can only imagine what Rudi would have thought of what Illya really is. She doesn’t want to, any more than she wants to imagine him torturing Napoleon. Gaby has heard the gist, rather than the detail, but Napoleon seems to have emerged unscathed. Somehow the fact is unsurprising, another facet of Napoleon’s gem-hard imperviousness. She thinks perhaps Napoleon, had he not been forced into an arrangement with the CIA, would somehow have ended up embroiled in selling secrets anyway. He may be smooth the way gems are, but they lack his persistent flexibility, and his knack for landing upright.
“Gaby, this is--” Illya hands it to her, seemingly just becoming aware of his claim on it, “it’s a big case. If there are as many involved as the file says, we might not be--” he cuts himself off, pushing himself to his feet. “It will be a big job.”
Gaby thinks she can tell what he wants to say; they are not good enough together to take down a whole Nazi operation themselves. They are not good enough together to work in concert for as long as this will take. The brutal part of it is he’s right, for now. She has to give him credit for the admission.
Illya will need to trust her to do this, set out into the jungle to see where this trail leads.
She looks up at him, finding him suddenly remote. “Waverly can give us what we need.”
Illya doesn’t quite shrug, but the tilt of his chin, the distance in his eyes, all of it leads to the same impression. “Yes.” He pauses, lips slightly parted, as though he plans on continuing, then doesn’t.
“But…?” Gaby steps in a bit closer, rests her hand on his wrist, just the barest brush of fingers.
Illya closes his eyes, but doesn’t pull away, standing very still for a moment before he speaks. “Nothing,” he lies. When he opens his eyes again, it is Napoleon he watches, over Gaby’s head and shoulders, before he looks back at her. “I am going to take a shower.”
Her fingers still hold the ghost of his cold skin when he goes.
Gaby slams the file onto the desk in the corner with more force than is strictly necessary before she picks up the wine and heads to the kitchen. “What do I do?” she asks Napoleon, offering him a sip.
Napoleon skewers a carrot, sauteed now, apparently, and offers it to her on the end of the knife, watching her take it in her teeth the way he seems to watch everything, if she’s been paying attention: as though nothing he sees is inherently more or less than anything else. She wonder what he keeps it for, all this information he soaks up. She wonders if he ever discards any of it, or if it’s all sitting in a vault somewhere in the back of his mind, waiting to be used.
He watches her chew for a while before he answers. “He’s too well-trained to crack all by himself, you know.” Napoleon stirs, sleeves rolled up past his elbows, exposing his corded forearms, the faint sheen of moisture from the steam a dull burnish to his slowly-darkening skin. “He’s just going to wind himself tighter and tighter until he breaks something.” Napoleon grins, entirely muscle movement before the humour reaches his eyes. “Well, something else, anyway.”
“You’re not helping.”
“No, I don’t suppose I am.” Napoleon tilts his chin, angle turning him puckish, large eyes made larger as he widens them for effect. “Would you like me to?” He offers her another carrot, waiting. Gaby takes it, careful of the blade. She chews, thinking it over. If she unleashes Napoleon, god knows what will happen.
Gaby has never had much place in her life for god. At heart, she is a mechanic, and all the parts need to fit together before the engine will work. There is no room for god, when the problem is rooted in human error. “Yes,” she says. “Please.”
Napoleon’s grin widens. “Watch this, will you?”
Gaby nods, neglecting to tell him she has no idea what to do with it. She suspects Napoleon doesn’t care, faced with a more interesting game to play. Gaby sits on the counter by the stove, and watches him disappear into the bedroom, holding her breath.
When she hears the first crash of something heavy hitting a wall, she turns off the stove.
“It was your decision,” Illya hisses, “you saw him burning, and you left him!”
Gaby, ear pressed to the door, doesn’t recoil. She can guess which nerve Napoleon has gone for, and this is a story she has heard only piecemeal, and only from Waverly. Rudi’s demise had not been elegant, and a part of Gaby is glad for it, but as to who had truly engineered his end, she hadn’t seen the need to press. It hadn’t mattered, at the time, not when her father had died in the crossfire, not when they had another mission pressing them to greater momentum. Nonetheless, the revelation is brutal in a small way, another illustration of the world she lives in, now, that a man burning isn’t cause for automatic action.
“I told you there was a glitch,” Napoleon says, voice even and deliberate. “Honestly, sloppy of you to leave the pedal down. A bit compromised, were we? Besides, I don't recall you rushing in to help.”
Gaby can only guess at the look on his face, the curl of his lips, the calculated lift of his eyebrows.
The sound, after, is about what she expects. The thud of something heavy hitting a wall. The rattle of the lamp. A crash. Then, silence, and Gaby walks in.
Illya, half-dressed, has Napoleon pinned to the bed, one arm twisted brutally up over his back, one of Illya’s knees on his legs, mattress dipping under their combined weight. He isn’t struggling, so Gaby takes a moment to observe, tracing the rictus snarl on Illya’s face in contrast to the expression of serene disinterest on Napoleon’s, as though being held down the way Illya is holding him is of no consequence at all.
Gaby remembers, viscerally, the shock of Illya appearing behind her in the boutique, the height and weight of him undiminished by the distance of a night and a city and the sight of Napoleon in her view.
She remembers him chasing them, a giant in the darkness, nothing in his eyes but focus. Napoleon had been more unknown, a momentary ally, the frying pan rather than the fire. Illya, she had been sure of: sure he would do whatever it took to find her father, no matter the cost. Waverly had warned her. Gaby had thought herself ready after nearly two years of waiting, but still, she had been afraid of him, then and for days after.
Her surety of his motives, the way she still isn’t of Napoleon’s, had been the germ of her distrust of him. Now, she thinks she can see farther back, and the fraying of the certainty under which she thinks he has always operated.
“Illya, that’s enough.” Gaby doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard. The pin-drop silence is broken only by Napoleon’s breathing, deep gusts of air in and out as he sinks into the sheets.
Illya’s head swivels as though cut loose from a mount, eyes wide, snarl disappearing in a heartbeat. He uncurls himself, leaving Napoleon limp on the bed for a moment before he blinks himself back to awareness, rolling over and straightening his crumpled shirt before he bothers sitting up.
Gaby looks at Illya, his close-held right arm apparently not a deterrent to his violence, then at Napoleon, sliding slowly to his feet without a break to his movements.
“Gaby, I--” Illya starts, but she cuts him off, as easily as holding a hand up, Illya’s teeth snapping shut at his haste to obey. At his immediate silence, she knows.
“Do you trust me?” She asks them both, knowing the answer is a variation on a theme, the same way she operates on a continuum with Waverly.
Napoleon loosens his tie, smirk curling around his lips, mask back in place. “To an extent,” he allows. “It rather depends.”
Illya swallows, lips pressed to a thin line, but he nods.
“I need you to say it,” she tells him, filled with certainty for the first time in what feels like an age. “Yes or no.”
He looks at her, and Gaby looks back. Not so long ago, he was standing behind her in West Berlin, all in black and built to frighten, a thing from a bad dream, the monster that chases people in the night. She hasn’t been afraid of him since she set out to see how far he would go if she pressed him, pressed him to the floor and then retreated, feigning sleep as a final measure.
All he had done was put her to bed.
Gaby walks around the bed, choosing her steps carefully as she lays a palm on his cheek. Illya’s rigidity, so much a part of him, won’t soften in a day, but he presses his cheek into her palm regardless, eyes flicking closed. “Do you trust me?” she asks again, ignoring, for a moment, Napoleon leaning against the bed, heedless of the smashed side-table.
Illya doesn't answer, cheek rough in her hand.
Gaby strokes a thumb over his cheekbone, watching him. Illya doesn’t move, eyes still closed. If Gaby were to describe the look on his face, she’d say--
Eyes closed, he looks disconnected, as though her hand is all that tethers him to his body.
“Will you let me handle this?” Gaby asks an entirely different question, voice as soft as she can make it.
“Yes,” Illya says, shuddering as she withdraws her touch, fingers leaving his skin one by one, the last point of contact her index nail under his chin, tipping his face up.
“Open your eyes,” Gaby commands.
Illya obeys. Right away.
“Good,” she says, stepping back. “Come on, it’s a mess in here.”
The furniture is still pushed to the side of the room, never replaced in anticipation of tomorrow's work.
Illya stands in the centre of it, carpet muffling his steps, Napoleon skirting them as though marking the arena, faint curl of his hair and faint curl of his lips lending a louche air to his movement. Gaby ignores him, unconcerned with his evident satisfaction at a job well done. Her focus is Illya, Illya slowly cracking wide open, his need for direction finally the missing piece.
Gaby stands in front of him, looking up. Illya’s eyes have begun to lose focus, hands open and limp at his sides. Gaby runs a fingertip over the back of his knuckles, tracing the shudder as he lets her, following it up his left arm, over his clavicle, standing on her toes to wrap a hand around the back of his neck. “Down,” she whispers, pressing her palm into the hard ridge of his spine.
Illya’s knees hit the floor with a decisive thump, loud in the silence left after Gaby starts to hold her breath. She realises a moment later, exhaling for as long as she can before she begins to feel dizzy.
Napoleon has arranged himself against the door, still down to his shirt and trousers, stripped of the layers Gaby has rarely seen him bare of.
Her hand leaves Illya’s skin with a drag of fingers along the side of his neck, his eyes wide and open and sightless.
“Napoleon,” Gaby says, still looking at Illya, watching the rise and fall of his ribs, “I’d like you to hit him for me.”
Illya’s chin falls toward his chest, but Gaby catches it, and gently draws his face up. He makes eye contact for a moment, pupils so open Gaby thinks even the dim light must be hurting him, before remembering she wants this, wants him to kneel here and let himself be hurt. If he can do that, let them take the place of his explosive rage, she’ll have won something better than a victory.
Napoleon moves as though he’s on strings, crossing the room in what seems like too few steps to Gaby, still absorbed in Illya, his short breaths and clenched hands, knuckles standing out white against his black trousers.
Napoleon presses against her, solid and hard to the touch. Gaby turns Ilya’s face to him, reaching for Napoleon’ hand. She has marvelled before at the incongruent delicacy of them, the short, fine-boned fingers, undisguised by rounded-off nails and wide palms. It would be incorrect to say he has thief’s hands; that is simply the use to which they have been put. Rather Gaby thinks they remind her of his precision, the carefully calibrated ways in which he uses his body, aware of every inch of it.
There is a ring on his left hand, heavy and gold, etched with the image of a man with two faces. Gaby will laugh, later, when it will penetrate him most to be the object of ridicule, no matter how gentle. Now, she wants to see him unravel himself. She slips the ring off, looking at the scar by Illya’s eye, thinking of the way his skin will be marked by impact.
The gold is body-warm in her palm when she steps back, leaving Illya looking wide-eyed at Napoleon, breath coming in short gasps. Napoleon tilts his head to the side, eyes glassy before he blinks, and Gaby sees him collecting himself, drawing back his left shoulder, rolling his fingers, and then, unexpectedly fast, unleashing a resounding smack across Illya’s right cheek.
Illya rolls, momentum jerking him sideways.
Gaby watches it as though it’s happening in slow-motion, Illya kicking Napoleon’s knee out from under him, Napoleon catching himself with a grunt. Gaby expects, perhaps, for Illya to let his momentum carry him back to his feet, expects him to grab at Napoleon with his good arm and throw him, use all the force of his overlong limbs to fight back.
He just looks at her. Illya rises against the wall, right cheek blazing, and looks at her for direction, drawn to his full height, but coiled. Waiting.
“That’s good,” Gaby says, following the instinct in her gut, the wide-open look in Illya’s eyes. “Come here.”
Illya obeys, crossing the narrow room in four steps. Gaby takes his hand, placing it palm up in hers. The size of it is so startling, set against her own narrow bones. “Down, please,” she orders him, very quietly. Illya, shaking in her grip, obeys, left hand raised as though offering, eyes closed as she holds him.
Napoleon rights himself in the corner of her eye, but this isn’t about him, any more than it is about her, at its core. This is about Illya, about teasing out the thing in him which demands control and convincing him to give it over. Napoleon is simply an avenue, a goad.
He approaches, standing by, looking down at Illya with a tilt to his head, fingertips resting on his own lower lip. “He is quite impressive like this, isn’t he?” he murmurs, speaking past his hand.
Illya shudders, fingers curling in before Gaby catches them, gently opening his hand digit by digit. “Illya,” she says, tracing a shape on his palm, gauging the shiver that travels through him at intervals. “Next time you need this, ask.”
Illya makes a noise in the back of his throat, inarticulate but immediate. Gaby follows the line of his arm, placing his left hand on her waist so he can feel her, the solidity of her body as she pulls him closer, one hand cupped around the back of his skull, pulling until he is leaning off-balance against her legs.
“Oh, well done,” Napoleon says in her ear, approaching silently, her focus narrowed to Illya enough that he almost startles her.
Slowly, with the most deliberate care she has ever mustered in herself, Gaby threads her free hand into Napoleon’s hair, twisting until he gasps, eyes going heavy lidded and amused. “This goes through me now,” she tells him, pulling him around for a better view of his face. “Are we clear?”
Napoleon doesn’t answer, quiescent in her grip as she releases Illya, allowing him to settle silently back on his heels, left hand still anchored to her waist. She shakes him, then, just a small back and forth, and Napoleon looks for all the world as though he would put up with it indefinitely. Gaby knows it’s an illusion, but she will need them both, in the coming months. An illusion is real for as long as it appears to be, if the effect remains the same.
“Why Janus?” she whispers at him, already knowing the answer.
“Why not?” Napoleon answers, and it fits both questions well enough that she is forced to let him go.
Gaby presses a thumb to the mark by Illya’s temple, tracing the smooth edge, watching the way he holds himself very, very still. “Come back,” she says, and he does, eyes flicking open, wide and wary, but present now. Tethered. “Good,” she says again, ready for the tremble, this time. “Get up.”
It’s not unusual, since Istanbul, for Illya to take a plate and remove himself, but this time he sits with them, now covered by one of his habitual turtlenecks, healing arm resting gingerly on the side of the sofa and right cheek still an angry red. Tomorrow, she thinks, there will be no trace, watching the impact fade.
She wishes he would tell them how he broke his arm, and when, before they found him in the hospital, white against the sheets.
“So, when does our fearless leader want to head south for the winter?” Napoleon asks, cutting into his ratatouille with surgical precision. “Say the word. Rachel has a delightful place.”
“Napoleon,” Gaby looks at him, hoping he’ll take the meaning as well as just the words, “would you mind taking care of the mess?”
Napoleon narrows his eyes, chewing and swallowing with a faint smirk curling his lips. “I suppose if I leave it we’ll get splinters.” He leaves his plate on the floor, half-eaten, and goes, leaving Gaby and Illya together on the couch.
Illya has been eating mechanically, a kind of automatic refuelling process that Gaby understands well enough. The day after Rome, she had stared at a plate of eggs for hours, forcing herself to chew and swallow and realise in the process that the world would keep turning, that the sun would very likely rise again and she would not be back in Berlin, a knife under her pillow for want of a gun.
Gaby leaves him be until he has finished, then takes his plate, setting it beside Napoleon’s and her own. The sounds in the larger bedroom indicate Napoleon is making a point of his absence, but Gaby isn’t concerned with him the way she is with Illya’s careful silence.
She lays a hand on his wrist, the one thrown up on the back of the couch, and watches him.
Illya sighs, but doesn’t jerk away. “Gaby, I--” He starts, then stops, running a finger over the edge of the scar by his eye. It has the look of a movement more unconscious than not, and old habit she has only just seen surface.
“Is it because you can’t go back?” She asks because she wants to know, not because she wants to hurt him, but he flinches anyway, a long, full-body contraction under her touch. Gaby lets go, giving him whatever space he requires, hoping he won’t just run away, but not willing, truly, to hold him anywhere he doesn’t want to be.
Illya looks at her and reclaims his arm. “It’s healing,” he says, huge, long-boned hand curling into a fist as he tests the break. He’d almost refused plaster as well, citing a conspicuous injury as dangerous, but not even Illya could have stood the travel without it. Still, what does she know about injury, or the repairing of one. She’s been tossed around, true, but seeing him in the hospital had been a lesson in scarring she hadn’t gotten in Rome. She had assumed, wrongly, perhaps, that Illya’s careful boundary was for her benefit, but the roadmap of small white lines on his arms, the knotted round tissue of an exit wound on his left flank, what is almost definitely the aftermath of a stabbing near enough under his right clavicle to have almost punctured the lung beneath, all of it speaks to someone accustomed to the process of knitting flesh, and perhaps not willing to share it.
The break had been clean, but still Gaby aches at it, because it was her fault to begin with that their covers had all been blown. She and Napoleon, perhaps, could have weathered the exposure, had Illya been able to remain in place, but in her haste to contact him, she’d led--
Well. They all got out alive, for a given value.
Illya looks at her, and Gaby begins to understand that by healing he doesn’t just mean the break. In so many ways, he’s the one with the deepest wounds. Gaby has read his file. She supposes Napoleon has, too, given their collision as she stood between them, and Illya Napoleon’s in return, but she needn’t have, to see damage done.
Neither of them has read Gaby’s that she knows of. The mysteries within are so far perhaps hers and Waverly’s alone. She does not think Napoleon has any of her in his arsenal yet, though she doubts he’d pass it on before it was personally advantageous for him to do so.
If Illya knows only what he has seen of her, there is no wonder he finds her difficult. She has wounded him. “I’m sorry,” she says, meaning it. “I’ve used you badly, I think.” Illya snorts, such an unexpected noise that it startles them both. Gaby, though, is the first to laugh, catching herself quiet on it. “I can--”
“I’m not what you think I am.” Illya interrupts her quietly, hand still curled into the heavy fabric of his shirt. “I was not meant to spend time undercover with you. I was not meant to do anything but kill Solo and interrogate you.”
Gaby has thought as much. Illya’s volatile temper, his brittleness, his absolute determination when given a clear thing to chase. All of it, finally, points to one thing. He is misplaced, and she has misused him. “I know,” she says, though she hasn’t for long, hasn’t quite managed to click it all together until now, tumblers falling all in a row. “How long has it been since you worked in a team?”
Illya shrugs, staring over her shoulder. “Since-- Special Forces, for a while. It helps to have--” he breaks off, one side of his mouth pulling up in something that is definitely not a smile, “--direction.”
“I’ve never had a team before,” Gaby says, curling up cross-legged, right knee hanging off the side of the couch as she faces him.
“And you got us,” Illya says, a small hint of humour working its way into his voice. “I would have killed you, after.”
“I know.” Gaby says. “You were meant to kill Napoleon in Rome?”
“To get the disk? Yes.” Illya shifts, eyes refocusing, looking at her sidelong. “I knew after that I’d have to… prove myself again.”
Gaby doesn’t answer right away, thinking back on Istanbul: Gaby and Napoleon vacationing Americans; Illya a businessman involved in shipping--his discomfort on the plane, the way his hackles had been up from the start, cover sitting as badly as his suit. “Are they going to come after you?”
“When they think I will snap and do the job for them?” Illya freezes, going rigid by degrees. “No.”
Guilt climbs her ribs as she watches him coil up again, the previous hour’s lassitude in danger of disappearing entirely, and with it this ease, this window to the first real conversation they’ve had since he gave her back the ring and she had taken it. “Illya,” Gaby doesn’t touch him, wanting this to settle without the aid of her hands. “I need you, but I need you not-- not something else you’re just wearing.”
“Be careful,” Illya says, looking her in the eyes, the clear blue of his so arresting when he needs them to be.
“I will.” Gaby turns her hand palm-up on the back of the couch, no expectation in the gesture.
Illya places his right hand on her palm, a gesture so trusting in its context that she is momentarily breathless, half-sure he means to warn her as much as to acquiesce to her control.
Her strings are not the only ones he’s tied to.
Rachel meets them at the airport in Caracas.
Gaby likes her immediately, which is probably a bad sign, in their line of work. She is also small, also possessed of dark hair and dark eyes, but Gaby, if pressed, could describe only the most cursory of things about her otherwise: Straight teeth. A nice smile. A quality of unremarkableness that Gaby envies.
“As radiant as ever,” Solo says, kissing her hand with a grin.
Rachel raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t pull away, leaving him his rituals before turning to Gaby and Illya. “Are they outsourcing at Langley now?”
Napoleon’s grin widens. “We’re unaffiliated, technically speaking.”
“Gaby.” She introduces herself quickly, wishing to forestall anything Napoleon might say about her on the spot.
Rachel takes her hand and shakes it, looking her up and down. “Ah. British Intelligence?”
“Formerly,” Gaby confirms, holding a small smile as Rachel releases her.
“And who’s completing the set? Don’t tell me he’s the Russian.”
Illya coughs. Napoleon’s grin widens, teeth very evident in the bright sunshine. “Funny you should say that.”
Rachel laughs, shaking her head with every evidence of humour. “Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.”
“You know me,” Napoleon says, leaving the sentence to hang.
“Do I.” Rachel responds in kind, neither statement or question. “Well, follow me, I hate this place.”
Gaby watches her as she turns her back, uncomfortably aware of her own body in the humid heat, the particular salted quality of the air leaving traces on her tongue. To see so many new places after so long spent looking up at the same walls on all sides still has a faint edge of unreality. The drive to memorise--the bright colours, the acid blue of the sky and the warm roughness of the stone under her feet--in case she never gets to experience them again. She wonders if the view was the same for Rudi when first he travelled this far south, and if it ever occurred to him the luxury of it.
There are so many questions. Waverly, before their departure, had met her for one last coffee, kissed her gently on the cheek in parting, and said “trust, Miss Teller, is a very rare commodity, not to be parcelled out lightly. Be careful who you promise favours to.”
In the car, Gaby ends up pressed against Illya across the backseat, his cool body a welcome change from the equatorial damp, and listens to Rachel deflect Napoleon’s automatic flirting with practiced ease.
The ride to the other side of town takes nearly an hour. Gaby, punch drunk from jetlag and the preoccupation of being back in the field, realises that she has been listening, half-asleep, to the slow beat of Illya’s heart instead of to the conversation.
She straightens carefully as the car slows. Illya hasn’t moved from beneath her, eyes distant as he looks out the window, scanning the road ceaselessly, left hand draped around her shoulders.
Gaby squeezes his wrist as she extricates herself, gratified when he doesn’t pull away. If one thing has come of Istanbul and all its aftermath, at least this is what she has a better grip on. Illya is not lacking in complexity, the way she had initially seen him. He is the opposite: someone tugged loose from his habitual chain and sent out to find another before he wrecks himself on too much freedom. If she had it in her, she could ruin him.
There is no if. She does have him precariously perched in her cupped hands, Napoleon watching and ready on the side, a cuckoo in the shape of a man.
How strange, to have the two of them so differently tied; Illya by lack of alternatives, by pain and risk only half paid off. Napoleon? Gaby has little doubt he would have fled weeks ago, had he not a puzzle to solve.
Gaby releases Illya’s wrist, slipping out onto a quiet back street, sunlight filtering through wrought-iron balconies.
The gunshot cracks through the birdsong and catches Gaby across the side.
She is aware, first, of a ringing in her ears, long before the horrible, tearing pain just below her waist, blood blooming across the white of her dress.
After, she is only aware of hands, the bright crash of voices raised, and all she can think is that they don’t have guns yet, how badly prepared they are to defend each other.
Illya is the one -- injured, she thinks, still so injured -- who drags her back into the car, where Napoleon has already forced Rachel.
Napoleon never shouts. Gaby must be hearing Illya. The light is so bright through the windows, and the pain so jagged. Blood leaks through her fingers where she presses them on top of Illya’s, her dress bunched hard into the wound.
Gaby wants to thank him; there is no moisture left in her mouth. She manages to grip him as hard as she can, teeth creaking at the effort.
“Not the hospital,” Rachel says, voice unbearably calm. “There, turn left.”
The car lurches, Napoleon driving badly as usual, and Gaby would insist on taking the wheel but she is bleeding, and Illya is saying something in Russian under his breath, something just beyond the edge of her comprehension. Gaby reaches a hand up, blood staining her palm staining his lips in turn as she lays a finger over them.
He looks down at her, eyes wide in his long face, deathly silent.
“I’m not dead yet,” she says, pain beginning to become pervasive, and therefore something she can grasp and hold, no longer a shock but a throb. Agony, yes, but hers, now. For as long as it will take to fix.
Gaby would be lying if she said she wasn’t afraid, but she is no stranger to fear.
It scares her, that Illya would allow himself to whisper a prayer where anyone could hear.
She glances down at her side, but all she sees is a mess of blood and the wide expanse of Illya’s hand, knuckles white where her dress is gripped beneath them.
“Pull over-- there!” Rachel points over Napoleon, promoting a swerve hard enough to jar Gaby against Illya, pain screeching up her nerves.
Illya swears, once, quietly, as Gaby’s hand falls away from his lips.
Even now, she thinks, he wouldn’t have, if she’d kept it there.
Rachel opens the rear door, grip calm as she reaches for Gaby. “Quick,” she says, not unkindly, looking over her shoulder. “Napoleon will have to get rid of the car.”
Gaby takes her hand and leans, standing upright a shock, enough that she almost falls, right there. Illya is the pillar at her spine, arm under hers, wrapped around to press her to his side, hiding as much of the blood in his jacket as possible.
Rachel leads them around the back of a nondescript building in the suburbs. Gaby is ready to give in to the nausea and stop moving, cease the effort of putting one foot in front of the other, but it is Illya, again, when they are inside, who drops Gaby into the nearest dusty chair with a silent apology and swiftly disarms Rachel, twisting her gun up and away before she can flick off the safety.
“I do not know you,” Illya snaps, teeth clenched, “but you will fix her, or you will die.”
Rachel glares at him, set of her jaw entirely displeasure, but she does not appear to be afraid. “I’m in as much danger as you,” she says, cryptically. “That was a new safehouse.”
Illya holds the gun steady, hand nearly dwarfing it. “I would say perhaps you are in more,” he answers, dry as cracked bone.
Rachel huffs, and begins ransacking the cabinets in the kitchen, emerging from under the sink with a bag. Illya doesn’t waver as she reaches inside it slowly, emerging with gauze and a suture kit. “Let me take a look,” she says. “I’ve done this before.”
Gaby stands, walks over to Illya, every movement broken glass. “Let her, please.” She lays a bloodied hand on his forearm, waiting for him to lower the gun. “If we have to, you can--”
“Lie down before you fall down,” Rachel snaps, “you can call off your dog later.”
Gaby bristles. “Don’t call him that.”
Rachel rolls her eyes. “Tell me off when you’re not bleeding. Come on, lie on the table, let me see.”
Gaby tries, but has to be helped, pressing into Rachel’s thin forearms as she rises.
The wound, exposed, is a jagged rent, but the bullet has skated her. There is no entry or exit, merely the wake of its passage. A deep trench, but nothing beneath, if she is very lucky, will be damaged. Gaby lets her head drop back to the table with a long exhale, letting Rachel prepare the disinfectant.
Illya, still rigid with tension in the corner of her eye, stiffens as the sound of a faint knock reaches them, head turning towards the door.
“Go,” Gaby says, gritting her teeth as Rachel begins to clean the blood, exposing the shape of the gash.
He is clearly torn. All at once, he steps close, pressing the gun under the heel of her palm, fitting it gently to her hand. “The safety is off,” he murmurs, before obeying, leaving the room to investigate the noise. Gaby knows very well he is deadly enough without a weapon. She flicks the safety back on, sure that a clench of her hand could be catastrophic when Rachel begins to suture.
“So he’s one of yours, then?” Rachel asks with deliberate lightness, still focused on Gaby’s abdomen, and the place where she has almost been split open. “Seems like hard work.”
Gaby hisses around her teeth as Rachel swipes alcohol on bared meat. “Not quite,” she manages, before Rachel sets out the suture kit, alcohol-clean hands pressing into the swelling.
Rachel hums noncommittally, looking up at Gaby over the topography of her ribs. “Mm. Napoleon isn’t in the habit of picking up strays.” She taps around the midline of Gaby’s abdomen, ignoring Gaby’s pained whine. “If this gets hard, you have to go to the hospital, understand?”
Gaby knows the components that make up an engine, a gun, the inner parts of radios and transmitters and all variety of mechanical tools, but the body is so much more a mystery, the blood and sinew that carries the anima, nothing but electricity and water. She nods, taking Rachel at her word, adding another thing to her list of future projects.
“This is going to hurt,” Rachel warns her, and Gaby has no time to brace herself before the needle dives, pulling torn skin closed.
Sure enough, Gaby’s hand closes like a vise around the pommel of the gun, though she is nowhere near the trigger. Her eyes close, long muscles springing tense at the further intrusion.
“Oh, really, I don’t think shooting her is going to get us any answers,” Napoleon says, warm fingers gently prying the gun away. Gaby looks at him, rolling her eyes to avoid greater movement as Rachel works. “There we go.” Napoleon grasps her hand, unperturbed by the way Gaby clamps down on his fingers, delicate bones shifting in her grip.
“Where’s Illya?” Gaby manages, through her teeth.
“Guarding the door,” Napoleon says, examining the wound from afar. “Someone has rather poor aim.”
“You’re one to talk,” Gaby mutters, before the thread jerks another rent closed, and words are forced away.
Napoleon huffs, playing at offense. “I didn’t say that was a bad thing. Although--”
“All done,” Rachel interrupts, snipping the suture off and swiping more disinfectant along the jagged line she’s sewn into Gaby’s side. No doubt it will scar, and badly. Though she is relieved to no longer be bleeding, agony blooms anew in the wake of Rachel’s swab. “Now, who’s going to tell me why we got shot at? It certainly wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Oh, I don’t know how much of an ‘us’ this was.” Napoleon disentangles himself from Gaby’s grip to help her up before Rachel stops them, pressing Gaby back to the table. “If I’m remembering correctly--” he pauses, clearly for effect. If Gaby was in less pain, she’d laugh at him. “--they had a much clearer shot at you or I.”
Rachel stops at the sink to wash her hands, back turned to Napoleon. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve shared our travel plans?” Napoleon’s tone is light, but the way he steps towards her, the faint touch of Italian soles on gritted floor tiles, the sudden lightness of his feet barely seeming to skim the floor-- Gaby sits up, pain knocking her breathless.
“Napoleon. No.” She watches him stop in his tracks, hand half-raised, one heel slowly lowering as he faces Rachel’s turn.
Rachel is empty handed. Not a threat to someone like Napoleon, Gaby thinks. Perhaps it is the blood loss, the pain or some combination of both, but for a moment, she could have sworn that all that would have been needed for Napoleon to become smoke, almost intangible, would have been for her to blink and let him. He would have hurt her as easily as he kissed her hand, for Gaby’s sake.
The thought is akin to terror, but the sensation is heady, a swift rush of air to the lungs. There is nothing to say he won’t turn on her so easily, in the eventual disintegration of their work, but for now entropy has not yet had its way, and Napoleon, in his own words, has declared himself.
“Is there someone you need to take care of?” Gaby asks, hand hovering bare over her side before Rachel skirts Napoleon, not oblivious enough to brush against him in passing. She produces a roll of bandage from the bag and holds it up, eyebrows raised.
Gaby nods, lifting her dress up and off, unconcerned with the ruin of it, or the way Napoleon doesn’t turn away, all his interest focused on Rachel’s hands. The bandage winds, all the way around, and Gaby cannot shake the sensation of holding, as though she might split along the seams with all she’s taken on to come here.
“I’ll do my own cleaning,” Rachel says, when she is finished, stepping back and leaving Gaby half bare. “I have to say, I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” The glance she raises to Napoleon is fleeting, but Gaby catches it anyway, the wariness of someone whose fears have been confirmed as real. “No interference, but you’ll do me a favour. Payment in kind.”
Gaby has no idea what she’s talking about, but there is a hint, a collection of clues. Gaby has been shot at, and Napoleon thinks it was her they were aiming at. Rachel has a leak in her organisation, a long presence in South America and more than a passing acquaintance with Napoleon.
Someone knew they were arriving, and wants Gaby dead.
The news hits her with less force than the bullet, all told. It wouldn’t be the first time. “Deal,” she says, before Napoleon can preempt her. “Now somebody find me some painkillers while we talk.”
Rachel doesn’t smile, lips tight over her teeth as though wary of showing them, but she inclines her head incrementally in Gaby’s direction. Napoleon is the one who rummages in the bag for the aspirin, before throwing it back in with a moue of disgust and ransacking the cabinets for booze. He doesn’t leave the room, but it is not until he returns from the other side of the kitchen with a bottle of something ominously clear and leans over her to pour her a measure does she realise he has left the gun angled towards her, ready for her to take.
“I don’t mind playing bait,” Gaby says, voice as stone-hard as she can make it, tempered by what might be enough pain to last a lifetime, if she had her eyes just a bit less open. “How much time do you need?”
Napoleon hands her the shot. Gaby drinks it, heedless of the way alcohol thins the blood, thinking only of the faint curl of Napoleon’s lips, the narrowing of his eyes as he refills her glass.
Rachel watches them, small fingers tapping the crook of her arm with the force of long habit. “Can you get the Russian to agree?”
“Agree to what?” Illya slips in from the doorway, and Gaby thinks it must be the second time he’s taken her by surprise, hunch of his shoulders as familiar now as it was alien in Berlin. “This is madness, Gaby. For all we know, she is the one who arranged the shooting.”
“No,” Gaby says, gambling, always gambling, but at least this time she knows the odds, and what cards she holds in trade. “If she wanted me dead she could have killed me hours ago.”
Rachel lifts her chin, staring Illya down. Gaby truly does like her. It would be a loss, if she were to end up collateral. “We know who you are, Gaby Teller. Von Trusch is not a name spoken lightly in South America. But you would not have asked for my help if you were here to finish his work, so you have my assistance.” The pause, a breath, is enough for Illya to step forward, place himself beside Napoleon, between them all and the door.
Gaby wonders how she ever found him cold, light turning him golden, even over the pallor of his tamped-down rage. Later, she thinks, she will have to-- he will ask. If she is lucky, he will ask. She turns herself back to Rachel, not ready to truly crave distraction. “Who knew where you were taking us?”
“Someone I trusted,” Rachel says, tone unchanged. “You must understand, we’re none of us… unmarked.”
Gaby does know; she has lived her life in the shadow of the Reich in one way or another, an indelible black mark. All she could do was take what Waverly offered, both the first time and every time after: the chance to carve another path. Anger, she understands. It was her father, at first, she was ashamed of. The fact of shame is that it is endless and pervasive, a colour indescribable, but visible nonetheless. What right, in any world, did Rudi have, to criticise the quality of anyone’s blood. What right did he have to take people apart. “No. So, we must draw them out.” She catches Illya’s eyes, the desperate heat of them as he listens to her plan. “Where’s the best place in Caracas for a murder?”
Altamira’s architecture bears the utilitarian grace of the nineteen-forties. It seems displaced amid the Spanish spires of the old city, but the square is large, washed bright blue with festival lights, and occupied by a mass of people. Gaby spares a moment to watch them, flowing around each other with the instinctive grace of herd animals, just as primed to scatter.
Napoleon’s hand skims her back, through the fabric of one of Illya’s shirts, the only thing loose enough that Gaby had been able to bear. Carefully worn, she hopes it will be enough to disguise the bandage, the new injury’s weight on her steps.
Her makeup, she has reapplied, careful strokes in a hand mirror until the creases worn into her skin by pain were smoothed away.
“If they shoot you again--”
Gaby leans into Napoleon’s side, making a show of staring up at him adoringly while he takes her weight for a moment. “Then I might die, and you can carry on with whatever your plan C is,” she says, through her smile. “No need to make a statement.”
Napoleon laughs, eyes skipping away. “You don’t sound offended.”
Gaby takes a step without a grimace, lingering tang of unfamiliar liquor on her teeth and tongue, but adrenaline flushing her sober. “You’ll have to work harder for that.”
“Then you’ll have to stay alive, won’t you.” Napoleon steers her towards the centre of the square, for all the world as though they are back in Istanbul, she playing a facsimile of a wife, he a philanderer of a husband, and everything is about to go as horribly wrong as it had then.
There is no crackle of a lost radio broadcast. There is no long pause for the world to draw breath while Gaby realised the reality of a betrayal. There is no Illya at her side to slip off into the night like a spectre, only to be returned looking far more ghostly in the light.
There is only Napoleon, and the scent and drag of Illya’s shirt, and Rachel and Illya out of sight, covering the edges.
There is no gunshot, until there is, until there is a scream, another, and the hoped-for stampede.
Later, she will learn that the weapon was not to be a rifle, that the man whom Rachel had trusted once was not willing to risk anything but everything to see her die up close, knife pressed up under her ribs. Fitting, for a pig.
Later, later, later. Now, as the crowd sweeps over them, she turns to see Illya, Rachel’s gun disappearing back inside his jacket, and Rachel kneeling by the man she has floored.
Sirens. Illya’s low voice, insisting they move. Rachel’s face, not quite cold, suffused with the decorative blue light of the square. The whites of her would-be killer’s eyes as Gaby bends as far as she can to look, even touching the white of his teeth as he snarls. “I know what you are,” he says, words emerging wet. “I know what you are, Gabrielle Teller.”
“No,” Gaby says, calm down to her bones. “You don’t.”
“We have to move,” Illya crouches, insistent as Rachel disarms her former colleague, generous mouth a thin, tight line.
Gaby nods, and they do.
He is not injured.
When they bring him back to what Gaby now realises is not a safehouse but Rachel’s flat -- the lovely little place Napoleon recalls so fondly and knows the layout of blind if Gaby were to place a bet on it -- he is not injured.
Rachel cuffs him to a chair for the sake of appearances, but the truth of it is that the gunshot was a blank, to startle. Rachel had been insistent, and Illya furious, but Gaby had pushed on the final word. There is no call to wound a man when he will be better able to speak intact.
“Do you want to do the honours?” Rachel asks Napoleon, and Illya’s hands clench, knuckles pressed white.
Napoleon glances between them all and takes a theatrical step back. “I don’t think this is one for my skills.”
Gaby looks at him, the flat glass regard in his eyes as he examines the tableau, and knows there is always going to be something about him which she will find fundamentally unknowable, no matter how long he stays. She suspects, in truth, that were she to carry on attaempting to peer beneth his surface indefinitely, she might not like what she found at the core. Better, then, to take him as he is: a man of indeterminate character willing to kill for her, and more. A man willing to allow himself to be directed, even if she will never know quite what she has at the end of her leash.
The other agent breaks the silence. “I couldn’t let you join them.”
Rachel skirts Napoleon, clamping a hand on the arm of the chair to lean down. “Simon, you blew a safehouse over something--”
He leans away from her, looking at Gaby, still with the same reflexive hatred. “Do you know what happened in 1960?”
Gaby just watches, waiting for him to keep talking. It is Napoleon who jumps in, one hand tracing a pattern as he speaks, a strange, birdlike twist to his wrist. “Nasty business with Eichmann, I heard.”
Simon doesn’t even glance at him. “We’d have gotten Mengele too, if it wasn’t for your uncle.” He does nothing so undignified as to spit, though the twist of his lips suggests it is not far from his mind. This close, Gaby has a picture of a man of middle years, red-blonde hair fading white at the temples. She thinks perhaps once he had kind eyes, wide and brown, but now she is simply the blood-borne recipient of his ire. All at once, the rent in her skin throbs, and Gaby realises just how long she has been standing, walking, bending. She steps forward, her slow-kindling anger beginning to warm her.
“She has nothing to do with it.”
Gaby stops short, halfway to reckless, frozen by Illya’s words.
He looks at her, then, when she turns. He has kept himself against the wall, back flush to the plaster, chin tucked low to his chest. Curled into himself, he seems at once smaller and yet expanded, the breadth given to him by everyone in the room a testament to his ability to alter himself. It is nothing like Napoleon’s chameleonic theatre. If anything, Illya possesses the skill of someone used to solitude, and the need to be unseen and avoided.
Simon turns to him, lips peeled back, derision sitting poorly on his narrow face. “You expect us to believe some story about a new organisation? Why?” The defeat in his body belies the focus of his face. The worst of it is, Gaby knows he’s right: there is ground to make up. They are a new entity, and will always have to work alone, or spend as much time working to prove their value.
“And you,” Simon says to Rachel, “You put our operations in danger because he satisfied you once before running back to the CIA?” He can only be speaking of Napoleon. “He owes you nothing.”
Gaby steps forward. “Enough.” It is gratifying, the way the room falls silent. She draws herself up, remembering a teacher once pressing her belly back towards her spine, holding her in place, and saying remember, Gabrielle. Bring it with you. You have to make them look. “I brought us here to stop the last people my uncle ever helped with their sick agenda. I don’t care what you think of us. We came to ask for anything you might pass on. In exchange for--”
“We know who you are, Gabrielle Teller.” Simon looks to Rachel, something bitter in his eyes. “You thought sending them to Buenos Aires would be enough? What happens when she finds out. Do you think she’ll go through with it?”
Gaby swallows frustration, taste of it brine. “Go through with what?”
“Your cousin has been doing excellent work,” Simon informs them, teeth beginning to show again. “I’m sure you’ll get along. It’s quite the resemblance.” Gaby doesn’t have time to be surprised, too shocked to rapt attention. “And they do say, don’t they? Blood will out.”
Gaby has just enough time to grab Illya by the collar before he rushes past her.
In the back of her mind, it occurs to her to wonder how tuned she has become to his body, his movements and mood, that she knows before he surges forward that he will give in to the sound and fury in his mind that presses him to grand crescendos. It is enough that she can grasp him, as tenuous as her hold is, and ask him to stop.
It enough that the movement of her arm, the jerk of tension as she catches him sends a starburst of pain over the back of her eyes. It is enough. She doesn’t have to think about it, what Simon has revealed. It is enough that Illya’s attention is hers, no matter the cost in flesh.
“Illya,” she says, in her borrowed Russian, pressing a hand to her side, through her borrowed shirt. “Later. We’ll deal with it later.”
Her palm comes away bloody again, just a faint smudge through layers and layers of cloth.
Blood will out, she thinks. Blood will out.
Rachel doesn’t kick them out. It is Napoleon, having established that the threat to Gaby isn’t one of a pervasive, systemic nature, who drags them both into the bedroom with Rachel’s overstocked medical bag to re-dress her stitches.
The minutes pass as Napoleon snips at the bandages, silent save for Illya’s pacing, footsteps passing incessantly from one end of the room to the other. “This was madness,” he says at last. “Why did Waverly--”
“Illya.” Gaby looks up from Napoleon’s work, the ugly seep of fluid from her side an unwelcome sight, though at least nothing is torn open. “Come here.”
Illya stares at her, frozen for a moment with his left hand clenched, unconscious, around the half-healed break in his right arm . Gaby holds him, looking, waiting to see whether he will storm away again, slipping out of her grasp entirely.
He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he is already sliding to his knees by the side of the bed, crossing the narrow space on proprioception alone.
Gaby has never held him the way she has Napoleon, so unbearably pliant no matter what she does. It is the first time she has curled a hand over the back of his neck with the single intention of holding him down, so different from her first, tentative brush in the car, or her knife-edged direction of him on his knees what feels like years ago. She presses, pads of her fingers meeting corded muscle and resistance for one heart-stopping moment before Illya exhales and folds, cheek pressing into the mattress. Gaby doesn’t want to watch as Napoleon pulls a long thread of erstwhile bandage from a suture, so she keeps her eyes on Illya, waiting for his stare to go soft, his eyes to drift half shut.
It takes until Napoleon is satisfied with the state of Gaby’s injury for Illya’s breath to fall even.
“I brought us here,” she tells him, repeating what he must already know. “I’m ready to take the consequences.”
Napoleon leaves his hand over the re-dressed bandage, the only one of them now not walking wounded. “You know, we do have a fair bit of leverage to play with.” He strokes a thumb over the exposed strip of skin above the dressing, not regularly enough for Gaby to believe it unconscious.
“Yes.” Gaby doesn’t look at him, still watching Illya. “And we have someone to meet.”
Illya shudders, shifting in her grip. Gaby tightens her hand, stilling him.
Napoleon’s weight depresses the mattress, elbows then knees as he blithely kicks off his shoes to arrange himself alongside her. Gaby is not foolish enough to believe it a gesture of affection, but it is protective, in its way, how his palm moves to cover the flat of her belly below her navel, thumb skirting the trail of fine hair beneath it. The gold of his ring is hot to the touch, still, and Gaby wonders if he just runs warmer than others, something in his relentless movement a call for greater heat.
She lays an arm over his shoulders, still looking at Illya. “Do you want to come up?”
Illya opens his eyes, eyelashes casting jagged shadows. Gaby drags at the nape of his neck, the fragile joining of spine to skull he must have been taught to protect at all costs. Illya follows the pull, all the impossible length of him bracketing her by the time he, too, has toed off his shoes, feet hanging off the end of the bed.
It is too small for them, but Gaby takes up little space and Napoleon has a cat’s knack for arranging himself for comfort no matter the surface. It occurs to her, finally, that it has been days since she has slept a full night, and no matter how unsafe they are, how precarious their perch, exhaustion wars with logic. She knows from grim, painful experience that none of them are useful exhausted. She should have thought of that before dragging them down here so soon after Istanbul, with Illya still injured and Gaby still raw from failure.
Illya pillows his head in the crook of his elbow, and when he is settled, Gaby replaces her hand, Napoleon’s deceptive solidity pressed along all available space. “We’ll sleep first,” she says. “You’ll keep watch. Wake Napoleon next.”
Illya nods, the order seeming as much to calm him as her hold. It is only when she is already beginning to drift towards sleep that he speaks. “Gaby. What he said, about your-- the blood. You are not tied to it.”
Gaby doesn’t miss the way Napoleon’s hand twitches, or the brush of his hair against her bare shoulder, but he says nothing.
When they wake, she will have to face the revelation of unknown family, a legacy of the living instead of the dead. Rudi is gone and this unknown is in his place, carrying on his gruesome work. To what end, Gaby wonders, when the actions of the Reich continue to be exposed to her in all their stark agony, knowing she carries the collective weight of responsibility. She will have to kill this person, this woman bearing her mother’s name. It is the only way to be sure. They will have to raze whatever she has touched to the ground. Waverly must have known.
Gaby looks at Illya, and sees only a man speaking to himself, as though saying the words to another reflect them back in echo. “I know,” she says, voice almost molasses, flowing thick off her tongue. Yes I am. Just like you. It would be cruel to say it, and she has had enough of cruelty to last at least until the morning.
There is more, but her lips and teeth close over it, eyes weighed down by pain and the sheer limits of the body, and then she is asleep.
Gaby takes the last watch.
When Napoleon wakes her it is almost dawn, room washed in curious green-grey through the curtains. She would like to linger watching the shifting patterns of the clouds in the sliver of the sky left between them, if her first sensation were not pain, the stiffness of the night’s stillness coalescing. Yesterday’s adrenaline is gone, leaving only the knife-point awareness of injury, and the ache of muscles clenched against it.
Napoleon makes a show of going back to sleep, but Illya’s eyes are half-open as soon as she moves, lips pressed together in what what Gaby recognises is his unique version of concern. On anyone else it would look like anger, but there is a disconnect between his range of visible expression and the bulwark of his rage. How many years does it take to break a person into pieces so badly that some essential parts remain missing? The best she can think is that he has been imperfectly repaired by design and what was discarded as useless has left him fundamentally incomplete instead of smoothing the desired mechanisms. It is a question she will never ask him, just as she will never seek to pull out the speck at the centre of Napoleon, the thing he has built his carapace around. What use is the beauty of a pearl when one has cracked it.
Gaby lays two fingers over Illya’s eyelids, thin membranes delicate to the touch as she slides them down, carrying on until her fingers meet by his chin, overnight growth of beard a shock to oversensitised fingers. “Don’t get up yet,” she whispers, wanting the solitude of the morning to lick her wounds.
He lets her slip out of bed unimpeded, which is as much as she could possibly have asked for. There is a certain comfort in knowing he will not be asleep, that he is listening by force of training. Perhaps it is possible to mourn for someone’s damaged parts without truly wishing them different.
Gaby picks up the bag on her way out, stifling a groan at the weight when the pull catches against her stitches. She forces herself straight and steps out, leaving the door slightly ajar behind her.
If Gaby is hoping for silence and her own company, what she gets instead is Rachel, sitting at the kitchen table, bloodstain rusted black beneath her elbows. It has been scrubbed, since Gaby last bled on it. Rachel seems barely to notice, a long-barrelled pistol taken to pieces on felt under her small fingers.
“Coffee on the counter.” Rachel doesn’t look up, tracing the contours of the stock with a rag.
“No thank you.” Gaby may not think of Rachel as a threat, per se, but there is no reason to throw caution to the wind. “Your friend?”
Simon is nowhere in evidence, even the chair pushed back under the table. Rachel must have a place to put handcuffs, Gaby thinks, still morning-rough, even in the cadence of her thoughts.
“Colleague,” Rachel corrects, looking up. “It’s very dangerous, thinking of the people you work with as friends.”
Gaby doesn’t answer, thinking of the three of them winding tighter and tighter, Illya on his knees and Solo only fixed in reality by observation. “I don’t.” It is something deeper. A bond forged of three disparate elements powerful in their attraction, their volatility.
Rachel’s dark eyes seem golden as the sun begins to make itself known, and Gaby can see, all of a sudden, a rare beauty to her mutable face. “So. I don’t think I will ask if you have a plan.”
Gaby lifts a hand to the dressing spread over her side, aware of the bareness of her skin in a way she hadn’t been, before, when Rachel was not looking at her. “First,” she says, “I am going to clean this.”
Rachel smiles, teeth small and very straight. “Glad to see you haven’t bled to death overnight.”
It seems a genuine sentiment, but Gaby is not a trusting soul by any measure, and recent experiences have not altered her habits. Still, Rachel has been acting in concert with them, if not exactly in sync, and Gaby has questions. She extracts the scissors after setting the bag on the counter, and begins to work the dressing away from the skin. It sticks, as it did last night, but once her sutures are bare Gaby can take stock for the first time of what she risked losing. The bullet skimmed her; that has saved her life. A simple factor of angles and wind, a poor shot with a bad rifle, the disconnect of distance: any one of these or all three together. In their absence Gaby would have been lacking in more than just blood.
She does not notice the shake of her hands until she tries to put the scissors down and drops them with a clatter.
“It’s worse in the daylight, isn’t it?” Rachel is watching her, hands on the table over Gaby’s soaked-in blood. “It’ll get better.”
Gaby looks down again, past the swell of her breasts, to where she is torn, and forces herself to trace it with her eyes, learning the rise and contour of it. She will carry this forward, and will be lucky to. It takes three breaths for her to touch, swiping disinfectant by rote, action borrowed from Napoleon. It is easier, after that. She has her hands, her ability to fix what is broken mechanically, if in no other way. It is only the body, so much a mystery to her in others, but this is hers, and she will fix it.
Gaby is replacing the bandage, tape sticking to discoloured skin, when she is next able to speak. “What did Napoleon tell you about me?” She knows the door is open; half the play is in the observation. If Illya hears, and he must, then they will know how far to trust this woman, and this place.
“Nothing,” Rachel says, “except for your name.”
“Which you knew.”
Rachel nods, no trace of shame about her. “Simon has been working on this for longer than I have. At first, you understand, we came as hunters. It was good.” She lifts her hand from the half-assembled gun, palm turning up as though cupping an unseen item. “Then, we uncovered something far worse.”
“I’ve read the files.” Gaby has, in great detail, both with and without Napoleon and Illya. Corroborated by their stores of knowledge, the facts remain: Rudi, after the war, went into hiding in Rome, reinventing himself to such a degree that his crimes were assigned to three different men, all described only by appearance. It is ironic, that his lack of physical distinction should so easily have shrouded him from view, when all people could see when he took them apart was his cruelty, and his joy.
What she did not know was what he did with his freedom of travel, his escape from any kind of justice except for the most final, and how many of his former colleagues he established aliases for along the way. There was a lot of cover to be had, from a shipping company. A lot of cargo. A lot of men and women travelling the Odessa route, on the manifests, should Rudi ever need the leverage of pointing out Odessa is as far from Rome as Berlin.
What she did not know was everything. Rudi could no more have stopped himself from exercising his grotesque curiosity into the workings of the body than Gaby, as a child, could to radios and the innards of her mother’s sewing machine.
She wonders who he forced to bear his seed, or if it was, somehow, a union of like minds, and cannot decide which is worse.
There is a building, listed as a hospital, as far from Buenos Aires as it is possible to get by car.
There is a community, deep in the jungle, of the last remnants of a failed empire, conquering again only by ego.
There is something buried beneath the land, sketched only by the rheumy eyes of satellites before being covered over, and Gaby is going to find it, unearth it, and take it apart.
Rachel, and her extended arm, have been chasing them for decades, but too fast and too hard. Now they are in the only country in South America that Mossad cannot go; they can’t help beyond the border, officially, but Gaby had been hoping for a better welcome than she should. Of course they know who she is. Of course they know the details of her line. Of course she has raised anger. In the end, what they came to Caracas for was not what they have been given, but Gaby cannot turn it aside as meaningless. Blood will out.
“What do you know about her?” Gaby asks, naked to the waist but for a bullet wound and dirty underwear, staring down a woman with a gun.
Rachel has finished her painstaking reassembly, weapon whole between them. “I understand she is as brilliant as her father,” Rachel says. “Impressive, for someone so young. But then, they do start them early, don’t they.”
“I want whatever you’ve got.” Gaby already owes Rachel a favour. It will have to be worth it. “Everything you’re willing to give me.”
“I can do better,” Rachel says. “I can make it look like Simon was right.”
Buenos Aires welcomes them with noise, cars and people and the raucous pace of life a sharp contrast to the calming drone of a plane’s engines. Gaby’s limited horizons feel stretched to breaking with all the new sights, and a part of her laments the pace of their travel, that she will never have a moment to enjoy the sun, or listen to the language to decipher it.
Gaby would almost think the three of them on some kind of half-sordid holiday, were it not for the sickness she has been carrying since Caracas, divorced from the physical pain of healing.
She is no stranger to deception, but even to come here under such a pretense of evil feels wrong somehow, as though her skin is a poor fit to her muscle and bone.
It was one thing, in Rome, to slip into the guise of somebody ready to accept Alexander Vinciguerra’s attentions. At the time, Illya had been nearly intolerable, brusque and shy by turns, wholly a mystery without intrigue. At the time, she had used it to aggravate him, a classic play for jealousy. She had done it, and done it well, playing only a slightly different version of herself.
She knows him better now, and has by turns a higher standard for herself. She will not fail this time. They will not be separated.
She will have to play the part.
By the time they have made their way downtown, Napoleon has lifted a Panama hat from the side of a cafe table and set it at a jaunty angle over his humid curls, fit of it miraculous. Gaby could have stopped him, but why bother, when it is such a small pleasure. He wants to be looked at, and there is nothing to say she can’t enjoy providing him the attention. Even Illya, ill-at-ease, seems to be drawn to the sight. If there was something to be changed between them, Gaby would like very much to gift to Illya even a fraction of Napoleon’s chameleonic adaptability. Napoleon would not be quite what he is if she could more easily see his seams, but a part of her would like to have a handle, a tool, something she could easily apply to him for control. It would ruin him, she knows, but she cannot help but want it, sometimes.
Napoleon turns them down a side street, walls the colour of sand rising to meet almost overhead. “Reminds me of a delightful little place in Tangiers,” Napoleon murmurs, Jacaranda thick in the air, only just beginning to fall underfoot. Altogether, the turn of his head over his shoulder, the glint of his teeth, the shadow over his eyes makes him seem a step removed from reality, as though he has already begun to fade into the scenery, as beautiful and foreign as the stone.
Gaby has an urge, suddenly, to touch him, as though her hold will anchor the fleeting image. She catches up, brushes a thumb over the depression beneath his lips. Napoleon smiles. Gaby locks step with him for a moment, length of her legs extended, before she steps past him, spotting the sign; their first destination in Argentina is nothing more than a small club, exclusive only by location.
Her borrowed dress lends her a more ample shape than she possesses, and the structure of it bolsters her. The skirt is wide enough to hide the bulk of a dressed wound and the holster of a small pistol.
They will not expect her to be unarmed, so she must not be unarmed. It will be the gun in plain sight, and not the one hidden behind her. They will not expect her to be wounded, so she must not be. The painkillers Napoleon dredged up for the flight have been keeping her buoyed, but the edge of pain is creeping back. Gaby welcomes it, the sharp point of it grounding, pulling her back to awareness.
They pause at the entrance, long enough for Gaby to take a deep breath and begin, for the first time in months, to place herself to speak German, to use Napoleon as a cover instead of a--
She will never be able to call him a friend. Their differences are too known to each other, now. At the end of it, perhaps, they will be able to say what they are to each other, but here and now, he is hers in the way that matters.
She turns to Illya and finds him standing as near to attention as she can imagine, finding dissonance in the idea of him in a uniform, though he must have one, somewhere. Though he must have, through all the toil necessary to keep a head above water in the KGB, risen high enough and fast enough to be sent after her.
She has read his file, and though she has seen the words, the rank, the service record, she still finds herself failing to lay the one over the other for all that the record doesn’t hold.
Gaby raises her left hand, bare of the ring. Illya’s eyes don’t waver from her face, even as she lays a touch on his cheek.
She waits until he leans into her palm, eyes lowering, to draw him down.
It would be easy to pretend to at the image of young lovers, but they are none of them quite so young as they look, and none of them much cut out for love, she thinks. Perhaps Illya, with his soft, cool lips, could have been, once, but as with all things forged in war, it takes something far different to take him apart.
All’s fair in love, perhaps, but that is not what this is, and it is not what they are suited to.
Gaby sinks a hand in the surprising fineness of his hair, soft to the touch even as she grasps it. “Follow us,” she says, lips brushing his as she holds him in place. German is her language, the words in the form and tenor of her thoughts, and the sudden clarity is as though smoke has been scrubbed from glass, leaving it new. “She will have to lead me in.”
Illya knows the plan as well as she does, as well as Napoleon, as well as Waverly will, when he picks up the transmission she has left for him, but by then they will be in motion, hurtling towards terminal velocity. “I need you to say it,” she says, tidal wash of his blood almost audible beneath his skin as she waits.
“Yes,” he replies, accent catching harsh on the y.
“Good.” Gaby releases him, stepping back, in her skin at last.
“All right there, Peril?” Napoleon is looking towards the door, their portal for the next and final step, light catching all his angles.
Illya nods, steps back, and is gone, finding a shadow made long by the sun and disappearing.
In Berlin, Gaby knew she was being watched. It was not a case of mistaken identity, or the value placed on her parentage. She was simply a citizen of the GDR, and knew that all rights were the state’s, not held in trust for those like her, people old enough to remember the construction of the Wall but too young to have known to escape it.
There is a peculiar, indescribable prickle to the knowledge of eyes. Gaby would know it anywhere, body and mind tuned to observation and to being observed both, the reflective glass through which she has lived her double and triple lives.
It bursts across her when she steps through the door, darkness inside leaving her momentarily blind.
Napoleon’s touch skates along the wing of her shoulder, hot through the fabric, and Gaby forces herself to breathe, to smile, and to wait for her eyes to see.
The room is dark panelled, a far cry from the sunlight warmth of the outside; Gaby struggles, just for a moment, to place the dissonance.
It is Berlin.
The misalignment is in the history, the artifice of creating a place so far from anything Gaby ever wants to see again. She has been in places like this, pressed up with her back to the corner of the booth with a drink in front of her purely to give herself the pretense of protection and to spend an hour of pretending her movements and her thoughts and her life were her own. This is not Berlin. This is not a place where the combined weight will send dreams of cutting out her own tongue, and of Waverly’s disavowal in the aftermath, robbed of her only escape route.
There are eyes on her, but the heavy darkness is as far from the shadow of the wall as they are.
Gaby pulls her shoulders back and walks.
The hostess greets her in Spanish. Gaby smiles at her, and answers in German. “We are here to meet Miss Von Trusch.”
“I’m sorry, there is nobody here by that name.” The hostess is beautiful, but all Gaby can see is brittle fear. She knows it well, from mirrors, from one too many drinks for perfect perception, from walking home with one hand trailing concrete, floodlights following her progress.
“Yes there is,” Gaby says. “She’s expecting us. We’ll wait.”
At her back, Napoleon laughs.
The warmth in her chest spreads.
The hostess looks between them and turns, silent, to lead them across the room.
She is so much younger than Gaby had been expecting.
In truth, the face is nothing like Rudi’s, all fine skin and high cheekbones, but the eyes are similar, the hair the same shade of brown. She is not tall. Somehow, Gaby had built her to a giant despite Rachel’s dossier, her years of notes and Simon’s contacts around her.
“Hello,” she says, rising from her table. “I have heard so much about you.”
“All good things, I hope,” Gaby says, and takes her cousin’s hand.
“Oh,” she says, smiling with delicate lips. “For the most part.”
Gaby holds the thin bones in her hand, memorising the fragility, the youth, the coldness in her tone, and determines, weighs, whether she can bring herself to follow through with her destruction. She is so young, and so utterly unknown to her. Gaby has not considered herself in the equation, the final fraction. She has come face to face with her living family, and now, looking, she cannot help but find her--
Well. Familiar. “Solveig. May we join you?”
Solveig looks Gaby up and down, smile a fixed point. “Yes, do,” she says. “And why don’t you introduce me to Mr. Solo? I hear he has been quite the thorn in several sides over the years.”
“Only if you think the loss of a Klimpt or two is a personal affront.” Napoleon seats himself in the booth with no evidence of discomfort. Gaby, not for the first time, envies his ease. “Personally, I rather enjoyed working for myself, but my understanding is that it’s usually better to be on the right side of history, wouldn’t you agree?”
Solveig considers, clearly weighing the statement for a barb. “Mr. Solo, generally agents of the CIA are not welcome in my organisation. You do tend to be terribly close-minded.”
She gestures, focus still on Napoleon, just as Gaby had hoped, when they had planned this, the three of them and Rachel, and in a breath they are surrounded, patrons from other booths coalescing into a mass of bodies until they are all three of them enclosed.
“Please remove Agent Solo,” Solveig says. “I would like to speak with my cousin alone.”
Gaby does not watch as Napoleon is forced away from the table and out of reach.
He is not Illya, not Russian, with all the generational baggage that carries. If Solveig Von Trusch is anything like her father, Napoleon is too valuable a prize to be shot on sight.
Solveig turns back to her once the club is empty, a ceiling fan turning lazily overhead stirring the strands of her artfully arranged hair. “Now then,” she says. “Cards on the table, as the Americans say. And your gun, yes? I should like to overlook that, but I have heard stories about you, Gaby Teller. Strange company you’re keeping, these days.”
Gaby makes a show of reluctance as she complies. “It got me out of East Berlin.”
“Yes.” Solveig examines the Browning Napoleon had found for her on this side of the border with a clinical eye, not deigning to touch it. “Such brutal weapons, guns. Though very effective, of course. Police issue?” She places a fingertip on the stock and draws it closer to her, out of Gaby’s reach. “In any case. Messy.”
“They have their uses.” Gaby will tell her as much as she asks. It is imperative.
“So, now that you are out from under the Russian thumb,” Solveig leans forward, the conspiratorial chime of a schoolgirl in her even voice, “what will you do to keep your freedom?”
Gaby moves to join her, the rent in her side pulling taut as she sets her elbows on the table. “Well,” she says, pulling a smile into her face, hoping desperately it will reach her eyes. “I don’t like to be short of work.”
Solveig’s smile deepens. Gaby notices, amid the pounding rush of blood in her ears, that her teeth are too small, the whiteness of them blending too soon with the pale pink of her gums. It is not, by itself, jarring, but with her youth, her small face and small frame, she seems abruptly childlike, only a girl wearing her father’s shoes.
Gaby knows better than anyone how effective it can be to appear harmless, but still the effect is difficult to shake, difficult to look past.
Solveig lays a hand on her arm, little fingers closing around her wrist. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
She looks over her shoulder, movements fluid and practiced, though catching the edge of unnatural, a woman’s poise in a teenager’s body, when Gaby herself had been all angles, sharp juts and a struggle for grace achieved only in front of studio mirrors under the careful tutelage of older women. She wonders if Solveig has known that in her life, the careful guidance of anyone not her father’s friends, her father’s ideals, her father’s cruelty. She wonders if there is, with a sudden subcutaneous tightening, a possibility of extraction.
Gaby has not had a family in many years.
Her mother’s marriage had not quite driven a wedge between them, but attention paid to one was attention not paid to the other. Gaby has always known that her mother saw only her father when looking at her. The best Gabrielle Teller could ever hope for was an unremarkable life as Gaby Schmidt, her stepfather’s reluctant daughter, blessed with his trade.
It is a dangerous thought, but Gaby cannot quite erase it, even as a slender man in an exceptional suit appears beside them at the table.
“Miss Von Trusch, we are ready to go,” he says, just on the edge of deferent.
Solveig smiles, finely-drawn lips a sine wave curl as she hands him Gaby’s borrowed gun. “Take this, please. I’d rather not have it on the table.” She laughs quietly at her own joke, eyes creasing. “Shall we?” She doesn’t look at Gaby when she rises, expecting her to follow.
Gaby forces smoothness to her movements, ache in her side settling to a wide band of pain that is the natural progression of healing injury, but she cannot show anything without intention, not when her intentions are so finely under scrutiny. “There is just the small matter of Agent Solo.”
Solveig’s frown only presses faint creases beside her mouth. “Oh, no, I don’t think so. Too inconvenient, to bring him along when I could just have him killed now. You wouldn’t believe the distances here, and it is so much easier to simply make it look as though-- well. You must know, if you have been keeping company with Soviets.”
Gaby forces herself to smile. If Solveig knows who she is, who Napoleon is, that the third of their number is a disgraced KGB agent, Rachel must have done as well as she promised in passing information through trusted channels. The question, the great unknown, is how well Solveig has been told the story of Rome, who passed the news of Rudi’s death, and how deeply she felt the loss.
If living with Napoleon has taught her anything at all, it is that the emotions of the game are far more easily manipulated than the mechanism, be it played with cards or information. “I don’t think you understand,” Gaby says, pitching herself for a hint of condescension, the kind smile of an older relative, designed to infuriate. “He killed your father. Consider it a gift.”
Solveig’s face freezes, eyes widening. “I see.”
Gaby watches the clench of a small hand, tamping down the rush of satisfaction. “I should like to watch.”
“It does run in the family,” Solveig says, stripped of all her artifice for a blinding second, eyes empty of anything but avarice, and Gaby knows, down to her bones, that what she has done is as nothing in the face of Solveig’s drive.
Gaby has always tried to hide from the weight of her shared history, dodging it for survival under totalitarian scrutiny. Solveig has existed in a vacuum, built to be a legacy and nothing else. “Shall we?”
Solveig stares at her, wide eyes slowly gaining back the film of warmth. “I would be rude to refuse a gift,” she says, almost by rote, and Gaby knows she has won the hand.
The next hour travels in a blur. Gaby does her best to memorise as many faces as possible, if only to describe them later should she need to, but the effort is stymied by Solveig; her insubstantial height having the strange effect of drawing people down towards her, china-doll frame used to advantage unseen.
The driver gets out to open the door, bending to speak quietly to Solveig, her dark dress cutting a slash against the bright sunlight, and ushers her in to the back. Gaby follows, waiting for the door to close, poised for more questions.
Solveig, however, gives her a quiet, close-lipped smile, laying a hand on Gaby’s shoulder. “I am so very glad we could meet. Damn the wall, and damn the Soviets for building it. It is a crime, separating families.”
“I don’t recall the Americans making much of an objection,” Gaby murmurs, placing her own hand atop her cousin’s, breathing down the panic. Now is not the time. Now is not the place. The tracker will just have to work, Illya’s particular ingenuity holding true, the ring matched to a signal on a borrowed transmitter, deformed just enough to fit. He had been surprised when she had produced it, a quick flash of something very naked in his eyes before he had taken it with his careful grip.
Solveig laughs her assent, pointing out the presidential palace on their way past, buildings thinning and thinning until they are in the outskirts. “It is such a backwater,” she says, as they leave Buenos Aires behind them, facing out onto a long, straight road. “But a good host, nonetheless.”
Gaby does not ask her if she has ever left Argentina and the safety it offers. No doubt Rudi and his secrets travelled the other way, leaving her his eyes and ears and hands behind when he did his work for the Vinciguerras, and who knows how many others. “I look forward to seeing your work,” Gaby says, managing to smile through the lie.
There is nothing she wants to see less, remembering the days after Rome, the three of them tired to the bone, but Napoleon in particular, so little known to her then, sleeping fourteen hours the first night and twelve the next. Illya had slept very little, and Gaby had been so caught in the debrief, the shock slowly passing, that she had not kept track of her own rhythms.
After Istanbul, she had known better what to look for, and learned that in Illya, the aftermath of a trauma is restlessness, an unsettling of skin from bone, while in Napoleon it is sleep.
When they arrive at an airfield, Gaby abruptly realises that she has allowed herself to drift. Distraction is dangerous, especially in such dangerous company. As they purr through the gate, a fleet of cars seems suddenly to enclose them, escorting them down the angled road towards the aircraft. She punishes herself for inattention by thumbing her wound through the fabric of her dress, brings herself upright and into focus with the sharp thrust of pain.
Gaby has no good memories of her last time in a helicopter, so she is relieved when Solveig leads her towards a smaller plane, fixed at the wing with two elegant propellers. It seems an antique to Gaby, seized with a sudden desire to examine the mechanism of it, to open the beautiful, sleek panels and see beneath to the heart, the many moving parts held in perfect concert, tuned to one purpose.
Solveig registers her interest with a wide, genuine smile. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you mean ‘she?’” Gaby finds herself drawn forward, almost unwilling, but wanting, just for a moment to touch the smooth chassis.
“No.” Solveig lays a proprietary hand on the wing, staring at Gaby. “I don’t find much use for assigning it anything of the kind. Why limit it?” She grins. “It can fly. Isn’t that enough?”
Gaby, for one hideous moment, loves her.
“I do believe your gift has already been wrapped,” Solveig continues. “Shall we?”
Gaby follows her as she mounts the steps, wrestling with the concept of flight, not in practice, but in execution. She must not show how well she knows where they are going, or how desperate she is to get not just herself out alive, but Napoleon, and Illya, the black dog in the distance who will come to get them. She just has to play along for long enough to get to the plains. It is so much easier than it should be, until she enters the cabin.
The plane is small, but large enough for a set of seats designed for comfort, cockpit open from the back as Solveig, grinning, ignores the other passengers in favour of the controls, her co-pilot a young man built as though intentionally made to resemble--
In essence, Gaby has dismissed Solveig’s cohort as featureless because they act in deference, but Gaby has not quite noticed, amid the quickfire rush of deceptions, that they all have a remarkably similar aspect, young men of twenty or so who flock around her cousin as though trained to it.
“You do breed them strong,” Gaby says, looking at him, the strong line of the jaw and the cold, blue eyes flicking over her. It leaves a foul taste in her mouth.
“Oh, wait and see,” Solveig says, distracted by the fuel gauge. “I have so many surprises for you. Go, take a seat, we won’t be long. Erich is just bringing-- Ah.”
Gaby looks back. The driver could be the co-pilot’s brother, but Gaby is rocked back to purpose by the sight of Napoleon, bespoke in his seersucker suit, blood trickling sluggishly from a cut in his eyebrow, hands held behind his back with cuffs even Gaby can tell are too tight.
There is a faint, glassed-over sheen to his eyes, a blankness to his face Gaby recognises; a different angle, different hands, but still the same vacant unconcern for the welfare of his body once it is taken out of his control.
There is a part of her, deeply buried, that wants to keep looking, aware that she is seeing him bare.
“I would have just had him killed, of course,” Solveig says, “but there are so many people who will miss my father, it seems a shame to deprive them the spectacle.” Her voice softens, girlish tone returning. “Do you know how he died?”
Gaby doesn’t take her eyes off Napoleon. “He burned.”
Solveig doesn’t reply, instead giving a signal to the ground crew, resulting in the sudden sputtering roar of the engine, and the loss of all other sound as the plane comes to life. Solveig looks over her shoulder once more, placing pilot’s headphones over her ears. “I look forward to introducing you to my brothers,” she says, tone of it rote, before her silent co-pilot closes the cockpit door.
Gaby seats herself in the large seat closest to the door, bulkhead offering her an uninterrupted view of the propellers, and the ground lifting away below her.
Erich does not seem to have a gun, but to fire one in the air would doom them all; it does not mean she should disregard him, though it is so difficult to keep him in focus. To her eye, he seems bored, though it could be the curious passivity so in evidence among the men Solveig travels with. Initially, Gaby had assigned them an honour guard, but perhaps she is mistaken. The clarity of her thoughts eludes her, distracted by Napoleon, his slow, mechanical blinking, the lean of his forehead against the window, eyes focused on the middle distance through the fall of his hair.
As the plane levels out, Gaby rises, ignoring Erich’s narrowed gaze to cross the aisle, press Napoleon back into the seat. It is only when she drags the hair off his forehead that he focuses on her, life returning with the suddenness of a slide pressed into a projector.
“Rather agoraphobic, isn’t it?” He says, looking anywhere but out the window, faint American brogue rounding his vowels, softening the consonant click to the back of his throat. Gaby picks it up only because he is near, close and solid, and the plain is unfathomably vast, almost too much to look at straight on. Far better to catch it in the corner of her eyes, rushing under the wings.
The expanse is broken only by the line of the horizon and the occasional wild spread of a lone tree, green reaching out of the flat, burned dun of the land. Gaby has never before wished for darkness in itself, but at least then she could stare out the window and see herself reflected faintly back, a pale smudge against the directionless night. Instead, there is simply the line of the land and their path above it.
If it were dark, and they were alone, it would be so much easier to put him back together in whatever configuration she wanted, instead of leaving him half-undone, liminal by necessity.
“Are you ready to die?” she asks, for their audience’s benefit.
“Is anyone?” Napoleon answers, smile curling, faint, at the corner of his mouth.
Gaby lets him go, making a show of returning to her seat, watching the horizon for signs of life.
They touch down at dusk, light playing tricks with Gaby’s depth perception, or at least, her ability to distinguish landmarks, because she could swear they have arrived in the navel of the world, basin bowing away from them in a smooth parabola the further they walk.
Solveig, scented with airplane fuel, links her arm with Gaby’s to lead her down the runway, unconcerned with the sudden influx of people gathered for their arrival.
Solveig issues orders in German, and the ground crew responds with a lack of hesitation that suggests German is not only understood, but the chief language of interaction here. In the half-light, this could almost be Berlin -- all these pale European faces, all the same height. She looks around to see if anyone seems as though they belong to this country instead of this strange island within it, strains to hear whether anyone is speaking in Spanish, but Solveig whisks her away and all Gaby can do is smile and follow.
“I’ve asked them to prepare a room for you,” Solveig says. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?” She presses them towards a small building, only a story in height, opening the door with a code Gaby registers quickly, repeating it back to herself until she is sure she remembers it. “It does get so tiresome sometimes, but one must make sacrifices for the work.”
Gaby nods, counting steps as the lights come on, revealing a bank of lifts instead of furnishings, and a man standing in a finely pressed suit, leaning against the far wall. “Miss Von Trusch, we were wondering what surprise you’d have in store for us. The CIA? Really?”
Solveig laughs, head thrown back to expose her throat. “You know me better, surely. No, this is-- well. I’ll let her introduce herself.”
Gaby takes her cue, drawing herself up, catch of tightening stitches a sharp reminder to play the part. “Gabrielle Teller,” she says, extending a hand as though expecting it to be kissed. “My dearest uncle spoke very highly of his travels, before his passing.”
“And yet it has taken you so long to reach us,” he says, lean face betraying none of the suspicion in his tone. “Curious.”
“There was a wall in the way,” Gaby replies, pitching herself for amusement, and perhaps a note of detached affront. “Thank the Russians.”
“Such a shame your father couldn’t be convinced to join us,” he says, dropping her hand. “I am Dr. Baer.”
“Bernhart is our head of genetics,” Solveig informs her, pressing the same code into the lift bank, “and prone to being a rather frightful bore.”
Baer does not react, following them in, and then they are going down, bottom dropping away from Gaby’s stomach as the floor descends. All she can think is that they are too young, all of them, to be doing this, following like mechanical dolls, wound up and released onto a track they cannot even see.
The lift lurches to a stop.
When the door opens, Gaby forces herself to blink, shocked speechless by the dissonant tinkle of piano music, the strange warmth of the space, laid out as though Berlin had never been split, pre-war years rolled forward to nineteen sixty three and frozen, deep underground.
Gaby hopes, with desperate fervor, that Illya will be able to follow the signal she has been carrying, that his training will finally fall in their favour when he has no pretense to hold, only a call to obey, and a target.
She misses him, with a jolt of uncomfortable recognition. Despite his lack of facility for undercover work, it would have been a relief, of a kind, to have his length and breadth behind her, the span of his hands on her waist settling her while she played all the threads in her grip.
Gaby is alone, for now, the kind of cover only she could possibly have engineered, and she begins to wonder if perhaps this is why, rather than her father’s reluctant involvement in anything besides his own research, rather than her own observational merits, Waverly chose her, and only her.
The thought isn’t comforting, but Gaby has never been anything but determined.
She smiles at Solveig and says: “It’s just like home already.”
Alone in her room, the first thing Gaby does is try the door.
It opens, and she exhales the breath she has been holding for what feels like hours.
A quickfire round of introductions, and Gaby is reeling; it is not as if she did not know that the flower of the Reich’s brightest minds had fled, and that Argentina had looked the other way in exchange for their expertise. America did the same, playing host to her own father, for however long it lasted. He certainly had not made an effort to make contact with her, so in many ways, when she had seen him for the first time in over half her life, she had been unsurprised by her own anger.
This is different. Laid out as though they were scholars, all of them, these monsters working below the skin of the earth like parasites, tardigrades untouched by the wreckage they’ve helped make of the surface.
Gaby will not let herself vomit. In any case, there is nothing in her stomach to lose.
The bathroom undoubtedly has as much surveillance as the rest of the room, but Gaby is in need, and the warmth in her side has turned to a tight, prickling pull, undoubtedly aggravated by movement and inattention.
She leans back against the door as the light switches on automatically, confirming there must be a camera, though not at what angle.
She will have to be very careful in tending to herself.
As she pulls her dress down, she simply glances down at the dressing as though idle, hoping the angle disguises the movement of her lips. “I hope you’re listening,” she says, knowing the likelihood is they are so far out of range that she may as well be beneath the surface of the moon, and that the best she can hope for from their pale failsafe is that when Illya arrives he will be able to find her inside the bowels of this place.
Predictably, the one-way transmission gives no indication of its action, and Gaby re-clothes herself, satisfied that at least there is no bleeding, and nothing torn.
“Do come join us when you’ve settled in,” Gaby says to herself in the mirror, laying a palm on the glass to test the depth of the reflection. Her hand almost meets itself, as good an indication as she will ever get that the image is simply repeated back, not performed for the benefit of other eyes. “Let me show you around.”
Solveig’s voice is impossible to imitate, as strange and singular as the rest of her.
She stays as long as she can stand in the room, inactive, pretending at sleep, before she gets up and leaves. They will not expect her to be idle for long.
The sitting room is as ironic in its Weimar finish as the youth of its occupants is.
Gaby walks in, and knows she is seeing people raised in isolation, drip-fed only the ideals of their progenitors. It does not make them less terrifying; if anything it speaks to the power of simple ideas, and the ability to lay blame so comprehensively that to examine the past becomes only an exercise in wishing for revenge.
“My brothers,” Solveig says, curled in a brown leather armchair twice her size, re-dressed in beautifully cut trousers, gesturing at the circle. “They are so delighted you’ve chosen to join us. Why don’t you tell them who you are?”
Gaby smiles. “I’m a mechanic,” she tells them, crossing to the appealing display of alcohol on the dark wood sidebar, helping herself to a measure of whiskey. “I didn’t know Uncle Rudi had such a large family.”
Solveig catches Baer’s eye, expression one of long familiarity.
“We are all brothers here,” he says, as though by rote.
“The brightest young minds of the nation in exile,” Gaby says, toasting them, taste of the whiskey smoke and peat, washing out the bitterness of fear.
“And now you have come to join us,” Solveig says, eyes heavy-lidded. “Gaby is being modest. She has been working for our friends the CIA, as of late.”
Gaby lifts her glass, watching the reactions as Rachel’s carefully seeded misinformation sinks in. Gaby is new, and an unknown, but she is on enough books with Napoleon Solo to be someone of record under cursory investigation. That, and the weight of her blood, should pull her into their orbit, as far as she wants to go.
Baer pins her, a displeased curl to his lips. “I do not know how anyone of your breeding could stand to. Did they know who they were recruiting?”
“Yes,” Gaby says, moving to the centre of the room, treating it as much as a stage as she can make herself, drawing on the long familiarity with being watched to belay her discomfort. “They were looking for my father, so they decided to get me over the wall.” She forces a grin, an offhand gesture, ice in her glass tinkling against the thin sides. “Agent Solo has been very useful, though of course, he has outlived it.” She swallows the whiskey in one pull, ice clashing against her teeth as she continues to twist herself into the lie. “Killing my uncle put something of a stain on our relationship.”
The reaction of the men in the room pleases Solveig. She is the one Gaby is watching, the one face in ten she cares to see the minutiae of. “You see?” Solveig claps, once, silencing the murmur which has gained volume around them, smiling at Gaby, something small and private in her eyes. “My cousin comes with connections of her own, as well as gifts.”
“And what else?” Baer asks, looking anywhere but at Gaby, frown turning his well-cut face bitter. “One agent dead brings out more, and then what? What will she tell her masters in--”
“Not this one,” Gaby interjects, lazily examining her fingernails. “He’s a thief. Ten years into a fifteen year sentence, so really, they’d have to do it themselves in a few anyway.” She forces a grin, teeth aching as she breathes through the clench in her jaw, sweat trickling down her spine despite the subterranean chill. “At least this way I get the pleasure of retribution.”
Silence turns slowly to conversation, but all Gaby can follow is objections, a susurration of denial until Baer speaks again, clearly the second in command, if such a one exists. It seems ludicrous it wouldn’t but there is so much here that seems absent command structure, any kind of oversight, and Gaby wonders how out of date the file Waverly had given them truly was. “The CIA think I’m green,” she says, cutting through the noise. “Rookies make mistakes. I can use that.”
“See?” Solveig grins at her in turn, small face bisected by teeth. “An advantage we would be foolish to turn down.”
“Solveig, we will need to inform--”
“Hush.” Solveig holds a finger up, silencing Baer for the second time. “All in due time. Show a consensus for my cousin’s acceptance?”
Gaby crosses her arms, empty glass dangling from the tips of her fingers as she affects indifference, watching Solveig.
Slowly, the hands in the room go up.
“Excellent,” Solveig says, clapping her palms together, sound resonating around the room. “Dismissed.”
Solveig points at Baer’s vacated chair once they have gone, curling her legs into her chest and looping an arm over her knees, watching Gaby with her round chin propped on her knuckles. “So,” she says, almond eyes bright and amused. “That went well.”
“I don’t know.” Gaby crosses her legs, leaning back to stare at the ceiling. “It is so hard to tell, with men.”
“Not these.” Solveig’s tone hardens. “I’ve had to work twice as hard, but when one’s father is a genius, well. I’m sure you know. I am sorry for the loss of Dr. Teller. We would have less use for his work of course, as we are a different kind of-- Still, it is felt.”
“Thank you.” Gaby wishes she could drink more, allow herself the haze of alcohol, but the line here is so fine, her memory the only record of all the fragments Solveig is speaking around. A greater organisation. Her knowledge of Gaby’s loss, no matter how shamefully little Gaby has managed to feel it herself. It was true, what she said to Illya: she lost her father many years ago, and in the intervening years the absence has turned sour, a deep abscess of anger carefully covered over. The time will come to lance it, but it is not now, and it is not here. In truth, if she lives, if any of them do, she will have to look herself in the face one day and accept that she hated him, enough to take the first offer on the table to find him. It was not out of love.
“You, though,” Solveig continues, oblivious, “you, we can use.”
Gaby has been waiting, so, so carefully, for her moment. It may not be now, but there is only so much risk she can hope to see with the naked eye. Gaby says: “So tell me. Have you perfected them yet?”
Solveig reaches across the gulf between them, touch light on Gaby’s skin where the hair has raised, cold of the underground settling into her bones. “We’ve done better. Would you like to see?”
“Not much point coming all this way otherwise, is there?”
“You do have a mouth, don’t you?” Solveig pushes herself out of the chair with a small hop as she lands, pinned curls swinging back into shape. “Dr. Baer will take offense, I’m afraid, but as I have been left in charge until we can…” she breaks off, shaking her head. “Always ahead of myself.”
She steps out of the room with a straight back, not bothering to look over her shoulder. Gaby is loath to prove her right in anything, but she does follow.
The laboratories are another level down, a long, straight drop Gaby feels in her chest, pressure building as the doors open.
“I should really get Bernhardt to do this, but really, after all the work I’ve put into it, I think I can lay as much claim. Did you know, I’ve passed the medical board exams for three different countries?” Solveig speaks with pride at her achievement. “Father was insistent.”
Gaby can well imagine that Rudi would need to find things to occupy Solveig in his absence. Someone as bright and disarming, as driven as she had been when Gaby presented her with Napoleon, would need an outlet. Perhaps she had chafed at confinement, or simply fled. Gaby cannot truly imagine either possibility. Maybe it is simply desire to live up to a parent’s expectations that pushes her on, now.
“Did you know him well?” Gaby asks, following Solveig down the bare hallways, keeping as good a record as she can of the codes, counting steps to cover the beating of her heart.
Solveig pauses in front of a door that would be more in place in one of Napoleon’s stories, steel looking as though it could weather a blast the likes of which the Russians threaten. “Not as well as I’d have liked,” she says. “You and I have that in common.”
“And your mother?”
Solveig smiles, but this time it does not reach her eyes, one hand resting above the turning handle of the door. “Gone.” She drops the lock, clang echoing through Gaby’s teeth, and then they are stepping through on a gantry, rows and rows of cubicles flowing away into the distance, reminding Gaby of nothing so much as a factory, simply devoid of the mass of people Gaby would have expected.
The silence is jarring. Perhaps she had been expecting screams, anything but this eerie emptiness, the colourless expanse a far greater testament to the resource involved than anything on paper, but Gaby is unsettled.
“Busy,” she says, following Solveig down the stairs.
Solveig does not reply, leading her to floor level. Gaby, almost by chance, catches movement out of the corner of her eye, tuned to its absence by the sterile stillness.
She stops in her tracks, staring into the window of one of the blocks.
The things suspended look barely human, perforated by tubing, what looks like blood flowing, sluggish, from body to body, no immediate mechanism for their breathing evident save the exactly tandem rise and fall of the ribs.
Gaby does not realise she has approached the glass until Solveig presses in beside her, hand brushing Gaby’s on the smooth front. “Oh, yes, I do forget this can be a novelty. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Are they alive?” Gaby’s voice comes out steady. She remembers the movement, a spasmodic jerk of a nerve-fired arm, but the bodies are static even as she watches, almost convinced it was her imagination lending action where there is none left.
“Not as such.” Solveig speaks with passion, excited to explain something the way a professor might be, when asked about a project in her field. “They’re the life support, you see. We tried artificial, I believe, when I was younger, but this was mine. Why use artificial when organic is so much more naturally efficient? The body is an amazing self-regulator, and when you have as many growing as we have in the past, it makes so much more sense to recycle.”
They look almost the same, the near-corpses. Gaby wonders what has been done to them, her drive to know the details of mechanism warring with her nausea, the sheer shock at seeing a body reduced to life without life, a vehicle for nothing but blood and air.
Solveig sets off without waiting for Gaby to respond.
Gaby can do nothing but follow. Why else come all this way, if not to destroy this, and to do it, she will have to see it. She will have to find Napoleon and hope that Illya--
That Illya will not branch off at the last second and try for a different plan, leaving them in the bowels of the earth.
Gaby does not think he will, but there is so much at stake it feels crushing, as though the weight of the dirt above her might rush down at any moment, crushing her in the depths.
Gaby will wish, later, that she had been able to keep her eyes open.
She will wish, when she is sitting with Waverly over untouched coffee marking down details in a transcript of her interview, that she could recall the exact layout of the creche, or the exact number of people she observed working there, or the precise age of the--
Of all she had been expecting, Gaby would never have predicted that Solveig, and the strange organisation going by a strange acronym Waverly had set her on the scent of by way of her blood and her drive to prove herself would have been centred on breeding not the next generation of followers, but the next iteration.
The genetic pool, the bodies in the boxes, Gaby remembers all too well. Gaby will remember it until she dies, the slack faces frozen, unrevivable.
It is the birth she will hear forever, the screaming gasp of something coming to life incorrectly, unviable as soon as it exited the tank too adult in form to be blinking like a baby, gasping for air as Solveig had said: “Damn, another problem with the lungs,” tone nothing but exasperation. “I keep telling Bernhardt that the B-deficients need to be bred out.”
Gaby does not think the sound of the gun-shaped injector will ever stop waking her up at night.
If she does not throw up, it is only because there is nothing but a film of whiskey in her stomach to lose.
Gaby is in pain of a kind she has not felt before. She becomes aware of it by degrees, the slow reformation of conversation around her as she hurts. She misses Napoleon and Illya with a starling ache, if only for the familiarity of their presence, the hard-won ease she has gained in their company all the more a contrast for how alone she has become, weighted down with the knowledge of exactly what she will have to destroy.
“--do you think, Gaby?”
“Hm?” Gaby takes a sip of her drink, dragging herself back to the room, the small crowd gathered for a spectacle; she is a newcomer in a borrowed dress, a role she has played so well recently as to feel almost comfortable with it. “I’m sorry, this is very good champagne.”
“I was saying, how would you feel about doing it before dinner?” Solveig gestures at the gathering, encompassing the collection of the men she calls her brothers, a faint, disdainful twist to her lips Gaby is sure Solveig has meant her to see. “They’d like a show, but I think this is for you and I.” She brushes a strand of hair off Gaby’s shoulder, fingers skirting her neckline. “He was your partner, after all.”
With a jolt, Gaby realises what Solveig is planning. Either Gaby agrees to go with her, and find Napoleon, who she so carefully has not asked about, who she has driven from her mind for the necessity of their survival, or Gaby refuses, citing any kind of squeamishness, and Solveig kills him in front of this crowd of jackals, clawing over the meat of what makes a human for some perceived proof of superiority.
Somehow, Gaby doesn’t think Napoleon would enjoy an audience for this, not when the torture will be real, with no promise of any kind of release save that of death at the end.
“I’d like that.” Gaby laces her fingers with Solveig’s, forcing a conspiratorial smile. “It was my gift, after all.”
“Sadly I have none of my father’s art,” Solveig whispers, tenor of it confessional, lips brushing the corner of Gaby’s jaw as she leans in to be heard. “But I am sure we will make do.”
It has been two days, and she has not asked where Napoleon is, has not given a moment’s indication of any concern. She had woken up in the night, once, hearing a scream, but it was a phantom, neither her own nor anyone else’s.
She had pressed a hand to her side, feeling the bandage through the sheets, cold, dry air doing the healing process no favours, though Gaby cannot risk removing the careful layers to look. Here, now, infection is the least of her worries, and she suspects, from the quality of the air, that should anyone inside fall ill, there would be measures in place to quietly remove the pathogen.
They are the life support.
Gaby had gone back to sleep, ostensibly relieving herself and returning to the bed with careful steps for anyone watching.
“Lead on,” Gaby whispers back, shiver crawling along the ridge of her spine as Solveig turns, slipping out a side door, leaving her drink on a table in the hall.
Gaby catches her up, keeping track of the turns by rote. It does not occur to her to ask why Solveig is denying her compatriots a promised spectacle, too consumed by the memory of horror.
The complex is vast, wider even than any of the satellite stills of its construction, a nautilus shell of right angles, sinking into the earth. She is thinking of the nexus, the place where the corridors meet, when she becomes aware of a familiar scent, shocked at the realisation that everything here has the same smell, a dusted cleanliness not quite an antiseptic burn, but close.
The door Solveig has opened-- Gaby smells blood. Blood and stale air, as though it has not been disturbed for months.
It takes everything she has to stare dispassionately at Napoleon, dispossessed of his armour, left in only the same shirt and trousers. It is the lack of shoes Gaby catches on, viewing the scene as though someone has reached in and scooped her out of her body, drawing her backwards away from her eyes. She is not used to seeing him vulnerable; open, perhaps, and willing, but never vulnerable, never as close to harm as this, left kneeling on a thick carpet, hands still held behind him, bruises an angry purple over the bones of his wrists.
Gaby drops her glass, remaining liquid spilling out across the carpet in beads before it sinks in, pile of it thick enough to prevent the break, all sound muffled, turned back on itself.
Solveig closes the door behind them with a click.
Bernhardt points her gun at her, swinging his feet off the huge desk. Gaby registers, distantly, the splash of blood on his shirt, just a faint mist of red, before she even parses the danger of his approach.
“I’m so sorry to do this, Gaby,” Solveig says, pushing her forward as Baer stands, scooping up the glass and setting it on the desk, movement absent, calm. “But you didn’t really think we’d let you join us, did you?” She arranges Gaby against the side of the wood, edge digging into her hips. “We’d have to check with our… sponsors, and it turns out Agent Solo here hasn’t been on active duty with the CIA for months, and you? You never have been.”
Solveig turns her back on Gaby to circle Napoleon.
Gaby gets her first real look at his face when Solveig draws him up with a hand under his jaw; somehow, he appears distorted, though Gaby cannot tell the extent of the damage. He is still, quiet, unresisting, but his eyes are open, and it is Gaby he is looking at.
Solveig strokes over his throat, dainty movements of her hands abhorrent as they play across Napoleon’s skin. “He is quite beautiful. And as you saw, we are so in need of new stock.”
Gaby wants to remove her hand at the wrist, an impulse so surprising in its intensity that Gaby is jolted back to awareness, strange remove dissipating in a rush, leaving her oversensitive, skin tightening back over her bones until her hair stands on end.
“Solveig, enough.” Baer crowds closer gun held out as though he is not entirely sure what to do with it, though it is steady in his grip. “Kill him, and let’s find out what she’s really doing here.”
Solveig sighs, pulling Napoleon’s head back. “I suppose I should make it quick,” she says, leaving him with a lazy drag of fingers through his hair, opening a cabinet set into the wall, row upon row of gleaming steel nestled behind the doors, and Gaby realises this must have been Rudi’s office, or someone like him. It must have seen this scene many hundreds of times before, enough to take the weight of it, enough for the scent to sink into the walls.
Gaby, calm in a way she has not been for what feels like months, seizes Baer by the wrist.
He is too close to her. She knows very little of hand-to-hand, has never been in a fight the way Illya and Napoleon have, but she knows about guns, she knows about bullets and trajectories, and the single golden rule of range. He is too close. She yanks him with all her strength, and Baer surges forward, shocked off balance as Gaby smashes the champagne flute on the desk, driving the stem of it, with as much force as she can manage, into the taut stretch of his sun-starved throat.
Solveig stares at her, frozen in place, and for one brief instant, Gaby thinks she might run, might raise the alarm and doom them, but Solveig, reduced in one instant to an adolescent playing with fire, forgets all the blades at her disposal and lunges for the gun.
Gaby kicks it out of her way, scooping the weight of it into both hands, the way she’d been taught before Istanbul, the only sound in the room Baer’s laboured gasping as she pulls the hammer down.
“Do you know what Rudi told me, before he betrayed me?” Gaby looks at Solveig, dull grey of her eyes a shade off Rudi’s, and no less capable of warmth, of light, of the falsehood of affection. “He told me he loved me like his own child.”
It is not the most difficult thing she has ever done, to shoot her.
A crime for a far greater deficit. It will have to be enough.
Napoleon pushes himself to his feet in the silence after the gunshot, only the ringing in her ears occluding the sound of his voice as he steps carefully around the shards of glass Gaby has left on the carpet, gun still raised and rigid in her arms.
“-- a radio? Gaby!”
Gaby lowers the gun, startled by her own name. She reaches up with one hand and lays it on his cheek, silencing him, feeling the hot press of swelling under her palm.
Napoleon looks at her, and there is nothing but drive on his face, no pretence of comfort or offer of kind words. Gaby does not think she could have stood to hear anything of the kind from him, knowing it would have been an act for her benefit. “What did you say?”
“I said, we need to find a radio.”
Gaby leaves her hand on him, wanting to feel the heat of his body, the metronome rush of blood beneath the skin reminding her that he, at least, is as viscerally alive as ever. She produces a pin from her hair, letting the rest of it fall in a great, unwashed rush. It smells aseptic, the way the room doesn’t. Gaby forces away the nausea as she presses herself to Napoleon’s chest, breathing in the last hint of sunlight still clinging to his clothes as she slips the pin into his hand, leaving him to free himself as she looks for anything resembling their only hope of escaping alive.
She is crouched by a locked cabinet when she catches Napoleon shaking out of the cuffs, face completely blank for a precipitous instant as the blood rushes back into his hands. For the duration they have been separated, Gaby has prevented herself from imagining what sort of injury he may have accrued, but now she can look, can see the sprained curl of fingers, the blood in his mouth, the purpling around his eyes.
Still, he is alive. For now, it will have to be enough. “Come open this, if you’re done,” Gaby says, pushing herself to the side so Napoleon can fold down on the carpet again, going to work.
Gaby finds a radio array in Rudi’s desk, equipment as unfamiliar as it is unmistakable, but Napoleon opens the cabinet before she can attempt to turn it on, sitting back on his bare heels with a click of his tongue. “Well, I think we’ve found what Waverly wanted.”
The files are stacked three deep, names and serial numbers, affiliated organisations. CIA, KGB, Mossad and others. Agents known and agents missing, bodies as likely to be lifeless in Solveig’s hideous machines as they are to be truly dead, or turned irreparably to a different cause. It is a treasure trove. They have no way to carry it, no way to get it past the rest of Solveig’s ‘brothers,’ much less to the surface.
“Find me a pen,” Napoleon says looking up at her.
Gaby does, and paper, before turning herself back to the radio.
In the near silence, broken only by the rustle of paper and the rasp of breath, Gaby coaxes it to life, mechanic’s hands turning to rote movement, a fraction of solace in the final crackle of static.
The radio, tuned to a faint, faint frequency, clicks the Morse melody for “ready.”
If it reaches, they might be close enough to the surface, or at least a conduit, to reach back.
Gaby rips past the fabric of the dress, down to the bandage. She pulls it off the way she might a scab, nails under the edge dragging until the pressure gives, ripping along the skin until the wound is bare, sutures holding tight.
The ring, buried deep in the gauze, a goad for the last long blur of lightless days, comes out in her palm, just malformed enough to lie flat.
It was the only place she could hope to hide it, the only evidence she could have thrown away with nobody scrutinising it, the last place anyone would look.
“Illya,” Gaby says, hoping for their timing, as wild and estimate as it is, to have lined up. “If you’re up there, do it now.”
Napoleon leans against the desk, shoes replaced with Baer’s, waiting for a response.
The Morse shuts off.
It takes twenty minutes for the alarms to start.
Gaby has memorised the way back out, but they only get half way, clinging to false shadows thrown by emergency lighting, before they find Illya, borrowed uniform lending him a washed-out pallor.
In the smoke, he seems an ash-coloured pillar of salt, cracking open, striating at the sight of them.
Gaby would be a far better liar if she could stifle the relief, pelting past him to the site of the emergency vents, whisking smoke away from the levels below.
It is Napoleon, walking slower, who catches him by the sleeve, saying “leave it, I have the names,” before Illya shoulders a fraction of his weight, following Gaby back to the surface.
The thing nobody mentions about burning something to the ground is this: it is almost impossible.
They leave it smouldering, a column of smoke rising into the uninterrupted sky as they drive out of the last hangar, the scale of it diminishing in the distance.
There is no thud of helicopters, no whirr of an engine save theirs. No bombs. A quiet denouement for an atrocity.
Perhaps, in several hours when the fire services can make their way through the grassland, they will find Solveig’s body. They may even find evidence of the bullet, but it was her gun, her lead, her drive to keep up her father’s work which will stand the scrutiny.
Gaby cannot find it in herself to be elated. There is no room for joy, save for the unwelcome flavour of smoke in her teeth, bleeding to grim satisfaction.
Illya drives. Napoleon, left hand still curled into his broad chest, falls asleep as soon as the smoke is over the horizon, faint smudge of ash over the bridge of his nose, dragged onto the promontory of his cheekbone. Gaby reaches over to touch, dragging the colour over to the other side and leaving him marked by the slide of her thumb, a streak of grey bisecting his absent face.
He doesn’t stir, but the surface tension of his skin indicates he has been roused, only enough to be aware of her ersatz artistry.
Gaby settles against his side and watches the road over Illya’s shoulders, endless and straight into the distance.
She does not know when she falls asleep, only that she is warm. The chill of the maze, miles behind them, finally leaves her bones.
Illya wakes her when they stop, pulling off the road onto a track no more than a scattering of gravel over the ubiquitous yellow-brown earth, a desultory sign washing them neon green in the darkness.
Gaby struggles to break the surface of sleep, crawling up from a deep well of unquiet dreams, sound of a familiar scream echoing back on itself in a loop. Illya’s cool skin is a welcome tether as he offers her a hand, levering her carefully upright. Gaby groans as her weight presses against her injury, almost weeks old now but tender, asked to bear too much too soon.
It is as nothing compared to Napoleon, though, having been left to the mercy of those with none. He is bruised stiff, from the motion of his back, less its habitual smooth curl, now determinedly as he unfolds himself beside her. Still, he is alive, and only damaged in the body. Gaby thinks it would take a far more systematic approach to find where Napoleon keeps himself in order to damage it, the camouflage of his skin far deeper than simply dermis, muscle and bone. He smiles at her, and Gaby, smiling back, places her index finger on the bridge of his swollen nose, lightly tracing the line of ash. Napoleon lets her, standing still under her touch, focused on her face as though she is land and he is drowning.
It is false, of course. She would be entirely a fool to believe it anything other than Napoleon’s relief making itself known, and she would be doubly a fool to believe he loves her. But, he is not devoid of his artistry, even after what Solveig has done to him, and that is as much as Gaby could have hoped for when she asked him to play the sacrifice. He appears to have come out with himself, for what it is, intact.
Gaby decides not to be ashamed for her own relief.
Illya locks the car with a motion that looks like habit and turns, walking to the hut which serves as the office for this strange, quiet traveller’s waystation. It becomes apparent that he has taught himself a rudimentary amount of Spanish, but Napoleon has to finish the request. Two beds will be fine.
Gaby knows they will push them together, no matter what happens.
The clerk gives them a concerned once-over, turning to Napoleon with the keys; there is a doctor he can call, in the nearest town. A German, but he’ll come in two hours, if Napoleon would like?
Napoleon asks for whatever wine is good, and smiles away the rest.
The wine is red and bitter, and the room is small, blankets thin for a hot night, and Gaby and Illya push the mattresses together so that when Napoleon emerges from the reluctant trickle of water which passes for a shower, they will be able to sleep.
It is only after they have stopped, sheets redistributed, and their hands are idle, that Illya appears to find himself out of place, retreating to the dresser to examine it, though there is nothing on it of interest besides the barely-touched bottle, not even a telephone.
It is the first time she has seen him still since he came to get them, but now his shoulders are tight under the heavy grey of his stolen uniform, and he is facing away from her, reluctant to expose whatever is on his face.
Gaby does not think she has ever been as tired and sore as she in now, but it is not a thing to be set aside for later. In the end, it is not so difficult to say “Illya, come here,” and have him obey, turning slowly to face her and crossing the room in a long step.
Gaby sits on the edge of the mattress, leaning back on her hands. “Down,” she says, no edge to her tone but that of exhaustion, voice still raw from the smoke.
Illya folds to his knees in one smooth movement, reminding her again of a marionette, swiped off at the strings. She looks down at him, spreading her knees to bracket his shoulders, and reaches, cupping his face in both palms, fingers leaving streaks in the dust ground into his sunburned skin. “Look at me.” He does. His eyes, always disarmingly large, seem huge in the darkness, framed by sooted lashes and deep, sleepless crescents of bruise. “Thank you,” she says. “For coming to get us.”
“It was the mission.” He is holding himself rigid, broad hands clenched on his knees, refusing, for a reason Gaby cannot reach yet, to lean into her touch. “Napoleon almost--”
“Yes,” she allows, “but he didn’t.”
Illya shudders, an incremental softening to his violin-string tension. Gaby strokes a thumb over the rise of his cheekbone, dragging at the skin. His eyes begin to soften, his urgent, close-pressed lips parting for a fraction of a second before he draws in a sharp breath, drawing himself tight again. “I was almost too late.”
“Illya,” Gaby says, holding on to him, keeping him still and quiet as he begins to shake. “You did well.” He looks away, unable, yet, to accept any kind of praise while he is so keyed to his failures, and Gaby knows, with a sudden kick to the chest, why he was so reluctant to leave them, why he will always weigh his actions against a better standard. The revelation is a quiet one, but the weight of it settles like a stone to the bottom of a pool, a deep displacement ripple. She leans down, heedless of the burning pain across her side.
Illya is expecting a reprimand, some kind of reinforcement for his own endless need to prove himself better than he is. He has been all Gaby needed him to be, and has been since the first time she asked him to go along with a plan so tenuous only the three of them, these three specific bodies, could have accomplished it. She grasps him by the wrists, drawing them up until she is pressing his palms together, as though there is a prayer held tight between them.
His right forearm is still tender, wrapped tightly in a holding cross of elastic, and Gaby wonders when the last time someone handled him gently was. Perhaps in the alley, before Gaby met and lost Solveig, whose blood will forever be on her hands. Perhaps before that, as she had been ready to risk him failing, then, and he knew it. Gaby presses his wrists together until surely the bones must grind, a faint starburst of pain pulling him back into his body.
Illya stares at where they are joined, beginning to tremble as the stillness continues, and Gaby takes a final leap. “These are mine,” she says, moving to wrap her hands around his loose fists, curling them in until she can almost believe they’d fit under her palms, her slender fingers sitting perfectly in the grooves of his knuckles. “Aren’t they?” Illya drops his chin, breath shuddering out of his chest. “You did well,” Gaby repeats. “You used them well.”
Illya makes a noise halfway between a sob and a sigh, unravelling from the point of her grip until his quiet hands are in her lap and he is settled between her knees, weight of him pressing her legs into the bed.
Gaby strokes the shaking out of him until Napoleon emerges from the bathroom clean, undoubtedly having used all the hot water. Gaby doesn’t begrudge him the indulgence, not when she has used him so badly, not when his clean, bruise-mottled skin is so pointedly on display.
Napoleon watches them from the doorway with a tilt to his head more predatory than observational, interest piqued beyond his exhaustion.
Gaby lifts a hand from Illya’s wrist where she has been holding him down, lifting it to Napoleon, giving him as much permission to approach as she can. He considers, for a moment, before the towel falls, leaving him unselfconsciously nude as he slides across the mattress, arranging himself just behind her, hooking his chin over the ridge of her shoulder to co-opt her view. Gaby reaches up, curling a length of his wet hair between her fingers until he is tied, pulling him flush.
His arms slip around her waist, bent knees bracketing her, all of him water-warm and animally alive as he presses his left hand right over the taut line of stitches Gaby has been steadfastly ignoring, sparking the rearranged nerves.
Gaby twists her grip in his hair in turn, like for like. Napoleon’s deep laugh is subaudible, only the bass rumble of his chest the evidence. “If you need something to do,” Gaby whispers, carefully level and detached, “you can unzip me.”
She releases him, sure he’ll indulge her. His hands brush aside the sweat-damp hair at the base of her neck, finding the catch of the stiff dress she has ruined, smoke settled into the fibre irreparably, long rent in the skirt exposing her to the thigh anyway as Napoleon draws the zip down the line of her back, touch of his knuckles skating her spine in the wake.
Gaby curls both hands around Illya’s wrists again, faint dig of nails drawing him back to awareness, just enough to stir. She pulls him closer, draws him up, drags him onto the bed as she rolls, heedless of Napoleon in the way.
Illya goes nearly rigid when she pushes him onto his back, pliancy of his relief fading as he realises the depth of his exposure, Gaby stripping off the remainder of her clothing as she kneels beside him, never letting herself leave less than a hand on him, a finger, a touch, a tether.
Napoleon tosses the wreckage of the dress into the corner, arranging himself to watch, cross-legged, one elbow propped insouciantly on his knee, hand cupping his chin. The bruises on his wrists are livid green in the poor light, the cuts around the edges of his fingernails still cracked, but scrubbed raw now, ready to scab clean.
His left hand will be sore for the near future, Gaby thinks, looking at the swelling in the last three knuckles, curled over on his thigh. He gives little evidence of the pain, eyes fever-bright at Illya’s presence.
Gaby, wanting skin on skin with a fervour she has been a stranger to for many years, lays a palm on Illya’s stomach, bare where the uniform has ridden up.
His abdomen clenches, mouth falling just open, lips parting as he closes his eyes.
“Illya,” Gaby says, sliding a thumb into the hollow beside the jut of his narrow hip, drawn down by the shivering tension under her palm, “do you need this, too?”
Napoleon, Gaby knows, comes at the world open, in observation and action both, knowing that to consume is to know, and not the other way around. Illya, with his ascetic’s eyes and his surprised shyness, is a stranger to this, the language of touch to him an unknown country.
He looks at her, gaze travelling up from the flat of her palm, lingering nowhere but her face, and cannot answer.
“Yes or no,” Gaby says, hand as still as her breath.
Illya says “yes,” as though unsure whether his voice will betray him with the want in it.
Gaby settles the answering throb deep in the centre of her by leaning over to kiss him, to take the pent-up, buried need she has been trying to excavate for months into her hands. “On your knees,” she says, pulling him up, hands quick on the buttons of his shirt, sliding it off the curve of his shoulders, settling back on her heels to see the expanse of him half bare.
“Napoleon,” she says, wanting to see, “the rest, please.”
Illya fixes his eyes on Napoleon as he approaches, but Gaby darts forward, placing a finger under his chin, drawing his gaze to her, and only her. “No,” she murmurs. “Here.”
Illya obeys, watching her, fixed on her, as Napoleon, one-handed, lays him back, pushing his hands away as Illya moves to help, stripping him slowly, every inch of golden-pale skin a strange kind of revelation.
Illya is trembling, has been trembling, for what feels like it must be hours, and Gaby wonders if she will ever know the root of it; fear seems unlikely, but in so many ways Illya, for all his startling martial effect, is unformed, a person built to a specification and then cut adrift, left only to land in whichever hands will hold him.
Gaby presses a thumb to the corner of his mouth, gratified as his lips part again, just enough for her to press inside, the soft warmth a welcome surrender.
When Napoleon sits back, curl of his lips satisfied, Gaby uses her grip on Illya to draw him with her as she moves, slowly pulling him to attention, own body taut with the anticipation she has been turning aside in herself, unwilling to give in to any wants which might have turned futile in the execution.
Gaby lays back on the thin pillows in full knowledge of what she is about to take, and as deliberate an act as anything else she has planned for the three of them, so disparate in their parts yet so strangely suited to moving in concert. “Napoleon,” she says, tone beginning to lose its edge, blurring at the sight of Illya bare and waiting, eyes fixed on her because she has not yet given him permission to turn them aside, “Can you hold his wrists?”
Illya sucks in a ragged breath, eyes finally drifting shut enough that Gaby taps him on the thigh, just a quick, sharp reminder. When they fly open, Illya’s pupils are so wide she thinks he must be seeing her in sharp relief, the way she imagines wolves do, satisfied to her bones at his evident need.
“Let’s find out.” Napoleon moves behind him, right hand appearing in the join of Illya’s neck and shoulder for an instant before travelling the length of his arm, curling around Illya’s wrist and drawing it back. The left, he tests the give of, first, and though Gaby catches a glimmer of pain, the greater part of the look on Napoleon’s face is closest to avarice, the sight of something so new and ready for the taking that his smile has turned to a grin, a pulling back of lips only to expose his teeth.
“Good,” Gaby says, need mounting in her in response, the final expression of so much waiting and learning and failing coalesced for her to touch at last. “Down,” she repeats, quiet, as horribly gentle as she can make herself, forcing herself to a final moment of patience. “I’ll teach you.”
The first brush of his lips to the soft skin of her thigh feels like homecoming, of a kind. A blessing earned, and hers to keep.
She grabs Illya by the hair, holds him where she wants him, only a hand to to direct him as her words escape her. It is Napoleon, in the end, pressed at an angle to the long sweep of Illya’s back, one of Illya’s hands locked tight around his uninjured wrist, who she sees last, pleasure cresting through her in a wave.
Gaby pulls Illya flush, thighs again holding him steady as her breathing quiets before she can draw him along the line of her belly and Napoleon with him, wrists still pinned, dangerous hands taken out of his control.
She kisses the taste of herself off Illya’s mouth before she tells him to open his eyes. “Let go,” she tells them, the order for both.
Illya takes a moment to obey, body drawn taut with unspent need, tension built with no release, and Gaby, even drifting on the aftershocks, can see that words are as far from his reach as they are when he is washed over by rage, but now it is hers to use, hers to draw closer, hers to give back.
Napoleon, in his fashion, has settled in to bracket Illya, holding his tremors as tightly as he had his hands, in wild disregard for his own injuries, but he can wait as long as he needs to, his body as much a vehicle for his observation as it is a tool. Gaby knows he will find his pleasure as much in the watching as he will when she grants him the release of her touch. First, then, she can turn Illya with a twist of her hips, knowing Napoleon will catch their roll.
“Kiss him,” she murmurs to Napoleon, before she slides herself, torturously slow, onto Illya, taking him in. Napoleon silences his shocked gasp, hands gripping down again as Illya reaches blindly for a hold, shaking apart under them both.
It is easy, then, to gentle him through the aftermath, the shock of a climax seeming to leave him breathless.
Gaby keeps her touch on him as Napoleon watches his face, unblinking. She has never startled Napoleon, but the touch of her other hand between his shoulderblades sends a jolt down his spine, wide, glass-sheened stare turned as suddenly on her as it had been fixed on Illya as he releases him.
She has not paid attention, per se, to Napoleon’s body, beside its catalogue of injury, but with Illya insensible beneath them, she can see the animal grace beginning to return, the dexterity of his hands and the curve of his back focused to predatory intensity as she slides her hand around the sweep of his hip from behind. She presses slowly into an unseen bruise in the crease of his thigh before she lays claim to his need as well. When she lets go of Illya it is only to set herself flush to Napoleon’s back, left arm curling beneath his shoulder and spreading across his chest, holding him as still as she can manage, aware, so aware, that he is letting her, allowing her only a temporary reflection of what Illya has given her with both hands.
When she places her left hand over his mouth, he bites her, spilling out without a sound.
Gaby leaves her palm over his lips, uncaring at the possibility of broken skin as she drags him back to reclining, arranging herself in the middle as Illya stirs, reduced to instinct, seeking the warmth of her back as she holds Napoleon still in her grip. It is not healing, but it is its own kind of forward motion.
When they wake, there will be miles to go, and questions to answer. For now Gaby can allow herself the luxury of sleep, imagining a place of greater safety impossible.
“Miss Teller. Very good work indeed.”
Waverly never smokes, something Gaby finds intriguing in its own way, though he is always careful to offer her a cigarette when she meets him.
“Thank you.” The stitches are gone from her side, the pallor of blood lost and blood spilled beginning to fade from her skin, sun of the Caribbean doing its part to replace the balance. Gaby takes a finely rolled cigarillo from Waverly’s proffered case and lets him light it, smoke settling over the back of her throat before she blows it away.
As always, with Waverly, Gaby has found that waiting for him to carry on will get her to the germ of the conversation faster. There is no doubt he knows exactly what she is doing while she smokes in silence, but Gaby has gone to great lengths to prove herself, and can now, for a certain value, rest in the knowledge of it.
It will fade, as all things do. There will always be a next mission, a next disaster, a next precipice from which to draw humanity. Gaby would rather that than the faint fear she has that one day it will be the last, and she will be turned loose with all the other relics who know too much, left to run until she is pulled down like everyone else.
No, better to know there is more coming, that whatever work they have done, it is fractional, a sliver in Waverly’s kaleidoscope plans.
Waverly watches her smoke in silence, sipping his coffee. The terrace is set back from the boulevard, facing into the courtyard of the small hotel, less a five-star edifice than a cash-run hideout, but the coffee is excellent, and Napoleon likes the company. Waverly offers her another when she has finished her cigarillo, but Gaby declines, crossing her knees the other way, sheen of sweat between her bare legs catching a welcome breeze.
Waverly smiles at her, amused behind his sunglasses. “I suspect you know now why I sent you, and not a different team.”
“Do you have a different team?” Gaby asks, tipping back the brim of her hat.
Waverly smiles tightly, declining to answer. “It is always difficult, taking a risk. I find, these days that too little weight is given to potential, and too little time to seeing it realised.”
“You sent me because it was personal, and you sent Illya and Napoleon because they were agents you could afford to lose.”
Waverly draws the rim of his sunglasses down, shrewd eyes fixed on her over the tortoiseshell. “And how would you classify yourself in that equation?”
Gaby considers, stirring her own coffee with the tip of her finger, staring at the roof tiles, set over the edge of the plaster like gapped teeth. “I think if I had someone whose loyalties could be tested to my advantage, I would test them.”
“And so we arrive with not one, but three very useful assets,” Waverly says, note of faint pleasure in his even voice. “I won’t ask how you achieved it.”
“None of your business.” Gaby finishes her coffee in a long swallow, burn of it washing out the smoke, a faint sheen of sweat beginning to bead above her lip.
“No, it isn’t,” Waverly says. “Personally, I would see it stays that way. Do we agree?”
“What did we find?” Gaby asks, changing the subject. She is not ready, if ever there might come a time, to verbalise something as battle-forged as what she has done to Illya and Napoleon, and what they have in turn done to her. The nature of the bond is unknowable in the daylight, or at least, in the calm.
Maybe it would always have taken a bunker up in smoke to force them all together, and maybe it wouldn’t have. The fact of it is Gaby’s personal stake has done nothing but drive itself deeper, though Gaby has thus far avoided putting name to action where Illya and Napoleon are concerned. It is enough for now that they are still here, but of all of them, Waverly is the one who will always win the hand in the end, so long as their work is his.
“Tell me,” Waverly says, sliding his sunglasses back up his nose. “Did you happen to read the names, on the list you gave me?”
“Rather international, wasn’t it? Why do you suppose they were all collected, shall we say, by such a-- forgive me-- dynastic organisation?”
Gaby thinks for a moment, reflecting on disappearances, on Illya’s avowal that Russians had been missing, Rachel and Simon’s bone-held determination to uncover the truth buried in the dirt, only the faintest point visible to the naked eye. “I would say it looks like an iceberg.”
Waverly grins. “I am so very pleased to have you, Gabrielle.” He gets up, leaving his cigarette case on the table. “Keep that. I’ll be in touch.”
Gaby watches him go through the courtyard before she picks it up, antique silver warm in her hand.
Napoleon, when she goes to find him, is playing cards in the bar. Five Cubans and an American travelling with a British passport sitting around a poker table; maybe it will always sound like a bad joke. Of the three of them, Napoleon is a thing just a shade off real that somehow it loops back on itself, becoming fact for as long as the deception lasts. The joke is, there is no punchline.
It is also entirely plausible for Napoleon to have engineered this for her benefit: the fine linen shirt falling open at the throat, the wide spread of his legs as he leans back to check his hand. He knows exactly what picture he makes, as always.
Gaby rests her chin on the crown of his head, checking his hand. It is rotten, but it won’t matter, not with the way Napoleon is smiling. He already knows their tells.
Gaby digs her nails into the join of his neck and shoulder, fingers slipping beneath the collar of his shirt and meeting skin. “I’m heading back,” she tells him. “Take your time.”
Napoleon ignores the glares of his marks, raising the bet with a smirk. “I may have to leave a bit earlier than planned.”
“You’d look good with a black eye,” Gaby points out, digging a nail into the taut skin over his clavicle. Napoleon doesn’t answer, watching his marks as they mutter. “Do you think Illya is back yet?”
“Depends whether anyone’s shot at him.” Napoleon raises the hand again, smirk turning to a grin as Gaby rises. One by one, they fold. Napoleon lays his unremarkable hand down, making a move to scoop his winnings before the flash of a knife stills him.
Gaby’s Spanish is rudimentary, but whatever Napoleon says escalates the situation, as she doesn’t doubt it was meant to.
She leaves him to it. Either way, he’ll find them eventually, or he won’t. Napoleon, healed of his injuries from Argentina, is no less ephemeral than he had been before, a few faint scars serving no purpose in the way of anchors, nothing quite managing to create in him anything approaching a fixed point. Whatever Gaby herself manages will always be fleeting: an instant of welcome drag, a drawn-out pleasure, an unlooked-for relief for Napoleon’s anhedonic drive.
Gaby has no doubt that one day she will wake up and he will be gone without a trace. The best she can do is simply to carry on as though it is not likely to be today.
She begins the walk back to the apartment with only a brief glance over her shoulder. The mission they are here for is a simple one, and she has only begun to seed herself around the city for information. Illya, perpetually out of place, is the one who has had to do his best to be conspicuous for a different reason.
He will just need grounding, after, dissonance of the break never quite reconciled.
When she mounts the iron steps, he is already back, sweat-soaked through the white of his running shirt. The objective was to be seen, so he has been seen. Running, he is a difficult target, but here, now, he is a solid presence, cooling rapidly in the shade of the kitchen.
“Did you run past the base?” Gaby asks, waiting for him to come to her, kicking her shoes off into the corner before she settles in the wicker chair she has placed for a view of the window, silver of Waverly’s cigarette case heavy in her pocket, weight a reminder for later.
Illya finishes his glass of water, skirting the counter. “They do not have Russian-made communication towers.” He raises a hand, stares at it, before letting it drop. “The KGB knows I am here.” The crease between his pale eyebrows does not dissipate, if anything deepening as he turns toward the window, careful to stay of its direct light.
Gaby does not have to ask him, this time. She just has to sit, and to wait, and eventually Illya winds himself through the motions of resistance, pacing the perimeter of the room, placing the glass on the counter before he arrives back where he started, just beyond the reach of her arm, should she wish to stretch out and touch him.
She doesn’t. All it takes is to look at him, up and up again, and glance down.
Illya’s rigidity dissipates by degrees as he settles on the floor, back leaning up against the chair, lattice of ribs brushing her calf as he breathes. When he is calmer, Gaby rakes her fingers through his hair, sodden mass staying where the pass of her fingers has laid it. Illya breathes out as she reclaims her hand, eyes closed when his head tips back, exposing the line of his throat.
Gaby has often wondered, in the intervening weeks, how anyone could have resisted touching him, whether gently or ungently; she suspects the answer is that Illya paid the price in isolation, too aware of the risks he’d be taking, to be so known. To touch him now, to have him seek it out, is a tenuous, gossamer forward motion. The pain he enjoys seems part and parcel of the same, a hard grounding just as necessary and desired, perhaps impossible to separate.
“What do you need?”
Illya says nothing.
She extracts Waverly’s gift, examining the shape and weight, waiting for Illya’s answer. Gaby opens the case, rolling one of Waverly’s cigarillos between her fingertips, pushing the rest aside. There is what looks like a false slip, a seam waiting for a fingernail.
“The only thing the KGB demands is loyalty,” Illya says, cadence falling rote. He doesn’t stir, focused on the distance. Gaby doesn’t touch him again, waiting for him to continue, so rare is it for him to volunteer information. “Leonov will know I am here, soon. They will be watching, now that I am not theirs.”
There is a world unspoken between them. Likely there always will be, no matter the concert of their bodies. It is a fact of their world that information is currency as nothing else is, but this, a confession of bridges burned, carries weight. Gaby had known, from the moment of his cracking in San Marino, that Illya was adrift somehow. She has known he is a dead man, a cut loss, for months, but for him to sit so still in defiance of it, that is different. That is new.
There is no easy solution to matters of loyalty. Gaby has none of her own, last fragment of her unwanted legacy left below the ground where it belongs, as poisonous as it was pervasive. What little space she has for ties she is already using, and none of it is anything given to her by blood.
Gaby moves, lifting a leg and resettling it over Illya’s shoulder, his hand curling, uninvited but not unwelcome, around her ankle. She replaces the cigarette case for later, hooking her fingers under the cut of Illya’s jaw, drawing his focus up. “Their loss.”
Napoleon has lost enough hands to redeem himself in his temporary company, eyes flat in the dim light as he tosses a coin on the table.
Gaby catches the glint of a watch in his front pocket, the flash of a ring in his palm, and knows they will have to slip out of here before drunkenness becomes anger, but Napoleon, louche and alert, glances up at her over the heads of the men across the table, eyebrows an eloquent enough question.
Illya reaches past him, long hand cradling the near-empty glass Napoleon has placed precariously by his elbow, should he need to knock it over. Illya drinks what is left without looking at it, looming huge over Napoleon’s shoulders.
Gaby blinks twice, then four times. Napoleon frowns, theatrical, as he rearranges his cards.
She has given him the wrong count, of course, but he will win in the end, no matter how the game plays out.
She sits down at the table, ignoring the protests of the man whose seat she displaces.
Gaby looks at Napoleon, Illya leaning heavy on the back of his chair, and smiles, knowing that soon they might all be running. At least she is not a stranger to it, now. At least she has earned herself a place to go that is if not of her making then shaped by her action.
Later, they will go back to a dubious safehouse in the bowels of Havana. Later, they will eat, and drink, and do what the body demands. Later, Gaby will hold Illya down and remind him that loyalty can be choice instead of obligation and if it takes time, in the darkness, for him to shake apart, come undone in the palm of her hand, she will wait, and she will be there after. Later, Napoleon will be as he always is, a reflection in every surface, never quite the same picture twice. Later, they will go back to San Marino, and from there, onwards.
Now, Gaby leans forward, places her elbows on the table, and says: “deal me in.”