Illya staggered. His shoulder scraped the alley wall. He braced himself against it for a long breath and then pushed forward, his hand leaving a blood print against the brick.
His gunshot wound was worse than he'd thought.
The handkerchief he'd stuffed between his shirt and skin wasn't slowing the bleeding, and the exit wound - he couldn't reach it. Blood was soaking the back of his shirt, making his coat stick to him.
As he turned onto another street, it began to snow.
Illya calmly realized that he was not going to make it to the safe house. That didn't make too much of a difference; his target and his bodyguards were dead. There wasn't anyone waiting for him at the safehouse on the outskirts of Moscow, and he couldn't sew up his own back. It was only the difference between dying in a flat paid for by the KGB and dying on the street. No difference of merit.
As he walked, Illya spotted a payphone.
He stepped inside the booth, added coins. He listened to the rattle of them falling, the dial tone. His bloody fingers pressed the keys automatically. 04:01 a.m. in Moscow is 02:01 a.m. in London. The calculation was instant. He'd been making it for months. The time difference between London and Riga, London and Vladivostok, London and Minsk. He knew that Gaby was not always in London, and during his downtime he could calculate the distance between where he was and different cities. Had she made it to New York, yet? She'd wanted to go, wanted to explore Solo's hometown. Illya had wanted to see her light up in a city almost as bright as she.
The phone rang.
"Hello?" she answered, voice cheerful and wide awake. Was it her insomnia, or the alertness of a modern woman on a Saturday night? Illya has lost the right to ask months ago. He had no right to ask her anything, now.
"Hello?" she said again, sharper.
"Gaby," Illya said, and there was a slow exhale from the end of the line.
"Illya," she responded, voice cool.
There was a long, long silence.
"Why are you calling?" she finally asked.
There was no reason not to tell her the truth: "I wanted to hear your voice."
Illya leaned against the wall of the telephone booth, slid down it so he was sitting, keeping tight hold of the telephone handset. Through the panes of glass he watched flakes of snow fall, bright white sticking to the dark street.
"Are you well?" he asked, a little helplessly.
The last time he had seen Gaby had been at Heathrow, waiting to board his flight to Moscow. They'd both waited, Illya with his suitcase in hand, watching the rest of the passengers board.
"This is the last call for Flight 834, London To Moscow," the stewardess announced, pointedly glancing at Illya, standing there with his ticket in hand, fingers drumming again the glossy paper.
He'd turned to Gaby.
She met his gaze, lifted her chin up. "I won't ask," she said. Her voice was so low, impossible for another person to overhear, but Illya had no doubt about her words, her intent.
I won't ask you to defect for me.
Illya has returned to this moment again and again in his mind.
Sometimes he protests - I would never betray Mother Russia. Sometimes he plays the romantic hero. You don't have to ask, he could have said, lifting her into his arms and carrying her out of the airport.
But the fact is: she hadn't asked. He hadn't stayed.
Would he, if she had? Illya didn't know.
"Illya," Gaby said, not for the first time, he suspected.
He blinked his lashes open, refocused.
"I'm here," he told her.
He could hear her breathing, quick, and then she said, it a perfectly normal voice, "the cast on my arm is coming off Monday."
Illya jerked. "Are you - who-"
"It was just a facture," she told him. "I fell off a bike in Paris. Wet cobblestones, you know."
Illya's imagination played that out two ways - Gaby, in a sundress, caught in a drizzle in Paris, her bicycle unbalancing. Gaby, in tactical gear, laying a motorbike down on a dark street to avoid gunshots.
He should have been there.
"But-" he needed to know - but his tongue was so thick - he couldn't manage to ask–
Gaby answered him anyway.
"It's been very boring," she told him. "I've been doing paperwork for weeks. The only interesting thing that's happened is that there is an alley cat who keeps sneaking into my apartment.
"Koshka?" said Illya.
"Da," Gaby continued. "I almost shot him when I woke up to hear him rustling around in the kitchen. He's black and white colored and it looks like he's wearing a dinner jacket and bow tie? And he sneaks in and out as he pleases, so I've named him Napoleon."
He was surprised into a hoarse laugh, and then coughed wetly. His mouth tasted coppery.
"Illya," Gaby said, so softly.
"Eto nichto, solnyshko," he said, not wanting her to worry.
There was a long pause and then Gaby's voice returned to a light, playful tone. "Solo hates the cat, of course, because Solo doesn't like anyone better dressed than he is...."
The street outside is blanketed with snow, pure white and silent. Illya was warm, cosy in his coat and Gaby's voice was in his ear.
"Mama, that is a corpse. Look at that smile, that content face. No living Russian is that happy."
"I know a dead man when I see one, volchoka."
Something hard poked him in the shoulder.
Illya rocked forward, coughed, hot blood splattering his lips, dripping from his mouth.
He looked up to see an old woman, hair hidden by a kerchief, walking stick in hand. Over her shoulder, there was a woman a decade or two younger, dark, curly hair loose about her shoulders, streaked with iron grey and studded with snow.
"See? Not dead yet," the babushka said.
Illya passed out.
Illya had fractured memories of traveling through the streets, sandwiched between the two women as they marched him along. A dilapidated hallway and then he was dropped onto a hard bed.
"Mama, on the good sheets?" the younger voice complained.
That was the last thing Illya knew for a long, trackless period of time.
He was drowning, endlessly, inexorably, in water that boiled and seethed around him, slowly stripping the flesh from his bones. He was a boy again, listening to his mother cry out in the other room, powerless to help her, to stop the men who hurt her. He was back that the academy, where the loneliness hurt worse than the other children's words and fists. He shot Solo; watched him bleed out onto whirls of plastic film that could destroy the world. He ran after Gaby's car, catching glimpses of her scared face in the side mirror, through the rear window when she glanced back at him. He couldn't catch her. He knew she didn't want him to; he couldn't force himself to stop. He ran and ran and ran.
There was a hand over his mouth and Illya was awake.
The curly-haired woman leaned over him. He could hear a conversation from the other room.
"Keep quiet, or you'll get us all shot," she told him, sotto voce.
He moved to get up, and then following her gestures, went to his knees, squirming silently under the bed.
He didn't fit - even lying flat his chest pushed the mattress upward. Illya took shallow breaths.
The woman did something with the covers, making the bed look less suspicious and then opened the bedroom door.
"Ivan," she said. "What an unpleasant surprise."
"Lyudmila," Ivan said. Illya could see his spit-shined boots. Ivan was trying and failing to sound like he was in command. The voice of a man who relied on his uniform to give him an authority he otherwise lacked. "I heard that you were harboring a fugitive."
There was a pause.
"A man. That you have a man here."
A beat and then the two women cackled.
"What, we old crones? Ha! Yes, we're got a strapping man tucked under the bed," Lyudmila chortled.
Illya clenched his fists, felt the bed shift above him. Gaby did this all the time and he hated it. Eventually, someone would go, "yes, exactly," and then where would he be?
"Have you checked at the brothel?" Lyudmila continued.
" Have you smelled Ivan, volchoka? He clearly just came from there," the babushka added.
Ivan sucked air through his teeth.
"Well, if we stumble across a strange man, you'll be the first to know," Lyudmila told him, voice dry as the desert.
Ivan huffed and then stomped around the bedroom, opening the closet and riffling across the top of the dresser, knocking a beaded necklace and a half-full ashtray onto the floor, spilling grey ash across the worn carpet before leaving.
The sounds of the bedroom door closed, and then the front door.
The two women waited for a few moment and then entered the bedroom.
Illya was already asleep by the time they knelt down to peer at him.
Illya was tucked up on the couch, slowly working his way through a watery stew.
"Thank you, my dear," he said, with sincerity. "This is delicious."
The babushka beamed at him, and tried to give him another slice of bread. She was curled up on the couch next to him, watching him approvingly as he ate. Her obvious affection felt as warming as the soup.
Across the room, next to the beat-up electric range, Lyudmila smoked a black market cigarette and watched him with a gimlet eye.
"So, Mr. KGB, what are we simple women to do with you now?" Lyudmila asked,
tapping ash from the end of her cigarette.
Illya looked down at his hands.
Lyudmila misattributed his look. "You're clearly KGB," she informed him. "Gun calluses, no tattoos, and that haircut? You could've stepped off a recruiting poster."
"If we return you, do you think we'll get a reward?" Lyudmila mused.
"If you give Ivan so much as straw of moldy hay-" the babushka started.
"I did not stitch that boy up and keep him alive so that gutless Ivan can get a promotion-" the babushka snapped, glaring at her daughter
"Maybe," Illya interrupted. "My commanding officer - he wil not be happy to see me still breathing."
There was a long pause.
"That sounds like a story, sweet boy," the babushka coaxed.
"I am the son of a traitor. That shame does not come off. And now I have failed my mission," Illya shrugged.
"And Gaby?" the babushka asked, resting a gentle hand on his forearm.
Illya surged to his feet, swayed. "How did you know about Gaby?" he demanded.
Lyudmila hadn't reacted to him going to his feet in the least. "You kept screaming her name," she said dryly. "Who is she?"
Illya put his hand on the back of the coach, slowly lowered himself down before his knees buckled. "She is - she was.... I left her, and I shouldn't have."
Into the waiting silence, he couldn't help but add: "She is in London. She's clever. Beautiful. So strong and brave. Any man would want to be with her, and she picked me." He looked at his hands again, thinking of his call last night. He had thought he was dying, and hadn't cared if only he could hear her voice again. He was so selfish - forcing her to listen to that. He had so many things to apologize to her for.
The babushka sighed. "So what now?" she asked him.
He couldn't stay in the USSR. He certainly couldn't stay here, putting these women in danger.
"I must leave," he said, working through logistics. His papers would be flagged but - did they think he'd died? He'd left a trail of blood when he left his target's flat. Was Ivan looking for him, specifically, or just a man who ought not to be in this apartment?
"Defecting for love," Lyudmila said, sounding almost dreamy. "Good reason. Of course, what is a bad reason to leave the USSR these days?" She exhaled smoke toward the ceiling.
"East Germany," he said. "I know a man who owes me a favor. I'll take a small plane, fly below radar, cross the border."
"You can fly?" Lyudmila asked.
"Yes," Illya said decisively.
"Because I can," Lyudmila continued.
"You have a pilot's license?" Illya asked eagerly.
She smiled, sharp, and Illya knew exactly why her mother called her wolf.
"I flew with the 588th," she told him.
The 588th were the famous Night Witches. I salute you, you badass nazi killing lady pilots