She thinks she sees him, once, at a train station in Austria.
It’s windy and cold, air biting at her ankles, promising snow she won’t get to see. She’s heading for her train car, running through battle plans and files in her head—running, period. She’s been given twenty-four hours to leave the country, and she’s down to two. It’s needless to say that if she doesn’t obey…well. She’s in a rush. But when she catches the flash of movement on the opposite platform—a tall, blond figure weaving through the crowd—she stops in her tracks.
“Fraulein?” asks the luggage boy, huffing at her heels. He’s maybe seventeen, pockmarked and shy. He’d blinked several times when he saw her and blushed when she spoke. Such a reaction had surprised her. She still isn’t used to this version of herself, this woman who dresses in Dior and Valentino and Chanel, this woman who lies for a living, this woman who will never go home. She startles herself in mirrors, jumps at her own shadow.
“Wait,” she says in German. She pulls down her glasses. She can’t be sure; he’s in a dark coat with his hat pulled low over her eyes, moving far too quickly through the throng for anyone normal. But if she squints, it could be him. She’s not sure what she’d do if it is. Yell his name across the tracks? Go after him? Put a message out to contact him? She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about doing it once or twice.
But a train speeds by, and he’s gone. That’s it—only once, only for a moment.
The sight stays with her as she boards, as she sits, as she orders a drink. It bothers her how much it unsettles her. The last time she saw him was weeks ago in a dingy airport, stiff and stoic. He was a menacing statue next to Solo, who personified an eternal good mood in his pale clothes and swaggering step. Solo, who handed her her last bag and boldly leaned forward to kiss her cheek in cheerful farewell. (“Tell the Queen I said hello, would you?”) Illya had made no such move. He simply said, hands hanging at his sides, stature rigid, “Goodbye, chop shop girl.”
She’d looked up at him, at his set jaw and softer-than-usual eyes. “Goodbye,” she echoed. She hadn’t looked back once. She never does, as a rule. It’s a good rule; she knows because it’s hers. After all this time, she’s learned the only rules she can trust are her own. How is it that she now wishes she’d broken that one?
She sips her vodka tonic and watches the world blur by and wonders if she’s going soft.
There’s a mechanic in the French countryside, which isn’t really saying much.
There are plenty of mechanics and a possible terrorist cell in the French countryside. This one, though, is young and delicately handsome. He’s also tall and slim and rough around the edges, and it’s his wide, careful hands that catch Gaby’s eye.
He lets her hang around while he fixes her car—something she could do herself, but isn’t supposed to for the sake of her cover. What would a simple city girl know about cars? All Gaby’s supposed to know is how to listen, how to smile, how to blend in completely. She leans one elbow on her car and criticizes the man’s work light-heartedly, and he just listens, nods, adjusts. It surprises her; she has met so few men without a control complex.
Speaking of those types, it’s been two months and she’s heard nothing from either of her partners.
Not that she expects to, but the only updates she gets are from Waverly these days. Scraps of news, really, mentioned in passing. At a payphone in the city: If it gets too out of hand, let me know and we can call Solo in from Tokyo. Through a landline in a cottage: Is the contact dead? Kuryakin has feelers in those circles, but we’d have to find him first. The KGB is still refusing to help.
It makes her antsy. The syrupy gold laxness of this place doesn’t sit right with her. After the last few ops, she’s eager for another taste of action. A little creative driving, a little fistfight, a little flirting, a lot of adrenaline. Now she lies around her dusty cool cottage and spends hours staring at the ceiling, listening to days’ worth of audio tapes, coding her reports to send along to Waverly. She has a disturbing dream about being wrapped up in big arms, about breathing cologne, about pressing her cheek to stubbly jaw and rolling in the sheets. She wakes up cold and has to shuffle across the room to shut the window against the wind. It doesn’t get any warmer.
The next day she walks down to the garage and finds the mechanic sitting on a stool sipping a Coke. He smiles when he sees her in her butter yellow sundress and clunky shoes. His smile is a pleasant but unremarkable thing. “Salut, mademoiselle,” he calls. “Ça va?”
She halts in the doorway and takes in the sight of him thoughtfully before replying.
She isn’t supposed to bring anyone home, but it isn’t in the rule book. She invites him up to her apartment and finds him malleable in her hands. He makes them coffee naked in the morning and wraps her hair around his calloused fingers, curls her name in his endearing accent. It isn’t nearly as satisfying as she thought it would be.
The phone calls always come in like this: long-awaited, late in the night, careful, coded, whispers over ambient noise. The next thirty minutes happen like this: no lights on, scrambling to pack, wiping prints, running into furniture, burning paper and plastic in the sink.
In between is like this: waiting, watching, pacing, lying, drinking (too much), sleeping (never).
Often she lies awake listening to the sounds of the city (Toronto, Nice, Ibiza, et cetera) breathing at ungodly hours of the morning, imagining the phone ringing, imagining a familiar voice at the other end. Once, in Morocco, she dreams that it actually is ringing; in her sleepy confusion she scrambles to untangle herself from her sheets and grab the receiver. The operator is the only one on the line, and has to inform her that there’s been no call. She hangs up the phone in its cradle and frowns at empty space.
Other times she forgets there’s a bigger picture to get back to; she gets caught up in the lies and the chase and the secrets, and sometimes it’s a shock to pick up the phone and hear the word uncle in Waverly’s voice.
This time, it’s two in the morning and she’s up to her elbows in a failed pasta dinner. She’s tired and hungry, having spent long hours curled up in a cabinet to avoid discovery. But she sighs, swipes her hand across her forehead, and answers. She clamps the phone between her cheek and shoulder, dumps the smoking pan into the sink, and makes a weary grab for her glass of whiskey on the counter.
“Is this Sophia Shaw?”
Gaby’s gaze darts toward the bedroom, where a passport under that very name sits in a drawer. Suddenly very alert, she walks to the window and looks down into the street. There isn’t anything alarming in sight, which is typical of Swiss streets. As she’s learned, Zurich is lacking in most things her line of work would concern, including but not limited to powerful fascists, nation-wide conspiracies, and tyrannical governments.
“I’m sorry,” Gaby says, flattening her accent. “I think you have the wrong number. It’s very late, you know.”
A pause. The voice is female, older, unfamiliar. “Hold, please,” it says. There’s a click, and then a male voice: “Hello, Miss Teller.”
She sits heavily on the kitchen chair, takes a big gulp of her drink. “Please tell me you’re relocating me.”
“As a matter of fact,” says her boss pleasantly, “I think I have just the reunion you’re looking for.”
It never takes her more than five seconds flat to find her partners in a crowd.
It’s ridiculous, really, that they get sent undercover at all, seeing as there’s nothing subtle about either of them. Solo is loud in nearly every aspect, from his clothes to his shoes to his accent. Even now, newspaper in his lap, flirting with the waitress in what must be excellent French, he is a glaring spot refusing to blend in. Across from him, Illya is an even more ludicrous sight. He’s so large that everything around him is dwarfed, especially the furniture—his knees touch the table between them, and it’s a wonder the tiny chair under him holds up. As Gaby watches, he shoots an unimpressed look Napoleon’s way and gets up to head for the bathroom, looming over the heads of patrons that swivel to ogle him in mild horror.
“Honestly,” Gaby mutters to herself. She walks right up to the table and plops down in the vacant chair.
Solo blinks at her in mild surprise before he smiles. His grin is almost cartoonish: all square white teeth, charmingly crooked, suavely suggestive. “Hiya, sweetheart. Long time no see.” He says it in his typical loud drawl. Too loud, Gaby’s always thought. Too grating. Too I’m here! Pay attention to me! It’s sorely out of place in this tiny café, just like him, the big flashy American that he is, but she smiles back all the same.
“You’re looking well,” she tells him genuinely. He’s dressed in one of his usual crisp suits, hair neatly combed, one leg tossed gracefully over the other. He’s got a tint in his pallor that indicates some sun, but otherwise no blemishes or fading wounds that she can see. It’s more than can be said for her; she’s acutely aware that her makeup can’t quite cover the yellowish bruise on her jaw, and if she turns her head just so he’ll be able to see the cut above her brow. She doesn’t care much.
Napoleon plucks off his sunglasses and drops them on the table. “Quick trip home always does the trick,” he remarks. He leans back complacently. “You look lovely yourself. Where’ve you been all this time?”
“Here and there,” Gaby replies smoothly. She turns her gaze to the table. There’s a half-eaten crepe and a cup of coffee in front of her—not his. She reaches for the cup and brings it to her lips. Black, of course.
He fixes her with his twinkling gaze. “Getting into trouble?”
She just smiles. Footsteps approach from her left, and a shadow falls over her, its owner so tall that she has to crane her neck to see who it is. With a height like that, one can only wonder.
“You’re in my seat,” Illya says.
“Am I?” she asks innocently.
Wordlessly, Napoleon grabs an empty chair from another table and swings it around to theirs. With a roll of his eyes, Illya sits. His knee bumps hers.
“Nice to see you, too,” she says pointedly. And it is.
“That is my coffee,” he says. “And—” he reaches for the plate and she slaps his wrist “—my food.” The protest is punctuated with a glare strong enough to melt steel. She matches it, and takes a deliberate bite of the crepe. His gaze narrows on her hand and hitches there, on the ring she’s wearing on her finger. He blinks, and she raises her eyebrows at him in challenge. To her delight, it takes him a second too long to recover.
“I think you’ve lost this fight, my friend,” Napoleon says in amusement. He aims a quirk of his smile at Gaby, a sure sign that he missed nothing. He slides on his sunglasses again in a smooth, suave movement. “Eat up, sweetheart. We’ve got things to do.”
There is a moment—and this espionage thing is full of moments—where Gaby’s almost sure it’s over. A windy rooftop in bitterly cold Edinburgh, an army of men in black, and the only exit in sight being Solo driving a garbage truck a long way down.
“A plan would be good right now,” Illya calls. He’s shoved the full force of his weight against the door, still gripping his empty gun. The door heaves, and she jerks.
She peers down over the edge, mind racing. She’s planning to make a better escape with a rope and a little creative maneuvering when shots ring out. She whirls to find Illya bulling towards her at full speed.
“Wait—” she starts, but it’s too late. He slams into her, gathering her up like a doll, and they go over the edge. Her stomach plummets; air rushes past them in a whoosh, and then the impact punches the air out of her lungs. He fixed it so he’d take the brunt of the fall, curving his body around her, arms so tight that she can scarcely breathe anyway. They lie there for a few long seconds, panting amongst the piles of soft garbage, before he says, “Are you okay?” Despite herself, she’d screamed.
Solo’s voice is crackling in on their radios: What happened are you alive did you get it?
“I’m fine,” she says lamely. Then, more harshly into the radio, “We’re fine, we have it, shut up.” She doesn’t realize she’s clutching at his arms until he unwinds them. They untangle their legs. He boosts her up over the tall sides of the truck and climbs into the cab after her. Sandwiched between him and Solo, she resumes pretending that she doesn’t want to lean into his body heat, and they don’t say any more about it.
In Kiev they fall into their typical pattern: the three of them holed up in a hotel room, waiting for a phone call. Gaby’s bored, annoyed, wide awake. Waverly had specifically told her that trying circumstances would keep him from being here in person, but it’s still unlike him to be tardy.
She freshens up her drink and turns her eyes back on the stalled chess game set up on the coffee table. It’s been Solo’s turn for five minutes, and Illya is plainly getting impatient; she can see it in his single tapping finger, the intensity of his gaze. She has no doubt Napoleon is lagging on purpose, being far more interested in that ill-fated habit of his: pushing the Russian’s buttons.
“You can’t do that,” Illya protested a few minutes ago. His glower was comical; Gaby was impressed that Solo didn’t laugh outright. “Do you even know how to play?”
“Of course I do,” Napoleon said in mild offense. He moved his piece back. “My granddad taught me. He was a master, you know.” Gaby flicked an eyebrow up at him, and he winked.
Drink in hand, she sinks into the cushion beside Illya and tucks her legs under her. The game moves at a glacial pace. She waits until Napoleon gets up for another drink of his own to lean close and murmur, “You realize you could win in five moves.”
Illya eyes her, blinks when he finds her a little closer than he perhaps anticipated. He turns back to the board. “I let him think he has chance,” he says in a low voice.
“How kind of you,” Gaby replies, and brings her sweating glass to her mouth.
He snags it from her easily. “You realize,” he says, looking down into its amber contents, “that that bug is still transmitting.” He drinks.
She looks down at her hand, flutters her fingers so the little ring flashes. She thinks back to everything she’s done in the past few days with it around. Flirted, danced, slept, not slept, even—and she realizes this with a little jolt—got herself off in the middle of the night. She wonders if he heard that. “So?” she asks boldly.
He stares at her. She’s forgotten how disarming it is when he does that. Napoleon turns back with glass in hand, saying something about the function of the bishop, and Gaby leans back and away until she’s lying flat. She stretches out her legs and pushes her bare heels into his leg. After a long moment, he covers one of her ankles with his impossibly big hand.
“I think,” Napoleon says from the couch, “that you two should fight.”
The others look at him in annoyed confusion, because they are fighting. They’ve been holed up in this tiny London apartment for a week, and Gaby has had it with Illya’s neatness obsession. He insists on spotlessness, and only ever seems to make it Gaby’s problem. Ten minutes ago he barged into the kitchen and dropped a ball of wet hair onto the kitchen table.
“I’m eating,” Gaby said in horror.
“This,” Illya snapped, “is your hair. You must stop leaving in drain. It clogs the pipes.”
“I can’t help it,” Gaby shot back. “I wash my hair, sometimes it falls out. What do you want me to do, stick my arm down the drain?”
“Sounds like good idea,” he retorted haughtily.
She slammed down her spoon. “Listen to me, you oversized sack of red pride,” she began.
Things had escalated slightly and their present position looks like this: Illya holding up the hair in a clenched fist, immobile and unsympathetic, and Gaby standing on her chair to eliminate their absurd height difference, glaring and hopefully bigger in her hands-on-hips fury.
It takes them a moment to realize what Napoleon really means.
Gaby levels a challenging gaze at Illya, hands still on her hips. “What a marvelous idea,” she declares.
“I’m so glad you think so,” Napoleon says. “I love a good show.” He’s lying on the couch, holding a book in front of his face and grinning. It’s for appearances. Gaby knows he stopped reading for real the second Illya stomped in.
“No,” Illya says shortly.
“Are you afraid to lose to a woman?” Gaby asks coolly. She looks down her nose at him—and really, it’s very satisfying to be able to do so—and raises her eyebrows. “You have before.”
He just looks at her. There’s no heat in it, just—she doesn’t know. Something soft. She leans back on her heels a little, now more unsettled than riled up.
“I’m sure you could take her, Peril,” Napoleon points out, flattening the book to his chest. Gaby’s pretty sure it’s a biography on one of his trigger-happy presidents. “She weighs about ninety pounds.”
“How flattering,” Gaby says flatly, and he snorts.
“Not. Happening,” Illya states. He flicks the hairball at Gaby and leaves the room.
Three days later finds them back in the living room, nursing their wounds.
Gaby takes up the whole couch for the purpose of icing her ankle; she sits with her feet propped up, flipping errantly through a magazine and tonguing the torn inside of her lip.
From the kitchen table, Solo watches her in amusement. “You’re certainly pleased with yourself, aren’t you?” he says.
“I won,” she says stubbornly, for what must be the thirtieth time. “Just because it wasn’t conventional—“
“You bit him,” Napoleon interrupts in mild disbelief. Every emotion he expresses is mild. Gaby has yet to see him lose that shiny veneer of nonchalance and mockery he wears so comfortably. She’s pretty sure it’ll take a lot more than what they’ve been through lately to crack it. The day Napoleon Solo doesn’t have a snide remark at the ready will be a dark one, indeed.
She eyes him over the magazine. “Not very hard,” she says.
The bathroom door flies open and Illya glares at her, hand hovering over the raw scratches stretching down his cheek. “You clawed me, too,” he accuses.
“You didn’t like it, then?” Gaby shoots back, and Napoleon snorts wordlessly.
Illya’s jaw twitches in thinly-veiled restraint. “Devil cat,” he mutters as he turns back to the sink.
“I think lion is a bit more apt,” Napoleon says, but only so Gaby can hear.
Madrid will always exist in Gaby’s memory like this: hot days, dancing, drinking, cocaine dealers, nude beaches (cuing blushing from one partner and unnecessary commentary from the other), cobblestone streets, and unavoidable dips in the sewers. She’s still laughing about it when they’re wading through human waste, even though her clothes are ruined and it’ll take a week of showers to get the stench off her.
“This is not funny, Miss Teller,” Solo informs her bitterly.
Gaby feels just enough remorse to stop laughing; this one was one of his nicer suits. “It’s a little funny,” she presses.
Illya glowers down at her. “We’re in this mess because of you,” he accuses.
“Well, I was right, wasn’t I?” she replies. He shuts up, mostly because she was. The sewers are the best way of getting to the projected detonation spot; it’s not her fault her partners are afraid of a little urine. Okay, so maybe she could’ve been more delicate than shoving them down the foul-smelling tunnel against their will, but then what is she here for?
“You could’ve at least waited until we put on wetsuits,” Napoleon grumbles. The device in his hand beeps rapidly, and they all stop sloshing. He frowns down at the screen, then looks up at the ceiling. Then looks back down. And then up again.
“Any day now, Cowboy,” Illya says, in a tone of deep irritation.
“Hold your horses, Peril,” Napoleon says. “I have good news and bad news.”
Gaby looks down at the muck. The C4 in her pack is making it especially heavy, and she’s essentially sinking further into the waste. It’s in her shoes. She’s not sure the news could get any worse.
“The good news is that we’re here. The bad news,” Napoleon pauses. “We need to get it up there.” He points. The three of them crane their necks. “And we don’t have a ladder.”
Illya makes a scoffing noise. He turns toward Gaby. “Give me the explosives,” he orders. “I’ll throw them.”
Gaby raises her eyebrows. “I love how you think that’s a good idea,” she says.
His expression fluctuates before settling on annoyed again. “They won’t detonate.”
“I know,” she says.
“I suppose,” says Napoleon thoughtfully, “we should’ve brought the rappelling gear.”
“For God’s sake,” Gaby mutters in German. She throws her backpack at Napoleon. “You, spot me.” She points at Illya. “You, crouch.”
They stare at her for a long second before Illya rolls his eyes. “This is terrible idea,” he grouses, but he crouches down so Gaby can scramble onto his shoulders. It takes a lot of wobbling as he straightens up, and grumbling in Russian as she kicks him, but eventually he gets a good grip on her ankles and she manages to stand. Napoleon tosses her the C4, and she secures them to the stone ceiling.
“See?” she asks, returning to a sitting position. Illya grunts in complaint. “Problem solved.”
“Well done,” says Napoleon, but she can tell he’s still miffed with her. He holds out his arms. “Jump.”
“No, thank you,” she replies. He looks surprised, and then snorts before looking back down at the device.
It takes a minute for the burly Russian to get it. She can only imagine his expression when he says, accent suddenly thick, “You can’t be serious.”
“With my height, I’m about up to my waist in it,” says Gaby primly. “Besides, we have more to place.” She pats him on the head. “Onward.”
“Might as well,” Solo says, obviously trying not to laugh. “We don’t have time for anything else.”
Illya sighs heavily and mutters. Gaby knows just enough Russian to catch the word traitor. “You’re like tiny, annoying squirrel,” he declares in English. But he adjusts his grip on her legs and starts wading.
In a long ballroom in Copenhagen, Gaby looks across the crowded floor and scoffs.
Napoleon, his arm steady under hers, looks down at her questioningly. “What?” he asks. She hasn’t spent a lot of time this close to him without Illya dwarfing him, not in broad light, not where she has time to notice, and so she sometimes forgets how tall he actually is.
She nods at their partner, weaving through the dancefloor with his arm hooked around a blonde woman’s waist. “He told me he couldn’t dance,” Gaby says.
Solo looks up to follow Illya’s movement. For all his grace—and Gaby, having seen him fight dozens of times, can confirm he has it—he’s a bit of an unsteady giraffe among the scores of trained dancers. “I don’t believe that qualifies as dancing, Mrs. Doyle,” Napoleon remarks, his false accent impeccable. They’re masquerading as a newlywed British couple, he in one of his expensive suits, she weighed down by pearls and diamonds. Gaby lets him do most of the talking, seeing as her resentfully poor former self shows its face in these settings, and focuses instead on counting guards.
She elbows him a little, unhooks their arms so she can accept an hors d’oeuvre. “He’s doing his best,” she says. She exchanges smiles with one of the many wealthy widows in the room. “I told him. He never listens to me, the big oaf.”
Napoleon scoffs a little into his drink. “On the contrary,” he says pleasantly. “I think our big oaf hangs on to your every word.”
Gaby regards him in cool surprise. It’s not that she doesn’t expect him to see it—he never misses a thing. He’s just breaking one of their unspoken rules by bringing it up. “You’re not good at this subtlety thing, are you?” she asks.
He just grins. “When I want to be.” He checks his watch and adds, “Now, be a good girl and faint.”
She rolls her eyes, takes a deep breath, and obeys, making sure she knocks his drink into him as she collapses.
By the time they’ve made it off the streets and into the back entrance of their Monte Carlo hotel, Gaby’s arms are numb and she’s about to explode with fury.
“This would be easier if I carried him,” Illya says as she heaves.
“Shut up,” she hisses. She drops Napoleon’s feet and blows hair out of her eyes. “Hit the button.”
He hits the button. Napoleon’s eyes roll toward her, and God is she glad he can’t move most of his facial muscles. She does not have the patience for his running commentary on everything she does right now. Still, it’s obvious he’s thinking it. She kicks his foot and says, “You shut up, too. You’re the one who got poisoned.”
They drag him into the elevator car and prop him up against the wall. The ride up is silent. Gaby is fully aware she’s practically radiating her anger, poisoning the air, but she doesn’t care. Let the big idiot think she’s mad. Damn his feelings. The doors slide open. Gaby pokes her head into the hall, and when the coast is clear, they half-drag, half-carry Napoleon into his room and deposit him in his bed.
“You’ll be alright,” Gaby informs him tonelessly. She’s too angry to have a very good bedside manner, but she sweeps his hair off his forehead and pats his hand all the same. “Waverly says it’s temporary. By morning you’ll be back to normal.”
He blinks once, deliberately. Yes. He knows. She gives him a strained smile and turns off the light before exiting the room.
She finds Illya in the bathroom, examining his head wound. She leans against the doorframe and watches him for a minute, notes his bruised jaw and bloody knuckles. “Is it bad?” she asks at length.
He glances at her in the mirror and lets the curl of his hair fall over the mess of blood and skin. It’s too long now. She’d offered to cut it and he’d said, in a very odd tone, You are not my mother. “No,” he says indifferently. “Just a scratch.”
She sighs. She grabs a hand towel and runs it under the faucet. She points at the toilet. “Sit.” He doesn’t move, just watches her warily. She turns off the sink and glares. “Sit,” she repeats.
It might be that he’s too tired to fight her, or that Napoleon was right all those weeks ago in Denmark. Whatever the case, he complies. She wrings out the towel and gently pushes back his hair to examine the wound on his hairline. It’s not pretty, that’s for sure. She’s not sure, exactly, when he managed to get it. Not a knife; it’s too jagged for that. She presses the towel to the bloody gash and is mildly impressed when he doesn’t flinch.
“You should get stitches,” she says.
Predictably, he shakes his head just a fraction.
“It might scar.”
He’s not meeting her eyes, instead fixing them on her collarbone. “I’m used to it,” he admits.
“I’m angry with you,” she tells him.
“Yes,” he says.
The simple resignation of his answer makes her even angrier. “You gigantic idiot,” she snaps. “We said we would save him, didn’t we?”
“Does that mean something else in Russian?” she demands. “Because in English it definitely doesn’t mean order me to stay in the car and lock me in.”
He says nothing.
“I’m an agent,” Gaby says. “Just like you. Just like Solo. I’m as capable as either of you, you know that.”
“You’re the better driver,” he says. “I thought it would be better if I went and you stayed.”
Gaby seethes. “Well, good thing I broke out,” she says harshly. “Because you needed me, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” he says, and she wants to hit him. Instead she mutters something unkind to men and removes the towel, frowns as she thumbs at his temple. “I’m sorry,” he adds. “You are right.”
“Of course I am,” Gaby says. She dabs at the gash again, but stops when his hand curls around her wrist, warm and heavy.
“We always need you,” he tells her solemnly, from under blond lashes, eyes sincere.
The air in the room feels a little thinner. She leans forward as though pulled by a cord. “Of course you do,” she murmurs. She curves her palm to his jaw. His other hand fits to her hip. It would be so easy to fall in, to close those last few centimeters, to slide against him, to lose it all.
A loud knock has them, as usual, jerking away. He turns back to the mirror. She hurries to answer the door. A bellhop rolls a food cart into the room; when he leaves, so does the moment. She takes a croissant and steps back into Napoleon’s room.
He makes a questioning noise when he sees her. He flicks his eyes from the door to her, raises his eyebrows.
“Shut up,” says Gaby. She pulls up the chair from the little desk and sits. “And listen. I’m going to read to you.” He groans in mock-complaint, but turns to look at her attentively as she opens her book to the first page and begins. After a few minutes a floorboard creaks. She doesn’t glance up until Illya turns away from the door. She pauses, watches him go, and wonders if they’ll really pretend, as usual, that nothing happened. Since, as usual, nothing did.
Only when Solo drifts into sleep does she close her book and leave.
They have their own room apiece now; hers is standard, but she feels small in it. She thinks about going there, about greeting her own reflection in the mirror, about sleeping in her cold narrow bed. She thinks about how tired she is, about the ache in her arms and legs, about being alone with her thoughts. She thinks about the itch she’s been deliberately not scratching. When her room comes sup, she walks straight past it, down the hall, and turns left. When she finds the door unlocked, she smiles.
The room is dark except for a pair of twin lamps glowing in the lounge. They cast long, grasping shadows on the walls, stretching toward her with empty hands. She closes the door behind her with a click. She has never been afraid of the dark.
“He’s asleep,” she says to the shadow in the corner.
Glass clinks. Illya turns and leans his weight against the liquor cabinet, ice rattling. “Good,” he replies. “He’s child like this.” He offers the glass to her, but she shakes her head.
“I’m tired,” she says, and draws close enough to press her hand against the ugly patterned sofa. It’s rough under her palm. She suspects, without very much evidence to back it up, that he will be, too.
He just looks at her, stoic and impassive. He doesn’t usually throw up this wall with her; usually, everything is written on his forehead for her to read. His language of lingering looks, glancing touches, rare smiles, and soft eyes is harder to speak than it is to understand. (But not that much harder.) “You should go to sleep, too,” he tells her. It’s probably a warning.
She levels her gaze. “I’m not sleepy,” she says. She steps a little closer. “Does that still hurt?” She raises her fingers to her own forehead, and he shakes his head. “Let me look at it again.”
“I can barely see you,” she says, ignoring him. “Come into the light.”
He stares at her a second. He opens his mouth, closes his mouth. Then he obeys, crossing the space in just a few steps. She smiles up at him. “That’s better,” she says softly. She easily pulls the glass from his fingers and places it on the table. She puts a foot on it and stands, is more than a little pleased to be taller than him when she inspects the clotted gash. “It’s not bleeding anymore, at least,” she tells him at length. “I wish you’d go to the hospital.”
“It’s nothing,” he repeats, and this time his voice sounds a tad uneven.
She hums, runs a finger along the bandage to keep it in place. If he isn’t breathing anymore, she won’t mention it. “I declare you fit for duty,” she says, but she keeps her hand on him, presses her skin against his.
“Gaby,” he says, a little hoarsely. This is the most vulnerable she’s seen him, she thinks. The parallel isn’t lost on her—they were here six or seven months ago, when she was pretending to be herself and he wasn’t pretending to be anyone else. Just like this.
“What?” she asks.
His hands twitch empty at his sides before drifting forward—one curving at her waist, the other skimming the hem of her dress. “We have to get up early tomorrow,” he reminds her. Definitely a warning.
She says, “I’ll wake you up.” When she kisses him, it’s sharp and mean and feverish and distinctly not enough, even pressing as close as they are, even as he responds as hard as he does. He lifts her clear off the table, curls iron arms around her, bites back. He holds her so tightly that she, already half-dizzy with exhaustion and the smell of him, can scarcely breathe. Not enough.
But it’s a start.
Breakfast is like this: sunlight on the balcony, turtlenecks, scarves, oversized sunglasses, fingers grazing over passed cups, Solo stumbling in for food ten minutes after seven, apparently now in control of all his limbs.
(“You’re alive,” Gaby says in greeting.
“Just barely, thank you,” he replies. “Is that marmalade?”)
He takes one scrutinizing look at them—and knowing his eyes, sees everything from the looseness in Illya’s posture to the neon bruise on Gaby’s collarbone—and says, “Well.”
Gaby raises her eyebrows. “Something to share?” Across the table Illya averts his eyes in obvious embarrassment, hides behind his coffee.
Solo’s grinning, wide enough to cut his face in half. “Nothing at all,” he says, holding up his hands. “Except: congratulations.”
Gaby flicks her sunglasses up to give him the most withering look she can muster. She’s pleased when he looks cowed. “Good,” she says coldly. “That’s all you get to say.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says after a moment.
The rest of the meal is quiet except for the sound of the city waking up below.
Nothing changes, not really. The work is the same: running, lying, squeezing into tiny spaces, nearly dying. In Cairo Illya takes a bullet through the shoulder and bleeds a river on stone steps. In Rio Solo gets pinned under a car in a crash and milks it for days. In Buenos Aires Gaby spends four hours locked in a dumbwaiter before they track her down and let her out; limbs jellied, feet numb, she tumbles to the floor and must be thrown over a shoulder for them to reach the getaway car in time.
At the end of the day they still gather bleary-eyed and exhausted around a table or a desk to get their reports together, clink glasses and congratulate themselves on a job well done, fall asleep rumpled on the floor when they drink too much. In the mornings they eat together and banter and play coy and pretend. Gaby doesn’t mind. She wants this job to stay professional—unprofessional as this thing is—and she won’t have it be said that she couldn’t handle it.
It’s the nights that are different. Gaby doesn’t sleep in her own bed anymore. In those blurry little hours she slips out of her room and into his on bare feet, under cover of darkness. He’s always awake, waiting, watching with alert, glinting eyes as she pads across the room and slides in with him. When she settles into the curve of his arm, curls her own around him, presses her cheek to his skin, he exhales like he’s been holding his breath. More often than not, they just sleep.
And yes, he’s holding back. Each time, every time, it’s her that makes the first move. She’s the one who slides a little closer, leans a little further. She has to hook her hands in his collar and yank him to her level, slide her hand in his, sidle up and press close. Sometimes it feels like a she always has her arms out, like she’s always the one reaching and he’s always the one backing away.
She doesn’t think it’s because he’s reluctant. No, the look on his face when she touches him is relieved, and he always responds like he’s desperate. Blowing off steam together is like this: open mouths sliding, skin chafing skin, knocking over vases and lamps and glasses, nails in flesh, teeth clacking. Sometimes he kisses her so hard it hurts, holds her so tight she bruises. Sometimes he touches her so hesitantly it’s like he thinks she’ll shatter in his hands. It feels like she’s constantly reassuring him that yes, this is real. Yes, she wants him. Yes, it’s okay to want, too.
If she didn’t know any better, she’d think he was afraid.
London is colder than she remembers.
After spending two months roaming the southern hemisphere, the wind and rain of the city seems harsher than is normal. She’s almost forgotten what it’s like here. By the time she makes it to her hotel, her hands are numb, her joints locked up in shivering fits. The girl behind the front desk recoils from her distinctly German accent, and she tries hard to slip into the one that won’t bring her so much trouble.
When she reaches her room, she turns up the heat until it’s nearly tropical and huddles in her too-large bed with blankets piled up. She can’t sleep; insomnia and jet lag is an unfortunate combination, so she orders room service. Has a drink. Paces. Lies down and stares at the ceiling. Wishes this room weren’t so big and that she wasn’t so alone.
She wakes up feverishly thirty minutes before she’s meant to get up and takes a hot shower. When she shows up at MI6 headquarters nearly consumed by thick clothes, she gets plenty of odd looks. Even Waverly raises his eyebrows from behind his desk.
She goes through the motions—being poked and prodded in a cold room for her annual physical exam, answering prying questions for the psychological tests, drowning in sweat for stress tests, deep breathing for polygraph tests, and finally, this: sitting in the chair across from her boss for the six-month debrief.
“Well, the agency is certainly pleased with how well you’ve integrated into U.N.C.L.E.,” Waverly tells her pleasantly. It’s odd to see him in person again; for months he’s been handwriting to burn, a disembodied voice on the telephone. “You’re making a name for yourself.”
“Thank you, sir,” she says automatically.
He flips through her file, and she has half a mind to grab it from his hands. She’s never seen it, but she finds being so closely examined, so critically documented, very annoying. “No more quarrels with Kuryakin, then?” he asks. “Your early reports painted a less-than-flattering picture.”
Gaby keeps her voice even when she replies, “It just took time.”
It’s a month before she’s directed to a hotel room in Glasgow and finds Napoleon chatting up a maid in the lobby.
“Gaby!” he exclaims, and wraps her up in a hug like an old friend.
She’s oddly appreciative of it. “I’ve missed you, too,” she laughs.
Maid forgotten, he steers her toward the stairs. “It’s been a downright disaster without you,” he tells her heartily. “You won’t believe what we’ve been getting up to.”
“I have a feeling I will,” she replies dryly.
He’s ten minutes into describing an unfortunate incident involving a carefully-planned theft and a smaller-than-anticipated air duct when Illya breezes through the door weighed down by bags. He stops short when he sees them leaned closely in armchairs, looking rather like a bear in the headlights. He looks good, Gaby thinks with a jolt, although not much has changed. He’s in his typical uniform of dark button-down and slacks, shoes shined, jaw shadowed. Only his black eye is out of place.
“Peril,” Napoleon greets cheerfully, “look who I found wandering around downstairs.” He pats Gaby’s bare knee and she smiles.
“Hello,” Gaby says. She doesn’t get up.
Illya blinks. “Hello,” he repeats. He doesn’t come closer.
Napoleon clears his throat after a second. “Heartwarming,” he remarks. He points at the liquor cabinet. “Drink?”
When she knocks on his door that night, he looks surprised. He blinks owlishly at her for a good thirty seconds before she raises her eyebrows and asks, “Are you going to let me in?”
He doesn’t move aside, but she’s small. She slips by. The room is unusually bright. His clothes have been thrown carelessly over the sofa, food half-eaten on the sideboard, gun recklessly in sight on the coffee table. She’s never known him to be so…untidy.
“They never told me where you were,” she informs him. She pivots to look at him. “I hope it was better than Glasgow. It rained the entire time I was there.”
“What are you doing here?” he says.
The gruffness of the question throws her off. She looks at him critically. He’s retreated into a different, cooler Illya. Raw, unbridled fury wrapped up in scars and callouses and thick skin, coated in ice, guarded by a crocodile-filled moat. This is an Illya she had the pleasure of peeling with her teeth and nails. She supposes it won’t be so hard or so unpleasant to have to do so again; she just doesn’t understand why. Does he want to go back to eight, nine months ago? Does he want to go back to pretending? Sleeping alone?
“Why?” she asks at length. “Didn’t you miss me?”
Something falters in his expression. “Yes,” he says. He sits heavily on the sofa, looks at his empty hands. “Very much.”
Despite herself, her stomach flutters. “Good,” she says casually. She sidles to him, close enough that her skirt brushes his knees, and touches the black-yellow of the bruise ringing his eye with a light fingertip that skips down his cheek. “Where did you get this?”
“A lucky hit,” he says. “Dubai.”
She’d imagine so. She’d imagine that luck ran out quickly. “Ah,” she says. “You were warm, then.”
He looks up at her and—there he is. Just barely, just behind the eyes. She doesn’t think it’ll take much to undo him. He says, “Not always.”
She slides into his lap easily, one hand on his shoulder, settling her weight on his knees. Just one of his hands covers the small of her back. “It looks like it hurts.”
“No,” he breathes.
She smiles, fits one palm to the back of his neck. “Kid gloves,” she says, and she doesn’t bite when she kisses him.
She doesn’t sleep. She lies still, pinned by his sleep-heavy limbs, and listens to him breathe. His heartbeat is steady under her hands. She has spent time enough beside him to know that the slightest thing will wake him. If she moves, he will jolt into consciousness the same way a car hits a brick wall: violently. It makes her wonder what his dreams are like—if they’re dreams at all.
Something sharp wells up in the cavity of her ribcage, curling into her throat. It tastes bitter. She has never had anything good in her life. She’s learned to be distrustful of kindness, of beauty, of anything capable of hiding its teeth. She should know better than to lean so far into this rabbit hole. The only end in sight is ugly.
She turns her head to look at his slack-jawed slumber. She feels frightened and exhilarated at the same time, like she’s standing at the edge of a cliff.
There is a girl in Wales, which isn’t saying much.
There are plenty of girls and a fickle government official with a finger hovering over a big red button in Wales. The girl is doe-eyed and wild and entirely too trusting, which is how Gaby manages to befriend her in a matter of days. Despite knowing she’s meant to be the gun at the girl’s temple (so to speak), Gaby genuinely likes her. She—Abigail—doesn’t shy from a drink or a dance, says the words my father with just the right parts of fondness and resentment.
(“She’s not on fantastic terms with her father,” Waverly had said through a cloud of smoke. “Which, forgive me, is part of the reason we selected you for this.”
Gaby brushed off the barb. “And the other part?”
He shrugged. “We mean to be more intimidating than effective.” Then: “Meaning, Gaby dear, you won’t actually have to kill her. That would be awful politics.”)
Gaby spent about thirty-six hours alone learning everything there is to know about her, but it’s still a shock when she cuts Gaby off mid-laugh by leaning forward and kissing her. Gaby tastes lipstick and champagne, feels silky skin and hair under her fingertips. She takes a moment too long to kiss back, and they pull apart.
“No?” Abigail asks, flicking up a pale eyebrow. Her hand is soft and uncalloused on Gaby’s knee.
Gaby is thinking something along the lines of no, thanks or I can’t or there’s someone waiting for me. Before she can reply, Abigail’s father enters the room.
“Hi, Daddy,” Abigail says, as though she hadn’t had a handful of Gaby’s hair a moment ago.
The man stops short, looks at Gaby with a glimmer of realization and then fear. Gaby leans back and away, smiling. A few days later she gets the news by way of a coded note on her nightstand: her purpose has been served.
“You are never getting hurt again,” Gaby huffs.
“It’s not my fault,” says the dead weight she’s dragging along.
She wipes sweat off her brow and adjusts her grip on his armpits. “When people start shooting,” she pants, “you get—out—of—the—way.” She punctuates each of the words with a sharp tug on him.
“I tried,” Illya says in irritation, accent suddenly thick. “You shouldn’t stand near windows.”
Gaby scoffs. “Then you let me take a bullet for my stupidity,” she snaps, voice whip-sharp with worry. “We’re useless like this.”
“I have been shot before,” he says stubbornly. “Better me than you.” She’s huffing too hard to form real words, so she settles for making breathless indignant noises. He doesn’t acknowledge them. Instead: “You are too small for this. Where’s Solo?”
She hears the slap of footsteps and struggles to pull him around the corner. “Stealing the data drive,” she gasps. She slips onto her backside with him half in her lap and they both hold their breath as a group of guards thunders by. “We can’t wait for him,” she says. “We need to get out of here now.”
“Difficult,” he says.
He’s not wrong; if Gaby were to check, she’s sure she would find at least three slugs in him. She doesn’t check. She’d done her best to pack the wounds and for now, him not bleeding out is enough. “Not impossible,” she counters. She takes deliberate breaths to slow the pounding of her heart and thinks. “There’s a service elevator that’ll take us to the river. Napoleon has to use it to get to the ground floor. He’ll be there.”
Illya’s breathing is labored, a realization which hits her like a physical blow. “They’ll be waiting,” he tells her.
“Not if we’re quiet.” She waits for more sign of guards before she gets up. “Can you stand?” She has to haul nearly his whole weight and prop him against the wall to get him to his feet; even so, the only way they can gain anything like a reasonable speed is if he leans heavily on her. It’s a short distance to the elevator. In it, he collapses so suddenly he nearly takes her down with him. “Don’t go to sleep,” she orders. His eyes roll and flutter. She slaps him. “Illya.”
He focuses on her a second before the doors slide open. Gaby whirls to face the hallway; she just barely registers Napoleon sprinting toward her before he’s making impact, slamming her into the wall. Her ears are still ringing as he returns fire, but she manages to punch the button to shut the doors against the hail of bullets.
Napoleon slumps against the wall a little. He doesn’t seem hurt, but he’s panting. “Dying, then?” he says to Illya, who responds with a grunt.
“Not,” Gaby pants, “funny.”
He checks the ammo in his gun before handing to her, wipes blood out of his eyes. “He’s seen worse,” he says simply. “Let’s hope you’ve been paying more attention during shooting lessons than Russian lessons.”
“She has gun,” Illya reminds him grimly.
Gaby raises her eyebrows.
“Ah,” Napoleon says. The elevator dings. “Well, good thing she’ll be too busy to shoot me.” He pulls Illya over his shoulder in a truly impressive, fluid move. Gaby raises the gun. The doors slide open, and they run.
“You can read to him, if you like,” says the young nurse in the room.
Gaby looks up, bleary-eyed. It’s been two days in this chair at the hospital, and the only reason she’s bothered changing her clothes is because Napoleon brought them to her and all but shoved her into the bathroom. “I don’t know if he can hear me,” she says doubtfully, glancing at Illya’s frightfully still figure.
“I’m sure he can, Mrs. Belikova,” the nurse says soothingly. She’s younger than Gaby, very pretty, and completely ignorant of the fact that the unusually big man in the hospital bed is a KGB assassin. “At the very least, he’ll dream of you.”
Gaby can’t help but be skeptical. After all this time, she can’t say what Illya Kuryakin dreams about. But under the nurse’s eyes, she parts the pages of a book and begins to read.
At half past noon Napoleon returns with sandwiches and water, which he charms the nurses into letting him sneak in.
(The more matronly of them put up the most impressive fight. “Mr. Belikov, I can’t possibly—”
He smoothly interrupts. “Mrs. Belikova hasn’t left my brother’s side in thirty-six hours,” he says, widening his eyes in concern. “If she doesn’t eat, you’ll have another patient on your hands.”)
Gaby eats hers for appearances, and he doesn’t touch his. The two of them watch the labored rise and fall of their partner’s chest for a long moment.
“We can’t stay here much longer,” Napoleon reminds her gently. “They’ll be sending us on our way soon.” She knows by they, he doesn’t mean the nurses.
She dares to reach out and touch Illya’s wrist. “As long as we can, then,” she says.
“As long as we can,” Napoleon agrees.
In New York she dreams of her gray shadowy childhood and wakes up shuddering. When she gets up to pour herself a drink, the bottle knocks against the glass, and Napoleon rolls over on the other bed to peer at her through an abruptly alert eye. They’re meant to be playacting as a married couple again; a real estate mogul and cunning wife, a pretty pair of investors.
“Bad dream,” she tells him, and sets down the bottle. She’s poured too much, but she won’t let any of it go to waste. She gulps down half and makes a face.
He gets up and gently takes the glass from her unsteady hands. “Not real, then,” he says firmly. Except it was, once. She doesn’t say so. He guides her back to her bed with a light hand on her shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Hearing those words from him doesn’t much help her sleep.
Washington D.C.: snakes (not all of them employed by intelligence agencies), code scribbled on bar napkins, diffusing bombs with hairpins and teeth, burnt rubber on empty streets.
Las Vegas: glittery gowns, gambling, back alley fistfights, high-heeled shoe as surprisingly effective weapon.
Mexico City: dust pressed into clothes, white sand beaches, trap, mild torture, timely escape.
Zurich: three-day window, safecracking, blaring alarms, diving out of windows, swallowing too much murky water.
When the two of them set foot in Saint-Tropez, they’re bone-tired and Gaby’s in a sour mood. The cut she’d earned herself in Switzerland is healing stubbornly under her clothes, itchy and biting whenever she moves. She hasn’t been able to get more than thirty minutes’ sleep in the last few days. Waverly has flat-out refused to give them updates on their third member over unsecure phone lines except, he’s alive.
Napoleon doesn’t try to push her. Not one joke, which is impressive for him. He flashes a smile at the girl behind the hotel desk and procures the key in under twelve seconds.
“Zero eight hundred tomorrow,” he says in the elevator.
“That’s fine,” says Gaby tiredly. “I’m going to try Waverly again.”
“Okay,” he says. Silence as they watch the needle drift towards the fourth floor. “He could have gone home, you know.”
For about ten seconds she thinks he’s talking about Waverly. She shifts her weight. “He could have,” she agrees. She looks at him, neat and pressed from head to toe, not a hair out of place. He makes her feel less than put-together. “What does that mean for us?”
The doors slide open. “Hard to say,” Napoleon admits. “I don’t think our superiors’ll mourn the loss of an…eastern connection.” He quiets as they pass closed doors, no doubt aware that all walls have ears. “Best case, we continue working together. Worst case, we go home.” He pauses. “So to speak.”
She’s not sure he has those in the right order, but she doesn’t say so. She’s about to say something about taking a bath when she bumps into him. He’s stopped short in the middle of the hallway. “Napoleon—”
“Shh.” He gestures at the door, which is ajar. He draws his gun, and Gaby steels herself for a fight. When they kick the door in, they find the opposite of what they’re expecting.
She has to blink several times to confirm what she’s seeing: an absurdly tall, blond, slightly bruised and battered KGB agent.
Gaby has never heard Napoleon sound so unreservedly surprised. She shoves him aside and demands, a little more harshly than she intends, “What are you doing here?”
Illya looks between them in confusion. “I was approved for duty,” he says simply, brow furrowed.
There’s a long few seconds of silence before Napoleon lowers his gun fully and gives a full-bellied laugh. Gaby shoots him a glare, then crosses the room in four long strides and nearly bowls over their partner in a hug.
When Gaby comes up for air, sputtering saltwater, the other two are already watching the yacht burn.
“Did we get it?” she demands. In lieu of reply, Napoleon waves the arm he’s holding above the water, computer drive clamped in it safely. She gives him the sourest look she can while trying to stay afloat. “I told you to clip the blue wire.”
“I’m colorblind,” he says.
Illya swims over in two strokes and permits her to cling to his back. “Better here than there,” he reminds her.
“You,” she says fondly, clasping her hands below the hollow of his throat, “I don’t hate.”
“Well that seems unnecessarily harsh,” says Napoleon, water dripping into his eyes. He spits, grins. “But I’ll admit it: this could have gone better.”
Tangled in sheets and half-dreams, he tells her about his father: a man as tall as he is now, hands rough and hard, stiff-backed and unsmiling. A man who did not cry at the funeral of his youngest son—Dimka, whose fever never broke. A man who silenced a room with his presence and cowed crowds with his voice. Not that he had seen many of them; his life had been Illya’s but darker, full of nighttime assassinations, betrayal, and God knows what else. Illya still doesn’t know all the details of his career at the KGB. The last ten years of his life were stone walls and mush for dinner.
She tells him what she remembers about hers: quick to smile, quick to anger, slow to forgive. Cracked lips to kiss her with, a perennial sulfuric smell from the laboratory. He loved his work more than her, in the end.
They don’t speak of mothers.
“You don’t miss him,” she says. She tilts her head to look at him, but he’s staring at the ceiling and she can only see his profile.
“He shamed us,” he says simply. That’s the most she’ll get about the rest; us
Her gaze drifts to the hand not holding hers, the watch he’d forgotten to take off. Or hadn’t forgotten to take off. “But you keep the watch.”
He says, “To remember.”
When he rolls over to kiss her, hand fisting in her hair, she knows the discussion is closed. For now, anyway.
“Do whatever is necessary,” Waverly says. His voice is almost drowned out by the sound of the city he’s in; voices chattering, engines crooning, wind blowing. London, maybe. Or not. Who knows? “Do you understand, Agent Teller?”
Gaby twists the phone cord around her fingers and casts a look at the two men blatantly watching her. Napoleon looks only slightly interested, elbows planted on the back of the sofa, eyebrows raised lazily. Illya is sitting on that sofa, elbows on knees, frowning deeply. “I understand,” she replies. “We’ll be in touch.” She hangs up, rubs her bottom lip, turns back to the team.
“Well?” Napoleon asks. “Anything we need to know?”
“I suppose,” Gaby says warily. “He did advise me to ask you for tips.” At this, he frowns. Their mirrored body language are actually quite funny; she doubts it occurs to them how similar they really are. She taps the picture of their mark thoughtfully before she says, “I’m going to seduce him.”
They blink at her. Solo’s face smoothens out. “Ah,” he says. “I see.” He tilts his head, eyes her. “Think you’re up to it, little one?”
Gaby raises one eyebrow. “It’s not as if I haven’t had to do it before,” she quips, and Napoleon laughs outright.
Illya doesn’t laugh. He follows her out into the hallway on light feet, still frowning. “You are sure about this?”
She turns to him wearily. She half-hates that she has to look up so far when he’s standing this close, that the top of her head only reaches his shoulder. How is it possible to get that big? She wonders how long he clipped his head on doors before he got used to his own ridiculous height. “Why wouldn’t I be?” she asks testily. “This is part of my job.”
“He’s trained assassin,” Illya states flatly. “You are five feet tall.”
Gaby draws herself up to her full height, which is more than five feet, thank you very much. “Who says I’m not a trained assassin, too?” she retorts. She waits, but he says nothing. “Solo doesn’t seem to have an issue with it. This isn’t any different than you or him having to do it.”
Something pulses in his jaw. “It’s not the same,” he tells her.
Gaby recoils. “You’re ridiculous,” she says coldly. “This doesn’t have anything to do with... This—” she gestures between them “—is not in any official capacity. I’m not yours.” She’s so irritated she can’t care that he stiffens. She turns, stops, turns back. “How is it that I’ve never had to tell Solo to respect me?” she asks.
He just stares at her. When she receives no reply, she whirls on her heel and leaves him standing there alone. She doesn’t leave her room that night.
To his credit, Napoleon waits until there’s a good five miles put between them and Illya before he says, “There isn’t going to be a problem, is there?”
Gaby pauses in trying to zip herself into a dress before she replies, “What are you talking about?” She smoothens her hair, pulls at the skirt’s hem, adjusts her jewelry. At her feet lies a pile of abandoned silk and cashmere that she’s sure would make Napoleon weep. She leaves it there on purpose and slips on her shoes.
“I’m talking about the truly impressive sulking Peril did last night.”
Gaby comes out of the dressing room and finds him lazily occupying one of the puffy armchairs, complacent and languid as a cat. “This is not something that’s up for discussion,” she says shortly. She goes to stand in front of the mirror and inspects all three angles of herself critically.
“I like the Chanel better,” he says. When he sees her face, he relents, “But try the Valentino.”
She practically stomps back into the dressing room and rips the clothes off. The dress goes into the pile. The next one goes over her head. She steps out again. “Better?”
He motions for her to rotate. With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, she does so. “You do look very pure in white,” he muses. “But that’s not what we’re going for here.” He turns to one of the statue-like attendants. “Can we see this in black?”
Gaby scoffs. While the girl flees the room, she says, “I have everything under control.”
He crosses his legs. “I’m not doubting you,” he says. “It’s Peril that has me…concerned.” At Gaby’s expression he adds, “We both know he’ll put a fist through our target if we don’t handle this right.”
He’s not wrong, but she frowns anyway. “He’s getting better,” she reminds Solo. Once upon a time she had to grab his hands and plead; now all it takes is a firm shake, one stern voicing of his name. But she’s not so naïve as to think it’ll stop him every time.
Solo gives her a look. “Marginally.”
She returns it twofold. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” she says coolly.
He sighs. The girl comes back with the dress in black; she hands it to Napoleon, who hands it to Gaby. Without waiting to hear what he has to say, she goes back into the dressing room. He’s still quiet when she comes back out, studying her as she studies herself.
“Gaby,” he says.
“What?” (She’ll admit she could be a little less defensive.)
For the first time in the months she’s known him, he looks a tad uncomfortable. “Just…don’t push him so hard.”
Her anger flares up. “Why should I tiptoe around him?” she says sharply. “We’re not—there haven’t been any promises. There’s no…” She waves a hand vaguely. “Obligation.” But that isn’t quite true, so she adds, “I’m just doing my job.”
“Yes,” Napoleon agrees. “And Peril’s not quite as tough as he likes to think.”
Gaby purses her lips. “Maybe he should get a better handle on himself.”
Napoleon offers a smile. “No one’s denying that.”
She frowns. She doesn’t appreciate being talked down, and wonders suddenly if Illya put him up to this. She isn’t the unreasonable one here. She is, however, the one who started it. She gestures at the mirror. “Is this good enough?”
He gets up and makes her twirl again. “I think so,” he says at length.
She gathers her hair and piles it high on her head. “Up?”
“Down, I think.” He pushes her hand away and deftly pulls out a few pins. Her hair curls around her shoulders; he rearranges a few strands, rests his hands on her shoulders. “There,” he says cheerfully. “Almost like Venus. Don’t you agree?”
She’s about to respond when she realizes he’s not asking her; the mirror reflects a familiar tall figure behind them, hands full of shopping bags. Illya blinks at them both. Napoleon steps away, as if suddenly realizing he had his hands on her. Gaby’s immediately irked. She raises her eyebrows in annoyed challenge.
“Yes,” Illya mutters.
“Well, now that I have everyone’s approval,” Gaby says icily.
Napoleon coughs into his fist. “I’ll go pay the bill,” he announces, already halfway out of the room. He’s gone before Gaby can even think about rolling her eyes.
“Gaby,” Illya starts.
“Unzip me,” she interrupts.
He closes his mouth. His empty hand clenches and unclenches. He puts the shopping bags on the floor and approaches. In her shoes, she’s only a few inches taller than usual. If she were to turn, she would be nose-to-nose with his collarbone. In one fluid movement he gathers her hair in his hand and sweeps it over her shoulder. He’s zipped her in and out of a dozen dresses, and it’s over in a moment.
“You do look,” and he pauses here, “very nice.”
“Thank you,” she mutters, but gets about one step away before his hands, planted on her waist, stop her. She frowns at him in the mirror. “What do you think you’re doing?” He responds by pulling her closer, back-to-front, hands sliding. His palm is wide enough that it covers her whole stomach. She inhales sharply.
“You’re a good spy,” he tells her. “You will do very well.”
She exhales through her nose, deflates, leans against him. In the mirror, a figure beyond the door flickers closer, and he steps back. By the time Napoleon enters the room, Gaby is hurrying into the dressing room again
It’s easy, really. The dress and her legs do most of the work. The rest is a little drinking, a little smiling, a little suggestive flirting. She doesn’t feel unsafe. From where she’s sitting at the bar she can see Solo making fast friends out of a group of men and Illya smoking in the corner. Solo has already promised—unnecessarily—that she won’t be out of their sight for more than ten minutes. They’ll be listening in on the bug in her ring. They’ll be close by, covers be damned. Illya had said nothing. To his credit, he doesn’t stare.
For all his talk, the mark isn’t unskilled. He’s suave, arrogant, handsome, and paranoid. Every door in this penthouse he owns is secured by lock, key, guard, or fingerprint. The textbook subject. He certainly knows his way around a kiss, a zipper, stockings, shoes. She’s sure she would’ve had a good time, if it weren’t for the drugs she put in his drink and the fact that he’s a certifiable maniac. He falls unconscious on top of her, teeth scraping her neck, legs tangled up in hers.
She shoves him off and gets moving. She steals his fingerprint and deactivates the security system. She pries up the false portion of the floor with her nails and breaks one. By the time the men rappel in, she’s down on one knee, sucking on the offending finger, examining the face of the safe beneath.
“Okay?” Solo asks, genuine concern in his eyes.
“He’ll live,” she says dismissively. The mark is a pile of naked flesh on silk sheets. She doubts he’ll think much more of it than a hangover. She slides away to give Napoleon room to work and stands.
“He meant you,” Illya says. He’s staring at her. Against the window, in black from head to toe, expression stony, he looks like Napoleon’s nickname for him—the Red Peril. She can only imagine how she must look: hair disheveled, bruise blooming on her throat, lipstick smeared, dress nearly falling off of her.
“I’m fine,” she tells him shortly. She turns her back to him. “Zip this up, please.”
There’s a second of uneasy silence before he obliges.
It’s in-and-out. Within ten minutes Napoleon has the contents of the safe packed away in his pockets: various documents, a velvet pouch of diamonds, questionable photographs, cufflinks. The only thing he leaves behind is the stacks of bills, which even Illya raises an eyebrow at. The three of them rappel down the building, Gaby secured on Napoleon’s back, and are back in their safe house before morning light.
She’s wiping her own lipstick off her collarbone, deliberately ignoring that they’re both watching her like hawks, when Solo says, “You are alright, aren’t you?”
She pauses to look at him. Illya turns away, chattering on the phone in rapid Russian. He and Waverly have a habit of doing so when it’s just them on the line. “I’m fine,” she says for what must be the tenth time.
He frowns. For all his icy nonchalance, he does care. Something about that is a little endearing and quite funny to Gaby, who flashes a smile. He chuckles. “We keep underestimating you,” he tells her. “Sorry about that.”
She hums. “Now get out,” she says. “I’m going for a bath.” And she closes the door in his face.
When she emerges after a long soak, he’s nowhere in sight. She unpins her hair and pads back to her room. Illya is sitting at the foot of her bed, flipping through one of her books in puzzlement. She doesn’t spare him more than a single glance, going instead for the closet and a change of clothes.
“Is this written by a British man?” he asks.
“Probably,” she replies, still a little disgruntled. She swaps her robe for her pajamas. “Do you like it?”
“It’s interesting propaganda,” he says after a moment. When she turns he’s discarded it in favor of watching her, hands clamped onto the edge of the mattress. “You did a good job tonight,” he tells her.
She tilts her head in acknowledgement. “I didn’t go through with it,” she says.
He must have been listening—they both must have—but all he says is, “Okay.”
“Did you think I would?” she asks. He doesn’t answer. When she jumps at him he lets her knock him over, pin his hands, lower her mouth to his collarbone. She bites; he shudders. She raises her head to eye him. “Is that doubt I sense, comrade?”
“I would have been very surprised,” he replies, “if that man could resist you.”
She smiles against his jaw.
Napoleon kisses her on a cold Madrid street in dimming light.
It’s a rushed Hail Mary; they’re meant to be fleeing, ducking down alleyways, making sharp turns, trying to vanish. Footsteps follow without owners, like ghosts behind them. Cornered, he pushes her into an alcove and does it, just like that: mouth on mouth, close-lipped, unmoving. The footsteps fly by. He lets her go. They run, climb into the car Illya has running on the curb.
Napoleon takes instant note of her expression. “Sorry,” he says, as they clatter through uneven streets. “I didn’t mean—”
“No,” Gaby interrupts dismissively. “Quick thinking.” It’s not kissing Napoleon Solo that has her disturbed; it’s that she felt nothing at all.
Illya looks at Napoleon in the passenger’s seat, then at Gaby in the rearview mirror. It’s enough to make her shiver.
In Milan she tries to outdrink them and fails miserably. Half a bottle in her stomach, she drifts off on the couch, one arm trailing to the floor. Everything feels—good. She’s not feeling the ugly gash in her arm anymore. She’s warm and heavy-limbed from dancing so much, and sleep sounds—very good. She is dimly aware of one of them pulling her glass from her loose fingers and finishing it.
“She did better than I thought she would,” Solo says from somewhere to her left, words blurring together a tad. “Good dancer, too.”
“She’s had practice,” Illya says from somewhere to her right. Silence. Glass clinks. From somewhere far away Gaby wonders what the hell they talk about when she’s not there.
“I don’t…have to tell you to be careful, do I, Peril?” Napoleon says suddenly.
Illya’s voice comes out sharp and rough with his accent. “What are you talking about?” More silence. Someone might be gesturing. Then, shortly: “No.”
Napoleon says, ignoring the dangerous tone, “I’m not saying you can’t work and play. I encourage that behavior. It’s just…tricky. Doesn’t hold up well with the agencies. Trust me.”
“I don’t think your love life is good example, Cowboy,” Illya replies dryly.
“You may be right…but I might be, too.”
More silence. Then, bluntly, tonelessly, “Did you sleep with her while I was away?”
“Good God,” says Napoleon. He sounds put-off. “No, Illya.”
She stirs. She can count on one hand the number of times she’s heard Napoleon use that name.
“She’s…difficult,” Illya says reluctantly. “I never know what she is thinking. I never know if…”
“You’re the only one?”
A long pause. Gaby is vaguely conscious of the fact that she should be angrier about this conversation, but she’s also too sleep-heavy to do anything about it. She’s certain that if she could lift her heavy eyelids she’d find both of them looking at her.
Napoleon clears his throat. There is the sound of glass tinkling, upholstery shifting, Italian silk brushing. “I don’t think you have much to worry about, Peril.”
She only half-remembers the conversation in the morning. She half-remembers and watches Napoleon spread butter on bread with narrowed eyes. It bothers her to have felt so bare, so seen. What could he know about her? For all he knows there were others in scores, one for every time she was sent on her own missions.
Except there weren’t.
He catches her looking and raises questioning eyebrows. She doesn’t say anything.
Between dreams (sunny fields, wet grass, warm wine) and half asleep, she blinks heavy lids and shifts to peer at Illya. “Hmm?”
His eyes are wide, but colorless in the dark. The bluish light from the window turns him into a strange apparition, half shadow and half dust motes, his hair an ironic halo above his head. If she weren’t feeling his body heat she would think that he wasn’t real; even now, this could easily be a dream.
“What is it?” she asks. She shoves a little closer to alertness and perks an ear; all she can hear is the breeze fluttering the curtains, someone laughing in the street, the trill of Italian, a car rumbling by.
He studies her for a few seconds—for what, she doesn’t know—then closes his mouth against something he won’t say. “Nothing,” he murmurs at length. He pulls her close, presses his nose into her hair. “Go back to sleep.”
She can’t help but comply.
Gaby had already decided, prior to being thrown in the trunk, that she wouldn’t be going down without a fight.
Somewhere between getting her ankles free and kicking the lid she resolved to aim for maximum damage when getting out. Moments after the car crash, amid stinging eyes and throbbing skull, she decides on nothing less than murder.
The moment the lid lifts away, she ignores the blinding light and launches herself out at top speed. She slams into whoever’s waiting for her outside and manages to tackle him clean to the ground with sheer weight and momentum. Her hands are still bound, but she gets in a good bout of clumsy punching before she’s lifted clear off the ground by iron arms.
“Gaby,” Illya’s saying. “It’s me. It’s okay, it’s me.”
She stops kicking. From the ground, Napoleon looks up at her in open-mouthed astonishment. He touches his nostrils, and his fingers come away bloody.
“Oh,” she says.
“I told you she wouldn’t need us,” Napoleon grouses, and gets to his feet.
“Have you ever been in love?”
He blinks at her from his position between her knees. One of his big hands is curled around her thigh, fingers digging in; the other is planted on her hip, holding her in place. This is probably not the best time to ask.
Never mind the fact that they never say that word—love. It’s a word with teeth, Gaby thinks. Too big, too menacing, too definite. It feels sharp and barbed in her mouth, like if she’s not careful it’ll do damage coming out.
“No,” he says, but he’s forgetting she can see clean through all that ice and scar tissue.
Gaby doesn’t know if butterflies and thumping hearts and blushing in the daylight is love. She doesn’t know if clumsy hands and new mouths and fumbling in the dark is love, either. There wasn’t much time to figure it out when home shriveled, when the boys went off to die and the girls drew so far into themselves they all but disappeared into the background. She doesn’t know if she’s built to love.
“Me, neither,” she says.
He lowers his head. She tips hers back, sighs, forgets everything she just said.
Ironically, Napoleon is the only one of them that has ties anymore.
He complains about missing the loud, bustling, glamorous cities of America. He finds the most insignificant of inadequacies in restaurant menus and room service. He watches American sitcoms for hours if he can find them, just to hear a familiar accent. He calls New York home.
Gaby doesn’t understand it much, because home is not a good word to her. It just brings to mind a dystopia of a world in drab browns and grays, invaded by the Cyrillic alphabet and stone men, unhappy to its core. Maybe one day Germany will be the bright, happy world her elders remember, but then—it won’t be Gaby’s anymore.
“Do you miss home?” she asks abruptly one morning. Napoleon has stepped away to answer the door—more food, no doubt. She can hear his voice faintly, vowels long and exaggerated, R’s butchered.
Illya looks surprised, then reserved, then pensive. Perhaps he’s deciding if he wants to tell her, if he can, if he should. Lately Gaby has been feeling the weight of unsaid words in the back of her throat, seeing them hang above his head. Sometimes in the middle of the night she’ll listen to him dream and think the beginnings of them, just one letter at a time. I is the first, the easiest. L-O is harder. The rest clings shapeless and uncertain in her mind, like clouds of smoke.
At last, he shakes his head. “Where I come from,” he says, “is not very…” He pauses. “Homey.” He shrugs. “But this…I don’t need.”
Gaby curls her arm around her knees, propped against the edge of the table. “Right,” she murmurs.
“I don’t have home, I think,” he says, surprisingly. He hesitates for a long second, stares at her in uncertainty, looking for something in her face before he adds, “Just you.”
It’s not the same as saying it, but it’s close. She knows because there’s something warm stirring under her skin, something waking up.
She smiles, which is not the same as saying it back. But it’s close.