There’s something liberating in choosing something for yourself, and Illya, who has been following orders since he was a child, thinks that maybe that’s just it, at the start of it all. That he gets to have control over his life. That he gets to have something that’s independently his own. That he actually gets to have a say in something in his life for once. So when Gaby sits down next to him on the plane from Rome to Istanbul and offers him a drink, he takes it this time and hides his mouth behind his glass to obscure the way his mouth starts to curve up at the corners like it’s the only thing he can do.
At first, loving her means lunches in cafés all over the world, sneaking glances at her over the tops of his sunglasses as she sips her coffee and gathers up her hair into a loose ponytail. It’s walking back to their hotel after briefings instead of taking cabs to stretch out the minutes between them and noticing that as much as she shops and moves forward and rebuilds her life, she ends up wearing little things he picked out for her for Rome the most (the big sunglasses with the white rims, the stylish wide-brimmed hat, the chunky earrings that sway with her when she tips her head back to laugh, the ring with the tracker that she no longer wears as an engagement ring but still keeps wearing nonetheless).
At first, loving her isn’t really loving her at all (or at least this is the truth he chooses to hide from himself). It’s finding warmth in another person. It’s finding solace in the way that she looks at him like he’s more than just violence in human form, like she believes there’s a person worth getting to know underneath it all. It’s the first time in a long time, perhaps in his entire life, that anyone has valued him just for himself, that someone has recognized the softness in him, the places that are still tender and quiet even after all the harshness in his life. It’s that she looks at him and she just smiles like he’s someone worth loving and he feels the unbound energy he’s always had trapped inside himself dissipate into the easiest calm he’s ever felt.
And somehow, in between window shopping in city squares and teaching her how to fire a gun, going out for drinks and sneaking into her hotel room late at night to pick her up and press her back up against the wall and press promises against her bare skin, somehow Illya starts thinking of her as his and him as hers, even though he has no right to at all, and when she smiles at him with sleepy eyes in the early mornings before they get out of bed to take on the world, he finds himself thinking that if he could just have this for the rest of his life, it’d be everything he’s never let himself want. It’s all-consuming and terrifying, and sometimes he catches her eye across the room when they’re supposed to be listening to Waverly brief them about some important something and Illya feels something warm trickle down his spine all the way down to his toes. It’s not like the fairytales; Gaby isn’t heart-racing or gut-wrenching. Instead, she’s the peace and quiet at the back of his head and she’s the eye of his hurricane, and it’s better. It’s so much better.
After a few weeks, Napoleon notices, because of course he does, because it’s impossible to spend so much time with the same few people without noticing, but he never says anything to Illya, just smiles and looks away every time Illya goes to put a hand to the small of Gaby’s back or Gaby leans over to brush some dust off of Illya’s jacket. There’s an unspoken promise in Napoleon’s behavior – I’ll keep your secret if you want me to – that Illya thinks, in hindsight, he shouldn’t have been so surprised by, because Napoleon has never done anything by the books, because he is the definition of carving his own path and worrying about what the world thinks later.
After a few months, the support staff at U.N.C.L.E. start giving them sideways looks and Illya starts hearing whispers, people wondering, are they still pretending? and then why haven’t they broken up yet? and then aren’t they even looking for their soulmates anymore? Why stay with each other if they’re not meant to be?
Waverly pulls him aside one day, and asks him if everything is alright and he’s kind and he means well, but when he asks, is there a problem you aren’t telling me about, Kuryakin? (and Waverly, at least, means it when he says he’s just looking out for Illya), Illya’s vision starts swimming at the edges, because he feels it like a kick in his gut every time he hears anyone wonder is there more wrong with him than we thought?
Illya sometimes goes home to whatever hotel he’s living out of for the week with a day’s worth of screams lodged in his throat and his hands shaking so badly he can barely shove the key into the lock to get the door open. He gets home and he paces and he feels that old impulse to throw everything he can get his hands on, because at least it’s a release, at least it lets him feel something other than blind rage, but Gaby’s sunglasses are on the dresser and the book of Russian children’s tales she’s been reading is on the nightstand, so he just stands and shakes and aches, feeling guilty over doing things the wrong way, guilty over needing her so much.
Gaby comes home these nights later than him, because she reports to Waverly first and U.N.C.L.E. second and she’s got extra briefings and debriefings and trainings to attend because she’s still newer to this than the rest of them, and she reaches out to him across the yawning expanse of his jumbled emotions and centers him with a gentle touch to his arm. She stands on a couch or a chair or a coffee table next to him so she can tuck his head under her chin and she presses gentle kisses into his hair as he wraps his arms around her waist like she’s the only thing keeping him tethered here.
“They look at us like we are freaks,” Illya says, hating the way his voice breaks around his words, hating that he needs so much to be accepted.
“People will always talk,” Gaby murmurs into his hair, rubbing soothing circles into his back.
Illya looks up at her and he wants to snap not like this, never like this, but he sees the heaviness in her eyes too like she knows how much this weighs on him, and he feels all his anger drain out of his body, because small as she is, she’s so warm and so solid that Illya thinks, sometimes, that he could bear the brunt of the entire universe, if only it meant getting to keep her here, by his side, for a little bit longer.
A year down the line, they’re in Athens and they’re picking out peaches from a little stall on the side of the street after dinner because it’s summer and it’s peach season and Gaby wants something sweet. They’re picking out peaches and it’s warm and suddenly, a woman’s voice hovers over to them, You know, you really should try the shop a block down. Their fruit is much fresher, and the peaches spill out of Gaby’s arms and knock against Illya’s shoes, and behind them, the shop owner shouts at them for dropping all the fruit, but Illya barely hears it. He feels the woman’s words like a punch in the gut, because they’re the same words that he’s read over and over and over again, scrawled across Gaby’s back, the same words that he’s lovingly pressed kisses into trying to turn them into his, the same words he’s tried the shape of only to find that they feel awkward in his mouth. Illya’s vision begins to swim around the edges and his bones feel heavy and light all at once and his hands are shaking, and he can’t remember feeling more terrified in his entire life. He feels like he’s been stranded at sea, and he can barely see dry land anymore.
“I—I’m sorry,” Gaby says after a moment that feels like his entire life stretching out before him, and it’s her voice that brings him back into his own body. “I’m in a hurry. I have to go.”
Her small, firm hand lands on his elbow and tugs, and suddenly he’s walking and when he looks back, the woman is staring after them like she’s seen a ghost and they’re leaving a little trail of sticky peach juice behind them, the ripe fruit still all over the street. Illya starts and yanks his arm away from Gaby and stares, because he doesn’t know what to make of her, because he doesn’t know what to make of himself, because he doesn’t know what any of this means, and Gaby tilts her chin up and glares back.
They fight, that night, at their hotel, because Gaby can’t stop thinking about the woman and because Illya realizes too late that his hands are clenched too tightly to let go. She yells (well what am I supposed to do? I can’t help it!) and he throws a vase that shatters on the wall behind her (I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know!) and he wants to say that he wants her to stay, that he’s not sure who he can be anymore without her, that with her, for the first time in his life, he’s happy and he’s centered and he feels like telling the rest of the world to go fuck itself because this is all he wants. But it’s too much, and Illya’s always been too much, loved too hard, felt too deeply, and he goes to bed angry after Gaby storms out of their room and he feels empty and he aches.
Illya wakes to an empty bed and an empty room and the sound of the door clicking open, shuffling footsteps, sniffling. He jerks up because suddenly everything’s too sharp, and he sees Gaby stumbling in, kicking off her shoes by the door like she always does, closing her eyes and leaning back against the door. The smudges of last night’s makeup are still on her face and her dress is wrinkled, and looking at her feels like a punch in the gut, because he just knows she’s been out all night.
“You saw her,” Illya says, and his voice is too sharp and his expression is too angry and he wonders if this is the person he’s going to be when all is said and done.
Gaby lets out a long breath and meets Illya’s eyes for the first time since coming back, and it’s then that he can tell that she’s been crying, and when she laughs, she’s half choking out a sob too.
“I had to be sure,” she says, and she sounds like she’s breaking from the inside. She smiles at him, and it’s like she’s made of glass. “How could I not?” And then she says, “You’ll know, when you meet your person,” just you’ll know, you’ll know, you’ll know like it’s a prayer, and Illya can’t tell what she’s trying to do. He stumbles back a couple steps like he’s been hit.
“I choose you,” she gasps, and she looks so happy and so sad that Illya thinks he’ll never forget this, not even when he forgets everything else.
They leave Greece shortly after that and they fight because Gaby, sometimes, still, can’t stop thinking about that woman and Illya gets so goddamn terrified of losing her because she’s become too much of him to let go of easily, but he keeps running all over the world and she keeps running with him and she still smiles at him like together they could topple empires. Sometimes, he thinks that’s enough. Sometimes, she gets quiet and wistful and he feels like he’s shrinking inside his own body.
Seventeen months down the line, they’re in New York and they’re on leave because they all just got out of a deep cover operation and they’re all tired, and Napoleon is giving them a tour of the city. Napoleon and Gaby are just ducking into a crowded coffee shop to grab something quick, Gaby leaving Illya outside with a quick kiss on the cheek and a promise to bring him something he likes, and Illya breathes out a sigh and eyes the crowded space warily, squinting at the bustle inside the shop. Beside him, he suddenly hears a woman’s voice like a bell and it strikes him all the way down to his core, because it’s like he’s been waiting his whole life to hear it – You too, huh?
There’s a woman standing beside him, and she’s tall where Gaby is petite and she’s looking at him with eyes that are soft and shy and haven’t known hardship where Gaby is fire and spite and tough, and she’s such a sharp departure from Gaby, but she, too, is quiet and she, too, has something magnetic about her, something like home. And this, too, terrifies Illya, because so much of himself is in Gaby these days, but he sees this woman and feels that pull and thinks that maybe a part of himself was always meant to be in her too, because her words are etched into his skin, over his ribcage, under his heart, and he can almost feel it now, the words that Gaby has traced over with her sure fingers, over and over like she can make them hers if she runs her hand over them enough times.
“Oh no,” he breathes out, and the woman gives him a sad smile like she knew this was coming and she does know and she touches the inside of her wrist and rubs at the words that Illya just knows are inked there, and he feels panic rising up in his throat because he’s supposed to be everything to this woman and he could be, if he just let himself, but then he remembers that time in Greece and Gaby’s wrecked, elated expression, remembers her saying you’ll know, you’ll know, you’ll know, and he thinks he does now and it hurts and he hates it.
“Illya?” and there’s Gaby by his side and he can see the way her expression pinches, just so, and her usually steady gaze looks so unsure, and he thinks back to Greece and wonders if this is how he looked too, if she hated the loneliness on his face as much as he hates it on hers.
He vaguely hears Napoleon through the ringing in his ears (come on, Illya, we have a schedule to keep, gentle, encouraging, quiet, Napoleon, who has always believed in Illya and Gaby more than perhaps Illya ever has, who reminds him every day that it’s okay to make your own path in the world), but by the time the words reach him, Illya’s hands are shaking too badly for him to think about anything else, because he can’t believe he’s this person. He can’t believe that Gaby would give up that woman in Greece, can’t believe that because of him Gaby no longer has that option anymore, because they’re an ocean and a continent away now with no plans to go back, and he can’t believe that he’s even tempted to be with anyone else other than her, because he’s invested so much of himself in her and thinks that she’s probably done the same, and yet. And yet.
Illya runs, and he hears Gaby shouting after him and the wet clop of her dropping their drinks to the ground as she runs after him, but he can’t stop, because if he stops then he has to think, and if he thinks then he has to decide, and Illya has never been good at deciding on matters of the heart, at being kind to his own gentle soul. He makes it a couple blocks before Gaby’s hand catches his wrist and she pulls him and pulls him and pulls him until they’ve ducked into a quiet alleyway and Gaby laces her fingers through his and peers up at him and waits. She’s so patient with him and so kind, and Illya wonders constantly what he did to deserve anything like this, wonders if anyone could love him better, wonders it even now as he struggles against the tug in his chest.
He feels his hands steady and the ringing in his ears quiets and the warping around the edges of his vision settles into something a little more stable. Gaby smiles and she rubs soothing circles into the back of her hands with her thumbs.
“What do you want?” she asks and stops and waits, like it’s easy waiting for him, like she could do it forever. (And he remembers the first time that she asked him this, two weeks in, remembers the feeling like something bursting in his chest, what do you want instead of do this, be here, no questions asked, remembers reeling in the freedom, unmoored for the first time in his whole life.)
“I don’t know,” he hears himself saying, and he watches as her expression break, just so, and then pull itself back together, knows that she remembers that night in Greece (I had to be sure), knows that she’d give him his chance too just like she got hers if he just asked.
“I don’t know,” he hears himself saying, and Gaby lets him go, presses her mouth to his and tells him that she loves him, always, always, always, and lets him go, and Illya doesn’t know how he’s supposed to deal with this kind of kindness, and he gets coffee with that woman the next day and dinner the next and every day they’re in New York, and every night he comes back to Gaby to find her asleep in bed already, curled up in on herself and he crawls into bed with her and runs is hand down her back where he knows that the words that aren’t his are etched into her skin, and sometimes she leans into his touch to let him and sometimes she bristles.
They fight, again, many times before they’re called away to some far corner of the world to fight in a war that the powers that be try to pretend isn’t happening, and Illya shatters his own glass in his hand and wants to tear his hair out (You said you understood! You said this was okay! What was I supposed to do?) and Gaby shouts back, more terrified than he’s ever heard from her (I can’t help what I feel! I can’t just think myself into not hurting!) and Illya spends several nights in a row curled up on the couch instead of in the bed because hugging her feels like hugging nails and screws. He doesn’t cry, not really, because the instinct was trained out of him at a young age, but it’s a close call. He sobs and no tears come, and he aches because he’s this person, he aches because he isn’t enough.
They leave New York a couple weeks later and Illya goes too, and on the plane out of the country, he feels like he’s been torn in two. He looks at Gaby, who alternates between napping and staring out the window the entire flight, and knows that she is his light in a way that he has never even dared to dream, but as he looks out at the receding Atlantic coastline of America, he feels a heaviness, feels the weight on his chest where he knows the words are scrawled, and he thinks that he understands now what it means to make a choice.
Their plane touches down several hours later and Gaby’s head is resting on Illya’s shoulder, and her chest rises and falls and she’s the quietest thing he’s ever known. They splurge on a beautiful, luxurious hotel room that night because U.N.C.L.E. is paying and they eat expensive food and Gaby steals bites of his dessert and she laughs and laughs and laughs and Illya feels so warm all over that he finds that he has no regrets at all. They could never go back to New York and they could never go back to Athens, and he’d be happy to have just this, because it’s better, in a way, he thinks, to have fought for something.
(Gaby mumbles the words written on his chest in her sleep sometimes in the days and months following New York like she’s trying to become the person she thinks she was meant to be, the same way that Illya still hears the words written down her back in the silence ringing in his ears, even though Athens was so long ago. He understands now, and maybe, he thinks, this is what they were always meant to become.)
Many years down the line, governments have toppled and jobs have been completed and the war they’ve thrown their entire lives into is over. The Wall topples, and when the dust settles, Gaby leads him by the hand to the home that hasn’t been hers in many, many years. She points out old haunts like she can still see the ghosts from her past, and watching her walk through the old city streets is a little like watching a ghost too. Her hair is more grey than brown these days and when her hand is in his, he can feel the lines in it that mark the years they’ve won together.
When she looks around at the city that is no longer hers, her eyes are faraway and suddenly young again, like she sees herself trapped behind that wall, making a living for herself as a mechanic, dreaming of something more, and then she looks at him and her eyes are warm and bright, like he’s her entire universe, and she says, “Let’s go home.”