She had hoped that a long night’s sleep would ease her mind, but upon awakening, her first thought is damn, it’s raining and her second is Illya is gone.
She stretches her arms, staring at the ceiling and easing into the thought. Illya is gone, she thinks carefully. It lingers all morning, an echo in her ears that she can’t quite shake. She hears it as she pushes her way out of bed, washes her face, sets the kettle on the stove; sees it written on the walls, in the lines of her palms, in the lonely crumbs of French bread sprinkled across her plate: gone, gone, gone.
When she reports to headquarters in the afternoon, Harriet puts a call on hold and gives her a sympathetic smile. “Welcome back, Miss Teller,” she says, and Gaby nods absentmindedly, shaking the water out of her umbrella. “Long night?”
“Some weather we’re having, isn’t it? They say it’ll be like this all week.”
Her stockings stick to her legs where the rain has managed to soak through them, and she frowns, pulling at them half-heartedly. Her boots squeak against the polished floor.
“Mr. Waverley’s in his office,” Harriet says helpfully, tipping her head towards the door by her desk, and Gaby looks up, startled.
“I know where his office is,” she all but snarls, and marches past the secretary in a huff.
The mission had started in Alexandria but had quickly taken them to Cyprus.
What had been meant to be a simple reconnaissance of a rumoured up-and-coming Egyptian arms trader had quickly revealed a major arms deal with Turkish Cypriot fighters. The deal had been set to tip things firmly against the Greeks, and had been financed by someone whose name not even Illya, after several hours of work he had refused to tell her anything about, had been able to prise out of the dealer.
“Not ideal,” Waverley had said over the phone. “Very delicate situation down there in Cyprus. No, I daresay it would be best to throw a wrench into that entire operation.”
The result of it all had been a hasty extraction sending them speeding towards Larnaca to intercept the deal before it took place. Four days, a runway shoot-out, a harrowing car chase, and a disturbingly close call with some poorly-timed explosives later, they had boarded an airplane London-bound: exhausted, triumphant, and with the trio now conspicuously down to two.
Solo hasn’t shown up yet; it’s just Waverley waiting for her behind the heavy oak door, and she takes the proffered seat across the desk from him, pulling at her stockings and wishing she were home. Through the window, she can see the rain is still pouring. The sky over London is thick and grey, and so dark that it feels like late in the evening, although it’s only barely past noon.
“Tough night, then, Gaby?” Waverley says mildly after a moment. He puts down the file he’s been reading intently and leans back to fix her with something that almost borders on a smile.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Well, there’s the bags under the eyes, the general sort of, shall we say, sleepwalker’s disposition—“
“Thank you,” she mutters bitterly.
“—and then, of course, the fact that you were in debriefing until half one last night, which has been known to dampen even the brightest of spirits. Did you sleep well?”
He raises his eyebrows at her. “The report didn’t mention any injuries,” he says, gesturing at his face. She reaches up slowly to feel the bandage taped above her eye.
“Just a scratch.”
“Right, good, good. Facial scars are not, shall we say, an asset in the intelligence business.” She thinks immediately of Illya (which, she reasons, anybody would), and of the brimmed caps he always wears pulled low over his eyes.
“Certainly not,” says a smooth, flat voice, and there’s Napoleon at the door, looking as fresh and crisp as he always does. Somehow, it seems, the man is impervious to weather.
“Ah, Solo,” Waverley says pleasantly. “Let’s get down to business, then, shall we?”
She nearly interjects—nearly reminds him of the fourth chair in the room, sleek and low and conspicuously empty—and then catches herself. Illya is gone, she reminds herself, and wrenches her gaze away.
Still, it is difficult to accept.
Gaby has lived by herself for years now, but in the days after Cyprus, her flat seems particularly lonely. She has spent little time here, and even less in company; but it is not Illya’s presence that she misses so much as the possibility of it. There is the tea she could have brewed for him, the scotch she might have poured him; there is the table where they might have shared a dinner, or a breakfast, her feet in his lap, his elbows on the table. He has only slept in her narrow bed once, but now, with him gone, it strikes her as impossibly empty. The pale blue sheets feel cold and unwelcoming, and the small room too quiet, too still, with only the rain and the sound of her breathing to fill it.
When she dresses in the morning, she can almost feel his eyes on her, appraising her form, judging her. She pulls on a pair of dark trousers and a wool sweater just to spite him, to see him shake his head in her mind’s eye, and smiles to herself, satisfied. She’s an auto mechanic, for god’s sake, not somebody’s dress up doll.
Auto mechanic, yes, Illya would say, and also prima ballerina, and intelligence agent. Not to mention beautiful woman.
Am I not beautiful if I’m not in a Dior?
I will settle for Chanel, he would joke.
Well, if you care so much about my appearance, perhaps you shouldn’t leave me all alone to manage it.
To this, he has no answer.
On the fifth day that Illya is gone, Gaby decides to stop moping and phones Susan for a lunch date.
There is a French bistro not far from her flat. She invites her downstairs neighbour, Elizabeth, and Susan brings her cousin Charlotte, and the four of them meet for lunch as they often do, this small circle of friends she has managed to curate in the time she has lived in London.
“I hadn’t realized you were back, Gabs, or I would have called,” Susan is saying, hands cradling a bowl of onion soup.
“I just got back on Monday.” She tries for a smile, with moderate success.
“How was Alexandria?” Elizabeth asks, leaning forward excitedly. “I can’t say going on holiday to Egypt ever really crossed my mind, but now that you’ve gone and put the idea in my head, it does sound terribly exciting.”
“Oh, lovely,” she says, sipping at her wine. “The weather was a bit stifling—“
“It’d rather that than all this bloody rain,” Charlotte mutters.
“—but the city is beautiful. And then people are very kind.”
As if to underscore her statement, her side gives a painful twinge as she reaches for the bread basket. Bruised ribs, they had told her. Courtesy of certain kind locals.
“Your life is so glamorous,” Elizabeth sighs, propping her chin onto her hand. “I wish I’d been a travel writer.”
Which is, of course, what the three women sitting around the table think Gaby is doing on her frequent sojourns out of London. As far as Susan, Elizabeth, and Charlotte are concerned, she is Gabriella Schmitt, a journalist from Bonn living in London, working for a German travel magazine.
“Is that—have you hurt your head?” Charlotte asks sharply, leaning over to squint at Gaby’s forehead, and she reaches up self-consciously to smooth down her hair.
“It’s just a scratch,” she says. “I lost my balance on a hike.”
“It’s all this damned jetting about,” Charlotte says sagely. “Gets you all out of sorts.”
“Do be more careful, darling,” Susan adds, and pours herself another glass of wine.
Be more careful, incidentally, is what Illya had murmured to her one week earlier in a warehouse outside Larnaca, pressing his fingers against her skull and clicking his tongue.
“Is it bad?” she’d asked nervously, eyeing the blood staining his hands.
“No. But it could have been.”
“And you could have been dead if I hadn’t pulled you out of the way!”
“Use your words,” he’d snapped. “It is not necessary to pull me on top of you to get my attention.”
“No, as I recall, pushing you over works just as well.”
He’d glowered at her, dabbing at her brow with his sleeve. “This is useless,” he’d said tersely. “We need gauze.”
Just then, Napoleon’s voice had crackled to life over the radio. “Target most definitely neutralized,” he’d said, a hint of distaste in his voice. “Excellent work, Peril, Gaby.”
“Cleanup team is on its way?” Illya had asked, stepping away and holding the radio up to his mouth. She’d watched him in fascination, taking in the blood on his hands, the tension in his jaw, the dark expression on his face.
“A French team. God knows how that’ll turn out, but it’s not our problem anymore. Rendezvous at the main gate?”
“Five minutes,” Illya had said, and hooked the radio back onto his belt. “We need to move,” he’d added to her, and moved to walk away when she’d stopped him with a hand to his arm. He’d been angry, she remembers, the muscles in his forearm tense beneath his jacket. Still, he’d allowed her to guide him back to her, to turn him around to face her.
“I’m not sorry,” she’d said firmly, and he had sighed, puffing out his cheeks. His concern, as always, had been equal parts endearing and annoying; torn between kissing him and scolding him, she’d settled on the former and pulled his face down to meet hers.
“You cannot fix everything with kisses,” he had murmured after breaking away, his eyes still narrowed, but his body looser, less coiled.
“It’s worked so far.”
“Your luck will not last forever,” he had replied, his words heavy with meaning.
She’d ignored him.
Illya starts appearing more and more often. She catches flashes of him in the mirror when she takes a bath, can nearly hear his footsteps, his voice, murmuring over the radio. When she sits down to read one afternoon, curled up on the sofa by the window, she imagines him sitting across the room from her, perhaps drinking a coffee, leafing through a technical manual.
I had a dream about you, she tells this Illya inside her head, and he smiles, tipping his head back in the way that he does when he’s pleased. He is always in a good mood, this imaginary Illya, always trying to coax a smile out of her.
We were in a boat, on a river.
Exciting, he says.
Not at all, she counters. We were going very slowly. Drifting down a big, wide river, and everything was very bright. I had a parasol.
How romantic, he says, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He is missing the point.
The end of the week has come and gone, and still, the rain falls. The damp has begun to sink into her flat; she is always cold, her hands clammy, her feet numb.
She is groping around in her sock drawer when her hand accidentally closes around a small, velvet bag. She works open the tie and empties it into her palm, already knowing what she will find inside: an engagement ring. That way, I can keep track of you, he had said, so many months ago, and she scowls at it. He has given her no such privilege. She will not wear his stupid ring, she tells herself. She will put it right back where she found it, because she is not some lovesick bride clinging to a keepsake, waiting for her sweetheart to return from the war; and what’s more, they are not even engaged, so really, the ring is a complete farce.
She slips it onto her finger. There—it doesn’t even match her outfit. Not that it’s much of an outfit, but still: it’s far too elaborate, glittering merrily on her finger, mocking her. No, she thinks, definitely not, and takes it off angrily, setting it resolutely on top of the dresser.
That evening she makes herself dinner and puts all her focus into the task, chopping the carrots with a precision she usually saves for lining up timing chains. Still, she can see him out of the corner of her eye, twirling a knife across his nimble fingers, a trick he showed her once to amuse her.
Stop it, she tells him, and he tosses it up, once, catching it again without looking.
You are bored of me already?
I’m angry with you, she thinks firmly, and turns her attention back to her vegetables.
“You are angry,” is what he had said matter-of-factly the week before, watching her pace back and forth in her hotel room.
“Of course I’m angry!” she’d snapped. “How could I not be angry?”
“It is not as if I am choosing to go,” he had reasoned, his voice earnest, his eyes soft. Torn between kissing him and scolding him, she’d settled on the latter.
“No,” she had hissed. “But you did choose not to tell me. I don’t appreciate always being the last to know.”
“You are not always the last to know.”
“Cowboy was eavesdropping.”
“Which I can never do, because you’re always speaking in Russian!”
He had levelled a look at her which clearly said: you’re losing it. She’d seethed.
“Why are you so upset?” he had asked, placating, leaning back carefully against the desk.
“Why am I so upset? Illya, if Napoleon hadn’t mentioned it, were you even going to tell me?”
“Of course I was going to tell you.”
“When? On the runway? You’ll be gone for god knows how long—“
“Only five weeks, maybe six—“
“And I’m only just finding out the night before!”
“I did not want to distract you,” he’d said quietly.
“Mein Gott, you’re so full of yourself!” She’d seen him recoil, seen his expression change, close, but it had been too late—she’d powered on. “I’m an adult, and a professional, and an agent just the same as you and Solo, and I deserve to be kept informed. You’re not a solo operative anymore, Illya! You can’t expect to just vanish and have nobody notice! And if you think you leaving is going to distract me from my work, well, you’re a stupider man than I thought.”
The air had vibrated with her words long after she had finished shouting, as Illya had sat, stone-faced, unmoving, his hands gripping the desk behind him so hard his knuckles had turned white.
“Well?” she’d demanded.
“I leave in the morning,” he’d said, his voice hard as ice, before straightening and crossing the room in deliberately even strides.
“Good. Enjoy your trip. Shoot some dissidents for me, will you?”
He had slammed the door shut behind him.
She is less subtle than she hopes to be, if Harriet’s face when she shows up at headquarters for the third time in as many days is anything to go by.
“Do you have a meeting, Miss Teller?”
“No, just some paperwork,” she says vaguely, and slinks off to her office. Well, it’s not her office, technically, but Agent O’Brien is on an extended reconnaissance mission in Sucre and Agent Laurier is liaising with Interpol in Lyon, so she has the place to herself. Harriet brings her a cup of black tea, and when she’s absolutely certain that she’s finally alone, she pulls Our Man in Havana out of her bag, puts her feet up on the desk, and settles in to read.
The thing about the espionage business, she is finding, is that the more one learns to be aware of one’s surroundings, the more it is impossible to relax in a public space. And now, suddenly, there is no peace in her own home, either. She cannot go a day without the phantom Illya intruding: breaking her solitude, staring from where she cannot see, slamming imaginary doors in the silence.
Leave me alone, she tells him, but he never listens.
She is annoyed to realize that he has intruded once again, if only in thought: she has been staring at the same paragraph for five minutes without absorbing a single word. Apparently, not even the office is safe. Soon, she will have to leave London entirely; go somewhere he has never been, has never even heard of, to exorcise him from her thoughts.
She looks up, frustrated, and is startled to find Waverley at the door. “No word, I’m afraid,” he’s saying.
“Er, Kuryakin. There’s no word.”
She stares at him, dumbfounded, and he stares back, his face pulling slowly into a frown. “Right, then,” he says uncomfortably. “Carry on.”
On a Saturday afternoon, after getting coffee with Susan, she spots Solo waiting for her across the street. He cuts a sharp figure in the mist, wearing a crisp black overcoat and holding a wide umbrella, and he blends in almost seamlessly, standing idly beneath a lamppost. She kisses Sue goodbye and crosses the road, sidestepping a taxi as she goes.
“What are you doing here?” she demands, by way of greeting.
“Gaby!” he exclaims, as if he’s only just noticed her. He steps closer to bring her under the shield of his umbrella. “Fancy running into you.”
“Are you spying on me?” It’s a private joke between them, and it tames his debonair grin into something more sincere.
“I thought I’d take you to lunch, but it looks like the lovely Miss Dubois has me beat.”
“Were I a gentleman, I’d offer to walk you home.”
“Seeing as you are nothing of the kind, you might be motivated by the promise of a fine vodka on arrival.”
“Now that is intriguing,” he says, offering her his elbow, and they traipse back to her flat arm in arm, the rain thundering down around them.
Illya has been to her flat a handful of time, but he has only slept in her narrow bed once.
He had come over to teach her how to tap a phone line, and halfway through she had offered him a drink. He had stared at her, his expression unreadable, fiddling with a piece of wire in his hand, and she had waved the glass invitingly in front of him.
“Come on, Illya,” she’d wheedled. “You’re off the clock.”
He had seemed to be fighting some internal battle, she remembers thinking, his eyes flicking between the glass and the floor. Finally, relenting, he had taken the tumbler carefully from her hand, looked her in the eye, nudged his glass against hers, and murmured a wry Prost.
“Prost,” she’d echoed, putting her own glass to her mouth.
This is how she had gotten drunk on Polish vodka with a Russian KGB agent in her living room in London, and also how she had found herself perched on his lap, her dress pushed up around her hips, her hands in his hair, sighing happily as he’d sucked careful bruises onto her neck.
It had not been their first time; but it had been the first time they had given into this thing between them at home, on their own time, with no objective weighing on their shoulders, and no threat of rebels or assassins or Solo bursting in unannounced. It had made it real, somehow—had made it terribly ordinary, to allow him to carry her to her own bedroom, and carefully slip her out of her dress, and not find a knife or a tracker strapped beneath it.
“Stay,” she had whispered, later, sprawled half on top of him, and his hand had pressed reassuringly between her shoulder blades.
“It would take an army,” he had joked, and, like a child, she had believed him.
Two days later, they had boarded a plane to Alexandria. As it turned out, it had not taken an army: just a boarding pass, a bitter argument, and a phone call from Lubyanka.
With Solo in the flat, the imaginary Illya makes himself scarce. He thrives on silence and emptiness, and Solo can fill a room just by standing in it. As it is, he’s sitting in an armchair, a glass of vodka in his hand.
“How have you been, really?” he’s asking, fixing her with a shrewd look. He’s just finished telling her about the incident with the Baroness in Liechtenstein; as she sits wiping tears from her eyes, weak with laughter, he presses his advantage.
“Fine,” she insists, sobering slightly. “Good.”
“Fine? Or good?”
“A little bored,” she admits.
“Catching up on quite a lot of paperwork, from what I’ve heard.” She straightens, glaring at him, and he smiles easily back. “You know,” he says slowly. “It really isn’t like you to mope.”
“I’m not moping,” she insists, bristling at the suggestion. “I’m sick and tired of sitting inside by myself all day. The rain never stops.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t.” He looks out the window for a moment, taking a sip from his glass. “How about we go out next week? You, me, and the West End.”
“As long as it’s not The Mousetrap. I’ve already seen it twice.”
“My, you do get around.” His eyes glitter at her in amusement for a moment, before his expression softens into something rarer, kinder. “He’ll be alright, you know.”
“You can’t know that,” she scoffs, staring pointedly into her glass.
“Gaby.” He waits until she looks up at him. “Peril is the best of the best. On his side, anyway,” he adds, straightening his tie conspicuously. “It’s only a few more weeks. If anything, I’d bet on him finishing ahead of schedule. He can be very effective when properly…motivated.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she sniffs, and throws back the rest of her drink.
As it happens, they don’t make it to the West End, because Waverley sends them to Monaco instead.
“Pack light,” he says. “I doubt you’ll be there a week.”
But packing light, of course, still means sifting through her considerable (and growing) collection of beautiful, impractical things; and, overwhelmed, she invites Elizabeth up on the pretense of coffee and all but pleads for her help.
Liz is more than accommodating. “Dear god, Gaby,” she says, eyeing the spread of dresses across the bed, desk, and chair. “I’d kill for your wardrobe.”
“Should I alert the police?” she murmurs distractedly, holding a sunny yellow dress up and eyeing herself in the mirror.
“You’d best watch your back, is all I’m saying. This handbag is stunning—goodness, is this Dior?”
“Stunning,” she repeats, stepping across the room to finger a silk blouse. “And you’re going to Monte Carlo?”
“Mm hm.” No, the yellow dress won’t do at all. She puts it back in the wardrobe.
“Ugh, take me with you. Say, Gaby—where did you get this ring?” She spins around. Elizabeth is standing by the dresser, holding a familiar black pearl engagement ring and wearing a knowing smile. “Is this from that secret boyfriend of yours? Don’t tell me he proposed!”
“Of course not,” she snaps, taking an anxious step forward. Elizabeth’s smile stretches into a grin.
“So just a gift, then,” she says, holding it up so that the diamonds catch the light. “Is this some sort of romantic getaway, then?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come on,” Elizabeth says, rolling her eyes. “I’ve seen him around here, you know. Running down to get you breakfast in the morning. That tall, blonde, Adonis you hang around with. He is your boyfriend, isn’t he?”
Gaby stands, caught, biting on the inside of her cheek. “It’s—it’s complicated,” she manages, finally.
“Isn’t it always?”
“He’s gone back home.”
“So that’s why you’ve been moping about.”
“I haven’t been moping.”
“And he’s gone forever?”
“No, for a month.”
“Well blimey, Gabs, that’s not so bad. You act as if he’s gone for good.” She pauses for a moment, admiring the ring in her hand. “You’re taking it with you, of course?”
She huffs, glaring at it. What the hell, she thinks, and says: “Well, it can’t hurt. It’ll match the Balenciaga, anyway.” Besides, just because she’s taking it with her, doesn’t mean she’s going to wear it. It’s common sense, really: the ring is valuable, and her apartment—fallible. Really, it’s safest to take it with her.
They’re briefed in the taxi ride from the airport by a British operative posing as a driver. The plan is simple: an engagement, a distraction, and a burgling. Your luck will not last forever, Illya murmurs from somewhere deep inside her, and she shushes him, turning to Napoleon instead.
“Why am I always playing somebody’s fiancée?” she demands, tapping her nails against the seat. Solo’s eye is caught by the movement. He smirks at her, and she stops, clutching at the leather self-consciously.
“Well, Gabriella, that would be because you are so lovely that I find it incredible that nobody has managed to snatch you up yet.”
“Snatch me up? Be serious, Napoleon.”
“Speaking of which—in the name of being taken seriously, we’ll need to find you a ring.”
“I’ve got one,” she snaps, unthinking. There’s a moment where the words seem to hover in front of her, taunting her, and she longs desperately to swallow them back up. Instead, she does her very best to blend into the seat beneath her. It doesn’t work.
“Oh?” Solo says, raising an infuriating eyebrow. “How…convenient.”
“It wouldn’t happen to be Russian make, would it?”
“Oh, verpiss dich.”
He laughs, bright and full, and she does her best not to pout.
It’s not difficult to catch the Qatari prince’s eye. She perches by the bar in a low-backed dress, orders a champagne, and tries to look as miserable and alluring as possible, all but waving her engagement ring in the air.
“It’s my fiancé,” she says miserably when he asks her what she’s doing there, at the hotel bar, so very pretty and so very alone. “All he ever thinks about is work. This is meant to be our engagement celebration, and he’s off—schmoozing.”
She lets him buy her drinks and tell her pretty, empty words; tell her about the other women that will never compare to her. All the while, she knows, Solo is in his room, extracting a codebook and, hopefully, a cipher machine. She likes this sort of job: simple, straightforward, clean. No guns, no bodies, no fingerprints. She’ll be surprised if she walks out of this with even a scratch.
The Prince breaks off to check his watch, looking increasingly harried, and suddenly she feels Illya behind her, the looming presence so real she could swear he was really standing there. Eyes on the mark, he murmurs, and she takes him in, the tension, the growing restlessness. He is anticipating something. An important call, perhaps?
“My lovely Liesel,” the man says, throwing her a smile that could almost pass for debonair. “I have an appointment soon I must attend to.”
“That is a shame,” she sighs, looking down and crossing her legs. She can imagine Illya rolling his eyes, his fingers tracing the hem of her dress. Very smart, little chop shop girl.
This man would chase anything with legs, she thinks unkindly, eyeing the Prince’s hungry stare.
Stronger men have fallen victim to your charms.
“Must you go?” she asks the Prince, fluttering her eyelashes and lowering her voice. “Can’t you stay for just one more drink?”
It is always one more drink, with you, Illya laments, and she swallows a smile.
“Well,” the Prince says uncertainly, glancing at her legs and then at his watch. “Yes, perhaps one more.”
One more drink is all it takes for Solo to come roaring into the bar, playing hurt and outraged, and drag her out of the room by the hand, holding in his grin until they are safe in their suite.
“Gaby,” he says seriously, pointing a jaunty finger at her and nearly beaming with pride. “I don’t know how I ever did it without you.”
They have an extra day to kill, so Napoleon takes her on a tour of Monte Carlo’s most lavish spots. The city is beautiful, of course, but it is the weather that she appreciates most of all. The sun feels like some forgotten luxury, warming her skin and raising her spirits. It is a relief to shed her heavy coat and push her sunglasses onto her face, and it takes longer than it should for Napoleon to explain to her that no, it is not warm enough for the beach, and that yes, the water will still be cold, it’s only March, Gaby, use your head.
It has been easier to avoid Illya, here, but she still discovers him in her thoughts when she least expects him. She looks at the sun, and the sea, and the blue, blue sky, and allows herself to wonder where he is: if he’s being warmed by the same sun she is, or if they’ve shipped him somewhere far North, buried him in ice and snow, returned him whence he came.
She pictures him prowling some darkened Russian street, snow crunching beneath his heels, his hat low over his eyes, his hand clutching the pistol he keeps holstered beneath his coat; or perhaps in an icy field, in a blizzard, wrapped in furs like some Tolstoian hero, a knife in his boot and a rifle across his back. She thinks of his big, cold hands, and hopes that wherever he is, he is warm—purely out of professional concern, she reasons. It wouldn’t do to have their main brawler lose his fingers to something as mundane as frostbite.
“You seem to be in better spirits,” Napoleon says idly. Her arm is hooked around his as she lets him lead her around the city, pointing out landmarks, both of personal and public significance.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t play dumb, Gaby, it doesn’t suit you.” She makes a face at him, and he quirks an eyebrow. “We both know what—or rather, who—has had you so miserable.”
“I haven’t been miserable.”
“Despondent, then. Subdued. Heartbroken.” She squeezes his arm in warning, digging her nails into the fabric of his jacket. “Semantics.”
“So maybe—maybe—I’ve been a little…subdued. And?”
“It’s nice to see you back in action, so to speak.” They cross the street, into the shade, and he pauses for a moment to take his sunglasses off, slipping them into his jacket pocket. He looks at her with a discerning eye. “Tell me—you had an argument, didn’t you?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“I think we can both agree that it certainly is my business. But it’s a matter of personal interest, too.” She presses her lips together, embarrassed and annoyed. He’s relentless. “Come on, you’ve been bottling this up for three weeks. Spill the beans, Agent Teller.”
“There’s nothing to spill,” she says carefully. “You already know what happened. You knew he was leaving, I didn’t. We had a disagreement about it.”
“Yes, that’s all.”
“And that’s what’s had you so miserable?”
“I haven’t been miserable.”
“I’m sorry, subdued. Gaby, I’m sure he’s already forgotten all about it.”
“It’s not as if it makes any difference,” she says, a study in cool indifference. “He didn’t leave because of me, and he’s not going to come back for me, either. He’ll finish when he finishes.”
Still: she entertains the fantasy, for a moment. The Red Peril, the KGB’s best, dropping everything just to run home—rather, back to London—and prostrate himself before her, kiss her feet, beg her for forgiveness.
I would not beg, the imaginary Illya scoffs.
You certainly would.
I would not. I have other, more…effective methods of persuasion.
You would torture me for my forgiveness?
Not exactly, he says, showing his teeth. Guess again.
This is such an enticing possibility that it takes her longer than it should to notice Napoleon trying to get her attention. “Gaby?” he’s saying, waving his fingers in front of her face, and she snaps to. They’re stopped, standing in front of a store with large, clean displays of beautiful dresses.
He smiles, unperturbed. “Yves Saint Laurent’s spring collection. Shall we?”
Perhaps Napoleon and Illya are rubbing off on her; but, she finds, the more time goes by, the more therapeutic these little forced shopping excursions become. This time, however, she finds that she’s anxious, disquieted. Something doesn’t feel quite right.
Maybe it’s the fact that the dress she’s wearing right now—short, open-necked, blocked in varying shades of blue and yellow—is the exact dress Illya would have picked out for her, were he here. She knows this as surely as she knows her own name. It is as though his ghost has possessed her, forced her hand, picked his favourite dresses off the rack.
“You look breathtaking,” Napoleon says, and she sighs.
“I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“It’s just—it’s a little—you know what, forget it.”
Illya would love it. She buys the stupid dress.
Later, on the way to the airport, she catches herself fiddling with the ring on her finger. She considers taking it off—wrapping it up in a pair of stockings, stuffing it deep in her suitcase, so she never has to look at it again—and then stops herself. There’s no need to be dramatic, she thinks. The ring winks at her.
She reasons that there’s no need to break cover before they’re safely out of the country. As long as they’re in Monaco, after all, she’s still engaged to Napoleon. No point in rocking the boat. Really, she’s not wearing the ring—Liesel Schmitt is.
Or maybe—just maybe—she’s wearing it because she’s hoping that, wherever he is, Illya really is keeping track of her; and that maybe, like a beacon, it will lead him back to her.
But only maybe.
When they get back, it is raining in London.
The debrief is short, all things considered; she reports her version of the operation, once, twice, signs it, and is cleared by four o’clock. The codebook and machine are sent to codebreaking for analysis. Waverley won’t tell them what they’re digging for, exactly, but he seems pleased when he calls them into the office, congratulating them crisply, a cigarette burning between his fingers.
“I say, Gaby—that’s an exquisite ring. Wherever did you find it?”
“Trade secret,” Solo quips, and she bristles.
“Quite. Oh, and by the way,” Waverley adds, just as Solo is reaching for the door. “Kuryakin’s checked in from Bratislava.”
“What’s in Bratislava?” she asks stupidly, and rolls her eyes as Solo clears his throat.
“Well, there’s the Grassalkovich Palace, several beautiful medieval churches—and of course, Bratislava Castle—“
“Although I much prefer Devín castle, myself,” Waverley adds. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Solo acknowledges, nodding his head. “Personally, I find the parks to be among Central Europe’s finest—“
“Alright!” she snaps, already halfway out the door. “I’m sorry I asked.”
After Monaco, Illya is harder to avoid than ever. She is caged in by the weather, by the relentless rain, which beats mercilessly against her windowpanes, amplifying the silence in her flat. After the sun, the colours, the warmth of Monte Carlo, London weighs on her more heavily than ever. The TV is grating; the radio, nothing but noise. And as it turns out, it really is no fun dancing by yourself.
She spends an afternoon in the living room just lying on the carpet, drifting in and out of sleep, watching the imaginary Illya walk around and around, his steps careful and even and silent.
Don’t tell me you miss me, he says, amused, and she frowns at him.
Tell me—how does that skinny neck hold up that enormous head?
How does such a tiny woman contain such a big temper?
She sighs. How can one man exert such a strong pull?
Perhaps it is my enormous head, he quips, and she smiles.
I’m glad you’re not freezing to death, she thinks, after a moment, and she means it. She imagines him slinking around Grassalkovich Palace. In her mind, it is a great grey castle, with sweeping arches and elegant towers, adorned with hundreds and hundreds of little red flags.
He shrugs. I would have preferred Monte Carlo.
But Illya, she thinks, mock-scandalized. Think of the excess! The extravagance! The bourgeoisie!
Think of the sea, he says, and she does.
It gets so that she almost cannot tell her waking hours from her dreams. He is there when she bathes, when she cooks, when she reads; he’s there when she undresses for bed, curls up under the covers, screws her eyes shut and tries to sleep.
Leave me alone, she thinks.
She doesn’t mean it anymore.
She has always had trouble sleeping, but now it is harder and harder. She is up until the early hours of the morning, restless and anxious, and she sleeps until noon, drowsy with the weight of the long, dark nights behind her. There is no lullaby to cure her, no counting of sheep; there is only Illya, his phantom breath cool on her neck, his invisible arms heavy on her waist, anchoring her, pressing her into the bed.
One night, she is convinced the telephone is ringing, that he is calling, that it’s urgent; she’s halfway out of bed, her feet tangled in the duvet, when she realizes she has dreamt the sound.
Come back, she thinks miserably, and means it.
On Friday night she drinks a bottle of red wine all by herself, and before she knows what’s happened, she’s sobbing on the sofa, clutching pathetically at a cushion in her lap.
Why did you leave? she demands, and she can picture his eyes, soft and blue, his expression as he had insisted: It is not as if I am choosing to go.
Why didn’t you tell me? she asks instead, and all that she gets is silence.
She falls asleep there, on the sofa, and with no one to carry her to bed, she wakes up aching and disoriented, her neck stiff from the arm rest.
Now do you miss me? he murmurs, warm at her back, and her breath catches in her throat.
You idiot, she hiccups. Of course I miss you.
And she does. She misses the gold of him, the strength, the solidity; misses his clever eyes, his sharp, white teeth, the set of his jaw when he’s trying not to pick a fight. She misses the brimmed caps he wears pulled low over his eyes; the ticking of his watch, of his fingers; misses the rumble of his voice, and the huff of his laugh; the hidden edges in his words. She misses his temper and his humour, his manners, his thoughtful precision; misses his hands, skilled and hard and lethal, and always so soft, so careful, when she lets him run them over her skin.
She presses her face into her palms and feels the metal band of her ring digging into her forehead. You win, she thinks desperately. You win. I miss you. I’m sorry.
It doesn’t help.
At first, she thinks it is the imaginary Illya that has woken her.
He says her name, his voice cutting low across the room, and she stares at him in confusion, waiting for the image before her to resolve into something that makes sense. The lines of her bedroom are fluttering, wavering. She is emerging from sleep in the syrupy way that a new moth unfurls from its cocoon. Illya stands dark and dripping by the door, his hair plastered to his head, raindrops glittering on his brow and nose. Odd—he usually wears a hat.
“Where’s your hat?” she asks blearily, and watches his face wrinkle into a frown. His eyes are clear and gray in the light of her bedside lamp, which is on, shining adamantly yellow against the dark of the night. So she had fallen asleep reading; Our Man in Havana lies open in her lap. She fumbles it closed and drops it onto the nightstand.
“Your hat,” she says again, and yawns. Her eyes stick shut with the motion, and it is an effort to pull them open again. “You’re wet.”
“It’s raining,” he says softly, and he’s right. There’s a heavy rain pattering against her window, and she turns to watch the drops streaking along the windowpanes. She hums in agreement. When she turns her head back towards him her mind has cleared a bit, and she blinks at him hard, the reality of the situation slowly dawning on her.
“It’s really you,” she says quietly, and he stares, stony, silent, planted by the door like a statue. He’s dripping onto her rug, she notices, with a thoughtlessness that is unlike him. She wills her brain to engage. Why has he come here, like this, in the middle of the night? Why does he stand so still, so far across the room?
“Well come on, then,” she huffs, groggy and impatient, and she sees the tension leak right out of him.
It’s a remarkable transformation, she thinks, this marble behemoth melting into a living, breathing man right before her eyes. He hangs his jacket on the back of her chair, folds his clothes on top of it, lines his shoes up against the wall. She doesn’t realize she’s closed her eyes again until she feels the mattress dip beneath his weight, hears the bed frame creak in protest as he eases himself down next to her. She cracks one eye open to peer at him. The lamplight has him lit up in white and gold, and he’s looking at her seriously, his head propped up on his arm.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” he says, like it’s a confession. “But I did not think it good idea to frighten you.”
“Get under here,” she says, lifting the duvet for him, and he pulls it over himself, shifting closer to her, crowding her back against the wall. His heel makes a loud sound as it connects with the footboard. The whole bed shivers with the impact.
“This bed is very small.”
“We’ll manage,” she replies, and reaches for him. Still half-convinced that she is dreaming, she finds him wonderfully tangible; the soft cotton of his shirt is warm and familiar, and she can feel him breathing beneath it, his chest rising and falling against her palms. His hair is still wet, falling across his forehead. She touches it, smooths the damp strands from his face; traces the jagged scar by his eye; runs her hand down his face, across his cheek, down to his mouth, and lingers there. “Hello,” she whispers, finally, and feels her heart swell as he presses a kiss to her fingers.
“Guten Abend,” he murmurs back. She shifts forward, reaches up, and slowly presses her lips to his jaw, tasting the rain on his damp skin. His face is unshaven; his cheek scrapes against hers as she pulls away.
“Dobriy vecher.” She trips over the vowels, and he rewards her with a smile. She stretches up to kiss his chin, the corner of his mouth; and then he fits a heavy palm to the back of her neck and pulls her into a slow, hot kiss, his mouth opening gently over hers. He’s tired, she realizes, his body stiff with exhaustion.
He pulls away slowly, his hand moving to the side of her face, his thumb stroking her cheek. She squints at him, uncomprehending. “Pochemu ty zdes?” she asks, summoning what little Russian she knows and presenting it to him, like an offering.
“Is this a recitation?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Ich hab dich vermisst,” he rumbles, the words brushing over her lips, and she breathes them in greedily.
“Sehr gud,” she murmurs. She can feel something swelling in her chest, some unnameable feeling pressing hard against her ribs, and realizes, with a start, that she might very well start crying. “Gott, Illya,” she says furiously, and buries her face in his neck, beating one fist angrily against his side. She can feel him laughing, his breath brushing silently against the top of her head. “It’s not funny,” she insists angrily, eyes stinging with tears, and he wraps his arms around her, pulling her in closer, tighter, engulfing her in warmth.
“When I finished debriefing,” he begins quietly. “It was very late. I was exhausted. I wanted to—I wanted to see you, but I knew you must be asleep. So I went home.” He moves a hand up to stroke her hair. She listens to his heartbeat, so even and so real, and keeps very, very still, wary of startling him out of his confession; or worse, of waking up, of finding herself in the middle of another impossible dream. “Never has my apartment felt so empty. I decided I could not wait until tomorrow. This was perhaps not so considerate,” he adds, a touch of humour in his voice, and she breathes out a laugh through her aching throat.
“Were you raised in a barn?” she manages.
“Had I known you would take it so personally, I would have called.”
“I hate you.”
He shifts, reaching for the light, and with a soft click plunges them into darkness. “Then perhaps I should leave,” he says conversationally, running his hand up and down her spine. She feels the words vibrating low in his chest, and sniffles, feeling small and pathetic and hopelessly overwhelmed.
“See if I care,” she says thickly. She slides her hand beneath his shirt and up the smooth skin of his side to press her palm against the small of his back. He hums; she melts.
She breathes him in, cotton and rain, and sleeps.
When she wakes up, the sun is shining in her eyes and the bed next to her is empty. For a wild, breathless moment, she is convinced she has dreamed the whole thing; but no—the door is closed, but beyond it she can hear the radio, the sizzle of the frying pan, the creak of the floor as he shifts his weight.
She finds him in the kitchen. Evidently, he’s been to the market: there’s eggs frying on the stove, sausage sliced onto a plate, and a fresh loaf of bread on the counter. A teapot and two cups wait patiently on the dining table. Illya towers in the small space, a vision in trousers and sock feet, a knife flashing in his hand as he deftly slices a tomato.
Good morning seems too small, too ordinary somehow, to do justice to the moment. Instead, she presses her face between his shoulder blades and wraps her arms around his waist, leaning into him from behind. It's like she has to remind herself that he is real. His sweater is warm against her cheek, her palms. She feels his arm slow, and he places one of his hands heavy on top of hers, pressing it into the flat of his stomach. This is better, she thinks. She’s not sure she can look him in the face just yet.
“Good morning,” he says, taking the initiative, bless him, and she hugs him tighter.
“Eggs will be done in a minute.” She lingers for a moment more and then slips away to the living room, taking the plate of sausage with her. The sun is pouring in here, too, gracing the room with bright squares of yellow light. She pours herself a cup of tea and basks in the unlikeliness of the scene: a Russian KGB operative frying eggs for an East German MI6 agent on a sunny spring morning in London.
The eggs do take a minute more, and then all too soon he is sitting down to eat with her, folding himself gracefully into the small, spindly chair next to hers. It’s the best breakfast she’s had in weeks; she wolfs it down and then leans back to watch him, pushing her feet into his lap. He eats slowly, methodically, and in enormous quantities. She sips her tea, enjoying the sun shining off his hair, the clear blue of his eyes, and casts about for a way to break the silence that has bloomed, clear and brittle, between them.
“Do the trick with the knife,” she says suddenly, and he looks at her curiously.
“What—this?” He spins his knife over the flat of his thumb, then flips it across his palm. She hides her grin behind another sip of tea. He shakes his head, a smile in his eyes, and turns back to his breakfast.
She thinks to make a joke about reeling in a man who can cook, but it seems too heavy, somehow, for the delicate moment. “Thank you,” she says instead. “For this.”
“There was no food in your apartment,” he scolds. “You need to eat.”
“Don’t start,” she retorts, but there’s no bite to it. He meets her eye with a piercing stare, scanning her face for a moment as though searching for something. It is not the first time this morning; but unlike the times before, he doesn’t break his gaze. He just looks at her, his jaw set, his eyes determined, as though gathering the strength to say something. And then:
“I’m sorry,” he says quickly. His eyes flicker down to the table, but only for a moment. “For that night. For—for the way we left things.”
She knows exactly which night he’s talking about. After all, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say it’s been haunting her for weeks. He presses his lips together, soldiers on. “I meant what I said, last night. I had to come here, to make sure—to—to see you, to see how you were. I missed you, myshka.”
The endearment rumbles from his chest into hers and nestles there, warm and true, beating against her ribs. Pinned by his stare, she tries to summon the words from inside her that will tell him that she knows, she understands; that will tell him of the long, dark nights and the angry, bitter thoughts, of the loneliness of empty spaces and imagined opportunities. She wants to tell him about the weight of the never-ending rain, and the dream with the river boat, and the terrible clothes that she wore to goad him into coming back; but the words stick in her throat. She looks into his eyes, so blue and so very earnest, and all she can do is nod, full to the brim with the things she cannot bring herself to say.
He stares her down for a moment more, searching, searching; and then finally he looks down, the connection broken. She has the guilty sensation of having shattered something beautiful. She wants to reach out and draw him back, just for a minute, a moment more; she is sure that in another instant the floodgates would have opened, the words spilling out. Instead, she stares at him as he stares at the table, feeling as though she’s failed some sort of test and hating herself for it. How long has he waited for today? How long has she?
What is wrong with her?
He lines his cutlery up neatly on his plate and rolls his shoulder, before leaning forward onto his elbows to stretch his neck. “Do you have aspirin?” he asks, and this, too, is a confession.
It takes her a moment to switch gears, to understand what he’s asking. “In the bathroom, in the cupboard. I’ll bring it—”
“It’s fine,” he says gently, stilling her with a hand to her ankle, and shoots her a very small smile. “I will find it.”
She’s in the kitchen, wiping the counter, when Illya reappears. As usual, she feels him rather than hears him, and when she turns around she finds a strange, almost pained expression on his face. He steps forward slowly, crowding her against the wooden surface, and she has to crane her neck back to look at him. “What? What is it?”
He opens his mouth, closes it, and holds his hand up to her. Lying in the middle of his palm: her engagement ring. Fake engagement ring, she reminds herself, although somehow the distinction doesn’t seem so important anymore.
“Ah,” she says delicately.
“You keep this in bathroom?” he asks lowly.
“Well, no. Not usually.”
She swallows, jittery, nervous. She can’t meet his eyes, and stares everywhere but: his mouth, his chin, his shoulder, his palm. He raises his hand to her chin and nudges it up, forcing her to look at him. “And now,” she says carefully. “And now—I put it there. When I took it off, before my bath. Last night.”
She’s almost whispering by the end, but the sharp concentration etched into his face lets her know he’s hanging onto every word, deciphering her, unlocking her. “Perhaps—perhaps you missed me after all,” he says slowly, and she feels raw, uncovered, seen.
“Maybe I did,” she challenges unsteadily, tilting her head. “And?”
“Bozhe, Gabriella,” he breathes, and before she quite knows what’s happened she’s in his arms, pressed up against the kitchen counter, his hands running restlessly up her sides. He kisses her like—well, like he hasn’t seen her in a month, the weeks between them sharper in the daylight than they had been in the dark of the night. She wraps her arms around his shoulders, pushes her nails through his hair; revels in the motion in him, the strength, the insistence of his lips on hers. He hums into her mouth, runs his tongue against hers, and then kisses his way along her jaw, down her neck, behind her ear, where he pulls a gasp out of her by scraping his teeth against her skin.
“I thought of you every day,” he confesses, whispering into her ear. “I thought I was losing my mind.” She almost laughs, breathless and delirious, and pulls him closer, hooking her ankles behind his back.
“Illya,” she says, pressing a kiss to his neck. “You have no idea.”