Dr. Udo Teller had owned a fat, little dog named Schnitzel. His daughter is now the adopted mother of a golden retriever named Brezel, so-named for her burnished fur and alarming flexibility.
The sweet-natured pup is the latest ‘asset’ that Waverly has acquired, the newest addition to their ragtag family. Already, Brezel has made herself right at home at Emes. She accompanies Illya on his morning runs, and, though he would never admit it, he rather enjoys the company as she paces him mile for mile.
But even more impressive than her stamina is her intelligence. While Brezel may be no East European Shepherd—which Illya now thinks fondly of by its other name: the Russian German Shepherd—he is determined to make a good Soviet soldier of her yet. One worthy of the Red Star Kennel.
The only obstacle standing in his way is a language barrier.
It turns out that Illya isn’t the only one of his partners taking on the task of Brezel’s education. Gaby and Cowboy have each been teaching the pup in their own time: task-specific commands from the former and what seems like circus stunts from the latter.
All of course in their mother tongue. Brezel now has the distinction of being a trilingual agent (not counting the hand signals Waverly has taught her) and has risen admirably to the roles of chop shop assistant, canine officer, and… accomplice. Illya would rather not look too closely where Cowboy is concerned.
Indeed, Brezel has proven herself the ideal companion and has worked her way into their hearts. Even Macavity seems charmed by her. Illya can’t prove it yet, but he can just feel they’re up to something. The unlikely duo always gives off an air of conspiracy.
Despite the remarkably therapeutic benefits of pet ownership, Illya has felt some sort of dissatisfaction, some incompletion since Brezel first came into their lives. It gnaws at him whenever he sees the pup: this precious, exasperating thing that has turned his world upside down.
From the very start, she had upstaged him.
The scene replays in Illya’s mind in a haze of endorphins and embarrassment: a very public kiss in front of Waverly and Cowboy, a would-be proposal lost to the surprise appearance of gold fur and hypnotic dark eyes.
Brezel had stolen his moment. Stolen his woman too, he huffs.
Her presence in his life has since opened a Pandora’s box of unanswered questions and unspoken agreements. Illya is in a relationship landmine… barely believing his good fortune in being with Gaby, terrified of a misstep that would shatter this grand illusion.
Brezel awakes in the middle of the night, pawing at Illya’s door with an insistent whine. She has taken to following the last one out and about in the common rooms and sleeping at the foot of their beds.
Illya sighs and gets to his feet, hissing at the cool floorboards as he fumbles blindly towards the door. He frowns when, instead of going down the stairs like he expects, the dog makes a beeline to Gaby’s room.
Brezel noses open the door: bright light arcs through the dark hallway. The mechanic, it would seem, is still awake.
A delighted squeal reaches his ears followed by a steady stream of German endearments that makes his ears warm. Gaby is rarely this vocal with her praise… and for what? The dog has performed no great feat, done nothing to deserve such adulation.
“You knew I needed you, didn’t you?”
Her words stop Illya in his tracks. He hovers just outside her door, unseen. Illya can almost picture the mechanic carding her fingers through Brezel’s fur as she continues. “That’s why you came to see me, isn’t it? Because I couldn’t sleep.”
Illya slips quietly in the room. He scoffs at his pettiness for begrudging the puppy for doing what he himself should have done. Guilt twists the knife deeper inside him, laced with a very different type of jealousy. Did she not need him?
He swallows down his insecurities, grounds himself in the pretty sight before him: Gaby sitting cross-legged on the floor, checkered pajamas cuffed generously at her forearms and ankles. Brezel is sprawled luxuriously on her back, tongue lolling, eyes half-closed with bliss as her belly is rubbed.
“Gaby,” he murmurs. A gentle rebuke. “It is three in the morning.”
She tilts her head up to see him, a soft smile on her face. A teasing hum. “The witching hour,” she says, shrugging. “It usually is.”
He crosses his arms. A heavy sigh escapes him, the unease rearing its head despite his best intentions. “If you could not sleep…”
Illya trails off, unsure what to say, to offer. He curses again the ambiguity of this arrangement. The last thing he wants to do is overstep his bounds.
“I should have gone to you instead?”
Gaby’s lips curve into a grin, lazy but electrifying at the same time. Illya opens his arms to her, reveling in the peace her touch brings him. The thrill as well. He relaxes into her embrace, even as his blood is humming with her nearness.
The nerves are rattling boyishly in his chest when he finally nods. The mechanic lifts on her toes, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Okay,” she says. Her eyes are bright with mischief, dark with desire. “I’m all yours.”
Illya obligingly picks her up and carries her to his room, Brezel leading the way with an exaggerated wagging of her tail. He lays Gaby down gently and shuffles under the covers beside her. The golden retriever settles at the foot of the bed, huffing contentedly as the lights turn out.
He smiles as he turns to face Gaby, drinking her in in the semi-darkness. He tucks an errant lock of hair back behind her ear, stilling when she takes her hand in his.
Gaby presses her lips to the inside of his wrist, the center of his palm, setting fires beneath his skin. She rests his hand on her cheek, eyes already starting to drift shut. A low, sleepy chuckle escapes her as Illya begins peppering her face with slow, sweet kisses.
She curls her fingers into the front of his long-sleeved shirt and pulls him closer to her, twining her legs around his. “Good night, Illya,” she says on a yawn.
“Good night, chop shop girl.”
Illya strokes her hair, timing the rise and fall of his chest with hers. His mind is racing long after Gaby’s breaths have evened out with sleep and Brexel is kicking him in hers. He squeezes his eyes shut a moment.
“Does this mean the two of you are engaged now?”
“It’d hardly be the first time.”
Gaby hadn’t given Cowboy an answer, hadn’t given him an answer. She wears her pearl ring, the engagement ring from Rome, but it’s back around her neck. She spends most of her time in the garage, anyway, but Illya can’t help the spike of anxiety it brings him.
And then there are the barmbrack rings, his and hers, tucked safely away in the padded box he still feels a need to carry around with him.
Illya’s eyes snap open, his fingers flexing against Gaby’s back. Not tapping just yet, but the overwhelm is hovering at the corners of his consciousness.
Clarity. He needs clarity. Something concrete and indisputable. And yet, he is scared to ask for it. Scared to press his luck, demand his place on the throne… only to discover it was just a castle in the air.
What he really needs is a proposal.
Tomorrow, Illya thinks and feels the tension begin to leave his body. Tomorrow, he is taking Gaby to see Giselle and tomorrow, he will ask her to marry him. He breathes a sigh of relief, satisfied with his plan.
He finally succumbs to his heavy eyelids, trying to ignore that small, treacherous voice inside him: the one whispering reminders of almost kisses and star-crossed interruptions.
Why should anything change now? It taunts. After all, he’d already had one proposal halted in its tracks.
Illya grits his teeth, draws Gaby closer against him. He breathes in her scent, breathes in the certainty she inspires in him.
Because, he bites back, this is real. And Illya will propose to her a thousand times if that is what it will take.